Wrestling Alligators


And bingo was his game-o.

And bingo was his game-o.

(2016) Documentary (Seventh Art) James Billie, Peter Gallagher, Jeff Testerman, Tim Cox, Bruce Rogow, Max Osceola, Dr. Patricia Wickman, David Cordish, Howard Tommie, Patsy West, Robert Butterworth, Jim Allen, Maria Lorts Sachs, Dr. Katherine Spidel. Directed by Andrew Shea

Florida Film Festival 2016

When people think of Native Americans, often we look to the stereotypes that we receive from Hollywood. We picture them on their reservations, putting on shows for tourists and living in abject poverty. To a certain extent, that has been true although that’s no longer the case for many tribes, including the Seminole tribe of Florida (where this reviewer lives currently).

The members of the Seminole tribe are well off now, receiving an impressive income and that prosperity can be traced back to their current chairman James E. Billie. Once an outcast in the tribe because of his half-Caucasian parentage, he scraped a living by wrestling alligators for tourists and got to be quite good at it. But it wasn’t enough for him.

He went to Vietnam to fight for his country and became well-respected by his fellow soldiers. He came back to Florida after his service to work construction, building chickees (traditional Seminole lodges) among other activities. The charismatic Billie took an interest in tribal politics, first serving on the tribal Council before being elected Chairman in 1979.

Under his stewardship, he opened up a bingo parlor on tribal land (an idea first proposed by the previous tribal chairman, Howard Tommie) which he eventually would convert into a full casino. Despite challenges from the State of Florida which felt that gaming regulations for the State superseded tribal rights, the Supreme Court disagreed and an industry was born.

The Seminoles were the first to open up a major casino on tribal land and their revenue by 2007 had exceeded $1 billion from not only their gaming enterprises but also cattle raising (they are the 12th largest cattle operation in the country) and other tribal ventures. Billie is largely responsible for making the tribe a major economic and political force not only in Florida but in America as well.

As such, he can be viewed as an authentic American hero. No other Native leader in the past 50 years has done more for his tribe than James Billie has for the Seminoles. That isn’t to say that he has always been popular even with his own tribe; in 2001 a financial scandal forced him out of the chairman’s position, although he was later exonerated from any wrongdoing. In 2011, he was re-elected tribal chairman and holds that position to this day; not even a 2012 stroke has slowed him down.

In addition to his business ventures, Billie is an accomplished musician, performing with a group called the Shack Daddies in a style of music he describes as swamp rock; he also has had an impressive solo career, garnering a Grammy nomination in 1999 for the song “Big Alligator” on the Alligator Tears album. He performs several songs in the film and has a pleasant, soothing voice.

This is a movie a long time coming. I hadn’t realized what a larger than life character James Billie was until I saw this movie and it only made me think “Why has nobody made a movie about this guy before now?” His charisma and energy are boundless and his passion for his tribe, their traditions and their well-being shine through. Much of the income from the casinos (the tribe in 2007 bought the Hard Rock Café chain and now owns seven different casinos along with several resorts and the restaurant chain) has been funneled back into the tribe, building schools, hospital and an infrastructure that would be the envy of any community.

The movie works whenever it concentrates on its main character; certainly there are other narrations going on here which tend to get a little bit dry and when you compare the other interviewees to Billie, it’s almost unfair because few people can really hold up to his natural force as a human being.

Billie is not really well-known to the general public outside of Florida and even within his own state; I can’t say I was really familiar with his accomplishments and I live here. The movie serves though to introduce the viewer to a man they should really get to know. I have to say that James Billie has joined an exclusive list in my own personal life for what it’s worth as a man to admire and try to emulate. I don’t know how the Seminole chairman feels about being a role model – he seems to be the sort of man that doesn’t take himself terribly seriously – but there are certainly not many out there who would be better ones.

REASONS TO GO: Billie is a larger than life character who fills up the screen.
REASONS TO STAY: A little dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is occasionally uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Andre Shea also has a law degree.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crooked Arrow
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Your Friends

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Winter in the Blood


Chaske Spencer gazes out over the infinite prairie.

Chaske Spencer gazes out over the infinite prairie.

(2013) Drama (Ranchwater) Chaske Spencer, David Morse, Gary Farmer, Julia Jones, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Lily Gladstone, Richard Ray Whitman, David Cale, Casey Camp-Horinek, Alex Escaravega, Joseph Grady, Saginaw Grant, Yancey Hawley, Kendra Mylnechuk, Michael Spears, William Otis Wheeler-Nicholson, Ken White. Directed by Alex and Andrew Smith

Florida Film Festival 2014

When it comes to the Native population, America has a lot to answer for. In attempting to obliterate their culture and drive them into squalid reservations, we have demoralized and demonized an entire people, yet they have endured. It hasn’t always been easy.

In the Fort Belknap reservation in northern Montana in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Virgil First Raise (Spencer) awakens from a drunken stupor to find out that his wife Agnes (Jones) has left him and taken his prized rifle, one of the last remaining gifts from his late father (Whitman) who died when Virgil was a boy, passed out in a ditch in the freezing cold.

That and the death of his older brother Mose (Hawley) have haunted Virgil throughout his life. As he goes to town to retrieve not his wife so much but his beloved rifle, he encounters the Airplane Man (Morse), a manic Canadian con artist who may or may not be real. He is being chased by a couple of men in suits who don’t seem particularly interested in arresting him so much as trapping him.

Virgil seeks to stem the pain through alcohol and random sexual encounters. His mother (Camp-Horinek) is getting hitched to Lame Bull (Farmer) which Virgil isn’t too thrilled by. He doesn’t think too highly of Lame Bull although his potential stepfather seems to be a decent sort. Still, Virgil has his own demons to wrestle with and at present, they are handily beating him. Can he overcome his past and come to grips with his present?

Based on the novel by native writer James Welch, this is a sobering and unflinching look at the results of our native American policies and how they have turned a proud people into a group without hope. The northern Montana landscape (where the novel is set and where this was filmed) is sometimes bleak but has a beauty all its own.

Spencer, best known as Sam Uley the leader of the werewolf gang in the Twilight franchise, is crazy good here. Virgil is basically a decent sort who wants to get his life together but just can’t get past the pains and traumas of his past. His mother and an elderly friend to his father named Yellow Calf (Grant) that he visits from time to time both understand him more than he understands himself, and there are those who would give him surcease but at this point in his life he just wants numbness. It’s a heart-rending and incendiary performance.

The rest of the cast also does well including a nearly unrecognizable David Morse but this is Spencer’s show. Because much of the movie takes place in a kind of surreal manner (Welch is well-known for having mystical elements in his stories), there is a sense of unreality to the proceedings. While that isn’t a bad thing of itself, the lines are often blurred and the movie comes off in places like a lost episode of Twin Peaks which also isn’t a bad thing of itself. However, some filmgoers might find that unsettling. Personally I wish the movie were a little more seamless in that regard.

I found myself completely immersed in the film, with a splendid soundtrack framing the action nicely and a timeless quality (I was surprised to find out the movie was set nearly 40 years ago after I had already seen it – look carefully and you’ll notice the truth of it) that made me feel that things have not changed so much for the Native American so much as plateaued. This isn’t always an easy movie to watch but it is a movie well worth the effort to go see it.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting performance by Spencer. Outstanding cinematography. Nice soundtrack.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed in places. Hunter S. Thompson-surreal atmosphere might be off-putting for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, some sexuality, a little violence and some depiction of drunken behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was provided by the Austin-based country blues-rock band the Heartless Bastards.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A River Runs Through It

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Chef

Killshot


Killshot

Diane Lane wonders why she doesn't get more roles in romantic comedies, while Thomas Jane ponders why their names both rhyme.

(Weinstein) Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Hal Holbrook, Don McManus, Aldred Wesley Montoya. Directed by John Madden

One of the most notable writers of “hard-boiled” fiction in the history of the genre is Elmore Leonard. He’s right up there with guys like Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Among the novels written by Leonard that have been adapted for the screen are Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He’s also written a number of westerns, as well as screenplays of his own. He’s considered one of the better writers of the latter half of the 20th century to come out of the United States, and even today, well into his 80s, continues to write at a respectable clip.

For awhile, it was fashionable to option his material by the various studios and one of those snatched up by them was this novel, which at one time had names like John Travolta, Sandra Bullock and Viggo Mortensen attached to the property. However, as Leonard’s work which is full of colorful characters, vicious violence and complex plots, many studios found it was very difficult and sometimes impossible to translate his work to the screen.

After nearly a decade in development hell and more than four years after filming wrapped on the project, the movie has finally seen the light of day. Usually that’s a pretty sure sign that the movie is nigh on unwatchable. So is that the case here?

Blackbird (Rourke) is a Native American hitman for the Toronto mob who apparently couldn’t find any Native Canadians. He has survived due to his coolness in chaotic situations, and because he never ever leaves a witness who can identify him. During a routine hit on a rival Mafiosi, he is forced to cap the girlfriend of the victim because she has seen his face. This doesn’t sit well with his employers and Blackbird is forced on the lam, returning to his native Michigan to perhaps get out of the game for good (since his erstwhile employers know nothing about who Blackbird really is).

There, he falls in with a small-time crook named Johnny Nix (Gordon-Levitt), a brash and arrogant sort with a real anger management problem, coupled with an impulse control issue which makes life around him rather interesting. Johnny also has a sexually frustrated girlfriend named Donna (Dawson) who, while suspicious of Blackbird, also takes a bit of a liking to him. Nix plans to blackmail a wealthy real estate agent Nelson Davies (McManus) and takes Blackbird along as intimidation.

Working for Davies is Carmen Colson (Lane), whose marriage to her husband Wayne (Jane) is disintegrating. Wayne is actually dropping some paperwork off for Carmen at her office when Nix and Blackbird come to pay Davies a visit; Davies, aware of what’s happening, has arranged to be far away and neglected to tell Carmen to do the same. The somewhat dim Nix mistakes Wayne for a wealthy real-estate agent, but Wayne doesn’t take kindly to being threatened and tosses Nix out of a plate glass window. Carmen manages to alert the authorities, but not before catching a full glimpse of Blackbird’s face through the window, which Blackbird is fully aware of.

Now things are really in a mess. Nix wants nothing more than to make Wayne pay for all his humiliation and suffering, but Blackbird has bigger fish to fry. Not only can Carmen identify him, she can also bring the Toronto mob right to his doorstep. They will need to eliminate the couple, but on their first attempt they botch the job, which captures the FBI’s attention. The two are promptly put in a witness relocation program and flee to Missouri and, with only each other to rely on, actually begin to make progress in repairing their marriage. However, Blackbird cleverly fakes his own death, bringing the two of them back home where he and Nix plan to finish what they started.

As I mentioned earlier on, the movie has had a checkered past of shelf time, pushed-back release dates and much re-cutting and re-shooting. Director Madden, who previously helmed Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin hasn’t had a lot of experience with this kind of pulp novel background (although he’s done some TV mysteries in his native England) and it shows here. The violence needed to be notched up a level or two; it would have suited the material better.

As you would expect with a movie that has been reshot and re-edited several times, the flow of the film doesn’t always work. At times the pacing is stodgy and slow, at other times it moves at breakneck speed. It’s like a sportscar whose transmission needs work; you expect something a little faster out of a sleek little number like this.

The casting is pretty marvelous, with Rourke doing a nice turn as the regretful and world-weary Blackbird, who is simultaneously cold and pragmatic. Rourke is ideally cast here; he excels with roles that are multi-faceted and thoughtful but with a hard edge on the outside. His work alone is worth the price of a rental here.

Surprisingly, Lane and Jane elevate the movie further. Jane, who has taken a lot of critical heat for his post-Punisher performances, plays Wayne as a man who has made a mess of his marriage and knows it, but still has deep feelings for his wife. He plays a man who is lost without his wife, but not paralyzed; when push comes to shove he is willing to fight not only for his life and that of his wife, but also for his marriage as well. Lane, who has settled into a series of roles of dissatisfied middle-aged wives, is always an interesting actress, even if her part here is somewhat cliché.  

Unfortunately, this property has been mismanaged and it shows in the final product. The studio never seemed to have much faith in it, which is surprising considering the level of talent both before and behind the camera. This is one of Leonard’s more simple plotlines which would have made it easier to adapt but for whatever reason it didn’t turn out the way it should have. Chalk it up as one more failed adaptation, but at least there is enough about it that’s compelling to make it worth a look if you want to watch something different.

WHY RENT THIS: Rourke does a terrific job as he has been lately. The chemistry between Jane and Lane is genuine and their difficulties with their marriage elevate this from the run-of-the-mill thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s been edited and re-edited several times and you can tell; the movie is a bit of a pastiche that at times doesn’t flow real well.

FAMILY VALUES: If “adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel” isn’t enough for you, try lots of violence, a great deal of foul language and a bit of nudity, all hallmarks of Elmore Leonard novels.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took nearly four years from the completion of shooting until a meager five-screen release by the studio, which originally inherited the property as one of those that they received when the Weinsteins sold their interest in Miramax to Disney (1408 and Lucky Number Slevin were other movies that Weinstein also received). In the meantime, the role of a corrupt cop played by Johnny Knoxville was completely cut from the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.9M on an unreported production budget that I’d estimate to be about $10M; either way the movie is a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Brothers at War