Saturday, January 18, 2014

Midnight Run Delivers

Movie Review: Midnight Run

Director: Martin Brest

Reviewed: 18 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

I was too young in 1988 when this film came out to see it in the theater (R-rating), and I never caught up with it on HBO growing up because it was a bit too foul-mouthed to show on the one family television around my younger siblings and parents. Catching up with the classic cross-country crime buddy comedy Midnight Run years later, I really took a liking to its sense of fun. The plot features gruff Charles Walsh (Robert De Niro) as a tough bail bondsman in Los Angeles who flies to New York City to bring back a mob informant Jonathan Mardukis, nicknamed The Duke (Charles Grodin). The Duke infamously took his boss's dirty money and donated over fifteen million of it to charity. Naturally, Las Vegas mob boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) wants The Duke dead, the F.B.I. led by agent Alonso Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) want him to testify, and Walsh must bring him back to LA alive to claim the $100,000 that his boss Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) dangles in front of him to avoid losing the bond he posted on The Duke. That money is enough for Walsh to buy that dream coffee shop that he's always wanted. Oh, and there's Marvin (John Ashton), Walsh's rival in the bail bondsman business, a surly guy always interested in swooping in and taking Walsh's business.

The film starts in New York, heads to Chicago, ends up in the Southwest, and final scenes are in Las Vegas and LA. DeNiro is winning in his role, believable in his physicality, brutally funny playing off of Grodin's Duke. They are a very funny pairing because they are just both really good actors, and a look or gesture conveys so much in a film like this. There's a madcap sense of fun here, with dim-witted mob underlings shooting at FBI agents in the street, nonsensical helicopter chases (it was the 80's, and it seems this was de rigueur for the era), a cacophony of cursing, hilarious characters, and the classic handcuffing yourself to your prisoner bit.

I think I've seen so many examples of this type of film done poorly that it was breathtaking to see it work so well. It is so, so funny. Mosely is always stealing other character's cigarettes. Marvin is delightfully nasty and steals every scene that he is in. The chemistry between De Niro and Grodin works, and the cul de sacs of the plot end up being more thoughtful and open-ended than expected from the genre. It's delightfully R-rated, and collision of personalities makes this one of my favorites. Grodin's dry, laconic, very intelligent Duke sizes up every situation and plays things out to his advantage despite all obstacles. At its core, the film is about two men, each of whom has an individual code that runs counter to their bosses and those that control them. So, naturally, the two rebels should find themselves on the same side of a conflict involving a gangster from Walsh's past. The final climax is effective because it comes from an entire film building up Walsh's value system. The film earns its ending. There's also an absence of schmaltz and canned emotions to the ending that makes it all quite fun without betraying its characters.

Midnight Run is kind of perfect.

Her: Do you love your phone? Can you? Do you want to?

Movie Review: Her

Director: Spike Jonze

Reviewed: 12 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

The preciously named Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) sports an old-timey mustache, high-waisted pants, lives in a futuristic apartment with a to-die-for view, and works at a greeting card company that specializes in handwritten personal letters. People tell him what the occasion is and he researches and creates an original composition just for them. He's very good at his job; for some customers, he's been writing their letters for years and knows them better than maybe they know themselves (or has created a version of them through these letters that embodies who they wish to be). It is deeply funny, audacious way to open the new film Her, and Spike Jonze showcases color-saturated office buildings, shining like jewels, textures all over the place despite omnipresent computer screens. Theodore is captured playing intricate adventure video games, walking alone, riding in elevators, and staring out from his perch at the world. He has been through a painful break-up with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) who haunts him in flashbacks; he has an absent friendship with college friend Amy (Amy Adams) enduring her own relationship strains. He finds himself intrigued by a new OS system that he befriends. Her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and she speaks to a world of great efficiency and little privacy, rifling through every email that he has written for the past few years, noticing Theodore's divorce papers have not yet been signed, and accompanying him whenever he wants companionship. Companionship turns to friendship turns to dating, calling into question what are the definitions of a relationship. Is it real? Does it feel real? Phoenix appears in every scene in the film, and the nature of the concept means that although he interacts with Johansson verbally, he remains front and center, often alone in the film. His performance is a high wire act that he deftly carries off, and Johansson's voice work is similarly stupendous. The film's setting is vaguely futuristic, a world with nonexistent crime and political strife, overpopulation and public transit, beaches filled with people and glass castles that jut into the air. Her strikes me as a fable without a clean moral lesson, a window into a future of both disconnection and exciting new possibilities.

James Cameron's Terminator showed us the logical endgame of computers and technology learning too much and forcing our own extinction through nuclear war. Her shows us the increasing isolation of members of society as everyone walks with an earpiece in, looking slightly crazy with heads down and no eye contact and awareness of their surroundings, talking to themselves. Samantha follows Theodore's world through her camera eye, and he narrates his life to her as she sits in his shirt pocket. Both beguiling and incredibly inquisitive, Samantha admits to wanting more out of her relationship with Theodore, grows increasingly intelligent, and seeks to break out of the constraints that limit them. And her infinite capacity to learn and platform as an operating system leads to inevitable conflict between them.

Her reminds me of another important film about our relationship with technology: The Truman Show. In Peter Weir's prescient examination of reality television gone too far, the director Christof (Ed Harris) reminds the audience that some viewers keep Truman Burbank's (Jim Carrey) show on all-night, even when he is sleeping, "for comfort." A central moment involves him working out late at night with Truman sleeping on a giant screen, and Christof goes over and pets his arm on the screen. Speaking to both our desires to voyeuristically see the real and the compulsion to be entertained, that film's themes still resonate with me over fifteen years later. Now, we have Her, one of the only films that I have ever seen to address our culture's relationship with technology. My parents FaceTime with my newborn son, crossing a thousand miles in an instant, allowing them to see and interact with him more than my own grandparents saw me in my entire life. I don't know if he truly sees them yet on the small screen in front of him, but that's his world of technological wonder: a world of phones that feature every song you could ever want, the faces of everyone you could ever love, and an infinite amount of connection. Phones and iPods allow us to walk through public spaces cocooned in earbuds, nestled in our private worlds with our own scripted music and emotions. Programs like Siri allow us to to speak and interface with technology in new ways, composing and deleting emails, organizing our day, helping us when we get lost. As the iPhone commercial featured several years ago, a man asked Siri to tell him a joke, and she did. Her is the logical extension of the commercial and the iPhone that I check obsessively. What will it mean when we turn to our operating systems, computers, and phones for humor and for love? Can a computer know us better than another human being? And if so, do we want that? Can terms be set for that kind of relationship when one partner can live infinitely?

Jonze's film does not present all of the answers, and there is no tidy ending, but the final shot is perhaps the most heartbreaking of the year: A friend putting her head on the shoulder of another friend, set against the dazzling backdrop of a shimmering sea of lights. Connection is connection, and all we can give to each other is compassion and attention. Spike Jonze remains an important artist, a director with a small but impressive array of films that consider our world and its connection to the fantastical. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, and now Her.

I think that Her is one of the best films of the year, and it lingers in the mind long after being seen.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

American Hustle: The Silver Lining of the American Dream.

Movie Review: American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell

Reviewed: 6 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

Hustling is an American pastime. Moving with purpose and speed and efficiency. One of the greatest (and most disgraced) baseball players was Pete Rose, nicknamed Charlie Hustle. A coach can forgive his team most deficiencies except for lack of hustle. In the world of con artists and facades, confidence men and women create rapport, build trust, work angles, and play on fears and desires, ultimately separating money from a mark with ease. Politicians engage in a curious doublespeak, presenting themselves as caretakers and stewards of the common good while steadily lining their pockets. Even the very appointed officers and government agencies designed to enforce the laws of the land can become corrupt in a myopic desire to get ahead and to get something faster than required. Hustling can lead to cutting corners in pursuit of a greater good that really leads to a promotion, a larger office, a commendation, an elevation in status, or more.

The American Dream is alive and well in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1978 in David O. Russell's brilliant new film American Hustle, and the con is on from the start with an opening series of shots of a swollen-bellied, dark sunglasses-wearing Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) staring into a mirror as he meticulously assembles, glues, and arranges his formidable hairpiece. At first glance, Russell is playing for laughs with Bale's physical appearance so starkly different than his Academy Award-winning role in The Fighter. However, in retrospect, Russell is doing more; he's laying the groundwork for Irving's character showing him to be a man who will take the time and effort to assemble his face to meet the faces that he meets, as T.S. Eliot wrote. The care put into the hairstyle belies the overall impression of Irving as a slob, a low-level crook in over his toupee-wearing head, and the initial scene with a curly-haired hard-driven F.B.I. agent provides laughs but also a perfect encapsulation of the film's themes. Irving's vision of perfection, his desire to blend and cover his faults, drives the film in unconventional and quiet ways, a tribute to Bale's sublime performance and Russell's labyrinthine construction of Irving through other characters' interactions with him.

Russell efficiently introduces Irving through flashbacks as a kid who noticed that his father's glass business being shaken down by mobsters, and to drum up business, he threw stones at windows in nearby buildings. As an adult, Irving owns a dry cleaning business as a cover for his illegal investment deals and forged artwork, and he is thunderstruck when meeting Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a kindred spirit of subterfuge, and he falls deeply in love with her, inviting her into his little world of malfeasance. And in a sharp, revelatory scene in the back office of the dry cleaners', Sydney proves just as formidable as Irving, connecting with his hustling instincts and elevating them with her voice, movements, and confidence. An arrest of the couple from ambitious F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) leads to a daunting challenge: Help the F.B.I. bust four other criminals and earn immunity for past hustles. A chance to walk away clean spirals into bigger and bigger deals, running after more powerful and more sinister targets. The cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., and Michael Pena in colorful supporting roles that are too much fun to outline here. Part of the fun is seeing who pops up next.

American Hustle manipulates time, using flashbacks when appropriate and starting in media res. There are moments where he makes quick, short cuts within a character's speech to clip the performance together, adding a small layer of artificiality that I think will be even more meaningful on a second viewing. His aim is to constantly surprise his audience, and from casting to music, Russell succeeds.

Russell swirls his filmmaking with music, infusing recognizable songs from the era (from Tom Jones to Elton John), but he blends one into the other with invention, often times using two or three pieces in one scene to communicate shifts in tone or in a character. A surprise cameo mid-film leads to the most tense moment in the film when a character's knowledge of the language becomes essential. Russell elevates a con story into a puzzle that maddens as nearly everyone could be conning everyone else. Layers are revealed to each character, and casting great actors and giving them great scenes together remains one of Russell's strengths. We see characters at home, with kids, at bars, at parties, on the dance floor, on the stage. On some level, Russell's films (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) are concerned with makeshift families, and the assortment of personalities here shine. It is a testament to the filmmaking that some of the supporting cast deserve their own movies and stories, Jeremy Renner's character in particular. Bradley Cooper does hysterical work. And Irving is center stage but always in the background, with Bale underplaying him by slouching, breathing heavily, swallowing dialogue instead of histrionically shouting. The film is a dance backwards in time where it pays for Irving to understand his opponents, his marks, in order to survive.  

Reinvention is an American pastime. From Jay Gatsby to Jay-Z, people transform themselves into different versions of themselves everyday. Russell's film, when you look past the veneer of glittery disco balls and shiny outfits and ridiculous hairstyles, is about what lies underneath the facade. And for Irving, it was his blended family, the practiced art of self-preservation, the naked loyalty to a friend done wrong, and the implicit notion of not being hustled. The little kid who saw his father humiliated ends the film with a spreading smile, played off to the triumphant sounds of a big band.

It's one hell of a silver lining. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

We're The Millers: A Raunchy, Uneven Ride.

Movie Review: We're The Millers

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Reviewed: 5 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- **1/2

In We're The Millers, the raunchy new comedy, drug dealer David (Jason Sudeikis) loses his stash of pot and must atone for it by traveling to Mexico to pick up an RV filled with new supplies and shuttle it across the border and back to Denver. To do so, David enlists his stripper neighbor Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a homeless girl Casey (Emma Roberts), and latchkey kid Kenny (Will Poulter) to serve as his cover, his de facto family to help him feign his way past border control, prying RV drivers, and, of course, angry cartel members.

In the vein of Horrible Bosses which also featured Sudeikis and Aniston, We're The Millers goes for broke in pursuing nearly every laugh in service of its concept. And this film just does not have the deep supporting cast that Horrible Bosses did. The four leads are all fine, but from Ed Helms's bizarre drug kingpin to a negligible pair of villains, the film deflates any time it leaves the makeshift family or their RV friends (a very wonderful Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn). Sudeikis serves as a modern day Clark Griswold here, possessing an almost manic rapid-fire energy that makes some of the filthy lines he utters even more funny. There are clever moments and sequences that help distract from the ones that are not so clever. It is impossible not to admire a film that generates so much laughter, though the characters are so thinly developed that they shift radically from scene to scene without any catalyst. I wish the film was a bit smarter with its premise or where it wanted to go (it seems to stall midway throughout), but there is undeniable chemistry within the family that made me want to just see more of them interacting and colliding. Will Poulter's work as Kenny stands out to me for its hilarity in playing the nicest character, the one most in horror of all that is going on around him.

A comedy that is quite funny, We're The Millers is disposable and forgettable, but what works makes its running time (and obvious flaws) forgivable. Without expecting too much from the film, one might not be disappointed. And considering its not quite successful execution, I wonder if a hybrid of We're The Millers and the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle The Heat would have generated something even more memorable than both of those slightly underwhelming, meandering comedies. Put those characters and comic actors together; there might be a fine film there. Nick Offerman and Melissa McCarthy. That could work.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

I Recall The Original Total Recall, Not This One.

Movie Review: Total Recall

Director: Len Wiseman

Reviewed: 1 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- *


Why remake Total Recall, a fine Arnold Schwarzenegger science-fiction action film from 1990? Director Len Wiseman must have seen something in his cast (Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston) or in his elaborate production design (a giant metal tube that shoots through the core of the earth uniting England and Australia) to justify making this picture. The basic elements of the two films are the same: construction worker Douglas Quaid (Farrell) dreams of an exciting adventurous life Walter Mitty-style and finds himself at Rekall, a company that implants memories of such adventures for a price. And something goes haywire during the consultation, showing Quaid to actually be a super-spy, wanted by the government and a vital part of the resistance.

There is no reason to watch this film over its predecessor. Farrell, though he can be charming in roles, is not here, and he is much more fun as a performer when allowed to use his words. Wiseman removed Mars from this film, taking some of the fun out of the viewing of the future. Instead, we see a Blade Runner-influenced, Asian-inspired artistic take on marketplaces that Quaid must run through while being pursued by hordes of drones. Yes, there are drones.

And the production design grinds the film to a halt. As the central locale and visual of the film, these tubes and the visual effects that went into making them just occupy so much screen time. Fights happen within and on top of them. We have to wait for them to arrive. They do a fun zero gravity thing when they approach the earth's core. But truly, they are instantly forgettable. Kate Beckinsale turns her role as Quaid's wife into a series of unfunny one-liners and glowering at the camera, though she does get to display some cool fight moves, running up the walls of rooms and such.

Ultimately uninterested in ruminating on whether memories can be forged or how they influence us, Total Recall is humorless, soulless, and empty in a way that its predecessor was not. That film was not perfect by any stretch, but it had its moments.

This film has no moments.

A Strange Ride Through Beautiful Vistas: The Place Beyond The Pines

Movie Review: The Place Beyond The Pines

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Reviewed: 30 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- **1/2

Derek Cianfrance's elliptical new film The Place Beyond The Pines is structured as a story of fathers and sons, as well as legacies in upstate New York. A long tracking shot establishes Luke (Ryan Gosling), a heavily-tattooed stunt motorcyclist, making money driving inside of a metal cage with two other men. The three bikes come within inches of each other, and an elaborate synchronicity is all that prevents disaster. With that looming and ominous foreshadowing, Cianfrance shows Luke's fledgling relationship with Malina (Eva Mendes), and by the time he returns the next year, she has a small baby. Luke leaves his way of life but falls into robbing banks using his bike skills to evade capture.

To say more would be to ruin some of the pleasures of this film. I genuinely was surprised and gasped at three separate moments that occur. The camera fluidly follows Gosling's character, sometimes walking and sometimes on his motorcycle. Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn all star as well, but seeing the story unfold in this particular way is what Cianfrance is after.

And its own structure is its undoing. The second and third chapters of the film feature woefully underdeveloped characters with little access to their thoughts, memories, or motivations. Several are downright unlikable. Cianfrance's work here is overly ambitious, throwing a high school story alongside a political campaign, and even after major developments, main characters do not speak. I admire Cianfrance's bold shift about forty-five minutes into the film, and the cinematography shoots gorgeous arrays of trees and winding roads. I think this story needed much more time to be told, or it needed to be more sharply focused. Despite its limitations, The Place Beyond The Pines has undeniable power and an intensity that I admired.