Movie Review: “The Drop”

Starring
Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director
Michaël R. Roskam

Though it comes with the undesirable label of being James Gandolfini’s final screen appearance, “The Drop” has all the makings of a dark horse awards contender. Adapted by esteemed crime writer Dennis Lehane from his short story “Animal Rescue,” the movie doesn’t have the same cynicism as past adaptions of the author’s work (“Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone”), but it’s a grimy little crime drama that harkens back to the great Sidney Lumet films of the 1970s. This is a movie that places mood and character above all else, and while that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, Michaël R. Roskam’s “The Drop” is a well-paced and expertly acted film that serves as a fitting end to one actor’s career and the exciting emergence of another.

Tom Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, a quiet, well-meaning bartender at the Brooklyn watering hole previously owned by his cousin Marv (Gandolfini), who still runs the day-to-day operations. But while Marv is the face of the business (his name even adorns the outside of the building), it really belongs to a group of Chechen mobsters that use it as one of the city’s many drop bars, a place chosen at random to hold all of the day’s illegal bookmaking money. When the bar is robbed by some amateur thieves, the two cousins are put in charge of finding those responsible, leading Marv (who helped plan the whole thing) to resort to desperate measures. Meanwhile, Bob finds a wounded pit bull in a trash can and decides to adopt it, but when the previous owner (Matthias Schoenaerts) resurfaces looking for trouble, he must decide how far he’s willing to go to protect the mutt and the woman (Noomi Rapace) helping him care for it.

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Blu Tuesday: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and God’s Pocket

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

WHAT: When S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised by members within the organization, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is forced to go on the run with fellow operative Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), in order to smoke out the traitors. But standing in their way is a super-powered, metal-armed assassin called the Winter Soldier who looks suspiciously like someone from Steve’s past.

WHY: Hands-down the best Marvel sequel to date, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major improvement upon the character’s first solo adventure, thanks in large part to a more interesting arc for its titular hero. The whole conspiracy plot not only creates a sense of foreboding and suspense, but in addressing real-world issues like national security, it lends itself to the moral battle that’s been waging inside Rogers since joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in “The Avengers.” That distrust allows Evans to play the character with a lot more complexity than the typical goody two-shoes Boy Scout, though he receives great support from Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon, who all play an important part in the story. The action in the movie is also top-notch, which is somewhat surprising considering Anthony and Joe Russo have virtually no experience in the genre. The sibling duo is just the latest in Marvel’s line of left-field director choices, and they acquit themselves remarkably well, so much so that they’ve already been invited back for another installment. That’s certainly a just reward for the Russos, because “The Winter Soldier” is a superb continuation of its hero’s cinematic evolution that also serves as a natural bridge to next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Blu-ray includes a short making-of featurette, a look at the different region-specific versions of Steve Rogers’ notebook, some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: After miraculously surviving the Battle of New York, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a small team – including civilian hacker Skye (Chloe Benet) – to tackle strange new cases involving superpowers, alien artifacts and other phenomenon deemed too top secret for normal authorities, but not important enough for the Avengers.

WHY: As with most Joss Whedon-created shows, the first season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a bit rocky at times, struggling to find its voice as the small-screen companion to Marvel’s bigger and better movies. But while the first 13 episodes are incredibly hit-and-miss, the series eventually finds its groove in the latter half of the season, delivering the kind of supplemental stories that further enrichens the Marvel cinematic universe. The show feels a little cheesy at times due to the budgetary restraints, and some of the cast members (namely Chloe Benet and Brett Dalton) have a daytime soap opera feel to their performances, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a lot of fun. That’s never truer than in the final batch of episodes featuring Bill Paxton as a traitorous S.H.I.E.L.D. agent working for Hydra – a subplot that was introduced concurrently with the theatrical release of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” This kind of integrated storytelling is what “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” promised from the very beginning, and although it may seem gimmicky, it allows Marvel Studios to connect the two mediums in a way that expands their cinematic universe without making the show feel essential to understanding the movies.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes cast and crew audio commentaries, five behind-the-scenes featurettes, the “Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe” TV special, a VFX breakdown montage, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“God’s Pocket”

WHAT: When his good-for-nothing stepson (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed while working at a construction site – an act of self-defense covered up to look like an accident – Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) scrambles to raise the money for his funeral.

WHY: John Slattery couldn’t have asked for a better ensemble cast for his directorial debut – including screen veterans like Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan – but sadly, “God’s Pocket” is a prime example of how to make a bad movie with good actors. Though it’s competently shot, the story isn’t particularly interesting and the characters aren’t given a whole to do. The film also fails to establish a consistent tone, sampling a variety of genres (from dark comedy, to crime thriller, to blue-collar drama) like a kid at an ice cream shop who can’t make up his mind. That should come as no surprise to those that saw Lee Butler’s “The Paperboy,” because both movies were based on novels by author Pete Dexter, and much like that film, “God’s Pocket” feels incredibly aimless at times, due in large part to its thinly-scripted story and pointless subplots. Hoffman delivers a typically solid performance as the sad-sack protagonist – though it’s hardly the most fitting end to an otherwise excellent career – while the rest of the actors pretty much phone it in, especially Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks as the grieving mother.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with co-writer/director John Slattery and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Movie Review: “God Help the Girl”

Starring
Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger
Director
Stuart Murdoch

If “God Help the Girl” were any more precious, Gollum would steal it.

This is to be expected, of course. The writer and director is Stuart Murdoch, singer and principal songwriter of Scottish twee factory Belle and Sebastian; there was no way this movie wasn’t going to be precious. If only it weren’t so slight, but slight it is. The story, the acting (though Emily Browning is lovely), and God help him, even a lot of the songs are lacking. If there is one good thing to come from the movie, it’s that you can use it as an acid test; if someone likes it, they’re a hipster. No exceptions.

Eve (Browning) is a troubled audiophile. She’s in a rehab center (anorexia), but occasionally escapes to check out new bands, and catches the eye of Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the singer of an up-and-coming band. Eve is weak from hunger, though, and is rescued at the end of the night by aspiring singer/songwriter James (Olly Alexander, whom you’ll swear is related to one of the Proclaimers), whose own gig went less well than Anton’s. Upon her return to the rehab center, Eve begins writing songs about her feelings, and turns out to be quite good at it. She finds James and shares some of her ideas with him, and instantly he wants to form a band. He invites her to meet Cassie (Hannah Murray), who’s taking guitar lessons from James, and after a quick number, the band is set. The problem (one of many) is that James and Cassie don’t know that Eve is a runaway rehab patient. Do you think they’ll find out?

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to September

september

The fall movie season is always pretty hit and miss, but this September features one of the most unpredictable lineups in quite a while. Though there aren’t many big releases apart from Antoine Fuqua’s adaptation of “The Equalizer,” there are several big names headlining smaller films, like Tom Hardy in “The Drop,” Liam Neeson in “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and the star-studded cast of “This Is Where I Leave You.” It’s too early to say whether any of the movies have a genuine shot at Oscar gold, but they’re just a few of the promising new releases this month.

“NO GOOD DEED”

Who: Taraji P. Henson, Idris Elba, Leslie Bibb and Kate del Castillo
What: When a charming escaped convict shows up at her door claiming car trouble, a suburban mother finds herself fighting for survival when the man invades her home.
When: September 12th
Why: “No Good Deed” may sound like your garden-variety home invasion thriller, but while it doesn’t appear to offer anything new to the genre, it at least features a pair of great actors in Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson. Elba, in particular, has such an incredible star quality that it’s amazing he’s not headlining his own major franchise by now (Marvel Studios, take note), while Henson has proven on numerous occasions that she’s no slouch either. If nothing else, their involvement provides hope that the movie will be entertaining as a pulpy genre flick, but unless there’s more to the story than the trailer hints at, chances are that “No Good Deed” will be as forgettable as the hundreds of other likeminded thrillers just like it.

“THE DROP”

Who: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini and Matthias Schoenaerts
What: Bob Saginowski finds himself at the center of a robbery gone awry and entwined in an investigation that digs deep into his neighborhood’s past.
When: September 12th
Why: Though it comes with the undesirable label of being James Gandolfini’s final movie, “The Drop” has all the makings of a dark horse awards contender. Adapted by esteemed crime writer Dennis Lehane from his own short story, and directed by Michael R. Roskam, who first gained attention in 2011 with his Oscar-nominated film “Bullhead,” “The Drop” also boasts an excellent international cast led by Tom Hardy. Obviously, Gandolfini is the main draw, and he looks to be at the top of his game here, but Hardy has been quietly building an impressive body of work for years, and if we’ve learned anything from the last few Lehane adaptations, they always bring out the best in actors. Could this finally be the year that Hardy nabs a nomination?

“THE MAZE RUNNER”

Who: Dylan O’Brian, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario and Thomas Brodie-Sangster
What: When Thomas wakes up trapped in a massive maze with a group of boys, he must join forces with some of the other captives in order to escape.
When: September 19th
Why: Every studio in Hollywood wants their own “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games,” but the fact of the matter is that most movies based on young adult novels are massive failures. (Just ask the casts of “The Mortal Instruments,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Host” and “Vampire Academy,” all of which were released in the past 18 months.) With that said, first-time director Wes Ball’s “The Maze Runner” is one of the more intriguing YA adaptations in recent memory. Though its “Hunger Games”-meets-“Lord of the Flies” premise is every bit as uninspired as most of the novels permeating the genre, there’s something about its blend of mystery and science fiction that’s piqued my interest. 20th Century Fox hasn’t had much luck with these types of films, but this could be the one that finally breaks their duck.

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Blu Tuesday: Draft Day, They Came Together and Night Moves

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Draft Day”

WHAT: After taking over for his father as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) finally has the chance to craft the team in his image when he trades for the number one pick in the NFL Draft. But while the Browns’ owner (Frank Langella) expects him to make the obvious choice, Sonny must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to do what he thinks is best for the team.

WHY: In a strange case of life imitating art, Cleveland Browns fans experienced déjà vu when their team’s actual 2014 NFL Draft ended up being just as eventful as the film version, including the shocking fate of poster boy Johnny Manziel, who was drafted (by the Browns, no less) much later than anyone projected. For all the excitement of that night, however, Ivan Reitman’s “Draft Day” manages to make the stakes seem even higher by ramping up the tension with slickly edited sequences of Sonny striking deals with fellow GMs while he plans the next move with his inner circle. It takes split-screens to a whole other level, and though you’ll likely be sick of them when it’s over, the material would be much duller without the flashy tricks that Reitman employs. While not quite on the same level as “Moneyball,” “Draft Day” offers a similar look at the behind-the-scenes minutiae involved in running a professional sports team, and frankly, that’s far more interesting than watching the same old sports clichés play out for the millionth time. That’s not to say that the movie is any better than the typical underdog sports drama, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for Kevin Costner and the genre itself.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, a pair of featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“They Came Together”

WHAT: While out to dinner with their two friends, Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) recount the story of how they met and fell in love – an extraordinarily cheesy romance that sounds like the plot of a romantic comedy film.

WHY: David Wain’s latest movie may seem clever in theory, but while he’s clearly watched enough romantic comedies to recognize the various genre tropes begging to be satirized (and not just satirized, but completely skewered in some cases), he doesn’t do very much with the material. It’s almost too wacky for its own good, and though there are some good gags and a great cameo along the way, the joke wears thin after 15 minutes, especially when you realize that Wain is basically just pointing out rom-com clichés without delivering much of a punchline. “They Came Together” would work just fine as a sketch or trailer parody, but as a full-length feature, it starts to resort to the very conventions that it’s trying to send up. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler appear totally game for whatever goofiness is thrown their way, but they’re so much better than this, as is a majority of the talent involved. Fans of Wain’s previous work (like “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer”) will find more to enjoy than the typical moviegoer, but even those people will probably agree that “They Came Together” isn’t nearly as funny as it should have been.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director/co-writer David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a table read from 2012’s San Francisco Sketchfest.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Night Moves”

WHAT: Three radical environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in order to raise awareness. But when the mission doesn’t go according to plan, the eco-terrorists deal with the repercussions in their own ways, causing paranoia within the group.

WHY: Director Kelly Reichardt is best known for pensive, slow-moving dramas like “Wendy & Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” which is a big reason why I’ve stayed away from her films until now. But while “Night Moves” takes a very similar approach, the three leads deliver such great work that it doesn’t feel nearly as laborious to sit through as its minimalistic plot would suggest. In fact, that lack of complexity (at least from a narrative standpoint) actually works in its favor, because it allows Reichardt to really ratchet up the tension by stretching out seemingly simple tasks into nail-biting affairs as the trio plans and executes their mission. Unfortunately, while the first hour succeeds in building suspense, the payoff in the subsequent half – turning its focus to the fallout and the characters’ guilty consciences when they learn that an innocent camper may have died in the explosion – isn’t nearly as engaging. It’s a much stronger examination of the whole ecoterrorism movement than the likeminded “The East,” but it starts to come unraveled in the final 20 minutes when it shifts from thriller to horror, concluding with a quasi-ending that’s more irritating than thought-provoking.

EXTRAS: Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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