A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Black Souls” 5.2.15

It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that there seems to be somewhat of a paradigm shift going on in the crime genre that’s been happening over this past decade. I referred to it recently as a “subversion” to somebody in which we’re experiencing a point in time in crime films where filmmakers themselves seem less interested in telling stories that are loud, overstated, excessively violent crime pictures made not to entertain by the stories in which they choose to depict but are more focused on the psychology component of them instead. The distinction can be made by looking at Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) or Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). Both were monumental achievements that undeniably made their mark on cinematic history and often times are the two most recognized films of the crime genre outside of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990), the first two who many consider to be the greatest crime films of all time. All films that ultimately were immensely successful and instrumental in terms of their influence on just about every movie to come out of the genre since. But within the past 10 years or so, there seems to be a stark contrast to those films within a new crop of international filmmakers coming out of the genre looking to explore new territory within it, without the typical glamour and style of the “post-Goodfellas” era crime film. Films like Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” (2008), Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” (2008), Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009 – still in my opinion, the best crime film made post-2000), and David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). All seemed to be exploring new ideas of the genre by focusing on varied components and themes around different types of crime circles. From political ones, to ones that deal with crime as a way of life, to being educated on becoming a crime lord, to the decimation of the crime family, and how crime exists from a business perspective while living in a Capitalist society. These are just some of the themes contained within what I call the “new wave” of crime film. In where the characters and their depicted lifestyles are meant to be more cerebral and looked at as being flawed than the crime films of the days of old (once again excluding “The Godfather” trilogy of course). These characters and the way in which they live aren’t even remotely appealing or alluring, but rather sad and devastating. All of the latter films I mention exemplify this distinction quite well, and when I saw this film advertised and it being quoted as “the best Italian crime film since “Gomorrah””, plus my overall love for the genre, made it an instant “must see” upon its release here in theaters this weekend.

“Black Souls” is the based on a true story account of the real-life mafia clan (known as the “Ndrangehta”) out of Southern Italy, the Carbone family (nope not the Corleone family), who consisted of three brothers – Luigi and Rocco, who are involved in the business of international drug trade, and Luciano, who has escaped the lifestyle in favor of living in a remote mountain town herding goats while trying to raise an honest, hard-working family. Though Luciano has a son, Leo, who is a high school drop out and seems to want to follow in the footsteps of his two crime affiliated uncles, particularly that of Rocco, who the boy clearly seems to idolize. Upon hearing that his family has been defamed by one of their rival families, takes matters into his own hands seeking payback and in doing so sets off a blood feud and a series of tragic events that forces all of the family members to become involved.

This was a riveting, compelling, and brilliant entry into the crime genre by Italian director Francesco Munzi. Who seems to know his influences well but sets out to make something deeper with more of a focus on the tragic-like nature of the crime world and how it affects a family from generation to generation. It really does a great job probing into the minds of the three Carbone brothers, two of whom are totally immersed in the lifestyle and the other who took a much different path and seems to know the real truth and is willing do whatever it takes to save his son from growing up to be a criminal. The relationship between the young boy Leo and his uncle Rocco as is the sibling rivalry that takes place between Rocco’s brother and Leo’s father Luciano is expertly drawn out and feels believable and authentic, and presents the family’s quarrels both within their own and outside of as realistic and utterly devastating. Only three major acts of violence occur throughout the entire film, but similar to how I mentioned in my review of “A Most Violent Year”, when the violence erupts, packed both one hell of a punch and was unpredictable, as well as hitting me on such a deep emotional and guttural level, that at times I was borderline shedding tears. As I was really that invested in the story and so moved by the tragic events that unfold. Which I thought was the film’s greatest strength and a true testament to Munzi’s adapted screenplay and deft hand at directing in how it enabled me to be so invested in the story. From a technical point of view it’s very well done, especially in terms of its cinematography, lighting, and dark contrast between the urban city of Milan and the brighter Italian countryside. But what really did it for me was how the character of the farmer brother Luciano, a man who lives by a strict moral code and value system in trying to make an honest living, and in by knowing of the truth, winds up confronting himself in an ending that left me practically speechless. As far as current, modern day crime films go, this a very solid entry that will most likely will be overlooked but demands to be seen.

[strong B+]

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Review: “The Drop” 2.15.15

“The Drop” is the first English language film by Belgian director Michael R. Roskam of the Oscar nominated film “Bullhead” (2011) which garnered a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 2012 Academy Awards. “Bullhead” was a great character study that featured a phenomenal breakthrough performance by Matthias Shoenaerts. The type of actor who after watching that film I just knew it was just going to be a matter of time before the call of Hollywood came coming. Which is interesting because that’s almost the exact same way I felt after I was first introduced to the main actor in this film, Tom Hardy, a relative unknown until he was introduced to the film world in 2009 in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson”. Both are foreign (Hardy’s from the UK, Shoenaerts from Belgium) who have recently started to show up in a lot of American films (though Hardy being introduced to us here stateside much earlier in 2010 in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”). When I first heard of this film I heard while it was in development that it teamed Tom Hardy with another foreign actor who has gained quite a bit of notoriety in the United States this past couple of years and who I happen to like – Swedish born Noomi Rapace (who first played Lizbeth Salander in the Swedish trilogy of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and in other high-profile films like “Prometheus” (2012). Then I found out that it was slated to be directed by none other than Roskam himself, in his English language debut. What sealed the deal for me was that it also reteamed him with “Bullhead” star Shoenaerts, and was based on a screenplay from novelist Dennis Lehane, most notable for his book to screen translations like “Mystic River” (2003), “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), and “Shutter Island” (2010). So with a pedigree of this kind I figured I would be in for something special.

The film introduces us to Bobby (played by Hardy) who in an opening montage explains to us how this “drop” concept works in that basically all of the local bars in Brooklyn are run by the Chechen Mob, who scheduled certain deposits of money at any given bar on any given night. Bobby tends bar at his cousin Marv’s (in the great James Gandolfini’s last performance) who used to own the place until the Mob took over. It becomes clear early on that the Chechen Mob and its messenger, Chovka, pretty much run the entire territory. Especially when on one unsuspecting night 2 men visit the bar in hoods and masks and rob Bobby and Marv of $5,000. Except since the bar really isn’t “owned” by Cousin Marv anymore the money needs to be paid back. It seems like a mere coincidence that Bobby should happen to stumble upon a whimpering puppy in a garbage can shortly after, and is introduced to the woman who owns the home Nadia (played by Rapace), who he forms a sort of bond with after the both discover the pup and both decide to take care of it. That’s until the ex-con, recently released out of prison, mentally ill nutcase Eric comes into the picture (played ruthlessly by Shoenaerts) and claims the dog to be his demanding 10 grand from Bobby or else he will report it being stolen. It is through these many relationships and interpersonal dynamics that as each character is revealed, we are shown a much different side to them as well as their real motivations with one another, than we’re lead to believe up to that point.

While this was another solid entry into the crime-drama genre, it felt a little bit all too familiar to other films of its kind that have come out of the genre (David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” (2007) comes to mind). The story itself is involving enough, as we’re presented with a decent enough story and an above average script. With all the actors involved doing serviceable enough jobs but nobody really sticking out with the exception of maybe Hardy’s character, who’s restrained, solemn, quiet character who we first are led to think might be a little naive, only to change faces about two-thirds of the way into the film in where we’re finally (after much waiting around) able to see his true self. Second to that would be Shoenaerts, who is always a pleasure to see pop up on-screen, and who plays both ruthless and menacing pretty well here. Gandolfini plays well, Gandolfini, who following his work on the hit TV show “The Sopranos” I always felt like it was unfortunate as being typecast into these kinds of roles (similar to how I feel about someone like Ray Liotta post-Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990)). Rapace does a good enough job in the barely fleshed out character she’s written as. As for the story, I felt like it did a fairly decent enough job juggling a number of different characters in the story and for the most part did a clever enough job keeping the audience second guessing, which had my attention until it came to the last half hour or so, at which time I started to get the feeling like it was going to have a predictable outcome to the story. And it did, at least for me anyway. There are character’s involvements into the shady going-ons in the story that are supposed to come as a surprise that really weren’t all that surprising to me. Except for when Hardy’s character Bobby reveals himself to show his true colors. But at that point it all came at just a bit too little too late. This was a fairly good, though as mentioned predictable entry to the genre that I would recommend to fans of it, but I think a lot of other people might be turned off by its familiar storyline and script. Certainly worth a rental but not something that you’re going to want to write home about once its through.

[B-]

Review – ‘Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger’ 10.18.14

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

In what was probably my second most anticipated documentary of the year behind “Life Itself”. Joe Berlinger’s (“Paradise Lost” Trilogy) “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Burgler” tells the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious South Boston crime boss who Martin Scorcese based Jack Nicholson’s character off of in his film “The Departed”. Brought to us by CNN films, a brand new subsidiary of CNN that focuses primarily on documentary features, and who has released both last year’s excellent and haunting “Blackfish” and this year’s “Life Itself” (currently at my #1 spot for both best documentary and best film of the year). They seem to be at the current forefront of financing specific documentaries so that they can be released to a wider audience. And so far, I can say I am very impressed with the types of documentaries that they’re producing. But even more reason why I was excited because this was by documentarian Joe Berlinger, the director of such acclaimed films as his superb 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper”, which focused on a the trial of a semi-illiterate farmer, the 1996, 2000, and 2011 “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, about the unfortunate long and drawn out trial of the West Memphis 3. Which mind you are three of some of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Then 2004’s probing look at the band Metallica in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”, and finally 2009’s intense examination of the South American oil trade “Crude”. Berlinger is right up there with the caliber of documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), and Ken Burns (“The Central Park 5”). All documentary filmmakers who are at the top of their game and whose documentaries almost never fail to disappoint.

The film starts off by introducing us to several South Boston residents, most of whom were either eye witnesses or victims of families who were terrorized by “Whitey” (aka James Burgler otherwise known as “The Irish Godfather”) who reigned and was king of the organized crime world in the United States for almost 25 years going back to the mid seventies and staying in power until the late nineties, which at that point he went on the lam for 13 years until his capture in 2011. Whitey was the boss of the infamous Walter Hill gang, a band of Boston wiseguys who were completely and utterly ruthless, menacing, and terrorizing in equal respects, and who also were responsible for dozens of murders. Whitey’s ring grew so big that by the late nineties to early aughts he landed a #2 spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted. Second to that of only Osama Bin Laden. But here’s the kicker – he had also been an FBI informant for years. Whitey was let free to run wild and become the head of the most notorious gang the United States has ever seen. All while under the knowing eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Only to be informed by the same organization he helped out to essentially flee, then land on their list of Most Wanted, until his capture in 2011. Where at the age of 83 he would go on to be tried for 19 murders. The documentary focuses on Whitey’s rise, his reign of terror, his relationship with the FBI, wiseguys, informants, trial lawyers, eye witnesses, and families of victims; mostly in and around the Boston area. And asks the central question – how could a Mob boss who headed a gang that was so ruthless possibly have also worked for the United States government?

There is a little something for everyone in this documentary. Being in that I have always been fascinated by the Mob. Like most guys I know who were at a young age. I was always interested in people like Al Capone and John Gotti. That and I loved films like Frances Ford Coppola’s exemplary “Godfather” Trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), Brian DePalma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables”, and what still might be arguably the best film made about the Mob – Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). Anybody with even the faintest interest in any of the above people or films will most likely find this documentary worthwhile. It’s filled with informative interviews from members of the Boston community who were in some way involved with Whitey, be it by association with the Mob or by ways of being a victim of them. It also contains some great archival footage, voice recordings, and eye witness testimonies. Furthermore it’s a compelling and thought provoking look at both his rise and fall as well as the deep, multi-layered levels of government corruption. Particularly by that of the FBI. The amount of protection this guy received from one of our supposed to be most trusted government organizations is appalling. Lastly, I thought it did a fairly good comprehensive job at depicting Whitey’s run from his rise to his fall, as well as the court proceedings that took place when he eventually was captured in 2011. The only couple of criticisms I had were at times it felt like an overload of information that I personally had a hard time following. Similar to when I watch Asian films about crime families. Just the sheer amount of people involved from all aspects, while important to depict, can often times be overwhelming and can wind up confusing the viewer. Which at a few points happened to me here. It also felt slightly one-sided, in that most all of the testimony you see or hear from people in the film are from people who are against Whitey and want to see him put in jail. Which is totally understandable. I just thought to myself there had to still be some Whitey supporters that they could have interviewed to go along with it which would have made it seem a bit more balanced. Those two criticisms aside, this is a well thought out, comprehensive, thought provoking depiction of one of the most notorious crime bosses in United States history and his own
government who protected him.

Grade: B

Two Trips To The Movies – Review: ‘Gone Girl’ 10.3 and 10.5

There is something special about seeing a new film on opening night by one of the most celebrated directors of the past 20 years. There’s a certain feeling or excitement that goes along with it that is difficult to put into words. Take for example when Martin Scorcese released “The Departed” in 2006. I was living in Portland, Maine at the time and had been following the news on it through pre production, filming, and post production; and knew that it was filmed in/around the Boston area. Being in that Boston was 2 hours (only 2 hours) away, I knew right then and there that I would be making every effort to see it opening night in the city it was filmed in as I thought it would only add to the authenticity of the whole experience. Seeing a new Scorsese movie, one that was being hailed as a return to his “Goodfellas” and “Casino” roots, with a sold out crowd on opening night in the city it was filmed in? There really isn’t anything like it. At least for me anyway. Even if I did wind up ultimately being let down by it. It’s the waiting in line for over an hour with people who are equally as excited, to finally being let in by the usher who unhooks the rope, and then finding yourself a good seat. Only to sit back among the buzz of the audience and prepare yourself for something that you’ve waited so long to see. That exact feeling and experience is one that I’ve only felt and had maybe a half a dozen to a dozen times in my life. It’s like the rush of a drug, and one that I’m constantly trying to chase again. When I first heard about “Gone Girl” all I needed to know was that it was directed by David Fincher, and from that point forward I made a cognizant choice to close myself off from everything about it. I did however catch the initial trailer while seeing another film several months ago and remember thinking “huh, that trailer didn’t tell me anything. And I’m glad it didn’t. Because from that point forward I wanted to know absolutely nothing about it. Even going into the opening night showing I knew 4 things – that it was based on a New York Times Bestseller, that it starred Ben Affleck (who I had my doubts about) and involved a kidnapping (the only 2 things I could make out from the trailer). And, finally, that it was directed by David Fincher. Fincher is one of maybe 10 directors (Roman Polanski being another one that I mentioned in my last review) where I’ve seen just about every film he’s made. Going all the way back to his debut with the horrible 1992 “Alien 3” (I gave him a pass with that one – he was young and probably thought it would kick start his career ) to his groundbreaking “Se7en” (1995), to 1997’s smart and clever “The Game”, to 1999’s admirable but slightly overrated “Fight Club”, to 2002’s mostly forgetabble “Panic Room”, to what I still consider to be my favorite Fincher film – 2007’s “Zodiac”, to 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (a film where I’m in the minority but that I find comparable to “Forrest Gump”), to 2010’s remarkable “The Social Network”, and finally 2012’s solid and equally dark adaptation of the remake of the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. David Fincher is one of those directors that my anticipation of seeing a new film of his is so great that I don’t even have to contemplate for a second whether or not I’ll be seeing it on opening night. That and I went to see it twice. Mostly because I owe it to Fincher in that I sometimes feel, like with other directors of his caliber, that his films often require a second viewing.

A loose synopsis of the film is that it revolves around Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who at first appears unhappy with his life and the way in which it’s heading. He owns a bar in which his sister whom he’s close with works at. He has a father in an assisted living home who he’s not so close with. Through a series of both flashbacks and flash-forwards we are shown how him and his wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) came to meet. Amy writes for a magazine in a column where she goes by “Amazing Amy”, and through a series of journal entries we are told the story of how they came to meet and fall both in and out of love. But then it flash-forwards to Nick coming home to find his wife missing and it appears as if a murder may have taken place. Did he commit it? The detectives assigned to the case certainly think he did. He’s completely solemn and well composed about the whole thing. This augmented by an interrogation where we learn that he really doesn’t know much about his wife other than that she “was really complicated”. Which might have to do with the fact that despite their having fallen madly in love with one another, they also show how their love unravels to where they wind up loathing and having nothing but the utmost disdain for one other. So much so to the point where she feels so threatened by her husband that she purchases a gun in order to protect herself. Flashing forward again all eyes are on Affleck’s character, as everyone from the police, local townspeople, to the eventual press and national media, wind up being convinced that it could have possibly only been him who did it.

The film winds up being a mixed bag. There were elements about it that I loved greatly and other elements I had some serious problems with. I really liked Fincher’s vision and take on the story (though admittedly I haven’t read the novel in which it’s based on). It’s unbelievably dark and psychological in all the best ways. He has a knack for creating a mood and tone that’s uncanny to almost any other film maker around. The way in which he shoots the film with blueish and cold color filters gives it an almost dream-like quality at times and a nightmarish one at others. That and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score really accentuates the material nicely. Similar to their work on “The Social Network” and like the electronic scores of recent years by Cliff Martinez. All three composers whose music is almost like a second character in the films they write for. I also liked the second guessing element to the whole proceeding. It’s a constant game of asking yourself questions and following the trail of bread crumbs that are effectively laid out for you. And Rosamund Pike gives a mighty fine performance here. One that I can potentially see her getting an Academy Award nomination for for Best Actress come Oscar time. Where its greatest weakness lies is in its inability to feel even remotely authentic. To me it felt incredibly sterile, transparent, stagey, and at times similar to that of a TNT movie of the week. All of the performances besides Pike’s felt awkwardly wooden. Even though I’m told it’s fitting that Affleck’s character comes across that way as it’s more faithful to the novel. But casting Tyler Perry as the lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as one of Amy’s ex’s, and Patrick Fugit as one of the detectives was a total misfire and all three of them seemed totally out of place. I thought none of these or any of the other performances stood out even in the slightest other than Pike’s. I also felt that the pacing felt a bit uneven and jarring at times. One scene would grab a hold of my attention and then the flashback or flash-forward following it would lose my interest. Lastly, there were quite a few plot holes throughout the story that the writer and director ask the viewer to take a pretty considerable leap of faith with. Still, it had a fair amount going for it. So for some of the more positive reasons I mentioned above I would definitely recommend seeing it. That and I can also see it being a really divisive film. But for people like me, it is and always will be looked at as a minor Fincher effort in his ever expanding body of work.

Grade: First time: strong B / Second time: C+ / Overall: B-

Review: ‘Rob The Mob’ 9.30.14

 

Every now and then I find myself in the mood for a bit more lighter fare than what I’m normally used to. Since I’m so used to constantly being let down by comedies maybe more than any other genre, I rarely take the leap of faith needed to check one out unless it comes from a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust. Though with this movie I more or less just came across it. No one told me about it,  I didn’t read anything on it, nor did I see it advertised anywhere. However I did see that it got some fairly decent favorable scores on a couple of movie sites I check out occasionally. So I thought I’d give it a shot. That and I really like Michael Pitt. My first introduction to the talented young actor was in the American version of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (2007) where he did an excellent job playing one of two young men who terrorize an upper class family. He’s gone on to do some strong work in both the TV series “Boardwalk Empire” and played a very small bit part; yet a memorable one, in 2012’s “Seven Psychopaths”. I don’t know if it’s the Leonardo DiCaprio quasi look-alikeness that I like about him or if I geniunely think the guy’s got chops (probably the latter). But really any movie that looks remotely interesting where he’s cast as the lead I will likely check out. Which was the case with this one. Plus, I heard it was a “crime comedy”. So I was hoping for something like Jonathan Demme’s “Married To The Mob” (1988). I also happened to notice comparisons to both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Goodfellas” on the poster. But knowing very well that those quotes are usually written in hyperbole I still figured oh well what the hell I’ll give it a shot. Hopefully it will surprise me.

It’s a simple enough setup. One that’s based on a true story and took place in New York City in the early 1990’s. We’re first introduced to Tommy (Pitt). Tommy is a degenerate small time crook with a crack cocaine problem who is in love with a girl who more or less is his mirror image. He sticks up small businesses who they themselves hardly make any money for a living. We’re not talking about the sharpest tool in the shed here so it’s only inevitable that he’s going to get caught. And does. The film then cuts to 14 years later when Tommy is released from prison to his girlfriend, who is played suprisingly well by an actress who I hadn’t heard of up to this point named Nina Arianda. These two lovers attempt to “go straight” but because of financial reasons are forced to go back to their old ways. He devises a not so smart idea of robbing the Italian Social Clubs in the city, many of whom have Mob affiliations. After a string of hold-ups, Tommy stumbles upon one club whose boss “Big Al” (played by the always serviceable Andy Garcia) finds out and puts a bounty on his head. Though Tommy comes across something the FBI desperately needs. That and the FBI looks at what Tommy’s doing as what they refer to as a kind of “public service”. The FBI’s “hey better him than us” attitude provides for some pretty solid laughs. Almost as if the FBI gives him free reign to do whatever he wants as long as he’s robbing all of the local town crooks. So in doing so, Tommy begins to misgude both the FBI and the Mob, all while he and his girlfriend start to become almost local celebrities, and attract the attention of a reporter (Ray Romano, who like Garcia, is serviceable in the role). Both entities soon start to tighten up. Especially because the FBI is honing in on Garcia’s character who is a well known big time crime boss. One that in his aging years is trying to go straight and any opposing forces to this will be dealt with accordingly. While Tommy appears to be having a nice run, his time also seems to be running out.

This movie functions fairly well as a whole, even if at times it did feel a bit contrived and cliched. But I think that’s slightly to be expected given a movie like this. The script is mildly clever, and the actors (especially Pitt and in a come out of nowhere and very funny Griffen Dunne) all do a pretty good job in their respective roles. There are quite a few laughs, particularly in the scenes involving Pitt sticking up the Mob. Along with an effective ending that felt like something out of a Hollywood fairy tale that ends tragically. All of these things allow me to give it decent marks. Though as the film develops, specifically near the end, it grows increasingly more and more prepostorous. There’s also that flashback thing movies do only in this case some of it is intertwined with real footage. Making the fake and real flashback scenes slightly difficult to discern from each other. Had they of just left that device out entirely I thought it would have been a lot more effective. But, even still, there’s enough to like here that makes it a worthwhile experience. Especially if you like small, indepedent, charming, lite fair comedies. Just don’t expect anything you’re going to want to write home about.

Grade: B-