Traficant: The Congressman from Crimetown


(2016) Documentary (Steel Valley) Jim Traficant, Ed O’Neill, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Sherry Linkon, Bertram de Souza, Jim Tressel, Judge Edward Cox, Anthony Traficanti, Tim Ryan, Vic Rubenstein, Rick Porrello, Don Hanni, Gerry Riccuti, Ralph Zerbania, Pat Ungaro, Bill Binning, Don Mumford, Vince Guerieri, Paul Cains, Joe Bell, Mona Alexander. Directed by Eric Murphy

 

Politicians come and go but sometimes one stands out, occasionally for all the wrong reasons. Jim Traficant, representing the great state of Ohio from his native Youngstown, did stand out for all the wrong reasons but also for all the right ones.

Even in high school Traficant was a bit of a maverick. The quarterback for the varsity, he was regularly benched for refusing to run the play the coach sent in. In the late 50s and early 60s that was a big no-no. Fellow alum Ed O’Neill – who went on to a successful career as an actor – recalls the time that Traficant threw a 70 yard touchdown pass and was immediately benched because the Coach wanted a running play. It’s guys like this that Traficant would fight against his entire life.

As the Mahoning County Sheriff, he was jailed for refusing to process eviction notices, throwing families out of their homes. Youngstown, which had a steel-rooted economy at the time, was suffering badly with double digit unemployment and the steel mills closing down like bowling pins. People were hurting and Traficant, the son of a truck driver, could empathize. After returning to the job, he went after the mob which was a big part of Youngstown life.

However it was Traficant who wound up getting scrutinized. Audio surveillance tapes linked Traficant with mob figures and the Sheriff was indicted. Defending himself rather than getting himself a lawyer, Traficant beat the charges using the defense that he was doing an undercover investigation of the mob so that it appeared he was taking bribes from the mob.

Traficant always had higher aspirations and went after and won the U.S House of Representatives spot for his district, which he would win four more times. Something of a gadfly, he had an eccentric haircut, an affinity for bell bottoms and was known to spout some pretty outrageous things from his bully pulpit. His favorite catchphrase was “Beam Me Up – There’s no intelligent life on this planet.”

An erstwhile Democrat, he clashed with party bosses and was often ostracized for voting against party interests. Still he was able to bring much-needed jobs to the Mahoning Valley and was so loved by his constituency that he was voted in with roughly 70% of the vote four times running, unheard of then and now.

However Traficant became a victim of his own hubris and his fall was as spectacular and as sudden as his rise. Documentary filmmaker Eric Murphy does a mighty fine job of chronicling the life of the maverick Congressman from Youngstown, making his film entertaining as well as informative. Although background information about his parents and childhood years is strangely missing, we get plenty of archival footage as we get to hear much of the bombast from the lips of the late Congressman.

Traficant was a populist in the vein of Huey P. Long and had a lifelong love of the spotlight. He would be the first Congressman to be expelled from Congress since the Civil War and campaigned from jail (and nearly won). Murphy tells his story with a fair amount of objectivity although his affection for the subject is clear also. The film feels a little bit like a television newsmagazine story but it also doesn’t shy away from pictures of mob casualties and F-bombs.

Murphy is a legitimate talent with a bright future. This is one of the better documentaries I’ve seen this year and it is absolutely mind-boggling that a distributor hasn’t picked this up. Keep an eye out on the website for upcoming screenings of the film, or you can rent it on Amazon and iTunes with hopefully more streaming services to come. This is one of those hidden gems that you’ve never heard of but when you see it you wonder why you haven’t. If you do see it, be sure and pass it on to your friends; word of mouth is the lifeblood of a film like this and it deserves a goodly amount of praise.

REASONS TO GO: An entertaining documentary that tells the story of a political maverick well. The editing of the film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: I would have liked a little more early years background of Traficant before politics.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and a few images that might be a little disturbing to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traficant passed away September 27, 2014 as the result of injuries suffered when the tractor he was driving on his farm accidentally rolled over him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiener
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Band Aid

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Tower Heist


Tower Heist

Ben Stiller brings up the Nutty Professor movies even though it's in Eddie Murphy's contract that nobody mentions them.

(2011) Caper Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Tea Leoni, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, Judd Hirsch, Michael Pena, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Van Wagner. Directed by Brett Ratner

It goes without saying that the new villains in the movies, reflecting our perilous economic times, are financiers. Most of us hold them responsible to a large degree for the woes we find ourselves in. Wall street is the new mad scientist.

Josh Kovacs (Stiller) works as the building manager for one of the most exclusive residences in Manhattan and thus one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. It is the home of the hoi polloi, the high and mighty – the movers and shakers of New York. He heads a staff that is renowned for their attentiveness and attention to detail.

Among the residents in the building one of the most famous is Arthur Shaw (Alda), a man who has managed the portfolios of nations. He is one of the world’s most respected financial minds, someone who understands the markets better than anyone alive. When doorman Lester (Henderson) opens the door for him, there’s just a little bit more deferential treatment for Mr. Shaw who is as down to earth as they come – playing online chess with Josh, who went to the same public school in Astoria that Shaw did.

A sharp-eyed Josh notices, while in security chief Manuel’s (Hernandez) office what appears to be a kidnap attempt on Mr. Shaw. He makes a heroic effort to rescue him only to be clotheslined by an attractive woman, who turns out to be FBI agent Claire Denham (Leoni). It also turns out that the kidnapping is actually Shaw trying to escape arrest. It turns out that Shaw has swindled all of his clients out of the money they gave him to invest and that money is all gone. It turns out that Josh had given the employees of the Tower’s pension fund over to Shaw to manage and that money is all gone too.

This is devastating for some. Charlie (Affleck) the concierge is about to have a baby. Miss Iovenko (Arianda) is studying to pass the bar. Enrique (Pena) just started working there. But it is most devastating for Lester, who was about ready to retire and also had given his life savings – about $70K – to Mr. Shaw to invest and was left with nothing, meaning retirement wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Disconsolate, he attempts to walk out in front of a train and is saved by off-duty police officers.

Josh doesn’t want to believe that his friend Mr. Shaw is a crook, but when he visits him to tell the house-arrested Shaw what has befallen Lester, it becomes clear that Shaw’s friendly man-of-the-people front was a facade. It also becomes just as clear that the money that the employees of the Tower have all been counting on is gone forever. However, Agent Denham lets slip that guys like Shaw always have a cash safety net available for emergencies and that they haven’t found Shaw’s yet. Maybe Josh can steal back what was stolen from he and his associates.

However, Josh isn’t a thief, as Charlie correctly points out. However, Josh knows someone who is – streetwise Slide (Murphy), a career criminal who lives down the street from Josh. Add the recently evicted Mr. Fitzhugh (Broderick) and Jamaican maid (and daughter of a safecracker) Odessa (Sidibe) and you’ve got yourself a gang. However can these amateurs make their way past the most sophisticated security system in New York and the ever-watchful eye of the FBI to get themselves a little payback?

It will probably not surprise anyone who sees this movie to know that it shares a writer with the Oceans 11 series. It has that element of camaraderie among thieves, the same kind of snappy dialogue. It does have some star power but after Stiller and Murphy it falls off somewhat, although there are some pretty good performances here.

The main one is Murphy, who after decades of doing forgettable family comedies finally goes back to the kind of role that made him a star, one that channels Axel Foley, Billy Ray Valentine and Reggie Hammond. This is not quite up to those standards, but it is his best role in years. He nails it as well, giving it that fast-talking con-artist veneer as well as that kind of bad boy ladies man that Murphy perfected 20 years ago and that comedians like Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker have all been channeling since then.

Alda, who was playing Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH” at about the same time plays maybe the nastiest villain of his career. Shaw is an arrogant, smug bastard who while obviously modeled on Bernie Madoff has a little bit of Leona Helmsley thrown in for good measure. It’s a delicious role and should go down as one of the most memorable movie villains of 2011.

Stiller is a bit of a cipher. He is likable enough but I think that the part would have been better with someone for whom larcenous behavior might have been more easily acceptable. Stiller seems better suited for characters who need less charisma.

Ratner excels in making mindless entertainment pieces and he does so here. There’s nothing much to think about and veteran moviegoers are for sure going to be able to figure out important plot twists (such as where Shaw’s money is actually hidden) well before the reveals. However, the cast is enormously appealing (the sight of Broderick reaching out of an open window to pull in their loot but afraid to move is one of the better moments in the movie) and the plot easy enough to follow. Don’t try to think too much about some of the plot holes and you’ll find this a pleasant enough movie, not a game changer by any means but a solidly entertaining diversion. Some critics will make it seem like that’s a failure but for my money that’s a big win for the audience.

REASONS TO GO: Fine entertainment. Eddie Murphy returns to form and Alda is a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too predictable in the plot points. Nothing really new here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and a smidge of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Trump Tower in Manhattan was used as the stand-in for the Tower in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The New York City vistas and the parade segment should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Due Date