Broken City


Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Town Murder Songs


Peter Stormare considers a rare non-villain role.

Peter Stormare considers a rare non-villain role.

(2011) Crime Thriller (Monterey Media) Peter Stormare, Jill Hennessy, Amy Rutherford, Martha Plimpton, Eric McIntyre, Vladamir Bondarenko, Aaron Poole, Ari Cohen, Trent McMullen, Erin Brandenburg, Kat Germain, Jessica Clement, Andrew Penner, Alan Penner, John Penner, Herm Dick, Alexandria Benoit, Mark Snowdon, Timm Zemanek, Jackie Burroughs. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly

Who we are now is as much a product of who we used to be as it is the events that shape us. Growth is a linear progression although it might not always seem that way to the casual observer. There’s always a point B and there’s always a point A.

Walter (Stormare) is a sheriff’s deputy in a small Ontario town in Mennonite country. He is not well-liked in the community. Not long ago, he had a violent encounter with Steve (McIntyre) who his ex-girlfriend Rita (Hennessy) was now canoodling with. That was years ago though but nobody in town has forgotten or forgiven, although Sam (Plimpton) seems okay with it, in as much as she’s his girlfriend and everything.

It’s a pretty quiet town anyway, until a body is discovered, that of a stripper from the city. Steve becomes the prime suspect and Rita, who it is discovered placed the original emergency call, is hiding something. This is a case that is very, very personal for Walter and nobody trusts him one way or the other. Whatever happens, he’s pretty much screwed.

This Canadian movie might have been a gem – there’s a very Gothic feel to the action and the puzzle of the mystery has some real oomph to it. Walter is an engaging lead which is a big change of pace for Stormare who is best known for playing the bad guys, the heavier the better. Stormare gives Walter a patina of sadness, as if he had lived his life in a perpetual state of disappointment. It’s a fine performance and makes me wonder why he doesn’t get more leading roles like this but of course the answer is he’s so damn good at playing villains.

The cast behind him has some fairly capable performers in it but Plimpton stands out. Many will remember her from 80s movies like The Mosquito Coast and The Goonies but few will remember that she was an exceptional actress for her age and her portrayal of the bubbly, loquacious Sam is a reminder of how charming she can be.

Gass-Donnelly has a good pedigree but he shows a little bit of immaturity with his somewhat distracting overuse of slow motion. It seems that regularly someone is doing the slow walk through the lovely scenery of the bucolic small towns in Ontario where the movie was filmed. It happens often enough to be annoying the further you go through the movie. Also, some of the character motivations seem to defy rationality. We get that Walter has a short fuse but why he snaps into violence with him – particularly as they’ve established him as a good, decent soul – doesn’t really jive with the character.

Faith also plays a big role in the movie. Walter after his issues with Steve and Rita finds Christianity and gets baptized (which happens on-camera). Sam is a pretty religious sort and of course they are in a Mennonite community so their faith is definitely part of the overall background of the film. Those who are uncomfortable with such things should be warned.

This has some very nice Gothic overtones and while some of the movie’s deficiencies are a little too much to overlook, Gass-Donnelly is definitely a talent to keep an eye on as one of a group of strong Canadian directors with an interesting point of view. I look forward to seeing where he goes from here well, actually he went to The Last Exorcist 2 but that’s beside the point.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine Gothic feel. Compelling story. Stormare does some fine work in a rare good-guy turn.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to be missing some pieces. Overuse of slow-mo.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence present, as well as some graphic images, sexuality and nudity, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film for the veteran actress Jackie Burroughs.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD when inserted into your computer will allow you to download one of the songs from the soundtrack.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31,133 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witness
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Big Hero 6

Surveillance


Surveillance

Can you tell these two are federal agents?

(2008) Crime Thriller (Magnet) Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond, French Stewart, Pell James, Ryan Simpkins, Michael Ironside, Kent Harper, Cheri Oteri, Anita Smith, Mac Miller. Directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch

Life is a matter of perception. What we see, what we experience, is filtered through our own realities. Often, our own personal realities color what we see and experience and so the reality changes, each according to their own flavor.

A brutal murder takes place on a desolate  road in the middle of nowhere. Captain Billings (Ironside) of the local police wants it solved, especially since it involved police officers being filleted. And then in walks Agents Hallaway (Pullman) and Anderson (Ormond), who believe it to be the work of a serial killer they’ve been chasing.

We see what happened through the eyes of three sets of witnesses; a couple of junkies (James, Miller), a family on a road trip vacation (Oteri, Simpkins) and two corrupt and brutal cops (Stewart, Harper). The interrogation takes place in one room while Hallaway watches via closed circuit TV in another. The clues to the masked killers begin to add up and an unpleasant truth begins to get formed.

It took 13 years for Lynch (daughter of David Lynch, auteur of Blue Velvet and “Twin Peaks”) to make her second film after making Boxing Helena, a 1993 gusher about a surgeon who amputates a girlfriend’s arms and legs in order to keep her close by. I’m thinking that she has a very different idea about love and obsession than most of the rest of us.

There is a good deal of violence and brutality here. The camera doesn’t shy from the more sadistic elements of the crime, nor is there any sort of feeling that the filmmaker is either apologizing for the sadism, nor is she reveling in it. It merely is as a matter of course.

There are some fine actors here, including Ormond who is an actress who should have been a huge star; she’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly talented, but for whatever reason, audiences never warmed to her and she never got the roles she should have. Pullman is one of the more likable actors in Hollywood, but here he seems to be involved in a twitch-a-thon, going as over the top as he can. In that sense, he is the most noticeable member of the cast here and so by default, all eyes are drawn to him throughout.

Part of the problem here is that the movie takes a certain course for the first two thirds of the film and then it veers off. While I’m not opposed to that in most cases, it’s almost like watching someone who is calm and collected suddenly turn into a gibbering lunatic before your very eyes in this case. It’s kind of off-putting, especially since aspects of the movie are so unsettling to begin with. It’s definitely a dive into the deep end, if you discovered raw sewage leaking into it. There is a twist at the end but quite frankly it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, for those who are regular moviegoers at least.

Certain filmmakers have a style which doesn’t shy from the darker aspects of life. Jennifer Lynch is one; her father is another. Is it genetic? Doesn’t matter in the least. Sometimes watching movies in that vein can be difficult; it’s like identifying the body of a loved one in the morgue with a coroner who can’t stop gigging.

There are some things here worth checking out; there are also things here that are going to drive you crazy. Whatever the case may be, you won’t walk away from this with a lukewarm feeling. Love it or hate it, Surveillance is going to get a strong reaction from you.

WHY RENT THIS: I like the Rashomon style of storytelling. Pullman is at his quirky best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some might find this too sadistic. Ending is a bit too muddled.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal violence, kinky sex, a little bit of drug use and more than enough foul language to make this a definite hard “R.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lynch was the first woman to win the Best Director Prize at the New York Horror Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.14M on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Green Hornet

The Next Three Days


The Next Three Days

Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe discover that this is anything but the Great Escape.

(2010) Crime Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, RZA, Olivia Wilde, Daniel Stern, Ty Simpkins, Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Lennie James, Trudie Styler, Allan Steele, Helen Carey. Directed by Paul Haggis

Desperate men will do desperate things, all in the name of love. When we are backed up against the wall with nowhere left to turn, we can become capable of things both amazing and terrifying.

John Brennan (Crowe) and his wife Lara (Banks) live a decent life. John is an English teacher at a community college, and Lara has a more upscale job with a boss she detests. The two go out with John’s brother and his wife and have a spirited conversation about female bosses (which Lara’s boss is) and their ability to work with female employees.

The two go home and the next day share breakfast. All seems to be normal – until the police arrive to arrest Lara. It seems she’s been fingered as a suspect in the brutal murder of her boss, bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. The evidence is highly circumstantial at best; Lara was observed driving away from the scene of the crime (the parking lot at the office where she works), her fingerprints were on the murder weapon, she and her boss argued rather loudly earlier in the day and to seal the deal, some of the victim’s blood made its way to the back of her overcoat.

Lara claims that she didn’t see the body, and that she had bumped into another woman who was leaving the parking lot on foot, although nobody else saw her but Lara. Despite her protestations of innocence, she is convicted and sentenced to prison. Three years pass; appeal after appeal is denied and their lawyer (Stern) informs John that basically her options have been exhausted – she’ll have to do the time. Lara, who has grown increasingly more depressed, her relationship with their son Luke (Simpkins) deteriorating to the point of non-existence, attempts suicide.

John knows she’ll never last the full length of her sentence. He also is completely sure she is incapable of murdering another human being, no matter how angry she was at them or what the provocation. With no further legal recourse, he determines that the only other option is to break her out of prison.

Of course, he knows nothing of prison breaks other than watching them on TV. He meets with an ex-con (Neeson in what is essentially an extended cameo) who achieved notoriety by breaking out of seven different prisons and lived to write a book about it. The author informs him that he needs a plan and a timetable. Being that she’s languishing in Allegheny County Prison in central Pittsburgh, he needs to know that 15 minutes after the escape is detected the police will have the center of the city locked down, the bridges closed and all of the subway and train stations as well as the airports manned with officers. 35 minutes after the escape is detected, the city will be on lockdown with toll booths manned by police officers and roadblocks on every major road out of the city.

John begins to spend a heck of a lot of time studying the prison and trying to figure out a foolproof plan. He is also going to need a weapon and a whole lot of money. Then he gets even more devastating news – his wife is going to be transferred to a prison far away from where they live in three days. If he doesn’t break her out in three days, their window of opportunity will be gone.

Haggis is one of the most honored writers in the business and he based this motion picture on a French film called Pour Elle (Anything for Her) which I haven’t seen yet. Haggis is a meticulous screenwriter and tends to fill his stories with an amazing amount of detail and research. Much of the first two thirds of the movie is kind of a how-to, setting up the story in the first 15 minutes of the two hour plus movie, then spending the next hour or so showing John doing research for the break-out. Fortunately, it doesn’t involve tunneling under the fence, putting mannequins in the beds to fool the guards or masquerading as day workers.

Few actors can resonate as an everyman as Russell Crowe can. He is quiet and strong, a perfect husband and father. Yet there is a core of steel to him, one which glimmers from time to time through the sweaters and the tweed jackets. Several critics have complained that they never quite catch the transformation from bookish teacher to efficient criminal, but I disagree. He is driven by desperation; desperate people have lifted automobiles off of other people. You never know what you’re capable of until you’re put into an untenable situation with no other options available to you but to achieve the impossible.

Banks has become one of Hollywood’s more reliable leading ladies. She doesn’t get the due of a Katherine Heigl or a Cameron Diaz but she is nonetheless just as competent and in many ways a better actress. We literally watch her fall apart before our very eyes and it is a compelling and believable performance in every way.

The movie really picks up during the final third when the actual escape is taking place. That is handled with edge-of-the-seat thrills and more than its share of gotchas. If the movie had been able to sustain that pace throughout, this would have been one of the year’s best.

Instead, we get kind of a how-to of prison breaks for the first two thirds that often stops dead in its tracks, particularly as we watch John stumble around Pittsburgh’s underbelly looking for falsified documents. The movie might still have gotten a decent audience, but stacked up against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 it was essentially doomed to underperforming at the box office. This is a pretty solid movie that may not necessarily fit into your holiday movie plans, but is certainly worth a look on DVD/Blu-Ray if you can’t make it out to the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: The last third of the movie when the escape takes place is tense, fun and energetic. Crowe is one of the best in the business.

REASONS TO STAY: The first two thirds of the movie about the planning stages drags a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as some drug references and a bit of foul language. There is also some implied sexuality; basically this is fine for any teen and/or mature older children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Haggis remains the only screenwriter to date to win the Best Screenplay Oscar in back-to-back years (for Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash in 2005).

HOME OR THEATER: With all the holiday offerings coming out thick and fast, chances are you won’t be able to fit this into your movie going schedule which is okay – it will work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Painted Veil