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Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

“A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES” My rating: B (Opens wide on Sept. 19)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to modern mystery writers. Giants of the genre like James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky and Tony Hillerman have seen big-screen adaptations of their work crash and burn (although Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series did finally find a home on PBS).

A similar fate befell Lawrence Block’s great detective character Matt Scudder.  In 1985 the Scudder tale “8 Million Ways to Die” hit the screen with Jeff Bridges as Scudder and the frequently great Hal Ashby behind the camera.  It wasn’t very good.

But now Scott Frank — mostly known as the screenwriter for films like “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and, weirdly, “Marley & Me” — has written and directed a fine version of Block’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens

Frank seems to have absorbed not just the one novel but the whole of the Scudder canon, and has given us a film that could be either a solid stand-alone or the first step in a new franchise.Ticket sales will tell the tale.

In the meantime we have a taut, dark, surprisingly substantial thriller that is both a dandy detective procedural and a first-rate character study.

Neesom’s Scudder is an alcoholic former NYC police detective who retired from the force after accidentally killing a little girl in a shootout. He hit AA and went into business as an unlicensed private eye, meaning, he says, that “I do favors for people. They give me gifts.”

As “A Walk…” begins Scudder is called to a meeting with Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, late of “Downton Abbey”) a drug dealer who reports that his wife was kidnapped and, after Kenny paid $400,000 in ransom, killed by her abductors and returned to her husband in little pieces. Kenny can hardly go to the cops.  He wants Scudder to find the fiends and deliver them for punishment.

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Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini

Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini

“THE DROP”  My rating: C+  (Opens Sept. 12 at the Glenwood Arts, Eastglen 16 and Cinetopia theaters)   

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

One of these days Tom Hardy is going to star in a film equal to his talents and then, hoo boy, watch out.

Until then we’re going to have to be satisfied with the Brit actor being the best thing in flawed efforts like “Lawless,” “Locke” and “Warrior” or as a first-rate supporting player in films like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Inception.”

In “The Drop”  the native Londoner plays Bob Saginowsky, a mumbling Brooklyn bartender who is so quiet, gentle and inoffensive that he reminds of the inarticulate Brooklyn butcher at the center of 1955’s “Marty” (for which Ernest Borgnine won the Oscar).

The solitary Bob has a soft spot for aged neighborhood lushes who can’t pay their tabs, much to the chagrin of his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who runs the tavern. He goes to mass several times a week (but never takes communion…what’s up with that?)  He lives alone in the house where he grew up…it’s like a time capsule of the 1960s.

And early in the film he adopts an abused pit bull puppy he discovers whimpering in a trash barrel on a frigid New York night.

For such a low-keyed guy, Bob is in a pretty hairy business. Cousin Marv’s Bar (a few years back Marv was forced to sell it to Chechen gangsters), is one of several “drop bars” where the local bookies deposit their daily take according to a top-secret schedule.

If you know when Marv’s is that day’s drop bar, you might be able to get away with a big haul.

The overly complicated screenplay by Dennis (Mystic River) Lehane — based on one of his short stories — balances Bob’s “domestic” life (including a tentative romance with the dog-loving waitress Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace) against the ever-more-dangerous machinations at the bar.

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Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, and Susan Sarandon

Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, and Susan Sarandon

“THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD” My rating: B- (Opens Sept. 5 at the Tivoli )

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Like it or loathe it, “The Last of Robin Hood” succeeds in taking a red-flag subject — pedophilia — and forcing us to reconsider our intense feelings about this taboo.

The writing/directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland get away with this by relating a largely true story involving one of Hollywood’s most charismatic leading men.

Here are the facts:  In the last two years of his life, legendary big-screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn kept as his mistress a girl — a self-described “dancer/singer/actress,” though any one of those labels is debatable — who was only 15 when their relationship began.

Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning) had been kicking around the periphery of Hollywood for years. Most recently she had faked her age to get work as a backup dancer in musicals. That’s where she was spotted by the always-on-the-prowl Flynn (Kevin Kline), who was working on a nearby soundstage.

A practiced bullshitter with a charming line of self-deprecation (told by a fan that he had seen one of Flynn’s movies five times, the actor responds: “How extraordinary — I could barely get through it once”), Flynn wooed and seduced Beverly.

But a strange thing happened. The old alcoholic womanizer fell in love. He called Beverly his “little sprite” and “wood nymph.” He dubbed her “Woodsy.”

Not even the late-arriving revelation of Woodsy’s tender years (she had been passing herself off as 18) could cool the ardor of a man who nearly two decades earlier had endured a humiliating trial for statuatory rape and remains a tantalizing target for any prosecutor looking to make a name.

Curiously, “The Last of Robin Hood” is less about Flynn and Beverly (a pretty but vacuous girl with a largely unformed personality) than it is about Flynn and Beverly’s mother, Florence Aadland (Susan Sarandon).

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Robin Wright

Robin Wright

“THE CONGRESS” My rating: B- (Opening Sept. 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

122 minutes | No MPAA rating

Masterful and maddening, spectacularly original and hugely frustrating, Ari Folman’s “The Congress” is unlike any other film I can name.  Though it dabbles with elements explored by fantasy epics like “The Matrix,” it has its own distinct personality.

Some of us are going to love it. Some will be irritated by it.  And some — like me — will experience both emotions.

Folman’s film (he was the creator of “Waltz With Bashir,” the brilliant animated effort about PTS among former Israeli soldiers) opens on the aging but still-beautiful face of actress Robin Wright.

Wright is playing herself here — or rather an alternative universe version of herself — and she’s reduced to tears as her long-time agent (Harvey Keitel) tells her that at age 44 her acting career is all but kaput.

She’s made too many bad choices in men, movies, and friends, he says. She’s thrown up too many obstacles about the kind of work she’ll do (no science fiction, no porn, no Holocaust movies) and she has earned a rep for not showing up on the set. Yes, yes, usually it’s because she has to deal with yet another emergency involving her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is slowly going both blind and deaf. But that excuse has gotten old.

A meeting with a bullish exec (Danny Huston) at Miramount Pictures provides a last-ditch solution.

The movie biz has been so changed by digital technology, the desk jockey explains, that  actors are obsolete. Most stars have allowed their faces, bodies, voices and emotions to be scanned into a computer where they can be reanimated by skilled CG artists.

The avatar actors thus created can be made younger or older, fatter or thinner. They’re never late. They make no demands or complaints. They never throw tantrums — unless the script calls for it.

“I need Buttercup from ‘The Princess Bride’,” the exec says. “I don’t need you.”

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Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick and Jude Swanberg

Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick and Jude Swanberg

“HAPPY CHRISTMAS”  My rating: B (Now at the Screenland Armour)

minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

Either indie auteur Joe Swanberg is hitting his groove or I’ve finally warmed to his low-keyed style .

Whatever the case, “Happy Christmas” is a genuinely good family comedy/drama that unfolds without either sitcomish excess or melodramatic improbabilities.

“Happy Christmas” is the 18th feature  Swanberg has directed in the last nine years, which may be some sort of American record. I’ve found much of his work underwhelming.

In the last couple of years he gave us “24 Exposures,” an erotic thriller about a sleep-around photographer that made my skin crawl, and “Drinking Buddies,” a modest dramady about two brewery workers (Olivia Wilde, Jake Johannson) who can’t quite admit they mean more to one another than just a few friendly after-work beers. “Drinking Buddies” now feels like a dry run for “Happy Christmas.”

The set up is ridiculously simple. Young marrieds Kelly and Kevin (Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber) are preparing to take in his younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who is no the rebound from unspecified bad luck which most likely involves failures in both the man and career departments.

Jenny isn’t a bad person, but she has self-destructive tendencies. On her first night in town she goes to a party with her childhood friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and gets so blotto that Kevin must drive over in the middle of the night to retrieve her.

Well, anyone can have a bad night, right?  Except that Jenny makes a habit of it. She drinks, smokes pot and lolls around with a guy she’s met (played by writer/director Swanberg). It’s not like she’s mean or cruel — just thoughtless in a way that suggests either narcissism or, more likely, really low self esteem.

Trouble is, Kelly and Kevin have been counting on Jenny to care for their year-old son Jude (Jude Swanberg, the director’s child) and it becomes increasingly obvious that she cannot be trusted  with something so precious.

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Mos Def, John Hawkes and kidnap victim Jennifer Aniston

Mos Def, John Hawkes and kidnap victim Jennifer Aniston

“LIFE OF CRIME”  My rating: C+  (Now showing at the Cinetopia)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Movie chemistry is a weird thing.

Sometimes you can have a lot going for you — terrific performances, a literary pedigree — and yet the damn souffle won’t rise.

Such is the fate of “Life of Crime,” an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch and set in his familiar world of bumbling crooks and unlikely heroes.

Written and directed by Daniel Schechter, whose credits include the little-seen “Goodbye, Baby” and “Supporting Characters,” the film has a plot that might be a variation on O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” that classic short story about kidnappers who discover the rich brat they’ve snatched is more than they can handle. (It might also remind you of “Ruthless People,” the 1986 Bette Midler comedy about a kidnapping.)

Low-level Detroit crooks Ordelle (Mos Def, performing under his real name of Yaslin Bey) and Louie (the ever-excellent John Hawkes) cook up a scheme to snatch Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of local crooked businessman Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins).  They will hold her in the home of a third accomplice, a Nazi-worshipping head case (Mark Boone Junior).

What nobody counts on is that Frank is having an affair with a scheming younger woman, Melanie (Isla Fisher), and has no reason to cough up a $1 million ransom for the return of the wife he was already planning on trading in.

Typical of a Leonard yarn, “Life of Crime” is a mix of both humor and suspense. We’ve seen this formula work wonderfully in movies like “Get Chili” and “Out of Sight”, but something goes wrong here.  It’s not that Schechter’s movie lacks either humor or suspense, but rather that the proportions seem out of whack.  The best Leonard adaptations are actually funnier than the books they are based on. One is likely to respond to a Leonard book more with a wry grimace than with an outright belly laugh, and that’s the style Schechter adapts.

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon...eating their way through Italy

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon…eating their way through Italy

“THE TRIP TO ITALY”  My rating: B (Opening on Aug. 29 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fans of the 2010 buddy  film “The Trip” will feel right at home with the sequel. There are no surprises here.

Once again we have Brit comic actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan portraying slightly fictionalized versions of themselves on a cross-country trek, this time through glorious Italy.

Once again they spend much of their time eating scrumptious food and engaging in chatter that looks suspiciously like the conversational version of hand-to-hand combat. When these two egomaniacs square off, it’s a virtual comedy competition.

Early on, Coogan warns Brydon that he will tolerate no celebrity imitations this time around. This pronouncement may momentarily dampen our enthusiasm (watching the two trying to upstage each other by mimicking Michael Caine was one of the first film’s great wonders), but it soon becomes apparent that Coogan’s dictate has no teeth.

Because for the next 90 minutes we see the two of them (mostly Brydon this time) comically conversing in the voices of Caine, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Humphrey Bogart.

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