White Boy Rick

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Andy Weiss; Noah and Logan Miller

Directed by: Yann Demange

In his piece for the New York Observer, the innately likable Rex Reed writes of the White Boy Rick experience: “I can think of no reason any bright, witty or halfway sophisticated movie lover — or otherwise normal person — would want to spend 10 minutes with any of the criminal degenerates in this worthless load of crap.”

Understand that when I say ‘innately likable’ I’m dialing up the sarcasm to 11. I’m not exactly the biggest Rex Reed fan out there; his writing is aggressively obnoxious and true to form here he wants you to know just HOW OFFENDED he is, dealing a number of below-the-belt hits — some aimed at star Matthew McConaughey’s unfortunate “microwaved” appearance, others reserved for the quantity of newcomer Richie Merritt’s acne pimples, and the majority of which seem irresponsibly misdirected. His review is nothing short of a beating that leaves little doubt as to what this critic believes is the worst film of all of 2018. He gave the film a big fat 0 out of 4 on his scale, for whatever that’s worth.

French director Yann Demange (whose 2014 war drama ’71 I left shaken but also moved by) shares the story of Richard Wershe Jr. (Merritt), who in the mid-’80s went from being the youngest drug kingpin-turned-FBI informant in American history to the longest-serving prisoner for a non-violent crime in Michigan state history. That story, such as it is, manifests as a perpetually downward spiral that ends at rock bottom. Its chapters constructed around the spectacularly poor choices he made in the interest of saving his family — father Richard Wershe Sr. (McConaughey), sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and neighboring grandparents (cameos by Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) — from being swallowed up by Detroit’s filth and squalor at the height of the 80s crack epidemic.

Richard Jr. earns the nickname when he falls in with a black gang headed by Johnny “Little Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors). Initially acting as an intermediary between his gun-hustling father and his seedy clientele, he’s soon persuaded by the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, both delivering convincingly cold performances) to start moving weight in an effort to capture the big, rotting fish at the center of the city’s narcotics woes — the coke-snorting mayor himself. For his cooperation, the feds promise to look the other way when it comes to bringing Richard Sr. in on hefty manufacturing/distribution of weapons charges.

White Boy Rick is a well-acted affair but the performances — namely from Team Merritt and McConaughey — aren’t quite enough to overpower the stench of misery that these characters bring to the screen. Richard Jr. is a selfish and reckless individual and as Richard Sr., McConaughey is no more sympathetic. In fact he’s arguably the least redeemable of them all as we see how his business is promoting chaos and violence throughout the city, how his lack of parenting has emboldened his son to crime — or his daughter to make the decision to walk out on the family.

I cringe to do this, but Rex Reed is actually . . . right. Maybe not 0/4 right — that’s pretty harsh, bro. He’s on to something though. White Boy Rick is a movie awkwardly lacking an empathetic hook, and more problematically, entertainment. There is a big difference between, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs — a classic case of schadenfreude — and White Boy Rick, a movie that spends two hours enumerating all the things the kid does wrong only to ask us in the end to take pity on him because he is merely a teenage victim of a broken system.

Because this family is no fun to be around, there really is no point to the exercise. White Boy Rick is based on a real life story but what exactly do we gain from all of these losses? Maybe being pointless is its raison d’être — criminal drug-dealing only leads to one place, and that place is directionless, bottomless despair (or a jail cell, take your pick). I suppose my biggest gripe with the movie is that it made me agree with Rex Reed on something for once. The movie brought us closer together and I will never forgive White Boy Rick for that.

Recommendation: White Boy Rick is a true story with little entertainment value. A cautionary tale steeped in cliché and grating characters. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “We’re goin’ for custard!”

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Don’t Breathe

'Dont Breathe' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Fede Álvarez; Rodo Sayagues

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

Don’t Breathe, the sophomore effort from Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez, is what you’d get if you expanded into a full-length feature that scene from The Silence of the Lambs in which Buffalo Bill stalks a terrified Clarice Starling with night vision goggles while his prey helplessly fumbles around in the pitch black. This is, of course, to say that Don’t Breathe is relentlessly intense almost start to finish, marking it as one of the most effective thrillers to hit theaters this year.

In it, a trio of burglars are scraping together enough money so they can flee the dying suburbs of Detroit by looting homes and getting cash for valuable possessions pillaged. When they discover a rundown home belonging to a war vet rumored to be sitting on $300k in settlements from an accident that claimed the life of his daughter, they assume they’ve hit the jackpot. Especially when they figure out the dude is blind. But we all know what assuming does, don’t we?

Small-time crooks turn into big-time prey as they casually waltz into a trap thinking the job is a done deal. It is in this suffocating space of decrepitness and unpredictability where we more or less remain for the duration. We’re briefly (and just barely sufficiently) introduced to the gang in the opening twenty minutes, right before Álvarez flips the switch and plunges us all into the depths of a home invasion gone horribly wrong. Front-and-center is Jane Levy’s Rocky, who’s desperate to leave behind an abusive home for the sun-kissed beaches of Califor-ny-yay with her younger sister. Then there’s her main squeeze “Money” (Daniel Zovatto), a terribly nicknamed character who doesn’t at all make for a subtle metaphor or, quite frankly, a memorable character. Dylan Minnette rounds out the crew as the slightly more likable Alex.

It isn’t really their movie, though. Don’t Breathe inarguably belongs to a man and his dog. Stephen Lang plays The Blind Man, an unsuspectingly agile old git who can navigate the interior with his other, much keener senses — sound and touch, most notably — and who keeps a Rottweiler handy in case of such emergencies. (Puppy credits go to three separate, extremely well-trained animals, each getting their moment to shine. And I’m assuming their Cujo-like presence is what earns the film its horror label; otherwise that classification is something of a misnomer. Kind of like me calling these big boys ‘puppies.’) Indeed the kids become a lot more interesting once we see them forced into action against a trained killer — better make that plural — and pressured into taking drastic measures to ensure they not only escape with their lives but with the money as well.

Don’t Breathe simmers in a stew of sociological, economical and psychological ingredients. It’s a morality play involving characters whose chance for survival is perpetually undercut by their own actions. Greed, selfishness and desperation invariably imprison characters we weren’t ever supposed to “like” in this fortress, even magnetizing them to it. And it’s Lang’s full-on committal to a relatively silent role — in fact the best bits of the film languish in the choke of dead air — that simultaneously rebuffs the invaders and causes us, the anxious voyeurs, to question just what we would do in such a situation. Utterly compelling stuff.

Stephen Lang in 'Don't Breathe'

Recommendation: Think of it less as a true horror film and more of a thriller, the likes of which made me, personally, feel like I had chugged one too many cups of coffee. I watched my hand on the steering wheel as I drove home from my local theater. My knuckles were all jittery. What the fuck man. It’s just a movie. Granted, a very, very good one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Trivia: Stephen Lang has a total of 13 lines of dialogue, the majority of which are reserved for the ending moments. 

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Only Lovers Left Alive

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Release: Friday, April 11, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Vampires have never seemed as hipster as they do in Jim Jarmusch’s beautifully framed and deliberately paced tale of two long-time lovers reuniting in Detroit — but in an incredible twist of fate script they have also never seemed so appealing.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are in a romance so convincing their performances transcend faking attachment at the hip. Hiddleston’s unkempt Adam and Swinton’s fragile but unbroken Eve — don’t worry, the names are tongue-in-cheek — coalesce on a spiritual level we can’t help but believe wholeheartedly. If you can quash the temptation to label them as the most anti-social couple of all time (or at least since the 16th Century) you’ve won half the battle that is the challenge to the perception of the vampiric legend that is Only Lovers Left Alive.

The second half of the battle is accessing the conclusion of the film, a galvanizing reflection on the “gift” of mortality. Being mortal may suck, but probably not as much as sucking blood for to stick around longer to see what, if anything, about eternity might change, sucks. For this is a slow-burn, a candle-wax dripping kind of slow that will have some feeling as though they are macraméing themselves to their couch. Hipster me loves the pacing, the tedium of old souls scourging the Earth for something new to invigorate their old-fashioned sensibilities while they reap the benefits of humans (a.k.a. ‘zombies’) making short work of destroying themselves through selfishness, bitterness and open hostility. It’s a challenge to be sure, but the reward gained from enduring is a vampiric cinematic experience unlike anything else.

Only Lovers is not as static as it sounds. Jim Jarmusch, both writer and director of this offbeat little gem, throws a kink in the perpetually unaddressed ‘vampiric’ lifestyle in the form of Mia Wasikowska’s much younger and more reckless Ava, sister of Eve. When she randomly shows up in Adam’s secret hideaway — a cramped space more akin to a hoarder’s cavern — she threatens to expose the pair’s identity to the world at large. For presumably decades, perhaps centuries, Adam’s been impressively fending off any curious passersby who have dared approach his stoop and now, this relative adolescent is about to be his and his beloved’s downfall? He’ll be fanged if it happens on his watch.

(In)accessibility is part of Only Lovers‘ hipster appeal, and because it is, I ought to embellish on my introductory statements, lest I be mistaken for one myself. If you don’t “get” this film, then you’re just not cool enough . . .

No, but seriously. I’ve taken off my thick wire-framed glasses and am prepared to give this film a proper look. It’s a sluggish, stubborn film, even for someone who enjoys the slow burn. And Only Lovers lacks the crackling power at the end of the fuse and if you so much as yawn during any given moment you’re likely to miss something that adds to this collage of atmospheric production and refined performance. I guess what I’m saying is that for every reason Jarmusch’s commitment to the offbeat is effective it is also polarizing. That’s a shame when this movie is this well-acted and cast. It also finds profundity in the decrepitude of a Detroit reeling in the economic collapse of 2008/2009. A former car manufacturing plant is converted into a gothic cathedral wherein our leads find solace and serves as one of the film’s more impressive set pieces.

Perhaps what is most admirable about this non-conformer is its odd sense of humor. Without this Only Lovers would be labeled an obtuse, pretentious bit of film, unable or even unwilling to harness its true potential. But because vampires refer to us mere mortals as the weird ones; because Anton Yelchin’s Ian, guitar enthusiast and friend of Adam, is too ignorant for his own good, there is a thread of commonality that unites vampire and zombie. The weirdness is most certainly accessible to the open-minded. Jim Jarmusch is inviting those who are curious inside his unique little world with fantastic performances and beautifully realized settings alike.

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3-5Recommendation: Only Lovers Left Alive is a film not just for the fang-toothed. I just checked in the mirror; I am sadly (fortunately?) without any. It needs to be said I’m not really faithful to vampire films. In fact, I have a great distaste for them. I find the genre more cliched than romance and action films combined, yet I now find a soft spot for this one. As The National’s very own Matt Berninger sings, I’m on a blood buzz. Yes I am. I’m on a blood buzz. Don’t worry, that’s not supposed to mean anything. I just wanted an excuse to include those awesome lyrics.

Rated: R

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Please, feel free to piss in my garden.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Brick Mansions

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014

[Theater]

While the last film to feature a performance from Paul Walker is as dumb as a brick, there is something haunting, almost immortalizing left behind in the rubble of this, his final role.

Maybe it’s more haunting because the last major role of his is stuck in a picture as stiff and awkward as Brick Mansions, yet another failure of a script from Luc Besson. Or maybe it’s because it features Paul driving a beautiful Mustang around the ghetto of Detroit. Whatever the reason, Paul’s presence resonates very bittersweet throughout the film and gives the film at least one reason to exist. And a pretty good one, too.

But without him, it has literally none.

Camille Delamarre’s debut feature film is short, but even shorter on entertainment and logic. Apparently a remake of Luc Besson’s much-better written District B13 in which a nuclear warhead is set on destroying Paris, to be launched from the central ghetto that has been walled off by the Parisian government for years. A cop and vigilante criminal must gain access inside the dangerous ghetto and stop the threat and rescue anyone who may be trapped inside (both films make sure this is a young, attractive girl. . .because honestly, how could they not?) In 2014, Besson took that script and scrapped whatever creativity and solid writing it possessed and replaced these things with toilet paper scribblings of ideas. This version would come to be known as Brick Mansions.

In it, Paul plays good Detroit cop Damien Collier who has been supposedly Dark Knight-ing it up around the city for years, fending off escalating crime and tension stemming from the metropolis’ long-forgotten ghetto, which remains at the heart of the city. Filled with what were once beautiful brick buildings, the zone has been completely retaken by criminals, gangsters and other, shall we say, undesirables. . .and while Officer Collier is less of a vigilante than Batman, he finds himself coming face-to-face with some pretty nasty types who wish nothing but for the most harmful. . . .er, harm to befall him.

He does come across the vigilante-esque and mysterious Lino (played by David Belle, the founder of an urban free-running style known as Parkour) who, if anything, would be Robin to Paul Walker’s Batman if we really wanted to continue with this metaphor.

Lino is an ex-con who has recently been released from prison but now finds himself in a scrap with inner-city thugs who have kidnapped his girlfriend (Catalina Denis) — seriously, did Besson just copy-and-paste his old script here? Stopping at nothing to get her back apparently is going to include teaming up with Collier, who is of course initially reluctant to work with a criminal. After all, you know. . .a criminal killed his father. After an awkward stand-off the pair agree to throw themselves into the lion’s den, seeing as they both are pursuing the same man as it turns out. Collier has been tracking down the ringleader Tremaine (RZA) for many years, and Lino only recently has had cause to find him since his girl was taken.

As the presiding ‘evil’ that rules the brick mansion territory, RZA’s Tremaine is actually suitably sinister and perhaps the most intelligently spoken of any character in this film. While his worldview is not particularly original nor even really that compelling it is at the very least believable, unlike anything else the movie has to offer. Collier is a decent man but greatly lacking in personality; Walker tries his best with what he is provided, which is skimpy at best. He’s meant to be following in the shadow of his father who was killed in the line of duty, but that story is so woefully underdeveloped it barely counts as an afterthought.

David Belle is fun to watch, if only for the extensive (bordering on self-indulgent) stunt reel he puts together for the camera. His many escapades actually comprise a good portion of the running time, which truthfully saves the story from being any worse. As a character, though, Lino’s pretty asinine as well, remaining a caricature of a desperate man trying to stay out of trouble.

Brick Mansions makes great use of its grubby and grimy set — for whatever that’s worth. Filmed as though moving throughout levels in a videogame, the camera moves us in and out of intricate spaces filled with bad guys, bullets and babes pistol-whipping one another. The use of CGI is apparent but surprisingly not among the film’s failings. Despite a gritty and somewhat interesting setting, there’s far more wrong with more important components like story and character development. When it comes to actually structuring this foundation, Brick Mansions simply crumbles.

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1-5Recommendation: Admittedly a terrible last outing for Paul, it is nonetheless the last film with Paul in a completed role, and is somewhat worth seeing on that level. Brick Mansions flirts with ideas like the ideological struggle between rich and poor societal classes, something it could have sunk its teeth into more and could possibly have become an intriguing movie as a result. But this is nowhere close to being a movie with ideas, it’s perfectly content with sitting back and being a carbon copy of much better (and still generic) action flicks. Avoid this unless you are in the middle of a mission to see every Paul Walker flick (good for you, I say). Even if that’s the case, this one can probably be placed fairly low on your list.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 90 mins.

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30-for-30: Bad Boys

badboys

Release: Thursday, April 17, 2014

[ESPN]

Love ’em, hate ’em, you don’t even know ’em. And for most people who grew up following pro basketball in the 1980s, you didn’t give a damn about ’em, or their back-to-back championship titles in 1989 and 1990.

The circle of those who actually did care barely encompassed the city of Detroit, Michigan. The rest of the league not only didn’t care about the talented Isiah Thomas and his merry band of basketball punks, but they couldn’t stand them. In fact the general opinion of this team was so bitterly divided ‘Bad Boys of Detroit‘ actually became a galvanizing chant that could be heard echoing off the glass and concrete of this city. Elsewhere, the name was something to be cursed.

This time, confidence wasn’t building only to be dropped like a brick the next moment. Starting with the draft of Isiah Thomas from the University of Indiana in 1981, the team began a multi-year reconstruction process that would throw the door wide open for future criticisms, controversies and career-defining moments. Their environment embraced the storm of critics as if welcoming home a friend or family member at the airport. The attitude was growing and the games played against the Pistons were becoming “dirtier.” Everyone knew this, and not everyone loved it.

Detroit did, though.

Specifically what they loved was their team’s physicality on the court, as it represented a new, stronger gusto for winning. ‘Game face’ was now more like ‘maul-his-face.’ The Pistons of the day were most known for two players that particularly drew ire from opponents and their crowds: the big, physically dominant Rick Mahorn and the equally (if not more) controversial and clunky Bill Laimbeer, a goon who loved to taunt and be a general nuisance on the hardwood. Between the two of them, more fights and more player ejections occurred than with any other Piston.

Then there were quieter contributors like Vinnie Johnson, also known as ‘The Microwave’ for slowly but surely heating up as the games went on, becoming an incredibly clutch performer down the stretches of many a playoff series. The 1989 squad would emerge as one of the most competitive units Detroit had put on the court in years, one that would be willing to do anything to win. Anything on the court, that is. Fortunately the team’s reputation didn’t also include a propensity for hard-partying. (Or they at least avoided making the news while doing so.)

By comparison, off-court antics (read: distractions) might have been preferable for anyone not a fan of the Bad Boys. Then-head coach Chuck Daly emphasized a physical presence that bordered on UFC brawling with the opponent, a teeny little characteristic that separated them fairly efficiently from the rest of the league’s style of play. But oh buddy was it effective; they won 63 (of 82 total) games in the 1989 season, shattering their old season-best 54-28. This was due to the addition of more players who were keen on implementing Daly’s street-ball mentality. That year, they had the opportunity to use them against a team they had lost to in the finals the year before. And that year, they not only prevailed over the Lakers, they won four consecutive in the final seven-game series, effectively sweeping one of the most elite teams in the nation at the time.

Not only was Detroit aggravating in the sense they were so effective in riling up opponents — frequently becoming the source of multiple player brawls and ejections in those years — their completely frowned-upon game plan actually led to success. This was clearly a reality the other teams couldn’t handle. They even managed to piss off MJ, albeit for starkly different reasons.

When their cage-match-style approach to the game led to a second consecutive title only then it was official: the Bad Boys of Detroit were the ones to beat. Some to this day adamantly deny that they contend for ‘legacy’ status, however. They never quite reached it in the same way that teams like the Boston Celtics (a team that to this day holds the longest consecutive championship winning streak of any American professional sports team, with eight amassed from 1959 to 1966) or the Los Angeles Lakers (who’re only one championship ring shy of the Celtics’ total) had; and the Detroit Pistons lacked any sort of player who was likable outside of the city, even despite many personnel changes over the years.

Somewhat ironically, being the thorn in everyone’s side had given the dent in basketball history that Detroit had been needing to make; not necessarily the controversies so much as the back-to-back championship titles, with the win over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989 arguably being the more rewarding of the two. This documentary gives fascinating insight into the culture that sparked inside the Pistons locker room, with the backdrop of a city clinging to any hope of making championship runs in the 1980s. It is packed with footage of games gone awry, with several interviews clearly marked with still latent heat over certain memories of games long ago.

The Bad Boys represent something of a bygone era in professional basketball. The game of today is far more regulated, with players being kept more at an arm’s length rather than being allowed to get right up in each other’s faces; the Bill Laimbeer’s of today are certainly less aggressive even if they still are thorny little pricks. Some say the game has lost intensity, lost its edge. It has certainly done a decent job expelling the fever-pitch animosity like the one directed toward the Detroit locker room of the 1980s.

Click here to read more 30-for-30 reviews.

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4-0Recommendation: This most recent installment in the 30-for-30 film series is informative as it is revealing. It shows a different side of basketball, a more desperate and certainly more controversial side. For basketball fans, clearly, but specifically for those wanting to know more about this interesting period in Detroit Piston history. Why do I get the feeling that this is an extremely niched documentary, though. . .?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

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