A MURDER IN THE PARK (2015, doc)

June 28, 2015

a murder in the park Greetings again from the darkness. The concept of “the scales of justice” refers to what is right and just. It’s a lofty and worthy goal, and one that we U.S. citizens grow up learning is the foundation of our legal system.  Sometimes, however, the wheels fall off and the system gets off-track. Co-directors Shawn Rech and Brandon Kinder explore one such quite infamous case.

Here’s a quick synopsis: Cops arrest suspect for a double murder (1982). Suspect found guilty and sentenced to death (1983). Just prior to execution, additional information is submitted and the suspect is freed (1999). Another suspect is charged, found guilty and sent to prison. Fifteen years later, charges against the second man are dropped and he is released from prison. Evidence points to original suspect, who has been pardoned and cannot be re-tried.

The above phrase “additional information” is the key to the film. Northwestern University Professor David Protess and a group of his journalism students, working under the auspice of the “Innocence Project”, set out to cast doubt on the guilt of Anthony Porter – the prisoner just days from execution. The students’ work with Private Investigator Paul Ciolini yields contradictory witnesses and a confession from another man, Alstory Simon. The result of their findings gets Porter released and turns him and themselves into media stars, while also leading to the state of Illinois banning the death penalty.

The film is exceedingly well documented and researched, and provides interviews from detectives, lawyers and Mr. Simon, among others. It’s a procedural documentary that questions the very procedures of the justice system … shooting holes and raising red flags on the steps and a multitude of people involved with the cases over the years. Unfortunately, we don’t get any account directly from Professor Protess (since released by Northwestern), but that’s likely due to the inexcusably shoddy work from his group and his endless grandstanding since getting Porter released.

We all know there are truth-minded journalists, but it’s quite frightening when those on the other end of the spectrum can so easily gain power and influence … especially when teamed up with a less-than-scrupulous private investigator who proudly spouts that the rules don’t apply to him.

This is a very interesting and detailed look at different personality types, legal procedures, media influence and the role of truth and justice. The film begins with a very unusual disclaimer stating the film studio “does not guarantee the accuracy of the content”. The name of the studio? Whole Truth Films.

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THE OVERNIGHT (2015)

June 27, 2015

overnight Greetings again from the darkness. For kindergartners, making friends is as easy as a bag of gummy worms on the playground. For adults, it’s a bit more complicated.  According to writer/director Patrick Brice (Creep, 2015) making adult friends can involve rectum paintings and penis prosthetics … at least after a lot of wine and too many bong hits.  While this is not my wheelhouse for humor, it’s clearly a bold cinematic step and pushes the boundaries even further than other recent Duplass Brothers projects (they are Producers here).

Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott) have recently moved to L.A. from Seattle with their young son. Emily and Alex are good parents, good people, and a solid couple – except for some sexual incompatibility. While at the park, their son (and his gummy worms) befriends the son of Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), one of the endless oddballs that populate L.A. Kurt charms Emily and Alex into visiting his home for an adult dinner party/kid playdate.

Greeted at the door of the mansion by Kurt’s French wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche), Emily and Alex are clearly wooed by the worldliness and sophistication of their new friends. Kurt is a bit of a renaissance man and he and Charlotte also appear to be a solid couple … though as the evening unfolds, we soon enough discover their own sexual incompatibility. And therein lies the core and conflict of the film – relationship dynamics impacted by sexual tension explored through raunchy humor.

It’s interesting to compare Brice’s film with Paul Mazursky’s 1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and analyze the cultural and cinematic differences brought on by the 46 year difference. What was shocking then, is nothing compared to what this film has us believe that most young adult couples are struggling with now. Emily and Alex spend the evening exploring their boundaries as individuals and as a couple, while being softly pushed by the more adventurous Kurt and Charlotte. Were it not so raunchy, the theme would be more interesting … though significantly less appealing at the box office.

All four lead actors are strong, but Schwartzman and Scott handle the more challenging roles with aplomb. Given my preferences, I could have used a safe word on a couple of occasions, but the real test will be whether audiences find the film a bold step forward, or whether it is judged to be shock for shock’s sake.

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BOUND TO VENGEANCE (2015)

June 27, 2015

bound to vengeance Greetings again from the darkness. In the 1980’s this could have been the second film of a drive-in theatre double feature. In the 1990’s, Richard Tyson could have been cast as the bad guy. Well, it’s 2015 and one of those things has happened anyway (not the one where you sit in your car). It’s a low-budget direct-to-video thriller that would easily fit in with the numerous ‘hot girl kidnapped’ movies over the years – except for one very welcome change: this girl rampages like Charles Bronson.

Tina Ivlev plays Eve, a girl chained in the basement of a house and held hostage by Richard Tyson’s Phil. One evening, Eve greets Phil with a brick upside the head, and just like that, the tables are turned … Eve takes off on a combined mission of revenge and rescue. See, Phil has been the leader of a group of kidnappers and sex traffickers, and Eve wants to track down the others and set them free.

The movie starts with some joyous smart phone video footage of Eve, her apparent boyfriend and another girl whose identity is not discovered until late in the story. This footage is interspersed throughout the film as Eve makes her way between the various locations. It’s an interesting touch by director JM Cravioto and adds a little complexity to what could have been a straightforward movie featuring Eve’s journey.

We have seen Beatrix Kiddo and her mission of revenge in the Kill Bill movies, but of course, it’s more common to see the victimized girl being rescued by a strong and do-goody man. That man doesn’t exist in this world. It’s all up to Eve, whose sword play may be non-existent, but her desire to kick ass is as strong as any other on screen character, including The Bride.

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GLASS CHIN (2015)

June 24, 2015

glass chin Greetings again from the darkness. “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by” is a familiar line sung by Bruce Springsteen, and writer/director Noah Buschel brings that New Jersey sentiment to his latest film. We follow the travails of a former boxer struggling with the faded spotlight and his perceived lack of respect, while also seemingly oblivious to the maintenance his personal relationship requires.

Corey Stoll (familiar to “House of Cards” fans) plays Bud “The Saint” Gordon, a retired boxer whose self-named local neighborhood hangout recently closed its doors. Bud is trying to figure out how to reclaim the good life afforded by his boxing winnings, and is opposed to his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) taking a waitress job to help out. He agrees to train a young up-and-coming boxer prepare for a fight, while also agreeing to work with a shady shyster named J.J. (Billy Crudup). Bud and J.J. have a history, and it’s soon pretty clear that J.J. is some type of offbeat (he owns a snow leopard) kingpin or mobster, who finds a financial and psychological edge in all dealings.

Yul Vazquez plays J.J.’s lead henchman and has the “flashiest” (his character name is Flash) role in the film, although Crudup’s character could have been even more fun if allotted more screen time. Also making brief appearances are Kelly Lynch, Katherine Waterston, and David Johansen. Of course, Mr. Johansen is a former member of The New York Dolls, and their song “Trash” plays a key role in one of Bud’s earliest scenes working with Flash.

There is an unmistakable class theme – the have’s vs the have-nots. The two sides are clear in Manhattan vs. New Jersey, and J.J. vs. Bud. The most interesting part of the story is with Bud’s attempt to figure out the harsh ways of life, even as we viewers recognize he requires no shades for his future. Although both themes are pretty familiar in the movie world, Mr. Buschel opts to only scratch the surface on both the faded hero and the mob world. Instead, it’s more of a dialogue-driven drama that questions where the line in the morality sand is drawn.

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A DANGEROUS GAME (2015, doc)

June 24, 2015

a dangerous game Greetings again from the darkness. Donald Trump is the closest thing we have to a real life Snidely Whiplash. He is fascinating and entertaining in his arrogance, and the poster child of evil for the 99-percenters. Documentarian Anthony Baxter delivers a follow-up to his award-winning 2011 documentary You’ve Been Trumped, and this time we get the face-to-face showdown between Trump and Baxter … though it’s quite brief.

Baxter revisits Trump’s Menie Estate development in Aberdeenshire, Scotland and in the process catches up any viewer who missed the first film, while also exploring planned development on the last remaining natural state land in the area. The film’s best segment focuses on an unrelated planned development (golf and luxury homes) in the Heritage area of Dubrovnik in Croatia. We see the real struggle of the “little guys” as they fight back against corporate greed and civic corruption. The third segment involves New Jersey, and the key point seems to be that Don Trump Jr is every bit as annoying and arrogant as his father.

Baxter’s film is loosely structured, but certainly raises some interesting points about how the wealthy can abuse their power at the expense of ecology, history, and the huddled masses. Drought conditions on SRD in Dubrovnik? No worries … we will just buy enough water to keep the fairways green and putting surfaces plush. One of the local farms not quaint enough?  No worries … we will just berm the perimeter and cutoff the resident’s access to the seashore. We also see the corruption of local leaders and local government. It’s especially disheartening in Dubrovnik as the locals gain 11,000 signatures to force a referendum, only to be steamrolled by the Mayor.

The sit down interview with Trump and Baxter is somewhat of a letdown, but it does feature two men who believe strongly in their views. One could walk away from the film with a feeling of helplessness, but in reality, it provides a hopeful message for strength in numbers and fighting for what one believes in.

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SPY (2015)

June 24, 2015

spy Greetings again from the darkness. Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig are back together in hopes of recapturing their Bridesmaids comedy and box office magic. They are also re-teaming for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This time it’s a parody of James Bond films … right down to the elaborate and creative opening credit sequence. Recognizing that combining action and comedy can be a bit challenging, Feig enlists the help of Jason Statham and Jude Law. Statham parodies his well known uber-intense characters with a running dialogue of his bravery and heroism, while Law is clearly having a blast as the ultra-smooth agent Bradley Fine (think Pierce Brosnan’s Bond).

In spite of the gentlemen, this is Ms. McCarthy’s film and she is believable as the frumpy CIA analyst who is the “voice in the ear” of super agent Fine (Law). He maneuvers the front line of dangerous assignments as she provides life-saving high-tech guidance from the relative safety of the vermin-infested basement CIA lab. Of course, we know McCarthy’s agent will end up in the field in her attempts to avenge a mission gone wrong.

It’s McCarthy in the field that will either make or break the film for you. Her scenes with Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz worked best for me, while her Jackie Chan-style kitchen fight scene and her chase scenes were a bit more difficult to buy off on. It can be confusing as a viewer when we are constantly bombarded with PC rules, and then Feig and McCarthy don’t hesitate to use her heft for laughs.

Other supporting work is provided by British comedienne Miranda Hunt, another fish out of water agent; Morena Baccarin as a strutting super agent at the level of Statham; Bobby Cannavale as a would-be terrorist; and Allison Janney as the CIA Supervisor. While each have their moments, it’s McCarthy’s visit to the spy gadget department that provides the best laughs.

The Action-Comedy-Spy Thriller genre is pretty sparse, and as you may expect, comedy is the priority for most scenes. McCarthy does well in her first true film lead, though my prediction is that her value as an actress will ultimately come from playing characters who are more “real” – like her role in last year’s St. Vincent.


JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

June 21, 2015

jurassic world Greetings again from the darkness. I’m guessing that most anyone who enjoys movies and is at least 30 years old, has vivid recollections of Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park from1993 (based on the Michael Crichton novel). The iconic theme from John Williams, that initial awe-inspiring look at the dinosaurs grazing in the valley, the reminder that “objects are closer than they appear” in side mirrors, and the late Sir Richard Attenborough stating that he “spared no expense” in creating the park … all merged to became part of an incredibly moving and huge new movie theatre experience.  This latest (and fourth in the franchise) offers us “big”, but very little “new”, and unfortunately nothing very “moving” in its presentation.

Set two decades after the tragic and messy park trial run of that original movie, we find Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help) managing the financially-challenged theme park owned by Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi). Chris Pratt is training Velociraptors, while BD Wong is cooking up hybrid and genetically modified monsters such as Indominus Rex – designed to excite the audiences who have become bored with an old-fashioned T-Rex.

Even though this is technically a sequel, there are numerous similarities to the original film, and a fun parlor game consists of spotting all the homage’s and tributes sprinkled throughout. Two of my favorites are the “Winston’s” shop in the park, and the ViewMaster shot early on. These two are tips of the cap to Stan Winston and Ray Harryhausen … two giants in the world of special effects.

In what has become the Hollywood “go to” for evil-doers, the secret plan to militarize the dinosaurs is being carried out by Vincent D’Onofrio. Of course, this clashes with Pratt’s ideal life for “his” trainees. The mandatory kids-in-peril are played by Ty Simpkins (Insidious) and Nick Robinson. Much has been made of the absurdity of Ms. Howard’s numerous scenes of sprinting in high heels, and I found her overall demeanor to be every bit as exaggerated and unbelievable as her actions in heels. Jake Johnson (TV’s “New Girl) and Omar Sy (so wonderful in The Intouchables) were the most “real” characters, though neither was given much to do.

Much of what is written here is “in comparison” to the original. While this may not be fair, it is inescapable when dealing with such a respected and iconic film. Youngsters unfamiliar with the original film, are likely to find this one exciting – even terrifying at times – and that’s an important distinction to make. The Mosasaurus alone is worth the price of admission … and good for a few nightmares!  And who among us wouldn’t pay up for a Baby Triceratops ride in the Petting Zoo?

For the Jurassic Park stalwarts, the inconsistent (sometimes great, sometimes fake-looking) CGI will be as tough to overlook as Ms. Howard’s cartoon character. And yes, composer Michael Giacchino is new to the Jurassic series, and he is wise enough to work in the terrific and familiar John Williams theme in more than one scene.  However, none of the downsides will keep the true fans away, and there is an entire generation of kids who should have the chance to marvel at lifelike dinosaurs on the big screen courtesy of director Colin Trevorrow (previously known for his work on the indie gem Safety Not Guaranteed).

watch the trailer:

 

 


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