Drop it Like it’s Cold

The Drop

Michael R. Roskam’s Brooklyn set crime thriller, The Drop, is a deceptively pleasant nasty piece of work.

While walking home from work at his cousin Marv’s bar, Bob hears the heart-tugging yelps of a pit bull puppy in the trashcan of the unsuspecting Nadia.  Left with no choice but to rescue the poor dog, Bob is also drawn to Nadia, and thus blooms a romance.  The Drop is one of those “feel-good two lost souls getting together while raising a pet” movies that just so happens to take place inside a gritty little crime flick.  You see, Marv’s bar isn’t an ordinary dive, but a key drop bar for money flowing into a Chechen crime ring.  And that dog was dumped by Nadia’s ex, Eric, a scumbag who may have been involved in the disappearance of a former friend of Marv and Bob ten years earlier.  Adapted for the screen from his own short story “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane, Roskam’s film is oddly paced but still wholly satisfying, where everyone plays their parts effectively, and all of the carefully crafted pieces fall towards a tense and tidy, albeit unpredictable, conclusion. Continue reading

Holding the Audience Captive in Prisoners

Prisoners

Anyone who sat through Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s well-crafted but morally repugnant Oscar-nominated film, Incendies, knows he’s a man who loves to play with the audience and turn the screws to the point of torture.  While going more mainstream with the kidnap thriller, Prisoners, he still finds way to tighten the ropes and hold an audience captive.  Red herrings, recurring visual motifs, carefully placed clues and masterful editing have become the director’s calling cards, and he stacks his deck in Prisoners with an A-list cast and sets the brooding atmosphere with Roger Deakins’ flawless photography shaded in blues and greys meant to mirror the moral ambiguities of this sordid tale.

Though it runs over two and a half hours, Prisoners is relentlessly compelling in a cold, calculated procedural kind of way.  Much of the film plays like the pilot episode of the next great TV crime thriller as it sets up the case of two missing girls and toggles itself between the families affected and the lead detective bent on finding the children.  Unfortunately it’s that same sensibility that leads Aaron Guzikowski’s disappointingly rote and too-tidy script awry.  We never really get to know the characters deeply as they are all composed of stock genre elements and would be better fleshed out in a long serial television format. Continue reading

A Review of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”

Handsome Depp Gangster Flick Lacks Depth
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Johnny Depp (in a subdued cool swagger) is Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, in director Michael Mann’s handsomely mounted but curiously distant riff on Depression Era Gangster Shenanigans.  Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the G-man hunting down Dillinger’s gang, but the cat-and-mouse game never reaches the boiling point some viewers will desire, resulting in a tepid film designed to make you think you have to admire it.

Lifting material from the true crime book by Bryan Burrough, the workmen-like script from Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman tries clumsily to weave in too many secondary characters while staying on point with the historical events.  There are some decent attempts to anchor the film with a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, who is wisely striking while the iron is hot in her first stateside role since her Oscar win), but there’s not much else in the realm of character development, and no one is given any backstory.  The writers start “in media res” to give it that classical epic structure, but it doesn’t work when you can’t even identify the peripheral characters from each other.  What results is a cavalcade of apparently great supporting turns from a large professional cast, everyone spot on with their period cadence and mannerisms but no one leaving any kind of lasting impression in the wake of the great turns from Depp and Cotillard, the only two in the cast given anything to work with.  There are also some missed opportunities to explore Dillinger’s Robin Hood mentality and the public infatuation with his “celebrity” — just two of the potentially great subtexts that are only given brief surface level treatments by the screenplay.

Cotillard makes a successful first stateside bid for stardom.

Cotillard makes a successful first bid for stateside stardom.

From a technical standpoint, there’s plenty to chew on here for thoughtful audiences.  Continue reading

A Review of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”

Terror in the Knight, 22 July 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Director Christopher Nolan has tapped into a cultural zeitgeist with his soaring Dark Knight.  No other director has shown so much ambition while working within the context of such an iconic name brand belonging to popular culture. By building upon the excellent framework he set with Batman Begins and adding in the chaos of the Joker (Heath Ledger, legendary) and the tragedy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, admirable), Nolan, like Hitchcock before him, utilizes a B-level genre flick to tap into our shared cultural fears. Along with his co-writer brother, Jonathan Nolan, the director crafts a tightly wound tapestry that explores our archetypal fears of losing our identity and becoming that which we hate, while tuning into post 9/11 fears of terrorism, cowboy diplomacy, wire-tapping, and vigilante justice run amok.

The cast assembled falls right into place with Nolan’s epic and relentlessly dark vision of our current superhero mythology. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are again perfect in their supporting roles of wisdom and gadget providers, while Gary Oldman receives a surprising amount of screen time and delivers a sterling Oscar-worthy performance as the tormented Commissioner James Gordon. Replacing the dreadful Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is spry and feisty as assistant DA Rachel Dawes, but still seems out of place in her role. Bale is again brooding and effective as Bruce Wayne, though he gets overshadowed by the sly trickster that is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger is everything he’s been hyped up to be. He’s scary good and his insanely nuanced and subversively humorous performance haunts the film while his character terrorizes Gotham with a feverish intensity that is divinely married to Nolan’s amped up tempo of thrills.

The opening moments of the film fall victim to the typical trappings of a sequel as it tries to reintroduce us to the cast regulars while setting the stage for new conflicts. However, once the Joker starts playing his games, Nolan ratchets up the tension to a nightmarish effect that will leave your pulse pounding for two hours. With each terrorist act of the Joker and ensuing catastrophe, Nolan ups the ante, resulting in a film that is enormously entertaining while also making the obvious bloated runtime seem oppressive and nerve-wracking…almost as if the film is a terrorist attack against the audience…

…and maybe that’s the point. With the opening camera swoop between skyscrapers zeroing in on a single window taken straight from Hitchcock’s opening shot from Psycho, Nolan tells the audience what they are in store for. Two more images, along with Ledger’s ghastly scarred and make-up covered visage, seep into the viewer’s subconscious. The first is after a building is exploded we see an image of firefighters spraying water over the scalding steel left behind that is eerily reminiscent of scenes from Ground Zero. The second is after a hospital is demolished, an image of the building’s carcass on the television seems taken straight from the Oklahoma City Bombing. As we watch the harrowing Joker-less climax involving Batman, Dent, and Gordon, and knowing in the back of our minds what became of Ledger in real life, we realize that terrorism can not only come from without, but from within. Sometimes we are our own worst victims.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/usercomments-1186

_______________________________________________________________________

Check out my review of the original Batman Begins:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/usercomments-501

A Review of David Fincher’s “Zodiac”

Effectively Creepy and Engrossing True Crime Tale, 6 March 2007
8/10

Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

David Fincher has taken nearly five years off between films, and he has returned a more mature and accomplished director with his fascinating “Zodiac.” It may not reach the cult status of his “Seven” or “Fight Club” or find the box office success of “Panic Room,” but by many measures it may be his most carefully crafted film. More in line with the crime epics of directors like Michael Mann than with the typical serial-killer thriller, “Zodiac” is propelled by inventive direction, a great cast, engaging attention to detail, and a killer soundtrack of classic songs from the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

Based on the book by Robert Graysmith (played effectively here by Jake Gyllenhaal), “Zodiac” is meticulous in its details (both in dialogue and Fincher’s finely painted visuals) and sprawling in plot and its parade of intriguing characters. Mark Ruffalo is especially compelling playing the lead detective who becomes obsessed with the case, and Robert Downey Jr. does his best macabre comic relief job as the boozing and drugging reporter Paul Avery who was targeted for a brief time by the infamous killer. There’s also a fine supporting cast featuring Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, and John Caroll Lynch among many others, all doing top notch work.

Fincher’s digital VIPER camera lends itself surprising well to the period detail and look of the 1970’s. Though some of the more brightly lit shots aren’t as clear and in focus as you would like, this is the first movie I can think of shot on all digital where some of the cinematography could actually be called beautiful (check out any of the skyline shots and the great overhead of the Golden Gate Bridge). Fincher crafts some truly creepy moments using simple lighting techniques featuring characters hopping into strange cars on deserted highways, traipsing through dimly lit homes, or nervously making their way down a dark creaky staircase into a fathomless basement. There’s also some nice freak-out moments in the classy and sharply filmed murder scenes and when characters receive eerie phone-calls from the so-called killer or his equally sick copycats. I didn’t realize how effective Fincher’s technique was until I went home alone to my dark apartment and felt a sudden lump in my throat when a friend made an unexpected late night call.

There are times when the film becomes bogged down with police procedural aspects, and its epic runtime is apparent, though most of the slow parts still remain engrossing. Graysmith makes it clear who he thinks the killer was, though the case was officially unsolved. When all the pieces finally fit together, the audience feels the same sickening giddiness as Graysmith and the detectives long plagued by the cryptic case that held much of San Franciso hostage knowing that the prime suspect will never be convicted on so much circumstantial evidence. In the end, Fincher leaves you with some haunting feelings, and if anything is certain, it’s that Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” will never be listened to the same again.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

http://imdb.com/title/tt0443706/usercomments-109