REVIEW: The Drop

17 09 2014

In nearly every film appearance over the past five years, Tom Hardy has established himself as a man’s man.  Be it through delivering brutal beatings in “Bronson,” “Warrior,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” or by providing a portrait of masculinity both polished (“Inception“) and rugged (“Lawless“), he’s been a paradigm of behavioral virility.

In “The Drop,” however, Hardy tries on a different persona: a mild-mannered, soft-spoken simpleton.  When juxtaposed with all his previous films – even “This Means War” – the contrast is jarring enough to grab some attention.  As Bob Saginowski, the bartender unwittingly drawn into a robbery of dirty money from his establishment, Hardy is still effective even in his quietude.

All the shenanigans that follow don’t really give Hardy much of a chance to show any range in this newly subdued register.  He gets a quasi-romantic arc with Noomi Rapace’s Nadia, who really feels like little more than the means to introduce the film’s primary antagonist, Matthias Schoenarts’ Eric Deeds.  Bob does manage to draw some sympathy, though, by adopting and caring for a beaten pitbull that seems to have sauntered out of a Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial.

But beyond its leading man, “The Drop” has very little to offer that we have not already seen countless times (not to mention better).  Director Michael R. Roskam does not seem to inflect the action with any stakes, so it subsequently comes across as low intensity.  Though it runs a slender hour and 45 minutes, the film feels substantially longer.

Perhaps fans of James Gandolfini, who appears in his last on-screen role here as Bob’s business partner, will want the action to drag on so they can maintain the illusion that he is still with us. He gives a good performance, to be clear.  Yet I found myself asking the same question as when I left “A Most Wanted Man,” which will be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last non-“Hunger Games” role: is this really the movie on which a great actor would want to go out?  Just another ho-hum, forgettable mob thriller?  C+2stars

REVIEW: Passion

6 08 2013

PassionI don’t even know where to begin with Brian DePalma’s “Passion,” an instant contender for the worst movie of 2013.  It’s one of the tackiest and most tasteless films I’ve ever seen, an exploitative B-movie that tries to masquerade as something classier.  It isn’t.

Though it cries to be taken seriously as an art film, I place “Passion” next to “The Hangover Part III” in terms of a disturbing trend from summer movies in 2013.  Both films take an undercurrent of same-sex attraction from their prior incarnations (for “Passion,” this is a well-made French thriller from 2010 called “Love Crime“) and turn into ridiculous and overt subject matter.  While the relationship between manipulative boss Christine and her brilliant protege Isabelle had some tension in the original film, it’s to the point of full-on make-outs and lesbian love declarations.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  However, we don’t live in a time where homosexuality needs to be transmuted into some exotic abnormality, so the campiness of “Passion” plays as somewhat offensive and insensitive.  Noomi Rapace at least plays Isabelle with some grounding in reality. Rachel McAdams’ Christine, on the other hand, is played with all the gusto of her iconic Regina George from “Mean Girls” but with all the energy channeled into making her an insatiable sexual animal.

Although to put the blame for “Passion” on the shoulders of its two leading ladies is unfair.  The movie is a mess because of director Brian DePalma, whose attempts at Adrian Lyne-esque steaminess or Wachowskian cerebral thrills just fall flat on their face.  His adaptation of “Love Crime” drains every ounce of subtlety from the story, turning a tale of professional rivalries turned criminal into crazy lesbian bloodlust (to be short and blunt about what this film is).

“Passion” aims for somewhere between Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” but falls firmly into the territory of unintentional farce destined for the $2 DVD bin at CVS Pharmacy.  D+1halfstars

REVIEW: Prometheus

17 12 2012

It’s rare to see any movie delve into deep theological, ontological, and existential questions that have puzzled humanity for millennia.  “Prometheus” isn’t even a pensive indie – it’s a blockbuster – and it still ponders them deeply in the far reaches of our universe to satisfying and intellectually stimulating effect.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and John Spaihts don’t pretend to have any answers.  Thankfully, they don’t have that kind of hubris.  After all, these are the quandaries that have kept philosophers twiddling their thumbs.  But it doesn’t ever feel like a cop out or negligent writing.  They effectively stage a thoughtful drama in outer space and pose the questions to a new audience in an freshly compelling frame.

A number of people have quibbled about the small things in “Prometheus,” such as its fidelity to the “Alien” franchise, the plausibility of various events, the nature of the “engineers” that serve as the mysterious beings for the film, and the motivations of certain characters.  And if you really wanted to nitpick Scott’s film, I’m sure you could find some flaws and holes in the plot.  I, for one, really want to know why people are apparently unable to run laterally a century from now.

But to harp on the fine print is to miss the point of “Prometheus” entirely.  It’s a layered cerebral and psychological drama that just happens to use the framework of science-fiction.  The film finds fascinating parallels between the mysteries of extra-terrestrial life and the mystery of our own origins and existence.  Then, it heightens our senses and gets the heart racing.  The mind, naturally, wants to catch up and runs in overdrive after the movie to ponder what it just experienced.

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REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

4 01 2012

I was largely against popular opinion with my disappointed ambivalence towards Guy Ritchie’s first “Sherlock Holmes” film, writing two years ago that “it fails to captivate and engross like detective stories are supposed to do.”  I then went on to make a statement that is now quite ironic: “I do look forward to seeing the sequel which was clearly set up in the ending, hoping in the meantime that Ritchie and his team can figure out a way to get me more engaged.”

Well, here we are, two years later, and I’ve seen “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” Ritchie’s follow-up.  As I sat in the theater and each interminable minute passing felt like five times as long, I wished I could have been sitting in the first movie.  Everything wrong about the 2009 reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective series was multiplied and magnified, and most of what was done right was gone entirely.  Robert Downey Jr. is now skating on thin ice with me as I’m now almost totally averse to his pompous smugness.  It was awesome in “Iron Man,” amusing in “Sherlock Holmes,” annoying in “Iron Man 2,” and it’s just acrid in “A Game of Shadows.”

He’s suffering from what I’ve dubbed “Johnny Depp syndrome” – a performance and a persona dubbed iconic will eventually become an imitation and a mere shadow of its former self if repeated multiple times.  And with a movie this poorly plotted, Ritchie needed Downey at his A-game … and wound up getting probably about a C or a C minus-game.  His Holmes, this time around, feels jaded and bored, which makes me wonder if it’s the character or the actor who we are really seeing reflected on the screen.

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REVIEW: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

3 08 2011

Had I not read the whole of Stieg Larsson’s fascinatingly intriguing Millenium trilogy, I probably would have given up on Niels Arden Oplev’s lackluster film adaptations back whenever “The Girl Who Played With Fire” stunk it up like a skunk.  “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” the final installment of the Swedish-produced trilogy, turns the series around in a positive direction but not nearly drastically or radically enough to make it all that worthwhile of a moviegoing experience.  The faithful adage “read the book first” still rings true, although I won’t be as harsh to say it has never rang truer.

The series does a pretty intense tonal shift in the third segment, becoming less of an intensely violent thriller and more of an Aaron Sorkin-esque courtroom drama.  (Hey, that’s actually a great idea – let’s start an Internet petition to bring together “The Social Network” dream team for the American version of this movie!)  Because of this, it’s almost unfair to compare it to the previous two movies in the series.  It has to rely on the Larsson’s plot for the suspense, which is actually a really good thing.  As its predecessor showed us, the late author knows best.

Rapace’s performance is sharp again as her Lisbeth Salander, a unique cinematic creation, endures the crucible of a lifetime in her confrontation of the vast injustices that have plagued her life.  She is, once again, the highlight of the movie and perhaps the only reason I can give to watch the movie instead of read the book.  Larsson’s prose is infinitely more exciting on a page than watching Oplev’s attempt at translating its zing.  If you really can’t keep from biting your nails until David Fincher gets his hands on the series, this will help you bide your time – but won’t really do much else.  B- / 

REVIEW: The Girl Who Played With Fire

14 06 2011

In retrospect, all my complaints about “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” were nothing compared to the ones I can lodge against its sequel, “The Girl Who Played With Fire.”  This adaptation of Steig Larsson’s incredibly intricate and suspenseful novel ultimately amounts to little more than a visualization of his major plot points.  As a reader of the trilogy, this was disappointing but acceptable.  However, as a watcher and reviewer of movies, this was a sloppy movie severely lacking in many significant areas.

For one, basic acting technique.  Generally, when trying to convey emotions and the importance of events, actors create stakes that then register with the audience and goad them toward the appropriate response to what’s taking place on screen.  Meryl Streep creates stakes; Al Pacino creates stakes; even Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart create stakes.  Yet no one in “The Girl Who Played With Fire” seems to be interested in creating stakes, though, making the movie a muddled mess where the characters just seem to wander from event to event without any idea of their importance.  I can’t even imagine how hard this movie must be to watch for someone not familiar with Larsson’s far superior book.

The movie makes the same mistake as its predecessor in cutting out all subplot to focus on Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist).  This time around, it’s a fatal move as the supporting characters are so crucial to the storyline as Blomkvist searches for answers to a series of murders that seem to have Salander’s name written all over it.  In addition, Nyqvist’s total lack of emotion makes his carrying the movie simply unbearable.  I know it’s cliched to say “the book is so much better, read it before you see the movie,” so I won’t say that.  Read the book instead of seeing the movie.  C+ / 

REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

1 06 2011

After seeing the awesome new trailer for David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of Steig Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (which simply has to be watched – because what else do you have to do between now and Christmas?), I decided it was finally time for me to bite the bullet and watch the Swedish version that had been sitting atop my Netflix queue for nearly a year.  The length (146 minutes) and language daunted me, especially as my main block of free time came at the time of day when I would be least capable of reading subtitles: right as I would be about to fall asleep.

But, as David Fincher’s teaser trailers always seem to do exceedingly well, I felt completely drawn into the world on the screen, and I suddenly felt an irrepressible urge to immerse myself into Larsson’s Millenium trilogy.  It was certainly nice to get a visualization of the story, yet just like countless adaptations before it, it doesn’t hold a candle to Larsson’s novel.  Watching anything related to the book is a great pleasure; however, the film doesn’t adequately capture all the nuances and the subtleties that separate “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” from your average cerebral thriller.

The stories of journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) investigating the 40-year-old unsolved case of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger and the various activities of cryptically mysterious hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) are presented in a very boiled-down manner that stays largely true to Larsson’s plotline.  Only a few minor details are altered, which will nag only the devoted and detailed readers (like myself).

Yet other than the two main characters, few other figures from Larsson’s novel get a decent screen treatment.  The Vanger family, such an interesting mix full of wild cards, is largely excised from the film, shorting those who didn’t read the book first.  Obviously, the large volume had to be cut, but the filmmakers made a big mistake taking the Vangers out.  While they may complicate matters, their presence makes us feel like Mikael – confounded and unsure of everyone’s true nature.

The movie does have one saving grace, and her name is Noomi Rapace.  She ventures to the dark side and really inhabits Salander, a multi-dimensional character that puzzles everyone if played right.  Flirting the border between mentally ill and justifiably angry with a world that has pushed her into a dark corner, Rapace’s Salander is a true marvel.  Even though we are never entirely sure of Salander’s intentions, we can see that Rapace is sure through just glancing into her eyes and seeing a clutter of emotions competing for prevalence.  Other than Rapace, the cast is dull and unexciting, especially Nyqvist.  Had someone put a cardboard standout in place of Nyqvist and had the caterer read his lines off-camera, we would have seen a performance of the same emotional caliber.

So while this “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a satisfying adaptation for now, I’m counting down the days until I can see what happens when a true artistic visionary like David Fincher gets his hands on the story.  If the trailer is indicative of the entire movie, I think we will be seeing Fincher having more fun than ever … and that’s reason to get excited for the feel-bad movie of Christmas.  B /