Thursday, September 20, 2012


We open with a voiceover narration which usually makes me tune out right away, and I almost did here except it costs $11 and I was eager to see my newest man crush Tom Hardy kick someone in the balls and John Hillcoat's other Neo-Western feature, The Proposition, was excellent. So I stuck with it, even though I subscribe to the "Show Don't Tell" club, which is different than the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" or the "Ask and and Ye Shall" clubs, this one has nothing to do with fear mongering. Voiceover is usually a narrative cop out and this one was especially shitty due to the fact it was performed by Shia LaBeouf - sounding like Lenny from Of Mice and Men mixed with Matthew McConaughey.
But I got past it.
The film is just not gritty enough. Possibly pressure from the studio to make it more accessible? 
I go back to The Proposition, also, as with Lawless, penned by Bad Seed Nick Cave. In particular the scene where Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) meets bounty hunter, Jellon Lamb (the incomparable John Hurt). You can feel the stench of the bar; feel the flies buzzing around you. The scene makes you want to take a shower after it's done. And not one of those quick, "oh shit I'm late for work" rinses, a real Bruce Willis reentering the future in 12 Monkeys scrubbing.
There are no scenes like this in Lawless.
Even Hillcoat's other recent feature, The Road, has a feeling to it. Though along with grit it has desolation, emptiness. A similar scene to the one in The Proposition has Robert Duvall, nearly unrecognizable as the Old Man, uncomfortably sharing a night fireside with the father and son; everyone sleeping with one eye opened of course.
Compared to these two films and other Neo-Westerns like Deadman, The Assassination of Jesse James, or even Last Man Standing, Lawless is a Disney movie.
The film isn't helped with the miscasting of the Jack character or the fact that Jason Clarke, the actor who plays middle brother Howard, looks like Matthew Perry/Howdy Doody, not a wild, uncontrollably violent drunk.
Seriously, some actor's faces aren't made for makeup.
I will say most of the other casting choices are rock solid, this is what saves the film. The aforementioned Tom Hardy is believable as Forrest. Jessica Chastain plays reformed dancer Maggie with pride and dignity. And Noah Taylor is perfectly slimy as Gummy Walsh, Floyd Banner's (Gary Oldman) right-hand man. The list goes on.
Lawless is a western. It has most of the criteria and conventions we associate with the genre including:
Theme: Civilization vs Wilderness
This is abundantly clear on the surface. The Bondurant boys live out in the mountains of Franklin County, VA (the Wilderness) where everything seems to be going fine with their bootlegging operation until a Special Deputy from Chicago (Civilization) arrives with a mind to cut in in the boys' business. So the dichotomy is there. There sometimes too is a dirty villain-type who runs the town and goes head to head with the hero. Here there seems to be an overall lawlessness of the entire county, they run themselves and are happy doing it. Guy Pearce's Charlie Rakes tries to become that person, but is cut down in his prime as it were. There is also Mason Wardell (Tim Tomlin) the District Attorney who seems to be running things from behind a curtain.
But in this film the traditional conquest of the wilderness by the civilized is thwarted and it's the wilderness, the Bondurant boys, who win out in the end.
Character Types
The Hero is often an anti-hero, a retired gunslinger who rides into to town and, eventually, saves the day.  In the case of Lawless, it's the three brothers with a combination of character traits. Forrest, Howard and Jack, though not retired gunslingers, they are anti-heroes who inhabit major qualities we associate with other Western heroes: quiet stoicism, intense desire for right, or even the wildcard factor.  
Maggie is the whore with heart of gold who wants to go straight.
Drunk brother, Howard, who can add some comic relief. Though the crippled from a batch of rickets and aptly named, Cricket (Dane Dehaan) fills this role as well.
Bad guy - Guy Pearce
The Other - Brothers are part Injun
Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) - the other girl, schoolmarm-type who is attracted to the bad guy.
Story Formulas - good vs evil, uh, yup.
But then again Jaws is a Western as well:
Theme - Civilization (Amity) vs Wilderness (the ocean)
Presentation - extreme long shots of the vast desolate ocean
Story Formulas - good vs evil
Character Types - sheriff? check, rogue killer/bad guy? check, side kick? check, drunk dude? check
The ending of Lawless is slightly reminiscent of another of these "Neo" Westerns, in tone only. In Tombstone after all the violence and the kick ass montage of the Earp boys taking down the cowboys and Doc's showdown with Johnny Ringo (played by Michael Biehn, with way more spitting venom and evil than Pearce's Rakes), we get a coda of Wyatt (Kurt Russell) and what’s-her-face (Dana Delaney) coming out of the theater then dancing in the snow talking about room service or some other shit. This should have been the end of Overboard II or Insert Kurt Russell 80's film here. Instead it puts a superfluous cap on a film that was already hanging on by a thread were it not for Val Kilmer's humorous, dark turn as Doc Holiday.
By the way, I'm not counting the long credit sequence of the Earp boys and Doc, back from the dead, walking towards the camera like some over-the-hill boy band as the music swells.
Maybe I'm off here. Maybe larger populations go for a cutesy, tie-it-up-in-a-bow ending like this. Not me.
They should have made two endings, one for each of us. And wasn't Wyatt's gift to Doc on his deathbed cute enough? "My Friend Doc", aw. End the film right then, right there. With Doc looking at his bare feet, saying, "I'll be damned. This is funny"
In Lawless its Mr. The Beef's voice over again, summing up events that needed no summing. The film spends so much time building up the myth of oldest brother Forrest, though we do see moments of weakness especially when it comes to Maggie. Why do we need to see him dance in the snowy riverbank, then fall in? (Dancing? Snow?) We don't - though it does function to affect the audience into thinking, "how ironic for him to be killed now after all that" then when he climbs out of the frozen river, "Hooray!"
Another Western trait takes form in the Stars associated with the genre. In Tombstone it was Robert Mitchum's voiceover that really gave the film some ruggedness. In Jaws Robert Shaw adds some West experience. In Lawless its Shia LaBeouf's experience in  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that gives the film it's "western-ness" because he wore a hat in a few scenes. Seriously, LaBeouf is a whiny bitch. (See my Michael Bay blog for more on him). Was it Even Stevens season 3 episode 7: "Raiders of the Lost Sausage" that prepared him for his role as Mutt Williams in Indiana Jones? Maybe I'm missing something. Why does he keep getting work? Here's a list of young actors that would have been a better choice to play Jack in Lawless:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

If Michael Bay makes a film and nobody sees it, does it still make a sound?

While I have always gone against the notions of what a filmmaker and educator should put their top 10 (favorite film: RoboCop), I can't help but question certain things. I can usually see films for what they are, be it pure entertainment, gratuitous pulp, rock/rap star-become-actor vehicle, whatever.
But there is nothing good about what Michael Bay does, nothing.
Sometimes I get on rants about particular things...Joel Schumacher for instance. I have long stood on my soap box, screaming to anyone who would listen that Mr. Schumacher might just be the worst filmmaker ever. This is all based on the fact that he single-handedly tried to ruin the Batman franchise forever and thanks only to Christopher Nolan do we get redemption. In hindsight, after looking at his career as a whole, I may have been a bit rash. He has, in fact, made some of my favorite films from youth. But that all may be skewed (see my post: Nostalgia Takes the Place of the Real, 12/2/10). I did re-catch The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) a few weeks ago on TV, and besides being a nice attempt at social satire on consumerism and women's role in society, the film is hot garbage. But The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down...are all great for sure. And who can argue with Marsha Warfield's riveting portrayal of a poor and desperate cab driver trying to save her boss's business, along with the likes of Mr. T, Gary Busey, and Bill Maher,  in 1983's D.C. Cab? Seriously though, Schumacher's career has hit on many different emotional levels from a fun romp (D.C. Cab) to a moving biopic (Veronica Guerin) to an emotional study of a complicated relationship (Flawless). And even though he did attempt to destroy Batman with absurd casting and suits with nipples, it's not all bad.
Michael Bay is a jerk. He's like the star high school quarterback who everyone hates. Cocky, brazen, a real show off. I'd probably like him, he reminds me I'm all for violent battles full of explosions, so fast that if you are sitting too close to the screen you miss half of it. And who doesn't enjoy scantily-clad women who have little to no lines to speak? But to look at someone's career as a whole and not be able to discern any level of depth, passion, or narrative is a great concern, especially to someone who often preaches to his students the importance of a story with a beginning, middle and end, of character development, and taking pride in what you do.  Even Ed Wood, Hollywood's best known hack, had passion for what he did. He believed in his heart of hearts that he was making good cinema. And he tried, you could see it on screen, even through the continuity errors, the strings from the flying saucers, and terrible make-up effects. What he lacked in talent he made up for with unmatched verve.
So let's take a brief look at Mr. Bay's catalog:
I can find humor in some of the witty banter between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in the Bad Boys series but how much of that is Smith and Lawrence or the four, that's right four, folks it took to script it?
I hate Nicolas "Coppola" Cage too (not Hollywood's biggest example of nepotism, but possibly the worst results. And who isn't waiting, losing sleep over even, the reboot of Thelma & Louise starring Suri Cruise and Rumor Willis?). So it only seems too fitting that he and Bay meet up in the pressure packed The Rock (1996). To hear Cage utter "I love pressure. I eat it for breakfast," has to be a highlight of any $70 million blockbuster. Then there's Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), and The Island (2005). Judge for yourself.
And of course there's The Transformers series. Films that should have starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the nerdy, bumbling high-schooler turned action hero, Sam Witwicky, but instead we get Shia LaBeouf whose acting is reminiscent of Doug Kinney #4 in Multiplicity. Come on, can't you picture him turning to Optimus Prime, with that slack-jawed look, motioning towards Megan Fox, "She touched my pepe, Steve!" And speaking of Megan Fox, can it be true that this talentless "actress" has been the only one to call out Bay? Or is the fact that no actors with any actual talent will work with him a sort of silent protest that points directly to his reputation in Hollywood?
I'm not sure. But look for Bad Boys 3 and another Transformers sequel by 2014 and another, and another, and another...