Archive for September, 2012

Dredd

Monday, September 24th, 2012

dredd

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A vast improvement over the weak 1995 adaptation by Danny Cannon, “Dredd” better understands the pulp sensibilities of the dystopian nightmare patrolled by Mega-City One Justice Department employee Joseph Dredd (Karl Urban), the grim, perpetually helmeted law officer whose authority as a judge fuels the fanboy power dream of immediate arrest, sentencing, and execution (when necessary, which is to say, very often). The suggestion that elevated future crime rates – the first Dredd story was set in 2099 – have necessitated a radical overhaul to the entire judicial system certainly won’t comfort those who identify as anti-authoritarian, but the comic book’s police state resides comfortably in a fantasy realm where the law represents a sane refuge from the hellish threat of drooling thugs.

Lame explanatory voiceover notwithstanding, director Pete Travis dispenses with most of the leaden exposition that weighs down so many movies aiming to please existing fan constituencies while simultaneously grubbing for new ticket buyers. Wisely, the audience is invited to identify with rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant who can read the thoughts of others. Assigned to Dredd for a probationary evaluation, Anderson’s unique psychic abilities allow her to recognize nuance and complexity that contrasts sharply with Dredd’s rigid application of the rulebook. Cult screenwriter Alex Garland’s snapshot “day in the life” approach limits the principal conflict to one primary location, a concrete jungle housing project where Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Lena Headey) conspires to consolidate the megalopolis’ trafficking of Slo-Mo, a crystal meth-like synthetic.

Action movie aficionados will no doubt recognize similarities between “Dredd” and “The Raid: Redemption,” the Indonesian martial arts thriller directed with panache by native Welshman Gareth Evans. Both movies revolve around the infiltration of high-rise slum blocks controlled by drug-dealing crime lords. Both movies feature showdowns in narcotics laboratories. Both movies include trapped law enforcement officers threatened by scores of bloodthirsty residents. Each movie treats violence with an obsessive degree of aesthetic care and concern.

Many of the film’s most unexpected surprises come courtesy of the impressive talent pool aiding Travis behind the camera. Frequent Lars von Trier and Danny Boyle collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle photographs the interiors of the Peach Trees block with a strong affinity for classic noir, and his collaboration with visual effects supervisor Jon Thum on a series of slow motion explorations of stomach-churning violence invests the visuals with a repulsive beauty. Grisly shots of bullets tearing through flesh and bone compete with low-angle, through-the-floor views of bodies plummeting to the pavement.

There is just enough gallows humor to keep “Dredd” from becoming overwhelmingly morose, and Garland thankfully holds the number of puns and one-liners to a minimum. The story’s chief deficiency is the handling of Ma-Ma. Headey is a wonderful actor, and Ma-Ma is presented as a shrewd opponent, but the best villains contain some element of humanity and Ma-Ma never lets down her guard as a ruthless tyrant. Wood Harris, as a gang lieutenant in the custody of Dredd and Anderson, has a better opportunity to develop a rounded character. A truly worthy Judge Dredd movie might explore the idea that the title character’s tendency to dispense blistering beatdowns is every bit as sadistic as the criminal behavior of the villains.

Robot & Frank

Monday, September 17th, 2012

robotfrank

Movie review by Greg Carlson

With a mash-up premise that unites buddy movie, family drama, character study, and crime caper, “Robot & Frank” raises stakes higher by placing all of these ingredients inside the sci-fi trappings of its not-too-distant future setting. The movie marks the simultaneous feature narrative debut for former NYU classmates Christopher Ford, who wrote the screenplay, and Jake Schreier, who directed. The filmmakers are blessed to have Frank Langella as their protagonist, particularly because the juxtaposition of a forgetful senior citizen being scolded by a diminutive machine could so easily disintegrate into the pit of odd-couple ridiculousness.

Langella’s Frank is a one-time jewel thief and ex-con now moldering away in his modest rural retreat. Despite a lack of interest in housekeeping and grocery shopping, Frank regularly visits a local library to check out books and Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the kind, sweet librarian dealing with impending repurposing of the facility following the community’s waning interest in physical media. A valuable copy of “Don Quixote” echoes Frank’s position as a chivalrous but antiquated conjurer of fanciful illusions, and Jennifer’s role as Frank’s Dulcinea will come to have bittersweet significance by the movie’s final scenes.

Frank’s robot, a gift from his impatient but concerned son Hunter (James Marsden), is programmed to assist with household chores and meal preparation, and to provide companionship and therapies designed to help with Frank’s cognitive deterioration. Designed by the creative minds at special effects firm Alterian (the veteran company known for Daft Punk’s helmets), physically performed by petite dancer Rachel Ma, and voiced by Peter Sarsgaard with an obvious affinity for Douglas Rain’s restrained sense of politeness and calm, the VGC-60L automaton makes a believable comic foil for the curmudgeonly Frank.

Many science fiction enthusiasts will appreciate the light touch of Ford and Schreier’s vision of things to come. Aside from a handful of subtle markers applied to automobiles, fashion, and communication devices, the film presents a familiar world similar to our own, and along with the aforementioned items, the presence of sophisticated robots provides evidence that the story is not unfolding in 2012. Frank’s daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a globetrotting humanitarian, expresses strong displeasure at the thought of a robot in her father’s life, but by the time she arrives to complicate Frank’s plans, the robot has already been taught a great deal about casing potential targets, picking locks, and avoiding detection (one can only speculate whether training a mechanical caretaker to steal imperils the Three Laws of Robotics).

More than one critic has bemoaned the film’s apparent lack of interest in the philosophical explorations of humanness at the heart of works like “Blade Runner,” but “Robot & Frank” effectively addresses the topic by establishing a parallel between Frank’s dementia and a plot development in which the total erasure of the robot’s memory will provide a solution to a significant problem. By the time this dilemma materializes, Frank has come to value the friendship provided by the robot, and the possible destruction of his companion’s “brain function” reminds the old man of his own fragile mental state.

The Words

Monday, September 10th, 2012

words

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A maddening exercise in self-seriousness, “The Words” might find future success in basic screenwriting courses as an example of script structures to be avoided. Of course, that notion assumes the movie will be remembered at all. The film’s story, about a writer creating a story about a writer who steals his story from another writer, is constructed from a series of vignettes presented too often as a set of nested visualizations of the written word intended to carry a great deal of disquieting significance. The presence of Jeremy Irons, credited as “The Old Man” in one of the movie’s many misguided allusions to Ernest Hemingway, only exacerbates the film’s problematic division of its narrative strands.

Groaning under the weight of its unsustainable Hemingway crush, the post-World War II flashbacks to Paris are described in detail by the Old Man to word thief Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), even though large segments of the narrated information would have already been included in the appropriated manuscript familiar to Rory and thus rendering redundant the Old Man’s ponderous retelling. Co-screenwriters and co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal show a great deal less interest in Rory’s motivations for passing off another’s work as his own, setting the stage for an inevitable confession to Rory’s wife Dora (Zoe Saldana suffering the indignity of a ghostly role).

As soon as Dennis Quaid’s established novelist Clayton Hammond attracts the attention of aggressive grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde) during a public reading of his work, viewers are fooled into believing that the presence of the curious young woman will result in satisfying revelations. Otherwise, what is the point of constructing the flirtatious framing device scenes between these strangers? The filmmakers predictably allude to the possibility that Hammond is the inspiration and model for Rory Jansen, but stop short of confirming the connection.

Bradley Cooper features on the film’s one-sheet, even though the character he plays is a figment of Hammond’s and/or Daniella’s imagination. Cooper receives more than his share of insulting critiques claiming that his physical appeal precludes any real capacity for acting talent (not unlike barbs aimed at Brad Pitt at least as far back as 1992’s “A River Runs Through It”). “The Words” doesn’t help the handsome star’s case, but if the buzz proves correct, negative attitudes about Cooper may change with the upcoming release of David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Considering the number of plagiarism cases that have made headlines in recent years, “The Words” might have been improved by focusing on the details of Rory’s deception from his point of no return (when he lies to his adoring wife’s face) through the decision of his sleazy, unscrupulous editor to maintain the public illusion that Rory has written a great book. Instead, the filmmakers spend far too much time inside the Old Man’s memories. These scenes are especially vexing, since so much of their drama is recounted in verbal description instead of through the performances of the actors playing the younger versions of Irons’ character and his wife. The tragedy suffered by these new parents, yet another Hemingway nod, leads to the future Old Man’s cathartic composition. When Irons growls over the pounding score, “The words simply poured out of him,” viewers will wonder why a movie about literary inspiration is so uninspired.

Lawless

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Lawless

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A violent, pulpy, Prohibition-era slugfest, “Lawless” adapts Matt Bondurant’s historical novel “The Wettest County in the World,” a yarn based on the adventures of the author’s bootlegger grandfather and two great uncles. Loosely interpreting the events of the so-called Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy, the Virginia-set melodrama capitalizes on the sacred tropes of the gangster genre without matching the transcendence or grandeur of top-shelf examples like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Godfather” and “Miller’s Crossing.” Showcasing the talents of an impressive roster of past, present, and future award contenders, “Lawless” pins its hopes primarily on narrator and youngest Bondurant Shia LaBeouf  – a risky strategy when Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain are around.

“Lawless” reunites director John Hillcoat with several key members of the filmmaking team that produced “The Proposition,” including screenwriter and composer Nick Cave, composer Warren Ellis, cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, and actors Guy Pearce and Noah Taylor. Fans of that terrific 2005 film will notice many thematic and stylistic similarities between the Austrialian Western and “Lawless,” the most pronounced of which is a grim fascination with brutal, even gruesome mayhem. Both films also deal with the family ties of trios of brothers bound by blood but threatened by impulsiveness.

Screenwriter Nick Cave’s treatment of Old Testament themes admirably strives to weave streaks of black humor and period color with the high-stakes warfare that erupts when the Bondurants refuse to roll over for the outsider lawmen who want too fat a cut of their lucrative moonshine operation. A great deal of care is taken in the visual and sound design of altercations in which brass knuckles crack and slit throats gurgle. If he’s not meting out spectacular punishment, Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant is tough enough to withstand any physical threat cooked up by Special Agent Charlie Rakes, Pearce’s fussy, lethal dandy. The two actors are a study in opposites, although both turns are mannered. Pearce vamps as the twisty, vain, sadist while Hardy relies on grunts.

The two principal female characters in “Lawless” fare largely as expected in a universe defined by the savagery of gunslingers. Both Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska do the most with the least, in spite of their function as romantic partners for men whose interests drive the action. Chastain, following up a year of performances that brought seemingly instant stardom and critical acclaim, embraces her abused showgirl-with-a-heart-of-gold to share an erotic charge previously hidden. Wasikowska, whose apparent off-screen indifference to the antics of LaBeouf inspired her co-star to spin publicity around his drunken behavior, has the task of making us believe her serious-minded preacher’s daughter would buy what LaBeouf’s callow braggart is peddling.

The most significant deficit of “Lawless” emerges via the narrative’s multiple, fractured arcs. Juggling its large cast of key players, the focus on LaBeouf’s untested, wide-eyed striver gobbles up attention that might be more satisfyingly focused on the relationship between Hardy’s Forrest and Chastain’s Maggie, which unfolds at the diner the Bondurant’s use as home base (an intriguing and underutilized setting). Other fascinating characters populate the margins, including Gary Oldman’s colorful big city machine gunner Floyd Banner, but his cameo, dispatched with the villainous verve of several of the actor’s vintage turns, leaves the viewer wanting a great deal more than the filmmakers can offer.