Luck: Season 1 Review

Luck, HBO’s new horseracing drama, was abruptly cancelled after a third death of a horse during the making of the series.  While the series only ended up with one season and the first season finale was never intended to act as a series finale, Luck is an enjoyable series that is more fascinated with looking at its characters than pulling off plot twists.  That is what makes this series seem more complete than your average show that is cancelled without warning.

Luck follows the daily lives of horse trainers, jockeys, owners, and a crime boss or two at the Santa Anita racetrack.  Behind this plot may be the most surprising collaboration in recent memory as the show’s two showrunners are David Milch and Michael Mann.  If the reports are to be believed this collaboration was (unsurprisingly) not one of the smoothest, but the final product is proof that two opposing styles of filmmaking can bring you something great.  David Milch brings his infamous dialogue.  While that would seem to betray the realism in a contemporary setting that the show is going for, it never does and ultimately provides some of the most complete characters on television. 

Michael Mann also brings his distinct visual style and the horseracing here may be the best that has ever been caught on camera.  It’s perfectly edited and contains so much flair.  Speaking of the horseracing, this entire product shows such affection for the sport.  David Milch and his crew’s writing reveal a large amount of expertise on the subject and the camerawork from Mann and his crew tend to linger on the horses and the riders.  It is also quite shocking how much talent Mann and Milch were able to bring to the show.  Film directors Terry George and Philip Noyce directed episodes and Oscar winning screenwriter Eric Roth wrote the series finale.

Milch and Mann were also able to enlist one of the best casts on television.  Dustin Hoffman toplines the series and for such a revered actor you would think Milch and Mann would be able to give him some good stuff to work with.  Hoffman’s character is by far the weakest link on the show.  It’s a character written into a mediocre revenge plotline that tries to make up for it by involving the biggest names in the cast (an okay Joan Allen and a menacing Michael Gambon).  Despite these actors being dragged down by this plotline, the rest of the actors fare much better.  Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster and Jason Gedrick play a group of track-goers that hope to one day have enough money to spend all of their time there.  Each actor handles the Milch dialogue really well and create the four most interesting characters in the series.  Kerry Condon, Gary Stevens and Tom Payne play jockeys.  Stevens and Payne never really get enough material to standout, but Kerry Condon emerges as one of the better performances in the ensemble as an Irish jockey who is looking for her breakout moment.  Nick Nolte is probably the best of the cast as a horse trainer that is trying to overcome the death of one of his horses.  He seems at home with the Milch dialogue and has some great moments in the second half of the series.  

It is quite disappointing that Luck was prematurely cancelled, but the episodes we ultimately got provide a satisfying series.


The Hunter Review

One of Australia’s most acclaimed films of 2011 has finally been released here in the states through iTunes and VOD.  The Hunter more than lives up to the acclaim it has received with a minimalist approach to filmmaking and a powerhouse performance from Willem Dafoe.

The Hunter follows Martin David (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary, as he is sent to Tasmania to hunt down the last Tasmanian tiger.  The film is directed by Daniel Nettheim and written by Alice Addison from a novel by Julia Leigh.  The interesting thing to note about these two is that both have experience in only television.  Yet from the work done in this film, you would never be able to tell that.  This seems like the furthest thing from a tv movie, and Nettheim never falls into any novice mistakes with his direction.  Sure it’s a laid back approach to directing, but there is a distinct visual style on display here that would not be found in a tv movie.

The one major problem with the film is Alice Addison’s attempt to include a few conspiracy theories into the mix.  Daniel Nettheim portrays the wilderness with such beauty that all you want to do is remain in that setting, but the screenplay includes two storylines (one with Martin David’s company and another with the local villagers).  With some better writing, these two storylines could have felt necessary.  The conspiracy surrounding Martin David’s company ultimately finds a satisfying endpoint, but it is brutal getting there as not much attention is given to it.  It just feels like an afterthought until it becomes the major plot point at the end.  The storyline with the villagers comes across as far worse.  All of the characters come across as paper-thin and the film never explains the involvement of the one character with any depth (Sam Neill’s jack Mindy).

Luckily, the main focus of this film is not the screenplay.  It is Willem Dafoe’s marvelous performance.  Dafoe has always chosen interesting films to work on, but this one may be his best choice yet as it puts him front and center.  Dafoe is able to hold the viewer’s attention with what seems like mundane actions (setting traps in the wilderness, staying still in order to attract animals, etc.), and that is a skill that only a few actors have.  None of the supporting cast comes close to this performance, but Sam Neill delivers one of his better performances in recent memory despite playing a type of character that he normally plays.  There seems to be some extra dimensions to his character this time around despite his motives never being revealed.  Frances O’Connor has some good moments (especially in the second half), but her character and performance are ultimately unmemorable.  The best performance in the supporting cast might belong to the child actor, Morgana Davies.  She has the most personality among all the characters in the film and never comes across as annoying like so many child performances do.

While the film would have benefited with a tighter screenplay, Willem Dafoe makes The Hunteran intense and interesting film.


The Hunger Games Review

One of the most common ways for an ambitious film to falter is when one tries to cater to too many demographics.  Normally when you have a film that showcases romance (for the young women group), action (for the young men group) and social commentary (for the indy crowd) the film falls apart under its lofty ambitions, as it can never give enough time to each component.  The Hunger Games (adapted from Suzanne Collins’ bestselling book) falls for this trap.  Yet the film not only comes out alive, but also delivers one of the most fascinating survival thrillers in a year jam-packed with them (The Grey and The Hunter to name a few).  Through some sturdy direction from Gary Ross and a phenomenal performance from Jennifer Lawrence that grounds the entire film, The Hunger Games is able to navigate through many genres without ever losing its way.

For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who is selected to compete in a fight to the death event known as the Hunger Games in a futuristic land known as Panem.  Suzanne Collins actually adapted her own book for the big screen with some help from Billy Ray (State of Play) and the film’s director Gary Ross.  I have not read the book so I can’t speak for what was left out and what was added to the film, but I can tell you this film works as a standalone more than any of the popular young adult novels that have been translated to the big screen in recent years.  There is a distinct beginning, middle, and (most importantly) end.  While seeds are dropped for the imminent sequel in the last act, it never feels like a sequel is absolutely necessary to see these characters’ journeys end.  This may be one of the more important strengths this film has as the stakes seem that much greater with an end in sight.  The writers also seem to have corralled all of the different plot elements (the romance, the action, the political intrigue) into something that works.  While some of the elements work better than others, all of these elements come across as necessary to the plot.

One of the bigger problems franchises like this has is that the studio has too much control over the final product.  All of the great sci-fi/fantasy adaptations in the past decade or so have all had one thing in common: a powerful or creative director who can counteract the control of the studios.  Just look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy or Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to see how a great director can expand upon good source material.  While Gary Ross has neither the talent nor power those two have, Ross is able to insert his own style between the limits the studio has set.  Somewhere out there, there must be a three-hour cut of this thing that provides much greater (and necessary) depth to the supporting characters.  The film also would have had much greater impact if the brutality of the game matched the realism that is portrayed elsewhere in the film.  Unfortunately, to the studio this would all mean getting less showings in per day and less kids coming to the theater have their parents shell out money for them.  Yet Ross is able to portray a sense of realism with his own visual style (the shaky cam is a nice touch) and he is able to hone in on the facial movements of his actors (thus capturing emotions that would take an entire page to explain in a book).

However, Ross’ job is a lot easier with such a talented cast.  Jennifer Lawrence seems perfect for the role of Katniss Everdeen.  At its essence, the role is very similar to her Oscar-nominated work on Winter’s Bone.  There’s an immense amount of physical work (all done superbly) and the role requires maturity beyond her years mentality (which Lawrence captures with ease).  Yet this film adds some fireworks to the subtly that she so aptly displayed in that film.  Lawrence is stunningly good at transitioning from this subtle style of acting to a louder style.  Woody Harrelson (who is funny but able to take his one-dimensional character up a notch), Elizabeth Banks (completely unrecognizable), Liam Hemsworth (who has great chemistry with Lawrence in his limited screentime), Lenny Kravitz (in a surprisingly good turn), Donald Sutherland (his scariest role in some time) and Stanley Tucci (being Stanley Tucci-good and having fun at it) all deliver great supporting performances to back up Lawrence.  Katniss Everdeen’s fellow competitors are severely underwritten but that doesn’t mean they aren’t well acted.  Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Furhman and Amandla Stenberg all try their best (and to some degree succeed) in trying to make actual characters out of their paper-thin cutouts.  The only weak link here is Josh Hutcherson who is unable to convey the charisma that Peeta is supposed to have.

There are many things that can be nitpicked in this film.  It is by no means perfect, but if you just put your faith in Jennifer Lawrence’s star making performance you will come out just fine.


21 Jump Street Review

A movie based on a tv series that no one really remembers except for it being Johnny Depp's breakthrough role doesn't seem like the best of ideas on paper.  Yet the cast and crew behind the 21 Jump Street have provided one of the better comedies in recent memory.  Despite only containing a very loose connection to the series it is based on, 21 Jump Street manages to stand on its own, not just as an adaptation but also as a good film.

21 Jump Street follows Officer Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Officer Jenko (Channing Tatum), two inept policemen, as they are reassigned to a division that goes undercover in local high schools and colleges.  Schmidt and Jenko are tasked with finding the source of a new drug in one of the high schools.

If you were basing this film on the creative forces involved, you would be even more worried about this film than if you just looked at the title.  The film is directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs fame) and written by Michael Bacall (who as a screenwriter on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the most experienced of those involved) and Jonah Hill.  Yet these four have provided a comedy that seems to have been directed and written by filmmaking veterans.  The writing is memorable as it includes funny one-liners and, if you look into it a bit closer, some well executed meta aspects (listen for a reference to ideas in Hollywood being recycled over and over again).  The directors and writers also have a great sense of staging some of the bigger moments (including two of the most memorable car chases of any genre in recent memory and at least two other moments where you will have trouble breathing from your laughter).  The most important thing that these four did, however, was almost completely ditching the original tv series, and trying to form their own creation.

The biggest surprise in the film is actually Channing Tatum.  Tatum has to this point been the leading man that everyone in Hollywood wants to change into a star.  Yet he has failed miserably over and over again.  Just as I’m about to completely give up on this guy, he reveals himself to be a strong comedic actor.  That boring actor that can normally be found in stale chick flicks is nowhere to be found, and an energetic and surprising performance emerges.  Yet Tatum never at any point steals the show as Jonah Hill more than keeps up with him.  On the heels of a fantastic dramatic turn in Moneyball, Hill is becoming one of the more interesting actors in Hollywood.  While this performance heads back into familiar territory for Hill, it never seems like he is doing something that he has done before.  These two are surrounded by a plethora of great supporting turns.  Ice Cube, Ellie Kemper, and Rob Riggle are memorable scene-stealers.  Dave Franco gives a lot to an almost thankless role and Brie Larson gives a performance that deserves some attention from casting directors of bigger blockbusters.

There are no doubt some problems with this film (the film tends to throw every style of comedy at the audience to see what sticks but never decides which style it wants to stay with), but 21 Jump Street may be the best comedy since The Hangover.


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