There isn't much subtlety to this prison thriller, but it's edgy enough to hold the interest as it follows a fine, upstanding man behind bars and transforms him into a criminal mastermind. If the premise sounds familiar, perhaps you've seen Jacques Audiard's soulful 2009 masterpiece A Prophet. Well, this is more like a blow to the head. And by emphasising the characters' thuggishness over anything more nuanced, filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch) seems to betray the fact that he thinks brutality is inherently entertaining.
The story centres on Jacob (Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a successful banker with a happy home life with his wife and son (Lake Bell and Jonathan McClendon). Then he's involved in a drunk-driving incident and convicted of manslaughter. And in jail he's adopted by the white supremacist gang, pushed to commit such nasty violence that he cuts off all contact with his family when he's finally released a decade or so later. But he also clearly has a plan now, hiding from his tough-guy parole officer Kutcher (Omari Hardwick) to set up a dodgy operation with former prison-mate Frank (Jon Bernthal) and young military veteran Howie (Emory Cohen). Orchestrating all of this is the big boss (Holt McCallany), who is imprisoned for life.
Thankfully, the actors all add texture to their characters, bringing them to life even if the movie itself seems uninterested in anything beneath the surface. Coster-Waldau is terrific at capturing Jacob's inner decency and steely survival instinct as he transforms from a slick financial analyst into a muscled killing machine. But of course it's his internal journey that is far more interesting. Hardwick and Bernthal are solid as tough guys who feel a bit simplistic. But Bell has some properly steely moments as a woman who simply won't give up on her man even when he tells her to, and Cohen finds some intriguing layers in the quirky, shell-shocked Howie.
Continue reading: Shot Caller Review
This may look like a rather typical American indie thriller, but British filmmaker Christopher Smith (Severance) takes a bracingly inventive approach to telling the story. The result is a film that pulls us in and challenges us with ideas and emotions that are deeply resonant, even as the plot builds a gripping sense of tension. And in addition to the twisty, tricky filmmaking style, the performances carry a striking emotional kick.
It opens in Los Angeles, where law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) is convinced that his stepfather Vincent (Stephen Moyer) is a monster. Not only might be be responsible for the car crash that put Harper's mother in a coma, but he's planning a dirty weekend in Las Vegas with a waitress. Then as Harper hatches a plan to do something about this, he meets the mercurial thug Johnny (Emory Cohen), and convinces him to drive to Nevada with him to give Vincent the comeuppance he deserves. But their trip is complicated when Johnny brings his stripper girlfriend Cherry (Bel Powley) along, especially since Harper is clearly smitten. And while all of this is happening, Harper is imagining how he might also handle this on his own.
These flickering internalised scenes give the film a kind of Sliding Doors-style tone, showing both what is and what might have been. But Smith has a surprise in store in the way he brings these strands together, redefining both the plot and the characters to pull us in even more deeply. It helps that the three central actors deliver hugely compelling performances. In another riveting turn, Sheridan anchors the film with a beautifully layered performance that's powerfully sympathetic even when Harper does something nasty. Cohen is also terrific in a flashier role as the charismatic hothead, while Powley cleverly holds back to bring out Cherry's more intriguing angles later in the story.
Continue reading: Detour Review
The Duel is an American Western film starring Liam Hemsworth who is cast as David Kingston a Texas Ranger who is sent to the Old West frontier town of Helena to investigate a series of murders that have taken place in recent years. The town is led by charismatic preacher Abraham Brant who is played by Woody Harrelson and the undercover investigation soon becomes personal for Kingston as he realises that Brant could be responsible for the death of his father.
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Director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby never even try to temper the flood of emotions that this story elicits, instead wading straight in. Thankfully, they manage to resist sentimentality at every step, although perhaps some more offhanded, edgy humour would have helped balance it better. Because as is, this film can be rather overwhelming at times, thanks to the sensitive, honest performances from the cast and a subject most people can identify with: how it feels to leave home.
It opens in 1950, as Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is reluctantly preparing to leave her home and family in rural Ireland for a new life in New York City, arranged with the help of an Irish priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). As she settles into the boarding house run by Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters), she gets a department store job and starts studying bookkeeping, all of which helps take her mind off her homesickness. She also meets the persistent, charming Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), and they fall lustily in love. Just as life doesn't seem so bad after all, Eilis gets bad news and has to travel home to see her family. There, she meets the eligible bachelor Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). And now she will have to make a decision about where her home is.
The film's tone is open and emotive from the very start, with warmly glowing cinematography, a surging musical score and lots of over-serious conversations. The hills of Ireland have never looked so green, the bustling streets of Brooklyn never seemed quite so exciting. There are some comedic touches here and there, but the main tone here can be summed up in the word "yearning". This is a film that's easy to identify with for anyone who has ever moved away from home, especially as it explores conflicting loyalties and unexpected opportunities. These themes are much stronger than the romantic triangle that drives the film forward.
Continue reading: Brooklyn Review
Taking your first steps into adulthood is never easy, but for a young Irish woman named Eilis Lacey it's about to get more complicated than she ever could have imagined. She is encouraged to travel across the Atlantic to Brooklyn, New York by her local priest Father Flood, seeking opportunities and a promising career. Once there she settles into a job and a place of residence, but becomes overcome by homesickness when she starts to receive letters from home. Confused about whether or not she wants to continue her life in Brooklyn, the question is answered for her when she meets a handsome bachelor named Tony at a dance who is everything she could want in a partner. However, after tragedy strikes at home, she is forced to return, and she really can't be sure if she'll make it back to Brooklyn - especially when a former flame catches her eye once again.
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With a strangely simplistic screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), director Rupert Wyatt and his cast struggle to dig beneath the surface in a meaningful way. Mark Wahlberg does what he can in the lead role as a self-destructive gambling addict, but since he's never remotely likeable it's impossible to care what happens to him. It's decently made, but without strong characters or a resonant message the movie ultimately feels like a vanity project that's gone wrong somewhere along the way.
Wahlberg plays Jim, a swaggering university professor who torments his brightest student Amy (Larson) in front of the whole class. But she knows that he's also unable to pass a blackjack table without losing a small fortune. And it's probably money he owes to someone. Indeed, he's accruing such severe debts to a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams) that he turns to his millionaire mother (Jessica Lange) for help, knowing that if she gives him the cash he'll gamble it away before settling his accounts. So he also turns to tough loan shark Frank (John Goodman), who stresses to Jim the importance of paying up and getting out of the betting world for good. But Jim seems incapable of even a shred of self-control.
It's virtually impossible to connect with a character this one-sided. Aside from his literary intelligence, there's nothing remotely redeeming about Jim, so it's difficult to escape the feeling that he's getting just what he deserves. And it gets worse when he starts romancing Amy, a nubile girl barely half his age. Wahlberg never plays Jim as anything but an unapologetic loser who has orchestrated his own misfortune. So why should we care what happens to him? At least the side characters interject a bit of complexity, most notably Lange and Goodman, who command the entire film with just a couple of scenes each. The usually terrific Larson barely registers in an underwritten role that makes very little logical sense.
Continue reading: The Gambler Review
Jim Bennett is an English professor at a college and he's also always been one for taking risks. By day he is the sensible, bookish type but by night his life is a dangerous spiral of gambling huge amounts of money to dire consequences. As the gambler he is, he takes a chance in asking his bank to loan him a quarter of a million dollars in order for him to pay back a gangster so that he may stay alive, but when that fails he is forced to take on the services of a loan shark named Frank. Meanwhile, his relationship with his mother is getting tenser and tenser by the day as she wishes more than anything for her little boy to be safe. Also, it seems a student of his named Amy Phillips has discovered his secret life, but wants more than anything for him to take her out to dinner even if it will wreck his school reputation.
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Mainstream audiences may be disappointed that this isn't a gritty thriller pitting the acting talents of Gosling and Cooper against each other, as it's instead a boldly artful, often moving drama. The three-part structure may soften the emotional punch, but a raw script and intimate direction let the actors find real resonance in every scene.
The title is a loose translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady, the New York town where the story is set. In the first section, carnival stunt rider Luke (Gosling) returns to town and tries to rekindle a previous fling with Romina (Mendes). When he discovers that his last visit produced a son, he decides to leave the circus and settle down, taking a job with a local mechanic (Mendelsohn). To make some extra cash, the two team up to rob banks, which puts Luke on a collision course with beat cop Avery (Cooper), who has a wife (Byrne) and young son of his own. Years later, their now-teen sons Jason and AJ (DeHaan and Cohen) discover a past connection they knew nothing about.
To explore the generational ramifications of these men's actions, the film switches perspective twice, first from Luke to Avery and finally to Jason and AJ. But the script never simplifies anyone into "good" or "bad": these are complex people facing difficult situations the best way they can. And sometimes their choices lead to tragic consequences. With this structure, though, the characters are somewhat fragmented, and only Avery emerges as a fully rounded figure, giving Cooper the best role in the film as he becomes unable to work out what is right and wrong, even though he knows it in his gut.
Continue reading: The Place Beyond The Pines Review
Luke Glanton is a stunt motorcyclist who currently works with a carnival where he performs numerous death defying feats for just a small pay cheque. When the carnival reach Schenectady, New York, he becomes increasingly determined to find his long lost love Romina who he idiotically broke contact with for over a year. However, when he finds her, he discovers that she has only recently given birth to a baby boy who happens to be his son, though she was reluctant to contact him about it because of feeling abandoned by him. Realising he can't afford to provide for his new family, he gives up his carnival job and goes in search of other ways to make money. He winds up being persuaded to help out in an armed bank robbery to bring in the cash but is immediately hunted by the police for his involvement. This brings Avery Cross on to the scene; a serious cop with an immense respect for the law who also has a new child to think about as well as his constantly worrying wife. His pursuit to uphold the law leads to criminal discoveries about his police department that he'd rather not be a part of, but things take an even more shocking turn when the long forgotten past of both Luke and Avery are brought up once again.
Directed and co-written by Derek Cianfrance ('Brother Tied', 'Blue Valentine') with writing credits also from Ben Coccio ('The Beginner') and Darius Marder in his screenwriting debut, the heart-wrenching and desperate story of 'The Place Beyond The Pine' is set for release on April 12th 2013.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Greenwood, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Harris Yulin, Robert Clohessy, Emory Cohen, Olga Merediz, Kevin Craig West & Gabe Fazio
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