Union Bridge


On his way to a “Reopen the Economy” protest.

(2019) Thriller (Breaking Glass) Scott Friend, Emma Duncan, Alex Breaux, Elisabeth Noone, Nancy Linden, Kevin Murray, Samantha Trionfo, Lateicia Ford, Jean Miller, Tim R. Worley, Bobby J. Brown, David Cohen, Andy Hopper, Bolton Marsh, David Cohen, Grant Garson, Graydon Hipple, Dan Verkman, Teresa Majorwicz. Directed by Brian Levin

 

There is an aphorism that goes “some things should stay buried.” In this film, that’s a literal truth. Unfortunately, it’s the only literal thing in the movie.

Will Shipe (Friend) returns to his small southern town following years of living and working in the City (doesn’t matter which one). His father has recently passed on and his shrewish mother (Noone) is essentially just as happy the old codger is gone. Now, maybe Will can get their family back into the prominence it has always deserved.

Of course, returning home means returning to those you grew up with, and for Will that includes his former best friend Nick Taylor (Breaux). However, Nick has become slightly unhinged; he sees visions of buried Confederate gold and spends his nights digging for it. He also has a hair-trigger and carries a gu around with him, never a good sign. Will’s Mom wants Will to stay as far away from Nick as he can, but not before he convinces Nick to stop digging. Mommy dearest, you see, is concerned that along with the gold Nick will dig up a secret that’s been buried since the Civil War – one that will destroy both the Taylor family and the Shipe family as well.

Things are kind of odd in Union Bridge beyond Nick; Nick’s cousin Mary (Duncan), whom Will used to date in high school, has taken up witchcraft. And while everyone seems pleased to see Will back, there’s an undercurrent that makes Will feel uneasy. And when he starts seeing the same visions that Nick has been seeing, well, you know what happens when the going gets weird – the weird go shopping. Or digging, as the case may be.

I tend to be the sort of critic who prefers efficient storytelling. Brevity is my watchword, and when a filmmaker can give me a story with a minimum of extraneous material, I tend to be more impressed. This is not that sort of movie. Now, some people revel in more detail. This is not that kind of movie either; there are a lot of images shown just for the sake of showing them; they have little or nothing to do with the story or the film and they can be jarring. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t something that I’m personally into, so take my objections with a grain of salt.

The discordant score adds to the off-putting and off-kilter feel. Levin is certainly not above thinking outside the box and that’s to be commended, but here he’s doing it to the detriment of the story, which becomes a slog to sit through. There are some moments that are Shirley Jackson-esque but not enough of them to really hold this film together.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments of Southern Gothic goodness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Incomprehensible in places and poorly paced. The characters don’t exactly invite me to spend a pleasant 90 minutes with them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Destroyer

Badland


That’s one tough hombre.

(2019) Western (CinedigmKevin Makely, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Dern, Wes Studi, Trace Adkins, Jeff Fahey, Tony Todd, James Russo, Amanda Wyss, Ryan Kelly, Todd A. Robinson, Aidan Bristow, Reggie Watkins, Anita Leeman Torres, Omid Zader, Laura Cantwell, Lauren Francesca. Directed by Justin Lee

 

A good Western will make you feel the dust of the trail on your boots, feel the hot wind of the Southwest in your hair and maybe the smell of the campfire in your nostrils. A good Western is tonic for the soul. A bad Western, however, can leave you feeling cheated.

=Matthias Breecher (Makely) is a Pinkerton detective riding out West at the behest of Senator Benjamin Burke (Todd) to seek out Confederate war criminals and bring them to justice by whatever means necessary. His run-in with a bloodthirsty general (Adkins) ends up in an impressive shoot-out in which the numerical tactical advantage the general enjoys is for naught.

Next on the list for Breecher is one Reginald Cooke (Dern) who it turns out is on his deathbed with his devoted daughter Sarah (Sorvino) trying to hold things together on the farm, which baddie Fred Quaid (Russo) is eager to possess. Breecher, rather than executing his quarry, decides to let things take their natural course and give Sarah a hand on the ranch and with the nefarious Quaid. She is able to coax Breecher out of his shell somewhat, although likewise that all goes for naught.

Finally, Breecher goes after a crooked sheriff (Fahey) who is terrorizing a small town, including comely barmaid Alice (Wyss). Can Breecher save the day and maybe settle down at last? Fans of the Western genre ought to know the answer to that question.

=In an era where Westerns remain studiously out of favor despite evidence that a good Western will attract an audience. Lee has made a name for himself with low-budget Westerns shot efficiently. This one probably has the biggest budget of the bunch; it certainly has the most impressive cast. Adkins – who doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time – is nevertheless memorable as is Fahey who is clearly having a good time despite the cliched nature of the character. Makely is a handsome brooding sort with a gravelly voice who seems well-suited for Westerns; he has enough presence to make the movie interesting although not enough to raise the film above its own limitations.

The movie is divided into chapters, I suppose to try and give it a literary bent; it doesn’t really work. The coda chapter with Alice and Wainwright is somewhat unnecessary. It would have made a decent sequel (should one be warranted) but it feels like we’re getting a movie and a half for the price of a movie. The running time is a good twenty minutes too long; I would have liked to have seen the pacing pick up some and more character development given to the Cooke section which is, to be fair, the best of the three segments. Todd is also pretty decent in what is essentially linking sections.

While I’m not the sort who lives and dies by Louis L’Amour, I am fond of Westerns in general and it always tickles me to see a well-made one This one is a few bricks shy of a load in that regard, but there is enough here to give genre fans something to build on; hopefully Lee can take his next Western and elevate it to the next level.

REASONS TO SEE: Makely has some potential as a lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half-hour feels completely unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair bit of western-style violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the last two calendar years, Lee has had six films released to date – half of them Westerns.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diablo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
To Be of Service

This is Congo


In the Congo even amenities we take for granted are corrupted.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Mamadou Ndala, Joseph Kabila, Colonel Kasango, Matenga, Hakiza Nyantaba, Paul Kagame, Isaach de Bankolé (voice), Mama Romance. Directed by Daniel McCabe

 

One of the most beautiful places on Earth is Congo, the Republic formerly known as Zaire. It is the 11th largest nation on Earth and has mineral wealth that is absolutely staggering. Of course, none of that wealth filters down to the people of Congo. What does filter down is the nearly continuous state of Civil War that has been underway in that region for more than 20 years.

First-time feature filmmaker McCabe focuses on four people to tell his story; Mamadou Ndala, a charismatic colonel in the Congolese army who is idealistic and passionate. He loves his country genuinely and defends it without hesitation. Colonel Kasango is another army officer who in order to protect himself and his family has taken on anonymity (he is photographed in silhouette, uses a false name and his interview is voiced by noted actor Isaach de Bankolé.

Then there are the civilians; Hakiza Nyantaba is a tailor who ekes out a living with a battered sewing machine. He has been forced to flee his village six times, taking only what he could carry. Finally Bibanne, known as Mama Romance, sells gems on the black market in Kenya. It is a highly risky move that could lead to arrest but she has to take care of her kids somehow.

McCabe intersperses their stories with the history of the Congo, from Emperor Leopold II of Belgium’s brutal and ruthless colonial reign to the hopeful prime ministry of Patrice Lumumba, the coup that led to strongman Joseph Mobuto that dominated the Congolese political landscape. It is a history of corruption, brutality and nonstop violence.

Much of the film takes place during the 2012-13 assault by the rebel group M-83 in the South Kivu region, one of the richest in minerals in the country. Ndala would defend the regional capital of Goma from rebel troops which brought him great popularity among the people of the Kivu – and the nervous eye of the army officers who were concerned about someone being so popular and renowned.

This is not a feel-good documentary; there are no quick fixes, no answers. Since the events shown here war has continued to drone on and their current president Joseph Kabila who is as corrupt and as ruthless as any dictator in the world (and who just suspended all presidential elections, essentially making him President for life). Life for the Congolese continues to be miserable with no end in sight and the world has essentially abandoned them. While I suppose one may say “well why bother watching this then” the reason is that the more people who see what’s happening the more people will start demanding action to protect the Congolese who are caught in the crossfire and to demand the removal of Kabila and his cronies. The depressing reality though is that in all likelihood the replacement would just be business as usual.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very compelling and very sad. It’s a very beautiful country.
REASONS TO STAY: 20 years of non-stop war; we can only imagine…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence as well as a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The genesis of the film came when McCabe was sent to Congo as a photojournalist in 2008 documenting the CNDP rebellion.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Enclave
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Coverage of the 17th New York Asian Film Festival begins!

The Beguiled (2017)


Melancholia through sepia gauze.

(2017) Thriller (Focus) Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pére, Matt Story, Joel Albin, Eric Ian. Directed by Sofia Coppola

 

It is in some ways a triumph of atmosphere over substance. This remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film – one of two he made with Don Siegel that year (the other was Dirty Harry) which was in turn based on a novel by a fella named Thomas Cullinan comes at the story from a female perspective, something Hollywood sorely needs these days.

During the Civil War, an isolated girl’s school in Virginia (which is unconvincingly played by Louisiana here) tries to maintain gentility and grace in a rapidly deteriorating situation. The slaves have “run off” and so the girls are given chores to do. Food is becoming harder to come by and one of the younger residents, Miss Amy (Laurence) stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Farrell). Although headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) considers turning him in to the Confederate Army, she chooses to hide his presence while he’s recuperating as it is the “Christian thing to do.” The opportunistic McBurney recognizes a sweet deal and sets about exerting control over the girls using his own charm and sexuality to pit them against each other, particularly the lonely schoolmarm Miss Edwina (Dunst) and the sexually charged Miss Alicia (Fanning). As you can guess from the trailers, it doesn’t end well for the male of the species.

Coppola is known for her slow pacing in her films and in this case the pace matches the setting; dripping in Spanish moss, you can feel the heat rising from the ground right through to the dresses of the ladies, all of whom sweat profusely – excuse me, glow. It is clearly a Deep South environment; I wonder why Coppola didn’t just bite the bullet and call it Louisiana as that would have made more sense but I digress.

In some ways the tone works but in others it works against the film. At times the story moves so slowly that one can be forgiven for checking their watch. It’s not that the film is boring precisely but it could have used some energy; Da Queen characterized the movie as “a bit flat” and she’s not wrong. Still, you can’t help but be brought into the organic lull that Coppola creates.

Farrell is one of the best scoundrels in Hollywood and he takes it to a new level here. Kidman is still as ethereal a beauty as has ever appeared onscreen but she is also a much more talented actress than she is often given credit for; she is solid here and her sponge bathing scene with an unconscious Farrell is one of the most erotic scenes you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie this year. Dunst, playing a repressed and lonely spinster elevates her game as well.

The movie was a box office failure although critics praised the movie generally, which is not an unusual thing. I thought the film was a fascinating study of sexual politics and of feminine strength, a near polar-opposite of the 1971 version and, I understand, the novel although I confess I haven’t read it. This is one of Coppola’s best works and it bears looking into especially if you are a fan of thought-provoking films.

REASONS TO GO: The movie does a fine job of creating the feel of the Civil War-era South. The film serves as an interesting examination on sexual politics.
REASONS TO STAY: At points the sedate pace makes the film feel flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farrell and Kidman can also be seen together in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which along with this film won awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Keeping Room
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Baby Driver

Free State of Jones


Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

(2016) Historical Drama (STX) Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Liza J. Bennett. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Most of us have some fairly general knowledge of the American Civil War, but most of us are probably completely unaware (at least until this movie came out) that there were parts of the Confederacy that didn’t necessarily agree with the aims of the rebels and actually seceded from it during the War. Most of us are completely unaware of the name of Newton Knight.

Knight (McConaughey) is serving in the Confederate Army as a nurse/orderly. While he isn’t actively shooting at anybody, he is picking up the pieces of wounded men and transporting them to the medical tents once the shooting has stopped. His cousin Davis (Franklin) is a frightened teen who is terrified of what could happen to him. Newton volunteers to help get him through the coming battle, but a Union sniper makes hash of that plan.

The Army wants to bury Davis where he fell, but Knight wants him buried with his kin in Jones County, Mississippi and so he goes AWOL although the term at the time is “deserter.” Deserters are being hanged, but Knight doesn’t care; he’s sick of fighting a war so that the plantation owners can get richer, especially since slave owners had enacted legislation that exempted the sons of slave owners from service (one son for every twenty slaves owned). This doesn’t sit well with the mostly small farmers that are actually doing the fighting, most of whom don’t own slaves a’tall.

Once back home, Knight sees that the Confederate Army in the person of Lt. Elias Hood (Murphy) who enforces the laws that farms must provide a percentage of their harvest and meat animals to the Army. Of course under Hood’s auspices, the Army take far more than they are entitled to, leaving the citizens of Jones County in near-starvation. When Hood discovers the presence of Knight, a sympathetic Madam (Clements) helps Knight escape into the swamp, leaving his wife Serena (Russell) and son behind.

There he finds a group of escaped slaves, relatively safe in a place where the army’s horses cannot follow them. They are led by Moses (Ali), a charismatic slave who wears a horrible spiked collar and pines for his wife and child, sent to Texas by an uncaring master. As their numbers begin to swell with more runaways and deserters from the Confederate Army, Knight sees that they have enough numbers to make a difference on the home front. He begins to arrange to arm the slaves and soldiers, and starts training them. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the despised James Eakins (Chrest) plantation, who has risked her life to learn how to read and also to bring in supplies for the swamp dwellers.

As their numbers grow, the new army under Knight’s canny leadership begins to intercept food shipments that were taken from locals for the Confederate army and finally beats the small contingent of the Confederates, declaring that part of Mississippi a free state. But there isn’t much war left and eventually the South surrenders and Jones County rejoins the union, but their troubles are far from over. Just because the South lost doesn’t mean that the freed slaves are Americans…yet.

This is a sprawling, two and a half hour epic that covers Knight’s story from the tail end of the War through reconstruction, incomprehensibly adding flash forwards to the 20th century and a legal issue being waged by one of Knight’s descendents regarding interracial marriage. It is a means of hitting us over the head with the racial issue that I think everyone except for the extreme right knows continues to plague this nation. It’s a little bit overbearing.

Ross does a great job of summoning up the era, from the unwashed look of the people in it to the rotting teeth and tattered clothes. It was a hard life in the rural South back then (and continues to be) and the look of the film illustrates that nicely. These are people who lived in poverty and the film reflects that to the credit of the filmmakers and the actors.

McConaughey does a fine job; this is the kind of role he’s shown he can excel at. Better still is his supporting cast, particularly Ali (who shows he has the ability to be a leading man in major films with his performance here) and Mbatha-Raw who is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished actresses working today.

There has been some complaining that this is yet another “white hero saving the day for the oppressed blacks” type of thing, and I can understand the criticism, but it’s kind of hard to ignore that Knight DID lead the revolt. Now, from what I understand this film paints a far kinder, more saintly portrait of Knight than may have been the actual case. Maybe the film should have focused on Rachel, who also was a real person, or Moses, who was not.

I do admire the filmmakers for trying to educate their audience, even though the real Newton Knight was much less admirable than the one portrayed here. I think they could have lost the whole flash forward subtext which was unnecessary, doesn’t show up until well into the film causing further confusion and adds nothing to the overall message that they couldn’t have added with a title card. The movie is long as it is and the extra footage just tends to make people check their watches and wondering when the school bell is going to ring.

Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile venture that entertains rather well and educates not quite as well, but at least it’s an effort. I’m curious as to why the studio thought this would make a good summer movie; it would have fared better, I think, if it had been released in the fall, but that’s just Monday morning quarterbacking. If you can still find it in a theater near you, it’s certainly better than most of the stuff out there.

REASONS TO GO: Covers a part of history that is murky to most Americans.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and some graphic images that might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To this day, the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has “Free State of Jones” on the doors of all their vehicles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Swiss Army Man

They Will Have to Kill Us First


Songhoy Blues has the blues.

Songhoy Blues has the blues.

(2015) Documentary (BBC Films) Fadimata “Disco” Walett Oumar, Moussa Agbidi, Khaira Arby, Songhoy Blues, Jimmy Oumar, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Marc-Antoine Moreau. Directed by Johanna Schwartz

Mali is a West African nation that most Americans probably have never heard of, let alone pick it out from a map. It has been beset by a civil war initiated in 2012 by the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a group ostensibly fighting for the ethnic Tuareg minority to create their own state in the Saharan northern portion of the country. In order to further their own ends, they made a deal with the devil – fighting along with jihadist separatists who were determined to institute Sharia law and a religious totalitarian government. You can guess which group got their way.

The broadcast of music was thus forbidden in the territories that the jihadists, some of whom were linked to ISIS, controlled. For the people of Mali, who had developed their unique style of music that included hip-hop, rock and roll, folk styles and to a very large extent the blues, this was tantamount to surgically removing their souls. Music was part of the national identity of the country.

All of this was told in a clever rap song at the beginning of the film which immediately links the importance of music and the story of this country’s misery. Harsh punishments were instituted in the jihadist territories, with a graphic video depicting a man’s hand being amputated. Rape became common in the area and infractions such as not praying loud enough triggered brutal reprisals.

Two of Mali’s biggest musical stars are women; both of whom are best known by a single name. Disco (a nickname bestowed on the Madonna-loving artist as a youth) is a more modern artist and Khaira more traditional but both have huge audiences. Both, like millions of Malians, have been displaced from their homes – one to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, one to the capital city of Bamako in the South, away from her beloved home of Timbuktu. Guitarist Moussa Agbidi from Gao is also in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, but his wife remained in the city of Gao where she was arrested. He was trying to eke by playing at what venues he could find work at or whatever occasions (weddings, parties) that required musicians.

Also in Bamako, a group of young musicians calling themselves Songhoy Blues were writing some wonderful songs, one of which plaintively called the displaced back to Mali to help rebuild the country. Ironically, they themselves would end up leaving after being discovered by a French producer and English musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and noted minimalist Brian Eno as well as American guitarist Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They moved to London to record a critically acclaimed album and went on tour to support it.

The stories here are raw and wrenching. The ability of man to be completely and utterly inhumane to his fellow man is going to make you shake your head in sorrow at the very least. There are moments that are hard to watch as we’re shown news footage of bodies and body parts strewn about the rubble of a small town that has felt the brunt of the war between the government, the insurgents of the MNLA and the jihadists.

But then there’s the music and oh my goodness, it’s incredible. I expected African music that was more rural and rhythmic with chanting and gorgeous harmonies but this is very close to what I would consider Indie Rock. The musicianship is incomparable and the songs plaintive and longing. The lyrics are thoughtfully translated through subtitles – much of the dialogue is in French which is what the Malians mostly speak. It’s not often I urge readers to buy a soundtrack to a documentary, but this one is worth it; it’s on Atlantic Records and should be available through most vendors who sell music either digitally or in the rarest of the rare, CD stores.

The film ends with a concert in Timbuktu organized by Keira and Disco. We don’t really get a sense of being there, although it IS beautifully photographed. The ending should be uplifting, cathartic or depressing but here it’s only kinda meh. It left me feeling that I was missing a few minutes of ending. The narrative does tend to meander a little bit as we bounce from subject to subject but then again that is true of most documentaries.

Still, the movie is plenty powerful throughout, the ending notwithstanding. Most of us here in the west know little or nothing about Mali’s suffering. We get an inside glimpse at it, the frustration of those caught in between warring factions who just want to live their lives in peace. Most of these people are Muslim and they despise the jihadists who have so disrupted their lives. One of the best sequences in the film shows a group of men and women in full dress dancing enthusiastically. One look at that and that might change some minds about the people who follow that religion. This is a movie full of vitality and joy – and also frustration and despair. The human condition in 90 minutes.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. The stories are heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is disjointed and meandering occasionally.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images of civil war, a little bit of profanity and some of the themes here are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Schwartz’s first cinematic feature film (she previously directed a made-for-TV documentary Mysterious Science: Rebuilding Stonehenge).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 45 Years

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

The Hateful Eight


A blizzard can be hateful.

A blizzard can be hateful.

(2015) Western (Weinstein) Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Quentin Tarantino (voice), Channing Tatum, Keith Jefferson, Craig Stark, Belinda Owina, Zoë Bell. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation. Quentin Tarantino is a no-talent hack. Quentin Tarantino is the arbiter of style and cool. Quentin Tarantino is a racist and misogynist asshole. Whatever you believe Quentin Tarantino is, chances are it isn’t somewhere in the middle. Most people tend to have extreme view of his work.

His eighth film has gotten polarizing responses from critics and fans alike, not just for the occasionally brutal violence (which to be fair should be pretty much expected in a Tarantino film) to the gratuitous use of the “N” word and the occasionally over-the-top violence against a particular female character. I’ll be honest with you; I wasn’t particularly offended by any of it, but I’m neither African-American nor a woman so my perspective might be different if I were. However, I think your sensitivity to such things should determine whether you go out and see this film, or even read on in this review.

That said, I’m going to keep the story description to a bare minimum because much of what works about the movie is that you don’t see what’s coming all the time. Essentially, in post-Civil War Wyoming, a stagecoach carrying bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his bounty, accused killer Daisy Domergue (Leigh) and their driver O.B. Jackson (Parks) are trying to outrun an approaching blizzard to safety in a mountaintop stage stop known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. However, along the way they pick up two additional passengers; fellow bounty hunter and former Northern colored regiment commander Maj. Marquis Warren (Jackson) and former irregular Chris Mannix (Goggins) who claims to be the new sheriff in Red Rock, the town that Ruth is taking Daisy to hang in.

Already at the Haberdashery are Bob (Bichir), a Mexican who is taking care of the horses; Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), an English dandy who is the local hangman; Joe Gage (Madsen) a taciturn cowboy writing a journal and General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers, a Confederate general (in uniform) who doesn’t seem much disposed to talk about anything to anybody, despite Mannix’ hero-worship.

In a sense, this is a typical Tarantino set-up; a lot of bad men put in a situation where they are enclosed and sort of trapped – a lot like his early film Reservoir Dogs although very different in execution. Bad men trapped in a confining space with each other is a formula for bad things happening, and they do in rather graphic fashion.

Russell, who was magnificent in Bone Tomahawk continues to personally revitalize the Western genre all by himself with another excellent performance here. John Ruth isn’t above giving a woman an elbow in the face to shut her up; he’s known for bringing his bounties in alive to be hung which isn’t what anyone would call merciful. He’s paranoid, testy and a bit of a loudmouth.

Jackson, a veteran of six of Tarantino’s eight films (including this one) is all Samuel L. Jackson here and all that it entails. He has a particularly nasty scene involving the relative of one of those in the Haberdashery that may or may not be true (everything all of the characters say should be taken with a grain of salt) that might be the most over-the-top thing he’s ever done cinematically and that’s saying something.

Goggins has been a supporting character actor for some time, and he steps up to the plate and delivers here. I’ve always liked him as an actor but he serves notice he’s ready for meatier roles and this one might just get him some. Dern, Madsen and Roth all give performances commensurate with their skills. Channing Tatum also shows up in a small but pivotal role.

Regular Tarantino DP Robert Richardson, already a multiple Oscar winner, outdoes himself here with the snow-covered Wyoming landscapes and the dark Haberdashery. Richardson may well be the greatest cinematographer working today but he rarely gets the respect he deserves other than from his peers. A lot of film buffs don’t know his name, but they should.

The legendary Ennio Morricone supplies the score, his first for a Western in 40 years (he is best known for his work for Sergio Leone and the Italian spaghetti western genre, among others) and it is a terrific score indeed. This is in every way a well crafted motion picture in every aspect.

Not everyone is going to love this. Some folks are going to focus on the racial slurs, the violence against Daisy and the sequence with Major Warren I referred to earlier and call this movie disgraceful, mean-spirited and racist, sexist, whatever else you can imagine. I will confess to being a huge fan of QT’s movies and so I might not be as objective here as perhaps I should, but I do think that this is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of his career and that’s saying something.

For the moment, the movie is available in a 70mm format at selected theaters around the country on a special roadshow edition. This is the first movie in 50 years to be filmed in 70mm Ultra Panavision, so it is highly recommended that if you can get to a theater presenting it this way that you take advantage of it. Otherwise it is just starting to hit regular 35mm theaters starting today. The roadshow will be available only until January 7, 2016 (unless extended) so don’t wait too long to go see it that way, the way it should be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous story. Well-acted and well-executed throughout. Gorgeous cinematography and soundtrack. The characters are well-developed for the most part.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence and racism may be too much for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: A lot of graphic violence, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nearly never made when the script was leaked online during pre-production and Tarantino elected to shelve it and rewrite it as a novel; however after Jackson advocated that the film be made anyway, Tarantino eventually relented.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Concussion

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

(2015) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenia Bondurant. Directed by Francis Lawrence

When a franchise comes to an end, the hope is that it goes out with a bang. Everyone wants a Return of the Jedi but there’s always a danger of a The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part II. On which side will this girl power young adult franchise lean?

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is distressed that her erstwhile boyfriend Peta (Hutcherson) has been brainwashed by the evil minions of President Snow (Sutherland) to hate her to the point that he goes berserk at the sight of her. Although the rebel medical team is trying to break his conditioning, he remains a danger to Katniss and even a visit by baby sister Primrose (Shields) leads to another foaming at the mouth segment.

The timing of that is not so good, as the rebels are preparing to make their final assault on the Capital. Rebel President Coin (Moore) and her adviser Plutarch (Hoffman) are wary of allowing Katniss, who was brutally injured at the hands of Peta in Part 1 of the concluding volume of the franchise and then again during a raid on the District 2 armory, anywhere near the front although she continues to be valuable as a propaganda tool.

Nonetheless, Katniss heads to the Capital against direct orders and accompanied by her Hunger Game friend Finn (Claflin), her former boyfriend Gale (Hemsworth) and Boggs (Ali), a veteran warrior. She is ordered to steer well clear of the battlefront and to stay far behind the lines and make propaganda videos. President Snow has peppered the Capital with lethal traps designed by the Hunger Games designers. Some turn out to be more lethal than others.

As Katniss gets closer and closer to the Presidential palace and the confrontation between the two looks to be inevitable, she will discover the price for revenge may end up being incredibly high and that there are people close to her who have motives of their own that may well not include Katniss’ survival as part of the plan.

The production design for the movie is superb – it looks sleek and wow-inducing. The special effects are solid and the action sequences are thrilling. For many viewers, that’s all the movie really needs. For me, though, while there are a few scenes that contain emotional payoffs (none of which I’ll use here to illustrate as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, although fans of the book will know what they are), the movie didn’t have an emotional resonance with me that the conclusion of an epic series should.

I could say part of the problem is that there are too many characters, many of whom I couldn’t keep straight, but that was true of the Harry Potter series as well and I had no trouble figuring out who was who. I could also say that the movie relied overly much on action rather than character, but that was true of the first Star Wars trilogy and that movie resonated with emotion at the end.

I think the problem is a blend of both issues; too many characters, many of whom had little development. To author Suzanne Collins’ credit, she didn’t rely on the love triangle that many young adult franchises with female heroines tend to utilize. However, there are too many extraneous pieces in the puzzle and the movie would have been better off leaving them out entirely, which might have been bad news for fans of Claflin and Hemsworth but good news for Lawrence’s fans, because I think the primary problem here is that Lawrence really gets short shrift here.

I sometimes wonder if Katniss Everdeen is really a good role model for young women; there’s a fine line between being headstrong and being mulish. There is also a fine line between being spontaneous and being foolish, as she takes a lot of chances that put lots of other people at risk, some of whom pay the ultimate price for it. Yes, that weighs heavily on Katniss’ soul but I guess our heroes these days have to be a little self-centered to be relatable.

The worst part is that there seemed to be no momentum, no fire. Certain cast members, particularly the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland, did their level best but for the most part this felt very emotionally flat to me. Judging from the box office for the movie which has been okay but not what was expected, some of their fans haven’t had that connection either. I’ll admit that maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw this, but for whatever reason the movie didn’t connect with me and I really wanted it to – I’ve generally liked the series but it felt like it ran out of steam here rather than finishing with a flourish.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of eye candy. Some emotional payoffs.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. No momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene near the end when Haymitch reads a letter from Plutarch to Katniss was supposed to be dialogue from Plutarch, but actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who played the role, passed away before the scene could be filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Peanuts Movie