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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Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace


The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

(1999) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Ray Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Blessed (voice), Lewis Macleod (voice), Sofia Coppola, Keira Knightley. Directed by George Lucas

 

sci-fi-spectacle

The Star Wars franchise has been a cultural touchstone for many since the film series debuted in 1977 and remains a beloved cinematic collection for most. However, none of the films in the series has been reviled by its fanbase as much as this one.

It starts with a breakdown in negotiations between the Republic and the Trade Federation (think Ferengi) to end a blockade around the planet Naboo, resulting in an assassination attempt on Jedi Knight negotiators Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor). The Trade Federation ends up invading Naboo and the two Jedi, aided by a Gungan (one of two sentient species on the planet) named Jar-Jar Binks (Best) rescue Queen Amidala (Portman) and flee the planet in her starship, sustaining damage and forcing them to land on a faraway desert planet with their hyper drive out of commission.

The desert planet they are stranded on ends up being Tatooine where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), a young boy who was born a slave and lives with his mother (August). Jinn notices that the boy is incredibly strong in the force; so much so that he has the potential to become the most powerful Jedi in history. As most fans know, what he actually ends up being is Darth Vader. They enter the precocious boy in a violent and dangerous pod race to not only get the parts they need to repair their ship but to win the boy’s freedom as well.

The Jedi bring back their findings to the Jedi counsel, led by Master Yoda (Oz) and Master Mace Windu (Jackson), along with the boy whom Qui-Gon puts forward for training. Yoda and Windu, both concerned about the boy’s susceptibility to the dark side, turn down the request so of course Qui-Gon decides to train Anakin himself. In the meantime, things on Naboo are coming to a crucial point and Amidala, frustrated that the Galactic Senate is too corrupt to act, returns to Naboo to lead her people in a struggle against their oppressors. That corruption is being fanned by Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who is orchestrating these events with an eye to eventually cause the Republic to crumble and install an empire with a Sith Lord at its head.

The effects for the film were in 1999 absolutely breathtaking. Lucas and his technical crew created a number of wildly different environments, from the undersea world of the Gungan people to the Venice-like capital city of Naboo to the desert world of Tatooine to the massive skyscrapers of Coruscant, the capital of the Republic. Each of the environments is distinct and realistic and paved the way for the computer generated worlds that we take for granted today in modern blockbusters.

The Star Wars series has never been noted for its character development and for the most part there is almost none here. Yes, familiar faces are around in the film which takes place more than 30 years before the original, including Yoda and droids R2D2 (Baker) and C-3PO (Daniels) the latter of which is essentially a skeletal frame of a droid that Anakin is building. We kind of know who they are because we’ve grown up with them and it is pleasing to see some of their backstory.

Unfortunately, Lucas wanted to make the movie more family-friendly which was a wild misstep. Binks has become something of a symbol and for all the wrong reasons; he is so hated by the fanbase of the films that his role was greatly reduced in the following two films of the trilogy – who can forget the rap parody starring Binks “Me-ssa So Horny”? The character was meant to be comic relief but ended up being a tremendous irritant.

I don’t like criticizing child actors because they aren’t equipped to deal with the criticism as well as their adult counterparts so I’ll criticize Lucas instead – putting Jake Lloyd in the role of Anakin, a role that was so super critical to the film was absolutely irresponsible. Not only does Lloyd not have the acting ability to handle it, his flat line reading and irritating demeanor stop the film dead in its tracks. Lucas should never have put a kid – any kid – under so much pressure. Lloyd did the best he could under the circumstances but I’m not sure anyone could have handled the scrutiny that Lloyd was under. As much as I sympathize with the youngster, there is no getting away that his performance is detrimental to the film overall.

There are a lot of good things about the film – the duel between Qui-Gon and Sith warrior Darth Maul (Park) is absolutely spectacular, one of the best in cinematic history. Still, this has to rank among the most disappointing films ever. The anticipation for a new Star Wars film was so great that almost nothing could have lived up to the expectations of the fans, but this was so far below the bar that the series had nowhere to go but up, but it would take 16 years before fans got the satisfying sequel they were looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Seeing Yoda fight is a completely badass experience. Neeson lends some much-needed gravitas. Park very nearly steals the movie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jake Lloyd is absolutely wooden. Jar Jar Binks is an abomination. The whole thing is entirely too dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of action and violence of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keira Knightley’s first name was misspelled as “Kiera” in the credits.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a series of a dozen documentaries produced for the film’s website; some of the footage from these docs appear in the main “making-of” featurette. There are also plenty of stills and animatics from the pre-production as well as a featurette on the making of the videogame based on the movie.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes, Google Play (purchase only), Fandango Now (purchase only)
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.027B on a $115M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix Revolutions
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?