REVIEW: “The First Purge”

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The success of James DeMonaco’s “Purge” franchise comes from a fairly simple formula. Make a good and well-received first film and then ride its name for countless sequels. Oh, and this is key – maintain small budgets making it next to impossible to lose any significant money. I would say it has been pretty effective. The four films have a combined budget of around $40 million but have taken in close to $375 million so far. The math is pretty easy.

For me the “Purge” series has been a guilty pleasure – movies with an undeniably absurd concept yet an attractive hook that kept me coming back. But the franchise has steadily evolved to where there is practically no resemblance to the tense Ethan Hawke original. That’s not a good thing. Throughout the course of the movies the horror element has become less and less pronounced. In this newest installment it’s all but gone.

The First Purge” is a prequel aimed at showing how the whole ’12 hours of legal violence’ began. Amid a collapsing U.S. economy a third political party, The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), have risen to power. Backed by the NRA (as silly as it sounds) and profoundly white, the NFFA is DeMonaco’s biggest hammer. Of the many he uses, it’s the one he bludgeons us with the most. But at this point in the franchise it’s pretty clear DeMonaco isn’t interested in subtly or craftiness.

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A non-partisan and naïve behavioral scientist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei) devises a social “experiment” in which for 12 hours all crime including murder will be legal and emergency services are unavailable (it’s still as preposterous as it sounds). Updale’s idea is that people will have the opportunity to unleash their anger and hate (to Purge them if you will) leading to less crime and a more stable society. To use the film’s terminology, it is intended to be a “societal catharsis”. It’s an idea that remains both ludicrous and narratively fascinating.

But as followers of the franchise know, the devious NFFA have much bigger ideas for the “experiment” – population control, ethnic cleansing, economic class suppression, etc. Pick a vile, reprehensible position and DeMonaco probably has them booked for it. Most of this is conveyed through a barely registering Patch Darragh playing the President’s Chief of Staff (and looking far too similar to former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to be a mere convenience). They’ve chosen Staten Island for the “experiment” with hopes that it could be rolled out nationwide. To encourage maximum participation, the government offers $5000 to residents, specifically low income residents, who agree to stay on the island during the “experiment” with even more incentives for participation.

The bulk of our time is spent in an impoverished Staten Island neighborhood with an interesting assortment of locals played by a cast of relatively unknowns. Among them is an intriguing young actress Lex Scott Davis. She is very good as an inspired activist named Nya who is committed to her community and to her impulsive young brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) who is being tempted down the wrong path. There is also Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), Nya’s ex-boyfriend and (how should I put it) a local drug kingpin with a heart of gold. Noel is another new face who offers a real presence on the screen despite some real logic issues with his character. Once the haunting sirens wail initiating the start of the “experiment”, Nya, Dimitri, and Isaiah must not only survive but defend the community the hold dear.

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The First Purge” marks the first installment written but not directed by DeMonaco. Gerard McMurray takes the directing reigns and in terms of visuals and tone his take is pretty much indistinguishable from the last two “Purge” films. What he does do is amp of the violence. By the final act it has hypocritically morphed into a crazy, bullet-riddled action movie, relishing much of what the film is supposedly speaking against. And aside from feeling weirdly disconnected from the rest of the movie, the big blood-soaked finale (think Rambo laced with The Crow) was almost unbearable in my theater due to a cool but headache-inducing strobe light effect.

Speaking of violence, the “Purge” movies seem to have a growing fascination with white versus black warfare. The race/class warfare theme has been hammered home for the entire series, but an argument could be made that this movie ratchets it up. It’s uncomfortable to watch but not in the smart, provocative or thought-provoking way. In this film it’s hard to tell whether they are pandering to a current political angst or exploiting it.

Despite its goofiness and inflated sense of relevance “The First Purge” is serviceable throwaway entertainment. In other words there is enough in terms of functional characters (thanks to a couple of interesting new performers) to salvage it from disaster. But it’s still not a movie to recommend. It’s more of the same in slightly (and I do mean slightly) different packaging. Oh, and if you’re worried this will be the last “Purge” movie, fear not. Look for several shameless endorsements of fellow Blumhouse production “Halloween” and a mid-credits commercial for their upcoming “Purge” television. They definitely have plans for this franchise. I just wish it was heading in a better direction.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Paris Can Wait”

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Maybe a road trip filled with beautiful sites and great food is the only way to experience a country (as we are told). But the buoyant road drama “Paris Can Wait” proves that you need a little more than fancy dishes and lovely scenery to make an egaging movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is a film that has its moments. But it’s also a movie that leans way too heavily on its culinary and scenic fascinations.

“Paris Can Wait” is written, directed, and co-produced by 81-year old Eleanor Coppola. An accomplished documentarian and wife of Francis Ford Coppola, this is her first fictional drama and her first film of any kind since 2007. Here she creates a simple and lighthearted premise that should feature plenty of fun and charm. Sadly there isn’t enough of it.

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Diane Lane plays Anne, a woman living in the shadow of her pompous movie producer husband Michael (Alec Baldwin). The two were set to fly from Cannes to Paris until Michael is called away to a movie set and Budapest. He agrees to let his production partner, a charismatic Frenchman named Jacques (Arnaud Viard), drive Anne to Paris. Along the way Jacques takes one diversion after another introducing Anne to an assortment of French locales and cuisine.

There are plenty of beautiful locations to catch your eye and the food looks delish. The story playful hints at Jacques’ intentions as the two share one conversation after another in the car or around the table. But it doesn’t take long to realize the film has little to offer past that. It’s repetitive formula goes something like this: they visit a cool site, find an expensive place to eat, and then Jacques lectures Anne on enjoying life the French way. It remains stuck in this one gear for the entire trip.

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That wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the characters and their conversations were appealing. Viard doesn’t project the irresistible French charm the movie needs him to portray. But the bigger frustration revolves around Diane Lane. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with her performance. It’s just that Anne is such a shallow, naive character who spends the bulk of the film doing whatever she is told. Unquestionably Coppola wants to speak to empowerment, but she doesn’t pull it off. The movie’s last shot all but solidifies that idea.

I really wanted to fall for “Paris Can Wait”. I have a soft spot for these types of movies and I’m a Diane Lane fan. But the majority of the picture leaves Lane in the passenger seat and the scrumptious photography can only carry it so far. If only Coppola would have let her star take the wheel and given her a meatier role to work with. Instead I grew tired of their monotonous conversations and the utter lack of dramatic tension. I found myself annoyed at Jacques’ cloying banter and Anne’s wistful obedience. And I kept wondering who would ever fall for this guy? If that’s your main question you can expect to have some issues with this film.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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“Paul, Apostle of Christ” (2018)

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Faith-based movies have had a tough time finding a seat at the big screen table. Much of it is due to budget quality filmmaking. It can also be tough to get a look from more secular-minded moviegoers especially when the messaging is pretty heavy. And while hardly the case with every critic, it can be difficult for these movies to get an objective analysis. Take this quote from a review of the new film “Paul, Apostle of Christ” – “A Faith-based snuff flick with little appeal beyond the Bible-thumping demographic”. Ouch.

That’s one reason I appreciate Affirm Films, a label of Sony Pictures. While several of their productions are hampered by the above-mentioned problems, the label does offer an avenue for many of these movies to reach the big screen. “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is their latest and it’s definitely on their higher end in terms of quality yet not without a few quibbles.

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Set in A.D. 67, the film takes place in Rome during a desperate time for the fledgling Christian church. Followers of Christ find themselves subjected to brutal persecution at the command of Emperor Nero. Some are burned alive on the streets. Others are thrown into the “Circus” where they are torn apart by lions for sport. Only a handful of the older church leaders were still alive. One was the Apostle Paul.

As the story begins Paul (a still, affecting portrayal by James Faulkner) is locked up in Rome’s Mamertine Prison. After several missionary journeys sharing the Words of Jesus and training young churches, the Apostle knows his remaining time on Earth is short. Yet while his body is tired and frail he maintains a heart full of faith, inspiring believers, many of whom hide away within the walls of the violent city. Among those believers is Aquilla (John Lynch) and Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), a couple who secretly shelters a small community of believers in Rome and who anxiously await a word from Paul.

In 2004 Jim Caviezel gave an intense, heart-wrenching performance as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. Now 14 years later Caviezel portrays Luke, follower of Christ and writer of portions of the New Testament. Luke returns to Rome where he secretly meets with Paul and begins writing what will become The Acts of the Apostles.

Writer and director Andrew Hyatt carefully takes portions of scripture to form the framework of his story. Chunks of the film feature quiet, thoughtful jail cell conversations between Paul and Luke where the two reflect on Paul’s journeys and discuss faithfulness amidst persecution. Some of Paul’s signature life moments are touched on through dream-like flashbacks – the stoning of Stephen, his Damascus road conversion, just to name a few. Hyatt does a good job of showing the weight those events still have on Paul.

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At the same time Priscilla and Aquilla struggle with a fracture among their community. Should they stay in Rome or attempt to leave? Should they take up arms and fight back? Another key figure is Mauritius (French actor Olivier Martinez), a Roman prefect put in charge of the Mamertine prison. He is a bit disillusioned with Nero’s leadership yet steadily loyal to Rome. He’s also fascinated by his enigmatic and most prominent prisoner.

The structure of “Paul” could be a stumbling block for some. You could definitely call the film a slow burn and it sometimes struggles to maintain a sense of dramatic tension. This is particularly noticeable through its middle act. Yet at the same time there is something about its quietness that works with the story being told. That’s not to say the film is a bore. Hyatt visualizes the brutality of the persecution, nothing on the level of Gibson’s “Passion”, but quite effectively. And the circumstances surrounding each of the characters lend to some satisfying individual story threads that make the movie work as a whole. That was more than enough for me. Hopefully it will be enough to find an audience because “Paul, Apostle of Christ” deserves one.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Paddington 2”

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I still remember January 2015 and the delightful little surprise that was “Paddington”. January is the time of year often known as a dumping ground for movies with little studio support. “Paddington” landed in the United States (after a successful 2014 launch overseas) and not only gave us something to watch early in the year, but a really good movie as well. Now its sequel continues that trend of bright January surprises.

Let me get this out of the way, “Paddington 2” is one of those rare sequels that’s better than its predecessor in nearly every way. That’s not a knock on the first film, “Paddington 2” is just that good. Paul King returns as director and co-writer of this adorable family movie telling the continued adventures of a friendly Peruvian bear and the Brown family of London who adopted him as one of their own.

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Things are wonderful for Paddington. His infectious kindness has endeared him to all of his Windsor Gardens neighbors. Well, with the exception of the delusional self-appointed neighborhood watchman (Peter Capaldi). Ben Whishaw is back lending his gentle and mellow voice to Paddington. Also returning is Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as Paddington’s congenial human parents Mary and Henry Brown.

Knowing his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday is just around the corner, the compassionate cub looks to get her the perfect gift. He finds it in a friend’s antique shop – a beautiful old pop-up book of London. One of my favorite sequences sees a wonderstruck Paddington flipping through the pages for the first time, his imagination pulling him into the book. Inside he walks from page to page showing Aunt Lucy the city she has dreamed of visiting. It’s gorgeous, charming and from then on the movie had me.

In order to purchase the book Paddington picks up some small jobs to earn money. As you would expect slapstick ensues, tempered and funny. But there’s a problem. A washed up actor named Phoenix Buchanan has his eyes on the book as well. Hugh Grant has a blast hamming it up as this narcissistic goofball who believes the book contains secrets that will help him recapture his formal glory. He devises a plan to swipe the book framing Paddington in the process.

It’s here the movie makes a hysterical shift. Paddington is arrested and eventually sent to prison. The entire prison sequence feels like something yanked straight out of a Wes Anderson picture. The dialogue, the quirky sense of humor, the visual composition all scream Andersonian influence. Soaking in Erik Wilson’s images is pure joy and as an Anderson superfan I found myself constantly amazed at how well King utilizes (or is he paying tribute to) such a unique style. But the film doesn’t depend on that influence. King makes this very much its own movie.

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It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. How can you not laugh at a mean, burly Brendan Gleason munching on a marmalade sandwich and discovering its savory magic. By the way his character’s name is Knuckles McGinty and he is the tough-as-nails prison chef. Watching the contagiously kind Paddington attempt to crack this hard nut is both undeniably sweet and genuinely hilarious.

Of the five ‘kids movie’ trailers we saw before our showing three of them contained variations of the tired but immensely popular fart joke. One of the great delights of “Paddington 2” is its trust in itself over lame gimmicky “humor”. Even as the movie picks up steam in the final act it never loses itself like many of these pictures do. And it always stays on message – you can never go wrong by being kind, caring, and compassionate. And the ripple effect of such a mindset can change the world. Now there is a message we all need to hear and “Paddington 2” makes sure we get to laugh along the way.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Post”

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Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is set in an era when the media (generally speaking) wasn’t egregiously compromised by the political pulls of the left or the right. It was a time (more often than today) when principle took precedent over ideology and the media took seriously the role of equally holding all elected officials accountable to the people. There is far less of that today, although I’m not sure Spielberg and company would agree with me.

“The Post” starts in 1965 with war analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) discovering government deception concerning Vietnam policy and progress. The story bolts forward a few years with Ellsberg stealing classified documents that reveal years of misinformation by the government dating all the way back to the Truman administration. He leaks the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times who run a front page expose before having their story shut down by a court injunction.

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All of that is setup for the meat of the story which takes place in 1971, Washington D.C. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) has inherited The Washington Post newspaper following her husband’s suicide, but serving as its publisher and president has been a tough ride. Not counting her own personal lack of confidence, she’s also forced to navigate several obstacles from insecure board members to investors uncomfortable with a woman running the company. For the bulk of the film Spielberg does a good job tapping into the current red-hot women’s issues. It’s later that he moves from effectively showing us the inequality to spelling it out for us. But more on that later.

Her go-getter editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) knows there is more to uncover so he sends his crack assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (a really good Bob Odenkirk) to track down the New York Times’ source. And when sensitive documents fall into their lap, Katharine must decide whether to let Bradlee print the story risking incarceration and the livelihood of her paper.

Spielberg deftly bounces between Katharine’s personal journey and Bradlee’s newsroom. Both are given plenty of time to unfold and develop. As you would expect, Streep is very good and completely in her element. It isn’t an extraordinary performance, but it’s work from her that we sometimes take for granted. Hanks is a different story. It’s not that he’s bad here. He feels off – as if he’s really stretching to sell us a character that Jason Robards did better (and won an Oscar for) 42 years ago.

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Katharine’s stirring story and the thrilling newsroom drama come together in a tense and powerful meeting of the minds (and wills) which Spielberg unpacks to near perfection. But then something happens in the final fifteen minutes or so. In rapid succession the film begins dropping one corny, contrived ‘movie moment’ after another. Storytelling gives way to speechifying and the movie’s themes (previously explored through the story itself) are propped up by glaringly obvious scenes manufactured to the point of phoniness. And then you have Spielberg often straining to make a connection between the Nixon and Trump administration. Again, the material is there, but Spielberg sometimes feels the need to speak for it.

“The Post” does far more right than wrong. For a good three-quarters of his movie Spielberg brilliantly balanced two very different but equally enthralling stories. And for a while I was seeing it as a wonderful “All the President’s Men” companion piece. It’s just a shame the final act resorts to cheap scenes and sappy speeches that seem directly aimed at Oscar voters. But as his movie had already shown, Spielberg didn’t need all of that and the bulk of the picture is an enthralling experience.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Pilgrimage” (2017)

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For those few folks needing more proof (assuming they still exist) that big budgets aren’t essential to good moviemaking, I present to you Brendan Muldowney’s “Pilgrimage”, a beautiful and propulsive medieval thriller anchored in 13th century European complexity and brutality. With a meager budget of just over $5 million, “Pilgrimage” looks and plays out better than many of its higher-priced counterparts.

The movie’s Crusade-era setting is an intriguing place in itself – a land filled with volatility and hostility. Just on the outskirts of the many conflicts we meet a small group of monks living on the western coast of Ireland. They are approached by Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber), sent at the behest of the Pope to retrieve and escort back to Rome an ancient holy relic being guarded by the monks. This quest (subtly reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”) becomes the centerpiece for Muldowney’s movie.

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Four of the Irish monks are sent to escort Geraldus. Among those chosen is Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), a young novice who has never known life outside the monastery, the wise elder Brother Ciaran (John Lynch), and a mute (Jon Bernthal) who has faithfully served the monastery since mysteriously washing ashore a few years prior.

The group’s cross-country venture takes them through lands filled with factions hungry for control. They encounter one such faction led by Sir Raymond (Richard Armitage) a soldier and a loyalist to his king. At the urging of his father, Raymond and his men agree to escort the brothers and the relic across the treacherous island. What follows is an arduous and sometimes brutal pilgrimage that stretches each of these men to their limits.

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“Pilgrimage” is more than a simple “quest movie”. Writer Jamie Hannigan’s story tests each character by fire – in many cases spiritually and in all cases physically. There is a steady examination of both the strength and weakness of faith, whether it be faith in God, faith in Rome, or faith in a king. And it’s fascinating to watch the film explore the contrasts between the natural and the supernatural, divine providence and unmitigated chance, men of the cloth and men of the sword. At times I wished it went deeper, but there was never a time when I wasn’t absorbed.

It isn’t just the historical setting that’s so potent. The way Muldowney and cinematographer Tom Comerford shoot the film is just as puissant. Ominous skies filled with boiling clouds and vast landscapes as beautiful as they are dangerous. And then you have the bursts of violence that gruesomely clash with the monks’ pursuit of piece and piety. They are brutal reflections of the real world outside of the monastery – a revelation of reality young Brother Diarmuid quickly becomes acquainted with.

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And what a stellar cast. This is Holland’s story and he continues to define himself as one of our best young actors. Weber, Armitage and Lynch are all very good. But it’s Jon Bernthal who steals the show. He is mysterious and subdued (he actually took a vow of silence to prepare for the role of a mute). But there is also a blistering ferocity to his performance that that adds yet another layer to his character and the movie.

Made with a small budget and shot in thirty days, “Pilgrimage” sleekly maneuvers through its limitations instead of succumbing to them. One one side it’s a driving medieval action thriller. On the other side is a story that delves into the various shades of faith found within the spiritual (“We are not alone. We are never alone. Have faith”) and the carnal (“Before one can plant new flowers one must cut away the weeds”). I was caught up in it from start to finish and was surprised at how much it gave me to chew on. A second viewing only confirmed my enthusiasm.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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