Friday, September 19, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones: Well-executed noir

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, disturbing images, profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.19.14

Veteran novelist Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder hasn’t been seen on the big screen since all the way back in 1986, when Jeff Bridges played the character in director Hal Ashby’s lamentably sloppy adaptation of the series’ fifth book, 8 Million Ways to Die.

Having persuaded TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley, right) to accept the offer of a hot meal,
Scudder (Liam Neeson) is increasingly amused by the kid's determination to somehow
help out with the developing investigation.
Director/scripter Scott Frank has done a far better job, with A Walk Among the Tombstones (tenth novel out of 17, for those keeping track). Frank economically blends Scutter’s essential “origin story” with this book’s core plotline, and the result is a brooding, thoughtful detective thriller firmly set in the modern noir genre.

Frank certainly knows the territory. I praised his scripting chops just last week, noting his involvement with some of the genre’s best modern authors: James Lee Burke (Heaven’s Prisoners), Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight, Get Shorty and even TV’s woefully under-appreciated Karen Sisco) and now Block.

Frank’s scripting chops are measured, intelligent and — most important — faithful to the tone and atmosphere of whichever author he sources. The result always has been a compelling, tightly wound thriller, and his handling of A Walk Among the Tombstones is no exception.

Bridges looked much too young and exuberant as Scudder, back in the day; this film’s Liam Neeson is a far superior choice. He radiates just the right amount of world-weary melancholy, Scudder being a classic flawed and tragic figure: a man never able to forgive himself for past sins, yet forever struggling to do just that.

He’s also a rather unusual knight errant: an alcoholic ex-cop gone private, but not quite. Scudder can’t be bothered with a license, and he doesn’t advertise his services; as he explains, Neeson’s wry smile wrapped around the words, he “does favors for friends.”

His concept of “friendship” is both broader and looser than most, and this particular case begins with a request from Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a semi-regular in Scudder’s Alcoholics Anonymous group. The potential “client” actually is Peter’s brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), whose wife was just kidnapped and brutally murdered ... after the ransom was paid.

This Is Where I Leave You: Too much left behind

This Is Where I Leave You (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for sexual candor, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Family dynamics can be messy, even disastrous ... which undoubtedly explains the popularity of stories with dysfunctional kinfolk.

It’s comforting to think that we’re not the only ones with a loser younger sibling, or a daft uncle, or a waspish parent.

When Hilary (Jane Fonda, center) reveals that her just-departed husband's final wish was
for his entire family to sit Shiva for a week, this comes as ghastly news to her estranged
children: from left, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll), Judd (Jason Bateman) and
Phillip (Adam Driver).
Even more comforting, after a moment’s reflection, to realize that such situations must be quite common, if they wind up as popular books and movies that feel familiar to so many different people.

Novelist Jonathan Tropper has made a career of scathingly hilarious novels about hapless protagonists buffeted by crises involving careers, parents, siblings, spouses and other elements forever beyond their ability to control. Indeed, “control” — or the lack thereof — is Tropper’s go-to plotline: His classic protagonist is a guy who assumes he's got his act together, only to discover that catastrophe waits just around the corner.

No surprise, then, that one of Tropper’s books — This Is Where I Leave You — has migrated to the big screen, albeit with mixed results. Tropper adapted the novel himself, so we can assume he made a point of retaining key character arcs, comedic encounters and snarky one-liners. He also has the benefit of a large and talented ensemble cast: a collection of potential scene-stealers forever in danger of upstaging each other, much the way large and boisterous families frequently spin out of control.

But I’m not sure Shawn Levy’s overly broad, slapstick sensibilities make him the best director for this project. Subtlety isn’t in Levy’s vocabulary, as proven by uneven, overblown farces such as Date Night, the Steve Martin Pink Panther remake, and the ongoing Night at the Museum franchise. Tropper’s books resonate because of their unerring blend of comedy, pathos and redemptive self-awareness; Levy’s shrill, shrieking approach to humor tends to overwhelm everything else.

Which is a shame, because a dozen richly flawed characters wander throughout this often chaotic narrative, and we can’t help feeling that some of their best interactions got left behind. Instead, we’re treated far too often to (for example) a toddler who drags his potty chair from room to room, plunking onto the seat whenever the urge strikes, and then proudly displaying the results to everybody at hand. Us included.

Which, naturally, includes an episode of poop flung onto an unprepared adult.

When that sort of material emerges within the first 10 minutes of a film, we can't help expecting an overall tone that will undercut the gentler, redemptive moments to be found within Tropper’s script.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Jerusalem: Engaging overview of a remarkable city

Jerusalem (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Unrated, suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Israel could use some positive buzz these days, and this reverential National Geographic/IMAX documentary is just what the doctor ordered.

The Dome of the Rock
Director/co-writer Daniel Ferguson’s thoughtful film eschews overt political content, instead concentrating on the history of this holiest of cities, and the spiritual pull that has made it so important, for so long, to Jews, Muslims and Christians. At the same time, Ferguson and co-scripter Sheila Curran Bernard slyly add an inclusive message by having three teenagers — one from each faith — share their respective impressions of the city they call home.

It’s a clever ploy, more so because three young women — Revital Zacharie, Farah Ammouri and Nadia Tadros — have been selected to speak plainly and earnestly about their devotion to faiths that haven’t always been that respectful of their gender. Each of these teens serves as a guide through portions of their particular Jerusalem, their narrative, off-camera observations quite heartfelt.

These aren’t actresses, although all three make charming subjects as cinematographer Reed Smoot’s massive IMAX cameras follow them through bustling markets and tightly packed corridors, and into temples, churches and mosques. That said, Zacharie makes the strongest impression, particularly during a brief scene shared with her grandfather, a Jewish scholar who has written numerous books on Jerusalem’s history.

Mostly, though, you’ll be awed — even left breathless — at the sights unveiled within this film. Smoot favors gentle, sweeping pans and slowly tracking close-ups, scenes seamlessly fading into each other.

Those familiar with the sheer size and complexity of IMAX camera gear will wonder precisely how Ferguson and Smoot managed to get many of these shots, notably those in especially tight quarters. Patience obviously played a factor as well; the press notes speak of the constant need to liaise with various religious, political and community authorities.

One stunning sequence — the “Ceremony of the Holy Fire,” which takes place annually on Orthodox Holy Saturday within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — was obtained only after securing permission from the six churches with custodial authority: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Latin Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox.

The results justify whatever effort was required. During scarcely a minute, we’re overwhelmed by a ritual that is both solemn and joyous, as all the assembled pilgrims do their best to ignite their individual torches from the “divine light” that emerges from Jesus’ traditional tomb.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop: A masterpiece of tension

The Drop (2014) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for profanity and strong violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.12.14

Getting close to two decades ago, Alec Baldwin starred in an adaptation of Heaven’s Prisoners, second in James Lee Burke’s atmosphere-laden series of Dave Robicheaux novels. The film is just this side of brilliant, with director Phil Joanou and scripters Harley Peyton and Scott Frank unerringly catching the rhythm and cadence of Burke’s prose, while Baldwin delivers what remains one of his best-ever performances as the recovering alcoholic, ex-New Orleans cop struggling to endure as he gets pulled into a particularly seamy investigation.

When Bob (Tom Hardy) reluctantly agrees to take care of the abandoned puppy he found a
few days earlier, Nadia (Noomi Rapace) agrees to help him shop for all the essentials. As
is the case with so many other aspects of Bob's life, he simply has no idea how to assume
this new responsibility.
It remains one of my all-time favorite book-to-film translations, in great part because Joanou, Peyton and Frank get Burke just right.

Despite this, the film was dead on arrival, dumped unloved when its studio of origin went bankrupt. As Baldwin was one of the executive producers, I’ve no doubt he hoped to turn Robicheaux into a franchise. Not in the cards, alas. All these years later, I still imagine What Might Have Been.

Turning a noir crime thriller into a film is tremendously difficult, particularly when dealing with a writer whose poetic prose evokes so many striking images. Many filmmakers have tried; most have failed. Director Steven Soderbergh also got it right, with his handling of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight. Scott Frank wrote that script, as well.

All of which brings us to The Drop, which joins Heaven’s Prisoners on its lofty perch in my cinematic memory. This is an impeccable noir-story-to-film translation, thanks in great part to the fact that Dennis Lehane adapted it from his own short story, “Animal Rescue” (which, just in passing, would have been a better title for this film, as well).

Lehane apparently liked re-visiting this scenario so much that he expanded the story into a novel, also titled The Drop. But the original story remains readily available via the Internet, and I encourage you to seek it out ... but — promise, now! — only after seeing this film.

Bringing Lehane’s books to the big screen has become something of a cottage franchise; even more impressive is the fact that everybody involved has done such good work. The list is striking: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island. But this is the first one Lehane scripted himself, which makes it a standout. And he’s a natural, which is no surprise, given his writing chops (also displayed on several scripts for gritty TV shows such as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire).

His hard-edged dialogue sounds just right; we sense its authenticity even though we’re likely unfamiliar with the archetypes populating this story. Not unless we’re born and bred on the mean, cloistered parish streets of a major metropolis (Boston’s Dorchester in the original short story, inexplicably moved to Brooklyn here). These are people we don’t want to know, neighborhoods we don’t want to inhabit after dark. Probably not in the daytime, either.

But film is a collaborative art; many fine scripts have been destroyed after leaving their creators’ hands. Not the case here: Up-and-coming Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam — who earned a Best Foreign Film Oscar nod for 2011’s Bullhead — has done a masterful job with this tense, brooding story. (Isn’t it interesting, just in passing, that some of the best recent adaptations of American noir novels have been helmed by foreign directors?)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — Not nearly sinful enough

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content, brief drug use and relentless strong violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.5.14

Nine years is a long time to wait for a sequel, particularly one with interlinked stories that weave in and around the first film’s similarly interconnected narrative.

Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) roars into Sin City, a man on a mission. He's determined to
out-play the local power-monger during a high-stakes poker game ... but, in fact, Johnny
also has a lot more on his mind. What else would drive such a flashy young man to such
suicidal behavior?
My memory isn’t up to that challenge. And I’d argue that a film’s potential success shouldn’t rest on a viewer’s willingness to embark on deep research, in order to have a better idea of what’s going on.

But that isn’t the only problem with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, once again adapted by comic book impresario Frank Miller, from his macabre and über-cynical Sin City graphic novel series. The far bigger flaw is that Miller obviously cherry-picked his best stories for the first film, whereas this one is laden with leftovers and sloppy seconds.

The result is a common cinematic disease: all style and very little substance.

To be sure, Miller and gonzo co-director Robert Rodriguez once again deliver the material with the seamy, amped-up decadence and hard-bitten dialogue that will amuse fans of 1940s and ’50s film noir classics. The atmosphere oozes with scandal: the tough guys hard as granite (literally); the dames, floozies and femme fatales straight out of Hammett and Chandler ... assuming, of course, that their women would have pranced about in cleavage-enhancing goth/punk corsets and garters. Or nothing at all.

But do bear in mind — as with the first film — that only the actors are real here; the rest is CGI fabrication. That means all the buildings and streets in (Ba)sin City, not to mention all the action scenes, car chases and death-with-prejudice fist fights, maimings, decapitations and defenestrations, not to mention samurai-style limb slicing and arrows through eyeballs. No more “real” than the gladiator nonsense of 300 and its recent sequel.

As further befitting the material’s noir sensibilities, this is a primarily black-and-white universe, aside from occasional splashes of red (lipstick, blood) or full color, the latter generally employed — with heavy irony — to suggest a character’s innocence.

This is deliberate, of course; the goal is to bring Miller’s savage comic book artwork and sensibilities to the screen. Literally. He and Rodriguez once again succeed, catching the feverish artistic vitality that crackles like heat lightning on every one of Miller’s blasphemously violent pages.

But our potential engagement with the results — as always is the case with live-action movies, as well — depends upon engaging characters and compelling storylines.

And that’s where this sequel falls flat.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The November Man: Who can be trusted?

The November Man (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, rape, profanity, sexuality and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.29.14

I always enjoy a well-crafted spy thriller, and this one’s a romp.

Australian director Roger Donaldson knows the territory, having delivered a twisty espionage thriller back in 1987, with his adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s No Way Out. It remains one of star Kevin Costner’s best early films, thanks in great part to its didn’t-see-that-coming finale.

Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan, left) delights in setting up fight-or-flight "scenarios" for junior
partner Mason (Luke Bracey), which the latter finds a bit tiresome. And insulting. Which
rather misses the point, because the cocky Mason definitely needs to enhance his ability
to analyze a situation before it whirls out of control.
Donaldson’s handling of The November Man is cut from similar cloth, with scripters Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek delivering an engaging spin on a cherry-picked entry in the late journalist-turned-novelist Bill Granger’s 13-book Devereaux series, which began with 1979’s The November Man and concluded with 1993’s Burning the Apostle. This film’s title notwithstanding, however, it’s based not on Granger’s first Deveraux book, but on the seventh, There Are No Spies.

That said, Finch and Gajdusek’s screenplay more honestly is “flavored” by Granger’s book, with numerous changes obviously intended to satisfy action-oriented audiences. The result is reasonably entertaining in a fast-paced “airplane movie” sort of way, with star Pierce Brosnan ideally cast as a cynical, world-weary spy dragged out of semi-retirement to fix another mess involving the CIA, a corrupt Russian presidential candidate, a lethal assassin, and a possible traitor within the CIA’s highest echelons.

Although obviously aiming for the cerebral atmosphere of 1960s cold-war movie classics such as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Donaldson doesn’t hit that target too often; he more frequently mines the who-can-be-trusted territory of 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, with a strong nod toward the mentor/protégé relationship at the heart of 2001’s Spy Game.

And heck, we’ve got a cast that include a former James Bond (Brosnan) and a former Bond babe (Olga Kurylenko, from Quantum of Solace). How can it miss?

Mostly, it doesn’t. With a few stiff caveats.

Devereaux and junior partner David Mason (Australian up-and-comer Luke Bracey) are introduced in a 2008 prologue, working a mission that goes pear-shaped when the younger operative fails to heed his mentor’s stern instructions. The anguish and disappointment are clear on Devereaux’s face; the kid has blown it, obviously dashing the older agent’s faith in him.

When the Game Stands Tall: Gridiron glory

When the Game Stands Tall (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild intensity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang

Inspirational sports sagas are the ultimate feel-good movies; they engage our souls and pluck at the heart, particularly when adversity and underdog status are part of the equation.

And most particularly when they’re true.

Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel, center right), assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael
Chiklis, center left) and members of the De La Salle Spartans react with undisguised
dread as the much larger and tougher members of the Long Beach Poly team take the
field. What follows is, by far, this film's most exciting chapter. 
Director Thomas Carter has fashioned a stirring drama from former Contra Costa Times sportswriter Neil Hayes’ 2003 nonfiction book, which profiled De La Salle High School football coach Bob Ladouceur at a point when his team had amassed a truly stunning streak of victories. Scripters Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon have remained pretty close to established fact, allowing for the usual composite characters, one fast-and-loose modification of what happened when, and a needlessly melodramatic sidebar conflict between a young player and his overbearing father.

Those issues aside, Carter’s film is far more accurate than most that claim to be “inspired” by actual events; he respectfully captures the deeply spiritual tone that characterized Ladouceur’s entire coaching career, along with the atypically close ties and locker room candor that bonded the young players.

Yes, they really did take the field, at the start of each game, holding hands.

At first blush, star Jim Caviezel is a perfect fit for Ladouceur; as archive footage of the coach reveals, during the film’s closing credits, Caviezel looks and carries himself in much the same way. He adds the same heartfelt weight to the soulful pep talks that were typical of Ladouceur’s approach: “Winning a lot of football games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life, that’s hard.”

We don’t doubt, for a moment, that Caviezel’s Ladouceur genuinely cares about every single one of his players, off the field even more than on.

That said, Caviezel never has been an expressive actor, and those same closing-credits clips also show that the actor lacks the actual coach’s fire and passion. Caviezel is one of the acting community’s Mr. Cools, as his ongoing stint on TV’s Person of Interest reveals quite clearly. He’s dry and flinty, much like Clint Eastwood, and relies on half-smiles, grim silences and stern frowns to get his emotive point across.

Doesn’t always work. Co-star Laura Dern, as Ladouceur’s wife Bev, acts circles around him. She conveys greater emotional depth, in a few brief scenes, than Caviezel manages in the entire film. This is most apparent during the crisis that opens this story, as Ladouceur narrowly survives a heart attack that would have killed many men. Caviezel simply cannot sell the epiphany of Ladouceur’s initial post-recovery chat with his wife, as he acknowledges having been an absentee husband and father because of over-commitment to the job.

Nor does the film really address that issue, moving forward. Given Caviezel’s thespic limitations, that’s probably for the best.