Tag Archives: crime

Death Wish

7 Mar


I like Bruce Willis, I do. But, sorry Bruce, you’re no Charles Bronson, not even close, and even more to the point, Eli Roth is no Michael Winner.

Who might Micheal Winner be, you ask. He’s the guy who directed the original “Death Wish” back in the 1970s with Bronson as a New York City architect looking to avenge the death of his wife and rape of his daughter. Winner was also responsible for two of the series’ feeble follow-ups (“Death Wish II” and “Death Wish 3”) and “Won Ton Ton: the Dog who Saved Hollywood” (1976). Weak tea to be sure, but that said, that 1974 collaboration yielded a palpable revenge fantasy chock full of sharp, witty commentary and a Bronson brimming with nonchalant machismo. In the Roth/Willis updating, motive, cathartic process and emotion get tamped down in favor of staging and contrivance.

While much of the narrative bare bones based on Brian Garfield’s novel remains, much has changed as well. The setting has flipped from New York to Chicago, and the avenging Paul Kersey is no longer an architect but a surgeon who’s been witnessing the city’s 20 year high crime rate firsthand via his operating table – the opening scene of a cop rushed into the ER feels a bit heavy-handed and becomes an omen as to how Roth, the gore-meister behind “The Green Inferno” and the “Hostel” films, wants to go. There’s a wealth of technological advancements from the past 40-plus years (PCs, cellphones, social media, GPS and smart cars to name a few) that feed nicely into the plot. Willis’ Kersey too is not an urban dweller, but lives in the affluent ’burbs. The crew that take out his wife and daughter early on are less cruel than the Bronson versions (the incident is on his birthday, but there’s no rape that we see) but the violence that Kersey ultimately dishes out is far more decisive and sadistic. Continue reading


The Snowman

24 Oct


This much-hyped thriller (“produced by Martin Scorsese”) based on Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s crime series becomes its own enigmatic entity. “The Snowman” is both a wonderment to behold and an endless aching thud of frenetic plot manipulations that insult the audience’s intelligence – something that’s bound to happen when you build a thriller by proxy (two or more screenwriters). It makes you step back and ponder what might have been. The prospects are endless, as all the pieces are right there; they just don’t fit and flow.

The tale is set in Oslo and the surrounding countryside, captured in gorgeous scenic shots. Everything is gray, drab and snowbound, also a fair assessment of all the characters skulking about a dark whodunit that reaches for the moody grandeur of a David Fincher film (“Se7en” or “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) but winds up closer to “Body of Evidence” (1993), which effectively killed Madonna’s acting career and probably had Willem Dafoe thinking about swapping agents.  Continue reading

Good Time

25 Aug

It’s “Rain Man” meets “Eddie Coyle” in this up-in-your-chest New York City heist flick. The film, by Boston University grads Benny and Josh Safdie, is imbued with the type of on-the-street grit that made Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” so indelible, and the riveting electric score by Daniel Lopatin notches up the emotional disarray in every frame. If there’s one thing “Good Time” is not, is short on mood. The setup bookends the central narrative with scenes of a baby-faced young man by the name of Nick (played convincingly by Benny Safdie, doing double duty) under duress while in therapy sessions with a wild-haired psychiatrist (Peter Verby, whose face is a cinematic wonder in its own right). In the opener, Nick’s asked to give free association responses to random terms. His answers to “scissors and a cooking pan” (“You can hurt yourself with both”) and “salt and water” (“The beach”) are telling – not in the actual response, but how he responds. He clearly has some form of developmental handicap.

The scene smolders in tight closeups, but before the grim gravity of Nick’s prospects can take root fully – or the psychiatrist can dig any deeper – Nick’s brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) bursts through the door and extracts his sibling. Has Nick been saved? For the moment, yes, but not in the bigger scheme of things. The two are incredibly tight (the Safdies are clearly drawing on their own sibling bond) but pretty much have only each other to draw on and limited financial resources; to keep the pack together, Connie cooks up a plan to rob a bank in the middle of the day, the execution and choreography of which is so hauntingly reminiscent of “Dog Day Afternoon” you half expect Al Pacino to pop out with chants of “Attica.” The lads do make off with the cash, but matters with ride sharing, dye packs and Nick’s emotional instability provide steep obstacles. It’s a riveting game of cat and mouse as the brothers dash down littered alleyways and into a mall atrium with the police a hot breath away. Just as they look to be in the clear, Nick crashes through a glass pane and is taken into custody. Where the story goes next is as unpredictable as its protagonist. Continue reading

Logan Lucky

22 Aug

It’s only been four years, but feels much longer, since director Steven Soderbergh last treated filmgoing audiences to one of his quirky, deconstructive gems. Granted, “Side Effects” (2013) was something of a disappointment, but the director’s HBO biopic of flamboyant performer Liberace that same year generated plenty of heat, as did his previous feature, “Magic Mike” (2012). Soderbergh, an against-the-grain filmmaker, has always been one to toss the dice, be it his casting of a martial arts expert or a porn star in character-driven lead roles (“Haywire” and “The Girlfriend Experience”) or being one of the first to deliver a film simultaneously into theaters and on-demand (“Bubble” in 2005). For his latest, the American auteur taps into the skin of some of his more commercial fare – “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Out of Sight” – while farming fresh territory.

So it’s no surprise “Logan Lucky” is a heist caper – though not nearly as hip as the “Ocean” films. It’s set at a massive Nascar speedway in North Carolina, with the bulk of its protagonists down-on-their-luck West Virginians. Glitz and glamour are scarce, but arrive in the form of Riley Keough (so wickedly good in “American Honey” and adding to her stock here) as one of the Logan clan in on a plot to drain the speedway’s vault, and Katie Holmes as the ex-wife who’s traded up in social class and occupies a sprawling McMansion. At the center looms lovable Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, who’s been in several of Soderbergh’s more recent projects, including the Mike in “Magic Mike”) a golden-armed QB who never made good his promise to play at the collegiate or professional level because of a bum knee; as a result he toils as a second-string laborer, and a prideful one at that, refusing financial help from the ex who’s constantly offering to buy him a cellphone so they can better coordinate handoffs of their beauty pageant-obsessed daughter. Continue reading

Wind River

14 Aug

Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter behind “Sicario” who garnered an Oscar nod for “Hell or High Water” last year, gets back in the director’s seat (he helmed a “Saw”-esque flick in 2011 called “Vile” that you might have missed) for “Wind River,” a crime thriller set high in the Wyoming wild. Much like “High Water,” the landscape and desolate character of the setting becomes a central player in the action – and there’s oil to be had as well.

Jeremy Renner stars as Fish and Wildlife officer Cory Lambert, who gets enlisted by FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help solve the murder of a young Native American woman (Kelsey Asbille) on an Indian reservation. They’re assisted by the local sheriff (Graham Greene), who has ties to the native community. From Florida and unfamiliar with Native American traditions, Banner couldn’t be more of a fish out of water, and she’s also got that wet-behind-the-ears, can-do gene that made Clarice Starling so indelible in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

What drives “Wind River” isn’t so much the present action but the heavy backstories the characters carry, which burn with real, raw emotional palpability. Lambert, married to a Native American, lost a daughter due to negligence – he’s haunted by not knowing the full details – and saw his marriage dissolve because of it. The weight of that resonates in the tired creases of Renner’s face and becomes Lambert’s unenviable yet natural bond with the victim’s father (Gil Birmingham, whose rendering of parental despair is heartbreaking). Then there’s the plight of the native population ground down by alcoholism, drug addiction and broken dreams, an ensnaring downward cycle on sharp display.

Bodies pile up, and the narrative cuts back on itself smartly and seamlessly as Lambert and Banner get closer to the truth. The scenes of rape and murder are brutally graphic, yet serve to illustrate the depths of disregard when humans get blinded by rage, desire and pack mentality. The issue of racism gets explored as well as in the deep, snow-covered heart of the reservation and oil-drilling site, which is guarded by imported security forces; as the screw turns, the sense of law and order there become a wispy notion. “Wind River,” like “Hell or High Water,” ultimately becomes a Western in construct, with Renner’s reluctant Lambert something of a “Shane”-like last barrier. The combination of character, setting and weave makes well-known tropes fresh and new.

Baby Driver

3 Jul

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright's kinetic caper film

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright’s kinetic caper film


Edgar Wright, the man behind the edgy romps Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), comical deconstructions of the zombie and cop buddy genres, as well as the quirky, if not gonzo, adaptation of the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim — as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) — moves into far darker territory with his latest, Baby Driver. The project may have taken root as a result of Wright’s affiliation with Quentin Tarantino on the 2007 B-flick homage, Grindhouse, but the texture isn’t so much Tarantino pulpy as it is the kind of criminal abyss you might find in a Nicolas Winding Refn film if served up with the kitschy kinetic flourishes of an unbridled Luc Besson.

The film, in short, is an adrenaline shot that never lets down. You won’t get a chance to go to the bathroom, but also, because of the breakneck pace, the audience never gets a chance to get caught up emotionally. Wright gets right to it as a squad of robbers (played by Jon Bernthal, John Hamm, and Eliza González) and their driver, the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) hold up a bank. We don’t go into the bank for the job but hang out in the car with the aptly named wheelman (née, boy), who has the fresh face of a J. Crew model and doesn’t appear old enough to drink, as he listens to tunes on his iPod and plays air guitar. It’s a cute moment for a while, but after a bit, it becomes clear it lacks the energetic meanness of Tom Cruise in his skivvies in Risky Business. Blessedly, the robbers pour out of the bank with the heat hot on their tail, and this is where Wright and the film really kick it up. Baby’s got Mario Andretti skills and Steve McQueen cool and to prove the point, we get an endless phalanx of blue and whites to chase Baby’s hot-red Subaru through the streets of Atlanta. Cars crash, traffic backs up, and there’s nothing Baby won’t try as the net tightens. Wrong way down the freeway, no problem.  Continue reading

Free Fire

26 Apr

With ‘Free Fire,’ Ben Wheatley Puts His Bloody Stamp On Boston Crime Comedy

Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire." (Courtesy A24)closemore

“Free Fire,” the plucky black comedy about an arms deal gone awry, just might be the most gonzo crime movie to be set in Boston — and it wasn’t even shot here.

Ben Wheatley, the hip noirish auteur who turned heads with “Kill List” and, more recently, the near-apocalyptic anthropology experiment “High Rise,” shot this battle royal in a dilapidated warehouse in England. Much of the cast too is European and thankfully, only one is tasked with attempting our infamous accent.

Early on, we get a slick nighttime glimmer across the harbor at a silhouette that looks vaguely like our stately Custom House Tower. Beyond that, nothing in the film feels remotely Boston. And to compound the foreign-familiar feeling, it’s set in the late-1970s when 8-track was king, and John Denver rules the soundtrack. Why the British director and his co-writer and wife, Amy Jump, decided to set such a caper in Boston probably had something to do with the allure of our rich criminal lore that has become boundless in its cinematic incarnations.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire." (Courtesy Kerry Brown/A24)
Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in “Free Fire.” (Courtesy Kerry Brown/A24)

The orientation doesn’t matter so much as we’re quickly inside an abandoned factory warehouse where practically all of the action takes place (the film’s only 85 minutes long and I’d say that 84 of them are in, or just outside the waterfront warehouse that you can imagine being in the now bustling Seaport back when it was a desolate industrial wasteland). What Wheatley and Jump serve up is a thick den of thieves with hidden agendas and a double dealer, a plot structure Quentin Tarantino made retro-hip with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992 and his 2015 western redux, “The Hateful Eight.” Wheatley, a stylist of hyper violence in his own right, takes the barebones and puts his bloody stamp on it. Continue reading