The Anti-Hero Makes Good: “St. Vincent” & “John Wick”

Vincent Wick

Today, in Baltimore, two new movies open that each celebrate a different kind of anti-hero. Like their protagonists, the films are flawed, but not fatally, and certainly not without a certain appeal. And they each star actors who have achieved iconic status in their own inimitable ways. Since the inception of his career, Bill Murray – first on “Saturday Night Live” and then in films like CaddyshackStripes, GhostbustersGroundhog DayRushmore (and all other subsequent Wes Anderson works), Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, to name but some – has carefully cultivated the persona of the lovably sardonic and sinful grouch, tinged with increasing cynicism and melancholia as he has aged, and in St. Vincent that character is on full display. As always, it’s a delight to watch Murray perform, even if we’ve seen him do this many times before. Keanu Reeves, though younger by 14 years, has an equally defined (if very different) star persona, thanks to films like Speed and The Matrix (and its sequels), though in many ways his body of work is more diverse than Murray’s: compare Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to My Own Private Idaho to The Gift to Thumbsucker to Henry’s Crime and you’ll be impressed (I hope) by his range. Still, it’s the indestructible action-hero image that sticks (box-office success trumps all), and in John Wick he delivers a pitch-perfect performance as a near-omnipotent hitman that pays homage to his past roles while bringing a humor and emotional depth to the part that we haven’t always seen from him (think last year’s dismal 47 Ronin).

St Vincent

St. Vincent (Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Longtime Brooklyn resident Vincent is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking misanthrope, almost penniless and with racing debts that may soon come due. Soon after we first meet him, we see him in bed with Daka, a pregnant (not by Vincent) Russian prostitute. Yeah, he’s that guy. Still, there’s something surprisingly touching about his interactions with Daka, which hints at character dimensions as yet to be revealed. And as played by a delightfully sharp Naomi Watts (who was equally as good with a Russian accent – though far more serious – in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises), Daka may also be more than she seems.

Soon, Vincent has new neighbors: Maggie, a struggling single mother – played by a wonderfully restrained Melissa McCarthy (Tammy) – and her young son Oliver (terrific newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Though Maggie and Oliver do not meet cute with Vincent – the opposite, in fact – soon Maggie’s brutal work schedule forces her to rely on Vincent as a babysitter. Yes, it’s a terribly misguided decision, but without it we would not have this often funny – if also frequently predictable  – movie.

It’s easy to see why Murray would have signed on for the role, even though this is writer/director Theodore Melfi’s first feature film. It’s a juicy part, and allows him to strut his stuff with great panache. Of course, that’s both the appeal and the weakness of the movie: though hilarious at times, it also falls occasional victim to the showboating of its star. It’s a good thing McCarthy has dialed it down, or we’d be in real trouble. Still, for my money, the performances of Lieberher and Watts, and the manic loopiness of Murray, make it all somehow worthwhile, despite the pedestrian nature of the story. We know, more or less, how it will all end, but that doesn’t keep us from enjoying much of the journey.

John Wick

John Wick (David Leitch/Chad Stahelski, 2014)

Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, the mention of whose name causes the other characters in the movie to utter a shuddered, “Oh,” filled with the dread of mayhem to come. What’s particularly interesting about their reaction is that when we first meet Wick – after an opening that shows us what is presumably the end of the movie, with Wick collapsing, bleeding, on the street – he is a grieving widower, quiet and still. He may drive a mean-looking 1969 Mustang at high speeds, but the way he interacts with the beagle puppy that arrives on his doorstep as a posthumous gift from his just-deceased wife reveals a gentle giant, rather than a killer. He is all sweetness, and the only hint at his true nature comes from that opening (and the movie’s poster). In the tradition of great Westerns like Shane and Unforgiven, though, he is a man who has fled a violent past that is about to catch up with him. Unfortunately, the clarion call to action comes at the expense of that adorable pup, though the violence is (there, at least) treated with discretion. Once that nasty business is over, the movie then leaves any semblance of harsh real-world consequences behind as it takes off into high cartoonish action-genre mode, with Wick hunting down the men who have wronged him.

John Wick is essentially two films: a) a very smart, perfectly realized alternate-reality universe where hitmen have their own secret society, and woe betide anyone who goes against the rules of the group; and b) a typical high-body-count action shoot-‘em-up which may have some interestingly choreographed scenes, but with nothing we haven’t seen before. I prefer the first movie, and wish there more of it. The great Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) delivers a terrifically over-the-top performance, as the lead baddie, that is magnificently served by that first premise, but wasted in the second. Reeves is equally perfect – though far more restrained – as the titular character, playing him mostly straight but with hints of humor below the surface that emerge at just the right moments. It’s too bad that he is too often required to merely run around with a gun.

Still, there are delights aplenty, in spite (or, depending on your preference, because) of the plethora of nasty spurting headshots. Willem Dafoe (so recently nasty in The Fault in Our Stars), Ian McShane (with some of his trademark “Deadwood” menace), and Baltmore-native Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels on “The Wire“) are all along for the ride and add to the air of professional competence with which the film is made. It’s good, dumb fun. I just wish it were as smart as its better half.

Take Great “Pride” in the Name of Solidarity


Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

If, like me, you grew up with the songs of Pete Seeger played loudly, and proudly, in your home, then the opening credits of Pride will immediately strike a welcome chord. My song of choice, as a child, was “Little Boxes” – which I listened to gleefully without understanding a word of the lyrics – but as I aged I gained a greater appreciation of the humanism and progressive ideology of the man, of which his great workers’ anthem, “Solidarity Forever” – the title music of theater director Matthew Warchus‘s new film – is a powerful example. In the spirit of the late champion of labor rights (among other causes) and promoter of rousing feel-good folk songs, Pride is a movie which – though contrived and overly sentimental at times – will leave you profoundly moved and hopeful. It’s a film that promotes the (radical!) notion that there are other ideas worth rallying around than patriotism and fear. In a midterm election year, that’s not a bad thing to keep in mind.

The film – based on true events, as a title card informs us – takes place in the 1980s United Kingdom of the Margaret Thatcher era, beginning with one London Gay Pride March – on June 30, 1984 – and ending with another, one year later. One day, 20-something activist Mark (a charming Ben Schnetzer, from The Book Thief) notices a diminution in the numbers of police harassing young gays like himself, and figures out where they’ve all gone: to harass the country’s miners, all of whom are out on strike. Not content to work only on behalf of his own constituency – and understanding full well how workers and oppressed minorities are all connected (and how his community is directly benefiting from police distraction) – Mark gathers a small coterie of fellow gay men (and one lesbian) to raise money in support of the miners. It’s a hard sell – many gays and lesbians have long suffered severe bullying and discrimination at the hands of their working-class brethren – but Mark is a charismatic leader, and soon his group – LGSM (“Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners“) has raised enough cash to be worth donating. The problem is … to whom? For while gays and lesbians may be able to unite in support of the miners, it proves a bit harder to find miners willing to accept help from gays and lesbians. This is the 1980s, after all.

Fortunately, for the eventual betterment of all concerned, an older Welsh union worker misunderstands the name of the group over the phone, and soon a strike leader, Dai – played by an excellent Paddy Considine (Submarine) – is on his way to London for a meet & greet. The awkward (yet very funny) first sit-down sets the tone for the rest of the film, as Dai, Mark and the rest of LGSM conclude that what binds them is greater than what separates them. Convincing the rest of the world of the same is what drives the plot of the film. With laughter and tears – most of it earned – the movie takes us on a satisfying journey that – even with its almost too-perfect conclusion – refuses to gloss over the harsh realities of the world. With great performances from all involved – including Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Dominic West (McNulty from “The Wire“), Andrew Scott (Moriarty on “Sherlock“), and especially Jessica Dunning (whom I had never seen before), among others – Pride is a wonderful treat, and just what you need to see this weekend. It opens today at the Charles. Go!

The Cosmic Inconsequence of “Men, Women & Children”

Men, Women & Children

Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, 2014)

What to say, what to say? This is a movie that takes itself so seriously, yet has so little of consequence to say. Couple that with the choice of writer/director Jason Reitman (JunoUp in the Air) to use Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech as an awkward framing device – combined with shots of the Voyager spacecraft leaving our galaxy – and you get much hysterical ado about not much at all. It’s too bad, since a lot of good people are acting up a cosmic storm here, including Judy Greer (Kitty Sanchez on “Arrested Development“), Dean Norris (Hank on “Breaking Bad“), Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars), Rosemarie DeWitt (Kill the Messenger) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12) (less so Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner, in one-note roles). But that’s what happens when you dress up platitudes in fancy duds: they’re still hackneyed.

What’s it about? Life! Sex! Depression! Loneliness! How we live in an interconnected world yet are so unconnected! Imagine a mall full of people looking at their smartphones, and you’ll have the essence of the film’s message. Since the whole affair is narrated by Emma Thompson, much of it ends up feeling like Crash – multiple stories and all – with a British-accented voiceover (though that might be unfair to Crash, as superficial as that film was). If that sounds appealing, then Men, Women & Children might just be for you (OK, I’ll admit I laughed at some scenes, particularly early on, and loved all interactions between Judy Greer and Dean Norris, but that’s it). I recommend seeing Pride, instead (both open today at the Charles), however, which does a far better job selling the importance of the need for human attachment.

The “Fury” of War: Ideals Are Peaceful; History Is Violent


Fury (David Ayer, 2014)

The opening shot of Fury – the new film from writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) – is at first hard to decipher. Are we looking at treetops, over which a rising sun peeks? The shapes are fuzzy and colorless, but as a solitary figure – a horseman – slowly rises on the horizon, we realize we are looking at a battlefield; a field of clumps of dirt, in fact, rutted and pitted by tanks and dying men. It’s an apt image, for this will be a movie about dirty warfare. Dirt and grime are everywhere, and nowhere more present than on the soldiers who fight the battles, both on their faces and in their souls. It is April, 1945, and World War II is about to come to a close, though some of the fiercest fighting lies ahead, particularly for the crewmen of the “Fury,” so dubbed by the tight-knit band under “Wardaddy” Sergeant Collier’s command.

Wardaddy is played with an amazing combination of brio and reserve by Brad Pitt, who just last summer battled an equally deadly – if fantastical – enemy in World War Z. Here, he is just as resourceful, and a hell of a lot tougher, his body and face covered with burns and scars. Right after that horseman enters frame, the camera following and panning over to what looks to be a disabled tank, Wardaddy leaps from out of nowhere, knife in hand, stabs the rider (a dreaded German SS officer, as it turns out), and then jabs his knife into the man’s eye socket. It is the first of many gruesome close-ups of carnage: the film does not stint on the horrors of combat; soon, we will see a melted human face on a tank seat. Again, an apt image, for our own faces are literally shoved into the blood of the wounded and killed, time and again. This is one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying the brutality of war.

Wardaddy’s men – a motley crew made up of Michael Peña (Cesar Chavez), Shia LaBeouf (Lawless) and Jon Bernthal (Shane Walsh on “The Walking Dead“), all excellent – all with war monikers of their own, are devoted to their leader, who has kept them alive since their first battles in Africa three years ago. As the film opens, they have just lost one of their gunners (that melted face), and HQ has decided to give them a green army novice, Norman (a terrific Logan Lerman, so good as the lead in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as well), who becomes our surrogate in the nasty classroom of tank warfare. When he, early on, hesitates to fire on the enemy, Wardaddy forces him to shoot a German prisoner of war, in cold blood. This is also one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying morally compromised main characters that demand our sympathies, or at least our full attention.

The problems for the men of the Fury are many. The Germans just won’t give up, and their tanks – designed by Porsche – are superior. It will take everything these guys have got to fulfill their mission and survive the war. The movie – to its credit – is less interested in potential happy outcomes than in exploring the moral and physical toll that prolonged combat inflicts on its participants. There is a marvelous scene halfway through the film where the Americans have successfully captured a German town – after immense casualties – and Wardaddy and Norman treat themselves to an interlude with two female (German) cousins hiding in their apartment. Is it rape? As Wardaddy tells Norman: “Ideals are peaceful; history is violent.” There’s certainly coercion at play, yet these two men turn out to be far more civilized than their fellow soldiers. The way Ayer plays with our expectations (and our need to like the protagonists) is brilliant, and sets up the greater violence to follow.

And that violence is magnetic: the battle scenes are intense, like nothing I have seen since the opening of Saving Private Ryan (though I did also find much to admire in Lone Survivor, released in January of this year). During each and every one, I was on the edge of my seat.

Where the film is less successful is in its occasional post-battle montages, filled with the overly sentimental strains of the score by composer Steven Price (Gravity). The ending, in particular, overuses Price’s music as the camera cranes high above the final battlefield (a nice visual echo of the opening). Still, that misstep notwithstanding, this is a powerful movie that deserves its place in the canon of great war (and/or antiwar) films of yore.

3 (reviews) x 3 (movies) on 10/17/14 Midday Show: “Fury,” “Men, Women & Children” and “Pride”

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast - I'm on in final 7 minutes.]

3x3 Rodricks

Join me on Midday with Dan Rodricks (WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station) during the final 10-15 minutes of the first hour (12-1pm) on Friday, October 17, as I review three films opening that day.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

The three films are:

Fury (David Ayer, 2014)

Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, 2014)

Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

“Kill the Messenger” Speaks (Cinematic) Truth to Power

Kill the Messenger

Kill the Messenger (Michael Cuesta, 2014)

Gary Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 when he came across evidence linking the CIA to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Investigating further, he uncovered a vast drugs-for-money network where U.S. intelligence operatives collaborated directly – if covertly – with Nicaraguan Contras and drug dealers (often the same people) to sell crack in American cities to raise money for the fight against the leftist regime in Nicaragua. Disgusted by what he saw as the more-than-lingering after effects of the previous decade’s urban drug scourge, Webb – despite warnings of reprisals by the CIA – wrote a series of articles under the heading “Dark Alliance,” which embarrassed the CIA and incited the anger of African-American communities nationwide, many of whom had felt the brunt of the crack epidemic. At first hailed as a hero, Webb very quickly found himself in the crosshairs not only of the CIA, but of rival newspapers – humiliated that a journalist at a small paper had gotten the big scoop – and soon his halo metamorphosed into a pitchfork. Tawdry facts from his past were unearthed, and he – rather than the Contra/crack connection – became the story. It didn’t help that he had been sloppy and sensationalistic in his reporting. Before long, he was completely discredited and no longer able to work in his profession. He took his own life in 2004. David Carr of The New York Times wrote a recent article about Webb that fills in any missing details in the above narrative.

Webb’s tragic and quixotic struggles make for a great movie, and Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.), the director, has fashioned a gripping conspiracy procedural out of the known facts. Or rather, to be fair, out of the facts known to Gary Webb, since the movie is based, in part, on the book he published in 1998, entitled Dark Alliance (like the articles). It’s an extremely well made thriller that, like Oliver Stone’s JFK, mixes archival footage, reenactments and narrative elements to tell its tale of a man destroyed. Also like JFK, the film leaves you reflecting that if even a few of the theories presented are correct, then something bad must have happened. As one audience member muttered at the end of the screening I attended, “That’s why I never trust the government.” Right on!

Now, I am the last person to think my government – or any government – incapable of the most despicable evils (human history is filled with too many examples of executive malfeasance), but I am also by nature a healthy skeptic, so when I watch any one-sided story where the forces arrayed against our hero are all evil – and he is all good – I immediately begin to question the integrity of the narrative. The advantage of a movie like this is that it doesn’t have to actually prove anything; it can just insinuate. What’s ironic is that this is exactly the approach that the CIA – and the rival newspapers – took with Webb. They destroyed him through implication. What goes around comes around, I guess, and since there does appear to have been some truth to Webb’s story – sloppy reporting notwithstanding – this turnaround is not undeserved.

Where the movie is especially strong, however, regardless of its truthiness, is in its portrayal of institutional behavior. When systems are threatened, the consequences for the hapless neophyte attacker can be devastating. In the case of Webb, the publisher and editor of his paper refused to stand by his story and threw him under the proverbial bus. As played by Oliver Platt (“The Big C“) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed), these two superiors who should have had Webb’s back are particularly chilling since they are so likable. We get why they must do what they do, even though they are as responsible for the mess as Webb. Would we behave any differently? Ah! There’s the question.

Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Webb with ebbing vitality and a vanishing confidence made all the more poignant by the actor’s natural vibrancy. With his brilliant and committed performance, he helps us overlook the flaws in the script. Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister’s Sister) is a bit wasted as Webb’s wife, but brings her usual sincerity to her underdeveloped role. Of special note are Paz Vega (Sex and Lucia), as the (ridiculously flirtatious) girlfriend of a drug dealer who first draws Webb’s attention to the CIA connection, Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as a defense lawyer for another drug dealer, and Andy Garcia (At Middleton) as yet another (imprisoned) drug dealer down in Nicaragua.

It’s a film well worth watching, imperfections and all, just like Webb’s articles were well worth reading.

Going Gillian: The Compelling Repellant Oddness of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”

Gone Girl

Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

David Fincher releases his 10th feature film today, adding to a vastly entertaining and compelling body of work that includes music videos, commercials and 9 previous films that, love them or hate them, have proven him both a great visual stylist and powerful storyteller. Gone Girl is an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same title by Gillian Flynn (Gillian pronounced with a hard G), and the script was written by Flynn, herself (as a former writer for Entertainment Weekly, she perhaps feels she knows a thing or two about movie structure). I was not a fan of the book, although I recognized that it was a strong page-turner and fairly well-written (in terms of narrative structure). No matter – it was a huge success, and now Fincher – a director I admire, and whose last film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while not a strictly necessary work (since the original had been so fine), was still a more-than-worthy adaptation of a potboiler – has turned his considerable talents to its cinematic translation. I wish he had chosen a different source text, but what’s on the screen is nevertheless fascinating to watch, if also odd and repellent. There’s nothing wrong with unlikeable characters – indeed, the late great Patricia Highsmith specialized in loathsome and/or morally opaque protagonists – but one has to be in the right mood for it, and the characterizations had better be masterful. Flynn is no Highsmith, that’s for sure, but Fincher is, himself, a master filmmaker, so what we get mesmerizes even as it repulses. And it’s also pretty funny in spots.

Gone Girl starts on the 5th wedding anniversary of Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple that has recently relocated from New York (Amy’s hometown) to North Carthage, Missouri (Nick’s hometown), after both of them lost their jobs. The marriage, once deliriously romantic, has now turned sour, and when Amy disappears, Nick becomes the prime suspect in her assumed murder. An affable sort, Nick does himself no favors by trying a little too hard to be friendly to the army of well-wishers who descend upon the town. When the police discover Amy’s diary (along with other incriminating evidence that includes Amy’s financial support of the marriage and a bumped-up life insurance premium), which starts positive and is then increasingly filled with frightened entries, Nick appears done for. The media – including a character very loosely based on Nancy Grace – crucifies him, then North Carthage’s citizens follow, and it’s only a matter of time before the police will arrest Nick.

Except that all may not be as it seems. Suddenly, midway through the story, we discover new details about Amy that radically change the dynamic of the narrative. No plot spoilers to follow. Suffice it to say that this twist is by far the most interesting aspect of the novel, after which we are left with unappealing characters who behave in predictable ways while reinforcing stereotypes of male and female behavior (with a surprisingly healthy does of misogyny) that are just fundamentally not that interesting.

Thank God for Fincher. Even more than his trademark brilliance with the visual language of cinema, he brings to Gone Girl a delightful strangeness in the sound design. This is a story about people whose behavioral mannerisms are completely faux constructs (Flynn’s seeming point being that all relationships are about performance), and from the opening off-balance close-up of Amy’s head, accompanied by the odd synth chords of composers Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross, we enter a world of artifice that feels almost dream-like in its presentation of the facts (such as they are) of the story. In a way that words, alone, cannot convey, Fincher uses image and sound to plunge us into, first, a dream, and then, as the story gets darker, a nightmare. Only the director of such masterpieces as Se7en and Fight Club could pull this off. I did not enjoy the movie, but I was inexorably drawn to it (though it could have been about 20 minutes shorter).

Ben Affleck (bulked up for his upcoming Batman v Superman film) and Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher) star as Nick and Amy. They’re good together, and the fact that neither has great acting range is probably appropriate for such shallow characters. The supporting cast is excellent, including Kim Dickens (good in everything she does, including “Deadwood“), Neil Patrick Harris (so fine, as always, in “How I Met Your Mother“) and Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry). There are a lot of reasons to see the film – especially if, unlike me, you’re a fan of book – including the many darkly comic moments sprinkled throughout (I laughed quite a bit, actually), even if the writing is not among them. Steel yourself for the nasty misery of Nick and Amy’s marriage, and hop to it. Fincher is always worth watching.

Goin’, Goin’, “Gone Girl” Fincher: Midday on Film, 10/3/14 @ 1pm

[NOTE: If you missed our show, check out the podcast.]

Rodricks Fincher Gone Girl

Born in 1962, David Fincher began his directing career in the 1980s with music videos and commercials, before graduating to feature-length narratives with Alien 3 in 1992. The spec commercial that first brought him attention was his 1984 “Smoking Fetus” spot for the American Cancer Society. Some of his music videos included the following: “An Englishman in New York,” for Sting; “Straight Up,” for Paula Abdul; and “Vogue,” for Madonna. As James Swallow recounts in his 2003 book Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher, the director’s transition to feature-length filmmaking was not an easy one, as the Alien 3 production was a deeply troubled one. Still, Fincher (and the movie, despite less-than-stellar reviews) survived, and in 1995 he released the masterfully chilling thriller Se7en, made with a supreme panache that forever banished the ghosts of aliens past. Since then, Fincher has made 8 more features: The GameFight ClubPanic Room, ZodiacThe Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social NetworkThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and – opening this Friday, October 3, 2014 – Gone Girl. He has also continued to direct music videos – such as Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” (featuring Jay-Z) – commercials (some of which he has produced, rather than directed, such as BMW’s “The Hire” series) – as well as direct (the first two episodes) and produce Netflix’s series “House of Cards.” Though only 52 years old, Fincher has left an indelible mark on the world of the moving image as a master stylist and storyteller, both.

Join us on Midday with Dan Rodricks (WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station) during the second hour, 1-2pm, on Friday, October 3, as Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – celebrate the life and work of this great filmmaker on the day his newest film is released.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

“The Skeleton Twins”

Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 2014)

The second feature from Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) opens today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre, and it’s a major step up from film #1 in terms of production quality, story and star power. In Johnson’s freshman effort – which starred Mark Duplass (Your Sister’s Sister), who on this new film is the Executive Producer – the writer/director already demonstrated a strong understanding of script structure and a fine way with actors, but here he takes it to a whole new level. Working with veteran “Saturday Night Live” performers Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) and Bill Hader (Adventureland), Johnson has crafted a moving story of family and sibling bonds that mixes tragedy and comedy in equal measure, and is a powerful showcase for the sizable dramatic talents of his two leads. The film is by no means perfect – the ending, for me, felt completely contrived and unbelievable – but the pros far outweigh the cons, and it’s made with such panache that I forgive it its few weaknesses.

The Skeleton Twins tells the moving story of fraternal twins Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) Dean, who must overcome a 10-year estrangement when one of them attempts suicide and lands in the hospital. Filled with brilliantly funny moments, the film is nevertheless an emotionally wrenching and intense tale of the ties that bind us all, siblings or not. While Wiig and Hader may not be entirely believable, genetically, as twins, their ease and comfort with each other after years together on television makes them a great fit as sister and brother: they complement each other perfectly in tone and pitch. And even though Andrew O’Hehir, in Salon – while he praises the film – worries that Hader (who is straight), playing the gay Milo, may come too close to “gay typology or even stereotype” for comfort, I found Hader to be the best thing about the movie (plus, the director, himself, is gay, so if he’s OK with it . . .). His pain and joy at being alive are infectious, and his lip sync of the horrible 1980s Starship ballad “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is worth the price of admission, alone.

The film also stars Luke Wilson (Legally Blonde), Ty Burrell (“Modern Family“), Joanna Gleason (“Love & War“) and relative newcomer Boyd Holbrook (2014 Maryland Film Festival closing film Little Accidents), all of whom impress, as well. It’s also shot by noted cinematographer Reed Morano (Kill Your Darlings), who brings an intoxicatingly hypnotic visual aesthetic to the story. I presented it last week at Cinema Sundays at the Charles, and the audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I definitely recommend!

The Cinema of Blah: “This Is Where I Leave You” and “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

Is the fall movie season upon us yet? Sort of. It certainly seems as if the tone of the films being released has moved from the silliness of summer to the (slightly) more somber and rueful mood of early autumn. But we’re still a bit of a distance away from the (possible) Oscar-bait films to come – which include (maybe) BirdmanFoxcatcherGone GirlThe Imitation GameInherent ViceInterstellar, Into the WoodsThe JudgeMr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and Unbroken – as well as the sure-to-be box-office behemoths The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Instead, what we get this weekend are two occasionally entertaining works of middling inspiration that wax mediocre in their ambitions. Neither is worth much ink (or, in this case, pixels), so I will be brief, saving my energy for future reviews of (hopefully) better movies.

This Is Where I Leave You

This Is Where I Leave You (Shawn Levy, 2014)

The last film I saw by Shawn Levy (Night at the MuseumDate Night) was The Internship, and This Is Where I Leave You shares many traits with that former effort. Both feature moments of successful comedy, yet both are mired in a morass of false sentiment and under-developed characters (particularly the women). It’s not uniformly terrible – indeed, how could a film featuring such likable performers as Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development“) and Tina Fey (“30 Rock“) be all bad? – but nor is it particularly interesting. It’s just . . . there . . . right where the screenwriters left it.

Bateman is one of four siblings – the others being Fey, Corey Stoll (“House of Cards“) and Adam Driver (“Girls“) – who are brought home by the death of their father: their mother, Jane Fonda (who needs no listing of a token credit here, I hope), claims that the father’s dying wish was for the whole family to sit Shiva (even though he and everyone else was/are de facto atheists). Leaving aside the fact that none of these folks look like they belong in the same gene pool (and The Wire has a funny article about how only one of the actors in the film is actually Jewish), the premise has promise, since forcing the members of a dysfunctional family (and there is much “dys” here) to spend time in a small space could lead to some funny results. Alas, with overbearing music blaring in almost every scene, and treacle punctuating the laughs, the overall effect is that of a generic sitcom (of particular note, since almost all of the players come from far more unique television series). You’ll chuckle, no question, but also wonder why such good actors as Rose Byrne (Damages“), Timothy Oliphant (“Deadwood“) and Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights“) are wasted in nondescript parts. See it if you must.

Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank, 2014)

Women are again neglected (by way of underdevelopment) – abused and tortured, actually – in A Walk Among the Tombstones, adapted from the book of the same title by Lawrence Block. This new Liam Neeson-on-a-tear movie from writer-turned-director Scott Frank (The Lookout) has the virtue of at least being a tad original, story-wise, and despite the truly horrific and disgusting nature of the crimes on display, it (mostly) kept me from looking at my watch for its duration (then again, I may be serial killer). Still, it is a gruesome thing, filled with silly plot contrivances of its own, and at times barely competent. Nevertheless, Neeson (hard at work already on the next Taken sequel) is always watchable, and though his attempts at a New York accent are funnier than almost anything in This Is Where I Leave You, his grim avenger makes for (somewhat) compelling cinema.

Why, however, is a drug dealer reading Nabokov in one scene? Is it meant to signify a depth of character that the screenplay refuses to supply? What, you say? It’s just a book, in one shot? Well, yeah, but details matter, and if you’re a good director, you make them count. After all, the young homeless kid, TJ (Astro, seen this past summer in Earth to Echo in a similarly pitched role), befriended by Neeson in the New York Public Library one day, is constantly dropping literary and cultural references to prove his own self-worth, so somebody, somewhere, had to think about Nabokov. Or not. And that’s the problem.

So what do we get? A sordid story about two crazies who kidnap women (usually the wives of drug dealers) and then chop them up after collecting ransom. While we are spared many of the gruesome bloody visuals, we get just enough to turn stomachs unaccustomed to such grotesquerie. And while the movie is ultimately not on the side of the psychopaths, the director is one of these people who so clearly wants to have his cake and eat it, too: killing and dismembering women is bad, but wouldn’t you like just a taste?

See it for Neeson, or go rent The Lego Movie and enjoy his turn as Good Cop/Bad Cop, instead.

[NOTE: In my original posting today, I left out the fact that the book on which the movie is based is part of a long-running series of "Matthew Scudder" novels by Block. To be honest, I didn't care enough about the movie to mention such details. However, David Edelstein cares, and his review - with which I mostly disagree - fills in the blanks in mine.]