Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)


A loaded gun will get everybody’s attention.

(2018) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Casper Liang, Zheng Xu, Yibal Zhang. Directed by Zhangke Jia

Qiao (Zhao) is the girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao) and as such commands a position of high status in Datong, the provincial city in which she lives. When her boyfriend is attacked by a gang of vicious, bold youths she fires a gun into the air to stop the violence. She ends up being the one arrested for possession of an illegal firearm but despite the police interrogation, she doesn’t give up her boyfriend (it’s his gun). She’s sentenced to five years in prison. When she is released, Bin is nowhere to be found – in fact none of those who were part of the Jiang hu, the fraternal order of the underground who follow a rigid code of loyalty are to be found either. She hears that Bin has left the criminal life and has a new girlfriend; she sets out to find him, trying her best to survive in the meantime. Eventually she does find him and he is a different person as is she; therefore, they part and she heads back to Datong where it all started.

This latest film from virtuoso director Zhangke Jia takes Chinese gangster movies and turns them into a sprawling epic, but not in the sense of a Godfather film. This is more of an emotional epic that follows Qiao through her journey through triumph, betrayal, vindication and disappointment. As China goes through enormous changes in the 17 years in which this film takes place, so do the characters try to adjust – not always successfully. That’s kind of a hallmark of Jia’s films as is Zhao, his real-life wife who stars in many of his films. She is extraordinary here.

Some American viewers may not have the patience for a film like this; the pacing is very deliberate throughout and although there are some well-choreographed fight scenes and moments of vivid wonder, for the most part Jia is content to simply let things unfold at their own pace. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful movie that while not Jia’s best is certainly not a disappointment in the least.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an epic feel to the entire film. Zhao delivers a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow-moving particularly throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jia pays tribute to John Woo by utilizing the theme song from The Killers throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Sorry Angel

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

Now You See Me


 

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

(2013) Action Crime Thriller (Summit) Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Common, Melanie Laurent, Michael J. Kelly, David Warshofsky, Jose Garcia, Jessica Lindsey, Caitriona Balfe, Stephanie Honore, Stanley Wong, Laura Cayouette, Adam Shapiro, Justine Wachsberger, Conan O’Brien. Directed by Louis Leterrier

Magic is the art of misdirection and trickery. You fool the other person into thinking that you’re doing something impossible when all you’re really doing is managing the environment. Of course the bigger the trick, the more completely you must manage the environment.

The Four Horsemen are a magic act that is the toast of Vegas, playing sold out shows at the Vdara Hotel and Casino. Only a year prior however Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) was an arrogant street magician with ambition (although he’s kept the arrogance), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) was a mentalist who’d fallen from grace who has had to stoop to using his powers of observation for shaking down rubes, Henley Reeves (Fisher) was an underground magic act who had broken away from being Atlas’ assistant but found that the male-dominated magic world was no less easy on her own, and Jack Wilder (Franco) spent as much time picking pockets as he did doing sleight of hand. All four of them had received mysterious invitations via Tarot card – but sent by whom?

That didn’t matter much. Backed by insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Caine), they’ve hit the big time but for their new show, they have a hell of a finale; they send an audience member (Garcia) seemingly by teleportation to the vault of his Paris bank; once there he turns on a switch that sends a skid full of Euros through a vent shaft to rain down on the audience at the Vdara.

Except that the bank was actually robbed and this seemingly was no trick. This puts grouch FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) on their trail. He doesn’t really want any help but he gets some anyway – from comely Interpol agent Alma Dray (Laurent) and professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) who was once a magician himself but has found it more lucrative to debunk the illusions of his former colleagues on DVDs.

While the Horsemen are questioned, there really isn’t any way to pin anything on them. After all, they have a theater full of witnesses that they were in Las Vegas and only the insistence of the audience member that he was there at all – and the evidence of the audience member’s signed ticket stub in the empty vault. But it’s not possible that he could travel to Paris instantaneously, is it?

Dylan doesn’t think so. With the Horsemen advertising an even bigger trick in New Orleans, the FBI set to tailing them, but how do you keep your eyes on people trained to misdirect and trick you into think you’re seeing something that you’re actually not? And who is it that called the group together? And most importantly, what is the end game?

Leterrier established his career with the Jason Statham-led Transporter movies which were slick action-packed thrillers of an automotive nature (I thought at the time that they were even better than the Fast and Furious movies although the last two have since changed my mind). Here, he goes back to his roots following a couple of big effects-laden Hollywood movies (although this is still a Hollywood movie with effects), taking on a simpler storyline which is at the same time more complex.

There is a nice twist at the end which most won’t see coming but the movie is overall kind of uneven. The magic trick sequences are stunning and are some of the best moments in the movie. Ruffalo who is moving up the Hollywood ladder just about takes this movie over. My interest became more piqued every time he was onscreen. Not that the Horsemen are slouches (I did appreciate the banter between them) but I found myself drawn to him and his character. Freeman and Caine are two of my favorite actors but Caine is on so briefly that if you blink you’ll miss him (wasting an opportunity in my opinion) and Freeman kind of phones it in.

The actors perform some nifty tricks but their big elaborate ones are mainly established with CGI which is kind of disappointing; like the magic-themed The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, there are some pretty neat illusions but that movie performed them with practical effects rather than visual and the movie is better for it.

This is the kind of movie Da Queen adores, one with a puzzle set before an audience that isn’t easily solved. That it involves magicians is an extra added attraction for her (she loves magic), so she found this more to her liking than I did (she’d have probably given it a 7.5/10 which is higher than the rating I eventually gave it). I can see her point; the movie is clearly entertaining and accomplishes what it set out to do. I could have used with less car chases and less police procedural and a little more emphasis on the characters of the magicians themselves – they are so aloof for most of the movie that they become as well-rounded as mannequins. It would have been a much better trick to turn them into interesting characters instead.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo is marvelous. Magic tricks are nifty. Fairly clever twist.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on CGI.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few action sequences that might be a bit too intense for the very young, as well as a few bad words here and there and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Caine fell asleep in his dressing room and didn’t hear the director call a wrap for the day. He awoke in pitch black and remained until his cries for help were heard the next morning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100; pretty mediocre numbers.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Prestige

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: After Earth

Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths

Colin Farrell wants the Shih Tzu but Sam Rockwell just won’t share.

(2012) Black Comedy (CBS) Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek, Gabourey Sidibe, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Pitt, Linda Bright Clay, Long Nguyen, Amanda Warren. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

Being a writer is tough, and yes, even for the movies. It’s not easy to articulate something from concept to finished screenplay. Sometimes you don’t even begin there – you just have a title and taking it into fruition sometimes can lead to unexpected destinations.

Marty (Farrell) is a screenwriter who is stuck. He’s got a title for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths.” He’s got a loose concept – that it’s about seven psychopaths. He’s even got a psychopath to begin with. That just leaves him with six more to go. And a plot. Piece of cake, right?

Yeah right. It’s doubly hard when his girlfriend Kaya (Cornish) is extra-bitchy to him and his best friend Billy Bickle (Rockwell) is getting more loony tunes by the day. Billy and his good friend Hans (Walken) supplement their income by kidnapping dogs from their well-heeled owners and then returning them for the reward money. Hans mostly gives his money to his wife Myra (Clay) who’s in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

Things turn even weirder as the psychopaths begin making appearances in Marty’s life. From a serial killer of mob killers known in the press as the Jack of Diamonds to a rabbit-carrying nebbish named Zachariah (Waits) who was after rescuing Maggie (Warren) from a sadistic serial-killing judge went on a killing spree of serial killers before getting tired of the violence and leaving her. He regrets that now, and makes Marty promise to put a message to her during the credits, apologizing and begging her to call.

Billy and Hans kidnap Bonny, an adorable Shih Tzu who happens to be owned by psychotic mobster Charlie (Harrelson) who isn’t too pleased at the kidnapping. He loves that little dog more than anything on Earth and will rain a path of destruction from here to perdition to get her back. He sends his right hand Paulo (Ivanek) out looking for her.

More I will not tell you because you’ll miss some of the nuances of the film that you would lose if you had too much foreknowledge of what is coming. McDonagh, who is a veteran Irish playwright, crafts a movie that is quirky without being snarky about it. Too often in independent movies the quirkiness can come off as smug superiority that we’re so much hipper and smarter than everybody else. That’s the arrogance of youth talking.

Here, the quirkiness is true quirkiness – people who are off-center and okay with marching to their own drummer. These are characters that populate most of McDonagh’s work. Farrell, who was so good in McDonagh’s first film In Bruges is just as terrific here – the two are obviously simpatico as both of Farrell’s performances in McDonagh’s films are among his best.

Marty is a bit neurotic and definitely alcoholic although deeply in denial about the latter. It has led directly to his writer’s block and even though he’s a basically nice guy, he’s a bit of a jerk when he’s been drinking. Farrell gives Marty a bit of Irish blarney and charm, with a whole lot of L.A. jadedness. It’s one of those kinds of characters that is Farrell’s bread and butter and he nails it.

Walken though is the main reason to see this. If I were an Academy voter, I’d be nominating him for Best Supporting Actor. This is one of the best – if not the best – performances of his storied career. Hans has a troubled past and has found God but more importantly, serenity. He has changed profoundly and that shows in the patience he shows Marty and particularly Billy.

Rockwell’s Billy is the catalyst who has secrets of his own. Rockwell is one of the most reliable actors out there, almost always delivering an amazing performance be it comedy, drama or something else. Harrelson is also trustworthy; like Rockwell has amazing versatility but seems to do best in roles that have a black humor to them as his does, a mean black-hearted mobster who’s fallen in love with a tiny little dog.

But then again I can’t blame him there. I have a Shih Tzu of my own whom Bonny resembles uncannily and my feelings toward her are not unlike Charlie’s for Bonny, sometimes to the chagrin of my wife. Shih Tzu’s are a particularly loving an adorable breed and I’m very thankful for mine; if she got dog-napped I’d probably go a little crazy.

But then this is a film about crazy. What is crazy really when life itself is completely whacked out? That’s a good question without an easy answer. For my money, crazy is as crazy does and Seven Psychopaths is not crazy funny (it lags in places) but funny enough to be crazy.

REASONS TO GO: Bonny the Shih Tzu is adorable. Walken and Farrell deliver outstanding performances., backed nicely by Harrelson and Rockwell.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the film drags. Stretches believability occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of violence (some of it bloody and graphic), a whole lot of bad language, a bit of sex and nudity as well as a little bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before disagreements with the filmmakers led him to being replaced with Woody Harrelson. During the graveyard scenes the Jack of Diamonds hides behind a grave marked “Rourke.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are mixed but on the strong side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Bruges

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mickey Blue Eyes

Matchstick Men


Matchstick Men

Allison Lohman has always been a swinger.

(2003) Crime (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, Jenny O’Hara, Steve Eastin, Bruce Altman, Beth Grant, Sheila Kelley, Fran Kranz, Tim Kelleher, Nigel Gibbs, Bill Salto, Tim Maculan, Kim Cassidy. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

A good con movie is one of the finest cinematic experiences a filmgoer can have. Trying to keep up with the twists and turns, the backstabbing and the betrayals can leave one wondering from what direction the next twist is coming. Sometimes they’re easy to spot; it’s when you get blindsided that you leave the theater feeling invigorated. But does Matchstick Men bring The Sting to mind?

Roy Waller (Cage) is a veteran con artist (emphasis on the artist) who has a number of neuroses, chief among them agoraphobia. He has difficulty leaving the safe environs of his comfortable home, but rarely needs to – he has pulled off enough cons to be able to live comfortably the rest of his life. However, he has a partner (Rockwell) with whom he conspires to take a lowlife criminal named Frechette (McGill) for a big score that will allow Roy to retire and partner Frank to establish himself.

Into this mix comes the daughter Roy never knew he had; Angela (Lohman), who lives with Roy’s estranged wife, is a troubled teen who needs direction. She latches onto Roy, who can barely function. She finds out what his profession is and talks him into teaching her how to con. She turns out to be quite good at it. However, as Roy and Frank’s con begins to go south, the issue becomes not only protecting himself, but perhaps protecting the family he now can’t do without.

Director Ridley Scott went for a change of pace after his previous two movies (Gladiator and Hannibal) to make a quirky comedy. I’m not sure that was a great move; his comedies haven’t been his strongest films throughout his career although he has shown a few moments. Frankly, this one is a bit uneven as well, although after re-watching it recently I found it better than I remembered it to be.

Cage can be one of my favorite actors when he’s not overacting; this isn’t one of those occasions so he doesn’t disappoint here. Nobody does quirky quite like Nicolas Cage and Scott is a strong enough director to reign in Cage’s more over-the-top tendencies. Of late Cage has been something of a joke because of his really out-of-control scene chewing, but this is one of the movies that reminds you that he’s a very talented actor as well.

Rockwell has put his name on my list of actors whom I will go and see no matter what kind of turkey they are starring in – although to be honest he hasn’t done many of those. He’s evolved into an “A” list guy, although he hasn’t gotten that career-defining role yet that I think is in him. It’s only a matter of time though.

Lohman is absolutely sensational as Angela. She nearly takes this movie away from Cage, which can be a difficult task in and of itself. She hasn’t had the career I thought she would, although she was outstanding in Drag Me to Hell and unforgettable in Big Fish. Still, in all her films she’s always solid at the very least. This is one of her brighter moments.

The problem with con-game films is that they often have to take the same road; good-hearted con artist cons bad villain. The reality of the business is that these people prey on the vulnerable and generally have enough sense to stay away from guys who might go after them. Real con artists are generally despicable individuals.

Still, it is part of human nature to want to pull one over on someone who deserves it, and that’s what makes The Sting so dang satisfying and why it’s the gold standard when it comes to con movies. The twist here is not too obvious, but it’s not terribly original either and to be honest, that’s what most caper films are judged by at the end of the day. Still, it is sufficient to make the movie a winner in my book and hopefully one that will keep you entertained should you choose to seek this movie out.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Lohman, Cage and Rockwell. Fun caper flick throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Twist is merely adequate. Film is fairly uneven. Comedy not Ridley Scott’s forte.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the subject matter is on the adult side. There are some bad words, a bit of violence and a bit less sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Lohman played a 14-year-old girl (and went to the audition dressed to look as one), she was 22 at the time she made this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $65.6M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking the movie broke even or was marginally profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: ParaNorman

Kill the Irishman


 

Kill the Irishman

Don’t get Ray Stevenson angry – he can fart flames!

(2008) Biodrama (Anchor Bay) Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Fionnula Flanagan, Laura Ramsey, Steve Schirripa, Linda Cardellini, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

 

Here, at last, is a movie for which the Irish lament “Danny Boy” is quite literally appropriate for – and the filmmakers showing restraint unheard-of in Hollywood actually don’t use it. That’s at least worth some respect.

Danny Greene (Stevenson) was an enforcer for the Cleveland Irish mob. In his heyday in the 70s, he and his partner John Nardi (D’Onofrio) fought a war against the Italian mob that was epic in its viciousness. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded in the city as a direct result of the mob war.

He started off as a longshoreman rising up in the union. He eventually took over the leadership of the union (Merke) and would later be convicted of skimming funds from the membership. Once out of jail, he turned to crime as a full-time operation, working with Shondor Birns (Walken) but things go south. Greene requests a $75,000 loan to build a semi-legal drinking establishment; Birns entrusts the money to a runner who then proceeds to buy drugs with it, and is promptly caught by the police. Because Greene never received the cash, he refused to pay back the loan which had been paid for by the Gambino family, putting immense pressure on Birns.

Greene breaks away from the Italian mafia forming his own group mainly comprised of young guys of Irish descent, with Nardi as (kind of) their legitimizer. Greene is bombarded with several attempts on his life, including one where his home was hit by a bomb while he and his girlfriend were asleep. The house collapsed but Greene and his girlfriend survived, shielded by rubble.

Greene would attain legendary status in Cleveland. He often took care of those in need of cash in Cleveland’s Irish community and came out of every assassination attempt more or less unscathed. He became a darling in the Cleveland media and the bane of the Cleveland mafia’s existence. He also became an informant to the FBI.

This is based on a non-fiction book – loosely based I might add – that was written by a Cleveland police officer familiar with the case and with Greene (the fictionalized character based on the author is played by Val Kilmer in the film). That book was also turned into a documentary I haven’t seen yet, but the filmmakers here do a pretty credible job with it.

The cast is pretty spectacular for an indie, including Walken – curiously restrained as the racketeer who first came into conflict with Greene, and veterans Schirripa and Sorvino who have made careers out of playing Mafiosi doing stand-up jobs.

Stevenson, best known for his work on the HBO series “Rome” and for playing The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone (and doing both well) proves once again he is much more than an impressive physique. He catches both the larger than life aspect of Greene as well as his clever and sinister side. Greene was a complicated man as you can probably tell from the synopsis; he was equal parts folk hero, bullshit artist, criminal and killer. The movie tends to gloss over the killer part to focus on his folk hero standing; he is portrayed as a basically decent guy who just happened to kill people for a living.

This is an excellent cast top to bottom. Cardellini plays Greene’s wife and the mother of his kids in a role that could easily have been thankless but is given some sparkle by her performance, while Flanagan plays an old Irish woman who reminds Greene of his roots and isn’t afraid to stand up to the tough guy, to his amusement.

This takes a larger than life character and tries to compress him down into a two hour time frame which has its pros and cons. One of the cons is definitely that we really don’t see why Greene, who was so obviously bright and charismatic, went down the road of organized crime. It just kind of happens in the film and without any explanation. One scene depicting how he fell into it – or a montage if necessary – could have made for a bit more continuity.

Still, this is well worth watching. America has a fascination with criminals, from Jesse James to John Dillinger and Danny Greene could well end up having the same kind of cultural impact over time. He had a lot of blarney and a dark side as well, a combination that’s like catnip to our violence-obsessed culture. Although Greene considered himself as Irish first and foremost, he may well have been the perfect American anti-hero – living life on his own terms and by his own rules and the devil take the cost.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly stellar cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over some of the motivations as to why Greene got into crime.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, quite a bit of bad language and a helping heaping of nudity and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production shot at Tiger Stadium (Navin Field) in Detroit shortly before it was demolished.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an hour-long documentary on the real Danny Greene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget. The movie probably finished just a bit below breaking even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiseguys

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Savages

In Time


In Time

The future is a hell of a party.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Alex Pettyfer Johnny Galecki, Olivia Wilde, Nick Lashaway, Collins Pennie, Rachel Roberts, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Andrew Niccol

Time is money they say and in some ways it’s literally true. When we are employed, we are not only being paid for our skills but for our time. A good percentage of us receive our wages paid by the hour and our work lives are measured in how many hours we work so when you buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store, the money you pay for it is symbolic of the time you worked. That gallon of milk represents twenty minutes of work you put in to make the money you paid for it.

In the future, there is no pretense about it anymore. Cash is a thing of the past and the only thing that matters is time. An hourly wage is literally that. We’ve been genetically engineered to stop aging at age 25; after that, we’re given a year of additional life and in order to extend it beyond our 26th birthday we need to work to add hours and days to our lifespan. We can even see how much time we have left by a digital countdown clock in neon green that is imprinted on our forearms. When it reaches zero, our time on this earth is done.

Like most people in the ghetto that is called Dayton (not Ohio – it looks a lot like Los Angeles), Will Salas (Timberlake) lives day to day, waking up each morning with less than 24 hours to live. He lives with his mother (Wilde) who’s in the same boat but for whatever reason she seems unable to hold onto time – time management is a necessity in this future. She is working a double shift and won’t be back for more than a day; Will goes out to a bar with his best friend and drinking buddy Borel (Galecki) and encounters Henry Hamilton, a millionaire with more than a century on his arm who seems out to kill himself.

It turns out he’s lived more than a century and has become disillusioned and bored; he wants to die. He has attracted the unfortunate attention of Fortis (Pettyfer), a gangster who leads a gang called the Minutemen who essentially rob people of their time. Fortis wants Hamilton’s but Will intervenes and hides Hamilton in a warehouse. Hamilton tells Will that there is plenty of time for everyone, but the rich are hoarding it so that they can live forever. The two men wax philosophic before falling asleep.

When Will wakes up, Hamilton is gone and Will has more than a century on his arm. He looks out the window to see Hamilton sitting on the edge of a bridge. Will tries to run out and save him but Hamilton’s clock zeroes out and he falls to his death. Security cameras catch Will on the scene and the police force, known as the Timekeepers, are alerted. Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Murphy) is assigned the case and the general perception is that Will stole Hamilton’s time and murdered him.

In the meantime, Will’s mom is getting ready to return home on the bus only to find out that they raised the fare and she doesn’t have enough to return home. She has about an hour left of life to her and a two hour walk so she runs. She tries to get people to help her, give her an extra 15 minutes of life (people are able to transfer time from one another by holding their wrists together) but nobody will help. Will, realizing that she’s not on the bus, takes off at a dead run; she sees him as her time is counting down and they run towards each other but it’s all for naught; she dies in his arms.

Determined to face down the injustice that is ruling the lives of the poor, the now-wealthy Will travels to the wealthy part of town (this costs quite a bit of money to cross from one “time zone” to another) which is called New Greenwich. This is where the wealthy live in spectacular luxury. There are also casinos where you can literally bet your life. Will plays poker with one of the richest men on Earth, Philippe Weis (Kartheiser) and wins a millennium. This catches the eye of Philippe’s daughter Sylvia (Seyfried) who invites Will to a party that evening.

At the party, Raymond catches up with Will and arrests him, taking all but 24 hours from his wrist. However, Will escapes by using Sylvia as a hostage. He manages to make it back into Dayton where he and Sylvia are both robbed of most of their time by Fortis; it would have been all but the Minutemen are scared off by the approaching Timekeepers. Will and Sylvia escape into the anonymity of the slums.

There Will demands a thousand year ransom from Philippe for the return of his daughter. However, Philippe refuses to pay it. Sylvia, incensed, tells Will where to find lots of time. They begin robbing banks, where people can get loans of time. The two take the time but distribute it to the poor. They go on a crime spree which threatens the balance of things; the rich retaliate by raising prices exorbitantly. Will’s Robin Hood crusade looks to be derailed but there might be one way yet to thwart the rich.

That this is an allegory of modern economics seems to be a slam dunk; substitute “dollars” for “time” and you have what is essentially a commentary on the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. There really isn’t anything subtle here although I wonder if there is a connection between the Minutemen – taking from the poor, and the Tea Party who have been accused of doing the same thing. There is a bit of a Revolutionary War theme going here don’t you think?

Timberlake has shown a good deal of potential in going from boy band idol to serious actor. He gets one step closer with this role. It is mainly upon him to carry the movie and he proves to have strong shoulders .Will has got essentially a good heart that he keeps hidden because he’s smart enough to know that it can get you killed in an environment such as this one. Timberlake plays him very minimally, allowing audiences to read between the lines of his performance. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but for my money this is his best performance to date. He’s not quite ready for the kind of stardom of, say, a Brad Pitt or a Matt Damon but he’s getting there.

Seyfried spends the film in a Louise Brooks-like wig that contributes to the overall retro look of the film. In a sense it makes her timeless. Seyfried has at times been impressive in her short career but I would have liked to see a little more fire from her here; something tells me that she was directed to be more subtle with her emotions.

Speaking of the look of the film, it’s an odd mix between high tech (the arm digital display) and retro (the vehicles are mostly chassis from the 60s and 70s souped up a little). Although the movie is set in the near future, there are characters in it who are a century old. One wonders if there was some reverse genetic engineering done for people who were alive when the breakthrough was made. Certainly the wealthy would have been the ones to receive such treatment.

There are some good action sequences here and a nice car chase, but this is more a movie about ideas than action. As such, it isn’t going to get a lot of love from the fanboys who like their sci-fi with phasers set to kill. I get the sense that the design of the future world wasn’t terribly well thought out and budget limitations probably kept them from making the world look too futuristic but this is a well written movie that makes it’s point rather firmly. I suspect Herman Cain might not like this movie much which might be all the reason you need to go and see it.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise with lots of modern day allegories about class distinctions. Timberlake’s best performance to date.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks imagination when designing the future.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some sexuality (with a little bit of partial nudity thrown in for good measure) and a teensy bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Olivia Wilde plays Justin Timberlake’s mother in the film, she’s actually younger than he is in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the chase scenes are going to look a lot better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Dinner for Schmucks

RocknRolla


RocknRolla

The Defiant Ones, these ain't.

(2008) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong, Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Toby Kebbell, Jeremy Piven, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Karel Roden, Gemma Arterton. Directed by Guy Ritchie

Few directors do crime movies as well as Guy Ritchie. Movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are highly entertaining, highly stylized British gangster pictures. He’d taken a brief break from the genre with the somewhat cerebral Revolver but fans of his first two movies rejoiced at his return to the genre in this movie. Was there reason to cheer?

One Two (Butler) is a mid-level criminal who leads a loose bunch of associates dubbed “The Wild Bunch,” with Mumbles (Elba) his right hand man and Handsome Bob (Hardy). He is in a real estate deal with Lenny (Wilkinson), the kingpin of London crime, an old school boss whose grip on the throne is slowly slipping away. Lenny screws over One Two, keeping both the land and the money that One Two gives him. To add insult to injury, he insists that One Two owes him two million pounds, which One Two doesn’t have – because Lenny stole his stash.

So One Two sets out to get two million pounds and figure out a way to get Lenny back while avoiding Archy (Strong), Lenny’s right hand muscle. That will involve a Russian mobster (Roden) who has lent Lenny his lucky painting, a sexy bookkeeper (Newton) in stilettos who’s smart and greedy, a dead junkie rock star (Kebbell) who is rather far from deceased, and a pair of American music promoters (Piven and Bridges).

I’ve tried to give you an idea about the plot; quite frankly, it’s so convoluted that trying to sum it up in any more detail will be not only futile but unnecessarily confusing. Therein lies one of the problems here; there are so many threads going on that at times your brain threatens to explode. While Ritchie is known for weaving multiple threads through his storyline, here it doesn’t work as well as it does in his other films. While I’m not against complex plots per se, I am against overly complicated plots. There’s a difference – and this one falls into the latter category.

That doesn’t mean all the threads don’t work though. There are some pretty good acting performances here, particularly from the always charming Butler, Elba and Strong, who does double duty as the narrator. Wilkinson is a terrific actor who makes Lenny thoroughly reprehensible. In fact, nearly every role is well-acted.

There are plenty of excellent action sequences as well. Ritchie has a flair for them and for that sudden violence that takes the audience by surprise (there are a few gotcha scenes here that I thoroughly enjoyed). He also has a flair for the language and the flow of the words – few movies sound as good as a Guy Ritchie movie in that regard, even if we Americans can’t understand everything that’s being said at all times. To my admittedly uneducated ear, it all sounds authentic.

There are also some positively funny moments here. Some of the laughs are of the kind you feel guilty about later for having laughed; those are the kind that takes you by surprise. Yeah, I know it’s wrong but I laughed anyway – is that so wrong?

No, it’s not. While this isn’t up to Ritchie’s previous output, it’s still solidly entertaining. If you haven’t seen his first two films, by all means start there. If you’re a Gerard Butler fan, by all means start here. Either way, Ritchie has carved a nice niche out for himself. While he has gone on to the Sherlock Holmes movies (with a new one coming out in December), these may be the kinds of movies that define his career as a filmmaker and if so, not a bad tombstone to leave behind.

WHY RENT THIS: Guy Ritchie doing what he does best. Funny and violent where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not up to his best stuff. Too many plot lines going on at once.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is rough and pervasive; there’s also a good deal of violence and drug use. There is a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to director Guy Ritchie, this is the first film in a trilogy starring the Wild Bunch. However, there are no plans at this time to film the sequel anytime soon.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette called “Guy’s Town” which looks at the locations in London where the movie was filmed and commentary from Ritchie about how the face of London has changed over the past ten years.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even at best but more likely lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: True Grit (2010)

The Tourist


The Tourist

Johnny Depp can't get over Angelina Jolie; Angelina Jolie can't get over venice; the bellman can't get over that he's actually in this scene.

(2010) Thriller (Columbia) Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Steven Berkoff, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, Christian De Sica, Alessio Boni, Daniele Pecci, Giovanni Guidelli, Raoul Bova, Bruno Wolkovich, Ralf Moeller. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A beautiful mysterious woman on a train. A math teacher from a Podunk junior college in Wisconsin. All the ingredients for a wonderfully crafted thriller in the vein of Charade or any one of a number of Hitchcock movies, and in the hands of an Oscar-winning director could be the makings of a marvelous two hours at the movies. 

A beautiful, sophisticated Parisian woman named Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) is being watched by the police, in particular a Scotland Yard police inspector by the name of John Acheson (Bettany) who seriously needs to consider a decaffeinated brand. She receives a note from Alexander Pearce, a brilliant larcenist on the run from not only Interpol and Scotland Yard but also from Reginald Shaw (Berkoff), a notorious British gangster who has a predilection of surrounding himself with Russian muscle. You see, Pearce stole more than two billion dollars from Shaw and that kind of thing tends not to sit well with gangsters. Elise is apparently the connection to Pearce that everyone is looking for.

The note tells her to get on the train to Venice and pick out someone with a similar height and build as Pearce and make the police believe that the man she is with is actually Pearce. It appears that the thief has used some of his ill-gotten loot to change his face and even his voice. Nobody knows what he looks like now, not even Elise.

She chooses a very unlikely sort; Frank Tupelo (Depp), the aforementioned Math teacher from the junior college in Wisconsin (making Jolie the mystery woman on the train). The two of them wind up flirting. He is surprised; things like this never happen to him. Still, they share a fine meal and then as the train pulls into the station, they go their separate ways. Frank is certain he’s seen the last of her.

But he hasn’t. As he fumbles with a map in St. Mark’s Square, she pulls up in a boat and offers him a lift. She takes him to a five star hotel, and checks him in as her husband. It is clear they are mutually attracted, but she loves someone else – and his heart has recently been broken. He sleeps on the couch, she sleeps in the bed.

In the meantime, both Interpol and the gangster are closing in on them. Frank has no idea what he’s in for but as thugs with guns come after him and the police sell him to the mobster, he only knows that the deadly game he’s playing he must win because the consequences of losing are fatal.

There are definitely elements to a variety of old-fashioned thrillers, not the least of which are Charade, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. Director von Donnersmarck previously directed the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Lives of Others knows his way around a thriller, and while this isn’t the most energetic ones in terms of suspense, it nonetheless keeps the audience on their toes.

Jolie is channeling Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly here simultaneously – not an easy feat I can tell you. Her Elise is cool, sophisticated and elegant – she even wears long formal gloves, not something most people wear these days. This is Jolie at her most attractive, and she uses her beauty as a deadly trap. She is the very embodiment of the femme fatale.

Depp can act the stammering, stumbling nincompoop when he chooses to; in fact, it’s part of his charm. I think the part might have been better served with a suave Cary Grant type – not that there are any around like that (maybe George Clooney comes close). Depp fulfills his role competently but there isn’t much chemistry between him and Jolie; a little more passion might have made the movie work better.

The supporting cast is solid, with Bettany as the obsessive cop, Dalton as his angry boss (what is it about superior police officers that they always have to have a bug up their asses?) and Berkoff as the baddie, a role he has more or less perfected.

This is a competent thriller that takes full advantage of its Venetian location, and the charm of Venice is where the charm of this movie lies. Von Donnersmarck has the makings of a great director, although The Tourist won’t go down as one of his signature films. It is, however, at least entertaining and if you’re into watching Angelina Jolie, she is at her best here. Actually, between her work in Changeling and this film, I might have to revise her position on my list of favorite actresses in a more upwards direction.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t get much better in the star power department than this. Magnificent Venetian vistas and the kind of upper crust lifestyles of the rich and shameless we all adore.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot twist at the end isn’t nearly as jaw-dropping as it should have been.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence a’plenty and a good bit of strong language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jolie stated in an interview that the only reason she agreed to do the movie was because it would be a “quick shoot” in Venice.

HOME OR THEATER: The movie is on a grand scale that demands a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: How Do You Know

Intermission


 

Intermission
Colin Farrell unmasked.

(2003) Crime Comedy (IFC/MGM) Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Colm Meaney, Shirley Henderson, Bryan F. O’Byrne, Deirdre O’Kane, Kelly Macdonald, Neili Conroy, David Wilmot, John Rogan, Kerry Condon, Owen Roe, Tom Farrelly, Michael McElhatton, Ger Ryan. Directed by John Crowley

Some movies are referred to as “slices of life,” and that can be a two-edged sword. For one, most of us go to the movies to escape life. Seeing a slice of someone else’s can serve to remind us of the things we went to the movies to escape from in the first place. Still, when done right, slice of life movies can give you a great deal of insight into the things that are happening in your own life, and a little wisdom never hurts in that regard.

The movie opens with a charming young man named Lehiff (Farrell) flirting with a young convenience store clerk (Condon) in Dublin. However, things take a shocking turn and Lehiff winds up being chased by the police. Meanwhile, on a nearby bus, a dissatisfied grocery clerk named John (Murphy) commiserates with a dissatisfied bus driver named Mick (O’Byrne) and John’s equally dissatisfied co-worker and friend named Oscar (Wilmot). John has just broken up with his gorgeous girlfriend Deirdre (Macdonald) and Oscar is having no luck with the ladies at all.

Deirdre responds by getting into an affair with Sam (McElhatton), a married banker. Sam’s wife Noeleen (O’Kane) is devastated. John, Oscar and Deirdre wind up at a pub where older folks hang out; Oscar and Deirdre wind up hooking up. In the meantime, Deirdre’s sister Sally (Henderson), who has a noticeable mustache, lashes out at nearly everyone who crosses her path despite the best efforts of their mum (Ryan). When Deirdre brings her new boyfriend home to meet the family, Sally can’t hide her contempt. At last, when Sam is about to leave, she stops him. “You stay right there, I’ll go – there’s a stench of adultery in here.”

Lehiff, who is mates with both John and Mick, manages to convince the two of them to aid him in a kidnapping and bank robbery involving Sam, which of course John is more than happy to participate in. However, police detective Jerry Lynch (Meaney), a man with a Celtic soul if ever there was one, is trolling the mean streets of Dublin to bring hoodlums to justice. So what if his car gets stolen during a drug bust? Lynch is as tough as nails, and he doesn’t like scumbags like Lehiff much. As all these stories are getting told, it is inevitable that these lives are going to collide.

This is a comedy that is so dark that you find yourself laughing and cringing simultaneously at times. Crowley has assembled a tremendous cast and they respond with solid performances that vie with one another for your attention. In fact, some of the performances are so good they create a little bit of a problem; you get so interested in the storyline of that particular character that you find yourself getting annoyed when another character’s storyline takes over. In fact, it is interesting to note that Ferrell, clearly the biggest star of the bunch, is not missed when he’s offscreen. Murphy gets the lion’s share of the screen time. While he’s done a couple of high-profile villain roles (in Batman Returns and Red Eye) he might be remembered best as the hero in 28 Days Later; those who liked him in that part will not be unsatisfied with his performance here. Meaney, best known here as Chief O’Brien from Star Trek, is gruff and rough around the edges, and while he’s a bit on the hypermale side, he’s still charming enough to make the character fascinating.

Frankly, the women are given fairly short shrift here (although Henderson is marvelous as the nasty-tempered Sally), but I found O’Kane’s performance as Noeleen to be a cut above most of the rest. As a middle-aged woman who has the rug cut out from under her when her husband takes up with a younger, prettier woman, she finds herself exploring her own sexuality and it is to our surprise (and no doubt, hers) that she turns out to be fairly aggressive in the bedroom.

There are several running jokes throughout. Although most will remember the constant conceit of John and cohorts putting brown steak sauce into their tea (sounds terribly revolting), I was particularly fond of the vile little boy in a red jacket, whose only function here is to periodically come onscreen and do terrible things to the main characters.

One of the things I liked the most about the movie was it’s setting. This is not the city center of Dublin, but rather its outskirts and you get a real feel for how people live there. Da Queen, who spent some time in Dublin in her youth (on a student exchange program), looked for landmarks she could recognize but at last realized that she was far more interested in the story and its characters and kind of gave up on the landmark search.

Lest we forget, let me tell you about the soundtrack. There are a number of Irish institutions who contribute songs, including U2 and Clannad, but also Farrell himself sings a credible version of the Bobby Fuller classic “I Fought the Law.” There are a number of other wonderful tracks, including songs by Magnetic Fields, Spandau Ballet, Ron Sexsmith, Turin Brakes and the Fun Lovin’ Criminals.

This is one of those movies you sometimes rent on a lark and are pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know much about Intermission before I rented it, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Now I feel compelled to turn others onto this very enjoyable movie. If you’re looking to take a chance on a movie you’re not familiar with, this is a movie worth seeking out.

WHY RENT THIS: Enjoyable performances from Meaney, O’Kane and Murphy and an awesome soundtrack. An interesting slice of life from the outskirts of Dublin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Farrell’s character is a little bit underdeveloped.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and a lot of crude language. Some mature teenagers might find this enjoyable, but I wouldn’t want kids younger than that watching this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film directing debut of Crowley.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.9M on a $5M production budget. The movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Hereafter