movie reviews Sept 2014

the november manland ho!as above, so belowtuskThe Drop

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The Drop
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

There are enough breadcrumbs in Michaël R. Roskam's first American feature to lead an astute viewer to the true nature of Tom Hardy's Brooklyn bartender long before the final reveal. There's a wide-eyed literalness in the character, which makes him seem like an obedient simpleton, but quietly lurking underneath is a stagnant, knowing rot associated more with Norman Bates than Forrest Gump.

In this performance-driven neo-noir, Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, a bartender working at a Brooklyn dive owned by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini). Bob is a devout Catholic who attends Mass regularly but doesn't take communion, while Marv is an erstwhile wiseguy, disgraced as much by his own hubris-riddled mistakes as by changing times. He's lost ownership of his bar, a neighborhood fixture that still attracts locals, to Chechen mobsters, headed by Chovka (Michael Aronov), who engender loyalty through terror and punish treachery with dispassionate torture. Yet, Marv still schemes to pull one over on them, dragging Bob into the mire with him.

Turns out, this isn't the first time Marv has involved Bob in his trouble. The film opens on the 10-year anniversary of the murder of a regular guy from the neighborhood last seen alive at the bar. The crime has gone unsolved, though shifty drug dealer Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) claims he performed the deed as part of a transaction gone wrong. Now, a robbery at the bar brings Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who also regularly attends Mass and who was on the original murder case, investigating both.

The screenplay by Denis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) based on his short story “Animal Rescue,” relies on the closed microcosm of this Brooklyn neighborhood where most residents are living in a depressed stasis. It seems that the area has been stopped in time, evidenced in the interiors of their houses, at the heyday of their parents' lives. The modern world intrudes, but it does not settle here.

Because the film mark's Gandolfini's last performance, there could be a tendency to read a meta-sadness into the delivery of his lines that viewers wouldn't otherwise project onto him. Gandolfini performs well, but the role doesn't exceed his usual stock. Hardy's on-screen transformation of Bob is the performance to watch in the film. It's more subtle than Kevin Spacey's unfurling of Verbal into mastermind Keyser Söze, but as the plot unfolds on Super Bowl Sunday, when the bar is expecting drops of cash needing to be laundered, it's clear that the floor-sweeping bartender is really the one in charge. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 09/28/14)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Kevin Smith, who first ventured into horror territory with 2011’s Red State, again attempts to shock an audience into sitting through what amounts to a glorified podcast rant. Alternating abruptly between grotesque body horror and snarky, dated humor, Tusk is neither particularly funny nor particularly scary.

As a premise, Smith expands the subject of one of his own podcast riffs to feature length: while traveling in Canada, a mean-spirited, self-absorbed podcaster (ring a bell?) is kidnapped by a lunatic hermit bent on surgically transforming him into a walrus. Since the plot direction is made clear early on, the only real tension the film generates is an answer to the audience's question, "Is he really going to show us . . .?"

He is.

And in many movies, such demise would be tragic. As portrayed by Justin Long sporting a portentous porn-stache, however, podcaster Wallace (get it? sounds like . . .) is such a cynical jerk to everyone he comes in contact with that it's difficult to have much sympathy for him.

The remainder of the movie is composed of ineffective efforts to justify its ugly spectacle.

Attempts at humor are sophomoric and, worse, dated. Wallace's podcast is called the "Not-See Party," a title requiring more explanation than it's worth to set-up the inevitable misunderstandings every time he mentions it outside the studio. And mocking Canadian culture (they like hockey) and accents (they pronounce "about" as "aboot") was funnier and fresher 30 years ago on SCTV.

Perhaps the most egregious comedic misfire is the appearance of Johnny Depp as Guy Lapointe, a wacky French-Canadian detective who helps Wallace’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and sidekick (Haley Joel Osment) search for their missing pal. A cross between Inspector Clouseau and Columbo, Depp is an interminable distraction, each scene taking viewers out of the action and undermining what little tension the main story has managed to generate.

Smith also tries to float the movie as a morality tale. In a Freaks-like reversal, Wallace, who has gotten rich making fun of regular folks, is made the ultimate object of ridicule.

But the film also seems intended to comment on a culture that embraces and makes stars of callous creeps like Wallace — and Kevin Smith. Wisely, he leaves it to Michael Parks as demented hermit Howard Howe to voice a preference for the company of beasts over the beastly company of men. Interspersing this philosophy with a shaggy-walrus story, Parks has moments of riveting intensity, balancing his genteel prose with glances that suggest the horrors to come.

Listening to Parks, however, one begins to wonder if, perhaps, this would have worked better as a spoken-word piece. Or as a podcast. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 09/23/14)

As Above, So Below
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

For proof that the found-footage sub-genre of horror films is dead, one need look no further than this latest effort from the Brothers Dowdle. Popularized by 1999's The Blair Witch Project and nearly ubiquitous since 2007's Paranormal Activity,  the illusion of witnessing real-time, amateur footage goosed some decidedly lesser efforts while the core techniques of the shaky-cam and poor lighting provided a tonic to what some considered the excessive gore of ‘80s and ‘90s fright flicks. Despite a promising location, however, much of As Above, So Below is about as scary as watching friends' cell phone footage of their visit to a State Fair haunted house.

ITV and BBC veteran Perdita Weeks appears as perky super heroine Scarlett Marlowe, who, faux-interview clips inform us, speaks four languages, has racked-up multiple PhDs, and boasts a black belt in Krav Maga. All this overachievement is focused on attaining the prize her father died pursuing, the legendary Philosopher's Stone, which he determined was buried in Paris' subterranean Catacombs.

Accompanied by archeologist and  ex-beau George (Mad Men's Ben Feldman), documentary filmmaker Benji (The Purge's Edwin Hodge), and three French twenty-somethings who seem to have no particular expertise apart from a van and some spelunking gear, reckless Scarlett dives right in.

Much has been made of this being the first production granted permission to film in off-limits portions of the catacombs. If so, it seems rather squandered here; beyond a few impressive shots of some tourist areas early on, most of this looks as if it were filmed in an underground storage facility, each room and corridor essentially resembling the last.

While the Brothers Dowdle — John Erick writes and directs; Drew co-writes — seem to want to marry Dan Brown's archeological detective angle with straight-up horror, they and their heroine just don't have the smarts to pull it off. This is the sort of movie in which a map of the city laid over a map of the catacombs matches size and scale perfectly, and in which the translation of Aramaic verse into English still rhymes (apologies to John Ciardi).

Still each new clue leads the group deeper into inanity. Around each corner lies another improbable, at times even snicker-worthy, non-sequitur: a topless female choral group, a flaming Renault, a perfectly preserved Knight Templar, a — God forbid — rotary telephone that won't stop ringing! Few are explained or even mentioned again.

While the filmmaker's ultimately want to suggest that the hell our spelunkers are caught in is a reflection of their own guilty psyches, viewers never learn enough about any of these folks to care in the least. Time and again, faced with the grisly death of yet another teammate, Scarlett simply leaves them behind without a word or a tear, stating, "We've got to keep going."

Thankfully, moviegoers have a choice and would do well to mind the inscription identified above one of the catacomb's chambers, an inscription our plucky PhD fails to attribute to Dante: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 09/02/14)

Land Ho!
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The first feature collaboration by North Carolina School of the Arts grads Martha Stephens (Pilgrim Song) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather) is truly a film of odd couplings. Katz, originally from Portland, is one of the originators of mumblecore (according to Wikipedia, a subgenre of American independent film characterized by low budget production values and amateur actors), while Stephens’ previous movies portray characters trying to escape their Appalachian roots.

For Land Ho!, the two bring professional actor, Australian Paul Eenhoorn (This Is Martin Bonner), together with relative newcomer Earl Lynn Nelson, Stephens’ second cousin. Nelson’s acting experience is limited to two of Stephens’ previous films; this marks his first lead role, which Stephens wrote specifically for him.

It’s not a stretch. The extroverted oculoplastic surgeon from Kentucky plays Mitch, a brash surgeon from New Orleans. As an act of altruism with a thinly disguised ulterior motive, Mitch offers an all-expenses-paid, first-class trip for two to his former brother-in-law Colin, adeptly played by the understated Eenhoorn. The two haven’t seen each other since before Colin’s wife’s funeral (Mitch was divorced from her sister by then).

Colin’s reluctance to accept Mitch’s gift isn’t solely based on pride. He’s lost his entire life savings by investing in his second wife’s business scheme. It was a hasty marriage, and an even hastier divorce. Still, spending time with Mitch tests Colin’s patience. Mitch is crude, insensitive and a bully. When the two meet up with Mitch’s young cousin Ellen (Karrie Crouse) and her friend Janet (Elizabeth McKee), his sexist behavior becomes embarrassing to Colin, and there’s a scene that could easily have gone to a very dark, very bad place.

But Stephens and Katz keep things light — almost too light. Once the two leads leave Reykjavik, the dialog  becomes more introspective. It’s as if the magical landscape of Iceland, with geysers, black sand and hot sprints, is casting its spell on them. Or they’re just succumbing to the natural conversation that comes from driving in a car together. Either way, this improves their rapport. Mitch finally stops riding Colin and exposes his own vulnerabilities, resurrecting the connection they forged years ago by marrying into the same family.

According to interviews with the filmmakers, the script was 70 percent written, 15 percent loosely scripted and 15 percent ad-libbed. The scenes in Iceland were shot over 18 days. With such a condensed shooting schedule, it would seem that the film would have a tight timeline. But the vacationers are allowed to meander, often to a meaningful end, including an anxiety-filled nighttime stroll. But there are times when it seems the filmmakers are just killing time and trying to force a feel-good vibe. When Mitch and Colin exit the car just to dance to Big Country’s 1983 hit “In a Big Country,” their vitality and relevance seem forced and ridiculous. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 09/02/14)

The November Man
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Meat Loaf once sang that "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," but in the case of The November Man, having an able leading man and a proficient director can't make up for a limp script. The idea of having Pierce Brosnan play novelist Bill Granger's rogue spy Peter Devereaux sounds great on paper. Brosnan was probably itching to imbue 007 with the rough edges Devereaux has when he played James Bond during the 1990s.

Devereaux can't get out of impossible situations with the same flare and panache that Bond did, but having trained a good number of the CIA's field agents, he can evade and outgun anybody the agency sends after him, even he's noticeably older than the folks Langley sends to recruit or kill him.

Happily retired, his old boss Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) asks him to return to duty to protect an asset who has damning information on Russian presidential candidate Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). The mission is a setup and goes horribly wrong with Devereaux running for his life and trying to figure out who sent two competing Agency teams on the same mission, dooming it to failure.

The mystery of who has double-crossed the operatives is neither all the surprising or compelling. This seems especially disappointing because The November Man involves multiple fatalities, human trafficking, extensive property damage, an enigmatic relief worker (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) and international intrigue. The fate of nations is hanging in the balance, but a sense of indifference rises whenever director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, The Bank Job) isn't featuring gunshots or car wrecks.

None of the characters are terribly dynamic or thought out, so it's hard to get worked up over the potential survival of any of them. For example, Devereaux has a former protégé named Mason (Luke Bracey), who has been sent to bring him down before the former agent can expose some of the Agency's skullduggery. While Mason is basically a failed student of Devereaux's, he isn't enough of an adversary to make the older agent's flight that interesting.

At least Brosnan's Devereaux can be grim without being completely glum. Devereaux has the nickname "November Man" because of his cold demeanor and his habit of sending adversaries to early graves.

Granger has written a series of novels about Devereaux, but if The November Man, which is based on the book There Are No Spies is any indication, the stories featuring him might need more than a dour attitude. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 09/02/14)

The November Man

Spy stories can be grim,
but they should never, ever
make gunplay boring.

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at
Beck Ireland can be contacted at
Mike Ireland can be contacted at


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