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Legal download: True crime on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week we make a case for movies about real-life criminals.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: True Crime

It started with THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. It’s continued unabated for over a century: America’s fascination with crime on screen. It’s easy to understand why audiences love to watch criminals — robberies, homicides, and car chases are all intensely cinematic activities — but it’s less obvious why they’re particularly interested in real-life cases. Perhaps knowing the characters existed, and that the incidents we’re witnessing happened, in some form, in our world, heightens the feelings of escapism and enhances our identification with the characters. Whatever the reason, the subjects of these movies often get hard time; your viewing experience watching any of these five films will be significantly easier.

On SundanceNow
CITIZEN GANGSTER (2012)
Directed by Nathan Morlando
$6.99 to rent or stream

The name Edwin Boyd may not mean much to my American readers, but our neighbors to the North know him as the legendary Canadian criminal whose post-World War II bank robbing spree made him a national sensation. This new biopic by writer/director Nathan Morlando imagines Boyd’s life story as a classic Pre-Code era gangster film: Boyd (Scott Speedman) loses his job, turns to crime to support his family, and discovers that larceny gives him an outlet for the theatrical side he barely knew he had (during heists, he disguises himself with his wife’s makeup and tap dances on cashiers’ counters). CITIZEN GANGSTER doesn’t steal the title of best gangster film from the old masters, but it does honor their legacy with strong performances and a similarly bleak portrait of a world in which criminality is the only chance for upward mobility.

On Netflix
BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
Directed by Arthur Penn
Free for streaming plan members

Few movies can claim to have changed the world, but BONNIE AND CLYDE can. It was a foundational film in the New Hollywood era; its success paved the way for many challenging and seemingly uncommercial projects with adult themes and content. It was an incredible word-of-mouth hit; panned by most established critics, it was found by young audiences, who championed the film and turned it into such a massive success that the writers who didn’t get it, like Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, eventually lost their jobs as a result. And the hyper-speed editing in its bloody conclusion by the late Dede Allen anticipate a thousand modern action films. Forty-five years after its premiere, Arthur Penn’s hot-blooded tale of doomed lovers on the run still pulses with unsettling power and intense chemistry between its beautiful leads, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

On Amazon Instant Video
ZODIAC (1967)
Directed by David Fincher
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

David Fincher’s ZODIAC is less about a crime or a criminal than an obsession shared by a small community created when a man (or a woman, I’m not sure we ever really conclusively know for sure) began committing a series of murders around the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and sending taunting, confounding letters and ciphers to police and the media. This definitive and astoundingly cinematic portrait of the case follows several of its key investigators including SFPD Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose amateur interest in the case eventually spawned two exhaustive books on the so-called Zodiac Killer. There are many movies about policemen and serial killers, but most are about the triumph of the righteous and the reinforcement of the status quo within society. ZODIAC, on the other hand, is about how things fall apart: how some stories don’t wrap up neatly by Act Three. Sometimes they go on forever, destroying everyone they touch.

On YouTube
ALPHA DOG (2007)
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
$2.99 to rent

Most true crime films are historical; ALPHA DOG, written and directed by THE NOTEBOOK’s Nick Cassavetes, was about a case that was still ongoing at the time of the movie’s release — a fact that had serious complications for everyone involved. The film itself is an interesting (though not entirely successful) blend of thriller and mockumentary elements (the cast is interviewed on camera in character as if they’re appearing in a documentary). The prosecutors in the real case — a kidnap and murder by young drug dealers — provided Cassavetes and his team with confidential information, hoping that the film would serve as a “great ‘Wanted’ poster” for their missing suspect, Jesse James Hollywood. Ironically, Hollywood — and you couldn’t make that name up if you tried — was captured right as the film was released, prompting his defense attorney’s to argue that ALPHA DOG had tainted the pool of potential jurors (he was later found guilty). The film will probably be remember less for the lawsuits than its impressive young cast: stars Emily Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, and Vincent Kartheiser have all gone on to big things.

On iTunes
THE BANK JOB (2008)
Directed by Roger Donaldson
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase in SD; $3.99 to rent, $14.99 to purchase in HD

This relatively subdued Jason Statham picture — subdued by his standards, which means there’s only, like, four or five fight scenes — involves a real-life London bank robbery from the early 1970s; a gang tunneled into a vault and walked away with millions of pounds in cash and valuables. THE BANK JOB’s fictionalized account posits that the resultant mystery around the crime was the result of a cover-up: allegedly, Statham and his partners discovered incriminating photographs of members of the British Royal Family and government in the vault, and leveraged them to walk away scot-free. Directed by Roger Donaldson (COCKTAIL, SPECIES), THE BANK JOB is a lean B-movie with a twisty narrative of betrayals and reversals and a strong leading man performance from Statham, who’s charming and roguish even if he doesn’t get to beat up as many guys as usual.