Painless (2017)


There’s a difference between painless and pain-free.

(2017) Thriller (Indican) Joey Klein, Evalena Marie, Kip Gilman, Pascal Yen-Pfister, Tommie Sox, Nick Latrenta, Joshua Koopman, Eileen Paulino, David Weindel, Lino Tanaka, Valeria Sistrunk, Robert Sloch, Orion Spinelli, Katherine van Hengel, Becki Dennis, Anthony Ambrosino, David Michael Carpenter, Angel Connell, Jack Dimich, Ayana Adams. Directed by Jordan Horowitz

 

Nobody likes pain. We’ve created a billion dollar industry that is geared to keeping pain out of our lives. We will go so far as to take powerful and addictive opiates in order to avoid pain. Pain sucks and anyone who has felt intense pain can tell you that in detail

But pain has a purpose as much as we would like to live without it. Pain tells us when there’s something wrong. Pain tells us when we need medical attention. Without pain, we could fall down and never realize that we are bleeding internally. We could scald ourselves with hot coffee and not realize our skin is blistering. We could cut ourselves severely and not realize that gangrene was setting in.

Henry (Klein) has to live reality. Since birth he has not been able to experience pain and brigades of doctors can’t really explain why. He has dedicated himself to research the problem since essentially nobody will do it for him – the condition is rare enough that no medical facility will put the money, time and commitment into solving the problem.

His specialist, Dr. Raymond Parks (Gilman) supports his research but as Henry gets more desperate he begins demanding more things from his doctor. Henry’s condition has kind of insulated him from humanity; he barges into his doctor’s office while he’s seeing other patients. He rebuffs those who want to get to know him better – for example the pretty Shani (Marie) who spills hot coffee on him on the subway and is intrigued by his demeanor – with the muttered declaration “I don’t have time for distractions right now.”

He gets involved with a less-than-ethical researcher, Dr. Andrews (Yen-Pfister) who is willing to provide him with chemicals and stem cells which Dr. Parks won’t provide for him (he could lose his license for doing so) in exchange for samples of DNA for Henry. For Henry, expedience is the name of the game. Although he abhors being poked and prodded by doctors, he agrees to undergo the tests that Dr. Andrews has set up for him if it will get him the things Henry needs to get closer to a cure for his condition. Henry also begins to come out of his shell as Shani becomes more and more of a distraction. However, just as Henry is beginning to live, will he risk his life to cure his condition?

The concept is truly interesting but the execution of the film is what is really surprising. I have to admit I hadn’t heard anything about the film before the publicist brought it to my attention. This is a very well-developed, well-written movie. Horowitz takes a scientific tact to approach the high concept and while I’m not expert enough to say whether the science is sound or not, it certainly seems to be from a layman’s perspective. On top of that, the world that Horowitz creates of Red Bank apartments converted into labs, lowlife drug dealers looking to Henry for product and an encounter between Shani and an ex-boyfriend that leaves Henry humiliated. This is a world most of us are familiar with.

Horowitz also doesn’t take many shortcuts with the plot. He allows it to unfold at its own pace and doesn’t rush the denouement. Yeah, I could have done without the voiceover narration (we critics tend to see more movies using that device than most human beings should be allowed to) or the very cliché developing romance montage midway through the film. Otherwise there are no missteps.

Klein does a solid job as Henry. Henry isn’t always likable – obsession isn’t pretty, remember – and his little eccentricities might get overbearing after awhile but the character is never uninteresting or unbelievable and Klein has a lot to do with that. Horowitz also resisted the impulse to make Shani a manic pixie dream girl clone, making her authentic and their relationship believable. Marie likewise gives the character three dimensions.

This is a surprisingly entertaining and interesting little gem.  It will be available on VOD on October 2nd; in the meantime it is playing at the Music Hall theater in Los Angeles for those in the City of Angels who want to get a gander at this on the big screen. While I was surprised that the movie, clearly filmed in New York didn’t get a run in the Big Apple, the biggest surprise is that I had never heard of this film before. It’s really quite good and you will not waste your time giving it a whirl. Once it’s on VOD, this is definitely a contender for those looking for something different.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is fascinating and is attacked from a scientific perspective. There is some profundity in the script.
REASONS TO STAY: Henry’s quirkiness gets overbearing at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length feature for Horowitz who also wrote the screenplay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bad Reputation

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A Walk Among the Tombstones


No more cracks about being too old for this.

No more cracks about being too old for this.

(2014) Mystery (Universal) Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, Danielle Rose Russell, Natia Dune, David Anzuelo, Whitney Able, Maurice Compte, Laura Birn, Razane Jammal, Eric Nelsen, Frank De Julio, Mark Consuelos, Marielle Heller, Novella Nelson. Directed by Scott Frank

They don’t make ’em like Sam Spade anymore. Or Lew Archer. Or Philip Marlowe. Or Humphrey Bogart for that matter. Noir detectives – hard bitten, hard drinking tough guys who were often knights in tarnished armor, strong men with stronger codes. Life has kicked the crap out of them – it’s a dog eat dog world after all – but if the weak or the helpless are threatened, well, get ready for a fight.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a throwback to those kinds of guys. He used to be a hard-bitten hard-drinking tough guy on the NYPD until a particularly bad day at the office. These days – which happen to be 1999 – he’s an unlicensed private investigator which he describes as “Sometimes I do people favors. Sometimes they give me gifts.”

He’s not too picky about his clientele. When Peter Kristo (Holbrook), who attends AA meetings with Matt, approaches him on behalf of his brother Kenny (Stevens), Matt is wary at first. Kenny is a drug dealer whose wife Carrie (Jammal) was kidnapped. Finding her isn’t the problem – Kenny’s already found her. In pieces. After he paid the ransom.

This doesn’t sit well with him. He wants the guys who did it found and brought to him, preferably alive. Matt doesn’t want any part of a revenge killing – until he hears the audio tape the killers left for Kenny. Once he hears that he’s all in.

As he investigates he discovers that Carrie Kristo wasn’t the first victim and she’s probably not going to be the last. His investigations take him to a graveyard groundskeeper (Olafsson) who found the first body and to the seamy side of New York. He is assisted by TJ (Bradley), a tough-talking African-American street kid who wants to be a P.I. just like in the books he’s read at the public library where he essentially hangs out all the time. However, the killers (Harbour, Thompson) have selected another victim and this time she’s a true innocent. Time is running out.

The movie is based on the tenth in a series of 17 (and counting) books by crime author Lawrence Block. The fifth, 8 Million Ways to Die, was brought to the silver screen back in 1986 with Jeff Bridges taking on the Scudder role. I haven’t seen that one in ages (it used to be in regular rotation on cable) but I do appreciate Neeson’s take on the role better; he conveys the inner darkness of the character much better.

Frank, who exhibited a good deal of potential in the thriller genre with the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Lookout continues to impress at his ability to deliver that dark, noir-ish mood while keeping the movie essentially modern despite its setting of 15 years ago. The Y2K undercurrent seems a bit quaint these days – and boy does it bring back memories.

This is definitely Neeson’s film and he carries it with both dignity and toughness. He’s the kind of guy who will punch a guy through a glass window but will buy a street urchin pancakes. He’s made some awful, awful choices in his life and other people have paid for some of his mistakes. He’s trying the straight and narrow but he seems to exist mostly in the grey area between there and the dark and lawless. Neeson is the perfect choice for Scudder.

Now about TJ. Let me first give full disclosure by asserting that I haven’t read any of the books in the series. The character of TJ is introduced in the ninth book in the series. I have read elsewhere that he doesn’t appear in this particular installment. Quite frankly, I found his presence unnecessary and distracting. During the climax of the movie, the character commits the cardinal kid sin by going exactly to the wrong place at the wrong time to be in the most peril. It derailed the movie for me and made me want to find the nearest wall and bang my head against it. Sorry guys, but this cliche is older than the original noir pics and it was just as unwelcome back then. The young actor that plays TJ is engaging – but again, it seems kind of gimmicky and unnecessary to have him in the movie.

There are some really great moments in the movie – sadly several of them are on display in the trailer. There would have been some franchise potential here although the box office numbers sadly don’t seem to justify it so chances are this is the last of Matt Scudder we’re going to see for awhile. I have to say I’m glad to see that noir films are making a bit of a comeback with this and the much better Cold in July both hitting the multiplex this year. Now if we could only get screwball comedies to make a comeback.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson perfect as the brooding action anti-hero. Grim and gritty.
REASONS TO STAY: The TJ character completely unnecessary and gets in the way.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some pretty intense violence, themes and images, sexuality and brief nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Wilson was cast as Matt Scudder’s partner Joe Durkin (male in the book) but director Scott Frank felt that the character was essentially a loner and a partner would only confuse things, so the role was eliminated and all the scenes filmed with Wilson were cut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Maze Runner

Homefront (2013)


When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn't what he was expecting.

When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn’t what he was expecting.

(2013) Action (Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder, Frank Grillo, Izabela Vidovic, Clancy Brown, Marcus Hester, Omar Benson Miller, Rachelle Lefevre, Chuck Zito, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Linda Edwards, Austin Craig, Owen Harn, Stuart Greer, Joe Chrest, Christa Campbell, Billy Slaughter, Nicole Andrews. Directed by Gary Fleder

Small towns have a habit of being different things to different people. For some, they are an escape from city life. For others they are cherished reminders of how life used to be. For still others, they are a place where they can conduct their affairs in relative anonymity.

Phil Broker (Statham) used to be a DEA agent. He specialized in undercover operations and in his last one which was counted successful by the agency, he took down a powerful biker gang leader named Danny T (Zito) but in the process the biker’s psychotic son went down in a hail of bullets. Phil walked away from the Agency and not long afterwards, his wife passed away from an undisclosed illness. He took his precocious daughter Maddy (Vidovic) to Rayville, a small town in the Louisiana bayous not far from where Phil’s wife grew up.

At first things couldn’t be going better. Phil has found a beautiful property on the river and while the house itself is a bit of a fixer upper, there’s enough land to own horses and it’s far enough off the beaten path that he can live his life in relative peace.

Then a bully (Craig) in Maddy’s school picks a fight with her and true to her dad’s training she stands up for herself, bloodying the bully’s nose. This doesn’t sit well with the bully’s mom, the excitable meth-head Cassie (Bosworth) and she screeches at her husband Jimmy (Hester) to do something about it, so he picks a fight with Phil. Bad idea. Phil kicks Jimmy’s butt in front of Cassie and his son, putting the already irritable Cassie in a rage. Seeking revenge, she goes to her brother Gator (Franco).

Gator is the local meth dealer who has a mean streak a country mile wide. He wants to throw a scare into Phil but the plan goes awry once he breaks into Phil’s house and finds, in a kind of basement, boxes and boxes of case files from Phil’s DEA days. Now that just don’t sit right with good ol’ Gator who doesn’t want a retired DEA agent in his neighborhood – why, that will just screw up the property values something wicked but it might put a bit of a kink in his illegal drug manufacturing gig.

However, Gator discovers a way out of the situation that could wind up being enormously lucrative as well. He sees that Phil was the undercover agent on the Danny T case and lo and behold, his girlfriend Sheryl (Ryder) happens to know Danny’s lawyer. Sheryl, herself a drug addict, a prostitute and a cocktail waitress (in this economy one has to have multiple jobs) sets up a meeting with Cyrus (Grillo), Danny’s psychotic right-hand man. You just know things are going to get ugly from that point forward.

Written by Sylvester Stallone and based on a novel by Chuck Logan, Statham’s new action film follows a tried and true formula that fans of the genre will find comforting and familiar. The problem is that there isn’t much here that pushes the boundaries any from the lone highly-trained specialist trying to protect his family to the evil drug-dealing biker gang. For the record most biker gangs don’t engage in any criminal activity although if you watched Hollywood’s versions of them you probably feel uncomfortable every time you see one on the highway next to you.

Statham may well be the most consistent action star in the world. It is truly rare for him to turn in a poor performance. This is essentially his show and his fans won’t be disappointed by this effort and he may add a few more to the growing list. While there is a romantic subplot (with the comely Rachelle Lefevre), very little screen time is devoted to it and you get the sense that Statham’s Phil Broker is pretty awkward with the ladies. It also makes sense that a recent widower may not necessarily be looking for someone to fill his late wife’s pumps. In any case, Statham does well with the child actress who plays his daughter which is not always as easy as it sounds.

Franco is an Oscar nominated actor whom you might think is slumming in a role like this, a Southern-fried drug dealer with a gator tattooed on his arm but like any good actor playing a villain you get a sense he’s having a real good time with it. He also adds several layers to the role; at one point in the final reel in a conversation with Cyrus when he’s told that Cyrus must do something particularly despicable while Ryder’s Sheryl looks shocked and disgusted, Franco affects a blank expression with very haunted eyes – he knows the act is necessary but he doesn’t particularly like doing it. It’s just a little detail that takes about three seconds of screen time but it’s the kind of thing a great actor does to add depth to a part. Franco is becoming just that – a great actor.

Ryder and Bosworth are both playing drug addicted women and in their own ways add some flavors to roles that are badly under-written. Bosworth’s Cassie has to make an about-face from screeching harpy to concerned parent in a way that doesn’t make sense but whatever – she does the best she can with it. Ryder, normally a beautiful woman, allows herself to be skanky in a role that most actresses of her caliber turn their noses up at. It’s interesting to see what she does with it.

There are more than a few plot holes and contrivances here, the worst being that Gator discovers Phil’s DEA identity through finding boxes and boxes of case files  in the cellar of his home. First of all, case files for any law enforcement agency never leave the offices of said agencies and certainly not in the possession of a retired agent. He would have no reason for having them – except to reveal his identity to a drug dealer who will then in turn inform those whom he sent to jail and would like to see him and his daughter dead, preferably with brutal painful torture in the mix. That’s just lazy writing, Sly.

Still, if you can put up with a precocious kid and plot holes, this is a pretty decent action movie and Statham elevates it as he does with most of his action films. This may not be the kind of thing you want to go and see when all these blockbusters and Oscar contenders are in the theaters but if you prefer action to drama and long lines, this isn’t a bad alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Statham is solid and Ryder and Bosworth do some fine supporting work. Some nice action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too predictable. Too much precocious kid-ism. Lapses in simple logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some drug use, sensuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although based on an unrelated novel, Stallone originally envisioned this as the final Rambo movie and wrote it with John Rambo as the retired dad. However he couldn’t get the movie made and eventually it was rewritten to be closer to the original story and with Statham in mind for the lead role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Delivery Man

Looking for Eric


Looking for Eric

Steve Evets and Eric Cantona share a Zen moment.

(2009) Family Drama (IFC) Steve Evets, Eric Cantona, Stephanie Bishop, Gerard Kearns, Stefan Gumbs, Lucy-Jo Hudson, Cole Williams, Dylan Williams, Matthew McNulty, Laura Ainsworth, Maxton Beesley, Kelly Bowland. Directed by Ken Loach

We all need a little help once in awhile. Sometimes we turn to friends or loved ones, sometimes to a professional. However, when we are being advised by a personal hero, are we just hearing what we want to hear? Or is the advice worthwhile?

Eric Bishop (Evets) is a postal worker in Manchester whose life is falling apart. His stepsons are drifting into thuggery – especially his son Ryan (Kearns) under whose floorboards he finds a drug dealer’s gun – and he regrets walking out on his wife Lily (Bishop) after the birth of his daughter Sam (Hudson), who now has a baby of her own.

He’s 50 and the regrets of a life that he realizes has been messed up beyond all recognition are beginning to sink in. After an impromptu therapy session and the smoking of some stolen weed, Bishop hallucinates his favorite football (what he call soccer – not the American kind) hero Eric Cantona (playing himself) from his beloved Manchester United side popping in to give him advice.

At first Bishop chalks it up to the stress but when Cantona begins to turn up more often he kind of just goes with it. As Ryan’s involvement with the drug dealer begins to escalate into a conflict, Bishop’s friends try to help him out of his jam. However, can anything help him win back his lost love again?

Director Ken Loach is one of England’s best-known and most respected directors. He has a knack for capturing working class Englishmen realistically and naturally. This may be his most mainstream film to date, looking at an ordinary Joe as he reaches the half century mark, full of regrets, stressed out by life and longing for simpler times.

The movie probably would have gotten wider release over here but the language and situation is steadfastly and unapologetically English; most distributors felt (and rightly so) that Americans wouldn’t have the patience for a movie of this nature. I honestly can’t blame them on that score.

However it is a shame – this is the kind of movie that leaves you with a very warm feeling inside. Evets and Cantona have a lovely rapport that infuses the movie with its charm and a certain amount of quirkiness. Cantona seems to have a gentle sense of self-parody, particularly with the image of a cocky, arrogant footballer; he plays trumpet, and he has a little bit of eccentricity as well that is refreshing. Professional athletes are often zealous about maintaining a certain image, so it’s refreshing to see one that is willing to look a little bit out of the box in that regard.

Evets is to my mind a big find here. He plays the embattled postal worker with a certain amount of honesty and grace. His Eric Bishop isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, nor does he have all the answers. He’s made some critical mistakes in his life and doesn’t have a hope of erasing all the ill will he’s generated over the years and yet he’s willing to try and make amends. Better late than never, I say, and watching Evets occasionally stumble through his issues makes him more relatable to my mind.

This is a movie that I don’t think was given much of a chance in the States and while I understand where distributors came from, this is one of those movies that I think deserve to be given a chance. There is always a small segment of American moviegoers who will find a movie that is well-made, even if they don’t always understand the cultural norms behind it. I’m sure if I lived in England and understood the working-class Mancunian culture I’d have had a greater appreciation for Looking for Eric but like the multiple meaning title, there’s plenty to appreciate even if you know nothing about Eric Cantona or the English working class.

WHY RENT THIS: As a slice of life for working class England, this is outstanding.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The jargon and accent may be a little difficult for the American audience to understand, as well as some of the football background.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Evets and Cantona are better known for other professions; Cantona as a professional footballer, Evets as a former bassist for The Fall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there isn’t much on the DVD edition, the Blu-Ray has a couple of short films, a music video and a roundtable Q&A with director Ken Loach, star Steve Evets and soccer great Eric Cantona.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Accepted

Brooklyn’s Finest


Brooklyn's Finest

Richard Gere drives his point home.

(2009) Police Drama (Overture) Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton, Ellen Barkin, Brian F. O’Byrne, Michael Kenneth Williams, Shannon Kane, Lili Taylor, Shannon Kane, Wass Stevens. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

There aren’t many jobs more difficult and stressful than that of police officer. In places like Brooklyn, you can multiply the stress levels times ten. That stress affects different men differently.

Three of Brooklyn’s finest (hey, catchy title) are in crisis; Eddie Dugan (Gere) is seven days away from retirement (usually a death sentence in cop movies) and is self-medicating with alcohol and the tender mercies of a prostitute whom he has fallen in love with. Then there’s Clarence “Tango” Butler (Cheadle) is deep undercover in a drug ring and is torn between his loyalty to the force and to recently paroled drug dealer Casanova Phillips (Snipes) who is trying to go straight. Finally there’s Det. Sal Procida (Hawke) has a seven kids and two on the way with a wife (Taylor) beset by mold respiratory distress trying desperately to get a mortgage on a larger home that he can’t afford.

The three stories run parallel to each other, with Tango being put under pressure by his contact (Patton) and a brass-balled bitch from the DEA (Barkin) who want arrests. Eddie is being asked to train young rookies, which Eddie is patently unsuited for. Procida is looking for a means of stealing enough cash to come up with his down payment.

Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in Training Day and has shown himself to be a mighty capable director over the years, particularly with talented actors (Hawke also appeared in that movie) and he coaxes some really good performances, particularly from Cheadle and Snipes. The scenes that those two share together are some of the best in the movie.

Snipes doesn’t have many scenes here, but they serve to remind us of how charismatic the man is. He’s had some well-documented legal problems that have yet to be fully resolved; hopefully at some point in the future he’ll be back to delight audiences once again.

Gere has some great acting chops but he always seems to be playing above his role. It’s hard to see him as a suicidal cop when his haircut looks like it came out of a Rodeo Drive celebrity hairdresser. He’s not the grittiest of guys in that sense and he might have been a touch miscast; it’s a credit to his skill that he manages to make the part believable.

Ensemble movies with parallel storylines have been plentiful in recent years and they mostly have the same damn problem – the insatiable need to wrap all the storylines with a neat bow and relate them all in some backhanded way. It worked in Traffic and Crash – it’s gotten old since.

Still, the storylines are awfully compelling here. The idea of the cop with mortgage problems is very relatable and in many ways that’s the storyline I was most interested in; however, the Cheadle-Snipes scenes make that storyline the best.

Cop movies run the gamut between the heroic cop and the bad cop. Often they are a bit of both and that’s the case here. None of the guys here is 100% admirable except for maybe Tango. However they are interesting enough and human enough to make the movie worth the price of a rental for sure.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted with intersecting stories that, for once, are all equally compelling. Nice to see Snipes onscreen again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s a bit miscast but still pulls it off. Final scene feels a bit forced, as these sorts of movies often do.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of bad language, blood, violence, sex, nudity…oh crap, just don’t let your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film with Wesley Snipes in it to be released to theaters since Blade: Trinity (2004). All of his films in the interim had gone direct-to-home video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on the Brooklyn projects where this was filmed, and the creation of Fuqua Film Movement. There’s also a piece on writer Michael C. Martin, who went from a toll booth to becoming a screenwriter.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.3M on a $17M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Twilight: New Moon

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

Leaves of Grass


Leaves of Grass

Two Edward Nortons for the price of one!

(Millennium) Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfus, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy deVito, Josh Pais, Steve Earle, Ken Cheeseman, Maggie Siff, Amelia Campbell, Leo Fabian, Randal Reeder, Lee Wikoff, Ty Burrell. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Family dynamics can be unpredictable. Two siblings in the same family can take wildly divergent life paths, even if they’re identical twins.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is one of the most brilliant minds in the country. He is a professor of classical philosophy at Brown University, handsome, erudite and brilliant. He is a sought-after commodity, both by administrators at Harvard (Wikoff) who are so eager to have him on staff that they’re creating a position specifically for him, and co-eds (deVito) who write him erotic love sonnets in Latin and tear their clothes off in his office, much to the chagrin of his administrative assistance Maggie (Campbell).

Brady Kincaid (Norton, in a dual role) is one of the cleverest pot growers in Oklahoma. He and his partner Bolger (Nelson) have built, as Bolger puts it, the Taj Mahal of grow houses, a state of the art hydroponics facility in which Brady has crossbred many strains of wacky weed to make the most turbocharged product in all of Southeastern Oklahoma. His girlfriend Colleen (Lynskey) is pregnant and his mom (Sarandon) has checked into a rest home despite being 15 years younger than everyone else there because she likes being able to do whatever the hell she wants, as she describes it.

However, things aren’t all rosy in Brady’s life. The big drug distributor in Oklahoma, Pug Rothbaum (Dreyfus) from whom Brady borrowed most of the cash to set up his operation, is demanding either his money back or for Brady to expand his operation into harder drugs, something Brady is philisophically opposed to. Rothbaum is demanding an answer and Brady and Bolger are pretty sure that he won’t like the one they have for him.

Shortly thereafter, Bill gets a call that his twin brother has been murdered. Even though he’s been estranged from his family for more than a decade, he decides to fly back to Tulsa. On the plane he is seated next to a pushy orthodontist named Ken Feinman (Pais) who is relocating his practice from New York to Tulsa where insurance rates and general costs are much lower. Drowning in debt and desperate to establish a new practice, he hands the disinterested Bill his business card.

Bill is picked up at the airport by Bolger who makes a stop at a mini-market in Broken Bow to pick up some supplies. While there, Bill is mistaken for Brady by a couple of redneck business rivals who beat the living crap out of him before Bolger intercedes, but not before he is knocked out cold by a kick to his head.

When he wakes up, who should be the first face he sees but Brady. It turns out that his brother faked his death in order to get Bill to Oklahoma, which Bill admits he likely wouldn’t have done if asked like a normal person. Brady needs Bill’s help – he needs Bill to impersonate him and be seen by the local sheriff (who hangs out with the receptionist at the nursing home with whom he is smitten) while Brady attends a meeting with Rothbaum in Tulsa. Bill is at first adamant against doing anything to help his brother, but a few hits from the wonderpot persuade him to stay the weekend, and the introduction of Janet (Russell) the comely English teacher with a penchant for quoting Walt Whitman and with whom Bill takes a shine to immediately seals the deal. Unfortunately, when Brady is involved with something, the unforeseen usually occurs.

Tim Blake Nelson, best-known as an actor in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou has directed a handful of films since the late 90s, but this is by far the best work he’s done to date. He captures the rural atmosphere of Southeast Oklahoma perfectly, from the local twang to the fishing hole chic. The movie motors along at a brisk pace that keeps you involved in every little twist and turn that occurs.

Norton’s twin performances as Blake and Bill are also worth seeking this out for by themselves. The two characters couldn’t be more different but there are some core similarities that a pair of identical twins would have to have, from idiosyncratic mannerisms to the strong bond that exists between them, whether Bill wants to admit it’s there or not.

He has a great supporting cast. Russell is one of the most charming of actresses out there, and ever since her work in “Felicity” and particularly the indie comedy Waitress is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nelson as the ultra-loyal Bolger to Dreyfus as the rabid dog of a crime boss, is very strong. Pais is particularly noteworthy as the neurotic orthodontist and Siff as a rabbi has a very moving speech near the end of the movie.

I also wanted to mention Sarandon’s role as the ex-hippie mom. She’s so perfect for this role that you end up wishing she was in the movie more (she only appears in four scenes); if there’s any footage of her on the cutting room floor, I surely hope it ends up on the DVD. I think its safe to say that all the characters in the movie are nicely fleshed out, the mark of a well-written script.

The thing I love most about the movie is that about two thirds of the way though it takes a wild left turn that comes completely by surprise, so much so that at the Florida Film Festival screening at which I caught the film the audience let out an audible and collective gasp. The movie switches gears from that point and goes into overdrive. It’s a bravura bit of screenwriting as well as a tribute to Nelson’s talents as a director.

A word of warning; this is most definitely a movie about the drug culture, and those who are uncomfortable with depictions of pot smoking and other accoutrements of growing weed will probably have problems with Leaves of Grass. However, it must be said that the sweet smoke is no more pervasive than it is in the Showtime series “Weeds” so if you’re not bothered by that show you’ll be okay here.

This is the kind of movie that grows on you, no pun intended. I suspect that if you ask me again in a week’s time I will give this a higher rating than I have to this point. At the end of the day this is a very well-crafted movie that’s worth seeking out at your local art house or on DVD if it doesn’t find its way near you.

REASONS TO GO: The movie takes an unexpected 90 degree turn about two thirds of the way through the movie that’s unexpected. Norton fills both of the roles admirably. Russell is charming as always.

REASONS TO STAY: The stoner tone might be a bit overly much for those who are uncomfortable with the culture.

FAMILY VALUES: Those who are uncomfortable with depictions of drug use (particularly the smoking of weed) will be put off by this. There is also some scenes of violence and quite a lot of usage of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norton was so eager to do this role that he accepted a pay cut of half his normal fee.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68,000 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Social Network

Note: I first saw this movie at the Florida Film Festival and published a mini-review at the time as the film hadn’t been released into theaters yet. Unfortunately, the planned release was scrapped and eventually the movie got almost no release whatsoever, which is a crying shame. Do rent this if you can find it.