Gangster Land


This is how you vogue, gangster-style.

(2017) Gangster (Cinedigm) Sean Faris, Milo Gibson, Jason Patric, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Peter Facinelli, Mark Rolston, Michael Paré Sean Kanan, Al Sapienza, Don Harvey, Jason Brooks, Veronica Parks, Mark Krenik, Ronnie Kerr, Ryan Kiser, Danny Hansen, Joe Coffey, Shane P. Allen, Louis Fasanaro, Devin Reeve, Drake Andrew, James Bartz, Alan Donnes, Jody Barton, Kevin Donovan, Grace Fae. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

We Americans have always had a fascination with criminals. We have tended to idolize them and mythologize them, from Jesse James on down to Charlie Manson. We have a particular fondness for the gangsters of the Depression era; even though they were vicious, brutal men we can only help admire their brazen outlook as they lived life on their own terms – and often died by them.

This film is a fictionalized account of the rise of Al Capone (Gibson) as seen through the eyes of his top lieutenant “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (Faris) who despite his name was actually of Italian descent; he changed it when he went into boxing because he could get more bouts as an Irishman than he could as an Italian. After the murder of his stepfather by a rival Italian gang, he decides to throw his lot in with Capone who had seen McGurn box and was an admirer.

At first McGurn is just hired muscle for the Italian gang under Johnny Torrio (Sapienza) but he rises through the ranks with his friend Al and when Torrio is killed, Capone takes control and begins a ruthless war with the Irish gang of the Northside for control of Chicago. The Northside Irish gang is led by Dion O’Bannon (Rolston) and after O’Bannon is murdered, George “Bugs” Moran (Facinelli). He meets and falls in love with dancer Lulu Rolfe (Sigler) who is unimpressed at first – McGurn doesn’t have much cash and never thought much about dressing stylishly. However he wins her over and she is okay with his lifestyle as a mobster. Now known as “Machine Gun Jack” for his preferred weapon for murder, the war between the two vicious gangs quickly and decisively escalates culminating in an infamous massacre on St. Valentine’s Day that will change Chicago forever.

There is a B-movie gangster vibe here that recalls some of the great movies of that era, of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft only with graphic violence and plenty of foul language. Cinematographer Pablo Diez uses interplay between bright colors and dark shadows to give the film a kind of updated noir aspect that I found interesting. While most noir feels more natural in a black and white atmosphere, Gangster Land gave the color a very noir-ish feel which is quite the accomplishment from where I’m sitting.

There is a bit of an amateurish feel to the movie that negates a lot of the good stuff. The dialogue feels wooden and unnatural and the lines are delivered in a ham-fisted and over-the-top manner that considering the caliber of some of the actors involved is a bit baffling. It’s like they’re channeling a community theater troupe at times and that feeling is a bit disonncerting.

This won’t compare well to the better film of the genre like The Untouchables for example but it’s rip-roaring entertainment in any event. This is, to my way of thinking, more George Raft than Jimmy Cagney. Those of you who love the gangster movies of the 30s and 40s will find this right up your alley particularly if your alley is dark, foggy and filled with shadowy men in fedoras and overcoats furtively carrying Tommy guns.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography makes good use of light, shadow and color. Think of this as a nod to B movies with modern sensibilities.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is well over-the-top and sounds a bit wrong-headed at times. There is a lot of scenery chewing going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, gore, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McGurn eventually became a pro golfer. He was assassinated in a bowling alley in 1936, a day after the seventh anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No reviews yet. Metacritic: No reviews yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Public Enemies
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Shadowman

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Lawless


The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

(2012) Crime Drama (Weinstein) Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Tim Tolin, Gary Oldman, Lew Temple, Marcus Hester, Bill Camp, Alex Van, Noah Taylor, Mark Ashworth, Tom Proctor, Bruce McKinnon, Eric Mendenhall, Toni Byrd, Robert T. Smith. Directed by John Hilcoat

Crime movies about the Prohibition era tended to be centered in Chicago or other big cities and involved gangsters with Tommie guns in big cars shooting at coppers and other gangsters in glorious black and white. There haven’t been a lot of movies about the effects of bootlegging in rural areas except during the ’70s and those tended to be more corn pone comedies than anything else.

However bootlegging was a going concern outside of the cities as well. In Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers have become legends since their heyday during the Depression. The three brothers are led by taciturn Forrest (Hardy), the brains of the operation, who never met an awkward silence he didn’t like. Middle brother Howard (Clarke), more brute than man, would be the brawn of the operation other than he partakes a little more of the moonshine than he probably should. Finally there’s Jack (LaBeouf), a kid with big dreams but little backbone as yet.

The Bondurants mostly sell their liquor to Floyd Banner (Oldman) who in turn puts their product into his speakeasies. It’s a pretty cozy arrangement with the local Sheriff (Camp) looking the other way. However, federal agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) comes out of the big city with big ideas, a dandy fashion sense, a really swell haircut and enough corruption to rot every orange in Florida. He wants a piece of Bondurant pie and Forrest, well, he’s just not that willing to give it to him. So a kind of war erupts between the honest bootleggers and the corrupt federal agents. Welcome to the 1930s, Jack.

There are plenty of extraneous characters in the mix, like the waitress that Forrest hires to work their gas station/restaurant (Chastain), the daughter of a preacher that Jack falls for (Wasikowska) and the mechanical genius (DeHaan) who befriends Jack and becomes an integral part of the operation. There’s also plenty of violence, with gun battles erupting with a somewhat depressing regularity. Prohibition was no picnic after all.

Hilcoat, who teamed with Aussie alt-rocker Nick Cave (who wrote this based on a fictionalized account of the real-life Bondurant clan) on the highly praised western The Proposition (which also starred Pearce, come to think of it) has a good ear for period rhythms, not just in speech but in depicting the hard scrabble daily lives of those who lived in that era. He certainly managed to snag an impressive cast; even those in throwaway roles are high-powered and indeed they all deliver; there’s not a subpar performance in the bunch.

En route to becoming a punch line, LaBeouf had moments where his talent shown through and this was one of them. Although Hardy shows why he is today one of the biggest and most promising stars in Hollywood by making his character the focus of attention without using much dialogue to do it in, LaBeouf at least stays pretty much within shouting range of Hardy which is no mean feat. Both of them have to deal with Pearce’s highly mannered yet compelling performance as the movie’s ostensible villain which is ironic because he’s the cop and the good guys are the criminals. Oh, irony!

Speaking of compelling, the story is a good one and although not technically accurate – the real Bondurant brothers were not above being ruthless in their dealings and while the contempt they had for the federal government was likely quite accurately portrayed here, they weren’t saints. However, other than oral traditions about the boys, there isn’t a ton of information about them out there so we kind of have to rely on the words of witnesses long dead.

There are moments throughout when the story seems to lose its way and you can feel the movie sputtering a bit. However, Hilcoat is a director who I think should be getting a little more attention from the film cognoscenti than he has been and while nothing in life is certain, I think we’ll be seeing further interesting films from him in the years to come. Certainly with a cast like this he can’t go wrong and while the movie could have used a bit more judicious script editing, at least it’s never boring. Definitely a sleeper to look out for if you haven’t seen it yet.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful cast. Compelling story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit aimless in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence (some of it graphic), a bit of swearing and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer/musician Nick Cave wrote the screenplay based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of the Shia LaBeouf character and is based loosely on actual events.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of bootlegging in Franklin County, a featurette on the background of the Bondurant family and a music video by Willie Nelson.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.7M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, VuduiTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Road to Perdition
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Love and Mercy

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