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-

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Premium Rush

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+

The Bourne Legacy

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.         

Best Move of the Summer?