Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hardy, Gandolfini carry 'The Drop'

The most powerful guys in The Drop , a tasty new crime movie set on the urban fringe, don't get much screen time. They're Chechen gangsters who have taken over gambling from Brooklyn thugs who used to be somebodies, but now are pretty much old news.

Cousin Marv's bar, where much of the story takes place, still bears Marv's name, and Marv still smokes incessantly at a corner desk, but everyone knows that Marv lost the neighborhood joint to Chechens who now use the place as one of their many drops for gambling money.

The bar's dingy, over-used look makes it seem as if you almost can smell the sour odor of cheap rye, and in a movie such as this, atmosphere counts.

Adapted by Dennis Lehane from his short story Animal Rescue, The Drop takes us into the lumpen world of low-level thugs, mob wannabes and at least one guy who's just plain crazy.

Directed by Michael R. Roskam, the Belgian director best known for the movie Bullhead, The Drop features strong performances from Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini.

Gandolfini plays Marv, and Hardy portrays Bob Saginowski, Marv's cousin, a bartender who doesn't come off as the brightest of lights. Bob works for Marv, and seems reasonably content with what appears to be a fairly meager lot.

The story begins when Bob finds a battered bull-terrier puppy in a garbage can. He rescues the dog, and later receives puppy-care advice from Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a woman who gradually warms up to Bob, who's not a pushy sort. She encourages him to name the puppy Rocco.

Because Bob may be getting played by some very dangerous people, you keep fretting about the dog's safety, and that gives the movie an extra layer of tension.

Lehane (Gone Baby, Gone and Mystic River) usually sets his stories in Boston, and I'm not sure what he gained by moving this one to Brooklyn.

But Lehane's plotting holds up, and the actors make us forgive dialogue that sometimes tries too hard to be ripe.

Hardy, the British actor last seen in Locke, is terrific when used correctly, and he's used to great effect here. It's impossible to look at him without thinking of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, but Hardy's not doing a Brando imitation. He's creating a character that's all his.

It's difficult to say just how good Hardy is without including a spoiler, so I'll say nothing more than it's best to reserve judgement about Hardy's shambling performance until the picture's done.

Familiar from the Swedish version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rapace works equally well as the tough but wary Nadia, and Gandolfini is superb as a guy whose authority has been reduced to worrying about the few free drinks that Bob occasionally dispenses.

Gandolfini's Bob has lost some of his spark, but seems just smart enough to make us worry. Marv lives with his sister (Ann Dowd).

Matthias Schoenaerts, who appeared in Bullhead, gives another notable performance. Schoenaerts plays a wild-card character, a psychopath who claims to be the dog's original owner.

Roskam, whose Bullhead dealt with cattle smuggling and the illegal hormone trade, does a solid job, laying on the right amount of grit and keeping the performances on track.

You'd think a Belgian director, a British actor and a Swedish actress might take some of the sting out of a grimy little U.S.-based crime movie, but a powerhouse cast turns this trickily plotted thriller into a lowlife fable that's steeped in just the right amount of sadness.

And, yes, some of that sadness stems from knowing that this was Gandolfini's last movie and wishing it weren't so.






A couple -- but not under the same roof

New York State now allows gay marriage, but there can be unanticipated consequences -- at least according to Love is Strange, a movie in which John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play a long-established Manhattan couple.

The movie begins when Molina's George and Lithgow's Ben marry after 39 years of living together. Their friends and relatives are overjoyed that the two finally can accomplish what they should long ago have been able to do.

But there's a downside. George works as a music teacher at a Catholic high school that can't abide gay marriage. The school had been willing to overlook George's sexual preferences, but now that he's tied the knot, policy demands that he be dismissed.

This sets up a situation in which the two men face economic pressures that force them to sell their apartment. They come up short on cash, unable to buy (or even rent) another place.

So George and Ben split up for what they hope is a temporary period. George moves in with two gay police officers whose lifestyle runs against his staid grain. His roommates like to party.

Ben takes up residency with a nephew (Darren Burrows) and his wife (Marisa Tomei). He's forced to share a room with the couple's teen-age son (Charlie Tahan), a kid who's none to happy about having a roommate. We feel for Geroge, no one past the age of 60 ever should have to spend a night in a bunk bed.

It seemed to me that on a purely practical level, Ben and George could have found a better solution to their problem. They're offered one living arrangement out of town, but can't abide the thought of leaving New York City.

In pushing the couple apart, director Ira Sachs creates a situation in which the movie's early joy increasingly turns to annoyance.

Ben, in particular, drives Tomei's character a little crazy. She works at home, and has difficulty abiding Ben's constant chatter. Understandably, Ben's teen-age bunkmate would like to have his room back.

Everyone in Love is Strange basically operates out of good will, but cramped living situations can tax anyone's patience.

Molina and Lithgow are entirely believable as a couple that long ago worked out the kinks in their relationship and -- if life were fair -- would be coasting comfortably toward the finish line. George still would be inspiring young people, and Ben would be continuing his career as a painter.

Sachs doesn't drown the story in sentiment, but can't entirely free the narrative of dull spots, as well as a bit of repetition.

Still, George and Ben are genuine enough to keep us interested, as evidenced by the fact that Ben's constant chattering not only taxes the nerves of his nephew's wife, but ours, as well.

In this case, that should be considered a compliment, an attempt to keep the movie from becoming nothing more than a lopsided plea for sympathy.

A super-provocative 'Wetlands'

A young woman revels in filth in this brash German import.
No point trying be circumspect about Wetlands, a gleefully provocative German film based on a notorious 2008 novel by Charlotte Roche. Let me be more specific: The movie's first important plot development arrives when 18-year-old Helen shaves her anus, cuts herself and lands in the hospital with a severe infection.

Once under medical supervision, Helen thinks about her life, her attraction to filth (literally), her best friend and various bodily aromas often regarded as unpleasant.

One supposes that Wetlands director David Wnendt wants to make you queasy here and there, but to do it with a punk freshness that runs against the story's often-perverse grain.

Moreover, Carla Juri, the actress who plays Helen, portrays a young woman who seems entirely shameless about her body, viewing it as a kind of malodorous collection of fluids (her term for one is "pussy mucous") that she not only accepts, but exalts in.

The presumption is that those of us who probably wouldn't think it's a good idea for two menstruating women to trade tampons are stuck with some rigidly prudish notion of what bodies really are.

Helen doesn't need to say it, but the movie seems to want to be a shriek against an increasingly Photoshopped world in which beauty and blemish are kept separate, as if by edict.

Helen, who provides the movie with its narration, begins by telling us that for as long as she can remember, she has had hemorrhoids. That explains why she's often shown picking at her rear-end.

I can't recall if Helen discussed diet. Probably not. But her vegetarian impulses include using a variety of vegetables for masturbatory purposes in scenes that may put you off the produce aisle for a bit.

For all its surface provocations -- and I haven't really given you many -- there's a story here.

Helen and her best friend Corinna (Marlen Kruse) engage in full-bore rebellion as Helen tries to reunite her divorced parents (Meret Becker and Axel Milberg).

Helen's behavior may be wild and even degenerate, but her motivations prove embarrassingly conventional.

While hospitalized, Helen develops a flirtatious relationship with her male nurse (Christoph Letkowski). He displays an extraordinary tolerance for her various penchants, which frequently blur the line between the movie's attempts to be bold and its tendency to be ... well ... disgusting.

There's no denying Wnendt's visual chops or his fondness for defying expectation with upbeat, lively pacing.

Juri also proves a force with which to be reckoned. And if it counts for anything, nothing in either Wnendt's or Juri's approach seems colored by self-reproach.

Still, I'm not sure that Wetlands adds up to anything more than a celebration of its attempts to be as wildly transgressive as possible. Why is the movie showing us all this stuff? Perhaps because it can.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

It's Elvis! Er, not really

The Identical, a major helping of southern-fried corn, arrives so thickly battered with cliches you can hardly chew through it.

In a style that's as awkward as it is "old-fashioned," the movie tells a story about twins separated at birth. One of them is raised as a preacher's son. The other becomes a singing sensation and national heartthrob, who seems to be modeled on Elvis Presley.

Singer Blake Rayne, who plays both the preacher's son and the popular singer, can't do much with either role. He moves like Elvis, but has a thicker, less expressive face than the aforementioned Mr. Presley, who had a stillborn twin brother.

The Identical is the sort of movie that denotes the passage of time by adjusting externals, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. When we arrive in the '60s, for example, the twins are given silly perms that make them look like shopping-mall Samsons.

The story begins in the 1930s when impoverishment forces a dirt-poor farmer in grimy overalls and his wife to give away one of their newborn twins to a better-heeled childless couple, a preacher and his wife (Ray Liotta and Naomi Judd).

Horribly miscast as a Baptist preacher, Liotta's character wants his grown son Ryan to enroll in a seminary. The young man, on the other hand, hears the call of his own dream, which is to sing and swivel in Elvis-like fashion, just like the brother he doesn't know he has.

Oddly, the non-celebrity brother, who takes up most of the screen time, doesn't seem overly curious about why the famous brother -- named Drexel -- looks exactly like him.

The movie piles improbability upon improbability as the non-famous twin struggles to find himself while the script struggles to locate even a mildly affecting line of dialogue.

The movie manages to become even dopier when Ryan finds work as a Drexel impersonator. He's so good at it, that he leaves girls screaming as if they were looking at the real thing.

Predictably, a frustrated Ryan eventually wants to stop being a facsimile and strike out on his own.

The movie seems to have some sort of half-realized religious agenda, some of it coming from Liotta and Judd's characters. At one point, Liotta's preacher-man takes an evangelical tilt, discoursing on the glories of the state of Israel while reminding his congregants that Jesus, after all, was Jewish.

Given what look like the movie's attempts to inject its brand of Christianity into a supposedly broad-based entertainment, I probably shouldn't have been surprised when Drexel turns up wearing a Miami-beach sized chai -- the Hebrew letter signifying life -- around his neck. We later find out the twins' biological mother was Jewish, which made me wonder whether Drexel had been raised on a diet of matzoh balls and grits.

The only reasons for seeing this film are to get an early start on your year's 10 worst list or if you're looking for the kind of laughs that come from a movie that seems to have no idea how ridiculous it can be.

Eroll Flynn's last affair

A strong cast can't quite overcome the emotionally undernourished quality of The Last of Robin Hood, a look at the scandalous final days of iconic Hollywood hero Errol Flynn. A notorious womanizer and drinker, Flynn's final fling involved a 15-year-old girl.

Kevin Kline, an actor we don't seem to see enough of, makes a convincing Flynn, a fading star who readily concedes that he suffers from an irredeemably inflated ego. This Flynn seems to think that his powerful attraction to a teen-ager somehow justifies his behavior. How could he do other than be himself?

Dakota Fanning, who's now 20, plays Beverly Aadland, a teen-age show business wannabe who's seduced by Flynn, who still knows how work his roguish charm.

Writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland also make room for Beverly's mother Florence, portrayed by a fine Susan Sarandon.

Although inconsistently used, the directors employ a device in which Florence -- who was pilloried in the tabloids after Flynn's death in 1959 at the age of 50 -- tells a sympathetic reporter (Jason Davis) the "real" story behind her daughter's affair with a big-screen legend.

Florence's own show-business aspirations as a dancer were thwarted after she lost a leg in an automobile accident.

Hardly an irresistible Lolita, Fanning's greatest achievement is to convince us that her character neither can act nor sing, not an easy achievement for the palpably talented Fanning.

For those unfamiliar with Flynn's story, this by-the-numbers tale should prove interesting enough, but an overly modest approach keeps The Last of Robin Hood from really getting under our skins.

There aren't many movies to which the following statement applies, but The Last of Robin Hood could have used a dash or two of tabloid fury.



When soldiers becomes murderers

It's hardly a fresh insight to say that the war in Afghanistan hasn't flooded the evening news with daily images of battlefield horror. It, therefore, has fallen largely to documentary filmmakers to bring the war, with all its contradictions and terrors, into our collective consciousness. The Kill Team, the latest such film, leaves us shaken as we listen to Private Adam Winfield (pictured above) tell us how his fellow soldiers were drawn into murdering Afghan civilians, apparently as a way of boosting body-count numbers. Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who seems to have been the driving force behind such crimes, reportedly went so far as to collect fingers from his victims. Winfield corresponded with his father, a former Marine, about what he was seeing in Afghanistan, but couldn't find a way to expose the crimes without endangering his own life. Winfield's comrades explain the mind-set that led them astray, and include details of how they went about justifying murder. When they found weapons on the battlefield, they kept them for use as "drops;" i.e., weapons planted on civilians to make it seem as if they were threats. Director Dan Krauss, who had access to footage shot by the soldiers themselves, doesn't tell us whether we're watching an aberration or a common practice. But even if Winfield's story is entirely atypical, it illustrates a sobering point: Once the bullets start flying, there's no way to control everything that happens. Gibbs is serving a life sentence. The morally tormented Winfield wound up doing jail time, as well. He was sentenced to three years after a plea deal.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Music from the fringe

Michael Fassbender spends nearly all of Frank -- an oddball movie about an avant-garde rock musician -- wearing a giant head made of papier-mâché.

The head seems like the kind of amusing stunt David Byrne might have attempted back in the halcyon Talking Heads days, except for one thing: Frank never removes the beach-ball sized orb, even during what seem like normal conversations with his bandmates.

The look of the head is interesting for its near parodic ordinariness. The artificial head boasts a modest haircut, large blue eyes that look as if they might have been appropriated from one of those annoyingly wide-eyed Margaret Keane paintings and a perpetually open mouth.

Director Lenny Abrahamson and Fassbender use the disguise without undue flourish, a wise choice because it's weird enough without being italicized.

The band, by the way, is called Soronprfbs, an unpronounceable name that suggests that this group of musicians couldn't care less about how their music is received.

The story focuses on Jon, a keyboardist played by Domhnall Gleeson. Jon joins the band by accident after the group's keyboardist attempts suicide.

Jon soon finds himself spending almost a year with the group in a secluded hideout where Frank inches his way toward Soronprfbs' first album.

The rest of the group is far from hospitable. Maggie Gyllenhaal appears as Clara, a woman who plays theremin and who makes no attempt to conceal her contempt for Jon, whose often cheery voice-over narration creates an ironic counterpoint to reality.

The group also includes the band's manager (Scoot McNairy), a drummer (Carla Azar) and a French-speaking bass player (Francois Civil) who also loathes Jon and regards him as a smiling no-talent.

The movie breaks its isolation when Jon arranges for the band to perform at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, a spawning ground for cutting edge bands.

Not surprisingly, Frank is ill-equipped for a coming-out party, and Gyllenhaal's Clara seems to view the entire idea of "entertaining" as a sell-out.

I've read that the movie is a riff on the real-life experiences of co-writer Jon Ronson, who wrote the screenplay with Peter Straughan. Ronson evidently worked with Chris Sievey, a British musician and comic who died in 2010. Sievey created a character named Frank Sidebottom, who wore a head very much like the one donned by Fassbender in the movie.

You don't have to know anything about that backstory to appreciate Abrahamson's movie, which deals with the fragility of genius in a way that can be quietly funny.

Jon attempts -- rather foolishly it seems -- to bring Frank's talents to a wider audience, something that takes its toll on Frank and leads to a finale that's mildly redemptive and touching in a bittersweet way.




Two Brits, lots of great scenery

The spot-on impressions done by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy tilt toward mockery.

Consider: When a smart mimic captures a well-known personality, the impression tends to underline the ways in which a distinctive talent may have veered toward shtick.

Coogan and Brydon -- who qualify as very smart mimics -- previously teamed in 2010's The Trip, which was directed by Michael Winterbottom who again takes the helm.

This time, Winterbottom creates space for Coogan and Brydon to do their bits as they travel through Italy's splendid Amalfi Coast -- hardly a job that seems like hardship duty for anyone involved.

There isn't much to the story, but low-key professional jealousy between the two comics spices the proceedings.

If you saw Coogan and Brydon's respective Michael Caine impressions and Brydon's Al Pacino in the previous movie, you may fault this one for not breaking sufficient new ground, but I didn't mind.

A bit of personal drama intrudes: Brydon has an affair with one of the crew members (Rosie Fellner) of a sail boat the two board. He's evidently having marital problems.

At one point, Coogan's teen-age son joins the food tour, which purportedly is being sponsored by a British newspaper.

Despite hints at real-life problems, neither Coogan nor Brydon seems particularly angst ridden. That makes The Trip to Italy a pleasantly witty journey through Italian cuisine as hosted by two men who admit that they don't qualify as food experts.

If there's a competition between the two men, I'd give the advantage to Brydon, who never misses a beat when it comes to turning any situation into an amusing riff.

Viewing requires tolerance for two guys who always seem to keep their comedy meters running. And, yes, that can be a trifle overbearing, like a bright light that never shuts off.



A look at a marriage -- with a twist

A therapist (Ted Danson) suggests that Sophie and Ethan, a troubled California couple played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss spend a relaxing weekend at an isolated rural retreat in The One I Love, a mind-stretching look at a marriage. The therapist believes a short time away from routine will help get the couple's relationship back on track. Figuring they don't have much to lose, Sophie and Ethan embark on a weekend that's destined to change their lives. Working from a script by Justin Lader, McDowell takes the movie in an unexpected direction, pushing the story into territory that's best discovered in a theater, not in a review. With help from Duplass and Moss, McDowell mostly sustains a guessing game in which marital issues are explored along with questions of identity. The movie revolves around an intriguing enough gimmick, but McDowell can't quite make the story gel. Still, Moss -- staking out new territory after her long run on Mad Men -- brings a sense of playful independence to her work, and McDowell earns credit for almost getting a novel movie across the finish line.