LANSKY (2021)

June 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If asked, the vast majority of movie lovers would name THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER II (1974), and GOODFELLAS (1990) as the quintessential mafia movies. Sure, there are dozens of others, but that mob triumvirate has ruled the roost for many years. It’s doubtful writer-director Eytan Rockaway ever gave one moment of thought that his second feature, written from a story by his father, author Robert Rockaway, might join the ranks of those top three, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a quite interesting tale based on true events.

Sam Worthington (AVATAR, 2009) stars as David Stone, a writer who had some success a few years back with his Kennedy biography. Since then, he’s struggled in both his personal and professional life. In 1981 when an elderly Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel) contacts him to write the true Lansky story, David jumps at the opportunity, seeing it as a solution to his many problems. The two men meet at a Miami diner that Lansky frequents. These diner meetings form the structure of the story, and director Rockaway uses flashbacks to the 1940’s to “show” us what Lansky is telling his biographer from the booth.

John Magaro plays the younger Lansky, a man who is remarkably good with numbers and calm, yet forceful, in his demeanor. Lansky has partnered with Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade), who provides some muscle and flamboyance that Lansky lacks. We see the development of their business, and how Lansky’s shrewd business acumen leads to a connection with Lucky Luciano, as well as providing the government with intelligence during the war. Lansky’s story to David glosses over the bootlegging and other revenue streams to concentrate on gaming, which of course, is now legal in many states.

The supporting cast includes Minka Kelly as David’s fling at the motel, AnnaSophia Robb as Lansky’s wife Anne, Shane McRae as Lucky Luciano, and David James Elliott as the FBI Agent obsessed with solving the long-dead Lansky case and locating the $350 million supposedly hidden away. As you might expect, the story bounces from Miami to New York City to Cuba (a stunning Colonial Hotel in Havana) to Vegas to Geneva and even Israel, where Lansky attempted, unsuccessfully, to live out his life.

Lansky’s biggest impact was facilitating the connection between the Italian, Irish, and Jewish mafia at a time when so such bond existed. We twice hear him answer, “I have no knowledge on the subject”, when questioned about organized crime. On his death in 1983, Lansky had no convictions – all charges had been dropped. A doctor’s diagnosis of terminal lung cancer led him to reach out to an author so that his story could be told. We don’t learn much about “Murder, Inc.” but we do understand Lansky’s commitment to “control the game”. Rockaway has delivered an intriguing profile of an enigma from inside the mafia … and screen vet Keitel makes it all believable.

In Select Theaters & On Demand June 25, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE WORLD MADE STRAIGHT (2015)

January 21, 2015

the world made straight Greetings again from the darkness. The Hatfields and McCoys family feud has long been a favorite topic and inspiration for literary and film projects. Lesser known, but ultimately more tragic and historically vital, is the 1863 Shelton Laurel Massacre during the Civil War. The novel from Ron Rash is the foundation of director David Burris’ film that explores the fallout of that incident more than 100 years later in the very rural Appalachian hills of Madison County, North Carolina.

It doesn’t take us long to get a line on Travis (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse), a high school dropout with authority issues who hangs out with his equally aimless friends, including Shane (Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense). We have seen many film depictions of hillbillies over the years, so the grim atmosphere of unemployment, isolation, lack of education, drugs and lack-of-hope aren’t surprising, and the undercurrent of the 1863 event is what should have set this one apart.

Interest picks up when teacher-turned-drug dealer Leonard (Noah Wyle) takes Travis under his wing after Travis has an unfortunate run-in with Carlton (Steve Earle), another local drug dealer. Travis moves in with Leonard and his drug-addicted girlfriend (Minka Kelly), and takes a real interest in the journals of Civil War soldiers that Leonard has collected. These stories spark a curiosity within Travis, in particular the saga of 13 year old David Shelton – one of the victims of the massacre.

It’s the fact that Travis is oblivious to the history of his family, and how this event has so affected life in his hometown, that makes this story difficult to buy into. In spite of the communication void between Travis and his father, it’s just not possible that the massacre would not have been a frequent topic of discussion throughout the years. Beyond that, this is little more than a typical small town battle between drug dealers … albeit two very articulate drug dealers.  And yes, guns and turf do play a role here.

Jeremy Irvine, Noah Wyle and Steve Earle each make their characters someone interesting to watch. On the other hand, the female characters are mostly after-thoughts or plot devices. Travis’ mother maintains a forlorn look that registers her resignation to fate, while Minka Kelly mostly gets knocked around (save for one excellent scene while alone with Travis), and Adelaide Clemens provides the rare sparks of light and optimism as Travis’ love interest – and then just as quickly becomes a non-entity.

The fine acting and excellent camera work deserved a better story, especially given the framework of history. There is a recurring hillbilly philosophy in the movie that states “Time don’t pass. It’s just layers. It’s all still happening.” That philosophy could have better tied the current story into the past, which would have elevated this film to a new level.

watch the trailer:

 

 


Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013)

August 22, 2013

butler1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a film about multiple personalities.  Rather it is a film WITH multiple personalities! Yes, there are a staggering number of characters played by a who’s who of actors, but it’s the movie itself that flashes the most personalities. It is quite a mixture of historical events, the Civil Rights movement, family drama, generational differences, Presidential evolution, emotional wrangling, and Oscar posturing.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the man who worked his way up from being a child slave on a Georgia plantation  to the highest level of butler within The White House … a gig that spanned 34 years and eight Presidents. The story is based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat to dramatic historical events and major social changes … all while wearing white gloves and tuxedo. The movie bears a resemblance to the popular movie The Help, but while that one focused on individual racism, this one is more concerned with systematic or institutional racism.

butler2 While the movie has plenty of emotional moments, in my opinion it could have been even stronger had it committed more time to either Cecil’s long run in The White House or the father-son generational struggles between Cecil and his desperate-for-change son played with fire by David Oyelowo (from Freedom Rider to Black Panther). Instead there is much wasted time on superficial Presidential interactions and a needless side story of adultery involving Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his friend (Terrence Howard).

Director Lee Daniels obviously has many friends who wanted to be part of this one. The incredible cast includes Mariah Carey (still seeking redemption for Glitter), Alex Pettyfer (as a brutal slave owner), Vanessa Redgrave (Cecil’s first serving trainer), Clarence Williams III (Cecil’s ultra cool mentor), Nelson Ellis as Martin Luther King, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (as fellow White House butlers). The most blatant slap in the face of Conservatives comes from the casting of extreme Democrat John Cusack playing Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Other Presidents are played by Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhauer), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan). The constant game of “spot the star” is a bit distracting at times, but not as much as one might guess. It’s just a shame that most get very little story or screen time.

butler3 As for Oprah Winfrey, she is getting much love for her performance, including some Oscar chatter. What I saw was a performance that was solid, yet distracting due to the lack of aging in comparison to her husband (Whitaker). She changes very little (except for costumes) from the beginning until the very end when she definitely goes into heavy make-up for the Obama election. On a personal note, watching 1970’s era Oprah shaking her booty to “Soul Train” was an image I neither needed nor enjoyed.

Again, my favorite scenes were the ones between father and son … Whitaker and Oyelowo. Seeing these two generations struggle so much to understand each other and interpret the world in such different ways proved quite powerful. It’s always painful and embarrassing to re-live the horrible manner in which African-Americans were treated, but even moreso when it’s tied to a father-son relationship.

**NOTE: the ridiculous movie title is the resulting settlement brought on by Warner Bros who was concerned that a title of “The Butler” would cause confusion and conflict with their own 1916 short film of that title.  Yes, 1916.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an entertaining movie loaded with stars and a story that delivers some emotional tugs.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting insight into the inner-workings of The White House OR watching Oprah get her groove on could possibly burn your eyeballs as it did mine.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ4xDTz8Avc