Thursday, May 22, 2014

Cold in July Review

Jim Mickle’s “Cold In July” is a peculiar mix of genres. At times a revenge thriller, and at others a noir, slasher, with a splash of grindhouse. It can get messy at times and there are some awkward changes in tone, but it never fails to be entertaining and unpredictable.

The movie revolves around Richard Dane (Michael C Hall), a mild mannered upstanding East Texas citizen with a wife and son who runs a picture-framing store. The trouble begins when he shoots an intruder dead in his home in the middle of the night. Being the passive nonviolent fellow he is, this event leaves him nervous and shaking, even feeling guilty. Because of this guilt he decides to go to the funeral of the man and runs into the intruder’s dad Russell (Sam Shepard), who’s just been granted parole and isn’t happy.

In many respects Richard resembles a typical Film Noir protagonist: the seemingly innocent civilian who puts his life and his family’s on the line. For a while we think it’s going to be about Russell’s attempt to kill Richard out of vengeance and Richard’s obligation to protect his family from danger once again. And this is the way it plays out for a while, Russell stalks the family, seeming to materialize out of nowhere similar to a horror movie villain such as Michael Meyers. And Jeff Grace’s old school synthesizer soundtrack gives this entire section a slasher film vibe.

However this story resolves itself after about twenty minutes or so when the movie mutates into something totally different. Richard becomes uncertain as to whether the guy he shot was actually Russell’s son and becomes suspicious that there’s a cover-up involving the police. Things take an even stranger turn when Russell and Richard join forces and together with Houston private eye (Don Johnson, decked out in cowboy gear) try to uncover what’s really going on.

In some respects “Cold in July” plays out like a pulpier version of a Hitchcock film. Screenwriters Mickle and Nick Damici (based on the book by Joe R Lansdale) keep the viewers on their toes the entire time, just when you think you know how the movie is going to play out it takes a left turn into darker and darker territory. Near the end when the final disturbing twist of the plot is revealed (accompanied by Grace’s synthesizer music again) it turns into a full-blown, gory 70’s/80’s grindhouse style movie.

Admittedly, “Cold in July” doesn’t have quite the same finesse of a Hitchcock film, as I mentioned above there are some sudden shifts in tone. The movie primarily wants to be dark in tone but at times it veers into silliness, which doesn’t always work. I also thought Richard and Russell’s transition from foes to friends was a bit abrupt. I find it strange that Richard would be so quick to help Russell after being threatened by him. In fact at one point Russell even breaks into his house and hides in the crawlspace only to almost kill his son. Kind of creepy if you ask me.

Nevertheless, the picture still succeeds in being a tense and compelling southern noir. Hall, who’s known mainly for playing a serial killer with a strict moral code on the TV show “Dexter” does a fantastic job of portraying an innocent family man who becomes capable of doing violent acts for the sake of “good.” While Shepard goes from being an intimidating ex con in search of vengeance to a concerned dad in search of truth and ultimately has to make an extremely tough decision. And Johnson is amusing as the private eye character that provides a little comic relief as the film mines darker and darker territory.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

God's Pocket Review

John Slattery’s “God’s Pocket” introduces various characters and plot strands but doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. It boasts an impressive cast, with the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman (in one of his last roles), John Turturro, Christina Hendricks and Richard Jenkins. While cinematographer Lance Accord gives the picture a naturalistic, at times noir-ish look. However the screenplay—by Slattery and Alex Metcalf, based on the book by Peter Dexter--doesn’t do an adequate job of developing the characters and overall, the story is half-baked and bland, resulting in the movie being underwhelming and pointless.

The film is set in the Philadelphia neighborhood God’s Pocket. It’s one of those dead-end blue-collar neighborhoods full of simple folk that are born and raised there and never leave. They work some manual labor job and then go to the local dank and dim bar and, in the words of one of the characters, “talk about things they don’t understand.” If the movie is about anything you can be sure of it’s that the world is a harsh unforgiving place. God’s Pocket is the kind of neighborhood where people will cover up a murder that’s blatantly taken place on a job site, or where the funeral home director will leave a cadaver outside in the pouring rain because he didn’t get his fee.

Oddly enough, both those things happen to Mickey (Hoffman) one way or the other. When we first meet him he’s in a lifeless marriage with a woman named Jeanie (Hendricks) and his involvement in illegal activities (gambling, stealing a meat truck, etc.) with his friend Arthur (John Turturro) seems to be his full time job. The trouble begins when Jeanie’s son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed at a construction site. The workers cover it and Mickey makes funeral arrangements. However, Jeanie thinks something is up and wants answers; meanwhile, due to a gambling loss, Mickey has no money to bury his stepson. Poor Leon only has about five minutes of screen time but in that he’s shown as being a racist, ignorant, stubborn asshole that gets what he deserves.

The problems with “God’s Pocket” begin right away; why should we care whether this guy gets buried or not? And why should Mickey go through as much hassle as he does to do it? He’s his stepson after all and the two spend zero time together. Now you could say, “but he’s married to Jeanie so he’s doing it because he loves her.” Well the two of them spend practically no time together either, there’s no sign of a relationship between them and their individual characters aren’t fleshed out well enough to make us look past this.

At only ninety minutes, “God’s Pocket” is unbelievably short and could have easily benefited from being longer to allow for more character development and more story development. By the end, so little is accomplished. Jeanie’s decision to look for answers as to what happened to her son is never really followed through, and since we know what happened to Leon and also know that he’s a jerk, there’s no reason for the audience to care about any of it either. A subplot involving Arthur and his run-in with gangsters is barely developed and resolves abruptly and unsatisfyingly.

There’s also the character of Richard Shellburn  (Jenkins) an alcoholic newspaper columnist who writes about the neighborhood (usually condescendingly) and who is asked to get to the bottom of Leon’s death. Again, like much of everything else, this isn’t followed through. And the character doesn’t serve much of a purpose, other than to be a depressed and sum up the movie’s themes in voice over (disguised in his newspaper columns). A romantic fling between him and Jeanie pretty much comes out of nowhere and doesn’t evolve into anything worthwhile either. The movie is full of flat characters and stories that don’t go anywhere.

The only plot strand that’s actually followed through is Mickey’s adventure (filled with much bad luck) in trying to come up with the money to give Leon a funeral. However, the film begins with said funeral so any chance at tension is immediately eliminated. All the actors give it their best shot, Hoffman gives a good unassuming performance and Jenkins is entertaining as a journalist who thinks he’s above everyone else. Though, they’re ultimately let down by a script desperately in need of a rewrite, or two.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Locke Review

Tom Hardy is one of the best actors working today. At 36 the British born performer can completely immerse himself into a role. He’s an actor of incredible range. He can be big and boisterous as in Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” or as the Batman villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” Or he can be subtle and internalized as in John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” and Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior.” He can be charming and witty—again in Nolan’s “Inception”—or absolutely sloppy and repulsive, again in Refn’s “Bronson.” Like Daniel Day Lewis, Christian Bale, Al Pacino (in his glory days) and countless others he never seems to repeat himself. There’s no such thing as a “Tom Hardy performance.”

In Steven Knight’s--the screenwriter behind David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”—excellent feature “Locke,” Hardy gets to try his hand at the “one man show” movie, playing Ivan Locke who spends the film’s 90 minute running time driving in a car. That’s it. Not exactly an easy task to pull off and yet Knight and Hardy succeed in making an engaging (and yes, exciting) movie in which Locke is developed primarily through dialogue. The supporting characters are only heard in the many phone calls Locke makes and receives.

Knight and cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos shoot “Locke” mainly in medium and close up shots. Sometimes the camera sits inside the car and sometimes it sits just outside the car’s windshields and windows, capturing the glare of streetlights and other car lights--that beautifully illuminate the night sky—as they move across the glass. These shots along with numerous dissolves to the other activity on the freeway give the movie a neat Michael Mann-esque, “Collateral” look. At night in the city, it’s never truly dark.

Before proceeding with this review I must offer a word of warning: those looking for a more conventional exciting crime drama/thriller involving families being taken hostage and gangsters will not find one. Though the movie has a noir-ish look the situation is surprisingly normal, the exchanges Locke has are between his family, friends, and employers. For movie purposes Knight heightens the situation but he still keeps it one hundred percent authentic, nothing feels cheesy or over-the-top and believe it or not Knight does manage to create suspense.

Locke isn’t a hit man or someone who’s desperate for money but a construction foreman. One who’s very knowledgeable about cement and cement pouring. No seriously. Cinema history is full of various “experts” and “professionals,” but Locke is the first “cement expert” I’ve ever seen. He’s so good he can organize a major cement pour over the phone. As silly as this may sound it’s actually refreshing.

As far as plot is concerned, there isn’t much. Essentially the movie is about how Locke’s life falls apart over the course of the drive. Hardy plays him sort of like a hostage negotiator (with the hostage being his own life) trying to maintain order and composure. It’s not a big and showy performance but instead one of remarkable restraint and nuance. Often times it’s his subtle bodily movements and facial features that are most impressive. There are moments while he’s on call with someone when he’s doing his best to keep calm but you can detect a slight look of panic or stress in his face, or the moment when he quickly checks his pulse on his neck during another conversation, suggesting perhaps that he has a history with losing his temper but is going to keep himself together tonight. It’s these little movements—as much as the conversations—that help develop Locke’s character.

The central theme of “Locke” is redemption, or more specifically: taking responsibilities for your actions. There’s nothing forcing Locke to take this drive other than his own conscience. He’s made mistakes in his past, namely having an affair with a coworker and knocking her up. He’s driving to London to witness the birth of his illegitimate child (if this is a spoiler to anyone, I’m sorry but we find this out fairly early on). He also has some pent up aggression against his father who, we gather, was absent from his childhood. At times Locke has imaginary conversations with him in the backseat. In a way, Locke is proving to his dad and especially himself that he can be a good person and take responsibility for what he’s done. He doesn’t have to do any of this; in fact if he didn’t his life probably wouldn’t collapse, but he chooses to do it anyway. And for how dour the movie can be at times, Knight ends it on a hopeful, positive note, suggesting Locke could get things back on track.

Ultimately, everything goes back to Hardy, without him there wouldn’t be a movie. Even though Locke could be looked at as a selfish character Hardy still makes him extremely likable. Hardy seems to get better with each and every role and while it’s very unlikely that he will get any kind of consideration come awards season, Hardy still gives one of the best performances of the year so far.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Fading Gigolo Review

In “Fading Gigolo”—an entertaining and bizarre yet slight picture-- Woody Allen plays a pimp to John Turturro’s Gigolo. Wait! Did I really just write that? Woody Allen and pimp in the same sentence? It’s a fresh and brilliantly absurd bit of casting that’s easily the best part of the movie, especially if you’re familiar with Allen’s history of acting on the big screen.

The now seventy-eight-year-old writer-director has made a name for himself over the years playing the same neurotic, insecure, fast talking fellow again and again, usually in his own movies. Pondering the mortality and the meaning of existence, bellyaching about little things people do, taking Zoloft and seeing an analyst twice a week. The “Woody” persona has practically become ingrained in the culture and is a personal favorite of mine. Ever since being introduced to him in movies like “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and her Sisters” I’ve come to love Allen’s unique presence on screen, almost as much as the movies themselves.

In “Gigolo,” Allen plays more or less the same character. He’s insecure, fast-talking, on Zoloft, seeing an analyst twice a week and pondering mortality and the meaning of existence. However, this time Allen—who plays the character Murray, a bookshop owner who has gone out of business—is more gutsier and proactive. He’s the one who suggests that his friend Fiorvante (Turturro, who also wrote and directed the move), become a Gigolo for some extra money.

You read that right. Usually you’d expect that the Allen character would have to be talked into such an odd endeavor. Not so. In this case, Murray is the confident one who tells Fiorvante that he’s attractive and is good at sex, while Fiorvante is the shy one reluctant to do it. The film is at its best when it focuses on Murray and Fiorvante’s friendship and their adventures in the business that mainly involve two lonely sex crazed women who want to have a threesome. There’s something endearing and wonderfully silly about it and Turturro and Allen play off one another near perfectly.

It’s when “Fading Gigolo” veers away from the friendship and turns into a love story that it runs into problems. One of Fiorvante’s clients is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a strict Hasidic widow. They don’t have sex but he does massage her back, which apparently is a big no no in her religion. Never the less it provides her with some pleasure and mends the loneliness she’s been feeling for quite some time. One of the underlying themes of “Gigolo” seems to be that the gigolo service can provide therapy to lonely women.

After there first meeting the two develop a friendship and Fiorvante begins to get feelings for her. Unfortunately, since the movie is only ninety minutes, neither the relationship nor the theme I mentioned above can be effectively explored, and in the end looks inferior when compared to the wacky gigolo stuff involving Murray and Fiorvante. I also could have done without Liev Schreiber as Dovi, a neighborhood watch captain who lives in Avigal’s neighborhood and is also in love with her and becomes suspicious of what’s going on. Again the character and the side plot simply don’t effloresce into anything resonant.

And yet, I still enjoyed myself during “Fading Gigolo.” I enjoyed watching Allen (especially, Allen. I could watch a whole devoted to Murray) and Turturro together as they navigate the male prostitute business. The film also has a jazzy, energetic score by Abraham Laboriel and Bill Maxwell that keeps things moving along nicely, even if the overall movie is rather insignificant.