Culture Representation: Taking place in Biloxi, Mississippi, and in New Orelans, the action film “Fast Charlie” (based on the novel “Gun Monkeys” features a predominantly white cast of characters portraying the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: An assassin goes on a mission to get revenge on the crime boss who masacred many of the assassin’s colleagues.
Culture Audience: “Fast Charlie” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Pierce Brosnan and action films about feuding criminals that have an amusing edge.
The dark comedy in “Fast Charlie” can get a little dicey and off-kilter, but this crime caper has a winning performance from Pierce Brosnan as a world-weary assassin. It’s a violent movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and has some funny surprises. When the outlandish jokes work well in “Fast Charlie,” they’re the best things in the movie.
Directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Richard Wenk, “Fast Charlie” is based on Victor Gischler’s 2001 novel “Gun Monkeys.” The movie is a mostly skillful blend of grisly action and crime noir with a somewhat satirical tone. “Fast Charlie” features some voiceover narration from protagonist Charlie Swift (played by Pierce Brosnan), an assassin who is the type of killer who maintains a gentlemany air about him, even when he’s committing ruthless acts of violence.
The opening scene begins in New Orleans, where Charlie has been cornered by in a junkyard by an enemy who is not yet seen on camera Charlie is ordered by this nemesis to take off his trousers. Charlie then says in a voiceover that reveals his inner thoughts at that moment: “I always thought my life would end like this in some godforsaken place, from a bullet I didn’t see coming. I just thought I’d never care.” Much later the movie, “Fast Charlie” circles back to these scene, with viewers knowing that that point how Charlie ended up there.
Most of “Fast Charlie” takes place in Biloxi, Mississippi, where Charlie lives. (“Fast Charlie” was actually filmed in Louisiana.) He works for a crime lord named Stan Mullen (played by James Caan, in one of his last on-screen performances), who has been Charlie’s friend for the past 33 years. Charlie is a bachelor who lives alone and has no children. Stan treats the people who work for him like his family, including having cookouts at his house.
While he’s in Biloxi, Charlie gets ready to go on a job to kill someone by putting on a casual business suit. Charlie says in a voicever: “One thing you don’t want to see is me in a suit this early in the morning, which means I’m working, which means someone is about to depart this life unexpectedly.” A running joke in the movie is that Charlie talks more like a college professor than an ignorant thug
The target of this murder is a man named Rollo, who is a low-level criminal based in New Orleans. Rollo has apparently stolen some money and done some other things that have put a hit on him. Charlie is joined by a goofy assistant named Blade (played by Brennan Keel Cook), who is fairly new to Stan’s crew.
Blade, who got this nickname because he’s known using knives as murder weapons, has chosen a different tactic to kill Rollo. Blade proudly tells Charlie that he knows Rollo loves donuts, so Blade is going to pretend to be a donut delivery person giving a surprise gift to Rollo at the house where Rollo is.
Blade shows off the T-shirt he made for the occasion. The T-shirt says “Crispy Cream,” not “Krispy Kreme.” Charlie points out the error, but Blade cheerfully doesn’t care. Blade delivers the box of donuts, which contained a bomb planted in one of the donuts.
When Charlie and Blade go inside the house after the explosion, they see that Rollo’s head has been blown off and is completely destroyed. And now, Charlie and Blade have to figure out a way for to prove that the headless body really is Rollo. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.)
Charlie happens to know the name of Charlie’s ex-wife Marcie (played by Morena Baccarin), so he quickly tracks her down and tells her about Rollo’s death. Marcie, who is a taxidermist who works at home, tells Charlie she isn’t surprised that Rollo was murdered, based on all the shady things she knew he was doing. Marcie is also smart enough to figure out that Charlie is a hit man who was involved in Charlie’s death, especially when he offers her $5,000 if he can identify the body. There’s an immediate and obvious spark between Charlie and Marcie the first time that they meet each other.
Marcie declines the offer and says she’ll do it for free. It just so happens she knows exactly how to identify Rollo. She tells Charlie that shortly after Marcie and Rollo were married, they got matching tattoos on their butt cheeks. This matching tattoo is used for a few sight gags in “Fast Charlie.” If this type of comedy doesn’t interest you, then “Fast Charlie” is not for you.
Stan and Charlie, who have a father/son type of relationship, are very loyal and protective of each other. Stan, who uses a wheelchair, is showing signs of dementia. Other people who work for Stan include Benny Moran (played by Toby Huss), who runs Stan’s “gentlemen’s clubs”; Paulie (played by Jacob Grodnik), Stan’s chauffeur; and Tony D (played by Don Yesso), who runs Stan’s gambling operations.
A massacre happens that kills several of Charlie’s co-workers, who were like family to him. Charlie immediately suspects that a crime boss named Beggar (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) is responsible for this murder spree, because Stan had rejected Beggar’s invitation to meet with Beggar to discuss a possible business alliance. The rest of “Fast Charlie” involves Charlie on a mission to find out who was responsible for the massacre and to get revenge.
Along the way, Charlie begins courting Marcie, who is understandably reluctant to get romantically involved again with someone living a life of crime. However, they have an undeniable attraction to each other. Charlie (who says he’s fascinated with Italian culture) has dropped hints that he’s ready to retire and could possibly move to Italy.
During their first date, Charlie takes Marcie to an Italian restaurant and asks her why she wanted to become a taxidermist. She replies, “I like giving everlasting life to something that didn’t have a chance at one. I restore their dignity. When I give a hunter back his trophy, I want the animal to haunt his dreams.”
In other words, Marcie is not a mindless pushover. She’s got grit but a lot of heart. The snappy dialogue between Charlie and Marcie is one of the more entertaining aspects of “Fast Charlie,” which manages to make this romance both believable amid all the over-the-top violence. Brosnan and Baccarin give consistently engaging performances that will have viewers rooting for Charlie and Marcie.
The comedy is what makes “Fast Charlie” sizzle in what would be an otherwise mediocre murder mystery. The movie has some off-the-wall moments, such as a cameo from Sharon Gless, who portrays Rollo’s foul-mouthed mother Mavis, who despises Marcie. Mavis has only scene in the movie, but it’s absolutely hilarious. “Fast Charlie” isn’t a classic crime thriller, but it’s entertaining to watch for viewers who can tolerate some offbeat jokes with bloody violence.
Vertical released “Fast Charlie” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 8, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place from the late 1960s to 1985, mostly in California, the comedy film “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Nerdy misfit Al Yankovic becomes world-famous for his parodies of pop music hits, but his fame, an inflated ego and an ill-fated romance with Madonna cause problems in his life.
Culture Audience: “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” will appeal primarily to fans of “Weird Al” Yankovic, star Daniel Radcliffe and movies that spoof celebrity biopics.
“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” isn’t a straightforward biopic but it’s more like a biopic parody, which is fitting, considering the movie is about music parody king “Weird Al” Yankovic. Daniel Radcliffe fully commits to an off-the-wall performance as Yankovic. Some parts of the movie get distracted by trying to be too bizarre, but this well-cast movie overall can bring plenty of laughs. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by Eric Appel (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Yankovic), “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” even has a parody biopic voiceover, with Diedrich Bader as an unseen and unidentified narrator saying things in a deep voice and overly serious tone. The movie has the expected childhood flashbacks, which are moderately amusing. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t really pick up steam until it gets to depicting the adult Yankovic. (For the purposes of this review, the real Yankovic will be referred to by his last name, while the Al Yankovic character in the movie will be referred to as Al.)
“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” begins in the mid-1980s, by showing the adult Al in his 20s (played by Radcliffe) being rushed into a hospital emergency room, where he is attended to by a doctor (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). The voiceover narrator says solemnly: “Life is like a parody of your favorite song. Just when you think you know all the words … surprise! You don’t know anything.” Why is Al in a hospital emergency room? The movie circles back to this scene later, to explain why.
After this scene in the hospital emergency room, the movie flashes back to Al’s childhood with Al (played by Richard Aaron Anderson), at about 9 or 10 years old, who considered himself to be a misfit in his own household. Born in 1959, Al grew up as an only child in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood, California. Al’s cranky father Nick (played by Toby Huss) works in a factory, and he expects Al to also become a factory worker when Al is an adult. Al’s loving mother Mary (played by Julianne Nicholson) is somewhat supportive of Al’s artistic interests, but she lives in fear of Nick, who has a nasty temper.
Nick openly mocks Al’s dreams to be a songwriter. One day during a meal at the family’s dining room table, Al’s parents listen to Al change the words of the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace” to “Amazing Grapes.” Nick is infuriated and says that this song parody is “blasphemy.” Mary tells Al that he should stop being himself. Feeling misunderstood, Al takes comfort in listening to his favorite radio shows, including those by his idol Dr. Demento.
Something happens that changes the course of Al’s life: An accordion salesman (played by Thomas Lennon) comes knocking on the Yankovic family’s door. Nick isn’t home at the time, but Al and Mary are there. Al is immediately dazzled by the accordion for sale, which is actually not shiny and new, but rather previously owned and worn-out. Al feels an instant connection to the music that comes out of this unusual instrument.
Al begs his mother to buy the accordion for him. Mary usually goes along with whatever Nick wants. (Nick wants Al to give up any dreams of being a musician.) But this time, Mary goes against what her husband wishes, and she secretly buys the accordion for Al. However, Mary has a condition for buying this accordion: Al must hide the accordion and only play the accordion when Nick isn’t there. Al agrees to this rule and becomes a skilled accordion player.
As a teenager, Al (played by David Bloom) is considered nerdy but likeable. His outlook on life begins to change when he plays the accordion at a house party full of kids from his high school. The response he gets is enthusiastic and full of praise. It’s the first time that Al feels outside validation for his accordion playing, and it gives him the confidence to decide that he will definitely be a musician and songwriter. Things turn sour at home though, when Nick finds out about the accordion and destroys it in a fit of anger.
After graduating from high school, Al moves to Los Angeles, where he lives with three guys who are close to his age: Jim (played by Jack Lancaster), Steve (played by Spencer Treat Clark) and Bermuda (played by Tommy O’Brien), whose interests are mainly dating women and partying. Al’s roommates encourage him to pursue his dreams, even though Al is constantly being rejected when he auditions for rock bands that have no interest in having an accordion player. (The movie has some comedic montages of these rejections.)
Al’s roommates aren’t fully aware of his talent for parodies until Al does an impromptu parody of The Knack’s 1979 hit “My Sharona” and turns it into his parody song “My Balogna” when he looks at some bologna in the kitchen. The roommates are so impressed that they volunteer to be his band members and encourage Al to make a recording demo that he can send to record companies, with the hope that he can get a record deal.
Al’s demo tape finds its way to brothers Tony Scotti (played by the real Yankovic) and Ben Scotti (played by Will Forte), who own Scotti Bros. Records. Tony and younger brother Ben (who are portrayed as shallow and mean-spirited music executives) are very dismissive of Al at first and don’t think a song like “My Balogna” could be a hit. Even though “My Balogna” has been getting some local radio airplay (including be a big hit on Southern California radio’s “The Captain Buffoon Show”), Tony and his “yes man” brother Ben don’t think there’s demand on a national level for albums from an accordion-playing, parody singer/songwriter.
But then, Al meets his idol Doctor Demento (played by Rainn Wilson, in perfect casting), who thinks Al is very talented and offers to become Al’s mentor. Dr. Demento suggests that Al change his stage name to “Weird Al” Yankovic. Al gets live performance gigs, sometimes as the opening act for Dr. Demento in the early 1980s.
Al also does a recording called “I Love Rocky Road” (referring to Rocky Road ice cream), a parody of “I Love Rock’n’Roll,” a song originally recorded by The Arrows in 1976, and was made into a chart-topping hit by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1981. “I Love Rocky Road” gets some airplay on local radio (including Dr. Demento’s show), and it becomes a popular song requested by audiences. Suddenly, the Scotti Brothers are interested in signing Al to their record label.
One of the best scenes in the movie is early in Al’s career, before he was famous, when he’s invited to a house party at Dr. Demento’s place. The party guests are a “who’s who” of eccentric celebrities, including Andy Warhol (played by Conan O’Brien), Alice Cooper (played by Akiva Schaffer), Salvador Dalí (played by Emo Phillips), Divine (played by Nina West), Tiny Tim (played by Demetri Martin), Gallagher (played by Paul F. Tompkins) and Pee Wee Herman (played by Jorma Taccone). Observant viewers will also notice uncredited actors portraying Elvira, Frank Zappa and Grace Jones at the party.
At this party, radio/TV personality Wolfman Jack (played by Jack Black, in a hilarious cameo) is skeptical of Al’s talent, and he tries to humiliate Al, by challenging Al to do an impromptu parody of Queen’s 1980 hit “Another One Bites the Dust.” Queen bassist John Deacon (played by David Dastmalchian), who wrote “Another One Bites the Dust,” is also at the party and wants to see how this aspiring artist will rework one of Queen’s biggest hits. Al rises to the challenge and comes up with the parody “Another One Rides the Bus,” which tells comedic tale about the frustrations of riding a bus. Al the earns the respect of Wolfman Jack, Deacon and other skeptics at the party. Other well-known comedians who make cameos in the movie include Quinta Brunson as Oprah Winfrey, Patton Oswalt as an unnamed heckler, Michael McKean as a nightclub emcee, Arturo Castro as Pablo Escobar and Seth Green as a radio DJ.
The rest of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is a wild and wacky ride that shows Al’s ascent in the music business, but he succumbs to some of the pitfalls of fame. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” adds a lot of fiction about Yankovic’s life when the movie starts going into its more unusual tangents. For example, in real life, Yankovic had one of his biggest hits in 1984 with “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” But the movie puts a cheeky and offbeat twist on this part of Yankovic’s personal history, by making Al as the one to write the song first, and Michael Jackson “copied” the song by recording “Beat It,” without giving Al any songwriting credit.
Al’s dysfunctional romance with Madonna (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is also fabricated for the movie. (In real life, Yankovic says that he and Madonna never knew each other at all.) In the movie, Madonna and Al first meet sometime in 1983, when he’s a bigger star than she is, because she recently signed a deal to release her first album. Madonna is portrayed as an ambitious manipulator who had her sights set on Al after she found out that sales increase significantly for artists whose songs are parodied by Al.
Madonna and Al immediately begin a hot-and-heavy affair based mostly on lust. Madonna encourages Al to start abusing alcohol and acting like a difficult rock star. Al starts to alienate his bandmates/friends when he does things like show up late for rehearsals and act like an insufferable egomaniac. Madonna knows it’s easier to manipulate Al when he’s drunk, so she keeps him supplied with enough alcoholic drinks to keep him intoxicated.
It’s all part of Madonna’s plan to get Al to do a parody of one of her songs, so that her music sales can increase. (ln real life, Yankovic’s 1986 song “Like a Surgeon” was a parody of Madonna’s 1984 hit “Like a Virgin.”) But what Madonna, the Scotti Brothers and many other people didn’t expect was Al deciding that he was going to stop doing parodies and release an album of his own original songs. Al makes this decision after he accidentally takes LSD given to him by Dr. Demento, and Al has an epiphany that he has more to say to the world as a writer of his own original songs.
The movie has several moments that parody how superficial the entertainment industry can be, with the Madonna character being an obvious example of a showbiz leech. The Scotti Brothers characters are the epitome of greedy and fickle music executives who think they always know more than the artists signed to their record label. Al is portrayed as someone who enjoys his fame but also feels overwhelmed by it.
Even when with his fame and fortune, Al still craves the approval of his parents, who don’t really express that they are proud of him. At the height of Al’s success, he remained somewhat estranged from his parents. It’s a bittersweet part of the story that gives some emotional gravitas to this otherwise intentionally zany movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a scene in the movie where Al, who has won Grammys and is a headliner of sold-out arena shows, calls his mother Mary to tell her about some of his accomplishments, but her response is the equivalent of someone saying, “That’s nice, dear,” and not being very interested.
Radcliffe (who is much shorter in height than the real Yankovic) makes up for not having a physical resemblance to Yankovic by bringing his own character interpretation of the real person. It’s not an impersonation but more like a re-imagining of what Yankovic is in this often-fabricated cinematic version of his life. Wood also turns in a memorable performance as Madonna, which might remind people more of Madonna’s chewing-gum-smacking movie character Susan from 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” than the real Madonna.
“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the music. The movie has some entertaining concert scenes and gives some insight into Yankovic’s songwriting and recording experiences. If the movie has any flaws, it’s the Madonna storyline, which becomes a one-note joke and drags on for a little too long. And because the movie ends in 1985, it doesn’t include Yankovic’s post-1985 forays into starring in movies and TV shows, directing music videos for other artists, and becoming a children’s book author. However, the movie cheats a little in the timeline, because it includes Yankovic’s 1996 song “Amish Paradise,” which is a parody of Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
The last scene of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” might be a little too abrupt or off-putting for some viewers. But it’s an example of how this movie doesn’t want to be a conventional biopic. Yankovic’s original song “Now You Know,” which was recorded for the movie and plays during the end credits, makes a lot of meta references to the movie that are an example of this comedy film’s quirky tone. Even with all the oddball antics in the movie, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” succeeds in its message that good things can happen to people who aren’t afraid to be themselves.
The Roku Channel will premiere “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” on November 4, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Gun Creek, Nevada, the action film “Copshop” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and the criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A con artist, who has landed in jail for assaulting a cop, finds out that more than one person in the jail is out to kill him because of his past alliance with a murdered district attorney.
Culture Audience: “Copshop” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo and like seeing a movie with a badly conceived story and a lot of unrealistic violence.
“Copshop” can’t decide if it wants to be a gritty action flick or a wacky crime comedy. The result is that this creatively bankrupt film is an incoherent mess. The dialogue is awful, the acting is mediocre, and it’s just a time-wasting excuse to be a “shoot ’em up” flick with a nonsensical plot. Directed by Joe Carnahan, who co-wrote the “Copshop” screenplay with Kurt McLeod, “Copshop” is filled with lazy tropes that a lot of audiences dislike about mindless, violent movies.
“Copshop” over-relies on these tiresome clichés: Characters sustain major injuries that would put them in a hospital, but then these same characters miraculously move around less than an hour later as if they’ve got nothing but bruises. People draw guns on each other with the intent to kill, but then they spend a ridiculous amount of time giving dumb speeches or trading insults instead of shooting. And worst of all: “Copshop” constantly plays tricks on viewers about who’s really dead and who’s really alive.
All of that might be excused if the action scenes were imaginative, if the storylines were exciting and/or if the characters’ personalities were appealing. But most of the principal characters in “Cop Shop” are hollow and forgettable. The fight scenes are monotonous and nothing that fans of action flicks haven’t already seen in much better movies.
“Copshop” takes place in the fictional Nevada city of Gun Creek, which is in the middle of a desert. (“Copshop” was actually filmed in New Mexico and Georgia.) Gun Creek is a fairly small city, which is why there are only about six or seven cops on duty at the Gun Creek Police Department’s headquarters, where most of the action takes place when the police department goes under siege one night. You know a movie is bad when guns and bombs are going off in a police department, and yet the cops are too stupid to try to call for help immediately.
Nothing about this police department and its jail looks authentic. Before the chaos breaks out, everything is too neat, too quiet and too clean in the cops’ office space and in the jail. In other words, everything looks like a movie set. This phoniness just lowers the quality of this already lowbrow movie.
And the cinematography went overboard in trying to make the jail look “edgy,” because it’s too dark inside. And yet the jail cells are spotless. Jail cells aren’t supposed to look like a sleek underground nightclub. This movie is such a bad joke.
The gist of the moronic story is that Theodore “Teddy” Morretto (played by Frank Grillo) is a con artist who’s on the run from an assassin. In one part of the movie, Teddy describes himself as some kind of power broker who likes to introduce powerful people to each other and help fix their problems. He doesn’t like to call himself a “fixer” though. He likes to call himself a “manufacturer.”
One of the people whom Teddy had past dealings with was an attorney general named Fenton (played by Dez), who has been murdered. This crime has made big news in the area. Because of information that Teddy knows, he figures that he’s next on the hit list of whoever wanted Fenton dead.
In case it wasn’t clear that someone wants Teddy to be killed, a flashback scene shows that a bomb was set in Teddy’s car, it exploded, and he barely escaped with his life. His clothes caught on fire, but then later in the story, there’s no mention of him having the kind of burn injuries that he would’ve gotten from the types of flames spread on his body. It’s just sloppy screenwriting on display.
Teddy has come up with a plan to hide out for a while. He deliberately gets himself arrested because he thinks he’ll be “safer” in jail. Teddy disrupts a nighttime wedding reception at a casino, where a brawl is happening outdoors. When the police show up, Teddy assaults one of the cops and literally pleads for a cop to use a taser on him.
The cop who obliges his request is rookie Valerie Young (played by Alexis Louder), who is measured and sarcastic in her interactions with people. On the same night that Teddy is hauled into the police station and put in a jail cell, an anonymous drunk man who has no identification is also arrested and put in the jail cell across from Teddy. The other man got arrested because he crashed his car into a highway fence, right in front of two patrol officers who were parked nearby.
It turns out (and this isn’t spoiler information) that this other arrestee is really an assassin named Bob Viddick (played by Gerard Butler), who is somewhat of a legend among the criminals in Nevada. Somehow, Bob found out that Teddy was in the police department’s jail, and he got himself arrested because he’s been assigned to murder Teddy. And just so you know how incompetent this police department is, Bob has smuggled a gun into the jail cell.
The rest of “Copshop” is literally a bunch of shootouts, as the police station goes under siege when another assassin shows up. He’s a lunatic gangster named Anthony Lamb (played by Toby Huss), and he wants to kill Teddy, Bob and everyone else in the building, except for a corrupt cop who has access to a large haul of confiscated drugs that Anthony wants. This criminal cop is named Huber (played by Ryan O’Nan), and he owes Anthony a lot of money.
Huber is one of the cops in charge of the inventory/evidence at the police department. Huber plans to steal several bricks of what looks like cocaine, in order to pay off his debts to Anthony. It’s a dumb plan because this police department is so small that it would be easy to figure out who took the drug stash.
Huber already looks suspicious, because he’s been sweaty and acting nervous all night. Here’s an example of the movie’s terrible dialogue. When a fellow cop notices that Huber has been acting furtive and preoccupied with the inventory room, he asks Huber, “What’s got you so curious?” Huber replies, “Curiosity.”
Rookie cop Valerie is telegraphed early on as the one who will be the movie’s big hero. But she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. When she looks up Teddy’s criminal record, she’s astonished to see that he’s been arrested 22 times but no charges were ever filed against him. “How does that happen?” she asks a fellow cop in the office. Can you say “confidential informant,” Valerie?
Despite being saddled with a horrible script, Louder’s wisecracking depiction of Valerie is one of the few things that can be considered close to a highlight of “Copshop.” The other is the nutty performance of Huss as mobster Anthony, who is a scene stealer. How unhinged is Anthony? He starts singing in the middle of the mayhem. “Copshop” uses Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 hit “Freddie’s Dead” has a recurring song in more than one scene.
However, there’s nothing about any of the characters in the movie that can be considered outstanding enough for audiences to be clamoring for a sequel. Butler and Grillo are two of the producers of “Copshop,” so they’re partially to blame for how this embarrassing schlock turned out, but Carnahan (also a “Copshop” producer) is the one who’s chiefly responsible. It’s not the first time they’ve done these types of unimpressive B-movies, and it won’t be the last time.
Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment will release “Copshop” in U.S. cinemas on September 17, 2021. The movie had a one-night-only sneak preview in U.S. cinemas on September 8, 2021.
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.
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. As of this writing, Brooks’ lawsuit against Depp is pending. [UPDATE: In July 2022, Brooks lawsuit against Depp was settled out of court.] 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 Whigham) 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 so that Jackson can 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, 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 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 1997 shooting death of LAPD police officer Gaines by fellow LAPD cop Lyga. “City of Lies” 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. He was a passenger in a SUV that was at a stoplight when he was shot by someone in a car that pulled up to the SUV. 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.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon and in California, the horror flick “The Rental” features a predominantly white cast (with one character of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two couples rent a cliffside vacation home for a weekend and find themselves spied on and stalked by a mysterious stranger.
Culture Audience: “The Rental” will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful yet formulaic slasher flicks that have better-than-average acting.
It might not be a widely known fact, but the 2020 horror film “The Rental” (directed by Dave Franco) has a coincidentally similar plot to the 2019 horror film “The Rental,” directed by Tim Connolly. Both movies are about two men and two women who rent a house for a weekend, only to become targets of a deranged killer. (In Connolly’s “The Rental,” the house is in the mountains, while in Franco’s “The Rental,” the house is perched on a treacherous oceanside cliff.)
Franco’s “The Rental” has gotten more attention than Connolly’s “The Rental” because it’s Franco’s feature-film directorial debut, after he’s spent years as an actor best known for co-starring in movies such as “Neighbors,” “21 Jump Street” and “The Disaster Artist.” Franco isn’t an actor in “The Rental,” but he’s one of the producers, and he co-wrote the screenplay with independent film veteran Joe Swanberg.
“The Rental” doesn’t have an original concept—there have been numerous horror movies about a killer who goes after people in an isolated house—but the movie does have above-average acting talent in its very sparsely populated cast. The actors make the best out of their roles in a movie that starts out as a psychological drama and then ends up being a formulaic horror film.
In Franco’s “The Rental,” a sleek but isolated cliffside home in an unnamed Oregon city has been rented for a weekend so that two couples can celebrate a recent milestone. Ambitious alpha male Charlie (played by Dan Stevens) and his intelligent business partner Mina Mohamnadi (played by Sheila Vand) have just received a great deal of investor money (the movie doesn’t say how much) to fund their start-up company in northern California. (The movie also doesn’t say what is the company’s industry.)
Mina is dating Charlie’s troubled younger brother Josh (played by Jeremy Allen White), while Charlie is married to loving and supportive Michelle (played by Alison Brie, who is married to Franco in real life). They all live far-enough away in California from the rental house in Oregon, that their road trip takes several hours to get there.
The dynamics between these two couples are established early on in the story, so viewers know about the underlying tensions in the relationships. Before they go on their road trip, Charlie and Michelle discuss Mina and Josh’s fairly new romance. It’s not stated in the movie exactly how long Charlie and Michelle have been married, but they’ve been together for about five to eight years, based on conversations that happen later in the film.
In a private conversation in their bedroom, Michelle remarks to Charlie that she can’t believe she’s going on a vacation with Josh. Charlie makes a cynical remark that the relationship between Mina and Josh probably won’t last because Charlie thinks Josh and Mina are a mismatched couple. Michelle is more optimistic and says that Josh seems “motivated” now that he’s been dating Mina, whom she calls “the total package.”
Why is there all of this negativity about Josh? It’s because he’s been struggling to get his life together after being an aimless troublemaker. He got expelled from college for nearly beating a guy to death in front of a frat house, and Josh spent time in prison for this assault. Josh is currently working as a part-time Lyft driver while taking some night classes.
Michelle comments on how Josh’s romance with Mina seems to have changed him for the better: “I’ve never seen him like this. He really loves her. I think it’s sweet.” Charlie replies, “Of course he loves her. He hit the fucking jackpot.” And why does Charlie think Mina is such a great catch?
The opening scene of the film shows Charlie and Mina (who is the CEO of her and Charlie’s start-up company) in their office, looking at house rentals on the same computer. They are on a website that is not named, but it’s clearly a website that is like Airbnb, the popular online company that allows home owners to be their own real-estate agents in deciding which of the website’s registered members will get to rent out their homes. The cliffside house, which is Charlie and Mina’s first choice, is a little of out their price range, but Charlie and Mina decide to reward themselves by splurging on the rental.
Based on their comfortable body language with each other (they’re leaning in to look at the computer closely together) and based on how they’re talking, it would be easy to assume that Charlie and Mina are a couple. Does this mean there’s some sexual tension between Charlie and Mina? Of course there is. And maybe that’s why Charlie thinks Mina is too good for his younger brother Josh, who has a history of being an ill-tempered screw-up.
It seems that Josh is still a bit of a rebel who likes to break rules. When Charlie and Michelle go to pick up Mina and Josh for their road trip, they see that Josh has brought his French bulldog Reggie along for the trip, even though Josh knows that the house’s rental policy clearly states that pets aren’t allowed in the house. Charlie (who’s doing the driving, of course) immediately objects to the dog going on the trip.
However, Josh insists that the dog go with them, and he says that they can hide the dog until after the person handing them the house keys will leave. Because Charlie doesn’t want to waste time arguing about it, he lets Josh have his way, and the dog goes with them on the trip.
During the drive to the rental house, Mina comments that her application to rent the house was rejected, even though she has practically the same qualifications as Charlie, whose application was accepted immediately. She thinks that her Middle Eastern name had something to do with the rejection, but Charlie dismisses the idea.
“The Rental” has some obvious messages about racism, sexism and “white privilege” by showing viewers how Mina and Charlie have very two different perspectives on how they navigate through life, based on how people treat them. Mina is very aware that being a woman of Middle Eastern descent means that bigots will exclude her from opportunities and make negative assumptions about her, while Charlie is more likely to be given opportunities and a positive benefit of the doubt because he’s a white man.
The movie makes it clear that Charlie is someone who doesn’t like to acknowledge that “white privilege” exists, because that would mean admitting that he has an unfair advantage over people of color in many situations where he benefits from people who believe in white supremacy. Someone like Charlie gets uncomfortable thinking that opportunities and accomplishments might have come his way a lot easier than for people of color who are equally or more qualified than he is.
Therefore, when Mina brings up the likelihood that she was discriminated against, Charlie doesn’t really want to hear it. Mina tells everyone in the car that she was rejected for other rental applications too, whereas Charlie was not rejected. Charlie says to Mina that there were probably other reasons why she was rejected.
Mina’s suspicions about the discrimination grow even more when the two couples arrive at the house and meet the caretaker who will hand them the house keys. The caretaker’s name is Taylor (played by Toby Huss), a scruffy, middle-aged guy who mentions that his brother is the house owner who never lives there, but Taylor is the one who looks after the house and oversees the rentals.
When Charlie introduces everyone to Taylor and mentions that Mina is his business partner and is Josh’s girlfriend, the caretaker rudely comments to Mina, “How’d you get mixed up in this family?” When Mina asks Taylor what he means by that, he denies that he meant anything by it.
Mina is bothered by the subtle racism that she seems to have gotten from Taylor, so she tells Josh in a private conversation outside that she doesn’t feel comfortable giving their money to a racist. Josh convinces her that they might as well stay to enjoy their vacation as much as possible, since the rental was paid for already and they already made a long road trip to get there.
Later, Mina confronts Taylor in front of everyone, by asking him why her application was rejected and Charlie’s application was immediately accepted. Taylor looks uncomfortable and says he doesn’t remember her application. Mina then reminds Taylor of her full name, while he looks increasingly uncomfortable. Charlie is starting to look embarrassed, and he tries to diffuse the tension by indicating that he wants Mina to stop this line of questioning.
Mina then tells Taylor that she and Charlie have nearly identical qualifications, but the application from a white man (Charlie) was accepted, and her application was rejected. Taylor still won’t answer the question. Instead, he turns the conversation around and tells Mina that if she has a problem, she can cancel the rental.
Taylor’s deflection is shady and manipulative, because Taylor knows that the rental is in Charlie’s name, and it’s pretty obvious that Charlie doesn’t want to cancel the rental agreement or cause any arguments with Taylor. Mina also knows that the other people in the group don’t want to cancel the rental agreement, so she has no choice but to let the matter go.
This heated conversation between Mina and Taylor is meant to exemplify how people who try to confront issues of discrimination are often “shut down” and labeled as “difficult” by people trying to divert attention away from the real issues. Meanwhile, people who aren’t directly affected by discrimination, but know about it, often won’t speak up and will act like they want the issue to just go away—as exemplified by how Charlie, Josh and Michelle do nothing to come to Mina’s defense.
Before he leaves the two couples to have the house to themselves, Taylor shows that he’s not only a racist but he’s also a creep when he mentions that there’s a telescope they can use in the house, in case anyone wants to be a Peeping Tom. Taylor says it in a joking manner, but his tone of voice indicates that he’s only half-joking.
After getting settled in, the two couples go for an evening walk on the beach. When they come back to the house that night, they see that someone (presumably Taylor) set up the telescope in the living room while the two couples were away.
Mina immediately expresses discomfort that Taylor can come and goes as he pleases while they’re staying at the house. But the other people in the group act as if she’s being a little too paranoid and “difficult,” so Mina is made to feel once again that she’s in the minority.
“The Rental” is written in such a way that the entire movie can be viewed as a social commentary about peer pressure and how failing to speak up and report problems—for the sake of pretending that everything is okay and going along with a group mentality—can ultimately be dangerous to someone’s well-being. There’s also social commentary about power dynamics and rivalries between men, women and siblings and why people keep certain secrets.
In one scene, Michelle and Josh are having a private conversation while they’re hiking in the woods. It’s revealed in this conversation that Michelle is a lot more insecure about Charlie and Mina’s relationship than she would like to publicly admit. Charlie clearly admires Mina’s intellect and ambition, but Michelle doesn’t have those same qualities, so Michelle feels that Mina is giving Charlie a type of emotional fulfilment that Michelle, as his wife, can’t give.
It’s never stated in the movie if Michelle works outside of her home or not, but it is made clear that she has nothing to do with Charlie’s start-up business and doesn’t help him make any decisions about the company. Michelle’s insecurities are fueled when Josh divulges some information about two of Charlie’s former girlfriends whom Charlie dated before Charlie met Michelle.
The movie also has a not-so-subtle message about invasion of privacy and the type of trust that people willingly hand over to strangers in a house-rental situation that was arranged online. The trust issues go both ways for the renters and the house owners. And when these transactions are done online, where people can write relatively anonymous reviews about their rental experience, there might be a false sense of security that things will be completely safe.
Not long after getting settled in at the rental house, Mina and Josh find a guest house, which has a locked door on a lower-deck level. The door has a key-code lock. What’s behind the door? It’s revealed in the movie whether or not what’s behind the door is relevant to the story.
Meanwhile, some Ecstasy-fueled partying in the house and some hidden surveillance result in a chain of events that bring on the horror. It’s enough to say that the couples in the house are being stalked and spied on, and there is some bloody mayhem that ensues.
“The Rental,” which has a lot of scenes that take place at night, certainly brings the right atmosphere to the movie, as things get more sinister as the story unfolds. The abundance of fog can be explained by the fact that this story takes place mostly in a cliffside house near a treacherous ocean. And the film’s musical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is a definite asset in the movie’s most effective thrilling scenes.
However, a lot of horror fans might not like that it takes so long (about two-thirds of the movie) for “The Rental” to get to any suspenseful action. Most of the film is really a character study of the increasingly tense relationships between Charlie, Michelle, Mina and Josh. Because the dialogue is realistic, the actors are well-cast, and the acting is better than what’s in an average horror movie, it’s worth the wait to get to the scenes in the movie where the characters are in real danger.
“The Rental” director Franco shows promising talent for telling a good story, but in the end, not much of it is very original. In fact, the least original part of “The Rental” is the murder spree, which has been seen and done in many other horror movies. Although “The Rental’s” characters are engaging and believable (Vand and Brie give the best performances), the action scenes are very formulaic.
People who expect a slasher flick to have the first killing happen within the first 15 minutes of the movie will probably be bored or disappointed by “The Rental.” Anyone who sees this movie has to be willing to sit through a lot of realistic relationship drama before getting to the over-the-top and predictable horror violence.
IFC Films released “The Rental” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 24, 2020.