Friday, August 31, 2012


       Based on a true story, this Prohibition story set in 1931, aspires to greatness and while entertaining, falls short of that mark. Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, and Jason Clarke are the BonDurant Brothers, independent moonshiners making illegal whiskey in the back hills of Franklin County Virginia. 

      Mr. Hardy, as Forrest, has terrific screen presence even with little dialog. Mr. Clarke (so good on Showtime's short-lived series "Brotherhood") is very capable as the hotheaded Howard but Mr. LaBeouf tries too hard as the youngest brother, Jack, trying to make a name for himself in the family business. The standard for transitioning into the family business remains Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. Mr. LaBeouf doesn't even come close.

        Jessica Chastain wanders into the story for no reason except to brighten up the screen with her wardrobe. She's an excellent actress but her character seems very artificially placed. Gary Oldman has two "blink and you miss him" scenes and is completely wasted. Mia Wasikowska is the love interest for Mr. LaBeouf and out acts him in every scene. Guy Pearce chews the scenery as Charley Rakes, the lawman brought in to put the brothers out of business. Rakes is a most bizarre character and if portrayed accurately, that's even more incredible. Words fail to describe Mr. Rakes.

          Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/composer Nick Cave have collaborated before on the excellent Australian western, "The Proposition" (also starring Mr. Pearce). Here they attempt a Terrance Malick atmosphere and while the cinematography is excellent, making good use of the Georgia countryside, the film never quite reaches that quality. Mr. Cave's script is filled with illogical holes and  overly dramatic dialog, again reaching for more than it is, a backwoods western that only comes alive in the violent and bloody action sequences. 

            This is a film with a good cast trying to make a great movie. It succeeds as entertainment but I can't imagine any Oscars in it's future.

The Campaign

              Vulgar and raunchy but loaded with laughs, "The Campaign" is unlike any other political satire you may have seen. But what else would you expect from Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis?

               Mr. Ferrell's films are hit or miss and Mr. Galifianakis is more or less a "one trick pony" type of actor but they have great chemistry here as political opponents running for Congress. It helps when your director is comedy veteran Jay Roach and your producer and screenwriter is Adam McKay.

               Mr. Ferrell is Cam Brady, the incumbent Congressman running unopposed until two millionaire brothers (hmmm) played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd decide a change is needed and back Mr. Galifianakis's character, Marty Huggins. Marty is a sweet man who loves his family and pet pugs but during the course of the campaign is transformed by his ruthless campaign manager (played by Dylan McDermott), into a political fighting machine. Cam Brady is a walking cartoon of a Congressman more interested in money and women than anything else. Jason Sudeikis plays his campaign manager, who tires of getting his candidate out of trouble.

               They are some genuine "R" rated laughs here and while the inevitable outcome doesn't surprise, the campaign trail along the way has many twists and turns as each candidate seeks to outdo the other for votes. The TV ads, in particular, are extremely funny and a confessional at Marty's dinner table had me laughing out loud. 

               "The Campaign" is worth your vote.

Premium Rush

    A thin plot propels you through the streets of Manhattan as seen through the eyes of bike messengers.

 Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, the daredevil messenger known for his speed and lack of fear as he races from pick up to drop off. The story centers on a dirty cop played by Michael Shannon who needs to intercept an envelope Wilee is trying to deliver. That pretty much sums it up so director David Koepp ramps things up by moving the story around through flashbacks and a digital clock reminding us of the time Wilee has to deliver his package. He also constantly shows us Wilee's path through the city using a big map  with a thick yellow line moving through it. The map gets very annoying after a while. We get it Mr. Koepp, Manhattan is a big city.

    The appeal here, besides the always reliable Mr. Gordon-Levitt is the great street photography and use of real riders doing real stunts without the addition of CGI. Some of the camera work is nothing short of amazing with thrilling "point of view" angles. All the racing begins to get repetitive  but cutting back to Mr. Shannon's manic cop and the hapless police cyclist both trying to catch Wilee break things up and keep the story moving. 

    Dania Ramierez plays Vanessa, another messenger and Wilee's love interest. She and Mr. Gordon-Levitt do much of their own riding and it's very impressive. Stay through the credits and you will see the result of a stunt Mr. Gordon-Levitt did himself. If you are looking for something light and mildly exciting, rush to this one otherwise you can wait for the DVD or better yet, go for a bike ride.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Killer Joe

    Based on the play by Tracy Letts, this new film by director William Friedkin, is a Texas "trailer trash" whopper of a tale. When Chris, played by Emile Hirsch, needs six thousand dollars fast to pay off debts, he schemes to kill his mother for her insurance policy. His plan is to hire "Killer" Joe Cooper, a police detective that moonlights as a hired hiller. Matthew McConaughey plays the title character and it's one of his best roles. The rest of the cast includes Thomas Haden Church as "Ansel", the dimwitted father, Gina Gershon as his 2nd wife, Sharla, and Juno Temple as Chris's sister, Dottie.

    The filmed version of the play still plays like theater even when director William Friedkin opens up the story with more locations. I imagine that the play probably took place completely in the lone trailer where most of the film's action still takes place. It is a depraved story of drunken, cheating, dumb characters who's plans go seriously wrong. Mr. McConaughey's "killer Joe" is a scary psychopath who comes across as a quiet, polite gentleman but his twisted personality still glimmers in his eyes. He is just terrific even when he performs a very perverse and graphic scene towards the end with Ms. Gershon. And speaking of Ms. Gershon, she is fearless in the role of Sharla from the very moment we meet her. Mr. Church and Mr. Hirsch are both perfectly cast.  Ansel is an extension of "Lowell", the character Mr. Church played for years on the TV show, "Wings" (although here he prefers to be drunk or stoned most of the time). Mr. Hirsch puts the plot in motion and he is a whirlwind of stupid actions that lead to a very violent finale. And finally, we have Ms. Temple who ends up surprising everyone in a most unexpected way. 

      The film makes much fun of it's stereotyped characters but the humor is dark and so is the plot. There are a few scenes of graphic violence and female full frontal nudity that earn the film an NC-17 rating ( it probably would have gotten a "R" if not for the aforementioned graphic scene between Mr. McConaughey and Ms. Gershon). With an NC-17 rating, you can be sure this film won't be in theaters long but you have to give Mr. Friedkin and Mr. Letts credit for staying true to the material.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Easy Money

 Not the Rodney Dangerfield '80's comedy but a new crime thriller from Norway, endorsed by Martin Scorsese. The film stars Joel Kinnaman, who fans of the TV show, "The Killing" will recognize as detective Holder. As "JW"  Mr. Kinnaman couldn't be more different in character and tone. Here, he plays a business student who likes living well beyond his means and drives a cab just to get by. Dreaming of being part of the jet-set lifestyle he desires, JW agrees to take an unorthodox job from his boss.

       Pretty quickly JW is caught between Serb and Arab criminals who end up battling over a shipment of cocaine. But there is more to this thriller than a simple mob war. Director Daniel Espinosa, pulls you in right from the start. A jailbreak, a bloody fight in a club and rich kids partying seem very disconnected at first but things quickly come together and our protagonist, JW, soon finds himself in way over his head. Mr. Kinnaman is just terrific as he twists and turns with each lie and double cross. The criminals he is forced to partner with are much more than just thugs. Two in particular, have deep back stories and are fully defined characters with their own crosses to bear.

       You can get lost in the growing complexity of the plot and who's who but the film rewards if you are paying attention. It is very European in it's style and sensibility with an uncompromising ending that may not sit well with an average American audience but never the less, it is a powerful and exciting thriller.

Searching For Sugarman

 I knew almost nothing about this film but a few people I know started recommending it. I finally caught up with it and I'm so glad I did. The raves were certainly warranted. This is a terrific documentary about an singer/songwriter from the late '60's who was basically unknown in the United States but became bigger than Elvis in South Africa.

       The singer is Rodriguez, an American Mexican who lived in the Detroit area and released two albums that never found an audience in the United States. But as legend goes, when an American girl traveled to Capetown to visit her boyfriend, she brought a tape of "Cold Fact" with her and his music then spread like wildfire through the country. The anti-establishment and freewheeling lyrics made an powerful impact on the teens struggling through the Apartheid era of the time.

        The film follows a South African music store owner and a journalist  as they both try, independently and then together, to find out whatever became of Rodriguez.  Interviews of people that knew Rodriguez are sprinkled throughout the film as the two men pursue answers to the fate of the talented musician.  It is at once a fascinating mystery as well as a testament to the power and beauty of music. Thanks to the film, a new generation of music lovers are discovering Rodriguez's songs and helping to spread the word about a musician who, as it turned out, was a zero in the U.S. but a hero in South Africa (to borrow a line from the film).  

         Filled with great music, drama, humor and a little magic, this documentary is one of the best films of the year.