The Drop trailer (9.12.14 release)

Like a lot of movies, this film had a better title during production: Animal Rescue.  It had to do with a sub-plot about the rescue of a pit bull, and the movie’s central theme of rescue and redemption. But like a lot of movies, I guess the suits thought it wasn’t on-the-nose enough, and so instead we get the very generically retitled The Drop.

First of all, this is the last performance of James Gandolfini, shot in the spring of 2013, before his death later that summer. Secondly, its the first screenplay written by crime novelist Dennis Lehane, arguably the best crime novelist working today.  Previous novels of his that have been turned into films are Gone, Baby, Gone, Shutter Island, and Mystic River.  And as good as those films are, his books are better.  They’re so well-written that something is often lost in the translation to screen.  But with The Drop, this is the first time Lehane himself is penning the screenplay.  Yet the origins of the story behind The Drop are a little more complex than just an original screenplay.  Many, many years ago, Lehane tried to start a novel based on the idea, and he couldn’t complete it.  A decade later he turned it into a short story called Animal Rescue.  That eventually became the basis for this film, and Lehane agreed to adapt it himself into a feature length screenplay, and that begat the full-length novel version that’s releasing this September alongside the film.  Lehane also wrote several episodes of The Wire, and serves as a writer and creative consultant on Boardwalk Empire.

Thirdly, the film is directed by Michael R. Roskam in his English-feature debut.  Roskam previously directed 2011’s excellent Oscar-nominated Belgian crime film Bullhead, which featured a career-making lead performance from Matthias Schoenaerts. Schoenaerts has a supporting role in The Drop, and the film stars Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace in the male and female leads.

Top Ten of 2011, #3: Warrior, Gavin O’Connor

Warrior, by Gavin O’Connor, does something very rare for a sports movie; it almost equally develops two main characters, both heading into the ring for the big finale at the climax.  You may ultimately have a favorite between the two, but it makes the final match extremely emotionally-loaded, because no matter who wins, the audience is also set up to emotionally identify with the loser.

In addition to that narrative hook, Warrior has one more unique story element– the fact that both of the final contenders are brothers.  It’s almost too much, really– too clever and too precious.  But O’Connor is a hell of a director, and he’s working with some top notch acting talent.  The two brothers are played by Brit Tom Hardy (Inception, Bronson, RocknRolla, This Means War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) and Aussie Joel Edgerton (Smokin’ Aces, The Square, Animal Kingdom, The Thing, and the upcoming The Great Gatsby) and their father by the inestimable Nick Nolte.  All three are capable of incredible emotional depths while keeping things very natural and effortless.  For Nolte’s part, it might be the best work of his career, and as good as Christopher Plummer was in Beginners, Nolte was robbed for not taking home the Oscar this year.  Hardy channels Brando circa The Wild One, all muscular pathos and pain, still trying to break free of a dysfunctional childhood that has left him emotionally crippled and really unable to stand up and be his own man.  Edgerton has a family of his own, and for him it’s about being able to provide for his family and not buckle under the weight of economic hardship.  He’s determined to be the father and have the family that he never had, and he’s willing to fight for it if it kills him.

The backstory has to do with the fact that Nolte was a raging alcoholic and his wife left him, taking the youngest son, Tommy (Hardy) with her.  Brendan (Edgerton) was old enough to be on his own, for the most part, so he chose to stay behind with their father, and before too long left home himself.  But Tommy had to endure homelessness and his mother’s drug addiction until she died, then ended up going into the military.  Tommy holds a lot of resentment towards both his father and his brother for not being there for him, and allowing him to suffer the amount of abuse and neglect he went through.  All of this sets the stage for both contenders to take an emotionally-fueled climb through the MMA ranks in a cage match in Las Vegas for a huge payout.  Brendan’s in it for his family and out of financial necessity; Tommy’s in it to prove something to himself and try to take back control of his destiny and his one-time potential to be a fighter of incredible promise.

The fights here are intense and very realistically-staged, and O’Connor smartly starts wide and with a lot of long shots during the sequential matches.  As the film reaches its conclusion, the coverage keeps creeping in tighter and closer, making the successive fights increasingly intimate and personal.  It’s a technique that really serves the film overall, as well as deeply connecting us to both Tommy and Brendan.  And that’s really where the film succeeds and gains so much of its power.  On the surface it may be a sports film, but underneath that is an incredibly personal and emotionally raw story about family and what we can and should do for each other.  Frank Grillo as a friend of Brendan’s who agrees to be his trainer, and Jennifer Morrison as Brendan’s wife, both turn in great performances as well.  Morrison is underutilized, but still manages to make her limited screen time one of the best performances of her career.

O’Connor previously directed Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds, the hockey movie Miracle, and a theatrically mishandled cop movie called Pride and Glory that starred Colin Farrell and Edward Norton. O’Connor has a real knack for taking solid but often predictable Hollywood scripts and turning them on their ear slightly, transforming them into something truly special.  Warrior is a shining example of that, with O’Connor raising the bar even further and finding new heights.  Much of Warrior is heartbreaking, and there probably hasn’t been a sports movie that emotionally connects as cleanly and powerfully since the original Rocky.


Top Ten of 2011, #9: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson

I’ve been waiting for the past several years to see how director Tomas Alfredson would follow up his phenomenal Let the Right One In, so I was ecstatic when I found out it was to be a cerebral thriller with such a strong British cast.  And Gary Oldman reinterpreting a role made famous by the late Sir Alec Guinness definitely upped the fascination factor.  Luckily, Tinker Tailor completely delivers on the two elements I was most interested curious about– Oldman totally makes the role, something quite different from the parts he’s had over the last decade or two, his own; and Alfredson delivers an extremely intelligent adaptation of le Carre’s novel that never dumbs itself down, but instead constantly makes the audience play catch-up with it, something all too rare in contemporary thrillers that usually pander to a perceived witless, lowest-common denominator audience.

In fact, Tinker plays its cards so close to the vest that often times we’re not sure what’s happening, from the plot to smaller details like the nature of George Smiley’s home life.  But we’re given what we need when we need it, and the rest of the time we’re kept in the dark in much the way most of MI6’s agents constantly are.  It’s refreshing that Alfredson would risk alienating a mainstream audience who needs all of the answers constantly spoon-fed to it the entire running time, and it’s likely the reason Tinker Tailor didn’t scare up larger box office returns.  Instead, it’s the kind of film that benefits from re-watching and will likely find more and more audience favor as time goes by; and yet it still did well enough to merit production of a now-rumored sequel.  With four more le Carre books starring George Smiley, and three additional novels he makes appearances in, there’s certainly room to grow Tinker Tailor into a franchise if the creative team wants to pursue it.

The plot has Oldman’s Smiley retiring from MI6, commonly referred to in-house as “the Circus.”  Shortly thereafter, Control, played by John Hurt, dies of natural causes, leaving behind an investigation of what he believes to be a Soviet mole in their infrastructure.  About the same time, one of their field agents, Jim Prideuax, played by Mark Strong, has a mission compromised, is possibly fatally shot, and disappears.  Smiley begins to secretly take over Control’s investigation with the assistance of a younger agent, Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, still on the inside of MI6.  There’s a particularly intense and expertly-directed scene where Guillam has to steal some secret documents from the MI6 library and navigate a system where any baggage or briefcases must be checked and put into security.  While all of this is going on, another field agent, Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy, shows up at Smiley’s house after having been branded a traitor, the story of his own compromised mission linked to information that may help reveal the identity of the mole.  The title of both novel and film comes from the code names Control has assigned to the four agents he believes may be the mole, agents played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik.

Of course the entire cast in fantastic, but some of the more well-known actors like Firth and Hinds don’t get a lot of screen time.  For me the stand-outs were Dencik and Cumberbatch.  Dencik has a great scene filmed on a landing strip with a small airplane that reveals the depths of fear and paranoia going on under the surface.  And Cumberbatch’s Guillam is a nice counterpoint to Smiley while working alongside him.  He’s younger, a bit more green, and more emotionally vulnerable and accessible as a character than Smiley.  He helps ground the film and broaden its scope from what we get with Smiley, who plays his cards so close to his vest.  It’s a shame that neither Dencik or Cumberbatch picked up Oscar nominations this past year; their work certainly deserved it, much more than some of the other nominees, for example Jonah Hill in Moneyball.

Tinker Tailor is the kind of smart, intelligent thriller rarely produced these days, and something I personally have been hungering for.  Since Hollywood has dumbed-down so much of its output over the last decade, hopefully we’ll continue to see some of the excellent foreign directors with growing cache dip their toes into larger-budgeted genre films and produce movies that engage the brain along with the adrenaline glands.  And not only is Tinker Tailor whip-smart, but Alfredson is a very visually gifted director, and the cinematography, framing, and editing all work together to create a sharp, gorgeous package.


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