Cassidy Red


Jo Cassidy gets the drop on her Dad and all of the rest of us as well.

(2017) Western (Vision) Abby Eiland, David Thomas Jenkins, Jason Grasi, Jessy Knudsen, Gregory Zaragoza, Rick Cramer, Lola Kelly, Alyssa Elle Steinacker, Hudson Bothwick, Lindsey-Anne Campbell, Lyle Kanouse, Bryan Harnden, Peter Fuller, Mercedes LeAnza, Annie Pace, Morgan Smith, Veronica Conran, Alicia Herder. Directed by Matt Knudsen

 

The Old West was no place for a woman. Life was hard, even for those who had husbands to protect and provide. For those that didn’t there weren’t many choices and often they found their way to the bordellos and cathouses of the time. Pregnancy was a way of life and those born of prostitutes back in the day had a very rough road ahead of them.

Josephine “Jo” Cassidy (Eiland) was one such daughter. Her mother (LeAnza) was a prostitute; her father, Cort Cassidy (Cramer) a bounty hunter. Jo grew up splitting time between her mother’s brothel and her father’s ranch. On the former she learned how to use her looks to her advantage; on the latter, how to defend herself thanks to her dad and dear old Colonel Samuel Colt – as the old Western saw goes, God didn’t make all men equal, Colonel Colt did.

A half-Apache squatter she names Jakob (Grasi) catches her eye but also causes a conflict with Tom Hayes (Jenkins) who has an eye for Jo and even gets her to agree to marry him. Jakob is adopted by Tom’s guilty dad and becomes a valued ranch hand but although Jo is engaged to Tom, her heart belongs to Jakob. One night, Tom catches the two as they plan to run away together. Tom’s pride won’t allow that to happen so he arranges for Rowena (Kelly), a prostitute that Jo trusts, to inform Jo that Jakob was shot down by Sheriff Tom.

Jo seeks out her father’s help in learning how to gun down the much more seasoned gunfighter Tom but although he’s reluctant, Cort eventually comes around. However, there are some revelations to be had – not everyone is telling the truth which shouldn’t be a surprise. The situation is a lot different than Jo has been led to believe but it doesn’t matter. A reckoning is coming and as the tagline says, Hell hath no fury – and throw in a redhead at that and you’ve got trouble that money won’t buy you out of.

The production design is really pretty high-end for a low-budget western like this one. Lauren Ivy is a name to remember in that department; clearly she’s someone who can make a lot out of a little. Julia Swain does a bang-up job of cinematography, with the requisite Western sunsets and dusty town vistas but also some meadows and brothels to boot. It’s a splendid looking feature in every regard.

The movie does abound with Western clichés but they are approached from more of a female point of view; for once in the love triangle the gunslinger is the woman. There are also a lot of women behind the camera in positions of importance (I’ve already mentioned two of them) and in this day and age where women have a hard time building up a resume, that’s pretty big.

The story is told mainly through flashbacks as a piano player named Cricket (Zaragoza) regales jaded and disillusioned hooker Quinn (J. Knudsen) with the story of the star-crossed lovers. It isn’t too hard to figure out what the big twist is here and all of the little ones as well for that matter. I would have liked to have seen a little more character development without the framing story but that’s just me. In any case the action breaks away to Cricket and Quinn every so often and it doesn’t do anything good for the flow of the story.

Even so, despite a lack of attention to detail (the upright piano clearly sounds like a grand piano and some of the expressions used are more 21st century than 19th) this is surprisingly entertaining for a movie that hasn’t received a whole lot of notice. Most of the issues can be overlooked so while it’s not going to bring back the Western genre all by itself, certainly fans of that underserved genre will likely welcome a pretty decent new one into the fold.

REASONS TO GO: It is admirable that there are a whole lot of women in major positions for the film. Eiland and Grasi are both effective leads.
REASONS TO STAY: A little more attention to detail could have been used in post. There are a whole lot of Western clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of sensuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally produced as a thesis film project for the UCLA Masters of Fine Arts directing program.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandidas
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Chamber

The Birth of a Nation (2016)


Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

(2016) Historical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Mark Boone Jr., Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield. Directed by Nate Parker

 

It has been more than 150 years since slavery ended in this country and still it is necessary for the descendents of those in bondage have to remind us that Black Lives Matter. It is sadly evident from the shenanigans of the followers of Donald Trump, from the evidence that the KKK is still alive and well and for the institutionalized racism that allows people to think that flying a Confederate flag isn’t offensive to a sizable percentage of the population that we still have a long way to go.

However when Nat Turner (Parker) was alive slavery was in full force and there was no end in sight. He lived in Southampton County, Virginia and as a boy (Espinosa) played with the scion of the plantation owner. The owner’s wife (Miller) saw something in the young boy and sought out to teach him how to read – although only the Holy Bible, because she felt that would be the only book useful to him. After the plantation owner passed away his son Samuel Turner (Hammer), now grown, orders Nat back to picking cotton much to his mother’s disappointment.

However, it turns out that Nat has a talent for preaching the gospel and it seems to calm down the slaves – it might not hurt that Samuel was, as owners go, fairly reasonable and less cruel. The local parson (Boone) witnesses Nat’s testimonial and suggests to Samuel that he send out his slave to surrounding plantations to placate the workers by preaching to them the Gospel. As this would put direly needed coin in Samuel’s pocket, he agrees and Nat begins to see first-hand what the conditions on other plantations are like.

He also meets Cherry (King), a comely house slave that he urges Samuel to buy. Eventually he lets her know that he’s smitten by her and she eventually relents to his charms. The two are married Gullah-style but as Cherry is now working on a neighboring plantation, they see each other rarely.

But tensions between slaves and whites are growing exponentially and after Cherry is brutally raped by white slave catchers led by the despicable Raymond Cobb (Haley) and soon thereafter his friend Hark’s (Domingo) wife Esther (Union) is raped by a lusty slave owner from a neighboring plantation. Nat begins to realize that the entire institution of slavery is unjust and that it is his duty to help the Lord strike it down. In August of 1831, he and a group of his fellow slaves, pushed beyond their limits, go on a spree, attacking plantations and killing the owners and their families. The first blows of a civil war have just been struck, although none will know it at the time.

Some (including myself) will compare this to 12 Years a Slave and there are some things that do make the comparison palatable. Both films show the brutality of slavery and both films show how unjust it was. However while 12 Years was a lot more intellectual an endeavor, this is from the gut. It captures the rage of angry black men who certainly have a great deal to be angry about.

This is clearly a passion project for Parker who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in and likely sold tickets in the box office for. Passion projects can be double edged swords when it comes to doing biographies. There can be a tendency to mythologize the subject and I think Parker indulged in that a little bit here. The Nat Turner that is depicted here is almost saintly until the sexual assaults drive him to lead a bloody uprising in which women, children and even infants are murdered. One has to deal with some of the gruesome deeds that occurred at the hands of Turner and his followers, however justified they may have been. I don’t believe I’m being racist when I say that Turner, about whom little is really known from a historical perspective, was likely not that nice; what we do know about him suggests that he had hallucinations – or visions if you like – of angels and divine beings (which to be fair are depicted in the film) and that he himself felt that he was being called by God to dispense justice to the slave owners and lead his people out of bondage as a modern day Moses.

Parker is at a bit of a disadvantage, truth be told; Turner was a rarity among slaves in that he could read but most of what we know about him comes from Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia written by the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray and supposedly based on his actual confession, although many historians question its validity. Parker had to fill in a lot of blanks and does the best he can. Even William Styron, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968, had to essentially invent Parker as a fictional character, which brought a lot of outrage from African-American intellectuals and civil rights leaders at the time.

The depictions of the horrible things suffered by slaves at the time may be among the most graphic ever put to film and may be too much for sensitive viewers. For my own part, I’m glad that Parker chose to go this route; too often Hollywood has portrayed slaves as sad people in chains singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and wondering when oh when Lord will we be free. The reality of their existence was brutal and inhuman and while there were slave owners who were compassionate, there were many who were not.

Parker gives a searing performance as Turner and he shows a ton of screen presence here. He is supported by Hammer, whose character is a borderline alcoholic and certainly not always a kind and gentle man towards his slaves. Domingo is a tower of strength in his role as Hark, one of Turner’s confidantes and closest friends.

I do think that Parker would have benefitted with a little more objectivity in the script; it feels like the storytelling here is a bit rote and a bit too linear. That’s more or less just quibbling over grammar in a sense, and shouldn’t deter that many from going to see this.

Some right wing sites have drawn parallels between the film and the Black Lives Matter movement and perhaps that was intentional, but to be honest I don’t think Parker is advocating that black men rise up and start slaughtering white people indiscriminately; after all, that approach didn’t end very well for Turner or the others that rose up with him.

The film has generated some controversy based on Parker’s past legal issues. You can read about them elsewhere. I find it a shame that they have likely had an effect on the attendance for a very good movie about a very worthy subject. That’s not to vindicate Parker or what he allegedly did, albeit he was acquitted of all charges against him. I’m not a big believer in punishing someone for something they’ve already been acquitted of not doing. While the guilty sometimes get wrongly proclaimed innocent, more often people are acquitted because they are innocent.

This is an intense cinematic experience that is sadly mostly out of theaters. It should soon make its way to home video and who knows; if it gets any Oscar attention it might well get a theatrical re-release. Either way this is a movie worthy of your attention for both historical and cinematic reasons alike. It’s most definitely an angry young black man film, but it behooves all of us to listen to what angry young black men have to say.

REASONS TO GO: The Nat Turner story deserves to be told. The depiction of slavery is as brutal as any film has ever shown it to be – which is a good thing. Strong performances by Parker, Hammer and Domingo elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those with right-leaning tendencies may find the film to be polarizing. Muddies up history a little bit and makes safe storytelling choices.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is brief nudity and some fairly disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film depicts the turning point in Turner’s decision to revolt as a brutal assault on his wife, in reality his writings don’t acknowledge that he was married, although there is evidence that there was a marriage. Contemporary accounts do mention that he trusted her with his plans for the uprising but whether or not they were actually husband and wife still remains a mystery. Most historians regard the reason for his rebelliousness as spiritual visions and consider it unlikely that he felt his marriage, if it did indeed exist, was a valid one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Years a Slave
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Girl on the Train

Deadline (2009)


Maybe she should have taken a shower.

Maybe she should have taken a shower.

(2009) Psychological Thriller (First Look) Brittany Murphy, Thora Birch, Tammy Blanchard, Marc Blucas, Claudia Troll, Michael Piscitelli (voice). Directed by Sean McConville

Writers block is a bitch. When in the throes of it, you can’t think and you certainly can’t write. Everything feels wrong, like things are out of place and you can’t think where they are supposed to be. It’s frustrating and there is no sure way to break it.

Alice (Murphy) is a screenwriter with a deadline coming up. She is fast in the grip of Le Block but has good reason to be – her boyfriend tried to drown her in their bathtub, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with at the time. Her boyfriend was sure that she was sleeping around and the baby wasn’t his.

A producer friend with more money than sense offers up a decrepit Louisiana plantation he has access to for Alice and tells her that if she locks herself alone in there with a week’s worth of food and drink with nothing else to connect her to the outside world the words will start flowing like the Mississippi. Alice, despite the fact that her homicidal boyfriend is being released from jail, agrees to it despite the misgivings of her friend Rebecca (Blanchard).

So to distract herself from the blank pages Alice explores the crumbling mansion and in the attic discovers a box of videos taken by the house’s former owners and a camcorder. She begins to watch them and discovers they are of David (Blucas) and Lucy (Birch), a couple who simply left the mansion one night and never returned. Nobody knows where they are.

Alice discovers some eerie similarities to her own situation. Lucy, for one thing, was pregnant. And David was growing paranoid, thinking that the baby wasn’t his. And Alice is becoming more and more certain that Lucy haunts the old plantation. And that her boyfriend (Piscitelli) is stalking her and knows right where she is. Is all this really happening or is it a product of Alice’s paranoid imagination?

This was the last picture to be released during the late Murphy’s lifetime (another one, in the can, still awaits release later this year although she passed away four years ago) and it isn’t a bad one from her perspective. She nails the role nicely, giving Alice a kind of emotionally fragile veneer but with a personality that’s endearing enough to make you identify with her character. Even those who aren’t fans of her work as I am will find this performance worth checking out.

It’s a shame that she wasn’t given a lot more to work with. The script is fairly routine, with the usual jumps and twists that you expect to find in a psychological thriller/is the house haunted or is she crazy kind of movie. There are also some real head-scratchers here; why would anyone agree to go somewhere remote all by themselves when there was prospectively someone who wanted to do them harm running around on the loose? And if the couple disappeared, what were their videos doing in the attic, particularly if there was damming evidence on the tapes (i.e. Lucy’s murder)?

One gets the sense that the script was written in a hurry by someone with writer’s block just borrowing whole cloth bits and pieces from other movies. The concept is nice (although it could have gotten there with a little more logic) and there is some genuine creepiness to be found. Those and Murphy’s performance are pretty much the film’s saving graces but I wouldn’t look too hard for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performance by Murphy. Some chilling moments. Nice concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Basically kinda been there, done that. No real surprises and a whole lot of stuff that must be taken on faith.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, some disturbing images, a bit of violence and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The DVD was pulled from Redbox shelves after star Brittany Murphy passed away 19 days after the video release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Lies Beneath

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl


Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2003) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Mackenzie Crook, Damian O’Hare, Lee Arenberg, Zoe Saldana, Angus Barnett, Giles New, Vanessa Branch Directed by Gore Verbinski

I didn’t do handsprings when Disney said it was making this movie based on its popular ride, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. After all Country Bears left a stench so thick in theaters the year previous that some exhibitors were forced to fumigate.

However, someone at Mouse House got the brilliant idea to turn over the movie to überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, who in turn had the brilliant idea to hand the directing reins to Gore Verbinski, who directed The Ring and Mouse Hunt but more importantly, was responsible for the invention of the Budweiser Frogs. Finally, Verbinski had the even more brilliant idea of casting Johnny Depp as one of the nefarious pirates. The result is one of the best adventure movies of recent years.

Will Turner (Bloom), an apprentice blacksmith and sword maker in the Caribbean colony of Port Royal, is in love with Elizabeth, the governor’s daughter (Knightley). Her somewhat bumbling father (Pryce) has made a far better match for her, betrothing her to a dashing naval commander (Davenport). Will takes solace in capturing a cunning pirate named Jack Sparrow (Depp), late of the infamous Black Pearl, who is scheming to retake the ship and crew — who left him marooned on an uninhabited isle.

Unlike Gilligan, Sparrow escapes and makes his way to Port Royal, only to be thrown in the hoosegow and sentenced to be hanged. His sentence is interrupted by the Black Pearl itself, with its new commander, the bloodthirsty Barbossa (Rush), which storms Port Royal, wreaking great destruction and mayhem. The plucky Elizabeth is taken, no doubt to be ransomed back to her wealthy father. The British navy makes a cursory search for her, but knows a ransom will have to be paid.

Turner takes matters into his own hands, breaking Sparrow out of jail and enlisting his help save his ladylove. Sparrow is to get his old ship back in the process. Sparrow agrees, and the two sail off headed for the lair of the Black Pearl. To this point, it’s pretty much a routine pirate movie.

Now is where the movie really gets interesting. It turns out that Barbossa and his crew have no intention of ransoming the girl back. They are under a terrible curse, one laid on them by angry Aztec gods for having stolen sacred gold. The crew have become the living dead, whose condition is revealed by moonlight. They are invulnerable and immortal, but unable to partake in the pleasures of the flesh that their wealth would buy them. Desperate to become human again, they need to reassemble the entire Aztec treasure and sacrifice an innocent human to placate the gods.

Elizabeth has the last ingot, and she makes a nifty innocent sacrifice. Turner takes great exception to that plan.

This is the kind of movie for which summers were made. Beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted and a nifty storyline to boot, with plenty of eye candy to satiate even the most jaded moviegoer.

Depp, in particular, is absolutely out of this world. He seems to be half drunk all the time, and all drunk half the time, but his charade of inebriation hides a keen mind and a terrifying tactician. With an airy wave of his hand, Depp tosses off bon mots like Dean Martin, but when the scene calls for swordplay, he is unusually graceful and adept.

Of course, Bloom can handle a sword himself, as he has shown in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He makes a compelling romantic lead, but is simply blown out of the water by Depp. Knightley is lustrous, yet retains enough spunk to make her character interesting. In fact, all of the major and minor characters here are interesting; they seem to fall in the Disney family ethos, but have edges rough enough to make them appealing to a more mature crowd.

Rush is absolutely delicious as a film villain, as he was in Mystery Men. He’s completely terrific here. Verbinski has a wonderful sense of scope, and the look is as epic as any pirate movie from Hollywood’s heyday. He throws in wonderful visuals of cursed pirates that owe only their concepts to the Disney ride, enough so that one can recognize them in the movie, but definitely much farther developed than the more primitive animatronics of the theme park attraction.

Pirate movies haven’t been much in vogue of late, but this one will change all that. This is much fun for the entire family, and a movie you are sure to want to own so you can enjoy the ride over and over again. Michael Jackson must have eaten his own liver back then – he famously constructed a copy of the ride that inspired the movie on his Neverland ranch for quite the pretty penny. He could have waited and bought the DVD instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Depp creates an iconic character. Great story and an awesome curse. Wonderful effects and just enough comic relief to keep the movie balanced without degenerating into parody.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unreasonable fear of pirates…

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of cartoon-ish violence and a few disturbing images that the very small might be frightened by. However for most kids this is pure Disney fun, particularly your overactive little boys.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The ship used to play the HMS Interceptor is a real, working sailing vessel. It is the Lady Washington and serves as the tall ship ambassador for the State of Washington. It was also the same ship used in the holodeck sequence of Star Trek: Generations in the opening sequence where Picard performs the wedding ceremony for Troi and Riker.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD-ROM feature (remember them) on the original DVD release includes the ability to “pirate” up a personal photo (you can do that now with an app on the average smart phone). There are also production diaries, a blooper reel and a featurette on the Disneyland ride. The featurette on the sequence in which the moonlight first reveals the true aspect of the pirates is superior to others in the same ilk.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $654.3M on a $140M production budget. The movie was an international blockbuster and started up a multi-billion dollar franchise for Disney which is rumored to be actively looking to get a fifth film in the series going as of this writing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Blood

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Beautiful Creatures

ParaNorman


ParaNorman

Norman has a different kind of homework.

(2012) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tucker Albrizzi, Jeff Garlin. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler

 

There are those who believe that death brings peace, at long last, for the living. Of course, given what life is like why on earth – or beyond it – should we expect that? Why wouldn’t the afterlife be just as bothersome and as annoying as life is?

For Norman (Smit-McPhee) the current life is plenty bothersome and annoying. He is the weird kid, picked on by bullies like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse), his own exasperated sister Courtney (Kendrick), his mom (Mann) who doesn’t really understand him but tries to, and his dad (Garlin) who doesn’t even try.

See, Norman lives in a New England village called Blithe Hollow (a combination of Blithe Spirits and Sleepy Hollow  – not the first nod to both the film and literature of the spooky) which is famous for executing a witch 300 years earlier. Norman also happens to see dead people. And talk to them. And they, for their part, talk back. In fact, Norman has more friends among the dead than he does the living. His only corporeal friend is Neil (Albrizzi), a rotund but indefatigably cheerful kid who accepts things more or less at face value.

The witch, you see, had managed just before dying to affix a pretty awful curse on the town that had been stemmed off by members of Norman’s family. The latest in the line, an uncle (Goodman) has a bum ticker and is trying to transfer his knowledge to Norman but doesn’t quite make it to the big day. That’s ok; he can talk to Norman anyway.

Norman is tasked with reading from a sacred book in a certain spot. The problem is, Norman doesn’t understand what he’s reading and why it will save the town from being beset by the walking dead. He will have to link up with unlikely allies and fight against some unlikely opponents if he is to save Blithe Hollow from an army (all right, seven) of zombies.

The animation studio that gave us Coraline give us another horror-themed stop-motion animated feature that is as much for adults as it is for kids. Talk about finding your own niche. Still, if you can’t be Aardman (and how many studios really can be) this is a good place to be. Stop motion has an inherent 3D feel to it; there is depth to the faces here, from bags under the eyes of some of the characters to zits to sallow, sunken cheekbones. The movie itself is pretty dark in tone (most of it takes place at dusk or after dark) so the 3D doesn’t help it from that standpoint; still it looks pretty nifty as animated 3D features go.

The voice casting is on the quirky side. McPhee-Smit is best known for the downer action film The Road as well as the winter vampire remake Let Me In. In many ways, he had to carry a good deal of the latter film; he has to do it here vocally and does a pretty fine job of it. He has some pretty good chemistry with Mintz-Plasse and Albrizzi which helps a whole lot.

The writing is clever and lovers of horror films both classic and modern will get a kick out of the many, many references here. Whether it’s Norman being startled by a figure on his front lawn wearing a Jason-like goalie mask only to have it turn out to be Neil who calls out “Wanna play some hockey?” or nods to ghostly thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners. However, there were some kids at the screening we went to who were clearly too young to really get the playful tone of the film. Wise parents should exercise caution before taking their kids as some of the situations and imagery is genuinely terrifying.

Still, there are some strong anti-bullying and acceptance of diversity messages here that will resonate with older kids. While the theatrical run is nearly done, this feels like it will be a Halloween kids classic that certainly out-charms and out-smarts fare like the Scooby-Doo movies and more classic TV kidfilms like Monster Mash. There is plenty of heart here and some surprisingly funny moments like Norman’s late grandmother (Stritch) who complains that the afterlife sucks because there is no cable. Having been in some pretty rustic places in the past couple of weeks, I can certainly relate.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and genuine. Lots of homages but doesn’t date itself.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes a little too cute for its own good…and a little too terrifying to really nail that core audience it wants.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the imagery is a bit too frightening for the very little. Some of the humor is a little crude as well; in fact, you might want to skip this if your kids are in single digits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although none of the cursed zombies are referred to by name (except for Judge Hopkins), they all were given names; Eben Hardwick, Thaddeus Blackton, Lemuel Spalding, Amelia Wilcot, Goodie Temper and Wile London.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are pretty darn good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Nightmare Before Christmas

JOHN CARPENTER LOVERS: While there are several classic horror films referred to throughout the script either directly or indirectly, the ringtone on Norman’s phone is the iconic theme from Carpenter’s Halloween.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Premium Rush

Monsieur Lazhar


Monsieur Lazhar

The face may be smiling but it's the eyes that are haunted.

(2011) Drama (Music Box) Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart, Jules Philip, Daniel Gadouas, Seddik Benslimane, Marie-Eve Beauregard, Louis Champagne, Andre Robitaille, Francine Ruel, Helena Laliberte. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

 

We tend to take for granted what a strong impression teachers make on the lives of our students. Most of us can remember at least one teacher whose influence lasted throughout our lives. The student-teacher relationship can be a strong one.

In a middle-class middle school in Montreal that seems to be true. One day, however, Simon (Neron), a student in the middle school, comes to his classroom early to distribute milk and snack for the kids and discovers his teacher, Martine Lachance (Laliberte) hanging. One other student, Alice (Nelisse) also sees the body of her teacher.

The suicide shakes up everyone in the school. The principal, Madame Vaillancourt (Proulx) avails the class of a therapist but knows she has to find a teacher to fill the spot. As it is the middle of the school year, not many teachers want to fill in for a dead woman, particularly one who died so publically. However in walks Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) who has 19 years of experience teaching in Algeria.

With no other options, Vaillancourt hires the quiet, softly smiling Algerian. At first he and his class have a rocky start. Lazhar is far more formal than the beloved Martine, ordering the desks in rows rather than the semi-circle Martine had utilized. He is also to give a misbehaving kid a little smack upside the head which of course is a strict no-no in the more liberal Canadian educational system than he’s used to.

Slowly, the kids start taking to Monsieur Lazhar, whose gentle nature seems to cut through the negative feelings they have. In fact, it seems that the kids are adjusting to the loss of Martine much better than the adults with one exception – Simon. Simon is acting out and it soon becomes apparent that he’d had some kind of run-in with Martine that might have had something to do with her decision to do what she did, particularly when she knew that it was Simon who would find her.

But it might just be Alice who has the most difficult time adjusting. And on top of that, Monsieur Lazhar has some secrets of his own. Something that has caused his smile to be so sad. Despite the efforts of comely fellow teacher Claire (Poupart), Monsieur Lazhar might just be the most wounded soul of them all.

Movies that have children dealing with death are few in number and those that are out there are generally treacly in nature, as are those that try to deal with the student-teacher bond. Monsieur Lazhar is anything but that. It takes kids, puts them in a situation that could happen to any kid and then lets them be kids.

The kids are wonderful here; there is no posturing and it really doesn’t seem like they’re acting, a major fault among most juvenile actors. Instead, they react to the things happening around them the way most kids do – sometimes in an annoying manner, sometimes rambunctiously and other times thoughtfully. This helps elevate the movie into something far more real and compelling. Particularly exceptional are Nelisse and Neron, both who show virtuoso abilities. Should they choose to pursue acting, they both have promising careers ahead.

Fellag is marvelous himself. He carries himself with great dignity and gentle self-effacing humor here. He imbues the character with great decency, but never lets us forget the pain that is just below the surface. As what the cause of that pain is revealed, one marvels once again at human resiliency; I don’t know if I could stir myself out of bed with all that Monsieur Lazhar is carrying around with him. Fellag displays that pain not through his dialogue but through his eyes. He may have that soft smile you see above but every time you get a good look in his eyes it becomes obvious that the man is bearing a terrible burden. It’s a shame that he didn’t get Best Actor consideration at the Oscars this year – he deserved at least a look.

This movie handles things in a kind of low-key manner. Other than the scene at the beginning of the film where Simon discovers Martine, everything takes place here at a kind of slow-paced quietude. Sure the kids scream and yell as kids do but the scenes here aren’t doing so; the action is subtle but authentic. There are a lot of nice little touches – personal effects for example play an important role in the movie, as does snow – both as allegories. I found myself wrapped up in the film and the people in it; I wanted to be part of it, talking to the characters and helping them get through that. A film that inspires that kind of compassionate urge is not only one to be respected and admired, it is one to be sought out, even if you must go out of your way to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and ultimately unforgettable. Juvenile cast comes through magnificently.

REASONS TO STAY: Very low-key which some may find difficult to deal with.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are pretty adult and there’s one image that might be disturbing for the sensitive. There are also a couple of not-so-nice words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year as was In Darkness, a Polish-Canadian co-production which marks the first time in history that two movies with Canadian connections were nominated in that category.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100. The reviews are stellar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Sir With Love

SNOW GEAR LOVERS: The kids (and adults) have a plethora of different snow apparel and accoutrements on display for those looking to enhance or upgrade their snow season wardrobe.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Queen Anne's Revenge is apparently moths in the sails.

(2011) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin R. McNally, Sam Claflin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths, Greg Ellis, Damian O’Hare, Oscar Jaenada, Roger Allam, Judi Dench. Directed by Rob Marshall

The trouble with living is that we all have to die. Sooner or later, we have to give up our space on planet Earth. However, legend has it that there is a place that we can get at least a temporary extension.

 Joshamee Gibbs (McNally) has been mistaken for infamous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) and has been taken to London for trial and eventual hanging as a pirate. However, Jack has a daring plan to rescue his shipmate. Unfortunately, like most of Jack’s daring plans, it ends in disaster with a bunch of guns being pointed in his general direction.

Jack is hauled in front of the corpulent King George III (Griffiths) and his obsequious prime minister (Allam) to be offered a proposition. Jack reputedly knows the location of the Fountain of Youth. It turns out that the Spanish have discovered the location and have sent a humorless grandee (Jaenada) to go there. Rumor has it that Jack is putting together a crew for such a venture but this is the first the good Captain has heard of it. However, the crown has a ship and a captain and if Jack joins them, they might have a chance at catching up to the Spanish expedition. When Jack discovers that the captain of the British expedition is none other than his former first mate and nemesis, a dandified Barbarosa (Rush) – who has not only lost a leg but also Jack’s beloved Black Pearl, Jack says no thanks and makes good his escape.

While fleeing the redcoats he is aided by his father (Richards) who warns him against making the trip to the Fountain of Youth. Jack seems more interested in finding out who is impersonating him – which turns out to be Angelica (Cruz), a former lover of his. To make matters even more complicated, she turns out to be the daughter of Blackbeard (McShane), the pirate whom all other pirates fear. One of her crew knocks out Jack with a blow dart and he wakes up on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s notorious ship which has a bunch of zombies for officers (zombies are much more pliable, according to Angelica).

Blackbeard has very particular motives for reaching the Fountain – it is prophesized that he will be killed by a one-legged man within a fortnight. He wants the waters of the Fountain as an insurance policy.

Blackbeard and Jack know that two additional items are needed for the waters to work – the chalices of Ponce de Leon, which they need to get, and the tears of a mermaid, which they also need to get. As it turns out, mermaids are extremely capricious creatures who can be as deadly as any monster. They are able, however, with the aid of a noble missionary named Phillip (Claflin) they manage to snare a beautiful mermaid named Syrena (Berges-Frisbey).

So it’s a race to the fountain with three interested parties converging on the Fountain and the wreck of de Leon’s ship; which one will be granted eternal life? And will they have chosen…wisely?

After the last Pirates movie, there had been some talk that the franchise was finished despite the massive box office numbers it had done. The director of the first three films, Gore Verbinski was involved with this new film initially but eventually chose to bow out, allowing Marshall in. Marshall, who has among other films the Oscar-winning Chicago to his credit, was an intriguing choice to direct as he had never attempted a summer blockbuster before, being better known for Broadway musical adaptations. He stages some pretty nice sequences here, action-wise – none as silly as the water wheel sequence from the second film – particularly an early swordfight between Jack and Angelica, as well as the mutiny sequence. Some of the sequences fall flat however, including the climactic battle.

Depp has made this role his own which is good and bad, mostly bad. Despite the presence of a bit of backstory, he adds nothing new to the role. I wouldn’t say that the performance is phoned in because he certainly puts enough effort into it, but there is nothing in it that really calls for me to recommend you see it nor make me super enthusiastic for the next film in the series, for which this is said to be the first in a proposed new trilogy.

Cruz makes a nice foil for Depp. Fiery and temperamental but with a good heart buried under her bravado, she is much more of a presence than Keira Knightley was in the first three films. An Easter egg scene following the credits sets up the next film and implies that Cruz will be a major component in it. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in my opinion.

With Orlando Bloom also absent, more is given for the always-reliable McNally to do. He does well with the expanded role although again he does pretty well with the material and screen time he is given. Graham also adds a bit of luster as comic relief.

McShane has developed into an actor who always delivers an excellent performance regardless of the quality of the material. He makes a perfectly vile pirate who is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone for his own purposes. Of all the pirates we’ve seen in the series thus far, he is by far the nastiest, worse than Davy Jones himself. He also lends a bit of gravitas.

I will admit that this is better than the last two movies in the series. It’s nowhere near as good as the first. It’s decent summer entertainment but just decent; you’ll watch it once, forget it quickly and move on. That’s not much of a recommendation but that’s all I’ve got; McShane is worth seeing anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty action sequences and a nice ambience.  McShane makes a worthy Blackbeard. 

REASONS TO STAY: It’s possible Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow has worn out his welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of fantasy violence and a little bit of innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Penelope Cruz was pregnant throughout the shoot and it was only in several sequences at the end of filming where her sister was used as a body double in order to hide her pregnancy.

HOME OR THEATER: Big action sequences, big fantasy, big performances – big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kings of the Evening