Saturday, September 27, 2014

Quick Looks:

The Drop

     The Drop, also known as the great James Gandolfini's last film, is a crime drama ripped from the pages of a Dennis Lehane work (his 2009 short story "Animal Rescue"), and it seethes with grimy backstreet Brooklyn drama about the Mob, seedy bars, and the characters that inhabit those drinking establishments. You can almost smell the smoke and stale beer. It's about a secretive and (seemingly) slow bartender (the always incredible Tom Hardy, who is completely transfixing here), Bob, who works hard for his boss (Gandolfini, showing angry regret) and one day finds a beaten-bloody pit bull puppy in the trash can of a woman's house that he walks past after work every night. Gandolfini runs a bar that is a "drop" for the Chechen mob, a dangerous group that takes power tools to their opposition. Bob begins a friendship with Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the homeowner where the dog was found: but nothing is what it seems. Connections are everywhere in The Drop, and the little pit bull sets off a chain reaction of events culminating in one of the biggest "drop" nights of the year: Super Bowl Sunday. The Drop is a slow build in the best sense possible, a film that actually satisfies in the final 15 minutes instead of leaving the viewer disappointed. Gandolfini still brings plenty of that Tony Soprano intensity--it's sad knowing that we won't see him ever again. But Hardy is the true wonder here. Is he too smart for his own good? Or too dumb to care? The Drop will leave you cheering for Bob, even if you're not quite sure who or what he is.      (B+)

The Equalizer 

     This is revenge wish fulfillment, an incredibly violent exercise in pain and torture that's bloody and graphic. Like with Denzel's Man on Fire, there are flashes of great style (this time by Training Day director Antoine Fuqua) and moments of stereotype. The Equalizer is also corny as can be. Maybe that can be attributed to the fact that the film is based up a 1980's television show of the same name: but some of the dialogue is just atrocious. However, none of these reasons stopped me from being completely entertained with The Equalizer, and that's mainly due to Denzel Washington's kick-ass performance as Bob. Him and Liam Neeson have perfected the art of middle age revenge. This is the type of film where you want Bob to slaughter every villain in his path, because, darn it, that's what he was born to do. Bob works at a Lowes-esque home improvement store, dealing out little nuggets of wisdom like a mom-jeans-wearing Confucius. He winks at the ladies, jokes with the younger crowd, and even helps train his fat co-worker who is trying to become a security guard. He also can't sleep at night, plagued by thoughts of a former life. When he befriends a young prostitute (played by Kick-Ass's Chloe Grace Moretz) and she gets beaten bloody by her pimp, Bob decides to use the skills he learned in a former life to take down an over-the-top world-spanning operation of Russian thugs. There's not much humor here: irony need not apply. If you enjoy watching Denzel creatively dispatch groups of bad guys (with a cool climax inside of the Home Depot), your ticket won't be wasted. If it's research for your screenplay, don't bother.     (B-)


     I had extremely high hopes for Frank in the first 10-15 minutes before the title card flashed across the screen. It was funny and unique watching Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a bored office worker, attempt to write catchy and profound songs in his head throughout the day. One day, Jon luckily gets the opportunity to play keyboard for a band in town (whose last keyboardist had a mental breakdown), called Soronprfbs, led by an eccentric man named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a paper-mache head over his own like an Arcade Fire roadie. Most of the film follows the band (which Jon becomes a part of) as they stay at a wooded retreat, recording their next record. No doubt Fassbender is incredibly interesting as the mentally unstable Frank, and Gleeson shows a wide range of emotions. But the film didn't stick for me. It takes short looks at unusual creative processes and the effects of fame relating to mental illness, but it doesn't spend enough time with either to become something truly profound. Frank is also about being an outsider in a world of 24/7 technology, but I was left feeling like an outsider myself, drowning in all of the film's eccentricities.      (C+)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Growing Up in Boyhood

     Boyhood is a successful experiment in film making, but it's an experiment that left me thinking it was an impressive attempt rather than an incredibly entertaining time at the movies. It was shot over 12 years (each year the cast and crew would gather for a couple weeks to shoot new material) and focuses on a boy growing into a man, particularly all of the trials and tribulations of young adulthood: cute girls, alcoholic parental figures, and a questioning of what life even means. It's contemplative and mixed with scenes of nervous tension, humor and slow-build meditation. It's currently (by far) the best reviewed film of the year, but Boyhood didn't affect me the way I had hoped. It's good but overlong and not surprising enough.
       Director Richard Linklater has performed a similar experiment before with the "Before" series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), a wonderful trilogy shot once every 10ish years with the same actors dealing with their serendipitous relationship over that time period. To me, that story was more successful. Boyhood is about Mason, a young Texas child with a loving, trying-hard mom who has bad choices when picking men. Mason and his sister's biological dad (who is back in the area after abondoneing the family a couple years ago) is also back in the picture, and he's played with a mild charm by Ethan Hawke, buying them gifts and winking at the kids when he pisses off their mom (his ex-wife). The movie jumps ahead in time fairly often (you can usually tell because Mason's hairstyle is different), showcasing the progression of the characters through their lives. And like any of our lives, there are times of excitement and times of boredom--or in the case of the revolving door of alcoholic father figures, times of tension and terror.
     Like a Malick film, there are moments in Boyhood of complete beauty and profound realizations about the human condition. But with a run time of nearly three hours (and who can blame the film's crew: this was quite a committed undertaking), there are too many minutes between each one. It's no fault of new actor Ellar Coltrane: his performance is just as impressive as watching him go from boy to a man in front of our eyes on the cinema screen. It's not hard to watch Boyhood and have some of the scenes relate to your own life, regardless of the upbringing you've had.
     Life is made up of mundane moments, and Boyhood contains plenty of them. That's not exactly the problem. The issue is that the character of Mason barely registers major live events, or they aren't shown in the film at all. Death and love and and sex and sadness define each and every human, but we barely get any of that with Mason. Mason's mom (Patricia Arquette) chooses terrible husbands, but these scary experiences don't really seem to define Mason in any lasting way (or maybe they will in the life Mason leads after the credits role, but that doesn't help us during the movie's run time). I'm sure they would have affected me. Boyhood is incredibly well-meaning, a really cool experiment in film making, but it falls short of being a truly great film.     (B)