7/2/13: The House I Live in, Tower Block, Inescapable, The Girl, Blood Runs Cold

The House I Live in (NR, 2012, Virgil Films)
There is no shortage of bow-wrapping lines to be found in “The House I Live in,” but in a documentary about the war on drugs, nothing takes the cake quite like John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor David Kennedy when he remarks that “over time, I have discovered that everybody involved hates what’s going on.” Kennedy’s remark also neatly symbolizes what, amid a decades-long sea of indictments that poke holes into the United States government’s drug-fighting tactics, makes this particular poke worth watching. Finding even a square inch of common ground in a situation as misguided and messy as this one is next to impossible with so many pieces — from the poor to the politically ambitious to the profit-driven to those who genuinely mean well — in play. But in completely democratizing blame by addressing every party’s role in the problem, “House” effectively takes blame off the table. What remains is a statistical, personal and visceral realization that what we’re doing now is working for nearly no one — and that includes law enforcement and the population this war is designed to protect with all these arrests and convictions. “House” is full of interesting and dispiriting revelations — did you know, for instance, that Richard Nixon launched the original war on drugs with rehabilitative intentions until reelection campaign obligations rebranded it as a campaign of punishment? — but it’s the cops, criminals, judges and journalists speaking from their own respective experiences that leaves a truly damning impression.
Extras: Five short additional segments.

Tower Block (NR, 2012, Shout Factory)
Once a desirable place to live because of their views and affordable prices, London’s apartment tower blocks have since become a haven for crime and, gradually, government-ordered eviction and demolition. In the case of Tower Block 31, the only signs of life left are the defiant tenants who live on the top floor and refuse, despite the condition of the building and a general lack of security and neighborly love in and around it, to leave. Maybe that explains what happens next, or maybe it’s the fatal crime one of the tenants (Sheridan Smith) witnessed but failed to stop several months prior. Once the first wave of sniper fire takes out multiple tenants and the ones left alive find themselves under siege, there really isn’t a good time to ask why. Without spoiling too much, it’s worth noting that, eventually, “Tower Block” will answer some of these questions. But it’s equally worth noting that the trip from here to there isn’t just a mindlessly rote wait for those answers to materialize. A large ensemble of tenants means “Block” has to work quickly to make characters out of most of them, but it has not only the high energy needed to do so (and have some fun doing it), but also enough creativity to elevate most of those characters past archetype status. All the same, “Block” isn’t afraid to lay waste to some of those people, and because it doesn’t simply take out the easy targets, the anticipation of answers is far from the only tension that turns up. Jack O’Connell, Russell Tovey and Ralph Brown, among others, also star.
Extras: Commentary, interviews.

Inescapable (R, 2013, IFC Films)
If you were one of the folks who dismissed “Taken” as too stupid to exist, a new movie about a powerful father (Alexander Siddig as Adib ) hopping continents to rescue his missing daughter is here to call your bluff. In Adib’s case, his daughter is missing somewhere in Syria — a country whose political temperature needs no introduction to anyone paying any attention the news, but also a country, in this fiction, that Adib disappeared from seemingly overnight en route to starting a new life in Canada. “Inescapable” finds him returning to face all he abandoned, including some powerful old friends and a former fiancé (Marisa Tomei) who assumed he’d eventually reappear or at least send for her. And if all of this sounds like a lot for a movie to chew on while a woman goes missing, guess what? It is, and “Inescapable” chews to its plodding detriment during a first half that, following the near-immediate revelation of Adib’s daughter’s plight, is almost entirely expository and often clumsily so. But the surprising byproduct of that clumsiness, if not necessarily the exposition, is the freedom it affords “Inescapable” to be unpredictable once the pieces are laid out and it’s time to press ahead. Neither the stumbling delivery nor the sometimes-languid pace ever completely disappear, but their (possibly accidental, let’s be clear) transformation from detriments to assets is remarkable as “Inescapable” digs deeper and gets its hands dirtier. “Taken” has it beat in terms of polish, character, thrills and memorable lines, but “Inescapable’s” intelligence indeed gives it the edge in terms of genuine late-game surprises. Oded Fehr and Joshua Jackson also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, Q&A.

The Girl (PG-13, 2012, Virgil Films)
There’s something to be said for unabashed sincerity. But there’s something as well to be said for levity. And it certainly wouldn’t have hurt “The Girl” to sprinkle just a little bit of the latter into this story about a single Texas mom (Abbie Cornish as Ashley) whose desperation to raise money to reclaim custody of her son compels her to engineer a smuggling of Mexican immigrants into Texas that goes considerably wrong. The fallout leaves Ashley stranded with a young girl (Maritza Santiago Hernandez as Rosa) in her charge, and now Ashley must find a way to reunite Rosa with her mom while addressing a few of her own issues and misgivings along the way. There are a number of ways to approach a story like this, and none of them necessarily exist in the realm of the lighthearted. But from its opening two scenes, wherein a crestfallen Ashley loses her job and then delivers a disheartened speech about the unfairness of her situation while her son watches, “The Girl” starts heavy and never really comes up for air. Cornish and Hernandez come to perform, but “The Girl’s” stage is so oppressively gloomy that its heart struggles to soar above the dark clouds even though it’s very clearly there and very obviously beating. Can entertainment be a secondary objective for a movie with something to say? Of course it can. But “The Girl,” for all its talent and good intentions, appears to have left it off the to-do list entirely, and that message’s power suffers as result.
Extra: Making-of feature.

Blood Runs Cold (NR, 2011, Vivendi Entertainment)
The people who spent less than $5,000 to make “Blood Runs Cold” are outwardly and rightfully proud of that fact, and it’s enough to hope their next film is a documentary about how to make a feature film on shoestring budget. Truthfully, it’d likely be the more fascinating of the two movies, because “Cold” isn’t as creative with its storytelling as it must have been with regard to the process of bringing it to life. Have you seen the movie about the pretty people who stay in a run-down house in the middle of nowhere and get gradually decimated by a killer lurking outside? Here’s your chance to see it again. But in “Cold’s” defense, and whether it’s a byproduct of the budgetary process or the creative process, it at least tells this tired story efficiently, streamlining through the inevitable decimation and making a beeline to the last-victim-standing confrontation everyone already knows is coming. The acting from some characters could be better and the special effects certainly aren’t state of the art. But “Cold’s” decision to dedicate nearly half the movie to that last showdown gives it plenty of room to be unnerving even while looking familiar and low-rent, and it takes advantage to satisfying effect.
Extras: Nine minutes of behind-the-scenes footage (which isn’t very instructive but, at least for now, will have to do).