crime

A is for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who’s idolised Jesse James (Brad Pitt) since childhood, tries hard to join the reforming gang of the Missouri outlaw, but gradually becomes resentful of the bandit leader.

The way this film unfolds is interesting. It’s narrated by Hugh Ross and with his dulcet tones and the way this film is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, it almost feels unreal. Like this tale of the legendary outlaw is a myth or legend and even as you get to know more of the man, everyone’s reactions to him and the aura he has makes him seem like he’s more than just a man.

The cinematography in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford really is gorgeous. Couple it with a score that’s often haunting, it makes the wide-open plains of the Midwest beautiful and lonely.

The cast is great, with the likes of Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell give strong performances throughout. However, naturally there are few female characters here, but Mary-Louise Parker does what she can with what she’s given as James’ wife. Casey Affleck plays the many sides to Robert Ford very well. The jealousy, the bitterness, the idealisation, the nativity – he’s unsettling to watch due to his obsession with James and by the end of it, you find you may have more sympathy for him than a lot of the people who surround him do. Affleck is great but it’s Brad Pitt who is truly mesmerising. He is fantastic as Jesse James. There’s an underlying tension nearly every time he’s on screen due to his intensity that’s simmering beneath a calm exterior. It’s because James is so smart and paranoid that even when characters don’t have something to hide, they act as if they do.

While there are gunfights and a train robbery, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is more of a slow character study of the two titular roles. That means it can be a bit hard to get into to begin with, but it’s well worth sticking with it and fully immersing yourself into this snapshot in time.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow but thoughtful take on a legendary outlaw and the man who killed him. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Kitchen (2019)

When their gangster husbands are sent to prison, their wives continue to operate their rackets and under their hand the business thrives.

The production design, hair and costuming firmly places The Kitchen in the time it’s set; late 1970s Hell Kitchen, New York. The violence is often bloody and shocking, and events seem to happen very quickly, there are a few montages complimented by an iconic song from the era. It would’ve been nice if some plot points could’ve had more time to evolve but on the whole the twists and turns work.

The three leads in The Kitchen are all great and while these characters are (for the most part) all working towards the same goal, they each have their own take on the situation and different strengths and weaknesses. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) is a stay at home mother and is the one with the family connections to the Irish Mob. She’s the most level-headed but also the most compassionate which can lead to her downfall. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) has always felt like the outsider and never accepted by the family, leading her to want more money and power than the family could ever dream of. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) has been beaten by her husband and refuses to be the victim anymore.

The support network these three women have for one another is wonderful, but that doesn’t mean they always see eye on how to run this business. The Kitchen does a great job at handling the core theme of “women in a man’s world” and how they can be as ruthless and as smart as their male counterparts, but also have different ideas on how to take on the same challenge.

McCarthy is the standout. When she has a dramatic role, she can sink her teeth into she can really bring out a brilliant performance. Kathy is often seen as the more mumsy of the three, but McCarthy does a great job at showing that inner steel and determination as she becomes more comfortable with the power and status she wields.

The Kitchen is engaging, surprising and has a trio of lead performances that really pull you into the story. It’s great to see a gangster movie with the women at front and centre. 4/5.

REVIEW: Dark Waters (2019)

Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defence attorney, takes on an environmental lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.

Dark Waters is based on a true story and that makes this film and what the characters go through, all the more amazing and terrifying.

Rob Bilott is contacted by a farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows keep dying, leading him to believe there’s something in the water from a chemical company who has a landfill nearby. This is where Bilott’s investigation starts but over time it becomes clear that it is just one part of a decade’s long conspiracy. It’s like he falls down a rabbit hole and each piece of information he uncovers is as shocking as the last, especially the lengths to which the company goes to to cover things up, and how deadly their practices are.

Something that Dark Waters does well is show how much time and effort it takes to put together this case and get justice for those affected by the pollution. Bilott’s quest for justice takes up years of his life and the scenes of him going through hundreds of boxes of documents is just as gripping as when he’s in court or trying to convince his boss that they should continue with the lawsuit. Dark Waters is also the epitome of one of my favourite things (is it a trope? I don’t think so) in films – competent people being good at their jobs. It’s Bilott’s resilience and ability to think outside the box that allows him to make so much headway even when everything is stacked against him.

All the performances are great here and many of the actors have at least one inspiring or impressive speech. Ruffalo is brilliant as a man who puts everything on the line, including his career and his homelife, to do the right thing, and continuing to fight even when this huge corporation with all their money and power throws so many hurdles in his way to try and stop him. While Dark Waters is definitely Ruffalo’s movie, the supporting cast are all terrific to. Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman deserve a mention but it’s Anne Hathaway that stood out in the supporting cast. She plays Rob Bilott’s wife and while naturally she has a smaller role, it is still an important one. These court cases and the investigation takes up Rob’s life for years, and it’s important to see how this affects his family, and while his wife is understanding of why he has to do this, she is the one keeping everything together.

It’s easy to compare Dark Waters to the likes of Spotlight and Erin Brockovich; Spotlight for Ruffalo and the investigative aspect and Erin Brockovich for the one person fighting against the big corporation. Dark Waters is easily as good as those two films, but it also stands on its own merits. It’s an engaging investigative movie where unfortunately you’re left feeling equal parts stunned and unsurprised that corporate corruption and greed can be so powerful.

It’s a film that needs to be seen, because the products that this company makes are just everyday things that are in everyone’s homes, and I for one was unaware of what the chemicals they produced could do, and how prevalent they are. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Narrated by Michael Page.

Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a small gang of thieves who are masters of the long con. They are not the petty criminals the other gangs of the city of Camorr think they are, instead they steal from the rich putting together heists full of disguises and trickery. The Lies of Locke Lamora follows the Gentleman Bastards as they start the ball rolling on their latest con, but there’s more going on here with challenges to the power structure of the criminal underworld of Camorr and bigger threats than they’ve ever encountered.

I loved this book and I’m annoyed at myself that it’s taken me so long to read it. I started reading it on my kindle way back in 2013, I got about 150 pages in but then stopped even though I did like the atmosphere and Locke as a character. I think the reason I stopped (besides life getting in the way) was because the beginning is a bit slow as it has a lot of things to set up. It’s more character focussed so you learn about who the Gentleman Bastards are and how they work, and how this whole world works with both the upper-class and the lower-class systems of Camorr too. Seven years later I tried again and this time I went with the audiobook which I thought was brilliant. The narrator did such a good job a distinguishing between the many characters in the story and he really brought this world to life, along with its dark humour. The Lies of Locke Lamora surprised me with how funny it is. A lot of that come from Locke’s sarcastic thoughts or his reactions to the situations he ends up in, and I just love characters with deadpan humour and who aren’t afraid to “Well shit, this isn’t going how I thought it would.”

The city of Camorr is kind of Venice-like with its canals and boats and the changing weather. The setting is also a bit historical and feels like the seventeenth century with the clothes they wear, the rules of society, and the style of language they use – though there is a lot of modern and inventive swearing too. However, there’s also some magical elements or alchemy to this world too, but it’s all weaved together in a way that makes it feel so real. Your plopped straight into the story and the setting is built up around the characters and the plot in an organic way and it never feels like there’s an infodump.

The structure of The Lies of Locke Lamora is really interesting. There’s the present where Locke and the Gentleman Bastards are grown up and conning noble people, and there’s interludes or flashbacks to when the Gentleman Bastards are children, where you see how they meet, and how they learn to be great thieves. The flashbacks were so great because they not only added backstory and layers to the characters, but they are just as engaging as the action in the present. I never got bored or annoyed when there was a flashback, even if one happened when the tension and the action was amping up in the present.

The characters are brilliant and are so lifelike. While they are all thieves and conmen, the Gentleman Bastards all have their own distinct quirks and personalities. The relationships between the Gentleman Bastards, in their various combinations, are wonderful too. They are more of a family and brothers in arms than just a gang. They all care deeply about one another and are willing to die for one another, and they all trust one another and it’s the epitome of the found family trope which I love.

Locke is a great leader of this family too. They each have their role and they often fit the archetypes of characters needed for a heist, and Locke is definitely the brains of the operation. That’s not to say he won’t bounce ideas off the others or listen to their advice, but he’s definitely the smartest one – and he’s often the smartest one in the room. His intelligence, and ability to think a couple of steps ahead is his superpower, so when there’s other people or powers who come into play that are potentially smarter than he is, that’s when things get even more interesting and you start to worry that these characters won’t make it out of this situation fully intact.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is such a fun and thrilling adventure story. There’s twists and turns and surprises, as with any good heist story, and there’s bloody fights and verbal battles. The Gentleman Bastards are characters I can’t wait to spend more time with, and I’m tempted to carry on this serious with the audiobooks if they have the same narrator because they were that good. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Venezuela: The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno

Translated by Guillermo Parra.

When leftist revolutionary Sergio’s sniper shot misses the President of Venezuela, he’s thrown into a sudden tailspin. As he attempts to escape the increasingly militarized regime, he winds up taking residence in a bohemian beachside commune, where he keeps a low profile until Lourdes, his former comrade, the object of his desire, and his possible betrayer, turns up one evening. Pursued by their former trainer in guerrilla warfare on the orders of the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, the two team up with unlikely partners to hatch a new plan for their survival.

Reading The Conspiracy is an experience. You follow multiple characters point of views throughout the story, giving you a wider understanding of the events unfolding after the failed assassination attempt than the majority of the characters. The sections from Sergio’s point of view are in the first person and there are often very long paragraphs and run on sentences. His mind is frantic and that comes across in the words on the page. There are times when he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing or doing and sees threats from everyone, making his narrative even more jumbled up and like a stream of consciousness.

The other characters point of views are written in the third person and while there’s still often long paragraphs, they tend to come across more measured and in control than Sergio, highlighting how his grip on reality is loosening.

The women in The Conspiracy are often described in a sexual manner with greater attention paid to their physical appearance – especially when it’s from Sergio’s point of view. It can be uncomfortable and eyeroll inducing due to the overtly sexual and lewd language used to describe them. But, with Lourdes especially, these women aren’t just there to be visually pleasing to the men. Lourdes is smart and capable and can tell when the walls are closing in and will go down all guns blazing if she sees no other choice.

There are a lot of twists and turns in The Conspiracy and while you as the reader tend to have more of an overview as to what’s going on than Sergio, there’s still surprises and people turn on one another or reveal secret plans. It makes it difficult to tell who to trust and while you learn more of Loudres’ backstory, the way the story is written means that like Sergio, you don’t always know if you can trust her motives.

The Conspiracy is full of backstabbing and political intrigue, but the writing style won’t be for everyone though with its manic energy and an unreliable narrator in Sergio. But at just over 200 pages, it’s a story that goes by at a steady pace and is an engaging read. 3/5.

REVIEW: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

After splitting up from the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is pulled into the hunt for street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) by crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) where she crosses paths with club singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

First of all, the rather long title of Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is misleading. This film really should be called Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey because it’s Harley’s movie first, and a Birds of Prey introduction second. So, adjust your expectations over who is more likely to get the most screen time here.

On to the film itself. Birds of Prey is a lot of fun. It does take a while to find its groove and that’s down to the multiple flashbacks that often grind the flow of the film to a halt, especially towards the beginning when you just want to follow these characters who all seem so interesting. Birds of Prey is a story told from Harley Quinn’s point of view, she narrates the story and interrupts herself now and then when she realises she’s skipped a bit. The narrative is often as chaotic and fractured as Harley’s mind which is equal parts interesting and jarring.

The start of Birds of Prey is more of a character study of Harley. She and the Joker have broken up and she’s struggling to get over him and find her who she is when she’s not tied to him. With all the gangsters, criminals and cops out to get her now she’s no longer under the Joker’s protection, Harley must think quick on her feet. It turns out that Harley isn’t as defenceless and as in need of protection as a lot of people think, of if she does need or want help, it’s not going to be from the men who seek to control her. Margot Robbie’s Harley has so many layers and insecurities and strengths and it’s refreshing to see a character like her work through the pain of a breakup and find an inner resolve.

The five main female characters cross each other’s paths in different combinations throughout the film which is great as you get to see different aspects of their personality depending on who they’re with. But it’s in the final act when they finally all come together to take down the bad guys that the film really clicks. It’s an absolute joy to watch them all fight side by side, have banter in between punches and generally compliment and encourage each other at any chance they get.

The fight choreography is brilliant as each character’s fighting style suits their character and no woman fights the same. Harley’s incorporates gymnastic elements, Huntress’s is clean and precise after so many years relentlessly training, while Renee’s is more like a bruiser, throwing punches and is far from elegant. The fight sequences are also fun and innovative with the soundtrack (which is full of absolute tunes) complimenting the action on screen.

While there’s a lot of bad guys for the leading ladies to overcome, the main threat to them all is Roma Sionis. He is volatile, menacing and dramatic. He’s the sort of character you never quite know what he’s going to do next and McGregor gives a great performance. Sionis’ right hand man is Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and their relationship comes across as queer coded and there’s often shifts in power dynamics between the two of them which is as fascinating as it is unnerving.

Birds of Prey is a bit shaky at times, but the characters and the action pull everything together. It’s a bright, psychedelic fairground of a film with paint bombs and glitter and it suits these characters perfectly. 4/5.

REVIEW: Little Woods (2018)

Ollie (Tessa Thompson), a reformed drug runner who was caught coming back from Canada with medicine for her dying mother is trying to do the right thing when her sister Deb (Lily James) arrives on her doorstep in need of help. As the sisters try to get the money together to stop their family home from being reposed, Ollie must go back to the dangerous way of life she thought she’d left behind.

Little Woods is described as a modern Western and that description makes sense. Ollie does illegal things, crossing the border into Canada to buy drugs, to help people. The people she sells the prescription drugs to are her friends and neighbours who often don’t have insurance or the time or the money to go to the hospital to get treated themselves. This job Ollie finds herself in, is not one she enjoys, and she is in constant fear that she’ll get caught, but when things get tough for her and her sister, they have very few options. She’s fighting the system and helping the little guy while in a town that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.

Little Woods shows how messed up the American health care system is when a pregnancy can cost at least $8,000, and getting an abortion is even more difficult. Never mind all the other health care costs characters in Little Woods face, and as they are in a former oil boomtown with very few financial prospects, it’s like a hopeless cycle.

Tessa Thompson and Lily James both give a brilliant performance full of pain as they struggle to dig themselves out of the bleak situations they are in. Thompson is the lead and the main focus of the film but the strong sisterly bond the two of them have is palpable and it adds another dimension to Little Woods as each of their actions are not just for themselves, but to help each other.

Director and writer Nia DaCosta allows the camera to linger on the characters, so you get to see more of their inner conflict, especially when a character is now on their own or no one except the camera, is looking at them.

The score composed by Brian McOmber is haunting and compliments the beautiful cinematography by Matt Mitchell. Set in an North Dakota town, the setting of Little Woods is equal parts pretty and desolate as the wide-open spaces give way to struggling communities.

Little Woods is a tense atmospheric thriller with compelling performances from Thompson and James. 4/5.

Little Woods or Crossing the Line as it’s called in the UK, is currently available to rent and buy quite cheaply on iTunes – I’d definitely recommend it.