THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

September 21, 2014

this is where Greetings again from the darkness. After watching this movie, I thought about researching whether the boobs of a 76 year old actress had ever been as front and center as they are in this dramedy from director Shawn Levy – not counting Calendar Girls which was for a worthy cause. Luckily I came to my senses, and realized that’s not a topic anyone should google … except maybe a 76 year old man.

Jane Fonda is the actress whose enhanced assets are so prominently featured, and she plays the mother of four adult children brought together to mourn the death of the family patriarch. This is based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and though it’s watchable enough, it could have benefited from a better script adaptation and a less mainstream comedy director. Mr. Levy provided the popular and entertaining A Night at the Museum, as well as a long list of simple minded movies that didn’t prepare him for the depth of Tropper’s story.

The four “kids” are played by Corey Stoll, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver. Also joining them under a single roof are Stoll’s desperate-for-a-baby wife Kathryn Hahn, Fey’s two kids and self-professed a-hole husband (Aaron Lazar), and Driver’s engaged-to-be-engaged much older woman played by Connie Britton. If you think that’s an outstanding cast, note that also appearing are Timothy Olyphant (Fey’s brain-damaged former lover), Rose Byrne (she always lusted after Bateman), Dax Shepard (sleeps with Bateman’s wife played by Abigail Spencer), Ben Schwartz as an oddball Jewish rabbi, and Debra Monk (the helpful neighbor and more).

Obviously the issue with so many characters and talented actors is that screen time is limited. Somehow each of these have one key moment in the film, and that may be the biggest issue. Some of these we want to know more about (Olyphant, Byrne, Brittain), while others could have been written out of the script altogether (Lazar, Schwartz, Shepard) and the movie wouldn’t have suffered, and might have improved.

Most of the story revolves around Bateman and his situation – crumbled marriage, lost job, dead father, plus even more. Going through that and facing his sit-com worthy dysfunctional family provides an unending stream of none-too-subtle moments: a basement sleeper/sofa that won’t fold out, roof top talks with his bossypants sister, and even fisticuffs inside the family and out.

This is another in the Suburban-angst sub-genre, and the numerous contrived scenes and formulaic sequences are salvaged only by the talented casts ability to squeeze the moment from the next one-liner. There is so much rage and resentment in this family that we viewers are willing to find humor in the toddler toting his portable potty with him everywhere, or even Bateman taking the expected prat fall in an ice rink. There is little edge to this material, but it’s not difficult to glimpse how the right director could have approached the genius of The Royal Tenenbaums or the original Death at a Funeral, rather than a generic blend of Garden State and August:Osage County.

Britton, Byrne and Batemen all have their moments, and the movie is certainly watchable … though it could have been exceptional as either a straight out comedy or an indie-type drama. No need to email me if you come up with additional films featuring 76 year old boobs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for the challenge of keeping track of the seemingly endless number of characters who have “a moment” during this one

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you share the sentiment with me and Jason Bateman’s character that there is no need to focus on Jane Fonda’s “bionic breasts”

watch the trailer:

 


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (2014)

September 21, 2014

eleanor rigby Greetings again from the darkness. It’s tough and probably unfair to write about a film project when key pieces remain unseen. Writer/Director Ned Benson‘s brilliant first take on the story was released at Toronto Film Festival in two perspectives: “Him” and “Her“. A massive re-edit produced “Them“, this version for theatrical release. As you might expect, knowledge that more exists … and in probably a more effective story telling format … renders us a bit frustrated with the blended version. Still, there is plenty here to warrant a look.

This viewer’s frustration stems mostly from the long and winding road we travel understanding something tragic has caused the split between El (the titular Eleanor Rigby) and Conor, but only being teased with details. We are offered a brief glimpse of their happy times, but never get to know them as a happy couple. Instead, Conor is shown trying to re-assemble the pieces, while El tries to move on to a different puzzle altogether.

While the story unfolds in teeth-grinding fashion, it doesn’t offset the powerful emotion and personal intensity brought to the screen by both James McAvoy (Conor) and Jessica Chastain (El). Mr. McAvoy has quietly evolved into one of the more interesting actors working, while Ms. Chastain proves herself to be among the best each time she crawls inside a role and makes it her own. We feel for each of them, before we even really know them at all.

Other superb work comes from a sterling supporting cast that includes screen vets William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Viola Davis and Ciaran Hinds; as well as Bill Hader, Jess Weixler and Nina Arianda. That’s seven characters (plus the two leads) of which we yearn to learn more. Ms. Davis is especially effective in her all too brief appearance as a professor cutting El very little slack. And Mr. Hurt delivers a terrific monologue that strikes a chord.

So all of these wonderful pieces make for an spell-binding what-if that possibly gets answered in the dual-perspective version. The coldness and lack of understanding in the first 45 minutes can’t offset the emotion and sadness that each character feels. Rumor has it that “Him” and “Her” will get their release this year, and if so, I’ll be there in an attempt to complete both puzzles.

watch the trailer:

 


A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)

September 18, 2014

tombstones Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the annual off-season gift from Liam Neeson. Seemingly every year, he provides us with a February or September release that requires his particular set of tough guy skills. This time, he plays Matthew Scudder – of the popular Lawrence Block crime novel series (17 books).

Director Scott Frank (The Lookout) works to create a 1970’s feel, although the film opens up as a flashback to 1991, and quickly fast forwards to 1999 NYC. There are no shortage of clichés here, yet nothing is over the top; and the bleak, somber, usually rainy setting establishes the tone that fits with “unlicensed” private detective Scudder’s preferred method of living and detecting.

Of course, Scudder is a recovering alcoholic and former cop, with a tragic, careless incident on his record and conscience. The film is so ever-bleak, that the moments of humor … though often awkward and out of place … are quite welcome. The only shining light of innocence comes courtesy of a sharp homeless kid named TJ, played by Brian “Astro” Bradley. TJ is a Philip Marlowe wannabe, and quickly assumes the role of Scudder’s partner/intern/IT Department.

Bad guys are everywhere. Even the serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) target the family members of criminals, so as to minimize the involvement of the proper authorities. As an improper authority, we can’t ask for better than Liam Neeson. He works for “favors”, not a paycheck. It should also be noted that this time, he is more likely to outwit the bad guys, than kick their butts.

Other support work comes courtesy of Dan Stephens (“Downton Abbey“), Boyd Holbrook, and creepy cemetery groundskeeper (is there another type?) Olafur Darri Olafsson, who creates yet another memorable character with limited screen time (see “True Detective“).

Mr. Neeson gets plenty of telephone action, which plays right into the strength of Taken, and it’s pretty amazing how much WALKING he does throughout the story. He looks great walking in his duster, but it seems a bicycle would be more efficient … though admittedly, much less intimidating. As a whole, though the movie is probably a bit familiar, it’s the little details and the powerful Liam Neeson that makes it a welcome late summer release.

**NOTE: the character of Matthew Scudder previously appeared on screen in the 1986 Hal Ashby film 8 Million Ways to Die, and was played by Jeff Bridges.

watch the trailer:

 

 


A FIVE STAR LIFE (Viaggio solo, Italy, 2014)

September 16, 2014

5 star life Greetings again from the darkness. Italian movie star Margherita Buy plays Irene, a luxury hotel inspector who travels the world testing picture frames for dust, bed covers for wrinkles, and hotel staff for smiles. Directed and co-written by Maria Sole Tognazzi, the film left me baffled as to why such a talented filmmaker presented such a dead-end trip for the viewer.

Within the first five minutes, we fully “get” Irene and we understand exactly where the movie is headed, provided it follows all overused story clichés (it does). See, Irene has things backwards. She lives in 5 star hotels and takes her brief respites with her nieces, her ex, and her sister. Most of us live with our families and vacation at resorts.

The world class hotels are breathtaking to see, but mostly the movie drags while we wait for Irene’s comeuppance. One segment of the story provides a spark of hope. Lesley Manville (recognizable from numerous Mike Leigh films) appears as a feminist author who lives life to the fullest and preaches realities that strike a chord with Irene. Unfortunately, this plot line is short-lived and the most interesting character disappears as quickly as she arrived.

Irene is single, but maintains a very close relationship with her ex (a very good Stefano Accorsi). Irene has no kids, but periodically spends time with her young nieces. Irene has no close friends, but spends time with her family-centric sister (a very interesting Fabrizia Sacchi). She does all of this without actually committing to living a real life, as she quickly escapes on her next mystery guest mission.

The film begs for comparison to the superior Up in the Air, which allowed for secondary character development … an element only teased in this film. Ms. Buy is very talented, but the script just makes this seem like a luke warm room service meal. We already know that there is no comparison in a dream job versus a dream life.

**NOTE: The Italian title is “Viaggio solo”, which translates to I Travel Alone. There is no good reason for changing the title for its United States release … probably decided by a marketing committee.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)

September 13, 2014

love is strange Greetings again from the darkness. In a remarkable opening 6 to 8 minutes, we see John Lithgow and Alfred Molina prepare for, execute, and celebrate their official marriage after almost 40 years together. During this sequence, we quickly understand that Ben (Lithgow) is the emotional one, and George (Molina) is the pragmatic, balanced one. The brief ceremony is filled with love, admiration and happiness, and leaves us with no doubt that these two are dedicated to each other.

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life, 2007) also co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, and the film excels while Lithgow and Molina are on screen together. It comes across as a contemporary version of the 1937 Leo McCarey film Make Way For Tomorrow (with Beulah Bondi) and highlights the obstacles faced by an elderly couple who face financial hardships, New York real estate misery, and the not-so-welcome generosity of friends and family.

The gay component is not played up, rather the story is told in straight-forward manner as the couple is forced to live apart, and deals with loneliness and unease as they each feel out of place living in a party house with friends (Molina) and sharing a bunk bed with a typically awkward teenage boy played by Charlie Tahan. The boy’s parents are Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows, who face their own marriage and parental issues.

The happiness of the opening wedding ceremony quickly dissipates into real life misery for all characters. The only happy people are the grown men playing a Game of Thrones board game. Literally everyone else is unhappy, or at least disinterested.

Although conflict is ever-present, the Catholic Church is the closest to a real villain. John Curran plays a Priest in the terrific scene in which Molina is fired (because of his wedding) from his Catholic School teaching job. The poor town of Poughkeepsie takes a couple of shots as well, but mostly it’s the pent-up frustrations of Tomei, the passive-aggressive approach of a few other characters, and the crazy teenage mood swings of Tahan’s character that keep Ben, George, and we as viewers quite uncomfortable. Instead, the joy comes from the subtle moments courtesy of the two leads. See this one for the performances of Lithgow and Molina, and for the beautiful Chopin piano throughout.

***NOTE: this makes a fine movie, but it’s easy to imagine it as a much more effective live production on stage

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE DROP (2014)

September 13, 2014

drop Greetings again from the darkness. Much of what I write here contradicts my long maintained stance that a strong story/script is the basis for any movie worth it’s proverbial weight. This neighborhood crime drama does not spin a twisty plot. Nor does it flash fascinating and colorful mobsters. Instead, it’s the acting that elevates the film to the point of neo-noir must see.

By now you have heard that this is James Gandolfini’s final movie. He passed away while director Michael Roskam (Bullhead) was in editing mode. Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, a would-be wise-guy who never-really-was.  Now he is bitter and desperate, in a beaten down kind of way. As a farewell, Gandolfini leaves us a final reminder of what a powerful screen presence he was, and what a terrific feel for character and scene he possessed.

Beyond Gandolfini, the real attraction and the main reason to see the film is the outstanding and mesmerizing performance of Tom Hardy. In many ways, his bartender Bob is the polar opposite of his infamous Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. Quasi-effeminate in his vocal deliverings, and moving with a slow, stilted shuffle, Bob is one of the least imposing guys.  The kind that you would likely look right through. At least that’s the first impression. Hardy is so nuanced, we aren’t even certain when his character transitions and exposes his true make-up. When he does, it’s the highlight of the film.

Noomi Rapace, in yet another intriguing turn, plays local waitress Nadia, who befriends Bob after he rescues an abused puppy. Since the movie is based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue”, it’s no surprise that the main characters each share a need to be rescued. Nadia’s ex-boyfriend is played to full psycho and creepy effect by Matthias Schoenaerts (so great in Rust and Bone, 2012). The scenes between Schoenaerts and Hardy show the movie at its tension-filled best.

As with most neighborhood crime dramas, there are many secrets, local legends, and allegiances in doubt. The players are weary and dream of either better times or ending the misery. Mr. Lehane wrote the novels that led to some other fine films: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. He has a feel for ultra-realistic characters, and his material depends on extraordinary acting for fulfillment. This slow boil benefits from some of the best acting we could ask for.

**NOTE: all due respect to the late, great James Gandolfini … we get a glimpse of him “running” from a crime scene, and his athletic prowess does detract from his otherwise imposing screen presence.

**NOTE: how good must this be if I went the entire review without mentioning Ann Dowd or John Ortiz … two excellent actors who play small, vital roles?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need further proof that Tom Hardy is one of the more talented actors working today OR you bask in the atmospheric neighborhood crime drama genre (this is a good one) OR you just want to see a really cute pit bull puppy.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you find it impossible to “unsee” a glimpse of James Gandolfini running on screen, in spite of his towering presence and acting ability.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


HERO (2014)

September 12, 2014

hero Greetings again from the darkness.  This is a Christian Faith-based message movie designed to encourage more dads to get involved with their son’s activities.  Youth baseball is the game of choice here, placing it right in my wheelhouse (as a long time volunteer youth baseball coach).

Familiar faces are sprinkled throughout the production, including Burgess Jenkins and Gregory Alan Williams, both from Remember the Titans (2000).  Mr. Jenkins plays Joe Finn, a local baseball legend, who coached his son David’s (Justin Miles) team to the championship seven years earlier (as seen via flashback).  When tragedy brings Joe back to town, it’s clear David is harboring frustration and anger towards his dad, who had abandoned his family for a job opportunity. David’s bitterness is in the early stages (known as disappointment) and he doesn’t understand why Joe is so intent on “fixing” the problem of uninvolved dads with the team David is coaching.

Social commentary abounds as we recognize many familiar themes – dads that are just too busy, dads chasing the brass ring, dads who have made some poor decisions. It seems many dads are fine with placing the burden on the coach, and vital life lessons have not yet been taught: discipline, respect, good work habits. This message could just as easily been delivered via school teachers, with as many parents hiding behind “you are the teacher” as “you are the coach“. Sure, this message may be simple and obvious, but it’s still an important one.

Director Manny Edwards and his co-writer John Fornoff choose to minimize the role of moms in the story, and instead focus on the active role dads can play in the emotional and physical growth of their sons. The film not only emphasizes how crucial this is, but also how often dads are just too busy advancing a career to even play catch … reminding us of the climactic scene in Field of Dreams.

Peppered with life lessons and parenting advice, the film crosses generations in its plea to dads to embrace the most important role of their lives – that of being an involved and active parent. It also drives home the message that it’s never too late, as Joe tells David, “I can’t go back. I’m here today“.

For more information on the film and to see the official trailer, visit the official website at:

http://www.herofamilymovie.com/HERO_Movie_Official_Site/Home.html


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