A Violent Prosecutor (Geomsawejeon)


They're talking about him again.

They’re talking about him again.

(2016) Crime (Showbox) Jeong-min Hwang, Dong-won Kang, Jin-mo Joo, Byeong-ok Kim, Eung-soo Kim, Hong-pa Kim, Won-hae Kim, Sung-min Lee, Ji-hwan Park, Sung-woong Park, So-yul Shin. Directed by Il-Hyeong Lee

NYAFF

We live in an era of corruption and graft. Of course, every era to date has had such qualities to it. When justice is twisted upon itself, all that is left is vengeance.

Byun Jae-wook (Hwang) is a prosecutor, and not just an adequate one. He has an extensive knowledge of the law that stems from his intense love of the law. He will do whatever it takes to put criminals behind bars where they belong, which sometimes leads him to some questionable interrogation tactics in which he literally beats confessions out of suspects.

At an environmentalist protest of a planned development at an important bird sanctuary in Korea, a group of outsider thugs come in and initiate a confrontation with the police. One of their number is arrested after assaulting a police officer and is taken to Byun for questioning. The suspect dies mysteriously while in custody and Byun is charged with murder. Byun claims that the suspect was an asthmatic and that his inhaler had malfunctioned; however, there are no records of the suspect having asthma. Byun’s boss, Kang Yeong-sik (E-s. Kim) who has political aspirations, advises Byun to plead self-defense. However, that strategy fails miserably despite Kang’s reassurances and Byun realizes, belatedly, that he’s been framed.

In prison, he is at first a target for regular beatings – he had personally put away many of the prison’s residents. However, his knowledge of law helps a couple of guards and they make sure that Byun is untouchable and he becomes a gang unto himself. When con-man Han Chi-won (Kang) is imprisoned, Byun sees an opportunity. He befriends the narcisstic young man and prevails upon him to do Byun a favor if Byun can get him released early. Thus begins a deadly game in which Byun and Kang are the players and Han is caught in between. Byun will stop at nothing to prove his innocence, but can he truly trust the amoral Han?

One of the things that is most delightful about this movie is the various influences on it. It’s a prison movie that has a lot of similarities to The Shawshank Redemption as well as a number of 90s-era action B-movies starring the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren. There are also elements of such classics as The Sting as well as the retro-hip score and look of the Oceans trilogy.

Lee deftly weaves together all these disparate elements and we end up with a taut crime thriller with heavy comedic overtones. The movie is fast and fun for the most part, and Han – a leading teen idol in Korea who gets the teen girl crowd over there sighing expressively – provides some occasionally over-the-top but surprisingly solid comic relief.

More to the point is Hwang, a craggy actor who is one of Korea’s very best. In many ways the equivalent to Robert De Niro, he has done a lot of gangster films in the past including New World (2013) which is justly considered by some to be the Godfather of Korea. Byun is a complex character, one who has had issues with violence in his past but has come to regret some of his actions, now that he has effectively seen how the other half lives. Hwang commands the screen like a boss whenever he’s on and quite frankly from this point over I’ll go out of my way to see anything he’s in.

The movie runs a bit over two hours and for the most part, you don’t notice that it’s a bit long for this kind of film. Those who have trouble staying in one place for two hours might have some issues with it, but film buffs are going to feel like scarcely any time has passed. This might well be the find of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It doesn’t have American distribution yet, but hopefully it’s huge success in Korea will lead to at least some sort of distribution deal here. I hope so; it deserves to be seen by a lot of people.

REASONS TO GO: Hwang and Kang make an effective team. The film combines a number of different genres to make a satisfying stew.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made $22 million on its opening weekend and is currently 16th on the all-time Korean box office chart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Six

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The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts

Focus


Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

(2015) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst, Stephanie Honore, David Stanford, Dominic Fumusa, Steve Kim, Don Yesso, Juan Minujin, Jano Seitun, Melania Lenoir, Pietro Gian, Justina Bustos, Paola Brasca, Kate Adair . Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Con artist movies are not the easiest things in the world to undertake. For one thing, we’ve all seen at least a few, from The Sting on down. It’s hard to fool veteran moviegoers and keeping the audience misdirected is the key to a successful con movie, or else the audience leaves the theater feeling as if it was they who had been conned.

Nicky (Smith) is a con artist and one of the best. He finds big sporting events – the Super Bowl, Championship Boxing matches, All-Star games – and basically invades those towns with a crew of pickpockets and thieves, using plants to distract and confuse while his light-fingered operatives steal wallets, jewelry, electronics – whatever items of value they can get their hands on. There are also the grifters who pose as aggrieved husbands and cheating wives in one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nicky and his crew can make a fortune.

Nicky has taken under his wing the lovely Jess (Robbie), an aspiring con artist who has natural talent at it but lacks the experience and some of the skills. Nicky teaches her that all of this is a matter of focus, keeping track of the lie and sticking with it. Die with the lie, he tells her when they meet when she tries unsuccessfully to swindle him. You can’t con a con man, after all.

However, when Nicky grows too fond of her, he abruptly pulls away. You can’t get too close to people in this game after all. You always have to keep your focus.

Three years later, Nicky is in the midst of working a con involving an experimental Grand Prix auto engine from a smarmy Brazilian billionaire (Santoro) with a curmudgeonly but deadly bodyguard (McRaney) when who walks into the picture? Jess, of course. Is she playing an angle or has she, as she claims, left the life and become the girlfriend of the billionaire? And what is Nicky’s angle? Who’s conning who?

Directors Ficarra and Requa also co-wrote the movie and while they have given us a slickly filmed opus with some nice visuals, there’s a good deal here that is lacking, particularly in the writing. Smith is in dire need of a hit and this isn’t likely to be it; despite the fact that he still has the charm and manner that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, audiences aren’t responding to it as much as they once did and this is the kind of script that really Smith should have passed on. He’s too good for this material.

Robbie is a star in the making. After garnering attention for her role as the trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street she shows that she has natural screen presence that holds up nicely to one of the most charismatic stars in the world which bodes well for her career. She and Smith in fact have a good chemistry, the sort that money can’t buy and their complex onscreen relationship works because of it. As I intimated, you’re never quite sure who’s conning who.

The supporting performances are strong here too, particularly from Wong who plays an Asian businessman with a penchant for gambling who gets into a battle of wills with Nicky, Martinez as the socially awkward best friend and obligatory computer genius, Brown as the captain of Nicky’s crew and McRaney at his gruff best. The acting isn’t the problem here.

The sequences of pickpockets working the Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans are artfully choreographed and fun to watch. The cinematography is nicely done as well, delivering a world that exists in the underbelly of night and on the fringes of the good life. It’s a believable looking film.

Where it goes off the rails is in the writing. For one thing, most veteran moviegoers should be able to predict what’s going to happen next without missing the mark which is a cardinal no-no in a movie like this. There are few really genuine left turns here and the movie suffers for it. There are also plenty of plot holes; the con of the Asian businessman is supposed to rely on subliminal persuasion but the explanation of them is unconvincing at best. The character development is sloppy and fairly stock for movies of this nature; one gets the sense that this is more of a compilation of con man films more than an original take on the subject, and characters often act out of character – Nicky at times for a hardened con man with a supposed heart of stone is awfully sentimental.

The movie works okay as strictly entertainment but it is eminently forgettable and won’t do much for the careers of Smith and Robbie, although they’re both pretty good here. It is typical of the kind of movies that are released in February; a cut above those that come out the month previous but in general flawed, sometimes deeply. This one is of the latter persuasion.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry between Robbie and Smith who make engaging leads. Some nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Wong, Martinez, McRaney and Brown. Nice choreography on pickpocket scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing really surprising here. Plenty of plot holes and “huh?” moments. Characters don’t really behave like how you would expect those sorts of people to behave.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, brief violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robbie and Smith will be co-starring again in next year’s Suicide Squad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grifters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: What We Do in the Shadows

Big Eyes


Amy Adams doesn't want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

Amy Adams doesn’t want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Elizabeth Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar, Jaden Alexander, Andrew Airlie, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Stephanie Bennett, Andrea Bucko. Directed by Tim Burton

Art is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The big-eyed waifs painted by Keane were, in the 1950s and 1960s, highly sought-after. Prints and posters hung in many homes and the originals were highly sought-after by collectors. Walter Keane was one of the first to commercialize art in many ways, leading the way for guys like Andy Warhol and Robert Wyland. There are those who would sniff that Keane’s vision was more kitsch than art and doesn’t hold up over the years. But Keane held a secret much deeper than that.

Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) has fled an abusive marriage, taking her daughter Jane (Raye) to San Francisco where her friend DeeAnn (Ritter) is overjoyed to see her out on her own. Margaret loves to paint but she’s forced to take a mundane job to support her daughter, but still continues to paint and sells her art in the park on weekends. There she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming and outgoing man who claims he once studied to paint in Paris. He’s a born salesman and at the moment he’s selling himself. Margaret, who knows that a divorcee with a daughter isn’t going to be attracting a lot of romantic attention, marries Walter despite DeeAnn’s misgivings.

Soon Margaret starts painting a series of sad children with oversized eyes. Walter is painting his landscapes and both are not really selling much of anything. Walter manages to wrangle Enrico Banducci (Polito), the owner of one of the city’s iconic jazz clubs, to hang some of the artwork in the club where Walter can ostensibly sell it, but the place the art gets hung – a corridor leading to the bathrooms – isn’t exactly the place where people look for artwork. However after a staged row gets more customers into the club to see the fireworks between Banducci and Walter some attention gets paid to the art.

But not Walter’s art – Margaret’s. Soon her artwork begins selling like hotcakes and in a moment of perhaps panic but more likely pride, Walter claims that he is the artist that painted the waifs. Soon, there is huge demand for these paintings and Walter opens up a gallery. When people start stealing posters and postcards, he begins charging for them. Before long, the waifs are an international phenomenon.

For Margaret, success is bittersweet. The money is nice and the recognition is terrific, but nobody is recognizing her. It’s Walter reaping the success, Walter getting the recognition. Even a now-grown Jane (Arthur) recognizes that her mother is being screwed. Walter’s increasingly bizarre behavior, brought on by drinking, becomes too much. Margaret leaves and takes Jane with her to Hawaii, but Walter needs her paintings to fuel his income. The arrangement seems to work but it becomes clear that keeping the secret is a terrible burden for Margaret. When the truth comes out, where will the chips end up?

Burton has always been the kind of director whose films you can tell instantly are his, even if you don’t know what you’re seeing. He outdoes himself here – not so much with the semi-Gothic look of some of his movies, not even in his fascination with kitsch which is certainly present here, but in his use of color. Every shot is like a painting, with the colors melding together in not only the set design and the costumes but even down to the lighting. Burton’s eye is exquisite.

The story is based on Margaret’s memoirs and thus Walter is given short shrift in many ways. The point of view is strictly Margaret’s and while some of Walter’s family have complained that the film portrayed him as a talentless hack and even that he taught Margaret how to draw the waifs (which he was unable to reproduce in court during the libel trial that is depicted at the end of this film), all I can say is that you don’t go to the movies to seek the truth, merely an aspect of it, a perspective on it. And who’s to say what the truth is? There’s Margaret’s story, Walter’s story and somewhere in between is the reality of what actually happened.

Adams is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a solid though unspectacular performance as Margaret. Margaret is the mousy submissive 50s housewife through much of the movie and that can impede a performance if one is constantly looking down at the floor miserably, but Adams does eventually give Margaret some spunk which shows through in different often unsettling ways. Waltz, who I almost always enjoy, is a bit miscast here; while he has the charisma and charm to pull that aspect of Walter off, sometimes he’s so overpowering that the movie tilts a bit in the wrong direction. Less would have been more in this case. Also, both have trouble maintaining their accents as Waltz’ Austrian accent sometimes slips out and Adams’ Tennessee accent sometimes slips away. A bit more consistency would have been nice.

Like Ed Wood (whose writers co-wrote this film), Burton shows an unusual sympathy for those outside the system, those relegated to freak show status. The Keanes operated outside the normal boundaries of the art world back then, as represented by a snooty art critic (Stamp) and a snobby gallery owner (Schwartzman) and more or less clawed their way to the top. There is no doubt that Walter was an excellent promoter and while his actions may have been reprehensible, once in awhile you get a glimpse of the insecurities within that may well have fueled his behavior and Big Eyes succeeds very well there. This isn’t Burton’s best work, but it is his best in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously shot. Champions the outsider once again. Captures the kitsch of the era nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally an accent drops. Waltz is unusually out-of-step.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of harsh language and the themes can be pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Margaret Keane can be seen reading a book on a park bench in the scene when Walter and Margaret are painting in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Color Me Kubrick


John Malkovich doesn't think much of the reviews.

John Malkovich doesn’t think much of the reviews.

(2005) Dramedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Honor Blackman, Richard E. Grant, Bryan Dick, Burn Gorman, Leslie Phillips, John Leyton, James Dreyfus, Marisa Berenson, William Hootkins, Ayesha Dharker, James Faulkner, Jim Davidson, Henry Goodman, Rebecca Front. Directed by Brian W. Cook

 

Once upon a time there was a con man named Alan Conway (ironically enough) who made his way through London by convincing people he was the legendary director Stanley Kubrick. Although looking nothing at all like him, he managed to pass himself off to a number of people with a combination of charm and brazenness until he was discovered.

Conway (Malkovich) uses his assumed identity for everything from drinks to sexual encounters with young men. He makes vague promises about roles in movies in both cast and crew; he gets in tight with a renowned stage artist named Lee Pratt (Davidson) on the promise of developing a show in Vegas for him. At last the New York Times theater critic Frank Rich (Hootkins) helps expose Conway’s ruse.

While the events are real enough, Cook and writer Anthony Frewin took enough liberties with the story to make the film, as they describe it, true-ish. The real Kubrick became aware of Conway but was helpless to do anything about it as his victims refused to press charges out of sheer embarrassment.

This is Malkovich’s film and he turns in a performance that is equal to any of his best-known works. He is obviously having a good time with the character who in turn was having a good time with his deception. One gets the sense that Conway was amazed at how taken in people were by his shenanigans and got a big kick out of it. Malkovich is also getting a big kick out of it and that not only contributes to the enjoyment of the movie but is almost entirely the raison d’être for the film.

Unfortunately, there’s a little too much of Conway doing his thing and it’s often the same thing. There were a lot of scenes that seemed unnecessarily repetitious and I found my attention wandering at a few points in the movie, never a good sign. Fortunately, they had Malkovich to regain it and over and over again he did just that.

Personally I would have liked to have seen more of the aftermath of his doings; basically they’re treated as harmless and amusing by the filmmakers and I suspect they were anything but. We also get no sense of what Kubrick thought of all this, whether he was amused, annoyed or angry – all we know is that he wanted it to stop.

This is certainly worth checking out if for no other reason than to watch Malkovich at his very best. The movie overall is good fun, mostly harmless but certainly there’s a devilish edge to it that makes you feel wicked for enjoying it quite so much. It’s not quite a guilty pleasure because it’s actually a pretty good film – but you feel guilty for taking pleasure in watching it just the same.

WHY RENT THIS: A deliciously arch and twisted performance by Malkovich.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lost my interest in places, a big no-no.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both the director and writer of the film worked with the real Stanley Kubrick on several of his films near the end of his career.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Nothing really but footage of the real Alan Conway turns up on the making-of featurette which gives you a little more reason to watch it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $497,009 on an unreported production budget; it’s unlikely the movie turned much of a profit if any at all.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch Me If You Can

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Johnny English Reborn