Monthly Archives: September 2012

‘Lawless’: Bloodiest County on Earth, and it’s a Bore

It is always interesting to find an independent film that has a knockout cast.

Actors and actresses are usually prima-donnas when it comes to their paycheck, and when they’re not, then their agents will try to find as many high-paying, studio projects as they can. It’s the reason that Chris Hemsworth is able to pay his rent; he looks great on a lunch box. Studio movies want good faces, well known rising stars  to front their future franchises.

So when you get Shia LeBeouf, everyone’s favorite “Bane” Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain (perhaps the most successful actress of 2011), and seasoned veterans such as Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce, everyone is ready to buckle down and start watching for Oscar potential. A cast like that in an indie this usually means one of two things: 1) There is a great, young director that everyone is wanting to work with, or 2) The story and script are dynamite.

After watching the film, I realize that it was neither of these things that got this super-troop together. There is nothing special about how this movie was made, nor was the script anything brilliant or groundbreaking. It was the gritty nature of the violence, combined with the subject matter of a Southern bootleggers’ paradise that really gets one drawn into the story, but as a viewer, once you move passed the venir of these two elements, ‘Lawless’ is fairly empty, and honestly, a bit boring.

Like the non-fiction novel ‘The Wettest County in the World’, this film centers around the Bondurant family, a rag tag group of brothers who ran moonshine during Prohibition in Virginia. The film takes the audience to a world of organized crime that exists outside of the city, but in the backwoods country of the United States. Jack Bondurant (LeBeouf), is the narrator and central character to the film, but let me tell you right now, he is not the hero of this deep-South mythology. No, Jack is only the catalyst for conflict, the ingredient that causes everything to go awry. Even when Jack tries to help, he makes things worse, and even when he makes things better, it is eventually him that takes the family down an even worse road. Jack plays the damsel in distress, the younger brother that is constantly being bailed out. He is our protagonist, but he is not our hero.

The real Achilles of this Illiad is Forrest Bondurant (played wonderfully by Tom Hardy), who is simultaneously the the matriarch and patriarch of this little domestic disaster. He is the problem solver, the provider, the house keeper, as well as the seemingly invincible older brother. Big and brass-knuckled, the only thing more intimidating about Forrest’s stature is his stubborn demeanor. Although Jack is the man that we follow through this story, most of the conflict must be endured and resolved by the older Forrest. It is the relationship of these two brothers that makes our story tick.

Oh, and then there’s Howard Bondurant, but like Jack, he is either not where he needs to be, which once almost costs Forrest his neck (literally), or he is where he shouldn’t be. I almost forgot about Howard; this is most likely due to the fact that he is totally irrelevant, but we’ll get to that later.

The moonshine business is treating the Bondurants well, until we meet our obvious villain. Just taking one look at Guy Pearce’s haircut in this film, we realize that he is going to be trouble. Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce) rolls into town, and tells everyone who is running liquor that they need to pay up, or Rakes will shut them down one by one. Driven by pride, big, muscular, macho pride, Forrest refuses, saying that no one will push the Bondurants around.

After this decision is made, what ensues are dozens of instances of violent torture and acts of intimidation on both sides.

I have to level with you, the movie critic in me can’t let this slip by. What I think is incredibly interesting about the characters in this film is the writer and director are trying to convince us that Pearce is a bad man, and the Bondurants are good men. But this is the reality; Rakes is corrupt, but the Bondurants are criminals, and they have their own fair share of moral lapses as well. I just don’t feel that even as much as director John Hillcoat is trying to convince me of it, I don’t see some of the Bondurants’ acts of malicious violence as justifiable.

Also, if you are going to skew it to convince me that these men are good in nature, then you must show me real acts of humanity where I can decide whether or not I want to stick it out with these guys.The truth is that Forrest never really shows that he loves his family, and neither does Jack or Howard. Everyone is really out for themselves, and it leads the viewer to not have much stake in any of them at all. Even when Chastain’s character becomes vulnerable and loving in gratitude for Forrest, Forrest doesn’t know how to respond. He is seemingly heartless as a character, and only his actions of vengeance and anger are supposed to prove otherwise? I’m not buying it.

Like most of my reviews, I don’t want to give anything that will stop you from seeing the movie, but I do want to give you a clear picture of why I feel the way I do about this movie. I was really trying to stick with this one, very willing to grind it out until the very end, but I must tell you, the final climax of ‘Lawless’ is just dreadful. A shootout scene that is two parts frustrating and one part unbelievable. All I’m going to say is this; if you are going to bring out every character in the film for one final showdown, you need to make it worth, and you need to make these characters active participants in the conflict, not simply observers who are there to provide setting and symbolically historical context. Also, if you’re going to prove to me that this group of brothers is really in this together, then show me that they will at least defend each other, rather than just watch as their world falls apart.

I must say, though, that the performances are very good, and there are many things about ‘Lawless’ that are done well. There are great moments of dialogue and also very intimiate moments of honesty within certain characters. But as a director, Hillcoat chooses to ignore the best performances of the film and the most complex characters, and instead decides to focus on throat slitting, strangulation, and the dismemberment of humanity, and this is the fatal flaw of ‘Lawless.’

Also… Give me more Gary Oldman! His character was by far the most interesting in the entire movie, and we barely see him. I want a sequel to be titled ‘Lawless 2: The Story of Floyd Banner’ just so I can get more of his sinister gangster smirk.

My Note: ‘Lawless’ is all about the violence and not about much else.

My Grade: C

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Our Summer Awards: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ Wins Big

It’s hard to believe that the Summer is already over. It seems like only yesterday that I sat in a theater for ‘The Avengers’, and now I’m wrapping up the movies that I saw in August. Oscar season is just around the corner and I’m already geeking out for the great movies soon to come! But before we do that, I have some awards we wish to give out to the courageous summer films that both inspired us and made us shake our heads.

Each category will have 5 nominees and the winner will be highlighted in bold. Let us know what you think of our decisions, and remember, this is only 3 months of movies that we’re picking from (in a relatively week Summer for great movies), so don’t be upset if our winner is less than stellar.

Best Film of the Summer

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Dark Knight Rises

Moonrise Kingdom (Easily the best film of the year so far, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece deserves the #1 spot. Sorry, Batman.)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Best Director of the Summer

Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom)

John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises)

Joss Whedon (The Avengers)

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Best Actor of the Summer

Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises)

Steve Carrell (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World)

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man)

Jared Gilman (Moonrise Kingdom)

Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs)

Best Actress of the Summer

Judi Dench (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Keira Knightly (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World)

Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom)

Meryl Streep (Hope Springs)

Quvenzhane’ Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Best Supporting Actor of the Summer

Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises)

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus)

Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom)

Bruce Willis (Moonrise Kingdom)

Best Supporting Actress of the Summer

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) 

Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers)

Frances McDormand (Moonrise Kingdom)

Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man)

Worst Movie of the Summer (that we saw…)

The Campaign

Prometheus

Ted

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Summer Movie Slam: ‘Brave’

Tuttle: For this particular review, me and my co-writer, Rebecca Agler, decided to tag team the duties of writing about ‘Brave’. It seems like a movie that most of the general public went to see, and it was also a film that both Agler and I were particularly disappointed with.

I know what you are thinking. “I thought ‘Brave’ was a pretty good movie.” Well, it very well might have been, but a ‘pretty good’ Pixar movie, in my mind, is a HUGE step backwards for a great production company. This is the same studio that gave us ‘Toy Story’, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘WALL-E’, and my personal favorite ‘Up’. I mean think about it, can you think of many movies that tell a story better than ‘Up’? That montage that made all of America weep and weep again? Pure movie magic. Agler, why do you think we are so attached to these older Pixar movies?

Agler: It’s because they’re stories  that are so easy for us to relate to. Just think of ‘Toy Story’. Now, where do I begin with why I love ‘Toy Story’? A common part of childhood we all had when we were little tykes, whether it was playing with a dolled-up Barbie or macho (insert male toy), was making our toys talk and have human tendencies. The idea that our toys were more than toys was what every kid dreamed of. That’s why we can all relate to growing up but refusing to give our toys away despite our mother’s nagging wishes. We formed an unbreakable allegiance to our plastic friends. These friends didn’t tire of hours upon hours of play time, didn’t care how lame our imaginative scenarios were, were often chosen instead of other activities, and were our companions when the real people around us were not.

This storyline is there in all three ‘Toy Story’ movies; they’re not so much about toys as much as they’re about growing up. You could say the same thing about ‘Monsters Inc.’ and ‘The Incredibles’. These movies, although some might call them ‘kids’ movies’, are about very real things.

Tuttle: And this brings us to ‘Brave’. Obviously, I went in with high expectations, given how great the Pixar movies of the past have been (sure ‘Cars 2’ was awful, but no one really liked ‘Cars’ that much in the first place). I think the biggest reason that I was let down with ‘Brave’ was the fact that the story was not unique in any way. In reality, you could take the characters of ‘Brave’, and the storyline of ‘Mulan’, and end up getting the same exact movie. Woman must marry man, but woman wants independence. Woman makes statement about independence and must endure conflict. Women overcomes conflict when society makes compromises. Cue credits. It’s all seems very formulaic and unoriginal to me, a story that we’ve all heard a million times.

Agler: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Brave, but it didn’t hit me until the end that this movie was not what I expected it to be, so it fell below my expectations. I have to say it kept my attention, and I wasn’t always sure what would happen next. But I was left thinking “what a letdown” because there were really no endearing characters. Yes, the connection between mother and daughter brought tears to my eyes while watching with my own mother, and yes, the change of a girl choosing singlehood over marriage is rare and possibly a first for childhood memories (hooray!) , but other than that, there was really nothing all that great as far as the characters go. The animation was of a higher quality and inspiring, but the story, the story was lacking. I honestly don’t know if they could’ve made it any better. It seems to be a stinker from the beginning.

Tuttle: I think the script could really be to blame. I mean, other Pixar movies had the creative genius of Brad Bird, Pete Docter, among others. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman headed this one up, and in my mind, just really fell short.

I know of a lot of people that were really excited to see, for the first time, a female lead character in a Pixar movie. Especially in a year that gave us strong women like Katniss Everdeen, Suzy Bishop, Selina Kyle, and Black Widow, how do you think Merida measured up to the rest?

Agler: Merida was stubbornly independent, willful, and determined. But her actions and decisions didn’t scream “remember me, I’m different.” She missed the boat on that certain character trait, that spark, found in classic female characters in animated movies. Let’s take her and compare her to Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Belle was stubbornly independent when ignoring her town and loving her father anyway, was willful when refusing to settle and marry a jerk, and determined to see the good in the Beast. But we got to know Belle while witnessing her deep compassion for those around her, her numerous encounters with the Beast, her simplicity when it came to life and how she didn’t need her every move catered to, and her fierce determination to seek justice and equality.

Merida had potential to be a strong female character, she was in scenarios where she could have stood out, but it’s almost like she didn’t cross over the finish line. He started to be great but stopped half way. For example, Merida was the reason her mother turned into a bear. She would’ve stood out as a true heroine if she would’ve, let’s say, traded her humanity with her mother so her mother could become human again. Instead, the way her mother transformed was really no burden on Merida: all she had to do was sew a canvas together. There were simply no heroic acts that made Merida worthy to be called a classic heroine.

Tuttle: Agler, I think with what you just said, you revealed a key point to how ‘Brave’ really missed the boat, and it’s the fact that out main character didn’t have to sacrifice anything but a kooky evening of shenanigans in order to solve the conflict. In reality, it was the mother that was forced to be the hero, to suffer trials and achieve resolution. As an audience member, I felt no connection to Merida, and therefore didn’t feel any connection with this movie. Also, that old witch? Worthless character, through and through. Absolutely no purpose. She didn’t even show up after the spell was broken to offer an answers. I would’ve rather had Billy Crystal as Miracle Max than that irrelevant hag.

So where does Pixar go from here? I mean, with ‘Cars 2’ and now ‘Brave’, they’ve made two pretty mediocre movies in a row. Should they keep going for sequels, or do they try to write another unique story? They’ve now struck out in both categories.

Agler: I’d definitely say new, original stories. With Pixar, it’s almost too risky to have a sequel. Toy Story was lucky, but the rest should be left alone due to their finality in ending and overall creativity. Some stones are better left unturned. It seems like there is a repeat in movies these days: new characters and settings, same ideas. Fresh, new ideas are hard to come by, so Pixar landing one will be a great success and something worth working towards. Brave was a new idea, but the execution was horrible.

Tuttle: If they just keep re-releasing they’re good movies in 3D, they should do just fine. *cue ominous music here*.

Agler: I think its understandable that our expectations are high after the stellar movies Pixar has made. But the last two are causing me at least to be cautious in my excitement. Pixar is simply struggling like all other production companies with the need for originality, but I would say they of all companies should be able to come up with something due to their unique perspective in movies.

Our Note: ‘Brave’ falls short, but remains to be at least a decent movie for the whole family. Pixar: We want better than decent.

Our Grade: C