In Darkness


It's a fiddler in the sewers.

It’s a fiddler in the sewers.

(2011) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Wiekiewicz, Benno Furmann, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Agnieszka Grochowska, Marcin Bosak, Julia Kijowska, Jerzy Walczak, Oliwer Stanczak, Milla Bankowicz, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Kinga Preis, Olek Mincer, Piotr Glowacki, Maria Semotiuk, Michal Zurawski, Zofia Pieczynska, Etl Szyc, Weronika Rosati. Directed by Agnieszka Holland

There are those who society tends to write off as incorrigible. These are the dregs, those who cannot be redeemed. They were always destined to be criminal and so they will always remain.

In Nazi occupied Poland, a group of Jews have fled the ghetto of Lvov and made their way into the sewers. Sewer inspector Leopold Socha (Wiekiewicz) has discovered them in there. Socha and his compatriot Szczepek Wróblewski (Skonieczny) have supplemented their incomes with petty crimes and they see the Nazis as no particular change from the situation they’ve been in all their lives. However rather than turn the Jews in, Leopold seizes the opportunity to extort the Jews from their money in exchange for protecting and supplying them.

As time goes by the heat grows more intense to turn in wayward Jews and the penalties more severe for sheltering them. The Jews’ money begins to dwindle and the expense of buying food for the small group has become exorbitant. They wonder how long their opportunistic savior will continue to keep them safe.

In addition the toll of living underground amidst the smell and the grime is taking their toll on the refugees who have begun to squabble among themselves. Nazi patrols are actively scouring the sewers but the deft Socha, the only man in Lvov who knows the sewers well, steers them away most of the time. Still, Socha is at heart a criminal – who knows how long it will remain true.

This is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall which chronicles the real-life Jews who fled to the sewers and the real-life Leopold Socha. Holland, one of Poland’s most acclaimed directors, manages to capture the dim lighting and claustrophobia that the refugees surely must have experienced.

One of the main misconceptions about this movie is that it’s about the Holocaust. I beg to disagree. While the Holocaust is the setting, this isn’t the story of the refugees but it is Socha’s story. It is his change of heart that is the crux of the story, his movement from petty criminal to heroic protector which seems nearly impossible on the surface.

Holland wisely doesn’t turn the Jews in the tale into stoic survivors who endure each atrocity and degradation with clear eyes and full heart. They aren’t always heroic nor are they always nice. They are in a terrible situation with the prospect of being caught and killed hanging over their heads at every moment. We cannot imagine that kind of pressure; it seems pretty understandable to me that they would not always deal with it well.

Most of the actors are largely unknown over here (although Furmann was in the Wachowski’s Speed Racer) and do pretty solid jobs. Sometimes reading subtitles on the screen can distract from really enjoying an actor’s performance and I think that’s definitely the case here. It’s hard to catch subtleties when you’re just trying to read the translation.

Still, this was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards and justifiably so, although it didn’t win (it was heavily favored to do so). While comparison to Schindler’s List are pretty easy to make, this isn’t the same thing. The Spielberg film had a larger canvas and a much broader brush. Here, we are kept mainly underground in tight spaces that are dimly lit. If Schindler’s List is a Michelangelo, In Darkness is a Goya – but they are both fine art.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some bad language, sexuality and nudity as well as some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although filmed in Poland with a mostly Polish crew and in Polish, the writer of the film was Canadian and some of the financial backing came from Canadian sources. When it and Monsieur Lazhar were both nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, it marked the first time that two Canadian films were nominated for the award in the same year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Holland interviews one of the actual survivors of the Lvov sewers. There is also an interview with Holland in English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.6M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Take Shelter

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The Family (2013)


Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

(2013) Comedy (Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Dominick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Palumbo, Stan Carp, Vincent Pastore, Jon Freda, Michael J. Panichelli Jr., Paul Borghese, Anthony Desio, Ted Arcidi, David Belle, Raymond Frnaza, Christopher Craig, Cedric Zimmerlin, Dominic Chianese, Oisin Stack, Sissi Duparc, Elba Sette-Camara. Directed by Luc Besson

You can choose your friends. Sometimes, you can choose your enemies. You can never choose your family however – and sometimes that might be just as well.

Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro) is an American living in France. Not just an American, however – an American from Brooklyn. And not just an American from Brooklyn – a mob boss from Brooklyn. You see, he ratted on the mob and has been taken into the witness protection program, hauling his none-too-thrilled-about-the-situation family along for the ride.

That ride has taken them from the Riviera to Normandy, shepherded by their very put-upon handler Stansfield (Jones) and his agents Di Cicco (Palumbo) and Caputo (Lombarozzi). Stansfield urges the family, now calling themselves the Blakes, to blend in but they’re having a hard time with it, as usual. Pretty wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) longs for good old American comfort food and when she asks the local grocer where the Peanut Butter is, he disdainfully tells her they don’t carry that sort of  thing there, then insults her in French to a couple of old biddy regulars at the cash register, not realizing she speaks French. Maggie doesn’t lose her temper however – she just improvises a bomb and blows up the store.

Pretty daughter Belle (Agron) is sweet as pie, but when a group of French guys drive her to the local park and make it clear that they expect her to put out under the impression that all American girls are sluts, she beats one of them to a bloody pulp with a tennis racket and takes their car. Industrious son Warren (D’Leo) quickly horns in on the black market pill and cigarette market at school, and attracts the ire of the school board while Belle attracts the eye of a callow young teaching assistant named Henri (Stack) to whom she wants to deliver up her virginity on a silver platter.

As for Giovanni, calling himself Fred, he masquerades as a writer which inspires him to write his memoirs which might not be such a good idea considering how much he knows. He also is frustrated with the quality of the town’s water which he traces back to an industrial plant on the edge of town, leading him to take extreme solutions in hand.

All of the Manzonis want nothing more than to go back to Brooklyn and resume the lives they once led but as it turns out Brooklyn is coming to them. Well-armed, as a matter of fact, and none to happy about their situation.

Besson is without a doubt the finest action director/writer/producer in France and his tutelage has turned out several other fine directors in the genre, such as Olivier Megaton. This is a cross between an homage to Martin Scorsese’s mob films (and Scorsese serves as a producer here) and a farce along the lines of Married to the Mob (which Pfeiffer memorably starred in). At times the two genres rest uneasily together but for the most part Besson keeps the balance between the two light.

This is the kind of role that De Niro has done a million times before and there is a familiarity to him playing this kind of character that gives the audience an easy in to the film. He has the good fortune to have Pfeiffer to play off of – the chemistry between the two is note-perfect and they make such a good team it makes me wonder why they were never cast together before (they actually were, in Stardust but shared no scenes together in that one).  Pfeiffer is regal here, a mafia princess with a fierce protective instinct, a touch of pyromania and a volcanic temper. She is every bit De Niro’s equal here which is a rare occurrence.

Agron, best-known for her work on Glee has a meaty role here and she sinks her teeth into it with gusto. Belle is a bit of a homicidal maniac under the veneer of a sweet girl next door. Her love for her family is fierce but she, like the rest of her brood, is a more than a little sociopathic and more than a little out-and-out crazy.

There are plenty of action scenes but it is the farce that works best here, the fish out of water scenes that have the ugly Americans trying to make things work with the even uglier French. Sure, there are plenty of stereotypes here (I’m sure there were lots of Italian-American societies cringing at their portrayal here) but it’s all in good fun and not meant to be taken seriously. As entertainment goes, this isn’t half-bad. If you have no plans to catch it in theaters, it might well be a good fit on home video instead.

REASONS TO GO: Wry sense of humor. De Niro, Pfeiffer and Jones are all stellar.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of cliché. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some violence, plenty of bad language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the film society debate attended by Jones and De Niro, the wrong movie is sent and they instead view Goodfellas which De Niro starred in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Analyze This!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Missing Person

Pain and Gain


Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

(2013) Action Comedy (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli, Keili Lefkovitz, Emily Rutherfurd, Larry Hankin, Tony Plana, Peter Stormare, Vivi Pineda, Ken Clement, Yolanthe Cabau, Persi Caputo. Directed by Michael Bay.

We all have some sort of version of the American dream – success, and the rewards that come with it. Not all of us have the tools to achieve it on our own, however – particular in these rough times when achievement is seemingly less attainable than it’s ever been.

Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a body builder in Miami, is a big believer in physical fitness. In fact, the only thing he believes in more than keeping in shape is the aforementioned American dream. He believes that he deserves it. But working at it isn’t always easy. He’s charming and is able to draw lots of new customers – younger customers – to Sun Gym, which pleases owner John Mese (Corddry).

But Lugo isn’t pleased. He’s frankly tired of building up the bodies of wealthy douchebags like Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), one of the most unlikable people…well, ever (see below). His protégé Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) concurs. Adrian has to work at a taco joint in addition to his full-time job at the gym in order to make ends meet. Adrian also has erectile dysfunction, which requires some expensive treatments. A sympathetic nurse (Wilson) at the clinic hits it off with Adrian.

Lugo wants his share and he thinks Kershaw has too much as it is. In fact, he despises Kershaw. He decides that he is going to take everything Kershaw has. His plan? Kidnap him, torture him and get him to sign his assets over to Lugo and his crew. But they’re going to need a third partner and they find it in Paul Doyle (Johnson), an ex-con who found Jesus and is trying to stay on the straight and narrow but soon finds that he can’t afford the straight and narrow.

So these three knuckleheads, roughly on the same intellectual level as the Three Stooges, go about pulling off their crime of the century. They kidnap Kershaw who’s so unlikable and such a horrible human being that nobody reports him missing even though he’s gone for weeks.

They finally get him to sign but typically they mess things up. Adrian blows all of his share on a house which he pays for in cash (the realtor, when asked about the unusualness of this snaps “He’s black. I figured he was a rapper, an athlete”), leaving him with an operation to get his erectile issues resolved to pay for. Paul falls off the wagon like it was the Brooklyn Bridge and puts almost all of his share up his nose. They decide to go for one more score.

Meanwhile, Kershaw has seen the police who react with absolute disbelief. Nobody believes him – except retired cop and private eye Ed DuBois (Harris). DuBois knows what he’s doing and it won’t be long before these ee-dyots will mess up but he is concerned that others will get hurt before then. He doesn’t realize just how right he is.

This is one of those stories that is so bizarre that it has to be true, and it is – and apparently pretty dang close to the truth. There is one scene so outrageous, so unbelievably dumb near the end of the movie that Bay feels compelled to remind you that this is a true story, even though it is announced early on and often.

Bay is often criticized for his big overblown productions, and with a $20M budget (actually it’s a bit less than that) that won’t be the case here. In fact, I think this might be his best movie to date. It’s snappy, has a real terrific sense of humor. I laughed out loud as much here as I have at some of the better-known and better-received comedies in recent months.

Wahlberg and Johnson are two of the most engaging stars in Hollywood and both are quite willing to poke fun at themselves. They can utilize their huge likable personalities to offset the fact that they’re playing some truly despicable people who do way despicable things.

It doesn’t hurt that they have a particularly engaging cast. Shalhoub, best known for his portrayal of the neurotic Monk gets to play a real jerk and he does so with great relish. Harris, one of the steadiest and strongest actors in the business, plays it pretty straight but every so often you catch an expression that lets you know that DuBois is ready to bang his head against whatever wall might be available that these clowns might actually get away with it (although they didn’t in the end).

The crimes that are depicted here are horrible. I understand that some of the family members of those involved are somewhat upset that the story was essentially a comedy. In all fairness however I think that the tale is well-served by humor and it should be remembered that while the movie is funny, the suffering depicted is not and that the victims aren’t being made fun of. At least, I never got the sense they were – mostly the ineptness of the criminals is what is being held to scrutiny.

And that’s kind of the point here. Criminals by and large aren’t a bright lot – all Hollywood romanticizing to the contrary. For the most part, they’re effin’ dumb. Criminal jobs rarely are pulled off smoothly and more often than not, they wind up imprisoned. Pain & Gain isn’t really a cautionary tale so much as it is a reminder that while any idiot can get lucky, generally speaking their luck runs out pretty darn quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly funny. Terrific performances from all the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too gruesome in spots. As things spiral out of control for the main characters towards the end of the movie, the sense of the surreal becomes a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some of it quite brutal and graphic. There’s also some nudity and sexual content, a fair amount of drug use and pretty much non-stop foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg bulked up to 213 lbs. for the film, essentially using his own body building supplements to do it. While his sons loved their new muscular dad, his daughters reportedly hated his over-the-top physique.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100; fairly mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Informant

The Killer Inside Me (2010)


The Killer Inside Me

Don't make Casey Affleck turn this car around.

(2009) Thriller (IFC) Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Tom Bower, Bill Pullman, Brent Briscoe, Matthew Maher, Liam Aiken, Jay R. Ferguson, Ali Nazary, Blake Lindsley, Caitlin Turner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

 

Roger Ebert once said that what we desire is not a happy ending so much as closure. I think this is rather true; we don’t necessarily want to see things finish with a grin and the warm fuzzies; sometimes we want the tale to end in blood and destruction because that is what has been earned – just as long as all the loose ends are tied up.

Lou Ford (Affleck) is affable sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town in the 1950s. He’s well-liked in the community and well-regarded on the force, particularly by his mentor Sheriff Bob Maples (Bower). His girlfriend Amy (Hudson), is a schoolteacher and everyone in town agrees they make a mighty fine couple and the general consensus is that the two will marry when Lou gets the gumption to pop the question.

What nobody knows is the volcano seething inside of Lou. He raped a five-year-old girl as a teenager for which his big brother Mike took the rap for. When Mike got out of the slam, he went to work for contractor Chester Conway (Beatty) and died under unusual circumstances on the job. Lou has always harbored a suspicion that Chester had something to do with it.

He also has a thing about inflicting pain. Introduced to sadomasochism by his father’s housemaid Helene (Turner), he likes to hurt people and the need to do so is getting more and more irresistible. At the prodding of the Sheriff, Lou visits a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Alba) who’s been having an affair with Chester’s son Elmer (Ferguson). The visit escalates into a severe spanking which, as it turns out, Joyce really gets off on. The two begin a passionate affair.

Joyce concocts a plan to extort money from Chester, enough for her and Lou  to leave town and set up new lives with. their ill-gotten cash. Lou is chosen to deliver the payoff. Instead he beats Joyce within an inch of her life (intending for the beating to be fatal) and shoots Elmer dead, setting up Joyce to take the fall for the crime.

Lou however fell short in taking care of Joyce and despite his best efforts, she survives. However, suspicion is beginning to fall on Lou from Amy who thinks Lou is cheating on her, and from County district attorney Howard Hendricks (Baker) who thinks Lou had something to do with Elmer’s murder.

A local youth, Johnnie Pappas (Aiken) is arrested by Hendricks for the crime because he is in possession of a marked $20 bill from Chester’s cash. However, Lou had planted that on Johnnie, the son of a close friend of Lou’s. Lou asks to interrogate him and winds up hanging Johnnie in his cell, making it look like a suicide.

Lou’s blood lust is getting out of control and the noose is tightening. Can Lou get control of himself and figure a way out of the mess he’s in, or will he eventually pay for his crimes?

Winterbottom has been a prolific director, with such films as Welcome to Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart and The Trip on his resume. He is competent enough at what he does, and from time to time shows flashes of brilliance but this won’t stand out as one of his better works. I do give him props for taking one of pulp writer Jim Thompson’s darkest and most violent works and preserving the darkest elements intact – that isn’t easy to do these days of focus groups and trying to pander to a general audience.

Affleck surprised me here. His roles have tended to be pretty easy-going and sweet-natured but here he is a sociopath and nearly irredeemable. He is not  aware of the difference between right and wrong – he has no idea why he does the things he does in some cases – and probably wouldn’t care much if he did. He is as self-centered as it is humanly possible to be; everything he does is for his own benefit and to feed his own psycho-sexual needs, which are dark indeed.

Alba has a difficult role as well as the masochistic prostitute. Even Hudson’s Amy has a few kinks of her own. As  a result, the film has been labeled misogynistic, often by high and mighty critics who don’t think that a woman could possibly enjoy pain in a sexual context. Not only is it possible but it is more common than you might think.

Thompson’s writing style rarely flinches at the darker side of human nature. There is brutality and violence and sexual deviancy that’s depicted with unusual candor and directness. The movie doesn’t shy away from these things, often to the point where gentler souls might be extremely put off by them. This is certainly a movie meant for those with stronger stomachs and steelier resolve.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck portrays the sociopath dead on, something I didn’t expect. Hard-hitting and disturbing pulp fiction.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly brutal and sexually twisted in places. Might be too downbeat for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is sudden, graphic violence that is quite disturbing, some kinky sexual content and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was at one time attached to the part of Lou Ford with Andrew Dominik directing. When Cruise dropped out, so did Dominik citing that the role was so complex and disturbing it needed a star to carry it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.0M on a $13M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Step Brothers