Short Takes: Peppermint & White Boy Rick

Peppermint: I’d caught the trailer for this movie on YouTube a couple of months ago and was waiting anxiously for it to arrive. Having watched Jennifer Garner kick butt in “Alias” I was delighted at the prospect that she’d return to the action genre. The finished product, though, left much to be desired – mostly, originality.

The script is pretty much a bastard child of Sicario and Death Wish. Garner’s Riley North suffers a devastating loss when her husband and daughter are killed in a drive-by shooting. Riley’s seriously wounded, but she’s able to identify the three gang members in the car (somehow, since she was far away, and the shooting took place at night). The men’s lawyer tries to bribe her. Why is never explained, since the fix is in with the judge and prosecutor. After the case is thrown out, Riley disappears for five years, traveling the world to develop “a very particular set of skills.”

The major skill acquired is the services of the director of Taken, Pierre Morrel. The action is fierce and well-choreographed, so it does draw you in. The weakness is the script by Chad St. John, who’d previously done London Has Fallen. Other than Riley, the characters are flat stereotypes – a ruthless Mexican gang lord (Juan Pablo Raba) who wants to be Al Pacino in Scarface, a disillusioned detective with a drinking problem (John Gallagher Jr.), a dedicated FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh) who’s been tracking Riley so she can provide the backstory, and so on. Rather than keep the focus as a tight revenge flick, St. John has Riley become a guardian angel to the skid row inhabitants where she hides when she returns to LA. You can also hear echoes of other film plots scattered throughout the movie.

Even with all that, Garner comes close to pulling it off. For her next project, she’ll be doing the series “Camping” on HBO along with David Tennant. But I do hope she’ll take another crack at the action genre, if she can find a better vehicle.

White Boy Rick: This is a big production for a small-time story. The plot’s ripped from the headlines of a thirty-year-old paper, the (roughly) true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) who’d started out helping his hustler father (Matthew McConaughey) sell guns illegally. The FBI uses the threat of arresting his dad to push Rick into helping them investigate the drug trade in Detroit. In the end Rick becomes a major player before he turns eighteen, only to see it all crash down.

The movie has an abundance of fine actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh as an FBI agent plus Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as Rick’s grandparents. McConaughey delivers a raw, memorable performance, and newcomer Merritt is a natural in front of the camera. They’re eclipsed, though, by Bel Powley as Rick’s older, addicted sister Dawn who struggles to get clean.

It’s a grim story told against the backdrop of grimy and gritty Detroit. It feels, though, that Rick’s story isn’t large enough to fit the effort that went into the production. Wershe was a street-level hood, and he’s not compelling enough to raise the story to the level of tragedy. Despite the excellent performances, you really don’t want to spend the movie’s running time with these characters.

There is a strange Hollywood connection to the story, though. The movie touches on the corruption of the Detroit police, which later led to indictments against a number of officers. After a 13-year-old boy is mistakenly killed in a hit on a drug dealer, one of Rick’s mentors turns to a cop to help cover up the killing. While the movie uses a different name, both Rick and his supplier, Johnny Curry, named Gil Hill as the officer who helped. Hill was the head of the Detroit Police homicide division, and in 1984, during the time White Boy Rick takes place, Hill was assigned as a technical adviser to Martin Brest when he directed Beverly Hills Cop. Brest ended up casting Hill as Eddie Murphy’s tough boss, Inspector Todd. The FBI investigated Hill in the cover-up, but no charges were ever filed. Hill passed away two years ago.

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Hollywood Carrie’s On

There have always been remakes in Hollywood. Sometimes they work well – the John Houston version of The Maltese Falcon was a remake of an earlier film, and more recently Steven Soderbergh took the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s Eleven and turned it into one of the best heist flicks ever made. Other times the remakes beg the question, “What were they thinking?” Probably the worst is the 1998 remake of Psycho, which not only retold the story but matched the original shot for shot. If they had to put Psycho back in the theaters, they would have been better off simply colorizing the original and releasing that. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates? That is scary, but for all the wrong reasons.

The newest remake is definitely in the “What were they thinking?” category. The original 1976 Carrie was a milestone in horror movies, which along with The Exorcist moved them from the B-movie category up to the A-list, and garnered Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. It was blessed with an excellent supporting cast including Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and John Travolta in his second movie role. (His first movie role was in a Grade Z movie, “The Devil’s Rain,” which encapsulated in one film all that was wrong with the horror genre at that time.) Carrie was the high-water mark in director Brian DePalma’s career, which turned increasingly self-indulgent and hackneyed afterward (with the exception of The Untouchables). The movie also created a huge buzz about the original novel’s author, Stephen King. Publishing has not been the same since.

I had hopes when I saw the cast that the remake could capture the power of the original. Sissy Spacek was in her mid-twenties when she filmed the original Carrie. For the new movie, one of the hottest teen-aged actresses in the business, Chloe Grace Moretz, was cast as Carrie. Moretz had done horror before as the pre-teen vampire in Let Me In (which was a remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In, and was just as good as the original), though she showed even better acting chops recently as Isabelle in Hugo. Substituting for Piper Laurie’s Margaret White was Julianne Moore, another excellent actress. Replacing DePalma for the remake was Kimberly Pierce, who guided Hilary Swank to her first Oscar win in Boys Don’t Cry. The remake kept the original screenplay writer, Lawrence D. Cohen, with additions by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who prior to this had mostly done work on television shows such as “Glee” which may have given him bona fides for a movie about high schoolers.

Even with that going for it, it doesn’t work. The original had a lyrical quality in the face of the horror elements. It was also, in its own way, one of the first girl empowerment movies. Carrie blossomed as she realized her power. It gave her the strength to fight back against her psychologically-abusive mother. Sissy Spacek had strong support thanks to Piper Laurie’s flinty religious fanatic. In the remake, Moore is more of a mouse than a monster, without the fanaticism to sharpen the action. For Moretz, Carrie’s powers come across as more of a parlor trick than an empowerment.

The supporting cast is bland. Portia Doubleday’s performance as Chris Hargensen has none of the fire that Nancy Allen brought to the role, and Gabriella Wilde doesn’t communicate the inner decency that Amy Irving did as Sue Snell. About the only upgrade is Ansel Elgort as Tommy. You can see why someone would fall for him much more than William Katt.

Of course, the special effects this time around are far and away better than in the original, thanks to the evolution in the art over the past 40 years. Still, the original was much more effective when it came to the mayhem, which happened with explosive fervor. The split screen process DePalma used worked beautifully to highlight Carrie’s actions. In the new one, Moretz looks like she’s listening to some odd piece of music on her Ipad ear buds rather than consciously murdering the senior class.

While they don’t try to recreate the original’s final “gotcha,” which has now become cliché in horror films, the substitution makes little sense and only serves to underline that this is a lesser version of the story.