Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains

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The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

New Releases for the Week of October 25, 2013


The Counselor

THE COUNSELOR

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Rosie Perez, Toby Kebbell, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic. Directed by Ridley Scott

A respected lawyer gets involved with a crooked business deal and discovers that it’s not just his life and career that’s at risk but everything – and everyone – he holds dear. Oscar-winning director Scott is working off a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. That’s the kind of one-two punch I can get into.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)

Bhai

(Reliance) Akkineni Nagarjuna, Prasanna, Richa Gangopadhyay, Kamna Jethmalani. Telugu superstar Nagarjuna hopes to restore his fading box office appeal with this action-drama-comedy with musical overtones.

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa

(Paramount) Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera, Steve-O, Jason “Wee Man” Acuna. Irving Zisman, an irascible 86-year-old man, heads off on a trip to discover America accompanied by his 8-year-old grandson and a bunch of hidden cameras. Along the way he will meet male strippers, toddler beauty pageant contestants,  mourners at a funeral and an assortment of ordinary and unsuspecting Americans.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use)

Short Term 12

(Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever. A young supervisor at an at-risk teenager facility finds her own past brought bursting through her carefully erected defenses when a troubled young teen joins the facility. Unexpectedly, she finds a bond developing between them that may help her overcome her demons yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

A True Story

(Freestyle) Cameron Fife, Tyler McGee, Jon Gries, Katrina Bowden. Two friends who have nothing other than their belief that the screenplay they’ve written will someday make an amazing movie navigate the waters of Hollywood. Swimming those waters are apathetic studio cronies, predatory agents, slutty ex-girlfriends and a motley collection of back-stabbers and bootlickers. In short, a true story.

See the trailer, a featurette and a link to stream the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some violence) 

We Are What We Are

(eOne) Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Bill Sage, Kelly McGillis. A seemingly normal family in a small seaside town is ruled by a patriarch who sticks to custom and tradition with the rigidity of the self-righteous. He is grooming his daughters to take over for him one day but that day comes much too soon when a terrible storm strikes the area. As local authorities begin to realize the full extent of the horror that the family has kept secret for years, the storm grows in intensity threatening the entire town.

See the trailer, a clip and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language)