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Arts Film Review

New films: Black Souls, The D Train, and Hot Pursuit

Black Souls
Directed by Francesco Munzi

The best new film this week is playing exclusively, in the Sacramento area, at the Tower Theatre. It’s a dark Italian thriller set against a backdrop of (somewhat) organized crime.

Leo lives in his family’s rural, home town where his father Luciano still farms goats and makes wine and cheese. It’s a hard, simple existence and life in general might be equally simple if this was the family’s only business. However, Luciano’s brothers Luigi and Rocco have left the small town life behind, in favor of a drug smuggling operation based in Milan – an enterprise that seems far more appealing to Leo than herding goats.

Leo is determined to join his uncles, against his father’s wishes, but before leaving town he has an unspecified score to settle that involves shooting out the windows of a local bar. This rash act upsets the uneasy balance of power between the town’s leading families – primarily groups of men who are more like Luigi and Rocco than mild-mannered Luciano, who would rather see Leo apologize than see the situation escalate.

“Black Souls” is a remarkable film that manages to sustain an air of tension and suspense in almost every scene – there’s always this sense that control is rarely more than a thin veneer and that violence could erupt at any minute. It’s also an interesting examination of power and status as we see Luigi and Rocco, who are men of stature in their home town, especially when coming back from the big city and showering gifts on friends and family members. However, in the faster moving underworld of Milan, they’re the hired muscle – the folks who move product for wealthier men who probably wouldn’t otherwise associate with them. And they still exhibit their humble beginnings – Luigi and his crew are men who can afford to buy loyalty but who would still rather steal and butcher livestock from a farm they pass, largely for the rush, than stop and buy meat at a market.

There’s little sophistication at work here. The old world ways are simple – if somebody hits you, you either hit them back harder or you let the offense stand and yield ground. But it’s the kind of logic that fuels circular feuds and vendettas and at some point there has to be a way to step off the wheel.

There’s an air of authenticity to the simple dynamics of “Black Souls” that makes more layered stories of crime families and the mafia seem unnecessarily complex. The production quality is excellent, as are the performances from both the lead actors and the large supporting cast. It’s a gripping, surprising, and ultimately emotionally powerful film, as members of all three families seek a new equilibrium point in response to Leo’s catalytic act.


Jack Black stars as Dan Landsman, the chair and least popular member of his high school’s alumni committee, in “The D Train.” Just as plans for the twentieth reunion (with a cast that looks like a twenty-fifth reunion would have made more sense) seem doomed to failure, Dan sees the most popular guy from their class, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), on a national sunscreen commercial. Dan’s convinced that if he can convince Oliver to attend, then others will follow and he embarks on a crazy quest to secure his appearance. Oddly, in an unexpected parallel structure to this week’s far superior “Black Souls,” Oliver is a big deal in their home town but a relative nobody in Los Angeles – and there are themes here of who really has it best in life. But it’s also a film with surprisingly explicit sexual content that adds more awkwardness than laughter, for little narrative gain – while excluding the teen audience who are left with the fairly awful “Hot Pursuit” as their new film choice of the week. “The D Train” looks good in that latter company but then so do most things.

Which leads to a mercifully brief description of “Hot Pursuit,” the latest in the genre of films in which relatively crude male-themed, buddy movie narrative elements are juxtaposed with female leads. Think of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in “The Heat” – then remove those better leads, along with almost all of the humor, and replace them with Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara as a socially maladroit cop and the witness she’s trying to protect. Witherspoon seems to have forgotten the trick to comedy, although in fairness she’s not helped by a script that’s more “laugh at” than “laugh with.” And Vergara is primarily used in two ways – for jokes about her figure and jokes about her accent/language. “Hot Pursuit” ends up being a comedy that’s desperately chasing laughs but consistently losing the race.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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