Category Archives: Gangsters

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.

It’s just a jump to the Left (of Miami): Top 10 Cuba films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2015)

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There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”. That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician. Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their absorbing (two-part) 4 ½ hour biopic from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both of which are also set in torpid and unforgiving South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles another four-letter noun that starts with a “b”. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster. Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures, mostly through the South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. Also like South Park, the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs.

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces (and if you think Birdman has tracking shots, think again).

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team. Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past). When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General (don’t get me started).

SIFF 2014: White Shadow ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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Israeli director Noaz Deshe’s impressive, strikingly photographed debut is a character/cultural study about the travails of a young albino Tanzanian. There’s also a “ripped from the headlines” element; According to a 2013 U.N. report on human rights, there has been an escalation of horrifying attacks on albinos in Tanzania, because (there’s no delicate way to put this) their organs and body parts have become a high-demand commodity for witch doctors (who use them in rituals and potions). Such is the possible fate for Alias (Hamisi Bazili), sent by his mother to live with his uncle (James Gayo) after witnessing his father’s brutal murder. As if it wasn’t tough enough for bush-dwelling Alias to adjust to life in the big city, his uncle is in debt to gangsters. The subtext recalls Peter Weir’s The Last Wave; a modernized indigenous society struggling to shake off archaic superstitions without losing their sense of cultural identity.

Blu-ray reissue: Prime Cut ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)

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Prime Cut – Explosive Media Blu-ray

This offbeat 1972 “heartland noir” from director Michael Ritchie features one of my favorite Lee Marvin performances. He’s a cleaner for an Irish mob out of Chicago who is sent to collect an overdue payment from a venal livestock rancher (Gene Hackman) with the unlikely moniker of “Mary Ann”. In addition to overseeing his meat packing plant (where the odd debt collector ends up as sausage filler), Mary Ann maintains a (literal) stable of naked, heavily sedated young women for auction. He protects his spread with a small army of disturbingly uber-Aryan young men who look like they were cloned in a secret Nazi lab. It gets even weirder, yet the film has an oddly endearing quality; perhaps due to its blend of pulpy thrills, dark comedy and ironic detachment. It’s fun watching Hackman and Marvin go mano a mano; and seeing Sissy Spacek in her film debut. Explosive Media skimps on extras, but boasts a sharp transfer.

Blu-ray reissue: Tokyo Drifter ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2012)

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Tokyo Drifter– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The key to understanding what makes this existential hit man thriller from Japan’s Nikkatsu studios so uniquely entertaining…is to not try to understand it. Don’t get hung up on silly conventions like “narrative coherence”; just turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. If that sounds like the reassuring counsel someone might give to a friend who is taking their first acid trip…you’re right.

Because when this film was made (1966), an awful lot of people were taking their first acid trip, including director Seijun Suzuki (at least that’s my theory). The “drifter” of the title is a yakuza with a strong personal code (and really cool Ray-Bans) who is trying to go legit…but of course, “they pull him back in”. But as he does not wish to dishonor his boss/mentor, who is also trying to get out of the game, he splits the big city to wander Japan and let the chips fall where they may, as members of various rival gangs dog his every step.

Highly stylized and visually exhilarating, this is a real treat for lovers of pure cinema. Suzuki’s wild mash-up of genres, which quotes everything from French New Wave to James Bond and westerns to film noir, was pretty bold stuff for its time, and it’s obvious that postmodernists like Tarantino have watched it once or twice. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer dazzles the senses.

SIFF 2012: Keyhole **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2012)

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Immersing yourself in the world of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is not unlike entering a fever dream you might have after dropping acid and trying to get back to sleep…after waking up inside somebody else’s nightmare. If that sentence made sense to you, you might find Keyhole worth a peek. Any attempt to offer a cogent synopsis of a Guy Maddin film usually ends in tears, but I’ll try:

A Roaring 20s gangster (Jason Patric) comes home after a long absence, schlepping a corpse and a hostage. His gun-toting crew encamps in the living room, and his house is surrounded by coppers. Patric’s primary concern, however, is getting upstairs to reconnect with the wife (Isabella Rossellini). Unfortunately, it takes him 90 minutes to get up the goddamn stairs. Did I mention the protagonist’s name…Ulysses? It’s a Homeric journey, get it?

Reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Gothic, another metaphorical long day’s journey into night via the labyrinth of an old dark house. And, like Russell’s film, Maddin’s is visually intoxicating, but ultimately undermined by an overdose of art house pretension and self-indulgent excess.