Friday, September 28, 2012

Stars in Shorts (2012)

Stars in Shorts (2012)

3 out of 5

The carnival-barker title of Stars in Shorts is practically begging for an exclamation point, but its appeal to name recognition makes commercial sense:  it’s an attempt to position short films as something other than film festival fodder or the things that screw up people’s Oscar ballots.  The seven-film anthology is a noble experiment that seeks to build on the success of the annual programs of Academy Award-nominated shorts (compilations of the contending live action, documentary, and animated shorts have been arthouse staples since 2006).  It’s also a bold inversion of the short film tradition, which has historically been a showcase for new writing and directing talent.  Those glimpses of creative vision are indeed present across the whole of Stars in Shorts, though they are a bit harder to see due to the hit-and-miss quality and haphazard organization of its individual pieces. 

Shorts begins promisingly with two films that harbor a distinctive voice behind the high-profile casting.  First is “The Procession,” starring Lily Tomlin and Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a bickering mother and son who get lost on the way to the burial of a woman they do not know very well.  It’s a simple, well-executed idea that’s no more complex that the typical A-plot of a sitcom episode.  Its timing is impeccable, though, with Tomlin having a field day casually tossing out the backhanded reassurances (“You’re not stupid…you’re just bad at patterns.”) that provoke Ferguson’s neuroses. Written and directed by Rupert Friend, “Steve” ratchets up the quirkiness with Colin Firth’s titular downstairs neighbor who interrupts a constantly arguing couple (Keira Knightley and Tom Mison) with rambling small talk and incessant demands for tea.  It’s a strangely intimate slice of life and a relationship triangle that’s stuck at its most awkward stages—the beginning and the end.

Brevity and humor seem to be the key elements to success in Shorts.  The longer segments – like the incessantly grey, prosaic sci-fi tale “Prodigal,” which squanders a menacing turn by Kenneth Branagh, or the drawn-out musical Hollywood in-joke “Not Your Time” – pale in comparison to ones that are quick with a punchline.  Like “Prodigal,” the Neil LaBute-penned entries “Sexting” (which LaBute also directed) and “After School Special” are both reliant on surprise twist endings, but at least they get to the point.  Clocking in at less than 20 minutes combined, these two films are like nasty little palate cleansers between the more languid main courses.

Stars in Shorts can’t escape the fact that it’s a film-by-committee, but the flaws are mostly in the programming.  Part of the reason why shorts work best in festival formats is the ability to match them up with other films that make good tonal companions.  The shorts collected here have little in common beyond the famous faces that appear in them, opening the door for some middling work to be rewarded for crony casting.  At least the curators of Stars in Shorts hit a high note with the sweet “Friend Request Pending,” featuring Judi Dench navigating the pitfalls and politics of online relationships.  The central conceit of an older woman fretting about less mature concerns – like whether to use “LOL” in a chat with her crush – is met with sympathy rather than novelty, giving it a refreshing lived-in feel.  The Chris Foggin-directed short is such a stellar example of the form that making it share the same billing with the some of the other cinematic hit-and-runs almost seems unfair.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush (2012)
Dir. David Koepp

3 out of 5

It’s hard to watch a film set in a post-Giuliani New York City and not wonder whether it would even be recognizable to certain denizens of its famed cinematic past.  The greedy, seedy city of Ratso Rizzo, Popeye Doyle, and Travis Bickle has transformed over the years into a place suitable for tourists, gentrifying families, and Garry Marshall rom-coms.  Thank goodness, then, that the city’s overwhelming rudeness endures as a main theme of Premium Rush, a colorful, carefree chase film set in the world of New York’s renegade bicycle couriers.

Unfolding more or less in real time – several flashbacks allow for some fudging of the timeline – the film follows Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a brash bike messenger who has forgone a potential career in law for the white-knuckle thrill of piloting his fixed gear, brakeless two-wheeler through thick swarms of Manhattan traffic.  He believes that his way is always the right of way, pedestrians and motorists and red lights be damned.  Wilee’s recklessness comes in handy when he is summoned to deliver an especially sensitive item coveted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a dirty cop with a weakness for Chinese gambling parlors.  With the help of his former flame (Dania Ramirez), Wilee evades authorities both crooked and legitimate in his noble quest to keep New York’s ambulance companies in business.

Premium Rush
is a quintessentially ‘90s action movie jazzed up for the iGeneration with flashy map graphics and a time-skipping narrative that crams as much as possible into the film’s harried 90-minute runtime.  The breakneck pacing makes it easy to forgive (or forget) the many contrivances required to grease the mechanisms of David Koepp and John Kamps’ surprisingly profane script (it represents a new benchmark for use of the word “shit” in a PG-13 movie).  But Koepp, who also directed, has more than willing volunteers/victims in Gordon-Levitt and Shannon, two guys who seem like they’d run through a brick wall if the role called for it.  And in Gordon-Levitt’s case, it kinda does – the end credits reveal that the star smashed into the back of a taxi while performing some of the film’s thrilling stunt work.

Much like its plucky protagonist, Premium Rush succeeds by being constantly on the move, masking its narrative flaws with superbly orchestrated action.  Gordon-Levitt also manages to bring a certain charm to his insufferably cocksure character.  The smug, sarcastic, and irresponsible Wilee is astoundingly played as a straight-up hero – a gutsy decision that only works because everyone else around him is made to be an even bigger asshole, from the sniveling, lying, woman-throttling Monday to Wilee’s impossibly muscular professional and romantic rival (Wolé Parks).  Zippy and deliriously fun, Premium Rush can’t sustain its devil-may-care posturing as it happily chugs along to a laughably old-fashioned conclusion; still, it excels as a nostalgic B-movie for adults old enough to know better, but young enough not to care.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dredd (2012)

Dredd (2012)
Dir. Pete Travis

2 out of 5

Karl Urban’s chin should receive top billing in Dredd, a sci-fi action film that’s as intractable as its leading man’s jawline.  It’s the second attempt (after the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd) at packaging the wry, darkly ironic British comic book hero Judge Dredd as a hulking, humorless lawman of a dystopian future where police officers are authorized to sentence and, if necessary, execute captured criminals.  But as a grim, grimy shoot-‘em-up bathed in drab colors, Dredd doesn’t seem to be in on its own joke.  Granted, the lack of humor isn’t a huge problem if audiences are not aware that the film is supposed to be funny.  Dredd is actually doomed by its lack of excitement and originality, fatal flaws for a movie that’s essentially an extended action sequence.

The film starts promisingly enough with a tantalizing glimpse at Dredd’s beat, “Mega City One,” a massive urban sprawl surrounded by a deadly radioactive wasteland.  The exhilaration is fleeting, however, as director Pete Travis quickly shrinks the scope to a single apartment block where psychotic gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, whose cra-zay unkempt hair and facial scars contradict her sedate performance) is consolidating her power as the sole producer of a dangerous new narcotic called SLO-MO, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Meanwhile, Dredd is asked by his superiors to shepherd new Judge recruit Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on a field training mission.  Her academy test scores are not quite up to snuff, but growing up near Mega City One’s radiation barrier has gifted her with psychic abilities.  It’s one of several clichéd plot devices employed by screenwriter Alex Garland as the Judges fight their way to the top of a skyscraper teeming with Ma-Ma’s armed thugs – a narrative that’s strikingly similar to this year’s acclaimed Indonesian thriller The Raid.

The modicum of character development that occurs before the battle is barely enhanced by the ensuing bloodbath, with Anderson’s backstory struggling to stand out amid the constant din.  Travis forges ahead with a day-in-the-life escapade that unfolds with mind-numbing repetition – shoot, reload, repeat – as generic villains fall in generic battles set against generic backdrops.  Even the movie’s major twist is designed simply as a way to thrust more targets in front of the heroes.  Despite good performances from Urban and Thirlby, Dredd is just more meat for the multiplex grinder, substituting genre shorthand for a strong story and interesting characters.  The film’s failing of ambition is best characterized by Urban’s grandiose gravel-voiced narration, which touts the vastness of his futuristic megalopolis before Dredd promptly reveals itself as little more than a feature-length firefight confined to one location.  The result is a hyper-violent comic adaptation with obvious fascist overtones that amazingly fails to push any buttons at all.  Dredd only has more bullets where its brains should be. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

4.5 out of 5

Back when little was known about The Master, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, it made sense to assume that the movie’s rumored subject matter about a Scientology-like religious organization would be an ideal backdrop for many of the director’s favorite themes – unorthodox familial bonds, self-destructive obsessions, and solidarity among society’s outcasts.  Instead, Anderson has again cast one of his irresistible lures to catch our attention and tell a completely different kind of story than the one we expected.  Tantalizing and scandalous from afar, The Master is a gripping portrait of individual anguish in extreme close-up.  

Everything about The Master is uncomfortably intimate, starting with an early scene of alcoholic US Navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) pleasuring himself – with back to camera – on a beach amongst his colleagues.  Quell is a man adrift in a post-World War II nation where, despite the assurances of a military psychologist, he finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life and seize the prosperity that’s supposed to be there for the taking.  Instead, he drifts toward the west coast and a chance encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic creator of a religious movement and pseudo-scientific self help system called The Cause.  

It is more effective to describe The Master in terms of its core character relationship rather than its plot.  Through a strange sort of kismet (and mutual enjoyment of Freddie’s bathtub gin culled together from whatever chemicals are lying about) these two men form an unlikely bond that is tested by Dodd’s growing paternal influence over the wild, animalistic Freddie.  Dodd is in fact fond of calling Freddie a “silly animal” when he misbehaves and in many ways treats Freddie exactly like a zoo animal or laboratory specimen, as if Dodd were a latter-day Dr. Moreau conducting the ultimate behavioral experiment (returning man to his “state of Perfect,” he intones in his taped lectures).  They embody the push-pull of civilization and savagery, two points on the evolutionary spectrum separated by an immense intellectual void.  

Hoffman is every bit the scholar in his role.  He is as capable of evoking a warm, professorial feeling as he is pressing his fiery convictions down upon his skeptics.  But where Hoffman is the fuse, Phoenix is the fuel.  His explosive performance recalls the brawny Method acting of Dean and Brando (who became huge stars shortly after the time of the film’s setting) infused with postpartum guilt and driven by an uncontrollable fury.  Phoenix seems to be accessing the inaccessible with every mumbled regret and drowsy facial expression, capturing the essence of a man in the midst of intense suffering:  a marooned sailor drowning on dry land.

Together, Hoffman and Phoenix are a powerful compound.  It’s one that nearly overpowers the rest of the film, including a good but miscast Amy Adams as Dodd’s stern wife.  The Master’s elliptical structure entices and intrigues but also obscures meaning, with Anderson eschewing his own cult of personality in crafting his most difficult and oblique film to date.  Absent the ironic detachment and go-go enthusiasm of Boogie Nights or the savage historicism and political overtones of There Will Be Blood, it may be challenging for audiences to fully embrace The Master.  However, considering the ferocious performances and Anderson’s characteristic emotional ruthlessness, viewers would be well advised against clinging too tightly.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lawless (2012)

Lawless (2012)
Dir. John Hillcoat

4 out of 5

The Prohibition-era crime drama Lawless—based on Matthew Bondurant’s novel about the bootlegging exploits of his relatives in the mountains of southwest Virginia—comes pre-certified with its “based on a true story” bona fides. However, the film’s relationship to historical truth is better described by a memorable line from John Ford’s classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Gangster films are almost obligated to mythologize their subjects, but few are as straightforward about this process as John Hillcoat’s bracing, bloody meditation on criminality and its insular codes of conduct. The Bondurant siblings Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) run a thriving moonshine operation in a remote area of Appalachia where the profusion of illegal stills illuminates the mountainside “like a goddamn Christmas tree.” Guided by a strict division of labor—taciturn Forrest is the brains, hotheaded Howard is the muscle, and inexperienced Jack is the errand boy—their concern runs with the approval of the local authorities, at least until a corrupt special agent from Chicago, Charlie Rakes (a distressingly eyebrow-less Guy Pearce), arrives in town to extort the producers of the lucrative “white lightning.”

Lawless unfolds at a glacial pace, but viewers familiar with Hillcoat’s previous work in The Proposition and The Road will recognize this as the director’s preferred strategy for calibrating his action sequences for maximum dramatic effect. The film’s depiction of criminality reveals a culture that’s more about the ever-present threat of violence than the violence itself, a game of chess that Forrest has mastered despite outward appearances. But just as Hillcoat begins to reveal the mush-mouthed brilliance of Hardy’s hillbilly mogul, Lawless pulls out the rug and abruptly places the overmatched Jack at the helm of the family business. LaBeouf is perfectly cast as the wannabe player with a chip on his shoulder, an impulsive dreamer with the smarts of his eldest brother but none of the subtlety—his initial purchase after his first big score is the 1930s equivalent of an Escalade. His flashy style helps him romance local Mennonite bishop’s rebellious daughter (a radiant Mia Wasikowska), but it also endangers his relatives and their business partners by raising Rakes’ bloodthirsty ire.

Oscillating between moments of ethereal natural beauty and brutal violence, Lawless emphasizes the differences between the Bondurants’ community-oriented credo and the demoralizing, winner-take-all ethos of urban gangsterism. Those weary with the ways of the city—including fallen Chicago dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain) and crime boss Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman in a disappointingly limited role)—view the Bondurants’ sense of honor as a refreshing alternative to the ravenous greed and cavalier attitude displayed by Rakes. This thematic tension carries the film as it moves through the rise and fall of LaBeouf’s naïve hotshot, a narrative arc that’s been done hundreds of times before. Hillcoat also balances the more generic aspects of the film with a generous application of local color on the soundtrack and in the visuals (a scene depicting a foot-washing Mennonite ritual beautifully advances the relationship between LaBeouf and Wasikowska without a word of dialogue). While a lesser filmmaker would dwell on the Bondurants’ supposed invulnerability—a somewhat cheesy notion introduced early in the story as a widely-believed local superstition—Hillcoat is determined to save his bullets. Instead of presenting the Bondurant legend as a towering inevitability and working backwards from there, Lawless slowly builds it brick by brick until it resembles the stone-cold truth.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

ParaNorman (2012)

Dir. Chris Butler and Sam Fell

3.5 out of 5

Zombie lore’s slow infestation of mainstream pop culture over the past decade or so has wrought plenty of memorable work (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake) and even more tongue-in-cheek kitsch (the zombie walks, the apocalypse clubs). In this climate, it’s shocking that Hollywood took this long to produce a movie like ParaNorman – a gorgeous stop-motion animated adventure that also achieves the distinction of being the first zombie flick for families. The Massachusetts hamlet of Blithe Hollow is home to Norman (voiced by The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely boy who can speak to the dead. Norman has trouble convincing anyone of his abilities, except for fellow social outcast Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and the raving town hermit Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), a self-professed medium who warns Norman that his special gift is the only thing that can prevent an impending supernatural calamity.

ParaNorman’s cheeky homage to zombie horror extends to the genre’s thematic overtones of prejudice and the mob mentality. Blithe Hollow is one of those famously provincial New England towns proud of its long history – even if that history includes a legacy of colonial witch hunts and the persecution of its eccentrics. Norman is justifiably uneasy about investigating Prenderghast’s claim, even more so when he discovers that it’s true: he is part of a line of mediums that has been keeping a witch’s curse at bay for 300 years. When the dead begin to rise and shuffle towards town, Norman must join forces with the frightened skeptics – including his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) – to convince everyone that it’s all part of the witch’s vengeful plan that preys on their collective superstition and ignorance of the past.

The direction of first-time helmer Chris Butler (who also scripted) and Aardman Animation veteran Sam Fell (Flushed Away) is a little too on the nose – the townspeople are quick to take to the street with torches and pitchforks – but their use of clichés is not intended as a narrative crutch. Like Laika Studios’ similarly phantasmagoric fantasy Coraline, it exaggerates something familiar to use as a gateway into something much more sinister. Combining silly sight gags and broad humor with a dark plot about reanimated corpses and the murder of an innocent is a tricky feat. But it’s one that Butler and Fell pull off with the help of stunning puppetry and breathtaking sets from the same team behind Coraline, as well as a pulsating Jon Brion score that incorporates elements of synth-laced ‘80s horror soundtracks. Smartly and subtly acknowledging how people create distortions – a la the shameless statue of a hideous old hag in Blithe Hollow’s town square – to avoid confronting their true fears, ParaNorman is a wonderfully weird expression of atypical heroism in the guise of a typically goofy riff on the modern zombie phenomenon.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Inbetweeners (2012)

The Inbetweeners (2012)
Dir. Ben Palmer

3.5 out of 5

When it comes to actual sex in a teen sex comedy, words speak louder than actions. That much is definitely true in the rude, ribald British comedy The Inbetweeners, a film that exhausts all its synonyms for human genitalia within the first 15 minutes. (Our transatlantic cousins are second-to-none in creating euphemisms for “vagina.”) Look past the acrobatic slang, though, and you’ll find a disarmingly honest and charming film about the preoccupations of dirty minds. An extension of the popular British sitcom of the same name, the movie finds four social misfits fresh out of high school – pedantic intellectual Will (Simon Bird), lovesick spaz Simon (Joe Thomas), vulgar horndog Jay (James Buckley), and amiable dimwit Neil (Blake Harrison) – taking a “lads’ holiday” to a Greek resort in dogged pursuit of carnal pleasures. What they find, however, is a replay of the same frustration, embarrassment, and abject misery that defined their lives at home. It’s soon a race to the bottom for the members of the self-proclaimed “Pussay Patrol” as they try to escape their vacation with a modicum of self-respect.

In its television incarnation, The Inbetweeners owed more to twisted American sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Arrested Development with its deeply flawed protagonists and their refusal to know any better despite their constant comeuppance. The movie serves up more of the same, yet also provides a glimmer of hope by introducing the boys to a quartet of bemused girls who aren’t immediately put off by their obvious personality defects. Hijinks and humiliations ensue in a style reminiscent of Superbad and the American Pie series as the lads haltingly pursue their holiday crushes. But in true European fashion, The Inbetweeners’ tales of thwarted sexual ambition skew darker than its starry-eyed American counterparts. Series co-creators and screenwriters Damon Beesley and Iain Morris aren’t afraid to show sides of their protagonists that are downright selfish, ignorant, and mean – often all at once, and often through Jay, a lecherous foulmouth who kicks off his vacation by groping a bar hostess and pushing a child into a swimming pool.

It’s not hard to tell that such bravado hides massive insecurities, and The Inbetweeners softens its rhetoric in time for the third act, a massive plot-resolving boat party. That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t earn its payoffs (though some punchlines might feel a bit familiar to fans of the series), just that it’s much better at constructing a joke than a believable (and lasting) romance. In fact, many of the relationships feel under-served – poor Neil doesn’t get much to do besides dance the robot and bed a procession of randy pensioners – and it’s a shame because the chemistry of the leads is top notch. A mid-movie falling out between Simon and Jay confirms that these four louts are at their best together, even if their stubborn loyalties could be standing in the way of an ideal love life. For all its talk of sex, The Inbetweeners admirably refuses to measure the cost of friendship with such libidinous currency – though these boys may find celibacy stifling and unbearable, deep down they know that loneliness is even worse.