Friday, September 26, 2014

Movie: The Drop

The Drop: an excellent crime film.  There are reasons to see this film beyond it being James Gandolfini’ s final cinematic performance.  The movie takes place in a working class Brooklyn neighborhood.  A significant portion of the film involves a bar managed and once owned by Marv, the Gandolfini character.  The lead character is the bartender Bob Saginowski, played by Tom Hardy.  Marv is Bob’s uncle.  In the opening scenes, Bob, in a voice over, describes “The Drop”, a process to launder dirty money through various bars, including Marv’s place.  As the film progresses, we learn the cash belongs to a Chechen gang and that its leader (Michael Aronov) is the silent owner of the bar.  Two guys rob the bar, and the rest of the film consists of the whys and how of the robbery.  There’s also talk of a decade old murder.  And we learn more and more about Bob.   One night as he is walking home from the bar, he hears a noise, which turns out it is a puppy abandoned in a trash can.  Bob adopts the dog and becomes friends with the woman, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), in whose garbage can the dog was found.  You will like the dog.  The woman, Nadia, has a past.  We meet Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts).  We also meet Detective Torres (John Ortiz) who, every morning, goes to the same church as Bob.  The film is a collection of interesting characters, all of whom have stories.  During the 106 minute running time, the underlying story becomes more and more complex.  The director, Michael Roskam, establishes a mood and atmosphere in which the story is allowed to unfold.  For Gandolfini, Marv was probably an easy role and, as with the Sopranos, is part of what draws you to him.  Tom Hardy’s character, however, is the reason to see the film.  The movie is based on a short story by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the script.  If you are not a fan of “hard boiled” crime stories, you should skip this movie.  The opposite is equally true. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Play: Ruined

Saw last night the Pulitzer Play winning play Ruined, performed at the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre behind Kennedy Theatre.   The play takes place at a bar located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The play addresses human trafficking in woman with the background story being the on-going Congolese civil war and children soldiers.  The storyline is more than engaging.   Understandable why it won the Pulitzer in 2009.   Lead character is Mama Nadi, played by Lillian Jones.   She is on stage for the majority of the play.    When she is on stage with Quantae Love, the play comes alive.   He is a traveling salesman (liquor, cigarettes, lipstick, Belgian chocolates and women).   The bar is also a brothel.   In the opening sequence, he sells two woman for the price of one, Sophie (Denali Lukacinsky) and Salima (Alexis Harvey.  As the play unfolds, we learn that Salima was a young married mother who was captured and held for five months by rebels soldiers before escaping.  As to Sophie, the play takes its name from her condition: the eighteen year old’s genitals were damaged.   After the intro scene, we start meeting the government and the rebel soldiers (never on stage in the bar at the same time) along with Mr. Harari, played by Neal Milner (excellent, as always) and Josephine (Susan Veney), who is the female counterpart to Salima.   Mr. Harari is a diamond merchant.  Lynn Nottage’s play runs approx. 2 hours 30 minutes  + intermission.    This play is worth seeing.  Unfortunately, it’s only remaining performances are tonight (8:00) and tomorrow afternoon (2:00).   Last night showing was a sellout.   It is a large cast (15 characters) for the size of the theatre but play runs smoothly under the direction of Troy Apostol.   By focusing on the characters, the audience becomes engaged and only afterwards do you realize the political complexities presented.   Play was done at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 but I missed it.    I doubt if anyone toped the performance given by Quantae.   Most of the cast members are UH students.   With such a strong script, they all did fine.  The play presents the complexity of a civil war in the context of one woman trying to make a living amidst the chaos of a violent war.   As presented by the play and Lillian’s performance, Mama is a very complex character.   The play is a success because Mama is not presented as a stereotype madam.

Last night there was a Q/A after the play.   It was stated that this is the first African-American play presented at UH.   If this is true, a very sad commentary as to UH.    How could a college that prides itself on its diversity wait until 2014 to present an African-American playwright? 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Movie: Calvary

Calvary: an Irish film about faith.  The movie opens with the local parish priest sitting in the confessional.  An individual enters the confessional.  All we hear is the individual’s voice as he proceeds to tell the priest that he was molested as a child and that the priest who committed the acts is now deceased.  His closing remarks are that he knows he is speaking with a good priest and in one week he will return to meet the priest and kill him.  “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.”  The next scenes are of the Irish coastline with individuals surfing.  (I had no idea folks surfed in Ireland.)  For the next seven days and the remainder of this 104 minute film, we follow Father James and explore whether he is “innocent”.  Each passing day is marked on screen, a questionable ploy since there are no flashbacks.  Brendan Gleeson gives a superb performance as Father James and the movie works because Gleeson takes full advantage of the script.  We learn about the daily life of this good priest.  We also learn of his personal history: that he was married and only became ordained after his wife died; we meet his adult daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly) and explore their relationship.  We meet various parishioners and learn of the daily issues that arise among them.  And we keep returning to the ocean and a large stone mass but no reappearance of surfers.  The film is shot in the northwest corner of Ireland in  County Sligo.  James Michael McDonagh is the writer and director of this excellent movie.  The supporting cast includes Dylan Moran as Fitzgerald, a wealthy baron without friends, who has theological exchanges with Father James in which questions are raised such as whether tainted money given by a person without values should be accepted by a church.  The conversations in the film are intense, however, the subject is not directly related to religion and presented with a sense of humor.   I did not like the closing scene, but to describe why would answer the mystery presented in the film’s opening scenes.  I would have no objection to McDonagh receiving a nomination for best original screenplay or for director, and none whatsoever to Gleeson receiving a nomination for his performance.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Movie: Ida

Ida:  a Polish film.  Timeline is 1962.  There is a significant difference between the opening scenes and what ultimately unfolds.  The opening scenes take place at a convent where we are introduced to Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice who grew up in the convent and is scheduled to take her vows.  She meets with the Mother Superior who insists that Anna meet her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), Anna’s sole living relative, prior to taking take her vows.  The movie changes once Anna meets Wanda.  Prior to their meeting, all Anna knows is that Wanda is her aunt and there are no other family survivors.  Anna then learns that her birth name was Ida Lebenstein.  During this relatively short film, we learn who Wanda is, who Ida is and how Ida ended up at the convent.  In the early 1950s, Wanda was a State prosecutor (“Red Wanda”) for the communist political trials.  As a reward, she is appointed a judge.  Wanda chain smokes, drinks and has one night stands, all in stark contrast to the convent-raised Ida.  As the story unfolds, we learn why Wanda never visited her niece.  The anti-Semitism that allowed the Nazi program to be so successful in Poland slowly unfolds as Ida learns about her heritage.  There are additional surprises; the opening convent scenes are not the only misdirection in this 100-minute film.  The movie is in black and white with subtitles.  The dialog is surprisingly sparse.  The writer and the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, allow a significant portion of the story to be told visually.  The pacing and cinematography of Polish films, at least those that make it to US, are quite different from films created in Hollywood.  This is something I first noticed in Polanski’s Knife in the Water; I can still recall scenes from this film that I saw back in the 1960s.  This cinematic difference is also apparent in Aftermath, an excellent film shown at last year’s Honolulu Jewish Film Festival.  I’m not familiar with Polish cinematographers but their insight is clearly different from what is typically presented in US cinemas.  I don’t want to interfere with the surprises that unfold and, therefore, will not comment further on the storyline other than to say that just because Ida’s place in the world was a product of the holocaust is not a reason to avoid the movie because you don’t want to see another holocaust movie.  There is humor as well as human tragedy.  This is a well told story that will stick with you with excellent acting by the two central characters.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Movie: Lucy

Lucy: a frenzied Scarlett Johansson movie.  The plot line is simple.  Lucy is forced to become a drug mule, the package bursts inside her and the released drug turns her into a woman with superpowers, both mentally and physically.  In the opening scene, which takes place in Taiwan, Lucy’s boyfriend has her deliver a briefcase.  The recipient is a gangster who intends to distribute a new and powerful drug.  Choi Min Sik is excellent as the gangster.  Lucy is part of a group of mules, the others of whom are male with brief screen time.  Each mule is given a passport to a different European city.  Interspersed through the opening scenes are shots of a lecture being given by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), an expert on chartering brain power.  The underlying theme is that we humans are using only a small percentage of our brain.  Through Professor Norman we learn what’s happening to Lucy as her brain usage expands.  The movie entails lots of killing and, at times, the scenes play out like a western kung fu film.  All the killers are Asian.  The director and script writer is Luc Besson, who brought us La Femme Nikita, and Lucy is in the same tradition; always good to see strong women.  Unfortunately, during the film’s 89 minutes, the storyline becomes ridiculous.  If you enjoy action films with lots of bodies being shot up, then this one’s for you.  Otherwise, I think you can skip this movie.  I know a number of you who receive my commentary have already seen the film.  I was surprised by the number of diverse comments I received and, because of the disparity, I decided to see the movie.  While I enjoy Marvel comic character movies, I still need an accompanying plot that makes sense.  For me, this film was just nonsense.