From Equalizer to minimizer (a review)

equalizer movie poster

Eighties are the new teens…as in everything you loved about the 1980s is coming to a theatre near you. As the latest example, we have Denzel Washington in the role of Robert McCall in a revisit (can’t really call it a reboot) of the television series The Equalizer.

The central conceit of both the film and television series is that McCall is a retired special forces agent (think CIA) who tries to help people out when they get run over by criminals, corporations or malevolent government forces.

Whereas in the TV show, we see his mission fully formed, the movie is a bit more of a prequel, showing us the transformation of McCall from quiet man to vigilante.

The movie opens with McCall being the happy guy working at a Home Depot, jovially chatting with co-workers and providing something of a father figure to his younger compatriots. But away from the job, we see that he is a loner, a man with a heavy psychological burden that keeps him from sleeping.

And it is this insomnia that links him to young prostitute Teri (aka Alina, played by Chloe Grace Moretz) who is fascinated by this man who sits in a diner at 3 am, drinking tea (he brings his own bag) and reading classic literature (we open with The Old Man and the Sea…the books are a metaphor for the character). Again, the father figure comes into play as McCall is one of the few men who treat her as a human being and challenge her to be the woman she wants to be, not the victim she is.

denzel-washington

And it is this bond that causes McCall to act when Teri is hospitalized by her Russian mobster pimp. A noble man, McCall offers to literally buy Teri’s freedom, but when the mobsters simply laugh him off, a life of brutality surfaces in the scarred knight and the world dissolves into chaos.

To give you any plot details beyond this would be to potentially spoil the movie.

Denzel Washington is an amazing actor and is wonderful in the role of Robert McCall. Offering a very different take on the character than his television predecessor Edward Woodward, the two actors share the ability to display a man who is outwardly in control of all situations but at the expense of always holding onto an inner torment that they are afraid to acknowledge, let alone unleash.

But whereas the TV equalizer rarely got his hands or his clothes dirty (compare TV poster below with film poster above), the film equalizer is willing to release a storm of martial arts and weaponry on the bad guys. Thus, the film is much more action packed than the TV show.

The-Equalizer-TV-Poster

To the credit of director Antoine Fuqua—who also directed Washington in Training Day—despite at least a dozen scenes of intense violence and blood-letting, he does an amazing job of minimizing the amount of actual blood that reaches the screen. In part, he accomplishes this by shooting the most violent scenes in darkness such that you only really see light reflecting off dark puddles. Likewise, when McCall does resort to using make-shift weapons (remember, he works in a Home Depot), the camera often switches to McCall’s face as he uses the weapon rather than to weapon and victim.

Unfortunately, McCall is such a cool and controlled customer that I never really worry about him. I cheer his victories when he vanquishes the dragon, but I find it difficult to really attach myself emotionally to the man. I like the quiet man, but I find the killing machine to be just that, a machine; an automaton that does not touch my heart. And with the exception of a handful of moments, we never really get a chance to appreciate the toll these actions take on him.

The other place I feel the story falls down is in the use of the Russian mobster sent to clean up the mess that McCall started, a man simply known as Teddy. Played by Marton Csokas, Teddy and McCall are equals. The same side of the same coin. Equally smart. Equally charming. Equally viscious. And as such, the only real threat in the entire film to McCall.

The-Equalizer-13-Marton-Csokas

(As a side note, if this role is any indication, we want to keep our eye on Marton Csokas. He will do amazing things.)

There are a couple of scenes where the two men literally face each other and calmly discuss the situation. One scene in particular is the best thing in this movie from my perspective. While on one level being the calmest moment in the movie, it is also the most chilling because of that calm. You really don’t know what’s going to happen.

And that’s where my problem lies.

Having set up the perfect opponent for McCall, the writer Richard Wenk (who also penned The Expendables 2) doesn’t really deliver. The audience was promised an epic show down between these two characters, but while they do clash, it is anything but epic (photo below is not from clash).

the-equalizer-marton-csokas-and-denzel-washington

The Equalizer is entertaining. It is a wonderful diversion that requires little thought of its audience. It is Jason Bourne for the middle-aged set (but with enough carnage to keep the young’uns interested). It should, however, have been better.

But when it comes right down to it, the studios don’t really care if you like it, because they are already working on the sequel.

No parity in parody

Parody

Mel Brooks is a god! Carl Reiner is a god! Carol Burnett is a god! Mike Myers is a really funny Toronto boy, who flew pretty close to the sun. (He may yet be a god, but he has to get back on his feet.)

And among their many talents, these people share the amazingly delicate talent of creating parody…a talent I have yet to seriously attempt beyond the scale of sketch comedy.

Delicate talent? Seriously attempt? Isn’t parody just a matter of picking a genre and inserting dirty jokes and/or completely ham-fisting its various tropes in the mathematical assumption:

Absurd + Puns + Dirty = Funny

I increasingly understand why people think this as I watch more of the recent fare of parodic films that appear to have taken this equation to heart.

Last night, for example, I watched Paranormal Whacktivity, a sexed up romp through the found-footage haunted-home segment that includes films such as Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch. This film was horrific, but not in a good way…nor was it particularly funny or sexy. And it wasn’t very good as a parody because it didn’t even stick to its genre, mixing Paranormal Activity with Ghostbusters, which both involve spirits but are hardly cinematic siblings.

It was useful, however, to my understanding of parody.

When I compare Blazing Saddles, Airplane, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery to Disaster Movie, Not Another Teen Movie, and Breaking Wind, I realize that the truly classic parodies have something that the new ones don’t: a strong central story.

Somewhere in the evolution of parody films, the movies became less about story and more about ripping off as many genre clichés as possible, offering no firmer links between these scenes than bad jokes, fart noises or perky breasts.

Blazing Saddles wasn’t about taking a bunch of classic scenes from Westerns and simply linking them. It was more about taking iconic characters from the Westerns and creating a classic, if twisted, story. The sheriff abandoned by the town folk, the washed up gunslinger, the evil cattle rustler, the crooked politician.

Similarly with Shrek; although this film has such a strong central story that I’m not sure whether I should even include it in a list of parodies. Yes, it played up almost every fairy tale gimmick, but the story really didn’t model itself on any given style or pre-existing story.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is another odd case. With a strong through story led by Steve Martin and Rachel Ward (directed by Carl Reiner), it takes parody to a whole new level by incorporating actual scenes from noir films within the scenes with live actors. Thus, Martin’s character may find himself playing across from Barbara Stanwyck or Edward G. Robinson. Now, that is great film writing and editing.

Interestingly, the Wayans’ brothers first entry into this genre—Scary Movie—offers another lesson about parodies: the challenge of dipping into the same well too often.

Although horror/slasher movies are not to my personal tastes, I thought the first one or two films of this series were particularly well done. But as the series continued, picking on more films from within the horror/slasher genre, it started to become a parody of itself. The jokes were no longer fresh. All the best tropes had been used up in the first two movies and so the later films just seemed to be running in place.

Six Star Wars films, one Spaceballs. That works. (NOTE: Spaceballs is one of my least favourite Mel Brooks movies, much to the chagrin of many friends.)

Even the much stronger series of Austin Powers and Police Squad films showed this sense of comedic fatigue.

The original film is a surprise. The first sequel may be enjoyable. Anything after that is milking a dead cow.

I have no doubt that bad parodies will continue to be made…if nothing else, they seem to require little writing and typically have poor production values, and are therefore inexpensive.

My hope, however, is that another Mel Brooks, Keenan Ivory Wayans or Mike Myers comes along to raise us from these creative and comedic doldrums. (NOTE: At present, my money is on Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have the comedic talent and the Hollywood clout to do it right.)

 

A few personal favourites (hyperlinked to trailer or favourite scene, where available):

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Airplane

The Cheap Detective

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Hot Shots (not so much the sequel)

Rustler’s Rhapsody

Shrek

Scary Movie

Blazing Saddles

Silent Movie (I may be only person who likes this one)

Young Frankenstein (all time favourite)

 

Nebraska: Bumpy lives, flat land (a review)

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Much like the Big Sky prairies that serve as its backdrop, Alexander Payne’s 2013 film Nebraska takes a little bit to get going, but when it hits its stride, there is no stopping it.

An irascible old drunkard Woody (Bruce Dern) thinks he’s won a $1,000,000 lottery and is determined to collect his prize in person, walking if he must from his home in Billings, Montana to the prize centre in Lincoln, Nebraska. When his youngest son David (Will Forte) realizes there is no stopping the senile old coot, he takes a few days off work and offers to drive.

Along the way, they stop for a few days in his father’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where they are joined by his mother Kate (June Squibb) and older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). But almost as quickly as the townsfolk and extended family realize the old man has struck it rich, the hands reach out for their cut, led by Woody’s former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach).

As I said, the movie starts out slow. Woody has nothing to say to any of his family, at times appearing to have dementia. David meanwhile faces an empty life and just wants to communicate on some level with his family, never having felt like he could talk to them. Thus, when the two men with nothing in common aside from chromosomes take to the road, it feels very much like the start of an opposites-connect buddy film.

NEBRASKA

The dialogue is excruciatingly simple in the early going, rarely more than one or two syllable conversations. Despite occupying the passenger seat of the car, Dern’s Woody is never really there, only being forced into human contact by having everything repeated louder. Forte’s David, meanwhile, has a perpetual pout of a puppy begging to be patted on the head.

Eventually, though, if only out of frustration, David begins to take control of the situation and his life. Through his own explorations and by observing his father interact with the home townfolk, he begins to see that there is so much more to his father, and this is where I really started to take note of Forte as an actor, as something more than his MacGruber caricature.

I would say that Dern turns in a solid performance, but his dialogue is so short and his stare so vacant that only once in a while do we get a real glimpse of the tormented soul within the husk of a man. June Squibb’s Kate is something to behold, however (her voice and attitude remind me of Shelley Winters). Starting more as a screeching shrew, she really comes into her own in the latter half of the film with some of the funniest lines and the staunchest defense of her messed up husband. Odenkirk is solid, but isn’t really given much to do here…this is Forte’s movie.

My strongest reaction, however, is reserved for Stacy Keach, who yet again, plays the charming, smarmy bully asshole for which he is famous (think Papa Titus on the sitcom Titus). I can’t remember a role for which Keach didn’t deliver. The man eats up the screen. You can’t not watch him.

Nebraska-Dern-Forte-Keach

In terms of cinematography, Payne chose to film the entire movie in black and white, giving the whole story a sense of being trapped in another time, and adding to the sense of desolation exhibited by both the geography of the region and the simplicity of the town of Hawthorne, with its barren sidewalks and seemingly abandoned businesses. The whole thing feels like an emotional dead zone and the lack of human spark in all but a few citizens reflects that.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is a simple one, devoid of plot twists or anxious moments. There are no great moments of revelation, but rather subtle hints at who Woody was when he was a young man. As such, the characters can come across as superficial and on-the-nose. But again, I think this was on purpose rather than a failing. I think he wanted to show us shallow people in a shallow land.

Toward the end, the movie started to take on a bit of a Hollywood ending feel, but although Nelson did start us down that road, he thankfully stopped himself before the point of schmaltzy no return.

All-in-all, I liked Nebraska, although I didn’t think it deserved the accolades it received at Cannes (Palme d’Or nomination, best actor for Dern), the Golden Globes (5 nominations) or the Oscars (6 nominations). It’s just not that deep a film, in my eyes.

 

You can find a PDF of the screenplay for Nebraska here.

Showing concern

One of the myriad gulls sharing the local boardwalk

One of the myriad gulls sharing the local boardwalk

There are truly good people yet in the world.

As some of you know, I am going through a bit of a problem with one of my shoulders (a condition with the stupid name frozen shoulder).

While wandering the boardwalk near my apartment earlier today, I absent-mindedly tossed an acorn at a bench (not a euphemism, folks) and immediately doubled up in searing pain, grabbing my arm and shoulder, and plopped on the bench to wait for the pain to subside. It did…it always does.

Ill-named condition involving loss of range of motion

Ill-named condition involving loss of range of motion

But as I was getting up to finish the trip home, two cyclists stopped to make sure I was okay. They had seen me grab my arm and drop to the bench. It probably looked like a heart attack or seizure.

I explained the affliction and that the pain was mostly due to my unthinking idiocy, which seemed to allay their concerns. I thanked them, however, for checking on me and making sure I wasn’t in more serious trouble.

Nice to know that I’m never alone…I only hope I show the same concern should I be presented with something similar.

Loved the mood captured by the street lamp

Loved the mood captured by the street lamp

Snow White more an off-grey (a review)

Snow_White_and_the_Huntsman_Poster

I find it difficult to appreciate a movie in isolation (its, not mine). At the same time that I strive to enjoy the movie, I also try to break down its various elements, ideally without immediate comparison to everything else I have seen.

Some movies make this easier by being truly unique stories (The Voices, for example), whereas others are either so familiar or so derivative that I find it virtually impossible to see it in isolation. The latter situation was the case for Snow White and the Huntsman, the 2012 take of the very familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale by director Rupert Sanders.

This is not the Disney version, by a mile, but rather a much darker, more sinister take on the story of a young beauty (Kristen Stewart) condemned to death by her vainglorious step mother (Charlize Theron) who fights for her freedom in the dark woods where she meets all kinds of people and mystical creatures, including dwarves. Together, they reach a castle of renegades and Snow leads them into battle against her step mother.

So, we have the check list covered: evil step mother, check; mirror-mirror, check; bring me her heart, check; dwarves, check; poison apple, check; Prince Charming, sorta check.

Doing my best to isolate this movie from everything else, I give it a moderately passing grade. It is a fairy tale, so the dialogue hits the extremes of leaden cliché to screaming cliché.

There is no subtext to this movie…none, zero, nada, zilch. So don’t go looking for any. It is on-the-nose storytelling, which again, makes sense within the context of a fairy tale, but given that the film targets young adults to adults (much too dark for small children), I would have hoped for more.

The screenwriters offered a brief moment, where the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) begins to let us into why he is so tortured over the death of his wife. But as soon as the moment starts, it slams shut and we are excluded from understanding the character beyond his alcoholic ramblings and Thor-like simplicity. (PS If I hadn’t seen the movie Rush, I might just think this is who Hemsworth is.)

So, where the dialogue wanes, the visuals have to take over and here, the director earns his keep. Special effects do not overwhelm the story, but instead are woven nicely into live action sequences to augment the reality. There was only one scene where I felt the director fell asleep at the SFX wheel and allowed his art director to run amok.

Dwarves huntsman

And perhaps my favourite part of the visual effects was how they took normal sized British actors and turned them into dwarves. Masterfully done. Imagine Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan all about a meter tall yet perfectly proportioned, standing next to or fighting alongside Hemsworth. Don’t know how they did it…don’t want to know.

Where I found the movie particularly weak, however, was in the development of Snow White. Rather than be the protagonist of the story, I felt she was the victim of the story, literally being dragged across the countryside to avoid capture. While she clearly wasn’t the “Oh my. Dear me” victim of the Disney version, she was also not the “Girl Power” version that I think the movie promised.

Two snows

When she wasn’t being rescued by one or more men, she was being rescued by a mystical inner force of which she was initially unaware and over which she had no control.

I was willing to let her be the victim over the first part of the story, but I needed her to turn around at the midpoint and attempt to kick some ass.

Now, to open the comparative flood gates, this movie has Tolkein written all over it. You’ll see dwarves walking across hill tops. Floating towns will burn. Dark forests will haunt you. Guys with swords and axes will be moody.

Now I appreciate that this is bound to happen, as there are certain pastiches that run rampant throughout fairy tales and epic sagas. I am speaking here more in terms of cinematography, however. In several parts of the journey sequence and the battle scenes, it looked like the director decided to save a few bucks by splicing in rejected footage left behind by Peter Jackson.

For what is it, Snow White and the Huntsman is not the worst 90 minutes I have ever spent watching a movie. It’s just a damned shame that the running time is 127 minutes.