Monthly Archives: August 2012

Premium Rush — 5/10

PREMIUM RUSH (David Koepp): 5/10

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a lot of fun, but this film is unquestionably stupid. And I expected more brains from Koepp, who directed the cool TRIGGER EFFECT and wrote two of the best Hollywood blockbusters of the last 20 years (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and SPIDER-MAN). Shannon overdoes the menace a bit, especially for a character as irredeemably dumb and hapless as he is. And while the NYPD is busy being outwitted by those crazy meddling kids on bicycles, the film introduces half-assed plots it doesn’t care to develop — the love triangle is a throwaway, and let’s not even speak about the can of worms opened by the immigration subplot. 

All that said, the 90 minutes fly by and JGL is once again an impossible-not-to-root-for hero. This is the kind of movie you used to see on cable in the ’80s. Remember GOTCHA! with Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino? That was stupid too, and I’ve seen it 10 times.

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Bernie — 6/10

BERNIE (2012, Richard Linklater): 6/10

I don’t have much to say about Linklater’s new film. It’s amusing and well-done (mixing in real Texas locals with the actors for the doc-like interviews), and Jack Black is as good as he’s been in years. MacLaine is quite good, though it’s only McConaughey’s third-best performance of 2012. I didn’t get a lot out of the true crime story (I’m also not into those Investigation Discovery shows either) and the tone was steadily slight, but I would have preferred a bit more edge. Maybe the problem is that it was all a bit distant from the material, and Linklater is at his best when he’s earnest and passionate (DAZED & CONFUSED, BEFORE SUNRISE).

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The Grey — 7/10

THE GREY (2012, Joe Carnahan): 7/10

THE GREY peaks fairly early on. A plane crashes 15 minutes into the movie, and as one of the victims is bleeding to death, he stays alive long enough for the hero to usher him honestly, forcefully, and gracefully into the darkness. In a harrowing sequence of manic terror, noisy weather, and life-or-death stakes, the film virtually stops cold in its tracks to sit with a dying man and study with earnest zeal and intense focus the perilous difference between a heart that’s beating and one that isn’t.

For the rest of the movie, NARC’s Joe Carnahan brings this weighty obsession with the frailty and preciousness of human existence into a derivative genre story — part ALIVE (plane crash survivors enduring harsh elements), part FROZEN (lonely, freezing, snowbound characters hunted by wolves), and part TAKEN (Liam Neeson kicking unholy ass), it introduces a manageable pack of dudes (some are dicks! some are nice family men!) and lets each inevitable beat land as scheduled. But the lack of originality is saved by Carnahan’s almost poetic devotion to the story’s existential core: a look at the sad juxtaposition of gorgeous scenery with deadly elements; of emotional and physical violence with the optimism of the human spirit. Oh yeah, and Liam Neeson punches a wolf in the face.

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Killer Joe — 8/10

KILLER JOE (2012, William Friedkin): 8/10

Whenever I read trailer trash stories in the news, I’m usually pretty appalled by the shocking grime of the story details — details that are often glossed over in Hollywood versions of crime movies. Even the ones that are based on true stories (and KILLER JOE is not) seem to anesthetize things just a bit. Luckily, veteran Friedkin gets his hands as dirty as possible, and makes one of the ugliest, meanest, funniest film noirs in years. Sometimes it goes a bit too far for entertainment’s sake, but in general this is a movie where things aren’t clean and feels all the more suspenseful because of it.

The staginess of the script isn’t a bother at all; Friedkin’s cuts are letter perfect and really enhance the material — pulpy, lurid, and derivative as it is. McConaughey is fantastic as the title character, Temple and Hirsch are quite good as the kids, and Church and Gershon make a hilariously awful pair of white trash parents. There’s a terrific running gag about characters always turning TVs off (and probably a sly comment by Friedkin on the pervasive annoyance of television in general) that has a typically violent payoff, and one scene that stood out for me was the impossibly polite small talk between a gangster and Hirsch who pause during the shakedown over a debt to shoot the shit. It’s a stagey bit of movie dialogue, but it’s so comically trivial that it becomes even more terrifying when the violence resumes. KILLER JOE is a lot of fun, and it earns the shower you have to take after you watch it.

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Margaret: Extended Cut — 9/10

MARGARET: EXTENDED CUT (2011?, Kenneth Lonergan): 9/10

It’s early Fall 2011 and I’m exiting a theater in Culver City with two friends, Ryan and Jason, and we’ve just seen Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET, along with maybe a dozen other people who wandered into a run-down art house to see the limply released print of a film that somewhat resembled something Lonergan may have intended at some point during the 5 years it took him to make it. Ryan and Jason were extremely impressed. I was conflicted: I’d just seen a 2.5-hr film that seemed “too short,” (as I said to them at the time). Why? Because it bit off so much, and while it was trying to chew it, chunks of food were just falling on the floor instead of being properly digested. This is a huge sweeping epic American drama focusing on one teenage girl and her awkward, upsetting, disillusioning journey into maturity. And instead of attacking all of it, it seemed rushed, sloppy, and slapped together with Scotch tape when the seams should have been sewn with silk thread. I was wondering if an extra bit of time spent on the story might help me feel the way these guys did.

I wasn’t alone — its Metacritic score is 61, which is just about where I was on the movie. But the group of critics I seem to agree with the most — former friends, current friends, and alterna-crix whose taste aligns with mine more often than not — were championing the thing as a misunderstood masterpiece (going so far as to form #TeamMargaret on Twitter). They can’t be right, can they? What film did they see? Did they fill in the obviously missing gaps? Were they just seeing something they wanted to see? Or did I just miss the boat? A highly likely possibility, but then again I trust my own judgment pretty well. Luckily for me, the movie I wanted to see was about to be released 10 months later.

With 36 minutes added to the running time, MARGARET has been released on standard DVD as an “Extended Cut” tossed into the Blu-Ray package of the theatrical release. This afternoon I borrowed a copy of it from Ryan (who has purchased the Blu-Ray but not watched the extended cut yet), drove home, and decided to pop it in as my lazy Sunday activity on a 99-degree Los Angeles day. Three hours later, I’m writing this blog post a changed person. Unfortunately, I’ll still never know if it was the theatrical release that was hugely problematic (and those problems were fixed by adding 36 minutes and recutting the existing scenes) or if I just needed a second viewing to figure it out. All I know is that MARGARET: THE EXTENDED CUT is a great American film.

Let’s start with the film itself, then I’ll get into the differences. This is a movie that investigates the connections humans have to others in a complex and contentious world; one that contemplates how small, seemingly insignificant or mundane actions we take can have rippling consequences; yet how despite the volcanic upheavals certain events can cause in our lives, our next-door neighbors go on living their own private dramas, indifferent to our personal operas but suffering others themselves. The philosophy of this film is summed up in a gorgeous, long take in the middle of the movie — the camera (after another long take sweeping through the sky following an airplane over New York City in one of the film’s many assertive post-9/11 images) starts on the back of our heroine’s head as she waits for passing traffic to cease, then crosses a street and walks into a crowd of Manhattan pedestrians until she gets lost in the sea of people enduring countless other stories. It then slowly tilts up, turning each person into an ant (echoing another scene about a debate over the meaning of the Shakespeare line concerning the sport of Gods treating humans like wanton boys treat flies) as it strains its neck towards the sky and the mammoth skyscrapers hovering over us — a hostile world of millions of people (Matt Damon’s character Mr. Aaron reminds Lisa that there are actually seven billion people on the planet, so stop being so self-absorbed) who couldn’t care less about the girl that just disappeared into it… despite the fact that although she’s a stranger, her innocent actions could lead to us getting run over by a bus. This shot is Lonergan’s message — we are both insignificant and everything at once; an existential shout that even in a universe of apathy, what we do matters, and what we say to each other can be as explosive as an atom bomb.

Now about those explosions — if there are minor flaws with this film, it’s in the repetition of dramatic arguments that spin out of control into hysterics. Towards the second half of the movie, it seems every time Lisa walks into a room someone is going to be shouting within seconds. At times these arguments are magnificently done: Lisa’s early shouting match when her mother is about to go on a date with new boyfriend Ramon is achingly real and bloody. And it didn’t even bother me that Anna Paquin (who is terrific throughout this movie) lets her Kiwi accent slip out the more upset she gets — an accent that pops up over and over when Paquin unleashes primal, child-like feelings. While the Lisa character didn’t grow up in New Zealand, this lack of realism doesn’t hurt the film because I was so enamored with Paquin’s dedication to the emotions of the dialogue.

Let me now get to the structure, which is most refreshingly fixed in this Extended Cut, and the main reason I liked it so much more. It’s not that the film is any less all-over-the-place; it’s that scenes develop more, and attention is paid to every character to the same extent they were brushed off before. I still don’t think the Jean Reno stuff works that well, but for the most part this is a way more respectful cut. [SPOILER upcoming…] In the theatrical version, Lisa abruptly blurts out to Matt Damon that she had an abortion, then stumbles through some nonsense before walking away and nothing else is ever said about it. In this version, we see her mother holding the pregnancy test and then the abortion clinic visit. But the best consequence of including these scenes is not the fact that we’re no longer as surprised as Damon is (though that’s a big plus), it’s in the scene that happens in between — Lisa is at her lawyer’s office learning that justice will not be served in the Big Case. Ruffalo won’t be punished, while people she barely knows will profit greatly. In the theatrical cut, Lisa acts typically impetuous, but we have no background for her state of mind. In this cut, we know what she’s just been through, so now her behavior makes a lot more sense emotionally.

There are other great improvements here: in the theatrical cut, the score was pretty terrible. In one instance, Lisa hangs up on high school friend Darren (THE NEWSROOM’s John Gallagher, looking disturbingly young by comparison), who has a huge crush on her. While Lisa runs off to lose her virginity to the hilariously non-chalant Paul (played by Kieran Culkin in one of the best performances in the film), Darren sits on the bed and cries, to the comic twangs of horribly scored strings. In the extended cut, Lonergan keeps the practical-source jazz music playing, which is an expert choice — another case where the world moves on uncaring about what we are feeling.

I could go on, but there’s nobody left still reading this rambling review. Trust me when I say that MARGARET: EXTENDED CUT is just as long, but never rambling — it may be all over the place, but now it’s all over the place with a purpose, and loaded with scenes that do what great art needs to do: challenge your perception of where you fit in the world, and shine a spotlight on the way society bounces things back at you the way you impact it. It’s a messy film for a messy world. And I’m glad, whether it was my fault or the studio’s, I finally got to pick up what Lonergan was throwing down.

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The Dark Knight Rises — 7/10

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012, Christopher Nolan): 7/10

How does Bane eat? Meh, never mind. I could have spent the nearly-three-hour running time in the theater thinking of the logical flaws in this movie and unanswered questions to the overly complicated plot (which feels like it was written along the way, a strange sort of feeling for a Nolan Brothers screenplay — their films tend to come across as meticulously planned from the jump), but there’s plenty of terrific filmmaking here to put that stuff at bay. This is beyond the suspension of disbelief necessary for a comic book superhero movie (of which it seems there’s a new mandate for 71% of Hollywood films per year to be about superheroes); I’m talking about the sheer technical skill it takes to suck the viewer into a most phony, impossible universe.

Part of the reason it all works is Nolan’s dedication to tone. Few blockbuster directors have such an amazing handle on tone (even Nolan’s crappier movies like INSOMNIA manage to stay united in that way), and this final piece of the Batman trilogy is unerringly dark, serious, and punishing. Yet it doesn’t allow that seriousness to impede on the entertainment — Anne Hathaway (who, in her own way, silences the pre-critics much like her BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN co-star Heath Ledger did in the last one with this bravura performance) has a number of clever lines delivered with deft grace and wry intelligence; and the spectacle is so astounding (three cheers to the set design team for some of the best production visuals I’ve seen in this era) that your footing doesn’t get weighed down in the murky mud of the script’s depressing decline into a world of nihilism.

It’s kind of like Nolan doesn’t even care that he’s making a Batman movie: he’s more concerned with a story that mixes a personal identity crisis (sound familiar, PRESTIGE and MEMENTO fans?) with a parable about society’s downfall via political terrorism vs. individual will to power. It’s more like INCEPTION than a comic book. (And it stars no fewer than four INCEPTION actors). The Big Ideas are at least pursued with gusto, even if not particularly original — and they’re more successfully tied in with the character development than in something like, say, PROMETHEUS. It’s just that there is some really slipshod storytelling in order to get there. The pacing is fairly good for a lengthy epic, even when the action threatens to pummel the minor moments in the second half. This isn’t a great film, but as long as we’re going to be subjected to summer upon summer of nothing but superhero movies, Hollywood could do worse than Nolan behind the camera.

 

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Goon — 5/10

GOON (2012, Michael Dowse): 5/10

A couple of successful Hollywood Jews with a background in working under Judd Apatow have understandably received the funds to develop a screenplay about a comically violent Jewish hockey player. This script has been shot by competent crew members in production, and edited together adequately to highlight the charm of its lead, Seann William Scott. The film, with a typically inoffensive running time of 91 minutes, hits the beats that producers expect out of a comedy, including a predictably half-assed romantic subplot shoehorned in and acted adequately by THE NEWSROOM’s Alison Pill. There are jokes designed to make the viewer chuckle, and music mixed in by the audio editors at acceptable levels. Upon completion of the final cut of this motion picture effort, it found the required distribution to be available on Netflix Instant. I was doing a bunch of things on Friday, and then on Friday night I utilized Netflix Instant to view the production. When it was over, I continued to do other things.

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