Archive for September, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by Robert Lorenz.  Starring Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman.

In case anyone did not already know, Clint Eastwood is old.  And he plays really old, grizzly, run down characters.  The opening scenes of Trouble with the Curve reinforce this well-known fact, as he curses his body as it struggle to use the bathroom and then eats half a can of cold spam for breakfast.  The rest of the film also adheres to the established practices for estranged relationship/sport dramas, albeit with less grossness.

Eastwood plays Gus, a crotchety, old baseball scout, who has been the best in the business for years, but recently has been struggling.  He is in the early stages of glaucoma, which he is reluctant to admit.  He has not signed a new recruit in three years.  He claims this is due to a lack of talent, but his colleagues and boss are wondering whether Gus has lost his ability and if it is time for him to retire.  Over the years, Gus also has neglected his relationship with his daughter Mickey, (Amy Adams) placing his career first, and she is bothering him by showing up when he wants to be alone to do his job.

From Adams’ first scene, it is clear that Mickey is in the same situation as Gus.  She is being evaluated by her board of three superiors, just as he was in the preceding scene.  Both of them are facing promotions or setbacks.  They both have placed their careers first in their lives, and they now struggle to connect with anyone.

Adams plays a hardened, tough as nails character, who is used to caring for herself, similar to her role in The Fighter.  She is every bit Eastwood’s equal, and she even surpasses him, especially with her line delivery, which underscores the subtext and double meanings of the words.  When Mickey repeats one of Gus’ lines back to him, she makes it even more intense and final.  But Adams also captures vulnerability, tenderness, and an occasional longing for a more complete relationship with her father.

This occasional longing is probably her motivation for accompanying Gus on what could be his last scouting trip to North Carolina.  There is another reason, explained later, which also could have prompted her to help her father, but when Mickey leaves her job for a few days to accompany her father, at first it does seem unbelievable given their mutual indifference toward one another.

While in scouting the North Carolina, Gus meets a rival scout and old friend, Johnny, (Justin Timberlake) whom Gus scouted for the Braves years ago.  Although it takes longer than expected, Johnny is eventually the first person with whom Mickey has a meaningful relationship and to whom she reaches out.

Most of the action is fairly predictable.  Almost everything has been done in another baseball movie or an estranged parent/child relationship movie, such as Field of Dreams, The Rookie, or On Golden Pond.  Those movies all handled their drama and conflicts better as well.  Trouble with the Curve has the expected third act setback before the final payoff.  The arrogant jerk from the minors, about whom most baseball scouts are excited, has a serious weakness that will make him a liability in the majors.  Gus’ distance from his daughter was partially caused by outside circumstances, which give the film a sudden dark turn, which is slightly out of place given the lighter tone of the film overall. Gus’ talent passes to his daughter, and she uses it at a crucial moment.

The script does throw a few curveballs, which serve as a decent twist on the otherwise standard proceedings.  The way that Mickey utilizes her father’s talent is unique and unforeseen.  A bit of deus ex machina, while cleverly and subtly foreshadowed, will not be anticipated until it happens.  Gus’ failures as a father have caused more problems than just apathy between him and his daughter.  One conflict is realistically left unresolved, instead of being predictably wrapped up, as the other conflicts were.

Gus’ belief that it takes human interaction and connections to scout a player is validated.  He insists that a computer cannot measure someone’s innate talent, luck, or weaknesses.  There is more to life than just statistics; statistics cannot predict the inevitable curveballs of life.  However, the failure of pure statistics at the film’s end is spectacular enough that is becomes slightly unbelievable, although it is still enjoyable to watch.

The entire film is formulaic, but it has just enough charisma to be enjoyable.  The final act home run may be expected, but that does not make it less of a payoff.  However, the home run only ties the score; it does not quite make up for the fumbles and strikeouts of the early innings.  It is also too perfect and too neat to be a grand slam, but a three-run homer is still a positive way to end the ninth inning.

Content Advisory: Much profanity, some vulgarity, references to sexual activity, and brief but intense violence.                             MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B-

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Lawless

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by John Hillcoat.  Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman.

“Pull the trigger.”  So Jack’s older brothers order him as he stares at a pig that needs to be shot.  As long as Jack stares at the pig, he cannot bring himself to kill it.  Finally, his older brothers sigh and kill the animal for him.  This incident, which opens the film prior to the credits, perfectly sets and summarizes the relationship between the three Bondurant brothers.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is much less of a leader than his older brothers, easily frightened and lacking their grit.  He also casts doubt on the legend that the Bondurants are immortal, arising from the several near death experiences that Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) have escaped.

A voiceover from Jack informs the audience that the Bondurants operate one of the most profitable moonshining businesses during the prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia.  They are enough out of the way to avoid the violence of the city with its ruthless law officials and ruthless criminals such as Floyd Banner. (Gary Oldman)  The Bondurants can also escape repercussions from the law, because the few officials in their county turn a benevolent eye towards the brothers and even purchase their whiskey.

However, the entire racket is seriously jeopardized when Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago.  He is a sadistic law enforcer, who will complete his assigned mission of capturing the moonshiners, even if he has to break more laws than the criminals he is pursuing.  To emphasize his evil nature, Rakes is dressed in a fine suit, complete with leather gloves so his hands stay clean when he beats someone up.

The film raises interesting questions about who is truly lawless and how to be lawful in a lawless society.  The brothers are operating outside of the law, but they have principles and codes of honor.  Forrest even tells Jack that the reason they sometimes must act brutally is to defend their honor and their principles.  Rakes, on the other hand, is a ruthless villain, breaking just as many laws, if not more, than the Bondurants in his vicious hunt for the lawbreakers.  Jack’s girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of the local preacher, and she does inspire Jack to improve his behavior, but not to change his way of life.  Forrest tells Jack that the difference between men is measured by one’s commitment to a cause, not by his strength or weakness.  Ultimately, if the film gives any answer to its interesting ethical questions, which I am not sure it does, morality boils down to one’s intentions, which is a disappointing answer.

What I most noticed about this prohibition era film were the many similarities with another much more famous film set during the prohibition.  The story concerns an all powerful family, who operates a lucrative business outside of the law.  The leader of that family is near invincible, but changing forces threaten his hold on his underworld.  The youngest member of the family wants to get out and not be involved with the killing and illegal activity.  He even has a girlfriend who is disgusted by the reputation and behavior of his family.  However, when the oldest member of the family is recuperating in the hospital after being left for dead from a near fatal assault, the youngest member of the family begins to take over the responsibilities as leader after visiting the leader in the hospital several times.  The second-in-command is also too hot headed to be successful as a leader.  When the second-in-command’s sibling is beaten up, he savagely returns the favor.  A former ally betrays the family and is severely punished.

These similarities with The Godfather do break down.  The finale in Lawless is somewhat predictable and does not contain any of the brilliance that The Godfather has in its climax as Michael takes on a dual godfathership.  Another bigger problem is the reason for the youngest family member’s reluctance to be involved.  In The Godfather, Michael is disgusted by his family’s lifestyle.  When he tells Kay about offers that people can’t refuse, he shares her disgust, emphasizing that is how his family behaves, not he.  In Lawless, Jack is not repulsed by the actions of his older brothers; on the contrary, he is proud of his family name.  He admires their leadership and wishes that he could help them and be like them, but he does not have the stomach to do so.  If Jack had been watching this movie, the fight that occurs within the first ten minutes would have sent him running for the exit.

Even more problematic is the film’s celebration of Jack’s transformation.  In the film’s view, he is initially cowardly and childlike, and he becomes a man as he more successfully follows in his brothers’ footsteps.  As another stark contrast to The Godfather, Lawless suggests that the violence and crime can easily be set aside once the law stops persecuting mostly decent people and forcing them to turn to a life of crime.  The Godfather showcases a tragic descent into sin that leads to more sin.

Finally, regarding the many similarities to The Godfather, Lawless invites a direct comparison to arguably the greatest gangster/prohibition film without bringing anything substantially new to the story.  I love when a movie cleverly pays tribute to a classic, but when it copies a classic without offering anything new, I feel that I should just be re-watching the classic.

Lawless is not without merit.  The entire cast gives phenomenal performances, which alone makes the movie worth watching for film buffs with strong stomachs.  LaBeouf captures the innocence and longing of Jack.  Hardy is impressive and commanding as the soft spoken leader of the brothers.  Pearce is intimidating and thoroughly evil as the villainous Rakes.  Chastain gives a heartfelt performance as Forrest’s vulnerable girlfriend.  Oldman is great in his extended cameo as the important gangster who features into the story in a somewhat predictable, yet satisfying way.

Director John Hillcoat captures the feel of 1920’s Virginia and the Prohibition Era very convincingly, using carefully structured shots, solid editing and cinematography, and authentic costumes and sets.  The score also adds to the ’20’s atmosphere.

The entire film is based on actual events, documented in The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the brothers.  The film portrays those events with affection not only for the era but for the life of crime, which, along with copious copying of The Godfather, undermines the mostly impressive craftsmanship.

Content Advisory: Graphic gory violence including fistfights, shootouts, and a brief shot of amputated genitals; a scene of tarring and feathering; several scenes of nudity; some sexual content; two implied rapes; and much profanity and obscenity.                           MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: C+

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