Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: The Company You Keep

One of the hazards of waiting until the last second to write a review is, whether you want them to or not, other critics' opinions start to drift in your direction. Now, I have no idea exactly what their thoughts are on any given subject, but I have already picked up on the fact that Robert Redford's latest directorial effort, The Company You Keep, is being released into more markets this weekend without a whole lot of support behind it. This surprises me, because for my money it very well may be the best film that I have watched in 2013.

The Company You Keep stars Redford as Jim Grant, a well-respected defense attorney in his town dealing with life as a single parent after the unexpected death of his wife. Through a series of coincidences discovered by a young reporter in town (Shia LaBeouf), Jim finds his past coming back to haunt him in the form of recently arrested Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon). Solarz and Jim (real name Nick Sloan) were members of the 60s radical activists Weather Underground, and have lived decades under new aliases because of a bank heist that ended in the murder of a guard.

Leaving his daughter in the care of his estranged brother (Chris Cooper), Jim runs in an attempt to reconnect with the only person who can prove his innocence: a former lover (Julie Christie) that was actually a part of the robbery, and can tell police that Jim had nothing to do with any of it. With both the police and the enterprising reporter on his trail, Jim journeys cross-country, all in an attempt to return to the quiet life he knew just days before.

I'm not sure if Redford is a director that actors are just dying to work with, in the same way many view Woody Allen, or if he just used his Sundance clout to strong-arm award winning character actors into just about every speaking role in Company, but this is one of the most impressive casts to hit the screen in years. Ah, who am I kidding? It takes mutual respect to wrangle up fairly big-name actors to appear in roles that are clearly beneath them; it also takes a hell of a director to manage a cast this large and build it into a series of memorable scenes.

If there is a weak link, perhaps it's not surprising that it would be LaBeouf (star of the Transformers franchise). As the young, enterprising journalist, he has the unenviable position of being both the youngest star in the cast and least celebrated actor. In scenes featuring Redford, Sarandon, Stephen Root, and Brendan Gleeson the young man is all but blown off the screen by his elders. Some of this could stem from the fact that LaBeouf's character is so unlikable; there is a sense that Redford likes it better this way, as this is how he sees the younger generation, complaining about their lot in life but without the convictions of the baby boomers to actually fight for anything.

If there is a film that I would compare Company to, it would have to be The Fugitive. There are scenes here, with Redford just barely avoiding capture, that manage to convey the tension in that earlier film without feeling like a knock-off of the same. Perhaps its because of the personal investment he feels in the film, but Redford flexs acting muscles that we haven't seen since his 70s output, or depending on how generous you are feeling, perhaps Sneakers.

With an all-star cast and the best script of writer Lem Dobbs' career, Redford brings to the screen one of the finest films of his career, as well as a strong contender for my Top Ten list at the end of 2013. With Company, Redford manages to show directors with five times his output that it is possible to craft an entertaining political thriller in this era of franchise-crazy studios, as long as you have the talent to pull it off.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: Oblivion

When Joseph Kosinski was chosen a couple of years ago to direct his feature debut, TRON: Legacy, it was met by the masses with a collective, “Who?!?” Rumored to be given the job on the strength of a preview reel he showed Disney execs, one can't help but wonder if that reel was nothing more than updated graphics to the original film after watching his sophomore effort, the Tom Cruise star vehicle Oblivion.

In Oblivion, Cruise stars as Jack, a one-man mechanic crew tasked with preserving the small amount of Earth that is still livable. Along with his partner (both technician and domestic) Victoria, played by English actress Andrea Riseborough, Jack is an inhabitant of Earth circa 2070. Fifty years after a devastating war against alien invaders in which the Earth's governments decimated the planet with nuclear weapons in an attempt to drive the enemy back, Jack is given the task of repairing drones that protect machines important toward the survival of the human race. Waking every day to fix machines that have been incapacitated by the alien enemy, Jack can't help but feel that something is off.

While Victoria is more than happy to continue counting down the two weeks that they have left on Earth before being transported back to the moon on Jupiter where humans now live, Jack still loves his native planet. Growing flowers with soil that is supposedly contaminated; adopting a creek side cabin as a retreat to store tokens of humanity's past; listening to old Led Zeppelin tunes while shooting free throws; Jack has managed to turn a desolated planet into the ultimate man cave.

While on patrol, Jack sees a spacecraft fall from the sky. Upon searching the wreckage, he finds humans locked into hibernation units. While attempting to open said units, drones appear and begin killing the survivors. Stumbling onto the unit holding a woman that he has dreamed about, Jack risks his life to save her from being exterminated. Taking her back to his home to be patched up, they begin discussing the past as Jack knows it, and he is shown that much of what he has been led to believe is in reality a lie.

One of the jokes a lot of folks made when they first saw the trailer for Oblivion was in regards to how much it appeared to be a live-action remake of the Pixar film Wall-E, only starring a human instead of a robot. I must admit, I made the same joke as well, and yet I was still blown away by how similar the two full-length films are to one another in their finished forms. Read the above synopsis again; Kosinski (a co writer of the screenplay as well as director) doesn't just have Cruise growing a flower to give to his love, he also has a killer pop-culture collection. That is just scratching the surface, however.

The comparisons to sci-fi films don’t stop there; the hits just keep on coming! Cruise's character and interactions with others seems to be patterned after Total Recall, while managing to excise that earlier film's misogyny. The portrait of the Earth that we are shown borrows from the Planet of the Apes series, while the drones themselves seem to crib liberally from the visuals and mechanics of the Enforcement Droids from Robocop. I'm not even touching on the most exciting action scene of the film, which depending on how you look at it is either a strong homage or rip-off of the space battle scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy.

Most damning is the constant allusions to Kosinski's debut, T:L. The director bastardizes his own film by liberally borrowing the neon look of the homes and vehicle specs of his only other film, which I'm not sure is an act of desperation or an attempt to keep what he considers his audience happy. At a certain point I found it almost funny, especially when the French electronic band M83 would pop up on the soundtrack. Why not just run a stream along the bottom of the screen that reads, "Sorry, Daft Punk wouldn't return our phone calls this time"?

Perhaps it just boils down to Kosinski bit off more than he could chew by accepting a Cruise pic this early in his career, choked, and vomited up this hokum? It's not that the film is even that bad, it's just a pretty piece of junk to stare at vacantly for 2 hours. When the end credits roll, you will walk out with the sinking feeling that you should have just bit the bullet and bought a ticket for Spring Breakers instead, and to that I say you would be right.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: No

Sony Pictures Classics may be the most adventurous “indie” studio going at the moment. Sure, when you’re just a small piece of a huge corporation you can afford to take chances, but there are still those that would be happy to play it safe.
What does that have to do with No, the political comedy focused on late 80s Chile? As smart, funny, and daring as this Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is, it also has the distinction of being the ugliest looking film to hit theatres in quite some time.

Shot in an obsolete video format that looks prehistoric when compared to a clip on YouTube, there is reason for director Pablo Larrain’s madness: the film, starring Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad-man called upon to help drive Chilean dictator Pinochet from office, looks just like the TV clips that comprise a third of No’s running time. It seems fitting that it is difficult to decipher what are real clips and what are moviemaking magic in this satire that is less about the truth than using a version of the truth to get what you want.

 Bernal is great, as always. The Mexican actor displays the charm that he is known for, while showcasing comedic chops that were heretofore unseen as Rene Saavedra, an advertising wiz who’s called upon by Chile’s opposition group to create a television campaign that will capture the masses imaginations and force them to vote “no” in a 1988 election. Rene creates commercials with happy jingles and mimes, knowing that folks will be more open to suggestion with “ear worms” than angry declarations of right and wrong. When it looks to be building steam, the regime begins its own ad campaign, led by Rene’s business colleague, Lucho (Alfredo Castro).

 If this all sounds a bit like a political Mad Men, well, in a way I guess that’s fair. But while Mad Men is lauded for its ability to be unconventional, No makes the TV show look like Charles in Charge by captivating the audience with a great script and wonderful direction. Rarely has a film so ugly been so worthwhile.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: 42

As soon as the first scene of 42 flickers across the screen, the audience immediately knows what kind of movie they are watching. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is telling two of his closest confindants that he has his mind set on bringing a black player up from the Negro Leagues to become the first African-American player in major league history. While music swells triumphantly behind his announcement, his assistant stutters out a mild objection, only to be stunned silent by Rickey's steadfastness.
That is 42 in a nutshell; completely happy to tell a story known by almost all sports fans without an ounce of originality to it. Nothing will make a filmgoer appreciate Steven Spielberg's work as much as having to sit through Spielberg-lite.
There are so many avenues a filmmaker can take with the Jackie Robinson story. Could we not delve into Rickey's ambitions a little further than the two reasons given: he thought it would be good for business and the right thing to do? Didn't he have moments where he actually feared for Robinson's life, or those of his family and/or teammates? No, we are only given a scene in which he shoves a pile of hatemail toward Pee Wee Reese (an underused Lucas Black) and basically tells him to grow a pair.
Thankfully Chadwick Boseman is there to hold the picture together in a star-making turn as Robinson. Valiantly putting up a good fight against the direction by Brian Helgeland, Boseman manages to convey the inner turmoil of a man fighting against himself, desperate to lash out against those mistreating him while knowing to do so would end his career. Boseman is at ease in scenes both on the field and at home. Those scenes of domestic life are greatly enhanced by the work put in by Shame's Nicole Beharie as his wife.
The entire supporting cast is a masterclass in character work, with many of the actors capable of stealing the film at any moment. Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU )makes an immediate impact upon the movie with his depiction of the legendary Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, willing to bare an open mind for the sake of his ballteam winning, and not conceding an inch of power to ballplayers ready to revolt against the idea of a black man sharing their lockerroom. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) makes an impact as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, the instigator of the most racist reception Robinson encounters on the field that the film addresses. Every line of dialogue Tudyk directs Boseman's way in their scenes together seemingly contains at least two racial epiteths in an attempt to cause a reaction. Tudyk comes away from 42 as perhaps showcasing the finest acting, for somehow being a horrible antagonist while still remaining the comic foil.
Brian Helgeland is without question a talented screenwriter, but with 42 he has proven himself once again lacking as a director. There are a hundred more interesting stories to be found in Robinson's career, but what we are given is the most sterile, "inspiring" version of the man's life that could possibly be produced for the screen. 42 is a fine film to fall asleep to on a rainy weekend day, but its hard to justify paying full admission prices for it.