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Capsule Movie Reviews

Reviewed: '8 Murders a Day,' 'John Mellencamp: It's About You,' 'Beneath the Darkness,' 'Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow'

January 06, 2012
  • Charlie Minn, director, of " 8 Murders a Day," during a shooting break in Juarez.
Charlie Minn, director, of " 8 Murders a Day," during a shooting… (unknown )

Although "8 Murders a Day," Charlie Minn's disturbing documentary about the ultra-violent drug war in Juarez, Mexico, is somewhat repetitive and not terribly well-organized, it shines an important light on what the filmmaker deems "the greatest human rights disaster in the world today."

Aided by vivid archival news clips, you-are-there footage from the so-called "murder capital of the world" (Juarez saw more than 3,000 homicides in 2010 alone, hence the movie's title) and frank interviews with academics, reporters and first-hand observers, Minn lays blame for the border city's anguish largely on Felipe Calderon who, after being elected Mexico's president in 2006, waged what became a failed — and, some say, disingenuous — fight against Juarez's competing drug cartels.

As the filmmaker and his spokespeople contend, Mexico's politicians, police, military and survival-driven citizens have all been corrupted by an illicit drug industry that reportedly earns the country $30 billion to $50 billion a year. Add the contention of indifference to the victimized poor and the result, as sound bite-heavy author Charles Bowden puts it, is a "free-for-all" of ruinous proportion.

Unfortunately, direct input from any officials from Mexico or the U.S. (which also takes its lumps here) is nil, lending the film less journalistic heft than Minn's previous documentary, 2010's superior "A Nightmare in Las Cruces."

Gary Goldstein

"8 Murders a Day." No MPAA rating. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Regal Edwards Southgate Stadium 20, South Gate.

For someone who's never directed a movie before, Kurt Markus sure has the eye of a filmmaker. His past as a successful photographer, whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and in ad campaigns for BMW and Nike, serves him extremely well in the evocative documentary "John Mellencamp: It's About You," co-directed by Markus' son, Ian.

In 2009, the Markus men, armed with Super 8 and still cameras, followed singer-songwriter John Mellencamp on a concert tour and on album recording sessions across the South and Midwest. Although they kept a respectful distance from Mellencamp (a kind of you-do-your-thing-I'll-do-mine arrangement was seemingly struck), the Markuses nonetheless captured a unique intimacy with the gruffly charismatic rocker.

The result is an unhurried, visually compelling look at a man and his music — as well as of a bygone America filled with shuttered downtowns and the ghosts of such late musicians as Elvis Presley and blues pioneer Robert Johnson. For Mellencamp fans, there are stirringly rendered performances of such hits as "Pink Houses," "Small Town" and, especially, "Crumblin' Down."

Ultimately, Kurt Markus, whose low-key narration punctuates the journey, seems to have learned as much about himself as about his titular subject — while enjoyably enlightening viewers about both.

Gary Goldstein

"John Mellencamp: It's About You." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.

At times it seems the simple ineptitude of "Beneath the Darkness" surely must mask some undercurrent of deeper sophistication and intention on behalf of the filmmakers. Alas, as it turns out, such things never surface.

The film plays as an odd, distinctly unsuccessful pairing of the Southern Gothic thriller with a rather mundane high school story. A group of small-town Texas youngsters (including Aimee Teegarden from TV's "Friday Night Lights") become convinced something weird is up with the sad, strange widower who runs the local funeral parlor.

Between school lunches and bouts of bickering with parents, the film often feels like a dimly lighted episode of "Scooby-Doo" where the bad guy actually kills one of the kids meddling on his stairs. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is directly referenced early in the film (it's studied in school by the kids), but despite an English class discussion that points in another direction, the film never makes its villain (played by Dennis Quaid, in a performance that's downright goofy and perhaps slightly embarrassed) central enough to garner or deserve audience sympathy or understanding.

Yet that deeply strange and agitated performance by Quaid is the only thing that makes the film remotely bearable, as when he is left to deliver a jokey line about "two tickets to the gun show" before pulling out a gun. Others involved in "Beneath the Darkness" would have been well advised to follow Quaid's lead in making the sensible choice of combining a knowing smirk with a slight air of get-me-out-of-here desperation.

Mark Olsen

"Beneath the Darkness." Running time: 1 hour and 38 minutes. Rated R for violence and some language. At AMC Citywalk Stadium 19, Regency Plant 16 Van Nuys, Krikorian Buena Park 18 Buena Park.

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