JUNGLELAND (2020)

November 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve rarely seen more improvement from an actor than what we’ve witnessed on screen from Charlie Hunnam in his nearly 25 year career. His work was particularly strong in James Gray’s LOST CITY OF Z (2017), and he builds on that here as the older brother filled with dreams of a better life. Writer-director Max Winkler (FLOWER, 2017, and son of Henry) co-wrote the script with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith (INGRID GOES WEST, 2017), and while it has a ‘seen this before’ vibe, we remain engaged throughout.

Hunnam stars as Stanley, the visionary who manages the underground boxing career of his brother Lion (Jack O’Connell, UNBROKEN, 2014). Lion is quiet and reserved, while Stanley thinks talking is the key to life. We don’t get the full back story on the brothers, but enough to know that Stanley has made an endless stream of bad decisions that have left the brothers squatting in a deserted foreclosed house in Massachusetts that requires them to sneak in and out of windows for access. Preaching a belief in “fate”, Stanley gushes about their future, which he envisions as a beautiful house in California and tailored Italian clothes.

In a scene that we assume has occurred numerous times, Stanley finds himself unable to pay the $2000 he owes his crime boss Pepper, played by Jonathan Majors. Rather than kill Stanley, Pepper offers him the kind of deal that seems too good to be true. All the Kaminsky brothers have to do is drive Sky (Jessica Barden) across the country to Reno, where they are to deliver her to Yates (John Cullum). At this point, we only know enough about Yates to understand that he’s not an upstanding citizen. If the brothers manage to execute this “simple” task, Pepper will ensure that Lion is added to the list of fighters of “Jungleland”, a bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred fight in San Francisco where the Grand Prize is $100,000. Stanley sees this as a much better alternative than being killed, and Lion agrees to go along with the plan.

What follows is a road trip with the Kaminsky brothers, their Whippet dog Ash, and Sky, the mysterious young lady whose minimal dialogue masks intentions that don’t necessarily mesh with the mission of trip. On the road, Stanley makes a few more less-than-brilliant decisions, while Lion and Sky bond … or do they? Regardless, things get challenging and obstacles appear everywhere. Once Yates appears, it’s a joy to behold 90 year old Jack Cullum (“Northern Exposure”) as he tears into the role of tough guy.

Mr. Winkler’s film actually has very little fighting in it, especially when compared to Gavin O’Connor’s outstanding 2011 film, WARRIOR. Instead, this is about brotherly love and the ties that bind (although so was O’Connor’s film). Surprisingly, the soundtrack features Bruce Springsteen singing “Dream Baby Dream”, and we do learn how to dress a knife wound with duct tape.

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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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