Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Riding on Bikes with Poise: “Premium Rush” is the Best Bike Messenger Thriller of All Time

That title is really just scant praise. How many bike messenger thrillers are there? I’m not quite sure most people have been clamoring for one, but here it is: “Premium Rush” in all its high-octane cyclist thriller glory. You will see awesome stunts and cool shots and lots of bike riding and near escapes and lots people crashing their bikes but not getting all that hurt. You’ll also seem some rather stiff acting and some overacting and a plot that’s pretty lame if you care about that sort of stuff. But otherwise it’s a fun chase movie that’s told in a short amount of time and like an expert cyclist, it goes by fast. The simple charm of Joseph Gordon-Levitt practically saves the film from the dreary dumping ground that is the end of the summer movie season.

The story is simple enough, and bares a resemblance to another fast-paced “normal guy in not-normal fast-paced circumstances” thriller “Cellular.” Gordon-Levitt is Wilee (like the coyote, but shouldn’t he be called Roadrunner or something?) who loves his job as a bike messenger in Manhattan. He’s a young college graduate who refuses to get a job that would require a suite and tie ‘cause that ain’t his lifestyle. He lives for the thrill of cycling and loves that he gets paid to ride his bike all over the city. He soon regrets that once he’s tasked with delivering the MacGuffin, er I mean, an envelope which contains something important. Crazy man Michael Shannon (adding on the crazy) is a dirty cop who needs that envelope. At first we don’t know why. Eventually we find out, and once we do, we don’t really care all that much. And once you find out what “good” that envelope can do, you really don’t care.

But if you’re watching a movie for a good, fascinating original story, you’ve entered the wrong theater. And that’s ok because the film offers enough thrills and chases and crashes to make up for its uninteresting plot. Gordon-Levitt is a great actor and this role feels like the right fit. You care about this guy. The other characters? Not so much. There’s a subplot about his ex-girlfriend who also works as a messenger who’s played by Dania Ramirez. She’s stiff and dull. On the other end of the spectrum is Shannon’s performance which is so wildly over the top it’s like he’s still got that “Bug” movie on his mind. It’s good for some camp value, but he’s not a particularly scary or menacing villain, but he does crazy rather well.

The film was co-written and directed by David Koepp. He’s one of those screenwriters whose name isn’t as recognizable as his body of work. He wrote Jurassic Park! And Mission Impossible! And Panic Room! And Spider-Man! I’m not sure his directing skills are as well-tuned as his writing skills but there are some particularly awesome shots here. He gives the film a good sense of fun (that poor NYPD bike guy) and style (Wilee has a cyclist “spidey-sense” which steers him away from dangerous paths), but gets a little bogged down in too many expository flashbacks that sort of slow the movie down.

“Premium Rush” is fun and breezy and is certainly an accessibly thriller for anyone who likes the genre. It’d say its better than most of the end of summer garbage that’s out there but it sort of failed to meet the expectations of its sleeker and more fun trailer. But at the end of the day it features enough positives to make it worth the ride.  GRADE: B

Sunday, August 19, 2012

ParaNorman Activity: The Stop-Motion “ParaNorman” is a Wonderful, Visual Treat

It’s good to see that stop-motion animated movies are still being made. It seems like such a primitive and tasking filmmaking method, but one that comes with tremendous reward. It’s a type of animation that feels tangible. It feels authentic and it’s wild what some truly talented people can do with it. Take for instance the people behind its latest effort “ParaNorman.” It’s a wildly fun tale about a young boy who sees ghosts all around him and how he must save his town after unwittingly unleashing a witch’s curse upon the townsfolk. It’s a wonderfully audacious and eye-scrumptious endeavor from the people who brought us the equally stunning, but way less rewarding "Coraline"; and to think Tim Burton had nothing to do with it.

“ParaNorman,” even though it’s animated and rated PG, isn’t just a kid’s movie. In fact, adults may be surprised to find it chock full of brief adult moments that will most likely fly swiftly over most young peoples’ heads. It even reveals something about a particular character of which I’ve never before witnessed in an animated film. The filmmakers certainly had the guts to make this film, and they even show some up on screen. The movie opens wonderfully with a film within a film zombie movie, which is being watched by our young hero Norman (voiced by Let Me In’s Kodi Smit-McPhee). He talks to his dead grandmother’s ghost. He’s an outcast and a major disappointment to his parents – especially his father. His sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), living 24/7 in her bright pink velour tracksuit, is more concerned with her hunky crush Mitch (Casey Affleck) than her younger brother who’s she has to babysit one night. Mitch’s younger brother, the equally outcast Neil, and Norman set out to save the town after a creepy vision and visit from his eccentric dead uncle.

Soon the young pair of misfits, Courtney and Mitch, and the school bully – an odd team if ever there was one – are being chased by zombies. These zombies are centuries old townsfolk who put a witch to death and have come back to haunt the living. But there’s a lot more to the story which would be silly to reveal here. It’s really a strange mix of “Hocus Pocus” and “The Goonies.” And it’s all done with amazingly beautiful animation and some really humorous scripting. Writer and co-director Chris Butler makes his debut with such a wonderfully witty script you can’t help but become wrapped up in it. And it’s really the little details that make it fun – like Norman’s hair always popping back into place whether he combs it or it gets messed up.

“ParaNorman” is a real treat for anyone who’s a big fan of animation and scary stories. It’s really a fun horror flick for the animation crowd. There’s nothing to particularly scary here, but fans of the genre will be pleasantly surprised by the number of great references to their favorite flicks - including a rather well-known slasher score. There are no tricks here, “ParaNorman,” even in August, is certainly a welcomed treat.  GRADE: A-

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kentucky Friedkin Chicken: The Fascinatingly Lurid “Killer Joe” is Brutal, Visceral Filmmaking

Your jaw will drop many times if you have the stomach to see “Killer Joe.” The New Hollywood 70s filmmaker William Friedkin, who is no stranger to controversy, has crafted a bizarrely garish film about a disturbingly moronic white trash family in Texas. This is the type of family who have people who want to bump each other off to get insurance money to pay off drug dealers. It’s not exactly a new concept in movies, but there are certainly things you’ll see in “Killer Joe” that you’ve never quite seen before – and probably will never want to see again. It’s almost sad that Mr. Friedkin has go to such bizarre lengths to remain relevant, but he’s managed to make some rather odd directing choices (Bug, anyone?) but he’s certainly all the better for it. It’s probably obvious that he won’t have the commercial success he had with films like “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” and yet with as many duds as hits, he’s certainly still got it.

“Killer Joe” has found yet another wonderful role for Matthew McConaughey as Joe Copper, a grizzled Texan police detective who moonlights as a hit man for hire. McConaughey. He’s hired by who can only be described as a moronic loser Chris (Emile Hirsch). He’s a drug dealer who’s found himself in considerable debt. He schemes with his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to have Joe murder Chris’ mother (and Ansel’s ex-wife) in order to collect her insurance money. Of course, Joe wants some collateral until he gets his payment so they offer him Chris’ younger virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris’s stepmom (and Ansel’s current wife) Sharla (Showgirls’ Gina Gershon, lettin’ it all hang out) is also in on it – but to an extent that isn’t quite fully realized right away.

It’s with no surprise that we soon realize just how crazy Joe actually is and that’s the last man this dimwitted family would ever want to owe money to. Scenes with Joe certainly push the bounds of what we’ve seen in a theatrical film – and it certainly made the MPAA blush who appropriately classified the film with the “dreaded” NC-17 rating. Ms. Gershon has a knack of being attracted to this type of film, huh? As you could also guess, things don’t quite go the way the family had hoped – which gives the film a sort of Fargo and No Country for Old Men feel, although its much slimier and dirtier. This certainly is not a film for everyone’s tastes. Screenwriter Tracy Letts (who adapted from his own stage play) has delivered just the right dose of dark humor to go with the sickening proceedings. Because with a movie as extreme as this, sometimes all you can do is chuckle in disbelief. And you’ll certainly never look at fried chicken the same way again.

William Friedkin might just do for fried chicken what Alfred Hitchcock did for showering. Ok not really, but do you see where I’m going with this? “Killer Joe” is a wickedly bizarre yet competent film. It features some truly great performances, it’s certainly well-cast, and it’s so dirty and grimy - from its look and its convincing production design - you may feel the need to bathe after viewing it. Like Friedkin’s previous effort “Bug,” it’s certainly a film that will get under your skin and make you ask, “Dear God what did I just see?"  GRADE: A-

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Election Daze: Vote Yes for the “The Campaign”

It’s about time that funnyman Zach Galifianakis went head to head with other funnyman Will Ferrell. Of course Mr. Galifianakis borrows heavily from the other weirdly bizarre characters he’s played in movies like “The Hangover” and “Due Date.” His character here may be even weirder and that’s saying something. He’s Marty Huggins, a quirky, loving family man tour guide of his small hometown in North Carolina. He’s urged to run for office against incumbent Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) who’s running unopposed by a pair of greedy businessmen who want sell the district to China to “insource” foreign sweat shops to the US. It’s certainly a crazy idea that is wonderfully satirized in this funny lampoon that skewers the entire election madness that hits America every November.

 “The Campaign” is one of the few original movies that have come out this summer. And when I say original, I mean it’s not based on a comic or a book or any kind of sequel or remake. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most original however. Political satire is not a new thing even remotely but the film does take a rather humorous (and completely farfetched) look behind of the scenes of two candidates who’ll do pretty much anything to win. And political parties don’t even matter here. Ferrell’s Cam Brady is a democratic and he spouts out the typical conservative mumbo jumbo about America and Freedom. Because those have become words to live by with politicians these days. When Marty’s campaign manager shows up (played wonderfully by Dylan McDermott) he tells Marty to get rid of his two shih tzus because they are “un-American.” He reinvents Marty as an American-loving tough guy who’s set to “clean up” Washington. Some of this stuff actually doesn’t seem so farfetched now that I think about it.

The laughs come mostly at the funny interactions between Cam and Marty and as the election begins to heat up. Cam does some rather dirty things to get votes. He even seduces Marty’s wife and releases a sex tape to tarnish Marty’s reputation. I’m pretty sure having your own sex tape is not what a politician would want. But that’s the type of movie this is. I kind of enjoyed seeing Dan Aykroyd’s return (where’ has he been?) and he works well with John Lithgow as the scheming brothers who use poor Marty like a puppet. Sometimes the satire is a little obvious but the movie would rather be funny which it certainly succeeds in numerous times. And the writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell are way more interested in getting the best possible laughs than being politically correct (ie, baby punching, nip slipping, dog punching etc).

Despite the fact that it’s not the most original or smartest comedy to come out in a while, director Jay Roach (“Austin Powers” and “Recount”) helps make the film win you over despite its minor flaws. It’s certainly not the most overall funny movie this year (that belongs to Wanderlust) but it offers some supremely funny moments. If you’ve ever wanted to see an Asian housekeeper who is forced to act like a sassy Black southern maid, then you’ve come to the right movie. Her scenes are worth the price of admission alone.  GRADE: B