Grift Magazine

John Kenyon has a spiffy new crime site on the web called Grift Magazine. He has begun a weekly flash fiction feature. Last week it opened with Matthew Funk’s powerful “The Town They Earned,” and this week I’m honored to follow in Matt’s impressive footsteps. Check out the site; I hope you enjoy the tale, but bookmark the page or subscribe to the RSS feed, because great things will be happening here. And writers, John is looking for you to flash him some good fiction.

To my U.K. friends- this is my first story set on your side of the ocean; I hope you like it.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

Harry Potter and the Half-Finished Movie

Let me start by saying that I’m not a fan of the novels. I’ll admit I read the first book on a girl’s recommendation, but I never liked it much; it always felt like schoolkid lit meets P.G. Wodehouse meets vague slapdash fantasy. I’m sure the books have improved with length, as another friend is a fangirl who goes on and on about how great Snape is and how dark the story has gotten. Sadly, the movies mostly feel like Cliff’s Notes to me.
Among film fans the entry directed by Alfonso Cuaron- The Prisoner of Azkaban– is usually regarded as the best. Chris Columbus did a decent job with the early ones. The films have their own look and feel, but there’s just something missing in these later ones. I’m actually glad that the plot involving Voldemort is actually moving, but you don’t even see him in this one. The wizard fight at the end of Order of the Phoenix was fun to watch, and there’s something nearly as good here but it’s badly realized and all too short. It involves seeking a relic that might destroy the ol’ Dark Lord, and Harry and Dumbledore end up in a lake full of scrawny zombies in a crystal cavern. That was somewhat compelling.

I also like how Daniel Radcliffe is making Harry his own. He’s cheekier. After all, the actor’s played the lead in Equus and run around with his wand exposed, the character has come of age and even gets to smooch in this one, he ought to have a bit of the high school rebel in him. But only barely. The story seems to linger way too long on a Quidditch match, which hasn’t been exciting since it was first introduced, and high school romance between Ron, Hermione and respective beaus. Some of this is amusing; in potion class the British actor cum professor du jour is Jim Broadbent, as Slughorn, who shows off a love potion. Wonder if that’ll show up later?

The characters work well but the story is a mess, especially for those of us who haven’t slogged through the tomes. Seems like Draco Malfoy is in league with ol’ No-Nose and his minions like the annoying as hell Helena Bonham Carter, whose characterization of Bellatrix makes me want to make pies out of my own kidneys. Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman once again hold things together, with Maggie Smith barely getting screen time but excellent when she does. We get flashbacks to Li’l Voldy, aka Tom Riddle, played by Ralph Fiennes’ nephew; the kid’s got talent and we’ll be seeing him again I’m sure. But we learn very little. He seems like a bad seed, about as obvious to become history’s greatest monster as Anakin in Attack of the Clones.
We also see a trio of flying black smokes from “Lost” who like to fuck shit up. I think they’re senior Death Eaters. They destroy the Millenium bridge, but as usual the muggle world is completely ignored, which was cute in the beginning, but makes you wonder if Hogwarts has neuralyzer spells to make people forget that three black smoke clouds just murdered hundreds of people. The film’s only interested in it for the special effects. I don’t think anyone even mentions it later. “Hmm, notice that the Death Eaters are waging war on the muggles? Maybe we ought to do sumfin’. Nah, let’s have some Butter Beer.”

I’ve heard wondrous things about the character of Severus Snape from fans, and I love me some Alan Rickman, so I was glad that he gets to do more than appear in drag as a gag in this one. He’s always been the most interesting character, and he consistently gets shafted. Here he’s implemental in the series’ biggest surprise, which director David Yates handles as clumsily as I can imagine. I mean, this is big, I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s face it. In The Empire Strikes Back, even if you’ve seen it a dozen times, the “I am your father” line is obviously important. The equivalent of Snape telling Harry that he boned his mom is given here, but it doesn’t feel like much. I knew what was coming, and it just fell flat. There was a huge tragedy and everyone seems sort of sad, but nothing like you’d expect.
I can’t say I have much hope for the rest of the series, which Yates is dubbed to direct. I kept getting hints of a great story, but the scripts lately seem cobbled together by committee. Perhaps the PG-13 rating of the previous movie hurt sales and they went for this bland high school romance. Thankfully the kids have grown up into their characters and are enjoyable company on-screen as they banter and bicker. That’s the only reason this movie gets an above average rating from me. I saw it for free at a drive-in at the end of a Mini Cooper rally, and I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. No wonder they’re splitting the final book into two movies- if Voldemort doesn’t even show up in this one, they’ve got a lot of fighting to do if this series is going to be over any time soon.

Rating: 3 out of 5 annoying Anglophiles

Wallace and Gromit – A Matter of Loaf and Death

Cracking good toast, Gromit!

I must admit that I love Aardman animation. Wallace and Gromit are two of the great cartoon characters- if you can call claymation a cartoon. A bumbling mad scientist slash glutton of a fellow, and his silent, clever dog, if you haven’t introduced yourself to their adventures– whether it’s rocketing to the moon to mine the green cheese in A Grand Day Out, foiling a jewel thief penguin with robotic pants gone mad in The Wrong Trousers, sheep shearing and propeller plane dogfights in A Close Shave or the lepusthropic gardening hijinks in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit— Nick Park and crew have consistently raised the bar they’ve set for themselves. Even their non-W&G films such as Chicken Run and Flushed Away– the latter using CG animation mimicking their claymation style- they just show how it’s done, when you want an animated film both kids and adults can not only enjoy, but fondly remember.
Sadly, their latest effort, A Matter of Loaf and Death, won’t be coming to theaters. It was broadcast on British television, and isn’t yet on DVD. Clocking in at only half an hour, it was their first release after a fire gutted the studios. It’s worth hunting down, as it lives up to their stellar reputation, and continues the misadventures of hapless Wallace and his lifesaver of a pooch, Gromit.
This time they’re bakers, and 12 other bakers have been found murdered of late. Wouldn’t want to make it a baker’s dozen, would we? At their Top Bun bakery they’re working hard and making the dough, with Wallace’s gadgets helping out- as long as Gromit’s there to save things from going pear-shaped now and then. During a delivery, Wallace saves a Rubenesque gal named Piella when the brakes on her bicycle fail. She has a shy poodle named Fluffles, who is friendly but very concerned. Wallace and Piella – a former pin-up girl for the Bake-o-Lite company- begin a head over heels romance, but Gromit is suspicious, especially when he finds out that her bike’s brakes are just fine….
As usual, Gromit has to save Wallace from peril that he is unaware he’s even in, and the movie references (and the fur) both fly. My only complain is that it’s not long enough; if they’d been able to create their usual feature length story, it would have more of the little touches they’re known for. At 30 minutes, it’s jam-packed and feels a bit rushed at times. They manage to reference everything from The Silence of the Lambs to Aliens, plus all their prior adventures. It gets a bit breathtaking if you try to catch them all. but more importantly, the old wit and charm are both there, and this is a taste of Aardman to hold us over. Until it comes out on DVD, check out their previous films, which are all top-notch.

Ghost Town

This is the first in an installment of shorter reviews of films that really don’t require the in-depth deconstruction of my relentlessly delving mind. They will be called Cable Quickies and NetFlix Q-Picks, and I’ll rate them as awful, worthy, or “enh.”

Ghost Town is Ricky Gervais’s first starring role in a feature film. If you don’t know who Ricky Gervais is, he’s the creator of “The Office” and star of the British version, and same-same of “Extras,” some of the best comedy shows of the last decade. He’s a stand-up comedian of no small stature or talent, and one of the funniest self-effacing comics working. He makes a nastier, less pathetic character for Ghost Town, where he plays Bertram Pincus, a dentist who after a botched colonoscopy, can now see Dead People. Apparently the bug up his ass was disturbed and by the probing, and struck back.
Greg Kinnear plays the other jerk in the film- a cheat who dies while arguing with someone who unintentionally informed his wife of his unfaithful ways. Of course, every other ghost in New York City can also see Ricky, and like Whoopi he can’t get rid of them. This is all fun, but the movie follows a typical rom-com formula when Greg wants to use Pink-ass to sabotage his wife’s relationships, and he of course ends up falling for her. She’s played by Téa Leoni, as tasty-looking and bland as ever. No wonder she married David Duchovny. The movie needed more of Gervais simply conversing with Téa or Kinnear, which for me was the funny part. Scrooge is funny, when he sees the light and turns into Mother Teresa, not so much.

Rating: “Enh”

RockNRolla

Guy Ritchie made two Britmob heist ensemble films- the best I can categorize them at short notice- with Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. After that he got pussywhipped into directing wifey Madonna in a needless remake of Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away, and then made a psychological film called Revolver that most people hated, and I avoided. Now he’s back with RockNRolla, dipping into the rich well of British mobsters, colorful characters, and a story centering on a heist once more. And it works, mostly.
This time he must have watched the classic The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins, for the story is similar- a powerful mobster is on the cusp of a sweet deal with hungry new outsiders, and doesn’t realize just what a big fish in a small pond he is. Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, Michael Clayton) plays Lenny Cole, who is at a unique position to help push huge real estate deals along, with contacts in government, legal offices, the underworld, and everywhere else. “There’s no school like the old school, and I’m the fucking headmaster.”


His right hand man is Archie (Mark Strong, Sunshine) the master of the back-handed slap, razor wit and the man who gets things done. We are introduced to Lenny’s specialty when he sets up and screws over three up and coming street men- One-Two (Gerard Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy). Also known as the Wild Bunch, these fellows are in hock to Lenny for 2 large- as in million, with inflation. So they need cash quick.
In the meanwhile, Lenny is working his deal with Uri of the Russian mob. $7 million for starters. That’s a lot of money to take as deposit, but to show that he trusts Lenny, Uri lends him his lucky painting. Like the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Ritchie decides we’re not to see this painting. It’s strange and beautiful. Things really start going when the picture inevitably disappears, and Lenny sends Archie to find it, at all costs. It’s about time- the movie dragged for the first half hour, but around this point the Wild Bunch also get hired by Stella the slinky accountant (Thandie Newton, yum yum) to hit a money drop, to help assuage their debts.
The heists are the best part of the movie- Ritchie’s sense of humor from having watched so many movies like this makes the scenes hilarious and refreshing. Gerard Butler is hyper and hilarious, rather like Colin Farrell in In Bruges, and that’s a compliment. When they hit a van guarded by two Russian thugs who sit around comparing war scars, I was finally engaged completely. We spend too much time lingering on the not-so-dead Johnny Quid, the Rock & Roller who wants to be a rocknrolla (wiseguy) to keep my interest. He’s not that interesting. The aptly named Wild Bunch and Archie make it all worth it, and Tom Wilkinson lives up to Ritchie’s tradition of bad-ass old mob kingpins like Brick Top.
The story ends like a drawing room mystery when everyone gets together and things get explained, and all the mysteries become clear. I found the end satisfying but it felt lazy. Once again Guy Ritchie crafts a bevy of interesting characters with colorful names and gets them in bloody and humorous situations, but he chooses the least interesting one to lead with, and even announces that he’ll be returning in a sequel at the end. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Archie, Stella and the Wild Bunch but I’m not sure about the others. Heck, even small parts like Tank the info man were better company. Glad Ritchie is back on track, though- this was enjoyable viewing for a fan. If it’s your first film of his, check out his Snatch first.
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Happy-Go-Lucky

Ever met someone so damn happy you wanted to punch them? Pauline- call her Poppy- is one of those people. When we meet her, she has just gotten her bike stolen, and at first she’s crestfallen; then she perks up and says to herself, “I didn’t even get to say goodbye!” and traipses home. And we know exactly what to expect from Poppy. Or do we? Sally Hawkins builds a great character from the whole cloth, someone who seems ditzy and maybe even simple, but Mike Leigh’s latest movie Happy-Go-Lucky gives her great depth, and is immensely more satisfying in its refreshing outlook on life than the banal platitudes of The Curious Crap of Benjamin’s Butthole.
We get a lot of time to get to know Poppy. At first we just see her interact with friends and roommate, drinking and giggling. As we acclimate to her effervescent personality we barely question the clever wordplay she manages to infuse into daily life. Her roommate Zoe is more balanced, with sarcastic asides and an unfazeable demeanor, and it seems they’re perfect for each other. We don’t get a story so much as a slice of Poppy’s life; slowly Leigh peels away the layers, showing her job as a teacher of young children, her relationship with her older sister, and most interestingly, her driving lessons with a man who’s her polar opposite.

Scott, played by comedian Eddie Marsan, is a simmering hotpot of anger, guilt and relentless judgment. Everyone he sees has some failing, which is the first thing on his mind; if one isn’t available, he can predict one. Just as we all know someone like Poppy, we most certainly know someone as angry as Scott; it reminded me painfully of the person I was years ago, the angry young man railing against the apathy, discourtesy, and corruption of the world. He’s immediately funny because he’s a driving instructor with road rage, but as the character Marsan created reveals itself to us, we see him less as a caricature and more as a sad man who cannot be happy.

He teaches her how to drive by naming the mirrors after fallen angels. You’ll be saying En-rah-hay! next time you’re a passenger with someone you’ve seen this with. It’s with Scott, and with an angry boy at Poppy’s school that the story shines. Mike Leigh keeps things real and subtle, but makes the connections clear. As the adage goes, “Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man.” That is the mantra of Michael Apted’s incredicle series of documentaries known as “The Up! Series,” beginning with 7 Up! and following a set of schoolchildren every 7 years, the latest being at age 49. It gives a unique backward perspective of life that says more than Benjamin Button ever could.
Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t have any lessons to hammer in; perhaps it wants us to think back on Jimmy Stewart’s character of Elwood P. Dowd in the ’50s comedy Harvey, where he plays a very happy man who everyone is concerned about because he talks to an invisible 6 foot rabbit. He once said, “My aunt told me, you can be one of two things in life- oh-so-clever, or oh-so-pleasant. For years I tried clever… I’d suggest ‘pleasant.'” Or to put it more succinctly, in Cormac MacCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the old crippled uncle says in a line left out of the movie, “I think by a certain age a person decides whether or not they want to be happy.” Sometimes the choice is harder for us than others; Poppy not only made her choice, but tries to help people around her change their minds on the decision they made years ago, or are about to make, in her student’s case.
Sally Hawkins justly won the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical for her performance, and the boundless energy she channels- with its brief epiphanies, and moments of clarity- is one of the most uplifting experiences in cinema from last year. I’ve been hounded to see Mike Leigh’s Naked and Topsy-Turvy for years, and I’ll be viewing them soon. And why am I so against Benjamin Button? Mostly because I expected better from Fincher, and I’m amazed that it’s even being considered for best picture. And Ben Lyons is championing it, so I can’t let him win.

5 out of 5 En-rah-hays.

The Bank Job

A fine British caper film with gorgeous knockers in the first frame, great suspense and political scandal, brutal mobsters and a solid cast? Sign me up. The Bank Job ain’t a Guy Ritchie film but it could have been; it’s apparently based on events that no one will verify, so if the guy who gave us Bullet Tooth Tony did it, we’d scorn him for coming up with it. The filmmakers claim this is close to the real story, which was put on D-Notice (a gag order) by the government until recently.
The movie begins in the Caribbean, where a beautiful young lady is clandestinely photographed in an orgy with several local gentlemen of a darker complexion. Shortly thereafter, MI5 is in a quandary- they want to prosecute drug kingpin and militant Michael X, but the photos are of a member of the Royal family, and he threatens to release them. What a spot of bother. What’s there to do? Well, we know he’s got them in Lloyd’s of London… but who’d be mad enough to rob it?
Enter Martine (Saffron Burrows), who’s been nicked for smuggling heroin; MI5 makes her a deal, to use her connections to get the contents of one Safety Deposit Box No.118, and all is forgiven. She just happens to have a ruggedly handsome ex-boyfriend named Terry (Jason Statham) who runs a shady used car dealership, but before his car salesman days he knew his way around a heist, and had a little black book in his head full of contacts of an unsavory nature. Or savory nature, if you need a bank knocked over. Terry’s got mob thugs smashing his Jaguar XKE’s because he can’t pay a heavy vig- so like Martine, he’s desperate, and takes the job.


They put together a team of petty criminals ranging from Eddie the mechanic as lookout, to Bambas and Guy, who’ve talents such as rigging infernal lances to cut through steel and tunnelling. They begin work in a building next to the bank, and the heist is on. Directed by Roger Donaldson, whose hit-or-miss career includes turds like Cadillac Man and gems like No Way Out, the film is perfectly serviceable in the manner of classic heist films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, or even Rififi. There’s even a bit of dry British humor that reminded me of The Lavender Hill Mob and The Italian Job (1969). The tension is high, a bobby keeps getting nosy, and their radio transmissions are picked up by a local ham radio operator. They’re into the vault, and faced with piles of wealth. And then it all goes pear-shaped.

Lloyd’s of London was really robbed in 1971, and the criminals’ radios were picked up by a ham radio anorak who notified the police. But the crooks were never caught, and from hereon in, the story tries to tell us why. Martine nabs the contents of Box 118, and they split up the rest of the cash, bonds and jewelry, but not before her compatriots get suspicious. And it’s not just the Royal girl in flagrante delicto that’s in the photographs they find: Politicians at a pricey brothel getting whipped with their naughty bits showing. And more dangerously, the local mob kingpin’s little black book of payoffs to high-ranking officials in law enforcement.

When the mob realizes they’ve been hit, all hell breaks loose. If you’ve seen The Krays and Gangster No.1, you’ll be prepared for the brutality of Vogel the mob boss. He has uses for a sandblaster that will leave you chills for long after the film is over. Can Martine and Terry find an angle to play and keep themselves alive? The ending is a bit too convenient, but it’s exciting enough that I was satisfied. The film manages to take a distasteful premise and keep it discreet enough that we’re tantalized without feeling titillated. And since they claim the photos are of Princess Margaret, all she can do is spin in her grave, if one more rumor of a liaison would upset her.

The Bank Job is a solid thriller and reminds us that Jason Statham can perform just fine outside of over-the-top stuff like Crank and The Transporter. As much as I enjoy great trash like The Transporter, he’ll always be Turkish to me, and seeing him run a heist was satisfying. The rest of the cast is excellent, from the arrogant Michael X to the brutal Vogel. Perhaps it needed a showier title, as if Guy Ritchie had directed it, to get the attention it deserved. Catch it on a rental, it’s satisfying entertainment.

4 naughty pictures out of 5
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