My Name is Bulger


Whitey Bulger, tough guy.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Bulger, Michael Dukakis, Mary Bulger, Bill Weld, Jimmy Bulger, Matt Connelly, William Bulger, Dan Bulger, Sarah Bulger Piscatelli, Brian Wallace, Peter Gelzinis, Pat Nee, Jean Bulger, Pastor Robert Gray, Kevin Weeks, Katherine Greig, Jason Bowns, Jenn Bulger Holland, Bob Ward, Shelley Murphy. Directed by Brendan J. Byrne

 

I never had a brother, but I’ve known many. Brothers can be different as night and day. One can turn out to be a civic leader, the other a mob boss, and both from the same household. The old nature versus nurture debate? Well, nature certainly has a lot to do with it.

That dynamic really happened in the Bulger family. A large Irish-American Catholic family in South Boston (or Southie, as natives prefer calling it) the boys William and James grew up in poverty in one of the housing projects. But whereas William, known more colloquially as Bill, grew up to be one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, his brother James, who was better known as Whitey, led the Winter Hill Gang and was known to be one of the ost ruthless criminals of his time.

None of the other Bulgers turned to crime, and there are a lot of Bulgers – Bill and Whitey had seven other siblings and they all had large families as well (Bill himself would raise nine kids). So how does one deal with living a life on the straight and narrow but being known for the one person in the family that didn’t?

Byrne, a documentary filmmaker from Northern Ireland, doesn’t really get into it, but he is granted remarkable access to a family that has been over the years notoriously press-shy. He even managed to get an interview with Catherine Grieg, Whitey’s girlfriend who was with him while he was on the lam for fifteen years.

The Bulger family seems interested in rehabilitating their legacy, and anyone can certainly understand that. There’s no evidence that the younger Bulger knew of his brother’s criminal exploits, nor did he use his office to aid his brother in any way. One of Whitey’s criminal associates, Kevin Weeks, remarks that when the two got together they generally talked about family and mundane things – certainly not about what Whitey was up to. I suppose there was a willful blindness going on – considering the reporting the Boston Globe did on the exploits of Whitey Bulger you’d think that the rest of his family had at least an inkling that he was into something unsavory. But I would guess that nobody wanted to rock the boat, so the subject would be genteelly ignored.

Again, that’s conjecture. aI suspect that the Bulger family would be reluctant to talk about how much they knew of Whitey’s deeds. They seem to be more interested in downplaying his criminal side and pushing the fact that he was a nice guy, generous and loyal to his family. That’s kind of a curious tack to take, but it rings a little false to the casual viewer, and perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended.

But I think it’s also curious that the only aspect of Bill’s legislative career that is discussed with any depth was his opposition to forced bussing in the Seventies, a hot-button issue that turned national attention on South Boston and not in a positive way. To Byrne’s credit, he presents both sides of the issue dispassionately, but it leaves a complicated legacy. But Bill’s support for expanding school nutrition programs and environmental protection, as well as writing legislation modifying the process of reporting child abuse and helping reboot the welfare system so efficiently that it became a model for other states – that’s not mentioned at all. It seems to me that would go a lot further to cementing Bill’s legacy than downplaying the awful things his brother did.

Bill’s in his mid-80s now and retired to Southie. His story is a compelling one and while I do think that it deserves to be told, I’m certain that it could have used a little more positive reinforcement for Bill and less of that for Whitey. The man served his constituency well for three decades, and went on to be president of the University of Massachusetts, only to see that stripped from him when he refused to answer questions about his brother’s whereabouts in front of a Senate hearing. That was the consequences of a moral choice he made, but perhaps his legacy needs to be more about what he accomplished and less what his brother did.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story, a real-life Angels with Dirty Faces.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-centric and a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitey Bulger was murdered within 24 hours of being transferred to Hazelton Prison in West Virginia. His family has requested an investigation into the affair.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Mass
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Werewolves Within

The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

Trigger Point (2021)


Barry Pepper ain’t saving Private Ryan anymore.

(2021) Suspense (Screen Media) Barry Pepper, Colm Feore, Eve Harlow, Carlo Rota, Jayne Eastwood, Nazneen Contractor, Laura Vandervoort, Karen Robinson, Rainbow Sun Francks, Greg Bryk, John Kirkpatrick, Ryan Malcolm, Reid Janisse, Juan Carlos Valis, Tim Progosh, Brian Cook, Anthony Ferri, Plato Fountidakis, Susie Blanco. Directed by Brad Turner

 

When you’re talking about shadowy spy agencies (not so much the CIA of Jason Bourne or the MI:6 of James Bond) you are generally talking about murky moral compasses and blindingly serious characters who are extremely competent at killing, only without the ability to let loose a bon mot at the moment of vanquishing his opponent.

Nicholas Shaw (Pepper) is one such. He is meticulous, and never ever misses. He is out of the game now, retired to a bucolic small town where he regularly has breakfast in the local café and orders books from the local book store, getting on nicely with his neighbors. They would never suspect that in a previous life, he was a deadly assassin.

And they DEFINITELY wouldn’t guess that he was captured and tortured, giving up the identities of eight members of his team who were then murdered by Quentin, a mysterious crime boss. Nicholas doesn’t remember much of this, only that he needs to lay low for a short time – the rest of his life, say. Then, his past comes walking through his door in the person of Elias Kane (Feore), his former boss. It seems that Elias’ daughter Fiona (Harlow) went out looking for Quentin and has since been captured. She is likely dead, but there is only one person living who knows the true identity of Quentin – that is Nicholas, although he doesn’t remember that crucial piece of information. So as he is the only person who could possibly rescue Fiona, he will have to un-retire and go after the person responsible for taking away everything from him. Sounds fair.

Some critics have compared this to the Bourne franchise, and that’s not inaccurate although Robert Ludlum’s world is much more well thought out. Pepper, who has played sharpshooters before, is perfect for this kind of work, and he is the stand-out here. However, if you can’t figure out who the bad guy is here, you’re either not paying attention or you don’t go to movies much.

The action sequences are decent enough, although the movie could use more of them. The script is on the talky side, which isn’t a point in its favor. Pepper would do better in a role where he has less dialogue – not that he isn’t good at dialogue, but his character would be more effective if he spoke less, and Pepper is a good enough actor that he could pull off getting things across without having to spell things out.

Overall, this isn’t bad entertainment if you’re waiting for a new John Wick film to come down the pike (that’s still another year away, true believers) although I caution you that there is far less action than in that estimable franchise nor is the world here as fully developed as that one. One could say it’s a low-rent Jason Bourne without the exotic locations or the exquisite plotting. No, that’s not it either; this is more a B-movie low-budget spy thriller of the sort Bruce Willis was doing a decade or two ago. There’s something to be said for those films, so long as your expectations aren’t that high.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining super-competent assassin thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly serious; could have used some lighter moments to break up the monotony.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turner has more than thirty years of experience, mainly in the television side doing episodes of 24 and Homeland, among others.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cold Light of Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
It Is Not Over Yet

Easy Does It


Captain America to the rescue!

(2019) Action Comedy (Gravitas) Linda Hamilton, Ben Matheny, Matthew Paul Martinez, Susan Gordon, Cory Dumesnil, John Goodman (voice), Harry Shearer (voice), Bryan Batt, Dwight Henry, Charlie Talbert, Isabel De La Cruz, Catherine Capiello, Turner Crumbley, Dennis Thomas IV, Sophie Howell, Summer Selby, Marnie Morgan, Jacob McManus, Julio Castillo, Carol Ann Scruggs. Directed by Will Addison

 

There is something special and wonderful about the grindhouse films of the 1970s. They were bigger than life, well past the edge of acceptability and full of attitude. Audiences love cheering on the anti-heroes and lovable screw-ups as they confounded society and The Man. We seem to be entering an era where those kinds of films are going to become necessary again.

Fast-talking Jack Buckner (Matheny) and his best friend, Scottie Aldo (Martinez) live in a flea-bitten town called Aberdeen. It’s the 1970s and Nixon is about to resign, Detroit steel rules the roads and mob bosses like “King George” (Hamilton) wear their hair any damn way they want to because they can – in King George’s case, it’s cornrows. Jack and Scottie owe King George money, as everyone in Aberdeen seems to. They work at a greasy spoon as dishwashers, and on the side try to drum up cash by staging inept cons which in general never work out.

Then Jack gets a postcard that hints that his mom has passed away and that she’d left him something valuable under the pier in San Clemente, California (where Nixon is about to flee to). Jack thinks it’s some kind of treasure; if he can just get there in his star-spangled Mustang, it could mean the end of their money troubles and a ticket out of Aberdeen.

But he’s flat broke and so is Scottie, and even Detroit muscle cars need to be filled with gas once in awhile on the way from Mississippi to California. And Aberdeen being a small town and Scottie and Jack being none to bright, word gets back to King George that the two are about to skee-daddle. She doesn’t like the idea, and brings her enforcer – her baseball bat-wielding daughter Blue Eyes (Gordon) for emphasis. The two manage to get away but they know they aren’t going to get very far without the kindness of strangers. They end up at a gas station wondering if the clerk could front them the price of gas which they’ll pay  back once they acquire the treasure only it goes horribly wrong, and they end up stealing cash and dragging around a nerdy hostage (Dumesnil) who clearly doesn’t want to be there and suddenly they’re a viral sensation before there were viral sensations, robbing gas stations along with their increasingly not-so-reluctant hostage all the while being chased by a very perturbed Blue Eyes and the Law.

If this sounds like a good premise for a fun hour and a half at the movies, I’d be right there with you on that. The execution, though, leaves something to be desired. Part of the big problem here is that the characters are too bland, even though co-writers Addison and Metheny do their best to make them quirky, there’s a huge difference between quirky and interesting.

Definitely their hearts are worn firmly planted on their sleeves; the grindhouse movies of the ‘70s which gave us such fare as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Bloody Mama and more recently the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre. This is a little bit more rooted in a particular subgenre of the period than Tarantino who often references a dozen genres from blaxploitation to chop sockey (terms that were very much of their time and are being officially retired on this site as of now) and all points in between. Here, we see a lot of the good ol’ boy crime spree films that rose out of things like Smokey and the Bandit and to a lesser extent, The Dukes of Hazard the latter of which is closer kin to Easy Does It.

Hamilton is the Big Star here and she really turns up mostly in the first 30 minutes of the movie and is not really that heavily involved afterwards. She is certainly visually striking with her cornrows and dead-eyed stare, and her husky voiced Eastwood impression, but she gives little more than name value to a largely unknown cast (Goodman and Shearer, the other two big names, do not appear onscreen as baseball game announcers we here on the soundtrack).

There is decent enough chemistry between Matheny and Martinez, although the movie would have benefitted from a little more of that between the two. Gordon actually drew most of my admiration for her baseball-loving enforcer who uses a baseball bat as her weapon of choice. The voice-over baseball play-by-play is gimmicky and overused unfortunately. Dumesnil overplays Collin and brings him well into the category of self-parody, never what you want to see in a movie like this.

I think that the filmmakers were gong for something of a Logan Lucky vibe but they just needed a little more edginess to pull it off. Scottie and Jack are a little too dumb and a little too sweet to make a movie like this one work. That’s too bad because I think with a few tweaks here and there this could have been an extremely fun movie and fun is something in terribly short supply these days, kinda like toilet paper.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to be clever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Addison’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vanishing Point
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Painted Bird

Do It Yourself


A silent suicide.

(2017) Crime Dramedy (Artsploitation) Konstadinos Aspiotis, Makis Papadimitriou, Mirto Alikaki, Christos Loulis, Argyris Xafis, Panos Koronis, Themis Panou, Aris Antonopoulos, Stephanos Mwange. Directed by Dimitris Tsilifonis

 

When you are trapped in a working porn studio, having made what’s intended to be a viral video confession exonerating a crime boss who is in jail for murder, and you are surrounded by gun-toting killers employed by said crime boss, escaping with your life may require a little do-it-yourself inventiveness.

That’s exactly the situation that small-time criminal Alkis Vidalis (Aspiotis) finds himself, conveniently enough for this review. He is no criminal mastermind nor is he much of a fighter. He’s more of a run away and hide sort of guy. With the building crawling with armed guards who are, fortunately for Alkis, they are not nearly as bright as he is. Using whatever he can find which includes some porn film accouterments, he will have to figure out a way to get out alive and with time ticking down until the film is loaded to the Internet, the prospect of a life extending more than an hour or two are looking mighty bleak.

This Greek action-packed dramedy owes a lot to both Tarantino and Scorsese in equal measures. If that sounds like a great combination to you, then this is your jam. Tsilifonis takes great care not to make anyone too awful or too likable. Everyone in the movie is a criminal in some way shape or form – even the crime boss’ lawyer (Alikaki) is fully aware that once the video goes live Alkis will have outlived his usefulness. This is a film with no clear bad guys (Loulis as jailed crime boss Daniel Bezerianos comes closest) and while we have a rooting interest in Alkis, no clear good guys either.

There are some genuinely funny moments that lighten the frenetic mood, as well as some ingenious Rube Goldberg-like inventions that Alkis creates. The cinematography is slick and crisp which give a sense of realism to the film. However, the thing that keeps this from being an unreserved recommendation is that Tsilifonis has a tendency to get a bit cute, using Go-Pro-like shots on moving objects (such as a wheelchair) more than he needed to. Once is fine; twice is okay; more than that is repetitive and annoying.

The performances are solid, with Aspiotis in the lead being particularly satisfying. He gives Alkis a kind of hangdog air that makes him appealing, but as he promises in the voice-over narration, he does things that aren’t cricket. Papadimitriou as the killer tasked with whacking Alkis once the word comes down also gives a nice balance of menace and moronic.

Movies like this don’t come on down the pike very often and while the film is certainly flawed, the entertainment value is pretty high all things considered. It is subtitled and during the initial sequence in which the circumstances are essentially explained through the use of newspaper headlines, a bit hard to read so you might find yourself rewinding and pausing so you can actually read the entire subtitle. Speed reading can come in handy here. Anyway, devotees of movies full of hoods who can’t shoot straight will find this one right in their sweet spot.

REASONS TO SEE: Overall, very entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times, Tsilifonis gets a little too cute for his own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, brief drug use, some sexual content and a fair amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tsilifonis’ 2012 short The Way of Styx is also included on the Blu-Ray edition.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Terror 5

Solo: A Star Wars Story


“Chewie, I’ve got a bad feeling about this..”

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau (voice), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (voice), Erin Kellyman, Linda Hunt (voice), Ian Kenny, John Tui, Anna Francolini, Andrew Woodall, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Anthony Daniels, Charlotte Louise. Directed by Ron Howard

 

Prequels can serve one of two purposes; to give insight to an established character or franchise, or to forever tarnish them. The much-anticipated Solo: A Star Wars Story could go either way…or both.

Han Solo (Ehrenreich) is an orphan committing crimes for a kind of reptilian Fagin named lady Proxima (Hunt). He and his best girl Qi’ra (Clarke) plan to get out of the life and find a life of their own but their plans go awry and the two are separated. Indy..I mean Han…resolves to come back for her and joins the Imperial Stormtroopers as a pilot. Eventually, he meets scoundrel Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) who along with his squeeze Val (Newton) are planning a big heist, one which may finally get him the opportunity to finally rescue his girl. First he will have to avoid the wrath of the crime boss Dryden Vos (Bettany) and meet up with future allies Chewbacca (Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Glover).

This is a movie in which the sum of its parts exceeds the whole. An underrated cast, writer Lawrence Kasdan who wrote arguably the best installment in the series (Return of the Jedi) and one of Hollywood’s most respected directors (Oscar winner Ron Howard). Still, despite exceptional turns by Harrelson and particularly Glover (who at one time was rumored to be toplining a Lando Calrissian movie of his own) the movie feels curiously flat. Perhaps it was because Howard was brought in late after much footage had already been shot by departing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were (depending on who you ask) shown the door or found it on their own after artistic differences with Disney brass. More likely, it’s because Ehrenreich who is a very talented actor, was given a no-win situation in which he was given. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is one of the most iconic roles of the last 50 years and most people can’t see anyone playing Solo except Ford. I will say that Ehrenreich does his level best but for whatever reason his performance didn’t resonate with me. Great effects, great pacing and great cinematography can take a movie so far but it also has to connect, to inspire and amaze. Solo does none of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Glover and Harrelson do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO STAY: The film left me feeling flat and was overall a disappointment.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction-type violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fertility idol from the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark can be seen on a table in the meeting room of Dryden Vos, the villain.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Then Came You

Six Rounds


Rob Peacock and Adam Bernard look like they might go a round of their own.

(2017) Drama (TMP) Adam J. Bernard, Phoebe Torrance, Santino Zicchi, Rob Peacock, Daniel Johns, Joseph Warner, Chris Rochester, Marcus Adjmul, Lesley Molony, Carolyn English, Thomasin Lockwood, Karishma Bhandari. Directed by Marcus Flemmings

 

Sometimes you run into a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp. You can tell that the filmmakers have ambitions to make something special, something unique and you root for them to do so but it doesn’t quite succeed as much as either filmmaker or viewer would like.

Set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots (or as they are known in the myopic U.S.A. “Oh, were there riots in London in 2011?”) the prime mover here is a young black man. Stally (Bernard) is a boxer who has retired with an undefeated record, a fact he is extraordinarily proud of. He has escaped the crime-ridden neighborhood of his youth and has a real job and a beautiful white girlfriend Andrea (Torrance) whom he has nicknamed “Mermaid” because of a dress she once wore that made her appear like one. She loves him and is proud that he has bettered himself and is beginning to think about having a child with him.

One of Stally’s mates from the old days, Chris (Zicchi) has gone and done something extraordinarily stupid; he’s stolen drugs from George (Johns), Stally’s ex-manager who is in his spare time a mob boss. George wants Chris dead and reckless Chris is too proud to get himself out of the jam he’s in. Stally talks to George who gives Chris a way out; to engage in a boxing match with Stally. If Chris can last six rounds without being knocked out, he’s off the hook. The trouble is that if Chris does lose the match, there goes Stally’s undefeated record and that’s not something Stally is willing to give up easily.

The movie is mostly shot in black and white (with a few brief scenes in color, mostly when Andrea is around) and looks beautiful, the juxtaposition of black and white mirroring the commentary on racial relations in the UK. The movie is not really a boxing film and it isn’t really about the riots although the chaos is clearly on the mind of all of the characters involved. We see some footage of rioters (and I’m thinking some archival footage) but none of the main characters participate in them onscreen. Some brag about getting a “100% discount” from looting trainers or fur coats from various stores.

Bernard, who was the stunt double for John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, proves himself an able actor. He is subtle when he needs to be, understated when he needs to be and is capable of a fine primal scream when he needs it. There has been a parade of fine actors of color from the UK lately; Bernard may well be as talented as any of them.

Torrance has kind of a thankless role but she has the ethereal beauty of a Keira Knightley and reminds me of her in her line delivery as well. She is another actor in this production who shows some immense promise; Flemmings has a great eye for talent to say the least.

I think he wanted to make a movie that is outside the box; intelligent (and it is) and innovative (which it isn’t). In fact, I think he tried a little bit too hard; some of the scenes seem to be, as MGM used to put it, art for art’s sake and sometimes at the expense of the film. It looks beautiful, it’s acted well but the dialogue sounds a bit false. Worse, the use of handheld cameras during the boxing sequences (the film is divided into rounds corresponding to the boxing match between Chris and Stally) make those scenes incredibly hard to watch without feeling a little vertigo. I wish he had taken it easier on the handhelds as much of the rest of the film is beautifully shot.

Much of the movie is to my reckoning Stally’s internal monologue; during fights he uses poetry to center himself and I believe that the rest of the action is meant to be taken as what Stally is thinking about during the course of the match (I could be wrong on this point). It’s a brilliant idea but it isn’t executed as well as it might be.

Flemmings shows some natural talent in putting this film together on a microscopic budget. Sadly it isn’t as successful for me and I have a hard time recommending it for all but serious film buffs looking for new talents before anyone else has discovered them. The storytelling could have used a little bit of tweaking but despite my rating, he really isn’t far away from creating a movie that will knock the socks off of the whole bloody world. I look forward to that film with great anticipation.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the performances are pretty feral. Torrance reminded me a bit of Keira Knightley.
REASONS TO STAY: The story gets a little bit confusing. The boxing scenes utilize the shaky-cam to the point of being nearly unwatchable. The dialogue is a little too repetitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of violence both in the ring and outside of it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was made for a mere £7000, or just under $9000 US.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bronx Bull
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Lost City of Z

In Bruges


Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

(2008) Crime Comedy (Focus) Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clamence Poesy, Jordan Prentice, Jeremie Renier, Elizabeth Berrington, Zeljko Ivanek, Mark Donovan, Anna Madeley, Jean-Marc Favorin, Rudy Blomme, Thekla Reuten, Inez Stinton, Ciaran Hinds, Theo Stevenson, Sachi Kimura, Eric Gordon, Stephanie Carey. Directed by Martin McDonagh

My wife is fond of saying that your sins will find you out. She used to say that to our son when she knew he was hiding something from us. With a mom’s unerring nose for a kid’s transgressions, she’d sniff out whatever it was that he was keeping from her. Sometimes, it’s a pity that our mums can’t be with us even as we get older to steer us right.

Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson) have been ordered to Bruges to cool their heels after botching a job. Of course their chosen profession is contract killing, so who would think of looking for them in a sleepy little tourist town like Bruges, the best-preserved medieval town in Belgium?

The skittish Ray could care less; he’s bored out of his skull and haunted by the results of his sanctioned but unintended mayhem. Ken on the other hand is a little more worldly; he is quite content to sit back, do some sightseeing and enjoy the magic that is Bruges. He knows that in time, his employer will call with instructions and the best thing to do is lay low and make as few waves as possible.

Ray, being Ray, is more interested in hanging out in the pub, finding himself a girl and getting his bones generally jumped. After getting more than a little tipsy one night, Ray and Ken run into a location set for a Dutch movie being filmed in Bruges, with a dream sequence starring Jimmy (Prentice), who prefers the term “dwarf” to “midget.” Ray also meets a beautiful local named Chloe (Poesy) whom he flirts with. She finally agrees to go out to dinner with him.

Meanwhile, their employer Harry (Fiennes) is getting more and more frustrated that he can’t contact his men since they are always out when he calls. He leaves a profanity-laced message with Marie (Berrington), the very pregnant receptionist who happens to be the co-owner of the boutique hotel the men are staying at. When Harry finally gets in contact with Ken, he gives the man instructions that the worldly killer may not want to follow, but at this point, Ken may not have a choice.

The top three leads – Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes – are three tremendous talents who by themselves individually would entice me into the theater. All three together, well now you’re talking. Gleeson in particular has developed into a marvelous actor who gives a memorable performance nearly every time out. His trademark “gruff with a heart of gold” rough about the edges sorts translates well for Ken.

Farrell has that innate Irish charm that has served him well in both major high-profile projects and smaller independent-minded ones like this one. While Farrell has been somewhat less active in the cinema recently, this one shows him at the apex of his game. His Ray is young and less experienced, virtually jumping out of his skin and bored to tears, failing to see what’s right in front of him. Yet Ray is truly a tortured soul and his sins are just about to catch up with him, but the question becomes is it too late for redemption. Farrell’s soul-searching is particularly poignant and you virtually watch him crumble before your very eyes in one unforgettable scene.

Finally, Fiennes who has Schindler’s List and The Constant Gardener on his resume of award-winning performances doesn’t have a whole lot to do here but makes every scene he is in memorable. He’s one of those actors who makes every line count and uses every nuance in his arsenal to make his character remarkable.

Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is understated, effectively so. Bruges is already fairytale-like in appearance; he uses the town’s charm to his advantage. Carter Burwell’s score is, as always, well-suited to the atmosphere. Although early in his career he tended to be a bit too jazzy for my taste, he has become in my opinion one of the more reliable film composers working today.

Bruges itself is a character in the movie, and its charm is the movie’s charm. I wasn’t that familiar with the town before seeing this movie; now it’s a place I’d like to visit someday. I suppose that would characterize me as more of a Ken sort than a Ray, but history and architecture are two passions of mine. Movies like this one can make a particular place come alive and excite your imagination. Who knew that Bruges would end up on my bucket list?

The movie was sold as a black comedy and it really isn’t when it comes right down to it. This is more of a crime drama with a bit of farce but the tone is black nonetheless. In point of fact, I’m not sure if the writers and director were quite sure what this movie was intended to be, so it turns out to be neither one thing nor the other. My expectations going in from what I’d heard about it weren’t met so I came out disappointed when I saw it initially, but the truly odd thing is when I revisited it recently (I first saw it in theaters back in ’08) is that my opinion of it revised upwards to a near-mediocre score to the much more enthusiastic score you see below.

There is a great deal of charm in the movie and some wonderful performances in it. I think if you go in without the very high expectations I went in with you might wind up enjoying it more than I did. It is definitely worth seeing regardless, if not for Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes but for the irresistible appeal of Bruges itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, compelling performances from Farrell, Fiennes and Gleeson. Bruges might just enchant you. Dreamlike surreal quality in some scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wobbles between crime caper and black comedy.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some explicit violence, a surfeit of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both Gleeson and Farrell were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances here; Farrell eventually won the award.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a gag reel, a montage of all the copious cursing done in the film called F***ing Bruges, and a five minute-plus boat trip through the canals of Bruges, further cementing the magic of the place.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.4M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven Psychopaths
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Art of Getting By

RocknRolla


RocknRolla

The Defiant Ones, these ain't.

(2008) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong, Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Toby Kebbell, Jeremy Piven, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Karel Roden, Gemma Arterton. Directed by Guy Ritchie

Few directors do crime movies as well as Guy Ritchie. Movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are highly entertaining, highly stylized British gangster pictures. He’d taken a brief break from the genre with the somewhat cerebral Revolver but fans of his first two movies rejoiced at his return to the genre in this movie. Was there reason to cheer?

One Two (Butler) is a mid-level criminal who leads a loose bunch of associates dubbed “The Wild Bunch,” with Mumbles (Elba) his right hand man and Handsome Bob (Hardy). He is in a real estate deal with Lenny (Wilkinson), the kingpin of London crime, an old school boss whose grip on the throne is slowly slipping away. Lenny screws over One Two, keeping both the land and the money that One Two gives him. To add insult to injury, he insists that One Two owes him two million pounds, which One Two doesn’t have – because Lenny stole his stash.

So One Two sets out to get two million pounds and figure out a way to get Lenny back while avoiding Archy (Strong), Lenny’s right hand muscle. That will involve a Russian mobster (Roden) who has lent Lenny his lucky painting, a sexy bookkeeper (Newton) in stilettos who’s smart and greedy, a dead junkie rock star (Kebbell) who is rather far from deceased, and a pair of American music promoters (Piven and Bridges).

I’ve tried to give you an idea about the plot; quite frankly, it’s so convoluted that trying to sum it up in any more detail will be not only futile but unnecessarily confusing. Therein lies one of the problems here; there are so many threads going on that at times your brain threatens to explode. While Ritchie is known for weaving multiple threads through his storyline, here it doesn’t work as well as it does in his other films. While I’m not against complex plots per se, I am against overly complicated plots. There’s a difference – and this one falls into the latter category.

That doesn’t mean all the threads don’t work though. There are some pretty good acting performances here, particularly from the always charming Butler, Elba and Strong, who does double duty as the narrator. Wilkinson is a terrific actor who makes Lenny thoroughly reprehensible. In fact, nearly every role is well-acted.

There are plenty of excellent action sequences as well. Ritchie has a flair for them and for that sudden violence that takes the audience by surprise (there are a few gotcha scenes here that I thoroughly enjoyed). He also has a flair for the language and the flow of the words – few movies sound as good as a Guy Ritchie movie in that regard, even if we Americans can’t understand everything that’s being said at all times. To my admittedly uneducated ear, it all sounds authentic.

There are also some positively funny moments here. Some of the laughs are of the kind you feel guilty about later for having laughed; those are the kind that takes you by surprise. Yeah, I know it’s wrong but I laughed anyway – is that so wrong?

No, it’s not. While this isn’t up to Ritchie’s previous output, it’s still solidly entertaining. If you haven’t seen his first two films, by all means start there. If you’re a Gerard Butler fan, by all means start here. Either way, Ritchie has carved a nice niche out for himself. While he has gone on to the Sherlock Holmes movies (with a new one coming out in December), these may be the kinds of movies that define his career as a filmmaker and if so, not a bad tombstone to leave behind.

WHY RENT THIS: Guy Ritchie doing what he does best. Funny and violent where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not up to his best stuff. Too many plot lines going on at once.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is rough and pervasive; there’s also a good deal of violence and drug use. There is a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to director Guy Ritchie, this is the first film in a trilogy starring the Wild Bunch. However, there are no plans at this time to film the sequel anytime soon.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette called “Guy’s Town” which looks at the locations in London where the movie was filmed and commentary from Ritchie about how the face of London has changed over the past ten years.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even at best but more likely lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: True Grit (2010)