Film Review: White Boy Rick (dir by Yann Demange)


Last night, as a part of my attempt to get caught up with the films of 2018, I watched White Boy Rick.

As you might guess from the title, this film is about a white boy named Rick.  It’s based on the true story of Richard Wershe, Jr., who grew up on the streets of Detroit.  His father sold guns out of the trunk of his car and, by the time he turned 14, Rick was running with drug dealers and street gangs.  (The fact that he was white while all of his friends were black is what led to him getting his nickname.)  Rick became an informant for the FBI and, according to Wershe, the government helped him build up his reputation by supplying him with the drugs that he would then sell on the streets.  When the FBI eventually decided that Wershe was no longer a useful asset, he was arrested for dealing and sentenced to life in prison.

The story seems like one that has the potential to say a lot that needs to be said about not only the economic realities of life in a dying city but also about the role that race plays in America’s often misdirected “war on drugs.”  Unfortunately, the film falls flat because, with the exception of a few scenes, it never really convinces us that Rick was really worthy of being the subject of a film.  While the film surrounds him with interesting supporting characters, Rick himself remains something of a cipher.  Rick is played by a young actor named Richie Merritt.  Merritt’s has the right look for the character but you never get the feeling that there’s anything going on underneath the surface.  Rick comes across as just being a moron who got lucky and then, eventually, not so lucky.

The supporting cast fares a bit better.  For instance, Matthew McConaughey plays Rick’s father with just the right amount of manic energy and Bel Powley has a few harrowing scenes as Rick’s drug addicted sister.  Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie don’t get to do much as Rick’s grandparents but it doesn’t matter because they’re Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie.  (All Bruce Dern has to do to make a character interesting is look at the camera.)  Jennifer Jason Leigh plays one of Rick’s FBI handlers with the perfect hint of subversiveness.  You’re never quite sure whether she’s messing with Rick’s life because she’s incompetent or because she’s enjoying it.  Unfortunately, the supporting characters are often so interesting that Rick often gets overshadowed.  He’s a bystander in his own story, which may have been the film’s point but, from a storytelling point of view, it hardly makes for compelling viewing.

Admittedly, there are a few memorable scenes to be found in White Boy Rick.  At one point, Rick goes to a wedding at the mayor’s mansion and he’s a sight to behold in his blue tuxedo.  In another scene, it’s explained to Rick why, when it comes to being arrested, charged, and incarcerated, the stakes are very different when you’re black than when you’re white.  In scenes like that, you kind of get a hint of White Boy Rick could have been if it had been centered around a more compelling character.

As it is, though, White Boy Rick is well-made but kind of dull.  It’s definitely a missed opportunity.

 

Back to School Part II #31: Empire Records (dir by Allan Moyle)


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The 1995 film, Empire Records takes place in a fictional record store.  The store is located in a state called Delaware, which I’m pretty sure is fictional as well.  (Have you ever actually met anyone from Delaware?  And don’t say Joe Biden because we all know he’s just a hologram…)  Empire Records is a beloved institution, an independent record shop that’s as well-known for its lively employees as its amazing selection of music!

However, things are not perfect in the world of Empire Records.  The store is owned by a heartless businessman named Mitchell (Ben Bode).  Mitchell hates Empire Records and usually just lets the store manager, former drummer and Scott Stapp-lookalike Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), run the place.  However, Mitchell has decided to sell Empire Records to the soulless and corporate Music Town franchise.  Oh my God!  If Empire Records becomes a Music Town, the employees will have to wear orange aprons!  They won’t be allowed to wear anything too revealing or have any visible piercings!  And nobody will be allowed to dance in the aisles!

Over the course of just one day, can the staff of Empire Records find a way to save their store!?

It would be easier if not for the fact that a hundred other things happen over the course of that same day.  A shoplifter (Brendan Sexton III, who co-starred in the very different Welcome to the Dollhouse the same year that he appeared here) keeps trying to steal stuff and, at one point, he even shows up at the store with a gun!  Is it possible that he just wants to join the Empire Records family and is just hoping that he’ll be offered a job?

And then there’s Rex Manning!  That’s right — it’s Rex Manning Day!  Who is Rex Manning?  Well, he used to star on a show called The Family Way and his nickname is Sexy Rexy.  He has truly memorable hair.  Middle-aged people love him but most young people think that he’s a joke.  Rex is going to signing copies of his latest album at Empire Records and you better believe that he’s brought blue cheese salad dressing with him.  There’s a reason they call him Sexy Rexy and it’s not just that Rex Harrison is no longer around to object.  Rex is played by Maxwell Caulfield.  Caulfield steals every scene that he appears in and it’s hard not to feel that he’s playing a version of who he could have become if Grease 2 hadn’t bombed at the box office.

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And, of course, all the members of Empire Records staff have their own personal problems to deal with.  Fortunately, since this is a breezy and comedic movie, nobody has problem that can’t be solved within ten to fifteen minutes.

For instance, Debra (Robin Tunney) is suicidal and shows up for work with a big bandage on her wrist.  After clocking in, she promptly shaves her head.  Debra is depressed and troubled but guess what?  All she needs is for her friends to hold a mock funeral in the break room.  (And who is taking care of the customers while everyone else is eulogizing Debra?  Probably Andre but we’ll talk more about him in a moment…)

Berko (Coyote Shivers) appears to be Debra’s boyfriend but he doesn’t seem to be that good of a boyfriend.  Berko’s a musician and he wants to make it big.  Solution to his problem: an impromptu concert on the roof of Empire Records!  And you know what?  Coyote Shivers was not the world’s best actor but the song he performs, Sugar High, will stay in your head long after you hear it.

Eddie (James ‘Kimo’ Williams) has no problems, probably because he also works at a pizza place and he makes the best brownies in the world.  Except, they’re not ordinary brownies … hint hint hint….

Mark (Ethan Embry) only has one problem: his character, as written, is pretty much interchangeable with Eddie’s.  But, fortunately, Embry gives such a totally weird performance that you never forget who he is.

Lucas (Rory Cochrane) tried to help Joe out by taking the previous night’s cash receipts to Atlantic City.  Lucas, however, is not a very good gambler and ends up losing all of the money at the result of one roll of the dice.  Lucas’s problem is that Joe is going to kill him.  The solution is to spend almost the entire movie sitting on the break room couch and making snarky comments.

Gina’s problem is that everyone thinks that she’s a slut, mostly because that’s how the character is written.  Fortunately, Gina is played by Renee Zellweger and she brings a lot of depth to an otherwise underwritten role.  One of the film’s best moments is when Gina and Berko perform together because Zellweger really throws herself into the song.  Watching that scene always makes me want to sing along with them.  It’s funny that Zellweger has even a stronger Texas accent than I do and yet, she can really sing while I mostly certainly cannot.

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Then there’s Andre!  Andre’s problem is that he ends up getting cut out of the film.  However, he’s still listed in the credits, which is how we know that he was played by Tobey Maguire.

A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) is an artist.  How can you not love a struggling artist?  His problem is that he’s in love with Corey (Liv Tyler) but Corey is obsessed with losing her virginity to Rex Manning.

Actually, that’s not the only problem that Corey has.  Corey, who is in high school but has recently been accepted to Harvard, is a driven overachiever.  Occasionally, we see her popping a pill.  Oh my God, is she using speed!?  Of course. she is.  How else is she going to be able to both study late and maintain her figure?  If I don’t seem too concerned about Corey’s pills, it’s because I pretty much take the same thing to keep my ADD under control.  They’ve worked wonders for me!

But not so much for Corey.  In fact, they cause Corey to kinda freak out and attack a cut-out of Rex Manning.  Fortunately, the solution to her drug problem is pretty simple.  She just has to splash some water on her face.

As for her virginity problem, well … it is Rex Manning Day!  Judging from this film and Stealing Beauty, it would appear that film goers in the mid-90s were obsessed with Liv Tyler losing her virginity.

Anyway, there are like a hundred overly critical things that I could say about Empire Records.  I’ve seen this film a number of time and there are certain scenes that always make cringe — like Debra’s funeral or when Joe starts banging away on his drum set.  A lot of the dialogue is overwritten and the whole things occasionally seems to be trying too hard.

And yet, I can’t dislike Empire Records.  In fact, I actually really like it a lot.  It’s just such an earnest and sincere movie that you can’t help but enjoy it.  Meanwhile, the cast has so much energy and chemistry that they’re just fun to watch.  This is one of those films where it’s best just to shut off your mind, say “Damn the man!,” and enjoy what you’re watching for what it is.

Add to that, I love that ending.  Everyone dancing on top of the store?  Perfect.

Film Review: Black Mass (dir by Scott Cooper)


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You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you’re happy because you know it’s a good movie but, at the same time, you end up feeling slightly disappointed because, as good as it may be, it never quite becomes the great movie that you were hoping for?

That was kind of my reaction to Black Mass.

Black Mass tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who controlled the Boston underworld from the late 70s to the mid-90s.  Bulger was both famous and feared for his ruthless brutality and his willingness to murder just about anyone.  Bulger was also famous for being the brother of Billy Bulger, a powerful Democratic politician.  When it appeared that Whitey was finally on the verge of being indicted, he vanished into thin air and, for 2 decades, remained missing until he was finally captured in Florida.  Whitey Bulger is now serving two life sentences.

Black Mass is a solid gangster film.  We watch as Whitey (Johnny Depp) takes over Boston and essentially murders anyone who gets on his nerves.  Helping Whitey out is a local FBI Agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up in South Boston with the Bulger brothers.  While Connolly originally only appears to be using Whitey as an informant to help take down the Italian mob, it quickly becomes obvious that Connolly envies the power and influence of both Whitey and Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).  Soon, Connolly has become something of a Bulger groupie and is protecting Whitey from prosecution and even leaking him the names of anyone who attempts to inform on Bulger’s crime.

Indeed, the film’s best scenes are the ones in which it is shown how the FBI’s determination to take down the Mafia allowed the far more violent Bulger to move into their place.  Bulger was a criminal who worked for and was protected by the U.S. government and, as such, his story serves as a metaphor for a lot of what is currently messed up about America.  While I appreciated the time that Black Mass devoted to exploring Whitey’s relationship with the FBI, I do wish it had spent more time exploring his relationship with his brother, Billy.  The film places most of the blame for Whitey’s reign of terror on the FBI but it defies common sense not to assume that Whitey was also protected by his well-connected, politically powerful brother.

Black Mass contains all of the usual gangster film tropes.  There are sudden and violent executions.  There are drug addicted criminals who turn out to be less than trustworthy.  (Poor Peter Sarsgaard.)  There’s the usual talk of honor and respect.  Beefy men with pockmarked faces stand in the shadows and shout random insults at each other until someone finally snaps.  And, of course, we get the countless scenes where Bulger’s demeanor goes from friendly to threatening and we’re left wondering if he’s going to smile or if he’s going to kill someone.  It may all be a little bit familiar but director Scott Cooper handles it all well and keeps things watchable.

In this 122-minute film, there are exactly two scenes in which Whitey is in any way sympathetic.  In one scene, he breaks down after the death of his son and, in the other, he deals with the death of his mother.  These are the only two scenes in which Whitey shows any hint of humanity.  Otherwise, Bulger is presented as being almost pure evil.  He’s no Michael Corleone, trying to go straight and making excuses for the family business.  Nor does he possess the enjoyable flamboyance of Scareface‘s Tony Montana or The Departed‘s Frank Costello.  Instead, he’s a pure sociopath and  the film’s most effective shots are the ones that focus on Whitey’s expressionless gaze.  They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul and one only has to look into Bulger’s to see that they are windows without a view.

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Johnny Depp deserves all the credit in the world for making Whitey into a compelling character.  Wisely, Depp underplays Whitey’s most threatening scenes.  He rarely raises his voice and the only time he loses control of his emotions is when he’s confronted with something — like the death of his son — that even he can’t change.  Otherwise, Depp plays Whitey as always being in control.  (It’s mentioned, at one point, that Whitey was the subject of 50 LSD experiments while serving time in prison and Depp plays Whitey as if he’s always staring at something that nobody else can see.)  It’s his confidence that makes Whitey Bulger an interesting character.  You may not like him but you can’t look away because you know that he’s literally capable of anything.  Ever since the trailer for Black Mass was first released, Depp has been at the center of awards speculation.  Having seen the film, I can say that the Oscar talk is more than deserved.  He’s even better than people like me thought he would be.

Depp is so good that he overshadows the rest of the cast.  There’s a lot of good actors in this film, including Kevin Bacon, James Russo, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane.  But few of them get as much of a chance to make an impression as Johnny Depp.  Much as Whitey dominated Boston, Depp dominates this film.  Joel Edgerton has several great moments as the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Connolly but even he is thoroughly overshadowed by Depp’s performance.  (That said, I did appreciate the fact that Edgerton’s too-eager-to-please Connolly came across like he might be a cousin to The Gift‘s Gordo the Weirdo.)

As I said at the beginning of this review, Black Mass is good but it was never quite as great as I was hoping it would be.  There’s a few too many scenes where you get the feeling that Scott Cooper woke up the day of shooting and said, “Let’s Scorsese the shit out of this scene.”  As a result, Black Mass sometimes struggles to escape from the shadow cast by Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, American Gangster, and the countless other mob films that have been released over the past few decades.  Black Mass is well-made and will forever be remembered for Johnny Depp’s amazing lead performance but it never quite reaches the status of a classic.

Finally, on a personal note, I did enjoy the fact that Black Mass dealt with the Irish mob.  I’m a little bit torn in my loyalties because I’m Irish-Italian but, if I ever had to pick a mob to which to serve as a cheerleader, I would go Irish Mafia all the way!

Sláinte!

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Trailer #2: Black Mass


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One of this year’s most-anticipated films (well, at least when it comes to award season) has a new trailer.

Black Mass stars Johnny Depp in the role of the infamous gangster Whitey Bulger who, as the film’s tagline states, became the most notorious gansgter in U.S. history. This is bold claim considering other gangsters in U.S. history such as Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Vito Genovese and Meyer Lansky to name a few.

What makes this film so interesting is the fact that we finally get to see Depp return to acting real, complex characters instead of just acting like a character these past decade. Plus, have you seen this cast supporting Depp: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Corey Stoll and Jesse Plemons just for starters.

Black Mass is set for a September 18, 2015 release date.

Back to School #49: Dazed and Confused (dir by Richard Linklater)


Oh my God, I love this freaking movie.

First released in 1993, Dazed and Confused is a classic Texas film.  Taking place in 1976 and following a large and varied group of characters over the course of the last day of school, Dazed and Confused is like American Graffiti with a lot more weed.  In many ways, it’s a plotless film, though things do happen.  The students of Lee High School survive one final day of school before the start of summer.  (Interestingly enough, most of the characters here are incoming seniors and freshman, as opposed to the confused graduates who usually show up in films like this.  This may lower the stakes — none of the students are worrying about whether or not to go to college or anything like that — but it also gives the film a fun and laid back vibe.)  The incoming freshman are all hazed by the incoming seniors.  For the girls, this means being covered in ketchup and mustard and being forced to ask the seniors to marry them.  For the boys, the hazing is a lot more violent and disturbing as they are chased through the streets by paddle-wielding jocks.  A party is planned and then abruptly canceled when the kegs of beer are delivered before the parents leave town.  Another party is held out in the woods.  A high school quarterback tries to decide whether or not to sign an anti-drug pledge.

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No, not much happens but then again, plot is overrated.  Dazed and Confused is not about plot.  It’s about capturing a specific time and place and showing how different individuals define themselves within their environment.  It’s one of the best high school films ever made, perhaps the best.

Why do I so love Dazed and Confused?  Let me count the ways.

First off, it’s a true Texas film.  This isn’t just because it was directed by Texas’s greatest filmmaker, Richard Linklater.  It was also filmed in Texas, it’s full of Texas actors, and, as a native Texan, I can tell you that it’s one of the few films that gets my homestate right.  Even though the film takes place long before I was even born, there were still so many details that I recognized as being unique to Texas today.  I guess the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Perhaps the most Texas scene in the entire film was when quarterback Randy Floyd (Jason London) was talking to the old couple at the minor league baseball game.  Both the old man’s obsessive interest in the high school football team (“We’re countin’ on you boys next year…”) and Randy’s patiently polite answers, were, to me, the epitome of Texas.  And, of course, we can’t forget the store clerk advising the pregnant woman to eat a lot of “green things” while selling her a pack of cigarettes and the guy who reacts to the destruction of his mailbox by running around with a gun.  I suspect I might live a few blocks away from both of those guys.

But, beyond that, just the entire film’s laid back atmosphere epitomized everything that I love about my state.

Secondly, Dazed and Confused is an amateur historian’s dream!  Richard Linklater went to high school in the 70s and he recreates the decade with a lot of obvious care and love.  (It’s also somewhat obvious that both the characters of Randy and incoming freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) are meant to be autobiographical.)  Now, me, I’ve always been obsessive about history and I’ve always somewhat regretted that I was born long after the 70s ended.  Dazed and Confused is probably about as close as someone like me will ever get to having a time machine.

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I’m also something a political history junkie so how excited was I to see that, during one scene, all of the candidates for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination were listed on a bulletin board.  How many other movies have featured a reference to the Fred Harris presidential campaign?  Admittedly, I know nothing about that campaign.  I just think it’s neat that somebody with as common a name as Fred Harris once ran for President.

Finally, if you look really carefully, you’ll notice that Lee High School is located right next to a movie theater that, according to its marquee, is showing Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s final film.  Just imagine the fun that I could have had going to Lee High.  I could have skipped school and gone to a movie!

Third, this film has a great soundtrack!  The low rider gets a little higher … hey, I think there’s a double meaning there…

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But, really, the main reason I love this film is because I love great ensemble work and Dazed and Confused has a wonderful cast.  Some members of the cast went on to become famous and some did not, but all of them give great performances.  In fact, the entire cast is so great that it’s difficult to know who to single out so I’m just going to name a few of my favorites.

First off, there’s the jocks.  Some of them, like Jason London’s Randy “Pink” Floyd are surprisingly sensitive.  Some of them, like Don Dawson (Sasha Jenson), remind me of the type of guys that I, despite my better judgment, would have totally been crushing on back in high school.  And then the others are just scary, running around with their cars full of beer and obsessively paddling freshman.  Benny (Cole Hauser), for instance, really does seem like he has some issues.  (Perhaps it’s because he lives in Texas but still has such a strong Boston accent…)

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However, the scariest of the jocks is, without a doubt, Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck). A complete and total moron who has actually managed to fail his senior year,  (“He’s a joke,” says Randy, “but he’s not a bad guy to have blocking for you…”)  O’Bannion is such a total idiot that, not only is it fun to see him eventually get humiliated, but it’s even more fun to watch him and think, “That’s Ben Affleck!”  And, it must be said, Affleck is totally convincing playing a complete and total dumbass.  That’s not meant to be an insult, by the way.  Future multiple-Oscar winner  Affleck does a really good job.

And then there’s the three self-styled intellectuals, Tony (Anthony Rapp), Mike (Adam Goldberg), and red-headed Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), who spend the whole day driving around and discussing what it all means.  These are actually three of my favorite characters in the entire film, just because I’ve known (and, I must admit, loved) the type.  Plus, Cynthia has red hair and we redheads have to stay united!

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There’s the two incoming freshman who get to spend a night hanging out with the older kids — Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa).  Mitch is adorable while Sabrina gets to ask Tony to marry her.  Of course, Sabrina is covered in ketchup, mustard, and flour at the time.  (“She probably looks really good once you get all the shit off her,” Mike offers.)

And, of course, you can’t forget Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey).  In many ways, Wooderson is a truly creepy character.  He’s the older guy who still hangs out with the high school kids.  When he asks Mitch what the incoming freshman girls look like, you get the disturbing feeling that he’s not joking.  (“I get older but they stay the same age,” Wooderson says about his underage girlfriends, “yes, they do.”)  And yet McConaughey gives such a charismatic performance that Wooderson becomes the heart and soul of the entire film.  In the end, you’re happy that Randy has a friend like Wooderson.

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And there’s so many other characters that I love.  There’s the hilarious stoner Slater (Rory Cochrane).  There’s Mitch’s older sister, Jodi (Michelle Burke), who is the type of cool older sister that I would have liked to have been if I actually had a brother and wasn’t the youngest of four.  There’s Randy’s girlfriend, Simone (Joey Lauren Adams) and Don’s occasional girlfriend, Shavonne (Deena Martin) who, at one point, refers to Don as being “Mr. Premature Ejaculation.”  Even the characters that you’re supposed to hate are so well-played and so well-written that it’s a pleasure to see them.  Parker Posey is hilarious as head mean girl Darla.  In the role of car-obsessed Clint, Nicky Katt is dangerously hot — even if he does eventually end up kicking Mike’s ass.  (“You wouldn’t say I got my ass kicked, would you?” Mike says.  Sorry, sweetie, you did. But everyone watching the movie totally loved you!)

(And let’s not forget that future Oscar winner Renee Zellweger shows up for a split-second, walking past Wooderson during his “that’s why I love high school girls” monologue.)

Dazed and Confused is a great film.  If you haven’t seen it, see it.  And if you have seen it, see it again.

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Scenes That I Love: Charles Freck Gets A Good Wine in A Scanner Darkly


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First released in 2006, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is one of the unacknowledged great films of the past ten years.  The scene below, featuring Rory Cochrane as the hapless Charles Freck, is all the stronger for being adapted almost word-for-word from Philip K. Dick’s source novel.