Woodpeckers (Carpinteros)


Julian is on the inside looking out.

(2017) Drama (Outsider) Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Mario Nunez, Aleja Johnson, Manuel Raposo, Carlota Carrelero, Toussaint Merionne, Orestes Amador, Fernando De Jesús Mejia, Cape Ramirez, Gilberto Hernández, Jose Cruz, Keunis Alvarez, Karina Valdez. Directed by José Maria Cabral

Incarceration is no joke; going to prison is not a preferable situation for anyone, anywhere in the world. In the Dominican Republican, prisons suffer from brutal punishment, terrible overcrowding and crumbling living conditions that come from having too many dangerous men in close proximity to one another. Of course, once someone is convicted most of society doesn’t really give a hoot what happens to them.

Julian Sosa (Jean) is a petty thief who gets arrested for stealing a motorcycle. As is the custom in the Dominican Republic where he lives, he is jailed in the notorious Najayo Prison outside of Santo Domingo. Prison conditions are inhuman with overcrowding, a lack of basic human facilities, brutal discipline enacted by brutal guards and of course surrounded by hard, violent prisoners.

Julian, who is of Haitian descent (which is not a very pleasant place to be in Santo Domingo) initially wants to keep to himself and just do his time but he finds that increasingly impossible. Eventually he falls in with Manaury (Candelario) who like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption is the kind of guy who can get things for you. Unlike Mr. Freeman, Manaury has a hair-trigger temper and is borderline psychotic.

He introduces Julian to woodpecking, a detailed sign language that the prisoners use to communicate with the female inmates who are housed a mere 400 feet away across a yard. Through woodpecking, romances bloom and prisoners fall in love with one another. Manaury has a “girlfriend” named Yanelly (Perez) who is a bit temperamental herself. When Manaury gets in a fracas and gets sent to solitary, he prevails upon Julian to communicate with Yanelly via woodpecking.

The problem is that Yanelly had discovered that Manaury had been woodpecking with another girl in while she was in solitary herself. As she “talks” to Julian she begins to fall for him and he for her. By the time the suspicious and paranoid Manaury gets released back into the general population, Yanelly and Julian are deeply in love. He has even managed to wrangle a work detail in the women’s prison so that the two of them can exchange a quick and furtive kiss. She arranges to smuggle her own panties to him which leads to Manaury finding out that his paranoia was justified…and for him to plot brutal revenge against Julian.

This movie played the Miami Film Festival earlier this year and is the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar Foreign Language Film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. The movie is gritty and realistic which you know it had to be, considering the filming location and extras (only the leads were professional actors). You get a sense of the overcrowding and volatile conditions.

The movie spins around the relationship between Yanelly and Julian and if that doesn’t work, neither does the film. Fortunately despite being something of an odd couple – Yanelly is volatile and passionate, Julian introspective and quiet – the love aspect works and one ends up rooting for the couple. Both Perez and Jean do strong jobs here, particularly the former. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Candelario who seems to be screaming at the top of his lungs most of the time. It’s an over-the-top performance that makes his character more of a caricature.

Unfortunately the filmmakers can’t sustain the momentum the movie builds early on and during the last third, after both Julian and Manaury are transferred to the even more brutal La Victoria prison and a prison riot breaks out. It does lead to a final shot that is compelling and almost redeems the rest of that plot point – but not quite. Still this is a superior movie that made the rounds on the festival circuit (and continues to do so) and even had a brief New York run. It’s a little hard to find at the moment but no doubt it will get some streaming service or another to pick it up and once it does you should give it a chance. This is a fine movie from a filmmaker who has enormous potential.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty and realistic depiction of prison life in the Dominican. The love story is believable and fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses momentum during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some nudity and sexuality as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed inside a Dominican prison utilizing actual prisoners in small roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crown Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Te Ata

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Logan Lucky


Logan Lucky gives you the most Joe Bang for your buck.

(2017) Heist Comedy (Bleecker Street) Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Daniel Craig, David Denman, Farrah Mackenzie, Seth MacFarlane, Charles Halford, Hilary Swank, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, LeAnn Rimes, Macon Blair, Ann Mahoney. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

When Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from directing Side Effects in 2012, a lot of film buffs – this one included – were disappointed. Soderbergh had been for more than 20 years one of the most fascinating and interesting directors ever since emerging from the indie ranks. He’d directed huge blockbusters and small intimated films but the time had come for him to hang it all up.

Thankfully, he couldn’t stay away for very long and his retirement only lasted five years. He’s back with this stupid entertaining film that can best be described as Elmore Leonard by way of The Dukes of Hazzard or the unholy lovechild of Oceans 11 and Talladega Nights.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is a former football star whose NFL dreams were derailed by a knee injury. Since then, he’s worked whatever jobs he could find, be them in the mines of West Virginia or a construction gig in North Carolina. Through it all he makes the time to be a dad to Sadie (Mackenzie) who lives with her mom Bobbie Jo (Holmes) and her new husband Moody (Denman).

The Logan clan has always been the poster children for the adage “If it wasn’t for bad luck they wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Jimmy’s bum knee comes to the attention of the insurance company who deem it a pre-existing condition and the construction company that Jimmy is working for in the bowels of the Charlotte Motor Speedway has to let him go. To make matters worse, it turns out that Moody is opening up a new car dealership in a distant part of West Virginia and Jimmy is likely not going to see his daughter hardly at all. Moving to be close to his little girl is something he simply can’t afford.

So he decides that he is going to have to finance his life the old-fashioned way – by stealing, and he has a whopper of a plan. He’s going to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a car show when the attendance is low and security is lax. Jimmy can’t do the job by himself so he enlists his war veteran brother Clyde (Driver) who lost his arm in Iraq, and his hairdresser sister Mellie (Keough).

Even that won’t be enough however; he needs a demolition expert and there are none better at it than Joe Bang (Craig). Unfortunately, Joe has had a disagreement with the law and is currently in residence at the West Virginia state penitentiary.. Jimmy and Clyde are going to have to break out Joe so his absence isn’t noticed and sneak him back in so that it’s like he was never gone. Why not just stay out? Because he’s close to his parole date and he doesn’t want to mess it up. Jimmy’s got a plan for that too, however.

Heist movies, when done properly are maybe the most entertaining of all movie genres. Fortunately, this one is done properly. It has a large cast but not too large; it’s got some fairly impressive names in it and a director who knows how to make use of them. The writing is taut and smart and even though much of the dialogue is delivered in thick Mountaineer State accents the pacing moves at lightning speed. There is literally never a dull moment in this film.

I have to admit that early on in Tatum’s career I was not a fan. I’m happy to say that I am now however. He has worked hard and improved almost with every movie; he has learned to improve where he can and on those things he hasn’t improved upon (yet) he makes sure he chooses roles that don’t accentuate his flaws. He has enough onscreen charm to make Leona Helmsley smile through a toothache and of course just about any lady (and quite a few men) will tell you that he’s not so hard on the eyes.

Daniel Craig is a revelation here. Generally he plays tightly wound characters but here he seems to let absolutely loose and have more fun than I’ve ever seen him have with a character, well, ever. With his bottle blonde spiky hair and cornpone accent so thick that it might have been laid on with a trowel, he inhabits the character without fear or inhibition. I would be happy to see a Joe Bang spin-off movie.

Soderbergh excels at these sorts of movies. His Oceans series is proof of that but he knows how to pace a movie to leave the audience breathless. This is about as high-octane as a NASCAR race and the viewer never has to wonder for a moment what’s going to happen next because Soderbergh wastes not a moment in this film. He also infuses it with a jet-propelled soundtrack of roots rock, country and high-octane rockers that hit the audience like a dose of jet fuel.

Now those of a Southern rural background might take offense to this and I can’t say as I blame them. The movie really plays to Hollywood stereotypes as the Southern rubes that are street-clever and get one over on the city slickers It is this kind of disparagement that drove many West Virginians to vote for Trump. Maybe that’s something liberal filmmakers should take a look at objectively.

As it is this is as fun a movie as I’ve seen this summer and after a season of bloated blockbusters and over-hyped disappointments it’s a pleasure to just sit back and enjoy a movie that you don’t have to think about but just have fun with. This has the makings of a sleeper hit if it gets marketed right; sadly, that doesn’t appear to have been the case. A lot of moviegoers don’t know much about this movie whose trailer wasn’t much seen in theaters or on television. Hopefully enough will catch on that this is a fun movie that is everything that a summer movie should be. That should be enough to call an audience out of the heat and into the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of material that is right in Soderbergh’s wheelhouse.  The film is blessed with clever writing and a terrific soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Rural Southerners might find the stereotypes offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some crude comments as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatum and Keough both co-starred in Magic Mike, also directed by Soderbergh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Driver
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sidemen: Long Road to Glory

Escape Plan


AARP action movie stars.

AARP action movie stars.

(2013) Action (Summit) Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Matt Gerald, 50 Cent, Caitriona Balfe, David Joseph Martinez, Alec Rayme, Christian Stokes, Graham Beckel, Rodney Feaster, David Leitch, Eric R. Salas, Brian Oerly, Jeff Chase, Lydia Hull. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

There is a certain comfort in movies that recollect past eras. The action films of the 80s were one such. It can be said justifiably that the 80s were the golden age of the action film as stars like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, van Damme and a fairly large contingent from Hong Kong plied their trade in multiplexes across the country. Most of these actors are largely in their 60s now and while guys like Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson have picked up the slack, they haven’t equaled the popularity of those other men in their prime.

Ray Breslin (Stallone) breaks out of prisons for a living. He is a security specialist, finding the weak points in institutional security and pointing them out to their clients so that those weak points can be shored up. It’s a fairly lucrative business with Ray being the brains and his partner Lester Clark (D’Onofrio) the money man.

They get an unusual request from a representative from the CIA to see if a new Supermax facility, one which will hold people the government wants to see go away and never be found again – terrorists, domestic and foreign, that sort of thing. While Ray’s computer genius Hush (50 Cent) and his handler Abigail (Ryan) have misgivings, Ray thinks that the unusually high payday is worth the risk.

Then he is kidnapped off the streets of New Orleans and taken to a strange facility with glass cells and a massive central hub known as Babylon – all of which is clearly indoors but Ray has no idea where. He quickly realizes that things are awry when his contact doesn’t seem to exist and his evacuation code doesn’t work. Instead, he has the soft-spoken Warden Hobbes (Caviezel), a sadistic sort whose right hand man Drake (Jones) has plenty of muscle to enforce Hobbes’ wishes.

Ray gets an ally inside the prison in Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) who appears to be the middle man for a financial terrorist who targets corporations. Hobbes wants to know where the terrorist is in the worst way and Emil so far isn’t talking. Ray realizes that he’s been set up and betrayed and he is not supposed to escape – ever. What happens when you have a prison that’s truly escape proof? Do you settle in and accept your fate or die trying to get your freedom?

This definitely harkens back to the golden age of action films I referred to earlier in tone and layout. The plot and writing aren’t going to be confused with Henrik Ibsen nor are Schwarzenegger and Stallone going to be confused with Barrymore and Olivier. However, both of the former have become iconic screen personalities and they don’t really need to act. They just need to show up and react.

This is definitely Stallone’s movie with Schwarzenegger playing little more than comic relief, although he gets his testosterone moment when he lifts a huge machine gun out of a helicopter and opens fire on the baddies. It’s as preposterous as any moment in the film yet one of the most gratifying. In fact, all those who grew up with the movies of the heyday of these two men will find this comfort food of the highest order, cinematically speaking.

The sets of the massive prison are pretty impressive, as are the black-masked prison guards. While Arnold and Sly do what they do so well, Caviezel – generally the Eastwood-ian hero of Person of Interest on CBS and quite possibly the softest-spoken actor in Hollywood – makes his character silky smooth and with all the delicious evil of a serpent. He makes for an excellent antagonist and given the Bond-like set and soldiers, might make for a Blofeld-like bad guy for the venerable British spy series if they’re looking for a villain to go up against Daniel Craig in the next movie.

While the leads labor through some of their action sequences (after all, they are both well past AARP age) and remind us that their prime has come and gone, they nonetheless have the experience and wisdom to simply rely on the images they’ve both carefully crafted over the years and use them to help push them over the top. Sure, there’s nothing here that is going to essentially stand out above other action movies in the year of our lord 2013 but this isn’t a disgrace either. It’s fine, mindless entertainment for a nation that desperately needs the same. Still though, you’d be better off renting Predator, Rambo, The Running Man and Cobra if you want to see the best work of these gentlemen.

REASONS TO GO: Nice set design and pacing. Caviezel makes an intimidating villain.

REASONS TO STAY: No surprises. The stars show just how long in the tooth they have become.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stallone’s eldest son Sage passed away during filming, causing a brief break in shooting while he attended to family matters.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Escape From Alcatraz

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Counselor