GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) – Mixed Bag of A-List Actors and Mediocre Giant Monster Battles

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), the latest American made Godzilla film and sequel to Warner Bros.’ GODZILLA (2014), is a well-acted action-filled monster movie that somehow in spite of these strengths is sadly underwhelming.

And that’s because this movie contains an odd mix of often ridiculous plot points combined with a tone that simply takes itself way too seriously. Instead, the film should have gone for one or the other. A campier tone would have aligned itself better with the goofy superficial plot points. Likewise, a much more realistic and gritty storyline would have fit in better with the film’s serious feel. As it stands, the movie mixes both, and it just doesn’t work.

Following the 2014 Godzilla attacks which left the world a different place, the secret organization Monarch is in charge of monitoring all the new giant monsters which have been discovered in various places around the globe (silly plot point #1), but the U.S. government and military want to shut down Monarch so they can destroy the monsters and save the Earth. But the Monarch scientists argue that the monsters really aren’t here to destroy the Earth but to save it from its worst enemy: humankind.

Top Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) lost their son in the previous Godzilla attack, and his death caused them to separate, and Emma alone is raising their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). It also caused Emma to have extreme ideas about these monsters, and so she aligns herself with the dubious Jonah Alan (Charles Dance)— cue evil villain music!— and the two plan to release the giant monsters so they can unleash their wrath on the world and “cleanse” it of its human cancer.  Hmm. Where have I heard this before? Is that Thanos I see whispering into Dr. Russell’s ear?

But Dr. Russell isn’t arguing a la Thanos that half the population has to be wiped out by the monsters, only some of it, and that at the end of it all there will be new growth and the planet will be greener for it.  Come again? 

Of course, when this starts happening, the rest of Monarch and the U.S. military go ballistic, and they not only form an uncomfortable alliance to thwart Emma’s efforts, but they also call in Mark Russell to help them. Mark is mostly interested in finding and saving his daughter, and speaking of Madison, once she learns what her mom has planned, she changes her tune about which parent she wants to be spending time with.

Things grow more complicated when one of the monsters, King Ghidorah, is discovered to be from another planet, and he decides that he’s going to control and lead all the monsters in a battle against Godzilla for supremacy of the Earth.

Godzilla? That’s right! This is a Godzilla movie!  Funny how I haven’t mentioned him yet. Real funny. Not. Which is to say more Godzilla in this story and less elaborate saving-the-world-nonsense would have been most welcome.

Anyway, it’s up to Godzilla to take on King Ghidorah and ultimately save the world.

But as you may surmise from this plot summary, it’s a helluva convoluted way to tell a story about everyone’s favorite fire-breathing radioactive giant lizard!

Poor Godzilla. He was supposed to appear in this movie more than he did in the last one, the 2014 film, and while that may have been the case, it sure didn’t feel like it. For a movie that’s called GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS it sure seemed like he took a back seat to the other monsters in this one..

The best thing that GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS has going for it is its cast. It boasts a really strong cast of actors, led by its three principal leads.

Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell and Millie Bobby Brown as daughter Madison were both excellent. This is Millie Bobby Brown’s film debut. Brown, of course, plays Eleven on the hit TV series STRANGER THINGS (2016-19) so her effective performance in this movie is no surprise.

Vera Farmiga is one of my favorite actresses working today, and while her movie performances have all been superb, it’s her work on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) based on PSYCHO (1960) where she played Norma Bates that I think is among her best stuff. Her interpretation of Norma Bates was much more nuanced and three-dimensional than the character ever was before in both the Hitchcock movie and Robert Bloch’s original novel.

Kyle Chandler is always enjoyable in nearly every movie he’s in, and he’s been in a lot, from light fare like GAME NIGHT (2018) to more serious stuff like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) to small supporting roles like in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), Chandler always makes a lasting impression. His work here in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is no exception.

When these three actors are on-screen, the movie is at its best and most watchable, and the good news is they’re on screen a lot, but the problem is they are stuck in a ridiculous storyline and are often uttering some very superficial and god-awful dialogue that really detracts from the seriousness of their performances.

Incidentally, Kyle Chandler also appeared in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) which is not part of the current Warner Bros. giant monster universe, and he’s set to appear in the next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG.

The supporting cast is every bit as good as the three leads.

You have Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER [2017]), Ziyi Zhang, and Bradley Whitford as fellow Monarch scientists. Watanabe and Hawkis are reprising their roles from the previous Godzilla movie, and in Watanabe’s case, he’s playing Dr. Serizawa, a name that goes back to the original GODZILLA film from 1954.

Bradley Whitford gets the liveliest lines in the movie, but strangely, his frequent attempts at humor seem to misfire repeatedly. Again, it’s that odd mix, and his campy lines seem out-of-place with the serious tone surrounding him.

David Strathairn plays Admiral William Stenz, another character back from the 2014 film, and Charles Dance does his villainous best at bad guy Jonah Alan, although at the end of the day the character is pretty much all talk and no action. In short, he does very little here.

The true villain is King Ghidorah, which brings us finally, to the monsters. After all, you don’t see a Godzilla film for the actors. You see it for the monsters. So, how do the monsters fare here?

Well, the main monsters here are Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra, and while they are all given modern-day looks, I can’t say I was all that impressed. It sounds strange to say this, but with all our current CGI technology, I find that I prefer the old-fashioned man-in-suit monsters from Toho’s glory days. These monsters all look okay, but nothing about them I find special nor memorable.

In the Toho films, for better or for worse, the monsters, both good and bad, had personality. The monsters here have no personality. They are quite simply generic and not at all cinematic, which is a major knock against this movie, and quite frankly against the other Warner Bros. monster universe films. If the Marvel superheroes lacked similar charisma that series would have never gotten off the ground.

Also, I did not like the look of this movie at all. Most of the action takes place during various weather events and storms, and so it’s always difficult to see what the heck is going on. For example, the film’s climax takes place in Boston, and at Fenway Park specifically, and I have to say it’s one of the poorest and most fake looking interpretations of Boston I’ve ever seen in a movie. What could have been iconic and devastating is instead cartoonish and superficial.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS was directed by Michael Dougherty, and he also wrote the screenplay with some help from Zach Shields. This is the same creative team that gave us the horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), a film I actually liked quite a bit. In fact, I enjoyed KRAMPUS more than I enjoyed GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS.

Dougherty gives us plenty of monsters and monster battles, but since 1) the monsters didn’t look outstanding, and 2) the settings of these battles were often in storms and difficult to see, as presented here, the monsters’ presence didn’t really lift this one to great heights.

The screenplay is superficial at best. It never gives us real terror— real people are noticeably absent here—- other than the scientists and a few military types, we see no one else reacting to the monsters. The film lacks real world emotion big time.

While it attempts to be an homage to earlier films at times, like the use of the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon from the 1954 GODZILLA, it does it all in a fleeting manner that never really gets to the heart of the matter.

Dougherty has a cast of seasoned and talented actors that make this movie better than it is,  but he doesn’t really help them out. They are in few cinematic scenes and more often than not are uttering lines of dialogue that are pretty bad.

So, where do I stand on GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS? For the most part, I did enjoy this movie, especially when watching Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, and Kyle Chandler, but whenever Godzilla and his fellow monsters showed up, I would lose interest, and for a Godzilla movie, this is NOT a good thing.

The film is a mixed bag to be sure, and while I enjoyed it more than GODZILLA (2014), I still prefer the Toho films of old, from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  Now, Toho continued the Godzilla series into the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, even making the critically acclaimed SHIN GODZILLA (2016), and while those films in general are okay—I like the aforementioned older ones more—, they’re about on par with this current Warner Bros. series.

The next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG, slated for release in 2020, is one that while I’m definitely interested in, based upon the Warner Bros. films so far, I can’t say I’m excited about.

So, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is okay, but since the best part about it is NOT Godzilla, I don’t think Godzilla himself would approve, and for me, that’s all you need to know about this one.

—-END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

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Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

HELL FEST (2018) – Horror Movie Gets Better As It Goes Along

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Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Reign Edwards, and Amy Forsyth in HELL FEST (2018).

HELL FEST (2018) is one of those rare horror movies that actually gets better as it goes along.

And that’s a good thing, because it didn’t get off to such a hot start. In fact, after a lackluster opening sequence which could have appeared in countless other slasher films, I thought that this was going to be a pretty bad horror movie.

I was wrong.

HELL FEST opens at a Halloween attraction where a young woman is murdered by a man in a mask who’s obviously taking his job of scaring people a little too seriously. Of course, he’s not working there at all.  He just snuck in, and no one notices him because it’s a Halloween attraction and all the employees are wearing masks. As opening sequences go, this one is as derivative as they get.

The action switches to a couple of years later where we meet a group of college students on their way for some Halloween fun at Hell Fest, a horror-themed amusement park. Of course, our masked friend from the movie’s first scene is also planning to be there.

The characters here include Natalie (Amy Forsyth), Brooke (Reign Edwards), Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Quinn (Christian James), Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Gavin (Roby Attal). Natalie and Brooke are best friends, and Brooke is trying to set Natalie up with Gavin, but she doesn’t have to work too hard because they hit it off immediately.

Too bad for them they choose Hell Fest for their first date.

After its initial ho-hum opening, HELL FEST continues its sloppy start with the introduction of its main characters. All of these folks seemed like they had ten cups of coffee each, and there’s so much excitement about going to Hell Fest, these college kids act like toddlers on Christmas morning. It just didn’t seem all that real to me.

The dialogue didn’t help either. There was just something off about the film’s early scenes. The script gave us lines that didn’t seem real, the way people today talk, and the direction was choppy.

I also had an issue with the look of the film. I’m guessing this was done on purpose, but HELL FEST looked like a 1980s slasher pic, in particular Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE (1981). But this movie isn’t taking place in the 1980s. It’s taking place in the here and now.

Moreover, the characters didn’t exactly look like college students here in 2018. They looked like 1980s college students. I found this to be rather distracting early on.

Now, the actual amusement park, Hell Fest, was pretty cool.  I’ve never been to a Halloween attraction as elaborate as this one, but I thought, well, if this film remains bad, then at least I can enjoy all the horror elements from the amusement park. And this really is a plus for this movie. It doesn’t take place in a house, haunted or not, and we don’t have to suffer through long boring scenes where characters walk alone in dark corridors looking for trouble. The Hell Fest setting really helps.

But then a funny thing happened. The movie actually gets better and becomes a decent horror flick.

The moment this occurs is when Natalie meets the masked killer in one of the haunted attractions, and he’s got a victim pinned to the floor, and of course Natalie and her friends all believe this is just part of the show. Natalie, who’s into this less than her friends, has been trying to make herself more resilient and less scared, and so when her friends exit the room, she remains to watch. The killer has the knife pointed at his victim, and finally Natalie says “Just do it, already. You’re here to scare me.” And he does. He stabs her to death in front of Natalie.

The expression on Natalie’s face when she realizes that what she has just seen looks real is one of the best moments in the movie. Amy Forsyth who plays Natalie doesn’t play this scene in a clichéd manner, where she suddenly screams outright. No. The camera lingers on her face, and it’s one of those moments where she’s so good an actress that the audience knows exactly what she’s thinking and feeling.  She goes from confidence to suspicion to anger to uncertainty to fear. It’s a great moment. And the movie never looks back. It takes off from that scene and keeps on going.

There are plenty of well-done horror scenes. Gavin’s encounter with the killer is a good one, as is a memorable sequence involving a guillotine. There’s also a very suspenseful scene in which Natalie wears a mask to hide, and another bit where she’s trapped in the rest room by the killer.  The ending is not half bad either.

The film also put a nice spin on the jump scare trope. Pretty much all the jump scares in this one are from the masked employees at the amusement park, and so they all work. The filmmakers use them here very effectively, as they are caused by people who are supposed to be causing them. The real horror here, the killer, operates outside the jump scare scope.

And the very ending of this one is a welcomed improvement over “the killer is dead but then leaps back up at the camera” routine. I liked how this one ended. It achieves the same result, setting up possible sequels, without the traditional way of doing it.

I thought Amy Forsyth was superb as Natalie. The best part of her performance is she makes the character her own. She’s not a traditional “scream queen” constantly running away screaming, nor is she the traditional “bad ass heroine.” She’s someone in between.  She plays it as the thinking person’s heroine. A lot of thought goes into her actions, and she’s one of the smarter characters to take on a masked serial killer.

Likewise, Reign Edwards is excellent as her best friend Brooke, who early on acts all bad ass, but later becomes so incapacitated by fear it’s up to Natalie to save the day.  Bex Taylor-Klaus is fun as Taylor, the quirky loud and abrasive friend. Both Christian James and Matt Mercurio as Quinn and Asher make for stand-up boyfriends, and Roby Attal as Gavin shares a natural chemistry with Amy Forsyth’s Natalie and so their romance came off as likable and real.

Michael Tourek is believable in a brief role as a security guard, and has one of the more memorable lines in the movie, when he tells the girls he can’t help them since they weren’t harmed, and that it’s just the employees doing their job. He says rather dismissively,  “You’re scared? Welcome to Hell Fest.”

And Tony Todd plays the masked killer. Todd has some experience in this department, years ago having played  The Candyman in CANDYMAN (1992). He really doesn’t have to do all that much here other than walk around and look scary.

The actual mask used in this movie is indeed rather creepy, and I certainly liked the look.

Director Gregory Plotkin stumbles to get out of the gate with some unconvincing and awkward early scenes, but he more than makes up for it with some effective horror scenes in the film’s second half.

The screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper also struggles early on. The initial dialogue between the main characters came off as forced and phony, but once the horror elements settle in, the script, like the direction, improves.

I also really enjoyed the music score by Bear McCreary, who also does the music for TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

HELL FEST certainly hearkens back to the slasher films of yesteryear, especially from the 1980s. In fact, this one looks a lot like a 1980s slasher flick, which at times distracted me because it looked more like the 80s than 2018.

Which also got me to thinking. Forty years ago, when I first saw the slasher film that really got these films started, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), I was 14, and subsequent films continued to be from my generation. But now here we are in 2018, and the main college age characters in this film are actually from my sons’ generation.

And so I got to thinking, and this is one of the things that rubbed me the wrong way early on with HELL FEST, that forty years have passed, and characters from 2018 shouldn’t be acting the way characters acted in 1978, which in effect, was the way they were acting in this film. I remember clearly as a teenager watching films on TV like THE BLOB (1958) which had teens from my parents’ generation, and teens from the 1950s definitely were different from teens from the 1970s.

Forty years is a long time to be dealing with movie serial killers without bringing anything new to the table. Horror films like HELL FEST need to do a better job of bringing their characters into the here and now.

Which brings me to the worst part of HELL FEST: it’s a slasher movie. There’s only so much one can do with this trope.

But the best part of HELL FEST is that in spite of this, it has a talented group of young actors, led by Amy Forsyth in the lead role, and it does make full use of its horror elements, and so once this one gets started, about midway through, it really becomes a decent horror movie. Sure, we’ve seen all this before, and we’ve seen it done better, but we’ve also seen it done a lot worse.

Is HELL FEST as ambitious as GET OUT (2017) or A QUIET PLACE (2018)? No. But it’s certainly a fun horror movie, and with Halloween on its way, you can’t ask for much more than that.

—END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) – Somber Authentic Tale of Family, Drugs, and Guns in 1980s Detroit

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Richie Merritt and Matthew McConaughey in WHITE BOY RICK (2018).

Matthew McConaughey is a helluva an actor.

I like to poke fun at his Lincoln TV commercials, but in the movies, he’s the real deal and then some.

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) which stars McConaughey is one of the most somber, depressing movies I’ve seen in a long while. It may not be an enjoyable film, but it is certainly an authentic one. At times I thought I was watching a documentary. It does an exceptional job capturing the depression of 1980s Detroit, and its story, while slow, is delivered without fanfare, led by two powerful performances, one by McConaughey, and the other by newcomer Richie Merritt.

WHITE BOY RICK opens at a gun show where Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) purchase semi-automatic weapons because that’s how Rick Sr. makes a living, by selling guns on the black market. Rick and his son live in Detroit. It’s the 1980s and the economy there is deplorable.  They are dirt poor and things are only getting worse. Rick talks optimistically about opening a video store but he never seems to get around to it.

They live alone in a run-down house, as Rick’s wife left them years ago, and Rick Jr.s older sister Dawn (Bel Powley), a junkie, moved out because she can’t stand her dad’s restrictions. Rick Sr.’s parents live next door, his cranky dad Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and his more soft-spoken mother Grandma (Piper Laurie).

Rick Jr. hangs out with his best friend “Boo” (RJ Cyler) whose dad Johnny (Jonathan Majors) operates the local drug trade. As Rick Jr. becomes closer to this seedy side of Detroit, he’s nabbed by FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane). They give Rick an ultimatum: if he sells drugs for them, in an effort to infiltrate and help them arrest the local drug pushers, they won’t arrest his dad for selling guns to drug dealers. Seeing that he has no choice, Rick Jr. agrees, and suddenly he’s playing a very dangerous game.

Eventually, as things continually get worse financially for Rick’s family, Rick Jr. decides to take matters into his own hands and use his drug contacts to sell drugs on his own. While Rick Sr. protests, arguing that selling drugs is bad news, he can’t deny that the money they could make dwarfs what they make selling guns, and they are desperately poor.

As I said, this is not a happy movie.

One of the main messages in WHITE BOY RICK is that under the drug laws of the 1980s it was actually worse to get caught selling drugs than it was to murder someone. Several characters mention this in the movie, and ultimately this is what happens when Rick Jr. is arrested. He receives a life sentence, And he was just a teenager.

It provides one of the more emotional moments of the film where Bruce Dern’s grandfather character cries out in court room, “He’s just a boy! How can you do this to just a boy!”

Not only can they do it, but they did do it, in real life, as WHITE BOY RICK is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. who did indeed receive a life sentence in 1988 for selling drugs.

There is nothing flashy about the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. It goes about its business telling its story without frills. As such, the pacing is slow as often the audience feels like a fly on the wall to some of the conversations and situations, but it does do a remarkable job fleshing out the its characters. You might not like these people, but you will feel for them, mostly because they come off as real.

Director Yann Demange captures poverty-stricken Detroit perfectly, in spite of shooting the film in Cleveland. The story he tells is raw and gritty, the characters unrefined and pungent, and the overall feeling of the film is somber and depressing.

Demange also gets the most out of his actors, as there are strong performances throughout.

Matthew McConaughey, as he almost always is, is excellent as Rick Sr., and newcomer Richie Merritt, who’s making his film debut, is just as good as Rick Jr. The two really seem like father and son.

McConaughey is near-perfect as the dad who just wants to do right by his family, but wouldn’t know a good idea if it knocked on his front door. Stuck selling guns, unable to help his drug-addicted daughter, and out of the loop regarding his son’s drug dealings, he nonetheless refuses to quit, even with all of life seemingly working against him. Eventually, he does go after his daughter and help get her clean, he does step up to help his son, but unfortunately, the need for money proved too great for him to tell Rick Jr. not to sell drugs.

The scene near the end of the movie where Rick visits his son in prison and sees that Rick Jr. is giving up, and he begs his son not to quit, knowing that there’s nothing he can do to help him, is one of the film’s best. When he cries out to his son that “he’s his best friend. You’re my only friend!” It is such a powerful realistic moment.

McConaughey fares much better here than in last year’s THE DARK TOWER (2017). This might be my favorite McConaughey performance since DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (2013.)

And Richie Merritt doesn’t seem like an actor playing a role at all. He seems like he is Rick Jr. It’s one of the more authentic performances I’ve seen this year.

Bel Powley is also very good as Rick Jr.’s sister Dawn, who like Merritt and McConaughey, doesn’t seem to be acting.  The trio come off as a real family, albeit a messed-up one, but a real one just the same.

Then you have veteran actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as a pair of FBI agents. Both RJ Cyler as “Boo” and Jonathan Majors as his drug dealing father Johnny are excellent, and character actor Eddie Marsan enjoys a couple of memorable scenes as drug dealer Art Derrick.

Not to mention cinema greats Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents of the family.  Dern gets to do more, as Grandpa is the more outspoken of the two and gets to utter some explosive lines here and there, but it was still good to see Laurie as well.

The cast in WHITE BOY RICK is really a plus.

And the film gets its title from Rick Jr.’s nickname. Since Johnny Curry and his gang were primarily black, and Rick Jr. was often the only white person in their inner circle, Johnny got to calling him “White Boy Rick.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from WHITE BOY RICK. But when all was said and done, and the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a potent movie.

This one is about as fun as a traffic accident, but there is not a shred of fluff to be found here. It plays as authentic as a documentary, and with a talented cast of actors, it does one better, as the characters it creates, while not likeable, are real and sympathetic. I didn’t like these folks and wouldn’t want to know them, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the injustice of Rick Jr.’s fate and the heartbreak of Rick Sr. when he realized he was never going to spend time with his son again.

WHITE BOY RICK has a lot to say about the motivations of people who just don’t have money to live their lives, and speaks to the imbalance of drug laws, how the punishment may not fit the crime.

You may not be hearing much about WHITE BOY RICK, and even if you are, it may not sound like something you want to see. But if you do see it, you’ll be in for a no-nonsense movie that speaks the truth about some unpleasant people, the choices they make, and the situations they find themselves in, people who ultimately you will feel empathy for.

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