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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REVIEW: “Grudge Match”

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Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro have had incredibly successful movie careers. What a shame that they have reached a point to where they would sign on for something as gimmicky and flimsy as “Grudge Match”. The trailer for the film left nothing to be desired. It made the movie look shameless and utterly predictable. Well, after seeing it I can confirm that it hasn’t an ounce of shame and you’ll see everything coming from a mile away. That said, it’s still not as bad as it could have been. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Stallone and De Niro have both had big successes with boxing movies – Stallone had “Rocky” and De Niro “Raging Bull”. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to see this film is clearly milking the whole Rocky Balboa versus Jake LaMotta novelty. Yes these are different characters who have different stories and different personalities. But this is clearly meant to cash in on the two older and superior movies. The big problem is I couldn’t care less about the gimmick.

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The story is a pretty ridiculous and cliché-riddled. Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were big time boxers who had a heated rivalry stemming from their two fights where each won one apiece. But right before the decisive rematch Razor retires. Thirty years later Kid is still furious that he was denied his shot at Razor. But as luck would have it a loud mouthed aspiring promoter (Kevin Hart) eventually gets a rematch. It’s first viewed as a big joke but soon, through the power of the cell phone generation, people begin to take notice of this grudge match for the ages (did I really just say that?).

Perhaps the best thing about this film are the performances. Both Sly and Bobby give committed performances even though the material is weak. To be honest I’m not surprised that Stallone would take a part like this, but it’s really sad to see De Niro reserved for such fluff. That aside, each gives all he has to try to make it all work and they are both really good. The problem is you have to wade through endless ‘out of shape’ jokes, over-the-hill gags, and some trumped up drama that is impossible to sell. It has a few funny moments and it is fun watching these two work. But it’s not too much to ask for a smarter and more engaging script.

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Most of the supporting cast is very good even though they too are hampered by the lackluster material. Alan Arkin is cast as Razor’s crude trainer. Arkin is always good but here is is such a caricature. Kim Basinger also pops up and tries to save a role that is so fabricated and poorly written. We also get Jon Bernthal as a character shoehorned into the story for dramatic effect. He’s actually very good and he’s really proving himself as a better actor with each new role. All of these performances are good despite the narrative obstacles each face. I can’t really say the same for Kevin Hart who seems to be in constant standup comedy mode. Every single scene he’s in features him doing his shtick. Eventually it grew tiresome and annoying.

So how do you summarize “Grudge Match”? It’s a film featuring some good performances, scattered chuckles, and pretty capable direction. But you can dress up the pig all you want and it’s still a pig. When it comes down to it the commitment of the actors and the decent direction can only go so far. At some point you have to have good material and that’s what “Grudge Match” lacks. What we are given is hokey and forgettable comedy that’s not nearly as funny as it wants to be. I was definitely ready to throw in the towel.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Snitch”

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Wrestler turned action movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson must be going for the record for movies made in a short period of time. Case in point, in 2013 alone he’s appeared in 5 different films. One of those is “Snitch”, a surprisingly competent crime thriller that takes a pretty simple story and soaks it with more tension and high stakes than you would ever expect. It’s also not afraid to throw a few jabs at America’s federal drug policy.

“Snitch” is one of those ‘inspired by a true story’ flicks which makes its borderline absurdity all the more digestible. Johnson certainly isn’t the most seasoned of actors but he does a nice job playing John Matthews, the owner of a small construction company who one day gets a call from his ex-wife that his son Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested on federal drug charges. Knowing his son isn’t a drug trafficker, John seeks help from a federal attorney named Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) whose upcoming reelection has her looking for some good press. She’s also the only one who can reduce Jason’s sentence.

But Joanne isn’t all that interested in helping so John takes it upon himself to secretly find and snitch on some drug dealersin exchange for his son’s freedom. Jon Bernthal, perhaps best known for his role on the popular cable series “The Walking Dead”, plays an ex-con employee of John’s who may have the needed underworld connections. We also get Barry Pepper, an actor I’ve always liked, as an undercover DEA agent named Cooper. And another actor I like, Benjamin Bratt, finds his way back to the big screen playing a cartel boss and big time drug runner. John quickly finds himself in over his head and becomes a pawn of both the government and the cartel.

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The Rock certainly has the build of a super tough guy and at times he looks like he could body slam whoever he’s talking to. But I liked that the movie never falls into that trap. His character is just a construction guy. No secret hitman or military special forces past. He’s just a regular guy and the story stays away from the whole ‘one man army’ thing. For me that worked very well and offered a much more interesting dynamic. Again, at times Johnson does show his limitations as an actor but it’s a performance that definitely works. And obviously he’s helped by the really nice supporting cast around him.

The movie is filled with moral quandaries, questionable ethics, and mixed messages. Much of that works to the film’s advantage. Everything isn’t all nice and tidy and it shouldn’t be. Yet while all of this works nicely there’s still little that sets the film apart. It certainly dabbles in several new and intriguing areas but its hard for me to get excited about seeing it again. And ultimately that’s where I stand on “Snitch” – a surprisingly slick and intense thriller but one with very little staying power. But still, compared to a number of movies pumped out this year, it’s an entertaining film that stays within its bounds of limitations.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS