Lawless

Lawless is a grim, gritty movie that succeeds in telling a story but generally fails in making the audience care. That’s probably because none of the characters are particularly interesting or fresh.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released August 29, 2012

Written by Nick Cave, based on the novel by Matt Bondurant

Directed by John Hillcoat

Starring Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHaan, and Gary Oldman

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

The Bondurants live in the Appalachian mountains, running a moonshine business during Prohibition. The leader of the clan is Forrest (Hardy), who survived the war and probably believes the popular legend that he’s invincible. He leads his two brothers in making  and selling 100% proof moonshine and running a family tavern. Howard (Clarke) is the big brother who drinks a little too much but is relentlessly loyal. Then there’s Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest of the three and known to be pretty much a pantywaist.

Jack is tired of being seen as a coward, especially when compared to his mighty brothers, so he hatches a plan to make a lot more money from the moonshine business by dealing with a big city criminal called Floyd Banner (Oldman). Unfortunately, there is also a new, sadistic lawman in town by the name of Charlie Rakes (Pearce). Rakes is OCD-tidy and clean, and he has no interest in upholding the law. Instead, he wants others to bow to his will. He’s unrepentantly and opaquely evil.

So while Jack leads the Bondurant business into extreme success, also building a massive and secret distillery, Rakes is out shutting down all the moonshiners in the area. Rakes’ goal is to take down the Bondurants, so he uses his sadistic torture to try to find the Bondurant distillery.

Added to these plots is the appearance of Maggie (Chastain), a beautiful red-head from Chicago who has a history but who wants to live in a simpler place and conveniently chooses to get a job at the Bondurant tavern. She and Forrest have an instant connection.

Meanwhile, Jack is courting a rigidly religious girl called Bertha (Wasikowska) and turning into an ostentatiously successful criminal. You know he’s going to make a stupid mistake that endangers his family business and the lives of those he loves.

Critique

The acting, for starters, in Lawless is all kinds of excellent. Pearce pulls of cruel and pure evil well, despite the depth of his evilness being totally incomprehensible. Hardy conveys tree-trunk solidity and a capacity for total brutality quite well, but his manner of speech and physical presence make him hard to really get inside of. Clarke is excellent, as always, giving the audience a little more access into an otherwise simple character who just wants to drink, work hard for his family, and chill out. He will follow Forrest to the depths of violence if Forrest wants him to.

Then there’s LaBeouf. I want him to stop being a fast-talker for once in one of his movies. He needs to get away from these roles; he’s got some serious problems if he can’t get a role that doesn’t ask him to be a wise-cracking, cocky dip nozzle. That said, this role does ask him to tone it down and Jack has something more of an arc that his characters typically have.

Chastain is steady, incredibly beautiful, and very damaged as Maggie. The character, like every character in this movie, is convenient and opaque, but Chastain still gives Maggie grace and tenderness, as well as toughness. Wasikowska does a lovely job as a cowed but curious young lady who finds joy in simple things and who responds beautifully to Jack’s courting.

Pearce’s Rakes is a massive, totally absurd caricature. This is not Pearce’s fault. Pearce hits the ball so far out of the park that it is probably in the Thunderdome. This guy has commitment. But the character– gosh it’s bad.

Which brings us to the writing. This is not a new story. Noble criminals are just minding their business until a selfishly corrupt lawman shows up and now we have a revenge story where the noble criminals are totally justified in being unbelievably brutal. The characters are all devices that allow the violence, grim outlook on the world, nihilism, and fashionably awful things to happen.

I didn’t like this movie and I doubt I would like the book. I don’t need to see a man’s neck sawed at. I don’t think anyone does. Needlessly brutal, pointlessly bleak, and irritatingly glorifying of violence and criminality without real consequence, Lawless is more than forgettable. It’s a waste of phenomenal talent. It’s only because of absurdly good acting that this movie is watchable.

Content warnings: Graphic and bloody violence, loads of profanity, a scene of nudity and sexuality

Writing: 1.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 3

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This Means War

This Means War is the kind of movie that I really like, probably because I am the target audience. I’m a male and relatively young (at heart…), so it’s my kind of fare, right? Like Tango and Cash?

Sort of.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released February 17, 2012

Written by Timothy Dowling, Simon Kinberg, and Marcus Gautesen

Directed by McG

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler, Angela Bassett, Rosemary Harris, and Til Schweiger

Rated PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

This Means War looks promising. It stars the lovely Reese Witherspoon who hasn’t played a part like this before, the very sincere Tom Hardy, and a pretty funny Chris Pine. The conceit that two top-notch spies fall for the same girl, while having to deal with a nasty baddy, is pretty nifty. But it doesn’t quite deliver.

Story

FDR Foster (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are best friends and are two of the best CIA agents in the business. Supposedly. It’s easy to question this assumption when they flub the one mission we see them on, killing one of their targets, letting the other get away, and only barely acquiring a certain device– all while making a huge mess of what was supposed to be a covert operation.

In any case, they are grounded to sit behind desks for a time as penance. We find out here that Tuck is divorced with a kid and that he is very much out of the game. A game which FDR happily and skillfully plays. Tuck puts a profile up on a dating website.

Next we meet Lauren Scott (Witherspoon), a consumer advocate who tests products. She has a foul-mouthed and mostly useless friend called Trish (Handler). Trish places a profile for Lauren on the dating website too, although she makes quite a bit up. Despite the idiocy of this approach, Lauren and Tuck connect and meet up, getting along very well. In fact, they have actual chemistry.

Unfortunately, Lauren meets FDR on the same night and they start seeing each other too. So now you have two spies dating the same woman, or rather, one woman who has decided it’s okay to date two men. She gets to the point where she commits to deciding between the two men, but only after sleeping with both of them. All of this happens as she is egged on by apparently ad-libbed, foul lines from Trish.

Add to this triangle the vengeful brother of the man the two spies killed at the beginning of the film, and we really ought to have a decent action comedy that unfolds as hijinks ensue from the two spies using their training and technology to spy on each other and play pranks to cool down each other’s romance.

Critique

The problem is that the spies are basically irritating caricatures who don’t really resemble anyone we know or want to accept as real. One is the ladies’ man. One is the down-to-earth   divorced dad. But there’s really no difference between them of any significance, because they both resort to terrible things, including spying on this girl they are supposedly falling for.

Then there’s Lauren. Sure, Witherspoon is charming and she has excellent timing and she does what she can with this lady, but this woman chooses to two-time these gents. There’s no moral consequence for this, so we’re left wondering about who this person really is.

Next up we have Trish, the foul-mouthed and grating and irritating and totally unfunny Chelsea Handler. What is the allure of this woman? She’s a sardonic, profane woman. That’s why people love her so much? She goes for the cheap laugh based on coarse humor, base human nature, and crassness- both in the movie and on her show. She’s painful to watch.

Finally, there are the two tech teams that Tuck and FDR recruit to help them run their covert ops on each other. This is the best part of the movie. These two groups essentially adopt their leader in the same way Steelers and Ravens fans adopt their teams. There’s no moral high ground for either man, but the tech guys are unfailingly loyal.

So This Means War has three perfectly fine actors playing perfectly charming caricatures and it has perfectly fine jokes that elicit perfectly fine laughs. But it’s pretty vapid, despite some clever scenes, because there’s no real human center to it all. Lauren freely two-times while the spies freely break numerous privacy laws– and they get away with it all.

Granted, everybody who deserves payback gets it, so that’s nice. But the fact that Lauren picks who she picks is all kinds of random, leaving the viewer, yet again, with no real sense of reality or humanity.

If you like high-tech schtick and charming actors doing their best to get past a sad script, worse directing, and totally useless musical scoring, go see This Means War. Otherwise, you’re better off with Spies Like Us.

Content warnings: a few scenes of sensuality, some pretty heavy violence with gunfire and explosions, some profanity.

Writing: 1.5          Acting: 4          Overall: 2 (terrible directing is the wild card here)

Just you go and see if Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t agree with me on this.

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