Terrence Malick teases us again with “Song to Song”

I think of American auteur Terrence Malick as Lucy, holding that football in front of Charlie Brown (us). Over and over again. Since “Tree of Life,” I’ve given up on him. Even “Thin Red Line,” which I will check in on any time I see it on cable, only holds the interest for so long. Then he wanders off pointing the camera at leaves or insects or what not.

“Song to Song,” set in the middle of Austin’s music/festival scene, attracted top drawer talent — Gosling, Fassbender, Mara, Portman — and was filmed years ago. YEARS.

Anyway, the trailer is retro and promising and oblique and I don’t know…Limited release, March 17.

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Movie Review: Phillips remains comic also-ran in “Punching Henry”

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The working title of “Punching Henry” was “Still Punching the Clown.” Because we’ve been down this bemused, bittersweet road with Henry Phillips before.

“Punching the Clown” (2010) was a semi-autobiographical riff on stand-up comedy’s “singer, songwriter, troubadour extraordinaire” Henry Phillips, an acquired taste who is grinding it out on the road, performing breathless ditties about wanting “a dog-type girl” and the like, finding laughs but getting in his own way when it comes to his “big break.”

“Punching Henry” is more of the same. He’s got the same inept manager (Ellen Ratner). He’s still living gig to gig, driving to each “Funny Bone” or “Laugh Factory” in a 2006 Suzuki, clinging to show business as fame eludes him.

In “Clown,” a record deal was dangled in front of him. Now, years later, viral video and Henry’s posed haplessness are catnip to a producer (J.K. Simmons) who is sure he can be “the loser who could make a loser feel like a hero” on TV.

Otherwise, “Clown” and “Henry” are the same movie. But if an artist is someone who “pounds the same nail over and over again,” give it up for Phillips.

Not everybody digs his satirical riffs on politics, tunes about getting over mistakes, from “losing a Malaysian airliner” to “crashing a cruise ship” to blundered love affairs with a simple, “Just say ‘Oops, and move on.” And many people — too many — never will.

Henry is summoned to LA for a meeting, where his car is promptly stolen,. Every Angelino he meets finds this hilarious. He is abused by hotel clerks, hecklers (Clifford Collins Jr.) and a taxi dispatcher. Life is a million little indignities, and Henry suffers and suffers for our sins.

Phillips is a soft-spoken Robert Palmer/Steve Lawrence look-alike with an act that leans on deadpan. That makes him a natural at delivering Henry-styled haplessness. He meets a woman in a party. She’s avoiding meat.

“Oh, are you a lesbian? I mean, vegetarian? Sorry.”

Simmons, playing the producer pitching the show to a viral-happy hipster-run TV network, gets to articulate the Phillips persona.

“He’s a road-weary Sisyphus, rolling the rock up the comedy hill…He’s Charlie Brown.”

henry3Yeah. That’s funny. That could sell.

A thread that ties the picture together is a long podcast interview with Sarah Silverman in which he rambles on about life in dingy hotels and thankless rural clubs after 40. It’s not that revealing, but as in “Clown,” Phillips sees the nobility in “failing, doing what I love.”

Comic Jim Jefferies and other funny folk have cameos, but mainly this is just Phillips, doing his act, showing real talent at the guitar and great timing as a wit.
But truthfully, if you saw “Punching the Clown” there’s no real need to see the sequel. Lots of Comedy Central bits in the intervening years aside, he’s still Henry and we, his not-quite-won-over-fans, are still “Punching Henry.”

stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, pot-use,  sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Sarah Silverman, Jim Jeffries, J.K. Simmons

Credits:Directed by Gregori Viens, script by Henry Phillips and Gregori Viens. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 1:35

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Box Office: “LEGO” topples “Great Wall,” “Cure” is comatose

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“The LEGO Batman Movie” and “Fifty Shades Darker” continue their late winter box office dominance, scooping up all the business that “The Great Wall,” “A Cure for Wellness” and “Fist Fight” were supposed to collect.

“LEGO” adds another $33 million, “Fifty Shades” another $22, and “Great Wall” has to be content with a mere $16 million opening, a bomb — at least at the U.S. box office.

But this is why you release a couple of movies a month. Universal’s “Shades” will clear $100 million in the U.S. by Tuesday, making “The Great Wall” more of a Chinese investor’s problem. The ethically awful “A Dog’s Purpose” (also Universal) will wind up making boatloads more cash than “The Great Wall” in the U.S. “Split” (also Universal) will further cover the bottom line, as it is still in the Top Ten.

Fox’s smart, dark and creepy but uneven Gore Verbinski horror pic “A Cure for Wellness” barely cracked the Top Ten ($4 million or so).

Warner’s comic dog “Fist Fight” will manage only $11 million this weekend, $14 million by President’s Day. It’s an R-rated bust.

“Hidden Figures” continues to draw, and “La La Land” enjoys an Oscar bounce.

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Movie Review: “Logan” ends the Wolverine’s run with guts and grace

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They’ve never let James Bond age. Not really. Batman gets replaced almost constantly. Spider-Man? Don’t get me started.

But there is but one Wolverine, Hugh Jackman, and kudos to Fox and Marvel for letting the best of the X-Men make a dignified exit.

“Logan” is a bloody and noble finale to Jackman’s turn with the sideburns and metal claws. The movie and the character brood and growl, lash out and curse, and Jackman is magnificent at every one of those.

And its tale of “others” underground and on the run has extra resonance, considering the machinations of the current regime in Washington.

In 2029, Logan, the Wolverine, is laying low as a limo driver in the border country. About all that gets his dander up is messing with his Avanti-inspired stretch Chrysler, as a gang of car-stripping cholos learn.

The mutants are all gone, died out, though they’re still excoriated on right wing talk radio.

He’s still a wanted man.  Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) begs for his help taking her and a girl (Dafne Keen) north. Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a metal-handed mercenary, pays him a visit to let him know “they” can come get him at any moment.

And that screws up his plans to stay out of sight, feed and protect the aged and unstable Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and X’s caregiver, the empathic mutant Caliban. All Logan wants to do is get enough money to buy a boat and get away from it all with his mentor, for both of them to die in peace.

Not happening.

Events conspire to force Logan to take that ten year old girl, Laura, to some “Eden” — in North Dakota. And the bad guys, basically a multi-national pharmaceutical let run riot by a fascist government, with Richard Griffiths as the Mad Scientist in Charge, will spare no expense and no number of minions to stop that from happening.

logan1.jpgWith all the op-ed pieces on the new American Dystopia, science fiction is hard-pressed to improve on reality. But the screenwriters work in shots at the Agri-Industrial-Complex of Mega Farms, GMOs and the high fructose corn syrup they’re shoving into everything we drink and much of what we eat.

With all the digitally-enhanced action and violence — and it is graphic and delivered in large, gory doses here — it’s easy to lose track that there have been some fine performances in comic book movies over the years. It started with Christopher Reeve, but Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender, Famke Janssen and Christian Bale have all made a mark from behind a mask or in tights.

Jackman is in a whole other class, which is why, “First Class” to last, he and he alone is Logan.

It’s not a great movie, with generic “What a disappointment you are” dialogue, gratuitous, pitiless slaughter, far-fetched “How’d a child learn THAT?” moments, and a late second act introduction — one of Logan’s foes — that took me right out of the picture. And Hollywood’s idea of North Dakota has always shown a reluctance to actually visit that arid pancake, its ghost towns and oil wells.

But Jackman makes it  all work, bringing the tragic weariness, cynicism and reluctant nobility that are the hallmarks of this X-Man to the fore.

He is a modern “Shane,” a Western Logan and Laura glimpse in one scene while they’re on the run. “A man has to be what he is, Joey… It’s a brand. A brand sticks.”

Indeed. Thus, Logan and the man who branded him take their curtain call.

Until Marvel and Fox figure out a way to cash in again and screw that up.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Richard Griffiths, Stephen Merchant

Credits:Directed by James Mangold, script by Michael Green, Scott Frank and James Mangold, based on the Marvel Comic. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time:  2:15

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Movie Review: Wordless anime “The Red Turtle” loses something in, uh, translation

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For “The Red Turtle,” Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit conjured up a romantic fantasy about a cast-away who angrily bludgeons and kills a red sea turtle, only to fall in love with the redheaded woman who pops out of the dead animal’s shell.

And the Japanese Studio Ghibli agreed to make it, because you have to be Japanese to find killing endangered sea life romantic.

That’s glib and culturally insensitive, sure. But this isn’t one of Ghibli’s better efforts, a lovely, wordless essay in silence and isolation with dream fugue sequences, almost no plot and a cryptic coda.

A fisherman is wrecked at sea during a gloriously animated storm. He washes up on a desert isle with only crabs, frogs and the occasional sea lion for company, and quickly resolves to turn the bamboo forest there into a raft. But every time he pushes off from shore, some unseen something thumps and thumps the raft to pieces.

He figures out it’s a sea turtle. And when she comes ashore he has his revenge. Sure, there’s remorse after he’s flipped her onto her back to let her die a slow, agonizing death. Too late, though.

Then the shell cracks open and speechless redhead emerges. They are meant to be and meant to mate. But where can this fairy tale go from there, and how will it end?

Ghibli’s animators render wind sweeping through bamboo in amazing detail. Crabs scuttle about, birds flock and soar and turtles wrestle themselves into and out of the water.The people, however, lack expressive “anime eyes” and are simply rendered.

Their watercolor palette begins with muted hue — fantastical dreams are rendered in black and white — and gains vibrancy as red characters show up and the film progresses.

Which it does. At a turtle’s pace.

There are incidents — near tragedies, a tsunami, family idylls. They’re spread sparingly over the 80 minute running time.

What’s missing is the magic, fantasy that feels fantastical, a moral to this parable.

Maybe that last element is there. Maybe not. The conclusion invites varying interpretations.

It’s all pretty enough, but this is lesser Ghibli, more a “Borrowers” than a “Ponyo,” an animated bauble as hollow as a turtle shell purse.

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MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and peril

Credits:Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, script by Michael Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran. A Sony Pictures Classics/Studio Ghibli release.

Running time: 1:21

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Movie Review: “Fist Fight” barely lands a punch

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“Fist Fight” offers us Charlie Day in a leading role in all his screeching glory.

And who the hell wants to see that? Or hear it?

It’s “Bad Teacher” meets “Three O’Clock High,” an “edgy” comedy about an anarchically dysfunctional school where the kids run riot and the teachers are hapless bystanders.

Except for Mr. Strickland, played by Ice Cube in Full Scowl. Strickland’s a short-tempered tyrant who has had about enough of this chaos, where the last day of the year means “senior pranks” run amok and Atlanta school district layoffs.

So yeah, he snaps. Just a little. And at a punk who has it coming.

But he left an adult witness. That would be Mr. Campbell, played by “It’s Always Screechy in Philadelphia” star Day. And when push comes to shove and both their jobs are at stake, Campbell — a day with an indulged daughter and a baby on the way — isn’t going to take the fall for Strickland.

“Snitches get stitches,” growls Strickland. And it’s on. Or will be, when the bell rings at three. That’s when the beefy, bitter Strickland plans to give the scrawny screecher a serious beat-down.

As in “Three O’Clock High,” the movie is about the countdown to facing down a bully, and Campbell’s frantic efforts to defuse the situation, remove Strickland from the building and keep his job. He tries bargaining, trickery and treachery. Nothing works.

But there’s little tension or comic build-up, as we’re treated to advice from the scatter-brained PE coach (Tracy Morgan, trotting out who he’s going to get “pregnant” jokes…again), the meth addict/underage student craving math teacher (Jillian Bell of “The Night Before”), a French teacher who hates Campbell for all the wrong reasons (“Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks) and worthless clock-punching school security guard (Kumail Nanjiani of “Portlandia” and “Silicon Valley”) .

The kids? They carve images of penises on the football field, watch porn and masturbate in the bathrooms. Until word of the fight gets out, and then they’re all about making this coming beat-down viral.

Cube is very good at wearing a scowl, first scene to last, and Strickland — a techno-phobic, arrested development thug who sees himself as a last line of accountability to these unruly students, is almost believable. Campbell is not an unreasonable creation, either. Grown men don’t settle things with their fists.

But they do. Because that’s the title of the movie, and we know exactly where it’s headed and when we’ll get there.

The one saving grace in the flaccid direction of Richie Keen (Really?) is that fight. It’s the first time the movie comes to life.

But by that point, Charlie Day’s ensured all we have to offer that finale are deaf ears.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material

Cast: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Christina Hendicks

Credits:Directed by Richie Keen, script by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:31

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Movie Review: Universal sells China “The Great Wall”

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We will see worse movies this year than “The Great Wall.” But we won’t one more cynical.

It’s Chinese pandering — pure agitprop — packaged as Hollywood poppycock. I can hear the pitch now — “Get your MESSAGE out! Chinese ‘order,’ Chinese know-how, China as the hope of civilization!’ Monsters and heroes, special effects and costumes, we’ll build a DIGITAL Great Wall — you provide the money, the thousands of extras, a few local stars, one of your great directors!

“And the money! Did I mention the money?”

The People’s Republicans probably never knew what hit them.

Seriously, if you’d wagered me that you could throw a big budget, director Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,””House of Flying Daggers”), screenwriter Tony “Michael Clayton” Gilroy and Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe at a movie and have it come out this silly, I’d have taken that bet.

But many hands made this mess, many more credited writers strained to get their Chinese image polishing in.

Damon and Pedro Pascal are two Medieval soldiers of fortune, the last survivors of an expedition bent on trading for China’s “Black Powder.” That would be the world’s first Weapon of Mass Destruction — gunpowder.

But on their way, they’ve been attacked by a beast — green, reptilian, a Wildebeast with claws for feet and a cavernous, toothy mouth. When the Chinese — a cultural model of order, organization, mass discipline, high tech and color-coded haute couture armor — capture them, they’re intrigued. Spies? Probably.

Still, the English archer-swordsman William (Damon) killed a Tao Tei monster. They’re impressed. They let the English mercenary live and keep his Spanish sidekick around for the banter.

“I haven’t surrendered in a while.”

“Follow my lead. It’ll come to you.”

The Westerners are most impressed by this wall. What on Earth could they need something this big for?

Alien monster invasions! Every sixty years!

wall3A whole civilization, a great bureaucracy and a vast army have been organized around fighting this menace. The Nameless Order raises warriors — female and male — to battle the beasts. Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) gives the order of battle when the hordes wash against the wall like a tidal wave.

“Crane Squad!” Those are lance-armed women bungee jumping up and down off the wall, poking the Tao Tei. “Death Squad!” And so forth.

Meanwhile, their guests are taken into the confidence of an earlier Western prisoner (Willem Dafoe) who wants their help escaping. There’s money to be made by the first to get back West with the “black powder.”

The script posits China as a bulwark of civilization, the only defense against slaughter by monsters. OK. So why the supernatural silliness? China served that function in history, battling the Mongols.

Oh. Right. The Mongols overran the pre-People’s Republican kingdoms before turning West and laying waste to much of Western, Indian and Islamic civilization. There’s no hopeful ending provided by history.

This is basically a zombie movie, a “Dark Ages World War Z,” borrowing imagery and story-beats such as the “evolving”  Tao Tei piling on top of each other, like ants, to scale the wall, just as in “Z.”

The moral of the story — “greed” destroys mankind, “A man must learn to trust before he can be trusted,” seem like addenda to Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The Chinese image here is of self-sacrificing masses — not a coward in the bunch — giving their all to the common good. All that’s missing is a patriotic song. Perhaps that’s in the Chinese version.

The only acting in this thing comes from the light touch Damon and “Game of Thrones” star Pascal have with their exchanges. Tian Jing is a slip of a thing with runway-ready hair and a toothy scowl she flashes in combat.

The Great Dafoe, like way too many people involved in this, was here for the check.

Yimou’s earliest films were filled with coded criticism of the totalitarian state he worked in. Here, he’s just cashing in, rolling his eyes and letting Hollywood have the “credit.”

But all this credit-sharing/buck-passing is no way to earn big bucks. Perhaps its Chinese box office covered the budget.

For the rest of the world, here’s the only value judgement that matters.

It’s as bad as the trailers promised it would be.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence

Cast: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro PascalWillem Dafoe, Andy LauHanyu Zhang

Credits:Directed by Zhang Yimou, script by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:36

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Movie Review — “Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe”

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It’s odd to think that the ancient art form of burlesque has any place in our exhibitionist age. If Lady Gaga and legions of wannabes are willing to bare all, for free, on a red carpet, on Instagram or Facebook Live, who has time for striptease, fan dancing or pasties?
Fifteen years into the “Neo-Burlesque” revival of the old bump-and-grind, it’s obvious that we do have the time and that burlesque still has relevance — at least to its practitioners.
“Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe” isn’t a Hollywood take on the art form. That came out years ago, starred Christina Aguilera and Cher and was set in Los Angeles at the height of this “comeback.” This “Glitter Tribe” is in Portland, Oregon, where nobody gets rich, no dancer becomes famous and these people do what they do for “love” — or some reasonable facsimile.
When Babs Jamboree, Sandria Dore’, Zora von Pavonine or the Stage Door Johnnies take the stage at clubs like the Funhouse Lounge or Lovecraft Bar, they’re in a costume they’ve designed and hand-made, doing a routine they’ve dreamed up and maybe had a little help choreographing.
burl2“It’s more than  a hobby,” it’s a passion, Zora declares. Filmmaker Jon Manning follows Zora and her mom as she preps for an appearance, hand-bedazzles assorted parts of her costume and prances on stage to take it all off. Well, most of it.
One dancer has taken the “Gyspy” show-stopper “Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick” to heart, building her mostly-nude act around torches and fire.
Isaiah Esquire is a Portland institution — a black man whose dance act transcends drag and once took him all the way to “America’s Got Talent.”
And then there’s Babs Jamboree — got to love these stage names. She’s a pastie-pasted pixie straight out of “Portlandia” — a tree surgeon by day, stripper going for laughs as a burrito peeling away its ingredients (layers) during one of her routines.
It’s more an overview than an up-close-and-personal documentary, letting us sample acts (Ivizia Dakini works with a puppet and does a striptease based on “Jesus Christ: Superstar”) and watch dancers prepare and talk about their motivations and sense of rebellion.
They talk about sexuality, redefining masculinity and what’s “sexy,” but freely acknowledge the comic edge that strips titillation out of the equation. Sometimes.
Still, if you want to get the full backstory of Angelique DeVil, a Grand Forks, N.D. blonde good enough to dance professionally in Los Angeles would walk away from “the competitiveness” and take on the tattoos and piercings and invent “assles,” tassles for the bum, and gyrate them before an audience, that isn’t revealed. Not really.
There are hints of hidden hurt, coming out and finding “my tribe,” here. Nothing terribly revealing. Some parents might disapprove, but most seem to encourage their kids and indulge their exhibitionist passions.
But what, beyond that, what is the drive — personal, psychological , body image or otherwise — that they must have in common? “Glitter” never gets close to that.
stars2
MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, profanity

Cast: Zora von Pavonine, Babs Jamboree, Angelique Devil

Credits:Directed by Jon Manning. An XLrator Media release.

Running time: 1:17

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Movie Review: Ukraine’s long beef with Mother Russia gets an airing in “Bitter Harvest”

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MPAA Rating: R for violence and disturbing images

Cast: Max Irons, Samatha Barks, Terence Stamp, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan

Credits:Directed by George Mendeluk, script by  and George Menduluk,  A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Review: “Brimstone” is cinematic Old West Hell

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The Old West has never seemed bloodier, grimmer, more Godless or lawless than the version rendered by Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven.

The director of the pictorially striking and tense World War II in the Occupied Countries drama “Winter in Wartime” brings a picture postcard eye to the landscapes, homesteads and rustic towns of “Brimstone.”

But this grimly unpleasant two and a half hour endurance contest is an almost unwatchable, frustrating smorgasbord of blood, guts and gore. Eviscerations and head-shots, summary hangings, gooey childbirth and sickening self-surgery land in almost every scene of this fable.

He tells the story out of order to further muddy/bloody the waters of comprehension. The last thing this stupidly overlong saga needs to be doing is demanding our concentration.

“Brimstone” is the story of a mute farmwife, Liz (Dakota Fanning) raising her little girl, caring for a resentful stepson and married to a much older man ( William Houston).

It’s a tough life, but Liz endures it with an admirable stoicism until a new Dutch pastor shows up in town. The Reverend freaks her out. And since he’s played by Guy Pearce garbed in black, facial scars and hellfire sermonizing, we get it.

But they have history. When he hisses, “I’m here to PUNISH you,” she believes it, even if her husband doesn’t. As that husband is gruesomely murdered and she grabs the children to make her getaway, we start to understand.

A flashback takes us to the rescue of an abandoned girl, Joanna (Emilia Jones), tattered and wandering the wastelands. Chinese immigrants sell her into a life of prostitution lorded over by the pitiless pimp Frank in his Inferno Bar.

We piece together the story that connects the film’s opening to that pre-history through chapters Koolhoven titles “Revelation,” “Exodus,” and the like. We glimpse The Preacher’s early years  out west, with Carice Van Houten (“Black Book”) as his abused wife.

We see sheep gutted “as punishment,” a man disemboweled, murderous highwaymen shooting and hanging one another and prostitutes beaten, abused and hung when they dare to fight back against the assorted depraved cowpokes who frequent Frank’s establishment.

brime2Pearce takes to the omnipresent crack-shot preacher/tormentor with his usual relish. But there’s no pleasure in this monster, or in the fight against him. Fanning doesn’t give us anything more than her usual inadequate reactions to every situation, the curse of her adult acting career. Carla Juri and Vera Vitali, playing hookers, make stronger impressions.

There’s a grim illogic to it all, as if Koolhaven got all his research from “Worst Crimes of the Old West” books. Even though I can buy that in this world, cruelty comes easily and is every man’s default mode, characters act against their self-interest and the relentless, remorseless savagery makes the viewer ache for a justice that never comes, “Retribution” that one chapter in this morbid tale promises but refuses to deliver.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Lucas, Carice van Houten, Kit Harrington

Credits:Written and directed by Martin Koolhaven . An eOne/Monument release.

Running time: 2:28

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