Friday, October 17, 2014

“Fury” – What war really looks like.

A couple of weeks ago, thousands of high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado (part of the Denver metro area) walked out of school in protest of a proposed change in the curriculum of the AP History course. If you haven’t heard about this event, here is a direct quote from a Washington Post article published on October 5th covering the issue:

The school board plans to set up a new committee to review the curriculum with the goal of assuring that courses — in the words of board member Julie Williams — “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” Williams also wrote that “materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder [or] social strife.”

Hopefully, you had the same reaction after reading that proposition that I did – rage and disbelief followed by wanting to mail those ignorant school board members copies of George Orwell’s 1984 followed by a flaming bag of dog poop. I don’t bring this up to turn this into a political diatribe, but because the movie Fury is a perfect example of what those kids are protesting for.

As I get older and learn more things about history, I think back on my American history classes through elementary, middle, and high school and realize how truly whitewashed they really were. My wife put it perfectly – they are a clinical version or history (my adjective was sanitized), basically just teaching us that things happened on certain dates involving certain people without including much context, if any at all. Fury is a lesson that none of us were ever taught – unless you were lucky enough to have a teacher who actually cared about teaching history – that war is worse than you can possibly imagine, especially World War II.

If you are an American (like me), you came out of high school with the impression that World War II was a glorious struggle and victory by the Allied forces, led by the Americans who stopped the evil Nazis and Japanese, passed out candy bars and flags after liberating cities, and were on our absolute best behavior during the entire war. It’s that last part that those school board members want emphasized even though it’s complete horseshit because they refuse to believe that war affects Americans the same as it affects everyone else. These people will either never watch Fury or they will accuse it of being some kind of anti-American/communist propaganda even though it also depicts those positive aspects they are so desperate to convey.

Fury takes place in April 1945 and focuses on a single American tank crew fighting in Germany. The crew is made up of Staff Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) – the crew commander, Technician Swan (Shia LeBeouf) – the main gunner, Corporal Garcia (Michael Pena) – the driver, PFC Travis (Jon Bernthal) – the loader and mechanic, and Private Ellison (Logan Lerman) – the assistant driver/machine gunner/new kid. There is no lofty plot or mission or goal – for instance, like saving Private Ryan – it’s just the story of these five guys and what war does to them and everyone else. Like the better war movies, Fury doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific things that happen during and after the fighting, but ups the ante by showing some of the things that American soldiers most likely did that we don’t like to think about or admit. It shows what happens (mentally) to men whose whole purpose for three solid years was to kill the enemy while riding around ina giant steel cannon on treads. To believe that our soldiers were somehow immune to the psychological toll that purpose would inflict is a fantasy deserving of the nuthouse.

While Brad Pitt is billed as the lead, the movie is just as much about Private Ellison. As Ellison informs his new crewmates after failing to kill a German, he wasn’t trained for tank combat, he was trained to type 60 words a minute. It was just Ellison’s bad luck that Sergeant Collier needed a replacement crewmember and Ellison was available. As the movie goes on, Ellison initially represents that ideal of American innocence and only killing when absolutely required, but eventually becomes the killing machine his country requires him to be. By contrast, the other crewmembers, sans Collier, are exactly the opposite – killing machines likened to animals (at one point, literally). Collier is the balance between the two and even verbalizes the lessons of war, just in case you were still in denial about the realities of war. Sometimes, he is the hard-nosed commander, pushing his men beyond their limits to fulfill their mission, forcing them to kill the enemy even if the enemy has surrendered. Other times, he is the voice of reason, protecting German women from drunken soldiers looking to celebrate their victory (you don’t think millions of soldiers all contracted syphilis consensually, do you?). He is also the guy that his men will follow anywhere and Ellison must learn why as the film marches on.

As a student of history, I highly recommend seeing this movie if you are interested in getting a peak at what really happens at the worst moments of human history. The acting is great and the visuals are stunning (in ways both good and terrifying). If you have a weak stomach or want to remain under the delusion that World War II (and other wars) were romantic and adventurous, you should probably steer clear of this film and keep to such films as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. And, if you still don’t quite believe me on what this film’s message is, I’ll leave with you two quotes from Collier:

“Ideology is peaceful. History is violent.”

“This war is going to be over soon, but a lot more people gotta die first.”

That’s the way history should be taught.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back from the theater, but do ask for some of your tax dollars back for teaching you nothing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

“Dracula Untold” – Bite me.

If you are wondering why I would bother seeing a movie as obviously wretched as Dracula Untold promised to be, it’s because it’s been two months since I last saw a skidmark of a film (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and they are the most fun to write about. Also, it screened the night after The Judge and I thought it would be fun to watch two polar-opposite films on consecutive nights. I was right. So, let’s get right to it with our old friend, Mr. Q&A, who is not shy about giving out SPOILERS.

Q: Ugh – is the title really Dracula Untold?

A: This is what passes for creativity in Hollywood these days -slapping dumb words that have been market-tested against the lowest common denominator on the end of movies to make them sound edgy or interesting. Rises, returns, untold – they’re all the same – except “untold” is extra stupid because the movie is telling you whatever it is that’s untold.

Q: Right. So, what are they telling us?

A: Following the current trend of neutering historically evil villains, Vlad/Dracula (Luke Evans) is actually a well-meaning prince trying to keep his people safe and only temporarily becomes a vampire to achieve that goal…

Q: Brruhhherrrerrr….

A: Are you alright?

Q: Yeah – just threw up in my mouth a little bit. You were saying?

A: Mehmed, the sultan of Turkey (Dominic Cooper), demands that Vlad give him 1000 boys and young men for his army, including Vlad’s son, as part of their annual tribute. Vlad refuses and kills the sultan’s men, knowing that he just doomed his people, though he only really cares about his own wife (Sarah Gadon) and son. Luckily, he knows there is something powerful living in Broken-Tooth Mountain and goes up for a chat.

Q: Wait – Broken-Tooth Mountain? Are you sure you didn’t make that up?

A: As sure as I am that the vampire living in the mountain is played by Charles Dance (aka Tywin Lannister) and that that vampire is actually the Roman emperor, Caligula.

Q: Wow. That’s worse than when Christopher Lee slummed it as a leprosy-riddle cardinal in Season of the Witch.

A: Tell me about it.

Q: What did you mean by “temporarily becomes a vampire?”

A: Vlad must drink some of Caligula’s blood to gain Caligula’s powers. Caligula explains to Vlad that if Vlad can resist drinking human blood for three days, Vlad will return to normal. Caligula agrees to help because if Vlad succumbs to the thirst, then Caligula is freed from his curse. We don’t really know what that curse is (it’s definitely not just being made a vampire), but we know he wants revenge on the demon that cursed him. This will not matter to the story at all nor will we so much as see Caligula again until just before the credits roll.

Q: So, three days to defeat the entire Turkish army and probably also must avoid being killed by his own people for being a vampire? Tough gig. I’m guessing this doesn’t go so well considering vampires can’t go out during the day (at least those outside of the Seattle, Washington area).

A: Lucky for Vlad, the Turks only fight at night. I couldn’t stop thinking about how ridiculous a contrivance that was, even for this kind of movie. Militaries rarely fought at night throughout most of human history due to that pesky problem of not being able to see in the dark. Of course, this will become a moot point later in the movie when Vlad is able to control the weather.

Q: Hold on – what do you mean he can control the weather?

A: On the third day, he simply causes the sky to cloud over so he can go outside. Never mind that clouds still allow sunlight through; he’s out of time and the Turkish army is upon them.

Q: WTF? What other powers does he have? Night vision? Teleportation? A utility belt? I thought we were talking about Dracula here – a traditional vampire that is just strong and immortal and can maybe turn into a bat. The kind that can be killed by silver, sunlight, garlic, and crosses.

A: Nah. The silver and sunlight thing is true except when it’s inconvenient to the plot. The cross thing only applies after a couple of tries by a priest (he’ll even remark that Vlad is immune to it) and then only when it’s convenient. In fact, this movie should have been called Dracula: An Inconvenient Truth.

Q: Is that all?

A: God no. He actually does have night vision (he sees in infrared), can control creatures of the night, moves around extremely quickly as a swarm of bats (except when his wife is about to die, in which he moves just too slow), heals as quickly as Wolverine, and has super-heightened senses. And remember, he can do all of this stuff tirelessly and without having to sustain himself with blood. He is basically the X-Men, but with dragon armor.

Q: I can see why you were so excited about this movie. There’s one thing I don’t understand – you said the sultan demanded a tribute. Why is the sultan marching his entire army into Vlad’s kingdom if that kingdom is (apparently) already under his control?

A: He’s a big meanie-head? There isn’t a good reason. In fact, it’s dumber than you think. Vlad originally offers himself in place of the 1000 because he claims he is worth the same on the battlefield. The sultan agrees with Vlad’s claim, but would rather have the children anyway because he’s the villain and stuff. It’s the same tired trope we see in lots of movies where the bad guy spends all of his resources to stop a good guy who isn’t even a threat. Even after losing 1000 soldiers in the initial attack, the sultan continues on, despite remarking that Transylvania is his least favorite part of his kingdom and despite that he has plans to conquer other parts of Europe. The only conclusion here is that the sultan is a terrible general and a raging pedophile.

Q: So, I guess since Vlad is invincible, he saves the kingdom and his family and destroys the Turkish army?

A: Actually, no. Most of his people are killed in the battles, including his wife.

Q: No effing way.

A: Yes effing way. Plus, as his wife is dying in his arms, she convinces him to drink her blood because the movie needed to render meaningless everything he did and stood for.

Q: Wait. Stop…I don’t think I can take any more.

A: Sure you can. Renfield shows up a couple of times as some kind of homeless guy trying to tempt Vlad with his blood so he can be Vlad’s servant…

Q: No…more…

A: …and after destroying the Turks, Vlad kills himself, only to be resurrected by Renfield and appear in modern day London flirting with a woman who looks like his old wife.


A: Tell me about it.

Rating: Leave the poor theater manager out of this – you knew this movie would suck (rimshot) and you handed your money over anyway.

“The Judge” – A peak at Robert Downey Jr.

If you’re a sports fan, chances are good you’ve seen an all-time great playing during his peak, dominating the competition. Michael Jordan during the 90’s, Roger Federer during the 00’s, and Tiger Woods before his wife beat up his car with a golf club after she found out what he really meant when he said he was going on tour. Entertainment is no different, with plenty of stars dominating at different times. Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 80’s, Tom Cruise before he jumped on Oprah’s couch, and Mel Gibson before revealing his tolerance toward certain religious faiths that rhyme with Newish. Now, here we are in 2014, witnessing another dominating run by an actor who decided to be an idiot early in his career rather than torpedo his legacy at the end – one, Robert Downey Jr.

Throughout his career, Downey has been recognized for the talent he is, but his dominant run didn’t start until 2008, when Ironman was released and he took his acting to the next level as Tony Stark/Ironman. Later that year, Tropic Thunder happened and we found out what happens when an American actor hitting his peak plays a white, Australian actor playing a black soldier uttering the line “What do you mean you people?” And, if that wasn’t enough, he scored the triple crown in 2009, delivering us a Sherlock Holmes we never knew we were missing. And just like that, Downey was at the top of the heap, effortlessly delivering more Ironman and more Sherlock and making us all wonder what will happen when Ironman and The Avengers run their course and Sherlock is put back on the bookshelf because he and Benedict Cumberbatch will never be topped. Well, wonder no longer because The Judge has proven that he doesn’t need to portray a superhero to show us how good he can be.

In The Judge, Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-shot defense attorney who is forced to return to his childhood home in nowhere-ville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. Hank is immediately established as priggish jerk who cares nothing of innocence or guilt in his clients and cares only for himself and maybe for his daughter. This veneer is almost immediately attacked when his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) stealthily films Hank alone in the funeral home holding his mother’s hand. Soon thereafter, we meet his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and his father, Joe – the judge – (Robert Duvall). There is bickering and tension, mostly between Hank and the judge. Hank tries to leave, but the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and Hank reluctantly returns at the behest of Glen to defend his father. Now, based on the previews, you probably think this movie is a courtroom drama (think A Few Good Men or anything adapted from John Grisham) with some family strife thrown in, but it’s the other way around. In fact, it’s probably the most disappointing thing about the movie because the law and the case play a distant second fiddle to the family dynamics and Hank and the judge’s relationship. That’s not a bad thing, but people aren’t going to be too excited to see a movie featuring a main story that Julia Roberts has already beaten to death on numerous occasions and is probably the reason behind its current 50% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

While the movie is filled with worn out clichés, Downey does what every all-time great does – he puts the film on his back and carries it and everyone in it to a better place. In this film, Downey is ridiculously good and you can see it most clearly when he isn’t saying anything. His body language and reactions to other actors or dialogue during scenes is so well done that it seems as if he isn’t acting at all (which is really the whole point of acting). There is a scene where he is sitting in a hospital with Glen and Dale, Glen says something rude to Dale, and Hank gets a look of disgust on his face that looks so real you’d think D’Onofrio’s line wasn’t even in the script, but an actual jab at Strong himself. That kind of thing happens often and you truly believe that Downey feels what the screenplay says Hank is supposed to feel.

While Downey was doing all the heavy lifting, his supporting cast held their own. Dax Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton rounded out the cast in smaller roles, but were important in that they provided the catalysts and development needed to further flesh out Hank’s character and growth. Though, I will admit that every time I saw D’Onofrio, all I could think was “tell ‘em what they missed Detective Goran.”

As I said, if you are hoping for a courtroom drama with lawyers screaming about handling or deserving truths, you are going to be disappointed. If you are okay with a family drama that probably hits a lot closer to home for more people than it should, you will appreciate this movie. But, either way, if you are a fan of Downey for more reasons than a snarky attitude and cool facial hair, you won’t see a better performance.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back because, like me, you really did want this to be a little more Law and Order and a little less Steel Magnolias.

Friday, October 3, 2014

“Gone Girl” – A plea for help.

After advanced movie screenings, we are always asked by the organizers of the screening what we thought of the movie. It’s an interesting thought exercise because you’re giving them your initial reaction to the movie based on as much thought as you can muster in the twenty-eight seconds it takes to walk out of the theater. Then, on the drive home, you’ll dwell on what you said, hoping you didn’t sound like a babbling fool. Or maybe that’s just me. When I was asked what I thought of Gone Girl, all I could do was stare blankly, but, luckily, my friend and formed her opinion and was sharing it. At that point, all I could do was hope they didn’t notice I was temporarily dumbstruck and, quite possibly, drooling on myself.

It’s pretty rare that I don’t have a good idea what I think about a movie by the time I get back to my car, but Gone Girl baffled me. My initial reaction was a mix between “that was a pretty good thriller” and “did we really just see Ben Affleck’s and Neal Patrick Harris’ junk?” and the thirty minute drive home did nothing to help resolve my mindset. The movie really was a pretty good, tense movie, but something was nagging the back of my brain through almost the entire film. What I came to realize after two days of racking my brain was this is exactly the type of movie that I started writing these reviews for and is a great example of a movie that needs to be discussed in detail. That also means I’m going to be spoiling a large portion of the film, so here’s my advice – I think this movie is worth a viewing and Rosamund Pike and Affleck are very good in this film. So, you have two options. Option 1 – stop reading, go see the movie, then come back and finish reading so you weigh in unbiased by me. Option 2 – keep reading, go see the movie with my thoughts in your head and then come back tell me your thoughts along with things I missed. Either way, I really want to get other opinions on this movie because I feel like maybe I missed something. Heck, I’d go see the movie again myself just to get my own second opinion.

(In case you nodded off at the end of the last paragraph, this is your last chance to look away from the upcoming SPOILERS.)

As you may already know, Gone Girl is an adaptation of a book by the same name. I have not read the book, but this is one of those rare occasions where the movie should be as good or almost as good as the book because both were written by the same person (Gillian Flynn). If you are like me, then the only thing you knew about the story was what the previews showed – Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing and, as the investigation goes on, the evidence hints that Nick killed Amy. The problem is that the film (and the book, according to my friend) never commits to this theory.

The film begins with a narration of Nick talking about unraveling Amy’s brains while he is stroking her hair, then quickly moves on to set up the premise. We are with Nick at his and his sister, Margo’s (Carrie Coon), bar when he gets a call from his neighbor that his cat is outside. We are with Nick the entire time and when he gets home, we both discover that his living room has been trashed and his wife is missing. Because we are with Nick this whole time, we know that he didn’t kill or kidnap and hide his wife, so we never believe, even for a moment, that he might be responsible. Like I said though, we’re not meant to and you can see why I continually advise you not to watch previews or at least not believe what they show you.

The first forty minutes or so are filled with the first few days of the investigation spliced with flashbacks based on Amy’s diary and seems as though the movie is going to conclude with Nick being arrested for killing Amy. Instead, at that forty minute mark (or so), they show us Amy. That’s right – the movie shows us Amy driving away the same day Nick finds her missing. The movie does a sort of reset to show us what she was up to during those first few days and that she staged the whole thing specifically to frame Nick for her murder. The first half of the film is spent trying to convince us that Amy was stuck in a dead-end relationship with a guy who became a deadbeat after losing his job and moving them to Missouri (from New York) to take care of his dying mother. We find out he’s been cheating on her, refused to have kids with her, and that he’s pushed her a couple of times. We feel sympathy for her and we’re expecting the rest of the movie to reveal the culmination of her plans and end with her vindication – something like her standing in the crowd outside a courthouse after his conviction (they make a big deal out of Missouri having the death penalty) and him spotting her just as he’s being put into a police car. Alas, we got something much weirder and much more confusing.

The reason for that nagging sensation in my brain is that Amy’s motives become convoluted to the point that, by the end, the only thing that makes sense is that she’s just crazy. The nagging began when she reveals that much of the stuff from her diary was fiction. She says the first part – the romantic part – was all true, but we’re not told where the fiction starts. The only thing we know for sure is that he really was cheating on her with that girl from the Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines” video (Emily Ratajkowski) and we know this because we see them have sex in Margo’s house. In addition, Amy never blows the lid off the affair as part of her plan to frame him, even though she knew about the affair and revealing it would have fit very nicely into the frame job. So, if the affair wasn’t worth revealing and the other stuff was fiction, why the elaborate plan when Amy could just leave, especially because their money was all hers?

By this time, Nick has hired a big shot defense attorney named Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). Don’t laugh, that’s the character’s name and he might be the most pointless character in the movie. After Nick tells him the story and his theory, Tanner’s response is “wow, she really screwed you over.” Nick asks what their plan is and Tanner’s $100,000 advice (that’s his retainer fee) is “our only chance is to find Amy.” Thanks Madea – I’m not sure Nick thought of that already. Tanner tasks two “ex-secret service guys” to find Amy and that’s the last we ever hear of their search. To summarize, Tanner basically laughs at Nick’s misfortune, gives legal advice that a gerbil could give, and fails to find even one clue as to where Amy might be hiding. If you can tell why he needed to be in this movie at all, you’re smarter than I am. The only thing Tanner does produce is the address of two of Amy’s boyfriends from more than a decade earlier and gives them to Nick (why Tanner doesn’t investigate these guys himself is another mystery). This is also where the movie basically does a 180 on the audience.

The first boyfriend tells Nick a story about how Amy framed him for raping her. He explains to Nick that Amy did this to him because he couldn’t change enough to please her. This adds weight to the crazy theory, but also manages to turn the audience against her – kind of. Are we supposed to be rooting for the vindictive, crazy Amy or the cheating, deadbeat Nick? I don’t know either, but it gets more confusing.

The second boyfriend, Desi (Neal Patrick Harris) enters the fray when Amy calls him to pick her up after she is robbed. At first, I thought he might be part of the plot, but he turns into the scapegoat when he tells Amy that he isn’t going to let her leave him again. This might have made sense had they spent any time whatsoever developing his character, but instead, all I could think about was how convenient it was that he happened to have a lake house within driving distance of Amy and Nick’s house even though they hadn’t seen each other in over ten years. While Desi isn’t completely pointless like Tanner, he still felt like a throw-in given how little screen time he has.

The movie wraps up with Amy killing Desi and framing him for her kidnapping and this is where the movie truly breaks down. A more developed Desi – maybe he’s been stalking her this whole time – ends up killing Amy and Nick discovers it and kills Desi. Or, Desi kills Nick, Nick still takes the fall for the kidnapping/murder of Amy, and karma kicks Amy in the vagina as she lives the rest of her life a captive of Desi. Either one of those maintains the original concept and resolves it quite tidily. Instead, Amy drives back to Nick’s house and the entire media captures them reuniting on their front lawn while Amy is covered in blood. After far too much epilogue, the movie ends with Nick trapped by Amy when she claims that she is pregnant by him. All I could do was sit there stunned that this movie could end as nonsensically and sloppily as it did.

For one thing, after Amy returns covered in blood, she spends the rest of the day not washing it off or having someone wash it off of her and nobody says anything about it. She even goes to a hospital to get checked out and they change her clothes, yet they leave the blood and even send her home still covered in blood. Huh? The movie also does a terrible job with the Desi angle and follow-up investigation, choosing to barely pay lip service to it so they can just wrap up the film. What’s maddening is that the first part of the film goes to great lengths to show us the investigation in detail, yet abandons it at the end, when it is just as needed. Plus, not only does the FBI suddenly and inexplicably show up (where were they this whole time?) at the hospital, but Detective Boney (Kim Dickens), the original detective on the kidnapping case, is literally moved to the back of the room and is ignored when she asks questions about the inconsistencies in the whole story. Her partner, Jim, will even verbalize this when, during Amy’s story about being tied up by Desi, Nick asks how Amy got the box cutter if she was tied up the whole time and Jim says, just shut and be happy she’s back. No, no, no. To top it all off, why would Amy go back to Nick after all of that if she wasn’t just crazy?

I realize I was rather long winded there, but those are the things I ended up thinking about when I tried to decide how good this movie actually was. So, now that you’ve read my thoughts and seen the movie yourself (right?), what do you think? What was Amy’s motivation? Was she really just crazy? Was this all about revenge? Was she trying to mold the perfect man? Was that just about the worst ending possible considering how many better, more logical, and satisfying ways in which the movie could have ended? Did we really just see Batman’s penis?

Rating: Hell if I know what this movie is worth – I just spent 2000 words explaining the large flaws in the screenplay after telling you I’d watch the movie again.

Friday, September 26, 2014

“The Equalizer” – MacGyver’s a sissy.

The Equalizer continues my string of going into movies and knowing next to nothing about them. This one ups the ante of my ignorance because, not only did I see exactly zero previews, but it’s based off a television show of the same name that ran from 1985 to 1989. I only know that because my friend told me about it after we watched the movie. I was alive during those years and watched similar shows like The Fall Guy and The A-Team, yet I had never even heard of it, let alone seen an episode. So, if you ever needed proof that I might not have the first clue what I’m talking about, there you go.

(SPOILERS coming, but only the gross kind.)

I’m also not the only one continuing a trend. Denzel Washington has jumped onto the bandwagon of middle-aged dudes starring as super spies/agents/soldiers, following Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan (guys like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis don’t count because they’ve been doing that role for decades). In The Equalizer, (in my head, the title is always Denzel Washington is The Equalizer) Washington plays Bob McCall, a quiet, OCD widower, working at HomeMart (it’s essentially Home Depot), living alone, and spending nights at a little diner because he can’t sleep. His hobby is encouraging people to better themselves and applicants need not apply. Are you a fat clerk who wants to make security guard? Bob will help you lose weight. Are you a hooker who can sing? Bob will listen to your CD. Did your pimp beat the shit out of you and put you in the ICU? Bob will shoot that pimp in the neck and kill the pimp’s henchmen with a corkscrew. You don’t even need to ask, Bob’s just that kind of guy.

Incidentally, that last one is what sparks the rest of the movie. During the diner scenes, the hooker, Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), and Bob develop a friendship. Bob decides he can’t allow the pimp to go unpunished for nearly killing Alina, resulting in the previously mentioned scene. What Bob doesn’t realize is that the pimp he kills isn’t just some run of the mill pimp; he’s a Russian mid-level gangster in charge of East-coast operations. Bob has unwittingly kicked off a chain of clichéd action events in which the bad guy will expend a tremendous amount of resources to kill Bob, even after learning that Bob isn’t a threat. This also introduces us to Bob’s counterpart – head henchman Teddy (Marton Csokas) who has no qualms about killing low-level competitors, his own prostitutes, or cops on his payroll, whether they know anything or not. He’s an adequately terrifying (at least to other characters) villain and, even though he begins as a patient and calculating guy and we’re told he is an ex-Russian special forces soldier, he slides into the standard villain tropes such as kidnapping Bob’s friends and trying to lure Bob into a trap. Rookie mistake, Teddy.

I’d like to tell you there’s more plot than that, but there isn’t. It’s nothing more than a two hour and fifteen minute exercise in Bob doing his best impression of MacGyver, but only if MacGyver were a sociopath and finding ever more intricate ways to kill people. What makes the movie interesting isn’t everything I’ve just told you but Bob himself. The movie uses a Sherlock-ian film technique whenever Bob is morphing from softball teammate to assassin by quickly panning and zooming between specific details in the shot, giving the impression that Bob is sizing up and planning every move in the next minute or so and transforming into killer-Bob. Killer-Bob likes to stare at enemies he hangs with razor wire, watch the corkscrew turn through a guy’s tongue as he twists it, sit next to a dying foe while narrating to the foe how the next thirty seconds will kill him, and watch a bad guy slowly suffocate in a car being pumped with exhaust fumes. Why is this interesting? Denzel is so good with his performance that you aren’t sure if he is not enjoying the killings along with Bob. As the bodies piled up, I found myself wondering why Bob actively avoided picking up guns off people he just killed since it sure would make it easier to kill the rest of them rather than setting up semi-elaborate traps using pole-saws and microwaves. If that’s not enough, Bob seems to only be able to sleep after killing people and after visiting a friend from the mysterious agency they elude to, she informs the viewer that Bob didn’t go to them for help with his Russian problem, but, rather, permission to deal with it. It’s a fascinating character trait contradicting nice-guy Bob who is trying to read through the one-hundred-classic-novels-that-everyone-must-read that his wife didn’t finish.

As far as action movies go, The Equalizer is a pretty standard fare and doesn’t do enough with the other characters to make us care about anything. Alina disappears after Bob sees her in the hospital and doesn’t appear again until everything has been dealt with. We’ve already talked about Teddy, Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman make cameos, and the rest of the characters are fodder for either side. This movie is all about Bob, but, luckily, Denzel owns it.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. As good as Denzel is, the movie is about 25 minutes too long and nobody needs to see that corkscrew in full IMAX detail.

Friday, September 19, 2014

“The Maze Runner” – Only missing David Bowie.

I hope the fad of Hollywood turning Young Adult (YA) books into movies never ends. It’s a never-ending source of dystopian futures, vampires, werewolves, witches, idyllic (and impossible) teen romances, teen angst, and the continued insistence that junior high kids are actually “young adults” and not “older children, most of who have entered that phase where they hate their parents and their parents have fantasized strangling them with their stupid skinny jeans.” If you think I’m being sarcastic, well, I am – but not for the reason you think. The fact that the film rights to the books are being snatched up by the dozen means that more of them will be written and I love books. It also means that we get excellent adaptations of phenomenal books like The Hunger Game and equally abysmal adaptations like Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, The Mortal Instruments, and I am Number Four (I actually enjoyed two of those, though wouldn’t defend them as good movies – I’ll leave you to guess at which two). The sarcasm is pointed at the supernatural themed books, which really have oversaturated the genre and many of which we could all do without. While it’s true that they provide great fodder for my reviews, they have gotten incredibly redundant and completely uncreative. So, let’s all give Stephenie Meyer a round of applause for writing one decent book and three crappy books and Summit Entertainment for turning those books into one okay movie and four increasingly bad sequels that inspired a legion of writers and studios to emulate them with a lot of hastily written crap and even worse film adaptations. Seriously, clap – they make some of my reviews really easy (and fun) to write.

In all fairness, I get that a lot of children like those supernatural books, regardless of how poorly they are written. For some reason besides good storytelling, they can’t get enough of them and I’m okay with that. The books that interest me the most are the dystopian future, action/thrillers, or science fiction books and, yes, there are plenty of those that are just as poorly written. This brings me to our subject movie, The Maze Runner – another dystopian future (or post-apocalypse, if you like) book and also one that I haven’t read yet. I’ll find out soon enough if the book is worth reading (it’s next on my list), but the only thing I knew about it prior to watching the film is that a teenager was going to run through a maze. This actually fit will into my current philosophy of having zero expectations going the slate of fall movies. Having said that, my expectations were actually set pretty low considering the recent spate of shitty YA adaptations. And, no, I didn’t see The Fault in Our Stars. Whatever.

Considering my cynicism of YA movies, you should know that I had to make a choice to screen The Maze Runner or A Walk Among the Tombstones (the latest Liam-Neeson-kicks-everyone’s-ass movie) because they were screening at the same time. I chose the former because (1) I’ve loved mazes and labyrinths since I was little kid and (2) the floor and ceiling of a YA adaptation is much further apart than a Neeson action flick. While I’m sure the Neeson flick was probably decent, I’m happy to say that The Maze Runner far exceeded my undeservedly low expectations.

The Maze Runner begins by showing us our main character, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), waking up in an ascending elevator with amnesia. When the elevator stops, he is greeted by a group of young men in the center of a glade surrounded by giant stone walls. They explain to him that they all have amnesia as well, though can still remember their names. They also tell him that for three years, a new boy has risen in the elevator (along with supplies) once a month and that the walls form the center of an enormous maze. For those three years, they have sent runners through the maze to find a way out, but still have not found the exit, that the maze entrance opens every morning and closes every night, and that nobody has ever survived a night in the maze. As we meet various characters of the group, you can see similarities to Lord of the Flies, though nobody is going to drop a boulder on fat and nerdy Chuck (Blake Cooper). Thomas has an immediate interest in the maze, as do we, but the film makes us wait awhile before we actually get to see more than just the entrance from the glade. Like Thomas, we have to be patient and that means sitting through explanations of their little society while they simply tell us things about the maze. After a little while, the movie picks it up a notch when one of the runners come back “stung.” We later find out that the sting was from a griever – a thing that turns out to be some kind of cybernetic spider – and the runner is infected with some kind of disease. The leader of the group, Alby (Aml Ameen) goes into the maze the next day, is also stung, and Thomas runs in to help him (and Minho – Ki Hong Lee), as the entrance is closing. Finally, we get to see the maze and it’s almost worth the wait.

In this first real look at the maze, we meet a griever and see some of the layout first hand. If you are expecting anything even remotely as imaginative as the Labyrinth, you will be very disappointed. There are walls and vines, but you don’t get to see any of the shifting walls and passages that the boys mentioned earlier, there is no Bog of Eternal Stench, and David Bowie is nowhere to be found. Obviously, Thomas and friends will survive the night (and the griever) or this would be a very short and pointless movie. When they return to the glade the next morning, more things go wrong, the first girl shows up (Teresa – Kaya Scodelario), they go back into the maze a couple more times, the big why is revealed and we are left hanging because of course this is the first book in the trilogy.

For me, I was both pleased and disappointed in the film. I was disappointed because I really wanted the maze to be more than what it turned out to be. It’s worth noting that (in the movie at least) the maze almost doesn’t matter, which might actually explain why it ended up being so vanilla. It’s also very inconsistent – they tell us that the maze changes every night, but then show us a complete map of the maze created by the runners. They tell us that nobody has ever survived an encounter with a griever, yet are well familiar with their stings and their aftermaths. When they reveal the reason why the boys were put in the maze in the first place, you will question why the grievers exist at all. I’m sure the book has a lot more detail and the sequels will answer more questions, but it seems like maze was given far too little attention.

On the flip side, I was pleased because the movie did a very good job of building an intriguing story with intriguing questions and then answering some of those questions. It flows really well and develops the characters through the dynamics of the group. They also tell you about the larger world outside the maze and fit everything you see into that world by the end of the film. In fact, if you saw Divergent, you know exactly what I’m talking about – Divergent refuses to even acknowledge the bigger world (at least until book 3) and makes you wonder why you should care about anything that is going on. The Maze Runner does exactly the opposite – you will care about the characters and what happens to them, even poor Piggy, er, I mean Chuck.

Rating: I’m as surprised as you that this movie is worth your money. It’s no Hunger Games or Labyrinth, but it’s at least in the ball park.

Friday, September 12, 2014

“The Drop” – Now you can rest in peace, James.

Can you imagine if the last movie we saw featuring the late James Gandolfini was Enough Said – a romantic comedy? I didn’t see the movie myself – and judging by the box office, neither did you – but the critics loved it and it garnered several award nominations, though zero Oscars. But come on, nobody wants to remember Gandolfini in a cutesy date movie much like nobody wants to remember that Michael Jordan finished his career with the Washington Wizards. They want to remember Gandolfini as a Soprano, or at least some kind of organized criminal. Thankfully, somebody out there was wise enough to make his last release The Drop – a movie in which he gets to say “fuck” enough times to make you think you might actually be watching a lost episode of The Sopranos.

As I said in my review of The November Man, this time of year lacks talked-about movies and is a graveyard for medium-to-low budget flicks that studios have no faith in. So, imagine my surprise to find that not only was The Drop good, but it was nearly flawless. My friend and I discussed the film at length on the drive home and, with the exception of an ending that felt like a last minute thrown in and cop out, we couldn’t find any obvious problem with the movie. It’s exactly the kind of movie that any actor would love to be their last.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead with zero cussing.)

The movie starts out by telling us that a river of dirty money exchanges hands in Brooklyn every night and that the crime bosses choose random bars to move the money – referred to as drops. Now, you might think that Gandolfini is the main character in this movie by my earlier words, but it’s actually Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Bob, a bartender at a local bar run by his cousin, Marv (Gandolfini). The plot of the movie revolves around a plot to steal one of the drops, but the characters are the most interesting part of movie. Excellent development of the characters moves the plot forward, so let’s take a look at them.

Marv is a former crime boss (we’re never sure how big) that was pushed out by a group of Chechens who took over his bar nearly ten years earlier. Now, he still runs the bar, but is nothing more than a bar manager forced to pay money to the Chechens’ racketeering and protection scheme. When two guys rob the bar, he keeps his head and just hands them the money, which doesn’t fit anything we know about Gandolfini characters. He is disgruntled about his lot in life and is susceptible to reckless decisions, as Bob will later fill us in on. If you’ve seen the previews, you know that Marv is planning something and it’s exactly the kind of thing we want Gandolfini characters to do.

Speaking of Bob, he is the most interesting character in the film, as he should be. He’s a simple guy who lives by himself and tends to the bar. He is initially presented as simple-minded, but it becomes apparent that he might actually be the brains in his partnership with Marv. For Bob, everything is black and white. Anyone who beats a dog or a woman is a punk, dogs are difficult to take care of, and bodies or body parts must be properly disposed of. This is most apparent when, after the bar is robbed, the arm of one of the bandits is left hanging on a fence outside the bar with the money that was stolen. Marv asks what was the intention of leaving the money with the arm and Bob simply answers “I think they intend us to return it to them.” See what I mean? Simple.

Nadia (Noome Rapace) lives near Bob. She enters the movie when Bob finds an abused dog whimpering in her trash can. Bob insists she help with the dog and the two form a bond over the poor dog. Nadia has her secrets (as does Bob) and is as reserved as Bob, but the two of them open each other up over the course of the movie. Nadia also has a crazy ex-boyfriend who is responsible for beating and leaving the dog (to get her attention) and targets Bob as a threat when he sees the two of them together.

Crazy ex-boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), is believed to have killed a guy right around the time Marv lost the bar and pops up more and more as the movie wears on. At first, he is just a creepy stalker guy, but he slips into the larger plot as all of the events and history start connecting as the movie builds. You will hate this guy, not the least because he steals Bob’s umbrella just before a rainstorm. That’s just wrong.

Detective Torres (John Ortiz) is in charge of investigating the initial robbery of the bar. He attends the same church as Bob, is upset that the church is closing, and is far too interested in the fact that Bob never takes communion at mass. If there’s a weak character, he’s it. I was never quite sure what role he would play and he never really figures into the plot. His job seems to be to figure out mysteries and clues just after they are revealed to the audience. He doesn’t figure into the climax, but does get to deliver the best line of the movie near the end.

Everyone else includes Marv’s sister, the head Chechen mobster, a priest, a second detective and the two guys that perpetrate the initial robbery. They all get lines, but are really inconsequential, except the Chechen guy. He’s like a James Bond villain without a cool (goofy?) quirk, but a willingness to nail people’s legs to cargo vans. He’s sufficiently intimidating and you can see Marv’s fear and loathing every time the guy shows up.

What I found impressive with the story is how well all of these characters meld into the story unfolding throughout the film. The development was very well done and was the key component to the slow build of the drama and tension leading to the climax. You feel sorry for Bob and hope nothing bad happens to him, but slowly notice that there’s more to him than just a bartender. You root for Bob and Nadia to come together because they both seem like people who need another person in their life who isn’t crazy or reckless. You hate Eric because he beats dogs and steals umbrellas and just won’t leave Bob alone. You want to feel bad for Marv, but you can’t because he’s kind of a dick to his sister and Bob who are only guilty of looking out for Marv. You like the dog because oohhh, little puppy is just so cute.

My point is that this movie is definitely one of my top five of the year because the story and characters are so well done that you don’t even want to eat your popcorn or sip your drink because you might have to look away to do that. But, if there’s one thing that makes this movie stand out is how awesome Hardy’s performance was. I’m not the best person to be judging performances, but even I know that Hardy deserves an Oscar for this. Gandolfini can rest easy knowing that Hardy made this movie a great one for Gandolfini to go out on.

Rating: If you ask for any money back, Gandolfini will haunt you and it won’t be the cuddly Gandolfini from Enough Said.