Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

Hooligan Sparrow

Director: Nanfu Wang

Writers: Mark Monroe and Nanfu Wang

Country: China / USA

Runtime: 83 mins

Feminist activists in China run up against the authorities as they try to expose corruption and child abuse

Nanfu Wang’s extraordinary debut documentary covers a story of horrific child sex abuse involving corrupt Chinese government officials. Wang’s reward for her effort is that she is now unsure whether she will be allowed entry back into China or, if she is, whether she will be allowed out again.

The story begins with the disappearance of six schoolchildren in the city of Wanning. They are discovered alive but traumatised. The girls, aged between 11 and 14, have been forced to have sex in a hotel with their school principal, Chen Zaipeng, and a government official from the housing department. It transpires that the children were given to the official as a bribe, something that is distressingly common in China.

The police initially try to deny that anything untoward has happened, but when a hotel security camera shows the children with their principal a new tactic is adopted. The principal’s story is that the two men paid the girls for sex, an important distinction in Chinese law. Paying children for sex is treated under child prostitution laws and carries a less severe penalty than rape.

Wang’s film follows a group of activists, led by Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow), as they call for justice. They begin by protesting outside the school, an act that clearly carries some risk. One onlooker notes that the women won’t be stopped from protesting, but that the police will come for them later. This turns out to be the case and the women find themselves, variously, imprisoned, harassed by demonstrators in the pay of the government, and run out of town.

After a campaign that becomes international, including the involvement of famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the women achieve a justice of sorts, albeit a rather inadequate justice. Many of those who stood up to the authorities are now paying a price. Wang Yu, the human rights lawyer who assisted the activists has been held without trial since July 2015 and the Chinese authorities announced in January this year that she will be prosecuted on charges of subversion, an offence that can carry a life sentence. Five feminist activists (Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong) were arbitrarily detained for over a month and are now on bail but under police surveillance.

This is a film that deserves to be seen.

#FreeWangYu

Shown at the Curzon Soho as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

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Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire)

A brilliant performance from Johnny Depp is just one of the good things about this superb crime movie

In Black Mass Johnny Depp gives us the acting comeback that so many have been waiting for. Playing the real-life Irish-American crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp dons a bald-wig and puts any memory of his heart-throb good looks behind him. His portrayal of Bulger as a cold, ruthless psychopath is eerily convincing.

The story concerns an unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI, both of whom have an interest in breaking the grip of the New England Mafia on Boston. FBI agent John Connolly is a childhood friend of Bulger and persuades the latter to become an informant, a decision that Bulger justifies to himself as a sensible business deal. However, the end result of this pairing is that Bulger’s empire grows,  as does the body count of his victims, whilst Connolly himself becomes compromised and corrupted. One wonders if there is a hidden message here for Western governments: doing business with your enemy’s enemy may not work out the way you were hoping.

Black Mass can’t avoid one or two genre stereotypes, notably when Bulger chews out a terrified looking colleague of Connolly’s, only to reveal that he was just putting him on. But in the main, a strong story, strong characterisation, and refusal to romanticise mobsters give this a sense of realism that makes it a cut above the average gangster movie.

Whilst Depp is superb, the script also allows the other performers to shine and there are strong performances from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch as brother Billy and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly.

Rating: 5/5

Nightcrawlerfilm

Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Country: USA

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Joe Paxton

Jake Gyllenhaal excels as a psychopathic news cameraman working his way up the ladder of power

Dan Gilroy’s superb first directorial effort, Nightcrawler, is the gripping story of a ruthless nobody-turned-freelance-cameraman who works his way up the ladder by taking risks and transgressing moral boundaries. But really, Nightcrawler is more than this. It is a dark satire on the kind of Randian objectivist philosophy, which champions the pursuit of individual self-interest within a system of laissez-faire capitalism. Gilroy shows how this kind of world corrupts everybody who comes into contact with it.

The film begins with a gaunt, straggly-haired, Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), trying to scrape a living by stealing copper wire and other metallic items in order to sell to a scrap yard. But Bloom is not just an ordinary guy ducking-and-diving to make his way through hard times. He is a psychopath. In the opening scene, whilst Bloom is trespassing in order to cut a section of wire fence, he is challenged by a security guard. Bloom attacks the guard and steals the chunky watch he is wearing. As later events transpire Bloom’s character never changes. The only sense in which he learns is by digesting information from the internet that he then uses to his advantage in his interactions with others. It is the people around Gyllenhaal who change, becoming more compromised and corrupted as he manipulates them (although the news environment itself is already the ideal environment for such manipulation to occur).

Bloom discovers a way to escape from his world of petty crime when, whilst driving down the Los Angeles freeway, he encounters a news crew filming a bloody crash scene. Buttonholing one of the cameramen, Joe (Joe Paxton), he learns that they are a freelance outfit selling to whichever station pays the most.  Bloom steals a bicycle and takes it to a used goods store, where he swaps it for a camcorder and a police band radio. From this point onwards he starts muscling in at accident and crime scenes, racing to beat other crews to get the first pictures.

After selling some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the head of a local newsroom, she gives him advice about the kind of footage they are seeking, which is predominantly white victims in the suburbs being hurt at the hands of the poor or ethnic minorities. She sums up the spirit of what they air as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”.

Bloom recruits a homeless Asian guy, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as a low-paid intern, whose job is “to listen to the emergency radio, learn the police codes, help navigate and watch the car”. Like a ghoulish version of his namesake in Ulysses, Bloom stalks the city streets with Rick seeking death and injury. With an eye as to what makes a good shot, he begins to rearrange crime and accident scenes for his own benefit, and to intrude on private property. His relationships with others are entirely economic transactions. One moment Bloom is threatening Rick with the sack for spilling petrol on the paintwork of his car, but the next moment he is dishing out praise and the prospect of promotion in order to overcome Rick’s moral qualms about their actions. Bloom starts a relationship with Nina, but this is entirely premised on the value of the footage he is able to collect and the possibility he might take it to another station.

It is a tribute to the screen presence and acting skills of Gyllenhaal, as well as to Gilroy’s excellent screenplay, that the audience (this viewer, at least) is able to maintain interest in a character as unsympathetic as Bloom. One of the characteristics of psychopaths, of course, is that they are often charming. Gyllenhaal captures this in the exchanges where, with a half-smile on his face and burning intensity in his eyes, he lavishes praise and flattery on others. I would not be surprised to see Gyllenhaal in the shortlist for the Oscars. Rene Russo (married to writer/director Dan Gilroy) also turns in a good performance as Nina, who by turns seems repelled and attracted by Bloom’s usurping of her power in both their personal and professional relationships. Riz Ahmed does a splendid job of portraying the plight of Rick, who has been taken off the streets by Bloom, but who could end up back there at any moment. He knows that what they are doing is wrong, but is desperate not to be homeless again. Rick is more dependent on Bloom than anyone else, but he is also the only person to show any moral qualms. Despite the various bullshit motivational speeches that Bloom makes, Rick’s liquid eyes constantly alternate between hope and fear. I wouldn’t mind betting that Ahmed could find himself in the Oscar stakes for best supporting actor.

In one sense, Dan Gilroy is treading similar ground to films like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. However, whereas those films placed considerable emphasis on the lifestyle excess that accompanies professional success, Nightcrawler is a much more ascetic affair. Bloom is a loner, who continues to live in a modest apartment even as his success spirals. His sole motivation is to be good at what he does and to climb the ladders of power. Other people are there to be used in whatever way will help achieve his goals. Unlike, say, the character of Bud Fox in Wall Street, there is absolutely no capacity for empathy or redemption. The consequences of this behaviour are shown to chilling effect.

I was also impressed by the musical soundtrack to the film. This is very unobtrusive, but all the more effective for it in a less-is-more kind of way. There are many sequences where there is no background music, but then when it appears it comes in fairly quietly and then builds, so that an atmosphere is created almost without you noticing the music.

Rating: 10/10

Correction: In an earlier version I wrote “aesthetic”, when I meant to say “ascetic”.

Strangeronthethirdfloor

Director: Boris Ingster

Writer: Frank Partos

Country: USA

Runtime: 64 mins

Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles D. Warde, Elisha Cook Jr.

A noteworthy B-movie that is widely credited as being the first true “film noir”

I have always enjoyed old black-and-white Hollywood movies, even those that aren’t terribly good, and it is always a pleasure to discover pictures that I wasn’t previously aware of. Stranger on the Third Floor is a noteworthy, and rather good, B-movie that is now widely credited as being the first true “film noir”.

The film begins with reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) preparing to testify in the trial of Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), who has been accused of murdering a coffee shop proprietor. Ward’s fiance, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), is extremely fretful that Briggs might be innocent, and when he is found guilty Jane’s distress puts something of a strain on her relationship with Ward. Returning home from the trial, Ward notices an odd-looking stranger (Peter Lorre) on the steps of his lodgings. Later, he discovers the stranger inside the building and challenges him, but the man runs away. Aware that he can’t hear the usual snoring from the annoying busybody next door, Ward first begins to worry that he might be dead. Then he falls asleep and dreams that he is being accused of the man’s murder.

Upon waking, he goes into his neighbour’s room and discovers that he has indeed been murdered. Ward’s first inclination is to run, but Jane persuades him to go to the police because the victim was killed in the same way as the coffee shop proprietor, and this connection could get the verdict against Briggs overturned. However, Ward then finds himself suspected and the stranger is nowhere to be found.

Stranger on the Third Floor is a good illustration of how story and plot are not the same thing. The plot here is remarkably simple and not enough to sustain the film by itself. However, the viewer’s interest is sustained principally through Ward’s paranoid interior monologue and the splendid noirish cinematography. The camerawork and lighting was courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, who had already worked on a hundred films by this time, and went on to shoot the celebrated 1947 Gothic thriller Cat People. Other important contributors were Vernon L. Walker for special effects, and Van Nest Polglase for art direction. The highlight of the film is Ward’s dream sequence, which features various distorted perspectives, including huge courtroom interiors, and imposing shadows.

Top billing for the film was given to Peter Lorre, although he is only onscreen for a relatively short period of time. His performance is essentially a reprise of the child killer in Fritz Lang’s classic M. However, he once again gives an impressive demonstration of how easily he can switch between menacing and kindly (in one sequence, he raises our fears by ordering raw burgers in a restaurant, but then it turns out that he wants to feed a stray dog; shortly after this act of compassion he then menaces Jane).

The dramatic finale, when it comes, is perhaps over a little too quickly. I felt that the suspense could have been extended a little further. However, for a B-movie this is definitely above par. Although Stranger on the Third Floor received rather mixed reviews upon release I think this film deserves a rather more positive reevaluation.

Review: 7/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September 2014.

Director: Robert Flores

Writers: Paul Jarrico & Allen Vincent (from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell)

Country: USA

Runtime: 69 mins

A tour de force of acting from Peter Lorre as a tragic immigrant whose life is changed by a fire

According to the British Film Institute’s programme notes, Peter Lorre didn’t think much of the script for The Face Behind the Mask. He would often be the worse for the drink in the afternoon, leading director Robert Flores to get as many as possible of his scenes shot in the morning. It is therefore all the more remarkable that Lorre gives an utterly sublime performance, ranging from happy and innocent through to mean and ruthless, and ultimately loving and tragic.

Adapted from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell, the story concerns Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre), a newly-arrived Hungarian immigrant in New York. Happy and optimistic, he makes the acquaintance of police Lieutenant James ‘Jim’ O’Hara (Don Beddoe), who helps him find accommodation. But disaster strikes: there is a fire in the hotel and Janos’s face is badly disfigured. Unable to find work because of the way he looks, Janos finds himself helped and befriended by Dinky (George Stone), a crook with gang connections. Janos doesn’t want to become involved with the gang, but when Dinky is too ill take take part in a job Janos takes his place out of loyalty. Through his earnings from crime Janos is able to purchase a fairly lifelike mask so that people can bear to look at him. However, surgery to repair his face his still beyond his means.

A watchmaker, Janos turns out to have technical skills that are valuable to the gang. By dint of his intelligence and ability he leads the gang on more jobs and rises to become the leader, deposing the former boss Harry (Stanley Brown). However, money can’t buy everything and the doctors tell him his face is effectively beyond repair. But then Janos meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), who is blind, and the two fall in love. Janos decides to put the world of crime behind him, but his past catches up with him when Harry gets the idea that Janos has betrayed them.

The one weakness of the film is right at the start. The events leading up to Janos’s disfigurement are a little too pat and rather rushed. However, once these scenes are out of the way the pacing improves and the story settles down. The relationships between Jarnos and Dinky, and between Jarnos and Helen, are deftly handled and convincing. But more than anything else, it is impossible not to be impressed by Peter Lorre’s performance. It is hard to think of another actor who, in the space of a single movie, could move so convincingly between comically naive innocence and frightening menace. The end of the film, when it comes, is truly touching.

Rating: 8/10.

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the BFI Southbank, London, in September 2014.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2)

Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

Writers: Nikolaj Arcei (from the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen)

Country: Denmark / Germany / Sweden

Runtime: 97 mins

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Ernst Boye

A taut, efficient police thriller, but hardly original

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a rather curious film. It is enjoyable enough (though not for the squeamish), but doesn’t really offer anything more than you would expect from television dramas such as Wallander or Waking The Dead. Based on the first of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s “Department Q” detective series, the key characters are an odd-couple pair of cops who are the sole operatives in a cold case unit (whose status is indicated by its location in a dusty basement).

Nikolaj Lie Kaas plays Carl Mørck, a taciturn former homicide cop who no-one will work with, following a disastrous operation. He finds himself relegated to Department Q, where he is expected to do no more than shuffle through cold case files and to close three of them every week. Mørck’s partner is Assad (Fares Fares), a big friendly Muslim of middle-Eastern origin (in the book he is a Syrian refugee). Aspects of these men’s lives are hinted at but not developed, presumably allowing scope for treatment in any sequels. For example, Mørck has the obligatory family problems (separated from wife; a wayward stepson), and we never discover what misdemeanour has led Assad to be assigned to Department Q. 

Rather than simply closing the files as directed, Mørck begins investigating a case that he is familiar with. This concerns the disappearance, believed to be suicide, of politician Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter). However, Mørck’s boss is far from happy to discover that his officers are going round upsetting people with their questions, not to mention exceeding their meagre budget. Thus, drawing on another familiar trope of cop movies, our men are suspended but carry on anyway, before the ultimate redemption. 

The one pleasingly novel element in The Keeper of Lost Causes is the inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim character (as opposed to the usual crazed villains of Hollywood movies). On the negative side, however, is the lack of any significant female characters other than the victim (Wallander and Waking The Dead managed to create significant parts for women).

Presumably this is meant to be the first of a series of Department Q book adaptations, but really this is television rather than cinematic material.

Rating: 6/10

Double_indemnity

Long before television’s Columbo familiarised us with the detective yarn where the killer is revealed at the beginning, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler gave us the early reveal in their seminal film-noir Double Indemnity. These two great writers had a famously fractious relationship throughout the process of adapting James M. Cain’s novella, but the end result was a dark, beautifully-paced movie full of whip-sharp dialogue. The story concerns insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who, during a routine call to the house of Mr Dietrichson, instead encounters his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and promptly falls for her.

Phyllis has a plan to insure her husband and then arrange for his “accidental” death. It turns out that Neff, whilst considering the ways in which clients might try to commit insurance fraud, has gotten to wondering how he could pull off the perfect fraud himself. The two of them appear to be a match made in heaven (or hell). As an insurance expert, Neff knows that accidental death on a train is almost unheard of, and insurance payouts from such rare causes are twice the usual amount – the double indemnity of the title. He cooks up a plan to knock off the old man on a train but, of course, no sooner is the deed done than problems arise.

It is clear from the outset that the plan has gone badly wrong. Most of the scenes are flashbacks, but the present-time beginning of the film shows a wounded Neff making a voice recording of the whole story, including his confession to murder, for his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The intrigue in the tale is in discovering just what went wrong and the wonderfully tight plotting does this brilliantly.

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The characterisation sets the tone for many a noir film to follow. MacMurray’s Neff is tall, handsome, and confident, but turns out to be a complete sap at the mercy of Stanwyck’s femme fatale. Much play is made of the ankle bracelet worn by Phyllis Dietrichson, which is clearly meant to indicate that this is not just a blond but a sleazy one. Almost as soon as Neff encounters her (wrapped in a towel initially) he starts making moves. For all of about two minutes she puts up some token resistance, telling him “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour”. He says “How fast was I going, officer?” and she tells him “I’d say about ninety”.

The use of shadow, a classic tool of the noir film-maker, is also used to emphasise the sleaze element. In one scene we see Phyllis sitting on a couch whilst she talks to Neff. Her face is in shadow but the side lamp ensures that we are aware of the shape of her breasts through her tight white sweater. Light and shadow is also used elsewhere to great effect. In various of the office scenes the light coming through the venetian blinds throws shadow lines on the walls and floors, an effect copied in many subsequent noir movies.

As well as being an outstanding movie, Double Indemnity is also notable for one curiosity: Raymond Chandler makes his only known film appearance – for about one or two seconds – in one of the early scenes.

Rating: 10/10

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Director: Scott Waugh

Running Time: 130 minutes

Based on a computer game, Need for Speed is of course entirely preposterous, but none the less enjoyable for that. Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul plays Toby Marshall, a garage owner and participant in illegal road races. After he serves time for a crime he did not commit, he is determined to expose the true culprit, his old college rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). In order to do so (although it is never clear exactly how this will help), he must take part in the De Leon road race organised by “The Monarch”, some sort of video jockey played by Michael Keaton. The race itself has a £2 million prize for the winner, although quite how The Monarch has not attracted the attention of the law for organising an illegal race is also a question left unanswered. But never mind – the key thing is that Toby has only 45 hours to drive across several states in order to participate.

Any road trip worth its salt has to be made by a mismatched couple, of course, at which point enters Julia (Imogen Poots). She is a posh-speaking English rose who Toby initially disdains, until he discovers that she has petrol running through her veins. The two of them head south at breakneck speed, with the police in pursuit (as movie law dictates), not to mention Dino’s henchmen.

In essence, Need for Speed is a series of races and chases stitched together by a plot that barely makes sense, and populated by comic book characters with V8 engines for brains. The whole thing is ridiculous, and for the first twenty minutes or so I thought I had made a mistake. However, once we got past the point where Toby is released from prison the film really started to take off for me and I was able to relax and enjoy it. In fact, it is fair to say that the more ludicrous things get, and the wilder the action, the more the film succeeds as a piece of pure popcorn entertainment.

Rating: 7/10