POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2010:
Taken for a Ride
Takers spirals downward, while Get Low rises to the occasion
Nothing to Give. Ghost (rapper T.I.) returns from a five-year prison sentence wanting to make the biggest heist with his former gang, but there might be a few other plans in the making in Takers.
We've reached the bottom of the barrel. The last weekend before Labor Day, and the official end of summer offered little than inspired excitement. I guess it's a fitting end to a summer of films that were about the weakest in recent memory -- maybe ever. Despite Inception's greatness, it can only do so much.
There were bright spots with Inception, Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim, The Other Guys and Piranha 3D (no, I'm not joking), but the best films I caught this summer hailed from Sweden, the meth-infested Ozarks, and the graffiti covered streets of Los Angeles -- indies and imports that Hollywood seems only to re-make or ignore.
And as summer circles the drain, we have Takers, the trailer for which I've been seeing for what seems like forever. I guess I decided a long time ago I wouldn't expect much (despite the presence of the great Idris Elba). That's more or less what I got.
Director John Luessenhop (with a trio of co-writers) decided he wanted to make a hip-hop Ocean's Eleven combined with the stylistic finger print of Michael Mann. If only what he had crafted were nearly as sophisticated, entertaining or unique as the influences he aims to dabble in.
Takers find its ensemble cast of players in the bank heist game (though unlike their Danny Ocean led forebears, they're just in it to live large). Gordon Jennings (Elba) is the cool, calm and collected leader of the group, which of course includes varying specialists. There's John Rahway (Paul Walker), sniper expert; A.J. (Hayden Christensen), the tech whiz; Jake Attica (Michael Ealy) is ... hell, I don't even remember, but he has a brother named Jesse (Chris Brown) who can run really fast.
The distinctions started to blur pretty quickly because the film feels like it was written by copying and pasting sample situations in Final Draft, though that doesn't excuse Christensen's hat (standing in for his personality).
After a big heist goes off successfully, the crew retreats to their high dollar hideout to count money and look suave. They get an unexpected visit from an old partner, Ghost (T.I., leaning heavily on the Snoop Dogg school of line delivery) who just got sprung from prison after years of keeping his mouth shut about the job he pulled with Jennings that put him there. He has a proposition for an armored truck heist. The only catch is they need to plan it and carry it off in less than a week.
Meanwhile an embattled detective, Jack Welles (Matt Dillion barely trying to care) is desperate to collar the arrogant and successful crew. He's your classic loner cop, Martin Riggs-type, just not nearly as interesting and not much helped by his ersatz partner Eddie (Jay Hernandez).
Anyway, drama ensues, revelations change everything, and worlds collide. Imagine those last two in Movie Guy Voice.
Takers was so tedious, derivative and bereft of any real substance, it really wasn't long before I was counting the reel changes waiting for the end of its ambient, meaningless stylishness.
The only real upside was a couple of the performances, particularly Idris Elba and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Jennings' recovering addict sister, Naomi. Their sub-plot in the overall scheme of things wasn't any more original than the rest of the cliché-riddled story, but their solid performances were enough to take my mind off of how bored I was by the rest of the proceedings.
Paul Walker is also good as Rahway, though again he's not given much to do; he still capably embodies the role with his reliable charisma that more often than not gets wasted in films such as Takers.
But for every acting bright spot, there is an equal and opposite reaction that does as much to cancel out the good as any element of this flicks generic construction.
T.I. and Chris Brown try to coast on the attitude that Hayden Christensen is desperately looking for. They all come off like they are out of their league, though I'm not sure if fans of the music stars (or any hopeless Star Wars nerds) care too much about things like ability.
The script is a mish-mash of plot holes, contradictions and unbelievable situations that are of course woven with clichéd dialogue and a dearth of individuality.
When Ghost is paroled, none of his old cohorts seem to trust him despite the fact the guy did five years without squealing (though they are holding his money from the last job). No real reason is given for their distrust and despite it, they still break their one-year moratorium rule five minutes after they announce it to the audience and go in business with him. The film is so lazily written and dull, I'm surprised any of its incongruities stuck out enough to be memorable.
Director Luessenhop has created a decent looking film, but his attempts to generate Michael Mann-like visual ambience only draw attention to how empty and pastiche the whole thing feels. By the time the slo-mo climactic shoot out with some textbook Russian mobsters hit (as we all knew it would) my eyes had kind of glazed over as I went limp from the banality of it all.
Takers took something, all right. Life I won't get back.
No Low Notes
Earlier this year, I caught what would be Jeff Bridge's Golden Globe winning performance as Bad Blake in the utterly enjoyable Crazy Heart. When you see a turn like that, you have to assume accolades will be raining down come awards season, and I don't think I'll assume any differently for Robert Duvall (who had a cameo in Crazy Heart presumably because greatness can smell its own). He'll get nominated for this; Aaron Schneider's remarkably accomplished feature directorial debut Get Low.
Very loosely based on a somewhat true tale, Get Low plants us in the backwoods of Tennessee; the foreboding and eerie opening scene revealing a burning man escaping from a blazing house fire and disappearing into the inky night.
Later, in the waning 1930s, we meet Felix Bush (Duvall) a lonely hermit who lives in a cabin of his own construction with his pet mule in the middle of hundreds of acres of prime forest that he owns. The local kids, wanting to test the wrath of the much gossiped about old man, incur it by tossing rocks at his windows. He drives them off with no real consequences for the kids (probably a disappointment). Bush just wants to be left alone to cut fire wood and pay his penance.
When the local priest, Rev. Horton (Gerald McRaney), informs Bush of the passing of an acquaintance, Bush goes into town --engendering looks of curious hostility from the locals -- to visit Horton. But instead of coming for the funeral, Bush has a wad of money and an unusual request for his own interment.
Rebuffed, he is still overheard by Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black) an entry-level sales man under the employ of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the owner of the local funeral parlor. Business isn't what it should be, so Quinn takes Robinson out to Bush's cabin to make his first sale.
But Bush's wishes for his final repose are a little more complicated than his choice of casket. He wants Quinn to throw him a funeral party and invite everyone that has a story to tell about him -- meaning just about everyone in four counties. Not only that, but he wants to raffle off his hundreds of acres of prime woodland to anyone who can buy the $5 ticket. But the capper? He wants to be in attendance at his own funeral -- while still alive.
Get Low is a lovely, if sometimes cloying, blend of gallows humor and touching character study that is elevated by its performances, particularly Duvall and Murray. The film weaves those styles together, while it peels back the layers of Felix Bush's sad tale, revealing more and more about the nature of his solitude and his quest for redemption.
Distrust born when unanswered rumors multiply out of all reality underlines the theme that people never really know the truth about others, and sometimes not even themselves ("Gossip is the Devil's radio," as Bush says). It's a theme that rings true not only in its poignancy (and relevance) but also the skill with which it is delivered by the film's exceptional performances.
Aaron Schneider has crafted a tale filled with haunting mood, surprising humor, and a rich visual aesthetic that drips with period atmosphere (not surprising as he's spent most of his career as an apparently great cinematographer; that job handled here by the similarly talented David Boyd). His pacing is agile and the film, while considerate in its flow, never really bogs down or feels like it over stays its welcome. If there were ever a movie that felt like being warm and comfortable on a cold and rainy day, it's Get Low.
I can't heap enough praise on Duvall's consummate performance, except to pause for Bill Murray. He brings his trademark drier than Death Valley delivery and attention to subtle character detail (and a pleasing undercurrent of scoundrel) to Frank Quinn. Of course, they both have a script that gives them plenty of character depth to work with, but it's times like these when I wonder at how underrated Murray is at balancing his comedic chops with his dramatic ones.
Sissy Spacek was also strong as Mattie Darrow, an old flame from Bush's past, while Lucas Black gives a fine turn that totally made me forget about Legion. Fact is, I wouldn't change a thing about the casting. They're all a joy to watch.
The climax falters -- I was waiting for an uppercut that only grazed my chin -- but Get Low feels like a fine book that only exists on the screen. A slice of American Gothic rich with the dream like qualities of sibylline poetry.
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