QUEEN & SLIM (2019) – More Love Story Than Crime Story

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In QUEEN & SLIM (2019), the two main characters are referred to once in the movie as “the black Bonnie & Clyde.” This really isn’t accurate. Bonnie & Clyde were criminals with a violent agenda. The two main characters here have no agenda. They just happened to shoot a cop in self-defense.

When they go on the run, they find themselves unexpectedly with a following, as people see their action against an aggressive white police officer as justified and necessary, and worthy of both applause and protection.

The strongest part about QUEEN & SLIM is what it says about society in the here and now, that folks are so distraught and afraid of police brutality, they find themselves rallying around folks like the two main characters in the movie. This part of the movie resonates throughout. Black Lives Matter is a real movement, and this movie taps into those emotions.

On the other hand, since the two main characters really just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, their story, in terms of dramatic impact, the longer it goes on, doesn’t work as well, and the film struggles to reach its final reel with the same edge with which it began.

Another reason the drama diminishes is the two characters aren’t interested really in the movement they’ve created. They were just out on a date. Their story arc has less to do with societal matters and much more to do with simple survival, and the fact that they find themselves liking each other a lot, so much so, that by film’s end, they’ve fallen in love.

In a way, QUEEN & SLIM is much more a love story than it is a crime story, although you can’t really take the crime out of the plot. Without it, the date ends, and Queen and Slim probably don’t see each other again.

QUEEN & SLIM opens on a first date between Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) at a restaurant in one of the film’s best written scenes. Indeed, based on the writing alone, the movie gets off to a strong start.

On the car ride after the date, the couple gets pulled over by a very aggressive white police officer who we learn later shot a black man and was found innocent of any wrongdoing. This officer eventually pulls a gun on Slim and shoots Queen in the leg. In the ensuing scuffle, Slim shoots the officer. Dead.

Not knowing what to do next, the couple just decides to drive away, and they pretty much make things up as they go along. The rest of the movie follows their efforts to elude a nationwide manhunt. While doing so, they fall in love.  They eventually decide to flee to Cuba, and to get there, they receive lots of help from folks who see them as heroes.

I liked QUEEN AND SLIM for the most part, and I definitely enjoyed the first half better than the second. The plight of these two characters, who didn’t ask to be in the situation they find themselves in, simply isn’t strong enough to carry an entire movie.

It ultimately is a very sad story. It’s also quite maddening. Right after Slim shoots the officer, his first inclination is to stay there and call the police, to do the right thing. But Queen tells him if he does that, he won’t survive the night. This advice generally makes no sense. However, in this case, could anyone argue that Queen is wrong?

And that’s the best part of the screenplay by Lena Waithe. It taps into real racial tensions that are prevalent throughout the film. It also boasts really good dialogue, especially between the two main players.

I really enjoyed the two leads, Daniel Kaluuya as Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen. Kaluuya was excellent in GET OUT (2017). I think his performance stood out more in that film, but he’s nearly as good here.

Jody Turner-Smith delivers a potent performance at Queen. Her character has a devastating back story, and Turner-Smith captures the brokenness of the character. She and Kaluuya work well together and share some strong chemistry. One of the best scenes in the movie is when he takes her dancing at a local club. Sparks fly between them.

Bokeem Woodbine has a field day as Queen’s Uncle Earl. He enjoys some of the liveliest bits in the movie.

Director Melina Matsoukas keeps the film riveting early on, but towards the end things slow down a bit. There are some really impressive sequences, from the initial tense traffic stop with the combative cop, to the aforementioned dance scene, to the sequence where a community marches against the police in protest, to the sequence where Queen and Slim have to jump from a very high second story window.

But things do slow down towards the end, mostly because Queen and Slim aren’t really protagonists. Instead, they react to events around them, as they lay low from the authorities while trying to escape to Cuba.

As QUEEN & SLIM moves towards its inevitable conclusion, things become sadder and more tragic, but they also become slower and less compelling. Don’t expect shoot-outs from characters who suddenly embrace violence to get their message across.

The only thing Queen and Slim are interested in embracing is each other, which is highly commendable, but not exactly a gold mine for riveting storytelling.

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THE IRISHMAN (2019) – Scorsese’s Latest A Showcase for De Niro and Pacino But Not Among Director’s Best

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I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, so it goes without saying that I’m somewhat biased towards Scorsese’s latest movie, THE IRISHMAN (2019), which stars both De Niro and Pacino.

In short, I really liked it.

That being said, as much as I liked it, it’s not one of my favorite movies of the year, nor is it one of Scorsese’s best.

How could it be? With films like TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and GOODFELLAS (1990) in his canon of work, he’d be hard-pressed to match the quality of those masterpieces. Of course, there are a lot of folks out there right now who claim that he has, that THE IRISHMAN indeed ranks as one of Scorsese’s best. I didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, I enjoyed some of his other latter releases better, films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), HUGO (2011), and THE DEPARTED (2006).

THE IRISHMAN chronicles the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) whose lifelong association with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) led him into a relationship with teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). And while Frank and Hoffa became lifelong friends, Frank’s mob ties led to his involvement with Hoffa’s infamous disappearance.

THE IRISHMAN is long and sprawling, clocking in at a whopping three hours and twenty-nine minutes. Produced by Netflix, in addition to its limited theatrical run, it also premiered on the streaming service, and since I’m not made of money, I opted to watch it inside the comfort of my own living room on Netflix rather than pay for a movie ticket.

It takes its time telling its story, but to its credit it never drags or comes off as boring. I pretty much enjoyed every one of its 209 minutes. The story itself, told in flashback by a very old Frank Sheeran as he looks back at his life, covers events over three decades, from the 1960s to the 1990s, with a lot of the film occuring in mid 1970s. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt, is as compelling as it’s comprehensive. The story is fascinating throughout and the characters convincing. Of course, it helps that it’s based on real people, and that it’s being acted by giants of the field.

Zaillian has an impressive resume, having written the scripts for such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Much of the hype surrounding THE IRISHMAN regarded its special effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Since the story takes place over so many years, rather than hire actors to play these characters at different ages, Scorsese decided to use a combination CGI and motion capture effects to film the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at these different ages. The results are a mixed bag. I thought the changes made to the actors’ faces by far was the best. I have little to complain about here. However, both De Niro and Pacino are in their 70s, and so while their faces looked younger, their bodies and their movements did not. To me, they always appeared like older actors portraying younger men, in spite of the digital enhancements to make them look younger.

As expected, the acting in THE IRISHMAN is powerful throughout. Robert De Niro delivers his best performance since his supporting role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and his best lead role in years, for me, since RONIN (1998). In fact, watching De Niro in this movie was by far my favorite part of this film.

Al Pacino is also excellent as Jimmy Hoffa, and he enjoys many fine moments as well.

One drawback, however, is that both De Niro and Pacino here are portraying characters who are not Italian, and yet they’re surrounded by the Italian mob. I found this distracting and had a difficult time buying their take on non-Italian characters here.

THE IRISHMAN also features notable performances by acting heavyweights Joe Pesci— who came out of retirement to make this movie— and Harvey Keitel. Ray Romano also delivers an impressive supporting performance as mob lawyer Bill Bufalino.

As much as I liked THE IRISHMAN, I can’t place it up there with Scorsese’s best. It’s fascinating and compelling but rarely disturbing. For a mob movie starring the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, that’s saying a lot that you can watch this film without breaking into a nervous sweat.

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THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) – Costner/Harrelson Pairing Low Key and Lackluster

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The pairing of Kevin Costner with Woody Harrelson immediately piqued my interest and had me tuning into the premiere of THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), Netflix’ latest original streaming movie release.

Costner and Harrelson play Texas Rangers who are called out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in this period piece drama based on a true story.

It’s 1934, and Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is fed up with the elusive Bonnie and Clyde. She accepts the advice of prison warden Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to  do what the current slew of FBI agents are unable to do: track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer agrees to take the job, and helping him is his former associate Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).

To do the job, Hamer and Gault have to dust off the cobwebs of retirement and deal with being a lot older, but once they feel they are up to speed, they’re hot on the trail of the infamous outlaws.

I was really into seeing THE HIGHWAYMEN because of the pairing of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, but surprisingly the two actors share little chemistry onscreen together.

Costner is very low-key as Frank Hamer, and as such, he just never really came to life for me. I never quite believed he was the infamous Texas Ranger who had killed so many people in the line of duty.

Woody Harrelson fares better as Maney Gault, and Harrelson’s scenes and lines of dialogue were among my favorite in the movie. But his character plays second fiddle to Costner’s and the story never really becomes about him.

And Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Kim Dickens all have limited impact with very small roles.

There’s also not a whole lot that’s cinematic about this one. It plays like a mediocre TV movie of old, and watching it at home on Netflix only added to this substandard feel. Director John Lee Hancock even keeps the R-rated violence somehow tame.

Hancock’s previous film THE FOUNDER (2016), a bio pic on McDonald’s controversial “founder” Ray Kroc, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role, was a much better movie than THE HIGHWAYMEN. In THE FOUNDER, Hancock pushed all the right buttons, including capturing the look and feel of the 1950s. Here in THE HIGHWAYMEN his take on the 1930s is less impressive.

Hancock also directed the critically acclaimed THE BLIND SIDE (2009).

The screenplay by John Fusco focuses completely on Hamer and Gault and strangely spends hardly no time at all on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the infamous pair are barely even seen here. It’s a decision that doesn’t really help the story, because even though Hamer and Gault continually talk about how monstrous Bonnie and Clyde are, and even though we see the pair commit murder, because so little time is spent on them we never really feel their menace.

As a result, Hamer’s and Gault’s quest is largely one-sided. It’s hard to join them in their passion when we never see the object of their manhunt.

The dialogue was average, with most of the good lines all going to Woody Harrelson.

I also was looking forward to watching these two characters deal with their advanced years as they hunted down the younger Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t play up this angle very effectively either.

All in all, I found THE HIGHWAYMEN to be lethargic and lackluster. It never really ignited any sparks, and the two leads surprisingly never really connected.

At the end of the day, THE HIGHWAYMEN was more roadblock than highway.

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WIDOWS (2018) – Stellar Cast, Contrived Plot, Mixed Results

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WIDOWS (2018) is writer/director Steve McQueen’s first movie since his Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), and it’s a rather odd choice.

It’s an action thriller that has its moments, helped along by a stellar cast, but taken as a whole, it’s a bit too contrived to be all that believable.

In WIDOWS, three women discover that their husbands were criminals after the three men die in a police shoot-out and subsequent car explosion. Veronica (Viola Davis) learns this the hard way when she’s visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a man running for alderman in her Chicago neighborhood who tells her that her husband stole three million dollars from him, and he wants the money back. He gives her three weeks to get he money, or else his henchmen will kill her.

In her search for answers, Veronica discovers her deceased husband’s private notebook which details his past jobs and his next job, a heist that is worth millions. So, Veronica assembles the two other wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and tells them that if they pull off this job, they’ll have enough money to pay off Manning and thus save their lives, plus millions left over for themselves.  Linda and Alice agree, and the widows spring into action.

There’s a lot going on in WIDOWS, most of which I liked, but unfortunately, the weakest part of the story is the main one, the one with the widows.  And the reason for this is in large part because I never really believed that these women, who appear to be rather intelligent folks, would actually do this. I get it that they have nowhere else to turn and are desperate to save their lives, as it’s clear that the authorities in Chicago are of no help to them. At one point, Veronica says she’ll go to the police, but Manning tells her that the police don’t care and that they are glad her criminal husband is dead. So, I get this part. I just never believed it. It’s the most contrived part of the entire movie, unfortunately.

The surrounding storylines, especially the political ones, work much better.

The current alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) in public speaks of how much he has helped the downtrodden Chicago neighborhood he serves yet we see him in private as a racist bully. He’s not seeking re-election. Instead, that honor goes to his son Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who says he disdains his father’s style of politics and wants to make a true difference, and yet his actions show that he’s not much better than his father.

Then there’s Jamal Mannning, the black man running against Jack Mulligan, who supposedly represents his neighborhood because he’s lived there his whole life and understands the needs of his people, but yet he runs a criminal organization that is just as bad and even more brutal than Mulligan.

There are layers here, and they make for the most intriguing parts of the story.

The widows storyline works best when showing these women with their backs against the wall. Indeed, one of the strengths of the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, who wrote GONE GIRL (2014),  based on a 1980s British TV series of the same name, is that it lays bare the pain and vulnerabilities of these women. In one telling scene, a disillusioned Veronica admits that with her husband gone she has nothing, not even her home, which has been lost. Likewise, Linda watches as the store she thought she owned is taken away from her because her husband lied to her about paying the mortgage on the building.

This part of the story works well. The trouble I had is when it makes the leap from despondent women to criminal women. I expected these women to react in a smarter way than this.

The cast in WIDOWS is exceedingly deep and talented.

Viola Davis turns in a strong performance as Veronica. She’s at her best when showing how much pain she feels having lost her husband Harry, played by Liam Neeson.

There’s also another subplot where it’s revealed via flashback that Veronica and Harry’s son had been shot and killed in a police shooting during a routine traffic stop. WIDOWS throws a lot at its audience, sometimes too much. Had Steve McQueen chosen to focus more on one aspect of this story, the widows perhaps, the movie would have been better for it.

But back to Viola Davis.  She shows both frightened vulnerability and steely resolve, but once more, had she resolved to do something else other than attempt a million dollar heist, the results would have been more convincing

Michelle Rodriguez is fine as Linda, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen Rodriguez do before.

Far more interesting than either Davis or Rodriguez is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, who at first comes off like a clichéd ditzy blonde and as such faces harsh treatment from even Veronica, but she’s not stupid at all. In fact, she’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Her subplot in which she’s involved in a paid relationship with a man named David (Lukas Haas) is one of the more intriguing subplots in the film. The scene where she chides David for insinuating that he’s in control of her happiness, and she pushes back saying that no, it’s her life and she makes that determination, is one of the better moments in the movie.

I’ve seen Debicki in a bunch of other movies, films like THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Jordan Baker, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) where she played the villain, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), but by far this is the best performance I’ve seen her deliver yet.

Brian Tyree Henry is very good as Jamal Manning, the cut-throat criminal who brands himself as the best hope for his people but whose interests are clearly more about attaining power than helping anyone.

Even better is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother. The star of GET OUT (2017) makes for one of the most brutal and sinister enforcer types I’ve seen in a while. His performance here was one of my favorite parts of WIDOWS.

Robert Duvall is excellent as always, here playing racist alderman Tom Mulligan who in spite of his political mob boss tactics seems to believe that he’s doing right for the people of his neighborhoods.

Colin Farrell is just as good as Mulligan’s son Jack, who’s running for alderman to keep his family’s name in politics. It’s a position Jack seems to hate, and Farrell does a nice job playing Jack as a conflicted yet not very admirable man. The scene where he tells his father he’s looking forward to the days when he’s dead and gone, is a pretty potent moment in the film, well acted by Duvall and Farrell.

Cynthia Erivo, who we just saw in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) plays Belle, a young woman who among other jobs babysits Linda’s children, and who the widows hire to be their getaway driver. It’s a spunky determined performance.

Jon Michael Hill stands out in a small role as the Reverend Wheeler, the pastor of Chicago’s biggest congregation, a man who’s courted by both Manning and Mulligan, and he plays coy with both of them as to who he’ll support.

Jackie Weaver steals a couple of scenes as Alice’s overbearing mother Agnieska.  Weaver of course was so memorable playing Bradley Cooper’s mother in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The cast here is so deep that major actors even play characters who are killed off in the opening moments of the movie, most notably Liam Neeson, who plays Veronica’s husband Harry. And as the story moves forward, Veronica learns some rather unsavory things about her late husband that calls into question the kind of man she thought he was.

Jon Bernthal also plays one of the thieves, who unlike Neeson, doesn’t get any flashback time, and so he’s on-screen for about two seconds before he’s done in.

There was a lot about WIDOWS that I liked. I enjoyed the full canvas that director Steve McQueen was working with here, and the story he was telling as a whole, but again, for me, the biggest disappointment was where the widows specific storyline ultimately went.

I expected these women to rebel against their deceased husbands, to attempt do something better, but that’s not what happens. Instead of trying to learn from their husbands’ mistakes and improve upon them, they simply become their husbands. They become thieves and thugs.

And unlike their husbands, whose fate seemed to be tied into their actions, the widows here suffer no repercussions. It’s all happily ever after, which in my book is one more strike against this one in terms of credibility.

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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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MILE 22 (2018) – Action Film Mired By Confusing Direction, Weak Script

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Lauren Cohan in MILE 22 (2018).

Maggie! Maggie!

Maggie Greene is the character Lauren Cohan plays on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD, and she’s one of the main reasons that I keep watching the show, even though it’s dipped in quality the past couple of seasons.

So, with apologies to Mark Wahlberg, Cohan is also the reason I trekked out to the theater to see MILE 22 (2018), the latest film from director Peter Berg, which stars Wahlberg as an elite American intelligence agent, sort of a Jason Bourne if he hadn’t gone rogue.

MILE 22 has opened to dreadful reviews.  Is it as bad as all that? Let’s find out.

MILE 22 opens with James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) and his elite squad closing in on a Russian safe house where they proceed to kill everyone inside while they confiscate top-secret material. Afterwards, they discover the material they were seeking was in fact not there. What were they looking for? A highly explosive chemical weapon that has the potential for leveling a city with just a few specks of powder. Yikes!

The heat falls on agent Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan) since it was her contact Li Noor (Iko Uwais) who provided them with false information. It turns out that Noor will give them the whereabouts of this deadly weapon but only if he receives political asylum in the United States. After failing to break the codes on Noor’s phone which would give them this information, Silva and his team agree to extract Noor out of the country and into the United States.

To do this, they have to travel a dangerous trek of 22 miles, hence the film’s title, dangerous because Noor is wanted by the government, as in wanted dead, and so there are brutal assassins waiting for them at every turn.

If this sounds stupid, that’s because it is.

One of the worst things about MILE 22 is the film has no sense of place and does a terrible job establishing its setting.  No mention is made of nations or cities, and so half the time the audience has no idea where the film is taking place. This is either sloppy filmmaking by director Berg or a deliberate attempt to capture the shadowy aspects of the plot by keeping everything nameless. Either way, it weakens the story. Without an established setting, things just don’t play out as real.

The film was shot in both Bogota, Colombia, and Atlanta, Georgia, but no mention of where the action is taking place is made in the film.

The actual gimmick of this movie, that the agents have to transport an informant on a 22 mile stretch to get him to safety, is a good one and has potential, but strangely the film fails to take advantage of this.

Director Peter Berg takes a circuitous route telling this story. The editing is all over the place. The thinking behind this movie seems to have been action first, story later. What should have been a straightforward and rather compelling narrative unfolds in a muddled and choppy way. For example, the film continually returns to a sequence where Wahlberg’s character is talking about the mission after it happened, but this doesn’t help the story at all other than reveal that Wahlberg’s character is going to survive.

The action scenes are actually pretty good, and I enjoyed most of them, so if you’re into action you certainly won’t be bored, and it’s not like the movie doesn’t have a story. It does. It just doesn’t do the best job telling it.

The screenplay by Lea Carpenter has it moments, but most of them are drowned out by Berg’s overbearing direction. I liked the basic premise of the story, and I actually enjoyed the two main characters, Wahlberg’s James Silva and Cohan’s Alice Kerr. I especially enjoyed their interactions. Cohan’s character is a strong female lead, and I thought she was one of the best written characters in the movie, even though she is stuck in a thankless subplot concerning a messy divorce.

But there’s no villain to speak of, and this certainly hurts the movie. Oh, there are bad guys here, but they’re not developed at all. Wahlberg and company might as well be combatting nameless shadows.

I usually enjoy Mark Wahlberg, and so it’s no surprise that he’s pretty darn good in MILE 22, although his James Silva character can be cocky and annoying. Silva is a savant, which is supposed to make his arrogance sympathetic, but the trouble is the flashback scenes which explain this are so laughably bad none of it seems real. In spite of this, Wahlberg manages to make the guy someone I didn’t mind rooting for.

On the other hand, he gets stuck with lots of bad dialogue, especially when he spouts off about real world dangers, the fallacies of diplomacy, and how the world is safe only because of people like him. While any of this could be true, as written, it comes off as ridiculous.

Lauren Cohan delivers the best performance in the movie as Alice Kerr. She’s so good she even makes the silly divorce scenes tolerable.

John Malkovich is on hand as the leader of the tech team housed in a top-secret location with his fellow computer geeks as they monitor everything from their agents’ vitals to controlling traffic lights to ordering jet missile strikes. Again, what could have been intriguing becomes laughable here.

Peter Berg previously directed Wahlberg in LONE SURVIVOR (2013), DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) and PATRIOTS DAY (2016). MILE 22 might be the weakest of the lot. It’s certainly inferior to the far more compelling PATRIOTS DAY.

And it looks like Berg and Wahlberg will be working together again, as the ending to MILE 22 sets things up for an obvious sequel. In fact, rumor has it that Berg and Wahlberg have a trilogy planned. Oh joy.

I tend to like gritty action films, and so I certainly did not hate MILE 22. I’ve seen far worse movies. This one certainly isn’t very good, as it struggles with some confusing editing and a helter-skelter narrative.

But Mark Wahlberg makes for a sufficiently arrogant and annoying lead, not someone you like all that much but because of his good intentions someone you root for, and it would be very difficult for me to dislike a movie starring Lauren Cohan. As expected, she is also excellent here.

So, with Wahlberg and Cohan leading the way, MILE 22, in spite of its directing and story problems, isn’t quite as bad as folks are saying.

Its twenty-two mile trek won’t be the longest ride you’ve ever had to sit through, but it also won’t be the most satisfying.

Perhaps they should have gone with MILE 2.

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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.  

 

 

 

 

 

DON’T BREATHE (2016) – Horror Movie Starts Off Fresh, Becomes Predictable

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DON’T BREATHE (2016) starts off as a refreshing thriller, a horror movie free from the usual horror movie tropes, but it doesn’t stay this way for long.  Ultimately it turns into a rather standard shocker.

Three young friends are suffering through life in economically starved Detroit.  As a result, Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) have turned to a life of crime.  They rob houses, careful not to steal cash and to only take a certain amount of stuff, to keep their crime from becoming a felony.  How smart of them!

They come up with what they think is the smartest plan of all, to rob the house of a blind man, a job they feel will be a piece of cake. They’re interested in this guy because supposedly he’s got a huge stash of cash hidden inside his house, the result of a settlement in a wrongful death suit against the person who killed his daughter in a traffic accident. The only one who’s not on board at first is Alex, since it means breaking their “no cash” rule, but he’s got a thing for Rocky, and so he eventually changes his mind and joins his friends.

So, they break into the guy’s house, and for them, that’s where the fun stops, because it turns out that the blind man (Stephen Lang) is an ex-soldier, and even though he’s blind, he’s a trained killer. Suddenly, they find themselves trapped inside the house with this deadly soldier.  More than that, he’s also harboring a sinister secret.

And when they find themselves in the same room with him, the only way to escape is remain still and silent, and to take the advice of the film’s title:  DON’T BREATHE!

DON’T BREATHE is an okay thriller.  I enjoyed the first half more than the second, where it deteriorates into standard horror movie fare.

Early on, we meet our three main characters, and thanks to some solid acting performances, we kinda like these folks, even if they are robbing houses.

There’s Rocky, who’s beautiful and spunky, and Jane Levy delivers a nice performance here.  She’s also given the most background, as we learn about her troubled childhood and why she wants to leave Detroit so badly, which is why she desperately wants to steal the blind man’s money.

Dylan Minnette is also very good as Alex.  Minnette played the bully in LET ME IN (2010) and he played Hugh Jackman’s son in PRISONERS (2013).

Money is probably the least developed of the three, but he’s played by the talented young actor Daniel Zovatto, who made a strong impression a couple of years ago in the quality horror movie IT FOLLOWS (2014).  He also had a small recurring role in FEAR THE WALKING DEAD.  Money is almost a throwaway role, but Zovatto prevents this from happening by making this hothead thief a bit more thee-dimensional than expected.

Stephen Lang is chilling as the blind man, at least at first anyway.  Strangely, the more we learn about him, including just what it is he’s up to inside his house, the less frightening he became to me.  In fact, his antics towards the end became almost laughable.

The first half of this movie is extremely suspenseful, and it culminates with the best sequence in the film, when the blind man cuts the power inside his house, plunging it into darkness.  Rocky and Alex then find themselves stuck in a pitch black basement at the mercy of their blind attacker.

But then things deteriorate.

I kept expecting the blind man to capture them and then in some intense in-your-face moments, really show them why they chose the wrong house to break into.  Instead, we learn the blind man’s “terrible” secret, as to what he’s doing inside his house, which I thought was convoluted and a letdown.

The film also goes on too long, and it’s almost as if director Fede Alvarez didn’t know how to end it.  It goes on and on with one “ending” after another, which I found tedious.

I also didn’t like the sequences with the blind man’s guard dog.  Several times in the movie Rocky and Alex outrun the dog, which isn’t at all realistic.  The dog would have caught them easily.  There’s also a sequence where the dog traps Rocky in a car, which is right out of CUJO (1983), only CUJO was better.

The screenplay by director Alavarez and Rodo Sayagues works best early on, when it’s introducing us to the three main characters and does a nice job of capturing the feel of economically deprived Detroit.  It also provides plenty of suspense when they first break into the blind man’s home.

But as the film deteriorates into standard horror movie fare, where young people run around for their lives pursued by one unrealistic threat after another, the film drops several notches.

DON’T BREATHE is a halfway decent horror movie.  It’s got solid acting and a refreshingly original premise, but it doesn’t go the distance, and eventually turns into yet another mindless horror movie with little to offer other than some well placed gore and predictably choreographed screams.

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