17 posts categorized "crime"


Finally, McConaughey returns to drama

It's good to see Matthew McConaughey acting again.

I mean really acting, as opposed to yanking his shirt off in semi-entertaining comic adventures that, like the shifting sand in "Sahara," have little foundation as solid memories.

In the dramatic-thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer," McConaughey doesn't exactly return to a serious courtroom drama on the level of "A Time to Kill," the crusading lawyer drama of 1996.

Even though he's dressed like an adult -- suit and tie; appropriate courtroom attire -- this time, a bit of the McConaughey swagger remains evident as Mick Haller.  A Beverly Hills ambulance chasing attorney, although that's only implied, Haller operates out of the back seat of his chauffeured Lincoln Continental sedan.

There's a throwaway line or two about when Haller got his license to drive back.  I suspect that aspect of the character is better explained in Michael Connelly's bestseller of the same title.

The adaptation by John Romano ("Nights in Rodanthe") is a little sloppy on details, preferring instead to showcase Haller's coolness in a courtroom, on the streets where a motorcycle gang (led by country crooner Trace Adkins, no less) is prone to pull him over for some lawyer-client chatting and, of course, with the ladies.

This would be a much better thriller if "The Lincoln Lawyer" more closely mimicked -- Sorry, I mean paid homage to -- "The Verdict" and "Fracture," both of which deserve a slice of the profits.

Haller is a hard drinking attorney.  He has has made mistakes in the past, but is honorable enough to fight to try to make things right.  That's just like Paul Newman did in "The Verdict" in 1982, although the case details vary.

The other strikingly similar element is the old attorney/client tete-a-tete.  In this one, a wealthy client played by Ryan Phillippe is up on an attempted murder charge.  As the plot thickens, an all-too-common game of cat and mouse shows signs of becoming deadly.  

If you saw "Fracture" in 2007, you know that Anthony Hopkins admitted to shooting his wife in the head, then dared the assistant district attorney to do something about it.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" works best as an entertainment ride.  Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler," "Cyrus") works well with McConaughey as Maggie, his ex-wife and crusading assistant D.A.  (Small world, this.)

By the time the final gavel falls, it's quite apparent that McConaughey, who only takes his shirt off once, is well aware of where he's at.  More important, though, is where he might be going.

The hard-working Texan who began his career Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," then sort of got that way in mid-career, finally appears back on track.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" is flawed cinema at best.  But sometimes, on a purely entertainment level, the old "Lincoln" purrs across the screen.


Carrey's frantic love call for 'Phillip Mor-ris'

Jim Carrey has been waiting a very long time to make a dagger of a movie like "I Love You Phillip Morris."

This outrageous tale -- based on actual events, by the way -- about a family man turned con man turned gay con man desperately trying to impress his soul mate, but having to continually bust out of jail to do it, is not a drama as such.

It's a black hole dark comedy congealed with drama.  In this case, that's an odd dynamic perfectly suited to Carrey's charismatic charm and fits of wild abandon.

If you're wondering just how dark the comic elements might be, know this.  "I Love You Phillip Morris," based on former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Steve McVicker's book, is co-written and co-directed by writing partners Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Can't quite place the names?  Ficarra and Requa are the screenwriters who fed Billy Bob Thornton's outstanding way-down and way-dirty performance in "Bad Santa" (2003).

"Phillip Morris" sneaks up on you.  When we first meet Steven Russell (Carrey), he's a seemingly happy family man playing organ for the church choir in Virginia and working as a police officer.

Never quite getting over the fact that his mother gave him up for adoption, Steven bends the rules, using his law enforcement computer to track down his birth mother.  The meeting doesn't go well, and "I Love You Phillip Morris" launches into a tale of self-discovery about living a lie (he's gay) and learning that his outgoing nature may be more suited to a career as a con man than a cop in uniform.

One of the things I like best about this raw embracing of a person's inner (and long-hidden) drives is that the co-directors (in their initial feature film effort) and Carrey flamboyantly keep the tone pedal to the metal.

Maybe it's because I've seen Carrey not reach his full potential in films like "The Number 23" (2007) and "The Majestic" (2001) that I celebrate (perhaps along with him) for gathering up his comic charisma, his likable on-screen nature and his yearning for dramatic effect and rolling it into an improbably charming cinematic snowball.
While refreshing, this is one snowball that hits us in the gut and leaves a mark.

Set primarily in Texas (but shot in Louisiana), "Phillip Morris" chugs along at a brisk pace.  Steven meets Mr. Right (Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris) in jail, then goes more than a little nuts busting out of confinement on several occasions to be with the man he loves.

Leslie Mann, who shared the screen with Carrey in  "The Cable Guy" (1996), brings proper charm and dismay to Debbie, the wife left not for another woman but for a man.  Any man, in fact, at least in the early going.

McGregor scored his own acting triumph this year in "The Ghost Writer." He tones everything down to play Phillip, who, in the long run, becomes as perplexed about Steven as his former wife did.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" will likely blindside you with real, growing sentiment near the end.  Not the fake kind, either, like in "The Majestic," a failed barely disguised remake of "It's a Wonderful Life."

I'm talking the real thing; convincing dramatic acting from a gifted comic who has always wanted to move his audience without a scrunched-up face or a pratfall.

I love you, "Phillip Morris," for finally giving Jim Carrey that chance.


An 'American' in paralysis

George Clooney, one of the world's most gregarious movie stars in real life, has gone stoic on screen to the extent that it's almost time to check for a pulse.

After diving into such a deep trance in "The Men Who Stare At Goats" last year that it looked like he was auditioning for dream-state status in either "Avatar" or "Inception," Clooney has emerged instead to mope his way through "The American," a hit-man thriller that could have been titled "The Quiet Man's Got a Gun."  

Thank goodness for last year's excellent "Up in the Air."  That drama-with-comedy with Clooney as a corporate ax man was dour and bitter as well.  But it was also quick-witted and cleverly structured.

My problem with "The American" is not Clooney's squinty-eyed acting or the plot about a cold-blooded killer on the run who holds up in a quaint little Italian village.  The biggest drawback is that sophomore director Anton Corbijn allows "The American" to move too deliberately across the screen.

It's almost as if the actors -- especially Clooney, who does stare at goats for a brief moment in this one -- are allowed to reminisce over the scene just completed before moving on.

And there's this.  Corbijn, who used to direct music videos for a living, allows long screen moments to pass with no musical score whatsoever.  Jack (Clooney) rents a room and spends a larger-than-usual time staring out the window.  That passive outlook worked well with "Control," Corbijn's riveting debut musical bio-drama of 2007.  It's overkill here, though.

Make no mistake, Jack has a reason to be edgy.  Even though Rowan Joffe's screenplay (based on the late Martin Booth's 1990 novel "A Very Private Gentleman") gives us no back story, a sudden eruption of violence that turns the snow crimson in some Swedish woods sets the life-or-death tone before we see Jack run to Italy.

"The American" ranks as one of the most somber thrillers I've ever seen.  Clooney speaks in sing-song monotone even when he's caressing a local hooker who's also a looker (Italian actress Violante Placido as Clara).  Strictly business, he tells the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) he's in town to photograph the countryside for a vaguely spelled-out group of magazines.

Jack plans to do some shooting, all right.  But it's not with a camera.  He's assembling a long-range assassin rifle for a lady of mystery portrayed by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten.  Her sullen manner is equally as dead-pan as Clooney's.

When the plot thickens (it was congealed near-solid from the get-go), "The American" finally gets down to the nasty business.  At some point, a hit man is usually forced take a split-second to reconsider the consequences of that particular chosen line of work.

Now that's a pause I could live with.  Even with Clooney in the lead, "The American" slogs too deliberately through the underbelly of humanity.


Dysfunctional goodfellas from Down Under

When you go to the movies more often than you grocery shop or wash your car, it's not difficult to remember exact moments that separate excellent films from the mainstream milieu.

That moment comes early in the blistering Australian crime-drama "Animal Kingdom."  A 17-year-old Melbourne boy shares a couch with his dying Mom as she succumbs to permanent sleep of a heroin overdose.

Josh, portrayed by newcomer James Frecheville, would pay more attention as his mother fades into oblivion if the game show blaring from the tele wasn't so fascinating.

"Animal Kingdom," a winner of the Grand Jury Prize World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival in January, is a crime-drama for the non-squeamish who happen to appreciate outstanding use of the art form.

Josh, or "J" as he's called, will relocate to his grandmother's house.  Smurf (Jacki Weaver) dotes on her boys (J's uncles), insisting that adult druggie, armed robber and two-time underworld loser alike kiss her on the mouth.

Smurf welcomes J like Mama Dillinger might.  She cooks for them and maintains an upbeat, but guarded attitude.  Smurf also tends to her sons with guns when those nasty old Melbourne police injure or kill one of them.

And when even a family member threatens to harm one of her sons, that doting smile conceals thoughts of a cold-blooded solution.

Crikey, it's to protect her boys, don't you know.

"Animal Kingdom" is one of those near flawless movies crafted by a first-timer.   David Michôd, who co-wrote Nash Edgerton's short "Spider," writes and directs as if the audience is a fly on a wall as a volatile dysfunctional family dynamic sizzles like a dynamite fuse aflame in slow motion.

I don't want to give too much of this story away.  Just know that some excellent Australian actors, Guy Pearce ("The Road," "The Hurt Locker") as a police detective and others (Ben Mendelsohn, Luke Ford), disappear into their characters seamlessly.

Michôd, perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that all elements of "Animal Kingdom" are of solid footing, shows remarkable filmmaking savvy for a newcomer.

My only complaint is a nit-picky one.  The ending will require a little work and close scrutiny on the part of the audience members.  Perhaps it's left open to individual interpretation.

If that was the intention, I admire "Animal Kingdom" even more.

Crime and semi-punishment

Think of a hip-hop reimagined update of the classic 1950s heist movie "Rififi."

Now, throw in a "Crash" intersection of characters and circumstances.  And don't forget to showcase it all with a shaky cam and enough firepower to reduce Fort Knox to rubble.

Do all that, as sophomore director John Luessenhop has, and you'll get "Takers," an average crime thriller that manages to showcase some good actors and popular hip-hop performers.

Matt Dillon, who played a conflicted cop in "Crash" (2004), portrays a beleaguered veteran L.A. detective.  He's trying to crack a ring of bank robbers who plan meticulously, execute concisely and vanish for about a year between high-dollar jobs.

"Takers," among other things, is a showcase for hip-hoppers expanding into the movie game.  Tip "T.I." Harris, who appeared in "American Gangster" in 2007, plays Ghost, the only member of the bank gang caught and sent to prison.

When he gets out, Ghost rushes his old pals into a job they don't have time to properly prepare for.  He has his reasons, which figure into the plot and won't be revealed here.

For the first 45 minutes or so, "Takers" struggles to find its place as an entertainment entity.  This thought rattled through my mind:  Has someone given a group of singers and actors a camera and told them to just improvise something?  It feels that disjointed in the early going.

Once it settles into a heist movie and the characters are semi-sufficiently established, a so-so, but extremely energetic crime thriller with volatile gun play emerges.

Dillon convinces as an dedicated, overzealous cop who faces the consequences when he improvises a take-your-daughter-to-work day.  Idris Elba ("The Wire"), Paul Walker ("The Fast and the Furious"), Hayden Crhistensen ("Star Wars Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith") and Chris Brown (infamous for a major dust-up with former girlfriend Rihanna) all serve their characters well.

"Takers" plays best for devoted fans of the actors and/or hip-hoppers involved, though.  Once the shooting stops and the smoke clears, what's left is a bland, difficult-to-decipher action-thriller with more volume and firepower than creativity or style.


The old man and the siege

Oddly, it's the fact that "Harry Brown" is reality based that justifies 77-year-old Michael Caine in the role of a neighborhood vigilante.

Let's face it, no one would buy the two-time Academy Award winner as a fantasy fighter for justice as sundown nears on a glorious career that includes "Alfie," "Educating Rita," "The Cider House Rules" and "The Weather Man," just to name a few.

In "Harry Brown," which I prefer to call "Dirty Harry Brown," Caine sets the dour tone quickly.  And he seems acutely at home as a severely depressed London widower living alone on the second floor of a London estate.  Don't let that word "estate" fool you.  In this country, we call them "the projects."

Harry lives in a time-ravaged slum that wears its graffiti like oozing, pock-marked facial blemishes.  Teen gangs rule with such force that Harry and other law-abiding citizens can't even walk through a tunnel to get to the store.  Even taking the long way around, they fear for their safety; perhaps even their lives.

Caine's Harry is a former Marine who long ago locked his war remembrances away.  He wears the weight of the world gone by one his face and has one friend left in the world.  Harry and Leonard (David Bradley) play chess as dust settles on all the fixtures (including Harry and Leonard) in the neighborhood pub.  

Even a best friend can offend, and Leonard does when he asks Harry if he ever killed anyone in the war.

First-time feature filmmaker Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young ("Shooters") tip their hands a little too obviously with the death-related pub talk.  When the final straw falls, which everyone will see coming a mile away, Harry springs (OK, moseys) into action like Clint Eastwood when the neighborhood Detroit punks start messing with this "Gran Torino."

"Harry Brown" pushes the violence envelope for sure.  But these things do happen in real life.  So when Harry goes postal, so to speak, it's not completely out of left field.  It may be difficult to believe that an actor can bring nuance to a scene of explosive force.  Caine does that here as he investigates a character overflowing with remorse as well as rage.

In addition to Bradley (Argus Filch in the "Harry Potter" franchise) as Leonard, Emily Mortimer (Rachel in "Shutter Island") scores acting points as D.I. Frampton, the police detective who shows compassion under pressure.

This is a film that delivers as a character-driven thriller about an elder.  The appeal, however, is not limited to seniors.  Anyone who appreciates Caine's long extraordinary career will relish the depth he's still able to summon in every character he explores.

Caine had a long head start on dirty Harry.  He grew up in the very slums, or estates this drama wallows in.


Tallying up the 'Prophet' and loss statement

Malik, a bewildered 19-year-old Arab, doesn't know what to expect when he's processed into a French prison at the beginning of the French import "A Prophet."

Winner of the second place Grand Prix Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "A Prophet" ("Un Prophète") was also up for an Foreign Film Academy Award Sunday night.  It lost out to  Argentina's "The Secret in Their Eyes."

"A Prophet," directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard, is a coming-of-awareness prison drama unlike anything I've seen before.  Malik (Tahar Rahim) cannot read or write when he's locked up.  Corsican prisoner elder César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), holding court on a prison yard stone bench, spots the young man's naiveté right away.

César, who wields more power than the guards and probably the warden himself, spots something else.  Another Arab arrived at the prison on the same day.  Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), only to be locked up for 10 days before he testifies against the Corsican mob, has been targeted for assassination.

Since Malik speaks Arabic and especially since Reyeb offers Malik hashish in exchange for sexual favors, César forces new, naive inmate Malik to attempt the hit.

"A Prophet," in French, Arabic and Corsican with subtitles, follows the transition of this young man as he morphs into a tool of the prison underworld, then as he blossoms into his own as perhaps someone more cunning and ruthless than even César could imagine.  Malik has visions; sometimes of ghosts  still burning as if just back from hell and sometimes of future events.

In only his fifth feature, Audiard ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped") wields power and confidence himself.  This is a drama of grand, if brutal style.  Malik is perplexed, intrigued and seduced by his steadily growing power base.  He gets advice to learn to read and write from a man he is about to brutally murder with a razor blade concealed between his cheek and gum (like chewing tobacco).

This is a sometimes mystical eruption of raw violence and self-empowerment that riveted my attention to the screen.  

Rahim, who has done some television work, is putty in the hands of his director in real life.  His character Malik, while being molded in similar amazing fashion by César on screen, solidifies into someone who reveals with a little sly smile during an act of extreme violence that no one is safe around him.

César creates a monster, and the transition is quite extraordinary in any language.  Audiard, through Rahim, majestically reveals the inner-torment and survival instinct it takes to propel a monster to an even scarier level:  intelligence.

Audiard clearly structures his ending as a "to be continued" wink at the audience.

In the case of "A Prophet," I'll look forward to it.  

A Romanian cop handcuffed, by definition

You've heard about entertainers so gifted that they could just read from the telephone book and entertain?

Well, in "Police, Adjective," an astonishingly daring offbeat drama from Romania, you might just be transfixed in your seat as the film's main character reads from a dictionary.  

If you appreciate quirky foreign films, don't be hasty to dismiss this drama (with slight hints of irony) as a classified bore.

Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu ("12:08 East of Bucharest") turns the deeply troubled cop genre on its ear with this little tale.  Here we have Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a rebel cop different than any rebel cop you've seen before.

Cristi isn't borderline psychotic like Mel Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.  Nor is he an alcoholic (though he drinks at times), suicidal, a short timer or recently divorced.

This rebel with a cause simply doesn't want to arrest a local high school kid for smoking hash and sharing it with his friends.  Cristi is an undercover cop who's spent about a week trailing a local school kid whose experimentation with dope could, if he's not careful, send him to prison for about eight years.
Cristi's superiors sternly object to his notion that what the kid's doing may be against the letter of the law, but there's no real harm in it.  Besides, Cristi figures, the law will soon change anyway, so why ruin a young life?

A moral stand-off between a cop and his boss may be a simple premise, but it unfolds against a methodical, fascinating backdrop that's impossible to ignore.  In Romanian with subtitles and subtleties, "Police, Adjective" is a battle on two fronts:  words and wills.

When the film first lights up the screen, all we see for what seems like a near-eternity is a slumping man (Bucur as Cristi) walking, walking, walking through ordinary streets (the filmmaker's hometown of Vaslui in northeastern Romania).

If Porumboiu does nothing else with "Police, Adjective," he shows that an audience will sit still as his protagonist meticulously goes through an undercover cop's daily routine.  He prepares his file on the case and tries without much luck to get his co-workers to expedite the paperwork.  Cristi also does his best to avoid his superior officer, who's bringing increasing pressure to make Cristi stage his bust and close the case.

I can't think of another film that provides as much attention to detail.  When Cristi's home, for instance, we don't just see him share a meal with his wife.  Porumboiu's camera, and thus us as well, hang around for seconds on the goulash.

Ah, but that's nothing compared to the battle-of-wills showdown with the cynical police captain, performed superbly and with impeccable timing by Vlad Ivanov (the abortionist in "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days").

Quirky cinematic chestnuts can't be rushed.  "Police, Adjective" will stand as a prime example of that.


'District 13,' the French connection

Very few sequels hold my attention throughout.

"District 13:  Ultimatum" is one of them.

In French with subtitles, the follow-up to the 2006 French import  "District 13" moves the basic story along well enough.  That's a must for any successful sequel.

The real appeal, though, comes from reuniting two charismatic actors, Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle.  Chances are you've never heard of them.

Raffaelli and Belle are martial arts experts and stuntmen first and actors second.  In the "District 13" stylized action crime-thrillers, they combine all their skills in a manner that must make Jackie Chan proud and jealous at the same time.

Comedy arises out of the mayhem.  But director Patrick Alessandrin, calling the shots on his first action film, never lets it become overly silly (as Chan often did).

Elite French police officer Damien Tomasso (Raffaelli) and reformed vigilante Leito (Belle) went their separate ways at the end of the first "District 13" adventure.  The ultra-violent Paris ghetto District 13 was finally under control.  Government officials vowed to maintain the peace.

They lied.

When the sequel begins and quickly leaps a few years into the future, an unscrupulous businessman (Daniel Duval) who has the president's ear wants to destroy the walled den of killers, druggies and thieves and build a profitable towering skyscraper.   To speed things up, his goons frame ghetto residents as cop killers and even plant dope in Damien's kitchen to send him to the slammer (and presumably out of the way).

Fate throws Damien (seen first in drag) and free soul Leito together once again.  Frankly, you'll need to be a little patient at the beginning of this fast-paced actioner.  Director Alessandrin, working from a script by French filmmaker Luc Besson, gets carried away with speeding up jerky footage to set the mood of an unsettled Paris of the near-future.

The good news is that it's not necessary to have the original in your viewing past to enjoy this smorgasbord of martial arts majesty, sneering bad guys and gifted athlete-actors who perform most of their own stunts in a manner you might find quite amazing.

Raffaelli and Belle are masters of parkour, the art of basically running through objects (by finding openings others might not) rather than going around them when someone is in hot pursuit.  In fact, many credit Belle with inventing the discipline.

Outlandish and wildly paced, parkour fits perfectly into the "District 13" scenario.  Also, Raffaelli and Belle bring cool confidence to their characters; men of action but few words.  If you can conjure up a magical combination of a tough, young, tight-lipped Clint Eastwood and a young kung-fu fighting Jackie Chan, you pretty much have the picture of what transpires here.

This is a film that might not appeal to everyone.  If you thrive on inventive highly entertaining martial arts action and super-cool characters, however, look past the subtitles and pay a visit to "District 13:  Ultimatum."

'Brooklyn's Finest': bad cop overkill

"Brooklyn's Finest" gets caught in a "Traffic" jam.

The location?  That's easy, just follow director Antoine Fuqua's frequently flowing blood trail.

Actually, the original source of this blood-stained tale of three dirty cops on a potentially deadly collision course is Michael C. Martin.

A first-time screenwriter and former subway flagger in the bowels of New York City, Martin supplies Fuqua (also executive producer) with a tale of cops so dirty you might get the impression that no honest guys sworn "to serve and protect" remain on the New York beat.

Anyone who remembers Steven Soderbergh's scalding war-on-drugs drama "Traffic" (a best picture Oscar nominee) 10 years ago will recognize the similarity as separate stories and characters merge.

Excellent actor Don Cheadle (an Oscar nominee for "Hotel Rwanda in '04) also strengthens the mental bridge as well.  Cheadle, one of the key characters in "Traffic," portrays undercover New York cop Clarence Butler, known as Tango on the streets in "Brooklyn's Finest."

Tango attempts the tough dance along the blurred line between good guys (police officers caring more about advancing than policing) and bad guys, including a loyal prison buddy and drug kingpin named Caz (Wesley Snipes).  

Fuqua, who directed Denzel Washington to a best actor Academy Award win as a conflicted cop in "Training Day" (2001), is not lacking for excellent talent.

Ethan Hawke, who appeared opposite Washington in "Training Day," is deeply troubled cop No. 2 and veteran actor Richard Gere takes on the role of serial suicide attempter Eddie Dugan.

Dugan, a beat cop who favors prostitutes and coke nose floats, has seven days remaining before retirement and his police pension.  Anyone who saw Morgan Freeman's performance in "Se7en" (1995), though, knows a lot can happen to a cop in a short stretch of days.

It doesn't help Dugan's chances any that he begins his day with a shot of Irish whiskey and a gun barrel pointed down his throat.  In this gritty world, Russian Roulette ranks as the new breakfast of champions.

Hawke, a Texas native, has the most success dissolving under the skin of his character.  Backed into a financial dilemma that's quite literally do-or-die, Hawke's Sal plays fast, loose and seriously stupid with police procedure, not to mention code of the mean streets.

If itchy trigger fingers, drug trafficking and frequent grisly violence bother you, there is no reason to waste your time or churning stomach on "Brooklyn's Finest."

From this aisle seat, it's a tough call.  Fuqua, a talented director when he's got a good script, has run into a sincere, but flawed one here with a bloodthirsty, lust-thirsty tone that overpowers some gifted actors (including Ellen Barkin as Agent Smith).

Overkill is the order of the day and night in this flawed, predictable, sometimes a little laughable crime-drama.