Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me Review

“Sleepwalk With Me” is an interesting, sometimes successful sometimes not, movie experiment. The director, co writer and star is stand up comedian Mike Birbiglia and the whole movie is essentially a stand up routine dramatized. He plays Matt (himself), a bumbling, nervous, wimpy fellow. Matt is also a stand up comedian, or at least is trying to be one; he works as a bartender at a New York club where he will occasionally do his act. However, he’s not very good. Well no, he absolutely stinks. He’s been in an eight-year relationship with a woman named Abby (Lauren Ambrose), who’s pressuring him to propose and have a kid, which he doesn’t know if he wants. Then he’s got his two parents played by James Rebhorn and Marylouise Burke who keep bothering him, as most comedy movie parents tend to do. And to top it all off he suffers from a serious sleepwalking disorder (most likely caused by all of this stress in his life). He has dreams and acts them out. Poor guy.

Now, all of the supporting characters in “Sleepwalk” are thinly sketched and don’t grow very much throughout. Abby is sweet and a little quirky and is also obsessive, while Matt’s parents are typically kooky, and his recently married sister Linda (Carol Kane) is typically supportive. Though I suppose that’s what Birbiglia is going for. It’s his story, about his career and romance troubles, and we see everything from his point of view. He narrates and every once and a while we cut away from the action to Birbiglia driving around in his car addressing us through the camera. The narration is filled with little jokes, so it’s easy to imagine it performed as a standup act. “Sleepwalk With Me” originally began as a one man, off Broadway show and it’s easy to see it in that context as well.

But in terms of a movie, I couldn’t find myself caring about much of what happened in it. I didn’t care about Abby, or Matt’s kooky parents and supportive sister, simply because they all feel like nothing but projections, in fact the “dramatizations” also felt like projections. And as far as the sleep disorder stuff is concerned, it mostly just provided comedy. Furthermore the movie is a little unfocused; half way through it goes off on a side tangent where Matt does a long string of stand up gigs across the country (where he progressively gets better at comedy and gets in worse shape, sleeping wise). And then it goes back to his relationship with Abby, which doesn’t have enough weight.

Although, the film can be fairly amusing at times, particularly the scenes where we get to see his standup act; first when he’s terrible, then when he’s good and he mocks his bad relationship situation. And the sleep walking sequences (first we see the dream, then we see what Matt’s actually doing in reality) always gave me a laugh. There’s one that ends where he literally jumps out of a hotel room window.

While I appreciate Birbiglia’s attempt to do something different, in the end I think I would rather have seen Birbiglia’s straight stand up act, on a stage without these dramatic reenactments, because the comedy is all I really got out of the overall picture. I couldn’t get attached to any of the serious things Birbiglia was trying to convey.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bachelorette Review

Finally, a near great raunchy comedy featuring women has come out this year to compete against movies like “21 Jump Street,” “The Watch” and other raunchy guy comedies. “Bachelorette”—written and directed by Leslye Headland—is similar to last year’s “Bridesmaids,” the only other really good women’s comedy I’ve seen of recent. They both are about a bride and her maids and the various ups and downs they go through before the ceremony. But unlike “Bridesmaids,” which was a glossy, Hollywood film, “Bachelorette” has more of an edge. The women in “Bridesmaids” wouldn’t have done cocaine. At least not on purpose.

The bride to be is Becky (Rebel Wilson, who was also in “Bridesmaids”) a plump gal who’s not really interested in breaking the rules or doing hardcore partying. That’s interesting because that’s what her three bridesmaids and “friends” seem to do a lot of. They are: the uptight, blonde Reagan (Kirsten Dunst), the more aggressive brunette Gena (Lizzy Caplan). How do I know this? Her answering machine message is “Hi you’ve reached Gena, suck a…” you know. And finally there’s Katie (Isla Fisher) the ditsier one. All three are terrible terrible people. I guess all four of them were friends in high school and college. They even had a name for each other, “The B heads.” However, even though they were friends, the three bridesmaids managed to ridicule Becky behind her back and they still do. When Becky first tells Reagan the big news, she immediately starts complaining about her to Gena and Katie.

My first reaction to all of this was utter disgust. I couldn’t stand these three and I was convinced I would dislike the movie because of that. But, as the film went on and the three girls did what they did I began to feel sorry for them. They’re so agitated and aggressive all throughout the movie. Watching it you get the feeling that the girls never really grew up. Much in the same way Charlize Theron’s character Mavis Gary in “Young Adult” was a bitter, resentful overgrown teenager, I got the same impression watching Reagan, Gena and Katie.

As we find out, they all have deep-seated issues that they haven’t quite been able to get over. And hearing that Becky is getting married (something that pretty much all women in romantic comedies want to do) it’s just another excuse for them to continuing being angry and cynical. They mock and complain about Becky but at the same time they sort of need her, to get motivated to do something. This is what I most appreciated about “Bachelorette.” It’s a raunchy film but it goes somewhere deeper and more serious. It’s not just explicit for the sake of being explicit.

“Bachelorette” shows all of the usual wedding comedy scenes. There’s the rehearsal dinner speech, where the characters manage to make fools of each other and then there’s the wild bachelorette party. Though, this movie does a miraculous thing in that it doesn’t spend a lot of time on either of those cliché scenes. It gets through the rehearsal party scene without lingering on the foolish bridesmaids’ speeches (something “Bridesmaids” didn’t do) and during the bachelorette party scene when a male stripper comes out we don’t have to see the whole wild dance. Instead, Reagan, Katie and Gena rip Becky’s dress by accident and that leads them on an all night odyssey to get it fixed. During that night they run into a pack of guys, including the groom, and humorous things ensue. I’ll let you discover them for yourself. It’s also this turbulent night when we learn about the three bridesmaids and those deep-seated issues I mentioned before. Headland takes time to explore each girl without comic distraction and she does it in such a natural way. There aren’t melodramatic arguments followed by teary apologies.

Eventually, “Bachelorette” leads to a lengthy, chaotic final stretch featuring the imminent wedding. In its zany way everything comes together rather smoothly and I liked that none of the three girls makes a total 180-degree turn. Similarly to Mavis in “Adult” they acknowledge who they are, what their problems are but continue on being who they are. The edge still remains, it doesn’t descend into mushiness. I’m sure they’re still doing coke after the movie is over.


For a Good Time, Call Review

“For a Good Time Call” should have been better. It had all of the elements necessary for crafting a worthwhile raunchy women’s comedy to rival the three or four guy movies that have come out so far (sort like “Bridesmaids” last year). It has a novel premise: Two young attractive girls decide to operate a phone sex business. The two girls are Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller). Katie is the blonde wild one. Lauren is the uptight, boring brunette. They both hated each other in college; they still don’t quite get along now but they need each other. Katie needs a roommate to help pay rent; Lauren was dumped by her boyfriend and needs a home. When they first start off on their new business venture Katie is the one that talks dirty and Lauren takes care of the business end responsibilities but soon enough she, the shy conservative one, is talking dirty as well. Oh, the opportunities.

For a little while anyway, the movie is off on a nice little momentum. Jamie Travis’ direction is competent; the script by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon is sharp. And for the record the movie is raunchy, very raunchy. I did laugh yes, most of the time from the pure shock of some of the jokes. Obviously I can’t report many of them because I don’t want to spoil the fun and they’re too mature for this review. Though, I suppose I can share one. There’s a sequence early on when Katie takes Lauren under her wing and teaches her the art of phone sex. I always appreciate scenes like this in comedies because it can make for a long string of funny gags.

Anyway, so there’s the movie chugging along at very high energy, which is fantastic, but as I was watching it I couldn’t help but think about when the movie was going to crash and how bad that crash would be. You see, the movie’s almost too high energy; everyone involved in this picture is obviously excited but they’re too excited. The movie is just “go go go” without anytime for the audience to take a break. Now that high energy might be OK if the movie was consistently funny but instead it’s wildly uneven. A lot of times with the raunchy scenes, it feels like the movie is being raunchy just for the sake of being raunchy. Better yet just about all of the main characters overact. I get it, they’re excited too but by the end of the movie it felt like they were trying much harder than needed to be funny and as a result they don’t gain much dimension. Justin Long as their sassy gay friend gets particularly over the top and annoying. Remaining nothing but a stereotype.

Then when the movie finally does crash from its sugar high it never recovers. We know the two girls will have a major fight, one that causes them to separate and then through one way or another they come back and make up. In the case of “For a Good Time Call” the resolution is lazy and rushed and leaves a few loose ends un tied, which is the weakness of many romantic and regular comedies, yes, but “For a Good Time Call” had so much potential that that final blow is especially disappointing.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lawless Review

Forrest Bondurant can definitely take a few hits. In fact in “Lawless,” Forest not only takes hits, he gets his throat slit and is left for dead out in the cold and he gets shot three or four times. And he survives miraculously. Forest is played by Tom Hardy, the 34 year old Brit who of late has proven himself to be a great actor, particularly a great physical actor. Whether he’s playing the broken down MMA fighter in “Warrior” or the terrorist villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he knows how to play hardened reserved characters that are prone to violence and damage.

Speaking in a low, southern drawl, Forest is one of those tough, reserved men who says little, only what’s needed. Hardy doesn’t draw too much attention to himself and a lot of the performance comes from his body motions and facial expressions. He has a stern muscular build and has such an honest stare, like he’s staring into your soul. He’s the center of John Hilcoat’s new film, which is an expertly crafted exercise in the old school gangster movie genre.

“Lawless” is set during the prohibition era, and while we do catch a few glimpses of Chicago, the movie takes place in the rural, heavily forested Franklin County, Virginia (dubbed “The wettest county in the world”). There, Forest, his two brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) and a few assorted others run a moonshining business.

Gorgeously shot on location in Atlanta--the cinematographer Benoit Delhomme really makes the multiple colors of the various objects within the environment pop off the screen—Hilcoat (“The Road”) creates an atmosphere that’s comforting and a sense of community. Out here, the local inhabitants keep to themselves, just trying to get along and survive. Moonshining doesn’t even seem illegal, just another way of making a living. When the Bondurant’s oblige the local cops it just feels like friends exchanging “hi’s” along the road (and fifteen crates of moonshine).

However, this simple seemingly peaceful environment runs into danger in the shape of Charlie Rakes (a quirky Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago. With his slicked back, artificially colored hair, a shaven face (including eyebrows), and a sharp wardrobe, Rakes is everything the Bondurants and the other Franklin County folk aren’t. He’s a vile, slimy, almost reptilian creature, representing all of the corruption and sadism of the big city. We don’t see him eat or sleep. He’s pure evil.

“Lawless” isn’t a revisionist historical film like Quentin Tarintino’s “Inglorious Basterds” and it isn’t comic book-y like Brian De Palma’s own Prohibition picture “The Untouchables” (although the character of Rakes is a cartoonish villain); instead, it’s more like Michael Mann’s John Dillinger bio pic “Public Enemies,” a straightforwardly told crime saga. Most of what happens plot wise isn’t that profound or original. The Bondurants face a number of trials and obstacles, most having to do with Rakes, and then there’s some romance thrown in. The screenplay by Nick Cave (based on the non-fiction book “The Wettest County in the World,” by Matt Bondurant) is structured more episodically. But “Lawless” is character driven rather than plot driven. It’s about the Bondurant brothers, three differently defined characters interacting with each other. And Forest is the most compelling.

Unlike many outlaw heroes in these kinds of movies, Forest isn’t looking for attention or trouble. In an early scene when the brothers make an exchange with the police he doesn’t even look at them He doesn’t wear fancy clothes; he doesn’t have a huge home. It doesn’t even seem like he drinks any of his moonshine. He’s a businessman, not a criminal. Like most other people in Franklin he wants to get by. And yet if he doesn’t want to do something he won’t do it. He does whatever he thinks is morally right (to him). If provoked he’ll beat a man to a bloody pulp without another thought.

As the oldest brother he acts as a sort of father to Howard and Jack. He can be strict, especially with Jack, but he loves his brothers and wants to look out for them. He may be a hick but he’s intelligent, though trouble still finds him. He tells Rakes to shove off when he first comes and tries to extort his business but he underestimates his opponent. He doesn’t realize how vicious and determined Rakes is. Hardy isn’t explosive or over the top. With him, the less said the better. Often times Hardy will give this grunt, when he’s annoyed or confused, that’s as effective as it would be if he delivered some long monologue.

Jack Bondurant is almost the exact opposite. He’s the youngest and least experienced. And yet he’s the most ambitious. Unlike Forest, who would probably remain a rural moonshiner his entire life, Jack wants to be like Al Capone. He dresses in hotshot clothes and wants to drive fast cars. In an early scene when a Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) shoots up a car in town, it’s like a celebrity sighting for Jack. But he’s also foolish and naïve; he tries to impress a local girl but he forgets to take the price tag off of his new coat.

He gets himself and his brothers into a lot of trouble. But at the same time this headstrongness sometimes pays off, like when he gets a great sale from Banner. I’ve never been a huge fan of LaBeouf.  He’s either an annoying goof ball (in the “Transformer” movies) or I can’t take him seriously (as in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) but this role is perfect for him. Jack is a cocky screw-up, LaBeouf excels in that and he brings a great amount of class and confidence to the part.

The tone in “Lawless” is mostly dark and gritty. As the movie goes on Rakes cracks down on the Bondurant boys even harder. He resorts to unorthodox methods like tar and feathering. The movie has its fair share of brutal, violent and even disturbing scenes. But Hilcoat doesn’t overdo it. There isn’t a gunfight or a gore scene every two minutes; when they come they are earned. Plus Hilcoat and Cave are able to seamlessly blend comedy into the mix as well. Sometimes it’s playful, brotherly humor, and others it’s dark and a little twisted.

The supporting players like Clarke as the more brutish middle brother or Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as the two love interests, aren’t given much to do but all three of them have one or two great moments. My only real problem with the movie is that the very end is a little awkward. Some information is conveyed and small events shown that would have been better suited for an “afterwards…” informational scrawl that you see in most historical dramas based on true stories. But “Lawless” is still an entertaining, character motivated, back to basics crime drama. If anything, see it for Hardy; he gives a quietly brilliant performance and continues to prove that he’s one of the best current actors around.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Premium Rush Review

“Premium Rush”—David Koepp’s exciting and silly vehicular action film—is about the high stakes life of bicycle messengers. I know, unusual right? In fact it was a job I had little knowledge about before seeing the movie. According to the picture it can be a very dangerous job, especially having to navigate your way through the chaotic, bustling streets of New York City. It’s an extreme sport in and of itself. And it takes one radical dude to do it.

That radical dude is Wilee (a perfectly cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, displaying his usual cocky charm) and he’s the best there is. He’s so good that he even has a sort of sixth sense; while riding he’s able to visualize the best possible routes and the ones that will result in an accident. Every day he goes to a dispatcher’s office and is given some kind of package or envelope that needs super fast delivery and a certain amount of time to get the delivery to its destination. It’s a difficult task, not just because of the immense physical demands but also the shear risk factor.

Wilee has to dodge his way through the dozens of cars and various other objects that infest the streets. It’s New York City so anything goes and the motorists in the movie never look happy to see Wilee or any other bicycle messengers. But I suppose it’s all part of the job and Wilee lives on the edge. He prefers that lifestyle to wearing a suit and going to work in a boring office. He enjoys the freedom, the thrill, and the extremity. Basically, he’s an adrenaline junkie and every time he whizzes past some sad sap in a suit or in a car, stuck in traffic, that’s his way of taking a hit. His bike doesn’t have any fancy pants gears on it, it doesn’t even have breaks. It’s better to keep on going than stop because as he says, the hesitation is where the accidents happen.

Watching the movie I was reminded a little bit of “Point Break” --the 1991 film where Keanu Reeves played an FBI agent that goes undercover with a gang of surfers, lead by Patrick Swayze, to catch bank robbers—mainly because of the goofy tone of both and their brief insights into the philosophy behind adrenaline junkies: searching for the ultimate ride. For Swayze’s character it was surfing, for Wilee it’s biking.

Everything about “Premium Rush” is ridiculous and campy. Koepp knows it. And we should know it the minute the song “Baba O’Riley” by The Who plays over the opening credits. But really, that’s the way a movie like this should be done. Koepp has to embrace the admitted goofiness, because if the film took itself seriously then it would be a joyless and terrible exercise. As a result, “Premium Rush” is an amusing, pleasurable and elating little actioner that should entertain you for the duration of its brief running time. All of the actors--like Dania Ramirez and Wole Parks as fellow messengers, or Michael Shannon as a maniac cop -- look like they’re having a blast, simply because they’re in on the joke. 

Shannon in particular. With his temper tantrums, cackling, violent mood swings, and bumbling mannerisms, he hams it up. He even gets the honor of saying the best, funniest line in the movie (maybe even in the entire year): “I’ll be right back, I forgot my bullets.” Essentially, along with his heavy east coast accent he’s a cartoon villain. It’s a comic strip movie and Koepp wisely retains that tone all throughout the picture. It’s popcorn cinema done well.

The screenplay by Koepp and John Kamps is sleek, as is his direction. Not a surprise, considering it’s an action movie involving bikes. The story, for all of its cartoon nuttiness, actually holds together, without any embarrassing plot holes or lapses in logic. It takes place over the period of one day, practically in real time and so the movie is almost always moving forward and when it isn’t it’s peddling backwards, to give us some background information that in turn connects to some other event that we’ve previously seen.

The cinematography by Michell Amundsen is exhilarating. Sometimes the camera trails behind a character, other times it’s following from the front and occasionally we get a POV shot. One thing I appreciated about the biking scenes (which is virtually the whole movie) is that you can clearly see Gordon Levitt or whoever else is on the bike, going through the actual streets of New York. There’s no obvious use of CGI or green screen. There’s actual bike riding.

The plot? It has something to do with Asian gangsters, Wilee having to transfer a large amount of illegal money, and a child being deported to America but it’s not really worth going over it in great detail. Look, I’m not going to tell you that “Premium Rush” is a masterpiece because it isn’t. As I said, it’s popcorn entertainment. You’ll go to it, perhaps be entertained and move on. You won’t remember it in a year. But during those 90 minutes it’s one hell of a ride.