Monday, December 23, 2013

Hurricane of Injustice: Denzel's Fine Work in The Hurricane.

Movie Review: The Hurricane

Director: Norman Jewison

Reviewed: 23 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

I find myself drawn strongly to films that appeal to my sense of justice. And prison films in general play upon this because of the institutionalized torture of taking time away from an innocent person. Norman Jewison's The Hurricane stands close to the upper echelon of prison films with The Shawshank Redemption and In The Name of The Father, films that demand introspection and awareness of the ravages of time upon a single face. These films are actor's showcases, and Denzel Washington portrays the emotional turbulence, the depression, and the despair of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a young boxer falsely accused of a horrific crime in New Jersey one night. At the whims of one impossibly, indefensibly evil police officer Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), Rubin finds himself jailed, convicted, and broken by a corrupt system of cops, judges, and inept lawyers. He languishes in prison for years, writing a book, becoming a cause celebre, but it is only when Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a troubled young man who has moved away from his family in order for a chance at survival, writes him from Canada that the wheels of justice start being set in motion.

Jewison's film appeals straight to the heart with its confident moves from past to present, impossibly gorgeous black and white boxing matches with a ferocious Rubin to the institutionalized grey of the prison present. Jewison depicts Rubin's fracturing of his own mind in one intense sequence constructed to make Rubin appear to split personalities. Denzel Washington is a tour-de-force here, being asked to show the highs and lows of Rubin's life. His work is magnetic, impossible not to watch even in quiet scenes. Jewison often shows institutional walls and doors blocking Rubin, moving across the screen to metaphorically squash him. The Hurricane fights back with all that he has, though confined to a prison cell.

The film, I think, streamlines the story a bit too much by making the villain so villainous and neglecting to pursue him for any sort of retribution. Ultimately, it weakens the film to have this one character exhibit so much abuse of power without ever being held accountable. And in taking on so much, the film loses a bit of its emotional through line with the burgeoning relationship between young Lesra and Rubin. The legal machinations and investigations prove quite interesting, though the three Canadians never seem that developed or real. The film earns its ending, a powerhouse court scene with Rod Steiger as the Judge Sarokin. Rubin's desire to hold out hope for true justice makes for compelling viewing, and the real-life footage of The Hurricane at the end, though superfluous for Washington has made him so completely real, again wrings even more tears from an audience appalled at the injustice that robbed a man of so much time, so much life.

And at its core, there is something uniquely American about this story. A young man in Canada bought a book in a used book sale, read the entire book, and wrote letters to an author imprisoned, sparking the fire that lit the way to his freedom. And our court systems, flawed though they are, ultimately served the justice that they aspire to uphold. I highly recommend The Hurricane, despite its imperfections. It moved me to tears at least twice, and I think Denzel Washington's performance is one of his finest ever.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless: Coppola's The Bling Ring, A Satire That Goes Nowhere.

Movie Review: The Bling Ring

Director: Sofia Coppola

Reviewed: 23 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- **

The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola's new confection of a film, features the light subject of a loose affiliation of bored high school students who stumble upon the joys of sneaking into celebrity homes in the Hollywood Hills, raiding their closets, and making off with cash, guns, jewelry, and couture. The thieves cover their faces, jump security fences, and often times find the keys to the house under the mat (or that the houses are unlocked). By googling celebrity addresses and using the internet to find out who is out of town, the group becomes more and more bold, selling the stolen goods, wearing it to parties, bragging about their conquests. Rebecca (Katie Chang) seems to be the leader, drawing new student Marc (Israel Broussard) under her spell; Nicki (Emma Watson) and adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) also go along for the ride. As Coppola tips in the first five minutes, we know that the Bling Ring will get caught; so, the film becomes a study of materialism, empty lives, the intersection of celebrity and fandom, as well as a satire of parenting.

Coppola's film seems all over the place. At times, the film features characters speaking direct to interviewers, documentary style, after the arrests. At times, the film lovingly slows down to capture its main characters taking pictures of themselves, draping jewelry and sunglasses on in victoriously gaudy fashion. The choice of making no one character the lead undermines the film because I was left wondering more about Rebecca's motivations since we never get to see into her life. Marc's family is shown in brief hints. Nicki and Sam interact with Nicki's mom (Leslie Mann) who has home schooled the girls and teaches them a philosophy based on The Secret. The film gleans past the complete emptiness and low self-worth that these characters must feel. Or maybe that's part of the posing being done, the constant questioning of clothing and image that they ask one another.

Since there is no one likable in the movie, there is no one to root for as well. The home invasions themselves are light on suspense since the teens nonsensically do not wear gloves or cover their faces on the way out. There are many shots of the teens in cars, listening to music, doing drugs, and partying in clubs, imitating a lifestyle that they cravenly desire. Coppola never seems interested in coming close to saying something about these teens beyond worshipping them and simultaneously exposing their vanity. It feels strange to describe such a film as boring, but it is. It shortcuts all conflict within the group, eliminating the details of the trial to focus on the arrival and departure of the well-dressed group.

When a person's education and values lead them to the altar of celebrity worship, the fierce urgency of wanting a lifestyle, wanting a clothing line, wanting a designer watch now supplants all else. When you want a lifestyle and desire to be a brand, how does that shape your world view? I wish Sofia Coppola would have examined more than just the sugary surface of these teens and their families.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Die Hard Five: Worst Film of the Year. Thanks for the Memories.

Movie Review: A Good Day To Die Hard

Director: John Moore

Reviewed: 17 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- Zero Stars

I have lived my life by the Die Hard franchise. I saw Die Hard one night in a double feature billing with Ferris Bueller's Day Off at my cousin Christopher's house in the late 80's, transfixed by its language, violence, charismatic lead performance, and uber-confident villainy. I cut ads out of Premiere magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times when Die Hard 2: Die Harder was announced, and I saved my dollars from my summer job selling programs at Santa Fe Speedway Race Track in Chicago to purchase the double-film VHS set in the early 1990's. I watched these films over and over again, quoting them endlessly to my friends and teammates. At the IHSA State Track Meet my junior year, we watched Die Hard With A Vengeance, not as good as film as the previous two, but the character was still recognizable, Samuel L. Jackson was fun, the riddles and running all over New York City was captivating, and the film still worked. And then later in life, seven years after college, as a teacher now, I saw Live Free or Die Hard, a pale imitator of the original film, but one that gamely tried to inject life into the lead character John McLane by bouncing him off of Kevin Smith's hacker and Justin Long's cybernerd. The plot was terrorism within the US, and McLane's daughter Lucy was involved. I forgave that film many of its trespasses, but I acknowledged it as the weakest link.

Until now.

John Moore's A Good Day To Die Hard takes the beloved, iconic character of John McLane and completely guts it. Eviscerates it. Removes the heart and soul and humor of it. Bruce Willis is squarely to blame for this travesty as well. He provides the only through line of the five film franchise with all different directors and writers. The film is completely superfluous and involves McLane traveling to Moscow to rescue his son. The film tries to present McLane as charming and funny, but instead he becomes completely unlikable. The film cribs from the other films (Look, here's a person taking a dive off of a building! Look, here's a helicopter to crash! Look, here's a few notes from Michael Kamen's iconic score to remind you of the movie that you wish you were watching!). A plot involves the CIA, informers in a Moscow prison, corrupt politicians, and numerous rooftop gunfights.

And that's just it. Midway through this film, I wanted to turn it off and watch Die Hard. Bruce Willis has allowed his franchise to dribble away to nothing, and the director seems to only be awake when having giant trucks barrel into each other nonsensically on busy city streets. Forgettable villains, a cast unable to do anything of note led by Jai Courtney as McLane's son, but really the blame rests on Bruce Willis's shoulders.

Bruce Willis is the character, and this film makes me wish that John McLane had died in one of the previous films. So, like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did with Star Wars and Indiana Jones, another iconic film franchise finds its latest installment to be a disaster that mars the legacy of the fine films that came before it. Let's hope that the Die Hard franchise is truly dead.

Quiz Show: A Study of Time and Place

Movie Review: Quiz Show

Director: Robert Redford

Reviewed: 21 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

Robert Redford's Quiz Show focuses its attention on the scandals of the 1950's television game show "21" where sponsors and network executives conspired to give trivia answers to contestants before the competition. By manipulating the outcome of the game itself, they attracted ratings and revenue to the show, never so more as when landing blue blood college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a young star struck appealing television presence. Van Doren replaces the grating Herb Stemple from Queens (John Turturro), a neighborhood hero who must make a decision whether or not to take a dive for the show when the producers tells him to do so. The drama here is riveting stuff.  Redford provides insight into both Stemple's family in Queens and Van Doren's family in Connecticut. The son of a famous American writer, Van Doren quietly descends farther and farther down the road of  cheating, and in part, Redford suggests, his relationship with his acclaimed father is at its core. Regardless, an investigation into who knew what when ensues.

Detail-wise, Redford has assembled a wonderful collection of 1950's outfits, cars, hairstyles, and television hardware. He chronicles the emergence of television as a powerful force in American culture, and the behind-the-scenes machinations are fascinating to watch, especially as Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) gets involved. Goodwin wants to attack television's higher-ups, not just the contestants. There are some nice moments of a burgeoning friendship between Goodwin and Van Doren as one circles the other, gathering evidence.

The film is well-cast and very smart. I enjoyed thinking about it. My only criticisms are in the lead performance of Rob Morrow. I do not feel that he carries the film sufficiently, and he has to do much of the lifting. He may be too young or just lacking of the gravitas of the character. And Ralph Fiennes, incredibly young here, has a speech at the end outlining Van Doren's beliefs and acceptance, but there is little of the conflict within him as he receives accolade after accolade. I think we are meant to believe that jealousy of his father's success drove him, but the details are vague. I wanted to know more about Charles Van Doren, but the decision to focus so much on Stemple and Goodwin means less screen time, less back story, less motivation for Van Doren. Ultimately, Quiz Show is a well-constructed historical film about a time when money drove the television networks to manipulate and hurt the people it built up and then destroyed on a national stage.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pacific Rim Shot: Del Toro Gets Lost

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Reviewed: 13 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- *

Giant monsters fighting giant robots. What's not to like? Actually quite a bit. A disappointment on nearly all levels, Pacific Rim misfires by failing to craft a story worthy of its premise. Every time monsters appear on the scene like misshapen dinosaurs and dragons, the film displays some ferocious imagination. Every time the monsters disappear, the film grinds to a complete halt.

A portal created in the open ocean floor allows the beasts to travel between dimensions, launching a furious war upon humanity that dissolves countries and borders, rallying the planet together in its own self-preservation. The only way to fight these monsters involves two pilots stationed inside a giant robot doing something called a mind-meld neural handprint where they share a consciousness and control the robot's movements. Then, the robot gets dropped into the ocean near the monster, and they fight.

Idris Elba plays Stacker, the leader of the resistance. Charlie Day plays nerdy scientist Dr. Newton. Charlie Hunman is our charisma-less protagonist Raleigh. Rinko Kikuchi is the mysterious Mako. No one stands out in a positive way here. There are humorless scenes in the giant compound as the robots are maneuvered and improved. A lot of scenes. Too many scenes. It is kind of like watching The Empire Strikes Back and spending nearly all of the movie in the Hoth Compound, updating the speeders for the cold, training tauntauns and worrying about an impending attack. In that film, it establishes atmosphere and character and moves on to the AT-AT attack scenes (in daylight). Here, Del Toro dwells in this workshop realm which is visually uninteresting and distracts from the main event. This movie needed more fights and less talking.

Del Toro films many of the fight scenes in the dark in major cities, with the robots hurtling ships at the bad guys in addition to shooting missiles at them. The dark obscures some of the good stuff, but the fights can mostly be followed. I think the logic of the film is lacking at times. Why wouldn't fighter jets with missiles and bombs be more precise? Is humanity's best option a clunky, obvious target just asking to be knocked over? Additionally, the computers in the robots seem to fail quite a bit, a precarious situation with the robots fighting in and around so much water. Hearing characters scream about neural handshakes over and over again is not compelling, and the film just never generates any momentum.

Del Toro made Pan's Labyrinth, one of my favorite films of the last decade, so my hopes were high, but despite some nasty-looking monsters and a few fun fights, this movie is completely forgettable and a colossal waste of time and money.

Wacky, Wild, and Fun: The Coens Raise Arizona with Nicolas Cage.

Movie Review: Raising Arizona

Director:  Joel and Ethan Coen

Reviewed: 14 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

"Its a crazy world."

"Someone ought to sell tickets."

"Sure, I'd buy one."

In Raising Arizona, a sun-drenched Looney Tunes cartoon of a movie, The Coen Brothers have created a breakneck comedy involving the abduction of the baby of furniture magnate Nathan Arizona by the lovable H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter). The opening scenes outline how H.I. and Ed came to be a couple (she is the police officer that shoots his prison photos; he pledges his love to her when he gets out of the joint), and their struggles to become parents takes over the thrust of the plot. Upon seeing Nathan Arizona's newly born quintuplets in the paper (quote from Nathan: "We have more than we can handle!"), the couple decides to take one off of his hands. This decision sets in motion the law, some escaped prisoner friends of HI's (John Goodman and William Forsythe), the lone biker of the apocalypse, and a madcap run through a grocery store in pursuit of Huggies.

The film is in love with itself, offering wonderfully baroque speeches and narration to its characters while also displaying an effortless whimsy about its movements. The soundtrack is laugh out loud hilarious, and the film reaches into some sweet places at the end while never losing its core. The performances are particularly strong with Holly Hunter all intense energy and fire juxtaposed against the eye-popping, crazy-hair-having, and face-contorting of Nicolas Cage. Cage is phenomenal here, owning nearly every scene and doing quite a bit of physical comedy. He seems game for anything. The film contains its own little universe of personalities, symbols, and logic, and I found myself smiling while watching. It feels like you are in good hands, hands that know how to tell the story with a well-placed camera, sharp dialogue, and a joy for the task.

A comedy is a difficult task to pull off, but I feel that nearly every scene in Raising Arizona works well enough to earn a laugh and a smile. What more can you ask for in a film?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Iron Giant: A Giant Achievement, Full of Heart.

Movie Review: The Iron Giant

Director:  Brad Bird

Reviewed: 8 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ****

Here is the true Iron Man, 1999's classic family film The Iron Giant. A young, lonely boy find a giant metal robot in the woods and forms a friendship. Set in the backdrop of the 1950's Atomic Age with Sputnik flying overhead and paranoia spreading across the land, The Iron Giant narrows its focus on this little boy wonderfully named Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), his waitress-mother (Jennifer Anniston), the government inspector Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), and a beatnik-artist-junkyard owner Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.). Funny without pandering or insulting its audience, sweet without being maudlin, The Iron Giant delights in its colors and movements, a marvel of storytelling for 1999. Its reverence for comic books plays out wonderfully, and Bird's arrangement of the story results in a symphony of laughs and tears. It offers a take on violence that is refreshingly real ("Guns kill"), considerate of the consequences of pulling a trigger and paying off in a crucial way late in the film.

The film is not constructed to sell lunch boxes or Happy Meals. Its aesthetic is interesting and unconventional, and its highest moments achieve a grace and beauty often unseen in family films. I could watch this film over and over again, and I look forward to showing this film to my son when he gets old enough.

Battle Royale: The Hunger Games Precursor and Its Superior.

Movie Review: Battle Royale

Director:  Kinji Fukasaku

Reviewed: 8 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

A daring and well-executed nightmare of a film, Battle Royale shows a 9th grade Japanese classroom, gassed and abducted on their class vacation and forced into a bizarre, macabre game on a deserted island surrounded by military. One of their teachers tells them that each will be given one weapon, and that the 42 of them must eliminate each other until only one remains. The variation on "The Most Dangerous Game" and The Running Man involves the destruction of the social construct of these teenagers and their varied reactions to these constraints. The creators of BR, Battle Royale, wish to keep society in check (unemployment is extremely high; students are potentially volatile and in danger of rebelling), and Fukasaku's camera follows the horror on these young people's faces as the game begins. Some take to the game right away, dispatching each other with sickening violence. Others form pacts, searching for a way to break the system. The weapons vary from bag to bag; one might end up with a gun or a pot lid. The island is divided up into zones which are announced as dangerous during certain time periods, forcing constant movement. The players wear necklaces with bombs in them, enabling them to be tracked. Generally, we follow Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a young man haunted by the suicide of his own father (seen through eye-popping flashbacks) and Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), his young classmate with a crush on him. But Fukasaku's strength is allowing the audience to track multiple characters as well as delve into multiple backstories with flashbacks, title cards of dialogue, and vicious, bloody fights. How does one respond to imminent death? The film frequently breaks to announce who has died and how many remain. The tension is quite remarkable.

A word about the violence. Battle Royale is an unapologetically violent film with no qualms about showing teenagers dispatching each other in gruesome ways. It makes The Hunger Games look prudish with its shaky camera and oblique angles and dramatic falls to the ground. Weapons stick out of characters' heads, blood erupts like geysers (the film must be a partial inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Kill-Bill series), and the film challenges and deepens as it goes on. I do not completely understand the machinations of the ending (it requires a second viewing), but the film is infinitely interesting. Released in 2001 to heavy criticism (and banned by the Japanese government, announces some proud title cards), the film does not shock in 2013 the same way, but it offers a powerful jolt as a disturbing story told in a creative way.

Gangster Squalor

Movie Review: Gangster Squad

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Reviewed: 7 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- *

Gangster Squad tries to bring strong actors like Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, and Sean Penn together to form a cohesive story about post World War Two Hollywood, when an unofficial task force of LAPD created by the Chief (Nolte) attempts to disrupt palooka-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen's (Penn) stranglehold over the city and possibly the West Coast. However, any way that you turn it, the task force represents vigilantism, shooting up nightclubs, burning money, killing men in the streets, and not using the infrastructure of justice at all. Brolin's hero is too clean cut, never conflicted about the dirty work these cops must do. Gosling's loner has a vaguely defined relationship with Cohen's moll (Emma Stone), heightening the tension in theory. In general, it reminded me of another movie, a better movie.

Probably in my cinematic timeline, The Untouchables is the first film that Gangster Squad reminded me of watching. Brian DePalma's bloody, stylish take on Elliot Ness's dismantling of Al Capone offered some dynamite performances, memorable moments, and some scenes of upsetting terror. Robert DeNiro wielding a baseball bat. The poor accountant guy. Sean Connery's comeuppance. With a strong visual sense, The Untouchables shows a disparate group of crime fighters (Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, etc...) united in the quest to topple the ultimate representation of evil. That film acknowledges the stakes in a far better way as the cops become hunted themselves and face moral questions in their pursuit of justice.

L.A. Confidential depicts the exact same time period (Late 1940's LA) with panache and much better performances. In that film, cops Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey straddle the line of corruption and righteousness, battling crooked cops and gangsters in an uneasy alliance of egos. They are also tasked with creating an unofficial task force to rid the city of crime, and it plays better in that film from 1997.

Gangster Squad has some shoot-outs and some violent scenes, though some sequences devolve into needless slow-motion, exploding Christmas ornaments, and excessive style. Penn seems nearly indecipherable under a mound of make-up as Cohen, spouting nonsensical lines and sacrificing his guys needlessly, and the final fight seems completely superfluous. It is a film that never requires you to think very much and never truly addresses its own characters' moral dilemmas. Nolte's chief creates a renegade vigilante task force that kills dozens of criminals and never has to justify itself. The world is stupidly simple in this film. As an introduction to this kind of film, Gangster Squad offers little and does not linger. Seek out the far superior L.A. Confidential or The Untouchables. At least Gangster Squad made me think of those enjoyable films. I cannot wait to re-watch them.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Iron Man Three: All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go

Movie Review: Iron Man Three

Director: Shane Black

Reviewed: 1 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- *

Where is the anarchic charisma of Robert Downey Jr? In Ironman Three, the character of Tony Stark seems radically uninteresting as does Downey Jr.'s performance. Although a step up (I guess) from the dreck of Ironman Two, Ironman Three offers little in the way of character development, and the once promising take on the modern action film is played out.

After an opening scene set in Germany at the turn of the century sets up some crucial relationships, we arrive in the present where Tony Stark must confront the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a shadowy terrorist behind a series of bombings while also coming to grips with his own insomnia. Stark's bluster and bravado plays against him resulting in a devastating attack on his Malibu compound. Rumored dead, Stark then plays detective and analyst, considering the evidence left behind after each bombing. He must reconcile with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as well as thrive without the benefits of his lab, money, and hardware. But, it is Tony Stark, so we are never really worried about him.

A motif in this film is Tony's constant manipulation of other Iron Men, controlling them with his hand movements and summoning them when he is in trouble. In a way, the concept ruins the film, suggesting in fight scenes an on autopilot type of atmosphere, where it is unclear whether there is anyone we can are about in a flying suit or if it is just another empty drone. The fight scenes were very unappealing, and the film does not have the conviction to follow through on a teased out possibly darkly depressing ending. The reveal with the Mandarin mid-film is a fun one, but it goes nowhere, and the villains in all three films seem sadly interchangeable. I wanted to laugh more, and I did not find the writing or the delivery of the quips as much fun as in the past.

Sequels are often diminishing returns, but I was surprised at how little substance there was to this film. Will Robert Downey Jr. go back to doing interesting, spirited work?  I certainly hope so. Iron Man 3 isn't it.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Disaster on All Accounts: Me, Myself & Irene.

Movie Review: Me, Myself & Irene

Director: The Farrelly Brothers (Bobby and Peter)

Reviewed: 1 December 2013

jamesintexas rating--1/2 *

Jim Carrey reunited with his Dumb and Dumber directors should have been comedy gold. Instead, this sloppy comedy Me, Myself & Irene wastes an intriguing and promising concept (Carrey as a Rhode Island State Trooper with split personalities) and goes for long stretches without laughs, the death knell of a comedy. As Charlie Baileygates, the mild-mannered father of three genius African-American children (the results of his wife's trysts with their limo driver), Carrey oozes repressed rage as he backs down from all conflict but loves his children; as Hank Evans, the impulsively violent maniac that represents Charlie's id, Carrey drowns small children, drives cars through business windows, tosses out intense language, attacks litterers, and pugnaciously attempts to combat Charlie's inadequate responses to the world around him. Renee Zellweger is the eponymous love interest with a flimsy character at best. The plot consists of Charlie/Hank having to escort Irene from Rhode Island to upstate New York as well as rescue her from some criminal elements that want her dead. The road trip, so often a staple of the Farrellys, offers diminishing returns. Nothing compares to the Sea Bass incident of Dumb and Dumber here.

The movie only occasionally works when Carrey goes off the rails in terms of violence, bravado, or language. And that does not occur often enough. Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, and Robert Forster are all wasted in minor roles. The work done by Charlie's three sons (Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee, and Jerod Mixon) has funny moments, but I never feel that it is as transgressive or shocking as the Farrellys believe it is.

In 1998, There's Something About Mary was the funniest experience I have ever had in a movie theater. On the Friday night screening of the opening weekend, I observed audience members falling out of their seats laughing, and I missed whole chunks of dialogue because I was laughing so hard. There are simply no moments in this film akin to that experience. And Jim Carrey, as plastic and manic a performer as there is, simply does not entertain. I'm inclined to like Carrey's work, but here, he is grating. The film is a disaster.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hitchcock wouldn't see this film.

Movie Review: Hitchcock

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Reviewed: 26 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

Hitchcock proves unworthy of its eponymous subject, focusing its energies on profile shots of an obese,   make-up laden Anthony Hopkins as the director but offering little insight into the mind of one of the greatest directors of all-time. The mind behind Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho is seen in glimpses in Sacha Gervasi's film, but ultimately, it seems unsure of where to go and what to be. Set in the late 1950's during a post-Vertigo malaise, Hitchcock breaks his drifting ennui after reading the book that would become Psycho as well as learning of the horrific murderers of Ed Gein. Collaborating with his wife Alma (a screenwriter and director herself), Hitch as he is called (but not called in the film's title) contemplates the world around him through peepholes and nearly shut blinds, clashing with studio heads and worrying about his legacy. Alma struggles being the woman behind the man, yearning to break out on her own as a screenwriter with a potential project by Whitfield Cook (Danny Houston) that could lead to more. Hitch directs Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) in the shower scene, talks to Ed Gein continuously, struggles with his diet and health, and attempts to craft the first modern horror film while simultaneously investigating his wife's possible infidelity. Whew.

As a Hitchcock fan, I was entranced by the film's window into this period in the artist's life, much like I love watching the MTV videos of my favorite bands from the 90's, catching up on footage and stories that I know I would like but never have had a chance to investigate. However, the film seems content to be a series of wry punch lines, trivia claptrap, and lukewarm conflict. There is no journey into the heart of darkness here, nor any true insight into the artist himself. The film is at its best during the filming of the shower scene, with a flailing Anthony Hopkins holding the knife himself, part director and part maestro. Hopkins and Mirren are capable here, and the film wants to be more than it is. It mentions the director's famed obsessions with his leading ladies but does not go deeper. The conversations with Ed Gein are off-putting and a strange narrative choice; the conflicts are mostly inert. Hitchcock is a revered director and artist, worthy of a well-made artistic film. Hitchcock is not that. The great director himself would no doubt label this film "claptrap" and not recommend it.  I would do the same.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Heat: Melissa McCarthy Brings It.

Movie Review: The Heat

Director: Paul Feig

Reviewed: 24 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Melissa McCarthy is a national treasure. She follows up her Academy Award nominated turn in Bridesmaids by reuniting with the same director and transforming into the violent and colorfully curse-spewing Boston Police Detective Mullins who is paired with high-flying, widely disliked F.B.I. Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) as both attempt to solve a case. The plot is merely the frame for hanging McCarthy's unique and brilliant extemporizing of insults and physical comedy, with McCarthy dragging a man out of his car, slamming a suspect down on a fence, and in general, owning the film with her bravura performance. She earned one deep, unstoppable laugh from me that went on for about thirty seconds, and the strength of her character's charming and anarchic ways make this nearly a film that I can recommend.

Working against The Heat is its thoughtless plotting and some seriously unfunny sequences. I think having a scene with Bullock and McCarthy on the dance floor is supposed to be funny but just does not work. And a scene in a Denny's takes a macabre turn for no reason. The bad guys are generic and interchangeable, and the film often has to rely on its soundtrack to tell the story.

The contrast in personalities is fun because McCarthy's character is horrifying to her partner at times while saying things that are impossible not to laugh at. But listening to Sandra Bullock play mousey and weak or fumble over curse words just does not pack the same punch as watching McCarthy bulldoze through her scenes, an artist in obscenity. One character calls her, "Bull in China shop," and I think that is pretty accurate.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Primal Fear: Satisfying and Well-Acted.

Movie Review: Primal Fear

Director: Gregory Hoblit

Reviewed: 9 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Primal Fear is the film debut of Edward Norton, and it stands out as a solidly built courtroom thriller with plenty of twists and turns and a fun Chicago setting. The Archbishop of Chicago is murdered brutally, and Norton's altar boy is arrested covered in blood, claiming that someone else did the crime. Enter expert defense attorney (and Chicago Magazine cover boy) Richard Gere who sees the case as an opportunity to promote himself as well as crush some opposing lawyers and settle old scores. A courtroom drama and investigation ensues with supporting work from Andre Braugher, Laura Linney, and John Mahoney.

The film never dazzles, but it moves steadily along, chumming through plot and the occasional jolt. There's something to be said for a film that just works its way through its story. The performances are all great, and I loved Richard Gere's work especially. I think it is a really satisfying, well-told film.

The Thing: Body Horror and Creatures at the South Pole

Movie Review: The Thing

Director: John Carpenter

Reviewed: 16 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

The Thing has the pedigree of one of the all-time great horror films, and I will admit that it did not disappoint. Kurt Russell leads a bearded band of scientists on an outpost in the frigid South Pole that encounters a dog being chased through the snow by a Norwegian helicopter. The Norwegians are firing upon the dog, injure a scientist, and end up being blown up themselves. All that is left is the wreckage and the dog and a series of unanswered questions. When one scientist becomes infected by something unexplainable, the remainder band together and try to keep the danger out. However, part of the menace comes from the creatures ability to shape shift and take the form of other creatures, even humans.

The film is unrelenting in its approach with a spare score and a constant stream of suspense. There are multiple jaw-dropping moments of terror with incredible creatures effects and gore. It feels scary in a very authentic way. The hallways are spare, and the cold, unrelenting. The film feels like it takes place in outer space or in a desert with its claustrophobia. A scene where Russell tests the blood of the survivors is quite fun, and the supporting cast of all-male scientists conveys fear, cabin fever, paranoia, and rage, sometimes all at the same time. Wilford Brimley in particular is a standout as a scientist gone wild. The Thing is only as strong as its scary moments, and the team behind the creature here does memorable work. A gripping, disturbing film.

Richard Linklater's Ode to Love, Time, and Change: Before Midnight.

Movie Review: Before Midnight

Director: Richard Linklater

Reviewed: 9 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater's third film, continues to track lovers Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) every nine years and finds the pair in the south of Greece with their two daughters, sending Jesse's son back to Chicago after a summer vacation. On an artist's vacation, Jesse and Celine take to the countryside for a long, meandering walk when friends agree to babysit for the night as well as renting them a hotel room. The couple explores and negotiates their own relationship and the time that has passed in honest, surprisingly raw ways, and Linklater stays with the couple even through the most uncomfortable moments. A seemingly romantic build-up is undercut by the answering of a phone call; a  long dormant conflict from the past returns; questions of fidelity abound. Celine wonders about the sacrifices that she has had to make to be a parent. Jesse considers moving his family to Chicago to be more of a presence in his family's life. An argument in a hotel room never ends, taking on an epic, otherworldly quality. Films never show this window into adults behaving this way. Part of the format of the film is a change from the previous two. Part of the fun is filling in the gaps in what we have missed in their relationship. The stakes seem plausibly real: the couple negotiates what it means to remain in love in middle-age. I found the final scene quite touching, and I think that Linklater has triumphed in making a film about adults for adults. I think that Hawke and Delpy will be known forever for these roles, and I think that Linklater's cinematic experiment has proven wildly successful.  Here's to another nine years of waiting to see what is in store for this couple.

Moonstruck Strikes Gold

Movie Review: Moonstruck

Director: Norman Jewison

Reviewed: 13 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Moonstruck features an all-star cast and a sweet heart; Norman Jewison's comedy featuring an Italian-American family's struggles with love. Cher stars as Loretta, a widowed bookkeeper engaged to the bumbling Johnny (Danny Aiello). Loretta lives with her mom and dad (Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Manelli), and when Johnny leaves for Italy to comfort his dying mother, he asks Loretta to make peace with his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) and invite him to their wedding. Chaos (and love) ensues.

Cher and Cage are standouts, and their storyline is one that I wished had more to it. The film shows Loretta's transformation as she falls in love, and the parallel storylines with her unhappy parents provide  a nice counterpoint. The final scene is a standout, and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley's script works everything together in grand comedic fashion. The film feels lived-in and authentic with a sort of Greek chorus provided by the grandfather who lives upstairs and walks his five dogs. The film is concerned with love and its messiness and its complications, and it is rather glorious in what it does.

RoboCop = Awesome

Movie Review: RoboCop

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Reviewed: 13 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Unlike Lethal Weapon, an action film from the late eighties that I finally caught up with last week, RoboCop did not disappoint in presenting a fairly straightforward science-fiction violent thriller with enough laughs and bleak commentary on our civilization to be both enjoyable and prescient. In a chilling echo of modern times, Detroit has declared bankruptcy and Omni Corp seems poised to raze the city and make a huge profit using its automated drones to replace the police. Construction of a new city offers tantalizing amounts of cash to corrupt corporate executives and criminal leaders galore. A newly transferred cop named Murphy survives a horrific attack and finds himself converted into a human cyborg nicknamed RoboCop. A blend of The Terminator and a sharp satire, RoboCop blends some very gory, tactile gross-out moments and effects with some more emotional moments, but the film never loses sight of its targets: the military industrial complex and the corporate culture. Although it is far from perfect, I think it is a perfectly serviceable entertaining thriller, and Verhoeven, as always, has something interesting to say. Peter Weller is fine as Murphy/RoboCop, and I did find some of the body-gore disturbing. The computer effects are fine for the time, and I love the corporate culture focus. It is being remade this year, and I hope it captures the same spirit of fun and sharp satire as this original. Highly recommended.

The Raid: Redemption = A Masterpiece of a Martial-Arts Action Film

Movie Review: The Raid: Redemption

Director: Gareth Evans

Reviewed: 16 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

In 2011's The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans has crafted a breathtaking action film, ingenious in its simplicity and stunning in its choreography. A SWAT team of officers in Indonesia burst into a looming building run by a crime boss. In video game style, the team must ascend the flights of stairs and arrest, incapacitate, or kill any of the underlings en route to the boss. Evans puts us squarely behind his lead character, Rama (Iko Uwais), an officer with a pregnant wife at home and at least one hidden reason for making this assault on the criminal fortress.

Once inside, the elite team of soldiers finds themselves outgunned, outmanned, and outmaneuvered as the boss orchestrates a brutal counterattack from his penthouse. The fighting in this film is brutal: a combination of martial arts with knives, chairs, chains, glass, anything at hand. Evans wisely pulls his camera back, allowing the ballet-like display of limbs flying and bouncing off each other to have a real impact. At no point in this film did I feel like it was chaos cinema: unexplained or incomprehensible action. The objectives are clear: get to the top, get the boss, get out. And the team finds itself shattered into smaller and smaller pieces, and Rama faces test after test.

I think that the film is small in scope, big in heart. It accomplishes what it sets out to do. I was blown away by the physicality of all of the actors here. The fights seem impossibly real and inventive and violent; I was continually amazed by the movement of the bodies in motion. A film can be about anything and be enjoyable. For me, The Raid: Redemption is a perfect film, perfectly executed. I'm hungry for the sequel.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Chasing Shakespeare: A Labor of Love

Movie Review: Chasing Shakespeare

Director: Norry Niven

Reviewed: 8 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Director Norry Niven and writer James Bird have collaborated to craft a fine, moving film entitled Chasing Shakespeare, featuring several parallel story lines, an intriguing and eye-catching color palette, and a lightness of spirit captured by an enjoyable cast from young unknowns to familiars such as Danny Glover and Graham Greene. Niven's attention to detail and economy of story make this film brimming to the top with emotion, and I was surprised by how enjoyable the story was.

I think that Niven's decision to open the film by focusing in narrowly on William and Venus (Danny Glover and Tantoo Cardinal), holding each other's hand in a lightning storm that knocks the power out of their house was a strong one. Niven thrusts the audience right into the emotional core of the film: this central relationship between a dying woman and her husband. The lightning casts shadows across their faces, they whisper to each other and complete recitations from a book of Shakespeare, and Venus persuades William to wheel her bed out into the lightning storm. It was powerfully rendered, and the entire rest of the movie succeeded because Niven grounded everything in that moment.

Older William wrestles with the death of his beloved as well as his relationship with estranged son in a small, rural Arkansas town. As he does, Niven flashes back to younger William (Mike Wade, more than capable) and younger Venus (Chelsea Ricketts, charming in a role that could have easily turned into annoying), a Native American girl desirous of earning the lead in the county production of Romeo & Juliet. The casual racism of the times informs Venus that she "doesn't have the right look" for the role, yet she remains undaunted in her attempts. She similarly pursues William, and the lightest, most fun moments of the film involve the flirting, the courting, and the gruff oversight by the grandfatherly Mountain (Graham Greene), a mysterious and mystical figure who tells William of his family's lightning clan connections and seems to possess supernatural powers. The stories cut and cross back and forth in a confident and intriguing way, as the film mirrors William's memories and current grief. In that way, I found it more challenging than a conventional film, and that challenge helps the film overcomes some of its shortcomings in the script (some clunky dialogue and characters, a few scenes that were missing a payoff, particularly one featuring a performance of The Tempest on a Broadway balcony).

And the Shakespeare connections are wonderful. Niven's film celebrates the written word and the act of reading as well as how the past informs the present. Some of the film's final moments reach out for maudlin sentiment, but I know that I was genuinely moved to tears by the film's denouement (as was the entire row sitting behind me at the screening), and the visuals were crisp, colorful, and always interesting. Norry Niven may have interviewed for directing jobs alongside contemporary Zack Snyder, but in terms of infusing a film with soul and emotional power, Niven triumphs in this confident, uncynical work of art. Although millions more will have seen millions perish under cascading skyscrapers of Metropolis in Man of Steel this summer by Zack Snyder, audiences should see Norry Niven's Chasing Shakespeare.

When a character dies it really means something, and it should mean something.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lethal Weapon: Boring

Movie Review: Lethal Weapon

Director: Richard Donner

Reviewed: 7 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

Mean-spirited, nonsensical, and dumb are just a few of the adjectives that spring into mind when thinking about Lethal Weapon, a canonized 1980's action thriller that I never saw until last week. In a strange set of circumstances, I knew the players, having seen all the subsequent sequels, but I never saw the original. Now I have, and I really could not have been more disappointed.

Detective Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a volatile, grieving police officer known for risking his life recklessly, and Detective Murtagh is the grizzled, aging family man who has just turned fifty. Neither man is excited to be paired up together, but in order to solve the case of a suicide, they join forces. The movie soaks itself in these two characters, contrasting Riggs' alcohol-fueled despair and moments of darkness with Murtagh's exasperated balancing of family politics and his work on his boat. The shadowy crime begins promising but never picks up steam; they follow leads that lead quite easily to other leads, and the plot never demands they (or the audience) works too hard. At one point, Murtagh is in the middle of an alleyway with the baddies barreling towards him in a car because...well, because that is just more convenient than having him find them.

The film feels very eighties from its jazzy score to its love of helicopter tracking shots, and it also feels very clunky and distracting in its action. The bad guys led by Gary Busey disappear for large chunks of the film, so there is never a balance between the warring sides, something that a film of the same time period, Die Hard, did so well with Alan Rickman. The cursing is fine (maybe shocking for its time period), and there are a few sequences that are fun to watch, but the final fight makes no sense. The stakes are nonexistent.

Mel Gibson is an unqualified star in this film, and I loved his charismatic performance. He is tough, funny, wild-eyed and haunted. Danny Glover seems to be having fun with his role too, playing a decent man with an overflowing plate of obligations, screaming at Riggs, his children, the bad guys. There is an undeniable charisma between Gibson and Glover, hence the franchise.

The film knows it has something special with its two leads and works best in those quieter moments. An action film need not be dumb, and unfortunately, Lethal Weapon never asks much of its audience or its characters. The fight at the end in the rain is cool to look at though but ultimately meaningless.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wonderfully Terrible: The Fast and the Furious

Movie Review: The Fast and the Furious

Director: Rob Cohen

Reviewed: 31 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

"The Fast and the Furious" is a poorly made, sloppy action film. Thin characterization combines with nonsensical plotting to result in a film that disappears into itself, skipping major scenes and goes far too long without its racing cars. Vin Diesel is so limited in what he can do that the film works best when just glowers. Racing fast cars really just involves injecting nitrous into your engine and pressing a turbo button that makes it go really fast! Paul Walker plays an undercover cop directed to infiltrate a gang of street racers that may or may not be behind some very complicated hijackings of trucks filled with electronics. And that conflict can be disposed of instantly.

"The Fast and the Furious" is a whole lot of mindless fun with street racing, attitude, and a carefree attitude. The characters are sketched lightly: the menacing ex-con who may or may not be the leader of a gang of criminals; the undercover cop with torn loyalties; the other jealous, suspicious members of the gang; the gruff, by-the-book federal agents in charge of the whole investigation. The film features some fun driving, incredible stunt work, lots of posturing, rap music, colorful cars, and fist fights. It captures the spirit of street racing from "A Rebel Without A Cause" and seems like a fun template for loud, flashy mayhem.

I don't recommend this movie; it is a lot of fun, and I can't wait to watch the rest of the series.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Oldboy done good

Movie Review: Oldboy

Director: Chan-wook Park

Reviewed: 23 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

Oldboy is a revenge film with endless surprises and inventiveness. A smashing together of Kafka and Tarantino, Park dazzles with an unforgettable story of a man imprisoned for fifteen years who escapes and searches for the reason why. Its precision is haunting, and I think that Oldboy offers a unique tale with a towering lead performance.

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) finds himself transported from his everyday life with his wife and child to a hotel room of a cell where his food is delivered through a tray in the door, a television keeps him occupied, and his captors refuse to identify themselves. He wracks his mind, wondering what choice did he make that led him to this? On that basis, Oldboy resembles a horror film, more like an American torture film like the Saw series with an impossible intelligent villain and over-the-top outlandish scenarios. But unlike those films, Oldboy veers off into becoming a psychological thriller, a mystery with a true surprise that occurs midway in the film, not in the final minute. The unraveling of who would do this to him and why is endlessly fascinating. Scene after scene dazzles, and there are multiple scenes where the challenge is to keep staring at the horror on the screen.

Min-sik Choi with a lion's mane of hair, expressive face, and impressive body control dominates the film as he occupies nearly every frame. He endures much physical abuse in this film, and his face captures that pain and weariness. One fight scene is impressively done, a ballet of over fifteen adversaries all attacking Dae-su in one long shot which glides forwards and backwards, never breaking in its intensity. Actions and images are repeated in the film, and the denouement is nearly as devastating as those of grand classics like Chinatown and Vertigo. I have never seen a film quite like this one, and with Oldboy as an entry point, I cannot wait to see more stories from this confident, skilled director.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Room 237: The Endless Interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

Movie Review: Room 237

Director: Rodney Ascher

Reviewed: 23 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

To be a critic of anything means to analyze it carefully through whatever lenses you bring to the work of art. It's impossible for me not to see a movie like Moonrise Kingdom or Kings of Summer through my own experiences of camping and scouting as a young boy. Similarly, as a teacher of AP English Literature, I navigate canonical texts with students, helping point out the significance of the Valley of the Ashes between the Eggs and New York City in The Great Gatsby, the symbols of blood, hands, night, and sleep in Macbeth, or most recently, masks in Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Many positions are more conventional and obvious based on past interpretations or overwhelming amounts of evidence. Others are more fringe, saying more about the writer and less about the work of art. Part of my coming into my own as a writer in high school and as a student of film was in the audacity of taking a position and following it to the end. For example, if I wanted to look at the Ernest Hemingway story "The Killers" as a possible inspiration for the type of chatty killers that would populate Quentin Tarantino's films, I could draw that straight line from text to text. I loved poring over the Bible to find out what Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winfield's Ezekiel 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction could mean. What's in the briefcase? There are a million interpretations, and crafting a plausible argument is most of the fun. The pursuit of truth was the pursuit of my truth, my interpretation of a film, and that could sway with where I was in my life at that time, what a critic said, what biographical details seemed relevant. In short, it was entirely subjective.

As I tell my students, there are a million interpretations that could be right when approaching a film or a piece of literature, but there are also clearly wrong interpretations, indefensible ones, and nonsensical ones. Rodney Ascher's audacious new assembled film Room 237, an assemblage of five different interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, seems deeply committed to the analysis of analysis and offers a unique take on the act of interpreting. The film is entirely crafted from footage from The Shining and other Kubrick films, as well as some graphics and maps. We never see the faces of the critics or their credentials, so Ascher levels the playing field, offering each person's analysis as equal to another's and no obvious ways of discrediting one over the other (though one theorist is featured speaking over a crying child in the background).

The offering only of analysis can be extraordinarily liberating or dangerous. One interpretation of a minor symbol of Calumet City Baking Powder can in the background of a shot inside the freezer with Danny, Dick Halloran, and Danny's mom explodes into a larger lens of seeing the film as a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. And that could be plausible. Could be. Theories unfold at a rapid rate, isolated from each other, so the same freezer scene returns in another theorist's reading of the film, but this time the focus is on the faking of the Apollo moon landing. One theorist plays the film both forwards and backwards, projecting it upon itself, looking for concordances. Another maps out the interior hallways of The Overlook Hotel, offering close reading of the movements of Danny on his big wheel. Many provide biographical and anecdotal information about Kubrick himself, the genius filmmaker who cultivated a persona of complete control over his films. As a result, nothing is ever an accident, and everything is intentional.

And there's the rub. Is everything intentional? How much control does an artist, any artist, have over his or her work? And, if you look hard enough and with enough motivation, will you always find something to support your belief?

I flat-out loved this film. It feels distinctly modern in its assembled approach and deep thinking about an impressively disturbing film. To engage critically with a work of art requires a point of view, and the pursuit of evidence that supports one's belief can be blinding or enlightening. There are political implications to seeing an incomplete picture of anything (what one is certain is stockpiled in a nation like Iraq, for instance), and in any enterprise, searching with myopic certainty may mean disregarding evidence to the contrary, no matter what the implications of that action may be. And Room 237 has made me fall even more in love with The Shining, offering so many ideas and takes that it will be a pleasure to revisit this masterpiece. Ascher's film ends with the contemplative idea that perhaps Kubrick's intention was to immerse the audience in the labyrinth of a film of infinite interpretations, a sort of intellectual madness much like that experienced by its main characters.

A work of art lives forever in the minds of its audience, and Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, and Rodney Ascher have all layered ideas over each other that can spin on into infinity every time an audience engages with it. Allowing for interpretations means including ones that are wrong, indefensible, and nonsensical, some of which are featured in Room 237. We are the judges of what interpretations make sense to us. And I suppose the only relevant question to ask is "Am I convinced?"

This film convinced me of its brilliance.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Plush: Going Nowhere. Fast.

Movie Review: Plush

Director: Catherine Hardwicke

Reviewed: 20 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--1/2*

In her new film Plush, director Catherine Hardwicke offers a cautionary tale of Hayley (Emily Browning), a rock and roll vocalist whose life unravels as she struggles with her guitarist brother’s drug overdose. Set amidst the backdrop of a tour with a floundering single and an uncertain future, Hayley struggles holding her home life together with her husband Carter (Cam Gigandet) and two children as well as hiring new replacement guitarist Enzo (Xavier Samuel) to move forward with her band. Enzo resembles Hayley’s late brother, and his dark energy attracts her and inspires her at a critical time in her life. Enzo has ideas for Hayley’s career, moving her towards edgier material that may change and possibly destroy her as the two cross into a dangerous relationship without clear boundaries.

Plush aims unsuccessfully for a sort of middle ground between erotic thriller and relationship drama but then shifts to be a more conventional horror film, a film where loud noises erupt but then turn out to be lawn sprinklers multiple times. Hardwicke obviously spent a great deal of time constructing Hayley’s world, and Browning delivers a strong vocal performance onstage. Judging from the credits, she prepared nearly a dozen songs for the role. And there is the rub. Hardwicke spent more time constructing that world and its seedy milieu and less time improving a creaky script without surprises that tips its hand nearly an hour into the film, and eventually goes completely haywire. Browning’s Hayley never fully earned my sympathy or interest, and the actress falters a bit in capturing the desperation of a woman spiraling out of control. I wonder if an actress like Rooney Mara or Noomi Rapace would have been able to carry Hayley’s fierce yet brittle charisma to more satisfying results. Gigandet’s Carter is a bland character with the busy writing schedule of a national magazine reporter yet seems to only want to dig giant holes in the backyard ominously. Samuel’s Enzo, with his wild moods and tortured, histrionic gestures, seems to be having the most fun, but even he wears out his welcome and is reduced to ridiculousness by the end. Throw in creepy puppets, disturbing video imagery, and a secluded home in the Hollywood Hills, and Plush ends up with far too much going on in a story that cannot handle the strain.

Plush boils over, leaving very little to enjoy. Hardwicke’s film suggests concerns about artistic integrity amidst commercialism, as well as how the rootless nature of a tour can destroy a personal life, but neither of those points seems compelling or fresh. The film offers an insider’s look at the music industry, but then offers thin supporting characters and unconvincing conflict that prevent the stakes from ever being more real. Hayley and Carter’s house in the hills is never in jeopardy. In her debut film Thirteen, Hardwicke had a stronger cast (Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter) to help her carry that relationship-based story. Here, she seems adrift and without the proper cast or script to achieve her desired vision, and Plush suffers as a result.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Alien Invasion: The Inferno of Spring Breakers.

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

Director: Harmony Korine

Reviewed: 19 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

"Spring Break, y'all.  Spring Break Forever!" utters Alien (James Franco), a rapper-gangster-deejay in Florida who bails out four young women from jail after a fabled, much-anticipated Spring Break trip goes awry. The neophyte, the aptly named Faith (Selena Gomez) finds herself overwhelmed by her trio of friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine). "Be careful around them," one of Faith's friends warns her. "They have demon blood in them." These women prove resourceful, as lack of funds does not keep them from their dream of breaking out of their college and heading south by any means necessary. In a particularly daring shot, Korine keeps the camera inside the getaway car as two of the women jump out, invade a restaurant with guns, terrorize the people, and jump back into the car, all while the car circles slowly around the windows of the restaurant, revealing the images but not the sound. That comes later. Faith accompanies her friends on their journey into the heart of darkness: dancing, drugs, sex, and destruction abounds.

The party ends early on in the film. The camera lingers on the four young women in revealing swimsuits handcuffed together, leaning against the police car. Enter Alien who seems to have been watching them from afar. And by bailing them out, Alien inducts them even further into his criminal underworld of drugs, guns, seaside resorts, and cash. What happens to this group of four friends as well as Alien makes for compelling viewing; Spring Breakers is surprisingly one of the best films of the year.

Harmony Korine's greatest accomplishment in Spring Breakers is to offer commentary on the hedonistic culture of young people behaving badly while also providing the voyeuristic look into this world of excess. It is impossible to look away. And Korine's magic is to cut together a film that swirls around these characters, the America culture of Spring Break and getting away from it all, as well as Alien's materialistic rantings. Spring Breakers is remarkably pretty to look at because of its color-saturation and its overall aesthetic look. Korine's camera lingers on impossibly gorgeous sunsets. He uses slow-motion in his editing, and I do not know if I have seen an image as arresting this year as two women clad in bikinis and hot pink ski masks firing automatic weapons into the air. In another scene, he layers in Faith's phone conversations with her grandmother over the frenetic partying, a juxtaposition of the world presented and the world experienced.

The film is compulsively watchable and slender in running time. It never travels exactly where you expect it to, and I found Franco's performance to be so much more than the mere parody it may suggest. It was moving. Alien is as much a believer in the American Dream as Jay Gatsby throwing his shirts up in the air to impress Daisy Buchanan. Of course, in Spring Breakers, it becomes a rambling monologue of braggadocio consisting of "Look at my shit!" before listing that he has "Scarface. On repeat." But the idea is the same: look at what I have, look at what I own, look at how important I am. Korine carries his frightening ideas to their conclusions, never letting the audience off the hook, exposing the ugliest, most violent aspects of this world and this time. He plays with time and loops back upon specific scenes, offering the possibility of this being a memory replayed in the main characters' heads.

Spring Break may be forever, as Alien suggests, but a distinctly American undercurrent of violence and menace swirls beneath color-saturated shots of beach bacchanalia, and Korine loves playing with audience expectations, particularly in casting ex-Disney Channel stars Gomez and Hudgens. It is a journey into the mouth of hell for these four women, with Alien as a demonic guide, a journey that some are more capable at navigating than others. There might as well be a sign as they enter Florida: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Spring Breakers is incendiary, darkly funny, and awash in impressive visuals and upsetting violence. It is one of the year's best films.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pain & Gain: Michael Bay's Best Film Ever!

Movie Review: Pain & Gain

Director: Michael Bay

Reviewed: 17 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

I love this film.

Maybe it was because I was sleep-deprived and watched it in three chunks between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. over two days holding my newborn son as The Rock and Marky Mark pounded out reps, dressed up as superheroes, and wrecked havoc all over the 1994-1995 Miami scene in this crime-fueled caper of gym rats turned kidnappers.  Pain & Gain is based on a true story and directed by Michael Bay.  Now, I carry some baggage to any Michael Bay film, and I have not enjoyed anything of his in a long time, maybe ever. His film The Rock was the first time that I openly started cringing at the thoughtless action summer blockbuster, and I openly recoiled at most of Armageddon a few years later. Raised on a diet of James Bond, Die Hard, and Indiana Jones, I think I expected more from an action film. Story, characters that mattered, a sense of cohesion. Bay's films, especially most recently Transformers seemed to embody a soulless, stylish evisceration of my childhood, an exercise in crass explosions and special effects, cheap humor and forgettable characters.

My view of Michael Bay has totally changed with his most recent film Pain & Gain.

His style meshes well with the R-rated hyperkinetic story of three bodybuilders who reach out for the American Dream by kidnapping a rich man named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and trying to steal his money and his life. The cast, led by Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, consists of huge muscles and huge performances. These criminals are inspired by the Hollywood culture of easy crime, easy money, and it is fun to see how they spiral further and further into depravity and excess.

The film is completely surprising because of its charm, its form reflecting its content, Bay's confident and innovative camera movements and editing, usually distracting, but this time, it was remarkable and engaging. I just loved the camaraderie of the cast, with Rebel Wilson, Anthony Mackie, Rob Corddry, and Ed Harris all looking like they are having fun. lots of fun. He has indulgent moments and plenty of gratuitous violence and nudity and explosions, but here, Bay seems in on the joke, enjoying himself versus punishing the audience. I am not sure that I understood every plot twist and turn, and at one point, I was not following how the characters reached an important place, but I just loved the ride.

Everyone is an irredeemable scumbag in this movie, and everyone shares in the blame: the criminals, the victim, the police, the woman at Home Depot, and even the priest.

In a way, Pain & Gain is the counterpoint to The Great Gatsby, another deeply American story of envy, reinvention, and striving beyond one's limitations.  Daniel Lugo sees an opportunity, and he takes it, albeit in the most ridiculous, twisted, and bizarre way possible. It seems awfully strange to compare Mark Wahlberg's buff, bug-eyed fitness and self-help devotee to Leonardo DiCaprio's suavely composed millionaire Jay Gatsby, but both films wrestle with similar themes and are two of the best films of 2013. After all, remember, Gatsby's 1906 copy of Hopalong Cassidy contained this moment of self-improvement and commitment to fitness: "Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling...6:15-6:30 A.M."  Daniel Lugo would have needed to push Jay Gatsby because as this film shows, fifteen minutes of exercise just is not going to cut it.

Michael Bay, well-done. I cannot wait to watch this fun movie again.