Archive for September 2014

The Drop

September 28, 2014

resized_99265-the-drop-2_28-18758_t630The Drop is what happens when you take a story by Dorchester crime-fiction bard Dennis Lehane, give it to a Belgian director (Michaël R. Roskam in his English-language debut), and move it to Brooklyn. It retains a certain Boston Irish fatalistic undertone, and feels like a Boston story, and one wonders why it wasn’t set there; certainly Roskam doesn’t make much of the New York locations. Most of The Drop is filmed in a grungy bar or back alleys or people’s roach-trap apartments — it’s New York seen through the dingy bottom of a beer glass. It never pulls back to give us a larger view, as the recent A Walk Among the Tombstones does. Which is not a sin, really; The Drop isn’t a travelogue, it’s a slice of a few people’s rotten lives.

Expanding his short story “Animal Rescue” into a screenplay (which he later also novelized), Lehane isn’t shy about using an abused puppy to sketch in characters: the guy who plucks the pup from the trash, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), is Good, while the psycho who beat and discarded the pup, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), is Bad. What’s worse, after Bob has taken the dog, a pit bull, into his home and heart, Eric comes around demanding the dog back. Eric used to date Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who’s helping Bob raise the pit bull, whom she names Rocco (Bob prefers “Mike”). It’s not that Eric really cares about the dog; he just wants to drive a wedge between Bob and Nadia.

As if that weren’t enough misery, Bob tends bar at a dive called Cousin Marv’s, overseen by, yep, Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in a fine swan song), who long ago ceded control of the place to a crew of vicious Chechen mobsters. The Chechens use the bar as a “drop,” a place to stash money until it can safely be picked up. A couple of local doofuses stick up the bar, taking a good chunk of the Chechens’ cash. This attracts the unwanted attention of the cops, represented by Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who seems to exist just to unsettle Bob by casting insinuating aspersions on his Catholicism. (Another holdover from Boston.)

There’s more; the plot thickens, perhaps unnecessarily, filling out Cousin Marv’s relevance to the story in a way that doesn’t especially help the story. I was with it, though, as a damp and depressing city fable about little people who either never made it or made it once, years ago, and then lost it. It’s essentially a small story that expands in meaning in one’s head later on, albeit in neatly literary ways — ah, yes, Rocco the dog is a “drop” just like the Chechens’ money, and perhaps just as dangerous to try to hold onto. Animal lovers who frequent the useful website doesthedogdie.com — “the most important movie question” — may want to know the answer as it applies here, and I cannot reveal it, since our uncertainty about Rocco’s future fuels much of the movie’s suspense. I can only advise you to look up the film on that site. Given the film’s darkness, you may be surprised: The dog, of a much-maligned breed, ends up being an emblem of hope.

The Drop covers most of its men in beards, and Matthias Schoenarts’ facial foliage, black and bristly like a beetle’s armor, wins hands down; he gives an accompanying great performance as a loser heavily invested in maintaining a rep as the neighborhood psycho. Schoenarts comes at his scenes from a weirdly menacing angle (for instance, always sealing his hostile chats with something like “Good to see you” and somehow making that sound sincere), inspiring us to fear for Tom Hardy’s physical welfare — probably a rarity. Hardy does his sweet-and-tender-hooligan specialty, getting the Noo Yawk rhythm down nicely, and he plays smoothly with Rapace and with poor Gandolfini, who deserved many more years of films to which he could lend threat and gravitas as well as wounded humanity. He’ll be missed. I respect The Drop and its makers most for wanting and landing Gandolfini to play a sullen, cynical man crusted over by the defeats of urban life, who nevertheless speaks wistfully of seeing Europe before he dies. The actor himself succumbed in Rome, so at least there was that.

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A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 21, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONESMatthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) has a way of getting to the point. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the tenth of Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels, Scudder is snooping through a dubious character’s things, and is caught at it by Mr. Dubious, who wields a big knife. Scudder, an ex-cop and off-the-books private eye, takes one look at the guy and knows the knife isn’t about to be used. So instead of provoking him into violence, Scudder nonchalantly but firmly says something to the effect of, Look, I can take that away from you, but I’d rather not have to. Scudder isn’t a fan of brutality, though he has seen enough of it to tide him over several lifetimes. Liam Neeson, here and elsewhere in the movie, speaks and moves with the effortless authority of a man who still, at age 62, can fold you in half without breaking stride, but conducts himself with the grace of a man who would rather not have to.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is grim and sometimes ghastly, but its heartbeat is gentle and patient. Writer-director Scott Frank isn’t a fan of brutality either, though the plot is one of Block’s nastier items, about a pair of psychos who prey on the wives of rich men in the drug business. Such men are disinclined to call the police, and, realistically I guess, they don’t command a Tony Montana-style army. The psychos, too, depend on their marks to race into the situation with unclear heads full of stress and rage. Ultimately, the sickos demand a ransom but then deliver a kidnapped wife back in pieces. They don’t do it for the money, though the money does keep the lights on; they do it because they like torturing women, and the opening credits of the movie begin as a possible erotic afternoon delight and then gradually shade into something darker and more repugnant. Frank catches us leaning the wrong way here, but overall he suggests rather than lingers on the pain of the women.

The movie isn’t terribly concerned with women as anything other than plot motivators (Scudder’s prostitute girlfriend from the book has been omitted), which may draw it some charges of sexism it doesn’t really earn. It’s more engaged with the pain of men, the pain they’re in and the pain they cause. Scudder faithfully attends AA meetings, and a climactic event is intercut with an earlier church stop, where Scudder solemnly listens to a woman listing the Twelve Steps while in the future there is bloody cataclysm in and out of the rain. I don’t think anyone could call the movie pro-masculine; Scott Frank may elide the horrors, but he makes sure we catch enough of misogynist psychopathology to give us the shivers. One scene will haunt me: the two monsters, idling in their van, mesmerized by the sight of their latest prey, who walks the family dog and waves cheerily at them as she passes, while Donovan’s “Atlantis” — surely the creepiest use of it since GoodFellas — oozes from the van’s radio. It’s a terrifying sequence.

Scudder gets by with the help of a sidekick of sorts, T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless kid who uses the library for reading and occasionally sleeping out of the rain. T.J. is black, but as played by Bradley he’s admirably not-cute; we don’t have to sit there and worry about the white man patting his young Negro ward on the head condescendingly — T.J. is tough and smart and helpful in the case. Scudder finds himself in this mess when a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) comes to him seeking justice for his wife, returned in “poor condition” by the psychos. The dealer has a brother (Boyd Holbrook) who came back from Desert Storm a heroin addict and who might be useful if he can get over his own man-pain. T.J. is about the only character we see, Scudder included, who just gets on with things.

The movie is great on such things as addicts’ rituals (two shots and a cup of coffee), the alarming but bracing sounds of a gunfight in full eruption, the sickly quiet after said gunfight, the way a sociopath sits down and eats calmly five minutes after having garroted someone, a whiskey bottle swung into someone’s skull that doesn’t shatter but bounces off with a painful-sounding tonk!, the grotesque indignity of slipping on bloody stairs. A Walk Among the Tombstones, indeed, strikes me as the first great American film of the new season, a stoically gripping opening shot to inaugurate the cooler months, when we adults can bid a temporary farewell to superheroes and robots and go, once again, to movies made for us.

The November Man

September 14, 2014

The-November-Man-trailer-2-750x310Has it really been twenty years since Pierce Brosnan was officially announced as the then-latest James Bond? (Brosnan’s debut, GoldenEye, marks its twentieth anniversary next year.) Now 61, Brosnan seems interested in interrogating the cold 007 archetype from different angles, whether farcical (2005’s The Matador) or serious, as in his new thriller, The November Man. The movie is based on the seventh in a largely overlooked series of spy novels by Bill Granger about Devereaux — no first name, though in the film he goes by Peter — a former agent who keeps getting pulled back in to contend with international crises. Here, Devereaux must protect a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who possesses dangerous information about a piece of rapist slime who’s being groomed for the presidency of Russia.

The newsworthy thing about The November Man, directed with old-school grit and clarity by Roger Donaldson, is how emotional its violence feels — and there’s plenty of blood spilled. The fights and gunshots seem to burst forth out of rage and contempt — and that’s when the good guys do it. Well, “good guys” according to whatever definition means anything in this gray context. Devereaux is brought in by old handler Hanley (Bill Smitrovich, doing his best Peter Boyle), who soon turns on Devereaux, takes over from section chief Weinstein (Will Patton, doing his best J.T. Walsh), and sends Devereaux’s former protege Mason (Luke Bracey) after him.

What we’re never allowed to forget is that the convoluted plot is powered by those who perpetrated war crimes on vulnerable girls and those who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. Devereaux is already nursing a painful personal loss at the callous hands of his employers. Later in the film, he will present a harsh and bloody choice to Mason. In part, the movie is about the misogyny at the highest levels of government and federal intelligence. Usually women in spy movies are bargaining chips or femmes fatale or, with 007, a motivation for the hero to press onward vengefully. Here, Olga Kurylenko is allowed central importance, with back-up from Caterina Scorsone as an agent, Amila Terzimehic as a fierce and unstoppable assassin, and Eliza Taylor as Mason’s warm, cat-owning neighbor.

Brosnan’s Devereaux is cool, abrupt, coiled for action. Not suave like 007, he’s closer to a spy version of Donald Westlake’s Parker, brutal and pessimistic. Combined with Julian Noble of The Matador, Devereaux is Brosnan’s way of telling us that he understands that a 007 in the real world would be a monster, or at least monstrously desensitized. Still, Devereaux isn’t far enough gone to see that a woman who seeks justice should have it. And again, somehow the violence Devereaux commits in the movie feels like an expression of anger at what the world of dirty international politics does to innocence and to women (Devereaux, it’s revealed at some point, has more than one personal reason for being angry). The November Man is structured like a routine spy thriller — and it sure goes like lightning — but it means more than meets the eye.

Frank

September 6, 2014

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The first time I heard of Frank Sidebottom, the cult-favorite British musician/comedian also known as Chris Sievey, it was in the pages of The Trouser Press Record Guide. Therein, Ira Robbins waxed ecstatic about the man who performed Queen medleys, thought everything was “fantastic,” and wore a large papier-mache head patterned after old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. You had to be in England during a particular era — mostly the ’80s — to tune into Frank’s dadaist charms, though he’s pretty well represented on YouTube these days. Those interested in Frank’s peripatetic career would do well not to rely on the new film Frank, a comedy-drama lightly based on Frank’s early days with his Oh Blimey Big Band. British journalist Jon Ronson spent some time as Frank’s keyboardist, and his experience led to a Guardian article, which was expanded into a short book, which in turn somewhat informed the movie.

There’s no hint of Chris Sievey under the Frank mask here (nor does he get the surname Sidebottom). Indeed, we don’t get a look at Frank (Michael Fassbender) until almost the end. In the meantime, he bellows muffled stream-of-consciousness doggerel into a mike while the Jon Ronson analogue (Domhnall Gleeson) plonks along on a Casio and the scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays a theremin. Ronson has said that Sievey, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have wanted a straight Frank biopic (there’s a forthcoming documentary, Being Frank, to serve that purpose anyway), and the non-Sidebottom Frank we meet here — a son not of Timperley but of Bluff, Kansas — is perhaps not the Frank but a Frank, a symbol of persistent, lunging creativity. We’re left with the oddly comforting notion that Frank is legion, that he appears wherever illogic is sorely needed to disturb the squares.

What isn’t comforting — and it is right that it not be so — is the film’s clear-eyed assessment of the creative urge as it relates to mental illness. Frank refuses to romanticize affronts to the brain; it takes its cue from those who had to live and work with such crazy diamonds as Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart. People in Frank’s band keep wandering off to end it all; it’s as though Frank attracts unstable elements so that he can feel more sane in comparison. By the time Frank’s band (with the jawbreaking name the Soronprfbs) plays a Twitter-hyped gig at Austin’s SXSW, young hipsters have gravitated to the various road dramas and to the instability on display; they appreciate Frank’s music ironically, as a funky freakshow. I was reminded of the following that the schizophrenic underground musician Wesley Willis found, despite himself. Enjoying the art of the mentally ill on any level should be an occasion for checking one’s own assumptions. Do we genuinely value the art, or are we taking a chic tour of the nightside of human experience?

Frank is a finely grained ensemble piece, more sober than it needed to be, and more complexly engaging, but no less entertaining. Fassbender manages to express more through papier-mache than most actors can unencumbered, and the strange, sometimes atonal music sets the outsider tone. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom movie; it uses a similar likeness to probe the demons that can pursue — and, yes, inspire — artists, while sanely denying that the demons are necessary for the art. I’m sure Poe and Robin Williams would’ve opted for happiness over the darkness that undeniably added spice to their work, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have made better art, and had longer lives, without the darkness? The noncreative get their revenge on the creative by saying that the price of creation is madness. All this from a movie about a man with a big fake head. Fantastic.