Tag Archives: crime

The Gentlemen

26 Jan

‘The Gentlemen’: Guy Ritchie gangster crew hashes out their differences to deadly ends

 

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It feels somewhat weird that this boldly minted Miramax offering from Guy Ritchie hits theaters just as the Harvey Weinstein trial kicks off in New York. Miramax, for those with short-term memories, was the studio Harvey and his brother founded back in 1979. The name remains synonymous with the notorious abuser, which is why in Ritchie’s return to the British gangster romp it’s so strange to see the moniker not only up there in lights, but as part of the plot. Perhaps the studio thought of it as something of a whitewash, but the timing makes the connection just too hard to shake.

That bit of ignominious history aside, “The Gentlemen” is quite entertaining, sharper and more focused than Ritchie’s “RocknRolla” (2008) though not in the same class as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) or “Snatch” (2000). (Also hard to believe Ritchie just helmed the recent “Aladdin” adaptation). The ensemble here is a stroke of genius, with Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, an American transplant who runs a half-billion-dollar cannabis operation, Hugh Grant owning the picture as a conniving P.I. and aspiring screenwriter named Fletcher and hunky hot ticket Henry Golding as Dry Eye, a foot soldier with big ambitions. Then there’s Colin Farrell as “Coach,” a saucy sort who runs an inner-city gym, and Charlie Hunnam as Ray, Mickey’s fixer. The uber-twisted plot essentially rides on the rails of Mickey in the process of selling his business (because of his criminal past, when weed goes legal he likely won’t get a seat at the table) to a fellow American (Jeremy Strong). From there, the chess match of double dealings and plots within plots spews forth, the whole endeavor framed brilliantly by some deliciously dicey dialogue between Fletcher and Ray over a few bottles of scotch and Wagyu steak – what’s that in your freezer, the son of a Russian oligarch? 

The wild weave has some excitable highs – the hip-hop viral video of some of Coach’s kids laying a beatdown on a few of Mickey’s crew and Ray’s visit to a junkie’s den – but some of the orchestration feel far too enamored with itself and goes on too long. Cards are dealt and flipped, yet Ritchie keeps dealing. The bulk of the film hangs on McConaughey’s kingpin and his brash wife (Michelle Dockery), who runs an all-woman, luxury auto shop. But the characters that give the film soul and pop are the ones operating in the background, namely Fletcher, Coach and Ray. Grant’s wormy portrayal is so spot on but off-key for the actor that it’s blinding at first. (Ritchie unfortunately overplays the gift hand toward the end.) Farrell’s clean-cut, resourceful boxing honcho, however, is meted in just the right amount, including the unsavory deployment of a swine to win a point. Ray, for the most, emerges slowly but is the chap we get to know most intimately. He’s the film’s real hero. Golding, so promising in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Simple Favor” (both 2018), tries a changeup here, but for the most comes off as a pat, sneering fly in the ointment. 

The big snag for me (besides the brazen flag-waving of the Miramax banner) comes in Ritchie’s flagrant lifting of an iconic scene from “The Long Good Friday” (1978) – if you’re not familiar with the film, go see it; it’s the greatest British gangster flick to date. The borrow, unquestionably intended as homage and a Tarantino-esque nod and wink to in-the-know cinephiles, is admirable in intent, but the execution is staid, too close to the bone and anemic by comparison. If “The Gentlemen” had been about 15 to 20 minutes shorter it might have been a real rock-n-roller; as is, it’s sharply slick and witty between bouts of overwrought machinations.

John Henry

23 Jan

‘John Henry’: Seminal American hero update pits Terry Crews’ sledgehammer against gangs

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A small-budget thriller with plenty of grit and swagger, “John Henry” tosses tropes and lore into the blender with mixed results. Think “Billy Jack” (1971) or “Walking Tall” (1973) and you’d be in the neighborhood. For those who don’t know the American legend of John Henry (steeped in fact), the “steel-driving man” was a freed slave who took up work on a railroad. Henry was so physically gifted and effusive in his work, the folktale has it, that he raced a steam-driven boring machine to see who could get through the mountain quicker. The man won, but died shortly after. Here that myth gets a modern-day spin of sorts with football player-turned-character actor Terry Crews (“Idiocracy,” “Deadpool 2”) in the title role. His John has escaped gang life and tries to live quietly in L.A. Not an easy task, and because of his violent past, he abhors guns and keeps by his side (guesses anyone?) a sledgehammer for good measure.

John’s old life rages outside his front door. First, a gold-toothed gang banger runs over John’s dog – then threatens to shoot him because the dog gets blood all over his Escalade. Next, a den of gangsters who all don white jumpsuits (they’re Devo ridiculous, and there’s no perceivable purpose other than to make them easier to pick off) gets wiped out. Those behind it are two illegal immigrants there to free their Latina kindred, enslaved ostensibly for sex trade. One of the girls (Jamila Velazquez) ends up hiding under John Henry’s house and is later granted sanctuary. John can’t speak a lick of Spanish, but his loquacious, wheelchair-bound father (scene stealer Ken Foree) can, providing the communication bridge and the film with a meted current of comedy (Grady from “Sanford and Son” would not be a stretch). “Berta” is later joined by her brother Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria), one of the two behind the trigger in that shoot-up. “How many did you kill?” John asks. The answer is seven, and that’s the number Hell (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) will require to even the score. You know where this is going, sledgehammer and all.

The film, written and directed by first-timer Will Forbes, is notable for its social scope and ambition, but ultimately sags as it tries to do too much with the simple setup. The heat of the moment gets put on pause for ad nauseam backstory, and scenes of violent confrontation are drawn out so clumsily, Sergio Leone style, that hack trumps homage. That said, the infusion of rap and R&B bolsters the atmosphere greatly, and it’s nice to see Crews spread his wings role-wise. From the film, however, it’s hard to gauge his leading man potential. He’s big and imposing with the massive mallet in his mitts, sure, but then there’s Ludacris’s Hell sporting a cyborg-esque gold plated grille on the side of his face. He looks like he dropped out of lo-fi 1990s sci-fi thriller, and the effect is overwhelming. Rumor has it Netflix is queuing up a project with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as John Henry. More to come.

Murder Still a Mystery, One Year Later

3 Jan

 

District Attorney Marian Ryan steps aside at a Thursday press conference in Woburn so Elizabeth Dobbins can speak on the one-year anniversary of the death of her brother, Paul Wilson. (Photo: Tom Meek)

On the one-year anniversary of the killing of Paul Wilson, 60, in Danehy Park, law enforcement officials gathered at the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office in Woburn on Thursday to assure the public they continue to investigate – and to ask again for the public’s help in finding the killer.

Joining them was Wilson’s sister, Elizabeth Dobbins, who reflected on Wilson as big man with a big heart, and a man who valued family and friends. “He could connect with anyone and everyone,” she said, calling his death “incomprehensible and senseless.”

While there was little new to be revealed by District Attorney Marian Ryan and Cambridge police Deputy Superintendent Leonard DiPietro, it was made clear that a bat found at the scene of the crime was not used to kill Wilson.

“There is nothing that connects this item with the crime,” officials said. “A search of the park following the attack resulted in the collection of several samples of biological matter. Forensic testing has been conducted indicating that some of the blood found at the scene was animal blood; testing on further biological evidence remains ongoing.”

An image of Paul Wilson released Thursday by law enforcement officials.

Videos given to police by people in the area have not provided any answers, and Ryan said hundreds of park neighbors and visitors have been interviewed. “By revisiting this anniversary today, we are reminding the community of this crime and reinforcing the need for cooperation and information from the general public,” DiPietro added.

It was also noted that since the attack on Wilson, “investigators have also been made aware of some similar incidents that have occurred in Cambridge and other communities” but are not connected to his death, they said. “He was also found with his belongings on him, including an Apple Watch – suggesting robbery was not the motive.”

On Jan. 2, 2019, Wilson returned from work at IBM to the Porter Square T station and rode a Blue Bike home, parking it by his house on Sherman Street before walking through the park,  investigators said. Wilson was found by a passer-by shortly before 6:48 p.m. on an asphalt path near the Danehy Park parking lot and dumpsters, near New Street. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and pronounced dead from blunt force trauma at around 10:18 p.m. 

“There’s no reason to believe the crime didn’t take place where the body was found [and] there’s more reason to believe it did,” Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said at a public meeting a year ago. “Mr. Wilson was found right under working lights in a well-lit area. That wasn’t the problem.”

The discussion of motive was similar to what was discussed a year ago.  Wilson was “brutally murdered,” Bard said, and Ryan said at the time that there was no reason to believe the intention of the attack, in which “most of the blows were to the top of the head,” was a robbery. 

The death continues to be investigated by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, state police assigned there and by Cambridge police. “We have made some progress but have not ye identified a suspect,” Ryan said Thursday, renewing a call for anyone with information about the incident to call (781) 897-6600.

People with information are also invited to call Cambridge Police at (617) 349-3300. Anonymous reports can be left at (617) 349-3359; sent by text message to 847411 (begin your text with TIP650, then type your message); or by email by visiting CambridgePolice.org/Tips.

Uncut Gems

24 Dec

‘Uncut Gems’: Scheming knows no bounds, but walls, and Kevin Garnett, are closing in

 

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Fraught with edge-of-your-seat tension, “Uncut Gems,” the latest from Boston University-educated brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, stars Adam Sandler as a shady New York City jeweler in deep with the mob for a gambling addiction that knows no limits. The brothers’ last film, “Good Time” (2017) rode a similar arc with a protagonist (Robert Pattinson) living on the criminal fringe, making unwise choices that only amped up a sideways situation. The poor decisions there felt earnest; here, as Sandler’s Howard Ratner teeters atop the tip of a needle 24/7 and so routinely choses the most cataclysmically loaded option at hand, the orchestration of edginess feels calculated and engineered for the sake of taking it up one more notch. That heavy foot takes something away, but still the film remains a scalding-hot sizzle from frame one to the surprising last shot.

Much will be made about the choice to cast Sandler in a dramatic lead – he’s known mostly for slack, sophomoric fare such as “Happy Gilmore” (1996) and “The Waterboy” (1998) – but folks can all take a deep breath; the New Hampshire native is more than fine, and feels minted for the part of an overly intense New York Jew with big ambitions, self-destructive addictions and a penchant for bad life choices.

The fun part here for Boston peeps is that old friend Kevin Garnett pops up in the cast, playing himself (KG!). If you’re thinking it’s his latter Brooklyn Nets years, think again – he’s with the Green, as the year (we’re told during a colonoscopy) is 2012, and the Cs are playing the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semis (the LeBron-led Miami Heat would win the title that year) with KG winding his way through New York between road games with Philly. What’s KG got to do with a two-bit hustler? He’s buds with a streetwise operator named Demany (LaKeith Stanfield, so good in “Sorry to Bother You”) who stores his Rolex stash at Howard’s cramped showroom in New York’s jewelry district. Meanwhile Howard gets a covert shipment (in a fish belly) of Ethiopian opals, all glommed together in a two-fist mass. Garnett catches a glimmer of the stone, feels a mystical emanation and decides he wants to hold onto it for good luck during the next game. His collateral? The 2008 NBA championship ring he won with the Cs, which Howard pawns immediately, putting the whole enchilada on Garnett and the Celtics to take down Philly, playing home court.

Howard’s an impulsive sort. Did I mention he’s big into a loan shark (Eric Bogosian, excellent) who has close family ties with Howard (they do Passover together, which is awkward, to say the least)? Then there’s Howard’s discerning wife (Idina Menzel), hot and onto it all, and the kept woman he puts up in a posh pad (Julia Fox, who should ride a breakthrough wave after this) and the two sons he hardly ever sees as he bounces from one dicey situation to the next, buying just enough time to make the next poor choice, ever adding to a mounting shitstorm of lies and imminent retribution. Continue reading

First Love

4 Oct

‘First Love’: Boxer and dame are on the run through cartoonishly blood-slicked streets

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Takashi Miike, the Japanese auteur of such intimate torture ditties as “Audition” (1999) and “Ichi the Killer” (2001) and the Kurosawa-worthy swordplay of “13 Assassins” (2010), returns to his roots with “First Love,” which, while lacking the intimacy of his other works, delivers the anticipated cringe-worthy beatdowns and unfolds in a freer and more conventional fashion. Taking place almost exclusively at night, amid the seedier side of a neon-bathed cityscape, “First Love” borrows some from Tarantino’s gangster dramas as it centers around a taciturn boxer (Masataka Kubota) and a young woman haunted by ghosts and forced into prostitution (Sakurako Konishi), thrown together and sucked into a criminal underbelly of yakuza heavies, drug dealers and one super badass moll.

That boxer, Leo has his own ghosts – abandoned as a child, he’s recently learned he has a brain tumor. Yuri (Konishi), as a means for her handlers to hold her to her trade, is often hopped up on drugs that only expounds her frenetic paranoia; the specter only she can see comes charging at her in nothing but tighty-whities. Yes, “First Love” is that kind of of gonzo good WTF. It’s a deft professional jab by Leo that brings the the two together, but before they can pause to fall in love – because you know they should be together, no matter how hopeless and desperate their futures seem – bigger machinations rise up and engulf then. A midlevel enforcer named Kase (Shôta Sometani), seeking a greater slice of the action, hatches a plan to play his mafioso boss against a rival while mixing in a squad of corrupt cops. It’s a crapshoot that goes wildly astray. There’s little redeeming about Kase, though the fact that he thinks he’s smarter than he is helps make “First Love” such an enjoyable shit show of madness and mayhem.

Kubota, who also starred in Miike’s “13 Assassins,” carries the silent accidental hero part with aplomb as Konishi’s imperiled damsel dances about him, weaving in and out of bouts of hysteria. It’s great cinematic chemistry, but the real scene stealer here is Becky Rabone as Julie, the girlfriend of the gangster henchman who was Yuri’s protector/pimp. She’s pretty good with a blade, and if there’s not one around she’s just as happy to go hand-to-hand with a larger male counterpart, stomping his brains out once she’s got him down. Talk about a take-no-prisoners attitude (though the name Julie just feels wrong for such a luridly alluring incarnation): For most the film, she rolls through the streets sans pants or skirt, just blood-splattered stockings and stiletto heels. There’s one hilariously grim scene in which a gangster has his gun-wielding arm lopped off and tries to pry the the firearm away with his remaining hand, but his dismembered arm is clutching the pistol too tightly. (“Fist Love”?) It’s classic Miike, and sure to be an elating moment for fire-branded fans. “First Love” may be a bit of a changeup, but all the twisted, dark wit is in there and served up with a wry, bloody smile. Also too, not enough can be said about Nobuyasu Kita’s fine cinematography, which captures the rain-slicked, trash-strewn streets in vibrant neon splashes.

Hustlers

13 Sep

 

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“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “The Big Short” (2015) and “Wall Street” (1987) all capture fast cash and high times in vivid blurs of overindulgence, articulated through mounds of designer drugs, $100 bottles of champagne and long-legged women in G-strings sashaying about for well-fleeced oglers. “Hustlers” takes all that and flips it on its head – kind of.

The time is 2007, pre-“Big Short” or, more accurately, about the same time, since it’s before the market collapse, and the folks raking in gobs of green on Wall Street are also shelling it out to a posse of pole dancers at a semi-swank Manhattan club. This also being pre-#MeToo, bad behavior and Robert Kraft-like expectations are all part of the landscape. The film, based on on a New York Magazine article, begins with fairy tale roots as Destiny (Constance Wu), the byproduct of a bad immigrant story, short on degrees and in need of cash to support her granny, takes up lap dance duty at the club – “Magic Mike” this is not. Stuck in that rut, she winds up being taken being under the wing (and enormous fur jacket) of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s den queen. The pair team up, dance their tassels off, money flows in buckets and life is grand until that market collapse.

It’s there that the film begins to lose its own value, as the pair and their crew – needing to support kids and expensive digs – begin to shake down those still thriving on Wall Street by giving them essentially what amounts to roofies and maxing out their credit cards. It’s not a pretty picture.

It feels right that this tale of quasi-female empowerment be told by a woman, and while Lorene Scafaria shows plenty of game early on, hyping up the glitz and sleazy glamor and capturing the raucous backstage banter and J-Lo crushing it on the pole – her form and physicality are beyond age-defying – the film meanders as the narrative in the later years employs the device of the journalist (Julia Stiles) asking Destiny to rewind the ring’s exploits after a takedown. It becomes “Goodfellas” lite. Scafaria tosses in a few cinematic tricks to keep things interesting, such as the still moving lips of Destiny and the journalist gone silent after Destiny shuts of the recording device, but there’s not enough gonzo quirk as in Adam McKay’s “Big Short” to really merit them. The real pull here is the bond forged onscreen between Wu, Lopez and the others running the operation, but even that gets frayed and lost in the end.

Wu, who’s been trying to break free from the small screen (“Fresh Off the Boat,” primarily) the same way Jennifer Aniston did nearly two decades ago, makes a bigger, bold stride toward center stage following her turn in the hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” but here too, she becomes more of a plot-flow funnel point; the film’s consumed by Lopez every time she’s onscreen – it’s Lopez’s best work since the quirky crime caper-cum-romance “Out of Sight” back in 1998.

Yes Cardi B, is in the mix, and perfectly outlandish. Early century icon Usher shows up as himself to shower the posse on stage with wads of green. Those cameos come early, but as the money and the watering hole dry up and more desperate measures abound, the film loses its fangs, hanging on a broken Destiny wondering about her friend and mentor. Wu is fantastic in those scenes, but by that time something in the bigger picture feels missing, and we feel shorted emotionally as the tale of Ramona and Destiny gets rolled into a lesson of the times.

Piranhas

7 Aug

 

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The mean streets of Naples (Italy, not the retirement destination in Florida) get their due in this gritty portrait of youth born and baptized into mob crime. It’s a vicious circle of too short life where guns and ruthlessness rule the streets. “Piranhas” will call to mind every pack of misguided youth engaging in dubious/criminal behavior film, from “The 400 Blows” (1959) to “The Florida Project” (2017) with flourishes of Scorsese thrown in. It’s not on par with those, but it tries.

The preamble, with two teen gangs bristling and chest thumping over rights to a prize Christmas tree from a mall, is one of the film’s most telling and rewarding scenes. Afterward, in a ceremonial bonfire-cum-initiation rite, we learn that these little fish with sharp teeth are from rival mafia clans. As “Piranhas” builds, it’s not as cut and dried as to who’s the enemy; motivations and codes are murky and fluid and Naples is seedier, more chaotic and far less glamorous than in the “Godfather” films. We follow the cocky, charismatic Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli), blessed with pop-star good looks and full of big plans, but addled by limited acumen. In short, he’s a loaded weapon, and it’s with a cache of automatic-caliber arms and alpha male tendencies that he begins to realize his aspirations – he’ll even dress in drag to get the job done.

The film, directed by Claudio Giovannesi (“Fiore”), who also filmed parts of the hit Italian crime television series “Gomorrah” based on Roberto Saviano’s novel – never quite fully builds out the characters beyond Nicola; they feel like castoffs from better engineered mob movies. Saviano, something of a sensation not only for his works but for the attention they garnered from the capos depicted in it, co-wrote the screenplay with Giovannesi and others from his novel “La paranza dei bambini.” To be certain, it crackles and sparks at points, but it never catches fire. Di Napoli carries it all with his angelic countenance. If only his Nicola, on a well-trodden path, only had a soul to sell.