Friday, October 24, 2014

JOHN WICK Review: 7 out of 10 (Light the Action Fuse!)

JOHN WICK is a B-action film that feels like a AAA title.  The biggest surprise is who actually made this film happen.  First time director Chad Stahelski teams up again here with Keanu Reeves who stars as the action lead John Wick.  Where had they crossed paths before?  Chad worked as Reeves' stunt double in THE MATRIX films.  Stahelski has done a lot of work like this--including working as a stunt double for Brandon Lee in THE CROW and eventually working as a body double for the remainder of the film after Lee's fatal accident on set.  JUMPER, V FOR VENDETTA, and THE WOLVERINE are just a short list of over 70 films he has offered stunt work to.  Quote from Stahelski: "I guess I have kind of a type. Pretty much anybody who shows up in a black leather overcoat, I've doubled for them." 

JOHN WICK very much feels like a film that a talented stunt man would develop.  That works mostly in the film's favor.  Mostly.  John Wick is a retired assassin who has left the underground to marry and settle down.  After the illness and subsequent death of his wife, Wick is the victim of a home invasion-- where Wick is knocked out, his dog is killed, and his 1969 Mustang muscle car is stolen.  The perpetrators are connected to Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) the head of a Russian crime syndicate--and, ironically was Wick's previous employer.  One of the criminals who attacked Wick is Tarasov's own son Iosef-- played by Alfie Allen (GAME OF THRONES).  It isn't until afterwards that the criminals realize that they have angered the most talented hitman in the business.  The Russian boss even nicknamed him "The Boogeyman" out of the type of fear he inspired.  Out of grief and pain, Wick begins to exact his revenge against the Tarasov clan, and the body count begins to climb...very quickly.

JOHN WICK is the sort of gritty neo-noir that was commonplace in the 1970s when action films were being infused with a new breed of antihero--one that oozed coolness.  Circa 1975, this film might have starred Steve McQueen, James Caan, or Charles Bronson.  It is a stripped down revenge flick that is light on dialogue and heavy with gunplay.  Alternately, for gamers, this movie might seem reminiscent of the MAX PAYNE video game series--with similar character motivations.  The action certainly has the sort of kinetic pace that a similarly plotted video game might.  Wick chooses his targets--then battles his way through hordes of nameless, faceless mobsters to accomplish his goal.  Rinse and Repeat.  The film adds some nice touches with some smaller parts with great actors like John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Willem Dafoe.  There is even a few nice scenes with THE WARRIORS own David Patrick Kelly as Charlie--the local "cleaner" who comes in behind to manage the body count.  Even former pro wrestler Kevin Nash appears as a Russian bouncer.  Though these small performances are grin inducing, they serve as momentary distractions from an action film that is distinctly one note.  What director Stahelski brings to the film is a laundry list of impressive stunts and non-stop action.  However, he is also fairly heavy handed with the washed out visuals and bluish hues that paint each and every scene--much like the poster above.  It is an overwrought grim visual style that isn't exactly subtle.  Further, JOHN WICK has a plot that could be written on a postage stamp.  There is very little development of any characters--though word of a franchise for the character is already in the works.  Though the film has more heft in both style and cool than Denzel's recent similar take with THE EQUALIZER, it lacks a bit in attempting to develop the antihero past a cardboard cutout that has dual wielding pistols.  However, both of these recent star driven movies are unequal to revenge-themed independent films like COLD IN JULY and BLUE RUIN from earlier in the year.

For action film fans, JOHN WICK delivers buckets of bullets and plenty of over-the-top stunts.  It is a nice return to action for Keanu Reeves--and a fun vehicle with a few small roles for some other great character actors.  Just don't expect much more in character development.  It would be hard to see through the blue tinted visuals anyhow.


Friday, October 17, 2014

FURY Review: 8 out of 10 (Dogs of War)

Let there be no doubt...war is hell.

FURY is the latest WWII film written and directed by David Ayer, whose previous work includes HARSH TIMES and the police action thriller END OF WATCH. The film stars Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, and Michael Peña as a five man tank squad--all experienced vets, except for the new kid Norman (Lerman) who joins their team for their latest mission. FURY is set during the last month of the European Theater of war during World War II in April 1945. As the Allies make their final push into Nazi Germany, the battle-tough sergeant Wardaddy (Pitt) commands a Sherman tank called "Fury" and its five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered and outgunned, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany. 

FURY focuses on a familiar war trope--the wet-behind-the-ears rookie joining a team of hardened veterans, forced to encounter the horrors of war. Though it seems a stretch that at the close of WWII, an 8 week old rookie Army typist would be sent out into a war theater as an assistant tank driver, Logan Lerman sells it well.  Easily the best role of his career, it would certainly be difficult for this young actor to return to the likes of Percy Jackson fluff.  Lerman captures terror, outrage, and raw brutality that war brings.  It truly can change a man, and Lerman's rookie Norman is no different.  Michael Pena (END OF WATCH) returns here to work with director Ayer and stars as Gordo--the tank's lead driver and machine gunner.  He acts as the most affable of the bunch, easing the tensions with a joke or a smile.  Jon Bernthal (THE WALKING DEAD) also shines here as a gritty and unlikeable Grady Travis--a dark and twisted soldier who likes to push people's buttons.  He is a real lout, but in the firefight--still remains fiercely loyal to his team.  Shia LaBeouf likewise turns in his strongest performance of his career as a hymn singing Bible believer Boyd Swan who works as the technician and lead gunner for the squad.  LaBeouf's Swan mumbles scripture, argues with Wardaddy about heaven and hell, and quietly weeps at the horrors of war.  LaBeouf might have off-screen issues, but in this film, he and the rest of these actors hold their alongside Brad Pitt.  Pitt himself seems to  be channeling Lt. Aldo Raine from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS here, but a deeper look at "Wardaddy" offers a far more somber and complex soldier.

Depsite the fact that these men are in a tank, the violence of FURY isn't some distance away like a shell fired from the cannon to a distant hedgerow.  It is close, personal, and grim.  Very grim. There are harrowing scenes here, chilling to watch.  David Ayer's camera is unapologetic--affixing itself on the vicious and intense battle sequences, and failing to flinch when soldiers die.  The film paces itself with some peaceful, nearly delicate moments that gives the film a chance to breathe.  Some of these are in a German village as the men seek out some semblance of peace; other quiet seconds are shared in the tank itself as these five men share such tight spaces with each other.  Ayer is quite apt to juggle the confusion of war, small spaces in the tank interior, and the horrific close up violence--all amid smoke and fog..  The film moves at a deliberate pace, keeping the viewer invested as well as the narrative flowing.  The script does seem to create "stock" characters from other war movies that work as a sort of foundation to tell this story--the lead veteran, a devout Christian, the easygoing soldier, the loud ruffian, and a fearful rookie.  However, each of these actors are on the top of their game here, as well as film director Ayer.  War movies are few and far between these days.  Really good ones are even more rare.  Though the typical star driven war movie seems more about drivel and grandstanding, (I'm looking at you MONUMENTS MEN) Ayer's FURY instead creates a sort of slice-of-life approach to soldiers desperately trying to survive a bloody, ruthless war.  Career performances all round boosts an otherwise familiar, albeit brutal tale.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

YOUNG ONES Review: 8 out of 10 (Once Upon a Time in the Future West)

YOUNG ONES successfully blends the future and the past to create a compelling western set in the near future.  Directed and written by Jake Paltrow (younger brother of Gwyneth), the film is chocked full of young talent. Taking place in the near future, water had become a rare commodity.  States have closed their borders, troops have intervened, and criminals run amok--all because of the lack of this natural resource. Michael Shannon  plays Ernest Holm--a former farmer whose land has dried up.  He will shoot on site the thieves coming for his water, but alternately is seen as one of the nicest guys in the area.  To make ends meet, he takes supply runs (that includes alcohol) up through the nearby foothills to the crews of men who are drilling water lines.  Sadly, those water lines are zoned to go around his property--and not through it, despite Ernest trying to convince them for a pipeline to his property. Kodi Smit-McPhee is the Ernest's son Jerome who accompanies his father on the supply runs and helps to maintain the dried up homestead.  Elle Fanning plays older sister Mary--who wants out of the dust bowl life and yearns for something more.  Enter Nicholas Hoult, who plays Flem Lever, a local rebellious youth and son of a rich business man who wants to take away Ernest's supply run for himself.  He romances Mary and whispers promises in her ear, but looks to undercut her father for his land and his potential access to the nearby water lines.  The dramatic idea of a villainous young man looking to take a tough farmer's land while romancing his innocent daughter might be (and certainly was) a plot line from any number of westerns of the 1950s.  However, add a dystopian environment, robotic livestock, and a bit of futuristic language, and the film successfully *feels* like a science fiction film.  Paltrow has created a harsh and stark new world, but mixes in the familiar so the film feels to close for comfort.  When Ernest and Jerome's mule breaks its leg, they buy a robotic one--a technology that feels fresh to the viewer--but is portrayed as a distinctly second hand tech to those in the film.  Ernest plays western tunes on the radio that have a 1960s feel to them, yet the family shares digital movies with each other on a piece of parchment.  It is a collision of these two frontiers--the past and future--that gives the film its distinct feel.

The tale is told in three distinct chapters--each simply named after each of the men of the film: Ernest Holm--farmer and father; Flem Lever--rebel and lover; and Jerome Holm--son and brother.  Michael Shannon (MAN OF STEEL, THE ICEMAN, BOARDWALK EMPIRE) continues to be one of the strongest actors working. He is a stubborn man who lives on principle but survives on toughness.  Nicholas Hoult plays an absolutely despicable villain--and is certainly a different role than what we have seen from him in the rom-com-zom of WARM BODIES and the loveable Hank McCoy/Beast from the recent X-MEN reboot films.  He is conniving, looking for the angles to get ahead, and ready to talk his way out of any corner he puts himself in.  Elle Fanning (SUPER 8, MALEFICENT) continues to exude beauty and innocence, and here, the naïve Mary is blind to the dastardly man she has given her heart to.  However, Kodi Smit-McPhee really shines here as a boy struggling to grow up in this harsh future world.  a boy that is not yet ready to become a man, young Jerome is forced to make difficult choices with hard consequences.  The film works on a steady boil as each of these characters interact with one another, along with their pitiless climate and harsh frontier.  The film has much to say on an allegorical level: the absence of place merging with a new digital age.  Though the film does seem to turn on a singular plot device that reveals the truth to certain characters just when they need to know it, the greater themes of the dissolution of family, betrayal, and the harsh frontier all work in the movie's greater favor. 

YOUNG ONES is a film that feels old-fashioned, yet portrays a tough and severe future world.  Simply drawn characters offer the chance for these young actors to shine with subtle nuances, inflection, and expression.  Director Jake Paltrow's sophomore film gives hope to the western genre by shooting it through a distinctly dystopian lens.  Recommended.


Monday, October 13, 2014

THE JUDGE Review: 7 out of 10 (A Tall Order in the Court of Character Acting)

If you like the "Order" part of TV's Law and Order...and also fancy yourself a Robert Downey Jr. fan, then THE JUDGE should claim the verdict of being a pretty good film, so help me God.

It is rare that a film can boast the term "All Star Cast" anymore, but the term certainly applies here. The film stars Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dax Shepard, and Billy Bob Thornton.   Robert Downey Jr. stars as Henry "Hank" Palmer, a successful Chicago defense lawyer, who returns to his tiny hometown in Indiana for his mother's funeral.  He hasn't been home in years and has a troubled relationship with his entire family--particularly his own tough love dad.  Soon after, Hank discovers that his estranged father, the local judge and magistrate--Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) is suspected of murdering a man he had earlier sent to prison who was later paroled. In a courtroom twist of fate, Hank has to now defend his father, the judge, in a murder trial held in his father's own former courtroom.  Add all the elements of a dysfunctional family melodrama between father and son, not to mention a side plot with his brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) and a scheming prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) who has a history and an axe to grind with Downey Jr.'s character.  It is the stuff of a postmodern Frank Capra film...or a moderately cheeky male soap opera.

Each of these actors are firmly operating the wheelhouse of their own character archetypes. Essentially Robert Downey Jr. stars as...Robert Downey Jr.--a wise cracking, bantering city boy who drops witticisms while chewing scenery.  A sort-of lawyer version of IRON MAN's Tony Stark.  Duvall is a judge version of...Robert Duvall-- a grumpy old man who sticks to his principles, but has a kind layer just below the surface.  It is a character he has played dozens of times--but it suits him.  Vera Farmiga is the charming high school girlfriend, still living in the small town--and running a local café, no less.  Billy Bob Thornton brings his mustache twirling villain to the courtroom to go toe to toe with Downey Jr.'s legal wrangling. Even Dax Shepard sticks with the goofy loveable type as the antique dealer/occasional local lawyer who assists Hank with the case.  It all works fine.  For fans of these actors and what they do--this is a great sandbox of a film to let them play in.  At a running time of 2 1/2 hours, it certainly chases a few rabbits down some plot holes--but watching Duvall and Downey Jr. go toe to toe is fun to watch.  The film does take a few unexpected turns, but in the end--it is still a story of family dysfunction and the old adage "you can never go home again" that has been done far past familiar fashion.

THE JUDGE is tailor made for those moviegoers who prefer courtroom dramas...and is a bonus for fans of these actors who shine by working very close to their own forte.  It might be a film that is forgotten in a week or so, but for the time in the theater in the is a tale well told.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

DRACULA UNTOLD Review: 6 out of 10 (All Gore)

Since when is Dracula PG-13?

DRACULA UNTOLD is a sort of horror/fantasy/adventure film by first time feature director Gary Shore.  Rather than focus on Irish novelist Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, the film creates an altogether different origin story for its title character by portraying the story of Vlad the Impaler, who uses dark powers to protect his family and kingdom. Luke Evans portrays the title character, with Sarah Gadon and Dominic Cooper in supporting roles. 
Poor Vlad is just a prince in the middle ages trying to support his constituents.  He is working to shed that former rep when we was captured by the Turkish army as a kid and trained to be a violent, unrelenting killing machine--which included impaling hundreds of his victims and displaying them to evoke fear from his enemies.  Now, he is a family man;  diplomat; a kinder, gentler Vlad; there to serve the people of Transylvania.  You know--PG-13 Dracula? 

During a scouting mission, Vlad and his soldiers discover a cave that holds a sorcerer and master vampire.  They narrowly escape, but not without experiencing the power and terror that the demon creature possesses. When the Turks come calling for tribute, Vlad is asked to give not only his country's silver--but also 1000 young boys for the Turkish Army--including his own son.  In an attempt to wield power to save his country, his people, and his own family, Vlad is driven back to the monster in the cave and forced to make a deal with the devil.

"Make a deal for my soul with a supernatural demon?  Sounds like a great idea!"
*Said No One EVER*

DRACULA UNTOLD does have an fresh take on the classic vampire story.  The film mixes the fantasy genre in with war/adventure pictures, and there is even some horror and romance elements as well.  Though the movie's tone remains consistent, there are a lot of different genres at work--just nearly too much.  Though it seems to be going for a sort of "Game of Thrones" knock off vibe, especially with a couple of GoT bit actors added to the mix.  But it still feels more like a costume adventure film than a horror movie origin story.  Worst of all is the mediocrity of seeing a violent bloodletting horror character recast for a PG audience.  It just takes the bite right out of it... (HA!)  The film relies on lots of very quick cuts in the action--so it is clear that violence is taking place, people are dying, but there is enough cutaway and editing tricks to save the bloodletting.  However, for those looking for a gothic tale set in the Middle Ages with adventure, romance, and just a taste of bloody violence--this origin story is recommended.  Word is that Universal Studios is considering a reboot of all its Classic Monsters--to create a new movie Monster-verse, as it were--not unlike DC and Marvel these days.  If so, let's hope that future chapters offer a little more horror.  At least for my taste.


Monday, October 6, 2014

A Film Fan Weekend at Alamo Drafthouse: Willy Wonka and The Room...

Lots of people may go to their local theater to see the latest movie with their favorite Hollywood star.  However, Alamo Drafthouse also hosts several unique cinematic events for fans of certain special films and movie lovers alike.  This weekend, I had the chance to participate in two unique Alamo Drafthouse events.  The first was the Ultimate Wonka Party.  Featuring the classic film WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY on the big screen, it was a chance for fans of the film (like myself) to experience the movie as it was intended.  The evening began with each guest receiving a bag of candy, as well as some unique props to experience the film with.  But perhaps the greatest part of the evening were two of the stars of the film--Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) and Paris Themmen (Mike TeeVee) who were *live* and in person at the Alamo Drafthouse. Before the film began, Julie and Paris came out for a quick appearance and introduced themselves.  Giving some Wonka watching tips to the audience, they noted a few "easter eggs" in the movie to look for.  Following the film, local TV personality James Eppler hosted a Q & A session with the stars and even gave the audience a chance to ask
questions.  Even when an audience member (in bad form) asked the stars about the awful Burton remake of this classic film, the stars answered deftly.  "I'm sorry, I'm a bit deaf in this ear," they replied to the inquiry, quoting their own (superior) film and pivoting away from the question.  I asked the two about the legend that the kids of the film were kept away and not able to see the "Tasting Room" set prior to filming, so that director Mel Stuart could get their instant reaction to the wondrous sight.  However, Julie confessed that she had arrived early to record her song and had secretly toured the set days before--including the infamous Tasting Room.  "I only confessed that to (director) Mel a few years back," she grinned.  "But at least one of us was acting that day..."  As the evening ended, each ticket holder also received a unique movie poster (as seen above), signed by both of the stars of the film.  Afterward, Paris and Julie stayed to meet and greet each and every fan, posing for pictures.  They were kind to the children, and gracious to the adults and fans, taking pictures with every request--and even photo bombing a few more fans in the lobby.  They stayed over a bit and chatted about this experience with me, commenting about the film's legacy and its fans.  The two were traveling on to host several more events just like this across the country.  Julie and Paris were consummate professionals and for fans of the film, Alamo Drafthouse offered a "bucket list" type experience. 

An entirely different fan experience followed on Saturday night with the first *ever* screening of THE ROOM in Lubbock.  Described as the "Citizen Kane" of bad movies, it is written, directed, produced by, and starsTommy Wiseau. The film is primarily centered on a melodramatic love triangle between an amiable banker (Wiseau), his fiancée (Juliette Danielle), and his conflicted best friend (Greg Sestero). What makes the movie hilariously bad is  that a significant portion of the film is dedicated to a series of unrelated subplots involving friends, family, and wholly unrelated characters.  In cult classic form, fans of the film have established several "inside" jokes that include framed photos of silverware, drug dealers on the roof, and completely unknown characters introduced suddenly into the film.  Don't forget tossing the football around in your tuxedo.  The movie is absolutely rife with continuity errors, bad acting, and terrible set pieces.  Seen now as a piece of cinematic pop art of sorts, audiences love to jeer at the film, embracing its awfulness.
  Alamo Drafthouse was able to bring in star of the film Greg Sestero who visitied with Texas Tech professor Rob Peaslee about the making of the film.  Greg has since published his own memoir about the making of the film entitled THE DISASTER ARTIST.  Describing all of the mishaps and shenanigans of how a film like THE ROOM could get made in the first place, Sestero also discussed the odd and enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, who was at the center of the project and still remains as a fascination to fans.  In addition, Sestero brought some of the original scripts of the film, which were actually worse than the final film, as hard as that is to believe.  He invited guests on stage for an impromptu actors studio as they read the parts of Johnny and Lisa, while Greg played his own role of the best friend Mark.  Make no mistake, both Sestero's book and THE ROOM has gained a footing.  In February, it was announced that Seth Rogen's production company, Point Grey Pictures, had acquired the rights to a film adaptation of the book with James Franco attached to direct and possibly star as Wiseau.  Last month  it was announced that THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber would write the script for THE DISASTER ARTISTSestero himself stayed behind with copies of his book, and several pieces of fan merchandise, signing autographs and posing for photos.  Fans of the film were giddy, and already asking Alamo when there might be a return screening of THE ROOM to attend.

Events like this are a real treat for film fans.  Alamo Drafthouse has daily special events outside of the current new releases of Hollywood films.  Just this month alone, cinefiles can watch the Classic Universal Monster films like THE WOLF MAN to seeing each and every film from director Christopher Nolan back on the big screen (including the Batman trilogy)  all leading up to the INTERSTELLAR premiere next month.  Add in films like John Carpenter's THE THING, a girlie night with HOCUS POCUS, some classic Dr. Who screenings, and even Saturday morning cartoon parties featuring an all you can eat cereal bar.  The above is barely a sampling of the events scheduled just for October, alone.  Who knows, maybe they are screening one of your fan favorites soon!  For a full rundown of dates, times, and to reserve tickets to an event, visit their calendar page here: Alamo Drafthouse CalendarSee you at the movies soon!

Friday, October 3, 2014

GONE GIRL Review: 10 (A Milieu of Mystery)

GONE GIRL is the latest from director David Fincher, based on the 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. It stars Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, and Carrie Coon.  Affleck and Pike play Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple married for five years who have struggled in their relationship.  The recent recession, moving from New York to Nick's home in St Louis to care for his ailing parents, and other tensions have led to a rocky relationship.  Nick often complains about his marriage to his twin sister and bar co-owner Margo (Carrie Coon), who doesn't care for Amy's upper class heritage and her snobbish ways. It doesn't help that Amy's parents are authors of a series of hit children's books loosely based on their daughter entitled "Amazing Amy."  As a result, Amy has become a bit of a D-list celebrity, being called "Amazing Amy" herself by the media, and often compared to her kid book counterpart.  When Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick reports her missing to the police.  Once authorities begin to learn about the couple's problems, however, Nick himself becomes a suspect in her disappearance.  Lies and deception, mysteries coming unraveled, and chilling revelations are all a part of what happens next.

Not much more can (nor should) be said about the plot of GONE GIRL.  Whether you have read the novel or not, this is a film whose secrets and ambiguities are best kept for those to experience in the theater.  In other words, I would implore people who intend to see the film to keep themselves away from any "spoilers" that might float about in the media or the internet.  Having said that, it is a film that begs to be discussed, pondered, and debated.  Plan to see it with others, if you can--and give yourself time to debate the film's content together afterward.  Fincher has returned to form as he brings this thriller to the screen.  It is a fascinating journey to consider the dark underbelly of a marriage relationship.  Gillian Flynn's work  as here pairs well with Fincher as the secrets of the Flynn's lives and marriage are put into the white hot spotlight of today's media.  The muted tones of his palette works to emphasize the darker moods of this story.  In addition, his camera work and his creation of character's own power structures by shooting above and below them works to develop another layer of subtle storytelling. There is a lot here to be said for the modern media and its attraction to the macabre and tragic.  

 Affleck and Pike are both stellar here in the lead roles.  As I have said before, there is "good" Affleck and "bad" Affleck.  I have come to the conclusion that, as an actor, Affleck works far better when he is paired with strong directors with a clear vision (including himself).  Here, Affleck's Nick Dunne is a melancholy and despondent man--yet charming and polite.  It is the same sort of performance he brought to his portrayal of the lonely George Reeves in 2006's HOLLYWOODLAND.  Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry also offer some strong work here.  Leaving prior work in television sit coms and a cross-dressing behind, respectively, both of these actors add some legitimacy to their own careers as actors in some character roles.  But the star of the film is the narrative itself, a chilling tale of relationships gone awry.  It is a long film, running right at 2 1/2 hours, but the film never feels bloated.  Instead, GONE GIRL works to slowly and carefully unravel its truths, allowing the characters to swirl around one another, all of them in a milieu of disturbing uncertainty and paparazzi flash bulbs.  Easily one of the strongest films of 2014 and highly recommended.


Friday, September 26, 2014

THE EQUALIZER Review: 8 out of 10 (This film = Bad Ass Fun)

If you haven't already figured this out...Denzel makes nearly anything better.

THE EQUALIZER is directed by Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN)  , and stars Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, and Chloë Grace Moretz.  It is based on the 80s CBS television series of same name.  Washington stars as Robert McCall, a retired intelligence officer who has left his Special Forces background for a quiet life.  He is a lonely man,  fastidious in his habits.  His routine is consistent and rigid, and very little disturbs his life.  However, he doesn't sleep well. His late nights take him to a local café where he meets Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) who works as an escort for a local Russian mobster.  When Teri is threatened and later injured by her mob handlers, McCall decides to use his skill set to intervene on her behalf.  Thinking he is only disrupting some local pimps, he soon realizes that he has interfered in a larger mob syndicate with political connections, corrupt cops, and power to leverage.  McCall has to decide how deep he is willing to commit to his new found crusade.

Denzel has quite a background in cinematic bad-ass roles.  Going all the way back to RICOCHET (1991), and on to other underrated films like Tony Scott's MAN ON FIRE (2004), the dystopian BOOK OF ELI (2010) and last year's glorious action romp 2GUNS.  Some of these films are mediocre or even passable on paper.  All of them are made better by Denzel.  Let's face it, this is an actor that elevates just about everything he is in.  If an announcement was made tomorrow for a remake of BATTLEFIELD EARTH starring Washington, privately we would all shake our head, wonder what Hollywood has come to...then privately do a mental double take and think, "Well, it *does* have Denzel in it..."

THE EQUALIZER is an exercise in action spectacle.  Fuqua brings his "A" game to sequences that range from restaurants to dark alleyways, to a final sequence in a  big box hardware store.  And who doesn't want to see the creative use of gardening and power tools to defeat nameless and faceless Russian mob lackeys?  Washington offers his same said quiet cool to McCall.  His backstory is ambiguous, but his skills are not.  There is a nice consistent device where Fuqua offers McCall's surveying of his foes--all through the reflection of his eye.  It is a fresh, creative storytelling visual for something that has otherwise been done to death in other action fare.  As McCall mows his way through the Russian mob syndicate, there are smaller side missions of justice that he begins to take on--for co-workers and friends.  It seems that once the white knight torch is lit, there is no dampening the flame.  However,  though there is a familiar story arc here, it is no less satisfying.  Marton Csoskas has a great performance here as the big bad Teddy--the Russian's smarmy cleaner and problem solver who can't fix all the mayhem that McCall is creating.  When the two finally go head-to-head, there is an action lover's gratification to it all. 

Call it a guilty pleasure, or just an action lover's cinematic gift to themselves--THE EQUALIZER is a familiar story that has some great performances, fun action sequences, and a worthwhile payoff. Also...Denzel.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES Review: 6 out of 10 (Familiar Crime Territory)

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is a new crime thriller based on a novel by Lawrence Block, directed and written by Scott Frank. It stars Liam Neeson as Matthew Scudder--a former NY police detective turned private eye.  Scudder is the subject of over a dozen crime novels.  In 1986, one of the books brought  Scudder to screen in EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE starring Jeff Bridges.  With such a rich backstory and so much characterization to pull from, this film benefits, and at the same time, is damaged by so much previous history.

Neeson does a serviceable job here in a film that feels very much like a throwback to the late 70s and early 80s crime thrillers of directors like Sidney Lumet.  As opposed to his unstoppable action heroes in films like TAKEN, Scudder is a damaged man and recovering alcoholic.  He has instincts that he trusts, and police experience to rely on.  But ultimately, he spends most of the film doing investigation in a very old school fashion.  Hired by a local drug dealer, Scudder takes on a case to find the men who kidnapped and killed the dealer's wife.  It doesn't take long before he begins to find similar cases and begins to track his prey using the patterns he uncovers.

The film is light on action, focusing instead on the crime drama aspects.  Center to that is Scudder befriending a homeless teen named TJ, played by Brian "Astro" Bradley (EARTH TO ECHO).  Astro does a fine job in his portrayal  of TJ-- the street smart kid who partners with Scudder as well as providing the sympathetic crutch for the hero.  The problem is, this part of the film just doesn't work.  It feels very tacked on and doesn't really advance the plot.  Likely this is a recurring character in the novel that screenwriter Scott Frank felt necessary to include.  In addition, the movie is set in 2002, which again offers no advantage  or difference to the storytelling apart from showing that Scudder hates cell phones and the internet--neither of which is tantamount to the plot.  Finally, the film works in a very predictable fashion, of Scudder tracking and capturing the criminals.  It isn't that the film is bad, or unwatchable.  However, it also isn't anything fresh, original, or even has something distinct about it.

The character of Matthew Scudder might be better off with FX, HBO, or the like taking this rich history and potentially developing a series from him.  Clearly there is some interesting aspects to his backstory that a film this short couldn't truly explore, and some ancillary characters that aren't truly developed.  A nice rental down the road for Liam Neeson fans, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES takes a familiar gait and doesn't explore anything new.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

THE MAZE RUNNER Review: 9 out of 10 (Find a Way Out to the Theater to See It)

For all of the crush of YA novel adaptations that have been released in the last decade, mostly involving female leads, THE MAZE RUNNER arrives and outshines nearly all of them, teasing a compelling mythos and strong cast.  Based on the 2009 book of the same name, the film stars Dylan O'Brien (MTV's TEEN WOLF), Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (LOVE ACTUALLY), and Will Poulter.

The film opens ambiguously as sixteen-year-old Thomas, portrayed by O'Brien, awakens in a rusty elevator with no memory of who he is.  The elevator delivers him to the middle of an intricate maze, along with a slew of other boys, who have established a functioning society in this large sprawling center they call The Glade. They cook, grow food, build shelters, and help each other survive.  Each morning, the walls to the maze open in The Glade, and some of the best and strongest of the boys (called "runners") go out to map the maze and attempt to discover a way out.  Each evening, the doors close, and the maze is stocked with dangerous creatures called "Grievers" that patrol the maze, forcing the runners to return to The Glade.  For three years, this cycle has continued, but when Thomas arrives, everything begins to change. Secrets are revealed, the maze begins to change, and while some of the boys believe in Thomas, there are others who fear he is only another terrible piece of the confusing puzzle.

The film works as a sort of post-apocalyptic take on Lord of the Flies, with its own dash of The Most Dangerous Game.   The film is beautifully shot, mixing the pastoral green palette of The Glade with the harsh industrial, imposing walls of the maze, surrounding the boys in concrete and steel.  There are rules, duties, and roles for everyone in The Glade, but with no memories of the past, the pressing "why" and "how" questions lie just below the surface.  Thomas is driven to discover more about the maze, and his dangerous curiosity begins to change the landscape... literally. Dylan O'Brien is certainly a new young talent to watch, and as this film franchise grows, its inventive story may work to surpass even THE HUNGER GAMES.  It is already a far better film with more interesting ideas than the dull DIVERGENT.  The biggest difference is the film's ability to build a convincing world that the viewer can completely lose themselves in.  Fans of the novel will see some changes in storytelling, but author James Dashner himself blessed the rewrites and, in a recent interview, even went so far as to say that it improved on the original from a visual storytelling perspective. 

THE MAZE RUNNER has a lot of solid aspects: a strong cast, great special effects, lots of action, and a cleverly devised dystopian premise. What is most compelling about the film is that it reveals many secrets along the way, but maintains its mystery.  More questions are raised at the climax of the film as the movie teases its future sequels.   It is rare to anticipate the next chapter of a film series from the moment the credits roll, but THE MAZE RUNNER certainly pulls that off.  There are some familiar story telling elements to be sure, and a few of the characters are quickly identifiable as "red shirt" targets.  However, overall the movie creates a new and interesting world for moviegoers to explore and experience.  It stands as one of the better films I have seen this year, especially when matched up with other movies in its subgenre.  Intense, imaginative, and compelling.  Highly Recommended.