“Premium Rush”

Richard’s Review:  2 1/2 stars stars

Are they the modern day Pony Express? Or are bike couriers reckless, adrenaline junkies who make the streets just a little less safe? The new thriller “Premium Rush,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon, paints a portrait of them as a little bit of both.

I don’t know if bike couriers have the equivalent of the famous slogan, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But if they do, it probably reads something like this: “Neither stop lights nor pedestrian safety nor traffic will prevent these couriers from delivering their packages and earning their thirty bucks.”  Of all the courier misfits Wylie (Gordon-Levitt) is the most extreme. Stripped of gears and brakes, his bike is a missile charging through the streets of Manhattan delivering “that thing to that place, fast.” A routine pickup and drop-off turns dangerous when a crooked cop (Michael Shannon) decides he needs what Wylie is carrying more than its intended recipient.

“Premium Rush” is like a BMX race with a plotline. Bikes dart in and out of traffic, defy the laws of gravity and spin on one wheel, which is all cool, but doesn’t mean much unless director David Koepp has invented just enough of a story to keep things rolling on two wheels.

Nothing about the story is particularly memorable, and I doubt that anyone will become invested in the characters. But Gordon-Levitt and Shannon bring enough playfulness to keep audiences interested.

Gordon-Levitt hands in a likeable, high-energy performance, but it is Shannon who makes the biggest impression. As the dirty cop with an attitude, a gambling problem and debt he can’t pay, he’s a cartoon, a wild caricature of a man on the edge. It’s almost worth the price of admission to hear him say, “I forgot to bring my bullets. I’ll meet you there,” to his cop buddies.

“Premium Rush” is a speed demon, a formulaic story with a-list action but a b-movie story.

 “Hit and Run”

Richard’s Review:  2 stars

How long has it been since you thought to yourself, "Gee, I'm glad Tom Arnold still gets work?" If you're like me, it's been a while. After seeing him bumble through "Hit and Run," a new chase movie starring Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell, the question I asked myself was, "How does Tom Arnold still get work?"

When the movie opens Charlie and Annie (Shepard and Bell) are living a simple, quiet life in a small village. She teaches at the community college, he looks after the house. When she’s offered her dream job in Los Angeles, however, their simple life gets complicated. Turns out he had a much different life before moving to -- or should we say being relocated to -- their tiny town. Charlie was moved there as part of the Witness Protection Program after testifying against some very dangerous bank robbers he used to drive in their get-a-way cars. In hiding for four years, Charlie has changed his life, and Annie is a big part of that. If he goes to L.A. he's in danger, but if he stays he'll lose her. Charlie he hits the road -- unfortunately so do his old partners and Annie's ex boyfriend.

The main characters in “Hit and Run” are likable. Shepard and Bell are a couple in real life and the chemistry between them shows. When it’s just the two of them on screen "Hit and Run" has the makings of a fun action adventure. Unfortunately the movie is populated by peripheral characters with the combined charm of a slap (stick) to the face.

Comedy is about context and even a giggler about the rarefied event of Witness Protection has to have one foot in reality in order for the jokes to register. I can believe Charlie is in hiding.  What I can't believe, or care about, are the broadly drawn characters that clutter up this movie.

Arnold's can't-shoot-straight U.S. Marshall is such a cartoon that he makes Fred Flintstone seem like Orson Welles. It's that kind of slapstick that takes you out of the story.

Add to that a pill-popping school administrator and an ex-boyfriend who talks about "role playing with your corpse," and you have a cast that is more annoying than funny.

For a movie that features cars in hot pursuit of one another, the chases are kind of dull. This is not "Bullitt." Whoever had the idea of staging a chase in an abandoned air strip, where the cars essentially drive around in circles, needs to have another look at "The French Connection" to see how a car chase is actually done.

At the heart of "Hit and Run," which is also Shepard's directorial debut, is a good, old-fashioned chase movie like the kind Roger Corman used to make for drive-in audiences. Too bad this movie gets a few less miles to the gallon than Corman used to in his movies.

 “Bernie DVD”

Richard’s Review: 3 stars

“Bernie” is a true crime story that falls into the stranger than fiction category. Based on a true story, the details are so strange and the characters so colorful that it feels ripped from the pen of a Hollywood screenwriter rather than the pages of the Panola County Newspaper. 

Jack Black is Bernie Tiede, a portly and courtly Southern funeral director. He is beloved by the folks of the small east Texas town of Carthage for his work with the church, his community involvement and general sunny demeanour. He is particularly loved the little old ladies of the town, many of whom trusted Bernie with their husband’s final burial. One elderly woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), took Bernie under her wing, making him her travel companion and beneficiary of her will. Their relationship confounded many in the town. Marjorie was the local shrew -- an unpleasant woman who ran the bank and refused many townspeople loans in their time of need. Despite Bernie’s calming influence on Marjorie, their relationship turned sour. “Basically it was like Bernie was her property,” says Bernie’s old boss. Then the unthinkable happened.

To say any more would ruin one of the pleasures of this movie. Director Richard “School of Rock” Linklater lets the strange docudrama unfold in a leisurely way, through reenactments and talking heads. Broken into sections -- Who Is Bernie? Was it Romantic? Was Bernie Gay? -- The film provides an interesting portrait of Bernie and the town of Carthage.  Black hands in a nuanced and subdued performance, and Texas native Matthew McConaughey is a live wire as the local District Attorney, Danny Buck. But it is the talking heads that really bring the story alive.  They are the documentary part of this docudrama. Each of these people actually knew Bernie and were his supporters, even while he was on trial. Their lively colloquialisms -- like, “There’s more tattoos than teeth on that jury,” -- brighten up the movie, helping to create a fully rounded picture of who Bernie was and why he did this terrible thing.