Tag Archives: true crime

Shirley

7 Jun

‘Shirley’: Author has plenty of horror to handle, even some to deal out as couple comes to stay

By Tom Meek

shir2

Josephine Decker’s screen adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s “Shirley: A Novel,” is a haunting affair that, while steeped in reality, is highly fictionalized (that tag “A Novel” being a tell). The film catches up with author Shirley Jackson in Bennington, Vermont, in the 1950s, where she’s in a deep depression because her brutally alluring short classic “The Lottery” is found appalling by early readers. It doesn’t help that her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name,” and so good in the Coen brother’s “A Serious Man”), a literary critic and professor, is too interested in his own career to deal with his wife’s malaise – so what better way to pass the buck and get some me time? Rope in your starving writer teaching assistant and wife as emotional wet nurses by giving the them free room and board in your country manse.

“Shirley” plays fast and loose with dates and events (such as when works were published, and the timeframes of events leading up to them) but that’s okay – what Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins are after is a character study of Jackson, turning her mental anguish into something of a near gothic horror story that Jackson herself might have written (think Ken Russell’s 1986 spin about Lord Byron and Mary Shelly, “Gothic,” and you’d have the right idea). What wins the bold gamble is Elizabeth Moss nailing the author’s weepy depression, her simmering anger against her wayward husband and ultimately, her literary resolve. Moss, who rose from her wallflower persona on “Mad Men” to more full-bodied roles in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and as a punk diva in “Her Smell” (2018), has become something of an icon of Covid-19 streaming in the chasm created by studios holding back products for theatrical releases following the shutdown: This endeavor and Leigh Whannell’s radical reimagining of “The Invisible Man” both went from theater to smaller screens (along with “The Hunt”) without missing a beat. She notches a new level here, and you feel as if this isn’t her topper yet.

A key background element to “Shirley” is the real-life missing Bennington College student Paula Jean Welden and the powerful pull it had on Jackson – the case would became the basis for her novel “Hangsaman.” Then there are the attendants, the newlywed Nemsers, Fred (Logan Lerman, “End of Sentence”) and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young, “Assassination Nation”). Whiskey pours at night, as does sexual innuendo. As Rose and Shirley spin off into a strange codependent relationship punctuated by bouts of mania (from pregnancy and depression) and jealously, we also get a good lesson in the misogyny of the time as the two men stay out, carousing and pawing after other women indiscriminately. Overall, in the tightly clustered affair, we’re not too far from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” territory.

Decker’s plumped similar internal anxieties with her 2018 cornerstone, “Madeline’s Madeline” and digs in deeper here, but it’s Moss who carries the film with a moody soulfulness complemented by the ensemble around her. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is as affable as he is contemptible, and Young holds her own in simmering tense scenes with Moss. It’s a dark, near-real work that bears both fangs and fruit.

Tread

21 Feb

‘Tread’: They did this bulldozer owner wrong, and he’ll take out half the town to make it right

tmp-tread22

Documentarian Paul Solet takes a newsreel curio and turns it into “Tread,” a riveting, anthropological examination of small-town life, the hairs that get curled during long legal proceedings and the psychological pathology of righteous retribution. If you dial back to 2004 you may recollect a pissed-off citizen going berserk in the podunk town of Granby, Colorado, with a bulldozer. It was no ordinary piece of construction equipment, but a Komatsu D55A tricked out with armor and automatic weapons – in essence, a tank that authorities were ineffective in stopping for a several-hourlong rampage.

But before getting to that, Solet rewinds to what would send Marvin Heemeyer over the edge. It’s important to keep in mind that Granby’s a close-knit mountain town of 2,000. In interviews, many townsfolk reflect fondly on Heemeyer, noting his amiable manner and skill as a welder and skimobile racer. During the buildup we also meet Trisha Macdonald, Heemeyer‘s girlfriend, whose sensible and reflective presence doesn’t suggest the kind of person who would take up with someone who was arguably off their rocker, let alone a brimming sociopath. But then there are tape recordings by Heemeyer himself, righteous and delusional: “God bless me in advance for the task which I am about to undertake.” In a pivotal scene underscoring the psychological mood, a re-enactor playing Heemeyer shaves his head, Travis Bickle style, before firing up the big rig.

The pushing point, we’re told, is a long simmering land dispute. Heemeyer owned and operated a muffler and welding shop, but the parcel he bought at auction was also desired by a local businessman with strong municipal and political ties. Infractions and numerous legal battles – that Heemeyer lost – added up and took their toll, forcing the 50-something craftsman to withdraw and put his skill to work. The killdozer, when you first catch a glimpse of it, seems like something out of a zany sci-fi or post-apocalyptic film. What’s also impressive is Solet’s meticulous orchestration of the narrative, especially during that final chaotic showdown when a gantlet of police, grenades, 50-caliber bullets and even earth movers couldn’t stop Heemeyer from obliterating half the town. The blend of archival footage, commentary from the participants and re-enacted dramatization builds with the taut grit of a hardboiled thriller.

Solet, born and raised in Cambridge, cut his teeth in the horror genre (“Grace,” “Dark Summer” and a “Tales of Halloween” segment). His last outing, “Bullet Head” (2017) was something of a crime thriller with an envious cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Antonio Banderas and John Malkovich. The project wasn’t quite fully baked, but perhaps a helpful warm up for “Tread,” a clear departure for Solet that’s a compelling ride and a window into the machinations of small-town life that push one of their own too far.

The Irishman

15 Nov

‘The Irishman’: De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel – Scorsese saga gets the ol’ mob back together

tmp-irish

Al Pacino edges Robert De Niro by one with eight Oscar nominations, but De Niro has taken home two of the coveted gold bald statues to Pacino’s one. The pair are two of the greatest actors of a winding-down generation who, in “The Irishman,” the latest from mob movie maestro Martin Scorsese, get a shot at putting a crowning jewel on their storied careers. Both had parts in Frances Ford Coppola’s timeless “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), in which De Niro played the youthful version of Vito Corleone (gold statue numero uno) and Pacino played his future son, Michael – and the two were never onscreen together. Some 20 years later they shared the screen as cat and mouse in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995) with Pacino’s dogged cop getting the better of De Niro’s quiet criminal. Here, where the two play real-life mob enforcer Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), there’s a something of a payback. (To do full and accurate accounting, the icons took a hit for their part in the tepid 2008 cop drama “Righteous Kill.” Not that you needed to know, but.)

Much will be made of the (near) three-and-a-half-hour runtime of “The Irishman,” but it goes by in a blip as it hops around a 50-year period, with much of the focus on the Hoffa years – the early ’60s to 1975, when the labor lord went missing. The cause and culprit remain an American mystery, though Scorsese and his talented screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) work from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” to offer up a theory with strong conviction (Brandt’s book was based on interviews with Sheeran, who died in 2003). The implied question of the book’s title is a polite way to ask a tough guy if he does hits; a casual “yes” is how De Niro’s Frank responds in the film. Continue reading

Hustlers

13 Sep

 

Image result for hustlers movie

“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.

The Old Man & the Gun

5 Oct

‘The Old Man & the Gun’: Redford’s final bow is a charmer, like his gentleman bank robber

 

Image result for the old man and the gun

It’s been almost 50 years since Robert Redford rode into cinematic history with Paul Newman as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In that 1969 film, guns were drawn but seldom used, and never to take out a bank clerk or guard during a heist. Clearly these were thieves raised well and with a civilized degree of humanity … sparking the question: Could the prospect of being robbed at gunpoint be any more enjoyable? The answer, as David Lowery’s “The Old Man & the Gun” has it, is an emphatic yes. In the based-on-a-true-crime film, an 82-year-old Redford (promising his last thespian turn) plays Forrest Tucker, an avuncular gent who robs banks wearing a professorial herringbone tweed jacket and a grandfatherly fedora pulled down tight to shield his mug. He’s quite the charmer when flashing the unloaded pistol of the title, complimenting nerve-wracked tellers on their attire and bestowing friendly insights. You almost expect him to leave a tip.

We first catch up with Tucker and his AARP posse (Danny Glover and Tom Waits, both great) as they pull off a caper. All goes smoothly, except at the time there’s a police officer named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) in line with his daughter, and he takes the crime personally. The aptly zealous Hunt, digging around on police blotters, realizes that Tucker and his “Over the Hill Gang” have been operating under the radar for sometime, strategically hitting locales across state lines to keep investigators off their trail. Continue reading

White Boy Rick

23 Sep

‘White Boy Rick’: Life of overachieving teen can’t sustain its high in crack-dealing 1980s

Image result for white boy rick

 

There’s a whole lot of bristle and edge to “White Boy Rick,” the true-life chronicle of Rick Wershe, a plucky street criminal who made front page news as a drug dealer and gun runner in crack-addicted Detroit. Sure, there were lots of other kingpins working the street during the desperate ’80s, but Rick was barely 16 and – as the film has it – the only white kid trying to cut in. Rick was also an on-and-off again informant for the FBI, a move that ultimately proves less favorable than it did for local white guy Whitey Bulger.

If you were hoping “White Boy Rick” might be a Horatio Alger story propelled with shotgun shells like “Scarface,” it’s not. It’s more a tale of desperation, poor choices and swimming against the current and, on a social level, an American tragedy, and there’s a lot you want to like: the topographical audacity, trademark disco funk music, gritty street lingo and a wickedly impressive cast. But somehow “White Boy Rick” doesn’t know how to deliver, or maybe it’s just that hard to make a true-life criminal be sympathetic or compelling onscreen. Remember how highly anticipated “Black Mass” was, and how it fell short? Rick doesn’t kill anyone here – not directly, anyway, though he does unload a gunny sack of AK-47s to a posse of trigger-happy gangbangers and later distributes heroin and crack. So there’s that.

What “White Boy Rick” needs is a fix of character development and motivation. We have little idea why Rick grabs that satchel of guns from his dad initially and saunters into a kingpin’s operation, inconspicuous as an elephant at a yoga retreat. It’s a perfectly orchestrated and tense scene, but without a framework it wanes quickly thereafter – as does much of the film, as it achieves crescendo after crescendo only to return to flatness. It’s no fault of new face Richie Merritt, who’s convincing enough as the titular man-boy full of resolve and the capacity to pull the trigger, but a high reluctance to shoot first and think later. Strangely or perhaps poetically, Rick flows seamlessly from white to black. If you could imagine Gary Oldman’s dreaded and grilled gangster in “True Romance” shot in the rump with a tranquilizer, you’d have the right approximation: far less cartoonish, but with the right amount of cred. 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