Thursday, August 29, 2013

Getaway Review

“Getaway” is complete and utter madness from start to finish, and the worst part about it is that director Courtney Solomon insists we take it seriously. The tone is dark and gritty and the picture is shot (by Yaron Levy) in a raw, hand held style but the action is over-the-top and cartoonish. It’s as if Solomon is saying: “here are these completely ludicrous and stupid action scenarios, but we’re presenting them in a realistic, hardboiled manner so you have to take it seriously.” He wants to have it both ways, but unfortunately these are two totally different styles that, when mixed together, undermine each other. If you want to make an unrealistic and silly action movie then fine, but it also has to be self aware and playful, much like the “Fast and the Furious” movies are. And if you want the movie to be gritty and serious then you have to construct the action within a logical framework. The only fun that can be had while watching “Getaway” is from unintentional hilarity, though I wouldn’t call that much of a recommendation.

The movie gets going right away. Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, doing the best he can in a poorly written role) comes home to find that his living room has been trashed and his wife missing. In overly dramatic black and white flashbacks--that resemble the cheaply produced “dramatic reenactments” one would see in a show like “America’s Most Wanted”-- we find out that his wife has been kidnapped by thugs and is being held hostage in some grimy rape dungeon. Brent gets a call from an unknown person, instructing him to go to a parking garage, steal an armored sports car (he calls it a “ very special car”) that’s been outfitted with video and audio surveillance and carry out a series of car related tasks or else Brent’s wife will be killed. Along the way he encounters the car’s actual owner, a pesky seventeen-year-old girl (Selena Gomez) who accompanies him on the ride.

 The unknown man is played by Jon Voight—oh wait! I mean John Voight’s mouth, neck, hands and occasional eye. You see, he’s a mysterious guy and we’re not supposed to know his identity. But then, why bother showing us his other body parts? And why bother showing us that he’s in some crowded cafĂ© with a laptop, tracking and monitoring Brent’s actions? In the credits he’s simply called “The Voice,” wouldn’t it be more mysterious to just let us hear his voice? At the end we do finally get to see all of him, although it doesn’t really matter because we still don’t find out who exactly he is, and yet Solomon treats it as a major revelation.

Anyway, where was I? So Jon Voight wants Brent to do a bunch of tasks, what are these tasks you ask? Well, first he tells him to drive recklessly through a crowded park, crashing into objects like a water tank and a stage. Then he tells Brent to lose the cops in four minutes for some reason. In short, he’s supposed to cause as much mindless destruction as he possibly can while in a car. Real clever tasks you’re having him do, Voight, what are you, a thirteen-year-old delinquent? I lost count of how many police cars are smashed, flipped and tossed into the air. And at one point Brent is driving on a train track while being pursued by even more cops and through some fancy maneuvering he makes one of the cars smash into a fuel tank that explodes, causing a chain reaction of fuel tank explosions all along the track. Seriously, did Solomon and screenwriters Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker really expect us to take this nonsense seriously, just because there’s a woman in peril? And believe me there’s even more stupidity that follows.

By now I should mention that Brent used to be a race car driver who has since burned out because he believed everyone who said he was good, when he actually wasn’t. Clearly that’s a load of b.s. Brent is not only a good driver but he is seemingly the best driver ever, navigating the narrow city streets with ease and shaking the cops at every turn. Although driving appears to be the only thing he can do, as he’s a complete moron when it comes to everything else. This is where the girl comes in; she knows a lot about technology (at one point, in an homage to “Speed” she hacks into Jon Voight’s command center and puts a video of them doing nothing on a continuous loop to buy them some time) and she pretty much sounds out every development in the plot to both Brent and the audience.

She’s the brainy (as well as the tough angst-y teenage girl) sidekick obviously, but she’s also a rich spoiled brat who doesn’t shut her mouth once during the entire movie. While Brent is doing his glorified joyriding she tells him to slow down…but then she tells him to go faster. One minute she’s telling him that he’s a horrible driver, the next minute she’s calling his driving “awesome.” She has a different verbal reaction or response to everything he does. Her character is all over the place. Whatever promise Gomez showed as an actor in “Spring Breakers” earlier this year is basically thrown out the window with this annoying, overacting performance. She’s almost unbearable.

After the setup and after Brent and the girl (known as The Kid in the credits) embark on their wild ride, “Getaway” becomes one gloomy, chaotic and exhausting chase sequence after another. And these chase sequences have to be some of the worst, most muddled car chase scenes I’ve ever had the displeasure of seeing. Editor Ryan Dufrene must have been on a sugar high when he cut together the movie. It’s constantly cutting back and forth, showing us every angle and view of the car along with a few abrupt close ups of Brent’s face or his foot as it pushes down on the acceleration. It’s irritating for sure, but also disorienting, especially with the use of the handheld camera. Sitting in the theater I thought I was going to have a seizure. The audience has no idea where the car is in relation to Brent, The Kid or the environment and to see this over and over again is agonizing.

Even worse, when that madness isn’t happening we’re subjected to excruciatingly painful dialogue exchanges between Brent and The Kid. I guess it’s what Finegan and Parker think is banter. In one towards the beginning, the phrase “shut up” is uttered about seven or eight times between the two:

“You shut up!”
“No, you shut up!”
“Hey! Shut the hell up!”

 And so on. This is the kind of exchange you would see in a bad comedy, but the fact that it’s in a super serious action/thriller is even more dreadful.

The movie is only ninety minutes but it feels like two hours. It keeps going on and on and on, until finally it reaches its conclusion. Without giving too much away (even though there’s not much to give away in the first place) Solomon and Co basically tell us that all of the madness and stupidity that came before was, ultimately, for nothing, making an already terrible movie even more terrible and worthless.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Grandmaster Review

Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” is a movie I respect more than I actually like. In this summer of one generic, CGI heavy action movie after another it’s refreshing to see something as graceful and beautiful as Kar-wai’s film, which captures the spirit and style of old fashioned, choreographed martial art movies. There’s no CGI and no buildings are destroyed. What a relief. The picture tells the real life story of legendary martial art master IP Man (Tony Leung), who’s perhaps most known for teaching fellow martial arts icon Bruce Lee. The movie begins in 1930’s Foshan China. The city is split into a northern and southern martial art clans and this first part of the movie follows IP Man’s confrontation with a northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Qingxiang) and his romantic encounters with Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, as fierce as always). However, due to the Second Sino-Japanese war IP Man had to flee to Hong Kong, and so the movie picks up in 1950’s where IP Man teaches at a martial arts school.

Aside from this strong sense of Chinese history, the other major factor that informs “The Grandmaster” is a strong appreciation of martial arts. Watching the movie you can tell that Kar-wai has the utmost respect for them, not just for IP Man’s preferred style Wing Chung but for multiple forms and he gives each one its due time. As already stated “The Grandmaster” is a gorgeous film, mainly because it has some of the best looking action in any movie so far this year. Kar-wai uses quick cuts and slow motion (common characteristics of American action movies) but unlike a lot of American action films these days he doesn’t use them to disorient us or make us seasick. Instead, he uses the techniques to emphasize the brutal, fluid beauty of these martial art forms, as well as the intricacy that goes into them. Kar-wai stages them more like ballets than fight scenes. He achieves a gracefulness that’s hardly ever seen in American action movies. This again goes back to this immense appreciation of martial arts apparent in every frame of the picture.

However, probably the best thing about “The Grandmaster” is that even though it is a martial arts movie Kar-wai doesn’t overwhelm us with one fight scene after another. During the opening confrontation—in which we see IP Man face off against a large group of thugs during a heavy rainfall—I rolled my eyes and thought to myself: “Oh great, how many of these are we going to have?” Turns out that’s the only massive confrontation we see. Kar-wai uses the fight scenes sparingly, so we’re not completely exhausted by the end. Each confrontation has some kind of weight or significance behind it and that’s the most effective way to use action in any movie, American or not. And more often than not it’s the non-violent confrontations that leave a greater impression. For example, when IP Man goes to face Yutian we’re expecting a five or six minute fight but instead it turns out to be an exchange of philosophical ideas instead of fists. We don’t see it coming and so it turns out to be far more effective and special than just having the two men duke it out physically.

 Now comes the hard part of this review. While I admired the movie’s craftsmanship it still suffers from one major flaw, which is that Kar-wai doesn’t fully develop IP Man’s character. I have nothing against Leung (who gives a stern and assured performance) but after watching the entire film I didn’t learn very much about IP Man, which is peculiar considering the movie spans two decades or so. Even with this massive time frame, Kar-wai fails to provide us with a comprehensive picture of IP Man’s life and none of the individual chapters of his life that are emphasized feel fully elaborated. On top of that, the narrative (what little there is) relies on far too much voice over narration and information cards. In the end the movie is more about Gong Er (the two encounter each other again in the 1950’s) and her quest to avenge her father’s death and restore honor to her family. That’s all well and good but it’s still told from IP Man’s point of view and so her character doesn’t feel fully established either. I realize that other IP Man movies have come before this one so maybe Kar-wai would have been better off focusing on one specific portion of his life, like when he starts mentoring Bruce Lee.

Wong Kar-wai cut three different versions of “The Grandmaster,” the original Chinese cut is two hours and twenty minutes, the second version (which appeared at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival) runs two hours and three minutes and finally this version (distributed by the Weinstein Company) is the shortest at an hour and forty eight minutes. I haven’t seen either the Chinese cut or the Berlin Film Festival cut but I think the American version could have benefited from being longer. As it is right now this version is beautifully crafted and I still have respect for what Kar-wai is trying to do, but at the same time it’s lacking in both character development and story telling.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Closed Circuit Review

James Crowley’s “Closed Circuit” takes an icy cold and cynical look at the British government, a government that, in the movie, acts as a powerful, oppressive force capable of carrying out (or covering up) anything they want despite the efforts of even the most determined and honest lawyers (or the British equivalent of a lawyer). There is no defeating them. Or escaping them, for that matter, not with the many closed circuit security cameras perched all around London. As the tagline states: “They see your every move.” Even though Crowley’s film takes place in London and therefore deals with things pertaining to British law, its subject matter (government monitoring of citizen activity) should prove relevant and timely to American audiences, in light of the recent scandals involving the NSA monitoring of emails and phone calls. Although the situation in London appears to be much more extreme, the NSA isn’t monitoring our actions with street surveillance cameras…at least not yet.

However, aside from that real life connection, “Closed Circuit” is a fairly standard conspiracy thriller (structure wise) that’s somewhat intriguing but ultimately undone by uninteresting characters. It starts rather abruptly when a bomb goes off in a populated area of London, followed by a suspect named Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) being apprehended. Two lawyers, Martin Vickers (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) are assigned to his defense. At first everything seems normal, weird things happen now and again (Martin somehow catches the exact same taxi numerous times at different locations around the city) but nothing to get alarmed about.

But then—as they get deeper into the case— the weird happenings start to escalate and it becomes clear that there are mysterious, ominous forces at work, interfering with Martin and Claudia’s work. They soon become paranoid, looking over their shoulders, constantly getting the sensation that they’re being watched. And with all of those security cameras seemingly positioned at every street corner, they are being watched. An unnerving, impending sense of doom pulses through every frame in “Closed Circuit.” While watching it you can’t help but be reminded of the same eerie paranoia felt in other conspiracy movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” and Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out.” And like those pictures, “Closed Circuit” has a similar pessimistic ending.

The movie is well made. Jim Clay’s production design is handsome and neat, the cinematography by Adriano Goldman is simple but effective in creating a sense of paranoia, and he photographs the entire movie in a dark blue/greyish light. Crowley moves the picture along at a steady pace and Joby Talbot’s score heightens the eeriness and intrigue. Yet, despite all of this and despite Bana and Hall’s best efforts, “Closed Circuit” fails to create compelling protagonists and therefore we have a hard time getting invested in the movie’s twists and turns. The protagonists in “The Conversation” and “Blow out” (played by Gene Hackman and John Travolta) had an imperfect, everyman quality that made them fascinating to watch. They had personality, but Martin and Claudia come off too clean and one note. They’re good honest lawyers, dedicated to the case…whoop-de-doo. Martin has an estranged son but this matter is hardly ever brought up and so it comes off as a lame attempt at characterization. Also, in an attempt to create some backstory and tension between the two lawyers, we find out early that Martin and Claudia used to be romantically involved with each other. But Crowley and screenwriter Steven Knight don’t really do anything with this development after introducing it. It doesn’t affect anything else in the plot and doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for Claudia and Martin; they can work on the case just fine. And for playing ex lovers Bana and Hall have almost zero chemistry together.

To put it simply, they’re forgettable, ultimately making the entire film rather forgettable and making its other minor flaws more blatant. All of which is a shame considering the movie’s craftsmanship and its relevance to current events.


Friday, August 23, 2013

The Worlds End Review

With “The World’s End,” British director Edgar Wright completes his buddy comedy trilogy (dubbed the “Cornetto” trilogy because Cornetto brand ice cream is seen in each one) that began in 2004 with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” in 2007. As far as great comedy movies are concerned, I consider both “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun” two of the very best comedies around. Aside from their wonderfully zany situations (“Shaun” was a comedy set during a zombie apocalypse and “Fuzz” was an action/cop comedy) and their vulgar but not too vulgar brand of verbal comedy the best thing those movies did was formally introduce American audiences to one of the funniest comedy duos to ever grace the screen: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. With Pegg as the confident leader and Frost as the oafish sidekick the perfect onscreen comedic chemistry that they create each time is the essence of the Cordetto trilogy. No matter the scenario or the setting (all three of the films are in no way related to each other) they always play buddies and in one way or the other that relationship is always tested. It helps immensely that Frost and Pegg have been friends in real life since childhood. Watching them banter back and forth with one another (in some ways they resemble a modern day Laurel and Hardy) is like watching two real friends having a conversation, and cameras just happen to be rolling. With their impeccable timing, it never feels like they’re giving performances. No matter how ridiculous the scenario is their buddy comedy chemistry always remains authentic, and with Wright in the director’s chair, the trio has been unstoppable.

In many ways “The World’s End” is a meditation on the first two pictures, combining the supernatural element from “Shaun of the Dead” with the seemingly idyllic small town (that’s actually hiding a deadly secret) setting of “Hot Fuzz.” And while “The World’s End” isn’t as strong as “Shaun” or “Fuzz” story wise the comedic interaction between Pegg and Frost is just as great.

Pegg plays Gary King, a man in his early forties who just hasn’t grown up. On the last day of school in his hometown of Newton Haven Gary, along with his chaps, attempted a ritual called The Golden Mile. A ritual in which one must drink a pint of lager at all twelve of Newton Haven’s bars (ending with The World’s End, hence the film’s title) in one day. Sadly, they couldn’t finish and this failure has left Gary incomplete and so he has remained an alcohol and drug addicted adolescent. His friends on the other hand have grown up and gotten normal jobs. However, Gary somehow convinces all of them to come back to Newton Haven with him for one last weekend to finally finish the ritual.

The first ten to twenty minutes of “The World’s End”-- as Gary anxiously leads the rest of the lads around to each bar like a child-- is truly great because it’s like watching real friends having conversations and drinking. No crazy antics, just five guys having some laughs, maybe a little bit of arguing and more importantly reliving fond memories. In addition to Frost as Andy Knightley, (who hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since a drunk driving accident) there’s Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine) and Peter (Eddie Marsan). All of them are fantastic together and even though the picture does get more and more ridiculous as it goes on, that genuine sense of friendship is never lost. The humor—for the most part—is achieved through rapid-fire verbal comedy, that again is vulgar but not too vulgar. Instead of overwhelming the audience with f-bombs and sex jokes like you see in most American comedies these days, they’re used sparingly and effectively in “The World’s End.” There are very few lazy physical comedy bits and there’s almost no gross out humor. Considering that the “five Musketeers” (as Gary calls them) gradually get more intoxicated as the night goes on it’s a relief that the movie doesn’t contain even one vomit scene.

At the halfway point things take a turn for the weird. Apparently, after the five friends left Newton Haven the town was taken over by an extraterrestrial force. Now, while the residents look normal on the outside they’re actually blue blooded, emotionless robots. As much as it pains me to say it, this sudden twist of events is where I start to have issues with “The World’s End.” The “Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque” premise isn’t nearly as fresh or inspired as the zombie apocalypse premise in “Shaun of the Dead” was, nor is the rest of the story as clever as the excellent, multilayered murder mystery in “Hot Fuzz.” The first bare-knuckled brawl the five friends have with a few of the robots (in one of the pub bathrooms) is funny and exciting because it comes completely out of nowhere, but after awhile the robot fighting gets to be a little repetitive and tiresome. Furthermore, the rest of the movie basically becomes one big exhaustive chase, as the lads go from one bar to the next.

Now, I’m not saying the rest of the movie (after the robots are introduced) is bad, there are still plenty of laughs to be had and like in the other two movies Pegg and Frost’s relationship is the central force. It’s just that it doesn’t quite match the great quality of the beginning or the great quality of the other two. In fact if the movie had just been about the five friends doing The Golden Mile without having to fight robots I would have liked it just as much, or even more than “Shaun” or “Fuzz.”

There’s more I could talk about but when it comes to comedies, the less you say the better. “The World’s End” is the lesser of the Cordetto trilogy, but considering how great the first two are and considering that this one is still a lot of fun, that’s not much of a criticism. Though the movie contains a wild and outrageous sci-fi premise the human element—Gary and Andy’s friendship-- still remains intact and we’re reminded yet again that Pegg and Frost are one of the best modern comedy duos.