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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014

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Dwayne Johnson stars in "Snitch."
Dwayne Johnson stars in "Snitch."

"Snitch" a dull fraud posing as an action thriller

I’m supposed to be writing a review for "Snitch," the latest action thriller starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, but there’s only one thing on my mind: a beard.

The tuft of hair belongs to Barry Pepper's chin, and it is admittedly mesmerizing. It’s a grungy-looking goatee that hangs two or three inches off Pepper’s face and sharpens into a point. Every camera angle provides some new fascinating detail, and even when it seems the beard has worn out its welcome, Pepper ties it into a tight little ponytail for variety’s sake.

Pepper’s mangy Van Dyke beard would be more at home in something like "True Grit" or "The Road." I’m more than thankful, however, that writer/director Ric Roman Waugh thought it was necessary because it’s one of the only interesting things "Snitch" has to offer. Everything else is dull, drab and surprisingly preachy.

Johnson plays John Matthews, the ridiculously buff owner of a construction supply business and an all-around good guy. His fairly calm life takes a turn for the worse when his son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is mistakenly arrested in a drug sting with his friend’s drugs and faces at least 10 years in prison thanks to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The police offer to shorten Jason’s sentence if he helps them set up and arrest another dealer, but since he’s not an actual dealer and not even really a user, he has no one to turn in. Plus, he doesn’t want to set up an innocent guy – like his friend did to him.

While Jason languishes in prison, Matthews volunteers to do the snitching in the place of his son. The election-minded U.S. Attorney (Susan Sarandon) takes the deal, and Matthews plots to entrap a local dealer (Michael K. Williams, Omar from "The Wire") with the reluctant help of one of his ex-con workers (Joe Bernthal from "The Walking Dead").

The desperate dad’s plan might be too good, however, as he gets deep enough to start doing favors for a dangerous kingpin (Benjamin Bratt).

Much of "Snitch"…

Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan and Greg Nicotero (not pictured) came to Milwaukee Saturday night.
Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan and Greg Nicotero (not pictured) came to Milwaukee Saturday night.

Cast of "The Walking Dead" brings Riverside crowd to life

The cast and crew of AMC’s hit television show "The Walking Dead" are used to working with stumbling, lifeless corpses. Rowdy, liquored up Milwaukeeans, on the other hand, are a very different story. At least that’s the way it seemed as a large crowd of vocal fans welcomed Norman Reedus (Daryl), Steven Yeun (Glenn), Lauren Cohan (Maggie) and producer/director/make-up artist Greg Nicotero to the Riverside Saturday night.

That’s certainly not to say that it wasn’t a fun event. Instead, it was like three separate events – one-third thoughtful behind-the-scenes discussion, one-third intimate night out with the cast, one-third chaotically entertaining fangasm – inelegantly mashed into a single 90-minute session. The drunken mayhem (if the stars are to be believed, the 7:00 show was a far more sober affair) meant the celebrity sit-down probably didn’t fulfill every Dead-head’s desire, but it was sure to leave everyone with at least an amused smile planted on their face.

After showing a few clips from the current season (which, as Nicotero pointed out, received crowd interaction on a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" level), the cast took their seats on the couches – or on Nicotero’s lap, in Reedus’s case – scattered on the stage. Master of ceremonies Kyle Ryan from the A.V. Club got the conversation going with a few questions, mainly about how the cast members got involved with the monster hit and the rigors of shooting in the killer heat of Atlanta.

Keeping both the cast and the crowd on track, however, would prove to be a futile mission. From the beginning of the night, Reedus was the most easily distracted. Most of the time, the culprit was the crowd, yelling out dedications of love to their favorite star and summoning multiple rounds of PBR up to the stage (by the end of the night, there were about ten Tall Boys scattered around the stage). Other times, it was simply Reedus’s microphone, which he couldn’t stop fiddling with throughout the evening.…

Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough star in "Safe Haven."
Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough star in "Safe Haven."

"Safe Haven" offers no protection from Sparks' clichés

An astute audience member paying attention during the opening credits of "Safe Haven" will notice the film is the first product from Nicholas Sparks Productions. Yes, it seems Sparks has turned his brand of weepy predictable romantic drama into a certified business, and that’s exactly what "Safe Haven" feels like: business.

The Valentine’s Day drama plays like the result of a soulless Nicholas Sparks machine that simply plugged in the typical clichés and churned out a movie, personality be damned.

"Safe Haven" technically has two screenwriters, Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, adapting Sparks’ 2010 novel, but their names might as well have been replaced by the Nicholas Sparks Movie Generator 5000. Loading name … Katie, played by Julianne Hough, is a young woman escaping an abusive relationship with (insert corrupt ex-husband or boyfriend character, who could only be more cartoonishly villainous if he set a box of puppies on fire).

Her journey brings her to – you guessed it – a scenic, beachside boating town perfect for starting her life over and meaningful stares into the distance. She gets a job at the local diner and meets (loading handsome, big-hearted romantic lead with kids – one relentlessly mopey, the other adorable – and a dead wife…) Alex, played by Josh Duhamel.

After some awkward courting and humorously trite advice (one character – played by Cobie Smulders – says, "life is full of second chances" and then assumably gags on the hokey line’s saccharine gooeyness), the two fall in love. Plug in romantic rain storm. Unfortunately, Katie’s dark secret from her past comes to light just as she and Alex are beginning to truly trust one another. Oh, the tragically predictable irony.

They get in a fight that could be easily solved with an honest conversation, but the Nicholas Sparks Movie Generator, a machine unable to understand genuine human emotion and interactions, insists that it be wrapped up with a sequence in which Alex must r…

Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins star in "Quartet."
Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins star in "Quartet."
Christopher Walken and Al Pacino star in "Stand Up Guys."
Christopher Walken and Al Pacino star in "Stand Up Guys."

"Quartet," "Stand Up Guys" put spotlight on our on-screen elders

We’re barely over a month into the new year, and a theme is already starting to emerge.

It seems 2013 is the year of aging.

Besides the typical January fare – cheap horror movies ("Texas Chainsaw 3D"), even cheaper comedies ("Movie 43") – theaters have been getting slammed with films about getting old. Some of them try to say that age is just a number, especially if that number is attached to an ’80s action hero (Sly, Arnold, Bruce Willis) trying to prove he’s still got it – even if the box office returns would prove otherwise (the jury is still out on Willis and "A Good Day to Die Hard").

There’s also Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated "Amour," whose painful depiction of the cruel forces of age and time finally came to town this past month.

If that wasn’t enough, there are two other movies featuring veteran actors and actresses coping with their golden years: "Quartet" and "Stand Up Guys." Neither of the two films have the flashy explosions nor high profile awards hype of their brethren, but they do provide the modest pleasures of watching some of Hollywood’s finest embrace their grey with grace. Well … one of them does.

Let’s go with the good news first and talk about "Quartet," Dustin Hoffman’s modest directorial debut. Veteran British stage and screen actor Tom Courtenay stars as Reg, a former opera great now living in a gorgeous country home for retired musicians. He passes the time teaching music classes and leisurely enjoying the company of his friends, the randy Wilf (Billy Connolly) and the bubbly Cissy (Pauline Collins).

Their peaceful retirement starts going out of tune when the diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), the fourth member of Reg, Wilf and Cissy’s renowned quartet, as well as Reg’s estranged ex-wife, arrives at the retirement home in an egotistic harrumph. He can’t simply ignore her either; the house’s ringleader (Dumbledore himself Michael Gambon) insists on the legendary quartet performing "Rigoletto" for their annual…