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Column Fri Oct 15 2010

RED, Conviction, Nowhere Boy, Inside Job, Last Train Home, & Winnebago Man

RED

The more I think about it, the more I truly dislike RED (which we're cleverly told stand for "Retired Extremely Dangerous"; ooooooh). I actually got into arguments with people about this movie at Fantastic Fest, a festival that is populated largely by folks who admire creativity and edgy works by remarkable filmmakers, both established and brand spanking new. Those who claimed to like RED seemed to come at me with this: "For what it is, it's pretty good." Okay, that's true... if what the film is boils down to unoriginal action sequences, unfunny jokes, and a paint-by-numbers plot, then yes, for what it is (shit), RED is pretty good (shit). Of course it's fun to see Helen Mirren holding a gun, John Malkovich playing monkey-shit crazy, and a great series of extended cameos from the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, and Brian Cox, but the film consistently fails to bring anything to life with these touches, and the resulting work is almost entirely devoid of sustained fun.

I like the premise and opening of RED. Retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) lives a serene, quiet existence in which his biggest thrill is getting his government paycheck so he can call and report it missing just so he can talk to his favorite customer service rep Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), with whom he dreams of having a relationship. When he and his former co-workers are framed for an assassination, Frank rounds up his old (as in elderly) partners, including Mirren, an assassin; Malkovich, a weapons expert; and Morgan Freeman, whose expertise beyond dressing up and going undercover escapes me. Frank also thinks it's a good idea to round up Sarah because he's afraid his enemies will figure out that he has feelings for her and try to kill her as well. Karl Urban plays Agent Cooper, who has been assigned the task of finding and eliminating these hooligans. Let the standard-issue, cat-and-mouse game begin.

Part of my problem with RED is that it establishes that the age of these former agents is elevated, but doesn't ever really play with that. Would the second half of this movie have been any different if the one-time operative has been in the mid-40s? I don't see how it would.

"Hey, look. Helen Mirren has a long-range rifle."

"Whoop-dee-frickin'-do! What does she do with it?"

"She shoots it."

"Um, okay. And that's exciting outside of the trailer, why?"

"Well, it's like watching the Queen of England shoot a bazooka."

"Got it. Go fuck yourself."

And the hilarity continues from there. A big part of the problem is that Bruce Willis has the unenviable task of making me believe he gives a shit about being in this movie. He appears to be sleepwalking through 85 percent of this movie, coming alive just long enough to shoot a gun and run around a bit. His eyes are at about half mast for most of RED. Malkovich is probably my favorite part of this film, but I'm pretty sure the quality of his performance was achieved by simply ignoring everything director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, The Time Traveler's Wife) told him to do. Freeman is okay, but he's woefully underused, really only coming to life in a sequence when he gets to punch Dreyfuss in the face. But who among us wouldn't rise to the occasion to do that?

The primary thought racing through my brain as I watched RED was "I'm bored," except for the more optimistic moments watching the film when I thought, "It has to get better eventually." It doesn't. And if your expectations are sufficiently lowered, you may enjoy yourself. No, not every movie can be the best movie of the year, but why do we give a pass to those that don't even try to get past sounding great on paper? And anyone who begins their assessment of any film with the words, "For what it is..." needs to be slapped. It's not your job to make excuses for movies like RED, which squanders a killer cast, as well as a decent idea that's in desperate need of an overhaul. I feel confident that this movie will be the weekend's big box office winner, and that's because it's easy to digest and is in no way challenging. An audience shouldn't have to lower its expectations to enjoy any movie, from the highest-end drama to the lowest-brow comedy. Happy October. Hope you like crap. Why can't all movies try as hard as Jackass 3D?

Conviction

Everything about this retelling of the real-life account of Betty Anne Waters (played with a perfect balance of passion and down-to-earth realism by Hilary Swank) screams that it won't work on the big screen. The potential for overdoing the drama and emotion seems to be a foregone conclusion. But in the hands of director Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon) and his exceptional cast, Conviction keeps getting nearly everything right in scene after scene, and by the end of this almost-unbelievable story, you're kind of jut knocked back by how effective every aspect of the movie is.

The film opens with a gruesome murder scene in Ayer, Massachusetts circa 1983. The investigation results in the arrest of Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), whose been in trouble with the law before but nothing to this degree. The investigation is spearheaded by local cop Nancy Taylor (the great Melissa Leo), and the trial features a couple of witnesses (played by Clea DuVall and Juliette Lewis) who pretty much sink Kenny's alibi and condemn him to a life behind bars. Convinced of her brother's innocence, Betty Anne devotes the next 18 years of her life to getting a law degree, passing the bar exam, and becoming her brother's attorney so she can comb through the evidence and get him set free. All the while, she also is raising two children and watching her marriage fall apart under the strain this process is putting on her.

Adding an interesting wrinkle in the case: during the time Betty Anne is becoming a lawyer, DNA evidence becomes a more common practice, with groups like The Innocence Project, led by Barry Scheck (played here by Peter Gallagher), spearheading the effort to get wrongfully convicted people released based on such evidence. In a scene that no amateur screenwriter would have the guts to include in a purely fiction film, Betty Anne's search for 16-year-old box containing blood evidence in her brother's trial results in an extraordinary find. But because the moment actually happened pretty much as its presented in Convicted (written by Pamela Gray), the power and miraculous nature of that moment is all the more powerful.

In addition to dealing with a molasses-slow legal system, Betty Anne must also deal with her brother's fading hope that he'll ever be released--a process that includes suicidal thoughts and behavior that results in Kenny getting tossed into solitary more than once. Rockwell is so strong in this part, going from the happy-go-lucky man with no troubles to being in a perpetual state of misery and despair. Also great to watch is Minnie Driver as Betty Anne's best friend and fellow law student, Abra Rice. Without realizing it, I've missed Driver's strength as an actress in recent years. In looking over her credits for the last 10 years, there's only one film I can identify as being worth checking out due to her strength as an actor, and it's good to see her with such a gutsy part once again. Also, pay particular attention to the transformative power of Juliette Lewis as one of Kenny's former lovers, whose testimony is especially harmful to his case. When Betty Anne visits her years later to refute her statements, Lewis puts forth a performance that is beyond words to explain. It must be seen to be believed how hideous a person she can become.

Conviction is not so much a tale of a mystery uncovered, but instead its strengths lie in its ability to tell convincingly a story about determination that borders on insanity. Betty Anne Waters isn't just a feisty broad with a lot of spirit; she's obsessive to a fault, and she pays many a price for following her passions. And Goldwyn perfectly captures that fine line, rightfully skipping over important personal events in Betty Anne's life (her divorce is barely acknowledged) to focus solely on the events that meant the most to her. Conviction is proof that sometimes all you need is a compelling story and great actors to make the best possible movie. Who knew?

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Conviction star Juliette Lewis and director Tony Goldwyn and subject Betty Anne Waters.

Nowhere Boy

With just a push in one direction or another--with just the slightest bit of support or neglect from a parental figure--a 15-year-old boy's life can be drastically different. This may seem obvious, but when you watch the teen years of a lad from Liverpool named John Lennon unfold, it's easy to see how the two guiding women in his life at that time made him the man he turned into. One of the greatest things about director Sam Taylor-Wood's debut feature Nowhere Boy is the performance by Aaron Johnson (who played the lead in Kick-Ass), who makes two very wise choices: first, he doesn't try to impersonate Lennon; second, he doesn't play Lennon the boy as if he knows what he's going to become. Again, this may seem obvious, but there's a reason the fake music biopic Walk Hard features many scenes that foretell the career of the artist being profiled. Johnson's version of John Lennon likely doesn't feel he has much of a chance of living to 30, let alone getting out of Liverpool and starting a band--a successful one at that.

But the shapers of Lennon's destiny are his authoritative aunt Mimi (a remarkable performance by Kristen Scott Thomas) and his free-spirited, largely absentee mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff of Notes on a Scandal and The Last Station), who John reunites with at 15 and find he prefers her more permissive and encouraging ways to Mimi's. But it's clear that Julia has manic-depressive tendencies, and her carefree ways have led her to trouble in life before she had to give John over to Mimi to look after. The battle over John well being between the two sisters is polite but intense, and Duff especially plays the unstable Julia with the perfect mixture of fun and tragic. In a strange way, she treats John like a long-lost lover, barely able to take her eyes off the tall, good-looking boy.

After getting his hands on his first guitar, John quickly pulls together his band The Quarrymen, which eventually adds to its ranks one Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster). The two have little in common, but they know how to pull a song out of the other one, and that's all that counts early on. Johnston does a remarkable job capturing Lennon's youthful humor, which could be equal parts hilarious and cruel. Johnson loses himself completely in the role, and when he must make the decision of where he wants to live, it's clear his love for both women is powerful and the choice is impossible. Lennon's short temper and immaturity show up during a birthday party sequence at Julia's house, during which John gets rip-roaring drunk and insults just about everyone there because he'd had a fight with Mimi. The scene is an exercise in verbal brutality, and Johnson is note perfect in it. Nowhere Boy also has a killer late-'50s/early-'60s soundtrack (no Beatles songs here, folks) of music these kids probably would have been listening to at the time, and the film acts as a nice time capsule of great, lesser-known R&B, soul, and early rock classics. I can't imagine any fan of Lennon's work wouldn't be interested in seeing what the birth of inspiration looks like, but that's pretty much what the superb Nowhere Boy give us. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Inside Job

The latest documentary from director Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight) has many of the same stories and lessons that Oliver Stone's Wall Street sequel feature, only Inside Job doesn't change the names to protect any of the real-life players. Narrated by Matt Damon, the complicated web of deceptions, conflicts of interest, and easy-to-buy politicians that is laid out in the film is almost more than a brain can handle. Yes, it's complex and interweaving, but that's not what I'm talking about. The fact that so much of this went on unchecked for so long, and that the few oversight bodies the banking system and investment firms actually still have were steamrolled so completely, is almost impossible to comprehend.

The film details the trillions of dollars lost, companies that handed out crap loans profiting from foreclosures, and a treasury and Congress all-too eager to bail these institutions out because they convinced us we couldn't live without them. Perhaps the most frustrating revelation the film makes (not that we don't all know this already) is that nobody went to jail for this colossal deception that destroyed millions of lies through lost jobs and lost homes. In many ways, Inside Job details a larger-scale version of the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, both of which profile greed gone haywire. The investment companies literally invented new ways to make money based on, well, nothing. The entire Treasury Department comes across looking like a fraternity of fat cats who truly don't give a crap about the middle or lower classes.

One of the most chilling moment of the film comes from, of all people, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who implies that the only reason his indiscretions became public was that he was going after these deceptive financial practitioners. He says there's a gentleman's agreement between these corporate heads not to use private behavior against each other...unless somebody steps out of line the way Spitzer did. Inside Job will make you about as angry as you're going to feel in 2010. I've seen a lot of great docs this year, but this one not only tells us about where we've just been but also it lets us know where we still are and where we're going. The film makes you want to go up to a guy in a suit and punch him in the nuts. Inside Job opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Last Train Home

The narration-free documentary from director Lixin Fan follows one family's role in what has been called the world' largest human migration, which happens every year around the Chinese New Year when 130 migrant workers head home via train, bus, and foot to spend time with a family that is often disconnected. The mother and father (Changhua and Sugin Zhang) in Last Train Home have been making this annual journey for nearly 20 years. They have left their son and daughter with a grandmother, and the now-18-year-old daughter Qin has grown incredibly resentful of her parents essentially abandoning her for her entire life. She wants to return with them to the factories and get a job rather than continue with her education, as they would like her to do. What happens to her instead is heartbreaking and probably not uncommon for girls her age in her circumstances. The pressure on these children to do better than their parents is relentless, but it's clear that the parents want to the best for their children.

While the family drama comes to an ugly head at one point when the daughter swears at her father and they come to physical blows over the incident, the film's greatest moments come when we see hundreds of thousands of people attempting to get on a handful of trains at the same time. These workers literally wait for days, often being moved around from holding pen to holding pen by the police, who are clearly just trying (and failing) to keep tempers from erupting. China's antiquated rail system and insufficient number of cars doesn't help the situation. Still, somehow, this couple manages to squeeze onto a train every year.

The power behind Last Train Home (produced by the folks behind the great doc Up the Yangtze) is its ability to show the toll its emergence in the global economy has had on its people. Never is this more clear then when the filmmaker shows us the empty factories that dominated the industrial landscape when the economy collapsed and goods from China were not nearly as in demand as they once were. Every frame of this movie, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre, is devastating and moving beyond words. I'm sure similar films could be made about families in certain Latin America nations or countries in Southeast Asia. But there is something about that journey, that clinging to tradition in the face of untamed and unforgiving progress that makes it impossible for you to shake this film. This is one of the great documentaries of the year.

Winnebago Man

At the SXSW Film Festival of 2009, I saw Winnebago Man, one of the best documentaries of that year (it made my 15 Best Docs list, coming in at #8). I felt for certain that this profile of one of the internet's first YouTube heroes, Jack Rebney ("the angriest man in the world"), would be released without hesitation. I guess with docs, it's a bit tougher to predict what will get released or catch on, but I can't imagine a single soul watching this movie and not finding some aspect utterly fascinating. Rebney's profanity laden outtakes from what appears to be an in-house selling tool for the Winnebago sales staff made the VHS rounds before they were put on YouTube, where millions of people giggled with delight at Rebney's seemingly insane rants. Part of the film is a thoughtful examination of what makes some internet clips a phenomenon and others seem forced and not as interesting. The rest of Winnebago Man is the search for the reclusive Rebney and attempts to get him to a San Francisco found-footage film festival to come face to face for the first time with his adoring fans. This part of the film is absolutely gripping and, in so many ways, heart wrenching.

The film is coming out on DVD soon, but watching it with an audience is how Winnebago Man was meant to be experienced. The collective laughter will drown out parts of the film, but who cares? It's hugely entertaining at its purest level. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. No excuse to miss this one!

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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