Category Archives: Crime

Miss Bala (2011)

Once in a while I come across a film that’s a complete surprise, and that brings me to Miss Bala, a 2011 Mexican film from director Gerardo Naranjo–a film I rented on a whim and which proved to be one of the best crime films I’ve seen recently. This is the story of a 23 year-old girl, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) from Tijuana who wants to escape the poverty of her home town through a beauty contest to crown Miss Baja. The film shows Laura at home in a shack with her father, who sells clothes for a living and a small brother, Arturo. Laura’s father objects to her competing in the beauty contest and his objections arise from the “environment” she’ll be in. Laura, forges ahead in spite of his objections and together with her friend, Azucana, they apply and make the list of contestants. So far so good….

That night, the two girls visit the Millenium nightclub and so begins Laura’s incredible, unintended and fateful descent into the organised drug world. Becoming the pawn of the leader of La Estrella gang, and in particular the object owned by its reptilian leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez), Laura discovers that organised crime opens doors that were once slammed in her face. Trapped between Lino and DEA agents, morally compromised Laura has no escape and nowhere to turn in a country rife with corruption.

Stephanie Sigman as Laura does a fantastic job in this role. At one point, when she first signs up for the contest she’s told by its organiser not to smile so much. That comment wasn’t needed as that is the last time Laura smiles in the film. From this point on, she’s shuffled through various nefarious drug related activities that are so stunningly bold, that by the time the film ends she’s a terrified girl who’s afraid of making the slightest wrong move. What’s so interesting here is how Laura handles the brazen daytime gunfights, shootouts and executions. At one point, she’s handed a thick wad of bills by Lino and told to go buy herself a dress for the pageant. She ends up at a swanky shop where the snooty assistant condescendingly tells her that all the dresses are custom made and run around 1,000. Laura has the money, but instead of lording it over the woman (who’s asking to be brought down a peg or two), Laura, numbed by recent events,  insists she has the money and carries on with the task at hand as if the slight didn’t happen. In one great scene, during the pageant, she’s asked by the host if she wants money or fame–a telling and ironic question as it turns out, and one which she cannot answer. By the film’s spectacular and surprising conclusion, we ask ourselves just how much has been contrived from the very beginning, and Laura who started with just her looks–looks good enough she thought they would take her from the poverty of Tijuana, discovers, the hard way, just where looks take her.

Miss Bala, and Bala translates as “bullet,” by the way, is an inversion of two extremely popular American film themes: 1) the underdog film in which the outsider longs for an opportunity to prove himself/herself and then who beats the odds and rises to the top, and 2) the woman-in-danger who grabs a gun and suddenly becomes some type of super female. I’m thinking Angelina Jolie here, and is it any coincidence that the star of Miss Bala, Stephanie Sigman, looks like Jolie? While Jolie’s roles seem intent on uncovering her inner Assassin/Amazon–complete with skills that frequently defy logic, Miss Bala’s Laura is the opposite.  Director Gerardo Naranjo inverts the American dream–the outsider who makes it against the odds–and converts this into the Mexican nightmare. We don’t see Laura Guerrero discovering (a la Jolie) her inner assassin. Instead we see a terrified young girl who does just as she’s told as she become a wheel-woman, a mule, and an arms runner. This edge-of-your-seat thriller which terrorizes without gore shows that there’s no exit, no fantasy, no choices for someone like Laura–and her looks… well her looks just land her in trouble.

Miss Bala is an entry in Caroline’s and Richard’s foreign film festival

2 Comments

Filed under Crime, Mexican

The Perfect Host (2010)

You can’t kill me. I’m having a dinner party!”

DVD trailers sometimes appear to be selected with the idea of common tastes, so with that thought in mind, I wondered what to expect when I painstakingly made my way through the cheesy trailers on the DVD The Perfect Host. I couldn’t remember how The Perfect Host had found its way onto my netflix list. This is the first full-length feature from Aussie writer/director Nick Tomnay, so I know I didn’t select the film due to the director, and neither did the film feature any star whose work I follow.  I probably put the film in the netflix queue simply because it’s a crime film from an Aussie director, and I can’t resist those. So… as I watched the trailers for a handful of cheap and possibly gory thrillers, I began to wonder what was in store for me with The Perfect Host. The film’s tagline, by the way, is Dinner Parties are a dying art….

The film begins with a wounded man, John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) hobbling away from the scene of the crime. Taylor, a heavily tattooed career criminal, is haunted by bad luck. Fate derails his plans for escape and without any money or identification, he decides to try a little home invasion and use the home of some innocent bystander as a hiding place just until the next day. So he starts knocking at the doors of upper-middle class Hollywood Hills homes playing the victim in distress. But hey, this is California! Most people aren’t going to fall for that.

After one door is slammed in his face, John can’t believe his luck when he’s allowed into the beautiful, elegant  home of a quirky, effete middle-aged bachelor Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce). Warwick is busily cooking a meal for some friends who are expected at 8. After John learns that one of them is a prosecuting attorney, he decides that it’s time to take over the house and hold Warwick hostage until morning. And that’s when everything goes wrong….

By necessity this is going to be a short review because to write too much more will reveal this film’s delightful plot. While The Perfect Host appears to take the viewer down some fairly familiar paths of genre, this film is not what you expect at all. Obviously writer/director Nick Tomnay is very familiar with some of the genre’s clichés, and he subverts them with great and darkly comic results here.

David Hyde Pierce has to be seen to be believed and after watching the film, I’m still not entirely sure about this character. Nathaniel Parker plays a tenacious detective and Helen Reddy plays Cathy Knight, Warwick’s nosy neighbour.

Anyway, check out this film–I loved it, and here’s the site: www.theperfecthostmovie.com

2 Comments

Filed under Australia, Crime

Red Hill (2010)

“Jimmy Conway rides into town, he’ll be bringing hell with him.”

I watched the 2010 Australian film, Red Hill because:

a) I’m an Aussie film fan

b) It’s a crime film

While Red Hill is a combination of two of my film interests (Aussie & crime), it’s also a brilliantly conducted homage to the Western revenge film. Conjure up an image of a hideously scarred Clint Eastwood as the silent cowboy who rides into town seeking revenge, and you’ll have the basic idea.

The film begins with an immediate sense of unease. We see a beautiful meadow of grazing horses disturbed by a distant boom. This boom, as it turns out, is a pipeline explosion in a prison about 6 hours away. More of that later.

Then segue to fresh-faced, young copper, Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) and his heavily pregnant wife Alice (Claire van der Boom). This is going to be Shane’s first day on the job after requesting a transfer to the remote small town of Red Hill. Shane and Alice are seeking a fresh start and a quieter new life, and Shane is running from the shame of being shot by a young junkie. Shane’s first problem of the day emerges when he can’t find his gun. No worries. He’s not going to need a gun in the quiet town of Red Hill. Or is he?

Red Hill is the sort of town that’s composed of one main street. A good number of the businesses are boarded up with ‘for sale’ signs in the window. That bad vibe continues when Shane arrives in the rural police station. To say he’s met with hostility is putting it mildly. Old Bill (Steve Bisley), his new boss is humourless, nasty and mean. He makes it clear to Shane what his position will be at the police station, and it’s going to include a great deal of humiliation.

Shane tags along with Old Bill who alternately lectures and interrogates his new police officer. There’s a great scene of a town hall meeting that illustrates the town’s politics. Apparently a few years earlier the government declared the nearby mountain as a nature reserve, and this decision rankles the locals who feel the law has hurt their economy. A timid, middle- aged woman suggests looking outside the town for revenue, and Old Bill incites the hillbilly crowd with a polemic designed to eviscerate any argument and encourage violence with seemingly popular sentiment:

Our forefathers didn’t sacrifice their blood, sweat, and tears so a bunch of wankers could come here and suck fucking pinot.

The tedium of a day full of Old Bill laying down his rules to Shane shifts abruptly when news stations report that a dangerous criminal, Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) has escaped from Western Bay Prison and may be headed back to Red Hill. Years earlier, Conway was convicted of murdering his wife and attempting to murder a Red Hill police officer. Old Bill rounds up a posse of unsavoury characters, and Shane, the new man on the block is assigned to watch one of the roads that leads into town….

Red Hill is a crime film, but it rapidly morphs into a western revenge flick–the lone silent killer, the frontier town layout, the townspeople locked into a conspiracy of prejudice, past guilt and self-righteousness–all the elements of the western are here updated to rural Australia. Aborigine Jimmy Conway, who wears a long duster-clad, sports a bandolier and carries a deadly boomerang, is convincing as the silent, merciless revenge seeker. Once he arrives in town, all hell busts loose….

Shane, and it can’t be any coincidence that the main character is named after one of the greatest heroes in the history of Western cinema, is dropped right into the middle of a mess that he can’t understand.

The early scenes between Shane and Old Bill show Shane suffering humiliation after humiliation while Old Bill makes it clear that he wants a copper who’ll take orders without question. At one point, Old Bill grills Shane about the transfer, and it’s the first time we see Shane dig his heels in over the issue of whether or not the young junkie who shot Shane needed help. Old Bill severely underestimates Shane–if he’d watched the original Shane, he’s know that this character is a former gunfighter. Old Bill, evil old sod that he is, equates being good with being weak–a big mistake.

Red Hill is completely over-the-top at times, but that made me love this film even more.

From writer/director Patrick Hughes

2 Comments

Filed under Australia, Crime

Wallandar (2008)

Things are tough in Sweden….

wallanderThe DVD Wallander features Kenneth Branagh as the middle-aged beleaguered detective Kurt Wallander. This release is a 2-DVD set–with two films on the first disc and a third film–One Step Behind on the second disc. The first DVD features episodes Sidetracked and Firewall and these tales are based on the novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell. This DVD had been in my netflix queue along with the long wait notice since its release in June 2009, and when it finally arrived, I was very interested to see it. So Netflix finally sent disc one, and I watched it. I should mention that I’d read my first Henning Mankell crime novel earlier this year–didn’t love it, but then the first novel in the series is often the weakest, but since Branagh is such a good actor, I really wanted to see this DVD.

Any detective series (novel or film) has the delicate task of producing interesting crime stories that feature a regular character we care about. So there’s a balancing act between the crime at hand and the details of the detective’s life and character. I should add here that it’s not necessary to like the character in order to find him or her interesting. In fact, the more flaws the better (take Detective Inspector Rebus from the novels of Ian Rankin, for example). These series characters become acquaintances in a way–we want to see what they are up to in the next episode, and the theory is, of course, that if we are so interested in the character, we will come back to read the next book, or in this case, watch the next DVD.

So will I return to Wallander?

Doubtful….

The first episode, Sidetracked, begins with a startling, attention-grabbing act of self-destruction which leaves detective Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) feeling both responsible and helpless at the same time. But the attention grabbing beginning dwindles down into a sordid tale of corrupt kinky powerful men and a slew of horrific, ritualized murders. Yawn. It’s been done 100s of times before.

In the second episode, Firewall, Wallander investigates the seemingly senseless brutal stabbing of a taxi driver by a disaffected teen, and soon bodies  are popping up everywhere and he’s involved in a fanciful tale of cybernet terrorism.

The second episode showed a lot more energy as the story tweaks details of Wallandar’s pathetic personal life. The poor sod is separated from a wife he thinks he still loves, his bitchy, bratty daughter demands attention, and his father–already irritable and difficult to please–is sliding into Alzheimers.

At first, Wallander comes off as depressed, depressive and exhausted. He doesn’t even have the energy to shave apparently, and after seeing him wake up in chair, I was beginning to wonder about showers. The one relationship in his life is with his daughter, and it consists of her hounding him about various issues and in Firewall she pesters him to start dating. Wallander’s personal life doesn’t sucks as much as it’s non-existent. Branagh as Wallander seems to find even the smallest tasks associated with living to be too much to bear. And all things considered, I found him a bit depressing to be around….

The film may please fans of Branagh and the cinematography is gorgeous, but for me, and I may be in the minority here, I’m not exactly eager to see what happens to Wallandar in succeeding episodes.

Leave a comment

Filed under British television, Crime

Blood and Wine (1996)

 

“The interesting thing about rich people is that they’re so cheap.”

There are some films that burn images on our brains, and Blood and Wine from director Bob Rafelson is one of those films. There’s a scene in the film when wine merchant Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson)–who’s really a pathetic loser–is whooping it up in a swanky motel with Cuban mistress, Gabriela (Jennifer Lopez). To Gabriela, who works as a maid for a revolting rich family, Alex is a great catch; he’s a business owner, has a nice home and drives a red convertible. So what if he’s married? Alex is so broke his wife Suzanne (Judy Davis) can’t even write a cheque at the supermarket. But in this scene, Alex orders room service–complete with champagne while Gabriela stalks around in red heels and black lace lingerie. This scene is perfect. Alex and Gabriela leave reality behind and indulge themselves for a few hours, pretending that this fabricated experience is ‘real.’

bloodBlood and Wine is a sadly underrated crime film, and it’s the tale of how a middle-aged man, pressured by debts and yoked to a wife, a mortgage, and bills dreams up the sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape his hum drum existence and run off into the sunset with his mistress.

When the film begins, the heist is already planned with the major players in place. The stinking rich Reese family are leaving their ostentatious mansion (an uncomfortable cross between a swap meet and a museum) and sailing off on their yacht leaving their Cuban maid to housesit. The plan is that Gabriela will let Alex and his partner Vic (Michael Caine) into the house so they can lift Mrs. Reese’s diamond necklace from the safe. Things go wrong with the theft  immediately, but when Alex’s home life interferes with his criminal plans, events take an explosive turn.

Blood and Wine works so well because of its strong characterizations. The heist is just a heist, but it’s the people who try to pull off the crime and the people who get mixed up in the fallout that make the film so interesting.

First there’s Alex’s marriage: when Suzanne first appears on the scene, she’s using a cane for a broken ankle. Alex and Suzanne are at each other’s throats in less than a minute, and when the recriminations begin, it isn’t pretty. Suzanne who doesn’t seem to deserve such a louse for a husband, but then the issue is raised of just how she got that broken ankle, and gradually the ugly history of their turbulent marriage is raised.

Then there’s Suzanne’s son Jason (Stephen Dorff) who’s grown up protective of his mother and who harbors a slowly stewing hatred of his stepdad.

Vic, Michael Caine plays Alex’s partner, and this casting was a great choice. At first Vic appears to be a laid-back bucolic character, but as the film develops, Vic’s true character is revealed: vicious and unpredictable, Vic grows increasingly impatient with the screw-ups and whatever (and whoever) gets in the way of his share of the loot.

As for Gabriela, well she’s a girl who looks out for the best opportunity–whoever that might be.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen Blood and Wine perhaps it’s time to see it: it’s a believable tale of greed and lust.

Leave a comment

Filed under Crime

Finney (1994)

 “The fact that your husband wants to become a christian isn’t in itself a sign of mental illness.”

Finney is a 5-hour, 6-episode made-for-British television film that follows the struggle for power between various crime families in the North of England.

finney2Finney begins with the brutal murder of the violent Finney family Patriarch and godfather of crime, Irish Tucker Finney (Clive Russell), and this brings prodigal son, jazz musician Stephen Finney (David Morrissey) back to Newcastle. Following the murder, the family gathers for the funeral followed by reading of the will. Tucker Finney, who was a cruel, harsh man in life, continues to run his family even after his death. He leaves almost his entire estate to daughter Lena (Melanie Hill), while to Finney, the eldest son, he leaves a run-down abandoned cinema. Youngest daughter Suzie (Angela Lonsdale) inherits one of the family’s legitimate business concerns, a hotel, and the explosively unpredictable youngest son, Tom (Andy Serkis) is cut out of the will.

Stephen Finney, considered to be the only sensible member of the family by the local constabulary, left Newcastle and his wife and two children many years earlier. Since then, he’s pursued a career in jazz, and he’s hardly successful. When he learns of his inheritance, he decides to convert the ramshackle building into a jazz club, and he enlists the support of his ex-wife, Carol (Pooky Quesnel) to help. Gathering friends and jazz players, Finney sees the jazz club as a way to repair his life, so he sets to work on the restoration. But there’s a slight problem; the building is considered squarely in the territory of rival gang, the Simpson family, headed by Bobo (John Woodvine) and Bobo Jr. (Christopher Fairbank).

While the first episode set the scene for the rest of the drama, and was therefore a bit slow, Finney becomes increasingly more intense as the episodes unfold. The story follows Lena’s efforts to track down and kill her father’s murderer while establishing herself as her father’s successor. Since the area’s criminals are used to being led by a man, Lena has to establish herself as every bit as brutal and fearsome as her father–not an easy task. Meanwhile Tom spirals out of control, and Stephen Finney, despite his best efforts to remain separate from the taint of crime, becomes involved in the family business through a turf war as loyalties clash with his moral code.

Well acted, and well-plotted, if you are into British crime dramas, then Finney is for you. Nothing too brutal, this is more about character against the backdrop of British crime. Some of the flashbacks are repetitive and drag on a bit, but there’s a marvelous sequence in the ghost train at a local fairground. Solid entertainment for fans of British television. From director David Hayman.

Leave a comment

Filed under British, British television, Crime

Not For Or Against (2002)

ni-pour-ni-contre

“When you choose a path, you go all the way.”

I’ve enjoyed a couple of films from director Cedric Klapisch–When the Cat’s Away and Un Air de Famille. Klapisch’s saccharine, fluff piece L’Auberge Espagnole, however, was a huge disappointment, so I was happy to find a darker film–even with its faults–in Not For Or Against (Ni Pour, Ni Contraire, Bien au Contraire).

Set mostly in Paris, Not For or Against is ultimately a crime caper film with psychological implications. The film doesn’t explore questions such as why a seemingly respectable, working class girl dives into a life of crime with gusto–although enough hints are dropped along the way to make this film a much better than average crime yarn. The film’s protagonist (and its most fascinating character) is Cathy (Marie Gillian)–a young struggling camerawoman living in Paris when her life abruptly changes one day. But does her life change for the better or for the worse?

Cathy freelances with her camera and one day she’s sent on a job where she meets a beautiful call girl. The hooker asks Cathy if she’d like to make a quick wad of cash, Cathy accepts and find herself meeting Jean (Vincent Elbaz). He takes a brief look at her and then she’s on her way to a life of crime, joining a band of 4 violent men–robbing and beating their way to a fortune.

Cathy has the sort of scrubbed-clean look that belies her behaviour. She’s in complete contrast to the hookers and dancers who parade through the scenes half-dressed. Cathy downplays her body by dressing in practical clothing, and while she certainly has the type of looks she could exploit, she doesn’t. Perhaps this is why Jean underestimates her, and while he’s obviously used to women using clothing (or the lack of it) as part of the sirens’ call, Cathy’s message seems to be decidedly nonsexual as she doesn’t try any of the old tricks to get his attention.

For about the first two-thirds of the film, I was riveted to the screen. Jean describes Cathy as a “vanilla chick” referencing her race but also her seeming blandness. But Cathy is far from bland or ordinary, and her actions in the first crime prove that (and win the admiration of the seasoned hoods).

The gang members have good times and bad times, but the final third of the film devolves into a typical caper, and this is where the film began to lose my interest. Cathy and her relationship with Jean are the two most fascinating aspects of the film, but neither is explored in any depth. Cathy’s relationship with Jean is undefined. That’s what makes it so intriguing–at first there seems to be a sexual energy between the two, but is Jean leading Cathy on? Or is it the other way around? At one point in the film, Jean tries to provoke a jealous reaction in Cathy. Jean seems simultaneously disappointed and disturbed by Cathy’s reaction.

While I think it works to avoid defining the exact dimensions of Jean and Cathy’s relationship, it’s a serious fault in the plot to not explore Cathy’s inner thoughts. There’s a moment in the film when Jean presents Cathy with an alternative and she thinks, “I figured the path marked evil was the better [one],” but after that insight, Cathy’s thoughts remain largely unexplored. What makes her tick remains a frustrating mystery–apart from the odd moments in her Paris apartment and scenes of her in her humble provincial home. To Cathy, crime represents a way out of her boring life, but exactly how much she calculates, playing a role to get what she wants are issues ignored by the plot. The fallout from the crime caper would seem to hint that what happens to Cathy is pure accident, but the last scene belies that.

Ultimately Not For or Against remains a fairly standard caper film with just the slightly unusual element of the bourgeois, seemingly respectable ‘good’ girl going off the rails. By focusing on the elaborate caper rather than the psychological aspects of the plot, and by ignoring insight in Cathy’s psyche, the film loses a chance to rise above its plot and it becomes more ordinary and a lot less interesting.

In French with subtitles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Crime, France