Film Reviews by Genre: CRIME-INAL
Nicolas Winding Refn
Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman
The genius he brings to Bernie Rose, the character he plays in Drive, is the embodies the characters he plays in all his earlier films but with a world-weariness that has turned him lethal. There’s the same “wouldn’t you know it” sigh and resignation but now the disappointment is not losing all his money in Las Vegas and ending up a school crossing guard; but seeing his gang fuck up the big one and sadly setting it right by killing everybody.
His scene with Shannon (Byran Cranston) is one of the coldest murders ever on screen. Bernie slashes the artery in his arm and says sympathetically, “that’s it, no pain,” as if he was Shannon’s nice guy father come to administer a little spanking to a child who knows he has it coming.
Brooks is not the star of Drive. That honor belongs to Ryan Gosling, who drives the movie extremely well. And the cool-y observed existential LA of nights and freeways is the amazing creation of Nicolas Winding Refn, the director. Every generation creates their LA existential movie. Refn: a Dane from New York and Copenhagen has defined it for the now we live in.
But the movie belongs to Albert Brooks as much as another movie with a great heavy many years ago belonged to another comedian. That film was about a pool shark at the end of his days much like Drive features a petty mobster at the end of his days. Brooks looks at the racer up on a grease rack and says his name could have been on the side. Jack Gleason looked at a pool cue in The Hustler and thought he could come back for one more win. Both movies show us what happens when laugher turns to anger and younger men snatch the dreams. See them both.
Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta
various real people
Ricardo Darin, Gaston Pauls, Leticia Bredice
How can one movie be a hit and the remake a dud? What goes wrong is always a mystery but it follows the old rule: you never know how it will turn out.
Nine Queens is an Argentinean classic. A clever grifter recruits an understudy to help him with the big one: he’s got his hands on forgeries of a priceless stamp collection (the nine queens are the faces on the stamps). He’s going to sell them to a visiting billionaire for big bucks. Most of the action takes place in the hotel where the billionaire is staying, and where the con man’s sister is, conveniently, the concierge. The deal gets rough when the billionaire throws in an added condition: he wants to sleep with the grifter’s sister. She hates her brother, and grinds him into the ground on the deal for her ass.
Great idea, very original. The writer/director was an assistant director most of his short career (he died at 47 of a heart attack while casting a commercial in Brazil). Nine Queens is his lasting memorial. You can’t find much wrong with it, and the casting of versatile Argentine actor Ricardo Darin (see clip: Son of the Bride on MovieWithMe), and fetching Leticia Bredice (be sure not to miss her playboy photos) is inspired.
So why did it bomb when remade in America as the film, Criminal? What are the clues? Remember the phrases “writer/director,” “versatile,” and “playboy.” The American director, Gregory Jacobs, is also an accomplished first assistant director.
Criminal is his one of Jacobs' (shared) writing credits, and his solo directing gig. I suspect he got this break because of pals on a lot of big Hollywood pictures he’d worked with as First A.D. Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney are the producers of Criminal. Their clout probably landed John C. Reilly and Maggie Gyllenhaal.THAT was the big mistake.
Movies are conceits. If you don’t believe what’s up on the screen is real you’ll take your popcorn and go home. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very talented, but upper class. I’ll NEVER believe she’s going to fuck a guy for her brother’s con game. Leticia Bredice will sell hers body to anybody for the right price, including Playboy.
There’s an old saying in movies, “you can’t play working class, you either are or are not.” Maggie is a gifted actress, but she’s no Stella Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire). She's better in the Blanche Dubois role.
John C. Reilly is no Ricardo Darin either. He’s also a wonderful character actor who specializes in sleazy bumblers. (see clip: The Good Girl on MovieWithMe.com). If he’s playing a bumbler and you know he will lose, so what’s the surprise?
Look at clips of the same scene from both movies. Leticia/Maggie are walking up to the billionaire’s hotel room door resolved to carry out their end of the bargain. See whom you believe.
Emery Eduardo Granados, Carlos Ceja, Alan Chavez
This is not a glamorous profession like bank robbing. All it takes to steal cars is a screwdriver and guts. The initiation of Ivan starts in a junk yard. His uncle Jaimie orders him to strip naked, then locks his shirt, pants, and underwear in different wrecked cars. He hands him a window shiv and tells him if he can jimmy the car doors open, he can get his clothes.
Every big city has a section for stolen cars. In LA it’s Bramfield Street in Pacoima. In New York it’s Willet’s Point in Flushing. In Mexico City it’s everywhere. Vast tracts of land set to one purpose: a thieves market for auto parts. Partes Usadas is about the low-lifes who steal by night to fill parts orders by day.
You don’t find moments like this in Grand Theft Auto. The fascination of Partes Usadas (Used Parts) is that it looks as low-life as the characters it portrays. No lovely lighting or polished dolly moves here. Even the quality of the film looks like it was outdated stock that was stolen.
At first I wanted to click “eject” because the movie has the smell of amateurism. But I got slowly hooked as I realized the lack of style was the style. Emery Eduardo Granados could be another Gael Garcia Bernal if he gets some breaks. Meanwhile Partes Usadas is a primer about what happens when your BMW disappears. Chances are if the police don’t find it in two hours there won’t be enough left to honk the horn.
Nicolas Winding Refn
Kim Bodina, Laura Drasbaek, Zlatko Buric
Frank (Kim Bodina) loses the dope, is broke, and the drug boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) wants his money. What else is new in the underworld? But Pusher is a breakthrough movie. When it was made, well before Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film,21 Grams, Brian De Palma's Scarsface was still the model for a pusher movie.
Pusher built the genre in a different direction. Dope dealer Frank is not misunderstood or charmingly lethal. He is just a nice average guy trying to dig himself out of a hole that keeps getting deeper while Vic, the girl who loves him (Laura Drasback), stands by hoping he’ll figure it out.
Refn creates a documentary style to follow the action in long takes and subjective pans to cover dialogue between characters. If it looks familiar now, it is because half a dozen TV police shows use it. His inspiration was not police stories, it was horror movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre he watched as a child.
The director’s genius is building off beat characters that start out unlikeable and slowly make us warm to them as the struggle but miss all chances at redemption. Pusher, Pusher 2, Pusher 3 and Drive follow this model.
Best to see all of these together. They offer lessons in cinema style as well as consistent character development. Drive is an American movie (MovieWithMe) but it follows the same rules of Refn’s view of characters: the arc goes through thwarted expectations to thwarted resolution.
This single-minded vision is probably what has protected Refn in the transition to Hollywood films. It is also what probably got him thrown out of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when he threw a table at the wall in an argument with a teacher.
Cary Joji Fukunaga
Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan
Kerry Fox, Anamaria Marinca, Stephen Dillane, Rolf Lassgard
What do Sudan, Israel and the United States all have in common? They are the only three countries in the world not members of the International Criminal Court. Next question: what is the International Criminal Court?
It is a UN sponsored investigative and judicial system headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands and charged with judging crimes against humanity such as genocide. It gets tricky for a country like the US and Israel that build Holocaust museums and where Jews urge “Never Forget.” They won’t join because they might be prosecuted for trifles like Guantanamo and Gaza. Sudan can be excused because no one there probably knows what a court is anyway.
The brilliance of Storm is in using the International Criminal Court as the setting for a first rate murder mystery. Hannah (Kerry Fox) is a prosecutor sent from ICC in The Hague to try a former Serbian commander accused of genocide. She manages to ferret out the real truth about the crime only to see European Union politics present a barrier to justice.
Though Storm is a German production, the language is English, and the narrative resembles some of the best of courtroom/mystery dramas. It’s intelligent and suspenseful. More over it is original in trying to examine how the ICC works, and how politics can derail the highest of motives.
Most Americans don’t know there is an ICC, or that is has the power to try politicians like Slobodan Milosevic. Or that the UN maintains a secure prison in The Hague where sentences are served. The UN attempt at international justice is far from American shores because we refuse to support it. The irony of the US refusing to support justice for all because it would mean justice for us too, is a further reason to see and consider the story told in Storm. Who amongst our politicians or generals might be in the defendant box?
TELL NO ONE
Francois Cluzet, Kristin Scott Thomas, Gilles Lellouche
The irony of Tell No One is a French film based on an American novel by a kid from Newark, New Jersey. Once upon a time American action filmmakers prided themselves and telling really great stories. No more. Shutter Island is a mess, and French cliffhangers like Tell No One are excelling at a genre we thought we owned.
It gets more embarrassing. Once this film became a hit in American art cinemas, Hollywood decided to remake it. Kathleen Kennedy, a big time feature producer, is transferring the action back to the US where it was set in the first place. Whether the remake will every see daylight is dubious.
Meanwhile the French, along with the Germans and the Koreans, are creating some of the best action and suspense films anywhere. Tell No One is a hard-plotted story of a guy who goes skinny-dipping with his wife, is hit over the head, and wakes up to find her dead. Or at least she is dead for several years until he starts getting disturbing notes from her. Then her best friend, who knows more, is killed. And then he is stalked by both the killers and the cops.
You want to see heart stopping ingenious action? Watch the chase across the Paris Paripherique expressway. Watch it again and again. American stunt men usually slow the traffic and speed up the camera. This is different: an intricate ballet between men and machines.
And when you’re finished analyzing that action sequence, take a look at District 13, also on MovieWihMe.com. It’s another amazing action picture that is supposedly in work for an American remake (called Brick Mansion). Don’t make any bets you’ll see it at a theater near you soon. Better to watch the original versions and marvel at truly great filmmaking.
THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX
Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek
Well-educated twenty-something Americans suddenly become Al Qaeda and Pakistani terrorists. Go back to 1967, substitute German names, and you have Baader-Meinhof. The pressure to preserve wealth and power always creates outliers.
Ulrike Meinhof was a journalist. She was married with two children. Her generation grew up in the shadow of Hitler and could not understand how Germany would consort with dictators and support the United States in Vietnam. If the Nazi era was supposed to never be forgotten, what was the lesson?
Benno Ohnesorg was killed in 1967 in a Berlin riot protesting the brutality of the Shah of Iran. We know today that the policeman who killed him was actually an agent for the Stasi, the East German secret police. But no one would know that for 40 years, and it still isn’t clear whether Karl-Heinz Kurras pulled the trigger because he was instructed to escalate the demonstration by his Stasi handlers.
But this act, the Kent State of Germany (the Kent State killings were in 1970) was proof that no justice would ever be achieved, and that only terrorism and violence would purify a western society corrupted by capitalism. Sound familiar? If we were not so afraid to actually hear what the current wave of terrorists have to say, maybe it would sound similar.
And let’s not forget that Islam has always been a religion of profound intellectualism. Isn’t it strange we believe all the young Islamic terrorists are being corrupted by deceitful mullahs? Isn’t it odd that some of the best and the brightest of a new generation are planting the bombs? The press remains incurious. To get press attention it helps to have a catchy name with “bad” coupled with a word that sounds like Mein Kampf (Hitler’s best-seller). The exploits of the Baader-Meinhof gang with its Bonnie and Clyde overtones were great for tabloid journalism.
The Baader Meinhof Complex is about how terrorism starts, why it starts, and how it grows in every generation that is summoned to action by the affront of corrupted power. How it ends is another story; that too is covered in this long, detailed, and very important film. Know the past and know the future,or you are doomed to know only what those who own the present think you should know.
Watch for Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof. She plays Martha in Mostly Martha, also on Movie With Me. Only here you get to see what’s underneath that chef’s uniform.
THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED
Romain Duris, Aure Atika
remake of Fingers (USA 1978, 90 min, dir: James Toback, cast: Harvey Keitel, Tissa Farrow, James Brown)
Rarely is an American movie remade as a French one. Usually it is the reverse. What's clear is our style is brute confrontation and theirs is subtle manipulation. These two films, both excellent, are a Rosetta stone of Anglo-French cultural understanding.
James Toback made Fingers in 1978 with a young Harvey Keitel. You have to forgive him carrying a boom box everywhere on his shoulder: not even Sony Walkmans had been invented yet. Jacques Audiard made Romain Duris a Belmondo-like thug who hides his musical ambition as a concert pianist by playing imaginary keyboards on cafe tables.
Audiard also adds characters and levels of plot absent from Fingers. It would be easy to say the French version has more depth and polish. But it is easier to improve than create from nothing. I think the American version is actually subtler for what it leaves out, and more electric for emotions that are not stated.
Witness the two love scenes. Harvey Keitel is crude and forceful. Romain Duris is expressive, romantic, yearning and wanting. One is a trashing animal ready to climb on his conquest. The other is opening himself up to feelings long simmering. But which has more heat, and what is more honest in human passion? I think Toback takes the prize and his film, though less sophisticated and less of a successful character study; finally has more raw power. See them both together and acknowledge them both as excellent. See them for Tissa Farrow and Aure Atika adding very sexual interpretations to the same part. Then go on see Toback's Tyson and Audiard's The Prophet to understand the extent of their cinema art.
THE MISSING GUN
THE STONING OF SORAYA M.
Mozhan Marno, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jim Caviezel
Jim Caviezel played Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. In The Stoning of Soraya M. he plays a reporter happening upon a story about a modern woman who must walk her own steps to her village's version of the crucifixion. This actor's personal passion expressed in his adopting of special needs children, and his support of politically incorrect causes; makes his participation in this singular, powerful movie all the more interesting.
A movie is what it is on screen: that is everything. Or is it? The writer/director of The Stoning of Soraya M. is known for taking on non PC subjects and making statements of personal conviction. Both Caviezel and director Cyrus Nowrasteh are drawn to a story that defies audience sensitivities to paint truth, harshness, courage and sadness. Soraya (Mozhan Marno) brings dignity to her own death.
Mozhan too, is no stranger to speaking out. She starred in a one women show 9 Parts of Desire about women in war-torn Iraq. The play, written by Heather Raffo (also the title of a book about the Middle East by Geraldine Brooks), comes from Ali ibn Abu Taleb, an early leader and scholar of Islam who said, "God created sexual desire in ten parts: then he gave nine parts to women and one to men."
Soraya M's husband accuses her of adultery so he can be free to marry a younger woman he has found in a nearby city. That the punishment for adultery is death by stoning doesn't disturb him. Nor does he flinch at throwing the first stone at the head of the mother of his children as she waits defenseless: buried to her waist in the village square.
It's easy to eject the DVD after seeing The Stoning of Soraya M. and condemn Iran as a primitive country driven by the intractable dogma of the Ayatollahs. But Iran is, in may ways, actually quite permissive: if you are a man.
Soraya M. is about that one part of desire granted to men and how the rage, feared impotence and lust for domination over those other nine parts propels men towards madness and grisly murder. Ali ibn Abu Taleb did not restrict his observation to Muslims. Violence towards women can happen anywhere, and it does.
Ben Kingsley,Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer
from around the world
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