Talking Movies

November 13, 2014

The Drop

Bullhead director Michael R Roskam makes his Hollywood debut with a slow-burning crime thriller featuring James Gandolfini’s final film performance.

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Bob (Tom Hardy) is a slow-moving soft-spoken Brooklyn lug who works as a bartender for Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who is, to people’s permanent surprise, actually Bob’s cousin. But while the sign over the door says ‘Cousin Marv’s’ really the cousins work for the scary Chechen mob brothers Chovka (Michael Aronov) and Andre (Morgan Spector), who use it as a drop for cash from their other operations. When someone is crazy enough to rip off the drop-box Bob and Marv find themselves under pressure from Chovka to recover the stolen money. Complicating matters further for Bob is his finding of an abandoned abused dog, which leads to a tentative romance with Nadia (Noomi Rapace). It also leads to harassment from neighbourhood psycho Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), the suspected killer in a cold case that has Det. Torres (John Ortiz) circling…

Having provided the source material for Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, novelist Dennis Lehane finally pens his first feature screenplay (after writing episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) expanding his own short story ‘Animal Rescue’. This film has Lehane DNA: a palpable sense of blue-collar community, characters with lives beyond the plot-points; especially Marv’s tetchy house-sharing with his long-suffering sister Dottie (Ann Dowd); a doom-laden sense of horrors to come. But, somewhat inexplicably, it also has large amounts of Dead Man Down and Drive in its make-up. Noomi Rapace once again appears bearing scars of past traumas and manipulates a taciturn anti-hero. Shocking violence in a good cause is subverted in the best Winding Refn manner, and then sort of subverted back… There’s even a regrettable Equilibrium flashback in the instantly humanising effect of a puppy.

Roskam directs all this with some aplomb, with an emphasis on facial close-ups and gritty exteriors. Ortiz and Schoenaerts shine in support as the good and evil stalking around the central trio, with Schoenaerts in particular conveying tremendous menace and instability. An early scene where the Chechens unveil some grisly handiwork as a visual pep-talk serves up the steak that allows the film to largely unnerve on sizzle till its finale, to appropriate Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho, and Roskam lets the tension build slowly as Bob and Marv try and chase up some money only to find that events are spiralling out of control. Lehane holds back mightily on letting us inside Bob’s head, or letting us know what Det. Romsey (Elizabeth Rodriguze) is up to, as if he’s addicted to Shutter Island’s method of revelations through outrageous misdirection.

James Gandolfini’s last performance mixes resignation and frustration, and the film that houses it is a curious mixture of overly familiar elements and escalating suspense anchored by Hardy’s lumbering, kindly, but enigmatically unknowable presence.

3/5

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August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

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I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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