Friday, September 28, 2012

No 'trouble' with a formula film done right

On the surface, "Trouble with the Curve" is about baseball, but while there is plenty of scenes at baseball games and the sport is discussed extensively, the film is really about relationships and reconciliation.

Clint Eastwood stars as Gus, an aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves whose eyesight is going. His contract is up and a young hotshot within the organization (Matthew Lillard) wants to put him out to pasture for not embracing computers and statistics. In this regard, the film is the opposite of "Moneyball," last year's film about ignoring the wisdom of baseball scouts and looking purely at the numbers.

Gus' loyal friend and colleague (John Goodman) asks Gus' daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to join Gus on the road as he scouts Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a potential big league hitter with an even bigger ego. If Gus makes the wrong call it could mean his job. Gus and Mickey have a strained relationship at best and extreme communication issues.

While at games scouting Gentry, father and daughter cross paths with Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a pitcher turned scout. Gus had scouted Johnny and they have a mutual respect. Mickey begins a tentative flirtation with Johnny.

"Trouble with the Curve" is pure formula. Naturally, Gus and Mickey's time together finally helps them to communicate with each other. Of course Mickey and Johnny fall for each other. And it goes without saying that Lillard's smug character will be proven wrong for his blind trust in statistics. It is how it is all played out that makes the film so pleasurable.

Some stories are about their plots, but other stories are character driven and the plot is merely there to give the performers a platform to stand on. The baseball aspect of the story really could be replaced with anything else. It merely adds color and serves as the background issue to bring these characters together.

The film clearly has a love of baseball that sports fans will appreciate, but even those who could care less about baseball can become emotionally invested in the characters. The screenplay by first-timer Randy Brown does a nice job of developing the three central characters. There are good dialogue-driven scenes between Eastwood and Adams, Adams and Timberlake, and Eastwood and Timberlake. Their relationships feel real.

Eastwood is playing a variation on the bitter gruff, grumbling old man with a buried heart of gold that he has been doing for at least a decade. His performance here is a softer version of his work in "Gran Torino." Within his familiar persona, Eastwood finds quiet, subtle grace notes as when he touchingly talk/sings "You are My Sunshine" at his wife's grave.

Adams, a bubbly screen presence who can handle both comedy and drama, gets to show off both skills in this film. In her scenes with Eastwood she reveals the lasting hurt of years of abandonment and her desperation to reconnect with her distant father. With Timberlake she showcases her lighter side as the two trade cute banter.

Pop star turned actor Timberlake continues to prove he is a genuine actor. His range isn't huge, but he is likable and has a natural unforced quality that can't be faked. He is strongest at comedic repartee, but he is also credible in the quieter dramatic moments. He creates an easy chemistry with Adams.

Goodman takes the generic best friend role and makes it so much more than what is on the page. He has become such an expressive actor that he can say more in his body language and facial expressions than with an entire monologue.

Lillard has a standard villain role that the film's formula requires. It is a thankless role that he doesn't really do much with.

The film is cleanly directed by Robert Lorenz making his directorial debut after being Eastwood's assistant director for decades. Like Eastwood's directing, Lorenz isn't showy, but simply tells the story and gives the characters room to breathe and develop.

Anyone watching knows that everything is going to be tied up nicely by the end, but how the film does it is quite a neat trick and deeply satisfying. The conclusion reminds that even a formulaic film can still surprise.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hollywood's sequel obsession continues with 'Resident Evil'

This past weekend I saw "Resident Evil: Retribution," the fifth film in the series based on the popular mutant-zombie video games. The film is so inconsequential that it doesn't even deserve a full review.

Each of the "Resident Evil" films is essentially the same: Milla Jovovich's Alice does battle with the evil Umbrella Corporation which continues to do experiments with a virus that mutates the living and reanimates the dead.

Writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson says the next film will be the final film in the franchise and that he has an idea of how to wrap up the story. Having sat through "Retribution," it is unclear why the series hasn't been wrapped up already.

When you reach the final scene, it is apparent that what you've just watched is a 90-minute teaser for the sixth film. The key plot points to get from the fourth to the sixth film could've been covered in 10 minutes or less. The other 80 minutes is gratuitous padding.

"Resident Evil: Retribution" is the most cynical type of sequel. It is a film that realizes its undiscerning fan base will come out no matter what. For fans, these films are (very) mindless fun, but even the fans deserve better than this. The "Resident Evil" series is little more than a shameless cash grab that is emblematic of Hollywood's continuing obsession with sequels.

The sequel has been around almost as long as the motion picture. The first sequel dates all the way back to 1916's "Fall of a Nation," a follow up to the iconic "Birth of a Nation." So, while the sequel is hardly new it seems like with each passing year Hollywood becomes more fixated on building franchises. For Hollywood, moviemaking is about making money and if you have a proven product then you need to give the public more of what they want.

I'm not against sequels by definition. I gladly saw "The Bourne Legacy" this summer and I'm excited to see that series continue. That has been a series with consistently high quality control. The same can be said of Marvel's stable of superhero movies and Christopher Nolan's "Batman" films.

Unfortunately, most sequels are not made with such care and really are only about making more money rather than actually expanding the story or exploring the characters further. Last year's "The Hangover: Part 2" was little more than a carbon copy of the original with very little to justify its existence, but it was a hit and so number three is on the way.

One of the bigger surprises of last year was that "Fast Five," the fifth installment of "The Fast and the Furious" franchise somehow managed to be the best of the bunch. Universal Studio took that to mean that there needs to be a "Fast Six" and "Fast Seven." Universal appears to have forgotten that sometimes it is good to just walk away from the table when you're ahead.

But, increasingly, studios don't seem willing to just let a series of films end gracefully, but simply continues to churn out the next installment until audiences lose interest. Disney's "Pirates of Caribbean" series is a prime example of this. None of the sequels, even though they have their moments, have matched the original, but the films keep raking in the dough and so we'll likely see "Pirates 5" in the coming years.

Even this summer's comedy hit "Ted" is going to get a sequel. People will see it because there's always that curiosity of what happens next. I'm all for spending more time with characters we've learned to love in a film, but sometimes things are best left unknown.

I get the feeling that if many film classics were made today we'd be seeing sequels. The further exploits of Rick in "Casablanca 2" (which nearly did get made) or perhaps "Gone With the Wind 2: I Still Don't Give a Damn." But we don't need to know what happens beyond those films. They're perfect on their own. Hollywood is forgetting sometimes one is enough.

Friday, September 14, 2012

'Beasts' offers rare exploration of child's view on life

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a wonderfully odd and oddly wonderful film. This is a rare film that captures a child's perspective and their sense of wonder and awe of the world.

The film is set in the Bathtub, the "wet side" of a levee in an unspecified part of the Southern delta. A ramshackle community chooses to live here in spite of an ever present threat of flooding of what little land they have. The people here live a simple, nearly primitive life. To the outside world their existence would seem like living in squalor, but to them it is the only way to live.

We see all this through the eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who is fascinated by the life and death of animals. She constantly picks up small animals to listen to their heartbeat. In addition, she is imagining the ice caps melting and letting loose prehistoric beasts.

Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) is the sort of leader of the community. Unfortunately, his health is failing and he isn't sure how to deal with this as a man or father. Hushpuppy's mother is out of the picture, but she still "talks" to her mother represented by an old basketball jersey.

Despite a setting that is often decrypt and desolate, the film has a certain magic quality. Much of that can be attribute to a wonderful horn-heavy score by director Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer that is equal parts sweet, majestic and uplifting. The score helps to make the film almost fantastic, which is appropriate given it is from Hushpuppy's youthful point of view.

Director Zeitlin chooses a handheld camera approach, a technique that has become increasingly overused in action films often resulting in confusing, incoherent sequences. Here though the approach is effective and gives the film a documentary-like feeling as if we are roaming around the Bathtub with Hushpuppy.

The film, unlike a lot of films that rely heavily on handheld camera work, is quite beautiful to behold. Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson find simple, lasting compositions.

Wallis gives a rather extraordinary performance, continuing this summer's trend of great child performances as represented in "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Odd Life of Timothy Green." She is asked to carry much of the film and provide it with voiceover narration and she ably does that.

Much of the film requires Wallis to silently react to the world around her and she always seems present and active in these moments. She has a striking, natural screen presence. She is sweet and cute, but never too precious.

Henry is also strong as Wink. He is hot tempered and often doesn't really know how to deal with raising a daughter on his own. He is loving, but only knows how to show it by teaching his daughter how to be a man. When Wink allows himself to finally show some tenderness as when he lets Hushpuppy sleep on his chest it is a powerful and touching moment.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" isn't a complex film in terms of its plotting. In fact, very little happens in terms of actual events. It is about a girl's journey to find courage and understand her world. Unlike many such tales, Hushpuppy's search isn't heavy with its message or morals. It is just one girl's story simply told with grace and beauty.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is playing at the Majestic Theater at the Conway Cafe in Conway Village.

Friday, September 07, 2012

'Lawless' is a violent, well acted drama

The generically named "Lawless" is an imperfect, but compelling prohibition-era drama about moonshiners, gangsters and a crooked federal agent that is graphically violent and exceptionally well acted.

Based on the semi-factual novel "The Wettest County in the World" — a much better name — the film is a character study of the Bondurant brothers, who are the most successful moonshiners in Franklin county, Virginia.

Forrest (Tom Hardy), the oldest, is the leader and a man who local myth claims to be immortal as he has defied death on numerous occasions. The middle brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), is Forrest's right-hand man and enforcer. Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the runt of the family and is only allowed to be the driver, although he is hungry for more.

The trio run a gas station and diner as the front for their moonshining operation. Into their world enters Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a beautiful Chicago woman on the run from the treachery of the city, who accepts a waitress job.

Their simple life is shaken when a special agent (Guy Pearce) comes to town looking to shut down all moonshining. While others in the county fall in line, the Bondurant boys refuse leading to several bursts of brutal violence.

Jack takes it upon himself to expand business to Chicago and sell to gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). After an initial uncertain confrontation between Jack and Floyd this subplot doesn't really go anywhere. This aspect of the plot simply exists to provide the brothers with wealth. Oldman is fantastic playing a 1930s-era gangster, but his role is not much larger than a cameo. There is a lot more that could've been explored here.

The real antagonist of the film is Pearce's special agent. On the surface he is a prim and mannered man, but this merely hides a slimy, cruel and sadistic nature. Pearce gives a performance that is genuinely disturbing and makes your skin crawl.

The Bondurants are able to evade Pearce for a time, but Jack, with his new found wealth, brings attention to himself by buying fancy new clothes and cars and courting the preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska).

LaBeouf's Jack is essentially the film's main character. He provides the film's narration and has the central story arc. LaBeouf, once a critical darling before "The Transformers" series and his tabloid antics, is getting largely dismissed in most reviews of this film.

As an actor, LaBeouf's range is still limited, but this sort of material suits him far better than big-budget action. He is not expected to be a tough guy in this film. He is actually a rather pathetic weakling who must grow into the violent confrontation that marks the climax of the film. LaBeouf shows this growth admirably and nicely carries the film.

Although LaBeouf is good, it is Hardy that makes the stronger impression. He makes Forrest a quiet, stoic man who believes his own myth. Hardy gives Forrest a deep, growl of a voice that at times is difficult to decipher, but perhaps that is the point. Forrest is meant to be enigmatic. He is a man of few words, but every one counts.

Hardy develops an intriguing relationship with Chastain. They don't say much to each other, but in glances and body language they create a palpable chemistry. Chastain breathes life into a character that could be standard. Both Hardy and Chastain feel like real people rather than the cliches they may have been in lesser actors' hands.

Clarke, as the third brother, isn't given much to do. He has a distinct, memorable screen presence, but his character is underdeveloped and is just there to throw punches and shoot guns.

Directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by rocker Nick Cave, the film is deliberately paced and with beautiful, atmospheric photography by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme. Most scenes are of quiet conversation. Even the more intense dialogue exchanges aren't shouting matches. This makes the violence, which often comes seemingly out of nowhere, all the more striking.