Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist


The face of a modern barbarian.

2019) Documentary (HBO) Mohammed Emwazi, Richard Verkaik, General David Petraeus, Dr. Emman El-Badawi, Jo Shorter, Claudia Giarusso, Douglas H. Wise, James Foley, Jesse Morton, Nicholas Henin, Federico Motka, Simon McKay, Dr. Mamadou Bacoun, Richard Walton, Steve Warren, Robert Harrison, Diane Foley, Lord David Anderson, Bethany Haines. Directed by Anthony Wonke

 

News junkies will remember the saga of Jihadi John, a member of ISIS who beheaded journalists and aid workers on-camera after forcing them to read documentaries repudiating their home countries. What distinguished him from other terrorists was his accent; he was British and well-educated, nothing like the terrorists we’d come to expect. When he spoke of the United States or his home United Kingdom, it was in a voice dripping with venom and hatred.

Eventually, intelligence agencies identified him as Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait but brought to London by his family when he was six. By all accounts through teachers and classmates he was a shy student who was teased about his bad breath and who had a passion for Manchester United, the soccer club. He also liked to drink and watch The Simpsons. What led him to become a brutal terrorist capable of torture and murder, and of making videos so that his savagery could be seen in all its barbarity?

That’s the question that you would think this documentary was posing based on its title but you’ll be sorely disappointed if you do. We get lots of talking heads – often filmed starkly in pools of white light against black settings not unlike an interrogation – chatting about his upbringing, utilizing school mates and teachers (although no relatives who likely didn’t want to participate). From there we see him as a young man, wanting to travel to Tanzania to go on safari but by that point he was already on a terrorist watch list for his visits to Somalia and for some of his expressions of radical fundamentalist Islam. From there on, we are given the perspective of those chasing him, and those who survived capture (Motka and Henin) and relatives of those who did not (Haines and Diane Foley).

Wonke, a veteran British documentarian, gives us plenty of background behind the formation of ISIS and of the terrible deeds done by the group that elevated them even ahead of Al-Qaeda in the ranks of terrorist organizations. Still, we never really get much insight into how Emwazi became what he did. There are no a’ha moments, no major events that radicalized him. It seems to have been a process, something harder to document. Wonke chooses not to which is what makes this documentary so disappointing.

It’s not that this isn’t a useful film by any means – if you want to look at how ISIS and Emwazi in particular utilized social media to get their radical message across. We are also reminded how these men did unforgivable things in service to their religious message, a warning of the dangers of religion turned radical. This isn’t a film for the squeamish (although they have the decency not to show the actual beheadings but excerpts from the tapes just prior to the crimes) nor is it for the hateful but it is for people who need to be reminded just how warped obsessive belief can make even the most ordinary of people. I just wish that the filmmakers had been more successful in explaining how it was done in this case.

REASONS TO SEE: Utilizes recreated footage very nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really deliver on the promise to explain how he became radicalized.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emwazi attended the University of Westminster where he studied  information systems with business management, eventually securing a degree..
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teacher

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Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward

Journey to a Mother’s Room (Viaje al cuarto de una madre)


Mother/daughter relationships can be complicated.

(2018) Drama (Loco/Alfa) Lola Dueñas, Anna Castillo, Noemi Hopper, Ana Mena, Susana Abaitua, Marisol Membrillo, Pedro Casablanc, Silvia Casanova, Lucia Muñoz Durán, Adelfa Calvo, Maika Barroso, Beatriz Cotobal. Directed by Celia Rico Clavellino

Letting go is one of the hardest things a parent has to do – but they have to do it in order for their children to become independent, self-sufficient adults. Some find it much harder to do than others.

Estrella (Dueñas) lives in a small Spanish town in a small Spanish apartment with her daughter Leonor (Castillo) who works at the same dry-cleaning plant that she herself once worked in. The two watch telenovelas on the tube, sharing snacks and often falling asleep together on the couch. As for the dad, whether he’s deceased, divorced or deserted, it all amounts to him being absent and unremarked upon; his non-presence makes him no better than a ghost.

But like many young people, Leonor longs for more and after a friend returns from London and speaks glowingly about her experiences there, Leonor determines that she is going to have those experiences for herself. However, telling her mother that is another thing entirely; she’s sure that this will lead to an unpleasant confrontation. Estrella turns out to handle it a lot better than her daughter expects her to although she’s not wild about the idea; still, she realizes that her daughter needs to spread her wings and she can’t do that inside the nest.

Estrella is lonely without Leonor and lives for her daughter’s infrequent calls on What’s App. Still, when the boss of the dry cleaning plant (Casablanc) approaches Estrella with a request to make some dresses, Estrella finds a new lease on life and a purpose that until then had completely revolved around raising her daughter. As for Leonor, London turns out to be a lot different than she had anticipated.

This slice of life film is unusual in that it takes the point of view of the mother; rather than follow the younger woman to the big city, it stays in the small town with the mom and examines what happens with her when the walls close in and there is nothing but the silence to fill it. Fortunately for us, two brilliant Spanish actresses – frequent Almodóvar collaborator Dueñas and promising new face Castillo both deliver compelling and understated performances that smack of authenticity.

Most women are going to recognize the civil friction between the two, either from the mother’s or the daughter’s point of view. Each are clinging to something; the mom to memories of the past, the daughter to a vision of an unattainable future. Both have their delusions in their own way; both are resolute in sticking to them. The one thing that is certain though is that the two love each other and need each other.

My problem with the movie though rests with the pacing which is very slow, as well as the often-meandering story that sometimes chases its own tail. There seems to be a lot of script that could have been judiciously trimmed to make the story a bit more succinct. The ending also comes a bit more abruptly than I would have liked.

Then again, life generally doesn’t move in those cadences; life moves to a beat all its own and it is rare that we are in sync with it. There is a lot to recommend this film (and I do) but I can’t do that unreservedly without telling readers that there is a good chance that they will find the movie difficult. Still, I think an awful lot of mothers and daughters would benefit from giving this one a whirl.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very realistic portrayal of a relationship between mother and daughter.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unfortunately, the film is prone to meandering and then ends abruptly
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Clavellino’s feature film debut, she has directed a short film which won the Gaudi Award for Best Short Film, the equivalent of an Oscar given for films in the Catalan language of Western Spain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mothers and Daughters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Gloria Bell

Swimming with Men


Rob Brydon is reaching for something.

(2018) Comedy (Sundance Selects)  Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves, Thomas Turgoose, Jane Horrocks, Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Parker, Ronan Daly, Chris Jepson, Spike White, Robert Daws, Charlotte Riley, Aschlin Ditta, Harry Demmon, Andrew Knott, Christian Rubeck, Orlando Seale, Luca Ribezzo, Margot Przymierska, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

We all need to blow off steam. Some do it by playing video games. Others do it with hobbies like cooking, gardening and so on. Some self-medicate while others go the sporting route. Some prefer physical exertions; running, working out or swimming.

Eric Scott (Brydon) is an accountant who is spiraling into crippling depression. His job is as boring as you might guess it is, his teenage son Billy (White) has little use for him (as teenage sons will do) and he suspects his wife Heather (Horrocks) who recently was elected to the borough council of having an affair with her obsequious boss (Daws).

Eric waits for six o’clock to check out of life for a little bit, heading down to the local municipal pool to swim laps and sometimes slip to the bottom to drown out the noise of his phone ringing endlessly, no pun intended. There he meets a group of seven men who get together to practice a sport men generally shy away from: synchronized swimming.

Yes, it’s an Olympic sport but only for the ladies. I think men are mainly confounded by the concept of working and moving in unison to create something beautiful. For the most part, the guys that Eric hooks up with – depressed Kurt (Akhtar), confidence lacking Luke (Graves), petty convict Tom (Turgoose), recently widowed Ted (Carter), non-talkative Silent Bob (Jepson), The New Guy (Daly) who refuses to give his name, even though he’s been part of the troupe for more than a year, and frustrated Colin (Mays).

Pool manager Susan (Riley) who knows something about synchronized swimming since she’s dating the captain of the Swedish team, sees something in these middle-aged, paunchy non-athletes. She endeavors to train them, thinking that they can represent Great Britain at the unofficial world championships (and yes, that’s really a thing) in Milan. The men other than Luke (who has a sweet on for the taken Susan) are a bit reluctant but they decide to go for it.

There’s nothing easy about it though and the men find themselves suspecting they are in over their heads. In the meantime, Eric’s marriage is continuing to crumble at an accelerating rate and work has gone from boring to irrelevant. Still, now he has something to believe in – if only his team can believe in each other.

Brydon is in many ways a poor man’s Hugh Grant; he’s a very handsome man who somehow manages to project an almost hangdog expression. He’s the anchor for the movie in more ways than one. I’ve enjoyed him as Steve Coogan’s second banana in the Trip movies but he’s not here doing impressions or wacky voices but relying on his charm and his comic ability and there’s more than enough here to carry the film. That’s a good thing because for most of the first part of the film Eric is quite the jerk.

The rest of the cast, mainly acclaimed British character actors and veterans of British television, acquit themselves well although their parts are mainly one-dimensional. It’s actually a little comforting that sort of thing happens in the UK as well as here. Anyway some of the characters could have done with a bit more depth.

Not all the comedy works and the end is more than a little bit predictable but this is a movie with a whole lot of heart and charm and while critics tend to grouse about movies like this being emotionally manipulative (which never fails to amaze me – all films are to some extent), this one found it a nicely made movie that gave me enough of the warm fuzzies to make it more than worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is really nice. The ending is not a shocker but still heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: The supporting characters lack depth even though they are well-acted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Swedish men’s synchronized swimming team was played by the actual Swedish national swimming team. This film is loosely based on their story.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man on the Dragon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Snowflake

London Fields


There is nothing like a dame – take it from me!

(2018) Mystery (Paladin/Atlas) Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard, Theo James, Jim Sturgess, Cara Delevingne, Gemma Chan, Jamie Alexander, Jason Isaacs, Lily Cole, Henry Garrett, Jennifer Missoni, Alexandra Evans, Michael Shaeffer, Belle Williams, Emily Kincaid, Triana Terry, Hon Ping Tang, Chris Wilson, Chris Ryman, Rita McDonald Damper. Directed by Matthew Cullen

 

For my money, Martin Amis is one of the most gifted and interesting novelists in the world today. He has a way with words and imagery that few authors can match. He has a very cinematic style but oddly, the movies made based on his works have not exactly lit the world on fire.

This one won’t either. Nicola Six (Heard) is a woman with the kind of gift that you just wish you could take back; she knows when she’s going to die. She knows how she’s going to die (she’ll be murdered). She even knows where she’s going to die (in a London alleyway inside a car). She just doesn’t know who. Terminally ill writer Samson Young (Thornton) has done a home exchange with bestselling author Mark Asprey (Isaacs) who wants to get the flavor of Hell’s Kitchen from Samson’s grungy apartment. In the meantime Samson is hoping that his years-long writer’s block can be broken by a change of scenery and when he hears Nicola’s story, he knows he’s the man to write it.

Nicola has narrowed the “who” part of the equation to two men who both have romantic inclinations towards her; the coarse and amoral South End darts champion Keith Talent (Sturgess) who sees Nicola as a trollop and a sex toy that is his rightful due, and Guy Clinch (James), a posh and married industrialist who has money and the world’s most nightmarish kid. One of them is going to kill Nicola. Who will it be? And will they do it in time for Samson to get the whole thing down on paper before he cashes in himself?

The movie has all the elements of a great Amis novel – the whiz-bang satire, the noir overtones, the almost cartoonish characters with outlandish names – but it doesn’t have the energy nor does it have the inspiration. First-time feature director Cullen (known for having done Katy Perry videos, among others) inserts bizarre juxtaposing images throughout the movie which rather than enhance the flow of the story or set the viewer to thinking simply just takes them out of the movie and irritates them. I can’t tell you how many times I started reaching for the “off” switch before deciding to give the movie a second chance. To be fair to Cullen however it is likely that most of those images were inserted by the producers after the fact and against his wishes. Either way, they are deal killers.

That’s a shame because I was excited that this kind of cast (which includes Johnny Depp in an uncredited role as a gangster and rival darts champion for Gary) would be working on an adaptation of an Amis novel. While Thornton is always an interesting performer, the others either feel zombie-like (Heard) or over-the-top to the point where it approaches self-parody (Sturgess). The narration, which is meant to give the film a noir-like tone clashes with the British gangster movie that Cullen appears to be attempting to make. I think that the director had an idea in mind but I’m just not sure he executed it very well.

This was filmed more than three years ago and has been beset by legal issues and an ability to secure distribution until recently. There are some things worth checking out but really the only thing one could hope for from this disappointment of a movie is that it might motivate those inclined to be readers to maybe pick up the source material by Amis and give it a read. That would be a far more fulfilling use of their time.

REASONS TO GO: Billy Bob Thornton is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a whole lot of unnecessary surrealism.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a little violence and drug use, and a whole lot of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director sued the producers and the production company after alterations were made to the film that he hadn’t authorized.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 26/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trouble is My Business
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Go

The Public Image is Rotten


John Lydon considers his kitchen.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins, Lu Edmonds, John Rambo Stevens, Alan Dias, Bill Laswell, Don Letts, Pete Jones, Bruce Smith, Thurston Moore, Moby, Adam Horovitz, Big Youth, Flea, Nick Launay, Scott Firth, Keith Levene, Jebin Bruni, Ginger Baker, Andrew Perry, Michael Alago, Ian Mackaye, John Waters, Vivien Goldman. Directed by Tabbert Filler

 

At first glance, doing a documentary on his post-punk project Public Image, Ltd. (or more popularly known as PiL) doesn’t seem to be something John Lydon would be terribly comfortable. Music documentaries by their nature tend to look back; Lydon has always been more interested in what lies ahead rather than what lies behind. However, Lydon has turned 60 and when people get to be more reflective at that age.

For those who don’t know, Lydon was one of the founding members of the Sex Pistols, the band credited with igniting the punk revolution which led to a fertile period in which musicians explored new forms of pop and rock and created music that broke all the rules, then continued on breaking those rules again. The Sex Pistols imploded before much of that happened amid much acrimony; Lydon was famously sued by band manager and control freak Malcolm McLaren who prevented Lydon from using his stage name of Johnny Rotten; the memory still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth although when McLaren passed away in 2010 Lydon paid tribute to the impresario.

Nearly broke and without a means of making a living, Lydon assembled a new band that eventually was named after a book by Muriel Spark with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, Lydon’s former schoolmate Jah Wobble and Canadian drummer Jim Walker. The group released several albums and eventually fell victim to egos and contentious personalities. But that wouldn’t be the end of PiL.

Public Image Ltd. Has been in existence for 40 years now and has consistently pushed the boundaries of expectation, choosing to explore and invent rather than repeat. While they’ve only released ten studio albums in that period, albums like Metal Box and Happy? Have influenced generations of musicians, including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Moby and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who was once offered a position in the band but turned it down to remain with his old band), all of whom are interviewed here.

Lydon is a fascinating subject. He is known for his candor and occasionally for genuine introspection. He has a puckish sense of humor (he spends much of the film interview sequences in his pajamas, sitting at a breakfast bar in his kitchen, reheating his coffee in the stove. He is self-deprecating from time to time – he doesn’t take fame very seriously – but when it comes to the music his demeanor is all business. He also keeps his private life as private as possible. His wife Nora doesn’t appear on camera and Lydon doesn’t really discuss how he and his wife have raised her granddaughters (Nora’s daughter is the late Slits lead singer Ari Up) although he does remark that having the kids around has changed him.

Most of the film revolves around the band and Lydon is generally complimentary to former bandmates, although there are exceptions. Of Wobble he said “He contributed a lot but ultimately he took more than he gave,” referring to Wobble’s middle finger exit to the band. Filler at least gives equal time to some of the musicians whom Lydon has issues with. Lydon is a fine storyteller and many of his bandmates – particularly Atkins – are also fine storytellers as well.

Fans of the band – which I was not one of – will appreciate the concert footage of the group, including their notorious Ritz show in New York in which the band chose to play behind a theater screen leading to a near-riot which Lydon gleefully claims is maybe their best live show ever. I have to admit however hearing Lydon talk about the uncompromising nature of the band and their need to continually reinvent themselves made a fan out of me and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

If I have any beef with the movie is that we don’t get as much on what motivates some of the stylistic changes that the band went through. I think part of it is that Lydon insists on bringing in musicians who are inventive but also gifted players like Levene, the late John McGeoch, Alan Dias and even Jah Wobble. Still, this may be one of the best music documentaries ever made. Even if you’re not a particular fan of PiL you should still see this; you may change your mind as I did.

The film is currently playing in New York City but will be playing all over the country in the coming months. Orlando residents can see the movie in November as part of the Enzian’s Music Monday series. Tickets for that show are on sale now.

REASONS TO GO: The band’s story is truly compelling. Lydon is an engaging raconteur. The concert footage is wonderful. Interviewing Lydon in his pajamas at his breakfast bar in his kitchen is a stroke of genius.
REASONS TO STAY: We get little sense of the things that influence Lydon in his creative process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Filler’s first feature film as a director. He has worked as a cinematographer on other films including Sammy Gate and The Activist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: 
MDMA

Blue Iguana


The gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

(2018) Heist Comedy (Screen Media) Sam Rockwell, Phoebe Fox, Ben Schwartz, Peter Ferdinando, Simon Callow, Amanda Donohoe, Frances Barber, Al Weaver, Peter Polycarpou, Anton Saunders, Jenny Bede, Andre Flynn, Vic Waghorn, Glenn Wrage, Peter Singh, Pedro Lloyd Gardiner, Paul Chan, Danny Granger, Martin Muncaster, Jack Silver, Pamela Cook. Directed by Hadi Hajaig

 

Stephen Soderbergh is famous for depicting teams of con artists and thieves who are cool, competent and clever. Most times, criminals are anything but those three things. Generally, people go into crime because they don’t have the skills to make a living honestly nor any inclination to obtain any. They want to do things the easy way, not knowing that if you want to get away with a crime it takes some planning, foresight and knowledge.

Eddie (Rockwell) and his buddy Paul (Schwartz) are both ex-cons working in a New York diner while out on parole and trying to keep their noses clean. Into the diner walks a pushy English rose named Katherine Rookwood (Fox) who is the lawyer for an Eastern European businessman named Arkady (Polycarpou). She needs to use the two schlubs for a job in London which would be a clear parole violation but she’s got that all covered.

What she needs is for them to steal a gym bag at one of the museums. If she retrieves the bag, it will erase a crushing debt she’s been trying to work off to the businessman. However, things don’t go entirely to plan; it turns out that the two Americans are way over their heads. Arkady has in his employ a mullet-wearing thug named Deacon Bradshaw (Ferdinando) who has serious mommy issues particularly since his mom (Donohoe) is oversexed and abusive. There are also much bigger fish to fry, particularly after Eddie and Paul – and Katherine as well – are double-crossed by Deacon and his violent thugs.

They work out a plan to take back what they lost and maybe get a little bit more – ok a lot more – than they would have gotten out of the deal; that is if they can keep their butts out of the crossfire. Not necessarily an impossible task since nobody in either gang can shoot worth a damn.

The first thing that came to mind as I watched this was that it’s Soderbergh on a budget. It crosses British gangster films with American heist movies which is a natural mix but one that really hasn’t been tried often until now (other than by Danny Boyle to my knowledge). In addition, it has the always watchable Sam Rockwell leading the cast.

He’s watchable enough here but he’s not nearly as manic as he normally is. The movie could have used a little more energy from Rockwell surprising to say and at the end of the day it is Fox who commands most of the kudos for her performance here. Her character does a lot of eating and if anyone can look endearing with a blog of ketchup on her chin, it’s Fox.

There is a lot of quirky charm in the movie; I liked Ferdinando as the volatile thug Deacon. He goes on profanity-laced rants when his underlings mess up which is just about all the time. Few can curse as well as a Cockney and Ferdinando makes a running gag out of it; in fact, Rockwell makes a point of trying to learn how to do the Cockney accent although to judge how effective he is you’d have to ask a true Cockney. My guess is “not well.”

Towards the end things start getting increasingly violent and that’s where the movie shines. There are several demises that are extremely bloody (particularly the very last one) and Hajaig handles them with a deft comedic flair. There were some moments that left me chuckling (although none that left me doubled over with laughter) and a few moments where I thought they missed the mark, particularly early on. One of my favorite running jokes is that nobody in the film can shoot worth a damn; I’m talking couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a basketball from five feet away type of shooting.

I like these sorts of movie and while the reviews thus far have been pretty poor, I actually thought this was a solidly entertaining and often fun piece of work. Yeah, there are a lot of clichés – you know that Eddie and Katherine are going to get romantic and they do – but for the most part, the fast pace and the humor keep you from wanting to check your cell phone too much. You may think that’s faint praise but in 2018 that’s actually an accomplishment.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky but entertaining. There are some truly inventive moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Rockwell’s performance is oddly subdued.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity, violence and a smattering of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The blue iguana is an actual breed of iguana that is indigenous to the Cayman Islands.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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