Category: Crime Drama


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When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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Serpico1

I harped on this issue for one of the other websites I write for, but we live in the age of the anti-hero. It’s easy to understand why. Morally ambiguous leading men fit our fractured, cynical age. But, at the same time, the world still needs heroes, and we don’t have nearly enough well-written ones today. When heroes do arrive, they are products of trite, melodramatic sentimentality with no grounding in the real world even when they’re based off of real figures. But, when a true story comes of a regular man fighting a monumental fight simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the film is devoid of cliche or obvious manipulation, you must stand up and applaud. And Serpico is one of those films.

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is one of the rare films that has it all. It has a thrilling story about one cop’s stand against the entrenched corruption of the NYPD. It has an important message about how easy it is for corruption to become institutionalized and how difficult it is to cleanse corruption from major institutions once it gains a foothold. It has a magnetic and charming hero who has more dimensions than you’d expect. You have a firebrand performance from Al Pacino at the prime of his career. And, you have the marvelously understated direction of Sidney Lumet. There is no audience this film isn’t right for.

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Serpico is the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino), an honest man in a police department where practically every other cop is on the take. Frank has a college education, listens to opera, speaks Spanish, and takes ballet lessons to impress a girl. He has a long beard and dresses like a hippie and that alone would be enough to garner the ire of everyone else in the department. But, when Frank is placed in the NYPD plainclothesman division, he quickly learns that his fellow cops are as crooked and dirty as the criminals they put behind bars, and the Italian organized crime syndicates have most of his coworkers in their pockets.

And, Serpico’s life becomes a series of intimidations and harassments from his fellow officers. On his first day in the plainsclothes division, another office slips him an envelope full of money which Serpico gives to his commanding officer, and nobody looks into the bribery. Serpico refuses to take money beyond his salary, and every day he feels his life is in danger because his fellow cops think he’s going to get them arrested and that they can’t trust him. Serpico is bounced from unit to unit as no department in the NYPD knows what to do with him, and the corruption is a cancer eating away at one of the largest police departments in the world. And it isn’t until a few of his fellow officers decide to make a stand with him that Serpico is able to make any change, but his life is far from a happy ending.

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Young Al Pacino is as good an actor as any other man that ever lived. Although his 90s/2000s output is a caricature of his early roles, there has never been another actor with such a coiled physical presence. Pacino in this or (a rare excellent later role) Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather: Part II has the ability to switch from boiler-plate tension to a controlled explosion. And Serpico’s entire arc is built around feeling his world closing in around him and not being able to trust anyone, and nobody besides Pacino could play that man and make it feel so documentary real.

And, that element of documentary realism is critical to what makes Serpico work. If Serpico weren’t a true story, it would probably border on unbelievable (I want to read the non-fiction book it’s based on to see how closely it hews to the truth). But, Sidney Lumet shoots the film almost like a documentary with a dash of the stylistic touches of the political thrillers of the 1970s (think All the President’s Men). Though there are obvious elements of the film that are spiced up to create a movie, unlike virtually every crime thriller ever made, Serpico feels completely grounded in reality.

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Also, Serpico is clearly a hero, but he is also clearly a man. Serpico doesn’t do what he does because he dreams of glory or being the greatest cop; he just wants to do what he thinks is right. And no one else in the police department wants him to be a good man because it represents the antithesis of how they lives their lives. And that’s what makes a hero. Serpico is doing what’s right with no expectation of a reward, and Serpico refuses to romanticize Serpico’s actions. They just contextualize it as him not knowing any other way to live his life, and that allows the film to make a moral statement without turning Serpico into a Messianic figure (although his hippie beard gives him a visual allegory for Jesus).

I’m at work right now, and I’m training a new hire so I’m going to bring this review to an early close. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Serpico joins End of Watch and Training Day as being one of the greatest cop movies I’ve ever seen. It works as an entertaining tale of one man battling insurmountable odds, but it works on so many other levels, and like Lumet’s best works, it’s a technical marvel. For anyone that loves cop films and the vein of classic cinema that allowed excursions away from the main plot so that characters can breathe, Serpico is a can’t miss classic film with Al Pacino at the height of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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It takes an almost sociopathic disregard for good taste to begin a “prestige” film with a dwarf being thrown at a dartboard as hedonistic stock brokers gamble on the results. But coming from the man who had the deranged Travis Bickle take his classy love interest (Cybil Shephard) to a porno movie on their first date, it makes a certain deranged sense coming from the iconic Martin Scorsese who has built an entire career on crafting morality plays that may not seem as such on the surface. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most controversial films of the last two years, but anyone watching it with a clear eye for the director’s intention recognize it as perhaps the most scathing indictment of greed and excess since Glengarry Glen Ross.

We live in a world where reckless Wall Street gambling and a total disregard for the idea of risk vs. collateral wrecked not only the United States’ economy but the economy of the entire world. And a film where a self-described crook and liar gets a slap on the wrist for his crimes against the public does not, on the surface, seem like the right path to take when dissecting the mindset of the men who nearly dragged the U.S. into another Great Depression. But by turning Wall Street excess into a raucous satire, Scorsese is able to make points with more laser precision and immediate impact than a straight-faced serious drama could have hoped.

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Based on the autobiography of the titular Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s film is the true story of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching the devastation of the stock market during 1987’s Black Monday and losing his job as a broker for a prestigious Wall Street brokerage, Jordan starts his own brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, making money off of pink-sheet stocks: cheap penny stocks that give brokers a 50% commission on sales as opposed to the 1% commission on high-end blue chip stocks. The catch with the pink-sheet stocks is that they’re penny stocks for a reason and only fools would invest in them.

And it’s not long before Jordan and his friends, a hodgepodge of drug dealers and scam artists, turn Stratton Oakmont into a business where Jordan is bringing home $49 million a year. And while selling people stocks that aren’t actually worth a damn isn’t a crime, stock price manipulation is and alongside his founding partner Donny (Moneyball‘s Jonah Hill), Jordan gets involved in every illegal Wall Street crime imaginable, from insider trading to embezzlement to price fixing. And not even the relentless investigation of FBI Agent Denham (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kyle Chandler) is enough to make Jordan stop his ways.

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It doesn’t hurt that Jordan, Donny, and company are hedonists that would put the most depraved nobles of the Roman empire to shame. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street‘s three hour running time, Jordan and his men consume enough drugs to fund a small South American government, and they sleep with enough hookers to solve the debt crisis (if said hookers were taxable). Jordan has more money than any person could possibly spend in one lifetime, and The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t afraid to explore the completely outrageous waste of wealth that happens when it becomes increasingly concentrated in just a few individuals (and particularly when those individuals are too coked out to spend it with any responsibility).

And what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so controversial and so repugnant to the traditional vanguards of the moral police (both on the left and the right) is that it is an undeniably fun film and that The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line so many times in this film that it’s easy to lose track, including a particularly memorable moment where Jordan and the founding partners of Stratton Oakmont discuss the proper protocol for hiring dwarves to be thrown at dartboards. But, there would be no other way to tell this story. The film has fun with the drug scenes because, guess what, drugs are fun. That’s why people do them. There’s a certain comedic allure of sociopathic behavior and The Wolf of Wall Street knows it: like Jonah Hill pulling his dick out at a party and masturbating cause he took too many Quaaludes.

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And while the consequences for Jordan’s actions in the court of law amass to a 3 year stint at a Club Fed prison, The Wolf of Wall Street shows the consequences of the out of control lives these men live. Jordan loses his family. Donny nearly chokes to death while eating a sandwich after a particularly traumatic Quaalude experience. The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal’s Brad dies of a heart attack in his 30s cause that what happens when you abuse cocaine like Tony Montana. Jordan is reduced to betraying all of his friends in order to serve less jail time. The Wolf of Wall Street may not drape its ethical message in ham-fisted preaching, but it’s there if you take half a second to look for it.

And, like all of Scorsese’s films, The Wolf of Wall Street is a technical marvel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the opulent depravity that fills virtually every second of the film but is able to capture more intimate and darker moments in the starker images necessary to convey the emotions. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker edits one of the most raucous moments of Scorsese’s entire career for the film’s famous Quaalude crawl which is conveyed in fragmented, delirious terms. When either Scorsese or Schoonmaker passes away, it will be a tragic moment in film.

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In no uncertain terms, Jordan Belfort is the finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career and the apex of DiCaprio’s decade long collaboration with Martin Scorsese. For anyone who’s ever doubted DiCaprio’s place as the heir to Robert De Niro as Scorsese’s muse, The Wolf of Wall Street will change your mind or nothing will. It’s a fearless, balls-to-the-wall performance and DiCaprio leaves it all out there. I have not seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I can not begin to imagine how McConaughey is better in it than DiCaprio was in this. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has already become one of the defining performances of the aughts for me.

Had you told me back in 2005 that the kid trying to buy fish boots would have two Oscar nominations, I’d have laughed in your face, but somewhere along the line, Jonah Hill transformed himself into a respectable performer even if I’m not sure what was particularly Oscar worthy about his performances in this or Moneyball. He’s great. Don’t get me wrong. Donny is part of the long line of psychopathic supporting men in Scorsese films begun by Joe Pesci, but his performance pales so completely in comparison to the masterclass of frenetic and crazy performing that DiCaprio puts on.

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My only complaint about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is long. I didn’t particularly feel the length when I watched the film for the first time in theatres because the film is so vibrant and alive (a quality lacking from some of Scorsese’s latest works), but upon a second viewing at home when I rented the film from Netflix, I felt those three hours. But, if you can make it through the film’s considerable length and you can handle with the film’s over-the-top content in the way that it’s meant to be handled, then you’re in for what is Scorsese’s best film since Gangs of New York and possibly even Goodfellas. It’s destined to be a modern classic.

Final Score: A

 

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Plus or minus 5 movies (I think I might have forgotten to put a handful on my big list of all of my review scores), this will be my 448th review. That’s a lot of movies in the last three years. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned having reviewed nearly 450 films, it’s that there’s a depressing homogeneity to the vast majority of movies. The stories are nothing more than a variation on a theme, the details never vary too far, and years of watching movies have trained you to guess every twist and turn. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favorite films of 2012, but even it is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that just happens to change up all of the details to beautiful effect.

But, occasionally, movies come along that are truly their one. There are few coming-of-age films as beautiful and insightful as Life of Pi. There are few American comedies as riotous and “screw-the-rules” as Wet Hot American Summer. Charlie Kauffman’s entire ouevre is one-of-a-kind, but when Being John Malkovich came out, it was one of the most revolutionary films of the already revolutionary 90s. 1990’s King of New York is far from a great film, but it’s dedication to pure style and its glorious subversion of the 80s crime picture make it one of the most memorable and unique crime films of the 90s.

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After serving years in prison, powerful New York City drug lord Frank White (The Dead Zone‘s Christopher Walken) is released into his beloved city and his only goal is to make up for lost time. With a primarily African-American gang, Frank White isn’t your tpical 80s/90s crime boss. He’s a committed community activist that is willing to spend $16 million of his own cash to build a children’s hospital, and (mostly) he only resorts to violence when people aren’t willing to play ball with him in a civilized and cooperative manner. But, if you’ve pissed off Frank White, prepare to die in a hail of bullets that would make John Woo jealous.

Frank doesn’t have much trouble consolidating power back under the umbrella of his organization upon his release from prison. When tasked with violence, his men (including a young Laurence Fishburne who was still calling himself Larry at the time) are more than up to the task. Frank’s troubles come from a group of overzealous cops who are willing to get their hands as dirty as Frank in order to bring him back under the heel of the law. And when Frank’s men walk away clean from a clear murder conviction, the cops decide vigilante justice is the only answer.

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The number of great character actors in this film besides the always mesmerizing Christopher Walken is ridiculous. King of New York predates Boyz N the Hood by just one year, and it’s astounding to see Laurence Fishburne in a role that is less Furious Styles and more Ice Cube’s Doughboy on PCP. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito has one of his more recognizable non-Do the Right Thing roles as another of Frank’s henchmen, and although he isn’t in the film very long, it blew my mind to see such a young Steve Buscemi as a technology-minded henchman.

And, the cops are another Who’s Who. David Caruso (Session 9) steals the show as Dennis Gilley, one of the cops who is most hellbent on bringing Frank in by any means necessary. Between this and Session 9, I was reminded how great he can be in eclectic character roles, and it was a shame he had to waste years of his life on a network crime procedural. Wesley Snipes isn’t given much to work with as another of the rage-fueled cops, but there’s a scene where he’s arresting Laurence Fishburne where Fishburne threatens to “slap the black off” him and Snipes’s reaction is priceless.

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Christopher Walken is absolutely transfixing as Frank White. There are many things that make King of New York such a unique and “different” film, and Walken’s take on Frank White is chief among them. Moving beyond Walken’s unique diction and the phrasing of his sentences with the deep, pregnant pauses, Walken’s Cheshire cat grin and electric magnetism make it clear why all these gangsters would want to work for him. But when the role calls for it, Walken flips the switch and White becomes an explosive outlet for violence. Frank White is like “What if Tony Montana were actually an interesting character?”

King of New York is “urban” to its core. The hip-hop soundtrack is always spot-on; there’s a scene where Schooly D’s “Am I Black Enough For Ya?” is played where the Public Enemy-esque political lyrics and hard-pounding beat perfectly fit the bloodbath that’s about to arrive. And while there are moments where Fishburne’s Jimmy Jump seems like a Run DMC stereotype, the movie’s urban sensibility is always played with tongue slightly in cheek. And in a decade where crime movies were either white mobster films or black “gangsta” movies, it’s so god damned refreshing to find a film that is both.

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King of New York‘s cinematography is also neo-noir perfection. Whether it’s capturing the neon-streaked lights of late 80s/early 90s New York or following Frank and his crew through their criminal enterprises, King of New York is a beauty to behold. On the other hand though, the film also knows not to take itself too seriously. Too many “crime epics” think they’re high art (*cough* Scarface *cough*); King of New York knows it isn’t and plays its hand accordingly. There’s a moment in the film where Frank backs down a group of thugs on the subway that exists just to show what a bad-ass Frank is, and the film is better for it.

If you’re wanting deep characterization or a serious commentary on urban crime, look elsewhere; Baby Boy this ain’t. When King of New York first came out, it was a critical disaster because of its over-the-top “glorification” of crime (that’s not really what the film does though), and if you like your films centered in reality, King of New York is going to disappoint. But for those with a taste for films with the touch of a true auteur’s style, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of the most memorable and entertaining crime dramas of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

 

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In the many years that I’ve closely followed the Academy Awards (starting in 2004 when Return of the King took home a record-tying 11 Oscars), I’ve only cared twice about who won Best Original Song. The most recent time was in 2012 when I desperately wanted to see Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie win an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. The first time was in 2006 where I would have likely started a riot if Three 6 Mafia hadn’t picked up the Oscar for their instant hip-hop classic “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from 2005’s Hustle & Flow. No matter what your other thoughts are about the film, there’s no denying that song’s place in the canon of great original movie tunes. Now, if only the rest of the film were as great as that song and the performances from Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy).

There are few things more upsetting as a socially conscious film-goer than when you watch an obviously well-constructed and well-performed film but are also forced to recognize that there are some thematic… missteps in the work. And more than any of us would like to admit, there are a lot of great films that simply do not know how to handle their female characters. And Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is one such film. As a portrait of desperation and the lengths we’ll go to achieve a dream even when our backs are against the wall, it’s a soaring success, and its social realism and gritty approach are greatly appreciated. But when every single woman in this film is simply a literal sex object and simultaneously used to massage the ego and self-esteem of the male star, that’s a problem of our male-centric film industry.

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2005’s Hustle & Flow is an underdog story in the mold of Rocky or Brassed Off! although without the cheesy triumphalism of the first or the social criticism of the second. Djay (Iron Man‘s Terrence Howard) is a philosophical and hardscrabble pimp who gets by tricking his snow bunny prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) under Memphis underpasses. He’s got a stripper, Lex (Paula Jai Parker), with a major attitude problem and a son she doesn’t care for, and he’s got a pregnant “bottom bitch,” Shug (Taraji P. Henson), that can’t trick at the moment, but she loves and supports her pimp. Djay’s life is going nowhere fast, but he finds a chance to be somebody when he hears that rap superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be visiting the bar Djay sells weed to for the Fourth of July.

Djay has one dream in life, beyond scrounging up the money he and his girls need to get buy, and that’s to be a hip-hop emcee. And after a chance meeting with an old high school friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), who pays the rent as a sound engineer for local church recordings, Djay thinks he finally has a shot at making his dreams come true and to get his mixtape into the hands of Skinny Black before his time runs out. And with a help from a local pianist and MPC machine enthusiast Shelby (DJ Qualls), Djay sets up a small recording studio in his house as he deals with the toils of keeping three different prostitutes happy under his roof. Will Djay find the muse he needs to make a genuine rap banger, and more importantly, will Skinny Black listen to it even if he does?

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Terrence Howard gives the performance his career in this film. Had Howard now turned down the supporting role of Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (because of salary disputes) and subsequently piss off all of the big producers in Hollywood, I suspect he could and should have been a big star. The 2005 Academy Awards was absurdly competitive for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote and he was also competing against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but Howard’s Academy Award-nominated turn in this film is one of the best of the aughts. Few performers have ever conveyed the feeling of having your back up against the wall and watching your life race past you as well as Howard does in this film. There’s a haunting intensity to the performance, and it’s a shame that he’s more or less disappeared from interesting projects in the 2010s.

And Baby Boy‘s Taraji P. Henson also gives her all to the thankless role of Shug. As I said, the women in this film are flat creations that are literal sex objects in that they’re all strippers/prostitutes (except for Anthony Anderson’s wife who has minimum screen time) and they have seemingly no real desires or character arcs of their own other than to support Djay in his journey. But despite that, Taraji P. Henson brings a wrenching emotional context to the character that certainly wasn’t in the script. She certainly at least deserved an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars that year. It’s a sign of a great performer when they are able to wrest an astounding performance from a mediocre character, and Taraji P. Henson does just that.

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The film’s problems with women can be summed up in one visual from the film. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to spoil something major about the film, but the movie’s nearly 10 years old now, so get over it. Djay is in prison for assaulting Skinny Black after he rejects him. Nola has slept with a radio DJ and gotten Djay’s single played on the radio. The song is called “Whoop That Trick” and a new mother Shug is singing along in full head-banging mode to a song that’s about beating on a hooker which is what she is. It’s like the movie isn’t even aware of the irony of the moment although at times I suspect it is because like Black Snake Moan, there’s a certain element of blaxploitation revivalism to Hustle & Flow. Regardless, the film’s usage of a prostitute singing along triumphantly to a song about beating on her own kind is the worst kind of male tunnel vision.

And those glaring oversights make for a frustrating viewing experience because Hustle & Flow is the kind of underdog film I can actually enjoy (because most are total garbage excepting the documentary Undefeated which manages to be a masterpiece). I sort of actively hate most non-Outkast/non-Killer Mike Southern hip-hop, but this film’s A-Town via Tennessee soundtrack is fantastic, and the film’s got that grainy 1970s cinematography that seamlessly matches the film’s storytelling style. And, as I’ve said, Terrence Howard’s firebrand performance holds the whole film together when it threatens to fall apart. Hustle & Flow falls just short of being a great film, but if you can look past its casual misogyny, it’s a superbly performed tale worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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There’s an hour and fifteen minutes section of Django Unchained that is arguably the greatest thing Quentin Tarantino has ever done. As someone who used to worship the man’s stylistics talents, that should say something. When Django and Schultz arrive at Calvin Candie’s plantation, the film becomes an examination of the spiritual costs of Django’s revenge and how he turns his back on his own people in order to save his wife. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is cartoon, bordering on slapstick. Had Tarantino kept the tone of the Candie plantation section up the whole film, Django would have easily been his best work yet. That same tonal inconsistency is the biggest misstep of 1991’s Thelma & Louise.

Hailed as a radical feminist parable when it was first released (a reputation that seems somewhat silly 23 years later), Ridley Scott’s (Black Rain) Thelma & Louise is a frustrating exercise in inconsistency. There are moments of intense, lyrical beauty in this beloved buddy road crime drama and unexpected insights into restless female desperation. But, most of the film operates in the world of cheesy B-movie pulp tropes, and it distracts from the message of the film. I spent most of the last half of the film wondering what a serious treatment of this material would look like and wishing I was watching that instead.

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I’d be hard-pressed to imagine anyone stumbling upon my blog who isn’t familiar with the basic premise of Thelma & Louise, though considering I only watched the film for the first time this week, I suppose anything’s possible. Repressed housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) is convinced by her liberated best friend Louise (That’s My Boy‘s Susan Sarandon) to go out for a weekend in the mountains. Thelma needs to get away from her controlling husband, Darryl (The Iron Giant‘s Christopher McDonald), and Louise needs a weekend away after a bad fight with her boyfriend, Jimmy (Kill Bill‘s Michael Madsen). Unfortunately, they’re never making it to that cabin.

Thelma, who hasn’t had a night of fun in decades, convinces Louise to stop at a roadside honky-tonk so the girls have a couple drinks. Thelma gets very drunk and starts dancing with a man who takes her outside and then tries to rape her. Thelma is saved at the last second by Louise sporting a large gun Thelma had packed for no apparent reason. Thelma and Louise are prepared to leave when the man can’t help but insult them as they’re walking away and Louise murders him in the parking lot. And, thus, the pair embark on a cross-country quest to escape the law as they are now wanted for murder (and eventually other crimes).

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There are elements of Thelma & Louise that are astoundingly wonderful for a film from 1991. Though I think aspects of the film’s gender politics aren’t nearly as radical as they’re remembered, for 1991, Thelma and Louise might as well have been Emma Goldman and Louise Bryant. When the film is focused enough to not be pulpy melodrama, there are quiet moments of Thelma and Louise on the road where you can feel the weight of not just the lawmen that are chasing after them but their whole tired lives and the limited opportunities afforded women of certain backgrounds. But, then the film will shatter that quiet power with gunplay and explosions.

The film’s cinematography from Adrian Biddle is stunning, arguably the best work of his career and some of the best camera work in any Ridley Scott film (Blade Runner seems like the most obvious competition). I disagree with most of the film’s Oscar nominations and consider it’s Best Original Screenplay win to be particularly puzzling, but it’s Best Cinematography nod was well-deserved, and maybe it should have won. Like the best road movies, Thelma & Louise captures the haunting beauty of the American country-side and the restless lives of the women racing through it.

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Unfortunately, Thelma & Louise can’t decide if it wants to be a serious movie or a fun movie, and it never manages to successfully be both. Films can be smart and fun (The Big Lebowski, Annie Hall, American Psycho, The Social Network, etc.). Thelma & Louise will go from being painfully smart and powerful one second to overwhelmingly dumb and pulpy the next. The scenes that are meant to be moments of female empowerment have their heart in the right place, but they come off as ridiculously cheesy when they occur. The most notable example being Thelma & Louise pulling over an obnoxious truck driver and then blowing up his semi.

I like pulp. Justified is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and though the series got more cerebral in the later seasons, even at the end, Breaking Bad worked within the conventions of pulp storytelling. But those programs do it with internal consistency, and so I’m not brought in and out of two different versions of the same story. That’s where Thelma & Louise falls apart. Had it been all pulp, it would have likely been a riotous, feminist powered-action ride. Had it been all serious, it could have been the 90s response to Badlands. As it is, I felt like I was watching Ridley Scott struggle to decide what kind of movie he really wanted to make.

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None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Thelma & Louise. It had its moments of astonishing power, and the “fun” moments weren’t so much bad as they were “out of place.” But, this film is considered one of the true classics of 90s cinema and a definitive classic of feminist cinema and I don’t see how it’s really either. Give me Rachel, Rachel any day. Thelma & Louise simply concerns my belief that Ridley Scott is a good director on his best days, but almost never a great one.

Final Score: B

 

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I’ve generally thought that the school of film criticism thought which says you should judge a film by the standards of when it was released is… and pardon my French… horse shit. From a technical perspective, The Birth of a Nation remains an astounding masterpiece, but its politics are as abhorrent today as they were in 1915. From the opposite end of the spectrum, yes, there are elements of Rebel Without a Cause which seem dated by modern standards, but its portrayal of teen angst (and subtle homoeroticism) has a universal, timeless appeal. The best movies are great no matter when they were made, and films that are simply great for their time are really only of interest to students of film history. 1948’s The Naked City plays hopscotch with my feelings on the matter. As one of Hollywood’s first great crime procedurals shot on location, it broke new ground in many ways, and while a healthy portion of the film has lost its luster over the years, the movie’s cinematography and tone kept me engaged through out and it remains a highly enjoyable proto-noir.

The Naked City was directed by French director Jules Dassin, most famous his French crime thriller, Rififi, though The Naked City couldn’t be more American, specifically more New Yorker, if it tried. There’s a lengthy montage at the beginning of the film where the movie’s producer, Mark Hellinger, explains that the movie was primarily shot on-location in the streets of Manhattan (and other boroughs as the movie progresses) and it lends an almost documentary feel to most of the film’s exterior shots. Though there are campy elements to the actual crime procedural at the heart of the film (it can’t decide if it wants to be hard-boiled noir or a light mystery), when the film is outside and walking the streets of the Big Apple, you feel lost in the titular naked city and no film before and few since have so aptly captured the chaos and everyday street life of New York City.

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After clothing store model Jean Dexter is found murdered in her high-rise apartment bath tub, old school NYPD homocide detective Dan Muldoon (Going My Way‘s Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to investigate the case. Though Dexter’s murder is staged to look like a drowning, Muldoon quickly deduces (I know I’m using that word wrong like Sherlock does) that it was murder, and the hunt begins to figure out who would kill the beautiful model. Muldoon is joined by his young and fresh-faced partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), who gets to do all of the real leg work of the case, with an emphasis on leg work. And when Muldoon and Halloran find a handsome young swindler named Frank Niles (Howard Duff), they realize that there’s more to this case than they ever expected.

I don’t want to say any more and ruin the pleasure of diving into the twists and turns of The Naked City for the first time even though it’s a 66 year old movie. Because most of the pleasure of watching the film is watching one of the first really detailed crime procedurals in the cinema. This isn’t a Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade-style detective story. There are no tough guy private eyes. It’s a group of cops working leads and interrogating suspects. Only occasionally do hunches lead to major breakthroughs in the case. In fact, it’s safe to say that future movies like Zodiac or TV shows like The Wire owe their existence to The Naked City even if they would ultimately do the things The Naked City does, only better. And, unlike most modern crime procedurals (I’m looking at you Law & Order), the investigation rarely begins to feel stale.

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I’m not sure if The Naked City technically qualifies as a film noir even if it’s generally lumped in with most of the proto-noir films of the late 1940s. The movie feels a little too light-hearted at times to be true noir, but one can’t doubt the film’s cinematography carrying that noir banner. It is gorgeous. As mentioned earlier, the film’s exterior and on-location shots are stunning enough considering how rare they were for the time, but even the indoor shots make perfect use of shadow and striking composition. Jules Dassin is one of the film-makers most associated with inspiring the directors of the French New Wave, and his innovative camera techniques are on display throughout the whole film. For fans of cinematography, that aspect of The Naked City is worth your time alone.

Charming performances from Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor also help ease the film along. I doubt that Dan and Jimmy are cinema’s original old/young cop partner pair, but, I’m hard-pressed to name any from this era that were as immediately likeable and compelling. In one of the film’s sadly rare character driven moments, Jimmy comes home from work to spend some time with his wife, and you get a peek behind the veil of these cop’s lives. In fact, if the movie had spent even a little more time diving into the lives of its leads, it may have truly been a real classic rather than falling just short. Barry Fitzgerald (the only redeeming part of the abysmal Going My Way) was particularly appealing as the aged Muldoon, and I wanted to know more about this wizened cop veteran.

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And that lack of attachment to the characters ultimately proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald make us care about their detectives through sheer force of performance and charm. The writing has nothing to do with it. Throw in an omni-present voice-over narration that vacillates between clever and too obvious, and The Naked City becomes unfortunately hit or miss for much of its running time. When the movie is hitting all of the right notes, it never quite reaches the heights of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street but it’s a hell of a great time. One can only wish that the movie was able to maintain a high level of quality and interest from beginning to end, which it sadly can not.

Final Score: B+

 

TwinPeaksFireWalkWithMe1Back in 2001, Japanese video game visionary Hideo Kojima finally released the long-awaited follow-up to his now iconic stealth/action classic, Metal Gear Solid. But, when Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released, critical acclaim was through the roof but fan reactions were more mixed. Though history has vindicated the game as the original and premier example of post-modernism in blockbuster gaming, Kojima ripped the floor out from underneath players who were expecting more of the same by replacing beloved hero Solid Snake with the far more polarizing Raiden and throwing in an ending that works more as an allegory than an actual narrative. 1992’s Twin Peaks follow up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, bears the Twin Peaks name, but one can almost hear David Lynch cackling with delight for anyone expecting more of the same of the ABC drama.

Fire Walk With Me was a massive disappointment upon its first release, and it’s easy to see why. Fans who wanted answers to any of the cliffhangers that dominated the show’s controversial finale were left hanging when it becomes quickly apparent that Fire Walk With Me is a prequel. Fans expecting more of the show’s quirky humor and lovable characters will also be unfulfilled because Fire Walk With Me is dark. It is, arguably, the darkest film in Lynch’s whole ouevre, outstripping even the terrifying Inland Empire. And, of course, Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper is in the film for less than ten minutes. But, if you take Fire Walk With Me on its own terms, it is a stark and deeply disturbing allegory for the darkest sides of human nature that is, unfortunately, wrapped in some of Lynch’s most consistent and glaring struggles as a director.

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As I said, Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to the Twin Peaks television program. And, other than the lengthy intro that delves into the investigation of Teresa Banks (the first murder in a string and what drew Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks after Laura’s murder), the film is primarily contained to the final days leading up to Laura Palmer’s (Sherly Lee) murder. And with Laura’s inevitable murder hanging over all of the actions of the film (as well as the true identity of Laura’s murderer), Fire Walk With Me is a study of a woman in the throes of a self-destructive spiral and a close examination of the myriad causes of her downfall.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the action of the film for those who haven’t seen the film, but in true David Lynch fashion, if Fire Walk With Me accomplishes one thing, it’s that it leaves you with more questions than it provides answers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Inland Empire and Eraserhead are both particularly inaccessible but if you ponder them long enough, you’ll realize what they’re about (maybe). And Fire Walk With Me is the same way. And, while it’s packed to the brim with Lynch’s signature surrealistic flourishes, they are almost always in service to the film’s haunting allegory of rape, incest, and drug abuse.

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Fire Walk With Me is scary. Though it occasionally devolves into what I believe may be blatant Lynchian self-parody, when Lynch sets out to scare you, he does. Disturbing barely scratches the surface of many of the film’s most brutal moments. Fire Walk With Me becomes so intense and painfully raw that it hurts to watch. Ignoring the most obvious choice (Laura’s death), there’s a moment mid-way through the film where Laura and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle has been replaced by the superior Moira Kelly) go to a strip club. And Laura’s sexual degradation is haunting and heart-breaking.

Sheryl Lee (who was originally cast just for the show’s pilot and to be a corpse but was eventually made a recurring character as Laura’s cousin Maddy because she made such an impression with David Lynch) has to carry the entire film, and her performance is something of a mixed bag, and it’s weird where it falters. She handles the “biggest” scenes of the film extraordinarily well to the point that I suspect David Lynch was actually torturing her somehow (Hitchcock was notorious for abusing his leading ladies to get more natural performances). But, during the little moments, her acting is wooden and artificial. It’s confusing. Ray Wise is the best performance of the film as the terrifying (and more complex than previously on the show) Leland Palmer.

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But, lacking Inland Empire‘s excuse of being a literal nightmare in movie form, Fire Walk With Me can be unforgivably unfocused. It takes nearly forty minutes before Laura, the main character of the film, shows up and while there are some inspired moments here and there, the intro, told from the point of view of new characters Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaaks) and Sam Stanley (The Lost Boys‘ Kiefer Sutherland), seems to serve no other purpose than to tease the audience. It’s only contribution to the over-all plot was a Chekhov’s Gun for the very end, and it could have used some heavy editing.

You have to come into Fire Walk With Me with an open mind or you’re going to be terribly disappointed. Though it is technically Twin Peaks: The Movie in name, it is not Twin Peaks: The Movie in content or style. But, it is still required viewing for fans of the show who want a deeper look at the figure whose tragic murder drove the entire first season. And though I took umbrage with Lynch’s inability to stick to what was working (certain elements of the film felt like he was trying to shoehorn in plots the networks wouldn’t let him run on the show), this film is an undeniable look into sheer terror and one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen in ages.

Final Score: B

 

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After watching the somewhat disappointing second chapter, The Girl Who Played with Fire, in the film adaptations of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium trilogy a little less than two weeks ago, I found myself less than enthusiastic to take the time out of my schedule to sit down and watch the concluding chapter, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. And that was a shame because after both the (inferior) Swedish version and the (superior) American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I considered myself a fan who wanted to know how this story played out. And though no one will really know how Stieg Larrson wanted the series to go (there were reportedly seven more books in the work before he died of a heart attack at 50), I can happily say that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a satisfying conclusion to the saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist even if this final entry featured too little Lisbeth.

One of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed the Millennium series so much (though I haven’t yet read the books; it’s on my to do list) is that Lisbeth Salander is easily one of the most interesting and well-drawn female heroines in the fictional market today. Take the bad-assery of Katniss Everdeen but then take away the shitty characterization (I love The Hunger Games series but Suzanne Collins is not a good writer) and you have a character half as cool as Lisbeth. Honestly, the only modern female characters I find as intriguing as Lisbeth are Peggy Olson from Mad Men and Buffy Summers from… Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth’s contribution to the active resolution of the overall plot is nil at best, and it was somewhat disappointing to see such a fantastic character take a backseat for practically the entire film.

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This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of The Girl Who Played with Fire (I’ll try to keep the plot spoilers of this entry to a minimum) so if you haven’t seen that entry, you should probably stop reading now and come back later. After surviving being shot three times (once in the head) as part of an attempt to confront her father, ex-Soviet defector and criminal kingpin Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), hacker prodigy and general problem child Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is rescued from near death by left-wing journalist (and her former lover) Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). And although Lisbeth has been cleared of the murder of the two journalists that provided the tension in The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth finds herself in even hotter water as she is now accused with the attempted murder of her father after she nearly killed him with an axe (an act of self-defense).

Much like the last film, the conspiracy at the heart of the movie is propelled forward by a rogue faction of the Swedish government’s need to keep their ties with Alexander Zalachenko a secret. When Zalachenko defected, a corrupt faction of Sweden’s Security Services (which I imagine is functionally similar to the FBI or the CIA. But there was another government police organization in the film, the Constitutional Protection, so I don’t know what equivalency either organization has with American government), known as The Section, took him in, and they sucked off the largesse of his criminal activities for decades in repayment for his anti-Russian information. And as Lisbeth is being prosecuted by the government to keep the Section’s dirty little secrets quiet, it’s up to Mikael and the rest of the Millennium staff to prove Lisbeth’s innocence.

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I’ve said this in my reviews of the two earlier entries in this franchise, but it should be said again that Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace were both cast expertly in these roles. And though I slightly prefer Rooney Mara as Lisbeth (she captures the vulnerable side of the character better than Rapace does), I pretty firmly believe that Michael Nyqvist commits to the role of Mikael Blomqvist better even than the excellent Daniel Craig. And that’s good because unlike the first two entries of the series (which are more Lisbeth heavy), most of the dramatic weight of this film falls on Nyqvist’s shoulders. And throughout the film, Blomqvist must decide if not only his safety is more important than uncovering the truth but also if the safety of his coworkers and lover is more important. And Michael Nyqvist again makes me wish I had seen more of his work in his native Sweden outside this franchise.

Lisbeth spends 75% of this film (if not more) either in a hospital, in prison, or on trial. The film centers around an investigation by Millennium magazine and eventually Constitutional Protection (which sounds like the ACLU but is apparently a police organization) to prove that Lisbeth is innocent of attempted murder and that there’s been a systematic attempt her entire life to keep her quiet and under control as well as to cover up the misdeeds of Alexander Zalachenko. But, sadly, with her life on the line, Lisbeth isn’t able to contribute in any meaningful way to her own defense. The only real plot contributions she makes in this film either occur at the very end of the movie and aren’t related to the main plot as well as something she did way back in the first film. It sucks to see such a bad-ass and resourceful heroine kept on the bench like that when the series clearly revolves around her.

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Thankfully then, the rest of the film was an enjoyable (if somewhat far-fetched) conspiracy thriller and the same type of journalism procedural that we’ve come to expect from the franchise (even if it doesn’t work on the same great level as other journalism procedurals like Zodiac). Stieg Larrson was a left-wing journalist in his native Sweden before becoming a writer, and he uses these books/movies as a mouthpiece for his views on the exploitation of women and the corruption of government. And as a fellow left-wing socialist, I respect Larrson’s dedication to his politics (even if I have quibbles here and there with his abilities as a storyteller). Having seen the entire series now, I’m once again excited to see this story make its way back to Hollywood and the capable hands of David Fincher. This ending left me satisfied.

Final Score: B