Category Archives: True Crime

SIFF 2017: The Force ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling (my review). It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides.

SIFF 2016: The Night Stalker ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths’ speculative chiller is based on serial killer Richard Ramirez. A lawyer (Bellamy Young) is hired to exonerate a Texas death row inmate by extracting a confession from California death row inmate Ramirez (Lou Diamond Phillips), whom the interested parties believe to be the real perp. One complication: When she was a teenager, the lawyer was unhealthily obsessed with the “Night Stalker” murders. A psychological cat-and-mouse game ensues (think Starling vs. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs). Philips delivers an intense, truly unnerving performance.

I’m placing me under arrest: The Seven-FIve ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2015)

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Pretzels and beer. Soup and sandwich. New York City and police corruption. Some things seem to naturally go together. Not that police corruption is exclusive to the Big Apple, but there is something inherently cinematic about the combo. Serpico…based on a true story. The French Connection…based on a true story. Prince of the City…based on a true story. Cop Land, Bad Lieutenant…mmm, could happen (I think you get the gist).

The story in Tiller Russell’s riveting documentary, The Seven-Five, is not only true, but comes right from the mouths of the perps themselves. The “star” (for wont of a better term) of Russell’s film was once dubbed the “dirtiest cop” in the department’s history by NYC rags (and that’s saying a lot). Michael Dowd headed up a posse of rogue cops who worked the 75th Precinct. For a period stretching from the late 80s into the early 90s, they shook down Brooklyn drug dealers for protection money (among many other things). At the apex of his “career”, Dowd was basically holding down two full-time jobs, one as a cop, and one as a robber. As one of the interviewees observes, “Some cops end up becoming criminals; Michael Dowd was a criminal, who just happened to become a cop.”

When Dowd and his cohorts first popped onscreen, I became a little disoriented. I knew that this was billed as a “documentary”, but surely these were actors; they seemed too much in “character”. I mean, these guys could just as well have strolled right out of a Scorsese film (I could easily picture Dowd saying “Business bad? Fuck you. Pay me.”).

It’s easy to be bamboozled by Dowd’s…charm? But you have to delineate the colorful raconteur from the laundry list of misdeeds he so casually catalogs…he is by any definition a bad, bad man. At least former partner Ken Eurell displays something resembling a conscience (Eurell was a “good” cop…until he fell under sway of Dowd, who never was). Compelling yet disturbing, The Seven-Five tells an all-too-familiar tale that reflects a systemic blight that continues to fester in American cities large and small.

SIFF 2015: The Price of Fame **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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Well, this one looked good on paper (I had anticipated something along the lines of Melvin and Howard), but after a promising start, writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ “true crime” dramedy about a pair of bumbling, would-be extortionists falls curiously flat, despite earnest performances from an affable cast. The story is based on a late ‘70s incident in Switzerland in which two down-on-their-luck pals (played in the film by Benoit Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem) cooked up a bizarre and ill-advised plan to dig up the coffin of the recently interred Charlie Chaplin and then hit his family up for money to have the body returned.

The caper itself takes a relative backseat to the main thrust of the film, which is ostensibly a character study. Therein lies the crux of the problem; these aren’t particularly interesting characters (at least as written). And the third act is nearly destroyed by that most dreaded of movie archetypes: the Maudlin Circus Clown. Beauvois’ idea to use Chaplin’s compositions for the soundtrack is clever, but he overdoes it. Peter Coyote does add an interesting turn as Chaplin’s longtime assistant.

Prisoners of love: The Dog ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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And all he got was this stupid T-shirt: The Dog

On a sultry August afternoon back in 1972, a botched Brooklyn bank robbery morphed into a tense hostage drama that played out on live TV; and once rumors began to circulate that the ringleader, a Vietnam vet named John Wojtowicz, had engineered the heist in a desperate attempt to raise funds for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery, it became a full-blown media circus.

Wojtowicz’s accomplice didn’t survive the day (he was shot dead by FBI agents) and he earned a 5 year-long stretch in the pen for his troubles. The incident inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Al Pacino’s iconic turn as Wojtowicz added shelf life to the robber-turned folk hero’s initial 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, Hollywood rarely gets it 100% right, even with stories purported to be “ripped from the headlines”. In a new documentary from co-directors Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren called The Dog, none other than John Wojtowicz himself appears onscreen to set the record straight. The first thing he wants us to know is that he’s “a pervert.” Okay then. But it’s also important for us to understand that he is “a lover” as well, because after all, in his lifetime he has had “4 wives, and 23 girlfriends.” Are we supposed to be taking notes?

Many unexpected twists and turns ensue. While it’s well established from the get-go that Wojtowicz (who died in 2006) was a riotously profane, unexpectedly engaging (if deeply weird) raconteur…he is not the only star of this show. The scene stealer? His dear (late) mother, who insists that “half of what (John) says is bullshit.”

Nonetheless, this is an absorbing film (a decade in the making) that works on multiple levels. It can be viewed as a “true crime” documentary, a social history (there are surprising tie-ins with NYC’s early 70s gay activist scene), a meditation on America’s peculiar fetish with fame whores, or (on a purely popcorn level) as a perversely compelling family freak show along the lines of Grey Gardens or Crumb. I’m giving it a three and a half out of four “Atticas!” rating:

Attica! Attica! Attica!”

Oh, that mean, mean, mean, lean green: The Wolf of Wall Street ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 4, 2014)

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Do funny things to some people: DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

A few weeks back, in my review of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, I wrote that the film was “…best described as New Yorkers screaming at each other for an interminable 2 hours and 19 minutes”. I went on to lament that it was “…kinda like GoodFellas, except not as stylish.” OK, so it’s time for full disclosure. On one level, The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s very similarly-themed film, could be described as “New Yorkers screaming at each other for three hours” (and I suppose that technically, most Scorsese films fit that bill). One could also say that it is “…kinda like GoodFellas“. However in this case, it is as stylish…because (as they say) there ain’t nuthin’ like the real thing, baby.

The American hustle takes many forms. For example, your everyday “con artists” can’t hold a candle to the institutional grifters of Wall Street. And when it comes to the American Oligarchy, nothing exceeds like excess. That axiom seems to propel Scorsese’s deliriously vulgar, spun-out tweaker of a biopic, based on the 2007 memoir by Jordan Belfort, a successful “penny” stockbroker whose career crashed in 1998, when he was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering. Belfort wasn’t shy about reveling in his wealth; and Scorsese is not shy about reveling in Belfort’s revels.

Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera a la Ray Liotta’s protagonist in GoodFellas, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) narrates his own rise and fall with that air of smug, coked-out alacrity that has become de rigueur for such self-styled Masters of the Universe. We see the wide-eyed neophyte at his first brokerage gig, where he receives the first of several variations on the classic “second prize is a set of steak knives” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross that screenwriter Terence Winter sprinkles throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, delivered by his boss (Matthew McConaughey). He imparts a dictum that comes to define Jordan’s career: “Fuck the client.” He also ascribes his financial acumen to a daily regimen of masturbation and cocaine consumption (hmm…a few possible root causes for the Global Financial Crisis are suddenly coming into focus, eh?).

Belfort takes to both the work and the lifestyle like a fish to water, soon becoming a top earner. However, when a recession hits (1988, I’m guessing?) he finds himself unceremoniously out of a gig. After scraping by for a spell, he lands a job at a low-rent Long Island brokerage that specializes in “penny stocks”. His effortless mastery of the “boiler room” bait-and-switch playbook gives him the inspiration to start his own brokerage. With a stalwart (if initially ungainly-seeming) right-hand man named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) by his side, Belfort leases a vacant warehouse, persuades some of his pot dealer pals and boiler room co-workers to come aboard, bestows the business with a prestigious-sounding moniker (“Stratton Oakmont”), and he’s off to the proverbial races.

The 1990’s turn out to be belly belly good to Stratton Oakmont, which starts raking in money by the truckload, in fact so much that Belfort starts running out of ways to spend it and places to put it (hello, Switzerland!). I mean, you can only buy so many cars, mansions and yachts, snort so much coke, drop so many ‘ludes, and hire so many hookers (or little people, to be tossed at Velcro targets) before you have to really start getting creative. But…but…what about the victims of the financial scams Belfort and co. cooked up in order to make all that filthy lucre, you might ask? Well, fuck them!

This is the most polarizing aspect of the film; and indeed Scorsese has been catching considerable flak from some quarters for seemingly glorifying the bad, bad behavior of the perpetrators, and barely acknowledging the countless number of people who were fleeced by these scam artists. To my perception, however, that is precisely the point of the film-to demonstrate how inherently corrupt the culture of Wall Street is. It is a culture that rewards the Jordan Belforts and Michael Milkens of the world for their arrogance and enables them to thrive. Oh sure, eventually they “get caught” and “pay” for their crimes, but more often than not it amounts to a slap on the wrist (Belfort and Milken both served a whopping 22 months in jail), after which they happily reinvent themselves; in this case Belfort as a motivational speaker, Milken as a philanthropist. It’s the American Way!

This is one of Scorsese’s most engaging films in years, and a return to form; even if its overdose of style borders on self-parody (Swooping crane shots! Talking directly to the camera! Hip music cues! Marty does Marty!). I probably should warn anyone who is offended by excessive use of profanity…there is excessive use of profanity (according to Variety, the film has set the all-time record for what they timidly refer to as “the f-bomb”…506 utterances (Fuck! I feel sorry for the poor fucker who had to sit through all three hours pushing a fucking clicker every time someone said “fuck”. I hope he gets fucking Workman’s Comp for the fucking carpal tunnel. Fuck!).

DiCaprio and Hill pull out all the stops in their over-the-top performances; but then again they are playing over-the-top characters, so it is apropos. Other standouts among the sizable cast include Rob Reiner (as Belfort’s father) and the always delightful Joanna Lumley and Jean Dujardin (adding continental class as Belfort’s British aunt and Swiss banker, respectively). As your movie broker, I advise you to buy a share (or ticket) immediately.

Prince of the City: RIP Sidney Lumet

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2011)

I was saddened to hear the news about Sidney Lumet, who died earlier today at the age of 86. We have truly lost one of the great filmmakers of our time. The term “actor’s director” gets thrown around a lot, but he was the actor’s director.

With a Lumet film, you may not necessarily expect a lot of stylized visual flash, but you may always expect a cast working at 110% of their potential. He knew how to tell a good story, without relying on bells and whistles-and that takes someone supremely confident in their craft.

In his 50+ year long career (he cut his teeth working in television drama during its “Golden Age”) he managed to collaborate with almost everybody who was anybody in the acting world; indeed many clamored to work with him. It is possible, however, that the most  fruitful artistic partnership he had over the years was not with a person, but a city.

That would be New York, which served as the backdrop for so many of his classic films. Woody Allen, Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese aside, I can’t think of any other directors who have had such a symbiotic relationship with the Big Apple. At the end of the day, it’s about the work, so here are my picks for the Top 10 Lumet films:

The Anderson Tapes– In Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. It’s one of the first films that I know of to ruminate on the insidious encroachment of monitoring technology into our daily lives and the resulting loss of privacy (The Conversation was still just a gleam in Francis Ford Coppola’s eye in 1971). Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (in his first major feature film role). The tough, smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and an exemplary Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on the package.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead-It’s a real testament to Lumet’s gift that his very last film (which he made in 2007, at the age of 82) was just as vital and powerfully affecting as any of his best work over the course of his 50+ year career. Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, it’s a nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) into helping him pull an extremely ill-advised heist that involves a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). As frequently occurs in this genre, things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast.

Dog Day Afternoon-Attica! Attica! As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation). Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s whip-smart screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense thriller from 1964 takes a more clinical look at how a similar wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. Talky and a little bit on the stagey side; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and that trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who had also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman. There’s no fighting in this war room, but plenty of suspense. The film’s haunting denouement is chilling and unforgettable.

Network– Back in 1976, this satire made us chuckle with its outrageous conceit-the story of a “fictional” TV network who hits the ratings g-spot with a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time”. Now, 35 years later, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). The much vaunted prescience of the infinitely quotable Paddy Chayefsky screenplay goes much deeper than merely prophesying the onslaught of news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” television)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

In the opening scene, drunken buddies Peter Finch (as Howard Beale, respected news anchor soon to suffer a mental breakdown and morph into “the mad prophet of the airwaves”) and William Holden (as Max Shumacher, head of the news division for the “UBS” network) riff cynically on an imaginary pitch for a surefire news rating booster-“Real live suicides, murders, executions-we’ll call it The Death Hour.” A funny punch line back in 1976; sadly, in 2011 we call it the “Nancy Grace Show”. Faye Dunaway steals all of her scenes as Diana Christenson, the soulless, ratings obsessed head of development who cooks up a scheme to turn Beale’s mental illness into revenue (“You’re television incarnate, Diana.”)

The most famous scene, of course is Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” tirade, a call to arms (borne from a “cleansing moment of clarity”) for viewers to turn off the tube, break the spell of their collective stupor, literally stick their heads out the window and make their voices heard. For me, the most defining scene in the film is between Beale and Arthur Jensen (CEO of “CCA”-wonderfully played by Ned Beatty). Jensen is calling Beale on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet still a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which to preach-the “corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen”. It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest moment, savagely funny and spot on. Lumet’s most enduring movie is required viewing .

The Pawnbroker– This brooding character study from 1964 is a textbook example of the “social realism” movement in American film that flourished at the time. Rod Steiger delivers a searing performance as a Holocaust survivor, suffering quite severely from what we would now identify as “PTSD”, who runs a pawn shop. Hostile, paranoid and completely insular, Steiger’s character is a walking powder keg, needled daily not only by haunting memories of the concentration camp, but by the fear and dread that inundates the tough, crime-ridden NYC neighborhood where his business is located. When he finally comes face-to-face with the darkest parts of his soul, and the inevitable breakdown ensues, it’s expressed in a literal “silent scream” that is arguably the most astonishing moment in Steiger’s already impressive canon of astonishing on-screen moments. Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin adapted their screenplay from Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel.

Prince of the City-Lumet revisited the subject of New York City police corruption in this powerfully acted piece based on the true story of narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got completely turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest dramatic performance to date as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised that he will never be forced to “give up” any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”, right? This is one of the best films ever made about big city politics (prior to HBO’s outstanding series, The Wire, which I felt to be a direct descendant of the Lumet oeuvre). Superb performances from everyone in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach) Lumet co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Presson Allen, which they adapted from Richard Daley’s book.

Serpico-Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino go together like soup and sandwich, and this 1973 collaboration between director and star (their first) was the one that set the table. Pacino gets to chew a lot of scenery here as Frank Serpico, an altruistic NYC cop who helps expose the rampant corruption within the department (much to the chagrin of his fellow cops, who come to regard him as a pariah). As per usual, Lumet wrings top-notch performances from his actors, and makes excellent use of NYC locales (captured in all their gritty glory by DP Arthur J. Ornitz, who did the cinematography for a number of “quintessentially New York” films, including A Thousand Clowns, The World of Henry Orient, The Boys in the Band, Next Stop Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman). Writers Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler adapted from the book by Peter Maas.

12 Angry Men-This is the film that put Lumet on the map as a feature film director. The narrative setup is fairly simple. A Latino boy is on trial, accused of killing his father. His fate lies in the hands of a 12-man jury. Since we are not presented with many details about the trial itself, the film’s dramatic tension lies in the hands of the one juror who happens to hold a dissenting opinion (Henry Fonda). His subsequent attempt to bring the other eleven around to his way of thinking makes for an amazingly riveting drama (despite of how static it might read on paper). The list of actors portraying the “angry men” reads like a Who’s Who of dramatic heavyweights-because it is (imagine Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Ed Begley all cooped up in a hot stuffy room, and all very cranky-can you just smell the ham burning?).

The Verdict– Lumet returned to the courtroom in this outstanding 1982 drama, armed with an incredible cast and a killer David Mamet screenplay. Paul Newman gives one of his career-best performances as a burned-out alcoholic “ambulance chaser” who gets a shot at redemption when he takes a medical malpractice case to trial (after initially planning to take the path of least resistance by going for a quick and dirty settlement). Jack Warden also shines as his best friend and fellow lawyer who helps him build his case. James Mason is also at the top of his game as the opposing attorney (“That guy’s the Prince of fuckin’ Darkness,” Warden warns Newman, in a wonderfully droll Mamet line reading). Charlotte Rampling is on hand as well, playing her duplicitous character with aplomb. Nice use of the autumnal Boston locales by DP Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Encore! 10 more: Q&A, Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks, Deathtrap, Equus, Murder on the Orient Express, The Offence, The Deadly Affair, The Hill.

The Gaulfather: Mesrine ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2010)

In November 1979, police sharpshooters ambushed and killed France’s “Public Enemy #1” as he drove down a busy Parisian boulevard with his girlfriend (who was wounded, but survived). Although this violent dispatch was, in essence, a public execution without trial, very few grieved for the demise of murderer, bank robber, kidnapper, and serial prison escapee Jacques Mesrine.

Over the course of his 20 year “career”, Mesrine managed to wreak major havoc, not only in his native France, but in Canada and the U.S. as well. A folk hero to some, Mesrine fancied himself to be a sort of underworld Renaissance man-master of disguise, self-styled “revolutionary”, and author.

If there was one thing he loved more than the thug life, it was watching and reading about himself in the media (he once nearly killed a French journalist for writing an unflattering article). I suspect that he would have been especially gratified to have lived to see the day that he became the subject of an epic crime film diptych, currently in limited release in the U.S.

Director Jean-Francois Richet and his co-writer Abdel Raof Dafri adapted Mesrine’s autobiography, L’instinct de mort, into two films-Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1. With a combined running time of 4 hours, you are going to need a dynamic leading man to keep your audience riveted, and the edgy, explosive Vincent Cassel (La haine, Eastern Promises) proves up to the task.

Despite having the luxury of a broad canvas, Richet doesn’t linger much on the formative years; opting instead to kick off with a brief glimpse of Mesrine’s hitch in the French army, while serving in the Algerian conflict. In a scene fraught with  uncompromising brutality (setting the tone for the films) Mesrine beats a captured Algerian insurgent senseless, at the behest of his commanding officer.

When this treatment fails to yield the desired information from the dazed prisoner, the man’s sister is paraded out, and Mesrine is commanded to escalate the violence to its inevitable denouement. For the only time in either film, Mesrine appears to balk, reticent to follow these orders; suggesting, for one infinitesimal moment, that he may have a conscience. Once he pulls the trigger, however, Mesrine knows that he has irreversibly crossed  to the dark side.

Does this vignette infer that the military breeds sociopaths, or that it perhaps attracts them? It is left open to interpretation. There is a lot left open for interpretation throughout, regarding what it was that made Mesrine tick. With the exception of the aforementioned scene, we are presented with Mesrine the fully formed career criminal, straight out of the box.

He gets out of the army, meets and marries his second wife, a beautiful Spanish woman (Elena Anaya), and takes a halfhearted stab at a few straight jobs. However, once he falls under the sway of a powerful local gangster (Gerard Depardieu) he comes to realize his true calling-taking what he wants, when he wants, and by any means necessary.

The first film follows his activities in Europe through the late 60s and then his North American crime sprees with partner Jean-Paul Mercier (Paul Dupuis) from ‘69-‘72, including bank robberies and several murders.

The second film covers Mesrine’s return to France in 1972, when he picked up where he had left off-participating in bank robberies, kidnappings, and brazen jailbreaks, which finally earned him his “public enemy #1” moniker from the exasperated French law enforcement authorities. The second film is a little more compelling than part one, as it provides an interesting nemesis for Mesrine, commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet).

The two men have a sparring relationship of begrudging mutual respect, much like the (fictional) characters played by Al Pacino and Robert deNiro in Michael Mann’s Heat. Part two also benefits from the presence of one of my favorite French actresses, Ludivine Sagnier (as Mesrine’s girlfriend at the time of his death), who brings a simmering blend of earthy sexuality and dangerous volatility to her roles that reminds me of Ava Gardner (or the young  Ellen Barkin).

Taken as a whole, the 4-hour narrative begins to run out of steam about ¾ of the way through, mostly due to the rote sequencing and repetitive nature of Mesrine’s exploits; he robs a bank, gets caught, goes to jail, breaks out of jail, robs more banks, gets caught…well, you get the picture. Cassel’s performance, as good as it is, teeters on the edge of becoming a one-note acting exercise.

Maybe we didn’t need to inventory/reenact every crime the man ever committed? I could have used a bit more insight into Mesrine’s motivations. That being said, Richet is a promising filmmaker, showing a particular penchant for kinetic action sequences, and his recreation of France’s 1970s sociopolitical milieu is quite canny (I was reminded at times of Fred Zimmerman’s Day of the Jackal).

So is this a recommendation? If you are a true-crime buff, I think you will like this. The real Mesrine, repellent as his actions were, was a fascinating character, and it is mind-blowing what he got away with, and for how long (especially considering how much he enjoyed the spotlight, courting the media whenever he got the opportunity).

And how was he able to escape so many times? Couldn’t they figure out a way to keep this guy locked up, especially after the first several escapes and re-apprehensions? Maybe if the director had asked himself some of these questions, the film(s) could have been a bit more compelling? Well, you know what the French say… C’est la vie.

Sister, in law: Conviction ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 23, 2010)

In May of 1980, the body of a woman named Katherina Brow was discovered in her Ayers, Massachusetts home by her daughter-in-law. Brow had been brutally murdered (30 stab wounds) and police found what they believed to be the murder weapon, a bloody paring knife, still on the premises. Brow’s purse and a few other valuables were missing, so the motive appeared to be robbery.

Based on circumstantial evidence, one of Brow’s neighbors, Kenny Waters, became an immediate suspect; police retained him for questioning the day after the murder, but he was released after providing a verifiable alibi. A few months later, he voluntarily submitted to a voice stress test, which he passed.

The case remained opened until the fall of 1982, when the then-current boyfriend of one of Waters’ ex-girlfriends approached investigators, claiming to have incriminating information about Waters, which he would divulge in exchange for money (it has never been confirmed whether he was paid).

After receiving corroboration from the ex-girlfriend (which she later would claim to have agreed to give only because police allegedly threatened to charge her as an accessory and take away her children if she did not back up her boyfriend’s story), Waters was officially charged with Brow’s murder. After a relatively short trial, Waters was convicted and sentenced to life in May of 1983.

So far, you’re probably thinking that this sounds like a thousand other murder cases. Someone was killed, someone was now paying for it; I think I’ve seen this narrative played out once or twice on TV, in one of those sordid “true-crime” re-creations hosted by that silver-haired ghoul who they love to satirize on SNL, ho-hum. However, what ensued during the 18 years between May 1983, when Waters began to serve his sentence, and March of 2001, when he was released from prison and officially exonerated of the crime, is the stuff that a movie producer’ dreams are made of.

You see, Waters had a sister named Betty Anne-a loving and devoted sister. How devoted? During the 18 years Kenny languished in prison, she basically put the rest of her life on hold (at the cost of her marriage and relationship with her two sons) to devote heart and soul to one goal: having her brother cleared of a crime that she was 100% convinced he had not committed.

In order to achieve this goal, she first needed to literally become a lawyer, so she put herself through college and law school, and then got to work. This amazing story of a woman taking on “the system” and winning, almost purely through the power of her conviction, has been dramatized in…wait for it…Conviction.

Director Tony Goldwyn has reunited with screenwriter Pamela Gray for this film (they previously teamed up in 1999 on the underrated sleeper, A Walk on the Moon) and it feels like one of the first serious Oscar contenders on the Q4 release calendar, mostly due to some outstanding lead and supporting performances from the cast.

Hilary Swank (getting her Boston brogue on in a big way) plays Betty Anne with a convincing blend of working class spunk, native intelligence and a New Englander’s inborn tenacity. Sam Rockwell, who excels at playing dichotomous characters who manage to be ingratiatingly endearing, yet also darkly unsettling all at once, is in top form as her brother Kenny. And, thanks to the talents of these two lead actors, their relationship is quite touching and real.

Flashbacks to Betty Anne and Kenny’s childhood suggest that their close bond was deeply rooted. This mutual protectiveness could have been necessitated by pure survival instinct; as they spent most of their early years in foster care. It is also clear that Kenny, while possessed of a rambunctiously fun-loving spirit, also had, from a very young age, a propensity for letting it get him into trouble.

There are certain people (and I think we’ve all known personalities like this at some point in our lives) who seem like they were born to clash their entire lives with authority figures, even when they’re not consciously trying to. Kenny was one of those people; suffice it to say he grew up on a first name basis with all the local cops.

Interestingly (at least as depicted in the film) Kenny’s reaction to his arrest and incarceration on the murder charge leans toward a resigned ambivalence throughout the ordeal; it is his sister who, from day one, makes the impassioned case for exoneration.

I’m not sure if this was a conscious decision by the filmmakers to leave the door ajar to the possibility that his sister could have been blinded by love…or if Kenny, like a character from a Kafka novel, had decided to make peace with the rain of bad karma with a shrug of existential indifference.

One wise decision by the filmmakers was to end on a high note, with Kenny’s release ; because the real life coda was, putting it mildly, fraught with karmic cruelty. Six months after his release and official exoneration, Kenny Waters died from a fall in a freak accident (or this could have been cosmic justice-who can say for sure?).

The film also calls attention to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization dedicated to proving wrongly convicted persons innocent through DNA testing (one of the group’s co-founders, Barry Scheck, played a pivotal role in assisting Betty Anne with her case and is well-played in the film by Peter Gallagher).

Swank and Rockwell are ably supported here with noteworthy performances from Minnie Driver (who I feel should get a Best Supporting nomination), Juliette Lewis, Clea DuVall and the always excellent Melissa Leo (cast against type as a corrupt cop).

This is definitely an actor’s movie; which makes sense because director Goldwyn is himself an actor. At the end of the day, although Betty Anne Waters is undeniably a kind of “superwoman” (and my newest hero) this film is not so much about truth, justice and the American way as it is about real love, dedication and selflessness.

Bang bang shoot ’em up, 1-2-3: Public Enemies **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly contemporizes this otherwise ol’skool “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of crumpled bills and loose change . “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”

I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savoring the vicarious thrill of watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up  bailout money  funded by my hard-earned tax dollars. And in context of current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

Mann focuses his story on the last year or so of Dillinger’s short life (he was  31 when he was fatally ambushed by FBI agents while exiting a movie screening at Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934). The film literally opens with a bang, with Dillinger and his gang shooting their way out of a Lima, Ohio prison in 1933.

While this is not the first crime thriller to open with a prison break (one of Mann’s prime influences, Jean-Pierre Melville came to mind as I watched), it is an exciting and well-mounted sequence, bestowed with a jolting  hyper-realism through Mann’s use of hi-def video. Unfortunately, with the exception of a pulse-pounding reenactment of a pre-dawn gun battle between Dillinger’s gang and FBI agents at the remote Little Bohemia Lodge, the remainder of the film never quite lives up to the crackling promise of its opening salvo.

There’s only one thing a notorious bank robber wants to do as soon as he busts out of stir (hint: the film’s catchphrase is “I rob banks.”). OK…maybe there are two things. Rising star Marion Cotillard (who made a splash last year as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose) plays Dillinger’s French-Native American girlfriend, Billie Frechette with a sexy earthiness that spices up her scenes with Depp (although she is not given much to do beyond playing a stalwart gangster’s moll).

When he’s not wooing Billie, Dillinger spends most of his time robbing banks and staying one step ahead of his arch-nemesis, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s golden boys back in the fledgling days of the FBI (Billy Crudup hams it up as Hoover). Liverpudlian Stephen Graham appears to be having the time of his life as Dillinger’s most well-known associate, the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (I hailed Graham as a new talent to watch in my 2007 review of This is England). Look fast for Diana Krall’s cameo as a nightclub singer (crooning a smoky “Bye Bye Blackbird”). And of course there is an appearance by “the lady in red” (Branka Katic)-although apparently it was the “lady in the white blouse and orange skirt” who led the unwitting Dillinger to his doom.

It’s a good thing that the charismatic Depp is present, and that the film is stylishly executed in Mann’s fastidious manner, because, had lesser artists been involved, the rote cops and robbers story lurking at its core would be exposed. Although Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman recycle the narrative device that made his 1995 crime thriller Heat so compelling (i.e., blurring the line of moral demarcation by fleshing out pursuer and quarry with equal import) it all feels sort of perfunctory in this outing.

And, at the risk of being accused of talking apples and oranges, I felt that Bale and Depp’s Big Scene together failed to ignite sparks like Pacino and DeNiro’s face-off did in the aforementioned film. Since Mann has established himself as an auteur,  I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that, relative to his own standards, this is not his best work (although it’s still superior to most of the summer fare currently grinding away at the multiplexes). That being said, if you are a Depp and/or Mann fan, you still may want to give it a shot.