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Column Fri Aug 02 2013

2 Guns, Blue Jasmine & The Hunt

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2 Guns

Whatever you might think of Mark Wahlberg as an actor (I happen to think he's pretty great under certain circumstances, which I'll discuss), he's the type of performer who adapts and absorbs what's around him. If a great filmmaker or co-star is in the mix, he improves as an actor. And Wahlberg is smart enough to more often than not surround himself with some of the best, whether it's going back as far as working with Paul Thomas Anderson on Boogie Nights or the team that worked Three Kings or being directed by Scorsese in The Departed. Hell, I'll even throw in his work in Pain & Gain, giving a very different style of comedy performance by working alongside Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie. And of course really sealing his comedic chops with Will Ferrell in The Other Guys.

But when you place Wahlberg alongside the likes of Denzel Washington in the new 2 Guns, it unleashes something unexpected as Wahlberg becomes the comic-relief sidekick and an especially cool, charming character who holds his own next to the two-time Oscar winner. When we meet Bobby (Washington) and Marcus (Wahlberg), they are plotting a bank heist when they plan to break into a specific safe deposit box where a drug dealers cash is securely held, somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple million bucks. But when the robbery goes down and they open every box in the bank vaults, every single one is stuffed with cash, totally tens of millions. Naturally, they take it.

We learn that the pair has been working together for about a year plotting the move and getting close to a Mexican drug lord (Edward James Olmos), earning his trust and learning where he hides his money. But once they have it and their a safe distance from the authorities, things go south as they turn on each other for the strangest of reasons. Turns out Bobby is a DEA agent who wants to shut down the drug lord; we find out soon thereafter than Marcus works for naval intelligence, who want to retrieve the cash for his boss (James Marsden). Each thinks the other is a dirty cop, when in fact they are following fairly corrupt orders from higher-ups. But the big question remains: where did all that bonus cash come from? The answer comes in the form of Bill Paxton as a man named Earl, one of the most delightfully fucked-up characters he's ever played. I figured out pretty early on who he was, but since the filmmakers attempt to keep this a mystery, I won't spill the secret.

Eventually Bobby and Marcus must trust each other and work together to figure out who's on their side, who wants to kill them, whose money they stole, and how to get out of this messy situation with their hearts still beating. Director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, Contraband, which also starred Wahlberg) does a great job keeping things movie, pacing his reveals and trying desperately not to make this dopey action film too complicated for its own good. Washington and Wahlberg have a terrific antagonistic chemistry, mocking each other's idiosyncrasies (Wahlberg likes to wink at pretty ladies, Denzel is having a ill-advised affair with a co-worker played by Paula Patton, because he likes the ugly ones) and just generally getting a rise out of each other. If the interplay between those two doesn't work, 2 Guns fails; but thankfully, it works great. In fact, the movie is only at its best when the pair is on screen together.

The film's deliberately sloppy style, insane body count and brutal violence (the kind that doesn't always lead to death but sure looks like it hurts) will undoubtedly make some of you think of the kind of Walter Hill films that Hill doesn't really do any more, and that's a really awesome trait. It's basically a group of mostly men trying to out-badass each other, and it's surprisingly as fun and effective as it is brutal and cringe worthy. I felt a little short-changed by Patton, who we know can carry her own as she did in the last Mission: Impossible film, but here she basically gets topless, rolls around in her underwear and gets kidnapped. That's not all she does, but that's what you'll remember most, and she looks stunning doing it. But it's a bit degrading, and it marginalizes what she's capable of.

Aside from a big dose of sexism, 2 Guns is quite a bit of fun that would have been a lesser work in the hands of lesser actors. Throw in choice juicy roles from great like Fred Ward and Robert John Burke, and you'll got a helluva ride. You might even feel slightly ashamed at how much you enjoy and laugh at the film's dopey banter and humor, but it won't last. I don't believe in turning off your brain in order to enjoy any film, but every so often you can relax it a bit.

Blue Jasmine

This is the Woody Allen that I fell in love with. His early, funny movies are great; his more serious stuff is also quite good. But it's the films that tread in both worlds that just floor me — from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters to Crimes and Misdemeanors to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. These are films that find room for laughs and tragedy, sometimes in the same scene, and his latest, Blue Jasmine, is front loaded with both thanks to an absolutely thrilling, award-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett plays Jasmine (not her real name), a woman who rose from modest means to high society by being 100 percent fake all of the time. With no skills to live as anything other than a rich man's significant other, we meet her as she's lugging her designer luggage from New York to San Francisco to move in with her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a recently divorced mother of two, whose ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay in far and away the best performance of his career) still puts in an appearance. Ginger is currently dating another man's man in the form of the handsome Chili (the great Bobby Cannavale), who was on the verge of moving in with her until Jasmine shows up unexpectedly.

At first, there are hints that Jasmine may be more than just delusional about her past and station in life; more than once, her mental stability is called into question, and for good reason. Her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) not only left her for a younger woman (after cheating on her with several for years), but he is discovered to be a Madoff-esque financial scam artist. We see the couple at the best and worst of times through a series of flashbacks that then transition to the present, leaving Jasmine alone babbling to herself as if she's in the middle of conversation with no one.

Beyond the physical transformation that Blanchett makes as she goes from sunken, middle-aged woman to beautiful socialite with just the right dress and a touch of makeup, the personalities she slips in and out of are remarkable. It's clear that Allen is basing her character on Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire (a character Blanchett played in New York about four years ago), with Cannavale showing signs of Brando's Stanley Kowalski. She judges him and his predecessor as first-class losers, not good enough for her sister. But the truth is, they're pretty much exactly right for them.

Even Ginger tends to think Jasmine is right, and she dumps Chili in favor of a more normal, nice guy named Al (Louis C.K., both charming and weirdly sexual), while Jasmine hooks herself another rich guy, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who hires her as an interior designer, even though she's working as a receptionist for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg), who also has eyes for her. But there isn't a stable relationship in this film, and couplings that seem perfect crumble, while Jasmine's past threatens to destroy any progress she's made toward getting her life back together.

Allen writing shows that the nearly 80-year-old filmmaker is at the top of his game at capturing the language and demeanor of modern-day phonies. Maybe they resemble phonies from 30-40 years ago, but there is something so of-the-day about Blue Jasmine's brand of liars and bitter users that it feels as essential as the bastards in Match Point. In one scene, Jasmine intones her husband, "You shouldn't spoil me so," but with Blanchett's perfect delivery, all you hear in your head are the words "...spoil me..." Her performance is so beautifully, tragically layered that any time there's a danger of us feeling sorry for her, she says or does something so awful that you snap back into loathing her and her type. She's the classic "woman on the verge...," but something about Blanchett's performance makes it feel like we've never seen anything quite like her (at least not outside of the works of Tennessee Williams). Blue Jasmine is a tremendous accomplishment that makes you ache to see Allen work with Blanchett again as soon as humanly possible (as soon as he finishes his next film, which he's currently shooting). It's a work that is as fulfilling and funny as it is heartbreaking and nerve wracking. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Hunt

I've been a huge admirer of actor Mads Mikkelsen since I first saw him in early Danish works like Pusher, Open Hearts, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and Green Butchers, and I love that he's become an object of fascination for so many in the English-speaking world as well thanks to memorable performances in Casino Royal and the NBC series "Hannibal." (We'll forgive him for his forgettable work in Clash of the Titans and The Three Musketeers for the time being.) But one thing Mikkelsen rarely gets to play is a regular, nice man, and in director, co-writer Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, he gets to play just such a character, who is then placed in horrific circumstances that send his life spinning hopelessly out of control.

Mikkelsen plays the much-loved teacher of young children, Lucas, who is just getting over a painful divorce and attempting to spend more time with his growing son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). One of his students is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who happens to be the daughter of his best friend. Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), and it becomes clear the little Klara has a crush on Lucas, who rightfully and gently discourages her feelings when she attempts to give him a gift. Feeling hurt, Klara goes to the school administrator and describes an inappropriate encounter with her and Lucas involving him exposing himself to her, and the dominoes begin to tumble from there.

Thankfully, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm make it very clear from the beginning that Lucas did not do the things Klara accuses him of. The girl picked up the scenario of the incident she describes from a conversation between her older brother and a friend looking at porno magazines, and it doesn't help that the administrator has no clue how to handle the accusations. Her stated inclination is to believe the child, even when she recants her story a couple days later. And before long, Lucas is without a job, the small Danish community he lives in has turned on him, and he's facing criminal prosecution when every child in the school tells similar stories about Lucas molesting them (thanks to some coaxing by an incompetent child psychologist).

Watching the events in The Hunt unfold fills us with an anxiety and sense of hopelessness that comes from watching a man lose total control of his life, and we wonder how we would counter such an unwarranted attack. Lucas isn't completely blameless as he contributes to the mass hysteria by attempting to save his reputation by being logical with them; his conversation with Theo goes well beyond uncomfortable and tense. And before long, Lucas slips into a deep depression, despite having a few supporters in the town, none of whom have children in that school or of that age.

There are few actors from any nation as good as conveying angst like Mikkelsen. His steely, deep-set eyes and tightly pursed lips rarely allow him to get overtly emotional, which isn't to say that we don't know exactly the pain he's going through. When the realization hits him that the truth will not be his immediate salvation, we see a darkness slip across his face. He's a magnificent actor, and The Hunt simply adds to our knowledge of his tremendous range.

The film features one of the most harrowing and chilling final scenes I've seen in years. It reminds us profoundly that to forgive is not to forget, and that sometimes forgiving is impossible. The Hunt also fortifies our worst fears that accusations carry more weight than convictions based on actual proof, and I'm fairly certain that truth extends well beyond the small-town mentality depicted here. You may walk out of this movie hating people and the ways the collective mindset rears its ugly face from time to time. There's little doubt The Hunt will stick with you and eat at your soul for a long time after you see it. But you'll also come to realize that the more Mikkelsen you can cram into your system, the better you'll be as a human being and fan of superior acting. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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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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