Sunday, June 17, 2018


(US/UK - 2018)

There's probably an interesting film to be made of the daily life of a most-wanted fugitive from the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in present-day Belgrade, but AN ORDINARY MAN is inert and lifeless, and in the end, just feels like a vanity project for producer and star Ben Kingsley. A hammy Kingsley does a lot of acting as The General, still beloved by many of his own countrymen but under indictment by The Hague, making him the subject of an international manhunt with a $10 million bounty placed on him by the US government. After nearly two decades of a solitary existence as he's moved from one safe house to another by his chief handler Miro (Peter Serafinowicz) and supported by donations from hardline loyalists, The General has never left home and more or less hides in plain sight. He refuses to stay put and regularly walks to the nearest market or newsstand, and is recognized by citizens who still support him and stay silent out of respect. After The General intervenes in a robbery, a frustrated Miro moves him to yet another new location and provides a maid named Tanja (Hera Hilmar) to handle all of his outside needs and errands to keep him inside. Tanja can neither cook nor clean, and it isn't long before The General is forcing her to take him places, be it shopping or at a swanky dance hall. They form a tentative bond after The General suffers a medical emergency and Tanja reveals herself to be an agent in the employ of Miro, assigned to keep The General on a tight leash and provide assurance to his benefactors--many of whom are high-profile figures in the Serbian government--that he'll behave himself.

With the exception of a handful of times Miro is seen, AN ORDINARY MAN is largely a two-person show, with Hilmar's Tanja mostly left in a reactionary role as writer/director Brad Silberling (CITY OF ANGELS, CASPER), helming his first big-screen work since 2009's LAND OF THE LOST, lets Kingsley take over. The General talks a lot, and Kingsley probably loved the idea of having long, verbose monologues and scenes where his character gets to sarcastically harangue Tanja about her cooking, her fashion sense, and everything else ("I've seen detention cells with more character!" he says of Tanja's apartment, to which she replies "Well, you'd know"). There's little dramatic tension or any kind of story development or forward momentum. If she's supposed to be an agent assigned to keep The General on his best behavior, Tanja proves to be a bumbling incompetent almost immediately: a naive maid would go along with going to a dance hall, but would a trained agent? Silberling seems more concerned with showing the human side of a monster whose atrocities and war crimes are the stuff of legend, but we still don't learn enough about him to care about his inevitable and undeserved redemption (nor does the film explore the implications of The General still having so much love and support from the locals). Hilmar works well with Kingsley when their characters are on the same level and Kingsley isn't dominating the proceedings (they also co-starred in 2017's THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT, both shot back in 2015 and logging some time on the shelf before being seen by no one), and there's some occasionally effective location work in gray, foggy Belgrade. But this is just a tedious, pointless exercise that feels like a transparent attempt by Silberling (who's been busy in TV, most recently producing the CW's DYNASTY reboot) to establish some arthouse cred by crafting the most boring drama about a fugitive you'll ever see. (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2018)

Every bit the piece of cinematic magic you'd expect the directing debut of a NYC promoter and club owner to be, FIRST WE TAKE BROOKLYN plays like a glossed-over highlight reel of Scorsese, SCARFACE, CARLITO'S WAY and every other gangster movie from the last 30 years, with production values around the level of a late '90s Master P rapsploitation joint. It's co-written, produced, directed by and starring Danny A. Abeckaser, known as "Danny A" in the Manhattan club world, who's been hanging around the VOD action scene for a few years now, landing bit parts in some Lionsgate/Grindstone releases like FREELANCERS and MARAUDERS and taking a stab at respectability by co-producing Michael Almereyda's little-seen 2015 Stanley Milgram biopic EXPERIMENTER. He also produced and co-wrote the semi-autobiographical CLUB LIFE, with Jerry Ferrara as a Danny A-type club entrepreneur named Johnny D. As an actor and filmmaker, Abeckaser is a great club owner, starring here as Mikki Levy, who's in an Israeli prison, 18 years into a life sentence for murder handed down when he was a teenager. His sentence is overturned after consideration of his age at the time, and a long-stashed envelope from his dead mother includes a wad of cash and a note telling him to go to Brooklyn to visit his Uncle Dudu (Eli Danker) and Aunt Gale (Kathrine Narducci). Dudu associates with some shady types and helps move merchandise of the "fell off the back of a truck" sort. He also runs a gambling den in the back of a bar owned by Avi (Guri Weinberg), who's being hassled by Russian gangsters in the employ of the ruthless Anatoly (what are you doing here, Harvey Keitel?), who's forced his way into the business as a 50% partner. It isn't long before hot-tempered Mikki makes his presence known, and when Anatoly's goons almost beat Uncle Dudu to death after being dissed by Mikki, he becomes a powerful drug and gun dealer over what appears to be a single hip-hop montage, naturally intercut with shots of Mikki nodding while counting Benjamins.

Mikki also hooks up with sexy bartender Esther (AnnaLynne McCord, who I thought would be going places after her remarkable and fearless performance in 2012's EXCISION) after killing her asshole boyfriend, a partner of the Russians. As Mikki and Avi gain power in the Brooklyn underworld (cue more hip-hop montages with money and sped-up shots of Brooklyn neighborhoods in lieu of actually, you know, constructing a story) by whacking Anatoly's goons, a showdown is inevitable, along with trite dialogue like Avi being told, re: Mikki, "You've created an attack dog. They attack...that's what they do." It's also inevitable that it won't involve Harvey Keitel, who looks to have worked on this for a day, tops. He has three or four brief scenes where he's sitting in a restaurant giving orders or getting a manicure, and one where he takes a call that his nephew's been killed and it appears he may break out the legendary Keitel Cry, but he obviously concluded that a Danny A. vanity project wasn't worthy of the effort. Abeckaser's obviously a successful and wealthy guy in his field, and as a producer, he can afford to bankroll someone experienced like David Lynch protege Almereyda for something like EXPERIMENTER. But FIRST WE TAKE BROOKLYN just has an amateurish, student-film, shot-on-digital, slapdash cheapness to it, right down to the trailer misspelling Abeckaser's name as "Abekacser," which would be unacceptable even if Abeckaser's name wasn't all over the movie. Abeckaser can't act and tries to do a lot of Al Pacino bellowing but ends up sounding like Charlie Day. The only thing that really separates this from any run-of-the-mill DTV D-list gangster saga is that Abeckaser tries to go for some authenticity with probably half of the film being in Hebrew with English subtitles. It ends up being all for naught, since the characters would be cardboard cutouts in any language (and like his recent turn as a shady Greek businessman in LIES WE TELL, a slumming Keitel can't even be bothered to attempt an appropriate accent for his Russian crime lord and apparently just showed up for the free mani), but it indicates some degree of sincerity on Abeckaser's part, for whatever that's worth. It just had to be difficult for producer Danny A. Abeckaser to convince director Danny A. Abeckaser and star Danny A. Abeckaser that they were liabilities to whatever producer Danny A. Abeckaser was trying to accomplish. (Unrated, 90 mins)

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