Archive for August, 2012

Lawless

Posted in Crime, Drama, Western with tags on August 31, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketLawless, as its generic title implies, plays out like a direct-to-video crime drama. Ok I won’t mince words. Lawless is a stupefying bore. You’d think any movie concerning gangsters in 1931 would be nothing but nonstop excitement but you’d be wrong in this case. This story is about as distinctive as slice of Wonder Bread. Oops scratch that, Wonder Bread actually has some nutrients you can use.

Forrest, Howard and Jack are the Bondurant Brothers. They’re bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia and their family is the stuff of local folklore. Eldest brother Forrest has survived the Spanish Flu that took his parents. It’s believed that he can’t die. Indeed Forrest must be part feline because he clearly has 9 lives. He survives a violent throat slashing, being shot multiple times and falling into a frozen lake. It’s pretty ridiculous. Anyway the brothers run a successful moonshine business that ultimately attracts the attention of crooked lawman Charlie Rakes. He demands a cut of their illegal racket. They tell him to get lost and so begins a back and forth game of one-upmanship throughout the rest of the film. In between the occasional bursts of violence we get lots of static shots of landscapes.

The cast is what attracted me to this saga. Ironically it’s the incredible assemblage of talent that makes this drama so frustrating. They aren’t given anything exciting to do. I kept waiting for something riveting to happen. Tom Hardy portrays the oldest (and much larger) brother to Shia LaBeouf’s character. Hardy mumbles and croaks his way through this picture, but he has a presence. Shia is the runt of the family. I guess it’s commendable that he’s attempting to stretch his historical acting muscles as one of the Bondurant brothers, but he’s out of his depth here. They don‘t seem remotely like siblings. Hardy has more charisma in his upper lip that Shia has in his whole body. Guy Pearce stridently overacts as the corrupt special agent. He’s fascinating, so a welcome addition. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are fine in underwritten roles as “the girlfriends.“ At least Jessica Chastain looks ravishing amongst all these grimy outlaws. Gary Oldman pops up in a brief cameo as sympathetic criminal Floyd Banner. And then poof he’s gone.

The script attempts to depict these brothers as visionaries. It’s based on a 2008 book called The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. The production values are gorgeous. It gives the film the look of quality. And the soundtrack is dominated by folksy bluegrass songs the way movies set in the 60s flood the soundtrack with #1 hits of that era. The author was glorifying his grandfather and great-uncles. It’s obvious he wants them to appear as mythic heroes in a Prohibition-era fantasy. But Nick Cave’s screenplay (Yes that Nick Cave, of the Bad Seeds) turns them into rather dull outlaw clichés of the day. Forrest’s girlfriend Maggie rebukes Forrest at one point and says “Ain’t that just like you, to believe your own damn legend.” She sees right through them and so do we. They’re simply a bunch of guys making moonshine during a time when such activities was against the law. This is thoroughly conventional material. I struggled to see why their story deserved a film. These people aren’t legendary. Yes, the period is fertile ground for stories. The script should’ve been a slam dunk in entertainment, but it falters on two counts. Not only does it fail to make these criminals admirable, it can’t even make them seem interesting. Lawless is aimless.

Rififi

Posted in Crime, Drama, Film Noir, Thriller with tags on August 29, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketReservoir Dogs, Mission: Impossible, Ocean’s Eleven. They all owe a huge debt to Rififi. The 1955 French crime caper is considered by many to be THE heist film, the one by which all others must be judged. It’s hard to disagree. It captivates with crackerjack dialogue, a dynamic cast and a level of detail rarely found in the cinema. How detailed? Well, let’s just say the picture was banned in some countries. Not because of sex or violence, but for the burglary featured at the center of the plot. The realistic presentation on how they commit the robbery made people uncomfortable. It’s a fascinating 30 minute highlight notably lacking in dialogue or music. The actor’s faces and cinematography tell the story. It’s one of those exhibitions that while unfolding, you forget you’re even watching a film. It’s simply you and the flickering images on the screen. Time seems to stand still.

In a career of highlights, Rififi remains American director Jules Dassin’ s most celebrated work. His output spanned 4 decades that was beset with hardship in the McCarthy era. He initially made his mark in Hollywood with film noirs like Brute Force and The Naked City in the 1940s. During production of the Richard Widmark movie, Night and the City, he was accused of Communist Party affiliations in his past. After being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he moved to France. Following a slow start, Rififi was his first effort there. It was a success and he won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. His profession revived, he would later go on to direct Never on Sunday (1960) and another lighthearted thriller inspired by his own Rififi, Topkapi (1964).

Rififi is a masterpiece employing unknown, but engaging actors that bring life to a story that is endlessly entertaining. You gotta love a script that has the audience rooting for the criminal’s victory in breaking the law. What would any crime movie be without colorful characters that form our core crew. Tony le Stéphanois is a gangster recently released from a 5 year prison term. He’s the elder statesman of the group, and the godfather to the son of his close friend Jo. Jo approaches Tony for one last diamond heist. Also joining them are a likeable Italian named Mario. His compatriot, César, offers his safecracking skills. He’s played by none other than the director himself under the pseudonym Perlo Vita. The jewelry theft is the centerpiece of the saga, but it’s not the climax. The heist is only one component of this adventure. There’s a pulse pounding sequence of events that follows that makes this account a satisfying commentary on human weakness. One particularly memorable scene shows the violent consequences of betrayal. There’s honor among thieves.

So what does Rififi mean anyway? It’s adapted from Auguste le Breton’s novel Du rififi chez les hommes. The word is referenced in a song that Viviane, a sexy singer at the L’Age D’Or nightclub, sings. But the title is never said by any other actor. It’s basically Parisian street slang that roughly translates to ‘rough n’ tumble’.

Searching for Sugar Man

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Music with tags on August 26, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Note: Because I don’t want to lessen this documentary’s impact, this is spoiler free. As a result, my analysis isn’t as specific as I would like it to be. However what my review lacks in detail you will gain in enjoyment when you watch the film. And I beseech you, please watch this film. It should be noted these surprises can easily be discovered by casual research regarding the subject. Therefore avoid all articles (except this one of course).

PhotobucketTwo aficionados endeavor to discover what became of their favorite recording artist. Rodriguez was an American singer-songwriter from Detroit who released two albums: “Cold Fact” in 1970 and “Coming from Reality” in 1971. Both flopped in the U.S. Maybe it was the songs’ highly politicized message, the pervasive drug references, a failure of marketing or perhaps something else altogether. Why Rodriguez never connected with the American public is a question one may ask any entertainer of undeniable ability. His fate is not unlike the thousands of other talents who never make it. Except this tale is notably different. “Cold Fact” found its way into Cape Town, South Africa where it was warmly accepted by progressive Afrikaners rebelling against the government. Bootleg copies were made and spread rapidly amongst white South Africans who embraced his music as a soundtrack for the anti-apartheid movement. Yet these fans knew little about their idol’s life. One rumor claimed that he’d ended it by committing suicide on stage by setting himself ablaze.

The film’s narrative focuses more on the quest of two South African fans to make sense of what happened to this musical icon rather than in shedding light on the man himself. The search was spearheaded by an indie record store owner named Stephen Segerman and an investigative journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom back in the late 90s. Along the way we‘re treated to a generous helping of Rodriguez’ work. It becomes a saga of how a performer’s legacy can touch the lives of their listeners in ways they may never know. Rodriguez’ blend of folk and funk with a side of country seemed to fit perfectly within the psychedelic landscape of the early 70s. Bob Dylan is an obvious influence. If you enjoy his style of music, this soundtrack is a must.

Searching for Sugar Man presents an inspiring tale of one Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. He remains an enigmatic mystery even by the end of the feature. His face constantly shrouded by large sunglasses and a mane of black hair. It spoils nothing to say the two fans featured do ultimately uncover the truth. As promised, the unexpected developments will not be revealed here. The documentary can be seen as a meditation on the unpredictable tastes of the masses. Why musicians can sell millions of records in one country and be virtually ignored in another. Rodriguez story is a fascinating one. This is a movie for anyone who has ever toiled in obscurity doing something they loved without recognition or success. An uplifting docudrama that celebrates the joy of a human life.

Premium Rush

Posted in Action, Thriller with tags on August 24, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketPremium Rush resembles the title for a cheesy action flick from 1994. That banner year gave us On Deadly Ground, Terminal Velocity and Drop Zone. Factor in that it’s being released in the notorious dumping ground of late August and there’s every indication that this movie is going to be bad. What a refreshing surprise that the film is actually enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing you’re going to remember 2 hours after you’ve see it, but while it’s playing, it maintains enough pizzazz throughout. It breezes by in an efficient 90 minutes and we’re treated to an engaging adventure for the duration.

Wilee is a bike messenger. The story opens as he’s flung through the air from his cycle to the pavement. In flashback we meet Nima who pays a money launderer $50,000 of her own hard-earned savings from working 3 jobs. She acquires a mysterious ticket that she must have delivered to “Sister Chen” in Chinatown. Wilee is the one entrusted to deliver this precious cargo. But what would a tale be without an antagonist? That’s where Bobby Monday, a crooked NYC policeman, steps in. He is deep in debt to the owner of a Chinese gambling den and wants to get his dirty hands on his valuable delivery. Michael Shannon is high strung and wacky as the rogue cop. He’s playing up the ridiculousness of the whole picture with a shameless performance delightfully lacking in subtlety.

The plot plays out like a confusing puzzle that becomes clearer as the story develops. Mostly it’s no more than a swell exercise to show lots of cool scenes of bikes weaving in and out of NYC traffic. It’s a treacherous occupation intensified because Wilee’s bike doesn’t have brakes, nor does he want them. That’s right, he’s a hipster with a devil may care attitude. As Wilee zips around the city, we’re presented the distinct paths he has the option to take, each demonstrated with the often disastrous collisions that seem to be a common part of his job. These various “what if” sequences illustrating the alternate directions with GPS lines, are exhilarating. It’s the film’s strong suit.

Premium Rush is simply a good old fashioned action B movie. There’s not much logic or depth. The narrative rarely pauses for you to even make sense of what’s happening. It’s just go go go from one scene to the next. But it’s an entertaining ride all the same. As the chases unfold, they feel genuine and dangerous. It got my adrenaline pumping. I flinched on several occasions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt had to receive 31 stitches as a result of a very real crash landing through the rear window of a taxi during filming. The aftermath is notably shown in the middle of the closing credits. The hyperactivity works to the thriller’s favor. But when it’s all over, you’ll be hard pressed to recall any of it a day later. Premium Rush sounds like the latest energy drink. It functions as one too: high in caffeine, but low in nutritional value.

Silent House

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 23, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketIt’s never a good sign when I can barely extract the desire to write a review for a given film. Silent House didn’t even interest me when it was originally released to theaters back in March of 2012. My instincts were apparently spot on. But on video it had slightly more appeal. When I finally did watch this in August (which is when I dated this entry) it was so underwhelming I actually put off composing my thoughts for two months.

This little horror/thriller concerns a young woman who returns with her father and uncle to fix up their remote summer cottage that has fallen into disrepair. While there she becomes trapped within the house terrorized by what we believe to be squatters living in the home. The lights go out, doors are locked, someone tries to grab her from under the table. She encounters various “scary” moments for 87 monotonous minutes until the big reveal at the end.

Silent House is an uninteresting haunted house tale with a trashy ending that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. The production does have the distinction of appearing to be shot in real time using one long continuous take. Honestly I wouldn’t have even realized this if it hadn’t been pointed out to me. It gives the cinematography a novelty factor, sure, but it certainly doesn’t make the story better. Elizabeth Olsen is an actress to watch. She is engaging in the part and the sole reason this hokum has any merit. Because of her we do care for her character. The problem is she really isn’t allowed to do much besides act frightened and scream.  Otherwise this is one tedious crawl to a “surprise’ conclusion that is lazy and clichéd. The only fear is that you might roll your eyes to death.  Skip this.

ParaNorman

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on August 21, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketParaNorman is an extraordinary film, a benchmark of stop motion style. It’s always a danger to make grandiose claims like that. No critic wants to be remembered as the guy who gushed that I Am Legend is “one of the greatest movies ever made.” And I’m certainly not saying that, but ParaNorman is refreshing. It’s such a heartfelt throwback to an earlier era, I feel confident that it will stand the test of time with other modern animated classics as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. Because it deals in horror, ParaNorman recalls those predecessors, but it brings innovation to the genre.

The story is simple enough. 11-year old Norman Babcock watches an old zombie movie on TV while his grandma sits on the couch. The problem? Norman’s grandma has been dead for years. His family laments his inability to behave like a normal well-adjusted kid. But the truth is, he really can see and speak with spirits. Norman is a misfit. His friend at school, a rotund, redhead named Neil Downe, is a bit of a outcast as well. They’re residents of the New England town of Blithe Hollow, known for witch burnings in the 1700s. Turns out Norman’s ability just might be the one thing that can save the town from a centuries-old curse. The stop-motion animation studio behind ParaNorman is Laika, Inc. They’re clearly a contemporary force to be reckoned with. This is only their second feature as they also created the exemplary Coraline in 2009.

The cast is perfection. The production goes one step further and has them articulate roles that are diametrically opposed to the persona they play in real life. For example Mitch, a bodybuilding airhead, and Alvin, the school bully, are given life by actors that are nothing like those descriptions. Talented actors whose voice may sound familiar, but aren’t easily identifiable. I think the most effective performances radiate personality but aren’t so recognizable that you’re reminded of who it belongs to. For that reason, I won’t “out” the players involved. I’ll simply say each actor gives a vitality to their respective character.

I appreciate a more subversive edge in my so-called children’s entertainment. There’s often a hyperactive quality in cartoons that equates frantic with funny. I appreciated ParaNorman‘s subtler moments that cultivated a quieter tone. There is a genuine attempt to entertain adults with humor much in the same way that Rango did in 2011. Once again, an animated picture has the novelty to be ugly. ParaNorman is part of a grand tradition of the macabre that is reminiscent of the work of Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket. These artistes employ a sinister atmosphere that cut through the treacle of children’s entertainment. ParaNorman combines unconventional wit and spooky overtones with just enough warmth to shoehorn in a message when you aren’t looking. If I have gripe, it’s that the climax drags a little with an ending that isn’t quite as streamlined as the rest of the story. I found myself checking my watch during the protracted conclusion. But that’s more a testament to the superiority of everything that came before. ParaNorman is among the best of 2012. I loved this film.

Note: Stay until after the credits for a sped up scene that briefly shows the labor involved in creating the puppet of Norman.

The Raid: Redemption

Posted in Action, Crime, Foreign, Thriller with tags on August 20, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Photobucket“If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it!” — Bart Simpson

As I sat watching The Raid averting my eyes every now and then to instances of bloodletting too disturbing to stomach, I reflected upon this quote. The movie’s raison d’être appears to be devising a myriad of interesting ways in which to dispose of human life. There’s bullets entering skulls, knifes ripping through flesh and good old fashioned hand to hand combat. Apparently it’s pretty easy for most people to slip into a primitive state whereby Darwin’s survival of the fittest validates the instinctual urge to “kill or be killed”. Critical acclaim on the site Rotten Tomatoes currently hovers at 84% positive. I can appreciate that there’s a visceral high from checking one’s sense of decency at the door. I’ll sheepishly admit that I have no problem with violence when it justifies the story. Quentin Tarantino has based an entire oeuvre on this fact.

Where the narrative fails is that the assaults are the story. The Raid resembles a video game, where trivialities like plot and script are irrelevant and the object is to kill! kill! kill! allowing one to obtain the maximum high score. In that respect, director Gareth Evans succeeds. The body count is astronomical. Yet even then the fight scenes often brought an unintentional smile to my face. Did it ever occur to these attackers that they’d achieve greater success if they charged all at once, rather than spacing themselves out one or two at a time? Of course then we wouldn’t get the elaborately controlled events in which every altercation is at least a 10 minute minimum.

Director Gareth Evans’ actors are more athletes than thespians displaying impressive feats of acrobatic skill. Case in point, star Iko Uwais who plays the lead, also serves as the fight choreographer along with fellow actor/martial artist Yayan Ruhian. Given the technical brilliance of the altercations, comparisons have been made between this and the South Korean thriller Oldboy. Indeed there are physical encounters contained within that rival the corridor scene of that modern classic. This movie is all corridors actually. One particularly memorable spectacle starts with a combatant smashing through the floorboards of a room with an axe. After jumping through that hole, the camera continues to follow the guy through the opening still filming from behind. I’ll admit it’s an unique point of view. However the dramatic structure of Oldboy is light years beyond the simplistic storytelling found here. There is no plot, only sadism. The carnage is virtually non-stop, only occasionally pausing for someone named Mad Dog to deliver a line like “Pulling the trigger is like ordering takeout.” Now I know how Alex felt in A Clockwork Orange when he was being administered the Ludovico technique by Dr. Brodsky.

NOTE: This review is for the unrated cut released to Blu-ray, not the R rated version distributed to U.S. theatres back in March 2012. If this edit held an MPAA rating, it would most likely be NC-17 for the extended shots of graphic violence.

The Campaign

Posted in Comedy with tags on August 17, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Photobucket“War has rules. Mud wrestling has rules. Politics has no rules.”  — Ross Perot

And so begins The Campaign, a political farce in which Cam Brady, a congressman from North Carolina, is running for his fifth consecutive term, unopposed. With Brady slipping in the polls, two superrich businessmen decide to encourage a different pushover to run. They subsequently hope to control their patsy to sign legislation favorable to their own interests. Cue Marty Huggins, an effete, sweater vest wearing tour guide with two pugs, a zaftig wife named Mitzi and two chubby sons. With 8 weeks to go in the election, he enters the race. What follows is a back and forth game of one-upmanship as the two candidates clash with each other on the campaign trail.

Overall The Campaign is entertaining. Surprisingly most of the jokes are fairly non-partisan, guaranteed not to offend either side. In fact the biggest laughs have nothing to do with politics at all. Given the hostile and polarizing political environment, perhaps the path of least resistance is best. When Marty warns his family they will soon be under a lot of media scrutiny, he encourages them to divulge any secrets so as not be revealed publicly as a surprise later. The scandalous confessions that follow are an ever increasing litany of sins that grow more and more ridiculous. I’m still laughing at what they said. Unfortunately what starts out as really promising, stumbles with random developments that are silly, but not funny. Marty revealing a story Cam wrote in the 2nd grade about “Rainbow Land” and labeling it a “communist manifesto” at a debate is stupid enough, but when the assembled crowd becomes unglued over the document, the scene lacks the credibility necessary for humor.

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis work well together. Seeing Marty Huggins find his mojo and go toe to toe with the greasy Cam Brady is a delight, particularly in their various debates. Despite some obvious lapses in hilarity, The Campaign is an amusing movie. And so it’s truly unfortunate that the conclusion is so wretched. The saccharine resolution is such an utter betrayal of Will Farrell’s character that it’s enough to make you write off the whole picture altogether. I’m talking a complete about face, 180 personality shift with no justification whatsoever. It’s shameful. The thing is, I laughed quite a lot during the first half and so I’m willing to forgive the heinous plot development. If you’re seeking trenchant political satire, look elsewhere. The script has no teeth. However if you want to laugh, this should fit the bill. Vote YES to watching The Campaign, but NO to the worst ending of any comedy all year.

Hope Springs

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 14, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketKay and Arnold have been married for 30 years. They still love each other but they’ve settled into a routine existence. “We live in the same house like two workers who bunk in separate rooms” she laments. Not happy with the way their marriage has evolved, Kay seeks to attend sessions with a renowned counselor in an effort to relight the spark in their humdrum relationship. That’s it. That’s the story. This is a situation that occurs in marriages all across the world. There’s nothing especially innovative about the tale. The performances are another story. Our two leads are extraordinary. Interestingly, the tone is surprisingly darker than you might think. Certainly no one would confuse Hope Springs with the existential themes of an Ingmar Bergman picture, but nevertheless the emotional mood is pretty dour and depressing.

Hope Springs isn’t a horrible film. Tommy Lee Jones and in particular Meryl Streep are as miraculous in their roles as any actor could possibly be. It’s positively mesmerizing how they can hold your attention with merely a facial expression or vocal inflection. They bring a lot to the parts. Unfortunately the vast majority of the action takes place in a therapist’s office. Had it not been for their involvement, this would have been absolute torture to watch. I wish this had been a live play on the stage because dramatically it would’ve been more effective. I do feel this will have greater significance to couples of a certain age that have been married for many years. The script gently affirms the idiosyncrasies of a longtime couple. Streep and Jones inhabit these characters with the sincerity of performers that perfectly understand these people. There are some scenes between the two legendary thespians that are exceptionally credible. Their unease with the intimacy exercises their therapist has prescribed, is an amusing plot point. It becomes genuinely uncomfortable. There are cringe inducing displays where Kay and Arnold must push themselves to engage in activities they wouldn‘t normally do. They’re patently designed to provoke laughter, much of it being of the nervous sort.  It gives new meaning to why a person in their 60s is called a sexagenarian.

Liebster Blog Award

Posted in Awards on August 14, 2012 by Mark Hobin

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It’s always an honor when your fellow bloggers recognize the work that you do. Fast Film Reviews has been awarded the Liebster Blog Award by Fernando at Committed to Celluloid, Alexander at Cinemaniac Reviews and Garrett at Cinema Train. Thanks fellas.

This award is also sort of a “chain letter” that entails a few responsibilities.

Click here to read the entire post

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