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Films I Neglected To Review: No Justice To Be Found Here
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "City of Lies," "The Courier," "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal," "Slaxx" and not a single word about that "Justice League" thing.

"City of Lies" is a film that essentially want to do for the murder of rap star Christopher Wallace--a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.--what "Zodiac" did for the Zodiac murders by telling a sprawling story of a man's increasingly obsessive quest to answer the questions to an infamous crime that remains officially unsolved to this day. Here, Johnny Depp plays Russell Poole, a now-reclusive former LAPD detective who is contacted by journalist Darius Jackson (Forrest Whittaker) seeking help for a retrospective piece on the crime that he is writing. Having lost everything as the result of the pursuit of his theories regarding the crime--which he believes involved music mogul Suge Knight and several members of the LAPD moonlighting for him--Poole is eventually convinced to tell the story of his investigation and, in a series of flashbacks, we see him as he stumbles into the case through another seemingly unrelated crime and gradually uncovers evidence suggesting a massive conspiracy but ruffles enough feathers along the way to doom things. Jackson uses these leads to work on his article but even though Poole's theories have long since been dismissed, they are evidently still potent enough to cause Jackson plenty of problems as well.

"City of Lies" was originally scheduled to be released in 2018 and while there have been any number of theories surrounding the reasons begged the extended delay--ranging from fallout from Depp's recent legal woes to rumors that the LAPD had it suppressed to keep its damning revelations from becoming public--it won't take long to realize that the real explanation behind it is the unavoidable fact that the film simply isn't very good. You would think that an unsolved murder on the scale of Wallace's would inspire a film that was naturally gripping but there ae times when it seems to be going out of its way to deflate the inherent tension by recounting it in a drab, paint-by-numbers manner and mishandling the various jumps back and forth in time to the point where there are times when the only way to be certain of when a scene takes place is to pay attention to the increasingly dodgy makeup and wigs employed by the actors to suggest the passing of time. The script also spends too much time on unnecessary details such as the growing friendship between Poole and Jackson and Poole's estrangement from his own family in the wake of his determination to solve the case. It is too bad because amidst all of the awkward storytelling, "City of Lies" does contain something that we have not seen in quite some time--a fine performance from Johnny Depp that does not rely entirely on outrageous overacting or a bizarre look. Instead, he taps into his actual talent for the first time in a while and does a good of of portraying Poole and his determination to see justice served while reminding us of his still-considerable acting chops. The resulting film may not have been much of a success but here is hoping that it will inspire Depp to returning to more challenging parts and to leave the lazy paycheck gigs aside for the time being.

In a number of ways, "The Courier" has similarities to "City of Lies"--both films have been sitting around for a while (it originally premiered at the 2020 Sundance under the title "Ironbark" and both tell theoretically exciting tales that have been rendered all but inert by clumsy filmmaking. In this case, the setting is the Cold War and the story begins as high-ranking Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), increasingly disenchanted with the powers-that-be and the dangers they pose to the world, passes off Soviet nuclear secrets to a random, unsuspecting American tourist and when they land in the hands of British and American officials, they are inspired to attempt to establish further contact with him in the hopes of extracting additional information. Since sending a known government employee would set off red flags, MI-6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) hits upon the idea of recruiting Greville Wynn (Benedict Cumberbatch), an old friend with no espionage experience but plenty of business contacts in Eastern Europe, to go to Moscow to meet with Oleg for what Wynn is assured by Franks and CIA counterpart Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is a totally safe one-time deal. It isnít, of course, and things become increasingly tense with each trip, especially since he cannot tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) what he is really doing, leave her to suspect he is having an affair. While he does not know the contents of what he is helping to pass along, Wynn cannot help but surmise that the increased tensions between the US and the USSR--culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis---mighthave some connection with what he is doing.

Although based on a real-life story, "The Courier" nevertheless comes across as an all-too-familiar run through all the usual espionage film cliches with director Dominic Cooke never figuring out a way of putting a new spin on the material. None of it is particularly terrible--though it gets a little too melodramatic at times towards the end as the story takes a darker turn for our heroes and the stuff involving Wynn's wife and her suspicions that he is having another affair does not work at all. The problem is that the film as a whole is pretty lifeless throughout, coming across as grey and drained of life as the drab color scheme utilized throughout. Cumberbatch and Ninidze are both pretty good in their roles but their efforts are stymied by a screenplay and direction that is largely devoid of the requisite tension and excitement that one might expect. The inability of "The Courier" to ever really work is disappointing--I actually like espionage films that stress the more realistic element of spycraft--and unless you are a Cumberbatch completist, you are probably going to be better off watch "Bridge of Spies," a film that tells a similar narrative but does so in a far more compelling and watchable manner than "The Courier" is able to manage.

When the news broke a little over two years ago of a massive conspiracy involving wealthy families and a man who bragged that he could guarantee that he could place their children into the most elite colleges via so-called "side doors," much of the coverage centered on the two most famous names that were caught up in the scandal, actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. In "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal," his alternately fascinating and enraging documentary on the story, those two are largely kept to the sidelines Instead, filmmaker Chris Smith (whose previous efforts have included "American Movie" and "Fyre," the better of the recent dueling Fyre Festival documentaries) has elected to shift the focus on Rick Singer, the one-time high school basketball coach who rebranded himself as a lifestyle coach and convinced hundreds of elite families that he could get their children enrolled in the top schools using his special abilities. Using a combination of interviews with college counselors and dramatic reenactments of transcripts of conversations wiretapped by the FBI (featuring Matthew Modine as Singer), we soon discover that Singer didn't really invent a magical formula for getting these kids admitted despite not having the right academic qualifications. In truth, he merely took loopholes that already existed in the world of academic acceptance--test "tutors," arranging for coaches of lower-profile sports to offer phony team placement for students who had never participated in those events before and the ever-popular huge donations (much like the one for $2.5 million that Charles Kushner made to Harvard just before Jared was accepted)--and merely exploited them to an unthinkable degree. While the unwillingness of Singer and his clients to speak on camera does leave an unavoidable hole in the film that the reenactments can only partially fill, the resulting film is an oftentimes fascinating work that not only lays out the entire story in stark and often astonishing detail, it also takes to task the other key villain driving the story--the mental mindset that has convinced so many people that their lives and ambitions are essentially over if they are unable to get into an expensive name-brand school when there are plenty of other places where they can get an education just as good for a much lower price.

Using the trappings of the horror genre as a vehicle for social commentary is nothing new but rarely has it been pushed to the absurdist extremes on display in the alternately gory and goofy satire "Slaxx." The set-up is about as basic as you are going to find in a horror film--a group of young, attractive and largely annoying people are isolated from the outside world and find themselves being picked off in gruesome fashion by a maniacal killer. The first twist here is that the isolated location in question is a super-trendy that uses all the appropriate buzzwords about fair trade and ethical dealings to make the outside world feel better about shopping there and the victims-to-be are the store employees setting up overnight for the next morningís debut of a new and top-secret line of jeans with the revolutionary ability to shape themselves to the bodies of those wearing them. The second twist is that the jeans themselves are harboring dark secrets that not only put lie to the store's allegedly progressive leanings but allow them to move around on their own and kill anyone in their path. Trapped in the building and with no way to contact the outside world, haplessly idealistic new employee Libby (Romane Denis) tries to figure out what is going on while trying to avoid both the killer pants and her equally lethal manager (Brett Donahue), who will go to any lengths to ensure that the debut of the new line goes off as planned.

So yeah, "Slaxx" is about as ridiculous as can be and it certainly isn't subtle when it gets to the social commentary about the darker and often unseen aspects of the garment trade. (Then again, who out there is looking for subtlety and restraint in a film that features people being slaughtered by pairs of pants in the first place?) And yet, despite the silliness of the premise and the relative lack of any actual scares, the film still kind of works on some strange level. Director/co-writer Elza Kephart sets up the loopy premise and delivers it in a quick and efficient manner that makes its salient points before the one-joke premise completely runs out of steam. As for the kills themselves, they also show an impressive degree of invention that keeps them from getting repetitive and offer up more than enough bloodshed to satisfy the gorehounds. (You would be surprised by the myriad amount of ways that a pair of pants can kill a person as demonstrated here.) The performances are also good as well, especially Donahue, who is very funny and appropriate hateful as the increasingly loathsome manager. "Slaxx" is maybe a little too silly for its own good--especially when the darker elements of the story come into play--but for the most part, it is a funny and grisly exercise in horror satire that gets the job done, has a few things to say and doesnít leave behind any loose threads.

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originally posted: 03/19/21 00:52:08
last updated: 03/19/21 03:56:16
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