Movie Reviews - 2014 postsFriday September 26, 2014
Movie Review: Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014)
Frank Costello, the Irish mob boss with FBI ties played by Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s Academy-Award-winning film “The Departed,” was based, in part, on James J. “Whitey” Bulger, who ran the Winter Hill gang in South Boston from the 1970s until his disappearance, just before indictment, in 1994. He was finally captured in southern California in 2011 and put on trial in 2013. The 33 charges against him included 19 murders.
Here’s something I began to ask myself as I watched Joe Berlinger’s documentary “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”: Is this a better movie than Scorsese’s Academy-Award-winning film? An argument can be made.
For one, there are more twists in the real-life version. Sure, “The Departed” was about a cop who infiltrates a gang and a gang member who infiltrates the cops, and how they meet and fight. But this?
This is nuts.
Was he or wasn’t he?
The doc opens with Stephen Rakes, a tough-looking, 50ish guy recounting his encounter with Whitey Bulger 30 years ago. Back then, Rakes opened a liquor store in south Boston and it was going good. Then two guys showed up at his doorstep, Bulger and Kevin Weeks; they said they were there to kill him. But he could save himself—in front of his young daughters, who were milling about, unaware of the situation—if they gave them a partnership in his liquor store. He refused. They got mad. Rakes could see the killer in Bulger’s eyes. “We’re taking the fucking liquor store!” Bulger told him. It unmanned Rakes, this encounter. It changed his view of the world and his place in it.
We meet more victims, and the families of victims. Tommy Donahue, whose father Michael was allegedly killed by Bulger, greets the press on the first day of Bulger’s trial: “I’ll see yas when I get out.” Steve Davis, friends with Rakes, talks to Berlinger about the death of his sister, Debra. “They took her teeth out,” he says quietly. “Her hands.”
So at this point we think the story is about whether justice will be done. But that’s not the story. Bulger isn’t even contesting some of the charges at the trial. In fact, the main thing he and his defense team are fighting isn’t even a charge, really. It’s background information: the fact that for years Bulger was an informant for the FBI.
Bulger says he was never an informant for the FBI.
So what, right? He has nothing left but his reputation so he’s trying to salvage that. Basically he’s doing the opposite of James Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan in “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Rocky pretended to be yellow so kids would stop looking up to him. He besmirched his rep for the greater good. Bulger is besmirching others for his greater good. Right? Because there’s a 700-page FBI file on him with all the info he gave to agent John Connolly. Facts are facts.
Until they’re not. Most of the info in his file you could have gathered 100 other ways, his defense team says; it’s not specific to Bulger’s insider knowledge. Plus an expert implies that 700 pages over 20 years is nothing; she expected it to be 60,000 pages or 100,000 pages.
Could Connolly be lying? He’s in jail now, convicted of racketeering and obstruction of justice. Could Bulger’s partners have been the finks and Bulger’s name got mixed in because it made the FBI look good—that they landed this top guy? Could Bulger be lying?
So many fingers get pointed at so many different people it’s like a John Woo gun finale without the guns. Ultimately, one gets the sense that, yeah, there was a mutually beneficial relationship between the FBI and Bulger that didn’t produce much except smoke. One wonders what the FBI was hoping. That Bulger would help them bring down the Mafia? How much protection did they give him? How often did they look the other way? How many people would be alive today if they hadn’t?
One agent who tried to brush away the smoke, Bob Fitzpatrick, wound up getting canned in the early 1980s—and then besmirched by the prosecution in the 2013 trial. It’s implied that he was just looking to get ahead when the evidence suggests the opposite. The others were doing this. To quote “The Departed,” he was the guy doing his job.
There are a lot of loose ends in “Whitey,” but none more bizarre than the fate of Stephen Rakes, who waited 30 years to confront Bulger in a courtroom but was dismissed as a prosecution witness before being called. A few days later he went missing. A few days after that, he was found dead in the woods: poisoned. Bulger? His friends? The Feds? The fuck?
For all the question marks we’re left with, though, Boston Globe columnist (and talking head) Kevin Cullen feels we’re not left with enough. He feels that Berlinger, and the doc, buy too readily Bulger’s protestations that he wasn’t an informant:
The film ignores much of the overwhelming evidence in the public record, and the resulting impression is so guileless and sympathetic to Whitey as to be disingenuous.
Sympathy? I think that’s overstating it. Your revulsion for Bulger never leaves you. In the case of United States of America v. James J. Bulger, there’s no doubt that the latter is guilty. What the doc reveals is that the former isn’t exactly innocent.
Movie Review: Dom Hemingway (2014)
The biggest problem for Dom Hemingway is Dom Hemingway—not the man but the name. Well, the man, too, but you have to start with the name. How can you not have a tendency toward grandiloquence and megalomania if you’re named Dom Hemingway?
Throughout the movie, Dom (Jude Law), an East End petty gangster and safe-cracker, keeps going through the same cycle. He’s so full of himself that he acts foolish, then he beats himself up for the foolish things he’s said and done while he was so full of himself. Rinse, repeat.
Put it this way: the movie opens with Dom singing a paean to his cock as he’s being blown in prison. He compares his anatomy to a work of art—a Picasso, a Renoir, something that should hang in the Louvre. He says it should be studied by science, win a Nobel Peace Prize. He goes on and on. It’s a kind of masterwork, this soliloquy. It’s Hamlet as ass. More on this thought later.
A poor player
Shortly afterwards, Dom is let out of prison after 12 years. First thing he does? Finds a mechanic named Sandy Butterfield and, as he says, “makes Bolognese” out of his face. Was Sandy the dude that finked on him? No. He simply dated Dom’s ex before she died. He even paid for her tombstone. He’s an upstanding guy. But what do you expect from a guy who sings an extravagant paean to his cock?
The second place he goes is a pub, for a pint with his friend Dickie (Richard E. Grant), who also works for the gangster, Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bichir), that Dom didn’t give up in prison. He lost 12 years because of Fontaine. It still rankles. How much? Even after being presented with two beautiful prostitutes and cocaine and going on a three-day binge with all three, and taking the TGV with Dickie to the south of France for a meeting, Dom resents it. So much so that he belittles Fontaine. To his face. Calls him Ivana. And worse. He gets James Taylor on his ass:
You don’t scare me. You don’t fucking scare me, Anal-toli. I’ve seen death. I’ve seen evil. I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen lonely days I thought would never end. ... I eye-fuck you. I throat-fuck you!
For a moment I was vaguely intrigued. “Well, this can’t end well,” I thought. But it kind of does. If Fontaine is who everyone says he is, he’s not going to allow this—even after 12 years of loyalty. Particularly when Dom demands Ivan’s girlfriend, Paolina (model Madalina Diana Ghenea, who is so hot she’s nuclear), as partial payment. Instead, amid a few vague threats, Ivan forgives, then gives Dom three quarters of a million pounds for his 12 years, then is stupid enough to get into a car driven by a drunk/high Dom down a narrow winding road. In the aftermath, Dom has cost a life (Fontaine), has saved a life (Melody, Kerry Condon of HBO’s “Rome”), and has had his three-quarters of a million pounds stolen (by Paolina). So of course, despondent, he returns to London to try to win back his daughter (Emilia Clarke, Khaleesi from HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) and get work from the son of the gangster he was fighting all of these years. The cycle continues. It gets old.
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
What doesn’t get old? The language. There’s a majesty to it, even if there isn’t to Dom. Before it all goes awry, Dom is in the pool with Melody. She tells him he has a noble chin and he says she has noble tits. She mentions her sister is an actress and he says he did a bit of acting, playing the apothecary in “Romeo and Juliet” at reform school. What I like is that by this point we realize Dom is a Shakespearean character. He even talks like one. “Misfortune befell me,” he says at one point. Look at the poster: He’s Macbeth with bad taste. He’s a low-end character with a high-end vocabulary.
That’s purposeful. Here’s writer-director Richard Shepard:
I do think there's something Shakespearean about Dom. He's a larger-than-life character, who by his very nature just shoots himself in the foot. He destroys himself at every turn. If the movie is about anything, it's about, “Dom, just don't destroy yourself any more.”
But we know he will. The movie ends, as it began, on an up-note, another soliloquy:
After much heartbreak and ruin, the pendulum of luck has finally swung back to Dom Hemingway. And I intend to enjoy each moment of its fickle pleasure—whether it lasts for a minute, a day or a lifetime.
I’m betting a minute. Dom’s life is a merry-go-round. Our step off seems arbitrary.
Movie Review: Love Is Strange (2014)
Near the end of “Love Is Strange,” the slice-of-life indie directed by Ira Sachs, George (Alfred Molina), the longtime companion and new husband of Ben (John Lithgow), critiques a student’s classical music performance thus: “When a piece is that romantic, there’s no need to embellish it.”
He could be describing the movie.
Ben and George, a painter and a music instructor, have been living together for decades. As the movie opens (on a stockinged foot at the end of the bed), they are getting ready for another day. Ben slumps into the shower, they dress (necktie for George, bowtie for Ben), Ben can’t find his glasses. They talk to the housekeepers (Two of them? Are they preparing for a party?), then try to flag a cab on the streets of Manhattan. “We’ll have better luck on 6th,” George says. And off they go. To? A wedding. Theirs. It’s both another day and their wedding day. It’s a moment of triumph and celebration. Short-lived, it turns out.
George, you see, is a music instructor at Saint Grace Academy, where most folks, including Father Raymond (John Cullum), know he’s gay, know he lives with Ben, don’t care. But gay marriage? That’s toxic. Or political. And somehow (New York Times wedding page, maybe?) the Bishop finds out and George is fired. As a result, he and Ben can no longer afford to live where they live. As a result, they are forced to live apart.
The dramatist’s dilemma isn’t how to bring the lovers together but how to keep them apart for 90 minutes. Sachs’ approach here is novel. He keeps the lovers apart by marrying them.
Question: Once it becomes apparent that the sale of their apartment won’t net them the income they need, why not just take the Poughkeepsie option? That’s where Ben’s niece, the brassy Mindy (Christina Kirk), lives, and she has room for both of them. But it’s not Manhattan. And the folks we saw at the wedding—friends and family—decide Ben and George need to live in Manhattan. So they divvy them up: George goes with the gay cops downstairs, Ben with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows of “Northern Exposure”), and his family—novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan)—across town. Ben gets the bottom bunk in Joey’s room. Tensions quickly fester.
Joey no longer has space, Kate no longer has space. (Tomei is excellent at being just this side of awful.) At first Ben is oblivious—going on and on in the living room as Kate tries to work on her second novel—and then painfully aware. He walks on metaphoric tiptoes. He paints on the roof of the apartment building, using Joey’s friend, Vlad (Eric Tabach), as a model, but this only makes Joey angry. When he comes home at night, Elliot and Kate are talking quietly (privately) in the living room, so he ducks into the bedroom—where Joey, hanging with Vlad, yells at him for not knocking. He has no place.
Neither does George. He’s with the hunky cops who are always partying, and he’s not a partier. One night he turns up rain-soaked at Elliot and Kate’s. For a moment, everyone’s surprised. Then he falls into Ben’s arms and sobs. It’s a powerful beautiful scene, and, per the above quote, unembellished. It just happens. It reveals, retroactively, all the tension and loneliness he’s feeling.
The movie is full of this kind of humanity. Another scene I loved: Joey and Ben talking at night in the bunkbeds. Joey, a kid without many friends, is still slightly angry at Ben, and possibly feeling guilty, too. Before going to bed, trying better to understand him maybe, Ben asks Joey if he’s ever been in love. Joey talks of seeing this girl on vacation one summer. He never spoke with her, he just saw her. She saw him, too. That seems key for him: being seen. He knows she lives in the city, too. “You should say hello,” Ben says matter-of-factly. That’s it. No resolution, no obvious epiphany. Just an ordinary scene that feels like everything.
Sachs, who co-wrote the movie with Mauricio Zacharias (“Madame Satã”), has a nice habit of transitioning weeks or months ahead without explanation. We figure it out by and by. Oh, they’re going to their wedding. Oh, Ben is living with them. The ending is this way, too.
After George finds them a nice, rent-controlled apartment, he and Ben celebrate at a local bar. They talk, comfortably. They walk down the street, comfortably, until they’re out of sight. You think that might be the end, but no. They talk before Ben takes the subway home. Apparently they haven’t moved in yet. Then we fade to black. Is that the end?
No. We see Joey waiting outside their new apartment, and George takes him upstairs. Joey admires the place, then apologizes for not being at the service. Service? Yes. Ben’s. Joey brings out a painting, Ben’s last, the one with Vlad on the rooftop, and he helps George hang it. Then he leaves. On the stairs down, he breaks down. Is he thinking about how he wasn’t that nice to his Uncle Ben at the end? How he called Vlad “gay” for posing for him? Or maybe he’s just feeling all that he’s lost? After 30 seconds or so, an eternity of screentime, he starts walking again, and one assumes that’s the end. No. The final scenes are Joey riding his skateboard around the more picturesque, treelined streets of Manhattan with a girl. The girl? The vacation girl? Did he finally say hello? Who knows? But at least he’s finally said hello to someone. And maybe he wouldn’t have without Ben’s bunkbed conversation. The things we leave behind.
“Love Is Strange,” despite the title, contains no Mickey and Sylvia on the soundtrack. Chopin piano pieces instead. Played without embellishment.
Movie Review: When the Game Stands Tall (2014)
Winning is fun but relentless winning is hardly dramatic. There’s nothing to overcome. There’s no story there.
Neil Hayes’ book, “When the Game Stands Tall,” about the record-shattering 151-game win streak by De La Salle, a private Catholic high school football team in Concord, Cal., is mostly about its 2002 season; but Hayes includes an epilogue about the 2004 team that finally lost a game. (To Bellevue, by the way, at Qwest Field. Represent.)
So that’s what this movie focuses on: losing, and how you recover from it.
There are some natural contradictions to mine here. Winning, for Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), is a byproduct of playing the game right (humility, teamwork, etc.); but glory, humility’s opposite, is a byproduct of winning all the time.So how do you keep egos in check when you never lose? When does the byproduct of playing the game right cause you to play the game wrong?
Sadly, the movie dramatizes all of this with reductive situations and stock characters: the me-first, team-last dude who is cured like that by a trip to a VA hospital; the glory-seeking father in the stands (Clancy Brown, the prison guard in “The Shawshank Redemption,” doomed to play such roles). Neither rabid fans nor the probing media help. And aren’t we, the movie audience, part of the problem, too? We want them to win as much as anyone.
First-half subplots—Ladouceur’s heart attack, a senseless murder—are more-or-less forgotten in the second. Caviezel’s Ladouceur is sourly inscrutable, his talks with his wife (Laura Dern) are dull business, and the grace moment at the end is hardly graceful.
The movie raises religious and philosophical questions (via Luke 6:38 and Matthew 23:12) about whether what we put out in the world is returned to us, but it sticks with the ultimate American answer: There is no problem so great that winning a football game won’t solve it.
Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
“This rotten town soils everybody,” Nancy (Jessica Alba) says at the end of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.”
This rotten movie, too.
Is anyone still jazzed by this stuff? Does anyone think writer/co-director/creator Frank Miller isn’t a sad, sad man? Someone channeling Mickey Spillane through the Tobe Hooper grinder? A creepy, morally bankrupt, reactionary idiot?
His male characters still speak in sentence-fragment voiceovers:
Dwight: She’s playing it for all its worth. And it’s worth plenty.
His female characters are still argued about in the most infantile fashion:
Roark: She was a whore and not a very good one.
Johnny: She was an angel.
To recap: Sin City is a corrupt town where, if you’re a good man, you drink hard liquor every night, watch Nancy do her non-strip striptease, then go out and bust heads. Preferably the heads of bad guys. You know: frat boys who light winos on fire or the hired bodyguards of the powerful and corrupt. You get to do what you want with these people because they’re bad. You get to torture people and feel moral about it. It’s like America after 9/11.
If you’re a good woman you’re most likely a prostitute. You wear lingerie and maybe a mask. Maybe it’s a Zorro mask. You tote a machine gun or a crossbow or a samurai blade, and you slice up the bad guys, often with the good guys by your side. And that’s about it for you.
Bad women are the ones who betray good men. Bad men are the ones with money and power. Innocent women are the ones who are killed by the bad men so we get another round of bloodletting by the good men.
Worse than the first
The first “Sin City” (2005) was morally reprehensible but at least it kinda held together. At least the motivations and actions of its cartoonish figures kinda matched.
So Johnny (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a lucky, coin-flipping son of a gun who decides to play poker with the most powerful man in the state, Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Everyone warns him off. Everyone tells him you don’t beat Roark at poker and get away with it. But he does it anyway. Why? Because he’s one of Roark’s bastard children. Does he think this matters to Roark? It doesn’t. So he doesn’t get away with it. He’s beaten, shot, and his lucky hand is mangled, and his lucky charm, an innocent waitress named Marcie (Julia Garner), is killed. So he plots revenge. What is this revenge? He plays more poker with Roark, loses several hands (on purpose?), then wins big at the end. Then he tells Roark he’s a loser, and he’ll always know in his head that he’s a loser, because he, Johnny, beat him twice. Then Roark shoots Johnny in the head. That’s the end of that. Apparently revenge is a dish best smooshed into your own face.
In our second story, private dick Dwight (previously Clive Owen, now Josh Brolin) is revisited by the Love of his Life, Ava (Eva Green), the dame of the title. She’s watched over by a giant of a chauffeur, Manute (Dennis Haysbert), who is apparently the watchdog of her new, rich husband, Damien Lord (Marton Csokas). Is her husband holding her captive? Does he beat her? She implies as much. So after trying to rescue her and getting pummeled by Manute, Dwight returns with Sin City perennial Marv (Mickey Rourke), who relieves Manute of one of his eyes while Dwight relieves Damien Lord of his life. Except, ha ha, Ava is a femme fatale who is playing Dwight for a sap. She’s now a rich, powerful woman, and she sics the cops on Dwight, who holes up in Old Town with the lingerie-clad, sword-wielding prostitutes. Dwight spends this standoff getting plastic surgery, Ava spends it seducing the cop on the case (Christopher Meloni), who becomes so distraught he kills his friend (Jeremy Piven) and then himself. The point of this subplot? Who knows? Eventually Ava hires a Texas killer who turns out to be Dwight, post-plastic surgery, but everyone recognizes him. Then there’s a final big battle, with the lingerie-clad prostitutes vs. the hired bodyguards, and Ava is finally relieved of her life. And that’s the end of that.
Satisfied? Of course not. And it gets worse.
Worst for last
That’s the thing about “Sin City: A Dame to Die For.” Sex + violence isn’t supposed to equal boring but it does here. The violence is cartoonish, the sex puerile and voyeuristic. The dweebs it’s aimed at will probably find it boring. And Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez save the worst for last.
So Nancy is the girl who was abducted by Roark’s pedophilic son in the first movie, only to be saved by Det. Hartigan (Bruce Willis), only to grow up to be the best stripper at the best dive bar in Sin City; and she, like Johnny, plots her revenge against Roark. At one point, dancing her cowgirl dance, she has Roark in her sights, but she can’t pull the trigger. Alas. So she has to drink, and emote, and dance some more raw, angry, sexually absurd dances, before she cuts up her own face and tells Marv that it was Roark who did it, which leads she and Marv to attack Roark’s fortress the way Dwight and Marv attacked the Lord fortress, and there’s another final showdown, this time between Nancy and Roark, the stripper and the Senator. But does she have the guts to finally go through with it? Moot point. He shoots first, her gun is inches away, and he’s about to take the final deadly shot when, in the mirror, he sees the ghost of Hartigan, who’s been following after Nancy for most of the movie, giving her bad advice she can’t hear; but his appearance here, in the mirror, gives her the time to grab her gun and blam blam blow away the baddest of the bad guys. After that, she visits Hartigan’s grave and says the last line and the lights come up and we all shuffle out of the theater feeling as soiled as Sin City.
I’d want revenge on Frank Miller if I didn’t feel so sorry for the man. We get to leave Sin City after 100 minutes, but he invented it. He cared enough about it to put it on paper and then film. It will soil itself in his head forever.