Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Movie Review: Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear
Directed by: Denis Côté.
Written by: Denis Côté.
Starring: Pierrette Robitaille (Victoria Champagne), Romane Bohringer (Florence Richemont), Marc-André Grondin (Guillaume Perreira-Leduc), Marie Brassard (Marina St-Jean / Jackie), Georges Molnar (Émile Champagne), Olivier Aubin (Nicolas Smith), Pier-Luc Funk (Charlot Smith), Guy Thauvette (Yvon Champagne), Ramon Cespedes (Jackie's Assistant).

When we first meet Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), she has just been released from prison for a crime that was serious enough to get her a life sentence, but is never revealed to the audience. She’s at a bus stop with two young boys, who play a trumpet – badly. She tells them as much, and tells them that they shouldn’t ask for money if they play so badly. They tell her she could give them some money for encouragement – but she’s not interested in doing that either. This is the strange start – but one fitting the dark fable that is to follow.

The central relationship in the film is between Victoria and Florence (Romane Bohringer) – who were lovers in prison, and are reconnecting now that Victoria is out of prison. Florence is younger – by a few decades – that the 61 year old Victoria, who seems more committed to Florence than she is to Victoria. Victoria has moved out to the middle of nowhere in the backwoods of Quebec. She moves into her uncle’s house – a former sugar shack, that has been closed for years. Her Uncle Emile (Georges Molnar) is mute, and confined to a wheelchair. He has been cared for by Charlot (Pier-Luc Funk), a teenage boy, and his father Nicolas (Olivier Aubin) – who don’t much like the arrival of these two women. Other characters enter the picture – Guillaime (Marc-Andre Grondin), Victoria’s parole officer, who won’t seem to leave them alone, but is the most sympathetic male character in the movie – even admitting that Victoria reminds him of his mother – an odd thing to say about a woman who has spent decades behind bars. Then there is Marina (Marie Brassard) – who at first seems to be little more than a friendly neighbor, but will turn out to be a dark presence out of Florence’s past. Like what Victoria is in jail for, we never really learn what Florence did to Marina – but it doesn’t really matter. Neither woman can escape their past.

The film has a mounting sense of dread throughout. The film starts by observing these two characters – and those characters who enter their world. Côté shoots everything with the same flat look – paying no more attention to the women in bed together than when they walk through the woods. All Victoria wants is to be left alone – she loves Flo, and thinks that they can be happy with just the two of them in the sugar shack together – but Flo wants more excitement in her life, and seeks it out. But she should be careful what she wished for.
The ending of the film is shocking and violent – but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has been what been what Côté has been building to all along. The film is a dark, feminist fable in which the women are punished for the sins of their past – that go unnamed, and may not even be sins. It is a fascinating film, one that grows in your mind long after it’s over.

Movie Review: The Final Member

The Final Member
Directed by: Jonah Bekhor & Zach Math.
Featuring: Páll Arason, Sigurður Hjartarson, Tom Mitchell.

It would be easy to make fun of the people in documentary The Final Member. It is about the Icelandic Phallological Museum – the world’s only penis museum, and its founder Sigurður Hjartarson, who has a penis of just about every species in the world display – except for a human. He considers his life work – he has been at this 40 years, and is in his 70s – to be incomplete until he gets a human penis. But getting one has proven to be decidedly difficult. And then he gets two offers – from living men – to donate the museum their penis when they die. The first is from fellow Icelander Páll Arason, who is famous in his home country for many things – including for being a womanizer. He's now into his 90s, and says he doesn’t need his penis after he dies. But he also worries about, uh, shrinkage – in his old age everything is getting smaller. This also worries  Hjartarson, who needs the penis to be of legal length – that is 5 inches, which is based on an old joke. The second offer is from an American – Tom Mitchell – who has a rather large penis, that he calls Elmo, and wants it to be the most famous penis in the world – not for him though, but for Elmo. He even wants to have his penis removed from his body while he’s still alive – and has a lot of ideas of how it should be displayed.

Yes, it would be easy to make fun of all three of these men if the filmmakers had wanted to. But that isn’t what directors Jonah Bekhor & Zach Math do in The Final Member. Instead, they treat all three of these men with respect and sincerity. Hjartarson is a man who has many different intellectual ambitions – the penis museum is just one of them. But to him, if something is not being discussed openly, than he wants to do just that. There is nothing smutty about his museum, nor his interest in penises – and surely there are museums dedicated to pretty much everything else in the world, so why not penises. Of the three, Arason is the least well defined – he is getting older so he isn’t interviewed as much – but many of his relatives are. He wants something of himself to live on – something that gave him, and according to him many, many women, so much pleasure. But the shrinkage is a concern – if it gets too small, it could hurt his reputation.

Most interesting of the three is Mitchell – who is also undeniably the most eccentric of the three. He is completely sincere about his desire to make Elmo the most famous penis in the world. He is also very strange in many ways – and his constant calls and e-mails to Hjartarson start to drive him crazy. For much of the movie, Mitchell seems like just a strange guy – but there are scenes late in the movie, where we find out some more about him that put what we know about him into context.
There is a lot of humor in The Final Member to be sure – anyone who would either run a penis museum or want his penis in a penis museum has to be a little bit funny. But it’s the sincerity and honesty of the documentary that won me over. It isn’t a great documentary by any means – but it’s a fine one, and the type of story that works best as a documentary. If this were a feature, no one would believe it.

The Holocaust Films of Claude Lanzmann: A Visitor from the Living (1999)

A Visitor from the Living (1999)
Directed by: Claude Lanzmann.
Written by: Claude Lanzmann 

While shooting what would become Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann filmed an interview with Maurice Rossel, a Swiss citizen who to get out of Military duty (he says he was bored by it) joined the International Red Cross. During WWII, he was sent to Germany to “inspect” the Prisoner of War camps that the Germans were running. They agreed to let Rossel inspect those camps, because they didn’t really have a choice – International Law required that they give the Red Cross access to POW camps. The Germans however argued that the Red Cross had no jurisdiction over the Jewish ghettos or camps – these were civilians they had “detained” and as such, the Red Cross had no business inspecting them. Rossel paid an “informal” visit to Auschwitz – and found the Germans “very polite” – and though he saw the skeleton like prisoners who were so close to death that he felt like a ”visitor from the living” – he really couldn’t do much about it. The Germans did let him formally inspect Theresienstadt – a Jewish ghetto that is now well known as a “show” ghetto – where the prisoners were treated better (not great, but better) than anywhere else so that the Germans could try and show the outside world they were treating the Jews well. This was a lie – many still died in Theresienstadt – and the residents were almost all eventually sent to their death in the camps. Rossel wrote a glowing review of Theresienstadt for his superiors.

As Lanzmann showed in Shoah, he is merciless as an interviewer – hammering away at his subject, no matter if they were victim, witness or abuser. Perhaps because A Visitor from the Living is made up entirely of his interview with Rossel – intercut, like Shoah was, with shots of current location, Lanzmann appears to be even rougher on Rossel than he was with just about anyone in Shoah. But this is also because Lanzmann is clearly frustrated with Rossel – wanting to know how he could be so willfully ignorant at the time of his visit to Theresienstadt – and how he can seem to still be that ignorant. When Lanzmann asks him if he regrets his report, Rossel replies that he would write the same report today (this was 1979) – he reported what he saw. None of the Jews passed him or note or gave him any indication that they were being abused in anyway. Only “dozens” died daily in the ghetto, which while overcrowded, seemed to Rossel to be well run – the residents well fed. There was even a children’s playground. How and could it have been?

Lanzmann undoubtedly has the benefit of hindsight – he knows the truth of Theresienstadt which was well documented by the 1970s. But he also has to be that frustrated because Rossel doesn’t seem to grasp the reality of the situation – and doesn’t want to admit that he messed up. Rossel was obviously not responsible for what happened in Theresienstadt, but had he written a more clear eyed report, perhaps it would have brought more attention to what was happening that it ultimately did. Like many of the witnesses that Lanzmann interviewed in Shoah, he seems to be someone who turned a blind eye to what was really going on.

The opening scrawl of the movie seems to indicate that between the time the interview was filmed – in 1979 – and when this film was released – in 1999 – that Rossel at least has a better understanding of what happened – and is role in it. The final two lines in that scrawl written by Lanzmann indicate that Rossel asked him not to make him look stupid, and Lanzmann replying “I did not try to” – a clear indication that Lanzmann views Rossel’s ignorance in the interview as Rossel’s own fault – which is true.

Lanzmann was right to exclude this interview from Shoah. It would have introduced another entire facet to the movie that was already well over 9 hours – and so he would have had to shoehorn it into a movie where it didn’t really fit. But he was also right in thinking that this is an interesting subject, deserving of its own movie to explore. Even though the movie is only 68 minutes, it’s fascinating throughout, one where you’ll likely find yourself as frustrated as Lanzmann was while interviewing Rossel.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Movie Review: The Equalizer

The Equalizer
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
Written by: Richard Wenk based on the television series by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Robert McCall), Marton Csokas (Teddy), Chloë Grace Moretz (Teri), David Harbour (Masters), Haley Bennett (Mandy), Bill Pullman (Brian Plummer), Melissa Leo (Susan Plummer), David Meunier (Slavi), Johnny Skourtis (Ralphie), Alex Veadov (Tevi), Vladimir Kulich (Vladimir Pushkin).

Denzel Washington has essentially been on cruise control ever since he won his second Oscar for Training Day back in 2001 – and you could argue that even Training Day is little more than a decent genre film, with two great performances in it. For every time Washington has collaborated with a great director like Spike Lee in Inside Man or Ridley Scott on American Gangster or Robert Zemeckis on Flight, he seems to have four or five mindless action films.  There is a reason why – beyond simply that they make money – Washington is sought out by the directors of these films – and that is that Washington is capable of making even the ridiculous seem at least somewhat plausible. Take his latest, The Equalizer, where he reteams with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua (who it must be said is competent director of movies like this, that kind of lucked into Training Day). In the film, Washington plays Robert McCall, a former CIA operative who can take out a room full of people in under 20 seconds, who has “retired” and is working at a Home Depot like store. He meets Teri (Chloe Grace Mortez) – who works as a prostitute for Russian gangsters – at an all-night diner, and when it becomes clears she’s being abused he snaps into action – killing a bunch of Russian gangsters. He finds he’s good at it, and decides he’ll help other people who need it – all the while, he’s being tracked by Teddy (Marton Csokas) – an even worse Russian gangster who wants to know what happened to his boss’ men. The whole movie is patently ridiculous from beginning to end – yet damn it all if Washington doesn’t sell it.

The film is stylishly directed by Fuqua – who has always been good at action sequences, and even if at times in The Equalizer he tries too hard to be Tony Scott (in the sequences where McCall visualizes what he’s about to do before he does it), he still knows how to stage an action sequences, and he does so with skill here. It may take a while for the movie to kick into high gear in terms of action, but it is worth the wait – even if the movie never quite tops its first action sequence.

The non-action sequence are anchored by Washington, who makes his character believable, even though there is nothing remotely believable if you stop to think about it at all. His early scenes with Mortez are very good – as the two bond and banter, and generally complement each other well – kind of like the unlikely pairing of Washington and Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire (one of the better Washington genre offerings post-Training Day).

The Equalizer has its share of problems. At over two hours, the film drags on too long – which is especially apparent since none of the action sequences are as good as the first, and the fact that movie misses Mortez when he character essentially vanishes in the second half. And, for the second week in a row, we have a movie where women are portrayed more as victims than as real human beings (last week’s was A Walk Among the Tombstones – which The Equalizer outdoes simply by having speaking roles for women, but cannot match for its stylish atmosphere). The film has a somewhat episodic structure – which I guess comes from the television show it is based on (which I had no idea of). The film kind of limps towards the finish line.

Overall though, The Equalizer is a decent example of the kind of ultra-violent, revenge fantasy film it wants to be. No, it’s not as ambitious as Washington at its best – it doesn’t even really attempt anything new, different, or all that interesting. And it’s the type of film you forget about by the time you reach the parking lot. But there are worse things a film can be.

Movie Review: Borgman

Directed By: Alex van Warmerdam   
Written by:  Alex van Warmerdam   
Starring: Jan Bijvoet (Camiel Borgman), Hadewych Minis (Marina), Jeroen Perceval (Richard), Alex van Warmerdam (Ludwig), Tom Dewispelaere (Pascal), Sara Hjort Ditlevsen (Stine), Elve Lijbaart (Isolde), Dirkje van der Pijl (Rebecca), Pieter-Bas de Waard (Leo), Eva van de Wijdeven (Ilonka), Annet Malherbe (Brenda), Gene Bervoets (Gardener), Mike Weerts (Arthur Stornebrink), Pierre Bokma (Priest), Benjamin Boe Rasmussen (Man with Dog), Reinout Scholten van Aschat (Man #2), Ariane Schluter (Gardener's Wife).

Looking back over Borgman, I am reminded of Howard Hawks’ rule for making a great movie – three great scenes, no bad ones. Borgman does the more difficult of these two things – it contains not a single bad scene, not a single scene that doesn’t work. And yet, I’m not sure if the film has even one truly great scene. It is a film that builds slowly, that draws you into its mysteries, not unlike a Michael Haneke film. And yet, when the movie is over, I’m not sure the whole thing adds up to anything more than an elaborate tease on the part of writer-director Alex van Warmerdam. I already mentioned Haneke, and the film of his this most resembles is Funny Games (either version) – but for better or for worse, Funny Games has a point, and builds to something. Borgman doesn’t really do that. It is ambiguous to the point of opaqueness. It is a fascinating film, brilliantly directed and acted, and one that has haunted me since I have seen it. Perhaps it doesn’t need to add up to something.

The film opens with a fascinating scene, where three men – two farmers and a shotgun wielding priest – head out into the woods, and start digging. This is when we meet Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijovet) – who is literally living in an underground bunker – he escapes, and then warns a number of other underground dwellers. Borgman is a big, imposing figure with wild hair, and a wilder beard. He heads into the suburbs, and starts knocking on doors with a simple request for a bath. He gets nowhere fast – and then at one house he meets Richard (Jereon Perceval) who doesn’t just say no, but beats Borgman rather brutally. Feeling guilty, Richard’s wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) catches up with Borgman, and not only offers him a bath, but also a place to stay – a small guest house on their vast property which is little more than a shed. All she asks is that Borgman stay in that shack, and not talk with her family – which of course, he cannot do. It isn’t long before he has started to have some sort of mind control over not just Marina, but the couple’s three children, and the beautiful young nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) – and then he brings along his friends. After “disposing” of the gardener, Borgman shows back up – now clean shaven – and Richard, who does not recognize him, hires him to be the new gardener. This allows Borgman and his friends to truly start exacting their plan.

But what precisely is their plan, and what is their ultimate endgame? Even after watching the film, I’, still not sure I could explain it to you. There is an element of class warfare at play here – Richard and Marina are rich, have a stylish, modernist house – he works as some sort of television executive.  By contrast, Borgman and his cohorts are poor and homeless. Are they really just exacting revenge on the materialistic society that they have rejected, and in turn have rejected them? But what about the quote that opens the film “And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks”, which sounds like something from the bible, but as far as I can tell, isn’t actually. This would imply some sort of religious reading to the film – that Borgman and his cohorts are some sort of angels, descending upon the earth – but then again, they quite literally rise up from the ground at the beginning of the film- they do not descend at all. And the fact that van Warmerdam simply made up the quote, instead of finding an actual bible quote (which he most definitely could have) – makes me once again think that he doesn’t really have a greater purpose than to screw with the audience.

If that is his purpose, it must be said that he accomplishes it expertly. Part of the reason is that the two lead performances are so good. Bijovet is excellent as Borgman – who we are immediately uneasy about, although he doesn’t really do anything menacing for a while. When he starts slowly upping the ante, he maintains the same calm, methodical demeanor. He seems to have no passion about anything at all – even as he starts to control the rest of the family. Minis is great as Marina as well, who is slowly turned against her own family to the point where she’s willing to do monstrous things – but it never seems outlandish.

Borgman is a haunting film – it shows van Warmerdam with complete and total control over the medium, as he slowly ratchets up the suspense and deepens the mysteries of the film. Does he ever answer the questions he raises? No – not really. I’m not even sure he knows what the hell Borgman actually means. But it’s a strange, surreal, disturbing journey to take. Borgman doesn’t have to mean anything to haunt you.

The Holocaust Films of Claude Lanzmann: Shoah (1985)

Shoah (1985)
Directed by: Claude Lanzmann.
Written by: Claude Lanzmann.

So much has already been written about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah that it can be intimidating for a first time viewer to actually sit down and watch the film. The first thing you hear about the film is its length – 566 minutes, or approximately nine and half hours. It’s meant to be watched all in one sitting, or perhaps two – as Lanzmann does break the film into two different “eras” – although watching one four and a half hour long movie followed by a five hour movie the next day is just as intimidating. The next thing you hear about the film is that Lanzmann uses no archival footage at all – that he switches between so called “talking head” sequences with survivors, witnesses and the Nazis themselves – and shots of the locations as they were when Lanzmann shot the movie in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It should be clear to anyone who has read anything about Shoah that it is not a typical Holocaust documentary – it’s not a typical documentary at all. In many ways the film is a one off in cinema history. You’ve never quite seen anything like it.

What becomes clear early on in Shoah is that Lanzmann is not going to ask anyone any of the “big questions”. He’s not going to ask “why” it happened – what made Hitler and the Nazis decide to exterminate 6 million Jews – alongside other “undesirables” (who Lanzmann doesn’t really mention in the film). Hitler and the top ranked Nazis are actually barely mentioned in the movie at all. You would think that a movie that is as long as Shoah would detail everything that happened – and walk you through step-by-step the major turning points. But that’s not really what Lanzmann is interested in doing – and besides, you can get that information from any number of other sources. Instead what Lanzmann is interested in is the memories of those who were there – those who suffered, those who witnessed their suffering and those responsible for their suffering. His camera rarely moves during the interviews he conducts – and they often stay on the face of his subject for extended periods of time – 10 minute shots are greater are not uncommon. What he is most interested in is what happened on a micro level, not on a macro level.

For instance, he interviews a barber – who is still cutting hair in Israel – whose job at one of the camps was to cut off the hair of those who were about to go to their death in the gas chambers. How many other barbers worked alongside him? What was the setup like? What did he use to cut their hair? Were their mirrors? How long did he take to cut one person’s hair? What was the style he cut it into? What did they do with the hair? Lanzmann is not on camera much in Shoah, but his voice is persistent. He pushes and pushes and pushes everyone he talks to for more details. When they breakdown, as they often do, and ask him to stop he doesn’t. He keeps pushing, he keeps his camera trained on them as they go quiet, or start to cry. They cannot go on. They must, Lanzmann tells him. Some complain that he is cruel – and he is at times – but he knows how important the interviews are not just to him and his film, but also to the individuals. They haven’t talked about this for decades. It’s important to get it out.

Lanzmann does this over and over again – training his camera on his subjects and not letting them go. He gets a wealth of information from a few of the Nazis who helped run the death camps. These were shot on a hidden camera, in grainy black and white, and the Nazis ask for assurances that their conversation will be kept confidential. “Of course”, Lanzmann responds, boldly lying. Again with these men he isn’t asking the large questions, but the smaller ones. How long did it take to “process” one train car full of victims? The entire train? How did they manage to keep these people under control? What order did they go in? Why that order? And on and on and on. He spends a lot of time in Poland, asking the residents what they saw and how they feel about the Jews. Do they miss them? There is not a lot of introspection on their part. He has interviews with some of the Germans who were in charge of running the trains? Did they know what was on those trains? Of course not, they say. They were so busy they never left their desks. One train was just like all the rest. But when he examines the train documents with an historian, he wonders why none of the people in charge ever wondered why they were scheduling full trains to arrive and empty trains to depart later that same day go somewhere else, fill up again, and return to the same location?

Because of the way the film is made, it has the feeling of memory – as both the people and the places they are talking about are somewhat out of time. The men and women are talking about events 35 years ago, and the locations Lanzmann is shooting – the death camps, the Polish cities, the ghetto, etc. – have also changed. They are different, and yet haunted by their past. When Lanzmann’s camera is not trained on his interview subjects, it is attached to the trains for minutes on end – sometimes with the interviews heard on the soundtrack, sometimes not – or slow and steady tracking shots along the grounds of the areas they are talking about. The shots are haunting – beautiful and sad at the same time.

The movie needs to be as long as Lanzmann has made it for it to have the effect he desires. This is not an issue of a filmmaker not knowing what needing to be cut and including everything – he has already made four other documentaries out of the interviews he shot while making Shoah that didn’t fit in to this movie (I’ve seen three of them, all great, but Lanzmann made the correct decision not to include them in this film, as they really do not fit). The film is about the accumulation of small details, the memories of everyone involved the merging of past and present. He takes an unfathomably large subject and concentrates on the small details, illuminating the whole in a distinct way. This would not be the film to watch if you were some sort of alien creature who had never heard of the Holocaust at all – it assumes some knowledge on the part of the audience. But Lanzmann is interested in specific parts of the Holocaust – not the exact events, but how it happened to individuals instead of how it happened to 6 million people. More than any other film I have ever seen about the Holocaust, Shoah gives us the details that allows you to get closer than ever before to what it was liked to be lined up heading into the gas chambers to be killed. Between the words of those being interviews, and the landscapes Lanzmann captures, he creates images that only exist in the mind’s eye. Like in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona where many people think that Bergman actually shot Bibi Andersson’s sex scene, when really she just described it, or in the shower scene in Psycho, where many think they saw a lot more than they actually did, Lanzmann achieves the same thing in Shoah. The effect is powerful, disturbing, haunting and unforgettable.

I haven’t talk about many of the details in Shoah – the individuals interviews themselves or the details they uncover in the movie. If I did, then I’d be here all day writing, and you’d be here all day reading. Those details matter – but it’s up to the viewer to find them. I don’t often urge viewers to see a particular movie – I feel my reviews should give the reader an idea as to whether or not they’ll enjoy a particular movie or not, and leave it at that. But I do urge everyone to see Shoah. I put off seeing the film for at least a decade, not wanting to subject myself to what I thought would be a thoroughly depressing experience. But Shoah, while offering a fairly bleak portrait of humanity, is not that. It is something altogether different and unique in cinema history. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.

The Holocaust Films of Claude Lanzmann: Introduction

The website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? has what I consider to be the best and most comprehensive list of the “Greatest Films of All Time” – taking into consideration the results of many polls of the Greatest Films of All Time. For a long time now, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) has been the top rated film on that list that I had not seen – and after its excellent showing on the 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Survey (where it ranked tied for 29th) it moved into the Top 100 on the They Shoot Pictures list, and became a film I had to see.

To be clear, I’ve always meant to see Shoah – it’s one of those films on my “to see” list that has been there for a decade or more. But I always had an excuse not to see the film. For a while, it was only available on 4 separate DVDs, meaning I’d have to rent four DVDs separately to see one movie. Who has the time to sit there and watch nine and half hours in one sitting – or even four and half hours and then five hours over the span of two days if you give yourself a break and watch only Era 1 than Era 2 as separate experiences? All these were excuses (and the ones I’m still using to avoid Bela Tarr’s Santatango, which is over 7 hours long – and now becomes the top rated film I have to see) – and not very good ones. The truth was, I didn’t really want to see Shoah. I never doubted those who said it was a masterpiece, but much like the reaction of people who I told that Shoah was the movie I was watching this past weekend, the thought of spending that long watching a documentary on the Holocaust would simply be too grueling, too depressing – and I wasn’t sure I wanted to subject myself to that. I feared that the film would be drowning in “importance” and be dry and dull. In short, while I wouldn’t say I was scared of Shoah, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to get to it either.

A few things made me change my mind. One was the desire to simply get it over with. I’ve been saying for two years now that I plan on watching Shoah this year – and after I went through 2013 and didn’t get to it, I knew I needed to get to it in 2014. The Criterion Collection released an excellent Blu-Ray addition, which also included the first three “outtakes” movies that Lanzmann has released in the years since made up of footage that didn’t fit into the original film, and with the release of fourth “outtake” film, The Last of the Unjust, hitting theaters this year, I figured it was now or never.

The following five posts are reviews of Shoah (1985) and the outtakes movies – A Visitor from the Living (1999), Sobibor October 14, 1943 4pm (2001), The Karski Report (2010) and The Last of the Unjust (2013) (which for the record, I watched months after the other four films, which I watched over the course of a weekend – but saved the posts until I could see the final film).  In them, I will explain why I feel Shoah is a masterpiece, why it needs to be nine and half hours long, and how while a grueling experience that could easily be called bleak, why I wasn’t for a second bored by the movie, and why I don’t think it’s a depressing experience. In short, I will explain why I wish I had seen the film sooner.

So if you’re like me and have been avoiding Shoah for years, I urge you to reconsider. It deserves it’s spot on every “Greatest Movies of All Time” list – and the reasons why are far more than just its important subject matter. It is a stunning film in every way.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Movie Review: This is Where I Leave You

This  is Where I Leave You
Directed by: Shawn Levy.
Written by: Jonathan Tropper based on his novel.
Starring: Jason Bateman (Judd Altman), Tina Fey (Wendy Altman), Jane Fonda (Hillary Altman), Adam Driver (Phillip Altman), Rose Byrne (Penny Moore), Corey Stoll (Paul Altman), Kathryn Hahn (Alice Altman), Connie Britton (Tracy Sullivan), Timothy Olyphant (Horry Callen), Dax Shepard (Wade Beaufort), Debra Monk (Linda Callen), Abigail Spencer (Quinn Altman), Ben Schwartz (Rabbi Charles Grodner).

You would be hard pressed to find a better ensemble cast in any movie this year than the one Shawn Levy assembles for This is Where I Leave You. By themselves, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton and Timothy Olyphant are fine actors, more than capable of carrying their own movies.  But the movie throws them all together, adds in a few more characters, and forces them through a story with so many meaningless subplots, so many tonal shifts that do not work, that the actors are forced to try very hard and not get anywhere. I have a feeling that perhaps all of this worked better in the novel the film is based on – novels are better than movies at containing so many characters and so many subplots and doing justice to them all. But in a movie than runs just over 100 minutes, everything in This is Where I Leave You feels rushed – by trying to cram so much into the movie; the movie doesn’t really do any of it justice. The cast is game – but they`re let down by the movie.

The movie centers on the Altman family. The father has just died, and the mother Hillary (Fonda) has called her four adult children back to their childhood home, and insists that they sit Shiva for him for 7 days – even though they weren’t really Jewish. All four of the Altman children have issues – and are going through a lot in addition to their dead father. Judd (Bateman) has just found out his wife has been cheating on him for a year with his boss – so now he has no wife and no job. He meets a woman from his past (Rose Byrne) – the type of free spirited woman who always exist in movies like this to break the main character out of his funk. Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a man who is always working, and trying to raise her two children – but is still in love with the neighbor Horry (Olyphant) who she dated years ago, and left when he got a brain injury. Paul (Corey Stoll) has been trying for years with his Alice (Hahn) to have a baby – but the two cannot conceive no matter what they do. The much younger Phillip (Driver) is an irresponsible, yet charming, screw-up who shows up with his new fiancée – the older Tracey (Britton). And all of this covers only about a half of all the subplots contained in the movie.

I enjoyed most of the performances in the movie. The actors are all talented, and have an easy chemistry together. Best in show is probably Driver, because he gets most of the films best lines and moments – and it’s always fun to see Driver behave like a buffoon. Everyone else in the film is fine – although because the movie focuses almost all of its attention on Judd – the rest of the cast is pretty much shunted to the background, and is never really given a chance to fully develop their characters. They do what they can however.

The movie is a strange mixture of comedy and drama – containing moments of near slapstick right next to more serious moments of introspection. In theory, a film could pull both of these off – but director Levy (best known for his comedies) never quite finds the right tone, and at times I got whiplash trying from all the shifts.

This is Where I Leave You is not an unpleasant experience really – it certainly has its moments. But it’s basically like one of the many American indie movies, about screwed up families, that we see many times a year – except this time, we have a cast of nothing but movie stars, in a major studio release that seems to want to sand off all the edges. It is a movie that contains no surprises, but watching this cast work is at least never boring – but if the best I have to say to say about a movie is that it isn’t boring, that’s not saying too much, is it.

Movie Review: Tracks

Directed by: John Curran.
Written by: Marion Nelson based on the book by Robyn Davidson.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska (Robyn), Adam Driver (Rick), Robert Coleby (Pop), Roly Mintuma (Mr. Eddy).

When you hear the basic outline for Tracks – a young woman walks across the Australian outback by herself – with only a few camels and her dog – you probably think that what you`re in for is a journey to self-discovery – especially when you hear the movie is based on a true story. Based solely on the preview, and a few reviews, I assume that the upcoming film Wild, with Reese Witherspoon, will deliver on that front – a film filled with flashbacks that illuminate the characters life, and why they decided to go on the journey in the first place. But Tracks is a more difficult film in that it doesn’t fall into that basic outline. Yes, there are some flashbacks in it (and to be honest, I would have preferred if there were none), but they do not shed too much light on why Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) went on her journey back in 1975. In voiceover, she does say that she is tired of being treated a certain way because of her `gender and class` but the movie doesn’t delve too deeply into that either. Neither is this really a spiritual journey – or even a woman getting back to nature film. It seems like Davidson simply went on her journey to get away from people – to be alone.  Whatever she learned from that journey, she keeps to herself.

Directed by John Curran, Tracks is a beautiful film in many ways, and a harsh one in many others. The Outback is unforgiving, and as the movie goes along, Wasikowska gets dirtier, and her skin gets sunburned and chapped. She faces difficult tasks and challenges – and even heartbreak – but she simply keeps going. The only other major character in the film is Rick (Adam Driver) a photographer for National Geographic, who the magazine insists on shooting photos of Davidson on her journey as a condition for underwriting the trip. He`s a little goofy and charming – and clearly likes Davidson – but the romantic relationship we expect doesn’t really develop between the two of them (apart from one scene, which is a one off).

This is the fourth film by Curran I have seen, and like the other three (the infidelity drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore, the Far East costume drama The Painted Veil, the psychological thriller Stone), Curran doesn’t give in to the stories more obvious trapping – and doesn’t go in the same direction. Like all of his films, I fear that some will find Tracks a little slow – and to be honest, it does move slowly at times – but the effect of making these films quieter than most is that they dig a little deeper. The movie asks a lot of Wasikowska – she is basically a character who keeps everyone, including the audience, at arm’s length – but the talented young actress delivers a wonderful physical performance. She has already been great in two other movies this year – The Double and Only Lovers Left Alive – and when combined with this film, she has deliver three great, completely different performance in a row (and she still has Maps to the Stars directed by David Cronenberg coming out later this year). She has become one of the best actresses in the world in a short period of time.

Tracks perhaps keeps the audience a little too far away from its central character. She is an interesting person, but she remains more of an enigma than anything else. I wanted a little bit more from the movie. But that would have been a different movie – than Tracks, and not necessarily a better one. Perhaps keeping the central character so unknowable will make Tracks all the more memorable – the type of film that grows in your mind after you’ve seen it.

Movie Review: The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox
Directed by: Ritesh Batra.
Written by: Ritesh Batra.
Starring: Irrfan Khan (Saajan Fernandes), Nimrat Kaur (Ila), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Shaikh), Lillete Dubey (Ila's Mother), Nakul Vaid (Rajeev), Bharati Achrekar (Auntie), Yashvi Puneet Nagar (Yashvi), Denzil Smith (Mr. Shroff), Shruti Bapna (Mehrunnisa).

The Lunchbox could have easily devolved into a typical romantic comedy or an easy melodrama. The setup – that the famed lunchbox delivery system in Mumbai makes what we are told is the first mistake ever mixing up the meals delivered by a mediocre restaurant to an office drone on the verge of retirement, with the delicious home cooked meal by a stay-at-home mother, whose husband pretty much ignores her, and when the two realize the mix-up, they do not report it, but start exchanging letters through the lunchbox, slowly getting to know each other and falling in love – could have easily been made into a romantic drama as silly as The Lake House, or a romantic comedy as predictable as You’ve Got Mail. But the writer-director, Ritesh Batra, making his debut, is not really interested in making either of those films. His film is quieter and more introspective than that – and a good deal sadder than that, but not in a tearjerker type of way.

The office drone is Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) who is a month away from retirement. Like all, boring office drones in movies, he is an accountant who works in the claims department, and all he wants to do is be left alone to do his work – so he can go home at night to his empty apartment and smoke. He is a widower, and no one much likes him – and he doesn’t much care. He is given a comic foil early in the film when his boss announces that Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) will be taking over his job when he retires – and once Saajan to train him. Saajan does everything he can to avoid doing that – but after some time communicating through the lunchbox, and learning that Shaikh is a poor orphan who has had to fight for everything in his life, he changes his mind and takes the younger man under his wing.

The mother is Ila (Nimrat Kaur)   - who works hard on the daily meals she makes for her husband – communicating with her Auntie, who lives in the apartment above her, mixing the exact spices for him. He works long hours, and when he is home, he`s always on the phone and ignores her, and their daughter. When she starts writing to Saajan, she doesn’t know anything about him – but starts telling him things she wouldn’t tell anyone else. By communicating with him, she starts to see the life she wants for herself. And the same is true for Saajan. There are separated by years in age – but in some ways want the same thing. Not a passionate love affair, but something calmer – just someone to talk to.

The movie doesn’t completely avoid the sentimentality in its premise – there is really no way around it. Some of the homespun wisdom the two share is basically maudlin clichés that only work because they are delivered so sensitively in the voiceovers of the two actors, and because Batra shoots the montages of those voiceovers so beautifully.

While the movie does a great job at showing day-to-day life in Mumbai – where everyone is busy, where long commutes are normal, where you are constantly surrounded by people, and yet completely alone – but its message is universal (couldn’t you write that same sentence about workers in New York or Toronto – or any major city).

The ending of the film is perhaps the only one that would make sense given everything that has come before it. The two people don’t really love each other – they barely know each other – but through their communications they get to know themselves better than before. Yes, that`s a cliché – as is much of the rest of The Lunchbox. But in this movie, the cliché works.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Movie Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner
Directed by: Wes Ball.
Written by: Noah Oppenheim and Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin based on the novel by James Dashner.
Starring: Dylan O'Brien (Thomas), Aml Ameen (Alby), Ki Hong Lee (Minho), Blake Cooper (Chuck), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Newt), Will Poulter (Gally), Dexter Darden  (Frypan), Kaya Scodelario (Teresa), Chris Sheffield (Ben), Joe Adler (Zart), Alexander Flores (Winston), Jacob Latimore (Jeff), Randall D. Cunningham (Clint), Patricia Clarkson (Ava Paige).

The success of the Twilight, Hunger Games and Divergent movies have ensured that for the next few years anyway, we will see a steady stream of young adult novels make their way to the bigscreen – preferably ones about dystopian societies in which the evil adults try to tell the teenagers what to do, and the heroic teenagers fight back. Its not hard to see why teenagers respond to these novels – and the movies based on them – because they pretty much feel that adults are out to run their lives anyway, and do not understand whats its like for them. Some of these movies – like The Hunger Games – have actually been quite good, but others – like Divergent – have been pretty much horrible. The latest, The Maze Runner, falls somewhere in between. Like the books its based on – and I’ve only read the first installment – it is somewhat frustrating as that even at the end of the first book (and this movie) the audience still doesn’t really know what the hell is going on. As such, the movie almost plays like a pilot episode of a TV series, that sets up a bunch of mysteries that will presumably be resolved at some later date. TV shows can do that – with movies, it feels like kind of a ripoff.

The movie opens with our hero, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) inside an elevator of some sort, moving upwards. He has no idea where he is, why he’s there, or even what his name is. When he arrives at his destination – he’s surrounded by a bunch of boys around his same age (presumably, teenagers, even though most of them look to be in their mid-20s). The groups leader – Alby (Aml Ameen) gives him the lay of the land. They’re in the “Glade” – and they have no idea why, or who put them there. Once a month, the elevator arrives with a new boy and supplies. Everyone in the Glade has a job – they have no room for freeloaders – they are expected to do what they’re told. They have so far found no way out – although everyday they do send “runners” into the large, stone maze at the edge of the Glade, which they assume will be their only way out. Inside that maze are creatures known as “Grievers” – who will kill you if they get the chance. Only runners are allowed inside the maze – and no one can survive inside the maze overnight – at sundown the maze’s doors close, and reopen the next day at sunrise.

Thomas eventually remembers his name – but he also has a few bits and pieces of his memory before his time in the Glade – which no one else seems to have. He is convinced that he needs to go into the Maze – and if he does, he’s convinced he’ll be able to figure out how to get himself, and everyone else, out. He makes some friends – including Chuck (Blake Cooper), the youngest Glader, who worships Thomas, and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) whose main role in the movie is to explain everything to Thomas – and by extension the audience. He also runs afoul of Gally (Will Poulter) – who just wants everything to stay the same – and sees Thomas as a threat to that – something that for Gally is confirmed when the elevator arrives again – much earlier than anticipated – with no supplies, but for the first time ever a girl (Kaya Scodelario), who says Thomas’ name before dropping into a coma, and has a note saying “She’s the last one EVER!”. To Thomas, this means he has to work harder than ever to get them out – to Gally, it means he has to do whatever it takes to keep the rest of the boys in the Glade.

As a movie, The Maze Runner is somewhat frustrating. It spends so much time setting up the Glade, the rules, the various boys and everything else, that the film barely has time to tell a story. The characters are defined in the broadest strokes possible – with everyone seemingly given one character trait, and that’s about it.

I will say that as frustrating of a movie as it as storytelling, the movie generally looks very good. Director Wes Ball, making his debut, has a background in special effects – and yet he doesn’t overdo the CGI. The Glade itself is all practical – an actual set, which is becoming an increasing rarity in movies of this size. The special effects – most notably the Grievers themselves – are well done – even if, for the millionth time, they seem to be another movie monster based on the iconic aliens in Alien and its sequels.

Perhaps The Maze Runner series will get better as it moves along – after a decent opening weekend, they’ve already announced the sequel will come next year. As a movie unto itself, The Maze Runner doesn’t really work – it’s all setup and little payoff. But it does have an interesting hook – so while I cannot say I really liked this movie, I’ll most likely be back for the sequel.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Movie Review: Frank

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson.
Written by: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan.
Starring: Michael Fassbender  (Frank), Domhnall Gleeson (Jon Burroughs), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Clara), Scoot McNairy (Don), François Civil (Baraque), Carla Azar (Nana), Hayley Derryberry (Simone), Lauren Poole (Alice), Tess Harper (Frank's Mom), Bruce McIntosh (Frank's Dad).

There is a myth that great artists must suffer to achieve their art – a myth that is perpetuated by many works of art about artists. Think of almost any biopic of a great artist or musician, and you’ll most likely find a story about mental illness, abuse, poverty, drug addiction, etc. There is also another myth – that everyone has something of interest to say, some talent in them waiting to get out, and that if you just want it enough, and just work hard enough, you can achieve anything. But sometimes that just isn’t true – mental illness, abuse, poverty and drug addiction do not really fuel creativity – they hinder it. And not everyone has something of value to add to the whole wide world – no matter how much they want it. These are the basic themes behind Frank, and they are harsh truths that must movies do not acknowledge. Yet, I think the movie somewhat undercuts its rather harsh message by disguising it all as a quirky comedy, that doesn’t dig into its characters, or its themes, quite deep enough. The movie simply skims the surface of its darker themes – although it must be said that it is a rather pleasant surface.

The stars Domhnall Gleeson as Jon – a 20-something British office drone, who fancies himself a musician – although the songs we hear him trying to compose in the film’s opening scenes are quite simply awful. One day, he sees an odd thing happening at the beach – a man trying to drown himself, while the paramedics try to haul him out, and a van of onlookers stand by. They are a band – and he was their keyboardist, and has gone crazy, leaving them a man short for their shown that night. “I can play keyboards”, Jon volunteers – and just like that a strange journey begins. The lead singer in the band is Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant paper mache head everywhere he goes. The rest of the band think he’s a genius – and soon they’ll all holed up at a cabin in the middle of nowhere Ireland “recording” their new album. Jon is won over by Frank – but the rest of the band, including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hate his guts. His only real ally is Don (Scoot McNairy) – the band’s manager.

As the movie moves along, it becomes clear that Frank is not just “eccentric”, but is actually suffering from some sort of serious mental illness. The band is really just his enablers – they allow him to dictate everything they do, which doesn’t include very much actual recording of music for months on end. And Jon simply envies Frank – figuring he must have suffered throughout his life to make him the genius that he is. The music we do hear – and we don’t hear nearly enough of it in the movie – is a strange psychedelic, electronic growl, with impenetrable lyrics – that I actually quite liked, but is clearly not made for mass consumption. But Jon thinks the band can actually be popular – they should just write more “likable” songs. While at first, his bandmates hostility towards him seems unfounded – he really may as damaging to Frank that they think they are. When they finally leave Ireland – and head to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest, the movie takes a darker turn.

There is a lot to like about Frank – from the music, to Fassbender’s fully committed performance behind a paper mache head, which somehow does not prevent him from creating the most fully realized character in the film. Gleeson is also quite good as the delusional Jon – who cannot see himself, or really anything around him, clearly. These two characters are the heart of the film – the rest of the cast isn’t really given much to do, even talented actors like McNairy and Gyllenhaal are basically wasted – and they represent the dual themes mentioned above.

But I don’t think director Lenny Abrahamson is quite able to navigate the story’s dark turn as it moves along. The score is distracting – overly cute, quirky indie score, which is at odds with the music that Frank and his band produces. And the last act feels like it should be much darker than the tone of the film that he actually achieves. There is real stuff going on beneath the surface here – but the film pulls some punches. It must be said though that the final scene in the movie is probably the best – and the most moving – in the film.

I wanted to like Frank more than I actually did. I think there is a lot of interesting stuff going on beneath the surface of the film – but I don’t think the movie quite knows how to handle it. The film is more serious, and darker than I assumed a film about a man in a giant paper mache head would be – but had it fully embraced its darker themes, it could have been great, instead of average.

Movie Review: Neighbors

Directed by: Nicholas Stoller.
Written by: Andrew J. Cohen & Brendan O'Brien.
Starring: Seth Rogen (Mac Radner), Rose Byrne (Kelly Radner), Zac Efron (Teddy Sanders), Dave Franco (Pete), Ike Barinholtz (Jimmy), Carla Gallo (Paula), Brian Huskey (Bill Wazowkowski), Halston Sage (Brooke), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Scoonie), Jerrod Carmichael (Garf), Craig Roberts (Assjuice), Lisa Kudrow (Dean Carol Gladstone). 

It’s been nine years since Judd Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin came out and introduced a number of comedies about grown men still acting like teenagers, who eventually start to grow up with the help of a perfect woman. Some of those comedies are hilarious, but over the years they’ve started to grow a little stale. It may not have been the best career move for Katherine Heigl to badmouth Knocked Up – the one film of her career audiences generally liked – but she wasn’t necessarily wrong to suggest that the women in these movies are not nearly as well defined as the men. Neighbors strikes me somewhat as a missed opportunity on that front – here for the first time, the best, most well defined character in the film is a woman – played wonderfully by Rose Byrne – and yet the movie spends so much time with juvenile males playing juvenile pranks on each other, that Byrne is too often shunted to the background. I would have gladly watched an entire movie centered on Byrnes character – instead I spent far too much time watching Seth Rogen and Zac Efron acting like idiots.

The film is about a married couple with a 6 month old daughter. Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) still view themselves as young and cool, but are facing the reality of all first time parents that they are no longer that version of themselves – they have entered a new phase of their lives that will eventually end with them becoming their parents – which is the last thing they want to be. They are forced to face this fact when a fraternity moves into the house next door, after burning down their last house. Mac and Kelly want to appear cool to these kids – even going so far as to party with the frat on their first night in the house. But soon the parties grow louder, and all they want is to be able to sleep – and to keep their baby sleeping. When they call the cops to complain about the noise one night, they set off a war between themselves and the fraternity’s leader – Teddy (Efron) – a senior who wants nothing more to be a legend in the frats history. He's slowly starting to realize that soon he will be out in the real world and his brothers – like Pete (Dave Franco) will move onto the real world, while Teddy, who barely attends class, will be left behind.

There are seeds of good ideas in Neighbors. There are not a lot of movies about young parents dealing with the fact that their youth is over, and now they have to be responsible parents. There are even fewer movies about college life where the students have to have to deal with the fact that they have to grow up as well. A good movie could mine this material to make a smart comedy about these two crossroads in people's lives.

Unfortunately, Neighbors doesn’t seem too interested in exploring these transitions. Instead, the film simply devolves into a series of pranks and counter-pranks between the frat and the parents. The movie twists itself into knots to ensure that Mac and Kelly have nowhere to go with their complaints (which isn’t remotely realistic) – but it’s one of those things you simply have to accept and move on. Some of the pranks are actually kind of funny – but for the most part, I didn’t really laugh out loud at any moments in Neighbors – although it did induce more than a few smiles. Rogen is essentially playing his typical self, although his slight move towards maturity is welcome, even if he’s not too much more mature. Efron continues his quest to try and do something other than his typical teen idol stuff – and shows he has the goods, even if the movie doesn’t much use him as well as it could.

Best of all is Byrne, who is the only person in the movie playing something resembling a realistic person. Her character allows her to get down and dirty with the boys – which is a nice change from what I would normally assume would be a nagging wife role (where she’s stuck complaining about Rogen's need to grow up) – but even when she does the juvenile stuff, it seems to be coming from a more realistic place. I could have done without what is one of the movies biggest laughs – the boobspolition if you will – essentially because I didn’t find it very funny, although Byrne is game for that too.

To me, I think Neighbors represents at least a slight move in the right direction for Rogen, director Stoller and the Judd Apatow era of comedy movies in generally – finally acknowledging that eventually everyone has to grow up. Unfortunately, the movie gets bogged down in the juvenile crap, and shunts everything interesting about the movie off to the side.

Movie Review: God's Pocket

God’s Pocket
Directed by: John Slattery.
Written by: Alex Metcalf & John Slattery based on the novel by Peter Dexter.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Mickey Scarpato), Christina Hendricks (Jeanie Scarpato), John Turturro (Arthur 'Bird' Capezio), Richard Jenkins (Richard Shellburn), Eddie Marsan (Smilin' Jack Moran), Caleb Landry Jones (Leon Hubbard), Molly Price (Joanie), Pete Gerety (McKenna), Sophia Takal (Temple Graduate).

I have a feeling that I would have liked Gods Pocket a little bit more had I not just seen The Drop the day before. Both films take place in working class neighborhoods in New York, where the workers and criminal life stand side by side, and sometimes overlap. The Drop does an excellent job at establishing the neighborhood and the characters in it – and also tells a great story, that slowly sneaks up on you. Gods Pocket tries to do the same thing – but doesn’t come close to be as effective. It has a great cast, but it pretty much wastes it. It has almost no story whatsoever. And as a portrait of this very specific neighborhood, it never quite comes off.

What little story there is in Gods Pocket is about the death of Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones) – a young, loudmouthed asshole, who starts spouting racist crap on the job site directed at an aging African American worker – who responds by hitting him in the head, killing him. The rest of the workers decide to say it was an accident – no one liked the kid anyway, and why ruin their fellow workers life. Leon’s mother, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) doesn’t believe the story she is told, and asks her husband Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – who is not Leon’s father, and not even from Gods Pocket originally – to find out what happened. He, in turn, reaches out to another friend – Bird (John Turturro) – who reaches out to his criminal connections. In addition, Mickey has to come up with money to bury Leon – especially since the local undertaker (Eddie Marsan) isn’t willing to put anything on layaway. And then there’s an aging, alcoholic reporter (Richard Jenkins) who writes about the neighborhood in poetic, almost romantic language – even if he himself is more than a little bit of an asshole.

That may sound that there is lot going on in Gods Pocket, but there really isn’t much here. The movie moves at a snail’s pace, and essentially has the characters going in circles throughout. The main character here is Hoffman’s Mickey – and it’s another fine performance by the late actor, but even he isn’t able to salvage what is an underwritten role. And if he's underwritten, then he rest of the cast is even worse off – not even given the depth that Mickey has. Essentially, all of the characters in the movie start off miserable, and end up even more so.

The film is the directorial debut of actor John Slattery (Mad Men). To give credit where due, unlike many actor turned directors, Slattery is not just looking on making an actor’s showcase here – in fact, I don’t think he’s interested in making an actor’s showcase at all, given how subdued all the performances in the film are. Instead, what he is attempting to do is to give a complete portrait of this miserable neighborhood. He partly succeeds, but not enough – the neighborhood itself doesn’t become the "character" he wants it to be. Instead, he just makes everything grim and drab – and the few moments outside the neighborhood a little more colorful to show the contrast – but it doesn’t quite work.

There are moments here that work – and the cast gamely tries to breathe some life in the film. But it basically remains a grim, drab, dull film of grim, drab, dull people, living in a grim, drab, dull neighborhood. There is nothing here to hold my interest throughout. It’s an honorable first effort behind the camera by Slattery – but one that just never quite delivers.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Directed by: Scott Frank.
Written by: Scott Frank based on the novel by Lawrence Block.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Matt Scudder), Dan Stevens (Kenny Kristo), Brian 'Astro' Bradley (TJ), Boyd Holbrook (Peter), David Harbour (Ray), Adam David Thompson (Albert), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (James Loogan), Mark Consuelos (Reuben Quintana), Sebastian Roché (Yuri Landau), Danielle Rose Russell (Lucia).

Liam Neeson's unlikely, late career transformation into an action star has certainly been good for his wallet – but hasn’t really offered the actor much in the way of interesting roles. His work in films like Taken (and its sequel) as well as Unknown and Non-Stop have all delivered audiences some silly action, but none are all that memorable. His best work in recent years was in Joe Carnahan`s The Grey – an unlikely survival tale of man vs. wolf that was a whole lot better than it made it seem. Watching the trailers for A Walk Among the Tombstones, you could be forgiven in thinking that this was another Neeson action movie where he uses his `very special skills` to track down and kill evildoers. But A Walk Among the Tombstones is much better than that – much deeper and darker and less dependent on action. After an opening shootout, Neeson`s Matt Scudder pretty much leaves his guns at home for most of the rest of the movie. He has killed before, and isn’t interested in doing so again. Written for the screen and directed by the talented Scott Frank (screenwriter of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, and writer-director of the hugely underrated The Lookout) – A Walk Among the Tombstones is much more a throwback to the adult thrillers, and detective noirs of the 1970s. It devolves a little near the end, getting uglier than is really necessary, and for a movie that is about the deaths of many women at the hands of sadistic men, the film could certainly have used a living female character. But overall, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a far better film that it seems like in the trailers.

In the film, Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NY City detective who after that shootout that opens the film quits his job, and quits drinking. Now he’s an unlicensed P.I. – which, in his words, means sometimes he does favors for people, and they give him gifts in return. His latest case starts when he meets Peter (Boyd Holbrook) – a junkie – who wants him to meet with his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) a drug dealer. Kenny`s wife was kidnapped the previous week, and the kidnappers demanded $1 million for her safe return – although he negotiated them down to $400K. He pays the money – but the kidnappers kill his wife anyway. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this, and bring them to him – at first Scudder refuses, but you know how this will go. Scudder is an old school detective – he doesn’t much care about the upcoming Y2K crisis, and when he goes to the library to do research, he still uses microfiche. It’s while at the library, he meets TJ (Brian Astro Bradley) – a homeless, African-American teenager who wants to become Scudders sidekick – and can help him do some of the more technologically advanced research. Soon, Scudder figures out that Kenny’s wife was hardly the first woman to go missing in the same way – and he starts to close in on who is responsible.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is mainly an old school detective yarn – the film mentions both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe – and Scudder is similarly a man with principles in a world where no one else seems to have any. After the opening shootout, there is not very much action until the blood soaked finale. In its place, is Scudder pounding the pavement, interviewing an assortment of lowlifes, and slowly getting closer to the two psychopaths who are killing these women.

Frank is a talented director, and an even better writer. Adapting Lawrence Block`s novel (unread by me), he gives the dialogue a nice, hardboiled quality – and if there is one thing Neeson can do well, it’s deliver hardboiled dialogue. He's in nearly every scene in the movie, and he anchors the film. The film is more interested in Scudder than even its plot – and certainly more so than the action, as Frank even undercuts the finale by using some interesting flashbacks during it. The film takes a number of very dark turns, but for all the sadism in the film, Frank doesn’t show very much actual violence – allowing the audience to fill in the gaps.

The movie has its share of problems. For one thing, I am getting a little tired of TV shows and movies where there are more dead women in the film than live ones – and that’s certainly the case here, as none of the numerous female victims have any real screen time, and the film has no other women who leave an impact. I also think Frank may be reaching a little when he tries to make some statements larger than the movie itself – including the film’s final shot, which seems out of place given what else has happened in the movie.

But overall, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the kind of detective mystery for adults that I had thought Hollywood had forgotten how to make – and the type of film that I had assumed Neeson was not interested in making. It’s more realistic than anything he’s starred in for a while – and a hell of lot better.