Quick Movie Reviews (Capone, The Quarry & A Russian Youth)

Capone

It seems safe to say that Tom Hardy might be the closest thing we have to a Marlon Brando today — not just in the sense that Hardy is a method actor who loves makeup and costumes (and sometimes masks), and has a theatrical, almost hammy streak, but also in that Hardy, like Brando, seems to operate according to his own internal logic whether it matches what’s around him or not. But, he’s also like Brando in that when Hardy succeeds, he’s audaciously wild and brilliant and you can’t imagine anyone else being more original or effective, and when he fails, the result can be so miscalculated that you question what he was thinking. The thing is, the latter hardly happens. His deliberate artificiality often links him to an older generation of stage-trained movie stars who bring their own bigness, in the vein of Orson Welles, who shared Hardy’s fondness for prosthetic makeup and bizarre voices.

Writer-director Josh Trank’s Capone, stars Tom Hardy as the titular gangster and offers plenty of aforementioned Hardyisms. It casts Hardy as a middle-aged, syphilitic and physically deteriorating Al Capone, released from prison on tax evasion charges and struggling to live out his final stretch of life in a Florida mansion surrounded by swampland. Throughout, the film sometimes has the effect akin to watching a late-period Brando performance where you’re not sure who he’s talking to even when he’s addressing another character directly. Other times it’s like watching a young Orson Welles playing a lumbering old man in a balding skincap at the end of Citizen Kane. Either way, it’s pretty watchable. The film also makes space for other actors, including Matt Dillon as Capone’s right hand man, Kyle MacLachlan as a mob doctor, and Linda Cardellini as Capone’s wife Mae. But it’s wholeheartedly a one-man show that happens to include supporting players, and their only job is to react to the star’s large exertions or talk about his character when he’s not around.

capone-
Image via Vertical Entertainment

It wouldn’t be a Tom Hardy star vehicle without a mask and a voice, but also without some flamboyant bits of wardrobe. In Capone, he gets to slumber around in sleep wear, in a adult diaper, while muttering like Popeye the Sailor Man’s long-lost Brooklynite cousin, and dress like Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard in a floppy hat and large sunglasses to avoid being recognized en route to a secret fishing trip. He’s constantly chomping down on cigars, occasionally heaving into buckets and shitting his pants, all while grunting and arrghing. The star’s Capone voice is something else, sounding almost like if Bugs Bunny smoked three packs a day. No matter how many times you hear it, it never seems to issue organically from the man on the screen. And it’s so stylized that your impulse might be to glance around the rest of the frame to see if it’s coming from, well, a smoked out Bugs Bunny, who might be hiding behind a chair. Frankly, I was a fan.

For his follow-up after a blockbuster flop, Trank seems pretty in control directorially in Capone, and the result is intriguingly measured and counterintuitive for a glossy psychological drama, but also is admirable for its unconventional approach for a biopic. While Hardy’s intuitive snarling and rumbling and in-the-distance staring feel electrically unpredictable, the film’s compositions and camera movements are carefully composed, almost too much so. And Trank’s editing does occasionally get too choppy and the pace can find some tedium, but he also finds an overall rhythm that keeps things unpredictable. Ultimately, you might ask what the whole point is. And the movie never fully answers that question. Not that it’s obligated to, though. Capone offers a main character that just seems like a sad old bastard who’s fallen apart to the point where there’s no reason to be scared of him unless he has a firearm in his hand. And while the film doesn’t ever permit the other characters, or us, to really connect with Capone emotionally, it instead offers a display of the end result of a life of morality rotting; a man haunted by his lifetime of wrongdoing; a Twilight Zone riff on the “This is Your Life” template wherein the subject is slowly beaten to a speechless sack of meat. It has its ups and downs, but Capone is too strange, unconventional, nightmarish, grotesque, and embodied by a magnetically odd Tom Hardy performance, to ever look away.

Grade: B-

The Quarry

The Quarry sees Shea Whigham star as a fugitive wanted for murder and arson who, in a moment of anger, kills the preacher (Bruno Bichir) who picked him up on a West Texas roadside, trying to help. It’s from there where he quickly buries the body in a quarry and assumes the dead man’s identity, traveling to the tiny town where the man was about to take charge as the reverend of the town’s sleepy church. But the movie, directed by Scott Teems and based on the novel of the same title by Damon Galgut, proceeds to largely play the scenario with little suspense, surrounding the main character’s unmasking with a very solemn atmosphere. At times, the film plays as if its being smothered under a pile of rocks. The Man, as Whigham’s character is credited as, arrives at the town — now having adopted the name of the preacher, David Martin — is put up in a house by Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), whose main role in the drama is to sit in dark rooms and ponder her regrets.

the-quarry
Image via Lionsgate

But, it’s after he arrives that The Man’s possessions are stolen from his (stolen) van. Which leads him to file a report with the police chief, John (Michael Shannon), who is in a relationship with Celia and harbors certain racist and reactionary tendencies. These lead him to Celia’s cousins (Bobby Soto and Alvaro Martinez), who did in fact steal his belongings. But the items, unfortunately for them, include some bloody clothes. It’s from there where Teems’ deliberately slow and measured approach starts to become plodding before fizzling out almost entirely at precisely the moment when things should start heating up from a dramatic standpoint. As for the screenplay, it too throughout often feels like a collection of contrivances than anything else — we never buy the idea that The Man would voluntarily elect to assume the life of the man he killed, and the developments that inadvertently tie Celia’s two cousins to the murder are pretty dubious. On top of that, the notion that Whigham’s drifter could somehow win hearts as a preacher despite having no familiarity with the Bible (and who’s congregation, at large, doesn’t speak English) sounds promising from a satirical standpoint, but winds up coming across inertly as just about everything else. The Quarry had the key ingredients — from the broad setup to the great understated performances from Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon — but it sadly didn’t know how to properly mix and make them for a wholesome meal.

Grade: C+

A Russian Youth

Making his feature debut, filmmaker Alexander Tolotukhin delivers what might be fairly called a cine-novella of sorts, largely set on the eastern front of WWI. Bringing classicistic compositions and extensive dubbing that often makes the dialogue sound like a subdued murmur, A Russian Youth thematically seems to align around with some of the classic Russian films such as Ivan’s Childhood or Come and See. Yet what makes it distinctive — and, unfortunately, not as good as it could’ve been — is its odd framing device.

russian youth
Image via Mubi

A Russian Youth isn’t told straightforwardly, as the film periodically cuts to a modern-day orchestra rehearsing the musical score for the film we’re watching. It’s delivered with an interesting quirk at some times, but those cutaways often pull you out from the drama and don’t enhance the musical accompaniment’s meaning. And while the film’s war storyline of a fresh-faced boy (Vladimir Korolev) thrown into the ugliness of war, as he’s blinded by a gas attack and must adjust to his disability and to a new enemy aircraft monitoring job, can be occasionally absorbing, it’s nearly sabotaged. With an awkwardly melded meta tone, A Russian Youth brings a striking, tactile visual palette, but sporadically undercuts it with its orchestral meta-level.

Grade: C+

A Russian Youth is available to stream on Mubi

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