Archive for the Crime Category

Malignant

Posted in Action, Crime, Horror with tags on September 12, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The category is: Gonzo horror movies that entertain out of sheer weirdness. Ladies and gentlemen, Malignant has just entered the room. Uber-successful director James Wan first found fame with horror: Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring have earned billions worldwide. Over the past six years, he achieved even greater success with Furious 7 and Aquaman. Wan’s latest marks a return to the genre that made him famous. It’s too silly to take seriously and yet too bizarre to simply dismiss.

This movie has everything: psychic abilities, doctors, detectives, repressed childhood memories, imaginary friends, lesbians in jail, and evil siblings. I suddenly feel like Stefon — Bill Hader’s club-kid character on SNL — enumerating all the avant-garde features of the hippest New York clubs. Despite my long list, I haven’t given any substantive details of what happens in this crazy movie. There is so much more than meets the eye.

Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) is expecting a child. One night after a fight with Derek (Jake Abel), her abusive husband, she locks herself in the bedroom away from him and falls asleep. At night, she dreams that a stranger enters their home and violently kills him. Sure enough, she discovers Derek’s dead body downstairs when she awakes. Then realizes the killer is still there before blacking out. She regains consciousness in the hospital and learns she was attacked. Soon thereafter she continues to experience terrifying visions of horrific murders. What’s even more troubling is that the murders she’s witnesses are indeed happening. Her visions simultaneously occur in real-time.

There’s a heightened sensibility to the atmosphere right from the start. The exaggerated acting style telegraphs we’re in for some humor. Star Annabelle Wallis plays it pretty straight, but the rest of the cast didn’t get the same memo. The opening scene ends with a doctor boldly making a solemn declaration to the camera, “It’s time we cut out the cancer!” Buckle up for a fun ride. The explanation for Madison’s hallucinations will be fully explained. Trust that’s it’s an insane and unpredictable reveal. The manifestation of that development is a genuinely freakish display. The third act will either have you rolling your eyes in disgust or laughing uncontrollably at how over the top it is. I’m firmly in the latter category. Longtime readers know I am not a fan of viscera. However, when tinged with humor, it becomes cartoonish and therefore easier to take. Here I embraced the gore.

James Wan is well acquainted with camp. His entire filmography is proof of that with Aquaman being a recent example. As Susan Sontag famously wrote in 1964, “Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” That perfectly describes Malignant in a nutshell. If you’re willing to embrace that sensibility, this will be an absolute hoot. This fantastic (and bloody) saga is reminiscent of the work of Italian director Dario Argento, best known for Suspiria in 1977. Granted the narrative will not hold up to intense scrutiny. This is a convoluted mess. Nonetheless, a ridiculously entertaining fright fest with an emphasis on the grotesque is still a mesmerizing spectacle. I enjoyed it for its audacious style.

09-10-21

Stillwater

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on August 12, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an oil worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma. He periodically travels to the port city of Marseille in France to visit his estranged daughter. Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been serving a prison sentence for the past four years. While attending university, she was charged with killing her roommate and lover for being unfaithful. Allison maintains she is innocent. She has recently learned from Patrick (William Nadylam) – a professor at the university – that a student in his outreach program overheard a man brag at a party about stabbing someone and getting away with it. In a detailed letter that she gives to her dad, Allison pleads for her lawyer Maitre Leparq (Anna Le Ny) to reopen the case. Leparq deems it hearsay and refuses. Unbeknownst to Allison, her father decides to investigate himself.

Stillwater is best appreciated as a character study. As such, it features a handful of good performances. I begin with Abigail Breslin as Allison Baker. Bill’s daughter is in jail for most of the picture. She only appears in a few key discussions during her father’s visits. Though the part is small, Breslin effectively conveys the dependence on but also alienation from her dad. Matt Damon is the blue-collar Bill. He sports a thick goatee and a tattoo of an eagle-clutched skull, but he also prays before every meal. He’s a doughy monolith dressed in plaid and always wearing a baseball cap. He rarely smiles. The misguided marketing even highlights this generic image on the poster.

Damon’s stoic mood is a choice. While it may embody an authentic person, it isn’t particularly charismatic. This is the same actor who played the sociopathic preppie in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It is a stretch given how different it is. Conversely, French actress Camille Cottin is overflowing with personality. She plays Virginie, a woman staying in the hotel room next to his in France. The woman would seem to be an unlikely ally. “Did you vote for Trump?” her friend Nedjma (Naidra Ayadi) suspiciously asks him one point. Virginie also has a young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who is a memorable presence as well. Virginie agrees to help him in his quest.,

The accomplished filmmaker Tom McCarthy gave us the prestigious Best Picture winner Spotlight. The director of Stillwater himself has acknowledged that the screenplay — which he co-wrote with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré — was inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox trial. To further emphasize that point, there was an American woman who spent time in a foreign prison. However, the developments and characters are all invented. To explain how it diverges would be to spoil what happens. I only mention these facts to emphasize this is not “The Amanda Knox Story.” The coverage of the movie has implied it contains more facts without acknowledging the major distinctions. It’s a work of fiction.

A father will do anything to prove his daughter’s innocence. That concept is the inertia that propels the account. Bill’s crusade is fascinating. Yet the narrative is a lot of other things. It’s a character study, a murder mystery, a father/daughter drama, a fish out of water tale, and even a romance. That last development occurs at a moment where the chronicle already had a clear direction. Then it exasperatingly goes off the rails before returning to the matter at hand. Stillwater is a patience-testing 2 hours 20 minutes. It’s easy to see where a half-hour could have been excised to present a more focused and powerful saga. I’ve always maintained the screenwriter plays the most important role in a film. Stillwater makes me question that idea. Some judicious editing could have made this great.

08-10-21

No Sudden Move

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on July 28, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It feels like a lifetime ago when Steven Soderbergh first announced his arrival with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It caused a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 when it won the Palme d’Or. It also revolutionized the independent film movement in the early 1990s by making significant money at the box office. The last time Steven Soderbergh directed something that felt like an event was probably Magic Mike in 2012. That was nearly a decade ago, but the auteur has been steadily turning out movies. Some are great (Side Effects) and some are not (The Laundromat).

No Sudden Move is pure Steven Soderbergh. In that sense, it’s a film noir that should delight his most ardent fans but leave everyone else in the cold. It stars past collaborators Don Cheadle (Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11) and Benicio Del Toro (Traffic, Che). Curt and Ronald are two petty criminals each separately hired by Doug (Brendan Fraser) to work together. They are to kidnap low-level executive Matt (David Harbour) and force him to retrieve a document from his boss’ (Hugh Maguire) safe. You won’t know what that piece of paper is until the very end and even then it’s a perfunctory reveal that’s more likely to elicit a shrug than a gasp. That MacGuffin — by definition — was never the point.

It’s all about style and mood. Steven Soderbergh has honed his craft. This is a period piece set in Detroit, Michigan during 1954 that weaves the auto industry and organized crime into a dense account. Apparently, those two worlds have a lot in common. What begins in the rugged streets of Detroit ultimately ends up in the stately board room of a company. The idea that rich and powerful corporations have little regard for the law in their all-consuming desire for money is a most tired subject. Yet it can be the simplistic basis for a very entertaining story.

Simplicity enhances the possibility for depth. Soderbergh has a solid foundation. Unfortunately, each subsequent scene is burdened with more densely written dialogue than the next. The chronicle never gives the audience a chance to ponder what’s happening before additional layers are added. The narrative is weighed down by details. Ed Solomon’s screenplay confuses characters with excitement. Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Craig Grant, Julia Fox, Frankie Shaw, Bill Duke are all introduced as essential cogs in a complex machine. Not enough? Let’s throw in an uncredited cameo by the director’s most frequently employed actor. The Johnny Depp to his Tim Burton as it were. Soderbergh’s fans already know who I’m talking but I’ll leave his appearance as a surprise to everyone else.

The late great French director François Truffaut once pronounced that clarity is the most important quality in making a picture. No Sudden Move is a heist film. In essence, the saga is simple, but the plot twists and turns through an ever-expanding ensemble. In a tale where shifting alliances are the norm, you can’t be sure of anything. The only thing you can count on is that no one can be trusted. There’s nary a break in the conversation. Wait a minute? Who’s Frank Capelli? Is that Aldrick Watkins? These questions and many others will likely arise. Those key characters are portrayed by actors Ray Liotta and Bill Duke incidentally. Consulting a cast list will prove most helpful. If this were a live performance, I’d rely on a playbill to keep track of all the parts. This is a production that demands your undivided attention with no distractions. As such it would’ve been the perfect choice for a theatrical experience. Sorry. It bypassed theaters and was released on July 1 to HBO Max. This means you will need the right setting to enjoy this movie. I did and that’s why I’m recommending the film.

07-25-21

F9: The Fast Saga

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on July 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’ve seen every single one of these films, but full disclosure: it’s been more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I’ve awarded three out of five stars to most of the entries. They’re solid — if not silly entertainment. Furious 7 surprised me as a high point for the franchise. Since then, the movies have been running on fumes. That’s not to say they aren’t potent fumes. The sequels continue to reunite the personalities you love, provide lots of death-defying action and offer a healthy dose of laughs as the stunts push believability to its limit.

Let’s face it. The Fast & Furious succession is a soap opera that now includes long-lost siblings and the return of people long thought dead. At the outset, the screenplay reveals that Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has a brother named Jakob (John Cena). A flashback shows that their father — racecar driver Jack (J. D. Pardo) — died during a race in a fiery blaze. Dom believes his brother was responsible. Now Jakob has returned as a mercenary to steal the Aries Device. This will allow him to hack into any computer system in the world and attain global power. Additionally, the sphere is split in half making it a little harder to assemble and utilize. Dom and his team want to stop Jakob and his associate Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen).

Intelligence is not your friend. The more you apply logic to this saga, the less you will enjoy it. Case in point, we’re nine chapters in and we’re only just learning NOW that Dom has a brother? F9 is bursting with characters and details. The production is constantly evolving — bending and twisting the narrative to retroactively justify continuity. The convoluted developments collapse if given even a modicum of scrutiny. Only a TV melodrama like Dallas or Dynasty in its prime would dare to advance such complicated machinations. There are a lot of flashbacks in this movie. Both Dom and Jakob get two versions of their younger selves. I find the contortions to be a hilarious hoot. However, it could cause a headache if you strive to make sense of it. My advice, don’t even try.

It’s an oft-repeated phrase here. Fast & Furious is all about family. As such, the ever-growing cast is positively Shakespearean in its size. Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, and Charlize Theron all return in bit parts. Even people thought to be dead are brought back to life. Buddies played by Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges amusingly bicker like an old married couple. Meanwhile, actors Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez strain credibility in portraying husband and wife. They ironically lack any romantic chemistry. Charlize Theron makes the most of her scattered appearances. As Cipher, the actress knows how to wink and preen as a confident villain. Her criminal mastermind is a riff on her evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman but with the haircut of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. She’s enjoyable. Furthermore, the action is nonstop and the plot coasts along on good-natured humor, so it never really gives you a chance to think. The joy lies in its awareness of how ridiculous it is. The series has embraced camp.

06-29-21

Cruella

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on June 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you seen Disney’s 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians lately? It is perhaps the least pretentious tale the Disney factory has ever concocted: evil woman hires criminals to steal puppies so she can make a fur coat. It also has one of the greatest Disney villains ever. Voiced by radio star Betty Lou Gerson, her raspy voice addressed everyone as “dahling” like theater legend Talulah Bankhead. The character preened about the room ensconced in a huge fur that hides her skeletal frame while chain-smoking from a cigarette holder. She was a sight to behold. Like actress Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the villain didn’t have a lot of screen time. Yet when she appeared, her charisma was such a force of nature it loomed over everything else. You remember her to be a bigger presence than she actually was.

Cruella is another live-action Disney concoction that investigates the origins of this character in the form of a prequel. Reinvent the story from the villain’s perspective. This was similarly accomplished (from a profitability angle anyway) with Maleficent. However, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo have all recently mined the live action remake idea. I admit it is with much cynicism when I say the raison dêtre for all of these interpretations is business first. The art (hopefully) will follow. I still contend their 2015 masterful achievement Cinderella is the gold standard. Cruella is nowhere near that level, but it’s too beautiful to be a train wreck.

Some people are evil because they are born that way. In the cartoon, the character was driven by selfish greed — a refreshingly simple idea that needed no explanation. Nevertheless, the screenwriters here do not share that point of view. They seek to expand on why Cruella de Vil is the way she is. The protagonist is conflicted by two sides of a dual personality. Her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) notices this in her daughter. There’s nice girl Estella but that only gets her so far. Hence why she creates the Cruella persona. She’s not really bad. It’s all an act. Cruella doesn’t smoke. Nor does she want to skin puppies. She doesn’t even wear furs. Sheesh! How did this nice girl become the Cruella de Vil we know?

This origin tale is hampered by unnecessary plot threads in a convoluted 134-minute backstory. The pile of unresolved details is a snooze fest. I’d excise the first 30 minutes at least. A better more efficient movie would have begun when Estella is employed by the Baroness. Estella first arrives in London as an orphaned child of the late 60s. It’s at this time that Cruella meets two delinquents who will become her cohorts. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry will play Horace and Jasper respectively as adults. Cruella cobbles her childhood from the iconography of Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie. Sadly Cruella doesn’t come close to the beloved musicals inspired by those works.

Cruella isn’t a musical, although it does feature a lot of music. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I, Tonya) appropriates 33 songs (yes 33 I looked it up) mostly from the 60s and 70s that emphasize the image on the screen. From Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” to Blondie’s “One Way or Another” or “She’s a Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones – the song selections are overused needle drops you’ve heard a million times before. The musical cues are so on the nose they are more likely to inspire eye-rolls than admiration.

Cruella is another case of “too many cooks.” The saga has five credited writers: Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) from a story by Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis, and most tellingly — Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote The Devil Wears Prada. At its core, Cruella reveals itself to be just a remix of that classic. A bad screenplay is a mortal sin in the world of filmmaking. Despite this most major transgression, I did not hate this.

The film delivers in several key areas that kept me enrapt. As a showcase for an opulent parade of gorgeous fashions it flourishes. Occasionally costume design can elevate an entire production. Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mirror Mirror) could do this. So can Jenny Beavan (A Room with a View, Mad Max: Fury Road). The costumes are the movie. She’s been nominated 10 times (2 Oscar wins) and her work here deserves an eleventh. At the Baroness’ Black and White Ball, Cruella arrives covered in a white cape that goes up in flames to reveal a vintage red dress. Cruella manages to steal from…er uh excuse me…pay homage to pop-culture history and the career of Vivienne Westwood. It presents the hero as an aspiring fashion designer with a punk style that usurps her boss.

Cruella is a mixed bag. The performances are satisfying even when the writing is not. Emma Stone’s manic energy is captivating. Her boss is Baroness von Hellman. Emma Thompson is doing a riff on Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Thompson is exquisite. She looks and acts the part. The Baroness affects a dismissive attitude. However, her appetite for delivering disparaging remarks isn’t as beautifully realized. She tries. Oh, how she tries! Unfortunately, her words aren’t as clever. It is her physical embodiment of the role where the comedy succeeds. The Baroness’ lack of concern when she pops a champagne cork into a poor waiter’s eye gets the biggest laugh. Furthermore, it never fails visually. Come and gorge on the opulence. Hey, if you can’t feel good, at least look good.

06-01-21

Army of the Dead

Posted in Action, Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s about quality not quantity in art. There is a power to simplicity. Most movie genres benefit from efficient storytelling. In particular, I’ve always thought comedies and animated films are better when they’re 100 minutes or less. After watching this 2 hour and 28-minute chronicle, I’m ready to add zombie movies to that list. The 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead adhered to that rule. Even Zack Snyder’s first foray into this genre qualifies. His feature debut was a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Ok, so I’ll concede the 1978 original was 126 minutes. There are exceptions to every rule.

Complicated epics may benefit from longer runtimes. However, this saga is rather simple. The zombie apocalypse has left Las Vegas separated from the rest of humanity. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a former war hero who’s now flipping burgers. Casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) tasks him with retrieving $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip. Slight complication: In 32 hours, Las Vegas will be nuked by the government as a solution to its infestation. Scott accepts the challenge and assembles a team of experts for the heist. There’s little time to waste. The clock is ticking.

The narrative highlights a flamboyant band of mercenaries. Characterization isn’t a highlight, other than to emphasize tough guys and gals in its lively cast of personalities. Scott and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) have unresolved issues that are shoehorned in for ersatz sentimentality. I remember Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). The latter looking like a sturdier version of Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Their prickly interactions at the outset predictably develop into a friendship by the end. French actress Nora Arnezeder as Lily suggests Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels with her short blonde hairstyle. Then there’s Zeus (Richard Cetrone ) the alpha male, and his queen (Athena Perample) in this society of the undead. Question: Can an intelligent entity with emotions and highly evolved problem-solving skills still be considered a zombie?

This is a Zack Snyder movie through and through. He’s not only the director but also a producer, and one of the screenwriters. This also marks the first time that the director has been his own DP. Much of the cinematography has a “unique” look. The actors in the foreground are often clear but the background is blurry. Occasionally even the stars are out of focus too. This was a conscious choice the director made, but it didn’t improve the experience in my living room. In a theater (this played on 600 screens) one might be more forgiving. On a TV it comes off like a visual glitch. It’s a strange decision in this 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray age. Incidentally, Tig Notaro was digitally added post-filming, although the late addition doesn’t stand out from anyone else.

Army of the Dead has its moments. The high points occur when the adventure doesn’t take itself too seriously and calls attention to how — let’s face it — stupid it is. I especially enjoyed all the “on the nose” needle drops. They are a welcome reprieve from the heavy-handed gore. Snyder ends his saga with the most literally titled song you could imagine. The Cranberries’ protest anthem “Zombie” has absolutely nothing to do with reanimated corpses but here it is, appropriated out of context for your listening pleasure. “Night Life” and “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley can be heard. However, the version of “Viva Las Vegas” that opens the film is a campier rendition by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe. A cover of “Bad Moon Rising” by Theo Gilmore, “The End” by The Raveonettes, and Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” also pop up at amusing points.

Army of the Dead is a straightforward story undone by its interminable length. You could depict two heists in this ridiculously long zombie apocalypse tale. Is it too early to start championing a new hashtag on Twitter? “Release the NON-Snyder cut!” I’d prefer a version where the studio boldly makes the deep cuts necessary to edit this distended tedium into a compelling piece of entertainment. There’s a decent movie buried somewhere amongst all the excess.

05-22-21

The Woman in the Window

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on May 24, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Woman in the Window apes the work of Hitchcock so superficially that the word “derivative” doesn’t seem to do it justice. Perhaps forgery is more apropos.

This glossy thriller stars Amy Adams as a former child psychologist living in Manhattan named Anna. She’s recently separated from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie), who has custody of their nine-year-old daughter Olivia (Mariah Bozeman). Nevertheless, they periodically talk on the phone. Anna rents her basement to a boarder named David Winter (Wyatt Russell).

More important information. Anna suffers from agoraphobia and never leaves the house. She regularly spies on her neighbors, out of boredom I suppose. The Russells — a family of three — move in across the street. She meets their teenaged son Ethan (Fred Hechinger). He is a sensitive soul, and they quickly form a close bond. Then Anna greets his mom Jane (Julianne Moore) when she happily drops over. They have a chat over wine where Jane alludes that her husband Alistair (Gary Oldman) is abusive. A bit later, she sees Jane stabbed to death while staring out her window. She is convinced Alistair is the culprit.

The inspiration for The Woman in the Window is clearly Hitchcock’s Rear Window. THE miracle of 2021 cinema would have been if this even came close to that masterpiece. The feature is directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour). Screenwriter Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) — who also appears as Anna’s psychiatrist — adapted the 2018 novel by Daniel Mallory who writes under the pseudonym A. J. Finn. It’s not a crime to be inspired by a classic film. Borrow from the best and call it an homage, right? Yet shoddy art is still some sort of an offense. I’d like to make a citizen’s arrest. This story is sloppily thrown together.

For one thing, the screenplay doesn’t play fair with the audience. We’re never 100% sure that what Anna sees and does is real. She is frequently drinking wine and in a constant drug-induced haze because of her anxiety issues. She blacks out a lot. Are psychoactive drugs to blame? Is she being psychologically manipulated by the people around her? Maybe she’s just mentally depressed? We can’t take what we are shown at face value.

The Woman in the Window has gotten mostly negative reviews. Yet I didn’t hate it as much as some. It starts out rather promisingly as a slow-burn mystery. However in the last 30 minutes, the narrative hastily dumps all of its revelations. It’s ridiculous. I’ve seen episodes of Scooby-Doo that ended better. Actor Brian Tyree Henry closing dialogue as a detective is particularly bad. Another thing that annoys me is when you insert clips of famous movies in your new production. Anna loves old films. Not only do we see a clip from Rear Window, but also Laura, Spellbound, and Dark Passage. The choice inadvertently mocks the viewer. Thanks for reminding me of all the better motion pictures I could be watching right now.

Monster

Posted in Crime, Drama on May 13, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In 2004 Charlize Theron famously won an Oscar for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. The title was a sincere description of its protagonist. However, it’s far more cynical and not to be taken at face value here. This long-delayed melodrama debuted at Sundance in 2018. Netflix acquired the film and released it on May 7. A team of screenwriters — Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer — adapt the award-winning 1999 novel by Walter Dean Myers.

The “monster” of the title is Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a 17-year-old black honors student who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steve now faces life in prison. He’s on trial charged with a felony as an accessory to murder. He was allegedly acting as a lookout for the crime. James King (A$AP Rocky) and Richard “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington) gunned down a store owner during their robbery of a bodega. Osvaldo Cruz (Jharrel Jerome) also stands accused, but like Bobo, he takes a plea deal.

The list of characters continues. Maureen O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle) is the defense lawyer who represents Steve. Anthony Petrocelli (Paul Ben-Victor) is the lawyer for the prosecution. Mom (Jennifer Hudson) and Dad (Jeffrey Wright) are devastated. While in jail, Raymond “Sunset” Green (Nas) is a fellow prisoner who gives Steve advice. The narrative also details Steve’s life before the killing. He is an aspiring film student attending the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Leroy Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson) is Steve’s teacher who attests to his strong character at the trial. We follow the teen as he navigates through a complex legal battle. His very future is at stake.

The chronicle is the portrait of a victim captive to a flawed American judicial system. Steve’s defense attorney has already decided the jury will connect race with guilt. Steve’s public defender laments an unequal system. Even before the trial, she characterizes the mindset of the jury as such: “You’re young. You’re Black. You’re on trial.” She’s preparing her client for an inequitable fight. Meanwhile, Steve’s thoughts can be heard in an awkward voice-over that sounds like text directly lifted from the book. Steve over-emphasizes points of view that are abundantly clear from the action on screen. The narration doesn’t help this heavy-handed saga. The screenplay favors an oversimplification of human beliefs and attitudes. Subtlety and nuance be damned.

A courtroom drama centered on a black teenager’s introduction to American justice could be the basis for a powerful account. At least the ensemble of actors is impressive. Perhaps the idea itself was enough to attract this stellar cast. Many of their careers have only become more distinguished since this movie was originally produced. It’s not hard to see why it sat on the shelf for so long. They do what they can with the material provided. Unfortunately, the treatment of a serious issue is clumsy and simplistic. Filmmaker Anthony Candler is a veteran music video director. He injects his style into the proceedings, but his guidance is amateurish. The pacing and scene transitions call more attention to the director’s hand than to the importance of the story. Monster is a missed opportunity.

05-10-21

The Shadow of Violence

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on April 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Selecting the right title for a film is an artistic decision. In the UK this production was poetically released as Calm with Horses — based on the short story of the same name by Irish writer Colin Barrett. This is what the movie was called everywhere. Everywhere except in the US, where it was changed to The Shadow of Violence. So bland. That generic title always escapes me.

Thankfully the picture itself is anything but forgettable. The debut feature from director Nick Rowland is skillfully composed and self-assured. It deserves a bigger audience. Inexplicably it was dropped in U.S. theaters last year on July 31, 2020, during the economic shutdown. Given that most theaters were closed, it isn’t surprising that few Americans saw it. Then it debuted on Netflix on January 21, 2021. To be honest, this still wasn’t even on my radar until the April 11th BAFTAs where it garnered an impressive four nominations.

The chronicle concerns an ex-boxer (Cosmo Jarvis) who works as the muscle for the Devers, a drug-dealing family in rural Ireland. Despite his rough exterior Douglas — whose nickname is Arm — is a sympathetic soul. He’s trying to break away from the negative influence of his troublemaking chum (Barry Keoghan). Arm wants to concentrate on being a good father to his 5-year-old autistic son Jack. Calm with Horses refers to the peace that Jack finds when he’s engaged in equestrian pursuits. Arm’s loyalties are tested when the Devers clan asks him to kill someone.

Actor Cosmo Jarvis is impressive in the lead. His memorable performance is full of passion and nuance . Arm is a man conflicted between his son vs. his loyalty to violent mobsters. Choosing the right path is complicated. The Devers took him in at a low point in his life. He feels like he owes them. Jarvis is compelling even though he did not pick up a BAFTA nomination. Actor Barry Keoghan did. He portrays his violent buddy Dymphna. Actress Niamh Algar playing his estranged girlfriend Ursula did as well. She is also the mother to his son.

Other cast members may have reaped more accolades, but it’s Jarvis that seizes our attention. Douglas may look like a massive brute, but his appearance belies a sensitive and tender personality. The difference in size between the hulking Cosmo Jarvis and the diminutive Barry Keoghan sort of gave me a George and Lennie vibe from Of Mice and Men. This is exceptionally bleak and depressing, a somewhat atypical view of Ireland. It takes a while for the narrative to take shape. Once it does, it’s a captivating character-driven drama with several authentic performances.

04-14-21

I Care a Lot

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on February 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Holy heartlessness! This is a very mean-spirited movie. Rosamund Pike plays a woman named Marla who works as a court-appointed legal guardian for elderly patients. That sounds like she’s a do-gooder but she’s actually running a scam. She’s a grifter abusing the system by separating wealthy senior citizens from their families. Then Marla liquidates their assets after essentially imprisoning them in rest homes. She is a thoroughly repellent sociopath. That loathsome mood only grows as the story develops.

Things perk up when a wrench is flung into her evil plans. Marla makes the mistake of committing one Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) to an assisted living facility. Jennifer’s son is a Russian mob boss (Peter Dinklage). Roman Lunyov is extremely vexed by what she has done. A feeling of hope is introduced. What is there to say when a Russian mobster is the most sympathetic individual in the film? At this point, the viewer is invited to think, “He will make things right. Mom will be rescued and Marla will get her comeuppance.” Unfortunately, the script by writer-director J Blakeson fails to deliver that much-desired satisfaction. The drama is highly frustrating. There is no one to root for in the narrative.

Marla is a character that could only exist in a work of fiction — the figment of a writer’s creation. She’s totally unflappable with the overconfidence to neutralize every setback thrown her way. She has the support of a clueless judge, a crooked doctor, and a disreputable nursing home director that all obsequiously defer to her wishes. Most are in on the take. The cynicism toward the health care system is pervasive, but not particularly clever. It’s a wholly irritating experience because (1) the screenplay is asking us to accept a lot of far-fetched ideas and (2) everyone is so reprehensible that you just want to turn away in disgust.

It’s a shame because Rosamund Pike is rather effective in playing this part. The actress is operating within the same vein as her Oscar-nominated performance in Gone Girl. She’s a psycho with ice in her veins, hell-bent on destroying people’s lives so she can make more money. She’s sporting a razor-sharp bob, wears well-tailored suits and is constantly sucking on a vape pen. Her steely portrayal is good. The movie is vile. Let me clarify. I did NOT care a lot for I Care a Lot.

02-19-21