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Trailer: John Hillcoat’s ‘Lawless’

Here’s the first full-length trailer for John Hillcoat’s upcoming Lawless, a prohibition drama based a real events from the 1930s. The film boasts a top-shelf cast and a newer, leaner title; previously called Wettest Country, Terrence Malick gave up the title of Lawless, which that was reserved for one of his gestating projects, because he was a fan of Hillcoat’s work on The Proposition and The Road.

The production notes up to this point seemed to characterize the film as a star vehicle for Shia LaBeouf, but the content of the trailer suggests a greater focus on co-star Tom Hardy. LaBeouf carries the first twenty seconds or so of the trailer, but then Hardy seems to take over as a advertised protagonist. The film seems like an ensemble piece if anything, with some tantalizing glimpses of the wonderful Gary Oldman and Guy Pierce (who has found an excellent home as a versatile character actor rather than a leading man), but the editing’s insistence on Hardy is noticeable. Perhaps the looming giant of The Dark Knight Rises, and Hardy’s sure-to-be-star-making role as Bane, led to a shift in marketing?

Impossible to tell at this point, but this film does look quite exciting, and Hillcoat is a director to watch as he transitions from lean Australian productions to big Hollywood filmmaking.


Review: Act of Valor

Wasted Courage

What an odd film to write about.

Let me begin by plainly stating that I believe the Navy SEALs to be American heroes, trained to a borderline ridiculous degree to take on dangerous tasks that nary a civilian would be willing much less able to do. But if Act of Valor, a jingoistic piece of military propoganda in the tradition of The Green Berets, is meant to attain a higher degree of verisimilitude by putting actual SEALs in the film instead of the likes of John Wayne, are we really to believe that the real-world landscape in which these special operations take place looks very much like a 1980s Chuck Norris movie?

Having the SEALs in the film only adds a greater realism and understanding to the technical aspects of these operations, and the action scenes are, in fact, frequently rousing and viscerally exciting. The way they go about their work patiently, the way they turn corners, they way they use their bodies and their weapons in space all succeed in lending the missions a real-world punch that does feel different than your typical action flick.  These guys didn’t train for a couple weekends or go to a Dale Dye “boot camp” in Santa Monica. They know what they’re doing in the field.

But these scenes are pieces in a larger story that has all the depth and moral complexity of a James Bond intercontinental romp. Skirting Middle-East concerns completely (which smacks of a cowardice that the SEALs themselves would never fall to), the scenario has these men hopping around the globe trying to track down a Chechen bad dude (a walking villainous cliche, complete with shaved head and scary facial scar) before he infiltrates the U.S. with a bunch of fancy ceramic-pellet-filled explosive vests that he plans to make suicide bombers set off in malls and at sporting events. If it sounds like the plot of a Michael Bay crap-fest, it plays out like one, just with real SEALs who, bless their effort, look horrifically uncomfortable trying to act their way through dramatic scenes. So at home in the field, the poor guys look tortured trying to act naturalistically in scenes written so unnaturalistically. For what greater purpose should these brave men and we as the audience struggle through such a bland and pat story, a story where villains (performed by real actors) actually seem like deeper and more recognizably human characters? The dramatic demands of the medium are outside the SEALs’ reach, and dramatic efforts of the film itself are far below their courageous pedigree. Nothing is real or worthy in its place.

The SEALs, and we as a conscientious viewing public, deserve better.


Review: The Hunger Games

The Cruelty is in the Close-Up

Stories like this face a tough paradox. How do you have a film – inherently a form of mass-audience spectacle – portray despicable organized bloodshed in a way that doesn’t try to get the viewer’s rocks off in the same way the spectacle it portrays does for the story’s blood-thirsty audience? In other words, when showing crowd-pleasing slaughter that’s meant to be horrifyingly inhumane, how do you void having it come off as, well, crowd-pleasing slaughter?  It’s impossible to completely avoid this problem, but in the terrific dystopian fable The Hunger Games, Gary Ross and company find a way to mitigate it. They tighten the frame. It sounds like a simple strategy, but rarely has a simple framing aesthetic been so crucial to a film’s success. Ross dumps much of the wide-angle orgiastic spectacle common to today’s blockbusters and makes the people within his film the clear focus, and in doing so creates an intimate and gut-wrenching gladiator story that feels – and this is very important with such material – thoroughly disturbing.

I would venture to guess that at least two-thirds of The Hunger Games, consists of close-ups and close-medium shots, with much of those squared on the compelling Jennifer Lawrence as Kitnass Everdeen. In the story, based on a novel I should admit I haven’t read, Katniss is a resourceful teenager in the impoverished District 12, one of the outer districts in the future North American nation of Panem. Due to an uprising that took place at an undetermined point in the past, the wealthy and powerful Capital makes the districts pay penance every year by giving up one girl and one boy under the age of 18 to the Hunger Games, a last-child-standing death match watched on television like the Super Bowl. Katniss’ younger sister Prim is selected for the Games, and Katniss volunteers to go in her place. And away we go.

It’s not an entirely original concept, but it justifies itself through the details. Novelist Suzanne Collins helped with the screenplay, so it’s safe to assume most of her brushstrokes made it to the screen. The world of the film is built with an expert’s hand, taking us from the Appalachain-style poverty of District 12 to the garish Capital, where people have so much money and free time that they apply elaborate makeup to their faces every day and are constantly staging parties and events. Even being rich looks exhausting in Panem. The city is brought to extravagant life, but Ross still keeps his focus tight. We glimpse the grandeur of the Capital, but the film never gawks at it, often cutting away within a second from a wide crowd shot back to the faces of those about the be thrown into the ghoulish cauldron. If the film weren’t destined for mega-box office, Lionsgate might be disappointed that more of their effects budget didn’t make it onscreen. We spend a lot of time in the city though, watching Katniss and her D-12 partner Peeta train against academy-reared kids from the suburban districts and strain to appeal to the over-washed masses, hoping to earn some public goodwill before being sent to their probable deaths. The build-up is propulsive yet sickening in a sterile, ominous way. We watch helpless children being packaged and made up for slaughter, and the intimate focus on Katniss and her reactions to this grisly theater never lets us forget that.

The Game itself take up perhaps the last hour of the two-and-a-half hour film, and with the characters so well-etched and the stakes so clearly laid out, it is tense, agonizing, and tragic. There is a rush to the competition and thrills when Katniss uses her mind and her heart to deal with such an awful situation, but it’s never joyous. The film has been compared to the Japanese kid-killing flick Battle Royale, and while there are thematic similarities, The Hunger Games doesn’t revel in the deaths of these children, some more sympathetic than others but all trapped in a system that would prefer they be destroyed before they come of age. While the camerawork during the action scenes sometimes becomes too slapdash and over-cut, the PG-13 rating that probably motivated those decisions actually ends up a benefit. Ross gives us glimpses of blood and extreme violence but cannot and will not linger on it, and he utilizes wonderful touches to leave the worst bits to our imagination, for us to cringe from and lament. Cannon shots in the distance signal the death of a combatant, faces of the deceased appear in the artificial night sky like macabre trading cards, small gifts from sponsors drift in like manna from above when the circumstances seem hopeless. Again, it’s the details that make the story, and the details here are exact and their effects well-earned. There are no victors here, only survivors, and though the younger viewers in the theater with me cheered when certain children were dispatched (a rather unsettling side note to this whole affair), every death feels like a tragedy.

I’ve heard that the extra-narrative commentary in Collins’ novels is too pat, laid on thick for an audience she may feel the need to shout at. This may or may not be true, but the film strikes an elegant balance between touching modern real-world concerns and presenting a fully-realized and self-contained world. If one wants to see the pastiche of a Wall Street-fattened 1% oppressing a straining 99%, that’s certainly there, but the paradigm etched out in the film is not tethered to any one time nor is the film explicitly molded into a messy sledgehammer of societal commentary. The dynamics of Panem actually resemble the provincial subjugation tactics of ancient Rome far more than those of any theorized autocracy realistically rising from modern America. The commentary here is woven within a humanistic narrative. Tyranny and blood sport know no geographic or periodic borders. The focus in the film is always on the characters, their fear and their pain, the feelings of simple human beings caught up in the kind of unjust systems that rise and fall throughout history (we do get the feeling this one is heading for a fall), and in its historical omnipresence there are the seeds of universality. So if you want your 99% dystopian nightmare, this is too extreme to really resonate as a near-future warning siren. That’s too big a burden for this simple and elegant story to bear. Panem is its own animal, and once within it we can both be afraid and be touched by the fear and ultimate helplessness of these children.

Breathing life into the characters is an excellent array of actors. Lawrence, as mentioned before, is terrific, attaining a blend of vulnerability and authentic inner-toughness that recalls a young Sigourney Weaver. I can see how the charming and delicate Peete made hearts break in the book, and Josh Hutcherson fills those shoes nicely and provides a nice emotional anchor for Katniss along her journey (though I’m not sure her apparent love for him isn’t just a strategic feint to save both their lives). Woody Harrelson deserves special mention as the sole past winner from District 12 charged with mentoring Katniss and Peeta, at first appearing a cliché drunken cynic but revealing layers of hope, disgust, and compassion as he wanders uncomfortably through the nonstop socializing of the Capital, a “winner” but still a slave. Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland, and Elizabeth Banks are also very good in supporting roles (I didn’t even recognize Banks).

My strong reaction to The Hunger Games may be partly born of surprise. To put it simply, I didn’t expect the film to be so good. But giving it a day to let it settle, the threads and moments within the film still resonate, and the pleasure of finding a pop-lit series brought to the screen with the adult themes and authentic emotional heartbeat enhanced and intact remains. The frame stays tight, and despite the different time and the different world, the story feels real. I dare say it feels classic.


‘Prometheus’ is looking very, very good

As of a few months ago I hadn’t really mustered much anticipation for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi-horror epic coming out in June. It was mostly due to the overall mediocrity of Scott’s last decade of work (I rather hated his Robin Hood), and I thought the man may have lost the touch that made Alien and Blade Runner into masterpieces.

Maybe he’d just been away from home for too long, as his return to the science fiction genre looks more and more promising with each new morsel released. This trailer looks fantastic. 20th Century Fox can go ahead and write my $15 IMAX ticket fee into their Q2 books.

Linked below is the U.K. trailer,which I think I like even better than the U.S. version.

(Side Note: Any pretense that this ISN’T an Alien prequel is officially out the window. It’s an Alien prequel.)

International Trailer


Review: 21 Jump Street

Quality Recycling

The 80s television series 21 Jump Street, featuring budding star Johnny Depp, played its premise straight. A bunch of young-looking cops infiltrate a high school looking to bust drug rings, and they fight their uncomfortable teenage pasts as well. Played serious, it comes off rather silly, especially from today’s vantage point, and so it seems a natural angle of approach to take the concept and twist it into the comedy it appears so ready to be. Enter co-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord along with their game stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who have fashioned a comedy reboot that defies preconceptions about both reboots and the vast majority of modern comedies: the movie is freakin’ hilarious.

The premise remains the same: two mid-20s cops pose as high school students and seek to take down a drug ring. But the perspective is quite different, which makes for some of the best comedy of the past few years. This isn’t a spoof in the mold of The Brady Bunch Movie or Starksy and Hutch, goofball retreads that mocked their source material from beginning to end.  21 Jump Street takes on its origins with some degree of respect and derives its most effective humor from ever-widening and ever-more frequent generation gaps. In a world moving this fast, a five-year difference between people can render communication and cultural relatability very difficult, and that odd fact has never to my mind been better mined for laughs.

One of the film’s best scenes comes when our two cops-turned-undercover-high-schoolers show up for their first day back at school. Their arrival has been pre-planned with the precision of a police raid. Channing Tatum, with a meathead charm and comic timing that is rather unexpected, plays a character who was cool in high school, and thus makes sure he and his geeky partner Jonah Hill drive a big gas-guzzling muscle car, avoid caring too much about anything, and (most importantly) wear their backpacks with only one strap over a single shoulder. You never two-strap it.

When they pull up, the school might as well be in another country. They see cliques they didn’t even know existed (Jocks, Goths, and…I don’t even know what those guys are), find students scoffing at the wastefulness of their hot rod, and discover that the cool kids are socially-conscious drama nerds that abhor bullying and cynicism. And everybody is two-strapping.

“This is all because of that Glee show!” surmises Tatum.

That and so much more, though as he and his partner learn, now all change is bad.

It’s this stream of social disconnect and change anxiety that fuels that film’s momentum, which admittedly lags some in the second half as the action plot kicks into gear. If you are completely unable to prepare for a place you were just seven years ago, how can you hope to adapt to whatever’s coming around the corner? The two leads, each very funny with excellent onscreen chemistry, find that nervous fear and use it both to make us laugh and to give their characters’ situations some humanistic heft. Crass humor and ludicrous violence put icing on the comedy cake, but the core of 21 Jump Street’s success is finding the hilarity in the chaos of a rapidly changing society where it only a takes a few years to become outdated.


The Top 10 of 2011

With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, it seemed like the last chance to post The Populist Art House’s Top 10 films of 2011.

It turned out to be a great year for film.  Whereas the bigger studio productions stood strong in 2010, this past year the smaller films really made their mark.  Many newer cinematic voices were heard, and old masters came back with excellent work.

So here it is, my Top 10 of 2011.

 

10.  50/50

The modern American comedy may be in dire straits, but this by turns touching and hilarious film gives hope to a moribund genre. Though cancer and laughs hardly seem natural partners, a great script and an incredible performance by the rising Joseph Gordon-Leavitt make many moments into amusing exemplars for the better ways we can confront our lives and the possibility of our end.  A graceful expression of the power of human connection in times of crisis.

9.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II

The fantasy epic has finally reached its cinematic conclusion, and the last film is a worthy close for a wonderful series. The stakes are sky-high and the characters who have spent seven films coming to life behave in touching, frightening, and surprising ways as the battle between good and evil descends on our beloved Hogwarts. The actors have all grown into their roles, and the excellent direction and stunning visuals combine with an enchanting darkness to create an excellent final chapter.  It’s been a wonderful ride.

8.  Meek’s Cutoff

A harsh and endless trek of a film, appropriate to its stripped-down story of a pioneer caravan heading west across an indifferent American wilderness. Kelly Reichardt lets her setting breath and watches as her characters study both the environment and each other in hopes of figuring out the way ahead. Michelle Williams lends an intelligent resolve to a very dire situation, and the horizon sitting across the endless plain offers no answer as to whether this journey will ever reach its destination.  It’s a parable of a nation finding its path, tough yet weary, with eyes always cast toward the darkness on either side of the trail.

7.  The Descendants

The central situation may not be the most relatable (don’t we all have the trouble of deciding whether or not to sell our $200 million Hawaiian land claim?), but Alexander Payne finds the humanity in every story he writes and every character he creates. The film is not so much about land as it confronting the pain left behind by ourselves and those we love, deciding whether to reject on the basis of that pain or to embrace it as part of the greater human puzzle. George Clooney is as good as he’s ever been, and Payne welcomes the beauty and slow pace of Hawaii while never letting them turn his film into a postcard.

6.  Warrior

What seems at first glance to be a simple tournament-fight flick turns out to be much more.  Flailing patriarchs and lost boy soldiers take to the MMA ring because that’s really the only thing they can do. There’s a desperation and wounded masculinity in the film which speak to an age where strong men are questioning their place as civilization seems to pass them by. A resurgent Nick Nolte earns the Oscar nom he recently received, but it’s the imposing Tom Hardy who owns the film as a hurt and angry child boiling inside the body of a terrifying goliath.

5.  Contagion

The best horror film of the year, and capable of doing for physical contact what Jaws did for beach vacations. The film’s plague may wind down thanks to the realistically heroic efforts of disease fighters, but the unease does not end at the credits, nor does it stay in the theater after you leave for home.  Steven Soderberg paints an anxious portrait of a world crammed together like never before, where the better aspects of our nature (making connections with the people around us, comforting those in distress) can be turned into the engines of our destruction. An all-too-plausible nightmare.

4.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A precise and engrossing old-fashioned spy flick executed to near-perfection.  It wrings more tension from people sitting in chairs and listening to phones than its modernized brethren could ever get from frantic chases and overblown set-pieces.  There is also a palpable sense of futility in the film that makes it all the more disturbing, a sensation felt by the waning British Empire during the Cold War that its best efforts make no difference against the rolling tide of history…a sensation of which we in America might now be getting a feel.  Gary Oldman is brilliant in the lead.

3.  Drive

Maybe it is all style. But my, what style.  A visually captivating and tonally perfect blend of Far-East samurai films, Euro-art-house mood pieces, and ultra-graphic American action flicks, no film this year burned up the screen with greater intensity than Drive. Ryan Gosling adds to his impressive recent resume with an iconic “hero” who is little more than psychosis wrapped in cool, but whose simmering presence and spectacular penchant for violence make it impossible to look away from him.  Also the best soundtrack of the year, hands down.

2.  Take Shelter

There’s something very wrong in our world today, isn’t there?  Some sneaking suspicion that one age is ending, and that a more uncertain and frightening era is about to begin.  No film captured the pervasive state of modern unease better than Jeff Nichol’s eerily quiet masterwork.  Michael Shannon delivers the year’s best performance as a working man plagued by dreams of a great coming storm, a powerful manifestation of a more general premonition of doom.  He is not afraid of losing out on greater gain so much as losing all that he already has; that the world as he knows it teeters on the brink. As potent a contemporary artistic comment as there was in 2011.

1.  The Tree of Life

A luminous and searching piece of poetic filmmaking as only Terrence Malick can produce, linking questions and events both gigantic and intimate as if there weren’t any difference between the two. Through breathtaking imagery and sublime storytelling, it blends the birth and maturation of the universe with the birth and maturation of single boy in 1950s Texas, evoking their beauties, terrors, and mysteries as pieces of the same spiritual cloth. A grand and profound work of pure cinema.

 

There were a lot of good films released in 2011.  Here is a list of honorable mentions.

The Artist

Attack the Block

Crazy Stupid Love

Fast Five

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hugo

Jane Eyre

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Midnight in Paris

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

War Horse

 

And here are my personal picks in the Oscar categories  (only one of which stands a chance of winning, in the cinematography category)

Best Director – Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Best Actor – Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)

Best Actress – Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Best Supporting Actor – Albert Brooks (Drive)

Best Supporting Actress – Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter)

Best Original ShelterTake Shelter

Best Adapted ScreenplayTinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best EditingThe Tree of Life

Best CinematographyThe Tree of Life

Best Art DirectionTinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Original ScoreThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Visual EffectsHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II


On TV: Luck

Strong Out of the Gate

With Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and the masterful Deadwood, creator David Milch has a rightful claim as the greatest world creator in the history of television. He takes full advantage of the medium, using the length of the televised format to lay out exquisitely detailed domains and populate them with a panorama of compelling characters who succeed and fail within the world’s finely defined parameters.

After tackling the concrete jungle of urban law enforcement and the scratch-built starter civilizations of the Wild West, Milch has now set his sights on the horse track in HBO’s Luck. A successful horse owner himself (he has two Breeder’s Cups on his mantle), it’s a world Milch knows intimately, and one where he clearly recognizes the potential to condense high-stakes human endeavors in a micro-universe where the main event starts and finishes in a matter of minutes.

And judging by the pilot episode aired last week on HBO, the project has the potential for brilliance.

There is a hint of vastness to the premier of Luck which can only be achieved through television.  At least a dozen primary characters are set up and given motivations and faults that will surely take more than season to flesh out in full. They are so well-sketched, their situations so compelling, that is easy to forget that the bulk of their actions and concerns revolve around horse races.

But Milch does not get so grounded into his characters that he neglects the visceral impact of the races themselves. They are at once elegant and brutal, with majestic animals pounding their hooves against the earth with the violence of thunder. The hopes and dreams of the people who dwell within this universe ride on the speed and minor changes in direction of creatures that have no idea what kinds of fortunes they can build of the lives they can ruin. Milch knows the eternal allure of sport, the way it boils lifetimes of effort and struggle into short win-or-lose displays of competitive excellence. And when you add the ever-fascinating gambling world on top of it, it makes for some of the most rousing television I’ve seen in recent years.

Michael Mann is an excellent choice to direct the pilot and establish the show’s visual palette. Much like Deadwood, Luck is a primarily a tough guy’s showcase, and no one films smart guys with large egos and devastating flaws better than Mann.  At his and the show’s disposal is one of the best male casts ever assembled on TV, with Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman in particular reminding us that they are still two of the most powerful screen presences around. From a motley crew of professional gamblers to a wunderkind Cajun jockey to a former track emperor just released from prison, these characters all come out of the gate and grab our interest while we know their stories will take a long time to tell, as they do in all of Milch’s work.

And if the show builds on the promise of its fantastic pilot, I’ll be along for the whole ride.