crime

REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

During the era of Prohibition in the United States, Federal Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) sets out to stop ruthless Chicago gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and, because of rampant corruption, assembles a small, hand-picked team to help him – veteran beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), trainee George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).

From the opening credits I was instantly intrigued by The Untouchables and that’s thanks to Ennio Morricone’s score. The harmonica slowly amps up the tension and intrigue while the drumbeat gets your heart pounding. It’s an example of one of the main action themes that is present throughout the film and you soon learn that when you hear that sound, something big is about to happen.

The whole cast is great in their roles. Costner brings the almost naivety to Eliot Ness, who has a big task ahead of him going after Al Capone. As Ness and his team close in on Capone’s operation, you see the steely determination come through and how far Ness is willing to go for justice. It’s unsurprising that Sean Connery won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. Malone is Ness’ guide and the scene with the two of them in a church, discussing how far they’ll go is a standout. Garcia’s Stone is a sharpshooter but honest while Martin Smith’s Wallace is more of a nerdy guy but the pair of them round out this unlikely team well.

The raids, shootouts and stakeouts are all a great balance of tension and payoff. The shootouts are exciting and entertaining but it’s the quieter moments like when a character is being stalked by another that really puts you on edge.

The filming techniques used in The Untouchables help make this film stand out in the crime drama genre. The scene with Ness and Malone in the church is filmed with a Split Diopter lens, making both characters in focus, there’s extreme closeups of Ness’ eyes at key moments, the camera sometimes acts like a characters point of view, only giving you the viewer so much information, and slow-motion is used to great affect in one of the final shootouts in the film. While The Untouchables is certainly a slick, crime drama it’s these little touches that help elevate the film. The costuming deserves a mention too as everyone’s suits add to their characters – Stone’s leather jacket is a personal highlight.

The Untouchables is slick, tense and thrilling as Ness and his men battle corruption and Capone’s men at every turn in order to bring the man to justice. The characters are all great individually but it’s how these four men work together and put aside any differences that’s really compelling. 5/5.

REVIEW: Vehicle 19 (2013)

Michael Woods (Paul Walker), a parolee, arrives in Johannesburg to reconnect with his ex-wife but when he unknowingly picks up a rental car that has kidnapped whistleblower Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean) in the boot, he becomes entangled with the corrupt local police.

Vehicle 19 is one of those one location films and this one takes place in a car. It’s in a similar vein to Locke (2013) and Wheelman (2017) however with Vehicle 19 the camera never leaves the inside of the car. While Michael may briefly leave the car, the camera stays stationary. This technique is a double-edged sword really. It’s supposed to rack up tension as you are in a tight space with the main character with no escape, but equally some thing’s end up repetitive as you’re forced to see the action happening at a distance through the car windows.

Paul Walker does a good job carrying the film, giving a solid performance. His character wants nothing to do with Rachel and the trouble he’s now involved in and seeing him go from self-centred to determined to do what’s right feels like it’s earnt. Rachel and Michael’s dynamic ends up being really interesting and something I wish we’d seen more of. The fact that Michael is kind of a fish out of water works well too, both in terms of the politics of the city and just knowing about the layout of the city. He is clearly a skilful driver, but he doesn’t know Johannesburg at all so is often forced to ask for directions or go back on himself as he races through the streets.

Corrupt police officers are nothing new in film, but Vehicle 19 does manage to pull a few surprises with the genre. The car chases are often exciting though sometimes restrictive in terms of how the action is shown.

At just over 80 minutes Vehicle 19 does go by at a good pace and, after more character stuff at the beginning, the action beats are hit steadily. Vehicle 19 is a decent thriller and though its unusual filming style makes it stand out a little more than the generic action film it could’ve been, it’s still not something that’s super memorable. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Botswana: The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

When a twelve-year-old girl goes missing near her village, the local police tell her mother and the villagers that she has been taken by a wild animal. Five years later, young government employee Amantle Bokaa finds a box bearing the label ‘Neo Kakang: CRB 45/94’. It contains evidence of human involvement in the affair. So begins an undercover struggle for justice and retribution.

Predominantly set in a rural village in Botswana in 1999, The Screaming of the Innocent is a story of ritual murder and a cover up. Have to say I found the opening chapters very difficult to get through and uncomfortable to read. They are set in 1994 and follow the men who are watching young Neo and planning how they are going to take her. The description in those chapters is vivid as you get into the minds of deprived but powerful men, as they watch Neo, describing her young body in a sexual manner. It almost made me feel queasy and that was the most striking part of the book. Then there’s the five-year time jump, and it’s not till much later that you discover what exactly they did to Neo and again it’s in graphic detail.

The Screaming of the Innocent is a relatively short book (just over 200 pages) and I thought the way the story was told was interesting. From the beginning you know who the men are who took Neo, but you don’t know how they got away with it – was it corruption or incompetence. It’s a fight for justice as long-lost evidence is discovered and someone who wasn’t even in the same region when the girl was taken, is pulled into the village’s turmoil and becomes their spokesperson.

While The Screaming of the Innocent is told from multiple perspectives as different characters remember what happened after Neo’s disappearance all those years ago, Amantle could be called the main character in the present. She discovers the evidence and has no idea of the impact it’ll have on her life or those in the village she’s just arrived in. She is someone who wants to fight for what’s right and is very earnest. She has connections to lawyers through friends and she almost has a fake it till you make it in her quest for the village’s to find out the truth. It can be a little grating as she’s so serious and focused and doesn’t always seem to realise the potential consequences of her actions as she’s convinced her method is the best.

The scenes where Amantle and her lawyer friends discuss the case and theorise what might have happened to Neo and how and why the evidence ended up where it did for five years was one of the most interesting parts of the story. The Screaming of the Innocent doesn’t feel complete though as while Amantle gets the answers she seeks, there’s still the longer fight for justice still to come.

The Screaming of the Innocent is one of those crime/mystery stories where by the end of it you as the reader know the answers, and even some of the characters do, but that doesn’t mean they’re good answers or ones that give people closure or justice. It’s a bit frustrating really as personally I like my crime stories where everyone gets their comeuppance.

Still, The Screaming of the Innocent being set in the 90s and a place and culture so different to my own was interesting. I didn’t always like how it was written, it seemed very simplistic at times – especially after the impactful opening chapters – but the story was a compelling one. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Losers (2010)

I shall preface this by saying I think this “critical review” is going to turn more into a “gushing review” as I talk about one of my favourite films.

After a CIA special forces team known as the Losers are betrayed and left for dead by their superiors and a mysterious and powerful man known only as Max (Jason Patric), the Losers wage a war against them in order to get their lives back.

A film like The Losers lives or dies on its core team of characters and The Losers thrives. From the first scene you can feel the comradery between the Losers and can feel how these often very different men fit together in a cohesive team. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Clay, the leader of this team. He’s more world-weary and feels responsible for the others. As a side note: I once heard someone saying Jeffrey Dean Morgan should have the career Gerard Butler has and I can’t say I totally disagree with that statement.

Anyway, back to the team. Roque (Idris Elba) is more volatile but he and Clay balance one another out. Pooch (Columbus Short) is the wheelman and has some very funny moments, while Chris Evans plays a very sarcastic and talkative Jensen who’s the tech guy. It’s honestly a delight seeing Chris Evans in a role like this, especially as The Losers was released a year before he made his debut as Captain America. To round out the Losers there’s sniper Cougar (Óscar Jaenada), who’s more of the silent but deadly type.

When a secretive woman Aisha (Zoe Saldana) comes to the Losers with a plan for them to get Max, things get complicated as they have heists to carry out in order to get to Max. Max is a fun character too. He’s shady, unpredictable nature, and always has an air of menace even though you rarely see him get his hands dirty. Think it’s down to the costuming choice.

Having read the comics this film is based on (and after seeing the film), I think The Losers is one of the best comic book movie adaptations out there. It has the same humour, the essence of the story is there, if naturally changed a little, and the actors do a great job at bringing these characters to the screen.

The way The Losers is shot is fun and interesting. A lot of the time it’s like a standard action film, but then there’s slow-motion shots of fights or sudden camera zooms; it’s like the filmmakers had fun with the concept of bring a comic book to life.

I think fun is a good word to describe The Losers. The action, the fights, the dialogue, it’s all really fun and enjoyable to watch. The character beats are good, the intrigue is there, the music choices are sometimes unexpected but great, and it has a proper tight script and a runtime close to the 90 minutes mark. The Losers is a great comic book adaptation and a really enjoyable film. 5/5. Fun fact: The Losers is also one of my go to comfort films and is a great piece of escapism.

S is for Sudden Impact (1983)

Trigger warnings for scenes of rape.

After angering a gang of criminals, San Francisco Detective Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) bosses send him on an out-of-town case until things calm down. But things are never quiet for Harry. In the seaside town he ends up there’s Jennifer (Sondra Locke), a rape victim who is exacting her revenge on her attackers, and soon Harry ends up following the case.

Sudden Impact is the fourth film following Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry. It’s been a good few years since I’ve watched the first three so I can’t compare it to them in terms of quality or Harry as a character’s story arc.

That being said, this film sees Harry as a man who sees murderers as murderers with very little grey area to move in. This means having the serial killer he’s chasing having a very understandable motive as she was a victim of a heinous crime, means there’s some interesting ground to cover in terms of Harry’s character. Unfortunately, this aspect is never really fully explored besides some lingering gazes and Jennifer being able to keep up when verbally sparring with Harry.

Jennifer is a compelling character and it’s refreshing to see her be allowed to be angry and scared, and how she seeks “justice” is never framed as a bad thing – especially once the audience knows her motives. The scenes when she confronts her rapists are powerful and Locke gives a steely performance in those moments.

The car and foot chases sometimes feel a bit dated, but the score is a great at increasing the tension in the sequences. The final act is exciting as Harry begins to put everything together and he and Jennifer both become caught up in danger.

Sudden Impact is an intriguing detective story that puts the killer almost on par with the hero in terms of screen time and understanding. 4/5.

M is for Monster (2003)

Trigger warning for rape.

Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute and drifter until she meets Selby (Christina Ricci). But after she shoots a sadistic trick who rapes her and threatens to kill her, she begins to seek her own form of justice and becomes America’s first female serial killer.

Monster is based on a true story and through the script, direction and performances, you slowly start to see the internal logic behind Aileen’s actions.

There is a scene where Aileen is raped but it never feels as if it was shot to be sexy or a fantasy for those involved. The rape scene is horrific and uncomfortable to watch – just as it should be. Aileen’s actions in that instance are easy to say are justifiable as they were in self-defence. It’s as she then seems to have the logic that all men are dangerous if they happen to pick up a woman from the side of the road and shows little to no remorse when killing them that the lines of sympathy gets blurred.

Especially as more is revealed of Aileen’s past, the trauma she’s experienced, and how she’s never really had anyone in her life that cared about her until she met Selby. Aileen and Selby’s relationship is so soft as Aileen slowly begins to open up to Selby. But Selby is also quite naïve about what Aileen is doing as she wants to just continue the life they’re living without the consequences.

Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognisable as Aileen Wuornos thanks to the unglamorous hair, make up and costume. These add to Theron’s performance and she is equal parts mesmerising and repulsive as she goes down a dark path with little regrets. Theron is ferocious and intense as Aileen and truly gives a powerhouse performance.

Monster is a harrowing true story that does a good job of allowing the viewer to understand the motives of a killer but never condones what she does. 4/5.

F is for Family Plot (1976)

When Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), a phoney psychic, and her taxi driver/private investigator boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) are trying to track down a missing heir, they cross paths with a pair of serial kidnappers.

Family Plot is the first Alfred Hitchcock film I watched (I’m a terrible film fan I know) and it turns out, it was his last film. I find some sort of symmetry in that.

Family Plot is a fun thriller that’s more comedic than I thought it’d be, considering the director and the preconception I had of him and his films. The humour is very wry and often dark as people are kidnapped, there’s attempted murder, and Balance and George are trying to con a wealthy old lady out of her money.

The duos of Harris and Dern, and Karen Black and William Devane who play the kidnappers, are great to watch. Each pair have a very different relationship, but they all bounce off one another well and they play interesting characters.

There are some really fun filming devices in Family Plot, like an overhead shot of a graveyard where George follows someone on parallel paths. It’s funny because as the viewer you can pick put both characters routes and you know they can’t avoid George, but their efforts to do so make it all the more entertaining.

I found the score, composed by John Williams, really interesting especially in the sense of how and when it was used. It made great use of silence and showed how it could increase the tension more than a big soundtrack could.

Family Plot is perhaps a little long and certain events could’ve been tighter, but it’s still an engaging film with an interesting mystery at its core. 3/5.

E is for The Edukators (2004)

Three friends, Jan (Daniel Brühl), Jule (Julia Jentsch) and Peter (Stipe Erceg), lead a silent revolution as they break into rich people’s houses and unnerve them through their protest art. That is until one homeowner returns sooner than expected, forcing them to cobble together a kidnapping plot that threatens their political beliefs and their trust in each other.

The main trio all give great performances as idealistic anti-capitalists. Their daily struggles, especially Jule’s as a waitress in a high-end restaurant where the customers often make ridiculous demands, are easy to understand and they are looking for a way to release their pent-up anger and frustration in the world they live in.

When they are forced to kidnap businessman Hardenberg (Burghart Klaußner) to save their own skin, things start to spiral. It’s through discussions with him that their youthful optimism and idealism clashes is shown how it clashes with an older pragmatism. They want to change the world, or at least be able to make at least one person change their thoughts and habits, but Hardenberg demonstrates the reality that even those with the best intentions can in time find themselves following the societal norm.

It’s not just their political ideals that are called into question, but their relationships too. All three of them have great chemistry in whatever combination, and their character dynamics mean they each balance the others out really well. Jule and Peter are a couple and while Jan has been friends with Peter for years, he and Jule had never had much to do with one another. But as they spend more time together, Jule and Jan get closer. The trio’s relationship is an interesting one and all the way through I was thinking a lot of their problems (keeping secrets, lack of good communication) could be solved if they were in a polyamorous relationship, by the end of the film, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they may have gone down that route, though nothing was ever explicit.

I’m somewhat surprised there hasn’t been an English-language remake of The Edukators yet, if or when there ever is it’ll be set in LA and will probably miss some of the nuances in the original. Plus, I’m sure it’d forego the hints at a potentially polyamorous relationship between the main trio.

The Edukators presents interesting ideas on revolution, capitalism and protest, how individuals can or can not change things, and it often depends on the people they have surrounding them, and how far they’re willing to go. 4/5.

D is for The Dead Pool (1988)

Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) must stop a sick secret contest to murder local celebrities, which includes himself as a target.

The Dead Pool is the fifth and (so far but I doubt there’ll ever be more but who knows with the likes of Harrison Ford still making Indiana Jones movies) final Dirty Harry movie. Like its predecessors, it has Harry growling at anyone who gets in his way and being involved in wanton destruction, but while this film has its action and violence, it’s surprisingly funny.

The Dead Pool has one of the most entertaining and inventive car chase sequences I’ve seen, and it contains a remote-control car the exudes menace. It makes great use of its San Francisco setting with all the hills and the score is just great. It’s equally parts fun and thrilling which I really wasn’t expecting from when the remote-control car first appeared.

Harry Callahan gets a new partner in Al Quan (Evan C. Kim) and they and their fellow officers are very aware that Harry’s partners often get injured or killed on the job. Al and Harry have an easy report with each other almost straightaway as Al rolls with the whatever dangerous situations he ends up in by being connected to Harry. However, it is a bit stereotypical that as Al is Asian American, he knows martial arts and stops a bad guy by using his skills.

Part of the fun of watching The Dead Pool is seeing some of the actors who are involved. Jim Carrey plays a musician, Patricia Clarkson reporter Samantha Walker who wants to do a piece on Harry, and Liam Neeson plays horror movie director, Peter Swan, who gets caught up in the celebrity murder contest. Neeson’s Swan is a wonderfully over-the-top director who gets under a lot of people’s skin due to his perfectionism and his temper. The scenes with Swan and Callahan are great fun as their personalities are such opposites you’re never sure which one is going to snap first.

The Dead Pool is a fun, entertaining crime film. Plus, its runtime is under 90 minutes and while there’s a lot going on, the pacing is good and the mystery keeps you guessing and intrigued as Harry slowly unravels the case. 4/5.

C is for Carlito’s Way (1993)

After former drug kingpin Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is sprung from jail by his friend and high-powered attorney David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), he plans to go straight and earn enough money to leave New York for good. But his plans are undermined by misguided loyalties and an outdated code of honour and he fights for his chance to escape.

Carlito is a man who knows how to survive but that doesn’t mean he wants to continue to live a life of violence and drugs. Everyone doesn’t believe him when he says he’s retired from that life, friends, family, former associates or rivals and even the police. It’s sad and tragic because it’s often other people’s actions, whether they’re friend or foe, that force him to react and it puts him in tougher situations.

The whole vibe of Carlito’s Way is very stylish. From Carlito’s long black coat to the neon lights and dance music in his club it all comes together in a lively and colourful backdrop to the drama of these characters lives. The violence is bloody, the shoot outs exciting, and director Brian De Palma knows how to build the tension during foot chases.

The performances are great. Pacino is a charismatic lead and the way he can flip from being so calm to a sudden bust of violence is unsettling. After a while, thanks to a narration by him, you believe Carlito is truly trying to leave his old life, it’s just that no one else does so they are often on edge waiting for him to snap and he uses that to his advantage. Carlito’s relationship with dancer Grace (Penelope Ann Miller) is surprisingly soft and he appears to become the person he wants to be when he’s around her. As Pacino’s Carlito becomes mores calm, Penn’s weaselly Kleinfeld becomes more and more erratic.

Carlito’s Way is a melodramatic tragedy, but it hits all those beats so well that you can forgive the moments where it veers too far into the theatrical. While there’s naturally violence in this gangster movie, it’s also more thoughtful and emotional than one might first think. It often feels more of a character study of a flawed and dangerous man who is just trying to leave the life of crime behind, but the New York underworld won’t let him go without a fight. 4/5.