WHITE BOY RICK (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When “based on a true story” appears, we can usually bank on either a hero or criminal as the subject. A good person, or a bad one. With this story, we get a teenager who is basically a good kid, but one who does bad things for what he believes are good reasons. It’s likely to test your empathy and judgment. Director Yann Demange (’71) brings us the story of young Richard (Rick) Wershe, Jr through a script from writers Andy Weiss and brothers Noah and Logan Miller.

We begin in 1984, the height of the “Just Say No” era, when Rick (a terrific debut by newcomer Richie Merritt) is a 14 year old living near poverty with his dad and older sister. Mom walked out years ago. Rick helps his dad in the firearm resale business (some legal, some not). Richard Wershe, Sr is played by Matthew McConaughey, who is outstanding as the dreamer who desperately wants a better life for himself and his kids. Unfortunately, the man simply lacks the capacity to do better. Sister Dawn is played by Del Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL), and Dawn is an addict who leaves/escapes home with her boyfriend. This is most definitely not “The Brady Bunch”.

Detroit was in the midst of a rapid and tragic decline, and the east side where Rick lived had already hit bottom with crime, violence, drugs and poverty. Rick’s teenage resume would read firearms dealer, known gang associate, FBI informant, gunshot victim, cash-flowing drug dealer, baby daddy, rescuer of sister, and server of life sentence. It was quite a run for someone who hadn’t yet celebrated birthday number 20.

Director Demange shows us how two sides were played against the middle, with Rick being stuck in the middle with no hope for escape. We even see a TV clip of SERPICO for a bit of foreshadowing into life as an informant. What makes the film work, beyond the remarkable true story, is how each of the main characters is humanized to the point that we understand what makes them tick. Dad (McConaughey) is a dreamer who thinks he can sell enough guns to finance a chain of video stores that will be successful enough to keep his family together. Daughter Dawn tries to escape her “loser” dad by numbing herself with drugs and running off with the first guy that will take her. Son Rick takes advantage of his ability to create trust by trying to serve his father, a drug kingpin, the FBI, and himself. These three all seem to have good hearts and best intentions, but nothing every really works out for them – despite dad being a glass-half-full kind of guy

This is also a story of contrasts … especially between black and white in many situations. We learn the difference between ‘black jail time’ and ‘white jail time’, and the FBI obviously chose Rick because he was a white kid who infiltrated a black crime ring – he even gets invited to the local skating rink to hangout, and to Las Vegas for a Tommy Hearns fight. There is also the way Richard Sr sees himself as “above” the criminals as he protests the proliferation and danger of drugs, while then turning around and selling guns to those who peddle drugs. Selective morality.

The FBI recruits Rick to feed them information by threatening to arrest his dad. He is coerced into the world of selling drugs and then later railroaded by the Feds so that they could wash their hands and walk away “clean”. Because of their influence, Rick is later sentenced to life in prison for non-violent offenses. Of course, he was surrounded by violence, and even the victim of it, but it begs the question of whether the punishment fit the crime. We are never sure if we should feel empathy for Rick, disgust at the system, or frustrated and fed up with a society that set this into motion.

The supporting cast runs deep. Bruce Dern and the rarely seen Piper Laurie are Rick’s grandparents, while Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane play the influential FBI agents. This marks a 25 year reunion for McConaughey and Cochrane from their appearance in DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). Also appearing are RJ Cyler (“I’m Dying Up Here”) as Rick’s friend Boo, Brian Tyree Henry as a detective, and Eddie Marsan and Jonathan Majors as drug dealers.

A surprising amount of humor is mixed in with the gritty crime stuff and family struggles. There is even a comical FOOTLOOSE moment at the drive-in – providing yet another contrast between blacks and whites. Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (“71) works wonders in some of the least appealing settings you’ll likely find in a movie, and his approach perfectly complements our personal conflicts on who to pull for throughout this quagmire.

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HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

June 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film directorial debut of Drew Pearce is original and clever, while teasing with hope for a bit more than it delivers. Mr. Pearce is best known for writing the screenplay for IRON MAN 3, and now as a first time director, he shows enough promise to leave us interested in what comes next.

The film is set in dystopian Los Angeles a mere 10 years in the future. The streets are flooded with desperate rioters after a mega-corporation shuts off the clean water supply. The company is the film’s real villain, and the only one that The Nurse (Jodie Foster) can’t treat. See, she runs Hotel Artemis, an underground hospital for top tier criminals – the element that can’t just pop into the local community clinic for treatment on the latest bullet hole or knife wound. These patients follow a subscription plan and must stay current on their dues to gain admission.

The Nurse forgoes any attempt at personal vanity and is instead an agoraphobic, booze-chugging, (mostly) stick-to-the-rules type, who pops in anti-anxiety tapes and ear buds whenever her pulse quickens. She has run the place since it opened 22 years prior and is assisted by a mountain of man named Everest (get it?) played well by Dave Bautista. He’s a combination bodyguard, bouncer, handyman and assistant healthcare professional (check his badge).

The set design by Ramsey Avery deserves special mention as the Hotel Artemis is quietly housed in the shell of a former grand art deco hotel, now a victim to the city’s carnage – though the neon sign remains illuminated. Its vacation spot-themed rooms are a sight to behold, despite the frustratingly low lighting. Occupants are incognito and use their room names as identifiers. Sterling K Brown is Waikiki, a philosophical bank robber who dragged his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) here for treatment after a heist went wrong. Acapulco (the always energetic Charlie Day) is a crass, motor-mouthed arms dealer, while Nice (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) is a freakishly skilled assassin.

The stress level picks up when the biggest crime lord of Los Angeles shows up seriously wounded. Known as The Wolf King, an admittedly bad choice for a nickname, Jeff Goldblum brings some smooth-talking toughness, humor and twisted class to the proceedings. More than a few tentacles are attached to The Wolf King and other folks we’ve previously met, not the least of which is a very special ink pen stolen by Honolulu. Mix in an injured cop (Jenny Slate) with a personal link to The Nurse and her constantly alluded to tragic backstory, and the movie puts off a Graphic novel vibe … missing only the off-the-cuff insanity. It’s just a bit too grounded for its own good.

The high tech/low rent feel forces us to recall BLADE RUNNER and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but of course, this film isn’t at the level of either, as it lacks top tier suspense. It is a terrific reminder of what a talented actress two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is, and what a shame that we haven’t seen her in such a substantial screen role since 2013’s ELYSIUM. She really sinks her teeth into this odd character, and more than the action scenes, she keeps us interested the entire run time. The score is a bit too heavy on the droning electronic bass line, and while the Florida joke and nod to John Phillips (The Wolf King, “California Dreamin’”) earns some bonus points, it’s really the performance of Ms. Foster and the set design that saves a too-safe script.

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