Category Archives: Gangsters

Indiana wants me: Whelm (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 14, 2021)

“My only request is that you pay mind to the details of my story, with hope we see eye-to-eye at the end,” writes the protagonist/narrator in the opening of Skyler Lawson’s Whelm. As I learned the hard way (that is, having watched it in a somewhat distracted frame of mind in my first go-around), it would behoove the viewer to heed the writer’s advisement, so as not to be left feeling blindsided or bewildered by the epilogue.

That is not to say the narrative is willfully obscure; at its core it’s no more densely plotted than your standard-issue 90-minute crime caper. It’s just that (and I know this will be an instant turn-off for some) it has been s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a 2-hour ah…visual tone poem. In other words-patience, Grasshopper.

Not that that is a bad thing in this handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. Writer-director Lawson’s debut feature evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.

Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, the story centers on two estranged brothers: our narrator Reed (Dylan Grunn) and his older sibling August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. The brothers help their father run an inn that has seen better days.

Like most people of the time, the brothers are bereft of funds and always looking to scare up extra coin. This leads them to fall in with a pair of extralegal characters-a suave, charismatic but decidedly felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). What ensues is equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy (in 13 “chapters”).

For an indie project that was shot in just 2 weeks, the film has an astonishingly epic feel, which portends a big future for Lawson. Lawson also co-composed the dynamic original score (with Chris Dudley). He is helped by a great ensemble (all previously unknown to me). Baran makes fascinating choices as Aleksy- I think he will be someone to keep an eye on as well.

If you’re hankering for a film with (as Stanley Kubrick once described his approach) “…a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks” and hearkens back to something we old folks used to refer to as “cinema”-this is about as good as it gets in the Summer of 2021.

WHELM is on digital platforms and in select theaters as a 35mm roadshow event.

Blu-ray reissue: The Krays (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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The Krays (Second Sight Films; Region “B” locked)

“Mummy loves you, you little monsters.” Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic about England’s notorious Kray brothers is a unique hybrid of a “gangster movie” and a “woman’s film”.

First-time actors Gary and Martin Kemp (also known as the guitarist and bassist for Spandau Ballet) are nothing short of astonishing as Ronald and Reggie Kray, the fearsome East End gangsters who ruled London’s underworld in the 1960s-but it is playwright Samuel Beckett’s favorite leading lady Billie Whitelaw who really owns the film as the twins’ beloved Mum, Violet.

Born in 1933, the twins form an unusually intense, almost psychic lifelong bond with their mother that pushes their older brother Charlie and milquetoast father to the background. To say that this non-shrinking Violet is a “force of nature” is understatement. She loves her “boys” but suffers no fools gladly.

What is most interesting to me about Philip Ridley’s sharp screenplay is how many juicy monologues it contains for a number of strong female characters (again, something you don’t usually see in such traditionally male-centric gangster flicks). This observation is delivered by Violet’s friend Rose (played by Susan Fleetwood):

It was the women who had the war – the real war. The women were left at home in the shit, not sitting in some sparkling plane or gleaming tank […] Men! Mum’s right. They stay kids all their fucking lives. And they end up heroes – or monsters. Either way they win. Women have to grow up. If *they* stay children, they become victims.

Make no mistake, when the film goes gangster, it goes all the way. In fact, Medak received criticism for scenes of brutality (the Krays had an oddly anachronistic predilection for using swords to torture and/or dispense with their rivals).

While those scenes are gruesome, as director Medak points out in a new interview conducted for the Blu-ray there is much less violence in The Krays than you see in a typical American mob film (interestingly, Medak and Whitelaw knew the Krays).

I think this is an underrated gem ripe for discovery by a new audience (it’s far more compelling than the muddled 2015 Krays biopic Legend, with Tom Hardy playing the twins).

Second Sight Films does a great job on the restoration and image transfer. I have a minor quibble on the audio; it’s very clean and crisp, but I had to use subtitles because I got tired of having to ride my volume control (while the annoying fluctuations between hushed dialog and blaring action scenes/music cues are a given in contemporary films, for the life of me I don’t know why reissue studios are compelled to go for that same dynamic when remixing audio tracks of older films).

In addition to the aforementioned interview with the director, extras include a new audio commentary by film historian Scott Harrison, a new interview with producer Ray Burdis, and a softcover book with several new essays.

SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Liang Ming’s drama is an ambitious feature debut–perhaps overly so. Set in northeast China, the film begins as a character study about a brother and sister struggling to make ends meet in a fishing town. The young woman (Xingchen Lyu) is an undocumented worker and on the verge of losing her hotel maid job. Her half-brother (Xiaoliang Wu) has just lost his fishing job.

When the siblings befriend the free-spirited daughter of a prosperous mob boss, the sister oddly begins to act like a jilted (lover?) once her brother and their new friend start sleeping together…but there is no explanation as to why. There is a suggestion that the two women have the hots for each other, but that thread goes nowhere fast. About 40 minutes in there is a hint that you’re now watching a crime thriller, but no thrills ensue. Ultimately the film is a wash.

Blu-ray reissue: The Hit (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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The Hit – Criterion Collection

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

Criterion’s Blu-ray delivers a noticeable upgrade in image quality (the transfer was approved by DP Mike Molloy). Audio commentary from Criterion’s 2009 DVD has been ported over, featuring director Stephen Frears, actors Hurt and Roth, screenwriter Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley. Extras include an essay by film critic Graham Fuller.

Blu-ray reissue: The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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Just when I thought I was out…Francis Ford Coppola pulls me back in for a third (fourth?) dip into my wallet for the “definitive” cut of the film formerly known as The Godfather Part III.

In a short video intro on the Blu-ray, Coppola justifies his subtle re-cut thusly: “You’ll see a film that has a different beginning, has a different ending. Many scenes throughout have been re-positioned; and the picture has been given I think a new life…which does, in fact, act as illumination of what [The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II] meant.”

So, has all been illuminated? In the interest of fairness (and being that I was aware of the release date for the Blu-ray) I re-watched The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II recently (probably the 50th time) so that all the motifs would be fresh in my mind before diving into this slightly reshuffled “new” coda. I admit that I have more often than not binge-watched “I” and “II” without feeling compelled to revisit “III” (no thanks I’m full).

The result of watching the new cut with somewhat “fresh” eyes is that it is not as “bad” as I remember (“bad” intended as relative in the context that “I” and “II” constitute the greatest gangster saga in film history, making it a hard act to “coda”-even for its creator). On the other hand, it still doesn’t elevate the film to the masterpiece status of its prequels.

First let’s dispense with the snarky quips about Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary that have tainted the film for years. If anything, her “non-actor” reading of the character renders her proto-mumblecore performance as naturalistic; after all, could she help being a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player who was playing a sullen 18 year-old daughter of a rich and famous power player?

Frankly, what I find most distracting performance-wise in III is her Aunt Talia Shire’s tendency to overact…with her hands. For whatever reason, Shire (reprising her role as Michael’s sister Connie) made an odd acting choice to gesticulate wildly in nearly every scene (I know Italians have a rep for “talking with their hands” …but Shire overdoes it).

Nits aside, the refurbished cut holds up well. Of the changes he made, Coppola’s repositioning of one particular scene to the beginning was the wisest, because it works as a visual and thematic callback to the opening moments of the original Godfather. All in all, it is as satisfying a “coda” for the saga one could expect within a relatively scant 2½ hour running time (considering I and II total hours of narrative to wrap up).

The transfer on Paramount’s Blu-ray is stunning in image and sound quality (both elements are newly restored). There are no extras (aside from Coppola’s 2 minute long introductory spiel) but I’m sure there will be a super-deluxe bells and whistles edition at some point. If you’re a fan of the trilogy (who isn’t?) I think you’ll be pleased.

Blu-ray reissue: Diva (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2020)

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Diva – Kino Classics

Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre that hoity toity critics have labelled Cinéma du look…or as I like to call ‘em: “really cool French thrillers of the 80s and 90s” (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional). Diva not only reigns as my favorite of the bunch but would easily place as one of my top 10 films of the 80s.

Our unlikely antihero is mild-mannered postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a 20-something opera fan obsessed with a Garbo-like diva (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). The diva has never recorded a studio album and strictly stipulates that her live performances are never to be taped and/or reproduced in any medium.

A clearly enraptured Jules attends one of her concerts and makes a high-quality bootleg recording, purely for his own edification. By chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters sitting nearby witness Jules making the surreptitious recording and see nothing but a potential goldmine in the tape, sparking a chain of events that turns his life upside down.

Slick, stylish and cheeky with a wonderful international cast, Diva is a marvelously entertaining pop-art mélange of neo-noir, action-thriller, and comic-book fantasy. Chockablock with quirky characters, from a pair of hipster hit men (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon) who hound Jules to his savior, a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (scene-stealer Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his precocious teenage girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) patiently explains to Jules.

I have owned 2 DVD versions of the film over the years, the transfers were passable but less-than-ideal. Kino’s Blu-ray, while still not the diamond quality I’d been hoping for (it is obviously not restored) it is by far the best-looking print I’ve seen of the film. Extras include interviews with members of the cast and crew (which have already appeared on a previous DVD edition) and a brand new commentary track by film critic Simon Abrams. A real gem!

Connery from A to Zed

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2020)

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I’m posting a belated tribute to Sean Connery, who passed away last week (on Halloween, no less). I already had a post planned for last Saturday, and as you may have heard there was an election thingy going on all this week that I’ve found a bit …distracting.

There’s not much of a revelatory nature I can add to the plethora of tributes that have poured in since, except to acknowledge that being of “a certain age”, Connery was a figure who loomed large in my personal pop culture iconography (I can still remember my excitement when I received a “Goldfinger” board game for Hanukah when I was 10).

He was, and will likely always be, the definitive James Bond of course; but he did tackle a number of other roles during his career well outside the realm of the suave secret agent.

With that in mind, and a nod to Bond’s service number, here are my top 7 Connery films.

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The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney 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. To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.

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Goldfinger – While you can’t really go wrong adding any of the first four James Bond entries to a “best of Connery” filmography (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, or Thunderball), if I had to choose one as my desert island disc, I’d go with Goldfinger.

This was the first of the four Bond films directed by Guy Hamilton (he also helmed Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man With the Golden Gun). Paul Dehn’s screenplay (co-adapted by Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel) is infinitely quotable (“No, Mr. Bond…I expect you to die!” “I never joke about my work, 007.” “You can turn off the charm. I’m immune.” “Shocking …positively shocking!”).

From its classic opening theme (belted out by Shirley Bassey), memorable villain (played to the hilt by Gert Frobe), iconic henchman (Harold Sakata as Goldfinger’s steel-rimmed bowler tossing bodyguard “Oddjob”) and the best Bond girl ever (Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore) to Q’s tricked-out Aston-Martin (with smoke screen, oil slick, rear bullet shield, revolving license plates, machine guns and my favorite – the passenger ejector seat), this will always be the quintessential 007 adventure for me.

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The Man Who Would Be King – Look in the dictionary under “ripping yarn” and you’ll find this engaging adventure from 1975, co-adapted by director John Huston with Gladys Hill from Rudyard Kipling’s short story. Stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine have great chemistry as a pair of British army veterans who set their sights on plundering an isolated kingdom in the Hindu Kush. At least that’s the plan.

Before all is said and done, one is King of Kafiristan, and the other is covering his friend’s flank while both scheme how they are going pack up the treasure and make a graceful exit without losing their heads in the process.  As it is difficult for a king to un-crown himself, that is going to take one hell of a soft shoe routine. In the realm of “buddy films”, the combined star power of Connery and Caine has seldom been equaled (only Redford and Newman come to mind). Also with Christopher Plummer and Saeed Jaffrey.

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Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout Vertigo as Alfred Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underrated 1964 film, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time precursor to dark, psycho-sexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park.

Tippi Hedren stars as an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania. Sean Connery is a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she’s a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study. His own behaviors slip as he tries to play Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

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Robin and Marian – Richard Lester’s elegiac take on the Robin Hood legend features one of Connery’s most nuanced performances. The 1976 comedy-adventure boasts a witty and literate screenplay by James Goldman (The Lion in Winter, They Might Be Giants) music by John Barry (whose name is synonymous with Bond films) and a marvelous cast that includes Audrey Hepburn (Maid Marian), Robert Shaw (the Sherriff of Nottingham), Richard Harris, Nicol Williamson, Denholm Elliott, and Ian Holm.

20 years after Robin and his merry band had their initial run-ins with Prince John and his henchman, the Sherriff of Nottingham, our Crusades-weary hero has returned to England accompanied by Little John (Williamson). Eager to reunite with his ladylove Marian, Robin is chagrined to learn that she has gotten herself to a nunnery. This is the first of many hurdles for the middle-aged (and more introspective) swashbuckler; but he is determined to have one last hurrah. Connery and Hepburn are simply wonderful together.

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The Untouchables – Sean Connery delivers one of his last truly great performances in Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama. While the film bears little resemblance to the late 50s TV show, it is loosely based on the same real-life memoirs of U.S. Treasury agent Elliot Ness, who helped the government build a case against mobster Al Capone in 1929.

Connery plays Jim Malone, a hard-boiled Chicago cop recruited by Ness (Kevin Costner) to be part of an elite squad of T-men who are tasked with bringing down the various criminal enterprises run by Capone (a scenery-chewing Robert De Niro) by any means necessary. Also on the team: Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia. Patricia Clarkson plays Ness’ wife. Billy Drago is memorable as Capone’s sneering hit man Nitti. Well-paced, sharply written (by David Mamet) and stylishly directed by De Palma (a climactic shootout filmed in Chicago’s Union Station is a mini masterpiece of staging and editing).

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Zardoz – I suspect my inclusion of John Boorman’s 1974 spaced-out oddity as one of Sean Connery’s “best” films will raise an eyebrow or two, but as I’ve admitted on more than one occasion-there’s no accounting for some people’s taste! Once you get past sniggering over Connery’s costume (a red loincloth/diaper accessorized by a double bandolier and thigh-high go-go boots), this is an imaginative fantasy-adventure for adults.

Set in the year 2293 (why not?), Boorman’s story centers on thuggish but natively intelligent Zed (Connery) who roams the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Earth with his fellow “Brutals” killing and pillaging with impunity. This all-male club worships a “god” named Zardoz, who speaks to them via a large flying stone head, which occasionally touches down so they can fill it with stolen grain. In exchange, Zardoz spews out rifles like a giant Pez dispenser, while intoning his #1 tenet “The gun is good, the penis is evil.”

One day Zed manages to stow away in the head just before takeoff, and when it lands he finds himself in the invisible force-field protected “Vortex”, where the elite “Eternals” live a seemingly idyllic and Utopian life that is purely of the mind. Bemused and fascinated by this “specimen” from the outside world, one of the Eternals  “adopts” Zed is as his Man Friday while his fate is being debated. But who is really studying who?

Boorman’s story takes some inspiration from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, as well as another classic fantasy that becomes apparent in the fullness of the narrative, but it still stands out from the pack for sheer weirdness. There are also parallels to A Boy and His Dog (another film I’ve seen an unhealthy number of times).

In a way the “Eternals”-what with their crystals, pyramids, and hippy-dippy philosophical musings, presage the New Age Movement. Also, they pass judgement on anyone in their collective suspected of having “negative thoughts” with a telepathic vote; if found guilty the accused is “aged”  to drooling dotage and banished from the community (that’s social media in a nutshell!).

Blu-ray reissue: Atlantic City (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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Atlantic City – Paramount

Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon deliver outstanding lead performances in this 1980 neo-noir/character study from Louis Malle. Lancaster plays a fading, low-level gangster eking out a living as a bookie. He is also the weary caretaker (and occasional lover) of his former boss’s ailing widow (Kate Reid), who lives in the apartment directly below (whenever she needs him, she comically yanks on an old-fashioned room-to-room bell…making him appear more like an indentured servant).

The biggest thrill in the aging hood’s life derives from an occasional peep at his sexy neighbor (Susan Sarandon), whose kitchen window directly faces his across the courtyard of their apartment building. She conducts a nightly cleaning ritual involving fresh lemons over her kitchen sink-topless (I love the soliloquy Lancaster delivers about “the lemons” after she asks him what he does when he watches her…it is a scene that in the hands of two lesser actors would play more lasciviously than so sweetly). Fate and circumstance tosses them together and puts them on the run from murderous gangsters looking to recover some stolen drugs.

John Guare’s screenplay is rich in characterization, bolstered by a marvelous cast (right down to the bit parts). Atlantic City itself becomes a key character, thanks to Richard Ciupka’s cinematography and Malle’s skillful direction. Malle chose an interesting time to film there; many old hotels and casinos were in the process of being demolished in order to make way for new construction, which adds to the overall elegiac tone.

Paramount’s Blu-ray does show a fair amount of grain and is obviously “not restored” (to which some visible debris and scratches attest), but the picture is still a vast improvement over the DVD. No extras, but I am happy to see this gem finally get a decent hi-def release (a previous Blu-ray by Gaumont, which I have not viewed, was reportedly less-than-stellar).

Blu-ray Reissue: Criss-Cross (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

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Criss-Cross – Eureka Masters of Cinema (Region “B” locked)

Film noir aficionados are sure to rejoice once they see this gorgeous 4K digital restoration of the 1949 classic from revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.).

Burt Lancaster stars as an underpaid and over-worked armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her new marriage to a local mobster (veteran noir heavy Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his half-hearted involvement in an armored car heist as the “inside man”.

Great script by Daniel Fuchs (adapted from Don Tracy’s novel; Steven Soderbergh adapted his 1995 thriller The Underneath from the same). Artful, highly atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.

The 1080p transfer of the 4K restoration is luminous; one of the best I have seen in a while for a classic period film noir. There are two audio commentary tracks; I have only listened to the one by film scholar Adrian Martin, who is quite enlightening. Among the extras: 31-page collector’s booklet and the Screen Director’s radio adaptation from 1949.

Tribeca 2020: Pacified (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 25, 2020)

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The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil provide a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama. Sort of a cross between The King of New York and City of God, the story takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The narrative centers on the relationship between 13-year old Tati (Cassia Gil), her single (and drug-addicted) mother Andrea (Débora Nascimento), and Jaca (Bukassa Kabengele), the former “godfather” of the neighborhood who has just been released from prison. Jaca, who has mellowed while in the joint, is nonetheless chagrined to learn that the young protégé he left in charge has essentially declared himself boss, become a neighborhood terror and now views Jaca as a threat to his regime. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians.