Shitty Movie Sundays: Bushwick, or, Ridgewood

I can picture an evening, sometime back in 2015 or so, when filmmakers Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott could have been enjoying some drinks at Pearl’s on St. Nicholas in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They’ve been talking politics and batting ideas around for their next feature film and, in a moment of rampant creativity, one says to the other, “What if, like, there was a war…in this neighborhood…and we, like, filmed it right outside.”

I don’t know if that’s how it happened. The genesis of ideas is often random, with no causal event or logical trigger whatsoever. Maybe they weren’t in the neighborhood. Maybe they weren’t even in the city or the state. However the idea for this movie came about, Cary and Jon did indeed come up with a story about a war in Bushwick, and they made a movie about it.

With the duo directing, and screenplay duties handled by Nick Damici and Graham Reznick, Bushwick follows Lucy and Stupe (Brittany Snow and Dave Bautista); two strangers caught in a terrorist attack in the titular neighborhood of Brooklyn, who join together to try and make it to safety.

A paramilitary force covered head to toe in black tactical gear is running around the neighborhood shooting anyone on sight. Cary and Jon don’t give the audience much in the way of explanation for the attack until a decent chunk of time has passed. That’s fine for keeping the characters guessing, but for the sake of potential viewers’ attention spans, I’ll spoil the background of the plot.

A bunch of rightwing militias from red America have gathered under the banner of something called the New America Coalition. They have targeted specific neighborhoods in big cities to invade and hold residents hostage as negotiating leverage to force Congress and the President to accept the secession of Texas and South Carolina and some other states. It’s the same list that always comes up whenever there’s secession talk. The militias’ target in New York City is Bushwick. Only, their plans are going somewhat tits up because they didn’t expect the soft, liberal, squishy residents of Bushwick to be armed.

Lucy was on her way to visit her grandmother with her boyfriend (Arturo Castro) when things pop off. He’s killed, and Lucy finds herself fleeing into Stupe’s grimy basement apartment. He’s a former Marine, and the two of them, despite having little in common and being complete strangers, enter the fray in an attempt to make it just a few blocks north to Ridgewood, Queens, where the US Army has established a line and everything is safe.

I find that funny for reasons most viewers won’t, and here’s why. The last fifteen years I lived in New York was split between Bushwick and Ridgewood. Bushwick was, and still is, despite twenty plus years of gentrification, a tough neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where street smarts are not just useful, but required. Meanwhile, Bushwick movie posteracross an invisible border that zigs and zags from Wyckoff Avenue and down Cypress, was Ridgewood. It looks almost identical, but the difference in mood was palpable. Ridgewood was a reservoir of blissful safety and tranquility — something for residents of Bushwick to strive for. I certainly felt much relief when I packed up and made a quarter mile hop over the border. So the idea of fleeing edgy and chaotic Bushwick for the peace and relative quiet of Ridgewood gave me a chuckle.

In fact, Ridgewood is such a better alternative than Bushwick that most of this movie was filmed in Ridgewood, and not Bushwick.

There’s not much in the way of plot beyond Lucy and Stupe’s commute to Ridgewood. Some more characters are met along the way, including Lucy’s sister, Belinda (Angelic Zambrana, who gave it all she had in her character’s introduction), and JP (Jeremie Harris), a would-be local gangsta who is one of the nabe’s many armed citizens. But, mostly, this film resembles a rail shooter. Characters go from point A to point B, exchange some fire, rest up a minute, and then set off again. For some viewers, that’s going to be a thin experience. For others, it’s a plot boiled down to bare essentials. It depends on how engaged one is by the movie.

What I couldn’t help feeling was that I was watching an extremist’s wet dream. And I don’t mean from the perspective of the militia nuts. I mean from the left. After all, it’s the left that’s winning the fight in this movie. The political climate in this country has bred a boatload of fantasies about settling our differences with a civil war, and because of that it’s hard to regard this movie as mere escapist entertainment. Nor is it a warning of what could happen here. It’s a masturbatory story of liberal jingoism, a “you don’t fuck with Brooklyn” dare to all those tiki torch carrying shitheads on the news to put their money where their mouths are, and actually try their racist, theocratic civil war nonsense for real. Understand now why I think some boozing may have been involved in coming up with this? This movie is a product of the times, of people not just talking past each other, but shouting, and it shows that even the side that considers itself rational can still get a hard-on for war.

To me, that’s why the film falters. There are other aspects, sure, but it’s that inescapable tenor of righteousness as the bad guys get what they deserve that rankles me, as if it would be anything other than an exhausting slog were the country to actually collapse into partisan warfare.

Snow and Bautista are quite strong leads. Snow can play the stereotypical pretty, vapid chick just about as well as anyone, which is what her character is, while Bautista continues to prove he’s the best actor to ever come out of the WWE. The only times I didn’t like what they were doing were scenes of extended monologues. Cary and Jon dragged these scenes, and their insistence on using long takes meant there were ups and downs in their actors’ deliveries. Other members of the cast don’t spend enough time on screen to foul things up too much, thank goodness.

Long takes are something the viewer will need to get used to, as well. The film is structured so that it looks like it was shot with only a few takes, but that’s just film trickery. The long takes are strung together with extreme closeups of objects or tricky CGI wipes to disguise cuts. The problem with this technique is that it is obvious where these cuts are, and, rather than make it seem as if the movie is taking place in real time, it introduces dead spots into scenes where the actors, and the audience, are waiting for the movie to start up again.

Having a steadicam follow Lucy and Stupe for extended stretches like we are a participant in the movie works quite well, but the hidden cuts are just a touch too gimmicky. The film would have worked just as well with some hard cuts when the action slows.

One can tell that there wasn’t much of a budget for this flick. Cary and Jon can be proud that they managed that budget so well, and made a movie that looks good, and, for the most part, flows well. Also, shout out to Ridgewood. It began appearing frequently in movies and TV in the 2010s, from Gotham to The Irishman. Somehow, even though I was in the middle of it, I never saw any production filming.

Good effort, Cary and Jon, along with director of photography Lyle Vincent and editor Joe Hobeck, but Bushwick is flawed enough that it cannot escape the enormous gravitational pull that is the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index. It falls past the event horizon, joining the singularity at #213, between Alien vs. Predator and In Hell. Something of a bummer, a little levity and some absurd, over the top action would have helped Bushwick’s watchability mightily.

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