Liam Neeson taking on kidnappers, that's nothing new, right? This weekend's release, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is true to form. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a detective who retired from the NYPD after being involved in a violent gunfight while under the influence. A plea for assistance from a fellow AA member involves him in a rather grisly kidnapping plot and also offers him a chance at redemption.
Writer/director Scott Frank (The Wolverine, Minority Report, Get Shorty), is responsible for some of Hollywood's biggest hits. This may not be one of them, as it attempts to re-create the formula of Neeson's Taken series. It is, however, a solid thriller that still manages a few surprises.
First is the introduction of a juvenile yet very capable sidekick. Brian "Astro" Bradley (Earth to Echo) plays TJ, a streetwise kid with a love of detective stories and knack for getting himself in trouble while turning up clues essential to Scudder's investigations. TJ never loses his cool whether confronting street thugs or the 6'4" frame of Neeson, and the young man has the beginnings of a great film career with his first three features (A remake of the 1999 Space Jam has already completed shooting.)
Speaking of shooting, another surprise in A Walk Among the Tombstones was the strong anti-gun message in such a dark and violent film. There are subtle references throughout as well as an emphatic lecture from Scudder to TJ on the subject. It seems out of place in a movie like this, though it serves the plot by providing some audience insight into Scudder's backstory.
What happens when a director makes two movies from different viewpoints using the same plotline, then compiles them into one project? Director Ned Benson made two versions of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby -- one from the viewpoint of Conor (Him) and one from Eleanor's point of view (Her). If, as I did, you expect the compilation of the two films (Them) to include these differing takes, sorry to say that is not the case.
Instead of the experimental feeling the trailer hints at, the film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them shares similarities with other grief-filled indie relationship dramas (Rabbit Hole and Rachel Getting Married specifically come to mind). What sets it slightly apart is the rhythm of this couple's tragic story and the intensity of the actors' performances.
Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) plays the Eleanor Rigby of the title, holing up in her parents' house after a failed suicide attempt. Dark eyeliner coats her eyes as she dons variations of the same outfit - a light shirt over a dark bra - with such costuming screaming her sadness (especially in comparison to the fresh face and sundresses we see her wear in flashbacks).
Other elements that overtly hint at Eleanor's unhappiness include the ambient, meditative score by Son Lux, punctuated by the cheesy pop songs she loves and the classical music her mother (French actress Isabelle Huppert) listens to. Her sister Katy (Jess Weixler, The Good Wife, Teeth) and Eleanor stay in their childhood rooms, decorated by comics such as "Little Nemo in Slumberland." On her way to the subway, Eleanor walks past statements scrawled on building walls; I probably tried too hard to understand the hidden message of the set design (and I don't think there is one, really).
Eleanor won't talk to her husband Conor (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland), so he resorts to following her around. "Can I keep stalking you?" he asks, when an incident finally gets her attention. Ick. Conor is mystified at Eleanor's harsher reaction to the tragic event that hit the couple. He's working to keep his bar afloat, helped and hindered by his chef and friend Stuart (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live).
The Sunday evening screening of the aGLIFF closing-night narrative film, Appropriate Behavior, was a great way to wrap up my time at the festival.
It’s no surprise that the movie was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival; it's a terrific debut feature from writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan. I'm generally not a fan of romantic comedies, but Appropriate Behavior is so thoroughly snarky -- and often so defiantly anti-romantic -- that it's a rom-com even a cynic could tolerate.
Akhavan stars as Shirin, a young Brooklynite who's something of a poster child for the angst of young adulthood. She's still smarting from a hard breakup with her ex-girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). She struggles to be part of her perfect Persian family and is afraid to tell her parents she's bisexual. And her filmmaking career exists only in theory; the closest she comes to making movies is teaching her art -- more like attempting to teach it -- to a class of hyperactive 6-year-olds.
aGLIFF's lineup is heavy on documentaries, and on Saturday I saw two outstanding ones: Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo and Regarding Susan Sontag.
Queens & Cowboys is an enlightening look at 2011 season of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), following a group of cowboys and cowgirls as they compete to qualify for the association's World Finals.
The most enlightening aspect of the film may be the way it portrays the gay rodeo circuit as, well, rodeo; the circuit emphasizes the sport more than the cultural politics. The men in drag and rainbow paraphernalia give the festivities their own personality, but they're a sideshow to the real business at hand: bull and bronc riding, calf roping and the usual assortment of bone-jarring competitions. Aside from allowing women to compete in all events, a gay rodeo is essentially the same as any other rodeo.
A dark and dour documentary about male sex workers in Providence, Rhode Island, Invisible is a reminder of why so many moviegoers avoid documentaries. Not for its quality; it's competently made and tells a compelling story. But that story is one most people don't want to hear, a grim tale of tragic and mostly hopeless lives. Invisible is a window on a world many of us pretend doesn't exist.
Filmmaker Dio Traverso's documentary centers on Richard Holcomb, an activist and former sex worker whose mission is to improve male sex workers' lives and help them avoid contracting HIV/AIDS. Holcomb roams the gritty streets of Providence, handing out condoms and helping his clients find medical care, counseling, and whatever else they need to survive. He also lobbies the local and state governments to support long-term solutions to the sex workers' problems. (Not surprisingly, the government officials promise a lot but do very little to help.)
Filmmakers Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, who have teamed up for Land Ho!, have individually premiered all of their previous features at SXSW Film Festival. They're each known for films where characters are deep in exploration -- about themselves but also perhaps, a mystery (Cold Weather, Passenger Pigeons) or even a landscape (Brooklyn in Quiet City, Kentucky in Pilgrim Song). In Land Ho! (which premiered at Sundance this year), the same type of exploration takes place -- this time in Iceland -- with two primary characters who are gentlemen in their retirement years. It's a change for Katz, whose characters are usually in their late teens/early twenties.
No matter what the age of the characters, however, Stephens and Katz sustain the audience's interest in the type of story that sounds terribly slow and dull when explained in print, but is very rewarding as it unfolds onscreen. Two retired brothers-in-law, Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), couldn't be more different. Mitch is a brash New Orleans doctor who loves talking to people -- and he has no filters -- smoking pot and unabashedly admiring women. Colin is a quiet, thoughtful Australian, frequently embarrassed or annoyed by Mitch. The two embark on a trip to Iceland together, beginning in Reykjavik and heading to less populated locales.
The focus of Land Ho! is the relationship between the Mitch and Colin, and how they affect one another, and where that leads over the course of the movie. The chief entertainment value is Mitch's dialogue, which is often outrageous and eye-opening (I had never heard steak compared to the female anatomy before). Of course, the film's best moments occur when he's not that way, but the conversation is never dull.
Set in a gritty Brooklyn neighborhood during a cold, gray January, The Drop is a twisty crime drama that glooms along at a measured pace. The somber experience is elevated by the skillful performances of the lead actors, and it must be said, by the presence of a pit bull puppy who helps drive the action and counterbalance the moral decay around him.
Don't worry, director Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead) hasn't turned sentimental on us. The world he shows us here is a mean one. Justice comes in the form of bad things happening to bad people, but since nothing good really happens to anyone, these moments are hollow victories.
In his last film performance, James Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, a bar manager bullied into misery by Chechen crime bosses. Tom Hardy is Bob, a stoic bartender, and Noomi Rapace is Nadia, a down-on-her-luck waitress. Life is far from ideal for any of them (there are very few smiles in this movie), but all have strong survival instincts and are doing their best to get ahead.
That's where wildcard Eric Deeds comes in. Played by Matthias Schoenaerts with a truly frightening combination of unpredictability and charisma, Eric's presence and actions pull everyone into a defensive pattern of starts and stops. Though physically much different than he was in Bullhead, Schoenaerts is just as intense here -- he and Roskam make a good team when it comes to skillfully pummeling an audience with a dark story.
Oh, what a difference a year can make, especially for aGLIFF.
The Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival has reclaimed its original name -- retiring its short-lived Polari moniker -- and moved back to its most successful venue, the newly reopened (and debatably improved) Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. And while not all change is good, these changes certainly are; if the crowd at aGLIFF's opening night on Wednesday is any indication, the festival has regained much of its footing after a couple of sparsely attended years.
aGLIFF couldn't have chosen a better opening night film than Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, a powerful and poignant documentary about the titular Wyoming college student who was tortured and murdered in 1998. Shepard's killers admitted killing him because he was gay, and his murder became one of America's most notorious hate crimes.
So why did The Last of Robin Hood leave me completely cold and even slightly disgusted?
This story about Flynn's last days and his relationship with Beverly Aadland, whom he met when she was 15, feels pointless and even occasionally dull. Perhaps it's meant to be another installment in a series of Realistic Portrayals of Stories from Hollywood Babylon, along with The Cat's Meow ... but that movie had style, humor and character depth that this movie lacks. Filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland portrayed teenage characters much more successfully in their previous feature, Quinceanera.
Dakota Fanning plays young Beverly, whom Flynn nicknames Woodsie, his "little wood nymph." He falls for her, she succumbs after an unbelievably rough start ... and more unbelievably, the relationship is aided and abetted by her mother, Florence (Sarandon), a stage mother who is willing to overlook a little statuatory rape to gain her daughter stardom, riches and prestige.
The story opens with Beverly arriving back in LA after Flynn's death "in her arms" in Vancouver, facing a vicious pack of press. Florence is approached by a biographer, and most of the movie is told in flashback with her voiceover. This method works terribly -- the voiceover is painfully obvious, and it's impossible to tell whether we're seeing the story as Florence would tell it, or if it's meant to be more objective.
Firmly ensconced in the Great Depression, a young destitute couple is faced with a tough choice -- how to survive with two newborn sons when they can barely feed themselves -- in the drama The Identical. William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) finds the answer at a evangelical tent service as the preacher Reece Wade (Ray Liotta) reveals that his wife Louise (Ashley Judd) is barren. The Hemsleys give one of their sons to the Wades with the promise that neither boy is to know of the other until after their biological parents pass away.
Blake Rayne debuts as the twin brothers who live very different lives. Drexel Hemsley achieves fame and fortune as a rock and roll star. Ryan Wade grows up under the ever watchful eye of his preacher father and patient mother. He tries to please his father by becoming part of the ministry, but he knows that it's not the true calling that he hears and shares with his estranged brother -- that of music.