Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Drop

Apparently, he's a pitbull.  Usually gentle, cute in his way perhaps, but not to be crossed.  This Brookyn bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) as conceived by writer Dennis Lehane in The Drop.  Mr. Lehane sets up a rather simplistic case of nature versus nurture in a harsh, twilight Brooklyn where it's tough going for dog and man alike.

The Drop is notable as the final work of actor James Gandolfini.   He plays Bob's cousin Marv, which happens to be the name on the front of the bar he has long operated in a Brookyn neighborhood which shows no signs of gentrification.  But as The Drop begins, we find out that Cousin Marv's is Marv's in name only.  He was muscled out of ownership some eight years previous and is now beholden to Chechen gangsters.  At the outset, speaking in an adopted accent, Hardy as the soft-spoken Bob explains that many such bars are used as drops for bag men, all the city's dirty money funneling into slots and fake kegs, ultimately finding its way to the sort of people who tolerate nothing going astray.


In what seems a particularly elegaic performance, Gandofini is grave as the weary, embittered and compromised Marv.  Marv's foolhardy plan to cross the Chechens sets the plot of The Drop in motion.  Pressed for money from both the criminal and nominally legitimate overlords of his world (the collection agency which threatens to ship his vegetative father off to a lesser nursing home if he can't catch up with his bills) Marv finally decides to push back.  The film is ultimately Hardy's to carry, just the mess that Marv creates is ultimately left for the deceptively simple Bob to clean up.  We find that he's more than up to the grim task.

There's a lot of deception going on in The Drop, initiated by the desperate Marv, as well as the slow revelation of character on the part of screenwriter Lehane, adopting his short story "Animal Rescue."  This unveiling of nuance and back story is more credible among the secondary characters like Marv and a menacing local, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), than with Bob and Nadia (Noomi Rapace).

Nadia (Noomi Rapace) is a neighborhood woman whom Bob meets when he finds a wounded and abandoned dog in her trash can.  It seems eminently clear from this first meeting, that the battered animal will bring together these wounded souls, even as the skittish Nadia takes a photo of Bob's license in a kind of safety Instagram, sending it to four friends, which she makes clear to Hardy's character before she allows him to follow her into the house so they can tend to the hurting puppy. The cute fellow, whom eventually receives the name Rocco, is actually a pit pull,  When Nadia - a waitress who used to work in an animal rescue organization - corrects Bob's misidentification of the dog as a boxer, he recoils somewhat and earnestly proclaims the cultural bias about the ill-used breed.  This a case of Bob being conveniently simple.  No need to punish the dog because his owner was a dick, Nadia says, scratching the puppy's floppy, grey ears.  Bob is able to resist neither Rocco, nor Nadia.  

Ms. Rapace has had her Scandinavian blonde hair dyed black to play Nadia, just as Hardy's relatively fair has has been darkened to accompany a light beard, further highlighting his already prominent lips and nose.  Both actors look well enough like the second or third generation Eastern or Southern Europeans they're supposed to be.  The Drop at the very least looks authentic, from its characters to building interiors (particularly the lived-in Cousin Marv's; someone did some good location scouting), even if the action takes place in a portion of Brooklyn that the sun seems only rarely to find.  


The details in The Drop, the particulars of people and place of the film's overcast Brooklyn, are frequently credible enough, or at least compelling enough to suspend disbelief.  So it goes with the soft tones and accent of Bob.  This just another tune from the rich instrument that is the voice of Englishman Tom Hardy.  For a man of his relative size and presence, Hardy has proven more a chameleon than one might imagine possible, particularly with his voice.  This is the same actor who trumpeted the pronouncements of the indomitable Bane in The Dark Night Rises, croaked out the limited verbiage of the almost comically unkillable Forrest Bondurant in Lawless and fairly expectorated the blustering philosophy of the titular prison inmate in Bronson.  Hardy's Brooklyn inflection might not be the accent of any of the multitude of accents actually heard in New York's most populous borough, but his voice and generally troubled mien are the least problematic aspects of his character.

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead.
Both feature-length films of Belgian Michael R. Loskam have had at their center a kind of innocent lumbering around in the formidable shell of a man, trying to navigate subcultures of violence and gangsterism.  Given its European setting and provenance, perhaps it's not surprising that the protagonist in his Bullhead (2011) is a less approachable character whose story plays out far more darkly than Brooklyn Bob in The Drop.

Both Bullhead and The Drop draw us into the lonely lives of their main characters.  Unfortunately, Mr. Loskam undercuts himself in each case with pondering shots of these innocents amid encroaching darkness.  In Bullehead, this takes the form of the clunking mechanism of flashbacks in which we find out that the troubled bulk of Jacky Vanmarsenille is not exactly what he appears to be at first or even second glance.  The film ends with another ill-advised return to innocence, lest we fail to grasp the pathos which has already been well established.  Loskam concludes The Drop with a similar shot, this time of man and dog on the sidewalk of Nadia, tongues figuratively wagging, asking to be let in out of the cold.

Director Loskam squeezes the story and camera, as it were, too tightly at one of The Drop's most crucial and ultimately unlikely moments.  But one's enjoyment of The Drop will depend most on how readily can be accepted the very contradictory character that is Bob Saginowski, as written by Dennis Lehane.  At least Mr. Lehane demonstrates the relative grace of using something other than the death or abduction of children (as was the case in Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island) for the dramatic thrust of this most recent story of his set to film.  His attempt rehabilitate the reputation of the pit bull is also rare and laudable.  But much as he sprinkles details in the story to hint at the violent potential of Bob - as the quiet man expertly wraps a severed arm that had been delivered to the bar in a bag with bloodied currency, cousin Marv gruffly notes that it looks like he's done it a thousand times before - it seems a case of a criminal trying too hard to establish an alibi to cover a botched crime.  This man as drawn by Lehane strains credibility.  That he would be taken back by Nadia after she witnessed Bob at his most violent, even more so.

The lingering sadness of The Drop is the realization that it's the last time we'll see James Gandolfini in a new role.  There are more obvious ways to celebrate his legacy, as his magnetic work all those years as Tony Soprano.  But to stay within the realm of the motion picture without leaving the shadowy world of violent men, check out Andrew Dominik's for more accomplished Killing Them Softly (2012).  

James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly.


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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Frank


At a certain point, Frank, the man in the very large papier mache head, shows up at South By Southwest, the annual Austin, Texas festival of music, film and general hipness, as it seems he must. During the brief glances we get of Frank's band, Soronprfbs (don't try to pronounce it), milling amongst the other SXSW performers and attendees, there is a brief, amusing, two-person, street summit of bodies beneath large, fabricated noggins.  These big heads seem to tilt slightly in recognition, as if echoing souls from a distant, disproportionate realm who have found a fellow traveler.

While the fleeting, amusing encounter might seem to present but two characters adding flavor to the human stew about them, there's no reason to believe they're at all the same.  The square, crudely-rendered, television-like head staring back at Frank is probably little more than a band's temporary gimmick, perhaps a festival attendee's costuming lark.  For Frank, the oblate dome atop his shoulders with neutral blue eyes and smoothly formed black hair (like Big Boy, with a more conventional stylist) is very much a way of life.


Our entree into the tempestuous world of Frank and Soronprfbs is provided through the wide eyes of budding songwriter and rock star Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). This convergence seems particularly unlikely at the outset, given the painfully literal attempts we hear Jon make at songcraft in voiceover that opens the film. This first occurs at the seaside and later walking home in his coastal English town. "Lady in the red coat walkin' with a brown bag!" is Jon's genius lyric inspired by, well....a woman in red coat walking with a brown bag.

But our Jon is not easily discouraged.  "Working hard on songs all day.  Now for dinner - hashtag nomnomnom," he Tweets to an indifferent world after his completely forgettable attempts at composition.  The following day, his Twitter feed is favored with "Panini with cheese and ham #livin' the dream."  But wouldn't you know it, Jon's Tweets are unburdened of their rather desperate irony when he happens to encounter an unconventional band playing in his town that night.  Yes, Soronprfbs has rolled into town, no more smoothly than they roll off anybody's tongue.  A row between the band that Jon first hears on an radio interview continues on the seaside where he's eating that same wondrous panini.  The man thrashing around in the cold surf turns out to be the group's keyboard player.  A brief conversation with Soronprfbs' American manager, Don (Scoot McNairy) elicits an offer to fill in at that evening's gig.  After most of the band drive away in their van, Jon asks the paramedics if the hypothermic keyboard player will recover.  It's only some cold seawater, he's assured, the man will be fine.  But he'll have to stay in hospital overnight? Jon asks hopefully, demonstrating the sort of music business (or perhaps any business) ambition that often involves stepping gingerly over the bodies of one's fallen competitor's, even while sentiments of concern are feigned.  Little does Jon realize that keyboard players in Soronprfbs are beginning to go the way of Spinal Tap drummers, even if their demise is arrived somewhat more typically.  Step carefully indeed, young hopeful.

Alas, Jon's rock and roll dream is one from which he's abruptly jolted awake.  Just as he's getting into the flow of the first number, yet more histrionics occur between the band's hostile theramin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and French guitarist, Baraque (Francois Civil).  Faster than you can say Sex Pistols in America, the show ends in angry feedback and an abandoned stage.

It is on the same stage that we, as Jon, see for the first time the lead singer of Soronprfbs, sporting his trademark head and one of an enviable collection of vintage sweaters.  This none other than Frank (Michael Fassbender), whose deep vocal register spoken word and singing, his herky-jerky movements, give the impression of a large, comic book version of the dearly departed Ian Curtis of Joy Division (in some other dimension, Curtis might be wishing that he had the same idea).      

As with Scarlett Johannson's work in Her, one of the year's more interesting performances comes from an actor whose face we almost never see.  Of course, as the computer operating system,  Johannson's role was completely vocal.  Beyond the vocal facility he demonstrates as Frank talks, sings and wails, Michael Fassbender delivers a robust physical presence both anxious and charismatic.  Fassbender, as usual, maintains a strong and mesmerizing sense of character, even if the same cannot always be said for the film's writers and director.

Fanciful as it might seem, Frank does have some basis in actuality.  Writer Jon Ronson was once part of a group called Frank Sidebottom oh Blimey, Mr. Sidebottom being the big-fake-head-wearing alter ago of the late Chris Sievey.  Sievey himself was apparently influenced by the likes of Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart.  Hence, the cinematic Frank, part naif, part genius, the alternating current of his psyche surging with a better than average helping of mental illness.

The original, if not the real Frank.  Chris Sievey, a.k.a, Frank Sidebottom.
Mental illness is one aspect of character after which the screenplay of Mr. Ronson and Peter Straugham quest with some ambition but varying degrees of success.  The cinematic persona of Frank is probably blown up for effect beyond the extremes of any real inspiration.  So it tends to go.  The Frank we see is both reclusive and fragile, at other times charismatic to the point of guru-hood.  The latter finds expression in one of the film's most humorous episodes, when a family of German tourists shows up to take possession the rural Irish retreat of Soronprfbs.  Frank is not only able to speak to the family in their native tongue, but leads the mother outdoors in what becomes a kind of encounter session, the very odd pair ultimately spinning around hand in hand before the gratefully transformed woman and her family quit their reserved vacation home without further complaint.

Altogether, this Frank is probably a bit vague, a bit too much, although Ronson and Straugham avoid facile reductions like having Frank's Bluff, Kansas home turn out to be some sort of miasma of mental ill health from which he emerged, scarred but brilliant.  So Jon imagines Frank's childhood until he visits the unassuming suburban house and amiable parents of Frank toward film's end.  The kindly but disturbed in his own right (a thing, shall we say, for mannequins) Don, manager and former keyboard player, explains to Jon early on that that he and Frank met in a mental hospital and despite the lead singer's obvious issues, "he's the sanest cat I've ever known."  Still, Jon can't help envying the dysfunction, which be believes a font of genius.  When the rehearsals and recording session in Ireland stretch to month after intense month, the time reflected in Jon's increasingly bushy red beard, he thinks he's finally found his own fertile ground of mental discord.  "I have found my abusive childhood," he muses, "my mental hospital."

As for the rest of Soronprfbs, one could say that Ronson and Straugham show considerable patience in developing these characters, which would be a polite way of saying that Clara, Baraque and drummer Nana (Carla Azar) all operate in one intense, darkly-clad dimension for most of the film.  Gyllenhaal apparently first turned down the chance to play Clara because she simply didn't understand the character.  One can appreciate her bewilderment.  Gyllenhaal defaults to an expression of seething scorn most of the way, usually directed to the interloper Jon, but sometimes even to her beloved Frank.  Overall, her performance is like a radio tuned to one end of the dial at which extreme only a rough and wavering signal comes through.  "Get away from my fucking theramin!," or "Someone needs to punch you in the face" are typical blasts of dialog from the sunny Clara.

Through the early stages of Frank, Clara, as the most prominent and emblematic member of Sornoprfbs not wearing a papier-mache head, is indicated as much by costume as complexity of character.  Sound at all familiar, art house regulars?  Miiiister Anderson.  We, of course, speak of Wes and not P.T (or Neo).  As the band settles into its rustic Irish retreat, goes about its field work and begins to rehearse, Frank veers sharply toward Andersonia.   Cue the montage of the band going about arcane rituals, Clara's upright fur hat flying like a flag of preciousness and Stephen Rennicks' score (at its worst, with manic mandolin and saccharin bells like a music box with the dry heaves) sounding entirely too like the pop baroque with which Mark Mothersbaugh has adorned the films of Wes Anderson.  Altogether, it's a lot of sugar this already rich recipe hardly needs.


Certainly some of the blame goes to writers Ronson and Straugham, but it's director Lenny Abrahamson who doesn't always seem to know, or trust, what he has in Frank, the overall story as well as the character.  This is surprising given Mr. Abrahamson's handling of actors and  material in What Richard Did (2012), the only other of his five feature films readily available in the United States.  What Richard Did is nearly meditative in its focus and control, focusing on the life of a well-to-do young man living in a Dublin suburb who is involved in a homicide.  With Frank's multiple tones or directions, the director doesn't fare quite so well.

Chinchilla!  Francois Civil, very much in need of the
band's safe word in Frank.
Fortunately, Frank finds a steadier, more deeply satisfying track.  The film's detour toward the conventionally precious before returning to an arc more somber and true is paralleled by the involvement in the band by Jon, dubbed, "The ginger bird," by Frank in the midst of one of his typically creative, mid-rehearsal exhortations.  Our perspective on Frank and the group is provided through Jon's narration.  Our vantage point is essentially his, and it seems for much of the film that Soronprfbs is better for his involvement.  The group behind Frank are more often than not a mirthless, even pretentious bunch, complete with a dash of Gallic hauteur.  Or to turn some of Clara's words against her, they (save the sweet, ill-fated Don) seem like people who need a punch in the face.

Domhnall Gleeson is near perfect, running a subtle range from innocent outsider to ultimately destructive influence, genially dragging the rest of the band toward the mainstream.

The character of Frank might not entirely make sense, but the film's ruminations on normalcy and mental illness, success and artistic satisfaction are insightful while avoiding obvious conclusions. Frank's need to withdraw, to don the big papier-mache head, might not be anything to romanticize or emulate, but neither is striving for popular acceptance at the cost of artistic identity.  And sometimes, culture's greatest threat to artistic vitality comes not from its blatant philistines but from its seemingly well-meaning mediocrities:  the docents expounding from partial knowledge and little insight;  the gushing PBS pledge drive hosts whose attempts at cultural arbitration could hardly be more conservative; the sweet guy longing for stardom who should probably be kept out of the band at all cost.


So we get the long-anticipated SXSW gig, by which point Jon has driven away all of Soronprfbs, save its lead singer, whose imminent breakdown has been signaled by increasingly erratic behavior, culminating in his emergence from the dressing room in a dress and crudely made-up face.  As Jon stands on the stage beaming, playing ingratiating chords on an electric guitar and proclaiming, "this is the best day of my life!," Frank's gratuitous screams quickly curdle from crowd pandering to personal horror.  He may harbor a child-like need to be loved, but even in the midst a freak-out which ultimately finds him flat on the stage and howling, he knows terminal compromise when he hears it. "The music is shit," he moans from the depths of his pained being.

Stephen Rennicks' score might be cloying as it accompanies director Lenny Abrahamson's ill-advised detour into Andersonia, but his original songs, written with the director and various of the cast members, provide the film and the fictional band with a kind of life blood, without which it all might seem little more than a twee exercise.  A film about an artist or band that doesn't rely upon established material tends to live or die by how credible are such songs composed for the occasion. With Frank, the compositions are strong enough to be credible, different enough validate the idea of a gifted but troubled lead singer and band.  These tunes run from the bombastic ("Secure the Galactic Perimeter") to the hilariously bad ("Frank's Most Likable Song...Ever") to the outright moving ("I Love You All").

Frank and his reunited band are seemingly add-libbing "I Love You All" in some lost Texas bar as we leave them at film's end.  By this time, Jon is wise enough to walk away and leave the group to itself, the ginger bird necessarily flying from the rare aviary which is Soronprfbs.  The camera follows him out of the bar and down the street.  Best that we all leave such rare birds to their own space and their own strange plumage.  Perhaps outsider artists are best left the hell alone.  Perhaps it is absolutely necessary.    

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Calvary



Darkness, darkness.  Poor Father James (Brendan Gleeson) may be a priest in Count Sligo, but his parish seems more a hell on earth than the picturesque Atlantic Coast of Ireland. This apparently good priest is made to answer not only for the trangressions of his church, but all of the pent-up outrage of his country in the early 21st century. "You have to put up with shit like this on a regular basis?" asks his visiting daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly).  "There's a lot of it going around, let's put it that way," responds the weary man.

Calvary is, among several other things, the result of writer and director John Michael McDonagh avoiding the sophomore slump much more nimbly than his brother Martin.  The younger McDonagh followed his highly original first feature In Bruges (2008) with the deeply mediocre Seven Psychopaths (2012).  Perhaps the moral of that brief story is to make sure that you have Brendan Gleeson at the head of your cast. Gleeson played the older of two Irish hitmen hiding out in the eponymous Belgian city in Martin McDonagh's first feature, very much the grave heart of that bracing film.  He was not among the strong cast assembled to minimal effect in Seven Psychopaths.

John Michael McDonagh has been wise enough to place the likable actor at the center of both of his films. Gleeson's Gerry Boyle is a Connemara law enforcement officer who is seen partaking of more vice than stamping it out in The Guard (2011). This time out, he's a feeling, well-intentioned, but no less unconventional priest, who answered the call relatively late in life after the death of his wife.  The success of John Michael McDonagh's first two features has depended largely on Brendan Gleeson, so convincing as men replete with the sacred as well as the profane.  More deeply, both films, perhaps not unlike the nation where they have been set, recognize the inextricable connection of those elements, or even how arbitrary can such distinctions be in end. 


Calvary begins with a bang.  Or as Father James says, "It's certainly a startling opening line."  This his response to a man beginning an apparent confession by saying, "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old....Nothing to say?"  The man on the other side of the confessional screen proceeds to unfurl yet another case of sexual abuse on the part of a Catholic priest that has hounded a child into adulthood.  He sees no point in reporting the priest, who is now dead.  "What good would it do anyway if he were still alive?  What would be the point of killing the bastard?  That would be no news. There's no point in killing a bad priest.  Killing a good one?  That would be a shock!"  The good priest, of course, is the unfortunate Father James.  He's told to get his affairs in order and meet his would-be assassin on the beach, Sunday week.  Violence, then, is promised early on in Calvary.  But as the days to the fateful meeting are announced on screen, it's in the moments quiet amid the menacing noise of conflict in which the film makes its greatest impression.  This McDonagh's juxtaposition of tone to match the darkness and light battling in the content of his story.  

The troubling confession and promise of murder is merely the opening salvo against the priest, whose entire parish seems teeming with threats to his wellbeing, challenges to his faith.  All of this complicated by the visit of his daughter Fiona from London.

Beyond its often thoughtful, occasional humorous marriage of the sacred and profane, Calvary bears the mark of the same hand that crafted The Guard.  Young Michael Og is on hand in both films, operating as a kind of Dead End Kid by way of Shakespearean fool.  In the film at hand, he's a smart-alecky altar boy to Father James, when not painting slightly otherworldly watercolors by the seaside, present, as in The Guard, at significant moments for Gleason's characters trying to find some meaning amid the chaos.  There is also that particularly Irish dance with death.  In McDonagh's first feature there was the dying mother of Gerry Boyle.  With Calvary, Gleeson's character has to contend with his depressive daughter, who attempted suicide in the months before her visit to Ireland and would seem to require a bit of convincing to hold on to her particular mortal coil going forward.  What is especially Irish here is the candor, immediacy and even humor with which the subject is met.  When Father James sees his daughter's scarred wrists shortly after her arrival, he says,"Don't tell me, you made the classic error.  You're supposed to cut down, not across."  

At the pub are but a few of the locals who torment the priest, each in his fashion.  Chief among them is Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), whose manner and enunciation are as sharply groomed as his slightly demonic mustache and soul patch.  Dr. Frank is all too happy to repeat the "You made the classic mistake" observation about Fiona.  Much as he later owns - after  he's wearily chided by Father James for his lack of originality - that good material is hard to come by:  "Sure. The atheistic doctor. It's a cliched part to play.There aren't that many good lines.  One part humanism to nine parts gallows humor."


TThe doctor is one of several suspects that McDonagh places before us as the possible assassin of Father James.  Another is a hapless local butcher Jack Brennan. This Chis O'Dowd, playing well against his usually charming type. The father calls upon Brennan not to investigate the threat against him, but to confront the man about the shiner borne by his wife, Veronica (Orla O'Rourke), which explains why the butcher's wife is first seen taking communion behind a large pair of sunglasses. The husband assures Father James that it wasn't him this time, but probably her lover, Simon (Isaach De Bankole, laconic as usual as we've seen him in the films of Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch and others, if more menacing in this case).  Even the slightly battered Veronica has her sport with father James, alternately flogging the lost cause of her soul, or leading their exchanges into more suggestive directions:
     Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
 Say one Our Father and ten Hail Mary's.
 I've sinned more than that. 
 Make an ascent to Croagh Patrick, then. On your knees. 
 On my knees, is it? What made you say that?

Yet another possible owner of that threatening voice in the confessional is local plutocrat, Michael Fitzgerald.  Irish comedian and actor Dylan's Moran, typically arch, is the man abandoned by wife and child to roam his estate and many well-appointed rooms.   He's one of several examples of supporting (threatening) characters, like the sharp-tongued doctor rendered sharp but thin.  Away from its center, Calvary is rescued a bit by those working in the roles so stylized by McDonagh.   

Moran in particular is charged with bringing some human credibility to pronouncements like, "What do you see when you look at me? I'll tell you what you see.You see a handsome, sophisticated, eminent man in the prime of his life.  A colossus, let's say. Who once bestrode the world of high finance...and became profoundly influential in certain spheres."  Fitzgerald, by his own admission, was one of the rogue capitalists who helped tank the Irish economy at the same time as their avaricious brethren were doing the same in the United States, Iceland and elswhere.  The meetings between Father James and Fitzgerald are increasingly confrontational, culminating with the rich man threatening to remove a fairly priceless painting from his wall and urinate on it, if only because he owns it and and can.  "People like you have pissed on everything else, I suppose. So why not?" is all the priest can say.

 The theme of havoc-wreaking bankers getting off scot-free is later picked up by the town's embittered publican (Pat Shortt):
  "How come I never hear your mob preaching about that? 
 About what? 
 About all these bankers who have brought this country to its knees?  I suppose when you have a history of screwing the Jews out of their money, and collaborating with the Nazis. It's like the pot calling the kettle black, eh?"  

That amiable exchange all in a day's work for Father James.


So, quite enough dumped into the lap of the priest's soutane (which on posters for the film quite intentionally make Gleeson look like some figure in a Western, the outer garment flapping like a gunman's duster in the wind).  But McDonagh gives him yet more, including the counseling of a French woman whose husband is killed in an accident, as well as a maddening visit to a young serial killer intent on playing at remorse so as to win admission to heaven.  The father's life and death ruminations also find outlet in peppery discusssions  with an aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) to whom he ferries supplies.  These conversations at least, like those with his daughter, offer some rare amity and rapport for the priest.  

Little wonder that we see Father James crawl wearily into bed with his dog upon one return to his his home, Gleeson himself a sympathetic beast with his rumpled figure, full head of hair and creep of red-grey beard up his ample cheeks.  Alas, both recumbent beasts eventually find themselves in harm's way.   

McDonagh, abetted significantly Gleeson, manages all this roiling strife gracefully enough to allow Calvary's reflective moments to breathe the film's richest atmosphere.  Only in a couple of significant scenes does does the writer/director's taste for absurd extremes get the better of his story.  

Not uncommonly for a small Irish town, a good portion of the locals seem gathered at the public house one evening.  Certainly, most every one of Father James' antagonists and his potential assassin seem present.  Veronica and her lover are found snorting cocaine in the lavatory. The aforementioned run-ins and come-ons with the pub owner and Veronica ensue, the circle of hell atmosphere only enhanced by the bordello red of the walls.  Finally, someone tells the priest that his church is on fire.  He doesn't take the remark seriously at first, but is made to look out the window and across the water to his church, very much in flames.  "Jesus Christ," says the priest - cut to a statuette of J.C. himself amidst the hellish conflagration, the flames of which are then seen bursting out of cut-outs of crosses in the buildings front doors.  This the dark or mordant humor to which so many reviews of Calvary allude.  Also the chief instance of McDonagh going rather too far.    

Calvary has plenty of time to find itself and does so before the priest goes to meet the man who has promised to kill him on the beach.  One more episode of keen violence awaits, but that very much in keeping with the dark logic of the film's plot.  There is, finally, a scene of possible reconciliation after the reckoning.  But is bloodletting necessary to bring it about?  So easy to watch for all the aggrieved humanity that Brendan Gleeson brings to the role of the keenly-tested priest, Calvary ultimately lets no one off easy, audience and main character alike.      

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Friday, August 8, 2014

The Rover


No, it's not that film.  Not a Road Warrior for a new generation, a new century.  The Rover is set amid the seared, forbidding landscape of Australia's Outback.  The time is post-something - maybe not post- apocalypse, but post-"collapse."  There is violence.  There are vehicles and pursuit.  There is at the story's center a man whom one might well characterize as a road warrior, though for what he so single-mindedly fights besides the return of his automobile, one is hard pressed to determine for most of the film's duration.  And yet....

Ply as it might the lonely roads of nether Australia, David Michod's The Rover confines itself to a very small emotional map.  So too that grim fellow in the short pants and dress shirt, both long absent from the wash, hell bent to recover his car.  All the more impressive that The Rover so involves us in its story, it's anti-hero's almost inexplicable quest, wrings so much emotion out of such a narrow range, like water divined from that arid Australian ground.

The Rover is the second feature written and directed by David Michod.  He apparently conceived the story with actor and writer Joel Edgerton, one of the many veterans of Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom, who contribute to The Rover.

All in the family:  David Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom.
Michod's brief directorial career has also proven an exercise in drawing a lot of action and emotion out of limited thematic ground.  Though ostensibly more mobile and more minimal than its predecessor, The Rover echoes Animal Kingdom in violence and relative lawlessness and its considerations of family, specifically a kind of innocent groping after some sense of belonging.  What has most distinguished David Michod's first two feature films are their integrity of story and character.  Mr. Michod has made two very uncompromising films.


The Rover's story is basic enough, even while some of the specifics of plot and backstory of its two main characters are only hinted at in asides, mumbled bits of dialog, or parceled out in brief allusion.  Our rover is presumably Eric (Guy Pearce), sitting in his car as the film begins, looking out on a barren landscape, seemingly seeing even less life than is actually present.  We have been told that the time is 10 years after "the collapse," apparently a world economic free fall even more comprehensive than its havoc-wreaking 2008 predecessor.  The life of this desolate, wandering man intersects with a group of criminals who have just perpetrated some sort of caper gone wrong.  Like most all action in The Rover, this intersection is a sudden and violent departure from a near-static scene.  As Eric sits in a kind of canteen at the end of the world drinking a glass of water, the truck with the criminals flies silently by the window behind him on its side, the vehicle having flipped out of control after a squabble breaks out among its motley group of passengers. When they cannot extricate the truck from the roadside where it came to rest, one of the men hot wires Eric's car and they speed away.  This turns out to be the worst decision the criminals make in a day chock full of them.

English-born and Australian-raised Guy Pearce tends to make any film worthwhile, a traveling companion that enlivens even otherwise pointless journeys.  When  material and execution are equal to his chameleonic abilities, then we really have something.  Such is the case with The Rover. There's nothing pretty about Pearce (consider the sort of elegant figure he cut in  L.A. Confidential and as the future Edward VIII in The King's Speech) or The Rover, but its hard to take your eyes of either.

One can only imagine how Eric and most other inhabitants of this post-collapse Australia might smell. Pearce's hair looks to have been trimmed with garden shears down to an Outback-practical shortness and prominent recession.  The rough growth of salt and pepper beard adds to cheeks and jaw which seem puffed, as if all the man's misery has drifted downward along the face, seeped from the troubled mind to settle around the mouth.  The spring, or perhaps cauldron of this misery is in the eyes above.  Dark, nearly black, Eric seems to be forging them to lifeless coal with the intensity of his fury. 

An initial chase between the Rover and the men who stole his car sets the tenor of the story, demonstrates the tenacity of the man.  He quickly frees their truck and gives pursuit, coming abreast his car until one of the men pulls a gun.  He drops back but continues to follow.  This almost absurd chase is all the more menacing in its relentless, inexorable start and stop.  Finally both vehicles do come to rest.  The group confronts the solitary man and he eventually throttles one of the trio against the trunk of his car as if none of the other men or their guns are present to stop him.  He catches a rifle butt to the back of the head and wakes up at the side of the road some time later.  Of course, this does not deter our anti-hero in the least. 

Eric's pursuit of the men and his car is both complicated and ultimately made possible when he crosses dusty paths with Rey, left behind by his older brother and the other two criminals.  This relationship begins coercively, as Eric first finds a doctor to tend to the wounded young man and then forces him to lead them to where the trio is holed up. Eventually, the seemingly slow young man trails after and even defends Eric with something like the used but fierce loyalty of an abandoned dog that finds a new master.  
  
It is perhaps to be expected that these two disparate characters so initially at odds will forge a kind of bond as their journey ensues.  True enough, but what little feel good the story provides is hard earned.  The Rover distances itself from any sort of buddy or road film cliche both in its particulars - story, character and setting - and the grim logic of the journey's result.

Even as a showdown between Eric and the men who stole his car is inevitable, even while he and the young man left behind do ultimately attach themselves like two burned sections of skin reluctant to take a graft, things do occur on the road that are anything but predictable.

Most strangely, before he meets Rey, there is a near-Lynchian digression in which Eric first wanders into a home to ask if anyone has seen his stolen car. This turns into a veritable odyssey that begins with a young man answering the Rover's questions while several others sprawl around them in a living room asleep.  It ends with Eric attempting to buy a gun, a transaction that goes very poorly for the seller.  In between and after these encounters, there are two Chinese acrobats, a midget and a woman who sits placidly in white blouse miraculously untouched by the dust which pervades most everything else in this world, half oracle from The Matrix, half procuress, cooing "What's your name, honey."  This extended scene is the weirdest example of how The Rover proceeds down it's crooked, if inexorable course:  we're never sure what the next turn will reveal and where violence might flare up.  And yet there seems a logic behind it all.  Even before a rusty circus vehicle is seen outside the house, thus explaining the odd personages playing cards that Eric discovers in a kind of opium den, nothing or no one in the bizarre establishment seems so out of place as to stretch credibility to the breaking point, such is the authority of the storytelling.


The quick resort to violence while bargaining for a gun is the first of many seen from Eric, lest we begin to find the comfort we likely would with his character in a Hollywood rendering of this story.  Think of The Town and its bank-robbing protagonist who's able to send a hail of automatic weapon fire at police without killing anyone.  The Rover's anti-hero will kill whenever and wherever necessary and there's nothing comic book about this violence; the bullets find and tear flesh, they kill.  His years as a solider explain the proficiency with which he wields pistols and rifles, as when the Chinese acrobats show up for revenge at the home of the doctor (Susan Prior, also an Animal Kingdom vet.) at which Rey is being treated, only to be dispatched with a couple of shots.

It is at the doctor's remote compound that we also see the first sliver of sentiment betrayed by this desolate man.  Like many scenes in Animal Kingdom, there is a tense winding through place and time with an almost palpable sense of menace at every turn.  Eric is drawn through a  passageway and into a room where we don't know what awaits him in the darkness.  When a florescent light flickers into harsh illumination, it's not some frightening adversary, but cage upon cage of stray dogs that the doctor has taken in.  When the woman joins Eric, she's surprised at the interest he has taken in the ragged creatures.

When we ultimately find out why the man has been so determined to recover his car - "You must really love that car," the otherworldly madam murmurs to him during their strange encounter - the earlier scene in which he regards the abandoned dogs gains a greater resonance, a powerful echo.  So too his relationship with Eric

One brief action eloquently and efficiently illustrates the relationship that develops between Eric and the young man who had come to Australia, like his brother, to find mining work after the economic collapse. Rey's wound becomes infected.  Eric helps him reapply a bandage after first disinfecting the wound with gasoline and drying it with a rag.  Rey responds to these rough ministrations as some scruffy, ill-used dog who has been scratched behind the ears.  So starved for affection is the young man that as gasoline is poured on his afflicted torso and mopped with a dirty piece of cloth, he responds with a brief, contented near-smile. The eyes nearly roll beneath his dark, thick, undulant eyebrows.


Beneath and behind those redoubtable eyebrows is Robert Pattinson.  The much-swooned-after star of those Twilight films apparently auditioned for the role of Rey, beating out several rivals.  Neither that willingness to audition nor his work in The Rover bespeak any young movie star vanity.  It's a performance that's a little mannered, a little blinking, swaying slightly toward a kind of Son of Sling Blade under duress. But mainly Pattinson gets this simple young man across, gaining credibility as the film progresses.  Rey even blossoms slightly, becomes freer with his speech as the bond with Eric strengthens along the road.  Pattison's work here stands on its own, relative to the rest of his brief career and holding its own for the most part against the power of Guy Pearce.  But watch Pattinson in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (possibly the thinking person's Wolf of Wall Street), the quick intelligence required of him throughout that film.  You begin to have a sense of some range and promise.

Antony Partos composed the varied score for The Rover, as he did for Animal Kingdom.  Here it ranges from the percussive to the wailing early on. At times, a piano drifts in as if from another dimension, a splintered sonata.  Later a keyboard is heard like one submerged in water, giving way eventually to wavering spiritual.  All of this no mere discord, cacophony for effect; this is not John Cage having a bad day.  But signaling and reflecting the action of the film, themes emerge, however spare, however sad.  As the Rover and Rey grow closer, a kind of tenuous harmony is introduced.    

The story, like the music of The Rover is a spare, sometimes very rough surface from which any expression of humor - "I've got things in tins...buy something!" admonishes one exasperated shop keeper with his rifle - or tenderness emerges in all the more stark relief from the emotional landscape about it.  Much the same can be said for the work of Guy Pearce.  In lesser hands, his would be an interminable, one-note performance. With Pearce, that often unvarying tone hints at and ultimately reveals the holding back of an awful flood. When his eyes well at the film's climax, the brief expression is a kind of deluge.

Even with Eric's rare show of emotion and the film's final, sad revelation, there is not catharsis so much as weary resolution.  So it's gone through David Michod's first two features.  The logic is severe but the integrity offers a kind of exhilaration.


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Friday, August 1, 2014

Boyhood


Those all-too-willing participants in reality shows have wrought even more damage than is obviously the case.  Of course, there is the mental toll:  billions of brain cells, lonely outposts of thought surrendering to the onslaught of gleeful indignity, seemingly as many as would drown in a Pacific of bad whisky, to the likes of the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Atlanta, New York, Orange County...the pawn shop owners, the late-to-the-party celebrities...ad nauseam.  All of this, presumably, to distract viewers from the pain, the loneliness, or just the oppressive banality of their lives.  

Less obvious perhaps is the obscuring of the value of life stories wrought with any measure of thoughtfulness. Stories that not only distract us, remove us for a time from the pressing matters of our existence, but inevitably carry us back to a reflection on those same lives.  For however banal, uneventful, or ordinary... be it ever so humble, there is no story like THE story:  the master narrative; the story of our life.

Like a good piece of conceptual art, Richard Linklater's engrossing, 166-minute Boyhood derives most of its power from its premise.  Shot intermittently between the summer of 2002 and the fall of 2013, Boyhood follows Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his family from the time he's a five-year-old boy until the outset of his college years.  We see this soulful, questioning boy grow up before our eyes in just less than three hour and it's a moving experience.


In Boyhood, we see a lot of  passing time heralded with young Mason's ever-changing hair styles - involuntary buzz cut to a kind of Texas Fauntleroy of girlish length and curl about the face still maintaining a good bit of its baby fat - not to mention those skirmishes of acne playing out on his adolescent face as it gains angle and definition.  This photo album (or Flickr page) given motion is replete with built-in sentiment.  There is also the boy himself.  Linklater's premise might be watchable enough with any young actor as its lead, but Ellar Coltrane's subtle performance throughout provides a depth of feeling after which Boyhood itself sometimes quests with a little too heavy a tread.

Where Boyhood might tend to go wrong and where it ultimately succeeds is demonstrated quickly enough in the film's opening moments.  We're made to regard one of those summer skies of brilliant cerulean and drifting, knowing cumulus.  Over this timeless background the film's title appears in a kind of aw-shucks, pseudo-hand-written font.  This to the accompaniment of the Coldplay's "Yellow." It's a precious little balloon that is voided of its warm air when the perspective switches to that of young Mason Jr., supine on his lawn.  When Linklater lets his camera focus on the blue eyes and serious visage of Ellar Coltrane, he never goes too wrong.  Mason Jr.'s face, like that summer sky he regards, seems lit from within and yet drifted by its own enigmatic clouds.


Fast enough on the heels of "Yellow," we see and hear Mason receiving the unwonted serenade a la Britney Spears from his older sister, Samantha (the director's daughter, Lorelei).  Not long after that highly successful bit of annoyance, it's The Hives "Hate To Say I Told You So," as Mason and a young companion indulge in a bit of graffiti.  Musical cues both to the early 2000's.  When Sheryl Crow arrives at the party soon thereafter, it seems that Boyhood might be on its way to three hours of montage punctuated by interludes of significant dialog.  Fortunately, Linklater lets the music drift into the background where it belongs and away from its rigid chronological moorings.

The mere audacity of Linklater's concept seems to be winning the director lavish praise that he hasn't quite earned.  Boyhood is a great concept that the director doesn't always trust.  Where many a film utilizes flamboyantly bad hair to illustrate the passage of time, Boyhood has the actual stuff.  Lorelei Linklater - who settles into her role after a gratingly energized start - has had any number of styles and even colors immortalized, one bang-heavy arrangement particularly tragic.  So it goes with Ellar Coltrane and his aforementioned extremes of style and length.  Much more significantly, we see time playing out in most profound way:  these kids grow up before our eyes.  No elaboration is necessary.

And yet Linklater has the camera come to rest on several generations of video games and controllers with such conspicuous focus that you would think a product placement deal with Nintendo and others was in place.  Similarly, Mason Jr. and some friends walk down a sidewalk, each one of them with a particular iteration of the Coke can in hand, the sort of consensus found only in advertising.  This might not be quite the pages flying from calendar, the clock hands spinning madly around their circle in the hack films of yesteryear, but it's close.



As the writer/director model goes, Richard Linklater has usually distinguished himself much more as a writer who directs.  Not necessarily a bad thing.   Even something as seemingly experimental as Waking Life (I've not seen his adaptation of A Scanner Darkly) with its nervous animation is still mainly a film about conversations, still more verbal than visual.  Through his varied body of work - drifting warily toward the Hollywood mainstream and back to his native Texas for stories set in that state - Linklater has been reliably competent director with occasional flashes of something more.  Me and Orson Welles, for one, is a little-seen gem that you wish Hollywood could produce more often, an intelligent package of pure entertainment in which the director (he did not contribute to the film's script) draws the best out of his actors and presents a story to its best advantage.  But for those who remember Richard Linklater, they are likely to remember words and not images.

The director's touch is not always light with the would-be-profound raw material of Boyhood.  And even Richard Linklater, the normally rock solid writer and storyteller loses his way occasionally through the expanse of the story.

Is she really going out with him?  And him?
  Patricia Arquette
and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.
 As Boyhood begins, Mason Jr. and his sister are being raised by their mother (Patricia Arquette), while their father (Ethan Hawke) is busy keeping maturity at arm's length in Alaska.  As the mother tries to keep the family together and even return to college so they can all enjoy a better life, she marries not one, but two other men who celebrate their matrimony and responsibilities by becoming sour drunks.  This is particularly the case with a college professor (Marco Parella) of the Arquette character.  The two marry and join their families, but before long - in the grand tradition of mental health professionals or teachers who cannot begin to heed the sound advice they espouse - he's guzzling way more alcohol than soda in the plastic bottle he carries around the house, on his way to becoming a drunken, glass-hurling Great Santini.  As is his easygoing way, Mason first greets the professor with a smile.  But we subsequently see the boy looking on warily as the man and his mother flirt.

So it goes with the next candidate, a handsome, youngish veteran named Jim (Brad Hawkins) who somehow manages to win mom's affection and hand before seeking commiseration in too many cans of beer during off hours from his work as a correctional officer.  As that relationship begins to develop, we once again see Mason look upon his mother's growing fondness with skepticism if not outright displeasure.  This shot almost mirrors the earlier focus on Mason looking askance at his mother and Professor Bill.

While it may well be true that shrinks and teachers of psychology come off the mental rails as disastrously as anyone else, while mommies and daddies do sometimes make the same mistakes repeatedly, this repetition in Boyhood seems an excessive bit of rough road thrown in before mom and son can eventually arrive at a more satisfying place for both, much as the mother has to eventually face the sadness of her empty nest.

The most glaring shortcoming amidst all that goes right in Boyhood may well be a scene in which a teenage Mason and one of his contemporaries hang out with some older boys in a house under construction. Linklater does at least avoid obvious conflict or crisis - some sort of humiliating ritual; the circular saw blade being thrown into a section of drywall like a kung-fu star doesn't actually come to rest in some young body as you fear it might - in this scene, but nothing rings true in the execution.  We hardly need an interlude of stilted dialog and clumsy line readings to demonstrate that boys often act and talk down to a very low common denominator of bravado when performing for each other in a group.  It's a surprising misstep for a writer who has gotten this sort of thing so right in the past (at least as well as one remembers films like Slacker and Dazed and Confused...).  


The men don't acquit themselves very well in Boyhood.  We're given a pretty dubious sampling of fathers and would-be fathers.  But with Mason Sr., Richard Linklater not only creates a character of complexity, but winds the story along an unexpected though no less realistic course.  When he first reappears on the scene, the older Mason impresses one as an absentee father off an assembly line, bearing gifts and an exaggerated enthusiasm he seems unlikely to maintain.  When the father does show up or drive off into a sunset of limited responsibilities, it's in a cherry GTO, the sort of starter object of love from which many men never seem to graduate.

But to our surprise, Mason Sr. sticks around and sustains an interest in his children, in having actual conversations.  Easy enough, one might say, when you only have to parent every other weekend.  And perhaps largely a matter of assuaging a guilty conscience.  But as some men streak from mortality, others embrace the trappings of convention, perhaps a second shot at a family with all the energy with which they earlier scorned those things.  Mason Sr. is this sort of man.  Ethan Hawke hits truly upon all the fluctuations of this particular father, the bending of him by life into something that fits into his world.  


The power and the pleasure of Boyhood is to watch its young protagonist question his way through those early years, rarely angry but also rarely happy, a fine, wavering line between his admirable skepticism and an unfortunate tendency to feel that nothing much can be trusted.  A natural enough complexity in a boy who has had the ground so often shift beneath his feet.  Richard Linklater generally tells this story well, renders dialog that make us believe Mason Jr.'s struggle and development.  This is never more the case than some lovely exchanges between Mason and his high school girlfriend, Sheena (Zoe Graham, quite good), two intelligent young people trying to sort out the world and their feelings, not necessarily in that order. 

Ellar Coltrane is well cast to carry this long film, through all the years and fluctuations in hair style. Throughout the eleven years condensed into 166 minutes, there a light in those blue eyes which tells us that life is happening right then and there. 


Just how good is Boyhood?  "A Moving 12 Year Epic That Isn't Quite Like Anything Else In The History of Cinema!" (exclamation mark added; about a dozen exclamation marks implied).  So exults one version of the film's poster, quoting a gushing critic who apparently doesn't get out to the movies often enough. And, well...let's not get completely carried away.

Perhaps our overly-eager friend who shall remain nameless has never heard of English film directors Michael Apted and Michael Winterbottom.  That's not easy as it might seem, as those talented directors have quite literally been all over the place, in subject matter as much as geography.  Among his extensive and varied body of work, Mr. Apted continues with his fairly towering "Up" series that has followed a group of English children from the age of seven well into their sixth decade.  For his part, the mercurial Winterbottom premiered Everyday in 2012, which depicts a man and particularly his wife and children during the five years of the husband and father's imprisonment.

Boyhood is neither unprecedented nor great, nor must be it to be worthwhile.  It is essentially a mural to most film's neatly-framed pictures.  To look upon the expanse of any mural rendered with a good degree of competence and style is to be a bit awed, to be carried away by the sweep of the thing.  So it is with Boyhood. Linklater's mural generally does bear scrutiny, even if some of the detail reveals a common touch.  

Seen another way, which might partially explain the inordinate enthusiasm with which it has been greeted, Boyhood  is a big, green oasis in the particularly drought-ridden cinematic summer of 2014 (never mind that arid Texas ground so often on display).  Sit down and watch this film and you are likely to be aware of its breadth, of the time being stretched and yet feel no hurry for the experience to end.  Rather like life that way.

Beyond the story of Mason Jr., whom we leave in Big Bend National Park, tripping peacefully on mushrooms with a few fellow freshmen (this isn't quite the principals of Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon looking awe-struck at the eponymous hole in the ground at film's end, but it does get perilously close), Boyhood will almost inevitably lead you to reflect upon the stealthy passage of time in your own life, when images from your youth might seem as incongruously fresh as something that happened just a few hours ago.   

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Cold In July

"Are you alright?"  "Uh-uh."  This question and answer occurs between Ann and Richard Dane, not long after their home has been invaded and the husband has shot dead the intruder.  Unfortunately, the answer applies as well to Michael C. Hall, playing the everyman increasingly in over his head as director Jim Mickle's Cold in July proceeds along its dark and meandering way, something of a dangerous idea that almost makes sense.

Employing Hall to labor beneath a starter mullet that enhances his already prominent brow, the producers of Cold in July would seem to have overshot East Texas of the late-1980's and placed him somewhere up (or down) The March of Progress.  He never quite finds the character of the framing store manager, rendered vaguely to begin with by writers Mickle and Nick Damici.  As with Emile Hirsch in another story of Texas mayhem, Killer Joe (2011), Hall is a non-entity with a half-hearted drawl at the center of the film.  This is unexpected and disappointing, given the interesting work the actor has been doing on Six Feet Under and Dexter in the past decade plus.  This failure occurs despite the Mr. Hall's obvious efforts to the contrary.

It is to the benefit of Cold in July that its plot drifts a bit away from Richard Dane to cast some of its focus on both Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) and his private eye friend, Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson). The story is not entirely what it appears to be on first or second impression.  The script of Mickle and Damici, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, does manage to surprise with its several changes in course. Unfortunately, the shifting tone of the story is managed with less skill.


Ben Russell is the father of the man Richard Dane shoots in his living room, or so both men are led to believe by local sheriff Ray Price (Damici).  Once sprung from prison in Alabama, the elder Russell heads straight for East Texas to terrorize, if not exact revenge on Dane.  Price and his deputies are no match for the determined old coot.  If you've seen a trailer for Cold in July, you are led to believe that this is where most of the action and tension will be expended, this possible eye for another son's eye.  Not so.

Russell does no harm to Dane's boy, despite the opportunity to do so.  Of course, his appearance in the child's darkened room is announced by an illuminating flash of lightening.  Verily, a dark and stormy night that the family survives intact.  They are thrilled to hear that Russell is soon thereafter apprehended in Mexico. The only problem, aside from removing all the mud and blood from the nocturnal misadventures in his home, is that Richard Dane sees a mug shot photo of Russell, Jr. on a wall at the police station.  The face does not match the man whose brains he spattered against is living room wall and bric-a-brac.  Sheriff Price assures him - a bit too stridently - that they got the right man.  Unable to shake his doubts, Dane happens upon Price and his men hauling Russell Sr. into an alley outside the jail, beating him and then driving off into the night.  The confused man follows and ultimately pulls Russell of the train tracks where he had been left him to die, set up to look like he passed out drunk.  Dane first holds Russell hostage at his late-father's cabin, but the two men eventually team up to find out what's going on, where the younger Russell might be.  Enter Jim Bob Luke.

  
Keeping less than a low profile in a red Cadillac with a license plate that reads "RedBtch," Luke is a part-time pig farmer, part-time private eye, full-time cowboy of the post modern sort.  Like Sam Shephard, Don Johnson manages Cold in July's convulsions of plot and tone much more gracefully than does the film's script.

As his work here and as Kenny Power's father on HBO's East Bound and Down would seem to suggest, Johnson is settling nicely into grey-haired character work.  Still, the role of Jim Bob Luke allows the peacock in Johnson to strut a good bit.  It also reminds us the actor's presence, that smartass charisma, has the the potential to age like good bourbon.  As Luke, Russell and Dane speed along a highway by night, there would seem to be a homage to the show that made Johnson famous, the synthesized score Cold in July pulsating in a manner reminiscent of Jan Hammer's famous Miami Vice theme.

With it's bloodletting and that synthesizer-heavy score, Cold in July offers a nod to the work of John Carpenter.  Carpenter both directed and provided the music for the likes of Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), even Vampires, something of a 1998 throwback to the director's earlier work.

Cold in July succeeds well enough in terms of look and sound.  The choice of locations and Annie Simeone's art direction evoke a slightly shabby East Texas of the late 1980's, a backwater of both fashion (Dane managing in plaid short sleeve shirt and knit tie) and decoration.  The Dane's might aspire to a kind of suburban gentility, but something more squalid exists on the other side of a pretty fine line, just as violence lurks at the periphery of their ordered lives.  As husband and wife attempt to remove the blood and grey matter from their living room after the shooting, the wall of the prefab house gives slightly with the scrubbing.

Director Jim Mickle has shown a good eye through his first four features.  It could be argued that he's more craftsman than artist, but the work he's done in most every aspect of film production shows in the assured execution of his films.  With Cold in July, Mickle dwells nicely on lights in the darkness, the glow of a red taillight in the night.  Again, nothing supremely original, but well rendered.

The problem with Cold in July, as so often is the case, is one of story.  At a time when horror films are most often succeeding when steeped in irony or humor (Sean of the Dead, Zombieland; the recent vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive succeeded mainly by being uniquely Jarmuschian), Mickle and Damici as writers have demonstrated a real seriousness of purpose in their treatment of these genre films.  Their vampire apocalypse in Stakeland (2010), worked as well in its elements allegory as with outbreaks of violence and gore.  Mainly it was a success in its consistent, mournful tone, which Mickle elicited from his actors and mirrored with restraint in the look of the rural and post-apocalyptic America of the film.  The writing team's zombie (ish) story, We Are What We Are (2013), is slow going for much of its 100 minutes.  But even there, Mickle and Damici show a real respect for their subject matter, a restraint and integrity of story and character unusual in a genre dominated by cheap thrills which jolt people in their theater seats for a few seconds, only to be quickly forgotten.


The problem here may well be one of source material.   Writer Joe R. Lansdale has jumped around quite successfully in genre fiction, sometimes playing havoc with the various traditions of the western, science fiction, horror, etc. (the film Bubba Ho-Tep was based on his novella).  There is a point at which Cold in July attempts a last shift into something quite powerful, almost tragic.  The story simply does not have the stature to see it through.

Ben Russell not only finds out where is son living, but what he's been up to.  It's not good.  So heinous are the younger Russell's actions, that his father compares him to a dog gone rabid that must either be chained or put down.  Ben Russell, hardly a man of half measures, decides it must be the latter.

With father setting off to kill his own son, the story embarks for the realm of tragedy.  Unfortunately, in Lansdale we do not have a Texas Euripides.  Nor can Mickle and Damici adequately elevate the material to the high ground (by way of the lowest deeds) to which the story aspires.  There had already been evidence of laziness in the story before the final confrontation.  The sardonic bloodhound Luke had found out that young Russell was in the Witness Protection Program, hiding from the "Dixie Mafia." Now, I'm no organized crime expert, but the Dixie Mafia?  Really?  And when the unlikely trio discover that Ben Russell's boy has been taking lives in a particularly abhorrent (let's just say it was not self defense) manner, Luke says the wayward young man is beyond the redress of criminal justice because he's under government protection.  Again, really?


If Mickle and Damici want to transcend their genre roots, they might want to seek out source material with a little more literary weight.  Perhaps someone contemporary like Daniel Woodrell, whose Winter's Bone operates both as a kind of Ozarks Antigone and chilling contemporary tale at once, as adapted (with Anne Rossellini) and brought to the screen  in 2010 by Debra Granik.

Too often, when we're served these stories of regional mayhem, whether Killer Joe or Lawless (2012), it's all so much KFC in the guise of something genuinely Southern.  The chicken franchise actually features prominently in Killer Joe, where it is referred to as  "K-Fry-C" by the titular killer. Only Matthew McConaughey's gonzo performance in the lead makes the lurid trash of Tracy Lett's story (is there a more overrated write in America?) worthwhile.  Even then, be warned:  you may never look at a drumstick quite the same again.

To see where Cold in July fails is to be reminded where superior films like Winter's Bone or last year's Mud (featuring yet another strong McConaughey turn) succeed.  Mud, despite its own contrived flare-up of violence at the film's climax, succeeds even more by Jeff Nichols' storytelling than his steady direction.  In Mud there is something that seems genuinely of an American region, marrying elements both contemporary and relatively timeless, a strength of writing that Nichols has demonstrated through his three features (Shotgun Stories (2007) and  Take Shelter (2011) being the first two).

It will be interesting to see what Jim Mickle does going forward.  It's a shame that he's limited with a story in Cold in July that lacks the conviction, the bones to carry the weight that it takes on.  A scene relatively late in the film, in which Dane does a bit of reconnaissance in a video store operated as a front by the younger Russell and his criminal partners suggests something far more interesting than what the film finally delivers.  The very brief look we get at Wyatt Russell (this the actor's name, as opposed to Freddy Russell, the character) as the lost son teases us with a complex presence:  dangerous, seductive, lost; a life that might have gone quite differently.  Would that Cold in July had started with the fascinated, fatally flawed father and son, instead of the Michael C. Hall character with whom it begins and ends.

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