Category Archives: Crime

Review: The Place Beyond The Pines

This isn’t so much a Crime Thriller as advertised, rather it’s more of a Father & Son story, and not in the sense of Finding Nemo. It is an intense character driven experience that will challenge your concepts of morality and justice. The Place Beyond the Pines goes to places mainstream movies just don’t, it deals with consequences.

Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a Motorcyle stunt rider who has just learnt he is a Father. His son is a year old and the product of a fling with Romina (Eva Mendes). Faced with the choice of continuing to tour with his stunt show or quit and stay to do his fatherly duty, Luke makes a choice that will have far reaching consequences well into the future. That’s all I am going to say for the plot, because frankly it goes places you don’t see coming and you should be free to enjoy that without any spoiling it for you.

The journey through this story is as much a though provoking commentary on the nature of good and evil and the consequences of our decisions as it is a delicately balanced drama. It’s character driven, and that is the only reason the story works. Split into three acts that take the movie in different directions, you will be hooked from start to finish. My only criticism is that third act is too predictable and draws the film out just a little too much.

Director Derek Cianfrance deserves much credit for being able to balance such a complex and delicate film. It could easily have been an incomprehensible mess, but it’s all handled with such passion that even small moments are captivating. Special mention must be made of the high speed motorcycle scenes, they are great on the big screen. A shout out to Mike Patton also for a wonderfully eery and mood setting soundtrack.

There are notable performances from Ryan GoslingEva MendesBradely Cooper, and Ben Mendelsohn who are also joined by a number of named actors in a large ensemble cast. None of these people are wearing make-up, they on screen warts and all. For some of them who have previously sold their image publicly this difference is noticeable. It certainly does the movie justice however.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a challenging and intense movie, but it’s long and can be taxing if your just out for some entertainment. It’s well worth it my opinion however, sometimes we need these kinds of stories to give ourselves some perspective.

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Review: Dredd

If I had an alternate star rating purely for B-Grade movies, Dredd would score five stars. It might just be one of the best B-Grade movies I have ever seen. It has all the hall marks of the genre complete with a nondescript every man hero and wall to wall ultra violent action. But what will come as a surprise is that it has characters and a narrative that hold water. It won’t be winning any awards, and by no means is it anything more than an action movie, but its entertaining. Its something critics don’t celebrate often enough, there is a place for pure popcorn escapism and this is a great example of it.

America is an irradiated waste land. On the east coast lies Mega City One, a violent metropolis containing 800 million residents where 17,000 crimes are reported daily. The only force against this chaos are the “Judges”, who act as judge, jury, and executioner dispensing justice instantly in the streets of the city. One such Judge named Dredd (Karl Urban) is tasked  with evaluating a rookie name Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson is a psychic who has failed the tests to become a full Judge. While on the field test they arrest a drug dealer, one of the Ma-Ma gangs henchmen. Ma-Ma can’t afford to have her dealer interrogated about her operation, so she seizes control of the tower’s security and seals the building. There is no way she will let the two Judges leave alive.

As a character Dredd is essentially one-dimensional with no back story. Urban plays him as a glacier, and unstoppable force with no emotion that calmly and without fear puts criminals down at his own pace. It’s a credit to Urban that he can bring some life to this character and give you the feeling he has far more depth to him than is available in the narrative. You only see his mouth and chin for the whole film, but somehow he’s very effective. As a counterpoint to Dredd, Anderson stands as a person of great empathy and struggles to balance her role as a judge with her compassion. Being able to read minds makes the black and white way Dredd sees the world a far more grey experience. Then comes Ma-Ma (lena Headey) who like Anderson grew up in the slums, but has led a different path in life. She’s played like a crack addict, and Headley does a great job of being ugly both on the inside and out. It’s clear someone has put a decent amount of time developing at least these three characters, because they work very well together on a number of levels.

It’s wonderful I can talk about these characters like this, this is B-Grade for crying out loud. The movie even manages to create a symbolic journey for the character Dredd as he comes to understand Anderson and ultimately, ever so coolly, he grows a kind of affection for her. The film’s high points are not just it’s well shot action sequences, but the small interplay between the characters of Dredd and Anderson. It’s not like there isn’t bad dialogue or an absence of cliché, it’s all there, but its forgivable because the film is so appealing on a certain level.

The action is designed well and shot adequately, of particular note are the very violent slow motion action sequences. Director Pete Travis has done a decent job bringing the world of Dredd to life in a believable way but without any artistic flair. The screenplay is essentially by the numbers, but it suits the mood of the story quite well. I would have liked more tension and story telling from the visuals, but I still think this is still such an appealing movie that I will purchase it on BluRay when it’s released.

Dredd is the ultimate action B-Grade movie. At 98 minutes long it won’t bore you, and it won’t disappoint if you want to turn off your brain and be entertained. There is enough there to ensure it isn’t insulting your intelligence, and if you’re a fan of the comic books I don’t see how you can be disappointed either.

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Review: Killing Them Softly

For a movie receiving such wide praise, I frankly just don’t get it. For my mind Killing Them Softly is a confused character drama that doesn’t know if it wants to be a black comedy or a serious hard-hitting political allegory. Writer/Director Andrew Dominik has brought to life a partial adaptation of George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade in 97 minutes of slow, sleep inducing character drama interlaced with brutal violence while force feeding a particularly one-dimensional political message down the audiences throat. It’s one of these strange films that receives critical acclaim while the rest of us shake our heads and wonder “what was all that about?”.

Russel (Ben Mendelsohn), Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and Johnny (Vincent Curatola) decide to rob a mob backed card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). They think they will get away with it because Markie once knocked over his own card game and the mob will just pin it all on him. Unfortunately for the boys, Jackie (Brad Pitt) the mobs hit man doesn’t believe Markie would make the same mistake twice and proceeds to hunt down and execute them. The film gets it’s title from Jackie’s method of execution, by “killing them softly” he takes any emotion out of it and keeps things as matter of fact and business like as possible.

The film loudly states at every possible turn the fact that the card game is an allegory for America’s financial system, the robbery an allegory for the financial crisis, and the hit man an allegory for what the Government tried to do to fix the problem. Jackie goes from scene to scene sitting and listening as the films characters pour their hearts out. They’re all troubled, confused, sad and alone and Jackie basically ignores their plights because it gets in the way of him doing his job. There’s a thick layer of sub-text here that isn’t subtle, there are real people with real problems and our Government ignores them in the name of getting things done.

All of this is interlaced with President Obama’s pre-election criticism of the Governments actions and his rhetoric about community, one people, and searching for a better way. You’ll be confused by the end of the film however, you won’t know if Jackie is a satirical character decrying how destructive and insane the Bush administrations methods of dealing with the crisis were or if he’s a representation of reality and Obama is just kidding himself. It’s over kill if you ask me and the films political overtones take a front seat for almost the entire film damaging some really interesting characters who frankly never get to do anything interesting.

It’s about this time I should talk about the performances, and yes they are all quite adequate and interesting, but what’s the point? None of the characters have any kind of charisma or likability and their functions as allegorical material over shadow anything meaningful about them as people. In one case a second hit man named Mickey (James Galdolfini) is hired to do some of the dirty work, but when he turns out to be a drunk he’s discarded. James does a fine job with the role and gives him an emotional core, but who cares? He essentially has two scenes where he does nothing but bore us with a lengthy speech designed to establish that he’s a hopeless human being. I just don’t see the point? Where is the conflict? The drama? The tension? The unique insight into the criminal underworld? It’s a film void of anything interesting for these characters besides their role in its message.

Occasionally the film manages some technical brilliance with a fairly well shot drive by shooting, and the Directors take on what it would “feel” like to be high on drugs is quite clever, but it’s all too little and it doesn’t seem to mesh well with the film nor help drive it’s narrative forward. There is a strange selection of music too that underscored the film, and overall it’s sound design is off-putting and obtuse. I’m sure there is someone who would appreciate it, but it’s not me, and I don’t think the general public would really get into it either.

Killing Them Softly killed me softly for its entire running time, I was bored and unimpressed. There is some artistic merit here and a few moments of either genuine tension or good black comedy, but they are too few and far between. I don’t think this is a movie many casual movie goers will enjoy, so I won’t even recommend you wait for the DVD.

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Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The beautiful thing about a Christopher Nolan film is the way he has rejects formula and convention while still capturing the hearts and minds of his audience. In his first two Batman instalments, Nolan gave us what we’d expect from a comic film but in a way we didn’t see coming. Crafting a back story for Bruce Wayne where he becomes Batman because he is afraid of Bats is one of the many ideas and concepts that have entranced audiences. With this final instalment in his Batman trilogy, Nolan doesn’t let up. For those expecting to see more of what they loved about the The Dark Knight, you’re in for a rude shock. The Dark Knight Rises is a sprawling Epic where the darkness once owned completely by Batman meets its match.

Set eight years after the events of the previous film, the lie about Harvey Dents death has worked and the city has enjoyed eight years without organised crime. This new world order is one where the Dent Act has removed such things as parole for prisoners, cracking down ruthlessly on the criminal elements of Gotham. But the lie weighs heavily on Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and has sent Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) without his caped alter-ego into exile. It’s bred a sense of complacency in this modern Gotham, symbolised by the behaviour of Gordon’s Deputy (Matthew Modine) who oozes complacency and politics. But when a cunning cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) robs Wayne, and a masked mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) walks into Gotham, the need for the Dark Knight … Returns …

For a film about Batman, there is very little of the caped crusaders to be seen. This isn’t really a comic book movie in the sense we’ve come to know, it’s far more than that. More akin to other epics such as The Last Samurai where our hero is searching for himself, this is a film that extends the premise of Nolan’s first film Batman Begins … Who is Bruce Wayne? We know he becomes Batman because his parents were shot dead at such a young age, but how does this story end for him? The films central premise reveals itself when Gordon’s protegé John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) confronts Wayne early in the piece and cuts directly to the core of what drives him. How does someone move on from such tragedy? Is Batman just the rage that Wayne cannot let go?

What acts as the mirror to Wayne’s soul searching is the morally dubious Selina Kyle, who is essentially Catwoman although she is never referred to as such, and the enigmatic brick wall called Bane. One is searching for a clean slate, while the other is driving towards an inevitable reckoning. These are the two choices that confront our hero, and as he is pitted against the ferocity of Bane and the confusion of Selina’s actions he falls deeper into his spiritual exile.

It’s in that exile that the film suffers the most however. It dramatically loses momentum for a time and as it try’s to juggle the stories many branching themes it struggles to find some cohesion. For a brief period of time we have to make do with montage like exposition instead of a focussed sense of story. It falls into that trap of telling us what is going on rather than simply showing it and letting us fill in the blanks. Fortunately it’s brief, and the payoff is justly rewarding.

Also rewarding are the performances. The returning cast are as exceptional as ever and Bale provides his strongest performance as Wayne yet. At first I was dubious of the casting of Anne Hathaway but she is mesmerizing as Catwoman, a perfect fit in the end for a very intriguing character who was not given enough screen time. Tom Hardy also excels as Bane, with only his eyes left to express anything  thanks to his mask he manages to turn in a very human and believable performance. The pain in his eyes at several points is as strong as someone who would be able to use their whole face to express an emotion.

For some of the audienceBane is likely to disappoint however, he is not Ledgers Joker in the sense that he lacks the charisma that naturally draws you into that love hate relationship. Where the Joker wants to watch the world burn, Bane wants to burn it. I’m quite comfortable with the tone of this films bad guy, but you do for a time wish that there was a little bit of the Jokers fun in the film.

Instead of that comic relief the film relies on some very big action sequences to break up the seriousness and darkness of its plot, and boy are they big. They might be few and far between, but they are a sight to behold. The special effects are seamless and the scale is epic, using the entire city of Gotham to play out the battles. But it never escapes us, Nolan’s deft touch keeps everything grounded and believable. He is not just a master of casting and character, he is probably one of the strongest action directors going around as well.

Bringing all the themes and plot lines for the previous films together Nolan has weaved a canvas for us that pushes us towards his inevitable conclusion. There is no holding our hands and easing us into the abyss, he is constantly pushing us and forcing us to catch up. While The Dark Knight Rises at first appears less nuanced than the previous film, everything eventually comes into focus, and with a few surprises it doesn’t fail to deliver. To miss this film, especially on the big screen, is a disservice. Even if you aren’t quite into this sort of thing, Nolan has crafted a special trilogy and it deserves our attention.

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Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

There is a certain expectation of a Spy Thriller these days, they’re almost a form of the superhero movies with usually one unbelievably capable and classy guy pulling off impossible action stunts with super cool gadgets while saving the world from some kind of evil organisation. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is exactly none of those things. Instead it’s a highly intelligent, character-based drama, set in a world that a real spy might find much closer to home.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired spy, his wife has left him, and he spends his days in secluded boredom taking in daytime television on his couch at home. He was forced out of British Intelligence when his Boss, Control (John Hurt), resigned after a botched job that saw an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), shot and captured in Budapest. That changes when a field agent named Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) brings a story of an attempt to bring in a Russian Defector gone wrong, seemingly because someone inside British Intelligence engineered it to. There is a mole in British Intelligence, and it seems Control knew it, and Prideaux paid the price.

What follows is a slow and methodical dissection of the inner workings of British Intelligence, the agenda’s at play, and the revelations of how complex the real world of spying must be. You get a sense that you couldn’t go around shooting people and blowing things up like a James Bond or Jason Bourne because the ripples of such activity would have disastrous consequences. It takes delight in creating tension through simple activities, such as stealing a log book from an archive where getting caught won’t mean an extended chase sequence, but rather the end of your career and being labelled the mole yourself.

The whole film fits that understated tone, with almost no audience assistance at hand either. You’re left to put all the complexities together yourself, there isn’t an excess of dialogue and the Director (Tomas Alfredson) asks you to fill in a lot of blanks. It’s that stylistic choice that will probably alienate a large majority of the cinema going public, and it is for this reason also the film is good but not great. John Le’Carre’s Novel for which this film is based on is extraordinarily complex when crammed into a film of this length, I struggle to see how someone who had not read it could fathom the breadth and depth of the events portrayed. I’m disappointed that the tone of the film at times got in the way of telling the good story that it is.

There is quite a large cast and they all turn in believable and thoughtful performances, but perhaps Gary Oldman as the understated George Smiley deserves special mention. Oldman is arguably one of the finest actors of his generation, although he’s not been recognised by the Academy as yet, and in this film he turns in one of his finer most measured performances. With nothing but a look Oldman conveys endless meaning, he keeps Smiley as an enigma with rare moments of outward emotion and a sense of cutting superiority when he does choose to tell those around him his thoughts. It’s hard to play a dull man, but if you could ever make it entertaining Oldman certainly keeps you watching.

Despite all this, and my own four star rating, I find it hard to recommend this film. It is after all a movie you have to invest yourself in to get any reward from it, and for that reason it won’t suit a lot of tastes. If however you are prepared to pay attention, fill in the blank spaces and enjoy the characters for who they are and not so much what they are doing, then this is a film for you.


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Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Let’s cut to the chase, the character Lisbeth Salandar played this time by Rooney Mara is the reason this film is a must see. Stieg Larson’s anti-hero is arguably one of the best modern characters around and she’s brought to life with such fire and interest that she should delight the connoisseur and casual film-goer alike. For those familiar with the 2009 Swedish version of this film, you can read that Rooney Mara doesn’t just match Noomi Rapace in playing Salandar but manages to bring enough uniqueness to be just as intoxicating.

To call this film a remake is a bit of a disservie, Fincher’s film is so much more. As seasoned Director of crime stories (Seven, Zodiac) he brings a mastery to the film that the source material really does deserve. It’s more faithful to Stieg Larson’s original, and you could happily watch both the Swedish version and this one and get something different from both without feeling like you’re suffering from Deja Vu.

The story centres on the relationship between two characters: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salandar (Rooney Mara). They come together to investigate a forty year old murder, and in the complex twists and turns the two forge a unique relationship. It’s more intimate in this film that it is in the original, you get much more insight into how to two of them operate and the dynamic of their affection for each other. Daniel Craig brings much to Blomkvist that was missing in the original, and the film is better for it.

In fact, as a whole this version is far superior in characterisation. More time is given to the background and the elements of the story previously left out, giving the ensemble cast much more to do, bringing the tale to life in a far more vivid fashion. Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plumber) and Martin Vagnar (Stellan Skarsgard) lead the supporting cast who all bring the right tone to the dark story. In essence that is what this film is, the absurd and dark relationships between each of the characters and the Vagnar family, it’s very human which is what makes the story so disturbing.

Disturbing might also be an understatement however. It’s an entertaining film, but that word is used lightly as some of the content is very confronting. It gets away with it because Lisbeth is such a wonderful character, even in her darkest most sadistic moments she can illicit feelings from the audience you shouldn’t really be feeling. She is a superhero for lack of a better word, and Fincher knows it, even opening the film with a Bond like sequence. I felt that was a misstep, but the rest of the film doesn’t stoop to that sense of sensationalism.

The opening is not the only misstep, there are some key moments where the Swedish version presents a more interesting takes on things, especially at the fiery climax. You could also feel that at some points this film loses some of it’s momentum, although that may also be a result of knowing the story already. It’s not enough to give it anything less than five stars however, there is more here in these 158 minutes than most films could ever hope to offer.

The soundtrack and cinematic style is dark and edgy, just off-beat enough to suit the unusual character of Lisbeth without becoming an arthouse production. It’s the treatment that the source material deserves, and fingers crossed the entire trilogy will receive the same due. If you’re on the fence about seeing this film, then see it. If you really don’t want to see this film, see it. You won’t experience a story like this with such a superb character as Lisbeth very often.

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Review: Lincoln Lawyer

The first thing I noticed about Lincoln Lawyer is that Matthew McConaughey can really hold the screen when given the room to do it. I never thought of him as much of a leading man in a dramatic role, but given the material he’s more than competent.

The second thing I noticed was this wasn’t your typical court room lawyer drama, and that might be because it’s based on a novel by Michael Connelly.

McConaughey plays defence lawyer Mick Haller, a slick street-wise man whose office is the backseat of a Lincoln, hence the title. His mobile office alone speaks volumes of who he is. I’m always in awe of simple yet effective devices that give us more insight in a few seconds than hours of extended exposition.

Haller isn’t a stranger to representing criminals, and he has a few tricks to squeeze as much cash as he can out of them. But when he’s gifted a new young, rich client named Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe) on charges of rape and assault his spider sense start to tingle. Chasing the cash he accepts the deal but soon discovers it’s not all that it appears to be.

You do have to give credit to the source material at work here. The court drama is a genre covered regularly so to produce a unique plot believable in every way is something to behold. It’s handled beautifully and with care, although the ending was a little too neat.

The film also stars Marisa Tomei as Haller’s ex-wife, playing the moral counter-balance to Haller’s seemingly amoral approach to the law, and the ever great William H. Macy as Haller’s partner.

In contrast to the films out this year, you won’t find a more riveting film devoid of the obligatory explosions, car chases, gun-fights littered in today’s big films. It’s also refreshing not to have to leave your brain at the door.

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