Shadowman


Me…and my shaaa-dow…

(2017) Documentary (Film Movement) Richard Hambleton, Paul DiRienzo, Richard Hell, Andy Valmorbida, Michael Carter, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, Keegan Hamilton, Nimo Librizzi, Robert Hawkins, Bob Murphy, Rick Librizzi, Robin Cimbalest, Mette Hansen, John Woodward, Michaael Okolokulak, Carlo McCormick, Anne Hanavan, Kristine Woodward, Phoebe Hobah. Directed by Oren Jacoby

 

An old boxing adage is the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In some ways, that also applies to art. The underground art scene of the 1980s in New York City was dominated by three figures; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. Only one of them would live beyond the age of thirty.

Hambleton made a name for himself with the Image Mass Murderer series in a variety of cities including his native Vancouver – chalk outlines of human figures spattered with red paint looking disquietingly like blood. While the local gendarmes were less than thrilled by the street art (this before it was even called street art) the art world did stand up and take notice. Hambleton ended up in New York City where he became famous for his Shadowman series; human figures painted in black in unexpected places designed to startle people as much as possible. These paintings popped up everywhere through New York which at the time was in the midst of severe decay and neglect. Hambleton – young, leonine handsome and self-assured – and Downtown were made for each other.

But like most things it didn’t last and the fame and ready availability of drugs got to Hambleton. He would drop out of sight for twenty years, resurfacing in 2009 when a pair of gallery owners named Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida teamed up with Giorgio Armani to present an exhibition of his work. We see the difficulty in working with the obstinate Hambleton, by now beset by scoliosis and skin cancer, his face deformed and living one step away from the streets, almost obsessive compulsively painting over and over again, unwilling to finish his works.

During his time away from the spotlight, Hambleton lived in squalid squats and rat-infested storage facilities, using money he received for whatever work he could eke out for heroin. The ravages of the drug use and excess are readily apparent from viewing his more recent interviews. While those few friends who stood by him admit that he was victimized often by unscrupulous art dealers, he was also his own worst enemy and we can see that in his interactions, often passive-aggressive with the two art gallery owners trying to help him return to where they felt he deserved to be.

Hambleton took an interest in seascapes, painting amazing works of waves crashing on the shore which were patently out of favor at the time he painted them. As he wryly put it, “I could have made Shadowman bobble-head dolls and made a million dollars” and he isn’t far wrong. As Wall Street discovered Downtown, branding began to creep into the art world as insidiously as it did everything else. In retrospect Hambleton was a modern day Quixote, tilting at windmills that often savagely tilted right back.

In many ways it’s a heartbreaking viewing. The footage of Hambleton in the 80s and now are night and day; the degree of how far he had fallen pitifully obvious. For one so talented and so innovative, it’s hard to watch in a lot of ways but one can take comfort in that he lived essentially the way he chose to, even if those choices were bad ones. Not all of us get to say that.

REASONS TO GO: The artwork is thought-provoking and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit dry and occasionally too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as copious drug use and smoking and also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hambleton passed away October 29, 2017 as a result of skin cancer he refused to have treated. He lived long enough to see the film’s debut at Tribeca.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aida’s Secrets

Advertisements

Landline


Even at a teppanyaki restaurant family dinners can get awkward.

(2016) Comedy (Amazon) Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Ali Ahn, Marquis Rodriguez, Jordan Carlos, Finn Wittrock, India Menuez, Charlotte Ubben, Roger Peffley, Raffaella Meloni, Eric Tabach, Noah Tully Sanderson, Amy Carlson, Ezra Barnes, Megan Byrne, Adam Enright, Ian Jarvis, Christine Sherrill. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

 

Some movies seem to be more gender-specific than others. That doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed by both sexes but one is going to find it more relatable than the other. So it is with the sophomore effort by Gillian (Obvious Child) Robespierre.

The year is 1995 and it promises to be a banner one for one particular Upper West Side family. Mother Pat (Falco) is a bigwig for the EPA and is the main breadwinner for the family although wannabe playwright ad copywriter Alan (Turturro) does okay. Their daughter Dana (Slate) is working as a graphic artist and engaged to Ben (Duplass) with whom she lives. Ali (Quinn), their younger daughter, is a senior in high school and has a bright future ahead of her.

But things are only wonderful on the surface. Dana is frustrated at her relationship with Ben which has turned somewhat vanilla. Pat is frustrated that she is taken for granted in the household. Ali is frustrated with everything, acting out and hanging out with all the wrong friends, snorting heroin at raves and having sex with all the wrong guys. The worst is yet to come though; Ali accidentally discovers a floppy disc (it is 1995 after all) with erotic poetry that her father wrote. That’s cringeworthy enough but it turns out that he may have written them for another woman who isn’t her mom.

Ali and Dana have been like gasoline and matches for some time but when Dana, needing a break from Ben, moves back into the house, the two begin to bond over their dad’s potential infidelity. They go on a mission to find out who the mysterious woman is and whether the poems were in fact written for her. In the process, they discover their own skeletons are just waiting to leap out of their own closets.

I can understand why Da Queen loved this movie more than I did. Being a sister herself, she related to the movie more deeply than I did. It’s not that I can’t relate to female characters mind you but certain situations are going to speak to women more than men and vice versa. There’s no shame in that – that’s just life. And I think women are going to relate to this in a big way. The movie gives a lot of exploration to how infidelity can absolutely crush not just the partner being cheated on but everyone around them. The movie also spends a lot of time exploring the bonds between sisters – and between mothers and daughters.

Slate and Quinn both look like they could be sisters, which helps further the illusion. Da Queen was insistent that the relationship between the two felt authentic to her and I’m not one to argue with her, particularly on such matters. To the credit of both actresses, they play people who have a lot of baggage; Dana also is unfaithful to Ben while Ali is right on the cusp of being a poster child for teen overindulgence which could lead to being a statistic. The snorting of heroin is disturbing but I get the impression that the filmmakers don’t think it’s as big a deal as I do. I’ve seen what heroin can do so perhaps my triggers are a little bit more sensitive in that regard.

I thought Turturro and Falco were absolutely great here. Turturro is one of those actors who can elevate mediocre movies and when he gets a good part in a good part (a la O Brother Where Art Thou) can absolutely kill it and that is what happens here. Even better is Falco, an Emmy-winning actress who has consistently shown through two major TV shows that she is one of the finest actresses working today; personally I think her performance here is worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration and it’s not inconceivable that Amazon might have the wherewithal to promote her for it. I sure hope they do – it would be well-deserved.

While the movie doesn’t wallow in nostalgia like other period movies this summer have done, it does boast a killer soundtrack – as other period movies this summer have done. There are some subtle moments however – as when a television is tuned to former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s landmark speech in Beijing on September 5, 1995 when she proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” a point that seems to need re-making in an era where her victorious opponent for the Presidency has allowed those human rights to be threatened with erosion. I do think that the point is intentional.

There is definitely some “first world problems” issues here and some moments when I thought the movie seemed a bit too self-involved for my tastes. Again, I think women are going to “get” this movie a lot more readily and appreciate it more than I did, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. Nevertheless there is plenty here for men to digest as relationships, never a simple subject, are particularly convoluted here. Robespierre is certainly a major talent whose future output I will be absolutely keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is terrific. Turturro and Falco deliver the goods, particularly Falco whose performance is Oscar-worthy.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a little bit self-involved. Quinn and Slate look like sisters and act like sisters but were less compelling than I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, drug use and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Turturro is the cousin of Aida Turturro who was a cast member on The Sopranos along with Edie Falco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronically Metropolitan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

Amy


Amy Winehouse belts one out.

Amy Winehouse belts one out.

(2015) Musical Documentary (A24) Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Tony Bennett, Mitchell Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Lauren Gilbert, Salaam Remi, Sam Beste, Andrew Morris, Mark Ronson, Pete Doherty, Blake Wood, Janis Winehouse, Raye Cosbert, Guy Moot, Darcus Beese, Tyler James, Monte Lipman. Directed by Asif Kapadia

The music industry is a harsh, unforgiving world. It chews people up and spits them back out, rarely unscathed. Even those who reach the grail of commercial success don’t go untouched.

Amy Winehouse was a little girl with a big voice, singing with Britain’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra. We see her as a teen, singing happy birthday to and with her friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. A Jewish girl from working class London, Amy’s parents divorced when she was quite young.

She began writing songs in which she exorcised her demons. Deeply personal, her music was all about what was going on in her life at that particular moment. She preferred to work in a jazz idiom but her music would eventually turn more pop and once her song “Rehab” hit it big, there would be no stopping her. Except that the Back to Black album that her hit came from would be the last album she’d ever record.

Her brash personality hid a very fragile girl who was surrounded both by people who looked out for her – her friends Ashby and Gilbert, as well as Nick Shymansky, her first manager – and people who didn’t have her best interests at heart.

In fact, some of those around her were actually like poison to her, in particular her husband Blake Fielder-Civil who she was head over heels over, but who led her down a path that included addiction to hard drugs and binge eating and drinking (Winehouse suffered from bulimia dating back to her teenage days). Fielder-Civil comes off absolutely horribly in the movie; after doing a stint in jail, he sees video of his wife with another man; he divorces her for infidelity, smugly proclaiming that he was handsome and young, what was he doing with a skank like that? Yes, by that time the effects of her addiction were starting to show. I guess I wanted to take that silly hat he likes to wear and shove it where the sun don’t shine only after smashing that smug expression in. What a pretentious, self-centered waste of human flesh.

Her own father doesn’t come off unscathed. He appears unconcerned about the issues his daughter has, advising her not to go to rehab before the fame set in and seemingly more concerned about his own limelight and the gravy train his daughter provided him. The Winehouse family initially cooperated with the filmmakers, providing plenty of home video footage as well as granting on-camera interviews for the project but eventually rescinded that cooperation when it became clear that the filmmakers were not portraying them in a flattering light. Mitchell Winehouse has gone on to say that the movie doesn’t capture Amy the person very well and dwells overly much on the lurid tabloid events and in that he does have a point.

Truth be told, I was never much a fan of her music; her voice is a bit too brassy for my taste, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize talent when I hear it. The woman had a true gift, understanding phrasing like few modern singers do. Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded a duet shortly before she died, compared her to Ella Fitzgerald and I would think that he would know a thing or two about it.

Watching her transformation from a vibrant, promising performer into pop superstardom and from there to drug-addled tabloid fodder is simply painful. We see her besieged by paparazzi, flashbulbs going off like mortar explosions around her, blinding the poor woman so that she couldn’t see where she was walking. The tabloid press are drawn to bad boys and girls like the bottom feeders they are, and how horrible must it be to know that they are out there 24/7, awaiting a chance to catch you at your worst – because the people who read that drivel want to believe the worst about you.

At the end of the day, Amy Winehouse had a hand in her own demise – it is absolutely chilling to hear her tell her friend Juliette that the celebration for her Grammy win was “boring without drugs.” At that point, even had you not known what her fate was to be (found dead on July 13, 2011 of alcohol poisoning) you would have known that she was not long for this world. Her voice stilled, her muse gone, one can’t help but wonder what she might have accomplished had she lived.

But then, that’s the nature of the muse. It doesn’t always treat those who are inspired by it kindly. Amy Winehouse was an amazing talent who became the poster child for excess and addiction by the time she reached her mid-20s. She went from the Next Big Thing to the butt of all sorts of jokes and the sad part was that those who should have been watching out for her were instead feeding the flames that were consuming her. This documentary is chilling in that regard but as a cautionary tale, it is one that we have seen many times on the price of success. And it’s a story that is likely to be told again someday with yet another prodigy; that’s the real tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: Heartbreaking. Wonderful archival footage for fans. Even non-fans will appreciate.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage of her descent into drug-addled junkie status is hard to watch. Spends more time on the more lurid tabloid aspects of her life than on her music.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, drug references and usage, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winehouse is a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock stars who all died at the age of 27. Other members include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Was Not Made For This World
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Certified Copy

Before I Disappear


When you're a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

When you’re a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

(2014) Drama (Fuzzy Logic) Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, Ron Perlman, Richard Schiff, Joseph Perrino, Isabelle McNally, Joseph DeVito, Hani Avital, James Chen, Greg Connolly, Anthoula Katsimatides, Josh Mann, Sean Ringgold, James Andrew O’Connor, Patrick Miller, Jacqui Denski, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Roseanne Ludwigson. Directed by Shawn Christensen

Florida Film Festival 2014

Out of our life choices comes our life; those choices tend to define who we are and not only in the eyes of others. We are what we do. That doesn’t mean that our worst life choices can’t be redeemed but it’s never easy. Sometimes it takes a really bad night for us to find redemption, especially if we’re not particularly looking for it.

Richie (Christensen) is the very poster boy for “loser” – a New York City junkie. He makes what meager money he can by cleaning toilets in a hip club with underworld connections that don’t quite pay his debts and barely pay for his drugs. He lives in a POS apartment that even a cockroach might turn its nose up at – assuming cockroaches have noses which I don’t think they do. But I digress.

Late one night he makes a terrible discovery in one of the bathroom stalls, the kind of discovery that can shut a club down even if it’s connected. His hamfisted boss Bill (Perlman) encourages him not to speak of what he has seen and as a gift he gives him some heroin.

Richie may be a junkie but he understands the streets. He knows what’s what and he knows that his boss intends for him to take the heroin and die. Richie still has a little pride left however; he’s going to slit his own wrists. Ha ha on you, Bill.

As Richie soaks in the tub waiting for the end to come the phone rings. More as a Pavlovian reflex than anything else, he answers it – it’s his sister, Maggie (Rossum) whom he has been estranged from and hasn’t spoken to in years. She’s desperate – she’s been detained and has no one to pick up her daughter Sophie (Ptacek) from school. Maggie is shrill and nearly hysterical and so Richie rouses himself, bandages himself up with packing tape and plods off to save the day.

In the course of a day into the wee hours of the morning, Sophie will accompany Richie from the refined apartments and schools of the hoi polloi to the seediest underbelly of skid row. Sophie, smart and driven, is used to having her schedule planned to the tick. Richie is used to things going wrong. The two couldn’t be further apart on the evolutionary scale if Richie sprouted a tail and hung from trees by his toes. Yet somehow, they find that blood really is thicker than water and that not every winner has it all, nor every loser without redeeming qualities.

That sounds like typical Hollywood crap no doubt; two opposites coming together and making of each other something better than they were. Christensen does it so skillfully here however, so organically that you believe every sordid second of it. Part of the reason this works is that Christensen was wise enough to cast himself in the lead. Perhaps that sounds more like ego than wisdom but trust me, it’s not ego when you deliver. Christensen has that look of a puppy whose been kicked too many times by a cruel master. That cruel master in Richie’s case is life itself.

Throughout the movie, Richie is writing a suicide note to Vista (McNally), his girlfriend who he has been separated from. It’s never explicitly stated, but I get the sense that Vista has preceded Richie into the great beyond and that’s part of Richie’s motivation for wanting to slit his wrists. Still, his little niece gives him a reason to delay that trip at least for a little while.

The chemistry between Ptacek and Christensen is also genuine. Ptacek is a mature actress, much more so than you would think from someone of her tender years. Sophie has a great deal of strength on the surface, but beneath the veneer she’s a lonely little girl who wants to make her mommy proud. The part is equal parts sass and vulnerability and Ptacek pulls both off masterfully.

Schiff, Perlman and Rossum are all veterans who have a trio of fine resumes; other than Rossum, none of them are on screen much but they make the most of their time and give the film a little more cache than it might have otherwise.

Before I Disappear is essentially the extension of Christensen’s Oscar-winning live-action short Curfew which introduces the characters in a very similar situation. Ptacek and Christensen both appear in it, although there is a different actress playing Maggie. Still, when you can get someone like Emmy Rossum who to her credit is doing a much different role than we’re used to seeing from her.

This is a keeper, folks. It’s one of those movies that has just enough levity to keep from being dreary, but is serious enough to retain authenticity. It will put you through an emotional wringer and make you care about Richie and Sophie and even Maggie who can be quite bitchy. While some may not appreciate the sleazy element and the glimpse at a very sordid part of the world, one can’t help but think that this could be the kind of film that inspires an entire movement – call it modern noir if you like. Just be sure and give me the credit when you do.

REASONS TO GO: Gritty. Well-performed all around. Terrific story. Christensen amazing in lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too rough for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of foul language, disturbing images, drug use, violence and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at this year’s South by Southwest where it won the Audience Award.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: L’Enfant

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Le Chef

Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Things We Lost in the Fire


Halle Berry sleeps one off.

Halle Berry sleeps one off.

(2007) Drama (DreamWorks) Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro, David Duchovny, Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman, Robin Weigert, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome, Sarah Dubrovsky, Maureen Thomas, VJ Foster, Patricia Harras. Directed by Susanne Bier

Loss is something we all deal with in our own way. Some of us turn inward and shut the world out. Some of us throw ourselves into work or family. Still others lash out in anger, frustration and/or grief. It’s a powerful emotion that all of us must face in one form or another sooner or later.

For Audrey Burke (Berry) that time is now. Her husband Brian (Duchovny) is dead, killed trying to get an abused woman from being beaten up. The day of the funeral she sends for Jerry Sunborne (del Toro), one of Brian’s closest friends. He had gone from being a promising lawyer to a junkie and the source of much contention between Audrey and Brian. Brian had continued to visit Jerry and support him – in many ways he was Jerry’s sole connection to the world. Audrey thought he was a hopeless cause who she wanted as far away from her family as possible.

Getting Jerry to the funeral proves to take some doing. He is homeless now, having lost everything to his addiction. However, once Jerry gets there Audrey impulsively and not without some reservations invites Jerry to stay in the family home. She realizes that Brian would have wanted that and convinces herself that’s why she’s doing it but truth be told she wants someone around the house; their son Dory (Berry) needs a strong father figure around the house, their daughter Harper (Llewellyn) needs some guidance and to be honest she herself needs someone to lean on.

Audrey isn’t an easy person to be around. Her grief makes her touchy and sometimes she lashes out for no real good reason. In the meantime, Jerry is flowering in this environment. He is finding a new sense of purpose and the drugs are, for the moment, receding. A family friend (Lynch) is even helping Jerry get a real estate license and back to being a productive member of society. However both grief and drugs can be mercurial and unpredictable and both Jerry and Audrey have yet to face a very dark night indeed in both of their souls.

This started life as a screenplay by Allan Loeb, appearing on the inaugural “Black List” of unproduced screenplays (the Black List is a survey of 250 producers of the best screenplays they’d seen that year that were as yet unproduced). It was picked up by DreamWorks and acclaimed Danish director Bier (who had directed the acclaimed Open Hearts up to that point and later won an Oscar for In a Better World since) was attached to it.

They also put together a pretty powerful cast in Oscar winner Berry who once again gives a powerful performance as a woman who is lost and hurting. Audrey isn’t always likable and she doesn’t always act the way we’d like her to act. That’s a credit to Loeb who creates a character who is flesh and blood rather than an ideal. She has good days but she also has some bad ones. Berry fleshes Audrey out, turns her into a person you’d find walking around the mall or sitting in the movie theater next to you. Of course, if someone who looked as good as Halle Berry were sitting in the theater next to me I’d notice it pretty quickly.

Del Toro is no less impressive. Jerry is as wounded in his own way as Audrey is and like Audrey, Jerry doesn’t always act the way we’d like him to. He is trying, however and is basically a good man deep down – he’s just also a weak man when it comes to narcotics. These two performances drive the movie and are the main reason to see it.

Bier has a thing about eyes and there are a lot of close-ups of the eyes throughout the movie which can be disconcerting. While I agree that the eyes are the window to the soul, they are also kind of boring when you keep seeing them over and over again. As an old-time Hollywood producer might have put it, Susanne baby, lose the eyes.

The movie has a European sensibility to it so the pacing might not be to the liking of an American audience; that is to say, it takes it’s time and gets to where it’s going at its own pace. There are some moments when the movie veers into soap opera territory but thankfully those moments are few and far between.

This is a movie that didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare when it was released and the general attitude of critics and moviegoers alike was a resounding “who cares” but the truth is that you should. This is a very strong and powerful film on taking control of your own life and learning to deal with pain. The performances of Berry and del Toro are worthy of your time alone, but for my money this is one of those gems that didn’t get the love it should have.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performances from del Toro and Berry; Duchovny, Lynch and Lohman excellent in supporting roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many extreme close-ups. Maudlin in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bier’s sole English-language film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.6M on a $16M production budget; the movie is considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster’s Ball

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Chasing Ice

Killing Them Softly


Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

(2012) Crime Dramedy (Weinstein) Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Sam Shepard, Slaine, Garret Dillahunt, Bella Heathcote, Linara Washington. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Tough economic times make people a little harder. They grow skittish at any sign of trouble; they are unforgiving of mistakes, even those not of your making. When people get scared, their tendency is to go into self-preservation mode with most decisions made on pure self-interest.

In an indeterminate American city (but looks somewhat like New Orleans), a poker game gets robbed by two masked men. These things happen, even while the 2008 Presidential election rages and speechifyin’ is underway from candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, while President George W. Bush tries to calm people down as the economic meltdown strikes, crippling our nation and casting doubt on our future.

Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate. You see, this poker game wasn’t just a poker game; it was run by the Mob and they don’t take kindly to being robbed. Driver (Jenkins), the go-between for the committee that runs the Mob in New Orleans and Jackie, is glum. Examples must be made but a bloodbath isn’t necessarily welcome.

It soon turns out that there are four people involved in the robbery; Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Curatola), the dry-cleaner and low-level thug who masterminded it, Frankie (McNairy) – who is Squirrel’s choice to execute the robbery (yes, Frankie and Johnny – cute, no?) – Russell (Mendelsohn), the Aussie heroin addict that Frankie brings in to assist and Markie Trattman (Liotta) who runs the game.

Now Markie is completely innocent; his problem is that five years earlier he had arranged to rob his own game. This is common knowledge and even though he had nothing to do with this robbery, the clientele think he does and they don’t want to play anymore. While the mobsters in charge would be satisfied with a beat down of Markie (and a fine beating is administered to him), Jackie contends that Markie has to be whacked. With all due haste.

Jackie is not keen on getting all of these hits done himself so he brings in Mickey (Gandolfini), a hitman who is having some personal issues not the least of which is alcoholism and sex addiction. He proves to be worthless so Jackie is on his own, having to carry out all the hits himself.

The movie is based on a book by George V. Higgins called Cogan’s Trade which was set in Boston in 1974. Dominik chose to bring the action to New Orleans in 2008 and there are some compelling reasons to do that – the economic hardship thread is one of the main issues in the movie. I haven’t read the book to be honest so I don’t know if that’s something that was part of the original novel (it may well could have been) but it certainly is something that the filmmakers hit you in the face with quite regularly.

This is a fine cast and Pitt does a pretty good job with the enigmatic Jackie Cogan. I like that you don’t get a sense that Jackie is invincible and smarter than everybody else. He makes mistakes. He screws things up. However, he thinks quickly on his feet and takes care of business and is ruthless as they come.

Gandolfini, a fine actor who tends to be cast in roles that aren’t dissimilar from his Tony Soprano role, has a couple of really nice scenes here. Jenkins and Liotta are essentially wasted in roles that they shouldn’t have accepted (yes, further career advice to professional actors from a blog critic – just what they needed).

The big problem here though is Dominik. He consistently throughout the film reminds you that there is a director and that he has an Artistic Sense. From the most annoying opening credits ever through a slow-mo death scene of which Sam Peckinpah would have said “Didn’t I do that already?” in scene after scene you are given odd camera angles, unnecessary montages, and other little tricks which is a director inserting himself into the film. Word of advice to any aspiring directors out there – stay the heck out of your movie. If you must insert yourself, do a cameo. Or cast yourself in a role. Otherwise, let your actors and crew do their jobs and trust them to tell the story without your help.

This is frankly quite a mess. It is destined to be Pitt’s lowest grossing movie of his career to date and for good reason; this is the kind of film that people walk out on, as several folks did at the screening we attended. Da Queen and I hung in there but we were frankly dissatisfied when we left. I like a good neo-noir as much as the next guy but sometimes, simpler is better.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt gamely does his best. There are a couple of terrific action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: A fatal case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a ton of bad language,  a surfeit of drug use, plenty of violence and gore as well as a few sexual references; fun for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Richard Jenkins character is never seen standing up in the movie. He is always seated in a car or at a bar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are surprisingly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burn After Reading

BARACK OBAMA LOVERS: .The film is set during the 2008 Presidential Election and features a number of speeches by the recently re-elected President.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: Color Me Kubrick