Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

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The Legend of Tarzan


Him Tarzan, you Jane...don't you wish!!!

Him Tarzan, you Jane…don’t you wish!!!

(2016) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin, Casper Crump, Sidney Ralitsoele, Osy Ikhile, Mens-Sana Tamakloe, Antony Acheampong, Edward Apeagyei, Ashley Byam, Clive Brunt, Charles Babalola, Yule Masiteng, Mimi Ndiweni, Faith Edwards. Directed by David Yates

 

The pulp era gave us some of our most enduring characters and heroes. From the comic books to the detective novels, iconic characters like The Shadow, The Phantom, Superman, Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian all were created in that era. Perhaps the famous one of all, however, is Tarzan. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, he has been active in nearly every medium for nearly a century, from comic books to novels to television shows to of course the movies. Now comes the latest big screen Tarzan adventure, but what would the 21st century make of the pulp hero?

Tarzan (Skarsgård) has left the jungles of Africa and come home with his sweet Lady Jane (Robbie) to England, where he now inhabits his father’s title and mansion, and these days goes by the name of John Clayton, his given name. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Belgium’s bloodthirsty King Leopold II has quietly enslaved the natives in the Congo which was, at the time, a Belgian colony and has loosed his nefarious right hand man Colonel Leon Rom (Waltz) to take out the only man capable of stopping his plans – Tarzan.

Colonel Rom lures Tarzan back on an expedition ostensibly to inspect Leopold’s supposedly enlightened progress in the jungle and, as representatives of the English government imply, in the meantime assisting England with trade relations with the fractious monarch. Tarzan is decidedly reluctant to go back although Jane, who also grew up on the Dark Continent, is eager to return to her home and friends. Tarzan is accompanied by the American activist George Washington Williams (Jackson) who believes that Leopold is up to something – slavery, to be specific – and wants Tarzan to help him document it.

Of course, you don’t need Admiral Akbar to tell you it’s a trap. On a visit to the peaceful village where Jane grew up and near where Tarzan was raised by a tribe of apes, Jane is kidnapped by Rom and of course Tarzan chases him through the jungle relentlessly. What Tarzan doesn’t know is that an old enemy (Hounsou) awaits him on the other side of the jungle to take his revenge on the Lord of the Apes, in exchange for a boatload of diamonds that will enable Leopold to pay for a mercenary army to wreak havoc in central Africa. Definitely not cricket, that.

Skarsgård, who made so many fans on True Blood, makes a fine Tarzan. He reminds me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen with the kind of twinkle in his eye smirk that Mortensen has, particularly when he played Aragon. Skarsgård who took the role largely to please his father who’s a big Tarzan fan (his dad is noted actor Stellan Skarsgård for those not in the know) gives the pulp hero a brooding presence, perhaps more so than any other actor who has played him (and there have been plenty of those).

The pacing here starts off a little bit slow, but does pick up by the end. Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter flicks, knows how to build a level of action in his movies and by the time the final confrontation between Tarzan and Rom takes place, the audience is well-primed for it. As for that confrontation, trust me it’s a doozy. As far as thrills go, The Legend of Tarzan delivers.

One thing that was inevitable was that the modern liberal sensibilities of film critics were rubbed the wrong way. A lot of copy has been written about colonialism, and Tarzan as the Big White Bwana and there is truth to that – but considering Tarzan was created back in 1918, one must have at least some leeway for the times not only portrayed in the film but in the source material.

Although to be fair, in this case that source material was the Dark Horse comic rather than Burroughs’ original novels, which truth be told probably wouldn’t play well these days. Curiously, real people are used here – Leopold, Rom and George Washington Williams all existed and pretty much as they are depicted in the film. Adding Tarzan to the mix is an interesting idea, but it’s a lot like having Austin Powers try to stop the Kennedy Assassination, although of course the events in the Congo back at the turn of the 20th century are a lot less well-known to American audiences than JFK.

I will say that the lush backgrounds filmed in Gabon are absolutely extraordinary, although the actors mainly filmed on stages with green screens and CGI animals. And that to a very large extent defines what’s wrong with this film. They really wanted to go with realism in the story line, but rather than going with real animals, they went the CGI route and it shows at times. In other words, the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too, but ended up with a doughy mixture with too much sugar and not enough substance.

REASONS TO GO: Skarsgård has A-list potential. The film utilizes gorgeous African vistas, although most of the jungle scenes are on sets.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much CGI spoils the broth. The mix of real and fictional is less enticing than it sounds.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of action and violence, some rude dialogue and a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last film to be produced by Jerry Weintraub, who passed away shortly before shooting wrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greystoke
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Observance

New Releases for the Week of July 1, 2016


The BFGTHE BFG

(Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Matt Frewer. Directed by Steven Spielberg

A precocious 10-year-old girl in Victorian London meets a terrifying 24-foot-tall giant, who turns out to be not quite so terrifying at all. Gentle and sweet, the giant befriends the young girl and shows her around Giant Country and Dream Country, where the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) harvests dreams to give to human children. Unfortunately, other giants turn out to be not so friendly, and it will be up to the two of them to convince Queen Victoria that Giants do exist and that they have put the human world in grave peril.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

(The Orchard) Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House. Ricky is a defiant kid who has been raised in the foster care system of New Zealand and weaned on hip-hop is deposited into the home of Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec, where he might actually have a chance to lose the attitude. However, unexpected events force Hec and Ricky to flee into the bush, resulting in a national manhunt. The two loners, who have relied only on themselves all their lives, are now forced to rely on each other as a family or go out in a blaze of glory. This Florida Film Festival favorite will be reviewed on Cinema365 tomorrow.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language)

The Legend of Tarzan

(Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie. The legendary Tarzan has left the jungles for a gentrified life as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke with his beloved wife Jane at his side. Appointed by Parliament as a trade emissary to the Congo, what he doesn’t realize is that he is being manipulated as a pawn in a game being played by greedy men. However, what they don’t realize is the force of nature they have unleashed on Africa.

See the trailer, interviews, a clip, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue)

Marauders

(Lionsgate) Bruce Willis, Christopher Meloni, Dave Bautista, Adrian Grenier. After a bank is robbed by a group of brutal thieves, the evidence initially points to the owner and some of his high-powered clients. But as a group of FBI agents dig deeper into the case and more heists continue with the death toll rising, what seemed simple at first has become a heck of a lot more complicated – and further reaching.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, brief drug use and nudity)

Our Kind of Traitor

(Roadside Attractions) Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris. An ordinary English couple befriends a flamboyant and charismatic Russian while on vacation in Morocco. It soon turns out that their new friend is a money launderer for the Russian mob and he wants to co-operate with MI-6 in return for the guaranteed safety of his family. This brings the couple into a world of shadows and intrigue that they may not emerge from alive. From the novel by best-selling author John Le Carré.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use)

The Purge: Election Year

(Universal/Blumhouse) Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Edwin Hodge, Mykelti Williamson. Two years after Leo Barnes survived the Purge and stopped himself from committing an act of vengeance he might have regretted for the rest of his life, he has become head of security for a Senator who is running for President and if elected, promises to put an end to the Purge. This does not sit well with the powers-that-be and on this year’s Purge night, the two of them are betrayed and forced out into the streets where they are targets. This Purge may well be Leo’s last.

See the trailer, clips, a promo and a faux election video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for disturbing bloody violence and strong language)

Swiss Army Man

(A24) Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Richard Gross. Stranded on a deserted island, a man has given up all hope until a corpse washes up on shore. Curious, he discovers that the corpse has a life of its own and the two become fast friends. This inventive fantasy has gotten rave reviews for its imagination and heart and marks the feature debut of music video co-directors DANIELS. Looks to be the kind of movie that lovers of Michel Gondry might appreciate.

See the trailers here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Cobb Plaza Cinema Café, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language and sexual material)

The Giver


A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go

New Releases for the Week of August 15, 2014


The Expendables 3THE EXPENDABLES 3

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas. Directed by Patrick Hughes

The Expendables are back in action and this time they’re up against a foe who knows them better than anyone – Conrad Stonebanks, a ruthless arms dealer who once upon a time co-founded the Expendables along with Barney. This is a shock to Barney who thought Conrad was dead but since it was Barney that tried to kill him, Stonebanks has an awful mad-on about the Expendables and is out to put them all down once and for all. Barney’s going to need a little help against the well-financed and merciless teams of mercenaries that Stonebanks has sent against them – and welcome to a group of new Expendables, more tech savvy, younger and faster than the classic team. Old School, meet New School.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette, a clip and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for violence including sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and for language)

The Giver

(Weinstein) Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard. In the future, mankind lives in a Utopian community where hunger and poverty have been eradicated and while colorless conformity is the rule, contentment is the reward. However, a young man discovers that the community has a dark and secret past and that only one man – the Giver – has custodianship of those memories and he intends to hand them off to the young man. That makes him dangerous to the elders of the community who will stop at nothing to take him out. He’ll have to escape the community – something that’s never been done before – in order to save it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence)

Let’s Be Cops

(20th Century Fox) Damon Wayans Jr., Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Nina Dobrev. A pair of bros have been invited to a costume party and decide to go as cops. Mistaken for the real thing, they decide they like the way the rest of the world treats them as cops and so they’ll keep on going as long and as far as they can take it. Of course, the real cops don’t take kindly to this and they wind up with a heaping helping of T-R-O-U-B-L-E with a capital T.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, violence and drug use)

Singham Returns

(Reliance) Kareena Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Anupam Kher, Amole Gupte. A police officer with a reputation for honesty but also for being ferocious with wrongdoers is promoted to Deputy Chief of Police. Dead set on wiping out injustice in his town, he comes up smack dab against not only wealthy criminals but corruption in his own department.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood Action

Rating: NR

What If

(CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall. After a series of failed relationships, a young medical school drop-out still trying to find out who he is decides to put his love life on hold. Of course, most of his friends then seem to find the perfect partner for themselves which makes him feel miserable and alone, but then he meets this great girl whom he connects with immediately. The trouble is that she lives with her boyfriend. Still, the two become best friends but maybe that’s not enough.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including references throughout, partial nudity and language)

13


This is one gun club you don't want to be a member of.

This is one gun club you don’t want to be a member of.

(2009) Action (Anchor Bay) Jason Statham, Sam Riley, Alice Barrett Mitchell, Gaby Hoffman, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Beach, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Michael Shannon, Michael Berry Jr., Ray Winstone, Alexander Skarsgard, Starla Benford, Mike D’Onofrio, Daisy Tahan, Carlos Reig-Plaza, Forrest Griffin, Ed Bergtold, John Hoffman, David Zayas, Ben Gazzara, 50 Cent, Ashlie Atkinson. Directed by Gela Babluani

Some movies shouldn’t be remade by Hollywood. Not because the original is perfect as it was, but because there is a misunderstanding by Hollywood sorts of why the movie worked in the first place. That gets clouded when the director of the original also directs the remake.

13 Tzameti is not the perfect movie but it is a very good one. A French production set in France and in Georgia (the Russian one), it tells its story in black and white, lending a gritty quality that is largely absent here. While the story is nearly identical here, it is more fleshed out not only in backstory but also in palette – this movie is in color, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Vince Ferro (Riley) is a down on his luck laborer with a good heart. He is desperately in need of money – a lot of it – but the prospects of that are slim given his skill sets in life. While doing a job, one of the residents of the home he’s working in dies of a drug overdose. He overhears talk that the dead man was going to start a job that paid extraordinarily well. There are instructions for the job in an envelope which Vince, figuring the deceased wouldn’t need anymore, takes for himself.

 

He ends up taking a train to Chicago and is driven from there to a secluded dilapidated house where he is ordered to strip. His boot heels are cut off as the organizers look for electronic devices. To Vince’s horror, he is issued a gun and a single bullet, and a shirt with the number 13 on it. Other men, with other numbers on their shirts are also issued the same. They are made to stand in a circle and to load the gun with the bullet. The participants then spin the chambers until they are told to stop. They all aim the gun at the head of the man ahead of them. When a light bulb goes on, the master of ceremonies (Shannon) tells them, they are to pull the trigger. Those that don’t will be shot. Ferro is reluctant but knowing he will be killed for certain if he doesn’t, he participates.

Survivors of the first round will be issued two bullets in the second and those that survive the second round will be issued three bullets in the third round. At that point there are only five participants left, including Ferro. Two of the five are selected for a final duel – Ferro and Ronald Lynn Bagges (Winstone).

All this is done for the entertainment of a group of wealthy men, who bet heavily on the outcome of each round. Each of the participants has a wealthy sponsor, in Ferro’s case an elderly man (Gazzara) and in Bagges’ case his own brother Jasper (Statham). Should Ferro survive he will get a healthy payday, one that will allow him to live in luxury the rest of his life. But the odds are long, a dogged police detective (Zayas) is getting closer to busting the game and even if Ferro wins he will have to be on his toes to escape both the vengeful Jasper and the cops.

 

The newer movie is much more detailed than the first which took place more in the immediate moment which added to the overall tension. Here we get more of the backstory to the various characters, both the participants in the game and the rich men betting on it. It also must be said that in some ways this is a better looking movie, although in the end result I don’t think that the gloss did the film any favors. The original succeeded largely because of its grim noir-ish look and because we are so locked into the horror of the situation we don’t have time to think of anything else.

Certainly the acting is better here and there’s something to be said for that. However, with all the added backstory the movie tends to take detours that we really don’t want to be on. While the suspense is still relatively high, it still doesn’t compete with the first movie in that department.

So it’s safe to say that this is one of those movies that is a lot better if you see it before seeing the movie it’s based on. If you see 13 Tzameti first this will suffer a great deal by comparison. In that sense, maybe having the same director worked against this film; he was given a bigger budget and name actors like Statham, Rourke and Winstone. Of course he’d want to make a bigger movie. However in this case, bigger isn’t better.

WHY RENT THIS: Gut-wrenching suspense. Makes a nice companion piece to the original.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t always hold up to the original. Meanders a bit. Needs more grit and less gloss.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly disturbing violence, a bit of foul language and some brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Liotta was originally cast in the part of Detective Mullane but had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict; David Zayas ended up in the role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving the Game

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Beowulf

The East


All signs point to The East.

All signs point to The East.

(2013) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hilary Baack, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald, John Neisler, Pamela Roylance, Ryan Grego, Ava Bogle, Nick Fuhrmann, Patricia French. Directed by Zal Batmanglij

How difficult is it to uphold the law when the law protects the strong and harms the weak? Are you doing the right thing then by enforcing the law – or are you part of a system that preys on those who don’t have the cash?

Jane (Marling) is a former FBI agent now working for the private security intelligence firm Hiller Brood, hired by corporate clients to protect their executives from harm. Of late, a radical eco-terrorist group calling itself The East has been targeting bigwigs at Big Oil, flooding the home of an oil company CEO with crude oil after his company flooded the gulf with the same stuff.

Sharon (Clarkson), her steely boss, picks Jane to go undercover and infiltrate The East to discover who their targets are and what they plan to do with them. Adopting the name of Sarah, she goes cross-country hanging out with free spirits and counterculture types, engaging in freeganism (the practice of eating discarded food, what some call dumpster diving). She hops trains with a group of them including one suspect she thinks might have ties to the organization but he turns out to be a red herring. However, a different member of that group – Luca (Fernandez) turns out to be the real deal and after Sarah is injured protecting him from railroad bulls he takes her to the safe house of his group to let Doc (Kebbell) take a look at her.

Doc isn’t what he used to be – an adverse reaction to a drug meant to protect him and his sister, both working for a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, from dysentery has left him prone to seizures and extreme muscle tremors. Despite the suspicions of Izzy (Page), one of the other members, she is accepted into the group and captures the eye of Benji (Skarsgard), the de facto leader of a group which claims to have no leaders – call him the first among equals then.

As the group continues to exact revenge on corporate bigwigs whose crimes have gone unpunished by the justice system, Jane/Sarah begins to become conflicted and questions whether she’s batting for the right team.

I really like the moral ambiguity here. This is a film that asks the question does the ends justify the means when the system is broken? That’s a question that’s deceptively difficult to answer. In a system rigged to prevent justice when the super-wealthy are involved, how does one achieve justice particularly when you’re a part of the system? There are no easy answers.

Kudos to Marling and Batmanglij who don’t give the audience any easy outs. Benji and his brood have their own issues and motivations and they aren’t the “pure-at-heart” anarchists that liberal Hollywood sometimes likes to parade as heroes taking on the evil capitalists, nor do all of the CEOs here come off as money-grubbing monsters who are willing to trade human lives for an extra billion they couldn’t possibly spend. Obviously their hearts lie with the anarchists but some of the actions they take are troubling.

Marling, a cool blonde who 60 years ago would have made a perfect Hitchcock female lead, is rapidly becoming one of the independent scene’s best actresses. She’s smart and takes smart roles. Her character undergoes a metamorphosis – from a Christian rock, prayerful and ambitious security agent to a radical leftist spouting freeganism and anarchy. Now, I’m not saying such a change isn’t possible but it does seem to be a rather extreme conversion. Skarsgard, who has become a heartthrob on True Blood, shows that he will make an easy transition to the big screen when that series ends if he chooses to.

On the minus side, there are some plot holes. For example, considering how secretive the group is, Jane/Sarah finds them awfully quickly. One would think if it were that easy to find them, some law enforcement agency would have located them first. Secondly, if the dysentery inoculation caused such serious side effects for such a great percentage of those who took it, a) someone would have noticed and pulled the drug from the marketplace, b) the company that was marketing it would likely never have put it in the marketplace to begin with fearing the class action lawsuits that would surely have followed and c), the Pentagon wouldn’t have signed a contract to give their soldiers a drug that would have debilitated them to the point where they were not only no longer useful as fighting men and women but also would require extensive care for the rest of their lives.

However, these things aside, the writing is pretty dang smart and keeps the tension level high throughout. Certainly one’s political leanings will color your appreciation of the film; liberal sorts will applaud the idea of those perpetrating injustices upon the environment and people getting a taste of their own medicine while conservatives might see this as a self-righteous throwback hippie Che Guevara-fest from the ’60s. Neither viewpoint is wrong, by the way.

REASONS TO GO: Raises some timely questions. Taut and suspenseful.

REASONS TO STAY: Politically self-righteous. A few plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Most of the themes here are pretty adult in nature. There is some violence, some sexuality, quite a bit of foul language and some partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay, based it on their experiences in the summer of 2009 practicing freeganism and joining an anarchist collective.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; this one got some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle in Seattle

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: R.I.P.D.