Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush (2013)


Brains vs. braun; driving by the seat of your pants vs. driving by precision mathematics; put them together and they would most likely make the best Formula One driver in the world.  Separately, they are party boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and egghead Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).  Their mid-‘70s rivalry sparked interest, at least internationally if not American, in open-wheeled auto racing; a far more life-threatening sport a few decades ago than it is now.

Heated rivalries and grudge matches spark intriguing story lines in sports.  Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, and Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding are names that breathe fire into fierce competitions.  Would any of these folks have been as good without the other one to feed off of?  Well, Kerrigan probably would have.  The competitors in Rush are naturally polar opposites from one another in all respects save one, their desire to win. 

Starting down in the Formula Three trenches where the two leading men development their animosity toward one another and culminating on some of the fastest and most dangerous racetracks the world has to offer, Hunt and Lauda are convinced their respective life philosophies are the key to winning.  Pretty boy James hops from booze, drugs, and women into the driver’s seat.  Life is a game and humans are here to play it.  Tactician Niki knows smarts and perfection will lead to victory lane.  Through a drawn out series of smack talk and one-upmanship, these two racecar drivers could not be mentioned in separate sentences; Lauda and Hunt were a brand name.

Rush gives us more than name-calling and fast cars though; we also get their respective wives and off track behavior to complete their development.  James impulsively marries top model Suzy Miller (a heavily made up Olivia Wilde) but their relationship hides off screen until it’s time to pull the plug.  Niki sort of meanders into a marriage and even warns the girl beforehand that he can be difficult and does not want to be happy; happiness means you have something to lose out there on the racetrack.  I was unaware drivers are so introspective. 

Hemsworth and Bruhl are a joy to watch as macho men with too much swagger.  James is always up for a good time, but those moments before a race when he vomits his apprehension shows a hidden vulnerability.  Bruhl absolutely knocks its out of the park as Niki Lauda and steals the show.  He is strict with his crew, snobbish to inferior drivers, and is probably not the best conversationalist at the dinner table, but here is a man who knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and how he is going to achieve it. 

These parts, while effective in their individual scenes, fail to make a truly effective whole though.  Director Ron Howard found a good story from writer Peter Morgan (they worked together previously on Frost/Nixon, 2008) but there is no punch.  Niki goes through a devastating accident suffering gruesome burns to his face, but the previews already committed the sin of giving all of the interesting plot points away leaving only a few crumbs behind for the audience to discover. 

The racing scenes produce the adrenaline they want to out of you and the cinematography, which is invasive enough to march right up into the drivers’ facemasks, is laudable.  There is really something missing in Rush and I think it is in the script.  There are multiple conversations with the required platitudes about how their respective racing styles are effective or not or how they relish the competition, but they do not go deep enough.  Frost/Nixon showed some of the most riveting back and forths in the last decade; it is too bad some of that gravitas did not seep its way into Rush.     

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Peter Morgan
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer, Julian Rhind-Tutt

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prisoners (2013)


Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a Doomsday Prepper.  His basement is stocked full of propane canisters, non-perishable food items, water jugs, and everything else you would need to ride out the collapse of civilization.  He is a master carpenter, good with his hands, just taught his teenage son to kill a deer with a rifle; Keller is a man’s man.  He tells his son the most important thing he ever learned is to, “Be ready.”  When his young daughter is kidnapped, not only is family violated, his role as protector is shattered.  Keller was not ready for this.

The most practical thing in the world for Keller to do to get his daughter back is keep asking the prime suspect where she is.  If he will not willingly say where she is, asking will morph into intense torture until Keller gets what he wants.  The subject of Keller’s ire is Alex Jones (Paul Dano).  Alex is in his early ‘30s but has the IQ of a 10-year-old.  Unfortunately for him, his RV was seen in Keller’s neighborhood during the kidnapping.

The cops are on the case too, but Keller has no time for glacial speed and ineffective questioning techniques.  They are the ones who questioned Alex in the first place and cut him loose.  Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads the investigation and grills Alex pretty good before concluding he is not their man.  Loki is not an old and grizzled veteran yet but this is not his first time around the block either.  Wishing Keller would just stay at home and comfort his wife (Maria Bellow), Loki checks out the usual suspects.

Half of Prisoners is a police procedural following Loki as he tracks the kidnapper and the other half loiters on Keller and his inner turmoil while he agonizes and prays to figure out how far he will hurt another human being who he is only pretty sure knows where he daughter is.  Keller’s neighbor, Franklin (Terrence Howard), lost his daughter during the same kidnapping but seems inclined to let the cops sort it all out and lacks the stomach to join in on Keller’s vigilantism.  His conscience feels superior to Keller’s because while he will not participate too much in the brutality, he is willing to let Keller turn the screws on Alex in hopes he finally breaks.

The problem with Prisoners half and half plot lines is neither story gets it due.  We learn absolutely nothing about Detective Loki.  Intriguing tattoos cover his neck and fingers but we learn nothing about them.  The first time we see him he eats Thanksgiving dinner solo in a Chinese fast food restaurant.  Why so lonesome?  On Keller’s side, we know he struggles as a workman in a slow economy, has some deep-seeded fears concerning natural disasters, but that is about it.  For a two and half hour film, our two protagonists are left almost as blank at the end as the beginning.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated for Incendies, 2011) creates a tense atmosphere and the feeling that nobody is doing enough to find these little girls but he lets the film meander too long.  Less would have been much more.  10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins employs original camerawork, especially of Alex, as he is held captive in some claustrophobic quarters with just a sliver of light illuminating his grotesque visage. 

Writer Aaron Guzikowski needs an editor with a fresh red pen and could use help on the ending.  I will give nothing away, but the ending is weak.  The perpetrator gives an explanation and it is just a throwaway line.  We learn next to nothing about why – why did we endure 153 minutes full of relentless set up and red herrings to run smack into a soft landing?

Prisoners is bleak and gray; I do not remember the sun coming out once.  With such a cold atmosphere and gripping premise, the film should be as impactful as Mystic River was; unfortunately, the paper thin characters cannot hold up such heavy material.

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola David, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thanks for Sharing (2013)


Alcoholism as a subject gets a movie or two every year as do various stages of drug addiction; however, the issue of sex addiction does not come down the line too often.  There is debate on whether or not this is an actual disease or just a lack will power, but after seeing Thanks for Sharing, you will thank your lucky stars you do not suffer the uncontrollable urges these folks do.  Just walking down a city street is a struggle for a true sex addict.

Some people just need a fix.  The junkie needs another vial or snort, the drunk needs another bottle, and the sex addict just needs another quick release.  There are no feelings involved, perhaps some shame and regret afterwards, but that will disappear soon enough when another jolt is required.  To break out of their self-destructive cycles, there are 12-step programs for sex addicts.  These groups look like any other AA or NA group we’ve seen on the screen before, but these people are sharing some pretty gruesome stories of self-destruction.

Thanks for Sharing follows three sex addicts each in their own stage of the disease.  The group’s elder statesman, Mike (Tim Robbins), is 15 years sober, in a monogamous relationship with his wife (Joely Richardson), and has a junkie son, Danny (Patrick Fugit), who drops in and out of their lives whenever he needs some money.  This time Danny swears he is sober just by going cold turkey, a statement Mike does not believe for a second; only a group gives a man the strength to control himself he thinks.

Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is five years sober and maintains a strict lifestyle of no TV and no Internet.  He is so fastidious and honest with himself that he has the TV removed from his hotel rooms on business trips.  Adam’s test comes in the form of a new girlfriend, Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Going from zero intimate situations in five years to the start of a promising romantic relationship will not only be awkward for Adam in the form of explanations to Phoebe, but will stir up some barely-caged urges.

The group’s newbie and resident wise-ass is Neil (Josh Gad).  Neil has yet to hit bottom but he is not too far from it.  Joining the group by judicial decree and not too sure about this whole disease business, Neil still rubs up against women on the subway, tries to film up his boss’s skirt, and does not even begin to take any of the 12 steps seriously; he is still having a good time.  His urges are not helped by the group’s other new member, Dede (singer Pink billed as Alecia Moore).  Women sex addicts are welcome in the group too; however, they are noticeably outnumbered by the men.

Thanks for Sharing can get preachy at times; the persistent mantra that the 12-step program and group sharing is the only sure-fire cure is never too far away.  Our respective heroes encounter their various challenges and missteps impacting their sobriety, but the group is always there to pick them back up again.  Michael Fassbender’s character from Shame (2011) desperately needed a support group; however, that film was much more serious and strayed into far darker territory.  Thanks for Sharing ventures into deeper waters towards the film’s climax, but remains upbeat and perky most of the time as a romantic comedy. 

Written and directed by Stuart Blumberg who also co-wrote 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, Thanks for Sharing gives us a great ensemble cast, a juicy first role for Pink to sink her teeth into, and some melodrama mixed in with awkward jokes.  You won’t come away with any answers yet here a fine effort from a first time director and we get to see what the kid from Almost Famous (2000) looks like all grown up.

Directed by: Stuart Blumberg
Written by: Stuard Blumberg, Matt Winston
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Gad, Joely Richardson, Patrick Fugit, Alecia Moore, Carol Kane, Emily Meade, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Michaela Watkins, Poorna Jagannathan

The Family (2013)


The Manzoni Family fits into their European surroundings better than the Griswold Family did back in the ‘80s, but they are still on the same in of the horrible American spectrum.  They may live in Normandy but lucky for them, almost all encounters are automatically conducted in English, even in the local French school.  Also, if something does not go their way either in the grocery store or with the local plumber, they may always employ over-the-top violence, frequently with explosives, to fix the problem.

Former mafia boss Giovanni Manzoni, now known as Fred Blake (Robert De Niro), snitched on all of his comrades and fled into the arms of the witness protection program with his family.  They hit the protection jackpot because instead of settling somewhere like North Dakota or New Mexico, they have been to Paris, the French Riviera, and now a small village in Normandy.  Of course, the Blakes endure this as the worst punishment in the world; what kind of alleged comedy would this be if they calmly acclimated to their surroundings?

Wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) wanders the town for groceries, makes friends with the local priest, and buddies up to the FBI agents across the street who run constant surveillance on the family.  Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) is 17 and experiences some sort of sexual awakening when she encounters the local math tutor while 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo) immediately breaks into the local black market and sets himself up as the high school’s Don Corleone.   

The Family is a ridiculous farce.  Robert De Niro’s mafia don persona in the witness protection program is supposed to be amusing but he comes off way more violent than perhaps he was meant to be.  The movie even tries for ‘funny’ violence like dragging a guy behind a car to get him to talk or killing the local butcher because he tried to cheat you with some lobsters.  Seriously, Robert De Niro kills a guy for selling him some rotten lobsters.  Michelle Pfeiffer, using a horrible Italian/Brooklyn accent at times, blows up a small grocery store because some French folk mock her. 

The gruesome violence the Manzonis/Blakes inflict upon the local French villagers is almost cartoonish – as is the body count.  So many folk go missing or end up in the hospital with life threatening injuries it is hard to believe the gendarmes don’t show up with a tank and a bulldozer to drive these crazy Americans out of town.  Fred tells his neighbors he is a writer, finds an old typewriter, and starts to scribble his memoirs.  This is the trick to let us know some of his backstory as he narrates it to us as the screen fades to flashback.  He explains how nice of a gangster he was but almost of all of his examples involves shooting someone, beating them with a baseball bat, or even dipping them headfirst into a barrel of acid.

It would be easy to say this is not up to writer/director Luc Besson’s usual standard (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional); however, the style of The Family is now his new low expectation (From Paris with Love, Lockout, Taken 2).  Jack Black said it best in High Fidelity, “Is it far to judge a formerly great artist for his latter day sins; is it better to burn out than to fade away?”  The Family is another slide downhill for Besson.  The film is allegedly a comedy, but it is starkly unfunny.  This family comes off as just a bunch of thugs.  Each person finds their respective outlet, be it in writing, religion, love, or the black market, but it does not change the fact that it wouldn’t be so awful if the mafia goons still chasing them finally tracked them down and saved what is left of the rural French population.  

Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson, Michael Caleo, Tonino Benacquista
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, Tommy Lee Jones, Jimmy Palumbo, Vincent Pastore

Friday, September 20, 2013

Disconnect (2013)


More than a mere title, Disconnect is a recommendation.  Put down the iPhone, iPad, and, laptop, exit the chat room, pay your bills through the mail, and assume anyone and everyone you meet through social media is not who they say they are.  The scammers, thieves, and predators, already having used up their bag of tricks in real life, turn to cyberspace to wreak their malfeasance on the innocent, uninformed, and vulnerable masses just trying to check their Facebook pages.

Beware the melodramatic alarmist warnings Disconnect throws at you.  Every online interaction does not lead to the loss of money, dignity, or physical welfare.  Disconnect weaves together three after school special stories to shock the audience with the message, “This is what happens when you go online.”  Stealing this device from far better films such as Crash and Babel, Disconnect shows how inferior it is and begs the question of how it jumped ship from the Lifetime Channel where it should have landed in the first place.

Story one is about an 18-year-old boy performing sexual acts on chat sites for money and gifts.  Kyle (Max Thieriot) does not think about the future and sees nothing wrong bringing back homeless, underage boys to meet the guy in charge.  Reporter Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough), trying to make a name for herself at a minor local news station, pursues Kyle as her breakthrough story.  Cut to the chase – who is ultimately exploiting whom here?      

Story two, the weakest of the three, follows a grieving and estranged couple just going through the motions after the death of their baby.  Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) spends too much money gambling online and Cindy (Paula Patton) finds solace chatting with similar mourners in online support groups.  Their identity is stolen, their money disappears, and it was either the duplicitous gambling sites or some social engineering scammers on the chat sites responsible for it.

Story three, the strongest of the bunch, gives us an introverted, but musically talented, high school kid (Jonah Bobo) who makes a colossal mistake when he sends a very personal picture of himself to his online girlfriend.  His girlfriend is actually two of his adolescent male classmates pulling a prank.  If only Manti Te’o had seen this movie, he could have disconnected before his national humiliation.  Dad (Jason Bateman) tries everything to uncover what happened while Mom (Hope Davis) just wants everyone to come together as a family again.

Despite the Chicken Little sky-is-falling plots, the acting is noticeably impressive.  Bateman, in a rare dramatic role, Bobo, and one of the adolescent pranksters, Colin Ford, emerge from the rest of the pack, but there are no weak links. Director Henry Alex Rubin (Murderball, 2005) is slick with the camera but far too heavy-handed with the message, especially at the end when the stories all hit their climaxes at the same moment in similar shots.  First time feature writer Andrew Stern should go back to the drawing board and stop taking inspiration from the 11:00 news, “Up next, something in your house can kill you and we’ll tell you what it is after the break.”

Disconnect boils down to scaremongering.  These new and flashy machines are hazardous conduits for all of the evil people out there to get their claws into you.  Its profound takeaway is for you to look up from the screen and take part in the reality around you, not the alternative world hiding in the Wi-Fi.  The best thing you could do is just not connect with this film in the first place. 

Directed by: Henry Alex Rubin
Written by: Andrew Stern
Starring: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough, Alexander Skarsgard, Max Thieriot, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Haley Ramm, Norbert Leo Butz