There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
A group of FBI hopefuls journey to an island on the outer banks of North Carolina for a special training operation. They're sent there to hone their skills under the watchful eye of their ambiguously shady boss Harris (Val Kilmer). Not much is known about Harris but one thing is clear: The apprentices don't trust him. So when things start going fatally awry--with the seemingly uninhabited island turning into an FBI abattoir as the agents are picked off one by one by an unseen assailant--they all think he's the one to blame. But is he? Maybe it's the hotheaded FBI alum Gabe (LL Cool J). Or maybe someone else in the group. Tired and wary the team or at least those who remain begin pointing fingers at one another. Whoever it is time is of the essence literally and figuratively as the clever sociopath (aren't the all?) leaves clues--usually in the form of some time-telling device--to when he'll strike next. The surviving agents all turn vigilant and split up (thus setting the scene for more slayings) except for two of the group members Sara and Lucas (Kathryn Morris and Jonny Lee Miller) who vow to stick together. By the end your head will be spinning--either from the bevy of startling twists or from how such twists probably fell through the cracks in the editing room. Chances are if you would shake your head at the latter you won't be seeing Mindhunters anyway.
While the premise of Mindhunters is similar to TV's Survivor the acting might be a bit better on the hit reality show. Christian Slater--clearly trying to jumpstart a career revival á la John Travolta in Pulp Fiction-- plays as J.D. Reston the dutiful leader of the FBI profilers like a good boy scout while the aforementioned Kilmer plays the Harris as cryptically as only Kilmer can. The odd thing is that two of Mindhunters' biggest stars are reduced to mere cameos which leaves the movie's next-biggest star LL Cool J to carry the movie--and he does a more than adequate job. Of course had the film been released on its scheduled time this might have been LL Cool J's leading-man vehicle but he's been able to achieve that more or less on his own since 2003. The rest of the dead profiles walking consist of journeymen and women: Morris (TV's Cold Case) as the eager Sara; Miller (Hackers) as her comrade in arms; Clifton Collins Jr. (Traffic) as wheelchair-bound Vince; Will Kemp (Van Helsing) as Rafe; and Patricia Velasquez (The Mummy Returns) as Nicole.
Perhaps Mindhunters was doomed from the start. It is invariably a bad sign when a movie comes out two years after the fact. Should the finger be pointed at director Renny Harlin (of um Cutthroat Island fame) then? Not really. It's not his fault--well not entirely--that he hasn't directed anything worthwhile since 1993's Cliffhanger. Harlin clearly does know how to guide a rather straightforward action-thriller and Mindhunters is no exception. He conjures up legitimate scares and makes the most of a seemingly anemic script. No the colossal Disney-Miramax rift is probably more to blame for Mindhunters' extreme delay and the negative buzz. Coupled with the fact that the script by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin--with its outlandish implausibilities--turns a potential summer blockbuster that is meant be a psychological thriller into psychobabble. Harlin's skill is evident in Mindhunters and therefore he should be spared--this time.
Novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) once again probes the dark side with this look at a group of spoiled college brats at Camden College. The adaptation of his novel focuses on the parties ("The End of the World Party " the "Pre-Saturday Night Party " the "Dress To Get Laid Party") and following logically from there the ubiquitous hookups heavy petting and yes even rape--in this case of the drunkest girl at one of said parties. Walking us through the madhouse of debauchery is sometime student sometime drug dealer Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) whose propensity for wicked sexual exploits seemingly knows no bounds (yes his brother is indeed American Psycho's Patrick Bateman). Still Sean is in love although you can't tell from his behavior with Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon)--perhaps the only BVOC (that's Big Virgin on Campus) remaining on the planet. Lauren is in love with Victor (Kip Pardue) who's sleeping and drugging his way through Europe this semester and she used to be in love with Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder) who's now out of the closet and himself in love with Sean. See how it all comes full circle? The key goals of all the characters seem to be to get laid get drunk find pot smoke pot get laid again--all in the space of an evening. It's a fairly nihilistic existence--and one that the film staunchly refuses to comment upon or judge. This is just the way it is; watch at your own risk.
The young cast is right at home in the '80s college atmosphere and Van Der Beek in particular gives a fine performance as the guy you love to hate. He makes his several extreme close-ups more about developing his character than about making his face look prettier which is refreshing to see. Heck the guy even takes a dump on camera--he is not afraid. Sossamon as the only sympathetic character in the movie fares well too although in several scenes she's put in what I'll just call compromising positions. Jessica Biel as Sossamon's slutty roommate Lara spends most of her screen time rather unflatteringly on her back and from that position it's kind of hard to judge her performance. She seems believable enough. Somerhalder's Adonis looks complement his Wildean character whose façade of worldliness covers an insecurity that shows us the pitfalls of sophomoric homosexuality--but he's not afraid to let loose with a little childish joy either hamming it up like a pro in a Risky Business-like scene that has him dancing in his underwear on a hotel room bed with a new partner.
From The Rules of Attraction's first scenes which begin at a party then rewind to show how each character came to be there and how they came to be in their present condition director Roger Avary lifts what could have been another drug-addled film about the lives of self-indulgent college students from that particular cesspool and into the sometimes murkier realm of sordid realism. Throughout the movie you can almost feel the sticky beer-covered floor beneath your feet yet at the same time the college setting is almost coincidental to the underlying theme which seems to be that people are inherently hedonistic brutish and self-serving. Still because he insists on showing rather than telling Avary lets the scenes speak for themselves; he doesn't judge the characters or throw messages at the audience. That means that even as the end credits roll (backwards of course) you'll be thinking about his film--trying to work out exactly what it meant and what it says about desire love and human relations. And that can't be a bad thing.