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

Advertisements

How to Train Your Dragon 2


Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kieron Elliott, Philip McGrade, Andrew Ableson, Gideon Emery, Simon Kassianides, Randy Thom. Directed by Dean DeBlois

Becoming who we are is no easy proposition. It’s a search of discovery and the answers can be elusive, particularly when we’re not especially sure who we want to be.

The movie takes place five years after the first one. Hiccup (Baruchel) has been successful in integrating dragons into the daily life of Berk which has become a much happier place as Vikings and Dragons are living in harmony. Dragon riders show their stuff in highly contested dragon races (a kind of combination between Quidditch and Rollerball). While his father Stoick (Butler) is eager for his son to take over the family business and become chief, Hiccup spends much of his time making maps of the surrounding islands, expanding the world the Vikings have lived in into a much larger place. He is also continuing to invent things, in this case a flying suit so that he can soar with his best friend Toothless (Thom) as they explore.

Unfortunately, finding out what else is out there in that wider world can be a good and bad thing. For Hiccup, the good is in finding a Dragon Rider whose ice-riddled island hides many secrets including more dragons than anyone has ever seen in one place – and their human protector, Valka (Blanchett) who turns out to be Hiccup’s mother. This is something of a surprise since Hiccup had heard all his life that Valka had died protecting him from dragons when he was a baby but it turns out that Valka, who had always defended dragons to a Stoick who was deaf to her pleas had left in order to protect her family from the dragons – and vice versa.

On the bad side, Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrara) as well as their buddies Snotlout (Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (Miller) and Ruffnut (Wiig) have also discovered a tracker named Erit (Harrington) who captures dragons for the villainous Drago (Hounsou) who wishes to create a powerful dragon army under the control of his gigantic Leviathan dragon who can control the dragons – and whom Drago controls through torture and violence. This is a challenge the likes of which Hiccup has never had to face and when a tragedy strikes Hiccup closer than he could have possibly imagined, he will have to find the strength to lead his people to overcome this threat – or else lose their dragons and their freedom forever.

In many ways, this isn’t a typical summer animated feature, although it appears to be the most likely to be the kidflick hit of the summer at first glance. The tone here is much darker with a main character being killed and the abuse of animals being a central theme. That may have made some parents wary to bring their kids to the multiplex for this one, which has underperformed at the box office although it seems likely to be profitable enough to warrant further sequels. I’m sure DreamWorks Animation executives were expecting windfall profits considering that there would be no animation competition this summer essentially other than from the sequel to Disney’s Planes which although a surprise hit didn’t look especially promising as a blockbuster.

Baruchel’s nasal, deadpan delivery is perfect for the character of Hiccup and while he isn’t nearly as awkward as he was in the first movie, continues to have a kind of gawky, outsider quality that is endearing. Butler endows Stoick with plenty of proud papa and – when he discovers that Valka is alive after all – tender love and caring. Craig Ferguson also returns as Gobber, mainly as comic relief.

While I thought the first film was really meant for smaller kids, this one isn’t so much. I get the sense that they wanted to grow up along with their core audience and while younger kids will still be delighted with the variety of dragons and their often goofy behavior as well as the cartoonish depiction of humans (this isn’t photorealistic CGI animation by any stretch), the kids who fell in love with the original will have matured some and the movie gives them credit for that and treats them accordingly. That’s a pretty refreshing point of view for a genre which often reads as a giant advertisement for toys and merchandise geared at kids.

I’m giving this a rating just a smidge under the first film because I think that parents may want to be wary about letting the more sensitive and immature young ‘uns in their brood see this – at least one little tyke at the screening we went to had a very adverse reaction to one of the darker scenes in the movie. I also thought the plot could have used a little more originality but essentially those who really like the first one will really like this one and those who didn’t care for the original will feel the same about the sequel. They’re essentially interchangeable in many ways but I will admit that I am much more intrigued to see How to Train Your Dragon 3 than I was to see this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some really beautiful moments.  Treats kids with respect.

REASONS TO STAY: The dragons are often too cartoonish. May be too dark for the impressionable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of animated cartoon action and some rude (but not offensively so) humor. There is a moment in which a young man deals with an event that might be upsetting for really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBlois, who co-directed the original, accepted the sequel on the condition that he be allowed to direct a third film to make up a trilogy. The third film is already scheduled for June 17, 2016.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle for Terra

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Buck


Buck

Buck Brannaman surrounded by his friends.

(2011) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Buck Brannaman, Mary Brannaman, Reata Brannaman, Betsy Shirley, Robert Redford, Bibb Frazier, Betty Staley, Ali Cornish, Shayne Jackson, Smokie Brannaman, Ray Hunt. Directed by Cindy Meehl

We as Americans tend to think of ourselves as the strong silent types. We admire the archetype of the lone cowboy, masculine and kind, prone to doing the right thing and saying little to blow his own horn; he just gets on with things.

Buck Brannaman fits the ideal to a “T”. This documentary follows Brannaman while he goes on the road, which he does nine months of the year. He runs clinics in which he teaches horse owners to gently train their horses without abusing or breaking them. He is the inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in the Nicholas Evans novel “The Horse Whisperer” which later became a Robert Redford movie.

Brannaman has a droll sense of humor; he quips early on “I get called out for people with horse problems, but usually find horses with people problems.” He is self-deprecating but firm in his passions; from time to time he calls out his clients when their behavior is detrimental to the horse. His daughter Reata accompanies him for two months out of the year; she is described by her mother Mary as “her father’s daughter,” which Buck tends to agree with; “Fortunately she got her mother’s looks, but inside she’s more like me.”

There’s something about Buck that you just respond to, whether you’re a human being or a horse. It is his innate humanity, his gentle sense of humor and his empathy for both man and beast. He is a decent human being and that decency radiates from him like an aura.

Horse lovers will find many reasons to love this film; the animals have personalities and are treated with dignity and respect. So too are the people who love horses. Some are those who work with horses on ranches; others are those who use horses in other ways, as show horses and in dressage. Then there are just who just love horses and want to learn to ride.

The most remarkable thing about Buck is that he came from a background of extreme abuse as a child; his father was something of a drunken monster who’s own insecurities led him to beat his children (Buck and his brother Smokie) unmercifully. Buck and Smokie, who were trick ropers as children (Buck and Smokie remain in the Guinness Book of World Records to this day for achievements as children), had their injuries found out by a football coach who immediately reported it to the authorities, and the two boys were remanded to the care of Betsy Shirley, a foster mom who together with her husband raised the two as their own (some of the best moments in the movie come when Betsy comes to visit Buck).

Not all documentaries need to be about an issue. Some of the best ones are about people who are worth knowing more about. People who make the world a better place in their own way. You will be better for even a brief encounter with Buck than you were going in. If there’s a better reason to go see a movie, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: A wonderful portrayal of a real American archetype. Truly inspiring in places, Brannaman’s humanity and compassion shines.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the movie revolves around Brannaman’s clinics and might be a bit repetitive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse and one scene of an injury that might be too much for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck Brannaman was not only the inspiration for the lead character in the novel The Horse Whisperer; he also was a technical advisor on the film of the novel.

HOME OR THEATER: Beautifully photographed, this should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Premonition