Category Archives: Neo-Noir

Wanna Be in My Gang? – Eastern Promises (***1/2) & This is England (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2007)

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This week we’ll take a peek at two powerful new dramas, both set in merry old England,…but dealing with some not-so-merry themes.

Director David Cronenberg brings on the blood and the balalaikas in his crackerjack neo-noir, Eastern Promises. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a London midwife obsessed with tracking down the relatives of a newborn infant, left behind by a 14 year-old unwed Russian who tragically dies on her delivery table. Intrigued by the Cyrillic scribbling in the dead girl’s diary, Anna turns to her Russian-speaking uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimosky) for translation.

Stepan staunchly refuses, citing old country superstitions and admonishing his niece for “stealing from the dead”. Undaunted, Anna follows her only solid lead, a business card for a Russian restaurant that she finds in the diary. Anna soon gleans that she would have been better off heeding her uncle’s warning, because the diary is  a hot potato for some extremely dangerous and scary individuals. Soon,  she is pulled into the brutal world of the Russian mob.

 Viggo Mortensen delivers one of his most accomplished performances to date as Nikolai, the Siberian driver for a psychotic mob captain (Vincent Cassel), the son of a godfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl  completely disappear into character.

These skilled actors make it easy to forget that they are in actuality American, French and German; you do not doubt for one second that you are watching native Russians, who live and die by the rules of “vory v zakone” (“thieves in law”, a strict code borne from the gang culture of Russian prisons).

 Screenwriter Steven Knight revisits some of the themes he explored in Dirty Pretty Things; namely, how immigrant communities assimilate (legally and otherwise) while still maintaining a sense of their native culture. (I think this is the aspect of the film that has some people drawing comparisons to The Godfather).

The only quibble I had with Knight’s script was a “twist” toward the end involving one of the main characters that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative.

 Cronenberg, who has built his reputation on Grand Guginol excess, has slouched toward a lean, almost poetic style in recent films. For devotees, not to worry; the director’s propensity for viscerally “shocking” images and squib-happy bloodletting is still on display, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous; these characters live in a brutal world, and it’s par for the course.

As per usual, Cronenberg slips black humor into the mix. One particular scene, involving an attempted mob hit in a steam bath (and a very naked Viggo), is an instant classic.

At once a brooding character study and atmospheric thriller, Eastern Promises rates among the Canadian iconoclast’s finest work.

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Oi! It’s time now to break out those old Sham 69 LPs for our next film, This is England, the latest from British director Shane Meadows (Twenty-Four Seven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands).

A hard-hitting, naturalistic social drama reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s (with a slight whiff of A Clockwork Orange), This is England is set against the backdrop of the Thatcher era, circa 1983.

The story (loosely auto-biographical, based on the director’s Midlands upbringing) centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance) who can’t fit in at his school.

Shaun presents a real handful to his loving but somewhat exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a working-class Falklands War widow who does her best to support herself and her son. After a particularly bad day of being bullied about by teachers and schoolmates, happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang.

Shaun’s initial apprehension is washed away when  good-natured gang leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him an unconditional entrée into their little club. Shaun’s weary working mum is initially not so crazy about his new pals, but after sizing them up decides essentially to leave her son in their care.

Some may feel that this development strains credibility, but I think it’s a pragmatic decision. Her son has no siblings, no close friends, and is suffering from the loss of his father; perhaps this surrogate family will give him what she cannot provide.

The idyll is soon shattered, however, when the gang’s original leader, Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. Combo’s return causes a rift that divides the gang; his jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals doesn’t settle well with Woody and his supporters, and they break off on their own.

Shaun decides to stay on after forming an instant bond with the thuggish Combo, who easily parlays the impressionable Shaun’s grief over his father into a blame-shifting hatred of immigrants, with tragic results.

The film works successfully on several levels. Taken ss a cautionary tale, it demonstrates how easily the neglected and disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate.

As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex politics and social upheaval in Great Britain. As a riveting drama, it features astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned young Turgoose and Graham, who  owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

What did you do in the war, Mommy? – Black Book (***1/2) & The Good German (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2007)

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If you have perceived a deluge of WW2-themed films as of late, you’re not imagining things. Most of the critical brouhaha seems to have been centered on Clint Eastwood’s   Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (neither of which I have seen yet, I will admit), which likely explains why two other WW2 dramas helmed by a pair of equally noteworthy directors have slipped in and out of theatres relatively un-noticed.

Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (aka Black Book) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German share some interesting similarities. They both represent a throwback to a certain type of old-fashioned WW2 adventure yarn, and they both feature strong female protagonists doing whatever it takes to survive their wartime nightmare.

Black Book (co-written by the director with Gerard Soeteman) is native Hollander Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in quite a while. It’s a “Mata Hari” style tale set in Holland in the waning days of the German occupation, as the Allies make their post-D-Day push across Europe. Carice van Houten is compelling as a former chanteuse named Ellis, a Dutch Jew who has spent the occupation in hiding with a farm family. When her hosts perish in a bombing raid, Ellis is left with the realization that she will now have to live by her wits if she is to survive (The Sound of Music meets Showgirls? Discuss.)

After a series of harrowing escapes, Ellis finds herself in the Dutch Resistance. As part of a plan to spring some imprisoned Resistance fighters, she is asked to seduce the commander of the local SS detachment, Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch, in a nicely fleshed out performance). Things become complicated when Ellis develops a genuine attraction to Muntze.

This is an exciting war adventure, with interesting plot twists along the way (replete with a few patented over-the-top Verhoeven moments, usually involving uncompromising nudity and gore). It’s refreshing to see Verhoeven escaping from Hollywood and getting back to his roots; while I generally enjoy his big budget popcorn fare, I have always felt his Dutch films (e.g. Spetters, The 4th Man, Soldier of Orange) were more challenging and substantive (Verhoeven the Hired Hand vs. Verhoeven the Auteur, if you will).

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Steven Soderbergh loves to pay homage. In fact, (Mr. Tarantino aside), he probably holds the record for dropping more cinema buff-centric references per film than any other director. In his most recent film, The Good German (filmed in glorious B&W), he may have allowed this tendency lead him too deeply into “style over substance” territory.

The story is set in immediate post-war Berlin, with the backdrop of the uneasy alliance and growing mistrust between the occupying U.S. and Russian military forces. Captain Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) is an American military correspondent who has been assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference.

His G.I. driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a slick wheeler-dealer (reminiscent of James Garner’s character in The Americanization of Emily) who procures everything from cigarettes to women and has a German girlfriend (a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, dutifully delivering her lines in a husky Marlene Dietrich drone).

Imagine Capt. Geismer’s surprise when Tully introduces him to said girlfriend, and she happens to be an old lover of his. To tell you more risks revealing spoilers, so suffice it to say that Lena, a Woman with a Dark Secret, becomes the central figure in a murder mystery, with the hapless Geismer drawn right into the thick of it.

Unfortunately, despite a certain amount of suspense in the first act, the story becomes increasingly convoluted and curiously non-involving.  Blanchett’s performance feels phoned-in, and I wouldn’t call it Clooney’s best work either. Now, it is possible that Soderbergh is SO obsessed with aping an old-fashioned, film noir-ish, black and white late-40’s war thriller, that he may have in fact directed his actors to mimic the semi-wooden, melodramatic acting style that informed many of those films. (Even the DVD transfer appears to be part of the joke; as it is matted in full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

The film does sport a great “vintage” look; the cinematography is outstanding (Soderbergh has never faltered in that department) and he perfectly captures the chiaroscuro look of a certain classic Carol Reed film (I am sure I am not the first person to draw comparisons to The Third Man). There are also some other obvious touchstones here, like Hitchcock’s WW2 thrillers Notorious and Foreign Correspondent.

At the end of the day, however, if I want to see something that reminds me of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, I think if I had my druthers, I would just as soon pull out my DVD of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, if you know what I am saying. While The Good German certainly looks pretty, it ultimately feels pretty… empty.

Evil corporate bastards: Michael Clayton ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 13, 2007)

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The late great Paddy Chayefsky would surely be pleased by the opening salvo of searing verbiage that launches writer-director Tony Gilroy’s superb new legal thriller, Michael Clayton. The fine British actor Tom Wilkinson nearly walks off with the movie before the opening credits are even finished rolling with a magnificently performed voice-over rant that recalls Howard Beale’s “cleansing moment of clarity” in Network.

Wilkinson portrays Arthur Edens, a crack lawyer and senior partner for a prestigious New York corporate law firm who is, well, cracking up. On the eve of closing a case he has been working on for several years on behalf of U-North, an agrichemical company faced with a class-action lawsuit, Edens suffers a Dostoevkskian meltdown and suddenly decides to side with the plaintiffs and publicly expose his client’s turpitude in the matter.

As you can probably imagine, with many millions of dollars at stake and the reputations of both the corporation and law firm on the line, there are some very powerful, pissed off people sitting in dark boardrooms, scrambling for a quick and decisive solution to their “problem”.

Enter our eponymous protagonist (George Clooney, in a first-rate performance). Clayton, who is on the payroll as an attorney, is in actuality the firm’s “fixer”, who cynically refers to himself as a “janitor” (he’s not a “cleaner”, like Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, but akin to Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. Wolfe” in Pulp Fiction).

Clayton cleans up other people’s messes, but cannot get his own life in order; he’s divorced and up to his eyes in gambling debts and bad investments. And, like his friend Arthur, he’s having some primal doubts about the moral and ethical ambiguities involved with what he does for a living.

His immediate concern, however, is to salvage this potential disaster for the firm by coaxing Arthur back to reality. Arthur may have a screw loose, but he hasn’t lost any of his shrewd lawyer chops, so he won’t be swayed easily. Still, Clayton is sure that if he can just get him back on his meds, he’ll come around.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to Clayton, the head of U-North’s legal department (Tilda Swinton) has already lost patience with the situation at hand and enlisted a pair of much more sinister “fixers” to zero in and eliminate the problem (with extreme prejudice).

As the situation becomes more insidiously deadly and the stakes become extremely high, Clayton, ever the compulsive gambler, faces the ultimate moral choice: he could risk his life and do the right thing, or he could play it safe- at the risk of losing his soul.

Gilroy extrapolated on this moral dilemma previously in his screenplay for the 1997 Taylor Hackford film, The Devil’s Advocate, in which he pitted fledgling lawyer Keanu Reeves’ naïve idealism against senior partner Al Pacino’s devilishly Faustian temptations. In Michael Clayton, the situation isn’t so black and white; ethics and principals cast minimal light in this shadowy noir world of boardroom conspiracies.

This film marks Gilroy’s debut as a director. His intelligently constructed screenplays for the Jason Bourne trilogy have all featured refreshingly adult dialog and subtle character nuance that has played no small part in setting those three films apart from the majority of mindless Hollywood action thrillers. That being said, Michael Clayton is not as fast-paced as the Bourne films, but it is no less gripping (and there’s only one explosion!).

In fact, Michael Clayton hearkens back to the kind of films that Sidney Lumet used to make, like the aforementioned Network, and more specifically, The Verdict. I see some parallels between Paul Newman’s brilliantly nuanced turn as the burned out ambulance chaser who gets a chance at redemption in the latter film and Clooney’s equally accomplished performance as the disillusioned Clayton.

I also thought Wilkinson’s character would have felt right at home in the underrated 1979 satire And Justice For All which features Al Pacino’s classic courtroom meltdown (“YOU’RE out of order! HE’S out of order! “We’re ALL out of order…”)

Clooney and Wilkinson both deliver Oscar-caliber performances, and are well-supported by Swinton, who gives depth to a dragon-lady character who would likely have been more cartoonish and one-dimensional in the hands of a less-accomplished actress. I also got a kick out of Sydney Pollack, who gets some choice lines (Pollack co-produced, along with Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella and Clooney). Gilroy has made something you don’t see enough of at the multiplex these days-a film for grown ups.

If it bleeds, it leads: Zodiac ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2007)

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In a deliciously ironic scene in David Fincher’s new crime thriller, Zodiac, San Francisco homicide investigator Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), skulks out of a screening of Dirty Harry. He is appalled at what he sees as Hollywood’s crass exploitation of a real-life case that has consumed his life-the hunt for the notorious and ever-elusive “Zodiac” serial killer, who terrorized the Bay Area for a good part of the 1970’s. (Clint Eastwood’s fictional nemesis in Dirty Harry was a serial killer who taunted the authorities and the media, and referred to himself as “Scorpio”).

That is one of the little touches in Fincher’s multi-layered true crime opus that makes it an instant genre classic. The director has wisely eschewed the Grand Guginol that he slathered on in Se7en for a meticulously detailed etching that is equal parts Michael Mann and Stanley Kubrick, and thoroughly engrossing.

The director’s notorious perfectionism serves the protagonists well-they are all obsessed individuals. The aforementioned Inspector Toschi and his partner Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, making a nice comeback) are the type of dedicated cops that have could have strolled right out of an Ed McBain novel.

A scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Paul Avery, the cocky San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter who follows the case; his “partner” of sorts is the paper’s political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is the first person to connect the dots (thanks to his obsession with cryptograms and puzzles). The nerdy Graysmith eventually becomes the most obsessed “detective”, conducting an independent investigation over two decades.

Fincher has assembled a film that will please true crime buffs and noir fans alike. The combination of location filming, well-chosen period music and Fincher’s OCD-like attention to detail recreates a cinematic vibe that I haven’t experienced since the golden days of Sidney Lumet (think Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico or Prince of the City.)

Borderline cinema: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2006)

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The spirit of Sam Peckinpah lives on (sans slo-mo) in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. First-time director Tommy Lee Jones casts himself as a contemporary Texas cowboy named Pete who befriends a Mexican “vaquero” (the namesake of the movie’s title).

Estrada is an illegal looking for steady work and a brighter future here in the land o’plenty. Jones utilizes flashbacks to illustrate the growing kinship between the two compadres, who bond in the usual “cowboy way”- drinkin’ and whorin’, sleeping under the stars, and reaching a general consensus that A Cowboy’s Life Is The Life For Me (as a great man once sang.) In the key vignette, Estrada confides that, if “something” should ever happen to him, he wishes to be buried in his home town. In half-drunken sentiment, Pete vows to see it through if the unthinkable happens. Guess what happens next?

When Estrada is mysteriously killed, Pete becomes incensed by the indifference of the local authorities, who seem reluctant to investigate. When he learns through the grapevine that his friend was the victim of negligent homicide, thanks to a bone-headed border patrol officer (Barry Pepper), he goes ballistic. He abducts the officer, forces him to dig up the hastily buried Estrada, and informs him that the three amigos are taking a little horseback trip to Mexico (and it ain’t gonna be anything like Weekend at Bernie’s).

Much unpleasantness ensues as the story evolves into a “man on a mission to fulfill an oath” tale…on the surface. Despite the simplistic setup, astute viewers will begin to realize that there is a deeper, mythic subtext; this is one of those films that can sneak up on you.

Although my initial reaction was more visceral than philosophical (I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, it started to feel overlong, and I was repulsed by some of the  graphic scenes) I eventually realized that I had been taken on an Orphic journey;  suddenly it all made sense. The film offers hope that, despite the cynicism that abounds in this world, there is something to be said for holding true to friendship, loyalty and a deep sense of honor.