Despite the amazing anomaly that is TOY STORY 3 the summer keeps on suckin'. But if you bypass the multiplex and head to the indie/art theater you may a few interesting diversions.
Okay, at least one:
HARRY BROWN (Dir. Daniel Barber, 2010)
Tiny white titles on the side of the screen tell us "Michael Caine is Harry Brown." The lettering is dwarfed by the darkness of the rest of the frame. The title character fares at bit better against the darkness - at least at first. We see Caine waking up in his South London flat to face the grim day. He has his head held high as he walks through his neighborhood on his way to the hospital to visit his dying wife (Liz Daniels). There is a particular noisy graffiti covered underground passageway he hesitantly passes.
After his visit Caine plays chess at a shady pub with a long-time friend (David Bradley) who is also afraid of the gang activity, but to a greater extreme. Bradley has armed himself with a old army bayonet and fully intends to use it against the harassing hoods. In the night Caine's wife dies; he is unable to be with her because of the additional distance he must travel by avoiding the tunnel.
The next morning Caine is visited by police detectives (Emily Mortimer and Joseph Gilgun) who inform him that Bradley was murdered - the killing happens off-screen but we do see some of the offending incident leading up to it.
Caine, of course, takes the law into his own hands to avenge his friend's death. He gets in a shoot-out in a drug den; he offs a few of the punked-up thugs, and hunts down the king-pin while the police close in. My wife called it "Gran Torino UK" and, yeah, there is quite a bit of that in play - a pushed to the edge war veteran, who after his wife dies, takes on the gangs that are threatening the well-being of his neighborhood.
It's much darker and grittier than Eastwood's film - in fact the stark white faces of the actors and the washed out look made me think that it could've been just as effectively shot in black and white.
While some sections like a way-too-long montage of police interrogation may be muddled, Caine alone gives the film a hearty gravitas.
It's maybe a minor movie but Caine owns the screen in a major way. He's utterly believable in every moment - from his grieving over his wife to his calm intensity when facing down his enemies. HARRY BROWN has a predictable vigilante premise yet it's still satisfying - take away the cell phone camera footage and it's the same kind of claustrophobic thriller that could've been made in any era.
(Dirs. Brian Koppelman & David Levien, 2009)
Once again Michael Douglas plays a crassly ambitious businessman who alienates everybody around him. No wait; this isn't WALL STREET 2: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS - that's not in theaters until September.
Here Douglas plays Ben Kalmon - a divorced defrauded former car dealership tycoon who cheats on his girlfriend (Mary Louise-Parker), borrows money from his daughter (Jenna Fischer from The Office), and spouts out existential advice about every topic to whoever will listen to him.
Louise-Parker wants Douglas to accompany her daughter (Imogen Poots) to a college interview at his alma mater. Y
ou're right to think that is a bad idea - he's a womanizing sleaze and despite her youth, Poots is and cynical and promiscuous to match . Jesse Eisenberg (ADVENTURELAND, ZOMBIELAND) shows up as a campus guide who Douglas gives some unheeded romantic guidance to.
Where this goes to from here was unpleasant enough to watch; I'd rather not have to describe.
It's hard to decipher what we're supposed to take away from Douglas's character. At first he's a fast talking comic figure who we're supposed to laugh at in a "that old dirty codger" way but as the pitiful dimensions of his unlikability widen each scene adds up to little more than a series of collected cringes.
It benefits sporadically from a good cast - Susan Sarandon as Douglas's ex wife appears to delight in her character's confidence, Fisher has some strong moments standing up to her untrustworthy father, and Poots savvily strides through her cutting scenes. Eisenberg just does his patented nervous kid shtick but it's not his fault - he's not given enough here to do anything else with.
Danny DeVito lightly steals the film as a deli owner who knew Douglas back in his college days. DeVito dispenses the only real wisdom (and some of its only humor) the film has to offer and it's nice to see him on-screen again with Douglas - they were co-stars in ROMANCING THE STONE, THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, and, my favorite, THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Otherwise the film doesn't have enough of an emotional arc to it. It's well made with convincing dialogue but its tone is too reserved and its narrative lacks drive.
Seeing Douglas interact with college students made me nostalgic for a his much better film that tackled some of the same themes - THE WONDER BOYS. There Douglas's Grady Tripp was a thoughtful yet jaded man truly at a crossroads, here his pathetic character is just a jerk in a large hole he dug himself and I found myself not caring if he ever gets out of it.