AMERICAN VIOLENCE (2017)

February 4, 2017

american-violence Greetings again from the darkness. Making a political statement is nothing new for movies; however, if a filmmaker takes a stance on a controversial issue, the final product needs to be insightful and compelling in order to make a difference. Seemingly intent on making a mockery of the death penalty, director Timothy Woodward Jr delivers little more than a B-movie with a hyper-serious tone, but a script that is at times laughably off the mark.

Even before the opening credits roll, we get our first brutal murder … just moments after persnickety Bruce Dern belittles his wife over the sandwich she made for him. Next up, Dr. Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards) is being asked by the Assistant District Attorney to consult on the case of a death row inmate, to determine if a stay of execution should be granted. See, Dr. Tyler is a criminal psychologist. Yes, she’s played by Denise Richards. If this causes you frightening flashbacks to Ms. Richards’ role as a physicist in The World is Not Enough, then you begin to have some idea what this movie is like.

The inmate is Jackson Shea (a formidable Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau) and as he tells his life story, we are provided scenes that explain how he got to this point. It’s a pretty interesting backstory starting with sleazy Uncle Mike, an alcoholic mother, and a seemingly endless array of circumstance that might have formed the basis of a better movie.

You will note many familiar faces along the way: Michael Pare as Shea’s partner, Patrick Kilpatrick as a criminal kingpin, Johnny Messner as a fellow criminal, and Emma Rigby as Shea’s love interest. For you football fans, you’ll likely reminisce about Brian Boswell when you witness Rob Gronkowski as a gun-toting bodyguard.

All of this could have been good criminal fun if we weren’t being incessantly slapped upside the head with the anti-Death Penalty message … how trading death for death isn’t appropriate, and for tilting the scales to show how criminals are basically good guys who accidentally end up in a bad spot thanks to a broken system and culture of violence. It’s all a bit too heavy-handed and self-righteous, taking away some of the joy in chuckling at Ms. Richards playing it straight as an intellectual idealist.

watch the trailer:

 


THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

July 13, 2016

infiltrator Greetings again from the darkness. The war on drugs has become a bit of a punchline in the real world, but has proven to be fertile ground for filmmaking: Sicario (2015), American Hustle (2013), Traffic (2000). Additionally, the popular Netflix show “Narcos” takes on the same Medellin drug cartel as this latest from director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011). The movie is based on the true events of Robert Mazur’s book “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel” (a title that’s very descriptive, if a bit long).

Bryan Cranston continues his impressive Hollywood run this time as Robert Mazur, the man who goes undercover to expose the money-laundering system of the cartel. His flamboyant alter-ego is known as Bob Musella, a character that allows Mazur (and Cranston) to show a side not typically seen. His antics get him inside Columbian Drug Lord Escobar’s organization in the mid-1980’s.

When Mazur realizes the traditional method of chasing the drugs isn’t working, he decides the age-old idiom “follow the money” might be a better approach. This takes him inside the world of international money laundering, and he learns that banks and governments are quite dependent on this huge business of drug money movement.

There are specific groups of people here: the government agencies, the small task force, the corrupt (and appreciative) bankers, the various levels within the cartel, and even Mazur’s family … all these forces intertwine to make life difficult for Mazur and his team, and provide a glimpse into the complexities of undercover work.

In addition to stellar work from Cranston, the cast is terrific. John Leguizamo plays Mazur’s motivated partner Abreu; Diane Kruger plays his undercover fiancé; Juliet Aubrey is Mazur’s real life wife who doesn’t much appreciate his declining the early retirement offer; Olympia Dukakis provides a dash of comedy relief as Mazur’s Aunt; Yul Vasquez is the creepy money manager for Escobar; Benjamin Bratt plays Roberto, Escobar’s right-hand man and the key to Mazur’s case; and Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In, 2011) is Roberto’s wife. Also present are Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs and the always great Michael Pare.

There are a couple of standout scenes – one involving chicken and voodoo, and another with a briefcase mishap, but my favorite is the Happy Anniversary cake scene in the restaurant where Mazur flashes his alter-ego Musella for his real wife to see … and she is understandably stunned.

The movie does a nice job of capturing the look and feel of the era (30 years ago), but it’s somehow missing the elevated suspense it portends to drag us and the characters through. Some elements seemed impossible to believe – why would Mazur risk his family’s safety? The timeline was a bit muddled. We aren’t sure how much time has passed, but there certainly don’t seem to be enough interactions before Roberto is telling Mazur he is “like family”. It plays a bit like those romance movies where the two leads are head over heels in love after a conversation or two. An element is missing and it affects the level of tension throughout the film. And that’s something even a Leonard Cohen song (“Everybody Knows”) can’t fix.

watch the trailer:

 


BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

October 25, 2015

bone tamahawk Greetings again from the darkness. In an effort to be helpful to potential viewers, it’s customary to provide a synopsis that allows for a quick determination on whether this “type” of movie will hold appeal. The problem is that this debut from writer/director (and novelist) S. Craig Zahler can be encapsulated with a simple: four local men from a small, dusty old West town head out on a rescue mission to face a tribe of cannibal cave-dwellers. Unfortunately, that analysis doesn’t cover the originality and genre-twisting of this Western-Horror film featuring crisp and funny dialogue, plus some of the most extreme brutality ever witnessed on screen.

A very deep and talented cast milks the script for every possible chuckle, moan, shock of pain, and queasy squirm. Kurt Russell stars as Franklin Hunt, the sheriff of the ironically named town Bright Hope. Though a long-time fan of Mr. Russell, I’ve often been critical of his career-limiting role choices, and here he proves yet again that he has always been capable of taking on a challenging lead and delivering a nuanced performance. He is joined in the rescue posse by his “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the abducted woman’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and a nattily attired gunman (Matthew Fox).

The opening sequence featuring outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (horror vet Sid Haig doing his best Slim Pickins imitation) sets the stage for the brutal violence to come in the third act, as well as the film’s crackling dialogue that’s clearly influenced by The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Elmore Leonard. There are also brief but memorable supporting roles from Kathryn Morris (as the Sheriff’s wife), Michael Pare’ (as a self-centered stable owner), James Tolkan (as an uninspired piano player), and Fred Melamed (as the barkeeper). Lili Simmons (“Banshee”) has a key role as the abducted Samantha O’Dwyer.

An odd blending of John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, a substantial portion of the (long) run-time is dedicated to the slow trail ride/walk of the four men as they track the “troglodyte” tribe in hopes of rescuing the captured folks. The focus on these four men: the duty-bound Sheriff, the overly loyal deputy, the emotionally-driven husband, and the vengeful gunslinger, is an old West character study dressed up with some fancy oration. In fact, the excessively-perfect English sits in stark contrast to the other-worldly tribal wailings of the cave-dwellers who seem to have no real language at all.

It’s an unusual film that defies a simple synopsis, and certainly won’t appeal to all movie goers. A viewer must enjoy the prolonged journey and the interaction between the distinctive personality types (Jenkins is a particular standout in a Walter Brennan-type role), and also have an affinity (or at least a constitution) for gruesome brutality. The film is only receiving a very limited theatrical release, but should find an audience via VOD.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE LINCOLN LAWYER

March 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Major dilemma: sucker for courtroom dramas vs. no fan of Matthew McConaughey. I decided to give it a shot, and given my low expectations, found the movie to be quite entertaining – despite its numerous flaws. If you are a fan of the endless stream of John Grisham book-turned-movie, then I expect you will find this one to your taste.

Based on the Michael Connelly series of novels built around Mick Haller, this one has the look and feel of part one (and also of a TV series). Haller is the Lincoln Lawyer, so named because of his propensity to handle much of his work from the backseat of a classic Lincoln Town Car. The choice of McConaughey as Haller seemed all together wrong given his annual appearance in some lame ass Rom-Com, where he spends most of each movie shirtless and smirking. Luckily for us, Mr. McConaughey manages to re-capture some of the acting skills he flashed in A Time to Kill, so many years ago.

 In addition to his close to the vest portrayal of Haller, the movie works because of an incredibly deep cast that includes Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and frequent courtroom adversary (she is an ADA), Ryan Phillippe as the accused rich boy, William H Macy as the long-time and streetwise private investigator, Josh Lucas as the ADA in the main case, Bryan Cranston as the detective in charge, plus Michael Pena, Bob Gunton (warden from Shawshank Redemption), John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher, Laurence Mason (Earl the driver), Shea Willingham (Boardwalk Empire), Trace Adkins (the country star as the leader of a biker gang) and Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers). Seriously, this cast allows every scene to have something worth watching.

 The two things that prevent the movie from being top notch are the beyond-belief exaggerated moments (including about 3 too many endings) and the absolutely distracting camera work courtesy of director Brad Furman. In the hands of a more experienced director, many of the flaws could have been corrected.

This is not presented as an ultra serious courtroom drama in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Judgment at Nuremberg. Rather it is a character driven story with a multitude of twists … some of which work and some of which don’t. I found it to be  enjoyable despite the script issues and the hey-look-at-me direction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too are a sucker for courtroom dramas OR you doubt my claim that McConaughey can avoid going shirtless for 2 hours.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you demand perfection in your crime thriller scripts OR you believe the only reason to see a McConaughey movie is because he does go shirtless