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Schultz reviews: 'Cut Throat City,' 'The New Mutants' & 'Words on Bathroom Walls'

Schultz reviews: 'Cut Throat City,' 'The New Mutants' & 'Words on Bathroom Walls'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“Cut Throat City”   Distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment, 132 Minutes, Rated R, Released August 21, 2020:

 

In “Cut Throat City,” four men living in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, friends since childhood, find their economic recovery from the disaster difficult.  With challenges in earning sufficient incomes, no real assistance from the government, and the mounting financial pressures of growing families and adult responsibilities, the four are conscripted by a local crime lord to rob a casino, a job framed as a source of easy money.  

 

But when one of the men is mortally wounded during the holdup and the proceeds of the robbery are only a small fraction of the amount claimed publicly by the casino, the three survivors encounter an increasing pressure from the police, corrupt politicians, the casino, and elements of organized crime, and find their lives spiraling out of control until the only logical solution is another robbery...and possibly even another after that.

 

A crackling combination of crime drama and social commentary from director RZA, “Cut Throat City” gets off to a great start but eventually becomes unnecessarily complicated by its own ambitions.  The movie is well-made, contains some excellent performances, and certainly feels authentic enough.  But in its unremittingly bleak perspective, cynical attitude, and harsh language that’s occasionally difficult to understand, the film during its second hour becomes more than a little tough to endure.

 

Still, as social commentary “Cut Throat City” packs a considerable wallop.  Director RZA and company have a real feel for the downside of the American Dream, and the picture has a distinctly documentary feel that’s aided enormously by the gritty photography of cinematographer Brandon Cox.  In a way the picture’s a spiritual update of 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” and if the viewer occasionally finds the movie difficult to watch...well, imagine having to live it day after day.

 

Containing spirited and persuasive performances from Shameik Moore, Keean Johnson, Denzel Whitaker, and Demetrius Shipp Jr. as the four friends, “Cut Throat City” also features contributions from Eiza Gonzalez as the honest cop on their trail and Andrene Ward-Hammond as the grieving mother of the man killed in the robbery.  Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Ethan Hawke, and Isaiah Washington also make pivotal appearances in key supporting roles.

 

Director RZA, the stage name of Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, is a musician, rap artist, record producer, and actor best known as the nominal leader of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan.  “Cut Throat City” is RZA’s second filmmaking effort, after the 2012 martial arts picture “The Man with the Iron Fists,” which also featured behind-the-scenes artistic contributions from both Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino.  The music score for “Cut Throat City” was composed and performed by Dhani Harrison and Paul Hicks.  Harrison is the son of the late rock guitarist and former Beatle George Harrison.

 

Written by Paul Cuschieri, “Cut Throat City” is rated R for violence, pervasive language concerns, drug content, some sexual material, and nudity.  Needless to say, this movie isn’t recommended for the kiddies.

“The New Mutants”   Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 94 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released August 28, 2020:

 

In “The New Mutants,” teenager Dani Moonstar survives a cataclysm that kills her father and destroys the Native American reservation where she lives.  Regaining consciousness confined to a bed in an abandoned hospital, the girl is advised by the facility’s administrator that she’s been identified as a mutant, and must remain at the hospital until she learns to control her unnatural powers, which include preternatural strength.

 

Eventually Dani is introduced to four other teenagers confined to the hospital, all of whom have supernatural abilities and have been similarly classified as mutants.  The five involuntary patients soon begin to suspect that they’re being recruited and trained at the facility to become the next generation of the famed X-Men team of mutant superheroes...and begin to plan an escape from both their captors and a savage mutation called the Demon Bear, which is stalking them.

 

Sometimes the title says it all.  Despite its considerable promise (and whopping $80 million budget), “The New Mutants” becomes a muddled entry in the Marvel Entertainment canon of films, technically the thirteenth installment in the X-Men film series which began in 2000.  An uncomfortable hybrid of superhero thriller and teen horror flick, the plain intention of the movie is to introduce a new generation of characters to replace departed genre superstars Wolverine, Mystique and company.  But corporate mergers and boardroom politics seem to have subdued these X-Men more effectively than any arch-villain could.

 

Directed by Josh Boone, also the filmmaker behind the hit 2014 romantic tragedy “The Fault in Our Stars,” “The New Mutants” was originally intended to be the first film in a trilogy in 20th Century-Fox’ series of X-Men pictures...and plainly the film’s ending anticipates a sequel.  But during the picture’s long, complicated, and troubled production (the picture was filmed during the summer of 2017), 20th Century-Fox was acquired by the Walt Disney Company, returning the X-Men film series to the control of the Disney corporation’s Marvel Entertainment Group.

 

Executives at the Disney organization, notoriously--and at times aggressively--protective of their properties, did not like Boone’s vision of the future of their X-Men franchise.  After some considerable deliberation, the company decided to not incorporate “The New Mutants” into their Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting an end to plans for a new sequence of pictures.  Still, the late X-Men creator Stan Lee’s name appears on “The New Mutants” as an executive producer, as does the name of Lauren Shuler Donner, the producer of the original “X-Men” in 2000.

 

Finally released to theaters after being moved around several times on the distribution schedule, “The New Mutants” has become the lowest-rated entry in the X-Men series of films, earning an approval rating of only 23% on the Rotten Tomatoes internet review site against an average rating of 46% on Metacritic.  Several major publications flatly refused to review “The New Mutants,” at all as a protest against the Disney Studios’ failure to schedule socially-distanced press screenings or provide digital screening links for the critics in the wake of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Written by Knate Lee and director Josh Boone and featuring performances from Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Blu Hunt, Alice Braga, and Henry Zaga, “The New Mutants” is rated PG-13 for violent content, bloody and disturbing images, and strong language.

“Words on Bathroom Walls”   Distributed by Roadside Attractions, 111 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released August 21, 2020:

 

Imagine having to endure high school again--the insecurities and rivalries, the competition and the heartaches, the emotional angst, and hormonal challenges and adolescent manias, and the unrelenting need to excel and graduate to the next level of adulthood.

 

Now imagine needing to endure those formidable years again with a psychological imbalance that causes uncontrollable and terrifying spontaneous hallucinations and emotional switching, which renders mood changes unpredictable, radical, and even sometimes dangerous.  And imagine having to conceal that imbalance--and those alarming possibilities--from your classmates.  

 

That’s the world inhabited by 16-year-old Adam Petrazelli in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” a modestly-budgeted new motion picture adaptation of Julia Walton’s eminently readable 2017 novel for young adults, transformed by empathetic filmmaking into a hybrid of drama and comedy, released to theaters August 21 by distributor Roadside Attractions.  

 

Framed as a conversation between young Adam and his therapist (Walton’s novel is framed as entries in Adam’s psychiatric journal), in “Words on Bathroom Walls” Adam Petrazelli has a dilemma:  Diagnosed with treatment-resistant paranoid schizophrenia, the boy is often troubled by hallucinations, hears voices, and sees people who aren’t really there.  The only activity that gives him peace is cooking, and as a result over the years he’s become something of a gourmet.

 

But in order to enter a culinary college and pursue his dream of becoming a chef, Adam must first earn a high school diploma.  Expelled from his most recent school for reacting violently to a hallucination, Adam’s supportive mother has enrolled him in the pricey--and strict--St. Agatha Academy, a school noted for its exacting academic standards.  The catch:  The troubled boy must maintain a grade average of 90% or higher, or face expulsion.

 

When a new experimental medication helps Adam to keep his symptoms at bay and an attractive young student tutor inspires in him both scholastic excellence and a budding romance, the boy experiences for the first time in his life the stirrings of hope, optimism, and even ambition.  All he needs to do to earn his diploma is maintain his current pace, hope the medication continues to work, and conceal his condition from his classmates...and his new girlfriend.

 

While Walton’s casual and candid prose in the novel somehow manages to be evocative of both J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and John R. Powers’ wonderful novels about growing up Catholic, her writing style is not easily transferable to the motion picture screen.  So screenwriter Nick Naveda and director Thor Freudenthal take a few liberties with the book’s narrative and add a touch of wry and often irreverent humor to a plot which depicts a subject not generally considered a laughing matter.  

 

Lest the viewer misunderstand that paranoid schizophrenia is reduced to the level of a punchline in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” it’s not--it’s the resilience and indomitability of Adam’s unfamiliar sense of humanity that causes the smiles and affectionate laughter throughout the picture--his normalcy in the face of his neurological disorder.

 

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is by no means a perfect picture--there are rough spots, questionable leaps of logic, and lapses in the narrative.  As compelling as it might be in its subject matter, any movie about teenagers struggling with emotional or psychological issues won’t be able to avoid the stigma of being a “Read More About It” project or one of the ABC Afterschool Specials which once populated US television screens.  And certainly that’s true here.

 

But viewers of a certain age might also recall a quality once ascribed by Mary Poppins to the medicinal properties of a spoonful of sugar.  Occasionally a movie comes along that’ll so cleverly disguise its therapeutic qualities that you’ll be too entertained while watching it to realize you’ve also been enlightened.  “Words on Bathroom Walls” is such a picture, and from that perspective the movie might be compared with both 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted” and “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” from 1977 in defining schizophrenia for their generations.

 

The movie uses at least one slick plot device to simulate in the viewer the experience of the film’s primary character Adam Petrazelli, the young man enduring the effects of paranoid schizophrenia:  One peripheral character is presented throughout the picture as an antagonist.  Director Thor Freudenthal points to the character’s deception and villainy through furtive glances and whispered conversations half overheard by young Adam.uses cinematic devices, and uses film shorthand to frame the character as unsympathetic. 

 

Only toward the end of the picture is that same character revealed as a protector, a sort of guardian angel, vastly sympathetic to young Adam, and even heroic.  It’s a real surprise to the audience...until the viewer realizes how cleverly the narrative’s been presented by the filmmakers--in the audience’s suspicions about that peripheral character’s motivations, the viewer’s just experienced one of the symptoms of paranoia, and schizophrenia.  It’s a wonderful moment in the film, and so quickly covered up that some viewers might not realize until later what happened.

 

Director Freudenthal also coaxes from 21-year-old actor Charlie Plummer in the central role of Adam a sensitive and perceptive performance which fits the picture’s subject matter well.  Plummer as Adam is by turns dry, alarmed, caustic, mortal, wryly funny, confused, and bewildered.  Resembling a callow towheaded duplicate of late night television comic Jimmy Fallon, Plummer might be familiar to audiences for his impersonation of the real-life John Paul Getty III, whose abduction was central to Ridley Scott’s fact-based “All the Money in the World” in 2017.

 

Supporting young Plummer, 26-year-old Taylor Russell is alternately intellectually indifferent, brusque, sensitive, and always heartbreakingly lovely as Petrazelli’s too-cool-for-high school classmate prodigy Maya, who harbors a secret or two of her own.  Molly Parker is wonderfully empathetic as Adam’s unflaggingly supportive mom, Walton Goggins is ambiguous as stepdad Paul, and character actress Beth Grant is deceptively, perniciously austere as Sister Catherine, the school’s headmistress.  AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, and Lobo Sebastian are also amusing as the three human manifestations of Adam’s schizophrenia.  

 

Andy Garcia in a showcase supporting role as the bemused Father Patrick carries the weight of the movie’s moral authority.  The actor’s effortless and instinctive gravity as the agnostic Adam’s accidental surrogate for God fits well with the rich and eclectic career the actor has inhabited, from Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” in 1987 and Francis Coppola’s “The Godfather Part III” in 1990 to Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” in 2018.

 

German-born Thor Freudenthal was also the filmmaker behind “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” in 2010 and “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” in 2013, both of which experiences serve him well with his handling of “Words on Bathroom Walls”--”Diary of a Wimpy Kid” in capturing the angst of a modern child enduring educational curriculum and social customs during the early 21st century, and “Percy Jackson” in rendering life’s often surreal and fantastic episodes with casual aplomb.  With “Words of Bathroom Walls,” Freudenthal adds another notable entry to a filmography which seems to grow more and more impressive with each new film.   

 

Whether “Words on Bathroom Walls” is a movie you look to for either information or entertainment, you’ll almost certainly find what you seek.  But don’t be too surprised if you find yourself returning later for another viewing, just to enjoy the other.  It’s a movie you might also want to remember for another viewing around Valentine’s Day.

 

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving mental illness, some sexual references, strong language, and smoking.    

 

 

 

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