Saturday, January 19, 2013

Broken City Review

Broken City is Allen Hughes’ first solo directorial effort; he and his brother last directed 2010’s fantastic The Book of Eli (one of my favorite films of that year).  Based solely upon the pedigree of Eli, Broken City had me incredibly excited.  Mix an all-star cast, fantastic director, and an intriguing story and you would expect great things.  Unfortunately, while two-thirds of that shone though, City ultimately falters under a mediocre script with predictable twists and turns that left me just a smidge unsatisfied.

Mark Wahlberg’s Billy Taggart is an NYPD detective who ultimately loses his badge over a shooting he was involved in; he shot and killed the man who raped and murdered his girlfriend’s (Natalie Martinez) sister.  Despite not enough evidence existing to push the case to a trial, Billy’s badge is taken by the mayor of New York, Hostetler (Russell Crowe), and the chief of police, Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright).  Seven years pass and Billy becomes a private detective with a perky assistant.  With one week left until the mayoral polls open, Billy receives a call from the mayor’s office; Hostetler wants Billy to find out who his wife, Cathleen (CatherineZeta-Jones) is sleeping with.

Broken City is far more politically-infused than I had anticipated; to call it a political thriller would be quite apt.  The problem is that while City can be quite thrilling at times, it can also be incredibly predictable.  And confusing.  From the opening moments, as we find out that there is a witness to Billy’s supposed murder, it is quite obvious that this evidence will come back by the end, and if you’ve seen the trailers for the film you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.  City just thinks that it’s smarter than it actually is; political and corporate mumbo-jumbo is thrown around and just adds to the confusion of the overall plot.  With a film like this, twists and turns are expected, but when they’re telegraphed in the manner in which City handles them, it become less of “woah I didn’t see that coming” to “yuuuup, saw that coming.”

Despite its predictability and over-complicated narrative, Broken City is still very enjoyable - due mainly in part to great performances and some interesting direction from Hughes.  The entire cast is simply exquisite, with Wahlberg, Zeta-Jones, Crowe, Barry Pepper (Hostetler’s mayoral opponent), and Kyle Chandler putting in fantastic work.  Hughes infuses the entire film with a certain energy that isn’t present just during more action-y bits; for the most part, usually boring expository conversations are brought up a level by Hughes’ camera.  During one scene in particular, the meeting between Hostetler and Billy about the adultery, the camera is constantly moving, cutting from angle to angle whilst circling the two men.  This simple motion spices up the already-tension-filled dialogue and makes it that much more interesting.
By the end of the film, conspiracies are exposed and sacrifices are made…and confusion is perpetrated.  Thankfully Billy is way smarter and I to be able to sift through the corporate double-speak and complicated political drivel.  Broken City tries to be much smarter than it actually is and ultimately fails at delivering an intriguing and surprising political thriller.  Not every film can be The Ides of March.  Regardless of its downfalls, City is enjoyable enough to warrant recommendation…that is if you haven’t seen the bevy of great films from 2012 still in theaters.
Broken City aims high and falls short of being a top-rate political thriller, but features some great performances.
The Bearded Bullet.

Gangster Squad Review

Gangster Squad has been a very, very long time coming.  Slated to originally release back in October 2012, a crucial scene set in a movie theater was understandably re-shot in response to the deplorable shooting that occurred during the release of The Dark Knight Rises.  Upon hearing this news I was initially peeved that the artistic integrity of the film would be compromised; in retrospect this thought was incredibly foolish, as the newly-inserted scene is effective and adds to the story nicely.  Despite all of the delays and negativity associated with the aforementioned scene, I would say that it was mostly worth the wait.

I’m not saying that the film is perfect; it isn’t by a long shot, but at its core, Gangster Squad is incredibly entertaining and features some great performances and spectacular action sequences.  Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Squad tells the story about the LAPD cops who put down their badges to take down East Coast gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and his crime empire.  Hero cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is tasked with putting together a team to cripple Cohen’s empire; his wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), suggests he tap officers that maybe don’t have the shiniest records, for they’re likely to be the ones who can’t be bought.  This allows for a fantastic motley crew of actors and characters, each with their own specialty. 

Conway (Giovanni Ribisi) is the tech expert, Coleman (Anthony Mackie) is a beat cop and the muscle/interrogator, Jerry (Ryan Gosling) is the #2 to John’s #1, and Max (Robert Patrick) is the gunslinger who’s rookie partner, Navidad (Michael Pena), tags along.  While each character doesn’t get that much individual screen time (meaning their characters aren’t that well fleshed-out) they all have an important role to play in the narrative and each gets at least one or two great moments.  Emma Stone’s Grace Faraday is Mickey’s girlfriend, who falls in love with Jerry, gets barely more screen time than the squad, but is great with what little she has to work with. 

A running theme, for me, that permeates the entire film is that of missed opportunities – Stone doesn’t have that much to do and considering that her character is Mickey’s girlfriend they have very few interactions over the course of the film.  The members of the squad aren’t very developed in terms of character; we know enough about them to actually care about what happens to them but not much more beyond that.  This idea spills over onto the narrative as a whole.  The film clocks in under two hours and I could have easily done with 20-30 more minutes of character and narrative development.  There is only one real example where this is glaringly obvious – Cohen figures out that the men hitting his rackets are cops and just a few scenes later we see his thugs assaulting John’s home, etc.  Just a scene or two showing us how they figured out the identities of the squad would’ve done wonders to flesh out what is already a cool story.  I just can't help but feel that the narrative was condensed and rushed; perhaps this was was due to editing associated with the aforementioned re-filmed scene.

The theme of wanting more most certainly does not come into play when dissecting Sean Penn’s "performance" of Mickey Cohen.  To say that Penn is overacting might be the understatement of the decade.  He really doesn’t bring anything to the role that we haven’t seen before – tough guy crime boss has people killed in horrific ways to prove a point.  And he growls a lot.  When you’re in a film with Nick Nolte (who I enjoy quite a bit) and your delivery is harder to understand than his…well you have a problem.  His Cohen is fairly one-note (granted, that’s more a script issue than performance-based) and lacks any sort of finesse.  His performance didn’t necessarily detract from my enjoyment of the film, but a solid villain, when played with some subtlety (even if retaining some level of over-the-topness), can do wonders for your film (see: The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and The Expendables 2). 

Aside from some good performances, what I enjoyed most about Gangster Squad are the action set pieces.  Fleischer’s camera turns, dives, and swoops in unexpected ways – there’s a thrilling car-chase sequence that is just simply gorgeous.  Slow motion is peppered throughout many of the brawls/shootouts, with the finale being the most spectacular.  I will never tire of seeing rooms get shot up in slow motion, especially when it’s with M1 Thompson submachine guns.  The way in which these sequences were shot just make them pop off the screen (and no, Squad is not in 3D).

Both Zombieland and Gangster Squad solidify my faith in Ruben Fleischer as an action filmmaker (even if these two films lack in-depth character development), and I am that much more excited for his adaptation of Spy Hunter.  While this latest effort may not live up to its potential, Squad is a very fun time with some incredible action set pieces.  For me, this is a very good start to 2013.

Gangster Squad has some drawbacks, but more than makes up for them in style and being incredibly fun.

The Bearded Bullet.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Review

Zero Dark Thirty is most certainly one of the best and most controversial films of the year.  Kathryn Bigelow's latest directorial effort chronicles the decade-long manhunt (billed as "the greatest manhunt in history") for Osama bin Laden and the toll this endeavor took on one determined CIA operative.  ZDT is much larger in scope and scale in just about every way imaginable than her Best Picture-winning previous film, The Hurt Locker.  And much like that film, ZDT gets very much right and so little wrong.

Jessica Chastain's Maya is a new-to-fieldwork CIA operative sent to Pakistan for one purpose: discover and expose terrorist attacks before they happen, with the ultimate goal of finding bin Laden.  Admittedly, the first act is a bit rough, and not just because of the harsh torture tactics used on a captured "money man" (who in part financed the 9/11 attacks), but because early discussions and events can be a bit confusing.  ZDT does not attempt or pretend to hold your hand at all over its lengthy run-time.  Names, places, and acronyms are thrown around as if you've been watching nothing but CNN since 2001.  "UBL" is, of course, short-hand for bin Laden, but it took me awhile to figure out that "KSM" meant Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Bigelow also uses title cards to indicate dates and locations, but also as chapter titles, more or less.  The first chapter is "The Saudi Group," and it's actual meaning doesn't become apparent until you've fallen into the rhythm of the film and these different chapters.

It isn't until Ammar the money man gives us the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti that things start to settle down and really begin making sense.  Abu is supposedly bin Laden's trusted courier, delivering vital messages to other al Qaeda members...but has never actually been seen and is "impossible to find."  This one man becomes Maya's decade-long passion project; if you find Abu Ahmed, you find bin Laden.  The film jumps from event to event over the course of Maya's journey and we see her go further down into the rabbit hole as the years pass.  Each chapter/section serves an important purpose, whether to forward the plot or to demonstrate to us how dedicated Maya is in her pursuit of Abu Ahmed.  When her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), asks her to come with him back to Washington because she's "looking a little strung out," she quips, "I can't find bin Laden from D.C."  It's this frame of mind and dogged determination that pushed Maya to continue the hunt, despite hearing a confession from a prisoner that Abu was dead.

Zero Dark Thirty isn't nearly as action-packed as the trailers may have played it out to be - and that's most certainly not a bad thing.  ZDT is a very (in)tense drama with incredible dialogue and fantastic performances.  Chastain has already won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Maya and is most certainly the centerpiece of the film.  From her first moments we understand that she means business and that theme doesn't diminish at all.  Thankfully this immensely powerful performance is surrounded by an all-star cast: (the aforementioned) Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, and in a much smaller capacity, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt.  Not enough can be said about his talented ensemble, except that I wish some of the more bit players had larger roles, more specifically Edgerton and Pratt, but I fully understand that their part in the story was destined for the end.

Anyone who has been alive in the last decade knows how this story ends.  The assault on bin Laden's compound in Abbattobad, Pakistan, made news the world 'round.  A break in the case lead to the discovery of Ahmed's whereabouts; tracing his calls to his mother and his subsequent tailing lead to finding bin Laden's "fortress" compound (and in one of my favorite lines of the film, Maya points out to the CIA director that she's "the motherfucker who found this place").  Months were spent attempting to ascertain the certainty of UBL's presence.  A three-squad strike team was eventually assembled and equipped with experimental stealth helicopters...and the rest is history.

The actual compound assault comprises the third act and is some of the most intense, powerful filmmaking I've ever seen.  And it didn't matter that I knew what the outcome was.  Seeing this event depicted on screen, one of the defining moments in American history, affected me deeply.  I was on the edge of my seat and every door-breaching explosion or suppressed rifle-shot made my heart skip a beat.  I was actually brought to tears with the line "for God and country" upon the mission's completion.  Powerful stuff.

Ultimately the film poses the question, was it worth it?  Was it worth it for Maya to veritably sacrifice a decade of her life hunting one man?  The stakes were incredibly high and they took their toll on her physically and emotionally.  As the years passed she saw friends and colleagues come and go, some of them in body bags, all while she stayed the course.  The final moments of the film are incredibly bittersweet, as Maya silently reflects upon what she's gone through and given up in pursuit of the world's most wanted man.

Zero Dark Thirty is not fun, bombastic, or showy.  The material being dealt with is incredibly sensitive and still surface-deep for some.  Torture is not glorified; it was used to serve a purpose: to save American lives.  While Dan and Maya never outright show remorse for their subjects, it is quite obvious that it took its toll on them both.  They, and countless other men and women, did what they needed to do to stop further attacks.  Was it right or wrong?  That's up for each individual to decide.  The film isn't trying to take a stand, so to speak, but to simply portray what (may or may not) have happened in the course of finding bin Laden.

The Hurt Locker, despite being a fantastic film, seems like a warm-up compared to the masterwork that is Zero Dark Thirty.  Kathryn Bigelow shows her mastery of cinema with breathtaking cinematography, an incredibly intense third act, and writing and characters that we care deeply about.  I have no doubt that in time, ZDT will be looked back upon as a film that perfectly encapsulates our nation's journey and what our men and women in the armed forces and intelligence branches sacrifice(d) to bring justice to the man who orchestrated the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Zero Dark Thirty is a masterwork of cinema.

The Bearded Bullet.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Django Unchained Review

Django Unchained is incredibly violent, foul-mouthed, and shocking – all things that we’ve come to expect from Quentin Tarantino over his few-but-fantastic films.  Much ado was made over the material that this film covers, namely Southern slavery during the mid-19th century.  It was no secret that many roles in the script had revolving cast-changes; Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell both dropped out of the role that would go to Walton Goggins, and Will Smith turned down the lead because of the racist nature of the script.  I completely understand why these fine gentlemen turned down this film; it has already and will spark more controversy as the weeks go on.  While I enjoyed it quite a bit, Django is one of the hardest-to-watch films I’ve ever seen.

The second film in Tarantino’s impromptu trilogy about oppression and revenge (Inglourious Basterds having been the first), Django is set in the Southern United States in 1858.  Dr. King Schultz (played masterfully by Christoph Waltz) is a former dentist-turned-bounty hunter who is looking for the Brittle brothers.  He doesn’t know what these men look like so he purchases a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) who would be able to identify them.  The two partner up (King makes it a point that Django is now a free man) for the winter, killing targets and collecting their bounties.  The majority of the film deals with Django’s quest to rescue his slave wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  The film, on the whole, is fairly straight-forward; our duo kills myriad bounties for money or revenge.  What surprises and shocks about Django isn’t this simple story, but the incredibly violent acts depicted in the film.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m fairly desensitized to most violence (which is probably not for the best); two decades of violent games, television shows, movies, and YouTube clips have allowed me to see plenty of things that I probably shouldn’t have.  Django doesn’t necessarily feature the goriest sights I’ve seen (The Walking Dead probably holds that honor and that’s on network TV…), but most certainly some of the most uncomfortable and deplorable.  There were two moments in particular that were very, very rough.  Now, it’s important to understand that both scenes were integral to the story and serviced the plot well; they helped to establish the character of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in his first villainous role) and where his moral compass lands.

Candie owns and runs “Candieland;” a familial cotton plantation that’s been passed down through the generations.  Calvin operates the business with his head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, who is just sublime in this role), and specializes in “mandingo” fighting – gladiatorial-style death matches that pit slave against slave.  Upon first being introduced to Monsieur Candie (as he prefers to be called, yet can’t speak French), we’re shown two men battling it out, mid-fight.  The combat is incredibly brutal and literally bone-crunching.  This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen such brutal fighting, but in this circumstance, with Candie watching literally feet from the action, I was incredibly shocked and sickened.  Later, during the journey to Candieland, our caravan finds a runaway mandingo fighter of Candie’s.  After an incredibly tense dialogue between Django and Candie, Candie gives the order to sick a pack of dogs on the man; he is literally torn to pieces by the ravenous dogs.  Both acts are incredibly deplorable and visceral, yet serve to establish Calvin Candie as a despicable human being and a very clear antagonist to our duo.

It is within this utterly deplorable character that DiCaprio loses himself.  I absolutely love Leo in everything I’ve seen him in, and Django Unchained just very well may be one of his greatest performances.  He plays Candie with just enough Southern “charm” that we just absolutely love to hate him; he’s cordial and well-spoken, yet sends men to their deaths in his mandingo fights.  Leo is rivaled only by one other in this film: Christoph Waltz.

Waltz may not top his Hans Landa from Basterds, but he most certainly puts in one of the best performances of the year as the former dentist King Schultz.  I loved literally everything about his character; the bouncing tooth atop his carriage, his horses’ names, his accent, his eloquence when discussing the bounty-hunting business.  I understand that most of these examples are script-level, but Waltz brings incredible personality to the character that elevates it to another level.  Schultz is one of my favorite characters of the year, by far.

It must be difficult being the title character but not having the performance that everyone will be talking about, but the nature of the character of Django is inherently that much different than the aforementioned two.  Django is an analogy of Siegfried, a mythological German hero (that probably every high-school student learning German learned about, yours truly included), who is the quiet-hero type.  He goes through some trials and tribulations in search of “the girl” or “damsel in distress.”  Foxx is fantastic in the role, portraying an un-educated slave just off the plantation who becomes a well-spoken bounty hunter who has to adopt “characters” to fool their bounties.  This transformation may not be that realistic, considering the pair were together for only a few months, but Foxx does a great job with the role and deserves mention despite the non-showy nature of Django.

There are a few other performances that are worth mentioning.  Jonah Hill has a very small but incredibly memorable role as a member of a posse on their way to exact revenge on our heroes.  He’s hysterical in one of the funniest scenes that I’ve ever seen (comedies included) that involves KKK-inspired hoods and their poorly-cut eye-holes.  This scene alone makes me wish he had a larger role to play.  Props must be handed out to Don Johnson, who’s “Big Daddy” is a Colonel Sanders-lookalike-plantation-owner who happens to own the plantation where the Brittle brothers are working.  Much like Hill, Johnson’s role in the film is very small but incredibly memorable – can we just get a prequel spinoff film about these two characters?

The film’s narrative structure is a bit long-winded at times.  Actually, most of the time.  Django isn’t the longest film I’ve seen this year (we’re looking at you, Hobbit), but it felt very, very long.  This isn’t too much of a negative, but when certain scenes overstay their welcome it adds to the feeling of longetivity.  The examples of this that spring to mind are long traveling shots and scenes that are devoid of the snappy, witty Tarantino dialogue to move things along.  There’s one particular sequence of the main caravan arriving at Candieland that caused my one friend to quip, “well that was exhausting.”

Tarantino’s tendency to overindulge comes through in another key area of the film: the soundtrack.  The film’s score is as fantastic as one would expect from a western (or “southern” in this instance).  Unfortunately this was only for some of the film; contemporary songs, with lyrics, populated the rest of the soundtrack.  Frankly, I wish there would’ve been no lyrical music in the film at all, but Quentin disagreed with me.  Some of the musical choices suited the situation, but on the whole they were just overly distracting.  In the climactic final gun battle, a hip-hop song started blaring in my face.  In the moment, I was fine with it, but in retrospect it is probably the most glaring example of QT’s overindulgence.  Yes, most of the film is tongue-in-cheek but isn’t as self-aware of itself as to throw
in contemporary songs into a 19th century period-piece.  That scene would’ve been that much better had it been scored to an instrumental piece, perhaps something from one of the myriad “spaghetti westerns” that Tarantino is obviously paying homage to.

The good and the bad of the film thankfully don’t add up to “ugly.”  Django Unchained, in its entirety, is incredibly entertaining, visceral, and just fun to watch…if it’s not entirely historically accurate.  This is most certainly a “Tarantino” film as evidenced by the copious amounts of not-necessarily-realistic blood splatters, gratuitous violence, and incredibly witty and fast dialogue.  Fans of Quentin’s previous films will probably fall in love with Django despite its several detractors.  It may not eclipse Basterds, but it’ll certainly end up as one of my favorite films of the year.

Django Unchained fits very nicely into Tarantino’s stable of fantastic films, but is not without it’s flaws.

The Bearded Bullet.

Life of Pi Review

Life of Pi is one of the most visually impressive films of the year.  It is also one of the most touching, impactful films of the year.  What’s funny is that going into my screening I was staunchly skeptical about what I was getting myself into.  The trailers did virtually nothing for me; all I knew about the film was that Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger and that the film was steeped in religious overtones.  At least that’s what I thought.

Pi is much more than that.  Yes, at its core the film is about a young man, Pi, who is stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean, with only a hungry Bengal tiger as company.  His family was traveling to North America to sell the animals from their family-owned zoo when a massive storm hits the cargo ship.  In a fantastically-staged and immensely gripping scene the ship sinks, taking almost its entire compliment with it – Pi’s family included.  The first post-sinking moments are enthralling and terrifying; Pi is heaved about in the turbulent ocean, and in one of my favorite shots of the year he’s pushed under water and we get to see the chilling image of the cargo ship slowly descending to the ocean floor.  Pi is left devoid of any human companions for the duration of the film and his journey.  What follows are many scenes depicting events both beneficial and detrimental to our protagonist (i.e. catching a fish, dodging a tiger attack).  Every moment has a purpose and advances our characters (yes, the tiger, Richard Parker, is a main character) and their relationship.  Richard Parker deserves a “Best Supporting Actor” nod at the Academy this year.

The film is book-ended with the adult Pi talking to a novelist about his story and what he and his family went through.  On the whole, these sections are weaker than the actual journey itself but they are wholly required; Pi is narrating most of the adventure, save for a large swath in the middle of the film.  Not having his voice present in the middle hour or so was fine, but when the voice-over returned it felt a bit jarring.  I had actually forgotten about the modern-day aspect to the film, which is probably a good thing.  I was drawn in and immersed in Pi’s struggle for life on the Pacific Ocean.

I was concerned about the religious overtones I had heard about in the film, but in all honestly nothing bothered me whatsoever.  Yes, there are themes of believing in God and having faith that He will guide us (Pi), but they aren’t being shoved down our throats – and I appreciate that.  Pi is the sort of film with many layers of meaning, some hidden and some apparent.  I’m sure that every person will take from this film what they wish.  The message that I got from Pi is that of faith; and not necessarily from any one god.  Belief can be a powerful tool, whether you’re stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, or listening to a tall tale from a stranger.  At the end of the film, adult Pi gives an alternate version of the events we just saw transpire…a version that’s quite a bit grimmer.  He asks the writer (Rafe Spall) which story he prefers, and in a way he’s asking us as well.  It’s up to us, the audience, to determine which version we think is true and which we’d like to be true.  Both have the same outcome, but much different journeys.

Life of Pi is a beautiful, incredibly entertaining, and an emotionally moving film that hits it out of the park on every level.  I really don’t like being wrong about anything, and I must wholly admit that my disdain for and apprehension to Life of Pi was utterly unfounded and just plain wrong.  Pi is sure to be nominated for and win plenty of awards this season, and deservedly so. 

Life of Pi is a visually-stunning and intensely-gripping drama about faith and survival in the face of death.

The Bearded Bullet.