Bone Tomahawk


Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

(2015) Western (RLJ Entertainment) Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Sean Young, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, Fred Melamed, Kathryn Morris, Michael Paré, James Tolkan, Geno Segers, Zahn McClarnon, Brandon Molale, Jamison Newlander, Omar Levya, Eddie Spears, David Midthunder, Raw Leiba, Marem Hassler. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Love can be wonderful; a tender feeling of caring and compassion. But love can also be a terrible burden. If it requires us to go somewhere dangerous, then we go, heart heavy and maybe even terrified, but we go nonetheless.

Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson) and his wife Sam (Simmons) are deeply in love. They live in the small town of Bright Hope, on the edge of the prairie near forbidding hills where even the cattle trails that Arthur uses as a cattle driver fail to go. She’s a bit of a nag, not letting him forget that she warned him not to go repair the roof in the middle of a storm. Per her warning, he fell off the roof and broke his leg, forcing him into essential confinement to bed. This is the Old West, after all, and men did what they had to do.

Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) also does what he has to do and that might involve shooting a drifter (Arquette) in the leg when he acts a little squirrelly. Because the town doctor is in his cups, Sam is summoned to remove the bullet from the drifter’s leg (she evidently has some sort of medical training). When she doesn’t return home, Arthur becomes a bit concerned.

Deputy Chicory (Jenkins) returns to the Sheriff’s office to discover everyone missing, including Deputy Nick (Jonigkeit). The evidence of a struggle includes a strange bone arrow at the scene. The local expert on Native Americans (Midthunder) tells them that it is from a tribe that isn’t even a tribe – it is in fact not exactly human. He refers to them as troglodytes and asserts that they eat the flesh of humans. He only knows they reside in something called The Valley of the Hungry Men.

A posse is formed. Sheriff Hunt is obligated to go, and even a broken leg won’t keep Arthur away. Deputy Chicory is ordered to stay behind but he refuses to; someone else can watch over Bright Hope while the Sheriff is away. Finally, dapper gambler John Brooder (Fox) also offers to go; he had escorted Mrs. O’Dwyer to the jail and feels obligated to assist in her rescue.

&Even on horseback it will take three days to get to the Valley if they can find it. The way there will be anything but safe, as bandits and bushwackers lurk in the hills. And when they finally get there, the men will be up against something they’ve never seen before – and are woefully unprepared to fight.

Russell is also starring in another Western opening up this winter, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and has found success in other Westerns – Tombstone comes to mind immediately. The plot has a little bit of The Searchers in it, but the similarity ends there; this is more of a mash-up between horror and Western than the traditional John Wayne horse opera.

Russell is at his best here, rough and ready in the saddle and apt to shoot first and ask questions later. His is the iconic taciturn lawman whose moral compass steers towards what’s right rather than what’s convenient. Fox, who is a decent actor who hasn’t yet equaled his role on Lost, does some of his best work on the big screen here, as does Wilson who has found a career boost in horror films like The Conjuring and Insidious. Here, Wilson plays to type but not just that; there is an inner strength to the character that is absolutely unexpected and mesmerizing. Arthur’s dogged determination and refusal to give up despite having a broken leg speaks volumes of what it means to be a man in the West.

And lest we forget the horror element here, it is more or less an overtone, although there is an onscreen kill here that is as brutal and as shocking as any you’ll see in more overt horror films this year. There is plenty of blood and gore and brutality, and those who are on the squeamish side are well-advised to steer clear.

Zahler is better known as a novelist and a musician as he is as a director, but he does a bang-up job here. There isn’t really a false note in the movie and while some critics have sniped at the length of the movie (just over two hours), it never drags and it never feels long. He also has wonderful cinematography to fall back of thanks to Benji Bakshi whose name should be on a lot of rolodexes after this.

It is unlikely the Western will ever go back to its level of popularity that it enjoyed back in the 1950s but it will never completely die. Movies like this one insure that the Western will always be around as a genre, and remind us that there can always be something new made of a time-tested cinematic formula.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted. Exceptional cinematography. Captures the frontier mentality.
REASONS TO STAY: Excessive gore might put some off.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal, bloody violence, sexuality, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Russell authored a testimonial for Zahler’s second novel before this was cast.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Chi-Raq

Room (2015)


Room is the world and the world is Room.

Room is the world and the world is Room.

(2015) Drama (A24) Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Wendy Crewson, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, Cas Anvar, Zarrin Darnell-Martin, Tom McCamus, Sandy McMaster, Jee-Yun Lee, Matt Gordon, Randal Edwards, Justin Mader, Brad Wietersen, Jack Fulton, Kate Drummond, Chantelle Chung, Megan Park. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

The world is what we perceive it to be. For some, the world is vast and extends far beyond our planet. For others, the world is boiled down to the small space of their room.

Ivy (Larson) has a very close relationship with her son Jack (Tremblay). On the occasion of his fifth birthday, she bakes him a cake. He watches TV and she makes sure he gets plenty of exercise. She tucks him into bed at night with a story, then awaits the return of his father.

But this isn’t an ordinary situation. Their home is an 11×11 garden shed and his dad kidnapped Ivy when she was 17, tricking her into getting into his car by appealing to her compassion. Since then he has kept her locked up, raping her regularly (and inadvertently creating Jack) for seven years. Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight which mostly just allows them to see passing clouds. For Jack, Room is the entire world.

Finally, his mother devises a bold escape plan and the two are finally liberated. For Jack, his world has suddenly expanded like a sponge thrown into water. For Ivy, it means a reunion with her mom (Allen) and Dad (Macy) who have divorced in the aftermath of her kidnapping. It means coping with the media which clamors to hear her story. It means adjusting to freedom, something Jack has never known.

But the thing is, both of these souls are wounded, suffering from acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even if Jack hasn’t known any other life than Room, now he has to completely readjust his world view which is no easy task even for a five-year-old. Ivy has to deal with reintegrating herself into a world which has moved on without her, and she has to deal with the reality of what was done to her. She is no longer in survival mode and that can be the most dangerous time of all.

Room, which is based on an extraordinary novel turns out to be an extraordinary film. Abrahamson has taken the script, adapted for the screen by the novel’s author, and breathed life and color into it even if the color is mostly grey. The movie is set in Ohio during the fall and winter and it seems to be eternally raining, snowing or cold. Even the interiors are full of fall colors, the hospital where they are kept briefly sterile white. Only Room has bright colors, which is both ironic and intentional.

The effect brings a chill to the audience even if considering the horrifying circumstances that Ivy endures does not. And make no mistake, while those circumstances mirror several real life cases in which women were imprisoned, used as sex slaves and forced to bear children by their captor, this is a unique story unto itself and completely fictional – and completely plausible.

What makes this work are incredible performances by Larson and Tremblay. Their relationship is at the center of the story, and it is happily an authentic one. Larson has turned in several outstanding roles in a row and for my money is emerging as one of the best young actresses around. Don’t be surprised if Oscar comes knocking on her door for her work here, and certainly don’t be surprised if she nabs some high-profile roles because of it. Her character is strong on the outside, but the facade is crumbling and revealing an inner vulnerability that is heartbreaking, particularly when things come to a head about midway through the film.

Tremblay plays a child who gets frustrated, particularly when told things he doesn’t want to hear and often acts out with screaming tantrums – in other words, a typical five year old. While I think a few too many of these fits of anger are presented here – we get the point of his frustration and after awhile like any child’s tantrum they grow wearisome – that is certainly not the fault of this young actor who delivers a mature performance many veteran actors would have trouble producing. This may well be the top juvenile performance of the year.

Speaking of veteran actors, Joan Allen – one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses – does a stellar job here as a mother who has to readjust to having her daughter back after thinking she was lost forever, and having to deal with that daughter’s own rage issues, and shifting inability to cope with all the emotions that are just now coming to the surface. Allen delivers a character who is magnificent in her grace and patience. She’s the kind of mom we all would want to have.

The story is not an easy one to watch. We are looking at people who are soul-sick, who have all suffered at the hands of the actions of one monster. All of their lives have been shattered – even Jack’s although he never knows it – and picking up the pieces is no easy thing. In many ways this is a story that is genuine and authentic. It deals not just with the physical aspects of the story, but the emotional ones as well and you’re likely to be thinking about it long after the movie is done.

It may be too intense for some; some of the scenes are raw and hard to watch. Still, thinking about it, I think you’ll agree that sitting through those scenes may feel awkward at times but it is well worth the effort.  Clearly one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances from Larson and Tremblay. Excellent supporting performances by Allen and McCamus. Taut, excruciating story.
REASONS TO STAY: The frequent tantrums can be annoying. May be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, intimations of rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joan Allen and William H. Macy played husband and wife in Pleasantville as well.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Lucha Mexico

Rebound


Gag me with a gag.

Gag me with a gag.

(2014) Horror (Look At Me) Ashley James, Mark Scheibmeir, Julia Beth Stern, Kevin Bulla, Wes O’Lee, Brett Johnston, Bruce Cole-Edwards, Dan Sutter, Liz Bauer, Ali Williams. Directed by Megan Freels

One of the worst things that can happen to you in a relationship is being cheated upon. The feeling of betrayal is overwhelming; it attacks your sense of self-worth and makes you question yourself – what did I do wrong? – as opposed to blaming the person who made the decision to cheat in the first place. It hurts everyone it happens to, but some people take it harder than others.

Claire (James) has felt the sting. An aspiring actress struggling to find roles in Los Angeles, she comes home one afternoon to find her boyfriend of three years (Johnston) in the throes of passion with a co-worker (Williams) who will go down in film history as having the bitchiest smile ever recorded.

Claire is quite naturally devastated. After some soul searching (and tearful showers), she decides that it is time to cut her losses and go back home to Chicago. She talks things over with her best friend Shannon (Stern) who wonders if she’s not just running away from her problems and advises her to think of it more as a vacation and less as a permanent move, but Claire is adamant. A road trip back to Chicago it is and the opportunity to take stock of her life and begin anew.

Even with the best of intentions things can go devastatingly wrong and in Claire’s case, they turn from bad to worse. An encounter with a homeless woman (Bauer) leaves Claire shaken; she also manages to lose her cell phone. And of course when she’s in the middle of nowhere later that evening, her car breaks down. A sympathetic driver (O’Lee) picks her up and takes her to the local mechanic, Eddie (Scheibmeir) who diagnoses the problem as a timing belt. The bill is more than Claire can afford, so she manages to talk the handsome but shy mechanic down to a little less by using her natural charm. The part won’t be available until the next day, so Claire will need to spend the night in the flea speck of a town.

Eddie drops her off at the local bar where she gets something to eat and drink, courtesy of a none-too-friendly bartender (Bulla) and samples the less than savory citizenry. That’s when her eyesight begins to blur and before long Claire is in a nightmarish situation that makes being cheated on look like good news.

Freels who also wrote the movie takes a very simple concept and makes it compelling. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here – this is what is called in the industry a micro-budgeted film – and they really aren’t needed. Everything revolves around Claire’s emotional breakdown and Murphy’s Law made horror film high concept.

On the negative side, the dialogue can be a bit clunky; particularly the conversation between Claire and Shannon which at times didn’t sound like the way two people naturally talk. There is also a bit of overacting in a melodramatic sense, and the music kind of underscores it; Freels’ approach of “less is more” would have done the movie good in the music department. The good news is that the film gets a lot better once Claire hits the road which is pretty early on.

This might be classified by some as torture porn but there is kind of a film noir vibe which is unexpected and welcome. Not a noir of the Bogart kind mind you, but more of a Robert Mitchum sort. This isn’t Cape Fear but it’s a distant cousin.

And now, a few words about the film’s ending. One of my big problems with indie films in general is that often the ending is a disappointment. Not so here. The ending is strong and unexpected, but logical. It’s what makes me think that Freels has a great deal of promise as a filmmaker and writer.

This isn’t for the faint of heart and there are some fairly gruesome scenes here, but all in all this is a solid debut feature for Freels, who has been a producer of films for a few years now. Her first stint in the director’s chair is flawed as you might expect, but promising. I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be checking out this movie after she makes one that hits it big.

WHY RENT THIS: Uncomfortable but delicious ending.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Melodramatic acting. Clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence (some gruesome), sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Freels is the granddaughter of the legendary writer Elmore Leonard.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, VimeoGoogle Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Straight Outta Compton

New Releases for the Week of September 23, 2011


Dolphin Tale

DOLPHIN TALE

(Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Morgan Freeman, Austin Stowell, Cozi Zuehlsdoff. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

The incredible true story of Winter, a dolphin who as a juvenile had her tail caught in a crab trap, forcing it to be amputated. Brought to a Florida aquarium, things looked bleak for the young cetacean until a brilliant orthopedist came up with an idea for a prosthetic tail. While the story here is highly fictionalized, it still stars the real Winter as herself.

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: True Life Drama Family

Rating: PG (for some mild thematic elements)

Abduction

(Lionsgate) Taylor Lautner, Sigourney Weaver, Alfred Molina, Jason Isaacs. A young man discovers that his parents aren’t really his parents and that government agencies are after him. He will have to discover who he is and why the government wants him before they catch up to him. To do so he will have to decide who he can trust – and who he can’t.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for sequences of intense violence and action, brief language, some sexual content and teen partying)

Killer Elite

(Open Road) Jason Statham, Clive Owens, Robert De Niro, Dominic Purcell. A former elite operative comes out of retirement to rescue his mentor, who has been captured by a ruthless gang of assassins. In order to succeed, the operative is going to go up against some of the most vicious killers in the world. This is supposedly based on a true story.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Life, Above All

(Sony Classics) Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Lenabe, Audrey Poolo. A young girl in a sleepy South African village comes under the suspicion of her neighbors when in rapid succession her baby sister dies tragically and her mother becomes gravely ill. Despite the attempts of her Auntie to shield her from the town’s mistrust, she soon becomes embroiled in a rapidly escalating situation. Her bright future is rapidly disintegrating and she will have to use every ounce of her strong will to survive.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and some sexual content)

Moneyball

(Columbia) Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright. The true story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland As. His revolutionary ideas of evaluating baseball players changed the game forever. Sounds boring, but it’s actually a pretty amazing story of a ballclub that couldn’t afford to compete with teams in larger markets that suddenly became a contender.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Sports

Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language)

Red State

(Smodcast) Michel Angarano, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman, Melissa Leo. Three teenage boys are lured into a small town with the promise of a party. What they find instead of fun is a fundamentalist compound, whose preacher-leader wants to punish them for their sins big time. To make matters worse, they’re about to get caught in the crossfire of an FBI raid. This is the latest – and possibly last – from cult director Kevin Smith.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence/disturbing content, some sexual content including brief nudity, and pervasive language)

Senna

(Producers Distribution Agency) Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart, Frank Williams. Charismatic Formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna was a rock star in his own time. His meteoric rise through the ranks of drivers made him one of the greatest ever. His attempts to make the sport safer made him a visionary. His untimely death made him a legend. While Americans are more partial to NASCAR than they are to Grand Prix, his story makes for compelling viewing.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and disturbing images)

Skyline


Skyline

The great thing about this apartment is the view.

(2010) Science Fiction (Universal/Rogue) Eric Balfour, Donald Faison, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, David Zayas, Crystal Reed, Neil Hopkins, Robin Gammell, Tanya Newbould, J. Paul Boehmer, Byron McIntyre, Johnny DeBeer. Directed by Colin and Greg Strause

The legendary DJ Casey Kasem used to sign off with the same line – “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Little did he know that someday, something would reach back. 

Jarrod (Balfour) and his girlfriend Elaine (Thompson) fly from New York to Los Angeles to visit Terry (Faison), Jarrod’s childhood friend, on the occasion of his birthday. Terry has made good as a Hollywood producer and has a sick penthouse in a Marina Del Rey high-rise from which he views his kingdom.

Elaine reveals to Jarrod that she’s pregnant, which might be a good thing except Terry’s just offered Jarrod a job that would of course require him to move from the East Coast to the West. Elaine is none too happy about this development because apparently success would be a downer. In any case, they go ahead and party with Terry’s friends, including his bitchy girlfriend Candice (Daniel), his lovesick assistant Denise (Reed) and his overbearing buddy Ray (Hopkins). The party gets a bit boisterous, causing security guard Oliver (Zayas) to knock on the door where he gets a belly full of bitchy attitude courtesy of Candice.

Later that night, they are awakened by an earthquake and bright lights outside the building. People who stare at these lights become mesmerized and feel compelled to walk into the light where they’re levitated off of the surface of the Earth. We know this because it happens to Ray and almost happens to Jarrod who is pulled out of the light at the last moment by Terry but not before Jarrod got all vein-y and crap.

After that, all Hell breaks loose. The lights go away briefly, only to reappear, this time accompanied by gigantic alien space vessels bristling with appendages and looking very bug-like. Jarrod and Terry go to the roof to get a better look which turns out to be a really bad idea since Jarrod manages to lock the door behind them and only timely intervention from Elaine gets them safely off after the big alien space vessels disgorge thousands of little probe vessels that look like those tentacle things in The Matrix and are quite adept at sucking individual people off of roofs and, as we later find out, out of windows as well.  

Terry thinks their best bet is to get out of Dodge, preferably by boat since none of the alien vessels are over water. They get into their expensive cars and prepare to drive to the nearby Marina when they are literally stomped on by a giant alien bio-mechanical beastie. Wonder how they’re going to explain that one to the insurance company. They decide to make a run for it back to the penthouse, joined by security guard Oliver who saves them at the last moment from an alien beastie who is slightly smaller than the last one. You’ve seen one alien beastie, you’ve seen them all.

Up to this point, it’s been a pretty good movie. The alien beasties are well designed, the effects shots realistic and while there were a few glitches, the story was moving along at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, the writers wrote themselves into a corner; much of the rest of the film involves the lot of them sitting around the apartment with nothing better to do but whine and snipe at one another. In other words, they’re essentially sitting around waiting to get sucked out.

It’s a shame, because quite frankly this was a bit of good filmmaking up until that point. The Strause brothers, who have extensive effects experience, utilized some cutting edge technology to make the movie for a bargain basement $10 million, financing the movie essentially themselves. The good news is that it won’t take very much for them to see a profit. The bad news is that the movie has been getting scathing reviews, both word of mouth and online and may not even make back its production costs.

Much of it has to do with the writing. I am not sure why, but there seems to be this belief in Hollywood that when characters are written for science fiction movies, they either have to be too good to be true or too stupid to be believed. The mostly television cast (who have day jobs on such series as “Dexter,” “Scrubs” and “Haven”) do decent jobs but aren’t given a whole lot to do beyond whine, bitch at one another or have fake blood poured over them.  

With an ending that is mind-boggling in its “Really?” factor, Skyline starts off strong and then takes a rapid plunge for rock bottom. While they clearly are setting up a sequel, I can’t imagine anyone who’ll want to see it. Once you’ve wiped out the Earth, what do you do for an encore?

REASONS TO GO: The first half of the film is actually pretty good. The imagery is effective and the aliens are pretty imaginative.

REASONS TO STAY: The second half of the movie jumps the shark. Once they return to the apartment, everything goes sliding downhill like an avalanche, gaining momentum until it hits bottom or the movie ends, depending on your point of view.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence, a great deal of gore, some disturbing images and more than its share of goo. In addition, the language is pretty foul and there is a bit of sexuality involved here. This isn’t for the little ones in any way shape or form and a lot of the big ones shouldn’t see it either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost completely at co-director Greg Strause’s Marina del Rey condominium.

HOME OR THEATER: The alien vessels look better on the big screen, with the sound effects sounding better on a big theater system.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Flawless