Low Tide (2019)


Summer is a time for Springsteen.

(2019) Drama (A24Jaeden Martell, Keean Johnson, Shea Whigham, Alex Neustaedter, Daniel Zoghadri, Kristine Froseth, Mike Hodge, Michael David Baldwin, Danny Bolero, Teddy Coluca, Albert Dubinski, Khail Bryant, James Paxton, Arial Eliaz, Camila Perez, Jean Tucker, Dave Lach, Elisa de la Roche, Sunny Edelman, Devon Moyd, April Mauger. Directed by Kevin McMullin

 

When it coms to our formative years, we have a tendency to either overly romanticize or overly criticize. When it comes to making movies about that time in our lives, the balance leans heavily towards the former.

The Jersey shore as the 80s are becoming the 90s isn’t necessarily an idyllic life. While the town is a bit of a postcard, the lives being lived without it are not. Brothers Alan (Johnson) and Peter (Martell) are largely on their own over the summer; their mother passed away years earlier and their father is literally out to sea; he’s a long-liner whose fishing trip lasts essentially the entire summer. The two boys are on their own.

As boys on their own will do, they fall in with the wrong crowd. Red (Neustaedter) is a sociopath, prone to violent outposts and ruling his little group with fear and intimidation. Smitty (Zoghadri) is a slippery character, the kind of guy who’d sell out his own mother if there was a percentage in it for him. Alan, Red and Smitty have taken to robbing the summer homes of “Bennies,” their derogatory name for upscale tourists vacationing in their quaint hamlet. Why do they do it? Boredom, likely; it also provides a cheap source of alcohol and drugs which they also take along with whatever trinkets they can fence.

On one job, their usual lookout Smitty breaks his leg in a clumsy fall and puts the burglary shenanigans on the back-burner for a while. Alan meets Mary (Froseth), a pretty summer Bennie whom he wants desperately to impress. Peter, who earns a little extra income by selling fish at the dock, is a Boy Scout with a future ahead of him. Then, Red convinces his crew to pull one last robbery with Peter substituting for Smitty. At this house, Peter and Alan find something they didn’t expect; a bag of vintage Doubloons that are worth a fortune. Deciding to keep it from the volatile Red who would likely take the bulk of the coins for himself, especially after Red deserts Peter and Alan leading to Alan getting caught by the local sheriff (Whigham) although he keeps that a secret from Red, knowing Red would go ballistic if he thought for even a second that Alan had spoken to the cops.

Peter buries the coins but not before Alan pawns enough of them to buy himself a car, the better to impress Mary with. Peter is aghast, knowing that this will draw attention to them – and of course, it does. Now the crew is eating its own young and nobody trusts anybody – and Red is a ticking time bomb who might just resort to murder if he suspects any of his friends might betray him.

It seems to me that movies with this kind of setting almost lens themselves; the cinematography is definitely a highlight here. It is counterbalanced (and not in a good way) by the score which is just annoying and weak. McMullin does a pretty decent job of establishing time and place with the strategic use of Bon Jovi on the soundtrack.

Fortunately, the cast is much better than one would expect. There is a great deal of chemistry between the leads and there is a naturalism to their performances that is quite charming. Martell and Johnson in particular come off as brothers from other mothers and Martell may be the best new find of 2019. He has the simmering charisma of a young John Cusack and the presence of a Brad Pitt. He’s got star quality written all over him – hopefully in permanent ink.

I was also impressed by Neustaedter’s performance. Red is an ideal movie villain, the kind whose fuse is short that you literally sit on eggshells whenever he’s onscreen; you never know how he’s going to react and how violent that reaction will be. He’s the kind of kid who knows he’s a bad seed and doesn’t much care. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth (the son of a big local developer) and a chip on his shoulder. Whatever rage drives him, it’s bound to lead him to trouble even his well-heeled dad won’t be able to buy him out of someday and indeed it does.

The ending isn’t the most innovative you’ll ever see and in fact McMullin (who also wrote the script) telegraphs the ending a bit too much. There are vibes here from movies like The Goonies and TV shows like Stranger Things although without the fantastic elements. However, this isn’t strictly an idealized version of the good old days; some pretty bleak things happened and the people that surrounded Peter and Alan weren’t the kind that are likely to be a part of their lives well into adulthood. There’s certainly some things worth checking out here but it’s a bit too uneven to give it an unbridled recommendation.

The movie has been playing on DirecTV since Labor Day and is just now getting a limited theatrical release. It’s also available on a number of VOD outlets if you’re more into home viewing than checking it out on the big screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A good late summer film that manages to establish a decent level of suspense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A weak score and a predictable ending disintegrates some of the good will it builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some teen drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature debut of director McMullin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Memory: The Origins of Alien

The Last Resort


Back in the day, the residents of South Beach really knew how to have a good time.

(2018) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Gary Monroe, Ellen Sweet Moss, Susan Gladstone, Kelly Reichardt, Mitchell Kaplan, Edna Buchanan, Stan Hughes, Denise Bibro. Directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch

 

In the years after World War II, the city of Miami went through what would have to be termed a major renaissance. The beautiful beaches, warm weather and the presence of brand spanking new air-conditioned hotels became irresistible to those from the Northeast who endured harsh winters. Many of them, close to retirement age, decided that Miami would be a fine place to live. There were plenty of old art deco hotels in the South Beach area that had been converted to apartments; rents were dirt cheap. South Beach became a largely Jewish community, termed by residents as a stetl, a small but vibrant settlement.

Andy Sweet was a Miami native, the son of a prominent Miami judge whose family had helped develop the big beach side hotels that brought in a vibrant nightlife (Miami was the second home of the Rat Pack and most of the big names in Vegas played there regularly. Jackie Gleason hosted a variety show from there back in the day.

Along with his good friend Gary Monroe, the two young photographers set out to capture the South Beach community. Most of the residents were getting on in age; many of them were Holocaust survivors. Dubbed the Miami Beach Project, Sweet and Monroe proposed a ten year involvement, recording the residents and places that made South Beach so unique.

The two couldn’t have had more different styles. Monroe preferred black and white as a medium; his pictures were largely posed and had a more somber quality to them. Sweet preferred a much more spontaneous approach; his photos nearly exploded with color capturing not only the moment but the personalities of the people in them. Although many of the subjects posed for Sweet, he managed to get a more casual look as if capturing them in the act of being themselves.

Sweet wouldn’t live to see the project through to completion. A mere five years in to the project, Sweet was brutally murdered in 1982 at the age of 28, found stabbed 29 times in his apartment in what was conjectured to have been a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Miami was already changing drastically when Sweet died; a huge influx of Latin (mainly Cuban) immigrants began to change the culture of Miami and on the flip side, became the center of the cocaine trade at about the same time leading to an exponential increase in violence. Although Monroe went on to complete the project alone, by the time he did most of the Jewish residents were already gone, having moved to places like Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach where rents were more reasonable. These days South Beach is the center for nightlife in Miami, where the young and famous go to be seen.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews with Monroe and Sweet’s sister Ellen as well as a few people who knew him or of him (director Kelly Reichardt is one) which generally speaking can be terribly irritating, it is the photographs that Sweet took that takes center stage. They very nearly didn’t.

After Sweet’s death, his family was too distraught to even look at his photographs and put his negatives in storage. When Monroe broached the subject of putting together a retrospective of his partner’s work only three months after Sweet’s death, his family was infuriated and this led to an estrangement between Monroe and Sweet’s family that lasted for decades. In the meantime, the storage company charged with keeping Sweet’s negatives inexplicably lost them during a move. They have to this day not been recovered.

Fortunately, his sister’s partner Stan Hughes found several boxes of work prints while emptying a family storage unit. Hughes is something of a digital photography expert and although the prints were badly faded with time, he was able to start the restoration process, restoring the pictures to their original color vibrancy.

]The movie is not only a pictorial history of the evolution of South Beach but also a love letter to a man whose career was cut far too short. His work speaks for itself and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see them. The pictures may sometimes have resembled vacation snapshots of happy seniors dancing, flirting, sunning themselves or porch-sitting but every one of them captured so much more than a moment.

REASONS TO SEE: The photographs really have character. A very interesting chronicle of the evolution of Miami’s South Beach.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is definitely a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sweet did a series of city government employees shortly before his death. One of the subjects turned out to be the police detective who would investigate his murder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Smash His Camera
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Patrick

Summer of 84


Just a bunch of teenage badasses.

(2018) Thriller/Horror (Gunpowder & Sky) Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Grüter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer, Jason Gray-Stanford, Shauna Johannesen, William MacDonald, Harrison Hourde, Aren Buchholz, Susie Castillo, Reilly Jacob, Jaiven Natt, J. Alex Brinson, Patrick Keating, Patrick Lubczyk, Jordan Buhat, Mark Brandon. Directed by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell

We remember our childhood with a certain tinge of nostalgia. The era we grew up in – be it the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s or aughts – live in our memories with a sepia glow of comfort and warmth. Summer nights spent bicycling around the neighborhood with our friends, looking for whatever adventures might be found in the nooks and crannies of where we grew up are precious to us as we grow older, careworn and further away from our youth when anything was possible, before we found out that life isn’t always beautiful.

Davey Armstrong (Verchere) grew up in the 80s in a small Midwestern town which was about as suburban as it got. His dad (Gray-Stanford) worked as a sound man for the local TV news. His best friends were always around the neighborhood and summer was an endless time of hanging out, talking about girls and neighborhood games of manhunt.

It is also a troubling time for his parents who are fully aware that several boys around town have gone missing. Davey is a bit of a tabloid conspiracy nut and most of his friends and acquaintances have heard all about his oddball theories but at least this one is plausible; Davey believes his next door neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Sommer) is a serial killer responsible for the disappearances. His friends – leather jacketed punk Eats (Lewis), rotund Woody (Emery) and smart-as-a-whip Curtis (Grüter-Andrew) are skeptical at first but soon they come to believe in Davey and set out to proving it.

This will involve things like going through his garbage, staking out his house and eventually breaking and entering. But that’s not the only thing Davey is keeping an eye on; his pretty former babysitter Nikki (Skovbye) has a habit of undressing in front of her window which Davey’s bedroom window faces. Her parents are divorcing and she’ll be moving away from the neighborhood shortly; she is upset and Davey becomes her confidante, which ends up dragging her into their detective work. She is also skeptical about Davey’s theory since Officer Mackey is outwardly a very nice guy, but there is also a very creepy side to him. As summer comes to a close and the chill winds of autumn and school beckon on the horizon, Davey and his crew will come face to face with something truly monstrous.

The vibe here is a bit Hitchcock meets vintage Spielberg. While there is very much a tone similar to the hit Netflix series Stranger Things this isn’t exactly the same thing. There are no supernatural elements here and for awhile I had a real hard time convincing myself that this belonged among my Six Days of Darkness collection but then again there’s the last ten minutes which…well, I’ll get to that.

The synth-heavy score certainly sets the tone; the music is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s music from the era. There are also lots of visual cues, from the arcade to the G.I Joe walkie-talkies that the boys use. The parents here are generally well-meaning but clueless which brings in the Spielberg element. The idyllic nature of the environment adds not so much to the era but to the time of life of the protagonists. I think that’s a time of life that we all appreciate.

There are some clichés in the plot and characterization. Those who are familiar with Rear Window or Suburbia will feel like they’re on a well-trodden path and Davey’s group of friends are pretty much standard issue for these sorts of Hardy Boys-type films. Also, the identity of the person behind the disappearances is not that hard to pick out if you’re paying attention.

But then there are those last ten minutes. At a certain point, the movie kicks into overdrive and you will be sitting on the edge of your seat, jaw firmly resting on the floor as you watch these filmmakers whose previous film was the decent Turbo Kid absolutely come of age. The last ten minutes of Summer of 84 may be the best ten minutes of any film you see this year.

REASONS TO GO: The last ten minutes of this movie are as good as any you’ll see. The filmmakers keep you guessing.
REASONS TO STAY: There are more than a few clichés here and the killer is fairly easy to spot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including crude sexual references and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a variety of shout-outs to 80s movies including The Karate Kid, The Thing and the Star Wars franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stranger Things
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Three

Mandy (2018)


Nic Cage is never happier than when he’s driving a car while drenched in fake blood.

(2018) Horror (RLJE) Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke, Line Pillet, Clément Baronnet, Alexis Julemont, Stephen Fraser, Ivalyio Dimitrov, Kalin Kerin, Tamás Hagyuó, Madd’yz Dog Lollyta, Corfu, Paul Painter (voice), Hayley Saywell. Directed by Panos Cosmatos

 

Nic Cage has, in this stage of his career, carved out a reputation as having the best freak-out in the business. Perhaps not what he had in mind back when he was considered one of the finest actors in the business for serious works like Leaving Las Vegas and Peggy Sue Got Married but it’s always good to be good at something.

Here he plays Red Miller, a taciturn lumberjack living in the Pacific Northwest woods of the Shadow Mountains circa 1983 with his hippie chick girlfriend Mandy (Riseborough) who makes a living doing illustrations for fantasy and science fiction-themed album covers. She’s a bit of an aging waif with anime eyes who brings in a little extra cash working as a cashier at a local gas station/grocery. Walking home, she is espied by Jeremiah Sand (Roache) who decides that this is the woman from him. He sends Brother Swan (Dennehy) to see that she sees the light.

Using an odd instrument called the Abraxas Horn Swan summons a group of demonic bikers who use a sort of liquid extreme LSD to get themselves in the mood for violence. They break in to the rustic cabin of Red and Mandy and restrain Red in a kind of barbed wire manacle. Mandy is brought to Jeremiah who makes an art form of tooting his own horn. His attempts at seduction don’t get him the results he wanted so in a fit of Trump-like pique he decides to teach the couple a lesson.

The results aren’t pretty. Mandy meets a grisly end witnessed by her boyfriend who is stabbed and left for dead. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with Red and he goes about collecting himself an arsenal and then going on a little ass-kicking expedition and you know it won’t end until every mutha who messed with his girl exsanguinates all over his face.

For those who, like me, love Conan O’Brien’s Nicolas Cage threat level gauge, he delivers one here that is sure to be Defcon One the next time O’Brien puts one together. Through the first half of the film Cage is fairly quiet but once Mandy is taken from him he goes full-on Nicolas Cage and that can be highly entertaining.

Director Panos Cosmatos isn’t above ratcheting up the crazy, using a good deal of psychedelic footage and LSD-inspired footage melds that with a largely electronic and almost progressive metal score from the late Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson that really captures the heart of the film. Any movie that starts out with King Crimson’s criminally underappreciated “Starless” is a friend of mine.

Riseborough is not your usual lead here; oddly, Jeremiah seems to treat her as a younger woman but she’s clearly middle aged. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder but her character’s new age babble is a little bit distracting. What isn’t distracting is the final half of the film which is essentially one long action sequence with all sorts of gory violence which is bound to bring a contented smile to most horror fans.

This is not your typical horror movie; there are some themes of love and violence, obsession and ego. There are some animated scenes that are sort of like a Roger Dean album cover come to life. So it’s very much a situation of the 70s have called and they want their horror film back. This isn’t a movie from that era (even though it’s set in ’83) but it captures the spirit of psycho horror films of that era nicely.

REASONS TO GO: Cage is at his most ludicrously demented which is saying something. The action sequences are bizarre but in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie does take a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: Deep breath now; there’s gore and violence (some of it extreme), the full Monty, copious drug use, profanity and likely lots of mean thoughts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roache and Brake both previously worked together in Batman Begins in which Roache played Thomas Wayne and Brake played Joe Chill, who murdered him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive Angry
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Coors: The Will to Live

MDMA (Angie X, Cardinal X)


Annie Q knows you can never truly relax when you’re a drug kingpin.

(2017) Crime Drama (Shout! Factory) Annie Q, Francesca Eastwood, Pierson Fode, Scott Teiji Takeda, Joseph John Schirle, Ron Yuan, Noah Segan, Yetide Badaki, Henry Zaga, Elisa Donovan, Allyrah Caldwell, Angie Wang, Devon Libran, Kyle Zingler, Zoe Winter, Ed Moy, Shoyi Cheng, Dexter Masland, Cooper Chow, Jason J. Lai, Jackie Dallas. Directed by Angie Wang

 

In the mid-80s, “Just say no” was the kind of thing knowing club kids used as a kind of electronic irony. Just say no? Why on earth would anybody do that? Drugs were profitable (for dealers and their suppliers) and moreover, drugs felt amazing. And yeah, so long as you didn’t get hooked on something like heroin they were essentially harmless, right?

Angie Wang (Q) is a young sparkling-eyed freshman going off to college at an expensive private school in California (think: Stanford). Her father (Yuan), who works at a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, can’t afford the tuition, but lets his daughter go anyway. Once there she befriends her roommate Jeanine (Eastwood), a blonde and pretty debutante sort whose life is much more messed up than it appears to be on the surface, with an alcoholic and judgmental mother who seems hell-bent on putting down her daughter about as far as she can go. Angie’s mother left with her little brother when Angie was a little girl, enduring an abusive husband until she couldn’t.

It turns out that Angie is no stereotype, no prim and proper Asian princess. She parties hardy and has sex whenever and with whoever she chooses. A swimmer with Olympic aspirations turns her on to Ecstasy, then a legal recreational drug (the title is based on its scientific name which is abbreviated as MDMA). Supplies are extremely limited as its only manufactured by a single lab in Germany; chemistry major Angie thinks she can synthesize it in the chem. Lab all by herself. As a result she becomes the leading supplier of the drug on the West Coast, referred to in the clubs as “Cardinal X.”

The money allows her to pay her tuition and live a lifestyle more to her liking. She joins the big sister program and becomes a mentor to Bree (Caldwell), the daughter of a crack mom (Badaki) more concerned with having beer and smokes readily available than seeing that her daughter wasn’t hungry. Her lab partner Tommy (Takeda) urges her to get out of the drug dealing although he doesn’t report her; he’s crazy in love with her after all, and hopes that he can save her from herself. However, it’s already way too late for that and soon things spiral out of control.

Wang called this “a dramatic telling” of her life story, which means that likely some events were fudged, embellished and/or compressed somewhat. She recalls the club scene of the mid-80s (what I can remember of it) pretty accurately, other than if they were Bay Area clubs there should have been a larger presence of gay men than there are in the movie.

Annie Q is a former child actress whom readers might recognize from the TV show The Leftovers. She gives Angie a good deal of strength and sass without reverting to Hollywood Asian stereotypes. The movies definitely need more characters like Angie in them – not necessarily as role models for young Asian girls since Angie does a lot of really bad shit in the movie – but simply to show Asian women in a more realistic light.

Some of the plot points feel a bit overdone with the final third of the movie feeling like every one of the main characters are constantly in tears. The dialogue sometimes sounds a little awkward as well. Still as first efforts go, this is a mighty fine one. The soundtrack is full of 80s goodness and Wang wisely keeps things simple, not trying to show off unusual camera angles to attract attention to herself. She lets the story take center stage which some new directors forget to do. Wang may not necessarily be proud of her past but she can be proud of her movie.

REASONS TO GO: Annie Q gives the story a strong Asian woman lead, something not seen often.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little overwrought in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of drug use and references, violence, profanity, sex and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wang, who wrote and directed the film (and also appears in a cameo role), based the movie on her own life experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, ITunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Boy Rick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Greater Society

The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

Whitney


The Queen of Pop in her salad days.

(2018) Musical Documentary (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Kevin Costner, L.A. Reid, Michael Houston, Brad Johnson, Clive Davis, Keith Kelly, Rickey Minor, Lynne Volkman, Pat Houston, Steve Gittelman, DeForrest Soames, Donna Houston, Nicole David, Cinque Henderson, John Houston IV, Joey Arbagi, Babyface, Mary Jones. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

 

On February 11, 2012 the great pop star Whitney Houston was found floating face down in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was the end of an era and the end of a life, one that began with promise which was later fulfilled as she became one of the biggest stars of the 80s and early 90s. She remains the only performer to ever notch seven number one Billboard pop hits in a row – and they were her first seven singles at that. It is a feat not likely to be ever altered. She also is the biggest selling female artist of all time, and holds the biggest selling single (“I Will Always Love You”) of all time for a female artist.

In between her early days and her tragic end, Whitney Houston became a revered public figure although not without controversy. The daughter of singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of legendary pop icon Dionne Warwick, Houston had greatness in her DNA. She was impressive as a singer from an early age singing for her church choir and mentored by her mother who was, by all accounts, an often difficult taskmaster.

After being signed to a contract with Arista Records boss Clive Davis, she rocketed to fame with her debut album which in many ways defined her era. In the mid-80s you really couldn’t go very long without hearing her songs on the radio and while there was some grumbling about how she was being marketed to a white audience (as a light-skinned black girl, she had been bullied as a youngster in Newark where she grew up) she nevertheless grew up to be one of the most formidable talents of her time.

But there were pressures on her to maintain the success and the gravy train that had been created by that success. Most of her family was employed by Whitney (her estranged father who had divorced her mother when Whitney was a young girl was her manager and her brothers were road  managers) and the carefully marketed “good girl” image that had been created for her began to crumble. A marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown put further cracks in the veneer and as the 90s progressed it became apparent that Whitney was using drugs.

The documentary by veteran filmmaker Macdonald isn’t the first on Houston (Showtime aired one just last year) but it is perhaps the most personal; interviews with her family members give us a better picture of the real Whitney than her Showtime doc did. The documentary follows her life relatively chronologically although a revelation about two-thirds of the way through the movie of an incident that happened when she was much younger makes for some dramatic footage but it also throws the flow of the movie askew. There also seems to have been a reluctance on Macdonald’s part to follow up too deeply on that revelation – in fact, he seemed reluctant to follow up on any of the really unflattering aspects of her life at all.

Of course her drug use was the elephant in the room and while it is addressed, Macdonald almost regards it as a corollary to her fame and fortune, almost as predetermined as having paparazzi following her around. There is no footage from her train wreck of a reality show Inside Bobby Brown and when Brown is questioned about his ex-wife’s drug use, he says in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Well, what the hell did he think that any documentary about his wife’s time with him would want to talk about him with?

The last days of Whitney’s life are particularly hard to watch. While the performance footage of her during the prime of her career is a reminder of just how powerful and beautiful her voice was – and how absolutely she had control over it – footage of her singing during the last year of her life is almost painful. Her voice is raspy and off-key and when she tries to hit the high notes…well, it’s not pretty. It acts as a cautionary tale to any aspiring performer who thinks that they can “handle” drugs.

Still, if you want to look at this as a celebration of her life the film does that quite well. Fans of the late singer can renew their affection for her. Those who weren’t particular fans of hers probably won’t end up being converted to blind admiration but if you know anything about music you absolutely have to respect her voice and her work ethic early on.

I get the sense that we get a little deeper into who Whitney Houston was and that’s a positive. There are a lot of talking heads in this picture and occasionally they go over the same territory perhaps to distraction but this is simply put essential viewing for fans of the diva and of 80s pop music in general. Bring plenty of hankies though; it’s hard to watch the highs without the thought of the lows that were to come and would lead to her end alone in a hotel room drowning in a bathtub, a fate tragically shared by her daughter just three years later.

Still, I don’t know anyone who listens to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” who isn’t instantly uplifted with the joy of being alive. Whitney Houston could do that with her voice and it is absolutely tragic that it was taken away from her – and us.

REASONS TO GO: The final days of Whitney are truly heartbreaking. Some of the performance video from when she was in her prime reiterates how powerful a singer she truly was.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote as documentaries go. Macdonald seemed to be unwilling to ask the tough questions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug use and other drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were a lot of interviews that were filmed but never used. Macdonald felt that they were banal and added nothing to the narrative.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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The Blood of Wolves