Monday, December 1, 2014

Low Down

There's a very telling fire escape exchange between Amy-Jo  (Elle Fanning) and Alain (Peter Dinklage), two of the many marginal characters who inhabit a Los Angeles hotel/apartment building in the film Low Down.  The young woman points out that the music heard is being played by her father.  "Is Joe your dad?" Alain asks.  "Yeah," responds Amy-Jo, beaming.  Alain says nothing, but the expression that appears on his already sad countenance is all too eloquent.  There's the brief suggestion of a smile, but the lingering cast is knowing, rueful.  "Poor thing," he might as well say.

The 1970's Los Angeles of Low Down is pretty well circumscribed by the film's title.  One half expects Charles Bukowski to wander into the frame or be sitting in one of the dives into which we're which we're occasionally taken.  In that basin of almost indomitable brightness, what sunlight we see is indirect, often refracted through dirty windows.  A low down world seedy hotels, darkened bars and lost souls it might well be, but Amy-Jo is happy enough when she's in the company of her jazz pianist father, whom she "loves beyond all proportion," as Elle Fanning says in voiceover at the outset of the film.

Beyond it's relatively flawless art direction, the physical details of Low Down speak of an insider's knowledge.  This would be the real Amy-Jo Albany, daughter of highly-regarded (if little known these days) jazz pianist Joe Albany.  Ms. Albany wrote the film script with Topper Lilien, based on her memoir, Low Down:  Jazz, Junk, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood.  Amy-Jo Albany (named, apparently, after her mother's favorite two characters from Little Women) infuses the story with a funky 70s verisimilitude while avoiding the sort of romanticism to which a lesser, touristic rendering might be prone, given milieu of squalor and jazz, common enough vacation spots for the poseur.

As we find him in the mid-70's, Joe Albany is decidedly low down himself, far removed from sessions with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker in the forties and not yet enjoying a late-career recording renaissance of sorts in the decade or so to come.  The Joe Albany of Low Down struggles, like many of his contemporaries, not only with a flagging interest in jazz in the United States, but an ongoing addiction to heroin.  The gigs are hard to come by, the bad influences ever-present in Los Angeles and Albany struggles to stay out of jail.

Typical of Amy-Jo's response to the vicissitudes of being the daughter of this particular troubled jazz musician is her reaction her mother's brief reconciliation with her father.  In Low Down, Joe Albany is portrayed as a generally charming but hapless parent.  Beyond the broader issues of his drug addiction and trouble with the law which threaten to separate the father and daughter, there are more quotidian indications, as when Joe is helping the asthmatic Amy-Jo with an inhaler while the latest in his endless chain of cigarettes fumes in an adjacent ash tray.  But relatively speaking, Joe seems like parent of the year material compared to Amy-Jo's mother, Sheila (Lena Headey).  Amy-Jo is rightfully wary of the apparent rekindling of romance with her parents and seems not in the least disappointed when her toxic, alcoholic mother sneaks out one morning, taking most of the cash that is in Joe's wallet. Instead, it's a chance to spend Valentine's Day with her father, even if he forgot the occasion.  

That optimism of Amy-Jo, like some wildflower sprung up between the cracks of a derelict stretch of sidewalk, is one things that keeps Low Down from wallowing in its relative squalor.  This is not the definitive Joe Albany story, it's the remembrance of his daughter, bookended within several years of the 1970s.   The actual life of the pianist was apparently both better and, at times, far worse than what we see in Low Down.  Albany's lost decades included not only jail time, but stretches in mental hospitals (he speaks of a fleeting, meaningful encounter with Charlie Parker at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in the 1980 documentary, Joe Albany:  A Jazz Life).  His second wife committed suicide, while the third nearly died of a drug overdose.    

The script of Amy-Jo Albany and Topper Lilien certainly doesn't portray its small world as a kind of alternate Los Angeles wonderland.  The details are fascinating but don't tend toward the romantic, unless one is inclined see them as such.  Even the one slightly wondrous aspect of Amy-Jo's hotel life, her brief association with Alain, is ruined when the young woman sees the reality behind his slightly fantastical existence.  

When the two meet in the lobby, Amy is surprised to find that Alain is actually a resident; she had thought him a visitor.  He then takes her back to his decidedly non-code dwelling, which involves entering through a jagged hole in a plaster wall to an improvised dwelling where Alain puts on an opera record and receives her with a kind of charming courtliness.  The brief visit ends with Amy-Jo kissing the surprised Alain, the young woman obviously hungry for any receipt and expression of warmth.  Alas, a second visit to Alain's makeshift apartment is another in a series of disillusionments.  She observes him in fanciful costume, applying blue body paint.  When Amy-Jo follows him, she finds that her friend is an actor in a kind of specialty porn film.  

One can't but fear that the sweet Amy-Jo will succumb in some more ruinous way to the undertow of this world through which she willingly follows her father.  And there's a strong indication toward film's end that such degradation is at least visited upon her, if only for a time.  An ill-advised visit to her mother, stationed in a dive in the middle of the day and steadily divesting herself of liver and life, involves little more than the mother spewing invective at her daughter.  This sends Amy-Jo into something a downward spiral, which begins when she is propositioned on the street and continues in the apartment of one of her father's musician friends, Hobbs (Flea, surprisingly effective and nearly unrecognizable, if only because he's always wearing a shirt), in which it seems the best thing that might happen to her would be the purchase of heroin for which she has come.  But the most awful, dramatic things we might suspect do not occur, or at least go unseen.  This descent is handled elliptically, with Amy-Jo telling us in voice-over that she ultimately chose not to follow the destructive path of her father.  So goes Low Down, very credibly offering its glance into this world of half-light, without dwelling for effect.

For Elle Fanning, Low Down is a second Los Angeles story in which she has starred as the daughter of an artist of one sort or another.  The first was Somewhere (2010), one of the several Sophia Coppola films about exotic (or at least white and entitled) birds thrashing around in their gilded cages.  In Somewhere, Fanning and Stephen Dorff are playmates as much as father and daughter, largely sequestered at the Chateau Marmont or other exclusive digs.  Low Down might be more a matter of Nowhere, but it also takes place in a particular, largely interior Los Angeles.  Even as she has grown into her 5'8'' frame, Elle Fanning has lost little of the radiance so apparent in Somewhere.  She also remains an extremely natural presence before the camera, able to summon whatever emotion and intelligence that are called for.   Early in Low Down, when Joe Albany and Hobbs finish a number they are practicing, the father asks, "Whud'ya think of that?"  Fanning's "I love that one," seems both the expression of a proud, gushing daughter and a young woman who knows good jazz when she hears it.  And the accompanying smile is all the light the room, or that world behind drawn shades would seem to require.    

Beyond Fanning, Low Down benefits from good character work all around.  This is true of Flea and Dinklage, as well as Glenn Close as Joe Albany's long-suffering mother, who takes in Amy-Jo when her father is jailed and later when he abruptly leaves the country for two years.  

Mark Ruffalo was apparently the first actor considered for the role of Joe Albany.  It's no slight to Mr. Ruffalo,but as is usually the case, once John Hawkes has assumed a character, it's difficult to imagine anyone else in his place.  Thus it is with his take on Joe Albany.  Hawkes has amply proven he can manifest all manner of darkness, as with his roles in Winter's Bone (2010) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011).  And there's evidence of hard traveling in his eyes as the laughter of Joe Albany fades, or he's on his way to or from a fix.  Otherwise, the jazz pianist is played without his New Jersey accent and with the touch of grandiloquence (mainly with his daughter) written into the film's script.  Hawkes is a musician, but could not play the piano prior to Low Down.  He taught himself to do so and replicates several Albany solos for the film, something director Jeff Preiss has called "a superhuman accomplishment of acting."

Hawkes credible playing allows Jeff Preiss to avoid the usual contrivance of cutting from an actor's face to the hands of the professional musician actually playing the notes.  It's just one element of a film that respects the music at its center, sadly not an element that ostensible music films and documentaries always get right.  In Low Down, numbers are played out until their completion.  We even see Amy-Jo on a couple of occasions pick up the stylus on a record player and move it back to the beginning of a favorite tune that had just ended.  It doesn't hurt Jeff Preiss is also a jazz aficionado, which informs not only space allotted for the music but the style of his shooting.

Low Down is actually the first feature directed by Jeff Preiss, which you wouldn't know to look at the film.  Preiss has had a long career behind the camera, usually working as the director of photography, as was the case with Bruce Weber's Chet Baker documentary, Let's Get Lost.  For Low Down, Preiss made the decision to shoot on film, and 16mm at that.  So we have lovely, slightly grainy images which suit both the time and the interiors of refracted and indirect light. 

The decision to shoot on actual film is a brave one these days, as most theaters have converted to digital projection, largely at the behest of Hollywood studios.  There aren't many theaters that can play 16mm films at this point, fewer still that actually wish to do so.  Low Down is in several ways a personal picture.  Not only in the sense that its the remembrance of a woman who lived this particular slice of life, but for most all involved.  There may be the hope that a impressive turn might draw the attention of producers who will offer more prominent, more lucrative work; a call or return to the Hollywood mainstream.  But for Amy-Jo Albany, Jeff Preiss and the film's actors, it seems a matter of loving their art - film, music, what have you - beyond all proportion.  It's the sort of foolhardiness that should be encouraged.  

The man himself, Joe Albany.
Joe Albany: A Jazz Life, glancing and elliptical in its own way,  is currently available in its entirety on YouTube.  


Monday, November 10, 2014

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

It's a frustrated director's fantasy come true:  a light conveniently falls on a cast member's head during a play's rehearsal, putting an end to some excruciating line readings.  Putting to a merciful end, if only temporarily, the bad actor.  Suddenly, a chance to cast someone good in the hack's stead.  But whom?  Woody Harrelson?  No, Woody has already committed to the next Hunger Games sequel.  Michael Fassbender?  Nope - X-Men.   Jeremy Renner, perhaps? Sorry - he's busy with his Avengers pals.  So many super heroes, so few brave actors to be found. This is the dilemma, in more ways than one, for Riggan Thomson, adaptor, director and star of the play within the film which is Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

Thomson himself knows something about superhero movie franchises.  The middle-aged actor played the fictional character Birdman in three films during more the more youthful and prosperous years of his career.  But he did turn down Birdman 4, he's eager to point out during an interview session with reporters to publicize his attempt to gain credibility by staging an adaption of Raymond Carver's story, "This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," at New York's St. James Theater.  This flimsy assertion of Hollywood integrity is but one example of Birdman's revelation of actorly vanity and self-delusion in the midst of a story that also exalts those brave enough to bare their souls to make art.

Birdman often pulses with a kind of desperate energy, propelled and punctuated  by the drumming of Antonio Sanchez.  This sort of intensity is hardly a new development in the films of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who co-wrote the script as well), but the film's relative nuance with regard to character and tone are a welcome, even necessary change to Inarritu's usual palatte of bleak, bleaker, bleakest.

The main character or characters in question - the actor, the man, perhaps even the Birdman - emerge from the taxed, uncertain being of Riggan Thomson as brought skitteringly to life by Michael Keaton.  Of course, Keaton too knows something about donning the superhero costume, the life-altering fame that comes with it.  But the presence of the former Batman is more than a Hollywood in-joke.  Keaton is not merely an underrated comic actor, he's an underrated actor, period.  Consider not only the competing identities of Batman, but the manic energy of Bettlejuice. Add to that the desperation of one of Keaton's lesser-known roles, that of playwright Nicky Rogan  in the otherwise forgettable Game 6 (2005), and the casting is as logical as it is welcome.

There are actually strong parallels between Game 6 and Birdman, much as the latter does truly soar compared to the former's story burdened with Don DeLillo's heavy-handed musings on fate and baseball.  Game 6's Nicky Rogan is playwright skipping the opening night of his latest work to roam New York by night, watch his Red Sox do what they historically do (or did) best and ultimately buy a gun with which to shoot a drama critic by whom he feels threatened.

Gun play figures prominent in Birdman, as does the ominous circling of a drama critic intent to eviscerate the film's flawed hero.  This New York times writer Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), having none of the former star's attempt to gain some credibility on the hallowed boards of the St. James Theater.  The two have a barroom confrontation while the play is still in previews.  Typical of the sometimes ambiguous give and take of plot and character in Birdman, this is a brawl in which both combatants are bloodied, both are made to look strong and vulnerable by turn.  After Tabitha makes it clear that she intends to close Thomson's play, he unleashes a diatribe on her formulaic criticism as so many "labels."  Repeating a theme earlier voiced by Mike Shiner (the replacement for the recipient of that stage light to the head; an actor the critic actually respects), he tells her that she doesn't know what it is to be an actor, risk everything.  He concludes by cordially inviting her to shove one of her reviews "up her wrinkled ass."  But the critic is given the last punch in this fight, "You're a celebrity, not an actor," she tells him before walking away.

The drama critic's contempt is hardly the only voice stoking the fire of Riggan Thomson's insecurities.  Mike Shiner is able to take the place of the felled hack, much to the relief of Thomson and his producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis).  "Ask me if he sells tickets?" the friend and producer delightedly prompts.  "He sells a shitload of tickets," the delighted answer he can't wait to supply. 

Shiner is present as an embodiment of artistic integrity, complete with a sidecar of insanity rolling right along with the roaring motorcycle of his talent.  When Thomson sets aside the bottle of real vodka Shiner is using in one of the play's preview performances, the temperamental actor confronts him and brings the show to a howling and premature close.  During a subsequent preview, he decides that he and his co-star/girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts) should actually have sex on stage, like the illicit lovers they are playing.  After struggling with her talented but slightly crazy partner, Lesley notes with some irony that this is the first erection she's seen in six months.  

There's no people like show people!  Michael Keaton and Edward Norton
putting up their dukes in Birdman.  
But Mike Shiner is a critic's darling, Jake points out.  Or as the excited producer more eloquently says, "They want to smoodge on him."  This becomes yet another problem for Thomson, the figurative smoodging at least, when Shiner lands the New York Times feature for which he was hoping.  The respected actor even steals Riggan Thomson's inspiration in the form of Raymond Carver. Thomson had earlier shown him the cocktail napkin he has been carrying for years bearing a compliment from the writer.   Consistent with the backstage anarchy of Birdman, the confrontation between Thomson and Shiner ends in a fistfight that devolves into an absurd wrestling match.  Shiner is the best role Norton has had for some years, and he answers it with the full compliment of his charisma.

Thomson's chorus of disapproval also includes his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone).  Late of rehab, Sam is a reminder of Riggan Thompson's absentee parenting.  She's also on hand to remind him of his place in the universe when the two have a fight of their own, prompted by the father finding a joint in the room where his supposedly clean daughter is working.  After her father makes the mantra-like statement, "This is my chance to finally do some work that means something," his daughter puts him in his place.  "And, let's face it dad.  You are not doing this for the sake of art.  You are doing this because you wanna feel relevant again....Who the fuck are you?...You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us that you don't matter.  And you know what?  You're right.  You don't.  It's not important, okay?  You're not important.  Get used to it!"  Ah, out of the mouths of babes.  With her bulging blue eyes and waifish bearing, Ms. Stone looks like an avenging version of one of the doe-eyed figures from Margaret Keane.  

But really, Riggan Thomson has enough doubt murmuring from within to waylay a much more assured man.  Yes, there's vanity, there's egocentrism, but when the mirror ball of inflated self-regard stops spinning during quieter moments, the dance hall of Riggan Thomson's soul is a mighty dark place.  Not so unusual for a man pushing against the far side of middle age.  Nor for someone who has burned valuable years chasing the will-o'-the-wisp of Hollywood fame.  That fame, in the form of Thomson's Birdman character, is yet another party heard from as Riggan struggles to keep himself and his careening production together.  The Birdman's voice is the first we hear, Keaton's own baritone altered to a reboant growl. Thomson is thus exhorted by his alter-ego:  "We used to make billions!...We should have done that reality show they offered us...Let's make a comeback.  You're Birdman!  You are a god!"  With Michael Keaton's performance,  all of this teeming surface and soul are pretty well transfixing.  It may not be perfect work, but so messy is the life of Riggan Thomson that its hard to know where the character's excesses and imperfections might end and Keaton's begin. In its courage and nakedness, Michael Keaton's work is certainly the embodiment of what Birdman the film is trying to be.  

The films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu tend to get to the bones of whatever beings and worlds they examine.  There's never a lack of penetration, a lack of energy.  In Birdman, the camera sweeps -with a fluidity that might have pleased Max Ophuls - around like doppelganger, a separate consciousness.  It's an all-access pass into the film's world that shows us all the angles, physical and psychological.  The largely percussive score of Antonio Sanchez manifests itself as characters twice walk by drummers pounding at kits in sync with the soundtrack.  Drumming also figures in the scene most emblematic of the film's exposing (quite literally, in this case) of its characters when Thomson is locked out of the St. James sporting only a pair of white briefs. It's sort of the ultimate version of the nightmare of being in a public place in one's underwear, complete with the lights and crowds of Broadway, and - yes - a drum team to add to the perverse festivity of the occasion.  If Mr. Inarritu were an architect, he would no doubt give us buildings that reveal structure, pipes, HVAC and all else, at no detriment to aesthetics.  In Birdman we get laughter, pain, vulnerability, vanity, delusion, courage...even blood.    

The intensity and penetration of Birdman are nothing new for Inarritu.  The encouraging departure with this latest film occurs in the oft-changing tone that Mr. Inarritu manages with finesse, both as writer and director.  Through his first four features, the "death trilogy" - Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel - and particularly with his previous Biutiful, Inarritu had overreached beyond the depiction of suffering to a kind of trafficking in it.  Birdman gets to blood and soul of its conflicted protagonist, but the storytelling moves as surely and lightly as those cameras weaving through the backstage passages of the St. James Theater.

Biutiful, like Birdman, takes one beyond the literal into the supernatural, perhaps the magical realist.  In the former, the woebegone character played by Javier Bardem must not only grapple with his impending death, but is burdened with visions of the recently-departed -  he sees dead people. Corpses float and sometimes crawl across ceilings.  In addition to those visions, the actual bodies of dozens of immigrant sweat shop workers dumped into the sea float back to shore, a tide of death.  In Biutiful, Inarritu used his departures from reality not to leaven his story, but to further sledge hammer its tragedy with all the subtlety of a late Thomas Hardy novel.    

In Birdman Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu lampoons those pervasive superhero films while indulging in a bit of the fun himself.  But instead of dwelling on the negative - and heaven knows the ceaseless tide of the big-budget escapism could make any reflective filmgoer despair; the trailers alone could provoke seizures - he focuses on an enduring way out the darkness, personal and cinematic.  Typical of Birdman's finesse, it's not entirely clear whether Riggan Thomson possesses the super powers he frequently demonstrates, much as clues along the way hint that his gravity defiance and feats of telepathy are probably flights of ego, if not of fancy.  But when Thomson finally tells his alter ego to get lost in no uncertain terms and exits out his hospital window, what really happens?  Has he jumped to his death, finishing the job he started by firing a real gun at his play's opening, blowing off his nose?  Has he really taken flight, as the raised eyes of his daughter would seem to suggest?  Courage is found, flight really takes place when the soul is bared, when the blood is shed.  For the actor, for any artist.  To which those luminous blue eyes stare in awe.                  


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

Nothing's gonna stop us now!  Except possibly for some smarmy lip syncing
amid a gratuitous dance scene.  Bill Heder and Kristin Wiig in The Skeleton Twins.
Even if you attend a screening of The Skeleton Twins with an awareness of the film's subject matter, you probably won't expect to see its main characters winding and kicking along a hillside at dusk, led by the embodiment of death, prior to the closing credits.  No, if America has a danse macabre, that's hardly it, even if we (like Bergman) were to pluck from history the inspiration and form of such a procession.  That's just not us.  One can report this with certainty, if not relief.  The problem, dear friends, the worrisome thing, is that our dance might be best performed to a Starship song.  So it goes, at least, in The Skeleton Twins.

Bill Heder and Kristen Wiig are Billy and Maggy, brother and sister, if not actually twins. They haven't talked in decade at the outset of The Skeleton Twins, though the siblings have arrived at similar psychic states a country apart.  Maggy, pills in hand, has her suicide attempt preempted by a call to announce that her older brother is in the hospital after an unsuccessful attempt of his own.

Accompanying charmingly ghoulish home movie images of their childhood, Wiig explains in voiceover that dad was probably to blame for the depressive tendencies of his children, whom he dubbed, "the gruesome twosome."  It seems that Maggy and Billy experienced something of a middle class Addams Family existence with a fun if morbid father who checked out permanently while they were still children.

Old Saturday Night Live pals Wiig and Heder could well be honorary sister and brother at this point. Beyond their years together on the NBC comedy war horse,  Their substantial and ever-growing resumes include several films together.  In the case of the Skeleton Twins, Heder and Wiig manage to convey both the estrangement present as Billy and Maggy take the measure of one another in his California hospital, as well as the emotional thaw that occurs after the brother reluctantly joins his sister in her Brookyn home, shared by her almost insuperably good-natured husband, Lance (Luke Wilson).

Depression, or even attempted suicide, might be the case in The Skeleton Skeleton Twins, but for audiences going in, the question is likely not "to be or not to be," so much as when will the jokes begin.  So the comedic pedigree of the two leads suggests, which the film's trailer does nothing to discourage.  Of course, trailers discourage very little these days except intelligent life.

For their part, Wiig and Heder are quite willing and able to play it straight...or gay, as the case may be.  Among its more dubious accomplishments, Bridesmaids proved that Kristen Wiig can carry a film, as much by her ability to evoke sympathy as to make us laugh.  The very pleasant surprise with The Skeleton Twins is Bill Heder.  His is a touching performance, credible without making the common mistake of straight actors playing gay characters.  Heder's Billy is full and flawed, a character who happens to be gay without the actor resorting to camp, or simply trying too hard.

For a while, The Skeleton Twins goes seriously, if not too earnestly about its work, earning its modest laughs.  Despite the superficial dynamic of solid older sibling and fuckup baby of the family, we know better, thanks to the early the glimpse into Maggy's despondency.  Billy might be another California washout, vague dreams of acting giving way to the usual reality of waiting tables, but Maggy is desperately bored with her very good, not very dashing husband.  She takes birth control pills on the sly while the couple are ostensibly trying to conceive their first child.  Maggy also takes a very hands-on approach to adult education, an affair with her tattooed Aussie scuba diving instructor that latest in a series of such flings with teachers, she later confesses to Billy.  These affairs are one of several implausibilities offered by the script of Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman.  The pool also offers Mr. Johnson the opportunity for the hack shot of a film's main character submerging in a kind of daze, diving beneath a watery blanket to hide from a world for which they feel ambivalence if not outright dread.

To give us a fuller sense of the murky emotional current against which the brother and sister have swum, there is also a brief visit from their mother (Joanna Gleason), courtesy of an ill-advised invitation proffered by Billy.  Mom is full of new age platitudes and the willingness to clean auras, but not so keen to spend much time or invest any depth of emotion with her kids.  So maybe it wasn't all dad's fault.

Ultimately, Wiig and Heder are like two accomplished athletes, skaters or gymnasts, patiently working their way through the technical portion of their routine before getting to the skill for which they are best know. Eventually, the time comes for them to tumble, perform their triple axle, make us laugh.  To be fair to these particular performers, the predictable choreography is not their fault.  Mr. Johnson is the pushy coach making all of this happen from the sidelines.  So, we have a heart to heart in Maggy's workplace after she has cleaned her brother's teeth and allowed him liberal amounts of nitrous oxide.  Of course, she indulges in the laughing gas as well.  Laughs, as they must, ensue.  This - as when Wiig dons some conveniently outdated-looking headgear -  is the comedic equivalent of the feel-good musical montage.  But there is music yet to come in The Skeleton Twins.  Sort of.

Billy later disarms Maggy, irate at his meddling in her marriage, by cuing Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" for a living room dance party.  Maggy tries to stay angry, but we all know how that's going to go.  Resistance in the zero gravity of such film scenes is futile.  She eventually floats up from her seat and it's on.  This is all painfully charming, Heder certainly sells it, but the sequence might as well be an outtake from Bridesmaids.  And if The Skeleton Twins provides the sort of reanimation to Starship as Bridesmaids did for Wilson Phillips, the makers will have a lot more to answer for than a middling piece of work.

Neither of these scenes quite spoil a classic in the making, but they do limit the degree to which any of the film or its willing actors can be taken seriously.  A later scene, which mixes humor, pathos, sibling bonding and cross dressing, demonstrates that The Skeleton Twins hardly need resort to cliche to buoy its audience.  It's Halloween.  Billy consents to accompany Maggy and let her dress him in drag.  The two wander through an urban parade of Halloween celebration and decoration before settling in a bar to reminisce.  As opposed to the imported goodwill of the earlier lip syncing and nitrous riffing, this scene actually seems to spring from a certain logic of story, continuity of character.  It makes sense, it entertains and doesn't seem forced.  In a rare moment of depth, the script of Johnson and Heyman even hints that Maggy's livid response to Billy continuing involvement with his former high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) might be less a matter of protecting her younger brother than responding like a jilted lover.  Unfortunately, a hint of depth is about all we get in The Skeleton Twins.    

America tends to be a country of feel-good myths and reality avoidance.  It's a kind of toxin that seeps into all but the most scrupulous of narratives.  The Skeleton Twins is in no way immune to such comfort-seeking.  Death, of course, is the ultimately reality to be dodged.  But that futile two-step makes for a tired dance, cheap storytelling.  Our culture might never manage a danse macabre to match the richness of those in Mexico, Ireland and elsewhere.  We're not likely to, nor should we don antic costumes and parade after the guy in black with the big reaper as daylight fades.  But must our dance and its second hand moves occur to the schlock accompaniment of "Nothing's gonna stop us now?"


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.


Saturday, September 27, 2014


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.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014


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.