Tuesday, June 4, 2013

2013 in Flicks: May

The Americans Season 1-  Joseph Weisberg - No, you didn't know that lurking inside Felicity was such a cold-blooded, badass hardboiled bitch, but hey, Keri Russell brings it to her role as a KGB spy living in the DC 'burbs in 1981 with faux husband Matthew Ryhs - the sensitive one - and a couple of all-American kids (clueless about their parent's true identities and activities). The episodic quality of the show gave the creators a chance to explore different sides of the great culture divide which is really the substance here. Their neighbor and Ryhs closest friend is an FBI agent (a never-better Noah Emmerich) who has his own suspicions about the couple across the street, and all the parent-spies make incredible sacrifices for their countries (who chew em up and spit em out), while their spouses and children bear the brunt of their 'sacrifice'. Some neat-o spy craft, some jarringly inconsistent period detail (particularly in language - did middle-aged white guys in 1981 really refer to the projects as 'the hood'?), some terrific small moments with a mostly strong cast (hey there, Margo Martindale - glad to have you back in a major role) and a handful of out-of-nowhere  kicks to the heart. All in all, I was on board and I really hope a second season can mine the potential of this show and produce something really special. Best moment: Elizabeth and Claudia have words... and fists.

Hit & Run - Dax Shepard & David Palmer - I am so with this film in spirit. I really wanted it to hit its mark and land in that sweet spot between Smokey & the Bandit and Midnight Run. But here I am starting this review with the preceding sentence and I'm guessing you already know where I'm going. Yeah, I didn't dig it. I just didn't laugh where I was clearly supposed to and I didn't engage in the action when that was required either. Yul Perrkins, a former getaway driver leaves the bosom of the witness protection program to help his girlfriend move to Los Angeles. What follows is a rom-com/road movie/chase flick that, even as I'm writing this, sounds like it's got potential. The film makers throw some wrinkles into the standard good guys and bad guys formula, which I appreciate, but they also go out of their way to make everybody more or less likable, and in so doing, took off all the sharp edges on what could've been a decent comedic thriller. The hero is trying to be a better person to keep his girlfriend (at one point she threatens that she doesn't want to be with somebody who says 'gay' when he means 'lame,' and we really feel like they might break up over it. The antagonist can get a little violent, but  you're really not in much danger around him unless you're feeding your dog inferior, unhealthy food. Too soft to thrill and too bland to laugh - both my humors and my thrillers need significantly more edge. Best moment: When Shepard, as Yul, sees his father (Beau Bridges) for the first time in years.

In the Cut - Jane Campion - Caught this back when Meg Ryan's nude scenes were the extent of the film's reputation. Nevermind it was a Jane effing Campion flick. Nevermind it was based on a novel by Susanna Moore. Nevermind the other leads were Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nope, Meg's tits were the only reason to see the movie. I re-watched this after catching Campion's latest, Top of the Lake (scroll down for thoughts on that one), and yeah, nothing really changed. It's still a minor work in Campion's canon with a plot that resembles countless other serial-killer/erotic-suspense flicks you've already seen, but what makes it worthwhile is the moody, broody, squishy, dream-like atmosphere and the performances of Ryan & Ruffalo. She's succeeding admirably at shedding her 'America's Sweetheart' image, and he's mixing an intriguing (ahem) cocktail of attributes including brash, confident, vulnerable and er, mustache. Never going to be reconsidered as a masterpiece, but deserves a better reputation than it has. Best moment: The terrible first date.

Jack Reacher - Chritstopher McQuarrie - After Way of the Gun, I owed McQuarrie this one. Now we're even. Don't get me wrong, it's not a terrible movie, but it is a terribly silly one. A sniper shoots several strangers in a metropolitan area and is immediately arrested and put on the fast track for capital-J Justice. He isn't claiming innocence or conspiracy either. His one request it to find Jack Reacher - a former MP, now lone ranger wandering the once-free wilds of a range called America. The detective appears rather magically and proceeds to apply more fairy dust to the investigation, keeping the defense attorney frustrated, the prosecutor irritated and the police perpetually perplexed. Who was that masked man? Some nice surprises in the cast - especially Robert Duvall, Werner Herzog and Michael Raymond-James, a decent gunfight, car-chase and ruffntumble at the end, but it's still bogged down by a lot of who gives a shit? and unfortunately, the answer, more often than not, was 'not me.' Best moment: Herzog gives Raymond-James a chance to prove himself.

Lilyhammer Season 1 - Eilif Skodvin & Anne Bjornstad - New York wise guy Frank Tagliano survives a hit from a business associate and decides to end his life as a gangster and enter the witness relocation program. He begins a new life in the small mountain town of Lillehammer, Norway where his American can-do attitude and general 'fuck-it' outlook make him something of a community leader very quickly. He is admired by several of the low-level half-assed hoods and losers whom he quickly presses into eager service, but treated with suspicion and sometimes outright contempt by the town's (not-very) elite. Lilyhammer toes the line between comedy and drama - sometimes charmingly, sometimes clumsily - with slightly more than half its weight on the humorous side of the divide. Steven Van Zandt is an actor of very limited range, but in his role as Silvio on The Sopranos he was used to great effect. Here, he's in his sweet spot, but, as the lead, the schtick wears awfully thin, and the formula of introducing him to a quaint local custom that alternately pleases or irritates him out of proportion, and presenting him with a Norwegian obstacle that he can apply his American-criminal-chivalric sensibility to, loses steam after a few episodes. The series' strongest moments are the few times the danger and darkness come a little to the fore, and the unique sensibility of the writers and characters to find alternatives to ceaseless escalation of violence (tho, ceaselessly rising levels of corruption seem to be the thing) the way most crime-stories do. Best moment: Frank gets a baby carriage.

The Onion Field - Harold Becker - Two cops, two crooks, too bad. Based on the non-fiction book by Joseph Wambaugh, this film is terrific when James Woods is given free reign to do his thing. This is young, skinny, vulnerable and psychotic Woods reminding me that he's been a dangerous screen presence from the beginning of his career. The courtroom-heavy second half of the film lost a lot of steam, but it's worth it for the stuff leading up to the encounter. Best moment: Woods having to explain to his accomplices why he's so much smarter than they are.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Derek Cianfrance - This is exactly the kind of film I wanted it to be - a heartbreaker about the desperate things people will do to build a life and the ways they cope with the the life they've made (and the things they did to make it). It's got a wonderful and familiar blue-collar setting that could be cozy if you've got a loving family around you or terribly depressing if you feel trapped and limited by it. It has an ambitious structure that will hopefully keep you just a little off-balance and heighten the emotional stakes, a talented director with his feet set firmly in character and crime (how about that early tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling through the fair and into the cage? Not too showy, but wow - like to see McG try and deliver something that technically sophisticated, but rooted in, and in support of, character and place, as opposed to simply calling attention to itself), and a cast eager to appear in a solid, small-scale drama. The end of the film asks for a level of 'just go with me here' that you may not be willing grant it, but I found the climax to be thematically compelling and a just heightened enough reality to deliver the big emotional pay-off. Will you accept the delivery? I'll be curious to hear what you think. And, for all the talent involved, the film was never more alive than when Ben Mendelsohn or Bruce Greenwood were onscreen. Best moment: Gosling waits on the front porch to be arrested after fucking up.

Shakedown - James Glickenhaus - Desperately wants to be Lethal Weapon, but never really comes close. The dynamic duo of this one are a vice-cop and a public defender fighting the good fight against systemic corruption in New York City. Sam Elliott is never less than watchable and Peter Weller is an actor I'm becoming retro-actively intrigued by after not caring for him the first twenty-five years of our relationship. Unfortunately, neither are given much to work with here, as every time a potentially solid dramatic element is introduced it is immediately overwhelmed by a needlessly showy action set piece or dialogue so corny you'll see it in your crap for a week. Best moment: Elliott dangling from the landing gear of an escaping jet and shooting his gun indiscriminately into the beast to take it down.

Southland Season 3 - Ann Biderman - In the wake of the recent cancellation of Southland, I watched the third season with an eye toward series arc and realized... I'm not really invested in anybody. But believe it or not, that's not as big a problem as you might think. I believe that the strength of the show is the 'beat goes on' quality the episodic format emphasizes - major shit happens to folks episode to episode, but y'know, a lot of that is forgotten, or more accurately - just moved on from. The world moves on and so do the characters. Do we need to spend half a season with Sammy and Tammi while they work through the particulars of their divorce? Nope, we just trust it kinda hurts like hell to get moving in the morning when your pregnant wife leaves you for a douche with a haircut. Soooo, I guess what I'm saying is, I know there's a lot of shit gonna happen to these cops in the next couple seasons and, for those who survive, I know it'll keep happening and I'm okay with that. There's been so wide a canvas used that I'm not too invested in any one character disproportionately to the rest of the cast, and maybe that's not a bad thing. Still wish they'd do away with the first few minutes of every episode though. Gah, I skip 'em now. Guess there's an advantage to waiting for DVD. Best moment: Cooper and the kid - episode 5.

Taken 2 - Olivier Megaton - Director Megaton can make an action movie. Colombiana had a lot of energy and style, and Transporter 3 redeemed the series after a terrible second film, but Taken 2, kids, I hate to break it to you, is the Transporter 2 of this comparison. Actually, that's not fair as the original Transporter was a really fun flick and Taken was... not. So why did I even try to watch this one? Easy. Beers. Many, many beers and a wife I knew would sleep through it. This flick was such a disaster on every level - the suck in the script completely overwhelmed the talent, the editing totally fucked up the action sequences - that I wondered if the wrong cut had accidentally been released. Actors and action, that's all I wanted. Best moment: The only fun I had watching it was imagining the rejected subtitles. Winner - Even Takener.

Top of the Lake - Jane Campion & Gerard Lee - Surely going to be one of my favorite viewing experiences of the year, though there is no getting around some its unwieldy attributes, if only in retrospect. Elisabeth Moss leaves Peggy behind, but finds herself taking on another aspect of mad men, as a cop, gone home to visit her ailing mother, whose arrival in the small New Zealand community of Lake Top coincides with the disappearance of a 12 year girl just discovered to be pregnant. Was she abducted? Has she run away? Who is the child's father? For reasons that are revealed later, Moss's officer Griffin is especially driven to answer these questions and, if possible, save Tui - the missing girl. The investigation, manhunt and pregnancy provide a certain ticking clock quality to this otherwise in-none-too-big-a-hurry exploration of the dynamics and secrets of the town (Twin Peaks anyone?) Peter Mullan is the stand-out on-screen presence here, infusing his father of the missing girl role with a ferocity that he applied to a myriad of purposes - grieving, avenging, loving, threatening - he looms large in the town and in every scene, even the ones he's not in, while Holly Hunter's GJ plays the non-sequitur prone lead mouthpiece to a collective of wounded women who provide a Greek chorus of sorts to the proceedings. Of course, this being Campion, sexual politics and philosophy are front, center, on every side, and permeating every frame, and that is not a bad thing at all. She doesn't always hit a home run, but even her strike outs are intriguing (keep swinging for the fences, Jane). When all was said and done, and only then, did I step back and wonder aloud whether every piece played an essential role to this shaggy-dog of a film. Was it an inflated and sorta flabby feature film or an oddly-cut mini-series? Was it perfect? Regardless, one of the best things I've seen this year. Best moment: fall off a mountain.

Vikings Season 1 - Michael Hirst - A lot better than you'd. the hell, think for a show with such a terrible title, and almost as good as you'd really hope it could be. I was skeptical - I mean The History Channel produces original dramatic content, really? - but c'mon, you think I'm not going to check out a show about vikings? Especially one that stars Gabriel Byrne and features Donal Logue. Plus, this Hirst fella wrote the Elizabeth movies and The Tudors (which I know only by reputation - should I watch The Tudors? I mean, if I dig it then I've got to watch The Borgias too, right? I like Neil Jordan after all). It is brutal and wonderfully twisted in content and spirit, but playing on basic cable it is handicapped severely against fare like Game of Thrones or Rome or even Spartacus. Still, I think you'll be surprised at just how much horror and depravity is depicted and really felt due to excellent tonal control. By the way, WTF with Clive Standen playing pretty much exactly the same role in this summer's Hammer of the Gods? Best moment: orgy island sacrifice.


Ben said...

I understand your feelings about Reacher. Just read the novel (will review Friday) and agree. It's well-done, but it's silly. Well, Reacher himself is silly. If Child would ease off the 12-insecure-twelve-year-old vision of Reacher, he would be decent.

Chris said...

You're a braver man than I for, uh, braving a watching of Taken 2. I'd like to stomp on the insteps of all the people over the years who told me Taken the 1st was so great, because that movie was a steaming pile of excrement. The second looks like just more of the same, only runnier . . . and with no tissue on the roll to clean up after with.