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Monthly Archives: September 2014

I haven’t been on the ball lately, but Christopher Orr, the film reviewer for The Atlantic, has been reviewing all the films of The Coen Bothers upon their 30th anniversary of moviemaking.

Good stuff.

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The film versions of Dennis Lehane’s books Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone are excellent, but they are mythic stories about the bonds of family in a criminal world. The Drop has no such sweep. It’s a small crime film about a Brooklyn bar and the little people (James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy) who run it for the Chechen mob. When the bar is used as a “drop bar” for the mob’s money, and it is robbed, the little people are thrust into a situation they are ill-equipped to handle.

I just saw Hardy as a meticulous Welsh construction manager dealing with his crumbling life in Locke, and he was immersed in the role. But when you bring foreigners to “New Yawk” (or Biloxi, for that matter), you run the risk of the mannered, cartoonish accent and swagger of Russell Crowe in Naked City. Forget foreigners. Even Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts can succumb to the perils of “da’ street, and as anyone who has seen The Pope of Greenwich Village will attest, the sight is not pretty.

Not so with Hardy. He is comfortable with the character and the milieu and while it’s no stretch for Gandolfini to play the type, in his last role, Tony Soprano does not disappoint. Hardy is Gandolfini’s quiet second banana, either inscrutable or dim, but steady and loyal either way. As the out-of-their depth small-timers, Hardy and Gandolfini are ably supported by Noomi Rapace, the damaged local girl who binds with Hardy over an abused pit bull left in her trash can (the dog is so cute as to be unnerving; his fate becomes almost too paramount and you spend an inordinate amount of time asking, “Where’s the damn dog?”).

As good as these actors are, Matthias Schoenaerts steals the film as Rapace’s ex-boyfriend, a local hood looking to capitalize on the heist. He presents the perfect mix for a villain; terrifying, intriguing and just a little sympathetic, although you can’t put your finger on why. It’s a great performance that should be recognized come Oscar time. There is no chance that will occur.

This is Michael Roskam’s first American film, and the Belgian exhibits everything you want a new filmmaker to show. It is understated, assured in its pace, taut, organic and comfortable with the quiet moments.  Roskam feels no need to amp the action or to bolster the emotional connection between the characters. He lets the audience fill in the gaps, resulting in very poignant moments between Hardy and Gandolfini and a compelling love story between Hardy and Rapace, even though they don’t so much as kiss.

One of the best films of the year.

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The ingenious creators of The Blair Witch Project knew enough not to go back in the woods again with their follow up. But 15 years later, director Bobcat Goldthwait has picked up the torch, only this time, his unfortunate videographers are on the trail of Bigfoot, not ritual killers. After slumming with the locals, where absolutely no tension mounts and no character is developed, our couple (he, an overgrown kid obsessed with the Bigfoot sighting, she a supportive actress girlfriend, neither very interesting) go into the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike their predecessors in the woods of Blair Witch’s Burkittsville, these geniuses receive three very clear early warnings to get the hell out of Dodge, but hey, what’s a camping trip without a sinister, threatening local, your clothing mysteriously hung from the trees and a wrecked campsite? We must sally forth to find, well, not even Bigfoot, but the place where this iconic picture was taken.

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This has all been done and much better at that (the scene where the couple realize they are lost is a criminal rip-off of Blair Witch). The characters are so culpable they repel sympathy, and the acting is woeful (Bryce Johnson, the Bigfoot enthusiast, conveys fear with a goofy face that I’m sure he assumes is grim determination but comes off as half concussed, half constipated).

There’s also not a scary moment in the film.

One star, though, for the kitschy Bigfoot locales and The Bigfoot burger.

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My first thought before watching Locke was of Hitchcock’s Rope, a film remembered more for the gimmick of no cuts than its merit. With an entire film consisting of hands free cell phone conversations from a car, I was primed to evaluate how the director handled such a limited visual scope. It’s a testament to the film that 10 minutes in, I never once gave another thought to that limitation. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a precise, obsessive construction manager, and on the eve of his greatest work triumph, his personal and professional lives implode, a disaster made worse by his determination to do one thing above all others. As he travels to his destination, he attempts to cobble together the fragments of his shattered life while figuratively sparring with the ghost of his deceased father in the backseat. Hardy, who seems to get every plum role these days, goes a good way to explaining why here. He is riveting and he expands his physical constrictions, evoking desperation, skill and even some gallows humor in the process. This is an audacious, confident second feature by writer director Stephen Knight, who I am pleased to report is writing the forthcoming World War Z 2.

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I’m not sure what is more surprising, this fascinating, Netflix-produced documentary chronicling the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor league baseball club run by baseball enthusiast and actor Bing Russell in the 1970s, or the fact that this story has not been made into a major motion picture. Russell capped off a lucrative career as a Hollywood “plumber actor” (according to his son, actor Kurt Russell, who also played on the Mavericks) by going to Portland and starting the only independent minor league baseball club in the country. The team is loaded with characters (including New York Yankee great and then baseball pariah Jim Bouton, who played for the Mavericks en route to a short MLB comeback), the story is utterly fascinating, and it has sweep, color, tragedy and vindication. Jesus, the damn thing writes itself.

This is available streaming on Netflix and I can’t recommend it enough, not only for the undiscovered gem of a story, but for the documentarians skillful restraint in reliance on interviewed remembrances and poignant found footage (a lot of which is 8mm). Not even close to schmaltzy, this output is yet another reason to get Netflix.

What Jim Bouton did to/for baseball, Peter Gent did to/for the NFL, and the NFL responded. After this dark depiction of the seamy side of professional football was released in 1979, more than one of the players who participated in its production found their careers at an end. With its frank depiction of drug use, brutality, misogyny, racism and general lunacy, the crackdown is unsurprising. Nick Nolte is a sure-handed rebel WR, but he can’t get off the bench because he bucks coach G.D. Spradlin’s computer-efficient focus on “team” (bedding the fiancee’ of co-owner Dabney Coleman doesn’t help his cause either). Nolte is semi-protected by good ole’ boy QB Mac Davis, who enjoys all the excesses of the game but manages to stay on the right side of management, imploring Nolte to “play the game.” For NFL historians, Nolte is Gent, Spradlin Tom Landry and Davis Don Meredith. There are some moving scenes here, the best of which is former NFL lineman John Matuszak flipping out after a game.

Nolte’s plea to Spradlin as he is run off the team is also affecting. Amidst all the bullshit, you can see these two characters who, under it all, love the game, connect. This is an underrated film, but it is not without its faults. Director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s) has some problems with tone, such that really dark material is often leavened with weirdly light, comic scenes. Nolte engages in a love interest with Dayle Haddon that is very thin and rushed, which I attribute to the denuding of Gent’s book.  The movie ends with Nolte quitting the team; the book ended with Nolte driving into the country to start anew with his love and finding her dead, murdered for living with a black man.  Kotcheff had lanced the NFL’s boil enough; there is no way that coda would fly.

Still, Kotcheff is a man who knows his limitations and the picture wisely keeps on-field action to a minimum (what he does show seems realistic and terrifying) and instead, focuses on the schizophrenic world of the professional athlete off-the-field. It also eschews all that jock-sniffing hokum ladled out by Oliver Stone in Any Given Sunday.

Here is a highly recommended article on the movie from Deadspin.

This movie is more than bad. It’s an affront to genre, consistency and common sense. It also represents the end of film as art, the shape of things to come. Just as novels will soon give way to comics, movies will give way to . . . . comics.

The sequel pretends at noir but it has no kinship with it save for a string of laugh-out-loud, hard-bitten lines. The worst of the bunch: “I was born at night. Not last night.” Every single line is like that, played deadly straight, as if writers Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller concluded, “You know! The same idiots who have substituted, you know, books for serialized comics are, like, the ones coming to this stupid movie, so why would we try and, you know, make the dialogue anything more than the drivel in the picture book?”

There are three story lines, each more boring than the last. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hot shot gambler who crosses mean Senator Powers Boothe. Jessica Alba is a stripper who crosses mean Senator Powers Boothe. In between, Josh Brolin (taking over for Clive Owen, who screwed the pooch turning down James Bond but made the right call here) gets double-crossed by his ex-wife, Eva Green. Gordon-Levitt beats 4 Kings with 4 Aces and then, ah, who cares? Alba and Brolin enlist madman Mickey Rourke to get them out of jams. That’s the whole of it, except Lady Gaga pops up as a clichéd waitress, following in Madonna’s footsteps yet again. Blood spatters, bodies are dismembered, the ominous score thuds along, and yawns are stifled.

Nothing makes sense. While Rourke blows up an estate, the guards remain unalerted, the easier to chop their heads off. Green seduces a cop (Christopher Meloni) and enlists a crime boss (Stacey Keach, made to look like an ambulatory Jabba the Hut) to invade the part of Sin City run by armed whores clad in Frederick’s of Hollywood because the girls are hiding Brolin. Both entreaties are awkwardly dropped shortly after their introduction. Brolin, healed by the whores, comes back with a newly reconstructed face to exact revenge, except he looks just like he did before, only with a sprightly toupee.

It’s a nasty, stupid, senseless movie. It’s also a little frightening. The first Sin City was a modest success, grossing $70 million domestic on a $40 million budget. It had the benefits of being unique and a little humor. Almost ten years later, they churn this dour turd out, and the budget is $70 million.

Maybe there is hope in the fact that it is getting killed at the box office ($11 million and trickling) but something tells me the Chinese will bail it out.

Death is just like life in Sin City. It always wins.

Actual line.