Film Review: Cop Car (dir by Jon Watts)


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Cop Car opens with two young boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) walking through a field.  Over the course of the film, we really don’t learn that much about either Travis or Harrison.  They speak in the tones and accent of childhood and the trailer park.  They’re just two ordinary kids, who appear to be bored out of their mind and who can blame them because it appears that they live out in the middle of nowhere.

And then, suddenly, their boredom ends.

They comes across a deserted cop car sitting in the middle of the wilderness.  After a successive number of dares, they end up inside of the car.  And then, they discover that the keys are still in the car as well.  Soon, Harrison and Travis are taking turns driving the car, roaring down the highway, nearly running an irate motorist (Camryn Manheim) off the road and basically having a great time.

What the kids don’t know is that the cop car belonged to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a grim-faced lawman who isn’t going to allow two little kids to make a fool out of him.  Even while Harrison and Travis are playing around in the car, Kretzer is pursuing them.  Along the way, Kretzer is reduced to stealing a truck, gets stopped for speeding, and basically sacrifices any ounce of personal dignity that he may have.  Along the way, cars crash and cows are nearly run over.

And it all sounds like the making of a comedy, doesn’t it?  Just from reading the plot description, you might be justified in thinking that Cop Car is a white trash version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Well, make no mistake.  Cop Car has its funny moments but it is definitely not a comedy.  Sheriff Kretzer may occasionally be a bit of a bumbling adversary but he is no Principal Rooney.  Instead, Kretzer is a vicious and effective killer.

The reason Kretzer was away from his car is that he was busy burying a body in the woods.  And what the kids don’t realize, at first, is that there’s another body in the trunk of the car.  Kretzer is determined to get back his cop car and he’s willing to kill the boys to do it.  Even worse, Kretzer’s badge and uniform give him both the ability and the authority to do so.

There’s one particularly effective scene where Harrison and Travis playing with the weapons that Kretzer left in the car is juxtaposed with Kretzer pouring a baggie of cocaine into a toilet.  But, at the same time, I almost wish that the whole drug dealing subplot had been left out of the film.  When we first meet Kretzer, he’s scary precisely because his motives are unknowable.  He’s an authoritarian with a badge, and a bad mustache.  The more specific the film gets about Kretzer’s motivations, the less interesting he becomes.  Imagine if Kretzer has simply been an unstoppable force of wounded machismo, motivated by nothing more than his belief that his law is the only law that matters.  By making Kretzer a criminal as well as a cop, Cop Car dilutes its otherwise strong critique of the pro-authoritarian strain that currently runs through American culture.

As a thriller and chase film, Cop Car works pretty well, though the first half is significantly better than the second.  (The second half gets a little bogged down with the man in the trunk.)  Director Jon Watts keeps the film moving at a good pace and he shows that he knows how to generate suspense.  There’s a lengthy and narratively risky scene where Kretzer repeatedly tries and fails to pick a lock but the scene pays off in the end and Watts deserves some credit for having faith in the patience of his audience.

But really, Cop Car works largely because Kevin Bacon has become a national treasure.  It’s always fun to watch him throw himself into playing off-center roles like Sheriff Kretzer.  Bacon is smart enough to play up Kretzer’s stupidity without ever downplaying his dangerous and cunning nature.  It’s a great performance in a pretty good film.

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Film Review: Man on a Ledge (dir. Asger Leth)


The newly released film Man on a Ledge is about a man (played by Sam Worthington) who checks into a hotel room in New York City and then climbs out on a ledge and threatens to jump off unless a specific hostage negotiator is brought in to talk him off the ledge.  We quickly discover that Worthington isn’t just a depressed jumper.  Instead, he’s got a really lengthy and overly complicated back story.  It turns out that he’s a former detective who used to moonlight for a venture capitalist and then one day, he was accused of stealing a priceless diamond and destroying it.  This resulted in him getting sentenced to 25 years in prison but when his father is reported to have died, Worthington is released from jail for a day so he can attend the funeral.  So, Worthington escapes and then ends up out on a ledge as part of a massively complicated plan to prove his innocence.  His name, by the way, is Nick because people named Alvin are never the stars of action movies.

Meanwhile, the cop that Nick demands to speak with is a hardened, veteran hostage negotiator and she’s played by Elizabeth Banks.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Anyway, Nick asks for her because he knows that the last guy she tried to talk out of jumping apparently jumped off a bridge.  Since Banks failed her last time out, her efforts to talk Nick off the ledge are cautiously observed by another detective, this one played by Edward Burns.  Banks is totally and completely miscast here and she has next to no chemistry with Sam Worthington.  However, she does have really good chemistry with Edward Burns.  Seriously, they would make a really cute couple and I would buy any issue of Us Weekly that had them on the cover.

Meanwhile, the guy that Nick is accused of stealing from just happens to be in a building across the street where he’s conducting some sort of generically evil business deal.  He’s a painfully thin, almost sickly man and, whenever he was on screen, I found myself wondering how his head managed to stay balanced on his body.  At first, I thought maybe it was the Red Skull waiting for the sequel to Capt. America to start filming.  However, on closer inspection, he turned out to be respected character actor Ed Harris.  In this film, Harris plays a ruthless capitalist who would have gone bankrupt if not for the insurance money he got as a result of Nick supposedly destroying that diamond.  Anyway, Harris appears to be enjoying playing a bad guy and he’s so over-the-top in his evil that you don’t really mind that he’s another one of those “I-should-kill-you-now-but-first-we-talk” type of villains.

Meanwhile, there’s two other people who are taking advantage of all the chaos caused by the man on the ledge to break into Harris’s building.  They’re played by Jamie Bell (who looks a lot like Casey Affleck in this film) and telenova veteran Genesis Rodriguez.  As you watch Bell and Rodriguez sliding down heating ducts and scaling elevator shafts, you can’t help but marvel at just how overly complicated everyone is making things.  Still, Bell and Rodriguez have a lot of chemistry and they’re fun to watch.

Meanwhile, NYC television reporter (played by Kyra Sedgwick) is running around the streets of New York, asking random bystanders how they feel about the prospect of Nick jumping.  Apparently, she is an old enemy of Elizabeth Banks’ though that whole plot line is dropped as soon as its brought up.  Still, the audience in my theater chuckled when Sedgwick dramatically rolled her r’s while introducing herself as “Suzie Morales.”

Meanwhile, there’s a bearded guy watching Nick up on the roof and he suddenly decides to go all Occupy Wall Street on the movie’s ass and starts shouting, “Attica!  Attica!” before then blaming it all on the 1%.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t put on Guy Fawkes mask at any point during all of this.

Meanwhile, the entire city of New York is obsessed with the man on the ledge and, if nothing else, they all end up acting exactly the way that people who have never been to New York City (like me) assume that people in New York act.  By that, I mean all the extras are all like, “Yo, Paulie!  There’s some man on a ledge!  Stop breaking my balls!” 

Meanwhile, there’s one final twist to the film’s plot that I can’t share without spoiling the film.  So, I’ll just say that it involved someone working at the hotel and I figured out the twist about 3 minutes after this character first appeared.  This is one of those twists that if you can’t figure out on your own then you need to hang your head in shame.  Seriously.

This film packs a lot of plot into 90 minutes of screen time and, not surprisingly, the end result is a bit of a mess.  This is one of those films where every single character attempts to solve his or her problems in the most needlessly complicated and implausible way possible.  Still, almost despite myself, I enjoyed Man on a Ledge.  It’s just all so silly and stupid that it becomes oddly likable.  The film also has two nicely done chase scenes and some of the scenes where Nick attempts to manuever about on the ledge made me go, “Agck!”

Seriously, I don’t do heights.

Review: Gamer (dir. by Neveldine/Taylor)


No one will ever mistake the writer-director duo of Neveldine/Taylor (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) as the next Coen Brothers, but they definitely have made their mark in creating entertaining films which some have called exploitative, pandering to the lowest common denominator and exercises in excess. Maybe these critics are right, but they also seem to view the films by these two filmmakers through the narrow-minded lens of their elistist and so-called cineaste sensibilities. They won’t be the next Coen Brothers but they’re way ahead of other so-called filmmaker duos such as The Spierig Brothers (Undead and the pretentious and awful Daybreakers) or The Strause Brothers (AvP: Requiem and the awful Skyline). They came onto the scene with their cult classic action thrillers Crank and it’s sequel, Crank: High Voltage.

Their third film took the gaming influences so inherent in their first two films (which for all intents and purpose were video games that happened to be film) and went the next step. Gamer is all about a near-future world where two games with on-line social media foundations have become the rage of the entertainment world. One is a game called “Society” that looks to be the nightmare evolution of privacy advocates everywhere to the on-line virtual world Second Life and The Sims. It is the other game in this film which makes up the foundation of the film’s plot. “Slayers” takes the ultra-popular multiplayer on-line experiences of games such as Call of Duty and HALO to the next level by allowing gamers to actually control real people (inmates sentenced to death) to act as their avatars in a real-life battlefield arena with real weapons and real deaths.

These games which have become the obsession of hundreds of millions of people worldwide are the brainchild of the film’s antagonist. Michael C. Hall plays the creator of these games and his performance looks to combine the sociopathic charm of his Dexter character with that of Steve Jobs is the latter was openly honest about his douchebag tendencies. Playing his opposite is the character of Kable who happens to be the reigning champion of the game Slayers and who knows a secret that could tear down the billion-dollar empire created by Castle. Gerard Butler plays the desperate but very capable inmate Kable who just wants to survive past the final match and earn his freedom thus return to his wife and young daughter on the outside.

Gamer posits the question of how far are we willing to go to experience realism in our games and entertainment. With the game Society people pay to be able to control other people in a social setting (albeit in a controlled area). These so-called avatars will do anything and everything their real-life controllers tell them to do. In the film these avatars get paid to become virtual slaves and with most people signing up for the job being the socially desperate. Their situation is not so dissimilar from the condemned inmates who populate the game Slayers. The film hits the audience with a sledgehammer that these virtual entertainments have become popular worldwide because people have stopped looking at these “volunteers” as real people. Morality has been replaced by the need for instant gratification by way of these virtual on-line systems.

The film doesn’t make any apologies for the heavyhanded delivery of it’s message and also doesn’t skimp on the entertainment side of the equation. Neveldine/Taylor have shown that they have a certain flair for creating visual chaos and action on the screen. Their unique visual style does look like something out of a video game especially those from hyperrealistic shooters such as Call of Duty and its ilk. The filmmakers have always accomplished the high-quality visual look of their films despite the low to modest budget given to them by the studios they’re working for. Gamer is no exception and the film benefits from the decision by these two filmmakers to continue working with the Red One digital cameras thus allowing them to add in the visual effects right into the shot scenes the very same day of shooting.

It’s this very style of hi-tech guerrilla filmmaking which makes Neveldine/Taylor this current era’s Cormans. Unlike most low-budget filmmakers they don’t use the size of their budget to dictate how their films turn out visually, aurally and narratively. The first two this film succeeds in ways that makes an audience think the film was higher budgeted than it really was. The third would depend on the viewer whether the film succeeds or not. For those who seem intent on viewing every film as if they were made to be worthy of high awards and accolades would probably dismiss and hate this piece of exploitation cinema. Gamer succeeds in a narrative sense because it delivers on the promise of telling a story about a world where free will has been seconded to control in the need of a population in search of a the next virtual playground. It’s a heady premise that has been explored in past films such as the Matrix Trilogy and another film similar to this one which came out weeks later in Surrogates.

Gamer doesn’t have the philosophical and existential sermoning in combination with futuristic action sequences as the Wachowski Brothers’ trilogy, but it does have the same visceral action DNa as those three films and also more entertaining than the Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates. This film will appeal to the very people who it condemns as sheep to the rising tide of on-line control in entertainment, but then that’s what all exploitation films tend to do best. Cater to the very people it uses as examples of what’s wrong in society and build an entertaining film around them and what they represent.

The film’s cast revolves around Gerard Butler and Michael C. Hall and the roles they play. Whether its Amber Valletta playing Kable’s desperate wife who has sold herself to become a controllable avatar in Society to try and earn enough to get her young daughter back or to Logan Lerman playing the role of Simon the gamer who controls Kable during the Slayer matches. They all do enough with their roles to keep their characters from becoming less than one-notes. Again, for some having a film with characters that are quite basic and one-note might make for a bad film, but when put into context of the story being told they’re quite good and needed to become motivators for Butler’s character.

In the end, Neveldine/Taylor have made a modern day exploitation and grindhouse film in Gamer without having to resort to the visual tricks used in the Rodriguez/Tarantino grindhouse homage film Grindhouse. A film doesn’t need to have film scratches, overexposed film stock, scratchy audio track or missing film reels to be grindhouse. It just have to espouse the very nature of the films which made up the kind of films which became prime example of grindhouse/exploitation cinema. Gamer won’t win any awards, but I suspect that more people who saw it were entertained by it’s blatant, in-your-face entertainment than would normally admit to it. It’s a film that has cult status and guilty pleasure written all over it.

Plus, this film is definitely worth at least a curiosity viewing if just to see the musical number performed by Michael C. Hall at the climactic sequence near the end of the film. I don’t think any film has ever combined gratuitous violence, musical dance numbers using bloodied death row inmates and Michael C. Hall singing Frank Sinatra’s “Ive Got You Under My Skin“. That sequence alone is worth a rental or Netflix Instant streaming.