The Edge of Seventeen

Kelly Fremon Craig’s teen comedy is perfectly at home in its millennial generation and is destined to be a classic

edge_of_seventeen_posterHere’s how I know “The Edge of Seventeen” is destined to be a teenage classic: director Kelly Fremon Craig isn’t trying to be John Hughes or Wes Anderson. She isn’t trying to shove what it’s like to be a millennial today down our throats. Her film is hardly nostalgic for some golden age of culture. No one in her movie is a caricature or a stereotype. And her main character isn’t obscenely quirky and trying to be “Juno.”

“The Edge of Seventeen” may not be the best teen coming of age story in recent memory, or the funniest, but by not trying to be a callback to anything else, it’s perfectly at home in its generation.

When Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) storms into her teacher’s empty classroom during his lunch, she collapses into one of the desks exasperated and spurts out what sounds like a prepared diatribe about how she’s going to kill herself. Her teacher takes a long pause and a deep breath before answering her. But because her teacher is actually Woody Harrelson, he slowly works into what sounds like a profound speech and life lesson before teasing her by suggesting, hey, maybe he’ll kill himself too. “It sounds relaxing.” Continue reading “The Edge of Seventeen”

Out of the Furnace

Christian Bale and Casey Affleck star in Scott Cooper’s grim Americana noir.

OutoftheFurnacePosterThere’s a moment in “Out of the Furnace” when a backwoods, villainous hick named Harlan DeGroat has a deer skinned to its bones hanging from the ceiling. The imagery calls to mind something absolutely raw, as though this bleak look at Americana symbolized all that’s emotional and open about the people who live this way. But Director Scott Cooper’s prized trophy doesn’t have that much meat on its bones to begin with. “Out of the Furnace” feels frustratingly unspecific, empty and generic, no matter how gritty the characters are.

It starts as a story of two brothers grappling with the complications of poverty, crumbling industry, crime, family, violence and more before taking a left turn as a revenge story driven by not much at all. Cooper has loaded his film with imagery and personalities full of gravitas as though that were enough.

Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are two good ‘ole boys with little to their name beyond their factory jobs and their truck. Russell has a girlfriend he loves dearly (Zoe Saldana) and a father on his death bed, but he’s yanked violently from those loves when he gets involved in a drunk driving wreck that kills a woman and child. While his brother lies in prison, Rodney has lost thousands gambling and looks to repay his debts through illegal bare-knuckle brawls. As a former soldier, fighting seems to be all he knows.

Rodney eventually finds his way to the most rural of rural areas, where the meth dealer and backwoods boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) has organized a fight that gets Rodney in trouble. Russell, now free from prison, looks to rescue his brother and bring him back home.

These are men full of rage, anger and addiction, but none of it seems specific or tied to a real backstory or social issue. That Rodney is driven to fight as a result of his veteran status is treated as a given. The police claim they have no jurisdiction in Harlan’s gangster society up in the hills, and yet their dynamic as criminals seem to have no real impact on Anytown, USA where “Out of the Furnace” is set. Rodney is forced to take a dive during his fight, but it’s never explained why there should be an unspoken tension and danger between Harlan and Rodney’s manager (Willem Dafoe). “Am I supposed to be scared because he sucks on a lollipop,” Rodney asks of Harlan. Cooper struggles to explain why we should be afraid of Harlan, but with a line like this he calls attention to how cartoonishly cliché and short tempered Harrelson’s character is in the first place.

In fact all of the industrial, Americana imagery in the film contains an understated melodrama but doesn’t seem to signify much of anything in particular. Saldana is the film’s only named female character, and she’s given absolutely zero to do. And Bale’s Russell is the protagonist, but possibly only to serve as an ironic counterpoint to his more troubled brother. “Out of the Furnace” ends on a heavy note, and the cinematography makes it to be a movie of purpose, but it’s without much purpose at all.

2 ½ stars

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” finds new director Francis Lawrence raising the stakes on this already dark franchise.

“The Hunger Games” franchise has now done what it took the Harry Potter movies perhaps four or five films to get right. “Catching Fire” is a sequel that sees its stakes increase tenfold, its action becoming more crisp and polished, its themes growing deeper and its deep cast of talented individuals gelling completely.

It does beg the question, how does a story in which teenagers murder other teens for sport and sacrifice manage to get darker, more serious and more consequential? Gary Ross’s “Hunger Games” was a film about the internal struggle of an individual to find her strength and voice. It treated survival instincts like a virtue. Now in “Catching Fire,” that lone wolf mentality to just survive plays like another death sentence.

New director Francis Lawrence ties “Catching Fire’s” dystopian future concept and steamy love triangle to broader ideas about rebellion, fame, loyalty and psychology. Best of all, he’s packaged it in a slick, suspenseful package that hasn’t lost any of its twisted edge.

“Catching Fire” resumes shortly after Katniss and Peeta’s (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson) victory from the previous games. Now President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is using their celebrity as a symbol of false hope as he tours them around each district of Panem. Snow threatens to kill Katniss and her family unless she tows the evil Capitol’s line and makes her act in front of the cameras genuine.

Katniss however has become a reluctant symbol of a slowly growing rebel uprising. The film has done a wonderful job playing up the franchise’s iconography, with early shots framing Katniss as a figure of solemn power or people raising three fingers in defiance to the Capitol and making it feel significant. When they do celebrate her legend, people are beaten and killed by the Capitol’s “peacemakers,” faceless stormtroopers modeled off another similar franchise, “Star Wars.”

Because she’s creating problems, the new Master of the Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), arranges a special event for the 75th Annual Hunger Games in which past survivors of the games are forced to compete again. Given how few there are still living, Katniss and Peeta are on the chopping block yet again. Continue reading “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Rampart

After the 1992 Rodney King beating was caught on tape, everyone had questions about the victim we were seeing. “Rampart” looks at the other side of the police brutality video, profiling a bad, racist cop who deserves all the pain that comes to him but recognizes he’s human all the same.

Oren Moverman’s (“The Messenger”) film takes place in 1999 Los Angeles, when the LAPD was notorious for corruption. For Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), racism is a part of his daily routine. He’s got the mentality that we know to be stereotypical and wrong, and yet he’s been around so much that he displays a logic and understanding that can be hard to fully disagree with.

When a Mexican gangbanger collides with Dave’s cop car, the man shoves his car door into Dave and tries to make his escape, only for Dave to chase him down and beat him senseless. The violence is caught on video, and the DA’s office feels Dave is the perfect scapegoat to throw to the press as they juggle their own corruption allegations.

As he tries to escape his punishment and remain on the police force, “Rampart” follows Dave’s descent to rock bottom. Before long he’s pulled all of his strings with a former colleague (Ned Beatty), his on the street contact (Ben Foster) and the defense attorney who is his current lover (Robin Wright), and he’s got no one left to turn to in support of his reckless ways.

Less of a crime procedural and more of an emotionally poignant character drama, “Rampart’s” effort to make us feel empathy for this evil man is built on the fiery performance by Woody Harrelson. Blackmail, framing, adultery, brutality and racism; this guy does it all, but Harrelson is careful never to let Dave take sadistic pleasure out of all his hatred.

We see him as a nuanced man, powerless amidst his own family. He was married to two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) and fathered a daughter with each. His oldest, Helen (Brie Larson), is now a man-hating lesbian and holds his dad responsible after Dave earned a reputation as “Date-Rape Dave” for allegedly murdering a man trying to rape a woman. He had his reasons for doing what he did to that guy, and they may have even been noble, but what matters is that his family doesn’t feel the same. You wonder then where Dave’s external hatred comes from.

Moverman shoots from canted angles and behind grated bars and windows to show just how skewed a perception Dave has on life. It gets over-stylized at times, and you beg for the simple gritty realism to be found in his previous film “The Messenger.” That movie contained more raw emotion in one, motionless shot that lasted for nearly nine minutes than “Rampart” does in its portrait of a much more emotionally intense character.

Still, “Rampart” is a powerful film. The movie’s cryptic screenplay and open-ended climax has left many audiences frustrated, but the ending doesn’t matter so much as the hard truth that for even the worst guy in the world, we wouldn’t wish upon him the pain of having nothing left.

3 ½ stars

The Messenger

Death is never by the book. In “The Messenger,” two soldiers delivering the news to parents and wives that their relative has been killed in action overseas do all they can to lessen the blow, but no news of this nature ever goes according to plan.

This job then is as tough as anything in the field. It requires massive conviction and strength under pressure. But as one commander says, this job is a more important way of serving your country, because doing this is holy.

The two up for the job are Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), Stone a veteran showing Montgomery the ropes. No hugging, no added sympathy, no lingering, no sunglasses and no doorbells. The Yankee Doodle jingle followed by a death telegram is not a great way to start one’s day, Stone explains.

But Director Oren Moverman does not envy or glorify their job for one moment. As they hit home after home and break the hard news, there’s an unexpected complication and reaction behind each door. One family learns what has happened to their son before the soldiers say a word. One father nearly beats his daughter when he learns she “married that dirtbag after all,” and then is instantly crushed to hear the bad news. Another man lashes out in anger at Montgomery and Stone, saying, “Why aren’t you dead?”

These sequences are so devastating and unpredictable that you could make a separate movie about each family as soon as Montgomery and Stone walk out the door. Their episodic nature feel as intense and isolated as the war sequences in “The Hurt Locker,” and the psychological ramifications have the emotional impact of the firings in “Up in the Air.” Continue reading “The Messenger”

Game Change

When Sarah Palin first appeared on the national political stage, she struck me as someone straight out of a reality show or a Disney movie. She had such cartoonish and folksy charm that made her believe so strongly in the backwards, extreme right wing rhetoric she stumbled over that she couldn’t have possibly whined her way into the spotlight.

The HBO film “Game Change” is unkind to Palin, painting her as a teenage brat while confirming little more than I already suspected about the 2008 campaign.

It’s a movie that doesn’t provide behind the scenes insight as it does re-enact the story from an insider perspective. McCain is losing the election, he needs a bold move, and they take a chance on a nobody without properly vetting her. Palin (Julianne Moore) proves to be an incompetent nutcase, she goes rogue, they lose the election, and everyone responsible smacks their heads in embarrassment. End of story.

What we see of McCain (Ed Harris) and his campaign advisor Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) are little more than reaction shots. “Game Change” is filled with sound bytes of McCain’s team saying, “She’s doing great!” or “Oh god!” This much seems obvious. It has nothing new to add, no contrarian viewpoint of people defending her or calling her bluff. Continue reading “Game Change”

The Hunger Games

I’m not a 12-year-old girl, but I would imagine they would not want to see children their age being gruesomely murdered with spears any more than I would.

“The Hunger Games” then is a puzzling blockbuster. The book trilogy by Suzanne Collins and this impending movie franchise are being marketed as the equivalent to “Twilight” and “Harry Potter.”

But the film is a shockingly bleak and brutal story of survival and mortality in the face of massive pressure and little hope. It is a deftly powerful piece of filmmaking that more closely resembles “Children of Men” than light entertainment. Continue reading “The Hunger Games”

Friends with Benefits

The surprisingly clever and enjoyable “Friends with Benefits” was hampered this year by coming out five months after the much worse reviewed “No Strings Attached.” Who really wanted to see another lame casual sex movie with the OTHER girl from “Black Swan?”

Believe it or not, Mila Kunis would here give Natalie Portman a run for her money as America’s sweetheart. Her character Jamie is not just quick witted and tough but seems free of the hang-ups of the inherently cute and mildly flawed leading lady of most romantic comedies.

There’s a scene early on where Kunis meets her equally charming costar Justin Timberlake, and he catches her walking on the baggage carousel at the airport. What I like is that she doesn’t double take or make an awkward, embarrassed face and rather seems to shrug it off as a kind of funny circumstance.

The whole film is self aware in that way. It’s the kind that just rips on other rom-coms and how silly they all are and winks at the camera with how self-aware it is before totally not innovating in the third act. Oh well, what can you do?

The answer of course is to be silly about it. Kunis and Timberlake have magnificent chemistry and don’t seem to take a minute of their somewhat clichéd screenplay too seriously. They show such stability and comfort in their friendly relationship that they stave off the movie’s urge to rush into the sappy will they/won’t they ending.

Both Kunis and Timberlake are sexy, funny and never intentionally embarrass themselves for a dumb laugh. They rattle off dialogue and the cross cutting can be a headache, but rather than make obscure pop culture references at every turn they seem to have down the inside jokes of a naturally compatible pair of friends.

“Friends with Benefits” is also the sort of movie that makes you blurt out, “What the hell is Woody Harrelson doing in this movie?” I also exclaimed at the appearance of Nolan Gould from “Modern Family,” but the real standout is the completely irreverent Patricia Clarkson. This disturbingly sex driven mother could’ve been a nightmare in another actress’s hands.

Now you’re asking, “So Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are actually funny and likeable AND they take their clothes off?” Yes, who knew?

3 ½ stars

Zombieland

Can I recommend a movie simply because Bill Murray is in it? Can I justify a likeness for a film if it contained five great minutes in comparison to 75 more lackluster ones? I’m not kidding when I say “Zombieland” features a cameo so hilarious it may just be worth your money and time. So should you see this movie? If zombies are your thing, have a blast.

Oh! You were expecting more of a review? Anyone going to see “Zombieland” can guess the film is just a goofy monster movie, and for these people for this movie, a simple thumbs up/thumbs down should suffice. Anyone else is waiting to hear if this is another genre-defying “Shaun of the Dead,” in which case, don’t leave the comfort of your witty, quirky Judd Apatow or Wes Anderson comedy just yet.

In fact there is nothing clever about the dozens of zombie murders that pepper the film. Kills are less amusing and more gruesome. They amount to little creativity other than baseball bat to the head, car door to the head, banjo to the head, and on one occasion, grand piano to the head. Continue reading “Zombieland”