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.
I struggle to think of another ‘80s film icon that has endured as strongly as the Predator despite only having been in a single good film. That’s not so much a dig on how bad Predator 2 and the pair of Alien Vs. Predator films are (though all three are certainly worth the derision) as it is a testament to how good the character is. His origins are an enigma but his motivations require no grand backstory: He’s an alien hunter who likes to keep the skulls of his prey as trophies. It’s simple really. And that’s why Predators the two-decades late sequel that should-have-been instead of the previous trio of disappointments works as well as it does.
Director Nimrod Antal and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch have cut out all distractions all the fruitless complications most sequels experience as they try to overly explain any unanswered questions from the first film. Their story ignites with a bang and shows no immediate signs of pausing for needless introspection. Predators opens with Adrien Brody’s character falling from the sky into an unknown jungle where he meets up with a handful of fellow air-dropped jarheads each as equally confused as to what’s going on as the next. The audience knows exactly what’s going on though. They a collective sampling of Earth’s most lethal badasses have been parachuted onto an alien game preserve for the hunting pleasures of the Predators.
The first 30 or so minutes of the film are a much-needed refresher course on not only how to do ensemble-based action movies but how to make a film that cashes in on a previous phenomenon without betraying the people who made it a phenomenon in the first place. We know just enough about the characters to let our own real-world instincts fill in any of the gaps. And since we know the Predators are out in the jungle patiently stalking Brody and his defacto gang of killers there is also no need to de-cloak the alien killers prematurely. The result is an exciting feels-like-the-good-ole-days start to a movie that is constantly on its toes as it pits the group against a host of interesting challenges the Predators’ planet has to offer both old (elaborate hand-made traps) and new (they aren’t the only dangerous things the Preds dropped in by parachute).
However that is only the first 30 or so minutes of the film. Sadly around a third of the way through Antal and company have reached their cruising speed and from there on out Predators enters a predictable trajectory that doesn’t really aspire to introduce and explore more of the Predator world. For sake of keeping this review spoiler-free I’ll leave out the specifics but a plot device is introduced that promises to be yet another wild-card for the movie but it just shows up pauses to provide unnecessary exposition and then disappears. Unfortunately the momentum of the movie never fully recovers from this small but crucial misstep.
When it’s on fire though Predators is a total blast of all the extreme machismo and action-movie staples that made John McTiernan’s original such a seminal entry in both the sci-fi and action canons of cinema. Antal really knows how to balance an ensemble cast giving each character enough screen time to be memorable for one reason or another be it the weapon they carry or the lines they deliver lines seemingly engineered to be as quotable as possible (Walton Goggins’ dialog alone is reason enough to like the movie). And he also has great instincts for how to maximize the scale and scope of set pieces transforming jungle that is claustrophobic in one scene into a landscape so sprawling it seems like it could never be escaped in another.
That said even with a film that is significantly more exciting in the beginning than it is in the end a movie that is one-third great and roughly two-thirds above average isn’t exactly something to be angry about. Especially not in this summer’s current film climate where most releases have been unilaterally bad. It’s just unfortunate that Predators’ pacing problems later on the film give one’s mind plenty of time to wander to start to notice the gaps in the characters and internal logic within the script. Those are things you never really want to spend time examining in any action movie let alone a Predator movie. Had it come out when it was originally conceived by Robert Rodriguez over fifteen years ago it would have been perfect for the time period. All these years later though one must wonder how all those uneven spots weren’t ironed out in the intervening time. But all things considered this is unmistakably a Predator movie and to that end Predators is a faithful respectful hat tip to a franchise loved the world over.
Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.