5 posts categorized "urban drama"


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.


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.


'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. 


Urban drama erupts into something 'Precious'

"I shouldn't have said none of that.  Mama gonna kill me."

It's 1987 in the welfare state of Harlem when "Precious:  Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" opens.

A 16-year-old illiterate 9th grader named Precious has just served up undercooked pig's feet to her monstrous, anger-ravaged mother.  Precious isn't exaggerating when she says her mama might kill her.  Her mother's fits of violence can go from zero to 60 in a racing heartbeat.

It's unlikely, though.  Mama is too lazy to cook her own pig's feet.

Actually, it's her father who comes closest to destroying Precious's life force.  Precious is pregnant with her absentee dad's second child when the slightest glimmer of hope shows up in the deeply troubled teen's hard knock life.

It's fair to wonder why we as movie-goers should go to see a grim urban drama gritty enough to leave lasting dark shadows not only on the souls of the characters, but on ours as well.

Overweight and overwrought, Claireece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) escapes into flights of fantasy whenever the real world becomes too ugly.  Her mother Mary, a monster in almost every sense of the word, is portrayed to perfection and a step or two beyond by outspoken (and we can now add "fearless") comedian Mo'Nique.

In some ways, "Precious" is a disaster movie.  It works as startling, bleak entertainment because when the projector shuts off, many of us can walk out into the sunlight of better circumstances.  

There are other reasons to embrace "Precious."  Better reasons.  Hailed with Audience Awards at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, which is a first, this tough love/tougher hate drama is one of the finest films of 2009.

It could rank as the absolute best from this aisle seat, although a few other films remain to be seen.  Certainly, "Precious" impacts the psyche with the most emotional force of the year so far.

Part of the dramatic impact comes from the filmmakers, of course.  In only his second feature film in the director's chair, Lee Daniels ("Shadowboxer") pulls no punches on grim reality; poverty, ignorance and the welfare misery-go-round that blindsides too many of our citizens with a life-force knockout punch.

The script, adapted from the novel "Push" by Sapphire, comes from newcomer Geoffrey Fletcher, who studied under Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.  Fans of the book will notice that Fletcher expands on the flights of escapism fantasy.

What I admire most about "Precious" are the performances.  Sidibe, who was 24 at the time of filming in 2007, could very well find herself in the Oscar race her first time in front of a feature film camera.  Mo'Nique, who also appeared in Daniels' "Shadowboxer" (ironically as a character called Precious), is a shoo-in for at least a supporting actress nomination, if you ask me.

Also, look for solid performances from singer Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss, the matter-of-fact social services worker, and Paula Patton ("Deja Vu"), the empathetic alternative school teacher. 

Spike Lee has explored the urban landscape for over 20 years.  But even Lee's gritty style of his early work ("She's Gotta Have It," etc.) has always involved some sort of heightened reality.

There's nothing heightened with "Precious."  It's about as painfully real as a dramatic feature film can get.