In the decade-plus since her debut as a mentally unstable young Frenchwoman engaged in an incestuous menage a trois with her brother and an American student in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Eva Green has carved out a niche for herself playing, well, crazy-hot women. Right from the start, her willingness to appear fully nude on-screen has set her apart from her contemporaries. But Green is more than just her voluptuous figure, as she proves in her newest film, White Bird in a Blizzard. True, she’s playing another madwoman—in this case, an ’80s mom who abandons her family—but she leaves the nudity to her younger costar, Shailene Woodley, as her daughter. Instead, Green creates a revealing portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown without shedding her clothes.
Okay, there is a brief dream sequence in which Green’s character lies naked in the snow (hence the title?), but that’s tame compared to her 3-D IMAX full-frontal scenes in a pair of this year’s guiltiest cinematic pleasures, 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The MPAA even banned her poster for the latter for being too sexy. She reunites with Christopher Meloni, who played the moth to her flame in Sin City, in White Bird, in which he’s well-cast as her seemingly feckless husband. Call it typecasting, but in all three of these films, Green exudes an intimidating sexuality. “Lots of men are going to be scared of me from now on,” she said after 300. “I’m like a little bird in real life, so that’s why I enjoy playing those ladies.”
Green has taken on more traditional female leading roles in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and has done her obligatory stints as a Bond Girl (Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale) and on an explicit Starz period piece (Camelot). Yet her Brigitte Bardot-meets-Wednesday Addams sensuality can overwhelm even the seemingly weirdest of projects, like Tim Burton’s ill-conceived Dark Shadows. She’s been put to best use on the small screen, as the possibly possessed vampire hunter Vanessa Ives on Showtime’s Gothic shocker Penny Dreadful. Next she’ll be seen opposite another masterful TV creeper, Hannibal‘s Mads Mikkelsen, in the Danish Western The Salvation. Word is Green doesn’t speak a word of dialogue throughout the entire film. Which seems fitting, since her performances often leave me gleefully speechless.
“I don’t want to be a Hollywood star,” Green has said. “I just want to do my job and enjoy it. My aim is to find my true identity and to remain true to myself.” One can only hope her true identity is saner than the characters she plays, but this much is certain: She drives me crazy in the best possible way.
Like John Cusack—his costar in the new direct-to-VOD thriller Reclaim—Ryan Phillippe made the transition from teen star (Cruel Intentions, I Know What You Did Last Summer—which will soon be rebooted) to serious grownup actor (he was impressive as a servant with a secret in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, an LAPD officer in the Oscar-winning Crash and an FBI agent in the underrated Breach). But both have seen their careers crash and burn in recent years and ended up in… well, direct-to-VOD thrillers like Reclaim. While Cusack may be on the verge of a major comeback with his acclaimed performance as Brian Wilson in the upcoming biopic Love and Mercy, Phillippe’s still in pursuit of a professional renaissance.
That may be because Phillippe’s offscreen pursuits seriously tarnished his star, especially with female audiences. He went from hunky sex symbol to the guy who allegedly cheated on America’s Sweetheart, ex-wife Reese Witherspoon (before her DUI imbroglio triggered the need for a comeback on her own, which may soon arrive with the highly touted Oscar contender Wild). His magnetic performance as a Julian Assange-like secret-leaker in Damages should’ve done the job, but too few people saw the DirecTV series to recast his image in the popular consciousness.
Phillippe is seriously miscast in Reclaim as a bland American family man who travels with his wife (Under the Dome’s likable Rachelle Lefevre) to Haiti to adopt a young girl and sees the child taken back by the shady agency that arranged the exchange. The trouble is that slumming two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook, Animal Kingdom) and Cusack are so obviously villains from the get-go that you don’t feel sorry for Phillippe and Lefevre because they seem so stupid.
With his perpetual pout and slightly sleepy speech patterns, Phillippe just isn’t cut out to play a good guy. Perhaps his next role, as a washed-up Hollywood actor who gets kidnapped and caught up in a sex scandal in Catch Hell (which Phillippe cowrote and directed), will show he can poke fun at his image and endear him to audiences again. But sadly it looks like a sub-Deliverance Southern Gothic shocker.
Phillippe’s second stab at TV, in ABC’s midseason miniseries Secrets and Lies, could prove to be his redemption. Based on an Australian drama, the mystery casts the star as the prime suspect in the death of a young boy. Considering how riveting Phillippe was as an accused murderer in The Lincoln Lawyer, this may just be the kind of killer role that can finally bring his career back to life.
There have been a lot of pissed-off old guys at multiplexes lately—and I’m not including myself after I couldn’t figure out how to work the new bar-code scanning ticket machine at my local AMC theater last night. No, I mean Pierce Brosnan in the disposable-as-a-pair-of-Depends post-007 spy potboiler The November Man (although considering his ludicrous romance with ex-Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko, they should’ve called it The May-December Man), half the cast of the surprisingly entertaining Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Ray Liotta, et. al.), and the entire cast of the more-fun-than-you’d-ever-expect The Expendables 3 (Sly, Arnold, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and on and on). But nobody does pissed-off old guy better than Liam Neeson, at least not since he started putting the Boom in Baby Boomer with the explosively enjoyable Taken movies as well as one of this year’s most underrated films, Non-Stop.
Now he’s back as ace mystery writer Lawrence Block’s greatest creation, Hell’s Kitchen ex-cop-turned-unlicensed P.I. Matt Scudder, in A Walk Among the Tombstones. But, as if the title weren’t a tip-off, this movie is considerably darker than your average geezer revenge flick. As readers of Block’s books know (and as is given away in the trailer, though weirdly not until late in the film), Scudder quit the NYPD after accidentally killing a kid, and he’s a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t always work for the good guys. In this movie, there are no good guys, just bad guys and worse guys. It’s set in pre-Y2K NYC, and Scudder takes a job helping a drug dealer (Dan Stevens, a long way from Downton Abbey, doing a credible American accent) get payback on the psychopaths who kidnapped and killed his wife.
Tombstones was written and directed by Scott Frank, who previously proved adept at adapting another tricky crime novelist, Elmore Leonard, with Get Shorty and Out of Sight. Though the movie is grimmer and more action-packed than Block’s books, it still captures the mournful tone of pre-Bloomberg NYC perfectly. (The haunting final shot of the Manhattan skyline, with the Twin Towers intact, says it all.)
Neeson’s a better fit as Scudder than Jeff Bridges was in Hal Ashby’s ill-conceived (transplanted to L.A.!) 1986 misfire 8 MIllion Ways to Die. While the supporting cast could’ve used a female who’s not a victim, it’s still stellar, as Revolutionary Road‘s David Harbour (who’s like Ty Burrell’s evil twin) makes a deeply scary serial killer, ex-X Factor kid-testant Brian “Astro” Bradley redeems the potentially icky role of Scudder’s Sickle Cell Anemia-stricken sidekick, and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson steals the movie as a character even creepier than the monster he played on True Detective.
Tombstones won’t be as big of a hit as the Takens or Non-Stop because of its gray morality, but for anyone who likes their shade of neo-noir extra dark, it’ll hit the target. And if not, we’ve got another angry old guy, Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer, coming soon to a theater near you. And I’ll be the first one in line. Just don’t make me use that damn newfangled ticket gizmo!
Jason Bateman was a late bloomer as a movie star. After a brief shot at the big screen during his TV teen-idol days—he tried and failed to follow in Michael J. Fox’s furry footsteps with 1987’s tragically titled Teen Wolf Too—he mostly toiled in short-lived sitcoms like Chicago Sons and George & Leo. Yet he seemed to take a lesson from the latter’s co-star, Bob Newhart, and developed a dry, deadpan style that perfectly suited him to the role of Michael Bluth, reluctant scion of a once-wealthy clan in Arrested Development. Though it ran only three seasons (initially—let’s forget the Netflix revival), it established him as a viable comic leading man.
He captured a certain quality of a man suffering from an early mid-life crisis in 2007’s Juno, but ever since then, Bateman seems to have been suffering from his own case of arrested development, giving essentially the same performance over and over again in disposable yet financially successful comedies like Couples Retreat, Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief. He made his directorial debut last year with Bad Words, playing a guy with a real case of arrested development—he competes against kids in spelling bees. And now Bateman has truly bottomed out with The Longest Week.
What’s that, you say? You haven’t heard of The Longest Week? Maybe that’s because after quietly opening on a few screens last weekend, it’s currently playing in only one theater in the United States, at Minnesota’s Mall of America, no less. It’s a token, contractual theatrical release to coincide with its VOD launch. But don’t waste your money ordering it on-demand: It’s the worst film I’ve seen all year.
Writer-director Peter Glanz expands on his short film A Relationship in Four Days, stretching it out to seven (although the 86-minute movie feels even longer than that) and casting Bateman as Conrad Valmont—only one of the film’s many pretentious literary references—the nearly 40-year-old son of a wealthy family (where have I heard that before?) who’s suddenly cut off from his allowance after his parents are whimsically shipwrecked on a desert island and decide to divorce.
Does it sound like an idea that might’ve been found in Wes Anderson’s wastepaper basket? The Longest Week plays like the worst film Wes Anderson never made crossed with the worst film Woody Allen never made. To wit: It features an old-timey jazz score, the presence of Woody’s old pal Tony Roberts (as a character cutesily named “Barry the Therapist” although he refers to himself as an “analyst”—who uses that term anymore?), and pretentious literary-ish narration by Larry Pine, a veteran of both Anderson’s (The Royal Tennenbaums) and Allen’s (Melinda and Melinda) films.
Bateman falls for a Jane Austen-loving, piano-playing fashion model (the wildly miscast Olivia Wilde), who happens to be the love interest of his best friend (Billy Crudup, who couldn’t look more bored). The film is so self-indulgent and self-referential that it seems to be commenting on its own crappiness constantly. “I find it completely, overwhelmingly tedious and unnerving,” Crudup says of bachelorhood, but it could just as easily apply to the film, as could a remark spoken by a philistine played by Jenny Slate about a play: “I felt like it was sort of pretentious.How am I supposed to care about a group of overprivileged affluent types who go gallivanting around without any sort of a moral compass? I couldn’t get into it.”
As insufferable as the screenplay is, the cast—and particularly Bateman’s smugly you’re-gonna-love-me-no-matter-how-obnoxious-I-am performance makes it even more skin-crawlingly awful. Luckily, he only has to wait a few days to attempt to redeem himself as yet another son of a dysfunctional family in the dramedy This Is Where I Leave You. If Bateman can’t win me over again alongside the likable likes of Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver and Rose Byrne, this may be where I leave him… or at least his movies.
James Gandolfini should’ve earned a posthumous best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his disarmingly wry performance as a lovable schlump in Nicole Holofcener’s delightful Enough Already, but perhaps his work was a bit too subtle. Now the Academy has an opportunity to make up for its oversight by nominating Gandolfini for his heartbreaking final role, as a fading wiseguy in The Drop.
Gandolfini is magnificent as Cousin Marv, a Brooklyn bar owner who’s been muscled out of his business by Chechen mobsters and who’s determined to get revenge by ripping off some of the money that gets funneled through his watering hole. Marv could be a post-onion rings Tony Soprano, assuming he lived (which David Chase will thankfully never tell us) and lost his power. There’s a haunting moment in The Drop when Gandolfini’s Marv says, “We’re fucking dead already—we’re just stlll walking around,” which takes on an even eerier power in light of his tragic passing.
That’s just one of many brutally poetic moments in the script, adapted by Dennis Lehane from his short story “Animal Rescue.” Lehane, of course, is the criminal mastermind behind such previously adapted-for-the-screen novels Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone, and he also wrote for The Wire. And this script is every bit as good as those gems.
Tom Hardy matches Gandolfini scene for brilliant scene as Bob Saginowski, the seemingly simple-minded bartender cousin of Marv who adopts an abused puppy and winds up getting romantically involved with its psychotic former owner’s girlfriend (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who’s much better-used in an English-speaking role here than she was in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus). Hardy is a true vocal and physical chameleon; there are almost no traits shared between Bob and the title character he played in Locke, a Welsh construction exec whose life comes collapsing down around him during a series of car-phone conversations. I recently interviewed Hardy about Locke for the SAG Foundation and found him to be charmingly unguarded, and I eagerly await his upcoming roles as Elton John, Mad Max and the identical-twin British gangsters the Kray brothers. (Now, that’s range!)
The Drop was solidly directed by Michaël R. Roskam, a Belgian who earned a best foreign film Oscar nomination for his debut feature, 2011’s Bullhead. That title could easily apply to Hardy’s or Gandolfini’s character in The Drop as well, and while Animal Rescue is also a great title, I can understand why they changed it for the movie. By any name, The Drop sadly marks Gandolfini’s ultimate career peak.
“Dying is easy,” intones Peter O’Toole’s Shakespearean drunk Alan Swann after he’s booked to do a live variety show from New York in My Favorite Year. “Comedy is hard.” Maybe that’s why so many veterans of another live variety show from New York—Saturday Night Live—have tried their hands at drama. The latest, Bill Hader, co-stars in a pair of serious movies opening on the same day, September 12: The Skeleton Twins (opposite fellow SNL alum Kristen Wiig) and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. One week later, former “Weekend Update” anchor Tina Fey tries a dark brand of dramedy as one of five siblings sitting shiva for their dead father in This Is Where I Leave You. But they’re far from the first ex-30 Rock-ers to try to make us cry, instead of just weep with laughter. Let’s look back at the track record.
BILL MURRAY He was the first, and best, SNL-er to play it straight-faced, but he had to agree to do Ghostbusters before Columbia Pictures would allow him to do his first drama, 1984’s The Razor’s Edge. His performance as a World War I veteran who goes on a spiritual journey got cut to shreds by critics, and the film was a box-office flop. But Murray didn’t give up. He earned better reviews as a mobster opposite Robert De Niro in 1993’s Mad Dog and Glory, then found a director perfectly in tune with his seriocomic style in Wes Anderson. Murray should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for his sardonic turn as a wealthy, manic-depressive Vietnam vet in Rushmore and went on to work with him again several more times. He finally did snag an Oscar nod as an alienated movie star in Lost in Translation and has given award-worthy performances since in roles as varied as an undertaker who agrees to bury Robert Duvall in Get Low and FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson. Word is he may finally win a statuette for his upcoming turn as a misanthropic war veteran in St. Vincent. If so, it will be long overdue, and one can only hope he will give Oscar a noogie.
DAN AYKROYD The first SNL-er to actually earn an Oscar nomination was Murray’s fellow Ghostbuster, for his wry work as Jessica Tandy’s flustered son, Boolie, in Driving Miss Daisy. He followed it up with straightforward roles as silent-film mogul Mack Sennett in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, a Victorian gentleman in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth and a World War II captain in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. And he gave his most fully realized performances in years as showbiz managers in Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candleabra and the new James Brown movie Get On Up. Elwood Blues would be proud.
JIM BELUSHI Jim—or James, as he’s sometimes billed when he wants to be taken seriously—has proven to be a much more skilled dramatic actor than he has ever been a comedian (and that’s According to Bruce). He made a promising big-screen debut as a criminal in Michael Mann’s Thief, held his own alongside James Woods as drugged-out journalists in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, and stole Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer as a chrome-domed man of letters. Had he lived, big brother John Belushi could’ve been an even more amazing dramatic actor—just watch his eerie performance as an elderly version of himself in the haunting SNL short “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” when he literally dances on his castmates’ graves.
EDDIE MURPHY We may never know how great of a dramatic actor the dazzlingly talented Eddie can be, since he’s frustratingly refused to build on his powerful performance as soulman James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls (maybe because he lost the best supporting actor Oscar race that year to Little Miss Sunshine‘s Alan Arkin). He’s long been rumored to star in a film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, but now he’s aged out of the son role and into the father, which Denzel Washington won a Tony for playing on Broadway (as did James Earl Jones before him), so it seems doubtful now that will ever happen. Guess we’ll just have to settle for his unintentionally laughless vehicles like Norbit and A Thousand Words.
WILL FERRELL and WILL FORTE These soundalike cast members (and former faux George W. Bushes) have migrated from dumbbell comedies like Anchorman and MacGruber to semi-serious films like Stranger Than Fiction and Nebraska. So far, dramatic acting seems more to be Forte’s, um, forte, than Ferrell’s. In addition to his award-caliber work supporting Bruce Dern as his befuddled son in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, he was also touching as an American doctor who falls in love with an Irishwoman in Run & Jump and an adulterer who’s carrying a torch for a kidnapping victim (Jennifer Aniston) in the new Elmore Leonard dramedy Life of Crime. Ferrell, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to liven up glum dramas like Winter Passing and Everything Must Go. Perhaps he needs to come up with a new career strategery.
Of course, other SNL sketch artists have taken stabs at drama, from two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey, Jr. to Damages Emmy winner Martin Short and even Jane Curtin, who adds deadpan comic relief as the coroner on CBS’ Unforgettable. And let us not forget Mike Myers’ impressively groovy gig as discotheque co-owner Steve Rubell in 54 or Chevy Chase’s guest shot as a drunken, anti-Semitic movie star (whose name could’ve rhymed with Shmel Shmibson) on Law & Order. For once, he was not Chevy Chase. Now that’s acting.
As Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said of home schooling, “It’s not just for scary religious people anymore.” The same could now be said of so-called “faith-based films,” a cinematic sub-genre once populated only by the scary religious likes of Kirk Cameron (star of the 2000 direct-to-video rapture tale Left Behind) and now populated by the Academy Award-winning likes of Nicolas Cage (star of the upcoming big-screen rapture tale Left Behind). Okay, so Nic Cage is scary, too, but not for religious reasons.
Two of the most profitable films of the last year, the not-so-subtly titled God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real, fall squarely in the faith-based camp, the latter starring a onetime Academy Award nominee (Greg Kinnear). Two-time Oscar winner Russell Crowe’s Biblical epic Noah was marketed to pious audiences and surpassed $100 million domestically, and now two more morality plays, When the Game Stands Tall and The Identical, have flooded cineplexes in the waning days of summer.
You’ll be forgiven for not knowing that either of these movies is religiously oriented. The God angle is played down in the promos, which make them look more like a secularly inspirational sports drama and a rock ‘n’ roll faux biopic. Still, there are clues to the films’ true messages: When the Game Stands Tall stars Jim Caviezel, who embodied the title role in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which kicked off this spiritual box-office revival, and the upper-case “H” in The Identical‘s tagline, “If He is in your dreams, nothing can stop them,” signals there’s a higher power at work.
Despite its awkward title and muddled trailer, The Identical takes off from an intriguing premise. What if Elvis Presley—or, as he’s called here, Drexel Hemsley (played by real-life Elvis impersonator Blake Rayne)—had an identical-twin brother, Ryan, from whom he was separated at birth? (In real life, Elvis’ twin brother, Jesse, was stillborn.) And what if that sibling were raised by a tent-revival preacher (Ray Liotta, for once playing a good fella instead of a GoodFella, and as far as he can get from his unholy role in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) and his submissive wife (Ashley Judd)? And what if that pastor’s kid felt torn between his dad’s desire for him to spread the Word of the Lord and the burning (in hellfire?) love he feels for Drexel and his music. That’s right—it’s the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll vs. the King of Kings!
Yes, The Identical frequently gets preachy—we’re told that “in obedience with the Scriptures,” Ryan and Drexel’s dirt-poor parents “went forth and multiplied” during the Depression. The movie goes out of its way to welcome Jews into its kingdom of Heaven: The boys’ mom is a Chosen One, and there’s even a bizarre mention of Israel’s “modern miracle” victory in 1967’s Six Day War. Ryan’s body-shop boss (Joe Pantoliano, veteran of another old-time rock ‘n’ roll drama La Bamba) is also a card-carrying mensch who uses the word “farklempt,” which apparently was not created by Mike Myers’ Linda Richman. Who knew?
Metaphysical proof that faith-based films have gone mainstream can be found in the casting of Seth Green—yes, Oz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer!—as a drummer who backs up Ryan as he becomes a superstar Drexel impersonator. If an actor with as much hip cred as Green (Robot Chicken, Austin Powers) can do a religious flick, anything is possible. Hell, Kirk Cameron might even save Christmas…