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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Season One of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS Perfect Mix of Horror and Nostalgia

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STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.

It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect.  Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well.  And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.

STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.

The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie.  Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.

There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975).  Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference.  So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!

STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s.  It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building.  We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.

The action switches to four middle school friends.  Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement.  After their game, they bike home.

Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home.  When he gets there, no one is home.  The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.

Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing.  Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son.  Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.

The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town.  Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend.  One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods.  She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement.  Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive.  More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive.  Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.

And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start.  If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.

But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight.  It fits perfectly within the eight episode season.  There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either.  (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?)  STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up.  And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.

The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along.  Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child?  And then it builds.  What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility?  What is Dr. Brenner up to?  What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from?  Where’s Will?  What is up with Eleven?

And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.

When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids.  Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent.  Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT.  Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.

But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role.  Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.  The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side.  Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent.  Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.

Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster.  Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan.    I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series.  I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.

I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014).  Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.

But this is a terrific role for Harbour.  He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death.  One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.

For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce.  Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan.  She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do.  She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead.  She’s terrific to watch in this series.

And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.

The monster here is pretty cool looking too.  It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin.  And it was just as frightening.

STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here.  They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.

I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.

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Bryan Cranston Leads the Way in THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

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If you’re a Bryan Cranston fan, you’ll love THE INFILTRATOR (2016).

THE INFILTRATOR tells the true story of how U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) took on the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar and won. It’s 1986, the heart of the “War on Drugs” as waged by then President Ronald Reagan, and Mazur comes up with the idea to take down the drug lords not by going after the drugs but by following the money.

And so Mazur and his partner Emir (John Leguizamo) set up an elaborate money laundering scheme where Mazur impersonates a Mafia money guy in order to infiltrate the drug business.  They work their way to the higher-ups, which in this case means a man named Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and of course the ultimate prize of Pablo Escobar.

Along the way they meet with their share of undesirables, and the stakes grow increasingly high, as Mazur and his “wife” Kathy (Diane Kruger) infiltrate Alcaino’s home and family.  One false slip of the tongue and they’re dead.

THE INFILTRATOR is a well-made and highly entertaining movie.

While there’s lots to like about this one, the best thing is the acting, led by Bryan Cranston. While it may not be as crafted an effort as the one Cranston gave in TRUMBO (2015), nor as powerful as his five season stint on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), it’s still a thoroughly captivating and entertaining performance.  Cranston gives Mazur an admirable confidence without sacrificing his vulnerablities and fears that go with the territory.

Cranston has that presence where he can hold your attention the entire time he’s on screen.  While there were many things I enjoyed about THE INFILTRATOR, the main reason I enjoyed it was because of Bryan Cranston.

The rest of the acting is also very good.  John Leguizamo is a natural as Mazur’s wisecracking unpredictable partner Emir.  It’s always fun to see Leguizamo when he’s not voicing Sid in the ICE AGE movies.

The women here also fare very well.  I really enjoyed Diane Kruger as fellow agent Kathy Ertz who joins the undercover ruse as Mazur’s wife.  She becomes a prominent player in the second half of the film, and she’s excellent.

Juliet Aubrey is also very good as Mazur’s real wife Evelyn.  She takes what could have been a cliched role- the worried wife- and makes her a three-dimensional and very sympathetic character.

Benjamin Bratt makes the most of his brief screen time as drug cartel leader Roberto Alcaino.  While there’s little doubt that Alcaino is a dangerous man, Bratt surprises in how sympathetic and likeable he makes Alcaino, making Mazur and Kathy more uncomfortable the more they get to know him, because they grow to like him.

Elena Anaya is equally as good as Alcaino’s wife Gloria.  Like Alcaino, she welcomes Mazur and Kathy into her family, adding to the difficulty of their continuing the sting.

The film is loaded with all sorts of unsavory characters, and as a result there are a bunch of noteworthy supporting performances here.  Among them are Yul Vazquez as bisexual drug man Javier Ospina who can’t seem to take his hands off anyone in the movie, especially the men.  It’s a weird and mesmerizing performance by Vasquez as there’s something almost vampire-like about Ospina.  And in a neat movie homage, at one point in the film Ospina mentions THE GODFATHER movies, and later, when he learns the truth about Mazur, he tells him, “You broke my heart,” which is the famous line uttered by Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to his brother Fredo when he learns his brother betrayed him in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974).  It’s not clear that Mazur gets the reference, but the audience does, making the moment frightening and menacing.

Speaking of vampires, Joseph Gilgun plays a lively character named Dominic, a convict who Mazur springs from jail so he can act as his personal protector.  Dominic is there to watch Mazur’s back, and he does.  Gilgun curently plays a vampire on the frenetic TV show PREACHER (2016), a nutty character named Cassidy, and Gilgun is just as wild here in THE INFILTRATOR.

And Olympia Dukakis is wonderful in two key scenes as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, the latter where she also gets to take part in the sting operation.

Director Brad Furman previously made RUNNER RUNNER (2013), a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, and THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011),  a drama starring Matthew McConaughey, both okay movies.  I enjoyed THE LINCOLN LAWYER better than RUNNER RUNNER which struggled to remain believable.  THE INFILTRATOR is probably his best movie yet, a stronger film than these other two.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Ellen Sue Brown, based on the book by Robert Mazur.  In addition to the obvious drug war plot, the story also makes a point of painting a sympathetic portrait of drug villains Roberto and Gloria Alcaino.  They speak of family and loyalty, and they welcome Mazur and Kathy into their home.  At one point, Roberto asks Mazur who the biggest money launderer in the United States is, and he tells Mazur it’s the U.S. government, which while publically waging the war on drugs, privately welcomes drug money into its banks.

The film also makes a point of including bank executives as the villains here.  We see top bank officials listen to Mazur tell them point blank that his money comes from cocaine dealers, and yet they don’t bat an eye.  They simply welcome the money.  So, there is definitely an anti-business/banking element to this story, a la THE BIG SHORT (2015).

While the plot is not overly complicated- U.S. Customs official sets up sting to take down drug cartel- there are a ton of characters in this film, coming and going at any given time, and so one really has to pay attention or else risk being lost.

The actual pace is somewhat slow.  Do not see THE INFILTRATOR expecting an action movie.  It’s not.  It’s a drama and a thriller.  It’s also a movie where the dialogue drives the tension, and  most of the suspense comes from this dialogue, as you keep expecting Mazur and his fellow agents to say the wrong thing and then pay the price.

The film takes place in 1986 but curiously the hairstyles, clothes, and look of the whole thing reminded me of a decade earlier, 1976!  The grainy print gives the film  an authentic feel, but of the 1970s not the 1980s.  I felt like I was watching SERPICO (1973) rather than MIAMI VICE.

But these are small matters.

I really enjoyed THE INFILTRATOR.  It’s a nail-biting suspense drama and showcase for the acting talents of Bryan Cranston and a stellar supporting cast.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout.

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