Saturday, August 25, 2012

Phelps, Lochte, Bolt, Fraser-Pryce, Manzano, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt?

Movie Review: Premium Rush

Director: David Koepp

Reviewed: 25 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

A bike messenger who pedals the streets of Manhattan with no brakes clashes with a gambling-addicted scumbag psychopath in need of cash who similarly lives his life without restraint.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee (as in Coyote), the recently broken-up protagonist who careens through the alleyways, traffic jams, and crushing cabs of NYC with maniacal fervor.  He picks up a delivery that is wanted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) who starts out reasonably asking for the message and ends up raising the stakes dramatically.  Without giving too much away, let me say this: Premium Rush is a virtual nonstop chase movie, and a quite good one, with Levitt riding his bike like it is a contact sport.  Koepp tips his hat to video game influenced films like Run Lola Run and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World by imbuing Wilee with an almost supernatural ability to read traffic patterns, play out scenarios in a split second, decide which route to take when all others will involve probable accidents and possible death.  Dania Ramirez is Vanessa, Wilee's ex who becomes wrapped up in the chase as well, and there's a potential new biker interested in her who is named Manny (Wole Parks) and might be an even stronger cyclist than Wilee.

Shannon's Monday is bug-eyed, maniacal, and scenery-chewing, but I liked decisions that were made to go smaller with his character than is usually seen with a bad guy in a New York City action movie.  Instead of feeling like there is a Keyser Soze type mastermind at work pulling all strings or a Hannibal Lecter of infinite foresight and intelligent, Bobby Monday is a mess, careening off the wrong choices he makes into the lives of others, and skidding up against multiple other characters.  The star of Boardwalk Empire and criminally under seen Take Shelter, Shannon is such a strong actor with such genuinely interesting choices that I kept wanting him to have even more to do.  He plays well off of Levitt here who has a credible bike presence and arrogance.

Koepp plays for laughs, at times, with a relentless biking cop always chasing Wilee's heels and Aasif Mandiv as the home base operator of the bike messenger system.  There are some clunky moments involving what Wilee's carrying and why he's got to deliver it, as well as some leaps of logic especially regarding Bobby Monday's degenerate character and Wilee's anti-corporate principles (as he delivers for the corporations, sans suit), but I feel like Koepp has striven to portray a subculture of astonishing speed and daring (the bike messengers who possess skills and talents still necessary in our email, internet-obsessed age) with accuracy and reverence.  There is something fun about seeing two actors bike through Central Park, pedaling at top speed, making some jumps that I would never dare on my bike.  It's the same draw and appeal of seeing Lochte best Phelps in the pool, seeing Manzano stretch from 6th to 2nd in the 1500 meter final, seeing Bolt pull away from Blake and Gatlin in the 100, or watching Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce take down Carmelita Jeter.  The thrill of speed and pushing to the limit exists in this film, despite some of its weaknesses.

In a summer of CGI that explodes space ships over alien planets, detonates nuclear weapons, and has a superhero fly bombs into portals through outer space, it was refreshing and charming to see such Premium Rush's technology implemented to simulate traffic accidents, tight squeezes between buses, cabs and their omnipresent opening doors (kinda terrifying!), and some good old fashioned bike moves.  

It's kinda sweet.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What Meryl Streep Wants.

Movie Review: Hope Springs

Director: David Frankel

Reviewed: 13 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

Meryl Streep is such an iconic, classic, exceptional actress that it is easy to forget her brilliance because I've come to expect it.  Despite one awkward moment during a sex scene in this film where Streep transforms briefly (due to some crazy angle and hair) into British P.M. Margaret Thatcher, her previous Oscar-winning role, from The Iron Lady, the finest living American actress embodies a struggling, unhappy empty nester Kay, with a stultifying and unsatisfying relationship to the stooped over, eyes downcast, curmudgeon of all curmudgeons, Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  A deliberate establishment of power dynamics within a marriage, conformity, isolation occurs in the opening sequence within the family home, leading to a disruption of the norm, Kay sitting down at the breakfast table with Arnold, sliding over to him a brochure for couples therapy in Maine, stating plainly, "I want to go." Arnold's resistance crashes headfirst into Kay's single-mindedness.  Both end up in Maine, at a picturesque seaside town, in the Econolodge, engaging and enduring sessions with the noted therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).

Essentially, Frankel has constructed a couple's drama with comedic elements, a film that feels more like a play with its intense focus on the marriage and therapy, meaning that much of this film involves three or two characters in a room just talking.  And, that's fine.  Both Streep and Jones are quite capable of the heavy lifting and nuance.  The film is a study in body language, sighing, posture, and general nonverbal communication between an older couple.  The film offers a quasi-emotional payoff at the end that I don't think it quite earns, and I never feel like Carell's Feld is playing in the same ballpark or league as the Oscar winners.  The usually charismatic Carell seems stuck in a rut of playing sad, bland ciphers this year with his forgettable role in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and this film.  I'm not sure if my struggle is with Carell or with the way his character is written.  Yet, there is a very genuine sweetness to this film, a desire to not take the easy, simple road all of the time that I admire.

Though, its portrayal of a moribund marriage seems buoyed by the ability of Kay and Arnold to take an expensive trip to Maine to work on it for a week (though Arnold steadfastly believes that they are being ripped off; I love any excuse to hear the word "charlatan" uttered), as well as live a very comfortable lifestyle with Arnold as a partner who seems to ignore the absurdity of uttering work shop talk at the dinner table to his wife who couldn't care less.  And that hits upon one flaw of the film.  Jones's Arnold is a bullying, towering jerk, and his epiphanic moment (set to a lengthy, lovely Annie Lennox song, telegraphing his thoughts) arrives without any verbal realization or apology or justification.  It seemed as if the plot simply needed this moment to occur, so it did.  But I appreciate that for stretches the film seemed at risk of going into darker territory, possibly not heading towards a preordained conclusion.  Yet, without Arnold speaking, there is less to know about why he acts the way he does and less emotional resonance in the final credit sequence which is nonetheless fun.

I recommend this film.  There is some delightful work being done here by Streep and Jones, with Jones proving himself the master of the awkward wince and reluctant conversation.  Streep's facial contortions, body language, willingness to throw herself into any bizarre and compromising situation makes her all the more laudable, lovable.  Her involvement with any project raises it in my esteem, and Hope Springs, despite its generic setting and bland title, delivers solid level entertainment.  A fun night at the movies.

And, there's one absolutely lovely scene towards the end that Frankel has been building towards all film through careful and deliberate studied set-up.  It works quite wonderful in its anarchy and intoxication.  A really wonderful moment where a character surprises another and us.  Well-done.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Killing: Without it, there'd be no Reservoir Dogs.

Movie Review: The Killing

Director:: Stanley Kubrick

Reviewed: 6 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Stanley Kubrick's debut film The Killing has all of the hallmarks of a latter-day Tarantino masterpiece in a film from 1956: a clockwork precise crime plot; well-drawn supporting characters with a cast of faces and voices that match; a enigmatic structure that weaves in and out of the past at will; a daring crime with deadly consequences.  For me, it is impossible to watch The Killing and not think about it as the precursor to Reservoir Dogs specifically as well as Pulp Fiction, two films that made quite an impression on me as a young filmgoer.  There is a line to be drawn from Stanley Kubrick to Quentin Tarantino, and clearly, the master influenced the master.

Kubrick deftly tells the pulpy story of a Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) a hardened criminal just released from prison looking for one big score before fleeing the country with his loyal dame who stood by his side while he was in the joint.  He recruits a cadre of criminals, some knowing only their piece of the plot, and sets all the pieces in motion.  One memorable scene involves a wrestler in a chess club of all places.  There is a race track, and if the favored horse is shot at the opportune moment by a sniper perched in an adjacent parking lot, then in the ensuing chaos, a masked robber can make off with the day's take.  All should work perfectly, but there's a complication.  Well, a few complications.

Filmed in gorgeous black and white and with quick, fun dialogue, The Killing balances betrayal with friendship, has some crackerjack dialogue and back-and-forth, as well as a story that is more about the how than the what.  His film swirls around the crime, tantalizing us with pieces of the puzzle but hesitating to give us everything.

I'm a fan of this genre, ever since I read Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep in my junior year Comp Lit and Film course, and Quentin Tarantino is my favorite living director.  Always deadly serious, Kubrick's film tells its hard-boiled story well, and the camera tracks through the house and the track with grave serious.  A sense of whimsy (fate?  God?) conspires against Johnny at the end, and the denouement is one of the most iconic images in film, much referenced and parodied.  All this film needed was a cop following Clay's trail with as much panache and assurance.  A wonderful little influential crime film from one of the best directors of all-time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

21 Jump Street: Better than you think it would be

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street

Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Reviewed: 1 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

The new Channing Tatum-Jonah Hill buddy cop retro-television show reboot 21 Jump Street pays homage to a world of mid-eighties undercover police activity where a young Johnny Depp went undercover in a local high school in order to infiltrate gangs, bust drug activity, and expose what was really going on in America's high schools.  I think.  I don't know because I never watched 21 Jump Street, partly because I was a little too young for it, partly because it never outweighed my desire to watch Cheers or Night Court on WGN.  And Hunter.  And some of that weird Nick-At-Nite stuff I watched.  It wasn't a show my parents watched (that was Wiseguy, L.A. Law), and I don't have any preconceived notions going into this film besides the fact that historically, not many films made from television shows happen to be very memorable or strong.  Of course, there was Goodfellas made from Wiseguy, and I'm a fan of Michael Mann's brooding, moody Miami Vice with Colin Farrell and Jaime Foxx, though I don't think that anyone else is.  The Flintstones was no good, I saw unpromising portions of the A-Team, and I'm still waiting on NYPD Blue: The Movie.  However, the concept of recycling an 80's television show, stripping it down to its essential parts, and rotating in bright, funny actors works splendidly in this film, one of the best comedies of the year so far.

 21 Jump Street, directed by two men and having five writing/story credits, feels like a bit of a mishmash, a stew of graphic violence, wonderful obscenity, nonsensical car chases, skilled high school satire, funny moments with Ice Cube as Captain Dickson who supervises the undercovers, as well as some very physical comedy involving Tatum and Hill.  As a stew of a film, 21 Jump Street works because at its core it is funny.  It made me laugh quite a bit, and the interplay, the chemistry, the bond between Jonah Hill as Schmidt and Channing Tatum as Jenko works.    They both are having a really good time making this film, riffing off of each other, sliding over cars, pumping shotguns, wearing tuxes to prom, and playing two characters who deeply desire a chance to redo high school.

There is the strange sight of a guy who looks like James Franco, talks like James Franco, but isn't James Franco (played by his brother Dave Franco).  There are biker gangs and potent drugs, a forgettable female supporting character that seems an afterthought in a bromance of this kind.  There is the wonderful Rob Riggle as an inappropriate coach, a fun, raunchy Ellie Kemper as a teacher, and the always entertaining Nick Offerman as a stoic Deputy Chief who after chewing the leads out for botching an arrest by not knowing the Miranda Rights ("Did you just say you have the right to be an attorney?") announces, "We're reviving a canceled undercover project from the '80s and revamping it for modern times. The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice." A hilarious line reading by Offerman, but by getting in front of this concept, taking the air out of its criticism, the film smartly allows itself the possibility of being wry and self-aware of its own ridiculousness and origins.  Similarly, the brilliant move to switch Schmidt and Jenko's roles in high school results in some of the best moments in the film as Hill plays the jock and Tatum, the brains: Schmidt's leaping through the air as Peter Pan in a theater production; Jenko announcing "Kneel before Zod!" to enter the Science nerds lab room where he struggles to understand covalent bonds; Schmidt's faux-aggressiveness as he takes center stage in a social scene he would have hidden from in high school as well as his supposed Track prowess.  The jealousy between the characters is fun, a party scene and its aftermath have their moments, and the level of fun that the directors, writers, and cast seem to be having is palpable.  Tatum is a good actor and quite funny, and Hill continues to do his fast-talking thing, which is richly comedic.  What a fun pairing of talents.

A comedy is supposed to make you laugh, and 21 Jump Street delivers.  Fun lead chemistry and raw, dark humor mix together in an addictive way.  With little to no expectations going in (and zero investment because I never watched the show), I was pleasantly surprised.  Recommended.