Monday, September 22, 2014


     Ed Harris, Eva Longoria, and Michael Pena star in this modern "western" that tackles the issues of illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States. It's a worthy topic deserving of our attention but the script becomes a little too neat and manipulative.

     Mr. Harris is a retired sheriff who's land borders Mexico. Amy Madigan, his real wife, plays his wife in the film. Mr. Pena is a Mexican illegal who crosses the border looking for work to support his wife, Ms. Longoria, and his family.  A tragic event sets things in motion that brings all the characters together.

      Trusting their lives to "coyotes", who smuggle them across the border, these people are just hoping for a better life in the United States. More often than not, they are robbed, sexually assaulted, and left to fend for themselves. The film pulls no punches in some of the harsher scenes in the sub-plot. 

       It is refreshing to see Ms. Longoria in a serious, un-glamorous role as she falls prey to one of these "coyotes". Her situation along with Mr. Pena's misfortune, is heartbreaking to watch.  Luckily Mr. Harris is doing his best Gary Cooper impression as he takes matters into his own hands to make things right. It is here that the script and the film score combine to really heighten our emotions and even though it feels manipulative, the final moments are very tense.

        I don't expect this film to last very long in theaters so look for it on video or cable if the subject matter interests you or you are a fan of Mr. Harris. He easily elevates any film he's in and "Frontera" falls into that category.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Drop

      Based on a short story by crime novelist Dennis  Lahane, this new drama feels like a short story and never takes on the heft of a full fledged film. It's a gritty story with a good twist that builds plenty of tension but the final payoff fizzles rather than explodes.

       The film stars James Gandolfini, in his last film, as Marv and Tom Hardy as his cousin Bob. Marv runs a bar he once owned that has been taken over by Chechin criminals. Bob is his bartender. The bar is sometimes used as a "drop" for dirty money and a robbery sets the plot in motion.  Noomi Rapace is Nadia, a woman Bob meets when he rescues a puppy that has been tossed into a garbage can. John Ortiz co-stars as the detective looking into the robbery.

        Mr. Gandolfini returns to the type of crime character he plays so well but Marv is no "Tony Soprano". He's a has been hoping for one more shot but of course, things get complicated.  Even though the character is washed up, Mr. Gandolfini is still a commanding screen presence. Mr. Hardy struggles with his Brooklyn accent but does a good job as Bob, a man smarter than he appears, doing a slow burn for the majority of the film. 

          The film was held to be released in September when the "serious" fall films begin to appear. It's the first of many to come in award season but don't expect much. It's probably worth your time as a rental or pay per view if you are a fan of Mr. Gandolfini.

This is Where I Leave You

   Based on the best selling novel by Jonathan Trooper, this new comedy/drama has a screenplay by Mr. Trooper and remains pretty faithful to the novel. It is the story of the Altman family who gather together when the father dies.  The adult children are played by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoller, and Adam Driver. Their mother is played by Jane Fonda. 

     Co-starring are Timothy Olyphant as Horry, the brain injured ex-boyfriend of Ms. Fey, Kathryn Hahn as Mr. Stoll's wife, Rose Bryne as a girl from Mr. Bateman's past, Connie Britton as Mr. Driver's girlfriend,  Ben Schwartz as the family rabbi and Debra Monk as Ms. Fonda's best friend. It's a very large ensemble film and everyone is well cast but play mostly to type. Standouts are Mr. Olyphant as Horry and Ms. Fonda  as the strong willed matriarch.

      There is the usual amount of sibling rivalry and infighting and this family has enough dysfunction that if Peter Jackson was directing, it would have been stretched to a trilogy. Secrets are kept and revealed, romances are rekindled and lost, and along the way there is humor and pathos. What worked in the novel begins to get tedious in the film as Mr. Trooper tries to jam all his ideas into a two hour film. It's also hard to share the wealth of the material when you have such a strong cast but director Shawn Levy does his best to give everyone a fair amount of screen time. The bulk of the heavy lifting falls to Mr. Bateman, who might as well be in an episode of "Arrested Development".

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

           The latest film from writer/director Woody Allen is a light breezy romantic comedy set in the 1920's in the south of France. The scenery and costumes alone make it a worthwhile look.

            After his last film, "Midnight in Paris",  it is clear that Mr. Allen is enjoying writing period pieces and that makes them refreshing to watch. The plot revolves around a supposedly fake psychic played by Emma Stone and a master magician, played by Colin Firth. Sophie, the psychic and her mother are staying with a rich family in the south of France and have totally beguiled the mother and younger son.When a magician named Howard can't figure out how she is tricking them, he asks Mr. Firth's help in exposing the woman.

               The film co-stars Hamish Linklater as Brice, the son head over heels in love with Sophie, Jackie Weaver as his widowed mother, Simon McBurney as Howard and Eileen Atkins as Aunt Vanessa. Marcia Gay Harden plays Sophie's mother in what amounts to a cameo. Mr. Allen has assembled a terrific cast but clearly above the rest is Mr. Firth. He is wonderful in the film and his light comedy just shows another level of the depth and range of his acting. Ms. Stone does an admirable job but I was not overly impressed and felt her casting was the one misstep (She always seems like a girl trying to play an adult). Clearly Mr. Allen doesn't agree with me as his camera loves her.

                The location shooting is breathtaking and everything about the period wardrobe and props is pure eye candy. The film never takes itself too seriously even when Mr. Allen becomes dialogue heavy with his own philosophies. A highlight in the script is a scene late in the film between Stanley (Mr. Firth) and his Aunt Vanessa that is sheer poetry in the writing.

                Far from his best, "Moonlight" is still enjoyable and I hope Mr. Allen continues to find inspiration from his recent European settings for his inevitable next yearly film.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


        Inspired by Chris Sievey, a singer who's stage name was Frank Sidebottom and always wore a giant paper-mache head, "Frank" is the story of an eclectic rock band and the idealistic young musician who joins them. This quirky film is dramatic, musical, funny and lovingly odd. It's the very definition of an Indie film that will never find a broad audience. It's the kind of film you seek out due to word of mouth or a review you just happen upon.

        Frank is the leader of a band with an unpronounceable name and he never removes his cartoonish giant head. Underneath, he is played by Michael Fassbender in a remarkable performance. His band is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (irresistibly unlikable) , Francois Civil, and Carla Azar. Their manager is played by Scoot McNairy (so good in AMC's "Halt & Catch Fire"). They are an eclectic group who play together for no apparent reason except to make noise.  While touring Ireland, their keyboard player is hospitalized and a young musician named Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, ends up in the band. 

        The film is really Jon's story and Mr. Gleeson is just terrific (He has good genes. His dad is Brendan Gleeson). Seizing the opportunity to be in a band, Jon jumps at the chance but soon finds himself part of a life he could never imagine.

         If you are getting tired of the summer Hollywood machine and want something really unique and different, find this film. It will challenge and annoy you, make you laugh, make you sad, but ultimately entertain you.