Diablo


Scott Eastwood is smoking hot.

Scott Eastwood is smoking hot.

(2015) Western (Orion/Momentum) Scott Eastwood, Walton Goggins, Camilla Belle, Samuel Marty, Danny Glover, Adam Beach, Roberto Franco, Diego Diablo Del Mar, Nesta Cooper, William Belleau, Morris Birdyellowhead, Tzi Ma, Greg Lawson, Yaniv Bercowitz, Rohan Campbell, Joaquim De Almeida, José Zuñiga. Directed by Lawrence Roeck

There isn’t anything a man won’t do when one of his loved ones are threatened. He’ll find them if he has to go to the ends of the earth to do it. He’ll take on any odds; do whatever it takes to bring them home safe and sound, even if it means doing things that may damn his soul.

Jackson (Eastwood) emerges from a burning home and barn to discover that his wife Alexsandra (Belle) has been taken by a group of desperadoes who speak Spanish. Once he rescues his horse from the barn, he takes off through the wilderness to find her. While in the mountains he meets up with Ezra (Goggins), an outlaw who takes great pleasure in killing indiscriminately. He also has an encounter with Ishani, a young Native (Marty) who fires a couple of arrows at him, but when Jackson realizes he’s just a boy spares his life.

The trail is hard and with the relentless Ezra stalking him, Jackson eventually ends up injured and cared for by Ishani’s tribe particularly his father Nakoma (Beach). However, not everyone in the tribe thinks that Jackson is necessarily the good man he seems to be and it is urged that he be given peyote and put into the sweat lodge. There, Jackson has a vision of his younger brother with whom he went to the Civil War to seven years earlier and it certainly seems that Jackson may have a few skeletons in his closet after all.

There are elements of classic Westerns in this movie, particularly in the first two thirds of it although there are elements of the Westerns of Peckinpah and Leone as well. I think the movie is going for an overall gritty feel, which isn’t a bad thing but it feels like Roeck is forcing it a little bit. There is lots of violence (some of it gruesome) and some pretty rough customers here traveling the byways of the West (mostly filmed in beautiful Alberta). Veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey outdoes himself here, giving us beautiful Rocky Mountain vistas that are absolutely dazzling, truly one of the highlights of the movie.

Goggins, who has been getting more high profile roles lately, does sterling work as the amoral Ezra. The costume helps a lot as he looks a bit like an undertaker but there is a cheerful malevolence to him that is scarier than a Snidely Whiplash type of villain. He is becoming quite a capable character actor; while the jury is out on whether he has lead role screen presence, I think it’s quite likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the near future. Eastwood’s career is also picking up; he has some high profile features on the horizon, but here although his physical resemblance to his father is significant, his screen presence isn’t as developed as his old man’s.

The movie has a serious drawback and it involves the plot twist. It’s not a bad one – don’t get me wrong on that point – but they reveal it way too early and it changes the entire nature of the movie. I can kind of see why they did it that way, but frankly it doesn’t work. It’s the kind of thing that would have best been revealed during the climactic scene.

Westerns have been making something of a comeback lately; there have been some very high quality ones that have been released in the last few months, but this isn’t one of them. That’s too bad because it has some very good individual elements, but it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole. There’s enough here to make it worth a look, particularly for those who love Westerns and those who love Clint Eastwood in particular, but even those worthies may be well-advised to play one of Clint’s classic on the home video player instead.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Goggins makes a malevolent villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The twist is revealed too early. Tries too hard to be gritty.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, most of it in the style of the Old West, and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eastwood has purposely avoided Westerns to avoid comparisons to his father even though he receives by his count more than 50 scripts every month; this is the first one he has actually agreed to do.
BEYOND THE THEATER: iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, M-Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pale Rider
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 5th Wave

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Body (2015)


Pretty little liar.

Pretty little liar.

(2015) Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden, Adam Cornelius, Dan Brennan, Kimberly Flynn, Ian Robinson, Jack Brenner, Mike Keller. Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all make mistakes in life but some can’t be taken back. When you make a really awful mistake, sometimes one bad decision can lead to a cascade of them.

It is the holidays and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen) and Mel (Molina) are bored. They’ve been at Mel’s house having a holiday feast and have been playing Scrabble. Like most young college-age women, they want to do something fun and smoking weed with Mel’s younger brother (Robinson) just isn’t it.

Cali then manages to convince her friends to move the party to her Uncle’s house which turns out to be a McMansion of the cavernous sort. The girls continue drinking, play vintage arcade games and horse around. However as Holly explores the house, it becomes clear that the family that lives there is Asian and Cali is most decidedly a blonde and blue-eyed Caucasian. When confronted, Cali admits that the house doesn’t really belong to her Uncle so much as to a family she used to babysit for.

The girls then decide to put an end to their festivities and leave but before they can get out, the groundskeeper (Fessenden) surprises them. A struggle ensues and Holly accidentally sends the hapless man tumbling down the staircase to the bottom where he lands with a sickening crack.

Now the girls have done something that can’t be undone. Cali becomes the alpha female and convinces her friends that while what happened was bad, it need not destroy their lives. They cook up elaborate plans to hide the body but before they do they discover that, in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s “not quite dead yet.” Now faced with a moral dilemma, they find their moral compass is spinning like a top.

Berk and Olsen, who also co-wrote the movie, have the three girls representing Freud’s concepts of the id, the ego and the superego. Cali is a shoot first and ask questions later kinda gal, whose only instinct is for self-preservation. Holly is the voice of reason, often drowned out by Cali’s hysterics. Mel basically floats in the breeze, going in whichever direction seems to be convenient at the moment. The dynamics between the three change with Holly or Cali asserting dominance and Mel’s support going to whoever seems to be in charge at the moment. It leads to some pretty gruesome acts by the ladies, complete with primal screams in case the Freudian overtones weren’t enough.

The girls are all fine actresses, veterans of a variety of indie projects. They do pretty well here, as does Fessenden who is one of indie cinema’s most recognizable names and faces. Some of the supporting cast doesn’t do as well, with one actor whom I won’t embarrass doing a noticeably awful job.

As thrillers go, the suspense level isn’t super high, but I think that the changing dynamics of the three leads is more the point than creating an edge of your seats thrill ride. This is more of a cerebral thriller although there are visceral elements to it (as when Helen tries to manufacture elements that a sexual assault occurred) which may be squirm inducing for some.

It’s a fairly short film, so the action is compact. The filmmakers do a lot with a little and that’s heartening. As first features go, this isn’t half bad but what bothers me is that there really isn’t anything terribly new or original here, although this kind of movie is generally done with male leads for which I give the filmmakers points. However, the plot is definitely something you’ll have seen before.

REASONS TO GO: Gender roles are a bit different than is the norm for this type of film. Love the Freudian aspects.
REASONS TO STAY: Not all of the acting is stellar. The escalating violence is a bit disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, teen drinking and drug use and a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Slamdance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuck
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Imperial Dreams

Pieta


Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

(2012) Drama (Drafthouse) Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo, Eunjin Kang, Jae-ryong Cho, Myeong-ja Lee, Jun-seok Heo, Se-in Kwon, Mun-su Song, Beon-jun Kim, Jong-hak Son, Jin Yong-Ok, Jae-Rok Kim, Won-jang Lee. Directed by Ki-duk Kim

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The relationship between a mother and son is a crucial one. Without it (or with a toxic one) young men can feel lost, unloved, alone in the world. The psychological damage of a bad or non-existent relationship with a mother can be devastating.

That’s the situation that Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) has grown up with and grown up he has. He is a collector for loan sharks who have a particularly brutal policy; those who borrow must sign insurance policies that reimburse them in case of mutilation or crippling. If they fail to pay, Kang-do shows up and cripples them. The insurance money goes to his bosses.

Kang-do is a fella who takes pleasure in his work. When the wife of one of the men who he is collecting from offers sex in exchange for giving them an additional week to come up with the money, Kang-do allows her to strip then beats her with her own brassiere and cripples her husband anyway. Kang-do also does a good deal of masturbating and likes to smear animal entrails on the floor of his shower.

Then one day a mysterious woman shows up at his door. Her name is Mi-son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. At first, Kang-do disbelieves. She has paperwork but it really means nothing. So he asks her to prove it – by cutting off his big toe and having her eat it. Then he rapes her. Did I mention that this fellow is rather sick and twisted?

Slowly however her perseverance begins to overcome his reluctance and suspicion and a relationship is formed. He begins to realize that this is a relationship he has missed and now craves. His outlook begins to change. He is no longer able to do his job as effectively. He has grown a heart. But even as he accepts her, the audience remains suspicious. There is a freezer in an industrial space that she seems unusually attached to. What’s in that freezer – and what does she want of Kang-do?

The first half of this movie is non-stop violence and gore. It is – and let me be perfectly clear here – very disturbing, even for those who are used to disturbing Asian cinema. I’ve heard this film compared to No Country for Old Men and I’ll admit that there are some similar elements here – both films have a bleak undertone. However this film makes the American film look like a Disney film in tone by comparison.

The two leads have an insane kind of chemistry, the kind of warped relationship that is a car wreck you can’t look away from. Even though she knows what her son does for a living, she seems to accept it and even assists him in small ways on occasion. There are times you wonder if she is not more sociopathic than he is and he is about as amoral as they come.

One of the best things about the movie is the performance of the leads. Both Min-soo and Jeong-jin are completely believable and that’s necessary to make their twisted relationship come to life. Otherwise it’s more or less depravity on a stick – and we’ve seen plenty of those sorts of movies that confuse shock value for genuine emotion.

Director Ki-duk Kim grew up in the Cheonggyecheon area where this was filmed. It is a heavily industrialized zone where most of the residents are extremely impoverished. The landscapes are bleak and filled with trash and debris; it looks like a place where the people who live there have given up hope for anything better completely and have simply just adjusted to living in squalor and filth. The environment is very much a character in this film and despite the conditions you get the sense that Kim retains a great deal of affection for the place. The South Korean government, incidentally, have announced plans to completely redevelop the area so these images may well be the last the world sees of it as it is now.

The movie’s last half is much milder than the first in many ways, but there is a shocker at the film’s end as everything is tied together in a way that will simply take your breath away. I’ll just say that the denouement comes as inevitable but still you are unprepared for it.

The movie has had success on the film festival circuit and was South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards although it didn’t make the final list. I’m not surprised – the first half of the movie may simply be too disturbing for Academy voters and I know a lot of  you will probably feel the same if you do take the chance to see it. I’ll tell you what a film buff friend of mine who saw it at the Florida Film Festival before I did told me – hang in there. It’s rough going in the first half but the second half is so worth it. I agree – and unless you are extremely sensitive to violence and sexuality, it is worth the rough stuff in the end.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting psychological study. Min-soo Jo and Jeong-jin Lee deliver riveting performances. The payoff is extraordinary.

REASONS TO STAY: Getting to the climax requires one to sit through scenes of brutality and cruelty that may be too much for some..

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasionally graphic violence, a good deal of sexuality, some very disturbing scenes, incest and bad language throughout the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; fairly decent reviews but some critics just can’t get past some of the more disturbing elements of the film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Rundown

Bad Teacher


Bad Teacher

Who's haughty? Cameron Diaz and Lucy Punch engage in a pose-off.

(2011) Comedy (Columbia) Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins, Dave “Gruber” Allen, Jillian Armenante, Matthew J. Evans, Thomas Lennon, Molly Shannon, Rick Overton, Kaitlyn Dever, Kathryn Newton. Directed by Jake Kasdan

Most of us owe at least a part of who we are to our teachers. Some remain engrained in our memory, teachers who make a positive difference, who inspire and guide. Others are less significant in our lives but have some sort of impact. Once in awhile we have a teacher who impacts our lives in a negative way.

Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) has only been at John Adams Middle School for a year but she has already made an impression – and not the good kind. Not liked by her colleagues, ignored by her students, she’s just killing time until she marries her rich fiancée. When she is given a bon voyage at the end of the year, her fellow teachers can only muster up a $37 Boston Market gift card as a going away present.

Unfortunately, the engagement falls through and Elizabeth must return for another school term. This doesn’t sit well for her and her new mission is to find a new husband who will take care of her for the rest of her life in the kind of comfort she aspires to. A candidate comes along in substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Timberlake) who has just ended a long-term relationship with a large-breasted girlfriend and whose family runs a high-end watch company.

Elizabeth zeroes in on the big-breasted aspect of the former girlfriend and decides that her ticket to the easy life is a boob job. She means to get that operation by hook or by crook but on a teacher’s salary, that kind of money just isn’t there. So she goes about using her feminine wiles and her manipulative nature to get the cash. When she finds out from her friend Lynn Davies (Smith) that a bonus is paid to the teacher whose class gets the highest score on the state test, she decides that she must actually teach her class to pass the test. Of course, she takes a short cut here as well; she obtains a copy of the test from administrator Carl Halabi (Lennon) by pretending to be a reporter, seducing him and drugging him. Nice girl, no?

In the meantime, she finds that she has a rival for Scott’s affections in uber-cheerful teacher Amy Squirrel (Punch), who despite her outwardly sweet and perky nature hides suspicions and a dark side. The two women go to war, while nice guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Segel) tries to romance an uninterested Elizabeth.

Diaz has never been one of my favorite actresses; she always seems a bit high-strung to me. However, this is a role that is from my point of view, perfect for her. Elizabeth is shallow, self-centered and without any sense of morality whatsoever. She smokes pot in the parking lot, throws rubber dodge balls at her students’ heads when they get an answer wrong, shows up to work hung over and simply shows a movie with a classroom theme to her students, and dresses provocatively at every turn.

Segel has a certain sweetness to him that we’ve seen in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall that serves him well here. He also has a bit of a bite which also serves him well here. He is by far the most likable character in the film. Punch, last seen in Dinner With Schmucks, is delightful in the antagonist role. Watching her unravel onscreen is one of the movie’s better accomplishments.

Kasdan, who also directed the musical bio spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, doesn’t pull any punches here. This is mean-spirited, over-the-top and without any redeeming moral qualities whatsoever. Now, I’m not the blue-nosed sort who thinks every movie needs to have a strong moral compass and I can occasionally find a laugh in mean things happening to people who don’t deserve it. However, I require that if you’re going to do a comedy this mean-spirited, there needs to be at least a few laughs.

This is not a movie that pretends to have an uplifting message, and in that sense, the movie is exactly what it appears to be. To that end, it really boils down to your own personal preference; do you prefer laughing at people, or laughing with them. For my own personal taste, this isn’t my kind of humor so the rating for the movie reflects that to a certain extent. However, even people who like this sort of thing may have a hard time finding more than a few chuckles for the full feature.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is at least true to its convictions. Diaz moves out of her comfort zone and Segel is at least pleasant.

REASONS TO STAY: Most of the movie’s funniest moments can be seen in the trailer. Offensive on nearly every level.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as raunchy jokes, sexuality, nudity and a bit of drug use make this not fit for family viewing.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky both worked extensively on “The Office” where Smith is a cast member.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams “see this in a theater.”

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Larry Crowne