Broken City


Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Michael Beach, Kyle Chandler, James Ransone, Griffin Dunne, Odessa Sykes, Britney Theriot, Luis Tolentino, Tony Bentley, Andrea Frankle, William Ragsdale, Dana Gourrier, Teri Wyble. Directed by Allen Hughes

Honesty and politics don’t mix in modern America. The rule is that most politicians will do just about anything to win, stopping short of murder. Some don’t even stop there.

Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is a New York City cop but one with anger issues. When a lowlife who raped and murdered a teen is released on a technicality, he snaps and murders the scumbag in cold blood. Police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Wright) wants to throw his detective to the woods but then New York City Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) buries the evidence and tells Taggart he’s a hero. However, while Billy won’t be going to jail even the Mayor can’t protect his job under those circumstances.

Seven years later, Billy is working as a private investigator but his business is failing. While his loyal assistant Katy Bradshaw (Tal) hangs in there, Billy knows he can’t survive much longer. However apparently coming to his rescue, Mayor Hostetler comes to Billy with an assignment; to follow Hizzonor’s wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones) and find out if she’s having an affair or not. The Mayor is in the middle of a vicious campaign for re-election and he can’t afford the hint of a scandal to get out; it’s something his opponent Jack Valliant (Pepper) and his canny manager Paul Andrews (Chandler) would make a great deal of hay from.

Billy is more than happy and grateful to take a paying job, even when it leads to Cathleen’s lover – none other than Paul Andrews himself. But when Andrews turns up dead, Billy realizes he’s in way over his head and that someone in this equation is hiding something, something they’re willing to kill to keep hidden. Not knowing who to trust and fighting his own demons – alcohol and jealousy of his girlfriend (Martinez), an aspiring actress – it’s going to be no easy thing to fix this broken city.

This originally saw the light of day on the Black List of unproduced scripts. Hughes snapped it up and sent it out to some Hollywood A-listers and both Wahlberg and Crowe jumped at the chance to work on the project. The first clue though that things didn’t turn out so well was when the studio scheduled the film to premiere in January 2013. January is the graveyard for movies; few films of any quality surface during the first month of the year when Oscar contenders and Holiday blockbusters take up most of the screens at the multiplex.

But seeing this made me wonder how the script could have wound up on the Black List considering just how poorly written the movie is. Plot points are explored and then abandoned. Holes in logic abound. Dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. And lest we forget, a ludicrous ending.

Fortunately the movie has some pretty good actors who are playing this (mostly) with straight faces. Wahlberg can play this kind of part without working up much of a sweat and yet he gives it his earnest best. Billy is far from lovable but at his core he has a sense of justice – not always an accurate one – that just can’t be denied. For example, when he sees a sex scene his girlfriend filmed for an indie film at the premiere, he is horrified. He simply can’t get past seeing her do those things where everyone can see them. He’s a rumpled knight in dented, rusting armor but he’s also the sort you’d want at your side if you were fighting for a hopeless but just cause.

Crowe also gives the Mayor easy charm and smile on the surface with a crocodile’s teeth just under the facade. It’s a mesmerizing performance and would ordinarily overwhelm someone as blue collar as Wahlberg but the two make a good point/counterpoint sort of chemistry for themselves. Zeta-Jones remains one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, but she didn’t win that Oscar in a Cracker Jack box; the lady’s got chops and she shows them here in a character study that’s as complex as any in the movie. However, the Israeli actress Tal seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the movie and she is a delight with a future in Hollywood if she keeps getting these sorts of roles.

The action scenes are for the most part forgettable although there are a couple of nifty little set pieces here. This is the kind of mindless fluff that is forgotten as soon as the popcorn is gone but there’s nothing wrong with that sort of movie. I just get the sense that isn’t what the filmmakers had in mind when they undertook this project to begin with.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances from terrific cast. Some gritty action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot holes and dangling plot points a-plenty. Falls flat overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, violent content and a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Hughes directed a film solo; normally he works with his twin brother Albert.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $35M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

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Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’

The Big Bang


Noir, 21st Century-style.

Noir, 21st Century-style.

(2010) Mystery (Anchor Bay) Antonio Banderas, Sienna Guillory, James van der Beek, Snoop Dogg, Autumn Reeser, Sam Elliot, Jimmi Simpson, Thomas Kretschmann, William Fichtner, Robert Maillet, Delroy Lindo, Bill Duke, Rebecca Mader, Robert Ernie Lee, Rachel Handler, Sean Cook, Khanh Doan, Keith MacGeagh, Chandra Bailey. Directed by Tony Krantz

When you think of film noir, you think of hard-bitten detectives in rumpled suits, gorgeous dames in dresses two sizes too tight and big bruising thugs with brass knuckles. You think of soft black and white, foggy back alleys and sleazy private investigator offices. You think of Bogart, Bacall, Mitchum and Greenstreet. You don’t think of Antonio Banderas and neon colored strip clubs.

But they can be noir too. In this celluloid extravaganza Banderas is Ned Cruz, a P.I. from the mean streets of L.A. A Russian boxer named Anton “The Pro” Protopov (Maillet), freshly release from prison after killing a man in the ring, is looking for a girl. Not just any girl though – you can find one on the Internet – but the lovely Lexi Persimmon. You heard me. Anyway, she wrote him a bunch of letters in the slam but gave the galoot no info to go on, no address, no social security, no phone number – not even an e-mail.

There’s also this stash of $40 million in blood diamonds, a waitress named Fay (Reeser) who loves particle physics, a porn director (Dogg) who loves his product a little too much, a kinky movie star (van der Beek) with a dark secret, a cross-dressing nuclear physicist (Simpson), a crazy billionaire (Elliot) obsessed with finding the God particle and willing to re-create the Big Bang in the New Mexico desert to do it and the billionaire’s wife (Guillory) who might be the key to the whole sordid tale. Oh, and did we mention the three brutal cops (Kretschmann, Lindo and Fichtner) chasing down Cruz to find out where the diamonds are?

On paper this really does sound like my kind of movie – something smart but timeless, using the conventions of a noir detective thriller with a touch of sci-fi and a little bit of black humor mixed in. However, references to physics and science doesn’t necessarily a smart film make although this one is pretty clever in places.

Banderas is an engaging star but I didn’t really believe him in the role. Ned Cruz should have been a lot more badass than pretty boy; in some ways I think Danny Trejo might have been more suitable but of course Banderas is the bigger box office draw so from that standpoint I can’t really blame the producers.

The cast is pretty impressive for a low budget thriller with a tiny distributor but not many of them get the kind of screen time that makes for much of an impression. Most are little more than cameos although Elliot seems to be having the most fun playing the kind of character he rarely gets to play while Simpson camps it up nicely. Reeser and Guillory really don’t have much more to do but look pretty which to be fair they do very, very well – but I suspect if their characters had been given a little more fleshing out they would have risen to the challenge as well.

I don’t think the movie achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, but it is entertaining enough to be worth a look-see. Although I criticized his casting earlier, Banderas at least does an adequate job of playing the tough guy and of course doing the narration which is a noir tradition. While the movie takes a few left turns too many, it nonetheless at least doesn’t disgrace the genre and given that since its heyday many have tried but few have succeeded in giving us a good noir thriller I have to at least admire the attempt.

WHY RENT THIS: A noir thriller involving particle physics – I can’t make this stuff up. Decent cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes a little bit off into left field occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and quite a bit of sexuality (some of it graphic), a bit of foul language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an extended sex scene shot that got the film an NC-17 rating that was removed from the film in order to bring it down to an R rating; director Krantz refers to it on the home video commentary track but the scene isn’t included on the Blu-Ray release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Host

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night


Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

A corpse is a corpse of course of course...

(2010) Horror Comedy (Omni/Freestyle) Brandon Routh, Sam Huntington, Peter Stormare, Taye Diggs, Anita Briem, Kurt Angle, Brian Steele, Kimberly Whalen, Randal Reeder, Courtney J. Clark, Kent Jude Bernard, Marco St. John. Directed by Kevin Munroe

Being an investigator for cases involving the living is hard enough. Being one for cases involving the undead…well, now, that’s durn near impossible.

A private eye with the unlikely name of Dylan Dog (Routh) is one such investigator, one who is designated by the non-breathing community to be an independent and impartial arbitrator of disputes, keeping the peace between vampire, werewolf and zombie alike. However, he has retired from that position, opting instead for chasing infidelities in tawdry hotel rooms while his assistant Marcus (Huntington) yearns for better cases that might make him a partner in the agency.

One such comes along when Elizabeth (Briem) hires Dylan to find out what killed her father. When he discovers it might be a werewolf, he doesn’t want to take the case but when Marcus is killed by a zombie and it looks like the deaths might be related, Dylan decides to take the case after all.

Along the way he runs across an ambitious vampire club owner named Vargas (Diggs) who has plans of ruling the entire supernatural community after using Dylan as a pawn to take out his rivals in the vampire elite; Gabriel (Stormare), an old werewolf friend who doesn’t take kindly to Dylan’s investigations; his son Wolfgang (Angle) who has a bit of a temper and a nasty streak for breathers and vampires (breathers is the creature term for us humans) and a zombie supermarket for parts. Oh, and about Marcus – he doesn’t stay dead for long.

The whole thing turns out to be about a supernatural artifact that if used could bring about the end of the world, yadda yadda yadda. The sad fact is that we’ve kind of heard this tune before. It’s dressed up nicely however, with some decent creature effects and some underlit shots of New Orleans (even the scenes shot during the day seem dark somehow) that showcase the gothic side of that city to nice effect.

Routh is a nice enough lead, although he is far from the hard-bitten film noir detective the role needs. I might have cast someone along the lines of Bruce Willis or not being able to afford him, someone rumpled like Paul Giamatti or Jack Coleman, the Horn-Rimmed Glasses man from “Heroes.” A little more world-weariness might have amped up the noir quotient somewhat, and Routh is more of a Superman type than a Sam Spade type.

Huntington plays a very similar role to the one he plays in the excellent SyFy Network series “Being Human,” except there he’s a neurotic werewolf and here he’s a neurotic zombie. Stormare and Diggs are solid performers who don’t disappoint, with Diggs getting a slight edge for his silky smooth megalomaniac role. Angle, the professional wrestler, shows some promise in his part as the tempramental lycanthrope.

The movie is based on an Italian comic book that is immensely popular in Europe but has made little impact here. The original source material uses horror to examine social issues and contemporary morality whereas this is more of a straight horror spoof, something which infuriated Italian critics when the movie was released in Italy earlier this year. Not being as familiar with the comic, I didn’t have so much of an issue with that (although I admit it probably would have made for a better movie) but my problem is that the story tended to be a little scatter-brained, with characters saying and doing things that didn’t always make sense within their character. Why would someone, for example, dedicated to hunting down and killing monsters want to create a more powerful monster in their place? It’s all apart of the “smart people doing stupid things” syndrome that plagues Hollywood.

Quite frankly, this isn’t as terrible as you’ve probably heard it was (if you’ve heard anything at all) but it isn’t very good either. There are some moments that sparkle here (as when Dylan goads a werewolf by quipping “You fight like a vampire”) but there aren’t enough of them to fully recommend this. Still, any movie that brings the dark side of New Orleans to the screen scores big points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Nice creature effects and Routh is a decent lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Humor tended to fall flat and story took several head-scratching turns.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some creepy creatures, a goodly bit of horror violence, a few drug and sex references and a smidgeon of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Routh and Huntington previously worked together on Superman Returns.

HOME OR THEATER: Probably won’t be in theaters long enough for you to catch on the big screen but at home is just dandy.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Eragon