Thursday, March 20, 2014

Movie Review: "Veronica Mars" by David Pretty

Y'know, it's great to have a Veronica Mars movie in theaters and all, but it's also a sad comment about the state of modern cinema. In order for audiences to get a genuinely-interesting murder mystery starring a smart, strong and resourceful female protagonist who isn't a professional victim, it has to be based on a prematurely-cancelled, nearly ten-year-old television show which was crowd-funded into existence by fans. 

My point is: why aren't there more original movies like this? Studios do know that half of the population is female, right? Fucking idiots.

Sorry, I digress. For the uninitiated, Veronica Mars is a solid "whodunnit" featuring a slew of great performances. For unabashed fans like myself, the movie is nothing short of a dream come true.   

Like every other decent T.V. show that had its existence tragically cut short ("Paging Joss Whedon...paging Joss Whedon..."), show runner Rob Thomas had a few plot threads a-danglin' when Veronica Mars was unceremoniously booted off the prime time stage. When we last left our super-sleuth she'd just parted ways with her edgy, on-again / off-again / on-again /off-again boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) and rebounded with sweet-but-whitebread music nerd Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell).

Fast forward to present day and Veronica and Piz are now livin' in sin together in New Yawk City. Days before Veronica (Kristen Bell) is offered a high-profile job at a prestigious law firm, she finds out that Logan is back in the hot-seat, accused of murdering his current girlfriend Carrie (Andrea Estella), a former classmate who morphed into troubled pop music diva Bonnie DeVille. Even though she vowed to leave her checkered  investigative past behind her, Veronica jets back to her home town of Neptune, California in order to help Logan weed out all the legal vultures circling around him.

We're soon reminded of Neptune's Twin Peaks-like seedy side. After Veronica's doting pops Keith (Enrico Colantoni) got pulled through the mud during a contentious municipal election, the town now finds itself under the questionable auspices of Sheriff Dan Lamb, played with douchebaggy perfection by Jerry O'Connell. With corruption rampant and racially-motivated stop-and-frisks a regular occurrence, Veronica feels compelled to slip back into her old habits. 

The plot thickens when "pals" Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino) drag Veronica to their conveniently-timed ten year High School reunion. Not only does this give our heroine some key insight into the suspects, screenwriters Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero take this opportunity to re-acquaint fans with a slew of minor characters. Pretty soon Veronica finds herself uncomfortably close to the truth, resulting in ample fisticuffs, stray gunfire, attempted murder and plenty of sharply-scripted sarcasm.

If it sounds like I just described the most elaborate in-joke in cinema history you'd be forgiven. I must confess: I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the film quite so much if I wasn't already a fan of the T.V. show. But don't let that deter you since the script for Veronica Mars is actually pretty freakin' good. Like all good murder mysteries red herrings abound, obvious suspects are eliminated, clues keep piling up and the viewer is kept guessing right up until the end. Even when the list of potential killers is narrowed down to only four, the particulars still came as a pleasant surprise to me.

Even though Rob Thomas was likely tempted to turn the film into an endless conveyor belt of high-profile cameos, he shows restraint and keeps the story moving along at a reasonable clip. Yes, a lot of familiar faces do crop up, but it's in service of the plot. For example, when a sleazy video of Bonnie DeVille appears online, a similarly-victimized real-life celebrity helps Veronica trace it back to resident dirtbag Vinny Van Lowe (Ken Marino) which, in turn, leads to a major plot development. Even if it isn't integral to the plot, sharp-eyed viewers will also have fun spotting Bell's real-life partner Dax Sheppard during the High School reunion.

Admittedly there are a couple of scenes which seem to exist just to appease the Kickstarter crowd. Even though the re-union between Veronica and casual fling Leo D’Amato (Max Greenfield) isn't what I'd describe as "pivotal", some character had to give us this info so why not Leo? For fans, this scene is a major highlight. Not only do the two actors play off of one another brilliantly, Greenfield even makes reference to the failed season four pitch which would have seen Veronica emerging fresh out of Quantico.  

Sometimes the script does sag under the crushing weight of collective fan expectations. The entire conspiracy sub-plot involving Weevil, Keith, Deputy Sacks (Brandon Hillock) and the police was clearly seeded here in order to set up a potential sequel. I completely understand why this was done, it just doesn't help the story currently being told here. Also, in a desperate bid to create complications, believability gets stretched to the limit at times.  The whole radio station tip off thing is a particularly goofy example of this.       

On a more positive note, the actors really run with the script's emotional heft and snappy dialogue. Kristen Bell deserved a freakin' Emmy for her work on the television show and she certainly brings her "A"-game here. No one delivers a Rob Thomas put-down like Bell who, more then ever, seems to be a constant target  for potential players, rank idiots and perverts.

Even when she's not armed with dialogue, Bell is still a formidable force. Every time she folds her arms, adopts that deadpan stare and takes aim at an unsuspecting mouth-breather, you'd be wise to duck n' cover. Nothing says "Please die in a fire" quite like a Veronica Mars stare-down. She's equally limber when tasked to deliver a complicated bluff or a pleased-as-punch accusation. Honestly I could watch this woman read C-Span transcripts for two hours and be perfectly entertained.

Jason Dohring is measured and low-key as Logan Echolls. Mercifully Thomas doesn't regress his main characters just because they've moved to the big screen. As such, our favorite tall, brooding, not-so-spoiled rich kid actually exhibits a modicum of, dare I say it, maturity? His first appearance on screen is a bit of a system shock and his downright Zen-like demeanor could easily be mistaken for resignation.

One thing that will never change is Logan's unflagging defense of Veronica. Clearly Dohring knows this role inside and out by now so he isn't exactly reinventing the wheel, but he does do a fine job bringing out the character's new subtleties. Oh, and what kind of Veronica Mars movie would it be if Logan Echolls didn't get involve in some sort of epic, knuckle-chucking dust-up. Needless to say, Dohring acquits himself quite nicely during this scene and as well as every other for that matter.  

And how great is it to see the dynamic duo of Percy Daggs III and Trina Majorino in action once again as Wallace and Mac? Both of them slip back into their respective roles with ease, delivering Thomas's high-octane dialogue with typical aplomb. Every time either of these two grace the screen they really drive home my belief that every good protagonist needs a practical and authentic support system.

The minor players certainly don't turn in minor performances. Of particular note is Krysten Ritter as Gia Goodman. Between her early stint on the television show and her role as Jane on Breaking Bad, Kristen has really perfected the art of what I can only describe as "breezy fraudulence". Not only was she blessed with stunningly-retro good looks, Ritter also has no problem switching gears between irritation, distraction and vapididty even during the same scene.

As the perennially-shirtless surfer-bro Dick Casablancas, Ryan Hansen had some pretty funny moments on the original T.V. show. Even though he's still a total dee-bag here, Hansen's natural charisma shines through and he easily walks off with pretty much every scene he's in. Despite the fact that Dick is a prime suspect this case, Hanson's limitless confidence keeps us guessing. Is he really that cocksure or is it all just an elaborate bluff?

It's also great to see Francis Capra back as ex-badass biker turned model(ish) citizen Eli "Weevil" Navarro. Capra sells this development so well that an unexpected close call actually elicited a collective gasp of surprise from the audience. Chris Lowell is also great as Veronica's eager-to-please nominal boyfriend Piz. He's earnest, inhumanly-patient and can wear a permanent "kick-me" sign without looking like a complete and total milksop. Finally Enrico Colantoni continues to provide the perfect parental half in what has to be one of the most positive, genuine and heart-warming on-screen father / daughter relationships.

The average film-goer can watch and enjoy Veronica Mars on a purely superficial level but for fans this one is a particularly tasty treat. The movie serves up plenty of great geek-out moments, a satisfying finale and, most importantly, offers up a modicum of hope that we'll see Veronica come back time and time again like sassier, blonder James Bond.

Please note: by reading this you are now contractually-obligated to take in a screening of Veronica Mars or be saddled with the permanent descriptor of 'big meanie face'. Legal disclaimer: of course I'm saying this for purely selfish reasons. I wants me some mo' Marz.

      Tilt: up.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Movie Review: "Dredd" by David Pretty

Ahhh, the Seventies and Eighties: when a new generation of cynical fan-boys thumbed their collective noses at corny paladins like Superman and embraced a host of bad-ass protagonists. Between Han Solo in Star Wars, Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, V in V for Vendetta, Rorschach from Watchmen, Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, Wolverine from the X-Men, Max Rockatansky in Mad Max, John Rambo in First Blood, and Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry not a single solitary fuck was given amongst all of these chaotically-good renegades.

Judge Dredd definitely deserves to be included with this company of violent, laconic assholes. Director Danny Cannon and writers William Wisher and Steven DeSousa tried to drag him kicking and screaming into the zeitgeist of pop-culture back in 1995 with the Stallone film of the same name but we all know how well that worked out.

Well, a modicum of justice has finally been given to this iconic but somewhat cultish character thanks to talented British T.V. director Pete Travis and novelist / 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland. The results are a smart, well-paced action film that still manages to remain faithful to the spirit of the original character.

Rife with nuclear war phobia and rampant crime and drug paranoia the mise-en-scène featured in Dredd is definitely a product of the Eighties. The United States depicted in the film is nothing but an irradiated wasteland dominated by massive megacities that stretch from Boston to Washington, DC. Eight-hundred million people live within the confines of this urban hell, trying to eke out a pitiful existence while marinating in an environment awash in random violence, deadly drugs and abject poverty.

With seventeen thousand serious crimes being reported every day, the only line of defense against this incessant tide of chaos is the Hall of Justice and their one-man legal institutions: the Judges. One of their more stalwart representatives, Dredd (Karl Urban) gets a new partner in the form of rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant psychic with the indispensable but tricky ability to tap into the icky thoughts of criminal scumbags.

The two are dispatched to the scene of a gruesome triple homicide at the ironically-named Peach Tree, a massive two-hundred story tenement. A cursory investigation reveals that the three were taken out by a powerful and ruthless gangster *slash* drug kingpin name Madeline Madrigal a.k.a. Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). In order to set an example for her rivals she had them skinned alive and then hucked them off the top floor of the Peach Tree. Yikes.

After Dredd and Anderson capture one of Ma-Ma's knowledgeable lieutenants named Kay (Wood Harris), she immediately becomes concerned that he'll spill the beans about her home-grown drug operation. Before Dredd and Anderson can escape, Ma-Ma stages an emergency drill, triggers the building's blast doors and seals the two Judges up within the embattled tower block. Unable to escape or call for back-up, Dredd and his partner are forced to fight their way through waves of hostile goons in order get to their assailant.

Right off the bat director Pete Travis and his stunt coordinator Grant Hulley deliver a thrilling chase scene between a van filled with escaped criminals and a motorcycle-riding Dredd. Like the opening pursuit in Robocop, the scene is dynamically shot on location and positively charged with a real sense of peril. Filmed in downtown Johannesburg, the scene has a sun-baked and authentic quality that's both tangible and exotic.

The film's gritty visual appeal is assisted by some stellar production design by Mark Digby. The shops and hovels in Peach Tree evoke shades of Blade Runner and the warrens inhabited by the movie's skeezier elements are appropriately dank, cluttered and filthy. Add in some impressive costume design by Diana Cilliers and Michael O'Connor and the film's world building is complete. The standard-issue Judge uniform and accompanying hardware is pretty durned impressive. Arguably Dredd's "Lawgiver" handgun is Swiss Army Knife of sci-fi weaponry.  

The film-makers also get a lot of mileage out of Slo-Mo, the narcotic peddled by Ma-Ma and her minions. When ingested, the drug makes recipients perceive time at one-percent the normal rate. Not only does this give Travis and chief cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle an excuse to render their action scenes in something resembling "Bullet Time", it also creates an incongruously-gorgeous kaleidoscopic riot of color and sparkles. Violence hasn't looked this pretty since John Woo's last Hong Kong film.

Digital effects are used sparingly and blend in quite well with the practical sets and well-choreographed action scenes. The only thing that took me out of the movie were the CGI bullet hits. As someone who was reared on traditional explosive blood quibs, the digital versions still looks tremendously fake to me. On the flip side I was really impressed by the creatively-gruesome mayhem that the special-effects artists inflict upon the actors and extras. At various times in the film, concussive blasts distort and ripple flesh, cheeks are blown into ribbons by stray bullets and abdomens are pureed by gunfire.

Even the more conventional action sequences pop with creative staging and strategic planning. The "vulcan cannon" sequence is enough to cause post-truamatic stress disorder even if the final result looks suspiciously like a digital matte painting. Fire-fights are sweaty, claustrophobic and charged with dynamic motion. The scene in which two rogue Judges try to outflank and kill Dredd is staged with such clarity it feels like a real S.W.A.T. team drill. And when Dredd shatters his opponent's larynx with a well-placed gun-butt to the throat the effect is appropriately wince-inducing.

I also highly applaud the casting choices. Karl Urban deserves a fucking medal and not just because he cares enough about the character to wear a bucket over his head for the entire film. He also manages to convey a wealth of expression just by using the lower half of his face. It's actually fun to watch what on-screen circumstances prompt him to deliver the classic Judge Dredd lemon face.

Pixie-like Olivia Thirlby is also a tremendous asset. Quite often casting directors pick women for purely superficial reasons and then find out later on that they can't deliver the goods when it comes to ass-kickery. No fear with Olivia Filby; she takes the character arc inherent in the script and manages to sell it to the hilt. I also love that Alex Garland gives her a dénouement that doesn't cow-tow to screenwriting convention.

Speaking of defying convention, the casting of Lena Headey as Ma-Ma is quite inspired. Even though I would love to have gotten a few more scenes with her to flesh out her back-story at we are provided with some insight into her bleak worldview. Yes, I understand why she's ruthless, bitter, violent and angry but I don't know why she's peddling Slo-Mo other than the fact that she is not just a seller she's an addict herself.

Lena's normally-gorgeous visage has been completely defaced here and I really applaud her lack of ego. Decked out with decayed teeth, cracked lips, facial scars and a fright wig of reddish-brown hair, I suspect that the transformative make-up job really gave Headey a lot of impetus for her hard-boiled performance. Hunched, sneering and fueled by pure contempt for the world that damaged her, Headey approaches the role with a fatalistic quality that makes her interesting and surprisingly sympathetic.   

Dredd was a pleasant surprise for me. I sat down to watch it with zero expectations and came out the other end feeling quite sated. Even though the satirical edge present in the original comic books has been largely diminished, the film is still smart, visually inventive, dynamic, bravely acted and no less engaging then your average choke-hold.

I really hope that the flick made enough money in the ancillary markets to warrant a sequel because Dredd is definitely a promising start. I'd love to see a follow-up that retains all of the creative mayhem from the first film whilst blasting the viewer with both barrels of biting social commentary.  

                     Tilt: up.