Saturday, September 27, 2014
Liam Neeson almost certainly didn’t have to make A Walk Among the Tombstones, but he did and it’s to Neeson’s credit that he could tell the difference between this lean and mean detective story and the recent spate of movies in which all he’s asked to do is be tough. A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on a Lawrence Block novel, one of a long-running series about a P.I. named Matthew Scudder. Neeson is very well cast as Scudder, besides the obvious physical menace he always looks like he either wants a drink or just had one and he seems perfectly at home on the streets of New York. Writer/director Scott Frank puts us in a New York we don’t usually see at the movies, an outer borough, late-’90s streetscape (it’s 1999 and Y2K is in the air) that’s as blasted out and deserted as a European war zone. This setting is home to a cast of characters living on the city’s margins. Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and ex-cop, is an unlicensed P.I. and his client Kenny (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Kenny wants Scudder to find the two men who kidnapped and murdered his wife so that he can take his revenge, and soon enough Scudder discovers a pattern of killings involving the family members of others in the drug life. No fuss is made about the identities of the killers or about making them funny; they’re two men (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who appear to enjoy the terror in their victims’ eyes more than the money they collect. After another kidnapping Scudder lures the two into a confrontation and the last act of the movie is a piece of superbly sustained tension.
Describing the plot reduces A Walk Among the Tombstones to a set of genre conventions. The drama lies in watching Neeson uncover new levels in Scudder, not just at the climax but in his relationship with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley). TJ is a homeless teen and would-be detective, and it’s the kind of role that could have been a cliché but is turned into something real by not overdoing it. There is also a terrific supporting performance by Olafur Darri Olafsson as the man who gives Scudder his first real lead. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a very satisfying film that’s also a fine vehicle for its star, and I would be up for seeing Neeson return to this role.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Saturday, September 20, 2014
This Is Where I Leave You, directed by Shawn Levy from a novel by Jonathan Tropper, is the story of what happens when four grown children return home for their father's funeral. We never meet Mort Altman (except briefly in flashback), and we don't really find out that much about him over the course of almost two hours. It seems Mort was a bad businessman who didn't kiss his kids, preferring instead a sort of gentle head-butt, but it doesn't matter because Mort's widow Hillary (Jane Fonda) supported the family as therapist and author. So if Mort's death is just the opening move then what exactly do we have here?
Jason Bateman is ideal for the role of Judd, the successful middle son whom we meet on the day he discovers his wife (Abigail Spencer) and boss (Dax Shepard) in bed together. Judd is in a funk when he returns home for Mort's funeral, not ready to tell anyone except his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) about his impending divorce. The other two Altman children are Paul (Corey Stoll), who's taking over the family business and trying to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant, and family screw-up Phillip (Adam Driver). We don't get too many specifics about Phillip's life, but he arrives late for Mort's funeral in a Porsche and has brought an older woman (Connie Britton) home with him. At Mort's request Hillary and the kids are to sit shiva together at home, with guidance from a rabbi (Ben Schwartz) who's in the movie just so the Altmans can call him by a childhood nickname. I enjoyed Bateman's usual dry understatement and the way Tina Fey makes Wendy warm and rueful instead of bitter towards her mostly absent husband. Adam Driver and Kathryn Hahn have their moments too, but by this point the movie can't resist piling on contrivances. Fey actually gets the worst of it; she's stuck with a howler of a subplot about an old love (Timothy Olyphant) who lives across the street and has suffered a brain injury. Olyphant is terrible - he's miscast, undirected, and probably too good looking for the role - but it's hard to blame him since he's playing a character who's only purpose is to shine light on someone else. Jason Bateman at least gets to play a few scenes with Rose Byrne as a local woman who never left, but there is no time for Byrne to show the anarchic comic spirit she brought to Neighbors. It all ends with another revelation, broadly played and predictably progressive in spirit.
This Is Where I Leave You strives for seriousness and asserts the right of well-off adults to be sad and confused about their lives. I haven't read the novel, but if the movie had had the courage of its convictions (and maybe had fewer characters) it might have been something. Levy and Tropper can't settle on a tone though, and what we've got is a rushed and busy affair with well-acted dramatic scenes butting up against broad comic ones. Put This Is Where I Leave You down as a missed opportunity for one of the fall's best ensemble casts.
Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is, for its anger and sheer inventiveness, an essential film of 2014. Better known to date perhaps for the controversy over how and in what form it would be released, Snowpiercer is a film that had to be made by someone outside the Hollywood system because anyone with a foothold at the studios would have been afraid to touch it. It is a film we need very much.
The tail section of the Snowpiercer - a train that carries the remains of humanity around the world after an environmental disaster - is a place of Dickensian squalor, with passengers crammed into bunks and forced to survive on "protein blocks" served at the discretion of Wilford (Ed Harris). The engine that powers the always-running train is Wilford's creation, and he guards it at the head of a train that on which the class structure is rigidly enforced. The spiritual leader of the tail is Gilliam (John Hurt), but the drive for revolution comes from Curtis (Chris Evans) and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). One thing that Snowpiercer gets right is the way it raises the question that so many revolutions don't answer: "What's next?" Curtis is motivated by anger at the treatment his people receive, and the way that children from the tail are forcibly removed to the front without explanation. The anger only grows as the revolutionaries discover the absurd luxuries of the front cars, which include a fish farm for sushi and a dance club that looks like it was hauled in from a Matrix sequel. Yet it's not clear that Curtis knows what he'd replace the current system with, and when he reaches the front he's tempted by Wilford's offer to oversee what's really a rolling experiment in social engineering. I don't know to what degree Bong Joon-ho was inspired by current American political rhetoric (the script is based on a graphic novel), but the crux of the movie is Curtis's attempt to fight against what's really the stretching of some conservative talking points to a ridiculous extreme. In Wilford's world the poor will always be with us, and to maintain balance on the train they must stay in their place. The alternative of course is the messiness of a free, open society. That's what Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) wants; he's the security specialist working with the revolutionaries who thinks that life outside the train may be possible.
Curtis makes his choice, as we all must, and the last shot of Snowpiercer is as simple and hopeful as anything I can remember. I don't want to suggest that ideas are all that is at work here. The close-quarter battle scenes are quick and bloody, the various train cars we see are impeccably designed, and the large cast is unexpected and excellent. Chris Evans gets to show a good deal more range than in his Captain America< roles, while Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer (as a single mother) make fine revolutionaries. I loved Alison Pill as a teacher indoctrinating children in the power of 'the engine" and best of all is Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays the bureaucrat charged with overseeing the tail, and she's unrecognizable in false teeth and oversized glasses. The phrase "world-building" has become a cliche, but it's done to near-perfection here in a film that asks important questions and offers no easy answers.
Monday, September 15, 2014
The Drop is adapted by Dennis Lehane from his short story "Animal Rescue", and ads for the film don't miss a chance to put it right next to other recent offerings based on Lehane's work. (If you saw Mystic River and Shutter Island without knowing their origins then would you ever believe Lehane wrote both novels?) Director Michael R. Roskam puts us in a part of Brooklyn where the characters are pretty unlikely to run into the cast of Girls. The Drop (the title refers to a bar chosen as the collection point for money from other Mob bars) has atmosphere and fine performances, including the final film work of James Gandolfini, to recommend it. Yet in opening out the short story I think Lehane and Roskam have lost sight of what stories here are worth telling, and a strong effort ends up being a little less than the sum of its parts. Gandolfini plays a man called "Cousin Marv", who used to own the bar that bears his name but now serves as figurehead since the Chechen Mob took over the place. Marv's most trusted employee is bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy in a carefully coiled performance), who when he isn't working seems content to kick around his dead parents' house and walk the pit bull he finds injured in a neighbor's trash can. That trash can belongs to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a waitress with a taste for difficult men who slowly takes a liking to Bob.
Lehane loads his script with twists and revelations, but the best thing about The Drop is its depiction of a closed criminal ecosystem. There's a cop (John Ortiz) in the film who knows what's going but can't prove it because nobody is talking. The neighborhood connections between Marv, Bob, and their associates go back years, and the thought of involving the NYPD in any of the various crimes that take place in The Drop is as laughable as Bob serving Chechen underboss (Michael Aronov) a PBR. But what is this film about? Marv is filled with self-loathing at the way he gave in to the Chechens, but because the script is so busy Marv's growing desperation can only move in fits and starts. I don't know what kind of health Gandolfini was in while shooting The Drop, but his performance is excellent. Marv is uncomfortable in his own skin, itching for action and movement but held back by both age and circumstance. Whatever physical baggage Gandolfini brought to the role is seamlessly put into what's onscreen. The role of Marv is a supporting one though, because we are really supposed to be interested in the slow revelation of the fact that Bob is quite a bit more substantial than he first appears. It is hard to believe Tom Hardy played both Bob Saginowksi and Bane, and his withholding performance eventually pays off in a climax that raises the question of why Bob's name isn't on the front of the bar. It's a kick to watch Hardy work us like an old pro, but the ending doesn't really take the movie anywhere and the Bob's relationship with Nadia exists only to make other things happen. (Rapace is vivid but wasted to a large degree.) The Drop is a good try, an overcrowded movie that circles back into a too familiar place.
Saturday, September 06, 2014
Work is the true subject of Jon Favreau’s Chef, a winning comedy of American mid-life reinvention. Favreau, who wrote and directed, plays a chef named Carl Casper whose Los Angeles restaurant is bracing for a visit from an online food critic (Oliver Platt). Carl has a special menu planned, but the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants him to stick to tried and true favorite dishes. After a negative review Carl can’t take it anymore, a blow-up in the restaurant makes him a viral video star, and he finds himself without either a job or any prospects. The heart of the movie is the divorced Carl’s brusque relationship with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), in which Carl confuses activity with attention. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more emasculating moment on film than the one where Carl’s ex (Sofia Vergara) asks him to accompany her on a trip to Miami so that he can be a “nanny” to his own son.
Jon Favreau can probably get almost any movie made that he wants to at this point, so while it’s tempting to cast Carl’s story (successful professional strikes out on new course in search of self-satisfaction) onto Favreau’s life I don’t think Chef is an allegory for Favreau not wanting to direct comic-book movies anymore. Carl lucks into a food truck, teams up with a pal (John Leguizamo), and winds up driving the truck back to Los Angeles with Percy along for the ride. Percy becomes a line cook and learns about the level of craftsmanship and effort his father expects, and the movie becomes a sort of love letter to fulfilling work. Jon Favreau doesn’t just want to make personal films, he wants to make good films well. Favreau’s scenes with Emjay Anthony have just the right level of awkwardness and desire for connection; Chef feels awfully right when it comes to depicting a divorced dad/child relationship. (Percy becomes the social media director for his Dad’s food truck; Chef gets Twitter right too.) The unusually starry supporting cast is as good as you expect: in addition to Hoffman and Leguizamo there’s Scarlett Johansson as a maitre d’, Bobby Cannavale as Carl’s lieutenant, and a funny cameo from Robert Downey, Jr. as a man once married to Carl’s ex. There may not be much that happens in Chef that one won’t expect, but the warmth and affection on display (helped by a salsa-heavy soundtrack) are welcome from Jon Favreau and signal a new chapter in his career. Chef doesn’t deserve to get lost as summer slips into fall; it’s an observant film full of both humanity and pleasure.