Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ranking The 'Breaking Bad' Art Project Posters (Worst to First)

Pop culture art has really exploded in popularity in recent years and it's easy to see why. It's highly collectable, somewhat affordable, and more importantly, it just simply looks better. There's something to be said for the handmade, personal touch that can't be replicated by a studio or network promotional department just slapping a photoshopped image on a sheet of paper. It's real artwork, and there's no other series on TV that's ever lent itself to such a treatment as well as AMC's Breaking Bad.  So when it was announced this summer that in honor of the show's fifth and semi-final season (review forthcoming) the website Breaking Gifs would be launching an official online art project commissioning today's top artists and designers to depict the series' "most memorable scenes, characters and shocking moments" in 17 hand-pulled, limited edition screenprints, anticipation amongst fans was justifiably shot through the roof.

While I agree with those who feel the prints designed for Lost a few years ago in a similar limited poster series were a bit stronger overall, there are some serious gems here that anyone would be lucky to own. Out of this batch I'd only call one a total stinker, so that not a bad average. I also can't help but think this series may not be over as they could easily start up again next summer when the final 8 episodes air. Especially when you consider that this fifth season has already produced a slew of unforgettable moments and images just begging to be immortalized in print (like THIS, THIS, THIS and THIS). You can view all the additional pieces over at Gallery 1988, who hosted of the recent Breaking Bad art show. Here are all 17 prints, ranked from worst to first. Obviously, there are some MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD.

*Click images to enlarge

17. "Heisenberg," by Todd Slater
Ugh. Sorry, but this is awful. If I told you this was supposed to be depicting one of the most iconic moments in TV history you'd think I was crazy. At least crazier than (a guy who kind of resembles) Walter White in what's supposed to be his famous breakdown in Season's 4 unforgettable episode, "Crawl Space." Looking more like a photo on the wall rather than a hole in the floor, it's amazing how Slater failed to even properly capture the tone of the scene. And especially a big surprise considering he's a really great artist. Is that shadow supposed to be the shape of a coffin? Ugh again. Almost worth purchasing as a joke. Almost. At least there's still a similarly themed but far superior print by Glen Brogan that captures most everything this failed to.

16.  "The Cousins," by Jeff Boyes
Solid artwork, even if it looks like it should be airbrushed onto the side of a bike or truck, or the back of a leather jacket. That seemed to be the intention, so a success in that regard. Still, it's pretty ordinary. But is there anyone craving a memento of these characters? If we had to go there, it would have made more sense to do an illustration of their sensational parking lot shootout with Hank in Season 3.

15. "Emilio's Disposal," by Dave Perillo
Well, this is what it is and mostly works. A pivotal first season moment is captured in a so-so print. I'm not sure Perillo's light touch exactly matches the dark intensity of show but it's fairly obvious that contrast is the entire point here. Well done as a humorous diversion, though it's tough to imagine anyone hanging it on their wall.

14. "Hector Salamanca," by Tom Whalen
Ding. Ding. Ding. Many were crazy about this when it dropped but I'm a little less enthusiastic. It's clever once you figure out what it is, but it's so minimalistic it may take even the most diehard fans a couple of seconds. Whalen's a Disney artist so this isn't exactly an ideal fit and it kind of shows, as it's a bit cartoonish. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice print, but it seems like a golden opportunity was lost to depict the terrifying, heavy breathing countenance of actor Mark Margolis.

13. "Saul Goodman," by Chris DeLorenzo
Love the character, but this is just okay. Maybe I'm just disappointed that the awesome Constitutional wallpaper in Saul's office wasn't worked into a poster in some way. This is very Hitchcockian though. Really like the "Beneke Fabricators" ad on the bottom left. Nice touch. Now, there's someone who needs their own poster asap (Beneke vs. Area Rug?) But considering how hilariously sleazy Bob Odenkirk is in the role, this rendering does seem a bit ordinary. If there was a print to go over-the-top with, it was this.   

12. "Episode 5.01," by Jermaine Rogers
Yo! Magnets! The only Season 5 print in the series is a good one, if a bit comic book-y. Then again, maybe that's fitting considering this was exclusively available at Comic-Con. Great to see a cool supporting character like "Old Joe" on a poster but after viewing this season's premiere ("Live Free or Die") the image of Walt and Jesse in an intense stare down doesn't make much sense. Or at least it didn't then. I'm wondering if Rogers saw the episode before designing this. Probably not, or we'd more likely be looking at an image of a magnet-happy Jesse jumping excitedly in the junkyard or Walt with hair and a beard mysteriously sitting in a Denny's on his 52nd birthday. Either is preferable.

11. "Mexican Shootout," by Rich Kelly
My second favorite BrBa moment (right behind "Crawl Space") spawns one of the more polarizing prints in the series. At first glance I didn't care for it at all, probably in part because I felt no illustrator could do this sequence justice. The more I look at it though, the more it grows on me. It helps to be familiar with Kelly's other similarly abstract work to appreciate what he's going for. No, it doesn't look like Jesse and Gus' face is blanked out but sue me for thinking that approach is kind of strangely cool. It also fits because the entire sequence is so heart-pounding it almost feels like it's remembered in a blur anyway. If some of the other prints were too cartoonish or comic looking, this is the cover of an intriguing graphic novel. Say what you want, but it nails the tone of the scene and there's nothing ordinary about it.

10. "Wayfarer 515," by Justin Santora
Another unusual piece and easily the most minimalistic of the bunch, depicting the Season 2 plane crash indirectly caused by Walter White's irresponsibly heinous actions. What I like about it is that it really works as a piece of art that would look classy hanging on someone's wall, whether or not they had any idea about the show or not. In that respect, Santora accomplished something none of the other artists could. No one without intricate knowledge of the series would have a clue what this is supposed to be. As a work of art, it's pretty clean and flawless. How much you appreciate a restrained piece like this will likely come down to personal taste. But what doesn't?

9. "Los Pollos Hermanos," by Jessica Deahl
Love it. Anything featuring Walt's legendary Pontiac Aztek gets my vote. This Southwestern style image  brings to mind something out of a classic Western, which you could argue the show actually is.  I'm probably in the minority but the cheesy tagline on the bottom, while not entirely necessary, is a clever touch that makes the print double add for Gus' prized fast food franchise. Also great that you can actually spot him through the window. This is probably one of the strongest pieces as far as visually exploiting the show's terrific settings and locations. Great use of colors. Currently serving as my desktop background for good reason.

8. "Lily of the Valley," by Phantom City Creative
I'll probably catch flack for ranking it this low because it is a visually great call back to the what's undeniably one of the show's most indelible closing images, but I'm just not as crazy about it as everyone else seems to be about it. That's mainly due to the incorporation of that skull as one of the petals, which seems to be an unnecessary touch that not only takes away from the striking simplicity of the image, but also spells everything out a little too much for an audience that knows exactly what it is anyway. Other than that it's difficult to find much fault with it. Brilliantly subtle. Except for that skull.

7. "Breaking Bad," by Ken Taylor
Taylor's probably the most renowned artist on here so it stands to reason that any BrBa poster of his should easily wipe the floor with all the others. Not exactly, but it is still pretty damn impressive and justifiably sold out in what seemed like milliseconds. I'm not sure how i feel about the all green and it's a bit cluttered with too many heads, but that's the price you pay when you have an ensemble with so many rich supporting characters. Likely to fans' delight, this marks Skyler's only appearance on a print, but she's rendered really well (as is Hank). I would have left off the cousins but you probably could have guessed that already. Maybe not the best work Taylor's ever done, but what does it say that it's still better than most of these?

6. "The White Residence," by Mark Englert
Aztek alert! Englert's an expert at these types of landscape prints and this is definitely no exception. How can you go wrong with a portrait of the White residence? This house has basically been a character in and of itself, providing the show with so many of its most memorable scenes and moments. Of course, it's great to see the trusty Aztek back in the driveway where it belongs and I love the touch of the pizza on the roof and Walt being visible through the window. Odds on Flynn/Walt Jr. eating breakfast? Englert forgot to photoshop the shadow out of the driveway but that's nitpicking. It's a beauty that needs to be hanging on my wall instead of languishing on this page.

5. "Jane," by Frank Kozik
Plane Crash Kills! I had my fingers crossed they'd do a print for Jesse's doomed, heroin addicted girlfriend Jane and this Warholesque graffiti collage by legendary 90's rock poster artist Frank Kozik exceeded even my wildest expectations. Those finding fault are likely missing its entire point: That this actually seems like the kind of macabre piece that art-obsessed Jane would own or design herself. No poster fits its character more than this one. The colors, the skull and planes, the typography and even that chemical equation for heroin on the bottom. Maybe not the absolute best in the series, but hands down my personal favorite.

4. "Superlab," by Kevin Tong
Wow. Just wow. Imagine all the work that had to go into this. And not just the artwork either. I'm talking about all the details concerning Walter White's "Protocols, Procedures and Practices." Tong had to actually fill in all the steps for cooking and the equipment. Plus, you gotta love all the inside jokes he squeezed in like the "Do's" and "Don'ts" with Jesse blowing up his suit, Mike looking on in disappointment and the danger of flies and other contaminants. Talk about having all your bases covered. This is why Season 4 is unbeatable. It's all on this poster. And what a design idea. Nearly as impressive as the lab itself.

3. "Gus," by Anthony Petrie
Two of the show's most iconic moments eerily merged into one unforgettable image. Symbolically linking the flight crash bear Walt fished out of his pool in Season 2 to Gus' explosive demise in Season 4's famous "Face Off" doesn't seem like such a stretch at all when its presented in such a visually striking manner by Petrie. One of these elements would have likely made for a fine print, but together it's twice as impactful. Before looking at this I never really considered the freaky symmetry of the two events, but yeah, it totally makes sense to do this. It's also just about perfect, shining the spotlight on the two characters haunting the conscience of Walter White. If he still has one.

2. "The Rise and Fall of Jesse Pinkman," by Rhys Cooper
Everyone was probably anxious for Jesse to get his own print and this sure doesn't disappoint, depicting his gut-wrenching decision at the end of the Season 3 to kill Walt's superlab assistant Gale Boetticher and the dark path that led him there. And if that's not enough, you even get Hank, Walt, Gus, Saul, Jane(!) and the (recently deceased) Mike Ehrmantraut together on a single print. And they're all illustrated incredibly, through that hall of mirrors style illusion with the crystal meth. In terms of capturing likenesses, Cooper's artwork is the strongest of the series. Pretty much a must-own for any diehard fan.

1. "My Name is Walter Hartwell White," by Daniel Danger
The first print of this series is also the best. An absolutely stunning work that actually would earn its place in any art gallery. Those as completely sucked in as I by the puzzling opening minutes of the pilot episode will appreciate this. What's with the RV? Why is that guy in his underwear in the middle of the desert? Why is he pointing a gun? We got those answers, and are still getting them, even as the show enters its final season. And all that is Breaking Bad is encapsulated in this beautiful orange-tinged landscape portrait of the New Mexican desert. I like how the RV is plainly noticeable but you have to look closely to even be able to make out Walt, as if he's completely lost and swallowed up by the scenery. Like he's nothing. I could stare at this all day. There were probably many ways to go about depicting this moment, but Danger took the simplest, and most effective route.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Director:  Kenneth Lonergan
Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Kieran Culkin, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janey, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, Kenneth Lonergan, Michael Ealy, John Gallagher Jr., Rosemarie DeWitt, Olivia Thirbly
Running Time: 150 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Filmed way back in 2005 and finally released late last year, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret opens with one of the most emotionally intense death scenes I've seen in a movie. Three minutes seem to go on for an eternity. It's graphic, but that isn't why it's so difficult to get through. Wanting to look away but finding it impossible to do so, I hoped this isn't what really happens if someone's hit by a bus. I preferred thinking they couldn't be conscious long enough to carry on a conversation. That they just instantly black out and have no idea what's happened. That they can't possibly think there's a chance of making it. That their final minutes couldn't be in the hands of random strangers. As the scene wore on, I realized that this is probably exactly how it happens, and that's what made it so frightening. How could a sadistic scene like that be necessary? Lonergan spends the next two and half hours telling us. And this is the SHORTER, theatrical version.The longer director's cut runs three hours, and after seeing this, watching it seems almost mandatory.

The story of the making of Margaret is almost impossible to separate from the events that unfold onscreen, of which that opening bus accident and its aftermath serves as a catalyst for something greater. Sitting on the shelf for over six years entangled in a web of litigation, this little unknown film started popping up atop many "best of" lists last year with the word "masterpiece" floating around. While I'd like to say that word isn't used lightly, too often it is, but such a strong recommendation from so many credible sources was more than enough reason to check it out. And now that I have it's easy to understand the raves. It crawls under your skin in a way few movies today do, tackling issues even fewer successfully could. If it's a masterpiece, it's a messy one, and that feels entirely appropriate considering its depth and scope more closely resembles a great, lost American novel than any recently released dramatic film.

The protagonist's name isn't Margaret, but Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a 17 year-old Manhattan high school student who witnesses that aforementioned bus accident that kills pedestrian Monica Patterson (Allison Janey), and comforts her in her final moments. But she also shares responsibility for causing it along with the driver Jason Berstone (Mark Ruffalo). She lies to the cops about what happened, both out of fear and guilt, before attempting to change her story. This leads to her becoming involved in a wrongful death lawsuit against the MTA, alongside the victim's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin).  Almost too intelligent for her own good, Lisa's already overdramatic streak is taken to to new heights as she attempts to cope with her role in what happened. The brunt of her lashing out is directed at her Broadway actress mom Joan (J. Cameron Smith), and as their vicious verbal exchanges prove, she's definitely her mother's daughter.Various sexual encounters and heated debates with classmates over terrorism become her outlet for frustration and expression, as she's plunged into a very real adult situation no girl her age could possibly be prepared for, even as all the real adults in her life constantly fail her. 

Lonergan (whose last film was 2000's You Can Count on Me) jams so much story in without it ever feeling that way, and in doing so really nails the experience of what it's like to be a hyper-sensitive, intellectual teen who thinks they've been through it all when they haven't even begun. Its title derives from Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, "Spring and Fall," which is read during the film by Matthew Broderick, who plays Lisa's high school English teacher. The poem is about an adolescent girl named Margaret and how coming face-to-face with mortality changes her, but what unfolds over the course of this film is about that and a lot more, cutting to the core of our failure to meaningfully connect with others. That it's such a tough movie to describe and pin down is a testament to all the unconventional routes Lonergan takes to reach its goal.

Multiple storylines and sub-plots are juggled effortlessly, with everything always returning to Lisa and the accident's aftermath for all those involved, directly or not. But for Lisa, everything is always about her, and it's a credit to the writing and Paquin that we don't judge her for it and at times even empathize with her self-centeredness. She's in over her head and the more she does to make make things better, the deeper the hole she digs. Whether it's calling a bad boy classmate (Kieran Culkin) over to lose to her virginity, stringing along her would-be boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.), hitting on her geometry teacher (Matt Damon), or meddling in the bus driver and victim's lives to absolve her conscience, Paquin makes it all seem somehow refreshingly human and relatable. She's not altogether a detestable character so much as a confused one, making it excusable for us to go from hating to loving Lisa (or vice versa) within the confines of a single scene.

No stranger to playing intellectually advanced and sexually curious New York high school students in the 25th Hour and The Squid and the Whale, this role feels like Paquin's ultimate payoff on those two characters had they been given their own showcases. What she did then and achieves again as Lisa is nail down a certain cadence and inflection of speech that you'd only find amongst the intellectual community in Manhattan. Words are a a weapon and the arts their primary means of expression (the film contains at least three scenes with either plays or operas). Had the movie been released when scheduled and with the proper marketing push back in '06 or '07, there's a decent chance Paquin could have won her second Oscar.

J. Cameron Smith is equally powerful and convincing as Lisa's mother, struggling with instability issues of her own and making it easy to see how the two can barely get through a conversation without it ending in a screaming match. Her own romance with sophisticated European, and borderline anti-Semite, Ramon (a superb Jean Reno) seems self-sabotaged from the get-go. The mother-daughter dynamic is just one example of Lonergan's pitch perfect writing, as the two central characters emotionally wound one another in ways each is too selfish to see. Lisa's relationship with her absent father,--played really well by Lonergan and seen only during long-distance phone calls-- is the worst kind of estranged parent. The type who continuously makes promises he has no intention of keeping. It's painful to watch and realize what Lisa doesn't: She's low on his list of priorities.

In pretty much only a single scene, Mark Ruffalo is frightening as the bus driver who encounters Lisa. You want to despise this man, until the actor playing him makes you realize that his biggest crimes (besides accidentally killing a woman) just might be desperation and stupidity. In an unforgettable supporting turn,  Jeannie Berlin comes out of semi-retirement to conquer the complex role of the Monica's tough best friend Emily and executor of her estate, sent into a tailspin when this teen shows up at her door pushing for a wrongful death suit and talking like she knew the victim. Berlin and Paquin have a scene together late in the film that's just brutal in its raw honesty, forcing the viewer to pick a side in the most awkward of situations where both are right. Or maybe wrong. But aside from philosophy, the film navigates tricky legal scenes with astonishing clarity so even someone completely unfamiliar with law could easily comprehend the complicated details of the case. Michael Ealy helps a great deal in that regard with his laid back performance as the lawyer who realizes he too might be in over his head, but offers up reasonable solutions nonetheless. 

Without even knowing beforehand, you'd still be able to tell just watching it that the film's been sitting on the shelf for six years. It really looks and feels like 2005, giving the entire picture the aura of a post 9/11 period piece, despite now arriving over 10 years after the tragedy. The wounds are fresher on screen, especially in the tumultuous, realistically written classroom scenes. Stranger still is seeing New Yorkers walk the streets without texting, a pre-True Blood, 23 year-old Paquin passing as a high school student and a much younger looking Matt Damon before he turned the corner as a major acting force. The germ of that transformation is evident, even if his storyline seems like the biggest casualty of the editing war that delayed the film. You can sense that certain scenes are cut-off or feel incomplete with a few jarring transitions, yet miraculously none of that hurts the narrative or lessen the story's overall impact. In many ways, it seems to strengthen it. There are also a few "blink and you'll miss them" cameos from actors who would go on to become bigger names, like Olivia Thirlby and Krysten Ritter. In fact, you could argue that most of the cast is more well known and successful now than when this started filming.

There's a line in the film where a character states that you're more likely to respond favorably to something you've already heard is good. That idea especially applies to the experience of watching this, and because of that, it'll likely take some time to fully estimate its value. For some reason critics also tend to respond more favorably to New York-set movies, possibly because they so often resemble the characters that populate those types of films. This time though, they're right. There's nothing quite like watching intellectuals tear each other apart so we have something to think and talk about for days and weeks after the credits roll.

As discouraging as the film's anonymity is, we should thank our lucky stars that an intelligent, gripping human drama about real people struggling with real problems came out at all, much less this well considering all its post-production nightmares. And thankfully now with more outlets to see lesser known independent titles than there were five or six years ago, it can possibly find an audience. When writing, directing and acting all come together in a way that has something important to say about life, that combination usually proves to be an unstoppable force. At two and a half hours, Margaret still feels like it has a lot more left to say, even if what's there is more than enough.   

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Director: David Wain
Starring: Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Alan Alda, Malin Akerman, Lauren Ambrose, Jo Lo Truglio, Kathryn Hahn, Ken Marino, Michaela Watkins
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Watching Wanderlust I was overcome with the strange feeling I've seen it before. Comedies with the name "Judd Apatow" stamped on it, either as writer, director or producer are pretty common these days. They've also become interchangeable, following a  safe, standard formula without ever flying too far off the rails. Lessons learned, man-child grows up, couple grows closer blah blah blah. This time, despite only getting a producing credit, his recipe is still there. Wanderlust adheres strictly to it but what makes its execution especially disappointing this time around is that writer/director David Wain and actor/co-writer Ken Marino are capable of so much more. MTV's The State, Wet Hot American Summer and most recently the hilarious Childrens Hospital on Adult Swim, have proven it. At this point they're masterminds in their genre who should be making a movie that makes fun of this movie, so it's no coincidence this one's best moments come when they do just that.  If it's okay with you I'm just going to pretend that everything that did work is due to them and what doesn't can be attributed to Apatow dragging them into his office, pointing a gun to their heads and screaming, Didn't you see Knocked Up, Funny People and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him To The Greek and Bridesmaids? We're doing this MY way. We're gonna make MONEY!" It probably didn't go down exactly like that but that imagining such a scene is funnier than many of the uninspired events that transpire in this film isn't encouraging.

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston co-star as married couple George and Linda, who end up having to sell their recently purchased "micro-loft" apartment in New York City due to George losing his job and Linda's documentary ("An Inconvenient Truth meets March of the Penguins") being passed on by HBO. The scene of Linda's presentation to the cable executives is an example of one of the little comedic asides that  work. It's always the random, seemingly throwaway stuff that creates the most laughs, which is typical of Wain's writing. That's also true of their detour to stay with George's arrogant brother Rick (Marino) and his wife Marisa (SNL castoff Michaela Watkins). Rick is such a jerk and his scenes so squirm-inducing I'm convinced only Marino, the most underrated comic actor around, could have made this funny instead of mean-spirited and ill-placed. Things settle into a more familiar (and somewhat disappointing) groove when George and Linda arrive at a hippie commune called Elysium, which is run by the free-spirited Seth (Justin Theroux). The other inhabitants include his girlfriend Eva (Malin Akerman), nudist Wayne Davidson (Jo Lo Truglio) and its cranky owner Carver (Alan Alda). Almost immediately, the uptight, sarcastic George has problems fitting in while the flakier, more open-minded Linda forms a close bond with Seth, endearing herself to the residents of Elysium. What's supposed to be a break from the stresses of everyday life soon threatens to tear their marriage apart.

Theroux's character and performance is easily the most humorous aspect of the movie, especially his obsession on abandoning what he thinks passes for modern technology (faxes, floppy discs, VCR's, 2-way pagers). It's the by far the funniest running gag, made that much funnier by the Theroux's oblivious delivery of it. There's also a sub-plot involving a local news team that gets some laughs, as does the use of hallucinogens and the complications of George and Linda's newly "open" marriage. The more obvious stuff, like Jo Lo Truglio's nudity and evil developers plotting to build a casino on the land, doesn't. That this feels like the seventh time comedy regulars Rudd and Aniston have have been paired together when it's actually the second (I think) is indicative of a larger problem. Rudd's talented enough to be headlining in any genre but seems stuck playing the sad sack husband in every other comedy released every year. He's likable as always, but deserves better, or maybe at least something that's radically different. An entire book could probably be written on the stops and false starts in Aniston's career-long quest to become a full-fledged "movie star," and this role's a great example of why that title still eludes her. After a strong, against type comedic turn in Horrible Bosses, she's back to playing the same, tired Aniston part of either the girl-next-door or bland wife. This time she's actually both so it's back to business as usual for her. But none of the actors are really to blame. You could have plugged anyone into the roles and the result would have been the same, if not a little worse, since these two at least know their way around the material.

David Wain is incapable of making a movie that's completely bad, but this must be the closest he's come. The most frustrating aspect is that many of the jokes work, but they're at the mercy of a story structure we're all too familiar with. It probably would have worked better if it had literally no story at all. Maybe just a series of random, sketch related vignettes or segments stretched out to 90 minutes about life on the commune. It's amazing how many little, random details are funny, but are squeezed into a story that's too safe and predictable. It's R rating can be attributed to nudity and little else. Considering the talent involved, Wanderlust should be much better than it is. Not to mention crazier. Everyone involved should probably take it as a  compliment that expectations were high enough for this to be classified as a genuine disappointment.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon, Jon Bernthal
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I spent half the running time of Rampart wondering when the main character would bite the dust and the other half wondering why I didn't want to see that happen more. It's a frustrating film with isolated flashes of greatness and an electrifying lead performance, starting off as a focused character study, before unraveling as an overplotted mess. It's a compelling mess to be sure, but goes in a bunch of different directions when it really just needs to be going in one. The result is an effort that occasionally impresses but ends up being muddled by bureaucratic and political nonsense, too often tying the film up in as much red tape as its main character.

It's Los Angeles circa 1999 and LAPD officer Dan Brown (Woody Harrelson), is a 24-year veteran of the Rampart division, which is recently reeling from scandal. He's also a racist, mysogynistic, homophobic, corrupt, womanizer with anger management issues serious enough to have earned the nickname, "Date Rape Dan" (for when he allegedly murdered a date rapist in cold blood). Now with video footage surfacing of him assaulting a suspect within an inch of his life and his department under a microscope, his troubled career is called into question by assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) and Internal affairs investigator Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) who both are just trying to avoid further embarrassment.  He could have been set up, but that point's almost irrelevant when you consider he'd do something like this anyway, and has. His home life isn't much better, as he's living with his two spurned ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) who are sisters. With each he shares a daughter, the eldest of which (Brie Larson) can't stand him. Plagued by scandal and personal demons, Dan's reached the breaking point and must now confront his failings head on or risk losing his job, and possibly his life and family.

Early on, it appears this is going to be a brutal character study of a protagonist who's actually the antagonist. The opening scenes set that stage as Dan verbally abuses a female officer and roughs up a suspect. A portrait of a racist cop out of control with seemingly no conscience or remorse for his actions brings to mind 1992's Bad Lieutenant or its recent New Orleans-based remake starring Nic Cage. But then the film seems to back off that. Then a little more. Then a lot. By about the midway point, the screenplay gets so lost in its corruption plot (which never pays off in a meaningful way), that we almost forget who the story is really about. Worse yet, we keep hearing what a terrible human being this guy is but there just isn't enough evidence presented on screen to support it. He's supposedly this monstrous deadbeat dad, yet most of the scenes he shares with his family aren't nearly as destructive as you'd expect given how much of a ticking time bomb he is on the job. Most of these home scenes work though, at least until they're interrupted by the machinations of what feels too much like a police procedural.

Though the movie frequently seems to lose its grip its the main character, Harrelson doesn't. He can pretty much do anything and they should have let him, rather than just shoehorn the actor into the kind of formula cop movie we've seen far too often. Moverman previously directed him to a supporting actor nomination in 2009's war film, The Messenger, a far more focused effort that knew exactly what it was and where to go. But what's stranger is how he and crime novelist James Elroy's script seems to be in complete conflict with the directorial style and execution. It's shot in almost a frenetic, hand held, docudrama-like way that wants to bring us onto the streets of L.A during the 90's, yet the screenplay is far more conventional than that in how it incorporates familiar elements of dirty cop movies.

Robin Wright plays a suspicious defense attorney Dan starts sleeping with, and while it's a substantial supporting role well played by the great actress, I'm glad I'm not being quizzed on its purpose.  The legendary Ned Beatty also appears as a retired dirty cop who still has his hands in everything in the city, making the most of his intense scenes with Harrelson. A bearded Ben Foster is wasted as a wheelchair-bound homeless man while Steve Buscemi cameos. And doing a complete 180 from her recent turn in 21 Jump Street, an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson goes head to head with Harrelson in the emotional family scenes as his rebellious daughter, but even that sub-plot's impact seems diluted amidst everything else. And Heche and Nixon's sibling ex-wives spend most of the movie admonishing Dan or threatening to kick him out the house.    

It's always a shame when a movie that should be a home run falters, especially when it comes at the expense of skillful performances that deserved top notch material. If any of this feels like a gripping character study it's due to Harrelson, who provides enough gritty realism to convince us we're watching the movie we really wanted to see instead of the one onscreen. Officer Dan Brown isn't the kind of character you can just plug into a formula plot and expect a thrilling result. He's difficult, requiring a challenging script. You'd figure an independently financed production would have the leeway to take some risks, so it's especially disappointing to see a small film playing it so safe with a hot-button issue like police brutality. On the acting front Rampart definitely delivers, but most of its failings stem from spoon-feeding us more plot than was even necessary.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

21 Jump Street

Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Jake Johnson, Chris Parnell, Holly Robinson Peete, Johnny Depp
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's early on in 21 Jump Street when rookie officers and former high school classmates Morgan Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are drolly informed by Capt. Hardy (Parks and Rec's Nick Offerman) that they've been taken off bicycle park duty and reassigned to the recently resurrected "Jump Street" project. He then goes on a rant about how the department lacks creativity and must pathetically recycle their old programs because they've run out of ideas. It was right about there that I sensed this could work. But I couldn't have guessed it would rank amongst the very best recent mainstream comedies, sharing only its title and (briefly) Johnny Depp with the cheesy 1980's FOX cop drama. Gut-bustingly hysterical from start to finish, it's the rare comedy where everything works and the laughs are firing on all cylinders. Subversive and smart, it executes what's actually a very clever premise to its fullest potential and then some. Eyes may have rolled when this project was announced, but the result isn't what you'd think. Not only does it avoid the creative fate of so many failed TV to film adaptations like the The A-Team, Miami Vice or Starsky and Hutch, but it wouldn't surprise me if it shows up on more than a few top 10 lists at the end of the year. Including mine. It's that good, ingeniously merging both the cop buddy movie and high school comedy formula for maximum enjoyment.

Reporting to the Jump Street chapel, Schmidt and Jenko are informed by the hotheaded Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) that, due to their youthful appearances, they've been selected to go undercover at a local high school to infiltrate a drug ring that led to a student's death. Posing as brothers, their intended fake identities are accidentally switched, forcing them to take each others' classes. But when they discover the dealer is popular student Eric (Dave Franco), both must make it a priority to take him down, even as Schmidt's falling for the  Molly (Brie Larson), a pretty girl in his drama class who's also Eric's girlfriend. Jenko hangs out with the nerds in AP Chemistry as his sexually frustrated teacher (Ellie Kemper) tries to put the moves on him. Mesmerized by their chance to re-live high school and engulfed in its social hierarchy, they're often so distracted that they forget they have a drug supplier to find and a potentially dangerous case to crack in order to be taken seriously as cops.  

The movie's best comedic moments are situational and the clever script by Michael Bacall is surprisingly high concept in how it marks the huge difference for these two characters from the first time they went through high school way back in 2005. In an embarrassingly hilarious and endearing opening flashback sequence we see Schmidt, with hair bleached blond like Eminem, attempt (and fail) to ask a popular girl to the prom as dumb jock Jenko mocks him. Years later they're helping each other get through police training, but when they arrive to go undercover they can't help but wonder if they'll settle right back into their teen roles again, with Jenko as the popular jock and Schmidt the nerd. But here's where the film's really smart in its execution. From the second they arrive, it's clear things aren't what they used to be. Bullying is now a serious offense, the jocks aren't as high on the social ladder, and drama class is actually considered cool. The explanation given for all this: "Glee." And ironically it seems the very same overbearing, sincere qualities that initially made Schmidt a loser his first go-around around make him insanely popular in this new environment.

With their switched identities, both are forced to do things we wouldn't expect from either the characters or actors playing them, which create most of the laughs. Just the thought of seeing Channing Tatum (who classmates justifiably think is about 40) giving a chemistry presentation or Jonah Hill playing Peter Pan in a school production would be funny enough on its own, but because the story actually gives us a  reason for it, these scenes play even funnier than they should. Taking this role was the best move Tatum could have possibly made, erasing the stigma that he's wooden and uncharismatic. He's definitely the straight man to the noticeably slimmed-down Hill, but his comic timing is impeccable, showing range as an actor beyond what was assumed. Pairing him with Hill was a masterstroke precisely because of how different they are physically and otherwise. You wouldn't expect them to have great chemistry together but once they get going, it's such a home run that it seems crazy someone didn't think of teaming them sooner. Hill has the trickier role, having to play up his emerging popularity while still viewing himself as somewhat of a loser because of his history. He's especially effective when he gets a taste of that unfamiliar, previously unattainable respect and it goes straight to his head, causing him to get so involved in this world that he practically forgets he's undercover. And as he does, we do as well because directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller do such a good job depicting this environment and everyone's place in it.

Brie Larson's Molly doesn't feel like your typical love interest and a far better written character than we're used to seeing in a comedy like this. Her relationship with the popular Eric isn't really even much of a relationship at all and that's fully acknowledged, giving her a real presence and personality that exists outside of her being on a guy's arm. But the biggest credit to the maturity and wit Larson brings to the role is that we're genuinely rooting for Hill's character to win this girl over and laughing too hard to even consider the moral or legal ramifications of an undercover cop picking up a high school student. Granted we know the actress is older and it's a comedy, but that's still impressive and proves the directors and actors really have a airtight grip on tone, allowing nothing to get in the way and somehow sidestepping any creepiness (the same applies to the sub-plot with Tatum and his teacher). It also helps that many of Larson's dialogue exchanges with Hill are authentic and funny. Just based on her work here, she seems primed to travel a route similar to Emma Stone, receiving the same massive, well deserved bump that actress experienced starring opposite Hill in Superbad. The impression she makes is just as strong.

Dave Franco, James Franco's younger brother, looks and acts exactly how you'd expect Franco's little bro to look and act, which can't be viewed as anything but a compliment. It's almost inaccurate to call his character a bully since he's a new kind of bully: The wuss. Eric doesn't exactly fit the standard teen movie profile of a jock with a hot girlfriend, and he's only slightly unlikable, allowing Franco to do something a little different with what's usually a tired character. As strong as Hill and Tatum are as a tandem, it's hard to envision the film being of the same quality with actors other than Larson and Franco opposite them. Comedian Rob Riggle also manages to really bring the sleaze as a scumbag gym teacher.

It probably seems like I've given away too much, but in actuality it's nothing. The real joy is in watching this clever story out and witnessing the chaotic and hysterical scenes unfold. Whether it's a wild drug trip, Schmidt's house party gone bad, a high speed car chase, a school play gone very wrong, or the exciting prom night climax, the movie rarely steps wrong and is consistently funny all the way through. And as for the expertly placed Depp cameo, he comes off more entertaining and energized during these brief moments on screen than he was on the original show that launched his career, and probably most of his recent movies. But this is Hill and Tatum's show. They own it, together comprising one of the more unusual and likable comic duos in a long time. Supposedly, the wheels are already in motion for a 21 Jump Street sequel, and if this film's quality is any indication of what's in store, it can't arrive soon enough.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's encouraging news for anyone who finds themselves indoctrinated into a cult. If you want out, you can just leave. We find that out in the bizarre opening scene of Sean Durkin's tongue-twistingly titled Martha Marcy May Marlene. In it, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) decides she's had enough of this abusive lifestyle in New York's Catskill Mountains,"escaping" to a nearby diner to phone her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). She picks Martha up and takes her to the lake house she shares in Connecticut with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). She neglects to mention the cult, but it's not like she has to. They'll know eventually. This opening is the most interesting sequence in a film filled with a lot of uninteresting ones, if only because the idea one could leave a cult at their own accord is a detail we've never been privy to before. So right away we know this won't be about Scientology. That movie doesn't come out for another month anyway. As for the rest of the film's details? They're less surprising.

This film's a strange case since it's easy pointing out what didn't quite work, but much tougher coming up with solutions that could have improved it. Its subject matter, psychology and seventies-style aesthetic should have made this a terrifying barn burner, but instead it doesn't seem to tell us anything we didn't already know. As awful as it is to say that a film featuring rape, murder, robbery and brainwashing offers up very few revelations about what's already widely assumed about cults, it's true. Nothing new here. The same could be said of the protagonist's psychological unraveling. Cutting between flashbacks and present day to simulate Martha's fractured psyche, we what her life was like in the cult as she's introduced to its enigmatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) and taken in by his promises of a self-sufficient lifestyle. In the creepiest, most arresting scene, he serenades her with "Marcy's Song," and insists she go by the name Marcy May. Her sexual initiation is brutal.

Hawkes is one of our greatest character actors so it only makes sense he would tear into this role with gusto and he does. To a point. But I couldn't help but wish he had more screen time so he could cast an even larger shadow. His scenes are brilliant but feels like a teaser for something that could have been explored further. I understand the low-key, slow-burn approach, but eventually you have to pull the trigger and Durkin's failure to do that doesn't give Hawkes the meaty material he needs. He doesn't need to immediately serve Kool-Aid or go on a killing spree but something extreme or surprising certainly seemed called for when dealing with this kind of material. It doesn't help that the mostly intriguing cult flashback scenes is forced to share time with the clumsier present-day storyline.

Martha's sister and brother-in-law are depicted as complete dopes who somehow fail to notice a mentally ill person desperately needing help is living under their roof until it's almost literally too late. As if sleeping on the floor, swimming in the nude, and having panic attacks aren't enough to send up red flags. It's unreasonable to expect them to know the exact details of her situation, but instead of hearing her cries for help, they're yelling at her for being selfish. When Martha tells her sister Lucy she'd make a terrible mother, it feels like one of the few moments of clarity in the entire picture. If she can't even recognize such a blatantly obvious mental problem with her own sister, what does that mean for her potential parenting skills?

Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) delivers a borderline Oscar-worthy performance as Martha, even if the screenplay seems to beat the same drum throughout. It's an effective portrayal of someone who seems to be battling paranoia, post traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia all at once and is losing. Martha, as do we at points during the story, contemplate which life was worse for her. Abuse became her new normal, inflicted by someone who preys on the young and vulnerable. And now that it's over, real world problems begin. Is Durkin implying that being a slave to society is less preferable than being a cult member?  Olsen's definitely a real find, and of all my issues with this, she'd never be listed among them. What works does so because of her quiet realism, but it's also easy to see how this came and went unnoticed at awards time. The material just wasn't there to support it, and when the film's taken as a whole, it's somewhat forgettable and unimaginative. Taken in pieces though, it's tougher to shake. Especially the final scene. It does succeed in making you think. resulting in a film that's worth another watch, but has a personality as fractured as its title character's

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Thing (2011)

Director: Matthijs van Heijningen
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen
Running Time: 102 min
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Confession: I've never seen John Carpenter's The Thing. Shameful, I know. But it's better to get that out in the open now than go through the entire length of this review dishonestly pretending I have. We all have those movie knowledge gaps. Classic films we should have seen but for whatever reason just never got around to watching. 1982's The Thing is mine. The oversight wasn't intentional, nor due to an aversion in watching what's widely considered a horror benchmark. And the plan sure wasn't viewing 2011's supposed "prequel" first, despite being chronologically correct in doing so. Now that I have, it's still tough coming up with a reason for its purpose, which isn't a good sign considering my unfamiliarity with the film that inspired it. Call it a prequel or a remake but in the end it doesn't make much of a difference because it feels like an ordinary, but technically handsome, claustrophobic horror exercise that's a slight cut above what we've come to expect from recent reboots. It's aided by a highly effective performance from its female lead that belongs in a better movie. She's a smart, well-written character, even if the same really can't be said for anyone or any "thing" around her.

It's 1982 when a flying saucer is discovered beneath of the ice of Antarctica by a Norwegian research team and American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is called in by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to investigate what appears to be an alien body from the crash. When the team takes the creature back to the base in a block of ice, it escapes overnight and begins consuming and duplicating the crew. Taking on a human form, there's little way to tell who's been infected, prompting Kate to conduct tests and investigations with the mostly uncooperative team, as they all take flamethrowers to the beast. And each other. As mistrust begins to mount amongst them, they may just end up offing each other before they can figure out a way to co-exist and defeat this creature.

Early on, the film pretends to have something else on its mind other than being just your standard, by-the-numbers monster movie. It starts methodically, building well and successfully positioning Kate as kind of an underestimated problem solver who has to prove herself on a team full of men. The Antarctic landscape is also well shot by cinematographer Michel Abramowicz and Marco Beltrami's score really draws you in and sets a tension-filled mood. Then the "Thing" escapes and gets to work. Regardless of anyone's feelings on the original or whether this remake posing as a prequel should have even moved ahead, there's no question a lot goes wrong with the execution here. The first problem is team devoid of any type of identity, with interchangeable nobodies lacking distinctive personalities that go beyond their duties. Not to say it isn't a talented cast.  Joel Edgerton and Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are the helicopter pilots while Eric Christian Olsen plays Dr. Halvorson's assistant. When Edgerton's in your movie and doesn't register at all, something's wrong. And how could he, when the life expectancy of each character is five to ten minutes. After a slow, almost cerebral build initially, the deaths and attacks occur rapidly at a video game level pace, leaving no room for suspense. The reliance on make-up and practical effects as well as CGI is admirable, but it looks too gross and silly to be truly scary. Instead, it creates disgustingly comical effect, with more than a few scenes actually inducing giggles.

The movie's saving grace is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who at first seems to be a purely commercial-driven casting choice, but ends up being completely believable as a brainiac paleontologist who's competent at her job. The best thing about the character is that she isn't depicted as some kind of action hero in the mold of Ripley from Alien, but an intelligent leader who uses her resourcefulness to come up with solutions. Kate is literally the only role in the screenplay developed enough for us to care about, so it's a good thing she's the protagonist and that Winstead give us plenty of reasons to with a controlled, headstrong performance. The movie may make some dumb decisions, but her character doesn't. It seems strange to say this is a giant leap forward for her after her manic pixie role as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim, but taking that did her no favors since she should be moving past older teen and young adult parts. While I was doubtful initially, this proves she's more than just a (very) pretty face and capable of carrying a movie on her shoulders. Even one this middling. But more so, it's solid evidence that if she plays her cards right, she could potentially emerge as a great actress.

It's a shame that things don't start to get interesting until the final minutes. Just as the film's winding down is when it feels like it should actually be starting and my interest level rose. I wouldn't mind a sequel, but the of course the joke is this supposedly already has one. It's called The Thing and it came out in 1982 and stars Kurt Russell. That sparks a question: If this is a prequel, then why does it have the exact same title? That seems strange and confusion does little to help a picture fans of the original couldn't have been excited to see in the first place. But the sequel I want to see isn't that. It would center on what exactly happened to Dr. Kate Lloyd after the credits rolled and the potential fall-out from it. That counts for something. For all this reboot got wrong, it at least got one thing really right.