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Films I Neglected To Review: Look At All The Lonely People
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them," "God Help The Girl," "The Notebook," "This Is Where I Leave You" and "A Walk Among The Tombstones."

"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" began life as two separate films, subtitled "Him" and "Her," that chronicled the dissolution of the marriage of a young couple (James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain) in the face of an unimaginable tragedy with the events being shown from both their perspectives. After the two films premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, writer-director Ned Benson decided, apparently with the urging of Harvey Weinstein, to recut the two films into one that would go back and forth between the two. Having not seen the films as they were originally intended to be shown, I cannot ascertain as to how good they were (they are supposed to be getting some kind of theatrical release in the coming months but I am not exactly going to be holding my breath) but I can tell you that this compromise version takes a formerly intriguing premise and reduces it to just another slightly banal melodrama about people coming to terms with things. Even if you don't know the film's peculiar backstory, you might suspect that something was amiss after watching this cut since the whole thing has a disjointed feel to it--it comes across more like a collection of individual scenes than a cohesive story and the strong supporting cast (including Viola Davis, Bill Hader, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Nina Arianda and Ciaran Hinds) is largely wasted here. The sad thing is that McAvoy and Chastain are both quite good and to whatever slight degree that it does work, it is due entirely to their efforts and even though I can't recommend "Them," I am still curious to see "Him" and "Her" in order to get the full scope of their performances.

If you are the type of person who thought that "Once" might have been a better movie if the filmmakers had cranked the twee up to 11, you are going to love "God Help the Girl," a musical romance that marks the screenwriting and directing debut of Belle & Sebastian member Stuart Murdoch. In it, Emily Browning stars as Eve, an emotionally disturbed young woman who is recovering from anorexia in a Glasgow hospital while yearning to one day be a singer. To that end, she leaves the hospital and makes the acquaintance of a geeky guitarist (Olly Alexander) and a British girl (Hannah Murphy) that he is giving lessons to and the three offhandedly decide over the course of one memorable summer to form a band that sounds suspiciously like Belle & Sebastian.

I think that Murdoch is trying to make a film in the vein of Godard's great "A Woman is a Woman"--an offhanded kind of musical in which characters are likely to sing as to talk and where elaborate production numbers are nowhere to be seen. It sounds pleasant enough but the end result is pretty much insufferable--too cutesy by half (especially in the early going) and more of a collection of music video ideas than a fully developed story. To be fair, there are a couple of nice moments here and there (I especially liked a scene in which Browning sings at a local dance hall) but the whole thing is just too mannered and too long for its own good--even Belle & Sebastian fans may find themselves checking their watches long before it comes to its less-than-spectacular conclusion. Trust me, if you can find a theater that is still playing the genuinely charming and similarly themed "Begin Again," you will be getting a much better movie and better music to boot.

Not to be confused in even the slightest way with the Nicolas Sparks craptacular of the same name (though both traffic in equally virulent form of emotional fascism), the Hungarian import "The Notebook" is a film so bleak and cruel in its depiction of the world that Michael Haeneke might find it to be a tad too grim for his tastes. With World War II raging around them, two young twin brothers (Laszlo and Andras Gyemant) are sent off by their parents to spend the war living in a remote village on the Hungary border with their heartless and borderline abusive grandmother. Given a notebook by their father to record everything they see and do, the two brothers take note of the brutality surrounding them and as the years pass, they teach themselves first to absorb as much pain and abuse as they can and then to respond in turn when necessary. The relentlessly grim tone of both the material and director Janos Szasz's handling of it does evoke a certain fascination in the early going but at a certain point, it gets kind of repetitive as it proceeds in lockstep towards its inevitable conclusion. Yes, it has been made with a certain formal style that cannot be denied but unless you came out of "The Tin Drum" wondering what it would have been like if the little shit in that one had a twin, there is no real reason for anyone to inflict this dour slice of sadism upon themselves.

As the star-studded comedy-drama "This is Where I Leave You" opens, the patriarch of a particularly large and dysfunctional family has died and his widow (Jane Fonda) announces to her grown children (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll) that they will be spending the next seven days together in their childhood home to sit shiva. Those of you expecting a calm and reflective week to ensue will be stunned to discover that it turns out to be a chaotic series events in which old hurts are reopened, old relationships are rehashed and the siblings are ultimately forced to come to terms with themselves and each other in order to get on with their lives. The premise is reasonably promising and you can't argue with that cast (which also includes the likes of Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton, Dax Shepard and Kathryn Hahn) but the film is ultimately hobbled by two key flaws. The first is that the screenplay by (adapting his own novel) is overly cluttered with characters, each of whom has their own backstory to deal with, and it quickly moves from emulating the chaos of ordinary life to a narrative traffic jam that feels as if it will never unravel.

The second and bigger problem is that a film that goes between comedy and drama in the ways that this one does need a director with a very delicate touch for it to succeed and whatever qualities Shawn Levy (look up his oeuvre on IMDb and weep) may maintain in his cinematic toolbox, a delicate touch is not one of them. (One wonders what someone like the late, great Robert Altman might have done with the concept, a question that the film itself appears to be pondering as well since the family at the heart of the story is the Altmans.) Still, there are a few amusing moments (Driver's delivery of an uncertain "Mazel tov" at a key moment may be the single funniest thing he has ever done) and the performances are generally good--Bateman seems to be relieved to be working with material that isn't completely bottom-of-the-barrel, Fey demonstrates some heretofore unexpected dramatic chops and Fonda, despite an underdeveloped role (the only thing about the part that is underdeveloped), does some of her best work in years. It is just too bad that couldn't be in the service of a film more deserving of them.

Ever since "Taken" became a freak box-office success a few years ago, Liam Neeson has created an unexpected second career for himself as a two-fisted action hero who saves the day in his own particular way--usually by torturing people just before shooting them in the face. His latest effort in this personal sub-genre is "A Walk Among the Tombstones" and while it may not ultimately be anything resembling a masterpiece, it is arguably Neeson's best film of this sort since the original "Taken." In it, he plays a former cop who left the force following a tragic incident that occurred while he was drunk and who now makes a living as an unlicensed private detective. As the film opens, he is hired by a rich drug dealer () to track down the men who kidnapped and tortured his wife and then, after receiving the ransom, murdered her and returned her body in an extremely nasty state. Upon further investigation, Neeson begins to uncover a string of similar crimes that may or may not involve a pair of rogue DEA agents looking to make a killing in the worst possible way.

Taken from the book by celebrated crime novelist Lawrence Block, writer-director Scott Frank (who did the brilliant adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "Out of Sight" for Steven Soderbergh) tells a fairly gripping mystery narrative in a lean and efficient manner (though I could have lived without the subplot involving the adorably sickly and smart-assed African-American kid that turns up as his sidekick and legman) that develops a nice sense of atmosphere (including the inspired idea to set it in late 1999, a time in which people feared that everything would be up for grabs in the wake of Y2K) and Neeson turns in a more focused performance than he has been doing as of late. My one major qualm with the film is the level of violence, both seen and implied, that is directed towards the female characters here--even by the oftentimes brutal standards of the genre, there is a level of sadism on display here that some viewers may find to be far too much of a not-so-good thing. That complaint aside, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is a fairly effective thriller and if turns out to be a franchise-in-the-making for Neeson, I wouldn't necessarily mind seeing him in another one at some point down the line.

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originally posted: 09/19/14 09:19:54
last updated: 09/19/14 09:51:27
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