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Schultz reviews: “God Bless the Broken Road,” “The Predator,” “A Simple Favor,” “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” and “White Boy Rick”

Schultz reviews: “God Bless the Broken Road,” “The Predator,” “A Simple Favor,” “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” and “White Boy Rick”

By Carl Schultz

schultzcarlschultz@aol.com

 

“God Bless the Broken Road” Distributed by Freestyle Releasing, 111 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Sept. 7:

Hot on the heels of Lionsgate’s March hit “I Can Only Imagine” comes “God Bless the Broken Road,” another movie inspired by a soft rock song with Christian overtones.

The title song has little to do with the narrative of “God Bless the Broken Road” other than in a generic way, although the movie’s main character briefly performs the tune near the end of the film. But the producers plainly hope that lightning will strike twice, and that they’ll catch a little of the residual swell of warmth and goodwill generated in the wake of “I Can Only Imagine.”

There are differences in the concepts of the two pictures, of course. “I Can Only Imagine,” based on the hit song recorded in 1999 by the Christian rock band MercyMe, was a biographical film about lead vocalist Bart Millard’s conflicted relationship with his father, and how that troubled family connection inspired Millard’s composition of the title tune.  

“God Bless the Broken Road,” named after a popular 1994 song recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rascal Flatts and a number of others, becomes a fictional story about a 30-something woman grieving the death of her husband, a soldier killed during service in Afghanistan, and her enduring difficulties both emotional and financial as a result of his death.  

In the picture, Amber Hill lives in a small, picture-perfect Kentucky community, a town which leads with its Christianity, almost Stepford-like in its simplicity and refinement — smiling, friendly, supportive people whose lives are centered around the church they attend, located in the center of town. Amber herself seems to spend her afternoons planting flowers in her garden and singing hymns of praise before taking in hand her daughter and her guitar and heading off to spend evenings at the church, happily leading the choir in rehearsal.

That’s all changed when representatives of the Army interrupt the church’s choir practice one evening to deliver to Amber the unthinkable news of her husband’s death in combat. Amber is so devastated by the news that she’s not even interested in learning the details. Instead, she turns inward and seems to withdraw from life. She’s eventually hired for a job at the local diner, working double shifts to make ends not-quite-meet.  

Even more troubling, her faith is gone. Amber’s still a believer, mind you -- she’s just angry at God, angry enough to be driven into a solitary funk, rejecting any attempts from her friends, her family, and the military to assist her through her tragedy. Amber alienates even her precocious 9-year-old daughter Bree, who’s also feeling the grievous loss of her beloved dad.

Two years later, a stranger comes to town, a race car driver named Cody Jackson, apparently something of a star in the racing world.  Cody’s developed a reputation for repeatedly crashing his cars by trying to speed through curves in the tracks of racing venues. And he’s been sent to town for a period of rehabilitation with the local garage mechanic, who’s sort of a NASCAR Yoda.  

The mechanic’s also a devout Christian, and insists Cody not only accompany him to church, but also almost immediately upon his arrival become the church’s youth outreach director. It’s during Cody’s outreach sessions, teaching the kids of the church to build soapbox racing cars, that he encounters young Bree and, shortly afterward, her mom Amber. Maybe you can see where this is going.

Written by Harold Cronk and Jennifer Dornbush from a story by Andy Fraser and Liam Matthews, there’s not a thing wrong with “God Bless the Broken Road” except for its superficial characters and its lack of depth. The picture is populated with stereotypes, cardboard cutouts of characters instead of fully-realized characterizations. Only Lindsay Pulsipher as Amber seems to be giving her role the old college try. And that’s almost enough to carry the picture through.

Also directed by screenwriter Cronk, the filmmaker behind 2014’s “God’s Not Dead,” 2016’s “God’s Not Dead 2,” and this week’s “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.” “God Bless the Broken Road” features a plot that, while simplistic and sometimes redundant, is still compelling enough to maintain the audience’s interest, leading to a conclusion that’s both satisfying and genuinely moving.

“God Bless the Broken Road” stretches its obviously small budget by employing the economics of downsizing. Set in Kentucky but filmed in western Michigan, the brief Afghanistan sequences, which begin the film seem to have been filmed on the shores of Lake Michigan, and feature the cleanest and most orderly and bloodless depiction of combat you’ll ever see: Smiling soldiers sharing candy bars and talking about church socials back home before fighting off barely-seen al-Qaida commandos dressed like Halloween pirates.

Still, the critics aren’t impressed: Rotten Tomatoes assigns the picture an approval rating of only 13 percent, while Metacritic raises the score to a still-unimpressive 31 percent. CinemaScore, the exit polling service, hasn’t even bothered to run audience diagnostics on “God Bless the Broken Road.”

Released to only 1,272 theaters across the U.S. and Canada, “God Bless the Broken Road” is not faring well at the box office, possibly partly as a result of independent distributor Freestyle Releasing being notoriously stingy with circulation and advertising funds.  After ten days in release, the picture had earned less than $2.5 million at the box office.

“God Bless the Broken Road” is rated PG for some mildly adult situations and scenes of combat.

 

“The Predator” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 107 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 14:

It’s tough to know how much of “The Predator” is premise and how much is plot -- how much of the picture to describe, and when to shut up before revealing too much information.

Probably it’s safe to say that in “The Predator” an alien crash lands his spaceship on Earth. Previous experience with the alien species suggests to the military authorities that the alien is a sort of big game hunter, here to pursue the local prey –– meaning us.

But the geniuses in charge eventually figure out that the visitor is really here to deliver a gift of technology in exchange for protection from a bigger and nastier alien on his trail, trying to recover the missing technology. Unfortunately, by then the gift is in the hands of the emotionally estranged young son of the commander of the black ops team charged with subduing the aliens.

Originally intended as a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who starred in the 1987 original, and with Benicio del Toro, Edward James Olmos, and rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson also involved at various times, “The Predator” instead becomes more a showcase for the skills and talents of co-writer and director Shane Black.

Black, who began his motion picture career during the 1980s as the writer of the first two “Lethal Weapon” movies, is a filmmaker who seems to disappear periodically from the entertainment radar, but who reappeared in earnest with his direction of the hit Marvel Comics-based picture “Iron Man 3” in 2013.  

Director Black invests “The Predator” with a marked, swift-moving 1980s vibe, with scenes reminiscent of pictures from “The Empire Strikes Back” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and a similar cliffhanger style augmented by the horn-driven music score by Henry Jackman, clearly influenced by John Williams.  

Unfortunately, unlike the movies of the 1980s there’s too much graphic violence and too many gross-out scenes revealing the digestive tracts of the various victims of the marauding aliens. Despite that, “The Predator” is a fun ride overall for discerning fans of both horror and science fiction, and for “Predator” fans in particular. Of course the ending is left open for another entry in the series.

Released to 4,037 theaters across North America, “The Predator” is earning disappointing reviews, including an approval rating of just 34 percent from Rotten Tomatoes, 49 percent from Metacritic, and a grade of C-plus from exit audiences polled by CinemaScore.

“The Predator” has been assigned an R rating for strong, bloody violence, language and crude sexual references.

 

“A Simple Favor” Distributed by Lionsgate Pictures, 117 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 14:

In “A Simple Favor,” a naive young widow begins an uneasy friendship with her son’s schoolmate’s mother, a filthy rich, glamorous, stylish, high-maintenance, fast lane corporate executive. She then finds her life being turned upside-down when her new friend vanishes without a trace. The plot thickens when the woman turns amateur sleuth to investigate the disappearance, and simultaneously falls into a romance with the missing friend’s husband.

Adapted to the screen by Jessica Sharzer from the debut novel of writer Darcey Bell, “A Simple Favor” is framed as a 1960s-style romantic comedy thriller in the tradition of “Charade,” “How to Steal a Million” and “The Glass-Bottom Boat,” an approach revealed up front by the French-language rendition of the hit 1960s tune “Music to Watch Girls By” accompanying the stylized opening credits.

Directed by Paul Feig, the filmmaker responsible for comedies such as “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy” and the 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot, the first hour of “A Simple Favor” is terrific. But it all begins to unravel at about the halfway point to become outlandish and unnecessarily complicated, and too long by about 20 minutes. The movie is all held together by a delightfully funny performance from Anna Kendrick as the supremely competent urban mom who gets in over her head . . . or does she?

Also starring Henry Golding, simultaneously appearing in cineplexes as the star of the hit comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” and a sultry Blake Lively as the missing friend, “A Simple Favor” has been released to 3,102 theaters across North America, and is earning favorable reviews from critics, including an 82 percent approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and a grade of B-plus from exit audiences polled by CinemaScore.

“A Simple Favor” has been rated R for sexual content and language, some nudity, drug use and violence.

 

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” Distributed by Pure Flix Entertainment, 98 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Sept. 14:

Louis Zamperini accomplished enough during his long life to fill 10 movies: High school track phenomenon, Olympic star, sports legend, war hero, plane crash survivor, prisoner of war, Christian evangelist, philanthropist, youth counselor, author, husband and father, The Great Zamperini, as he was once known, seemingly did it all.

Zamperini’s life has already been the subject of a 2014 film biography, the Academy Award-nominated worldwide hit “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie and released by Universal Pictures  

The 2014 film detailed Zamperini’s wartime experiences: Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps and serving as a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator, Zamperini survived a crash landing in the Pacific in 1943 and 47 days in a life raft before being rescued by Japanese sailors. The former Olympian then endured two years of starvation and torture in a prisoner of war camp near Tokyo before being liberated by U.S. forces following the 1945 surrender of Japan.

Zamperini’s life is now the subject of a second major motion picture: ”Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” directed by Harold Cronk and released Sept. 14 by Pure Flix Entertainment, the production and distribution company specializing in entertainment primarily aimed at Christian audiences. Pure Flix is the company responsible for 2014’s “God’s Not Dead” and 2016’s “God’s Not Dead 2,” also directed by Cronk. Harold Cronk also directed the recent “God Bless the Broken Road,” a picture vastly different from the Zamperini movie.

A spiritual successor to 2014’s “Unbroken” but not officially a sequel, although both pictures are based on the same 2010 biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” depicts Zamperini’s experiences post-World War II, as he returns to his family’s home in Torrance, California, following his years of captivity and mistreatment in Japan. The former airman attempts to reassimilate himself into American society and overcome his increasing physical and emotional difficulties related to post traumatic stress syndrome, years before the disorder was first named and recognized by the AMA in 1980. Zamperini’s recovery from PTSD is attributed to an awakening of his faith.

With an incisive script by Richard Friedenberg and Ken Hixon, meticulous attention to period detail, incisive direction by Harold Cronk, and superb performances by a cast of actors including Samuel Hunt, late of television’s “Chicago PD,” as Zamperini and Merritt Patterson as his almost astonishingly patient and understanding wife, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” recreates with remarkable clarity visions of America between 1945 and 1950. The superbly evocative photography by Zoran Popovic seems to have been accomplished through the prism of a 1940s-style Kodak camera, with its distinctive Chromatic slide film.

The idyllic optimism of postwar America contrasts sharply with the harrowing flashback sequences depicting Zamperini’s wartime captivity. Mostly rendered in grainy black-and-white, those sequences are difficult enough to witness, but seem to pale against Zamperini’s visions, hallucinations and nightmarish dream sequences, which contain disturbing images and jump-scares effective enough to test the endurance of even the most hardened horror movie aficionados.

Released to 1,620 theaters across the United States, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is unfortunately not faring well with critics, earning only a 21 percent approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and 38 percent from Metacritic. Many critics note the picture’s origins in Christian entertainment, and compare it with exploitation-based morality fables from the 1930s.

Those critics might be missing the point: If “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” does sometimes resemble an exploitation classic from the 1930s such as “Reefer Madness” or “Cocaine Fiends” and even 1945’s Academy Award-winning drama “The Lost Weekend,” or is reminiscent of other less-successful Christian redemption dramas, that’s just the price the picture pays for being almost slavishly accurate to both the Hillenbrand source material and the factual reminiscences of the people depicted in the film.

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is a little gem, a remarkably successful drama of a genuine American hero, and the sacrifices sometimes made by the men and women who guard and defend our country. Give it a chance. More than a Christian film, more than a biography, more than a companion piece to its acclaimed 2014 predecessor, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is truly a picture worthy of The Great Zamperini.

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and related disturbing images.

 

“White Boy Rick” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 116 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 14:

That “White Boy Rick” happens to be a very good movie unfortunately does not make it easy to watch. That the picture happens to be a true story augments and enhances that difficulty.

Set in Detroit between 1984 and 1988, “White Boy Rick” depicts the criminal career of Richard Wershe Jr., a 14-year-old street hustler who became a gangster, a drug kingpin and an FBI informant. At age 17, Wershe was arrested for cocaine possession and sentenced to life in prison, eventually becoming the longest-serving inmate convicted in Michigan of a non-violent crime.

Written by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller and directed by French filmmaker Yann Demange, “White Boy Rick” stars Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey in a jittery, rabbity performance as Wershe’s father. Film veterans Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie appear as Wershe’s stern but loving grandparents, and the preternaturally-talented Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a sympathetic law enforcement official who uses young Rick to convict her prey, but eventually abandons him in the pursuit of her career.

The best performance in the picture might belong to the 26-year-old British actress Bel Powley as Wershe’s heroin-addicted runaway sister, who eventually becomes the main source of stability in his life. But “White Boy Rick” mostly becomes a showcase role for the performance of young Richie Merritt as Rick Wershe.

A non-actor, Merritt was discovered during an open casting session in Maryland. The filmmakers described the role to a Baltimore high school principal, who immediately recommended the then-15-year-old student. The result is nearly astonishing: The stolid, laconic young Merritt drives the film forward with a towering performance -- sympathetic, often troubling and always heartbreaking.

Released to 2,504 theaters across the United States, “White Boy Rick” is earning respectable but lackluster reviews, including an approval rating of 63 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and 61 percent from Metacritic.

“White Boy Rick” is rated R for language, drug content, violence and sexual references.

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