Friday, August 31, 2012

Day 143: Lawless

"Do you have any idea what a Thompson machine gun does to a mortal?"

There's an old adage about a collective work of art being less than the sum of its parts, and that adage can be firmly and appropriately applied to the new film Lawless. It features a fantastic acting ensemble, a director who knows his way around desolate and sparsely violent landscapes, and a screenwriter/composer who has proven himself adept at both of those worlds, but these parts just don't add up to a great film. Which is unfortunate, because it had all the potential in the world to be one of the year's best.

Based on Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County in the World", Lawless tells the Prohibition-era true story of a family of crooked bootleggers in the mountains of Virginia. The Bondurant Brothers, Forrest (the always fantastic Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) & Jack (Shia LaBeouf) find themselves in a bit of a pickle when a Special Deputy by the name of Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) is sent to deal with the family, but informs them that he has other interests in mind.

The boys get in even deeper when a rival bootlegging gang headed by Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) begins muscling in on their territory. When their de facto leader Forrest is wounded, Jack finds himself in the position of having to man up and protect his family's business, or watching the whole thing come unraveled.

There are some truly unusual circumstances that lead up to the ending, which are almost impossible to discuss in a spoiler-free review. Needless to say, you'll find yourself shaking your head in disbelief and will likely chalk it up to the fact that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

The film is beautifully shot by Benoit Delhomme, who handled DP duties for director John Hillcoat's 2006 film, The Proposition. If you were a fan of that film, I think it's safe to say you'll find a lot to like here, but not much to love beyond how gorgeous the film looks. The film owes its entire existence to Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde, and seems at times to be desperately aping that film's beautifully violent aesthetic. That film is one of my all-time favorites, and likely the reason that I didn't enjoy this film as much as I should have because it seems to be trying to one-up Bonnie & Clyde rather than paying homage to it.

The performances are all solid, with the glaring exception of LaBeouf. He is so firmly out of his element in this rugged ensemble that his third act transformation is not only thoroughly unbelievable, it's downright laughable. LaBeouf is hardly one of the premier actors of his generation, and he looks like a rank amateur in such formidable company. Hardy, Oldman, & Pearce are all top-notch, as is Jessica Chastain as the object of Forrest's affections. Mia Wasikowska is also good in a small and largely thankless role.

The filmmakers would have been smarter to swap LaBeouf with the much better and severely underused Dane DeHaan. DeHaan, whom you may know from this year's Chronicle, plays the family's genius moonshine cooker, Cricket. He's a magnetic screen presence, and does so much more than LaBeouf does with so much less material. He is definitely an actor to watch for in the future.

Screenwriter & composer Nick Cave has a unique ear for dialogue & captures a wonderful interplay of dialogue between these varied characters, but ultimately the film falls apart in the third act & really fails to stick the landing. Without the benefit of having read the book, I'm not sure at who's feet the fault for this lay, but what started out as a fun, engaging thrill-ride ended up running out of gas and basically sputtered to a halt.

I had high hopes for the film, and maybe if you go into it with lowered expectations, you'll enjoy the film more than I did. There's certainly a lot of great elements on display, some excellent performances, and a really strong first two acts, but in the end, it fails to be better than the sum of its parts. It's not as big a failure as, say, a film like Troy which had similar third act issues combined with otherwise great technical elements, but it still fails to live up to its potential. And at the end of the day, that's almost a greater crime than just being flat-out terrible.

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Day 142: Premium Rush

"You have a real knack for making things worse."

Before I get into this review, I have to preface it by saying that this is not a movie that everyone will enjoy. I can see the average movie-goer walking out of the theater thinking that it was a massive disappointment. However, there is a gem of a movie buried under a premise that has no business working whatsoever, and for those that enjoy B-movies and get on the same wavelength as the filmmakers, you're in for a hell of a ride.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bike messenger in New York City. He helps to establish the world of the film with an opening voice-over that lets us know that bike messengers are part of an unspoken fraternity that takes care of their own, and are among the most able-bodied workers in the entire city. At the end of a long day, Wilee is requested by an acquaintance (Jamie Chung) to pick up a package from her and deliver it to an address in Chinatown.

He immediately attracts the attention of a man calling himself Forrest J. Ackerman (Michael Shannon) who claims to need the letter back from Wilee. When Wilee refuses, Ackerman gives chase, and the film turns into a race across New York City that involves cops, crooks, other bike messengers, the Chinese mafia, and virtually everyone in between.

The movie plays fast and loose with the real-time structure, although the events unfold more or less in real time. There is a ticking-clock that shows up from time to time to let you know when the events you're watching took place, as there are constant flashbacks and scenes told from multiple vantage points, and while it is a bit confusing at first, the pieces begin to fall into place a little more than halfway through.

The handful of times that the action does slow down or stop, are fraught with tension and strategically placed to give the audience a breather. Other than that, it's pretty much non-stop, wall to wall action and suspense. What at first seem like superfluous details like Wilee's failed relationship with one of his co-workers Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) or his rivalry with another (Wole Parks), all come into play throughout the course of the story, and what at first seem like unnecessary details, come to reveal a fully realized world.

David Koepp is a writer who, when he's on his game, understands structure and timely reveals better than almost anyone out there. As a director, he's hit and miss at best, but again, when he's on, he's a force to be reckoned with. I would place this film right alongside his other B-movie masterpiece, 1999's Stir of Echoes, as a fantastic exercise in genre filmmaking. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to his screenplay for Brian DePalma's Snake Eyes as another film smart enough to know it's playing into the very tropes it seems to be parodying.

The performances here are as good as can be expected for the kind of film this is. JGL is far and away one of the most affable actors working today, and he coasts here on his endless charm and the fact that you just can't help but root for the guy, no matter what. Shannon is an absolute blast, and handily walks away with the entire film. I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to compare his performance here to another of his contemporaries in a similarly so-bad-it's-good film from last year, and that would be William Fitchner in Drive Angry. Both actors are savvy enough to know how pulpy the material is, and thankfully manage to have a ton of fun playing these over-the-top villains.

What I'm getting at, again, is that this is the sort of movie you have to know is going to be ridiculous and fun and be willing to just go with it. The film borrows liberally from everything like Run Lola Run, Two Lane Blacktop, & Looney Tunes, and the more you give yourself over to the fun everyone on screen is having, the more you'll find yourself getting caught up in it as well.

I'm sad that this film is seriously under performing at the box office (I was the only person in the theater this afternoon), but it's no surprise. This film would have been a better match for a February or September release, and just got buried in the end-of-summer doldrums. If you're looking for a fun, breezy, ninety minute B-movie thrill-ride though, you can't get much better than Premium Rush.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Day 141: ParaNorman

"Say that you'll do it! Swear!" "Like, the f-word?"

The latest film from Oregon-based stop-motion studio LAIKA, opens with a kitschy throwback opening sequence that perfectly sets the tone for the adventure ahead, including 70s-style studio logos and an "Our Feature Presentation" card ripped right from the grindhouse. It instantaneously alerts you to the fact that you're in good hands, and does nothing to betray that trust in the ensuing ninety minutes. In other words, I'm happy to report that a summer filled with family films lacking in imagination, goes out with a bang, as this film has imagination & inspiration to spare.

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is cursed with a gift of being able to see and communicate with dead people. He sees them everywhere, including the ghost of his beloved Grandma (Elaine Stritch). Unlike another famous character with the same gift, however, Norman doesn't view this as a curse; It's everyone else that treats him differently. His parents (Jeff Garlin & Leslie Mann) don't understand him, his sister (Anna Kendrick) downright despises him, and the class bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) dishes out nonstop punishment to the besotted boy.

Fate has big plans for Norman though. There is an imminent invasion of the undead, and according to Norman's crazy uncle (John Goodman), Norman is the only one that can prevent it. When he fails to prevent it, due to circumstances beyond his control, Norman must convince the entire town that he's the only one that can set things right.

One of the things that ParaNorman does incredibly well is instill in the audience that things are not always what they seem. One of the things that I was apprehensive about regarding this film in the first place, was that it was yet another zombie movie. Zombies are all the rage right now, and every possible metaphor that they could represent seems to have been used up a dozen times over. If it's at all possible, though, I'd love to convince you that there is refreshing twist that this film has for the undead, and therefore I won't spoil it here.

LAIKA's last film was 2009's Coraline, and that film set the bar sky high for anything else they would do in the future. Rest assured, though, that ParaNorman is a worthy successor in quality, much the same way Pixar's A Bug's Life was to Toy Story. It's a pleasantly different story told with the same twisted sensibility. The film is very funny, appropriately dark, but still family friendly, containing a wonderful message along the lines of those who fail to remember and learn from their past being doomed to repeat it.

The voice talent is solid, top to bottom, with Smit-McPhee conveying a wonderful sense of exasperation, desperation, loneliness & determination. As Norman's only friend Neil, Tucker Albrizzi is also fantastic & Casey Affleck is great as Neil's older brother. Casting an actor like Mintz-Plasse to voice a giant bully was inspired, and pays off great dividends. I still don't understand the phenomenon of casting, pardon the expression, fat actors to play fat characters, but both Garlin & Goodman are great. I guess I just don't get the sensibility behind casting directors only casting these great voice actors to play fat guys.

The animation is amazing, as to be expected. Three years have passed since Coraline, and LAIKA surpasses even that film's great look. The film's climax is a wonder to behold & the way they superimpose the ghosts onto the frame is inspired and eerie. The use of 3D is minimal and mostly adds depth rather than being gimmicky, but it's a better use of the technology than, say, Brave or Ice Age made.

I took my six-year old daughter Clementine with me, and she had a blast, laughing up a storm. After we left the theater, she said to me, "Dad, Norman's dad didn't believe in him. That's really sad," and that to me is an indicator of how good the film's creators were at establishing and conveying their message. What could have been a pat exercise in the standard "believe in yourself" tropes got turned on its ear. It's not surprising that this film is rooted in a story as old as the tale of Chicken Little, but it's a powerful tale that gets better in the re-telling.

With Pixar and Ghibli already established animation powerhouses, and Dreamworks beginning to finally assert itself as a force to be reckoned with, I think we can safely say that we're in a bit of an animation renaissance. Let's hope that LAIKA sticks around for the long haul, because they're currently batting a thousand. Quality animated films are a win-win for studios and audiences, and now that we finally seem to be past the days of rapid-fire pop-culture references as substitutes for actual storytelling creativity, I think we can look forward to a bright future for the animated film. If only the next batch is half as smart as ParaNorman, we're in for a hell of a ride.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, August 10, 2012

Day 140: The Campaign

"I am not beholden to my opponent's questions, I am beholden to only one man, the greatest American that ever lived... Jesus Christ."

Much like another comedy from earlier this summer, The Dictator, The Campaign seems to have been made solely for one late film scene where a character sums up the entire issue with our modern political world in an on the nose tirade. I'm not saying that it's not enjoyable and there aren't a lot of funny things that happen over the course of its running time, but continuing to bury prescient political digs in sophomoric humor is only going to diminish your point when you finally get around to making it.

Four-time Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is running unopposed for a fifth term in his small district in southern North Carolina. That is until his campaign begins to fall victim to several political scandals, almost all of which involve his rampant infidelity. Seeing an opportunity to take control of this solidly Democratic district, the conservative billionaire Motch Brothers (John Lithgow & Dan Aykroyd) look to insert an opposition candidate into the race that they can easily control & manipulate and allow them to introduce their nefarious & illegal business practices into the region.

Enter Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) the black sheep son of a former Republican bigwig (Brian Cox) in whom the Motch Brothers see the perfect man to turn the political tide their way. Huggins is a sweet & innocent soul, ripe for molding into the ultimate political pit bull who will spout whatever pithy talking points they give him. The film then quickly devolves into a series of each candidate trying to one-up the other through political attack ads, debate distractions and various other tricks & games.

The film has some smart and incisive things to say about the current political atmosphere in this country and the way that elections are bought, if not outright, than through means that skirt issues of legality. It's nothing that hasn't been said before, it's just all consolidated here into one storyline that spans roughly five months rather than the seemingly never-ending campaign cycle we currently live in. It's a tad dumbed-down but it's right on target for the average comedy seeking American heading to the multiplex to see it this weekend.

If you've seen the trailers, you've gotten a general sense of what the film is and what it's going for, but thanks to the film's R-rating, it does have a handful of genuinely funny vulgar moments that couldn't be revealed in the advertising. Unfortunately, the R-rating almost seems like an afterthought. It seems as though there were a handful of things they just didn't want to cut and were saddled with the rating, rather than going full bore for the R like some comedies have lately. This isn't necessarily a criticism, more of an observation.

Ferrell is funny as always, if you're amused by what he does. I happen to be a fan and am willing to follow him down roads that many others may not, so if you're not a fan, you're not likely to be won over by his character and performance here. Galifianakis is the true star here however, playing essentially a variation on his stand-up created "twin brother" Seth Galifianakis. Watching him run the gamut from wide-eyed innocent to cold-blooded politician and back again is a joy and for someone who's been a fan of his for years, it's great to see him get a role where he can show his versatility, rather than just showing one facet of his personality like his roles in The Hangover & Due Date have.

The supporting cast is good, but largely underused. Jason Sudeikis, another guy I love in pretty much anything, isn't given much to do here as Cam's campaign manager, but he makes the most of it. Dylan McDermott also does well with his role as Marty's Motch brother financed campaign manager, and Katherine LaNasa & Sarah Baker similarly make the most of their small roles as Cam & Marty's respective wives. Lithgow, Aykroyd & Cox, all formidable screen presences, are almost entirely wasted in thoroughly unfunny glorified cameos.

Director Jay Roach has proven that he can do great political satire with his HBO films Recount & Game Change, but here he appeared to be more comfortable returning to his role as director of safe, crowd-pleasing comedies like Meet the Parents & Austin Powers. I wish he had retained more of his bite, but I suppose that a dumb comedy with teeth is better than one without any teeth at all.

As I said earlier, if you're not a fan of this sort of comedy, this isn't going to win you over and make you see the light. If you are, however, you may find yourself getting caught up in the silliness of it all, and only later will you begin to wonder why the film couldn't settle into a rhythm of either being a gross-out comedy or a sharp political satire, because in its current state, it just doesn't belong in either camp.

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Day 139: Prometheus

"There is nothing in the desert. And no man needs nothing."

I think it fitting that I chose a quote from Prometheus that was actually lifted from another film. Prometheus, as a film, didn't need to add in the specter of another film hovering above it. Positioning itself as a prequel to Alien built that in to the experience to begin with, however, the filmmakers (and I say that because I don't know if it was a script choice or a director choice) decided to give one of the characters an obsession with Lawrence of Arabia. Thankfully they picked the best actor in the film (Michael Fassbender) to give that obsession to, but any time you take one of the greatest films ever made, insert it in to your own film, and reference it more than once, you're only serving to remind your audience of all the better things they could be doing with their time.

And thus is the paradox that is Ridley Scott's Prometheus. What begins as an ambitious science fiction film that sets out to tackle weighty issues like the origin of human life and religious belief systems, turns into a base, sophomoric attempt at being a (thoroughly unpleasing) crowd-pleaser. For its first 45 minutes (excluding a thoroughly ridiculous prologue), the film is actually surprisingly good, and I was having a hard time understanding where the film's detractors were coming from.

The film chronicles an expedition to the vast reaches of the solar system, funded by an enigmatic & wealthy benefactor named Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce), aboard the eponymous vessel. The ragtag group of people aboard include the captain (the always great Idris Elba), the woman running the operation (Charlize Theron, never blander) and the two archaeologists (Noomi Rapace & some guy that looks like a low-rent Tom Hardy) whose discoveries on earth have led Weyland to believe that the answers to the origin of life on Earth reside on the moon of a distant planet. Also aboard are a bunch of other utterly forgettable supporting players and an android named David (Fassbender) who has spent the two year voyage of the ship watching the dreams of the other passengers in between language lessons & viewings Lawrence of Arabia.

Anyone who's seen at least one science fiction film knows that there's more awaiting this crew than meets the eye when they arrive. What makes the film so utterly stupid is the fact that the characters will, in time, receive the answer to virtually every question that they have. Pins are set up just to be knocked down & it diminishes the whole point of bringing up such heavy issues. Why does there have to be an answer to everything? Do you care where the Alien in Alien came from? You'll get your answer here. Did you absolutely have to know what the space jockey in Alien was? Watch Prometheus for a truly stupid answer. It doesn't matter where everything comes from, but it's funny that the entire theme of Prometheus is people seeking answers to unanswerable questions. It's like they're letting you know what you're in for right there in the god damned log line.

No one's motivations make any sense. A single word is spoken, unnecessarily, by Charlize Theron's character, almost as a reason to help you understand why this wholly unlikable person is the way she is. I'm really not sure I understand why the two guys left in the cave would so eagerly approach a phallic alien life form when they've avoided every imaginable danger up until that point. I also don't understand the filmmakers motivations, like why they were so slavishly faithful to the costume and set designs from the original Alien. Has everyone just plain run out of ideas, or do you not trust your audience enough that you have to spell absolutely everything out for them?

Apart from Elba & Fassbender, the performances are nothing to write home about. There was nothing distinguishable about any of them. I think there were just too many people. The original Alien worked because the cast was so streamlined and everyone had their distinct character traits. Here, everyone wants to be shrouded in mystery and cast in shades of grey that they all wind up fading into the background due to their insistence on being meaningful and three-dimensional.

I genuinely miss the days when a director could surprise you. There was a time when a guy like Ridley Scott could come seemingly out of nowhere with a genuinely entertaining film like Gladiator and remind you why he was an elite director in the first place. Now we're reduced to waiting for the other shoe to drop halfway through even the most promising of efforts by directors that lost their mojo long ago.

There might have been a good film in here somewhere, but like the Star Wars prequels before this, the filmmakers became obsessed with turning virtually every little unexplained nuance of the original into some deep, meaningful entity with a backstory. I think Hollywood views moviegoers as people who are no longer willing to expect the unexpected, and with every new film that comes along, the need to classify it as a total success or a total failure has only bred that contempt studios have for us peons even further.

Unless you're a die-hard fan of Alien and need to know where everything came from, avoid Prometheus at all costs. It may only end up tarnishing your memories of an otherwise great film. As a matter of fact, I'm going to cleanse my palate with a viewing of Alien right now.

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