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Column Fri Aug 24 2012

Hit & Run, Premium Rush, Cosmopolis, Robot & Frank, The Imposter & Chicken With Plums

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Hit & Run

I have very clear recollections of being inexplicably drawn to empty-headed carsploitation films. Actually, that's not entirely true. I wasn't "inexplicably" drawn to them; I knew exactly why I loved them. Because they allowed me 90 minutes or so to turn my brain off and concentrate on stupid jokes; barely there stories; and car stunts, wrecks and explosions. Although I didn't know his name at the time, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham was the perpetrator of many of the films I loved, and Burt Reynolds was very often his partner in crime. The Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies were the most popular, but there was also Hooper and Stroker Ace. Hell, Needham also did Megaforce; how could I not love him?

I'm sure if I were a serious-minded critic back in the late '70s and early '80s, I might have found all sorts of reasons to bad mouth these empty-headed demolition derbies on film. But I wasn't even a teenager when most of these films were released. If it had Reynolds being cocky, pretty ladies by his side, and full-blown destruction of motor vehicles, I was on board. I'd like to think I have more discerning tastes today, but when Hit & Run started up, I was taken back. Most of the jokes are DOA or are moderately amusing at best. There's a lot of screaming and overacting, but when those cars start rolling, my eyes widened and my enthusiasm was irrepressible.

Hit & Run is the brainchild of Dax Shepard, who also wrote and co-directed the movie, as well as did all of his own driving stunts. I happen to like some of Shepard's more recent acting in the largely improvised film The Freebie and the NBC series "Parenthood," and there's no denying that he has a nice chemistry with his real-life partner Kristen Bell. Shepard plays Charlie Bronson (named after the man who inspired the movie Bronson, and not after Charles Bronson--see, I think that's a great reference), a man in witness protection engaged to Bell. The couple are debating possibly moving to Los Angeles so Bell can pursue a great teaching gig. Charlie agrees to drive her, and thus the road trip portion of the movie begins.

But certain criminal elements have it out for Charlie, including one in particular played by Bradley Cooper, who has spent several years in jail after being ratted out by Charlie (or so he thinks). The couple is also being chased by her ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum) and a federal agent (Tom Arnold). When you see the multi-car, high-speed chases kick in, you can almost hear the banjo music playing. While the bad guys are pretty ridiculous, what I enjoyed more were the conversations Shepard and Bell have while driving. They seem like actual-couple discussions/arguments/love talk, and they come across as a fairly charming duo.

Shepard co-directed Hit & Run with David Palmer, following up their barely seen (for good reason) comedy Brother's Justice, featuring many of the same cast members as this film but few of the enjoyable qualities. Shepard clearly has an affection for the vehicles he's spinning out of control in this film, and the experience watching it made me wish I knew more about cars in general.

I'm not a big fan of having to turn your brain off to enjoy anything, but if that's what I have to do to get the maximum levels of enjoyment out of Hit & Run, I'll make that leap. It's far from a great movie, but it fulfills a need for watching metal smash that I can truly only get out of a work like this. I'll admit it; I was giddy; I feel no shame about that. And I'm guessing a few of you will be right there with me on this one. Put on your crash helmet for some of the jokes that fall flat so fast they may injure, but when things pick up, I think you'll get a certain level of base-level entertainment out of Hit & Run.

To read my exclusive interview with Hit & Run writer-director-star Dax Shepard, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Premium Rush

It's an interesting coincidence that the bike messenger action film Premium Rush is opening the same week as Hit & Run, a movie that might work better for you if you turned your brain off. And while Premium Rush might seem like the type of film where a brain in the off position might improve the experience of watching it, the truth is leaving it on might result in a heightened movie-going experience that came as a complete and welcome shock to me. And the primary reason for the greatness of Premium Rush is one Mr. Michael Shannon, as a dirty detective who uses the alias Forrest J. Ackerman quite frequently throughout the film.

Shannon is full-bore nuts in this movie, and he turns what could have been a cliche-driven character into something wonderfully twisted and funny. Shannon's character is trying to get a ticket that is worth quite a bit of money for reasons that aren't worth going into, because frankly, they don't matter. When Nima (Jamie Chung) calls her roommate's New York City bike messenger boyfriend Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to pick up the ticket and deliver it to Chinatown as payment, he is immediately chased by Shannon relentlessly.

Wilee's portrait is painted very quickly. He almost went to law school, but the idea of being cooped up in an office wearing a suit day after day stopped him from going, and he became a messenger. His retrofitted bike has no hand brakes and only one gear, and he has the split-second ability to see multiple routes through any tricky traffic situation and select the one that will be the least dangerous to him. His girlfriend, a fellow messenger named Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), is mad at him for missing her graduation because he was racing, so we know Wilee is impulsive to a fault. And I know it seems remarkable that Gordon-Levitt is even in this b-movie material, but when you see the film, it makes sense. This is a movie about smart guy doing a dumb job (in terms of his safety) versus a dumb guy doing a job that requires a brain.

Director and co-writer (along with John Kamps) David Koepp aren't even content to make their deceptively simple little movie a linear story. The timeline jumps back and forth to reveal interesting details about this little piece of paper and what it represents. But see, the story of the ticket isn't really that important. What's significant is just how badass these messengers are, winding their way through New York traffic (both standing and moving, vehicles and pedestrians).

There are plenty of death-defying stunts, but the real threat to these messengers in the couple-hour window in which this film takes place is Shannon's character, a desperately messed-up guy who needs that ticket so people he owes money to don't kill him. You kind of feel for the guy because he's so damn entertaining to watch, but he's also a large-caliber prick. However you slice him, he's by far the most entertaining thing in this movie.

Usually this late in August, studios are simply dumping unwanted films into the ether to ready their award-season contenders, but Premium Rush is no dump job. It's 90 minutes of unstoppable action, humor and actors clearly having a ball. This has been a summer where many of the films I most anticipated let me down; so it's nice to know the year still has a surprise or two waiting in the wings. Premium Rush is a metric shit-ton of fun that makes no apologies for anything it may or may not contain. Enjoy the hell out of this one, folks.

Cosmopolis

I'll admit, my knowledge of the written works of Don DeLillo is limited, but from what limited exposure I've had to the man's work, I can still with great confidence tell you that David Cronenberg's adaptation of Cosmopolis captures the loopy philosophical edges of DeLillo's prose with a great deal of accuracy, with is both a gift and a curse.

The gift portion of the program comes from some of the great actors who get to work this material with skill and precision. To hear the likes of Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti, Mathieu Amalric, and Samantha Morton recite this dialogue is a real treat. They paint dark portraits of a broken world (or perhaps it's a world actively braking before our eyes); they discuss greed, suffering, violence, and, of course, death while New York City is lost in a sea of those protesting against Wall Street in the near future. The centerpiece of Cosmopolis is 28-year-old financial wizard Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), who is coasting through this riotous world in his stretch limo going to get a haircut at his favorite barber. The story is Packer's Odyssey -- as he creeps through traffic and the throng of people, he opens his door to familiar faces, including his fiancee, his lover, and other business and personal associates, each of whom has a story to tell.

Cosmopolis is clearly a story that is close to Cronenberg's heart, mindset, and worldview. The biggest problem with the movie is that despite this being Pattinson's best work ever, he still had a certain amount of trouble selling us on this material, or even convincing us he knows what he's talking about. Pattinson does paranoid pretty convincingly, and the look on his face when he realizes that certain death threats against him are quite real is fascinating. But other times, he performs like he has no sense of the gravity of his own words. I like that he's working out of his comfort zone, but this might be a little too far out. Still, there are enough great performances within Cosmopolis to one engaged, and if you don't mind a dense, complex (though never confusing) plot, you'll probably make it through unscathed. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Robot & Frank

God, I loved this movie. Imagine a perfectly great science-fiction film you could take your grandparents to see, but you're going to love it too. Welcome to Robot & Frank, from first-time feature director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford, the story of a elderly gentleman named Frank (the remarkable Frank Langella) who is in the early stages of losing his memory. Although the film is set in the near future, Frank's home is still very much a thing of the past (or present, for us), and technology is not a thing that interests him. Frank's kids (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) are selfish and don't feel like taking care of him or even visiting very often, so his son buys him a helper robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), which not only keeps Frank on a regular schedule but interacts with him regularly to do memory exercises and other activities to keep him active, both mentally and physically.

Frank's not-so-secret past life was that of an expert jewel thief, and once he realizes that the robot can be taught certain skills (like casing a joint or helping pick a lock), Frank suddenly become very interested in having it around. What's fascinating about the relationship between man and machine is that Frank is constantly attributing human traits to the faceless robot, and the robot keeps having to remind Frank that it is not human, which of course makes it seem all the more human.

Frank also has a great love of books, and continues to go to one of the last remaining libraries around him (run by librarian Susan Sarandon), which is in danger of becoming more of a museum than place to get books. There, Langella and Sarandon's flirty scenes are wonderful and heartbreaking.

Naturally, the police come looking for Frank about a string of recent thefts in the area, and they even threaten to rip out the robot's memory and scan it for evidence. The theme of memory is a recurring one in Robot & Frank, and it's kind of great how both Frank's failing memory and the robot's perfect, downloadable memory could both get them into trouble. The film is smart, sweet, and is yet another wonderful example of how a sci-fi story can be told without millions of dollars in special effects. In fact, it's the extraordinary performances that carry the day. Langella reveals so much about his character's troubled past, and that while his kids may be little shits toward him, he essentially pushed them away most of their lives by risking the family with his criminal activity (his wife actually left him years earlier). It's tough for me to imagine someone not really liking Robot & Frank, but you're welcome to try (and fail). The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Robot & Frank director Jake Schreier, go to Ain't it Cool News.

The Imposter

Much like the still-in-release documentary Searching for Sugar Man, the new film from director Bart Layton, The Imposter, is a movie built around a mystery that is extremely tough to discuss without giving away much of what makes it so special and the story so incredible. I'll tell you what I can and feel is safe, but I can't say much.

A 13-year-old boy went missing in Texas in 1994. The family and local law enforcement went looking for him to no avail. More than three years later, a young man claiming to be the missing boy was found in Spain, the victim of human trafficking and torture. His story was graphic and awful, but his family was so happy to see him that he seemed to heal quickly from the mental and physical scars. But something isn't quite right about him, including his accent, his eye color, and several other things that one private investigator notices just from watching him on TV. The fact that this person is probably not the son isn't a secret (the title kind of gives that away), but there is so much more to this story once his real identity is discovered that you can never predict where this very real story is headed.

The Imposter is beautifully shot (including a few re-enactments), impeccably researched and pieced together, and one of the most tense experiences I've had in a documentary in quite some time. It's a film about motivation, professional and amateur liars, and perception. And just when you think you've got things figured out, everything goes to hell. It's a fantastic ride and one of my favorite documentaries of the year so far. By all means, check this one out. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Chicken With Plums

Despite its slightly off-putting title, this mostly French production comes from the talented filmmaking team Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, who made the great animated adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis. Also an adapted graphic novel, Chicken With Plums is a work that takes place in Teheran circa 1958, when talented violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) had his instrument destroyed and decided he was ready to die when he found it impossible to replace. He takes to his bed and simply waits for death to come. Cheery, I know, but the film is actually a beautiful and darkly funny work that has Nasser remembering his life leading up to this point as well as receiving visions of his young children's lives after he dies.

We discover that, as a younger man, Nasser was in love with Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), a woman from a better class of family than he. The two were madly in love, but they are forced to call off wedding plans when her father intervened. Instead he married Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros from Pulp Fiction), whom he never really loved, but he knew that she loved him deeply, and that was enough. Nasser's fame grew over the years, at first inspired by great love and later by a need for money to support his growing family. As he lays ready to die, Death (Edouard Baer) comes to visit him, and shows him startling visions of his children grown up (and played by Chiara Mastroianni and Christian Friedel), but even that doesn't snap him out of his stupor.

Chicken With Plums seamlessly mixes mediums, with most of the film being live action, but occasionally transitioning to animation and other stylized expressive means. The visuals alone are worth spending the money to see this wholly original work. Maybe more than any other actor working today from any country in any language, Amalric plays depressive with so much conviction, it makes you uncomfortable. Here, he overplays it slightly and quite deliberately, just enough to emphasize the heightened, fable-like nature of the story. You will not likely see another film quite this original or spirited this year. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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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

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