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:

 

 

 

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ENOUGH SAID (2013)

September 29, 2013

enough said Greetings again from the darkness. A Rom-Com for the 50-ish crowd is pretty darn rare. But then, writer/director Nicole Holofcener doesn’t deliver the typical rom-com filled with lame punchlines and actors with perfectly scultped bodies. Instead, James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss come across as real people with the expected defense mode and vulnerabilities as they try to find intimacy and a personal connection.

Albert (Gandolfini) and Eva (Louis-Dreyfuss) meet at a party and subtle sparks fly as both claim they aren’t attracted to anyone at the party. While at the party, Eva, a massage therapist, also meets Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), a charming poet who wants to hire Eva to help ease her shoulder pain. Albert and Eva begin dating, and Eva slowly comes around on Albert’s grounded and funny personality. Sure he’s a bit overweight and somewhat slobby, but he treats her well and adores her. Meanwhile, Eva’s massage work on Marianne exposes her to Marianne’s incessant complaining about her overweight and somewhat slobby ex-husband. Yep. This causes quite the dilemma for Eva because she likes Albert and she envies Marianne’s cool lifestyle. Oh and both Eva and Albert have teenage daughters getting ready to go off to college, so the couple also share parent-child separation anxiety.

enough said2 The story clearly centers around Eva, and it’s nice to see Louis-Dreyfuss throttle back a little and avoid some of her sitcom standard moves. We are able to relate to Eva and though we see the corner she is backing herself in to, we also understand how quickly a little bit of poor judgment can spin out of control. Although this is Eva’s story, the real heart of the film is delivered by Gandolfini’s performance. This is no Tony Soprano … this is a real guy … a nice guy … yes, even a sweet guy.

Ms. Holofcener has set her precedent with snippy banter from intelligent characters with her previous films Please Give (2010) and Friends With Money (2006), the former I liked very much and the latter I cared little for. This time, all of her characters and their dialogue ring true and are relatable. Eva’s married friends are played by Toni Collette and Ben Falcone (married in real life to Melissa McCarthy) and they have the only hollow sub-plot with their “should we or should we not fire the maid” dilemma. The two teenage daughters are played by Tracey Fairaway and Eve Hewson (Bono‘s enough said3daughter) and both have scenes that really strike a chord and ring true.

Mr. Gandolfini passed away earlier this year and there was the thought that this would be his final released film. However, it’s been decided that Animal Rescue will be finalized and released in 2014. It’s difficult to watch him and not think what could have been over the next few years, though his legacy is quite secure. His range was much greater than many give him credit for, and I would recommend watching him in both True Romance (1993) and Welcome to the Rileys (2010).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a well made rom-com featuring those around 50 instead of those pushing 30 OR you want further proof of just how talented James Gandolfini was

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your rom-coms to be filled with mindless slapstick and cast with actors who could model for Abercrombie

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEEJaIjF_Lo


JAMES GANDOLFINI remembered

June 20, 2013

gandolfini Last evening brought the startling news that James Gandolfini had passed from a sudden heart attack.  It happened while on vacation in Rome with his teenage son, who found him.  The legacy of  Gandolfini is safe thanks to his role as Tony Soprano in HBO’s ground-breaking series “The Sopranos“, but we movie fans know him for so much more. He was a fabulous movie actor both in lead roles (Welcome to the Riley’s) and supporting ones (The Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Knew Too Much, In The Loop, and Killing Me Softly).  He was beloved and respected by those within the industry, and he once laughed off the idea that he might be like Tony Soprano.  His response … a proclaimation that he is more like “a 260 pound Woody Allen“.

The controversial final episode of “The Sopranos” was filmed at a New Jersey Ice Cream parlor called Holsteins.  Fans gathered last night, and in a touching tribute, the booth where Tony and his family sat in that final scene was marked with a “reserved” sign.

Here is a 2 minute video showing some of Mr. Gandolfini’s work:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEyhCZK2jJM&feature=youtu.be

 


THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (2013)

March 18, 2013

Incredible Burt2 Greetings again from the darkness. As I sat in a theatre with approximately 80 others, it took me awhile to realize that the only audible laughs were coming from a couple of teenagers near the back. Until that point, I had just assumed that my grumpy old man syndrome had reared its head as I managed only a couple of chuckles.

The best comparison I have for this “comedy” from director Don Scardino (“30 Rock”) are the Will Ferrell sports-themed spoofs Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro. If you found those to be hilarious, then this one might provide you some laughs. Rather than picking on a sport, the movie focuses on the world of Las Vegas magic shows … big-budget stage productions (David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy) vs. streetwise illusionists (Criss Angel, David Blaine).

incredible burt4Childhood friends Albert and Anton evolve into Vegas superstars Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). The influence of Siegfried and Roy are obvious, right down to the costumes, hair and tans. After 10 years of the exact same act, Wonderstone is a pompous womanizer who cares little for the magic act, and Anton is the epitome of the invisible sideman. Casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) threatens to end the act if the duo doesn’t come up with something new to compete against the daring and popular street illusionist Steve Gray (Jim Carrey).

Gray’s “Brain-rape” act is supposed to compare to Criss Angel’s “Mind-freak”. Instead, Gray comes across more like cheap reality TV with masochistic tendencies. Of course, Burt and Anton collapse under the pressure and their friendship and act splatters to a painful end. Burt spirals out of control and ends up performing in a nursing home … a fortuitous turn that introduces him to his childhood idol (Alan Arkin).

incredible burt3 All you really need to know is that this comedy offers few laughs and only shows a pulse when Arkin and Carrey are on screen. Carell seems miscast as a pompous womanizer, so neither trait plays particularly well. Additionally, his bounce back is not believable since his rock bottom lasts about 30 seconds. Buscemi’s only real gag is his poke at celebrity humanitarian crusades. Otherwise, he and Olivia Wilde are bystanders with little to do, which is a shame. Really would have liked to see Carrey’s character with a better, more believable act so that the rivalry might have proved more interesting.

There is an underlying message of friendship and maintaining a passion, but this is no message movie. Heck, it’s barely even a comedy … unless you are one of those teenagers in the back row.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you long for a glimpse of the past from Jim Carrey or the scene-stealing wonder known as Alan Arkin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking an insightful, funny comedy that takes advantage of a strong cast

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn1wR1V9dqs


ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

January 5, 2013

zero Greetings again from the darkness. Kathryn Bigelow entered the realm of elite directors when her war thriller The Hurt Locker exploded onto the Oscar scene a few years ago. Once again she proves why the critics adore her, and the movie going masses stay away. She is an expert filmmaker, a brilliant technician, though not much into the whole entertainment scene.

We always try to label films and this one doesn’t quite fit as thriller or action, or even war genre. It’s really a tense, procedural drama focusing on the behind-the-scenes CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, it’s mostly the story of one obsessed CIA agent’s research and un-wavering pursuit of the one most responsible for the tragic events of 9-11-01 (as well as many others).

zero4 The film started out as a story of the nearly decade long pursuit and the failure to find him. Everything, including the movie, changed on May 2, 2011 when Navy SEAL Team Six pulled off the daring and historic mission to kill bin Laden. The book “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen (pseudonym for real life SEAL Matt Bissonnette) was released and many of the details became public. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal (former journalist) went even deeper into research mode and now the film has instigated Congressional hearings in regards to some of the scenes.

Bigelow presents this as old school, hard core males vs the intellectual, instinctive and brazen Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. In the book, she is referred to as “Jen”, but her name matters not. What’s important is her laser-like focus for almost 10 years, despite the numerous attempts by her superiors to ignore her theories.

zero3 Much of the film deals with the group meetings and presentations to CIA mid-managers, who either don’t trust her or refuse to put their own careers on the line. Maya remains relentless. She finally gets a audience with CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) and introduces herself as “the M*****F****R who found this place, sir”. This comes across as confident, not disrespectful.

Bigelow and Boal refuse the temptation of providing any real backstory or personal life on these characters. We do learn that Maya was recruited right out of high school, so we can assume she wasn’t a typical 18 year old. The only thought of a romantic interlude is quickly shot down by Maya proclaiming (in so many words), she’s not that kind of girl.

zero5 Most of the men in the film are presented as near Neanderthals. Jason Clarke is the old school field agent who has mastered the use of torture, water-boarding and humiliation to gain information from detainees. The “60 Minutes” clip of Obama saying that America will no longer utilize torture is one of the few tips to national politics that the film offers up. The only other politics are those played by station chief Kyle Chandler, who is protective of his job, and Mark Strong, who seems relatively helpless without the support of his superiors. All the while Maya keeps pushing and pounding for action.

The Langley desk jockeys vs actual Field work provides a distinctive line in the sand between the two worlds, and emphasizes just how easy it is to make a mistake in judgment. What if we had been wrong on the location of bin Laden? What if the “fortress” had belonged to a drug dealer instead and the SEAL team had invaded a private home within the boundaries of our supposed ally zero2Pakistan? Jessica Chastain is believable and tough in her role, and Jason Clarke dominates the screen in his early scenes. Other fine support work comes courtesy of Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, and Jennifer Ehle. When we finally get to the strategy session for the mission, we meet SEAL’s played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton. The 25 minutes or so dedicated to the helicopter mission are filmed as if we are wearing the same night-vision goggles worn by the brave souls storming the castle. It’s a very impressive sequence.

If you enjoy the details of a procedural drama, then you will find much to like here … knowing the ultimate outcome doesn’t affect the suspense one bit. However, if you seek an entertaining respite from your daily grind, this one will offer no assistance … despite another excellent and minimalistic mood score from Alexadre Desplat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you get a kick out of the details involved in a CIA procedural OR you enjoy expert filmmaking, regardless of entertainment value OR you need further proof that Jessica Chastain is a major star OR you want to see Mark Strong’s best impersonation of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: it’s still too soon after the actual event OR you can’t stomach the thought of torturing detainees

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAtWcvCxPhc

 


KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)

December 1, 2012

killing Greetings again from the darkness. No apologies will be made in regards to my fondness for mob, organized crime and hit-man movies. The underworld grit and quest for power makes for a colorful and meaty topic for books and movies. Still, with such a long and varied history of mob tales, we have come to expect a certain amount of action and a turf war for power and control. Director Andrew Dominik, working from a George V Higgins novel, delivers an artsy look at the emotional side of mobsters and then adds a heavy-handed slap of political and economic editorials.

Who knew hit men and mobsters TALKED so much? This plays like Dr Phil on The Sopranos.  So often they are portrayed as men of few words who specialize in suppressing their emotions. Imagine how differently The Godfather movies would have played if Don Corleone had chatted about his feelings over tea with Barzini.  Here we get Mickey the hit-man, played by killing3James Gandolfini, as a man lost in booze and sleazy sex-for-pay. He has clearly lost his once sharp edge and now loves to tell stories that do nothing but showcase his lack of resolve. We get a few talky scenes with local criminal Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) and his small-time recruits Frankie (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). We even get a talky high-stakes card game stick-up where mob guy Markie (Ray Liotta) tries to negotiate an end to the heist.

By far, most of the blabbing comes from mob fixer Jackie (Brad Pitt). It matters not whether he is in the car with the Driver (Richard Jenkins), in a bar with one of the punks, or in the hotel with schlubby Mickey, this guy just talks incessantly. Luckily killing2for us viewers, the dialogue is extremely well written and often entertaining.  But it still boils down to too much emotional baggage … especially from a guy who likes to kill ’em softly (from a distant).

The individual pieces of the film work very well. Ben Mendelsohn, who was so frightening in Animal Kingdom, is terrific here as the strung-out hoodlum always looking for a quick score. Liotta adds a sense of humor and realism, Gandolfini dominates the screen, and Pitt proves once again that he is at his best in a tough/bad guy role, rather than as a strutting poser.

killing4 Where the movie goes wrong is with the obnoxious and numerous attempts to make sure we catch the parallels between the US economic woes and those of the mob. The faceless “committee” mob clearly symbolizes our government’s inability to make wise decisions, and if somehow we miss all of that … Pitt’s final monologue spells it out for us. He firmly believes the US is not a country, but rather a business … and each of us is on our own.  How ironic that the only mob business we witness is their killing off of each other. It’s always frustrating when the individual parts are greater than the movie as a whole, but an artsy looking mob film that beats us upside the head with a 90 minute message just can’t overcome the coolness of Brad Pitt with a shotgun and Johnny Cash singing (“The Man Comes Around”).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you appreciated the artsy approach that director Andrew Dominik took with the western genre in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford OR you just want to see Brad Pitt looking cool brandishing a shotgun

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer mob movies to be about the inner-workings of mobsters seizing power OR you prefer pretty boy Brad Pitt to tough guy Brad Pitt

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDyaNnrgdp4


WELCOME TO THE RILEYS (2010)

November 27, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Reading the synopsis of this one could lead you to believe you’ve seen the same thing 40 other times – an indie flick where a nice guy rescues the teenage runaway who has fallen into a life of stripping/prostitution. This assumption would be incorrect. What sets this one apart is the script from writer Ken Hixon and the acting trio of James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart and Melissa Leo.

Two of those names may surprise you. Gandolfini is of course best known from his run on The Sopranos. What many don’t realize is that he was a fine character actor prior to that iconic role. And many more know Kristen Stewart only as Bella from the Twilight franchise. In fact, she was a scene stealer prior to that in Panic Room and again in Into the Wild. Melissa Leo has experienced a career boon since her Oscar nomination for Frozen River. This year, she can also be seen in two other current releases … Conviction and The Fighter.

Hixon’s script is unusual because it captures the feel of how these people would actually interact. Gandolfini owns a plumbing supply business and leading, as they say, a life of quiet desperation. His wife (Leo) has been a virtual recluse since their teenage daughter died. Their marriage basically died that night as well, though they keep going through the motions that 30 years together brings. While attending a convention in New Orleans, Gandolfini stumbles into a strip joint and falls right into the life of Stewart.

The obvious thought is that he sees this as his opportunity to rescue her from this awful life and be the father he never got to be for his own daughter. But there is more. He really comes across as a guy just searching for meaning in life … his own life. He doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but is not content to sit around and wait to die. His bizarre actions motivate his wife to actually leave the house and join him in New Orleans. Her reaction to what she finds is, once again, very real and un-Hollywood.

No need for me to give away any details or additional plot points. Watching these three together is refreshing for this avid movie goer. The stereotypes are minimal. The dialogue is sparse, but authentic … just like the setting. Searching for meaning can be a painful process and it’s not always obvious when one has succeeded. The director of the film is avid music video director Jake Scott, who also happens to be the son of Ridley and nephew of Tony. Jake avoids the  over the top tendencies of his more famous relatives. In fact, the level of understatedness is a joy to behold.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you find life’s interactions to be fascinating OR you appreciate nuanced acting performances, even in “little” movies

SKIP THIS MOVE IF: you live for movie car chases and explosions OR in your mind, Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano and Kristen Stewart will always be Bella.