Archive for the Crime Category

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


Mr. Holmes

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on July 30, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Holmes photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgLet’s set the record straight. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character that was featured in 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mr. Holmes then is a fabrication that envisions the imaginary sleuth as a 93-year-old reflecting back on how a case ended his career 30 years ago. The thing is, the picture is so meticulous, so deliberate and so…uh…well sluggish that you might be inclined to actually believe that this is the carefully studied profile of an authentic man. This is the latter day experiences of an erudite detective where entertaining embellishments are frowned upon in service of reverent restraint.

Writer-director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen have worked together before in Gods And Monsters. There the chronicle also centered on a life story. The difference is then it was director James Whale, an actual person. This time we’re detailing a make-believe guy. Mr. Holmes is a handsomely mounted production to be be sure, but one whose sole joy rests in watching a talented thespian act. Sir Ian McKellen, that English Academy Award nominated star of stage and screen, beautifully embodies the role of the agent in this dignified feature. He has a certain presence, but why so serious? This is a fantasy, not a biography where slavish attention to detail is a must. We could have used a little more fun perhaps. Accompanying McKellen are Laura Linney doing her best Emily Watson impression as his housekeeper and young Milo Parker who evokes Freddie Highmore as her son Roger. The allusions to other actors are in no way meant to negate their fine work here.

As a mater of fact, Ian’s McKellen’s scenes with budding star-in-the-making Milo Parker are the highlight of this production. The child has a precocious air that is quite endearing and never grating in the way some youngsters can be encouraged to act. Roger is the inspiration for Holmes to re-remember a mystery from his past: his last assignment. Roger is fascinated by the private investigator and his emotion captures the audience’s interest. Numerous flashbacks recall these details. There’s a lot of jumping around – first to a recent trip to Japan – then 35 years into the past. This for little apparent reason other than to utilize old age makeup on McKellen for the modern setting. Honestly the change isn’t all that dramatic. The real problem is, the case at hand isn’t very interesting. Mr. Holmes has its moments, but if I may quote another English literary character: “Please, sir, I want some more”. There just isn’t enough here to sustain a film. Ultimately it feels more like the studious artifact of bygone history than the fanciful re-imaging of a fictional super sleuth.



Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on July 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Dope photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMalcolm (Shameik Moore) is a straight A high school geek constantly pushed around at school. His dream is to get into Harvard after graduation. This coming of age story sounds familiar right? OK now let me add that he lives in the Darby-Dixon neighborhood of Inglewood nicknamed “The Bottoms”. He loves 90s hip hop and desses like the 4th member of Bell Biv DeVoe. That’s different because this is 2015. He lives with his single mother (Kimberly Elise) and he’s never known his father. His two best friends are Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) with whom he has formed a punk band called Awreeoh (pronounced “Oreo” because…oh do I even have to explain it?).

Life is tough for Malcom. He’s picked on by bullies who want his shoes, harassed by neighborhood thugs who want his bike, and belittled by the school counselor (Bruce Beatty) for his Harvard dreams. The playful tone is shattered when the drug dealer’s (rap star A$AP Rocky) party they’re attending, ends in a shower of bullets and a police raid. They escape. However back at school Malcolm discovers several bricks of Molly (MDMA in powder form) and a gun have been stuffed in his backpack. Now he and his friends must find a way to get rid of the drugs without getting killed or locked up.

Dope is one of those movies that really demands a lot from its audience. Smart viewers will think of easier ways out of this mess, but the screenplay doesn’t see it that way. It’s a progression of convoluted occurrences with a hodgepodge of zany gags bolstered by glib racial commentary. Shootings played for laughs and kamikaze disrobings by a sexually promiscuous coke fiend (Chanel Iman) are clumsy attempts at humor. Her filmed outdoor embarrassment becomes a social media meme because well “the Internet”. The script works hard throwing all sorts of random bits at the viewer. It’s a desperate attempt to be funny but the awkward mix of violence and lighthearted shenanigans are tonally off putting.

Dope is highlighted by a game attractive cast. There are moments, mostly in the first half, that had me laughing at its amusing view of nerds in the ‘hood. But the narrative is sloppy. The film vacillates between subverting stereotypes almost as often as it exploits them. I liked Dope when it did the former and not so much when it succumbed to the latter. Malcolm’s college application essay for Harvard is literally spoken at the end as a kind of justification for his actions. It’s a risky (business) move because Malcolm has done many questionable things. Oh and I must fault a script too oblivious to point out the pun that a black male uses blackmail.  Talk about a missed opportunity. The author (read screenwriter) has clearly fashioned the moment as a call to stand up and cheer. I suppose life is a series of choices and not everyone is faced with the same ones. Fair enough. Still it’s hard to hang your hat on a movie where the apparent moral is “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.



Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spy photo starrating-4stars.jpgCould Melissa McCarthy be the funniest comedian working today? I asked myself this question on October 1, 2011 when she hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time. (Incredibly, She’s already managed to host 3 times in the previous four seasons). The entire episode was gold but it was the “Hidden Valley Ranch Taste Test ” skit that cemented that status. Her interpretation of an overexcited consumer, made the sketch an instant classic. It was her fearless commitment to a character desperate to get her opinion noticed, complete with facial ticks, pushy gestures and obsessively repeated lines that made it so iconic. It was the same ability that nabbed her an Oscar nomination the same year for Best Supporting Actress in Bridemaids. The film was directed by Paul Feig. The two also collaborated on The Heat. Now Spy marks the third time the two have joined forces. I must say the partnership is electric.

McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst that has actually chosen desk duty as her preferred career choice. You see, Susan is hopelessly in love with Bradley Fine (Jude Law in his debonair best), the field agent with whom she is partnered. She works at a computer in a dingy rat-infested basement at CIA’s Langley headquarters. As his much needed extra set of eyes when he goes on assignment in the field, she is the whispering voice in his earpiece. Despite her misplaced feelings for Fine, she’s a very perceptive woman. She’s quite effective behind the scenes, extremely good at what she does. As a result, it’s simply a matter of time before she’s forced into international field as a secret agent of the world. Yes, there’s the visual joke that this zaftig woman is playing the role of a James Bond-esque undercover secret agent. However, Susan Cooper is anything but a joke.

Spy manages to be both silly adventure while mocking gender cliches as well. The screenplay is sharp because it gets to present the prejudices of her enemies, only to have them humiliated at every turn by her competence. The story intelligently exploits their low expectations of Susan. It’s surprisingly transgressive. Susan is saddled with embarrassing fake identities that make her look like a crazy cat lady or a frumpy tourist. There’s a a hilarious scene where she’s outfitted with her spy accouterments by the script’s version of Q (Michael McDonald). Instead of the usual high tech gadgets of a sophisticated super spy, her equipment comes disguised as hemorrhoid wipes and stool softeners.

If this was the basis for the comedy, it would’ve been enough. But then we’re introduced to the icy daughter of the target that Fine accidentally killed. Rose Byrne is a hoot as Rayna Boyanov. Her snobby barbs and bitchy attitude make her ice queen of a villain a campy delight – a ruthless Bulgarian beauty with an exaggerated accent and a hairstyle that would make a drag queen envious. Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne trade digs as their back and forth verbal game of one-upmanship escalates. Rayna referring to Susan’s chic getup: “The moment I saw you standing there in that abortion of a dress…” versus Susan’s estimation that Rayna’s haute couture looks like “a slutty dolphin-trainer.” Rayna compares Susan to a “sad little Bulgarian clown.” “Thank God, your hair broke your fall” Susan snips after Rayna stumbles. Invective is thrown while the audience gleefully watches, savoring every nasty insult. The pair form a combative team that extends the chronicle into the realm of genius.

As a ridiculous comedy, Spy wholeheartedly delivers the laughs. What deepens this into a tour de force, rests in the way Melissa McCarthy subverts our expectations. She is a heroine to be admired because she is so darn talented. When she fights a lithe knife wielding female assassin in the tight confines of a restaurant kitchen, she demonstrates athleticism by using a frying man to defend herself. The visual sight gag is a spectacle of perfectly timed physical satire and choreography. The understanding is, these athletic specimens may be good, but she is better. Melissa McCarthy has the ability to take even slow parts and make them shine. Add Rose Byrne as the emotionless villain and you have a match made in comedy heaven. If you could bottle their chemistry, you’d have the key ingredient for any successful duo. The rest of the star filled supporting cast (Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law) are amusing too. They’re just not quite at the level of McCarthy or Rose Byrne. That’s OK. There’s more than enough laughs here to sustain two movies. Spy is the most gut-bustingly funny movie of the year so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if it retains that title.