ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)

November 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Denzel Washington is one of our most iconic actors and he’s put together a remarkable career, including 8 Oscar nominations and two wins. He’s had his Al Pacino SCARFACE comparable with TRAINING DAY, his Robert DeNiro GOODFELLAS comparable with AMERICAN GANGSTER, and here he gets his Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN as he plays the titular Roman J. Israel, Esquire. It’s a role that lacks Denzel’s usual cool factor, but it’s one in which he dives head first.

‘Esquire’ rates “above gentleman, but below Knight” as described by Roman. He has spent more than 30 years as the wizard behind the curtain of a two man law firm run by his mentor and partner William “Bulldog” Jackson. We never really meet Mr. Jackson, as circumstances force the closing of the firm and shove an uncomfortable-with-change Roman into the high profile and high dollar firm run by George Pierce. Mr. Pierce is played by a strutting Colin Farrell – and no actor peacocks better than he.

It’s here we must note that Roman appears to have a touch of Asperger’s and/or be some type of legal Savant. He’s kind of a Dr. Gregory House for the legal profession – remarkable on the details, while lacking in the delivery. His long held idealism and belief system were in fine form while he was the back office guy, but Pierce forces him into the front lines and it’s a bumpy transition with sometimes comic and sometimes tragic results.

The film bookends with Roman crafting a legal brief, that while somewhat convoluted, is actually more of a confession, with himself as both plaintiff and defendant. Much of the film focuses on Roman’s idealism and revolutionary beliefs, and what happens when that crumbles. There is an odd quasi-love interest with Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA). We never really grasp why she is so taken by him, other than his seemingly solid belief system reminds her that a mission of goodness and justice is always worth fighting for.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy is one of the quiet secret weapons in Hollywood these days. His last project was the terrific NIGHTCRAWLER, and he’s also written the screenplays for this year’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and one of my favorites from 2006, THE FALL. Here he teams with Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) to deliver a stylish look that feels unique to the story and characters … the frumpy look of Roman, the ultra-slick look of Pierce, and the various textures of the city. It’s really something to behold – especially when accompanied by Roman’s ringtone of Eddie Kendrick’s “Keep on Truckin’”. A couple of cast members worth mentioning: for you NBA fans, Sedale Threat Jr (son of the long time player), and simply for catching my eye in the closing credits, an actor named Just N. Time. There is plenty to discuss after this one, but mostly it’s a chance to watch Denzel chew scenery.

watch the trailer:


FENCES (2016)

December 23, 2016

fences Greetings again from the darkness. Just about any use of words you can think of serves some part in this screen adaptation of renowned playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony award winning stage production. It first hit Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the leads, and the 2010 revival starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis – both who reprise their roles for the movie version. It’s also the third directorial feature from Mr. Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher).

The story takes place in mid-1950’s Pittsburgh and is a family drama character study centered on patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington), a former Negro League star and ex-con, who now works days on a garbage truck before coming home to his wife Rose of 18 years (Ms. Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo, “The Leftovers”). The Friday night after work ritual finds Troy holding court in his backyard with his best friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), as they share a bottle of gin and pontificate on the injustices that have landed them in this place and time.

Another regular Friday occurrence is the drop-in of Troy’s son by his first wife. Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a musician who shows up on payday for a “loan” from dad. To say there is tension between the two would be an understatement, and it’s the complex relationships between Troy and everyone else that is the crux of the story. Another player here is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who periodically wanders by talking about battling demons and hellhounds. See, Gabriel suffered a severe head injury during WWII and now has a plate in his head but no real place in society.

Troy is a proud and bitter man, unwilling to acknowledge that the world is changing. Instead he holds firm to his belief that the white man will always hold back the man of color. It happened to him in baseball (though actually he was too old by the time Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers) and he refuses to believe Cory can succeed in football despite his being recruited by a college. Troy jumps between charming and caustic, and his fast-talking bellowing style can be entertaining, enlightening, condescending and intimidating … sometimes all of the above within a few sentences.

There is magic in the words of Austin Wilson, and as a film, this is a true acting clinic. The performances keep us glued to the screen in each scene. Denzel is a dominating presence, and the single best moment belongs to the terrific Viola Davis. Her explosive release conveys the agony-of-the-years, the broken dreams, and the crushing blow of broken trust. As a viewer, we aren’t sure whether to stand and applaud her or comfort her with a warm hug. The only possible criticism might be that the stage roots are obvious in the film version. The theatrical feel comes courtesy of the sets which are minimal and basic with no visual wow factor. But this minor drawback only serves to emphasize the characters and their interactions.

It’s pointed out to us (and Troy) that fences can be used to keep things out or keep things in. During his pontificating, Troy uses a couple of phrases more than once: “Living with a full count”, and “Take the crooked with the straight”. He often waxes philosophical, and it’s through these words that we realize both he and Rose took their sense of duty and responsibility so seriously that they both lost their selves in the process. Making do with one’s situation should not mean the end of dreams and hopes, and it certainly gives no one the right to hold back anyone from pursuing the path they choose. While watching the actors, don’t miss the message.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

September 25, 2016

mag-7 Greetings again from the darkness. In this era of endless remakes, sequels and superheroes, I strive to keep an open mind when it comes to mainstream movies. All I ask is that the classics be left alone. Most will agree that there is no need for a new version of The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; however, disputes arise in the gray areas. An old guy like me may cringe at the thought of updating this western, though it’s easy enough to understand how Hollywood studio types view it as an opportunity to sell tickets to a younger audience. In art vs. commerce, making money usually prevails.

The 1960 original, directed by John Sturges was itself a remake/reimagining of one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Both are must-see’s for any movie lover. Given the technical advancements in filmmaking over the past 50-60 years, it only makes sense that director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) would go bigger, faster, louder. What he can’t do is match the cool factor of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, or of course, Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Fuqua does bring a more racially diverse cast with Denzel Washington taking the lead as Chisolm, the dignified man-on-a-couple-of-missions. Chris Pratt basically buckles a holster onto his Jurassic World character and becomes Faraday, the wise-cracking sharp-shooter, who is as likely to cheat in a card game as lay his life on the line for a good cause. The “seven” are rounded out with Ethan Hawke as war hero Goodnight Robicheaux, Vincent D’Onofrio as bear-sized man Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as knife specialist Billy Rocks, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, and Martin Sensmeier as native-American outcast Red Harvest. You might think the only thing missing from this culturally diverse group is a woman, but Haley Bennett (and her distractingly terrible hair dye) plays a key role as a recently widowed town person intent on revenge against the heartless robber-baron Bogue, played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard.

Co-writers Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) devote so much screen time to Denzel and Pratt that we never much get a feel for what makes the other characters tick. What’s not missing is the thundering hooves of galloping horses, steely-eyed glares, and gunfire … lots and lots of gunfire. This is where today’s sound technology really adds a welcome element – the cocking of a rifle, the leather of the holster, and of course, the near-deafening chorus from the Gatling gun all benefit from Sony 4k sound.

Fuqua’s stylistic approach may have more in common with Silverado (1985) than the 1960 Sturges film, but it’s important to note that this was legendary composer James Horner’s final score before he passed away. While we hear Horner’s unique take, we can’t miss the influence of the iconic original score by Elmer Bernstein. So while Pratt’s “So far, so good” joke may be a Steve McQueen re-tread, your appreciation of this latest probably correlates to your appreciation of the 1960 version.

watch the trailer:

 


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:

 


2 GUNS (2013)

August 3, 2013

2 guns1 Greetings again from the darkness. The bar has been set with buddy flicks that mix comedy and action … Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours. The vast majority, including this one, fall short even while blatantly copying many elements from those classics. Guns blazing, rapid-fire repartee and huge explosions are requirements in this genre, as is an on screen bond between the two leads.

The good news is that instead of the original (tired) pairing of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, we get Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. Denzel plays the straight man role just fine, but Wahlberg is way over the top. He is in his typical strained-too loud-frenzied talking mode that just comes across as trying too hard. Instead of a truckin’ t-shirt, he should have worn one that said ‘kiss me I’m cute and funny’.

2 guns3 For some reason, most of these movies make the vital mistake of not providing a fully developed and menacing villain. Somehow the script manages to waste the great Edward James Olmos as a drug lord. He does what he can with what he’s given, but it’s frustrating to see him become the punchline of lame joke. Bill Paxton seems to be the only one who was given much to work with in the script and he chews the scenery every chance he gets. We also get a quick scene with Fred Ward and I think we would all rather have more from him here and less from the generic James Marsden. Of course, all of these movies require the presence of a female and in this case we get Paula Patton, who 2 guns2not only suffers through horrific dialogue, but also some absurd gratuitous nudity.

As you might guess from the trailer, corruption and double-crosses abound, and the Denzel/Wahlberg duo produces a few sparks, but this script based on the Boom! graphic novel just doesn’t hold up for a feature length movie. Icelandic director Baltasar Kurmakur, whose previous outing was the ultra-serious action drama Contraband (also with Wahlberg) falls victim to the weak dialogue and inconsistent villainy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you fall for Wahlberg’s “charms” OR your preferences leans towards Tango and Cash style

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  a juicy villain and smart dialogue is a requirement for your enjoyment of action-comedies

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVNe3RK2fgI


FLIGHT (2012)

November 4, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. What is a hero? There have certainly been no shortage of super hero movies these past few years, but those are mostly comic book characters brought to life through the magic of Hollywood. Can a heroic act turn a flawed man into a hero? Should his flaws change how we treat him after the heroic act? All these are questions raised by the script from John Gatins. The easiest answer of all? If you are a movie producer looking to cast a flawed hero … the obvious choice is Denzel Washington.

Director Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action after more than a decade of experimenting with animation. Of course, Zemekis is firmly entrenched in Hollywood lore thanks to his Back to the Future trilogy, as well as Forrest Gump (for which he won an Oscar). This is quite dark material for Zemeckis and he handles it very well. The trailer tells us what we need to know about the premise. Denzel plays a pilot who, under extreme circumstances, “inverts” the commercial jet he is flying so it can be crash-landed in an open field. Yes, invert means to fly the plane upside down. If you are queasy about flying, this is one to avoid. And don’t count on this being the in-flight movie on your next business trip.

The first 30 minutes of this movie are as strong as any seen on screen this year. We quickly get a sense of Whip Whitaker the flawed man, and then we see the remarkable Captain Whip Whitaker and his actions during an incredibly well filmed crash sequence. Unfortunately, I found the second half of the film played like a heavy-handed advertisement for AA (not American Airlines). Whitaker is exposed for his absurdly high blood alcohol level and existence of cocaine … so clearly presented in the film’s opening. Over the years, many films have tackled addiction: Leaving Las Vegas, Clean and Sober, When a Man Loves a Woman. Rarely have we seen the expert talent of deception and lying that Capt Whitaker displays.

There is little doubt that Denzel’s performance will warrant Oscar consideration … and it should. The film depends on an actor skilled enough to reach the depths necessary for us to believe this guy, despite his cocky pilot strut and unmatched flying skills, is little more than a mentally weak addict.  This is no Sully.  In fact, Denzel’s chubby, bloated Whitaker is impossible to like or respect as a man.

 There are a couple of outstanding supporting performances here: John Goodman as Harling Mays, a colorful and energetic, free-wheeling dealer who works miracles with Whitaker when he appears too gone to function; and Kelly Reilly (Mary Watson from the “Sherlock Holmes” movies) as fellow addict Nicole, who connects with Whip and tries to help him. We also get solid work from Don Cheedle, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Peter Geraty and Melissa Leo. There is also an odd scene featuring James Badge Dale as a cancer patient/philosopher.

The Alan Silvestri score is effective, as is the soundtrack featuring the somewhat obvious songs from Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones and Cowboy Junkies. The issues with the script are minor, though the inconsistencies with Whitaker’s “limp” were bothersome.  This is one to recommend in spite of the Bruce Greenwood factor. Every frequent movie goer has their acting nemesis and Greenwood’s presence usually indicates a disappointing movie for me … not the case here.

**Note: couldn’t help but chuckle at one of the VHS tapes stacked by Whitaker’s TV … Top Gun

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can handle a ferociously realistic plane crash sequence OR you want to see one of Denzel Washington’s best ever performances

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2 hours of severe alcoholism is not the kind of entertainment you desire OR your fear of flying needs no ammunition

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhUrWRV1cxs


SAFE HOUSE

February 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The action-thriller-spy genre can be quite fun when handled properly. The “Bourne” franchise and Salt come immediately to mind. What we have here is a ho-hum game of cat and mouse between CIA Agents elevated somewhat because they are played by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. It’s ho-hum because of the simplistic and predictable script from writer David Guggenheim.

To offset this formulaic script, director Daniel Espinosa leans heavily on near non-stop, frenzied action sequences. Luckily he has DP Oliver Wood (first two Bourne movies) to bring intensity and variety to the action. Denzel plays the veteran rogue agent who turns himself in to a U.S. Consulate after a decade off the grid. We learn he is a U.S. traitor of the worst degree. Reynolds plays a rookie agent on asignment to a going-nowhere “safe house” in South Africa. To say the action is lacking on his assignment is a bit of an understatement. That is, until Denzel is transferred to his site.

We learn a few things in this movie. First, “Safe house” is evidently CIA verbiage for “all hell breaks loose” in the form of massive gunfire and violent deception. Second, if you are an agent in charge of escorting one of the world’s most dangerous men, you would prefer your bosses not send the two of you into a crowded soccer stadium to pick up a GPS device. Things are likely to go wrong. Third, it’s not wise to walk in on Denzel when he is in a bathroom stall. Fourth, if you are Ryan Reynolds, your on screen girlfriends can be as beautiful as your real life girlfriends, and no one raises an eyebrow.

The film does remind us that it’s always cool to see Sam Shepard and Ruben Blades. Where have you been hiding Mr. Blades (pictured)? The rest of the strong cast includes Brendon Gleeson and Vera Farmiga as dueling Langley operatives, Liam Cunningham as a (surprise!) bad guy, Robert Patrick and Joel Kinnaman (from “The Killing“) as agents, and Nora Arnezeder as Reynolds’ hottie.

Being a fan of this genre, it is quite disappointing to see such an obvious and basic story … even though it has the right look and feel, and a nice match-up of stars. The overload of car crashes, gunfire, and hand to hand combat doesn’t offset the fact that everyone knows early on how this is going to end, and we suffer through quick teases of intrigue regarding the two leads. So even though Denzel makes an enjoyable good guy turned bad, and Reynolds shows he is way above the idiotic Green Lantern, this one just doesn’t offer much more than your average video game.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have a hole that can only be filled with excessive noise, gun fire, car wrecks, blood and frenetic fight scenes.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for something new in the spy thriller genre

watch the trailer:


UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

November 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Three things about the film are undeniable. One: A runaway train is fascinating and dangerous. Two: Director Tony Scott really likes working with Denzel Washington (this is their 5th movie together). Three: Inspired by a real life 2001 runaway train in Toledo, the story plays right into Mr. Scott’s wheelhouse with action and heroic testosterone.

Admittedly, I tend to expect a great deal from filmmakers – well at least maximum effort.  Sometimes, this impacts my ability to just sit back and take a film for what it is.  Such is the case with Unstoppable.  While it would seem that a runaway train endangering many innocent people would be enough, I found myself annoyed that there wasn’t more.  On the plus side, tension is rampant and the film does an adequate job of capturing the emotions from three different perspectives – inside a train (Denzel and Chris Pine), at command center (Rosario Dawson and staff) and at the corporate office (smarmy Kevin Dunn). We also see exactly how a simple poor decision by one major goofball (Ethan Suplee) can imperil thousands of people.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good stuff ends. The script is abysmal and the acting only slightly better. Denzel sleepwalks through another textbook “Denzel” character. Rosario Dawson is given little to work with as the supervisor, and the usually dependable Kevin Dunn is way over the top as the corporate bad guy who is only worried about the hit to the stock price. There is even a ridiculous shot of the Chairman on a golf course, in case we viewers are too dumb to understand the perspective of the company. Chris Pine (Star Trek, Bottle Shock) is the only one who shows much, yet he still is given horrible dialogue to spout.

For proof that an unstoppable train movie can be exhilarating AND well written, check out Andrey Konchalovskiy‘s 1985 Runaway Train. Both Jon Voight and Eric Roberts received Oscar nominations. The psychological warfare in that one matched the breakneck pace of the train itself. Instead, this current film is written by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) in such a one dimensional frame that it takes the dramatized news reports to remind us that real people are in danger.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you are sucker for movies based on a true story OR you can watch tension-laced action without asking for more

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you require character development OR you agree that at $20 mil per film, Denzel is overrated and overpaid.


THE BOOK OF ELI (2010)

January 18, 2010

 (1-16-10) Greetings again from the darkness.Yet another in a string of post-apocalyptic films showing Hollywood has little hope for our future.

The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society) deliver a western/samurai tale of a man (Denzel Washington) walking west because voices in his head told him to. Those voices also told him to protect the book he is carrying (a King James Bible) and go full out Bruce Lee on anyone who tries to stop him (OK, I made that part up … but he sure does). Oh, and the man (Eli) has been walking west for THIRTY-ONE years! The real point seems to be Gary Oldman’s character (Carnegie) controls one shabby little town, but dreams of real power. The kind of power that the book can bring. Ding Ding! Religious power! He wants to be a post-apocalyptic tele-evangelist, sans TV. He just knows he can control the masses with the message of the bible. I don’t think I am giving anything away here. Good vs Evil. Just like all the great westerns.

The Hughes brothers assemble a nice supporting cast with Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals (her mom in the film), Tom Waits, Michael Gambon and Malcom McDowell. Kunis has by far the most screen time and the final shot of her is really the only humor I found in the film … though, not even sure it was supposed to be funny.

We get a pretty bleak, yet coherent, film for the first 65%. Then it just turns unbelievable. The Shyamalan twist is downright ridiculous due to what we have been watching for the previous 90 minutes. And as much as it pains me to say, Oldman’s character is just too low rent to provide a real worthy adversary for Eli. So while the film has an interesting look, it just lacks real guts.