Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

PREMIUM RUSH (2012)
Neat idea that wastes its potential. I like the premise of a bike messenger (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being pursued by a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon) who wants an envelope he's carrying. When it's just dealing with that, the movie creates some decent suspense, has some great kinetic moments, and whips up a sort of manic, cartoonish energy that pulls you in. But when the film slows down and explains the stakes a little too much and tries to make us care about these characters it just doesn't work because, honestly, who cares? The movie was smart enough when it was just a twisted take on Road Runner cartoons, and had a real chance at being fun (Michael Shannon is good in everything and gives great desperate psycho), but then the filmmakers can't be satisfied with character and goofy energy and has to try and try to really involve us in a little exercise. Not that kind of flick; it's a slight, 80-some minute film that can't be satisfied with what it is. **1/2 (I also think the film's tag line, "Ride Like Hell," would've been a better title if the film had maintained that same idiotic sense of fun.)

THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)
Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz are very likable in a smart, energetic, well-shot action thriller that never really rises above what it is. It takes place just to the side of The Bourne Ultimatum and has a lot of the same characters, but maybe tries a little too hard to justify its own existence as a spin-off. Not really a bad movie, I just didn't really care about what was going on, even as I found a great deal of it enjoyable. It firmly is what it is, and I respect that. I'm sure I'd even like it if I saw it again on cable or something. But I don't feel like I'll ever need to. **1/2

THE BALLAD OF NESSIE (2011)
Lovely short Disney film; its animation and tone reminded me of a Disney cartoon from the forties. It might have been right at home in something like Melody Time, even though it's not really music-based (though Billy Connolly narrates it in charming verse). Beautifully animated, and Nessie is a charmer. The short's message--that it's okay to cry--is a nice one to hear. ****

BERNIE (2011)
A surprising and charming, well-acted film about a real life murder. The central conflict it has with itself is that the actual murder--in which a single funeral director who is loved by his community shoots a mean old woman everyone hates in the back--is so hard to wrap one's head around. Bernie is such a nice, giving, generous man; no one can imagine him hurting anyone or anything. The community doesn't believe he did it, even after he confesses--and to the extent that they believe him, the old battleaxe had it coming, anyway, and must have goaded him into it. It's a murder story where the murder is so likable, so sympathetic, so seemingly guileless, that the murder seems to make no sense. So Richard Linklater tells the story by examining the situation through the gossip and interviews with the community itself--which is an interesting examination of a community as a single organism. It's less a character study than, I guess, a situation study; the real story is how the community reacts to the murder and immediately wants to forgive the murderer. I couldn't take my eyes off it; it was surprisingly involving. Jack Black is excellent in it as the title character. Someone will probably take me to task for this, but I think he's an underrated actor and people are holding an obnoxious comic persona against him. ****

GOD BLESS AMERICA (2011)
Bobcat Goldthwait wrote and directed this movie, about a man who loses his job (Joel Murray) and has inoperable brain cancer. He goes on a killing spree, killing people he deems bad for society, including a Sean Hannity type that Murray doesn't kill for his politics, but because his style of meanness has lowered the national discourse. It's an interesting, confrontational movie...it's extreme, but the targets it picks out aren't exaggerated at all. They're very much exact reflections of things our society is spending a lot of time and energy on that are ultimately distractions. It's interesting, because the movie could easily be some sort of white male wish fulfillment/empowerment fantasy; it was advertised as such, but seems to go right after the very audience it courted, which itself is noteworthy. The movie isn't completely successful; I'm not sure it could be. When things go dark and it stops being funny and in your face, and starts examining this character and what he stands for, it gets complicated and Goldthwait loses the plot a bit. I think that would happen to almost anyone who took it on. The character is too vaguely defined, and the concept is finally too big to humanize. It's like an op-ed piece that goes on too long and finally descends into anger and doesn't know how to end. But like I said, I can't imagine anyone being able to tame it. That may even be the point. I'm giving it *** because I think what Goldthwait tries to do is worth talking about it, even if it is very extreme and he doesn't finally pull it off.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)
Bold and original film about a community of poor people who live on one of Louisiana's decaying islands. I was very moved by the father-daughter relationship at the center of the film, which is really the story of five year-old Hushpuppy and how she faces her fears. I've been thinking about what the title means. I think it refers to the way people who live in the wilderness like the characters here can become dehumanized, not just by society but by their means, their surroundings, and the way they eke out their lives. For Hushpuppy and her father, survival can mean behaving as a cross between human and animal. I don't think the film really demonizes or sentimentalizes this; it just sort of observes it, drawing you into a girl's personal story so you can appreciate the strength she's forced to have without romanticizing it. The film sort of defies any attempts to force meaning on it, and it doesn't really explain itself. But it is also undeniably powerful and emotional. ****