A Violent Separation


Carrying her across a different threshold.

(2019) Crime Drama (Screen Media) Brenton Thwaites, Ben Robson, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Claire Holt, Ted Levine, Gerald McRaney, Francesca Eastwood, Michael Malarkey, Peter Michael Goetz, Isabella Gaspersz, Lynne Ashe, Carleigh Johnston, Cotton Yancey, Silas Cooper, Jason Edwards, Kim Collins, Morley Nelson, Bowen Hoover. Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz

 

The backwoods hide its share of secrets. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing just right you can swear you hear the trees whispering about dark deeds done in the dead of night, of murder, mayhem and cheating hearts.

Ray Young (Robson) is one of those country boys whom trouble just seems to follow. He’s a man who likes to drink and has a hair-trigger temper, not a great combination. He’s done some jail time for petty crime and makes up “the usual suspect” in the small Missouri town he lives in. His younger brother Norman (Thwaites) couldn’t be more different; a straight-arrow deputy sheriff who is painfully naive, romantically awkward and a bit exasperated by his hot mess of a brother.

Ray is on-again off-again dating Abby (Holt) who is a single mom whose baby daddy is Cinch (Malarkey), a construction worker built in Ray’s mold – this girl sure can pick them. Her younger sister Frances (Debnam-Carey) is quiet, upstanding and of course the object of Norman’s affection, although much of what she jokes about goes sailing over his head. Abby and Frances live at their childhood home where they take care of seriously ill patriarch Tom (McRaney) who trundles an oxygen tank wherever he goes but is not above roaring his disapproval over one thing or another at the sisters, particularly when Frances has the temerity to take away his smokes.

After the four young people go out for a night of drinking an dancing at a roadhouse charmingly known as The Whispering Pig, Ray predictably makes out with a barmaid (Eastwood) and gets into a fight that Norman has to come to his aid for. Furious, a drunk Abby gets into her car and peels out of the parking lot, leaving the other three behind.

The next day a badly hungover Abby takes her dad’s pistol and lambastes an equally hungover Ray, nagging him to teach her how to shoot which he is reluctant to do. The two drive into the woods where a terrible accident occurs. Ray panics and calls his brother to help him cover up his involvement. In a moment of weakness, Norman agrees to.

The town sheriff (Levine) is a pretty smart cookie and he begins piecing together the crime from the few clues that have remained. Norman, as a cop, knows how to stage a crime scene and manipulate an investigation. While the Sheriff (and a few other people) are certain that Ray had a hand in what happened to Abby, nobody suspects Norman. As time goes by and the trail goes cold the romance between Norman and Frances begins to heat up. However, the guilt both brothers are feeling begins to bubble to the surface and threatens to expose what they’ve both done.

The brothers Goetz seem to be waffling between Southern Gothic and neo-noir when it comes to tone and ends up being neither. For some odd reason, they decided to set the film in Missouri but filmed in Louisiana an it looks like Louisiana – why not just set it where you filmed it? Nobody cares overly much. Secondly, most of the main cast (with the exception of Levine and McRaney) are British or Australian. Not that the cast members (mostly of basic cable and TV pedigree) from across the various ponds can’t handle these very American art forms, but it just seems a curious thing hauling them all the way to the backwoods of Louisiana.

Actually, the cast is pretty decent although it is the veterans McRaney and Levine who steal the show. Robson and Thwaites capture a brotherly dynamic that feels authentic; having directors who are themselves brothers probably has a lot to do with it. The movie is reasonably suspenseful as the brothers come closer to cracking, although the “twist” ending feels forced and much of the movie loses its punch because of the melodrama that tinges the entire production.

There are moments of cinematic beauty which are provided by cinematographer Sean O’Dea; however, Evan Goldman’s score is intrusive and a little bit annoying. Overall this isn’t all that bad but there aren’t enough good things about it that really make it stand out among all the other movies that are out there at the moment. Fans of the various shows the young actors are in might get a kick out of seeing them in very different roles than they’re used to but otherwise, this one’s pretty much a toss-up.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography has some lovely heartland images.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t add anything to the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Michael Goetz, who plays Riley Jenkins, is the father of the directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews: Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder by Numbers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Aniara

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The Disappointments Room


Kate Beckinsale reflects.

Kate Beckinsale reflects.

(2016) Supernatural Thriller (Rogue/Relativity) Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Gerald McRaney, Michael Landes, Celia Weston, Michaela Conlin, Charles Carroll, Duncan Joiner, Ella Jones, Marcia de Rousse, Jennifer Leigh Mann, Melissa Eastwood, Robert McRary, Chris Matheny, Mike Bizon, Peabody Southwell, Steve Stamey, Robert Caponi, Rebecca Kerns. Directed by D.J. Caruso

 

When you move someplace new, exploring your new digs is half the fun, especially if it’s one of those wonderful old houses with long corridors and lots of doors. However, it is wise to remember that in some old houses, some doors shouldn’t be opened.

Dana (Beckinsale) and David (Raido) have just moved into one such house. They’re trying to pick up the pieces after the untimely death of an infant daughter. Dana, in particular, is a bit of a mess but David figures that having her redesign her new home (she is an architect, after all) might help take her mind off of things and lift her out of her doldrums.

But then she finds a door to a room in the attic that doesn’t appear on the floor plans, which is kind of bizarre because the room has a distinctive round window that can be seen clearly from the yard. But, okay – she is almost obsessed about opening the door and eventually she finds the key. The room has scratch marks, a drain and some disturbing looking stains that might be blood.

She begins to have visions of an intimidating man in black who turns out to be Judge Blacker (McRaney), a previous owner, and his vicious looking dog. Disturbed by the visions, she looks into the room and discovers that it was what was called a “Disappointments Room” where the wealthy would lock up their children who had mental issues or physical deformities (and sometimes their wives too – yes, disappointments rooms were a thing). When she is trapped in the hidden room for what seems like hours, she is mystified to discover she was only gone a few short minutes. Her sanity begins to take a tumble.

Not making matters much better is a hunky contractor (Till) who seems more interested in flirting with her than in actually getting the roof fixed nor a poorly timed dinner party when a drunken Dana pops her cork and has an epic meltdown. But the question is whether or not the house is truly haunted – or if Dana is descending into madness.

Caruso has a track record of both terrific suspense movies and also some fine action films but this is one that isn’t going to be front and center on his resume. The movie feels like it went off the rails near the end of the film, having either been rewritten from the original script by actor Wentworth Miller (who doesn’t appear in the film, alas) or was edited by someone at the studio’s nephew who turns out to be completely psychotic.

But the rest of the movie does a good job of building the “is she or isn’t she” suspense and Beckinsale was born for this kind of role, where she has to play things high strung. She’s a marvelous actor, horribly underrated who has a history of excellent but overlooked performances in genre films. She’s starting to branch out lately (Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is one such) and hopefully she’ll start to see roles that will attract more notice. Here she really holds the movie together almost by herself, but as I said the movie spirals into the toilet bowl of doom through no fault of her own.

The problem here is that that the movie kind of loses its inertia and at the end goes for cliches and easy scares rather than taking the ball it had been carrying all game long and running for the touchdown with it. And yes, that’s an intentional mixed metaphor; that perfectly explains how the movie felt to me.

This was a victim of the Relativity Media bankruptcy; it was in limbo for more than a year while the company sorted through its financial issues. It was actually supposed to open in November but for some reason the company pulled Before I Sleep from the schedule with less than two weeks to go and inserted this into the slot, shuttling it into theaters without any sort of promotional support whatsoever. Predictably, it died a quiet and painful death at the box office. It didn’t help matters that the movie is mediocre at best, but it seems sad that this is going to be a pretty decent performance by Beckinsale that will largely go unseen. That’s the big disappointment here.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale elevates the movie as she usually does.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is often confusing and disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (some of it bloody), some disturbing images, a bit of foul language and a couple of scenes of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the main location shooting was the Adamsleigh estate in the Sedgefield Country Club outside Greensboro, North Carolina. The home was built in 1930.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Husband
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sully

New Releases for the Week of September 9, 2016


SullySULLY

(Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan, Holt McCallany, Valerie Mahaffey, Ann Cusack, Sam Huntington. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Chesley Sullenberger was a commercial airline pilot but on a routine flight in January, 2009, he became a national hero when his engines were crippled when a flock of geese passed through his flight path. He brought the plane down safely without a single loss of life, but the end of the passengers’ ordeal was only the beginning of his own.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some peril and brief strong language)

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

(Abramorama) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. This documentary directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard chronicles the live shows and tours of the Fab Four starting from their days in Liverpool at the legendary Cavern Club to their final show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966. While this documentary is scheduled to be released on Hulu the same day, the theatrical version will include their legendary 1965 Shea Stadium concert in New York City in its entirety.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (Two nights only; Thursday (sold out) and Friday September 16)
Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

The Disappointments Room

(Relativity) Kate Beckinsale, Lucas Till, Michaela Conlin, Gerald McRaney. A young family moves into a fixer-upper in a quaint Eastern seaboard town. While renovating the home, they come upon a small door in the attic that is locked and for which no key appears to work. The room behind the door doesn’t appear on the home’s blueprints and so their curiosity is piqued. Some doors, however, are better left locked.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violent content, bloody images, some sexuality and language)

When the Bough Breaks

(Screen Gems) Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Romany Malco, Jaz Sinclair. A young professional couple, desperate to have a baby, finally goes the surrogate route when every other option fails. At first, the woman they choose as their surrogate seems to be a dream come true and after a harrowing event, they invite her to come live in their home with them. However, she becomes obsessed with the husband and proves to be far more dangerous than they thought possible.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, sexuality/partial nudity, thematic elements, some disturbing images and language)

The Wild Life

(Summit) Starring the voices of Yuri Lowenthal, Jay Jones, Lindsay Torrance, Dennis O’Connor. The tale of Robinson Crusoe is retold (not so faithfully to the original I would imagine) in this animated adventure but in quite the twist, not from the point of view of Crusoe but through the eyes of the animals who inhabit the tropical island which isn’t so deserted after all.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for mild action/peril and some rude humor)

Focus


Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

(2015) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst, Stephanie Honore, David Stanford, Dominic Fumusa, Steve Kim, Don Yesso, Juan Minujin, Jano Seitun, Melania Lenoir, Pietro Gian, Justina Bustos, Paola Brasca, Kate Adair . Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Con artist movies are not the easiest things in the world to undertake. For one thing, we’ve all seen at least a few, from The Sting on down. It’s hard to fool veteran moviegoers and keeping the audience misdirected is the key to a successful con movie, or else the audience leaves the theater feeling as if it was they who had been conned.

Nicky (Smith) is a con artist and one of the best. He finds big sporting events – the Super Bowl, Championship Boxing matches, All-Star games – and basically invades those towns with a crew of pickpockets and thieves, using plants to distract and confuse while his light-fingered operatives steal wallets, jewelry, electronics – whatever items of value they can get their hands on. There are also the grifters who pose as aggrieved husbands and cheating wives in one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nicky and his crew can make a fortune.

Nicky has taken under his wing the lovely Jess (Robbie), an aspiring con artist who has natural talent at it but lacks the experience and some of the skills. Nicky teaches her that all of this is a matter of focus, keeping track of the lie and sticking with it. Die with the lie, he tells her when they meet when she tries unsuccessfully to swindle him. You can’t con a con man, after all.

However, when Nicky grows too fond of her, he abruptly pulls away. You can’t get too close to people in this game after all. You always have to keep your focus.

Three years later, Nicky is in the midst of working a con involving an experimental Grand Prix auto engine from a smarmy Brazilian billionaire (Santoro) with a curmudgeonly but deadly bodyguard (McRaney) when who walks into the picture? Jess, of course. Is she playing an angle or has she, as she claims, left the life and become the girlfriend of the billionaire? And what is Nicky’s angle? Who’s conning who?

Directors Ficarra and Requa also co-wrote the movie and while they have given us a slickly filmed opus with some nice visuals, there’s a good deal here that is lacking, particularly in the writing. Smith is in dire need of a hit and this isn’t likely to be it; despite the fact that he still has the charm and manner that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, audiences aren’t responding to it as much as they once did and this is the kind of script that really Smith should have passed on. He’s too good for this material.

Robbie is a star in the making. After garnering attention for her role as the trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street she shows that she has natural screen presence that holds up nicely to one of the most charismatic stars in the world which bodes well for her career. She and Smith in fact have a good chemistry, the sort that money can’t buy and their complex onscreen relationship works because of it. As I intimated, you’re never quite sure who’s conning who.

The supporting performances are strong here too, particularly from Wong who plays an Asian businessman with a penchant for gambling who gets into a battle of wills with Nicky, Martinez as the socially awkward best friend and obligatory computer genius, Brown as the captain of Nicky’s crew and McRaney at his gruff best. The acting isn’t the problem here.

The sequences of pickpockets working the Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans are artfully choreographed and fun to watch. The cinematography is nicely done as well, delivering a world that exists in the underbelly of night and on the fringes of the good life. It’s a believable looking film.

Where it goes off the rails is in the writing. For one thing, most veteran moviegoers should be able to predict what’s going to happen next without missing the mark which is a cardinal no-no in a movie like this. There are few really genuine left turns here and the movie suffers for it. There are also plenty of plot holes; the con of the Asian businessman is supposed to rely on subliminal persuasion but the explanation of them is unconvincing at best. The character development is sloppy and fairly stock for movies of this nature; one gets the sense that this is more of a compilation of con man films more than an original take on the subject, and characters often act out of character – Nicky at times for a hardened con man with a supposed heart of stone is awfully sentimental.

The movie works okay as strictly entertainment but it is eminently forgettable and won’t do much for the careers of Smith and Robbie, although they’re both pretty good here. It is typical of the kind of movies that are released in February; a cut above those that come out the month previous but in general flawed, sometimes deeply. This one is of the latter persuasion.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry between Robbie and Smith who make engaging leads. Some nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Wong, Martinez, McRaney and Brown. Nice choreography on pickpocket scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing really surprising here. Plenty of plot holes and “huh?” moments. Characters don’t really behave like how you would expect those sorts of people to behave.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, brief violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robbie and Smith will be co-starring again in next year’s Suicide Squad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grifters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: What We Do in the Shadows

Django Unchained


Smoking the competition.

Smoking the competition.

(2012) Western (Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayoutte, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, James Remar, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Walton Goggins, David Steen, Nichole Galicia, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most iconic film directors of our time. When all is said and done I truly believe he’ll occupy a spot in the pantheon among the best ever. He has a love and respect for genre films that places him squarely in fanboy territory, yet he understands what’s great about them and how to turn them into something more than just basic entertainment. He elevates them – which is why I sit waiting with baited breath for his first horror/sci-fi film.

Until that day, you get to deal with his latest which takes on the spaghetti western, although this is set in the antebellum South so you might join Tarantino in referring to this as a “Southern.” In it a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Foxx) from a group of slave traders delivering their property to the market. It seems that Django once worked on a plantation where a trio of wanted men – the Brittle Brothers – had worked as overseers. Dr. Schultz has paper on them but doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. A partnership is born.

They travel to the plantation of Big Daddy (Johnson) where Django spots the brothers, two of whom are getting ready to whip a slave. Oh, no you didn’t. Django shoots ’em dead, and then guns down the third as he tries to ride away. Big Daddy doesn’t take kindly to it  so he organizes a posse of bag-wearing rednecks (including Hill in a cameo role) which is among the movie’s funniest scenes – the riders can’t see very well in the improperly cut bags. However Dr. Schultz devises a plan that outfoxes the rednecks, which Django implements.

Django has earned his freedom and $75 in his share of the bounty and is eager to track down his wife, who was sold separately from him to a different plantation.

She has in fact been sold to Candyland, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi and the home of young Calvin Candie, whose hobby is Mandingo wrestling – pitting slaves from different owners in battles to the death. Candie who isn’t above having his dogs tear slaves to pieces, is a seemingly diffident yet genteel sort on the surface but he has all sorts of bad seething below that surface. He is supported by his house slave Stephen (Jackson), a crotchety sort who jealously hordes his position and authority in the house; Leonide Moguy (Christopher), an oily lawyer and Mr. Pootch (Remar), a debonair but deadly bodyguard.

Django first must hone his  skills as a bounty hunter before taking on that bunch, and when he is finally ready in the spring he is quite the killer but he is up against some of the most ruthless, sadistic men in the South. Is Django more than a man?

Of course he is. This is a Quentin Tarantino mash-up and he is not only targeting Spaghetti Westerns but also Blaxploitation and B-movie revenge flicks from the 80s. Django harkens back to classic heroes from all of those genres (but particularly John Shaft whom Tarantino has said is his descendent; in fact, his wife’s slave name is Broomhilda von Schaft).

Foxx imbues Django with a quiet dignity, which is about what you’d expect. Django isn’t worldly but he’s bright; he learns quickly and while his voice rarely gets raised he carries himself with such self-assurance that it’s easy for him to convince white folks that he’s a free man. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a confident one and illustrates the growth that Foxx has made as an actor in just a few short years. In many ways this is an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Ray but might not attract the attention in that regard not only because it’s so low-key but because the competition for Best Actor this year is so bloody fierce.

He has plenty of support though. Waltz, who achieved his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino, switches gears and is a good guy this time out, although he’s got a bit of a dark side. Here as Dr. Schultz, he is urbane, witty and erudite. He uses a lot of five dollar words that most of the people he deals with have not a clue what they mean. He smiles a lot, is a bit of a charmer and a flirt but is at his core a decent fellow who is repulsed from slavery and the vicious things that are done to the slaves.

Di Caprio is a serviceable villain; he doesn’t play villains often but when he does he can be as over-the-top as any and that’s what the role calls for; at one point in the movie Candie pounds a table in emphasis. Di Caprio hit the table so hard he cut his hand open. Tarantino refused to yell cut and the scene proceeded with Di Caprio’s hand bleeding and that’s the take that’s used in the movie. The intensity, as it always is with Di Caprio, is there.

Jackson also plays villains less often than heroes and like Di Caprio, is no stranger to over the top. This is a part tailor made for Jackson and he inhabits it. It’s not the part you’d think he’d play – Yessuh Massuh isn’t exactly his style – but when you think about it, who else would you cast in the role? As good as the talent is among African-American actors right now, none spring to mind when you think “who could play Steven properly?” Just SLJ and like the trooper that he is, he does it note-perfect. Of course, I’m not sure that Jackson would have taken a part like this for anybody other than Quentin Tarantino.

One of the plot elements is that the story of the movie is supposed to parallel that of the legend of Siegfried which it kind of does. Like the legend, the movie’s story is told really in three parts. Each part has certain parallels with the legend – and no, I’m not going to explain it to you here. Just be reassured that Waltz tells you what the story is at the beginning and by the end you think back and say to yourself “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah!” Far be it for me to remove the thrill of connecting the dots from you.

Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to this picture is the use of what has come to be called the “N” word. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that and I can understand it – it’s a word I don’t personally use and normally I don’t encourage its use. However, in this instance, Tarantino’s intent is to portray not only the physical degradation of the slaves but the mental and spiritual humiliation as well. The word was in wide use at the time for one thing and it wouldn’t be realistic to ignore it. I found that the first couple of times I heard it that it was kind of a shock, but after that I grew numb to it. Maybe that’s a point Tarantino is trying to make, but be warned that the word is used a lot and if it offends you, you might want to take that into consideration.

All of these things are fine by me but there are a few things that I do have to say that aren’t as positive. The movie is nearly three hours long; I’m guessing that about 20-30 minutes of it could have been cut without ruining the flow or continuity of the movie or disrupting the story. For example, there’s a scene near the end where Django is being transported to a brutal mine where he will be worked to death. How he escapes takes a good five to ten minutes; it’s a scene that under a more economical director could have been easily accomplished in under a minute. Of course, Tarantino is not known for his frugality (being kind of a gregarious sort of guy, that figures) but that kind of thing happens several times during the course of the film.

More unforgivably, the movie drags in places. Few if any write better dialogue than Tarantino but there are times when things just…drag. Too much talking. Not enough action. The directors of those movies Tarantino loves so much could let 15 minutes go by without so much as a word being spoken. Actions do speak louder than words and rarely is that so apparent as at the movies.

I was hoping that this would be one of the year’s ten best but it won’t make that list sadly. This isn’t one of Tarantino’s best. Plainly. And I’m sure that disappointment has probably brought down his rating a tad; if anyone else had directed this, I might well have given it more stars. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t measure up to his best works and that is part of your moviegoing experience – are your expectations being met. It’s not terribly fair that my expectations of a Tarantino film are so high but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s a very good film. It’s just not a great one.

REASONS TO GO: Foxx, Waltz, di Caprio and Jackson are all at the top of their games. If you love Tarantino you’ll love this!

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Those who don’t like Tarantino will hate this. Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely graphic violence (i.e. when people get shot they get shredded with blood going everywhere), plenty of bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foxx rides his own horse, Cheetah, in the film during the bareback sequence.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch

SHOT IN THE NUTS LOVERS: Hopefully there aren’t a lot of you out there but if there are, there’s a whole lot of it going on in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Young @ Heart

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

Get Low


Get Low

Robert Duvall goes all Old Testament on an incredulous Lucas Black and a skeptical Bill Murray.

(Sony Classics) Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, Scott Cooper, Lori Beth Edgeman, Linds Edwards, Andrea Powell, Chandler Riggs, Danny Vinson, Blerim Destani, Andy Stahl. Directed by Aaron Schneider

I think to a certain extent most of us would love to attend our own funerals. After all, it is a time when those who survive us think the best of us; who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall when their friends and loved ones are talking about us from the heart?

Felix Bush (Duvall) is a recluse living in the hills alone in a cabin that he built. All he has is a shotgun, his mule, a wad of cash and forty years of loneliness. One morning Rev. Horton (McRaney), a local pastor, calls on him to alert him that one of his old friends has passed on. Horton is a bit nervous and understandably so; Bush has a reputation for being violent, unpredictable and possibly even Satanic. Horton invites Bush to the funeral, but Felix brushes him off, making it unclear whether or not he’ll show. True to his mercurial nature, he arrives after everyone else has left.

Nonetheless that gets him thinking about his own mortality; he’s not a young man anymore, so he stops to see the good Reverend about arranging his own funeral with a bit of a twist – he wants it thrown while he’s still alive. Horton is a little taken aback by this and Felix storms out, but his proposal is overheard by Buddy Robinson (Black), the assistant to local funeral home director Frank Quinn (Murray).

When Frank hears about the incident from his underling, he is intrigued – by the size of the wad of cash Buddy says he has. Frank is originally from Chicago where, he tells Buddy sourly, people know how to die – they get hit by cars, shot by mobsters or drop down dead in the streets. “We know how to die hereabouts too,” drawls Buddy, “only we’re not in such a hurry to go about it.”

Frank, intimidated by Felix’ reputation, sends Buddy in to see if the hermit is still interested in throwing a funeral for himself and as it turns out, he is – and he and Buddy manage to establish a little bit of a bond. Frank brings Felix to town to work out some of the details – for instance, he wants the funeral to be open to “anybody who has a story to tell about me,” and to entice people to show up, allows people to sign up for a lottery for five dollars; the name that is drawn will inherit Felix’ land, with virgin timber rights and worth thousands of dollars. Felix begins to connect not only with Frank and Buddy, but with Mattie (Spacek), a widow with whom Felix once had a romantic relationship years and years prior.

As Felix begins to return to the world, it becomes clear that he has been holding onto a terrible secret for some forty years and it becomes even more clear that the funeral is not about Felix hearing what other people think about him (he really doesn’t give a damn what other people think) so much as for Felix to get this terrible burden off his chest. To that end, he wants the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Cobbs) to preach at his “funeral party,” mainly because he is the only man alive who knows Jackson’s secret. As the big day gets closer, Felix’ resolve begins to waver and Reverend Jackson shows no interest in helping Felix out. The funeral party is in jeopardy, which would ruin Frank’s business and put the young Buddy out of work, with a wife and new baby to feed.

Get Low

The real Felix "Uncle Bush" Breazeale at his "funeral party" in 1938.

Schneider has had some Oscar experience for some of the short films he’s directed; this is his first full-length feature and it’s an impressive one. The story is based on the real life Felix “Uncle Bush” Brezeale who threw himself a funeral in rural Tennessee in 1938. There was a Reverend Charlie Jackson who preached at that funeral, and as depicted here, there was also a musical ensemble that played for the entertainment of the large crowd that gathered.

However, most of the dramatic action is an invention, particularly concerning Felix’ past. Schneider couldn’t have chosen a better actor for the role than Duvall, one of America’s best living actors. Now pushing 80 years old, Duvall doesn’t appear onscreen nearly as often; this is by far the best role he’s had since 1997’s The Apostle although I saw a lot of his “Lonesome Dove” TV role as Gus McCrae in his Felix Bush – despite the differences in character between the gregarious Gus and the curmudgeonly Felix.

Duvall carries the film for certain, but he is equaled by Murray, who shows the same level of performance as he achieved in Lost in Translation. He plays Frank with typical drollness, delivered with the twinkle of a conman’s eye. Frank is a complicated sort who isn’t quite trustworthy, or at least doesn’t inspire that kind of trust, even among the fairly simple folk of the town. Murray excels at this kind of role, going back to Caddyshack and beyond. Mention needs to be made of Spacek, who gives some of her finest work of the past decade here in a very down-to-earth role. One forgets how good she can be; it’s been a very long time since Coal Miner’s Daughter but when she gets the right role, as she does here, Spacek is as good as they get.

Schneider also enlisted Emmy-winning cinematographer David Boyd (“Deadwood”) to capture the majesty of the hill country in autumn. It’s a beautiful looking film, full of rich browns, muted sepia tones and flickering firelight.

The big secret is a bit of a disappointment; it’s pretty much what you think it is, and an opening prologue will give you all the clues you need to figure it out if you watch carefully, but even given that, Duvall’s delivery of the speech where he discloses the reason he has lived in exile from humanity for 40 years is a powerful, memorable performance.

This is one of those happenstance movies where all the right elements come together and magic happens as a result. The film captures time and place and allows us to dwell there for a short while and on that level can be enjoyed thoroughly. There really isn’t a message here that I could detect other than to let go of your burdens before they become the only thing you can call your own. Still, that’s a plenty good message to me, to which I add another one; if Robert Duvall and Bill Murray are in a movie separately or together, that is a movie worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performances by Duvall and Murray, while Spacek does her best work in years. Beautiful cinematography of the Georgia hill country and a great sense of place and time make this a magic place to stop for a spell.

REASONS TO STAY: The big reveal of Felix’ secret is a little bit anti-climactic; most everyone will have figured out what it is long before then.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material, having to do with the secret that Felix is holding onto, is probably a bit difficult for kids. There are a few swear words, but by and large this is suitable for teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is loosely based on an incident that occurred in Roane County, Tennessee in 1938, it was filmed in Georgia and is set about ten years earlier.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the gorgeous cinematography deserves a big screen, I would normally say that this limited release gem will be just as nice on the home screen except that a movie like this deserves all the support it can get.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Paul Blart: Mall Cop