Monday, September 30, 2013

RUSH Is Sweeping Sports Movie Gold

RUSH Review:

- RUSH really surprised me. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that a big, high-gloss Ron Howard movie delivered the goods, but hey, I guess it's been a while since Ron Howard really delivered a true knockout punch. Of late, I've thought of him more as the guy who does the DaVinci Code movies and pops up in self-effacing cameos on Arrested Development. But man, Rush is the return of the Howard who did riveting yet humanistic films like Apollo 13. If you've been on the fence about checking it out, I highly recommend that you give it a shot - Rush is not just a return to greatness for Howard, but one of the most impactful and well-crafted movies of the year so far.

Rush is based on a real-life story, but it wasn't one that I was at all familiar with going in. I suspect that others will have the same initial reaction as I did: wondering how appealing a movie about F1 racing can be if you're not particularly into racing. But the story here is one that's much more universal - because Rush is the story of a great rivalry. In this case, the rivalry between brash, fast-living, thrill-seeking British F1 racer James Hunt, and precise, steely, calculating Austrian racer Niki Lauda. It's a classic sports duel, with contrasting personalities and ethos - but eventually, with grudging respect - that reminded me of the likes of Bird vs. Magic. The difference here is that the two racers don't just compete - they put their lives on the line every time they strap into their souped-up cars.

What makes Rush's story so compelling is that the races really do become about life and death - when Lauda is horrifically injured in a near-fatal crash. Lauda however - a driven a competitor - works his way back from the brink and re-enters into the ongoing competition, despite emerging from his crash with painful and disfiguring burns.

So let me talk for a second about Daniel Bruhl, who plays Niki Lauda. He's phenomenal in the film. What struck me was how Lauda initially comes across as the "villain" of the movie. Afterall, he's the prickly one, the weaselly one, the obvious black knight to Hunt's heroic white knight. But soon enough, the movie shows that this isn't a black-and-white tale at all. Behind Lauda's prickliness we see a fierce competitor and a complex man. The kind of man who isn't typically painted as a hero - but who, in his own way, displays courage and heroism. Bruhl knocks it out of the park - he makes Lauda a nuanced character that keeps emotion bottled-up, but who has a steely resolve to keep moving forward. He doesn't like Hunt's swagger and showmanship. To Lauda, racing is about science, precision, and technique. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth is also quite good as James Hunt. A racing rockstar, his Hunt is a guy who takes full advantage of the perks of fame and fortune. But again, the movie is too smart for one-dimensional characters. As the movie goes on, Hunt grows increasingly weary of his life of excess, and increasingly finds a comradery in Lauda and a respect for him. Hemsworth shows himself to be a guy capable of playing much more complex characters than we've seen from him previously.

Ron Howard smartly spends considerable time building up both characters - generally keeping them out of each others' orbits except for select moments. There's some outstanding character work here - and the way the script devotes time to showing us Lauda and Hunt's vastly different worlds makes it all the more powerful when those worlds collide.

If there is a fault with the film, it's that the movie can't seem to decide just how much time to spend on the women in Hunt and Lauda's lives. Olivia Wilde plays Hunt's wife Suzy, and there is some compelling conflict and turmoil in their relationship. But Wilde drifts in and out of the film, and so some of the drama surrounding her feels forced. She's there just enough to feel like she's *supposed* to be a major character, but not enough to feel like she actually is. Handled slightly better is Alexandra Maria Lara's depiction of Lauda's wife, Marlene. Marlene fits in more organically with the story, because her relationship with Niki triggers in him a new fear of death that affects his racing. The two also have a courtship that's really well-written and fun. Still, Marlene also occasionally drifts out of the picture, and doesn't quite feel like a fully-realized character.

That said, the character work on Hunt and, in particular, Lauda, is so good that it's easy to overlook everything else. What's more, Ron Howard really directs the hell out of this movie. He gives the entire film an epic, sweeping feel. But he also makes it sexier and more rock n' roll that any film he's done to date. There are certain sequences that feel a little edgier, a little more experimental, and a little more avant garde than what we've come to expect from Howard - and that prevent Rush from feeling like *just* an aspirational Oscar-bait movie. Plus, the racing sequences are extremely well-done - edge-of-your-seat and visceral. Howard makes sure that the racing feels dangerous. You come away from those scenes wondering "who in their right mind would do this for sport?" And that's exactly the question the movie wants you to ponder.

I'll also mention that the film has a really great score from Hans Zimmer. Zimmer really heightens the emotion of the film and provides an added dimension to the action.

The great Bill Simmons called Rush the best sports movie in years, and I'm inclined to agree. It dramatizes the competitive drive of athletes in a way that few films have ever fully captured. And it brings to life an epic - but little known to modern audiences - rivalry in applause-worthy fashion. Daniel Bruhl deserves to be on awards lists come Oscar time, and Ron Howard deserves kudos for this creative comeback.

My Grade: A-

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Farewell to BREAKING BAD: The Greatest Story of Our Time.

 - It feels almost strange to write about Breaking Bad these days, because it was only a few years ago that it was a cult-favorite show that the faithful were yelling about to their friends, but that was still very much under the broader cultural radar. I too got on the Breaking Bad train slightly late - my brother and I powered through the first two seasons in preparation for Season 3, and man, marathoning through those first couple of seasons ... it was some of the best TV I'd ever seen to that point. But Breaking Bad just kept topping itself. As the show went on, I often thought "you know, this might just end up as one of the all-time great TV shows." But now, as I write this hours away from the finale, there can be no doubt. BREAKING BAD is likely the best serialized TV drama of all time.

Writers have waxed endlessly about the show over these last few months, but I thought I'd pull back for a second and talk about some of the broader thematic virtues of the series. I could write for pages about the brilliance of the cast - the great Bryan Cranston in particular, in what will go down as perhaps the single greatest TV drama performance ever given. I could talk about the look and aesthetic and production value of the show - so unique and so consistently incredible. Or I could talk about the mind-blowingly good writing, that keeps you guessing week to week, that never fails to shock, disturb, or get your heart racing. But what I want to do is talk for a bit about certain feelings that Breaking Bad captures - certain themes and moments - that no other show has ever tackled with such effectiveness.

The Moment of Panic.

- We all experience it. We all know the feeling. Okay, maybe some of you are those rare Type A personalities who constantly have their $#%& together every waking moment. But for most of us, we have it: that moment when the clock is ticking, when we have to quickly weigh all options, when we feel backed into a corner and we're not quite sure how or if we're going to make it. Maybe it's a feeling that's heightened in our modern world, a feeling that's magnified when we're constantly overextending ourselves and trying to pack in as much as we can into a a day that feels increasingly short. Breaking Bad is a show that captures that feeling of modern panic better than any other. For Walter White is a man who has a literal ticking clock, a man who is constantly backed into corners. And when Breaking Bad goes into "panic mode," and hits us with one of its patented Breaking Bad sequences of pure heightened adrenaline, my reaction is a mix of excitement and dread. Dread because again, who doesn't know that feeling, even if in some small way? The feeling of oversleeping and realizing you've got ten minutes to get to work. The feeling of realizing that you've got 20 minutes to accomplish something that would normally take an hour. The feeling that your plans aren't quite coming together, and it's going to take a desperate move or calculated risk to pull 'em off. Breaking Bad's heightened reality is our modern reality cranked up to 11. Walter White's dread is our dread. On one level, all Walter wants is to reach some mythical happy ending where he lives out a life of peaceful tranquility with his family. But on another level, he keeps pushing forward and practically digging his own grave. In some small way, isn't that what we all do? We box ourselves in. We set ourselves up. We participate in actions that will come back to bite us, but we do so anyway, thinking "I may *just* be able to get away with this if I play my cards right." When Walter is able to overcome the odds, and somehow escape - when he outwits Gus Fring or lucks out and squirms his way out of a tight squeeze - we can't help but root for him despite his ever-decreasing moral compass. Why? Because we've all been there, in some small way. We know the rush that comes with getting away with something, with having a plan somehow work despite the fact that it shouldn't, and only thanks to a stroke of lucky timing.

The Break-Bad.

- Here's another thing we all deal with in the "real world." The sad fact of adulthood that what is considered "good" is not always the same as what is considered required to succeed. As we get older, idealism can give way to self-preservation. And oftentimes, our own personal dealings - in business, in life - are framed as us vs. them. We're supposed to be ambitious. We're supposed to care about what's best-for-business. But how do we reconcile that with being kind, nice, caring, and good? In a world that seems to constantly pit us against one another, in which we're all scraping and clawing to be able to support ourselves and build a future, isn't it inevitable that people will get trampled along the way? It sounds bad to say that, and every day I think many of us grapple with these same issues. I know I sometimes come home from work feeling like I haven't been true to myself. I've spent all day trying to seem on top of things, trying to build up my own personal "brand," as they say. And yet what gets lost in all that is often common decency and altruism. We all see that to some extent in our own lives, and we also see it every day in the world around us. We see governments that kill in the name of a supposed greater good. We see entertainment that is exploitative. We see businesses that do harm in order to help the bottom line. Our world often constantly seems to be in a state of "breaking bad." And I think that's part of the reason why the journey of Walter White is so powerful, and why it speaks to us so clearly here in 2013. Breaking Bad spurs the conversation of: at what point do you still sympathize for, even root for, Walter White? And in turn, it makes us think about how we react - in a similar fashion - to our country, to corporations, to products we consume. Breaking Bad illustrates how behind a seemingly innocent business - say, Los Pollos Hermanos - lurks a darkness, a foundation built on crime and corruption and death. It shows us how business people like Lydia sit at the top of structures that are rooted in a similar sort of rot. Sure, the top of the hierarchy is glossed over with a fine coat of paint - its head is an attractive woman in business suits and pumps. But she is just one cog in a machine that includes gangsters, thieves, and killers. She distances herself from them outwardly. But really, how is she any different? Think about Walter White - the one thing we still sympathize with him about is his love for his family. It reminds me of during political season, when no matter how reprehensible a candidate is, we're always forced to acknowledge: "he's a family man," "he loves his sons and daughters," etc. The same sympathies that we extend Walter White could be extended to any number of corrupt, morally bankrupt, evil people. And yet ...

Bruised Ego.

- At its core, Breaking Bad is a story about one man's quest to satisfy his traumatized and broken ego. And again, as loathe as we may be to admit it, who among us doesn't experience the desire for ego-boost, on some level, on a regular basis? We want credit for what we've done, compensation for work we've put in, acknowledgement from others so that we get our proper due. It's only fitting that the finale of Breaking Bad be set up to get right back to that central theme, with Walter White incited back to action after seeing his old colleagues on TV, downplaying his role in the company he helped get off the ground. Walter, for all his questionable actions throughout the course of the series, was never good at the kind of slick, subtle whitewashing that his old colleagues display. And again, in a weird way, I sort of relate. In today's world, we're bombarded with sound-bites, censorship, and revisionism. We have media outlets, politicians, corporations giving us *their* version of the truth, to the point where it takes a renegade to get to the real truth and the real, bare facts. And to that end, there is often a feeling that he who bull$%^&s best, wins. The ones who wear their hearts on their sleeves, who speak their mind, who say what they mean - they're marginalized and dismissed as cranks. And so therein lies some of Walter White's lasting appeal: he became a frequent liar and manipulator during the course of his break-bad, but he was never particularly smooth. Everything he did had an air of desperation, of reaching beyond his means. Walter pretended to be a mastermind - he became Heisenberg. He used his hat and sunglasses to become a mythical figure - a supervillain. But remember, he had the hat, the glasses, the badass shaved-head/goatee look. But he also still had the khakis, the loafers, the dorky button-down shirts. He was always out of his league, trying to be something that he was not. And for that, we can't help but feel for him. Who among us hasn't put on a mask to appear one way, knowing that it's not who we really are? But Walter needs props, clothes, mental conditioning to convince himself that he is the man who knocks. And why shouldn't he? He's smart, he's capable ... what, really, separates him from the likes of Gus Fring? We all tell ourselves this on occasion. "What makes him any better than me?" "What's he got that I don't?" And in Walt, we admire that what actually makes him more weak and frail is that he is sort of bumbling and dorky and yes, maybe even, at his core, more of a decent human being than his rivals. But the tragedy is that Walt's way of compensating is to continually boost his ego by playing fast and loose with morality. To be Gus, he's got to lie, cheat, and kill. And in the end, that's what checks a lot of our everyday ego boosts at the door. We know that maybe we *could* be that guy, but to do so, we'd have to be an asshole. We know that maybe we *could* get the upper hand in a situation, but ultimately, we'd rather be the better man, the better example, the version of ourselves that we can live with and like. Perhaps, on occasion, we fantasize about *not* being that person, about being the break-bad versions of ourselves. That could mean anything from telling someone off to speaking the truth even when the truth hurts. It could mean boosting ourselves by putting someone else down. For Walter White, when he turned that switch off, it took him on an insane journey into the heart of darkness. But as we've seen, acting in the name of ego is a very dangerous - and very often futile - path to follow.

And so, tonight I tune in to the final episode of BREAKING BAD, and man, it's going to be the end of a long and crazy and just-plain-awesome ride. Oftentimes I watch TV, and as a TV guy, I think with my ego and think "yeah, I could do better." But in this instance, I put all ego aside and simply take my hat off to Vince Gilligan and co. This is a towering achievement - not just of TV, but of storytelling. The journey of Walter - and Jesse, Hank, Skylar, Marie, Walt Jr., Saul, Gus, Mike, and the rest - it's been a wild ride. Dialogue that will forever remain in the pop-culture lexicon, characters that will forever be icons, and a narrative that has set a new bar. But even beyond that, BREAKING BAD is the quintessential moral parable of our times - the ultimate cautionary tale about the perils of the modern world.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

THE SPECTACULAR NOW Presents Raw Look at Teenage Wasteland


- There have been a number of good coming-of-age movies so far this year, but THE SPECTACULAR NOW is one more worth checking out. Featuring two break-out lead performances, from teen stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, this is a film that deftly mixes comedy and tragedy and romance into one intoxicating blend. At times, the movie devolves into standard-issue soapiness. But what separates it from the pack is an aesthetic that's largely subtle, raw, and much more affecting that your average teen movie.

The film is, mostly, about the unlikely romance between Sutter (Teller) and Aimee (Woodley). Sutter is a unique sort of popular kid - not the usual jock or prep, but a smooth operator who gets by on his charm, outgoing nature, and charisma. He's like Boy Meets World's Cory Matthews with a dash of Elvis Presley. When we first meet Sutter, he's recently broken up with his girlfriend / object of infatuation Cassidy (Brie Larson, who is having a hell of a year), and still hung up on her. So when Sutter first meets geeky wallflower Aimee, his goal isn't so much to date her as it is to help boost her confidence a bit, in exchange for some tutoring. The thing is that behind Sutter's laid-back exterior are some real issues. A broken home has led Sutter to develop a serious drinking habit and some serious daddy issues. Meanwhile, Aimee has some issues of her own - not least of which is her growing attachment to Sutter.

As romance blossoms between the two, there is a very authentic-feeling courtship that goes on, that's got a lot more nuance than you typically get in this sort of movie. And what makes it work is that this isn't just about the boy-meets-girl story. Once they're together, Sutter and Aimee are forced to confront each others' deep-seated issues and fears, as each tries to help the other overcome and get past that which is holding them back.

Like I said, this is a star-making turn for Miles Teller. He makes Sutter feel less like a contrived teen movie character and more like someone you might actually have known or been friends with in high school. The movie never boxes him in or forces the character to be a cardboard cut-out, and with that sort of freedom, Teller thrives. Now, the easy criticism of the movie could have been that Aimee is just the stereotypical "dorky girl who takes off her glasses and is revealed to have been cute all along." But I think Woodley does a fantastic job here of making Aimee believably individualistic and, again, not a cardboard cutout. She's not a stereotypical geek, but rather an introverted girl who clearly undervalues herself. You can't help but root for her and Sutter - you can't help but cheer as he forces her out of her shell, and she gives him the courage to track down his absentee dad.

Eventually, Sutter's long-lost dad enters the picture - played by Kyle Chandler - and Chandler is in fine form, and really brings a strong dramatic element to the film. There are also strong supporting cast turns from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter's older sister, and from Bob Odenkirk as his boss, at the men's clothing store where Sutter has a part-time gig. But it's Woodley and Teller who power the movie's engine.

What prevents the film from reaching greatness is its overly-contrived third act. What had been a more grounded, naturalistic movie takes a turn for the melodramatic, and the film begins to take on an unintentionally campy tone. The film goes on for too long, and misses a chance to end things on a high note. Instead, the actual ending feels tacked-on and unearned, and cheesy to boot. The movie's descent into hokey-ness by no means ruins it, but it left me feeling like a film that didn't quite live up to its initial promise.

Overall though, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is a really well-done film that, for the most part, does a great job of being more than typical teen fare. The direction, tone, and rawness of the film contributes, but I chalk up a lot of the film's success to its bright young stars.

My Grade: B+

Friday, September 27, 2013

MUD Is Picturesque Adventure With Unexpected Depth

MUD Review:

- MUD is another piece of evidence in the unlikely story of Matthew McConaughey's rise from generic rom-com lead to one of the most interesting actors working in movies today. Between movies like last year's Killer Joe, and now Mud, McConaughey is now on the short list of actors whose appearance in film - especially an indie film - automatically puts it on my radar. But the actor isn't the only thing that's great about MUD. Writer/director Jeff Nichols crafts a fantastic coming-of-age tale that's like a modern-day Huck Finn - full of adventure, danger, darkness, and loss-of-innocence. It's a dark film, but also an oddly rousing one - a tale of boyhood dreams, about manhood, and love. I can't recommend it enough.

The main character of Mud is actually 14-year-old Ellis, a country boy who lives with his parents on a makeshift house-boat, along the banks of a river in Arkansas. Ellis is quiet and introspective, which makes him a good, odd-couple match for his best friend, Neckbone - a brave, smart-alecky kid who lives with his young, bachelor uncle and enjoys looking for trouble. Ellis spends a lot of time with Neckbone lately, and it's no wonder - Ellis' parents are having issues, and Ellis is eager to escape the darkness that clouds his home. One day, the two boys go to investigate a strange sight on a small island on the river - a boat that's caught up high among the treetops. The boys find that someone else has found the boat before them - a mysterious outlaw (McConaughey) known as Mud. The boys befriend him, and bring him food and other goods from beyond the island. But as they learn more about Mud and his ne'er do well ways, they increasingly get caught up in the danger that surrounds him. Many, it seems, are out to get him - the police, shady criminals - and it's all part of a strange love story, in which Mud is hiding out in hopes of a reunion with the woman who got him into this mess in the first place.

As Ellis, actor Tye Sheridan does a fantastic job, and really makes you believe in him as a boy in the midst of getting some of those hard life lessons about the way the world works. Many of those lessons come from his grizzled, gruff father Senior - played amazingly by Ray McKinnon. McKinnon is both a brute and a badass, the kind of father that, especially to a young teen, comes off as both god and devil, mentor and tormentor. He's balanced by Sarah Paulson, as his wife and Ellis' mother. Paulson has one of those oddly sweet faces that often seems to just-barely mask a darkness underneath - and that's true here. She seems like a woman who's been worn down by her husband's brooding stoicism. Sam Shepard is another actor who just knocks it out of the park in the film, playing a prickly, grumpy, shotgun-toting older neighbor who has a complicated history with Mud. Shepard is a real scene-stealer, and a total ass-kicker when called upon. Jacob Lofland is also quite good as Neckbone - his excitability a great counterpoint to Ellis' angst. Somewhat randomly, Michael Shannon appears as Neckbone's skirt-chasing uncle - it's a very un-Shannon type of role, but the actor is funny in the part. Finally, Reese Witherspoon plays Juniper, the elusive object of Mud's affections. Honestly, it's one of the best performances I've seen from Witherspoon to date - playing against type as an emotionally-manipulative and self-destructive woman.

As for McConaughey, I'm now convinced he is a lot like Bradd Pitt - at his best when playing characters who are edgy, strange, eccentric, or slightly insane. Mud is all of those things, but what makes him an endearing character is how blindly optimistic he is despite his difficult circumstances. It's no wonder the boys sort of idolize him - he's an outlaw who committed a crime of passion, and who's embraced a sort of makeshift Robinson Crusoe life on the island. He's this larger-than-life folk hero who seems genuinely heroic, and who is a gateway to a world of adventure and thrills. The ever-present smile, calm voice, and the twinkle in his eye give Mud a reassuring quality - the danger around him is very real, but Mud makes it all seem like some pulp adventure that he's a part of.

But MUD is not just about telling a pulpy adventure yarn. Instead, Nichols gets at the more grim reality behind the illusion. Ellis' learns that Mud isn't exactly the hero he thinks, and that his romance with Juniper is not exactly the star-crossed romance it seems to be. Ellis finds that love isn't quite so real or simple as he's heard. From Mud's complication relationship with Juniper, to Ellis' parents' increasingly rocky marriage, to Ellis' own shaky attempts at teenage courtship - this is a story about coming to terms with the fact that the world is a more complicated and ugly place than what we imagine as children.

Nichols shoots the film with an eye towards the scenic southern locales in which it takes place. There's a rustic, frontier quality to the film's aesthetic. Even though it takes place in the modern day, it feels like we're in a part of the country that is, in some ways, unchanged from years and even centuries past. It reminded me a little of the trapped-in-amber hills of Winter's Bone. Bottom line is that the movie looks pretty amazing, and there's a contagious spirit of adventure that permeates throughout, tinged with hints of darkness and ominous dread.

MUD is a really cool film that's both overflowing with atmosphere and character, and that also has a lot of thematic depth. Nichols (who before this, did indie flick Take Shelter) is definitely a director to watch, and McConaughey continues to have a moment where every role he touches seems to be gold.

My Grade: A-

Monday, September 23, 2013

PRISONERS Is Gripping, Ultra-Intense Tale of Vengeance


- PRISONERS is a dark, twisty, enthralling thriller that, despite a long running time, kept me on the edge of my seat for its duration. Going in, I wasn't familiar with director Denis Villeneuve, but he makes an incredibly strong first impression - directing the film with old-school, stark simplicity and haunting, deliberate pacing. On the flip side, the movie is filled with top-notch actors, many doing some of the best work of their careers. This is Jake Gyllenhaal doing some of his best-yet acting. It's Hugh Jackman playing a force of nature, but a much different type of character than we're used to seeing from him. It's Melissa Leo ... well, I don't even want to say, except that she's good. Real good. Meanwhile, the film deals with some very interesting, thought-provoking, and complex themes. But if there's any major flaw here, it's that I'm not fully convinced that the movie's many interrelated themes, plot-threads, and overarching ideas come together in an impactful way. But even so, I can appreciate a potboiler that also gives you a lot of thematic meat to chew on.

The movie deals with the aftermath of a double-kidnapping. The two victims? Two little girls, friends who were gathered with their families for Thanksgiving dinner. The girls decide to sneak off, but their families panic when they're nowhere to be found. On one side of the coin is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a gruff survivalist whose personal motto is to always be prepared for the worst. Keller reacts to the kidnapping by going into vigilante mode - distrustful of the police, and determined to solve the case on his own. His wife, Grace (Maria Bello) is absolutely torn up by the kidnapping. She spends her days in bed, on meds, a mess of tears and pain. On the other side is Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis). Franklin gets pulled into his friend's quest for vengeance, but reluctantly so. Franklin can see that Keller is losing it - his perspective and his moral compass - in his determination to find his daughter. This manifests in Keller's insistence that the truth lies with Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally handicapped man whose RV was parked nearby the two couples' homes at the time of the abduction. Meanwhile, the cop tasked with solving the kidnapping is loner Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Loki finds himself with the unenviable task of tracking the girls and pursuing leads, all while keeping the increasingly unstable Keller in check.

Like I said, this is a fairly towering performance from Hugh Jackman. While there's still a residual hint of Wolverine-esque badassery in Keller, this is also a more grounded, blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth type of character than we typically see from the actor. When we first meet Keller, his grim, survivalist worldview is tempered by the love and stability of his family. But when that gets ripped away from him, the darker inclinations come to the forefront. And Jackman handles that transformation wonderfully, showing us a guy who is willing to compromise his own soul in exchange for saving that of his daughter. On the other end of the spectrum, this is one of those Jake Gyllenhaal roles where the actor gets to be at his quirkiest, which to me is a good thing. After all, this is the guy who first impressed by playing a total oddball in Donnie Darko. Here, his Detective Loki is sort of fascinating. He ponders things slowly, carefully, but then is prone to rage when things don't add up. But Loki makes for a great contrast with Keller. Loki is trying to weigh all the angles, juggle all the facts. Keller is single-minded and laser-focused.

Overall, the supporting cast is quite simply stacked. If anything, I think you end up wanting even more substantial parts of top-notch actors like Bello, Howard, and Davis. That said, the movie is overripe with plot, and there just isn't time to widen the focus too much to these peripheral characters.

The bigger problem might be theme. Writer Aaron Guzikowski and Villeneuve go big. They introduce questions about vengeance, faith, god, morality, and justice. They use Keller as an example of what can happen when one man's quest for vengeance overrides his own moral compass - creating a situation in which Keller nearly becomes the bad guy in his own story. They look at the cycle of violence, and how one evil act begets another. They give the kidnapping a religious connotation: the kidnappers wage a war against god, with the terrorist-like goal of destabilizing and breaking good men: of inspiring others to inadvertently join the crusade of evil by retaliating and repeating the perpetrator's sins. All of this is good stuff - and for a while, the movie captivates, as it dangles these big questions in front of us. But these big themes don't necessarily jive with the plot's twisty nature. With each new twist, we get thrown for a surprising loop, but the big themes of the film also, to a degree, are undermined. It's hard to talk too much about without spoiling things, except to say that as the credits roll, it feels like you've been left with a hodgepodge of half-finished ideas and themes that were only explored halfway.

Still, the plot alone makes for gripping drama, and the film builds suspense - and genuine mystery - in a way that's as effective as any crime thriller we've seen in a long while. Villeneuve - along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins - craft a gorgeous-looking film that gives its rural, every-town setting a palpable sense of dread and foreboding. The movie feels like a throwback in many ways, and I found it refreshing. The pacing, the cinematography, the way the movie takes its time and builds and builds and lets the atmosphere take hold - it definitely feels like a film not quite of this time (and maybe that's also the Euro-ness of it all) - which ironically gives it that sort of classic, timeless feel.

PRISONERS is a pretty fascinating film, and in all honesty it's a hard one to rate. There's so much to like here, and so much that feels atypical and applause-worthy for this sort of big-screen crime procedural. Rarely does a crime movie have this much on its mind. At the same time, it's slightly frustrating because Prisoners is just shy of being a classic, in that by its end, the movie sort of collapses under its own weight. There's a lot that doesn't quite add up, and what the movie is ultimately about, what it's ultimately saying, ends up feeling a bit lost and muddled. But the ride to get there - it's still well worth taking.

My Grade: B+

SPRING BREAKERS Is Crazy Vision of Hell On Earth


- Far from being a simple bit of pop exploitation, SPRING BREAKERS is a weird-as-hell, tripped-out, pitch-black social satire that I found both fascinating and aggravating. Writer/director Harmony Korine is not the kind of guy who would ever make a normal teen beach movie. And a normal teen beach movie this is not. This is a film that's subversive, darkly funny, and very much critiquing the "spring break!" lifestyle, that, upon first glance, it seems to be celebrating. But in fact, the film seems to look out upon the bleak wasteland of youth-trash culture and cast an apocalyptic, judgmental eye upon it. Korine goes full-on scorched earth here, delivering an at-times funny, at times-scathing satire that is well worth checking out, even if only to see something completely weird and different.

Spring Breakers tell the story of four college girls who are desperate to escape their dorms and classrooms and live the crazy, party-all-night lives that to them are the nadir of existence. Their mecca is Spring Break, and they are determined to get their at all costs. Only good-girl Faith (Selena Gomez) has reservations about the whole thing, though she goes along with her friends with a disturbing sense of naivete. I say this because the girls' plans to party are tinged with a sinister streak. Their appetite for danger and destruction comes with a nihilistic, masochistic attitude - as evidenced by the other three girls, Candy, Britt, and Cotty - funding their plans through armed robbery. The three wilder girls clearly get off on holding innocent people at gunpoint, and that desire to keep pushing boundaries colors everything that comes next.

Enter James Franco's drug-dealing, cornrowed rapper Alien. Alien is sort of the lord of Spring Break, and he quickly takes the four girls under his wing. Under Alien's tutelage, the girls' evolving ideas of Spring Break glory continue to evolve. Sex and violence intermingle, and the loose morals of Spring Break transform into a brazen immorality that is less about partying and fun, and more about a numb, brain-dead youth culture who rack up real-life thrills with the emotional detachment of a junkie looking for the next fix.

Like just about all elements of the film, Franco walks the exact line between trashy, jokey badness and oddball brilliance. Somehow, it works. And at one point soon after his character's introduction, James Franco gives - no joke - one of the most memorable monologues in movie history. Taking the girls into his tricked-out, uber-tacky crib, Alien gives one of the most memorable house tours ever - in a hilarious, totally insane rant that centers around the oft-repeated mantra of: "look at all my $#%^!".

In fact, the whole movie has this kind of circular, spiral structure. Key images and phrases repeat and return throughout the film, and the effect is that of going down the rabbit hole, by way of a psychedelic mind-trip. It's almost as if Korine is trying to subject us to the same brainwashing that his characters seem have gone through. These are characters who worship at the altar of Britney Spears and Girls Gone Wild videos. These are characters who seem almost insane, yet are revealed to be part of a mass-insanity that spreads almost like a virus. This is dark stuff, disturbing stuff, and Korine presents it as downright hellish.

All that said, Korine still engages in plenty of surface-level titillation. The director casts child-actor icons like Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson as his bad girls (plus his own wife, Rachel Korine), but none brings much truly memorable to the table other than their Disney-bred pedigree. To be fair, the script portrays these girls as sort of pop-culture-slave pod people, so there isn't much for them to do except act glaze-eyed and strung out. Again, it's all a very fine line. The movie sometimes feels a bit too much like the Girls Gone Wild quasi-porn it seeks to satirize. And yet, there's undeniably that darkness there, and a real sense of contempt for its characters rather than glorification.

And so, Korine reels you in with the promise of one thing, but the end result is another thing entirely. It's not a movie glorifying spring-breakers - nope, it's a movie eviscerating 'em, going so far as to say that what they represent may very well be the death knell of the civilized world. Korine walks the line between being compelled by this world and repulsed by it. I don't think he 100% pulls off his vision. The repetition can get draggy, the pacing sometimes feels off, and there's occasionally the feeling that Korinne isn't quite sure what the hell this movie is, exactly. But he gets at something, in the movie's best moments, that makes an impression. He draws the arrow from trash-culture to apocalypse in a way that's both funny, thought-provoking, and just crazy enough to make sense.

My Grade: B+