LAWLESS



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

There is an absolutely lovely and thrilling moment in Lawless, the new based on a true story film written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat about a trio of bootlegging brothers deep in the hills of Virginia.  When Jack, the youngest of the clan, decides to court the preacher’s daughter by swigging a full mason jar of white lightning and attending Sunday service, he enters a white clapboard building where long-bearded men in dark coats and women in crisp bonnets and starched dresses sing a hymn by shape noting, an almost feral and mesmerizing way of making music. 
When the congregation ends the hymn, they proceed to the tradition of washing one another’s feet.  When the preacher’s daughter takes Jack’s foot in her hand, it is way too much for him and he runs outside, leaving a shoe behind ala Cinderella, getting sick along the way.  This look at a religious service, an offshoot of Quakers and Mennonites, felt like entering new and unexplored territory, the sort of breathtaking scene one goes to movies to experience.  And Hillcoat gives it its due.  Unfortunately, once it’s over, we’re back to the more than familiar standard tale of bootlegging and moonshining.  But it was nice while it lasted.
Lawless is lovely to look at with ravishing and picturesque frames of the hills of Virginia in full, fall foliage and stark ones of lonely bridges in wintertime.  The costuming and sets give the story an intense period feel.  But in the end, Lawless feels like a movie in search of a story.
The plot is a bit general.  Some corrupt lawmen from Chicago come to town to take over.  But the Bondruant brothers, being the alpha male Ayn Randians that they are, refuse to buckle.  The story sort of lumbers along after this, making its way through a series of episodes that don’t feel like they’re really leading anywhere and with no satisfactory explanation as to why the Chicago gangsters take so long to try to wipe out the Boudrants.  And it all ends with one of those shoot outs that made me ask the friend I was with, “Just how close do you actually have to be to someone in this movie before you can hit them?”
Because of this lack of a clear and strong through line, the screenplay tries to hang the story around Jack’s neck and make his coming of age character arc the linchpin that holds it all together, to mix a metaphor or two.  But since Jack’s character is so annoying; because he’s such an idiot that you want to hit him up alongside his head; and since his journey isn’t all that intriguing or interesting, this probably wasn’t the best idea.  He does have a journey and he does get somewhere.  He reaches manhood the moment he can get himself to finally kill someone.  Of course, a lot of people had to die first so he could learn this, but as they say, you got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.  But still, the lesson got learned and I guess that’s all that matters.
The cast does the best they can.  Jason Clarke, as Howard the middle brother, who has a very expressive face and eyes, and Mia Wasikowska, as the mature for her age preacher’s daughter, probably give the best performances.  Tom Hardy mumbles through his lines, an approach that worked for Marlon Brando, but doesn’t quite have the same effect here.  Shia LaBeouf plays Jack and whether you think he’s any good or not will probably depend on how much you like his awkward, semi-nerdy, insecure becoming a child-man schtick.  For my money, I think he acquits himself quite admirably, and it’s not really his fault that his character isn’t that interesting.  But a special note must be made of Guy Pearce who plays Charlie Rakes, the Chicago germaphobe and sociopath with a messianic complex.  A preposterous performance in a preposterous role, it almost has to be seen to be believed.  One can’t tell if he’s terrible or he’s playing it exactly the way it was written, or both. 

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES


The oddest people pop up here and there in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, from Aidan Gillen (of Queer as Folk, The Wire) to Ben Mendelsohn (of Animal Kingdom) to Burn Gorman (of Torchwood, The Hour).  In fact, playing “who is that actor, I know I’ve seen him someplace before” actually became one of the greatest pleasures in watching the movie.  For the record, The Dark Knight Rises is better than The Amazing Spider-Man, but not as good as The Avengers, and kind of, sort of feels like a franchise running out of steam.  The first half is filled with a lot of talk.  A  lot of talk.  I mean, a whole lot of it. And all of the philosophical sort.  While this sort of tete a tetes between characters gave The Dark Knight a certain excitement (I can still remember the conflicts over whether the existence of a Batman was a good or bad idea and what the existence of the Joker meant in all it), here the arguments tended to fall flat, leaden down by a certain banality.  I quickly discovered that during most of it, if I looked around at the audience and studied the lighting fixtures on the ceiling, the time passed more quickly and I didn’t miss a thing when it came to plot.  As you can tell, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t really work for me.  It wasn’t a totally loss.  There were some excellent performances, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake, an ambitious police officer who was an orphan like Bruce Wayne.  Anne Hathaway was tres, tres amusement as Catwoman and enlivened every scene she was in (delivering her lines with a claw like emphasis—though I do wish she would gain a few pounds).  Marion Cotillard also acquitted herself well in a role that didn’t allow her to do much for most of the movie.  But the big problem came down to the performances of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Tom Hardy as the bad guy du jour Bane—neither of which were the actors’ fault.  The authors here (director Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) have never been able to make Bruce Wayne nor his alter ego remotely interesting.  What the character had in money, he always seemed to severely lack in personality.  Hardy had a different problem.  He wasn’t just hampered by a mask that hid his mouth (his most endearing feature), as well as prevented him from visually sharing his emotions (and also made it difficult to understand what he was saying—well, that wasn’t the mask, that was the sound engineers, I suppose).  He also played a character whose motivation for his actions were never very convincing and never made a lot of sense for most of the movie, and, to speak the truth and shame the devil, his bad guy just didn’t come near the complexity, power and evilness of the Joker.  There are a couple of big surprises at the end, both of which are fairly obvious about half way through the film, if not sooner.  And for me, the scenes that would have interested me the most, that would have given the movie that something more, were never fully dramatized—what Manhattan would look like under a fascist dictatorship run by a group of criminals.  In fact, this whole section never really made a great deal of sense to me.  Bane has said he is going to set off a nuclear weapon on an exact day, but no one seems to act like it.  It feels like one of these brilliant ideas that was never used to its utmost advantage.  In fact, the whole movie seemed rather tame in comparison to The Dark Knight.  The violence seemed less cruel and capricious; whether it did or not, it felt as if so much of it happened off screen.  It’s supposed to feel like anarchy has taken over, but it never felt particularly anarchic.  This time round Nolan, as director, only seems to come into his own when directing the action scenes where once again, New York becomes the new Tokyo (has any plot turn become a cliché so fast).  But when it came to the rest of the movie, it all sort of fell flat. 

WARRIOR


Saw Warrior last night, a story about two brothers who end up fighting each other in a mixed martial arts tournament. It’s almost insultingly formulaic, but the acting (especially Hardy and Nolte) is first rate. And once the final tournament begins, just try not to watch; just try. But as emotional as it is, the writers painted themselves into a corner and they didn’t really have a satisfactory exit strategy, though the director and actors works very hard to make you not notice.

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ME: Review of Inception


I write this review with fear and trepidation, and a little bit of sickness unto death, for worry of getting threats on my life; but I’m afraid Inception didn’t really work for me. I went with my friend Jim and we pretty much agreed that we were disappointed (though we whispered it to each other as we left the theater for fear of starting a riot); at the same time, my friend Donald was shocked that I didn’t care for it (he had already seen it a second time and thought it grand, simply grand). It’s not that I didn’t like any of it. It has some of the most impressive art and scenic decoration in recent memory, from the realistically detailed city scenes to the topsy-turvy, gyrating settings of the dream sequences, including a beautifully august fortress engulfed in snow that is the location for the final action scene. It also has what I call a brilliant Fred Astaire Dancing on the Ceiling Royal Wedding fight scene in a hotel hallway that is dazzling, simply dazzling. And I admired the effective performances of Michael Caine and especially Tom Hardy as a smart alecky team member who is annoying to everyone else but always cracks himself up. But beyond that, there was little here to impress me. Everyone is saying that the movie is so original. In reality, it’s actually more of a movie that adds to already existing mythology that began at least with Dreamscape (an underrated sci-fi film from 1984 starring Dennis Quaid) and continued on with The Cell, eXistenZ and Paprika, among others. And Inception does add a couple of fun new ideas, especially in that the subconscious creates anti-bodies to protect against intruders like Leonardo di Caprio’s Cobb character when he enters someone else’s dreams to retrieve information (though it is odd that the antibodies the subconscious creates here all seem to come from Hollywood action films since they can never seem to shoot anybody except when it’s convenient for the author). Also, the idea that time in a dream is longer than time in real life is pretty neat and reflects my own personal experience. But for me, the film fails due to a lackluster screenplay (by the director Christopher Nolan, but writing was never his strong suit) with bland dialog and characters (it’s sort of like Avatar in this respect) and, for a movie that probes the subconscious, a shallow view of psychology with the main problem of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) being that “daddy” didn’t love him enough. The plot never made a lot of sense to me either. Cobb’s whole motivation is to see his children again, which he can’t do now because he is wanted for murder in the U.S. It’s never explained why he just doesn’t fly his kids to a country without an extradition treaty if he wants to see them that much. And it’s pretty reprehensible from a moral standpoint to put all the other characters in danger for such a selfish reason. But the real plot problem for me is that I didn’t care whether Cobb succeeded or not; I never understood why I should be on the side of Saito (played by Ken Watanabe), the CEO of the company that is the main rival to the character’s dreams they are entering. In fact, because I didn’t trust Saito any more than Fischer, I actually hoped Cobb would fail, which kind of removes all tension from the plot. The actors try their damnedest to make the characters come alive, but as was said, only Caine and Hardy really break through. Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t seem to have much to work with and Ellen Page, like Gordon-Levitt, a very talented actor, seems a bit miscast, though she comes close. I could also go into the idea that my dreams aren’t remotely like the dreams in this film and that, no matter what di Caprio says, I always know when I’m dreaming and when I’m not; I’m one of those people who are very aware when he’s dreaming to the extent that I can sometimes control what is going on in them and have at times woken myself up when I don’t like the way things are going. But the one thing that really separates the dreams in Inception from mine is that I never feel physical pain when I’m dreaming; in fact, I never feel physical anything. It’s all pictures like in a movie. But not quite like the pictures in this movie. In fact, the only dream sequence in a movie that resembles what I see when I’m under is the Salvadore Dali set piece from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a whirligig of images and nonsensical events that lack any sort of outward logic. But I won’t do that.