Category Archives: Gangsters

SIFF 2014: White Shadow ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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)

Image result for prime cut film

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 strangely 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)

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)

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.

The punk and the godfather: Brighton Rock (2010) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2011)

It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old deathbed?

 -Graham Greene, from The Heart of the Matter

 Did you ever get on a kick with a writer? It can be quite a passionate love affair. When I was in my early 20s, a friend loaned me a dog-eared paperback copy of The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene. The diamond-cut prose, compelling narrative, and thematic depth left me gob smacked. “Ah,” I thought, “so this must be that ‘literature’ of which they speak.” It was time to put Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean behind me and kick it up a notch (when I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.). I had to have more of this.

And so it was that I got on a Graham Greene kick, voraciously devouring virtually every word that he ever fought from his pen. As I plowed through the oeuvre, I began to notice prevalent themes emerging; most notably that whole Catholic thing (for someone like me, with a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, it was theologically fascinating). There was much ado about guilt, mortal sin, clutching at redemption, moral failure, lapsed faith…and more guilt. But you could still “dance to it” (in a literary sense).

The rich complexity and narrative appeal of Greene’s “theological thrillers” certainly has not been lost on filmmakers over the years; nearly all of his novels have been adapted for the screen (with mixed results).

Most have been dramas and film noirs, like The Fallen Idol, This Gun for Hire (based on A Gun for Sale), The Ministry of Fear, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair (with a 1955 and 1999 version), The Quiet American (twice-made, in 1958 and 2002) and two uncharacteristically lighthearted entries-Our Man in Havana and Travels with my Aunt.

All the aforementioned are worthwhile, but if pressed to pick my personal favorite Greene-to-screen, it would be John Boulting’s 1947 noir thriller, Brighton Rock.

That film was memorable on several counts. It was stylishly directed (Boulting later helmed one of the early nuclear paranoia thrillers, Seven Days to Noon and the classic comedy I’m All Right, Jack), well-scripted (by Greene himself, along with Terence Rattigan) and topped off by then 24 year-old Richard Attenborough’s indelible portrayal of the central character, a ruthless and ambitious hood named Pinkie Brown.

In fact, Attenborough so thoroughly inhabits the character that you find it difficult to connect the actor who plays this creepy sociopath with the future Oscar-winning director of Gandhi (by then addressed as ‘Sir’ Richard). It’s a tough act to follow, for anyone attempting to do a remake. And guess what-someone has.

For the new BBC Films production of Brighton Rock writer-director Rowan Joffe has, for the most part, kept original characters, chief plot points and thematic subtexts intact, but moved the time period to the 1960s. The story is set in 1964 Brighton; on the eve of the infamous Mods vs. Rockers youth riots which took place at the popular English seaside resort that year (shades of Quadrophenia). Sam Riley tackles the Pinkie Brown role. Pinkie is a low-rung mobster who has been scheming for dominance of his gang.

When his mentor (Geoff Bell) is killed by a rival outfit that is attempting to monopolize the local gambling racket, Pinkie sees an opportunity to upgrade his own status by proactively seeking vengeance on his friend’s killer (Sean Harris).

In their haste to grab the intended victim, Pinkie and his cohorts get sloppy and involve an innocent ‘civilian’, a naïve young waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough). A ‘pavement photographer’, intending to take a picture of Rose, inadvertently gets an incriminating shot of the soon-to-be murder victim and his abductors. When Pinkie learns that Rose has a claim ticket for the photo, he ingratiates himself into her life, pretending to be romantically interested.

Joffe’s film left me feeling a little ambivalent. While it is kind of refreshing to see a British mobster flick that isn’t attempting to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie, this version of Brighton Rock may be a little too somber and weighty for its own good. Moving the time setting to 1964 doesn’t detract from the original, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on it, either (and did it really need ‘improving’?).

In fact, large chunks of the film are essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the 1947 version. Joffe’s version exudes more of a Hitchcockian vibe; it is particularly reminiscent of Suspicion. While Riley’s portrayal of Pinky has a brooding intensity,  he lacks  a certain subtlety that Attenborough brought to the character in the original.

In Greene’s original novel, Pinkie is described by Rose as someone who, despite his youth, seems to “know” he is “damned”, and all of his actions are predicated on this feeling of quasi-religious predestination. Attenborough, I think, embodies that perfectly, while Riley simply comes off as preternaturally evil, like a boogeyman.

Dame Helen Mirren feels wasted as Rose’s employer Ida, who is suspicious of Pinkie and becomes a thorn in his side; oddly, her character (crucial in the book and the 1947 film) seems to have been downgraded. The usually wonderful John Hurt barely registers; not really his fault as his character is underwritten.

Andy Serkis chews the scenery in his relatively small role as the rival mob’s boss, and there is a standout supporting performance from Philip Davis (whose presence also brings a sort of symmetry to the Quadrophenia connection; he played ‘Chalky’, one of the teenage Mods  in Franc Roddam’s eponymous 1979 film). There are worse sins than watching Joffe’s film, but if you prefer to clutch at redemption, rent the original.

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle: The Killing **** & Killer’s Kiss ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2011)

“I like 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.”

-Stanley Kubrick

To someone unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, a cursory glance at his career stats (13 movies over a 46 year span) might prompt some head-scratching as to what all the fuss is about concerning his impact on the medium and influence on countless film makers. But you know the funny thing about great artists? They are defined by the quality of their work, not the quantity (after all, James Dean only starred in 3 feature films).

Indeed, a lot of filmmakers (alive or dead) should be so lucky to have but one entry in their entire catalog that could hold a candle to, say, a Paths of Glory. Or a Spartacus. Or a Lolita. Or Dr. Strangelove. Or something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, or Full Metal Jacket. Even Stanley Kubrick on a relatively “off” day (The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut) handily outclasses any number of titles “now playing at a theater near you” (speaking purely from a technical, artistic, or aesthetic standpoint).

Granted, when compared to his subsequent work, Kubrick’s independently financed 1953 feature debut Fear and Desire, does, I fear, leave much to be desired from a narrative standpoint; but everybody has to start somewhere. That being said, the film (shot, edited and post-synched by Kubrick and scripted by Howard O. Sackler) does feature masterfully composed shots that hint at the then 25 year-old Kubrick’s already highly developed sense of style.

Kubrick did his best to distance himself from the film, suppressing attempts at revivals (allegedly even hunting down prints and having them destroyed). A rare public screening in Los Angeles last fall has created buzz that a restoration and long-awaited DVD could be in the works; in the meantime we’re stuck with (what looks like) a 20th generation videotaped copy somebody posted on YouTube.

Some better news for Kubrick completists arrived earlier this week in the guise of Criterion’s “2-fer” reissue of the director’s second and third films (previously unavailable in Blu-ray editions), Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). The latter film gets star billing on the package, and the former is “demoted” to one of the supplements on the disc; but it’s still great to see both of these early Kubrick gems receiving Criterion’s traditionally fastidious “clean-up” and supplementation (MGM’s SD issues have been available for several years, but were “bare bones” editions with so-so transfers). These two films also represent Kubrick’s own mini noir cycle.

The most renowned of the pair, The Killing, is considered by many to be the director’s first “proper” film, as it was his first with well-known actors and to reach a sizable audience. This was also Kubrick’s first adaptation from a book (from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted to work on the screenplay (according to a supplemental interview on the Criterion disc with poet-author Robert Polito, Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing in the credits, when it was Thompson who allegedly contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script).

The Killing (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.

Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a team, including a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).

Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. However, as occurs in The Asphalt Jungle, it’s a scourge of human weaknesses (and the femme fatale of the piece, an entertainingly trashy Marie Windsor, as Elisha Cook, Jr.’s belligerent wife) that ultimately unravels the caper.

While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other such genre films of the era. The initial introduction to each of the main characters, and the account of how each man’s part in the heist itself eventually plays out, are presented in a non-linear, Rashomon-style structure. Kubrick also adds a semi-documentary feel by utilizing an omniscient narrator.

Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative-style crime caper may be cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is the best modern example of liberal “borrowing” from The Killing). I’m also pretty sure that Christopher Nolan was paying homage in his 2008 film The Dark Knight, which featured a heist scene with clown-masked bank robbers (in The Killing, a shotgun-wielding Sterling Hayden hides his face in a clown mask to rob the track’s loot).

It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Kubrick’s 1955 noir Killer’s Kiss as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative.

On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a neophyte at screenwriting at that time (and with hindsight being 20/20, most of his best work was borne of literary adaptations). It could be defined as simplistic (and at a 67 minute running time, plays out its plot points like, say, a weekly episode of a high-production value TV crime drama). But when you consider other elements  that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, I believe that Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

The film opens and closes in New York’s Penn Station, with the story’s protagonist, an anxious and furtive young boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) providing a voiced-over flashback narrative as he recounts a rather eventful and life-changing week or so in his life.

Naturally, there’s a beautiful woman involved (it’s a noir rule), and her name is Gloria (Irene Kane). In this case, she’s not a femme fatale, per se, but the quintessential “nice girl next door”. Okay, she is a private dancer, working at a 10 cents a whirl joint called “Pleasureland”. So she is a “nice girl” in the “what’s a nice girl like you doing working in a place like this?” kind of way. Davey and Gloria’s apartment windows face each other across an alleyway; we see them  checking each other out in a voyeuristic manner in some early scenes; telegraphing to the audience that sooner or later, these two will be hooking up.

It is Gloria’s boss at the nightclub, a creepy, low-rent mobster sleaze named Vincent (Frank Silvera) who brings the dark elements to her life (and to the story). The two are in a relationship, about which the much older Vincent seems more enthused than Gloria. In one particularly sordid scene, Vincent yanks Gloria off the dance floor and makes her watch one of Davey’s boxing matches on TV (he knows that he lives in Gloria’s building). The violence seems to turn Vincent on, and he begins unceremoniously pawing at the reluctant Gloria; thankfully, Kubrick quickly fades to black.

A few nights later, Davey hears a woman screaming. He sees Vincent assaulting Gloria, and dashes over to help her. Vincent also gets a good look at Davey before yanking Gloria’s shade down. By the time Davey gets to Gloria’s pad, Vincent has fled. Davey comforts her, and…you can guess the rest. Vincent’s jealously-fueled rage eventually puts their lives in great danger.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s). It’s possible that Martin Scorsese may have studied this film before making Raging Bull, as there is an arresting similarity between the boxing scenes in both films, particularly in the highly stylized manner that they are photographed, lit and edited.

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time. Several scenes are eerily prescient of his future work. A dream sequence, shown in film negative, that features a sped-up tracking shot racing dizzily through Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons, immediately calls to mind the “beyond the infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Then there’s a climactic showdown between Davey and Vincent, set in a storage room full of naked store mannequins, that takes a macabre, comic turn when they start whacking each other with plastic body parts, recalling the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty amidst the discombobulated contents of the rundown mansion in Lolita, and to some degree, the scene in Clockwork Orange in which the ultra-violent Alex bludgeons one of his hapless victims to death with a comically oversized “sculpture” of a phallus.

It’s a bit tough to follow that last bit of imagery with anything, other than to say that for Kubrick fanatics, Criterion’s new edition of these two gems is the reissue of the year!

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.

SIFF 2010: Perrier’s Bounty ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

Despite an acute case of Pulp Fiction envy and Guy Ritchie déjà vu, the quirky Irish gangster flick, Perrier’s Bounty (directed by Ian Fitzgibbon) sucked me in with its outstanding cast, saucy dialog (written by Mark O’Rowe) and dark humor (reminiscent of In Bruges). Cillian Murphy stars as a ne’er do well who owes money to a brutal mobster (Brendan Gleeson). After Murphy’s downstairs neighbor (Jodie Whittaker) accidentally kills one of the mob’s bill collectors, the two are forced to go on the run. Along the way, the fugitives are joined by Murphy’s father (Jim Broadbent), who demonstrates that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. It’s a hoot to watch two brilliant character actors like Gleeson and Broadbent going head-to-head, and I found myself laughing out loud, despite the predictability of the narrative.

Take me to the river: Sin Nombre ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2009)

Every now and then a debut film comes along that has a voice. And when I say “voice”, I mean that the director’s confidence and clarity of cinematic vision has a tangible presence-from the very first frame to the closing credits. Maybe I’m a little jaded, but it doesn’t happen that much these days. So when I saw Cary Fukunaga’s  assured first feature, Sin Nombre, it “…made my big toe shoot right up in my boot,” (as Little Richard described the first time he ever saw Hendrix live).

Defying all expectations, this modestly budgeted, visually expansive gem hinges on a simple narrative, but is anything but predictable. It’s an adventure, yet it is informed by an almost meditative stillness that makes the occasional frisson that much more gripping and real. It delves into gang culture, but it isn’t a movie about gangs. It has protagonists who are desperately attempting to immigrate to the United States by any means necessary, yet this isn’t yet another earnest message film about “the plight” of illegal immigrants. It’s a “road movie”, but the future’s uncertain-and the end is always near.

The film has two narratives, which eventually merge as one. One story begins in Honduras, concerning a headstrong teenage girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) who joins her long estranged father and uncle as they journey to Mexico, where they plan to ride the rails as far north as possible before making a final dash across the border to America, where dreams of milk and honey await.

Sayra’s father hopes to use their time together to become reacquainted with his daughter. Sayra, who seems to be working through abandonment issues, is polite but keeps a cool distance from his belated attempts at offering fatherly advice and exerting parental authority. Still, Sayra, her father and her uncle begin to form a family unit, precipitated more by necessity than affection.

Another type of extended family unit is examined in the film’s companion narrative, which takes us to the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, and centers on a local chapter of the notorious “MS-13” gang. We witness a brutal initiation rite, a 13-second long “beat down” on a young inductee nicknamed “El Smiley” (Kristian Ferrer).

Punches and kicks are soon replaced by congratulatory hugs, as Smiley is welcomed as a “brother” by his new homies, and anointed a “son” by the leader, “Lil Mago” (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). We also meet Willy, known in the gang as “El Caspar” (Edgar Flores) who is Smiley’s sponsor, and a de facto big brother figure to the young boy.

While he is a dedicated and respected member of the gang, Willy vibes creeping disenchantment; we sense he dreams of a better life. He also has something  lacking in the others-a sense of conscience. This leads to a fateful conflict with Mago, a repugnant sociopath who will accept nothing less than blind obedience . Circumstance puts Willy in the same yard where Sayra and her relatives await to jump a train that will take them north; and thus their paths converge.

While this is a very human story, containing all the elements of classic drama (love, hope, betrayal, revenge, personal sacrifice), it is also about the locales, and the elegiac tone that these backdrops lend to what is otherwise a harrowing tale. As the train whistle stops its way through Mexico, the country’s rugged beauty is captured in gorgeous “golden hour” hues by cinematographer Adriano Goldman.

Goldman’s work  reminds me of Nestor Almendros, who did the magnificent photography for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The Texas prairies used as backdrop in Days of Heaven are in the same neck of the woods, and some story elements (like the protagonist’s point of view) are reminiscent of that film as well. Whether or not Malick was a conscious influence on Fukunaga is a moot point, because his film stands on its own. One could have worse influences.

For an unknown cast (many non-professionals), there are an astonishing number of outstanding performances. This adds to the naturalistic, believable tone. My film going companion, a native of Mexico (she’s from Colima), was impressed by that element, and seconded the motion that the milieu was muy autentico. Sin Nombre is another rarity these days-it’s meant to be seen on the big screen.

It started in Naples: Gomorrah ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2009)

Beach blanket fungoo: Gomorrah.

Here’s the paradox. Gomorrah is one of the most mundane films ever made about organized crime; yet it may be the most truthful onscreen portrayal you will ever see. Eschewing the romanticized glamour of the Warner Brothers’ gangsters, the operatic pulp of Coppola’s mob scene, or the “wise guy” poetry of Scorsese’s mean streets, director Matteo Garonne opts for a neo-realist portrait of opportunism and brutality at its basest level. Modern Naples is the setting; so if you’re looking for the Sopranos…fuhgetaboutit.

The network narrative profiles several Neapolitan characters involved with the criminal organization known as the Camorra (not to be confused with the Sicilian Mafia). There’s a young boy, recruited as a drug runner. He lines up outside of an abandoned building along with other young candidates, who each await their “turn” to audition for a job by donning a Kevlar vest and  taking a bullet in the chest at point blank range. Those who dust themselves off are congratulated for “becoming a man” and then hired.

There’s a tailor, who works both sides against the middle, designing for a mob-controlled clothing factory by day and moonlighting as a consultant for a Chinese-run black market sweat shop. There’s a mob-backed contractor, who makes backroom deals with manufacturing companies to dump toxic waste. And we follow a pair of cocky teenage pals who worship the Al Pacino version of Scarface, and fancy themselves as real up-and-comers in the local underworld.

Six writers are credited (including director Garonne and journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the source book) which suggests  too many cooks peppering the ragu. I have to admit, I had to re-watch the first half of the film almost immediately, because I was having some difficulty differentiating between some of the characters; I also found it a bit murky as to who was “warring” with who, and why.

Perhaps that is the point of the film-that there is no point to the violence; no one ever  “wins” (an eye for an eye eventually makes the whole world blind). I think that the matter-of-fact depiction of violence and avarice was being posited by the filmmakers as a systemic issue, which has been enabled for far too long by the relative complacency of the local populace.

The director post-scripts with a list of statistics that enumerates the body count left in the wake of Camorra’s activities over the years; not just from bombings and shootings, but “collateral damage”- like public health hazards from the illegal toxic waste disposal.

Many are comparing this film with City of God, the popular 2002 Brazilian film about the modern crime-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro. While it does share a similar milieu, I found it to be a much closer cousin to The Wire (the criminal cultures of the port cities of Baltimore and Naples display many surprising parallels).

Like that HBO crime drama, Gomorrah doesn’t prescribe antidotes to the societal ills that it observes, nor does it try to cloak its narrative in a morality play. It simply presents a cinema verite-style observation on The Way Things Are-the quiet desperation of everyday drudgery, punctuated by  moments of adrenaline-pumping excitement and/or heart-stopping fear (mobsters take their pants off the same way as anyone else). If you prefer tidy endings, be forewarned; for realists, this may be an offer you can’t refuse.