Friday, September 30, 2011


Hesher - Directed by Spencer Susser, written by Susser and David Michod, story by Brian Charles Frank, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Crochu, Natalie Portman, and Rainn Wilson - Rated R

If there is one movie that truly earned its Kurgan this year, it's Hesher.

Just looking at the title design of Hesher (Metallica-style lightning bolts on each side), I knew I was in for something special. It’s kind of hard to describe just what kind of special Hesher is, but this is an original, hilarious movie. It gets a bit messy tonally at times, but overall this Joseph Gordon-Levitt film is a fresh and dark comedy(?) that is worth a watch.

Describing Hesher is a bit of a challenge, but here goes: this is a film about a family dealing with the loss of a mother. Insert a hobo/rocker/van owner who imposes himself in the family which is too numb to protest his presence. Is Hesher there to fix their problems? Is he even real? Who cares? He’s awesome.

Hesher is aptly titled because even though he isn’t actually the main character Hesher is by far the most interesting part of the film. The story itself is compelling, but plain. It’s about a T. J. (Devin Brochu) and his father (Rainn Wilson) and their issues after T. J.’s mother has died. Sounds like the making of a depressing indie film, right? Well, it would be, if Joseph Gordon-Levitt didn’t show up as the titular Hesher.

Hesher isn’t the most interesting character ever written, but he is hysterical. Hesher likes to rock out to Metallica and Motorhead, he drives a trashy van, he is technically homeless, and he’s covered in hilarious homemade tattoos. That alone makes him funny visually, but his interactions with everyone involved make him something more. Hesher tells it like it is…to a fault. If there’s some unspoken issue between two characters that would normally stay unspoken in polite society, Hesher is more than happy to point it out in vulgar detail. It’s not all that unusual for a character to say inappropriate things, but Hesher is surprisingly succinct when it comes to evaluating situations. He’s funny and rude, but he is actually enlightening at times.

The fact that Hesher can give insight to the family’s problems doesn’t mean this is some sappy film. He seems to help, sure, but one could argue that he does just as much damage along the way, both physically and emotionally. If there is a fault to Hesher’s evaluations, it’s that they lead to some moments are simply too devoid of humor. At times, the film cannot decide if it wants to be a dark comedy or just bleak. These moments are few, though, and the film doesn’t suffer all that much from it. The tonal shift can be a bit jarring at times, though. It’s tough to watch a film that tries to get you to laugh one minute and despair the next. But perhaps that is the point, since life itself can be like that.

The film may be questionable tonally, but it thankfully stayed away from the cliché of making Hesher some imaginary character. That isn’t a spoiler or anything, but in the first few scenes Hesher is so outrageous that he seems to be an extension of T.J.’s desire to take action that it seems like he might exist only in T.J.’s mind. There is certainly an argument to be made for that, except that so many other characters acknowledge his presence. In a way, the fact that he actually exists makes him, and the film, even stranger and funnier.

Hesher works because of its great cast, as well. Gordon-Levitt is breaking new ground in this film and he alone makes the movie worth watching. He just perfectly inhabits the role. Rainn Wilson is impressive as the depressed father, too. His quiet and desperate dinner table scenes work well. Natalie Portman shows up to play a kind of love interest role and she does fine. And Devin Brochu does a great job acting opposite all of these actors and even outdoing them at times.

This dark/family/comedic/dramatic film is definitely worth checking out now that it is out on video (unfortunately it was never released widely in theatres). It’s uneven in places, but overall it is a hilarious movie. Some may feel the need to analyze it a bit too closely, and perhaps there is something more to it, but if you try to “figure” out this film you’ll end up having to stretch things a bit too much and, more importantly, you won’t enjoy it. There may be some deeper meaning to this film, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is, and I couldn’t care less. I can’t imagine Hesher himself trying to look beyond what is right there in front of him, so I won’t either. I’ll just sit back and laugh like a bastard.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Moneyball - Directed by Bennett Miller, written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book by Michael Lewis, starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman - Rated PG-13

Football may be going full steam right now, but there's a great baseball movie that deserves your attention.

Baseball is often derided as a boring game (I happen to love it), so it seems like a long shot that a baseball film, a baseball film about a general manager no less, would be entertaining. Moneyball defies expectations to be one of the year’s most enjoyable films mainly because it is not simply a “baseball movie” but is actually just as much a character piece about Billy Beane. What helps immensely is that Beane is portrayed by Brad Pitt, who is on top of his game right now.

Moneyball is based on the true story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who decided to take a different approach to finding players back in 2002. The system, referred to as Moneyball, placed a stronger emphasis on statistics rather than the intuition of scouts. This was a break from the traditional way things went in a game that is obsessed with tradition. In other words, Beane was risking his job and reputation by playing Moneyball.

A film about shaking up things in a general manager’s office doesn’t exactly scream action, which is why the film thankfully takes a largely comedic tone. Beane does something that people don’t fully understand so there are plenty of quizzical reaction shots and statements of disbelief. It is almost too easy of a gag, but it works. It works because of Brad Pitt.

Pitt is perfectly cast as Beane, a former athlete who seems to be constantly moving for fear of becoming bored. Pitt could play this role in his sleep, but he really seems to be enjoying himself and it shows. His interactions with a befuddled Jonah Hill are always funny and keep the film moving along nicely. Philip Seymour Hoffman gets a few good scenes as manager Art Howe, as well. In fact, pretty much anyone in a scene with Pitt gets to give their best, “You did what?” face. And somehow it manages to be amusing every time.

Moneyball is not a straight up comedy, however. There are some moments that attempt to add impact to the film and they sometimes feel a bit forced. It’s not that the stakes of the film aren’t high (a man’s livelihood and an entire organization is on the line), but it’s hard to buy the more dramatic moments. These moments are few, though, and they mainly feel out of place because the musical score tries so hard to let you know that it’s time to get serious in these moments.

The film does have dramatic moments that work. Beane’s relationship with his daughter is touching at times and some of the players are given a bit of personality which does give the movie more emotional impact. It’s the fleshing out of Beane’s character that makes the film stand out as one of the better sports movies of recent years. He is not just a cocky loose cannon or anything like that. To be sure, he exudes an almost egotistical confidence in himself, but that doesn’t make him an unlikable character because he is also insanely charismatic. The subplot of his fear of bringing bad luck (he was a once promising baseball prospect who flamed out early) makes him a sympathetic character as well.

Moneyball is still a baseball movie, though, and fans of the game should find plenty to like about it. There aren’t as many baseball scenes as you would find in a movie like, say, Bull Durham, but there are a few and the clubhouse scenes are fun. If you follow baseball at all, even the dialogue of the film should prove entertaining. Just listening to the general managers make moves and discuss players is funny at times (probably because Aaron Sorkin is a credited screenwriter) and it manages to be simple enough for non-fans to follow along.

Moneyball is a straightforward sports film/character piece that makes for a great watch as baseball season winds down and football starts to dominate the sports page. If you’re the type who skips over the sports page and never watches Sportscenter, don’t be scared off by the baseball premise. Sure, this is a sports movie, but it’s well-acted and the focus is mainly off the field. And, more importantly, it has Brad Pitt in it and he’s as good as he’s ever been. So give the football a rest for a day and check out Moneyball.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Drive - Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, written by Hossein Amini, starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, and Ron Perlman - Rated R

The first Vader of the year.  Can't help it, I just love the work of Nicolas Winding Refn.

Every now and then something great happens in Hollywood. An interesting director makes enough great films overseas and he’s given a modest budget and a little star power and he gets to make whatever he wants out of a film. And then that film ends up playing on the big screen in an area as small as Perry County. I sat back unbelieving Sunday night as I watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film Drive and witnessed one of the best films of the year…and I didn’t have to drive an hour to see it.

Refn has been making quality films since 1996’s Pusher, and recently he made his finest film to date (in my opinion, of course) with 2008’s Bronson. His films are not easily digestible as they feature graphic violence, strange soundtracks, and plenty of awkward silences. Drive continues that tradition as it features all three of those elements. Because of this, many people might simply dismiss this movie as “weird.” That’s easy enough, especially since the previews make it out to be some hardcore action flick (it has action, but to call this an action movie is unfair).

Weird isn’t a bad thing, especially with some of the crap Hollywood churns out these days. Drive may not be a traditional film, but it has it where it counts. There are awkward silences and the soundtrack, which sounds like it belongs in an 80s thriller, may be out of left field, but it all comes together to make one stylish film.

Drive doesn’t seem so odd on the page, though. It’s about a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man (Ryan Gosling) who falls for a damsel in distress (Carey Mulligan) but gets into trouble with the wrong men (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). It’s your standard story of a low level criminal getting in way over his head. But it’s so much more than that thanks to what Refn and Gosling bring to the film.

Ryan Gosling has done well for himself lately, but he’s never really turned in a commanding physical performance. He’s stuck to these troubled characters that have issues operating in the real world. No problem there, since he handles that disconnected performance so well. In fact, he gives that same performance for much of Drive to the point that some people have speculated that his character is sociopathic. His strange, constant grin and ability to turn every moment into an awkward silence certainly makes for an interesting performance especially when he so seamlessly turns into a badass.

Gosling gets to go crazy in this film and it’s great. The film makes good use of his leather driving gloves and you can just feel (and hear) the tension every time he makes a fist. And every time he makes that fist you just know things are going to get violent. The violence is typical Refn: bloody, shocking, potentially disturbing…but perfectly reasonable for the story. The ultra-violence is acceptable for a film like this because it is meant to kick you in the face when you least expect it. Violence is standard in films these days but sometimes it can put in there just to placate the bloodthirsty hordes. Sure, those hordes will like Drive, but with this caveat, “It was awesome, but man, it was slow…and kind of weird.” Others will realize that the violence is there to shock you, not just entertain you. The scenes of violence are not treated trivially; they are intense. But they do look amazing (I never claimed I wasn’t part of the bloodthirsty hordes).

The title of the film may lead you to believe that the majority of the action of this film would take place on the road, but that is not the case. There are a few well crafted getaway/chase sequences, but this film isn’t exactly a full-on car movie, though there are plenty of cool shots of the dash with Gosling’s intent eyes in focus in the rearview. The title of the film is more about the drive of Gosling’s character than it is about the physical act of driving, however. Some may be disappointed by the lack of cars and all, but there should be plenty there to keep people entertained.

Drive also has the benefit of an amazing cast. Aside from Gosling, Mulligan does a fine job silently communicating with him in plenty of scenes and she certainly comes across as a woman worth fighting for. Bryan Cranston has a few good scenes as a mentor-type. Christina Hendricks has a decent, though small role. Perlman livens up the screen in his scenes. And Albert Brooks is the surprise of the movie as a menacing, though reasonable mobster.

If all of that wasn’t enough, then there are plenty of smaller elements to focus on with the film. The strange satin jacket emblazoned with a scorpion that Gosling sports in nearly every scene can add depth to the film when you factor in the reference to the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” Though the film is enjoyable by just leaving it alone and saying, “It’s just a jacket that’s meant to convey an almost 80s sensibility of the film.” That retro look along with the soundtrack is cool enough to keep things interesting as well.

Interesting is the word that should be used for Drive. The film can be looked at closely and it can be simply enjoyed. My suggestion: enjoy it simply at first, then stop and think about what you’ve just seen. There’s enough action and style to keep you entertained, but there’s also enough under the surface to keep you thinking of the film. That’s certainly the effect the film had on me and I can’t wait to watch it again.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Gosling stomps a dude’s face until it is nothing!  No comment really about this,

That shotgun blast that disintegrated Christina Hendricks's head was ridiculous in all the right ways.

The Scorpion and the Frog is a fable about how the you can't change someone's nature.  In the fable, it's the scorpion.  In Drive, it's Gosling.  He can't change, so even if he does survive that gut stab at the end (I believe he's dead, though), he still has to move on and keep driving.

Refn loves it when making a fist makes a sound...and I do, too.

Finally, I heaped insane amounts of love on this film and I am not alone.  I'm sure the backlash has already begun, but you shouldn't let yourself be swayed by other critics or by the message board crowds.  I loved it and apparently other people loved, but that didn't sway my opinion.  Nicolas Winding Refn is who convinced me that this is the best film of the year so far.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Warrior - Written and directed by Gavin O'Connor, starring Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte - Rated PG-13

Three Chigurhs in a row...I haven't reviewed much lately, but what I've seen has been pretty great.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has overtaken boxing as the most popular fighting sport in recent years. It was only a matter of time before someone attempted to make the Rocky of the MMA world. Warrior attempts to fill that gap and it ends up being worthy of the Rocky comparison.

Warrior isn’t a film just about fighting. It’s really the story of two brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton). Tommy is a quiet but intense Iraq war vet who just seems to have a need to fight (and an undiagnosed case of PTSD). Brendan is a school teacher who moonlights as a fighter to make ends meet. The brothers are estranged, but are connected by their hatred for their recovering alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). Both fighters decide to enter a winner takes all tournament with a purse of $5 million.

The film is much deeper than just brother vs. brother for a bunch of money, though. It’s truly a character piece that follows a family through some very trying moments. In fact, there’s enough going on with each character that the entire film could focus on a single character and still be compelling. Thankfully, though, it shares the wealth and allows all three characters to have their moments.

The fact that the film doesn’t focus on one brother more than the other and doesn’t make one of them out to be a villain helps Warrior immensely. The problem with most fighting films is that there are no surprises. There’s a good guy and a bad guy, they match up, it looks like good guy might lose, but good guy finds an extra bit of courage and prevails, credits. That doesn’t happen in Warrior because there is no good guy or bad guy. Both brothers have noble reasons for wanting the prize money as well so it doesn’t make sense to root for one over the other for that. Not having a clear individual to root for makes the movie much more interesting.

It also helps that some great, dedicated actors portray the family in question. Tom Hardy is quickly becoming one of the most exciting actors working today after his role in Bronson and his turn here. It’s going to be very interesting to see how he does as Bane in next year’s The Dark Knight Rises. Edgerton, an accomplished Australian actor, is impressive as Brendan. Hopefully this is the first of many good performances in American cinema. And Nick Nolte is simply perfectly cast as their troubled father.

Most people will want to check out Warrior for the fight scenes, though, and the film delivers on that front as well. The fights are always intense and suspenseful. The handheld style of the film makes a few of the scenes a little hard to follow, but overall that handheld style really places you in the fight. The two leads were willing to get bulked up for the film as well and they make for some imposing fighters, especially Hardy. The fights manage to remain realistic, as well, while being amped up just a bit for cinematic effect. Warrior also handles the required training montage with a bit of style in a split screen portion of the film.

A training montage might sound like a bit of a cliché in this day and age, but it’s actually refreshing to see an old school type fighting movie. A potential problem when dealing with a film like this, however, is repeating other fighting films. There are definitely a few in here along the lines of a doubting, reluctant wife, but since the film is spread out amongst so many characters that aspect doesn’t take center stage. And there are a few cheesy attempts at humor here and there when it comes to fans and local people watching the fights but it all works in the end because the film has earned these moments by being so great on every other level.

Warrior is simply a great film (definitely on my top five of the year thus far) that keeps you hooked from the opening scene and never lets you go. It’s good enough that you barely even notice that it is well over two hours long. The film manages to keep you interested to the point that you forget you’re watching a movie because you feel so much for the characters and you are not sure what is going to happen to them. In a weird sort of way writer-director Gavin O’Connor embraces typical fighting movie tropes but manages to keep things fresh. It’s impossible to undercut just how important the structure of this film is. Warrior is about a family, no good guys or bad guys, just a family. You want things to work out for everyone but you don’t have a clue how it’s going to work out, and that makes Warrior one of the most compelling films of the year.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Red State"

Red State - Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman - Rated R

Anton Chigurh would fit right in with this film.

Kevin Smith has been a self-proclaimed non-director for years. He has consistently commented that his films (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma) were not terribly cinematic but rather dialogue-driven comedies. This is partly true as his early work featured very few camera movements. There is nothing wrong with still camerawork, but Smith never had much of a visual style. A viewer was much more likely to pick up on a Smith film from listening to a couple of minutes of it than they were from seeing how it was shot. With Smith’s first attempt at a non-comedy, Red State, he has found a style and it is very effective.

Red State is about the Cooper family, an extreme church group from the Midwest (think the Phelps family from the Westboro Baptist church but violent and heavily armed) and their run-ins with the government and some local teens. This film is better seen going in as fresh as possible, so the plot description will be left short. In fact, it would be very difficult to describe the plot of this film without giving much of it away, anyway. To say that Red State doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure is an understatement…and that is a compliment. The film jumps around and benefits from the movement from character to character.

The narrative juggling of the film is accentuated by the editing. Smith’s early work had a very standard, slow look. Red State stands in stark contrast. The film seems to be in a hurry. There’s no time to wait for a character to get up from a desk to exit a building. Instead, a series of superfast cuts shows his short journey in a couple of seconds. The quick cuts of the film can be a little distracting at times, but for the most part they serve as a style to the film and they keep things moving nicely. The pace of Red State is one of its strongest aspects. The overall length of the film is refreshingly under 90 minutes, too.

If Kevin Smith trying out something other than comedy with a bit of style doesn’t pique your interest in this film (though it should), then the cast should put you over the top. Michael Parks (Kill Bill) is the standout as patriarch Abin Cooper. His sermons and mumbled singing add plenty of creepiness to the film and his overall presence keeps the film interesting. John Goodman gets to yell and be reserved in a fine role. Melissa Leo continues her strong streak as Abin’s daughter. The three teens (Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun, and Michael Angarano) get to start the film off on a relatively light note and they all do fine.

The varied cast (I’m leaving out multiple smaller roles) allows the film to go in many different directions. In other words, Red State is a movie capable of surprising the viewer. There are some shocking moments throughout the film. The action is brutal and easy to follow and sometimes it is very sudden. Smith, as it turns out, has a bit of an eye for a decent shootout and a foot chase.

Red State is not perfect or anything, though. It may simply stand out because Kevin Smith made it and it is a very unexpected film from a director like him. It’s hard to separate the fact that he made it so it is impossible to say if knowing this is a departure for him makes the movie more impressive. Surprising as the film may be, there are aspects that don’t jive so well. Stephen Root’s character, while aptly portrayed, came off more as a quick caricature than an actual character. And he seemed to delve into a bit of oddly placed slapstick humor later on. Dark, slapstick humor, but it still felt strange. And Michael Parks’ sermon was nice and creepy, but may have gone on a bit too long. But that is only because his character had been set up with exposition multiple times before he was rightfully introduced. The film may have been more impactful if there had been fewer scenes in which characters blatantly talked about the Coopers.

Minor problems aside (emphasis on minor), Red State is one of the better films of the year thus far. It may be more famous for its release strategy (I watched it on demand, but Smith had been releasing it on his own, taking it from city to city on a tour), but it is a film that deserves to be looked at on its own merits. It is entertaining, darkly funny at times, shocking, visually appealing, and many times it becomes thought provoking as it asks the viewer to decide what is right and what is wrong. And, religion is involved. The film could be divisive because of that fact alone. But if you just look at this as a film, you should end up being affected one way or the other by Red State, and few movies do that these days.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I bought this on demand for 24 hours and I felt the need to get in a second viewing before it expired.  I suppose that says as much about my opinion of this film as anything else.  I really wish it could stay in my DVR for a few days longer.  This film really stuck with me.

I am a fan of Smith's podcasting and am especially fond of Hollywood Babble-on with Ralph Garman.  I had been anticipating seing Garman as the silent Caleb for many months now and his appearance was not overhyped.  He was downright imposing and creepy in this film.  Garmy strong!

That Kevin Pollak head shot was out of nowhere.  What a great moment.

Smith’s cameo was great.  It was almost too much for the film to end on the funny line of, "Will you shut the f*** up?!" but after a second viewing, I was fine with it.  It's a bit of a statement, really, and I don't know about you, but I was wanting to yell the same thing.  And anyway, Silent Bob has to speak once by the end of the film.

This film looked flat out fantastic in HD.  I'm no camera buff, but whatever Smith was using made for an extremely clean and crisp picture.
Happy to see the "Breaking Bad" love (Smith is an admitted fan) with the casting of Badger (Matt L. Jones) and Skyler White (Anna Gunn).

What’s with the old Miller Lite bottles?  That design has been defunct for years now.  No big deal, but it did cause me to raise an eyebrow.

I love how Michael Parks says, "Coker-Cola."

The horn.  What a great way to end the climax of the film, and it was such an eerie sound.  I kind of wish the movie had gone that giant leap further and actually ended the film right there, possibly indicating that the Rapture had indeed started.  As cool as an ending that might make, it would also undercut the meaning of the film, though.  It would basically make the Coopers right, and I'm pretty sure that is not the message Smith would want to end the film with.