Tag Archives: crime

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.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

8 Nov

‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’: Spy Salander brings work home in ‘Dragon Tattoo’ film

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As in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (either version), female revenge fantasies reign in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” as hacker/punker/private investigator-cum-vigilante Lisbeth Salander (Clair Foy, “The Crown” and “First Man”) takes down rich abusive husbands (emptying out their bank accounts, giving the spoils to the abused and sending that video of the miscreant shagging the boss’ wife to said employer), deals with even deeper daddy and family issues than previous cinematic installments and, well, pretty much saves the world James Bond-style. Yeah, it’s a hive (nay, a web) of activity and a lot is asked of Foy, who’s not given much of a skin to fill — though she’s every bit as fierce and feral as Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara were in earlier incarnations.

The story, adapted from the first posthumous adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy by novelist David Lagercrantz, centers around a rogue black market mob called the Spiders (sans Ziggy) in possession of a encryption program called Firefall that gives them the keys to every nuke around the globe. They’ve hijacked the master switch from Lisbeth after she, at the behest of its creator, a conflicted NSA agent (Stephen Merchant), hacks it away from the NSA to destroy it. To get the keys to the doomsday device, there are big chases, cloistered struggles and improbable getaways – Swedish cops make the Keystones look adroit – and the baddies are all fetching statuesque blondes, namely Sylvia Hoeks, so cold and steely as the relentless replicant in “Blade Runner 2049” and more of the same here.

Lisbeth has to handle a package – the savant son of said NSA genius (Christopher Convery), who is the key to Firefall going live. In all the crash-bang Bond-esque thrills, the nuance and dark gothic brooding that made the Swedish series and the American remake by David Fincher so compelling never gets switched on here. Foy looks the part, but her Lisbeth is nearly as cold and aloof as Hoeks’ sadistic stalker in red. (The smackdown-in-stilettos thing, which worked for Charlize Theron in “Atomic Blonde,” does not work here.) Plus, Lisbeth’s skills are so top-notch and she’s so well known, how is it Google or Amazon haven’t hired her away? I mean this “girl” is sharp and resourceful in a way that would make McGyver look inept. She’s able to hack an airport security system with a cache of dildos, and while driving a car she uses her iPhone to take control of the vehicle she’s pursuing – while careening across a bridge at a breakneck speed in a snowstorm.

Even when it winds back to the big family estate in the cold icy hinterlands, made so iconic and visually alluring by Fincher in 2009, the film’s still all about high-tech oneupmanship and soft-core, bind-torture shenanigans. Lakeith Stanfield, so good in “Sorry to Bother You,” drops in as the U.S. agent out to recover Firefall. His Needham allegedly is one of the greatest hackers of all time, yet we never see him at a keyboard, just behind the trigger of a very big gun. The script by Steven Knight (“Locke”), Jay Basu and director Fede Alvarez tries to strap too much in. It’s sleek but overloaded. As built, this web’s a fun, passing fancy too emotionally inert to snag anything worth caring about.

Bad Time at the El Royale

13 Oct

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’: You can check in, then suspect no one in this noir gets out alive

 

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a knuckleball-noir, a den of thieves stuffed with double agendas. The star of the film, besides the ripped abs of Chris Hemsworth or sexy boot-wearing waif Cailee Spaeny, is the remote resort of the title, once a grand casino straddling California and Nevada (there’s a red line down the middle of the lobby, and you can drink only on the California side). It’s seen better days, but lost its gambling license. Needless to say, few people check in; by the time the movie is over, even fewer check out.

The time is the Nixon-tainted ’70s, so cellphones are not a thing, but wiretapping and one-way mirrors are. An amiable reverend (Jeff Bridges) and a backup soul singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in first. Then there’s Jon Hamm, right out of “Mad Men” as a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Dakota Johnson, who zips in Tarantino-hip in a mod model muscle car with a bound bundle in the trunk. Not everyone’s whom they pretend to be, and the skittish hotel manager (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill, excellent in a role that seems designed for the late Anton Yelchin) bears the weight of past horrors in the hotel and has demanding owners to answer to. The inn has a few secrets as well.

As the sands shift and the mother of all storms descends, the tension rises. What’s buried under the hotel? Who is the mysterious being fled by Johnson’s Emily Summerspring and her sister Ruth (Spaeny)? Plus there’s the gruesome murder of a couple nearby that we hear about over and over on TV, with the killer still on the loose. Deep Purple and some lesser-known Motown kick up the scene – something that’s needed, because at almost two and a half hours “El Royale” is nearly an hour too long (but stylish nonetheless). And though directed by Drew Goddard, whose debut, “Cabin in the Woods” (2012) was a breath of fresh air to the horror genre, the film overplays moments. The plot, which in premise bears much in common with James Mangold’s 2003 Nevada hotel thriller “Identity,” loses its enigmatic edge a little over halfway in, and many of the more likable souls perish far too soon. But fear not, everyone gets a flashback, and certain scenes get replayed from multiple POVs. They’re neat devices, but not every character comes out feeling fully sketched. 

Hemsworth, who played beautifully against his Thor persona in “Cabin in the Woods,” isn’t given much to do here as a Cali-sun god and cult leader – Jim Morrison infused with the cocky cold-bloodedness of Charles Manson. It’s a big, hammy bone, and it gets well gnawed. The camp mostly works, while Bridges and Johnson hold the fort, Spaeny and Pullman add flourishes of manic quirk and Erivo adds soul, social context and glorious chops. The Watergate fiasco and a MacGuffin that could be tied to JFK loom at the corners, but they’re mostly distractions; the film is best when characters sit and banter over whisky, even if their hands are tied and a gun is to their head.

Peppermint

9 Sep

‘Peppermint’: Jennifer Garner takes her turn in not-so-fresh parental revenge action genre

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There’s nothing minty or fresh to “Peppermint,” the hard-boiled throwback from Pierre Morel who covered similar terrain with “Taken” back in 2008. That psychological actioner starring Liam Neeson as a relentless pa out to reclaim his daughter from kidnappers proved a surprisingly effective B-grade thriller. Here, unfortunately, the amiable Jennifer Garner spreading her wings as an avenging angel has a lot less to work with in terms of nuance and character, though the film far exceeds “Taken” in brutality and head count. Comparisons to “Old Boy” or “John Wick” would be fair.

The film begins accordingly with a bloody struggle inside a boxy sedan in predawn Los Angeles. In those tight confines, Garner’s Riley North eventually gains the upper hand and lets a bullet fly into the cranium of a highly tatted gangbanger. The thing you admire most about the whole affair and its aftermath is Riley’s steely resolve and professional efficiency. You know she’s done this before. The how and why of that get answered quickly as we flash back five years, with Riley now a Girl Scout-leading soccer mom. Things are pretty tight for the Norths: Riley works part time in a bank while her loving yet flawed husband Chris (Jeffery Hephner) labors in a garage while figuring out his next big move. Unwisely, he listens (just listens) to an offer to be part of a crew to rob a drug lord by the fantastically generic name of Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), who, as the film says over and over, is the Mr. Big of the L.A. crime scene. The offer gets turned down, but Garcia’s already caught wind of the job and takes out Chris and Riley’s 9-year-old daughter (Cailey Fleming) in a drive-by. Riley sees the whole ordeal – in repeat slow-mo – and even though she IDs the shooters to the police, once in court, the defense attorney smugly flips the case. The judge won’t listen to Riley’s plea and the prosecutors don’t seem to care. The shooter goes free. An enraged Riley is cuffed, dragged out of court and prepped for a mental institution. Continue reading

BlacKKKlansman

13 Aug

‘BlacKkKlansman’: True story of infiltration that hardly has to sneak in a modern message

 

If someone told you there’d be a movie about a black man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, you’d probably call BS. I mean, how could that ever be? But what if the infiltrator were Jewish? You’d likely double down on your BS card – after all, these are the two bloodlines that drive the rallying hate of the white knights whose mission has been to keep America pure and white. Continue reading