Shiner (2018)


Happy McBride (right) wonders what the blue plate special is.

(2018) Sports Drama (Tri-Coast) Seya Hug, Shannon Staller, Kevin Bernhardt, Randall England, Amin Joseph, Kirk Fox, Archie Hahn, Michael Hudson, Ibok, Jackie Mah, Brian T. Finney, Rocky Giordani, Christopher Meijer, Brian Waslak, Emely von Oest, Kelly Carter, Jessica McCabe, Stephen Scheide, Matt Lathrom, Lydie Denier, Victoria Anne Greenwood.  Directed by Seo Mutarevic

 

Fighting – whether it be traditional boxing, MMA or other forms of modern gladiators – is often defined publicly by he superstars but there are many levels of professionals in between the bottom and the top. Getting from the former to the latter is no easy task and can often be as brutal as what happens in the ring.

Matt (Hug) is a fresh-faced and somewhat naïve young wanna-be who has some talent but is going nowhere. He wants to enlist the aid of former champion Happy McBride (Bernhardt) as a manager, but Hap is not terribly interested. He has career aspirations of his own although he is perfectly happy to take all of Matt’s money and deliver him into a fight he can’t possibly win against a man much bigger than himself. Happy also owes money to people you really don’t want to owe money to.

Matt manages to appeal to Happy’s better nature and Happy reluctantly gets him a fight that is within his weight class. Matt turns out to have a whole lot more than some talent and eventually gets the attention of Happy’s former manager Larry (Finney) who thinks he can take the kid places, leading to some jealousy on the part of McBride. Matt’s overbearing dad (England) also shows up, convinced that his son should be a doctor (Matt left med school to take up fighting) and to complicate things further, Matt has fallen in love with Nikki (Staller) who is Happy’s daughter. Happy can’t help but like Matt more or less but the two could well be on a collision course as their dreams of clawing their way to the top almost inevitably go through each other.

In many ways this is a typical MMA/boxing drama with the kind of elements that are fairly traditional in the genre; a down on his luck fighter taking a younger man under his wing, a checkered past for the older man, an ill-advised romance for the younger man and stardom getting in the way of what might have been a fine mentor relationship. You won’t find a lot of surprises plot-wise here, although there is a very good scene in which father and daughter talk about the mother’s mental illness rather frankly.

The fighting scenes are actually pretty well staged and the action is kinetic. Mutarevic shows some promise as an action movie direction; certainly he understands what constitutes a good action scene. However, the performances of the actors with a few exceptions are fairly wooden, which isn’t necessarily their fault. The dialogue doesn’t always sound the way real people talk and occasionally you get the sense the actors are trying their best to figure out how to make what they’re saying sound natural and not managing to do so.

Staller is pretty and she has some good chemistry with Hug but at times she has a strange accent that sounds almost Eastern European and it is jarring since her onscreen father doesn’t have one. I don’t know if the actress has a natural accent or was trying to put one on but either way, it was jarring and distracting.

Bernhardt however delivered a nice performance as Happy. The character does some really crappy things to those around him, but it’s hard not to root for him. Bernhardt plays him as a charming Irish rogue  and that’s the perfect choice for the character (it helps that Bernhardt wrote the screenplay). I’ve seen plenty of movies in which very competent actors can’t pull off that kind of role, so kudos to Bernhardt for making it look easy.

The movie’s strengths and flaws just about even out in the end. I can’t really give this an unreserved recommendation because of the non-action sequences but I can give it a mild recommendation due to the action sequences. Of course, there’s always the fast forward button for those who don’t want to sit through one to get to the other.

REASONS TO GO: The fight sequences are pretty well staged.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the performances are a little bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a fair amount of MMA violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Seya Hug is the son of professional Kickboxer Andy Hug.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Driver X

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Hearts Beat Loud


Isn’t this how Phish got started?

(2018) Dramedy (Gunpowder & Sky) Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Alex Reznik, Andrea Morales, Michael Abbott Jr., Harrison Chad, Robert Reed Murphy, Rafael Poueriet, McManus Woodend, Faith Logan. Directed by Brett Haley

 

Sometimes you just need a movie that’s going to make you feel good. More often than not you’ll reach for a favorite from childhood or even young adulthood, something as familiar and as comforting as an old blanket on a rainy day. Other times though you still want to try something new. If this is one of those times, have I got a movie for you.

Frank (Offerman) is the proprietor of Red Hook Records, the kind of store John Cusack would love. He resolutely and stubbornly sells only vinyl in the hipster-infested neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn. When one such hipster scolds him for smoking in his own store, Frank replies acidly that if he’ll buy something, he’ll put out his coffin nail. The hipster counters by whipping out his phone and ordering his record on Amazon. Such brazen acts of douche-ness should be rewarded with a bazooka to the face.

His smart and pretty daughter Sam (Clemons) is heading to med school all the way across the country at UCLA in the fall. Frank is okay with this although the cost for sending his baby to college is staggering; there’s no way he could afford it on what he’s pulling in from the store so after 17 years he’s shuttering the business, despite the attempts by his sympathetic landlady (Collette) and kinda-sorta-maybe love interest to help him out.

One of Frank’s great joys is having a regular jam session with his daughter. Frank, who in his youth recorded an album, recaptures a little bit of his past glory in these sessions. On this night, a tune his daughter had been working on becomes a really good single. Dad wants to start a band with her and tour; she wants to go to med school. He takes the recording of the song and without her knowledge submits it to Spotify. It is added to a curated New Indie playlist. Suddenly things are starting to happen. You can guess where this is leading.

Haley, who directed last year’s excellent The Hero, surrounds these two with a pretty fair cast, including Danner as Frank’s mom who is showing signs of dementia and shoplifts from time to time, Danson as a pothead bartender and Lane as Sam’s girlfriend. There’s not a poor performance in the bunch and Offerman in particular is marvelous – I think this is his best work to date as a matter of fact. While it might seem to be a bit presumptuous for his daughter to tell Frank – often – that he needs to grow up, it’s also true that Frank seems to be spending his time in Just-Out-of-College Land.

There are a few bumps in the road; the relationship between Sam and Rose feels contrived and a bit too ridden with indie clichés to really hold up.. Also some of the roles (in particularly the mom and Rose) that are woefully underwritten and could have used some fleshing out. The soundtrack is really nice – you have to love a movie that gives a shout-out to Jason Molina and Songs: Ohia – and both Offerman and Clemons, who do their own singing and playing in the movie, are actually pretty good.

Some movies try too hard to be charming but this one pulls it off organically. Certainly you’re being manipulated a little bit but in the end if you walk out of the theater feeling good, that’s worth it’s weight in gold in these troubling times. Incidentally while the movie has opened up in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, it is rolling out nationwide and will be making it’s Orlando debut on June 22nd. You should definitely check it out.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is nifty and the original songs ain’t half-bad. This just might be Nick Offerman’s best work to date.
REASONS TO STAY: The relationship between Sam and Rose is a bit too indie clichéd.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug references and brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Offerman and Danson previously worked together in the second season of Fargo for F/X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Band-Aid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Worker’s Cup

Cents


Girls can be great at math too.

Girls can be great at math too.

(2016) Drama (Cents LLC) Julia Flores, Lillie Kolich, Jy Prishkulnik, Claire Mackenzie Carter, Monique Candelaria, Esodie Geigner, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, William R. Stafford, Kate Chavez, Lindsy Campbell, Laurel Harris, Catherine Haun, Kristin Hansen, Zechariah Baca, Vivian Nesbitt (voice), Melissa Hipple, Paige Kelly, Katy Burke, Kelley Lewallen, Lauren Myers. Directed by Christopher Boone

 

It’s a little known secret but there is the beginning of a scene in New Mexico going on. Talented filmmakers have begun to produce some interesting and challenging films in the area and it might just be that the Land of Enchantment might just be the next hot filmmaking mecca.

Sammy Baca (Flores) is an only child, being raised by her mother Angela (Candelaria) who got pregnant at 15 and has been Sammy’s sole parent all along, Angela’s boyfriend having sent her packing the moment responsibility reared its ugly head. Angela works as a nurse practitioner but wants to take the next step up and go to medical school to become a doctor. It has been a challenge for her; Angela has received rejection after rejection which has given her ego a pounding. Sammy wonders why Angela is even bothering; nobody believes in her, not even Sammy.

Sammy herself is unpopular. She’s got some serious talent with math, able to solve complex problems in her head at only 12 years old and has gotten tutoring in advance calculus from Ms. Dyer (Geigner), a math teacher who has taken an interest in Sammy. Sammy is regularly getting in trouble with the principal (Martinez-Cunningham), the latest episode being illegally selling gum at school (I didn’t even know that was a thing).

There happens to be a penny drive going on at school under the aegis of school Queen Bee Hannah Evers (Prishkulnik) who rules the roost with an iron fist, using social media as a way to keep those beneath her (which is everyone) in line. Hannah’s coterie is also involved, including Katie Schmidt (Kolich) who was Sammy’s best friend until the fourth grade, and Emily Foster (Carter) who is a bit of a toady with ambition.

Sammy hits upon an idea to make more money for the penny drive. Basically it involves having people pledging to give one penny each day, but the hook is that they also then must bring in another person the next day to pledge a penny the remaining days, then each of them bring another person the next day and so on and so on. It’s a pyramid scheme, yes, even though the drive is for a good cause, but a pyramid scheme nonetheless that will collapse of its own weight eventually. Still, it’s making more money than the drive had previously which makes Hannah absolutely insane with jealousy…and Sammy has plenty of secrets that can be used to hurt her.

I will have to admit that this is one of the most authentic movies I’ve seen regarding pre-teen and tween girls, as well as about their relationship with one another and with their moms. A lot of times we see kind of a sanitized version of girls this age as essentially brave little princesses who save the day with smarts and Girl Power! Their moms are wise and adoring and nobody ever makes any mistakes.

All the characters here make some fairly big ones; Sammy herself has a moral compass that doesn’t always point true north. She doesn’t always do things for the right reasons and she has something of a chip on her shoulder. She says some genuinely hateful things to her mom – just like adolescent daughters sometimes do. That doesn’t make Sammy a terrible person; it just makes her a person.

This is definitely a femme-centric movie; guys who prefer car chases and explosions will probably find little of value here for them, although they might just get educated about how 12-year-old girls think and act which might come in handy if they ever, you know, have a daughter or a sister. I think a lot of women will find this familiar territory in a good way; they will find themselves relating to a girl who is outcast because she is capable, and they’ll also relate to the Queen Bee situation at school, particularly younger women who have been through schools in the age of social media.

With adolescent girls comes adolescent drama and there is an awful lot of door slamming and temper tantrums (some thrown by adults) here. Those with a low tolerance for that kind of thing may well find this unpalatable, but in general, this is a very solidly made movie that doesn’t really shake the foundations of filmmaking but simply tells a story well, and makes it relatable and realistic – even better. Those are some talents that even some longtime pros don’t have. All in all this is an impressive feature by a filmmaker with a great deal of potential from an emerging filmmaking center. It’s the kind of work that long careers are built on.

REASONS TO GO: The portrayal of middle school girls and their relationships is quite authentic. The film is surprisingly charming.
REASONS TO STAY: As is true with most adolescents, there is a great deal of temper tantrums and door slamming. Sammy to begin with isn’t the easiest person to like.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nothing here that would be unacceptable for middle school kids or their parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The school scenes were filmed at Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VMX, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Will Hunting
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Anatomy of Monsters

As I Open My Eyes (À peine j’ouvre les yeux)


Rocking out, Tunisian style.

Rocking out, Tunisian style.

(2015) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Baya Medhaffar, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari, Lassad Jamoussi, Aymen Omrani, Deena Abdelwahed, Youssef Soltana, Marwen Soltana, Najoua Malhouthi, Younes Ferhi, Fathi Akkeri, Saloua Mohamed, Kais Klaia, Touafik Hammami, Wajdi Cherif, Jamil Najjar, Walid Ben Khlifa, Mourad Garsali, Mhadheb Rmili, Nacib Barhoumi, Habib Ghzel. Directed by Leyla Bouzid

 

In the fire of youth we sometimes find the seeds of change. In 2010, Tunisia was ruled by the despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who controlled the citizenry through fear; secret police regularly seized citizens and police informants meant you never knew who to trust. Any sort of criticism of the regime was unthinkable.

Farah (Medhaffar) is an 18-year-old girl with a bright future. She had been accepted into medical school, which made her mother Hayet (Benali) extraordinarily proud as well as her father (Jamoussi) who works in the mines in Gafsa where those seeds of revolution are beginning to bloom.

But Farah has a voice and she’s a member of a band along with her boyfriend Borhéne (Ayari), a sensitive hipster sort who writes most of the lyrics and plays the lute – a Tunisian guitar. He encourages her to do her own thing, which in a repressive conservative culture like that of Tunisia is unheard of for women.

As Farah grows more independent, she and her mother become more at odds. Hayet is concerned that her daughter is throwing away her future for transitory pleasures, plus she hears from an ex-lover who now is a sleazy government functionary that her daughter is drinking in men-only bars and has been seen making out with her boyfriend. Hayet reacts as most mothers would, forbidding her daughter from continuing her music career. Like most daughters, Farah ignores her mother.

Borhéne has written some pretty subversive lyrics for Farah to sing and she sings them passionately; the music attracts the attention of the police who begin following the members of the band and engaging in subtle intimidation. The pressures begin to take their toll on Farah whose relationship with Borhéne begins to fray. As Tunisia inches closer to revolution, Farah treads on dangerous grounds but like a dancer on thin ice continues to pirouette even as the ice cracks beneath her.

Taking place a few months before the Jasmine Revolution would oust Ben Ali from power Bouzid has crafted an energetic, life-filled movie that carries with it the passions of the young and perhaps the naiveté of the young as well. Farah is willful, sometimes to a fault and her idealism clashes with the conservatism of her mother. As the film goes on, we begin to realize that Farah and Hayet are much more alike than not and it is their relationship that is surprisingly at the center of the film, not that of Borhéne and Farah.

There is some misogyny present here and Bouzid approaches it directly and without rancor; it is part of the culture that women don’t have the same rights and the same dreams as men. There is one point where at a party that Farah is dancing joyously with the male members of the band that Borhéne takes exception to; “You’re embarrassing me,” he growls before stalking off to flirt with another woman, perhaps to infuriate his girlfriend – which it does. These are the games of the young, are they not?

And yet Bouzid is not unsympathetic; the men here are mainly victims of their own upbringing but still, she doesn’t sugarcoat the hypocrisy of the attitudes towards women. She remembers well the fear-ridden society that was Tunisia in those days and recreates the furtive looks, the fearful glances, the body language of a population rigid with worry. It is something most of us can’t really understand because there is no understanding it if you haven’t lived it for yourself; consequently some of the actions of the characters here may seem confusing or difficult to understand to American viewers.

The music is important and I have to admit I dug it. It combines Arab Mezwed with rock, propelling the seductive sounds with a rock beat and a kind of club attitude. There are also the lyrics which while flowery in the style of Arab poetry but describe the frustration of those living under the boot of a tyrant. The one complaint I have is that there are too many musical interludes; the film might have benefitted from cutting one or two of them (the songs are largely played through to completion which might be a bit of a shock to impatient American audiences who are generally given just snippets of performances in movies).

However, it must also be said that Medhaffar lights up in the stage sequences. Her smile is energetic and contagious. Her curly hair flies up from her head like a grenade going off and her body writhes sensually onstage. She is pretty enough an actress; in these sequences she’s beautiful. Benali is better known in Tunisia as a singer but she delivers an emotionally charged performance that in many ways is more resonant than that of Medhaffar. There’s a sequence when Benali is distraught and looking for her daughter in a bus station; it captures the love and the despair of parenthood that is universal to anyone who has a kid.

The movie takes place in places that aren’t found in the guidebooks of Tunis. It is seedy at times but in an unapologetic way, much like American movies that take place in bars and taverns. It is not a part of our culture that we’re proud of but it is part of our culture nonetheless. Bouzid is most certainly an appealing voice and while her debut feature film isn’t perfect, it is striking and leads me to look forward to her upcoming films. This is a director to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO GO: The film is full of life and energy. Medhaffar really sparkles on stage. It is gratifying to see a movie set in the day to day of Tunisia.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is on the slow side. Some of the subtleties of Tunisian culture are lost on American audiences which may lead to some confusion. Too many musical numbers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and brief partial nudity, a bit of profanity, some drug use and a ton of smoking and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was inspired by actual events in the life of Bouzid, who founded a cinema club during the Ben Ali era and discovered that one of her closest friends in it was a police informer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Juno
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Imperium

The Shallows


Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corzo, Jose Manual Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedoria Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey, Ava Dean, Chelsea Moody. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

 

If sharks had their own equivalent of the ACLU, there’d be picketing of Hollywood in general. No other animal has been demonized the way sharks have; perhaps Steven Spielberg would be Public Enemy Number One. Sharks are predators, yes, but they rarely attack humans and it is even more rare that they kill humans. More people die from interactions with horses than with sharks.

Nancy (Lively) has had some shit to deal with lately. Her mom (Bailey) recently passed away from cancer; this caused her to take a good hard look at her life and drop out of medical school, much to the consternation of her dad (Cullen) and her sister Chloe (Legge). Instead, Nancy has decided to take a vacation in Mexico with her party hearty friend but she’s not there for the tequila. No, Nancy wants to surf a beach that has personal meaning to her – it was a secluded beach that her mom used to take her to back in the day. It was a place where Nancy was truly happy.

When her friend is too hung over to go along for the ride, Nancy goes by herself and enlists the aid of a local (Jaenada) to drive her to the beach. It is just as secluded as it ever was; only a pair of surfer dudes (Jose, Corzo) is there. The day wanes and it has been a perfect afternoon. As the boys leave for home, Nancy decides to take one last ride. That proves to be a mistake.

You see, the surfer dudes weren’t the only ones out there; there’s also a great white shark who has been feasting on a whale out in the water. However, apparently having a whale that is ten times its size out there to dine on isn’t enough; the shark must have some human meat because, after all, variety is the spice of life. So the shark takes a bite out of Nancy who manages to make it to a rock 200 yards from shore. And there she will stay, and she will need all her ingenuity and the occasional help of a seagull named Steven (get it?) to fend off the most deadly of all predators.

Let’s get something straight; sharks rarely eat humans and when they do, it’s usually due to confusion. The fact of the matter is, sharks don’t much like the taste of human meat; they prefer more fishy sources of protein and frankly, if there’s a ginormous whale carcass ripe for the taking, they’re not going to bother with going out and killing something else. Sharks are not greedy by nature; they kill only what they can eat to survive. They don’t kill just for the sake of killing as they are depicted not only here but in popular imagination.

Mainly however this particular shark is there to menace Blake Lively and keep her in a bikini for the entire movie and admittedly she looks fantastic in a bikini. Although her character is ostensibly from Texas, Lively is the prototypical California surfer chick, so she is well-cast here. Lively needed to be solid here as she is basically the entire movie; she occasionally talks to her seagull buddy or records into a camera and/or cellphone but otherwise, it’s all her and all physical. This is the kind of demanding movie that pushed actors like Robert Redford and Matt Damon to their limits and this is also the case with Lively but she manages to keep our attention throughout and not just because of her bikini body. She does have a breezy personality that reminds me of Blythe Danner in the 70s and Kate Hudson more recently.

Jaume Collet-Serra is a Spanish director who has a knack for thrillers, particularly the action-based kind. This is more of a character thriller and he acquits himself well, considering that it is much more difficult to keep things interesting with a single character than it is when that character has other people and things to play off of. Lively doesn’t get that luxury; she has to interact with machines and an occasional bird, but has nothing else to work off of.

If you can forgive the egregious lapses in logic and biology here, this is a pretty good thriller. The conundrum of Nancy being so close yet so far from shore is tantalizing. There is a modicum of gore and of the CGI shark (which is much more realistic than Bruce in Jaws) which is a terrifying monster. As summer entertainment goes, you could do much worse – but also you can also do better. As it stands, this is a competently done edge-of-the-seat woman vs. shark film that certainly isn’t a waste of your time or money.

REASONS TO GO: Collet-Serra excels at keeping the tension high.
REASONS TO STAY: The basis of the plot is that the shark has some sort of grudge against Blake Lively.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a few bloody images, intense peril and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot under its original title, In the Deep. The title was changed because the movie takes place in shallow waters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jaws
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Purge: Election Year

The Good Lie


The importance of family is universal.

The importance of family is universal.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Garrett, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Thon Kueth, Deng Ajuet, Keji Jale, David Madingi, Kon Akuoe Auok, Sibusisi Moyo, Elikana Jale, Afemo Omilami, Michael Cole, Brian Kurlander. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

From 1983 to 2005, the Second Sudanese Civil War was one of the longest wars of its kind on record, and one of the most lethal wars in modern history. Nearly two million people died as a direct result of the war or from the famine and disease that followed it. Four million people were displaced, many more than once. Atrocities were committed by both sides, the government forces and the rebels alike. Many children were forced to serve as soldiers.

During the fighting, entire villages were wiped out and that’s what happened to Mamere (Mongok), Theo (O. Jale), Abital (K. Jale) and their brothers. They tried to make it out to Ethiopia on foot but the fighting was so intense they were forced to find a refugee camp in Kenya, a trip of nearly one thousand miles. Not all of the kids would make it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Theo, in fact, would sacrifice himself when soldiers see Mamere. They take Theo, allowing the other kids who now included Jeremiah (Kueth) to escape and make it to Kakuma.

There they waited for thirteen years, hoping and praying to be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Now grown, Mamere (Oceng) has become an assistant to Dr. Monyang (Omilami) and dreams of going to medical school. Jeremiah (Duany), a devout Christian, leads religious services in the camp. Paul (Jal) who they also picked up along the way, is thoroughly traumatized but all three of them fiercely protect their sister Abital (Wiel).

Then, the good news comes and they are allowed to fly to the States but once there they are in for a shock. For one thing, a bureaucratic INS regulation forces the family to be separated with Abital going to Boston with a foster family there and the boys sent to Kansas City to find work. They are met at the airport by Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a spirited woman whose life is a bit of a mess, who is supposed to assist them with finding jobs – the charity worker Pamela (Baker) having been unable to pick them up.

It becomes clear that neither the agency nor the charity are prepared for these lost boys who have lived in a village their entire lives and do not know what a telephone is as Carrie discovers when she tries to call them. They have no concept of privacy or understanding of technology. The culture shock is overwhelming, but what is beating them down most is the separation from their sister. Although Carrie’s boss Jack (Stoll) warns her not to get involved, she can’t help but want to help them and so begins an odyssey to reunite a shattered family.

While the story itself is fiction, it is nonetheless based on actual events. The actors playing the refugees are Sudanese Lost Boys themselves, which adds a certain level of poignancy to the film; just try to make it through the end credits with a dry eye. A couple of them were child soldiers as well. With the exception of Duany who previously appeared in I Heart Huckabees they aren’t professional actors. You’d never know it from watching this.

Some might get the impression that this is a starring vehicle for Witherspoon but that would be incorrect. She has an important supporting role but it is the Sudanese actors who are the leads here. This is their story; Carrie just plays a part in it. Witherspoon, a fine actress, does a great job in a most decidedly un-glamorous role but she doesn’t appear in the film until nearly half an hour in. If you’re planning on seeing the film just to see her, you are in for a disappointment.

In many ways while we were heaping mea culpas on ourselves for ignoring the Rwandan genocide we were ignoring the carnage going on in the Sudan at the same time. Many people are unaware of the Sudanese Lost Boys or how they have integrated into our society. Some have returned to the South Sudan to help rebuild it now that the war has ended and some have even become part of the government of that new nation (following the Civil War the Sudan split into South Sudan and Sudan, with the latter  retaining its Muslim culture and the former its East African identity. This movie at least serves to illustrate their plight making it important for that reason alone.

Fortunately, it also happens to be a really good movie. Sure, it does drag a little bit in the middle as they first come to the United States and Falardeau inserts maybe more humor in their fish out of water situation than was necessary; we get the point that there was a culture shock. Nonetheless, this is a moving experience that will leave you feeling empathy for these kids who saw things children should never see and made choices nobody should have to make.

Frankly, I’m astonished that it hasn’t gotten any sort of push from the studio – it certainly will contend for top ten movies of the year with me but most folks, even some movie buffs, haven’t heard of this movie which received a pretty cursory release. Not that Warners should feel like they had to give it a wider release because of the subject matter but I think had this made more screens more moviegoers might have found this film, which deserves a much larger audience than it has gotten so far. I hope at least a few of you are motivated to go check this extraordinary film out. It deserves your support.

REASONS TO GO: Important subject matter. Affecting performances by the largely Sudanese cast. Witherspoon and Stoll are both impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the fish out of water element. Lags a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: At times the themes can be rather intense. There’s some violence (although little blood) and occasional rough language. There is also a scene or two of drug use..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Falardeau came to prominence with an Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazhar in 2012.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Rwanda
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Hank and Asha

21


When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass