The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

New Releases for the Week of July 12, 2019


STUBER

(20th Century Fox) Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Jimmy Tatro, Mira Sorvino, Karen Gillan. Directed by Michael Dowse

A mild-mannered Uber driver picks up a hyper-violent cop who has had his wheels taken away. On a high-stakes case, the cop will enlist the driver to go above and beyond the standard rideshare contract.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity)

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable

(Entertainment Studios) Bethany Hamilton. The subject of the hit movie Soul Surfer gets a documentary of her own. Champion surfer Bethany Hamilton has a brush with death when a shark attack takes one of her arms. Undaunted, she works hard and returns to being one of the best in the world at the sport she loves.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: PG (for thematic elements)

Crawl

(Paramount) Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark. When a massive hurricane batters Florida, a young woman, unable to contact her father, drives desperately to his lake house to find him gravely injured. As the flood waters rise, they discover that the flooding is the least of their problems.

See the trailer, interviews and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for bloody creature violence, and brief language)

The Fall of the American Empire

(Sony Classics) Alexandre Landry, Maripier Morin, Rėmy Girard, Louis Morissette. A delivery man with a PhD in philosophy is dropping off a package when he comes across the aftermath of a hold-up gone terribly wrong. With millions in money bags on the ground, will he do the moral thing or do the human thing?

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Cinematique of Daytona, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for some strong violence, sexual content/nudity and language)

Super 30

(Reliance) Hrithik Roshan, Mrunal Thakur, Amit Sadh, Pankaj Tripathi. This is the true story of a mathematics genius from a poor family who is determined to prove that the best minds don’t necessarily come from the right side of the tracks. He begins a training program designed to help disadvantaged students in India the opportunity to attend the most prestigious technical college and make something better of themselves and their country.

See the trailer and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Touchstar Southchase
Rating: NR

Wild Rose

(NEON) Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Jamie Sives. A young British mother of two children dreams of being a country music superstar and has the talent to get her foot in the door. However, she is far away from Nashville and having just been released from prison, her responsibilities to her family are complicating the achievement of her dreams.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Enzian Theater, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality and brief drug material)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Konttho
Phil
Summer Night
Sunshine Family
Trespassers

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blanche
Dorasaani
In the Aisles
Maiden
The Other Story
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
The White Storm 2: Drug Lords
Yuli

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG/SARASOTA:

Dorasaani
I Got the Hook-Up 2
Lying and Stealing

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Dorasaani

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Crawl
Maiden
Stuber
Wild Rose

Maze Runner: The Death Cure


How can they be surprised at the bad reviews?

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Nathalie Emmanuel, Katherine McNamara, Walton Goggins, Dylan Smith,  Jake Curran, Greg Kriek, Liza Scholtz. Directed by Wes Ball

 

There have been a number of dystopian sci-fi trilogies in the young adult book market as of late, several of which have been converted to the silver screen. Divergent, The Hunger Games and Maze Runner all feature young heroes who shoulder the responsibility of changing their society for the better. It makes me wonder if that hasn’t rubbed off on the current generation who recently took to the streets to protest a lack of movement on gun control.

However, while one applauds the passion of the Parkland pack, it’s hard to appreciate the cinematic skills displayed on this, the finale of the Maze Runner series. It’s stupefying in its length – two hours and twenty odd minutes – and seems to be repetitive in its action. We learn the horrifying truth about WCKD – that in a latch-ditch effort to find a cure for the disease that has overtaken 80% of he population they have taken to experimenting on young people who have shown immunity to the disease which turns people into ravening homicidal maniacs – zombiesque you might say – that has essentially wiped out civilization in all but the Last City.

The original group of maze runners has shown up on a variety of sides; Teresa (Scodelario) is a researcher for WCKD and her mother (Clarkson) is the head scientist for them. Minho (Lee) has been taken by WCKD and its head security guy Janson (Gillen); Newt (Sangster) has finally come down with the disease while Thomas (O’Brien) is leading the rescue efforts to pick up Minho before they sail to a deserted island to live away from the madness in peace and tranquility.

The trend of dividing the trilogy finale into two separate movies was not adopted here, likely because the filmmakers did enough padding (for example, the opening train sequence doesn’t appear in the book) and still couldn’t fill up two movies. As usual with young adult adventure stories, kids are heroic (mostly) and adults are evil (mostly) and the adults underestimate the kids and don’t understand them – yes, it’s a bit pedantic but I suppose you have to appeal to the sensitivities of the market you’re after.

Sangster is one of my favorite young actors out there but he doesn’t get much to do here until the end. O’Brien shows tremendous potential but he hasn’t really won me over yet – the character of Thomas is just too cliché which is hardly his fault and yes, he imbues the character with nobility but Thomas is so one-note it’s difficult to assess whether O’Brien can pull off a multi-layered performance yet so the jury’s still out in my case.

There are plenty of pyrotechnics and oceans of CGI images and for the most part it’s executed well and why wouldn’t it be? With production delays incurred due to an on-set accident which put out the lead performer for almost a year, the effects houses were given plenty of time to work on the images. Still the story is so weak, the characters so been there done that and the movie way overlong that recommending this film is simply not in the cards. I am not convinced that this is the death cure but it sure is a cure for insomnia.

REASONS TO GO: The pyrotechnics and special effects were nifty in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is interminably long, dumb and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action and violence, some thematic concerns as well as a smattering of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was seriously injured during the opening train scene when he fell off the top of the train; it took nearly a year for him to recover from his injuries, delaying the release of the film from 2017 to January 2018..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Family

New Releases for the Week of January 26, 2018


MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE

(20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper. Directed by Wes Ball

The final chapter in the Maze Runner trilogy sees the young hero Thomas desperately searching the post-apocalyptic Earth for the cure to the deadly plague known as The Flare. The project was delayed after star Dylan O’Brien was injured during filming.

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

Release Formats: Standard, Dolby Atmos, IMAX, RPX, XD
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements)

Hostiles

(Entertainment Studios) Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Timothée Chalamet. A legendary army officer is tasked at the close of the 19th century to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief from a New Mexico fort where he had been incarcerated to the grasslands of Montana where his tribe has been sent. It’s a perilous journey and the captain is none to pleased about having to make it but during the trip circumstances will force him to work with his mortal enemy in order to survive.

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

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

Rating: R (for strong violence, and language)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

49 Pulses
Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes
Bhaagamathie
In the Fade
Padmaavat

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Bhaagamathie
Humor Me
Kickboxer: Retaliation
The Neighbor
Padmaavat

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Aadu 2
Bhaagamathie
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
The Competition
The Neighbor
Padmaavat

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Bhaagamathie
The Divine Order
Padmaavat

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Hostiles
In the Fade
Maze Runner: The Death Cure

New Releases for the Week of February 24, 2017


Get OutGET OUT

(Universal/Blumhouse) Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Keith Stanfield, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Erika Alexander. Directed by Jordan Peele

A young African-American man has reached that dreaded milestone in his relationship with his girlfriend; it’s time to meet the parents. There’s extra pressure on the situation because his girlfriend is white. When the two of them are invited on a weekend retreat at the parents’ estate-like getaway home, it’s nervousness and awkwardness all around as you might expect. However, he learns to his shock that this is merely a cover for something far more sinister. This is a very different side of Peele, one-half the acclaimed comedy team of Key and Peele.

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

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

Rating: R (for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references)

Bitter Harvest

(Roadside Attractions) Max Irons, Lucy Brown, Barry Pepper, Terence Stamp. In 1933, Stalin had seized control of the Soviet Union. His ambitions however ran to further expansion of the communist regime. In order to do that, he decided to enforce a program of mass starvation in the Ukraine. Millions would die while a young artist tried to keep his lover alive by any means necessary. If you’re wondering why the Ukrainian people are so vehemently opposed to a Russian tyrant, this is why.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence and disturbing images

Collide

(Open Road) Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley. After a heist goes terribly wrong, a young criminal finds himself on the run from a ruthless drug lord. Enlisting the help of his former employer – an equally ruthless drug lord who is a rival to the one chasing him – he must somehow protect his girlfriend and not get caught between the two enemies. Considering the cast, this film has bounced around the release schedule for a few years and has now been released with almost zero promotion. That doesn’t bode well for the quality of the film.

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

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

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, frenetic action, some sexuality, language and drug material)

Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back

(Magnolia) Likun Wang, Kris Wu, Kenny Lin, Yiwei Yang. A young monk who has made it his life’s calling to rid the world of demons (and there are MANY of them) has converted three of them to his cause through his love and self-sacrifice. Now this quartet undertakes a journey to the West that will be fraught with peril and test their bonds, but is necessary to save the people from a terrifying threat. This is a sequel (of sorts) to the 2013 film and represents a collaboration between two of the greatest names in Chinese cinema; writer Stephen Chow and director Tsui Hark.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts Fantasy
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG-13 (for fantasy action violence, some suggestive content, rude humor and thematic elements)

Punching Henry

(Well Go USA) Henry Phillips, Tig Notaro, J.K. Simmons, Sarah Silverman. A struggling singer-songwriter (of satirical songs) thinks he’s finally gotten his big break when a high-powered TV producer summons him to Hollywood to pitch a reality TV show that is centered around him and his obstacle-laden career. What Henry doesn’t know however is that the actual intent of the producer is to create a show that is about the life of a loser.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: NR

Rock Dog

(Summit) Starring the voices of Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, Lewis Black, Sam Elliott. From time immemorial a clan of mastiffs has guarded the peaceful residents of Snow Mountain from a lunatic pack of wolves. However, when the son of the clan leader discovers a radio that plays that demon rock music, suddenly he wants a new path in life – that of a rock star. However, he’ll have to abandon his family and his home in order to do that. And, in true animated feature fashion, his music may end up saving Snow Mountain forever.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action and language)

Toni Erdmann

(Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simionischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl. A hard working German woman has a very strained relationship with her eccentric, practical joking father. In order to get her attention, he invents the character of Toni Erdmann, a life coach who challenges her to change her corporate lifestyle. At first she resists and the contest between them escalates until she eventually realizes that she needs her father more than she thought. This is an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film.

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: R (for some sexuality/nudity)

Voodoo

(Freestyle) Samantha Stewart, Ruth Reynolds, Dominic Matteucci, Ron Jeremy. When a straight-laced Southern girl takes a vacation to Los Angeles to escape her increasingly complicated life, she comes face to face with an ancient voodoo priestess who curses her to relive all the horrible deeds she’s done – in this life and in previous ones.

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

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

Rating: NR

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

Broken City


Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Michael Beach, Kyle Chandler, James Ransone, Griffin Dunne, Odessa Sykes, Britney Theriot, Luis Tolentino, Tony Bentley, Andrea Frankle, William Ragsdale, Dana Gourrier, Teri Wyble. Directed by Allen Hughes

Honesty and politics don’t mix in modern America. The rule is that most politicians will do just about anything to win, stopping short of murder. Some don’t even stop there.

Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is a New York City cop but one with anger issues. When a lowlife who raped and murdered a teen is released on a technicality, he snaps and murders the scumbag in cold blood. Police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Wright) wants to throw his detective to the woods but then New York City Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) buries the evidence and tells Taggart he’s a hero. However, while Billy won’t be going to jail even the Mayor can’t protect his job under those circumstances.

Seven years later, Billy is working as a private investigator but his business is failing. While his loyal assistant Katy Bradshaw (Tal) hangs in there, Billy knows he can’t survive much longer. However apparently coming to his rescue, Mayor Hostetler comes to Billy with an assignment; to follow Hizzonor’s wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones) and find out if she’s having an affair or not. The Mayor is in the middle of a vicious campaign for re-election and he can’t afford the hint of a scandal to get out; it’s something his opponent Jack Valliant (Pepper) and his canny manager Paul Andrews (Chandler) would make a great deal of hay from.

Billy is more than happy and grateful to take a paying job, even when it leads to Cathleen’s lover – none other than Paul Andrews himself. But when Andrews turns up dead, Billy realizes he’s in way over his head and that someone in this equation is hiding something, something they’re willing to kill to keep hidden. Not knowing who to trust and fighting his own demons – alcohol and jealousy of his girlfriend (Martinez), an aspiring actress – it’s going to be no easy thing to fix this broken city.

This originally saw the light of day on the Black List of unproduced scripts. Hughes snapped it up and sent it out to some Hollywood A-listers and both Wahlberg and Crowe jumped at the chance to work on the project. The first clue though that things didn’t turn out so well was when the studio scheduled the film to premiere in January 2013. January is the graveyard for movies; few films of any quality surface during the first month of the year when Oscar contenders and Holiday blockbusters take up most of the screens at the multiplex.

But seeing this made me wonder how the script could have wound up on the Black List considering just how poorly written the movie is. Plot points are explored and then abandoned. Holes in logic abound. Dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. And lest we forget, a ludicrous ending.

Fortunately the movie has some pretty good actors who are playing this (mostly) with straight faces. Wahlberg can play this kind of part without working up much of a sweat and yet he gives it his earnest best. Billy is far from lovable but at his core he has a sense of justice – not always an accurate one – that just can’t be denied. For example, when he sees a sex scene his girlfriend filmed for an indie film at the premiere, he is horrified. He simply can’t get past seeing her do those things where everyone can see them. He’s a rumpled knight in dented, rusting armor but he’s also the sort you’d want at your side if you were fighting for a hopeless but just cause.

Crowe also gives the Mayor easy charm and smile on the surface with a crocodile’s teeth just under the facade. It’s a mesmerizing performance and would ordinarily overwhelm someone as blue collar as Wahlberg but the two make a good point/counterpoint sort of chemistry for themselves. Zeta-Jones remains one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, but she didn’t win that Oscar in a Cracker Jack box; the lady’s got chops and she shows them here in a character study that’s as complex as any in the movie. However, the Israeli actress Tal seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the movie and she is a delight with a future in Hollywood if she keeps getting these sorts of roles.

The action scenes are for the most part forgettable although there are a couple of nifty little set pieces here. This is the kind of mindless fluff that is forgotten as soon as the popcorn is gone but there’s nothing wrong with that sort of movie. I just get the sense that isn’t what the filmmakers had in mind when they undertook this project to begin with.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances from terrific cast. Some gritty action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot holes and dangling plot points a-plenty. Falls flat overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, violent content and a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Hughes directed a film solo; normally he works with his twin brother Albert.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $35M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Kill the Messenger


Jeremy Renner doesn't want Matthew Lintz to hear what he's about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t want Matthew Lintz to hear what he’s about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

(2014) True Life Drama (Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Lintz, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta, Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, Aaron Farb, Josh Close, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jen Harper, Jena Sims. Directed by Michael Cuesta

In 1996, Gary Webb was an investigative reporter working in the Sacramento bureau for the San Jose Mercury News. He had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the newspaper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

While covering the trial of a drug dealer (Farb) he is contacted by a beautiful, sexy but mysterious Latina woman (Vega) – the dealer’s girlfriend – who drops off some documents that his lawyer had been given during discovery, documents that clearly had never meant to be given to the lawyer. In it, the dealer had been apparently working for the United States government back in the ’80s as a paid informant – and selling drugs while he was. Not such a big deal until it became clear that the CIA was who he was selling drugs for.

Webb would dig deeper and discover that the proceeds of the drug sales were being used to fund the Contras in the civil war going on in Nicaragua, a war that then-President Reagan desperately wanted to wage and one in which Congress had forbidden him to do so. He would visit Nicaraguan jails, abandoned airfields, chasing his story wherever his leads took him.

With a supportive editor (Winstead), a loving wife (DeWitt) and a son (Lintz) who was as proud of him as could be, he brought all his facts together and wrote a multi-part series called Dark Alliance delineating the ties between the epidemic of crack cocaine that was impoverishing America’s inner cities, the Contra rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Merc’s state of the art website (at the time) proudly pimped the articles for those outside of San Jose to peruse.

It was a bombshell. One of the first new stories to go viral, it brought Webb great acclaim and notoriety. Still, he’s warned by a former CIA whistleblower (Sheen) that the CIA would come after him by making the story not about the facts but about Webb himself. And that’s just what happened. The other major newspapers – the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post – attacked Webb’s reporting and all but insinuated that he’d made the story up out of whole cloth. His own newspaper essentially threw him under the bus, refusing to defend their own reporter and his story even though they had every chance to confirm it during the editorial process. It was not the paper’s finest hour.

In the interest of full disclosure, I myself worked for the Circulation department of the San Jose Mercury News before getting laid off in 2006 after their afternoon edition was discontinued. The events depicted in this movie mainly took place after I’d left and I didn’t know Webb at all (he worked out of Sacramento and I was at the main office in San Jose) although I was acquainted with a number of people in the newsroom including Jerry Ceppos, the managing editor who is played by the great Oliver Platt here.

The movie is trying to be a journalism/political thriller along the lines of a All the President’s Men. Some hold Webb in the same regard as Woodward and Bernstein are held in terms of investigative journalism. There is a curiously flat tone to the movie; Renner as Webb often articulates that his job is to bring the facts to the public and at times it feels like the movie is being directed by Jack Webb (no relation).

As I said, I didn’t know Webb in his Mercury News days and so I can’t say for certain how well Renner portrays the late reporter. His son Eric says that Renner caught his father’s essence and mannerisms to a “T” so I’ll go with his assessment on that. Renner is a passionate actor and this is a passion project for him.

As you can imagine, the movie’s presence has resurrected some of the old debates. Washington Post investigative journalism team managing editor wrote an op-ed last Friday excoriating Webb and calling the movie fiction. Other sources including the Narco News – an online newspaper that reports mainly on America’s war on drugs and other Latin American issues – have fired back, defending Webb. As for you dear reader, you don’t have to take anyone’s word on the veracity of Webb’s work. You can see it for yourself including the supporting documents – all published online in 1996 – at the Narco News here.

Frankly I don’t have the wherewithal to join the debate much. The piece itself remains explosive and controversial, even now. Was Webb a saint who just wanted to expose the truth of evildoers to the shining light of the public eye? In part, yes. By all accounts – even those of his detractors – have made it clear that Webb believed in the importance of investigative journalism and he believed in the truth of his own story. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect and he didn’t get everything right. Nobody does. However in the years since the publication of his work, the eventual repudiation of it and Webb’s eventual suicide in light of becoming unemployable at the job he loved, the essence of his story has been in fact validated. There was a connection between crack cocaine, the Contras and the CIA. How much crack was brought to the streets of Los Angeles and other American urban environments because of this dark alliance will probably never be known for certain.

What the movie does get right however is the decline of American journalism. At one time, the fourth estate existed independently of the other powers of American politics – the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It stood as a kind of advocate for the American people, tilting at the windmills of political hanky-panky and bringing that which was hidden in the boardrooms of industry and the back rooms of politics to the light of day. Today, in 2014, we no longer have that protection. The mainstream media is all owned by large corporations – the Mercury News itself is owned by a hedge fund which in recent days quietly closed down and sold its iconic headquarter building on Ridder Park Drive and moved what little staff remains to a downtown San Jose office building.

It was unheard of back in the day for a newspaper to throw one of its own reporters under the bus, but that’s what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. While in Ceppos’ extraordinary column which some have labeled an apology letter that in effect distanced the paper from Webb’s reporting there was some reference to “failure at every level and at every step” to properly edit the piece and verify the information (despite the presence of corroborating documentation which in what was then groundbreaking transparency was published online), at the end of the day we have since then seen a failure of mainstream journalism to stand up against corruption when it may potentially affect their advertising bottom line. We have seen an unwillingness to stand up against those whose activities cause harm to the public good, or segments of the public. We live in a world where real journalism, the kind that was meant to stand up for all of us, mainly exists on the Internet and is lost in the party-centric shouting of right wing and left wing posturing. In his grave, Gary Webb must be rolling indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Examines the erosion of journalism in this country.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing. Confusing at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at one time expressed interest in the Gary Webb role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Boxtrolls

The Lone Ranger (2013)


Armie Hammer isn't quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

Armie Hammer isn’t quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

(2013) Western (Disney) Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Wilson, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Leon Rippy, Stephen Root, Rance Howard, JD Cullum, Saginaw Grant, Mason Elston Cook, Harry Treadaway, James Frain, Joaquin Cosio, Damon Herriman, Freda Foh Shen. Directed by Gore Verbinski

John Reid, the Lone Ranger, has been an iconic American character in nearly every medium that a character can come to life in, be it comic strips, radio, television or the movies. However as Westerns fell out of favor, so too did the masked Texas Ranger who rode his white horse Silver like the wind, accompanied by his faithful Native American sidekick Tonto.

Now Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp who together made the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the most profitable in Disney history (at least until another couple of Marvel movies and the next Star Wars trilogy fatten their coffers) are back with a reboot of the great American hero. Is the 21st century ready for him?

Reid (Hammer) is an Eastern-educated lawyer returning home to his native Colby, Texas as the county’s new Assistant District Attorney. There he will meet his brother Dan (Dale), a well-respected Texas Ranger who has always overshadowed young John. Dan even got the girl that John wanted, Rebecca (Wilson).

However also on the train west is notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (Fichtner) who eats human flesh and has a pretty sadistic streak in him – and is on his way to a hanging (his own) – and a Comanche known as Tonto (Depp) who has a dead crow on his head and perhaps a few loose neurons rattling around between his ears. Of course, you just know that Cavendish is going to be broken out of jail or in this case, train. You also know that Reid and Tonto are going to be at odds and not think too terribly high of each other.

Faster than you can say plot complication, John joins his brother Dan on a posse to collect Cavendish so he can be properly hung Texas-style (methinks Rick Perry might be a descendant) and faster than you can say “I saw that coming” the Rangers are massacred by the outlaws and Butch chows down on Dan. John is left for dead.

Tonto wanders upon the scene and buries the dead, including John who, it turns out, isn’t quite dead yet. Tonto identifies him as a spirit walker, one who has come back from the Other Side…and a white spirit horse that John eventually names Silver agrees with him. Silver is probably the smartest character in the movie, possibly in ANY movie. Okay, I made that last part up.

Anyway John has his mad on and he wants to get his hands on Cavendish in the worst way and as it turns out, Tonto has plenty of reason to want to stomp a mudhole in Cavendish as well. However as it turns out Cavendish is working for someone, someone quite powerful who has interest in the Transcontinental Railroad making its way to Utah to be completed. Someone who will change the course of the United States in his greed and lust for power.

This is definitely a much more modern retelling of the tale of the Lone Ranger. While there are elements that tie this film to the illustrious past of the character – the soul-stirring swell of the ”William Tell Overture,” Tonto’s laconic nickname for his partner kemosabe and the silver bullet, this isn’t retro in the least. One element I really like about it is that the story is told by Tonto to a young boy in San Francisco in 1933, some 60 years after the events took place (which if Tonto is Depp’s age in the movie in 1868 makes him a centenarian). This makes it clear from the get-go that this really isn’t John Reid’s story as much as it is Tonto’s and I like the change of viewpoint very much.

The Natives aren’t treated like cannon fodder as they were in most Westerns of the era but are given a surprising amount of respect and deference, although Depp’s Tonto can be Looney Tunes from time to time. That’s a nice touch.

Depp is of course the star and like Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies takes center stage not because of his bravery or heroism but more because of his quirkiness, albeit a different kind of quirky. Think of it as the difference between using peyote and getting rip-roaring drunk on grog. But even the best quirkiness can get a little grating after awhile.

Hammer is an able heroic sort in a gee-whiz kind of way and while on the surface seems well-suited for this sort of role, I don’t think that at the end of the day he’s memorable enough in it. Don’t get me wrong – he does as good a job as you can ask for but his character is made to be an imbecile at times and Hammer is much too intelligent a guy to believe as an idiot for even a second.

There are some fine supporting turns by Carter as a one-legged prostitute and Wilkinson as a railroad baron but they are largely wasted in a movie that is too long in a big way. So much of the middle third is unnecessary and slow that by the time the movie’s climactic scenes roll around you might be checking your watch which is a shame because the action sequences that begin and end the film are spectacular indeed and are worth the price of admission alone.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie and also a few bad ones. Trimming the movie down to a more manageable two hours might have been more advisable but for whatever reason there is a trend this summer for longer running time which might well thrill consumers who are getting more bang for their buck but has to disappoint exhibitors who have fewer screenings to bring customers into their theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Even Depp’s missteps are entertaining. Some pretty nifty action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. A little silly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are plenty of Western action sequences, some of them intense and some suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first version in any medium that the actor playing Tonto gets top billing over the actor playing the Ranger.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; it’s pretty obvious the critics hated it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rango

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Divide

Snitch


This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson's face when he's walking towards you.

This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson’s face when he’s walking towards you.

(2013) Action (Summit) Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren, Rafi Gavron, JD Pardo, David Harbour, Kyara Campos, Ashlynn Ross, Kym Jackson. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

In the United States, the War on Drugs has led to harsh mandatory sentencing laws in which first time offenders with no prior record who are caught with a sufficient amount of illegal narcotics in their possession will be charged with possession with intent to distribute. In these cases, the accused can be sentenced if found guilty to minimum jail terms longer than given to those convicted of manslaughter or rape.

Jason Collins (Gavron) is Skyping with a friend who wants to send him some ecstasy to hold onto. Jason doesn’t want to do it but his friend sends them anyway. Jason foolishly accepts the shipment and immediately the DEA break down the doors and arrest his ass. His mom Sylvia (Kanakaredes) calls her ex-husband John Matthews (Johnson) and the two are pretty much left to cool their heels before anyone will even talk to them much less allow them to see their son.

They discover that Jason was set up by his friend who used the arrest of Jason as a means of getting his own sentence reduced. If Jason can supply another drug dealer for arrest, his own sentence will be reduced as well but Jason doesn’t know any other drug dealers besides the jerk who set him up and refuses to set up one of his friends in the same manner he was, even though he’s facing ten years minimum and 30 years maximum.

Frustrated and desperate, John goes to see US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) who is also running for Senate on an anti-crime platform. There’s really nothing she can do; the laws tie her hands, she explains. John then offers himself as a snitch; if he can find a drug dealer for his son, can his help be used to reduce Jason’s sentence?

John enlists the help of one of the employees at his trucking/construction firm, Daniel James (Bernthal) who is an ex-con with two narcotics distribution convictions on his record without telling him that the DEA is involved. Daniel introduces John to Malik (Williams) who realizes that John’s trucking company offers him a transportation means that he wouldn’t ordinarily have access to and is much safer than what he’s used to. But being a drug dealer, he is naturally suspicious so he set John up for a milk run, insisting that Daniel accompany him.

John and Daniel do their end, monitored by Agent Collins (Pepper). However when Collins overhears Malik tell them when he gets the delivery of his drugs that he wants to set up a meet with Mexican cartel head El Topo (Bratt), things are moved to another level. Daniel, who discovers what John is up to, realize that both of their families are at risk. Mexican cartels are known for their vicious approach to informants. Now John is in way over his head and pretty much no matter what happens he’s going to lose.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether to be a rip-roaring action film or a serious drama examining the consequences of mandatory sentence laws. In all honesty Waugh could have taken this in either direction and made a successful film. Unfortunately he kind of dithers and tries to have it both ways and in the end the movie winds up suffering a little bit.

It’s not due to the cast however. Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors out there and continues to improve. This is one of his most dramatic roles yet and he handles it without mugging (which he sometimes does, a throwback to his wrestling days) and with a surprising amount of restraint. I don’t know that he’s ever going to win any Oscars (although I get the sense that he’s capable of accomplishing anything he sets his mind to) but he has graduated onto the Hollywood A-list and I suspect will remain on it for a long time to come.

Bernthal, an alumnus of The Walking Dead shows a whole lot of potential for big screen success. As the ex-con trying to get his life turned around he’s playing a role nearly the polar opposite of Shane, a good cop who was turning ruthless and amoral. He has tons of charisma and holds his own with Johnson which is a pretty nifty feat.

Pepper, looking like he was attending a try-out for The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is a DEA agent with a conscience while Sarandon is a tough as nails prosecutor who doesn’t care who gets trampled in her ambitions. In fact, most of the cast here ranges from solid to spectacular. As action movies go, this is phenomenally well-acted.

The atmosphere is gritty as well; we get a sense of all the worlds from that of the successful business owner to that of the paranoid drug dealer. I was impressed by a few of the action sequences (like a gun battle at a scrap metal yard) although they were fairly sparse; the car chase that is the film’s denouement isn’t particularly noteworthy but it at least maintains our interest.

I liked this movie and thought it had a lot of potential. There were a few pathways that they didn’t choose to go down that might have warranted at least a little exploration (did Matthews’ wife suspect he was lying to her for example) and there were a few credibility stretches here and there but all in all this is a better movie than we had a right to expect. In a year when the quality of most of the major releases has been meager, that’s a blessing in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Johnson is a terrific performer and gets excellent support.

REASONS TO STAY: Tries to walk the tightrope between action film and true crime drama and doesn’t always succeed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writers were inspired by a Frontline documentary on mandatory sentencing laws but didn’t use any specific incidents as the basis for their film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fast Five

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Radio