Wetlands (2017)


The secret to life is simply fishing.

(2017) Drama (Abramorama) Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Reyna de Courcy, Christopher McDonald, Jennifer Ehle, Louis Mustillo, Barry Markowitz, Sean Ringgold, Rob Morgan, Lauren LaVera, Tyler Elliot Burke, Pamela Dunlap, Melissa Goodwin, Quinn Fucci, Celeste O’Connor, Lou Morey, Jim Fitzpatrick, Natalie Paige Bentley, Dana Kreitz, Donna DeGregorio. Directed by Emanuele Della Valle

 

There comes a time in some lives where we have to start from scratch. Circumstances, bad decisions, bad luck; whatever the case may be, a new beginning becomes necessary once we hit rock bottom. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen.

Babel “Babs” Johnson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the son of an alcoholic religious fanatic and an absent father, has returned to the Jersey shore town outside of Atlantic City where he grew up. It’s in a bleak area of dilapidated homes, empty storefronts and swampy shore known as the Wetlands. He was once a narcotics detective in Philadelphia but a crippling heroin addiction and a heinous act sent him to rehab. He left behind Savannah (Graham), his embittered wife once a trust fund baby but now taking up with Surfer Girl (de Courcy), a surfboard maker who dreams of moving to Hawaii and starting her own business, but has taken to being a drug courier for Jimmy Coconuts (Mustillo) and in a not-too-smart move, skimming some of the drugs and selling them herself.

Babs doesn’t care about any of that. What he’s worried about is his daughter Amy (O’Connor) who despises him for leaving her with her mother and her lover, both of whom are too wrapped up in their own problems to pay much attention to Amy. For now, he’s on the police force of a small town, partnered with Paddy Sheehan (McDonald), a garrulous hard-drinking roustabout who is in debt up to his eyeballs to the local drug lord known as Lollipop (Markowitz) due to his taste in confections and who also happens to be the boss of Jimmy Coconuts. Paddy is married to Kate (Ehle), a newscaster reporting on the pending arrival of a late season hurricane which threatens to cause all sorts of havoc.

If the plot sounds a little bit scattershot, that’s only because it is. Fashionista and first-time director Della Valle seems torn between doing a noir-laced crime thriller and a drama about a broken man trying to start over; either one would have been an interesting movie on its own and if Della Valle had managed to fuse the two together he could have had an indie classic on his hands. Sadly however the two tales don’t mesh very well and we’re left with a choppy, uneven movie that doesn’t have any sort of flow to it. There is a murder in the movie that seems to be the crux of matters but it doesn’t occur until only about 15 minutes are left in the film which gives that last bit an almost rushed feel.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has had numerous supporting roles in a variety of films as well as memorable turns on TV’s Oz and Lost steps out into a much overdue lead role here and he does okay for himself, although he’s not given a very interesting character to work with. Sure, Babs has a lot of baggage and in the hands of a more capable writer could have been unforgettable but we are mainly left with a lot of clichés and backstory that is hinted at throughout the movie (told in black and white flashbacks) until near the end when the big reveal turns out to be not too difficult to predict.

The supporting cast isn’t too bad. McDonald takes the role and runs with it, giving a pretty slimy character a sheen of bonhomie. Ehle gets a role that gives her an opportunity to be sophisticated and sexy and she nails both of those aspects. Graham, who I’ve adored as an actress since her breakout role in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me gets to do a role that might bring back memories of her performance in Boogie Nights although the movie isn’t up to the latter’s standard.

There are some really terrific images here, like a roller coaster post-hurricane standing in water but even the hurricane is somewhat anti-climactic. There are a lot of decent threads here but the overall whole is pretty disappointing; everything feels like it’s all build-up and no pay-off. In this town, that kind of thing can get you bumped off.

REASONS TO GO: There are some phenomenal images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed and the flow is uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, drug content, sexuality, some nudity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue Ruin
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Rebel in the Rye

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Kill the Irishman


 

Kill the Irishman

Don’t get Ray Stevenson angry – he can fart flames!

(2008) Biodrama (Anchor Bay) Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Fionnula Flanagan, Laura Ramsey, Steve Schirripa, Linda Cardellini, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

 

Here, at last, is a movie for which the Irish lament “Danny Boy” is quite literally appropriate for – and the filmmakers showing restraint unheard-of in Hollywood actually don’t use it. That’s at least worth some respect.

Danny Greene (Stevenson) was an enforcer for the Cleveland Irish mob. In his heyday in the 70s, he and his partner John Nardi (D’Onofrio) fought a war against the Italian mob that was epic in its viciousness. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded in the city as a direct result of the mob war.

He started off as a longshoreman rising up in the union. He eventually took over the leadership of the union (Merke) and would later be convicted of skimming funds from the membership. Once out of jail, he turned to crime as a full-time operation, working with Shondor Birns (Walken) but things go south. Greene requests a $75,000 loan to build a semi-legal drinking establishment; Birns entrusts the money to a runner who then proceeds to buy drugs with it, and is promptly caught by the police. Because Greene never received the cash, he refused to pay back the loan which had been paid for by the Gambino family, putting immense pressure on Birns.

Greene breaks away from the Italian mafia forming his own group mainly comprised of young guys of Irish descent, with Nardi as (kind of) their legitimizer. Greene is bombarded with several attempts on his life, including one where his home was hit by a bomb while he and his girlfriend were asleep. The house collapsed but Greene and his girlfriend survived, shielded by rubble.

Greene would attain legendary status in Cleveland. He often took care of those in need of cash in Cleveland’s Irish community and came out of every assassination attempt more or less unscathed. He became a darling in the Cleveland media and the bane of the Cleveland mafia’s existence. He also became an informant to the FBI.

This is based on a non-fiction book – loosely based I might add – that was written by a Cleveland police officer familiar with the case and with Greene (the fictionalized character based on the author is played by Val Kilmer in the film). That book was also turned into a documentary I haven’t seen yet, but the filmmakers here do a pretty credible job with it.

The cast is pretty spectacular for an indie, including Walken – curiously restrained as the racketeer who first came into conflict with Greene, and veterans Schirripa and Sorvino who have made careers out of playing Mafiosi doing stand-up jobs.

Stevenson, best known for his work on the HBO series “Rome” and for playing The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone (and doing both well) proves once again he is much more than an impressive physique. He catches both the larger than life aspect of Greene as well as his clever and sinister side. Greene was a complicated man as you can probably tell from the synopsis; he was equal parts folk hero, bullshit artist, criminal and killer. The movie tends to gloss over the killer part to focus on his folk hero standing; he is portrayed as a basically decent guy who just happened to kill people for a living.

This is an excellent cast top to bottom. Cardellini plays Greene’s wife and the mother of his kids in a role that could easily have been thankless but is given some sparkle by her performance, while Flanagan plays an old Irish woman who reminds Greene of his roots and isn’t afraid to stand up to the tough guy, to his amusement.

This takes a larger than life character and tries to compress him down into a two hour time frame which has its pros and cons. One of the cons is definitely that we really don’t see why Greene, who was so obviously bright and charismatic, went down the road of organized crime. It just kind of happens in the film and without any explanation. One scene depicting how he fell into it – or a montage if necessary – could have made for a bit more continuity.

Still, this is well worth watching. America has a fascination with criminals, from Jesse James to John Dillinger and Danny Greene could well end up having the same kind of cultural impact over time. He had a lot of blarney and a dark side as well, a combination that’s like catnip to our violence-obsessed culture. Although Greene considered himself as Irish first and foremost, he may well have been the perfect American anti-hero – living life on his own terms and by his own rules and the devil take the cost.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly stellar cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over some of the motivations as to why Greene got into crime.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, quite a bit of bad language and a helping heaping of nudity and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production shot at Tiger Stadium (Navin Field) in Detroit shortly before it was demolished.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an hour-long documentary on the real Danny Greene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget. The movie probably finished just a bit below breaking even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiseguys

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Savages

Fanny, Annie and Danny


Fanny, Annie and Danny

Jill Pixley and Jonathan Leveck ponder the joys of family gatherings.

(2010) Dramedy (Self-Released) Jill Pixley, Carlye Pollack, Jonathan Leveck, Colette Keen, George Killingsworth, Nick Frangione, Anne Darragh, Suzanna Aguayo, Nancy Carlin, Don Schwantz. Directed by Chris Brown

To utilize a bit of a Dickensian mash-up, Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times. Family get-togethers can be lovely and heart-warming – depending on the family. Some families should never get within a thousand miles of each other.

Fanny (Pixley) is a developmentally challenged woman living in a group home. She works for a candy factory and is obsessive-compulsive about washing her hands. She also practices her recorder at six in the morning, which really annoys her fellow residents in the home. She mostly keeps to herself, losing herself in her beloved horse books.

Annie (Pollack) is in the midst of planning her wedding, 18 months hence, to Todd (Frangione), a good-hearted stoner who has yet to find a job that isn’t beneath him. Annie is a bit of a Bridezilla, obsessing over details of her wedding to the point where a little valium might not be such a bad idea. However, any suggestions in that arena would most likely be met with shrill disapproval. She works as a dental assistant for Dr. Bob (Schwantz), whom she makes uncomfortable not only for her attempts to manage things she shouldn’t be managing but also for her perhaps inappropriate affections.

Danny (Leveck) is a successful band manager who makes a little extra by skimming off of his fledgling bands. When the accountant mom of one of them discovers his chicanery and proclaims he owes the band twenty grand, he flees Los Angeles for a family gathering at Christmas, one he has studiously refused to attend for years.

Edie (Keen) is the reason why Danny has stayed away. Overbearing, abusive and controlling, Danny (whom she calls “Dan-Dan”) is the apple of her eye; her other children (particularly Fanny) and her husband are merely worms in the apple. She screams at her family in a voice undoubtedly roughened by years of smoking, drinking and screaming at her kids. For Edie, her way is the only way – any other suggestions to the contrary can be shoved with all due haste where sunlight can’t be found.

Ronnie (Killingsworth) is a Vietnam vet who sometimes likes to look through his pictures of his years in the military that he keeps in a tin box in the shed. He is a bit broken, possibly afflicted with some mild dementia but remains kind-hearted despite constant bullying by his wife. Generally, he just tunes her out as much as possible.

Edie is preparing the “perfect” Christmas dinner – which is held a week before Christmas because the actual holiday itself stresses Edie out too much. Fanny’s candy factory is closing and the kindly owner (Darragh) has given Fanny a $9,000 severance check which she is supposed to deposit in the bank, but she misses her bus and arrives after the bank closes. Devastated by her loss, she goes to her sister’s house only to find Annie out. Todd instead feeds her a couple of beers (not the best idea for someone taking medication) and listens sympathetically to her story. Annie’s arrival, however, signals the end of any sympathy – Annie has a distinct lack of any compassion where her sister is concerned, possibly due to having to care for her for too long.

All this is going to come to a boil when the family arrives at the home where Edie rules. Annie will attempt to curry favor from Danny in direct competition with Edie (who doesn’t appreciate anyone coming between her and her son) and Ronnie will discover his wife’s ultimate cruelty – and Fanny will wash her hands of all of it.

This is the third feature of San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Chris Brown, who is also an accomplished songwriter and wrote the songs for the movie (including the oddball Christmas songs that Edie forced Danny to sing with her). Incidentally if you can find his album Now That You’re Fed and particularly the song “All My Rivals,” do go for it, the music is amazing.

He also wrote the script and collects a group of characters who pass through our gaze generally undetected when we see them on the streets but once you get to know them, you find them anything but bland. In that sense, they are very realistic – think of all the people you pass by without truly seeing them. We are all visible to the naked eye yet invisible to the gaze of others. Brown captures that aspect of our society very nicely and it adds to the realism of the film.

Pixley does some amazing work as Fanny to the point where you wonder if she might not have some of the issues she’s portraying. She’s that spot-on in her performance. Frangione also does an exceptional job, taking a character that is not necessarily sympathetic early on and in a matter of a minute or two makes him so. To Brown’s credit, he doesn’t write Todd as a Cheech and Chong clone but imbues the character with a personality that is more than a guy who smokes dope. Not all stoners are all about the dope.

The movie succeeds in painting a picture that is both funny and tragic. The children are all scarred by their mother’s behavior and while at times you want to punch Edie in the face, she is also ultimately a victim of her own behavior and if you look past the ugliness, you see someone who has been bitterly disappointed by life. The movie is compelling from the opening moments to the shocking last scene. It is not always easy to watch a family implode but Brown makes it funny and sad, like seeing a car full of clowns in a head-on collision with a semi.

REASONS TO GO: No matter how bad your family dynamics are, you’ll feel better about them after seeing this family. Organic performances and a clever script.

REASONS TO STAY: Mama Edie is such a horror show that people might actually cringe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of foul language and a bit of drug use.

HOME OR THEATER: Look for it at a festival near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: More from the Florida Film Festival