crime

Detour (2016)

Detour is not the type of movie I watch for fun on a Saturday night, but dammit, Emory Cohen. The actor’s sensitive, Gilbert Blyth turn in Brooklyn has got me working my way through his back catalog and man, is it a dark, disturbing journey. Take Detour, which throws three lonely souls together on a cross-state road trip, ostensibly to kill one of the party’s stepfather. There’s a hitch in the plan, but not the typical kind like a cop coming up from behind on an empty road, though that happens too.

The film begins with Harper (Tye Sheridan), listening intently as a law professor expounds on how to get away with murder. The aspiring attorney has other things on his mind though. His mother is in a coma, thanks to a drunken joyride with his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), who decides to visit his younger mistress instead of the hospital. Harper suspects Vincent’s upcoming trip to Las Vegas is more pleasure than business and is willing to take drastic measures to keep his stepfather from straying. The tidy coed gets sloshed, stumbles into a trashy bar, and sets off a very regrettable chain of events.

Harper meets Johnny Ray (Cohen), a coked up tough who has “Fear” tattooed in Lucida Calligraphy font on his bicep. The guy is clearly bluster, but he’s enough of a live wire that you’d avoid his sightline just to be safe. Harper does the opposite and drunkenly admits to wanting his stepfather dead, which is good enough as a job offer for Johnny. When he shows up at Harper’s house the next day, it’s too late to turn back, and the two, along with Johnny’s girl, Cherry (Bel Powley), hit the road towards Vegas.

Except the movie takes some unexpected, well, detours. Johnny insists on seeing some snarly drug boss named Frank (John Lynch, who will always be Lord Archibald Craven or Balinor to me). It’s a meeting he characterizes as a courtesy call but is actually a mandatory stop and one that could have disastrous consequences for Cherry. A casual sit-down at some sleepy diner also escalates into a situation that well, doesn’t end cleanly. The most surprising diversion though is the film’s narrative shift. The movie starts to flash back as it moves forward, and the slow drip reveal of Harper and Vincent’s relationship, and of its deterioration, unsettles the entire timeline.

Detour rumbles and disturbs but leaves its best parts untouched. The talented cast, all garlanded with breakout star laurels, give meat to the script. Sheridan is a capable lead, walking his character down a fine line of privilege and insecurity and tipping him just over the edge when he gets too close to type. His is not the most interesting role but has the most closure. Powley, meanwhile, gets the most underwritten part. The actress is a tour de force in The Diary of a Teenage Girl but is too confined as the girlfriend/hooker/occasional drug mule. Still, she’s magnetic and it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I have to say Cohen is the best, and not because I keep toggling between sweet Tony Fiorello and trashy Tony Fiorello. Johnny is actually a pretty stale character, kind of a C-grade Ben Foster type. But Cohen shares a scene with Lynch that immediately transforms his character into someone who’s much less tough and selfish than he appears. That’s the Cohen I love.

Released: 2009
Prod: Julie Baines, Phil Hunt, Stephen Kelliher, Jason Newmark, Compton Ross
Dir: Christopher Smith
Writer: Christopher Smith
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, John Lynch, Stephen Moyer, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017

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Ash Wednesday (2002)

I decided to dig deep for this review, settling on a movie I watched as a broke grad student while cat-sitting for my professor. For someone who wrote expertly on Julia Kristeva and casually brought up Jacques Derrida, she had a pretty shit DVD collection, one I burned through instead of sweating over my thesis. Hence, this is me, ten years later.

Maybe it’s appropriate then that I’m writing about Ash Wednesday. I feel like I’m resurrecting something that should be left for dead, much like the main character in this movie. The film apparently screened in just two theaters, limping on to a lonely DVD afterlife in places as far-flung as Hong Kong. Similarly, Sean Sullivan (Elijah Wood) is resigned to a wayfarer’s existence after killing three men in a bar on Ash Wednesday in 1980. He does this to protect his older brother, Francis Xavier (Edward Burns), who is involved with the Irish American gangs of Hell’s Kitchen. Everyone assumes that Sean met a bloody end, but he was instead ferried away by Francis with help from the parish priest. Exactly three years later, word gets around that Sean is back from the dead, and the news doesn’t sit well with anyone.

You might think there’s more to the story, but this is really the entirety of the plot. Most of the movie is either people telling Francis his brother is in town or Francis telling them the opposite. Even when Sean finally emerges, the two continue to argue about his unexpected appearance. Since it takes so damn long for everyone to figure out what’s going on, the movie is stuck in limbo until Sean and Francis’s enemies decide to seek revenge. That’s when the brothers also realize that Sean needs to hightail it out of town if he wants to live another day. But this time he’s not going without his girl, Grace (Rosario Dawson). It’s going to be tricky to convince her though because no one bothered to let her in on the truth all these years. Not only did she believe she was a widow, but she also raised her son thinking his father was dead.

I’d hoped for something more gripping from Burns, doing quadruple duty as writer-director-producer-star. He had a much lauded indie hit, The Brothers McMullen, back in the mid-1990s and seems to have been trying to replicate that success ever since. This movie is another one of his contributions to the Irish American Catholic mythology, though more along the lines of Coppola or Scorsese. Unfortunately, the story never feels rooted in a real community. There’s plenty of religious imagery and the tone is one of perpetual Lent. You also have your Maggies and Murphys and even a bar called the Blarney Stone. But all this is window dressing to hide the fact that there’s not much there, not a deep meditation on Lenten sacrifice or a intimate portrait of Irish American identity. The casting is wildly off mark too. I’m sure there’s a good movie waiting to be made in which Burns, Wood, and Dawson star as a family unit, but this is not the one.

Released: 2002
Prod: Edward Burns, Margot Bridger
Dir: Edward Burns
Writer: Edward Burns
Cast: Edward Burns, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Oliver Platt, James Handy
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Four Brothers (2005)

Four Brothers is a everything you’d expect from a movie directed by John Singleton, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, and Garrett Hedlund, and set in Detroit. It has lots of guns, a good deal of punching, and more than my daily recommended dose of alpha male machismo. But it also has Chiwetel Ejiofor, so we’ll call it even. A tale of brotherhood and justice, the movie starts with a murder, a particularly cruel one. A grandmother is gunned down at a convenience store, seemingly a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but as her adult sons gather, little is what it seems.

The deceased is Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), a neighborhood guardian who’s fostered a number of children over the years. The only ones who couldn’t find permanent homes were Bobby (Wahlberg), Angel (Gibson), Jeremiah (Benjamin), and baby Jack (Hedlund), so she adopted them herself. The four – two of whom are black and two of whom are white – have drifted apart over the years, but they put their lives and differences on pause to come together and honor their mother, and to find the killers. That’s when things start to get crazy.

They deduce that her death wasn’t just the result of a robbery gone wrong but a calculated hit. Who wants to kill a sweet old grandma though? As the brothers get closer to the truth, they also find themselves tangling with the city’s criminal elements, which may involve the police. Two detectives (Terence Howard and Josh Charles) warn them off the case, and fur coat-wearing gangster Victor Sweet (Ejiofor) possibly has ties to one of the brothers.

There are a lot of characters running around, but somehow they manage to keep their distinct personalities, even if that is reduced to a few key character traits. Amongst the brothers, for example, Bobby’s the oldest and the natural leader, Angel’s the playboy, Jeremiah’s the good boy, and Jack’s the mama’s boy. These archetypes are meant to explore ideas of brotherhood, family, and identity, but they don’t amount to much more than broad overtures to a deeper social portrait. Neither the script nor the actors push the characters beyond their limited purpose within the plot, so any closer examination of race and class in this troubled part of Detroit simply fades. At the core, Four Brothers remains very much a police procedural, tense and action-packed to be sure, but not a film whose importance extends beyond whatever is happening on the screen.

Released: 2005
Prod: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Dir: John Singleton
Writer: David Elliot, Paul Lovett
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, Garrett Hedlund, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Fionnula Flanagan, Terence Howard, Josh Charles, Sofia Vergara, Taraji P. Henson
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Garage Sale Mystery: The Art of Murder (2016)

If you can get over a bunch of sorority girls asking their moms to help organize a charity garage sale, then go ahead and enjoy this movie. But it takes a generous suspension of belief and perhaps even more withholding of judgment before one can move on to the actual mystery, which is a fine once you get there. Still, I’m throwing serious side eye at Hannah (Eva Bourne), daughter of garage sale expert Jennifer (Lori Loughlin), for volunteering her mom to do a job she, as an adult woman, should handle herself. This, in case you don’t know, is what privilege looks like – white sorority sisters who can’t be bothered to plan their own event but who will take credit for doing the grunt work of collecting cash, and their mothers, ladies who lunch and apparently don’t have nine to five jobs.

Well as the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone finds a dead body, and that someone is Jennifer. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she was either a walking bad luck charm or a serial killer. The police really need to isolate her before she can do more damage, not that that’s going to help Sydney (Ona Grauer), the deceased and stepmother of Hannah’s friend. Jennifer finds Sydney sprawled across her mother’s attic, killed from a fall and a hard knock to the head.

Except Jennifer suspects once again that this was no accident. Nor does it turn out to be much of a mystery. This series is hit or miss when it comes to tense whodunits; sometimes it keeps you guessing but more often than not, it’s just about filling in details. It looks pretty certain that Sydney’s friend Tina (Keegan Connor Tracy) has something to do with the death, but does she really have it in her to kill? Perhaps Tina’s artist boyfriend (Martin Cummins) is the more likely culprit. He tries to gain fame, and cash, as the next Jackson Pollack but is in danger of losing his studio in the meantime. If that happens, it’s back to painting houses. The answer lies with a valuable painting that Sydney showed Tina just before she died, a painting that is now missing.

It’s not a taxing case but it does end in a frenzy, and the excitement is welcome. This series could use some flash. I breezed through seven episodes in a weekend, which in hindsight was not the best idea, and by the time I got to The Art of Murder, my brain was so numb I wasn’t sure if the subplot involving vibrational cooking (no, it’s not what you think) was supposed to be ironically funny or just a sign that they had run out of ideas.

Released: 2016
Dir: Peter DeLuise
Writer: Walter Klenhard
Cast: Lori Loughlin, Sarah Strange, Steve Bacic, Eva Bourne, Connor Stanhope, Kevin O’Grady, Keegan Connor Tracy, Martin Cummins, Susan Hogan, Ona Grauer, Sam Brisco
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Garage Sale Mystery: The Novel Murders (2016)

Perhaps a weekend bender on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries’ Garage Sale Mystery wasn’t a great idea. Maybe it was the ambitious three murder episode, maybe it was a character’s unlikely visit to a psychic, or maybe it was the guilt of having watched so many of these movies. Whatever the reason, by the time I made it to mystery #6, the thought of cleaning all my dishes and laundry suddenly seemed the better option.

I was looking forward to The Novel Murders, with its pulpy premise and nod to classic mysteries. When antiques dealer Jennifer (Lori Loughlin) notices that the death of an elderly man in his own flat resembles a murder – by nicotine! – from an Agatha Christie novel, she thinks there might be a serial killer on the loose. But her amateur sleuthing has got everyone put off, including her friend and detective Frank (Kevin O’Grady), who figures an old, lonely guy isn’t worth the trouble of a full investigation. Also, why can’t this woman stop solving murders that the police mistake for natural deaths and accidents and just stick to selling old bird statues? Jennifer’s tenacity uncovers enough clues to convince Frank to dig deeper though, and it couldn’t come at a better time because two more deaths follow, also patterned off classic murder mysteries.

If there’s a theme to this movie, it’s shady people and their shady lies. No one is particularly trustworthy, not even Jennifer’s husband and son, who aren’t honest about a camping trip they take to prove they can rough it. Meanwhile Jennifer engages in some undercover work and sets out to learn more about a life coach, itself a suspicious profession, and his connection to the first victim. A tweedy, egg-like British academic specializing in Sherlock Holmes and an affable mystery writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of detective fiction may also be too smart for their own good.

These are at least your typical cast of characters. In a story that is supposed to hide secrets and keep you guessing, they play their part, which makes the appearance of a psychic frustrating. Jennifer’s business partner, Danielle (Sarah Strange) has taken on the role of perpetually single thus sort of unhappy and unfulfilled best friend and is someone who would put down a few extra bucks to get her fortune read, but she’s not dumb and gullible. She works in a consignment shop and regularly checks out garage sales; the woman knows how to sniff out cheats. That she puts increasing trust in a bird-like psychic who is clearly a fraud and out to manipulate other women is perhaps the bigger mystery. This movie already packs in quite a bit and doesn’t have room for this sloppy subplot.

Released: 2016
Dir: Peter DeLuise
Writer: Walter Klenhard
Cast: Lori Loughlin, Sarah Strange, Steve Bacic, Eva Bourne, Connor Stanhope, Kevin O’Grady, Ken Tremblett, Gerard Plunkett, Fiona Vroom, Barbara Wallace
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017