Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Is Strange: Poignant glimpse of family values

Love Is Strange (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.26.14

As first-world challenges go, few can be more heartbreaking than the turmoil sometimes created by our nobler instincts.

On the morning of their official nuptials, George (Alfred Molina, left) assures Ben (John
Lithgow) that yes, they will make it to the appointed place on time ... even if they're not
able to hail a taxi.
We like to believe that we’re capable of helping people — particularly friends and family members — much the way we’d hope to be helped, under similar circumstances. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that benevolence generally extends only so far, and no farther ... and then most people are too polite to confront what has become an intolerable situation.

And so the kettle bubbles, until it boils over: the initial generous act inevitably overwhelmed by hurtful confrontations that cannot be taken back, leaving bruised feelings all around.

Put simply, and to quote a telling line from Ira Sachs’ painfully intimate new film, “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to.”

The speaker is Ben (John Lithgow), whose life has taken a disappointing turn: such a letdown, from the radiant happiness he enjoyed only a few weeks earlier.

Sachs and co-scripter Mauricio Zacharias open Love Is Strange on a triumphant event: After having lived together for 39 years, Ben and George (Alfred Molina) joyfully tie the knot, thanks to New York’s new marriage laws. The morning of, the two men are a study in contrast: Ben, artistic and nervous, fusses over every detail; George, practical and calm, knows that all will be well.

They share both the service and subsequent celebratory party with close friends and family: Ben’s nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan); Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), the gay New York cops who live together downstairs; and numerous other well-wishers.

Kate makes a truly charming, heartfelt speech: brimming with love.

The elation doesn’t last long.

Ben doesn’t really have a job; he dabbles at painting. George, the primary breadwinner, teaches private music lessons but earns the bulk of their income from his longtime job as choir master at a local Catholic school. Unfortunately, although all concerned have known and tolerated George’s sexual orientation during his entire 12-year stint at this school, the marriage is an “official” act that cannot be condoned by the Catholic hierarchy.

George is summarily dismissed. Absent that income, he and Ben no longer can afford their apartment, nor — thanks to New York’s relentless real estate market — can they find another place to live. They reluctantly call a family meeting and present this news, hoping for the group to offer a stopgap, if not a solution.

The resulting silence, as the various implications settle, is merely the first of this film’s many gut-wrenching moments.

The Equalizer: Solid blend of character and action

The Equalizer (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong bloody violence, profanity and sexual vulgarity

By Derrick Bang

I want Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall living in my neighborhood.

Like, immediately. Yesterday, if possible.

Eventually, inexorably, the vicious Teddy (Marton Csokas, left) tracks down the elusive
Robert McCall (Denzel Washington). Their meeting is deceptively cheerful and polite,
each man sizing up the other. But we know, without question, that their next encounter
won't be anywhere near this benign...
In the interests of full disclosure, scripter Richard Wenk’s take on McCall owes very little to the 1980s television series that starred Edward Woodward, and which gives this film its name; this updated McCall feels far more like novelist Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (and I definitely refer to the character in Child’s books, and not Tom Cruise’s laughable big-screen interpretation).

Like Reacher, Washington’s McCall is the epitome of calm, methodical über-cool: a seasoned warrior who remains unfazed by any bad guys, regardless of their degree of malevolence, or their superiority in numbers. Watching this McCall go to work is the most delicious of vicarious guilty pleasures; it’s hard not to stand up and cheer.

But our reaction wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying, were McCall played by a lesser actor, or if Wenk hadn’t done such a fine job of setting up both character and premise. I’m frankly surprised that a film with such subtle touches could come from director Antoine Fuqua, more frequently known for noisy, overblown and often nasty popcorn thrillers such as Shooter, Brooklyn’s Finest and Olympus Has Fallen.

Most of Fuqua’s efforts aren’t highlighted by thoughtful or intelligent scripts, but this one’s a welcome exception. And yes, even if he reverts to form in the climax, by then he has (mostly) earned the right to do so.

Washington grants him that privilege.

McCall is introduced, during a very languid first act, as one of many cheerful employees at a Boston-based Home Mart, a huge construction store clearly modeled, in everything but name, on Home Depot outlets. He merrily interacts with his fellow workers, clearly delighted to greet them each morning. He takes a greater interest in some, such as Jenny (Anastasia Mousis), one of the cashiers; and Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), an amiable lunch pal hoping to drop a few pounds in order to qualify for a promotion to security guard.

At home, living alone, McCall is obsessively neat and tidy. But the cracks in his façade slip in, at first almost unnoticed. He’s always up before his alarm clock goes off. He has trouble sleeping at night. More crucially, Washington’s features carry some massive burden: McCall radiates sorrow and regret, and we start to wonder if his public face represents some sort of penance.

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.