THE EQUALIZER (2014)

September 28, 2014

equalizer Greetings again from the darkness. While you are likely familiar with slapstick comedy, this latest from director Antoine Fuqua could be described as slapstick action. This fits because the implements of destruction include barbed wire, a power drill, a book (hardcover, of course), a nail gun, and even a corkscrew. Such an unusual assortment takes a bit of edge off the the extremely graphic violence. If the kills weren’t so gruesome, we might be tempted to chuckle. The titular character is the MacGuyver of Special Ops.

Writer Richard Wenk adapts the story from the terrific TV series which ran from 1985-89. It starred the late, great Edward Woodward as a classy, sophisticated guy who believed in justice for those who needed help against the odds. For the movie, Denzel Washington (re-teaming with his Training Day director) takes over for Mr. Woodward as Robert “Bob” McCall … the seemingly normal guy with extraordinary skills used to balance the scales.

McCall lives a quiet life with OCD tendencies. He is a friendly guy liked by his co-workers at the home improvement box store (imagine Clark Kent working at Home Depot), and even mentors an overweight hispanic young man in his quest to pass the security guard test. McCall is also an insomniac who hangs out after hours reading Hemingway at a local diner, passing along words of hope and wisdom to an underage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). None of these people have any idea of McCall’s previous career with “the company”. Our only glimpse of this is a quick visit to the home of characters from his past, played by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.

Our villains here are the Russian mob, and it’s tough to beat that accent for a juicy villain. David Meunier (Johnny Crowder of “Justified” fame) is our first goon, followed up by the slick and menacing Marton Csokas (The Debt) who has an impressive resume of his own. It would have been interesting to have more screen time together for Csokas and Denzel, but we understand why that’s not practical.

Similar to the Bourne movies, the good guy always seems to be a step ahead of the bad, but that has little impact on our ability to find fun in the action. Director Fuqua provides four or five really stylistic shots (including super slo-mo), but also relies on Michael Bay-splosions for one laughable scene at the loading docks. A missed opportunity is the film’s score. We are slammed with a thumping bass line through much of the movie, rather than utilizing the Stuart Copeland theme from the TV series. Expect McCall to arrange the flatware just so, and continue to dish out justice in at least one sequel.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of action movies and enjoy very creative methods of hand-to-hand combat OR you were a fan of the TV series OR you always wondered if shot glasses or corkscrews had other uses.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: graphic gore and violence, even when provided by the always suave and cool Denzel Washington, is not to your taste

watch the trailer:

 


DARK SHADOWS (2012)

May 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If anyone ever asks “What was the name of that late 60’s goth, supernatural soap opera with the cult following?“, it’s safe to assume they mean the TV series “Dark Shadows“. It ran from 1966-1971 for a remarkable 1225 episodes. For those who remember it, the image they recall tends to be actor Jonathan Frid as Barnabus Collins … the first vampire most of us ever saw outside of a Friday night horror film. The series made quite an impact on two young boys in particular: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

There are many reasons that movies get made. Pet projects or labors of love are not as common these days because of high production costs. But that’s exactly what this movie is – a pet project for Burton and Depp. They clearly have fun with the characters, and the film dallies ever so closely to the parody line. The initial set-up is brilliant and dark and ominous, leading us to believe this film will be in line with Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or Corpse Bride. Instead, the rest of the movie is more in line with Beetlejuice. Definitely not a bad thing – just different than what we were prepped for.

 Johnny Depp gives a wonderful performance as Barnabus Collins, the rich young man cursed by Angelique, the witch he spurns in love. His curse is to be turned into a vampire and buried alive. When his casket is discovered 196 years later, the world of 1972 is quite different than the one he left. He comically struggles to fit in and make sense of it all … not the least of which is his remaining family. At his beloved Collinswood Manor lives Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), the live-in child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and their recently hired nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcote). While he was buried, the wicked witch Angelique (Eva Green) becomes the most powerful figure in town.  Ms. Green holds nothing back in her over-the-top jealous witch fun.

 Burton does a nice job poking fun at the 1970’s with comedy that won’t mean much to today’s youngsters, but will hit home with those from the era. The art direction and sets are terrific, especially Collinwood Manor. The music of the 70’s is used to comic effect, including a live performance by Alice Cooper. Michelle Pfeiffer does the best job at capturing the look and feel of the original series, but her daughter’s character (Moretz) takes an unnecessary turn as Burton tries to cram as much in as possible. In fact, the film is actually quite fun to watch, but is lacking real substance in the story department … not dissimilar to the original series.

 This is the 8th film collaboration between Burton and Depp. They make a wonderful team, and Depp has added another entertaining character to his Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Mad Hatter legacy. His movements and speech pattern are especially entertaining as we are mesmerized by his milky white complexion. His dialogue (written by Seth Grahame-Smith) demands attention and is both comical and majestic simultaneously. Burton’s tribute to the TV series includes cameos by four of the original actors: Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, and the recently deceased Jonathan Frid (pictured left) as guests at the ball. It’s a classy touch. Danny Elfman’s score is a bit overwhelmed by the use of numerous 70’s classics, and it was disappointing to hear The Killers version of “Go All the Way” rather than The Raspberries as the closing credits rolled.

Burton is one of the more visual directors and even though the story is a bit lacking, each scene gives us plenty to absorb. The ghosts are especially well done, as is the fishing town of Collinsport which was built just for the movie. It has many similarities to Bodega Bay, which film lovers will recognize as the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Lastly, Burton gives us another scene with the great Christopher Lee – this time as a boat captain caught between Angelique and Barnabus. Good stuff.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original TV series OR you enjoy Burton/Depp collaborations OR you “get” 1970’s humor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: in your mind, the 1970’s have as much relevance as 1870

watch the trailer:


HUGO

November 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This latest from Martin Scorsese can be fitted with multiple labels and each would be correct: a tribute to the birth of movies, a case for film preservation, a children’s fable, a special effects/3D extravaganza, a family movie with touches of Dickens. Very few directors would tackle such an ambitious project and succeed in producing such a magical experience.

Based on Brian Selznick‘s (relative to the film giant David O. Selznick) children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, this is a story of redemption and fulfillment. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, made an orphan when his watchmaker father (Jude Law) dies in a fire. Hugo gathers up the project he and his dad had been working on, and  moves in with his drunkard Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone). They live in the walls of a 1930’s Paris train station and maintain all the clocks, ensuring accurate time for travellers. When his uncle disappears, Hugo carries on the daily mission unseen by passengers and station staff. He steals the occasional croissant and milk to survive, all while continuing the mission of repairing the fantastic automaton his dad salvaged. Hugo is convinced there is a hidden message from his father that will be revealed when the automaton is fully functioning.

 Hugo gets cross-ways with a station toy vendor named Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Georges is a bitter old man and has no time for Hugo the urchin. Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, a ward unto Georges, and she and Hugo strike up a friendship. Hugo introduces Isabelle to the world of cinema … previously off-limits to her thanks to Georges. She returns the favor by awakening Hugo to the power of books in a store run by the mysterious, and always great, Christopher Lee. All this is happening while Hugo tries to evade the grasp of the oddly dedicated and slightly twisted station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

 The kids’ research and automaton revealed hint lead them to a film history book written by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s here that they discover Georges is really George Melies, the famous pioneer of film who developed the first special effects and studio system. If you know much of film history, then you recognize Melies as the one who brought us the 1902 A Trip to the Moon. It is here that Scorsese delivers a quick recap of the origination of film, including the Lumiere Brothers, the famous clock stunt by Harold Lloyd and other silent film classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The best portion is dedicated to recreating the creative community  used by Melies to produce films with his wife in a make-shift studio.

 It is here that we are allowed to remember just how magical movies can be and how the best ones fill us with a sense of wonderment. The lines between what we feel and what Scorsese is showing us becomes so blurred it no longer matters. As Isabelle is overwhelmed in the theatre, that same feeling sweeps over us. How interesting that Scorsese’s first special effects film features the man who originated film special effects. We even get a re-creation of the famous Lumiere Brothers’ oncoming locomotive clip that caused audiences to jump. We get it in 3D in Hugo’s own station!

 I have been extremely critical of 3D and its misuse in movies these past couple of years. It rarely adds to the movie and always dims the colors and brightness. Scorsese is a firm believer in the technology and set out to show what can be done and how it can compliment the story. While more impressive than any 3D since Avatar, I still have my doubts about the benefits. What I do know is that if you can overlook the story that drags a bit and the possibly unnecessary 3D effects, you will probably find the film to be extremely entertaining and fun to watch. Howard Shore‘s score plays a vital role and supporting work comes from Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Helen McCrory. It’s not for the youngest kids, but it will make you feel like a kid … while reminding you that movies are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Note: with a budget of almost $170 million, there is almost no chance that this film turns a profit, but for full effect, I would encourage you to see this on the big screen.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a tribute to film history wrapped in a family film designed to flaunt the power of 3D OR you have a pretty smart kid aged 8 or older who could appreciate the most impressive movie prop of the year (automaton).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you lean towards a cynical mindset and are unlikely to open up for a big budget children’s fable making a case for film preservation

watch the trailer:


KICK-ASS (2010)

April 17, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Just when you are convinced the comic book movie genre has been overdone, in swoops director Matthew Vaughn (the rocking Layer Cake) to reach an entirely new level through a unique, unconventional and twisted approach. It does’t take but a few minutes to realize that clichés mixed with shocks will mess with your movie-processing mind!

Somehow we are treated to teen angst,superhero-ism and most every human emotion and type between the two. WARNING: this movie is rated R and it is a strong R … IT IS NOT FOR KIDS! The film slam-dances between ultra violence and uber-geekdom and satire driven slapstick. We get a 12 year old Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl, wielding weapons even more deadly than her shockingly adult tongue. Moretz was also a standout in last year’s 500 Days of Summer. We get her revenge-driven, ex-clean cop Big Daddy father (Nicolas Cage) in Batman costume mentoring her to the ways of a world class assassin. I busted out laughing when I realized that Mr. Cage’s voice mannerism mimic that of the great Adam West while donning the black cape. A very nice touch. Our other home grown, would be superheroes are Aaron Johnson as Kick-ass (replete with green scuba suit) and McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as Red Mist. Most of these characters are one step removed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Of course a comic book story must have a top notch villain and these days there are few better than Mark Strong. He delivers another terrific dead-pan performance as a drug lord and father to Red Mist. Strong’s character is the driving force behind Big Daddy’s quest for revenge.

Aaron Johnson’s Kick-ass is an example of the clunky teenager who has a good heart and is desperate for attention from the girls. He even accepts being labeled as gay by the hot chick he adores just so he can spend time with her. He hangs at the comic book store with his equally geeky friends and then “transforms” into Kick-ass, a superhero with no powers other than a desire to do what’s right and help those in need.

Mark Millar’s script balances many cultural and societal observations while delivering a visual parade of images and sounds (wonderful music and score … including ELVIS) and moments that will keep the viewer unsettled. You might think it odd that an early scene lingers on a giant advertisement featuring Claudia Schiffer. Ms. Schiffer is married to the director and becomes one of many tributes and satires throughout the film. This is quite a different experience and one that not all will enjoy … but it is to be admired for reaching for new levels.