The Unforgivable


Ruth Slater doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror.

(2021) Drama (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Benthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Aisling Franciosi, Emma Nelson, Will Pullen, Thomas Guiry, Jessica McLeod, Rob Morgan, Andrew Francis, W. Earl Brown, Neli Kastrinos, Orlando Lucas, Jude Wilson, Paul Moniz de Sa, Craig March, Alistair Abell, Donavon Stinson, Patti Kim, Jessica Charbonneau. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt

 

For most of us, our indiscretions are generally of a minor nature, and we move on from them with a minimum of fuss. However, there are certain actions that we might take that cannot be so easily forgiven and certainly not forgotten.

Ruth Slater (Bullock) has just emerged from prison after twenty years, with time off for good behavior. Her crime? She killed a cop (Brown) who was there to evict her and her five-year-old sister Katie (Kastrinos) from their farmhouse in rural Washington state. Ruth hopes to get back to a relatively normal life, but her unsmiling parole officer (Morgan) disabuses her of that notion immediately. “You’re a cop killer wherever you go,” he informs her and soon he turns out to be right.

But that doesn’t deter Ruth from going on a quest to find her lost little sister, now grown to adulthood and going by the name Katherine Malcolm (Franciosi). She’s a talented pianist, and her well-to-do adoptive parents Michael (Thomas) and Rachel (Emond) couldn’t be prouder. They are aware that Ruth is out, but it’s unlikely that Ruth can find them, so they don’t tell Katherine about it. However, the Sheriff’s sons – Steve (Pullen) and Keith (Guiry) – are also aware of her release, and Keith is none-too-pleased about it either. He doesn’t think 20 years is nearly enough for the murder of his father and wants to take a further pound of flesh. Keith feels more of a live-and-let-live nature, but that mollifies his brother not at all.

When Ruth visits the old farmhouse, she finds it nicely renovated by the couple living there – John (D’Onofrio) and Liz (Davis) Ingram. When Ruth discovers John is a lawyer, she opens up a little to him and he is convinced to help her find her sister, pro bono. Liz does some research of her own and is appalled to discover the truth, and confronts John with it, reminding him (accurately) that if it had been one of his black sons who had murdered the cop, he would never have made it to prison – he’d likely have been shot dead on the spot, and even if he had been tried and convicted, time off for good behavior would have been unlikely at best.

In any case, things boil to a head as John finds Katherine and the adoptive parents express their reluctance and eventual refusal to reunite the sisters. “What good would it do?” muses Michael. And Keith has a change of heart and ends up going after Katherine…but messes up and kidnaps the other daughter of the Malcolms, Emily (Nelson). As events come to a climax, we discover the truth of what really happened to the sheriff and why.

I liked this movie probably a little more than it deserved. A large reason why has to do with Bullock’s performance; it’s unlike anything she’s ever done. It isn’t a movie star performance; it’s the performance of an actress at the top of her game, and it’s not all about her line reading or even her facial expressions. You can see Ruth is a damaged, wounded person by the haunted look in her eyes. It doesn’t hurt that Bullock has a plethora of great actors around her, particularly Viola Davis, an Oscar winner who always seems to turn in an outstanding job no matter how small the role. D’Onofrio, Morgan, Bernthal and Thomas are also effective.

The reason it may not necessarily deserve my love is that the movie has a lot of contrivances; some of the plot points feel like they are there mainly to move the story to the conclusion the writers want, rather than a natural, organic progression from point A to point Z. One of the most egregious examples is the abrupt character turn of Keith. Nothing against the actor playing him, but he turns 180 degrees in attitude; there should have been a hint beforehand of his inner rage. I suppose the filmmakers wanted to make that turn a shock, but they ended up making it unbelievable.

Although set in Washington state, the movie was mainly filmed in British Columbia. The landscapes are suitably bleak and washed out (except, ironically, at the farmhouse). The urban scenes have a gritty, streetwise feel to them and the tough guy demeanor that Bullock adopts for her character feels like something someone who had to survive in prison would have to do once they got out.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, nor is it free from flaws. Still, there is a performance here worth checking out and overall, the movie is grim but effective. Not Oscar bait so much, but the kind of movie Scorsese might approve of.

REASONS TO SEE: Bullock gives a haunting performance, with a fine supporting cast. Realistic and gritty. Looks at the repercussions of tragedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contrived in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2009 British miniseries, the film was originally meant for Angelina Jolie in the lead (although she never officially signed on) and was in on-again, off-again development before being resurrected in 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Destroyer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Jockey

Last I Heard


Michael Rappaport finally figures out that Mira Sorvino is Paul's daughter.

Michael Rappaport finally figures out that Mira Sorvino is Paul’s daughter.

(2013) Dramedy (Cine Relevante) Paul Sorvino, Michael Rappaport, Renee Props, Andrea Kelly, Lev Gorn, Steven Bauer, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Ben-Victor, Hassan Johnson, Johnny Williams, Andrea Navedo, Roberta Wallach, D. Kevin Kelly, William de Paolo, Michael Sorvino, Logan Crifasi-Zenie, John Damroth, Andrea Verdura, Mario Ruffo, Olivia Panepinto. Directed by David Rodriguez

Florida Film Festival 2014

There’s no doubt that the Mafia isn’t what it used to be. Once the most powerful criminal organization on earth, it has become a shadow of itself, most of its most feared figures in jail, dead or worse, grown old.

Joseph “Mr. Joe” Scoleri (Sorvino) is in that lamented latter category. Released after a 20 year stint in the pen, he has a bum ticker, no money and is forbidden contact with anyone involved with crime – in short, just about everyone he knows. He lives with his daughter Rita (Props) who scarcely knows her dad, given that he essentially spent nearly her entire life in prison.

The world has changed a great deal since Joe went away and not just in the size of cell phones. The neighborhood has changed as well. There was respect there once but now Joe is just another old man tottering along the sidewalk to wherever it is that old men go.

But for his next door neighbor Bobby DiBianco (Rappaport), Joe is still an object of hero worship. Guys like him kept the neighborhood safe enough so a woman could walk untroubled to the corner store for a carton of milk in the middle of the night. Guys like him kept drugs and gangs out. Guys like him took care of guys like Bobby.

Now, Bobby is going to take care of Joe as best he can – run errands for him, take him to the doctor, that kind of thing. That kind of closeness attracts attention – from Dominic Salerno Jr. (Gorn), the last guy standing with any connection to the Mob and who sees Joe as someone who can legitimize him, and from the FBI who wonder if Joe is using Bobby as some kind of front. Bobby explains to them that in THIS neighborhood in Staten Island, people take care of each other. That’s the way it’s always been and as long as he’s around, that’s the way it will always be.

The truth is that Bobby is just a deli owner who’s never gotten into trouble and when Joe asks him to get in touch with one of Joe’s old mob friends, he balks. Joe sees this as disloyalty and a rift is driven between the two of them. Joe’s old school ways also create an issue with his daughter who is as 21st century as they get. Considering how bad Joe’s heart is, his time is running out – can he square things with those he cares about most before his ticker stops ticking?

Most mob pictures fall into two categories – the heavy dramas a la Scorsese and Coppola, and the lighter comedies like Analyze That and Mickey Blue Eyes.  This one falls somewhere in between. Director Rodriguez has described it as a “post-Mafia picture” – which can be interpreted as what happens when one retires from the Mafia or what happens after the Mafia becomes less relevant. Both apply here.

There are some issues here. The dialogue is really repetitive and points are hammered home over and over again until you want to go medieval on the screenwriters and scream as you beat them into a bloody mess “We get it, we get it!!!!” Just a cursory editing of the script might have lopped a good 20-30 minutes off the running time. That’s time that could have been used in further developing the Rita character who could have used a little more screen time.

Sorvino though gives a powerful enough performance that at least in my case I was willing to overlook the script flaws. Rodriguez wisely allows Sorvino’s craggy features to tell much of the unsaid story and the character’s confusion and frustration come through loud and clear without him having to yell – although he occasionally does that too.

Rappaport excels at playing the nice guy next door so this is right in his wheelhouse. Rappaport’s genuine likability plays off nicely of Sorvino’s curmudgeon. Many of the best scenes in the movie involve the interaction between the two.

The way the movie ends is not entirely unexpected given what comes before, but what comes before is largely fresh and new. This is a viewpoint we haven’ t seen previously; the closest that we’ve come is The Sopranos. While this isn’t the slam dunk it might have been had the writing been a little more precise, it still is worth checking out just for the premise and Sorvino alone.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and chemistry from Sorvino and Rappaport. Different take on the Mafiosi than we normally see in the movies.

REASONS TO STAY: Often repetitive. Dialogue is stilted. The ending is kind of predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and some disturbing violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although both are veterans of many Mafia-themed films, this marks the first on-screen appearance together for Sorvino and Palminteri.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Analyze This

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Stone


Stone

Milla Jovovich gets steamy with Robert De Niro in hopes it might win her an Oscar.

(2010) Thriller (Overture) Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Rachel Loiselle, Peter Lewis, Sandra Love Aldridge, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sarab Kamoo, Dave Hendricks, Rory Mallon. Directed by John Curran

Some of us go through life as blunt objects. We’re cudgels, beating people over the head until they realize what we’re trying to get across. Others of us are sharp objects. We’re scalpels, sliding in unnoticed and making changes in the minds of others sometimes without them even knowing it.

Jack Mabrey (De Niro) is a cudgel. He is a parole officer at a Michigan prison, close to retirement and welcoming not having to deal with the lowlifes and scumbags that he is forced to release back into society. Then again, Jack is no saint either; when his wife threatened to leave him some years back, he counter-threatened her by dangling their baby out the window and promising to drop it three stories onto the pavement. Mrs. Mabrey (Conroy) decided to stay, finding solace in religion which Jack seems to accept; he listens to religious programming on the radio.

His last case is to be Gerald Creeson (Norton) who goes by the nickname of Stone. All corn rows and badass talk, Stone wants to be paroled in the worst way. He’s quite a manipulator, not above using his very hot and sexy schoolteacher wife Lucetta (Jovovich) to seduce Jack. And Jack, for all his Christian values and professional ethics, isn’t above being seduced.

The questions become who is playing who in this scenario. How far is Lucetta willing to go to get her husband out of prison? Is Stone aware of what she’s doing or she the one pulling the strings? Is Jack more aware of what’s happening than he lets on?

This is not your typical drama – it’s not a procedural on the parole system, for one. It’s almost Southern gothic despite its Michigan setting and it’s a script that doesn’t assume the people who are watching the movie are drooling idiots. No wonder it bombed at the box office.

In fact, sometimes the movie is a bit too smart for its own good; you’re constantly left wondering who’s doing what to who and what’s really going on and at some point after all that build-up you want an answer to those questions that will be impressive – and when you don’t get one, you kind of feel let down.

You won’t be let down by the acting here. De Niro is a powerful presence and while this isn’t Jake La Motta or Vito Corleone, he imbues Mabry with a kind of brutal gravitas. It’s the kind of work only De Niro can do, and when he is on his game as he is here, you can see why he’s one of the best that ever was.

Norton is also one of the best actors out there and he has an entirely different role, one which shows his versatility. He is white ghetto trash; a rap-listening corn-rowed trickster who gets off on making people dance to his tune. It’s a powerful performance, as different as night and day as De Niro’s but equally as impressive.

What is surprising is Jovovich who isn’t ordinarily thought of as the same caliber of actress as the two male leads but she holds her own. Her character is vivacious, charming, calculating, cunning, sweet, sexy and devious all at once. It’s a marvelous character which makes you look at your local schoolmarm with different eyes.

Where the film falls down is surprisingly on one of its strengths; it’s intelligence. You are given so many scenarios and so many questions that your head can’t really wrap around them all. While repeated viewings might solve this problem, this really isn’t a movie I’d want to see repeatedly. Also, I had trouble with the relationship between Stone and Lucetta; it needed to be spelled out a bit better.

Usually I don’t have an issue with smart films, but you can’t be smart for no other reason than to be smart. There has to be some rhyme and reason and if it isn’t there, you’re going to give your audience a headache. You don’t want your viewers first impulse to be to grab the Excedrin; that’s a bad thing. Still, there are some elements that are gripping and seeing De Niro and Norton at their best is surely worth considering.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro, Norton and Jovovich all contribute strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cerebral plot overthinks things. Some of the characterizations don’t ring true.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, a little violence and a whole lot of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filming location for the prison scenes, the Prison of Southern Michigan, was once the largest walled prison in the world.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Cell