Review – ‘Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger’ 10.18.14

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In what was probably my second most anticipated documentary of the year behind “Life Itself”. Joe Berlinger’s (“Paradise Lost” Trilogy) “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Burgler” tells the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious South Boston crime boss who Martin Scorcese based Jack Nicholson’s character off of in his film “The Departed”. Brought to us by CNN films, a brand new subsidiary of CNN that focuses primarily on documentary features, and who has released both last year’s excellent and haunting “Blackfish” and this year’s “Life Itself” (currently at my #1 spot for both best documentary and best film of the year). They seem to be at the current forefront of financing specific documentaries so that they can be released to a wider audience. And so far, I can say I am very impressed with the types of documentaries that they’re producing. But even more reason why I was excited because this was by documentarian Joe Berlinger, the director of such acclaimed films as his superb 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper”, which focused on a the trial of a semi-illiterate farmer, the 1996, 2000, and 2011 “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, about the unfortunate long and drawn out trial of the West Memphis 3. Which mind you are three of some of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Then 2004’s probing look at the band Metallica in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”, and finally 2009’s intense examination of the South American oil trade “Crude”. Berlinger is right up there with the caliber of documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), and Ken Burns (“The Central Park 5”). All documentary filmmakers who are at the top of their game and whose documentaries almost never fail to disappoint.

The film starts off by introducing us to several South Boston residents, most of whom were either eye witnesses or victims of families who were terrorized by “Whitey” (aka James Burgler otherwise known as “The Irish Godfather”) who reigned and was king of the organized crime world in the United States for almost 25 years going back to the mid seventies and staying in power until the late nineties, which at that point he went on the lam for 13 years until his capture in 2011. Whitey was the boss of the infamous Walter Hill gang, a band of Boston wiseguys who were completely and utterly ruthless, menacing, and terrorizing in equal respects, and who also were responsible for dozens of murders. Whitey’s ring grew so big that by the late nineties to early aughts he landed a #2 spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted. Second to that of only Osama Bin Laden. But here’s the kicker – he had also been an FBI informant for years. Whitey was let free to run wild and become the head of the most notorious gang the United States has ever seen. All while under the knowing eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Only to be informed by the same organization he helped out to essentially flee, then land on their list of Most Wanted, until his capture in 2011. Where at the age of 83 he would go on to be tried for 19 murders. The documentary focuses on Whitey’s rise, his reign of terror, his relationship with the FBI, wiseguys, informants, trial lawyers, eye witnesses, and families of victims; mostly in and around the Boston area. And asks the central question – how could a Mob boss who headed a gang that was so ruthless possibly have also worked for the United States government?

There is a little something for everyone in this documentary. Being in that I have always been fascinated by the Mob. Like most guys I know who were at a young age. I was always interested in people like Al Capone and John Gotti. That and I loved films like Frances Ford Coppola’s exemplary “Godfather” Trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), Brian DePalma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables”, and what still might be arguably the best film made about the Mob – Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). Anybody with even the faintest interest in any of the above people or films will most likely find this documentary worthwhile. It’s filled with informative interviews from members of the Boston community who were in some way involved with Whitey, be it by association with the Mob or by ways of being a victim of them. It also contains some great archival footage, voice recordings, and eye witness testimonies. Furthermore it’s a compelling and thought provoking look at both his rise and fall as well as the deep, multi-layered levels of government corruption. Particularly by that of the FBI. The amount of protection this guy received from one of our supposed to be most trusted government organizations is appalling. Lastly, I thought it did a fairly good comprehensive job at depicting Whitey’s run from his rise to his fall, as well as the court proceedings that took place when he eventually was captured in 2011. The only couple of criticisms I had were at times it felt like an overload of information that I personally had a hard time following. Similar to when I watch Asian films about crime families. Just the sheer amount of people involved from all aspects, while important to depict, can often times be overwhelming and can wind up confusing the viewer. Which at a few points happened to me here. It also felt slightly one-sided, in that most all of the testimony you see or hear from people in the film are from people who are against Whitey and want to see him put in jail. Which is totally understandable. I just thought to myself there had to still be some Whitey supporters that they could have interviewed to go along with it which would have made it seem a bit more balanced. Those two criticisms aside, this is a well thought out, comprehensive, thought provoking depiction of one of the most notorious crime bosses in United States history and his own
government who protected him.

Grade: B

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Review: ‘How I Live Now’ 9.22.14

Scotland born director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”, “Marley”) is one in a slew of directors who work in both the feature film and documentary formats. Some notable others including the granddaddy of the crop, Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”, “Rescue Dawn”, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, “The Bad Leiutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” ), followed closely by Spike Lee (“Do The Right Thing”, “4 Little Girls”, “Inside Man”, “When The Levees Broke”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”, “Life Itself”, “Prefontaine”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980“), and Joe Berlinger (The “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”) just to name a few. Macdonald is that rare breed of filmmaker like Herzog or Lee that are just as proficient making feature films as they are documentaries. In the documentary format, Macdonald wowed myself with both 2003’s “Touching the Void” and 2012’s “Marley”. As for the feature format, I found myself both really liking 2006’s Academy Award winning “The Last King of Scotland” as well as 2009’s underappreciated “State of Play”. So I saw it as only be befitting that I would see whatever it was that he came out with next.

We first meet up with the central character, Daisy (yet another bold performance by Saoirse Ronan), as she’s getting off a plane in what appears to be a war torn London. She is picked up and driven to some sort of compound, where shortly after we learn is inhabited by the sister of her estranged father, who seems to be some sort of extremist fighter. Daisy is a closed off, irritable, angst ridden teenager; who has a very difficult time warming up to all of her many cousins who live at the house. She also has quite a few phobias. She’s deathly afraid of bacteria, washes her hands incessantly, and has a mind that seems to be in a constant state of overdrive. While at the compound, she meets a young man named Eddie (played my George McKay), who has an almost unspoken language and communication with animals and who, coincidentally, can also hear Daisy’s thoughts. She begins to take a liking to and forms a bond with him. But just as soon as they can fall in love, a radio announcement is received declaring a Civil War throughout all of Britain. The compound soon becomes under attack, and the military detains them splitting the men from the women. Diasy declares that no matter what situation she finds herself in or no matter how far they take her, she will come back to find her true love. Her younger cousin and she are then taken to a kind of foster home where they plan their escape. At a pivotal moment when they’re just about to do so without any risk of harm or violence, a devastating turn of events takes place at a checkpoint, and the two are left to flee which is when their journey really begins.

I really have nothing but good things to say about this film. Even though I did find the ending to be a bit contrived and stayed a little bit too close to Hollywood tropes. From an artistic stand point, Macdonald does a magnificient job at filming the war ravaged English countryside, capturing some stunning photography in both the beauty of its nature and the devastation of its ruin. Macdonald also expertly jumbles a film that takes on many parts – it’s part War film, part Romance, part Drama, and part Action/post-apocalyptic film in equal measures. As mentioned above it also features a fine performances by its two leads, Saoirse Ronan and George McKay, who also provide the center of the love story and whose relationship and on screen chemistry feels genuine and without artifice.  I also found that it was both engaging and moved at somewhat of a quick pace while evoking a sense of urgency, dread, and suspense throughout the entire proceeding. My one or two criticisms of it had to do mostly with the ending as I mentioned above. I felt like it laid the sentiment on a tad too thick and came across as slightly overmelodramatic. That aside, this was a solid film that I had a lot of fun with and enjoyed many aspects of it. Thus proving once again my belief that if a director does you right more often times than he does you wrong, then chances are that much greater that you’ll walk away satisfied with their next film.

Grade: B

 

Review: ‘Life Itself’ 8.12.14

This was an unbeliveable documentary into the life and death of Roger Ebert. The man who one could say “invented” film criticism, or at least brought it to the masses. I had been waiting for this one for awhile now for a couple of different reasons. One, as a student of film, there’s not a more fascinating subject than that of Ebert. The guy lived for movies. His entire framework for how he viewed the world was imprinted by the thousands (I think they say in the movie 10,000) movies he saw in his lifetime, and that was particularly interesting to me. The second reason is I grew up as a kid watching both Siskel and Ebert and the movies as well as Ebert and Roeper and the movies. Each week tuning in excited to see which films they were going to be reviewing, the back-and-forth of opposing opinions (which I try to encourage with both of you), as well as the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” grading system which was his/their trademark. Lastly, being a big fan of Steve James, who I couldn’t possibly think of a better documentarian to cover the subject. Seeing as Ebert (as he did with a lot of filmmakers, including Martin Scorcese) put James on the international film community map with his glowing reviews of his 1994 ‘Hoop Dreams’ (and who eventually went on to provide the DVD commentary for). So I looked at it as the ultimate tribute/testament for James to be able to give that back.

As for the documentary itself…I liked so many different elements of it that it’s hard for me to sum up even in lengthy email format such as this one. I enjoyed learning about what I didn’t know, specifically how he got his job at the Chicago-Sun Times, his battle with alcoholism, and the fact that he stayed single until the age of 50, at which point he met the love of his life (and ultimate savior), Chaz. I also thought another plus of it was how they didn’t shy away from the end of Ebert’s life, which as Ebert even said “it wouldn’t be a real documentary if you didn’t show this part”. Which is unbelievably heartwrenching to watch him go through surgeries, to losing his jaw, to not being able to speak and who’s only way of communication was through gestures and speaking through a computer. Though whereas some people might fall into despair or depression, Ebert found ways to spin his unfortunate situation into a positive thing. Like starting a blog for example where at one point someone says he was doing some of his best writing on. This is a guy that was going to perservere and not hang the towel. Which I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for.
I also enjoyed the focus on his relationship with Gene Siskel, which was a very turmultuous one. These guys came from 2 different walks of life which greatly impacted the way in which they interacted with one another, especially when it came to film criticism. There’s some great archival footage of them between takes on their show bickering at one another. Yet for all of the ups and mostly downs in their relationship. It was obvious they had nothing but the utmost mutual respect and admiration for one another. That, and Siskel’s death had a very profound effect on the way in which Ebert faced his own adversity later in life.
The only omission in the film that knocked it down a point or 2 for me was no archival footage, not even a mention, of Richard Roeper. I thought about it and to me that would be like making a Michael Jordon documentary and totally exluding his foray into baseball. Why the decision to omit Roeper from the documentary entirely will always remain a mystery to me.
Still, a compelling, thoroughly engaging, thought provoking, emotional roller coaster of a ride, of one of the most important figures in the history of film, and one that is sure to pick up a nomination at next year’s Oscars for Best Documentary.
Grade: A