Category Archives: Gangsters

Monsters from the id: Tigers Are Not Afraid (***) & The Spirit of the Beehive (****)

By Dennis Hartley

https://i0.wp.com/d1u4oo4rb13yy8.cloudfront.net/ijyqvsxkhk-1462558803.png?w=474&ssl=1Suffer not the little children: Still from The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

https://i1.wp.com/images1.houstonpress.com/imager/u/original/11348529/tigers-are-not-afraid-3-800x445.jpg?resize=474%2C264&ssl=1Is there an echo in here? Still from Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)

In my 2009 review of Where the Wild Things Are, I wrote:

Childhood is a magical time. Well, at least until the Death of Innocence…whenever that is supposed to occur. At what point DO we slam the window on Peter Pan’s fingers? When we stop believing in faeries? That seems to be the consensus, in literature and in film.

In Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” only children “see” the angels. Even when the fantastical pals are more tangible, the adults in the room keep their blinders on. In Stephen Spielberg’s “E.T.”, Mom doesn’t initially “see” her children’s little alien playmate, even when she’s seemingly gawking right at him. […]

Somewhere in the course of this long dark night of his 9 year-old soul, in the midst of a panicky attempt to literally flee from his own actions, [the protagonist of “Where The Wild Things Are”] Max crosses over from Reality into Fantasy (even children need to bleed the valve on the “pressure cooker of life”). […]

Max washes up on the shore of a mysterious island where he finds that he suddenly can not only wrestle with his inner demons but run and jump and laugh and play with them as well. These strange and wondrous manifestations are the literal embodiment of the “wild things” inside of him that drive his complex emotional behaviors; anthropomorphic creatures that also pull double duty as avatars for the people who are closest to him.

Growing pains can overtax developing minds; it’s no wonder children often turn to fantasy to absorb the cost. Sadly some, like the young protagonists in Issa Lopez’s modern-day fairy tale Tigers Are Not Afraid, are forced to pay additional baggage fees.

Set in the slums of a Mexican town against a backdrop of warring drug cartels, the story centers on 10-year old Estrella (Paola Lara). Set adrift since her mother’s recent disappearance, Estrella lives in a state of dread.

Her mother was likely abducted and murdered at the behest of a ruthless local politician (Tenoch Huerta) whose approach to gerrymandering is simple: liquidate all non-supporters. His dirty work is handled by thugs that the locals call huascas, supervised by a brutal drug cartel member named Caco.

Even within the sanctity of the classroom, Estrella can find no respite from the horror of her everyday reality; her day at school ends abruptly when a gun battle breaks out nearby, which sends the students diving under their desks to avoid becoming collateral damage.

Soon, the absence of her mother and a dwindling food supply sends Estrella out in the streets, where she encounters a group of orphaned lost boys, led by pistol-wielding “El Shine” (Juan Ramón López).

Shine is reluctant to accept her in his gang; he demands she must prove her worth by assassinating the dreaded Caco. The look on Estrella’s face telegraphs that she is less than enthused about carrying out the request; but desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, Shine has convinced her Caco is responsible for her mother’s disappearance (he claims to have irrefutable proof; but won’t show her).

It is at this juncture that it is suggested Estrella may possess Special Powers. As she stealthily (and shakily) creeps into Caco’s darkened apartment, where he appears to have nodded off in his living room chair while watching TV, she closes her eyes and makes a wish: “I wish I didn’t have to kill him.” Long story short-it seems somebody already has.

Is it coincidence…or did she “will” Caco to die? Opting to hedge her bets, Estrella rushes back to the gang hangout to give Shine his gun back and tell him she took care of that thing they had talked about. The boys are all duly impressed and accept her into the fold.

Oh…did I mention that she also sees dead people?

Lopez’s film conveys a sense of realism, infused with elements of fantasy and horror. Many have drawn parallels between her film and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth; while I see a connection, I’d say the more obvious antecedent is Victor Erice’s lyrical and haunting 1973 drama The Spirit of the Beehive (which surely inspired Pan’s Labyrinth).

In fact, I was so taken by the parallels that after previewing Tigers Are Not Afraid, I immediately reached for my DVD copy of The Spirit of the Beehive to confirm whether my memory was playing tricks on me (in this type of arcane exercise, it rarely does; however, half the time I wish I could remember where I left my fucking wallet and keys).

The Spirit of the Beehive takes place in 1940 Spain, in an isolated village on the vast Castilian plain. While “The Rain in Spain” may now be playing in your head (please accept my sincere apologies if it is), this is more about the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

This was the point in time when Franco had fully seized power in the country after winning the Spanish Civil War (which had cost the nation nearly half a million lives). Needless to say, everyday life under a totalitarian regime is not healthy for children and other living things.

While she is too young to understand politics, 7-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent, in a remarkably affecting performance) can nonetheless sense the quiet desperation that appears to be slowly consuming her loving but oddly detached parents (Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera).

While their upper middle-class life affords them a large villa and a live-in maid, Ana and her 9-year old sister Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) are essentially latchkey kids (they’re not living hand-to-mouth like the street orphans in Tigers Are Not Afraid, but are as insular and “lost” in their own way).

When a print of James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein arrives for an engagement at the village’s tiny movie theater, Ana’s life changes. As filmmaker Monte Hellman observes in his appreciation of the film written for the Criterion DVD edition:

Ana is disturbed by the killing of the little girl in the film and doesn’t understand why the monster is also killed.  Isabel pretends to have the answers to Ana’s questions, but when pressed later, can say only that they’re not really dead.  It’s only a movie, and nothing is real. Besides, she’s seen the monster.  He’s a spirit, and she can make him appear whenever she calls him.

In subsequent scenes, the children play with and at death.  Isabel experimentally attempts to strangle her cat, stopping when the cat scratches her.  She applies the blood on her finger to her lips, as if it were lipstick.  Later, she pretends to be dead to frighten Ana.  Finally, Ana experiences the death of a real person, a deserter from the army whom she befriended.  We feel Ana’s crisis as our own, for we have all passed from innocence to knowledge of mortality at some time in our own childhood.

And so it comes back to the theme as to how children under extreme duress come to grips with trauma; in the case of Estrella in Tigers Are Not Afraid and Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive (or for that matter, young Max in Where the Wild Things Are) it first requires literal invocation of their inner demons before they can be “destroyed”. Or perhaps you can trace it back to J.M. Barrie: “All you need is faith, trust and a little bit of pixie dust.”

 

Blu-ray reissue: Year of the Dragon (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Year of the Dragon – Warner Brothers

This brutal, visceral crime thriller/culture clash drama from 1985 is one of writer-director Michael Cimino’s most polarizing films. Nonetheless, it has garnered a sizable cult following over the years.

Co-written by Oliver Stone and based on Robert Daley’s novel, Cimino’s follow-up to his critically drubbed 1980 epic Heaven’s Gate (no pressure!) divided both critics and audiences with its uncompromising take on gang violence, the international drug trade, and ethnic stereotyping.

Mickey Rourke stars as a decorated NYC police captain newly assigned to Chinatown who embarks on a single-minded mission to bust up the various criminal enterprises run by the district’s powerful triads (by any means necessary). Rourke’s combative “cop on the edge” (also a Vietnam vet) is equal parts Popeye Doyle and Archie Bunker; his casual racism suggests that he may have not been the ideal political choice for this posting.

Rourke really pulls out all the stops. John Lone also does a great turn as his sociopathic nemesis, a politically savvy rising star in the Chinese mob.

As usual, Warner skimps on extras (there’s a commentary track by Cimino), but image and sound quality are tops.

Blu-ray reissue: Mikey and Nicky (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Mikey and Nicky – Criterion Collection

You could call Elaine May’s 1976 mob drama the anti-Godfather. In fact, its verité-style portrayal of two mobbed-up pals in a desperate quandary is so workaday that it even makes suburban dad Tony Soprano look like some stylized hoity-toity version of a “gangster”.

May’s film is “a night in the life” of Nicky (John Cassavetes), a low-rent bookie who has used up all the good graces of some very serious made guys and now fears for his life. Holed up in a cheap hotel room and on the verge of a breakdown, he calls on his pal Mikey (Peter Falk) to help him brainstorm out of his mess. A long dark night of the soul lies ahead.

The loose, improvisational rawness in many scenes may grate on some (especially those unfamiliar with Falk’s previous collaborations with Cassavetes; the pair had by then developed a unique shorthand and that takes some acclimation). Ned Beatty is on hand as an exasperated hit man.

The new 4K scan of the film looks true-to-life (much of it was photographed using available light).

Blu-ray reissue: Bellman and True (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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Bellman and True – Indicator Series Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This 1987 sleeper is an off-beat heist caper from eclectic writer-director Richard Loncraine (Brimstone & Treacle, The Missionary, Richard III, et.al.). Bernard Hill stars as a computer system engineer named Hiller who finds himself reluctantly beholden to a criminal gang he had briefly fallen in with previously. They have kidnapped his teenage son and threaten to do him harm if Hiller doesn’t help them disable the alarm system at the bank they’re planning to rob.

The one advantage he holds over his “partners” is his intelligence and technical know-how, but the big question is whether he gets an opportunity to turn the tables in time without endangering himself or his son. A unique, character-driven crime film, with cheeky dialog and surprising twists (Desmond Lowden co-adapted the screenplay from his own novel with Loncraine and Michael Wearing).

Indicator’s limited edition boasts a nice hi-def remaster and includes both the 122-minute pre-release version that premiered at the 1987 London Film Festival and original 114-minute UK theatrical cut of the film.

Broken wing: Birds of Passage (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2019)

Image result for birds of passage 2019

There have been myriad articles, books, series, documentaries and films recounting the tumultuous history of the Colombian drug trade, but nothing I have previously read or seen on the subject prepared me for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage.

Spanning 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the film (based on true events) is equal parts crime family saga and National Geographic special; The Godfather meets The Emerald Forest. On paper, this may seem like a familiar “rise and fall of a drug lord” story- but the filmmakers tell it through the unique cultural lens of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The Wayuu people have dwelt in the desolate La Guajira Desert (which overlaps Colombia and Venezuela) for nearly 2,000 years. They have managed to keep many of their cultural traditions remarkably intact…considering. In other words, I’m not saying that they haven’t gotten their hair mussed once or twice throughout the millennia; from 18th-Century invasions and persecution by the Spanish, to a veritable laundry list of discriminatory and exclusionary edicts by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Considering all the limitations historically placed on them (which includes having little control over and restricted access to raw materials on their own land) it is not surprising that the Wayuu have relied heavily on farming and trading as the chief means of survival.

Birds of Passage begins in 1960, right around the time the Wayuu discovered there was some easily cultivated local flora becoming quite popular with the alijunas (their word for “foreigners”) and ripe for commodification. From a 2018 Global Americas article:

It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life.  It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region.  As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States.  At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The film’s opening passage is an intoxicating immersion in Wayuu culture; a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has “come of age” and is commanded by her rather stern mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) to don a resplendent red outfit and perform what appears to be a “mating dance” at a village gathering (the first of the film’s numerous avian metaphors). Several eligible suitors cut in to display their wares; ultimately one is left standing. His name is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and vows to marry her.

However, there is the matter of a dowry (cows, goats, a few other sundries) that Rapayet is required to deliver within a specified time. Like most Wayuu, he’s a little short that week and needs to scare up some coin pronto if he wants to win his bride.

He turns to his best friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) a non-tribal Colombian and free-spirited hustler who tells Rapayet he knows some American Peace Corps volunteers who happen to be in the market for some fine Colombian. This relatively benign, small-time dope deal plants the seeds (so to speak) for what eventually evolves into a Wayuu drug empire, with Rapayet at the helm.

As inevitably ensues in such tales, it is greed, corruption and avarice that sends the protagonist hurtling toward self-destruction, but Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay sidesteps usual clichés by introducing the complexities of cultural identity into the mix. What results is a parable that’s at once overly familiar, yet somehow…wholly unfamiliar.

Having a wild weekend: Girls vs. Gangsters (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2018)

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As far as wacky adventure-comedies concerning young Chinese women having a wild and woolly bachelorette weekend in an exotic foreign city go, I suppose you could do worse than Barbara Wong’s Girls vs. Gangsters 2. Perhaps arguably, as hard as you try…you could only do marginally worse.

I’m sensing your biggest question (aside from “WTF is Mike Tyson doing in this film?”) is: “How in the wide world of sports did I manage to miss “Girls vs. Gangsters 1”? Tricky, that question. There is an explanation. There was a previous 2014 Hong Kong film called Girls, also directed by Ms. Wong (aka Zhenzhen Huang), featuring the same characters. I’m afraid that I also managed to miss that one, so don’t let that get you down.

So anyway, our fun-loving trio Hei Man, Kimmy, and Ka Nam (Ivy Chen, Fiona Sit and Ning Chang) have been BFFs since high school. One of them is set to tie the knot, so the girls decide to celebrate by taking up an invitation from a mutual friend who is currently working on a film in Vietnam to fly in and hang out for the weekend. It gets a little fuzzy from there. They visit a huge estate owned by a local gangster, engage in a drinking contest, and wake up the next morning on a beach, naked and chained to each other. Fun!

The remainder of the film (which grinds on and on…too lengthy at nearly 2 hours) has them attempting to retrace their steps, find the member of their party who is missing, and figure out why one of them has a tattoo of some random dude on her neck. If it’s starting to sound suspiciously like the Hangover franchise meets Bridesmaids, your suspicions are well-founded. And by the time the gals encounter Mike Tyson (living in a jungle compound), you may begin to suspect that someone slipped a mickey in your drink, too.

The locales are colorful, and the three leads bring a certain goofy, manic energy to the table, but the film is ultimately too over-the-top for its own good. Also, something may have been lost in translation, but employing a line like “You’ll be raped 100 times!” for comic intent is questionable in any modern comedy; much less one directed by a woman.

Blu-ray reissue: Stormy Monday ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Stormy Monday – Arrow Video Blu-ray (Region “B”)

I have to admit, I geeked out a little when I heard that Mike Figgis’ tightly-scripted, gorgeously-photographed 1988 Brit-noir (his feature directorial debut) was finally getting the high-def home video treatment that it so richly deserves.

Sean Bean stars as a restless young drifter who blows into Newcastle and falls in with a local jazz club owner (Sting). Right about the same time, a shady American businessman with mob ties (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to muscle in on a land development deal, accompanied by his ex-mistress/current P.A. (Melanie Griffith). As romantic sparks begin to fly between Bean and Griffith, the mobster puts the thumbscrews to the club owner, who stands in the way of the development scheme by refusing to sell. Things get complicated.

This is one of my favorite 80s sleepers; a criminally under-seen and underrated gem. Arrow’s sparkling transfer is a revelation; a great showcase for cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work here, which rates among his best. Extras include an interesting “then and now” tour of the Newcastle film locations.

Blu-ray reissue: Mickey One ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Mickey One – Indicator Limited Edition Blu-ray

Arthur Penn’s 1965 existential film noir stars Warren Beatty as a standup comic who is on the run from the mob. The ultimate intent of this pursuit is never made 100% clear (is it a “hit”, or just a debt collection?), but one thing is certain: viewers will find themselves becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death). Nice transfer. Extras include a 40-page booklet and a new interview with Penn’s son Matthew.

SIFF 2017: Godspeed **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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This neo-noir “buddy film” from Taiwanese writer-director Chung Mung-Hong concerns an aging, life-tired taxi driver (Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui) who unwittingly picks up a twitchy young drug mule (Na Dow). Blackly comic cat-and-mouse games involving rivaling mobsters ensue as the pair are pushed into an intercity road trip, with their fates now inexorably intertwined. If the setup rings a bell, yes, it is very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, but unfortunately not in the same league. It’s not the actors’ fault; the two leads are quite good. The problem lies in the uneven pacing (an overlong and gratuitous torture scene stops the film in its tracks). Likely too many slow patches for action fans, yet too much jolting violence for those partial to road movies. It does have its moments, and I’m sure there is an audience for it, but I’m just not sure who.

One froggy evening: Yakuza Apocalypse **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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If you were to put Van Helsing, Highlander, Forbidden Zone, Godzilla and Youth of the Beast into a blender, and then splash the puree onto a blank movie screen Jackson Pollack style, you would end up with something resembling Takeshi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse.

Near as I could figure, the “story” centers on a yakuza boss who is magnanimous toward, and beloved by, the “civilians” of the (Neighborhood? City?) he lords over; as for his rivals in the criminal underworld…not so much. Oh, did I mention that he’s also a vampire? As this can give one an enormous advantage over one’s enemies (being already dead tends to make you immune to assassination), he’s been the top dog for a long time.

However, this dog’s about to have his day. I mean, any vampire yakuza boss with half a brain will tell you that you’re in deep shit when a guy who dresses like a pilgrim blows into town with a mini-coffin strapped to his back and a blunderbuss in his sash, announcing himself as an emissary of the actual underworld and cryptically warning anyone who will listen that “he” is coming.

And so the boss finally meets his doom (don’t ask), but not before biting his most trusted lieutenant on the neck, thereby passing on his awesome vampire powers. The freshly anointed boss has his work cut out for him; according to a “kappa goblin” (a guy with a beak, chronic halitosis, and a turtle shell growing out of his back), his town is about to have a visitation from the “world’s toughest terrorist”, a bad-ass dude with an agenda that is “…so chilling, you gotta laugh.”

Are you following all of this so far? Shall I go on?

Fret not; for I shan’t, because from this point onward, it gets sort of hazy. There’s something about the end of the world, and a magic ring, but otherwise it’s just yelling, shape-shifting and martial arts shenanigans. There’s also too many superfluous characters jamming up an already needlessly busy story line.

I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles watching the “world’s toughest terrorist” deliver roundhouse kicks in his Teletubbie suit (that can’t be easy), and “Gander all you want at my kappa-ness,” may turn out to be my favorite movie line of the year. And someday, some way, I will fully understand the significance of the knitting class in the basement, with all the students in leg irons. And on that glorious day, I will know that I have finally found the path to true enlightenment.