The Many Saints of Newark


Dinner with the Family.

(2021) Crime Drama (New Line) Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Ray Liotta, Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Michael Imperioli (voice), Samson Moeakiola, Joey Coco Diaz, Germar Terrell Gardner, Alexandra Intrator, Gabriella Piazza, Mason Bleu, Aaron Joshua, Lesli Margherita. Directed by Alan Taylor

 

There is absolutely no doubt that The Sopranos remains one of the most influential and important television series of all time. It helped establish HBO as a legitimate provider of quality original entertainment and ushered in a new golden age of television which moved away from broadcast and to alternate sources of content providers, from cable and now to streaming. For many of our favorite television shows of the past decade, we can thank show creator David Chase, who co-wrote and produced this prequel to his show, whose storytelling prowess paved the way for shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy.

The movie opens with a startling and effective crane shot that turns into a dolly shot of a graveyard. We hear various voices of the dead until one takes focus; that of Christopher Moltisanti (Imperioli, the sole member of the series cast who appears here), who acts as a kind of narrator as well as Banquo’s ghost. He laments over his own untimely death (one of the most shocking moments in a series replete with them) and focuses in on his father, Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola).

Dickie is welcoming his father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, back from Italy. He brings with him a brand-new bride, Giussepina (De Rossi) from Italy. She speaks little English and is about a third his age. Dickie has been running the numbers operation for the DiMeo crime family, using enforcer Harold McBrayer (Odom) to collect in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of central Newark. It is 1967, and after the violent arrest of an innocent black taxi driver, riots erupt.

In the meantime, Johnny Soprano (Bernthal) has been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and sent to prison, leaving his son Tony (Ludwig) in the less-than-tender care of Livia (Farmiga), who is already showing signs of being the unstable, manipulative harridan that Nancy Marchand was acclaimed for in the series. Tony admires his uncle Dickie and begins to see him as a mentor and father figure. As Tony grows into his teenage years (Gandolfini, the son of the late James Gandolfini who played Tony in the series), he begins to show a willingness to gravitate towards the criminal life that his Uncle – and father – are part of. In the meantime, McBrayer – seeing the Black power movement and feeling the contempt in which he is held by the Italians – begins to build an empire of his own. Things are going to get mighty ugly in Newark.

I have to admit, I blew a little hot and cold about this one. Da Queen, who is not really a Sopranos fan and has seen little of the show, liked this movie a lot. On the other hand, I’ve watched the show and know how good it could be – and to be frank, the movie doesn’t really measure up in some ways to the original. Few things, to be fair, ever do.

Part of the problem is that the characters who were so indelible – not only Livia, but Paulie Walnuts (Magnusson), Uncle Junior (Stoll), Big Pussy (Moeakola) and Silvio Dante (Magaro) – all faithfully reproduce the look and mannerisms of those who played the characters on the show. It is a bit distracting in a way – it’s like watching a remake of a favorited movie with celebrity impersonators – but one has to give credit where credit is due. All of the things that made us love (or hate) those characters are present here. Farmiga, in particular, and Stoll, both get high marks for inhabiting the parts that Marchand and Dominic Chianese created. However, there isn’t a lot of additional insight to the characters that can’t be gleaned by watching the show – any of them. As a result, the emphasis is mainly on the “new” characters of Dickie, his father and McBrayer.

It should also be mentioned that Gandolfini acquits himself very nicely in the role that made his father famous. The movie really isn’t about Tony; he’s a bit player in his own prequel. For some, that is going to be annoying. I think, though, that it’s a smart move; Tony Soprano is a character that was perhaps one of the most well-developed in television history. While other characters in the show that are portrayed here don’t really get to add much insight to their characters, I don’t think there’s really a lot that can be added to Tony that we don’t already know

So there are a couple of questions to be answered here. First of all, if you’re not familiar with the show, you can still see The Many Saints of Newark without feeling lost. Familiarity with the show adds a certain amount of flavor, but for many of the characters who met untimely ends, we’re fully aware of their (sometimes) grisly demises that occurred in the series and that does color our perceptions somewhat. Does it add anything for fans of the show? Not really a lot. You get a little more background into the relationship between Tony and his mentor, but it doesn’t really make for any startling revelations. While there are plenty of Easter Eggs for super fans to glom onto, for the most part this doesn’t really sit atop the pantheon of mobster movies as much as the show does. If you’re anything like me, however, you will be inspired to re-watch the show once again and that really isn’t a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances throughout. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans of the show.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add a lot of additional insight into the show and characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it gruesome), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The amusement park scenes were filmed at Rye Playland in Westchester, NY. The amusement park scenes for Big were also filmed there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through November 1)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Pharma Bro

The Little Things


The darkness and the dimly lit.

(2021) Crime (Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Glenn Morshower, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason James Richter, John Harlan Kim, Frederick Koehler, Judith Scott, Maya Kazan, Tiffany Gonzalez, Anna McKitrick, Sheila Houlahan, Ebony M. Mayo. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Any good homicide detective will tell you that the secret to catching a killer isn’t rocket science. It’s good hard work and paying particular attention to the little things. The devil is, after all, in the details.

This crime thriller, set in the 1990s (director John Lee Hancock wrote it back in 1993 but was unable to get it made until recently) and features no less than three Oscar-winning actors. You’d think that would bring the quality level up a notch, but keep in mind that Warners chose to release this in January – never a good sign.

A serial killer is targeting women in the Los Angeles area (what else is new?) and detective Jim Baxter (Malek) is stumped. One of Los Angeles’ most successful police detectives, he utters platitudes at press conferences but is no closer to solving the crimes than when he came on the case. Meanwhile, over in Kern County to the northeast of the City of Angels, former L.A. police detective (and current Kern County deputy sheriff) Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) has been assigned by his boss to collect some evidence held in Los Angeles critical to a case in Bakersfield. Deacon, who left  L.A. under less-than-ideal circumstances, eventually gets sucked into Baxter’s case (to be honest, Deacon doesn’t resist very hard) which may have a link to a case that Deacon worked on years before that was never solved.

With Deacon on board as an unofficial advisor, the two at-first reluctant partners zero in on a suspect – Albert Sparma (Leto) – a serial killer’s name if I ever heard one – who seems to be a slam dunk at first. He taunts the detectives and is creepy enough to set off any cop’s radar. But is he the killer? And can the two mismatched detectives stop him before he kills again?

Considering the calibre of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s a bit surprising that the end result of this movie is less than stirring. Certainly it’s no fault of Washington or Leto, both of whom deliver scintillating performances. For Washington, this kind of role is old hat yet still he manages to bring a certain amount of freshness to the part. Leto may be one of the best actors at playing creepy, brings a braggadocio to his role that is refreshing.

Of the three main cast members, only Malek feels out of place. His sunken-eyed thousand-yard stare bespeaks someone with PTSD, not the well-adjusted family man his character is made out to be. The murky cinematography doesn’t do him any favors other than to highlight his ghoulish pallor. We know he’s capable of great performances, but his character is so underwritten that it’s almost criminal. If you’re going to cast someone like Malek in your film, you should better utilize him.

The plot feels like a pastiche of a fair number of era-specific crime thrillers; back in the Nineties, these sorts of movies were commonplace and often boasted A-list actors. As those types of films have largely fallen out of favor, we don’t see this kind of turbocharged cast in a thriller these days. I just wish they had a better film to work with.

REASONS TO SEE: Denzel is riveting (as usual) and Leto turns in a marvelous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the sitcom-y side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, disturbing images and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leto was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 2/2821)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Go-Gos
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Narco Soldiers


(2019) Crime (GravitasRafael Amaya, Carolina Guerra, Octavio Pizano, Ricardo Chavira, Ivo Canelas, Cody Kasch, Roger Cross, Carlos Naveo, Hector Anibal, Omar Patin, Axel Mansilla, Iban Marrero, Anika Lehmann. Directed by Felix Limardo

 

The world is often a strange place, particularly now. Movies reflect that, particularly now. How else do you explain Narco Soldiers? It is, in fact, a movie about how drug cartels can contribute to national pride.

Danny (Amaya) is a hired killer for a cartel run out of Puerto Rico by The Sarge (Cross). Now a free agent, he hooks up with Don Toribio (Chavira) to become a middle man in the Mexican and Colombian cartels. But Danny’s buddy Teo (Pizano), has a different idea; to create a cartel right there in the Dominican Republic. As his high-end girlfriend Marisela (Guerra) puts it, the Dominican has long been a place where other nations came to exploit with no benefit at all to the Dominicans. The cartels are just the latest in the long line.

As it turns out, Marisela is the brains behind the operation and she’s as ruthless as they come. Together, Teo, Marisela and Danny become a force to be reckoned with and build a cartel of their own. However, along the way they make enemies and you know what they say; the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

I like the Latin point of view here; most times, we get a more European look at the cartels, an American infiltrator or some such. Here, we see the bosses at the top. The problem is that they don’t really give them characters so much as roles; one is the muscle, one is the brains, one is the heart. We never get a sense of complete human beings behind the parts.

The script is also deeply predictable and even the action scenes don’t really add very much. That’s not to say that the action is done badly – it’s not – but there just isn’t anything that stands out. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but again, there’s a very “been there, done that” feeling to it. In fact, that could be the film’s epitaph; it’s okay, but nothing special. And it could have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes with a Latin point of view that is refreshing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very basic and workmanlike.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, drug references, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amaya is best known for his work in the Mexican TV show Lord of the Skies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mothman Legacy

Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (2019)


Thick as thieves.

 (2019) Crime Drama (1091Jesse Janzen, Dustin Miller, Tommy Koponen, David J. Espinosa, Jillian Rohrbach, Brett Rickaby, Atim Udoffia, D. Brad St. Cyr, Jeanne Young, Bobby Real, Courtney Conklin, Stacey Hall, Tyler McDaniel, Doug O’Neill, DeeDee Avert, Brian Barnes, Robyn Colburn, David Jon Foster, Christa Hewitt, Michelle Kuret, Melinda Rayne, Bunny Stewart. Directed by Josh Pierson

 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but you couldn’t prove that from the movies. For every Dog Day Afternoon there’s a The Sting. No, if you are a movie buff, the message you’re likely to get is that when in need of quick cash your most effective option is a criminal act.

Jeff (Janzen) finds himself in just that position. He owes the local crime boss – incongruously named Bunny (Udoffia) – more than 100 grand, and having just gotten out of the joint, he doesn’t have that kind of scratch on him. However, he’s been boinking the sexy blonde wife (Rohrbach) of a crooked land developer named Bob (Espinosa, the poor man’s Dennis Farina) and the two are in the process of divorcing. Tracy (the said sexy blonde soon-to-be ex-wife) is positive that Bob has hidden some of his assets – a half a million dollars’ worth – in the house in cash so that he doesn’t have to pay it to Tracy. Jeff hits upon the idea of robbing Bob and paying off his debt.

He enlists the help of his brother Barry (Miller) and best friend Tim (Koponen), convincing them that the job will be an easy one, in and out and nobody getting hurt. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen. Bob turns out to be home unexpectedly and the cash? Nowhere to be found. Now it turns into a test of will; how badly does Jeff want the money and how far is he willing to go to get it. For Bob, it’s how much is he willing to take to keep it. Which one will emerge on top?

This is one of those movies where the director wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell what kind of movie he wants to make – a smart, sexy caper comedy with snappy dialogue and humor that doesn’t lie in one-liners but in bizarre and outlandish situations. He wants this to be high octane with not much time spent on exposition, so much of that is done via flashback.

The problem with inserting flashbacks into a film is flow. Caper comedies, particularly, need good flow and that’s not easy to achieve. The problem here could be in editing, but I don’t think it was – I think it was in preparation. You need to know what your film looks like before you shoot it and if you’re ambitious enough to want to do a movie that relies as heavily on timing as this kind of movie does, you’d better know the timing down to the second. Unfortunately, we end up with a movie that’s rather choppy and goes into a flashback just as we’re getting into the story.

The performances are mainly okay although not dazzling. Janzen, who reminds me of a young Kevin Bacon crossed with an Entourage-era Kevin Dillon, shows the most potential as the sad-sack loser who is not nearly as brilliant a criminal mastermind as he thinks. He alone gets the sense of pacing in the dialogue.

There are a few plot holes – if this was supposed to be an “in and out job” where nobody gets hurt, why bring guns? Also, it’s never clear why Tracy tells Jeff about the cash stash. Still, those are minor issues that more experience behind the typewriter will help eliminate.

You get a sense that this film could have been better than it was. Hopefully, we can chalk it up to being a learning experience for Pierson because he does show some potential here. I think with a little more seasoning, he is certainly capable of making some memorable films. Unfortunately, this isn’t one.

REASONS TO SEE: Janzen reminds me of a cross between Kevin Bacon and C. Thomas Howell.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film has the pacing of an engine in need of a tune-up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, violence (some of it unintentional) and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature-length film for writer-director Pierson after having made eight short films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
What Men Want

Outlaws (2017)


Ba da bing.

(2017) Crime Drama (A24) Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessell, Josh McConville, Matt Noble, Aaron Pedersen, Sam Parsonson, Eddie Baroo, Aaron Fa’aoso, Jacqui Williams, Adam T. Perkins, Soa Pelelei, Daniel Pantovic, Moodi Dennaoui, Alex Arco, Gary Owens, George Houvardas, Gemma Sharpe. Directed by Stephen McCallum

 

Outlaws is the debut feature from Aussie Stephen McCallum, and it is equal parts Sons of Anarchy and grindhouse biker flick from the 60s and 70s. It features the Copperhead Motorcycle Club, whose president Knuck (Noble) has just been released from prison. His right-hand man Paddo (Corr) has been running things in his absence, and doing a good job of it as well; in fact, Paddo’s girl Katrina (Lee) would like to see the temporary in charge situation made permanent.

But Knuck’s wife Hayley (Kessell) doesn’t trust Paddo to step down quietly, and with the two women pushing their men towards it, conflict is inevitable. And with Paddo’s mentally and emotionally challenged brother Skink (McConville) providing the catalyst, things are just about to blow.

There’s plenty of violence and loud rock and roll, which is to be expected in a movie like this. While the acting is merely adequate, I suspect that the fundamental problem here is the script, which is a bit vapid and at times, riddled by logical holes. It also feels like we’ve seen all this before (we have, but on TV in the aforementioned Sons of Anarchy which is a much better viewing choice). While there are elements of Lady Macbeth in the two biker chicks and the plot is vaguely Shakespearean, the characters are mostly various degrees of deplorable and don’t inspire a whole lot of audience identification, unless beating up other people is your thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice pacing and fine tension level maintained.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is not very original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matt Noble, who plays Knuck, wrote the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews, Metacritic: 24/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Animal Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Here Awhile

Destroyer


Here’s a face that’s seen a lot of miles down a hard road.

(2018) Crime Drama (Annapurna) Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson, Zach Villa, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Colby French, Kelvin Han Yee, Joseph Fatu, Cuete Yeska, Doug Simpson, Kate Clauson, Jan Hoag, Cecily Breaux. Directed by Karyn Kusama

 

One of the first things we see in this gritty L.A.-set crime drama is the face of Nicole Kidman, but it’s not the glamorous beauty that we have come to know; her face is aging, careworn and dead-eyed, the face of someone who has had the shit kicked out of her by life and is just going through the motions until she dies.

This is L.A.P.D.’s finest Erin Bell, and she is damaged goods. An incident back in the 90s when she and her partner Chris (Stan) had infiltrated the gang of a charismatic bank robber named Silas (Kebbell) has changed her forever. Now, Silas is back and Erin knows that there can be no justice for one such as he unless she metes it out herself, and this is what she intends to do.

This is not the Nicole Kidman you’ve ever seen before. Erin Bell is a piece of work, as they like to say in cop shows. She bends the system until it breaks, has not a single relationship with anyone that can be termed even remotely healthy. She walks with a shuffle like an old lady going to the corner store to buy latkes but it is her eyes that generate the most hideous visage of all, the eyes of a woman who has seen Hell and understands that’s where she belongs. You won’t like Erin Bell much, but you’ll love the job Kidman does playing her.

You’ll also like the rest of the impressive cast, all of whom do sterling work. This is a sun-drenched film which is fitting; most noir films are more comfortable in nighttime settings, but this one demands the lurid, unflinching light of day. This is one of Kidman’s best performances ever and it ill serve as one of the talented Kusama’s better films.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman is an absolute force. The supporting cast is pretty strong, too.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is a little bit diffuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole mess o’ profanity, a lot of violence, some sexual material and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sebastian Stan originally auditioned for the role of Silas, but Kusama felt he’d make a better love interest for Kidman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brick Mansions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Social Ones

Widows (2018)


Dangerous deeds discussed in dark places.

(2018) Crime (20th Century) Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Daniel Kaluuya, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Lukas Haas, Coburn Goss, Alejandro Verdin, Molly Kunz, James Vincent Meredith, Patrese McClain. Directed by Steve McQueen

Viola Davis is one of America’s most underrated actresses and that considering that she has been nominated for an Oscar three times and won once (for Fences). So when I tell you that this might be the best performance of her career, and it wasn’t even one of the three nominated films on her resume, that might speak volumes about how the system

She plays Veronica, the widow of Harry (Neeson) who was butchered along with his crew after a job. As it turns out though, he stole two million bucks from a ruthless gangster (Henry) who happens to be running for Chicago alderman as the opponent of Jack Mulligan (Farrell), the son of a politician who together have been essentially running the Ward for decades. Now, with the gangster’s psychopathic brother (Kaluuya) hot on her trail, she knows she must resort tto literally using her husband’s playbook to pull off a much larger heist that will pay his debts in full and set her up for life, but she’ll need help. She figures the widows of Harry’s crew have both the motivation and the skills.

Oscar-winning director McQueen has assembled a cast that is without parallel. In fact, he might have done his job too well; the film is crammed full of interesting characters who all need more screen time than they got, so we end up with scenes that run too long and characters that overstay their record. A little less focus on the other characters would have made this a better film.

McQueen uses the city of Chicago perfect effect, whether in the mansion of Jack’s dad (Duvall) or in Veronica’s beautiful apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, or in the poorest corners of the largely African-American Ward, the movie is always interesting in a visual sense. The movie doesn’t have the humor that is usually found in heist films nor does it have that clever “we outsmarted you” gotcha that most heist films possess. This is far more brutal and direct. It works as a heist film, but it works even better as  a commentary on how wide the gulf between haves and have-nots has become.

REASONS TO SEE: A tremendous cast with Davis standing out particularly. McQueen has a great visual sense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long and a few too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Olivia the dog, who is heavily featured in the film, also appeared in Game Night.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 84/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kitchen
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Himalayan Ice

Uncut Gems


New York is Adam Sandler’s town; you’re just living in it.

(2019) Crime Drama (A24Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, LaKeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, Jonathan Aranbayev, Jacob Igielski, Noa Fisher, Paloma Elesser, Keith Williams Richards, Tommy Kominik, Louis Anthony Arias, Sean Ringgold, Jeremy Sample, Benjy Kleiner, Josh Ostrovsky, Sahar Bibiyan, Lana Levitin. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

 

There are certain people who just live for the rush. That high that comes from risk that leads to reward. These are the people who have their bookies on speed dial, who haunt the sports book at casinos in Atlantic City and Vegas.

Howard Ratman (Sandler) is one of those guys. A jeweler in New York City, his picture is what you’ll see on Wikipedia when you look up the word “hustler.” He always has some scheme going, some bullshit story that explains away the absolute crap that he pulls. His long-suffering wife (Menzel) is close to having had it; his mistress (Fox) who also works as a clerk in his store seems to be the only one who sees anything worthwhile in him. His kids certainly don’t. Most of his employees think he’s a jerk and of course the people he owes money to are about ready to drop him out of a window – preferably from a floor in the double digits.

He has some high hopes in a raw opal mined in Ethiopia that he has been trying to import (illegally) that will fetch him over a million in auction. He also has a thing for celebrities, including basketball legend Kevin Garnett – the movie takes place in 2012 when KG was with the Boston Celtics fighting in the playoffs against Philly. Howard wants to sell him some bling; KG has taken a shine to the opal. He borrows it (using his championship rings as collateral) and has a monster game, which Howard bets heavily on. He is juggling chainsaws, trying to move money around to satisfy the bookies who are sending increasingly irritable muscle to collect. Howard, though, is making moves, knowing that every move he makes may be his last.

It is not surprising that Martin Scorsese is one of the producers for this movie; the film has a gritty Mean Streets-kind of feel. The Safdie Brothers, who are best known for Good Time, know how to create characters who are basically unlikable but casting them so perfectly that you end up rooting for them. There is little to commend in Howard but because it is Adam Sandler playing him, you can’t help but hope the guy makes it through even though the odds are against him.

Sandler, who emerged from Saturday Night Live as a movie star with plenty of charisma and charm, has been suffering through a series of truly bad movies over the last years but his performance here cements his reputation as a dramatic actor of depth and talent. He’s got a legitimate shot at the Best Actor Oscar this year and he simply owns the screen from the moment he steps on it – even when it’s his colon that is the subject (don’t ask).

The big issues that keep this from getting a perfect score start with the score; it’s bad. I mean, the kind of bad that would ruin a lesser movie. It’s like Vangelis and Raffi had a love child and the proud parents gave him a toy synthesizer. Also, the Safdies sometimes seem far more concerned with style over substance. They displayed that more in their previous films, but perhaps their association with Scorsese has tempered that tendency. It detracts from the movie when they get into “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” mode.

The last 20 minutes of this movie are incredible, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. The tension that the Safdie brothers have built really pays off and it’s almost impossible to look away from the screen as things come to a head. This is not a movie for the faint of heart; those sorts are liable to get palpitations watching Howard try to survive and win his last bet.

This isn’t an easy movie to love but you might just end up doing it. I find myself thinking more highly of it now than I did when I walked out of the theater. This is the kind of movie that is going to have some pull in the Oscar conversation this year and while it may be a bit of an underdog for some of the bigger awards, it is certainly one of the best movies of the year regardless.

REASONS TO SEE: Possibly Adam Sandler’s finest performance. The lasts 20 minutes are absolutely riveting. A totally unexpected ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most. Annoying. Soundtrack. Ever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plentiful of f-bombs, along with a fair amount of violence (some of it startling), some sexual content and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the exterior of Howard’s Long Island home is the same house used for the exterior of Freddie Mercury’s home in Bohemian Rhapsody.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Owning Mahowny
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

A Violent Separation


Carrying her across a different threshold.

(2019) Crime Drama (Screen Media) Brenton Thwaites, Ben Robson, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Claire Holt, Ted Levine, Gerald McRaney, Francesca Eastwood, Michael Malarkey, Peter Michael Goetz, Isabella Gaspersz, Lynne Ashe, Carleigh Johnston, Cotton Yancey, Silas Cooper, Jason Edwards, Kim Collins, Morley Nelson, Bowen Hoover. Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz

 

The backwoods hide its share of secrets. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing just right you can swear you hear the trees whispering about dark deeds done in the dead of night, of murder, mayhem and cheating hearts.

Ray Young (Robson) is one of those country boys whom trouble just seems to follow. He’s a man who likes to drink and has a hair-trigger temper, not a great combination. He’s done some jail time for petty crime and makes up “the usual suspect” in the small Missouri town he lives in. His younger brother Norman (Thwaites) couldn’t be more different; a straight-arrow deputy sheriff who is painfully naive, romantically awkward and a bit exasperated by his hot mess of a brother.

Ray is on-again off-again dating Abby (Holt) who is a single mom whose baby daddy is Cinch (Malarkey), a construction worker built in Ray’s mold – this girl sure can pick them. Her younger sister Frances (Debnam-Carey) is quiet, upstanding and of course the object of Norman’s affection, although much of what she jokes about goes sailing over his head. Abby and Frances live at their childhood home where they take care of seriously ill patriarch Tom (McRaney) who trundles an oxygen tank wherever he goes but is not above roaring his disapproval over one thing or another at the sisters, particularly when Frances has the temerity to take away his smokes.

After the four young people go out for a night of drinking an dancing at a roadhouse charmingly known as The Whispering Pig, Ray predictably makes out with a barmaid (Eastwood) and gets into a fight that Norman has to come to his aid for. Furious, a drunk Abby gets into her car and peels out of the parking lot, leaving the other three behind.

The next day a badly hungover Abby takes her dad’s pistol and lambastes an equally hungover Ray, nagging him to teach her how to shoot which he is reluctant to do. The two drive into the woods where a terrible accident occurs. Ray panics and calls his brother to help him cover up his involvement. In a moment of weakness, Norman agrees to.

The town sheriff (Levine) is a pretty smart cookie and he begins piecing together the crime from the few clues that have remained. Norman, as a cop, knows how to stage a crime scene and manipulate an investigation. While the Sheriff (and a few other people) are certain that Ray had a hand in what happened to Abby, nobody suspects Norman. As time goes by and the trail goes cold the romance between Norman and Frances begins to heat up. However, the guilt both brothers are feeling begins to bubble to the surface and threatens to expose what they’ve both done.

The brothers Goetz seem to be waffling between Southern Gothic and neo-noir when it comes to tone and ends up being neither. For some odd reason, they decided to set the film in Missouri but filmed in Louisiana an it looks like Louisiana – why not just set it where you filmed it? Nobody cares overly much. Secondly, most of the main cast (with the exception of Levine and McRaney) are British or Australian. Not that the cast members (mostly of basic cable and TV pedigree) from across the various ponds can’t handle these very American art forms, but it just seems a curious thing hauling them all the way to the backwoods of Louisiana.

Actually, the cast is pretty decent although it is the veterans McRaney and Levine who steal the show. Robson and Thwaites capture a brotherly dynamic that feels authentic; having directors who are themselves brothers probably has a lot to do with it. The movie is reasonably suspenseful as the brothers come closer to cracking, although the “twist” ending feels forced and much of the movie loses its punch because of the melodrama that tinges the entire production.

There are moments of cinematic beauty which are provided by cinematographer Sean O’Dea; however, Evan Goldman’s score is intrusive and a little bit annoying. Overall this isn’t all that bad but there aren’t enough good things about it that really make it stand out among all the other movies that are out there at the moment. Fans of the various shows the young actors are in might get a kick out of seeing them in very different roles than they’re used to but otherwise, this one’s pretty much a toss-up.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography has some lovely heartland images.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t add anything to the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Michael Goetz, who plays Riley Jenkins, is the father of the directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews: Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder by Numbers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Aniara

Birds of Passage (Pajaros de verano)


Birds in plume.

(2018) Crime Drama (The Orchard) Carmiña Martinez, Josė Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, Josė Vincente Cote, Juan Bautista Martinez, Miguel Viera, Sergio Coen, Aslenis Márquez, Josė Naider, Yanker Diaz, Victor Montero, Joaquin Ramón, Jorge Lascarro, Germán Epieyu, Luisa Alfaro, Merija Uriana. Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

 

Some movies are great because of technical achievements. Others are great because their story has universal appeal. Others achieve greatness through a combination of those elements. Rarely, a film makes greatness because of an ineffable quality all its own.

In Northern Colombia, the Wayuu people have lived speaking their own language, with their own traditions and customs for thousands of years. They do not trust Spanish speaking Colombians whose culture is as alien to them as Japan’s might be; in fact, many Colombians are unfamiliar with the Wayuu.

At the beginning of the movie (which is divided into five cantos, or songs), Zaida (Reyes), the daughter of the clan matriarch Úrsula (C. Martinez), is celebrating her coming of age. Her position makes her quite a catch for the men of the clan. One, Rapayet (Acosta) is particularly eager to claim Zaida as his bride but Úrsula is less sanguine about the idea. She gives him a ridiculously high dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows and five precious necklaces. Rapayet, who is regarded with suspicion by the clan because he has had business dealings with non-Wayuu, is nonetheless determined to make Zaida his wife. He and his partner Moisės (Narváez) have been picking coffee beans and selling them but a chance encounter with American Peace Corps volunteers leads them to a more valuable cash crop – marijuana.

With gringo pilots set to deliver the goods to market and leaving them ridiculous amounts of cash, Rapayet prevails on fellow clan member Anibal (J.B. Martinez) to use part of his ranch to grow weed for him which they sell to the Americans at a massive profit. At first the arrangement works swimmingly and both Anibal and Rapayet become wealthy with the latter able to afford the dowry and wed Zaida much to the matriarch’s dismay. However, she eventually gets with the program when she sees the money and prestige her new son-in-law is bringing to the clan.

But things aren’t ducky for long. First, Moisės proves to be something of a loose cannon. Then, the son of Úrsula proves to be even worse, a disrespectful, entitled lout whose indiscretions threaten to bring the clan to a civil war. Rapayet is only able to watch helplessly as everything he loves – his family, his clan, his culture – slowly begin to circle the drain.

This is quite simply put a masterpiece of Latin American cinema. Gallego and Guerra – who directed the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent – have outdone even that movie with a film that is lyrical in content but with elements of a tragedy as well as a crime drama all rolled into one. While not at the level of The Godfather it is still a movie that is going to make a whole lot of impact on the genre.

The cinematography is breathtaking, from the lavish luxury of Rapayet’s hacienda, the desolation of the empty plain it sits on, the simple beauty of the village, the lavish costumes of the villagers and the beauty that is Colombia. It is a gorgeous movie to watch. There are moments and images that will stay with you for a very long time.

While the movie takes place between 1968 through 1980, the timelessness of the lives of the Wayuu really doesn’t give those of us who are urbanized a sense of period. That the story is so compelling also contributes to the timelessness of the movie – greed and pride often do lead to a fall and therein lies the tragedy. One ends up wondering if the drug importing hadn’t been introduced to the clan would they have ended up being happier? Certainly, more of them would have been left alive.

Clearly the filmmakers have a great abiding respect for the Wayuu culture and just as clearly much research was done into it. The co-directors are adept at telling their story and it never seems to go in the direction you think it’s going to with few exceptions. There is a bit of an element of morality play here but at the end of the day this is masterful film making that should be at the top of every film buff’s must-see list this year.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers clearly have a reverence and respect for native cultures. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is a compelling one. This film never goes in the direction that you think it’s going to.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence can be brutal and graphic which may offend the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and profanity, brief nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The co-directors were married but divorced during the production of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Jack City
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Roll Red Roll