A Walk Among The Tombstones

 

Is Liam Neeson the new Charles Bronson? He’s out for revenge again in the dark new film A Walk Among The Tombstones.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is an ex NYC cop and recovering alcoholic. When wealthy drug dealers have family members kidnapped for ransom, they call him. (Because, you see, they are engaged in illegal activity they can’t call the police.)

Scudder may seem to have no moral compass—he makes a surprising comment regarding police corruption—but, of course, he does. He relentlessly pursues the two kidnappers until their encounter in a cemetery during the film’s homestretch. (There’s key earlier scene in that same cemetery.)

Scudder is also shown participating in AA meetings. We learn via flashbacks why he is no longer on the force (despite apparent heroics at the film’s beginning).

Along the way, Scudder encounters a black teen named T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley. He was the constant videographer in this summer’s failed kid movie Earth To Echo.) Scudder’s relationship with T.J. gives the severe ex-cop an opportunity to show his human side.

After the cemetery rendezvous, Scudder and the victimized drug dealers (and T.J.) follow the kidnappers to their home where the final faceoff occurs. The climax of A Walk Among The Tombstones provides partial satisfaction to this gritty tale.

Lawrence Block has written 17 Matt Scudder novels. It’s safe, I think, to assume that this could become a franchise for Neeson, depending on responses from moviegoers to AWATT. Block co-wrote the script with director Scott Frank.

Neeson has become typecast as a burdened soul who rights wrongs. With the Taken films, this past winter’s Non-Stop and now A Walk Among The Tombstones, he has shown that he wears the role well. Why shouldn’t he continue starring in the kinds of roles his fans want to see?

Tusk

 

Tusk is an odd amusement. This is NOT a movie for everyone.

The story comes from a podcast featuring writer/director Kevin Smith and fellow podcaster Scott Mosier. Their brainstorm evolved into a tale about a man who is held hostage and turned into a walrus. When the film’s first trailer was released this summer, no hints were given that the film might be funny.

Tusk is funny. It’s also (at various points) weird, clever, dumb, frightening, gross, off-putting and lovable. But, as noted, this is not a movie for everyone.

Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) are L.A.-based podcasters who talk about a kid in Manitoba who injured himself severely with a sword. Video of the injury goes viral. Wallace goes to Canada to interview the kid, but finds that he is dead.

Wallace finds a curious note on the wall of a Winnipeg men’s room and, wanting some good audio for his podcast, heads out to find the note’s writer, Howard Howe (Michael Parks). Howe shares his story of being rescued at sea by a walrus. Wallace is drugged and awakens to discover just how disturbed Howe is.

Wallace manages to leave voicemails for his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy. They go to Canada to find and rescue Wallace. Along the way, they encounter an investigator named Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp in an uncredited role) who provides a few of the film’s comedic highlights.

Tusk has some silly jokes about American/Canadian culture. (A convenience store is named “Eh-2-Zed.”) Stick around during credits for an audio clip of the podcast that spawned this bit of wackiness.

Kevin Smith is known for taking risks in his moviemaking. His Dogma is one I watch any time I flip by it. Tusk is strange enough that it’s likely to be embraced as genius by certain of Smith’s devotees. It is entertaining enough for me—I appreciate this film’s strangeness—but, as noted above, Tusk is not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Is Where I Leave You

 

This Is Where I Leave You tries hard but falls short. The film waffles between being a story about Judd’s (Jason Bateman) breakup with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) and being an ensemble piece about a family whose father/husband has just died. It tries to be a comedy but is only partially successful. It tries to touch our emotions but is only partially successful.

The cast of TIWILY is impressive. The adult children of Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) are Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stall) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Kathryn Hahn plays Paul’s wife Alice. Connie Britton is Phillip’s lover, Tracy. Wendy’s husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) gets very little face time.

The movie opens with Judd catching his wife cheating with his boss (Dax Shepard) who is an outrageous testosterone-fueled satellite radio host. This is where he leaves his wife. Soon after, dad leaves his family behind. So there’s your title.

When the siblings come home to bury their dad, mom tells them that his last wish was that the 4 of them spend a full week in the house. One might expect hilarity to ensue here, but the humor is weak and the film is not as funny as hoped for. TIWILY has its moments, but the overall chuckle factor is rather low on the scale.

Yes, there are those relatable family moments when long-buried memories and resentments resurface. There are those moments when perceptive family members figure out that another isn’t being completely honest. There are reconnections with the past, including Judd’s fling with Penny (Rose Byrne) who just happens to be working at the family’s sporting goods store.

Shawn Levy, who directed the Night At The Museum movies, Date Night and one of my kids’ favorites, Big Fat Liar, is director for TIWILY. He does a nice job of squeezing in numerous characters and plot points with only a handful of each getting shortchanged.

I keep comparing this film with 2005’s The Family Stone, which presented both the emotional moments and the funny stuff better. This Is Where I Leave You is not a “bad” film. If you’re a fan of Jason Bateman or Tina Fey, you’ll enjoy seeing them onscreen. But TIWILY is a middle-of-the-pack movie that, for me, inspires deep feelings of indifference.

 

The Drop

 

Bob Saganowski (Tom Hardy) is one of my favorite movie characters of 2014. He’s a bartender at Cousin Marv’s in the new film The Drop, a crime drama set in an Archie Bunker sort of neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marv, the bar’s former owner who still runs the place, is played by James Gandofini in his final film performance.

The bar is a place for money drops of ill-gotten gains. Various criminals throughout an evening hand over envelopes filled with cash. The cash is dropped into a safe. The story is kick started with an armed robbery of the bar.

Bob is a seemingly simple man. His life consists of tending bar, accepting the cash drops and going each day to mass, where he never takes communion. Bob’s rescue of an abused dog from a garbage can leads to his friendship with and attraction to Nadia (Noomi Rapace).

Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a small-time local hood who tells Bob the dog is his and makes threats against Bob and the dog. Deeds is in cahoots with Marv to pull an inside job and take all the money to be dropped at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday—a huge day for bookies.

Another key player is police detective Torres (John Ortiz) who investigates the first robbery and recognizes Bob from the daily mass. Torres appears to know what is going on with each of the characters, but chooses to let things happen.

The Drop is filled with strong performances from the actors playing each of the main characters. But it is Tom Hardy as Bob who soars. With his odd version of a Brooklyn accent and his slow, deliberate manner, Bob is revealed to have more going on than is initially obvious. Expect Hardy to be mentioned during awards season for his work here.

The script is by Dennis Lehane who wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Belgian Michael Roskam directed. The story here is good, but it’s the characters—and the actors filling those roles—who provide the best reason to see and appreciate The Drop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The November Man

 

The November Man is a decent enough spy thriller but it may seem like others you’ve seen before. Interestingly, even before its release, word is already out that the film will have a sequel.

In The November Man, Peter Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan) is an ex-CIA agent who is recruited come back and help bring down the Russian Federov (Lazar Ristovski) who is in line to become the country’s next president. Devereaux’s first step, getting a woman out of Russia, fails, thanks to the bullets of another CIA team.

Turns out that the unfriendly fire came from a group led by young David Mason (Luke Bracey), an agent who trained under Devereaux and years before was chastised by Devereaux for screwing up a mission and killing a child.

Devereaux goes to Belgrade to protect Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) from nasty Russian assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic). Alice has the goods on Federov and his mistreatment of civilians during the Chechen war versus Russia.

Pierce Brosnan is a likeable actor who still carries some heft at age 61. And Luke Bracey, an Aussie who’s had little exposure on U.S. screens, is solid enough for the role as Brosnan/Devereaux’s CIA ally/rival.

Some of the film’s plot elements may leave you scratching your head and wondering, “why did they do that?” But it all comes together—sort of—at the end and good overcomes evil once more.

Whether you want to see The November Man depends on how big a Pierce Brosnan fan you are. This is not quite as iconic a role as Bond, but, presuming this film and its sequel do okay, it could become a trademark role for the sexegenerian.

 

 

 

 

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

 

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is beautiful and ugly—at the same time. The screen is filled with memorable images demonstrating the stark contrast between darkness and light. It’s a movie in basic black and white with color added sparingly to highlight key elements. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is, stylistically, gorgeous to look at.

The ugly part comes from the bad behavior of the film’s characters. Gunplay, along with sword and arrow play, result in generous splattering of blood and moans of anguish. Though much of the damage to various bodies is presented with over-the-top, comic book unrealism, there’s enough grisly stuff here to elicit the occasional cringe.

The film’s voiceover narrations in classic film noir fashion are perfect. Dwight (Josh Brolin), Marv (Mickey Rourke) and Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) deliver monologues that advance the film’s plot and provide a window into their private thoughts.

Of the film’s stories, the most compelling is that of Dwight and the unhappily married Ava (Eva Green). He knows that she’s manipulative and will lead to trouble, be he can’t resist her charms. Green is model-thin but busty and unclothed for a great portion of her time onscreen. She is the dame to kill for. My favorite shot in the film is her dive into a swimming pool with the pool surface mirroring her graceful form.

After Dwight is roughed up, he visits the hookers in Sin City’s sleaze strip called Old Town. Led by Gail (Rosario Dawson), they heal his serious wounds. With help from the hookers, including the ninja-like Miho (Jamie Chung), and the fierce and enormous Marv, he goes back to exact his revenge.

Two other stories involve the evil Senator Roark (Powers Booth). He and his henchmen bring terror and pain to Johnny following Johnny’s big win at the poker table. And stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) looks to avenge Roark’s killing of her guy Hartigan (Bruce Willis).

As with 2005’s Sin City, the new SC:ADTKF is more about look and characters than about the narrative. When good and evil intersect, there’s conflict. And there’s plenty of conflict to go around.

Other cast members worth mentioning are Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Stacy Keach and Ray Liotta. (And the lineup of classic cars is very cool.)

Co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have created one of my favorites of 2014. For fans of the film noir genre and the comic/graphic novel print format, as well as for those who appreciate the visual art of cinema, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is one to see and enjoy!

 

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

 

It’s always a good thing when a film turns out to be better than expected. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those movies, though maybe its release could’ve been better timed.

April O’Neill (Megan Fox) is a New York TV reporter who wants to break the story of the vigilantes who are foiling bad guys but she can’t produce hard evidence of their existence. Her cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett) urges her to stick to the fluff stories she’s assigned.

When April finally gets the scoop on the TMNTs she can’t spill the beans, lest she blow their cover and sabotage their efforts. She and Will join in to help the Turtles stop the evil Foot Clan.

In this origin story, the four TMNTs are shown to have been spawned by a lab episode gone wrong. Turns out April’s dad was killed in an accident in that same lab and the tiny turtles who morphed into the TMNTs had been April’s pets back in the day. Small world, huh?

This campy tale brings to mind certain aspects of the Batman saga, such as the secrecy and the revenge factor. TMNT has some funny stuff, but can’t quite match up to last week’s release, Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s violence galore in this PG-13 rated film with a couple of battle sequences that last just a bit too long.

TMNT is a fun action film that offers great effects and a few neat surprises. If you like this sort of movie, see it and enjoy it.

But it is likely to be buried at the box office this weekend by Guardians of The Galaxy, which has great momentum and strong word-of-mouth buzz. GOTG should hold on to its #1 standing again this weekend. Had TMNT been released earlier this summer it might’ve had a better shot at hitting a box office homerun.

 

 

The Hundred Foot Journey

 

The Hundred-Foot Journey has excellent credentials. Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg are among the film’s producers. The great Helen Mirren is the main star. The film is set in France. It’s based on a popular novel. It promises and delivers gorgeous food images.

But it’s not a particularly good movie.

The Kadam family is forced to leave India. Their ultimate destination is France. They take over a building directly across the street from a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The Indians, led by Papa (Om Puri), are boisterous in sharp contrast to Mallory and her refined crew. They are just 100 feet away. (And I’d always thought France was on the metric system!)

One of Mallory’s cooks, the gorgeous Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), befriends young Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), sharing cookbooks with him and encouraging him to elevate his ambitions. He gets hired by Mallory, passes Marguerite on the kitchen pecking order and, thanks to his spicing up the food just a bit, brings the restaurant up a notch to two Michelin stars.

He then moves on the to big leagues, nabbing a chef gig in Paris. He leads an active social lifestyle, but begins to miss the folks back home.

Why does The Hundred-Foot Journey fall short of greatness? The characters are not particularly compelling. It’s pleasant to watch Hassan and Marguerite’s chaste budding romance, but I wasn’t particularly concerned about their ultimate fates. Meanwhile, it’s not a surprise when Papa and Mallory are shown to have soft spots in their hearts despite their tough exterior personalities. Still, I did not have a soft spot in my own heart for either of them.

Despite my misgivings, here’s why you may want to see The Hundred Foot Journey: It’s rated PG. No language, sex or violence. It’s like a Hallmark Channel movie with a bigger budget. Also, the food looks great. (Although this year’s other foodie movie, Chef, caused me to leave the theater hungrier than THFJ did.)

The film’s message—that different cultures (and cuisines) can combine to deliver great outcomes—is an admirable one. It’s also one that can be observed in dining establishments and other businesses around St. Louis every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get On Up

 

The number one reason to see Get On Up is to witness the performance of Chadwick Boseman. He’s fantastic—singing, dancing and acting.

The story of singer James Brown (Boseman) is cleverly told out of sequence by director Tate Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Episodes depict performances as well as Brown’s dealings with family, fellow musicians and strangers.

James Brown’s dysfunctional upbringing led him to unsavory behaviors as an adult. That rough childhood also gave him the will to be his own man, not dependent on others.

The musical performances in locales from Vietnam to Paris to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the set of the movie Ski Party to a Cincinnati recording studio are uniformly excellent and fun to watch. If Boseman really did all those dance moves, he proved himself to be just as athletic here than as he was in last year’s 42 biopic where he starred as baseball great Jackie Robinson.

Brown and mom Susie (Viola Davis) had a troubled relationship. His abandonment issues resurface in a tearful reunion. Brown was abusive to his wife Dee Dee (Jill Scott, who makes a strong impression in her minimal screen time) but she hung in with him. Brown’s up and down relationship with musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) is resolved in the movie’s final half hour.

Unlike many black characters from all eras in modern movies, in Get On Up, James Brown has an authentic Southern black dialect. Hats off to the filmmaker for making that choice. Boseman nails the memorable rasp in JB’s voice.

Get On Up could use a bit of tightening up. But despite its just-a-bit-too-long run time, the film reveals much about a man who was a genuine pop icon. And whether you are/were a James Brown fan or not, Boseman’s performance will impress you.

 

Guardians Of The Galaxy

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is a big ol’ chunk of sci-fi fantasy fun. Because of its characters, the film resembles a cartoon. But it’s all live action, with some help from computer-generated images. St. Louis native James Gunn directed and co-wrote the script.

Earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) AKA Star-Lord is a child of the 80’s who grooves on music from the 70’s. (Come And Get Your Love by Redbone is the film’s opening theme.) He’s the quasi-leader of this motley crew, similar to Han Solo, but with more flaws and funnier.

Rocket Raccoon is a CGI figure that could pass for real. He’s voiced by Bradley Cooper and has a sardonic smart-ass attitude and several good laugh lines.

Another CGI guy is Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel. Groot—who resembles a big tree—is not particularly graceful but he gets to play a vital role as the 5 guardians try to save the galaxy.

Rounding out the team are Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an alien assassin with bad attitude and Drax (Dave Bautista). You saw Saldana as a blue character in Avatar; here she’s green. Drax is an enormous hulk of a creature with a violent streak.

The film’s plot centers around a mysterious orb that Quill has stolen. Bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) and his henchmen and women want it back.

The story is not why you want to see GOTG. You want to meet and enjoy these characters, especially Quill. This role appears to be a star-making turn for Chris Pratt. (He also was a key player in another of the year’s better films, The Lego Movie. He voiced lead character Emmet Brickowski.)

Another reason to embrace Guardians of the Galaxy is its cool oldies soundtrack. From Go All The Way by Raspberries to It Takes Two by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Good stuff!

Is GOTG suitable for younger kids? It’s rated PG-13, so this is where moms and dads will have to exercise real parental guidance. Today’s 8 and 10 year olds may have been exposed to more violent images than Millenials born just a few years earlier, so recommending a minimum age is dicey. But the content has huge kid appeal.

Presuming that your age is well into double digits, I have no qualms about recommending Guardians of the Galaxy to everyone. Big fun!