Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

Director: Brad Furman
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillipe, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, William H. Macy, Michael Pena, Bryan Cranston
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

For whatever reason, Matthew McConaughey really excels at playing lawyers. I know, it's crazy. I don't understand it either, but it fits him. With so many choices he's made in the past decade resulting in disaster, The Lincoln Lawyer is a welcome return to form, positioning him in the type of part that first put him on the map and signaled the arrival of a major star in 1996's A Time To Kill. That I'd have to reach back that far back to find his last successful starring performance isn't good news. He definitely got sidetracked, with many of us asking "What happened?" as he starred in a series of flops, most of them romantic comedies.  Despite having screen presence and charisma to burn, he's unfortunately spent the past several years making us wonder what we saw in him in the first place. This movie reminds us what that was and that all needed this entire time was the right vehicle that plays to his strengths. And it turns out that vehicle is a Lincoln Towncar. Getting back down to business again as an actor, he gives maybe his best performance since the '90's in a smart, twisty legal potboiler credible enough to be taken seriously, without losing any of the fun. He's a huge reason it works, but not the only one. The events that go down in this adaptation of Michael Connolly's 2005 novel seem on the surface to be ordinarily basic but this is actually one of the few recent legal thrillers to not only successfully explore the idea of attorney-client privilege, but wring it for maximum tension.

Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller (McConaughey) works out of his Lincoln representing a variety of low level criminals, most of them repeat offenders. Slick, charismatic and used to talking his way out of any jam, he lands the biggest, most high profile case of his career when wealthy Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe) is accused of the brutal beating of prostitute Regina Campo (Margarita Levieva). Backed by his overbearing real estate mogul mother (Frances Fisher), Louis swears he's being set up as Mickey and his private investigator Frank Levin (a hippie looking William H. Macy) digs into the sordid details of the case, trying to make sense of what happened that night at the victim's apartment.  Initially starting as a mystery thriller, a major development occurs within the first hour that pushes the story in another direction. It would be a stretch to call it a plot "twist," but let's just say the film doesn't end up at all being about the guilt or innocence of the accused and this isn't a whodunnit. Mickey becomes privy to some information and what he chooses to do or not do with it sets up an intriguing ethical dilemma you don't see depicted often in courtroom dramas. Becoming a pawn in his own client's game, the super slick protagonist who never had a care in the world must negotiate his way out of a legal trap that puts his obligations as an attorney on a collision course with moral responsibility.

The film's title isn't to be taken literally, as most of the action takes place in courtrooms, inside prisons and apartments where crimes are committed and evidence gathered. Mickey does work out of his Lincoln and is driven around L.A., but it's hardly as integral to the plot as the trailers and commercials implied, which is a good thing since that would make it seem like a gimmick. Instead it seems that's just the kind of guy Mickey is: A fly by night D.A. looking for his next big payday until his life and career outlook is flipped upside down by one case. Without giving too much away, John Romano's timely screenplay cleverly incorporates the idea that defense attorneys are often put into situations where they must knowingly send criminals back onto the street to protect the integrity of a sometimes questionable justice system. One of the more interesting points raised is that Mickey can live with himself knowing he helped set a guilty man free, but the idea of an innocent man spending his life behind bars, or worse, facing the death penalty, makes him sick. A lawyer always seems to operate better not knowing whether or not their client did it, or maybe just assume that they did so they can think like the prosecution. But what happens when he really does find out for sure and it isn't the answer he expected? That changes the game completely.

McConaughey is so good at adjusting to the twists and turns the story takes, going from being smooth and in-control in one minute to a frazzled, intense mess the next, specifically in the courtroom scenes where he faces off with Josh Lucas' prosecutor. It may say as much about how we perceive flashy "movie lawyers" than it does about McConaughey's talent, but the fact remains that this is a great performance in a seemingly custom-made role that takes full advantage of his natural charisma and smoothness while also giving him his biggest dramatic challenge in a while. Ryan Phillipe is downright chilling as the accused, doing his best work in years, even if delving into the details of how would probably give too much away. Macy is solid as always as the investigator while Marisa Tomei is saddled with the most uninteresting part in the film as his estranged wife. But the script is smart in how it bothers to make their relationship seem realistically uninteresting and unobtrusive to the central storyline. It doesn't feel thrown in for dramatic effect. It's also a relief to finally have a movie lawyer without a drinking problem or some other unnecessary addiction thrown just in case we didn't get the memo he has to redeem himself. Everything here is focused on the case and McConaughey's performance takes care of the rest. 

There are many ways this movie could have gone wrong but director Brad Furman sidesteps many of them in delivering the rare legal thriller that isn't dumb and kind of feels like a throwback to all those John Grisham adaptations from the 90's that managed to be fun, fast-paced but still retained a certain degree of intelligence. Most impressive is that nothing occurs in the film that can't be predicted within its opening minutes but you're still on pins and needles waiting to see how it unfolds. It provides just the right type of old school, audience pleasing entertainment value lacking in most mainstream adult dramas these days, complete with an ending that's suspenseful and ridiculous in the best possible way. Even having not read the novel from which it's based it's difficult to imagine author Michael Connolly and the book's fans could feel let down in any way with the adaptation. But maybe the biggest compliment that can be thrown toward The Lincoln Lawyer and McConaughey is when it ended I still wondered what happens to his character and actually wouldn't mind seeing a sequel.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Unknown boasts an intriguing premise that allows the viewer to speculate all the potential outcomes before arriving at one I didn't consider, not necessarily because it's so clever, but because I lost interest by the time it arrived. Considering the script puts all its eggs in one basket and nearly writes itself into a corner by having to deliver huge, the big twist isn't disappointing, but a lot of things leading up to it are. It's okay to make a dumb movie, but not a dumb one that pretends to be smart. Liam Neeson's last outing in the genre, 2008's Taken grasped that concept and the result was a fun, goofy, thrilling ride praised by (including myself) for knowing exactly what it had to do. It's tough to watch this and not think of that, Hithcock's thrillers, Harrison Ford's Frantic and even 1997's The Game, from which this film partially borrows its concept and even a few choice scenes. Of course this greatly suffers from those comparisons by not really exploring the full ramifications of what it claims to be about. But there's no mistaking that this idea, if executed to its maximum potential, could have been gold and Neeson again delivers the goods as an everyman action hero. The final 30 minutes or so of Unknown are exciting, but less exciting when you realize any outcome wouldn't have made the least bit of difference or fixed its bigger problems, like a horrid supporting performance from an Emmy nominated actress who may want to prepare her Razzie acceptance speech instead.

Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist arriving in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) to give a speech at a biotechnology summit. After forgetting his briefcase back at the airport he takes a taxi that crashes off of a bridge into the river, but his driver, a Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger) saves him before fleeing the scene. After awaking on Thanksgiving day in the hospital after four days in a coma, Martin tracks down Liz, who not only has no recollection of who he is, but is with another man (Aidan Quinn) calling himself "Martin Harris" and assuming his entire identity. Besides knowing details only the real Martin would know, the impostor even has family photos of his face replacing Martin's and legitimate ID. With no physical proof of who he is, Martin gets nowhere with police before enlisting the help of private investigator Herr Jurgen (Bruno Ganz) who tries to help him piece together what could have happened, who did it, and why he's being trailed by mysterious assassins. He soon re-involves cab driver Gina, suspecting she knows more than she's letting on and attempts to contact former colleague Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), who could have the answers he's looking for.

Right away, it's clear there are only a few directions the story can go and possible payoffs that explain  what's happened to Martin since that cab ride. Without spoiling anything, you'd figure it has to be one of the following:

1. He's fallen into a shadowy conspiracy or witnessed something he shouldn't have, likely related to his work in the biotech field. Evil, powerful corporate types have stolen his identity and now they want him dead.  

2. He's actually not Martin Harris. He has amnesia.

3. He didn't survive the cab accident. None of this is happening.    

4. None of the above. Something else we didn't see coming.

Those four scenarios don't offer a lot to work with, with #1 possibly being the most disappointing if only because it's so predictable and ordinary. The other options aren't great either (2 and 3 border on infuriating) so that kind of leaves screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Cornwell in a jam unless they can fill in #4 with some kind of shocking reveal that turns the story on its head, changing the story's complexity and making a larger thematic point about identity. But it's clear there's no ambition here that reaches further than making your standard boilerplate action movie, so that begs the question as to why you'd dangle a carrot like that in front of your audience while wasting opportunities along the way. Diane Kruger's cabbie could be considered this film's version of Deborah Kara Unger's mysterious waitress in The Game (whose motivations were wisely kept in the dark until the final credits), except for the fact that this script tips its hand way too early in revealing her purpose and she's hardly an active agent in the story. Kruger's performance is fine but she's just being dragged along (sometimes literally) for the ride by Neeson's character as they run from the baddies,without once fearing for their safety since it feels like a buddy flick. As he was in Taken, Neeson is suberb and completely believable in another ass-kicking role, and it's worth noting few actors have supposedly "sold out" as well, bringing much needed gravitas to franchise movies like The Phantom Menace, Batman Begins and even last year's The A-Team. He continues his late-career action hero run here and none of the film's flaws reflect on him. In fact, his intensity manages to hide many of them.

If any blame falls on a performer it's January Jones whose blank expression, flat line readings (that do very much feel only like line recitations) and droll delivery make you wonder if she's emotionally present in her scenes at all, or even awake. Anyone familiar with her as an actress (or caught her unfortunate SNL hosting gig) knows that unless she's playing a variation on her ice queen Betty Draper character from Mad Men she tends to really struggle. What's strange is that this is kind of similar to that so it's surprising she wrestles this much with a role that's clearly supporting, but still pivotal. As the plot unfolds and her character takes a dramatic shift, she falters big time, taking the tension in what should be the most suspenseful (but is instead the most unintentionally hilarious) scene in the film down a few notches with her sleepiness. As Martin's mysterious friend from the past, Frank Langella again plays a shadowy figure reminiscent of his better developed character in The Box, minus the facial disfigurement. He's saddled with the unenviable task of delivering truckloads of expository dialogue explaining the big payoff, which does make more sense than expected given the circumstances. Unfortunately, the resolution following that isn't as successful and more in line with the usual action plotting that came before.

It's best to call this what it is: An attempted sequel to Taken. Only this time the protagonist's identity is stolen instead of his daughter. Except the action scenes aren't thrilling enough to compete and Neeson's character doesn't have the same sense of urgency and purpose. A man's entire identity and existence is missing, yet I never get the impression the screenplay grasps the full magnitude of that notion.  Just about the only category this does come out on top in is cinematography as this film does have a cooler, slicker look to it than Taken did, only making you wish the story deserved it. And while the twist works, it's not the kind that will have you scurrying back for another viewing in hopes of picking up something you may have missed, nor will it shed new light on the story, which is surprisingly basic considering how strong the premise was. Unsure of what it is and residing in this gray area between goofy action movie and semi-intelligent thriller, Unknown isn't exactly successful as either, even if it's plot would have made a perfect addition to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Just Go With It

Director: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Brooklyn Decker, Dave Matthews, Nicole Kidman, Nick Swardson, Bailee Madison
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's getting to the point where I dread reviewing each new Adam Sandler comedy, but not for the reasons you'd expect. After enjoying widely maligned recent efforts of his like Don't Mess With The Zohan and Grown Ups I've kind of grown tired constantly defending myself and coming up with what many claim are new "excuses" as to why they work. As usual, his latest "Happy Madison" collaboration with director Dennis Dugan, Just Go With It, is much better than you've heard, even if admittedly still barely recommendable. If nothing else, the always self-aware Sandler always knows the kind of movie he's making and in actually being likable, doesn't deserve the groundless Eddie Murphy comparisons he often receives. So other than miscasting the actor as a womanizing lothario and portraying one of the female leads as a clueless idiot, it's a mildly enjoyable comedy that's funny, doesn't drag despite its nearly two hour running time and features a couple of really good performances. As hard as it may be to shake the feeling that Sandler's phoning it in with another safe, harmless, mainstream moneymaker, there isn't too much wrong with this. 

Sandler is Danny Maccabee, a wealthy Los Angeles plastic surgeon who twenty years ago was dumped by his fiancee on his wedding day (as we learn through a flashback featuring Sandler wearing a prosthetic schnoz) and hasn't taken off his wedding ring since, believing women go for guys stuck in unhappy marriages. But when Danny hooks up with supermodel-looking sixth grade math teacher Palmer (actual supermodel Brooklyn Decker) he seems to have finally made a real connection until she discovers the ring the morning after, angrily assuming he's married. So Danny concocts a wild scheme, recruiting his longtime office manager Katharine (Jennifer Aniston) to play the role of his unhappy wife, who he must convince Palmer he's now in the process of divorcing. As the lie spirals out of control, it soon involves Katharine's kids, Maggie (Bailee Madison) and Michael (Griffin Gluck) assuming the roles of their children and Danny's oddball cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson) playing his "wife's" new boyfriend, "Dolph Lundgren." All of this takes place during an impromptu trip to Hawaii in which Danny must continue with this charade and deal with his real feelings for Katharine.

The film's biggest flaws are out of the way early with the questionable casting of Sandler as a wealthy plastic surgeon who seems able to pick up any beautiful woman half his age at the drop of a hat simply by leaving on his wedding ring. That this is done seriously without so much as a wink at the audience is a problem, but since Sandler's always there to effectively mock the material, he's the only actor who would be immune to his own miscasting anyway. Once you get past that premise and the rushed "connection" between Danny and Palmer at a party (that's notable only for a hilarious Kevin Nealon cameo as plastic surgery addict), the rest of the film does get some creative mileage out of this fake marriage scenario, mostly due to Jennifer Aniston, who for a change is well cast in an age appropriate role that plays to her strengths as a performer.  She's perfect as his sassy, sarcastic assistant who's uncomfortably forced into playing the role of his estranged trophy wife. The kids are also terrific, especially Bailee Madison as the daughter intent on using this lie her own acting audition, complete with a phony British accent. All of these scenes work, but often at the expense of the thinly written Palmer character, who really does unintentionally come off looking like the village idiot for falling for this. In her acting debut, Brooklyn Decker isn't asked to do much and doesn't, but she's okay in a role she couldn't reasonably have been expected to save. But unlike Aniston, she has no chemistry with Sandler at all and clearly doesn't try to add anything to the character a seasoned actress could have. In a fact not heavily promoted, this is actually a very loose remake of 1968's Cactus Flower, for which won Goldie Hawn her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in Decker's role so we can at least be grateful Kate Hudson didn't decide to take it. Nick Swardson is funnier than expected as "Dolph," considering the limitations of his stereotypical role.

Say what you will about the intelligence level of the plot (which basically focuses on a one giant misunderstanding we've seen dozens of variations of), but at least director Dennis Dugan has this down to a science and grasps the idea this is supposed to be a comedy and spares us the requisite big reveal at the end complete with the couple fake breaking up. It also thankfully doesn't resemble the tone deaf Forgetting Sarah Marshall from a couple of years ago where a Hawaiian vacation existed only as an excuse for its depressed protagonist to mope around a resort and whine about a doomed relationship. This trip is actually upbeat, highlighted by the hilarious performances of Nicole Kidman and singer Dave Matthews (in his biggest Sandler part yet) as a kooky vacationing married couple. Far from the brief hidden cameo it's been downplayed as, Kidman actually has a pretty decent sized supporting role as a super-competitive former friend of Aniston's that's more entertaining than you'd think, reminding us (and probably her) that she should do comedy more often being that she's good at it.

As a longtime Sandler fan dating all the way back to his early albums and run on Saturday Night Live,  even I'm under no illusion that his current comedies can compete with Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison on the laughter scale, but this holds up on its own terms. About the only huge complaint I can offer up is that it doesn't have nearly enough bite. So while it's no worse in quality than Zohan or Grown-ups, it is wimpier and makes you miss the days when Sandler took risks and was capable of flying off the deep end with his craziness every once in a while. Judging from the stupendously insane trailer for his next project, I may finally get my wish, even if everyone thinks I should be careful what I wish for. Sandler's one of those actors critics and audiences will always seem to disagree on, but it's tough denying his talent. In a perfect world it would be nice if he challenged himself again more (and I suspect he eventually will) but for now he's comfortable doing what he does best, even if some can't stand it. Just Go With It may be yet another middle-of-the-road Sandler effort but given the scorn he receives when he tries anything different, it's hard to blame him for sticking to a formula that works.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Kennedys

Director: Jon Cassar
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Katie Holmes, Tom Wilkinson, Diana Hardcastle, Kristin Booth, Chris Diamantopoulos, Charlotte Sullivan, Serge Houde, Enrico Colantoni, Don Allison, Gabriel Hogan
Original Airdate: 2011

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The biggest news coming out of the controversial 8-part Kennedys miniseries that was scrapped by The History Channel, only to eventually find a home on the obscure ReelzChannel network (and now streaming on Netflix), is that it's every bit as controversial as you've heard and you'll completely understand why the Kennedy family wanted it squashed. Producer Joel Surnow's treatment of them recalls the creative liberties taken with Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, in which the slandered subject (or in this case subjects) are dragged through the mud and pummeled, actual facts amplified to the max in order to bolster the narrative and make a larger thematic point. But in exposing and exaggerating their flaws Surnow does something remarkable by beating on them so badly that I actually walked away with greater respect for what they were able to accomplish as public servants in the face of all their personal demons, and found myself wanting to learn more. Enthralling and addictive, it's nearly impossible to watch only one episode without getting hooked and wondering how much is true.

If this miniseries is "trash" then call me a garbage picker because everything about the production, from the costumes to the period details to the performances, to the music and cinematography is top notch. It juggles multiple flashbacks with clarity and purpose, knowing exactly the right events to focus on, what to leave out, and when. It even has a wicked sense of humor, hilariously lampooning some major figures of the time. And as over-the-top as he goes, Surnow still wisely realized there was one section where it's imperative to show class and restraint and does. And in satisfying fans of salacious melodrama, history buffs, and biopic addicts like myself, it also won't disappoint anyone coming to this for the shock value of seeing Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes in these iconic roles. Even the opening title sequence (scored to Emmy-winning composer Sean Callery's instantly classic theme) is a glorious throwback to '80's television that thankfully seems to never end, promising an American epic of unmatched suspense, intrigue and drama. And that promise ends up being fulfilled ten-fold in an under-appreciated masterwork of modern television better than just about anything you'll see released into theaters this year.

The first few episodes set up flashbacks depicting family patriarch Joseph P. Kennnedy, Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) as the driving force behind their tragedies and successes. After a series of ill-conceived political decisions destroy his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and squander his own potential Presidential run, he's forced to resign from his position as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1940. He lays all his hopes and dreams for a future Presidency on his favorite son, Joe Jr. (Gabriel Hogan) who, unlike his brother Jack (Greg Kinnear), is "going places." But when Joe Jr. tragically dies in the Air Force, Jack finds himself unwillingly passed the family torch and pushed to run Senate with younger brother Bobby (Barry Pepper) serving as campaign adviser. It's around this time he meets and marries Jacqueline Bouvier (Holmes), who's immediately made privy of his philandering ways.

Jack's presented early on as a screw-up incapable of filling his late brother's shoes and never measuring up in his father's eyes, which is understandable considering any hope for a balanced portrayal of Joe Kennedy either as a father, husband or sane human being are extinguished early with a portrayal that plays as a cross between Hitler and Darth Vader. He fudges medical records to get Jack into the military, bribes Jackie to stay with Jack, makes out with his secretary in front of wife Rose (Diana Hardcastle) cuts a deal with mob boss Sam Giancana (Serge Houd), threatens Frank Sinatra (Chris Diamantopoulos) and those are just the good things. The topper is when he comes up with the brilliant idea of getting his daughter Rosemary "cured" of her mental disability with this great new procedure he heard about called a lobotomy. Wilkinson's presence is so consuming in the first few episodes you'd think it was pilot for "The Tom Wilkinson Show" but that's okay since few are better at conveying blustery bravado and his performance only gets deeper with the nuanced re-evaluation of Joseph Kennedy that comes later when in his declining health he realizes that payback can truly be a bitch.

We're often guilty of holding our public figures, whether they're celebrities, elected government officials, or both, to the highest of standards. Whether we want to admit it or not we're still surprised  when gossip comes to the surface supporting the harsh reality that they're real people with flaws. What this miniseries excels showing is how a regular guy with little to no experience and zero interest holding the nation's highest office can if he has the connections and all the right cards fall into place. But that still doesn't mean he wants to or he'll necessarily do a good job. The implication seems to be that it takes a certain fabric of person to do it and regardless of their experience level they'll have to "learn" the ins and outs of exactly how to be the President of the United States as they go along.  The portrayal of JFK is ultimately an empathetic and honest one, showing us that he had to learn who he should and shouldn't trust or listen to, as well as learn to trust himself enough to commit to decisions that could be wrong. The Bay of Pigs fiasco prepared him for The Cuban Missile Crisis and when it was all said and done he ended up doing a commendable job under the most thankless of circumstances. Given the lasting legacy he left, it's almost impossible to believe he didn't even serve a full term, but just so happened to be in office for three of the most tumultuous years in the country's history.

Greg Kinnear gives the most complete and accurate performance of an in-office President I've ever seen, easily topping Martin Sheen and Bruce Greenwood's previous onscreen interpretations of JFK. Besides frighteningly resembling him and getting the physical mannerisms down pat (watching him walk through the West Wing or even just sitting at his desk with a cigar you'd swear you're looking at the man himself) Kinnear conveys the pain of an insecure man fighting to control his inner demons and live with the guilt of what he's doing to Jackie. He makes you believe the womanizing isn't just a cheap thrill, but an ailment as serious as the physically crippling Addison's Disease he kept secret from the public throughout his Presidency. But it's Barry Pepper who gives the series' best performance as Bobby, acting as his brother's eyes, ears and conscience as Attorney General, while guiding every move he makes. As the unsung hero of the Kennedy's saga, he's the only character who doesn't seem completely oppressed and influenced by their father, even occasionally displaying the fortitude to stand up to him. Whether he's waging war on organized crime, picking a fight with J. Edgar Hoover (a bizarrely cast Enrico Colantoni) or helping Jack deal with racial segregation and rioting at the University of Mississippi, Pepper plays Bobby so idealistically that he comes off as the uncorruptable patron saint of the Kennedy clan, acting only out of loyalty to family and country. The solid relationship he has with wife Ethel (Kristin Booth) is particularly effective in displaying the marriage Jack and Jackie seem to have lacked.

It's a testament to Pepper that Bobby's assassination in the series carries a greater emotional impact than that of his brother's, prompting the reaction of"Anyone but him" when it occurs. Giving us a far clearer picture of his impact than 2006's star-studded debacle Bobby, writer Stephen Kronish's script presents (but wisely doesn't overplay) the idea that he may have grown tired of living in his brother's shadow and cleaning up all his messes, the biggest of which was Marilyn Monroe (Charlotte Sullivan). It's fair to say Monroe, who's portrayed as an airheaded bimbo, and Sinatra (looking and acting more like a young Jack Lemmon than the suave "Chairman of the Board.") are the only two figures besides Joe Kennedy who you could reasonably claim are slandered. But I didn't have a problem with that since this isn't their story and if what we learn about them here is even half true it becomes tougher to argue theses depictions are even out of line.

Perhaps sensing she already has experience playing a similar role off screen for the past few years, someone  went ahead and came up with the brilliant idea to just make it official by casting Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy, giving her the unique distinction of being the only actress to have played both the First Daughter and First Lady during her career. The only concern I had going in (besides the fact she might actually be TOO beautiful and youthful looking for the role) was that this could end up being more than she's capable of handling dramatically. Despite what's been reported, it's a big part in both screen time and importance, and taxing for any actress to tackle, with the only relief coming in just how little is known about Jackie. Of all the actors attempting the challenging Massachusetts accent (besides Wilkinson who perhaps wisely doesn't try), Katie's is the shakiest early on before she slides into it and the rest of the performance follows suit, kicking into high gear when she assumes the mantle of the President's better half. What's really great about her performance is how she not only gives you a feel for how difficult it must have been to be First Lady (a position treated here with as much respect as the Presidency), but this particular First Lady during this specific time, especially in the midst of dealing with Jack's many indiscretions. Holmes leaves the lasting impression that Jackie stayed in the marriage not for him at all, but for the country, and possibly to prove something to herself.

A forgotten detail about Jackie is that she was actually quite shy and would have preferred shunning the spotlight if not the sense of obligation and duty she felt to the country and her husband. Barring the striking physical resemblance, casting Katie was a stroke of genius because she not only exudes the class, grace and elegance we associate with Jackie from the magazines and news clips, but gives her that girl-next-door quality a more seasoned actress couldn't. If there's a learning curve for the President, there's also one for his wife so watching Holmes navigate Jackie's journey from innocent inexperience to rock solid strength and confidence under intense public scrutiny becomes an awesome example of art imitating life for the actress as much as the subject. Once we get to the White House it's eerie how she seems to become Jackie and toward the end of the series when she, not Kinnear, has to take this story over the finish line, her transformation from grieving First Lady into "Jackie O." is emotional and chill inducing. It isn't the strongest performance of the four but it sure is the most interesting and the one everyone will be discussing and debating afterward. The media trying to blame her (and we all know why) for what happened with the miniseries was expected, but it's still a shame since she should have been praised for taking the challenge and more than holding her own opposite these powerhouse actors. Just a few years ago there's no way she could have played this role, but now it fits like a glove. Any way you spin it, that's a positive.

For many the "main event" of the miniseries will be that day in Dallas but director Jon Cassar (TV's 24) takes the classy route by avoiding a gruesome all out re-enactment and instead focusing our gaze on the fallout, providing valuable details we may not have known about the reactions of Bobby, Jackie, and especially the feelings of incoming President Lyndon Johnson (Don Allison, a dead ringer for LBJ) in the hours and days following the assassination. Given that we've unpleasantly seen the stomach churning Zapruder footage of Kennedy's shooting countless times through the years, a graphic dramatization seems not only unnecessary, but would mark the series with an ugly stain. Cassar, who has plenty of experience filming political assassinations on 24, could have easily just fallen back on what he knows, but not showing it in all its gory detail ends up being that best decision he makes in maintaining the series' integrity. And time that could have been wasted running assassination theories into the ground is wisely forsaken in lieu of more important matters concerning the aftermath for the Kennedys. The biggest surprise just might be that the production bares more of a resemblance to Mad Men or Lost than any episodes of 24 with its attention to period detail and seamlessly interwoven flashbacks and flashforwards that frame the story. 

It's unfortunate this didn't air on The History Channel since it would have been a perfect fit for a network that long ago abandoned a more straightforward, textbook approach to history in favor of more entertainment-based programming. This is a little of both (more of the latter) but how much is or isn't true has little baring on how riveting these 8 episodes are, each standing strong enough on their own to not even necessitate viewing them in chronological order. Though it surely would have resulted in blockbuster ratings for any major network that aired it, the best news is that it's obvious why they didn't, regardless of the political leanings or motivations of the people involved in the project. Judging from what's on screen it's difficult to make a case that the goal was to do anything but produce the highest quality miniseries possible. Regardless of how the family is treated here, we're left with the idea that Joseph Kennedy's Machiavellian scheming did result in something great for the country, if terrible for them. And after watching all the tragedies that befall this family in this shocking thrill ride of a miniseries, you'd be inclined to believe there was a Kennedy curse that extended far beyond anything he could control.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Drive Angry

Director: Patrick Lussier
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Katy Mixon, David Morse, Billy Burke, Charlotte Ross, Tom Atkins
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It must be nice being Nicolas Cage. Getting paid millions of dollars to star in any mindless action movie of your choosing with crazy hair opposite women half your age isn't such a bad deal. Regardless of whether you call it Drive Angry, Drive Angry 3D, or Tarantino's missing third feature from Grindhouse, the actor's latest is more Nic Cage being Nic Cage. But at least say this for him: He always "sells out" in an entertaining and hilarious way, crafting an insane onscreen persona that works for him. No matter how awful his choices in material sometimes are, even his worst performances are still strangely fascinating. Against your better judgment, you find you just can't turn away and anxiously anticipate what crazy thing he'll do next. I can get on board when the filmmakers at least extend us the courtesy of going along with the joke. Patrick Lussier's Crank-style homage joins the actor's recent Kick-Ass and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in really "getting it." And if you like scuzzy, violent B-level grindhouse flicks doubling as gothic horror action-comedies, then this is your thing. You also get performances better than you'd think a movie of this ilk deserves, which makes sense looking at the credits. With actors like crazy Cage, Amber Heard, David Morse and an incomparable William Fichtner sharing the screen together, I'm wondering whether it even stood a chance of not working despite how ridiculous it all is.

Cage plays John Milton, a lone drifter and felon who saves a hot, young waitress named Piper (Heard) from her abusive boyfriend, taking her along on his manhunt to track down Satantic cult leader Jonah King (Billy Burke). He's in possession of Milton's granddaughter and is planning to offer her up as a sacrifice unless he can somehow find a way to stop him. Following Milton is a mysterious stranger with paranormal powers known as The Accountant (Fichtner) who clearly wants something from him, even though we're not exactly sure what right away or even whose side he's on. All we know is that he's creepy, hilarious and comes armed with plenty of sarcastic one-liners, which is more than enough since he's easily the best thing in the film and deserving of a sequel of his own. The plot ends up being even more over-the-top and silly than could have been expected from the honest previews and just gets even sillier once all the crazy details of Milton's bizarre situation start to surface. That info starts clarifying things a little, but it's not like that makes much of a difference since the balls-to-the-wall action scenes carry the most interest, and a lot of them are real keepers, namely Milton shooting at intruders while he's busy getting it on with a waitress. We also get to watch what must be the most fatalistic gun shot to not kill anybody, even though we know exactly why not.

For better or worse, you get what you pay for each time out with Cage regardless of the trashy material he often onto and this is no exception, except for the fact that it knows how ludicrous it is. As usual Cage is just having a silly, dumb time imitating himself imitating Clint Eastwood and not taking anything seriously, which in this case works perfectly fine. We get to see him shoot people, listen to him talk in his goofy Cage voice and have a good laugh at his latest hair disaster so all is well. The always busy Amber Heard, whose star continues to burn brighter with each performance, stretches to play trailer trash perfectly while surprisingly never falling into the thankless love interest trap. She's as much an ass-kicker as he is, which should come as a relief for anyone who thought she was only cast so Cage could add to his laundry list of age inappropriate female co-stars. Billy Burke gets the job done as the crazed Koresh-like cult leader (even if he more closely resembles Rick Springfield) but the film belongs to well-traveled character actor William Fichtner, who gets a chance to show those unfamiliar with his work what they've been missing and blows Cage off the screen. Best known on the big screen as the bank manager who stands up to Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight and on the small screen with appearances on Invasion, Prison Break and Entourage, this is the first time he's really been cut loose in a senseless big budget action movie. And of course Fichtner makes the most maniacal thing about his maniac character the fact that he doesn't act maniacal at all. Few can play cool, calm and creepy better, and not nearly with as much dry wit. The entire movie ends up being a well-deserved showcase for him, as he approaches scene-stealing levels of eccentricity that should make Christopher Walken proud.  Unfortunately, David Morse isn't given nearly as much to do as a grizzled mechanic and must slog through a role so insignificant there isn't even much an actor of his talents can do with it. 

It's easy to see why this died a quick death at the box office since it's only getting more difficult to convince moviegoers to spend their money watching Cage mock himself again, especially in 3D where the stakes for mind-blowing entertainment are raised. But like last year's Piranha remake this is the kind of cheesy, B-level grindhouse movie that feels defensible for that format. Still, even only at 105 minutes, the plot stretches thin, so it comes as somewhat of a relief that it's an unimportant element. This makes it the perfect rental or guilty pleasure purchase if you're in the mood for movie junk food, or just feel like rewarding yourself for avoiding the shattered expectations that would have likely accompanied a theatrical viewing. At home those expectations are hovering at a more manageable level and the performances of Fichtner and Heard alone should be enough to seal the deal for anyone straddling the fence about checking it out. Thankfully recalling well-made, fun garbage like Con-Air rather than The Wicker Man, Next or Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry not only knows it's supposed to be a bad Nic Cage movie, but proudly wears that badge on its sleeve, making no apologies for reveling in its own awesome awfulness.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Joanna Going
Running Time: 138 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Certain films warrant endless discussion and analysis only minutes after the final credits roll. Those who write about movies know them well since they go running to the keyboard to spill their thoughts and others quickly talk about with friends to see if they're on the same page. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life meets all the qualifications of a film that should be deeply analyzed and picked apart (and it is already by many), yet when it ended the last thing I wanted to do was write about it or talk to anyone. I just wanted to sit there and let it sink in. Then I wanted to be alone to reflect on it. Less a film than a symphony, interpretation and analysis is fun, but futile considering each individual will bring however much or little of themselves they want to it.  What it all means could be summed up as "everything," but that still doesn't even really touch it. We're born into this world, make connections with different people that can be fleeting or not, and then we leave it, never pausing to consider whether there's a universal scheme in place hurling us toward our inevitable destination. We've seen movies try to tackle the topic but this is the first to make sure it's felt completely.

Similar to a collage of dreams or memories, everything is presented in a non-linear format rather than in a traditional narrative structure. Scenes flow freely to form emotions rather than necessarily tell a story, which is sort of a first. Almost embarrassingly messy and over-ambitious, time will have to judge it's worth as a true masterpiece, but this does feel like something monumentally important that should be talked about for a while to come. No matter which side of the fence you fall on in terms of its quality, there's no denying it's unlike anything we've seen recently, and deserves respect even from those who can't bring themselves to admire it.  It's a game-changer that pushes the medium in a new direction and demands all its layers be peeled away an image at a time. Whether it's as altering an experience as the reclusive Malick intended it to be for will be argued over multiple viewings and succeeding years but this does feel like the movie he's slowly been building toward his entire career, if not his whole life.

The fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative centers around different, but intrinsically linked timelines. It opens with a series of dreamlike images, flashbacks and whispery voice overs before shifting to the arrival of a telegram informing Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) of the death of her 19 year-old son, presumably overseas at war (Vietnam?) but we can't be sure since Malick leaves it to us to fill in all the details. She notifies her husband, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) of the news via telephone, but it's not until much later when we've learned enough to properly put in context their differing reactions. Then we shift to present-day with their other son, a middle-aged Jack O' Brien (Sean Penn) depressed and emotionally absent as he goes through the motions of his daily life as an architect, haunted by the anniversary of his brother's death and memories of their childhood together.

Before flashing back to their days growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950's (a stretch that accounts for the majority of the film's running time) there's an extended 18 minute-sequence depicting the creation of the universe that very heavily recalls the "stargate" sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey in that it doesn't use computer generated imagery and looks and feels real (incidentally, the same special effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, worked on both). And that film is really the only point of reference and entryway we have into to this one which otherwise resembles little that's come before and seems to make-up a visual language of its own as it hypnotically unfolds.

The sequence culminates with scenes involving dinosaurs that at first glance seem only present for historical reasons, but in hindsight their actions (like the apes in 2001) take on a very concrete significance in relation to human events that occur later.  You may as well hear Kubrick clapping from beyond the grave since the entire project seems to represent exactly the kind of ambitious vision he'd undoubtedly support, or attempt to film himself, if he were still living. For better or worse, his version would likely be emotionally colder, steering clear of the looser, more impressionistic moments Malick loses himself in and surrenders to. 

Taking up most of the film's second half is the childhood sequence in 1950's Waco, which contains some of the most remarkably accurate and evocative representations of childhood that could be put on a screen. Emmanuel Lubezki's photography, Jack Fisk's production design and Alexandre Desplat's score all converge to create a perfect storm of atmosphere so palpable that you may as well be there with the characters. For about an hour straight it feels as if you're in the hands of a master magician rather than a filmmaker as we witness the lives of the O'Brien family through a series of memories and images not all necessarily presented in order but feeling like a full-blown time travel trip through the defining moments of a life.

We follow young Jack (Hunter McCracken) from birth into adolescence and tracks his relationship with his two brothers, especially the younger, favored brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler). The three boys both fear and respect their father Mr. O' Brien (demanding to be called "father," not "dad"), a strict, disciplinarian who's own failure at becoming a musician has resulted in behavior that borders on abusiveness, and often crosses the line into it. The  more empathetic, almost ethereal Mrs. O' Brien is childlike in her demeanor, and while not naive to her husband's faults, protects and comforts children without ever daring to cross him. So terrifying is his behavior that an impromptu business trip creates one of the more memorable scenes when the children celebrate his absence, and Jack's pent-up id runs wild in surprising ways, confirming he may actually need more of his father's rules and discipline than he thinks. How Jack internalizes this rocky relationship with his father not only comprises the meat of the childhood chapter, but also figures into the controversial Sean Penn section, even if explaining exactly how would probably require the length of a novel and numerous spoilers, at least as far as it's possible to "spoil" a plot this abstract.

The Waco chapter of the film is so flawless that it's hard to reconcile where everything else fits in terms of quality. The knee jerk reaction is to assume Malick sets the bar so high for himself that he can't top it with what's left, but I'm not sure I buy into that. For me the most emotionally gut-wrenching scene of the film is when the family leave their home after Mr. O'Brien is transferred from his job and Jack gets one last glance through the car's window. It feels like a death of sorts and in many ways it is since his brother will eventually die and his childhood is preserved in this period of his life, and that moment. We all have those snapshots stored in our minds which is why this family's story resonates so strongly and there's an inescapable temptation for us to reflect on own memories as we watch it, substituting ourselves in for the characters.

This is easily the best work Brad Pitt's ever done and it's a testament to just how much else is going on here that the underrated performance is flying under the radar of most. It's because of Pitt that Mr. O'Brien doesn't come off as an evil, abusive tyrant as he very well could have, but a demanding parent whose anger comes from wanting a better life for his boys than he had for himself.  You can almost understand why he does the things he does without necessarily agreeing with any of those decisions or condoning his treatment of the boys.

Carrying much of the film in what's far from a supporting role, Pitt has never been one to ever phone it in for a paycheck and this is the latest, possibly greatest, example of him using his clout to star in a difficult, challenging work that pushes him further as an actor, often at the expense of leaving money on the table angering fans who came to see this only because of his star power. You'd figure audiences would have learned their lesson last year after Clooney burned them with The American or at least realized from the commercials that this wasn't going to be the Pitt/Penn dinosaur hunter movie they expected. But as strong as Pitt is, relative unknowns Hunter McCracken and Jessica Chastain manage to stay right there with him, the former with a quiet intensity in his face that speaks volumes even in complete silence.

While at first it's hard to make heads or tails of the Sean Penn section of the film and the eventual ending, it's accurate to say anyone who hated the finale of Lost, will despise it. What's interesting about the presumably "present day" scenes involving adult Jack is how open to interpretation they are. In one sense it seems as if Jack is imprisoned in this cold, modern world with soulless skyscrapers surrounding him, an unfulfilling job, a house so sterile it doesn't even appear lived in, and a distant, possibly non-existent, relationship with his wife. Yet it could also be looked at as if Jack isn't trapped in this existence as much as he's a prisoner of his own memories and therefore unable to appreciate the modern beauty around him, at least until he comes to terms with his past.

It can't be merely a coincidence that these are are the first present-day scenes the reclusive Malick has ever filmed when you consider most of his movies (and this is only his fifth in four decades) seem to have a reverence for the past that implies no matter how good or bad things were then, they'll always inevitably be better than now. That could help explain why this challenging, indulgent portion of the film exists and why most viewers would have problems with it. Any disappointment felt watching the ending moments of the film in relation to the incredible childhood chapter that came earlier can be explained away by the fact that the protagonist is supposed to feel it more, and clearly he does.

This obviously isn't a film for casual moviegoers, but I can't help but laugh at the irony of that statement since I've always considered myself one. But after seeing this with an audience yelling at the screen with impatience and confusion while the rest walked out at various points demanding a refund (for a free screening!), I'm starting to second guess that. Apparently, my experience wasn't an isolated incident so those who can enjoy, or even just appreciate the film for what it is (and isn't) will have to accept that critics and audiences vehemently disagree. That's not necessarily a negative considering it's a rare gift a film this discussion-ready is dropped in the middle of summer, usually a dead zone for anything of substantial quality. But the most exciting thing about The Tree of Life just might be that a filmmaker aimed this high and didn't let the judgment of public opinion or studio pressure get in the way of him creating a work of art that feels this vast and epic, yet so personal at the same time. Regardless of its outcome, Malick should be credited for realizing his vision since it's doubtful any other filmmaker would have had the guts or skill to go this far with it.