Saturday, May 26, 2012

Movie Reviews-Hustle: Season One, The Tortured, Chronicle

Hustle Season One
This is something I had briefly seen a few excerpts from probably on BBC America a long time back. I ordered the DVD but not gotten around to watching it for whatever reason. But I finally sat down and watched it and I'm glad I did. This is an intelligent little comedic drama set in England, mostly London from what I can tell, about a group of con artists, white collar criminals and grifters who despite being almost thoroughly amoral, eschew violence and usually do not practice their trade on everyday people.

Their first rule is "You can't cheat an honest man". This is somewhat less of a moral commandment-though their leader likes to live by it-than it is a description of the con artist's lifestyle. An honest man is not greedy or looking to hurt people. But a dishonest man is and is thus vulnerable to the group's manipulations and diversionary tactics. As the group's sole woman explains to a new member , "We find people who are looking for something for nothing. And we give them nothing for something". So they especially enjoy sticking it to the high and mighty, the greedy, corporations, those who hurt other people, the violent, etc. However in truly desperate times they don't mind occasionally taking advantage of the honest sheep, though a few of them may feel some guilt about it later on. The show's lead writer, Tony Jordan, said that he saw this group as a five member pseudo-family (husband, wife, grandfather, uncle and child) and this is why in the first season he limited any sense of outside connections.
These hustlers like to play the "long con". This is a con job that may end up with the mark not even knowing he's been ripped off but also requires quite a bit of set up and trust to be gained over a period of time. It's high risk and high stakes-like deliberately mispricing an IPO, selling all your stock at the inflated price and high tailing it out of the country.

Nobody is better at the long con than Michael Stone (Adrian Lester) aka "Mickey Bricks", a legendary con man who just exudes confidence, coolness and charisma. He just completed a prison term for throwing a beating to his (soon to be ex) wife's lover. This was highly atypical for Mickey, who always preaches patience and playing the odds. Now that he's out Mickey is putting his old crew back together. This includes Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister), a technical whiz who also specializes in getting "hit" by cars, Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn), an older American and smooth inside man of the group who is Mickey's mentor, and Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray) the lure, a fast talking smart beautiful woman who is great at research, better at distraction and disguise, and despite telling another character that she does not become intimate with co-workers, shares a room with Mickey and is rumored to be among the reasons Mickey's marriage disintegrated. Albert recruits a brash new addition to the crew, a much younger man named Danny Blue (Marc Warren), who claims to be ready to move from small time grifting to the big leagues. Occasionally Danny's confidence outruns his competence, as Mickey is quick to point out.

This season has a definite Ocean's Eleven or Mission Impossible feel to it as the group does various takedowns of marks, gets extorted into helping perform a bank robbery, takes revenge on a mobster who hurt Albert, scams big time art dealers and even finds the time to make things right with a honest factory owner they inadvertently harmed. The show is odd in that it doesn't mind occasionally breaking the Fourth Wall and freezing time to explain what's going on. You may find this ridiculously fun or just ridiculous. One such occurrence had a full on Broadway song and dance show as Mickey coached Danny on the proper way to appeal to a mark's need. Interestingly enough Lester's appearance in this series was an example of colorblind casting. The producers' original concept was that Mickey was Caucasian but when the producers saw Lester's work they wanted him. Although this is an ensemble cast with everyone getting a chance to shine, it's Lester and to a lesser extent Vaughn, that really make this show work. Bricks has the strongest backstory, one which explains his adamant refusal to live by the rules of society. He's also usually the smartest man in the room and knows it.

You will root for them to win as their marks and opponents are generally pretty horrible people.
If you like movies like The Sting or Contraband you might enjoy this show. They are literally rogues, criminals with hearts of gold. All the same if one of them were to ask you to hold some money for a while, I'd advise against it. Fun stuff and you can learn about a lot of classic scams that are no doubt being run on someone right this instant.
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The Tortured
How far would you go in seeking revenge for the murder of a loved one? A husband, wife, or parent is bad enough but what if it was your child that died? This movie purports to answer that question but is kind of uneven. It zips back and forth between a righteous revenge flick and a movie that asks if the torture being inflicted is indeed justified, since at various times the perpetrators themselves ask that question. It gets to some quite graphic events but the worst stuff is the stuff that is implied. The ending takes you some places you may not have seen coming. Or you may have seen it coming and be really angry about it. I can't call it. YMMV and Caveat Emptor and all that.

Anyway Elise Landry (Erika Christensen-who has evidently grown up since her role in Traffic) and Craig Landry (Jesse Metcalfe) are a Vermont upper middle class couple with a six year old son Benjamin (Thomas Greenwood). Elise is a realtor and Landry is a doctor. One day Elise goes off to work while Craig (evidently his shift doesn't start until much later) stays home to play with Ben. Ben is playing outside. Craig does not notice an idling pickup truck just 20 feet away from his home. He goes inside to get a tool he needs to fix one of Benjamin's toys and just that quick he hears his son screaming. He runs back out to see John Kozlowski (Bill Moseley from The Devil's Rejects) grab Ben and throw him in the truck. Craig is this close to getting his son back but the truck takes off. Craig runs back to get his SUV and follows after the truck but loses it in traffic. This is pretty powerful. Some events are shown in flashback as we see Kozlowski in makeup taunting and threatening the frightened Benjamin. Acting on a tip from someone who heard screams the police knock on Kozlowski's door and enter without warrant when they see bloody clothes but it's too late. Benjamin was possibly molested and already murdered.

The film's best acting comes shortly after this event as the Landrys deal with guilt, fear and anger. Erika can't stop asking her husband why he left their son alone and why he didn't jump on the truck or break the window or DO something, even as she knows Craig has already asked himself all of those questions and repeating them daily is on the verge of destroying the marriage. At the trial it's revealed that Kozlowski is a serial killer. In order to find out where other bodies are buried the prosecutor allows Kozlowski to avoid a life sentence. He gets 25 to life and will be eligible for parole in a little over a decade. The Landrys decide that this is unacceptable and that Kozolowski owes a debt in blood to their son that must be paid. And this is where the movie went off the rails a bit. I could buy that middle class people would feel that way and want to take the law into their own hands.  I could not buy that evidently all by themselves they could arrange split second surveillance and timing that allows them to know when Kozlowski will be transported from jail to prison, follow the truck, hijack it, kidnap their target, take him to a deserted cabin for torture,and do all of this without being spotted, identified by any witnesses or apprehended by law enforcement. There are no hidden reveals when one spouse finds out the other used to do hits for the mob or has friends in nasty government agencies or was trained in Japan by murderous Ninja. Nothing. Just two relatively boring people decide on a plan of action.

Anyway the second act of the film is bloody torture and some surprises. The look of the film is deliberately(?) dark and murky just like the moral lessons. When a child is killed many people like to claim that they would want to make the perpetrator's life hell. This film asks if you could really do that.
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Chronicle
What would you do and how would you live if you had powers and abilities beyond those of other humans? Would you still be the same moral person you are today? Or would you start to find morality somewhat constraining? Would you live and let live or would you make a list and start settling scores? This film investigates this. It signals intelligence by name dropping the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but ultimately it doesn't really live up to what it could have been, perhaps because it's set in a high school. Also the black guy dies first. Again.

Three high school friends, well actually more associates, are in their senior year. Matthew Garetty (Alex Russell) is somewhat popular with his female classmates. Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) is even more popular with everyone as he is running for class president. He's also on the football team. But the last member of the trio isn't popular with anyone. Matt's cousin, Andrew Detmer( Dane DeHaan) is painfully shy and withdrawn. His mother is dying of cancer. Andrew is routinely physically and verbally abused by his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) who drinks up the money that should be used for his wife's medicine. And when Andrew goes to school he's bullied by other classmates and mocked by the cheerleaders. On the way home the local hoodlums like to mess with him. And his constant carrying around of his camera makes people nervous. Macho types invariably think he's trying to record their girlfriends and beat him up. So he's not having a good life.

But one night at a party that his cousin Matt has dragged him to, Andrew, Matt and Steve find an entrance to a cave. It looks more like a crater but the inside appears too regular. They enter and at the bottom find some sort of massive crystal device. Of course they get too close to the device and get nosebleeds, headaches and get nauseous. They leave but over the next few days they discover they're changing. Each of the boys start to show telekinetic powers and some form of immunity to blunt force trauma. At first they use these powers for obvious pranks such as using leaf blowers to look up women's skirts, making teddy bears scare little girls or hitting each other in the head with baseballs, Three Stooges style.

But their powers continue to grow as they test them. One day Steve shows that they can fly. Steve and Matt are content with their powers and decide not to show them off in public. But Andrew has other ideas, especially since he's tired of getting beatings at home and wild with grief over his mother's approaching death. Andrew starts to wonder if this just isn't a new element of evolution and he is thus no longer accountable to humans. His morality should only be his will. Andrew has a lot of bad feelings to work thru and when a Steve arranged tryst with a hot girl goes bad, ending up in further humiliation for the hapless Andrew, his links to Steve and Matt are much reduced.

This was a very entertaining film BUT it would have been so much better I think were it placed in an adult setting. The special effects are superb. They're really good, particularly when one of the trio isn't paying attention while they're flying and almost gets hit by a 747. The SFX are not  Avengers level special effects but they're close enough. The camera work makes you think you're flying. This is not a horror movie but it does make use of a few good horror tropes-ie. someone thought to be dead or unconscious opening their eyes before their opponent is aware. If you really didn't enjoy high school and/or are the sort of person who lies in bed thinking about how you're going to have retribution on all your enemies you might sympathize with Andrew. But the rest of us will just enjoy a fun flick.  TRAILER
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