Tag Archives: organized 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

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Brother 2 (2000)

“You bitches will answer to me for Sevastopol!”

Brother 2 (Brat 2) is the follow up film to 1997’s Brother (Brat). Both films are directed by Aleksey Balabanov and star Sergei Bodrov Jr in the leading role of Danila Bagrov. Sergei Bodrov Jr was tragically killed during a glacier slide in the Caucacus in 2002. What a tragic loss to his family and to Russian cinema as this actor certainly had a great career ahead of him.  

Brother 2 (Brat 2) begins with Danila (Bodrov), along with two other Russian army veterans Ilya (Kirill Pirogov) and Kostya (Alexander Dyachenko), meeting at a television station for an appearance on the show “World of People,” and in this segment of the show the groundwork is laid illustrating the bond these three Chechen war veterans share. While in the first film, Brother, Danila claimed he just had a desk job in the army, this segment of Brother 2 makes it clear that Danila was involved in combat. After the taping of the TV programme, the three friends meet at a spa and Kostya mentions that his twin brother, ice hockey star Dmitri, plays in America for the Chicago Blackhawks. But while Dimitri should be raking in the big bucks, he’s locked in under contract to a corrupt American businessman, Mennis (Gary Houston). Mennis’s contract ensures that Dmitri, who should be a wealthy man, plays on a major team but gets a fraction of his check. Kostya discusses the problem with Ilya and Danila and mentions that since Mennis is about to arrive in Moscow, he will bring the problem to the attention of his slimy boss, Nikolyaevsky Bank executive Valentin Belkin (Sergei Makovetsky)–a business partner of Mennis.

Bad idea….

Soon Danila and Ilya are on the run from Belkin’s henchmen, and along the way they get some colourful assistance from weapon hoarder and merchant Fascist (Konstantin Murzenko). The quest for justice takes Danila and his brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), a professional hitman known as The Tartar on a journey from Moscow to the clubs of Chicago. Brother 2 seems to be fairly standard fare at first, with Danila on the run from some blockhead baddies, but once Danila and Viktor hit America’s shores, the film ramps up and the fun really begins. A great deal of the fun comes from the encounters both men have on American soil; Danila is ripped off by his fellow Russians, makes friends with a truck driver (Ray Toler) and falls foul of a pimp. Meanwhile Viktor has the time of his life unleashed in Chicago.

The film also includes a few sly and not so-sly digs at American culture–including an enormous hamburger and the corruption and laziness of American law enforcement. According to Chicago police, it’s apparently ok to drink alcohol in broad daylight as long as the booze bottle is in a brown paper bag and the bottle isn’t exposed. Viktor fails to grasp this subtlety, and he soon shows Chicago’s police force what they can do with their laws. In its depiction of American culture, there is much to offend, but it should be remembered that some of the film is played for laughs, and the view isn’t flattering. Danila hangs out in a mostly black Chicago ghetto, and this section of the film gives a view of black culture that isn’t positive. This however is counterbalanced by Danila’s fortuitous and painful meeting with leggy black TV news reporter Lisa Jeffrey.

The film, while extremely funny, also has a serious side when it comes to the issue of American vs Russian values. Danila’s opinion of American culture is that money makes power, and by extension in American society, money supersedes all morality. Russian arms merchant, Fascist, for example is painstakingly honest in his dealings with Danila, and this can be compared to the dishonest Brighton Beach car merchant who appears later in the film. Brother 2 portrays some Russians who seem to have forgotten their country’s values and have gone native by placing money as the supreme value. Dmitri, for example, is one such soulless character. Similarly, the Russian prostitute, Marilyn/Dasha (Dariya Lesnikova) is another character who’s more or less forgotten her Russian code of behaviour until she gets a few refresher lessons from Danila.

The character of Danila continues to be every bit as intriguing as in the first film. Too often sequels neglect to flesh out their characters while the emphasis goes on plot rather than character. Filmmakers guilty of this error seem to feel that nothing else is required as the popular characters are already so comfortably ‘established’ with the audience. Brother 2 shows Danila’s sentimentality–towards friends, children, and towards his homeland–Russia. A couple of scenes focus on Danila’s face as he looks at his brother lovingly murmuring the word, ‘brother.’ And of course in this film, music fiend Danila rather appropriately has a relationship with Russian pop star, Irina Saltykova.

Fans of the first film should catch the complete reversal of fortune that occurs at the beginning of Brother 2. Viktor is stuck at home with his mother, and she urges him to go join his brother Danila in Moscow. This is at once a replay but a reversal of the beginning of Brother when Danila is told to go and visit his successful brother, Viktor in Moscow. If you enjoyed Brother, then grab a copy of  Brother 2. It’s a bitter-sweet experience–a very enjoyable film, but tragic that Sergei Bodrov will make no more for his fans.

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His Kind of Woman (1951)

“I was just getting ready to take my tie off. Wondering if I should hang myself with it.”

his kind of womanHis Kind of Woman begins in a beautiful villa in Italy where exiled drug czar and psychotic crime boss Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) paces the marble floor like a trapped animal. One of Ferraro’s minions listens to a radio broadcast that states that Ferraro should be rolling in dough–even on Italy’s far-flung shores, but while Ferraro is trapped in Italy, the boys back home aren’t sending along those ill-gotten gains from all the gambling and narcotics scores. And so Ferraro decides it’s time to get back to America and straighten out his rackets. But the problem is he’s been deported and as an undesirable, he’s not allowed back in….

Meanwhile gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) returns to his Los Angeles haunts after thirty days in the slammer. He strolls into one of his favourite late night diners to order milk, but there’s something wrong. Sam, the server seems tense and nervous, and Milner takes the hint, strolling back to his apartment where he finds three hoods waiting for him. The hoods are there to collect $600 dollars that Milner doesn’t owe. After being beaten up, Milner receives a phone call asking him to go to the home of a local crime boss and here Milner gets an offer he can’t refuse. He’s offered a cool $50,000 if he just goes down to Mexico and stays there for a year.

Although Milner hadn’t planned on going to Mexico, he realises that he can’t refuse, so he takes the downpayment and heads to Nogales. In a tatty Nogales bar, he runs into Lenore Brent (Jane Russell), a woman who claims to be a millionairess. While Milner, is strongly attracted to Lenore, she brushes him off as she sniffs that he’s not in her league, but nonetheless the pair find themselves on a chartered plane heading for Morro’s Lodge, an exclusive, isolated coastal resort.

Upon his arrival, Milner makes it a point to try and discover why he’s in Mexico, and he does this by trying to mingle with the guests. Striking up relationships with some of the guests proves difficult, and no one seems to be quite who they claim. There’s writer Martin Krafft (John Mylong)  a man who plays solitary chess games against himself in a distinctly anti-social way. Another man Myron Winton (Jim Backus) has the persona of a buffoon, but he’s a card sharp intent on separating a pair of newlyweds.  Meanwhile Milner is closely watched by a couple of hoods who refuse to give any information but don’t want him mingling with the guests too much.

The resort is obviously the hangout for millionaries who don’t want the hassle of publicity, and the guests seem to be a strange blend of the extraordinary wealthy along with a few playmates. Milner doesn’t make much headway in the information department but thinks that at least he can while away the time massaging suntan oil onto Lenore’s shoulders. And then married Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price) shows up for a tryst with Lenore.

From the very first scene as Ferraro menacingly walks through his villa, His Kind of Woman is great entertainment. The film is an interesting blend of hardboiled noir laced with comic elements, and most of the film’s humour comes from Cardigan–a thwarted Errol Flynn type who can’t wait to act out his heroic fantasies off screen using real guns for a change.

The film’s strength is in its well-fleshed characters. There’s a strong sense of just who Milner, Lenore, Cardigan and the psycho Ferraro are, and even minor characters are given quirks that make them fascinating and three-dimensional. Mitchum–as always–is superb. Cool and laconic, he never breaks a sweat until the film’s final scenes. Milner knows that he’s been set up from the very beginning, but he doesn’t fight it and goes along for the ride until that ride gets too bumpy. The film’s title His Kind of Woman refers to the fact that Milner recognises Lenore as his type of dame from the moment he sets eyes on her. When Mitchum first sees Lenore, he buys her a bottle of champagne and carries it over to her table. While he may be hoping to impress her, the way he holds the bottle looks like he intends to slug someone with it. She may act as though she’s slumming by hanging out in a scruffy Nogales bar, but she’s more at home singing in bars than she is sporting with the rich and famous at Morro’s Lodge. Jane Russell as Lenore has a fantastic wardrobe–with gowns that look as though they’ve been poured on to her luscious full curves. The scenes between Mitchum and Russell snap as dialogue is exchanged. One of my favourites scenes involves Lenore discovering that Milner likes ironing his money. Milner is a tough guy but he’s so tough, he doesn’t have to worry about displaying that toughness at every turn.

The comedy takes over at a few points during the film. The Shakespeare-quoting Cardigan becomes the focus of some of the scenes, and with a captive audience made up of Mexican police and American holidaymakers, the opportunity for real-life adventures swell his already impossible ego. But it’s all great fun and Cardigan’s very genuine relationship with Milner–a relationship of contrasts plays well on the screen. Similarly Milner’s relationship with Lenore believably simmers while she struggles with the idea that she needs to nail Cardigan to a commitment in the next two weeks.

Raymond Burr as savage crime czar Nick Ferraro is suitably psychotic, and as it turns out Martin Krafft is a Nazi doctor, so there are all these characters who may have disguises and fake names but who in the end run true to type. The film’s final scenes involve some rather convoluted back and forth fighting, and while some of these scenes drag out the ending, it’s all to allow the film to conclude in splendid, no-holds barred Errol Flynn fashion. 

The film, from Howard Hughes RKO studios, is directed by John Farrow.

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Fabio Montale (2001)

 ” I’m not in your corporation anymore.”

fabioFabio Montale is a three-part made for French television crime drama based on the Marseilles Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo. The film’s protagonist is Fabio Montale (Alain Delon) who begins the series as a veteran Marseilles policeman. The first film Total Chaos concerns the return and subsequent murder of Montale’s sole surviving childhood friend, Ugo. Ugo returns to Marseilles to commit a revenge killing, and when he’s killed during an arrest, Montale refuses to swallow the official police story. Montale is aided and abetted by his loyal sidekick Captain Peyrol (Cedric Chevalme).

In the second film, Chourmo Montale is on the brink of retirement when his cousin approaches him for help. It seems that her son has a forbidden assignation with a young Arab girl, and he’s now missing. Once again Montale is swept into a situation full of intrigue and double crossing. Threads of the story lead from the first film, and it seems that a web of mafia violence is destined to stalk Montale and his acquaintances.

In the third film Solea Montale retires, and instead of enjoying a peaceful retirement in his idyllic clifftop home, he’s dragged once more into his violent past. His friend, Babette, who’s compiling a case against organized crime, has received death threats, and those nearest to Montale are dropping like flies. But in spite of this, our hero, Fabio, still finds time to attract the young babes.

The three-film series is quite faithful to the Izzo novels. This is a stylish police thriller, and since it’s all based in Marseilles, we get a good taste of this city–its rabbit warren features, along with spectacular shots of the coast and harbours. If you like police crime drama, then chances are you’ll really be able to sink your teeth into this. But this 3-film set doesn’t really dwell on the psychological aspects of the story and is instead more like an American police crime thriller just transplanted to the glories of Marseilles. Fabio Montale (291 minutes) is in French with subtitles.

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The Invisible Killer (1939)

 “You reformers are all cut out of the same pattern.”

The Invisible Killer is a forgettable little crime drama that centres around a string of mysterious deaths and a gambling syndicate. Newspaperwoman Sue Walker (Grace Bradley) who’s also engaged to Police Lt. Jerry Brown (Roland Drew) is determined to get to the bottom of the deaths and the gangland war over gambling turf, and she’ll use whatever means necessary to crack the story. This involves eavesdropping on her fiance’s investigations and phone calls, and beating him to the scene of a crime. When a member of the gang agrees to tell everything he knows, it seems as though the case may blow wide open. But just as he’s about to start talking, he mysteriously dies in the home of the District Attorney….

The film, directed by Sam Newfield, tries to capitalize on Sue and Lt. Brown’s relationship–obviously trying to forge some on-screen chemistry, but it just doesn’t happen. Instead Lt. Brown frequently lectures his fiancee, and whines about the willfulness of women to his sidekick. Sue, for her part, tries to play the pert, intrepid newspaperwoman, saluting her fiance, etc., and the relationship seems rather silly. The unstoppable female reporter is a stock character for crime drama, and apart from the fact that Sue’s character is annoying, this film has nothing new to add to the role. The plot is overly complicated for this hour-long drama, and that leaves no room for character development. But the biggest problem here is that the film doesn’t seem to take itself seriously, and the heavy ladles of poor comic relief don’t help. Even the actors seem to just go through the motions to get to the end of it … finally. My Alpha DVD print is poor. The film skips in several spots and words are lost, and the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired.

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