Tag Archives: Gangster

CAPSULE: CHI-RAQ (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, , Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney

PLOT: A modern adaptation of the Classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes set against the backdrop of gun violence in Chicago: the girlfriend of a gang leader starts a movement with other women to withhold sex from men until the violence comes to an end.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It may appear to be weirder than most of Spike Lee’s recent output, but it’s actually a refinement of stuff from his directorial toolbox, and the subject matter is too grounded in reality to call the approach ‘weird’.

COMMENTS: [Full disclosure: I have worked with co-writer Kevin Willmott on several of his films.]

Amazon Studios couldn’t have picked a better subject as the first production out of the gate. Chi-Raq is timely, guaranteed to start discussion, and it provides Spike Lee an opportunity that hasn’t been available to him for awhile: it’s his angriest film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Not that he’s been inactive as of late, but most of his vital work in the 00’s has been in documentary, theater and independently financed features (Red Hook Summer and the crowdfunded for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), while the major studios are more interested in steering his talents towards existing properties (the Oldboy remake).

Chi-Raq was originally developed as Gotta Give It Up, written by Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) as a ‘hip-hop musical’ with Jennifer Lopez eyed for the Lystristrata role. That project wasn’t made, but the idea was resurrected and retooled as Chi-Raq, and just as elements found in previous Lee films show up refined and evolved (Do the Right Thing, School Daze), one can recognize the same in Wilmott’s script (co-written with Lee): the complex interrelations of a community (Ninth Street), satire both slapstick and subtle (C.S.A., Destination Planet Negro) and the sense of history that’s present throughout Willmott’s work. Their sensibilities prove to be a good match for each other and for the material, and one can only hope that their collaboration will bear further fruit.

Satire works best when it’s pointed and angry; Chi-Raq proves that. Its major targets are guns and gun violence in America, specifically in neighborhoods on Chicago’s South-Side, and it’s not subtle at all on that subject. It opens with the song “Pray 4 My City” playing over a red/white/blue graphic of the USA comprised of various calibers of guns, followed by a flashing “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” graphic,  followed by statistics of deaths in Iraq vs. gun deaths in Chicago. Gun violence is a constant presence in the film, and it takes it VERY seriously. The subplot involving Jennifer Hudson’s daughter’s death and the search for her killer ground the film in a reality that the lighter touches never obscure.

Obviously, the satirical touches are more pronounced in the main story, mainly concerning sex and power. One could see it as a modern-day version of one of Chester Hines’ Harlem novels (Hines, in fact, did pen a ribald sex satire, “Pinktoes” that perhaps Messrs. Lee and Willmott might take on at some point). Although the “hip-hop musical” angle largely went by the wayside, some of it survives in live performances: a rap gig at a nightclub, gospel singers at a funeral service. The musical element reaches its apotheosis in “Operation Hot & Bothered” where the police & military attempt to draw out the women via tactics used in Panama, only instead of blasting rock music, they use “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites as the film cross-cuts between the women holding their chaste resolve inside and the military outside.

Performances are very good all the way around, although John Cusack was cheated of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Father Mike Corrigan (based on real-life preacher/activist Father Michael Pfleger).

The film was first made available to stream from Amazon, where it can still be streamed; after a brief theatrical run, it was released to DVD/Blu-Ray in late January 2016. One advantage in the home video release is the availability of subtitles, which helps in appreciating Willmott’s and Lee’s wordplay. Also, being able to pause the film helps in catching some of the visual humor in the settings.

Extended and deleted scenes, mostly character bits that weren’t essential, but help clarify some relationships, are included as extras.

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: POINT BLANK (1967)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Angie Dickinson, , Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bochner, Carol O’Connor, Sharon Acker

PLOT: Walker is shot and left for dead by his partner during a heist; he survives, and returns to demand “the Organization” gives him back the $93,000 that was taken from him.

Still from Point Blank (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Point Blank is pretty strange for a gangster revenge movie, but although it experiments with impressionistic techniques, it’s not too much more daring or avant-garde than other big budget arthouse films of the period (say, Midnight Cowboy). Compare this to Branded to Kill, another 1967 release featuring a lone mobster facing off against a criminal organization, to see why Point Blank doesn’t quite muster the necessary weirdness to crack the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: With its fractured narrative and obscure feel, John Boorman’s second film, the revenge thriller Point Blank, was too ahead-of-its-time to be a hit even in freewheeling 1967. Although its critical reputation has grown enormously since its release, the movie has sadly been overlooked by the average cinephile even today. Point Blank is influenced by the French New Wave, not in terms of technique—everything looks slick and polished rather than rough and handmade—but by the spirit of reinventing genre pictures and investing them with existential ambiguity. Yet, it also remains true to Hollywood tough-guy antihero mythology, while amping up the sex and violence to then-shocking levels. It’s non-linear and confusingly told with flashbacks, memories and what could be dreams, but it’s really only disorienting in the six minute pre-credits opening where Lee Marvin’s betrayed and robbed Walker lies bleeding after being shot at point blank range. After that the movie quickly settles into a very clear and direct structure where Walker hunts down a mobster, asks for his money, kills him when he refuses, then sets his sights on the dead man’s direct superior, slaying his way up the ladder looking for someone with authority to cut him a $93,000 check.

Lee Marvin’s square-jawed squareness has never been put to cooler use than in Point Blank. Utilizing a vocabulary smaller than Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, he’s relentless and unflappable, standing like a rock while Angie Dickinson unleashes a fury of blows against him, then wordlessly turning on the TV when she collapses into an exhausted heap. Marvin even makes a tangerine shirt with a brown tweed jacket look hip. For fun, chart the number of people Walker actually kills versus the ones whom he simply manipulates into doing themselves in. Yet, as cool and mechanical as he is, Walker works as a character because he’s obsessed—the irrational way he barges into his wife’s apartment and unloads his gun into an empty bed in blind hope that her lover would be lying there tells us all we need to know about the sanity of his mission.

There are plenty of subtle dreamlike suggestions that what appears to be happening may not really be so, from the unnaturally stylized color schemes (the gray-on-gray of the compromised marital bedroom) to a mysteriously disappearing corpse. The mysterious Yost, who shows up with clues when needed and who is willing to help Walker against “the Organization” for unspecified reasons, adds another layer of suspicion. The script is cagey about Walker’s ultimate fate, but in the story he functions as a revenant: a remorseless spirit that can’t be killed, returned to satisfy a debt. Walker is inhuman in his single-mindedness, but we root for him nonetheless. There is something quintessentially American in his struggle against a bureaucratic mafia for his slice of the pie—more as a point of personal honor than for the pie itself. Point Blank is packed with classic style and star power, and has the perfect ratio of arthouse cool to gritty action.

Point Blank and the 1999 Mel Gibson feature Payback were both based on Donald Westlake’s novel “The Hunter.” John Boorman recalls that he and Lee Marvin loved the character of Walker, but hated the original treatment, and had the screenplay extensively rewritten. Boorman was not a fan of Gibson’s version of the story. “The script that he shot very much resembled the script that Lee Marvin threw out the window,” he quipped on the DVD commentary.

Point Blank was released on Blu-ray in July 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lee Marvin makes a perfect, unfazed human center to John Boorman’s bizarre, psychedelic universe in Point Blank.”–Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by PinstripeHourglass, who noted, “It’s not surrealistic weird, but it’s weird. Subtly weird, but very weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marie-France Pisier, Alain Robbe-Grillet

PLOT: A director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself) pitches a complicated story about a cocaine smuggling caper to a producer during a train ride, and the audience watches the results play out, revisions and all.

Still from Trans-Europ-Express (1967)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The second film from novelist-turned-director Alain Robbe-Grillet is a pioneering work of cinematic meta-fiction that prefigures the work of (among others) by putting a fictional author inside of the movie, one who supposedly writes the script in real time as we watch. Sometimes the story backtracks on itself, erasing old plot points or creating alternative scenarios. To make things even stranger, the protagonist of the movie-inside-the-movie is obsessed with bondage, and begins a relationship with an elegant prostitute who may help him fulfill his most excessive fantasies.

COMMENTS: Sitting on the Trans-Europ-Express from Paris to Antwerp, a director tells his producer that they should set a movie on this train; they decide it should be about drug smuggling. A man, who we’ve previously seen buying a suitcase to smuggle cocaine, walks into their compartment. The producer and director are invisible to him; he only sees the script girl. When he leaves almost immediately, the director comments “is he crazy?” “Didn’t you recognize him?,” asks the producer. “It’s Trintignant. What about using him in your film?” They then do proceed to use Trintigant in their film treatment. The story they concoct on the fly sends him to an Antwerp where everyone is an operative working for the local cartel or a detective, and where he is sent on an increasingly Byzantine series of rendezvous to prove his worth and obscure his tracks. Along the way he begins a relationship with the prostitute Eva, with whom he indulges his strangling fetish. After a series of double crosses and betrayals which are nearly impossible to sort out, because the director keeps rewriting the script, it all ends in tragedy at “Eve’s Witchcraft Cabaret,” a bondage-themed club with a naked girl chained to a rotating stage.

Despite the dark themes, Trans-Europ-Express is actually a comedy, though in a high-minded, very French way—more “witty” than “funny.” The movie’s abstract, Cubist twists on gangster scenarios recall ‘s crazy yakuza film Branded to Kill, also from 1967. Although it deconstructs the conventions of a genre picture in similar fashion to ‘s 1960 Breathless, the light touch and playfulness keeps Express from feeling as ponderous and self-important as the works of some of Robbe-Grillet’s New Wave contemporaries. At the same time, the movie’s perverse sexuality, related to the subconscious desires of Surrealism, ventures further into the forbidden than his contemporaries dared. Express‘ scenes of sexual strangulation, implied rape and even nudity were considered pretty hot stuff at the time, although they will look tame through jaded modern eyes.

Robbe-Grillet began his career as an experimental novelist, helping to found the avant-garde “nouvelle roman” genre. He turned to cinema after co-writing the script forLast Year at Marienbad with . Trans-Europ-Express was his second film as director. The Kino sub-label Redemption began releasing Robbe-Grillet’s neglected films, some of which have never been on DVD before, in 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The result is both a pure example of narrative deconstruction – with some genuinely absurd moments – and a pretty weird experience for the viewer…”–Johnathan Dawson, Senses of Cinema

CAPSULE: BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT (1998)

Crna Macka, Beli Macor

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florijan Ajdini, Srdan Todorovic, Bajram Severdzan, Branka Katic

PLOT: Dadan, a local gangster, promises to release Matko’s debts if he will marry his son to Dadan’s sister.

Still from Black Cat, White Cat (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great movie, but we have to make our way down a long list of more appropriate adjectives—eccentric, madcap, farcical, etc.—before we get to “weird” as a way to describe it.

COMMENTS: Black Cat, White Cat is almost Shakespearean in its comedic plot: you have two sets of young lovers and a horde of older, money-obsessed fools whose scheming complicates the youngsters’ chances for happiness. Set in a village on the banks of the muddy Danube, the main plot is set into motion by 17-year old Zare’s father, the irresponsible Matko, who hatches a harebrained scheme to try to steal several train cars loaded with gasoline—a caper which requires the assistance of not one, but two sets of gangsters. Things predictably go awry, leading Matko to promise Zare’s hand in marriage to coke-addled Dadan’s short and shrewish sister, Ladybird. But Zare is in love with a feisty barmaid, while Ladybird refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love; Dadan, however, insists that his family honor requires Ladybird’s marriage, and is intent on staging the nuptials at gunpoint, if need be. This leads to a festive but awkward gypsy wedding that is further complicated by a corpse on ice in the attic and a pending visit from a more powerful mobster. Quirky characters abound, from the crime boss with bad teeth and a love of Casablanca to Zare’s thoughtful grandfather, who figures that his own demise may save his grandson from his no-good father, but it’s Srdan Todorovic who dominates as Dadan. With an open-necked shirt revealing his gold chains, a pair of live-in groupies, and a crucifix filled with cocaine, Dadan seems to have stepped out of a Seventies disco movie: Serbian Night Fever. Amped up on nose candy, he constantly pumps his fists from nervous energy, sometimes to a thundering beat that echoes only inside his own coked-out skull. He’s also fond of firing automatic weapons into the air and juggling hand grenades for sport, so despite his ridiculous appearance, he’s not the kind of guy you want to trifle with. A bride disguised as a tree stump and a booby-trapped outhouse provide slapstick interludes. There are a few weird touches here, as well, such as dead people coming back to life, a thoughtful grandson who brings a seven piece band to visit his sick grandpa, and a pig who inexplicably eats a car. With a small town’s worth of Eastern European eccentrics, a knotty romantic plot and grotesque and vulgar comic details (like the woman who pulls nails from a board with her clenched buttocks), Black Cat, White Cat is an amphetamine rush that never lets up. Thick and spicy as goulash, it’s the kind of script Leonard Elmore might have written if he’s been born a Bosnian gypsy.

Stung by politically-motivated criticism of his previous movie, Underground (1995), Emir Kusturica had publicly announced his retirement from filmmaking. He changed his mind to start working on a documentary about gypsy music, a project he never completed but which sparked the idea for the story that became Black Cat, White Cat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mad scramble through the Felliniesque realm of Mr. Kusturica’s imagination, and it proves nothing if not this much: give this man the Danube, gypsy musicians and a camera and you’ve got a party.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dr D, who described it as a “joyously insane gangster-wedding-crime movie!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

147. KEYHOLE (2011)

“…a ghost sonata in which dream and waking life are seamlessly blended to isolate and expose universal feelings.”–description from the Keyhole press kit

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , , David Wontner, Brooke Palsson, Udo Kier

PLOT: A group of gangsters rendezvous at a large old house filled with ghosts, bringing a kidnapped man tied to a chair with them. They meet with their leader, Ulysses Pick, who arrives carrying an unconscious woman on his back. As the mobsters wait in the parlor, Ulysses travels through the house with the woman and the kidnapped man, trying to reach the upstairs chamber where his wife awaits him with her father and her lover.

Still from Keyhole (2011)

BACKGROUND:

  • Guy Maddin lists the Bowery Boys’ Spooks Run Wild, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space,” and Homer’s “The Odyssey” (or, as he once joked at a screening, Ulysses’ Wikipedia page) as among the influences on Keyhole.
  • This is the director’s first film shot on digital video. Because Maddin’s style is to evoke the look and feel of old movies, the use of actual film stock has been important to him in the past to achieve an authentic period look.
  • Maddin wrote the part of Ulysses Pick with Jason Patric in mind.
  • According to the director Ulysses’ son Manners is named after David Manners, a “bland” (Maddin’s word) Canadian lead in 1930s horror films (Manners played John Harker in Dracula, among other roles).
  • Maddin wanted to use music by Bernard Hermann for the score but could not afford the rights to license the music. Jason Staczek wrote an original soundtrack for the film instead.
  • Keyhole was one of two movies selected as among the best weird movies of all time in 366 Weird Movies 4th Reader’s Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately, the image you will not be able to get out of your mind is Louis Negin’s wrinkly nudity. Negin plays Calypso, the aged father of Ulysses’ wife Hyacinth, who is chained to his daughter’s bed—naked. His chain is long enough that he is able to walk around the house where, in invisible spirit form, he sometimes whips the assembled gangsters, including one memorable moment when he flogs a mugging mobster played by “Kids in the Hall” alum Kevin McDonald as the gunman is fornicating with the ghost of a maid while she scrubs the floor.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: All of Guy Maddin’s movies are dreams, but Keyhole isn’t just a dream, it’s a dream of a ghost. An amnesiac ghost, with deep psychological issues, who finds that extracting strands of his wife’s hair from a keyhole unlocks buried memories of family tragedies. Hazy double images, avant garde editing, and unexpected color intrusions supply the visual weirdness Maddinites have come to expect and treasure, and the bizarre collision of gangsters and ghosts does the rest.


Original trailer for Keyhole

COMMENTS: Memory is sacred to Guy Maddin; his movies are always about remembering. Sometimes the connection to memory is explicit. Continue reading 147. KEYHOLE (2011)

LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , Louis Negin, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Udo Kier

PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is

Still from Keyhole (2011)

hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.

COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)