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Schultz reviews: ”Black and Blue," "Countdown" and "The Current War"

Schultz reviews: ”Black and Blue," "Countdown" and "The Current War"

Carl Schultz

“Black and Blue” Distributed by Screen Gems Pictures, 108 Minutes, Rated R, Released Oct. 25:

Powerhouse performances and taut direction made all the difference in “Black and Blue,” the new urban thriller from Screen Gems, the subsidiary of Sony Entertainment that formerly licensed Columbia Pictures productions for television broadcast. Released on Oct. 25, “Black and Blue” is currently playing in some 2,062 move theaters from coast to coast.

In “Black and Blue,” a rookie New Orleans police officer and Army veteran of Kandahar witnesses the gangland-style execution of the surrogate son of a local crime lord by a few of her colleagues, including her temporary partner. Detected by the executioners and wearing a body camera which records the event, the rookie cop needs to make a run for it . . . into an inner city neighborhood where police officers are considered enemies.

Framed for the murder by the guilty parties and trying to elude both the cops and the criminals who’ve placed a bounty on her head, the rookie cop begins an odyssey to safety at police headquarters, shunned by wary and distrustful civilians, hoping only to stay alive long enough to deliver her body camera footage to law enforcement administration.

Written by Peter A. Dowling, the veteran British screenwriter and filmmaker responsible for 2014’s “Reasonable Doubt,” “Black and Blue” on the strength of the story alone would probably be a routine urban crime drama, little distinguished in quality from a typical cable television drama or a drive-in exploitation picture from the 1970s. But lightning bolt direction by Deon Taylor (“The Intruder,” “Traffik”), fast and gritty photography by Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotto, and breathless editing by Peck Prior produce a little thriller that ranks among the best of the decade.

But really selling “Black and Blue” to the audience are its compelling and richly empathetic performances, led by Naomie Harris as the rookie cop and Tyrese Gibson as the reluctant Good Samaritan who risks his life to save hers. Known for her appearances as Eve Moneypenny in the James Bond thrillers and as the irresponsible mother in 2016’s Academy Award-winning “Moonlight,” the British-born Harris inhabits the role of the rookie officer with a sense of tightly-controlled emotions on the raw edge of panic. If she sometimes seem shrill . . . well, with nowhere to run and nobody to trust, wouldn’t you be too?

Tyrese Gibson, familiar to audiences for both his music career and his role as Roman Pearce in the “Fast and Furious” series of action pictures, establishes himself as a persuasive dramatic actor with his appearance in “Black and Blue.” Displaying a laconic, low-key acting style that gives him the ability to project authority even when his character’s being harassed and threatened by crooked, bigoted cops, speaking with reassuring tones in a voice so deep that it seems to be rumbling forth from the floor of the movie auditorium, Gibson’s eyes as the sympathetic grocery store manager project a vastly different reality. This actor’s talent is instinctive, and extremely well-delivered.

Still, “Black and Blue” is earning mixed reviews from the critics. In delivering an approval rating of 48%, the Rotten Tomatoes website reports the picture “is elevated by Naomie Harris’ central performance, even if the end result suffers from a simplistic treatment of topical themes.” Metacritic reports an average score of 53% for the picture, while exit audiences polled by PostTrak award “Black and Blue” an overall positive score of 80%.

“Black and Blue” is rated R for violence and language concerns.

“Countdown” Distributed by STX Entertainment, 90 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Oct. 25:

. . . or “Final Destination” for teens and younger audiences.

The “oh, come on” factor is sky-high in “Countdown,” the new supernatural horror picture from STX Entertainment that looks like it came from the horror specialists at Blumhouse Productions, but didn’t.

In “Countdown,” a new computer app called Countdown supposedly gives a user information relative to the date and time of his death. Rookie hospital nurse Quinn Harris on an impulse downloads the Countdown app onto her smartphone and is surprised to discover the program predicts her death will occur in three days. As the app’s predictions prove accurate to other Countdown users, the horrified Harris feverishly attempts to outwit the program, and prevent her imminent death.

With plot holes, inconsistencies, inaccuracies, continuity problems, and leading characters who either die or disappear abruptly, “Countdown” seems to have been produced by filmmakers who skipped Narrative Structure 101 classes while enrolled in film school. The final result looks like rookie writer and director Justin Dec assembled the picture from outtakes from better movies, and edited them together in time for the Halloween holiday in a cookie cutter style more reminiscent of a carnival funhouse than a coherent and persuasive motion picture.

As the rookie nurse, Elizabeth Lail displays a certain Jennifer Lawrence quality but lacks J-Law’s signature courage and resolve. And in fact, most of the film is populated with stilted performances by nervous-looking people walking through a virtual glossary of horror movie jump scares and cliches. Only writer, comedian, and podcaster Tom Segura hits a bullseye in a peripheral performance as a smarmy and sarcastic computer technician who just might be able to defeat Countdown . . . for a price. Where’s the FCC when you really need them?

“Countdown” is earning mostly unfavorable reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 27% from Rotten Tomatoes and 30% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture an average grade of C-plus. Still, “Countdown” managed to earn some $3.1 million in ticket receipts on its first day alone. Playing in some 2,675 theaters across North America, the picture ended its opening weekend with a little over $9 million in ticket sales, enough to score a fifth-place finish in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

“Countdown” is rated PG-13 for terror, violence, bloody images, suggestive material, language, and thematic elements. Skip it.

“The Current War” Distributed by 101 Studios, 107 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Oct. 25:

Delayed for nearly two years by scandal and re-edited by its director for general release, the historical drama “The Current War” has finally managed to drift indifferently into some 1,020 movie theaters across the United States and Canada. And the verdict? Well, the movie’s . . . interesting. Which is what a person usually says about a dryly informative but fairly bloodless and even boring historical drama, just as a means of being polite.

Set mostly in the years between the invention of the light bulb in 1879 and the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, “The Current War” depicts the professional rivalry between inventor Thomas Edison and industrial engineer George Westinghouse. The picture details the battle between the two to determine whose electrical system will deliver power to cities and towns across America, culminating in the beginnings of the international industrial conglomerates General Electric and . . . well, Westinghouse.

Edison advocates the use of DC — Direct Current — to carry electricity into America’s homes, but his system is expensive and limited in range. The more practical and budget-conscious entrepreneur Westinghouse sets out to prove that AC — Alternating Current — is more effective in carrying electricity over greater distances, and can significantly lower the cost of energy use. Pretty compelling stuff, eh?

The plot thickens when the brilliant mechanical engineer and futurist Nicola Tesla departs Edison’s employment because of the inventor’s unwillingness to consider his ideas, and eventually joins company with Westinghouse. Simultaneously, after long resisting entreaties by the U.S. government to invent new weapons for use in warfare, the pacifist Edison attempts to smear Westinghouse’s public reputation by associating the businessman’s “deadly” Alternating Current system with the development of the electric chair for use in capital punishment.

Filled with memorable dialogue, ingenious cinematic touches, and frequent colorful speechifying by Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison and Michael Shannon as Westinghouse, as well as occasional maternal scolding from Tom Holland’s Samuel Insull and fussy theorizing from Nicholas Hoult’s Nicola Tesla, “The Current War” still turns out to be a fairly tough slog through American History 101, about as lively as a powerpoint presentation at an energy seminar or a stroll through a wax museum.

Part of the problem is that the screenplay by Pittsburgh-born playwright Michael Mitnick is short on exposition and character development: Even after two hours of debating the relative merits of DC and AC, it’s difficult for the viewer to grasp the difference between the two systems . . . or why we should care. And although the audience gets brief glimpses of the personal lives of the monolithic historical figures involved (Katherine Waterston’s Mrs. Westinghouse is a real pistol), it’s the respective electrical currents rather than the lives of Westinghouse or Edison which form the dynamic of this dusty saunter through the history books.

Using the same broadly Midwestern American tones he employed as the title character in 2018’s “The Grinch,” actor Benedict Cumberbatch contributes his customary studied performance as Thomas Edison, breathing what little life he can into a role that’s never allowed to develop beyond a passable cosmetic resemblance to the photos of Edison you see in the encyclopedia. Conversely, the twinkle in Michael Shannon’s eyes suggests he’s having a ball playing George Westinghouse, taking a big bite out of his role and chewing the scenery with relish. Shannon provides the only fun contained in this otherwise airless museum piece.

In various stages of production since 2012, “The Current War” first premiered in its original version at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2017, and was scheduled for release in the United States and Canada two months later, in November of 2017. Originally the property of The Weinstein Company, the picture was pulled from the company’s release schedule after the sexual abuse allegations against company founder Harvey Weinstein. Distribution rights were eventually sold at auction and purchased by the independent 101 Studios.

During the interim, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, also the filmmaker behind 2015’s acclaimed “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” discovered a “final cut privilege” in the producer’s contract, and used the clause to enable the filming of five additional scenes for the picture while trimming 10 minutes from the picture’s original running time.

Released to theaters in the United Kingdom on July 26 and in the United States and Canada on October 25, the re-edited version of “The Current War” is earning respectful reviews from the critics. In awarding the picture an approval rating of 58%, Rotten Tomatoes reports “If (the picture) lacks the powerful voltage that its impressive cast suggests, ‘The Current War: Director’s Cut’ represents a significant improvement over previous versions.” Metacritic assigns the picture an approval rating of 49% for the picture.

“The Current War” ends with a brief scene depicting Edison’s inventing the motion picture camera, an event which might’ve made for a vastly more entertaining movie . . . although one you’re unlikely to see produced by the U.S. film corporations in the near future: During the early years of the 20th Century, the laws of the eastern United States were mostly unenforceable in the west. The early film pioneers relocated the fledgling industry from New York to Hollywood in part to avoid paying royalties to the New Jersey-based Edison for the use of his equipment. Some people just can’t get a break in the movie business.

“The Current War” is rated PG-13 for some disturbing and violent images and thematic elements.

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