500 Words Or Less: JACK REACHER (2012) and THE LAST STAND (2013)

Jack:Arnold

There’s a quote by David Foster Wallace where he theorizes that, in an age of irony and cynicism are the sword and shield of ‘rebellion,’ perhaps true rebellion comes from earnestness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, and grace. While neither one is a masterpiece, Jack Reacher and The Last Stand remain entertaining on those merits alone. Or perhaps it’s because you can watch the fight sequences and understand what’s going on.

Reacher and Last Stand’s similarities go beyond those virtues. Both feature eighties icons who are now reaching middle age. In fact, were it not for things like cell phones and GPS playing a large role, these films could have been unearthed by some nostalgic start-up and released on DVD with a reunion in the special features. Both are contemporary updates of Western tropes — Reacher telling the tale of a man (Tom Cruise) who rides into town, restores order, and then rides out again, Last Stand focuses on a town and its sheriff (Arnold Schwartzenegger) under siege from outsiders. Both know how to employ humor and both get assists from capable supporting casts. And both suffer from the same flaws — each is about ten minutes two long, and littered with excessive violence.

Jack Reacher, despite its PG-13 rating, feels like the more violent of the two. Based on one of the many novels by Lee Child, the film focuses on Reacher’s hunt for a sniper in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to see why the film was delayed in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. There’s one flashback to the murders in particular that’s quite unsettling when viewed through this lens. However, Cruise’s Reacher prefers to solve his problems with his hands — and while he’s not the hulking brute from the books, the intelligence and swiftness of the character are given capable menace by the actor. As a character, Reacher falls somewhere between the movie star roles of The Firm and Top Gun and the weird menace of Magnolia and Rock of Ages.  Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie makes effective use of Pittsburgh as a location, and for a writer known for his verbal brilliance, the film’s best sequences are wordless. Except when Werner Herzog appears to give audiences his take on The Greek from The Wire.

The Last Stand also knows how to quickly establish its location and simple plot: a fugitive is racing towards the border in a very fast car, and only the sleepy town of Sommerton Junction and its sheriff stand in its way. That sheriff has a name, but to audiences, it’s just Arnie, back on the screen after years in political life. The actor surprises in his nearly full-throated embrace of his age while occasionally reminding viewers that he can act when he wants to. Loud, fast-paced, and funnier than expected with a wonderful score, the film features several thrilling action sequences — a chase through a cornfield stands out — that make it preferable to Jack Reacher.

But Blood and Bone beats them both.

Jack Reacher. Dir./Wr. Christopher McQuarrie, based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child. Perf. Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall, Jai Courtney, David Oyelowo. 130 minutes. Paramount, 2012.

The Last Stand. Dir. Kim Ji-woon. Wr. Andrew Knauer. Perf. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Forrest Whitaker, Jamie Alexander, Luis Guzman, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford. 107 minutes. Lionsgate, 2013.

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500 Words or Less: HITCHCOCK (2012)

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In one of the many fantasy sequences that populate Hitchcock (2012), the director (Anthony Hopkins) imagines himself on a psychiatrist’s couch. The psychatrist is Ed Gein, inspiration for Psycho, and in the course of their session, Hitchcock confesses he’s been having thoughts. “Dark thoughts,” he says.

It’s a chilling delivery by the former Dr. Lecter and a reminder that, even after years of paycheck roles and under makeup that never fully gels here, Hopkins remains a stunning actor. This scene, however, encapsulates the flaws and pleasures of Hitchcock, a biopic in the Capote mold where one period in a subject’s life is meant to represent the whole of their career. Director Sasha Gervasi and writer John L. McLaughlin, working from the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, spend much of the film’s running time portraying the production of Psycho in relatively straightforward fashion. The dynamic between Hitchcock and Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, who also gets many lovely moments throughout) is the focus during the production, emphasizing the tension between the famous director and his less-known wife. It captures the relationship two creative people in love so often have, from the fights to the creative disagreements, from the discussions over the material to the private knowledge that, in the end, there’s only one person whose opinion you trust. This relationship is surrounded by a bevy of character actors in supporting roles. Scarlett Johansson is warm and gentle as Janet Leigh, and Toni Collette disappears into her role as Hitchcock’s secretary. Michael Stuhlbarg continues his hot streak of being one of the best parts of any movie he’s in as future Universal studio head and agent Lew Wasserman.

Yet these sections are interspersed with the aforementioned fantasy sequences and in-jokes, often surrounding Hitchcock’s conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) or inserting Hitch into key moments from Gein’s life. And of course time must be given to the director’s voyeuristic impulses and sexual manipulation of his leading ladies. These oft-amusing shadings remain the least effective parts of Hitchock, but they suggest a much weirder, sinister movie had more time been devoted to them. As such, they leave one wishing for more behind-the-scenes material — like the relationship between ‘Hitchcock blondes’ Leigh and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

Hitchcock can’t fully commit to either take on the Psycho myth, and the film suffers for it before recovering in the final act, centering around the promotion and premiere of Psycho. Here, in a sequence involving Hitchcock watching the people watching the shower sequence, both tracks come together with Hopkins’ wordless acting that makes you wish for a better movie yet leaves you happy with the one you get.

Recommended: Yes.

Hitchcock. Dir. Sasha Gervasi. Wr. John L. McLaughlin, based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. Perf. Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston. 98 minutes. Fox Searchlight, 2012.

Too Big To Fail

This review later appeared on January Magazine’s website.

When Hollywood decided to adapt The Bonfire of the Vanities, Oscar-winner William Hurt’s name was on the short list to play Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street “Master of the Universe” who finds himself having a very bad year. That role went to Tom Hanks, but twenty-plus years later, William Hurt headlines HBO’s very good adaptation of Too Big To Fail. Hurt plays Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a former Wall Street master who finds himself having a very bad few months in 2008. The stakes here, are much higher — instead of a murder charge, Paulson faces the complete meltdown of the financial system world-wide.

While Paulson is the haunted center and Hurt the top-billed actor in this adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s international best seller, he is not without support. Director Curtis Hanson, of the classic L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys and the less-than-classic The River Wild, stuffs the film with…well, every character actor in the history of ever. While that’s an exaggeration, calling the ensemble cast of Too Big To Fail a Murderer’s Row of talent is not. This review could very easily sell you on the picture by listing off who’s in it — when you have Dan Hedeya (as powerful Congressman Barney Frank) and John Heard (as Lehmann Brothers CFO Joe Gregory) show up for a single scene a piece, you know Hanson and his casting directors mean business.

"Selling the uber-successful Lehmann Brothers? How do you FUCK that up?"

The cast is by far the strongest part of Hanson’s movie. The director, working from a script by Peter Gould (Breaking Bad), uses the all-star cast as a kind of shorthand. While animated subtitles inform the audience to folks’ names and jobs, Hanson understands the baggage certain actors bring to their parts as well. So yes, it makes perfect sense that James Woods is the arrogant, self-destructive Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehmann Brothers, whose reluctance to sell his company kicks the whole thing off. (Woods’ first line is a word the actor is familiar with, and that is “motherfucker”.)

We should all listen to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, because he’s played by the darkly funny and very serious Paul Giamatti, and heed the sage advice of Warren Buffett, because he’s the grandfatherly Edward Asner. When you put JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in a room with other executives to find a way to bail out Lehmann, you know Dimon’s running the room, because the man speaking his dialogue is former President Bill Pullman. And you know, no matter what, Matthew Modine will find a way to make Merril Lynch CEO John Thain look like a doofus, because, well, Matthew Modine plays a lot of doofuses.

Tanking bailouts, scamming Agrestic...all in a day's work for Modine.

Those are just a few of the names in the cast of Too Big To Fail, and I’m neglecting others, like Billy Crudup’s Timothy Geitner and Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon as Treasury aides. I’m also not emphasizing just how good Hurt is as Paulson at portraying the crushing guilt that comes with both causing the financial crisis of the film (as Paulson lobbied for deregulation while in charge at Goldman Sachs) and desperate to fix it. Hurt makes Paulson into a guy with real regrets who becomes frayed over the course of the picture. He’s good at selling the big moments — threatening CEOS with the weight of the federal government — and the smaller ones, like casually remarking that nobody did anything to stop deregulation because “We were making too much money.” It’s a fantastic performance, and a sign that audiences never really lost William Hurt — he just went away for a while.

If the film has flaws that keep it from being a great addition to HBO’s ongoing efforts to dramatize all of American history, it’s that the film often feels like not enough time is spent with these characters. Too Big to Fail plays like a thriller, and it’s a terribly exciting movie at times, but there are moments, especially early on, when I found myself wishing the whole thing were longer. This could have easily been spread out over two nights.

Ben Bernanke frowns on your Objectivist shenanigans.

Stretching it out, however, may have eliminated the pace of Hanson’s direction, which is crisp, solid, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of his classic work, it’s still a solid entry from the journeyman filmmaker. Hanson breaks up the tension with some moments of real humor (mostly from the deadpans provided by Mssrs. Grace and Giamatti), as well as stopping the action to explain what a sub-prime mortgage is and how it caused the crisis about halfway through the film — without missing a beat. That scene, by the way, is succinct and informative enough to be taught in schools for years to come, and it’s to Gould’s credit as a writer that he indulges in hand-holding a few times throughout the course of the picture.

Too Big To Fail is not a perfect film, nor is it in the top-tier of HBO’s continuing efforts to chronicle all of American history. Its length, and over-reliance on some of the character “sketching” through its casting keep it from being on the level of a Path To War. But it is an engaging, entertaining movie for adults that’s a welcome antidote to the summer months. So if you want answers about how we got into the mess we find ourselves in, or are just looking to watch a bunch of really great actors act their butts off, this might be a film you’ll enjoy.

>Some Nice Things You May Have Missed #2

>In reverse chronological order:

There are many ways the concept behind The Killing could have gone wrong in execution. Instead, this Sunday night serial is shaping up to be one of the strongest crime shows in years. It might, in fact, be as much a reinvention of the procedural as Deadwood was of the western or The Sopranos was of mob dramas.

My rave review of AMC’s new tv series The Killing. I have no idea why there’s a dinosaur in the picture.

During a career that spanned more than half a century, American film director Sidney Lumet, who died on Saturday at age 86 from lymphoma, gave crime-fiction fans more than a few films that became classics. Those pictures, with titles such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Verdict (1982), remain beloved by any fan of the genre, often setting the gold standard.

A quick obituary of director Sidney Lumet, focusing on a few of his lesser-known films. Lumet became something of a major inspiration and influence in later years, and I’m very sad he’s gone.

“Pleasant surprise” is an excellent way to describe The Lincoln Lawyer, starring McConaughey as Connelly’s series criminal defense attorney, Michael “Mick” Haller (changed from “Mickey” in the original novel). After an excellent opening credits sequence by Jeff McEvoy, set to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s soul classic, “Ain’t No Love (In the Heart of the City),” the film wastes little time throwing us into the life of Mickey Haller and the case that will fuel the plot. While the original novel takes a few chapters to establish Haller and his world, in the movie it’s developed alongside the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), a rich young man accused of attempting to murder a prostitute. This new balance might give fans of the novel whiplash, but screenwriter John Romano balances plot and character with a comfortable ease.

My review of The Lincoln Lawyer. I don’t know if this is still playing anywhere, but it’s worth checking out to see what it’s all about (Alfie).

>Some Nice Things I’ve Missed #3: And Furthermore…

>GAMER

It’s always a bad sign when you find yourself rewriting the movie you’re watching while you are watching that movie. The film wants to be so many things, it doesn’t know what it is. Is it a comedy? Is it a totally hardcore, brah, action movie? Is it a pop culture satire? Is it a bleak dystopian tale? Is it a Dennis Potter-esque musical? Is it a wacky buddy comedy between a convicted-but-secretly innocent criminal and his nerdy friend? Is it a “stickin’ it to the man” revolutionary tract, wherein Ludacris reveals that the key to overthrowing an oppressive regime does not, in fact, involving leaning back, getting out of the way, or rapping on Justin Bieber tunes? And who knew that Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson had a potty mouth on her? Ruby didn’t! (And, for the record, Grace Handarko > Brenda Leigh Johnson FTW.) There are elements to a much better movie hidden within these various plots, all of which get their due, and the actors here — Michael C. Hall, a decent Gerald Butler, even John “I can has Tony now plz?” Leguizamo — all do a pretty capble job with what they’re given. But in the end, GAMER, Jonah Hex, and that movie with Peter Petrelli from Heroes all offer concrete evidence that directors-writers Nevaldine/Taylor should just make increasingly ridiculous CRANK movies starring Jason Statham until the end of time.

EXAM

A low-budget film from England, this is one of those sci-fi movies that boils down to people in a room, talking. It’s a Twilight Zone episode (eight different people from various walks of life and backgrounds given a task, secrets are revealed, people learn about themselves, rinse, repeat) stretched out to feature length, and the real-time conciet, when it starts, gives the film momentum and tension. The cast of mostly unknown actors all do a pretty fantastic job, especially when you consider that they’re being asked to play archetypes. I look forward to keeping an eye out for these actors, but if I have one complaint with EXAM, it’s that after the real-time portion expires, the film continues for another 10-15 unnecessary minutes. When you’re doing a Twilight Zone-esque movie like this, you want to either go for ambiguity, or directness without spelling everything out. It’s still worth your time, though.

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

Originally, this third film from writer Peter Morgan about Tony Blair was supposed to focus on the former Prime Minister’s relationship with both Bush and Clinton. However, Morgan chose to just focus on the Clinton years. That was a mistake. While the film is quite good, especially in the performances from Dennis Quaid as Clinton, thematically, it doesn’t quite work. Much of the second half focuses on Blair’s attempts to get the U.S. involved in Kosovo, framing it as “a war between good and evil,” and as this is more unexplored territory than Clinton-Lewinsky, it’s fascinating stuff. That being said, I would have loved to see that whole idea of good vs. evil turned around on Blair by the Bush administration, and the film hints at this in the last major scene between Blair and Clinton. And Dennis Quaid is really, really good here; so much that he makes you ache for a longer movie just about Clinton. As this covers a period in American history that’s been fictionalized (in the continually underrated Primary Colors) that’s just being dramatized, I recommend the film, especially if you’re a fan of HBO movies in this genre.

>Some Nice Things I’ve Missed #2: From the Year We Make Contact

>This entry includes reviews of some 2010 releases that I’m just now catching up on.

EASY A – It would be easy to write “The movie that made Emma Stone a big fat star,” and leave it at that. You could also invite comparisons to Pretty Woman or The Princess Diaries or Mean Girls or any other film that served as a coming-out party/debutante-ball/patronizing event that women partake in for an actress who later went onto bigger and better things. Except for Mean Girls. Well, maybe Tina Fey as the writer counts on that one.

But while Easy A is the Emma Stone Show from start to finish, this smart, sweet teen comedy has a Murderer’s Row of supporting actors to back it up. From She’s All That to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Scratch that. Reverse it.), the best teen high school comedies often have strong character actors in the roles of “the adults.” EASY A might be one of the all-time best when it comes to its adult parts — Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Patricia Clarkson, and Fred Armisen all appear, and the movie even lets Malcolm McDowell loosen up and play a funny hard-ass. (McDowell is in it for two scenes, but those two scenes are still better than much of the crap he’s done lately.) Still, the MVP — the Babe Ruth in the above analogy — is Stanley Tucci, as Stone’s dad. He and Clarkson (as the mom) have a warm, winning relationship, and they feel like real parents who are concerned about their daughter but understand teenagers need space. And he is hilarious; like much of the film, his dialogue deserves to be quoted and referenced for a long time to come.

Less impressive, however, are Stone’s co-stars on the teen level. For every Amanda Bynes, there’s a Cam Gigadent taking up space. And while Penn Badgley isn’t nearly as insufferable as Stone’s love interest as he is on Gossip Girl, he doesn’t fully wipe out all his Humphrey-isms, nor is he expected to. The standout, after Stone, is Dan Byrd, who is likeable on Cougar Town, but does impressive, subtle work here. Well, as subtle as you can get in a teen comedy anyway.

While Mean Girls and Easy A enjoyed about the same level of box office success, one hopes that it acquires a similar fan following as Mean Girls did — and that Emma Stone enjoys Julia Roberts-level success, as opposed to shoplifting shenangins. (That’s shenanagins related to shoplifting, not the act of stealing shenangins.)

THE TOWN – While not as powerful as Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s first film as a director, The Town is still old-school, basic Hollywood entertainment. Like MICHAEL CLAYTON, it’s a movie you can watch with your lady and not feel bad afterwards. They simply don’t make movies like this anymore, and Affleck shoots action well. Many of the reviews of the film criticize its descent into action-movie-isms in the last 30 minutes, but I found the climax to be thrilling and engaging. I give the story credit for going big for its final set-piece and slowly amping up the intensity of the heists throughout the film. While the film is stacked with consistently good supporting players — Chris Cooper and the late great Pete Posthelwaite among them — and Affleck does solid, minimalist work as an actor, Renner has the showiest role. It’s quite evocative of Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas,” but Renner takes the rage of a Tommy DeVito and contains it in a quietness and a methodical manner.

Disappointing, however, is Jon Hamm, as the FBI Agent opposite , the Pacino to DeNiro in The Town’s Beantown-set variation on Heat. As I’ve mentioned before, I think Hamm is a very, very good actor, but there was far too much of Don Draper in his performance here. It felt like I was watching him play dress-up, but in listening to an interview with Affleck, Hamm came right from Mad Men to working on The Town, so maybe there was some unncessary bleed-over. Bleed-over? Are we just able to make up our own words now? But Hamm has some great moments, and I like him enough of as an actor to give him a pass.

Also, Blake Lively is in this and is kind of boring.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD – From its indie comic source material to its videogame references, to its geek pedigree (director-writer Edgar Wright) to its inventive sense of style and editing, every frame of this film screams “cult following.” Also, the comic book, setting, and lead actor (Michael Cera) are Canadian, and cool people love Canada.

Scott Pilgrim is a bucket and a half (actual way of measuring things) of fun, and it shows just how talented Wright is as a director, because in any other filmmaker’s hands, this film could have easily, easily, easily become insufferable and maddening. His skills with actors and eye for casting shines here, filling every almost every role with a talent who shines. Almost. This blog discussed the great Eisenberg v. Cera debate, and in 2010, that debate was put to rest. Michael Cera is a funny, genial actor…who always manages to play a variation on Michael Cera, and it feels a little off here. Part of that could be because Scott, a twenty-something slacker and videogame fan, is in the same wheelhouse as Shaun, thirty-something slacker and videogame fan, but part of it also has to do with Cera’s inability to deliver more than variations on a theme. Whereas, to continue this digression, Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg as a geek/nerd/genius that is different from the other geek-nerd-geniuses he’s played in the past.

Anyway, back to Scott Pilgrim. The fights are fun, and are staged in fun, visually interesting ways. It’s a film, like Easy A, that I can see myself watching when I want to have something on in the background, but I think it’s ultimately a pretty light piece of work. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that love interest Ramona isn’t completely fleshed out, but there was more material that resonated in Shaun of the Dead when it came to that awkward post-college slacker experience.

So while I look forward to seeing how — again, like Easy A — Scott Pilgrim ages, especially as the references become increasingly dated. But it sure was pretty to look at.

THE AMERICAN – Low-key, minimal, with gorgeous cinematography and assured direction, this might be my favorite film of last year (funny how I don’t actually see my favorite film of the previous year until two-three months into the following one; this is how it was in ’07 and ’09, too). The plot of this film is simple: A man builds a gun. But he builds a gun in such a way that the film evokes two of my favorites, POINT BLANK and THE LIMEY. George Clooney does an excellent job here, very contained and unexpected — the film sets him up very early on as a man who does not mess around, so you’re never sure what he’ll do next. This is a film I’ve been turning around in my mind for days now, and I can’t wait to see it again. Loved it.

>Artists on Art: Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ (2010)

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The room was full of fans and devotees of Robert Williams, iconoclastic idol of the West Coast underground scene, so they might have loved what he was saying anyway. Regardless, the artist and illustrator was speaking at the Museum of Modern Art at the opening night event for a film series based around Juxtapoz, an art magazine he founded. That didn’t stop Williams — who looked like a cool uncle, or the art teacher who turned you onto rockabilly — from taking potshot after potshot at the New York art scene in “the cathedral of modern art.”

Williams’ desire for acceptance, but acceptance on his own terms, is one of the major themes of ROBERT WILLIAMS: MR. BITCHIN’, which was the aformentioned opening night event at MoMa. The documentary, started in the eighties and recently completed, also functions as a primer to the underground and alternative art movements of the post-World War II era. There’s not a ton of hand-holding — the movie summarizes the history of hot rods but expects you to know who Robert Crumb is — but Williams is a great guide through his career. He’s funny, insightful, wickedly smart, and always entertaining, even when — especially when — he’s talking about how theoretical physics inform his work.

Since the long production of the film accounts for an annoying, inconsistent filming style — scenes will shift from video to film to digital to MTV News clips that show just how much the network doesn’t care about its archives and back again — Williams remains the one consistent, whether he’s reading letters from prisoners, responding to critics about his “misogynistic” work, describing how he painted Anthony Kiedis and Debbie Harry, or looking pretty awkward as Axl Rose gives him a platinum record. (Williams provided the original, controversial cover art for Appetite for Destruction.)

And what Williams has to say resonates. The movie ends on an up note, with one of Williams’ many fans comparing him to The Beatles (a bit much), and gallery shows in New York and Los Angeles, but the key quote in Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ comes earlier in the film.

Williams, while discussing one of his larger, more esoteric paintings, refers back to his formal, art school training, and how even though the work he does today is as far from that as you can possibly get, it’s important to him. His training taught him the rules of art, which allows him to break those rules, to find his own way from those rules. Once he’s mastered the rules, he can go off on the flights of fancy that set his work apart.

But because he knows those rules — because he knows how it’s always been done — you know he’s got command of his craft and art. And while it’s hilarious and iconoclastic to see him bash the New York art scene at MoMa, Williams’ advice, and other advice like it in MR. BITCHIN’, resonates for all struggling to create art outside the mainstream.