Friday, August 21, 2020

Perfect timing? Heavy road rage, teen schizophrenia, and hostage crisis

As if we're looking for more anxiety in our lives while in a hurry to see the unforgettable summer of 2020 finally come to an end, three high energy films arrive today with the re-opening of all theaters in northeastern Ohio.

A rare moment of Crowe calm in "Unhinged."
On an abundance of screens is the incredibly unnerving "Unhinged," which opens with an unnecessary recap of anger all around us, but only after we witness an urgently violent house break-in, raging fire and big-time explosion. Welcome back to the movies, folks! 

Menacing and intimidating both in talent and girth, Russell Crowe plays the descriptive title to the hilt as an extremely troubled divorce' whose road rage knows no bounds after a highway run-in with a single mom (Caren Pistorius). Of course, the young-looking woman carries her own carload of woes, with maybe the persistent disregard for punctuality her most aggravating sin of all.

Meanwhile, the hard-flying Crowe character also has this thing about lawyers, so too bad for Jimmi Simpson (from HBO's "Westworld"), whose legal eagle may both be representing and loving the wrong woman when it comes to bad timing on this particular day.

As is usual when reviewing thrillers, that's all you'll get plotwise right here. Just know that there are a few major holes, some slow-to-react cops, and a lot of exceptionally creepy moments in this latest from screenwriter Carl Ellsworth ("Disturbia," and remakes of "Red Dawn" and "The Last House on the Left").

Rated "R" by MPAA: strong violent content, and language throughout; 1:31; $ $ $ out of $5

Not nearly as disturbing but with some tense moments of its own, "Words on Bathroom Walls" also opens today in surprisingly wide release, especially considering its touchy subject matter of a high school senior with a severe mental disorder.

Charlie Plummer, again starring as a good kid, only this time with schizophrenia, and Taylor Russell, who was so brilliant in last year's underseen "Waves," are the likable young lovers meeting at a Catholic high school. 

Plummer's Adam arrives there after his illness, bullies and a lab explosion have gotten him expelled, and his devoted Mom (Molly Parker) fights hard to convince a strict nun/principal (always solid character actress Beth Grant) to give him one last chance at her exclusive academy. Of course, Russell's stunning Maya is already there as class president, valedictorian and tough cookie/tutor with secrets and gimmicks of her own.

So is Andy Garcia, as a smartly understanding priest, and the trio of terrific voices and personalities (played by AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, and Lobo Sebastian) who set this kid-in-peril movie apart from other teen-age explorations of mental illness. That's because only Adam (and us) can see these walking-talking influences on his life, as introduced by director Thor Freudenthal and screenwriter Nick Naveda from the 2017 Julia Walton novel of the same name.

The production, which involves a number of cast and crew from the TV side of the aisle, also includes a nicely quiet turn from Walton Goggins, as a kind of father figure for Adam, only with potential shades of both good and evil that the gifted actor from such series as "Justified" and "Vice Principals" can play so well.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: mature thematic content involving mental illness, some sexual references, strong language and smoking; 1:51; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Finally this week, there's the historical documentary, "Desert One." It comes from from twice Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple, and includes more than a few sympathy-generating words from former President Jimmy Carter.

First viewed at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, this complete and total dissection of all that went wrong with the infamous Iranian hostage crisis, which began in late 1979 and ended on the eve of President Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981, centers around Carter's inability to free 52 Americans from the hands of militant students. Certainly, it was the key reason he lost the 1980 election to Reagan, though Kopple's doc features more talking heads and survivors discussing a courageous, if ill-fated rescue attempt (nicknamed Operation Eagle Claw) than pure politics. 

Her still-impressive effort also mixes in significant newsreel clips, some animated reenactments, and the constant voice of Ted Koppel, the ABC "Nightline" host whose career was made during the 444 days of hostage captivity.

Maybe nothing shines through more emphatically, however, than the gentle humanity of Jimmy Carter, whose legacy since he left the Presidency still grows by the day.

"Desert One," which eventually can be seen on the History Channel, is now playing at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights. For those preferring to stay home, it is now showing as well in the Cleveland Cinemas virtual screening room.

Not rated by MPAA (but with images of the dead); 1:47; $ $ $ $ out of $5

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