Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Premium Rush

How do you solve a problem of a potentially unlikeable, abrasive protagonist?  Make sure his antagonist is the worst kind of person he could possibly be.  Throw in another large, shady, unbeatable power--say, the Chinese government--and a few slick chase scenes and you've got yourself a movie.

Premium Rush doesn't carry much weight, but then again, it doesn't really need to.  When adrenaline junkie bicycle messenger Wilee, played by one of my personal favorites, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, picks up a MacGuffin that absolutely must be across town by a certain time and delivered only to a certain person, he doesn't see it as anything out of the ordinary.  That is, until he's chased down by a complete lunatic, played gleefully by Michael Shannon, who demands the package back.

Couple this with an NYPD that is bumbling at best and outright hostile at worst, along with a cause so noble it's unimpeachable, and our intrepid daredevil of a protagonist is all set to go, gaining the audience's sympathy and support along the way.  

Michael Shannon's over-the-top villain may rub some viewers the wrong way, but I found him hysterical.  He stole every scene he was in, and you never knew what he was going to do next, which is refreshing in an essentially predictable film.  His performance lets the audience know they don't have to take the film too seriously.  The film even lampshades its light take on things by a including real, outtake-style video of the result of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's injury-inducing accident on set during the credits.

Chase movies, by their nature, don't need much by way of plot or character development, and Premium Rush is light on both.  There are no great, deep character insights or compelling, deep questions for the audience to consider, and there don't really need to be.  It's a light, fun, funny thriller that delivers what it promises.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Total Recall

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Total Recall was that it had so much potential.  A talented but underused cast.  A sleek design that blends into monotone rather than popping memorably.  A mind-bending premise that's all but forgotten (though vaguely hinted at) by the end of the film.

Say what you will about the Arnold Schwarzenegger original: at least it had an identity.  The Colin Farrell remake lacks that almost entirely.  It's a safe, if dull, PG-13 action flick.

I know there are critics who don't exactly find Colin Farrell to be the most compelling actor out there.  I urge those critics to see In Bruges.  Personally, I would have preferred to see all of Total Recall from the perspective of Farrell's character.  Every moment out of his viewpoint was a confirmation that the film's action wasn't all in its protagonist's head--the most potentially compelling plot point of the movie.  I am not a fan of "It was all a dream!" twists, but when "What is real?  What is reality?" is designed to be the primary theme in your film, it isn't a twist so much as an absolutely necessary component.

The film does its chase and fight scenes a PG-13 action flick type of justice.  There is plenty of shooting, plenty of adrenaline, plenty of "cool" shots at the expense of realism.  The somewhat-nonsensical elevator chase was still a fun one.  It was fun to see two absolutely capable female action stars duke it out, even if their clothes were just a bit tighter than they needed to be.

Overall, the film was a passable, if disappointing, summer popcorn flick.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

It's unusual to find a move that is most engaging in its middle, with the beginning and ending dragging, but that's exactly the case with The Bourne Legacy.  Its mid-film action sequences--especially the shoot-out in the house--are the best parts of the film.  The sequence in the lab was one I found incredibly difficult to watch.  Though this could be in part to the recent mass shootings that have been making the news, it is also a credit to the director that it was, frankly, so frightening.

If only the final sequence could have lived up to the house sequence.  I am generally not critical of shaky-cam style film making; at times I find it very engaging and unlike many people I know, I rarely find it distracting.  In The Bourne Legacy, it was distracting.  The chase sequence was very hard to follow because the camera and editing choices moved everything so quickly that it didn't allow the audience to register the action.  I don't mind chaos in editing, but only if it's done for a reason--if the lead character is so disoriented that he or she can't figure out what's going on, it's a feasible choice for the editing to enhance that and leave the audience wondering, too.  This, however, wasn't the case with Bourne.  Instead, it just left the film feeling messy.

I will say, however, that I liked the casting quite a bit.  I have always enjoyed Rachel Weisz's performances, and unlike some action heroines, she plays a very convincing genius scientist.  Jeremy Renner was engaging even in scenes with no dialogue and no other actors.  Edward Norton was perhaps underused but infused his character with enough empathy that the audience could understand his motivations and justifications, even if we could not agree with them.

I have come to hold the Bourne movies to the standard of the best sequence out of the four movies--the tense, extended sequence with the reporter in the train station in The Bourne Ultimatum.  Sadly, nothing in Legacy came close.  It's a film of missed potential, though a good enough action movie for a summer afternoon.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

"I've got it under control" insists Wink, one of the characters of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The clearer it became that this wasn't true, the more fervent his insistence became.  He could take on anything.  He could protect his daughter.  He could stay in his home, no matter what.  When a problem presented itself, he could fix it and make everything go back to the way it was. 

Or, he couldn't.

Affected most by Wink's need for control, of course, is his daughter Hushpuppy, the film's protagonist.  Hushpuppy stays by her father through thick and thin, even when she's clearly not sure about it.   Quvenzhan√© Wallis plays Hushpuppy with such a fierce focus that you think that even as a six-year-old she can take on the world if she has to.  She's a truly engaging character, making sense of the world around her as best she can through the lenses given her by the adults in her life.

The film has an ugly/beautiful aesthetic, focusing on not only the mundane but on the grotesque: bloated, bug-eaten animal corpses, squalid living conditions, plugged-into-a-wall hospital patients.  The filming style is unflinching, from both visually and emotionally complicated and even horrid scenarios and scenes.  Even for an at times fantastical film, everything is presented in a very matter-of-fact, this is how it is way. 

I've read some criticism that says the film glorifies poverty or demonizes government or charity control of situations, but I don't see that.  If the film glorifies anything, it's family and those people who come together after a terrible situation, any terrible situation, and stick together through it all.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ruby Sparks

An introverted, sensitive young man who desperately needs to break out of his shell.  A "perfect," artistic, free-spirited young woman.  He's never met anyone like her, but in no time at all she's changed his life forever.  Words like quirky and indie are thrown around to describe the story.  Foreign (or at least, independent) music overscores a fun, flirty montage or two. 

What movie am I describing?  Take your pick--there are several from even the last decade or so that would fit.  It's practically formulaic.

The problem with the formula, of course, is spelled out nicely and early by a supporting character in the new film Ruby Sparks: girls like this don't exist.  Stories like this aren't real.  No perfect, flawed, free spirit is going to jump into our protagonist author's life and rescue him from his ennui.

So he'll just have to create her.

Enter Ruby Sparks, a silly, quirky name for the "perfect girl" character.  She pops out of the head of its protagonist Calvin (played nicely by Paul Dano) and later literally out of the pages of his novel.  One obviously has to have a bit of a willing suspension of disbelief, but the film makes a smart choice in deciding not to explain or even really analyze its magic.  Calvin has somehow willed this girl into existence, and that's all there is to it.  His brother is naturally skeptical but it doesn't take long for him to accept the circumstances either.  This works much better than bogging down the film with reasons why.

Up until this point, this review likely seems like a negative one.  Unrealistic characters, cliched plotlines, and silly names.  It's a credit to writer Zoe Kazan, who also stars as Ruby, that the film not only overcomes these would-be shortcomings, it uses them to great effect.  I am always partial to stories that acknowledge their tropes and re-used ideas, and even more so to those that deconstruct them altogether.  It's part of why I enjoyed this year's Cabin in the Woods so much. 

While I'm not sure how I feel about the final scene of the film, the ride up to it was enjoyable.  There are a few scenes--and a few lines in particular--that have a way of sticking with you.  Perhaps I fit nicely into the target audience, but I recommend the film.