May 1 (Bloomberg) -- In “Harry Brown,” Michael Caine does a surprising turn as an elderly British widower seeking revenge for the murder of his best friend by teenage punks terrorizing their rundown apartment complex.
While he doesn’t have Charles Bronson’s drop-dead growl or Clint Eastwood’s menacing stare, Caine makes a believable vigilante. His Harry Brown is a mild-mannered former military man capable of putting the fear of God into those who underestimate him.
Director Daniel Barber’s feature debut is a dark journey through a crime-infested neighborhood run by drug-dealing, pistol-packing thugs. Law-abiding citizens like Harry lock their doors, shut their eyes and hope the criminals ignore them.
Working from Gary Young’s taut script, Barber creates an oppressive world where fear rules. In this context, vigilantism isn’t just a cheap thrill. It’s an understandable, if not justifiable, reaction to senseless violence.
After his chess-playing partner Leonard is killed and the investigation stalls (Emily Mortimer plays a sharp policewoman), Harry takes matters into his own hands. He stabs a robber and buys a gun from a drug addict whose strung-out girlfriend is lying comatose on the couch.
Harry begs the guy to get her medical help and when he refuses, things get ugly. The druggie ends up bleeding from a bullet wound, with Harry standing over him and delivering the movie’s signature line: “You failed to maintain your weapon, son.”
This Dirty Harry is just getting started. Still to come are torture, a human shield and a climactic bloody battle in a local pub. More often than not, movie violence is gratuitous. Here it’s the whole point.
“Harry Brown,” from Samuel Goldwyn Films, is playing in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Rating: **1/2
“Please Give” opens with close-ups of women getting mammograms. The rest of the movie is just as raw, though the subject turns to devious minds instead of fleshy bodies.
Nicole Holofcener’s sharply observed dramedy is about a New York couple who buy furniture for bargain-basement prices at estate sales, then jack up the rates for the same items at their second-hand Manhattan store.
The husband (Oliver Platt) sees nothing wrong with their business, but his wife (Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all four of Holofcener’s features) is so guilt-plagued by their good fortune that she’s always giving handouts to the homeless. Their teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) is more concerned with her severe acne and getting a pair of expensive jeans.
When the couple buys their next-door neighbor’s apartment, it becomes a morbid waiting game. They must wait for the owner, an ornery nonagenarian with two granddaughters, to die before they can knock down her walls and enlarge their own residence.
Much of the film’s biting humor stems from the contrast between the granddaughters: One (Rebecca Hall) is a genial radiology technician who visits frequently and takes care of her grandma; the other (Amanda Peet) is a self-centered cosmetologist who treats granny with disdain and obsesses over her tan.
Holofcener has a good ear for dialogue and a good eye for human quirks. You’ll recognize her characters, even if you don’t like them.
“Please Give,” from Sony Pictures Classics, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***
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(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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