OBVIOUS CHILD: Not at all obvious why this is so well reviewed


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“OVBVIOUS CHILD” DOES offer a rare moment in mainstream (ish) US cinema: its protagonist (Jenny Slate as Donna), drunk one night, gets knocked up, pregnant and decides on an abortion. The ta-da moment is that she actually goes through with it. So much so that it’s being lauded as the “abortion rom com” in the US. Hollywood has given us an increasingly long list of drunk, banged up, pregnant, heart-broken protagonists. This seems to reflect their take on the zeitgeist of modern romance. But almost always love, God, the need to cater to the (largely fundamentalist) mainstream audience or simply the conventions of rom-com where the intrusion of reality is verboten, demands a change of mind.

So it’s a sort of first.

This is the only possible reason why you should consider parting with your money to see this  irritating, cringe-inducing, humourless, often puerile exercise in cinematic self-indulgence.

Ms. Slate is a stand-up comedian and part-timer on “Saturday Night Live”, who has broken out of the club circuit to become the hugely feted star of this well received movie.

The protagonist in this story (Donna) is, you guessed it, a stand-up comedian. Well, she does ‘do’ stand-up and does offer a monologue: a riff on her life and her (embarrassed) boyfriend (Gabe Liedman). But, though we see shots of people laughing, of humour, there is none.

The movie lodges itself entirely in the brain and obsessive perspective of Donna. The people with whom she interfaces – her ex and present lovers (Liedman and Jake Lacy), her BFF (Gaby Hoffman), her parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) and her manager (Paul Briganti) – aren’t so much real people as foils to her faux angst. She cringes, cries, sleeps, gets drunk, cuddles up with mummy, has some version of chaste sex (with her bra on), eats etc. all to the vouyeristic delight of director Gillian Robespierre’s camera. The whole thing feels like a vanity project and seems to be screaming at us: “look at me now, how cute I really am, and how funny I can be, even when my mascara’s running”

The directing offers no relief. First-timer Robespierre may have a bright future ahead of her (and that there’s actually another female director in Hollywood is worthy of applause) but this feature is clunky with choppy editing and a generally muddy tone.

It’s all very claustrophobic.

Donna’s not a particularly interesting, funny, intelligent or pleasant person; and her story is a minor-key tale of love lost and love found without bigger aspirations. So it’s difficult to understand why Jenny should feel that the paying audience should give a damn.

Importantly, the esthetic wall between the character (Donna) and the actor (Jenny), the performance and the performer seems so porous that the result is a sort of ontological mess. The “Donna” who isn’t particularly interesting and the “Jenny” who expects (we presume) the audience to give a damn feel like one and the same.

Oh, Sarah Silverman where are you?

 

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT: Four Stars


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IN THIS MOVIE (“Two Days, One Night”/ “Deux Jours, Une Nuit”) about the impossible choice between self-preservation and selflessness, directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne establish a brilliant premise: Sandra (a gaunt Marion Cotillard), suffering from debilitating depression, but working her way back to health, has been fired from her job. She and her husband need her income to manage their mortgage and the basic life expenses for their small family. Reluctantly, M. Dumont, the management has advised its small staff that, after a Gerry-meandered election, the necessary choice between Sandra’s salary or a bonus of €1000 has come out in favor of the bonus. Most people opted, perhaps without too much thought, for themselves. But Sandra has managed to persuade management to re-do the election, this time with secret balloting and without the veiled threats of a foreman. However, to win enough votes, Sandra must lift herself out of the stupor of her depression (with or without doses of Xanax) and, over a weekend try to persuade enough people to choose for her and vote against their personal interests.

She first must choose action over inaction (she’d much rather simply curl up into sleep) and must fight against her absolute despair…only to be able to humble herself enough to woo people away from the lure of a bonus. It’s humiliating. And even when she finds the wherewithal to summon up the strength to plead with people to choose against their self-interests, she lacks the eloquence of persuasion. In “The Secret Agent”, Conrad speaks of “the lament of poor humanity, rich in suffering and indigent in words”

Sandra is so “indigent in words” and her despair is so intense, that at times she literally cannot find the words to explain herself… without drugs. Without the words to express herself, and potentially without the job to sustain her family, Sandra’s sense of self disappears. In her eyes, she has become an invisible person, regarded merely as a threat that must be repulsed. It becomes more and more apparent that her search for the votes is more than a search for a job; it is also a search for the self-worth that employment offers; a search for visibility and for life.

As she journeys from house to house, she is confronted by others, equally desperate for any additional scrap of money. This is society on the edge, which we experience from the (intelligent) writing that allows us brief, but revealing glimpses into the lives of her fellow sufferers. Though Sandra is in every frame, this isn’t so much a movie about her, as it is about the extent to which our lives are shaped and influenced by the people around us, about our interconnectedness. Sandra may see herself as nothing more than a two dimensional threat, but her presence at the doors of her colleagues and their reactions to her predicament opens up rich dimensions of character and sharp insights into the lives they live. We are met with a kaleidoscope of very human, very real responses: fearful, protective, empathetic, resentful, helpful etc.

One common factor in all the reactions is the need people have to blend in, to go with the flow, to effectively avoid the discomfort of choosing. Every one of them asks her the same question: how many people have agreed to forego the bonus? It’s simply so much easier to vote with the majority than to have the temerity of individual conviction. But the delicate balance of those for and against her means people are forced into making an individual choice. They can’t hide behind group-think. They (and she for that matter), have to choose, no matter how difficult that is.

Cotillard never quite wins our empathy, but nevertheless she pulls off the role brilliantly. It’s a difficult role to play: she has to be passive enough to be a mirror to the angst of others and yet imbue this passivity with enough latent passion to make her final passage into life a credible one.

And it’s a profoundly credible story. Fortunately, since this is no focus-grouped Hollywood fare, the movie avoids the music-soaring triumphalism you’d expect of an Oscar-seeking star powered “vehicle”. It’s low keyed, it feels real; and it offers no glib criticism of those who would put their bonus over her job security, nor any pretense that “doing what’s right” is any route to a better future.

“Two Days, One Night” lights up what is undoubtedly the overriding crisis of our generation: the desperation to find and keep a job in a world where unemployment has become endemic. It’s not a crisis that we’re seeing much of these days in the news. ISIS, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Ukraine and Ebola have knocked this issue off the headlines.

Somewhere a banker is rejoicing

 

LUCY: Brainless


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LUC BESSON’S “LUCY” is a trippy grab-bag of movies, styles and pretensions about a woman whose brain capacity explodes from (we are told) the 10% that humans use to its full 100% capacity. The movie is the bastard child of Terrence Malick with Marvel Comics.

We meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson acting as though she recently had a lobotomy) when she’s forced to carry a bag of CPH4 – the spark that creates DNA and life itself…but you knew that – in her stomach. Besson wants to get his fair share of the lucrative Asian market, so much of the initial action and all of the diabolical, sneering, ruthless but astonishingly incompetent bad guys are Taiwanese. One of these ruthless types kicks her in the stomach, the bag explodes and voila, knowledge and strange powers fill her fragile frame.

Since as we know, and Besson want us to remember, knowledge is power (Lucy’s kick in the stomach was a version of eating the apple). The more knowledge she gains of everything, the more her power grows. Morgan Freeman, still playing the voice of God, and here imitating a famous neuro-scientist, fills us in on what’s happening, since the brains of us poor viewers are still at that 10% capacity.

Besson wants to ensure that we really, really, understand what’s going on, so he backs up his story with multiple allusions (for instance, when Lucy, in her pre 100% power mode is being tracked, we cut away to a leopard tracking impala). These Terrence Malick gimmicks are meant to lend the movie an air “Quality Cinema”

As Lucy gains in her cerebral capacity, we whizz past “The Matrix” via “Inception” by way of “The Exorcist”; we reach “Under Her Skin”, past the crawling darkness of Tobey Maguire’s “Spiderman 3” and flash deep into the beginning of the Universe we saw in “The Tree of Life” (Lucy as your 10% of cerebral capacity knows is the name of the ape: ‘the original mother’ from whom we’re all descended)

Bad guys are sent to sleep when they threaten her (now there’s a super-power to be desired), she is able to change her hair colour at will and the more she grows in knowledge, the more nonplussed she looks. I think Scarlett’s expression was from a different script from the movie. In the movie her character became the sum of all knowledge, in her acting, she simply became more dumbed out with every frame

But, the good news – it’s all over in 90 minutes.

Can’t wait for the director’s cut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FINDING VIVIAN MAIER: A Well Developed Positive


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FINDING VIVIAN MAIER is a fascinating documentary about the discovery of the stunning photography of an almost invisible nanny, Vivian Maier.

For years she nannied for a number of (reasonably wealthy) families. Her wards apparently loved her; their parents trusted her -this French-sounding, eccentric, deeply private woman. What none of them were aware of was that she was a skilled, obsessive observer and photographer of New York street life. She’d lead her young wards all over the city – to them, journeys of fantasy well away from the milieu of their class – in search of the faces, the moments, the light that have made her, posthumously, a deservedly lauded, master photographer.

Her photos – the faces, the casual gestures, the ironic compositions, the extraordinary light- all manage to suggest fleeting moments of honest emotion, as if she were able to still flickers of thought and capture the unexpected intimacy between the observer and the observed

But who was this woman? What drove this hidden passion?

The story begins when John Maloof, the director, in search of interesting vintage photos for a project he was working on, bought blind, a box of negatives. They weren’t quite what he was looking for. Even so, he could recognize that these weren’t the typical family snaps; he scanned some of them and uploaded them onto a blog. The response was overwhelming. Here was art in search of an artist.

So just who was the photographer? All he had were the images, vignettes of frozen lives and passions, but no information about their creator. His pursuit eventually lead him to the mother-lode of material, all stuffed into a storage locker. There, he untombed dozens of boxes, packing crates, suitcases, plastic containers, bags, back-packs… anything that could hold “stuff”. Amongst this “stuff” – the memorabilia of a life – he found thousands of negatives, undeveloped rolls of 35mm and 18mm (movie) film (over 100,000 of them) along with her clothes, sacks of receipts, uncashed tax refund checks, notes, memos, and assorted junk.

Here in a sense was Vivian Maier, a woman who seemed to want to hold on to the past, to capture on film or via hundreds of sundry objects, the very flow of time. The uncovered objects and film reveal to us what she looked like – tall, stately, with a certain European elegance and dressed in a style that leant an air of outsider mystery. But who really was this reluctant artist?

Maloof ends his documentary with an image that summarizes its journey: we see, in a dark-room, a photographic sheet in its well of developing fluid slowly revealing its image. So too is Vivian Maier slowly revealed. Sort of.

We meet many of her wards – now adults- as well as sundry others with whom she interacted. They were, it seems, from their contradictory and superficial recall, equally nonplussed as to who she really was, where she came from, why she remained in this relatively lowly profession all her life; and, to some of her employers, what were in those ever accumulating boxes (which says much of big city anomie I guess).

Indeed, her name itself was as much a chameleon as she was: She was Vivian Maier, Meyer, Mayer, sometimes even V. Smith. She spoke with a French accent, but one professional scholar of speech patterns reveals that it was a fake. No one really knew her. It was as if she was no more real than the vague memory of her wards or subjects. Only now, long dead, Maloof tries to crystallize these memories to piece together some sort of rounded picture of the reluctant artist. She remains elusive – more as an idea than a real person.

So who is the reality behind the idea?

We’ll never know. We may never ‘find’ Vivian Maier, but through her photography, what Maloof did find is a way one person looked out on the world; not simply what she saw, but how she saw it.

And that’s quite a find

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THE BUTLER: Serves up a treat


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PERHAPS IT WAS the way the movie had been advertised, or maybe I was simply prejudiced against spending two hours with Forrest Whitaker as Uncle Tom in the White House. At best, it seemed as though “The Butler” would simply be an exercise in mawkishness. Whatever. I was wrong. For all it’s faults, this is a well written, nicely executed, layered movie about the tension between compliance and resistance; between the private, intimate world where family takes precedence over all and a public, social world where a person must act on his conscience…in the public good.

Whitaker, as Cecil Gaines, is the eponymous butler in a movie that is the – surprisingly – gritty counterpoint to “Forrest Gump”. Both movies present a panorama of US history using the device of the ‘naive’ observer. But the history “The Butler” presents is not Gump’s happy box of chocolates, but the (ongoing) awful history of race relations in the US.

The movie begins as young Gaines witnesses the murder of his father. He has been killed for daring to resist the serial rape of his wife by a young White cotton planter. In an act of, perhaps guilt or contrition, the young, shocked child is removed from the field by the planter’s elderly White mother, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave in this star-dense cast). Cecil escapes by becoming the “house nigger”.

In that opening scene, the story’s social, poilitical and human elements are set in motion. The act of resistance and the brutality of the reprisals that follow are recurring themes. Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), the young White planter is a thuggish holdover from the typical slave owner. Freedom does not equal equality. But really, the movie suggests, Thomas’ behavior is no less abusive than the behavior of the State. And in the face of this history, “The Butler” suggests that there are two roads to follow: the private road of compliance and escape or the public road of resistance and engagement.

The house is the world of escape and the house negro, as he is referred to in more polite terms, rises through diligence, subservience and an ability to observe without being observed, right up to the White House.

Gaines, scarred by his past (the Black past of slavery and oppression) matures as a reserved and deeply conservative man. He remains aloof and neutral to the roiling turbulence of the America he lives in; an America of the KKK, Watts, inner-city riots, Martin Luther King and the rise of the Black Panthers. His passivity is counterpointed by dual forces of resistance: that of his son – a troubled, increasingly angry, increasingly politicized young man – and that of a series of courageous presidents, from Kennedy to Johnson, Nixon and even Reagan.

Like Annabeth Westfall at the beginning, their conscience and humanity wins out over an embedded, socialized sense of contempt of “the negro”.

Gaines resists the need to resist, to fight the injustice of an unjust society. This is the path taken by his son. But it is a path that so threatens the father’s sense of order that there can be no common ground between them. The result is banishment. English actor David Oyelowo is Louis Gaines, Cecil’s son – sent packing by an angry, confused, stern father.

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Compliance and resistance cannot co-exist.

And having as a child, escaped the bloody reality of the world he lived in before, Gaines continues to flee reality for the ordered and protective cocoon of the private worlds of his home and the White House.

Despite decades of resistance, despite laws and State troopers, change is slow. Racism persists. So too for Cecil, change is painfully slow… until an epiphany of sorts occurs when he is at a State reception, not as butler, but as guest. He realizes finally that equality is tokenism. That his conservatism and restraint will never shift the status quo and that the peace he has sought for all his life is, like his presence at the dinner, a sham; mere tokenism.

Cecil’s story can easily be seen as a kind of cop out, the coward’s way. But the movie never editorializes against him. Whitaker gives his character a dignity and a deep sense of decency. He’s just an ordinary man, working hard in an unfair system to get ahead in life, to feed and protect his family, and his passivity is not so much a cop out as a very understandable and human response.

Equally understandable is his shift, as an old man, to the son’s side. Finally he understands and can empathize with the power of resistance. Father and son, compliance and resistance need each other. They can live together

Director Lee Daniels handles difficult material well. In a movie that could easily have been either strident or sentimental, he balances the two to give us a deeply human drama as well as a richly moving history lesson.

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The list of Presidents served by Gaines starts with Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and at times the movie does feel like some sort of must-have “star vehicle” with James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), Alan Rickman (Reagan) John Cusack (Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), Maria Carey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz and Oprah Winfrey (as Gaines’s wife). Always nice to have such a stellar bunch, but it’s distracting and often gives the delicate texture of the movie a sour note.

The movie ends on a hopeful note. Obama has just been elected. Equality at last. Equality at last. Well, we can only hope that the butler died before the killings in Ferguson. Equality is yet to come

 

 

WELCOME TO NEW YORK: Fully Fleshed-out Film-making


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“WELCOME TO NEW YORK” is Abel Ferrara’s riveting, engaging, horrifying retelling of the debauchery and lusts that drove Dominique Strauss-Khan, at the time Managing Director of the IMF and plausible contender for the French Presidency, to the (alleged) assault and rape of a maid, Nafissatou Diallo in the Sofitel New York Hotel three years ago. Strauss-Khan was arrested, as he was about to leave for Paris and confined to house arrest until his case was heard. Though he was subsequently found innocent (hence my reference to “alleged”), her credibility having come under attack, he eventually reached a private settlement with her.

The whole affair was a seedy, repugnant one that, as these things tend to do, peeled back layers of Khan’s serial womanizing – a mix, according to the movie, of prostitution, persuasion and rape.

Gérard Depardieu, in his best recent role by far, is Deveraux, the DSK figure. He’s a grunting, amoral, selfish man; a vast bulk of swollen, doughy flesh, inflated by a sense of entitlement and power.

We meet him as he’s arriving in Manhattan where he (this ex-leader of the French Socialist Party) checks in to his opulent, palacial suite. Awaiting his arrival is a luxurious buffet of anonymous, elegantly disrobed women and two equally anonymous men (their handlers?) along with assorted liquors, sweets and drugs, all there to sate his post journey concupiscence. (The hotel rooms I’ve stayed in were never this well stocked.) To Deveraux’s seemingly inexhaustible desire, this is a mere amuse bouche and is soon replaced by the main meal of two stately, stunning, willing ‘party girls’, too professional to ever let on that this feast of corpulence is anything but repulsive.

Women and sex are just a trader’s commodities, available at his behest, and available to him as offerings, sweeteners to the way business is done. And for those women who have the temerity to resist the cash and charms of Deveraux’ power, nothing less than rape will suffice. It is in the morning after, as he’s showering, readying for a day of business and lunch with his daughter that the Diallo character, thinking the room empty, crosses his path. In the same way that a smoker needs a cigarette to start the day, Deveraux needs sex to start his. And who better but a maid? Another anonymous and available pussy. And who cares whether she’s willing or no. As he says to her, thrusting his corpulent nakedness at her, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Does she indeed! For here we see more than Deveraux assaulting a maid. Within the narrative of the Deveraux story, perhaps lies the larger story of Western monied might having its way with the poor of the global South.

The reality that New York director Ferrara confronts…assails us with is one that he builds through a layering of images and set-piece vignettes. At the beginning, as the credits introduce the movie, to the background audio of Paul Hipp’s lovely “America the Beautiful”, we are introduced to Deveraux after a camera sweep of gold bullion, money and Wall Street. It’s as if Deveraux is the engorged, corrupted living representative of the never satisfied greed of Wall Street. Later in the story, he is attacked by Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) his wife, of not really understanding what a man is, because really, Ferrara suggests, he’s less than a man: simply an aggregation of animal lusts and hungers.

In Ferrara’s layering, the golden, softly lit scenes of luxury and sex are abruptly shattered once Deveraux is arrested. The style of the movie then turns into the harsh reportage of a police procedural. We see the world of pomp and circumstance run into the world of the NYPD. Deveraux is jailed (in a holding cell with four fit menacing black men who circle him like beats of prey sniffing out this appetizing wounded animal), identified in a line-up, finger-printed and, in a final act of humiliation, stripped and made to squat naked in front of the officers. Having been removed from all the trappings of power, this is just a pathetic fat man. The policemen are snarling and unimpressed by his position. They order him around, just as they would do any other low-life criminal. It’s just another face of power on display.

His rescue comes in the form of the one phone call – to Simone. Jacqueline Bisset as Simone, matches Depardieu every step of the way. She really does make us believe that she is absolutely un-intimidated by Deveraux’s pushy, self-centered bullying. For if he has the power of position, she has the power of money. And she makes no bones in reminding him about it. If to the police he’s simply a rape suspect who they fear may skip town, to her, he’s a massive disappointment, a failure to her own ambitions of becoming First Lady.

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Bisset’s acting is an Oscar-worthy tour de force. This is Deveraux’ wife as Lady Macbeth. She is as cunning, conniving and amoral as he is. And she’s very self-aware… of her own potential to be seduced by both his neediness and his nearness to the Presidency. She is both attracted and repulsed by him and in one screaming confrontation with him in the privacy of their grand $60,000/month house arrest prison (the same annual salary of one of his arresting cops), she physically fights him off even as she builds a force field of defense against him. This is one woman who is more powerful than him; the one person in the movie over whom he cannot force himself on. He needs her more than she needs him.

This nobody hotel maid and poorly paid government lawyers are no match for the money she can throw at the case. And as expected, she is successful. Ferrara cleverly uses one piece of actual news footage to show the government prosecutor announcing the government’s retreat from the case. “Tell me the truth,” Deveraux demands of her when he learns of his ‘innocence’, “How much money did you pay to get me off?” Her reply to him is stark in its truth. “This kind of truth,” she tells him, “is not something you ever tell. It is too easy for lovers to turn enemies and then where will their knowledge of the truth lead you?”

Where indeed? This brush with the law, this near incarceration for rape, this destruction of a political ambition leaves Deveraux unchanged. There is no cleansing exorcism in all this. The last scene sees him chatting up a hapless cleaner employed by his wife. As the lights fade, we know only too well the fate that lies in store for her.

And Strauss-Khan’s fate? He’s the Managing Director of a huge and successful hedge fund that last year earned him about £700,000. If you want the wisdom of his personal consultancy, expect to pay about £100,000 an hour. He has also threatened to sue the film’s producers for libel, expecting no doubt “compensation”

We wonder what fate lies in store for them

GOD’S POCKET: No way out


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“GOD’S POCKET” CONFIRMS just how much we’ll miss the unfussy, natural, low-keyed brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here he plays Mickey Scarpato, a struggling workingman and part-time petty thief – a description we are told (by the voice over of the area’s celebrant, journalist Richard Shelburn) would fit any of the inhabitants.

God’s Pocket – clearly an ironic name – is a bleak, down-in-the-heels kind of place where everyone knows everyone else; where their strong sense of identification (Mickey is constantly reminded that he isn’t from there and therefore somehow doesn’t totally fit in) is balanced by a strong desire to escape…if only they could find the money to do so. For the need isn’t so much to escape the place, but to escape all that the place stands for: the lack of money, the immanence of violence and the claustrophobia of familiarity.

Money, debt and violence! They are at the center of the narrative – forming a vicious cycle from which, like God’s Pocket, there’s no let up.

We are introduced to two of the principal characters – Mickey and Arthur (John Turturro) – as they team up to rip off a meat van under the watchful presence of their thuggish debt collector.

Things go off kilter when Mickey’s stepson, a nasty, racist lout played by Caleb Landry Jones, is killed in a construction ‘accident’. Nobody’s prepared to tell the cops what really happened. Violence happens in God’s Pocket.

But a dead body’s an expensive thing; and, yielding to the demands of Leon’s mother and his wife (“Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks) who’s also looking for a way out, Mickey has to find the $5000+ needed for a decent burial. This drives him to play the horses, which results in even more debt, which results in even more violence.

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And so it goes, cynically narrated by Shelburn –a tired, washed-up alcoholic lecher played to perfection by Richard Jenkins.

There’s really no light at the end of God’s Pocket’s tunnel, and the only lightness in this dark movie is from a moment of black comedy when Leon’s dead body, hidden in the refridgerated meat van, is shot out into the road after an accident. As Shelburn notes, you need to die twice to escape the damned place.

John Slattery, who we know as Roger Sterling from “Mad Men” directed. It’s a solid workman-like piece of directing.

Problem is, we’ve seen this sort of place so often recently that it’s become a stand-in for gritty Indie realism. Usually we find these poorly lit, grubby bars and ramshackle houses on the wrong side of Boston. And usually the protagonists are boxers with no-nonsense wives struggling to keep their men on the right side of the law. So this whole now tired milieu was a cliché even before director John Slattery’s Clint Eastwood-influenced direction added even more clichés to the genre.

Nor does the hit-you-over-the-head writing help much. In God’s Pocket, or call it Anywhere USA, there’s no way out. And in “God’s Pocket” there’s no way you don’t get this theme. It screams at you at every turn, from the journalist’s laconic commentary to the dialogue within. The story meanders here and there, signposted by the authorial point of view until it ends, having gone nowhere really.

But it was raining outside, and the acting was tremendous, so whatthehell.