A quick roundup of this week’s major new releases, with the best two coming from first time directors:
Directed by Kevin Smith
When Kevin Smith isn’t making movies these days, he produces a podcast in which he and his friends and colleagues tell anecdotes, talk about assorted topics, and on occasion make up stories. “Tusk” is the outcome of a story that originated on the “SModcast” between Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier and, during the final credits of the movie, you can hear part of them ad-libbing the story idea. Sadly, that snippet of creation is more enjoyable than the resultant production.
It’s not that it’s all bad – there’s actually much to like in this crazy story of a podcast host (art imitating life) (Justin Long) who goes off in search of weird stories to tell, and gets caught up in the weirdest one he’s ever found. There’s wit and originality and some solid, moody camera work. The problem is that there’s not really enough material for a feature film. This might have worked quite well as part of an anthology or as an hour-long episode, which really only requires approx. 40 minutes of actual content between bookends, for a show like “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” or “Tales From the Crypt.” But at 102 minutes, “Tusk” overstays its welcome and then some. Similarly, there’s much fun to be had in an over the top performance by Johnny Depp as an ex-detective from Quebec, but it’s the kind of appearance that would kill as a cameo and is killed by too much time on screen.
There’s an audacity to this at an experimental level that’s hard not to admire, and given an exceptionally low budget it appears set to break even, but a few minutes of ideas are enough to fill a screenplay. If there are more of these ideas in the works, they would probably work better as a feature length compilation of three or four shorter subjects.
A Walk Among the Tombstones
Directed by Scott Frank
It’s easy to watch the previews for “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and assume it’s going to be like “Taken 3” or another take on Liam Neeson as action hero. However, in practice, the films are quite dissimilar and “A Walk…” has more in common with classic private detective stories, with Neeson starring as an alcoholic ex-cop who now makes a living as an unlicensed private eye.
He’s approached by a drug dealer whose wife has been abducted and killed and, although initially put off by the drug connection, he ultimately takes the case and realizes that it’s not a unique incident. Along the way, he meets a homeless kid who romanticizes the detective life and assorted less savory characters associated with the crimes. All of which leads to a somewhat messy outcome in a film that struggles to find its tone or pace.
For much of its running length it’s just unremarkable and fairly bland, as Neeson’s Matt Scudder follows people around and does the dull legwork of the detective. At one point he’s asked what a good detective needs and he answers “A Strong Bladder.” But towards the end, the direction becomes heavy handed and the final showdown is punctuated by the reading of the twelve steps of a recovery program as the action unfolds. It’s awkward and interrupts the flow rather than adding to the experience, taking an already mediocre film further downhill in the process.
The Maze Runner
Directed by Wes Ball
The latest adaptation of a Young Adult post-apocalyptic, dystopian future story is “The Maze Runner,” about a bunch of kids who are sequentially thrust into a bizarre enclosure surrounded by a massively walled maze. Every month, a new kid arrives in the relatively tranquil glade, with no memory of who they are or where they come from. But the maze itself contains horrors and the group has choices to make between a safe but unchanging existence in their almost idyllic little commune and a chance at escape through the dangerous corridors of the maze.
Unlike other recent films such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series adaptations, there’s very little political content at the start of “The Maze Runner” – and so there’s no real buy-in necessary, in terms of some convoluted future societal structure that needs to be accepted. That makes it quite easy to enjoy as you focus primarily on the dangers and the dynamics of the group. There are hints of “Lord of the Flies” in the relationships, along with the under-appreciated modern sci-fi thriller “Cube” in terms of a group of strangers trapped in a structure that continually changes its layout.
An inherent problem with an adaptation of the first book in a series is where to end the film. In this case the film might linger a few minutes too long as we’re hit over the head with the fact that there’s more to come, later. Aside from the presumptuous nature of blatantly telegraphed sequels, it would be nice on occasion to simply enjoy a first installment as a self-contained story and then have episode two make the transition for us, rather than transitioning at the end of episode one and being left hanging. That said, and with that one major caveat/concern, this is a fine feature length directorial debut by Wes Ball and a good omen for future work.
This is Where I Leave You
Directed by Shawn Levy
“This is Where I Leave You” continues the recent trend of fairly raunchy, at times, R-rated comedies. Here we have a dysfunctional and otherwise barely communicative family brought together, unwillingly, by the death of their father. The mother, played by Jane Fonda as a horny, fake-boobed senior, demands that all of her adult children remain in their childhood home for a week of sitting shiva, the Jewish version of an extended wake. It’s a thinly veiled premise for bringing together characters that otherwise avoid each other, along with the awkwardness of going home and spending time with people who at some level you no longer know, yet still know too much about.
It’s a funny film much of the time, helped enormously by the casting that includes Jason Bateman and Tina Fey and the two lead siblings. But it’s also pretty crass and some may simply find the subject matter objectionable. It’s one thing to laugh at the awkwardness of a room full of mourners listening to a husband and wife having sex, transmitted over a baby monitor. It’s another thing to laugh at some of the character flaws and the mixed attitudes towards topics such as infidelity. Within the scope of the film and the relationships depicted, I was generally amused but I heard one person exiting who complained that it seemed (to them) as though it promoted adultery as the solution to one’s problems, which was a useful reminder of the different ways that we all tend to view these things.
There’s little subtlety here and, whatever your thoughts on the topics already cited, you have to find jokes about bodily parts and bodily fluids appealing to find this amusing, on balance. I laughed enough to walk away somewhat satisfied but not enough to give it much of a recommendation.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Directed by Ned Benson
This is another feature length directorial debut, this time by Ned Benson, and is perhaps more accurately titled “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” although it seems to be being billed without the last word. However, it’s essentially a compilation of two films, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her” – each of which consider the same relationship from different perspectives. I haven’t seen the separate films, but seeing the pieces in the compilation certainly makes the overall project seem bold and interesting.
James McAvoy plays Conor and Jessica Chastain plays Eleanor – a couple we first meet when they’re giddily in love. However, something tragic happens and they part (for reasons that are best discovered in the film), although they’re both on very different pages with respect to the separation.
I’ve read reviews that suggest that, compared to the separate films, the single joint film seems fragmented and poorly structured and, presumably, it must lose approximately half of each character’s story. But I can’t make that comparison and I actually enjoyed the joint film considerably. It came across to me as one of those compelling dramas about a relationship that, in its own way, is far more horrific than many horror films, as two people suddenly find themselves in a place and circumstance in which what they had simply no longer works. For me, this is the stuff that nightmares are made of – not tales of monsters or chest-bursting aliens, but well-meaning people who love each other but don’t deal with pain or loss (or some other circumstance) in the same way and end up incapable of being in the same room.