Monthly Archives: September 2014

“A Walk Among the Tombstones,” Reviewed: Darkness on the Edge of Town.

a walk among the tombstones (universal) blog

Now deep into the second half of his career, Liam Neeson has found an unexpected niche in a series of action-hero roles that leverage his weatherbeaten looks, his towering height and the gravitas that’s been his calling card since before he was old enough to have properly earned it. He’s matured into this persona, in a weird but oddly satisfying reversal of the usual path taken by actors who start off with bubble-gum projects only to graduate to more nuanced work. The fact that many of these new films of his aren’t very good is almost besides the point: Neeson can do whatever he wants at this point, and if what he wants is to be a tough guy, more power to him.

But in Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones (rated R), we finally get a Neeson action stew that doesn’t skimp on the serious-actor seasoning that flavored his work for decades. The 62-year-old actor is convincing playing men whose actions are informed by life lessons, but in films like Taken, The Grey and Non-Stop those experiences were treated like affectations; in Tombstones, Neeson makes us believe his character’s ghosts are walking right beside him. That difference – and a complex plot, well told – make this seemingly throwaway genre film one of the surprises of the season.

Based on one of a successful series of crime novels by Lawrence Block, Tombstones is pulp fiction through-and-through. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NYPD detective who indulged one too many times in the practice of drinking first and shooting at suspects later. Eight years after quitting the force (the film takes place in 1999, with Y2K alerts everywhere), the reluctantly sober Scudder works as an unlicensed private detective – so he can’t technically be paid for his services, but he also doesn’t have to fear losing said license when he breaks the rules.

A fellow AA member connects Scudder to Kenny Kristo (the English actor Dan Stevens, miles away from Downton Abbey), a well-heeled drug dealer whose wife was kidnapped, held for ransom and murdered all in under a day. Can Scudder track down the trio of anonymous killers? What do you think?

Scudder’s methodical investigation slowly peels back layers of a series of ghastly deeds that don’t end with Kenny’s wife. He finds the first collaborator easily enough, a shambling and weirdly sympathetic sociopath (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) whose chilling description of the other two men sets the stage for a terrifying second act.

Here’s the thing about action movies: By “action” we usually mean “violence,” and for violence to be meted out there usually must be a sense of moral justification – the bad guys have to be shown doing bad things, or we won’t cheer when they’re dispatched by the good guys. But Taken and other comparable films tend to keep their thumbs on the scale when seeking a balance between their depictions of good and evil. They show us just enough bad stuff to maintain our emotional investment in the hero’s eventual retribution.

Block’s novel doesn’t do that, and neither does Frank’s adaptation. The pair of villains at the heart of this crime story, played by Adam Thompson and David Harbour, are wretched, frightening, intelligent sadists whose motives for their actions are never explained. They kidnap women specifically to torture and murder them, and to torture their husbands by dangling the promise of their return should a ransom be paid. Like Kenny, the husbands are all drug dealers, which adds a dimension of outlaw justice to Scudder’s search for the killers. It also raises the stakes: Assuming you can stand the scenes of extraordinary tension between these smiling psychopaths and their prey, you’ll be as invested as Scudder in watching him find them.

Writer-director Frank has spent time with the underworld before, in his brilliantly adapted screenplays of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and Out of Sight. Those crime stories were leavened by humor, but the only lightness here is a subplot between Scudder and a would-be apprentice, a street kid named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bailey) who can’t decide between being a cartoonist or a PI. It’s a credit to Frank’s grasp of his source material that he resists the urge to make TJ too cute – but then, nothing in A Walk Among the Tombstones could ever be mistakenly for cute. It’s a bleak, often brutal film that’s hard to forget. And I mean that in the best possible way.

(IMAGE: Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

“This Is Where I Leave You,” Reviewed: Cue the Healing.


At one point in Shawn Levy’s funerals-bring-a-family-together dramedy This Is Where I Leave You (rated R), a character asks the grieving widow (Jane Fonda) how she is persevering through these tough days. Her compound answer ends with a comic closer – “I’ve been popping Xanax like they were Tic Tacs” – that’s as apt a metaphor as we’re likely to find for this entire picture. Levy’s film, inappropriately marketed as a comedy prior to its release, is a fairly dark yet utterly affirming family drama with wisecracks thrown in to keep things from tumbling into the abyss. It’s the cinematic version of a long, satisfying hug; and if you’re in the mood for such an embrace, you’ll love it. If not, well….

Written by Jonathan Tropper from his 2010 novel, the film is a template-based story of an estranged clan fitfully re-knotting the unraveled ties that bind over the course of a mournful, chaotic week back in the family homestead. We open on middle-son Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) discovering his wife has been cheating on him for the last year with his boss. That pretty much throws his marriage and his career overboard, and he’s barely had a chance to grow a sensitive-guy beard before the call comes in that his dad has died.

Judd returns home to reunite with his mom and three siblings – Paul (Corey Stoll), the burdened eldest child who stayed in town to run the family business; Wendy (Tina Fey), a wife and mother with an inattentive husband and a past; and Phillip (Adam Driver), the ne’er-do-well baby of the family, who arrives home with his two-decades-older girlfriend (Connie Britton) in tow. The distance between these grown kids is palpable; they haven’t all been in the same room together in years, and it’s not hard to see the cracks in the plaster. When Mom tells everyone that Dad’s final wish was that the Altman family sit Shiva for the full seven days, the kids bicker with the rabbi about getting that number down to three.

What follows is as practiced and efficient as a tennis pro idly knocking balls across the net. Each member of the family has his or her own baggage, and darned if that luggage won’t be unpacked and neatly put away over the course of that week – aided and abetted by the occasional dalliance with long-forgotten hometown crushes (Rose Byrne for Bateman, Timothy Olyphant for Fey), more than a little medicinal cannabis, and the ultimate reassurance that it’s never too late to pick up the pieces of your life and start again.

If it all sounds too pat and formulaic (with said formula to be repeated in a few weeks, when The Judge arrives in local theaters), This Is Where I Leave You still manages to achieve a sense of effortless charm that can melt the hardest of hearts. Bateman and Fey, normally masters of sardonic delivery, somehow find the right fit as a brother and sister who can connect believably, and affectionately, even when they’re ticking each other off. Fonda, too, manages to resist caricature despite the early zingers lobbed her way over her character’s gargantuan breast implants. The rest of the talented cast is more or less wasted on seat-filler roles; there’s too much going on for most the actors to make an impression.

Levy, who’s slowly digging himself out of comedy juvenile detention after a long string of family-friendly fare like the Cheaper By the Dozen and Night at the Museum franchises, here continues his vaguely redemptive streak that began with the somewhat unexpected Date Night (also with Fey) in 2010 and Real Steel in 2011. This is probably his strongest film to date – it takes some skill to juggle all these talented actors, even if so many don’t get enough to do – but it could have used a lot more zest. The aesthetic is anesthetic – it’s the kind of film in which outrageous things happen (surprise pregnancies, multiple adulteries, trips to the hospital, cars being flipped over or stolen altogether) and yet no one ever really gets too riled up. Someone’s been dipping into Mama Fonda’s stash of antidepressants again.

(IMAGE: Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman and Adam Driver in This Is Where I Leave You. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

“The Drop,” Reviewed: Pit Bulls and Stereotypes.

the drop (fox searchlight) blog

Michaël Roskam’s The Drop (rated R), a gritty crime drama set in a Brooklyn that time forgot, features the last onscreen performance from the late James Gandolfini, an actor who never got the credit – or the diverse role choices – he may have been due. In last year’s Enough Said the actor was allowed one last time to stretch outside of our expectations, playing an ordinary guy with ordinary flaws in a highly relatable mature romance. Compared to that project, this swan song is Gandolfini comfort food: He glowers, he barks, he flirts with danger.

The entire film is that way, really. Roskam seems to be channeling Sidney Lumet with this tale of low-level hoods and barely connected tough guys who circle each other with wary unease in this hardscrabble borough neighborhood on a cold few weeks after Christmas. The action centers around Cousin Marv’s, a bar once owned by its namesake (Gandolfini) before he ran afoul of a small but lethal gang of Chechen mobsters. Now they own it and Marv just runs things, not without bitterness at his downturned luck. Occasionally the hoods will swing in for a free drink and a warning that business is coming their way: Every so often the bar is used as an illegal money drop, making Cousin Marv’s a temporary nexus of high tension.

Marv isn’t alone behind the bar. With him most nights is Bob (Tom Hardy), a quiet type whose deferential tone and simple demeanor mark him as the Lennie to Marv’s George. The movie belongs to Bob more than Marv, and we follow the amiable bartender as he moves easily around town; one night he finds an adorable pit bull puppy beaten nearly to death and left in a garbage can, a discovery that connects him to the good-natured Nadia (Noomi Rapace) and, soon enough, to less favorable people.

The way Roskam keeps coming back to that dog, I was expecting something bad to happen to the puppy; this is that kind of movie, in which man’s inhumanity to man could easily be shown spilling over into the animal kingdom. But – spoiler alert – the dog turns out fine in the end. Instead, violence is meted out in other directions, as the prelude to an inevitable evening of betrayal and not-well-executed master plans.

The Drop’s screenplay is the first ever written by Dennis Lehane, the crime novelist normally known for gritty tales around Boston (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River). This story feels like a Lehane book: Its characters have scars, both literal and metaphorical, and the miasma of old crimes linger over the neighborhood like grease molecules suspended in the air around a deep-fryer in the bar’s kitchen. Everybody has history here – from Nadia’s connection to a local tough guy (Matthias Schoenaerts) to whatever it was that made Bob the way he is now.

I wish this film had supported its central story as well as it does its characters and mood; sadly, the Why behind much of what happens in The Drop is not up to par, relative to the Who and the Where. Hardy’s Bob is magnetic but a cipher, a character we want to get to know better but who remains frustratingly out of reach. Schoenaerts, so well used in Roskam’s Bullhead and in last year’s Rust and Bone, isn’t given much to do besides project menace. And then there’s Gandolfini, an old pro at this sort of thing; in his hands Marv is able to transcend stereotype and come alive, even when he’s just on the periphery of a scene. It’s a terrific performance that deserves better than this good-not-great film. Sadly, we’ll never get to see him try again.

(IMAGE: James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy in The Drop. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

Don’t Call Them “Chick Flicks”: The Return of HF3.


Clear your calendars for late October: The 12th High Falls Film Festival has announced a four-day slate of films, parties, symposia and special guests, all set for Thursday through Sunday, October 23-26. This is the second consecutive HF3 event to feature a return to the women-themed programming that distinguished the festival when is started in the early 2000s.

IKnowAWomanLikeThat3 (blog)The guests of honor will be Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen and her mother Elaine, an Emmy-winning poet, producer and playwright; Virginia produced Elaine’s documentary I Know A Woman Like That, HF3’s opening-night film, in which the elder Madsen interviewed a host of women across the age spectrum to hear the stories of their lives.

Other featured selections in the festival will include The Park Bench, a dialogue-based romcom that takes place largely on the titular piece of outdoor furniture; We Weren’t Given Anything for Free, a documentary that explores the memories of three Italian women who lived through the German occupation of their homeland during World War II; and Lies I Told My Little Sister, a family drama occurring during a Cape Cod vacation.

The weekend will also include a series of children-oriented short films curated by Ruth Cowing, the festival’s original programmer; and the return of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Running on Empty), a 2005 winner of the festival’s Susan B. Anthony Failure is Impossible Award.

Tickets go on sale Sept. 19; for more information, including a complete schedule, visit the High Falls Film Festival website.