Archive for the Crime Category

Birds of Prey

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime, Superhero with tags on February 13, 2020 by Mark Hobin

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“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”  That’s what Annie Oakley confidently sang to marksman Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  She was boasting about her abilities as a sharpshooter and she wasn’t wrong.  Birds of Prey is about a decidedly different kind of feminist icon — Harley Quinn.  Some would even call her a villain.  There’s an ideology that subscribes to the idea that women can be just as — if not more than — coarse, vulgar and harmful as the men.  This is the approach where the very exhibition of destruction itself is an idea more cherished than drama, plot or logic.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a complete assault on the senses.  Even the unwieldy title is an irritant.  Warner Brothers also realized this later, because they have now retitled it as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey as a course corrective.  At $33.0M, the movie had the worst opening since the DC Extended universe began in 2013.  One day the marketing campaign will be studied as a course entitled “What Not To Do”.  But let’s talk about the actual movie.  It doesn’t help that the plot is an incomprehensible headache to follow.  An animated intro — the only lucid thing in the whole production — informs us that the Joker and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) were once lovers.  He has broken up with her and now she is no longer afforded his protection.  She is now pursued by numerous enemies.  The main baddie is an evil gangster named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who owns a dance club.  He’s too much of a buffoon to be threatening.  Meanwhile, a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) has stolen and swallowed a precious diamond from Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) one of Roman Sionis’ henchmen.  So Harley offers to retrieve it for Roman. In exchange, he will spare her life.

Suicide Squad doesn’t have a reputation as artistic cinema but it’s Citizen Kane compared to this bewildering collection of gibberish.  At least Suicide Squad had Margot Robbie’s appearance which rose above the chaotic assemblage of actors.  As part of an ensemble, Harley Quinn was the charismatic standout, but here as the main focus of a narrative, you realize just how shallow and empty she truly is.  The once certified psychiatrist is a brightly colored confection not motivated by anything.  She merely responds to whatever is happening around her.  For most of the saga, her raison d’etre is to simply not die.  As one brutal spectacle piles on top of another, I grew numb.

Margo Robbie isn’t a character she’s an affectation.  An entity entirely composed of mannerisms and attitude.  She’s Baby-Spice blasting glitter bombs, occasionally breaking the fourth wall by winking and talking to the audience under the guidance of director Cathy Yan.  This is the filmmaker’s second feature after the indie comedy-drama Dead Pigs.  Star Robbie is a two-time Oscar nominee.  She is unquestionably a talent but here she is being instructed to behave in a way that truly tests the patience of the audience.  Harley Quinn’s cutesy chirp of a New York accent seems cobbled from Madonna’s performance as Nikki Finn in Who’s that Girl (1987).  Even their names sound similar.  Harley also narrates the film in a scattered singsongy voiceover that explains what’s happening on screen.  Obviously required because no sane person could possibly divine a point to this nonsense.

There is no story — just a series of raucous setpieces to which Harley Quinn must react.  Fight scenes are accompanied by a rock soundtrack cranked at full volume to distract from the lack of rationality.  “I Hate Myself for Loving You”, “Love Rollercoaster” and “Barracuda” all play at various points in the background.   The aural soundscape blends together.  One scene bears little relationship to the one before it.  Indeed the tale is conveniently told in a nonlinear fashion.  The decision feels more like a desperate struggle to obfuscate the lack of structure rather than a purposeful choice of style.

Birds of Prey is a violent action fantasy based on DC Comics’ infamous supervillain “girl gang”.  They’re opposed by Roman and right-hand man Victor who cut their victims’ faces off while they’re still alive.  They gun down a family with children in a gory display too.  For most of the movie’s runtime, it concerns one Harley Quinn but three other women emerge who have been mistreated by men: a vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a singer dubbed Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a police detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).  The screenplay disingenuously attempts — in the end — to reinterpret all this mindless cursing, and mayhem into a pseudo-feminist anthem of banding together against their male oppressors.  Yet the women are undeveloped and conventional as characters.  Their one-dimensional personas feel like a giant step backward for female empowerment.  Ultimately the disjointed narrative makes absolutely no sense.  Birds of Prey — utterly lacking in wit, cleverness or coherence — is a featherbrained mess.

02-06-20

The Gentlemen

Posted in Action, Crime with tags on January 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

gentlemen_ver8STARS3George Cukor’s infinitely superior classic The Women (1939) is probably the last film any sane person would use as a comparison to this one.  However, Guy Ritchie’s latest offering does have a similar title.  Furthermore, the game of oneupmanship and catty comments that made those ladies such a force to be reckoned with is the underlying basis of what makes this story tick.  Words, not guns, are the most powerful weapon of all.

If only the screenplay (also by Guy Ritchie) completely understood this.  The Gentlemen is a violent comedy with shootings, assaults and plenty of blood.  Yet the movie frequently relies on conversation-heavy scenes.  That is what captivated me.  Ritchie got his start making high octane British crime thrillers like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.  Then he went on to direct Hollywood box office blockbusters like Sherlock Holmes and AladdinThe Gentlemen is a return to the kinds of pictures he used to make.  Longtime fans should be quite pleased.  All others will be less entertained.

The acting ensemble assembled here is a charismatic lot and they’re clearly having fun.  Matthew McConaughey stars as a cool cannabis baron named Mickey Pearson.  Mickey has his values.  Hard drugs are bad but pot is perfectly harmless.  His wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) and right-hand-man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) are there to assist him in his sordid dealings.  He’s opposed by a sleazy investigative reporter — a character played by Hugh Grant sporting a goatee and leather jacket.  Also included are American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) and Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding).  Then there’s Colin Farrell as Coach who’s just kind of shoehorned into the mix.  The man isn’t as closely affiliated with the criminal underworld as the others but he’s still a welcome presence.  Actually, the entire cast is very good.

What always highlighted Ritchie’s gangster films was a breezy wit that played fast and loose with a linear narrative and frankly didn’t give a damn of whether you grasped what they were saying or even doing.  The dialogue is flamboyantly funny when it isn’t relying on race-related jokes or the mere sound of dirty words.  Another problem is that there are also too many plot twists.  One or two is clever but twelve is a headache to follow.  I would never spoil specific developments in a review anyway but I couldn’t — even with a gun to my head.  Get it?  The Gentlemen isn’t as good as Richie’s best.  Heck, it’s barely recommendable.  However, style and panache make this chronicle captivating.   It kind of wins you over through the sheer power of its aesthetic.

01-26-20

Bad Boys for Life

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller with tags on January 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_boys_for_life_ver2STARS3 I was skeptical.  When they unearth and dust off some long-done franchise for another sequel, it’s very easy to simply view it as a cash grab.  Bad Boys II was released in 2003.  17 years have passed and now we get this entry.  Surprise!  The result is a lively diversion.  Jerry Bruckheimer is back again to produce but Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are helming the film.  The ambiance is calmer and more coherent than the previous movies directed by Michael Bay.   However, fans will appreciate this.  Critics have already hailed it as the best of the trilogy.  (Side note: a fourth episode is planned).

Bad Boys for Life is entertaining.  Sometimes going back to the well can yield engaging results.  I was one of the few that enjoyed Men in Black: International, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The fundamental difference with this release is the original stars have returned.  The pairing of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is the reason to see this.  They ground the film with their considerable charisma.

The comedy smartly acknowledges that they are indeed older.  Although can they rightly be called “boys” at this point?  They’re quinquagenarians.  Nevertheless, Will Smith doesn’t seem to age.  As Mike Lowrey, he’s the straight man while Martin Lawrence gets to be the comic relief as Marcus Burnett.  Marcus just wants to retire and spend time with his newborn grandson.  It’s a formula but hey it works.  This conventional action movie coasts on the affable charm of its stars.  The screenplay by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan has given some depth to the backstories of these characters. Actors Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio portray antagonists that are better than the run of the mill kingpins that have blighted this franchise in the past.   One individual has prior ties with a villain.  That connection adds some interesting insight into these relationships.

Bad Boys for Life is undemanding fun.  That is — it has little value beyond providing an evening’s worth of amusement.  If anyone should be enriched the most from this exercise it’s Sony Pictures.  This was a surprise hit.   People often bemoan the fact that Hollywood likes to recycle old properties.  The success of this picture is a prime example of why studios rely so heavily on the practice.  It’s perfectly fine.  Aficionados of the earlier flicks will be satisfied and those seeking 2 hours of distraction should be appeased as well.  I was.  Nonetheless, I’m glad I wrote this review shortly after I watched the film.  I doubt I’ll remember much of it by next week.

01-16-20

Uncut Gems

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

uncut_gems.jpgSTARS4I am a huge fan of Good Time – the tour de force the Safdie brothers directed in 2017.  It made my top 10 that year.  So when I noticed that their latest offering was appearing on one year-end critics’ list after another, I got very excited.  I was optimistic it would make my personal Top 10 for 2019 as well.  Alas, this effort comes up short.  It’s still very good.  This depiction of a doomed man is masterfully put together as a chaotic mood piece.  It’s worth seeing as an artistic exercise.  However, it’s less satisfying emotionally as a narrative feature.

The year is 2012.  Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a shady jeweler who works in New York’s Diamond District.  Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is Howard’s assistant who recruits clients.  You see his jewelry store is by appointment.  He only caters to the well to do – apparently rappers and sports stars.  This includes Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself).  Howard has just received a precious raw black opal embedded inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice.  He proudly shows the gem to the basketball star who wants it for the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.  KG, as everyone calls him, believes that it gives him the power to be a better basketball player.  Howard hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the uncut stone but he reluctantly loans the rock to KG and takes his championship ring as collateral.

Howard is a gambling addict.  He immediately turns around and sells KG’s ring at a pawn shop so he can place a large bet on the game.  He assumes KG will win and then plans to buy the ring back from the winnings.  Howard currently owes so much money to the mob that debt collectors are now following him.  He’s not succeeding at much in life.  He’s also a conspicuous adulterer so he’s a failure as a husband as well.  The only thing Howard is good at is giving people the runaround.  Howard Ratner is reminiscent of another similarly named movie character – Ratso Rizzo the regrettable con man from Midnight Cowboy.  These two are tragic characters united by their desperate desire to make a fast buck.

This is the portrait of an American schmuck.  Casting Adam Sandler as the jewelry dealer was a wise decision.  Howard Ratner is a degenerate — a liar, philanderer, and compulsive gambler — and yet Sandler imbues him with unexpected humanity.  His desperation is so mesmerizing we’re inexplicably drawn to him.  Adam Sandler is very good at dramatic parts.  He first took on a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002.  Then Spanglish (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) followed.  He’s been acting in “meaningful” films for nearly two decades now, so anyone heralding his work here as something unprecedented hasn’t been paying attention.  However, I will concede that the actor is still best known for lightweight comedies.  Coming after a string of poorly reviewed (though highly watched) releases on Netflix — The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery – his performance here does seem meritorious by comparison.

The atmosphere is unrelentingly hyperactive and manic.  Howard is surrounded by an external network of family and friends.  Yet I was hard-pressed to embrace one likable character in the whole blessed ensemble.  Stress is metaphorically applied in the narrative like a metal vice with movable jaws as constant pressure slowly closes in on Howard’s existence.  His brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark to whom he owes a six-figure sum.   Dinah (Idina Menzel) is Howard’s bitter wife, threatening divorce.   He’s cheating on her and she knows it.   She’s the very manifestation of long-suffering irritation.  We can sympathize with her point of view.  There’s a comedic edge to her persona even though her situation is anything but funny.  Actress Julia Fox is a captivating presence in her debut.  The likewise named character Julia is one of Howard’s clerks and gorgeous girlfriend that’s way out of his league.  This may be a Safdie brother’s movie, but that Adam Sandler DNA is still present.

The Safdie brother’s work often employs visual style and skill.  Overtly showy camera techniques are fun but not when you are fully aware of the director’s hand.  The cinematography wallows in grotesquerie right from the outset.  The cinematic lens takes us on a microscopic trip through the channels of a black opal found in Ethiopia.  As we travel through the inside of the stone, we gradually realize that the tunnel we are traveling through is actually Howard’s large intestine after a colonoscopy.  The realization is like a slap to the face – a revolting start that dares you to watch a film that’s just beginning.

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie glorify intensity.  The account is a ticking time bomb that mines suspense by presenting a plan that spirals wildly out of control.  The elemental anxiety is extracted with impeccable realism.  I can appreciate the care that went into crafting this scenario.  It’s highlighted by cacophonous conversations where people shout over each other.  There are some quieter moments and I grew to cherish them.  The dialogue is a blur of profanity.  A recent article ranked Uncut Gems seventh for the most F-bombs in movie history.  The intrusive electronic score — by Daniel Lopatin who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never — rises and falls at various points to ratchet the apprehension.  The score escalates at points like someone suddenly turned up the volume to drown out the exchanges.  It doesn’t matter. This is more about creating an ambiance than a screenplay.  If I can take away anything from the ordeal, it is to view this as a cautionary tale.  There’s a lot to admire about this oppressive saga.  Uncut Gems is a brilliantly multifaceted experience although the unrelenting mood does get exhausting.

12-20-19

The Irishman

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on December 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

irishmanSTARS4The Irishman has been a labor of love 10 years in the making for Marin Scorsese.  What’s not to like?  You’ve got an esteemed filmmaker working within his wheelhouse of gangster movies.  This is a genre the filmmaker does very well.  Despite the superlatives you may have heard, it’s not his best work, but it is still very compelling.

The Irishman highlights a trio of great performances.  There’s the irresistible opportunity to watch Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci reunite with director Martin Scorsese.  They last worked together in Casino.  Now let’s add Al Pacino to the cast, an actor who has surprisingly never worked with Scorsese.   The chronicle is a sprawling epic about Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who was an American labor union official.  The story is told from his insider’s point of view as we follow his trajectory from World War II veteran to truck driver to hitman for the Philly mob and eventual union leader.  His personality is focused and driven in brutal behavior but oddly detached.  He has very little qualms about his murderous actions.

Sheeran meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family.  Joe Pesci is back in his first major screen role in almost a decade.  Here he gives a very un-Pesci like performance.  He made a name for himself playing flamboyant individuals in Goodfellas, Home Alone, My Cousin Vinny and Lethal Weapons 2,3, & 4.  Here he subverts expectations with his understated display.  He’s reserved but powerful.  There’s a subtle brilliance to the performance.  Bufalino subsequently introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the forceful President of the Teamsters Union.  For me, this is where the production really takes off.  Once Al Pacino shows up portraying the labor union leader, the film gets its focus.  He is unquestionably the MVP of this production.  The chronicle becomes more engaging, particularly in the last hour where it builds to its conclusion.

The Irishman presents itself as a narrative account of history.  The movie is a fascinating tale that begins with Frank Sheeran as an old man reflecting on the details of his life.  Screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts the drama based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by investigator Charles Brandt.  The book was based on his interviews with Frank Sheeran.  Given its $150 million budget, this is Martin Scorsese’s most expensive production.  For that you can thank costly CGI that de-ages these septuagenarians over the course of their lives.  Much has been written about this decision.  I noticed it at first, then accepted the technique after a while.  It was never an issue after that.  I don’t see it as any different than using prosthetics and makeup to artificially age an actor.  It’s just that we now have the technology to this in reverse.  Having these three actors playing the same role over the course of a lifetime gives their characters an added weight and poignancy.  That emotional gravitas wouldn’t have been present if distinct actors had been cast at various stages.  It adds to the extensive, all-encompassing nature of the saga.

The narrative recounts the events over 50 years.  Whether Sheeran’s confessions are the gospel truth is certainly up for debate, but they do make a gripping — albeit taxing — tale.  Given its three and a half hours, the aggressive runtime puts this squarely in the company of legendary works like Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia.  Those films justified their extreme length in a way that this film does not.  I blame lots of little extended comedic vignettes that pop up occasionally.  While amusing, the inclusion of so many doesn’t vindicate the extended runtime.  However I still highly recommend this feature.

How you watch this movie will undoubtedly affect your enjoyment.  In the past, cinema of this length was originally shown with an intermission.   When The Irishman received a limited theatrical release on November 1, 2019, it was exhibited with no break whatsoever.  Then it was subsequently made available on digital streaming through Netflix on November 27,  less than a month later.  I saw The Irishman on Netflix which is appropriate.   That’s how the majority of the world will see this film.  My experience was not confined to a seat for nearly four hours but rather over the span of two nights where I had the option of using a pause button.  Seeing it at home provides the freedom to use the restroom, grab something to eat, or the opportunity to confirm just how many gangster movies Marin Scorsese has actually directed.*   I thoroughly enjoyed it in that way.

11-27-19

* It’s six by the way (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Irishman).

Knives Out

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 3, 2019 by Mark Hobin

knives_out_ver13STARS3.5At first glance, Knives Out would appear to be a retro throwback to the classic whodunit-style mysteries that Agatha Christie wrote.  Additionally, it appears to suggest the kind of thrillers that made Hitchcock famous.  That certainly raises the bar with me.  I adore both of those things and so I was primed to enjoy this.  Filmmaker Rian Johnson both writes and directs this feature, which is something he has always done on his films.  He also serves as a producer for the first time.  He’s a clever individual.  Perhaps too clever.  By that, I mean that the production is extremely meta.  It’s fully aware of TV shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote as well as movies like Sleuth, Deathtrap, and Clue.  Rian wants to exploit that knowledge but subvert the audience’s expectations at the same time.

Knives Out is unquestionably a fun film.  It flies by over its extended 130-minute running time.  The production design is a character in itself.  The setting is a palatial Victorian mansion in Massachusetts.  This allows us to have the most amazing art direction.  This includes quirky antiques, weird sculptures, giant paintings, bear rugs, and an impressive knife collection that is arranged as a huge circle that looks like a halo pointing at the head of anyone who steps in front of it.  Never underestimate the power of an exquisite estate.  The digs are pretty swanky and the gorgeous environment infuses the trappings with enough style to gloss over any lulls in the chatty proceedings.

The production is distinguished by a charismatic cast.  There’s the murder victim Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  A trio arrives to investigate: two police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and more importantly, one private detective portrayed by Daniel Craig.  He’ll take center stage in the investigation.  He chews the scenery with a ridiculous accent as Detective Benoit Blanc to learn the truth.  His animated vocal inflections call to mind Foghorn Leghorn — that larger than life cartoon rooster.  I say boy I say… I do declare that his performance is an enjoyable display.

There’s also a colorful house of suspects which include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette.  They’re all great in their own unique ways but I could watch Toni Collette read the phone book and appreciate her oratory skills.  Here she’s portraying a Paltrow-esque head of a beauty company called Flam.  Later Chris Evans shows up performing the part of a villainous playboy named Hugh Ransom Drysdale.  He seizes our attention playing a spoiled brat in his luxurious white cable knit sweater.  I don’t know if a movie can get an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design simply based on an article of clothing but given the buzz on social media, this film could set a precedent.  Ana de Armas is the acting newcomer as Harlan Thrombey’s nurse.  Her immigrant status is a very calculated and conscious choice to suit the political zeitgeist in 2019.  Regardless, she solidly holds her own in a pivotal role amidst a much more experienced cast.

Rian Johnson is keen on undermining expectations.  He deconstructs the whodunit in a way that plays with convention.  It’s not just about who did it, but also why and how.  These tidbits are revealed in a way that feels like the script is oh-so-very pleased with itself.  It’s snarky and knowing.  I suppose this is obligatory in 2019.  We have to up our game to account for our modern sensibility.  What I expected and what I got were somewhat different things.  You ultimately have to ask yourself this question: Does Rian Johnson’s vision improve upon the time-honored sophistication of a straight-ahead mystery?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s offbeat.  Although it’s hard to warmly embrace the smug self-satisfaction that emanates from the proceedings.  Still, I admire the unconventionality of a winking screenplay so beautifully dressed up in a lavish production.

11-22-19

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Hustlers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on September 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hustlersSTARS3.5Hustlers is the candy table at a wedding reception – a glittery, blingtastic buffet of cake pops and assorted sweets wrapped in colorful shiny wrappers.  Nutritional content is of dubious value.  As the girls’ fortunes rise so does their wardrobe budget.  There’s rhinestones, chinchilla coats, Chanel sunglasses, Gucci handbags, and Louboutin shoes.  This film knows how to fetishize consumer-driven luxury.  There’s no question the story is captivating too.  It’s impeccably written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for penning the screenplay of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directing both Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler.  This is the picture that finally (and rightfully) puts the filmmaker on the map with the mainstream.

The account concerns a single mother turned stripper named Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny at the club) played by Constance Wu.  We begin in the present as she recounts her reminiscence to a reporter (Julia Stiles).  Flash back to 2007.  Destiny lives with her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in Queens.  She begins performing at the club to help support her daughter.  There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer with the proverbial heart of gold.  Actually, all of these strippers have hearts of gold in that they truly care for one another.  Maybe not pure 24 karat though.  They desperately want to get paid.  Times have been good.  The guys on Wall Street have been making tons of money.  Many are spending their paychecks at the clubs.  Then the financial crisis of 2008 occurs and the women need to find a way to survive by exploiting the male patrons that are no longer stopping by.   As the morality of the women’s behavior grows more and more questionable, their devotion to one another grows stronger.  The positive side is that this representation is a testament to female empowerment.  Loyalty to each other is their code of ethics.  It may be indefensible but it’s human.  Hey, the mob may kill people Monday through Friday, but they still find time to attend church on Sunday.  It’s these conflicting dichotomies that make people so fascinating.

Hustlers is a well-crafted saga.  Lorene Scafaria adapted the script from “The Hustlers at Scores” a 2015 article published in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.  Strip clubs may not be a setting known for their in-depth presentation of the human condition.  However, Hustlers is a surprisingly provocative and beguiling tale of humanity.  There’s a significance to these shenanigans.  Bringing considerable charisma and dramatic weight to her role is Jennifer Lopez.  She’s also one of the producers as well.  Lopez is perfectly cast as Ramona Vega, a veteran who mentors Destiny.  When the economic bubble bursts, the women’s prosperity is affected in turn.  Ramona may be a stripper but she’s financially savvy.  She treats the men in her life as a business from which to extract money.  Hence the title.  Ramona initially befriends Destiny by taking the girl under her wing.  This literally occurs in a scene up on the roof of a chilly New York winter.  Like a mother bird, Ramona directly invites Destiny to sit beside her within the protective layer of her fur coat.

The uplifting power of sisterhood is the core of this tale.  Soon Destiny is learning the ropes from Ramona in a strip routine that would physically tax a woman of 20, let alone the woman of 50 that Jennifer Lopez is.  The superstar has always been a triple threat so I suppose her ability to tackle strenuous pole-dancing choreography shouldn’t be a surprise.  Still, I was amazed by her impressive core strength.  She extends into a horizontal plane supporting her entire body by only her thigh muscles.  Meryl Streep may be our greatest living actress, but I doubt she could have ever accomplished THAT.  Additionally, there are two major supporting roles of note.  Keke Palmer is Mercedes, a woman who uses her salary to pay the legal fees for her incarcerated boyfriend and actress Lili Reinhart portrays Annabelle, an exotic dancer who is prone to involuntary vomiting whenever she feels stressed out.  The Brittany Murphy lookalike gets anxiety often.  The movie posters/trailers also feature Lizzo as Liz and Cardi B as Diamond, other strippers who also work at the New York joint.  They each have memorable but oh so brief appearances.  Let’s put it this way, don’t leave the theater for a refill on that popcorn or you just might miss their best parts.   Another performance worth mentioning is the club mother whom the girls call Mama personified by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King).   Her screen time is contained to a few fleeting glimpses but the notion of family amongst these women is emphasized by her presence.

Hustlers takes crime and dresses it up in a flashy veneer that makes the transgressions seem not so bad.  The men that these women fleece are involved in the dirty dealings of Wall Street.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs and/or homes during this period.  The U.S. plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Before that occurs, there are scenes that feature how life was good when the cash flowed freely.  When a surprise celebrity guest shows up at the establishment, music & cinematography combine to create this feeling of euphoria.  R&B idol Usher (playing himself) arrives and the manifestation is a 1990s MTV styled video of pure bacchanalia.  Gorgeous girls dance amidst hundreds of dollar bills that rain down on the nightclub.  The moment is a perfect illustration of how sexuality and greed combined to fuel the girls’ capitalist aspirations.

Hustlers cagily justifies illegal behavior.  These women were in dire financial straights.  This is a tale of them simply trying to survive, not just for themselves, but for their families as well.  These individuals equally straddle the line between saint and sinner.  The narrative doesn’t highlight people who behave honorably but it does portray people with heart.  As these scenarios play out, it’s hard not to root for them to succeed in their scams.  This eventually leads to drugging wealthy men.  It’s clearly reprehensible but the drama isn’t justifying their ethics.  Remember Goodfellas?  That was a chronicle about guys who operated outside of the law.  Well, this is a fable of gals who do the same – a depiction of how life is a series of moral dilemmas fraught with ethical gray areas.  Nobody ever said life was fair.  Hustlers is a thoughtful and extremely entertaining movie about that concept.

09-12-19

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

Destroyer

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on January 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

destroyerSTARS3I respect Nicole Kidman as an accomplished thespian.  I really do.  As such, I hold the actress in high regard.  Destroyer is a film highlighted by the transformation of its star.  The tall, willowy blonde ditches her signature long tresses for a wispy dirty brown bob with bangs.  Not only does her hair look filthy but her normally fair unblemished skin is wrinkled and pockmarked.  Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a detective who is on the hunt for the members of a burglary ring.  When she receives a $100 bill stained from a dye pack, she determines it’s from a bank robbery committed by a California syndicate many years prior.  Erin’s gritty appearance tells us she’s had a rough past.  Via flashbacks, we learn that she and her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) had previously infiltrated this organization as undercover officers.  Predictably, these two shared a romantic relationship as well.  At any rate, now it appears the criminals are active again.  Based on an original script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the narrative is the saga of a woman with a score to settle.

Destroyer has a grimy atmosphere.  Early on Erin is shown doing something distasteful to get information from an informant (James Jordan).  I was repulsed by the scummy milieu.  If you’re willing to stick with the unsavory sections, there is a story, although it is confusingly doled out in bits that the viewer must piece together.  Kidman immerses herself in the sordid surroundings.  She admirably gives it her all but physically she seems too frail to be taken seriously in the role.  Her character Erin gets no respect from her contacts.  Everyone seems to treat her as an annoyance.  Her daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) as well as her daughter’s boyfriend (Beau Knapp), along with a lawyer suspect who launders money (Bradley Whitford), all regard her with disdain — initially anyway.   Occasionally she makes inroads.

As a detective drama, Destroyer is merely adequate.  Kidman doesn’t have the gravitas to play an intimidating police officer.  Destroyer is helmed by Karyn Kusama who directed Michelle Rodriguez in her feature debut Girlfight way back in 2000.  I couldn’t help but think Rodriguez would have been a better choice to play this part.  Kusama recently created a sinister but captivating mood in The Invitation (2015), an innovative thriller.  Destroyer is less inventive.   Most of Destroyer simply wallows in the muck as if to prove that Nicole Kidman can be rugged.  I admire her ambition I suppose.   The actress received a lot of positive mentions for her work here.  It’s an exaggerated performance from a veteran performer that’s clearly begging for an Oscar nod.  Unfortunately, that’s all there is.  The screenplay is rooted firmly in genre clichés.  I only wish the drama had been more interesting.

01-01-19