Review: ‘City of Lies,’ starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker

April 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“City of Lies”

Directed by Brad Furman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “City of Lies” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and a few Latinos) representing middle-class citizens, law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A bitter former Los Angeles police detective joins forces with a TV journalist to try to solve the 1997 murder of rapper The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.

Culture Audience: “City of Lies” will appeal primarily to people interested in the Notorious B.I.G. murder case or movies about true crime, but the movie drags with a sluggish pace and mediocre performances.

Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

The life and murder of The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, has turned into a cottage industry for filmmakers, since there have been several documentaries and narrative feature films about the rapper, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. The same could be said of the numerous movies about rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Both murders are speculated to be linked to each other, and these two murder cases remain unsolved. The dramatic film “City of Lies” (directed by Brad Furman) focuses on the Biggie Smalls murder case in such a lukewarm and unremarkable way that people will be better off watching any of the several documentaries about the same subject.

The troubled behind-the-scenes story of “City of Lies” is actually more interesting than the movie itself. “City of Lies” was originally supposed to be released in 2018, but the movie’s release was abruptly cancelled by then-distributor Global Road Entertainment, formerly known as Open Road Films. The company was sued by Bank Leumi, which loaned $32 million to make the movie and wanted the money back since the movie’s release was cancelled. In a separate lawsuit, “City of Lies” star Johnny Depp was sued by the movie’s former location manager Gregg “Rocky” Brooks, who claimed that Depp assaulted him on the set of “City of Lies.”

Global Road filed for bankruptcy in 2018, thereby shielding the company from debt collectors. The lawsuit against Depp was presumably settled out of court, because it never went to trial. Open Road Films was revived in 2019 under new ownership. Meanwhile, “City of Lies” was shelved until Saban Films purchased the rights to the movie and released the movie in 2021.

It’s easy to see why “City of Lies” wasn’t considered a priority release by its original distributors. It isn’t a terrible film, but it’s a terribly monotonous one, with lackluster acting and tacky re-enactments of over-recycled theories about Biggie Smalls’ murder. “City of Lies” throws in some unnecessary fictional characters to bring more drama to the story. Christian Contreras wrote the “City of Lies” screenplay, which is based on Randall Sullivan’s 2002 non-fiction book “LAbryinth.”

The movie, just like the book, takes the angle that former Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole (played by Depp) had the most plausible theory that Smalls was murdered by corrupt LAPD cops who were working as off-duty security for Marion “Suge” Knight, the founder of Death Row Records. Knight and Death Row (which was the Los Angeles-based record label that Shakur was signed to when he was murdered) were involved in a bitter East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry with Sean Combs, the founder of the New York City-based Bad Boy Entertainment. The Notorious B.I.G. (a Brooklyn, New York native whose real name was Christopher Wallace) was signed to Bad Boy. The media often made it look like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were enemies, when the two rappers actually were friends early on in their careers until their record label bosses started feuding with each other.

“City of Lies” opens with a scene that takes place on March 18, 1997, in North Hollywood, California. An undercover LAPD cop named Frank Lyga (played by Shea Whigam) gets into a road-rage incident with a guy in a SUV over the type of music that is loudly playing in the SUV while both are stopped next to each other at a traffic light. There are racial undertones in their argument because Lyga is white and the other driver is African American.

The SUV driver starts to threaten Frank and chase after him in the car. During this car chase, Lyga shoots and kills the other motorist, who crashes his SUV into another car. It turns out that the other driver was also an undercover LAPD cop. His name was Kevin Gaines (played by Amin Joseph), and his alleged connection to the Biggie Smalls murder case is explained later in the movie for people who don’t know already.

Poole is called to the scene of Gaines’ death. Lyga claims he killed Gaines in self-defense. But in the wake of the 1992 riots over the Rodney King trial verdict, the LAPD does not want a repeat of these riots. Gaines’ family files a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. This lawsuit might or might not have affected how the LAPD investigated Gaines’ alleged involvement in the Biggie Smalls murder.

It’s not the best way to start off “City of Lies,” which is mostly about how retired LAPD detective Poole teamed up with a TV news journalist named Darius “Jack” Jackson (played by Forest Whitaker) in 2015 to re-examine the Biggie Smalls murder case. Poole left the LAPD in 1999 to start his own private detective agency, where he continued to investigate the Biggie Smalls murder. Although most of the characters in “City of Lies” are based on real people and the characters keep the names of their real-life counterparts, Jackson is a fictional character who works for the fictional American World Network, which is supposed to be like CNN.

Jackson is a character fabricated for this movie so that he can be a sounding board for Poole’s theories and to do a lot of the legwork of investigating that Poole might not be able to do because of Poole’s alienation from the LAPD. Jackson seeks out Poole at Poole’s cluttered and dingy apartment/home office because Jackson is doing a retrospective special on the Notorious B.I.G. and he wants to possibly interview Poole for it. When Jackson arrives unannounced at Poole’s apartment, he finds the door unlocked and enters. The unlocked door is a small detail that doesn’t ring true, considering that the movie goes out its way throughout the story to show how paranoid Poole is.

Poole surprises Jackson by pulling a gun on him. It didn’t help that Jackson showed up unannounced. After the former cop sees that Jackson isn’t a threat, Jackson explains why he’s there and reminds Poole that he actually interviewed Poole years before, for a documentary called “East vs. West,” about the 1990s East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry. Jackson proudly mentions that the documentary won a Peabody Award, but Poole isn’t impressed.

Poole, who is divorced and lives by himself, has his apartment walls covered in clippings and other items related to Biggie Smalls and the unsolved murder. In conversations with Jackson, it becomes very apparent that Poole has been so obsessed with the case, that it’s cost him his job at the LAPD (he quit under a cloud of discontent after being suspended) and he lost his family over it. Poole’s wife divorced him, and he is estranged from his son Russell Poole Jr. (played by Joshua M. Hardwick), who is a minor league baseball player.

Sure enough, this hackneyed movie has a subplot of Poole pining for his lost relationship with his son. There’s a scene of him watching Russell Jr. during baseball practice, but keeping his distance because there’s too much bad blood between them. Jackson is with Poole as they watch Russell Jr. in the stands.

There are also a few flashbacks to Poole and his son in happier times when Russell Jr. was a 6-year-old child (played by Antonio Raul Corbo) and they did father-son activities, such as fishing. Poole also has an adult daughter (played by Ashleigh Biller), who isn’t even given a name in the movie. Meanwhile, the movie never shows anything about Jackson’s home life.

“City of Lies” goes back and forth between showing how Poole was on the original LAPD investigation team in the Biggie Smalls murder case in the 1997 and how he’s still investigating the case as an under-funded private detective in 2015. Poole was also part of the internal affairs investigation over the shooting death of LAPD police officer Gaines by fellow LAPD cop Lyga. “City of Lies” also references the LAPD Ramparts scandal, which involved some of the same cops who were connected to the Biggie Smalls murder. One of those cops was Rafael Pérez (played by Neil Brown Jr.), who was accused of being a member of the Bloods, a gang affiliated with Death Row founder Knight.

Other LAPD characters in the story who worked on the Biggie Smalls murder case in the late 1990s include Detective Fred Miller (played by Toby Huss), who was Russell’s closest co-worker on the case, and Detective Varney (played by Michael Paré), who gets scolded by Miller for saying that Biggie Smalls was behind Tupac Shakur’s murder. Other law enforcement officials who are part of the story include City Attorney Stone (played by Louis Herthum) and FBI Agent Dunton (played by Laurence Mason), who is undercover as a street thug connected to Death Row chief Knight. The movie is a bit heavy-handed in depicting Poole as the only LAPD cop willing to take down some of his colleagues if he thought they were murderers in cases that he was investigating.

In 2015, the LAPD cops that Jackson has to deal with include Commander Fasulo (played by Peter Greene) and Lieutenant O’Shea (played by Dayton Callie). These cops have written off Poole as a crazy loose cannon. However, Jackson isn’t so sure, and he begins to believe that Poole could be right about the LAPD being involved in some kind of cover-up to protect corrupt cops who might have been involved in the murder.

If you believe the main theory presented in the movie, a rogue LAPD cop named David Mack, nicknamed D-Mack (played by Shamier Anderson), was one of the key people with direct knowledge of the Biggie Smalls murder. Mack’s involvement is a theory that has already been widely reported, but it won’t be revealed in this review, since some people watching the movie might not know the theory. In real life, Mack was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for a December 1997 bank robbery of $722,000 in Los Angeles. The bank robbery is re-enacted in the movie.

Just as Poole ran into problems with his superiors for believing that the Biggie Smalls murder was a conspiracy among corrupt LAPD cops working for Knight, so too does Jackson get pushback from his boss named Edwards (played by Xander Berkeley) because Jackson wants to present this theory in the TV special. Jackson getting stonewalled by his boss is somewhat of an unbelievable part of the movie, because this theory was widely reported long before 2015, so Jackson really wouldn’t be reporting anything new. In the world of “City of Lies,” viewers are supposed to forget all of that and believe that Jackson will be breaking this news on TV for the very first time.

“City of Lies” includes cheesy re-enactments (some parts in slow-motion) of the Biggie Smalls murder, which happened after he left a Soul Train Music Awards after-party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. While at a stoplight, he was shot by someone in a car that pulled up to the SUV where Biggie Smalls was a passenger. The role of Biggie Smalls is played by Jamal Woolard, who’s played the rapper in multiple films, including the 2009 biopic “Notorious.” An eyewitness named Tyrell (played by Dominique Columbus), a character fabricated for the movie, is interviewed in 1997 flashback scenes.

And just so the audience knows that “City of Lies” was approved by the family of Biggie Smalls/Christopher Wallace, his mother Voletta Wallace (portraying herself) has a cameo in a scene where she meets with Poole and Jackson in a diner. She thanks Poole and Jackson for clearing her son’s name when there were rumors that The Notorious B.I.G. was involved in the murder of Tupac Shakur. The only purpose of this scene is so people see that Voletta Wallace considered Poole to be an ally when it came to investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls.

“City of Lies” is very much told from Poole’s perspective, because the flow of the movie is frequently interrupted by his voiceover narration where he spouts some hokey lines. After the opening scene where Poole is called to the scene of LAPD officer Gaines’ death, Poole says in a voiceover about Gaines’ death and Biggie Smalls’ death: “I didn’t connect the two at first, but when I did, I lost everything that mattered. That day, on that street corner, the labyrinth opened.”

Later in the movie, Poole says in retrospect of how the LAPD was investigating Gaines’ death: “The ghost of Rodney King was still haunting the city, so there was only one way this was going to end. I was the only idiot to think otherwise.” When Poole and Jackson meet in Poole’s apartment for the first time, Jackson asks Poole directly: “Who shot Christopher Wallace?” Poole replies: “I don’t know. I had a theory, and my investigation was ripped out from under me.”

You get the idea. “City of Lies” is about portraying Poole as a noble but very flawed martyr for his theory. The problem is in the the way it’s presented in “City of Lies,” which oversimplifies things and makes it look like Poole is the only person who had this theory and the only one to uncover key evidence in this theory. But by his own admission, what he uncovered wasn’t enough to solve the murder.

By the time Jackson meets Poole in Poole’s apartment, the former cop is jaded and distrustful, but Jackson’s interest in the case seems to renew Poole’s spirit and he gradually learns to trust Jackson. But the movie also spends a lot of time on flashbacks of Poole working on the case in 1997, and Jackson retracing Poole’s investigative steps instead of trying to look at other theories too. It’s lazy journalism that shouldn’t be glorified in a movie.

Depp and Whitaker have a lot of talent in other films. Unfortunately, they aren’t very interesting together in “City of of Lies.” The direction of the movie makes everything look fake. The actors playing cops look like actors, not cops.

And some of the re-creations of people in the rap music industry look awkward, as if these scenes were created by people who only know about hip-hop culture from watching music videos. When the release of “City of Lies” was originally cancelled in 2018, movie audiences didn’t seem to know or care that much. And now that “City of Lies” is available, it’s easy to see why this movie is so inconsequential and forgettable.

Saban Films released “City of Lies” in select U.S. cinemas on March 19, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is April 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan,’ starring Shane MacGowan

December 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Shane MacGowan in “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” (Photo courtesy of The Gift Film Ltd./Magnolia Pictures)

“Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan”

Directed by Julien Temple

Culture Representation: The documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of Irish-British singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, who is best known as the former lead singer of The Pogues.

Culture Clash: MacGowan has had lifelong battles with drug addiction, mental illness and the prejudices between Irish and British cultures. 

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of MacGowan fans, “Crock of Gold” will appeal primarily to people interested in an unflinching look at what happens when a self-destructive artist ruins his health and career and knows that his best creative days are behind him.

A 1988 photo of Shane MacGowan in “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” (Photo by Andrew Catlin/Magnolia Pictures)

A lot of hedonistic rock stars would like to think that they can be like Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Despite being an admitted and notorious alcoholic, drug addict and heavy smoker (the only drug he’s admitted to quitting is heroin), Richards is still able to function and do tours with one of the most successful rock bands of all time. He says he’ll never retire. And because of his down-to-earth, roguish charm, as well as his influential legacy of legendary songwriting and musicianship, Richards isn’t just a respected rock star. He’s beloved.

But the reality is that Richards is something of a medical miracle and truly an exception to the type of lifestyle that leaves most people dead before they reach middle-age or living a deteriorating existence plagued with myriads of health problems once they reach a certain age. It’s exactly this reality faced by Shane MacGowan, the Irish-British singer/songwriter who’s best known as the former lead singer of The Pogues. Richards is 14 years older than MacGowan, who was born in 1957, but MacGowan looks much older than most people in his own age group. Although there’s a noticeable tone of celebrity worship in the documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan,” the movie also shows without judgment that celebrities aren’t the invincible gods some people would like to think they are.

Johnny Depp (who’s had his own very public battles with substance abuse) is a producer of the documentary. And he’s a longtime friend of MacGowan and of Richards. (Depp directed a documentary about Richards in the 2010s that remains unreleased.) Depp appears throughout “Crock of Gold,” in scenes in a pub where he, MacGowan and MacGowan’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke are gathered for a very obviously intoxicated MacGowan and Depp to trade quips and memories about their lives and friendship.

It’s a microcosm of what this documentary is about: a select number of MacGowan’s family and friends reminiscing with him about his past, while mostly avoiding talking about his present or future. And it’s obvious to see why. The present-day MacGowan is confined to a wheelchair and barely coherent. Everything he says in the movie—from his past interviews to the interviews that he filmed for this documentary—has to have subtitles, not because of his thick accent but because he’s constantly slurring his words. It should surprise no one that he drinks alcohol during the documentary interviews and never seems to be sober.

On the one hand, “Crock of Gold” (directed by Julien Temple) veers into “hero worship” territory where people are afraid to say the obvious out loud: MacGowan is a mess and a faded shell of his former self. On the other hand, no one really has to say it out loud. It’s all painfully obvious from the footage that’s in the movie.

The problem with making a documentary about an often-incoherent celebrity who rambles a lot is that the documentary can be incoherent and rambling too. Although “Crock of Gold” is worth watching as the definitive visual biography of MacGowan, the movie also tends to be unfocused and repeat itself like, well, a drunk who can’t stop talking about how great he thinks he is. Simply put: This 124-minute movie could’ve used better editing.

There are only so many times that we need to hear MacGowan say how he was chosen by God to save Irish music, or brag about his intoxicated shenanigans over the years, or preach about how much he loves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) before it gets too boring and repetitive. The movie tends to overstate MacGowan’s influence in worldwide pop culture. He’s actually revered mostly in Europe, not so much in other continents. And everyone who participated in this documentary knows that MacGowan made his best music in the 1980s, because that’s the decade that gets the most screen time when discussing MacGowan’s creativity.

When watching “Crock of Gold,” it becomes apparent that the filmmakers couldn’t get a lot of recent interview footage for MacGowan to film for this documentary. Instead, there’s a mishmash of quotes from interviews that MacGowan did over the years for various media outlets. Some of these interviews are shown as archival video clips in the documentary, but most are used as voiceovers. Therefore, viewers can’t really be sure which period of time the voiceover comments were made in, because they’re not identified by year or media outlet.

The other way that “Crock of Gold” fills up its screen time is through animation, stock news footage and a random selection of unrelated film clips to depict MacGowan’s commentary. It’s a technique that documentary aficionados will see right away as an indication that the filmmakers just didn’t have enough original, exclusive footage of MacGowan to fill a feature-length film, so they had to resort to these gimmicks. Ralph Steadman fans will at least enjoy his eye-catching and unique animation of MacGowan’s several tales of hallucinations that MacGowan had while he was stoned. During one of those hallucinations, MacGowan says that he was in a hotel suite in New Zealand sometime in the late 1980s and imagined that blue Māori ghosts were telling him to be just like them, so he proceeded to paint himself and the entire suite blue while naked.

In “Crock of Gold,” there are many references to how MacGowan’s Catholic upbringing shaped him as a person; Irish folklore and “the luck of the Irish”; stereotypes of Irish people being drunks; and the love/hate relationship that MacGowan has with British culture. (He was born in Pembury, Kent, England; was raised in County Tipperary, Ireland; and his family moved back to England when he was 6 years old.) And there are some not-so-subtle comparisons that MacGowan makes of himself to Jesus Christ, just because MacGowan was born on Christmas Day.

In the beginning of the film, MacGowan is heard in a voiceover saying: “It’s God-given. I’ve been chosen to lead us out of the wilderness. God looked down on this little cottage in Ireland and said, ‘That little boy there, he’s the little boy that I’m gonna use to save Irish music and take it to greater popularity than it’s ever had before.'”

Apparently, MacGowan wants to forget about Van Morrison, the first world-famous Irish rock star who had a lot of Irish culture in his music. And, of course, Irish superstar band U2 was a commercial success, years before MacGowan ever released his first album with The Pogues in 1984. U2’s first album, “Boy,” was released in 1980, and U2’s Irish anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was released in 1983.

In another voiceover, MacGowan also comments: “I’m sure, because I was born on Christmas Day, I was born lucky. I thank Christ for that.” But is MacGowan so “charmed” and “lucky,” considering all of his health problems and his admitted inability to no longer be the type of creative person he once was? Viewers will have to decide if they would want to be like MacGowan, and how much value should be put on “fame” when fame can’t buy health or happiness.

In the documentary, it’s clear that humility is not one of MacGowan’s virtues. He admits that he can be a difficult and “aggressive” person. And there’s a flash of his bad temper that’s shown during an interview, when he asks a female employee (it’s unclear if she’s a part of the film crew or an assistant), who’s not seen on camera: “Can you put on some recording? Some Northern soul? Tamla Motown?”

She responds by saying it can wait until later, after they’ve finished filming. (Obviously because she knows that having background music would mean having to get clearance for the music rights to use in the film.) MacGowan then snaps haughtily, “No, now! Or I don’t say another fuckin’ word!” It’s quite the display of obnoxious entitlement from a has-been rock star.

That’s not to say that MacGowan didn’t make great music, but even he knows that his relevancy as a prolific music artist is now over. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat this fact, but it also doesn’t fully acknowledge that, given this irrelevancy, MacGowan doesn’t need to be coddled and worshipped as if he’s still making great music. This is very much a nostalgia film for MacGowan and anyone who appreciates the talent he had in the past.

MacGowan’s arrogant tantrum in this movie is an indication of what the filmmakers probably had to go through to get the exclusive interview footage that did end up in the documentary. A producer’s statement in the movie’s production notes confirms that it was difficult for the filmmakers to get MacGowan to open up for new interviews, so they enlisted the help of MacGowan’s wife Clarke and MacGowan’s friends Depp, Gerry Adams (former leader of the Irish political party Sinn Féin) and Bobby Gillespie (lead singer of the Scottish band Primal Scream) to interview him for the documentary.

The unidentified producer comments in the film’s production notes: “Various trips were made to Dublin during the course of 2019 in order to catch Shane in his natural habitat, although only a few attempts proved successful. More nuanced methods were required in order to capture those notorious, honest profundities native to Shane, that Julien was searching for. Ever distrustful of the cameras and any unnecessary lighting equipment, Shane would reveal himself when less proved to be more, surrounded by those he trusted. And it was through these conversations between Shane and this special coterie of specific individuals that the film began to grow.”

Depp’s pub interview with MacGowan is more like a conversation of humorous recollections. Their banter also includes MacGowan saying that before he was famous, he made money as a “rent boy.” MacGowan quips, “Just hand jobs. It’s just a job in hand.” MacGowan also tells Depp that Depp has probably never had to be a rent boy because Depp’s good looks gave him a lot of opportunities. “You’re a sugar cube baby,” MacGowan says to a chuckling Depp. “You’re so cute, you make me sick, actually.”

In another part of the interview, they joke about Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise. (Depp has said that Richards was the biggest influence in how Depp portrays the “Pirates of the Caribbean” character Jack Sparrow. Richards has also appeared in multiple “Pirates” movies as Jack Sparrow’s father.) “What made you think I was able to stay awake during ‘Pirates’?” MacGowan aks Depp. Depp replies with a laugh, “What makes you think I did?,” implying that he had a hard time staying awake too.

MacGowan’s interview with Adams focuses a lot on Irish history. It’s here where MacGowan gives a lot of commentary about his affinity for the IRA and how his songwriting was an extension of his ideological beliefs. MacGowan mentions more than once that he didn’t become an IRA soldier, but he became a musician instead to express his political views.

Gillespie’s conversation with MacGowan is mostly of MacGowan rambling about the music he made with The Pogues and his difficulties in the band. MacGowan gets the most personal and most vulnerable with Clarke, a journalist whom he married in 2018, after several years of being together as a live-in couple. They clearly love each other deeply, not in one of those showboat “I’m married to someone famous” way, but in the “ride or die” way that people who’ve been through the depths of despair together decide to stay together, no matter what.

The movie delves into the darkest parts of MacGowan’s personal history with his own reflections on his harrowing experiences with addiction and mental illness. He describes growing up in a very dysfunctional household, where he was encouraged to drink alcohol and even get drunk from the age of 6. MacGowan explains that a lot of people in Irish culture at the time believed that the younger a person starts drinking alcohol, the less likely that person will become an alcoholic because that person will learn at an early age how to handle alcohol. Obviously, that theory didn’t hold true for MacGowan, who also began smoking and doing drugs before he became a teenager.

The Catholic religion was also a big influence on MacGowan. As a child, MacGowan says he seriously contemplated becoming priest up until the age of 11. He thought it was an ideal job at the time because he saw the perks of the job as being able drink alcohol and smoke whenever he wanted.

“There was booze and cigarettes in heaven. That’s what I was told,” he says in the documentary. As an adolescent, MacGowan says he became so disillusioned with religion that he became an atheist. He mentions that his drug hallucinations about life had something to do with why he changed his mind about religion. But later on in his life, MacGowan says that he made peace with his Catholic upbringing.

Shane and his younger sister Siobhan (who was born in 1963) both say in the documentary that they grew up in a very permissive household. Their father Maurice MacGowan was a department-store clerk whom Shane describes as a “left-wing, IRA socialist supporter,” while Shane’s mother Therese was “beautiful” and “a brilliant singer.”

Maurice, who is now a widower, is interviewed in the documentary. There’s also archival footage of Maurice and Therese interviewed on TV about Shane. Maurice says in “Crock of Gold” how his relationship with Shane changed during Shane’s childhood: “He and I were like pals, until he was 12 and discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc. … and sniffing glue.”

Shane comments that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted as a child, as long as he went to Mass. As an example of how his family was strict about religion but permissive about other things, Shane mentions that his Aunt Nora was the “religious leader” and “religious fanatic” of the family who also gave an underage Shane alcohol and cigarettes and taught him how to gamble. Shane also mentions: “My main hero when I was small was my Uncle John” and Shane says that his Aunt Ellen “was a shit-hot fucking concertina player.”

Shane identifies as Irish, but technically, he’s a British citizen too, since he was born in England and lived there for a great deal of his life. He talks a lot in the film about how moving back to England as a child was a major trauma for him, because Irish people experienced a lot of bigotry and violence from British people. Shane says that Irish people are always negatively stereotyped as being drunks, but he fails to see the irony that he has willingly reinforced that stereotype.

Shane remembers being bullied for being Irish, and he says that he grew to hate British culture. (When playing war games as a child, he says he always wanted to be an IRA soldier, not a British soldier.) And he also expresses his disdain for how British culture places a lot of emphasis on a family’s social class to determine how people will be treated in British society.

However, Shane says that he grew to love British culture too. As a teenager, around the same time that his parents split up, he discovered the London nightlife scene and punk music. The Sex Pistols had an enormous influence on him. (There’s archival footage of Shane in the front row at several punk concerts, including the Sex Pistols.) As for Irish artists, Shane cites poet Brendan Behan as another major influence: “He was the Irish writer I identified with the most.”

Shane’s youthful rebellion and drug addiction were seemingly intertwined. After winning a writing contest, he got a literature scholarship to attend the prestigious Westminster School, but he was expelled when he was caught being a drug dealer to the school’s students. This movie review doesn’t really need to rehash all of the sleazy and horrific drug-addict/alcoholic stories about him, some of which he talks about in the film. Tabloids, other media outlets and Shane himself have exhausted that topic.

However, Shane mentions that his parents let him and his druggie friends party a lot at the MacGowan household because his parents thought it was safer for them to do drugs in the house instead of in random places. Shane says that the most frightening experience that he had with drugs was when he was a teenager and took LSD with two friends named Jez and Sarah. Unfortunately, Sarah freaked out during her acid trip and threatened to jump off of the apartment’s balcony, while his father got very angry at what was going on.

Luckily, they were able to talk Sarah off of the balcony and she changed her mind about killing herself. And shortly afterward, she ended up becoming Shane’s girlfriend. (He describes seeing rainbows when they had sex.) This near-death experience with Sarah didn’t scare Shane off of drugs though, because he seems to almost be proud for being known as a hardcore alcoholic/drug addict who’s survived longer than people thought he would.

Shane is also candid about his mental-health struggles, which he’s talked about before in many other interviews. He says in the documentary: “I had my first nervous breakdown at 6 years old,” which he says was triggered because he was so unhappy in England. Later in the documentary, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice talk about the times that Shane was involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities and the heartbreak it caused the family. They both say that Shane was never really the same after The Pogues’ grueling 1988 tour, which they believe broke him in many ways.

The documentary doesn’t reveal anything new about Shane’s career as a musician before, during and after The Pogues, a now-defunct band that was formed in 1982. There’s the expected archival concert footage and interviews of Shane and The Pogues over the years, but his former band mates are not interviewed for this documentary. The filmmakers wisely chose to not interview talking heads who are music industry “experts,” because that would go against Shane’s enduring punk spirit.

Frank Murray, the manager of The Pogues from 1985 to 1990, died in 2016, at the age of 66. Shane describes Murray as someone who acted like he wanted to be another member of The Pogues. And he mentions that Murray got a 20% cut of all of The Pogues’ concert revenues and music publishing. Siobhan hints that Murray was a greedy taskmaster because she partially blames the unrelenting Pogues tour schedule in 1988 as being the reason for Shane’s massive nervous breakdown that year.

Even before the breakdown, Shane says that he was getting sick of being in the band, which had commercial success with hit songs such as “Fairytale of New York” and “The Irish Rover.” In “Crock of Gold,” Shane repeats the story about how he went into a coma, after falling out of a van while the band was on a 1991 tour in Japan. When he woke up from the coma, the rest of the band fired him because his out-of-control drinking and drugging made him too unreliable.

Shane says his ouster from the Pogues was a “relief” for him. He went on to form another band (The Popes) and launched a solo career, but his creative output after The Pogues wasn’t as well-received by fans or critics. He gives credit to “Fairtyale of New York” duet partner Kirsty MacColl (who died in a boating accident in 2000, at the age of 41) for making the song the big hit that it was, but he also expresses mixed feelings about having that type of popularity.

By contrast, Shane doesn’t have much that’s good to say about Elvis Costello, who produced The Pogues’ 1985 second album “Rum Sodomy & the Lash,” which had the hit song “A Pair of Brown Eyes.” Shane says he fired Costello from producing the follow-up album to “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” because Costello was a “fat fuck” who was on a health-food diet and didn’t tolerate Shane’s decadent lifestyle. Shane also says that he wanted to fire Costello earlier, but the situation was complicated because Costello was romantically involved at the time with Pogues bassist Caitlin O’Riordan, who left the band in 1986. Costello and O’Riordan were married from 1986 to 2002.

But if you think “Crock of Gold” has Shane sharing a lot of inside stories about his musicianship or songwriting process, forget it. Except for a brief explanation of what inspired “Instrument of Death” (the first song he says he wrote) and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” Shane doesn’t give further insight into how he crafted any of his songs. Most likely, his brain is too fried to remember a lot of great stories that he could’ve told about what it was like to create some of his songs that his fans love the most.

Instead, “Crock of Gold” seems intent on reminding people about Shane’s legacy in music. The end of the film includes footage from the 60th birthday tribute to Shane that was held at Dublin’s National Concert Hall in January 2018. Guest artists included U2 lead singer Bono, Nick Cave, Sinéad O’Connor, Gillespie and Depp. At the show, Shane was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Ireland president Michael D. Higgins.

When interviewer Adams asks Shane if he’s writing any new songs, Shane replies, “I’ve run out of inspiration at the moment.” In the interview with Clarke, she asks Shane what he wishes most to happen in his life. His response: “I’d like to prolifically write songs again.” And then, he gives a long pause before adding, “And I’d like to be able to play pool.”

Although anyone can see the damaging effects of Shane’s alcoholism and drug addiction (he will only admit to giving up heroin), his family members insist in the documentary that Shane doesn’t really want to die. These declarations from his family members can either be considered being optimistic or being in denial.

His sister Siobhan comments, “I certainly don’t think he has a death wish. It’s probably the opposite. He’s probably one of the people who doesn’t accept death at all, I don’t think.” Shane’s wife echoes that belief: “People think he’s got a death wish. When in actual fact, that’s not the case. He just doesn’t enjoy life without a drink.”

Even though Shane hasn’t lost his sense of humor, it’s clear that he’s deeply unhappy when he thinks about how he’ll never be able to recapture his glory days. His eyes also express a lot of fear and sadness when he talks about how his creative output isn’t what it used to be. For all of the tales that are told in “Crock of Gold” about sex, drugs and rock and roll, people can judge for themselves how it all worked out for Shane MacGowan and if his lifestyle choices were really worth it in the end.

Magnolia Pictures released “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD and DVD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan and Greta Scacchi

August 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp in “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Waiting for the Barbarians” 

Directed by Ciro Guerra

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed frontier settlement in the early 20th century, the drama “Waiting for the Barbarians” features a racially diverse cast of white and indigenous people representing the British military and native people.

Culture Clash:  A magistrate in charge of the settlement resists his government’s attempts at brutal colonialism.

Culture Audience: “Waiting for the Barbarians” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind seeing a frontier film that doesn’t involve epic battles but instead shows the effects of racist imperialism in a more intimate and introspective manner.

Robert Pattinson in “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is about the insidiousness of racist colonialism, but people might be surprised to find out that it’s not the kind of movie filled with soldiers stampeding through an area to conquer the land and people. Instead, “Waiting for Barbarians” is more of a meditative character study where many of the scenes are slow-paced and the movie’s impact comes gradually rather than hitting viewers all at once. People are either going to appreciate this less predictable approach to telling this story or they’re going to dislike it if they’re expecting something more conventional.

Ciro Guerra directed “Waiting and Barbarians,” which is based on J.M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name. Coetzee also wrote the movie’s screenplay. The movie’s slow pacing is indicative of life on an isolated settlement, but there are some moments in the film (particularly in the scenes that take place outdoors) that have some dramatic visuals that are quite suspenseful and emotionally riveting.

The story’s central character is an unnamed British magistrate (played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance), who’s in charge of an unnamed frontier settlement in a desert area in the late 1920s or early 1930s. (For the purposes of this review, this character will be called the Magistrate.) The Magistrate, who is not married and has no children, is a mild-mannered leader who has been living peacefully among his colleagues and the indigenous people in the area. One of his trusted co-workers is a lieutenant (played by Sam Reid), who willingly obeys orders.

It’s established early on in the story that Magistrate is a pacifist who doesn’t believe that his home country should kill and torture the natives in order to have control of the area. He doesn’t like to call the indigenous people “barbarians,” as his fellow countrymen call them. Instead he calls the indigenous people “natives.” And the Magistrate doesn’t hesitate to correct people who call them “barbarians,” because he thinks it’s a racist and derogatory word for the indigenous people.

The Magistrate’s relatively tranquil life is disrupted one spring day when a pompous bureaucrat named Colonel Joll (played by Johnny Depp) arrives to complete an inspection of the settlement. The biggest clue that this story takes place sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s because Colonel Joll is wearing a new invention: sunglasses. He likes to show and explain this new invention to anyone who asks about it.

Colonel Joll isn’t a member of the military. He works for the police bureau of state security. And he isn’t just there for an inspection. He wants to interrogate the indigenous people in the area about their rumored plans to attack and start a war with the white colonial settlers. And he drops some not-so-subtle hints to the Magistrate that his interrogation methods include torture.

The Magistrate isn’t too worried that there will be an attack. He says, “Once in every generation, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians. It’s the consequence of too much ease.” But Colonel Joll doesn’t respect the Magistrate’s laid-back approach to leading the settlement. And the Magistrate soon finds out how sadistic Colonol Joll is when several indigenous men, including some in the local jail, end up brutally tortured by Colonol Joll and his minions.

Colonel Joll leaves the area, much to Magistrate’s relief. And then, a mysterious young indigenous woman (played by Gana Bayarsaikhan) shows up at the settlement during the winter. She doesn’t have a name in the movie, which only identifies her as Girl, but she has obviously been tortured. Her broken ankle hasn’t properly healed, she’s mostly blind, and she has scarring on her face that was made with a heated fork that was used in the torture.

The Magistrate tells her that vagrants aren’t allowed in the settlement, but he has compassion for her and lets her stay in the settlement in exchange for her doing work there. It’s also hinted a little later in the story that he’s sexually attracted to her, but he’s too much of a gentleman to make any moves on her. However, he invites her to live with him on a platonic basis, and he starts giving her leg massages.

It isn’t long before she’s sharing the same bed with him—not as his lover but as a close companion in a situation where two very lonely people without family have turned to each other for emotional comfort. She opens up to the Magistrate a little bit about her past, including her experience being tortured, and she tells the Magistrate that she eventually wants to go back to her people in her original home several hundred miles away. It would

This living arrangement inevitably causes gossip amongst the white colonials in the settlement, including a widowed grandmother named Mai (played by Greta Scacchi) who seems to be attracted to the Magistrate. Meanwhile, a British military visitor to the settlement asks the Magistrate why the native people in the settlement seem so unhappy. The Magistrate answers, “It will take years to patch up the damaged Joll did in a week. They still think of us [colonials] as visitors, transients.”

The last half of the movie involves a fateful trip that the Magistrate takes, the return of Colonel Joll, and the arrival of a Brit named Officer Mandell (played by Robert Pattinson), who makes his views on colonialism very clear. All of the cast members do a good job in their believable character roles, but Rylance’s steady, often quiet portrayal of the Magistrate is the emotional heart of the story.

People who know that Depp is in the film might expect him to play an over-the-top flamboyant character. There are elements of flashiness in Colonel Joll’s demeanor, but his menacing evil is more controlled. He’s not the type of villain to have raging temper tantrums. His icy personality is a true reflection of his cold-blooded detachment from the mayhem and torture that he inflicts. As such, people who are expecting Depp to play the type of kooky protagonist (and leading role) that he tends to have in his movies might be disappointed that he has a supporting role as a villain who’s only in this movie for about 20 minutes.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” gets its title from the paranoia that the colonials feel about waiting for the native people to attack them, because the colonials know that they have invaded the native people’s territory. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the racism and torture that were committed in the name of colonialism, but it doesn’t have a traditional narrative of groups of people rising up against each other. “Waiting for the Barbarians” might frustrate or bore people expecting an action-packed war movie. However, the movie gives some compelling insight into one man’s resistance to racist colonialism and how this struggle wasn’t necessarily fought on a battlefield.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Waiting for the Barbarians” on digital and VOD on August 7, 2020.