July 2013 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Black Rock (2013)

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A long nightAndrew LIKE BannerThere are two conflicts central to Black Rock.  One gets developed incredibly well, resulting in one of the most powerful female images I have seen in film since Ridley burst out to fight the Alien Queen.  The other is troublesome, using a fear of soldiers that is too simplistic in both concept and execution, wavering between turning the film into an unknowable nightmare and more human threat that can be dealt with.  Both sides of the film, despite how I feel about the two, are worthy of discussion.

Some films come out that are more fun to talk about or analyze than they are to watch.  For example, Sucker Punch, a film so misunderstood that the people miss the purpose explicitly stated in the title, is a decent watch but something I love to talk to other viewers about.  Black Rock fits snugly into this category.  I don't imagine that I'll ever watch it again, but the characters are very well realized, the scenery at times used to great effect, and I will remember it for conversation in years to come.

The film opens with Lou (Lake Bell) and Sarah (Kate Bosworth) traveling to the island that they used to spend time at when they were little.  At their departure point they meet up with Abby (Katie Aselton), who has some unresolved issues with Lou, and after both Abby and Lou are about to leave Sarah reveals that she has cancer to get them both to stay.  She doesn't, and while this scene initially left a bad taste in my mouth, it showed a willingness on screenwriter Mark Duplass' part to give a "go for broke" mentality to female characters that is usually missing.


In Appreciation – Viola Davis

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Viola DavisAndrewCommentaryBannerYesterday I watched Fruitvale Station and marveled at the way Octavia Spencer controlled every centimeter of frustration, sadness, and hope in the span of a few seconds.  Spencer, as you may know, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 2011's The Help.  She has been a wonderful actress for years and it all started because she took a chance to step away from her normal job and do some screen testing for Joel Schumacher.  The risk paid off, and now she's in one of the most excellent and socially relevant films of the year.

Her role in Fruitvale Station reminded me of another actress who is long past overdue for national recognition, Viola Davis.  I have championed her ever since we started writing for this site.  She is a daring actress, picking roles that challenge privilege by showing who has it, why, and what her characters have to do to maintain it.  Even in films I find reprehensible, like the incredibly misguided Won't Back Down, she never strains to make her point, letting her characters eyes and face tell the story of her life.


Fruitvale Station (2013)

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How he should be rememberedAndrew LIKE BannerFruitvale Station began on a mistake.  Who could possibly wander into the film not knowing that it is about the killing of Oscar Grant?  Yet there it was, grainy footage from someone's cell phone, telling everything we needed to know before the title has even rolled in.  Oscar Grant was laid on his stomach.  Then he was shot.  Nothing more, nothing less.

I was wrong.  Painfully.  Later we see Oscar (Michael P. Jordan) pumping gas at a station and getting friendly with a pup that wags its tail and is happy to get some attention.  We hear a thunk, whining, Oscar running full speed at a car speeding away, yelling to slow down.  He turns around, we see the dog as he does, and he comforts the pup until it dies peacefully.

Cliche - the dog always gets out of the film alive.  Director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler, with what I later found out really is his first feature film, molds our sympathies for this moment with a dark point.  The film opens on real footage of a black man being shot for no crime.  Yet here we are, crying that this dog (who may not even have existed) as it whimpers its last breath, and that someone was good enough to stop and comfort it.  That someone who we didn't even cry for at the beginning.


Oliver Stone: Savages (2012)

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In Oliver Stone's latest, and to-date last, feature film Savages, he tackles the drug trade with his exuberant style.  O (Blake Lively), has been living and loving Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) since they returned with potent marijuana seeds and started a respectable empire.  A drug lord (Selma Hayek) makes their life hell after they refuse to join together and attracts the attention of a dirty DEA Agent (John Travolta).Role playingKyle Commentary BannerThe setup of Savages involves two friends, Chon and Ben, who run a phenomenally successful pot operation out of southern California while involved in a three-way relationship with O (played by Blake Lively), though for all the differences Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's monotonous performances lend the two, she may as well be involved with one guy whose hairstyle changes rapidly and without warning. Since O is played as if a random selection of clips from the O.C. joined together and became a person via black magic, I considered the possibility that the men could each only handle half of the relationship, and that their arrangement was one of self-preservation. You know a movie that's trying to be provocative isn't working when you start checking your email during the sex scenes.

As the movie begins, a Mexican drug kingpin played by Selma Hayek is demanding to partner with Chon and Ben to expand her business in the States, and they refuse her offer, because they are witless morons. Setting into motion the events of the rest of the movie, Lively's character is kidnapped by Hayek's henchman (played as one of the few highlights of the movie by Benecio del Toro), and when that happened I cheered. Out loud. I cheered, alone in my living room, at my TV. I don't think that's the reaction Stone was going for.

Most of what makes Savages so bad, in fact, is the trio of performances at its center, the awfulness of which bafflingly grows stronger the more of them are on-screen together—it's like a talentless Voltron. The supporting roles by del Toro, John Travolta, and Selma Hayek are all far more interesting and well-played, and once the movie gets it's setup done there are a handful of scenes that generate at least some momentum solely because Stone finally gets Chon, Ben, and O off the screen for a few minutes. I especially liked a scene where Travolta's crooked FBI agent is visited at his suburban home by del Toro's slimy enforcer (whose loyalties shift by the minute), and the two negotiating multiple agreements all at once.

At times, Stone seems to want the movie to be a gritty crime tale where everyone is double, triple, and quadruple-crossing everyone else, and then at others he wants it to be a morality fable (complete with Lively's hilariously melodramatic updates on the story, delivered in a horrendous voice-over). Mostly he seems to want it to be a slick and shallow action movie, which is perhaps the strangest part. Benecio del Toro here especially deserves a better movie, Travolta deserves more screen time, and Blake Lively deserves to be in nothing ever again.

I hate Natural Born Killers, which I find unwatchable thanks to the style, but it has something it wants to say (even if we disagree on how substantial that thing is)—Savages is a bit less grating in its basic structure (a bit), but it has nothing to say, and it says nothing aggressively. It's bloated, over-directed, tone-deaf, and underwritten. It's like Bad Boys 2 without Michael Bay's delicate touch for style and humor.


Vehicle 19 (2013)

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Worked out in Pulp FictionAndrew LIKE BannerI am an absolute sucker for certain types of thrillers.  The basic outline is almost always people being caught in an impossible situation that requires them to stay in the same place.  The tradition goes back to thrillers like Hitchcock's Rope and in the last decade we've seen films like Phone Booth, Cellular, and Buried.  Plausibility be damned, they're almost always tightly constructed films playing with a singular vision that fits the scenario.

Vehicle 19 continues in this proud tradition.  There are some problems with the film, especially when it comes to the moments when Paul Walker tries out his sensitive side, but it's a solid piece of craftsmanship.  There were a lot of moments of quick ingenuity that caught me off guard and the visual style was just interesting enough to keep my attention.  It's not the sort of film that's going to set the world on fire, but for a few bucks and a curious customer taking a chance on the DVD they'll find themselves with a better film than expected.