The Good Heart


If it looks like a duck...

If it looks like a duck…

(2009) Drama (Magnolia) Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Isild Le Besco, Bill Buell, Booi, Susan Blommaert, Alice Olivia Clarke, Kim Songwon Brown, Stephen Henderson, Seth Sharp, David Moss, Dale A. Smith, Michelle Nelson, Henry Yuk Lui, Ed Wheeler, Clark Middleton, Stephanie Szostak, Edmund Lyndeck, Nicolas Bro, Daniel Raymont, Damian Young, Elissa Middleton. Directed by Dagur Kari

There is something inherently noble in a dive bar. It is the refuge of the lost, the lonely and the abandoned. It is a place for those who have given up on life as well as those who life has given up upon. It is a gin-soaked, beer-drenched haven of dignity for those who have none.

Crotchety old Jacques (Cox) owns just such an establishment in the center of New York City. Slovenly, suspicious, mean-spirited and set in his ways, Jacques limits his customers to 13 regulars and frowns on outsiders whom he contemptuously refers to as “walk-ins,” chasing them out with a bottle of vodka with a stream of ketchup in it in response for a request for a Bloody Mary with organic tomato sauce.

After his fifth heart attack, he finds himself sharing a room with homeless young Lucas (Dano) who is as kindly as Jacques is curmudgeonly. Jacques having a brush with mortality knows that his body will not sustain his lifestyle for much longer, and has begun giving thoughts to his legacy. He realizes that one thing he wants to remain after he shuffles off this mortal coil is his bar and determines to take in Lucas, who has nowhere else to go, as the heir apparent to his grandly named but less impressive on the inside House of Oysters.

Lucas, who was in the hospital after attempting suicide, is amiable enough to the idea although much of Jacques’ worldview is puzzling to him. “Never be nice,” he growls after Lucas treats one of the regulars with kindness. The world according to Jacques is a harsh place full of people who will take advantage of every fracture of weakness that your facade displays and to Jacques kindness equals weakness.

Lucas for his part is learning the niceties of bartending as well. “A good bartender always knows what his customer wants before he even knows it,” says the old school Jacques and Lucas very much takes this to heart. For his part, Lucas teaches Jacques that the way to make it through life isn’t necessarily through uncompromising adherence to one’s principles.

Into this mix one rainy night comes April (Le Besco), a stewardess afraid of flying. This is an egregious violation of Jacques’  longstanding “no women allowed” rule for the bar. This is enough to get his erstwhile protégé banished from the bar along with April, a fellow lost soul Lucas has fallen in love with. But what will become of Jacques’ legacy?

Icelandic director Kari, best known for his indie film Noi the Albino is shooting for a grimy look. The movie looks like it was filmed through a lens that hadn’t been cleaned in years. This is meant (I think) to be more of an allegory or a fable than something realistic and true to life despite the gritty feel. For one thing, I can’t imagine any hospital letting a kid who’d just attempted suicide just walk out of a hospital without at least some sort of plan for him to stay in a safe environment, not in a dingy old bar with an old man who just might be psychotic.

Cox is one of those character actors who almost never turns in a bad performance even when handed a turkey of a script. This one has quite a few flaws in it and inhabits the bar with eccentrics right out of the Lovable Movie Drunks for Dummies book. Cox interacts with all of them as if they were written by Shakespeare.

I tend to blow hot and cold with Dano. He has turned in some fantastic performances but also a few groaners as well. Here he is on the good side; his character has clearly been wounded deeply by some unnamed trauma in the past and while he doles out random (and sometimes not-so-random) acts of kindness, he sees himself as unworthy of life. Some of the kindest people I’ve ever known are the hardest on themselves.

There aren’t really any big laughs here and that might well be by design. One of the faults I have with this movie is I don’t think they are set on whether this needs to be a comedy or a drama and so tries for something in between. Not that combining the two can’t be done well, but I think the movie would have been better-served at picking a path and sticking with it.

I can recommend just about any movie with Brian Cox in it and a lot of them with Pau Dano in them. This one I think has just enough depth to it to be worth a look-see for those who haven’t caught it yet but I wouldn’t recommend putting too much effort into it; there isn’t enough here to make it worth digging to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Good performances from Cox and Dano. Gritty where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ceaselessly drab. Quirky more than funny.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cursing and a disturbing image.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kari, born in Paris to Icelandic parents who moved him back to their home country at the age of three, is also a member of the band Slowblow.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most Magnolia home releases, there is an HD-Net making-of special.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $343,818 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Extra Man

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: X-Men

Advertisements

Vanishing on 7th Street


Hayden Christensen isn't apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

Hayden Christensen isn’t apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

(2010) Horror (Magnet) Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore, Taylor Groothuis, Jordan Trovillion, Neal Huff, Larry Fessenden, Arthur Cartwright, Hugh Maguire, Erin Nicole Brolley, Stephen Clark, Caroline Clifford-Taylor, Shana Schultz. Directed by Brad Anderson

It is engrained in our nature to be afraid of the dark. That is a legacy from our caveman ancestors, who were terrified by things in the night that were likely to eat them as not. But we live in civilized times. There’s nothing malevolent in the dark is there?

Paul (Leguizamo) is a projectionist in a Detroit movie theater. Like many in that particular profession, he can get quite bored on the job, so he brings with him a book to read and a hat with a lantern on it to read by. When there’s a brief power outage, he is for a moment the only one with light. When the lights come back on, he is shocked to discover that every person in the theater has vanished, leaving behind their clothes, shoes and jewelry. They’re just…gone

He meets a security guard (Cartwright) who had a flashlight on when the lights went out. As they investigate, the lights go out again. Then the guard’s flashlight fails and a shocked Paul watches him disappear before his eyes. Then Paul’s light goes out…

Luke (Christensen) wakes up to find the city deserted. A tough TV news reporter, he heads to the station to see if he can piece together what’s going on. He thinks that there is something in the shadows and that the key to survival is light. Before he is forced to flee the station in the receding light, he sees a video from Chicago that indicates that the Windy City may well be safe.

Luke makes his way to a bar which is one of the few places with light left in Detroit. A portable generator is running them and a suspicious 13-year-old boy named James (Latimore) is the only one there. His mother, the bartender, had stepped out but should be back any moment, a scenario Luke finds highly unlikely.

In short order, they are joined by Rosemary (Newton), a junkie whose baby disappeared, and eventually by Paul who reappeared at a lighted bus stop when his lantern hat re-activated. He is grievously injured however and Luke is obliged to rescue him by the skin of his teeth.

It turns out that there is a malevolence in the shadow that is capable of fooling those who remain alive to step into the dark. With a supernatural darkness enveloping Detroit, Luke knows it’s a matter of time before the generator fails and the only choice they have left is to make a run for it to Chicago, but that’s a dangerous proposition. And as Paul has discovered, what has the events in modern day Detroit have to do with the lost Roanoke colony of the 17th century?

Director Anderson has some pretty impressive titles to his credit, including Transsiberian and The Machinist. While this isn’t on the level of those films, it is pretty nifty nonetheless. It’s a great premise – aren’t we all scared of the dark? – and doesn’t require a lot of gaudy effects to pull off.

His Achilles heel here was casting. While Leguizamo and particularly Latimore do solid work, Christensen and Newton overact without any conscience whatsoever. While I agree that frightened people can act in a hysterical manner, there just doesn’t seem to be any reality to their portrayals. It pulled me out of the movie several times. By the way, don’t look for any explanations as to what’s going on – you won’t find any. While there are some critics who complained about it, I think it puts the audience in the place of the characters who wouldn’t have known what’s going on either.

This is a bleak movie, which is a trademark of Anderson. Some may find it too bleak, but I kind of liked the tone. While I appreciate needing to put some name actors in the lead roles, Christensen and Newton aren’t the two I would have cast. With a couple of different actors as Luke and Rosemary, this might have been a much better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Genuinely creepy with good performances from Leguizamo and Latimore.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very bleak in tone. Christensen and Newton were poor choices for the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of swearing and some pretty grim and gruesome imagery.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film was a theatrical flop, more than one quarter of the box office came from South Korea.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a series of interviews conducted by Fangoria magazine.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $10M production budget; not the numbers the producers wanted.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pitch Black