White Irish Drinkers


White Irish Drinkers

Nick Thurston is oblivious to Leslie Murphy’s skepticism over the idea that a cemetery is an acceptable location for a first date.

(2010) Drama (Screen Media) Nick Thurston, Geoff Wigdor, Leslie Murphy, Stephen Lang, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, Zachary Booth, Robbie Collier Sublett, Michael Drayer, Henry Zebrowski, Ken Jennings, Regan Mizrahi, Anthony Anorim, Jackie Martling, Patricia Hodges. Directed by John Gray

 

We can choose our friends, so the saying goes, but we can’t choose our families. We’re stuck with them to a certain extent. We are also stuck with the place we are raised, and the time we are raised in. These are the things that make us who we are later in life and yet we have little or no control over them. I suppose in that sense we are destined to become who we are.

Brian Leary (Thurston) is a young man living with his parents in Brooklyn in the 1970s. His dad (Lang) is an Irish longshoreman who drinks night after night and often comes home drunk and belligerent. His ma (Allen) has the patience of a saint, can’t cook worth a damn and is a bit of a dim bulb but loves her son with the fierce passion that Irish moms are known for.

His brother Danny (Wigdor) is a petty thief constantly getting into trouble and often incurring the wrath of dear old Dad, who beats him like a drum. Brian is a sensitive soul who has a basement studio that he keeps locked away from his family. There he paints watercolors and has some real talent.

He works for a theater run by Whitey (Riegert) who is almost as decrepit as his rundown building which is slowly going bankrupt but salvation is in sight – Whitey has called in a whole bunch of favors and has gotten the Rolling Stones to play an afterparty concert there. Of course, life being what it is in that time and that place, Danny finds out about the show and decides to rob the theater of the proceeds and is eager to use Brian as an accomplice.

Brian is hesitant; this would break Whitey and might ruin the nascent romance he is kindling with Shauna Friel (Murphy), a young free-spirited Brooklynite who has plans to escape and make something of herself, although those plans are pretty vague. And at the behest of one of his friends, Brian has applied to Carnegie Mellon University to see if he can escape the vortex that is Irish Brooklyn, where his buddies aspire to careers as garbage men and cops.

Gray, who also wrote the movie, obviously has a great affection and understanding of Brooklyn in the time of Disco. I can’t say as I have any connection to the time or place by anything other than having seen it in movies of the time, but from what I understand this movie depicts it pretty accurately. Certainly you get a feel for time and place here which is essential for making the story work.

The acting here isn’t spectacular – you aren’t immediately overwhelmed – but it’s serviceable. Thurston and Wigdor are at the crux of the film and while they don’t amaze, they do everything right. There is a good chemistry between them and their relationship as brothers onscreen is believable. So too Murphy is also solid and her relationship with Thurston is similarly organic.

Riegert and Allen had a pretty sweet onscreen romance in National Lampoon’s Animal House but they don’t share any screen time here but both veterans are solid here, as is Lang who has by now become one of Hollywood’s most reliable screen villains. Here he is more of a presence but in the one scene where he has any sort of dialogue he delivers big time.

This doesn’t possess the kind of nostalgic glow that would make it a “Happy Days” for the 70s, but there is certainly some affection that the filmmakers clearly possess. White Irish Drinkers isn’t always pleasant but it has a goodly amount of heart and a goodly amount of grit in pretty equal amounts, making this a movie that resonates much more clearly than most films of this type do. Sure, the story isn’t going to set the world on fire but sometimes a familiar story told well can be as much if not more satisfying than a story that is innovative.

WHY RENT THIS: Evocative of era and place. Gritty where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might not resonate as much with younger audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: Basically this is non-stop bad language. There’s also a bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gray previously directed the 2001 remake of Brian’s Song for “The Wonderful World of Disney” and created the hit TV series “The Ghost Whisperer.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31,056 on an unreported production budget; it’s unlikely that the movie turned a box office profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Liberal Arts

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Kill the Irishman


 

Kill the Irishman

Don’t get Ray Stevenson angry – he can fart flames!

(2008) Biodrama (Anchor Bay) Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Fionnula Flanagan, Laura Ramsey, Steve Schirripa, Linda Cardellini, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

 

Here, at last, is a movie for which the Irish lament “Danny Boy” is quite literally appropriate for – and the filmmakers showing restraint unheard-of in Hollywood actually don’t use it. That’s at least worth some respect.

Danny Greene (Stevenson) was an enforcer for the Cleveland Irish mob. In his heyday in the 70s, he and his partner John Nardi (D’Onofrio) fought a war against the Italian mob that was epic in its viciousness. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded in the city as a direct result of the mob war.

He started off as a longshoreman rising up in the union. He eventually took over the leadership of the union (Merke) and would later be convicted of skimming funds from the membership. Once out of jail, he turned to crime as a full-time operation, working with Shondor Birns (Walken) but things go south. Greene requests a $75,000 loan to build a semi-legal drinking establishment; Birns entrusts the money to a runner who then proceeds to buy drugs with it, and is promptly caught by the police. Because Greene never received the cash, he refused to pay back the loan which had been paid for by the Gambino family, putting immense pressure on Birns.

Greene breaks away from the Italian mafia forming his own group mainly comprised of young guys of Irish descent, with Nardi as (kind of) their legitimizer. Greene is bombarded with several attempts on his life, including one where his home was hit by a bomb while he and his girlfriend were asleep. The house collapsed but Greene and his girlfriend survived, shielded by rubble.

Greene would attain legendary status in Cleveland. He often took care of those in need of cash in Cleveland’s Irish community and came out of every assassination attempt more or less unscathed. He became a darling in the Cleveland media and the bane of the Cleveland mafia’s existence. He also became an informant to the FBI.

This is based on a non-fiction book – loosely based I might add – that was written by a Cleveland police officer familiar with the case and with Greene (the fictionalized character based on the author is played by Val Kilmer in the film). That book was also turned into a documentary I haven’t seen yet, but the filmmakers here do a pretty credible job with it.

The cast is pretty spectacular for an indie, including Walken – curiously restrained as the racketeer who first came into conflict with Greene, and veterans Schirripa and Sorvino who have made careers out of playing Mafiosi doing stand-up jobs.

Stevenson, best known for his work on the HBO series “Rome” and for playing The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone (and doing both well) proves once again he is much more than an impressive physique. He catches both the larger than life aspect of Greene as well as his clever and sinister side. Greene was a complicated man as you can probably tell from the synopsis; he was equal parts folk hero, bullshit artist, criminal and killer. The movie tends to gloss over the killer part to focus on his folk hero standing; he is portrayed as a basically decent guy who just happened to kill people for a living.

This is an excellent cast top to bottom. Cardellini plays Greene’s wife and the mother of his kids in a role that could easily have been thankless but is given some sparkle by her performance, while Flanagan plays an old Irish woman who reminds Greene of his roots and isn’t afraid to stand up to the tough guy, to his amusement.

This takes a larger than life character and tries to compress him down into a two hour time frame which has its pros and cons. One of the cons is definitely that we really don’t see why Greene, who was so obviously bright and charismatic, went down the road of organized crime. It just kind of happens in the film and without any explanation. One scene depicting how he fell into it – or a montage if necessary – could have made for a bit more continuity.

Still, this is well worth watching. America has a fascination with criminals, from Jesse James to John Dillinger and Danny Greene could well end up having the same kind of cultural impact over time. He had a lot of blarney and a dark side as well, a combination that’s like catnip to our violence-obsessed culture. Although Greene considered himself as Irish first and foremost, he may well have been the perfect American anti-hero – living life on his own terms and by his own rules and the devil take the cost.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly stellar cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over some of the motivations as to why Greene got into crime.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, quite a bit of bad language and a helping heaping of nudity and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production shot at Tiger Stadium (Navin Field) in Detroit shortly before it was demolished.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an hour-long documentary on the real Danny Greene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget. The movie probably finished just a bit below breaking even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiseguys

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Savages