When Machine Gun Met Al: Gangster Land (2017, directed by Timothy Woodward, Jr.)


Chicago in the 1920s.  Booze may be illegal but that’s not keeping people from drinking and gangsters from making a killing.  When an amateur boxer named Jack McGurn (Sean Faris) joins the mob, he befriend an up-and-coming criminal named Al Capone (Milo Gibson).  While Capone rises through the ranks, McGurn is always by his side, usually firing a tommy gun.  When Capone finally becomes the boss of Chicago, McGurn becomes his second-in-command and a leading strategist in the war against Capone’s rival, George “Bugs” Moran (Peter Facinelli).

If you’re looking for a historically accurate film about 1920s Chicago, look elsewhere.  Today, “Machine Gun” McGurn is best known for being the mastermind behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (which, of course, is recreated in Gangster Land) but it’s doubtful that he was ever Capone’s second-in-command.  Famed Capone associates like Frank Nitti, Gus Alex, and Murray Humphreys are nowhere to be found in Gangster Land, nor is Eliot Ness.  Instead Jason Patric plays the righteous and fictional Detective Reed.

What the film lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in gangster action.  There’s enough tommy gun action, car chases, and showgirls to keep most gangster film aficionados happy.  All of the usual Capone stuff is recreated: Johnny Torrio is assassinated, Dion O’Bannon is killed in his flower shop, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre scandalizes the nation.  Though the film never displays anything more than a Wikipedia-level understanding of the prohibition era and there’s not a single gangster cliché that isn’t used, Gangster Land is briskly paced and makes good use of its low-budget.  Sean Faris is stiff as McGurn but Milo Gibson (son of Mel) is better than you might expect as Al Capone and the underrated Jason Patric makes the most of his limited screen time.  Fans of The Sopranos may want to watch for the chance to see Meadow herself, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, as McGurn’s showgirl wife.

Insomnia File No. 15: George Wallace (dir by John Frankenheimer)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

George Wallace

If, after watching Promise last night, you discovered that you were still suffering from insomnia, you could have watched the very next film that premiered on TCM.  That film was the 1997 biopic, George Wallace.

Like PromiseGeorge Wallace was originally made for television.  Also, much like Promise, George Wallace is a character study of a conflicted man who makes many people uncomfortable and it’s also well-acted by a cast of veteran performers.  That, however, is where the similarities end.  Whereas Promise was ultimately a rather low-key and human drama, George Wallace is an epic.  Clocking in at nearly 3 hours and telling a story that spans decades, George Wallace attempts to use one man’s life story as a way to tell the entire story of the civil rights movement.

That’s a tremendously ambitious undertaking, especially for a film that had to conform to the demands of 1990s television.  Therefore, it’s probably not surprising that the movie, as a whole, is uneven.  It’s not a bad movie but, at the same time, it doesn’t quite work.

First off, we need to talk about who the historical George Wallace was.

(Here’s where I get to show off my amazing history nerd powers.  Yay!)

George Wallace served a total of four terms as governor of Alabama.  A protegé of a populist known as “Big Jim” Folsom, Wallace first ran for governor in 1958.  He campaigned as a moderate who supported integration and, as a result, he was defeated by the KKK’s endorsed candidate, John Patterson.  (Oddly enough, a fictionalized version of Patterson was the hero of the classic and racially progressive 1955 film, The Phenix City Story.)  When Wallace ran again in 1962, he ran as an outspoken segregationist and defeated his former mentor, Jim Folsom.  Infamously, Wallace is the governor who stood in the schoolhouse door and announced that Alabama would never accept integration.  Unable to succeed himself, Wallace arranged for his wife, Lurleen, to be elected as governor.  Lurleen subsequently died in office, succumbing to cancer while Wallace was running for President as the candidate of the American Independent Party.  (As of this writing, Wallace is the last third party presidential candidate to carry any states.)  Reelected governor in 1970, Wallace married Folsom’s niece and made another presidential run.  However, after a string of primary victories, that campaign was cut short when Wallace was shot and crippled by Arthur Bremer.  (Bremer would serve as the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.)  Confined to a wheelchair, Wallace served as governor until 1978 and, in 1976, ran for President one final time.  After being out of office for four years, he was elected Governor for one final term in 1982.  Late in life (and, it should be pointed out, long after integration had been generally accepted as the law of the land), Wallace renounced his segregationist past and publicly apologized for standing in the schoolhouse door.  During his final campaign for governor, he won a majority of the black vote and he proceeded to appoint more blacks to state positions than any governor before him.

George Wallace lived a long, dramatic, and interesting life and he’s still a very controversial figure.  Who was the real George Wallace?  Was he a political opportunist who used racism to further his career?  Was he truly a racist who saw the error of his ways and repented or did he only pretend to renounce his former beliefs once they were no longer popular?  And, even if Wallace was sincere in his regret, did he deserve to be forgiven or should he always be remembered as the villainous caricature that Tim Roth portrayed in Selma?  If we forgive or make excuses for the actions of a George Wallace, do we run the risk of diminishing the success and importance of the civil rights movement?

And I, honestly, have no answers to those questions.  Unfortunately, neither does George Wallace.  But before we get into that, let’s consider what does work about this film.

George Wallace opens in 1972 with Wallace campaigning in Maryland.  Wallace is played by Gary Sinise and his second wife, Cornelia, is played by a very young Angelina Jolie.  Sinise and Jolie both give brilliant performances, perhaps the best of their respective careers.  Sinise plays Wallace as a calculating and charismatic politician who is also a very angry man.  Throughout every second of his performance, we are aware of Wallace’s resentment that his political success in Alabama has potentially made him unelectable in the rest of the country.  Watching Sinise as Wallace, you see a man who believes in himself but doesn’t necessarily like the person that he’s become.  Meanwhile, Jolie plays Cornelia like a Southern Lady MacBeth and watching her, I remembered how, at one time, Angelina Jolie really did seem like a force of nature.  The Angelina Jolie of George Wallace is the wild and uninhibited Jolie of the past (the one who once said, “You’re in bed, you’ve got a knife, shit happens.”), as opposed to the safe and conventional Jolie of the present, the one who is currently directing rather stodgy movies like Unbroken and By The Sea.

After Wallace is shot, the film goes into flashback mode.  We watch as Wallace goes from being a liberal judge to being the segregationist governor of Alabama.  Mare Winningham plays Lurleen Wallace while Joe Don Baker plays Big Jim Folsom.  They all do a pretty good job but the flashback structure is so conventional (and so typical of a made-for-tv biopic) that it makes the film a bit less interesting.

There’s also a character named Archie.  Played by Clarence Williams III, Archie is literally the only major black character in the entire film.  He is portrayed as being a former convict who has been hired to serve as Wallace’s valet.  While Wallace plots to thwart the civil rights movement, Archie stands in the background glowering.  At one point, he’s even tempted to kill Wallace.  However, after Wallace is shot, Archie helps to take care of him.  The film suggests that being shot and subsequently cared for by Archie is what led to Wallace renouncing his racist views.  (The film also suggests that Wallace was never that much of a racist to begin with and, instead, was just so seduced by power that he would say whatever he had to say to win an election in Alabama.)

At the end of the film, we’re informed that almost everyone in the film was real but that Archie was fictional.  The problem, of course, is that the film is suggesting that the fictional Archie is responsible for the real-life Wallace both rejecting racism and apologizing for the all-too real consequences of racism.  The film ends with the realization that the filmmakers were so convinced that audiences would not be able to accept an ambiguous portrait of a public figure that they created a fictional character so that Wallace could have a moment of redemption.

(It also doesn’t help that a film about civil rights only features one major black character and that character is a fictional valet who doesn’t get to say much.)

In the end, the film doesn’t seem to be certain what it’s trying to say about Wallace and the meaning of his dramatic life.  That said, I enjoyed watching George Wallace because of the acting and because, as a history nerd, I always enjoy seeing historical figures portrayed on-screen, even if the filmmakers don’t seem to be quite sure what they’re tying to say about them.

George Wallace was directed by John Frankenheimer, a good director who, it appears, was constrained by the demands of 1990s television.  If George Wallace were made today, it would probably air on HBO and would probably be allowed to take more of a firm stand one way or the other on Wallace’s character.  That said, it would probably also be directed by Jay Roach who, to put it lightly, is no John Frankenheimer.

Anyway, George Wallace doesn’t quite work but it’s definitely interesting.  Watch it for Gary and Angelina!

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise

What Lisa Watched Last Night #110: Whitney (dir by Angela Bassett)


Last night, I watched the latest Lifetime biopic, Whitney.

Why Was I Watching It?

A movie about Whitney Cummings!?  How could I not watch…

Okay, okay — I knew, before I started watching, that it was a movie about Whitney Houston.  But I have to admit that my motives for watching were not exactly pure.  You see, after watching the Saved By The Bell movie, the Aaliyah movie, and the Brittany Murphy movie, I had every reason to believe that Whitney would be another unfortunate Lifetime biopic.  I was watching expecting the film to be a snarkfest, the type of thing that I could write a really sassy review about.

But — no.  Actually, it turned out to be pretty good.

What Was It About?

Whitney Houston (Yaya DaCosta) meets, falls in love with, and marries Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta).  Many drugs are done and many songs are sung.

What Worked?

Whitney was probably a hundred times better than anyone was expecting.  Angela Bassett kept the story moving, Yaya DaCosta and Arlen Escarpeta both gave good performances as Whitney and Bobby respectively, and Deborah Cox — who provided Whitney’s singing voice — sounded great.  The final scene of Whitney singing while Bobby watched was surprisingly moving.

One thing that I did like was that Whitney did not indulge in any sort of tawdry or melodramatic speculation about Whitney’s death.  Even the film’s postscript stated that, even after her death, Whitney Houston continues to inspire new artists but it didn’t go into the details of her final days.  And why should it?  This film was about talent, music, and love.  It wasn’t about tabloid rumors.

What Did Not Work?

I’m sure some people were probably frustrated by the fact that Whitney did turn out to be a good, competently directed and acted film.  All the people who were watching specifically because they wanted to see an Aaliyah-style fiasco (and there were quite a few of them) were undoubtedly left disappointed.

And, of course, I’m sure some people really were hoping for a Whitney Cummings biopic…

On a more serious note, I did bother me a little that, though the movie was called Whitney, it actually seemed to be more about Bobby Brown than her.  Considering that the film basically presented Bobby as being a drug-free saint before he met Whitney and that it was followed by an hour-long interview with Bobby Brown, it was hard not to feel that Lifetime was basically presenting only one side of the story.

(Then again, Whitney Houston’s family refused to have anything to do with the movie so it’s possible nobody was around to present the other side.)

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

Well, unless I’m drunk and there’s a karaoke machine nearby, I can’t sing to save my life so I can’t really claim to be able to relate to Whitney’s talent.  However, I do have a weakness for guys who share my taste in movies.  For Whitney, it was Sparkle.  For me, it’s Suspiria.  So, I was able to watch that part of the movie and go, “Oh my God!  Just like me!”

Lessons Learned

Despite snarky rumors to the contrary, Lifetime can make good biopics.  (Of course, you and I already knew that, right?)

E3 Trailer: Halo 4 “The Commissioning” (Live-Action) & Gameplay “Light Gun and Scattershot”


It’s E3 week in Los Angeles (in a couple week it’ll be Anime Expo so as Lisa Marie would say, “Yay!”) and that means a load of announcements for new games and other gaming-related stuff. If there’s on game I’m really interested in checking out it’s the latest in the Halo series. Bungie has moved on but Master Chief and all remained with Microsoft Game Studios. Taking over Bungie’s development duties is an in-house studio created by Microsoft to continue the Halo franchise after Bungie Studios’ departure.

343 Studios has big developmental shoes to fill since many fans of the franchise equate the series with Bungie Studios and no one else. Microsoft and 343 have done a good job of preparing fans of the franchise for the change in studios which has been several years in the making. Their first title is suppose to add new life to the Halo series while making some necessary changes to keep up with the “Jonses” so to speak.

Halo 4 takes place four years since the end of Halo 3 and, from what the two trailers unleashed on the masses during Microsoft’s pre-E3 press conference, we see the familiar Covenant enemies but also a brand-new race that seem to have Forerunner technology. From the gameplay video shown below the first-person HUD series fans were so familar with has been tweaked to make it look like the player is actually looking out of the Spartan helm. I’d say this is 343 Studios trying to replicate the look and feel of Tony Stark looking through his helmet, but this time in a first-person point of view instead of the outside view we see in the films.

One thing that’s always a wonder to watch is what kind of live-action trailer Microsoft has come up with to help announce the game. Like their previous live-action trailers which behaved like short films, the one for Halo 4 just ups the epicness from the previous ones. Sci-fi fans may even recognize the actor playing the captain of the UNSC Infinity as Mark Rolston who played the doomed Pvt. Drake in James Cameron’s Aliens.

Halo 4 is set for a November 6, 2012 release date.

 

Review: The Shawshank Redemption (dir. by Frank Darabont)


“Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” — Andy Dufresne

1994 was the year that men finally got their version of Fried Green Tomatoes and Beaches. We men we’re always perplexed why so many women liked those two films. Even when it was explained to us that the film was about the bond of sisterhood between female friends and how the march of time could never break it we were still scratching out heads. In comes Frank Darabont’s film adaptation of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

Using a script written by Darabont himself, the film just takes the latter half of the novella’s title and focuses most of the film’s story on the relationship between the lead character of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) who gets sent to Shawshank Penitentiary for the crime of killing his wife and her lover and that of another inmate played by Morgan Freeman. The film doesn’t try to prove that Andy is innocent even though we hear him tell it to the convicts he ends up hanging around that he is. The relationship between Andy and Red becomes a great example of the very same bond of sisterhood, but this time a brotherhood who are stuck in a situation where their freedom has been taken away and hope itself becomes a rare and dangerous commodity.

Darabont has always been a filmmaker known for his love of Stephen King stories and has adapted several more since The Shawshank Redemption, but it would be this film which has become his signature work. It’s a film that’s almost elegiac in its pacing yet with hints of hope threaded in-between scenes of men clinging to sanity and normalcy in a place that looks to break them down and make them less human. It’s nothing new to see prison guards abusive towards inmates in films set in prisons, but in this film these scenes of abuse have a banality to them that shows how even the hardened criminal lives and breathes upon the mercy and generosity provided by the very people who were suppose to rehabilitate them.

While the film’s pacing could be called slow by some it does allow for the characters in the film, from the leads played by Robbins and Freeman to the large supporting cast to become fully formed characters. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Clancy Brown playing the sadistic Capt. Byron Hadley to James Whitmore as Brooks Hatlen the inmate who has spent most of his life in Shawshank and whose sudden parole begins one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the film. The whole cast did a great job in whatever role they had been chosen to play. Freeman and Robbins as Red and Andy have a chemistry together on-screen that makes their fraternal love for each other very believable that the final scenes in the film doesn’t feel too melodramatic or overly sentimental.

The Shawshank Redemption was a film that lost out to Forrest Gump for Best Picture, but was a film that would’ve been very deserving if it had won the top prize at the Academy Awards. It was a film that spoke of hope even at the most degrading setting and how it’s the very concept of hope and brotherhood that allows for those not free to have a sense of freedom and camaraderie. Darabont’s first feature-length film remains his best work to date and one of the best Stephen King adaptations which is a rarity considering how many of his stories have been adapted. So, while the fairer sex may have their Fried Green Tomatoes, Beaches and the like, we men will have ours in the fine film we call The Shawshank Redemption.