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
An energetic cast and some terrific music make up for the rather hackneyed plot of this Dreamgirls-style drama. Remade from a 1976 film, the story is that familiar trajectory of musicians who achieve fame only to fall into a string of ugly problems. It's just about watchable, but what makes it notable is that it features Whitney Houston in her last film role.
It's set in 1968 Detroit, where Sister (Ejogo) is determined to become a star. Her singer-songwriter sister Sparkle (Sparks) is the one with real talent, but she's happy to stay in the background with their other sister Dee (Sumpter). As Sister and Her Sisters, they are managed by Stix (Luke), a fast-talking charmer who falls for Sparkle. But the girls' intensely religious mother (Houston) is under no illusions: she has been there, done that and continually warns her daughters that they shouldn't go the same way she did. But of course, they have to live their messy lives themselves.
Since it's such a familiar story, the film has a cheesy, soapy feel to it, playing on the sisters' rebellion against their religious upbringing. Of course, danger is represented in the men they fall for. While good-girl Sparkle tries to keep Stix at arms' length for awhile at least, Sister must choose between two men: the poor but nice Levi (Hardwick) and the flashy but drug-addled Satin (Epps). Since we know that she will choose the wrong guy, we know it's not going to be a happy journey for her. But this trawl through the dark side gives Ejogo a chance to steal the film with a much more emotionally charged performance.
Continue reading: Sparkle Review
Sparkle is our eponymous star, set to shine in this tale of rags to riches as she rises to achieve her ambition of becoming a musical force. A musical prodigy from an affluent area of Detroit, Sparkle must overcome issues that are tearing her family apart whilst following her own musical ambitions. One of three sisters to a single mother, Sparkle tries to balance a new romance with music manager Stix whilst dealing with the unexpected challenges her new life will inevitably bring as she and her two sisters, Sister and Dolores, strive to become a dynamic singing group during the Motown era.
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Dave (Johnson) is a shy New York teen who wonders why no one sticks up for each other. So he creates a secret alter-ego, Kick-Ass, and sets out to make a difference. Of course he gets beaten to a pulp. But he also catches the city's imagination. The problem is that gangster Frank (Strong) thinks he's to blame for a series of setbacks and helps his son (Mintz-Plasse) create a rival hero, Red Mist. But Frank's nemesis is actually a man (Cage) who has turned his 12-year-old daughter (Moretz) into a killing machine.
Continue reading: Kick-Ass Review
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