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Column Fri Jan 18 2013

Broken City, Mama, The Last Stand, West of Memphis & LUV

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Broken City

The biggest crime in the new Mark Wahlberg political crime drama Broken City is that it's trying to pack too much story into one two-hour movie. It's rare that I say this about any film, but there's so much going on in this New York City tale of corrupt cops, politicians and city contractors that I almost wish the film had been given a little more room to open up and breathe. Add to that all of the character flaws of Wahlberg's Billy Taggart (possible murderer, substance abuse, jealous husband), and you have what amounts to a film so stuffed with plot points that it's about ready to burst. There are worse things than having too much of a good thing, but that's not exactly the case with Broken City.

Years ago, Taggart was a cop that shot a man. He claims the man had a gun; others say the victim did not. And while the claims against Taggart are dismissed, that doesn't stop his boss (Jeffrey Wright) from kicking him off the force. Just before that happens, Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) makes it clear that he thinks Taggart is a hero and promises to call on him somewhere down the line. Years later, Taggart is a struggling private investigator, married to an actress (Natalie Martinez), and working with a plucky assistant (Alona Tal), who is clearly the better match for him, although they never act on it. And then the call from the mayor's office comes and Taggart is offered $50,000 to spy on the mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom the mayor believes is cheating on him.

The mayor is running for re-election against a young upstart named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), and if you guessed that what the mayor's wife is up to might be tied to the looming election, you'd be right. Right as the details of dirty dealing on the mayor's are beginning to unfold, Taggart must attend the premiere of his wife's first starring role in an independent film. We find out that he went into a alcohol-fueled tailspin after losing his job, and he's be clean and sober for several years in large part to keep the affections of his wife. But seeing her on screen in a sex scene with another man, combined with the mounting pressures of this new case, drive him right into pounding shots at a bar where his wife and her fellow cast mates are celebrating their film. The scene gets ugly fast as Billy's latent jealousy springs to the forefront.

I'm not exactly sure why this aspect of the story was especially necessary, and weirdly enough when the wife character leaves the film at this point, she never returns. It feels like a huge open door that never gets shut (I'm guessing there's cut footage somewhere that wraps up the plotline, but that would have extended the film for the wrong reasons.) Truly the most interesting relationship in the film is between Taggart and assistant Katy. I've only seen Tal in one film before, the Mexican horror film Undocumented, but what she's doing here is much different. She's pretty, but that isn't her greatest strength. She goes toe to toe with both Taggart about letting clients pay after the case is done, and she isn't afraid to rip a deadbeat client a new one if necessary.

But the key scenes in Broken City are between Crowe and Wahlberg. If memory serves, there are about four of them in total, and I'm pretty sure Crowe is drinking in all of them. He's got a bad haircut, a disturbing spray-on tan (I assume), and he's the crown prince of slick politicians. Their scenes are a little scattershot, but I actually liked that they weren't totally polished. These are two aggressive actors bouncing each other's style off one another, and it's kind of fun and reckless to observe. When the film sticks to the main story of the investigation, it works as a solid drama, with a few quirky touches courtesy of Wahlberg. When he shoots a guy in the back of the leg and then hold up his hands and says, "That was an accident" (when clearly is wasn't), it made me really laugh.

Broken City has a fell like a lot of the paranoia-fueled political drama from the post-Watergate 1970s, when no one trusted anyone, especially the government and police. But the stakes here don't feel quite as weighty. And despite all of the personal faults that Taggart has on full display, I still don't feel like got to know him or care about whether he got caught for what he did all those years ago. Director Allen Hughes (who, as half of the Hughes Brothers, directed such great films as Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, From Hell, and Book of Eli) is gifted when it come to putting together a scene and making it look great, but there's something missing from this movie -- call it a soul, something for us to actually attach ourselves to. There's enough going on here to just barely recommend Broken City, but in this time between the nominations and the Academy Awards, movie theaters are flooded with better product. And until you've seen all of those, you can probably skip this one.

To ready my exclusive interview with Broken City star Mark Wahlberg and director Allen Hughes, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Mama

The big "mystery" of the wonderfully atmospheric and chilling ghost story Mama -- namely "Who is Mama?" -- isn't really much of a mystery at all. Some details get filled in in the final act, but Mama's identity is spelled out fairly early on. But that question isn't really the point of this Guillermo del Toro-executive produced work. On the surface, the film is about a ghost that seems to protect two little girls living with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of "Game of Thrones") and his decided non-parental girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, being rendered almost unrecognizable in a short-cropped black hairstyle and loads of eyeliner). What the film is really tackling is the much more important connection that forms between the young girls and Annabel, who grows to care for these strange rugrats.

Mama opens with sisters Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) being taken by their depressed father (also played by Coster-Waldau; I guess the brothers are twins) for a ride on icy mountainous roads after having gone on a shooting rampage at his office and home, killing a co-worker and his wife. His company has sunk into financial ruin, and his next mission is to put his daughters out of their misery. They land up in a rundown cabin deep in the woods, and just as he's about to shoot Victoria, a terrifying specter floats into the room and grabs him, never to be seen again.

Skipping ahead five years, Lucas has never stopped searching for his brother and nieces, and when a small search party find the girls in the cabin still alive but totally feral, the process to bring them back to the real world begins. Victoria adjusts the best because she was fairly grown up, but little Lilly hadn't even learned to speak when she went missing, and is the most unbridled. But how did they stay alive? They were fed and taken care of by something they refer to as "Mama," a presence that the girls' psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) believes is an imaginary friend or something that manifests itself through Lilly.

Annabel is the bass player in a punk rock band and has no interest in having or raising kids. One early scene has her thrilled to death to find out she's not pregnant. But she also loves her boyfriend, and is strangely moved by the girls' plight. Not that she doesn't complain about suddenly being the mother of two. And after a accident at their house sends Lucas to the hospital for a time, Annabel becomes a single mother of two decidedly weird kids. But as time passes, the three ladies grow closer, and Chastain is a strong and subtle enough actor to allow her character to slowly allow these girls into her heart. What surprised me most about Mama is its emotional component; I'd say there's a 50/50 chance you might cry at the end of this film, and you probably wouldn't be alone.

The Mama creature in all its double-jointed, watery splendor, thanks to Javier Botet (yes, Mama is played by a man), follows the girls to their new home and proceeds to pester the new guardians (and us) via one scary moment after another. But we learn early on that Mama is more than just a scary creature; she's a deadly one as well. And while her motivations are a bit vague, she makes for one of the more terrifying horror film monsters in recent memory.

I don't feel the scenes with the psychologist work quite as well as the rest of the film, but I have a soft spot for scare films that bring in outside help to explain things. There may be too much emphasis on explanation in Mama, but that doesn't make it any less tense or scream inducing. The low-key elements that act as a harbinger for Mama's appearances are effective, if not especially creative, and the Mama character herself is a beautiful mix of practical and minimal CG (mostly in her hair). There's a dopey subplot involving Lucas's sister-in-law trying to get custody of the kids that goes nowhere, but she's only in three quick scenes, and between the first time I saw the film at Butt Numb-a-Thon about a month ago and the second time more recently, I'd forgotten about her character entirely.

I've been fortunate enough in the last month and half to have seen three quite different performances by Jessica Chastain: her Oscar-nominated work in Zero Dark Thirty, this film, and her Broadway debut in "The Heiress." Honestly, she such a chameleon that an untrained eye might have believed these roles were inhabited by three different actors, and not just because of her three distinct looks in these works. Chastain adapts so completely to each role that it's like watching her vanish into each new body.

As Annabel, she rough around the edges at first, slightly sexually aggressive with her man (it's only a PG-13 film, so don't get too excited), and seems eager to defend her new girls against whatever seems to want to take them away. For those who don't frequent horror films, we don't often get performances this strong in them, so when one presents itself, we cling to it. Mama is sometimes terrifying, often touching, and quite a beautiful film in its grayish hues and wooded settings. First-time feature director Andrés Muschietti (who co-wrote the film with his sister Barbara and Neil Cross) has taken the time to get it right, and cares as much about the audience becoming invested in the fates of these characters (including Mama) as he does about making us jump in our seats. Here's hoping this is a good omen for horror offerings to come in 2013.

The Last Stand

Rather than talk about talking about The Last Stand as Arnold Schwarzenegger's full-fledged return to starring roles in films (excluding his supporting/cameo roles in the Expendables movies), I'm going to try to attempt to review this as just a new action film. Having Schwarzenegger in it doesn't automatically make the movie better, especially since very little about The Last Stand reminds me of his older action work. His Sheriff Ray Owens is an old man (he admits as much) who moved from Los Angeles to Sommerton Junction, Arizona to get away from the death-defying violence of the big city. Unlike many of Arnold's other characters, he'd rather not get involved in any fire fights, fist fights, or car chases. He wants the worst thing he deals with in his week to be throwing drunks in the tank for a weekend.

Turns out Sheriff Owens used to lead an elite task force of the LAPD, but after a bust went bad and all of his team was killed or crippled in the process, he departed in a hurry. In the 24 hours or so that this movie takes place, most of the townsfolk are heading out of town to attend a football game, leaving Owens and his three deputies alone to mind the fort. Although the film isn't big on character development, it is nice to see Arnold kick back for the first chapter of The Last Stand so we can get to know his demeanor, routines, and priorities as a lawman.

But it doesn't take long for him to get a call from FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) that escaped federal prisoner and noted Mexican drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is heading for his bordertown in a Corvette that goes 200 mph. An advance team of baddies (led by the always insane Peter Stormare has already gone through to build makeshift bridge over a deep ravine at the border where Cortez will cross, so this is his only possible route. After the FBI fails to get a SWAT team to take out Cortez in his car (he has kidnapped an agent, played by Genesis Rodriguez, and is driving with her), it's up to the good sheriff and his deputies, including ones played by Luis Guzmán and Thor's Jaimie Alexander.

Equally important as The Last Stand being Schwarzenegger's big return to leading-man status, the movies is also the English-language debut of the great South Korean director Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; I Saw the Devil), who isn't actually known for action set pieces quite like the ones here. The film does not skimp on the blood and guts; when someone gets shot in the head, there's a big hole and lots of red spray. The hand-to-hand fights are just as brutal, especially the climactic showdown between Owens and Cortez on the aforementioned bridge. Kim keeps things rolling at an impressive pace, but also is good at giving us a few minutes to catch our breath between the shooting and other forms of destruction.

I know many action filmmakers believe a film this serious needs some comic relief, but I was in a great deal of pain every time Johnny Knoxville showed his face on screen, and I saw that as someone that tends to like him more often than not. He's just a dumb dude, who also happens to be the town gun nut. He's more a plot device than a character, and the fact that he has amassed a huge arsenal of weapons that our heroes can use to defend the town and try to stop Cortez from passing through is the only reason the character exists. Along with the town drunk and former soldier, played by Rodrigo Santoro, Knoxville is deputized during the siege and add virtually nothing to the movie.

No, the dialogue isn't that great, and far too many of the characters (including every FBI agent) is incompetent or stupid, but The Last Stand has quite a few excellent action sequences, some beautifully shot moments (courtesy of South Korean cinematographer Ji-yong Kim), and a solid lead performance by Schwarzenegger that keeps his one-liners to a minimum and his eye on the action. I was especially impressed visually with a car chance sequence in a corn field; the way it's handled is actually borderline inspiring. The film has its flaws and shortcomings, but I like that Arnold is beginning his true comeback playing someone who begins the film so dialed back -- even if he does ramp up quickly. The Last Stand is a great deal of truly violent, R-rated fun, and it doesn't need to be anything more.

West of Memphis

If you don't know at least the basic facts in the case of the West Memphis 3, it's probably because you a) don't live in the United States, or b) actively chose to ignore them. In either event, the first 30 minutes or so of the new documentary about their fight for justice and fairness in the criminal justice system, West of Memphis, does an excellent job summing up this strange-than-fiction tale that began with the horrific murder of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas about 20 years ago.

Feeling the need to rush to capture someone in connection with these killings, the West Memphis police arrested three young men -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley -- not that much older than the dead boys, and slapped together a case based on false testimony, bad science, and a deeply flawed investigation. The case and trial was the focus of the great documentary trilogy Paradise Lost, a series that caught the attention of many a celebrity and made the freeing of these three men a cause for many. Echols was something of the focal point of the case, because many believed the reason the men were found guilty was because they listened to heavy-metal music, wore black, and had an interest in alternative religions. Works like "cult" and "devil worship" and "sacrifice" were tossed around by the prosecution, and Echols was sentenced to death.

What separates West of Memphis from the Paradise Lost films is its focus on an independent investigation -- paid for in large part by filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (producers on this film) -- that tore apart the prosecution's case and unearthed new evidence that left it clear that a wild miscarriage of justice has taken place. The movie also spends a great deal of time with architect Lorri Davis, who left her job, married Echols, and devoted her life to seeing that he was released from prison. Writer-director Amy Berg (who received an Oscar nomination for 2006's exposé on the Catholic church's treatment of child-molesting priests, Deliver Us From Evil) gets access that the Paradise Lost team simply didn't get, and as a result the three men who spent 18 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit get the real day in court that the state of Arkansas never afforded them. Not only that, but the investigators turn up evidence as to alternative suspect in the case, and even have his conflicting testimony (on tape) to back it up.

On of many shocking moments in West of Memphis is the original presiding judge refusing to have another trial with all of this new and conflicting evidence, essentially because doing so would make him look like a fool. Berg does a remarkable job laying out the case -- placing bad evidence next to good and presenting the efforts to raise money for this new defense thanks to musicians, actors and other artists (such as Eddie Veddar, Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp) holding tribute concerts and simply stumping for the cause.

There's a moment shortly after the original judge makes his ruling that Echols falls into the deepest physical and emotional hole since this ordeal began, since he's now convinced that his road to appealing his death sentence has ended. But when he and his two friends are finally released, the sheer force of relief (mixed with a bit of disbelief) is overwhelming to everyone involved, including the audience. West of Memphis is as skillful a procedural as any work of fiction, and it's slightly shocking that is wasn't nominated for an Academy Award this year (it didn't even make the short list). There's no account for taste, but the film is opening wider now, and it's a perfect closing statement to this harrowing mess of a story. Now if only the cops would arrest the real murderer. The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with West of Memphis producers and subjects Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, go to Ain't It Cool News.

LUV

I've written before about that rare experience of watching a film you know absolutely nothing about going in, and that was certainly the case of the director/co-writer Sheldon Candis' new work LUV. All I know about this one going in was that it starred hip-hop artist Common, whose work as an actor has been largely appealing to me in such films as Smokin' Aces, Street Kings, American Gangster, Wanted, and even Terminator Salvation. But in LUV, he's taking on a lead role so different from what he's done before that you can't help but be impressed. In it he plays a recently released convict named Vincent, who is living in Baltimore with his mother (Lonette McKee) and his sister's 11-year-old kid Woody (played by newcomer Michael Rainey Jr.).

Vincent is ready to put his criminal past behind him, and he's on the verge of getting a small-business loan from the bank to start his own restaurant. And while the bank tells him his papers are in order, it turns out that his mother's house (which he put up for collateral) is behind on its mortgage payments by several thousand dollars. He's given the weekend to come up with the cash or the loan will be rejected, forcing Vincent to turn to his criminal past to come up with the money in a hurry. At the same time, he has been asked by his mother to take care of his nephew for the day, which should mean dropping him off and picking him up from school. Instead, Vincent decides to keep the kid with him for the day to school him in a different sense, and as he goes from drug dealers to killers to older men bordering on organized crime leaders, young Woody learns lessons about how the street works, how to behave, how to be perceived as a threat, and eventually, how to be an actual threat.

Everything Vincent is exposing Woody to is horrible and wrong, but it's also hopelessly mesmerizing. Having a child in the mix adds so much more to the drama than it would have if it were just adults, and the film maintains a level of gripping tension that never lets up. Seasoned actors like Charles S. Dutton, Danny Glover, and Dennis Haysbert show up for key scenes in Woody's street education, but I was particularly impressed with Haysbert's spin as Vincent old boss, who wonders how Vincent was able to turn a 20-year sentence into only a few years. Many assume that Vincent snitched, which makes his a target. But we quickly learn that one of Vincent's primary jobs in the crime world of Baltimore was as a trigger man for Haybert's Mr. Fish character, so he knows how to defend himself. Michael K. Williams (Omar from "The Wire" and Chalky White on "Boardwalk Empire") is also quite good as the detective who is certain Vincent is up to no good and is following him, hoping he'll violate his parole.

There are some that are going to react poorly to seeing Vincent teaching Woody how to shoot a gun (those same people will probably react even worse when Woody puts his newly acquired skills to use later in the film). But in the context of this story, it works; it's supposed to unnerve us to see this. And Rainey is a gifted young actor who knows how to play a vulnerable kid, learning to deal with his junkie absentee mother and the kids at school who make fun of him for it. But he also knows how to turn on the street smarts and attitude, especially in one truly terrifying scene where he and Vincent conduct a drug deal.

LUV is being released as part of the AMC Independent project, in which truly indie films are given a screen in many of the chain's multiplexes, so you don't necessarily have to have an art house theater near you to see this remarkable little movie. However disturbing certain aspects of this story are, it still managed to sweep me away and captivate me completely with its boldness and uncompromising vision from a talented new director.

 
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