Brawl in Cell Block 99


Vince Vaughn is reborn as a badass.

(2017) Crime (RLJE) Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter, Dion Mucciacito, Marc Blucas, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Franco Gonzalez, Victor Almanzar, Keren Dukes, Rob Morgan, Mustafa Shakir, Brian Wiles, Adrian Matilla, Tuffy Questell, Philip Ettinger, Jay Hieron, Phillip Dutton, Larry Mitchell, Dan Amboyer, Pooja Kumar, Devon Windsor. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

 

The grindhouse movies of the 70s were an art-form unto themselves. Quentin Tarantino is famously influenced by them as is director S. Craig Zahler who impressed with the bloody Western Bone Tomahawk. But whereas Tarantino seems content to evoke them and illustrate his encyclopedic knowledge of them, Zahler is more interested in using them as a building block to create more contemporary fare.

Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is a big man. He drives a tow truck for an auto wrecker yard but with times being what they are, he is laid off. Coming home, he discovers his wife Lauren (Carpenter) in bed with another man. An ex-boxer like Bradley might be forgiven if he used his pugilistic skills to create a whole new face for his wife and lover but instead, he utilizes his temper in a more constructive manner and after his moment is passed, begins to talk calmly and rationally to Lauren about reconciliation.

Jobs are hard to come by so Bradley goes back to one he had before going the straight and narrow; as a drug courier to old friend Gil (Blucas). The work is lucrative and Bradley is soon able to afford a much nicer house for his wife who is now pregnant with their daughter. Bradley is content with the way things have gone. However, when Gil takes on a partnership with a Mexican cartel, Bradley is troubled; he doesn’t trust the Mexican thugs at all and his suspicions are soon borne out. A shoot-out with the cops ensues and Bradley ends up taking the fall for his boss and gets seven years in prison for his troubles.

But his troubles are far from over. Bradley gets a visit from a slimy lawyer (Kier) who informs him that the cartel boss has taken his wife hostage. As far as the cartel is concerned, Bradley cost them millions of dollars and they expect repayment. His wife will be released unharmed if Bradley performs a simple task for them; if not, they will abort the baby.

The “simple task” turns out to be very complicated – Bradley must kill an inmate of Cell Block 99. The trouble is, Cell Block 99 is in Red Leaf Maximum Security prison; Bradley is in a medium security jail. In order to get himself transferred to Red Leaf, he’ll have to call on his inner badass and once at Red Leaf with its cigarillo-smoking warden (Johnson), he must get himself transferred to Cell Block 99 which is where the most violent offenders are sent. Time is ticking down on his wife and unborn child and Bradley must find a way to get the job done – until he discovers that the job isn’t at all what he thought it was.

This movie is hyper-violent with a ton of gore. Heads get stomped like melons; arms are broken into shapes that arms were never meant to take. Faces are peeled off like orange peels and people are shot every which way. If those sorts of things bother you, stop reading and find a different movie to watch because clearly this movie isn’t for you.

It certainly is for me though and one of the biggest reasons why is Vaughn. He’s made a career out of fast-talking wiseacre comedy characters who have a bit of the con man in them but this role is light years away from that. Bradley is soft-spoken but prone to fits of intense and shocking violence. With a shaved head and a Gothic cross tattooed to the back of his skull, he looks like the kind of trouble that most people walk across the street to avoid. Vaughn fills the roll with quiet menace and in the process reminds us that he began his career playing a variety of roles until comedy derailed his versatility for a time. Hopefully this will lead for a wider variety of roles for the actor who has proven he can handle just about anything.

Johnson also does a fine job in his role as the serpentine warden who is neither corrupt nor evil; he’s just doing a brutal job brutally. Putting a stun harness on the prisoners is simply the easiest way to control them; he’s not torturing them so much as educating them, at least from his point of view. It’s a great role for Johnson and hopefully will bring him some just-as-juicy big screen roles from here on out.

The length of the film is a problem. At just a hair over two hours, the pacing of the first hour is a bit too leisurely to sustain itself and you might find yourself looking for something else to do but try to hang in there; once the movie gets going, it stays going. The problem is that by the time that happens, the last half hour begins to really wear on the viewer. Some of the build-up should have been more judiciously edited. It felt very much like we were watching a director’s extended cut rather than the final theatrical version.

Still in all this is the kind of entertainment that B-movie fans are going to love. These types of movies have become more in vogue particularly with the support of Tarantino who has essentially resurrected the genre in terms of respectability – grindhouse type movies have never really gone away, after all. However films like this one have not only kept the genre running but have given it true vigor and made it a viable artistic concern as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is at his very best here. The gore effects are pretty impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow moving, particularly during the first hour. You begin to feel the movie’s more than two hour length during the last half hour.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as a goodly amount of violence, some of it graphic and/or gory. There are also some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaughn put on 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for filming and also did extensive boxing training over the two months prior to cameras rolling; he claimed that his boxing training made the fight choreography much easier to learn.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starred Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Heaven Without People

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Off the Menu


Romance always tastes better with a little extra heat.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Vision) Dania Ramirez, Santino Fontana, Maria Conchita Alonso, Makenzie Moss, Andrew Carter, Kenzo Lee, Ian Reed Kesler, Kristen Dalton, Virginia Montero, Mario Revolori, Ariana Ortiz, Paul Whetstone, Catherine Urbanek, Tracy Weisert, Richard Daniel Williams, Mike G. Mercedinio Cisneros Jr., Jessica Fontana, Jen Lilley. Directed by Jay Silverman

 

Some movies come along from time to time that go directly to home video. For most of them, there’s a very good reason for that. However, once in a great while, a movie comes to the direct-to-video market that leaves you scratching your head why it didn’t get more love and a theatrical release.

Joel (Fontana) is the heir to a fast-food fortune as the scion of the founder of the Tortilla Hut franchise. He’s the prototypical spoiled rich kid, more interested in training for the Iron Man Triathlon than he is in learning the family business. His sister Stacey (Dalton) is the de facto CEO of the firm and things aren’t looking as rosy as they might. Tortilla Hut has always gone the “bigger is better” route without taking much notice of quality. Tastes are changing, however, and Stacey knows that in order to keep its market share Tortilla Hut will have to change with the times. What Stacey wants is authenticity so she sends her brother to the American Southwest to sample some dishes to see if they can be adapted to the Fast Food format.

Joel really doesn’t want to be there; he just broke up with his fiancée Lauren (Lilley) and he doesn’t even like Mexican food. While driving through a tiny village in New Mexico his car gets towed due to an expired license. He’ll have to get the car out of impound in order to do that but the local District Attorney is out of town on a fishing trip.

After running afoul of a foodie tour operator, the unscrupulous Kevin (Carter) he also gets off on the wrong foot with the only restaurant owner in town – the single mom Javiera (Ramirez). Her food turns out to be divine – when he finally samples it – and he gets the approval of her hard-working mom (Alonso) and especially her daughter (Moss), a precocious child who never seems to be in school (at least the filmmakers make that a running joke). But in addition to a delectable green chile sauce, Javiera is also making eyes at Joel and he at her. Love may be on the menu – if Joel doesn’t do what he usually does and mess it all up.

The movie starts out on a very cliché note and continues in general with a lot of the more obnoxious tropes of the genre. It ends up being pretty predictable from a plot standpoint but you wanna know what? I actually got drawn in by the movie’s warmth and charm, and the genuine chemistry between the leads. I could have used less of the precocious child in the mix but that’s just my curmudgeon side acting out.

Ramirez and Fontana are excellent leads for this. They’re both very likable, even when Joel is acting like a self-centered douche. Yes, there is a sensual cooking sequence but it actually comes off as more authentic than steamy. These are two people genuinely trying to learn to like each other; Javiera has been burned before and is wary of any sort of relationship while Joel has never learned to put someone else’s needs above his own. They each end up helping the other one grow and there’s a lot to be said for that.

I liked this movie a lot more when it was over than I did at the beginning. I didn’t expect to enjoy the film as much as I did but here you are. I was especially happy to see Alonso onscreen again; she was one of my favorite actresses of the 90s, full of vivaciousness and sparkling like a diamond piñata in every role she played. She hasn’t lost her touch.

I can understand your hesitancy at taking a chance on a romantic comedy that has gotten little notice but sometimes the movies that fly under the radar are the ones that make the most impact. I truly enjoyed the movie more and more as it went along and if you can make it through until Joel arrives in New Mexico you might just have your heart touched as mine was. For those who don’t have plans for the upcoming Valentine’s Day, don’t want to go out and pay exorbitantly jacked-up prices at local restaurants or just want a nice romantic evening any other day of the year, I’ve got an idea for you. Off the Menu is actually the perfect aperitif for a romantic evening at home or a stay at home date. Order up some good Mexican food from the best Mexican restaurant in your neck of the woods, bring it home and enjoy it while watching this with the one you love. Share a good bottle of wine, too. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

REASONS TO GO: The film’s charm wins you over eventually. It is lovely to see Maria Conchita Alonso again.
REASONS TO STAY: It takes awhile for the film to get going. There are a few too many rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mario Revolori Is the twin brother of Tony Revolori who starred in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Insidious: The Last Key

Stevie D


Torrey DeVitto lights up the screen.

Torrey DeVitto lights up the screen.

(2016) Comedy (Candy Factory) Chris Cordone, Torrey DeVitto, Kevin Chapman, John Aprea, Spencer Garrett, Al Sapienza, Hal Linden, Robert Costanzo, Phil Idrissi, Darren Capozzi, Guy Camilleri, Jason E. Kelley, Alma Martinez, Alex Fernandez, Seth Cassell, Shawn Carter Peterson, Eric Edelstein, Bree Condon, Emma Jacobson-Sive, Sarah Schreiber. Directed by Chris Cordone

 

When you’re a parent there isn’t anything you wouldn’t do to protect your kid, no matter how old they are or what they’ve done. It’s just part of the deal. Sometimes you’ll go to great lengths to keep them out of trouble, even pushing the boundaries of ludicrous.

Stevie DiMarco (Cordone) a.k.a. Stevie D. is the scion of construction magnate/mob guy Angelo DiMarco (Aprea). Angelo is well-aware that he was too “soft” on his son who has turned out to be a spoiled self-centered jerk balloon. He has recently latched onto Daria de Laurentis (DeVitto), the comely daughter of his father’s lawyer (Garrett) who is new to L.A. and working at her daddy’s law firm as a lawyer until she gets herself settled. Stevie D. has pestered her to the point that she would prefer the company of cockroaches to his.

Stevie gets into an altercation at a strip club with the son of mob boss Nick Grimaldi (Sapienza) which ends up with a hit being put out on Stevie. Despite Angelo’s attempts to guy Stevie out of his mess, Nick is too furious to listen to reason. Angelo’s right hand man Lenny (Chapman) comes up with the idea of hiring look-alike actor Michael Rose (Cordone again) to be Stevie’s body double. Then, when the actor gets whacked, Stevie could safely return home after a little plastic surgery.

Michael is in a bit of a pickle; his long-time agent (Linden) is retiring and Michael’s career has been stalled for years. A good-paying job is just what he needs. However, Michael’s basic charm and genuine humanity differentiate him from Stevie like chocolate from vanilla and soon the “new” Stevie D is assisting with Angelo’s bid to get an NFL team in Los Angeles and Lenny with a career in acting but also in romancing Daria, whom Michael has fallen in love with. Hit men Big Lou (Idrissi) and Little Dom (Capozzi) keep missing opportunities to fulfill their contract, although to be honest they’re enjoying L.A. so much they aren’t trying too terribly hard.

The concept is as old as The Prince and the Pauper (and probably older still) but I don’t think it’s ever been tried in a mob comedy. Los Angeles isn’t a city exactly known for Mafiosi (although it’s had its share of organized crime over the years) and maybe goombahs in the City of Angels wasn’t exactly the wisest choice but I’d be willing to overlook that although quite frankly this would have been better suited for a New York or Boston setting. That’s just me, though.

The cast is riddled with veteran supporting actors who acquit themselves nicely, particularly Chapman (from TV’s Person of Interest) who has a career ahead of him as a tough guy with a good heart since he does those sorts of roles so well – as he does here. DeVitto who is best known for Chicago Med and Pretty Little Liars is luminous here and has a bright future as a cinematic leading lady.

Cordone is a good-looking guy who may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew; not only is he playing dual roles in the film but he’s also the writer, director and producer of the project. That’s a lot of pressure for one guy and it might account for the sometimes stiff performance that he delivers here, particularly as Stevie. Cordone also would have benefitted from a little editing; at two hours, the movie is at least half an hour too long. It’s a case of too many subplots spoil the soup; there’s just a little too much business proving what a jerk Stevie is and what a nice guy Michael is that could have been trimmed.

There are some pretty funny moments, particularly closer to the end of the film – the banter between the hit men is priceless – but the length of the movie really makes it hard to recommend. This would have fared better as something a little more frothy, a little lighter and a little less cliché when it comes to the romance between Michael and Daria which follows the Rom-Com 101 textbook a little too closely. I’d like to see Cordone as an actor where he has a different director and I’d also like to see him as a director with a different lead actor. I think that both roles would have benefitted from a more objective eye.

REASONS TO GO: The veteran supporting cast does a fine job.
REASONS TO STAY: This is way, way, way, way too long.  Cordone is a bit too stiff in the lead roles.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Sedona Film Festival, where it won the Director’s Choice Award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dave
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Late Bloomer

Grandma


Something new and a couple of classics.

Something new and a couple of classics.

(2015) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peňa, Nat Wolff, Sarah Burns, John Cho, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Don McManus, Missy Doty, Willem Miller, Meg Crosbie, Skya Chanadet, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof, Carlos Miranda, Amir Talai, Marlene Martinez, Kelsey Scott. Directed by Paul Weitz

The thing about families is that there is often baggage. Even the most seemingly loving family has a few skeletons lurking in the most inaccessible of closets. When a family appears to be dysfunctional, it is often with good reason.

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once respected poet who has fallen into irrelevance. She has spent the morning breaking up with her much younger lover Olivia (Greer). On the surface, Elle seems to be hard-hearted, even cruel, dismissing Olivia with a “You’re a footnote,” referring to her own partnership of 38 years which ended a year and a half ago when her partner passed away.

It is an inopportune time for a visitor but one arrives; her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who is desperate and scared. You see, she’s pregnant, wants an abortion and her somewhat irresponsible boyfriend (Wolff), who was supposed to come up with half the money but failed. Now Olivia needs $600 and has just nine hours to get it.

So Elle pulls off the dust cover off of her 1955 Dodge Royale (which is actually Tomlin’s car by the way) and heads out to find the money for her granddaughter. You see, Elle is broke for the moment; she does have money coming in from a speaking engagement but it won’t arrive for a couple of weeks and the $40 that she has is not nearly enough so it’s off to see some of Elle’s friends, most of whom turn out to be as broke as she is or as unreliable.

As the money proves to be more elusive than Elle imagined, she is forced to turn to people in her life that she would rather not have to owe, like Carla (Peňa), the bookstore owner who once expressed interest in some of Elle’s first edition feminist literature, like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It goes from bad to worse, as she is forced to go hat in hand to her ex-husband (Elliott) whom she unceremoniously dumped when she came out as a lesbian but more terrifying still, the prospect of asking help of the one person she actually is intimidated by – her own daughter Judy (Harden), Sage’s mom who is not only a lawyer but a force of nature.

Elle is an acerbic curmudgeon who isn’t easy to get along with, but as we see the layers peeled away we see that like many of that nature there’s a good deal of vulnerability just below the surface. While I’m not sure if the role of Elle was specifically written for Tomlin it may as well have and she comes through, big time. This is a performance that is going to be remembered and I don’t just mean during awards season; she is almost assuredly going to get an Oscar nomination for this but even more importantly this is going to be one of the performances that defines her career (Nashville is the other and yes, this is at that level).

Although the focus is primarily on Tomlin as Elle, this is by no means a one woman show. Elliott turns in one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the tough guy veneer he has worn like a comfortable old Stetson falls away and we see his pain in his one extended scene with Tomlin. Harden, one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood and a former Oscar nominee herself, does some fine work as well.

Garner must have looked at this cast with wide eyes, but the young actress holds her own. In fact, she thrives. It really is nice to see three actresses of differing generations given such meaty parts to work with in the same film and to have all three hit it out of the park is icing on the cake. Anyone who likes to see terrific acting performances will no doubt be drawn to this movie. This is definitely a film aimed at women although it isn’t exclusively a woman’s film. It does present the point of view of a lifelong feminist however, and that’s a POV that is sadly lacking in Hollywood these days, comparatively speaking. It’s also good to see that in a modern movie as well.

Then there’s the abortion. It is treated very matter-of-factly without much fanfare. It is simply a part of what is happening. Certainly those who are strongly pro-life will likely take issue; as the movie gathers steam in the Oscar sweepstakes I wouldn’t be surprised to see some cries of outrage on the right about “Liberal Hollywood” (cue eye rolling here). I found the movie to be somewhat low-key in its treatment of the subject; the fact is that abortions are legal and young Sage is doing nothing illegal here. This isn’t a movie about abortion, but the subject plays an important role here, and not just Sage’s procedure. I’ll be counting the days until this becomes a cause célèbre but until the protesters show up at the theaters I would strongly urge you check this out, particularly for Tomlin’s performance which is one of the best you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lily Effin’ Tomlin. Great cast. Short but bittersweet. Realistic relationships and characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally quirky for quirk’s sake. Pro-life sorts may find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cussing and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the late Elizabeth Peňa’s final film appearance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thing About My Folks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Transporter Refueled

Carnage (2011)


The definition of awkward civility.

The definition of awkward civility.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Elvis Polanski, Eliot Berger, Joe Rezwin (voice), Nathan Rippy (voice), Tanya Lopert (voice), Julie Adams (voice), Lexie Kendrick (voice). Directed by Roman Polanski

For a very long time, philosophers and psychologists have examined the thin veneer of civilization that masks humankind; the term used for it is “the ape in the velvet cloak.” It is uncomfortably easy to strip that cloak off to reveal the gorilla within it, and it happens all too often.

Two children have had a violent encounter in the park. Little Zachary Cowan (E. Polanski) has smacked little Ethan Longstreet (Berger) in the face with a stick, knocking out some teeth in the process. Now their parents are getting together to resolve the matter.

In the Brooklyn apartment of Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster) Longstreet are Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet) Cowan. These are all four successful people, who are confident that they can resolve this incident in a civilized manner. They are constantly being interrupted however by business calls to Alan, who is a lawyer for a less-than-above-board pharmaceutical firm. Michael’s ill mother (Lopert) is also calling him, and as it turns out she’s using the prescription drug that is at the center of controversy for Alan’s client.

As the afternoon wears on and a convivial drink turns to several, the conversation becomes less civil and long-submerged grievances come to the surface. When they do, the behavior turns childish and petty, the marriages turn out to be less stable than they first appeared to be. Alliances between couples, between social classes dissolve and reform only to dissolve again. A conversation that appeared to have been resolved in the first 20 minutes has continued for an hour and a half and threatens to change the dynamic in the relationships and self-worth of all four “adults” involved.

To preface the rest of the review, I am fully aware of the name on the director’s chair and of the crime that he committed that forced him to flee this country and never return. There are those who will see that name and choose not to see this movie or even read further this review. Fair enough. I understand the sentiment and only wish you to know that by publishing this review I am neither condoning his actions of thirty years ago nor supporting him as a person. I am merely reviewing this movie and you can make of that what you will.

Polanski is incomparable at setting a mood and he manages to ratchet up the tension here to nearly unbearable levels. The anger is palpable, almost a fifth presence in the cramped apartment and the four walls that make up the setting of the movie (except for a brief prologue and epilogue) close in not only on the participants but on the audience as well.

The movie starts with pleasantness between the two couples, morphing into awkward civility before blowing up into downright hostility and the descent is a quick but logical one. It helps that you have four Oscar caliber actors – three winners and the fourth a nominee – who by themselves can carry a movie. Having four of them together makes this an experience no fan of great acting performances will want to miss.

Where the movie falls short actually is a fault of the original play that this is based on. The business at hand is actually concluded early on; there is no logical reason for the Nancy and Michael to remain in the Longstreets apartment and yet they do and it is quite frankly a bit of a contrivance. There’s also a subplot involving a hamster that in all honesty seems to be there to pad the film’s running time. The ending lacks punch and gives the effect of a movie that just fizzles out like a dud firecracker, not the way you want your audience to leave the auditorium.

There is definitely a stage-y quality to the movie that I believe that Polanski meant to do on purpose, to give the film audience the effect of being in a small locked room with the characters which further heightens the discomfort and awkwardness. I don’t think anyone wants to be in a room with a bunch of people acting childishly and maliciously, doing venal things to score psychological points and you may not choose to want to spend the full hour and a half with these people either, although quite frankly with a better ending it might have been worth the wait. Despite the great performances which I do recommend, there isn’t much of a reason to subject yourself to this at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific actors giving strong performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Claustrophobic. Pointless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to warrant an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in real time without breaks and, with the exception of the scenes in the park, in a single location.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with Waltz and Reilly, as well as footage from the film’s gala premiere.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.6M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Entourage

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding


Living the hippie life.

Living the hippie life.

(2011) Comedy (IFC) Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Ann Osmond, Rbert Bowen Jr., Marissa O’Donnell, Nat Wolff, Elizabeth Olsen, Joyce Van Patten, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyle MacLachlan, Joseph Dunn, Chace Crawford, Rosanna Arquette, Katharine McPhee, Denise Burse, Teri Gibson, Poorna Jagannathan, Terry McKenna, Wayne Pyle, Alison Ball, Laurent Rejto. Directed by Bruce Beresford

When things are going wrong in our lives, it is a natural instinct to run back home to our parents. Sometimes, we just crave the comfort of being next to our figures of security but other times, it’s their wisdom that we truly need.

Diane (Keener) is a high-powered Manhattan lawyer who is used to being in control. When her husband (MacLachlan) announces that he wants to divorce her, it shakes her to her very core. Needing a refuge, she decides to go home to mom in Woodstock. The trouble is, Diane’s mom Grace (Fonda) is something of a free spirit who hasn’t really left the 60s and the two women, as different as night and day, haven’t really spoken in 20 years.

But Diane has more than her own pride to think about. Her young son Jake (Wolff) is terribly shy and lacks self-confidence. That might just be because her daughter Zoe (Olsen), a budding poet, is terribly judgmental about things and people. Her kids need a support system while Diane tries to put her shattered life back together.

All three find Grace to be more than a little irritating at first and Woodstock a bit too sedate for their liking. However, all three find romantic interests; Jake falls for Tara (O’Donnell), a waitress at the local coffee shop; Zoe, a vegan, against all odds develops a crush on Cole (Crawford), a butcher. Even Diane finds time to become romantically involved with Jude (Morgan), a budding musician.

As the family finds healing in the love of others, Grace and Diane begin to find common ground. Can the two women, at war with each other for over two decades, finally make peace? Maybe there’s hope for the Middle East yet if these two can mend their differences.

Australian director Bruce Beresford has some pretty nifty movies to his credit and while he hasn’t really made it to the top tier of Hollywood directors, he is nonetheless well-respected and has had a consistent career. This movie isn’t one that is going to be a resume highlight but it nonetheless has its own kind of charm.

Chief among its charms is Fonda, who rarely gets lead roles these days and usually plays crusty old broads, curmudgeonly old mothers-in-law or this one, the eccentric granny. We tend to forget what an amazing career Fonda has had, with Oscar-caliber performances in Klute, Coming Home and On Golden Pond.

Also of note is the village of Woodstock. Famous for the music festival (which actually took place on a farm 60 miles away), the town – if this movie is to be believed – has capitalized on the notoriety of the festival and has become kind of a high-end Berkeley (those of you who live or have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area will immediately know what I mean). Think of it as a college town permanently stuck in a by-gone era.

This isn’t an inconsequential film mind you, but it isn’t something you have to overthink. It’s a charming, pleasant diversion that might bring a smile to your face and is nicely performed and directed. It won’t necessarily change your life any although the lessons it teaches about living life at a pace that doesn’t burn you out is well-taken (the ones about being in love solving all your problems, not so much) and you’re never really hit over the head with them. It’s one of those movies that gives you the warm fuzzies and sometimes, like a hug from your mom, that’s all you need.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong female roles and performances. Woodstock is a charming location.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit scattershot. Seems to indicate that the secret to happiness is romance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few sexual references and some comedic drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although two films she performed after shooting this one were released before it, this was actress Elizabeth Olsen’s first cinematic acting job.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $590,700 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Georgia Rules
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Insidious Chapter III

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

(2014) Documentary (Naked Edge/City Light) Mark DeFriest, Scoot McNairy (voice), Shea Whigham (voice), John Middleton, Robert Berland, Bonnie DeFriest, Brenda C., Gabriel London. Directed by Gabriel London

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Here in this country, I think it is fairly evident that our prison system is in need of drastic reform.

Case in point, Mark DeFriest. He was a 19-year-old kid when his father passed away, promising him that he could have his tools. Mark went ahead and took them. The problem was that the estate was still in probate; technically he didn’t own the tools yet. His stepmother called the cops, Mark panicked and ran. He was given four years for taking tools which had been promised him too early. It kind of seems to me that he could have gotten off without doing prison time, but far be it for me to second guess the wonderful Florida justice system.

DeFriest has a real issue with authority; he doesn’t do well when told what to do, where to be, how to live. Prison is definitely not the kind of place a person like that wants to be in. So, DeFriest made a break for it. He managed to actually get away too, for several days before being caught. Of course, time was added to his sentence for that little adventure. In fact, there were thirteen little adventures in all (to date). He successfully escaped in about half of them. The media took to calling him “Houdini.”

His lawyer, John Middleton, suspected that Mark had some sort of mental illness. He told horror stories of being gang raped and of horrible beatings, most of which could be corroborated by medical personnel. But there were also other things. DeFriest is a very smart guy, able to create keys that actually worked out of paper, and created zip guns from material commonly available around the prison. He also made impressive drawings and artwork from inside his cell, using the inside foil of potato chip bags. However, there was also extreme paranoia and what Middleton thought might be some psychosis.

The courts agreed to have Mark undergo competency testing. Four of the six psychologists agreed that Mark wasn’t mentally competent enough by the definition accepted by the Florida Department of Corrections. Two, however, believed he was; one of them was Robert Berland who had the most contact with him at Florida State Hospital’s Forensic Wing. It was his recommendation that the parole board accepted.

In the meantime Mark grew darker and more driven by despair. His marriage crumbled. A new one began, with Bonnie whom he met through correspondence. Bonnie has been a rock for DeFriest as his lawyer continued to advocate for his release as the years piled up and Mark’s misbehavior and Disciplinary Referrals (DRs as they are referred to) piled up as well. His parole date was extended, extended and extended some more. It soon reached 2085 having been sentenced to four years in 1980.

Dr. Berland would have a change of heart; initially believing that Mark was faking his symptoms, he eventually came to realize that DeFriest’s difficulties were genuine. He has become one of the stauncher advocates for the release of the prisoner and has since diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid delusions, all of which can be treated with medication.

DeFriest’s story is a nightmare made flesh. His anti-authoritarian nature is not exactly tailor-made for imprisonment. Minor infractions ranging from possession of contraband to misuse of phone privileges piled up, continuing to add to his sentence. In his 34 year incarceration, 27 of them were spent in solitary confinement in the notorious “X Wing” of Florida State Penitentiary  where he was the only non-violent offender.

The film primarily focuses on the fight of his lawyer, his wife and Dr. Berland to have the ridiculous sentence pared down and get Mark declared mentally incompetent. London uses some pretty impressive animated sequences to illustrate some of the events that occurred in DeFriest’s long incarceration; London cites Waltz With Bashir as an inspiration and in fact the animation resembles that film stylistically.

DeFriest himself is a pretty compelling character; he is a natural-born storyteller and has a pretty good sense of humor which I would imagine you would have to have in order to survive what he has survived. Judging from the horrible beatings he took (the results of which are sometimes displayed photographically) it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least some brain trauma that may have contributed to what might have already been there from the beginning.

One of the things this movie is most successful at and what makes it so compelling is that it raises, at least in my mind, what the penal system is for. Does it exist to rehabilitate those who have broken society’s laws and help them emerge better citizens, or is it there to punish those who have transgressed? While surely there is an element of punishment involved, is that all we want it to be? A way to warehouse those who don’t play well with others?

The movie is a little less successful in some of its storytelling elements; I never got a clear picture as to what prompted Dr. Berland’s reversal of opinion which has been crucial in the defense’s argument to get Mark out of prison and into psychiatric care. However, the issues I had were of a fairly minor nature other than the one I just mentioned; most should find the story easily followed.

Our country currently has the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any non-dictatorship on Earth. That’s not a statistic we want to be number one in. Imprisoning our criminals has become a lucrative business for privatized prisons (although DeFriest isn’t in one of those) which compounds the issues we have. Prison rape is a real problem as is prison violence. When you put men already prone to lawbreaking in a closed system and don’t give them much to occupy their time, violence becomes inevitable. It’s a self-defeating circle.

This isn’t an indictment of any individual. Even the parole board is essentially doing their job given the information they’re receiving. This is an indictment of the system. Mark DeFriest is no angel, but he remains incarcerated today as of this writing. Justice has been denied him and in many ways, he’s a victim of his own mental illness.

London’s restraint in telling the story is admirable; while he clearly understands that this is a system that needs to be fixed, he doesn’t affix the blame on anyone in particular. He’s just calling for changes to be made that benefit not only the prisoners but society at large. How we treat our prisoners, going back to Dostoyevsky, is a reflection of a society’s values. How our society at this time in history will be judged will largely be reflected in that. Perhaps if we start as a society injecting more compassion into our penal systems we will actually start turning out rehabilitated felons rather than men who come out even more dangerous and disillusioned than when they went in.

While the theatrical run for this film has essentially ended although you can go to the movie’s website and contact the filmmakers for one-off screenings or theatrical runs if you own a theater, the film will be airing on the Showtime premium cable channel in the United States starting tomorrow. While there’s no word when this will be available for streaming on iTunes or Amazon or on DVD, this is a documentary worth seeking out particularly if you are interested in issues relating to justice. Certainly it’s an early contender for my 2015 Top Ten list.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story that invites the viewer to rethink their views on the modern prison system. DeFriest an engaging character. Very much a legal thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit vague on Berland’s change of mind.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeFriest wrote a letter to his wife describing the murder of Florida State Penitentiary inmate Frank Valdes; it was eventually used as evidence against the prison guards who were accused (and later acquitted) of the crime. Because they were acquitted, DeFriest was moved to an out-of-state penitentiary for his own safety.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: West Memphis Three
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Red Army