Wrath of Man

Posted on May 6, 2021 at 5:34 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references, pervasive language, and strong violence throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, visceral, bloody violence, many characters injured and killed, lots of blood
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 7, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021

Copyright 2021 MGM
So, some guy applying for a job has to score at least 70 percent on his weapons test gets exactly 70 percent. Now, that could be because he can only hit the bullseye two-thirds of the time. Or it can mean that he is so good he can make it look like he can only hit the bullseye two-thirds of the time. If Jason Statham is playing that guy, you’d be wise to bet on the latter.

Teaming up with Guy Ritchie, writer/director of the film that was a star-maker for both of them, “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” Statham stars as the job applicant who is more than he appears in “Wrath of Man,” based on the French crime drama “Le Convoyeur” (“Cash Truck”). The film features Ritchie favorites: brutally violent lowlife characters who like to steal and don’t mind killing in a time-twisting storyline. Statham is fine, as always, but this is second-tier Ritchie, a faint echo of what made his early films distinctive and surprising.

I’m going to minimize spoilers here, but if you don’t want any, stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.

We will call Statham’s character H. That is what he is dubbed by “Bullet” (Holt McCallany) when he applies for a job as a security guard for a delivery truck service that may carry as much as $15 million a day. We know how dangerous it is because in a pre-credit sequence we saw a robbery where the guards were all killed. So, this is the kind of environment where let’s just say there’s pervasive toxic masculinity (even the woman), a lot of tough talk, macho posturing, and cocky attitude. Part of the fun of Ritchie’s Britain-based crime films has been the delightfully audacious dialogue (remember Brad Pitt’s impenetrable accent in “Snatch”), and maybe it is the American accents or the heightened awareness that make the difference but in this film the insults and bragging are, well, a little dull.

H does not stay low-profile long. Very soon after he is on the job there is a robbery. Among the many un-surprising surprises in the film, one of the toughest-talking, most aggressively competitive security guards turns out to be not very cool under pressure. But we know H because he is played by Jason Statham and he is always cool. He surprises his new colleagues by being very very good with defending their cargo — and defending them. The big boss (Rob Delaney, last seen with Statham in “Hobbs & Shaw“) is very impressed. And the next robbery is even more impressive. Literally all he has to do is show his face, and the would-be robbers run in the other direction. This is what I call the “Who is that chef?” moment, as discussed in my “Under Siege” chapter in my 101 Must-See Movie Moments book. Those are always fun.

And this being Ritchie, now we get some backstory, seeing what happened five months earlier that led to this moment. Given the title, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that revenge is involved. Or that you do not want Jason Statham coming after you.

Chapter titles for the flashbacks add nothing and it is a shame to see Eddie Marsan, another Ritchie regular, and Andy Garcia barely have a chance to make an impression, along with actors who can do much better given the right circumstances, Scott Eastwood, Jeffrey Donovan, and Josh Hartnett. The bang-bang is all well-staged, but it is barely enough to make up for a storyline that thinks it is more innovative than it is.

Parents should know that this film is extremely violent with shoot-outs and explosions, automatic weapons, knives, torture, a lot of spurting blood and other graphic images, and a very sad death. Characters use strong and crude language and misogynistic insults. There is a suggestive situation.

Family discussion: What made H’s team different from Jackson’s? Would you take a job working for Fortico? Why do Terry and the boss have different ideas about how to treat H following the first incident?

If you like this, try: “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “The Transporter”

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Silk Road

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 11:40 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie is drug dealing, offscreen death due to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Law enforcement-related peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 13, 2021
Copyright 2021 Lionsgate

Ross Ulbricht was a libertarian, a follower of Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises who believed that “every action we take outside of government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.” He wanted to change the world. And so he created a website that was like Amazon or eBay except that it operated in the dark web and instead of being a place to buy consumer goods with credit cards it was a place to buy illegal goods, primarily drugs, with untraceable crypto-currency. The website was named for the ancient trading route linking China, India, and Rome. Ulbricht’s screen name was taken from a more modern source, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. He called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts after the character (spoiler alert) who passed his name on to a series of successors to keep the legend alive. And he learned, as so many theoretical libertarians have in the past, that the problem with giving people freedom is that they do things with it you might not approve of, including things that limit the freedom of others.

“Silk Road” is the story of Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) and of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), the FBI agent who tracked him down. Think “The Social Network” crossed with “American Gangster. A sharp, clever, script by Tiller Russell (“Bernie”) and David Kusher and Russell’s dynamic direction make this a gripping rise-and-fall, cat-and-mouse story with vivid and believably flawed characters.

“This story is true,” we are told at the beginning. “Except for what we made up or changed.” So if you want to know what really happened, read Nick Bilton’s book. As far as the Ulbricht side of the story goes, though, it sticks pretty close to what really happened. He was a bright drop-out — we see his father deride him for not following through on anything. But he has big ambitions for changing the world to make it work the way he thought it should, meaning as free from government control as possible. And then he comes up with an idea, combining two ideas — the Tor gateway to the dark web and cryptocurrency, a kind of dark money. He thinks of what he is doing as practically humanitarian, saving consumers from the risks and inconvenience of in-person drug buys. He thinks he is being clever when he leaks information about the Silk Road to a journalist.

You can buy illegal drugs on the internet. But you cannot deliver illegal drugs on the internet. Law enforcement picks up on an unusual uptick in the drugs being shipped. And Ulbricht will learn that one problem of working with crooks is that they are often…untrustworthy.

This is where Bowden comes in, and one of the least accurate but most interesting part of the movie is the contrast between the computer-savvy kid who sets up the Silk Road and the old-school FBI agent who tracks him down. The film cleverly cuts back and forth between them, as in one early moment when they both resort to instructional videos on YouTube for a little help.

Crisply edited and sharply written, “Silk Road” does not ask us to think of Ulbricht as a hero or, as some who have argued for clemency, a dupe. One pre-credit exculpatory claim and another character’s sympathy-provoking motive to break the law may go father than needed in softening the story, but we also get a look at some of the consequences of making illegal drugs freely available. And this is a smart movie about smart people doing some not-smart things and facing the consequences that keeps us absorbed and, probably, making a mental note to stay well on the right side of the law.

Parents should know that this film has some peril and violence including murder for hire that does not happen and a drug-related death. Characters use strong language and there is a non-explicit sexual situation. Themes include criminal behavior and law enforcement.

Family discussion: Do you agree with what happened to Ulbricht and Bowden? How were they alike and how were they different? How do we balance privacy and accountability?

If you like this, try: “The Social Network” and “Brick”

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The Little Things

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:00 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Serial killer crime drama
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 29, 2021
Date Released to DVD: May 4, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
Three Oscar winners cannot save “The Little Things,” a crime thriller that starts out promisingly and about halfway through completely loses its way. It’s almost like the screenplay was created by two different people, or undermined by the director. But John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen”), both wrote and directed, so he is responsible when the story veers into Gothika Rule territory.

It takes place in 1990, and we begin with a pretty young woman driving on the highway and singing along to the Go-Gos as a sinister motorist behind her makes her uncomfortable and then terrified. The first half sets up two mysteries. The first is the realization that the young woman who has been murdered is the victim of a serial killer, expanding and making more urgent the search to find the one responsible. The detective in charge is Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who takes the job very seriously, even personally. “We work for her,” he says about the dead woman.

A lower-level officer named Deke Deacon (Denzel Washington) has been sent to Baxter’s police station to pick up some evidence. The second mystery is why the people there are (mostly) so hostile to him and why a clearly experienced, capable, and dedicated has not risen in rank. “And they say Black guys never return to the scene of the crime,” another detective says with acid in his voice. But the forensic pathologist seems more sympathetic, agreeing to spend some time with him when a delay in making the evidence available keeps him there overnight.

There’s “something like it up north,” Deke says, and soon he and Baxter are beginning to work together to find the killer. “Things probably changed a lot since you left,” says Baxter. “Still gotta catch ’em? Then nothing has really changed that much,” Deke says.

So far, so good. As long as Deke and Baxter are behaving like intelligent, dedicated professionals, the movie holds our interest as a police procedural with intriguing characters. But then Jared Leto enters the picture as suspect Albert Sparma and it all begins to fall apart. Baxter seems to have an inexplicable change of personality with a decision so monumentally stupid and contrary to day one of any kind of law enforcement training not to mention basic common sense that it takes us out of the story.

Meanwhile, what we learn about Deke’s past is not as meaningful as the movie clearly thinks it is, making the story’s primary mystery secondary to the point of almost inconsequential. Washington’s is the only performance that continues to hold our attention as Leto hits one creepy note and stays there and Malek is unable to overcome his character’s inconsistency. More important, the swerve in tone undermines the film’s aspirations for moral complexity. The title of the film refers to the little things that are important to get right, whether you are a killer trying to evade justice or law enforcement trying to achieve it. In the case of this movie, the little things are all right but the big thing, the screenplay, is a mess.

Parents should know that this movie is about a serial killer and it has some grisly and graphic images and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Deke send the package to Baxter? How was that decision tied to his own experience? Why did Flo keep the memento on her keychain?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man” and “Silence of the Lambs”

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American Bar Association: Documentaries about Crimes That Change Lives

Posted on August 3, 2020 at 8:32 pm

The American Bar Association’s magazine has an article about “documentaries that swayed criminal cases.” Documentaries can be a very effective form of journalism, advocacy, or both. One example in the article is Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost Trilogy, three films over a period of fifteen years about three teenage boys accused of the May 1993 murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys. Because the accused boys listened to heavy metal music and had been in trouble for various petty offenses, the prosecution alleged that they killed the young boys as a part of a Satanic ritual. The filmmakers originally assumed that the boys were guilty. One of them confessed. But as they talked to the families of the murdered boys and reviewed the evidence, they concluded that they were not guilty. The documentaries, the attention brought to the case by celebrities including some rock musicians, and the review of DNA evidence that showed no connection between the boys and the murder, led to their being released from prison, though not a full exoneration.

The article also discusses Surviving R. Kelly, which gave women who had been sexually abused by the singer the opportunity to tell their stories. “Days after the premiere, Georgia and Illinois opened criminal investigations and encouraged more victims to come forward. By the next month, Kelly had lost his record deal and been charged by the Cook County state’s attorney in Chicago with sex abuse. In July 2019, he got hit with federal sex abuse charges as well. At press time, he sits in a Chicago jail awaiting trial.” He had managed to avoid responsibility in an earlier trial. The evidence in the documentary provided a path to holding him accountable.

Other documentaries mentioned include The Central Park Five, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and documentary podcasts In the Dark and Serial.

The “documentary” footage taken by amateur observers has had an enormous impact recently, in tragedies like the death of George Floyd and in angry disputes over racist comments and wearing masks. Footage like that will certainly have an increasing impact on criminal and civil cases.

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Courtroom Crime Documentary

The Gentlemen

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 5:47 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language throughout, sexual references and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, overdose
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic violence, guns, poison, arson, many characters injured and killed including young adults
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright 2019 STX

Writer-director Guy Ritchie is back where he belongs. “The Gentlemen” is, like his early films “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” a nasty, twisty, stylish, and darkly comic crime thriller set in England and featuring low-life characters with impenetrable accents. This is a relief after his plodding mis-matches like “Aladdin” and “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword,” though I got a kick out of seeing the poster for his underrated “Man from UNCLE” in this film.

It starts with a bang (a blood-spattered shooting in a pub) and then goes back in time, a story within a story, with Hugh Grant, as someone Ritchie considers even less worthy of respect than murderous, drug-dealing criminals — a sleazy tabloid reporter named Fletcher with a long-lens camera, a friend who can lip-read, and a story he wants to sell for 20 million pounds. Grant himself has had his problems with sleazy tabloid reporters and is clearly enjoying himself tremendously and getting some revenge in the role. His performance is deliciously devastating.

The person he wants to blackmail is Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American expat with a highly successful marijuana growing and distribution business. Pearson is trying to sell the business so he can retire, and is about to close on an offer from another American expat drug dealer, the effete Matthew (“Succession’s” Jeremy Strong). They’re in the stage that business types call due diligence, confirming the valuation of 400 million pounds. Michael has another offer, from a thuggish upstart known as Dry Eye (“Crazy Rich Asians'” Henry Golding). His bid is much lower in cash, but he plans to make up the difference with threats.

All of this is well known by Michael’s closest associate, Ray (Charlie Hunnam). But Fletcher, who has shown up unexpected and uninvited in Ray’s home, is relishing the chance to tell the story, even setting it up as though he is pitching a movie, even providing details of film stock and lenses, which the movie we are watching obediently demonstrates, reminding us of the air quotes that keep the bloodiest parts of the story from getting too bleak.

Michelle Dockery, a long way from Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey,” is also having a lot of fun playing Michael’s wife, as tough as he is or tougher, with a Cockney accent and as sharp as her Louboutin stilettos. You could almost see the Lady Mary of 2020 having the same cooperative arrangement with Michael that the other estate-poor gentry do in the film. Some of the twists are not as twisty as they intend and some of the characters are not as colorful as the movie thinks they are, but it is still a welcome return to what Ritchie does best.

Parents should know that this is a crime drama with extended and very graphic violence, many characters injured and killed including young adults with devastated parents, disturbing images, guns, poison, arson, murder, kidnapping, sexual references, drug dealing and overdose, and constant very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Would you say that there are any good guys in this movie, or at least better guys? Who, and why? What will happen to Michael next?

If you like this, try: “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Get Shorty,” and “Layer Cake”

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