A Violent Separation


Carrying her across a different threshold.

(2019) Crime Drama (Screen Media) Brenton Thwaites, Ben Robson, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Claire Holt, Ted Levine, Gerald McRaney, Francesca Eastwood, Michael Malarkey, Peter Michael Goetz, Isabella Gaspersz, Lynne Ashe, Carleigh Johnston, Cotton Yancey, Silas Cooper, Jason Edwards, Kim Collins, Morley Nelson, Bowen Hoover. Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz

 

The backwoods hide its share of secrets. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing just right you can swear you hear the trees whispering about dark deeds done in the dead of night, of murder, mayhem and cheating hearts.

Ray Young (Robson) is one of those country boys whom trouble just seems to follow. He’s a man who likes to drink and has a hair-trigger temper, not a great combination. He’s done some jail time for petty crime and makes up “the usual suspect” in the small Missouri town he lives in. His younger brother Norman (Thwaites) couldn’t be more different; a straight-arrow deputy sheriff who is painfully naive, romantically awkward and a bit exasperated by his hot mess of a brother.

Ray is on-again off-again dating Abby (Holt) who is a single mom whose baby daddy is Cinch (Malarkey), a construction worker built in Ray’s mold – this girl sure can pick them. Her younger sister Frances (Debnam-Carey) is quiet, upstanding and of course the object of Norman’s affection, although much of what she jokes about goes sailing over his head. Abby and Frances live at their childhood home where they take care of seriously ill patriarch Tom (McRaney) who trundles an oxygen tank wherever he goes but is not above roaring his disapproval over one thing or another at the sisters, particularly when Frances has the temerity to take away his smokes.

After the four young people go out for a night of drinking an dancing at a roadhouse charmingly known as The Whispering Pig, Ray predictably makes out with a barmaid (Eastwood) and gets into a fight that Norman has to come to his aid for. Furious, a drunk Abby gets into her car and peels out of the parking lot, leaving the other three behind.

The next day a badly hungover Abby takes her dad’s pistol and lambastes an equally hungover Ray, nagging him to teach her how to shoot which he is reluctant to do. The two drive into the woods where a terrible accident occurs. Ray panics and calls his brother to help him cover up his involvement. In a moment of weakness, Norman agrees to.

The town sheriff (Levine) is a pretty smart cookie and he begins piecing together the crime from the few clues that have remained. Norman, as a cop, knows how to stage a crime scene and manipulate an investigation. While the Sheriff (and a few other people) are certain that Ray had a hand in what happened to Abby, nobody suspects Norman. As time goes by and the trail goes cold the romance between Norman and Frances begins to heat up. However, the guilt both brothers are feeling begins to bubble to the surface and threatens to expose what they’ve both done.

The brothers Goetz seem to be waffling between Southern Gothic and neo-noir when it comes to tone and ends up being neither. For some odd reason, they decided to set the film in Missouri but filmed in Louisiana an it looks like Louisiana – why not just set it where you filmed it? Nobody cares overly much. Secondly, most of the main cast (with the exception of Levine and McRaney) are British or Australian. Not that the cast members (mostly of basic cable and TV pedigree) from across the various ponds can’t handle these very American art forms, but it just seems a curious thing hauling them all the way to the backwoods of Louisiana.

Actually, the cast is pretty decent although it is the veterans McRaney and Levine who steal the show. Robson and Thwaites capture a brotherly dynamic that feels authentic; having directors who are themselves brothers probably has a lot to do with it. The movie is reasonably suspenseful as the brothers come closer to cracking, although the “twist” ending feels forced and much of the movie loses its punch because of the melodrama that tinges the entire production.

There are moments of cinematic beauty which are provided by cinematographer Sean O’Dea; however, Evan Goldman’s score is intrusive and a little bit annoying. Overall this isn’t all that bad but there aren’t enough good things about it that really make it stand out among all the other movies that are out there at the moment. Fans of the various shows the young actors are in might get a kick out of seeing them in very different roles than they’re used to but otherwise, this one’s pretty much a toss-up.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography has some lovely heartland images.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t add anything to the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Michael Goetz, who plays Riley Jenkins, is the father of the directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews: Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder by Numbers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Aniara

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Randy’s Canvas


How much more New England can you get?

(2018) Romance (Vision) Adam Carbone, Michael Emery, Scout Taylor-Compton, Marycarmen Lopez, Richard Riehle, Massi Furlan, Kevin G. Schmidt, Shawn Pyfrom, John Petrella, Ramiro Tavares, Sissy O’Hara, Dick Lebeau, Michael G. Nathan, Stephen O’Neil Martin, Marilyn Baker, Ray Boutin, Christopher L. Ferreira, Sonya Joyner, Courtney Danforth. Directed by Sean Michael Beyer

 

Autism is one of those things that most of us are woefully ignorant of but sort of paint a picture in our minds that is highly inaccurate, generally. Autism doesn’t mean dumb, it doesn’t mean untalented, it doesn’t mean that those afflicted with it can’t lead meaningful lives. Autism means that those who have it process things differently. Yes, some folks with autism are not as smart as other folks with autism. Some can’t handle anything more than the most menial of jobs, although others can excel at high-paying jobs. Like all the rest of us, there are all sorts of people with autism and there are no two alike.

Randy (Carbone) has autism but he is high-functioning. He lives with his brother Henry (Emery), a garbage man in a small town near Providence, Rhode Island. Randy works as a janitor in a small art gallery in town; he likes to spend time talking art with the security guard Bob (Petrella). Randy is an artist himself and one night he forgets his portfolio (which he takes with him wherever he goes apparently) and when Bob looks through it, he realizes the kid is a major talent. Impulsively, Bob hangs one of Randy’s works in the gallery.

That wasn’t a bright idea. The owners of the gallery are furious and they fire the both of them but not before curator Maurizio D’Oro (Furlan) gets a look at Randy’s painting and comes to the conclusion that Bob did – that here was a diamond in the rough. He offers Randy a job in his gallery and an amazing opportunity – to audit an art class at the New England Institute of Technology with the famous Professor Hausdorff (Riehle).

Randy isn’t keen on the idea, although reluctantly gives in when everyone he trusts urges him to go for it. Randy is not known for taking instructions well or following them once they’re given which ends up placing him in an adversarial relationship with his professor. Making matters worse is that he’s in love with Sienna (Lopez) who is the girlfriend of Clinton (Schmidt), a smug entitled scion of the company that employs Henry. Sienna likes hanging out with Henry and Randy (although Clinton’s not at all pleased about it) but has no real romantic inclinations towards Randy. Randy’s classmate, the sunny and outgoing Cassie (Taylor-Compton) tries to help but the bottom line is that Randy is miserable and it’s affecting his art and putting in jeopardy his chance to develop his talent.

To the good: Randy is a fully drawn-out character whose autism is incidental in many ways; it’s not who he is, it’s what he has. He can be a handful to deal with but then again, so can we all. I was surprised to discover that Carbone is not autistic himself; he has all the tics and rapid hand movements down cold.

I was also surprised at Emery who I’ve not heard of but I sincerely hope that changes. He has a great deal of charismatic screen presence and could have a long career ahead of him on film. While Henry isn’t the perfect brother, his heart is in the right place and you get a good sense of that good heart here.

Speaking of heart, this film has plenty of it. You can’t help but root for it to be better. The small town New England locations give the movie a very homey feeling and as you watch you feel like you’re being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold fall rainy day. Not every movie can make that claim.

To the not-so-good: the score which starts out lovely with a simple piano melody gets overbearing with washes of strings that come straight from a cheesy melodrama of 50 years ago. They also use too many pop-folk songs on the soundtrack to the point where I began to wonder if I was watching a movie or listening to a playlist. Simple is better, folks.

The script also gets a little bit overwrought at times, emphasizing the melodramatic elements which should have been played down. Poor Randy is suffering from his first love and we all can relate to the pain of it and I know that for some folks with autism dealing with strong emotions can be nearly impossible but it did get to the point where I felt like the movie was losing its way. Some of the scenes also end a little too abruptly; there’s not a lot of flow between scenes. A steadier hand in the editing bay might have helped.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad but only slightly. This is definitely more of a feel good kind of film and while there was ample room for a teaching moment or two, the filmmakers never choose to go that route and the result is a lightweight romance with a hint of comedy in which the male lead happens to have autism. While the latter is admirable, it’s not enough to make the movie stand on its own essentially. There’s certainly room for improvement but the good news is that I think that those involved with this are capable of better things. Incidentally, check out the trivial pursuit entry in case you need a really good reason to rent or buy this.

REASONS TO GO: I love the New England locations; this film has an awful lot of heart.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie gets overwrought in places and the soundtrack is intrusive (too many songs!)
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some partial nudity and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proceeds from the film are going to benefit the Autism Society.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bikini Moon

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

Chronically Metropolitan


Writing and hangovers go hand in hand.

(2016) Dramedy (Paladin) Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Benson, Addison Timlin, Josh Peck, Chris Noth, Mary-Louise Parker, Chris Lowell, Sosie Bacon, Nasser Faris, Norm Golden, Rhys Coiro, Max Curnin, Craig Newman, Luca Surguladze, Whitney Vance, Al Thompson, Victor Cruz, Andres Arellano, Antoinette Kalaj, Alex Oliver, Meredith Travers, Ana Valdes. Directed by Xavier Manrique

 

Writers are an odd lot. We have wonderful powers of observation, very often able to discern truths about those we observe that they might not expect. We are also self-centered; writing is by its nature a solitary endeavor. All of us, every one, is ruled by the tyranny of the blank page.

Fenton (Fernandez) is the son of one such writer and professor who has been a leading light in the New York City literary world and a fixture on the Upper East Side. When Fenton’s dad (Noth) is involved in a car accident in which drugs and extramarital sex played a role, his whole family is put under an enormous microscope – the accident winds up front page material in the New York Post (“They never paid this much attention when I won my National Book Award” he grouses).

Fenton had been living in San Francisco the past year. A talented writer in his own right, he had gotten a story published in The New Yorker which his then-girlfriend Jessie (Benson) had assumed was about her and her family. It led to a nasty break-up and to Fenton’s exile, as he puts it. Now he’s back, trying to mend fences with Jessie who is on the eve of her wedding to Victor (Lowell), an art gallery owner whose family is stupid rich. Fenton’s dad assumes that’s why the nuptials are impending.

Fenton’s mom (Parker) has retreated into a marijuana-scented haze trying to dull the edges of her pain and embarrassment. His sister Layla (Addison Timlin) is basically angry at everybody and carrying on a hidden relationship with Fenton’s best buddy (and mom’s pot supplier) John (Peck). Fenton has a deal for a novel based on the success of his New Yorker story but when he sits down to write it that blank page stares back at him accusingly. He hasn’t been able to move on from all the upheaval and with his parents essentially on the verge of divorce, he is getting overwhelmed and acting out. Can he put his life back together under the microscope of New York literary society?

This is the kind of movie that plays to the prejudices of non-New Yorkers, characterizing them as pretentious self-centered spoiled rich pricks. Everyone in the movie and I do mean everyone has some sort of neuroses going on. As for actual New Yorkers, this is the kind of movie that sets their teeth on edge. Certainly there are people who behave this way – those prejudices had to start from somewhere – but it isn’t really true to life anymore.

For one thing, a story in the New Yorker isn’t going to have the catastrophic effect on families that it once did. In this day and age of social media, a family’s skeletons are likely to be aired on Facebook long before the dirty laundry is made into a short story or a novel. Regards to the New Yorker, a publication that is worthy of respect but while it continues to carry a lot of clout, I don’t think that it can cause that kind of personal chaos any longer. At least, that’s what I hear.

This feels like a movie cobbled together from a lot of different movies; Fenton wanting to stop the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, a family at each other’s throats due to a work of fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography, a philandering father who is a writer, a mother who is self-medicating, an angry sibling – I could go on but why bother? This is all fairly safe, fairly familiar territory and most of you who have watched more than a few indie films set in Manhattan are going to recognize it.

Noth channels Rip Torn here and does a fairly stellar job in a role of an utter S.O.B. which Torn used to essentially own. Noth, who generally plays nice guys, does an admirable job here. Parker, a terrific actress who doesn’t get nearly as much credit as she deserves, is wasted in a generic role. In fact, most of the women here have very little depth to their parts. This is certainly a case where the script could have used a woman’s touch.

Cinematographer Scott Miller does a bang-up job of using the city as a character; one gets the sense of the ebb and flow of New York. Despite the shallowness of most of the characters, one senses a genuine love for the city from all of the filmmakers. That does go a long way.

Sadly this is far too generic and far too cliché to really attract much notice. There are some good ideas here but for the most part the writing takes safe, established routes rather than blazing new trails. There’s nothing here that seems to have much of a voice – and that’s essential to a film like this. It’s okay as far as it goes, but I would have liked a lot more than okay.

REASONS TO GO: The film is skillfully shot and features New York City nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Indie clichés abound here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of drug and alcohol use and some sex and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker, whose character here has developed a marijuana habit, also played a pot smoker in the TV series Weeds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Landline

Forev


This road trip is no picnic.

This road trip is no picnic.

(2013) Comedy (Gravitas) Noel Wells, Matt Mider, Amanda Bauer, Timmy L’Hereux, Chuck McCarthy, Dominic DeVore, Gina Gallego, Timothy Charlton, Gary G. “Thang” Johnson, Barb Mackerer, Hunter Hill, Pedro Lopez, Logan Strobel, Naaman Esquivel, Connor Morris, Marian McGinnis, Jon Katz, Chris Merchant, Kate Johnson. Directed by Molly Green and James Leffler

Florida Film Festival 2014

When you’re young, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be impulsive. If you think about things too much, you lose the moment and miss out on some fairly amazing experiences. Of course, if you think about things, you might actually save yourself from some pretty sorry situations.

Pete (Mider) is minding his own business, eating pizza in his apartment after a hard day’s work when who barges in but his neighbor Sophie (Wells), an actress. However, she doesn’t realize she’s barged in – she’s too busy making out passionately with her hookup du jour and thinks she’s in her own apartment. After Pete clears his throat, HDJ heads into the bathroom and Sophie hears him tell his friends he’ll be joining them in about 15 minutes after he’s done. Sophie decides that’s an offer that she can pretty much pass up without a problem.

After an audition for a hot dog commercial doesn’t go as well as she might have hoped, she decides to hang out with Pete whom she knows only marginally. His carpet is quite comfortable as it turns out and she is loathe to leave it. Pete says offhandedly “Since you’re going to be here anyway, we might as well get married.” I know, lame, right? Still from such small acorns mighty oaks may grow.

Sadly for Sophie, Pete has to run an errand and Sophie decides to tag along. The errand turns out to be a six hour drive from L.A. to Phoenix to pick up Pete’s sister Jess (Bauer) from college. On the way there, to a killer indie rock soundtrack, Pete and Sophie decide Pete’s marriage proposal wasn’t a bad idea at all. Voila, they’re engaged!

Jess is rightfully incredulous at her brother’s newfound relationship status and incredulity grows into downright hostility when she discovers how long the happy couple have been together. Jess, who was been in a relationship with a promising baseball player whom Pete worshipped for awhile, also has a relationship status change of her own – she’s gone from “involved” to “it’s complicated” to “single.” It’s times like these when you really need Facebook to let everyone know what’s going on.

A previous mishap involving an armadillo leads to the proverbial car breakdown in the desert, stranding them in a town so small that even the one horse has grown bored and hitchhiked to L.A. Sophie gets the surprising news that she got the part in the commercial after all and has to be in L.A. in two days to shoot it. When Pete gets into a fight with a local hitting on his fiancée (after said fiancée eggs him on) , Pete and Sophie head back to the hotel for some awkward cuddling while Jess finds herself a bearded guy to hang out with. When she doesn’t come back to the hotel room, Pete and Sophie go on a desperate search, the clock ticking on Sophie’s job all the while.

If you see enough independent films, you are going to find this not only familiar but downright “been there done that.” It has enough indie clichés to fill a hipster film festival; the cute couple acting zany and childish, the indie rock soundtrack that substitutes for a Greek chorus, the young people at least one of whom is an artist marching to their own drummer and so on. Throw in the clichés of modern romantic comedies and you have a case of cliché overload.

The young cast is actually quite good and have some decent chemistry – Mider and Wells both attended the University of Texas with the co-directors, so they have known each other awhile. That serves them well in terms of their banter and interaction. The script relies heavily on charm and has its share of funny moments.

The biggest problem here is that after awhile you start feeling the distinct need to stand up in your seat, shake your fist at the screen and scream at the top of your lungs “REAL PEOPLE DON’T ACT THIS WAY!!!” And they don’t. Personally, I think the film would have been far more effective if they’d chosen instead to make the whole marriage thing a running joke between Sophie and Pete which gradually becomes something real. Instead, you get the sense that these are two dim bulbs who think that marriage and relationships leading to marriage are something so easy you can just snap your fingers and it happens. Jess gets it but you get the sense that she’s a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Thus.

I do think Green and Leffler have some decent instincts but they need to find their own voice. The movie relies too much on established indie moves, so much so that the few moves of its own that it shows are kind of lost in the shuffle. A movie like this one hits the target more readily if you can recognize the characters in it. Instead, we get the hoary old indie song and dance about 20-something hipsters trying to impress somebody with how spontaneous they are. I get that I sound like a “Get off My Lawn, you young punks” critic but I don’t have a problem with spontaneity or young people – I have a problem with those elements in a movie are not given enough thought or depth to make the movie resonate better.

Incidentally, the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. A VOD and home video release has been scheduled. You can pre-order the movie on DVD/Blu-Ray beginning on May 1 by clicking on the photo which will take you to the movie’s website.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent laughs. Attractive leads with lots of potential.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many indie-cute clichés. Characters not acting like real people. Predictable

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wells joined the cast of Saturday Night Live this season as a featured player.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Doomsdays

Jack Reacher


A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

(2012) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall, Alexia Fast, Vladimir Sizov, Joseph Sikora, Michael Raymond-James, Josh Helman, Susan Angelo, Julia Yorks. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

There is an axiom that when a solution to a problem is handed to you on a plate, take a look at the plate first. That is especially true when it comes to solving crimes. Rarely are cases open and  shut so when it appears that way, it is natural for a good investigator to be suspicious.

Pittsburgh is rocked by a heinous crime; a sniper has taken out five people seemingly at random.. The Pittsburgh police put this one at the top of their list, and quickly found enough evidence to put a suspect, one James Barr (Sikora) into custody in what looks to be an open and shut case. While being interviewed by Detective Emerson (Oyelowo) and District Attorney Rodin (Jenkins) Barr says only one thing – “Get Jack Reacher.”

The trouble is, they can’t find the man. He used to be a crack military investigator but after being discharged took himself off the grid. He’s a man who doesn’t get found – he finds you. Fortunately for them, Reacher (Cruise) walked right into their office. To their surprise, he’s no friend of Barr’s; in fact, he wants to put Barr away for good after getting away with a very similar crime in Iraq when he took out four civilian contractors.

The trouble is, he can’t talk to Barr – he’s in a coma after being beaten up during a prison transport. Barr’s lawyer happens to be the district attorney’s daughter Helen (Pike) and she smells something really fishy. She wants Reacher to be her investigator which would give him access to the evidence, something the DA is not inclined to give him. Reacher only wants to catch the next bus out of Pittsburgh but he needs to put paid to this and move on, so he hangs around.

As he looks into it, he begins to get more and more suspicious and the police’s open and shut case begins to look more open all the time. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that Barr is just a patsy and that sinister forces are at work as Reacher gets closer and closer to the truth and the man who set all of this in motion – a man known only as The Zec (Herzog).

Reacher is a character invented by author Lee Child who has turned it into a series of novels that numbers 17 to date (with number 18 scheduled for publication in 2013). The Reacher in the book is a hulk, six feet five inches tall and massive. That is certainly not a physical description of Tom Cruise.

The reason that Cruise was cast and why Child approved of it is that Cruise captures the essence of Reacher. Reacher is certainly a force of nature when it comes to violence but he is also whip-mart, super observant and a true student of human nature. He understands not only what people do but why they do it.

Cruise is in remarkable shape for a 50-year-old man. He handles the physical aspects of the character well and a scene in which he takes out five thugs in a bar fight is believable, which you wouldn’t expect from a one-on-five encounter. In fact, all of the action sequences are pretty well done. McQuarrie doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel and given that he’s a first time director (after an acclaimed writing career that includes The Usual Suspects) is probably a wise decision.

While the climax drags a bit (which is a bit of a drag), the rest of the movie is surprisingly good. Herzog makes a pretty great villain (he orders a minion to chew off his own fingers after messing up) and Pike is a lovely and radiant heroine. I had thought that the movie would be a pretty typical action movie but it does rise above, thanks to a compelling story and a smartly done script. One can’t ask for more than that.

The timing is unfortunate as the first scene depicts a mass shooting (the film was released less than a week after the Newtown tragedy) and so that’s going to color some perceptions. Those who were particularly disturbed by those killings may want to think hard about seeing this – at one point in the film’s opening sequence the crosshairs of the killer’s rifle lands and lingers upon a young child. That’s meant to heighten the heinousness of the crime being committed, although in this case Hollywood doesn’t hold a candle to reality when it comes to human cruelty.

REASONS TO GO: Tautly plotted and well-written. Action sequences are quite satisfactory.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie Jack Reacher is much different than the book Jack Reacher. Climax is dragged out a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some foul language with just a hint of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally titled One Shot after the novel the movie is based on which is actually the ninth in the series.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100. The reviews hover from mixed to good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Marine

QUARRY LOVERS: The film’s conclusion takes place in a quarry and the landscape is used to good effect in the action sequence.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mystery Men