Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bill Hader And Kristen Wiig Excel As THE SKELETON TWINS

Now playing at an indie art house near me:


(Dir. Craig Johnson, 2014)

Former Saturday Night Live cast member Bill Hader has been in dozens of movies since 2006, but other than voicing the lead character in the CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS movies, most have been bit parts with credits like “Man at Store” or “Recumbent Biker” or brief cameos. 

Now Hader gets to carry a film in the flesh, along with co-star (and former SNL collegue) Kristen Wiig, in Craig Johnson’s second feature film THE SKELETON TWINS opening today at an indie art house near me.

Hader and Wiig star as Milo and Maggie, a couple of long estranged twins who get back in touch after both coincidentally attempt suicide on the same day. So yeah, it’s a darkly comic drama.

Wiig’s Maggie invites her brother to stay with her and her husband (Luke Wilson in “bro mode”) at their Nyack, New York home, until he can get back on his feet after being hospitalized for slashing his wrists (her attempt involving almost taking an overdose of pills she keeps secret).

Despite Wilson’s super nice guy demeanor, Wiig has been sleeping with others (most recently her douche scuba instructor played by Boyd Holbrook), and is taking birth control pills while her husband thinks they’re trying to have a baby. Again, this is info she keeps to herself so that she can seem to be the stable sister, while she treats her brother like a “special needs kid,” as Hader’s Milo puts it.

Meanwhile Hader purposely runs into his former high school English teacher (Modern Fmaily’s Ty Burrell in a neatly nuanced performance), now working at a bookstore. Burrell, a conflicted, closeted man, had seduced Hader when he was his student and lost his job over the inappropriate relationship.

One of the most amusing sequences in the film concerns Johanna Gleason, a veteran of a few Woody Allen films and just about every sitcom in the last 30 years, as Hader and Wiig’s mother, a neglectful mother turned New Age guru, being invited for dinner by Hader to Wiig’s chagrin. The twins’ father had committed suicide when they were 14, and their mother appears to have checked out of parenting as a result. This makes for a realistically edgy and awkward, as well as wickedly funny, dinner scene that anybody with tension in their family can relate to.

Another standout scene has Hader and Wiig clowning around on nitrous oxide at the dental office she works at. Their SNL training most prepared them for this bit, which proves that a comedy drama about suicide can effectively fit in fart jokes.

It’s a joy to see this very believable brother and sister pairing come together to lip synch and dance to Starship’s “Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now,” even if you can’t stand the song, and when they fight towards the end of the film – really taking it all out at each other – their acting is so sharp that I felt like I was violating their privacy watching them.

Hader has shown time and time again that he’s a first class impressionist, and a reliably goofy presence in many projects, but his performance as Milo is a career best that shows the layers of depth the actor has to share. It recalls his former SNL co-star Will Forte’s fine dramatic work in NEBRASKA last year, and makes me want to see more of these funny folks try on more serious roles.

Wiig has carried movies before - most notably her breakthrough 2010 comedy smash BRIDESMAIDS – but this may be my favorite of her screen roles. Wiig’s Maggie is a sad mess of a human being, as screwed up as her brother (possibly more even) that has a real feeling sense of humor, but the worried look in her eyes gives her inner torment away. Her character’s turns late in the film are heartbreaking, and a little hard to watch, but Wiig movingly pulls it off beautifully.

THE SKELETON TWINS is a well made, well written (it well deserved the Screenwriting Award that director Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman won at Sundance), and extremely well acted film that may very well make my top 10 list of the year’s best. It’s also the most emotionally charged movie starring a couple of SNL cast members since…well, ever.

More later...

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why I Didn’t Dig THE DROP As Much As Everyone Else

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

THE DROP (Dir. Michaël R. Roskam, 2014)

This gritty Brooklyn-set crime drama has gotten a lot of acclaim – it’s at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes – but it really didn’t make the impact on me that it did on the majority of critics. 

I mean, I highly enjoyed the gruff presence of James Gandolfini’s last screen appearance, and the quiet power of lead Tom Hardy is a study in subtlety, but the looming darkness, particularly in the case of the creepy antagonist played by Matthias Schoenaerts, felt empty and I found the narrative lacking.

Hardy plays a nice-guy bartender at Cousin Marv’s, a working-class bar run by Gandolfini but owned by the Chechen mob. Their seedy establishment is one of many that could be randomly chosen any given night to be a “drop bar.” When the bar is robbed by a couple of loser strivers (shades of more than one episodes of The Sopranos), the menacing Chechens breathe down the necks of Gandolfini and Hardy to get their money back.

Meanwhile, while walking home Hardy finds a whimpering wounded pit bull inside a neighbor’s garbage can at the edge of their property. In sort of a “meet crude,” Noomi Rapace as the neighbor agrees to help Hardy raise the puppy, and their relationship begins.

Threatening the situation is the bearded, hooded, and all sinister Schoenaerts, who claims it’s his dog and insinuates that he and Rapace used to be together.

Now, after seeing THE HUNT and CALVARY, I get nervous when it comes to the fate of a dog in these thrillers. Especially when the Schoenaerts’ lowlife heavy threatens its life and tells Hardy he can have it for $10,000. 

The climax is, of course, on a drop night. Schoenaerts forces Rapace to go with him at gunpoint to Cousin Marv’s, with the plan of not only getting his $10K from Hardy, but the rest of the money in the safe.

Spoilers! This is where the so called surprise twist comes in, involving Hardy relaying some crucial back story that lays down the law to Schoenaerts, and a little then some. Hardy owns this scene for sure, but why wasn’t this done earlier? Why did he let the ghastly guy creep on the sidelines for so long beforehand? The scene that the two first speak has Schoenaerts invite himself in to Hardy’s house and he takes his umbrella on the way out. Why not deal with him then?

It’s also depressing that Rapace has such an underwritten, only slightly disguised damsel in distress role. Almost makes one forget how much ass she kicked in those GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO movies. And Schoenaerts, who was in director Roskam's first film, BULLHEAD, is so dead-eyed and one note that he never registers as anything but a standard issue soulless bad guy.

THE DROP is based on a 2009 short story by Dennis Lahane called “Animal Rescue” that he fleshed out into this screenplay and a new novel adaptation. The shift in Lahane’s locales from his usual Boston stomping grounds to Brooklyn doesn’t make much difference, this scenario could go down in any crime-ridden working class urban jungle. It’s a mediocre descendant of MEAN STREETS no matter where it takes place.

Yet Gandolfini’s last grand appearance on the big screen deserves to be seen; his pissed off, formerly powerful character gets both laughs with his expert wiseacre delivery and pity with his put upon bitching about his station in life.

So in conclusion, Hardy and Gandolfini are great in it, but without them - fuggeddaboutit - THE DROP is no great shakes.

More later...

Monday, September 22, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Scott Frank, 2014)

I liked Liam Neeson’s latest, Scott Frank’s A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES - currently the #2 movie at the box office - a lot more than I thought I would. It was clear in its first few minutes that it was going to have a much more thoughtful and artsy thing going for it, than in Neeson's last handful of action platters.

Its opening scene, set in 1991, has a bearded, scruffy Neeson working as an undercover cop named Matthew Scudder taking a shot of whiskey in a Brooklyn bar while on duty. Three thugs, oblivious to Neeson as he’s sitting in a booth, come in to rob the place and shoot the bartender. After fumbling for his gun, Neeson chases after the men and wastes them in the street with Dirty Harry-style efficiency. Unfortunately, a little girl is killed in the crossfire, effectively setting the film’s tone.

We then flash forward to 1999 with the Y2K scare heavily in the air, and Neeson now a recovering alcoholic working as a private investigator. He’s approached by a fellow AA member, an addict (Boyd Holbrook) who asks him to meet with his wealthy drug kingpin brother (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens in a distinctly different role). Stevens’ wife was kidnapped and killed despite his paying a $400,000 ransom, and he wants to hire Neeson to track down the men who did this for retribution.

Neeson initially refuses but changes his mind upon hearing a tape of Steven’s wife being tortured, and he starts following leads around the neighborhood she was abducted in. While doing research at a New York Public Library, Neeson befriends a street kid (Brian “Astro” Bradley, one of the highlights of last summer’s EARTH TO ECHO, and a highlight here) who becomes somewhat of an investigating partner.

Despite a twisty turn involving a chubby, creepy cemetery groundskeeper (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), there’s not much of a mystery about the kidnappers’ identities as we are introduced to David Harbour and Adam David Thompson as a couple of psychopaths who pose as DEA agents to target the wives and daughters of big-time drug dealers, who are unlikely to go to the police.

Another kidnapping involving the daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche), is settled in a tense nighttime sequence set at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Strikingly shot by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (THE MASTER), the exchange/ensuing shoot-out has moments of humor and horror that won’t soon leave my mind.

Almost as memorable is the climax in the evil kidnappers’ house, complete with a scary basement showdown between Neeson and Thompson, though the inclusion of a voiceover reciting AA’s 12 Steps during this seems to be reaching a bit.

I also really could’ve done without Donovan’s “Atlantis,” already definitively employed by Scorsese in the mighty gangster classic GOODFELLAS, appearing on the soundtrack earlier in the film to accompany Danielle Rose Russell walking in slow motion and waving at Harbour and Thompson’s who are watching her and her father from their obvious white windowless van.

Based on the 1992 bestseller by Lawrence Block (one in a long series of novels starring investigator Matthew Scudder), A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES succeeds more than it fails and for that it should be commended as one of Neeson’s better later day works, one that actually calls upon him to better utilize his particular set of skills as an actor. Neeson's Scudder is a lived-in performance devoid of showy gestures; it's as grim and textured as the surrounding film.

But for those folks who see quick cuts of Neeson on the phone talking sternly to kidnappers in TV spots, and may be disappointed that there’s too much talk, not more action – don’t worry, TAK3N (that’s its actual name) is on the way.

More later...