Friday, October 29, 2010

Sam Rockwell Knocks It Out Of the Park, See It For Him If Nothing Else

Rated R for language and some violent images.
107 minutes
Fox Searchlight
**** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Conviction (2010) on Blogcritics.

All throughout junior high and high school I found myself immersed in the world of John Grisham. While his movies never enticed this teenager into a local multiplex, I did read at least six of his early novels before realizing that they were all essentially the same. For years, it also piqued my interest into becoming a lawyer. While that really never panned out, I still enjoy great legal films and novels. The Paul Levine “Solomon vs. Lord” series also offers some great reading even if focused more on the screwball angle.

While all of the above-mentioned may be fiction, sometimes it’s the truth that can lead to even more rewarding filmmaking. In “Conviction,” director Tony Goldwyn takes a compelling script from Pamela Gray, throws in some tremendous acting and churns out his best film yet. Although he'd only directed only three feature films prior to this one (“A Walk on the Moon,” “Someone Like You…,” “The Last Kiss”), he’s been heavily involved in television. Having done episodes in series including “Dexter” (one of the best shows on right now), “Justified,” “Damages,” “Kidnapped,” “Law & Order” and “Without a Trace,” directing a movie like “Conviction” makes sense.

“Conviction” concerns the true story of a 1980 murder; Katharina Brow had been stabbed 30 times and her head literally beaten to a pulp. All eyes immediately set upon Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), as he's had a long, sordid history with the police. Although Kenny is originally found innocent, two years later he’s back on trial, and this time he's found guilty, sentenced to life without parole.

Now Kenny’s sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) will spend what seems like the rest of her life proving Kenny’s innocence, including attending law school and passing the Bar Exam. But it's not until the possibility of DNA testing comes along that Betty Anne can bring the family long-overdue justice. Not to say that she doesn't seek out a little help from a fellow lawyer friend, Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) and hot-shot lawyer, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project.

While sometimes the handheld camera style gets a little distracting in the home-front parts of the story, director Goldwyn never lets things fall into the melodramatics of television and keeps things at a more personal level. This is particularly helpful in the relationship of Kenny and Betty Anne. You always believe they are siblings, and this is helped even more so through the use of flashbacks. The best of these shows them boxing in the family barn where Betty Anne (Bailee Madison) KO’s Kenny (Tobias Campbell); in another we see them breaking and entering into people’s homes, eating all their candy, and passing out in a sugary daydream living a better life vicariously through their escapades.

The biggest travesty (besides Kenny’s conviction) will be if Rockwell does not get some attention at the next Academy Awards. If they can honor Johnny Depp for his Capt. Jack Sparrow then there’s absolutely no reason Rockwell shouldn’t be nominated for his hilarious scene-stealing turn as Justin Hammer in “Iron Man 2.” However, his portrayal in “Conviction” of Kenny Waters is particularly heartbreaking as you see just how a good man can keep his scruples and sense of humor even while behind bars for a crime he knows he didn’t commit while he watches his sister spend her life setting him free. Minnie Driver also deserves kudos for her hilariously quick witted turn as Abra.

Oscar bait season is officially upon us, and while this may not be one of the best films of the year, it’s certainly far greater than most of what’s come out. If the Academy sticks to its ten- nominations rule for Best Picture (which went into effect last year), I won’t be surprised if “Conviction” gets a nomination. It may be Halloween this weekend, but instead of wasting your money on another tread through Hollywood’s sequelitis (the worse than the first “Paranormal Activity 2” and the supposedly “final” “Saw 3D” until it makes more money than any of its predecessors), why not seek out the underdog? It deserves as much of a fighting chance as Kenny did in real life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

No Answers to the "Hereafter" Here, Better Luck Next Time, Punk

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language.
129 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Hereafter (2010) on Blogcritics.

Alright, Clint Eastwood, it’s time for you to make my day. I’m not sure if it’s that at the ripe old age of 80 you’re starting to run on fumes, but it’s definitely starting to show in your work behind the camera. A good ol’ shot of adrenaline never hurt anyone and if it’s all for the sake of trying to ease yourself into being annual Oscar bait every year (“Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters to Iwa Jima,” “Changeling,” “Gran Torino,” “Invictus,” phew!), then congratulations. Except that it’s becoming increasingly less deserving. And if this week’s “Hereafter” is any indication, maybe you just need to entrust yourself over to a new studio because while Warner Bros. may be letting you get away with whatever you want, your name is no longer enough to satiate the cinematic palate.

Peter Morgan isn’t necessarily a household name himself, but he’s written more than his fair share of film gold. When four of your last five films have been the likes of “The Damned United,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen,” and “The Last King of Scotland” you’re doing very well for yourself. But apparently Morgan seems to be far better suited working with source material based on real life events. With “Hereafter” being his first foray into original material since 1998, maybe it’s a good thing the new Bond film isn’t happening after all (he was co-writing the script). If Morgan was being brought in to do rewrites or maybe some script polishing then I’m sure it was a brilliant idea but at this point we may never know.

In Eastwood’s and Morgan’s meandering “Hereafter,” we meet Marie LeLay (Cécile De France). She’s vacationing in an undisclosed country with her boyfriend Didier (Thierry Neuvic) and ventures out shopping for gifts for her boyfriend who’s too lazy to go out himself to grab last minute somethings for his own kids when a tsunami strikes. This scene is intense, filmed so as to know what’s actually going on, and having just returned home from a honeymoon in St. Thomas, more than realistic. (Thank goodness we didn’t see this film before we left!) After she gets swept away in the tsunami and seemingly drowns she visits a plain of being which she’s positive to be the hereafter. She continues on to Paris where she’s a hard as nails TV correspondent but is driven by Didier to take some time off and write a political novel she keeps talking about. Instead she starts poking around into scientific facts about the afterlife searching for answers to what she saw that day and decides to write a book about that instead.

In San Franciso, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is being pushed into performing readings for his brother Billy’s (Jay Mohr) clients against his best interests. George has a gift (or curse as he calls it) and can communicate with people’s loved ones after a surgery gone wrong as a child. He just wants to keep working at a sugar refinery and be at peace with himself even if it means staring longingly out windows, drinking coffee at the dinner table, or his favorite pastime, listening to Charles Dickens books on disc. After he meet-cutes Melanie (Dallas Bryce Howard more aloof than ever and nowhere near as cute as Eastwood thinks it is) at a late night singles cooking class she learns his secret and even she can’t help but push him into what he dreads the most.

Meanwhile, in London, twin brothers Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are trying to cope with a drug addicted/alcoholic mother (Lyndsey Marshal). They have their photo taken together as a gift to dear old mum but nothing can keep child services from beckoning. When she decides to get her life back on track is when disaster strikes of course. Jason takes off to the chemist to assist in mum’s rehab but that’s when he’s bullied in the streets and runs out into the street only to be struck by a car. Marcus copes by having his new foster parents move a second bed into his room at their house and keeps Jason’s urn nearby but not as close as his hat which he wears whenever possible. After a ghostly game of keepaway in the tube and Marcus escapes certain death, he too begins researching the afterlife bringing him to seek out answers bringing him to cross paths simultaneously with both Marie and George at the end of the movie where you knew it was headed all along but most sadly we find out the movie still has nowhere to go and even less answers than the faux soothsayers.

If people hated the sentimental and open-ended “Lost” finale then they will outright despise this film. Hell, even if you absolutely loved said finale you will despise this movie. It’s like the writers of “Lost” wrote a feature length “Seinfeld” episode. And the worst episode of both series at that. If “Seinfeld” claimed to be a show about nothing, here’s a movie that’s about even less. Seriously, how many times can we be shown Matt Damon staring out a window or laying in his bed staring at the ceiling? Now imagine that for two full hours. The best thing to do would be to wait for NetFlix to watch the opening scene on Blu-ray as it will surely look stupendous.

Yup, that’s the grand scheme of things. Admittedly, for the first hour I was slightly interested in spite of the slow pace. You can tell that the story threads are going to wind up coming together somehow in the end and I thought maybe by the dénouement Morgan, Eastwood and his cast could at least be on to something either mischievous and throw in some awesome twist ending or maybe make you care about everyone that when their fates are finally revealed you might give a damn. Well once you finally get to the film’s big reveal you’ll either be groaning or snickering or running for the exits as you realize that it really was just a huge waste of time. I’d rather be stuck in the hereafter than have to suffer sitting through “Hereafter” ever again.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Let Me In" Deserves a Warm Welcome

Rated R for strong bloody horror violence, language and a brief sexual situation.
115 minutes
Overture Films
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Let Me In on Blogcritics.

Say what you will about remakes, and also about the current vampire craze that’s swept the globe lately, but when they’re done right in both respects it’s certainly something to cheer about. A lot was working against Matt Reeves (director of “Cloverfield”) adaptation of the Swedish “Let the Right One In” (adapted by the original novel's author John Ajvide Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson), but this new Americanized remake, “Let Me In,” manages to distinguish itself while paying true reverence to its source materials.

Vampire lore sure seems to be getting pounded into the dirt these days. Whether they’re walking around in the gloomy daylight of Washington or saving themselves for marriage, people sure seem to be trying way too hard to romanticize this particular breed of antagonist. Anyone who knows anything about vampires should be smart enough to realize that real vampires cannot walk during the day, drink human blood to sustain “life,” and have to be allowed into your place of living. Hopefully “Let Me In” will reawaken audiences as to how a vampire film is supposed to be – dark, moody and bloody violent.

The story remains the same but the structure seems to be a little different; however, all things considered we still get the lonely story of two 12-year-olds (one more or less) set in a bleakly confined and snowy region, this time set in 1983 Los Alamos, N.M.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is bullied at school every day by Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his band of misfits. He takes out his repressed aggression nightly on a tree trunk with a knife while asking, “Are you scared little girl?” One night while playing “Rear Window” in his bedroom, he spies a new girl moving in with a man who would appear to be her father (Richard Jenkins). Her name is Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), she doesn’t wear shoes in the snow, she doesn’t attend Owen's school, likes puzzles, informs Owen they can never be friends and tells him on more than a few occasions that she’s “not a girl.”

Owen disregards all these things and pursues a “friendship” of sorts nevertheless. They only meet at night, decide to go “steady,” and play arcade games when Abby isn’t throwing up after eating Now and Laters. What Abby needs and what Owen hasn’t figured out yet is that Abby is a vampire and has been 12 years old for a very long time. When a few people go missing, including a neighbor in the apartment complex, and Abby goes bonkers after Owen wants to make a blood pact, the cat’s out of the bag but still Owen doesn’t care as Abby seems to be the only person who truly cares for him.

Amping up the creep factor for Owen is just the start of what Reeves has changed for the better. In the original the two leads gave their all but they were portrayed far more innocently and here the relationships between Owen and Abby, as well as Abby and her Father, feel much deeper, ultimately making for a much sadder version if that’s possible. Here I found Smit-McPhee much more likeable than I did last time he was on-screen in the far overhyped “The Road.” There I felt like his character was far too whiney and a bit of a pussy to be the post-apocalyptic son of both Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron. This is how that character should have been portrayed but I already know that I am in a huge minority of people who did not like “The Road.”

As for Chloe Moretz, here’s a 13-year-old actress to reckon with. After the double whammy of this and her stunt as Hit-Girl in “Kick-Ass,” not to discount her turns as the too-smart-for-her-own-age younger sister of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “(500) Days of Summer” and the only thing watchable in the awful “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” I have to say that she’s far better a young actress than most could dream (we’re all looking at you, Dakota Fanning).

Then there’s director Matt Reeves. Along with composer Michael Giacchino, cinematographer Greig Fraser and editor Stan Salfas, he’s showing just how much game he has even when not under the watchful eye of his Bad Robot mentor J.J. Abrams. While you may have seen everything that happens here before and not too long ago at that, he still brings a sense of new to the proceedings, even providing a car crash seemingly filmed in one take that will literally take your breath away, and makes you care more for the characters than the first time around. Even when one is a sociopath in the making and the other is a blood-sucking vampire.

There are a few instances of obvious CGI but it never takes away from anything and all the key scenes are firmly in place – the hospital fire, the Fatherly blood collections and of course the almighty swimming pool. Unfortunately, the swimming pool scene is just about the only part where things veer away from greatness. The staging is nowhere near as graceful and the impact lessened. This is the homerun scene in the original and here it feels like just another splattery horror movie ending. But when two minutes is all I have the slightest complaints about, I’d say Reeves has managed to deliver a homerun of his own all around.