Small Crimes


I was just starting to look up to Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.

(2017) Crime Drama (Netflix) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Robert Forster, Jacki Weaver, Molly Parker, Gary Cole, Macon Blair, Michael Kinney, Daniela Sandiford, Shawn Lawrence, Pat Healy, Eddie Holland, Jasson Finney, Anatoly Zinoviev, Glen Bowser, Larry Fessenden, Tara Yelland, Derek Barnes, Tyrone Benskin, Frank Schorpion, Alex Stines, Stéphane Julien, Julia Dawi. Directed by E.L. Katz

 

There are those who say they make their own luck and I suppose there is some truth to that. Some people absolutely refuse to let themselves get down; they do whatever it takes to succeed. Conversely there are also people who always seem to be on the losing end of life; they self-sabotage through bad decision making. They truly seem born to lose.

Joe Denton (Coster-Waldau) is one such sort. Recently released from prison after a six year stint, he was once a police officer in a rural Midwestern town who was convicted of conspiracy of trying to murder the district attorney Phil Coakley (Kinney). Corrupt and a raging alcoholic as a law enforcement officer, he has found sobriety in the joint and emerges hoping to turn his life around.

He moves back in with his parents Joe Sr. (Forster) and Irma (Weaver). Ma Denton in particular is suspicious of her son; she doesn’t really believe he’s truly capable of change. Joe is looking to reconnect with his ex-wife and resume being a father again but a single telephone call is sufficient for Joe to back off after a half-hearted attempt.

His ex-partner Lt. Pleasant (Cole) has some worries of his own; not so much about Joe who kept quiet about his involvement even in the face of a prison sentence, but against local crime boss Manny Vassey (Lawrence) who is dying of cancer and has found Jesus; Pleasant is concerned that Vassey might decide to unburden his soul before departing this green earth and in the process incriminate Pleasant.

Joe makes a bee line for the nearest bar and before you know it has fallen off the wagon. He begins to sink into old habits, alarming his mother and a botched attempt to kill Manny brings Joe under the watchful psychotic eye of the mobster’s son Junior (Healy). The lone bright spot in Joe’s life is his budding romance with hospice nurse Charlotte Boyd (Parker) who has baggage of her own, but even this potential game-changer may not be what it appears to be; Charlotte’s only client is Manny Vassey. And so things are beginning to spiral down towards a confrontation as Joe struggles to figure out how to get out of this rapidly deteriorating situation. Knowing Joe, things won’t end well for anybody.

This film had a solid debut at South by Southwest last year followed up with a fairly inconspicuous release on Netflix. The streaming giant has been a big player on the film festival circuit, snagging some prestige properties for their service while showing off some of their own original content. This one, while purchased at SXSW falls more in the mold of filler.

Coster-Waldau is best known as Jamie Lannister on the HBO hit series Game of Thrones and has enormous upside. He plays both hero and villain well which makes sense as Jamie is a little bit of both. He’s had a few high-profile roles but none have really put him over that cinematic hump yet. Here the best moments belong to Forster who is absolutely marvelous. Joe Sr. hopes against hope that his son will turn the corner but the guarded look in his eyes tells us that he doesn’t really expect him to.

I was heartened to find out this was written by Macon Blair, who directed the marvelous Blue Ruin and has written a number of highly regarded gritty indie films. Based on a David Zeltserman novel of the same name, the movie is unrelentingly downbeat. Blair has almost no exposition in the movie whatsoever other than some desultory pillow talk late in the movie; mysterious events are referred to and characters pop in and out of the movie that Joe apparently has some sort of previous relationship with but we are never informed about the nature of those events or the relationships with these people.

Blair is outstanding when it comes to writing male-oriented tough guy material but there is a little too much testosterone flowing for my own personal tastes, a little bit too much macho preening. At the end of the day this is a fairly typical “ex-con struggles to get his life back together despite enormous obstacles and a past that won’t let him go” type of film and although there are a few interesting twists and turns here, eventually when all is said and done Small Crimes adds nothing to the genre. The characters across the board are all unlikable and despite Coster-Waldau’s native charm, he isn’t able to make the character rise above his own flaws and be relatable. By the end of the movie most viewers will pretty much have written off Joe much as his parents have, much as everyone else around him has. Some people, this movie seems to opine, are genetically pre-disposed to fail and that’s such a bleak outlook on people that I find it hard to support a movie that believes that.

REASONS TO GO: Coster-Waldau is always engaging and the rest of the cast does exemplary work. The filmmakers pull no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much testosterone flowing for my own taste. The film is very much a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence, drug use and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the novel that the film is based on, Phil Coakley and his daughter are both white; in the film, they’re African-Americans.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Justice League

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Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises