Archive for August, 2012

Premium Rush

Monday, August 27th, 2012


Movie review  by Greg Carlson

Lower your expectations and David Koepp’s “Premium Rush” entertains as late summer junior varsity Hitchcock. The increasingly appealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt commits far more than is necessary to his role as daredevil, fixed gear, no brakes courier Wilee, the innocent man caught up in a dangerous cat-and-mouse chase with a crooked gambler and NYPD detective played by creep specialist Michael Shannon. Flirting with near real-time action (interrupted by some unnecessary juggling of chronology to provide surprises and critical information to the audience), “Premium Rush” constructs its suspense around the perfect bike messenger MacGuffin: a highly valuable package desired by good guys and bad guys alike that must reach a destination by a particular hour.

The screenplay, by Koepp and John Kamps, wisely focuses most of the attention on the lightning-quick decisions and split-second reactions of Wilee on two wheels as he races around densely populated and dangerous thoroughfares. Whenever the film slows down to elucidate character motivation or complicate the plot, the chain comes off. A distracting love triangle involving Wilee’s ex – fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) – and another courier, Manny (Wole Parks), suffers from clumsy integration and a baffling lack of logic. At one point, a simple phone call from Vanessa to Manny could have saved a heap of trouble. The presence of a bicycle cop continually thwarted by Wilee’s pedal skill is played for comic relief, but the movie never settles on a tone that feels right, careening from cartoon gags to brutal violence.

Given Koepp’s reputation as a writer, “Premium Rush” is littered with too much empty-headed filler and too many bone-headed plays, including a silly tavern flashback that rehashes Manny’s jealousy over Wilee and Vanessa’s connection, a bizarre decision in which the previously dedicated Wilee returns the envelope after he’s in too deep to change his mind, an impound lot switcheroo, and the head-scratching nature of the relationship between Vanessa and her imperiled roomie Nima (Jamie Chung), whose troubles are revealed in a tidal wave of mawkish and manipulative sentimentality involving the illegal immigration of an adorable child.

New York dwellers can argue about the extent to which Koepp’s understanding of Manhattan geography hews to realistic time frames (the Post’s Kyle Smith scoffs at the film’s ticking clock, arguing that the envelope could have been more efficiently taken by subway in the span allotted). For a majority of viewers, however, the movie’s bird’s eye view graphics mapping out routes will add a welcome dimension to the street level stunts. Publicity for “Premium Rush” has emphasized the production’s commitment to real riding (an end credit video of Gordon-Levitt following a nasty crash that required more than two-dozen stitches is better than most of the feature). The movie’s smartest visual effects, imaginative flash-forwards similar to the idea used in Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run,” show sets of potential outcomes whenever Wilee cuts it too close for comfort.

The culmination of the action in “Premium Rush” flubs the expectations of a good chase, placing the protagonist in the back of an ambulance instead of ramping up the adrenaline. Wilee’s close quarters confrontation with Shannon’s dirty officer might consciously or subconsciously pay tribute to the showdown between James Stewart’s hobbled Jeff and Raymond Burr’s nothing-left-to-lose Thorwald at the end of “Rear Window,” but unlike the Hitchcock masterpiece, “Premium Rush” will most likely take its place in cinema history alongside “Quicksilver.”

The Intouchables

Monday, August 20th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

An optimistic, opposites-attract bromance polished to the kind of high-gloss sheen perfected by and valued in Hollywood, French box office smash “The Intouchables” defies viewers to resist its charming fantasy exploring the relationship between a fabulously wealthy white quadriplegic and the streetwise black immigrant hired to provide around-the-clock personal care. Based on Abdel Sellou’s non-fiction account “You Changed My Life,” the adaptation alters the ethnicity of the assistant from Algerian to Senegalese, a change that has been noted by critics who defend as well as critics who denounce the portrayal of the camaraderie between the movie’s principal odd couple, Driss (played by Omar Sy, the first black actor to be awarded a Cesar) and Phillippe (played by Francois Cluzet).

Several prominent film reviewers including David Denby have accused “The Intouchables” of reinforcing racial stereotypes, and the movie does not shy away from the well-worn thematic construction in which an attuned but economically impoverished or working class black man guides a wealthy white grouch to an understanding of fuller personhood (as in “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Bucket List”). Writing for “Slate,” Daphnee Denis defends the film against the charges of racism, developing an argument that insists French audiences see past the master/servant relationship and the old cliches. Denis additionally observes that “The Intouchables” operates as a political allegory, concluding her essay with the statement, “White France is paralyzed; immigrant France has become its arms and legs,” a thought that gives the film an awful lot of credit.

“The Intouchables” is filtered through the experiences of Driss, a strategy that allows the filmmakers a premium opportunity to present the protagonist’s wonderment at his employer’s vast wealth as automobile/clothing/real estate porn that can be simultaneously ogled by the filmgoer. Although it may have made for a much stronger and more balanced view of the class disparities between Phillippe and Driss, we spend as little time as possible inside the crowded, lower class neighborhood that Driss escapes in favor of his new boss’s opulent, gated mansion. Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano mirror a shot of Driss folded into his cramped shower with one in which he luxuriates in the massive private bath provided as part of his employment. The juxtaposition is as obvious as the contrast between Phillippe’s interest in opera and Driss’s passion for the R&B sound of Earth, Wind & Fire.

The chemistry between Sy and Cluzet is terrific, which alleviates any resentment the ninety-nine percent may have when peeking in on the world of a man who can spend the annual salary of a middle class professional on a single painting. The filmmakers insist that we thrill to Driss’s literal escape into a reality that puts him behind that wheel of a Maserati Quattroporte and outfits him in a hand-tailored suit. The tactic nearly succeeds, although a half-hearted subplot concerning Driss’s family occasionally pops up to remind everyone what’s at stake. “The Intouchables” is easily and accurately described as a “feel good” movie, and more often than not, it reinforces the idea that it’s much better to have the problems of a rich person than the ones experienced by the poor.

The Bourne Legacy

Monday, August 13th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Judging by the vibe of the “Skyfall” trailer that ran before “The Bourne Legacy,” Mr. Bourne has made a lasting impression on the architects of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There were plenty of political-espionage-action movie junkies who made the claim that the Bourne series upped the ante for the long-lived but out-of-touch James Bond franchise, which cannily rebooted in 2006 with “Casino Royale” and Daniel Craig as a new 007 for an attention deficit audience. The vertiginous camerawork, quasi-intellectual spook gamesmanship, and the supercharged hand-to-hand combat present in Doug Liman’s and Paul Greengrass’s visions of Robert Ludlum’s black ops fantasy were rapidly assimilated by the Bond team, who also paid attention to Bourne’s grim determination and less overtly idealized and decidedly unglamorous take on globetrotting.

Matt Damon only appears in a still photograph on a video screen in “The Bourne Legacy,” and the star passes the torch if not the moniker to Jeremy Renner, whose pill-popping Aaron Cross brings a hint of “Flowers for Algernon” pathos to a character whose artificially enhanced physical self is treated with one set of chemicals and his intellect with another. Identity operates as a central thematic concern in each of the Bourne features, and the fascinating revelation that Renner’s one-time military recruit originally failed to meet the government’s minimum IQ threshold could have been a more potent plot point as Cross and scientist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) race to Manila to prevent the diminishment of Cross’s intelligence.

Weisz essentially fulfills the Smurfette Principle as far as the core cast goes, unsurprising given the movie’s target demographic but disappointing all the same. Other than Joan Allen in a loose-end tie-up, only a couple of women act in parts with dialogue and unfortunately Julia Stiles does not return as key contact Nikki Parsons, one of the most sympathetic and humanizing participants in the first three Bourne movies. It would be interesting to see a female Treadstone or Blackbriar or Outcome agent in a commanding role, a possibility that would enliven any future installments of a presumably Damon-less Bourne universe. Short of a Damon-Renner team-up, couldn’t someone convince Damon to at least participate as the Georgetown linguistics professor persona of Bourne/David Webb?

Several of the previous Bourne players return in varying levels of brevity and import, including David Strathairn’s Blackbriar Director Noah Vosen, Allen’s CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy, Scott Glenn’s CIA Director Ezra Kramer, Paddy Considine’s Guardian reporter Simon Ross, and Albert Finney’s sinister Albert Hirsch, but all are subordinate to the presence of Edward Norton as Eric Byer, a retired air force colonel who seemingly possesses the nation’s highest security clearance. Norton uses his considerable skill set to lace Byer with a level of commitment and resourcefulness that overcomes the limitations of being perpetually stationed in windowless situation rooms.

Does the loss of Damon deal a devastating blow to the future of Bourne, or can Renner convince viewers to see more of these films? James Bond has enjoyed the luxury of regular reinterpretation through the revolving door policy toward its leading man, but the Bourne series has thus far been dependent on the combination of amnesia/memory loss as a chief story motivator and the deliberately complex machinations of the United States government’s patriot games, perfectly tuned to be read apolitically, so long as everyone agrees that motorcycle chases and punches to the face are cool.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Monday, August 6th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Memorable and stirring, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” snaked through the Sundance Institute screenwriting, producing, and directing labs on its way to some of the best reviews of the year and the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Overwhelming critical support, however, has not prevented several pointed jabs at filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature from writers skeptical of a white director’s treatment of black characters. Richard Brody and A.O. Scott tangled in a Twitter skirmish that Roger Ebert re-posted as a screen cap on Facebook, and their arguments effectively summarize the film’s resistance to one interpretation. Like many great stories, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” invites reflection.

Whether one believes Zeitlin’s film subverts stereotypes or perpetuates them, there is no question that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” treats its characters with a reverence that emphasizes attributes frequently associated with cinematic traditions and conventions surrounding the poor and the black. For Brody, and for Tim Grierson of “Deadspin,” Zeitlin teeters into condescension by patronizing and oversimplifying the inhabitants of the Bathtub, the bayou setting where the ghost of Hurricane Katrina looms large without ever being identified by name. This cynical reading, however, will surprise anyone who embraces the irrepressible heart and spirit of central protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a six-year-old navigating the treacherous depths of her father Wink’s (Dwight Henry) encroaching, terminal illness.

Based on the one act play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the film adaptation with Zeitlin, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” takes a deep interest in the ideas of home and family. In a “Film Comment” interview with Scott Foundas, Zeitlin describes his desire to understand why people would choose to stay in a precarious place made all the more dangerous by an overwhelming natural disaster. The element of mandatory evacuation orders from government authorities sounds an additional thematic note that powerfully alludes to ways in which self-identity can be threatened by agents in positions of power. The residents of the Bathtub share a raucous camaraderie, bonhomie, and loyalty to community and the social body.

Hushpuppy’s poetic voiceover immediately conjures the haunted, preternatural, non sequitur-heavy wisdom of Linda Manz’s similar musings in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” and Zeitlin’s interest in elliptical expression and reliance on image over dialogue invite a positive comparison to the master filmmaker whose “The Tree of Life” reaches out to ask some of the same massive questions about the very nature of existence through the vessel of a young child. Because Hushpuppy is too young to articulate her thoughts with the logic and detachment that comes with adulthood, the viewing experience is filtered through her imagination in the contours of magical realism furnished by the grain of Ben Richardson’s 16mm photography.

Wallis delivers the kind of performance that instantly ranks with several of the cinema’s most memorable turns by the very young, including Victoire Thivisol in “Ponette” and Ana Torrent in “The Spirit of the Beehive.” In one critical motif, Hushpuppy prepares for the arrival of monstrous aurochs. All the wonder contained in the extinct, primitive ancestor of cattle (seen in the film as horned and tusked pigs), and imagined by Hushpuppy and the filmmakers as omens of the anxious unknown, is perfectly realized via a combination of inventive costuming, puppetry, forced perspective, and green screen photography. Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” remains the definitive cinematic document of the Katrina catastrophe, but “Beasts of the Southern Wild” makes a worthy fictional companion.