Archive for October, 2014

John Wick: A Real Kick-starter—Movie

October 28, 2014

“Do I look civilized to you?” says John Wick to his nemesis,Viggo Tarasov. Well, no, but nothing in “John Wick” is civilized except Wick’s love for both his recently deceased wife and his new puppy, Daisy. Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, “John Wick” is the story of retired hitman Wick (Keanu Reeves) and how he’s forced out of that retirement.

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After his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan) dies (seen in flashbacks and phone video), Wick receives a puppy sent from Helen prior to her death, to keep him company. The scenes with the puppy and Wick are very endearing and the two quickly bond. Out one day for a ride with Daisy, he stops at a gas station to fill up his beloved ’69 Mustang, and is subsequently harassed by some young Russian thugs. One of them makes an offer on his car and doesn’t react kindly when his offer is rejected. It’s that rejection that sets into motion a never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat, kill-for-kill revenge, beginning with Daisy, eventually leading Wick back into the life he thought he left behind.

“John Wick” is not your typical blood and guts film. It’s more artistic in nature with a very slight, dark sense of  humor. Directors Leitch and Stahelski are known for their stunt work and in Reeves they are paired with just the right actor. The fight scenes are positively spectacular and have a terrific score working within those scenes.

“John Wick” has an outstanding supporting cast. Willem Dafoe is great as Wick’s friend, mentor and what else? We’re never really sure what his character is up to. Michael Nyqvist plays the elder Tarasov with just the right touch of villainy and humor. Alfie Allen, as the junior Tarasov, is spot-on as the too-big-for-his-britches antagonist. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick are quite good as the mysterious Continental Hotel guest and manager respectively, as is Dean Winters as the dead-pan, right-hand man to the elder Tarasov. John Leguizamo has a fun turn as the no-nonsense mechanic. Rounding out these players is Adrianne Palicki as Ms. Perkins, the take-no-prisoners, would-be assassin. She’s absolutely fantastic.

However, as the movie titles says, this film is “John Wick” and  that is most definitely Keanu Reeves. He is just plain fabulous. When called upon to act, he delivers the goods and then some. But when Reeves gets into fight mode, he just astounds.

“John Wick” is not for everyone. But if you are seeking a slightly more nuanced, artistic action flick, you can’t go wrong with “John Wick.” Oh, and Daisy, R.I.P.

3 nuggets out of 4

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St. Vincent: Devishly Charming—Movie

October 28, 2014

St. Vincent” is Bill Murray at his absolute best (looking his very worst) in a story that enables him to showcase fully his comedic and dramatic acting skills. Written and directed by Theodore Melfi, “St. Vincent” is a dramedy revolving around a 60-something, down-on-his-luck war vet, Vincent (Bill Murray), and his newly arrived next-door neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Melfi’s script is so well-written and delivered, that the film will have you laughing, blushing and, at times, near tears.

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When we first meet Vincent he’s had one really bad day. He owes money to his bookie, Zucko (Terrence Howard), is overdrawn on his checking account, and his drinking has truly gotten out of control…to the point of him crashing his car into his house fence when he finally makes it home that evening. Into this chaos enters Maggie and Oliver, who meet Vincent the next morning, right after their movers smash into Vincent’s tree, doing further damage to his car and fence. To say their initial meeting goes badly is putting it mildly. We learn that Maggie is a recently divorced working mom who’s fighting for custody of her 12-year-old son. We see how harried she is as she drops Oliver off at the bus stop for his first day of parochial school and heads off for her new job…one with long hours…at a hospital. Oliver doesn’t fare much better at school. Outside of having the best teacher ever in Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), he’s bullied and robbed of his cell phone, his pants and shirt, and perhaps most importantly, his house keys. He makes it back to his house, but finds himself seeking refuge in not the most welcoming of homes…Vincent’s. Maggie’s appalled at where Oliver ends up, but there’s not much she can do about it and she and Vincent come to an agreement that Vincent will be Oliver’s official babysitter…for a fee, of course. Although he shouldn’t, Vincent takes Oliver to places a child has no business being, but he also provides some male guidance that Oliver is lacking. In their own way, Vincent and Oliver make quite the pair and come to understand and help one another on a whole other level.

“St. Vincent’s” cast is absolutely terrific. Bill Murray is phenomenal as the ne’er do-well nanny/neighbor. His work with each and every actor is perfection, but never more so than with McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher, together and separately. McCarthy finally gets to show that she is more than a manic mouth and pratfall diva. “St. Vincent” gives her the opportunity to portray both her feisty and soft sides and she shines. What can one say about Lieberher except ask, “where did he come from?” This year has given us a whole host of outstanding child actors who can really act and certainly Lieberher goes right to the top of that list. There’s nothing precocious or phony about him. His character is an old soul whose politeness grabs you right away. He delivers his lines in such an off the cuff manner, you can’t believe he is this young. It’s Oliver’s relationship with Vincent that really is the movie’s heart. In order for the movie to work, you have to believe in their friendship, and boy, do you ever. One can’t wait to see what the future hold in store for this young actor.

“St. Vincent’s” supporting cast is top-notch. Chris O’Dowd’s Brother Geraghty is the kind of teacher one can only wish for, but he’s not sickingly sweet. He has the right acerbic edge and O’Dowd manages that perfectly.  Naomi Watts has an interesting role as pregnant Russian prostitute/exotic dancer, Daka, who is Vincent’s “girlfriend,” even though he pays her for sex. Watts is very good, but her part isn’t truly necessary. On the plus side, however, her character does add another layer to the development of Vincent’s character. Is Vincent the baby’s father…it’s not clear, but not overly important either.

“St. Vincent” doesn’t always go where you think it’s going…it’s full of surprises throughout…for that matter, so is Bill Murray.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Fury: Must–See Look at the Wrath of War—Movie

October 23, 2014

Fury,” written and directed by David Ayer, may be one of the best war movies …ever. A visceral, raw look at the last days of WWII in Germany, we get a close, upfront view at what it’s like to be on the front lines of war from inside a tank, something rarely seen. “Fury” is based on a collection of true stories from real-life army veterans who spent their time during World War II in tanks. ‘Fury’ is the name given to the film’s M4A3E8 Sherman tank and the film centers on its five-man crew led by U.S. Army Sgt. Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt). The men, who have been together since the campaign in North Africa, are joined by a young newcomer, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), when one of their crew is killed. Norman, fresh out of the typing pool and onto the battlefield, is not exactly what the group is looking for in their fight against the Germans. Therein lies much of the narrative and conflict…personally and professionally.

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The story of the men’s push through Germany is told primarily through Norman’s eyes. While that might seem like a cliché, it’s necessary and it works because, like him, the audience is seeing everything for the first time, just like this rookie. When he’s frightened, we are as well. And when he’s toughened up by ‘Wardaddy’, we also feel bucked up.

Brad Pitt is exceedingly good as the world-weary group leader. Most of the time his character is encased in dirt and blood, but even without makeup you know he’s someone who by 1945 has seen it all—through his voice and eyes. Pitt is able to make his character seem like someone who is comfortable leading men…be they veterans or rookies. The entire supporting cast…the rest of tank crew and the German characters we meet are all outstanding, particularly fellow tank-mates Shia LaBeouf as Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan and Michael Peña as Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia.

“Fury,” however, truly belongs to Logan Lerman and he carries the film masterfully on his character’s fragile shoulders. He is extremely believable as someone who’s probably never before held a gun, let alone killed anyone. Watching his Norman made me think of all the real-life WWII soldiers, like my Dad, who were drafted into the war. What must it have been like for them? My Dad, a NYC guy through and through, and unless he did some squirrel hunting in Central Park that he forgot to tell us about, never held a gun in his life before the war. Although he fought in the Pacific, Dad, like Norman, first did typing and steno work before seeing actual combat. He rarely talked about his war experience, but I believe that Norman represents all the men who were like my father—thrown into something completely alien to them on every level and having to adjust quickly. The fact that Lerman’s Norman could make me identify with him so viscerally only speaks to how wonderful Lerman is in the film and how tremendous the script is.

“Fury” is one of the few, possibly the only war movie revolving around a tank…possibly because the tank space is so cramped, there isn’t room for a lot of action, and face it, tanks don’t move at warp speed, so that precludes chase scenes. However, it’s just those circumstances that make “Fury” work so well. We actually sense how cramped the men are and that is what makes us feel like we are part of the action. Sometimes the film is so dark and the men so dirty, that it’s hard to know what is happening. That only adds to the film’s intensity and grittiness. The scenes in the small German towns are eerie in their silent moments as you hold your breath expecting for something to happen. And when the setting shifts to combat in utter darkness, you really have no idea of who has emerged victorious, just as in real life.

“Fury” works excellently on every level. When you leave the theatre, you’ll feel like you’ve been in battle, too. While a story about men and tanks, “Fury” is, in reality, a wonderful, lasting tribute to all our WWII soldiers.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Dear White People: Please Take Note—Movie

October 21, 2014

Dear White People” is an insightful, humorously satirical look at race relations in today’s society and is an amazing feature-film debut for the film’s writer and director, Justin Simien. Set on the fictional campus of Winchester University, a stand-in for any one of America’s Ivy League Colleges, the movie has something for everyone to mull over…good and bad.

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“Dear White People” begins with news coverage of a racial disturbance at a campus Halloween party and then goes back in time to the beginning of the semester to show how the school reached that point of tension. We’re introduced to several characters with differing views on race and politics who guide us on our journey through the rest of the movie. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) has a radio show, Dear White People, in she calls out white people for the ways in which they handle day-to-day encounters with black people. Regardless of your race, you laugh because her pointed comments are spot-on. Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris) is smart, beautiful, has a less successful video blog than Sam’s show and desperately wants to be part of a reality program about college life that might be in the offing. Downplaying her Chicago South Side roots, she puts on airs and attitude that she believes will lead to her success. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell) is the politically minded student, careful not to rock the boat. His father, the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert), is equally politically correct and engaged in his own power struggles with the University President, a former college classmate and rival. Rounding out the student foursome is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an aspiring journalist, with one of the largest Afros ever seen. He is struggling to fit in somewhere…anywhere. Campus life gets a jolt when Sam enters the race for president of her all-black dorm, challenging the incumbent, Troy, and to everyone’s shock, including her own, wins. Her candidacy has been promoted and pushed by the Black Student Union, led by the more militant student leader, Reggie (Marque Richardson). Pressed by Reggie to be more extreme, Sam takes some actions that she comes to question. Those actions and the white Halloween party with horrible, racial overtones are what propel much of the film’s movement forward.

Tyler James Williams as Lionel is terrific. He so beautifully portrays the character who “isn’t black enough” to fit within either racial group. This actor doesn’t say a lot, but his expressive face speaks volumes for him. He seems to be the film’s heart and what a beat it has. Perhaps “Dear White People’s” conscience is Sam and Tessa Thompson really does her justice. She does a fantastic job in portraying someone who’s not as self-assured as she seems. Brandon P. Bell is great as Troy. At first meeting, Troy seems to be a stand-in for a young Barrack Obama. But as the film progresses, we learn that there is more to his character. Is he fulfilling his dream or someone else’s? Teyonah Parris as Coco is truly fabulous. Her character is not very likeable in her phoniness, but she makes you care anyway. Dennis Haysbert as the Dean, Kyle Gallner as Kurt,the white son of the University President and Justin Dobies as Gabe, a friend of Sam’s, are also very good in supporting roles. Haysbert brings a lot of depth of his character and makes one wonder why we haven’t see more of him on the screen.

In addition to the very likeable cast, what makes this film so much fun to watch is its “smarts.” “Dear White People” gets its points across, and shows how no one or nothing is all black or all white. Some of the film’s lines are positively classic. When one white character asks his black girlfriend if she was “dreaming Cosby—straight hair and big sweaters,” you can’t help but laugh. And when someone else comments that “Bill Maher is going to f***k you up,” you know exactly what he means.

As noted earlier, “Dear White People” raises some interesting questions, chief among them—“What is free speech vs. racism?” We don’t get answers to many of the questions, but “Dear White People” does get one thinking…in a non-threatening manner. That just might be half the battle.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Whiplash: Phenomenally Played—Movie

October 19, 2014

At the conclusion of the uniquely wonderful, “Whiplash,” you will feel a variety of emotions. Your senses will be put through the ringer, but this incredible film is so worth it all. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” is the story of a gifted young drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller) and his maniacal music teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

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Andrew is a freshman at a prestigious NYC music conservatory. His practice catches the ear of Fletcher, who, in their first meeting, encourages Andrew to push himself harder. This encounter leads to an eventual invitation to join Fletcher’s core jazz band, which is when the film goes into true “Whiplash” mode…musically and emotionally.

Although “Whiplash” is about a student/teacher relationship, it can just as easily be about a parent/child or even boss/underling…any relationship in which the person in power is pushing the other to succeed. The film is about lines that should and shouldn’t be crossed and when enough is enough. At one point in the film, Fletcher says the two worst words one can ever hear are, “good job.” But is that always true?

Miles Teller is positively phenomenal in capturing the emotions of the student so driven to be the best. Although Teller actually does his own drumming, which is absolutely amazing, that is just an added bonus. It’s his dramatic performance that stays with you.

All those years of playing “Law and Order’s” kindly psychiatrist hid the real talent that is J.K. Simmons. His portrayal of the egomaniacal Fletcher is unbelievably frightening, intimidating, a tad crazy…and just plain fantastic. At first you might thing you’re getting a one-note, drill sergeant performance, but as the movie progresses, you see that there are real shades to his characterization.

The supporting cast of actors and musicians is terrific. In particular, Paul Reiser has a nice turn as Andrew’s laid-back father. Proud and caring of Andrew, his character provides an interesting counterpoint to Fletcher’s “nurturing.” Also very good is Melissa Benoist as Nicole, the girl to whom Andrew is attracted, and who gets caught up in his quest to be great.

In addition to the great casting and musical score (which is fabulous), is the extraordinary camera work and editing. The shots of Andrew on the drums at frenetic pace coupled with Fletcher’s “conducting”…his snaps, pauses and more snaps…are just electrifying. The editing for all of these scenes becomes an additional character within the movie. And Andrew’s final drum solo is alone worth the price of admission.

“Whiplash” will give you just that…and have you leaving the theatre breathless.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: OK, Not Horrible Movie—Movie

October 15, 2014

A talented, likeable cast makes “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” a fun movie for every age group. Directed by Miguel Arteta, with screenplay and screen story by Rob Lieber, based on Judith Viorst’s book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” takes a look at life through the eyes of Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) on the eve and day of his 12th birthday.

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Birthday eve, Alexander has experienced the worst of  horrible days on a day when everything seems to be going right for the rest of his family—recently laid-off dad has an interview; harried, publishing executive mom in line for a promotion; older teen-age brother going to the prom with the girl of his dreams; and, teen-age sister about to star in her school’s production of “Peter Pan.” After midnight, Alexander goes into the kitchen, has a birthday cupcake and makes a birthday wish—that everyone else in his family knew what it was like to have a day as bad as his. Be careful what you wish for because…they finally do have his experience and it happens for them all on the same day.

Although Australian, Ed Oxenbould is positively phenomenal in the title role as the very American, Alexander. Perhaps he was cast because his character has a love for all things Australian. Who knows, but he is extremely good. Not conventionally cute, he’s adorable nevertheless and is capable of showing all forms of emotion. He does such a great job at keeping Alexander likeable that you find yourself rooting for his character to finally have a really good day. Steve Carell is terrific as the unemployed dad, Ben, who jumps in as a hands-on, full-time “famy” (half-father, half mommy–trust me, it’s funny when the baby says it) with great abandon and enthusiasm. His role has some slapstick moments, but is never too over the top. His scenes with Baby Trevor and with his potential co-workers are especially good. Jennifer Garner, as the stressed-out mom, Kelly, who’s trying to hold it all together as the sudden breadwinner, gets a chance to show off her comedic chops in some very amusing scenes involving a bike. As Anthony, Alexander’s older brother, Dylan Minnette is just terrific. This actor has a gift for physical as well as situational comedy. Some of his scenes are the movie’s funniest because he is able to tackle them so well. Kerris Dorsey, as the aspiring Peter Pan, is a complete revelation. Currently seen as the dour teen in “Ray Donovan,” she’s very likeable and funny as Alexander’s older sister, Emily, who catches a cold before her big debut. She’s evidently multi-talented because with her real-life sister, Justine, she sings the film’s closing credits’ song and is very good.

A recent article in the Washington Post has an interview with the real Alexander, now 47, upon whom the book was based. Although the film takes place in California, he was raised in Northwest DC, where he still resides with a family of his own, and is apparently no worse the wear for his childhood fame.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is a family film that both children and adults can enjoy…although children will probably enjoy it more. It’s fun without being saccharine or stupid. It’s a good, not terrible way to spend an afternoon at the movies.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

 

Kill the Messenger: See This Film—Movie

October 14, 2014

“Some stories too true to tell” is the sad truth of “Kill the Messenger.” “Kill the Messenger” is the little known, but genuine story of how journalist Gary Webb broke the biggest story of his career, and in the story’s aftermath, was unbelievably let down by so many people and institutions who should have known better. Directed by Michael Cuesta and written by Peter Landesman, the film is based on Gary Webb’s book,” “Dark Alliance,” and the book “Kill the Messenger” by Nick Schou. Knowing that this story is true makes it even more painful to sit through as we watch Webb’s career and personal life take a slow dive for doing his job and doing it well.

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Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In 1996 he receives a tip which eventually leads him to write a series for the paper called “Dark Alliance,” which is about the CIA’s involvement in the early years of the crack-cocaine trade…that it funneled millions dollars in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the CIA. Initially hailed as a groundbreaking story, petty jealousy by larger newspapers like the New York Times and, most especially, the Washington Post set out to systematically debunk his story and smear him. Webb’s own paper doesn’t have the stones to stand by him and what follows is heartbreaking, especially since, as the whole world learns later, his entire story is true.

Jeremy Renner as Webb is just terrific. He captures perfectly the highs and lows that Webb faces and endures. Renner’s work with the actors who portray his family members is also especially good. Rosemarie DeWitt, wonderful at representing the everyday wife and mother on-screen, turns in another golden performance as Webb’s wife, Sue. Oliver Platt is just right as the San Jose Mercury News’ weasily editor, Jerry Ceppos, who proves to be too much of a coward to back Webb. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also excellent as Anna Simons, Webb’s editor. She stands by him when she can, but is not eager to see her career go down in flames with his. Richard Schiff, who lately seems to be taking on roles as human beings just slightly better than venal rats, has another terrific performance as petty Washington Post editor, Richard Zuckerman. Michael Sheen is outstanding as Washington insider, Fred Weil, with horror stories of his own for doing the right thing. Weil does his best to warn and support Webb of what is about to befall him and is the one who whispers the memorable line to Webb, “Some stories too true to tell.” “Kill the Messenger” is full of other terrific supporting character actors in the roles of newspaper personnel, federal agents, and criminals–all who bring just the right touch of verisimilitude to the film.

As a journalism major myself, I found “Kill the Messenger” at times really difficult to watch. All of my adult life, for me, the Washington Post has been the one news source upon which I could rely for the truth. To see this paper…the one who broke the Watergate story and most recently has been leading the way in reporting the shortcomings of the Secret Service…seems beyond comprehension that it would kowtow to the CIA in such a manner. Viewing how other so-called journalistic entities treated Webb is also extremely disheartening. This is one film that makes you want to Google more on the topic…to learn more about Webb and more on the overall subject…and hoping against hope that some of this movie is not true. Unfortunately doing more research proves this is not the case.

Brilliantly written and acted, “Kill the Messenger” should be on your viewing list.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Gone Girl: This Girl is All In—Movie

October 9, 2014

One word to describe “Gone Girl”—brilliant. Directed by David Fincher with screenplay by Gillian Flynn based on her best-selling novel, “Gone Girl” is story-telling at its very best.

gone_girl_ver2_xlgThe film revolves around the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and her deeply suspicious-seeming husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). Much of the movie is narrated by Amy giving us her perspective on their marriage as she writes entries into her diary. She relates how the two met (in a bar) and how compatible and happy they were initially in their marriage and NYC life. But when Nick loses his writing position, the marriage slowly begins to disintegrate. Life goes from bad to worse after Nick’s mother becomes ill with cancer and the two move to a Missouri suburb to be closer to her and to Nick’s twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), thus giving up their NYC lifestyle.

As “Gone Girl” begins, Nick leaves his home in the morning to meet with his sister in the bar they own and run together. Although it’s his fifth wedding anniversary day, Nick’s not particularly festive. He seems in a down mood and nothing in their conversation changes that. Nick goes back home where he discovers broken glass in the living room and realizes that his wife is nowhere to be found. Concerned, Nick calls the police and when they come to investigate, he gets the sense that he might be under suspicion. They are intrigued by the fact that although he’s been married for five years, Nick seems to know very little about Amy’s current life and that he seems just a little too vague…a little too glib. When the two investigating officers, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Office Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) talk to one another, you know they feel Nick is guilty of something, but without concrete evidence, there is not much more they can do. But then things begin to happen which doesn’t bode well for Nick and his future.

I didn’t read the book, so I can only judge the quality of “Gone Girl” by what I saw on the screen and what I viewed was almost movie perfection. The directing, the acting, the script and the music…all come together in the most compelling manner to keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire length of the film.

The part of Nick seems as if it was written with Ben Affleck, not Scott Peterson, in mind…he is that good. There is something about Nick’s personality that seems to suit Affleck to a tee. He is terrific at making his character come off as  just a tad too smug and slick, even when he’s trying so hard to be seen as earnest. Normally Affleck is at his best when he directs himself, but in Fincher, he might just have found his soul mate. Rosamund Pike, while beautiful, has never over impressed in films past. But in “Gone Girl” she simply astounds. She goes from innocent to sinister to innocent again so quickly and convincingly it makes your head spin. Her work with Affleck and most especially Neil Patrick Harris, as her one-time boyfriend, Desi Collings, is just fabulous. And speaking of Neil Patrick Harris, his performance as Desi is wonderful. It’s easy to believe that since his long-ago breakup with Amy he has become master of his universe. Both Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens lend a lot of strength to “Gone Girl” in their supporting roles. Tyler Perry is also terrific as Nick’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt. He manages to capture the spirit of famed attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Gloria Allred. Finally, Missi Pyle’s portrayal of television magpie, Ellen Abbot, is a delicious hoot as she channels Nancy Grace.

David Fincher has done a spectacular job in creating the feeding frenzy, media saturated coverage of crimes that capture the nation’s fancy. But what’s even more noteworthy is how he has managed to keep the movie intimate at the same time. While all the craziness is going on, he never lets you forget that a possible crime has been committed and really gives you the feel of how and why certain characters have turned out the way they have…be it through their back-story or actions in the present. In addition to Flynn’s fabulous script, the icing on “Gone Girl’s” cake is its creepy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross which lends just the right touch of malevolence.

Nothing is perfect, but “Gone Girl” is at close as it comes. It’s simply terrific.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

 

The Drop: Pay a Visit—Movie

October 2, 2014

“No one ever sees you coming, do they?” is asked near the conclusion of “The Drop.” Truer words were never spoken, both in terms of the character to whom this remark is addressed and the movie itself. Directed by Michaël R. Roskam, with screenplay by Dennis Lehane based on his short story, “Animal Rescue,” “The Drop” takes its time getting started, but gradually picks up steam, packing a wallop at the end.

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Set in the non-tony section of Brooklyn, “The Drop” centers on the goings-on at Cousin Marvin’s, a neighborhood bar. Formerly owned outright by Marvin (James Gandolfini), his bar is now “owned” by the Chechens and serves as a drop bar for money laundering. Marvin “fronts” the bar and his nephew, Bob (Tom Hardy), serves as bartender. One night as Bob is making his way home, he hears the barking of a puppy. To his shock, the barks are coming from inside a garbage can in front of a house. As Bob picks up the discarded dog, you think to yourself, “Oh, no, I don’t think this will bode well.” Well, you are half right. The puppy does bring some shady characters into Bob’s life, but the same dog makes it possible for him to meet Nadia (Noomi Rapace), to whom the garbage can belongs. The two agree to take care of the puppy together. As they continue to bond over the dog, a hesitant romance comes into the picture. Nadia is not complication-free, however. She has a former boyfriend, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), not necessarily pleased about being “former,”  and who begins making menacing appearances in Bob ‘s and Marvin’s lives. We see that Marvin is not at all happy with the turn his fortunes have taken. More than anything else, he wants to be respected and as we discover, will go to almost any length to make that happen. Once a proud bar owner, he’s now reduced to taking money for and orders from mobsters. He lives with his well-meaning, but annoying sister, Dottie (Ann Dowd). His life is made even further problematic by the urgent need for money in order to keep his ailing, elderly father on-life support. A missing person, a robbery gone bad and a continuing investigation by a detective (John Ortiz) who attends the same church as Bob—all come together to push Marvin and Bob into making some life-altering decisions.

“The Drop’s” cast is absolutely wonderful, but Tom Hardy is the film’s real standout. His performance is very low-key, but his tone is pitch-perfect. Shy, sly and forceful when his character has to be, he does it all masterfully. His Brooklyn accent might be a little too thick, but even that works within the film. James Gandolfini, in his final film appearance, is terrific as Marvin. He makes you feel the rage underneath Marvin’s seemingly calm exterior. Noomi Rapace is very good as the immigrant trying to make a better life for herself and having a hard time accomplishing just that. Finally, Matthias Schoenaerts’ Deeds makes for one of best-looking creeps the screen has seen in a while.

Much of “The Drop” takes place in the evening and that just adds to the film’s murkiness. “The Drop” is a movie that  grips you slowly, but once it’s done, you realize how strong that grip was. It’s a sad, but excellent way for James Gandolfini to leave us, but thankfully we will have both his and Tom Hardy’s performances to remember always.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Disappearing Script,Too—Movie

October 1, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” suffers from a script filled with so many holes and unanswered questions that even the fabulous acting which abounds cannot save. Written and directed by Ned Benson, the film was originally conceived as two films, “Him” and “Her,” telling the story of a NYC couple’s failing relationship from the male and female perspectives. The manner in which to present the films changed over the buying process and where once a more than three-hour combination of the two films was discussed, the film was eventually cut and combined into the piece we see on the screen, subtitled “Them.” Sitting through three hours with an intermission would have been manageable and probably would have helped answer many of the questions we have from viewing “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.” However, we have just this film to judge…not what might have or should have been. As such, we are left with a Swiss cheese movie.

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“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” opens with an attempted suicide. Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) has jumped off a bridge, but is immediately rescued. We then get flashbacks to a happier time in Eleanor’s life with someone we learn later is her husband, Connor (James McAvoy). Then we return to present time in the hospital where Eleanor has been recovering and is now going back to live for the time-being with her parents, Julian and Mary Rigby (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) and her younger sister, Katy (Jess Weixler) and Katy’s young son, Philip (Wyatt Ralff). From the way her family treats her with kid gloves, we know that something traumatic happened to Eleanor before the suicide attempt, but what that is remains unspoken. Eleanor’s father urges her to go back to school and work on her doctorate, setting up an appointment with one of his colleagues, Professor Friedman (Viola Davis) who takes a shine to Eleanor in a very no-nonsense way.

While Eleanor is going through her recovery, we meet Connor in present day. He owns a failing restaurant/ bar and just seems very unhappy. He’s packing up his apartment with plans to move in with his restaurateur father (Ciarán Hinds). While he knows what has happened to Eleanor, he’s unable to connect with her in person. He eventually goes to her parents’ home for a conversation with Eleanor’s mother. He learns that Eleanor is back in school and starts stalking her until he’s able to work up the courage to have a conversation with her.

Jennifer Chastain and James McAvoy are wonderful as a couple no longer able to communicate, but why? One can make a calculated guess, but what is the secret? Chastain plays the title character, but McAvoy is equally terrific as she is. As a character, his may be the sadder role,  because he really has no one close to talk to. He doesn’t seem to have much of a support system other than his employee/friend (Bill Hader). But he is of little help and Connor doesn’t appear to have much of a relationship with his father. McAvoy handles all of this masterfully. Chastain gives an amazingly nuanced performance as Eleanor. In addition to McAvoy, her work with all of her co-stars is extremely good. But perhaps the camera likes her a tad too much. So much time is spent on close-ups of her face that, as a woman, I was left to wonder just who did her eye-makeup.

William Hurt is simply amazing as Eleanor’s father. His eyes convey so much and his talks with Eleanor are wonderful to listen to. Isabelle Huppert is also terrific as the somewhat distant mother who doesn’t seem as connected to Eleanor as is her father. Jess Weixler, known to most of us from “The Good Wife,” has a great turn as Eleanor’s younger sister. And her portrayal of someone going out on a date for the first time in a long time is spot on. However, one could very much  live without the cliché-driven girls’ night out. It’s been done a thousand times and just doesn’t feel right in this film. Viola Davis, as the professor with her own personal problems, is also very good in the thankless, stereotypical role.

It really does make a difference to one’s appreciation of the film to better understand the cause of the demise of Eleanor’s and Connor’s relationship. Why the secrecy? And when we finally do find out why, it would help to know the how. Even learning Katy’s back-story would be helpful. Why is everyone in the Rigby family living under the same roof?

A few years ago, a similar topic was explored much more successfully and succinctly in “Rabbit Hole.” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is not without its merits, but one can’t help but wonder what was left on the cutting-room floor.

2 nuggets out of 4


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