Saturday, February 1, 2014

Movie Reviews: A Single Shot, Carrie(2013), Cold Comes The Night, Runner, Runner

A Single Shot
directed by David Rosenthal
Although the guitarist Robin Trower should be appreciated in his own right, when you listen to his most famous creations it's very obvious that Jimi Hendrix was a major influence. Trower has never denied this. Hendrix influenced many musicians. Some of Trower's music sounds like unreleased Hendrix Band of Gypsys cuts. That's a compliment but it can also be worrying. Similarly, although A Single Shot is based on a book not written by the famed filmmakers The Coen Brothers, Rosenthal's noir film gives such a homage to the Coen Brothers in general and specifically such films as Blood Simple or Fargo that some people might wonder why Rosenthal just didn't ask the Coens if they wanted to produce or direct. A Single Shot takes place in the isolated West Virginia backwoods. Similar to many movies that I like, especially from the seventies, A Single Shot attempts realism in people's actions and speech. Events take time to play out. There are pauses in conversations and long periods of silence when someone is engaged in a solitary pursuit. The camera work is solid and far from hyperactive. A Single Shot is a quiet bleak film which takes its time getting to the point. The protagonist is not a particularly nice person. The introduction makes that quite clear. I don't know if this was their first film together since 2002's Welcome to Collinwood (which you should see) but it was nice to see Sam Rockwell and William Macy together again. Perhaps the film tried too much for realism as between the attempted accents and oft inebriated or angered state of the characters it was occasionally difficult to understand the dialog. So what's this film about?

John Moon (Sam Rockwell) is a desperate West Virginia hunter and farmer who has lost his father's farm. As a result, and possibly because he's too proud and/or lazy to work for other people, he feeds himself by poaching. Moon has also lost his attractive wife Jess (British actress Kelly Reilly-again showing what seems to me to be a decent interpretation of a upper Southern accent), and son. Jess, a poor diner waitress, wants a real man, that is someone with money. This film doesn't depict her as a golddigger. Jess just would like to be able to live somewhere nice without ducking calls from bill collectors or wondering if she'll have enough money to feed herself and her son. She still likes John. She just doesn't love him any more. The first 5-10 minutes of the film have virtually no dialogue as we watch John stalk a deer.
John briefly loses sight of the deer as it runs into a gully. He's working to flush it out when he sees/feels its movement. He shoots and sees it fall. He runs to finish the killing process and start the gutting. But he's made a horrible mistake, one that anyone properly trained with a gun should never make. Know what you're shooting at before you pull the trigger. John has not actually shot a deer but a young woman. He is horrified and tries to save her but it's too late. Poking around the area John discovers the woman's camp. Searching through her belongings he finds a large amount of cash-tens of thousands. He takes the cash and disposes of the body, hightailing it out of the area before anyone comes to investigate the shot. He doesn't go to the police. So right from the beginning we can see that John is not the most lawful or ethical man.
John tries to convince Jess to reconcile before the divorce is final. He gives her money. While he's in town he stops by his attorney Dagger Pitt's (William Macy) office to order him to slow walk the divorce process. John gives money to Pitt. As everyone knows John never has any money, the fact that he's throwing around $100 bills does not go unnoticed. As the garrulous Pitt points out, they all live in a small town with interrelated businesses, interests and people. Later, going to Jess' apartment, John finds that Jess is absent but that her babysitter has invited over the sinewy ex-con Obadiah (Joe Anderson-another British actor) for some private meet and greet time. Obadiah put a gun to John's head because John entered without announcing himself. John is angry to find another man in his wife's apartment, particularly one who even after he learns who John is, is dismissive and disrespectful. Obadiah seems to know more of John's business than he should. Obadiah may be working for even more dangerous folks.
John's friend Simon (Jeffrey Wright), a rake, has returned to town just to visit or so he says. John starts getting telephone threats to return the money. Local rich girl Abbie (Opehlia Lovibond-another British actress) starts to make a play for John. Pitt hints that he has clients whose interests might conflict with those of John. Someone shoots and kills John's dog. An anonymous phone caller tells John that unless he returns the money the dog won't be the last loved one of John's to be killed. But John won't return the money. He sees the money as his only chance to regain Jess and redeem his father's farm. So events proceed apace. As mentioned, this film moved at a very leisurely pace. The ultimately ambiguous ending dramatically upped the tension and dread but the film may have waited too long to do that. But I'd say it was a good film.


directed by Kimberly Peirce
It had been a very long time since I had read the Stephen King book upon which this story was based or seen the original film with Sissy Spacek. So I didn't have a lot of preconceptions before sitting down to watch the third cinematic adaptation of this novel. I'm sure you know the basic story. A bullied shy socially inept girl with an emotionally and physically abusive mother is humiliated at her prom. However this girl also happens to have a very strong telekinetic ability. So she proceeds, almost despite herself, to open up a HUGE can of whoop-a$$ on everyone who ever hurt her. That's the big external story. It has some obvious links to current fears about bullying as well as constant fears about the process by which we become men and women. I've heard that some people never really truly believe and understand that they're going to get old and die until they bring another life into this world. Carrie touches on that, albeit obliquely.
The internal theme which is the story's core is how people, in this case, mostly girls, can ruthlessly single out, crush and humiliate those who are different. Girls can be just as wicked, mean and evil as boys can be. Based on talking to or even being related to a few women who weren't exactly founts of joy and happiness during their high school years I think the original novel and this adaptation realistically displayed female aggression and anger. The real horror of Carrie is simply meanness, not a telekinetic run amok. Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an elfin high school student who is mocked and bullied at school and home. Moretz, perhaps as much as Spacek in the original, captures Carrie's almost visceral vulnerability and naivete. The only misstep is that in today's world of constant sexual information flow in which some people try to lecture third graders on gay sex, it seems beyond belief that a female high school student would be ignorant of menstruation. The movie explains this by having had Carrie home schooled by her mother. Margaret White (Julianne Moore) is a religious nut who cuts and scourges herself. Moore's performance here was suitably disturbing, if not quite as intense as I remember the original. The elder White most definitely believes in Original Sin (S-E-X). Moore inhabits a very different character than her Mrs. Robinson type role in Don Jon but that's why they call it acting. For Margaret the need to cut out sin is FAR more important than anything silly like motherly love.
Showering alone after gym class to avoid being nude in front of others, Carrie has her first period. She has no idea what's going on. She thinks that she's dying. The other girls are initially amused but become irritated as the frightened Carrie becomes hysterical and bleeds over the floor. They start to throw tampons at her, chanting "Plug it up". The lead bully, Chris (Portia Doubleday) records the event on her cell phone. Even Sue (Gabriella Wilde), an intelligent girl who knows better, initially joins in with the taunting. The no-nonsense gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), marches into the showers to see what the fuss is about, stops the bullying and forcefully brings Carrie out of her hysteria. Miss Desjardin arranges for Carrie's mother to take her home. The teacher tries to talk to Mrs. White about Carrie's obvious ignorance of human bodily functions but Margaret is not having it. There is a moment of pathos at home as the frightened and confused Carrie desperately begs her mother to explain why she never told her about the change. But Margaret thinks this is just the sign of Carrie's turn toward sin. She beats her with a Bible and locks her in a closet to pray. Carrie's telekinesis starts to manifest.
But although Margaret may be beyond Miss Desjardin's authority, the girls who bullied Carrie aren't. The teacher doles out suicide drills as punishment. Refusal means that they don't pass gym class and can't go to prom. Being a woman herself, evidently the teacher has some insight into these girls' motivation. The girls agree to this, following Sue's lead. Chris, however is not only dismissive of the punishment but remains extremely vindictive towards Carrie, having uploaded the shower scene to youtube. When Chris refuses punishment she is kicked out of class and school. This breaks the friendship between Sue and Chris. It also kicks off a tragedy as Chris plots her revenge. Sue feels bad about what happened. She noticed that her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) stuck up once for Carrie in class. So Sue asks Tommy to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. Against his better judgement, not because he dislikes Carrie but because he loves Sue, Tommy agrees. Tommy sweeps Carrie off her feet without being condescending, something the paranoid Carrie is always expecting. Carrie is researching her power and even showing it to her mother. Margaret freaks out about having a "witch" for a daughter who is attending prom in a dress that shows off her "dirtypillows". Chris and her court of friends have come up with the perfect revenge. And Tommy and Sue remain clueless, tragically so.

The film's final 20 minutes have all the requisite explosions, blood and death but you should never forget that everything happened because Carrie was a victim of an insane sexually repressed mother and mean peers. It's the ugliness of a broken mother-daughter relationship, the flow of repressed sexual urges into other channels, and people hurting the vulnerable among us that stays with you, not the special effects. I thought the Carrie character lost a little sympathy because she has more malice and intent when her powers make their public appearance.


Cold Comes The Night

directed by Tse Chun
Walter White didn't die. He was just blinded. He moved to Eastern Europe to recuperate and plot his revenge while somehow picking up a Boris Badenov accent. You could be forgiven for thinking that after watching this movie. It's another noir film but it's not quite as cute or as smart as it thinks it is. The stars couldn't really save this movie from just being meh. Cold Comes The Night does feature Alice Eve in a deliberately deglamorized role that is not based on her more obvious attributes as seen in Star Trek. So there's that I guess. Chloe (Alice Eve) is a motel owner who lives in the motel with her daughter Sophia. She's a single mother and evidently money is tight. IIRC it's unexplained as to how she came to own the motel in the first place if money is so tight but details, details. Chloe is under pressure from the state to find another place for her daughter and herself to live. An officious and obese social worker (Ashley Atkinson) doesn't think that a motel is the proper place for a youngster to grow up. 
Chloe has two weeks to find new lodgings or the state will take her child. It would be interesting to know how Chloe's and Sophia's living arrangements came to the state's attention in the first place and by what right does some social worker claim to be able to remove a child from a parent's custody absent abuse or neglect. But the film leaves those details out. The only thing that I can imagine about how Chloe popped up on the social services radar is that Chloe, as do many motel owners, looks the other way about the goings-on in rooms that are rented by the hour. Yes, you see her motel is apparently the local Bristol Hotel. The ladies who ply their trade there are protected by their pimp, swaggering local police officer Billy (Logan-Marshall Green) who evidently has a thang going on with Chloe, despite being married. Chloe meets with Billy in his car(!), (and why do I get a feeling that the determinedly sleazy Billy has had  many other such "meetings" with Chloe and other women in the past) to demand that Billy find some other place to have his "girls" work. Billy doesn't like demands but he does like Chloe.
Meanwhile the taciturn and apparently legally blind "businessman" Topo (Bryan Cranston) is being driven to an undisclosed meeting by his associate/nephew. Time is of the essence so Topo really doesn't want to stop but his associate whines, begs and pleads. And since Topo can't drive he must assent. But he insists that they enter Chloe's motel separately and be on the road again very soon. The nephew is fine with this because he's noticed the young women hanging around. The nephew may not be American but it doesn't matter where you are, men and women can always communicate with each other. He retires to his room with a hooker. But later there's a dispute. The reason will remain unknown as the nephew and the prostitute have both killed each other. Billy and other police arrive to clean up the mess and impound the vehicle in which Topo and his nephew arrived. This is very problematic for Topo. See he's an aging organized crime hitman and courier, who was delivering a significant amount of money which was hidden in the jeep. Being late with the money is bad. Losing the money is far worse. Topo only got this job because of a favor from the boss, an old friend. But it's the boss' son who's running things now and he doesn't like Topo. And by "doesn't like" I mean that he would take any excuse to give Topo the dirt nap.
So the next morning Topo ,who occasionally pretends to have worse sight than he does, takes Chloe and Sophia hostage. He wants to know where the police took the vehicle and how Chloe can get inside it. Topo makes it very clear that he will shoot Sophia in the head, should Chloe try anything funny. However the money is no longer in the vehicle. Topo demands Chloe's assistance in the search. Chloe tries to save her daughter and make a deal with Topo for some of the cash. Although the idea of a legally blind hitman had potential, the film didn't greatly impress me. A good film noir usually needs a femme fatale. I'm not sure Chloe really fit the bill. I guess you could argue that she's an updated realistic resourceful femme fatale though. I liked seeing Cranston again but the role is something of a straitjacket. I think because we're supposed to identify with Chloe we don't need to know much about Topo other than he will shoot our child in the head if he doesn't get his money.

Runner, Runner

directed by Brad Furman
This film was almost the definition of generic. You've seen it before. The only thing that made it watchable was Ben Affleck's smooth performance as Ivan Block, an American online gambling tycoon, who has relocated to Costa Rica to oversee his worldwide operations as well as run local gambling casinos. For some reason I didn't realize Affleck was that old or that tall. It looks like he's been hitting the weights as well. He plays his part quite well as an aggressive, confident alpha male who always has all the answers, knows what to say to other men to get what he wants, rarely backs down from confrontation and has any kind or any number of women that he desires. And women are a big part of what he desires.

In Princeton, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is a former Wall Street big shot who lost everything in the crash. He may have been doing some shady things in 2008-2009 as well. He's now persona non grata on Wall Street. He's considered too old or too shady. Trying to ride the bad economic times out Richie has gone back to grad school to get his master's degree. He pays tuition by bookmaking and referring other students to online gambling sites. When a student drops a dime on Richie, the Dean warns Richie to stop all gambling activities or else. The Dean doesn't care that that's how Richie pays his tuition. Desperate, Richie starts an epic game of online poker using his own money. Although at first he's winning, he soon gets reckless and greedy and loses everything. But you don't work long on Wall Street without being statistically adept. Richie has noticed some inconsistencies in the play. Once he has someone smarter than he verify the numbers, he knows that the business cheated. Believing in standing up for himself as well as not having any other choice, Richie departs for Costa Rica to confront Ivan Block. Richie knows that in gambling the house always wins so there's no need for a legitimate operator like Block to cheat. 
Through luck and some quick thinking Richie finagles an invitation to a party Block will be attending. There he meets Block and explains that someone in Block's organization has to be cheating. Richie can't believe it's Block which is why he came to him first. Nonplussed, Block takes the proof and agrees to look into it before having Richie seen off. Surprise! Block has identified the miscreants available for the cheating and fired them. He offers Richie all of his money back plus a bonus. Or if Richie has real stones, and Block hopes that he does, Block is willing to hire Richie at a well paid position. At worst this offer is worth mid six figures in yearly income. And with bonus and time served it could be worth seven figures. Richie says yes and quickly rises to become an important member of Block's team. Richie works very closely, that is to say intimately, with Block's second-in-command and on-again/off-again girlfriend Rebecca (Gemma Arterton). Richie hires his friends to work with him. But things that look too good to be true usually are. A intense bully of an FBI agent named Shavers (Anthony Mackie) tries to explain this to Richie while Block pulls the curtains back on his business and invites Richie to swim in some deep waters without a life jacket.

The only question is who cons whom or rather were you conned into watching this film. I won't say it wasn't fun at times. It's stylish. It just wasn't super special or challenging. Definitely something that you keep half an eye on while you're deshedding your German Shepherd or some similar task.

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