Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) – Leave it to genre masher extraordinaire Rian Johnson to come up with one of the greatest time travel movies in cinematic history. After successfully blending a 30s gumshoe drama onto a teen movie in Brick and grafting dark whimsy onto a heist drama in The Brothers Bloom, Johnson makes the perfect fit to take on a conceit generally known for outstandingly lazy writing and a sub-genre in desperate need of a kick in the pants. Looper is anything but lazy, and it definitely breathes now life into its core gimmick. Writing off the potential for logical and scientific pitfalls, Johnson openly admonishes early on that time travel isn’t the point at all in this dazzling mob hitman potboiler that meets up with a family drama partway through with unexpected and deeply satisfying results.
In the year 2044, a wetworker with a blunderbuss named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) carries out contract killings from the mob in the future, waiting in the middle of open Kansas farmland for another target to arrive in a blanket with a sack over their head from 30 years down the road. In that future, time travel exists, but is illegal, and the mob sends back hits to the past so the bodies can be erased without any trace. The employment of these killers, known as “loopers”, only lasts for a short period of time before they eventually have to kill their future selves with a huge payday attached to make sure they’re set for the rest of their days. When it comes time for Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) to take one in the back of the head, however, he escapes leading Joe to literally go on a search for himself. The search leads him to a farm run by a standoffish woman (Emily Blunt) and a young child, who might just be the reason future Joe escaped in the first place.
Johnson does a perfect job of building a futuristic world that’s equally relatable and wholly original. Not quite Phillip K. Dick and not quite steampunk, Johnson cribs from a fount of different inspirations to ground the story in a sense of reality. Science doesn’t really enter the film, but the fiction itself is extremely sound thanks to one of the most tightly constructed scripts of the year. The actual building of the world takes time, and the stakes are almost tantalizingly made obvious to the audience before the characters can realize the gravity of the situation. He never skimps on plot, and if there’s one fault to be found in the film, it’s that some viewers might just think there’s far too much going on. It’s definitely a form of overkill that Johnson’s dabbling in, but it all fits together quite nicely.
He also gets a chance to show off a side of himself as a filmmaker that he hasn’t previously made know. Johnson can direct one heck of an action sequence, and he can do it in a variety of ways. He can take a gorgeously photographed rooftop chase, a shootout, a stand off, a sonic explosion, or a full on one man siege and make them all feel like they belong in the same world, but were obviously made by a filmmaker who didn’t want to give the audience the same action sequence twice. He also certainly doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the job at hand, with graphic violence including eviscerations, dismemberments, and point blank shotgun blasts to the head, put to good and effective use instead of making them seem exploitative.
Levitt and Willis also continue great years for the two literally perfectly matched foes, following The Dark Knight Rises and Premium Rush and Moonrise Kingdom, respectively. As the younger Joe, Levitt plays a futuristic YOLO type that’s content to ignore how screwed up the impoverished world around him is, socking away his earnings while simultaneously acting brazenly with regard to his health and well being. He’s an insufferable brat with a talent for all things illegal that needs to learn a natural lesson. As a young version of Willis, Levitt nails the mannerisms and voice of his older counterpart, even if his facial prosthetics are somewhat jarring to look at every now and then.
Our introduction to Willis, on the other hand, comes in a wordless and gorgeously realized sequence that tells us all we need to know about Joe between the botched hit and where he would have ended up. It’s not pretty, but the audience explicitly sees the lessons Joe would have yet to learn. Upon his return and confrontation with his younger self, Willis has years of knowledge and experience to draw on, making him unsympathetic towards the man he used to be. Granted, Willis gets to partake in the lion’s share of action here (doing far more exciting stuff than he got to do in Expendables 2 just over a month ago), but he also has the harder role to play. Young and old Joe have considerably different motivations and endgames in mind, but while the young man seems content on killing himself (and who at his age doesn’t really do that already?), the older man comes with the intention to preserve lives in the future that mean more to him than his own well being. And by the end, even he might turn out to be wrong.
The supporting cast also comes stacked with strong workers. Emily Blunt plays almost like a reformed and not much older version of Joe, blending a harshly realistic point of view with a motherly instinct that simply can’t be turned off no matter how much she tries to stay battle hardened. Also on hand and assisting nicely are Paul Dano, as a young looper who essentially tells us all we need to know about the characters, and Jeff Daniels as the chief mob heavy from the future who oversees the entire operation.
The twists and turns in Looper are almost magical in terms of how well they work. There’s a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the film that attentive viewers might be able to piece together, but figuring out the actual secrets and specifics behind the film proves to be nearly impossible. Some things can be guessed, but overall Johnson has created a film that’s more unpredictable than American cinema usually gets. It’s a gutsy and uncompromising genre film that will be hailed as a classic staple by many who see it. Films like Looper come around so infrequently, and it’s doubtful that anyone could have seen into the future to know it would have turned out this great.
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012) – For a generation of children, Tim Burton was probably the person who taught us what a director does. His movies had such a unique tone and style; it was clear all were made by one sad little goth man. Movies like Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, and Edward Scissorhands presented child-friendly stories with an anti-Disney darkness and a love of outsiders that gave freaks a voice. Then we all grew up and sadly he didn’t. Ever since Sleepy Hollow, Burton has been cranking out stale remakes and appears to only be concerned with his unique sense of visual design and/or finding work for Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The announcement of a stop motion Frankenweenie was met with dread from all the former Burtonites. Now the man was literally remaking his own movie and potentially crapping on the legacy 30-minute gem from the VHS era. Thankfully, Frankenweenie wasn’t a disaster and easily Burton’s best film since Sweeney Todd. It’s a gently comedic horror movie for kids with some genuine subversion snuck in and a message that mercifully doesn’t beat audiences over the head. You know, like an old Tim Burton joint. The stop motion feature isn’t enough to suggest a comeback for the director (his original remains the best version), but this edition of Frankenweenie is far better than anyone had the right to expect.
It’s essentially the same story as the original short film Burton cranked out while under contract with Disney in the 1980s. It’s the Universal 1930s Frankenstein tale done with a young boy and his dead dog. The material has obviously been expanded and now includes more eccentric townsfolk like a pint-sized love interest for Victor (voiced by Winona Ryder), a hilarious bug eyed classmate who predicts the future with cat poop (perfectly played by Catherine O’Hara), and two competitive science fair students who attempt to resurrect their own departed pets.
There’s no denying that the added material feels more like padding than anything else, but at least it’s entertaining padding. For the first time in years, Burton seems to be compelled by more than the visual design of the movie and the 86-minute kiddie monster mash never drags. The central relationship between the boy and his dog remains the heart and it’s a strong one that clearly taps into both personal emotions for the filmmaker as well as the classic horror movies that fueled his gothic aesthetic. The expansions fall more into 50s giant monster movie land, leading to an evil hamster fueled finale without overwhelming the delicate emotional core of the tale. The characters are all well crafted as well, particularly the variety of supporting players voiced Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short who add the distinctive brand of surreal characterization they’ve been peddling since SCTV. This is blissful children’s entertainment with a subtle edge, the kind of movie that Burton used to specialize in.
As per usual Disney knocks their Blu-ray presentation out of the park, lovingly rendering the black and white world in HD. The shadows and details are deep, and let’s face it few things pop on Blu-ray as well as stop motion. You can practically see animators’ thumbprints on the gorgeously designed puppets and if nothing else Frankenweenie is one of the most technically accomplished stop motion features ever made. Clearly Burton was given a massive budget to make this passion project as a present for all the money made with Alice in Wonderland, and it’s just as impressive in HD as it was in theaters. The special features kick off with an impressively in depth documentary about the animation process with some clever time lapse photography showing animators complete scenes. It’s a surprisingly adult featurette for a Blu-ray of a children’s film (I guess they knew their audience). On top of that you’ll also get Burton’s original live action Frankenweenie short (a bit of a minor masterpiece) and a pretty hilarious new short Captain Spark Vs. The Flying Saucers, which is one of Victor’s fake short film that plays like an amusing parody of amateur kiddie filmmaking and stop-motion. Things round out with a pretty terrible music video and some promo-fluff on the Frankenweenie exhibit from Comic-Con. Overall, it’s a light Blu-ray set, but one with pretty well everything you’d want to know. It’s really a shame that Frankenweenie bombed in theaters back in the fall. It was the first time in years that Burton actually delivered a Tim Burton movie and hopefully he won’t be discouraged to do it again in the future. No one else could possibly get a black and white stop motion classic monster movie tribute off the ground and this sort of weirdo project is a far better use of the filmmaker’s time/talent than wrecking/remaking some other movie from his childhood for cash. (Phil Brown)
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012) – 29 year old business wunderkind Eric Packer wakes up one morning in New York City and decides that he wants and needs a haircut to keep up appearances amid a time of financial unrest for him and the rest of the world, leading to him spending nearly an entire day travelling and working from his heavily customized white limousine. Such is the entire actual plot arc of American author and laureate Don DeLlilo’s book Cosmopolis, one that its director of adaptation to the big screen, David Cronenberg, adheres to quite rigidly to stay true to the original source material’s beats and rhythms of lengthy dialog punctuated by fleetingly loud actions or personal confrontations. So slavish to its own design, there’s actually very little of Cronenberg on screen here to be seen and a whole lot of DeLillo. While there are flourished of Cronenberg’s unique sense of vision, this striking and thoughtful film takes the high road to tell a story that had quite a few themes dealing with society’s static sense of conformity to begin with.
In the film, Eric is played by Robert Pattinson; a wise and prescient choice for DeLillo’s leading man seeing that he comes from a style of new money made up of pretty boys described at one point by one of Eric’s numerous, long suffering assistants as being so dreamy they’re practically on life support. Stymied in his efforts to reach his status symbol goal by global anti-finance protests and losing millions by the second due to the rise of the Yuan he heavily leveraged against, Pattinson’s Eric serves as the viewer’s eyes and ears throughout this world. We’re seeing the world exactly as he sees it and not how it actually is since there isn’t a single scene in the film that Pattinson isn’t in. It’s the true starmaking performance that the actor has probably long hoped for and he carries the film wonderfully.
Eric isn’t detached from his world despite how aloof he must seem. He’s a workaholic and cursed with the downfall of great intellect and wealth. He is the embodiment of DeLilo’s seemingly Marxist philosophy that at some point capitalism will begin to move so quickly that no one will be able to keep up. With his boyish good looks and ability to turn his character on a dime, Pattinson shows how Eric is tormented by his ability to see all sides to an issue and how his own knowledge makes him equal parts paranoid and reckless. Even his own wife that he barely has any relationship at all with (played by Sarah Gadon) remarks that Eric has a great deal of science and ego combined.
If it seems like I’m focusing too much on Pattinson’s performance and resorting a bit to summarizing the film, that’s because other than talking about a whole lot of lofty concepts – many of which are left purposefully vague as per the novel’s vision – this actually amount to being more of an actor’s showcase than it would be a triumph for Cronenberg as a director. It’s probably, after much mulling over, one of his better films in terms of structure and audacity, but not really as a filmmaker. There’s nothing particularly wrong with letting the material supercede any sort of artistic vision, but Cronenberg seems almost too complacent to let DeLilo’s legendarily lengthy dialogues take over while adding little to them. It’s lovingly crafted and purposefully cold to the touch, but it also feels like an ingredient is missing to make it feel like anything other than a straight ahead reading of a text.
The cast does bring the film to life more often than not, but aside from the always wonderful Kevin Durand (as Eric’s chief bodyguard Torval) and Gadon, none of the other characters in the film show up for more than a single scene each, indicitave of Eric’s status as someone constantly on the move. Jay Baruchel has a nice moment early on as one of Eric’s security analysts who doesn’t really have any answers to any of the questions he’s being asked, and Samantha Morton proves to be a commanding presence as a worker under Eric’s employ that makes him finally realize that his enormous wealth means nothing. Even Paul Giamatti, in a pivotal late film appearance as a former co-worker out for revenge, only has a sustained 20 minute appearance to make an impression, but he still puts in phenomenal work.
While essentially a word for word repurposing of DeLillo’s dialogue with only slight changes being made to the story (particularly in the film’s final quarter hour), Cronenberg does a great job on the writing side of things with his first screenplay since eXistenZ in 1999. The staccato notes within long passages of argumentative speeches feel fresh and believable on screen, which becomes hard to do when adapting a writer as almost impenetrably esoteric as DeLillo. As a director with an eye for talent, he’s also wisely surrounded himself with a cast that has an across the board understanding of the material without a single weak link in the bunch.
The arguments will be made back and forth that the film still isn’t a “return to form” for the director or that it’s a masterpiece that will be heralded for its prescient nature given the current state of the global economy, but what makes Cosmopolis brilliant in its own way is that none of those arguments matter when the film itself is allowed to be scrutinized on its own merits. It’s a hard and challenging film for casual viewers to ever hope to have in “in” with, but for those willing to follow along and let the film wash over them in the same way a great book can take over the imagination, Cosmopolis is a heck of a ride. It’s an impossible film to sum up with a full critical analysis in less than 1,000 words, but it will lead to some great discussions amongst those who see it.
The Blu-ray comes in a combo package with the DVD, but the high definition transfer better brings out the digital world aesthetic Cronenberg was going for and does it with a far superior sound mix. The special features package might not look like a lot, but in addition to a typically strong commentary track from Cronenberg, the stellar making-of documentary runs even longer than the feature: going into meticulous detail of the production from page to screen, making this disc an indispensable offering for a somewhat overlooked film by one of the true Canadian greats. There’s also about 30 minutes of EPK style interviews, but the real meat comes from that documentary.
Check out our interview with the cast and director David Cronenberg here! Also, check out our one on one with Kevin Durand about the film!
Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012) – Of the many disappointments that the folks behind the unfortunately underperforming Dredd faced throughout production/release, the biggest one must have came when they watched The Raid. Oh sure, on some level I’m sure they were pleased that a hard R action movie got so much positive attention, but the trouble is that it uses the identical plot set up of this surprisingly faithful adaptation of the hard boiled 2000 A.D. comic book icon. Both movies were made at the same time (and quite frankly owe more than a little credit to Die Hard), so direct rip-offery was not a factor. However, The Raid was one of the most unrelentingly thrilling action movies ever made, so even though Dredd was a blood-soaked blast, it couldn’t help but come up short. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that Dredd is the cinematic version of the helemeted British law enforcer that fans have been waiting for since Sly Stallone and Rob Schneider ruined the character for an entire generation. If you’ve been desperately wanting to see a certain masked judge shoot the shit out of Mega City One on the big screen, your prayers have been answered. Just don’t expect this thing to top The Raid, cause that ain’t happening. And now, if you’ll excuse the pathetic pun, it’s judgement time.
Judge Dredd is the most bad ass remorseless cop in a world filled with them. Played by Karl Urban with eerie growling, snarling accuracy, he acts as a one-man judge, jury, and executioner in a world where the police force has been reduced exclusively to such one-man armies. Dredd sets out on his usual rounds of crimefightin’ and killin’, asked to supervise the first day on the job of psychic Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, playing a comic book favorite). They end up in one of the city-sized tower blocks of Mega City and are locked inside by lovely lady killer/crimelord Ma-Ma (a nice and creepy Lena Headey), forced to fight their way through her legion of henchmen until they reach her top floor layer.
So yeah, it’s the plot of The Raid. But, if you can get past that, it’s also a pitch-perfect adaptation of John Wagner/Carlos Ezquerra’s classic supercop creation. The violence is brutal in a stylized comic book way and comes flavored with the pitch black humor that was always crucial to the satire of American action movies and cultural violence that defined the book. The performances are all ideally arch, the production design detailed and atmospheric, the action is plentiful, and most importantly Rob Schneider isn’t in a single goddamn scene. If you enjoyed the Judge Dredd comics, self-confessed superfan writer/producer Alex Garland has gone out of his way to ensure that this flick feels exactly like one of the series’ usual one-off stories. Sure, it would have been nice if one of the more epic and cinematic storylines had been adapted (like The Dark Judges or Block Mania) and Thirby’s psychic feels a bit silly in live action, but this was always intended to be a franchise-starter. Sadly, after a pitiful $30 million worldwide gross (most of which came from the UK), we’ll never get to see those expansive sequels. Way to not buy tickets for possibly the finest R-rated adaptation of the comic book movie era, people!
Despite that paltry reception at the box office, Dredd arrives on Blu-ray with class. Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (the man behind all of Danny Boyle and Lars Von Trier’s recent digital pictures) added unexpected visual class to the movie, and whether in 3D or 2D, this disc is an audio/visual showpiece for any prime home entertainment system. Special features are limited to about 30 minutes of featurettes, diving into everything from the character’s long history to the complex digital effects work. It may not be a bountiful offering of extras, but the content far outweighs the quantity. Amusingly, director Pete Travis (who made Vantage Point…yay?) isn’t involved with the special features at all after apparently feuding with writer/producer Alex Garland throughout the production. Everyone involved credits Garland as the source of all the main creative ideas. You’ve got to wonder why he didn’t just direct the film himself since it clearly has his cynical genre-loving fingerprints all over it. Regardless, Dredd was an excellent slice of comic book ultraviolence that really didn’t deserve to bomb back in the fall, so you’ve got a sweet tooth for dystopic mass slaughter, be sure to check it out now and maybe, just maybe if a deserved cult develops we might get the epic sequel this start-up film deserves one day. (Phil Brown)
Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012) – With last year now in the books, the debate of the best movies of the year and in particular the best comedy of the year is a discussion that many people are having and for me there was one movie that had me smiling and laughing more than any other last year. Get ready to get your aca-groove on because it’s time for Pitch Perfect.
Pitch Perfect introduces us to Beca (Kendrick) who‘s that girl that would rather listen to what’s coming out of her headphones than what’s coming out of you. Arriving at her new college, she finds herself not right for any clique but somehow is muscled into one that she never would have picked on her own: alongside mean girls, sweet girls and weird girls whose only thing in common is how good they sound when they sing together. When Beca takes this acoustic singing group out of their world of traditional arrangements and perfect harmonies into all-new mash-ups, they fight to climb their way to the top of the cutthroat world of college a cappella, knowing full well that this could be the coolest thing that they’ve ever done, or the craziest.
Best known for the Broadway smash hit Avenue Q, director Jason Moore makes the obvious move with this his feature debut, and much like a fun Broadway show you won’t be able to help but have an ear to ear grin on your face by the end of it. Based on the book by Mickey Rapkin and adapted for the screen by Kay Cannon, this film follows a picture perfect template for a crowd pleasing musical, all the while still keeping a slight edge of college aged humor. The narrative moves at a brisk pace as Moore keeps the story going ,and Cannon’s incredibly smart dialogue keeps the viewers either laughing their heads or tapping their feet to the beat as it managed to celebrate and even mock a cappella vocal groups all at the same time.
In her first trip in the lead position Anna Kendrick has officially announced to the world that she’s a triple threat and that she can unquestionably carry a movie. Playing the mildly likeable anti-social misfit Beca who was simply looking for a place to fit in during her first year in university, Kendrick settled into the role as easily as she can carry a tune. From top to bottom the ensemble cast is simply stacked with a great mix of youngsters and veterans who can more than handle their own with music and comedy featuring Elizabeth Banks, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, John Michael Higgins, Jacob Wysocki and Christopher Mintz Plasse along with some surprise cameos but it really all comes back around to Kendrick, who officially has her own starmaking performance thanks to this picture. At the end of the day, it’s really easy to dismiss Pitch Perfect as a run of the mill college comedy that meets Glee, but really this is just a little piece of cinematic sunshine that is guaranteed to brighten anyone’s day, and if you miss out quite frankly you deserve to get ‘Pitch-Slapped’.
Picture and sound on the Blu-Ray are obviously top notch and the special features on this release include deleted and extended scenes, a line-o-rama gag reel, several look inside featurettes taking us in detail about the production, 2 different feature length commentary tracks featuring producer Elizabeth Banks, director Jason Moore and others, as well as the Starships “Pitch Perfect” music video as well as even more via the Pocket Blu app and BD-Live. (Dave Voight)
Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012) – Movies that open by announcing they are based on a true story generally fall into one of two camps, overly sentimental awards-bait dramas (generally starring a beautiful actress dressing down) or lurid genre fare hoping a faint connection to reality will help compensate for ludicrous writing. Then there’s Compliance, a movie with a connection to reality that makes it infinitely more disturbing. Based on a genuine prank phone call that escalated into psychological and sexual abuse, the fact that it’s genuine ensures that the most outlandish moments land because sadly and somewhat inexplicably, they happened. If you’ve heard the story, there’s not much that will come as a surprise. Yet, there’s big difference between reading a Coles Notes version in a news story and being stuck with the victims in real time as an uncomfortable situation spirals out of control.
The setting for one of the most psychologically disturbing films in recent years is oddly a fast food restaurant called ChickWich. The opening scenes follow the sad and gently comic lives of the employees, focusing in on teenage high school sweetheart Becky (Dreama Walker) and her oddly committed manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) who’s quietly jealous of Becky’s youth and cell-phone enhanced sex life. Though unfailingly polite, Sandra is one of those sad people who uses the meager authority she has in life as a means of making herself feel powerful if only for even a second, and she gets the opportunity to flex that miniscule muscle after an unexpected phone call.
The caller (Pat Healy) presents himself as Officer Daniels and claims a complaint was made about Becky stealing from a customer. On the police officer’s order, Sandra takes Becky into a back room where the severity of the situation is explained to both of them over the phone. Sandra is instructed to search Becky for the money and when there is none to be found the young girl is strip-searched with her clothes taken to the manager’s car to be picked up later by the police. It sounds implausible, but through the carefully constructed conversation everyone involved seems to think they don’t have a choice. The situation escalates for hours, male employees are brought in to watch Becky and, well, things get worse.
What’s most remarkable about writer/director Craig Zobel’s sophomore effort (following Great World of Sound) is the way he sustains so much suspense and tension out of a few characters in a single room with the villain on a phone miles away. There’s no overt violence and even the most humiliating and distressing scenes are shot tastefully, often occurring off camera. Yet through the intense psychological torment of the situation, the incredible naturalistic performances (especially Walker’s powerless confused teen and Dowd’s villain by circumstance), and Zobel’s carefully controlled shooting techniques, the film has an emotionally visceral quality that’s hard to describe. It’s all very low key with even Healy’s telephone tormenter coming off calm and calculated. It’s the subtle menace that makes the viewing experience so powerful and led to the actual event happening in the first place. When Compliance premiered at Sundance, it was a controversial screening filled with walkouts and angry viewers claiming exploitation and misogyny. There’s nothing about the movie that’s deserves those classifications. It’s just such an appropriately uncomfortable viewing experience that it’s easy to see why some viewers might lash out simply because they don’t like being forced into those emotions for even 90 minutes.
What the caller exploited and Zobel explored is the sad side of human nature that leaves so many people open to being controlled by authority. Everyone in the movie does what they do without question simply out of fear of angering either the phony cop or fast food management. What happens is unthinkable and probably would have been stopped if it was requested instantly, but with careful execution and manipulation it’s amazing what people can be talked into. Consider it a horror movie for the polite, proof that guiding behavior based on pleasing others is a weakness rather than a virtue. That’s something that the filmmaker hammers home with a brief coda showing Sandra as someone who suffers from the same weaknesses after the event and that defense mechanisms like smiling through discomfort or quietly submitting to authority are conditions that can’t be unlearned.
It should be pointed out that Compliance is such a small and specific movie, it’s easily susceptible to over-praise. Acknowledging the strengths of Zobel intense little yarn is important, but with the understanding that this isn’t the most disturbing film you’ll ever see and one that takes place almost entirely in the back room of a fast food restaurant. Going in expecting too much would lead to disappointment from such a delicate little psychological thriller. Go in and accept the ride and you might not “enjoy” what you see, but you’ll certainly get your stomach tied into knots and never forget it. That isn’t the most pleasant viewing experience, sure. But sadly films that provoke such intense emotional reactions aren’t too common.
So, as you may have gathered, Compliance is a film that I’m quite fond of. It must have been such a difficult project to pull off technically and emotionally that it’s made for a detailed DVD examination. Sadly the movie comes without a commentary track, documentary, deleted scenes, or a trailer. All you’ll get is a brief featurette with writer/director Craig Zobel and co-star Ann Dowd that’s more of an introduction to the movie than anything else. Given all that could and should have been discussed on this disc, it definitely qualifies as a disappointment. Still, Compliance was easily one of the best films of last year, so there’s more than enough reason to pick up the disc. After all, you’re supposed to buy these things for the movies, right? (Phil Brown)
The Words (Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal, 2012) – Every time it’s the same old story. No day is different from the last. These opening sentences will have nothing to do with the review or the film we’re about to talk about, but they’re pretty much the opening lines. More or less. I don’t know. Something like that. Short sentences that sound great, but aren’t actually sentences. Dramatic punctuation. Every few seconds. Profundity. The sounds of those who like hearing the sound of their own voice.
The movie starts up with an expectedly overblown narration and a vague indication of the numerous timelines and story threads the writer and director are going to set up. The book on the table in the opening shot is cleverly titled The Words, just like the film, and it’s been written by Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quiad) an aging novelist who begins reading aloud to his rapturous audience and to us viewers within seconds it becomes baffling how someone so fictionally famous could have ever been a novelist because his prose sucks harder than a teenage piece of trailer trash siphoning gas from a nearly dried up 1988 Crown Victoria coupe left to scrap in the back of a single bay auto shop at the end of a leaf covered dead end street. Much like how that young man you see on the street in the Van Halen ’88 tour shirt wants to get out of town by any means necessary, I wanted to find a way out of the theatre as soon as possible.
Hammond has written the well received tale of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a struggling young author working his way up from the mailroom of a publishing house with hopes of finding an agent willing to go to bat for his passion project, which the audience will learn nothing about outside of it being completely unsellable and a work of art. After marrying his long time girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana), and spending about ten full minutes of the movie’s running time cuddling with her, Rory buys an old messenger bag while on his honeymoon in Paris only to later find out that the bag holds a decades old manuscript that he finds himself immediately drawn to.
Inside the bag is a wondrous piece of found prose about a young American soldier struggling to cope during World War II. So moved by the work, Rory puts it all down onto paper himself so he can “feel the words.” Egged on by his snooping wife who thinks it’s the most brilliant thing he’s ever done we bounce back to Clayton for minute hitting on some grad student (Olivia Wilde who has nothing interesting to do) before he relays to us that Rory passes off the manuscript as his own and becomes a best selling author.
Ludicrous plotting and inane writing aside, no one seems particularly engaged by what they’re doing up until this point. Cooper does what he can, but Rory as a character is blander than dehydrated mashed potatoes before the alchemy of adding water and a dollop of butter to them. Saldana and Wilde have nothing more to do than stare into space and question their surroundings with a wide eyed wonder that only characters in cheap paperback novels can do to mask a lack of profundity in their lives. Quaid just has to literally read off a page or act halfway tipsy and mildly lecherous/stand offish.
Then things take a turn for the truly ridiculous with the arrival of The Old Man (a character so profound it’s never credited with a name) played by Jeremy Irons desperately trying to inject some dignity into the film, but even he fails like a fifth grader who spends his afternoons playing with balsa wood gliders and dreaming of flying to Honah Lee. He’s the true author of the manuscript, cornering Rory on his lunch break from celebrity like Peter Falk trying to get Kermit the Frog to buy a watch, as we get yet another storyline about how the manuscript actually came to be with the young Old Man played by Ben Barns, who’s almost sepia toned and colour corrected out of existence.
Aside from its somnambulant nature and dire predictability, The Words has a script so overwrought with hoary clichés and manipulative asides (courtesy of writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, they of story credits for Tron: Legacy and really nothing else outside of acting gigs) that it’s own understatement and sense of literary self seriousness becomes flat out laughable. Whether or not the characters end up making the right decisions becomes completely immaterial since not a single one of them acts or sounds like a real human being.
If The Words were novel, it would be on the discount rack within a couple of months. As a movie getting that got dumped in September where few would likely go to see it in theatres, it now hits video store shelves to assume it’s final fate; gathering dust like the tomes of old on a remainder shelf, staring back glassy eyed at uncaring customers that will never know its pain as it begs for attention. So shall it sit in its own solitude, a package of white noise signifying nothing.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, and there are only a small handful of featurettes to ignore. Sadly, it also house the extended cut of the film, which only adds about seven minutes, but dragging this thing out any further is punishment enough.
Hit and Run (David Palmer, Dax Shepard, 2012) – I still don’t know how it happened, but somehow when no one was paying attention Dax Shepard managed to segue from being the other guy on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment to becoming a director. Even stranger, that’s not as bad of an idea as you might think. After making the odd and somewhat awful “Dax in Japan” mocumentary Brothers Justice in 2010, the gearhead Shepard set his sights on reviving the road-race action comedy with Hit and Run. Pitched somewhere between 70s exploitation lovers-on-the-run movies, Burt Reynold’s highway comedies, and a 90s pop crime movie, Hit and Run is definitely a huge step up from Shepard’s debut. For one thing, it actually feels like a real movie. The only trouble is that the guy goes out of his way to draw comparisons to these classic car-carnage movies that the production team doesn’t quite have the resources to pull off. Thankfully, there’s still enough genre movie charm and decent performances to qualify as effective light entertainment. So, Hit and Run isn’t exactly a crowning achievement or a break out hit, but it’s something.
The plot is fairly threadbare and really just an excuse for banter, car chases, and mild gunplay. The banter as written isn’t great and evokes some painful memories for anyone who ever sat through a direct-to-video Tarantino knock off. Conversations veer from criminal tough-talk to minute sitcom relationship observations and back again throughout and it would be quite grating without this cast. Specifically, Dax Shepard and his real life sweetheart Kristen Bell are both deeply underrated performers who rarely get to show off their talents and provide more genuine chemistry than the film deserves. Bradley Cooper is also solid as the bad guy with a smile and one too many prison rape jokes to deliver. If nothing else, Cooper at least has grasp of the limits of his talent and is smart enough to know which roles to take. The rest of the cast varies in quality with Tom Arnold bouncing off the walls in a role that walks a line between being comically annoying and genuinely annoying (just like he is in life) and Beau Bridges popping up because why the hell not. The many weaknesses of the screenplay are made up for by the charm of the cast and even though the film was clearly made for scratch cards and food stamps, Shepard and co-director David Palmer make it look relatively slick.
Shepard and Palmer create a nice easygoing vibe for the film while still giving it a gritty widescreen faux-exploitation movie look. The only time the limited resources become a problem is unfortunately during the climatic car chases. Without much experience staging action, these scenes are often limited to pulling donuts, speeding down dusty roads, or at one point driving in circles around and abandoned airport. Shepard clearly created the scenes to give himself a chance to drive fast and get paid, but the movie really needed more elaborate automotive choreography and painful pile-ups to deliver the thrills required from the genre. A car chase movie with disappointing car chases is a pretty devastating flaw and sadly the fledgling filmmakers can’t even match the stunts pulled off in Roger Corman’s zero-budget lovers-on-the-run flicks from the 70s (though to be fare, those nutso drive-in filmmakers didn’t have to worry about safety regulations).
On Blu-ray the film looks about as good as you’d expect, cheap but bright and slick. Sadly all you’ll get special features wise is a collection of deleted scenes just in case you didn’t get enough awkward Tom Arnold humor in the feature. It’s a mediocre package for a mediocre film, so I suppose that’s appropriate. There are enough moments that work throughout to suggest that Dax directing isn’t just some ego-driven fantasy. For now there’s no real need to dive into his behind-the-camera work unless you’re a Dax Shepard fanatic (and they must be out there somewhere, right?), but he’s a guy worth keeping an eye on. You never know, he just might make a solid laid-back action comedy one of these days, even just by accident. (Phil Brown)
Anger Management – Season One (2012) – Remember when Charlie Sheen flamed out so gloriously like a supernova in front of our very eyes? He was a man who assured us that he was on the road to bigger and better things than being on his former sitcom-turned-haven for fellow burnouts Two and a Half Men. After the tiger blood turned out to be potentially drug laced energy drinks and he lost at winning, Sheen wisely shied away from the spotlight before landing a lucrative deal fronting this cable sitcom that self-reflexively and fictionally looks at a character with similar problems. The show still kind of stinks thanks to lazy writing and the same sort of vapid bro-downs that plagued his previous small screen outing, but it’s not for lack of trying on the star’s part that it all falls apart.
After a genuinely interesting pilot episode that borders the line between self-exploration and exploitation quite nicely, this story of a therapist with a boat load of problems of his own turns into the same kind of standardly plotted dreck Sheen blew up to get away from in the first place. It’s so derivative of everything that came before it – from Frasier to any one of Bob Newhart’s outings – that it’s almost impossible to see why anyone would want to do it? It feels almost like Sheen has to be paying off some sort of debt to show he can play nice, but while he does all he can in character to make everything work, his supporting cast (including the usually reliable Selma Blair as his fuck buddy and personal therapist) seems like they don’t want to be there. It might as well just have character who simply grunt and nod, and that might be an improvement over the performances here. Although, the material doesn’t do them many favors, it still reeks of contractual obligations all around.
The DVD set of the first season has a gag reel and a behind the scenes look at the show that focuses almost entirely on Sheen because he was presumably the only person awake and willing to talk about it.