Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

In Bruges

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

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    How director/screenwriter Martin McDonagh took what could’ve been a generic, silly and crafted one of the most entertaining and original films of the year is something of a miracle. Definitely a big part of the film’s success is the casting of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in the lead roles, their chemistry is a key reason the film works. In Bruges takes its themes of guilt, the past, spirituality, forgiveness, ethics and violence and creates a comedy of the blackest, darkest pitch.

Farrell and Gleeson play Ray and Ken, two Irish hit men who, after a disastrous hit, are forced by their boss Harry, Ralph Fiennes, to hide out in Bruges, Belgium. This is perfect for Ken, who seems to have an endless enthusiasm for the history and culture of Bruges, as well as an unlimited supply of travel books, and disaster for Ray, who would rather be, well, anywhere else. As Ray says, in one of the film’s many, many terrific lines: “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”

Ray’s opinion on Bruges changes ever so slightly when he meets the alluring Chloe (Clemence Poesy), and that’s about as much plot as I can tell you without ruining the shifting, twisting nature of the story. Well, I can maybe mention the testy dwarf Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), in town filming a pretentious art film, or how the film, although definitely bizarre and strange in nature, has a lot to say about the reality of being a hit man, that is, can you live with the weight of murder on your conscience for the rest of your life?

Colin Farrell is a very good actor who unfortunately usually doesn’t play very interesting characters (most of his recent work either was very remarkable or was just Farrell playing a version of himself), but I have to say that his funny, energetic, devastating performance here is his best work since 2000’s Tigerland. Brendand Gleeson as the older, more experienced hit man gives a terrific performance, and I really expect him to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Ralph Fiennes is scary, vicious and funny, and does a great amount with his limited screen time. Probably my favorite scene is the phone call between Ken and Harry, as Ken stands in his hotel room trying to deal with the obviously unhinged Harry. Phone call scenes can be hard to pull off, but Gleeson and Fiennes are splendid actors and create a classic scene.

Clemence Poesy, Jordan Prentice, Eric Godon as Yuri, the local arms dealer, Zeljko Ivanek as an unlucky Canadian in a restaurant and Ciaran Hinds as a priest all give solid supporting turns. In Bruges is a superior entertainment, and definitely worth a rental. One of the best films of 2008.

American Gangster (*** 1/2)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

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Ridley Scott’s new epic crime film follows two men who each have their own moral code and personal set of ethics. Of course, they are on opposite sides of the law. Their separate narratives combine to create a story that only could’ve happened in America, a place where the line between right and wrong, good and bad, criminal and cop is sometimes blurred beyond all recognition. It’s based on a true story, but who’s to say how much is true. If you want facts, read a book.Denzel Washington stars as Frank Lucas, a small-time hood who, in the late 60s, became the most powerful gangster in New York. As the film opens, Lucas is the chauffeur/collector/ right hand man for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III, in an uncredited yet perfectly captured performance), the much-loved Harlem community leader/gangster, until Bumpy bites the big one. Lucas, bemoaning that his former boss had power but was still owned by the white man, decides to corner the drug market. How he does this is one of the many surprises of the twisty, tangled web this film weaves.Russell Crowe costars as Richie Roberts, the honest, womanizing cop whose story becomes intertwined with Lucas’. Roberts is on a task force created to take on the recent heroin epidemic, and one of the film’s ironies is that no one, cop or criminal, believes that an African-American could be controlling the drug supply. Eventually, even the Mafia Don (Armand Assante, doing his very best Marlon Brando impression) will be in Lucas’ pocket.The screenplay, by Steve Zallian, based upon the magazine article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson, does a mighty job of turning what could’ve been a unbelievably confusing gangster movie into a character-driven movie about the American dream. All Lucas really wants is love, safety, a house for his mother and maybe, just maybe, a little wealth. Of course, the film isn’t shy on showing that while Lucas helped make a very small percentage of the African-American community wealthy and better off, he did much more damage than good. Scott and cinematographer Harris Savides do a remarkable job of showing the haunting, gritty reality of drug addiction (probably inspired not only by the Steven Soderbergh film Traffic but also by the HBO show “The Wire.”)Denzel Washington gives his fiercest, strongest performance in a long while as Frank Lucas, creating a man who is smooth, clever and charming, but who can flip on a dime to a ruthless, cunning bastard. Watch his scene in the diner, for example, where he calmly excuses himself in the middle of a speech to take care of an “associate.” Russell Crowe is exceptional also, as the cop who struggles to stay honest in a bureau with too few honest cops.As in most Ridley Scott films, American Gangster is peppered with good supporting work. Who would’ve thought that Josh Brolin could be intimidating as a corrupt cop, but here he is, threatening not only Russell but also Denzel, and looking quite menacing doing it. John Ortiz is quite brilliant as Richie Roberts’ partner, and his performance is one of the highlights of the movie. I felt the same about Ruby Dee’s phenomenal work as Lucas’ mother, and she has a few scenes that are so emotionally stirring they stop the film dead in its tracks (I mean that in a good way). Though it’s a small role, I enjoyed Roger Bart’s scene as a rage-spewing US attorney who chews Russell out.The cast also includes RZA, Common, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Hawkes, Ted Levine and, get this, Cuba Gooding, Jr!! Man, I have not seen Cuba in a movie that I would recommend for many, many years. Good work, Cuba!That being said, there were a few things that didn’t make any sense. I still don’t understand who Joe Morton was supposed to playing (the guy with the funny eyebrows and hairpiece), Denzel’s accountant? The whole subplot with Richie’s ex-wife (Carla Gugino) could’ve been dropped and it wouldn’t have hurt the film. Minor quibbles, minor quibbles.American Gangster is brutal, brave and fascinating. It tells a compelling story about trying to find success and happiness in America, and it never looses the audience’s interest. And for a film with an almost 3 hour running time, that’s a neat trick. Also, it’s got an absolutely terrific title.

Gone Baby Gone (***)

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

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Strange that Ben Affleck, he of countless bad movies and tabloid headlines, has created such a focused and engrossing motion picture. Yes, Ben Affleck, the star of Gigli, Daredevil and Paycheck, 3 of the worst films of 2003, makes his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, a character-driven crime movie, based upon the novel by Dennis Lehane. Perhaps his terrific performance in Hollywoodland as troubled “Superman” actor George Reeves was not just a fluke, but instead a sign that Affleck’s going to try to make good movies again (though his work in 2006’s awful Smokin’ Aces might disprove that theory.)The film stars Casey Affleck (yes, Ben’s younger brother) and Michelle Monaghan as Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, a boyfriend and girlfriend detective team located in Boston. As the story opens, four-year old Amanda McCready has been kidnapped, and the media circus has already enveloped a local neighborhood. One morning, Patrick is awakened by the girl’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver), who ask if he and Angie will take the case (they specialize in missing persons cases). They take the case, though Angie has her reservations, and before too long are plunged neck-deep in a labyrinthine plot of double-crosses, drug deals, corruption, guilt and other classic elements that this genre requires.One of the film’s strongest assets is its cast, probably due to his clout, Affleck was able to gather a large group of talent. Who would have thought that Casey Affleck, of all people, would make a good lead in a detective film? Prior to this film, most audiences (including myself) best remember Affleck as the lovable doofus in supporting roles in such films as Ocean’s 12 and Good Will Hunting. Ben probably sensed that his kid brother could pull off a big role, and boy, was he right. One strength of Casey’s performance is his use of body language, just watch the early scene where arranges his living room like a detective office, and then awkwardly shifts the chairs, sits down, notices that no one else is sitting, then quickly stands up and moves the chair. One theme of Gone Baby Gone could in fact be how the characters, the men especially, use body language to communicate their authority, like a bunch of proud peacocks. Casey Affleck also creates a screen presence that I’ve never seen in this actor before, this is the first performance where I’ve really noticed him as an actor.I wish I could say the same for Michelle Monaghan as Angie, but she never gets out of the supportive girlfriend character, and doesn’t really contribute anything to the film. Morgan Freeman appears in a few scenes as Jack Doyle, the Boston police captain in charge of the missing children division. His performance is stellar if not amazing. Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver are well-cast as the girl’s aunt and uncle, while Amy Ryan (who you may remember from the great HBO show “The Wire”) is a revelation as Amanda’s drug-addicted mother. Ryan literally disappears into the role (it didn’t occur to me who she was until about three hours after I’d seen the movie).Ed Harris, that great character actor, is exceptional as Detective Remy Bressant, and I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t get some award-season recognition (the same goes with Amy Ryan). A big part of the success of Harris’ performance has to go to cinematographer John Toll, who bathes Harris’ face in a haunting mix of shadow and light, which helps add to the character’s questionable ethics. It was great to see John Ashton as his partner, Detective Nick Poole, I had no idea he was still around.Ben Affleck has also cast the film with many locals of the Boston area, which helps make the film feel incredibly authentic. Just as the Italian directors Pasolini and Fellini would fill their films with faces full of character, wrinkles, scabs, flaws and other non-traditional features, Affleck has followed suite with his extras (yes, I’m thinking of the patrons in the bar scene while I write this review, too). Affleck and his crew has captured the feel and look of Boston perfectly (not too surprisingly, since this is Affleck’s hometown).If I have one quibble with the film, it’s in the narration by Casey Affleck. Now, film narration can be a powerful tool (the most recent example of a great film narration would probably be John Hurt’s delicious narration for Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), it needs to add something to the film’s texture in order to work. In opening of this film, Patrick Kenzie talks about how rough and tough it is to grow up in Boston, but it just feels redundant because John Toll’s evocative cinematography does a much better job at describing this feeling than the narration does.The film also includes a death scene that seems horribly, terribly real.  This is not like most Hollywood death scenes, where someone gets shot and dies, but this looks like the way it would really happen.  Affleck has captured screen violence in this scene like the way Peckinpah did in The Wild Bunch.  Gone Baby Gone is a strong movie, maybe not up there with Lehane’s other book-turned-into-movie Mystic River, but worth checking out.