A Walk Among the Tombstones


No more cracks about being too old for this.

No more cracks about being too old for this.

(2014) Mystery (Universal) Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, Danielle Rose Russell, Natia Dune, David Anzuelo, Whitney Able, Maurice Compte, Laura Birn, Razane Jammal, Eric Nelsen, Frank De Julio, Mark Consuelos, Marielle Heller, Novella Nelson. Directed by Scott Frank

They don’t make ’em like Sam Spade anymore. Or Lew Archer. Or Philip Marlowe. Or Humphrey Bogart for that matter. Noir detectives – hard bitten, hard drinking tough guys who were often knights in tarnished armor, strong men with stronger codes. Life has kicked the crap out of them – it’s a dog eat dog world after all – but if the weak or the helpless are threatened, well, get ready for a fight.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a throwback to those kinds of guys. He used to be a hard-bitten hard-drinking tough guy on the NYPD until a particularly bad day at the office. These days – which happen to be 1999 – he’s an unlicensed private investigator which he describes as “Sometimes I do people favors. Sometimes they give me gifts.”

He’s not too picky about his clientele. When Peter Kristo (Holbrook), who attends AA meetings with Matt, approaches him on behalf of his brother Kenny (Stevens), Matt is wary at first. Kenny is a drug dealer whose wife Carrie (Jammal) was kidnapped. Finding her isn’t the problem – Kenny’s already found her. In pieces. After he paid the ransom.

This doesn’t sit well with him. He wants the guys who did it found and brought to him, preferably alive. Matt doesn’t want any part of a revenge killing – until he hears the audio tape the killers left for Kenny. Once he hears that he’s all in.

As he investigates he discovers that Carrie Kristo wasn’t the first victim and she’s probably not going to be the last. His investigations take him to a graveyard groundskeeper (Olafsson) who found the first body and to the seamy side of New York. He is assisted by TJ (Bradley), a tough-talking African-American street kid who wants to be a P.I. just like in the books he’s read at the public library where he essentially hangs out all the time. However, the killers (Harbour, Thompson) have selected another victim and this time she’s a true innocent. Time is running out.

The movie is based on the tenth in a series of 17 (and counting) books by crime author Lawrence Block. The fifth, 8 Million Ways to Die, was brought to the silver screen back in 1986 with Jeff Bridges taking on the Scudder role. I haven’t seen that one in ages (it used to be in regular rotation on cable) but I do appreciate Neeson’s take on the role better; he conveys the inner darkness of the character much better.

Frank, who exhibited a good deal of potential in the thriller genre with the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Lookout continues to impress at his ability to deliver that dark, noir-ish mood while keeping the movie essentially modern despite its setting of 15 years ago. The Y2K undercurrent seems a bit quaint these days – and boy does it bring back memories.

This is definitely Neeson’s film and he carries it with both dignity and toughness. He’s the kind of guy who will punch a guy through a glass window but will buy a street urchin pancakes. He’s made some awful, awful choices in his life and other people have paid for some of his mistakes. He’s trying the straight and narrow but he seems to exist mostly in the grey area between there and the dark and lawless. Neeson is the perfect choice for Scudder.

Now about TJ. Let me first give full disclosure by asserting that I haven’t read any of the books in the series. The character of TJ is introduced in the ninth book in the series. I have read elsewhere that he doesn’t appear in this particular installment. Quite frankly, I found his presence unnecessary and distracting. During the climax of the movie, the character commits the cardinal kid sin by going exactly to the wrong place at the wrong time to be in the most peril. It derailed the movie for me and made me want to find the nearest wall and bang my head against it. Sorry guys, but this cliche is older than the original noir pics and it was just as unwelcome back then. The young actor that plays TJ is engaging – but again, it seems kind of gimmicky and unnecessary to have him in the movie.

There are some really great moments in the movie – sadly several of them are on display in the trailer. There would have been some franchise potential here although the box office numbers sadly don’t seem to justify it so chances are this is the last of Matt Scudder we’re going to see for awhile. I have to say I’m glad to see that noir films are making a bit of a comeback with this and the much better Cold in July both hitting the multiplex this year. Now if we could only get screwball comedies to make a comeback.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson perfect as the brooding action anti-hero. Grim and gritty.
REASONS TO STAY: The TJ character completely unnecessary and gets in the way.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some pretty intense violence, themes and images, sexuality and brief nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Wilson was cast as Matt Scudder’s partner Joe Durkin (male in the book) but director Scott Frank felt that the character was essentially a loner and a partner would only confuse things, so the role was eliminated and all the scenes filmed with Wilson were cut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Maze Runner

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Bridesmaids


Bridesmaids

For losing the bet, Wiig has to give Rudolph a manicure with her teeth.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Jill Clayburgh, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Franklyn Ajaye, Rebel Wilson, Matt Lucas, Jon Hamm, Richard Riehle, Mitch Silpa. Directed by Paul Feig

There’s something in the female hormone that just goes ballistic when it comes to weddings. Smart, capable, logical women turn into absolute emotional maniacs when confronted with the nuptials of a friend. Gather together an entire bridal party and you have enough cattiness and one-upsmanship to fill up thirty seasons of “Project: Runway.”

Annie (Wiig) and Lillian (Rudolph) have been the best of friends since childhood. Annie’s going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment. Her bakery, co-owned with her then-boyfriend has gone belly-up and her ex walked out out on her, leaving Annie holding the bag. Deeply in debt, she works at a jewelry store owned by a friend of her mom and rooms with a pair of English siblings, Gil (Lucas) and Brynn (Wilson) who would make Ellen DeGeneres homicidal. Annie is the regular booty call of Ted (Hamm), an egotistical jerk who wants no part of Annie other than to get his rocks off and Annie is more or less accepting of this relationship.

Things are looking up for Lillian however. She is engaged to her sweetie Doug and she wants Annie to be her maid of honor. Annie is only too happy to do it, not realizing the expense and frustration that goes hand-in-hand with the job. The bridal party includes Megan (McCarthy), Doug’s big-boned sister who shoots from the hip and has a somewhat skewed view of life; Rita (McLendon-Covey), Lillian’s cousin who is married with three kids and is horny as all get out; Becca (Kemper) who’s a newlywed and blissfully in love and finally Helen (Byrne), the wife of Doug’s boss and one of those rich people who thinks the world not only should revolve around them but in fact does.

Of course, Annie tries to keep costs under control but that’s simply not possible with Helen around. Annie and Helen regard each other with wary distrust, each vying for Lillian’s affection and to be top dog in the pack. As Annie initiates disaster after disaster (a pre-dress fitting meal causes a very nasty case of food poisoning which leads to a scene that isn’t for the squeamish and a drunken incident on a plane to Vegas for the bachelorette party which results in Annie not only making a fool of herself but for the plane not to reach its destination) the strain grows in her relationship with Lillian. Not even reconnecting with her mom (Clayburgh) and connecting with a sympathetic Irish cop named Rhodes (O’Dowd) can help Annie in her downward spiral towards an inevitable rock bottom.

This was produced by Judd Apatow and early indications that this is going to be another big box office hit for him. Like most Apatow movies, there is a good deal of vulgarity and a tendency to not skimp on sex or cussing which is the kind of thing that some folks are going to shy away from.

There are some genuine laughs here, and Da Queen pointed out that any woman who’s ever been involved with a wedding – their own or someone else’s – is going to find a lot of common ground here from the bridal party back biting to the absolute disasters that befall any wedding.

This is Wiig’s first leading role and the SNL veteran shows that she has the ability to be a charming and sympathetic romantic comedy heroine. Not only is she sexy and beautiful, she’s got great comic timing and she gets the audience squarely behind her for the most part, even when she’s sabotaging her own best friend in a fit of self-pity.

McCarthy often steals the show here and could wind up being the Zach Galifianakis of this little posse. Plus-sized women get the shortest of shrifts from Hollywood and it would be a shame for someone this talented and this funny to not turn a performance like this into a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Byrne plays the tightly wound Helen note-perfect and while I haven’t seen much of her in comedic roles (she’s best known for the cable hit “Damages”) she has a future in comedy as well as drama. O’Dowd has also been receiving raves for his role and could well wind up as a leading man somewhere down the road although he seems better suited to comedy than drama.

The movie overuses the awkward situation as laugh template, leaving me feeling uncomfortable more than anything else. However, thankfully, there’s enough genuine humor here and coupled with the genuine chemistry between Wiig and Rudolph (honed by years of working together on SNL) makes for a movie that hits the right notes most of the time. It’s good to see a movie that primarily focuses on the female point of view that can be enjoyed by both sexes equally – that’s a fairly rare bird in the Hollywood aviary.

REASONS TO GO: Enough laughs to keep things moving along. Good chemistry between Wiig and Rudolph.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the bits go on too long. A few too many awkward moments masquerading as laughs.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of bad language and tons of sex, not to mention a few disgusting images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Jill Clayburgh’s final film before she passed away from leukemia last November.

HOME OR THEATER: No need for a big screen on this one.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Fish Tank

Everything Must Go


Everything Must Go

Will Ferrell takes a break from big budget comedies.

(2010) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Michael Pena, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Stephen Root, Glenn Howerton, Rosalie Michaels, Todd Bryant, Dave LaBrucherie, Daniel D. Halleck. Directed by Dan Rush

There are times in our lives when we are hit by a storm of crises. Major life-changing events – almost always negative – seem to batter us one after the other. Sometimes, the storms are of our own making but how we react to them, whatever the cause, is often a major component of what defines us for the rest of our lives.

Nick Halsey (Ferrell) is having a really bad day. He is fired from his job after an incident on a business trip revealed him to have fallen off the wagon yet again. The company has been patient with his alcoholism recovery, his boss (Howerton) tells him as he informs him of his impending unemployed state, but this last straw was too much. Because Nick is a regional vice president and had been with the company for sixteen years, he’s given a pocketknife with his name engraved on it as a parting gift. Rule number one for employers giving gifts to employees who are being let go – never give them weapons. Nick thoughtfully slashes his boss’ tire with the pocketknife before being forced to flee, leaving the pocket knife in the tire.

He drops by a local convenience store to get a 12-pack of beer and a Slurpee. A couple of teens ask him if they can buy the beer off of him. When Nick refuses, one of them knocks his Slurpee over in a fit of pique. No frozen treat for Nick. When he gets home, he arrives to find all of his stuff on the front lawn, all the locks changed and a note from his wife telling him that she’s left him, advising him not to call. Thoughtfully, she freezes their joint account ensuring that Nick has no place to go and no way of having his stuff put in storage. His company car gets repossessed. Nick is reduced to sleeping in a recliner on his front lawn, only to be awakened by the automatic sprinkler the next morning.

Nick takes refuge in a constant stream of beer drinking. However, there are those in his neighborhood who are a bit uneasy with his living situation and the cops are called. However, Nick has a friend on the force – his AA sponsor Det. Frank Garcia (Pena). Frank keeps him out of jail, but informs him that he can keep his stuff out there if he has a yard sale. This buys him three additional days out on the lawn.

Nick meets young Kenny Loftus (Wallace), a lonely young boy whose obesity has made him an object of ridicule. Nick hires Kenny to watch his stuff and help him prepare for the sale, teaching him how to play baseball in exchange (along with hourly wages and a cut from the proceeds of the sale). Nick also meets his comely new neighbor Samantha (Hall) who has just moved out from New York in advance of her husband whose arrival in Arizona is repeatedly delayed.

Nick also seeks out Delilah (Dern), who once wrote a very sweet Yearbook entry for him in High School, although they never formally went out. She’s a single mom now whose dream of being an actress never materialized. She recounts an incident from high school that Nick doesn’t even remember but made an indelible impression on her.

Still, Nick can’t help but be his own worst enemy despite his good heart. He is frustrated, and the alcohol has taken a renewed hold on him. Has Nick hit bottom yet or will he sabotage what momentum upward he might have established?

This is based on a short story by Raymond Carver and to be honest, I’m not all that familiar with Carver’s work firsthand so I can’t really say how accurately this reflects the spirit of the original. I’m advised however that the movie indeed captures Carver nicely, so I’ll go with that – I’ll leave fans of the author to judge for themselves.

This is a role that in many ways is very well suited for Ferrell – but in many ways not. Ferrell doesn’t do many dramatic roles and while Nick has a few comedic moments (most of which are captured in the trailer), they’re rarely over-the-top and are for the most part, overshadowed by Ferrell’s depiction of his addiction. To Ferrell’s credit, he doesn’t play Nick as an out-of-control boozer, but a quiet drunk, chain-guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbons (probably the best beer he could afford on what limited cash he had) and at times letting his inner demons get control.

The scene with Dern is one of the best in the movie. Most reviews I’ve read of the film have said something along the lines of “Dern makes a rare but welcome appearance” which I whole-heartedly agree with. Dern, whose sunny persona illuminated such films as Jurassic Park and October Skies, is one of the most underused actresses in Hollywood whether by design or not. She does so well as Delilah that you almost want to follow her story after she leaves the screen after a brief 10 minute appearance. She’s likable and meshes well with Ferrell.

Rebecca Hall also does a nice job as the sweet but sad Samantha. Hall is beginning to build a reputation, getting cast in a number of projects both high profile and indie; like Dern, she’s very likable and capable as an actress. She holds her own in her scenes with Ferrell which is saying something – Ferrell has a surfeit of personality that can overwhelm a partner from time to time. However, Hall does just enough to be memorable.

In fact, the whole movie can be characterized that way. It’s very likable throughout, but exceedingly low-key. The performances are good but not great. I know that’s damning with faint praise, but it really is a movie that I can recommend – it’s just not going to blow your socks off. However, I can commend it on its realism; there are no pat answers here and the ending lets you know that Nick is far from out of the woods, but there is a sense of a chapter coming to an end. I can honestly say I like the tone here, but I would have liked a little more passion.

REASONS TO GO: A good change of pace for Ferrell. Quirky but never intrusively so.

REASONS TO STAY: A pleasant film that never really rises above that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of bad language and some sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Christopher Jordan Wallace is the son of the late rapper Notorious BIG.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that is going to be difficult to find in theaters; you’re all right if you check it out on home video though.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: 300