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

Lawless


The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

(2012) Crime Drama (Weinstein) Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Tim Tolin, Gary Oldman, Lew Temple, Marcus Hester, Bill Camp, Alex Van, Noah Taylor, Mark Ashworth, Tom Proctor, Bruce McKinnon, Eric Mendenhall, Toni Byrd, Robert T. Smith. Directed by John Hilcoat

Crime movies about the Prohibition era tended to be centered in Chicago or other big cities and involved gangsters with Tommie guns in big cars shooting at coppers and other gangsters in glorious black and white. There haven’t been a lot of movies about the effects of bootlegging in rural areas except during the ’70s and those tended to be more corn pone comedies than anything else.

However bootlegging was a going concern outside of the cities as well. In Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers have become legends since their heyday during the Depression. The three brothers are led by taciturn Forrest (Hardy), the brains of the operation, who never met an awkward silence he didn’t like. Middle brother Howard (Clarke), more brute than man, would be the brawn of the operation other than he partakes a little more of the moonshine than he probably should. Finally there’s Jack (LaBeouf), a kid with big dreams but little backbone as yet.

The Bondurants mostly sell their liquor to Floyd Banner (Oldman) who in turn puts their product into his speakeasies. It’s a pretty cozy arrangement with the local Sheriff (Camp) looking the other way. However, federal agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) comes out of the big city with big ideas, a dandy fashion sense, a really swell haircut and enough corruption to rot every orange in Florida. He wants a piece of Bondurant pie and Forrest, well, he’s just not that willing to give it to him. So a kind of war erupts between the honest bootleggers and the corrupt federal agents. Welcome to the 1930s, Jack.

There are plenty of extraneous characters in the mix, like the waitress that Forrest hires to work their gas station/restaurant (Chastain), the daughter of a preacher that Jack falls for (Wasikowska) and the mechanical genius (DeHaan) who befriends Jack and becomes an integral part of the operation. There’s also plenty of violence, with gun battles erupting with a somewhat depressing regularity. Prohibition was no picnic after all.

Hilcoat, who teamed with Aussie alt-rocker Nick Cave (who wrote this based on a fictionalized account of the real-life Bondurant clan) on the highly praised western The Proposition (which also starred Pearce, come to think of it) has a good ear for period rhythms, not just in speech but in depicting the hard scrabble daily lives of those who lived in that era. He certainly managed to snag an impressive cast; even those in throwaway roles are high-powered and indeed they all deliver; there’s not a subpar performance in the bunch.

En route to becoming a punch line, LaBeouf had moments where his talent shown through and this was one of them. Although Hardy shows why he is today one of the biggest and most promising stars in Hollywood by making his character the focus of attention without using much dialogue to do it in, LaBeouf at least stays pretty much within shouting range of Hardy which is no mean feat. Both of them have to deal with Pearce’s highly mannered yet compelling performance as the movie’s ostensible villain which is ironic because he’s the cop and the good guys are the criminals. Oh, irony!

Speaking of compelling, the story is a good one and although not technically accurate – the real Bondurant brothers were not above being ruthless in their dealings and while the contempt they had for the federal government was likely quite accurately portrayed here, they weren’t saints. However, other than oral traditions about the boys, there isn’t a ton of information about them out there so we kind of have to rely on the words of witnesses long dead.

There are moments throughout when the story seems to lose its way and you can feel the movie sputtering a bit. However, Hilcoat is a director who I think should be getting a little more attention from the film cognoscenti than he has been and while nothing in life is certain, I think we’ll be seeing further interesting films from him in the years to come. Certainly with a cast like this he can’t go wrong and while the movie could have used a bit more judicious script editing, at least it’s never boring. Definitely a sleeper to look out for if you haven’t seen it yet.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful cast. Compelling story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit aimless in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence (some of it graphic), a bit of swearing and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer/musician Nick Cave wrote the screenplay based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of the Shia LaBeouf character and is based loosely on actual events.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of bootlegging in Franklin County, a featurette on the background of the Bondurant family and a music video by Willie Nelson.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.7M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, VuduiTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Road to Perdition
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Love and Mercy

Winter’s Bone


Winter's Bone

As the NRA says, the family that shoots together…

(Roadside Attractions) Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser, Shelley Waggener, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Isaiah Stone, Tate Taylor, Sheryl Lee, Ronnie Hall, Ashlee Thompson, Casey MacLaren. Directed by Debra Granik

Note: This is a film I first saw during the Florida film festival, at which time I posted a capsule review here on Cinema365. It is opening in limited release today, so here is the full review written back in April.

Life in the Ozarks can be as hard as bone and twice as frightening. It breeds hard people, tough people, people who will do anything to survive.

Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is 17 years old, pretty in the way of mountain folk, soft-spoken and polite. A girl like this should be in school, worrying about the senior prom or the math test next week. Instead, she has to deal with keeping her family fed. Her mother has had a mental breakdown that the medication doesn’t seem to help. Her father, Jessup, a meth cooker, has fled, leaving Ree to hold the bag and somehow take care of her younger sister and brother.

You won’t find Ree complaining, despite her dreams of joining the military. She’s mountain-tough and very practical. When the sheriff (Dillahunt) comes knocking at her door to tell her that her father has a court date in a week, that doesn’t surprise her. No, the surprise is that dear old dad put the house and lands up as collateral for the bail bondsman and has appeared to skip out. If Daddy doesn’t show up at his court date, the house and property will be forfeit.

Ree has no choice but to go looking for him. Having no idea where he might be, she starts questioning people who used to hang out with him but she runs into a surprising wall; nobody wants to tell her where her Daddy is, even though they are well aware of the consequences to Ree and her family if she doesn’t find him. Each person she questions is more frightening than the last, each more violent and more unpredictable. As Ree makes her journey with the help of her best friend Gail (Sweetser) and her dad’s brother Teardrop (Hawkes), the mystery will unravel before her eyes and she will have to be as tough as she’s ever been to survive the winter.

This movie got tremendous buzz at Sundance and rightfully so. I think it could well be this year’s Hurt Locker if things play out right. The movie was picked up by Lionsgate subsidiary Roadside Attractions with the intent of distributing the film on a limited basis, although the Oscar success of Hurt Locker may alter the way Lionsgate distributes and markets this.

At the forefront of the film’s selling points are the marvelous performances. Lawrence stands out as the young, plucky heroine who finds herself biting off way more than she can chew. It’s a performance that is surprisingly nuanced and incredibly mature, and is likely to bring a lot of well-deserved attention her way. Veteran character actor Hawkes (The Perfect Storm, “Lost”) is nearly unrecognizable as the taciturn Teardrop. He is the sort of man who explodes at the slightest provocation and even men much bigger and double tough think twice before crossing him. Teardrop also has a tender side that manifests itself unexpectedly. Although Lawrence will undoubtedly get the most ink from this, to my mind Hawkes also gives an Oscar-worthy performance here.

Director Granik uses the beautiful rural Ozarks as a nice backdrop, the stark winter images of the ramshackle houses and trailers, the forests and hilltops, give you a nice sense of time and place. She also gets the mentality of the mountain folk right; their nearly obsessive loyalty to one another, their suspicion of those “not from around here,” their violent tempers and the importance of music to their daily lives (even Teardrop plays).

This is another standout film playing the festival circuit (I saw it at the Florida Film Festival in April) and one that should it come to a theater near you is one you should go out of your way to seek out. This is a moving, stark drama, a hillbilly Hamlet if you will. There are noir-ish elements to it for certain, but the unsettling feeling that things aren’t going to end well permeates the mood. You can expect to see it on a lot of year-end top tens – including mine.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performances by Lawrence and Hawkes may very well attract Oscar notice. A gripping, powerful drama that will keep you squirming in your seat.

REASONS TO STAY: The tone may be a little too bleak for some.

FAMILY VALUES: A heaping helping of foul language, sudden and terrifying violence, depictions of drug use and a few disturbing images help make this a movie for the mature adults in your family only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Prior to this movie, Jennifer Lawrence was best known for playing the daughter on “The Bill Engvall Show” on TBS.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this may be hard to find in theaters but if you look hard enough it will be worth your while. If you can’t find it in your local art house, it will be just fine on home theater as well.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Goya’s Ghosts