Crime Thriller

Revenge: A Love Story

REVENGE

2014

Global View Productions

Written and Directed by Thor Moreno

Produced by Annette Duffy, Chris McAninch and Shawn McAninch

One of the fun things about reviewing movies is that every so often I’ll get a knock on my Internet door from a filmmaker who invites me to look at their work and maybe, if I like it, give a review. Sometimes I don’t like it. I wouldn’t care to tell you how many short films I’ve been invited to see the past couple of years where I simply couldn’t finish them. But thankfully I am invited by filmmakers such as Chris Regan and Parker Stanfield whose work I’ve enjoyed and that makes it all worth it for me. I’m happy to add Thor Moreno on that list.

REVENGE: A LOVE STORY is a short film, a crime thriller. It’s a tough, vicious little film about tough, vicious people. Undercover narcotics cop Brad Miller (Adam Meirick) is tired of the game. He wants out and he wants out now. He wants the promotion he was promised and he wants to enjoy life with his long suffering wife (Katie Goebel) who wants to start a family with a husband who keeps regular hours. Unfortunately Brad has a 48K gold-plated prick for a supervisor who tell him flat out the only way Brad is going to get out and get his promotion is if Brad brings him a conviction. Brad’s target is Willie Caesar (Zack Williams) the local crime kingpin.

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Brad maneuvers himself into an invitation with Willie Caesar and moves up in his organization fast. A little too fast if you ask me but considering the short running time of the movie, I’m willing to go with it. Brad’s rapid rise in Caesar’s trust earns him the suspicion of Caesar’s right hand man Nicky (Shawn McAninch) who makes it his business to find out who Brad really is. He does. And that’s when the mayhem begins.

We’re talking about a short film with a 45 minute running time so there’s absolutely no fat on this meat. But despite the short running time, there’s a surprising amount of plot twists and characterization that made me feel as if I’d gotten a full-length movie. Thor Moreno is my kind of filmmaker. He puts the camera in place, puts his actors in front of the camera and lets them do their job. I appreciate any filmmaker who can show me he knows how to use his camera and his actors to tell me a story and that’s exactly what Thor Moreno does here.

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He manages to get a lot of mileage out of a story that may not be wildly inventive or original by virtue of letting the plot take a couple of lefts turns I really didn’t see coming and it’s backed up by an able cast, led by Adam Meirick who is really good. He’s got a Jake Gyllenhaal-ish type of vibe going on here that I really liked. But Shawn McAninch comes awfully close to stealing a couple of scenes right out from under him. Zack Williams brings an old school, 1970’s blaxplotation gusto to his Willie Caesar that’s really fun to watch, especially in a confrontation scene he has with Meirick’s character near the end. Dave Dalton plays one of Nick’s henchmen and he stood out for me because of a scene where he’s creeping through his house with a Samurai sword, looking for an intruder. We see that his house is full of books so maybe he’s not a dumb as he makes out to be. And he pauses to fistbump a picture of Ralph Macchio as The Karate Kid. Don’t ask me why but it’s little touches like that that bring a minor character to life for me. I enjoyed the setting greatly as well. It’s not in an urban ghetto but set in Des Moines, Iowa in an almost rural location and for me that added greatly to the realism of the movie. Crime doesn’t only flourish in big cities but in small towns as well and sometimes it’s worse there is part of the theme of this movie, I think and it’s a theme that gets it’s point across well.

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As I said earlier on, this is a vicious and violent film with a torture scene that had me cringing and was well able to convey the horror of the situation with very little blood and I believe that was because the director and his cast did such a good job of investing me in these characters so that I truly was interested and cared about what happened to them by the time we got to that point. REVENGE: A LOVE STORY is going to premier is at the historic Varsity Theater in Des Moines, Iowa next week. It goes to DVD right after that. It will be on sale at http://www.globalviewproductions.com next month when the site relaunches. Enjoy.

The Family

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2013

EuropaCorp/Relativity Media

Directed by Luc Besson

Executive Producer: Martin Scorsese

Produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Virginie Silla and Tucker Tooley

Written by Tonino Benacquista based on his novel “Malavita”

If you’ve seen the trailer for THE FAMILY then perhaps like me, you were expecting a mob/crime comedy with plenty of laughs and inside jokes at Robert DeNiro’s expense, poking fun at the numerous gangster roles he’s played with able backup from Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones who have made more than a few crime/mob movies themselves and know the genre.  And yes, there are some laughs in THE FAMILY at the beginning of the movie.  But the longer the movie goes on, the fewer the laughs and by the time it gets to the end there’s an appalling no holds barred bloodbath with a platoon of mob hitmen shooting it out with a pair of teenagers wielding automatic weapons like Rambo on his best day while Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer are locked in a hideously vicious fight to the death with a killer roughly the size of Richard Kiel.

Giovanni Maznoni (Robert DeNiro) was once one of the most powerful mob bosses in Brooklyn and as such became a threat to The Boss of Bosses, Don Luchese (Stan Carp) who orders a hit on Maznoni and his family that fails. Giovanni turns snitch and Don Luchese goes to jail.  The Maznoni family enters the Witness Protection Program under the supervision of FBI Special Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and relocated to Normandy, France.

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This assignment is far from being easy duty for Stansfield. In fact, the Maznoni family are a collectively big pain in his ass due to the fact that they simply cannot stop being what they are: a mob family.  Giovanni has…anger management issues, let’s say and he’s easily irritated by such things as his tap water coming out brown and nobody taking it seriously. Wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) doesn’t take kindly to the stereotypical comments that she overhears by pretending she doesn’t speak or understand French. Her response to such is…explosive, shall we say. Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) is a sweet, soft spoken girl who falls in love with a substitute teacher who tutors her in math. She also has a ferociously violent streak that a Klingon would envy. Son Warren (John D’Leo) is a grifter/forger/hustler who in no time at all has his own junior mafia in his new school.

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The situation is complicated by Giovanni writing a tell all book about his life in the mob. A book that both Maggie and Stansfield tell him can never be published. And through a really bizarre coincidence I just couldn’t buy, Don Luchese finds out where the Maznonis are hiding out and sends a hit team to whack ‘em out and that takes us to the blood-soaked final showdown between the mob and the Maznoni family.

Here’s what I liked about THE FAMILY: The performances are first rate but I wouldn’t expect anything less from old pros like DeNiro, Pfeiffer and Jones.  But the kids step up to the plate and hold their own with the seasoned pros.  Dianna Agron I know from “Glee” and I was surprised to see how well she inhabited this character. The movie was actually almost over before I finally remembered where I knew her from. Judging just by this movie I’d say she has a career in movies if she wants it.  John D’Leo is also a lot of fun to watch as he maneuvers his way towards running his school with the finesse and cold-bloodedness of a Michael Corleone.

I also liked how the movie doesn’t have the kids or the wife BMWing about how they want to have a normal life and why can’t they just be a normal family.  This is a mob family who have accepted and embraced their lifestyle.  They’re criminals and they don’t make any excuses for it. For them this is their “normal” life

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The direction by Luc Besson is also first rate as I would expect from the writer/director/producer of some of my favorite action movies such as “Leon: The Professional” “The Fifth Element” the “Transporter” series “Taken” “Taken 2” and “District 13.”  And I think that’s the problem with THE FAMILY. Luc Besson is an action director and he seems uncomfortable with the comedy in this movie which puzzles me as I’ve seen “Angel-A” a couple of times and I know he can do comedy. Maybe what threw me off is the level of violence in THE FAMILY which is really bloody and brutal and really doesn’t mesh well with the comedy. Oh, there are are funny scenes and funny lines, don’t get me wrong. But right after that we’ll get a scene like the one with DeNiro and the plumber.  It’s a scene that would have been more at home in “Goodfellas” or “Casino” than in a movie that is billed as a comedy.

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So should you see THE FAMILY? I say Yes. There’s really nothing wrong with THE FAMILY except for what I feel is an uneven tempo and off center mix of really violent violence with humor.  It’s as if Luc Besson really wanted to make this a full blown thriller but every once in a while an AD poked him with the script and reminded him he had to throw in a joke here and there.

112 minutes

Rated R

Shaft’s Big Score!

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MGM/Warner Bros.

Directed by Gordon Parks

Produced and Written by Ernest Tidyman

There’s no way to accurately describe exactly how much of a huge impact the original “Shaft” had when it hit movie screens back in 1971. I was too young to see it back then but I know that my mother and father went to see it at least three times. And they weren’t the only ones. The original “Shaft” is acknowledged as being one of the true classics of blaxploitation cinema, it’s also simply a damn good urban detective story. And it’s the movie that saved MGM from bankruptcy. Thanks to the direction of Gordon Parks, the legendary soundtrack by Isacc Hayes, the tough, hard-boiled screenplay by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black all wrapped around the slick coolness of Richard Roundtree, “Shaft” is a movie of cultural and cinematic significance that gave the world the first true black action hero.

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SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! Isn’t the same league, unfortunately. Oh, it’s well worth watching and you won’t be wasting your time. It’s just that of the three original “Shaft” movies, it’s the weakest. Both “Shaft” and “Shaft In Africa” are much better stories with better characters and motivations but we’ll deal with that when I get around to reviewing them.

SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! Starts out with John Shaft getting a call in the middle of the night from a friend who’s in trouble. Trouble enough to get the man blown to bits by a bomb in his office. Shaft’s friend had a quarter of a million dollars that was supposed to go toward the building of a child care clinic in Harlem. The money didn’t get blown up so that means that somebody has it and Shaft means to find out who and avenge his friend’s death.

The logical suspect is Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor) who was partnered with the dead man. Kelly’s into some heavy bread he owes mob boss Gus Mascola (Joseph Mascolo) and that missing quarter mil would do the trick. Mascola either wants his money back or fifty percent of Kelly’s numbers racket. In order to get Mascola off his back, Kelly agrees to split his business with Harlem’s mob boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) and then makes the same deal to Mascola to instigate a war between the two. And Shaft’s right in the middle as he has to navigate his way between the two mob bosses looking for the money as well as staying clear of police captain Bollin (Julius W. Harris) who thinks that Shaft knows a lot more than he’s saying since he’s been sleeping with the dead man’s sister.

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SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! has a lot going for it. Richard Roundtree, of course. He’s backed up by the great Julius W. Harris and the even greater Moses Gunn, who reprises his role from the first movie. Drew Bundini Brown is also back as Bumpy’s right-hand man Willy and he and Roundtree exchange some pretty funny insults back and forth. And I like having a black police captain antagonizing Shaft. Both of them are black men but who come from two totally different ways of thinking and doing things.

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Gus Mascola is an interesting bad guy in that I really don’t consider him the bad guy. After all, all he wants is money that he is rightfully owed. Mascola doesn’t believe in violence or threats and behaves like he’s got some sense. Unlike his lieutenant Pascal (Joe Santos) whose first reaction to anything is either a bullet in the head or breaking limbs. The scenes with Mascola conducting his business have some humor to them as while he does so he indulges in his hobbies such as gourmet cooking and clarinet playing.

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But it’s the motivation that is flat. Although we’re told that the dead man is a good friend of Shaft’s, it’s hard to believe that since once the body is toted off to the morgue, it’s all about finding the money. And Shaft doesn’t seem to be all that much in love with the sister. We see him in bed with her briefly at the movie’s start but judging by their later interactions, that must have been a booty call, more or less.

And Johnny Kelly isn’t much of a bad guy, either. He’s a weasel, plain and simple who lies to Bumpy and Mascola to get them to fight each other and hopefully kill each other off. He’s too much of a coward to do his own dirty work and backs down from every man-to-man confrontation but talks tough to and slaps around his girlfriend.

There are some pretty good fight scene and the conclusion involves Shaft in a speedboat being chased by a helicopter. There’s no Isacc Hayes score this time around. But being the Renaissance man that he was, Gordon Parks himself did the score.

As I said earlier, I don’t feel that SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! is anywhere in the same league as “Shaft” or “Shaft In Africa” but it’s entertaining, it’s fun and it’s worth watching.

104 Minutes

Rated R

Jackie Brown

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1997

Miramax Films

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Executive Produced by Elmore Leonard, Bob Weinstein & Harvey Weinstein

Produced by Lawrence Bender

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino based on the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard

My love affair with Pamela Michelle Byrd Grier began way back in 1974 when I saw “Foxy Brown” Never before in the movies or in real life had I seen a woman of such astonishing beauty combined with her effortless confidence and assertiveness. She seemed to possess an energy that came right off the screen at me. I was hypnotized and unable to take my eyes off of her. As I got older and got my hormones under control I began to realize that she actually was a much better actor than she got credit for. And believe me, I’ve studied Pam Grier as I’ve studied few actresses. I have seen every one of her movies since “Foxy Brown” in the theater and those I didn’t I quickly bought on VHS as soon as they were available and then wore out the tapes watching them over and over again. She is truly a legendary talent and one that I’m glad to see has been appreciated in her lifetime. It took quite a while but she has properly been heralded for the great actress she is and no one is more delighted than I am to see her success.

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JACKIE BROWN is just one of the reasons why I give Quentin Tarantino respect. There are black directors highly critical of his depiction of African-Americans in his movies and his use of the word ‘nigger’ which they think is thrown around way too freely by both black and white actors in his movies. Well, I didn’t see any black directors lining up to create movies specifically to give Pam Grier a role worthy of her talent and as for the highly controversial use of the word ‘nigger.’ Okay, it’s like this…in JACKIE BROWN we’re dealing with a character played by Samuel L. Jackson who uses the word just about every chance he gets. Because that is the character. You do a crime movie about a certain breed of criminal and he’s not going to talk like a MIT graduate. I respect a writer/director who respects his characters and is true to their nature and depicts them without the sugar coating or the bullshit of political correctness. Because I’m a big boy and I can take it. The use of the word in the context of the story being told and the character who uses it is doesn’t bother me at all. But if it bothers you then by all means, stay away from JACKIE BROWN. But that would be a shame because then you’d be depriving yourself of some terrific work by an all-star cast of actors in a truly great crime thriller.

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Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant working for a fourth rate Mexican airline. She supplements her income by smuggling money from Mexico to the United States for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) a gun runner working on that one big score which will enable him to retire and spend the rest of his life spending.

Jackie is picked up by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and L.A.P.D. detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) who have had Ordell on their radar from some time. Jackie was ratted out by Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) another one of Ordell’s customers who had been arrested earlier and gave up the information before he could be released by bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster)

Evading an effort by Ordell to kill her, Jackie proposes a plan to Ordell to safely bring in half a million dollars of his money. The plan is going to need the assistance of Ordell’s stoner girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) and Ordell’s former cellmate, Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) who’s just gotten out of jail. Part of the plan involves letting Nicolette and Dargus think that Jackie is double-crossing Ordell, allowing them to use her to arraign a sting. But Jackie has a plan all of her own to double-cross everybody and take the half million for herself. The only catch is that she’s going to need Max’s help to pull it off. Jackie’s pretty sure that Max is half in love with her but will that half help her? And while Max himself is impressed with Jackie’s brains and resourcefulness, he’s not entirely sure himself how far he can trust her. After all, she may have a plan for dealing with him as well.

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The main thing I love about JACKIE BROWN is that everybody in the movie is smart. Well, everybody except for poor Louis. But it’s fun to watch Robert DeNiro play a dimwit because you have to be really smart to play really dumb and Louis is really dumb. So dumb that the only solution he can come up with to shut up a woman who won’t stop talking is to shoot her. But everybody else is really smart and for me that adds to the suspense of the story. If everybody is smart then everybody has an equal chance of figuring out what Jackie is up to and that means she’s got to work twice as hard to be twice as smart if she wants to come out of this alive and with the money.

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There are so many good scenes in this movie there’s no way to list them all but some of my favorites: when Max sees Jackie for the first time and we hear “Natural High” on the soundtrack and it encapsulates perfectly how Max is feeling at that moment. We know the moment he falls in love with her when later on Max is simply watching her smoke a cigarette, wearing a bathrobe and listening to The Delfonics sing “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” that may just be the sexiest moment in the entire movie. The scene where Ordell coaxes Beaumont into being a willing participant in his own murder with the promise of chicken and waffles. Any and every scene between DeNiro and Fonda as they’re all hilarious.

The relationship between Jackie and Max is one that reminds us that Tarantino makes movies for adults and not for demographics. It’s a mature relationship that is defined as much as what is not said as by what is said. As always, Tarantino’s dialog is on point and compelling to listen to. The characters in any Tarantino movie are always worth listening to and JACKIE BROWN is no exception. Robert Forster is solid in his co-starring role and Michael Keaton is always worth watching and he plays Ray Nicolette in another movie based on a Elmore Leonard novel; “Out of Sight”

So should you see JACKIE BROWN? Chances are that if you’re reading this, you already have. If you haven’t seen it by now then chances are you have no interest in seeing it. Fair enough. But for those of us who have been life-long fans of The Filmic Goddess of War, JACKIE BROWN is the crown jewel of Pam Grier’s long and remarkable career and one of the best examples of Quentin Tarantino’s directorial and storytelling talent.

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Rated R

154 minutes

True Confessions

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1981

United Artists

Directed by Ulu Grosbard

Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler

Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn

Based on the novel “True Confessions” by John Gregory Dunn

Hard as it is to believe, Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall have only appeared in one movie together; TRUE CONFESSIONS. “Godfather Part II” doesn’t count because they shared no scenes in that one. That fact really doesn’t have a thing to do with this review. I just threw that in because I could have sworn that DeNiro and Duvall have appeared in more movies together. And it is a shame that they didn’t do more work together. They play brothers in this movie and do an excellent job of convincing me that they are. But DeNiro and Duvall are such great actors they can easily convince me of anything.

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Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert DeNiro) is an ambitious force to be reckoned with in the Los Angeles archdiocese of the 1940’s. His thirst for power is well known but as he directs it into projects beneficial and profitable to the church, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack) allows him free reign. Homicide Detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall) is the older brother who is proud of his younger sibling’s position and influence but worries about the shadier people he gets involved with. In particular one Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning) a major and powerful contractor Desmond has worked closely with. But Tom’s knows Armstrong’s true nature as Tom used to work for Armstrong years ago as a bagman when Armstrong ran a prostitution ring.

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When Tom and his partner (Kenneth McMillan) catch a particularly brutal murder involving a dead prostitute found cut in two in a vacant lot, their investigation leads Tom to think that Armstrong may still be involved in prostitution. Tom follows a very dirty trail that leads him to a porno movie ring and a sleazy director the murdered prostitute worked for.

In the meantime Desmond attempts to cut his ties with Armstrong which isn’t easy. Armstrong’s lawyer (Ed Flanders) warns Desmond that Armstrong is a genie who won’t be put back in the bottle. And to further complicate things, there’s some evidence that Desmond knew the murdered girl. Once Tom finds out he has some hard choices to make. Can he continue to investigate the murder without involving his brother in a scandal that may destroy his career?

TRUE CONFESSIONS isn’t your high octane action thriller. It’s a quiet exploration of a world where deals involving millions of dollars and affecting thousands of lives are made on golf courses and in dimly lit offices. The backrooms and the boardrooms are where the real rulers of Los Angeles work and the Spellacy brothers are right in the middle of a web of corruption and deceit. What I like about the movie is that the script is smart enough to not let the brothers off the hook for their past lies and indiscretions just because they’ve now found out they do have a moral center. Tom’s past as a crooked cop is continually brought up and thrown in his face and Desmond wrestles with a crisis of faith. Is he serving God or his own pride?

It’s easy to think that TRUE CONFESSIONS could be taking place at the same time the stories of “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential” are playing out as it looks that good and the period detail just as authentic. But TRUE CONFESSIONS is more of a character study and dramatic exploration of the corruption infecting the souls of the Spellacy brothers than a hard-boiled mystery. In fact, there’s a surprising moment where Tom confesses to his brother that he really doesn’t care if Armstrong killed the girl or not. There’s another reason he wants to see the man hang and it’s got more to do with the sins Tom helped him commit in the past than any real sense of justice that needs to be served today. And Desmond slowly comes to realize that his true worth to the church is how many dollars he saves, not souls.

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Both Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall are working at the top of their respective games here. DeNiro had just won his Academy Award for “Raging Bull” and Duvall would win one a year later for “Tender Mercies.” The relationship between the two brothers is an interesting one more for what the brothers don’t say to each other when it needs to be said and only comes from their lips years later in a ending scene of such elegant redemption and sadness.

There’s plenty of solid supporting work here. I enjoyed seeing Kenneth McMillan get to play a good cop for a change. Ed Flanders as a lawyer is as dangerously polite and gentle as a razor. Burgess Meredith plays Desmond’s mentor and ironically his fate in the movie turns out to be his protégé’s as well. Look for Dan Hedaya and James Hong in small but pivotal roles.

Charles Durning has a good showcase here of his talents. Armstrong can be jovial and happy-go-lucky one minute. Then it’s as if he flips a mental switch and becomes murderously menacing. Maybe his character did kill that girl. Maybe he didn’t. But he sure has the temperament for it. And look for the scene where he dances at a wedding. My Better In The Dark co-host Tom Deja mentioned to me how impressed he was with Durning’s dancing ability in “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and I suggested he check out this movie just for that scene alone. Durning’s a big man but he seems to become totally weightless when he dances and his face is so full of sheer happiness you can’t help but grin when he does his merry little Irish jig.

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So should you see TRUE CONFESSIONS? If you’re a fan of Robert DeNiro and/or Robert Duvall, yes. If you like murder mysteries set in 1940’s Los Angeles, yes. Just don’t get too involved in wanting to know who done it. TRUE CONFESSIONS is more of a why they done it and how it still affects and resonates with them years later.

Rated R

108 minutes

 

 

The Killer

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1989

Media Asia

Written and Directed by John Woo

Produced by Tsui Hark

Set the WayBack Machine for 1989, Sherman. We’ve got to go back a bit before I get into the meat of this review because it’s important. Trust me.

Even back in 1989 I had a reputation among my friends and family as a movie guy. That’s because I went to the movies two or even three times a week. This is 1989, remember. There is no Netflix, no Hulu, no Internet, no DirecTV, no 500 HD movie channels, no DVD, no Blu-Ray. VHS is king. So I would frequently take in a movie during the week with my buddies after work, maybe go to one by myself and then take Patricia (we’d been married five years by now) on the weekend. Got the picture so far? Good.

In the spring/summer of ’89 I was besieged by friends of mine who constantly asked me had I seen this Hong Kong action movie that was like nothing they had ever seen before and I absolutely had to see this thing as it would change my movie going life forever. Matter of fact, friends were telling me that this movie topped “Die Hard” and I really couldn’t believe that as I thought “Die Hard” was just about the best action movie I’d ever seen in my life up to that point. So I finally decide to go see this movie. Problem is that it’s playing only at one theater; an arthouse cinema on the East Side around 23erd St somewhere and the movie is only showing three times a day. And all those showing are during the early part of the day while I’m working. The first showing was around 11AM or something like that.

Hey, no problem. It’s the warm weather season and I don’t need much of an excuse to play hooky anyway. So I call in sick and determine I’m gonna check out this movie that everything insists I just have to SEE to believe!

I get to the theater, pay for my ticket, go in and I’m surprised to see that at this time of day the theater is packed. I get one of the very few seats remaining, sit back and wait to see what everybody has been telling me is so mollyfoggin’ amazing.

One hundred and eleven minutes later I stumble out of the theater with the rest of the audience as if I’m Moses who’s just seen The Burning Bush. Some of the audience members have seen this movie three, four or even five times already and soon I am engaged in a discussion those other people about the movie. In fact, about a dozen of us become fast friends due to our mutual admiration of movies in general and this movie in particular so we go out to get something to eat and then come back to catch the third and last showing of the day which is even more packed than the first showing to the point that people are standing in the back of the theater or sitting on the floor.

That movie was John Woo’s action masterpiece THE KILLER.

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I only relate all this because I know how much time has passed between then and now and for most of you reading this, you’ve seen so many action movies that you have absolutely no idea of the impact that THE KILLER made when it first came to American theaters. Trust me. THE KILLER was like nothing else we had ever seen. For me, it was my first exposure to John Woo and yes, my movie going life was never the same again.

Master assassin Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) wants out of The Triad and agrees to take one last job in return for his freedom. During the job he accidentally blinds the nightclub singer Jenny (Sally Yeh) while trying to protect her from getting shot. Ironically it’s the muzzle flash from his own gun that blinds her.

Filled with remorse, Ah Jong visits Jennie at the club every night after he blinds her to listen to her sing and they fall in love. She has no idea he’s the reason for her being blind and Ah Jong determines to get enough money to take Jenny to America so that she can have a corneal transplant. In order to get that much money, Ah Jong has to take a high-risk hit. The hit goes bad and during his escape, Ah Jong is identified by a police detective, Li Ying (Danny Lee) who becomes obsessed with capturing Ah Jong. Li Ying is the perfect guy to catch Ah Jong since he’s on thin ice with his bosses who consider him pretty much a wild bull on thin ice anyway. But he has a gift of putting himself in the mindset of criminals and he finds it pretty easy (maybe too easy ) to get into Ah Jong’s head.

Ah Jong has to not only stay out of the gunsights of the police but also his Tong boss Wong Hoi (Shing Fui-On) who has ordered a hit on Ah Jong since his identity has been compromised. What makes THE KILLER so unique is in that Ah Jong’s pursuer Li Ying becomes his closest friend and ally as the both of them discover that they’re mirrors of each other, bound together by similar personal codes of honor and loyalty.

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Even today when I watch THE KILLER I am astounded by the action sequences. The final shootout in the church is the second best shootout I’ve ever seen on film and it’s earned by the fact that when it comes, we’re totally invested in the characters so we care who lives and who dies. THE KILLER has a great story that is both tremendously simple and yet overwhelming complex at the same time. It’s pretty simple why Ah Jong takes on the responsibility of restoring Jenny’s sight. It’s pretty simple why Li Ying comes to admire Ah Jong. What’s not so simple is how these characters have their own agendas that come into play and have to be resolved in blood.

This is the movie that made Chow Yun-Fat a star in this country. He’s got the same kind of badass cool that made Sean Connery, Steve McQueen and James Coburn stars and it’s all there on the screen in this one. I also like Danny Lee a lot because of his character and his acting talent we to see a lot of the Ah Jong character through his eyes as he gets inside the head of his quarry.

And the gunfights…good googlymoogly…us provincials here in America had never seen gunfights like this until John Woo said “Here…let me show you how it should be done.” And he did. Each and every gunfight in THE KILLER is epic. And this is the one that begins the classic. quintessential John Woo standoff with two guys pointing guns in each other’s faces. This one has Ah Jong and Li Ying maintaining the pose that they’re having a nice, quiet and friendly conversation in Jenny’s apartment while she serves them tea. But all the while they’ve got guns on each other. Being blind she can’t see the guns. It’s a scene that’s both hilarious and suspenseful to the max.
john_woo_the_killer__spanSo should you see THE KILLER? Without a doubt, YES.

Mafia

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2011

Levine Pictures/Jamie Kennedy Entertainment

Directed and Written by Ryan Combs

Produced by Phillip Glasser and Brian Hartman

When I first heard about this movie my interest was immediately piqued. A urban crime thriller set in the 1970’s starring Ving Rhames, Pam Grier and Robert Patrick? Why had I not heard about this movie before now? I mean let’s consider the star power involved here for a minute:

Ving Rhames has worked with high octane directors such as Quentin Tarantino, John Woo and John Singleton. He’s proven himself to be an exceptional capable and memorable actor in many movies and I always like to point out to people that besides Tom Cruise, he’s the only other actor to have been in all four “Mission: Impossible” movies. He’s also well known for that incredible moment when he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor back in 1998 and gave his award to Jack Lemmon:

Don’t worry, Ving got a duplicate award later on.

If you’ve known me for any length of time then you know I worship Pam Grier and have ever since I started seeing her movies back in the 1970’s. Her legendary movie career during the 70’s and 80’s has enshrined her as the Queen of Blaxplotation and over the years she’s continued to flourish, demonstrating an acting ability that proved she had a range and talent that has taken her far beyond that period.

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Robert Patrick’s career took off with his role as the T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and just kept on taking off. I really enjoyed him when he joined the cast of “The X-Files” and I actually liked the show a lot better when he was there. So we’re agreed that we’ve got three of the best and most talented actors working today, right? Actors who certainly have no problem finding work, right?

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So what are they doing in a movie like MAFIA?

I highly suspect that Ving Rhames asked Pam Grier and Robert Patrick to do him a favor and co-star in the movie because he’s recently been making quite a few movies with MAFIA’s writer/director Ryan Combs. Movies such as “King of The Avenue” “Caged Animal” and “Animal 2” Ryan Combs is an African-American writer/director I wasn’t aware of until I saw MAFIA and even though this movie doesn’t hit the bullseye I’m sufficiently intrigued by what I saw in MAFIA to check out some of his other movies. And if that was the intention behind having actors like Ving Rhames, Pam Grier and Robert Patrick in this movie then it succeeded.

Set in 1975 the movie recounts the last few days in the career of crime boss Renzo Wes (Ving Rhames) as he sets about obliterating his rival crime bosses. Renzo is in turn being pursued by police detectives James Womack (Pam Grier) and her new partner Jules Dupree (Robert Patrick) Renzo killed Womack’s ex-partner and she’s on a holy rampage to do everything and anything she can to bring him down. Dupree just wants to take it easy as he’s planning on getting married soon and doesn’t want anything going down that will interfere with that. He’s got enough on his plate as his fiancée (Melanie Marden) has told him that her brother is viciously racist.

The turf war escalates, jeopardizing Renzo’s criminal empire and straining his relationship with his right hand man Train (Sean Derry) who is rightly concerned that all the killing is going to bring the cops down on them with both feet. Renzo continues his war against his rivals while being plagued by visions of a chubby little boy holding a yellow toy truck and looking at Renzo with accusing eyes. And are his other visions of him in prison memories or premonitions?

First off, I have no idea why this movie’s title was changed to MAFIA as there is never so much as a mention of that criminal organization in the movie’s entire running time. The original title of “The Consequence of Renzo Wes” is a much better, more original title and fits the tone of the movie much better.

The movie obviously doesn’t have the kind of budget you would think a movie starring these three would have. The 1970’s period flavor is invoked strictly through the cars that are driven along with the appropriate clothing and hairstyles. In particular Pam Grier sports an afro that I would swear is the same one from “Foxy Brown” she used to hide a gun and razor blades in. But the slang used is contemporary (we didn’t say “ya feel me?” back in the 1970’s) and the music used is that fake pseudo 70’s music filmmaker use when they don’t have the budget to pay for the rights to use music and songs from that period. In addition, the city the action takes place in is never named or identified and there’s never any landmarks or anything mentioned or technology (outside of rotary phones) specific to that time period.

With a larger budget and better script, MAFIA could have been more of a notable movie. Combs deliberately films it as if it were a 1970’s exploitation crime thriller and I respond to the sincerity of the intent. But the movie is too laid back and too restrained. It doesn’t have that manic quality true 70’s exploitation B-movies had where you feel as if anything could happen at any time. Renzo has an enforcer who carries two double barreled shotguns who could have been turned into a memorable supporting character but he just stays in the background most of the time. And why is Pam Grier’s character’s first name “James”?

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And this is the main impression I got while watching MAFIA : that the writer hasn’t read any real hardboiled crime/gangster stories or novels and not really all that much of any sort of crime fiction at all. MAFIA feels to me like it was made by somebody who’s simply seen a bunch of 70’s black exploitation movies and said, “yeah, I wanna do that.” The problem is that there’s no heat, no passion in the movie and no originality brought to the story or the characters. This movie really needed a writer who could have fleshed out the thin story, given the characters some dimensions and brought some much needed energy to the plot and make it sing and swing instead of just going from one predictable point to another.

So should you see MAFIA? If you don’t, you won’t be missing a thing. The only actor bringing their A-game to this is Ving Rhames himself. Pam Grier and Robert Patrick stay safely on autopilot for this one. And it’s got a mercifully short running time of 82 minutes so you won’t waste too much time if you do.

Rated R

82 minutes