Monday, April 28, 2014

Blue Ruin Review

“Blue Ruin” is a taut and deliberate revenge thriller suggesting that just because you may have the urge and the drive to exact revenge on someone, it doesn’t mean it’s as easy as picking up a gun and popping a cap in the bastard’s head. In most revenge movies, the protagonists make it look easy and most of the time they have at least some past experience with guns or weapons or fighting. In “Blue Ruin,” the act of revenge feels more like a chore and the protagonist has basically no idea what he’s doing when it comes to using guns and even knives.

Director Jeremy Saulnier throws us right into action without any real setup. Dwight (Macon Blair) has been wandering aimlessly for the past couple years, living out of his old rusted blue car in a beachfront town. Rummaging through trashcans and using other people’s bathrooms to clean himself. Already we can infer that this is the aftermath. Some terrible tragedy has caused Dwight to go off into isolation and live as a vagrant. A little later we find out that a man named Wade Cleveland killed Dwight’s parents and he’s being released from prison.

Saulnier doesn’t employ any flashbacks because he doesn’t need to. Any information we aren’t explicitly told we can assume. Plus we’ve seen enough revenge thrillers to know what that initial act of violence looks like. Instead the film stays in the here and now, and focuses on Dwight’s personal struggle. We don’t get much background on him but we can surmise that this tragedy had a major impact on his psyche, causing him to distance himself from his remaining family and in some ways, society. He’s been dishonored and rendered incomplete and the only thing that can make him whole again is vengeance.

So he tracks Wade down at their family bar and does the deed. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Drew, you just delivered a massive spoiler” and usually you would be right. Most of the time this is the moment that revenge thrillers build to. The crusader confronting the villain face-to-face, one on one, and doing what’s right. But in “Blue Ruin” things are just getting started. This happens within the first twenty minutes or so and while Dwight may have killed Wade he’s incurred the wrath of Wade’s crazy, gun obsessed family and now they’re coming after Dwight and Dwight’s remaining estranged family; his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and her two kids.

At ninety minutes, “Blue Ruin” is admittedly brisk but Saulnier keeps the pace unhurried, keeping the viewer on edge and letting them soak in every little situation. The movie is also relativity quiet, there’s not a lot of dialogue and the haunting score by Brooke Will Blair hums faintly in the background, occasionally flaring up at intense moments. There are some gnarly scenes of violence—a sniper rifle shot to someone’s head, for example, or the moment when Dwight attempts to pull an arrow out of his leg—but Saulnier doesn’t overdo it, keeping the picture realistic in feeling.

As I’ve already alluded to, Dwight is a man of few words—at one point when he runs into Sam after years and years he mentions how he usually “doesn’t talk this much—and is passive in demeanor. He doesn’t look like he could kill anyone. In that way he’s reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s quiet and peaceful character in “Drive,” but unlike Gosling’s character who, when provoked, could turn into a vicious killer, Dwight remains timid and inexperienced when he tries to exact revenge. Going back to what I said in the first paragraph, most revenge thriller vigilantes have some kind of prior experience with fighting, they may have even been criminals themselves, but Dwight appears to have none.

He struggles to kill Wade at the beginning and when he has one of the other family members at gunpoint he temporarily loses the upper hand. He has the drive and motivation to avenge his parents’ honor but he doesn’t have the know-how and most of the time he comes off as pathetic.  His own sister says he’s weak at one point. And even though he gets some gun training from an old friend he still looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. However, it’s this that makes the character and the movie so interesting. Dwight’s need for revenge is a sickness, a curse, and he can’t live with himself unless he can satisfy it. So it doesn’t matter how silly he may look doing it and it doesn’t matter how crazy the rest of Wade’s family is.

Overall, “Blue Ruin” does an effective job of showing what it might be like if an average, timid man took the law into his own hands. And like all successful revenge thrillers there’s a feeling of satisfaction at the end. Honor has been restored.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Joe Review

David Gordon Green’s new film “Joe” shares a certain kinship with last year’s “Mud.” In the latter film Tye Sheridan plays a southern kid who finds a paternal figure in Mud (Matthew McConaughey) an outlaw taking refuge on a small island in the middle of the bayou, because his own father is mainly absent. In “Joe” Sheridan plays another southern kid who finds a paternal figure in Joe (Nicholas Cage in his best role in years). Sporting a thick mountain man beard, Joe runs a business that clears forests by poisoning the trees and gives fifteen year old drifter Gary, (Sheridan) a job so he can support his family. Overall, “Joe” is raw, well made, backwoods drama that contains two great lead performances.

To say that Gary’s home/family life is rough would be a massive understatement. Himself, along with his younger sister, mother and father squat in an abandoned house in the film’s southern town setting that’s absolutely filthy and decrepit. His sister and mother don’t do much of anything except breathe and his father, well, his father is terrible. With his white beard and white hair, he slightly resembles an old time-y hobo you might see riding a train with a bindle. While Gary’s out working, he’s out stumbling around the town sorting through trashcans. You can practically smell the alcohol—and whatever he’s rolled in—on him. Who knows when he last changed his shirt or pants, or even showered.

I guess he can be called the film’s villain but he’s just so pathetic and hopeless that it’s a little hard to maintain interest in him as one. Just when you think he can’t get even more hopeless and pathetic he does; he beats Gary and takes most of his earnings to buy more booze and at one point he beats a random homeless man to death with a wrench for a bottle of wine. The biological father in “Mud” may have been lame but he at least was salvageable; this dad is not. And I just wanted him to die.

The rest of “Joe”—for the most part—wallows in this similar misery and hopelessness. It takes place in one of those fading towns, full of abandoned buildings and dreams that is practically being overtaken by the dense surrounding forests. It’s a dead-end town that’s probably just a few years away from disappearing completely. Everyone who lives here has some kind of troubled past, (and a troubled present) including Joe. However, Joe isn’t so pathetic and hopeless. On the one hand he does appear to be angry with and given up on the world. He still runs his business but when he’s not working he’s at home drinking scotch, visiting a brothel in a dilapidated mansion, or going to the general store. There’s a certain amount of mystery behind Joe. We learn he went to jail for assaulting a cop, which clearly suggests he had a history with losing his temper and doing bad things. In “Joe” he’s trying to leave that behind, trying to reform, but in an environment that’s full of the scummiest of lowlifes, that’s kind of difficult.

Part of Joe has given up on the world and yet part of him hasn’t. There’s still a part of him that cares, that’s willing to lend a hand to people in need, like Gary. He’s no saint but he’s not all bad either. The best way to describe this part of his attitude is, in his own words: “I can’t promise you anything, but I’ll try to be nice.” This is why Joe eventually finds himself caring about Gary. Gary is in an awful situation but he’s really the only character with a strong sense of hope. He’s very intelligent, hard working, persistent and could very easily go off on his own and fend for himself. But he decides to stay and tries to mend his crappy situation. He knows his dad is a pathetic mess and that his mother and sister and totally helpless but he still goes to work and still remains optimistic that things will get better.

It’s this genuine and touching relationship between Joe and Gary that propel the movie forward. Without them, there wouldn’t be a movie. I don’t need to tell you that Cage hasn’t made the best acting choices in recent years but in “Joe” he gives his first legitimately great performance in a while. You won’t see him hamming it up as he’s so prone to do; instead he’s incredibly restrained and nuanced, occasionally losing his temper, and even though the character is mostly internalized and remains a man of few words, Cage displays some affection and tenderness at moments. As for Sheridan; not many fifteen year olds can hold their own with experienced actors like McConaughey or Cage. Having done this kind of role twice now it comes off effortless to the audience.

 “Joe” isn’t flawless; sometimes the movie has a tendency to wander, especially at the beginning and the supporting characters remain thinly sketched, such as Connie, (Adriene Mishler) a young gal that Joe also lends help to and Willie, (Ronnie Gene Blevins) another weak and pathetic scumbag, so weak in fact that Gary even kicks his ass at one point. Like Gary’s father he can also be considered a villain but again he’s not too compelling. His justification for trying to molest a little girl is that in this town she’s going to start prostituting anyway. Yeah.  Like Gary’s father, just rid the earth of his presence.

Ultimately though, it’s the performances from Cage and Sheridan that make “Joe” a satisfying watch… at least once. I’m not sure if I’d want to see it again.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Draft Day Review

This image perfectly captures the "drama" and Costners character in "Draft Day." 

“Draft Day” is an odd movie; not because it’s thought provoking or unique but because I’m not exactly sure why it was made in the first place. It’s clearly a love letter to the NFL but specifically a love letter to the Cleveland Browns. The story revolves around the 2014 NFL draft and the Browns are trying to transform themselves into a better team.

 So O.K, am I supposed to care about whether the Cleveland Browns turn themselves around? I’ll admit I’m not really an NFL fan but will non Cleveland Browns fans care whether they transform themselves? And anyway, if the movie is done well enough, if the story is engaging and the characters compelling then it shouldn’t make a difference if I’m an NFL fan or not. The trouble is, “Draft Day” isn’t done well, it’s not awful by any means but it’s rather bland and tells a predictable, slightly corny story that’s ultimately about going with your gut.

Kevin Costner stars as Browns’ General Manager Sonny Weaver Jr. The NFL draft is drawing near and he finds himself under a lot of pressure. If he doesn’t make the right decisions then he could be fired. One day he gets a call--I’d say about 80% of the movie is phone calls-- from the GM for the Seattle Seahawks, which have the first pick of the draft at the moment, offering to make a deal: Sonny can have the first pick and the projected number one draft pick Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) in exchange for relinquishing future first draft picks.

It’s a tough decision but Sonny goes for it because it could mean improvement for the team. But does Sonny really think Callahan is the best pick? Or should he go with other aspiring NFL players like Vontane Mack (Chadwick Bosman)? And so goes “Draft Day,” a movie full of, heated exchanges between Sonny and other members of the Browns’ staff like the owner played by Frank Langella, and last minute deals with other teams and second guessing. Oh so much second-guessing! Practically all of Costner’s performance is giving in to peer pressure and flipping back and forth between decisions.

As I said before, “Draft Day” isn’t terrible and it sheds light on an aspect of football that we don’t normally see in football movies. There’s clearly a lot of stress and strategy involved in the NFL draft but the movie doesn’t really give the audience much reason to care about any of it. The screenplay by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman gets bogged down in a lot of dry facts and stats concerning college players.  “Moneyball” gave us a reason to care about how baseball players were selected and traded by depicting a fascinating and entertaining tension between the old-timer scouts who believed in picking players using their gut and the younger fellows who wanted to use computer programs to select players. “Draft Day” doesn’t have much tension, as it really just comes down to what Sonny thinks is the best move. If you know how a draft works than it’s not very exciting stuff and if you don’t know how a draft works than it’s even less exciting.

And for all of the last minute deals that are made and the various attempts at drama, “Draft Day” offers very few surprises. The story progresses exactly how you’d expect it to and you can see Sonny’s final decision coming from a mile away.

Costner gives a perfectly average performance, again not bad but also not all that captivating. In fact that’s a good way to describe the entire movie.  The picture seems to be lacking in energy, with everyone involved not giving you much reason to care about what’s happening. As directed by veteran comedy director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”) the film contains a few chuckle worthy moments but overall the attempts at humor feel restrained, probably due to the film’s PG-13 rating. Even when actors like Ellen Burstyn—as Sonny’s feisty mother—and Dennis Leary—as the Browns’ jerk head coach who’s at odds with Sonny for practically the entire film—show up they seem like they’re holding back. Only once near the end when Costner calls the Seahawks GM a “pancake eating motherf---er“ does the movie and Costner’s performance breathe any kind of real life.

Ultimately I’m still not sure whom “Draft Day” is for. Non football fans won’t like it and I have a hard time believing hardcore football fans would want to see a watered down dramatization of the NFL draft, especially if they’re not Cleveland fans, or even Seahawk fans. “Draft Day” isn’t very compelling, exciting or funny, it just sort of sits there, frozen in movie purgatory, lacking in purpose.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

Note: There is a spoiler in the ninth paragraph, but I included it to make a point

 For the most part, I’m willing to accept most things in the silly, cartoon-y world that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”—the sequel to the 2011 movie—and all the rest of these Marvel Avenger movies inhabit.

I’m willing to accept the seemingly infinite number of secret (sometimes underground) hideouts and safe houses the characters take refuge in and I’m willing to accept the plethora of cool convenient gadgets--such as a digitized version of the “Mission Impossible” face disguise—which the characters pull out at the last minute.

But what I have trouble accepting is that after Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” in 2012—in which Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and others finally joined forces to become an established superhero team in the cinematic universe—there would be another individual “Captain America” movie. I find it so amusing that for a film that’s mainly about teamwork Captain America doesn’t have his newfound teammates to rely on. This also goes for the other individual superhero movies that have come after “The Avengers,” like “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World.” And so, “Captain America: Winter Soldier” is a passable piece of superhero entertainment but not much else. For what it’s worth, the movie is better than “Thor 2,” while also being deeper and not quite as hurried as the first “Captain America.”

I realize the source material is inherently patriotic and pro American but the tone of “Winter Soldier” feels especially patriotic and chiefly pro military. The movie actually gets off to a pretty good start, addressing the theme of reintegrating—on the part of veterans— back into society, something that can be difficult to do. In the case of our red white and blue shield throwing super soldier Steve Rogers (aka, Captain America, played by Chris Evans) it’s extremely difficult. You’ve heard of movie soldiers who don’t have a country—John Rambo—well, Rogers is a soldier without a time period. As you will remember from the 2011 film, he became the Captain during World War 2and after defeating an evil Nazi guy, he became frozen in the ice and unthawed in the present day so he could fight with the other Avengers in Whedon’s movie.

That’s got to be pretty tough, not being able to live your life in your own time period, having to adjust to a brand new one and in “Winter Soldier” Roger’s hasn’t been able to fully shake his past. There’s an endearing scene between him and his now elderly love interest from the first movie and another scene where he goes to a Captain America exhibit at a museum. There’s nothing left of his old life except for a museum exhibit.  Again this is all interesting stuff to address and a natural way to deepen this character. Though, it would work even better had this movie come before “The Avengers.”

But before too long Rogers gets double-crossed by the government organization S.H.E.L.D--which initiated the Avengers program--and “The Winter Soldier” turns into another fugitive/on the run action movie involving a flash drive, (there’s always a flash drive of some sort) an evil German organization (no, not Nazis) and another super soldier called The Winter Soldier, who’s connected to Roger’s past. It’s Captain America and fellow S.H.E.L.D member Natasha Romanoff (sexy and snarky Scarlett Johansson) against the world, too bad there isn’t a team of superheroes they can call on. Oh wait! There is! It’s called the Avengers. The S.H.E.I.L.D organization is being compromised and one of the main Avenger’s is being hunted--in Washington D.C no less--and Iron Man, Thor, or The Hulk are nowhere to be found. Are they all on vacation or something? Sadly the answer to this question simply comes down to: because “ The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is currently in production and we can’t have all of the Avengers together in a movie that isn’t an official “Avengers” team movie. Sorry Steve and Natasha, looks like you’ve got to clear your name and stop those gigantic flying warships from destroying the capital on your own.

This is my main problem with this ever growing, intertwining, overlapping super-hero world. Since The Avengers have already come together and formed a unified team, these subsequent individual movies feel sort of pointless now and somewhat undermine the spirit of teamwork this franchise so strongly promotes.

I suppose all this makes me sound like a grouch and I’m supposed to talk about how sweet the action scenes are in “Winter Soldier.” Well they are, more or less. The rest of the movie provides entertaining bits here and there and I did like the playful, chummy relationship between Natasha and Steve but overall there aren’t many real major surprises, simply because this never ending franchise and its “think three or four movies ahead” tactic has mostly eliminated that element.

Take for example S.H.E.I.L.D leader Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) supposed death that sets the rest of the movie’s events into motion. If Fury had stayed dead, that would be interesting, that would be something shocking, but no! Nick Fury can’t get killed off because he has to appear in future movies. Jackson, to his credit, does a fine job in the role but there are already so many characters in this universe, with even more being introduced in every new movie that I think we can afford to kill off some of them.

As I write this review, “Captain America 3” has already been announced, which tells you how much the studio cares about this one. The franchise has practically become a TV show; sure pleasures can be found in individual episodes but it’s the overall series that matters. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is a mildly entertaining big budget episode in this massive budgeted TV series. Fans and general audiences will love this movie I’m sure, which is perfectly O.K in my book, but by the time “Avengers 2” and whatever the hell else comes next, I imagine this movie—like so many of the others-- will be mostly forgotten.