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Schultz reviews: 'City of Lies,' 'The Courier' and 'The Father'

Schultz reviews: 'City of Lies,' 'The Courier' and 'The Father'

Carl Schultz



“City of Lies”   Distributed by Saban Films, 112 Minutes, Rated R, Released March 19, 2021:

Once upon a time, before the tabloid headlines, rumors, and career-killing scandals, Johnny Depp was known as an exceptional actor, one of the very best of his generation.  Audiences are reminded of those long ago days with the release of “City of Lies,” a fact-based crime drama produced a few years ago but suppressed by complicated legal issues, and finally opening in selected theaters this week.

In “City of Lies,” Depp stars as real-life former Los Angeles police detective Russell Poole.  Paunchy, middle-aged, reclusive, an honest cop whose obsession with solving the 1996 murders of hip hop superstars Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. has cost him his family and career, Poole now continues to doggedly investigate the crimes from the seclusion of his seedy LA apartment.  

When award-winning journalist “Jack” Jackson (Forest Whitaker) begins to investigate the murders for a magazine article he’s writing on the 20th anniversary of the still-unsolved murders, he and Poole eventually begin to work together.  And as the fingers of guilt continue to point toward the Los Angeles Police Department, the law enforcement community begins to actively obstruct their investigation.  As Poole warns Jackson, “A murder like that only goes unsolved if the police don’t want to solve it.”

Adapted by Christian Contreras from journalist Randall Sullivan’s book “LAbyrinth” and directed by filmmaker Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), “City of Lies” turns out to be a moderately involving but disappointingly routine police procedural detailing the shadowy, clandestine netherworld peripheral to the entertainment industry, where elements of show business, organized crime, street gangs, and law enforcement intermingle in roughly equal measures.  If you’ve ever seen “The Glitter Dome,” or read the book, you get the general idea.

Part “Zodiac” and part “Serpico,” the film unfortunately lacks focus and contains a number of loose ends--the picture seems as if it’s been edited down from a longer and more-comprehensive version.  Although the various delays have kept the film offscreen for a number of years, recent events have again rendered “City of Lies” shockingly and tragically topical.  At times the viewer needs to remind himself the picture was produced prior to #BlackLivesMatter and the murder of George Floyd..  

But in its entirety, “City of Lies” works best as a character study, as the retired cop and dedicated journalist collaborate to solve a crime seemingly nobody wants solved.  Two of the most nuanced, charismatic, and at times eccentric talents in motion pictures, Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker work at or near the top of their respective forms in this gritty, violent, and sometimes bloody film.  While the picture gets occasionally bogged down in detail, when Whitaker and Depp are onscreen together the film becomes charged with the energy the rest of the movie lacks.

Filmed in late 2016 and early 2017 and originally scheduled for release on September 7, 2018 (the 22nd anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s murder),  “City of Lies” sat on the shelf for nearly three years, delayed by either actor Depp’s legal troubles or suppression from the Los Angeles Police Department, depending on whom you ask.  Eventually the private investment corporation Saban Films acquired distribution rights to the film and released it on March 19.

Whitaker’s “City of Lies” character is a fictionalized version of “LAbyrinth” author Randall Sullivan.  Depp and Whitaker last appeared together onscreen in 1986 in supporting roles in director Oliver Stone’s Academy Award-winning “Platoon.”  After a brief, limited release to movie theaters, “City of Lies” will be distributed beginning April 09 for streaming online as a pay-per-view event.  

Filmed on location in Los Angeles, “City of Lies” is rated R for language and violence.

“The Courier”   Distributed by Lionsgate Pictures, 111 Minutes, Rated R, Released March 19, 2021:

Fans of the James Bond pictures might not recognize “The Courier” for what it is--a superior, nuanced, accurate and authentic spy thriller.  Most audiences are so accustomed to expecting fast cars, elaborate gimmicks, and martinis-shaken-not-stirred with their espionage thrillers that they won’t expect to see the drudgery, hard work, and heartbreak of actual spycraft.

Set during the early 1960s, in “The Courier,” staid, conservative British businessman Greville Wynne is blessedly content with his home, his family, and his career as a salesman of electrical equipment.  When the American CIA and the British MI6 decide Wynne’s overwhelmingly dull persona makes him the perfect spy, the man is recruited reluctantly to smuggle top secret documents and photos from the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Unexpectedly the staid, quiet businessman begins to revel in his exciting new life.

Directed by Dominic Cooke from a script by Tim O’Connor, “The Courier” is a riveting and involving Cold War adventure based on actual incidents.  With echoes of John le Carre, the film unlike more splashy entries in the spy genre downplays action and spectacle in favor of drama and at times almost unendurable suspense, as the civilian everyman with no espionage training beyond what he’s seen in movies is recruited by Her Majesty to enter a world of shadow and deception...during a time in history when the stakes couldn’t be higher. 

This is the rare Cold War thriller that emphasizes friendship and loyalty as much as diplomacy and patriotism.  It’s a distinction made eminently believable by the richly persuasive performances by Benedict Cumberbatch as the real-life Greville Wynne and Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky, his Soviet contact.  The dynamic between the two actors and their characters is as vital and immediate as between long-lost brothers, and keeps the viewer’s interest intact even when the plot grows obscure and complicated.

Newsreel footage of the actual Greville Wynne is included just before the credit sequence at the end of the picture.  The real Oleg Penkovsky was arrested by the Soviets following the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis and quietly executed...although Wynne later claimed Penkovsky’s death was an act of self-sacrifice.  Penkovsky is mentioned in several of author Tom Clancy’s espionage novels as the Soviet agent who recruited KGB operative “Cardinal” as a double agent working for the American CIA.  

Filmed in London and the Czech Republic, “The Courier” is rated PG-13 for violence, brief sexuality, and scenes of brutality (a character’s imprisonment during the picture’s third act is strongly reminiscent of World War II concentration camp footage).

“The Father”   Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 97 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released February 26, 2021:

That “The Father” contains powerful performances from Academy Award-winning British acting luminaries Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman is probably enough reason to place the picture on a movie fan’s must-see list.  That the picture is also timely, relevant, compelling, intelligent, sensitive and at times heartbreaking is just the icing on the cake.

In “The Father,” as an increasingly distraught woman’s ferociously independent 83-year-old father begins to display symptoms of advancing dementia, she needs to decide whether to hire another live-in caregiver--his fifth--move him into her own home, or admit him to a nursing facility.  As the elderly man’s symptoms grow progressively worse, the decision becomes more urgent.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton and French playwright Florian Zeller from Zeller’s 2012 play “Le Pere” and directed by Zeller, “The Father” brilliantly takes an already ticklish subject--the advancing age of a loved one, and his increasing inability to maintain an independent lifestyle--and uses it as a catalyst to pull the rug out from under the viewer by placing him in the elderly man’s shoes.  Periodically the cast switches roles and the actors rotate characters--only the bewildered Anthony Hopkins as the old man remains constant.

In frequently switching the actors and roles, filmmaker Zeller compels the audience to experience his character’s sharing it.  Compounding the sense of verisimilitude, 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins’ character is an 83-year-old man named Anthony.  It’s a simple trick of perspective but as brutally effective as the one used by director Leigh Whannell in last year’s underrated “The Invisible Man” to blur the line between fiction and reality and place the audience inside the mind of the film’s central character.

Now in his fifth decade as an actor, Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” contributes a performance as effective as any in his career.  The premier actor of his generation, a successor to Barrymore, Burton, Gielgud, and Olivier, Hopkins has occasionally been chided for playing beneath his ability--he might’ve won his Academy Award for playing Hannibal Lecter in the lurid “The Silence of the Lambs,” but it was his reputation that compelled the audience to rise to its feet when he did.  Now in “The Father,” Hopkins shows us how it feels to grow old.

As the daughter, Olivia Colman might be the acting world’s most unlikely superstar--with her slightly ungainly good looks, Colman seems perpetually on the cusp of a pratfall.  Striking rather than stunning, with a commoner’s galumph in the place of a movie star’s glide, Colman inhabits her roles rather than performs them.  The audience might’ve been left scratching their heads when Colman won the Academy Award for 2018’s “The Favorite”--it was the least flashy performance that year.  But now the distinction seems almost prescient.

During its early scenes “The Father” seems to channel the same sort of anarchic absurdity of a Marx Bros. picture from the 1930s, or Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” routine.  But as the absurdity grows and compounds, the film transitions to drama to suspense, horror and eventually tragedy by placing the viewer inside both Hopkins’ disorientation and Colman’s alarm and sadness.  In a way, the most unnerving parts of the picture are when Hopkins sees in Colman’s expression a brave smile--he’s aware, as is the viewer, that a brave smile often presages bad news.  

“The Father” is a movie that might come back to haunt you the next time you forget the date or can’t remember a name or don’t recognize an old friend...and God forbid you ever misplace your watch.  It’s a testament to the effectiveness of “The Father” that at the end the viewer feels disoriented, nonplussed, and agitated, wondering whether he’ll be aware when the natural aging process begins...or if it already has.

“The Father” is rated PG-13 for strong language and thematic material.


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