Kingsman: The Secret Service


Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Jordan Long, Tobi Bakare, Nicholas Banks, Edward Holcroft, Morgan Watkins, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Hanna Alstrom, Fiona Hampton, Lily Travers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The spy movies of the late 60s and onward have a certain place in the cultural psyche. They represent a particular era, sure, but they also represent the fight between good and evil, our fascination with technology and a certain sense of humor about life in the modern age. Our attitudes towards women, patriotism, freedom and what constitutes a gentleman have been largely shaped by these films.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) is growing up aimlessly in a working class London neighborhood. His dad died when he was a baby and his mom (Womack) has taken up with a local thug (Bell) named Dean. Dean abuses his mom but Gary isn’t strong enough to stand up for her or for himself. Dean despises him and ridicules him for it.

But Eggsy has a good heart to go along with his Cockney accent and when he gets arrested for stealing the car of one of Dean’s underlings and leading the police on a merry chase, he knows he can’t call home. Therefore, he calls the number on the back of an amulet once given to his mother by a gentlemen who came to inform her of the death of Eggsy’s father, remembering that if he called that number and read a certain phrase, help of whatever nature was needed would be forthcoming.

It comes in the form of Harry Hart (Firth), a debonair and well-dressed gentleman who tells Eggsy that in fact, his father once saved Harry’s life and that Harry wanted to repay that debt by offering his son the opportunity to try out for a position in the same super secret organization that his father served in and that Harry in fact serves in now – the Kingsmen. No, not the “Louie, Louie” bunch.

The Kingsmen are a secret, non-government affiliated group of highly trained, highly skilled gentlemen. They aren’t spies particularly; what they do is prevent bad things from happening. They have a seemingly unlimited budget and there are only a set number of them; when one dies they are replaced. This is the group that Eggsy is about to join – if he can survive the process of selecting the winning applicant, that is and it is a brutal one, focusing on teamwork, thinking on one’s feet and assessing dangerous situations. Most of the applicants are upper class snobs, although Eggsy befriends Roxy (Cookson), a female applicant (who gets her share of grief from the snobs, as does Eggsy) and Merlin (Strong), the tech wizard of the Kingsmen and the right hand of Arthur (Caine), head of the organization.

In the meantime, a tech billionaire named Valentine has big, bad plans. See, he’s a little bit concerned about climate change. Okay, he’s a lot concerned about climate change. He’s given up on the government doing anything about it and has decided that to make humankind’s carbon footprint smaller he needs to make the population smaller. His plan is to use a special cell phone signal through special SIM cards in free cell phones he’s given away to nearly everyone trigger a violent, murderous rage in those who hear it. Only those wealthy, beautiful few who he’s personally approached and implanted a microchip that cancels out the signal in their heads will be immune to the carnage, especially after they all are safely ensconced in bunkers around the world.

It’s a mad plan, certainly but Valentine is deadly serious about it. He’s even hired himself a mercenary army and constructed a lair within a mountain. You know he’s got to be a villain with a mountain lair. In any case, with Valentine’s powerful connections, getting to him won’t be easy and preventing an anarchic Armageddon even less so but that’s what the Kingsmen are there for, after all – to save the day.

Vaughn has made films based on Mark Millar comic series before (as this film is) and the collaborations between the two have been fruitful, producing the fine superhero film Kick-Ass for example. Vaughn has become one of my favorite directors of late with some excellent genre films to his credit. He knows how to make a film visually spectacular and hit all the right buttons in the fanboy psyche while not taking the movies so seriously that they become ponderous. His movies are almost always deeply entertaining.

And this one is no exception. Colin Firth as an action hero seems like a pretty unlikely casting, but it works here. Firth actually performed a surprising amount of his own stunts, but handles the role well, keeping a Bond-like facade of cool while kicking the butts of a group of Dean’s thugs, or some of Valentine’s flunkies, or a church full of homicidal fundamentalists.

Samuel L. Jackson makes a fine villain. Given several personality quirks (he gets violently ill at the sight of blood for example) by the writers, Jackson gives the character a lisp that makes him all the more memorable which is in the grand tradition of Bond villains. While the lisp does occasionally fall off, Jackson gives the character the right amount of menace to make for a formidable foe but enough goofiness to give the film a lighter tone. He also gets a nifty assassin in Gazelle (Boutella), who has no legs but on her Pistorius-like artificial limbs is fast, graceful and deadly as she is able to unfold sword blades from those artificial legs while in mid-air. Tres cool.

There are a lot of asides to the spy movies and television series of history; a reference to the Get Smart! shoe phone for example, or the glasses worn by super-spy Harry Palmer in films like The Billion Dollar Baby and The Ipcress Files. Clearly there are several Bond references although many are turned on their ear; Valentine at one point has a speech in which he says “This is the part where I reveal to you all my plans, and then come up with a slow and convoluted way for you to die, and you come up with a convoluted way to escape and stop me. Except this isn’t that kind of movie” at which point he shoots his nemesis in the head, much like Indiana Jones once shot a swordsman making fancy moves before he could attack.

Egerton shows a lot of potential, although I can’t say he’s a slam-dunk future star. He’s got charisma but he wasn’t really asked to carry this movie (as well he shouldn’t have been) and so I’m not certain he can rise above the gimmicks and gadgets, of which there are plenty here. The jury is out on him for me, although I can see him eventually ascending to a leading man status.

The humor here is mostly dry although there are some broad physical jokes here from time to time. Those who find the English wit not to their liking may consider this not their cup of tea, although I enjoyed this a great deal. In fact, this is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen thus far this year (which isn’t saying much) and one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in the first quarter of any year (which is saying a lot) ever. For those looking for a fun time at the movies, this is your best bet at least until some of the more anticipated movies of the spring start appearing next month. I certainly wouldn’t complain if this became the start of a new Fox franchise.

REASONS TO GO: Highly entertaining. Great action sequences. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies a bit on gimmickry and gadgetry. May be too droll for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and mayhem, some pretty crude language and some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The menswear shop on Savile Row which is the entrance to the Kingsman headquarters is based on Huntsman, a real store in the area. Because shooting in the actual shop would have been impractical, a set was built copying many of the characteristics of the original although production designer Paul Kirby added his own touches to give the set its own personality.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hot Tub Time Machine 2

New Releases for the Week of February 13, 2015


Fifty Shades of GreyFIFTY SHADES OF GREY

(Focus) Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden, Luke Grimes, Callum Keith Rennie, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

A journalist for a college newspaper interviews a 27-year-old billionaire who institutes a sexual relationship that defies convention. Based on the controversial best-selling novel that began life as fan fiction for the Twilight series.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie here is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Softcore Erotic Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language)

Kingsman: The Secret Service

(20th Century Fox) Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton. An English street kid of promising intellect but aimless direction is recruited by a super-secret spy agency that exists to wipe out global threats without anyone being the wiser. He joins at a most precipitous time; they are about to face the biggest threat in the organization’s history.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Spy Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R  (for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content)

Mr. Turner

(Sony Classics) Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Lesley Manville. One of the most fascinating and unusual figures in the history of England’s arts is painter J.M.W. Turner. Deeply affected by the death of his father, he changes his style radically and grows to be one of the most admired – and most reviled – artists of his day.This beautiful film won much acclaim for Spall in the title role and is the latest triumph from director Mike Leigh whom noted film critic Richard von Busack suggests deserves a Best Director nomination more than Selma director Ava DuVernay whose snub ignited much controversy.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for some sexual content)

New Releases for the Week of October 31, 2014


NightcrawlerNIGHTCRAWLER

(Open Road) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmad, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Carolyn Gilroy, Leah Fredkin. Directed by Dan Gilroy

Down on his luck and desperate for a job, any job, Lou Bloom stumbles into the world of the nightcrawler – pseudo-journalists who go to crime scenes and get video of victims for local newscasts. It turns out Lou is really good at it but the more he sinks into the morass of compromised ethics and victims translated as cash, the closer to real trouble he comes.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

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

Before I Go to Sleep

(Clarius) Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff. The victim of a traumatic accident is no longer able to form new memories; she wakes up each morning with all the events of the previous day erased from her mind. Instead of being surrounded by benevolent friends and family however, she may be surrounded by people who want to do her harm – and to make sure her memories remain erased.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for some brutal violence and language)

Horns

(Radius) Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Kelli Garner, Max Minghella. Suspected of violently raping and murdering his girlfriend, a man wakes up after a night of hard drinking with horns growing out of his head. He soon discovers that the horns can compel people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and perverse desires. Using this as a tool, he determines to discover the real culprit and make him pay.

See the trailer, promos, a clip and a link to order the full movie at Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Fantasy

Rating: R (for sexual content, some graphic nudity, disturbing violence including a sexual assault, language and drug use)

Missionary

(Freestyle Releasing) Dawn Olivieri, Mitch Ryan, Kip Pardue, J. LaRose. Katherine is an ordinary housewife separated from her husband and raising her kid alone. She gets romantically involved with a Mormon missionary and things seem to be looking up. Then, she and her husband reconcile. She attempts to break-up with her boyfriend but he doesn’t seem to be inclined to take no for an answer and will stop at nothing to keep her as his.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for violence, sexuality and language)

The Zero Theorem

(Amplify) Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges. In the near-future, a gifted but damaged computer genius works in solitude on a project designed to prove that everything equals nothing. An odd cast of characters either help him or hinder him in his work. The latest movie from visionary director Terry Gilliam had a special screening earlier this year at the Enzian due to the movie having been written by UCF professor Pat Rushin. You can read my review of it here.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R  (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

Magic in the Moonlight


Emma Stone is shocked to discover she's co-starring with an Oscar winner.

Emma Stone is shocked to discover she’s co-starring with an Oscar winner.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, George Shamos, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Ute Lemper, Didier Muller, Peter Wollasch, Antonia Clarke, Natasha Andrews, Valerie Beaulieu, Lionel Abelanski. Directed by Woody Allen

The world is fairly evenly divided between the romantic and the pragmatic. Pragmatists believe that everything is explainable and that there is little to no mystery left in the world. Romantics believe that there is much more to life than what the senses perceive and that there are things in the world that can only be described as magic.

Stanley (Firth) certainly counts himself among the pragmatic although, perhaps oddly, he makes his living as a magician, masquerading as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo. While he would say that he does so to maintain his privacy as well as the illusion of mystery, it seems somewhat hypocritical at the very least and cynical for certain. In 1928, however, this isn’t really an issue.

Stanley is the sort that can alienate the nicest of people in a matter of seconds. Pompous, arrogant and smug, he is completely certain that he is right in all things and the smartest person in the room. The trouble is, he usually is. He is engaged to Olivia (McCormack), a fellow intellectual pragmatic and a fine looking woman as well. They are very well-matched on the surface and Stanley feels a good deal of affection towards his bride-to-be. At the end of his world tour, he intends to vacation in the Galapagos with her.

 

However at the close of his Berlin show he is met by his old friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (McBurney) who comes to him with a challenge. A woman by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone) purporting to be a psychic has attached herself to the Catledge family of Pittsburgh who happen to be friends of his. Their callow son Brice (Linklater) has become smitten with the girl, having already proposed marriage. Mother Grace (Weaver) is obsessed with making contact with her lately departed industrialist husband.

Stanley, a notable debunker of charlatans, leaps at the chance. Burkan drives him to their home in the South of France with a brief stop to lunch with Stanley’s dear Aunt Vanessa (Atkins) who practically raised him and instilled in him the practicality that makes up his personality, although she despairs at his prickliness that makes him something of a social hand grenade.

Nobody knows who Stanley is once they arrive at the Catledge villa; he introduces himself as an importer of Brazilian coffee beans. He meets Sophie and her suspicious mother (Harden) and proceeds to let slip his disbelief in the occult. However at a séance, he is unable to detect how she makes a candle levitate nor does she seem to be the source of the rapping noises that are overheard. The great debunker has to admit he’s perplexed.

 

He grows further so when she seems to know things she couldn’t possibly know – even Aunt Vanessa is taken with the charming young lass. The more he begins to doubt his own convictions, the more alive Stanley feels – and the more he begins to fall for the beautiful young girl. However, he can’t keep that nagging feeling out of his head that there is no such thing as magic. It’s a war in his soul for which it seems there can be no compromise.

Allen has been in a bit of a career renaissance in his 70s with nine films released including two of his most acclaimed and commercially successful – Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. I will admit that I had fallen out of love with Allen not long after Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo – it seemed to me that most of his movies between then and now were passionless and seemed to be the work of someone who was working to stay busy. However Midnight in Paris did change my mind and I have again begun to look forward to his new movies – not that all of them have been great. Still I had high hopes for this one.

It is charming to be sure, a throwback to an early era – not just the era of the flapper when this is set, but also to the comedies of the ’70s which this is more akin to which were in turn inspired by comedies of the 30s and 40s. Call this a throwback of a throwback if you will.

 

Firth proves himself a phenomenal performer, once again showing that he may be the best male actor of this decade. His Stanley takes the guise of an inscrutable Oriental because Stanley himself is inscrutable; for all his bluster and bravado he is unable to express his emotions any better than those he despises can express their intellect. Stanley is clearly not a likable fellow yet Firth makes us like him in spite of his faults and by the time the movie ends, Stanley has made an organic and believable change. It’s not just good writing that accomplishes this – Firth makes it real.

Most of the rest of the cast does the kind of solid work you’d expect from a cast with this kind of pedigree – not to mention from a Woody Allen movie. Allen has always been able to get good performances from his actors.

I’ll have to admit that the second act seems a bit rushed and that the movie ends up a little bit more neatly tied up in a bow than I might have expected. I supposed when you’re 79 years old and you’re still churning out a movie every year (and sometimes more) without fail, you can be forgiven for taking a few short cuts.

 

Nonetheless this is solidly entertaining and charming. I have to admit that I do love movies set in this era and I love those kind of 70s-era all-star events that made the Agatha Christie movies so entertaining. While not a murder mystery per se, it has some elements you’d find in a movie by the mistress of the murder mystery. If Allen continues to make movies of this quality, I for one won’t be disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Colin Firth is really, really good. Overall charming and recalls not only the Roaring ’20s but also the ’70s as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is rushed a little bit. A few shortcuts are taken.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some innuendo and period smoking (which is apparently a big no-no for the MPAA these days).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth movie made while Woody Allen was in his 70s. Should he release a movie next year, it will be his tenth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Gatsby

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Giver

New Releases for the Week of August 8, 2014


Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES

(Paramount) Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Shalhoub, Jeremy Howard, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

New York City is in trouble – but then again, when is it not? In this instance, the dreaded Foot Clan, led by the insidious Shredder, has complete control – an iron grip on the cops, crooked politicians and crime. The city needs heroes and it’s about to get them. Rising from the sewers, four brothers – superbly trained and honorable, trained by their sensei Splinter will fight for justice and peace aided by an intrepid reporter. These are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Michael Bay-style.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Family Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)

About Alex

(Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Jason Ritter, Max Minghella, Maggie Grace. When a member of a circle of 20-something friends suffers an emotional breakdown, his concerned buddies decide to reunite for a weekend in a bucolic lakeside cabin. Despite their efforts to keep things light, years of unrequited passion, petty jealousies and widening political differences brings an already volatile cauldron to a boil.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and drug use)

Deepsea Challenge 3D

(National Geographic) James Cameron, Frank Lotito, Lachlan Woods, Paul Henri. The famous film director and noted marine biology junkie decides to dive to the deepest place on Earth using an experimental submersible. The dive is extremely dangerous and if Avatar fans knew he was making these dives before he’d finished writing the sequels they would have been raising a stink.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: PG (for language and brief disaster images)

The Hundred-Foot Journey

(DreamWorks) Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon. When an Indian restaurateur settles in an idyllic French village, it sparks open warfare with the patrician owner of a Michelin star-rated bistro across the road. However, the extremely talented young son of the flamboyant Indian finds that good food can bridge any cultural gap. This is the latest film from acclaimed director Lasse Halstrom.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and premiere footage here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality)

I Origins

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Steven Yeun, Astrid Berges-Frisbey. The eye is like a fingerprint – no two humans have the same one. However, a molecular biologist makes a startling discovery that turns all our thoughts about the subject on its ear and in the process challenges long-held spiritual beliefs as well as scientific theory.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity and language

Into the Storm

(New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep. A small town is hit by a storm of epic proportions, one in which tornadoes self-regenerate and the worst is yet to come. Think of this as a political test – Climate Change deniers will undoubtedly shriek that this is propaganda while ecology freaks will call this prescient.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Disaster Movie

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense destruction and peril, and language including some sexual references)

Magic in the Moonlight

(Sony Classics) Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden. The latest from Woody Allen is set on the Cote D’Azur in the 1920s and is concerned about an English sleuth brought in to unmask a possible swindle. Sort of Woody Allen does Agatha Christie.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for a brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout)

Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’

New Releases for the Week of May 9, 2014


NeighborsNEIGHBORS

(Universal) Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Roberts. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

A young couple think they have the ideal life; good jobs, a new baby, a nice house in a quiet neighborhood. When they get new neighbors, it’s just another blessing. Unfortunately, when your new neighbor is a frat house, the neighborhood will be anything but quiet. Get ready to have some stereotypes about fraternities reinforced.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, premiere footage, a featurette and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use throughout)

Devil’s Knot

(RLJ/Image) Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos.The small Arkansas town of West Memphis was rocked to its core when three eight year old boys turned up brutally murdered. When three teenage boys, outsiders and misfits all, were charged and eventually convicted for the crime which the authorities maintained had Satanic overtones, the community was deeply split. It would eventually become a cause célèbrearound the country when the investigation by the West Memphis police and the conduct of the prosecution were called into question. This is a semi-fictionalized version of the case from renowned Canadian director Atom Egoyan.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: NR

Fading Gigolo

(Millennium) John Turturro, Woody Allen, Liev Schreiber, Sofia Vergara. When his good friend Murray’s money problems turn dire, Fiorvante determines to help his friend as best he can but with no real cash reserves of his own, he’ll have to think of something outside the box. When Murray figures out that Fiorvante has the magic touch when it comes to the ladies, he hits upon an unlikely plan.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for some sexual content, language and brief nudity)

The Final Member

(Drafthouse) Sigrour Hjartason, Pall Arason, Tom Mitchell, Hannes Blondal.In a tiny village in Iceland there is a museum dedicated to the penis. In it are preserved specimens of nearly every animal that has one save one – humans. Two men – one an Icelandic adventurer and the other an eccentric American, race to be the donors of the human member to the collection. A recent favorite at the Florida Film Festival.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

Kochadaiiyaan

(Eros International) Starring the voices of Rajnikant, Deepika Padukone, Sarath Kumar, Jackie Shroff.Two brothers face each other in a battle of good and evil on an epic canvas of magic and India’s colorful history. The first Indian film to utilize photorealistic animation based on motion capture technology.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: NR

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return

(Clarius) Starring the voices of Lea Michele, Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, James Belushi. After waking up in Kansas, Dorothy Gale is whisked back to Oz where she discovers that her old friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Glinda the Good Witch of the North have been kidnapped and are being held prisoner by the nefarious Jester. With new friends to help her, Dorothy sets out to free her friends and set things right in Oz.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some scary images and mild peril)

Moms’ Night Out

(TriStar) Sarah Drew, Sean Astin, Patricia Heaton, Trace Adkins. Three moms, in desperate need of a break from taking care of the kids, put the dads in charge, get dressed up to the nines and set out to have a nice, quiet dinner, some adult conversation and maybe a little bit of fun. Of course, things go south in a hurry, both at home with the dads and with the moms. Who knew that going out for a bite to eat would cause so much chaos?

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and some action)

The Railway Man


Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bryan Probets, Michael MacKenzie, Jeffrey Daunton, Tom Stokes, Tom Hobbs, Akos Armont, Keith Fleming, Ben Aldridge, Yukata Izumihara, Masa Yamaguchi, Michael Doonan, Keiichi Enomoto. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

The number of veterans that come home from war with PTSD is staggering. Nobody comes back from war unscarred, even if they didn’t get a scratch on them in battle. These days, our combat vets have programs through the VA that can help them through it, although getting into those programs these days can be frustrating and time-consuming. Back in the days of the Second World War, PTSD wasn’t even a recognized condition.

Eric Lomax (Irvine) certainly has scars, some which aren’t visible at all. Captured by the Japanese after the Fall of Singapore, he and his fellow soldiers were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway which was also called the Death Railway for the number of prisoners of war and Asian civilians who died in its construction. Lomax, a railway enthusiast and an engineer, was spared the forced labor because engineers were needed for other tasks. In secret, he also built a radio receiver which would have devastating consequences for Eric when it was discovered.

Years later, Eric (Firth) has met a nurse named Patti (Kidman) whom he has fallen deeply in love with. The two get married but Patti is troubled by her husband’s frequent night terrors, his violent mood swings and panic attacks. Whatever shell he has built around himself to cope with what he has been through is crumbling. Desperate, she talks to Finlay (Skarsgard), his best friend who at first is reluctant to talk to her about what Eric went through but at last gives in. Eric was brutally tortured, facilitated by a translator named Takeshi Nagase (Ishida).

Not long after, Finlay brings news to that Nagase is still alive. The former translator is now a museum tour guide (Sanada) in the very building the atrocities were committed in. Finlay urges Eric to go to Thailand and confront Nagase. Eric is reluctant to but a dramatic act by Finlay convinces him to go.

This is a true story, based on Lomax’ own autobiography. While a few facts were fudged – the meeting between Nagase and Lomax was portrayed as a complete surprise to Nagase when in fact the former translator had been prepared for his arrival through correspondence, and while Lomax’ motives to go to Thailand were portrayed here as initially a need to take vengeance, his book states clearly that he went to seek closure and confront his former tormentor face to face. It also doesn’t mention that Eric had been previously married and had three children by that marriage who figured in the actual story as well. Other than that (which are major issues it must be admitted) and the time compression of some events, the movie pretty much follows the book closely.

Firth has a difficult role to play. Not only is he a man in deep mental anguish, he also has to play a shy, retiring sort more interested in railroads than people, yet with a good heart. We get every side of Eric Lomax here, from the man in pain to the man bestowing the most divine of human gifts that one can give another, and I’m not talking American Express gift cards here.

Kidman’s role is less complex but she performs it no less satisfactorily. This isn’t a real glamour role for the star but she is still as lustrous as ever. She’s not a background performer here, although her character does take a backseat to Firth’s but then again, it’s not called The Railway Woman.

The message is a powerful one. Lomax not only forgives Nagase, but recognizes that his pain runs deep as well. When Nagase reads those words and collapses in tears, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Sometimes all we need is acknowledgement that we are hurting to make us feel better.

The depictions of torture are pretty graphic. Those who are wondering what waterboarding is will get a good idea of it when watching this movie. It serves as a reminder that our leaders who authorized using it as a means of extracting information failed to learn from history when it comes for the effectiveness of this method in getting reliable intelligence. It had the extra added side effect that it made me even more angry at the CIA, the Bush Administration and our military for allowing it to happen. We are supposed to be better than that and I expect our political and military leaders to be better than that.

To forgive is divine and never is it as divine as when a wrong as heinous as this is committed on a person. Hollywood is quick to make movies about revenge but movies about forgiveness are few and far between. While the filmmakers belabor their point a bit, I still think that if we made more movies emphasizing forgiveness that we as a culture would benefit greatly.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific job by Firth. The theme of forgiveness is powerful and unusual for a Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Overplays its point.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence against prisoners of war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Patti Lomax attended the premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival last year and received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bridge Over the River Kwai

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Transcendence

New Releases for the Week of April 25, 2014


The Other WomanTHE OTHER WOMAN

(20th Century Fox) Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Upton, Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj, Don Johnson. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

A high-powered lawyer who has her pick of men has settled on one – who might be the One. When she discovers he’s married, she’s devastated. When she accidentally gets together with the wife of her former boyfriend, they discover that they have a lot in common – among other things that he’s cheating on the both of them with another woman. Joining forces with the other other woman, the three women plot this philanderer’s comeuppance.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual references and language)

Brick Mansions

(Relativity) Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy. In the Detroit of the near future (does that sound familiar?) a gigantic wall has been built around the worst slum, Brick Mansions. The crimelord of the district has put into motion a plan to devastate the entire city. An undercover cop and a fearless ex-con, each of whom have a stake in apprehending the crimelord, must (reluctantly) team up to stop him before all Hell breaks loose.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for frenetic gunplay, violence and action throughout, language, sexual menace and drug material)

From the Rough

(Freestyle Releasing) Taraji P. Henson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Tom Felton, Justin Chon. The swim coach of the woman’s swim team makes history as the first woman to coach a men’s golf team. Not only is she a pioneer, but she successfully takes the team to record-breaking heights. Based on a true story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG (for language and thematic elements)

Joe

(Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins.An ex-con with a hair-trigger temper takes a homeless young boy under his wing to the chagrin of the boy’s alcoholic and brutal father. The ex-con, beset by his own demons, tries to set the boy on the right path of life while facing the consequences of his own poor choices. Sold out it’s showing during the Florida Film Festival, you can read my review here.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for violence, disturbing material, language and some sexual content)

The Last Passenger

(Cohen Media Group) Dougray Scott, Kara Tointon, David Schofield, Lindsay Duncan. A weary London commuter and his son board the last train of the evening, headed home. As the train rolls into the night, he discovers that the conductor has disappeared and the brakes have been sabotaged. A lunatic has taken control of the train and means to commit suicide by train, taking the passengers with him.  This passenger, however, isn’t ready to die just yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for language)

The Quiet Ones

(Lionsgate) Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards, Olivia Cooke. University students set out to create a poltergeist, the focus of their experiments being a dangerously disturbed young woman who seems able to manifest dark energies. However as the experiment continues, they soon discover to their horror they have unleashed something far more dangerous than they imagined and much too powerful to contain.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and terror, sexual content, thematic material, language, and smoking throughout)

The Railway Man

(Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada. A veteran of the Second World War is haunted by his harrowing experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He and his cohorts are used as forced labor to build a railway system. Years after the war is over, he discovers that the interpreter whom he holds responsible for much of his brutal treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him and make him pay for what he did. This true story is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing prisoners of war violence)

Walking With the Enemy

(Liberty) Ben Kingsley, Jonah Armstrong, Hannah Tointon, Burn Gorman.In the waning days of World War II, a young Hungarian man utilizes a stolen Nazi officer’s uniform to try and find his displaced family. Trying to get as many Jews to safety as he can, he disrupts the activities of the Germans in order to keep them from implementing their final solution in his city. Said to be inspired by actual events.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for war violence including crimes against humanity)

The Zero Theorem

(Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton.  In a dystopian future, a reclusive computer genius is given the assignment of finding the meaning of life. Plagued by angst and confusion, he is tortured by unwanted visitors by those he doesn’t trust. It isn’t until he breaks down the walls he has erected for himself with love and desire that he finds the tools to carry out his assignment. The newest film from visionary director Terry Gilliam.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

New Releases for the Week of April 26, 2013


Pain and Gain

PAIN & GAIN

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Rob Corddry, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong. Directed by Michael Bay

Three somewhat dense bodybuilders engage on a campaign of kidnapping, extortion and murder in Miami in the 1990s. Based on a true story, Michael Bay brings his Bad Boys sensibility to the story which love him or hate him, a movie like this sorely needs.

See the trailer, clips and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use)

Arthur Newman

(Cinedigm/Flatiron) Colin Firth, Emily Blunt, Anne Heche, Peter Jurasik. A middle-aged divorced man, tired of a life that is going nowhere, decides to disappear. He buys himself a new identity and drives in the general direction of Terra Haute, Indiana where he hopes to reinvent himself as a golf pro at a small country club there. However he picks up a girl who’s got problems of her own and on the road to Indiana the two find something more than they were expecting.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R  (for sexual content, language and brief drug use)

The Big Wedding

(Lionsgate) Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton. When their adopted son gets married, a divorced couple is forced to pretend to still be together in order to placate his ultraconservative biological mom, who is showing up unexpectedly to the wedding. The family is then forced to confront all the sins of their past – in front of everyone invited to a big wedding.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR  

The Company You Keep

(Sony Classics) Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins. A lawyer’s true identity as a former radical wanted for murder is exposed by a reporter, forcing the lawyer to go on the run with his young daughter to find the one person who can clear his name. Redford also directed this.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language)

Disconnect

(LD Entertainment) Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgard. An ensemble piece with a theme of connection (or lack thereof) in the modern digital world. The stories include a lawyer who can’t put down his cell phone nor communicate with his own family, a couple whose darkest secrets are exposed online, a single dad and cop struggling to raise a son who is cyber-bullying classmates, and an ambitious journalist discovers a story about a teen masquerading as an adult on an adult website.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language, violence and drug use – some involving teens)

Filly Brown

(Pantelion) Gina Rodriguez, Jenn Rivera, Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward James Olmos. A young girl with an incarcerated mom and a dad struggling to provide for his family finds self-expression through hip-hop. When a record producer offers to sign her to a contract, she thinks at first that it’s the answer to all her prayers – but she soon realizes the cost might be more than she could have ever thought it would be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug use) 

Mud

(Roadside Attractions) Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon. A couple of young boys discover a man living on an island in the Mississippi River. Calling himself Mud, he describes a fairly lurid tale of murder, love, a beautiful woman and bounty hunters. The boys agree to help him, until the tale turns out to be true – and a little more than he told them to begin with. This is another entry from the Florida Film Festival now playing a regular run at the Enzian.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking)