War Machine (2017)


War is an all-American pastime!

(2017) Dramedy (Netflix) Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Nicholas Jones, Meg Tilly, Josh Stewart, Tim Downey, Richard Glover, Griffin Dunne, Andrew Byron, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Rufus Wright, Sean Power, Sian Thomas, Paul Hickey, Georgina Rylance. Directed by David Michôd

 

Netflix has been producing original movies for several years but their Adam Sandler comedies aside, their first serious attempt at a blockbuster of their own was this fictionalized Brad Pitt film based on a non-fiction book about the War in Afghanistan. It is not a promising start, although they have several films that have been released since then that are far better and far bigger.

The movie is meant to be a black comedic commentary on the nature of 21st century war as practiced by the United States. It moves at a kind of snail’s pace (at roughly two hours long, it is about a half hour too much) through a bloated script full of unfunny bits. The fault here isn’t Pitt’s although this is perhaps his most deranged work yet; his General Glen McMahon is a walking tic machine, exhorting troops that “We WILL prevail” at the same time expressing frustration with the bureaucracy he has to deal with. His square-jawed expression is the epitome of every Hollywood American military commander yet his odd gait looks like he has some sort of wound in his genitals.

Despite having a cast of some of the best actors and character actors working today, there are simply too many roles and you forget who is who after about five minutes, leading to further confusion that the screenplay hasn’t already caused itself. This has all the earmarks of moviemaking by committee.

I liked the concept and thought that given the pedigree of Michôd (Animal Kingdom) that this project had promise but it pretty much falls apart of its own weightiness. I get the sense that the filmmakers were told to make a comedy, then told to make a commentary on war, then told to make a drama by the powers that be. What they ended up making was a mish-mash that is neither one nor the other but is a tedious waste of two hours. I expected much better

REASONS TO GO: Even at his most subdued, Pitt still exudes star power.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is bloated and dreadfully unfunny.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film references actual events that took place during the command of Stanley A. McChrystal between 2009 and 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wag the Dog
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Suburbicon

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Sleepless


Jamie Foxx: Amish cop!

(2017) Crime Action (Open Road) Jamie Foxx, Michele Monaghan, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, T.I., Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, Octavius J. Johnson, Tim Connolly, Drew Sheer, Sala Baker, Tim Rigby, Eli Jah Everett, Tess Malis Kincaid, Steve Coulter, Matt Mercurio, Chan Ta Rivers, Brooke Boxberger, Chelsea Hayes, Holly Morris. Directed by Baran bo Odar

 

There are some movies that sound good on paper but when you see them in the theater you wonder what anyone involved with it was thinking. This is one of those.

Las Vegas is rocked by a shoot-out in which a couple of masked men take out several thugs. As it turns out, those thugs were carrying 75 kilos of cocaine which is wanted back very badly. And as it turns out, the two masked men were dirty cops – Vincent (Foxx) and his partner Sean (T.I.) – and the casino owner (Mulroney) who is brokering the deal wants the drugs back. You see, they’re for Novak (McNairy), scion of a crime family but whose position won’t protect him from his own father if this deal gets messed up. So Vincent’s son Thomas (Johnson) is kidnapped which doesn’t do wonders for Vincent’s relationship with his ex-wife (Union).

Neither does it do wonders for his relationship with Bryant (Monaghan), the Internal Affairs officer who is certain that Vincent is dirty and sees this situation as a means to finally get the proof. Everyone is after everyone and not everyone is who they seem to be. There is definitely a dirty cop in the mix but is it Vincent? And will Thomas pay the price if it is?

Quite frankly when you know a movie is going to be released in January, it falls into one of two categories – one is a movie that the studio is burying in the tundra and the other is a movie with Oscar ambitions that is getting a qualifying run in November/December and then released out in January so it isn’t lost in the mix with all the other Oscar could-bes This one is certainly one of the former.

Foxx is a terrific actor who has earned his spot on the A-list. It is to his credit that even for this movie he gives it his best shot despite having very little to work with. The character as written does a lot of senseless things, especially given the revelations that come later in the film. Foxx makes the character at least somewhat sympathetic, despite the fact that he’s written to be essentially a douchebag. Monaghan is an underrated actress who ends up with the role of a bloodhound with blinders on.

Most of the movie is absolutely preposterous. It is also loaded with cop movie clichés which doesn’t help matters any. The action sequences aren’t particularly exciting which is absolutely deadly for a movie like this. Fortunately for movie audiences, it came and went quickly but it should be coming to home video soon. Seriously unless you are on a mission to see every one of Jamie Foxx’s performances there isn’t a lot else to recommend this. Give it a skip.

REASONS TO GO: Jamie Foxx is almost always entertaining.
REASONS TO STAY: There is nothing new or original here. It may be more sleep-inducing than sleep-preventing.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense; there’s also plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of a French/Belgian film entitled Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night). It is also Swiss director Baran bo Odar’s English language debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Training Day
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice


The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto, Brandon Spink, Lauren Cohan, Mark Edward Taylor, Michael Shannon, Ripley Sobo, Sammi Rotibi, Michael Cassidy, Harry Lennix, Rebecca Buller, Kevin Costner, Soledad O’Brien. Directed by Zack Snyder

I really wanted to like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I really, really did. I was hoping that this would set up the DC cinematic universe in the same way Iron Man set up Marvel’s. I was hopeful that there is room in the multiplex for competing comic book universes, just as there are on the newsstands. I was hoping for something that would make me eager to see more. Instead, I got this.

In the aftermath of Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has gotten a mad on about Superman (Cavill). His Metropolis headquarters of Wayne Enterprises was destroyed during the battle with General Zod, although at the time he has no idea what’s going on and who is good and who is not. Friends of his die literally before his very eyes in a kind of 9-11 redux.

18 months later, the U.S. government isn’t quite sure how to handle Supes. Sure he comes in to save the day but often people die and buildings crumble as a result. After he rescues Lois Lane (Adams) from a terrorist cell which ends up with U.S. soldiers dead, Kentucky Senator Finch (Hunter) is calling for Superman to have some sort of oversight.

In the meantime, plots are afoot; Batman/Bruce Wayne is out to take our Superman once and for all; he’s too big a threat to be allowed to run free. However, Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) has some plans of his own – and they involve the corpse of General Zod (Shannon) and keeping the Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight at each other’s throats.

This is a very bare-bones explanation of the plot and doesn’t take into account all the little subplots that go on, some of which have to do with setting up the DC universe – and we get brief cameos of superheroes who have movies come out in the near future – although Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) has a more extensive presence in the film.

The premise is a fascinating one – what responsibility do superheroes have to the general public that they’re trying to protect, and should there be oversight to their actions. It’s a theme that we’re going to see once again this summer in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War which will divide the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while I suspect we’ll get a thumping good storyline from the Russo Brothers who did so marvelously with their own superhero films, Snyder displays his Michael Bay tendencies and turns this into a bloated, incomprehensible mess.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to go see this, mind you. Affleck, the subject of much Internet fanboy venom, actually turns in an outstanding performance as Batman – maybe the best ever. Christian Bale always made, in my opinion, a better Batman than Bruce Wayne; Affleck carries both aspects of the character nicely.

I do appreciate that there is a larger-than-life quality to the film. While it isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, it does give us an idea that the events we’re witnessing are changing the world that the movie exists in. There are some definitely epic battle scenes between Batman, Supes and a to-be-named supervillain who shows up in the third act as a kind of special surprise guest.

But the movie is sooooo dark, both literally and figuratively. Nearly all of the movie takes place at night, particularly when Clark Kent takes off his glasses and Bruce Wayne dons his cowl which I don’t necessarily mind; it’s the tone which gets to be more of a problem for me. Snyder did a magnificent job with Watchmen which needed this kind of darkness but here it becomes almost burdensome. Both Batman and Superman are supposed to stand for something good, but they are almost as bad as the villains, often caring little for lives of people who aren’t necessarily close to them. Batman aims to kill Superman which doesn’t seem to be in character with someone who had forsworn lethal force; Superman also shows little compunction in sending non-combatants to their early graves.

Another misstep was casting Eisenberg as Luthor. One of the hallmarks of Lex Luthor in the comic books is that he’s completely ruthless, but clearly brilliant. He often has plans within plans, schemes that aren’t so easily discernible. He is nothing like the tic-heavy loon that Eisenberg plays, unable to complete a single thought when giving a speech at a charity ball. If Luthor is completely insane, he should at least be lucid and Eisenberg plays him as the unholy offspring of Mark Zuckerberg and Sarah Palin.

The pace is ponderous and at two and a half hours long, the movie gets a little bit monotonous. How many times can you see a building reduced to rubble before you start yawning? Maybe I’m a little jaded here, but shouldn’t superhero battles be more than just throwing people into masonry and punching their way through walls?

There are enough positive elements here to recommend the film somewhat, although I have to say that I was disappointed with it overall. I was hoping for something that would inspire me to submerge myself in a new cinematic universe but now I have almost no desire to see any of the ten or so films that are scheduled to follow this one, particularly if they are directed by Snyder who showed an absolute leaden touch here. I hope Suicide Squad can redeem the series and bring back some anticipation for the following movies, although at the moment I wonder if DC can bounce back from a debacle which may fill their coffers for the moment but long-term will render it much more difficult to get the attention of fans the same way Marvel has been able to.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is a terrific Batman. Some spectacular battle sequences. A definite epic quality to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and often hard to follow. Too bloodthirsty. Eisenberg as Luthor was a colossal mistake.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of superhero violence, and some suggestive scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gal Gadot is the first non-American actress to appear as Wonder Woman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern

Lamb


A road trip like none you've ever seen.

A road trip like none you’ve ever seen.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Jess Wexler, Tom Bower, Scoot McNairy, Lindsay Pulsipher, Jennifer Lafleur, Joel Murray, Ron Burkhardt, Mark Kelly, Robert Longstreet, Matt Oberg, Amirah Griffin, Iris Elliott, Drew Langer, Mackenzie Paige, Erin Kennedy Portress, Maggie Raymond, Kathleen Vernon, Jennifer Spriggs . Directed by Ross Partridge

As a society, we tend to be protective – some would say over-protective – of our kids. We try to insure that no harm comes to them, but there are predators out there, particularly those who get their sexual jollies by violating children. Those are the worst kinds of scum, the vilest kind of human being that we can imagine. But do we really imagine what a 47-year-old man can see in an 11-year-old girl?

David Lamb (Partridge) is just such a man. He’s reeling from the death of his father (Burkhardt) and is on the ragged edge of losing his job but also his girlfriend Linny (Wexler) who is getting fed up with David’s passive-aggressive behavior. Depressed and lonely, David finds a place to sit and think on a Chicago street corner in a dodgy neighborhood when he’s approached by Tommie (Laurence), a precocious 11-year-old girl who is trying to bum a cigarette. David reacts by trying to convince her to play a trick on the friends of hers who put her up to the cigarette dodge by pretending to be kidnapped by David. He drags her into his SUV and admonishes her for getting in with him in the first place; “I’m not a bad guy,” he tells he as they drive away, “But I could have been.”

The two begin a fast friendship. Tommie is being raised by her uncaring mom (Pulsipher) and her mom’s even less-caring boyfriend (McNairy). Like David, Tommie is lonely and prone to depression. She needs guidance and David might just be the man to provide it. She agrees to go with him when he proposes a road trip to the cabin his late father once owned. As the two drive to Wyoming through landscapes both desolate and rural, the two will discover that love takes all sorts of forms – and not all of them are what we expect.

Just reading the summary of the plot makes me a little bit squeamish and I’m sure it does most of you as well. This is a bit of a spoiler alert but a necessary one – the movie never goes where you think it’s heading, but that creepiness factor is always there. Partridge, who wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, has a very thin line to straddle. David is a man who makes a lot of bad choices and there is some evidence that deep down he has a really good heart but holy crap! This is not a good idea and hopefully no 47-year-old men who see this will think this kind of behavior is okay.

Laurence has a difficult role to play and I’m not sure how old she is (IMDb doesn’t specify) but she handles this part with a maturity and self-awareness that is beyond the capability of most juvenile actors. She is never sexual although the situations that she is in have that undertone; she and Partridge dance around the obvious inappropriateness of the situation without crossing any lines, leading the audience to make their own decisions. Other critics have admired that about the movie.

And I can see their point. This is going to make audiences feel massively uncomfortable. We’re really treading in taboo waters here and there are those who are going to excoriate this movie because of it. No matter how you slice it, the relationship is an inappropriate one and even if you say “well, they clearly are good for each other” you have to wonder what a 47-year-old man gets out of a relationship with a child who is too young to be a Girl Scout. It just isn’t healthy.

Wexler is also outstanding in a tiny role that she makes the most of. McNairy and Pulsipher have even briefer roles in thankless parts but they both get the job done nicely. The cinematography is terrific and the score works nicely. The one drawback here is that some people are going to have a problem with the situation, a BIG problem. You’re going to have to decide for yourself how willing you are to endure a film that depicts a situation that is not only likely to make the viewer feel uncomfortable but might make them feel downright hostile…or even squeamish.

REASONS TO GO: Laurence delivers a surprisingly mature performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A very creepy situation that only gets creepier as the movie goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult situations and thematic material as well as adult language; there is nothing overtly sexual but there is certainly an underlying tone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at South by Southwest 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lolita
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!

New Releases for the Week of January 15, 2016


Ride Along 2RIDE ALONG 2

(Universal) Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Tika Sumpter, Benjamin Bratt, Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd. Directed by Tim Story

The two polar opposite cops are back. One is preparing for his wedding – to his partner’s sister, which still makes him throw up in his mouth a little. However, the two are being sent from Atlanta to Miami to stop the flow of drugs into their city from South Florida. They take on as partners members of the Miami PD Narcotics squad, and it won’t be easy for the two of them to avoid getting shot by the drug gang – or the Miami cops.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Cop Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence, sexual content, language and some drug material)

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

(Paramount) John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman. Most of us are aware of the tragedy of the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya in which a U.S. Ambassador and several others lost their lives. However, most people aren’t aware the death toll might have been much higher if it wasn’t for the heroics of a group of security operatives. This is their story, based on their personal accounts of the events that took place that night and directed by Michael Bay.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images and language)

Band of Robbers

(Gravitas) Kyle Gallner, Adam Nee, Matthew Gray Gubler, Hannibal Buress. A modern retelling of the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn shows Huck newly released from prison and hoping to mend his ways. However, Tom (a corrupt cop here) has other plans, obsessing over a childhood fantasy of a lost treasure that he’s sure he and his criminal pal can still find.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall

Rating: NR

Lamb

(The Orchard) Ross Partridge, Oona Lawrence, Jess Wexler, Scoot McNairy. When a man is hit by the end of his marriage and the death of his father within the space of a week, he tries to find some sort of meaning in his life. Encountering an unpopular and awkward 11-year-old girl, he sees something in her that might allow her to avoid his own fate of an empty, meaningless life. He decides to take her on a road trip from Chicago to the Rockies to show her how beautiful the world can be, but the trip doesn’t exactly go to expectations.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Mustang

(Cohen) Gűnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu. Five spirited sisters living in a remote Turkish village play an innocent game with a group of boys. When they are observed by a religiously conservative neighbor, the consequences change their lives radically as their strict grandmother and uncle begin to impose limitations on the girls. They also begin to arrange marriages for them, and slowly the young girls begin to break. Nominated for both a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a review for this film will appear in Cinema365 tomorrow.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture)

Norm of the North

(Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Rob Schneider, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, Bill Nighy. A polar bear by the name of Norm is dismayed at the influx of tourists to his Arctic home. However, when a land developer threatens to build condos on his beloved land, enough is enough and he heads to New York City to have a word with the money-grubbing builder.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for mild rude humor and action)New Releases

New Releases for the Week of October 30, 2015


Scout's Guide to the Zombie ApocalypseSCOUT’S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE

(Paramount) Tye Sheridan, Joey Morgan, Cloris Leachman, David Koechner, Logan Miller, Sarah Dumont, Halston Sage, Niki Koss. Directed by Christopher Landon

The motto of the Boy Scouts is to be prepared, but how does one prepare for the unpreparable? Why, there’s a handbook for it of course. And no doubt, merit badges.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks

Rating: R (for zombie violence and gore, sexual material, graphic nudity, and language throughout)

The Algerian

(Hannover House) Ben Youcef, Candice Coke, Harry Lennix, Tara Holt. An Algerian travels around the world as part of a sleeper cell, masquerading as a university student. He knows that his enemy is America, but as he begins to develop relationship and even love with various Americans, he becomes conflicted. What is his mission and what is his purpose? Whatever it might be, there will be a bloodbath by the time it ends.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Suspense
Now Playing: Regal Pointe Orlando

Rating: NR

The Armor of Light

(Fork) Lucy McBath, Rob Schenck. A conservative Evangelical minister meets the mother of Jordan Davis, a teenage shooting victim in Florida whose death focused attention on the controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws. Despite her pro-choice leanings, the two decide to work together to bring about real change in gun laws and more importantly, in attitudes towards guns. Incidentally, NRA members can get free tickets to this movie; go to the website to find out how.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content and brief strong language)

Burnt

(Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman. A once-promising chef who suffers a spectacular meltdown having fallen from grace due to his own excesses. Hungering for that elusive third Michelin star, he opens a new restaurant, knowing he’ll have to have the best of the best working for him which includes Helene, a comely sous chef who might bring him the redemption he is seeking – and also that of an unexpected kind.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout)

Dancin’ It’s On

(Medallion) Gary Daniels, Witney Carson, Jordan Clark, Ava Fabian. A beautiful young girl travels from Beverly Hills to Panama Beach for the summer to work at her father’s hotel and falls in love with a handsome young dishwasher. The two have a mutual love for dance and decide to partner up for the Florida State Championships but will have to navigate long odds to achieve their dreams. Did anyone else just throw up a little in their mouths or was it just me?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Music/Dance
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for some suggestive material)

Freaks of Nature

(Columbia) Mackenzie Davis, Nicholas Braun, Joan Cusack, Denis Leary. In one small town, vampires, zombies and humans have all managed to co-exist – until an alien invasion throws everything into chaos. Now it’s every being for themselves and all of them being chased by aliens. It will take three teens – one human, one zombie and one vampire – to convince the town to unite against the real threat: bad reviews.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use – all involving teens)

Goodnight Mommy

(Radius) Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Hans Escher. After facial reconstructive surgery, the mother of a pair of precocious 10-year-old twins returns home, her face covered with bandages. Soon after, however, the twins begin to suspect that the woman under the bandages isn’t their mother; she acts very differently than the woman who raised them. So they decide to find out who the woman is but most importantly where their real mother is.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Marketplace

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and some nudity)

Our Brand is Crisis

(Adopt) Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Scoot McNairy. With Bolivia’s economy teetering on the edge of catastrophe, a presidential election between the incumbent president and an upstart rival, the incumbent trailing in the polls by 30 points (a nearly insurmountable margin) enlists a damaged but brilliant American political strategist to aid him. Unfortunately, the opposition has hired her nemesis whom she has never beaten. With the election taking on global proportions, the price of losing could be intolerable. Based on the real events chronicled in the documentary of the same name.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Room

(A24) Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy. A woman and her young son escape from a shed where they’ve been held captive for the son’s entire life. The woman returns to a woman she doesn’t understand anymore and the son to a world he’s never known. Both damaged, they rely on each other as much or more outside the single room that was their entire world than they did in it.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language)

Truth

(Sony Classics) Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elizabeth Moss. When respected CBS news anchor Dan Rather broadcast a story regarding then-President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, he was doing his job. Instead, it turns out that the story was factually inaccurate, putting one of the most prestigious news organization’s reputation in tatters and nearly bringing it down. The CBS network is refusing to air ads for this film, incidentally as you might expect.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language and a brief nude photo)

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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