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 September 13, 2013


Insidious Chapter 2

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2

(FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Leigh Whannell, Steve Coulter, Angus Sampson. Directed by James Wan

Following the events of Insidious the Lambert family thinks the terror is behind them. However, little do they know that they were signed to do a sequel and the supernatural forces that bedeviled them in the first film aren’t done with them yet. Not only are they back but they are more frightening than ever – which is good news for gorehounds looking for a pre-Halloween scarefest.  

See the trailer, clips and a featurette 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 terror and violence, and thematic elements)

Austenland

(Sony Classics) Keri Russell, Jane Seymour, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge.  A New Yorker with a not-so-secret passion for the world of Jane Austen, finds herself the perfect vacation – an English resort in a Regency-era estate which has been outfitted to take their guests back to that time, complete with actors playing the characters from the novel. But as she flirts and finds her perfect nirvana, perhaps someone will turn out to be her perfect Mr. Darcy.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo)

The Family

(Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron. A mafia boss who testified against the mob has been in witness protection but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Unruly, unable to give up their life of crime and mayhem despite the danger it puts them in, their exasperated handler puts them in a house in rural France but even there they can’t get past that they’re most definitely not in Brooklyn anymore. And as the mob closes in on them, they realize they have no other place to go.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Action Comedy

Rating: R (for violence, language and brief sexuality) 

The Investigator

(Gabriel’s Messenger) Wade Williams, David Sanborn, Kevin White, Mollyanna Ward. A veteran police detective, weary of the worst side of humanity he confronts every day, is forced to retire after a drug bust goes horribly wrong.  He becomes a criminal justice teacher and baseball coach at a local Christian high school, but after his wife’s miscarriage he questions his once-strong faith. However, one of his students urges him to put his police skills to the test – to investigate the murder of one Jesus of Nazareth. Based on a true story.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith

Rating: PG-13 (for some drug material and a scene of violence)

Winnie Mandela

(RLJ Entertainment) Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Wendy Crewson, Elias Koteas. While many are aware of the accomplishments of the South African activist and politician Nelson Mandela, his wife Winnie was no less a formidable advocate for freedom and a major figure in bringing down the system of apartheid in that country. This is that story from her point of view.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some violence and language)

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas


Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

(1988) Comedy (New Line) John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Danneel Harris, Tom Lennon, Danny Trejo, Elias Koteas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Neil Patrick Harris, Amir Blumenfeld, David Krumholtz, Patton Oswalt, RZA, Richard Riehle, Jake Johnson, Melissa Ordway. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family. For bonding with those friends who have been beside you the entire year. To have kindness and concern for others, to have peace and compassion on your mind.

This movie is about none of those things. Our heroes, following the events of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay have drifted apart. Kumar Patel (Penn) has left medical school after failing the drug test and lives in the same ratty apartment he once shared with Harold Lee (Cho), who has become a big-time Wall Street investor (and has protestors ringing his office). He is married to Maria (Garces) whom he is trying to get pregnant in order to impress his father-in-law (Trejo) who doesn’t impress easily.

Kumar has been dumped by Vanessa (Harris) who is pregnant with his rugrat. He’s also scored an impressive stash from a mall Santa (Oswalt) which he intends to spend Christmas smoking himself into sweet spliff oblivion. But he receives a package that is meant for Harold and decides to deliver it in person to his former best bud.

Harold though has problems of his own. His home has been invaded by his future family (who arrived by the busload) and his dad-in-law wants this Christmas to be perfect. To that end he’s brought a 12-foot Douglas Fir that he has spent the last eight years raising, making sure that the dimensions were just right, that the branches opened up just so. Once decorated, it is indeed a magnificent tree.

As he and his family go to celebrate Mass, Kumar comes by with the package which turns out to be a gigantic joint. As Harold no longer partakes, he tosses the massive thing out the door. Kumar, irritated, decides to light it up for himself but somehow, almost by magic, the joint floats back into the house and lights the tree on fire.

Harold is mortified. He has only a few hours to replace the tree and potentially save his marriage. Kumar, feeling a little guilty, decides to help out along with his friend Adrian (Blumenfeld) and Harold’s friend Todd (Lennon) and Todd’s toddler. In the course of the night, they will deal with Ukrainian mobsters, ghetto tree lot entrepreneurs, a coked-out infant, emergency surgery on the real Santa after they accidentally shoot him, and appearing in the chorus line of a Broadway musical starring Neil Patrick Harris which is a bit disconcerting to our intrepid heroes since he was killed in the last movie. Listen, he’s N.P. Freakin’ H, motherf****r so don’t be hatin’.

It’s been said in other places by finer writers than I that Harold and Kumar are essentially the Cheech and Chong for the 21st century. That’s cool by me; not being a stoner I don’t really get the humor as much but then there’s room for all sorts of movies and who am I to deny the Stoner Nation their due. I’ve seen the first and now this, the third, movie in the franchise and in all honesty, the first is a much better movie than this (to the surprise of no one). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s worthwhile moments however.

This is no Christmas movie for the entire family to gather around the flat screen for. There is a lot of sexual humor, some of it quite crude as well as plenty of nudity and drug use. While some will laugh out loud at some of the pretty consistently lowbrow humor (it wouldn’t hurt to fire one up before you fire up the Blu-Ray), I don’t think even those toasted out of their skulls are going to find this a laugh fest from start to finish.

I will say that Cho and Penn have an easy-going chemistry and I think it was a bit of a mistake to have them on the outs for most of the movie. Part of the charm of the first movie was the relationship between the two and that’s largely missing here until the end. However, one cannot discount the contributions of Neil Patrick Harris. Even though he’s essentially in one scene, it’s the best scene and illustrates why the man’s an icon, a credit to the human race and just a gosh-darned all around nice guy. While he’s no Dr. Horrible here, he constitutes one of the main reasons to see the film – or any film for that matter. Even if he’s not in it.

The 3D is pretty nifty although I suppose at this point it will largely depend on if your 3D set is nifty as well – I’ve found a pretty staggering range of quality in 3D televisions. The jokes are more or less uneven although I found some sequences (as one where they start hallucinating that they are Claymation figures) to be pretty worthwhile. This isn’t a family holiday movie by any stretch of the imagination – but I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing if there are a few out there that aren’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Three words: Neil. Patrick. Harris. Also, Cho and Penn still have good chemistry. Some nifty 3D effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is a bit tired and not all of it works.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of sexual content with occasional nudity and regular crudity, plenty of drug use, a boatload of foul language and a bit of violence. Just a bit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian calls Harold “Sulu” at one point. John Cho plays Sulu in the Star Trek reboot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Actor Tom Lennon rants about his fellow actors and the films in six separate interview segments and there’s also a bit on the brief Claymation sequence in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.4M on a $19M production budget; the numbers were disappointing enough that a fourth Harold & Kumar movie isn’t on the radar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Holly & the Quill concludes!

3 Backyards


3 Backyards

Edie Falco clearly misses her days on “The Sopranos.”

(2010) Drama (Screen Media) Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Kathryn Erbe, Rachel Resheff, Wesley Broulik, Danai Gurira, Ron Phillips, Dana Eskelson, Randi Kaplan, Louise Millman, Pam La Testa, Antonio Ortiz, Nicole Brending, Kathy Searle. Directed by Eric Mendelsohn

 

The suburbs are quiet, peaceful places where we go to raise our children in an environment that is far from urban. Away from the noise and the hectic place, it is a place of lawn mowers, shopping malls and chain restaurants. Still, the peaceful facade can sometimes disguise the most painful of hearts.

Long Island is maybe the ultimate suburb. Being so close to New York City, it offers a respite from the concrete and asphalt, a bit of greenery and wildlife within shouting distance of skyscrapers and taxis. But for all the manicured lawns, the sweet songs of robins and blue jays, all is not perfect here.

Take John (Koteas). His marriage is far from perfect; he and his wife (Erbe) are always fighting and finances aren’t so good. He is going on a business trip but his flight is canceled. Instead of going back home, he checks into a hotel provided by the airline. Instead of staying put, he goes back home and stalks his own family and home. When he calls his wife, he pretends he’s on the plane instead of watching her from the shrubbery. What is he looking for? What does he expect to see? He retires to a diner where he overhears a young woman (Gurira) applying for a waitress position. He follows her out of the restaurant and becomes witness to tragedy.

A little girl (Resheff) impulsively steals some of her mom’s jewelry. Her inexplicable action causes her to miss her school bus. Scared of her crime being discovered (which it surely will if she is late for school), she determines to walk the distance via a shortcut she knows. She comes upon an intimidating young man (Broulik) masturbating in a shed. She also frees a stray dog tied to a tree. Both of these events will have consequences later.

Peggy (Falco) lives a life of quiet unfulfillment. She yearns for recognition, glamour, acknowledgement but instead must settle for a suburban existence of gossip and shopping. She paints as a means of expressing herself, but when a well-known actress (Davidtz) moves into the neighborhood, her imagination is excited. Then when the actress needs a lift to the ferry, Peggy volunteers to drive her, leading to a conversation that is much more revealing of Peggy than it is of the actress.

These three tales are not so much interconnected so much as parallels within the same environment. Mendelsohn’s first film, Judy Berlin, was made very much within the same kind of suburban purgatory as this, his second which follows ten years after the first. Notably, Falco stars in both films and is really the chief reason for seeing both.

All of the characters are for the most part drifting through their own landscapes, powered by their yearnings and melancholy. That pervasive aimlessness colors the movie and prevents it from really taking hold in the imagination, or at least mine – the movie has been well-reviewed and obviously it is connecting with critics other than myself, so take my own lack of connection with a grain of salt.

Falco, who most will remember from her television roles in “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” is one of the best actresses working today. That she isn’t doing more movie work is most likely due to her heavy television schedule, but she always puts on a marvelous performance and this is no exception. Her story arc is the most compelling of the three and she and Davidtz work well off of each other and even though much of her storyline puts her in a car having a conversation, it nevertheless has the most dramatic tension.

Koteas, a longtime character actor who has had moments of brilliance throughout his career, turns in another fine performance as John. While it is at times difficult to understand what is going on inside his head (which to be truthful is true of most of us in real life), we get a sense of his frustrations thanks to Koteas. John’s not getting what he needs in his marriage and career so he plays hooky one day, probably not understanding why he’s doing it himself.

There is a lot of passive-aggressiveness in the movie, if I may do a little armchair psychoanalyzing and that’s okay although it gets a little bit tiresome here. The dialogue sometimes doesn’t ring as true as it might – I get a sense of a writer trying to be clever rather than real people talking.

I also get a sense that there is a good movie here and I’m just not seeing it. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood that day to absorb it properly, or for whatever reason I just couldn’t find a place to latch myself onto. That happens sometimes. I can’t really recommend the movie – I can only go by how I react to it and as you can probably guess, my reaction is fairly negative but those who like Edie Falco should see it and if any of this sounds appealing to you (particularly if you are looking for a suburban-set slice of life) do feel free to disregard my un-enthusiasm and give it a whirl.

WHY RENT THIS: Superior performances from Falco, Davidtz and Koteas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit too much. Dialogue  a bit stilted in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene that has some sexuality involved but most of the rest of the film carries some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mendelsohn is the only director to have won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice; for this film and also for Judy Berlin in 1999.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43,073 on an unreported production budget; might have broken even but it probably didn’t.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mission: Impossible 2

Defendor


Defendor

Clark Johnson can’t believe he gets stuck with the low-rent superheroes.

(2009) Action Comedy (Darius) Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas, Sandra Oh, Michael Kelly, Clark Johnson, Lisa Ray, A.C. Peterson, Kristen Booth, Charlotte Sullivan, Tony Nappo, Ron White, David Gardner, Bryan Renfro, Max Dreeson. Directed by Peter Stebbings

 

When you think about it, in order to be a superhero vigilante sort you have to have at least a screw loose or two. It would be much worse if you didn’t have any super powers to speak of.

That’s Arthur Poppington (Harrelson) to a “T.” By day he’s a mild-mannered construction worker – actually, he’s the guy who holds the “Slow” and “Stop” signs on road crews. He was abandoned by his mother as a boy and is certain that she was murdered by a super villain named Captain Industry. He has dedicated his life to tracking down this nefarious criminal, thus far without success. Usually it involves Arthur dressing up as the superhero Defendor – yes, spelling is not one of Arthur’s strong suits. He puts on some army surplus blacks (with a “D” on his chest in silver duct tape), a video camera on his helmet and eye-black serving as a kind of mask. More often than not he gets his butt kicked.

One night he interrupts a pimp beating up on a crack-addled hooker and stops it. It turns out that the pimp is actually a cop, Sgt. Dooney (Koteas). The girl, Katerina (Dennings) is in no shape to go anywhere so Defendor/Arthur violates one of his own rules and takes her to his Batcave…err, lair. She finds him to be a bit unbalanced but sweet – and maybe her ticket out of this horrible nightmare that is her life. She intimates that she knows who and where Captain Industry is and things escalate in a very bad way.

There have been a number of delusional superheroes without powers movies of late, mostly on the indie scene but best known is Kick-Ass from a couple of years ago (a sequel is supposedly on the way). This one doesn’t really add anything to the conversation about delusional superheroes but neither does it disgrace itself either.

The reason for that is mostly Harrelson, who has been really turning in some memorable performances of late. Defendor doesn’t have powers per se and he’s not much of a fighter, but he uses some clever weapons – like jars full of angry wasps, and marbles to trip up his opponents. Harrelson captures the hangdog Arthur nicely, making his delusions organic and believable. We never doubt Arthur for a moment.

The framing device of Arthur’s psychiatric sessions with a sympathetic doctor (Oh) goes a long way in helping with that. In fact, the supporting cast is solid if unspectacular, with Johnson as a sympathetic police captain, Kelly as a sympathetic co-worker and Koteas as the dirty cop (Koteas has proven quite adept at portraying dirtbags). Denning is also notable in a role that could be entirely cliché but is given plenty of personality by Denning, who to my mind is one of the most exciting young actresses around. She has all the earmarks of having a career filled with meaty roles and Oscar-caliber performances.

Stebbings is a Canadian actor who is making his feature-length directing debut here and his inexperience shows. There are times when the editing is a bit abrupt and quite frankly much of the material is rather hit or miss. There was some potential here, but I think a more experienced hand at the wheel might have cajoled it out. I wanted to like this movie more than I did but the flaws of pacing, writing and lighting are just too glaring to ignore.

WHY RENT THIS: Harrelson continues with his string of good performances. Denning delivers.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t add anything to the “Superhero without powers” films that have been coming out. Hit or miss.
FAMILY VALUES: This one’s got it all; violence, drug use, bad language and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ellen Page was at one point rumored to play the Kat Dennings role; she wound up in the similarly-themed Super.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44,462 on a $3.5M production budget; a box office flop.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: The Insider

The Killer Inside Me (2010)


The Killer Inside Me

Don't make Casey Affleck turn this car around.

(2009) Thriller (IFC) Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Tom Bower, Bill Pullman, Brent Briscoe, Matthew Maher, Liam Aiken, Jay R. Ferguson, Ali Nazary, Blake Lindsley, Caitlin Turner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

 

Roger Ebert once said that what we desire is not a happy ending so much as closure. I think this is rather true; we don’t necessarily want to see things finish with a grin and the warm fuzzies; sometimes we want the tale to end in blood and destruction because that is what has been earned – just as long as all the loose ends are tied up.

Lou Ford (Affleck) is affable sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town in the 1950s. He’s well-liked in the community and well-regarded on the force, particularly by his mentor Sheriff Bob Maples (Bower). His girlfriend Amy (Hudson), is a schoolteacher and everyone in town agrees they make a mighty fine couple and the general consensus is that the two will marry when Lou gets the gumption to pop the question.

What nobody knows is the volcano seething inside of Lou. He raped a five-year-old girl as a teenager for which his big brother Mike took the rap for. When Mike got out of the slam, he went to work for contractor Chester Conway (Beatty) and died under unusual circumstances on the job. Lou has always harbored a suspicion that Chester had something to do with it.

He also has a thing about inflicting pain. Introduced to sadomasochism by his father’s housemaid Helene (Turner), he likes to hurt people and the need to do so is getting more and more irresistible. At the prodding of the Sheriff, Lou visits a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Alba) who’s been having an affair with Chester’s son Elmer (Ferguson). The visit escalates into a severe spanking which, as it turns out, Joyce really gets off on. The two begin a passionate affair.

Joyce concocts a plan to extort money from Chester, enough for her and Lou  to leave town and set up new lives with. their ill-gotten cash. Lou is chosen to deliver the payoff. Instead he beats Joyce within an inch of her life (intending for the beating to be fatal) and shoots Elmer dead, setting up Joyce to take the fall for the crime.

Lou however fell short in taking care of Joyce and despite his best efforts, she survives. However, suspicion is beginning to fall on Lou from Amy who thinks Lou is cheating on her, and from County district attorney Howard Hendricks (Baker) who thinks Lou had something to do with Elmer’s murder.

A local youth, Johnnie Pappas (Aiken) is arrested by Hendricks for the crime because he is in possession of a marked $20 bill from Chester’s cash. However, Lou had planted that on Johnnie, the son of a close friend of Lou’s. Lou asks to interrogate him and winds up hanging Johnnie in his cell, making it look like a suicide.

Lou’s blood lust is getting out of control and the noose is tightening. Can Lou get control of himself and figure a way out of the mess he’s in, or will he eventually pay for his crimes?

Winterbottom has been a prolific director, with such films as Welcome to Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart and The Trip on his resume. He is competent enough at what he does, and from time to time shows flashes of brilliance but this won’t stand out as one of his better works. I do give him props for taking one of pulp writer Jim Thompson’s darkest and most violent works and preserving the darkest elements intact – that isn’t easy to do these days of focus groups and trying to pander to a general audience.

Affleck surprised me here. His roles have tended to be pretty easy-going and sweet-natured but here he is a sociopath and nearly irredeemable. He is not  aware of the difference between right and wrong – he has no idea why he does the things he does in some cases – and probably wouldn’t care much if he did. He is as self-centered as it is humanly possible to be; everything he does is for his own benefit and to feed his own psycho-sexual needs, which are dark indeed.

Alba has a difficult role as well as the masochistic prostitute. Even Hudson’s Amy has a few kinks of her own. As  a result, the film has been labeled misogynistic, often by high and mighty critics who don’t think that a woman could possibly enjoy pain in a sexual context. Not only is it possible but it is more common than you might think.

Thompson’s writing style rarely flinches at the darker side of human nature. There is brutality and violence and sexual deviancy that’s depicted with unusual candor and directness. The movie doesn’t shy away from these things, often to the point where gentler souls might be extremely put off by them. This is certainly a movie meant for those with stronger stomachs and steelier resolve.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck portrays the sociopath dead on, something I didn’t expect. Hard-hitting and disturbing pulp fiction.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly brutal and sexually twisted in places. Might be too downbeat for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is sudden, graphic violence that is quite disturbing, some kinky sexual content and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was at one time attached to the part of Lou Ford with Andrew Dominik directing. When Cruise dropped out, so did Dominik citing that the role was so complex and disturbing it needed a star to carry it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.0M on a $13M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Step Brothers

Dream House


Dream House

Rachel Weisz is worried that Daniel Craig's performance is a little unfocused.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Universal) Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Jane Alexander, Taylor Geare, Claire Geare, Rachel Fox, Brian Murray, Bernadette Quigley, Sarah Gadon, Gregory Smith. Directed by Jim Sheridan

A house is just four walls, a floor and a roof. It’s a dwelling, a place to store your stuff and a place to lay your head at night. There’s no emotional connection; it’s a hotel room that’s personalized for you. A home is an entirely different matter; there are people you love, memories – ghosts, if you will.

Will Atenton (Craig) is a successful New York publisher who is giving it all up for a more bucolic lifestyle upstate. He aches to spend more time with his family – wife Libby (Weisz) and daughters Dee Dee (C. Geare) and Trish (T. Geare). The house is a bit of a fixer upper but it has some potential. It’s winter and roaring fires are the order of the day and what could be cozier than that?

Except that the neighbors are affixing some odd looks at Will and his family. There is obviously some hostility, particularly with asshole neighbor Jack Patterson (Csokas) who is going through a bitter divorce and custody battle with wife Ann (Watts) over their daughter Chloe (Fox). Will chalks it up to just general New England suspiciousness and moves on with his life.

Then things start to spiral into the deep end. Will shoos some Goth teenagers out of his basement and discovers evidence that the last family that lived in the house had been massacred – and the father Peter Ward, the only survivor of the massacre (with a nasty gunshot wound to the head) was the suspect in the case. Peter had been committed to Greenhaven Psychiatric Hospital but after five years had just been released. The girls begin to see strange figures outside peering into the house.

Will is determined to get to the bottom of things and decides to investigate further. The more he finds out, the more troubling the situation becomes. It turns out Ann may know far more than she’s letting on. And when Will goes to Greenhaven to talk to Peter Ward’s doctor, he finds out something so shocking and chilling that it threatens his very sanity; and there is no doubt that someone wants Will and his family dead. Could Peter Ward be coming home at last?

Sheridan (director of such movies as In America and In the Name of the Father) is a steady, talented director who is not known for horror films, and his inexperience in the genre shows here. He did have the presence of mind to hire Caleb Deschanel as cinematographer, and the Oscar-winning Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey by the by) would normally have been a master stroke, but while the movie looks slick with all sorts of barren winterscapes and homey hearths there is nothing really that adds to the tension.

Craig is rapidly becoming one of film’s best leading men, and he certainly looks the part here. He gets shirtless an awful lot in the movie (considering it’s set in the dead of winter) and the part calls for him to change emotional tableaux in split seconds and he’s more than up to the task. His onscreen chemistry with Weisz is genuine and adds an extra measure of enjoyment to the movie. Watts is given less to do and her character could have used more fleshing out.

I need to address something here. The movie’s major plot twist is unconscionably revealed in the trailer – if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. There have been rumors that Sheridan had angered the production bosses at Morgan Creek, the production company for the movie, for deviating from the established script heavily (Sheridan has a reputation for liking to work improvisationally) and after disastrous focus group screenings, forced reshoots, finally editing the movie to their own standards. Sheridan reportedly requested his name be removed from the film and he, Craig and Weisz all refused to do publicity for the movie.

There is certainly an appearance that the reveal was done deliberately and childishly in order to sabotage the movie, and I’m quite certain Sheridan, Craig and Weisz all feel that’s the case. Of course, I don’t know it for certain – but I do know that the movie was ruined by its own marketing. Certainly not knowing that revelation (which I have deliberately omitted here) made the film less enjoyable. If you haven’t seen the trailer, I strongly urge you not to.

Be that as it may, the movie is far from perfect in any case. There is never any real tension generated by the movie, and what could have been an atmospheric thriller with overtones of supernatural horror becomes a substandard potbroiler that fools nobody and entertains very few. The damn shame of it all is that the movie is actually pretty well-written and with a few tweaks here and there could have been really entertaining. Alas, this is going to go down as a case where a director-producer feud may have ultimately ruined a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Craig is a compelling performer. There is a good deal of tension and overall the movie is well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: The main plot twist is revealed in the trailer. The identity of the real killer is weak and doesn’t fool anybody.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some terror, a little sensuality and briefly some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weisz and Craig began a romantic relationship after meeting on set. They were recently married in a discrete ceremony.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one for the home front.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 50/50

New Releases for the Week of September 30, 2011


 

September 30, 2011

DREAM HOUSE

(Universal) Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz, Marton Csokas, Claire Geare, Taylor Geare, Rachel G. Fox, Lynne Griffin, Jane Alexander, Elias Koteas, Brian Murray. Directed by Jim Sheridan

A successful New York City publisher moves his wife and two small children into a quaint home in a bucolic New England town. After they move in, they discover that the last residents of the home were murdered, an entire family with the surviving father being the main suspect in the crime. The more they look into it, the more strange things begin to occur and soon it becomes clear that the real horror might be staring them in the face.

See the trailer and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Suspense Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, terror, some sensuality and brief strong language)

50/50

(Summit) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard. A young man finds out that he has a rare form of cancer. He and his best friend decide to use humor and caring as a form of treatment for his disease. This is based on the life of screenwriter Will Reiser.

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 throughout, sexual content and some drug use)

Courageous

(Tri-Star) Alex Kendrick, Kevin Downes, Ben Davies, Matt Hardwick. A tight-knit group of police officers find their world rocked when tragedy befalls one of them. Hit in the face with their shortcomings as fathers, they turn to a higher power to help them heal the rifts in their own families and become better husbands, better fathers, better men and better cops.

See the trailer, clips, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Christian Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and drug content)

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

(Magnet) Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowen, Jesse Moss. A group of teenagers on a camping trip run into a creepy pair of hillbillies. When one of the teens gets injured and separated from their friends, the two hillbillies – who turn out to be harmless – try to go to her aid. The others don’t see things that way however – they see a couple of murderous, sadistic backwoods serial killers out to get them and as they try to “rescue” their friend they inadvertently meet grisly demises. The trailer is really terrific – check it out.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror Spoof

Rating: R (for bloody horror violence, language and brief nudity)

What’s Your Number?

(20th Century Fox) Anna Faris, Chris Evans, Andy Samberg, Zachary Quinto. When a young woman reads a magazine article that those who have had 20 or more lovers have missed their shot at true love, she sets out to re-examine all of her exes to see if any of them measure up to being The One.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language)

Two Lovers


Two Lovers

Isabella Rossellini comforts Joaquin Phoenix.

(2008) Romantic Drama (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Gwynneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov, Samantha Ivers. Directed by James Gray

It is difficult to really find the path that’s right for you in life. Early on, your parents may choose one for you and maybe it’s a good path, but right for them, not for you. And if you have a damaged soul, it can be particularly difficult to find any path at all.

Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) is coming off of one of those romantic break-ups that sucks your soul right out of your body and sends it spinning into the ether. He is somewhat damaged goods to begin with, having issues with bipolar disorder (which to the film’s credit is treated matter-of-factly instead of as a dramatic device) and the break-up shakes him up badly.

He winds up moving back in with his parents in Brighton Beach. He also starts working for his dad (Moshonov) in the dry cleaning business delivering garments to his customers. His mom (Rossellini) wants him to marry a nice Jewish girl (instead of the shikseh who broke his heart) and sets him up with Sandra Cohen (Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaner. Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match…

Sandra and Leonard seem to hit it off, but that’s before he meets Michelle (Paltrow), a neighbor who makes Leonard’s problems look positively non-existent.  She is volatile, capricious and prone to grand dramatic gestures and to top things off she’s seeing a married man (Koteas) with problems of his own. On the surface, they would seem to be bad news for one another – which is why they are so attracted to each other, of course.

Of course, Leonard’s mom is mortified; this can only end in disaster and emergency rooms and suicide attempts. Surprisingly, Sandra isn’t about to give up an essentially good man like Leonard without a fight – and Leonard isn’t willing to give up Michelle without one either. How can any man find happiness with two lovers?

The point is, they can’t. At some point you have to commit and that’s what Leonard, whose broken heart has yet to fully heal, has trouble with. It’s in many ways a very powerful look at a situation that we could potentially find ourselves in, particularly in a time where love can become as lethal as an Arizona whacko. Okay, maybe not that lethal.

This is a movie for smart people to a very large degree; there are few of the clichés that dumb down Hollywood romances so often these days and there seems to be at least an attempt to add some realism to the relationships between admittedly damaged people. While yes there’s an element of New York hip to the movie (which can be a deal killer for Big Apple haters), the filmmakers concentrate on the broken shards of Leonard and Michelle’s lives and how they are trying to reassemble something into a whole. There is no pat ending and no Romance 101 storyline. The relationships have ups and downs and Leonard winds up facing a real dilemma; both of these girls are “right” for him only in different ways, and each comes with her own drawbacks. Choosing one over the other is no easy matter and no matter how he chooses, someone’s going to get their heart broken, possibly Leonard himself as well.

The performances are suitably muted and layered with depths of pain and humanity which are gradually peeled away. This is particularly true of Phoenix and Paltrow; Shaw really doesn’t have as much to work with but she does a solid job as perhaps the only person here I’d want to spend more than an afternoon with.

The movie unfortunately garnered more press for Phoenix’ antics while promoting it; it is while doing press for this movie that he made his now-notorious announcement that he was retiring from acting to take up a hip-hop career which turned out to be an elaborate – and somewhat baffling – hoax, as well as his legendary appearance on the Letterman show that resulted in David Letterman’s now famous line “Thanks for joining us Joaquin. It’s too bad you couldn’t be here tonight.” To a degree, Phoenix wound up overshadowing the movie in terms of hype which I think wound up ultimately doing the film a disservice.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-acted, intelligent slice of life-type look at a young man who is kind of drifting through life and facing a tough decision.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The somewhat adrift central characters can be maddening. Those who don’t like New York-centric films might find reason to loathe this.

FAMILY VALUES: It has its fair share of vulgar language, a bit of sexuality (some of it fairly raw) and a little smidgeon of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is set in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn. Paltrow’s mother, actress Blythe Danner, starred in the 1986 movie Brighton Beach Memoirs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.3M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood came close to breaking even or might have even made a little bit of cash.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bigger Stronger Faster

The Fourth Kind


 

 

The Fourth Kind

Milla Jovovich wonders if this whole thing isn't a new threat from the Umbrella Corporation.

 
 

(Universal) Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas, Will Patton, Charlotte Milchard, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Corey Johnson, Enzo Cilenti, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Raphael Coleman, Daphne Alexander, Alisha Seaton. Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi

 

 According to the filmmakers, Nome, Alaska has a disproportionate number of disappearances every year, to the point where the FBI makes more visits than they do to Anchorage, a city with many times the population of Nome. Of course, according to the filmmakers, everything you see in this movie is real and is backed up with “archival” footage.

 

It isn’t until she puts them under hypnosis that the excrement hits the air conditioner. The terror of her patients becomes so insistent that they literally break their own backs to get away from the trauma of their repressed memories.

 

Abbey has some trauma of her own. Her husband Will, also a psychologist, passed away recently. Abbey believes he was murdered by an intruder who stabbed him in the heart, although Sheriff August (Patton) is just as adamant that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Which one is right? Would you believe…both of them?  More to the point, would you believe either of them?

 

After one of her patients (Johnson) becomes so traumatized by her sessions that he visits an unthinkable tragedy on his family, August begins to regard Abbey with the stink-eye, thinking she may be somehow planting some kind of post-hypnotic suggestion in her patients. He really doesn’t have a motive, but he does have the ability to bellow quite a bit.

 

Abbey has also been seeing a therapist of her own, Dr. Campos (Koteas) who is at first skeptical about her claims until he sees things that defy explanation, like patients levitating off of beds which, sadly, are missing from the videotape due to unexplainable distortion. When a deputy witnesses a bright light coming from the sky to bathe Abbey’s home and her daughter Ashley (McKenna-Bruce) disappears shortly thereafter, Abbey really comes under scrutiny. Nobody believes it could possibly be alien abduction – nobody except Abbey, Dr. Campos and linguist Awolowa Odusami (Kae-Kazim) who identifies strange gibberish on the tapes as Sumerian, the most ancient language on Earth and one even today that we have trouble translating properly.

 

The movie is presented as “found footage” i.e. documentary footage that has been discovered by researchers or whatever. This format has been very successful in the horror genre of late, initiated by The Blair Witch Project and continuing with Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. It can be very effective in creating an atmosphere in which the jeopardy seems real.

 

Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to proclaim this footage as genuine a bit too loudly. It didn’t take long for enterprising researchers to discover that the characters and events are all cut from whole cloth. Now, normally I wouldn’t mind – it is a movie after all – but don’t present it as a documentary when it’s clearly not. The movie would have been far more effective had it not pressed it’s claims to be real and instead just allow you to sit back and immerse yourself in the footage, as Paranormal Activity did, rather than conduct an inner debate as to the veracity of the film’s claims.

 

I’m wondering why on earth director Osunsanmi decided to go with name actors like Jovovich, Koteas and Patton to re-enact scenes that they’re showing “archival” footage of, nearly word for word on split screen. It’s unnecessary and annoying. Osunsanmi was trying to have his cake and eat it too – he would have been better served either to simply make a movie with the star power, or preferably, with the “archival footage” which was far more effective than the “re-enactments.”

 

Jovovich is a solid action star, but she played the grieving Abbey with a lack of passion which is certainly a way to go. She winds up with a curiously detached feeling, as if you could open up a zipper on the actress’ back and discover that inside is only air. It made it hard to truly develop an emotional link to the character.

 

The suspense was well done and while I do like the premise, it eventually bogs down in its own conceit and comes off like Whitley Streiber was given a digital cam and sent off into the Maryland woods in search of the Blair Witch. I’m not saying that this is a bad movie – it has its moments and some of the footage is well-crafted – but it could have been better had the director not tried to have it both ways. Sometimes, simple is better.

 

WHY RENT THIS: The suspense aspect is very well done, and some of the scares quite effective. Jovovich is an outstanding lead actress who doesn’t get the props she deserves, and Koteas does a good job of channeling Christopher Meloni in his role.

 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The outing of the “real” footage takes away some of the film’s effectiveness which remains a catch-22.

 

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are exceedingly disturbing.  There is also some rough language and implied sexuality, but definitely this is not for those who might be given to nightmares.

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Nome is 51% aboriginal in population, none of the characters in this movie appear to be of that ethnic background.

 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.7M on an unreported budget; I’m thinking that the movie probably broke even or made money.

 

FINAL RATING: 6/10

 

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness concludes with a horror classic.

Actress Milla Jovovich (you can tell she’s an actress; she says so at the very beginning of the film) plays Abbey Tyler, a psychologist (who is also “played” by English actress Charlotte Milchard) who has noticed several of her patients who have difficulty sleeping have eerily similar stories; they all awaken at about 3am with an owl staring at them, an image that fills them with inexplicable terror.