Kong: Skull Island


Kong goes ape!

(2017) Adventure (Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel, Robert Taylor, Thomas Middleditch (voice), Beth Kennedy. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

 

Some monsters capture the imagination like no other. So it has been with Kong, the giant ape who since his first appearance in 1933 has been a mainstay in cinematic lore. There have been three American remakes of the original; in 1976, 2005 and now.

It is 1973 and the United States is withdrawing its troops from Vietnam. That doesn’t sit so well with Major Preston Packard (Jackson). However, before he and his boys can return home he is given a new assignment to accompany a scientific team to a remote island near Southeast Asia.

The scientists are led by Dr. Bill Randa (Goodman) whose Hollow Earth theories have been largely discredited and who is ostensibly researching seismic activity on the island but unknown to the soldiers that are accompanying him, as well as former SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war activist who smells a big story. Is she ever right!

Their helicopter fleet is smashed to pieces by a gigantic ape 100 feet tall. The survivors are separated and try to make their way to a rendezvous point with their ship on the north shore of the island. The military men are trying to hunt down other survivors while Major Packard seethes; he wants to take out the ape that decimated his men. The civilians find their way to a human settlement where they find a surprising discovery; an aviator named Hank Marlow (Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since World War II.

Their job is to find a way off the island but it is far more perilous than just a single giant ape. There are other gigantic creatures (water buffalo, for example, and Daddy Long Leg spiders with legs as long as tree trunks. Worse, there are reptilian creatures that have ascended from the depths of the Earth and are only held back from mass destruction by Kong, who kills the bad boys on sight. And just between you and me I’d rather have Kong on my side than against.

I will give Vogt-Roberts credit; he knows how to keep the action going. This is definitely a roller coaster ride of a movie. But as roller coasters go, this one is a bit tamer than I expected. Peter Jackson’s 2005 magnum opus has nightmarish critters that range from dinosaurs to gigantic insects to things that have never existed and thank God for that. There are some creatures here (a giant octopus for example) but none really have the creepy factor that Jackson’s movie had and even the Big Bads – the Skullcrawlers as Marlow dubs them – are not as nightmare-inducing as they could be.

Hiddleston has paid his dues in a number of supporting roles and is more than ready to take on a heroic lead, but for some reason his performance here feels muted. I know he has tons of screen presence – I’ve seen it and not just in the Marvel appearances as Loki – but he doesn’t have much here. It’s sad too because I think this was a good role for him. Faring better is Reilly who damn near steals the movie as Marlow, who isn’t always sure if he’s thinking or speaking with often hilarious results. He’s one of the best reasons to see this movie.

Like all the Kong movies before it this is a boy’s club with a token woman to tame the beast, although that really doesn’t happen here. This is also set entirely on Skull Island; Kong doesn’t go to New York or anywhere else. Larsen is an actress whose stock is on the rise, but her role seems like nobody really knew what to do with her. Mason Weaver is no damsel in distress and that’s a good thing for women everywhere, but part of the Kong mythos requires one and the movie feels lacking without one.

A movie with a budget of $190 million dollars should not leave the viewers feeling meh but that’s what this one did for me. Maybe I expected more out of a Kong movie than just a slambang action film; it needed to have an epic feel to it and to my mind that’s just what it lacked. All three of the preceding Kong movies had it but I suppose sooner or later that streak would have to come to an end. Given that this is part of a new Monsterverse that started with the Godzilla reboot of a couple of years ago and will include some of the most well-known giant monsters from Japan and the United States, you would think that more care would be taken to keep this franchise viable. I hope they can bring back that larger than life feeling again; what good are giant monsters without it?

REASONS TO GO: Some of the monsters are spectacular. Reilly just about steals the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie plods a bit in the middle. It’s not as exciting as other giant monster films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some pretty scary monsters; there’s also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The appearance of Kong (the shape of his face and so on) was based on the look of the original 1933 Kong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Exodus

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New Releases for the Week of March 10, 2017


KONG: SKULL ISLAND

(Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, Shea Whigham. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

An expedition made up of a team of scientists, soldiers and explorers go to a previously uncharted and unmapped island in the Pacific and find a world of nightmares. Hostile locals aren’t even the half of it; the island is infested with ferocious creatures that are so much further up the food chain than human beings that we might as well be lambs for the slaughter. The island is rules by Kong, a gigantic ape whose existence has ever only been legend. Now, the team – stranded on the island – has no choice but to rely on all their skills to make it home with the proof that the legend exists, or die trying.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, promos, B-Roll video and Premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)

Badrinath Ki Dulhania

(Fox Star) Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Gauhar Khan, Shweta Prasad. Two young people growing up in neighboring small towns seem to be polar opposites. Everything he believes in, she believes in the opposite. Even though they both recognize the good hearts in the other, their ideologies might just get in the way of a perfectly good romance.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

I Am Not Your Negro

(Magnolia) Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. When James Baldwin passed away in 1987 left unfinished was a manuscript for a book that examined the murders of three of his closest friends – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Director Raoul Peck has created a documentary using Baldwin’s still-timely prose and archival footage to remind us that the progress we have made in racial relations is not really as much as we thought.

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

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

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity)

The Ottoman Lieutenant

(Paladin) Michael Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley. A plucky American nurse is charmed by a doctor working at a charitable hospital in one of Armenia’s most desolate areas. As it is 1919 and war is brewing not only in Europe but in the Ottoman Empire as well (as Turkey and Armenia were then called) her resolve to bring medical supplies and a much-needed truck into a dangerous place leads her into contact with a dashing young lieutenant in the Ottoman army – and a romantic triangle that threatens to explode even as war does.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some war violence)

Cop Car


The beginning of a bad idea.

The beginning of a bad idea.

(2015) Thriller (Focus World) Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Sean Hartley, Kyra Sedgwick (voice), Loi Nguyen, Sit Lenh, Chuck Kull, Thomas Coates, Justin Barr, Adam Barr, Kathleen Bentley. Directed by Jon Watts

Actions have consequences. We learn this at an early age, usually because we’ve done something foolish or wrong. The consequences are almost always some form of punishment; having a favorite toy or device taken away, being grounded, made to stand in a corner (if we are very young) or maybe being sent to bed early without desert (horrors!). Of course, the more egregious the offense, the worse the punishment.

Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) are a couple of nine or ten year old kids who have decided to run away from their Colorado Springs subdivision. They are traipsing along a vast prairie (being kids, they haven’t particularly thought this through, having only a Slim Jim to sustain them and no water), Travis saying an expletive and Harrison repeating them. It’s all fun and games until they get to a specific word which Harrison is loathe to repeat. Even kids have their limits.

Then they come across something cooler than an F-bomb – an abandoned cop car. At first, the boys timidly run up to the car and having touched it, scurry back fearfully. like some bizarre ritual of counting coup. Eventually they work up the courage to get inside and of course at first it’s all play acting and fun…but then they find the keys.

Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) is not so amused when he returns to find his car gone. You see, he was in the midst of burying a body and had come to fetch a second from the trunk of his car. Having his homicidal activities discovered just would not do. So he goes out to find the pilferers of his official vehicle, while the kids, blissfully ignorant of what’s going on, go on the joy ride of a lifetime.

Watts, who on the strength of his efforts here won himself the director’s seat for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, takes a story that’s been essentially told before, strips it down to its essence, and gives us one taut, well-made thriller. The boys’ ignorance of how things work – they have no clue how to operate a car and make some pretty significant mistakes because of their inexperience – helps keep the tension level high. There’s a sequence when they’re trying to figure out how to fire the guns, peering down the barrels of the firearms and you are absolutely certain that one of the kids is going to get their heads blown off. Da Queen was literally viewing that sequence through her clenched fingers. She wasn’t the only one, either.

It helps that the two juvenile actors he cast are completely natural. They are full of bravado, crazy naive, and bonded together like only little boys can be. They are out on an adventure and are very much, as little boys are, shoot first ask questions later sorts. As I mentioned earlier, thinking things through is not their strong suit. While Travis is clearly the ringleader, the true strength belongs to Harrison – again, as is often the case with little boys. They’re like any little boy you might meet in your neighborhood; a little less supervised, a little wilder, but nonetheless recognizable. That helps the movie a great deal the longer it goes on and is one of the strengths of the film overall.

Bacon is a reliable presence. This is the kind of role he’s done before. The actions of the sheriff are never fully explained; we see him at one point flushing an impressive amount of cocaine down the toilet so we assume that it’s a drug thing, but why he has the two men set for a dirtnap is anybody’s guess. We do know that he’s a vicious and clever sort, not above putting a civilian in the line of fire if it is to his advantage; we are used to our policemen being concerned with our own safety so it never occurs to us that the orders we are getting are not given with that in mind. In some ways, this movie mirrors the public’s changing perception of the police. It’s not that there haven’t been bad cops in the movies – there have been bad cops in the movies as long as there have been movies – but it’s the way we look at this bad cop that’s different.

A couple of times during the movie it did feel like some of the sequences felt a little bit forced in order to advance the story; that happens a lot in these sorts of films although in fairness less often here than in other examples of the genre. There’s an encounter with a motorcycle cop that is very well-written from a tension point of view, but it seems to exist in the story only to show us how clever the Sheriff is. A good rule of thumb for filmmakers is that if a scene isn’t germane to the overall story other than to illustrate a character’s personality trait, it probably doesn’t belong in the movie.

Sure, some of the plot points are a bit contrived but for the most part this is a movie that feels like it could happen and maybe it already has. As thrillers go this one is well done, not quite to the level of last year’s Blue Ruin but certainly in the same ballpark. This is a well-constructed, well-executed edge of your seat entertainment that deserves a spot on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Nice tension. Good performances by the kids who behave like kids.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit contrived in places. Bacon has played this role before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence, a scene of drug usage and kid peril throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the dispatcher is done by Kyra Sedgwick. In addition, the Quinlan County on the side of the cop car doesn’t exist in Colorado or any other state.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your cable or satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Evidence
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Grandma

New Releases for the Week of September 11, 2015


The VisitTHE VISIT

(Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Patch Darragh. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A brother and sister go to rural Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents. At first things are pretty much as you might expect; and older couple happy to see their grandkids but the longer they stay, the stranger the behavior of the elderly people begins to seem. Soon they realize that something sinister is going on and their chances of getting home alive are worsening but they can’t get their mom to believe them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard  (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity and for brief language)

90 Minutes in Heaven

(Goldwyn) Kate Bosworth, Hayden Christensen, Dwight Yoakam, Rhoda Griffis. A man in a car accident is declared dead and left under a tarp before being transported to a hospital. He experiences heaven until a pastor’s prayers bring him back to the living. Now in excruciating pain, he fights to regain some kind of normalcy while pining for what waited for him in heaven. Eventually he wrote a book on his experiences which became a New York Times bestseller.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Amstar Lake Mary, AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

The Challenger

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Clarke Duncan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kent Moran, Justin Hartley. An ex-boxer trying to make it as an auto mechanic is simply not making ends meet. When he and his adopted mother are evicted, he is forced back into the one thing that he’s been struggling against – boxing. With the help of a legendary trainer, he will do whatever it takes to keep he and his adopted mom off of the streets. This is the late Michael Clarke Duncan’s last film.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: PG-13 (for some sports violence)

Cop Car

(Focus World) Kevin Bacon, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Kyra Sedgwick. Two young boys discover what seems to be an abandoned police vehicle in a secluded glade and decide to take it for a joy ride. This incurs the wrath of a brutal county sheriff and leads to disastrous consequences.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language, violence and brief drug use)

Learning to Drive

(Broad Green) Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber. A high-powered and self-obsessed New York book editor undergoing a divorce decides to become more self-sufficient. She signs up to take driving lessons so that she can visit her daughter in college in Vermont. Her instructor is Darwan, an extremely conscientious teacher and his patience inspires her to open up with him about her deeper problems. In turn, her volatile feelings about her disintegrating marriage bring out some feelings in him about his own impending nuptials.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Meru

(Music Box)  Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer. Among mountain climbers, Conrad Anker is a legend. It is also considered that the Himalayan peak Meru is virtually unclimbable, towering 21,000 feet into the sky with the final portion being a unique shark’s fin formation that is nearly vertical and requires a different set of climbing skills than the first portion of the mountain, requiring an entirely different set of gear, all of which has to be lugged up the mountain. Anker and his team undergo the harshest conditions that mother nature has to offer, heartbreaking defeats and terrible tragedies just to make yet another assault on Meru. But can anyone climb the unclimbable mountain?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

The Perfect Guy

(Screen Gems) Michael Ealy, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Charles S. Dutton. After a painful breakup with her boyfriend, a beautiful young professional woman meets a handsome and charming stranger. At first he seems like a gift from heaven, but when her ex-boyfriend re-enters the picture and tries to win her back, the perfect guy suddenly changes into someone she doesn’t know – and someone completely terrifying.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, menace, sexuality and brief strong language)

Catch .44


Now, that's what I call a catch!

Now, that’s what I call a catch!

(2011) Action/Suspense (Anchor Bay) Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll, Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Shea Whigham, Jimmy Lee Jr., Brad Dourif, Jill Stokesberry, P.J. Marshall, Dan Silver, Michael Rosenbaum, Edrick Browne, Christopher Alan Weaver, Amanda Bosley, Ivory Dortch, Kevin Beard, Shelby Schneider, Nikita Kahn. Directed by Aaron Harvey

Some movies look like a good idea on paper. However, once the finished product gets out there, it doesn’t quite measure up. I suspect Catch .44 was something like that.

How else do you explain the outstanding cast for what turned out to be a direct-to-video turkey? The premise, which might have caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye once upon a time before he decided to reinvent the Western involves three gorgeous girls straight out of a Russ Meyers grindhouse movie, three badass chicks in a diner who have a mission for the man they’re employed by – Mel (Willis), an utter irredeemable lowlife drug dealer.

Things go South in a hurry, bullets fly and bodies drop. Whitaker shows up as a hit man to turn the Mexican standoff into a three-way. Who will walk out of the diner alive? Will anybody care which one does? The answer to the latter is likely “no.”

The oddball thing is that the main action of the movie occurs in the first five or ten minutes, then the rest of the movie is essentially a flashback to tell you how all the characters got there which, half an hour in, you’ll slowly begin to realize that rather than using the flashback as a means of giving the characters depth, there’s just a lot of pointless meandering going on and by that time you’ll likely want to switch the DVD player off. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs utilized much the same kind of format but was much more successful at utilizing it than Catch .44 did.

Harvey has a pretty decent visual sense – the movie looks good and he clearly was able to line up a top of the line cast. What he didn’t do was motivate them to perform up to their level of stardom. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and Willis one of the most charismatic stars of the last 20 years, but both of them seem to be sleepwalking. Whitaker affects a nearly indecipherable Spanish/Cajun accent and Willis essentially plays the standard Bruce Willis character, although there’s a surreal moment when someone plays “Respect” from his 80s attempt at rock and roll stardom, The Return of Bruno.

I did like Akerman in the lead role, and to a lesser extent Reed and Woll; Reed’s turn is a bit more sexual than the other two but frankly the script gives us little hint as to who these women are. That doesn’t give us a whole lot of incentive to identify with any of them.

I like the idea of three badass girls in a diner dealing with a deal gone wrong. We need movies like that, but we need good movies like that. Tarantino could have made a masterpiece out of this, as could a number of like-minded directors; Robert Rodriguez, for example. Sadly, this is just a forgettable bit of action fluff that starts out promising, goes nowhere and ends up in the dollar bin at Wal*Mart quicker than you can say “Is that all there is?”

WHY RENT THIS: Three beautiful girls. Nice premise. Great-looking, cinematically speaking..
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit clumsy in its execution. Most of the cast looks like they’re just there for the paycheck. Confusing storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of violence and foul language as well as a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Mara and Lizzy Caplan were both originally cast but both dropped out of the movie, to be replaced by Reed and Woll, respectively.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unknown box office on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Killing Jar
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: In Bruges

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

New Releases for the Week of March 13, 2015


CinderellaCINDERELLA

(Disney) Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgard, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Rob Brydon. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

An orphaned girl, cruelly abused at the hands of her stepmother and her two vicious daughters, dreams of meeting a kindred soul and seems to have found one in the form of Kit, an apprentice at the palace. But secrets abound; Kit is really the Prince, he is head over heels for the girl and the Grand Duke plots with the evil stepmother to keep the two apart. Fortunately, the courageous and kind young girl has a fairy godmother on her side and with pumpkin and mice transforms the girl into a beautiful young woman.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements)

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest

(Naked Edge/City Drive) Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham. Sentenced to four years for a petty crime, DeFriest finds his sentence being extended after escape attempts and generally bad behavior. But now his four year stretch has become twenty and as he comes up for yet another parole hearing, hard questions about our penal system begin to surface.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Red Army

(Sony Classics) Scotty Bowman, Vlacheslav Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak, Ken Kurtis (voice). In the 1970s and 1980s, hockey wasn’t just the national sport in the Soviet Union, it was an obsession. The best team in the world was the Red Army team and it formed the basis for the formidable Soviet National team. The captain of that team took exception to the brutal training methods and often heartless treatment of its players and stood up to the system, going from national hero to political enemy in the process but paving the way for a revolution that would transform a nation and change the whole world.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG (for thematic material and language)

Run All Night

(Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent D’Onofrio. A prolific hit man for the mob knows he is at the tail end of his career, and as the sins of his past begin to catch up to him, he takes solace in the bottom of a bottle. He remains more or less protected by his boss who is his closest friend. However, when his boss’s son attempts to kill his own estranged son, he is forced to make a choice between his biological family and the Family. On the run with his boy, he has a single night to keep them both alive and to somehow make things right.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong violence, language including sexual references, and some drug use)