Unorthodox Tactics, Disruptive Results
Reviews by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
The Kitchen (Andrea Berloff) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): It’s 1978 in the rough Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen where 3 guys of the Irish gang that runs the place are caught in a robbery by the FBI and local police, sent to prison for 3 years, leaving their wives at the mercy of this local mob who don’t provide nearly enough of the promised financial support (collections are down from the local merchants who see no point in paying for protection not forthcoming) so these women (aided by the muscle of a couple of the mobsters) start taking the collections themselves, keeping enough of the cash to enhance their own lifestyles, standing up to local boss Little Jackie while further protecting themselves through a partnership with a fierce Brooklyn Italian mafia boss. When Jackie attempts to rape Claire, one of the now-empowered wives, he’s killed by a newly-returning hitman who takes up with her, so everything seems to be successfully in place with the wives fully in charge of their gang until the women learn their husbands will be released in a few months, not serving their full sentences. Anything further of these plot details gets us into forbidden spoiler territory so either read on below if you care to save a few bucks or first find a convenient local theater in which to see The Kitchen for yourself. If you check my notations on the critical collective's (OCCU this time) responses to this movie you’ll see a lot of putridly-negative numbers, but I still found it to be quite entertaining (with the requisite bloodletting for a gangster movie, yet not even as violent as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), encourage you to consider it, or at least read my “redacted” details below to see what goes on in this drama with excellent performances never veering into comedy even from stars Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss. It’s a standard crime picture, but refreshing to see assertive women in stories of this kind for a change.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: This story (entirely fictional for a change, not inspired by anything except an R-rated comic book [and actual crime]; what a change from a lot of the stuff I’ve been looking at lately) is set in 1978 Hell’s Kitchen (the area of Midtown Manhattan covering several blocks from Eighth Avenue west to the Hudson River) where an Irish mob runs things (more or less), with the real power being elderly Helen O’Carroll (Margo Martindale) although it’s her cocky son, Kevin (James Badge Dale), who’s ostensibly in charge; he’s married to Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), a Black woman not fully accepted by the members of this gang. Other key hoods we meet early on are Jimmy Brennan (Brian d’Arcy James), a decent-enough-guy with 2 young kids and a subservient wife, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy [seemingly cast against type, but just be patient])—while it’s not her fault what her husband’s a part of, her father, Larry (Wayne Duvall), opposes his daughter’s involvement with these criminals, blaming it on her mother’s connections—and Rob Walsh (Jeremy Bobb), a jerk physically-abusive to beaten-up-wife Claire (Elisabeth Moss). One night these 3 husbands are in the process of robbing a store when they’re confronted by FBI agents Gary Silvers (Common) and Gonzalo Martinez (E.J. Bonilla), who’ve been looking for ways to make inroads against this gang with this bust hopefully providing an opportunity, but in the confrontation 3 armed guys overpower 2 armed guys, brutally beating them until the called-for-NYPD-backup arrives, arresting the hoods who’re off to prison for 3 years each. None of this sits well with the wives who’ve been promised to be taken care of by the gang but their first payments are way short of what they’d hoped for (Kathy tries to find work to no avail, being told employers aren’t interested in mothers; skill-less Claire volunteers at a church's homeless shelter, yet she’s attacked one night by one of her “clients” when she catches him trying to rob the place). They attempt to negotiate with the new boss who’s cozied up to Helen, Little Jackie Quinn (Myk Watford), only to be rudely rebuffed (he says income’s down because the local merchants aren’t kicking in their regular protection money—which they aren’t because Little Jackie’s not affording them any protection) so the wives decide, with the help of a couple of the gang’s enforcers, Duffy (John Sharian) and Burns (Brian Tarantina), to bring in the cash themselves, keeping a good chunk of it for their own needs. They get away with this for awhile with the combination of providing benefits for the now-cooperative merchants, then securing union construction jobs for men in the gang by putting pressure on a local Jewish rabbi/jeweler, whose fellow jewelers also go along with the intimidation when the only one who didn’t is found murdered.
|(Sorry about the poor quality of this photo, but I wanted to get Helen O'Carroll in here; you can |
tell by the repetition of the others I've used I didn't have much choice in my illustrations here.)
⇒Treachery continues to grow, first as Silvers kills his own partner, Gonzales, in order to prevent any serious federal action toward the growing-in-impact-Hell’s Kitchen mob, then when Jimmy grabs his kids and goes to Coretti in an attempt to make a direct deal with him, Kathy comes to Brooklyn to find her kids well-protected by Maria Coretti (Annabella Sciorra), Alfonso’s wife yet a woman tired of seeing how these men run their underground businesses, so often with little concern for how their actions impact the wives and children. Furious at Jimmy, not so much for attempting to sell her out but more so because of the potential danger in bringing their kids into a mafia den, she allows Coretti’s goons to kill her husband. At Jimmy’s funeral, Kathy’s dad changes his tune, tells her he’s proud of how she stood up for her kids (he knows the truth of why his son-in-law died), but Kathy’s even more harsh, saying she did it for herself. Then Ruby calls Kathy to meet, but when she gets there it’s clear Ruby and Gabriel intend to take full control for themselves, yet they’re equally surprised because Kathy brings her own small army, at which point Gabriel just walks out on the whole confrontation (he was there only for Claire anyway), leaving Kathy and Ruby to call a truce, agreeing to share control of their gang with Kathy focusing on Midtown, Ruby expanding operations into Harlem (using secret protection from FBI agent Silvers, her now-revealed-lover).*⇐
*No matter what you might think of the pulpy aspects of The Kitchen, you should be impressed by how the production team so accurately recreated the look of the time, the locations, the little details only the truly observant might notice (or the truly old—like me—would even realize existed).
So What? The Kitchen’s based on the DC Vertigo graphic novel series (which I’ve read none of), adapted by Berloff (doubling as screenwriter), so the content may be a bit melodramatic for many viewers (it certainly seemed to be for critics; more on that very soon). In concept, however, it would seem to be a welcome addition to the ongoing lack of Hollywood movies featuring minorities or women both before and behind the camera as surveyed in detail in the most recent UCLA diversity report (cited in my August 8, 2019 review of the all-Asian/Asian-American The Farewell [Lulu Wang]); in cinematic-reality, though—despite the proven-glowing-star-power of these 3 lead actors (and the commendable presence of another female director)—The Kitchen looks to be a box-office-flop (never a helpful argument in encouraging the powers that be [that is, mostly White males] in the cinema industry to keep pushing those diversity doors open wider), taking in only $5.5 million (vs. a roughly $38 million production budget) despite playing in 2,745 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters. Admittedly, a PG/PG-13 rating would likely bring in more cash—as it decidedly did last weekend—in these waning weeks before school kicks into gear again, so that Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (David Leitch) continued at #1 with $25.3 million ($331.8 million worldwide after just 2 weeks [$108.4 million of that domestically]), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (André Øvredal) with $20.9 million, Dora and the Lost City of Gold (James Bobin) with $17.4 million, and even The Art of Racing in the Rain (Simon Curtis) with $8.1 million all topped The Kitchen, but then so did another R-rated, crime-focused film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino; review in our August 1, 2019 posting) so conceptual-appeal must be a primary factor in the failure of The Kitchen to make more of an impact given its impressive, well-known cast. Of course, negative reviews didn’t help the cause in any manner here (except for glimmers of solid support, like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle—a helpful factor in getting me to the theater, despite the complaints I lodged against him in my review of The Farewell, showing I just hassle him [indirectly; I have no sense he’s ever even seen one of my critiques] when we disagree, but that’s less common that our frequently-shared-opinions), with Rotten Tomatoes very distant from positive territory as only 20% of their reviews were encouraging, even as Metacritic surprisingly went higher for a change but still with just a mere 36% average score. Rebecca Rubin of Variety doesn’t offer any definitive reasons for the audience-indifference but implies the totally-serious-context of the story might have been uninteresting for viewers more attuned to McCarthy's and Haddish's comic chops.
Bottom Line Final Comments: There are also complaints this storyline depends too much on standard gangster movie clichés, which might be true, but, then again, genre movies are grounded in clichés, even as they need to balance expectations with innovations. (Novelty vs. familiarity’s an underlying idea in the extensive article on movie genres by Edward Buscombe, “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema” [in various editions of Barry Keith Grant’s Film Genre Reader, University of Texas Press; this link’s from the 2003 edition, pp. 12-26; if you access the link you’ll probably come into the list of this anthology’s authors so just scroll down until you get to Buscombe’s article, focused on westerns but notes a little on other genres, with clear implications about how to apply the principles he develops to gangster movies also].*) While not an absolute seminal change to show women running a mob (or at least sharing the role)—a couple of such classics would be White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949) with Cody (James Cagney) and “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) with Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), or even Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross, 2018; review in our June 14, 2018 posting), despite the hate it got from some quarters of the misogynist wing of fanboy-trolls, with all of the principal thieves being female; for that matter, Helen’s the true power behind Little Jackie’s rule in this movie—The Kitchen’s rather unique in ultimately putting females in charge of their mid-Manhattan syndicate as well as sharing that power (with difficulty at times) among the 3 women, all of whom with their own motivations as to what’s driving them to take on roles neither this movie genre nor gangsters in our actual society have much encouraged. Another aspect of gangster movies not much encouraged is having them directed by a woman, so here's Berloff's take on what attracted her to this project: “I thought it provided an incredible opportunity to really explore what would it be like if women could take over a world. I was starting to feel really frustrated with my career, not sure that there’d be any opportunities to grow beyond where I was. So The Kitchen is a fantasy: What if I could play in that pond? What if I could take over the world? I thought that would be really appealing to many women. How would women run a world? How do they operate differently than men? Nobody’s going to give us the opportunity — we’re going to have to take it.”
*A more-academic-approach to this familiarity vs. novelty trait in the products of our cinema is found if you plow into Rick Altman’s “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” (pp. 27-41 as you continue scrolling down in the link cited above). This Altman article originally was in Cinema Journal 23, no. 3 (Spring 1984); Buscombe’s article was first in Screen 11, no. 2 (March-April 1970).
(a marginally-successful attempt at an actual) SHORT TAKES
(please note that spoilers also appear here)
The Great Hack (Jehane Noujaim)
rated TV-MA (on Netflix)
A new documentary available at this point only on Netflix streaming about British data-gathering company Cambridge Analytica which provided extensive psychological profiles to agents of the 2016 Trump Presidential and Brexit “leave” campaigns leading to extensive Facebook ads which seemingly had great influence on “persuadable” voters, with victories for their clients in both cases.
Here’s the trailer:
At this point I usually offer the following comment, "Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above," but there aren't any true spoilers in this doc reviewed below (or, if there are elements of it still unknown they need to be revealed to everyone) so I'll encourage you to read it all as well as, hopefully, watch this investigative film.
Normally, I don’t review films streamed on Netflix or any other downloading-platform because I want to keep promoting attendance in movie theaters, hoping we’ll always have the option to see cinematic art on a big screen in the presence of a sizable audience rather than watching whatever might be produced on small screens or with just a few others (if any) in home theater settings. However, the content of The Great Hack is so relevant to the preservation of democratically-intended-political-systems, given the concern over Russian interferences into 2016 U.S. political elections (as well as likewise intrusions in 2020!), the 2016 Brexit “leave” decision in the U.K., plus who knows what else has happened in recent (and coming) years to destabilize citizen-based-elected-governments, especially in the U.S. and Western Europe to enhance the influence of Moscow, promoting its own agenda, at the expense of all of us who don’t care to be under the thumb of Putin, Trump, or other dictators (in principle if not officially declared as such)—especially when legislative bodies simply stay silent in support of autocratic, manipulative despots (yes, I’m looking very harshly at you, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell [recently branded, to his consternation, as “Moscow Mitch”])—I felt a need to see it, report to you. There’s lot of crucial information to consider in … Hack, although unlike singularly paying for a ticket at a theater you have to sign up for at least a month of Netflix streaming to see this documentary; still, at $12.95 for that month (for what they call their premium option, although you’d have to add another 3 bucks for 4K quality—assuming your standard cable/Internet service is adequate to the task [mine for AT&T U-Verse isn’t] without coughing up more cable cash per month to properly receive the needed-top-grade-delivery-quality) you probably wouldn’t be paying much more than for a regular evening show at a theater, plus you get whatever else you might find of interest to stream for the rest of the month at no extra charge (no, Two Guys gets nothing if you choose Netflix streaming, AT&T cable, or anything else we might happen to mention—such as tasty drinks and food at Sons of Liberty in San Leandro, CA). Unlike me and lack of freebees, though, Britain’s Cambridge Analytica was actively gathering useful, free information for their clients just a few years ago, collecting about 5,000 data points on every U.S. voter, with the resulting use of such material provided to the Trump campaign so that carefully-crafted-Facebook ads could be used to sew doubt, influence election decisions, likely contributing to the shift away from previous support for a Democratic candidate among the roughly 70,000 voters in a few Midwest states providing the crucial (some say archaic) Electoral College victory for Donald Trump, despite falling short by several million in the total nationwide tally.
The focus of this film is on the general concern for all of us about Internet companies—especially Facebook under scrutiny here, but I’m sure you could extend this worry to Google (yes, I know where I’m posting this), Amazon, or any of the other tech-giants constantly mining your data (either by direct accumulation, as most of us so-casually-sign those compliance agreements just to be able to use these hyperspace-services which have become so mandatory in the modern world, or through tracking what we search for on the Net, what we choose to engage in), thereby compiling a psychological profile on each of us that can then be sold (without our realized-participation) to advertisers, political campaigns, ideological ranters, or whatever else may help one service make a direct profit while others hope to target us with whatever product/message they’re selling trying to move merchandise or produce political results through bombardment-persuasion rather than true critical thinking. (I’d like to assume I don’t pay any attention to all those marginal—or larger—ads on my computer screen at most every site I visit, no matter how I’m being profiled by the data-gathers, but I admit when I initially put a film title into a web browser to see what pops up besides showtimes or [hopefully] a Wikipedia summary to enhance my own notes I do pay attention to suggested links [such as the ones I’ve cited at the end of this review], so I may be getting “played” along with so many others, in terms of content I’m encouraged to explore, with many of those links further passed along for your consideration). More directly, this doc explores the involvement in recent years by British company Cambridge Analytica in gathering data from Internet users which was used to target “persuadables” in a population toward achieving a specific political goal, with the primary focus here on helping the Trump campaign win the U.S. Presidency (they eventually spent $1 million daily on those calculated Facebook ads) and delivering a “leave” (the European Union) vote in the Brexit debate, with a great deal of testimony about how flimsy-fact-ads were used in each case (plus brief citations about other countries) to sway the outcome in a specific direction, actively using Facebook as a means of delivering these bogus encouragements to people inclined to accept them, based on extensive data Cambridge Analytica previously assembled on such potential voters from info easily available about any of us on the ubiquitous, global Internet. Fortunately, much of what happened in this destabilization procedure was revealed by the tireless reporting of valued non-fake-news-outlets, especially award-winning Carole Cadwalladr of Britain’s publication, The Observer, her work actively detailed in The Great Hack. At the very least, some justice was served by … Analytica ceasing operations in 2018 (but surely that hasn’t prevented other sophisticated-data-gathers from continued-indulgence in cruel “weapons grade technology”).
While there’s a good bit to be gleaned from the larger context of this film about challenges to proper governance, the emphasis here is on attempts to force both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to come clean about how all this social manipulation happened in recent years (with legitimate concerns about preventing such further transgressions), through the combination of a lawsuit filed in Great Britain by Prof. David Carroll to see what his psychological-file contained along with damning-whistleblowing-testimony from Brittany Kaiser, a former activist in social causes/ Facebook manager for the 2008 Barack Obama Presidential campaign, who apparently wasn’t paid for her previous work (a crucial point, not explained further) so in financial desperation found herself involved with Cambridge Analytica (and parent company SCL Group) on behalf of Trump and Brexit. Apparently, she granted these filmmakers’ access to private filming of her traumatic situations leading up to public testimony, much of which is shown here, along with footage of Facebook honcho Mark Zukerberg’s seemingly-contrite-appearance before Congress admitting his company’s failures. I easily found The Great Hack to be usefully-informative, profoundly-disturbing, unrelenting in its approach (as well as using some stunning visuals a few times) in exploring how Cambridge Analytica compiled profiles on a huge cohort of 87 million Facebook members, although Micah L. Sifry of The Nation disputes the film’s premise regarding the actual impact of these attempts at targeted-persuasion (I can’ say I agree) while Janus Rose of Vice.com says even more emphasis needs to be on “[…] the entire business model of Silicon Valley, which has incentivized the use of personal data to manipulate human behavior on a massive scale [… what Rose calls] Surveillance Capitalism” (yet, there’s plenty of that in this doc), once again demonstrating you can’t please all the people all of the time. With those complaints in mind (along with my reaffirmation of this film, its detailed content, its stark warnings for the stability of democratic governments) I’ll close with the Musical Metaphor of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” (from their 1991 Out of Time album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JAjC7BSqAA because, in league with the complaints lodged here, this film’s messages (for some) either come across as “Oh no, I’ve said too much [or] I haven’t said enough.” For me, though, the whole concept of “losing my religion” (reaching a point of utter confusion/frustration/instability) is where we’re collectively at, especially with Internet manipulations used to skew how persuadable people can be led blindly into emotionally-based-actions with no sense of the empty-trickery they’re choosing. You may not find The Great Hack as convincing as I do (this time the CCAL mostly agrees, as RT offers 86% positive reviews although MC musters a restrained 67% average score), but I’d say it gives useful incentive for Internet-scrutiny so that “Every whisper of every waking hour I’m choosing my confessions Trying to keep an eye on you [… so that this active concept of participatory democracy doesn’t become] just a dream, just a dream.”
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about The Kitchen:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fTEC8SMF3s (3:40 interview with director Andrea Berloff) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMLlc50iV_0 (4:18 interview with actors Tiffany Haddish, Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss [a “great revelation” here is that McCarthy can’t hold a purse on her shoulder because her body shape there is too rounded to keep anything in place, a situation I can relate to because my shoulders tend to be rounded in that manner as well allowing any strap of a camera or carry-bag to just slide right off, so I can appreciate her “first-world-problem” although I realize that’s not the most crucial challenge either of us currently has to deal with])
Here’s more information about The Great Hack:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZOXRN_qaFY (16:46 MSNBC news story on Cambridge Analytica and The Great Hack documentary, giving a clear understanding of what this film is
about with input from director Jehane Noujaim, co-director/producer Karim Amer)
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of email@example.com. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,
https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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