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.]

9/21/14: “The Skeleton Twins” at Cinema Sundays at the Charles

Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 2014)

Come join me this Sunday, September 21, at 10:30am, as I present writer/director Craig Johnson’s second feature, The Skeleton Twins, at Baltimore’s renowned preview series, Cinema Sundays at the Charles. Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film tells the moving story of fraternal twins Maggie and Milo Dean, who must overcome their long estrangement when an attempted suicide lands one of them in the hospital. The film is a powerful tale of the emotional ties that bind us all, siblings or not. Featuring strong dramatic performances from comedians Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) and Bill Hader (Adventureland), longtime collaborators on “Saturday Night Live,” 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. The Skeleton Twins is shot by noted cinematographer Reed Morano (Kill Your Darlings), who brings an intoxicatingly hypnotic visual aesthetic to the story. The movie currently has an 88% critic rating and 86% audience rating on the film-review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and I highly recommend you come on down to the Charles Theatre to see it. I look forward to welcoming you.

First Episode of “Reel Talk” Now Available

Reel Talk_9-2014

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Linda DeLibero, his first guest.

Starting this month, I am now the host of a local television film review program, entitled Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reedon HCC-TV. My first guest was my colleague Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – who joins me every month on Midday with Dan Rodricks, on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station. In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. Enjoy! The amazing HCC-TV team did a wonderful job putting this together. There will be a new episode aired every two months.

“Drop” in on “A Five Star Life” for Some Mild Cinematic Pleasures

Five Star Life

A Five Star Life (Maria Sole Tognazzi, 2013)

Up in the Air meets I Am Love, but with a nice feminist twist where the female protagonist doesn’t actually need a man to be happy. That’s how I’m billing A Five Star Life (Viaggio Sola, or “I Travel Alone,” in the original Italian) and I’m sticking to it! In this visually sumptuous (sponsored by “The Leading Hotels of the World!”) coming-to-terms-with-life story about a visually sumptuous middle-aged woman – an amazing Margherita Buy (We Have a Pope) – we meet Irene (Buy), a luxury hotel inspector who travels the world for an agency that rates five-star hotels to determine whether they still deserve all five of those stars. Along the way, she is forced to rate her own romance-free child-free life and determine the best path forward.

On the one hand, it’s a beautiful movie, buoyed by Buy’s magnificent performance, and like The Trip to Italy and Magic in the Moonlight offering the viewer the aesthetic delights of gorgeous locations that (somewhat) make up for flaws in the screenplay. On the other hand, however, those flaws accumulate to the point where the script and characters become too schematic: conversations between Irene and her sister, and Irene and her former lover feel overwhelmingly expositional; a late arrival to the story – a British feminist intellectual – is inserted into the plot, it seems, merely to force Irene into self-awareness. Still, there’s something to be said for elegantly presented and marvelously acted eye candy, and you could do worse than spend 85 minutes (blessedly short!) watching Margherita Buy traipse through some of the most stunning hotels in the world.

Drop, The

The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam, 2014)

The Drop, based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue” (which Lehane, himself, adapted for the screen), tells the story of 40-something Bob, a shy and mumbling Brooklyn bartender and erstwhile tough guy, as he struggles to maintain his calm and composure as what life he has (which isn’t much) is threatened by underworld shenanigans. Tom Hardy plays Bob, delivering yet another performance – after Lawless and The Dark Knight Rises – where his voice is altered in some way to make it hard to understand. Following this past year’s Locke, where he was so precise in his annunciation, it’s a return to form, of sorts.

The “drop” of the title refers to a designated location (changing all the time) where the mob collects funds (gambling and otherwise) from various sources. Whoever is in charge of that evening’s drop bears the dangerous responsibility of ensuring that none of the money gets waylaid or stolen. The Chechen mafia is not one to accept losses lightly.

Cousin Marv – played by the late James Gandolfini (Enough Said) in his last movie role – owns one of these occasional drops. Or rather, he used to own it, until the Chechens muscled in and made him merely a manager, leaving him with a (much reduced) seat at the table and simmering resentments. Bob works for Cousin Marv (and is his actual cousin), and though he is clearly the subordinate, there are occasional flashes of steel in his behavior that hint at their shared, possibly violent, past. One night – not a drop night, fortunately – two masked gunmen enter the bar and steal $5000 from the register (and therefore from the Chechens), setting in motion a plot filled with twists and betrayals.

Into this sordid story comes Rocco, an abused and abandoned (and adorable) pit bull puppy, found by Bob in a trash can one night as he’s walking home, and Nadia – played by Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – an abused and abandoned woman of unknown origin, in whose trash can Rocco has been discarded. Together, Rocco and Nadia (in that order) awaken Bob’s extinguished emotional core. When Nadia’s former boyfriend – and, it turns out, Rocco’s original owner – Eric (a terrific Matthias Schoenaerts, of Rust and Bone), shows up, his menacing presence threatens to awaken more than just emotion in Bob. Even while Bob remains largely a cypher, we sense his capacity for explosive violence, and spend most of the film awaiting his eventual eruption.

If all of this seems interesting, it is, up to a point. Hardy – mumbling affectation aside – is riveting, as always, and Gandolfini similarly holds our attention. I wish Rapace were as good here as she was as Lisbeth Salander, but it’s not entirely her fault that she’s miscast. And the pit bull puppy will melt the heart of even ardent haters of the breed (although the frequent close-ups of his face begin to feel a bit desperately manipulative after a while). The problems with the movie have primarily to do with the script. I haven’t read the source text, but much of what happens here feels a bit too preordained and predictable, and is not helped by Hardy’s occasional (and portentous) voiceover. We know that Bob will eventually act, so when he does, there is little surprise (the audience at my preview screening even tittered at that climax). Despite the weaker elements, however, there is much to enjoy. As a final farewell to Gandolfini, it may not live up to the standards of “The Sopranos,” but it’s still enjoyable.

Take a Fun “Trip to Italy”

In 2010, director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) released The Trip, which was compiled from 6 episodes of a BBC television series of the same name. The premise was disarmingly simple (and delightfully preposterous): two British comedians, Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), are invited by a UK magazine (The Observer) to write profiles of various restaurants in England’s northern Lake District. Actually, it’s Coogan (much better known in the States than Brydon, though Brydon is a big television star in the UK) who is the guest culinary columnist, but when his romantic partner deserts him, he invites friend (or, more accurately, frenemy) Brydon along for the ride. The fact that neither man has any particularly sophisticated knowledge of food doesn’t stop them from eating – and commenting on what they eat – with gastronomical gusto.

The result – at least in the movie (I did not see the individual TV episodes) – was a whacky road-trip movie that served as an excuse for these two very funny men (playing loosely fictionalized versions of their real selves) to riff on life, celebrity . . . and other (bigger) celebrities. We were treated to their dueling impressions of Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Roger Moore (among others). Actually, the Connery/Moore duel was my absolute favorite, since it allowed Coogan and Brydon to demonstrate true vocal versatility as, each repeating the phrase “I’d like a vodka martini; shaken, not stirred,” they seamlessly segued from Connery to Moore with no announcement or warning to the audience. It was the kind of comedy (which the British, à la Monty Python, excel at) where we couldn’t help but feel a little smarter when we got their jokes.

This didn’t mean that the film had no gravitas to it. On the contrary, even as they each cracked wise, they also admitted to their deepening melancholy in the face of advancing middle age. Was this all that life had to offer, they mused? Well, it wasn’t all that bad, but maybe it wasn’t all that they had hoped for, either.

And now comes The Trip to Italy, similarly compiled from 6 new episodes. Same idea, same actors, different country. Coogan and Brydon, just like Hill and Tatum in this past summer’s 22 Jump Street, even make fun of the very idea of doing a sequel to their first project. But is it exactly the same? Take a look at the posters for each film, side by side:


What do you see? Notice that Coogan, on the left, looks miserable in the first film, while Brydon, on the right, is the unhappy one in the sequel. Indeed, Coogan’s simmering resentments and disappointments drove the plot of The Trip, while it’s Brydon’s middle-aged crisis that is the center of The Trip to Italy. This is what makes the sophomore effort both newly interesting yet (slightly) less enjoyable than the initial outing, since for this viewer, anyway, Coogan is a more interesting screen presence and a funnier man. Still, there are delights aplenty, even if the comedians revisit many of the same impressions and imitations (Michael Caine, again! Sean Connery and Roger Moore, again!) as they did before. And despite my preference for Coogan, Brydon does own one of the funniest moments in the movie. Known in his homeland for his “small man in a box voice,” Brydon puts this strange talent to use in a sequence where they visit Pompeii and he encounters the 2000-year-old remains of a man . . . in a box. It’s absolutely brilliant. Finally, there is the breathtakingly gorgeous scenery of Italy, which makes for a lovely contrast to the mist-shrouded moors of the Lake District. Oh, and – as earlier – there’s a lot of wonderful food on display. So while the film may not be the most original offering out there, it is fun, funny and occasionally profound. Go on a date, and you’ll emerge laughing and ready for a meal.