Brooklyn

A Walk Among The Tombstones

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2014

Universal Pictures

Directed and Written For The Screen by Scott Frank

Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Tobin Armbrust and Brian Oliver

Based on the novel “A Walk Among The Tombstones” by Lawrence Block

 I was about an hour into A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES when it hit me that I was watching a period piece. And it hit me with real surprise because the movie takes place the 1990’s before The Internet, home PC’s and cell phones really became indispensable and integral components of our daily lives. And the thing is this: I remember the 1990’s. I was there. I lived through the 1990’s and I can’t rightly call a movie a period piece if I actually lived during that period, can I?

But yes, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is indeed a period piece because it takes place in the 20th Century and we are now in the 21st. But it’s not just the lack of modern technology that makes this movie a period piece. One of the characters, a street urchin named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) upon finding out that Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is a private detective demonstrates that he’s familiar with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And Matthew Scudder is very much a literary grandson of those two classic P.I.’s

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Matthew Scudder, once a NYPD cop, left the force due to an accidental shooting he was involved in while drunk. He’s now sober and maintaining his sobriety while working as an unlicensed private detective. As he puts it to his prospective client, drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) “I do favors for people. And in return they give me gifts.” The favor Kenny Kristo wants Scudder to do for him is to find his wife who has been kidnapped. In return Kenny will give Scudder the gift of $20,000.

Scudder’s investigations put him on the trail of two truly monstrous psychopaths who have hit on a novel idea: they kidnap the wives and daughters of drug dealers knowing full well that the dealers can’t go to the police or FBI for help since that would expose what they do to the authorities. But as Scudder digs deeper into the case he discovers that this pair are more interested in killing their victims than the million dollar ransoms they demand.

Film Title: A Walk among the Tombstones

I never realize how much I miss this kind of story until I see it on screen. All the fun has gone out of being a private eye as now all they have to do is know how to work a computer. Matthew Scudder does it the old fashioned way. He does legwork. He goes to the library and uses a microfiche (Hah! Go ahead and Google that!) He asks questions and interacts face to face with people. And instead of taking DNA samples he uses his brain coupled with his years of experience and the instincts he’s developed to find the kidnappers. It’s quite the performance from Liam Neeson. I know people who saw the trailers for this and dismissed it as another variation of “Taken.” Trust me, in tone, in story and most importantly, in character this is nothing like Neeson’s “Taken” movies. I liked how the Matthew Scudder character doesn’t angst over his alcoholism. It’s part of his personality, yes, but it doesn’t define him. It was responsible for a tragic mistake in his past but he’s stepped up to do something about it so that it doesn’t happen again.

I really enjoyed the supporting cast in this one. Mainly because most of the faces were not familiar to me and so I wasn’t watching the actors playing these roles. I was watching the characters. Acting honors in this movie go to Boyd Holbrook as the drug addicted brother of the drug trafficker. He and Scudder bond over their mutual addictive problems and he turns out to be more pivotal to the plot than you would think at first. Brian “Astro” Bradley is also very good as TJ who bonds with Scudder due to his interest in detective fiction and wanting to be a detective himself.

And living in Brooklyn I naturally loved that the movie was filmed here. Some of those same streets that Scudder walks on I’ve either walked on myself or driven down. My tax guy used to have an office right across the street from the graveyard that figures prominently in a suspenseful and tense hostage/money exchange. Unlike a TV show like “The Strain” which goes out of its way to insist that it’s taking place in Brooklyn but never shows me a recognizable street or landmark, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is very clear that it’s a New York movie and lets you know it with every shot.

So should you see A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES? Absolutely. It’s way better than “8 Million Ways To Die” the 1986 attempt to bring Matthew Scudder to cinematic life. Jeff Bridges did his best in the role but was sabotaged by the direction of Hal Ashby. Brilliant as he is, Ashby was the last director in the world who should have been directing a hard boiled P.I. thriller. And Scudder is such a New York character (New York City itself can be said to be a supporting character in the Scudder novels) that moving him to Los Angeles just seemed wrong.

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But A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES never goes wrong from start to finish. In a lot of ways it’s a refreshing throwback of a movie, one full of rock solid performances and a story to match. Don’t wait to see this one on DVD or Netflix. Go check it out while it’s still in the theater. Enjoy.

Rated R

113 Minutes

Red Hook Summer

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2012

40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks/Variance Films

Directed and Produced by Spike Lee

Written by Spike Lee and James McBride

I’ve watched RED HOOK SUMMER three times now and I still can’t honestly say what I think of it. Which in a way I think is supposed to be the point. I’ve always admired Spike Lee as a filmmaker in his insistence on telling stories that don’t have Hollywood resolutions and endings. That’s because the issues Spike raises in his movies don’t have nice tidy endings where everybody rides off into the sunset happy and joyous. Spike Lee’s movies are about the issues that most of us don’t like to talk about honestly. Race, how the media contributes to the corruption of intelligence, creativity and spirit and urban crime just to name a few. I remember how much trouble he got into with the African-American community when “School Daze” hit the theaters as a large part of the movie’s story dealt with racism among African-Americans regarding skin tone and having “good” and “bad” hair. Black folks were ready to hang Spike behind that one as they felt that was an issue that should stay within the black community and not for public knowledge.

He’s always been a controversial artist and is well known for his public disagreements and arguments with other filmmakers. But he’s got passion for his work. Even in movies like “She Hate Me” and “Girl 6” two films of his that I have not the slightest idea who he thought would be interested in seeing. And there is a whole lot of passion in RED HOOK SUMMER but there’s also a lot WTH as well.

Flik Royale (Jules Brown) is brought to Brooklyn’s infamous Red Hook housing project by his mother Colleen (De’Adre Aziza) to spend the summer with his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) Flik is a spoiled, arrogant little snot who openly displays disrespect and contempt for the situation he’s in. Having been brought up in Atlanta he knows nothing about the streets, something that his grandfather continually warns him about. It doesn’t help that Flik wanders around past the neighborhood drug dealers and gang bangers with his iPad in front of his face constantly, obsessively recording everything he sees.

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Bishop Enoch puts his grandson to work at The Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church where Flik meets Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith) who will become his best friend during the course of the hot Brooklyn summer. But just when I thought that this was going to be a movie about a young man’s coming of age and spiritual awakening, Spike Lee quickly changes gears so fast that I had to rewind the movie back a bit to make sure I hadn’t missed something.

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Now, I can’t tell you what shakes up this movie so dramatically just in case you decide to see it but let me say this. That one event drastically changes everything and will cause you to ask: “Well, if Character A knew this about Character B then why put Character C with Character B in the first place.” And that’s as close as I can come to what happens without spoiling it. Most of the time I don’t give a poobah’s pizzle about spoilers (A pox on The Spoiler Police, says I and damn them for puking clackdishes) but in this case, spoilers are warranted.

This is one odd movie in terms of when it’s supposed to be taking place. Except for Flik’s iPad there is no other sign of modern technology in this movie. Carmelo Anthony is prominently mentioned but there’s no cell phones, no flat screen TV’s, no iPhones. No brand name designer clothing. Chazz speaks in 1970’s slang that she definitely could not have heard from other girls or boys her own age or from adults. In fact, everybody dresses like they were from the 1980’s and the movie could easily have been set during that period.

What’s not odd is the powerhouse performance of Clarke Peters. Before this, I only knew his work on “The Wire” and was impressed there. But in RED HOOK SUMMER he’s way more than impressive. He’s downright nuclear. If you decide to watch RED HOOK SUMMER for any reason, Clarke Peters should be it.

I was also delighted with the performance of Toni Lysaith. No, she’s no Cicely Tyson but she’s adorable and obviously having a lot of fun acting in a movie. She’s a lot better than Jules Brown who runs the emotional acting range from pissed off to even more pissed off. He just doesn’t have the acting ability, taught or natural to hold my attention, especially when he has to do scenes with acting powerhouses such as Peters or Thomas Jefferson Byrd who plays Deacon Zee here and many of you will recognize as the father mandated by a judge to be handcuffed to his son while on their way to The Million Man March in 1996’s “Get On the Bus”

And no other filmmaker can so convincingly put Brooklyn on the screen than Spike Lee. I know Red Hook and in just about every shot of RED HOOK SUMMER I recognized where he had filmed.

What else can I say about RED HOOK SUMMER to wrap up this review? Oh, there are two cameos in the movie, one amusing and the other troubling to me. The amusing one is by Tracy Camilla Johns who is introduced to Flik as “Mother Darling” and it wasn’t until talking about the movie with Patricia later on that I realized that Ms. Johns was reprising her Nola Darling character from “She’s Gotta Have It.” I wouldn’t dream of telling you how she shows up in this movie.

The other cameo is by Spike Lee himself, playing Mookie from “Do The Right Thing” Mookie is obviously older, sporting a gray beard and hair but he’s still delivering pizza. To be honest, I’d have liked to have seen Mookie as a businessman owning his own pizza parlor or even a chain of them. Apparently the character has not improved his lot in life since 1989 and that saddened me because I wondered if Spike Lee saw so little in what is one of his most beloved characters that he could not envision any sort of productive future for him or if this was Spike Lee making a self-commentary on his own life. Or maybe a cigar is just a cigar.

So should you see RED HOOK SUMMER? It feels to me strongly like a work still in progress. The screenplay could have used some tightening up of the screws and nuts here and there. But at the same time it’s sheer rawness and sometimes sloppiness of acting and plot has its own power that cannot be denied. Like I said at the beginning of this review, I’ve seen the movie three times now and still can’t make up my mind if I like it or not. See it for yourself and then we’ll talk some more.

Rated R: There is a scene involving the seduction of a young child that while it isn’t graphic it leaves absolutely no doubt as to what is going on.

121 Minutes