Movie Review: Dolphin Tale 2 (2014)
The beginning of “Dolphin Tale 2” startled me. The soporific style of the first movie was gone, replaced by a pulse-pounding, hand-held-camera jerkiness, and a torrent of marine biology lingo, as our team from Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) rescue another beached dolphin, quickly dubbed “Mandy,” off the coast of Florida.
“It’s almost like a documentary,” I thought.
It is, in fact, exactly like a documentary, because it’s part of a lecture that Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), the lead of the first film, and now staff at CMA, is giving to the new volunteers, including a pretty girl who has eyes for him. Meanwhile, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), his friend from the first film, stands off to the side giving worried looks. Isn’t he supposed to like her?
“Right,” I thought. “This.”
The original “Dolphin Tale” was so anodyne it felt like a 1950s TV series: episodic problems resolved in an ultra-safe atmosphere, often by parental, generally fatherly, advice. This is more of the same. Will Hazel’s dad (Harry Connick, Jr.) let Hazel take charge at the aquarium more often? Why is Rufus, the comic-relief pelican, obsessed with an injured tortoise? Will Sawyer go on the three-month-long Sea Semester or is he too worried about Winter, the real-life, tailless dolphin, with whom he has a bond?
That’s the main conflict. Winter’s companion dies in the first act, so she’s lonely. She refuses to wear her prosthetic tail, meaning she swims side-to-side rather than up and down, which is causing scoliosis. Plus she’s lashing out—even at Sawyer. Can they find a companion for her before the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture take her away?
Fans of the first film probably won’t mind the facile resolutions to these problems. The rest of us should swim elsewhere.
-- This review originally appeared in the Seattle Times.
“A male colleague, in a debate on the ERA, addressed her on the House floor: 'I just don't like this amendment. I've always thought of women as kissable, cuddy and smelling good.' She replied, 'That's the way I feel about men, too. I only hope for your sake that you haven't been disappointed as often as I have.'”
-- U.S. Rep. Millicent Fenwick (NJ-R), the model for Doonesbury's patrician politician Lacey Davenport, on the House floor in the mid-1970s; as reported in Rick Perlstein's “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”
Movie Review: The Skeleton Twins (2014)
The ending doesn’t quite work, does it? Too bad, because everything else does.
Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins” is a serious-sweet movie, a movie in which, as Jon Stewart said on “The Daily Show,” the humor is organic to the situation. It stars two SNL alums, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, but they’re not doing bits. They’re playing complex characters. Particularly him. Hader’s a revelation here. He’s the real deal.
Hader and Wiig have such good rapport here, and their characters, Milo and Maggie, estranged twins reunited in middle age, know each other so well, that you begin to wonder why they became estranged in the first place. The movie wonders it, too. “How did we go 10 years without talking?” Maggie says at one point. Milo mumbles a reply, and she, oh right, remembers, and they fumble their way back to a kind of rapport until the thing emerges again.But it’s not just the thing: it’s them. They get along because they know each other so well but that’s also what splits them up. They know where to cut.
Suicide permeates the film. Long ago, their father, seen only in flashback in Halloween mask, killed himself, while the movie opens with a double suicide attempt: Milo slits his wrists in a bathtub while Maggie stares at a handful of pills at the bathroom sink. That’s where she gets word of Milo’s attempt. So she flies to L.A., visits him at his bedside. He calls himself a gay cliché and asks her to leave. She asks him to come back to New York. Upstate somewhere. She lives in a nice house with a nice man, Lance (Luke Wilson), and they’re trying to have nice kids. In his new room, he picks up a photo of her and Lance hunting. Under his breath: “Jesus, Maggie.”
Everything is in that two-word exclamation. Who is this person that I used to know so well and haven’t seen in 10 years? Who is she trying to be now? Who does she think she is?
At dinner, Lance, a sweet, forthright, unimaginative man with the patience of Job, says that he and Maggie are trying to have kids, and Milo’s response to Maggie, spoken with his fist resting on his cheek, is, “I thought you never wanted to have kids.” Maggie’s confused for a moment. No doubt she said this at one point, but she’s an adult now. Except Milo’s right. She doesn’t want kids. She’s actually taking birth-control pills to make sure she doesn’t get pregnant. She’s also sleeping around and hating herself for it. Later in the film, after she confesses all this to Milo, and tells him—and herself—that Lance is a good man and their relationship is good, this is Milo’s quiet, sympathetic response: “Maybe you don’t like good.”
If Maggie’s problem is too much sex and too little need, Milo’s is the opposite: too little sex and too much need. He slits his wrists because of a bad breakup in L.A., and in New York takes up again with Rich (Ty Burrell), his old English teacher, closeted, who seduced him when he was 15. That, it turns out, was the reason for Milo’s estrangement with Maggie: She saw it as wrong and ratted. He didn’t and resented.
Question: Is he trying to do the same to her here? Did he arrive in New York to break up Maggie and Lance? I didn’t think so watching, and I don’t think so now, but the point can be raised. Maggie raises it herself near the end, during her last big argument with Milo. He’s insinuated the information about the birth-control pills to Lance—Lance is worried he’s firing blanks, and Milo wants to ease his troubled mind—and when Lance confronts Maggie, she tells him, “I’m a sick person.” But she goes off on Milo. And we get this exchange:
Milo: Maybe I should try fucking all my problems away!
Maggie: Well, maybe next time you should cut deeper.
Someone to laugh at the squares with
What makes the movie work is their rapport, and the humor in their rapport, and even its claustrophobia. When they go out for Halloween, they don’t mingle. “Don’t they know anyone else?” I thought. Gore Vidal called Tennessee Williams, “Someone to laugh at the squares with,” and I guess that’s their relationship. Although they laugh less at the squares than at the absurdity of life and family and upbringing. “Well, at least she’s sending in the light,” he says after their new-age mom returns with a vengeance.
I also liked this aspect of the film: One of the two characters is gay, tragedies abound, but none is really tied to homophobia. Even closeted Rich seems an anachronism. Everyone’s pretty cool with it. It’s a non-issue. We’re onto other issues now.
One of Milo’s issues is his status in the world. He talks about a bully named Justin who used to pick on him in high school. Back then Milo was basically told, prefiguring Dan Savage, “It gets better.” It will get better for him and worse for Justin, because these are Justin’s best days. The universe will eventually make sense. Except Milo went to L.A. and nothing happened. His acting career didn’t take off, his writing career didn’t take off. Plus he’s alone. And one day he looked up Justin online. Justin had a pretty wife and two kids and a steady job. “It turns out I’m the one who peaked in high school,” he tells Maggie. To her credit, Maggie doesn’t try to buck him up. She basically says, “Welcome to the party, pal.” She says the line that should be imprinted on every mirror in every bathroom in the world. A few people are happy, sure, but:
The rest of us are just walking around, trying not to be disappointed with the way our lives turned out.
I was ready to say a hallelujah at this point. But then we got the ending.
After the birth-control revelations, and the “cut deeper” remark, Lance and Maggie break up, Milo leaves town, and Maggie goes to the scuba-diving center where she’s been sleeping with the instructor and hating herself for it. He’s not there. She’s alone. And attaches weights to the equipment. Suicide, as I said, permeates “The Skeleton Twins”: it begins with a suicide attempt and it ends with a suicide attempt. After she sinks to the bottom, she begins to struggle. She wants to live. But she’s done her job too well and can’t get free. And then suddenly Milo is there, freeing her, and they both ascend to the surface. For a moment I thought it was a dream. But it’s not. It’s the type of serendipitous rescue I didn’t expect in a serious movie. Call it a straight cliché. The man to the rescue. “Really?” I thought. “Really?” What would Milo make of this ending? He would have a cutting remark for it.
I’m glad he returned, though, I just wish it had been in less-dramatic fashion. There’s a line in Syd Straw’s song, “CBGBs”: “Abandonment like that was easier then.” When you’re young, friends are easy to be had—every school year, you’re tossed in with a new group—and that’s why abandonment is easy. But then you age, and opportunities narrow, and people drift. So you need to hold onto the people you have. Because we all still need someone to laugh at the squares with.
SLIDESHOW: The Last Seattle Mariners Game of 2014
SLIDESHOW: A few weeks ago my friend Jeff contacted me to see if P and I wanted to go with his family to the last M's game of the year. The team was back and forth in the wild card race at the time so we thought, “Sure, why not? You never know.” (Pictured: Kyle Seager at the plate today.)
Earlier in the week, after a bad string of losses, it looked like the season was over. But then the M's began to win again and the Oakland A's began to falter. And after last night's 2-1 victory, we were only 1 game back with 1 to play. Meaning an Oakland loss and an M's victory today would force a one-game playoff with the A's tomorrow. Meaning today's game was the first meaningful Game 162 the M's had played since 2001. Hence the crowds.
Of course the whole proposition was still iffy. If the A's lost and we won, we would still have that one-game playoff tomorrow. If we won that, we would face KC in the one-game wild-card playoff on Tuesday. If we won that, then and only then would we being best-of playoffs. (Pictured: the view from our seats: Section 342, Row 3.)
And here's the motley crew. People were sitting in P's and my seats when we arrived. Different people were sitting in the Shea's seats when they arrived. There was great confusion about just where (or what) Section 342 was.
On the plus side, we had King Felix on the mound. And for a time it looked good. We were up 1-0, then 2-0, then 4-0. Felix kept mowing 'em down: 7 strikeouts after 3 innings.
Unfortunately, the one time I wanted anyone in Texas to win anything, and they weren't helping. You might even say they were being messed with.
By the fifth inning it was official. Word spread around the stadium and there was polite applause for the M's good effort this season—as is the Seattle way.
Then slowly, as if in a paegant, the M's exited to applause. First, Felix. He came out after 5 1/3, with the M's up 4-0, bowed all around, and was gone.
Two batters later, it was Robinson Cano's turn. He went 1-3 and was replaced by Brad Miller at second base. Even Austin Jackson, who never really did much for us, was ceremoniously relieved after a single in the 6th. Which player stuck it out?
My man Kyle Seager played through the long shadows of the afternoon. Too bad he ended the season poorly: OPSes of .699 and .719 in the last two months. Even so, he's still the second-best position player on the team.
After the 4-1 victory, giving us 87 wins on the year, the most for an M's team since 2007, the players tossed gifts to the fans. But as a loveable loser once said, “If only McCovey had hit the ball three feet higher!” I.e., If only Felix had won in Toronto last week. If only Fernando Rodney hadn't walked four A's in the 10th a few weeks back. If only we had more guys who could hit .300. Or .275. Or .250. If only, if only.
But as more famous loveable losers once said: Wait till next year. *FIN*
Weekend Box Office: Denzel Rocks, Liam Drops
Denzel gets the drop on the bad guys while doing his Bill Murray impersonation.
Denzel Washington had the third-biggest opening of his career with “The Equalizer,” $35 million, behind only “American Gangster” ($43 million in 2007) and “Safe House” ($40 million in 2012), as the Antoine Fuqua-directed action film led the domestic box office this weekend.
If a $35 million open doesn’t seem like much for a star of Denzel’s magnitude, well, that was my thought yesterday when I wrote up a post on Denzel’s all-time box office numbers. His highest-grossing movie is still “American Gangster,” with Russell Crowe, at $130 million. Adjusted, it’s “The Pelican Brief,” with Julia Roberts, at $197 million. But folks still come out for him. Would I have seen “The Equalizer” if it had starred, say, Michael Caine? Not bloody likely. I barely saw it, as is.
“The Maze Runner” dropped off only 46% to finish second, with $17.5 million. The animated “Box Trolls” opened at $17.2 million for third.
The big dropoff? There’s two: “Tusk,” which opened poorly and fell off 67.3% in its second weekend, to which I say good riddance; and “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” the more serious Liam Neeson thriller, which apparently isn’t thrilling fans of the genre too much. I guess they want more sugar in their bowl. Don’t we all?
Hanging on in the top 10? At No. 8, the ninth weekend of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (now at $317 million domestic); at No. 10, the eighth weekend of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (now at $187 million); and, surprisingly, at No. 9, the seventh weekend of “Let’s Be Cops,” which got abyssmal reviews (20%), opened at a not-exactly humorous moment for cops (Ferguson, et al.), and yet keeps on hanging on. It’s grossed $79 million domestic.
There are still good movies to see if you’re looking for one: “The Skeleton Twins” finished at No. 11 with $1.2 million, “The Drop” finished twelfth with $1.05 million, while “Boyhood” finished twentieth with another $279K. Further down, “The Trip to Italy” grossed $230K while “Love is Strange” bested “Hercules” for 27th place with $200K.
Let’s buoy some of these movies up, people. They’re the good ones.
- How did “The Shawshank Redemption” become one of the most beloved movies of all time? Margaret Heidenry gives us a fun, well-written account of the film from soup (Darabont's dollar) to nuts (Ted Turner).
- Here's a nice story: a 31-year-old minor-league journeyman with the Texas organization was called up from Double A recently and got his first Major League hit. Applause, standing o, tears from his parents in the crowd. David Shoenfield reports. Beats all the over-the-top Derek Jeter econimums, doesn't it? Speaking of ...
- Keith Olbermann goes off on the Derek Jeter industry. He says a lot of what I say. But is he a little too insisent? Yeah, he is. He always is.
- This one's better: Author Dan Epstein in Rolling Stone: Derek Jeter: The Longest Goodbye. What other titles might we use for this topic? “Goodbye to All That”? “Goodbye, Farewell, Amen”? “Hello, You Must Be Going”? Work with me here, people. It's his last day in the Majors, after all.
- You ever go to the Majestic Bay Theater in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle and see the “Trip to the Movies” trailer beforehand? Basically dos and don'ts with two 1950sish kids named Russ and Ellen. Well, it's getting a 1970s-style update. Actors wanted.
- This week, Dinesh D'Souza avoided prison time but was sentenced to five years probation, eight months of community confinement, one day a week of community service, and a $30,000 fine. No, not for his writing or his documentaries. For being stupid enough to violate our wide-open campaign finance laws.
- Apparently a Chinese rom-com riffing on (or ripping off) “Sleepless in Seattle” has inspired a real estate boom here. Even though, of course, the film was actually shot in Vanouver, B.C.
- What was fake on the Internet this week. I was fooled by #1 and (via NPR) #3. I heard about the three-boobs thing but knew the background. Most of the others I didn't even hear about. I need to surf more often. Or maybe less.
- Finally, on the last day of the regular season, a New York Times photo essay by Ray Whitehouse of every Major League ballpark. Favorites? I like the shots of Wrigley Field, Comerica, Miller, Busch, Progressive/Jacobs, Nationals, AT&T, and PetCo (SD). My friend Erika was least impressed with the Safeco shot and I kind of agree. I've taken similar ones while waiting for friends at the Glove. Hey, why not the Glove? The Russ Davis Glove, as we called it back in the day. The glove with a hole in it. No matter. It's Game 162 and the M's are still alive—barely—and I'm going to the game with P and the Sheas and with Felix on the mound.
Here's my shot of the left-field Safeco Field entrance. It's B.C.: Before Cano.
What's the Highest-Grossing Denzel Washington Movie of All Time?
Via Box Office Mojo, here are the top five:
|1||American Gangster||$130,164,645||Nov '07|
|2||Safe House||$126,373,434||Feb '12|
|3||Remember the Titans||$115,654,751||Sept '00|
|4||The Pelican Brief||$100,768,056||Dec '93|
|5||The Book of Eli||$94,835,059||Jan '10|
Is there someone as well-known as Denzel, with as long a career as Denzel, whose movies have never grossed more than $150 domestically?
George Clooney? “Gravity” ($274), “Ocean's Eleven” ($183), “The Perfect Storm” ($182).
Brad Pitt? “World War Z” ($202) “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” ($186) “Ocean's Eleven” ($183).
Leo? Right, “Titanic.”
Russell Crowe? Close. But “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind” both topped $150.
How about Daniel Day-Lewis? Nope. “Lincoln” grossed $182.
The nearest example I could find is Matthew McConaughey, whose highest-grossing movie (“Wolf of Wall Street,” $116) isn't his, nor is his second-highest movie (“Magic Mike,” $113). Maybe a comparison is instructive. McConaughey made middling, forgettable rom-coms that grossed in the middling, forgettable range ($50 to $70 million) before shirking it recently to do good, serious work that doesn't make much money. Denzel started out doing a lot of good, serious work that didn't make much money, but he's shirked that recently to do middling, forgettable actioners that make middling, forgettable money ($60- $90 million). Well, he's reliable, I guess.
Here are his top 10, adjusted for inflation:
|Rank||Movie||Adjusted Gross||Unadjusted Gross||Release|
|1||The Pelican Brief||$197,376,500||$100,768,056||Dec '93|
|2||Remember the Titans||$174,704,700||$115,654,751||Sept '00|
|3||Crimson Tide||$171,219,700||$91,387,195||May '95|
|4||American Gangster||$154,120,800||$130,164,645||Nov '07|
|6||Safe House||$129,960,400||$126,373,434||Feb '12|
|7||Training Day||$110,344,500||$76,631,907||Oct '01|
|8||Inside Man||$110,135,100||$88,513,495||March '06|
|9||Courage Under Fire||$108,846,900||$59,031,057||July '96|
|10||The Bone Collector||$106,428,800||$66,518,655||Nov '99|
Quote of the Day
“The drought wasn’t the thing. Yes, it had been 29 years since the Royals last reached the postseason—and baseball has completely turned upside down in those 29 years. The game has made the divisions smaller, added wildcards, rearranged the schedule, made it all but impossible for a team to NOT go to the postseason at least every now and again. The Royals would not go. But the drought wasn’t the thing—it was the hopelessness surrounding the drought. The Royals did not come close to the postseason. The Royals did things so mind boggling that the postseason seemed as far away as flying cars and trips to another galaxy. ...
”I think of a Royals player falling off first base like a cut down tree, and I think of another climbing the centerfield wall only to see the ball bounce off the warning track in front of him, and I think of two Royals players jogging to the dugout, each thinking the other would catch the ball which landed softly and happily in the grassy area they had left behind. I think of a player not wearing sunglasses, losing a ball in the sun and having it hit him in the face — he wore sunglasses on the plane right home to cover the shiner. I think of a pitcher so frustrated that he complained to the press that he can’t even get no-decisions.“
--Joe Posnanski, longtime Kansas City Royals sufferer, in his post, ”A Royals Toast," remembering the bad, the worse and the ugly as his team prepares for its first postseason in 29 years.
Movie Review: The Equalizer (2014)
Watching “The Equalizer,” in which Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) helps stock characters (child prostitute, Latina restaurateur and son) with their various problems (beating back the pimps and gangsters and corrupt cops of the world), I began to think of this old Bob Dylan lyric:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto
Were riding down the line
Fixing everybody’s troubles
Everybody’s except mine
Someone musta told ’em I was doing fine
And I began to wonder if this wasn’t how our nation went wrong; how we changed from isolationists to what we are today: wannabe nation builders and whoopsiedaisy nation destroyers. Maybe it was good ol’ liberal Hollywood that set us on this path. Maybe the George W.’s of the world think that nation-building is as easy as riding into town, beating back the bad guys, and riding out again. Done and done. Maybe we all long to hear the phrase, “Who was that masked man?”
Something similar is said in “The Equalizer,” the modern, stylized adaptation of the 1980s TV series, but it’s generally said by the bad guys as they’re lying on the ground with fountains of blood leaking from their necks. Shock in their eyes, they manage to gurgle, “Who are you?”
Do we ever find out? Not really. Our heroes don’t need masks anymore to be masked men.
Hemingway and Cervantes
The beginning of the movie isn’t awful. Writer Richard Wenk (“The Mechanic”; “The Expendables 2”) and director Antoine Fuqua (“Olympus Has Fallen”; “Training Day”) build the tension slowly. McCall is a man who dresses proper and helps everyone out at work, which is in a kind of fairy-tale Home Depotish warehouse where no manager is an asshole and the main source of entertainment is guessing what Robert did before this gig. (Cf. “Saving Private Ryan.”) At one point he gives a joke answer. “A pimp?” they say, laughing. “A Pip,” he corrects. Then he does the backing moves for Gladys Knight. Later, before the final battle, we get to hear a bit of “Midnight Train to Georgia” blaring over the loudspeaker. That’s a nice touch. It was nice to hear that.
But despite the smile and the charm, Robert is a haunted man who can’t sleep. So at 2 a.m. he takes his latest book—he’s reading the “100 books everyone should read before they die”—over to the local 24/7 diner, which is a shockingly clean, quiet place despite the fact that it’s open 24/7 and is a hangout for prostitutes. “Go make your living,” the counter-guy/owner tells the child prostitute solicitously when the limo with the fat man pulls up outside. Way of the world, right?
Her name is Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), and she and Robert develop a kind of rapport. She’s always interested in what he’s reading, and what he’s reading usually reflects on what’s about to happen. “The Old Man and the Sea”? The fish allowed the old man to test himself, to see if he could do what he’d always done. “Don Quixote”? It’s about a man who thinks he’s a knight in shining armor during a time when there are no more knights in shining armor. Etc.
This stuff ain’t bad, and Denzel’s usually fun to watch. He’s sort of the action-hero Bill Cosby here, forever giving advice to the younger, sloppier generation: pull up your pants, quit eating potato chips and processed sugars. “Doubt kills,” he tells Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), the fat Hispanic dude who wants to be security guard. “You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what,” he tells Teri.
Teri’s the reason for the slow build-up. Shit keeps happening to her at the local diner at 2 a.m. Another call from her pimp. (Cut to Denzel, brooding.) That car pulls up outside with the fat man in it. (Cut to Denzel, brooding.) The next night she has a bruise on her face, and Robert is walking her home when the bad guys, led by Slavi (David Meunier), a Russian pimp, cut them off and take her away. They give Robert their card: RUSSIAN DOLLS. Not that he needed it to find them. He finds everybody.
After that, she doesn’t show up. She’s in the hospital, beaten to within an inch of her life. Cut to Denzel, brooding no more.
How many white girls has Denzel saved over the last 15 years? When did this become his cinematic lot in life?
Anyway, that’s what starts it. He’s ex-CIA, or some such, and his skills are immense, and he cuts a swath through Slavi and his boys in that “Sherlock Holmes” style: seeing everything relevant in both quick and superslow-mo, then acting. Boom-boom-boom. Dead dead dead. He always offers them an out but they never take it. He does the same with some corrupt cops who are leaning on Ralphie’s mom. He solves everybody’s troubles ’cept mine.
Does this help him sleep? That would be a nice touch. That once he begins to kill again, and be who he is in this world, he can sleep; that it wasn’t past killings that kept him up but lack of killings. Like he’s a vampire who needs blood. But that would make “The Equalizer” a more complex movie than it is. Instead, it’s a sugar rush, a handful of potato chips. It’s a Big Mac. Before you eat it, you think, “Yeah, that sounds good”; afterwards you realize you really should’ve eaten something else. But we keep stuffing our faces with these things. If only Robert had warned us.
The movie quickly becomes ridiculous. Turns out Slavi wasn’t just a cackling, tattooed pimp; he was the Northeastern arm of a Russian oligarch/gangster named Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich), who acts with impunity since he’s got corrupt Boston cops on his side (David Harbour, the poor man’s Peter Krause). So Pushkin sends his man, Teddy (Marton Csokas, the poor man’s Kevin Spacey), to assess and clean up.
Robert gets shot a bit here and there, but nothing that some home-remedy boiled honey or battlefield cauterizing won’t cure. Mostly, grim-faced, he mows guys down, leading to the inevitable showdown at the Home Depotish warehouse. My hope during? That Teddy, the main bad guy, rather than his various henchmen, would get it first. Wouldn’t that be fun? Just for a change? But “The Equalizer” plays it all without imagination. The further we go, the more stylized the violence becomes, until our eyes are as dead as Denzel’s.
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.