Movie Review: “The Drop” (Michaël R. Roskam, USA 2014)

Dennis Lehane once wrote a good book that became a great movie in Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA 2010). Some authors have a tendency to translate well (James M. Cain) or poorly (John le Carré) to film because of particular qualities about how they write. Cain’s repetitious, circular plots and relatively simple characters did not lose as much in translation as most novels. Le Carré’s deep, intricately complex plots are confusing when cut to the ribbons required for film length. Most authors do not have any such tendency, though. The directors and other moviemaking talent involved are far more important than the author of the source material, and that’s obvious from the fact that most authors’ works do not tend to work or fail in film form.

However, Lehane’s noir tendencies and willingness to examine psychological depths made me think that his work would produce at least films that I would enjoy even if they weren’t all that high quality. Film noir is, after all, my single favorite film genre and I was a psychology major.

The Drop has a complex plot. Bob is a poor bartender who finds a dog in a trash can on his way home and cleans him up with the help of the woman who lives where he found the dog. Unsurprisingly, she turns out to be a gorgeous woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) and generally great person and they of course start a slow romance over the dog. Meanwhile, Bob’s boss, Marv, the former owner of the bar who now apparently acts as a manager and face thereof, has a complicated plot in place to rob the Chechen mobsters who use the bar as one of many in a ring of “drop bars,” locations where they hide their dirty money for random days so that the money cannot be found. Then a local hoodlum named Eric Deeds shows up claiming that it’s his dog and threatening Bob and Nadia, mentioning how he murdered a local loser named Richie Whelan years ago. Eventually, Deeds gets pulled into Marv’s plan and has to rob Bob, and we get a telegraphed “surprise” ending that reveals that Bob is a stone-cold psychopath but also continues Bob and Nadia’s relationship.

However, oddly, I spent the entire film thinking that I wanted to avoid the entire crime plot and just watch the love story between Bob and Nadia. The film didn’t have a lot of surprises anyway, but that plot was so obvious that it was almost laughable. Nonetheless, Lehane and Roskam show a nice understanding of narrative structure and characterization and they subtly build the characters and their relationship well over time. They allow the relationship to grow organically and even without any real surprises it works well. Meanwhile, the entire crime story is not just obvious but has none of the depth and thoughtfulness that the love story has. The crime plot is too impressed with Marv stealing an idea from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, USA 1969) to bother with any depth.

And most unforgivably, this film has absolutely no controlling point. It’s a messy plot that seems to have been written by creating some characters and then just putting them in a big city dive bar. That’s a decent way to write a story, but it’s not at all a way to make a film.

Visually, Roskam and cinematographer Nikolas Karakatsanis provide little. The film has no hint of any visual imagination and frankly is a bit of a mess, with some oddly fuzzy, grainy picture with some regularity that makes it look almost amateurish. Since those scenes are always scenes involving Marv’s plot, I suspect that it was somehow because of issues resulting from James Gandolfini’s death, but they were still noticeable and not good.

The acting is quite uneven throughout the film. Noomi Rapace is emblematic of the problems, performing some scenes wonderfully and others not so well. Sometimes, she seems to be playing something completely unrelated to what the script is saying. Since she has been so amazing before, I’m tempted to blame the production, but the unevenness is still there. Tom Hardy, in nearly every scene of the film, is so wooden as to be comical, but in the end it makes some sense, since Bob is a psychopath. James Gandolfini does what he always does–he seems in charge of every scene but doesn’t really act. He’s not bad so much as he just doesn’t do much. Matthias Schoenaerts is meanwhile just awful, playing a complete lunatic but apparently playing his lunacy by never actually doing anything that makes any sense.

This film is really not good. It’s an overcomplicated, messy plot that has some interesting characters but doesn’t know what to do with them. It’s a shame, because there are some good points, and I really think there could have been a good film here by just telling a love story between a couple of emotionally unavailable people, but the film we end up with is nearly a disaster.

Movie Review: “Fading Gigolo” (John Turturro, USA 2013)

I can’t ignore a Woody Allen project, or even someone else’s project on which he is working, even if it’s only as an actor. And John Turturro is a good actor, even if I have to admit that I had not seen any of his previous films as a director (Who did?). Even the film’s premise seemed to have some promise, as long as it wasn’t in the hands of some hackneyed, sophomoric gross-out artist: When their business fails, a pair of unattractive old men end up falling into the prostitution business, one as a gigolo and the other as his pimp.

Unfortunately, it turns out that while Turturro may not be a sophomoric gross-out artist, he’s something far short of a filmmaker.

If you read any guide for aspiring screenwriters, it will likely begin with discussion of the idea that most who first attempt the job string together scene ideas with little cohesiveness in story, theme, or point. The beginner tends to think about moments that she would like to see based on the basic character concepts or situational premise, and write to those moments, not thinking about how to tie them together or what point she wishes to make. While moments can be a good guide to a writer–Ingmar Bergman always said that he wrote his plays and films to get to a single image in his mind and William Goldman writes extensively in the essay on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, USA 1969) that appears in the collection William Goldman: Four Screenplays with Essays about how much of that script he wrote planning on the “I can’t swim!” climax–a collection of good moments does not a film, or indeed any story, make.

Somehow, John Turturro, in a Hollywood career that dates back over three decades, has apparently never learned this simple lesson. Fading Gigolo has no point. It has no strong themes. It has two-dimensional, uninteresting characters. It does not even really have a story. It has a premise, two name stars who are capable of great humor, and a few comic moments, and Turturro seemingly thinks that’s enough.

Just listen to how confused and nonsensical the plot sounds: Murray owns a bookshop that is closing its doors after many years in his family. As his friend Fioravante helps him pack up the shop, he casually mentions that his attractive dermatologist asked him whether he “knew anyone” to join her with her girlfriend for a threesome. Murray says that he immediately thought of Fioravante, for reasons that he really does not explain and never make any sort of sense to Fioravante, and volunteered his friend for this service. The dermatologist proves willing, and hires Fioravante, and it turns out that he makes an excellent gigolo and word gets around quickly, leading to a profitable business. Murray is finally able to provide some income to the African-American family with whom he lives (His relationship to them is unclear) and Fioravante is able to make ends meet. Murray then decides to use Fioravante’s services to help a widow who removes lice from the children with whom he lives, a lonely orthodox Jew  named Avigal whose husband had died a year before. When she meets with Fioravante, they end up kindling a romance, complicated by her faith. The orthodox Jews’ own neighborhood watch of sorts puts Murray and Avigal on trial for her corruption, and then she finally enters into a relationship with the head of said watch who had been after her for the last year.

That’s probably the longest plot synopsis I’ve ever written, and for a reason: nearly every scene in the film is adding another element to the plot not furthering the elements that are already in place. It’s a confused and messy narrative that’s so confounding as to be almost painful viewing, and that’s because it’s hardly even a story–it’s just a bunch of half-connected scenes. And then, there is no unifying point that connects the threads of this narrative. If it’s making a point about the dangers of repressive religion, it ends on a shockingly positive note. If it’s making the point that people need physical connections to one another, the entire Fioravante-Avigal romance is superfluous. Nothing ties together the film, because it simply has nothing to say.

Unsurprisingly for a film with nothing to say, Turturro and cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo don’t say anything visually. Every scene is shot in the same palette, with the same type of lighting, with essentially unmoving cameras sitting at about the same distance from the actors. It’s so old-fashioned in the dullness of its visual approach that it almost seems as if Turturro was attempting to make a point about the nonstop movements and lightning-quick editing of modern films, but making that point in a film with this premise doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s instead just pretentious nonsense.

And for all of its problems, even the acting isn’t a saving grace. The only people who stand out as seemingly natural in their roles are Sofia Vergara, Bob Balaban, and–weirdly enough–Woody Allen. Allen is easy enough to explain: he’s not acting so much as performing his usual persona, just as he has done in so many of his own films. He regularly says that he’s not really an actor, saying, “I just do what I do,” but he’s been doing it so long that he’s actually quite natural at it, and it shows in a film where so many are so wooden and so clearly false. Vergara is playing an oversexualized, sexy woman with little depth, so that’s a simple role as well, but she comes across as more believable than the caricature she could have been. Balaban just does what he usually does, but that’s a good fit for his cameo as Murray’s lawyer, and indeed one of the few moments when this film comes to life is the courtroom scene when he and Allen work together and prove to have a fantastic chemistry and energy. Everyone else ranges from too flat to be accepted as reality (Turturro) to annoyingly and painfully over-the-top farcical (Sharon Stone). For a film with such poor characterization, it’s amazing how poor the acting could be. And even with how bad the rest of it was, Liev Schreiber stood out–he wasn’t just bad, he was aggressively awful, seemingly trying to win awards with his ridiculous clenched jaw and blank stare but only succeeding in proving that Dovi is not a real person.

In Fading Gigolo, John Turturro has produced an absolutely horrendous film, one with so few redeeming qualities that it could easily rank among the worst I have ever seen. There is nothing about this film that deserves commendation–it is a failure of the highest order.

Movie Review: “Magic in the Moonlight” (Woody Allen, USA 2014)

Woody Allen is an atheist. He is a melancholic. And Magic in the Moonlight wonders if these things are related. It says that magic and escapism make us happy but are an empty happiness but that logical reality is a truthfully sad existence, one where the world doesn’t give us joys.

But then it says, “Well, even in cold, logical reality, there is one piece of inexplicable magic: love.”

Allen has always been obsessed with the idea that love is mysterious and remarkably varied–his execrable Whatever Works (USA/France 2009) was, after all, saying, “You can’t question another person’s relationship, because whatever makes them happy is fine.” He’s always viewed “love” as some sort of ineffable force, one that brings together people who have little in common and at one point didn’t like each other in Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986), an un-artistic intellectual with a musician in Annie Hall (USA 1977), and a “debunker” with a psychic in Magic in the Moonlight.

What’s frustrating about Magic in the Moonlight is that it spends so much time setting up its punchline and focusing on its plot that it completely forgets to make its point. The supporting characters only matter for the story, not for the point. There aren’t other examples there to make the point (In fact, the couples are weirdly happy for a Woody Allen film.). There’s just the basic main plot, and the film seems very pleased with its own cleverness.

The film tells the story of a magician/”debunker” named Stanley who is clearly based on James Randi with a dash of Chung Ling Soo as he works to expose a pretty young psychic named Sophie Baker. He first starts falling for her act, then falls for her. Then, when he finds out that the act was a trick perpetrated by both Sophie and Stanley’s fellow magician friend Howard Burkan, the feelings do not go away. So, he predictably breaks up with his age-appropriate, entirely logical fiancee in order to be with her.

Unfortunately, as clever as that may sound and as fun as much of it is, the film just isn’t as smart as it needs to be. The con is really obvious and any half-decent magician should have spotted it, and the idea that a hardened skeptic could be that easily turned just because it happens to be a pretty girl is frankly insulting.

Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji gives us a brightly-lit film with saturated colors, but they don’t do a lot to enhance the film’s point. Instead, the film just looks old-fashioned, befitting its time setting and Allen’s general sensibilities. It’s at least something different from what else is out there, but it’s not particularly interesting.

The acting is typically uneven for a Woody Allen film. Colin Firth’s performance as Stanley is rather a mess–he’s all stagey bravado with no depth or even basic human emotion until after his aunt’s accident. After the accident, he suddenly becomes a deeper, more emotional character, and Firth plays that part better. Emma Stone, meanwhile, is surprisingly excellent as the psychic. When Firth says, “She’s not even a good actress,” it’s easy to nod, because Sophie really isn’t good, and playing a bad actor is something that requires great skill. Jeremy Shamos has a small part, but he’s awful. He’s grinning inappropriately throughout the entire film. Simon McBurney is also pretty poor as Howard Burkan, obviously mugging for laughs even though his character doesn’t have the lines that will get the laughs.

Overall, Woody Allen is far from his best on Magic in the Moonlight. That’s not to say it’s awful–it’s a fun watch and it still has some great humor, but it’s nowhere near as smart or deep as it needs to be to be a great film. It’s a film someone else could have made, and if there is one sin Woody Allen should never commit, it’s to appear ordinary. I’m not sorry I saw it, but it’s far from memorable.

Notes

  • “Did you know he started out as an escape artist?” Gee, I wonder where he got that idea.
  • Stanley’s act that we see at the opening is not really that special, but it is fun that it is just so time-appropriate. Of course Allen, a student of magic, knows that.
  • The observatory opening with the telescope was Freudian imagery Hitchcock would have been proud of. It was also quite overdone.