The Skeleton Twins


Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

(2014) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Joanna Gleason, Paul Castro Jr., Eddie Schweighardt, Sydney Lucas, Ian Hyland, Genevieve Adams, Jennifer Lafleur, Truck Hudson, Cliff Moylan, David Garelik. Directed by Craig Johnson

Nobody is guaranteed an easy life. Between financial troubles, relationship woes, career issues, medical difficulties and scores of other stresses, happiness can be an elusive quality. Some of us have the ability to deal with life’s twists and turns. Others, not so much.

The Skeleton Twins opens with Milo (Hader) attempting suicide. His twin sister Maggie (Wiig) is quite coincidentally, also considering suicide but when she is informed that her brother has been hospitalized she flies out to Los Angeles.

The two haven’t spoken in ten years and it is clear Milo is perfectly happy to extend that streak but Maggie perseveres and gets Milo to move in with her and her happy-go-lucky husband Lance (Wilson). Milo isn’t terribly enthusiastic at first and is a bit stand-offish with his twin but eventually begins to warm up.

He also begins to revert to old habits. He goes and sees Rich (Burrell), his old English teacher with whom he had an affair with when he was just 15, leading to Rich’s dismissal as a teacher when Maggie turned them in. It’s most definitely not a healthy relationship but Milo, as many of us will do, pursues it nevertheless. For Maggie’s part she is stressed by the fact that Lance wants to have kids and although she’s agreed to try is taking birth control behind his back. That, and she’s cheating on him with a parade of adult education instructors she’s been having affairs with, the most recent being her hunky Aussie scuba instructor Billy (Holbrook).

Part of Maggie’s reluctance towards motherhood stems from her own attitude toward her flighty, New Age-y mother (Gleason) who seems to care more about her own self-discovery than in nurturing her kids. While Milo seems to have made at least some peace with her, Maggie still has clearly not forgiven her and her mom’s unexpected appearance sends Maggie on a downward spiral.

Neither twin is coping well with life. Milo, a failed actor whose string of relationships have all ended in disaster, suspects that he peaked in high school, a fate that his father had predicted for the kids that tormented him for his femininity. Maggie has a great husband but still has mommy issues and especially, daddy issues – their father self-checked out when they were both kids – and is afraid of losing what she does have. Both snipe at each other and take out petty vengeance on one another until it appears that they will once again go their own separate ways.

The interesting thing about The Skeleton Twins is that we see glimpses of Milo and Maggie as kids and there isn’t any doubt that the two were very much there for each other and supported each other despite their own differentness. Clearly that bond has been sundered over the years, but it’s still there at the end of the day. Casting SNL veterans Hader and Wiig as the twins was a masterstroke. The two have a long history together and are very comfortable with each other, much in the way of siblings, and it shows. They are totally believable as twins, even though the physical resemblance is marginal at best.

Hader, in particular, shows the kind of layered performance that he just doesn’t get to show in the myriad sketch performances and supporting roles he’s had. Milo’s inner pain is palpable and when he gets drunk, which is often, his self-loathing is even more evident. Still, he keeps putting himself out there which is admirable and even though he is occasionally hateful and snide, he is infinitely relatable. This is if you’ll excuse the pun, his coming-out party as an actor, serving notice that he is more than just a wacky comic actor. He’s got depth.

Wiig also has some terrific moments. I’m less a fan of her work post-SNL but she can be a terrific actress when given the right material and this is certainly the right material. She, like Hader, has to convey a great deal of self-loathing here. Unlike Milo, Maggie is very aware that what she’s doing is destructive and wrong, but ultimately can’t help herself. At some deeper level, Maggie is looking to punish herself and wants Lance to find out about her improprieties. While Wiig isn’t as spectacular a performance as Hader, it is nonetheless solid and commendable.

Water is used as a motif here; most of the really major events have some sort of water element in them, from the opening scene when Milo slashes his wrists in the bathtub to the scuba lessons in a local pool to the goldfish swimming placidly in an aquarium. Water often denotes life in the movies and it does to an extent here but it is also a metaphor for death as goldfish do die (although obviously Milo does not). There is another event involving Maggie late in the film that I don’t want to give specifics about in the interest of not giving away too much but it also takes place in water.

While some of the time it feels like they’re pushing too hard to be funny (i.e. the scene in the dentist’s office where Maggie works) writer/director Johnson strikes a nice balance between humor and pathos throughout the movie, allowing for maximum catharsis. Suicide is definitely not an easy subject to deal with and it hangs over the movie like a Damoclean sword. Johnson leaves a lot of that subject unspoken, preferring to illustrate how the twins are affected by the suicide of their father and their own tendencies towards it visually without resorting to much discussion on the subject. It doesn’t really allow for a great deal of illumination but it does give audiences the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.

In some ways the movie sounds grim but it really isn’t. It’s not all bright and sunny though so if you’re looking for an escape type of movie you’re better off seeking out something a little more brainless. If you don’t mind a little thought along with your laughter, this might be the tonic you’re looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Hader gives a nuanced performance. Good mix of funny and pathos.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard for laughs sometimes.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language, some sexuality and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Farris was originally cast as Maggie but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before I Disappear
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dolphin Tale 2

To Be Takei


It's always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

It’s always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

(2014) Documentary (Starz Digital Media) George Takei, Brad Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, John Cho, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta, Lea Salonga, Dan Savage, Howard Stern, Jay Kuo, Tom Ammiano, Eddie Paskey, Lorenzo Thorne, Telly Leung, Jimi Yamaichi. Directed by Jennifer R. Kroot

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that it must be great to be George Takei. Beloved Star Trek actor, Facebook sensation, activist and advocate for Japanese-Americans and the gay community, he has been described as America’s gay uncle and that might not be far from the truth.

But when you consider the things he’s been through – being imprisoned in two different internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the no less damaging prison that came from being a closeted actor throughout most of his career (he didn’t come out until 2005 and then in response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the gay marriage bill.

He has overcome some difficult, dark days but he has emerged on the other end with a disingenuous smile and a live and let live attitude that might lead some to underestimate how forceful and passionate he is for the causes he believes in. Even his feud with William Shatner doesn’t seem to be something he takes all that seriously; I get the sense he doesn’t feel any ill will towards the actor. Shatner, interviewed for the film, comes off as somewhat befuddled about the fuss and a bit standoffish – “I really don’t know the man,” he protests on several occasions.

Still, I don’t know if I could be as cheerful as Takei given his circumstances. What keeps him sane, I think, is his relationship with his husband Brad. Brad is kind of the sensible, detail-oriented one in the relationship. He takes George’s crazy schedule and makes it work. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nag, other times he can be a bit startled at George’s occasional penchant for oversharing, sometimes he can be a bit of a nit-picker. Still, the love that is there is obvious and deep.

In fact, watching the interaction between George and Brad made me think “That’s me and my wife!” There is really no difference in their relationship than my relationship with my wife other than that my relationship is with a woman and George Takei’s is with a man. They both drive each other crazy upon occasion but they both lean on and rely on each other – and there’s no doubt either man would take a bullet for the other, literally and figuratively. That’s how most good marriages work. People who are fuzzy about whether gay people should be married should watch these two gay people together. They are indeed, the prototypical gay married couple.

I did find that aspect of the documentary inspiring; I also found that the scenes of George’s activism with both Japanese-American causes as well as gay causes to be among the most interesting in the film which is something since I’m a proud Trekker and love the little insights that come in from the surviving members of the crew of the Enterprise. As a Trekker I might have wanted more on his era in Star Trek but the film critic in me acknowledges that would only appeal to a certain segment, myself included.

However, the film critic in me frowns on the way that Kroot bounces around in subject matter, from the internment to George’s early Hollywood years to his discovering he was gay in high school to his Facebook stardom to his relationship with his parents. I would have preferred something a little more linear in terms of telling Takei’s story, although something tells me that George himself isn’t the most linear of men.

A project close to Takei’s heart these days is Allegiance, a musical about the Japanese-American experience in the internment camps that Takei starred in (along with Salonga). The show is largely informed by Takei’s own experiences and shows a depth in his acting that he rarely gets a chance to display. The musical set records at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and is expected to debut on Broadway during the upcoming season.

Takei himself makes a fascinating subject for a documentary and it’s high time that there was one made about him. There are some great archival photographs and such but I think the focus here is rightly on the relationship between George and Brad – which is clearly the central focus in George’s life – and on his activism. It is impressive that in his 70s George Takei has become much more of a cultural phenomenon than he was as a younger man, and continues to work an impressive schedule not only as an actor but with personal appearances as well as speaking engagements for his various causes. Takei is a national treasure and we should appreciate him as such.

REASONS TO GO: Takei is as interesting a person as you think he is and probably more so. Does a lot to further the cause of gay marriage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps around from subject to subject in kind of a willy-nilly fashion. May not have enough Star Trek material for some Trekkers.
FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Takei was born with the first name of Hosato, but was called George by his father, an Anglophile (as his son later became) after the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skeleton Twins

A Bag of Hammers


A Bag of Hammers(2011) Dramedy (MPI) Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston, Todd Louiso, Gabriel Macht, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Josh Cooke, Micah Hauptman, Barbara Rossmeisl, Devika Parikh, Greg Clark, Ricardo Chacon, Dale Waddington Horowitz, Jordan Green, Sally Kirkland, Elmarie Wendel. Directed by Brian Crano

Responsibility for a lot of people is a four-letter word. While it’s true there are few who eagerly go out looking for it, most of us are able to accept it when it comes time. However there are those who flee it at every available opportunity.

Ben (Ritter) and Alan (Sandvig) are really good friends and why shouldn’t they be? They have a great deal in common. For one thing, neither one is particularly interested in growing up. Neither of them are out to make a conventional living and for the most part, neither one cares what the rest of the world thinks one way or the other.

They make a living with a scam in which they set up a valet parking stand at funerals. Someone gives them their keys, they give the bereaved a ticket, drive off with their car…and keep going. The bereaved will have something else to mourn.

Mel (Hall), Alan’s sister, works as a waitress and nags them both to find a respectable occupation but neither one is ready to. They’re having too much fun. Then Lynette (Preston) moves into their neighborhood along with her son Kelsey (Canterbury). Kelsey takes a liking to the boys and they to him. He begins to accompany them on their scams and actually turns out to be pretty helpful.

When a sudden tragedy forces the boys to take stock, they begin to see the world as finally not revolving around their immediate gratification. In short, they grow up fast. But is it too late for them and more importantly, for Kelsey?

In many ways this is a coming-of-age indie comedy although it is also in many ways a forced-to-face-responsibility indie drama. It blends both of those chestnuts together into a kind of hybrid which, even if it isn’t exactly fresh is at least diverting.

Ritter and Sandvig play their roles like they’d been acting together since childhood. They have an easy banter that goes beyond the occasionally very witty one-liners they’re given to work with. They have that ability to anticipate each other in an organic way so it at least seems like people who are familiar with each other doing the give and take thing. You know, like real people actually conversing.

The dialogue also for the most part impresses. So often in indie films the screenwriters sacrifice authenticity for hipness, which might appeal to the horn-rim glasses-wearing PBR-drinking bearded guy crowd but few others. Here yeah there is a certain patina of smug hipness but there is also at least some reasonably genuine emotional content too.

This is more of a pleasant diversion than it is a deep-thinking exploration of The Way Things Are, but there’s much to be said for the former. It won’t challenge you overly much but it will draw you in if you’re anything like me. I liked the vibe here and it was a place I wanted to stay in after the movie ended. You can’t ask for more than that from any film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Ritter and Sandvig. Well-written dialogue.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seen it before kind of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, adult themes and disturbing parenting techniques.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Simmons, who plays Kelsey at age 18, is the same age as Jake Sandvig who plays his adoptive father.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: To Be Takei

Tusk


Tea for two and two for tea...

Tea for two and two for tea…

(2014) Twisted Horror (A24) Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Johnny Depp, Harley Morenstein, Ralph Garman, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, Ashley Greene, Douglas Banks, Matthew Shively, Zak Knutson, Bill Bennett, Randy Grazio, Paula Jiling, Todd Davis, Bonnie Cole. Directed by Kevin Smith

What separates humans from animals? There are those who believe that animals are far nobler than humans, that at our core we are rotten, vicious, callous creatures who wreak havoc on each other and the environment. It really is hard to argue the point.

Wallace Bryton (Long) is a podcaster who webcasts with his good buddy Teddy Craft (Osment) on something he calls The Not See Party (say it out loud if you want to get the joke). They specialize in commenting on videos that you can’t un-see, like the Kill Bill kid (Banks) – a Winnipeg teen who accidentally lops off his own leg while filming himself playing with an actual sword. Not smart.

Which is why Wallace flies to Winnipeg to get an interview with the kid. While there he espies on a bathroom wall of a bar an ad by a man named Howard Howe (Parks) looking for someone to live in his mansion for free in exchange for listening to his sea-faring tales and doing some light housework. The ad captures Wallace’s imagination and he calls Howe and arranges to meet. He drives off to Bifrost, a municipality that is about a two hour drive from Winnipeg in the Interlake district (Manitoba has a crapload of lakes for those unfamiliar with Canada’s plains province).

He discovers that Howard has a penchant for walruses…and is more than a little bit deranged. A panicked phone call to his girlfriend Ally (Rodriguez) gets her and Teddy out to Canada, where the police are more or less sympathetic but not too interested in helping them. One such sympathetic cop (Garman) gives the two the card of a disgraced Quebecois detective with a thick accent named Guy Lapointe (Depp) who tells them a bone-chilling tale about the serial killer he’s been chasing for ten years – and who might well be Howard Howe.

The movie began life as an idea on Smith’s SModcast which he riffed with producer Scott Mosier after seeing an ad on Gumtree for free lodging if the lodger was willing to dress up as a walrus. The two extrapolated a twisted plot based on the ad, then gave listeners the option of voting on whether he should make the movie for real by voting #WalrusYes or not by voting #WalrusNo. The votes were overwhelmingly yes.

Smith has always been a great writer, particularly of dialogue although here the dialogue is curiously flat for him. However, he crafts a fast-paced horror comedy that has moments that are genuinely disturbing. Parks, who was memorable as the maniacal Evangelical Christian preacher in Smith’s last film Red State exceeds even that performance with the quiet insanity of one who has been pushed around the bend by a life more harrowing than you or I could ever imagine. Had we lived the life Parks narrates, chances are we’d be all be a bit grumpy at the very least.

Depp, who is listed in the credits as “Guy Lapointe” playing “Guy Lapointe,” has always done well with oddball characters and he allows himself to go over-the-top in a way that is reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow. His daughter Lily, as well as Smith’s daughter Harley, have small roles in this film and reportedly will be the leads on Yoga Hosers, Smith’s next film in his True North trilogy (Smith’s wife Jennifer also makes a brief appearance).

Long is sharp in giving us a thoroughly unlikable character; he’s mean, he cheats on his girlfriend and treats his partner condescendingly. Still, he also manages to elicit some pathos particularly near the movie’s end. It’s a thankless role and Long does it pretty well.

Cinematographer James Laxton does a great job of ramping up the creepy factor in Howe’s mansion and capturing a kind of autumnal feel. And it’s clear that Smith has a great affection for the Great White North even as he occasionally skewers their pronunciation of the word “about” as well as their reputation for politeness.

I describe the movie as “twisted horror” for good reason. Yes, you will see it described as “horror comedy” elsewhere and they’re not wrong, but this has the feel of a cult classic and I wouldn’t be surprised if ten years from now it is a regular on the midnight madness circuit. Not everything here works but enough of it does to make this a satisfying but strange film that I can recommend to those who have a twisted streak of their own.

REASONS TO GO: Twisted in the right way. Parks is brilliant. Depp gives a whale of a performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is undistinguished, unusual for a Kevin Smith film. Feels rushed.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a surfeit of profanity, as well as some fairly disturbing violence and gore. There’s also a bit of sexual content as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where to begin? The fictional hockey player Gregory Gumtree that Guy Lapointe refers to is a sly reference to the website where the original ad that caught Smith’s attention was found. Lapointe’s name is itself a reference to a hockey player from the Montreal Canadiens. The framed photo of the dog on Ally’s wall is actually Smith’s dog Shecky. And while the movie is set in Winnipeg, not a single frame was filmed there; it was filmed in North Carolina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Misery
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: A Bag of Hammers

New Releases for the Week of September 26, 2014


The EqualizerTHE EQUALIZER

(Columbia) Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Haley Bennett. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

McCall is a man with a mysterious and violent past that he would much rather put behind him. He lives a quiet life doing a non-descript job. When he meets a beautiful and sweet young girl who is under the control of vicious, violent and sadistic Russian gangsters, he is bothered. When they beat her up and put her in the hospital, he knows this will only end in her demise. He sets out therefore to use his skills to get her out of their control, even if it means taking on overwhelming odds but that’s nothing new for McCall. If you have a problem, he’s the man who can fix anything. Based on the 80s TV hit that starred Edward Woodward in the same role.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references)

Believe Me

(Gravitas) Alex Russell, Nick Offerman, Johanna Braddy, Miles Fisher. Everyone knows that the cost for higher education is terrifying. When four seniors discover that their money has run out and in order to graduate they’ll have to come up with a semester’s worth of tuition, they are concerned. When they find out how much that is, they are in full-on panic mode. With no jobs, no money and no ideas, they hit upon the idea of establishing a fake charity. They become so successful at raising money that real charities begin to take notice – and want them on board. Except those real charities might not be quite so charitable as they might seem.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

The Boxtrolls

(Focus) Starring the voices of Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Simon Pegg. A community of mischievous but good-hearted creatures that live below the town discover an orphaned boy who has nobody to take care of him. Naming him Egg, they agree to raise him as best they can. Years later when the Boxtrolls are threatened by the townspeople, it will be Egg who must come to their rescue and get both sides to learn to live together.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for action, some peril and mild rude humor)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

(Weinstein) James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, William Hurt. A couple whose relationship is falling apart make a last ditch effort to rescue it. Originally made as two separate films – one from the viewpoint of each person in the relationship – Weinstein in their infinite wisdom or lack thereof has decided to combine both films into a single movie. I suppose we’ll never know if the two film thing was gimmicky or innovative.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language)

Field of Lost Shoes

(Bosch) Lauren Holly, Jason Isaacs, David Arquette, Keith David. As the Civil War progressed, it chewed up soldiers at a terrifying rate. Particularly in the South where they didn’t have the manpower reserves that the North had, young and elderly men alike were called upon in the latter stages of the war to defend their native soil. At the Virginia Military Institute, raw cadets were tasked with defending the monstrously important Shenandoah Valley. This is their story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War

Rating: PG-13 (for war violence and some thematic elements)

The Notebook

(Sony Classics) Ulrich Thomsen, Ulrich Matthes, Laszlo Gyemant, Andres Gyemant. On the border of Hungary and Germany during the Second World War, a pair of 13-year-old twin boys are given a notebook by their father to chronicle their lives. Living with a terrifying grandmother, they train themselves to desensitize their bodies to the value of human life. Few films have ever captured the effects of war on the innocent as this one has.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War

Rating: R  (for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language)

The Skeleton Twins

(Roadside Attractions) Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell. A pair of twins, estranged for a number of years, are forced back together by economic circumstances. As they reacquaint themselves, they discover that the key to fixing their lives may just lie in repairing their relationship.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language, some sexuality and drug use)

The Song

(Goldwyn) Alan Powell, Ali Faulkner, Caitlin Nicol-Thomas, Danny Vinson. An aspiring musician meets and marries the devout daughter of a vineyard owner. As musicians sometimes do, he writes a song for his new bride. However, he is unprepared for what happens when the song becomes a huge hit. Beset by pressures and temptations he’s ill-equipped to handle, his life and marriage slowly begin to crack at the seams.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some substance abuse, smoking and rude references)

The Drop


What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov, Morgan Spector, Michael Esper, Ross Bickell, James Frecheville, Tobias Segal, Patricia Squire, Ann Dowd, Chris Sullivan, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Jeremy Bobb, James Colby, Erin Drake. Directed by Michael R. Roskam

In an environment where crime is rampant and vicious ethnic gangs control the everyday goings on in the neighborhood, looking the other way becomes a necessary survival skill. Some things however cannot be looked away from.

Bob Saginowski (Hardy) tends bar at a neighborhood Brooklyn joint called Cousin Marv’s. There is a Cousin Marv (Gandolfini) – who is actually Bob’s cousin as it turns out – who lets Bob do much of the work around the bar. Bob is an industrious sort but is a bit dim-witted and socially awkward, but he’s a lot more street smart than you’d think. He realizes that Cousin Marv doesn’t own the bar that bears his name – Chechnyan mobsters do. And the bar is sometimes used as a drop for their ill-gotten gains.

Shortly after Christmas, two things happen. A couple of losers try to rob the bar, which puts Marv in the hole $5,000 to Chovka (Aronov), the charming but vicious mobster whose father is in charge of the whole show. Marv and Bob need to find the guys that robbed the bar but fast; what happens if they fail to do so is demonstrated to them rather forcefully.

On his way home from work a couple of nights later, Bob finds a pit bull puppy that’s been badly beaten in the garbage can of his neighbor Nadia (Rapace). She holds onto the dog for a few days while Bob dithers whether or not to keep the dog; he ultimately decides to and as Nadia needs some extra cash, she agrees to watch the dog while Bob’s at work. An awkward, halting romance ensues.

Into the picture comes Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), a psychopath who rumor has it murdered a pothead named Glory Days about ten years earlier after he’d left Cousin Marv’s to score some weed (the film opens up with a ten-year memorial tribute to the guy by his friends who are regulars at the bar). He is the actual owner of the dog (and responsible for its injuries) and also happens to be Nadia’s ex.

There are a number of twists and turns involving a plan to take the mob’s money on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the most profitable days of the year for illegal sports gambling, and Bob’s budding romance with Nadia. There’s also an inquisitive cop (Ortriz) who thinks there’s a lot more going on at Cousin Marv’s than an ordinary robbery and Deeds threatening Bob – he wants him to stay away from Nadia and give him back his dog, or at least pay him for it. It seems like all the walls are closing in on Bob and he’s caught in a dangerous situation where a wrong move can get him killed.

I get the sense that Roskam – who directed the fine Oscar-nominated drama Bullhead - was going for a vibe not unlike early Scorsese a la Mean Streets. You get the tight-knit aspect of the neighborhood quite nicely and you get the overwhelming influence of the criminal element on everyday life. People don’t talk to the cops around there, and they don’t trust them all that much either.

This is definitely an actor’s movie and all of the lead roles are in capable hands. Gandolfini hits it out of the park as  Cousin Marv, a man who once led his own crew and in his own words, “I was respected. I was feared. That meant something.” However, when the Chechnyans moved in, Marv in Bob’s words “blinked” and lost the bar, becoming Banquo’s ghost in his own establishment,  Gandolfini gets the seething resentment under the surface of the hangdog expression that is perpetually on Marv’s face – he’s not the sort who cracks a smile often or easily.

Rapace, who burst out of Sweden in the filmed versions of the Millennium trilogy, is still trying to break through to American audiences. She shows how talented she is as Nadia but it’s not a role that has a lot of meat on it; Nadia has been through far too much and bears too many scars to allow much to show. Rapace makes us believe that there’s a lot more to Nadia than we can see; it’s masterful work but it isn’t the kind of thing that gets one noticed in Hollywood.

Hardy, however, definitely is getting noticed. This is his second really amazing performance this year and the two roles are completely different. Although most people think of him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, he is actually much more of a complete actor. When you look at the wide range of roles he’s undertaken in recent years – romantic comedy foil, quiet emotionally stunted businessman, charismatic criminal, rural gangster, MI-6 whistleblower – it’s a resume which gets more impressive with every movie he makes.

While the plot isn’t particularly astounding, the ending did grab me by surprise. I like also that Lehane and Roskam deliberately left things ambiguous at the end, which I think added a lot to the movie. There are a lot of subtle little touches too – the Schoenaerts character’s name is something of a clue to an important plot point and you won’t get it until after the movie’s over (I won’t spoil it by telling you how). And that dog is just so damned adorable.

It is the nature of all things to be circular; as one great performer leaves us, another emerges. The sting of the loss of James Gandolfini, who as Tony Soprano delivered one of the greatest characters  in television series history is mitigated somewhat in that his final performance, as this one is, may well be one of his finest. It is also comforting to know that as Mr. Gandolfini is gone, Tom Hardy is emerging to be one of the best actors in the world. With his performance here and in Locke he has cemented 2014 as his breakout year. This is a strong effort right up there with Mystic River, the movie Lehane is best known for  Hopefully you’ll get an opportunity to catch this while it’s in your local cinemas – it’s much better than most of the other films out there.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by the leads. Nice twist. The dog is adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a few Brooklyn cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language as well as violence, some of it pretty strong.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on Lehane’s own short story “Animal Shelter” (and was originally entitled that) from the Lehane collection Boston Noir. Like most of Lehane’s work, the short story was set in Boston but the setting was moved to Brooklyn.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last I Heard
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Tusk

Life After Beth


Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

(2014) Horror Comedy (A24) Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare, Alia Shawkat, Thomas McDonell, Allan McLeod, Paul Weitz, Michelle Azar, Jim O’Heir, Rob Delaney, Adam Pally, Elizabeth Jayne, Jenna Nye, Garry Marshall, Bechir Sylvain, Bonnie Burroughs. Directed by Jeff Baena

“Til death do us part” is an intense statement. The vow signifies that we will remain with that other person until one of us is called to the Choir Invisible. What happens though, if death doesn’t part us exactly?

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is mourning the unexpected death of his girlfriend. Both are in high school although summer vacation was in full flower. She’d gone hiking in the Southern California hills by herself and had been bitten by a snake. The poison did her in.

A young romance tragically curtailed is hard enough to endure but Zach had the extra added bonus that the two of them had been having problems. Zach was the kind of guy who didn’t do things he didn’t want to do particularly and while Beth (Plaza) – the said late girlfriend – wanted to go hiking with him, and learn how to dance the flamenco, Zach wasn’t interested in either, or a thousand other things the young and vivacious brunette wanted to try out. So she had brought up the concept of splitting up, which Zach definitely didn’t want to do. While they were in this state of flux, she had decided to go hiking by herself since nobody would go with her and…well, you know the rest.

So Zach was dealing not only with the death of his beautiful young girlfriend but also with his own inadequacies as a boyfriend and it was proving very difficult for him to accept. His parents (Reiser, Hines) weren’t particularly helpful, being a little bit too distracted with whatever it was successful L.A. types are distracted with to give a thought to their brooding son. His older brother Kyle (Gubler) had plenty of time to devote to Zach, considering that he had the high exalted position of security guard for the gated community Beth’s parents Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon) lived in. Kyle seized the opportunity to make life miserable for his younger brother – after all, what else are older brothers for?

So Zach had taken to spending more time with Maury and Geenie, the three of them united by their numbing, overwhelming grief. They all understood what the others were going through and Zach found it somewhat therapeutic to go through Beth’s things, wearing a ski scarf of hers even though, as I mentioned, it was the dead of summer.

Then one day he goes over and rings the doorbell but there’s no answer. It’s weird because he can hear people inside. He checks the window – and sees a fleeting glimpse of Beth walking around the house. He pounds on the door and tries to get in but just in time his brother turns up and escorts him out of the development. There’s another thing older brothers are for.

Of course, nobody believes what he saw but Zach knows what he saw. He’s so sure that he breaks into their house and comes upon Beth, big as life and still breathing. At first he’s furious, convinced that Maury and Geenie were pulling a fast one, but no, they’re just as mystified as he. She had just shown up at the door and had no clue that she’d died. And Maury, quite frankly, wants it to stay that way.

Zach is determined to do all the things with Beth he’d never done – including sex, which is at the top of the list and Beth is quite frankly horny as all get out. She has no memory of the break-up – as far as she’s concerned everything has always been hunky dory. Except something’s not quite right. She’s prone to these rages and tantrums that were completely unlike her. And then again, she’s stronger than you’d expect for a slip of a girl. And gets sunburned really easily. Zach is sure she’s a zombie – Maury doesn’t want to entertain the concept. But yeah, she is and Zach is totally cool with it. At first.

Equal parts zombie apocalypse and romantic comedy, Life After Beth could be accurately deemed a Zom-com (catchy, no?) and given the popularity of the living dead these days I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a whole lot of them shuffling down the pike, arms outstretched and grunting.

There are a lot of things to like. DeHaan and Plaza make an odd couple but just the sort you’d find in your local high school, the sort who get drawn together in history class and make it official in drama club. DeHaan gives the character equal doses of gravitas, confusion and hormonal overwrought drama. If some teenage boy from your neighborhood had the same circumstances in his life, my guess is he’d act pretty much the same way as Zach does. As for DeHaan, his career has been taking off in the last few years, may not be available to do these smaller films much longer.

The same goes for Plaza. She’s been attracting a lot of notice in Parks and Recreation over the past few years and has quietly done some really strong work in roles large and small in offbeat films. I wouldn’t be surprised if she became the next big comedic actress a la Tina Fey and Kirsten Wiig, but I would be even less surprised if she became far more versatile than that. She captures Beth’s somewhat demanding nature and is able to convey fear, tenderness, sexuality and rage often turning on a dime to do so. She gives an assertive and assured performance, the kind that commands attention. It’s a safe bet that her work here is going to get her noticed for higher profiled roles.

The humor here is scattershot as it is for most comedies and occasionally swings and misses. There are some nice quirky touches – the only thing that calms Beth down is smooth jazz, a type of music that in her first life she used to despise. It becomes kind of a running joke throughout.

While the supporting cast is good, the last half hour of the movie turns into a kind of kitschy episode of The Walking Dead or more to the point, George Romero on an acid trip. Fun and funky is one thing but it doesn’t mesh as nicely the comedy and horror aspects do in the first hour. Still, this is some fine entertainment and Chris Hardwick and his Talking Dead nation are going to enjoy this one as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Will crack you up in places. Captures teen angst perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy and horror aspects stop working together well in the last third of the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language and some gore and comedic violence, some nudity and sexuality as well – and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dane DeHaan’s first comedic role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Drop