Survivors Guide to Prison (2017)

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America’s criminal justice system is badly broken. In fact, it’s a travesty of racism, graft, and corruption. There are more people serving time in the United States than in any other country, a whopping 2.2 million. That’s more than the number of people currently enrolled in an American college or university. 13 million U.S. citizens are arrested every year. That’s the populations of New York and Los Angeles combined. Arrested, every year. Disturbingly, 95% of all convictions result in plea bargains—actual trials are the stuff of movies these days—and often those plea bargains involve innocent people admitting guilt in order to get a reduced sentence.
     People like Bruce Lisker. He served 22 years in jail for allegedly killing his mother before being exonerated and released. His mom died from stab wounds in the hospital while Bruce was being interrogated by the Sherman Oaks police he had called for help. He was a long-haired kid who looked like he smoked pot. He was also innocent.
     And Reggie Cole. He also served time—16 years—for a murder he didn’t commit. Forced to kill another inmate in self defense, Reggie miraculously found an attorney for his new trial who also unearthed evidence to overturn his original conviction.
     Matthew Cooke’s hard-hitting documentary Survivors Guide to Prison, which is a less jovial DIY experience than its title might imply, primarily presents Lisker’s and Cole’s cases as textbook examples of the injustice rampant in the U.S. prison system.
     When interviewed for the film, civil rights lawyer and Stanford law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, explains the troubling stats this way: “People suggest that anywhere between three or ten or fifteen percent of people behind bars could be innocent of the crimes of which they were charged. The reality is that thousands of people every year in the United States wind up pleading guilty to crimes they may not have committed because they’re either railroaded by police officers who give them false information or coerce confessions, or because they’re afraid of facing harsh mandatory minimum sentences and believe their best chance is to just take a plea.”
     So what if you’re not a murderer or a rapist or a thief yet find yourself arrested and in danger of being locked up? You’re going to need some guidance…
     Executive produced by Susan Sarandon (who also narrates), Cooke’s film features commentary from such luminaries as Danny Trejo, Patricia Arquette, Deepak Chopra, RZA, Quincy Jones, Macklemore, Q-Tip, Danny Glover, Busta Rhymes, Ice-T, Tom Morello, Russell Simmons, B-Real, Warren G., Chuck D., Jesse Williams, Brandon Boyd, and others bent on exposing the shocking truth. These celebrities offer practical advice for surviving county jail. Tips such as: post bail (“the first thing you want to do is get out”), prepare for violation (“mind your own business and be respectful”), stick with your race and join a gang (“nearly one in ten prisoners suffers sexual abuse”), beware prosecutorial misconduct (“there’s no deterrents, there’s no oversight, there’s no punishment for prosecutors so they can break the law”), ask if you’re being detained, never talk without an attorney, don’t blindly trust authority figures… The list goes on. And it’s all managed with flair and matter-of-fact clarity by writer-director Cooke, who appears on film as a charismatic co-narrator.
     If you’re innocent—better yet, white skinned and economically advantaged—you may never need to apply these sanguine recommendations. But as you are more likely to be sent to prison in the United States than in any other country, the film serves not only as a sobering public service announcement but as an incisive indictment of a system clearly in need of complete and dramatic overhaul.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Looking Glass (2018)

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Don’t look now, but movies in which a grieving couple struggle with the loss of a child rarely end well. Donald Sutherland, for one, might have wished he’d stayed home and drained the pond rather than taken that trip to Venice with Julie Christie in 1973.
     In the new straight-to-VOD thriller Looking Glass, Ray (Nicolas Cage) and Maggie (Robin Tunney) also have a dead daughter to contend with. They decide to switch gears dramatically and buy a motel, one way out in the middle of the desert. (“I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.”) “Night Owls Sleep Here” reads the sign out front. Apparently that’s not all they do.
     Ray discovers a hidden crawl space while doing his rounds, a crawl space with a one-way mirror into room 10 at the end of it. He seems more surprised by the crawl space than by the one-way mirror but there you go. Maggie has a headache one night so Ray crawls through his space to see what the occupants of room 10 are up to.
     For some reason, just about every patron of the Motor Way Motel wants to stay in that room (it’s on the end, so quieter maybe?). Truck driver Tommy (Ernie Lively, Blake’s Dad), who regularly brings women who aren’t his daughters (he chuckles) back to his room at night. And a strawberry blonde (Kassia Conway; her character is credited as Strawberry Blonde) who specifically asks for the room by name (well, by number at least). Even Jessica (Jacque Gray; her character is credited as Jessica ‘Room 6’) is moved into room 10 at one point. Good thing for Ray, this focus on the compromised quarters since, unbeknownst to his wife, he likes to watch. But then a guest winds up dead on the news.
     Alice? I’ve a feeling we’re not in Wonderland anymore.
     The best thing about Looking Glass, which is serviceable to a point (it makes it about halfway through before realizing it doesn’t have much of a story to tell), is the fact that Cage dials it down—way down—for this one. And it’s nice to see Tunney again, whose performance satisfies despite her having drawn the mom-in-mourning card. But the film needs more fizz, more pizazz, and TV director Tim Hunter doesn’t appear to be up to the challenge. A dead pig in the pool? Sure. A little Sapphic S&M? Why not. A few inbred-looking red herrings hanging around the gas station across the way? Couldn’t hurt. But these—along with a reeled-in Nicolas Cage—are not nearly enough.
     There are plenty of “intense voyeuristic thriller”s out there, of course—far superior ones like Rear Window, Peeping Tom, and Blue Velvet. But if your tastes lean more towards movies (with bonus titular allusions to Lewis Carroll!) that pay more than mere lip service to their distraught parental protagonists, check out Rabbit Hole instead. Either way you’ll be better off.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

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“When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for.” —Daniel Blake
     After spending the better part of three agonizing months battling the rampant bureaucracy of Her Majesty’s Passport Office, I felt a particular affinity towards the title character—sympathetically played by Dave Johns—in Ken Loach’s latest drama, I, Daniel Blake. If someone with means and privilege can come as close to losing his self-respect, then what chance have those without the resources or the temperament or the know-how?
     The “lovely man” realized by Johns has some additional challenges: he has never used a computer or the internet; he can’t grasp the point of answering endless, irrelevant questions about his health; he’s low on cash and he has no family to support him.
     After suffering a major heart attack, this 59-year-old carpenter falls headlong into the paradoxical schism of looking for employment he’s not well enough to perform in order to obtain JSA (Jobseeker’s Allowance) benefits he genuinely needs—he’s been denied disability even though his doctors have declared him unfit for work. Adrift in an inhumane sea of forever reddening tape, Daniel steadfastly refuses to be bullied by a barrage of petty pencil pushers. By happenstance, he encounters and befriends a single mom (Hayley Squires) and her two young children at the local Jobcentre, taking them under his wing. This grandfatherly role gives Daniel a sort of family to care about. Katie is also victim to a system seemingly designed to grind good people down, to strip them of their dignity and value as human beings.
     I, Daniel Blake is a beautifully rendered film, heartbreaking and heartwarming almost simultaneously, ripe with simple human emotions and delicate social observations. Typical of the director’s journeyman approach, you feel like you’re watching a documentary most of the time. Johns is wonderfully real, frustrated yet defiantly positive with a strong sense of responsibility and fairness. Squires complements him perfectly—Katie is caring and compassionate, a hardworking mother (her breakdown in a food pantry strikes a hammer blow to the gut). Plaudits should also go to frequent Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, whose on-point screenplay is ferociously moving and tender, with unexpected pockets of humor.
     The film took the Palme D’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (Loach’s second top honor in that competition after 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley), further cementing his reputation as a socially-relevant filmmaker. With I, Daniel Blake, the veteran British director wanted to expose “the Kafka-esque, catch-22” structure of the British welfare system, one he believes to be “designed to frustrate and humiliate the claimant to such an extent that they drop out of the system and stop pursuing their right to ask for support if necessary.” To that end, ’Daniel Blake is a masterful achievement. It’s also a damn fine movie.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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It’s not hard to imagine the pitch meeting over at MGM:
     “OK, here’s the deal. We remake… [drawing an imaginary theater marquee in the air] The Magnificent Seven! Right? Hell, even it was a remake so everybody’ll know the story already. This thing’ll write itself. We’ll see if we can get Denzel in it. He’s good. And Chris Pratt. He’s available. And Matt Bomer—everyone loves Matt Bomer. And J-Law—she can play Matt’s wife. And we can throw in an Asian guy and a Mexican guy and a Native American guy… Oh, and a crazy old white guy—how fun is that? We’ll get the rights to Elmer’s music over the end credits, to remind everyone how good the original was, you know? The one with Yul Brynner and that other guy… I’ve already spoken to Antoine and he’s on board. He says he can probably do it for under a hundred which is huge. Whaddya think? Box office gold, right?”
     Sporting a cast that does, indeed, include Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, plus Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio, and helmed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, the 2016 remake of the classic 1960 western The Magnificent Seven should have been if not magnificent then at least modestly competent, even mildly entertaining. It is neither. Mediocre is the kindest thing one can say about this cornball attempt to cash in on a brand name. It has no reason for being, no charm or style, just lots of gunplay and occasional sad attempts to appear hip and modern and relevant. The jokes fall flatter than Chris Pratt’s embarrassing attempts to play loveable.
     Completing the septet of gunslingers hired by a grieving—yet sassy!—widow (Haley Bennett) to rid her town of a nefarious land grubber (Peter Sarsgaard, eyes tucked under the brim of his Stetson in an attempt to look ultra mean) are Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier as the exiled Comanche warrior they recruit along the way. Matt Bomer must have RSVPed late; he doesn’t get to be one of the 7 and is dispensed with early on, rather foolishly from a leading man standpoint. Jennifer Lawrence must have had other commitments—or more sense—so they cast a lookalike (Bennett) instead.
     I did see something I’ve never seen in a western before. After dispatching, oh, about a hundred bad guys, Red Harvest reaches into his quiver and realizes… he’s run out of arrows! Yes way. This, of course, is a long time after the filmmakers ran out of ideas. This ‘Seven is magnificent all right. A magnificent mess.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

The Light of the Moon (2017)

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With the national conversation about sexual assault raging, it’s a no-brainer to call the rape-and-its-aftermath drama The Light of the Moon timely. But the brains behind this small, intimate film—first-time writer/director Jessica M. Thompson especially, and its star, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz—are formidable. This is a film that skillfully avoids melodrama, delivering a thoughtful and no-frills meditation that feels personal and credible and, yes, maybe even helpful to those dealing with life-altering trauma.
     After a night out with her friends, Bonnie (Beatriz), a successful Brooklyn architect, is attacked while walking the short distance home. It’s a tough scene to watch, as Bonnie is grabbed from behind, bundled into an alley, and thrust up against a wall. Her quickly bruising face, on which the camera lingers, tells all, as initial shock first turns to confusion, then fear, then abject horror. This expertly-staged scene is brief, but not one we’re likely to forget. Bonnie’s boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David, Narcos) realizes that this was more than just a mugging when Bonnie is processed by the police: swabbed, bagged, and questioned repeatedly. The questions become a second attack, implying some level of culpability on Bonnie’s part—how much, exactly, did you have to drink? Any drugs? Were you wearing your headphones? How did you not see the man’s face? Could this have been the same man you flirted with at the club?
     In the weeks following the attack, Bonnie struggles to return to living life on her own terms, refusing to let the incident redefine her. And she also struggles with Matt’s confused concern. The surprisingly sensitive scenes in which the couple attempt to re-establish some semblance of intimacy are especially believable. Throughout the film, which does an excellent job of showing how the rape pervades Bonnie’s life, Thompson uses some subtle but effective techniques to illustrate her condition—sounds trailing off, images blurring. These are never overplayed.
     One of the film’s biggest strengths, of course, is Beatriz. Recently wasted in Heather Graham’s unfortunate empowerment piece Half Magic (which was fully terrible), she’s exceptional here, creating a complex character who just wants life to return to how it was before, to get the old, non-smothering Matt back (Stahl-David is decent, but can’t match Beatriz’s range). It’s a difficult role to play, that of victim-survivor, but Beatriz nails it. Over the course of the picture she’s asked to be funny, sad, outraged, devastated, tender, controlled, and smart.
     With The Light of the Moon, director Thompson has crafted an intelligent and, yes, timely drama that is never preachy and rarely showy. It’s a terrifically-assured debut feature.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Kill Order (2017)

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David Lee is a cute high school kid with a deadly secret. He has nightmares of a burning man, symptom of some under-the-table neurological experimentation since he was yea high. When threatened, his pupils dilate and change color and he becomes an unstoppable, one-man killing machine, kind of like The Incredible Hulk only without the hulk. Someone, somewhere, must have implanted a Kill Order in his brain. David first learns of his subconscious killer instincts when a heavily-armed SWAT team invades his Psych 101 class and the puzzled student leaves no SWAT team member unturned. But what is all this? How did he develop these mad skills? And where will it all lead, or end? Kill Order is a slickly-produced bit of hokum from writer/director James Mark, a former fight coordinator and stunt performer on such films as Pacific Rim (2013), Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008). It shows. There’s a lot of hand-to-hand combat in the film, lots of spinning and kicking and flipping, but you’d be hard pressed to find a whole lot more than that in its scant 77-minute running time. David does use swords and sticks occasionally, but it’s mostly feet and fists—I might have dozed off a couple of times but I swear whenever I started awake there was David kicking someone in the head. Chop chop, sock sock, crime scene. David is played by Chris Mark. “Chris is known for his work on Kill Order (2017), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), and The Hunger Games (2012).” He’s pretty young. And, like his big brother David (and boss on this picture), Chris is also a stuntman. One of the film’s earlier taglines was “He has no name. Only purpose” but they changed that to “The Perfect Weapon. The Ultimate Target.” Probably because everyone in the film calls David “David.” As for its plot, Kill Order plays suspiciously like 2015’s American Ultra (which also featured a dude who doesn’t realize he’s a highly-trained sleeper assassin). I liked that movie better; it had better characters and better tone and it was a lot more fun to watch. Kill Order isn’t terrible, but it will likely appeal more to those who prefer their martial arts mayhem free of such contrivances.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Angst (1983)

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Controversial filmmaker Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Enter the Void, Love) recently cited the little-known 1983 Austrian serial killer movie Angst (which had finally seen a DVD release) as one of his favorite films, praising it thusly: “It’s got the most amazing camera work in the history of cinema. Not so many movies that really impress when it comes to the camera work… But the camera work of this movie is so real. It added to a very violent story… And it’s got a [unique] voiceover. But the mix of that cruelty, the voiceover, and the camera put in positions that you’ve never seen before made me be obsessed with the movie.” The film’s cinematography, by Oscar-winning Polish animator/experimentalist Zbigniew Rybczynski (who is also credited as co-screenwriter with director Gerald Kargl), is special indeed. Rybczynski’s camera is literally all over the place—frequent, soaring aerial assaults by crane when you don’t half expect them; roving dollies from underneath or astride the action; fluid, angular tracking shots that follow our protagonist (an effective and emaciated Erwin Leder from Das Boot) as he scours the Viennese streets searching for victims, and even reverse-strapped to Leder himself, so that we see the psycho killer coming at us from mere inches away, way too up close and impersonal. And it’s got a pulsating electronic score by krautrock wunderkind Klaus Schulze which adds immensely to the creep factor. Noé is clearly enamored of Kargl’s film, one which he claims to have seen upwards of 50 times, and its influence on his own forays into controversial cinema is without question. For example, the Cult Epics release of Angst features an optically-restored tunnel murder scene that clearly lays the groundwork for Noé’s similarly sickening underpass sequence in Irréversible (2002). Noé picked his inspiration well: Angst provides an unusual perspective on the machinations of a disturbed individual by the strength of its techniques—camera, score, internal narration—and it remains a fascinating experience despite the sordid subject matter.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com