Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with Milwaukee Film, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including comicwonder.com. He recently filmed an episode of the popular AMC series "Mad Men."
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. This week, Metcalf weighs in on a pair of movies about South Boston -- "Boondock Saints" and "What Doesn't Kill You."
BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999)
WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU (2008)
I walked though part of South Boston early one morning once upon a time. What I remember most is the smell of anise from a local bakery and a few people being let out of the bars. The anise elevated everything because it is light and seems to get into the back of your head and lift you somehow, even after a lot of beers. Of course, early morning and beers can elevate you, too, but this was the anise, I'm sure. The people you see coming out of bars at 3 a.m. are usually either strangely happy or understandably sad. The streets were damp and the lighting was good and in my memory it could be a scene from a movie. But, not from either of these two movies. No one was getting beat up, or shot, or robbed. No one was crying, or throwing themselves on the ground, or even arguing. It was a pretty normal 3 a.m.
There have been a lot of movies set in South Boston. It's almost an island or a planet unto itself. There are probably more made about Brooklyn, or even Queens, but lately South Boston seems to have a very distinct character, and is the breeding ground for equally unique characters. Think of "Good Will Hunting," "The Departed," "Mystic River," or, go all the way back to "The Verdict" or parts of "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." But "Boondock Saints" and "What Doesn't Kill You" seem to celebrate Southie and the people who are from there and, perhaps, stuck there more than any others.
"Boondock Saints" is about two fraternal twins, Irish-American Catholics to the marrow in their bones, who kill a couple of Russian mobsters to save their own skins and thus begin a crusade against the bad people of Boston. They take on and execute Italian mobsters, drug runners, more Russians and professional hit men, becoming heroes, saints as it were, to the neighborhood. They are pursed by Willem Dafoe, who plays a hysterically funny, gay FBI agent.
There is something that verges on commedia del arte in the style of the film. There is violence, but the circumstances of that violence are at moments so absurdly funny, and the earnestness of Sean Patrick Flannery and Norman Reedus as the two brothers is so sincere, that it all is elevated to a wonderfully entertaining level.
The two of them, both living throw-away lives, neither particularly bright, find themselves, without even looking for it, with purpose, and great purpose at that. They are fulfilled in their community and in their church, and they earn this celebration through murder, sanctified murder. They are doing something and it just happens that what they are doing is killing the worst elements of a society that teeters on the edge of Dante's Inferno.
But, the performance that puts this film over the top and into pure entertainment is Dafoe's as the obsessed, deeply passionate FBI agent with a love of opera and of men that is not generally seen, let alone accepted, in officers of the law.
Dafoe's background is with Theatre X here in Milwaukee, and with the Wooster Group, an avant-garde, experimental theatre company in New York City. This type of theatre, that relies greatly on the body almost the way a dancer relies on theirs, and that asks you to explore emotions deeply and to place them in a larger context, allows Dafoe to play a wonderful scene when he has come nearly to the end of his string, his agony and his obsession having grown so large that he is brought to his knees and the camera picks him up from floor level as he writhes and moans, screams even, in operatic joy at the greatness of his pain.
Very few actors can take an emotion and bend it so out of shape while still keeping it within the realm of human possibility. It is funny, because it is so impossible -- while at the same time being so true -- and it is exciting, because it is virtuoso tightrope walking or like one of the great leaps that Baryshnikov used to execute, when he seemed to hang in the air a moment longer than the laws of physics would allow.
Troy Duffy directs the film. Duffy may have had only the one movie in him, as he has done nothing since 1999 until this year, when he has made a sequel to "Boondock Saints." If he has only the one, it is a good one. He manages the style with ease and a great sense of humor creating a unique cinematic language that is both accessible and enjoyable.
Another South Boston movie that could be the fraternal twin of "Boondock Saints" is "What Doesn't Kill You." It has a big-name cast with Ethan Hawke, Mark Ruffalo and Amanda Peet and it is an interesting, if familiar, story.
Two best friends growing up on the streets, running whatever scam is necessary to get along, begin to grow apart as one finds a life with a woman and children, but the inescapable poverty of their life and the pervasive influence of alcohol and drugs, drag the one back to the life of brutal crime that the other never left.
A nice performance by Amanda Peet, a predictable and un-nuanced performance by Hawke, a half-hearted one by Ruffalo, who is capable of much more, and writing that is close to the kitchen sink-realism of the fifties, with little or no flair to lift it out of the gutter, doom this film to a short DVD life.
Brian Goodman, an actor, directs it. It is reportedly based on his own life. That kind of relationship to a story can give you a great advantage, or it can be a narcissistic road trip which leads no where unless you have a tremendous amount of technique as a director, at least enough to elevate your own personal misery to a place where other people will care.
Brian Goodman does not have that technique. It is a good story, albeit familiar and predictable, but the director just does not know how to drive it out of the mire of South Boston.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.