Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Friday, June 6, 2014


Family affects us all, even, or especially, when it's not around. In David Gordon Green's latest movie, "Joe" it is around, but the worst distortion of what it should be. Gary (Tye Sheridan) is a 15 year old boy who knows on some level, that his family situation is wrong, but is stuck with it, if only, as he tells himself, to look out for his mother and sister. While there's certainly there's more to it than that, however badly you're raised, there's a feeling that your family is where you belong. Inertia and a sense of belonging have long kept people in terrible situations and Gary isn't wrong about his mother and sister needing protection, he just overestimates his own ability to protect them.

In the opening of the film we see Gary yelling at his father, Wade (Gary Poulter) that people in the town that they're in the process of leaving will "beat his ass" for what he's done this time. After having his fill of being berated, Wade punches Gary in the face before walking off to take a beating of his own, just as his son predicted. It's too much to hope that Wade learns anything from this, as they've obviously done all of it before. They simply move on and do it again, finding a condemned house to take over as their own. How the family will eat with no money coming in is not a matter of any importance for Wade. His only concern is finding a bottle of something. Gary however, sets off to look for work.

We're soon introduced to "Joe" (Nicolas Cage,) as he leads a crew of men out in the woods poisoning trees with "juice hatchets" (hatchets attached to backpacks tank full of tree poison) which will allow the tree cutters (who can only cut down dead trees) to come in later and cut them down. It's clear that Joe takes work very seriously. He leads his crew capably and those that don't mind working like working for him. When the crew is disturbed by the sighting of a cottonmouth snake, Joe appears and calmly picks it up, impressing them with his fearlessness. Gary happens upon this scene and asks Joe to show him the snake. After showing Gary the cottonmouth's fangs, Joe releases the snake telling his crew not to kill it, because "This snake's my friend." Gary asks Joe if he has any work for him and his father. Joe agrees telling him "A day's work for a day's pay." He tells Gary what they're doing, informing him that "these trees are weak." and that the ultimate goal in clearing them out is to make room to plant stronger ones. Gary is just happy to have the work and sets out to earn his pay. He gets some facts about Joe from the crew, including the fact that Joe likes to be looked in the eyes when you talk to him. Gary's work ethic impresses Joe enough to ask him back for the next day.

After work, Joe makes stops around town, notably at a local whore house, where he's greeted by an angry German Shepherd that Joe refers to as "an asshole" The dog ends up ruining his mood and he leaves, getting shot in the shoulder on the way to his truck by the disturbed Willie Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who was recently slapped by Joe in a bar. Willie shoots with a rifle from quite a distance and speeds off to dispose of the rifle by throwing it from a bridge into the water below. At the bridge, Willie encounters Gary who has informed his father (who is too drunk to stand) of the job he got them. Gary asks Willie for a ride, which he initially agrees to give them. However, Willie soon launches into delusional bragging, and vague threats. He's surprised that rather than intimidate young Gary, he just makes him mad. With little effort, Gary gives Willie a beating and leaves him there to nurse the new slight.

Gary reports to work with his father in tow. Rather than work hard like Gary does, Wade just wanders around taking drinks from everyone's water jugs. He's quickly called out on his lack of work, but he gives no weight to the criticism, defending himself with a delusional account of his work. Joe gives Gary and Wade a ride home, and as soon as they're out of his truck, he hears Wade blame Gary for Joe not wanting them back the next day. Joe sees Wade punch his son in the face and considers intervening but then decides to stay out of it, for the moment at least, it's a family matter.

When Gary shows up at Joe's place later that night, even though he has to stand outside Joe's house in the rain facing an aggressive guard Bull Dog, insisting that he still wants the job , it's clear that Joe won't be able to stay out of the situation forever.

"Joe" is above all a character film and Nicolas Cage is in top form to show it. His character Joe tells us "Restraint keeps me alive."  This initially seems like an oddly ironic statement for a character Cage is playing, as he's so well known for his manic outburst style of acting. However, a little thought would tell you that Cage is quite capable of restraint, as seen in quieter films such as "The Weatherman," and "Matchstick Men."  and his full range, from quiet to unhinged, is on display in such films as "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Adaptation." It's easy to dismiss Cage to his over the top persona in films like "Ghost Rider," "Drive Angry," and "The Wicker Man" as those parts are supremely memorable. Cage isn't afraid to go over the top for a role, and works enough that these films can seem like a trend. It's nice to see him take on a role that lets him tap fully into his talent.

Never has the quality of restraint been displayed with more focus than here. Cage presents us with a character who chooses restraint on a minute to minute basis. It's not a quality he was born with but one he's trying to learn. He has a natural tendency towards violence and to make matters worse he's a very competent guy that really wants to be helpful rather than destructive. His problem is he takes the world very personally. As one of his crew members tells Tye, Joe expects you to look him in the eye. He expects that of everyone including police officers. When he's stopped by an overeager cop who imagines Joe as an easy target and arrest, we realize that he expects even a cop with his hand on his gun to treat him fairly, man to man. When that doesn't happen, Joe takes the man's gun away and beats him even though this will land him in jail again and very possibly lead to another prison sentence.

Joe acts in a way that he believes is fair and the world can be damned if it doesn't catch up. After all, Joe can only be accountable for himself. A film like this is usually advertised as a "redemption story," but a little thought will tell you that it really isn't. While Joe has a gift for violence and has served time, one important factor about the character is that all of his troubles come from his insistence on meeting the world "eye to eye." The time he served was a result of his reaction to some cops who had it in for him and had no interest in dealing with him fairly. His crime was that he didn't back down. While he is an ex convict, he's never a person of low character. He tries not to get involved in "every little thing" as he knows that the world doesn't feel the need to live by his code, and this can easily get him into trouble.

Joe's would be adversary, Willie Russell is exactly the opposite. While we don't see their initial altercation, we see enough of Willie to know that he doesn't deal with people man to man, preferring to fire a rifle from a safe distance. He's also fond of announcing that he "put his head through a windshield and didn't give a fuck." as if this confirms the character he lacks. Willie is the kind of guy that thinks putting "I'm a bad ass" on a T-Shirt is impressive and perhaps believable. We see though that even dealing with young Tye, he's sneaky and incompetent without an unfair advantage. He feels bitterly slighted by anything that points to his true weakness. This isn't to say he's not dangerous, only that he's not much of a factor in a forthright exchange. He's so consumed by his own inferiority that he becomes capable of anything, but is only dangerous from a distance, when your back is turned, or when he knows without a doubt that you're weaker than he is. Ronnie Gene Blevins does an admirable job, making this character creepy and disturbed enough that you'd want to wash your hands after speaking with him.

Gary's father, Wade has similar qualities to Willie Russell but magnified by his severe alcoholism and his complete lack of effort to function among society. He's not interested in impressing anyone or getting along, but he would let his family starve in order to get another drink. He would sell his own daughter for the same end. While Willie is limited somewhat by appearances, Wade is not. The opposite of Joe, he knows no restraint at all, other than that enforced by getting run out of town or receiving a beating. In one scene we watch him follow a homeless man in order to steal his bottle and rather than simply taking the bottle, he beats the man to death in the process, simply because it occurred to him that he could. Gary bringing food into the house enrages Wade, because it proves there was money for booze that he didn't get. This is not a character that has any love for anyone, and his family is simply a vehicle to keep him functioning until his next drink. Gary Poulter, a non actor and homeless man was recruited by David Gordon Green for the role, and he gives an amazing performance, leaving us one of the most chilling villains I can recall in a film. Sadly, he died before he got to see the film, but the role ensures he'll be remembered.

Tye Sheridan's Gary is the character that makes all the others converge. His performance here will certainly be compared to his last great and somewhat similar role in "Mud." "Joe" gives him a bit more range though, as he isn't quite as passive here. We see a fifteen year old kid who gets beat up constantly by his father, but at the same time doesn't hesitate to knock down a creep like Willie Russell. Gary lives with conflict constantly as is required to live with his family. Like any kid, he doesn't see his own situation as abnormal because it's all he knows. It's only when explaining it to an outsider that he starts to reevaluate it. His father's steady decline and the influence of Joe force things to change in a drastic way and once he realizes his own delusion he's determined to act. Gary has everything that his father lacks, but he can't fix anything until he realizes how twisted his father really is.

It's only a matter of time before these characters intersect in the worst way possible. Joe gets pulled into the situation by a growing bond with Gary, who sees Joe as a positive role model. Joe gets more details on Gary's home life.When Wade agrees to sell Willie a night with his daughter, Gary is finally forced into action, as protecting his sister is one of his most important responsibilities. Although Gary insists on handling it himself, Joe insists on stepping in, perhaps to spare Gary an action that would hamper his future possibilities. Arriving at a horrific scene, Joe quickly takes charge, finally settling things with Willie, who has no hope of standing up to Joe in a fair fight. Joe's code costs him however, as he tells one of Willie's associates to get lost as he doesn't know him. This doesn't stop the man from taking a sneaky shot at Joe rather than running away. Joe evens that up quickly, but not without cost. Wade, however is too evil to allow Joe a confrontation and takes himself out, plunging from a bridge as if he knew there was finally nowhere else to go. "Are you my friend?" he asks Joe, on the way over the rail, although he gets no answer. After things have settled, we find Gary picking up work with a man who knew Joe. "He was a good man." the guy says, and then adds, "Well, he was good to me."

"Joe" is a great southern gothic story, a genre David Gordon Green has a real gift at realizing. It's nice to see him spending time on films that are worthy of his talents. "Joe" proves that he hasn't lost anything since "Undertow," and "Snow Angels." While I can understand the desire to work on comedies after those weighty films, I found his comedies to be too much of the Judd Apatow school of lazy stoner laughs. While I'm sure they have their fans, his dramatic films leave those in the dust, and "Joe" stacks up with the best of them, presenting a unique vision that's as distinctive as you could ask of a director. I only hope he continues with this direction as his serious work has not disappointed me yet. Having both Green and Cage at their best makes this a double triumph of a film, not to mention the exceptional performances of everyone else involved. Even the slightest character has a story here, although we don't get the details of them all.

In this atmosphere, good is not necessarily rewarded and evil is not always punished. The only thing sure to be punished here is being more competent than others, and following more rigid a code than the rest of the world. Being a cop doesn't make you a good man, just ensures that you'll have a gun and the ability to arrest someone. Being arrested doesn't make you a bad man, just one who wouldn't submit to an unfair situation.

A lot of time is spent on the difference between what people do, and what they think they do. Gary for example, thinks he's protecting his sister and mother, but in reality he's simply trying to ignore his father's monstrous nature in order to keep a sense of family. Willie imagines himself righting wrongs committed against himself, but misses his own insecurity and depravity which causes the perceived slights. The town is full of people trying to do things but doing them badly, whether cutting a steak from a deer or trying to keep a job. Joe and Wade both stand out against this back drop, Joe because he knows what he's doing while he does it, and Wade because he gives no thought to it at all. Joe does what he thinks is fair, and Wade does whatever his addiction requires.

The people of this world are fond of generalities, as we see when Joe obviously hates a German Shepherd and a prostitute assumes that he doesn't like dogs. Joe says "I like dogs, I don't like that dog. he's an asshole."  This is illustrated by Joe owning his own dog, who likely comes across as threatening to others as the Shepherd does. Joe's dog, however, is doing his job and guarding Joe's house. The German Shepherd may think he's doing the same thing but at the same time, he's clearly not good for business at a whorehouse wishing to be perceived as welcoming. The two dogs serve to illustrate Joe's sense of fairness as well. When he's had enough of the "asshole" dog, he brings his own dog over for a visit and lets his own dog settle the score by proxy.

Joe deals with the world on a case by case basis and it's telling that he gives a lot of value to work ethic, because it's difficult to fake. A man who doesn't mind earning his pay is also a man that will look you in the eye. The choice of work is as good a symbol as any, killing failed trees to make way for stronger ones, much like Gary's family being unable to function with Wade at the head of it. Wade is certainly as poisoned as the trees, although the poison was not applied skillfully so it affects everyone around him until he's cut down, finally allowing Gary to grow up. We see that Gary's a stronger "tree" as even without guidance or a proper role model he tells Wade when he's done wrong, even though he's been knocked around because of it many times.

"Joe" feels like a redemption story but it isn't really, everyone in it stays true to their nature. It's more about the cost of being useful. Joe doesn't owe anyone anything, but he tries to help where he can, because his competency gives him the ability to do so. He sees a problem and he's compelled to fix it, which is why he tries not to get involved in things that aren't his business. The sphere of what is his business increases though, with every personal attachment he forms. It's no accident that when Gary really needs his help, he isn't asking for it but insisting that he'll handle it himself. This requires Joe to be the one that insists on getting involved, because he finally accepts that it's his own problem. Joe weighs his own future (looming incarceration, and health problems) against Gary's and makes the most useful choice that he can, because there's no one else there who can do it. His choice makes sense with the character we're shown, as do all of the character's choices. While the world of Joe is not a fair or merciful one, there is good in it, and that good realizes that it won't be rewarded or treated fairly, but goes on anyway, because the closest thing to justice possible is living up to your own conditions and being proud of the work you've done. You can't control what the universe does, so just account for yourself, in the end that's all there really is. Here, good should be done for its own sake even at a cost, when performed for a reward, it never really strikes me as being good at all.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mob City

I like Frank Darabont, perhaps not as much as some do, (The Shawshank Redemption is great, but it's no Cool Hand Luke) but he's a talented guy that always makes a good looking, professional product. (And I love his ending for "The Mist") It's a shame that his latest venture "Mob City" is colored as him having something to prove after the fall out from "The Walking Dead." How anyone could compare the two shows is beyond me, as they couldn't be more different. If anything, that huge difference is only a tribute to his range.

It's news to no one, that zombies are popular right now and Darabont brought the Walking Dead to life at a perfect time to tap TV watchers' fascination. Since then the vision has changed hands many times, and from all appearances it'll just keep going until there's a spin off for every living character. It's all in the premise, it's set to go on and on until everyone is sick of it, and then probably another couple years. Darabont may well count himself lucky one day, that he got to exit before we've all had way too much of it. As far as I'm concerned, if Darabont had something to prove, he did it very well both times, bringing the Walking Dead to life, and now with Mob City.

"Mob City" is a closed story, caught at a very specific point in the past, 1940's L.A., in the days of Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, a hopelessly corrupt police force and Chief William Parker's attempts to clean things up. Once Siegel, Cohen and Parker are gone, so is the story. I think this kind of story can bring out the best in a director and it does here, giving a framework, and certain character sketches, but also enough room for invention within. The invented characters like Joe Teague and Sid Rothman give an easy access point to the story. While they may not be exactly true to facts, they're certainly based on guys who would have been around. The fact that they haven't been written about however, gives them the freedom to do anything including complicate their lives, as long as they don't alter the facts we know.

And, there are plenty of stories inside that time frame. Darabont chooses the viewpoint of bit player, Detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal) a guy involved in the battle between Chief Parker (Neal McDonogh) and Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) only because Siegel is the Department's main business. Teague is mostly a good cop who came back from the war as damaged goods. He served with Bugsy's current fixer Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia) who he still talks to now and then, which turns out to be both a good and bad thing, when he agrees to take a side job as intimidation for a lousy comedian who has an idea to make some money from Bugsy. If you've ever seen a noir story in your life, you'll know that this simple idea goes off the rails pretty quick, which leaves us with the interesting parts, the "how," "why," and "then what?"

We've seen most of these characters before, but not exactly like this. They're based on stock cop/ gangster characters but they take on their own dimensions. Teague, by strict definition could be seen as a dirty cop, and we're shown that being a dirty cop at this point in time is the norm. But in "Mob City" the reasons matter. Teague is a dirty cop that will do Siegel a favor if it serves his own interest, but he won't pretend he did it for Siegel. He won't take a pay off for doing so, regardless of the consequence. Bernthal gets the character just right, and his Teague is a worthy addition to the L.A. lore. He gets the stoic loner who doesn't play well with others down perfectly, a wild card, but more competent and informed than you might think.

Period gangster pieces always struggle to find a huge audience. Consider the fact that L.A. Confidential, the contemporary masterpiece of L.A. period gangster films didn't even make back twice its budget. 1991's "Bugsy" ended up in the same boat. "Gangster Squad," the most recent all star attempt still hasn't made its budget back. There's a devoted audience for these stories, but they're clearly not for everyone. Perhaps that's as it should be, the important thing is that they succeed in satisfying the audience they're made for, and Darabont does that incredibly well, giving us an authentic looking update of the noir story, which, in 1940's L.A. is a shadow cast from a bright orange shape. This is Hollywood Noir, make no mistake, and it looks fantastic to showcase the rot underneath. Inspired by John Buntin's "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City" it informs itself with the facts as a framework and then asks if we really know the whole story.

Simon Pegg not a TV regular, does a surprising turn here as Hecky Nash, a desperate comic who gets events rolling by making a bad choice. As loathsome as Nash is, Pegg makes him distinctive, and we don't wonder why Bugsy Siegel stopped hanging around with him when they grew up. I was surprised at how good Edward Burns was as Bugsy Siegel, as it's not a role I would ever expect from him. The unexpectedness makes him stand out, but in a way that only helps the character, he comes across as a complete wild card too, too hotheaded to know or care that he's in trouble.

Milo Ventmiglia's Ned Stax helps us ease into this world as the welcoming face of the organization, always calm and collected, but he can't help it if you don't listen to him. He reinforces the focus on the smaller players as being pivotal to events. His ties with Joe Teague, and his understanding of Teague's motives place him in a precarious position. It's obvious there is a real loyalty and friendship between the two, but much like Bugsy, Teague is not into advice, giving Stax the real rock and a hard place predicament.

Robert Knepper plays Sid Rothman, Cohen's muscle and the most direct foil to Joe Teague. He's very clearly a sociopath that loves the whole cops and robbers game. Rather than mindless thug, he always makes the smart play. He'll kill you without hesitation, but not if it doesn't serve his interests. If it makes more sense, he'll just kill you later. Alexa Davalos plays Jasmine Fontaine, the complicated and mysterious love interest that can't help but cause trouble for everyone concerned. Neal McDonough is somewhat underused, but he portrays the cop that won't be corrupted quite well, with as many enemies in the department as he has among the gangsters. I only hope they make more of these as Parker's future seemed to be shaping up in interesting ways. An of course, Jeremy Luke's Mickey Cohen was also great, not as flashy as Bugsy, but not afraid to get his hands dirty either, like Parker another character who is well set up for the future.

With six hours to tell the story "Mob City" managed to keep me interested the whole time, making it feel more like an event than a series. While some may have trouble with the initial pacing, I enjoyed having the time to take in all the details of this Los Angeles, it's police force and underworld. It was also interesting to note the beginnings of many events that would only pay off much later, like Siegel's quest to make Las Vegas the biggest thing around while his bosses' enthusiasm waned when the money went more out than in. Knowing what happened doesn't make the story any less compelling, instead it fills in some blanks, and enjoys working with some mysteries of the time.

Mob City stretches the limits of what's possible on TV, and having six episodes in three weeks made it feel as close to cinematic as possible. I'm hoping they come up with more, but whether they do or not, it's encouraging that a project like this could come out in the first place. This is a top notch cast, with amazing attention to period detail, from the sets and clothes to the speech patterns. The quality of the production is astounding for television. It may not make everyone happy, but it's a triumph nonetheless. Anyone who loves noir stories as much as Darabont apparently does, will have a lot to be happy about.