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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 Was an Epic Year for Crime Dramas


It was an epic year for crime dramas

Cincinnati CityBeat, 12-22-10
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Any short list of Best American Movies would include Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films from the early 1970s, maybe as a single entry. Using the world of crime for its potential to offer great drama and action through interlocking narrative, they also serve well as knife-sharp metaphor for the political and economic rot underneath the nave American Dream — they are deserved masterpieces. Epics, even.

So maybe it’s not surprising, then, that Hollywood rarely if ever tries to equal that achievement, anymore. Coppola certainly failed with 1990’s Godfather, Part III. The kind of complexity and real-world relevancy is just too hard — and maybe too, well, challenging for today’s American movie audiences.

And yet 2010 was a year filled with attempts to make “crime epics” worthy of the first two Godfathers’ ambitions and acting levels, if not always with the same kind of resources available to realize the vision of Coppola’s classics. But they’ve moved beyond the American dream — these new attempts often come from abroad and play the art-house circuit. And, increasingly, they’re being made for television. Two great American examples — Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire — are on cable channels. The British Red Riding trilogy, while released to theaters and video-on-demand in the U.S., started life as a television project.

French director Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is the fact-based story of the Venezuela-born terrorist/revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez who committed violent acts on behalf of radical groups the world over, including the brazen 1975 kidnapping of OPEC ministers at a meeting in Vienna. It already has played in the U.S. as a Sundance Channel miniseries. A shortened version that still packs a wallop is now available on video-on-demand and in some theaters, and gives Edgar Ramirez a showcase for acting.

Jacques Mesrine was a notorious, egotistical French criminal who had delusions that his crimes — bank robberies, kidnapping, prison escapes — in some way constituted revolutionary acts. Before French authorities finally ambushed and killed him in 1979, he seemed invincible. In the four-hour biopic Mesrine (divided into two separate films, which played here briefly) directed by Jean-Francois Richet (and based on the criminal’s own autobiography), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) as Mesrine shows swagger, passion and the sexiness, but also cold-hearted cruelty and volatility.

Ajami, an Israeli film that played here briefly, locks together separate stories about Arab and Jewish residents of Tel Aviv/Jaffa, showing its characters’ interconnectedness. It starts with a drive-by shooting in a gritty Arab neighborhood called Ajami, a payback for another shooting, and from there builds as the various parties become ensnared in both the problems of a criminal underworld and the society at-large.

Set in Melbourne, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom — an almost-hit on the art-house circuit — features a family of low-life criminals ruled by a deceptively cheery matriarch played memorable by Jacki Weaver. Living in a suburban-style home, at war with a corrupt police force but by no means an honorable alternative, they are deromanticized and made ordinary by this film. Their world seems like ours, which makes them all the more relevant. And horrifying.

The British Red Riding trilogy, an adaptation of novels by David Peace, made it to American video-on-demand as well as a few art houses (not here) this year and is now on DVD. Consisting of three separate but interrelated movies by three directors, it’s set in the era of the real-life Yorkshire Ripper serial killer — 1970s to early 1980s. But the trilogy is far more concerned with a corrupt, murderous police force that sees the Ripper as a nuisance at most. The trilogy boils over with the atmospheric rot and bleakness of a crumbling urban society.

Ever since The Sopranos, there’s been recognition that American cable-TV series about gangsters can, given the time to burrow deep into their settings and develop their characters, provide profound commentary on the American experience.

So far, one great post-Sopranos crime series has emerged — AMC’s Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, which finished its third season this year. But rather than occurring in a Mafia-laden New Jersey, it takes place in the bright, sunny Southwest, the land of growth and promise. An Albuquerque chemistry teacher stricken with lung cancer and distraught over medical bills, resorts to making the best meth possible to support his family. Bryan Cranston has won three Emmys as that teacher, Walter White, and the series has followed as he slowly travels ever deeper into a world of evil he struggles to stay above. It’s a slow, transfixing Dostoyevskian journey.

Boardwalk Empire, an HBO series that just completed its first season, is set in the wide-open Atlantic City of the Prohibition Era and is modeled on the life of a historical figure, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who got rich making sure booze stayed plentiful in that resort town. As played by Steve Buscemi with estimable range and subtlety, the somewhat-fictionalized “Nucky” is the city’s treasurer and undisputed political boss.

Created by Sopranos writer Terence Winter, Boardwalk’s ambition is to place crime (and greed) front and center as a shaping force of the 20th-century American character, and to show how politics, urban development, personal relationships, entertainment — wealth — depend on it. With a sizeable production budget and a Ragtime-like sensibility for mixing real-life figures (Warren Harding, Sophie Tucker, Al Capone, the Chicago Black Sox) with literary creations, it aims to be a genuine crime epic.

So while we wait for more mainstream American movies to pick up the Godfathers’ mantle and carry it, just look elsewhere. You’ll see it’s been a good year for these kinds of filmed stories. They’re just not often at the multiplex.
(Film still from Carlos)

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