Archive for the Crime Category

Baby Driver

Posted in Action, Crime, Music, Thriller with tags on July 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo baby_driver_ver2_zpswm3g3gkq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgOk, can we get one thing out of the way first? Baby Driver is a terrible title. It sounds like either (1) a frivolous comedy about a chauffeur who works for a rich baby or (2) about an infant who can literally drive. Perhaps the follow-up sequel to DreamWorks’ animated hit The Boss Baby. None of this is correct. Baby, as it turns out, is the nickname of Ansel Elgort’s character, but he isn’t a baby. He’s a young man. He is a motorist though, a getaway driver actually. That much is true. Baby suffers from hearing loss. He incurred this ailment as a child when he was in a car accident which killed both his parents. To cope with the constant humming in his ears, he listens to music…all the time…on his iPod. That’s the set-up but it’s really just a great excuse to play a lot of classic songs.

Baby is a man of few words. He’s cool, laid back – a soft faced James Dean for our era. He’s a bit of a mystery, but we know he’s good at what he does. We’ve seen him in action. In the opening scene, he skillfully maneuverers the car that bank robbers Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) jump into after their heist. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1995 single “Bellbottoms” blasts away in his headphones. Baby is employed as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an intimidating crime boss that plans heists. Not entirely by choice. Baby is indebted to Doc for having stolen one of his cars. He’s currently working off the debt he incurred. Baby rarely speaks, often retreating into the world of the tunes playing on his iPod. You see, his music is our music. That is, what he hears and the score of the film, is exactly the same thing.

The movie is a cinematic construct, a heart-stirring, toe-tapping production in which diegetic music is synchronized to the action on the screen. Think of it as a jukebox musical in which director Edgar Wright has decided to assemble a playlist of 30+ songs that just so happen to have a story attached. Selections run the gamut from various eras but they mostly favor oldies before the 1980s. The Beach Boys, Carla Thomas, Queen, Barry White, The Commodores, Simon & Garfunkel, who provide the movie’s title, all have their moment. However, a few comparatively later compositions from the likes of Young MC, Beck, and Blur pop up too. “The Harlem Shuffle” is a particularly breathtaking set piece. We’re talking the 1963 original by Bob & Earl, not the Stones version. Sorry, it’s my age, but I can’t detect those opening horn blasts without thinking I’m about to hear “Jump Around” by House of Pain. The minor R&B hit underscores the second scene after the first heist, where Baby walks through the town while the city life happens in sync with the music. It’s a beautifully realized vignette that has to be seen multiple times to appreciate the complexity of its many details. Check out the graffiti on the walls that match the lyrics of the number.

The plot is kind of incidental but it provides the framework for a charismatic ensemble that meshes together like a finely tuned automotive machine. Baby’s foster father is a deaf man in a wheelchair named Joseph (CJ Jones) whom he cares for. They communicate via sign language. Baby goes to Bo’s Diner where he meets a pretty young waitress named Debora (Lily James), spelled exactly like a ditty by English glam rock band T. Rex. Then there’s the aforementioned Doc (Kevin Spacey), the crime boss for whom Baby works. Doc is capable of murder, but he’s frighteningly calm. You know that beneath his placid exterior there lies an evil temperament. “Your waitress girlfriend is cute,” he says to Baby. “Let’s keep it that way.” Doc assembles a rotating crew for each job. Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) comprise the first team. Eddie No-Nose (Flea), JD (Lanny Joon), and Bats (Jamie Foxx) form another. Somewhere along the line, Paul Williams pops up as an arms dealer known as The Butcher. Unifying all the disparate parts is Baby, a criminal with a heart.

Baby Driver is a whole lot of action, a little comedy and a touch of romance. It’s a classic heist flick that conveniently builds to “one last job”. The screenplay weaves a simple story amidst a profusion of pop culture tunes. This amalgamation of constant music. quick cut editing and swooping cinematography is extremely showy. At times, it’s oppressively so. I was keenly aware of the director’s hand more than once. The unrelenting style subverts genuine emotion for an illustration of love. Ansel Elgort and Lily James are more like the symbol of an on-screen couple than the genuine article. But we’ve got elaborate chase sequences choreographed to music. If action bang for your movie buck is what you want, then you’ll get your money’s worth. I simply can’t overstate how exhilarating this whole exercise is. The flashy production is presented with technique and panache. It’s like a shiny new sports car — albeit one built with some previously available parts. The director himself has cited The Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Point Break, Heat and The Blues Brothers as influences. While it may have been assembled from the building blocks of previous films, there’s certainly no denying the craft that went into making it. In a summer of sequels and franchise installments, Edgar Wright’s vision is a distinctly welcome breath of fresh air.

07-01-17

The Book of Henry

Posted in Crime, Drama, Family, Thriller on June 29, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo book_of_henry_zpsgw3gibvv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s a poignant melodrama about a terminal illness. Well to clarify, it’s more of a heart-rending tearjerker. No wait, it’s actually crime thriller. I know, it’s an inspirational family drama. Scratch that, it’s really a light comedy. In truth, The Book of Henry is all of these things – a cinematic yo-yo spinning wildly between a plethora of genres. Granted, the screenplay by crime author Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X) may not follow the rules of how to gradually lead an audience through a saga, but I was absolutely fascinated by where it would take me next.

Henry Carpenter is an 11-year-old genius. He has used his gift to smartly invest in the stock market to build up a stable financial future for his household. In fact, he’s smarter than all of the adults in his life. Number one on that list would have to be his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan is a waitress, a working mom who writes picture books in her spare time. She’s also a parent to Peter (Jacob Tremblay), Henry’s younger brother. Enter Christina, their next door neighbor. She is Henry’s classmate and a girl with whom Henry has a crush. She’s predictably beautiful, but also very sad. The reveal of her predicament and how Henry tries to help her sets one major plot thread into motion. Henry is also beset with a dilemma of his own. Yes, two major problems that each could be the focus of their own film. I’m being purposefully vague because a big part of the allure is how each contrivance piles on top of another. That sounds like a slam, and it is, but it’s also kind of mesmerizing the way it plays out. Try to look away. You can’t. I was captivated and that counts for something.

The Book of Henry is a fantasy that could only exist in the mind of a writer. It’s a fable that concerns the real world but one invaded by outlandish developments that can feel too implausible to accept. It’s a tale of fabulism.  Lead Jaeden Lieberher has already starred in the acclaimed Midnight Special. Jacob Tremblay was featured in one of the best films of 2015, Room. The opportunity to see these two burgeoning talents in the same production had me sold. They do not disappoint. Add twice Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts and you have an unconventional family that had me enrapt. As mother and son, Watts and Lieberher have genuine chemistry. They both starred together in the wonderful St. Vincent. As a character, Susan is a bit intellectually stunted. Ok, that’s putting it mildly but then her son Henry is emotionally deficient. Younger son Peter is simply all around playful sweetness, Together these three form a sensitive triad, a sort of us-against-the-world dynamic that enticed my heart. They’ve got a soul. Buy into their relationship and you’ll buy into the movie.

I usually disregard the critical consensus when reviewing a movie. I’m here to detail my own thoughts. Yet this picture has received some of the most vitriolic reviews of anything this year. Why has this little family film (PG-13 rated for the dark subject matter) received so much hostility from critics? Director Colin Trevorrow burst onto the indie scene with a little gem called Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. Then followed that indie achievement with the 4th biggest (as of this writing) U.S. blockbuster of all time, 2015’s Jurassic World. Perhaps when someone has a success another feel is unearned, the claws really come out when they stumble. No The Book of Henry isn’t for everyone. The script has got chutzpah for attempting something rather unique. I get that the genre-defying narrative is a bit bananas, but the hate is disproportionate to the movie’s shortcomings. The plot is simply too audacious to dismiss and the drama has too much heart. I was entertained for the entire duration of this chronicle.

06-18-17

The Fate of the Furious

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on April 20, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo fate_of_the_furious_ver2_zpsldq9ohik.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Fate of the Furious begins with a street race in Havana.  It’s a nice traditional nod to the kind of quaintly illegal activities that started this franchise during much simpler times. Of course, the preposterous storylines and feats of skill are the real joy for which this series is known. It’s the bizarre action set pieces that have come to define these pictures. That mentality that has made each entry such a delight for some and something for others to eschew.  The latter of which attest to never having seen any of these films like it’s a badge of honor.  I, conversely, have seen all eight and I freely admit this without shame.

Yet how do you assess a movie where the sillier and more unbelievable the stunts, the better? Let’s start with the cast. The ensemble for each has always been a revolving door. Even characters that you thought had been written out of the series for good without the possibility of a return, have been known to pop back into the continuity. Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Michelle Rodriguez, and Kurt Russell are back. Newcomers Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, and Charlize Theron are fresh additions. This is the first chapter since Tokyo Drift not to include Paul Walker due to his untimely passing. His presence is missed. Jordana Brewster who played his wife does not return either.

This elite crew operates outside the law for the greater good. These criminals are bound together by a sense of loyalty. This extended clan are more than just friends, they’re family. In particular, Dom, Vin Diesel’s character, reminds us of this over and over again. That camaraderie has held this macho action soap opera together. This screenplay actually plays with that narrative a bit by having one of their own betray the others by working with the baddies. Who and why would be spoilers. That big twist should be revealed by watching this production. I will only offer though that it’s a risky move that isn’t entirely successful. The whole gang united together against the fight of evil has always been a key component of the drama. By tinkering with the formula the story removes a dependable quality that is missing from the story.

F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) takes over the directing duties from James Wan (The Conjuring). Interesting footnote: The Fate of the Furious reunites Gray with actors Charlize Theron and Jason Statham from The Italian Job, which came out back in 2003. The last movie, Furious 7, was extremely successful. Usually, it’s important to evaluate a film on its own merits without comparing it to other pictures. However, in the case of a franchise, I think it’s more than acceptable, it’s required. We are now eight chapters deep into this chronicle. Fast Five is where everything really came together, serving up a captivating recipe that mixes the genial friendship of a charismatic cast with outlandish stunts that wow audiences. That’s where the franchise really came into its own under Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond). He is the only filmmaker so far to direct more than one episode (parts 3-6). We should acknowledge how each new adventure measures up with the others. I think The Fate of the Furious transcends parts 2-4 but is less effective than the last 3 (episodes 5-7).

The first low-budget feature about street racing has gradually morphed over time into a big budget action extravaganza where driving cars is more of a detour. I’ve grown to enjoy this series as a whole. Still, I’ll admit that after eight entries, these sagas do start to blend together. It’s the stunts that I remember. This installment throws in a few doozies. Charlize Theron is a surprisingly generic villain, although the mayhem she causes is anything but. As cyberterrorist Cipher, she does a bit of hacking that causes a fleet of cars to high-dive off parking structures and essentially attacks a motorcade driving through the city. This implausible sequence in New York is my favorite moment simply because it’s just so ridiculous. Hobbs & Deckard’s prison break/fight sequence is memorable as well. Ditto the final race across an icy terrain from a nuclear submarine popping out of the frozen waters. Helen Mirren, Jason Statham and especially a baby are the most welcome personalities. Oh and there’s a nice nod to Paul Walker’s character at the end. All in all, it’s a rousing good time.

04-13-17

Hell or High Water

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Western with tags on August 29, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hell_or_high_water_zpshgdreiqe.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgI’m pleasantly surprised. David Mackenzie’s neo-Western wasn’t even on my radar. I generally don’t expect much from the second week of August. That’s kind of a dead period for movie releases. The summer is winding down. Kids are gearing up for back-to-school and most major film studios have already issued their heavy hitters. Lionsgate is not one of the “Big Six” studios, so maybe it’s not surprising that such an awards-worthy production (and potential blockbuster) would have such an atypical release date. However Lionsgate IS the largest and most successful mini-major studio in North America, so I wouldn’t exactly classify them as an indie either. Regardless, I was prompted to watch this on a good recommendation. I’m so glad I did.

Since the traditional Western takes place in the later half of the 19th century, I probably shouldn’t place Hell or High Water in that genre. The setting is present-day West Texas. The American frontier setting certainly confuses things. It’s unquestionably a heist picture. On that everyone will agree. The story is simple. Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster respectively) plan a series of robberies targeting various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in an effort to buy back their family farm. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is in hot pursuit along with his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

The narrative details a series of stick-ups like you’d find in an old western but set in today’s modern day Texas. Scottish director David Mackenzie has an uncanny feel for this material. He is brilliant at establishing characters. His last movie, the underseen British prison drama Starred Up, also excelled in this area. Naturally a lot of credit should also go to the crackerjack script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). Gradually the screenwriter reveals layers to these brothers, Toby and Tanner. At first the two appear to be one and the same – bank robbers. As the chronicle develops, we’re given motives and backstories and emotional temperaments that play out in little dialogues with various people along the way. Each vignette uncovers more depth to these people. A flirtatious conversation with Toby from a waitress (a noteworthy Katy Mixon) in a diner, is deceptively mundane taken at face value. Yet her wistful exchange exposes a heartbreaking yearning for so much more in her life.

She’s merely one component in an incredible ensemble. Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton. The grizzled, old fashioned Texas ranger is not such a stretch for the veteran actor anymore. Still, he’s wonderful. Ditto his partner Alberto Parker, a marshal whose half-Comanche/half-Mexican roots are subject to his constant teasing. The focus revolves around their pursuit of the brothers. The younger duo is united in the same dirty business, but they are rather different. Ben Foster has always been a bit of a chameleon. He’s mesmerizing. His portrayal is just as intense as you’d expect. However Chris Pine’s soulful work is the performance of his career. His understated achievement is so quietly expressive. I thought I knew the actor. He’s a revelation.

In this account, no one person is all good or all bad. Toby and Tanner are clearly in the wrong. Yet we are given valid reasons to hate these financial institutions – the source of foreclosed houses and crushed dreams. Are these brothers a modern day Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not exactly, although you’d be forgiven for making the connection. Rooting for these guys is similarly problematic, but this is a tale with even deeper shades of gray. There are so many surprises. One violent altercation inadvertently provides a cogent defense for carrying a concealed weapon. The mentality of the vigilante perspective is presented so rationally, I was a bit taken aback. There’s sort of an odd mix of emotion that fluctuates wildly between compassion and disgust for these lawbreakers. Sympathy turns to aversion over the course of the narrative. It’s the way these little unforeseen vignettes plays out that make this character study so captivating.  One of the most noteworthy dramas of 2016.

08-27-16

Central Intelligence

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo central_intelligence_ver2_zps8nxd0sdr.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMovies don’t get more agreeably disposable than Central Intelligence, a stridently by-the-numbers action comedy. The source of all humor contained within is an incongruous juxtaposition – the visual joke as it were. Hey guys!! Watch a big muscular dude (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) pal around with a yappy shrimp of a man (Kevin Hart). The former has a flamboyant personality. The latter possesses a shrill disposition. Just what we’re in short supply of – another “odd couple” comedy.

Back in high school it was a much different story. Calvin Joyner (Hart) was a BMOC: class president, homecoming king, drama club thespian, et cetera. Conversely Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was a morbidly obese dork who enjoyed dancing in the gym locker room to En Vogue’s “My Loving (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”. Yup, complete with hand gestures and everything. He was mercilessly teased. Flash forward to the modern day. Calvin is in a funk. He hasn’t yet achieved what he had envisioned for his life. He’s happily married to his high school sweetheart and gainfully employed as an accountant. “Wait what’s the problem?”, you may ask. That’s a very good question. Oops! I think you just might be too smart for this picture.

Robbie Weirdicht (now calling himself Bob Stone), on the other hand, is a huge brawny guy who likes to wear unicorn shirts that look like they were purchased at Baby Gap. He also happens to be a competent CIA agent. This figures into the plot but it’s kind of irrelevant. The purpose of this buddy film is to unite two unlikely people and merely savor their chemistry. Bob still idolizes Calvin like a hero. He quickly ingratiates himself back into Calvin’s life after a Facebook invite. Within hours he’s already sleeping on his couch. Honestly Bob’s obsessive fascination with Calvin is borderline stalker behavior.

Central Intelligence isn’t a horrible movie. It coasts on the charm of its leads. Dwayne Johnson is eager, overzealous and blissfully unaware. He imagines this close personal friendship with Kevin Hart’s character that was never really there. He’s so naive he seems almost mentally challenged. Kevin Hart plays an exasperated, persnickety fuss-budget. The two are a mismatched pair. If you can appreciate the constant mugging from the two stars then you should cuddle up to the film’s modest charms. Me? I was hoping for a bit more story than the threadbare plot that’s served up here. For the record, it’s some nonsense about selling critical U.S. satellite codes to terrorists. There’s also some confusion as to whether Bob Stone is actually a good or a bad guy in the CIA but you’d have to be fast asleep not to figure that out. Yes it’s totally predictable, but that’s not the issue. I found their hijinks mildly amusing. I simply never laughed out loud at any point. It’s so thoroughly generic. Directer and co-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber has done better work. I’d uphold DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story over this. What sets Central Intelligence apart is Wayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. I recommend this to very forgiving fans (and only fans) for whom these celebrities can do no wrong.

06-21-16

The Nice Guys

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo nice_guys_ver2_zpsk3d3imaa.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBuddy film about Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a hapless private eye and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a paid enforcer. The pair team up to solve the seemingly unrelated disappearance of a runaway teen (Margaret Qualley), and the apparent suicide of porn starlet (Murielle Telio).

The Nice Guys was not only written but also directed by Shane Black.  A celebrated screenwriter, he penned Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With its fast talking, neo-noir stylings, his script here could be inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler. That Oscar-nominated screenwriter and author was known for seminal detective novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. However Shane Black’s script isn’t as organized to bear comparison with Chandler’s writing. The plot is made up of various story threads thrown together in a dramatic blender that favors messy incongruity over twisty coherence.

The Nice Guys succeeds best when it’s going for laughs. Crowe is an effective straight man. Gosling is enjoyable as the comic relief. As hired muscle and private eye respectively, they make an amusing duo. Actress Angourie Rice plays Gosling’s 14 year old daughter, Holly March, a nice addition to the mix. Holly desperately wants to help her father out with his business, much to his dismay. She is an appealing presence, but she also brings out the more benevolent qualities of the two men. Their more iniquitous traits are downplayed when she is around. She steals every scene too. In fact, the narrative might have benefited if it had been simplified solely around a father-daughter crime fighting team.

The Nice Guys is at heart, a simple B-movie thriller dressed up as a period piece. The feature is a loving evocation of 1970s excess. Polyester suits, bom chicka wah wah guitar riffs and Playboy mansion style parties uplift the environment with a kitschy retro sheen.  That’s fun, but then there’s a lot of extraneous story nonsense here that is wholly unnecessary.  Less is more.  A basic tale is obstructed with a convoluted plot involving the mistaken identities of two lookalikes, the porn world, government corruption, and a whole lot of murders. One, in particular, is especially depressing because the victim gets away from the killer only to be murdered by him minutes later while hitchhiking to escape. Zany comedy mixed with violence is a difficult balancing act. The uneven tone can be off-putting. Still, there’s enough jokes and charisma to make up for the unsavory stretches that occasionally bring this production down. The slapdash recipe is generally a tasty one.

05-22-16

Green Room

Posted in Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo green_room_ver2_zpsszgyt22s.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe release of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival heralded an important new talent. Only his second feature, it was the winner of the FIPRESCI award that year. The chronicle was ostensibly about an emotionally damaged, shadow of a man, out for revenge. What made that grisly thriller so much more than just a routine genre exercise, was that we somehow sympathized with the lead character and his plight.

Now Saulnier is back with Green Room, another well constructed, but no less gruesome, labor of malevolence. It concerns The Ain’t Rights, a down and out punk band from the East Coast, desperate for a paying gig. They appear to be in their mid-20s. Despite their youth, the four group members (played by Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner and Joe Cole) have a kind of a been-there-seen-it-all world weariness that is rather amusing. They steal gas by siphoning it out of other cars, wake up in a cornfield because the driver fell asleep, and attend a podcast interview that is incredibly awkward. A question about their favorite “desert island band” becomes an amusing running gag throughout the entire picture right up through to the very last line of dialogue. The movie teases with humorous asides initially, but humor is not really the fabric of the film.

The proper tale begins when the foursome is booked to play a gig at a remote club in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. Unbeknownst to them, the bar is actually a popular hangout for neo-Nazi skinheads. The young punk rockers aren’t too keen on white supremacists, but they need the cash, so they play their set for the rowdy patrons and collect their money. As they’re about to leave, an extremely tense situation develops and the band is prevented from leaving by the skinhead bouncers. This is all under the direction of the club’s owner, Darcy, a calm white supremacist leader, portrayed in an inspired bit of casting by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Patrick Stewart. A less than committed skinhead (Imogen Poots), becomes an unexpected ally of our protagonists.

At first the band tries to calmly talk their way out of a sticky situation, but their negotiations fail. Now it’s punks vs. skinheads in an all out game of cat and mouse. The drama begins intelligently with words but ends morbidly with slaughter.  Ah but what are the stakes? There is an assortment of random human beings, but character development is anemic at best. Without that emotional connection, our desire to even give a care is severely diminished. Director Jeremy Saulnier relies on rising tension and it works for awhile. However after 60 minutes, the dialogue becomes less needed to further developments. Gore emerges as the story in the final third. Le carnage extraordinaire is the ultimate agenda for the day. People are sliced, diced and mutilated with guns, machetes and killer dogs. It’s competently done I suppose, but it’s not as terrifying as the intense standoff that came before it. It’s exactly what I expected would happen and after Blue Ruin, I expect more from Mr. Saulnier.

04-24-16

The Maltese Falcon

Posted in Crime, Drama, Film Noir, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo maltese_zpsesvbe4as.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgSan Francisco, 1941. A gorgeous but distraught woman named Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) enters the detective agency of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). She says she’s looking for her missing sister. Apparently the woman ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. Something about Miss Wonderly’s story doesn’t quite ring true. Is that even her real name? But the monetary compensation is so good, why challenge a solid paycheck?  After Archer and Thursby are found murdered, Spade realizes circumstances are a lot risker than he had originally presumed. That Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife Iva (Gladys George) doesn’t help the situation. That’s merely the beginning of his problems.

For many historians, The Maltese Falcon is considered the first major film noir, a cinematic term primarily used to describe those stylish Hollywood crime dramas of the early 1940s to the late 1950s, roughly the decade after World War II. The strict definition of what makes a film noir can be a bit abstract. It’s more of mood or a point-of-view than an easily definable category. The lesser known 1940 picture Stranger on the Third Floor actually predated this film. However director John Huston’s masterpiece presented the detective drama in a more definitive way. It in fact was the third adaptation of the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett. The first released in 1931 and the 2nd titled Satan Met a Lady in 1936. That one starred Warren William and Bette Davis. The exalted reputation of the 1941 interpretation trumps them both making this arguably one of the greatest remakes ever made.  It set the bar extremely high for later classics of the genre like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and The Third Man.

The Maltese Falcon is highlighted by a character study of contrasting personality types. People wrestle with greed, deception, and loyalty. Humphrey Bogart is conflicted by darker desires. He’s more of an antihero as the lead.  Cynical and hard-hearted – he doesn’t seem overly troubled by his partner’s death, removing his fellow associate’s name on the business door while the body is still warm. Nevertheless Bogart exemplifies cool collected style as the self-assured gumshoe.  Mary Astor is captivating as the requisite femme fatale. She initially appears fragile, but looks can be deceiving.

Then there’s a colorful trio of shady individuals. 61 year old stage actor Sidney Greenstreet surprisingly making his feature debut here as “The Fat Man”. He was Oscar nominated for his supporting role. Yet Peter Lorre is just as iconic as the effete Joel Cairo. Joel is no match for Spade. “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it,” Spade rebukes him. Elisha Cook, Jr. is the lightest heavy of the three. He provides some much appreciated comedic relief. At times, the set-bound action almost resembles a play. The movie is talky to say the least. Scenes are inundated with words, overstuffed even. But oh what dialogue! John Huston’s Oscar nominated screenplay is so meticulously composed, you’ll marvel at its construction.  It demands repeat viewings to take it all in, but it only gets better with age.

A whole review and I haven’t even answered the titular question. What is the Maltese Falcon anyway?

Why it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of” of course.

02-24-16

Sicario

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on September 26, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Sicario photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgWelcome to Juarez, a Mexican city along the U.S. border just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Juarez is a battleground for drug cartels and one of the most violent places in the world. This is the setting for director Denis Villeneuve’s latest production which details an ever escalating war on drugs.

Sicario relies on a trio of solid performances. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a naive FBI agent enlisted to aid in the capture of a dangerous drug lord. She runs a kidnap rescue team, but soon her talents will be pushed far beyond what she normally does. Right from the beginning, Sicario opens with a nightmarish find. Hidden within the plasterboard walls of a harmless looking home are dozens of corpses sealed in plastic bags. It’s a prelude to the vicious methods of the criminal organizations they wish to stop. Josh Brolin is the task force official in charge of the clandestine U.S. operation. Is he DEA? CIA? Something else? His affiliations aren’t clear as is the mysterious “consultant” they hire played by Benicio Del Toro. This the film’s most juicy role and he clearly relishes the part. Kate Macer is by the book. The rest of this crew, seemingly less so.

If there’s an MVP, it’s Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Once again working with Villeneuve (Prisoners), he extracts the art out of a grim drama. There are comprehensive aerial shots of the desert, a stunning night-vision raid, emotive close-ups in a climatic dinner scene. A convoy stopped to a standstill in a traffic jam at the U.S.-Mexico border is a heart-pounding set piece. Car chases are so cliche. Headless figures hung as a warning from an overpass, is a chilling image that lingers long after the picture is over. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s spare music with it’s punchy tones, is rather effective as well.  This is the same guy responsible for the lush orchestrations of The Theory of Everything. Talk about contrasts. It’s more sound design than melody, but the score mines a truly suspenseful feeling.

Sicario is an experience. An air of hopelessness permeates the atmosphere. This isn’t a detailed investigation. It’s a bleak mood piece that gives the viewer a you-are-there perspective. Director Villeneuve showcases the corrupt measures utilized to combat drug trafficking. Sicario is slang for “hitman” in Mexico and the simple title fits. The drama is minimalist, both in the articulated tale as well as style. As Emily Blunt plunges deeper into this sinister world, she registers confusion and uncertainty. To be honest, I wish the script had allowed her to be a bit more shrewd. Although we the audience can easily identify with her bewilderment. Who is this top secret U.S. Agency that she’s working for now? What has she gotten herself into exactly? And is there even a solution to the horrors of the illegal drug trade? So much ambiguity. We don’t get many answers, but such is life I suppose.

09-26-15

Black Mass

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama on September 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Black Mass photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlack Mass is the true story of Whitey Bulger, an organized crime boss of the Boston Irish mob faction known as the Winter Hill Gang. Indicted for 19 murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years for his offenses on November 14, 2013, he is currently incarcerated. Prior to this, starting in 1975, Bulger served as an FBI informant. He reported on the inner workings of his rivals, the Italian American Patriarca crime family. In exchange, the bureau turned a blind eye to murder. His organization and their illegal doings went unchecked for years. Once Bulger’s relationship with the FBI was finally exposed by the local media, he went into hiding on December 23, 1994. For 12 of the 16 years he was on the lam, Bulger was #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list, behind only Osama bin Laden.

The infamous Whitey Bulger has been the stuff of legend in popular culture. In 2006 actor Jack Nicholson portrayed Frank Costello, an individual loosely based on Bulger, in The Departed. The reference is especially apropos because Black Mass frequently calls Martin Scorsese to mind. Not just the Best Picture winner, but Goodfellas as well. Watch Johnny Depp rebuke an FBI agent for too readily revealing his “secret” family recipe for a marinade. The intensity with which he takes him to task for a seemingly honest remark, evokes Joe Pesci’s iconic “How am I funny?” scene in Goodfellas.

Black Mass is a well acted character piece. Joel Edgerton is important as John Connolly, the FBI agent who strikes up an alliance with Bulger, abetted by their childhood friendship. Also Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s more respectable brother who chose the political world instead. Billy Bulger was President of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years. Also of note is is Julianne Nicholson as the wife of John Connolly, who wants nothing to do with her husband’s schemes, and Corey Stoll as no-nonsense prosecutor Fred Wyshak. The latter two take nothing parts and turn them into the kind of roles that justify Oscar campaigns.

The only one that comes up a bit short is its star. I’ll admit, this is the most captivating Johnny Depp has been since Finding Neverland. He’s engaging and fully committed to the portrayal. Bulger is a frightening figure, as mean as they come. He’ll choke a friend’s stepdaughter with his bare hands if he thinks she might know too much. Regrettably his performance must still rely on an elaborate Tim Burton-style makeup job to “age” Depp into the role. The thinning blonde hair, brushed back to reveal a bald scalp, the rotten teeth, the ghostly, icy blue eyes aided by contacts. His pale, angular appearance makes him somewhat unrecognizable, but the transformation is distracting. It’s exaggerated, unnatural. He preys upon the innocent like a seething vampire. I remember back in 2012, critics were comparing Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows to Nosferatu. Well it’s happening all over again.

Black Mass is a solid, well-structured crime drama. The production is handsomely mounted. The cinematography is well photographed. The account doesn’t hold back from what a horrible man Bulger truly was. He puts a bullet in the head of a contrite friend in mid apology. It’s got brutal events carefully detailed in a fascinating true life tale of corruption. So what’s the problem? It’s a well presented series of facts, but it’s not much more. The studied approach requires passion. The film’s deliberate pace is so stately, it’s almost lethargic. In short, it lacks momentum and depth. It’s entertaining enough, a gripping character study bolstered by a supporting cast of earnest performances. However Black Mass won’t join the ranks of the greatest crime dramas. Along the way it often recalls them, but it pales in comparison.

09-17-15