Lawless

ImageIn an attempt to revitalize the integrity of his career, Shia LaBeouf has recently stated that he is done making blockbusters.  Many see this as a snobby, unappreciative remark, but is it really?  It is fairly common for working professionals to have stories about having to pay their dues before they experience true success.  This makes it an intriguing statement since, according to LaBeouf, his vision is stifled within the studio system.  Granted, LaBeouf’s “dues” were mega-blockbuster hits, but those must not have been his idea of success.  This statement comes on the heels of some curious and ambitious career choices, including Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac where LaBeouf is rumored to perform an unsimulated sex scene.  Still, his first effort in his new “visionary” direction is this summer’s Lawless, which LaBeouf also helped produce.  It may not be a great movie, but it’s a strong enough exercise of “life imitates art” to prove LaBeouf’s point.

Lawless is set in Prohibition-era Virginia where the legendary and infamous Bondurant brothers dominate the hillside bootlegging trade.  LaBeouf plays the youngest of the three brothers, Jack, who is appropriately performing grunt-work as the driver, while trying to convince his older brother, Forrest, played with stoic minimalism by Tom Hardy, that he can do more.  It’s important to note that this is not just another drama about bootlegging.  Director, John Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave have taken Matt Bondurant’s source material and created a story about man’s continuous struggle to prove himself in difficult times.  Prohibition is an appropriate setting, given its supposed goal of neutering American society’s men who were being deemed too wild.  As history has shown, this obviously led to unexpectedly violent results; consider the scene involving a particularly nasty form of revenge as an obvious homage to this “neutering.”  This element allows the film to rise slightly above its notable flaws.

As business grows for the brothers, the Bondurants eventually attract the attention of Chicago Special Deputy, Charley Rakes who is depicted with tyrannical evilness by Guy Pearce.  What unfolds from here is a nasty, brutal journey through the male psyche where empathy and forgiveness are abandoned for honor and pride.  This, understandably, leaves the audience wondering why one must come at the cost of the other, a good question that both Hillcoat and Cave do not entirely address.  Benevolence is constantly seen as disadvantageous, feminine, and weak.  This masculine insecurity is most strikingly portrayed when one character violently attacks another for being called a ‘nance” or effeminate.  Meanwhile, female characters are present, and they work hard at not being dragged down with the men they, for some reason, love.

Unfortunately, Lawless begins with the feel of nothing more than a dramatized history lesson, which it must then work hard to shake.  However, it does eventually get its wheels spinning.  As strange as this film’s thematic agenda is, we are eventually on board as we are once again in the grips of the classic American cinematic paradox where the heroic outlaws wage war against the power hungry, malevolent authority.  Effective turns from supporting roles by Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman don’t hurt either.  By and large, Lawless scores points for trying to be a little different, as odd as those differences are. B-

Premium RushPremium Rush

Director: David Koepp

Screenwriter: David Koepp

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon

Once upon a time, August was considered the dumping ground for mediocre films that, for whatever reason, have lost the love and support of their studios and were left to duke it out for the “end of summer” scraps. Lately, this has seemed to change. Sylvester Stallone brought The Expendables in 2010, which grossed over $100 million. It’s sequel, Expendables 2, is enjoying a strong reception by audiences, bringing in $28 million in its opening weekend. Last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an August release and made $176 million with a sequel slated for 2014.

This year’s August releases are no exception. First, Bourne Legacy, then ParaNorman and Expendables 2, and now the electrifying Premium Rush. Premium Rush puts a microscope over the lives of NYC bike messengers. This is a very misunderstood and under-appreciated microcosm of modern civilization, which makes it ripe for a brilliant, late-Summer action flick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt returns to his indie roots as Wilee, a thrill-seeking bike messenger who’s steel-framed bike is custom equipped with no gears and no brakes. Wilee’s philosophy on bikes is like his philosophy on life; “I like to ride…can’t stop, don’t want to.” With the introduction of a McGuffin in the form of an envelope, this movie is off and it doesn’t want to stop either.

The envelope entrusted to Wilee for delivery is also desired by corrupt NYPD officer, Bobby Monday, played on full-tilt by Michael Shannon. The cat and mouse chase format is kept fresh with a tricky non-linear timeline, some imaginative multi-dimensional stunts, and enjoyable supporting characters like Wilee’s girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and his jealous pumped-up rival, Manny (Wole Parks). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Premium Rush, but this is a film that is quite aware of its escapist qualities and goes to great lengths to protect them and not exploit them. Writer/Director David Koepp keeps the pace quick and the audience cheering. I hope August continues to see fun, exciting movies like Premium Rush, so that movie studios have no dumping ground, but rather an obligation to simply release good movies. B+

The Campaign

CampaignTea Party politics, Citizens United condemnation, politicians for hire, under-qualified candidates, corporate espionage, election fraud, voter ignorance – what is missing from this list? How about Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis? That’s right, The Campaign is surprisingly topical given its genre and cast. Director Jay Roach has seemingly left behind Austin Powers and the Fockers for political aspirations. His previous political endeavors found success on the small screen with HBO’s Recount in 2008 and Game Change earlier this year. Now Jay Roach brings his satirically bitter sass to the big screen and he does it with surprising poise and fun. Will Ferrel plays Cam Brady, a comfortable, hypocritical, and unopposed representative of a small North Carolina district. However due to a thinly veiled conspiracy headed by the billionaire, ahem, Motch brothers, played with Duke brothers-Trading Places vitriol by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, Galifinakis’s Marty Huggins is entered into the race as a clueless pawn. With this premise set, the film then begins to parade through a string of mostly successful gags as the two warring candidates continue to attempt to one-up each other, consequently losing sight of their obligations to the public. The film is fast and fierce; the 82-minute running time and the R rating are indicative of this. It is also very funny. Ferrell plays a sleeker, slimier, variation of his classic Geroge W. character while Galifinakis plays his foil. Together, the two of them tap dance around many of the imperfections of modern day democracy.

Yes, this film is incredibly critical of the American political system, and no it does not offer any real solution. The public is often depicted as absurdly unaware and, well just plain stupid; frequent references are made to buzzwords like “America,” “Jesus,” and “Freedom” as ways to garner a political following without even making a statement or discussing a platform. In this regard, I think this movie bites off a bit more than it can chew, and I’m not sure this film will hold up over the years. However, there is no doubt that this film is much smarter and ingenious than the trailer would have you believe. For this reason, along with its decent track record of laughs, I give The Campaign my vote. B+

BourneDirector: Tony Gilroy

Screenwriter: Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, and Corey Stoll

The key question for this film is “Can Jeremy Renner cut it?” The answer is a sensational “Yes!” Tony Gilroy takes the reins from Paul Greengrass who directed the previous two films. Ironically, Gilroy’s film seems to be inspired more by Doug Liman’s film, The Bourne Identity than either of the two recent entries in the series. Unlike Greengrass’s kinetically charged pair of films, Gilroy slows things down a little bit and gets back basics with an in depth expose on all of these CIA programs that have been plaguing Jason Bourne since he was dragged out of the water in 2002. That is not to say this movie lacks action. The chase scene through the streets of Manila is nothing short of breathtaking. In addition to a change in director is a change in protagonist. Aaron Cross (Renner) is being victimized this time as we are given a little more transparency on how these genetically altered agents are trained, conditioned, and dropped in various places throughout the world. For example, we see that these agents are tethered to the CIA through rationed medical provisions where green pills are dispatched to agents to supplement their increased strength and blue pills are given to enhance cognitive ability. Consequently, Legacy does not make it its intention to try and match the expert stunts of Greengrass’s Bourne movies. Instead, Gilroy puts down the green pill and gives us a dose of the blue one, which may disappoint some fans.

The plot is complicated, as expected, and it is not really to any benefit for me to lay it all out here lest I give something away. Simply understand that the CIA is still on damage control from the events surrounding Jason Bourne. Many of the events, operations, and characters from previous films are shown and referenced often, at times at a lightening quick rate. I stumbled upon this Bourne Legacy Primer, which I fully recommend if you are interested in seeing Legacy without refreshing yourself on the previous films. Renner does display the chops for this role. Moreover, there’s room here for depth and a furthering of this story. This film does tread dangerously in Bond territory by having Cross swoop in multiple times at the right moment to save the damsel in distress as well as introduce a rare human villain to the story, an expertly trained assassin named LARX. These elements can seem out of place or desperate, but I feel they worked. The Bourne Legacy succeeds at providing some truly terrifying moments in a story about a guy who should have all of the advantages. This along with some interesting locations and a great cast make me feel confident that we’re not done with Bourne yet. B

The Bourne Legacy is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Tony Scott: Highway to the Danger Zone…and Beyond

A man drives his car to an LA street, climbs a fence, and jumps off of a bridge to his death with no hesitation.  No, this is not the beginning of some creative, twisted thriller; this is the end of a creative, twisted director’s life.  Tony Scott, the younger brother of famous director Ridley Scott, committed suicide August 19 in Los Angeles at the age of 68.  Quite a bit of mystery still surrounds this event, but it has been widely reported that an unreleased suicide note has surfaced in the late director’s office.  Regardless, this type of occurrence really casts a shadow over an otherwise highly laudable career and life. 

Critically, Tony Scott has gotten more acclaim from his TV work as producer of hit shows like The Good Wife.  However, he has been a solid action director for over 30 years, working with major stars like Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington.  Scott’s style as a director was very unique.  He combined industrial noises with quick, gritty, and frantic camera movement and cutting, creating a signature look.  His films mostly revolved around some derivation of the hot-head hero who has a passion for the cause, but no patience for confining rules.  He took this format from the streets of Beverly Hills up into the skies with the US Naval Flying School, deep down undersea within the claustrophobic confines of a submarine (where he started his five-time collaborative relationship with Denzel Washington).  His movies may not have been something we’ve never seen before, but dammit they were slick, entertaining, and fun.  Scott wasn’t afraid to get dark either.  This darkness, which I hesitate to celebrate given the events that brought his life to an end, did elicit the greatest performance of Christopher Walken’s career as Vinceenzo Coccotti in the film True Romance.  And he did it in just a five minute scene, additional credit going to Quentin Tarantino for the dialogue.  Walken would later appear in two other Tony Scott directed films.  All in all, it comes as quite a shock that someone who has enjoyed such success, appreciation, and approval would want to kill himself.  Clearly, there are many unknowns and it is trivial to speculate about it.  It also feels bittersweet to maintain an air of celebration over his work after such an abrupt event.  Nonetheless, this particular article comes from an affectionate place regardless of Scott’s life choices.  As is true in many situations in life, we need to separate the personal from the professional.  Professionally, Tony Scot was an inspiration and a talent worthy of remembering.  It is a shame to see it end so soon.         

Hope Springs

ImageHope Springs is an interesting film. Its content will have you believe it is aimed at an older audience, although the film’s trailer would have you believe Hope Springs is a comedy in order to broaden its base. Surprisingly, after seeing this film, I can tell you that Hope Springs is neither specifically for an older audience or a comedy. It is in fact a remarkably effective cautionary tale for all ages who seek to enter a life-long romantic relationship. Hope Springs refers to the tiny berg in coastal Maine, Great Hope Springs. Here, renowned couples counselor Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) has set up shop for troubled couples to save their marriages in week long intensive therapy sessions. One such couple that needs saving is Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). The film uses its exposition to illustrate the degradation of romance between Kay and Arnold, including separate bedrooms. However, the film’s true impact comes from the brief counseling sessions with Dr. Feld. These sessions turn a casually effective romantic drama into a full-blown interactive experience. Deep, probing, personal questions are asked of Kay and and Arnold, causing the audience to squirm, not with a sympathy for the characters, but with the awkward discomfort of personal relevance. Venessa Taylor’s screenplay hits more often than it misses. It orchestrates tension and importance over many elements of our lives that can be easily taken for granted. In fact, the film would be even more powerful if not for its overbearing introduction of loud, thematically obvious pop songs over scenes that would be much stronger without any music at all.

It seems trivial to say the acting is great, but when discussing a movie that warns against taking anything for granted, I will say that Jones and Streep are both great in this movie. Streep goes beyond the frustrated housewife into a character that resonates with both desperation and determination at the same time. Jones has it easy in the first act, simply playing up the droning curmudgeon, but this makes his evolution that much more admirable as the film goes on. Steve Carell is easy to overlook as the third wheel to this acting team, but thanks to Taylor’s screenplay his moments on screen are authentic, necessary, and gripping.

Hope Springs does not break new ground, but it strives to make us remember and value our time with the people we love, and it is fairly successful at it. Just remember, if you see it on a date night, be prepared. B+

Time After Time: Theories of Time Travel in Films

This entry discusses several well-known time travel films and does contain “spoilers.”

Time travel is a device frequently used in movies of today and of the past.  Since there is no proven theory of time travel existing, each movie that uses time travel is free to experiment with theories of its own.  Thus, many of these theories oppose one another, and in some cases they even contradict themselves.  Films like the Terminator movies, the Back to the Future trilogy, 12 Monkeys, and The Time Machine give the three main oppositions that do occur in films.  These are: 1) when characters from the future go back to the past, 2) when characters from the present go back to the past, and 3) when characters from the present go into the future.   

First of all, the first two Terminator movies are examples of movies that use a theory of time travel where characters from the future go back into the past.  In The Terminator, John Connor is the leader of the human alliance against the evil terminator robots in the future.  He is the only person who can stop the terminators from eliminating the human race.  Therefore, the terminators send one of their own back in time to kill John Connor’s mother, Sarah, in an attempt to eliminate him.  However, John sends a human back in time to protect his mother from the evil terminator.  Eventually Sarah and the human sent to protect her fall in love and they have a child who ends up being John himself.  This also is an example of a time travel theory that contradicts itself; John sent a man back in time that ended up becoming his own father.  Also, if this is not confusing enough, in Terminator 2, the war is still going on and the evil terminators send a new terminator back in time to kill John Connor himself as a child.  The humans send back a new “good” terminator to protect him and to destroy all material that may lead up to the creation of terminators.  *Spoiler Alert* At the end, all of the vital material was destroyed and John was safe.  Thus, the war should have never occurred and John would have never sent back his father to protect his mother and create himself in the first movie.

Another opposition can occur when characters go back in time.  This is demonstrated by the movies Back to the Future and 12 Monkeys.  In Back to the Future, Marty Mcfly goes back in time in a time machine built by Emmit “Doc” Brown because Brown was gunned down while they were testing it in 1985.  Marty ends up in 1955 and while trying to find a way to save Brown, he ends up helping his parents become better people in the present time and, in turn, changes things when he returns to 1985.  12 Monkeys has a somewhat similar situation, but there are some differences.  The film begins in 2035 after a virus has killed nearly the entire human race.  The remaining humans send a man named “Cole” back in time in order to find a cure for this virus.  However, the difference between this situation and Back to the Future’s is that Cole is unable to change the fact that nearly the entire human race is killed by this virus.  They can only learn from the past in order to fix problems that are occurring in the present. 

The Time Machine and the Back to the Future II create yet another opposition of time travel theories.  This opposition being, when characters in the present go into the future.  In The Time Machine, an inventor creates a time machine where he eventually travels into the future.  When he arrives he inquires about what has happened to himself.  However, he is shocked to hear that one day he had left his lab and never returned.  The day the inventor was told that he left was the exact day that he left in the time machine.  This theory of time travel states that if one leaves the present and lands in the future, all of the time in between is not lived and, thus, he does not exist during that period of time.  The Time Machine theory says that no one’s future is already written; they must live it for themselves.  Back to the Future II begs to differ.  In Back to the Future II, Doc and Marty go into the future in order to stop a series of events that ruin the lives of Marty and his children.  They are eventually successful in creating a favorable future for themselves.  This theory of time travel states that a future is written for everyone; however, it is not written in stone.

Time travel is a fictional concept, for today anyway.  However, movies let people use their imaginations in order to imagine what it might be like to be hurled through time and space.  However, many of these films ask the viewer to accept several different theories of this concept, many of which oppose one another.  Although many of them do oppose one another, none of them can be judged incorrect or impossible.  This allows for a highly entertaining and exciting new genre of film. 

             

           

             

 

Marie-Antoinette

ImageBy popular demand from my followers, or should I say follower, I have decided to review the avant garde Pop bio-pic Marie-Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola. I missed this movie during its original run (by “missed” I mean “skipped” because I find Kirsten Dunst to be a half-step above Kristen Stewart in terms of acting ability). However, due to a recent trip to Paris and Versailles, the film suddenly had more of a draw to me. The film loosely follows the story of how monarch-to-be, Louis XVI (played by Jason Schwartzman) is matched up with Austrian-born Marie-Antoinette (Dunst) by his father for political reasons. Soon the teenage pair are ruling France from the decadent and hypnotizing palace of Versailles with little knowledge about or regard for the country’s well-being. This film has a unique style and tone. This is not your run-of-the-mill straight factual bio-pic. Coppola uses bright colors, modern music, and even out of place modern props like a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers in the background of one shot to play up the youth and inexperience of her heroine. Coppola looks to explain, albeit not excuse, the doomed couple’s flawed reign.

Even more important is the film’s setting. Marie-Antoinette is filmed entirely at the Palace of Versailles. This is a special privilege, not often permitted by the French government and it is crucial for the film’s full vision. Coppola not only saturates the film with youthful imagery, but she also utilizes the spellbinding mystique of Versailles itself in order to illustrate the tremendous disconnect young Louis and Marie-Antoinette must have felt from their constituency. The lavish luxury is palpable and, at times, even disgustingly over-the-top. Even with such a mouth-wateringly lush location, the film is often flat from the acting to the rather uneventful plot, purposeful as this may be. I am not clamoring for a fully historically accurate portrayal, but the film needs more than just two hours of moodiness. There is an obviously looming sense of doom throughout this film, and this feeling mixed with the childish depiction of the protagonists does foster a note of sympathy for the child rulers, which is a credit to the director. Overall, the film benefits from a unique vision and a setting that is one of a kind. These characteristics certainly help the film overcome some of its shortcomings. B-

 

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