For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, September 3, 2012

Just The Gist: A Few Quick Reviews

The Bourne Legacy:

Matt Damon is out and Jeremy Renner is in.  The latter’s Aaron Cross is a spunkier CIA engineered super-spy, but he lacks Jason Bourne's wounded bemusement.  The picaresque has our lone wolf operative running from his makers—suits in Washington surrounded by computers and surveillance monitors attempting to eliminate all their creations after Bourne goes rogue.  Cross links up with targeted witness Rachel Weisz, and the two go gallivanting off to Manila looking for the special blue pill that will complete Cross's transformation into a demigod.  Like one long, overblown trip to the pharmacy, this Bourne flick is without its predecessors' existential urgency; Cross is neither mysterious nor compelling as a protagonist, and his saga seems curiously void of gravity.  Director Tony Gilroy reveals himself an inferior action orchestrator to the great Paul Greengrass (whose Ultimatum stands out as the series’ best installment); he hacks the chase sequences into choppy, incoherent frenzies, as opposed to Greengrass' kinetic and enthralling symphonies of crosscut movement and menace.  With the hero still on the run as the credits roll, The Bourne Legacy sets up for sequels, but if you ask me, it's time to let him rest.

The Expendables 2:

A who's who of 80’s action-movie fare, The Expendables 2 adds a few new names to the roster, but it doesn't improve things much.  This is a slapdash shoot 'em up with a body count in the thousands, an arsenal of lethal hardware, and plenty of craggy faces spouting lines about being over the hill.  "We all belong in a museum," leisurely jokes legendary action star Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Felicitously, Van Damme plays a villain named Villain, and Chuck Norris shows up long enough to tell a Chuck Norris joke.  The Expendables 2 is a passable romp, but not a very good burlesque, mostly because Stallone, who penned and plays the lead, hasn't yet realized how silly this genre is and always was.  Mass exterminations of Anonymous Henchmen are interspersed with scenes of insipidly earnest melodrama.  One in particular showcases a boyish Liam Hemsworth speechifying on his experiences in Afghanistan and his yearning for the proverbial girl back home.  (Who says tough men can’t cry?)  Unfortunately for Stallone, the emotions laid bare are as artificial as the buckets of blood spilt.  His Rambo-influenced passion-project offers plenty of latex limbs, few laughs, and not nearly enough moments of good, pointed satire.

We Need To Talk About Kevin:

This exploitation horror film in art-house disguise is disturbing for all the wrong reasons.  In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton plays the traumatized mother of a school shooter who grapples daily with her culpability in his crime—mostly by revisiting and reassessing memories of his childhood.  He was a sadistic little Damien with a devilishly sinister glower that ingratiated everybody else, including Swinton’s witless husband John C. Reilly.  She was frustrated, suspicious, and unnecessarily hard on him.  At least, that’s how she remembers it.  While the film manages, to a degree, to paint a chilling psychological portrait of assumed maternal guilt, director Lynne Ramsay's cerebral drama, for the most part, aspires to be seriously unpleasant viewing (I never thought any filmmaker could make crushed up cereal look so nauseating), while never allowing the material or characters or topical subject matter to generate any of the emotional potency.  Directorial gaudiness coupled with a deep mistrust of the story and the audience drag this wannabe skin-crawler into the realm of middling murk. 

The Grey:

Liam Neeson is Hollywood’s most popular badass.  It’s the Irish brogue and the grizzled virility, I think.  Anyway, in the surprisingly ruminative The Grey, Neeson plays a despondent hunter working at an Alaskan oilrig who survives a plane crash home with seven other gnarled ruffians.  Stranded in the desolate and uninhabitable conditions of our northern-most state, the bickering bunch hear howls in the darkness, a dozen pairs of yellow eyes illuminated like stars in the sky forebode the coming of hungry wolves.  Let the slasher movie clichés commence.  But Neeson and his pack never really fight directly with the beasts pursuing them, which might have been a more conventional direction for an action thriller.  Instead, the film becomes a thought-provoking allegory about normal men fleeing mortality’s insatiable appetite.  In Taken and Unknown, Neeson had control, taking names and kicking ass.  Here, he looks up to the sky—like a character out of Ingmar Bergman—and pleads for answers.  Gory and raw, but equally mystical and existential, The Grey, as it happens, isn't really about surviving the wilderness as much as running from, and then ultimately accepting, the nature of things.        

Hope Springs:

Hope Springs is hope-less.  This pseudo-psychological romantic comedy has stunted spouses Meryl Streep (passive, coy) and Tommy Lee Jones (stubborn, facetious) seeking sex counseling from a disturbingly deadpan Steve Carell.  Faking sensitivity but mentally licking his lips, Carell asks if they have oral sex, and we squirm in our seats at the horrifying thought of it.  Directed by David Frenkel—who coached Steep’s nefarious Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears PradaHope Springs will entertain only those few viewers who giggle girlishly at the sight of Streep acting naughty and nasty (at one point the legendary three-time Oscar winner deep-throats a banana).  But the script introduces major relationship problems just to have them cursorily dealt with and overcome.  Less giddy fun than the work of the late Nora Efon, and less profound than a toothpaste commercial directed by Mike Leigh, Hope Springs made me wonder: Why go into the boudoir of the middle-aged American couple, if you don’t have the guts to confront what you find there?

Premium Rush:

Cinema as cartoon, as video game, Premium Rush is a real-time chase thriller in which New York City bike messenger Joseph Gordon Levitt (in his spandex and on his Huffy) tries to outrun Michael Shannon's dastardly crooked cop to the final destination of the MacGuffin—in this case, a mysterious ticket worth fifty grand.  The comedic moments land, the tension builds, the stakes are high (enough), and the Road Runner aesthetic has the right amount of pulse and playfulness to keep this slight but enjoyable thriller riding on two full tires.

Killer Joe:

Vulgar, sordid, dumbfounding: Killer Joe is proof that the grindhouse spirit is alive and well, and not just in the style of Tarantino’s rousingly post-modern pasticcio, but in its classically course and hardcore form.  Director William Friedkin—the shock savant behind 1973’s The Exorcist—delivers an updated version of the classic noir Double Indemnity, transmogrifying Billy Wilder’s elegant Hollywood aristocrats into Kentucky fried trailer-trash: a debt-ridden good-for-nothing (Emile Hirsh) conspires to have his shrewish mother wacked in order to collect her fifty-thousand-dollar insurance policy.  The eponymous assassin (Matthew McConaughey in a sultry, unhurried performance of charismatic evil) agrees to do the job pro-bono, as long as the desperate worm hands over his beatific and innocent little sister (Juno Temple) as collateral.  Much fun ensues: pedophilia, hints of incest, bloody paroxysms, and one slow burning climactic scene so audaciously shameless and disgusting you’ll be holding back vomit with laughter.  A jaw-dropping thrill of unspeakable black-comedy pulp, Killer Joe is tongue-in-cheek exploitation, yet there’s a sensual, seductive allure to this facetious filth.  That the film, in its final seconds, actually has the balls to tickle your heartstrings mere moments after punching you directly in the gut is either Friedkin’s sickest tonal manipulation, or his canniest directorial feat.  You decide.         

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