Archive for May, 2014

Review: “Locke”

May 31, 2014
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Tom Hardy in “Locke”

 

This film has been getting a lot of attention as a daring, innovative experiment, but it’s really just a variation on a genre that goes back decades. I call it “techno-stunt” because it tells a story involving many people by having the camera stay on a single character for almost the entire running time.  Here director-writer Steven Knight (writer, “Eastern Promises”) makes clever use of modern technology to get us involved in the lives of a number of characters who are heard, but never seen. The only character we do see, Locke, played by Tom Hardy in a virtuoso performance, is only shown behind the wheel of his car as he talks via speaker phone to the other characters.

This makes it a kind of radio play. Its film precursors include a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, “Sorry, Wrong Number”, which intersperses her telephone monologue with flashbacks.  Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice”, both as play and film, is a monologue of a woman talking on the phone to her lover, who is leaving her to marry a younger woman.  Another telephone monologue  is a TV film, “Eddie”, for which Mickey Rooney won an Emmy for playing a playing a gambler desperately making calls to raise money before thugs come to collect a gambling debt.

Knight modernizes the format by having his hero talk on speaker phone while driving his car, which allows us to hear the person on the other end. The story is perfectly suited to this treatment. The film starts with Locke, a building contractor in Birmingham, England, driving home to his family. He is nervous because he is expecting a delivery of concrete that is crucial to his building’s completion. But he gets an unexpected call that turns his life around. Locke finds himself confronted with a moral challenge that threatens to destroy his marriage and career. The film shows how he meets that challenge.

Essentially, this is a soap opera, but very well done. What places it at a somewhat higher level is that the real conflict is within Locke himself.  He thinks of himself as a man of integrity, and the fact that his single “lapse” could ruin his life is especially painful. I’m sure that some men watching the film would think Locke is foolish to do what he does, and that his “sacrifice” is really just a guilt trip triggered by an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They would have a point. Does he really need to protect the woman giving birth to his child, or is he simply too vain to admit that things may work out anyway? Is it worth the break-up of his marriage, or the separation from his two young sons? And, with regard to the business deal, is it worth the risk of destroying the most important project of his career?

Knight is able to hold us in a tight grip until his satisfying conclusion, but he can’t hide the contrivances of the story. While Locke is convincingly driven by the need to live responsibly – which is explained by his own father’s abandoning him as a child – the other characters, who, after all, are only disembodied voices, seem to be figures in a morality play, not real people. This reduces the film’s impact considerably. Locke is presented as such a controlling person, one who is used to getting his own way, that all obstacles, whether his wife’s rage over his adultery, or locating employees who are not too drunk to follow his instructions, are overcome too easily. The film’s final image, and sound, is craftily calculated to choke us up (it does), but it really hasn’t been earned.

Having said that, I must note the exception, the one genuinely touching moment in the film. It occurs near the end, when Locke is approaching his destination and stops answering his  calls. He hears a voice mail left by his younger son, who describes in detail the winning goal in the football championship that Locke had promised to watch with his sons. It is a long, excited description, and you can sense the boy’s disappointment over his father’s absence. With only the look in his eyes as he hears this, Hardy is able to fully convey the depth of his pain.

 

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Review: “Bullets Over Broadway” (the musical)

May 19, 2014

This is a fun show, especially for those who enjoy the frothy-light kind of musical that was popular before the genre was taken seriously by critics. The story was second to the singing, dancing and the laughs, and the composers, even the greatest like Kern and Gershwin, had to accept that.

The cleverest thing about turning Woody Allen’s delightful film into a musical was in recognizing it as the perfect vehicle for that kind of entertainment. This show would have been a Broadway hit in 1929, the year it was set. And in Susan Stroman, we have the perfect match of director-choeographer and material.  The American musical theatre is in her DNA, and she doesn’t hold back. She gets her actors to demonstrate spectacular performance skills in dance, song and comic gesture, and all while staying in character. We can see the enormous respect and love she has for the old-style Broadway “shtick” of the past, especially in the witty choreography for the “Let’s Misbehave” duet, a highlight.

The one caveat I have – and it’s a major one – may only bother those who love the film, as I do.  Part of Woody Allen’s genius is to know, even when writing a film, precisely what qualities in an actor will best serve the story. Mostly, he wants to show how a real human being will credibly behave in certain situations, and that this will make us laugh. Chazz Palminteri was so perfect as Cheech because Allen used this fine actor’s voice and facial gestures to show how even an uncultured, violent gangster could start to think of himself as a serious artist, to riotous consequences. Palminteri was funny because his passion and integrity were shown to be genuine, while the faux-artist, the playwright played by John Cusack, was more than willing to “sell out” for success.

These are the two main roles in the story, and it’s a big order to find two professional actors who can portray them, night after night, and sing and dance too! To be brief, Stroman hit the jackpot, big time, with Zach Braff as the playwright. But the talented Nick Cordero, as Cheech, was a letdown. In the film, Cheech progressed from mere annoyance at Olive’s incompetence to contempt and, finally, to uncontrollable rage, as if she was trying to destroy his newly recognized destiny as a great artist. It wasn’t only that she was so bad, but her total indifference to his pain was a personal assault, and demanded the ultimate response. Palminteri was hilarious, and a total delight. But Cordero started as merely annoyed, which was okay, but then pretty much stayed there. We never got to witness the growth of this delusion in Cheech. Because Cordero, and Stroman, failed to drive this home, the laughs just didn’t come.

 

Review: “Traitors”

May 1, 2014
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Chimae Ben Acha as Malika (picture credit Benoit Peverelli and Niko Tavernise)

This film makes good use of what has become a cliché in crime films: the hero, seemingly trapped in a drug deal, gets out of the jam and turns the tables on the mob. We bought this wildly improbable premise as far back as John Guare’s script for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. I’m buying it again with this Tribeca entry because of solid filmmaking, an appealing cast and the bonus of armchair travel to exotic Morocco. First timer Sean Gullette keeps it tight and colorful, and his own acting background (Darren Aronovsky’s Pi), no doubt contributed to the superior level of the performances.

The heroine, Malika, played by Chimae Ben Acha, is lead singer for the Traitors, an all-female, politically defiant punk rock group in Tangier. She’s told by an agent that they can get studio time for their first demo if they pay the production costs. Determined to get the money, Malika starts a desperate quest that includes posing as a prostitute – and bolting with the cash without being touched – and being a drug mule. The drug job is to drive a car loaded with heroin back to Tangier. Her accomplice, Amal, is an addict and girlfriend of one of the gang. She doesn’t hide her hostility for the beautiful new recruit, and warns her not mess up her “game”. But we’ve already come to expect the unexpected from Malika, who silently waits for the right moment to make a game-changing move of her own. While on the return trip, she notices Amal furtively looking at a piece of paper, and asks her: “Is that your sonogram?”

From that moment, the film morphs into a nerve-jangling thriller, building suspense on two fronts: first, because Malika is an amateur mixed up with ruthless, seasoned criminals and, second, because we still don’t know what the hell she’s up to. Part of the fun is in seeing how each piece in her plan fits into another piece, with surprises all along the way. Sure, credibility is tortured, but this kind of film only works if you care what happens to the characters. Malika is brave, yet vulnerable; compassionate, yet resolute in fighting against a male-dominated culture that treats women as inferiors. We may not be fully swayed to that view, but we never doubt her convictions. Or that she’ll risk her life to defend them.

All performances are good, but Soufia Issami, as Amal, is a standout. Crucial to the film’s success is making us believe that Amal will join in Malika’s scheme. Issami’s subtly shaded performance details her change from distrust to the awareness that Malika is giving her the only chance she’ll ever have for happiness.

At the screening, Gullette emphasized how great it was to have two cinematographers, especially for finding so many locations. This helped to maintain the film’s swift pace as we followed Malika, constantly on the move through so many views of changing streets and countryside. Probably of equal importance was the adroit editing of the renowned Sabine Hoffman.

 


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