Archive for the ‘thriller’ category

The Counselor

October 27, 2013

the-counselor-michael-fassbenderReaders of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script for the convoluted new thriller The Counselor, might ask who this movie’s Ultimate Evil is, the Judge Holden, the Chigurh, the suzerain of the earth, silent and serene. Is it the drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem)? Or the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges deals between men like Reiner and men who need a lot of cash? Or even the sallow-faced assassin (Sam Spruell) we see stringing wire across a desert highway, the better to separate a motorcyclist from his helmet and its contents? Or could it be the never-named Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose naïve dabbling in the drug trade stands to win him either $20 million or despair? Who in this amoral universe knows all, sees all, claims that nothing must be permitted to occur upon the earth save by his dispensation?

There’s an answer to that, late in the movie, and meanwhile we watch as the chess pieces, set in shaky motion, march towards a properly bleak McCarthy end. The Counselor is not so much a thriller, really, as it is a new gloss on McCarthy’s favorite conflict between the evil that knows too much and the good that doesn’t know nearly enough. The key, for those inclined to seek it, might lie in a late-inning phone chat between the Counselor and a cartel bigwig (Ruben Blades), who sounds like a somewhat gentler Judge Holden and speaks obliquely about crossings and events long set in stone. Over and over, the Counselor is himself counseled to avoid the path he wants to follow, and once he’s too far along the road, he is told it’s too late.

The movie is full of odd one-on-one conversations that may exasperate those who want the film to get to the point, but the dialogue is the point. It’s not snappy or clever, but it does evoke Hemingway in its weary fatalism and particularly its repeated assessment of women as a threat to the male Garden of Eden. Without women, you see, there would be nobody for men to impress with diamonds and other flashy indicators of wealth, and therefore no crime, no war. I don’t think the movie itself (or McCarthy) believes this — rather, it’s one more way in which the desperate and stupid men in the film sabotage themselves. The Counselor is not a feminist work — not with the old reliable madonna/whore construct represented by the Counselor’s innocent fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s cheetah-owning girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) — but it’s not a masculinist work either. McCarthy is not much into heroes except when he’s writing about the literal end of the world.

The Counselor is vaguely apocalyptic as it is, set in a world where cartel thugs dispatch the unwise with vicious time-activated nooses called bolitos — McCarthy digs sending human beings to their maker with implements that seem designed for use on livestock, as with Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. (In Cuba, a bolita refers to a lottery ball, and someone’s number comes up here.) The movie is being called violent, but the brutal bits are few and far between; we get what we need to keep our dread fresh. The Counselor has been directed by Ridley Scott outside his usual mode of ladling hot/cold visuals onto the screen to let us know that he, Ridley Scott, master visualist, directed it. As a result, it’s Scott’s best film in quite some time. He serves McCarthy’s story. We get the sense that the script magnetized everyone involved, who felt no need to diddle with anything or show off. The cast hums with a low intensity — there are no Oscar moments here, no disgraceful displays like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. This film isn’t getting, but should, the grateful accolades that Prisoners got, and shouldn’t have.

How seldom we see the feared cartel monsters, or even the drugs themselves, in this putative cartel thriller. Almost everyone in the movie is on the margins of the trade, profiting from it without getting their hands bloody. This isn’t a noir thriller featuring the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and desperate, desperate to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. The story is simple but told with a terse economy that doesn’t spoon-feed us the narrative. The Counselor is one of McCarthy’s late-period minimalist fables, philosophical in speech but plain in action, unlike the efflorescent wilderness of pain and madness painted in McCarthy’s gravestone work Blood Meridian. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” says Judge Holden in that book, “but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” We don’t see many drugs in The Counselor because the people may as well be clashing over rocks or sand or flags. The Judge or Chigurh of the movie is revealed before the credits roll, but ultimately the Judge and Chigurh represent human folly, the illusion of control over events save by our dispensation.

Cold Blooded

September 28, 2013

timthumbThe aptly-titled Cold Blooded is the first feature film directed by Jason Lapeyre; he made it before co-directing the terrific I Declare War (both are newly available on iTunes). Both films are tightly wrought meditations on violence, though Cold Blooded fits much more comfortably into a genre file drawer — it’s a crime thriller, handled with what Hemingway called clean hands and composure, appealingly minimalist and sharing some DNA with the early work of John Carpenter. (The end-title music strongly recalls Carpenter’s Escape from New York theme, and the premise tips its hat to Halloween II and Assault on Precinct 13 while being worthier of the latter than Precinct 13’s own remake was.) Judging from Lapeyre’s two features thus far, I’d say we have yet another Canadian director to watch. Must be something in the water up there.

The movie kicks off with a Reservoir Dogs vibe: thieves escaping from a diamond heist. It goes badly, and one of the thieves, Eddie Cordero (Ryan Robbins), is badly beaten and taken into custody. After better than two days of unconsciousness, Eddie wakes up in the hospital to find himself guarded by no-nonsense cop Frances Jane (Zoie Palmer). Before long, we discover that Frances isn’t so much guarding against Eddie’s escape as guarding him against heist colleagues who now want to kill him. They’re both up against cobra-like Louis Holland (William MacDonald), a top-flight sociopath who isn’t above using surgical tools close to hand to obtain what he wants.

Cold-Blooded is almost what Michael Douglas described in his recent Emmy speech as a two-hander — much of the movie is a contest of wills between Eddie, who’s not as violent or as psychotic as the crew he ran with, and Frances, who insists on following the law even when it would seem to do her the least good. The Carpenter feeling continues in the performances of Palmer (who resembles the young Edie Falco) and Robbins, who have a gratifying ice-and-fire rapport. Lapeyre doesn’t forget about the other characters, though; we spend a bit of time with two separately terrified men — a doctor (Husein Madhavji) and the diamond-store clerk coerced into facilitating the heist (Sergio Di Zio) — who of course end up paired off, each nattering about protecting their families.

There’s a bit of grisliness early on, unrevealed by me, that’s a gift that keeps on giving — it raises the stakes, puts a ticking clock on the proceedings, and provides several queasily absurdist moments. (Admirably played straight by one and all.) It also signals that all bets are off, since we don’t expect to see such a game-changing event so soon in a narrative. It informs everything that follows, and, though bloody, it isn’t leered at or even shown in much detail. Jason Lapeyre used to write for the excellent Canadian horror magazine Rue Morgue, but he isn’t a gorehound; covering movies that treated violence as a meaningless game and movies in which violence actually meant something may have shown him which way to go. Cold Blooded may depict cold-bloodedness, but its own blood is warm and vital, without succumbing to unearned sentimentality or emotion (Eddie and Frances don’t become best friends or something).

The filmmaking is remarkably clear-eyed and economical. The first images, almost still photos, suggest snapshots of what happened and why it went wrong. Every edit and line of dialogue have a purpose: not for nothing do I compare Cold Blooded to early Carpenter, who never let plot get in the way of the story. We like Frances and even sleazy Eddie, they get put in a bad situation, and we watch them trying to think their way out of it. You could probably count the number of gunshots on the fingers of one hand, have enough fingers to count the number of clichés, and still have a pinky left over. Lapeyre’s one concession to visuals over logic is the heroine’s iconically bloody face, which maybe could’ve been wiped clean sooner, but nobody’s thinking much about skin care under the circumstances, and it fits in with Lapeyre’s concerns running through both I Declare War and Cold Blooded: blood is sticky and messy, and having it there on the heroine’s cheek is a constant reminder.

Prisoners

September 21, 2013

Capture19You know what you’re in for with the first shot, of a snowy patch of woods in late autumn, while a voice-over intones the Lord’s Prayer. A deer wanders into the frame, and the camera pulls back to reveal someone aiming a rifle. Bang! Christianity and unmotivated gun violence: ain’t that America? Prisoners, the first film in English by the Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), feels as though it wants to be part of the national conversation; it seems to want to be more than a kidnapped-kids thriller (especially with its generous running time of two hours and thirty-three minutes). For a long time, Villeneuve’s patient formalism and Roger Deakins’ typically luscious cinematography make Prisoners a pleasant, and pleasantly adult, sit. Then it seems to remember that it has to wrap things up neatly (why?), and the last half hour, despite the occasional jolt of excitement, is an embarrassment.

In a drab Pennsylvania suburb, two families get together for Thanksgiving: Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello head over to the (slightly better-looking) home of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Jackman, I think, also brings some of the deer his son just shot in the first scene. The families each have a teenage kid and a small daughter. The two small daughters leave the house after Thanksgiving dinner and never return. Prisoners then becomes about how the parents, and specifically Jackman, respond to the crisis. Howard and Davis recede, and Bello zonks herself out on pills — the brief moments of levity the elsewhere-vibrant actresses Bello and Davis share pre-kidnapping have to last us a long time, because the movie turns into The Hugh Jackman Show. The poor man, who seems to have dedicated much of his film career to making us forget he can also be a charming song-and-dance light comedian, rages and suffers and howls and falls off the wagon and generally comports himself like someone even Wolverine might cross the street to avoid.

The police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal as a detective who’s “never lost a case,” find a mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) who certainly seems to be the kidnapper, but the girls are nowhere to be seen, and after 24 hours the cops have no evidence on him and have to release him. Wolverine — er, Jackman — swings into action, kidnapping Dano, stashing him in a dilapidated, abandoned apartment building he happens to have inherited, and torturing him for information while Terrence Howard mostly stands around looking queasy. Meanwhile, someone else is sneaking around the neighborhood at night and apparently breaking into the Jackman and Howard homes. Could he be the kidnapper? Or how about the old child-molesting ex-priest who has something interesting in his basement?

Denis Villeneuve appears to be fighting this material tooth and nail. He brings a burnish of high burgundy seriousness to the staging, but the plot is irredeemably pulpy and runs on a thin tank of coincidence and convolution. Villeneuve seems to want the film to say something about the American character as personified by Jackman, a struggling carpenter (Jesus?) who fills his own basement with survival supplies and passes easily into righteous fury. Gyllenhaal’s cop, I guess, is there as balance, but he doesn’t do much of anything, and it takes him forever to figure anything out (some detective). The extended running time is there to pile on more and more twists, not to discover anything in the characters. The only thing we learn about Terrence Howard’s character, aside from his not having the stomach for torture, is that he plays the trumpet badly. About Viola Davis we learn not even that much. Spike Lee’s comments about mishandling of black characters in films made by white people are sometimes an occasion for eye-rolling, but after seeing Prisoners you might acknowledge he has a point.

And then the movie gears up for its gripping climax and becomes terrible. The filmmaking remains crystalline, immaculate, which makes the implausibilities much bitterer pills to swallow. Something seems to happen, and then no, it didn’t happen that way, and someone is in custody that the cops like for the crime, but then whoops, someone isn’t in custody any more, and someone goes alone to someone else’s house and at that point, by simple process of elimination, you wait for the big reveal, and it happens, and while you’re still trying to get your brain around the laughable disparity in size between the threatened party and the threatener, more stuff happens and people act stupidly and good god, is this going to be over any time soon? There are two movies at war here: a glum, wintry character drama from the Atom Egoyan mold (say, The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica) and a very-particular-set-of-skills thriller á la Taken. Guess which movie wins, but it’s not even fun on a Taken level, never mind as devastating as Sweet Hereafter. This movie is impeccably-made horseshit.

You’re Next

August 25, 2013

xsharni-vinson-youre-next.jpg.pagespeed.ic.96791YOdvaA lethal disease sometimes afflicts horror filmmakers. I call it “explainitis.” This disease has been known to erode mystique, decay plots, and dilute true terror. In the best home-invasion movie of recent years, The Strangers, the killers were asked “Why are you doing this to us?” Their response: “Because you were home.” That’s really all you need; any motive more explicit tends to drag shadowy demons into the withering sunlight of logic, and you might as well be watching Murder, She Wrote. (This is why David Lynch, who is not officially a “horror director,” has birthed some of the most frightening moments ever committed to film: he deals in mystery, dream logic. Nothing is scarier than the incomprehensible.)

You’re Next, a horror/siege thriller greeted in some quarters as if it were the second coming of Sam Peckinpah, has a raging case of explainitis. It trucks along efficiently until we have to stop and learn why this is all happening. We begin with a random couple murdered by people wearing animal masks. Then the story proper gets underway, as four thirtyish people, accompanied by their significant others, head to their wealthy parents’ house to celebrate their wedding anniversary. One of the parents is played by genre stalwart Barbara Crampton, making this the second thriller of the year (following Would You Rather, with Jeffrey Combs) in which a veteran of The Re-Animator presides over a dinner gathering that promptly turns brutal. Someone is outside with a crossbow. The whole family, except the unlucky one who happened to be at the window when the first arrow came through, convenes hurriedly in another room, and the cat-and-mouse game begins.

The family is dysfunctional, which means many scenes of bickering before the slaughter commences. One of their number, the Australian girlfriend of one of the sons, turns out to be quite competent at deflecting murderous intentions; Sharni Vinson, who plays her, is probably already being groomed as the next scream queen in a genre that’s been lacking one since Neve Campbell screamed her last, though if Vinson is lucky she’ll move on. She does a great deal of damage to the killers, who become oddly humanized through their pain and frustration. You’re Next flirts with being a meta-horror movie, which can be a way of making a routine slasher flick while making fun of routine slasher flicks. The engine, however, runs like a routine slasher flick.

For a small segment of the audience, the movie will play as a wink to fans of recent indie cinema: one of the sons is played by mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, while retro-horror director Ti West appears as the boyfriend of the family’s sole daughter. The film’s director, Adam Wingard, has collaborated with Swanberg on various projects and contributed, along with West and Swanberg, to the horror anthology V/H/S. None of this meant much to the uninitiated around me in the theater, many of whom were audibly exasperated with Wingard’s over-reliance on shaky-cam even when it isn’t called for (such as a simple shot of a family portrait on the wall). Wingard can set up a decent jump scare, even if none of them really made me jump. There’s some gratifyingly nasty dark comedy. It’s not a dud, but one way or another you’ve seen most of it before.

So is You’re Next really an artsy sheep in wolf’s clothing — i.e., a snide, deadpan send-up of home-invasion thrillers? It’s certainly not being marketed as such, which might explain my audience’s underwhelmed response to it. The motive, when it’s revealed, raises unfortunate questions and reduces the terror to a twisty gimmick that excludes our identification with the victims: Unless you’re one of these specific people, you’re not next — it’s not going to happen to you (not the way it does in this movie, anyway). The family’s patriarch is a retired national-defense worker, so I thought he might have been getting a political comeuppance, but no such luck. The movie is certainly more entertaining than The Purge from two months ago, though at least that film’s premise was more promising (even if it was squandered). If you combined the sci-fi elements of The Purge with the visceral violence and bleak humor (not to mention the crowd-pleasing Sharni Vinson character) of this film, you’d probably have a terrific siege thriller. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either version) killed this genre and spat on its grave.

The Purge

June 9, 2013

ThePurge_thumbLGIn a scant nine years, or so we’re told by The Purge, the U.S. government will set aside one night a year when crime will go off the books. People can do anything up to and including murder during those twelve hours with impunity. We’re also told that unemployment in this brave new world (run by “the New Founding Fathers”) is at 1%, possibly because poor people are killed by each other and by roving bands of callous rich folks, while rich people can afford to hole up for the night inside their gated communities and state-of-the-art security systems. If this is meant to be a nightmare of a future Romney (or Romney-type) America, it’s as stupid as Dinesh D’Souza’s nightmare of an Obama America. Actually, the politics of this movie are as muddled as its storytelling and world-building.

This noxious sci-fi-horror-satire stars Ethan Hawke as a well-to-do salesman for a security-system company. All his snooty neighbors have made him very rich buying his product, causing some resentment among said neighbors, in one of those neat Screenwriting 101 narrative beats that depress us because we know it’s there as a set-up for a later pay-off. Hawke and his family (wife Lena Headey, daughter Adelaide Kane, son Max Burkholder) prepare to settle in for the night of the Purge, safely behind well-fortified walls and windows. Problem: the daughter’s boyfriend shows up and sneaks into the house before it’s locked down. Additional problem: a homeless man is being pursued by a pack of bloodthirsty rich kids, and the son takes pity and lets him inside.

The rich kids want the homeless man, and their leader — a diabolical smirker played so irritatingly by Rhys Wakefield that I can’t decide whether he’s an annoying actor or playing an annoying character effectively — lays down an ultimatum to the family: Give him to us or die. And so we sigh and realize this whole futuristic milieu is just a clothesline for a routine siege thriller, ripping off elements of Straw Dogs and Panic Room and Assault on Precinct 13 — the 2005 remake of which, by the way, was written by James DeMonaco, who also wrote and directed The Purge. DeMonaco must also have seen and enjoyed The Strangers, because the killers here wear meant-to-be-chilling happy-face masks.

The Purge is only 85 minutes long but feels 185 minutes long; I sat through it in a haze of complete non-surprise. Whenever one of the Good Guys is in danger, someone off-camera will unexpectedly come in with a weapon and neutralize the threat. This happens more than a few times, until it almost becomes a running joke, though there are almost no jokes in the film, other than a teenage girl saying “penis” and a loathsome character getting a quick, bloody, unasked-for nose job. The homeless man (solidly played by Edwin Hodge) doesn’t get a name — he’s credited simply as Bloody Stranger — so, out of solidarity with him, I have declined to name any of the other characters. Not that their names matter. It’s basically Dad, Mom, girl, boy, bad man.

Bloody Stranger is black, and the family (and Bloody Stranger’s tormentors) are white, though Bloody Stranger might as well be white, for all that race (or anything substantive) is an issue in The Purge. It takes Hawke and Headey a while before they decide to do the right thing and refuse to turn Bloody Stranger over to the killers, though at one point Bloody Stranger actually volunteers to be given up so that the family can live. I don’t quite know how to unpack the notion of a poor black man agreeing to sacrifice himself for a rich white family; maybe it’s a stealth commentary on how poor black men go into the military and essentially sacrifice themselves for rich white families, or maybe it’s just lazy writing. There might be true satire here, but it would take a far less bored reviewer than me to pick away at the flab surrounding the satire. To make matters worse, every so often we’re shown a “Purge Feed” on various TVs displaying what kind of chaos is going on elsewhere in the country. All I could think was that any of those feeds hint at a more interesting movie than the one we’re stuck with.

Would You Rather

February 17, 2013

would-you-rather-jeffrey-combs_510x248Ah, it’s always good to see Jeffrey Combs, especially in a film of some quality. The busy actor, best known for his iconic work as Dr. Herbert West in three Re-Animator movies, is diabolically front and center in the indie thriller Would You Rather. Combs plays Shepard Lambrick, a decadent moneybags who invites financially strapped folks to a dinner party and then obliges them to join in a competition. The winner gets his or her money problems sorted out. The losers … well, when candidate Iris (Brittany Snow) asks Lambrick what happens if you don’t win, his reply is simply “You don’t win.” Of course, it’s a tad more complicated than that.

The game and the movie’s title take off from the popular children’s thought experiment, wherein the choice is usually “Would you rather do this unpleasant (or gross) thing, or that unpleasant (or gross) thing?” Here, though, the players at the elegant dinner table are surrounded by bulky armed guards (in tuxedos, though; this is a classy environment, after all), and “elimination” from the game means elimination from breathing. Iris is there because she desperately needs money for her brother’s bone-marrow transplant; others in the game have similar hard-luck stories, including a recovering alcoholic (John Heard), an Iraq war vet (Charlie Hofheimer), and a gambler (Robb Wells).

Early on, Lambrick offers the alcoholic, who’s been dry for sixteen hard years, $50,000 if he finishes a snifter of brandy. Lambrick also waves $10,000 at vegetarian Iris and coaxes her to eat steak. He’s just warming up; the real plates on the menu include electrocution, stabbing, whipping, drowning, and self-mutilation. To his credit, director David Guy Levy doesn’t rub our faces in gore — most of the harsh stuff goes down off-camera. This isn’t a blood-soaked charnel-house mind-game like the Saw flicks; it leans more towards psychological violence. Most of it unfolds around the dinner table, in the fine tradition of “bottle episodes” on TV or low-budget filmmaking.

Would You Rather is a minor compelling entry in the subgenre of puppetmaster thought-experiment thrillers (another recent one was Compliance, based on a true story), and the actors have all been coached to keep their voices down; there’s little irritating hysteria, just ordinary people trying to stay in the game. Except for Iris, we don’t learn much about why the contestants have wound up in desperate straits, though there are teasing hints here and there. We root for Iris by default because we know what’s at stake for her, and Snow does a fair job of not squandering our inherent sympathy for Iris; she makes Iris a decent person, not insufferably so.

But if you’ve read this to the end it’s because I didn’t bury the lede: Jeffrey Combs is pretty much the reason to see this (or just about any) film. Combs knows how to be overtly creepy, but he’s done that in so many roles he no longer needs to make a big show of it. His Shepard Lambrick is quietly reasonable within the insane context Lambrick has created. Lambrick has more money than he knows what to do with, and he enjoys spending it by putting people to the test. Combs brings out Lambrick’s one-percenter vibe by making it seem that his little game is simply undiluted capitalism: If you’re better than anyone else at doing terrible things, you get the grand prize. Combs presides over this financial morality play with spirit and wit, a dry sense of self-amusement. He deserves to be far better known and appreciated outside of horror-fan circles.

Looper

September 30, 2012

A word to the wise: Don’t think too much about the time-travel element of Looper. For that matter, don’t think too much about the plot, which kind of amounts to the same thing. Looper’s being sold as a slam-bang sci-fi actioner, but that’s not the story that writer-director Rian Johnson is interested in. It’s a bit like 12 Monkeys stood on its head: In both, Bruce Willis travels back in time to stop something bad from happening. But 12 Monkeys wasn’t only about how the past affects the future and how the future can change the past, and neither is Looper. It’s more of a melancholy drama about people having touching faith in the notion that changing one small thing can change everything for the better, even if it means killing innocent people. The movie is morally murky, to put it lightly, and that’s a bit refreshing; we’re made to think about why we want the protagonists to achieve their goals — because they’re at the center of the movie?

There are two protagonists, who are the same person at different stages of his life. Younger Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kills people for the mob; his victims are sent back in time from thirty years in his future, and he kills them and disposes of their bodies (the body disposal isn’t as easy in the future, where everyone is “tagged”). Assassins like Joe are known as “loopers,” and sometimes the future mob sends a thirty-years-older version of the looper himself, so that he has to kill his future self (“closing the loop”). This is what happens, apparently, when Joe finds himself pointing his blunderbuss at older Joe (Bruce Willis), who escapes and takes off on a mission to make his (and younger Joe’s) life better.

All of the futuristic stuff is window dressing — especially since the “now” scenes, younger Joe’s scenes, are set in 2044, though I’m not sure why. There is another major character, Sara (Emily Blunt), who lives on a farm and looks after a little boy whose continued survival and stable upbringing are important for a lot of reasons. The plotting gets a little “wait a minute.” But the centerpiece of Looper finds younger and older Joe sitting across from each other in younger Joe’s favorite diner, and that scene — quiet, skillfully acted, bringing out Gordon-Levitt’s itchy impatience and Willis’ wounded soulfulness — is really the whole movie, the reason, I think, that Rian Johnson (as well as Gordon-Levitt, reuniting with Johnson after the superb Brick) wanted to make the film.

Neither younger Joe nor older Joe is entirely good or bad; they have heavy shadings of gray. Each is responsible for the deaths of innocents; younger Joe never asks what his victims did to be sent to him for execution, and we never find out. But the movie successfully expands on an intriguing concept introduced earlier in the film, when a hapless looper (Paul Dano) is expected to kill his older self and can’t do it. The difference between the two Joes is something like the difference between Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Eastwood’s Will Munny in Unforgiven. Younger Joe is cold, nihilistic, drugging himself away from awareness of what he does for a living; older Joe has passed through the flames and, improbably, in later life, found love. There’s real weight in older Joe’s passionate defense of the life he’s managed to build; younger Joe’s dismissal of that life seems inhumanly offensive to us.

There’s a lot of other window dressing, or “world-building” if you will, and some of it adds texture and some doesn’t. Jeff Daniels is amusing as Abe, a guy from the future who runs the looper organization. Younger Joe tells Abe about his plan to retire eventually and move to France; “Move to China,” Abe insists, “I’m a guy from the future — trust me, move to China.” Abe is interesting, and an idiotic looper (Noah Segan) who puts too much trust in his long-barreled “gat” affords some comic relief. Other stuff wasn’t terribly clear to me: If, in the future, you can’t hide the body of someone you’ve killed, why can’t you just kill someone and ship the corpse back in time, instead of shipping a living victim and running the risk that he escapes or the looper chokes?¹ But like I said (and like Abe says), don’t dwell too much on the window dressing. Look through the window and into the diner; that’s where the real movie is.

¹According to Rian Johnson, this is because people have trackers implanted in them, and if they die, the authorities immediately know. The movie doesn’t bend over backwards to clarify this, though. 

Premium Rush

August 25, 2012

Premium Rush moves like New York City — fast and hard, with nary a backward glance. The movie is about Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a NYC bike messenger tasked to deliver an envelope. This envelope contains something very much desired by Detective Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt cop who wants to intercept it before it reaches its destination. Wilee is probably named after the luckless cartoon character, but he’s more like the Road Runner, with the cop as the coyote. Most of the city cops in the film, including a bike cop Wilee consistently stymies, are annoyances or obstacles. It’s an eerie coincidence that Premium Rush opened on the same day that New York City police, trying to take down a gunman, ended up wounding nine bystanders. New York’s finest, indeed.

Apart from its unintended ironies, Premium Rush is a fat-free thriller with breathtaking high-speed bike chases — we’re told the footage is unfaked — through busy Manhattan streets. Professional stunt drivers can almost do flashy, bone-crunching car chases in their sleep, but what must really require nerve-racking attention are the many scenes here in which cars are always braking within inches of hitting a bicyclist. There’s a lot of subtle yet thrilling car choreography here, reminding us that sometimes it’s more exciting when you see two or three near-simultaneous accidents narrowly averted.

Wilee is a great bicyclist, eschewing gears and even brakes; he relies on his legs and his instincts, and we see the latter at work at several points when Wilee has to make a split-second decision which way to go, and his imagination plays out various scenarios (if you go this way, you hit someone’s stroller; if you go that way, you’re gonna fly over someone’s hood). It’s as if Wilee’s got a rapid-fire GPS in his head that steers him to safety — in most cases. The director of Premium Rush is David Koepp, who’s primarily a screenwriter but has made a few interesting films, chiefly his directorial debut The Trigger Effect. Here, Koepp just takes us for a ride, no subtext required or desired. It’s a trim piece of work, maybe his best, because it isn’t bogged down and it knows how to sketch characters on the fly. In the minimalist-thriller race, I’ll take this over the pretentious Drive in a New York minute.

It helps that the Road Runner and the coyote are impeccably cast; Joseph Gordon-Levitt is accessible, smart, athletic, everything a young action hero needs to be, while Michael Shannon, born in Kentucky and raised there and in Chicago, almost single-handedly brings a ’70s New York flavor to the movie. (Detective Monday isn’t always eating a sloppy, garlicky sandwich, but spiritually he is.) There’s more New York irritability, desperation and unchecked pride in Shannon’s performance than in the entirety of the Taking of Pelham 123 remake from a few years ago. Shannon usually plays suffering saps in indie films (and is great at it), but here he’s clearly having a great time and shares it with us. The movie doesn’t stop there, surrounding Wilee with a crew of colorful support, including Dania Ramirez as Wilee’s ex-girlfriend and fellow bike messenger and Aasif Mandvi as his dispatcher. Everyone in the film has New York fever, and every damn time you see a cop he always interrupts himself to hassle someone over something small.

Premium Rush might be purer if we never knew what was in the envelope, but we find out it can lead to a little boy’s freedom. On one level that’s kind of a bummer — do it for the kid! — but on another level it adds some warmth and urgency to the chase. And the movie keeps going at a clip; the editors, Jill Savitt (who’s cut most of Koepp’s films) and Derek Ambrosi (making his feature debut), can take a well-earned bow. This is the kind of low-expectation late-summer film that can all too often fall under the radar but delivers more honestly and forcefully than most of its warm-weather predecessors. Watching Wilee and his cohorts bob and weave in and out of bleating traffic while Michael Shannon hilariously chews the scenery (minus one tooth) offers, if not pure cinema, at least pure entertainment.

The Bourne Legacy

August 12, 2012

Though it’s not a terribly memorable or distinguished film, I’m rooting for The Bourne Legacy to do well for one reason: Jeremy Renner. In movies since 1995, Renner first got on my radar with 2002’s Dahmer, in which he turned in a strangely affecting performance as the Milwaukee Cannibal. It took him a few more years, but Renner finally grabbed another lead — and an Oscar nomination — with 2009’s The Hurt Locker. After a couple of support gigs in blockbusters (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Avengers), is Renner ready for his close-up? I certainly hope so. Renner has a quiet alertness, a sense of serenity, and a general air of mystery; he gets us to lean forward a bit to access him. He’s physically convincing in action scenes, emotionally persuasive elsewhere. Unless America is really that stuck on Matt Damon in the Bourne franchise, I see no reason that Renner’s work here shouldn’t make him a star.

The movie he’s in needs him badly but just barely deserves him. Directed by Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in the other Bourne screenplays, The Bourne Legacy follows Renner as another super-agent, Aaron Cross, who is marked for death along with several other agents when Jason Bourne (in The Bourne Ultimatum) blows the whistle on the CIA. Cross goes on the run, scooping up scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who narrowly escaped assassination herself. Cross takes green and blue “chems” to keep his physical and mental abilities at peak efficiency; he’s almost out of chems, and he thinks Dr. Shearing can get him more.

The first half hour or so is intriguing, with Cross hiking and climbing in Alaska and not speaking until well into the movie. After a while, though, The Bourne Legacy turns into an extended chase sequence; Cross and Dr. Shearing make a beeline for Manila, where the chems are, while various CIA goons, headed by an increasingly frantic Edward Norton, try to track them down. I don’t know that I buy Norton as a retired Air Force general turned CIA black-op supervisor — he just seems too young — but he brings clarity and urgency to his role, never letting us catch him playing evil. He’s a guy trying to keep a lid on a boiling-over pot.

The action is comfortably small-scaled and tastefully staged, though the climactic motorcycle chase drones on for so long it becomes an irritant — past a certain point I just wanted Cross’s stoic pursuer to drive off a cliff, or suddenly convert to pacifism and give up, or anything that would make it stop. Gilroy, who also directed Michael Clayton and Duplicity, is better with mood and performance than with action; as if to compensate for not having a big special-effects moment, he lets the set pieces overstay their welcome. The style is a lot calmer than that of Paul Greengrass, who directed the two previous Bourne films with a jittery camera that evoked immediacy but also provoked headaches. Gilroy’s action has more solidity — it’s better centered — but it lumbers a bit.

None of this can be blamed on Renner, or Weisz either — she’s quite convincing in her post-traumatic scenes following the first of many attempts on Dr. Shearing’s life. The Bourne Legacy has an interesting if underused supporting cast, including Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Zeljko Ivanek, and various leftovers from previous films, like David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Albert Finney (all of whom may only be represented by recycled footage — I’m not sure, since I haven’t watched any of the other films again since they first came out). A lot of acting firepower is in service of a side story, the story of what was happening during Bourne Ultimatum, which led me to think: Did Jason Bourne know he was dooming various other operatives when he outed Operation Blackbriar and the Treadstone Project? If so, did he care? I can imagine a fifth film in which a vengeful Aaron Cross goes looking for the guy who consigned him to a life on the run.

Savages

July 14, 2012

Savages, the new drug thriller directed by Oliver Stone, has been getting a bit of a bum rap. This hard-charging controversialist doesn’t always need to poke America’s soft spots; sometimes he just wants to have a good lowdown time, as he did in his freaky U-Turn fifteen years ago. Savages would make a fine double bill with U-Turn, up to the point where many viewers will bail — when Stone delivers a tragic ending, apparently along the lines of Don Winslow’s source novel, and then rescinds it. For me, though, the “happy ending” actually politicizes the movie more than a crime-does-not-pay finale would have. It also says a lot about the Hollywood system in which Stone is expected to work these days. If Universal nudged Stone’s hand here, are they aware they’ve given a happily-ever-after to drug dealers?

Those dealers are almost cartoonishly whitebread: Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who picked up some excellent seeds during his tours, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a do-gooder with a minor in botany. They’re both in love with Ophelia (Blake Lively), or “O,” and the three of them run a highly prosperous weed business out of Laguna Beach and are happy as clams until a Mexican cartel wants in. Ben and Chon try to fake out the cartel and split for Indonesia, but the Mexicans kidnap O, and the plot thickens. The cartel’s scary enforcer is Lado (Benicio del Toro), who likes to strike terror with chainsaws and whips, but the true mastermind is Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who wears her hair in cruel black bangs. Even Lado is afraid of her. You might be, too. Stone has seldom known what to do with the women in his largely masculine films, but he gets a vivid, iconic portrait of corrupt humanity out of Hayek. After this and Frida, isn’t it time to admit that Hayek is one of our great actresses?

The story has many branches, including a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta), a perhaps too sensitive Mexican tasked to watch over O, and mostly faceless war buddies of Chon’s who always seem ready to drop everything and sit around in the desert for him with sniper rifles. Travolta is probably never better here than when Chon has just stabbed him in the hand and he seems less physically wounded than affronted in his soft spot, his dignity. Everyone here, indeed, has a soft spot, as Ben points out in one of his more lucid moments. Travolta’s other soft spot is his wife, expiring of cancer at home; he avails himself of some of Ben and Chon’s weed to make his wife’s chemo more bearable. This leads to Travolta’s other fine moment, when Ben asks how his wife is doing and Travolta says simply, “She’s dying,” and we’re reminded of the vulnerable actor who moved us in Blow Out and Saturday Night Fever.

Savages goes like a speedboat — its two hours and eleven minutes streak by. Stone shows a strong taste for brutality here; this is possibly his most splattery film since Natural Born Killers, and the presence of freshly chainsawed heads, skulls perforated in close-up, and the hard-to-watch fate of a man accused of being a DEA rat speaks volumes about how tolerant the MPAA is of violence these days. There’s also a good deal of sex (though no nudity from Blake Lively, much to her fans’ chagrin, no doubt) and, of course, near-constant drug use. Savages muscles its way into the heart of the hermetic superhero summer, sweating and cursing and bleeding and smoking and fucking. In its way, it’s a throwback to ’70s cinema, where nobody was all good or all bad, before George Lucas’ black-and-white chessboard design mapped itself over American entertainment.

This is by no means Oliver Stone’s best work — neither was U-Turn. But it’s his best work in well over a decade. He has a story here and he sticks to it, jazzing it up visually every so often, though never calling attention to his technique. He seems to be done with the Cuisinart style, as well as the Indian mystics who used to pop up in every Stone movie of the ’90s. If he has a muse this time, it’s Buddhist: Ben is a follower of the Dalai Lama’s teachings (up to a point), and O is referred to as a lotus. The comic tragedy of the movie is that nobody practices non-attachment, when they really should. Stone, a self-described Buddhist himself, makes movies that would horrify a monk but, in their rough fashion, stand as fairly memorable illustrations of the Four Noble Truths. Stone’s movies are full of what Buddhists call hungry ghosts, craving sensation and wealth, trying haplessly to fill a void in themselves. That double ending starts to make sense: it’s Stone saying “This is what could happen. And this is also what could happen. You have a choice.” The ghosts stop feeding and become people.


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