Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Killer Joe

If you are the type that has considered setting fire to your gentiles, then this film might not be for you.  For the other 99.9% of you this is a film that will take you for a kick ass NC-17 ride. The only downside of seeing this film, is that you may never look at a fried chicken leg the same again.  After making a premier at the Venice International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, the film finally received distribution and is ready for your enjoyment.

"Killer Joe" was an off-Broadway play in 1998 that was written by Tracy Letts.  Academy Award winning director William Friedkin brings the story to the big screen along with a brilliantly talented cast.  This film will make you wonder where the director of "The Exorcist" (1973) and "The French Connection" (1971) has been lately.  While the film isn't as good as the award winning films he has worked on before, it is still very much worth seeing. 

The story is a modern take on the often misinterpreted noir genre and brings Matthew McConaughey shirt off as you can expect.  The film starts with Chris (Emile Hirsch) seeking financial assistance from his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to help clear him of a considerable debt.  Chris decides that the only solution is to murder his mother, and Ansel's ex-wife, to collect the insurance money.  They decide to hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a contract killer, who also happens to be a police detective.  The plan is that the money will go to Chris' sister Dottie (Juno Temple) who will be held as the retainer until the insurance comes through.  As repugnant as the plan is, even Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel's wife, agrees to go along with the plan.  Of course, things go violently wrong and the film offers kinky twists before descending into a blood-drenched finale.

As the story unfolds, you see the brilliant acting performances from the entire cast in their trailer-trash caricatures.  Of course Matthew McConaughey takes his shirt, and pants, off.  However, his performance goes above and beyond anything else he has ever done.  He has created Killer Joe in a way that is truly terrifying.  The simplicity of Thomas Haden Church brings a light comedy to the incompetent seriousness of the situation.  Emile Hirsch continues to show his range that makes him one of my personal favorites.  If you haven't seen him in "Savages" you are also missing out another of his great performance.  The young and beautiful Juno Temple provides a performances that stands up against the other amazing talents.  Also don't miss Juno Temple in "The Dark Knight Rises".  Gina Gershon is almost forgotten about until the final sequence that not even Quentin Tarantino would have thought of.  

Tracy Letts is an amazing talent, and I for one look forward to seeing the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play August: Osage County which will receive the big screen treatment in 2013.  William Friedkin and Tracy Letts rely on the narrative to tell the story, and not the nudity and violence that so many lesser talented writers and directors succumb to.  Everyone should enjoy this 4 Quack film.

Monday, July 16, 2012


It is the calm before the biggest summer blockbuster of 2012 and film goers have a lot of options that shouldn't be ignored.  "Savages" is based on the novel of the same name written by Don Winslow that received best selling attention in 2010.  Two years later the script was fast tracked by Oliver Stone and is the adrenaline-fueled suspense crime thriller that everyone should be talking about this summer. 

The story has been compared to a modern day version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  But as the clever writing of the film reminds you "they both die" in that story, and makes you wonder how this story will end.  The film is narrated in a flash back style by Olivia “O” (Blake Lively) who is the shared-girlfriend of two marijuana growers from California.  “O” narrates that just because she is telling you the story, doesn’t mean that she is alive in the end of it.  This approach to narration is a bit cliché, and usually I don’t like narration as it can be a crutch in telling the story, however, Oliver Stone is a technician that knows just how to properly execute this style of narration. 

The film operates on a bro-mance level between Ben and Chon who are childhood friends that look out for each other.  Ben (Aaron Johnson) went to Berkley and double majored in business and botany; and is a Buddhist.  His best friend is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who is a former Navy Seal that served in Afghanistan and Iraq; and is the enforcer of their Laguna Beach–based cannabis operation that has created pot with a THC level of 33%.  Their small operation gets challenged by the Mexican Baja Cartel lead by Elena (Salma Hayek) who wants their techniques in growing high quality cannabis.  When they refuse to sell out, the cartel escalates its threat, kidnapping “O”, which sets off a dizzying array of negotiations and plot twists.   Working for the cartel on the business side is Alex (Demián Bichir from “A Better Life”) and on the violent side is Lado (Benicio Del Toro).   The third story arch within the film involves the duplicitous and crooked DEA Agent Dennis (John Travolta) who has his own self-serving agenda that has is fingers in the cookie jar of everyone.  

Both Aaron Johnson, previously seen in "Albert Nobbs" (2011) and "Kick-Ass" (2010), and Taylor Kitsch, best known for “Friday Night Lights”, do a respectable job in their performances and feel like true friends with a childhood history.  Blake Lively works well with the two men on a physical level, but emotionally she is inconsistent.  She seems fairly level and grounded early on, but once she's kidnapped, she is a whiny brat making demands. With the criticism, I will say that she is better here than she was in "Green Lantern".  The rest of the cast deliver strong performances as can be expected from John Travolta, Benecio Del Toro, and Salma Hayek.  With all the masculinity in the film, it is the softness of Salma Hayek that even though she is the leader of the cartel she is also the most well rounded character.  The minor role portrayed by Emile Hirsch as the financial savvy tech that goes all the way to the far ends of this awkward character.   

My biggest complaint is in the final sequence of the film.  Without spoiling things for everyone, I just didn’t find the character resolution to be sufficient for what they went through up to that point.  It doesn’t ruin the entire film, but does leave you shaking your head and rolling your eyes.   

The film asks the question of how far you are willing to go for someone you love, and how savage you are willing to get to protect them.  There is savagery in all of is in the wrong circumstances and we all innately regress to the primal state of being, which is in and of itself “a savage”, which is where the story and the performances hit on the mark.  This is a 4 Quack film that if you are not able to get a seat at a summer blockbuster, “Savages” will give you everything that you want. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises reunites Christopher Nolan with Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman); Michael Caine (Alfred); Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox); and Gary Oldman (Police Commissioner Jim Gordon).  Joining the cast is Anne Hathaway as daring thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  However, it is the new characters that haven't previously been featured in any of the Batman films that provide the most mystery.  Who are the “Inception” co-stars: Tom Hardy (Bane); Marion Cotillard (Miranda Tate); and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake)?  Saying too much about each of these characters would spoil it for most, but to those that are fans of the comics you can pretty much guess where the story will turn. 
Christopher Nolan's conclusion to story arc comes after Bruce Wayne overcame his emotional and psychological difficulties in "Batman Begins" (2005); and hit its stride with "The Dark Knight" (2008) where the Caped Crusader handled the mental challenge of the Joker; and now the most physical of challenges is presented by Bane.  Completing a trilogy can be difficult, but Christopher Nolan brought the Dark Knight story to a conclusion that began and ends with The League of Shadows.  
The story begins eight years after the action of “The Dark Knight”, with Batman vanished from the scene and vilified as a criminal for killing Harvey Dent.  Bruce Wayne is now a limping, emotionally shattered recluse that is forced back into action as the mercenary Bane plans to destroy Gotham City and finish what Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows started. 
The performances in the film are all exactly what you expect.  Having portrayed the title character over three films, Christian Bale is able to balance the emotional and psychological limits of Bruce Wayne, with the physical demands of being Batman.  Christian Bale has given the character so many layers that the viewer might even have a tear for the conclusion of the film as we are fully invested into everything Bruce Wayne stands for.
Christopher Nolan has embraced the full rogue gallery of villains in all the films and continues with Bane.  While Bane is not as widely known to the non-comic book fans, he is extremely important to the story of Batman.  To incorporate him into the series there were some alternations to his back story that worked for me.  There was only a quick discussion of why Bane has a mask (relieves pain), and you do see the impact of it being damaged.  For all the concerns that you cannot understand what he is saying, don't worry about it.  The only time I had difficulties in understanding what Bane was saying wasn't because of the effect on the voice, but instead the amazing score provided by Hans Zimmer was a bit loud at times.  Tom Hardy’s performance is as physical as you expect it to be after seeing him in “Warrior” (2011) and “Bronson” (2008).  Bane is a tactical genius with a complex master plan that nullifies the police, and breaks Gotham in a way The Joker never even threatened to do in The Dark Knight.  Whereas Heath Ledger’s persona sought to create chaos, and prove that people can do terrible things when pushed to the limits by mental stress, Bane seeks to destroy Gotham physically, blowing up large sections of the city with explosives, destroying all access points and burying the city’s police force beneath its streets.
Christopher Nolan’s version of Selina Kyle is much closer to the comic books than what the previous films and TV versions ever provided.  The Catwoman is never referred to by name, but she is a cat burglar for hire and a grifter that views herself as a self-serving Robin Hood.  Selina Kyle’s backstory is not addressed, but she clearly is operating in the grey area between good and evil.  Her relationship with Holly (Juno Temple) is everything I was hoping it would be as she protects her from men.  Even though only a small role, Juno Temple is excellent as well.  Anne Hathaway has stepped away from the days of having a Princess Diary, and much like her performance in “Love and Other Drugs” she finds her mark in the fringes of her beauty.
John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an officer that lost both his parents as a child and has fought the urge to be angry at the world for similar things that have plagued Bruce Wayne.  As a detective he has been able to determine the identity of Batman as Bruce Wayne and stands for everything that the Batman stands for in protecting the citizens of Gotham City.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been one of my favorite actors for nearly a decade now and he is excellent.  By the end of the film it is clear that he is not Dick Grayson, Jason Todd or Tim Drake, but anything more would be a spoiler. 

Marion Cotillard for me was a bit of a disappointment.  Where her character goes is not really a surprise, but how she gets there was a bit of a letdown.  As Miranda Tate, she is on the board of executives for Wayne Enterprises and must take a controlling interest in the company.  However, making her a love interest for Bruce Wayne without the chemistry came across as forced.   The revelation of her as Talia al Ghul is genuinely shocking, but the seasoned Bat-fan probably guessed at the twist a long time before it happened.  She is critical to the story of Bruce Wayne, but how we get there was not as fulfilling as the surprises that came from previous films.  Marion Cotillard is an amazing actress, but is not provided with the opportunity show it. 
The performances from Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are little more than a cameo as well, but still provide the emotional and technological support to Bruce Wayne to help him in the early parts of the film return to the cowl and be the symbol that Gotham City needs.  Liam Neeson reprises his role as Ra’s Al Ghul, but saying anything more will spoil it for everyone.  Not to be forgotten in this film are the escaped criminals including Dr. Crane/Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who serves as the judge in the apocalyptic Gotham City that Bane has created.  While his cameo appearance is small, it is none the less powerful in his performance.   
I didn't have a movie blog prior to 2010, but if I did "Batman Begins" would have received 4 Quacks and "The Dark Knight" would have received 5 Quacks.  Taking the full series into consideration, I think that "The Dark Knight Rises" will hold up equally with the other films.  This is a dark adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships, which is why it is a 5 Quack film for me.
A lot of speculation has been made that this will be the last Batman film, but if you read between the lines of some of the interviews that Christopher Nolan has provided, I personally think he is suggesting that it is only the last Dark Knight film, but not the last Batman film.  There are several story arcs remaining for Christopher Nolan and without completely spoiling the ending there is certainly an open door.  And if there is another film, what villains would you like to see (leave in comments below)?

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