Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Surviving the Alps is a Rush

  In this batch of pictures available now on DVD, I include an odd Greek drama, an Oscar nominated documentary, and a cross town chase flick about bicycle messengers.  Don't mean to hurry, but we're in a...

  Premium Rush - This is a film that unashamedly is what it is what it is.  It's an action adventure flick that follows bicycle messenger Wylie (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) across the city of New York in treacherous traffic as he flees other cyclists, people on foot, people in cars, crooks, cops, and one completely despicable crooked cop (Michael Shannon).  It owes a little bit to Run Lola Run and a little bit to Tarantino's playbook, but doesn't even try for the artsy respectability of either.
      The screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps is (I have to believe) intentionally a little campy, a little self-aware that it is a PG-13 action flick.  Koepp also directs, and he throws in a few cool flourishes, such as when Wylie visualizes his possible routes, that help to keep the film visually stimulating.
     And it IS very visually stimulating, all while being an action film of fairly limited violence.  It is full of creatively constructed chase sequences, and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat for most of the film.  The stunt work is fantastic, some of the best I've seen this year.
     Of course, there is some B-acting among the supporting cast, but the film is well anchored by Shannon and Levitt.  Somehow, these two actors' amazing charisma and screen presence makes it all work.  Shannon actually revels in the film's campy nature, going ironically over the top which may have been the only way I would have bought it.  Levitt, by contrast, plays it totally straight for the most part, giving the film one central character to believe in and care about.
     As I said, the film doesn't have any delusions that it needs to take itself any more seriously than it does, and it shouldn't.  But it is a fun way to pass a couple of hours that doesn't require very active viewing.  It may be a trifle, but it was a fairly tasty one.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Alps - Anyone who saw Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos's international break out (and surprise Oscar nominee) Dogtooth a couple of years ago had to be expecting a weird and uncomfortable, but not unrewarding, experience from his follow up Alps.  At least, that's what I expected and exactly what I got.  Although these films (co-written with Efhymis Filippou) are far from masterpieces, they make me thoughtful and uncomfortable in a slightly more bearable, but quite similar way to director Lars von Trier's Antichrist.  If these guys are working up to a Melancholia (Triers phenomenal follow up), I want to still be checking their stuff out when they get around to it.
     Alps is the story of a group of people who start a business renting themselves to the bereaved as stand-ins for the recently deceased.  What starts out with a creepy premise has a perpetually increasing creepy atmosphere throughout, as you slowly watch all the group's members quietly self destruct.  I'm not exactly sure what this is all supposed to say after one viewing, but maybe the members of Alps are taking the pain of grief on themselves when they take it away from others.
      The acting is subdued (by American standards) but quite excellent.  The two women members of the Alps are the film's real stand-outs.  Young Ariane Labed is previously unknown to me, but as the Alps's youngest member, she brings an energy that is both dark and innocent at the same time.  The film opens with her dancing and closes the same way, but she has a tough road from one dance to the other.  Apparently, I'm not the only one she's been impressing, as she is crossing over to English language cinema this year in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, which is already lighting up the 2013 film festival circuit at Sundance.
     Conversely, I was familiar with Aggeliki Papoulia from her role as the daughter/sister in Dogtooth.  She is great here, and is (to my mind) the lead of the piece, with the most precipitous character arc of everyone.  I said that the acting in this film was subdued, and it is as a rule, but when this lady finally goes over the top, watch out.  No word on her next project, but I have a hunch she'll be in whatever Lanthimos does next.
     I thought this film was slightly more palatable than its predecessor and showed signs of growth.  Still, I'm not quite ready to go above...4 of 5 stars.

  How To Survive a Plague - I was on the fence about whether or not I was going to give last year's "AIDS in the 80's and 90's" documentary We Were Here 4 1/2 or 5 stars and now I kind of wish that I had gone with 4 1/2, because I've now seen the topic handled in a far more dynamic and affecting way.  Don't get me wrong, that first film was powerful, and devastating to watch, but when the death tolls started falling, it was almost as if by magic, like a storm had passed all on its own.  In How To Survive a Plague, we still get the horror and fear from the previous doc.  We still see the same evidence of heroism among average people in a time of struggle.
     We also get (and here is the difference) perspective on how the "Gay Plague" was defeated.  We see the struggles of the core members of ACT-UP and how they fought the President, the FDA, and even each other and made AIDS into an issue that the country could no longer ignore.  We Were Here ends in an abatement, Plague ends in a victory.  A victory tainted by great loss, but a victory nonetheless.
     I think that it is safe to say that director David France can count his documentary among the finest directorial debuts of 2012.  He uses mostly vintage footage, featuring the men and women who actually moved the movement forward, interwoven with interviews and commentary from those who survived, but pulls it all together so skillfully and with such obvious passion for his subject matter, that innovative flourishes of style would have only distracted from his powerful story line and vivid historical context.
     I know, it's easy for the gay reviewer to promote the AIDS documentary, but trust me, this is a lot more than just a "gay movie".  It's a film about how people CAN come together and make a difference. It is about how ordinary citizens can still bring their concerns to the attention of those in power.  The age that the documentary covers may be a fading memory, but this message couldn't possibly be more timely than it is today.
      More than that, all people should have an appreciation for the dedication of the early membership of ACT-UP, as they are heroes who saved the lives of countless American citizens, often while deathly ill themselves.  I know I have several friends who probably wouldn't be here today without their efforts.  Whether you have been let in on it or not, you probably do too.  5 of 5 stars.

Related posts:  Beautiful Melancholy Conspirator (Melancholia review)

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