Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rohan at odds over The Equalizer

(Right at the end of the month our friend Rohan Morbey returns, and so much did he NOT like Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, that he's letting us cross-post his review, which appears over at his site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)

There’s a scene towards the end of The Equalizer where the stakes should be at their highest. The villain is about to kill an innocent man and, right on cue, in walks our hero, Denzel Washington. Water pours down from the sprinkler system overhead, he has a nail gun raised and poised to pull the trigger. The entire scene takes place in slow motion, the thunderous and obnoxious score blasts out, and I believe the idea from director Antoine Fuqua is for the audience to be thrilled, or even surprised that Washington is here to save the day. I laughed out loud for The Equalizer had gone into full blown parody of an action thriller. It might not
be so sad if it weren’t played with such a straight face.

If The Equalizer has one thing going for it, it’s that it’s the most unintentionally hilarious film of the year and will serve a generation of film makers as a template of how not to create tension, shoot an action scene, or give the audience a single reason to care. Since making Training Day in 2001 Antoine Fuqua seems to be doing his damnedest to erase memories of the quality of his breakout movie and is going out of his way to prove he’s a hack. I might not be so critical of the man if his other efforts weren’t King Arthur and Brooklyn’s Finest, but alas that’s the standard of cinema he has chosen to make.

Fuqua's idea of how to tell a story and what looks ‘cool’ is rooted deeply in the past decade, when everyone was overusing super slow motion and a booming metal/rap/techno score to make the films edgy. At one point Washington even walks away from a clearly digital explosion, where every footstep takes ten seconds to complete. Andy Samberg mocked this trend five years ago, yet Fuqua merely serves up footage that over uses slow motion to mask a lack of creative vision.

Slow motion is one thing, but when the entire film seems like it’s been playing for an eternity you have to blame the director again. The final act is so long and without any tension whatsoever one cannot understand how all involved didn’t see the problems. You cast Denzel Washington because he has a particular charisma, but this film gives him nothing to work with and turns his character into a bloodthirsty psychopath out of a slasher movie rather than a hero we can root for. The villain is similarly brutal and beats people up because there is nothing else written for him to do and this fills the time until the inevitable and stretched out conclusion.

And what of Denzel Washington as the titular character? He isn't mysterious enough to be intrigued by, nor are his actions any different to any other vigilante we’ve seen in movies before. The screenwriter throws in a few lines about ‘being who you’ve got to be’ and ‘getting peace’ from the killings, but nothing here convinces us that this isn’t just another sub-par revenge thriller. Nothing he does is any different to the usual low rent action picture; fast moves, guns, knives, bone crunching are all ticked off but it’s all in service for nothing.

The biggest let down of all is that I actually quite enjoyed the first fifteen minutes and believed the film was going to be far more like Washington’s own Man On Fire or a modern Death Wish than the trash it ended up becoming. The film starts off well as we get a sense of characterization through small scenes and a decent relationship between two people who walk the streets at night, but for very different reasons; Washington’s character obviously has a past he wants to forget and I liked the fact that he is a good man, well educated, doesn’t curse, wants to help people even if the girl he befriends (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a cliché right out of the book of movie clichés; a hooker who wants to get out but can’t. Their relationship is established before the film begins, so when bad things happen to her we believe he is angry and hurt. All this good work unravels with every scene which follows as soon as the vigilante aspect begins; we don’t even see Mortez again until the very end, all ties to the relationship cut in favor of one-note villains, corrupt cops, and uninteresting subplots which only pad out the running time.

I’d hate to see Washington turn into another Liam Neeson, churning out subpar action films every year, but with this, 2 Guns, Safe House, and The Book Of Eli all coming in the last four years, he’s heading down the wrong path and sadly Tony Scott is no longer with us to lend a much needed helping hand.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

You want to watch a comedy-drama? A British horror? A gay & lesbian sci-fi movie? We'll help you find it.

Some movies fall into multiple genres; you have your horror comedies, your romantic adventures, etc. Now on Jaman searches for these multiple genre movies have been made much easier. Previously your search for comedy and drama would have given you a list of comedies and dramas mixed together; now your search will send movies that fall under both genres (comedy and drama) to the top of your list.


From the Jaman main page, go to the sliders and click Select Genres:

That will open up your menu of genres to choose from. To make our selection more clear we're going to select a pair of not-often combined genres, namely Comedy and Documentary:

Click on the screen away from the box and presto!, your selection is revealed.

So rather than have comedies and doumentaries, the search now puts movies that are comedies AND documentaries atop your selections. Visible there are movies like Good Hair, a funny but informative doc featuring and presented by Chris Rock; Crumb, a funny (if unsettling) portrait of the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb; and The Muslims are Coming!, a movie that follows a tour of Muslim comedians and explores issues of Islamophobia, the red/blue state divide, and religious stereotypes.

As always, clicking the Select providers tab will let you narrow the focus of your search to the providers you regularly use (like Netflix, Amazon, etc.).

Happy hunting!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Recommended!: Dead Ringers (1988)

Pleased to honor actor Jeremy Irons on this, his 65th birthday! Though he's one of a few actors that we find to be possessed of much technique but little apparent soul, we keep finding things that disprove this. And every time we revisit David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers we find ourselves in awe of Irons' accomplishments in it.

Per Cronenberg's usual modus, Dead Ringers is intense and bizarre. Irons plays Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin gynecologists who share a practice, share a home, and share lovers. When the normally passive Beverly takes the initiative in pursuing a relationship with a filmmaker patient (Genevieve Bujold), the normally smooth Elliot is thrown into a tailspin, initiating a chaotic breakdown that the brothers may not survive.

Irons appears onscreen with himself by way of a then-innovative doubling technology, and it's remarkable how distinct he makes each brother. We can even see when one brother is impersonating another. But Irons' performances are not just sums of technical details; the intensity of the Mantles' breakdown reaches tragic, even operatic, heights. The conclusion of the film is possibly the most disturbing in Cronenberg's work (which is saying something), but thanks to the investment we've made in the characters it's also among his most heartbreaking.

Irons regarded his work on Dead Ringers as something of a career-best, having thanked David Cronenberg while accepting his acting Oscar for Reversal of Fortune three years later. (The admiration was clearly mutual; Cronenberg cast Irons in the lead of his M. Butterfly, making Irons the first actor to play the lead in two different Cronenberg films.) It's a great movie to watch for those looking to celebrate the best work of this fine actor, but it ain't for the faint of heart. You've been warned.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Recommended!: The Fisher King (1991)

Jeff Bridges is Jack, an abrasive DJ whose comments drive one unstable listener into a rage that leaves eight people dead. Three years later a strung-out Jack is offered a shot at redemption by Parry (Robin Williams), a twitchy homeless person whose psychological imbalance has direct roots in the rage Jack unleashed those years ago. And so the two men navigate the urban jungle of New York City in search of a Holy Grail that may not even exist, and Jack finds that maybe even the prospect of human connection and real love might not be enough to pull Parry away from the abyss.

It's unmistakably a Terry Gilliam film, rife with many of his overt and distinct visual flourishes: a red knight that torments Parry seems to have stepped straight out of Jabberwocky, while the corporate interiors could have been sets left behind from Brazil. But for all of its visual splendor and quirky wackiness I don't remember the humanity of Gilliam's characters ever being so keenly felt. Though Williams' gifts for improvisation and riffing are evident throughout, they're attached to a noticeably fractured psychology and leavened with tangible emotional pain. Though Bridges' role is rife with potential as nothing but a foil for Williams' inventions, he too invests Jack with palpable humanity, the stunted energy of a soul in progress. The female characters could have been nothing but love interests, but Mercedes Ruehl's street smarts make her possibly the movie's most engaging character, and Amanda Plummer's studied, focused disheveledness gives way to a blossoming and gorgeous personhood fueled by Parry's love.

Credit for all of this perhaps rests in a smart early script from filmmaker Richard LaGravenese; his script has more overtly fantastic leanings than most of his works that offer more than enough grist for Gilliam's usual visual attack. But Gilliam and his fine, fine actors all latch onto the volumes of humanity (not to mention the humor, leavened generously throughout this dark, dark story) in LaGravenese's characters. The Fisher King isn't a movie that seems to loom large in the resumes of its creators, but deserves our attention. And it stands as one of the finest, most shaded performances by the late Robin Williams. We were fortunate to see it theatrically; if you can't see it that way, it is available on line, and awaits your eyes.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Recommended!: Dead Poets Society (1989)

The only upside to the death of Robin Williams is the recent glut of rep screenings of his movies. In San Francisco rep houses in particular have made a concerted effort to pay tribute to the hometown hero, coordinating non-conflicting screenings, allowing local residents to revisit their favorite Williams performances. In our case, we got to experience Dead Poets Society for the first time.

It offers Williams' second Oscar-nominated performance, and it's a lovely piece of work. As John Keating, an English teacher who shakes up a strict 1950s prep school with his unorthodox but inspirational teaching methods, Williams offers one of his more restrained performances; his lapses into comic delivery are completely in line with the gifts of Keating, a man whose love of words and knack for communication are inherently inspiring. Though it doesn't play directly to his strengths, Williams makes it impossible to see anyone else in the role.

But one of the movie's most refreshing surprises is that it's less about Keating than about his effect on the lives of the students in his care (who become, through his inspiration, the movie's title characters). As the title suggests it's very much an ensemble piece, taking its time to establish each of its young characters and their distinct personalities. These characters grow both together within the Society and inside their own distinct subplots: Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) pursues acting against his stern father's wishes; Knox (Josh Charles) finds himself helplessly in the throes of first love; Todd (Ethan Hawke) builds walls around him that, when shattered by Keating's encouragement, give way to a floodtide of long suppressed emotion. Even the more secondary characters have their moments: when Pitts (James Waterson) is chided by Keating for half-assing an assignment, we see it register when Keating specifically calls out not his work's laziness, but its ordinariness.

The movie also spotlights director Peter Weir's knack for capturing the textural details of small-town life and its surrounding landscapes. The world around Welton Academy hums with a rich inner life, from shots of flocks of birds jumping into flight to the Society's first clandestine walk through a fog-shrouded forest. (One wonders how Weir would have fared directing a Harry Potter chapter.) Weir's attention to detail is felt right down to the amateur student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; unlike many plays-within-movies, this looks like an actual, living, breathing production, which helps us buy Neil's sudden love of acting, and the confidence (if also the roughness) of his first performance.

Williams would fall into a trap in his later film career, stuck more often than not in flimsy stories built solely as a foil for his antics (looking at you, Patch Adams). Dead Poets Society remains one of the essential Robin Williams movies by avoiding this, by being a uniformly well told story with Williams as its catalyst, not necessarily its center. Its earnestness and solid storytelling outweigh moments that would have been mawkish in lesser hands, and it holds its classic status honestly. Even honorably.

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