by Steve Habrat
The crime drama is a tough genre for a director and screenwriter to take a crack at. The genre is hopelessly enamored by loyalty, honor, and betrayal, all which have been done to death by this point. The last truly refreshing take on the genre was Martin Scorsese’s 2006 gangster epic The Departed, which was a beast of a picture that snagged Best Picture at the Oscars. The following year, director James Gray released We Own the Night, a period crime drama that tried to ride the wave of The Departed. Sadly, We Own the Night doesn’t make a tiny chip in The Departed but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have aspects that one can admire. Slower and tighter, We Own the Night never really becomes a white knuckler due to some clichés that are just unforgivable but this grimy tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law will actually manage to disturb you ever so slightly. The film also boasts a knockout performance from Joaquin Phoenix as nightclub manager Bobby Green, a shaky tough guy who wears the mask of cool like a professional. It is a haunted performance that isn’t easily shaken once you have walked away from We Own the Night and it single handedly makes the film worth your while. If you are not interested in Phoenix, see the film for its kick-in-the-head violence that actually manages to wipe away some of the glamour that Hollywood has attached to onscreen nastiness.
We Own the Night begins in November 1988, on the mean streets of New York City, where crime runs rampant. The law is nearly powerless as the criminals snicker at the police’s futile attempts to clean up the streets. It is in the thick of the crime that we meet Bobby Green (Played by Phoenix), a nightclub manager who enjoys doing blow in the company of his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Played by Eva Mendes). Life is good for Bobby and the future promises to be even better but soon, his father, police Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky (Played by Robert Duvall) and his brother, Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Played by Mark Wahlberg), warn Bobby that the owner of Bobby’s club, Marat Buzhayev (Played by Moni Moshonov), may be involved in smuggling drugs into the United States. After someone close to Bobby is gunned down by a Russian hitman, Bobby decides to become an informant for the police even though he has worked hard to keep his family’s ties to the law a secret. This leads to the capture of Vadim Nezhinski (Played by Alex Veadov), the nephew of Buzhayev. Just when Bobby thinks everything is back to normal, Nezhinski escapes from jail and vows to find Bobby and kill him.
Much heavier on the drama than the thrills, We Own the Night may not please those who are hoping for tons of shoot-em-up action. Sure, there are a few action scenes to speak of, all of which are tense and in your face. A raid on a drug house has some of the most stomach churning violence you are ever likely to see in a mainstream Hollywood film. It is pretty vicious to say the least and I actually liked this aspect of the film. All I will say is that the raid features some truly nasty scenes of people getting shot in the head. Another scene finds Bobby and Amada caught in a terrifying car chase in a heavy downpour. I never thought that a Hollywood car chase would make the hair on my arm stand up but We Own the Night has changed that. It helps that there is absolutely no music to tell us how to feel. It is just gunshots, shattering glass, and screaming, all which fry your nerves relentlessly. It ended up being my favorite sequence in the entire film. The rest of the film is a slow burner, one that hits you with thorny family relations. It is about Bobby trying to mend his relationship with his firm father and his brother who thinks the world of their father. It is these scenes that resonated the most with me, even if I was reminded about other, better crime dramas that dealt with complicated family relations and tensions (I’m looking at your, Godfather).
While aspects of the script may not stand out, the performances cover up some of the familiarity within We Own the Night. Phoenix is the one who really brings his A-game and knocks it out of the park. You are drawn to him from the get go and he refuses to let you pull away. He is almost always silky smooth, even when he is higher than a kite while his father lectures him about his lifestyle. When he explodes into rage, take cover. While he isn’t a cold-blooded gangster, he sure as hell isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Wahlberg plays largely the same role that he did in The Departed but here he is a bit watered down. He is more family man than hothead with a mouth that would make a sailor blush. Duvall is his usual tip-top self, another veteran of the organized crime genre. Here he plays the determined good guy who is a little past his prime. I sometimes think he saw the clumsiness in the script but he rolls with punches gracefully. Mendes is the one without real purpose as she just acts as the sex appeal while the boys all flex the masculine muscle. Then there are the two Russian bad guys who are your typical gangsters who make lots of threats. They won’t make much of an impression on you.
We Own the Night also has some gritty set design and wardrobe detail to really yank you out of the present. We Own the Night does find a nippy chill of unease slowly circling the edges of the action but it never engulfs the film fully. When this film is good, it is really, really good but when it is average, it is really, really average. The film is never flat out bad, but it just stinks of a paint-by-numbers approach. This causes the two-hour runtime to really drag its feet at points, which had me checking my watch one or two times. Still, I was mesmerized by how much dedication Phoenix pours into this project and I applaud him for it. He comes out on top and leaves even the veteran Duvall chewing on his dust. It leaves you wanting so much more from this guy! I really have a hard time understanding why every single crime drama that comes out wants to touch the sky. Only a small handful of them truly do while the rest come close but end up falling hard. With We Own the Night, Gray really tried to run with the big dogs but these mean streets belong to Scorsese and Coppola, two men who really know how to construct a crime drama. Gray is left just re-evaluating his approach to the genre and thinking of more ways to impress the ones who rule this genre with an iron fist.
We Own the Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.