Reviews: Dredd is the Law, Bondurant is the Lawlessness, and Obi Wan Kenobi is sullen

I have some free time now, so that means the blog will be getting a regular change of ink. Here’s a few movies to get me back on track. I think I came off a little harsh. Eh.

Beginners – A movie all about people who got a late start is as muddled as its characters and barely tells a story in a long series of self-important passages. Ewan MacGregor’s newly widowed father, played by Christopher Plummer, comes out of the closet in the marquee plotline, but instead of following this compelling character’s impulsive reinvention, we’re forced to endure MacGregor’s near-midlife crisis. Don’t think it’s because he must come to grips with his father’s lifelong deception; he’s been sort of messed up by it to begin with, suffering under an unhappy mother whose mental health teetered over the edge thanks to her husband’s coldness. The timeline jumps back and forth to exploit our sympathies and cutesy elements pile up incoherently without raising a smile. MacGregor is some sort of commercial artist whose only talent is drawing stick people uglier than anything from the trembling hand of a bed-ridden, drugged Charles Schulz. Thankfully he’s only working on one project for what seems to be about twenty minutes a day. Sad little sparks fly when he meets Melanie Laurent’s bohemian actress who doesn’t seem to ever act in anything, and they have the most unremarkable movie romance I have seen then forgotten in a long time. Several patronizing indie quirks – a dog with subtitled lines, a silent first date forced by a case of laryngitis, adventures in sulky vandalism, and a rebellious moment of rollerblading through public buildings – parade by and are agonizingly prolonged. The movie’s nobody’s-perfect attitude is painfully labored and overstressed by Plummer’s needy, disconcerting new boyfriend. It’s too excruciating to watch people this old act so immature, however deliberate the intention. MacGregor’s ennui is too off-putting, Laurent’s tired smiles too vague. Plummer, as optimistically naïve as his character is written, has the most adult performance and is given the widest birth to search his emotions. Oscar’s recognition of his sweetness in the role is decently earned.

Lawless – High hopes preceded this tale of the real-life bootlegging Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Virginia. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave’s first team up, The Proposition, was a grimy, grisly success, individualistic, contemplative and naturally beauteous, a “fresh hell” indeed, as Ray Winstone’s new sheriff dubs its Australian Outback, for viewers looking for something different. It’s what convinced studio execs to hire Hillcoat for The Road, the mooted boring adaptation of a boring book (sorry world). With Lawless Hillcoat moves one step away from that commercial and political compromise, presenting a second dysfunctional trio of brothers to follow through another fresh netherworld. The integrity is there, the historical setting nicely fleshed out, but the scope is wildly out of control. Jason Clarke, Tom Hardy, and Shia LaBeouf are the Bondurant brothers, oldest to youngest, and they run a bootleggin’ business out of their gas station with the help of innovative sucker and town pity case Cricket. The plot seems to find a groove within a half hour, lethargic as it is like The Proposition, introducing its villain and establishing some sibling rivalry, and it feels timed for the kind of climax your internal clock is hardwired to expect when you sit down to watch a movie. All of sudden we’re thrown into a montage, and LaBeouf, moments before a nitwitted wannabe wheeler and dealer, is shown taking care of business. The timeline stretches by a mile in a millisecond and next thing you know, LaBeouf is filthy rich, Jessica Chastain’s got the hots for Hardy, and Gary Oldman’s underused mob man springs up for part two of a useless cameo. All the while Jason Clarke gets drunk and does nothing, wondering if anyone has seen Zero Dark Thirty yet. LaBeouf’s bad boy-good girl romance with preacher’s daughter Mia Wasikowska is lamer than Dane Dehaan’s crippled Cricket, it’s a surprise Guy Pearce’s nasty lawman doesn’t tie someone to the train tracks, and the brothers’ relationship shows no permutations from the norm. The brightest spot may be the music. It’s a simple evocation of backwoods sympathies, cool but a little too prominent, advertising itself more as a separate soundtrack than a natural ingredient to the atmosphere. More than any of the actors, I was impressed by Dane Dehaan as Cricket, who provided the only glimpse of heart and soul, plus the foreshadowing of doom you hate to see fall on vulnerable characters like him. It all culminates in the worst staged shootout of all time, a perplexingly unsatisfying scene where hillbillies draw arms on deputized hillbillies, then stop to watch in bafflement while the lead characters take turns shooting and shouting at each other. Then we have the Harry Potter Part Seven Part Two-type end coda, where we learn what happens to the protagonists long after what’s just transpired, damaging the raw catharsis of the immediate plotline, so that we know it all turned out okay in the end for everybody and it’s all just super. It’s a good movie overall, watchable and fun, but it could’ve been much better and more tightly focused, because Hillcoat excels when he follows misanthropes like Arthur Burns and Forrest Bondurant. Want to know why The Proposition is so good? It doesn’t follow whiney hanger-on Mikey, the Shia LaBeouf sibling of the movie.

Dredd – Dredd fans are used to blasphemy, but I’m going to add to it by suggesting that the indomitable judge’s second cinematic outing would’ve been better handled as a straightforward drama than an action yarn. Why would I say such a thing? Well, this movie just doesn’t seem that interested in action. If it did, there would’ve been a lot more of it. Alex Garland wrote the script with creator John Wagner’s blessing, and both are immensely concerned with the character’s onscreen translation. It seems counterintuitive for Judge Dredd to come across so passive, and the actor behind the visor can’t be blamed. Karl Urban rules for shelving his ego and wringing everything out of Dredd’s one-dimensional personality that he can. Dredd is the consummate professional, and Urban comfortably wears the uniform, embodying a calculating, non-rushed demeanor. But he’s placed in a plot that doesn’t exactly call for drastic action. Sure, he’s hiding from a bunch of bad guys, but he goes about solving his problems at his own pace. The action sadly just never impresses. Set pieces release pent up energy that would’ve been more productively distributed across scenes of sustained hallway chaos. It creates a video game feeling, where after every level the players are able to fill up on med kits. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad had the tower block setting been fully incorporated into the action (cough, like The Raid, cough), but no. Aside from trapping Dredd and new recruit Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) inside, the building sets the scene, or rather doesn’t, for a variety of bland frays, most often with the judges simply standing on the other side of a door from armed goons. This brings up another bone of contention, though one that may be at odds with the comics, since I don’t know Dredd’s battle tactics on the page. Here he’s able to extricate himself from every situation with a deftly dispensed gadget of some sort: tear gas, flash grenades, incendiary bullets, slow motion. Is he Dredd or is he the increasingly geared up, increasingly boring Iron Man (sorry world)? What ever happened to some good old fashioned elbow grease? Never do we feel claustrophobic, isolated, or desperate. Never does anyone interact with their surroundings (except the poor blokes tossed over the balcony, who interact spectacularly with the ground). Where the action falters, however, the drama ramps up. Thirlby is nicely cast as a gifted greenhorn having trouble adjusting to the detached mindset of a Judge. Urban always has a look in his grimace that shows he’s studying her, as if their debacle is a planned training exercise. The Slo-Mo induced sequences are ravishing, too, and a part of me wishes this movie, which is way too short given all its potential, was more painstakingly lengthened into a trippy odyssey of gritty realism and heightened wasteful escapism. Having been felled by its own mediocrity, it’s sad to think of how epic a success, failure, or future cult classic Dredd could have been.

That should do it for this episode of movie reviews. I want to keep the momentum going, so there’s plenty more to come.

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