Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Rum Diary

I have always enjoyed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Terry Gilliam's bizarre visuals blew me away as a youngster and Johnny Depp's penchant for weirdness was still the defining aspect of his career (remember, this was pre-effeminate-pirate Depp).  While watching the Criterion Collection for F&LiLV, I got to learn a bit about the behind-the-scenes friendship that was formed between Depp and Hunter S. Thompson, F&L's author and the basis for Depp's character.  It's an interesting collection of extras, with Thompson's incomprehensible commentary track and Depp reading his correspondence to Hunter as the primary highlights.   I also learned that Thompson emits random squeals in the middle of conversations and then continues as if nothing had happened; this was so amusing to me and my friends that we nicknamed my car (which frequently had loose belts) "Hunter."
A car only slightly more reliable than my Hunter

The Rum Diary was announced back in 2000, but was stuck in development hell for more than a decade before its eventual release in October 2011.  In the intervening decade, stars dropped in and out of the project, with Johnny Depp being the only constant.  When Thompson died in 2005 (with Depp funding the utterly ridiculous project to disperse his cremains), I was worried that this film would never be made.  When it came out, though, I was worried for a different reason.  Given Hunter's recent passing, The Rum Diary might have become sentimental and not stay true to the bizarre Hunter S. style.  I didn't hear much buzz about the movie, so I waited to watch it, fearing that I may have been right.  For once.

The Rum Diaries follows the exploits of journalist and obvious Hunter S. Thompson analogue Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) in the late 1950s.  Kemp has traveled to Puerto Rico for a job on a San Juan newspaper, where he is quickly introduced to a few well-known local facts.  First of all, the newspaper is floundering and will probably shut down in a matter of weeks.  Second, Puerto Rico at this time was sharply split between extreme poverty and an American upper-class of robber barons.  Third, and most important of all, Puerto Rico was an easy place to lose yourself in drugs and booze.
...although finding yourself again ain't always pretty
In this environment, Kemp manages to stumble his way into some interesting situations that test his morals.  Yes, he loves being a worthless drunk and taking hallucinogens, but he still wants to accomplish something...although he's not sure just what that may be yet.  He sees where his path can lead him --- toward the hazy rage of his friend/fellow degenerate, Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), or into ambivalence, like his other journalist pal, Sala (Michael Rispoli) --- and he doesn't seem determined to avoid that fate.  He also (improbably) falls in with a powerful and obscenely wealthy crowd, thanks to a smooth-talking realtor named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart).  There, he sees and hears many things, and he realizes how easy it would be to do some very bad things and become very wealthy.  At its core, The Rum Diary has less to do with being drunk on rum (although that is a significant part) and more on a young writer trying to figure out what he wants to become.
Above: scene from an earlier, more depressing, version of Moulin Rouge

The acting in The Rum Diary is good.  If you have seen Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing, there might not be a lot new to see here, but if you haven't, then Depp's immersion in his character is pretty impressive.  This isn't just a Hunter S. Thompson impression, mind you (check out this clip to see how good of an impression it is), it is a fairly complex performance that achieves its goals through monologue overdubs and quiet moments.  Depp is at his most entertaining here when he is being over the top, but his best work is when he is playing up the drama. 
Visual clues: frowny face vs. googly eyes and open mouth
Aaron Eckhart was a great choice to play a yuppie villain.  I thought he was very convincing as a smooth sonuvabitch who got ruthless as soon as his profit/loss balance became unfavorable in any situation.  Michael Rispoli was pretty good as Kemp's main drinking buddy, but he wasn't all that interesting as a character.  Giovanni Ribisi was far more entertaining as a unpredictable drunkard, but his weird voice was a little off-putting.
Unlike his habit of listening to Hitler's speeches on vinyl
Richard Jenkins did a respectable job with a pretty straightforward supporting role.  There were a few other recognizable faces in the cast, including Marshall Bell and Amaury Nolasco in small parts and Amber Heard as Kemp's love interest.  This is, far and away, the best work I have seen from Heard to date.  She was more than just a pretty face here, she was sympathetic and sexy.  Granted, that isn't asking a lot from a professional Hollywood actress, but it was light years beyond what I've seen her in prior to this.
"Hell, yeah, I earned a C+!"

The Rum Diary was written for the screen and directed by Bruce Robinson, and was his first film work in about a decade.  I thought he directed the film well enough.  It has a sleazy, grimy feel to it that was rather fitting.  He didn't coax out any great performances out of this cast, though, and that surprised me; with characters this eccentric, I would have thought someone would go balls-to-the-wall weird, but they never got much further than "peculiar." 
Ribisi earns a runner-up prize, though
That may have been affected by the overall story, though.  This film is missing a sense of purpose.  That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing.  Unfortunately, the characters are not charming enough to make you forget that the story doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  If you've read any Hunter S. Thompson, you might recognize that aimlessness as a common theme in his fiction; he eventually gets around to making a point, but the characters are so bizarre and goofy that they're fun to follow, regardless of intent.  Sadly, The Rum Diary is lacking in the fun department, which makes the meandering plot just frustrating.
"You don't want to see me stumble around drunk for two hours?"

The Rum Diary was written at least a decade before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so it's not surprising that the tone and the requisite Hunter S. Thompson-ish character are significantly different in each.  I wish I could stop comparing the two (I suppose I could bring up Where the Buffalo Roam instead), but the two are definitely connected.  As the film comes to a close, the audience starts to realize that this Puerto Rico vacation is what prompted Kemp Thompson to develop his aggressive style of journalism, so he could be a royal pain in the ass of all the bastards he loathed.  But then it ends.  The goal is Thompson finding his writing voice, and that's not a satisfying enough ending for a film that felt lost in its own winding plot.  What does he do with this new-found ability?  Does he dish out sweet justice?  Not really.  The means, in this case, wind up being the end...of the story. 

Getting back to my original worries regarding this film, I think it does suffer from too much nostalgia.  It's competently made, and there are some pretty entertaining bits here and there, but it lacks purpose and passion.  More importantly, it fails to pass on the righteous indignation of its main characters.  If the point of making this movie is to show Hunter S. Thompson's transformation from a fairly regular person to the oddball that he became famous for, then I suppose it is somewhat successful.  It's just not as entertaining to watch as it would be to try and reenact (the rum and women parts, anyway).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I knew I made a wise choice in viewing material the second my DVD player loaded the main menu to Hesher.  The icon that indicates your selection is a crudely drawn fist giving the middle finger.  Nice!  Even better, the bonus scenes are called "Extra Shit."  Some films have to fight for my affection, while others have me at "Extra Shit."  Hesher, I loved you before I even pressed play.
Hesher is, shockingly, not about a character named Hesher.  It is about TJ (Devin Brochu), a tween whose mother recently died.  TJ is taking the loss hard, naturally, but he's expressing his grief through an odd attachment to the wrecked car she died in; he repeatedly bothers the junkyard owner and acts out when he doesn't sell TJ the car (that he has no money for, or a license, or insurance, or a way to fix it, etc., etc.).  Making things worse, the kid who works at the junkyard is also TJ's bully at school.  He would turn to his father for advice, but Paul (Rainn Wilson) has been popping pills for months, trying to avoid feeling anything.
"When does this movie get METAL?" Be patient.
That's when we meet Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  Hesher isn't related to TJ, he's not a family friend, and he's neither famous or infamous in their town.  Heck, we never even learn if "Hesher" is a first name, last name or nickname.  Hesher is just Hesher.  And that's how he shows up.  He was squatting in a house that was under construction when TJ accidentally blew his cover, so Hesher decides to give TJ his full attention.

This isn't the scene where Hesher threatens to skullfuck TJ.  But rest assured, it is in the movie.
Hesher shows up in TJ's school.  He follows him to the grocery store.  He even moves into TJ's house with no explanation to Paul or TJ's Grandma (Piper Laurie).  He's just Hesher, and if he wants to live in Paul's garage and hang out in his underwear, what the hell are you going to do about it?
A: drop trou and enjoy some stolen cable, courtesy of Hesher

There's more to the plot of Hesher than that, but not a lot more.  The destination is not the best part of this film's story --- this is about the journey.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is priceless in the title role.  Since JGL doesn't tend to play bad-asses, I was surprised at how convincing he was.  Maybe it was the awesome headbanging hair, or the scuzzy beard, or the first-class crazy eyes, or his fantastic tattoos (a cartoon fist flipping the middle finger across his back and a stick figure blowing his brains out across his torso) --- whatever it was, this character was completely awesome.  It helps that the character is eminently quotable; one of my favorites is "Humans been pokin' vagina for hundreds of years.  Longer, probably."  Gordon-Levitt does a good job playing quiet characters, so it might surprise you how great he is as a completely over-the-top and impossible extrapolation of that one guy in high school who really really really loved his heavy metal.  Actually...yeah...Hesher is the personification of what high school kids think is cool and dangerous.  And JGL is convincing as a scary dude, too!  Who'd a thunk it?
Another lesson learned: fire makes everything more bad-ass
Devin Brochu is okay as TJ, but it's a tough role to be totally likable in.  He's a teenager misdirecting his anger from a massive emotional trauma --- of course he's going to be whiny.  Brochu does do a good job acting as a proxy for the audience, looking suitably surprised/horrified by nearly everything Hesher chooses to do.  Rainn Wilson wasn't in a whole lot of the movie and he was not funny at all.  He was pretty fantastic, though.  It was a very subtle performance, but Wilson was excellent as a depressed father trying to move on with his life; I don't really like Wilson normally, so consider that praise well-earned.  Natalie Portman has a more substantial role as a grown woman who somehow winds up befriending TJ and becoming a love interest, of sorts.  Unfortunately, she suffered from "ugly pretty girl" syndrome, where she was given big glasses and baggy clothes to make her look nerdy and ugly.
Look at her.  I just want to vomit in her face, she's so gross!
Aside from that bit of cliche, I thought Portman did a fine job.  Piper Laurie was also good as Grandma, especially with her interactions with Hesher.  There aren't many films that show the elderly treating younger, threatening-looking folks with complete acceptance, and I thought that was an unexpected small twist.

Hesher is the first full-length theatrical work by writer/director Spencer Susser, and I think it shows.  There are a lot of things that Susser does right in this movie.  The main characters are all interesting, and their interactions feel natural even when they're doing ridiculous shit.  I was genuinely impressed with how well depression was exhibited by the characters, without being the full focus of the movie.  And, of course, I liked how high-school-awesome Hesher was.  The soundtrack (comprised entirely of Metallica and Motörhead, I believe) was also pretty great.
You know what else is great?  Markers.
Having said all that, I have to admit that this story never really gels.  The characters are individually good, but the parts never come together to form a greater whole.  Specifically, it never makes sense why TJ's family would just accept Hesher living in their house, and it never makes sense why Hesher chose to live with them.  The characters are just not woven together; this movie could have ended at almost any time and had only a marginally smaller impact on the story as a whole.  That's (obviously) the biggest problem I have with Hesher, but there are some missed opportunities as well.  The use of film style in this movie is inconsistent and, therefore, ineffective.  In the first few scenes that Hesher is in, it is questionable whether or not he is a real character, or if he is a suburban heavy metal Tyler Durden.  It turns out that he is not.  There is also an audio feedback noise that happens when somebody is going to do something crazy --- and I liked that effect --- but it lost its significance when it was also used just before Hesher got philosophical.  Hesher's inspirational speech toward the end could have been terrible, but Susser was smart enough to steer it away from genuine sentiment and back to weird and funny.
Also smart: not using tie-dye and coffee stain-halos in the main promo posters

Hesher is not a great movie, and its shortcomings in the story department are pretty obvious.  I really liked it, though.  There was enough to make this enjoyable despite its flaws, and those moments came from various sources.  I liked that there is no definitive time or place for this story; those license plates might look like California plates, but they just say "Drive Safely."  That's clever.  And there are so many chunks of dialogue that are random and abrasive, yet still very funny --- Hesher's rants about Grandma rape and orgies were stellar --- that I can't help but walk away with a positive impression.
Admittedly, it helps if you've ever looked at someone like this
Maybe the key to this film is that it is presented as a drama and it has dramatic parts...and then, over to the side, is Hesher, doing Hesher knows what.  If this was supposed to be a comedy, it would certainly be a strange one.  If you take this as a drama, though, it's not bad at all --- and it has occasional doses of awesomeness in small bursts.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fist of Fury (AKA The Chinese Connection)

I've always had a hard time with the Bruce Lee catalog.  He's awesome (obviously), but trying to track down his movies in the days before smartphones and constant internet access was kind of a pain.  Several of his movies had multiple titles and all of his movies had similarly-titled sequels, starring knock-off Bruce Lee lookalikes.  Even worse, most of these had Lee's picture on the cover and credit him as the star, only to have "Bruce Li" or "Bruce Lei" or "Dragon Lee" as the actual star.
Burn in hell, Bruce Li.  Or refund my $2.99 Blockbuster rental.  Your choice.
Thankfully, somebody got their act together and has streamlined most of Bruce Lee's filmography, correcting titles and gathering all his non-Enter the Dragon work into a variety of DVD collections.  The upside to these is that we now have consistent titling for Bruce Lee's films.  The downside is that the movie I remember as "The Chinese Connection" is now Fist of Fury.  I don't know why that makes me a little sad --- there's really no reason for this story to be called "The Chinese Connection," aside from having Chinese people in it --- but it somehow does.  Luckily, I have a remedy for that kind of depression: watch Bruce Lee beat up an entire dojo in Fist of Fury.
Fist of Fury opens with Chen Zen (Bruce Lee) returning to his martial arts school.  Where is he returning from and why did he leave?  "You know" and "Because," respectively.  Chen is greeted with terrible news; his beloved teacher has died.  Chen handles the news like a man selfish child, screaming and clawing at the grave during the funeral and accusing his fellow martial arts students of idiocy for believing that their teacher could die of natural causes.  That metallic taste in your mouth is the irony of Bruce Lee's character making that argument.  Soon after the funeral, some Japanese jerks show up and taunt the students at Chen's school.  Why are they trying to pick a fight?  Apparently, you missed the whole "jerks" explanation.  Led by a weaselly businessman, the Japanese guys present Chen's school with a framed sign, and it is apparently quite the insult; I've never seen a great print of this movie, but sometimes the sign is translated for English-reading audiences and sometimes not --- the gist of the message is that the Chinese are weak sick men and their school should close. 
"...and people who wear white after Labor Day have no kung-fu skills.  Nyaah!"
Chen would have fought the intruders, but was told to stand down because his beloved teacher would not have approved of needless violence.  Chen reluctantly agreed...until the next scene, when he traveled to the Japanese dojo and smashes their sign.
Quickly followed by every Japanese bone and internal organ he could find
Chen effortlessly beats the living hell out of every single student (and one portly teacher) at the dojo.  And then he gets his hands on some nunchucks.  In the earliest memory I have of laughing at a movie instead of with it, my dad loved to point out the nunchuck scene in this movie when I was little.  Let's say you've just watched Bruce Lee decimate a few dozen people with his hands and feet (picture piles of Asian guys, bleeding and moaning on the floor) and then he gets a weapon!  And not just any weapon --- this weapon moves faster than the human eye can see!  How stupid are the guys who attack him at this point? 
THIS is what Bill Paxton was saying "Game over!" about in Aliens
As entertaining as kicking the crap out of a few dozen men may be, it started some serious trouble for Chen and his school.  The Japanese villains will obviously strike back, and they have the local police in their pocket.  But that's only a minor inconvenience for Chen, who is intent on uncovering the circumstances surrounding his teacher's death, no matter the cost.
How?  With his telephone repairman disguise.  Really.

There isn't a whole lot of acting in Fist of Fury, aside from Bruce Lee.  Even Lee isn't all that great here (acting-wise); the most common trait his non-action scenes share is melodrama.  I will admit that he played up the goofiness of his disguises pretty well.  Still, Lee has the greatest martial arts moves, the best kung-fu noises, and some of the best facial expressions in the genre.
Exhibit A
While this certainly isn't his best work as far as acting goes, you can't deny how much fun it is to see him hit people.  Nobody really stands out in the supporting cast, which is due to the quantity-over-quality approach this film took.

That approach is both the strength and weakness of Fist of Fury.  Writer/director Wei Lo went against the grain by having Bruce Lee kick the ass of absolutely everyone in this movie, and that was glorious.  Unfortunately, the biggest challenge Chen Zen faces comes from a white guy with a curly 'fro.
He looks like a poodle with a bow tie
Even the main villain in the movie hardly slows Chen down.  Once he gets his hands on nunchucks, I start to feel a little sorry for the bad guys.  There are certainly parts of this movie that conform to martial arts movie formulas --- the hero refusing to fight in the first third of the film, for example --- but having a classic boss battle is one that I would have loved to see.
...and he would have ended the fight by dropping his drumsticks

Overall, Fist of Fury is an impressive, but flawed martial arts picture.  The amount of action scenes is impressive, and their scope is pretty much unparalleled (unless I've simply missed out on some truly bad-ass movies).  I loved that his feats were only limited by how furious he was at any given time.  Beating up a dojo because they insulted you?  Easy.  Killing everyone you encounter when you feel threatened?  Even better.  That awesomeness gets lost a bit, though, among some of the film's problems.  First of all, the editing is pretty wretched; if it's not an action scene that Lee probably set up himself, the movie looks bad and can be difficult to follow.  That's inept and annoying, but the action scenes are left intact, so it's not the end of the world.  But the bad guys are awfully stupid in this story.  Even if you ignore the ridiculous (and effective!) disguises Chen wears, there are still some unexplained concepts in play.  For instance, Chen Zen is constantly underestimated by his opponents.  When he first arrives at the dojo, that is understandable.  Once he is public enemy number one?  That just doesn't make sense.  Perhaps even odder is the film's ending; while I agree that it makes sense (to a degree) within the plot, it seems like an odd choice for a story that was written by the director.  Why involve the police at all?  Why not simply keep it a revenge flick?  Why did the bad guys kill Teacher?  And why end in a freeze frame?
Jump kicks are far less impressive when they aren't aimed
If you're going to go happy, end after Mr. Mustache dies.  If you want to go Debbie Downer on everybody, just keep rolling the film for another minute or two.  The freeze frame straddles the mega-happy and mega-sad endings and accomplishes neither.  Luckily, the action essentially negates the plot problems and besides, if you're paying attention to the plot in a classic 70's martial arts movie, then you're wasting perfectly good drinking time.  It's not perfect, but Bruce Lee kicks a dojo's ass.  What else do you want?

Saturday, September 8, 2012


I'd had Chocolate in my Netflix Instant Queue for a good long while, collecting dust.  Well, virtual dust, anyway; that's like real dust, only with less dead skin and insect poop, and probably more memes.  I like the occasional martial arts movie and this was directed by Prachya Pinkaew, who has handled the two best Tony Jaa movies, but I was just never in the mood for what appeared to be a kung-fu chick flick.  And then I read this article from  While I have loved Ricky-Oh: The Story of Ricki and The Crippled Masters for years, I had no idea that Chocolate was such a conceptual gold mine!  I mean, really --- mental retardation as a martial art skill?  What's not to love?  I mean, aside from a fundamental (and probably intentional) misunderstanding about mental handicaps and their repercussions.

Chocolate is, as the title implies, the story of a sweet piece that gives people pleasure when they pop it in their mouth.
On an unrelated note, image searches for this film rank this picture pretty highly
Actually, Chocolate is the story of Zen (JeeJa Yanin), who is not to be confused with an Intergalactic Ninja who starred in his own NES/GBA game and comic book.  Zen is the result of a star-crossed romance worthy of Shakespeare (or the corresponding Thai knock-off).  When her mother, a Thai gang enforcer/gangster moll named Zin (Ammara Siripong), fell in love with Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), a Japanese Yakuza boss, she knew that their romance couldn't last.
Much like the allure of her huge gang tattoo
Zin's criminal boss, Number 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong), is incredibly jealous and very territorial.  While I'm not 100% sure that Zin was his girlfriend, Number 8 makes it clear that he will not stand for their love.  To give them an idea of how crazy he is, Number 8 shoots his own toe off his foot; I guess the idea was something along the lines of "If I am willing to this to myself, imagine the toes I will shoot off you!"  After breaking up with Masashi, Zin quits her gangster ways and devotes herself to raising her Thai-Japanese love child, Zen.  The girl turns out to be rather "special," though.  I would say that Zen's behavior puts her on the autism spectrum, but that's selling this plot short; Zen exhibits a variety of mental illness symptoms, until they become a hindrance to an action scene, at which point they are generally ignored.  So, yes, I am aware that autism is different than mental disability/retardation/illness, but nobody told the writers of this movie.  Zen grows up, gains a best friend/creepy kid that is always hanging around her, named Mang Moom...
"Would it be less creepy if I told you I was manipulating her?"
...and the audience sees what makes Zen so special.  Thanks to Zen's mental disability, she can learn anything, as long as she's seen it done before.  Riding a bike?  Easy.  Kung-fu practice?  Done.  Tony Jaa and Bruce Lee moves?  Hmm...I wonder if that talent will come into play here?  That might not make an ounce of sense in the real world, but apparently this movie takes place in a universe where autism gives you high-end martial arts abilities.  Anyways, Zin is sick.  It's probably cancer, and she doesn't have the money to pay for treatment.  Mang Moom finds an old memo book of Zin's, which shows a list of people who owe her money.  Of course, Moom knows that no tough gangster-type person is going to willingly hand money off to a pudgy kid that really ought to be in school.  That's why he brings along Zen.  It's kind of like bringing a knife to a gun fight, but if you replaced "knife" with "handicapped girl" and "gun fight" with "any fight, whatsoever."  Oddly enough, it worked.
She brought a kick to the face to a jumping contest
Zen was able to kick some ass and take home money for her mom.  Meanwhile, Number 8 and Masashi both noticed Zen's success, and each takes steps to finish her quest, one way or the other.

In my mind, any discussion of the acting and direction of Chocolate is missing the point.  This is a movie about a mentally handicapped girl who --- as a direct result of being mentally handicapped --- became a master of the martial arts.  It's essentially Rookie of the Year, only with "baseball" and "arm injury" being replaced by "kung fu" and "developmental disability."  Let me put it another way: are you the sort of person who can laugh at The Crippled Masters?  Or perhaps your favorite episode of South Park is the "Cripple Fight" episode?

If that's the case, then you will definitely enjoy Chocolate.  In fact, you should rent it the next time you need to make a Schlitz run.  If, on the other hand, you think laughing at autism will give you a "Go Directly to Hell" card, then you might not want to take a pass.
Hell is for kick your ass

If you can get beyond the basic idiocy/brilliance of the core concept of Chocolate, though, there are several points of interest.  First and foremost, JeeJa Yanin is pretty damn impressive in the film's action scenes.  The primary fight style is inspired by Muay Thai; if you can imagine a young girl kneeing people in the face, then you've got a decent idea of the action in the movie.  Thanks to Zen's ability to mimic anything she sees, though, there are moments where the fighting style shifts noticeably. 
This scene was obviously inspired by Bruce Lee.  No joke.
That's a pretty cool way to change things up.  It helps that Yanin is also a very small girl, so her acrobatics also added some unusual spice to this genre flick.

The villains are also pretty entertaining.  While I would hesitate to call any acting in the film "good," the bad guys were consistently nonsensical and over the top.  Number 8 was the main baddie, but he wasn't all that weird.  His transvestite second-in-command, though, was hilariously ugly.  I would post a picture of him/her, but doing a Google image search for "chocolate movie transvestite" proved to be rather unpleasant.  My favorite bad guys were the mini-bosses.  The basic setup for any scene has Zen going to a group of meat/fish/pig/box packers and demanding the money owed to her mom, the bad guys laugh and refuse, and Zen kicks all their asses.  One of the guys holding the money flat-out dared Zen to take the money from him; when she beats the shit out of everyone in the warehouse, the same guy whines about her overreacting.  I had to pause the movie there until I was finished laughing.

Another thing Chocolate does well is introducing unintentionally funny conceptual moments.  This doesn't include the core concept of kung-fu-autism, mind you.  Let's take Zen's buddy, Mang Moom, as an example.  I can ignore the logic of treating Zen as a street performer whose talent is to catch what you throw at her.  I can ignore the shock of seeing his character (remember, he's a child) on the receiving end of a gunshot wound.  Both of those are kind of unintentionally funny.  Or terrible.  Whatever.  What was fantastic about his character, though, is when he is offered candy by the evil killer transvestite and is specifically told to give it to Zen --- and he does!  Even better, the candy is poisoned!  There is just so much gold in that simple idea, I just don't know what to do with it all!  First and foremost, giving a fat kid chocolate candy and expecting him not to eat it, especially if nobody else knows about it, is a pretty terrible start to any evil plan.  But what kid takes candy from a stranger...and saves it for someone else?!?  It's not like Zen would have known anything was missing, because she's shown as nearly oblivious to everything.  Also, if you're a creepy killer trannie, you might want to have a middle man offer the kid the candy in the first place; kids are stupid, but even they keep their distance from obviously creepy folk.  Unless, of course, they happen to be named Mang Moom.
Please tell me she's practicing this move for Moom

Prachya Pinkaew did a decent job balancing the action and story in Chocolate.  There are rarely stretches without action of some kind, and I think that is the best way to make a movie like this.  The action choreography was varied and impressive, but it wasn't fantastic.  Beautiful?  Yes.  Worth rewinding immediately after seeing?  Not so much.  The problem isn't with JeeJa Yanin, who looked about as tough as a teenage Asian girl can look.  The scenes were just not gory.  This is a martial arts movie where the main hero fails to kill most of her foes.  They're using all sorts of weapons, but she just beats them down and then makes the rounds to make sure nobody is getting back up.  In theory, there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it might have been downright unsettling to see Yanin massacring people on the big screen.  And yet the lack of awesome (or any) finishing moves undermines one of the main pleasures found in martial arts movies.

Don't get me wrong, this can be an entertaining movie, as evidenced by the above clip.  The action is pretty cool and there is the added bonus of another mentally-handicapped-but-violently-blessed character to add another layer to Chocolate's ridiculousness.  It's fun and totally worth watching, but it's not bad-ass and it's not a classic.  Unless, as I've pointed out before, you're going to Hell and you want to laugh on your way down.  As a legit film, Chocolate deserves...
 But if you're in the mood to laugh at a modern martial arts movie that actually has solid action, this deserves a Lefty Gold rating of...

Monday, September 3, 2012


John Hillcoat has made some gritty movies.  This is not a filmmaker given to sentimentality, and he's not afraid of capturing ugliness on film.  His last two films have impressed me, but fell just shy of being great; if there was just a little bit of spectacle added to spice up the bleakness, The Proposition and The Road would have been radically different.  Hillcoat's newest film, Lawless, prominently features Shia LaBeouf, which isn't necessarily a sign of quality or grittiness.  Lawless does have Tom Hardy, who I am quickly becoming a fan of, and the great Gary Oldman, who I love.  Adding Shia (which is Hebrew for "fluffy") to those two masters of transformation (as in acting, not turning into cars) and a frequently depressing director sounds like something worth watching.

Lawless is the true(-ish) story of the Bondurant boys, a family of moonshine makers/bootleggers in Prohibition-era America.  In Franklin County, Virginia, though, that was nothing special --- just about everyone either made their own moonshine or bought it from their neighbors.  Heck, even the police buy moonshine.  The Bondurants were different thanks to their reputation for toughness.  Well, thanks to Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard's (Jason Clarke) reputation, that is.  While those two have defied death and done things like punching Godzilla in the taint (I'm paraphrasing), their little brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) hasn't done much of anything.  With his brothers being local legends, that means that little Jack has a chip on his shoulder and big shoes to fill.  When the film begins, Jack's biggest problem is impressing a local girl and trying to make moonshine on his own.
The secret ingredient is urine
Things get significantly worse when a hot-shot Special Agent from Chicago rolls into town.  For the record, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) might have a badge, but he is not a good man or a lawful one.  He is brutal and his game is extortion.
But he looks so nice...!
Rakes and his boss want to run the moonshine business in Franklin County; if the moonshiners give Rakes money, then he won't have the police harass them.  Forrest isn't the type to lay down for anyone, though, and refuses to pay.  Cue the violence!
Shia competes in the 200M Outdoor Shootout

The acting in Lawless was uniformly good.  Shia LaBeouf was the point of view character, but he was clearly not the most important character.  Still, even though his character was kind of annoying and remarkably stupid at times, I thought LaBeouf handled the part well.  All his actions made sense (for him) and LaBeouf's comic timing lightened up the film considerably.  Tom Hardy was the true star, though.  Hardy has great physical presence on the screen and his crazy eyes are some of the best in Hollywood right now.  When you give him a part where he is supposed to intimidate people, he slips into it with ease.  They even try to make him less threatening by having him wear sweaters all the time and speak in grunts, but he is still magnetic on the screen.  It's rare to have a clearly violent character portrayed as a patient man, but Hardy manages to pulls it off.
The world's deadliest cardigan fan, after Bill Cosby
Jason Clarke was also pretty good; his part largely consisted of him looking haggard and wordlessly communicating with Hardy, but he still felt dangerous.  Having Guy Pearce play the villain was an interesting choice, because he doesn't really stack up well against Tom Hardy.  Thankfully, they opted to make him weird, creepy and condescending --- thoroughly unlikable, in other words, and very much Hardy's opposite.  And in case you're wondering, yes, he did shave the part into his hairline.  Jessica Chastain was solid as Hardy's romantic interest, although her character's choices pointed to some of the film's weaknesses.  Mia Wasikowska played Shia's love interest, and she was fine in an uncomplicated part.  Dane DeHaan had a solid supporting role as Cricket, the Bondurant friend who survived rickets.  It wasn't a flashy part, but a solid supporting role in an ensemble drama; if he keeps picking roles like this, DeHaan might wind up being a big deal.  Speaking of big deals, I was excited to see Gary Oldman's first scene, where he calmly shoots the hell out of a pursuing car with a tommy gun.  He didn't say a word, he just winked.  And it was awesome. 
You had me at "tommy gun"
After that, though, he has maybe three more minutes of screen time.  What a waste!  Gary Oldman --- one of this generation's greatest actors and over-actors --- playing a bad-ass gangster that follows murders with winks, and he's barely in the story at all?!?  Lawless, you're a wicked tease.

I've mentioned that John Hillcoat is known for his less than optimistic films.  Part of that has something to do with him getting Nick Cave to write two of his films (including this one), but it is also a very deliberate choice on the part of Hillcoat.  He has never been one for sentiment when depressing realism is available.  That is what makes Lawless such a departure for him; it doesn't try to sear your soul.  In fact, Hillcoat actually tries to play to the humor in the script.
Ha ha!  Jokes!
Most of the film's levity comes from the awkwardness of Shia LaBeouf's character, but the best bits come from Tom Hardy's minimal reactions to Jessica Chastain.  These aren't supposed to be thigh-slapping gags, mind you, but those lighter moments are a lot more amusing in the otherwise grim context of this story.  Hillcoat is not going to impress you with his cinematography --- although the man knows how to frame a landscape shot --- instead, he opts for capturing unpleasantness.  His primary tool is a willing cast, and I thought he did a great job directing them.  He also managed to make a graphically violent film that does not feel exploitative.  We get to see several characters serve as blood-puking punching bags, but the focus is more on the horror of the violence than on how awesome the aggressor is.  If anything, this movie is about how you rebound from violence, instead of how you actually fight.
Two out of three brothers agree: rebound with alcohol
Thanks to that attitude, we are not forced to witness any explicit violence toward women, even though there are opportunities in the story.  For that matter, the gratuitous sex scene would have been pretty tasteful, too, if it didn't have Jessica Chastain getting naked about half a scene too early.  Oh, well.  All in all, I think this was a nice step forward for Hillcoat as an artist, since he has stretched his style a bit with (more or less) success.

Lawless is definitely a violent film, which naturally means that there are plenty of action scenes.  The movie trailer makes it seem as if this is going to be a movie filled with gunfire, but the focus is instead on hand-to-hand combat.  The most gruesome scenes involve knives, boots, and brass knuckles.  For fans of gore, there are more than a few scenes where it looks like the fellow getting beat up will be picking his own teeth out of his crap over the next few days.  The gunplay is fairly anticlimactic by comparison.  Aside from Gary Oldman's tommy gun scene and Guy Pearce's powerful revolver, nothing cool ever happens with guns.  That fits the tone of the film just fine, mind you.  If you're looking for something that basks in gunfire like Tombstone or a John Woo movie, though, this may not be for you.
Taking care of boo-boos is much easier than gunshot wounds

The biggest problem with Lawless is the story itself.  Hillcoat does a pretty good job, given the script, and Nick Cave's script is pretty engaging for being based on a true story.  The focus is all wrong, though.  At its core, Lawless is about greed and power (personified by Guy Pearce) infringing on freedom and principle (personified by Tom Hardy).  Unfortunately, the main character was Shia LaBeouf's, and too much of the film centered on his attempts at romance and manhood. 
"You staring blankly reminds me of my last girlfriend.  Do you know Megan Fox?"
Due to that focus, the filmmakers never get around to addressing the motivations of Jessica Chastain's character; I think there was an opportunity for a great supporting actress role here, but it gets buried because it does not directly impact Shia.  His character isn't strong enough to carry a "fill the shoes of my brother" sort of story, and that becomes obvious as the plot ticks on.  I like the way this movie looks and feels, and I enjoy the acting.  The story is the unfortunate weak point.  For fans of Tom Hardy and bloody face punching, though, it is definitely worth a watch.