Method of Murder


In the desert where you can bury your bodies …or not.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Jacky Rom, Tommy McDonald, Junior Rubio, Arianna Black, Mason Pollack, Jamie Wilson, Sarah Cass, Cash Kasper, Norm Thom, Derek Stevens, John Fiato, Jenny Brown, Vivien Karp, Joseph Charfauros, Sandy Karp, Larry Hess Lyle Rivero, Marco Antonio, Keith Evans, Kristin Whittemore, Isabelle Mondelaers. Directed by Elliot Manarin

 

How do you kill a person and get away with it? In this era of forensic experts, security cameras and digital footprints, it’s harder than ever – and it was never easy. For most of us, it’s an academic question, something that leads us to watching TV crime shows or reading murder mysteries.

For British crime novelist Jacky Rom however, it’s a whole lot more than idle speculation – it’s a living. The author of best-selling novel From Makeup to Murder, she was hard at work on the follow-up From Vegas to Villainy and needed some ideas on how to do the deed, so to speak. Being the kind of plucky sort who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, she heads out to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to figure out how she was going to commit the perfect crime – in a literary sense.

In this hour-long documentary, Rom interviews tattoo artists, photographers, magicians, make-up specialists, lion tamers, archers, casino security experts and firearm specialists. For the most part everything is handled in a fun, lighthearted manner. Rom is endlessly cheerful and comes off like a Brit combining work and vacation, but there are some serious moments. She is visibly affected when she fires a handgun; the recoil establishes just how powerful a weapon it is and just how easy it is to kill someone with it. For a few moments, the crime author seems to be empathizing more with the victims than the investigators.

She seems to have an inventive mind as one of the methods she devises is pure genius if impractical. However, sadly, most of the methods she investigates are pretty run-of-the-mill – I suppose she wanted to keep her best ideas for her book and I could hardly blame her. As it turns out, having lions dispose of the remains of her victim turns out to be a bad idea. When she looks into burying a body in the desert, she discovers it is a whole lot harder than it sounds.

I don’t think this is going to give anyone with criminal intent any nefarious ideas but it is a bit of a lark, even if it moves slowly occasionally. Rom is an engaging personality and I wouldn’t mind spending an hour with her normally but after awhile this begins to feel like one of those British travel documentaries that has an offbeat, morbid bent.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating albeit morbid.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is fairly vanilla and unimaginative.
FAMILY VALUES: Although presented in a lighthearted manner, some of the subject here is adult in nature thematically speaking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a crime novelist, Rom also is a radio hostess in the UK.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Commit the Perfect Murder
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Farewell

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21


When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass

Yonkers Joe


Yonkers Joe

A new kind of Rat Pack.

(Magnolia) Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Michael Lerner, Linus Roache, Michael Rispoli, Roma Maffia, Frank John Hughes. Directed by Robert Celestino

Cheating at games of chance is almost as old as games of chance are themselves. If there’s a way to beat the system, someone will look for it and quite likely find it.

In a digital age of computer software and round-the-clock camera surveillance in casinos, Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) is a bit of a dinosaur. He hustles small-time card games and dice games, hiding cards in his clothes and switching out regular dice for loaded ones. His fast hands have made him a living over the years, but the truth is that he’s a small-time hustler who dreams of the big score but that score is so out of his reach that it might as well be at the top of Mt. Everest.

He and his pals Stanley (Lerner) and Teddy (Roache) hang out together, talking about what small level cons they can pull and reminiscing about the good old days. Joe’s girl Janice (Lahti) is also around, part of the life but moving away from it. She has come to realize that she’ll never be more than a small time cheat, and wants more out of her life, pressed-on nails and gaudy costume jewelry aside.

Into the mix comes Joe’s son Joe Jr. (Guiry), who has Down’s Syndrome and has been institutionalized most of his life. Now word comes that his unruly behavior and the fact he is approaching his 21st birthday means that he will have to leave the facility he’s in before he can be transferred to the adult facility that he’s scheduled to move into. His options are extremely limited, and the one that is least palatable to either him or his father but the only one that is realistically open to them is that Joe Jr. must move in with his dad, who views his progeny as some kind of divine retribution for all the petty acts of criminal behavior he’s engaged in over his lifetime.

When Joe figures out a way to fool the “eye in the sky” surveillance cameras at a Vegas casino to slip loaded dice into a game, he knows he has to try, but with his son’s difficult behavior causing friction between him and Janice, can he pull off the score he was meant to make?

I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did, but did not mainly because it’s a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand you have the con movie, which is a somewhat more realistic version of con movies like The Sting and works very nicely. Palminteri is brilliant in a role that is right in his comfort zone; a tough guy whose facade has some hard-to-ignore cracks in it. These are the kind of roles that make you appreciate how good an actor he is.

Unfortunately, you also have the whole subplot of the relationship between him and his son. I’m not trying to knock Guiry, who does as well as can be expected with a role that is basically underwritten, but the scenes involving his character bring the movie to a screeching halt. The two stories seem at odds with each other. While director Celestino has said (at the Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival where this premiered) that the movie is about the character taking responsibility and letting people into his life, the strange thing is that those are the elements that were the least successful.

The scenes where Joe and his gang are working their magic are the best in the movie, and the most fascinating. These “mechanics” as Joe refers to himself as, are a dying breed and being given a glimpse into their world is like seeing something that may soon be gone forever, and you feel a sense of gratitude that at least we got a chance to witness a dying art form.

Kudos have to go to Lahti, an actress who mostly works in television but is amazing no matter what medium she’s in. She plays Janice as worldweary, a woman who has been betrayed by her own dreams but still hopes for better things. A different actress might have highlighted the brassier elements of the character, but Lahti, while embracing that side of Janice, doesn’t dwell on it, making the character seem far more accessible.

Celestino did extensive research into mechanics and casino security, making the movie feel much more authentic. Unfortunately, the Joe Jr. sequences seem forced and manipulative, adding a kind of second rate Rain Man into the mix. I think it would have been a much better movie if they had jettisoned that aspect of the movie and instead focused in on the adult characters; that’s a movie I would have been shouting from the rooftops for all to go see. As it is, this is a flawed but ultimately watchable movie that those who like movies about cons and cheats are going to want to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Palminteri and Lahti are two of America’s most underrated actors, and they fill their roles with style. The con job material is fascinating.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The relationship between Joe and his son just reeks of forced melodrama; the movie would have been much better without it.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is, as you might expect, pretty colorful. There are also some sexual references as well as an attempted rape which might be unsettling to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palminteri actually learned the moves performed in the film and became adept at it; all of the dice and card moves shown in the film were performed by Palminteri and not a stunt double.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the technical advisor John “Fast Jack” Farrell, who dubs himself the “Last of the Mohicans,” and another where Celestino demonstrates the dice and card moves used in the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Salt