“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review

 

2977-3

 

“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review

I am amazed at how long I have ignored F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 opus, “The Great Gatsby”. I saw the 1974 movie adaptation of the novel years ago, but I found it difficult to appreciate the story. It was not until I saw Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation that my full interest in the story was finally ignited. After watching that particular film, I came across this adaptation that aired on the A&E Channel in 2000. 

Directed by Robert Markowitz and adapted by John J. McLaughlin, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a 90 minute teleplay set in the early years of the Jazz Age. The movie told the story of a mysterious young millionaire named Jay Gatsby, who settles in a large house on the West Egg side (for the newly rich) on prosperous Long Island. Narrated by Gatsby’s neighbor; the well-born, yet impoverished Nick Carraway; audiences become aware of the millionaire’s desire to woo and win back the heart of Daisy Fay Buchanan, an old love he had first met during World War I, who also happens to be Nick’s cousin. However, standing in Gatsby’s way is Daisy’s wealthy and boorish husband and Nick’s former Yale schoolmate, Tom Buchanan; Daisy’s own uncertainty about a serious relationship with the lovesick Gatsby and the latter’s questionable origin of his fortune. This clash between class and romantic aspirations leads to an emotional clash in a New York City hotel suite and later, tragedy and death.

There are some aspects of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that I found admirable. The best aspect of this television movie proved to be the showdown between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan for the love of one Daisy Fay Buchanan. I thought it was well-acted – especially by Mira Sorvino and Martin Donovan as the Buchanans. And director Robert Markowitz injected with a good deal of intensity. I was also impressed by Markowitz’s handling of the tragic hit-and-run of Myrtle Wison, Tom’s working-class mistress, near her husband’s Valley of Ashes gas station. This is the only version in which a distraught Daisy is briefly distracted by the infamous “Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg” billboard before she avoids an oncoming car and kills Myrtle, while driving Gatsby’s white convertible. I suspect this was an addition created for this movie, not featured in the novel. By allowing the billboard to indirectly lead to Myrtle’s death struck me as inspired writing on McLaughlin’s part, or inspired direction from Markowitz. Who knows? And it seemed a pity that no one else – Fitzgerald included – never considered it. The Nick Carraway-Jordan Baker romance had never seemed as sexy as it did in this movie. In fact, this is the only adaptation in which their relationship seemed to radiate with any real sexuality.

But despite these virtues, “THE GREAT GATSBY” seemed marred by a great deal of flaws. Perhaps too many flaws. There is so much about this movie that seemed off. One could tell at first glance that this production was lacking in serious cash. I realize that “THE GREAT GATSBY” is supposed to be a television production. But I find it odd that a production financed by both the A&E Cable Network in the United States, and Granada Productions in Great Britain; could look like a poor man’s version of Fitzgerald’s novel. The costumes designed by Nicoletta Massone left me shaking my head in disbelief. The clothes worn by wealthy characters such as Gatsby, the Buchanans and Jordan Baker seemed more appropriate for middle-class characters of the same era – the early 1920s. In one scene, Tom Buchanan made a snarky comment about Gatsby’s wardrobe. Mind you, the latter was not wearing the infamous pink suit (much to my disappointment). But the cream-colored suit with the dark tie, white socks and dark shoes even made wince. Since the Nick Carraway character wore a similar outfit in the same scene, I found myself wondering why Tom did not extend his contempt to his cousin-in-law’s wardrobe. Although elegant, the Buchanans’ home struck me as more quaint than opulent. The exteriors of Gatsby’s home seemed more opulent, but it had an elegant quality that seemed beyond Gatsby’s tastes. And the interiors struck me as somewhat drab and middle-class. So much for the ostentation – and somewhat tasteless – mansion owned by the mysterious millionaire. I really enjoyed Carl Davis’ score for this movie. But it seemed more appropriate for a neo-noir movie like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” or “MULHOLLAND FALLS”, instead of a period drama like “THE GREAT GATSBY”.

Although I had complimented Markowitz’s direction in two sequences, I found most of his direction rather flaccid and uninspiring. There were moments I felt that he was simply going through the motions. And both he and McLaughlin did not do the audience any favors by including flashbacks of Gatsby and Daisy’s World War I courtship. Those scenes were not only shot in soft focus, but also nearly put me to sleep. My God, they were boring! The parties held by Gatsby disappointed me, as well. Most of it – with the exception of the party attended by the Buchanans – struck me as mediocre and a ghost of those parties featured in Fitzgerald’s novel and the other movie adaptations. And why on earth did McLaughlin’s screenplay begin with Gatsby’s murder? Was he and Markowitz trying to be different? Unique? It is bad enough that Fitzgerald’s prose, in the form of Nick’s narration, hinted that Gatsby was no longer around. Why wipe away the mystery altogether by starting the movie with Gatsby’s murder? But if there is one thing that nearly tripped up“THE GREAT GATSBY”, it had to be its casting.

Due to Granada Productions being a co-producer of the film, it was inevitable that a British actor or actress would be cast. That person turned out to be Toby Stephens, who was given the leading role of Jay Gatsby. Before I continue, I want to say that I have been a fan of Stephens for years, thanks to his outstanding work. Unfortunately, I cannot view Jay Gatsby as one of his best performances. He simply seemed so wrong for the role. Not only did he portray Gatsby with a stiff and unconvincing American accent, but also with a grin that threatened to form a smirk. Aside from a few emotional . . . or semi-emotional moments, I found his portrayal of Gatsby rather cocky. Paul Rudd could have made a decent Nick Carraway, if it were not for the bored expression on his face that occasionally marred his performance. I realize that Nick harbored some contempt toward Gatsby when they first met. But that contempt had disappeared by the time he arranged Gatsby and Daisy’s afternoon reunion. Unfortunately, Rudd’s Nick maintained that same contempt even throughout the reunion and did not really disappear until the blow up at the Plaza Hotel. What the hell? I wish I could simply blame Rudd, but I cannot. As the director, Markowitz should have realized what was going on and put a stop to it. He failed to do so. Martin Donovan gave an excellent performance as the brutish Tom Buchanan. However, he still proved to be the wrong actor for the role. Donovan’s Tom never struck me as an egotistical ex-jock . . . merely an ill-tempered Moaning Minnie with too much money on his hands. Not only did I also have great difficulty in viewing him as a ladies’ man, but also Nick’s classmate at Yale. Martin Donovan and Paul Rudd are a good deal twelve years apart. And it shows. Jerry Grayson’s brief portrayal of gambler/gangster Meyer Wolfsheim did not strike me as memorable. On the other hand, I will never forget William Camp’s portrayal of Myrtle’s loser husband, George Wilson. I found it incredible bad.

The three actresses in “THE GREAT GATSBY” fared better. Somewhat. I enjoyed Mira Sorvino’s performance as the very feminine and flaky Daisy Buchanan. She did an excellent job of recapturing Daisy’s warm, flirtatious personality and shallowness. My only problem with Sorvino is that she utilized a Northeastern accent to portray Daisy. And the latter came from the Upper South – Louisville, Kentucky. Thankfully, Francie Swift, who hails from Texas, used a soft Southern accent in her portrayal of Daisy’s Louisville friend, golfer Jordan Baker. Mind you, Swift’s Jordan did not strike me as a female athlete. But she gave a sly and sexy performance that I found satisfying. In fact, she might be the best Jordan Baker I have seen on screen – despite the Dutch Boy haircut and dull wardrobe. Heather Goldenhersh did a pretty good job of portraying the vulgar and ambitious Myrtle Wilson. I said good . . . not great. The actress portrayed a high, light voice that I would not associate with a character like Myrtle. And I did not find her desperation to escape from a life with the dull George Wilson particularly convincing. But I was impressed by Goldenhersh’s one scene in which she conveyed Mrytle’s account of her first meeting with Tom.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” had a few virtues – including some well done performances from the movie’s three leading ladies and two exceptional sequences. But the flaws overwhelmed the virtues – including lackluster direction from Robert Markowitz and the producers’ miscasting of Toby Stephens in the leading role. I have seen at least three versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. I hate to say it, but this 2000 television movie has to be the least impressive I have seen.

“LINCOLN” (2012) Review

09lincoln-span-articleLarge

 

“LINCOLN” (2012) Review

When I first heard of Steven Spielberg’s decision to make a biographical film about the 16th president of the United States, I ended up harboring a good deal of assumptions about the movie. I heard Spielberg had planned to focus on Abraham Lincoln’s last year in office and assumed the movie would be set between the spring of 1864 and April 1865. I had assumed the movie would be about Lincoln’s various problems with his military generals and other politicians. I thought it would be a more focused similarity to the 1998 miniseries of the same name.

In the end, “LINCOLN” proved to be something quite different. Partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography of Lincoln and his Cabinet members, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, the movie mainly focused on Lincoln’s efforts in January 1865 to have slavery abolished in the country, by getting the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives. According to Tony Kutchner’s screenplay, Lincoln expected the Civil War to end within a month. He felt concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts at the war’s conclusion and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states. To ensure that the 13th Amendment is added to the Constitution, Lincoln wanted it passed by the end of January in order to remove any possibility of those slaves who had already been freed, being re-enslaved. To reach his goal, Lincoln needed Republican party founder Francis Blair to garner support from the more conservative Republicans and support from Democratic congressmen, who would ordinarily vote against such an amendment. In order to acquire Blair’s support, Lincoln was forced to consider a peace conference with three political representatives from the Confederacy. And his Secretary of State, William Seward, recruits three lobbyists – William N. Bilbo, Colonel Robert Latham and Richard Schell – to convince lame duck Democratic congressmen to support the amendment.

I am surprised that the movie went through a great deal in crediting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book as a major source for the movie. Very surprised. I own a copy of the book and know for a fact that only four-and-a-half pages are devoted to the Thirteenth Amendment and five-and-half pages are devoted to the Peace Conference with Confederate political leaders. If so little came from Goodwin’s book, where did Tony Kutchner receive most of his historical information for the movie? And if he did use other historical sources, why did Spielberg failed to credit other historical sources for the movie?

I recall watching the trailer for “LINCOLN” and found myself slightly repelled by it. As someone who had to endure a great deal of pompous and self-righteous dialogue in a good number of historical dramas, I noticed that the trailer seemed to be full it. Fortunately, the movie was only tainted by a few scenes featuring pompous dialogue. One of those scenes turned out to be Lincoln’s meeting with four Union soldiers – two blacks and two whites. Of the four soldiers, only the first black soldier – portrayed by Colman Domingo – managed to engage in a relaxed conversation with the President. The two white soldiers behaved like ardent fanboys in Lincoln’s presence and one of them – portrayed by actor Luke Haas – ended up reciting the Gettysburg Address. The scene ended with the other black soldier – portrayed by British actor David Oyelowo – also reciting the speech. Not only did I find this slightly pompous, but also choked with Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality, something I have never really cared for. Following Lincoln’s death, Spielberg and Kutchner ended the movie with a flashback of the President reciting his second inaugural address. I cannot say how the pair should have ended the movie. But I wish they had not done with a speech. All it did was urge me to leave the movie theater as soon as possible. Janusz Kamiński is a first-rate cinematographer, but I can honestly say that I found his photography in “LINCOLN” not particularly impressive. In fact, I found it rather drab. Drab colors in a costume picture is not something I usually look forward to.

The movie also featured a few historical inaccuracies. Usually, I have nothing against this if it works for the story. The problem is that the inaccuracies in “LINCOLN” did not serve the story. I found them unnecessary. Lincoln’s meeting with the four Union soldiers allowed Oyelowo’s character to expressed his displeasure at the U.S. Army’s lack of black officers and the indignity of pay lower than white soldiers. The problem with this rant is that before January 1865, the U.S. Army had at least 100 to 200 black officers. And Congress had granted equal pay and benefits to black troops by June 1864. Thirty-three year-old actor Lee Pace portrayed Democratic New York Congressman Fernando Wood, an ardent opponent of abolition. In reality, Wood was at least 52 years old in January 1865. Another scene featured a White House reception that featured a meeting between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and some of the Radical Republicans like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Kutchner had Mary face Senator Sumner with a warm greeting, before she deliberately cut him off to face Congressman Stevens. The movie made it clear that the First Lady disliked the Radical Republicans, whom she viewed as personal enemies of her husband. Yet, the manner in which she disregarded Senator Sumner was completely misleading . . . especially since the senator and the First Lady had been close friends since the early months of Lincoln’s presidency. In reality, Mary Lincoln’s political views were more radical than her husband’s. But due to her background as the daughter of a Kentucky slaveowner, most of the Radical Republicans viewed her as soft on abolition and a possible Confederate sympathizer.

Thankfully, the good in “LINCOLN” outweighed the bad. More than outweighed the bad. Recalling my original assumption that “LINCOLN” would turn out to be some pretentious film weighed down by boring dialogue and speeches, I can happily say that the movie’s look at American politics during the Civil War proved to be a great deal more lively. Yes, the movie did feature a few pretentious scenes. However, “LINCOLN” turned out to be a tightly woven tale about the 16th President’s efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the end of January 1865. In many ways, the movie’s plot reminded me of the 2007 film, “AMAZING GRACE”, which featured William Wilberforce’s effort to abolish Britain’s slave trade during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Unlike the 2007, “LINCOLN” proved to be more tightly focused and featured a more earthy and sometimes humorous look at American politics at play. One of the movie’s successes proved to be its focus on the efforts of the three lobbyists, whom I ended up dubbing the “Three Musketeers”, to recruit lame duck Democrats to vote for passage of the amendment. In fact these scenes featuring James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson proved to be among the funniest in the film. The movie also featured the tribulations Lincoln experienced with his immediate family – namely the volatile behavior of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and his oldest son Robert Lincoln’s determination to join the Army – during this difficult period in which his attention toward the amendment’s passage. More importantly, the movie on a political situation rarely mentioned in movies about Lincoln – namely the political conflicts that nearly divided the Republican Party during the Civil War. Not only did Lincoln find himself at odds with leading Democrats such as Fernando Wood of New York and George Pendleton of Ohio; but also with Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens who distrusted Lincoln’s moderate stance on abolition and even his fellow conservative Republicans like Frances and Montgomery Blair, whose push for reconciliation with the Confederates threatened the amendment.

Now one might say that is a lot for a 150 minutes film about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. And they would be right. But for some reason, it worked, thanks to Spielberg’s direction and Kutchner’s screenplay. One, for a movie with a running time between two to three hours, I found it well paced. Not once did the pacing dragged to a halt or put me to sleep. “LINCOLN” also attracted a good number of criticism from certain circles. Some have pointed out that the film seemed to claim that Lincoln kick started the campaign for the amendment. The movie never really made this claim. Historians know that the Republican controlled U.S. Senate had already passed the amendment back in April 1864. But the Republicans did not control the House of Representatives and it took another nine-and-a-half months to get the House to pass it. For reasons that still baffle many historians, Lincoln suddenly became interested in getting the amendment passed before his second inauguration – something that would have been unnecessary if he had waited for a Republican controlled Congress two months later.

Many had complained about the film’s oversimplification of African-Americans’ roles in the abolition of slavery. I would have agreed if the film’s focus on abolition had been a little more broad and had began during the war’s first year; or if it had been about the role of blacks in the abolition of slavery during the war. Actually, I am still looking forward to a Hollywood production on Frederick Douglass, but something tells me I will be holding my breath. But with the movie mainly focused on the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, I suspect this would not have been possible. Some claimed that the African-American merely hung around and waited for the amendment’s passage. I would have agreed if it were not for Lincoln’s encounter with the Union soldiers at the beginning of the film; Lincoln valet William Slade’s day-to-day dealings with the First Family, and the film’s focus on Elizabeth Keckley’s attention to the political wrangling surrounding the amendment. One scene focused on Mrs. Keckley’s conversation with Lincoln on the consequences of the amendment and another featured a tense moment in which she walked out on the proceedings after Thaddeus Stevens was forced to refute his earlier claims about equality between the races in order to win further Democratic support.

Aside from my complaints about the movie’s drab photography, I can honestly say that from a visual point of view,“LINCOLN” did an excellent job in re-creating Washington D.C. during the last year of the Civil War. Production designer Rick Carter really had his work cut out and as far as I am concerned, he did a superb job. He was ably assisted by the art direction team of Curt Beech, David Crank and Leslie McDonald, who still helped to make 1865 Washington D.C. rather colorful, despite the drab photography; along with Jim Erickson and Peter T. Frank’s set decorations. And I found Joanna Johnston’s costumes absolutely exquisite. The scene featuring the Lincolns’ reception at the White House was a perfect opportunity to admire Johnston’s re-creation of mid 19th century fashion. I can honestly say that I did not find John Williams’ score for the movie particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it blended very well with the story and not a note seemed out of place.

“LINCOLN” not only featured a very large cast, but also a great number of first-rate performances. It would take me forever to point out the good performances one-by one, so I will focus on those that really caught my attention. The man of the hour is Daniel Day-Lewis, who has deservedly won accolades for his portrayal of the 16th President. I could go into rapture over his performance, but what is the point? It is easy to see that Abraham Lincoln could be viewed as one of his best roles and that he is a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. If Day-Lewis is the man of the hour, then I can honestly say that Sally Field came out of this film as “the woman of the hour. She did a beautiful job in recapturing not only Mary Todd Lincoln’s volatile nature, but political shrewdness. Like Day-Lewis, she seemed to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens has been featured as a character in at least three Hollywood productions. In pro-conservative movies like 1915’s “BIRTH OF A NATION” (upon which the Austin Stoneman character is based) and the 1942 movie on Andrew Johnson called “TENNESSEE JOHNSON”, he has been portrayed as a villain. But in “LINCOLN”, he is portrayed as a fierce and courageous abolitionist by the always wonderful Tommy Lee Jones. The actor did a superb job in capturing the Pennsylvania congressman’s well-known sarcastic wit and determination to end slavery in the U.S. for all time. I would be very surprised if he does not early an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor.

But there were other first-rate performances that also caught my attention. David Strathairn did an excellent and subtle job in capturing the politically savy Secretary of State William H. Seward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt managed to impress me for the third time this year, in his tense and emotional portrayal of the oldest Lincoln sibling, Robert Lincoln, who resented his father’s cool behavior toward him and his mother’s determination to keep him out of the Army. Hal Holbrook, who portrayed Lincoln in two television productions) gave a colorful performance as Lincoln crony, Francis Blair. Gloria Reuben gave a subtle performance as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and companion, Elizabeth Keckley, who displayed an intense interest in the amendment’s passage. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson gave hilarious performances as the three lobbyists hired by Lincoln and Seward to recruit support of the amendment from lame duck Democrats. Stephen Henderson was deliciously sarcastic as Lincoln’s long suffering valet, William Slade. Lee Pace gave a surprisingly effective performance as long-time abolition opponent, Fernando Wood. And I was also impressed by Jackie Earle Haley’s cool portrayal of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy.

As I had stated earlier, I was not really prepared to enjoy “LINCOLN”, despite its Civil War setting. To be honest, the last Spielberg movie I had really enjoyed was 2005’s “MUNICH”. And after the 2011 movie, “WAR HORSE”, I wondered if he had lost his touch. I am happy to say that with “LINCOLN”, he has not. Spielberg could have easily laden this film with over-the-top sentimentality and pretentious rhetoric. Thankfully, his portrayal of pre-20th century American politics proved to be not only exciting, but also colorful. And he had great support from a first-rate production team, Tony Kutchner’s superb screenplay, and excellent performances from a cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis. The Civil War had not been this interesting in quite a while.

“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

Tom-Hardy-and-Shia-LaBeouf-in-Lawless

 

“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

A Virginia-born writer named Matt Bondurant wrote a historical novel called “The Wettest County in the World” back in 2008. He based the novel on the exploits of his grandfather and two granduncles, who ran a massive moonshine operation during the later years of the Prohibition era, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Four years later, a movie version of Bondurant’s novel finally hit the movie screens at the end of the summer. 

Renamed “LAWLESS”, the movie began in 1931 in Franklin County, Virgina; where three brothers – Forest, Howard and Jack Bondurant – run a successful moonshine business with the help of their friend, Cricket Pate. The brothers use a bar as a front for their illegal activities. And not only do they provide well-made moonshine to the Franklin County locals, but also to gangsters like Floyd Banner of Chicago. Two people arrive in Franklin County that prove to have a major impact upon the lives the Bondurant brothers. The first to arrive is a Chicago dancer named Maggie Beauford, who is hired as a waitress for their bar and slowly becomes romantically involved with the oldest brother, Forest. Not long after Maggie’s arrival, a Federal Special Deputy Charly Rakes arrives in Franklin County and demands that all county bootleggers – including the Bondurants – give him a cut of their profits. Although the other bootleggers surrender to Rakes’ intimidation tactics and decide to give him a cut, Forest Bondurant refuses to do the same. Rakes and his men set out to intimidate and terrorize the Bondurants into giving him a cut of their profits. And when that fails, he decides to go after their distillery and destroy it.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest Bondurant – Jack. At the beginning of the story, Jack is an inexperienced and sometimes introverted young man, who is kept out of the family’s shine business, aside from acting as a driver for their deliveries. When Rakes gives him a severe beating as a warning to the family, Forest chides Jack for being unable to defend himself. But after Forest is nearly killed by two of Rakes’ men, Jack takes matters into his hands and sets with his friend Cricket to deliver a shipment of booze to Floyd Banner in Chicago. Jack returns with profit for the family and himself. But his newly discovered self confidence leads him to make mistakes that not only endanger his family’s moonshine operation, but also the lives of Cricket and the girl he loves, a German-American Baptist named Bertha Mannix.

“LAWLESS” turned out to be a very entertaining movie for me. But before I discuss how much I enjoyed the movie, I have to talk about its flaws. I believe that “LAWLESS” had two major flaws. One, director John Hillcoat delivered an unevenly paced movie. The first third of the movie took its time in setting up both the characters and the story. In fact, the pacing was so slow that I was in danger of either falling asleep or losing interest in the movie. I have one last complaint and it deals with the movie’s introduction of the Floyd Banner character. I found the introduction of the Banner character rather irrelevant and unnecessary. In the movie, Banner arrived in Franklin County to shoot a competitor, exchange a glance with Jack Bondurant and return to Chicago. I found the entire scene irrelevant and a skimpy excuse to introduce Gary Oldman into the film. Especially since the Floyd Banner role proved to be rather small and serve as nothing more than a plot device to increase Jack’s role as a moonshiner.

But once the movie was set up, “LAWLESS” proved to be very satisfying and entertaining. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed was the manner in which it recaptured so many details of early Depression-era Appalachian South. Hillcoat did a marvelous job in allowing the movie to permeate with atmosphere. However, Hilcoat did not achieve this superb re-creation on his own. He received help from the likes of cinematogrpher Benoît Delhomme, whose photography of the western Georgia locations struck me as breathtaking; Gershon Ginsburg’s beautiful art direction and Chris Kennedy’s production designs. I was especially impressed by Margot Wilson’s costume designs. For years, Hollywood seemed to have difficulty in re-creating accurate costumes for the early 1930. The movie industry has improved a great deal over the past decade or so. And this was especially apparent in how Wilson’s costumes not only accurately reflect the movie’s period setting, but also the character and social positions of the characters. An excellent example of this proved to be the costumes worn by Shia Labeouf. He began the movie wearing clean, yet tight fitting clothes – including pants that were obviously too short. During the movie’s second half, his wardrobe not only improved, but also became decidedly more flashy, reflecting his personal success in the moonshine business.

Although I found screenwriter Nick Cave’s introduction of the movie’s character, setting and plot rather slow; I must admit that the movie’s overall story proved to be well written. I wonder if many critics and moviegoers had suspected“LAWLESS” would end up as some dramatic version of “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD” with plenty of high-octane action and cliched Southern stock characters. Or that it would turned out to be some take on the founding of NASCAR. Thankfully, none of those scenarios came to fruition. “LAWLESS” proved to be an intelligent mixture of a well done family drama and crime saga. First of all, Cave’s script not only explored the Bondurants’ illegal activities and how it attracted the attention of the law, symbolized in the form of the corrupted Federal officer Charly Rakes. But it also explored the Bondurants themselves – the intimidating Forest, who had developed a reputation for evading death; the easy-going and hard-drinking Howard, who also possessed a hair triggered temper; and youngest brother Jack, whose inexperience, introverted nature and distaste for violence led him to be disregarded by his older brothers as a dependable participant in their moonshine business.

The producers and Hilcoat certainly picked the right actors to portray the Bondurant brothers. I hope that Shia Labeouf will finally shake off his reputation as a mere tool dominated by special effects in over-the-top action films. He did a superb job in slowly developing Jack Bondurant’s character from the insecure and immature boy to someone with a lot more confidence. I believe that Forest Bondurant might prove to be one of my favorite roles that Tom Hardy has ever portrayed. He did a marvelous job projecting an intimidating and commanding aura in his character. The character attracted a bit of a in-joke that originated with a local myth that nothing or no one call kill him. It was good to see Jason Clarke again, whom I have not seen in a movie since 2009’s “PUBLIC ENEMIES”. He was great as the easy going, yet hard drinking middle brother Howard.

I noticed that Australian actress Mia Wasikowska received a higher billing in the movie’s credits than Jessica Chastain.  I am a bit surprised, considering that her role proved to be smaller. Mind you, I had no problems with her solid portrayal of Jack Bondurant’s love, Bertha Minnix. But her performance and role seemed minor in compare to Chastain’s, who had the juicier role as Chicago showgirl-turned-waitress, Maggie Beauford. Chastain was superb as world weary dancer who left Chicago to escape its chaos and mindless violence, only to find herself in the middle of more chaos in the form of the Bondurants’ feud with Charly Rakes. And I was especially impressed with one scene between her and Hardy, as she struggled to suppress news of the rape she had endured at the hands of Forest’s attackers. Many critics claimed that Gary Oldman had chewed the scenery in his brief appearance as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner. Aside from one moment when he lost his temper with a subordinate, I found Oldman’s performance rather subdued. And he did a pretty good job in his one major scene. I believe that many critics had managed to overlook Guy Pearce’s over-the-top performance as Federal deputy, Charly Rakes. With his slicked back hair, shaved eyebrows, exaggerated body language and effiminate manner, Pearce radiated urban eccentricity at its extreme. Yet, for some reason, the performance worked, due to Pearce’s ability to infuse a great deal of subtle menace within the exaggerated persona. The movie also benefited from some solid performances from the likes of Dane DeHaan, who portrayed Jack’s best friend Cricket Pate; Bill Camp, who portrayed Franklin County’s backbone, Sheriff Hodges; and Lew Temple as the morally questionable Deputy Henry Abshire.

I realize that “LAWLESS” is not perfect. I feel that the slow pace in the first third of the film and the unnecessary manner of the Floyd Banner character’s introduction prevented it from being a truly first-rate movie. But thanks to Nick Cave’s adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s tale, solid direction from John Hillcoat and a superb cast led by Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy, “LAWLESS” still managed to become a fascinating tale of family bonds during the last years of Prohibition . . . and one of my favorite movies of the 2012 summer movie season.