Tag Archives: D+

SCATTER MY ASHES AT BERGDORF’S

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D+

One of the most annoying things about going to movies nowadays is having to sit through the plethora of advertisements—not trailers, but ads for cars, soft drinks and cell phones—shown in theatres before the feature starts. But with “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” you have something new: the opportunity to simply wallow in a ninety-minute commercial without having to wait for a real movie at all.

Matthew Miele’s documentary is a basically a love letter to the famously upscale New York department store, lacking any critical sense. Structurally it’s rather a mess; though divided into “chapters,” it skips from topic to topic without giving much thought to smooth transition. Despite the occasional appearance of graphics illustrating timelines, it doesn’t evince much chronological sophistication—the only plot thread that has an arc along those lines is one that follows the creation of the store’s flamboyant holiday windows from conception to unveiling.

What the film does have is interview excerpts—scads of them—virtually all of them rhapsodic. Designer after designer appears to enthuse about having a spot on the store’s racks or shelves. One of the longer episodes shows how one of them was discovered working across the street and promptly offered a place at the store. To balance the scale, others who were rejected by Bergdorf’s arbiters appear briefly—usually to say that their relationship with other outlets has made them very happy. (One of the repeated notes has to do with Bergdorf’s insistence on exclusivity deals that freeze out their competitors.) And we see Linda Fargo, the head of the decision-making staff, looking over the presentations of new applicants with a jaded air, either welcoming the newcomers to the Bergdorf fold or dismissing them with kind words about coming back later.

Fargo is one of the few people we meet along the way who’s given much screen time—a woman who would hardly be described as classically beautiful but who wears (sometimes outrageous-looking) outfits well and is treated like royalty. Another is David Hoey, who’s in charge of the window displays and works closely with the artists attached to design them. And perhaps the most interesting of the lot is Betty Halbreich, a veteran “personal shopper” with a disdainful attitude, who declines to say that she hates anyone but admits to disliking certain folk.

Perhaps the film’s most unnerving aspect, however, is its glorification of obscene wealth, including the take-home salaries of many of the staff. We hear about legendary shopping sprees by both Elizabeth Taylor and John Lennon, the former of a hundred or so white mink earmuffs and the latter involving nearly that many fur coats—and are apparently meant to share the enthusiasm that the sellers had for the windfalls. The Bernie Madoff scandal is briefly introduced so that we can commiserate with the drop-off in receipts that followed, only to be assured that the store has worked its way back. Any feeling of sympathy one might have for the poor Bergdorfites, in any event, will probably be alleviated by the revelation that with good commissions, a salesperson might rake in half a million a year. And most crassly, we’re told that charges of elitism are overblown because any passerby on the street, no matter how humble, can press up his nose against the window for a closer look. (Equally questionable is a remark about how wonderful it is that an American family still owns a whole block on Fifth Avenue, when so much of the street has been bought up by “foreigners.”)

The sad thing is that from the snippets the film includes about the store’s founding and the Goodman family indicate that an intelligent story of American entrepreneurism could be fashioned around them. Unfortunately, Miele is content to offer a ninety-minute panegyric to conspicuous consumption, enhanced—if that’s the word—by occasional contributions from regular customers Candice Bergen, Susan Lucci and Joan Rivers. Rivers, in one of her moments, makes an offhanded comment that she intends as a joke but, after ninety minutes of this film, you might be inclined to take to heart. “Anybody who takes fashion seriously,” she says (as “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” clearly does), “is an idiot.”

The title, incidentally, is taken from a famous 1990 New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts. A pity the absurdity of her caption finds no counterpart in Miele’s film, except accidentally in its ridiculously reverential air.

DEAD MAN DOWN

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D+

This film from director Niels Ardem Oplev (the original version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) is a weird hybrid. It’s essentially a revenge fantasy that, like so many such genre pieces, winds up with a big, explosive, bloody showdown. But Oplev also wants it to have an aura of fake profundity. That explains the somber tone, the dragged-out pacing and the spuriously poetic romance, meant to illustrate how two broken people can be redeemed by love.

In terms of plot, the script by J.H. Wyman doesn’t benefit from Oplev’s lapidary approach, which sets off its logical lapses in the broadest relief. Colin Farrell plays Vic, a trusted henchman of shady real-estate mobster Alphonse (Terrence Howard). Alphonse is being threatened by a mysterious stalker who’s torturing him with puzzle-like pieces of a photograph that when completed will presumably reveal his identity and motive. But though Vic saved Alphonse’s life during a shoot-out with a rival he suspected of being his tormentor, his grim, opaque manner suggests hidden depths beneath the loyal exterior.

And that’s indeed the case. It turns out that Vic is the sender of the sinister messages. As will be laboriously revealed later on, he’s actually the sole survivor of a hit that Alphonse had some Albanian thugs perpetrate a couple of years earlier. His wife and child were killed, but though presumed dead he escaped, took a new identity and became a member of Alphonse’s gang. (How he managed all this goes conveniently unexplained.) Now he’s taunting his supposed boss in preparation for killing him, the rest of the crew and the Albanians in one fell swoop.

But all his plans get sidetracked when Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in the high-rise opposite his, makes contact and, after a brief flirtation, informs Vic that she witnessed Vic killing a man his apartment—the fellow Alphonse had deputized to find the stalker, and who’d discovered Vic’s secret. Beatrice wants revenge, too—against the drunk driver who’d disfigured her face—and says she’ll keep quiet only if Vic kills the man. Naturally they fall in love over time, what with Vic promising to do as she wishes and she helping him out of various scrapes as his plans unravel.

There are standard-issue action sequences scattered throughout the movie—that opening shoot-out between rival gangs, a scene in which Vic, armed with a high-powered rifle, shoots a couple of Alphonse’s men and is nearly caught, and the culminating confrontation at Alphonse’s house, with Beatrice his prisoner. But much of the running-time is devoted to Vic and/or Beatrice looking morose and world-weary, to a subplot about Vic’s gang pal Darcy (Dominic Cooper) slowly figuring out that his buddy is the stalker, and inserts of Vic torturing the brother of the Albanian kingpin whom he’s kidnapped as a means of luring the gang to Alphonse’s warehouse lair. (That culminates in the fellow being eaten by rats, rather graphically.) There’s also room for Vic’s sessions with his late wife’s sage uncle (F. Murray Abraham) and scenes for Isabelle Huppert to mug it up in that sophisticated French manner (including a disquisition on Tupperware) as Beatrice’s mother Valentine, whose deafness comes and goes as the script demands.

There’s really very little to “Dead Man Down” besides the revenge formula featuring glum protagonists in Farrell and Rapace and a slick but empty villainous turn by Howard. (A supporting turn by wrestler Wade Barrett may appeal to fans of the WWE, which helped finance the movie, but will be of no moment to anybody else.) But like the old “Death Wish” franchise, it also wants to say something important—about random acts of violence, bigotry, greed, coping with grief and loss, and the possibility of redemption through love.

But all that really doesn’t amount to much. Despite a physical production, overseen by designer Neils Sejer and art director Jesse Rosenthal, that captures the bleakness of the story and cinematography by Paul Cameron that conveys the dark atmosphere with convincing—if hardly pleasurable—expertise, the picture obstinately remains a noirish, rather ugly crime melodrama with pretensions that never get past pulp cliché.