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.