Friday, September 26, 2014

The Equalizer - Review

The Equalizer – Review
Consider this, Director Antoine Fuqua is sitting at home or in a movie theater or maybe on a plane. He’s looking for inspiration anywhere for his next project, maybe – hopefully something that he can write and develop with the two time Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington in mind, who by the way won one of his Oscars under his directing stewardship in the 2001 effort entitled “Training Day”.

After running through probably several ideas Mr. Fuqua starts to contemplate on movies he may have seen before, some of which Denzel was in. Maybe he thinks to himself if he would take just a bit of the “Man on Fire” John Creasy’s vigilante mind set, dead pan coldness and emotional wounding, along with the same subtle invoking of violent moral correctness. Then if he added just a bit of the “Book of Eli” lead character Eli who was a somber mysterious wanderer who had an obsession with a mysterious book but who was also blessed with a lethal “particular set of skills”. You take these traits, mix in some Jason Bourne high I.Q. intelligence to pre-navigate, operate and extract himself out almost seemingly impossible situations. Sprinkle some of Liam Neeson’s “Taken” soften spoken cool assuredness and finally add just a tinge of some “Jason Voorhees” gruesome violence for shock value effect and “Voila” or “Eureka” (which ever you prefer); you have “The Equalizer - 2014”.

Now let’s be clear, this movie is far from the 1980’s “The Equalizer” TV version starring British Actor Edward Woodward who was more of an avuncular erudite middle aged type as the retired intelligence officer with a mysterious past who helped people in trouble. Woodward’s McCall was far more passively stoic and would engage in the occasional fist fight and or draw his gun with the intent of only doing so for self-preservation. In Actor Denzel and Director Fuqua reimagining of this character, they have raised the ante big time with a more modern Robert McCall who is best described here in this adaptation as a predatory wolf with a complete singular focus for total complete ruthlessness.

In the beginning we see McCall living alone in an understated, modest, very neat and clean apartment getting ready for work as an Associate at a Home Depot-ish store. He is highly meticulous at work, warm to his co-workers and has a good heart but is also somewhat shy along with a preoccupation for orderliness and the current time on his watch.

Typically, after work he goes to a small Boston corner café to drink tea and read a book (Book of Eli) that is more often some well-known classic novel. He finds the location peaceful and possibly a good location to reflect on life, maybe his past life as well. And it is at the same café he frequently runs into a young girl who is a working prostitute that is named Teri who also apparently is a regular there who uses the café address to meet her “Johns” who routinely drive up outside the door. While waiting on her Russian Mobster pimp nightly calls, Teri and McCall typically have a friendly but pedestrian verbal exchange discussing the latest status of a certain chapter or details of whatever book Mc Call is reading at the time.

One night at the café Teri goes outside to meet her Russian pimp who has just driven up. As Teri walks to the car he immediately proceeds to exhibit his displeasure with her for something she did by brutally beating her. McCall observes the beating without as much of a flinch of overt or outward emotional response. Still nonetheless it clearly bothers him and unexpectedly he (we) realize at that moment he has become more attached to the young girl than simple befriending (Man on Fire) and while he is very reluctant to return to his previous mysterious life, something in that very moment has risen up with him to reignited those “set of particular skills” to go into kid protection – people protection mode (Man on Fire) by getting personally involved. He is now going to seek that pimp out to set things right.

The Equalizer has its moments of ridiculous cliché with some convoluted situations to give us an early sense of McCall’s prowess as this highly technical formidable fighting and killing expert. But what is it in the long run is a non-stop thrilling platform of primal violence that is far from subtle with just a smidgen of humor to keep you very, very entertained throughout the 2 hour running time.  

Fuqua makes the boundaries in this movie very clear and distinct – stylish and slick. In McCall’s mind there are people in the world who are good, decent and hardworking and then there are others who simply operate in that same universe exuding evil, greed, brutality and death. For McCall it’s up to the good guys to prevail by fighting this evil fire with a, metaphorical speaking, thermal nuclear mano a mano response. He intends to kill everything.

The Equalizer worked for me because while the bad guys seem somewhat preposterously bad and formulaic, they are nonetheless excellent in their badness. They are savage in their thinking and their actions and Fuqua delivers them in scene after scene with genuine tenseness and clarity with rousing execution. He also manages to deliver McCall’s persona as some dark angel of salvation with a Jason Voorhees flair for killing minus the Hockey mask and grungy pants with what felt like an endless body count supply of Russian anti-Christ type mobsters and devilish type corrupt cops to dispatch.

There is no back story here as to why McCall is so socially detached the way he is nor is there any real meaningful subplots for us to contemplate. This is a film where the bad guys are so ruthlessly bad we can’t wait for Denzel’s McCall to give them what they deserve with extreme high octane prejudice.

When I review a movie, I try to be fair to those involved with its creation to simply ask did they deliver what they said they would. In this case I said yes. And while the film is extremely violent and blood thirsty oozing with copious amounts of blood, along with a flawed last dramatic moment that I thought was stupid and not needed at all, I still found The Equalizer to be highly creative and cool.

Finally, Denzel said in an interview he will never see a Home Depot the same way. If you see The Equalizer, you will never see a Home Depot the same way either, nor any of its aisles.

3 – 3/4 Stars



Friday, September 19, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones – Review

A Walk Among the Tombstones – Review

Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is a big city retired police officer who works for clients who needs his brand of unlicensed private investigative skills of getting to the truth but doing so by operating just outside the law. Matt at his core is fundamentally a morally and dedicated man who is also an equally slightly troubled, reserve and cautious man, especially when it comes to his work. He is just as leery and suspicious of potential new clients as the people they want him to ultimately investigate.

In the late 1990’s on a dreary rainy night while literally about to having a bite to eat at a diner, an acquaintance of Matt’s approaches him to ask if he would be interested in meeting his brother about a potential job. When Matt agrees he discovers that his client Kenny Kristo is a big time heroin dealer who recently had his wife abducted for a ransom demand of $400,000 and of course the proverbial cliché requirement of never telling the police or “she’s is dead”. When he dutifully complied with the abductors demands they got their money but they also brutally killed his wife anyway. Now, steep in anger Kenny wants revenge and he has solicited Matt to find out who exactly these guys are so that he can “deal with them” on his own. And with that “A Walk among the Tombstones” proceeds down a creepy path of a twist and turn - cat and mouse pursuit of murderous psychopathic deviants who seem to have uniquely started to target drug dealers for their crime spree. What’s more troublingly is that they seem to enjoy their sinister lively hood of torturing and killing as much as their love for the money itself.

Once again Liam Neeson proves again for better “Shindler’s List “or for worse ‘Taken 2” why he is one of the more superb actors working today. With him in virtually every scene from the beginning to the end in “Tombstone” Neeson’s natural on screen charisma, common man smarts, moral integrity and masculine toughness is on full display. What was especially good to see Neeson do in this film by paraphrasing the line from “Taken” is to take his “particular set of skills” and dial them back a bit. While showing only a minuscule vestige of his more over the top “Taken” character dramatic flash, here he offers up our lead “Matt with a more sensitive, humorous and vulnerable side here. Matt is more thought out, more fully developed and a more thoroughly realized character while also being a bit knowingly flawed about his short comings as well. He offers just enough vulnerability to his “Matt” character that it feels both authentically sensitive and naturally tough all in the same package.

What I liked about “Tombstone” is that it has a bit of throwback quality to its story. Not a lot of action, instead in its place we see a pure one man doing the hard leg work police procedural kind of drama. We watch as “Matt” goes meticulously, patiently but also aggressively to work on this new case without any GPS tracking devices or high tech devices for him to rely upon. No he is just an old school following up on snippets of evidence, casing buildings, watching people as possible suspects, asking the right questions, using his well-honed police instincts and occasionally busting down a door or two without a warrant kind of guy. Think TV’s Lt. Columbo with an attitude.

As for the film itself, I found it to have the look and feel of raw chilling sadistic film noir.  At times some of the scenes were very emotionally hard to get through, not because it was graphic per se, but rather for its intense level of emotional psychological brutality that is directed and enveloped into the story itself. I felt a bit dirty watching this film as we see early on the principle shadowy criminals slowly exposed to actual light in their almost gleefully dark and devilish delight in not only carefully choosing their victims but their pure nasty unforgiving satisfaction in torturing them as well. And while you don’t see any scenes like this on the screen itself, it just sure felt that way.

“Tombstone” is far from perfect. Some of the dialogue seemed useless - pointless, decisions made by some of the characters seemed momentarily preposterous and ultimately from my perspective it needed a script rewrite here and there so as to improve on the overall plot. Still, ‘Tombstone” is a solid very creepy thrilling piece of entertainment with solid acting performances all across the board. But the real strength of this film is the acting prowess of Neeson who takes what could have been a film with a non-descript feel to it (without him in it) and in turn elevate the material to a pretty intelligent effort.

3 – 1/4 Stars

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Drop - Review

The Drop – Review

Starring the late James Gandolfini, along with Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, “The Drop” is a dark, moody underbelly big city slice of life story about mobsters, their money, their crimes and the innocent bystanders who get in their way. Seemingly, with most of these kind of crime films we invariable know going in we will see how all of these aspects become interconnected to one another, either by design or by accident with both attributes providing a predetermined conclusion of life altering consequences.

Taking place in Brooklyn, ‘The Drop” is a plot involving a bar and the heavy handed mobsters using it and a string of other bars as a covert scheme of funneling their illegal cash by moving it overnight to secure locations - "money drops". One of the bars is managed by “Cousin Marv” (Gandolfini) and his younger cousin “Bob” (Hardy) who is a seemingly shy and loner type who enjoys being a bartender. “Bob” whose personality can be best described as a mix of Fredo Corleone mix with Rocky Balboa knows he just needs to keep his head low, do what he is told and not make any waves with the Chechen Mobsters who come by often to drop their envelopes off in plain sight. He's a very nice and polite guy.

Invariable whenever and where ever there’s lots of money there will be crime and on one night as Marv and Bob are closing two masked men come in to hold up the bar for the cash. The very next day when the Chechen Mobsters show up to collect their drops they make it clear with Marv and Bob they need to find out who did the robbery and get their money back. The dilemma for them is if they do in deed find the guys who did the robbery they would probably be seen as being complicit in the crime from the beginning. If they don’t find the cash then they would probably end up losing their lives. Or would they?

What happens at this point is less of a predictable plot and more of story that changes into an entwined tale that digs deep into all of the characters past. What also happens with the movie is less a sensational action film and more of an introspective organic film trying to explain and understanding the motives of the principals involved in this crime.

This is a highly deliberate and highly purposeful simmering dark odyssey with a real working class feel to it. It creates more mood and loathing than a need for a completely cogent, logical and discernable screenplay. The Drop is style and it uses it style brush to bath itself in slow scenes and slow tension in its effort to create the great anticipation something ominous is getting ready to happen. But with each moment of foreboding not much is really delivered in the way of justifying our earlier fears. Instead we are left in the end with a rather simple conclusion that invariably leaves us savoring the film more for its looks and acting prowess as our overall source of entertainment  

On a high note what was gratifyingly clear for me is the real star of this film is Tom Hardy, who after seeing him in “Locke” and now “The Drop” I can honestly say he will be a huge star in the next two years. Meaning? If you have never ever seen a Tom Hanks or Russell Crowe film, you clearly knew they are actors. Hardy is well on his way to having that kind of international cache and recognition. He is always dazzling, electric and genuinely innovative in creating sympathetic characters on the screen from the very opening scene.

The Drop was a bit hard for me to rate, but for its look, its reasonable good storytelling and honest acting emotions its worth your time.

3 – 1/2 Stars

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Rob the Mob - Review

Rob the Mob - Review

In 1991 In New York City John Gotti, the head of organize crime, was on trial for the 1985 murder of Paul Castellano and underboss Thomas Bilotti  who both were  gunned down in front of Sparks Steak House located at 210 East 46th Street. At the same time of Gotti’s trial, two twenty something working class star struck lovers named Tommy and Rosie Uva were routinely robbing mob social clubs for their money, jewelry and other valuables with the idea “who’s going to care about Mobsters being robbed”.  And with that you have a solid, slightly dramatic, slightly goofy and slightly fairy tale story of an odd pair who take their lives by the horn to live life at the fullest while holding down steady jobs as bill collectors.

“Rob the Mob” a true story, looks, sounds  and certainly feels completely improbable that two people could be so suicidal and stupid to rob without any regard to concealing their identities, but even more so to steal from mobsters on top of that. While watching this film anyone would think what I was thinking with even a minimum understanding of organized crime in America; they are certainly not going to simply let this go unpunished.

What is entertaining about this film is the odd pairing couple whose dumbness is so over the top and their desperate behavior so glaringly nuts is that is works convincingly well in this film. Tommy operates in an intellectual vacuum where robbing people is something as casual as brushing ones’ teeth. And with an equally quirky wife Rosie to provide moral support, “Rob the Mob” tells it’s story by pushing up front the usual typical stereotypes of mobsters with just the right touch without being insulting about it. Overall the whole film reveals itself as a story with a sentimental romantic sweetness and perpetual cuteness to this couple’s reckless and fool hearty crime spree.

Throughout the 1:45 minute running time “Rob the Mob” showcases two fine performances by Michael Pitts (Boardwalk Empire) as Tommy and Nina Arianda as Rosie who both seem to make their dysfunctional relationship worth rooting for as they literally improvise robberies on the fly without any care in the world, even though they should care.

If you like crime films as I do, with a ting of lunacy mixed in then I recommend you see this film.

Available now in On Demand only.

3 – 1/2 Stars

Friday, September 5, 2014

Early "Best Picture" Predictions for 2014


With only the "Best Picture"category in mind I give you a listing of those films I believe are likely to receive an Oscar Nomination as Best Picture for 2014.

My nomination predictions (announced in late January 2015) have nothing to do with if I had seen them as of yet. It is largely predicated on what I'm currently reading, the general "'Buzz" and a bit of intuitive guessing on my part.

Also, this has nothing to do with my personal opinion on the quality of these films right now, or whether I have seen them or if professional reviews are highly favorable.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, this list has nothing to do with my own final list that I send out annually.  It will be different from this I assure you.

A couple of things for you to consider:

1. Max of  No of films 10 - No less than 5
2. Films No. 1 - 3 Locks
3. Films No. 4 - 6  Strong
4. Films No. 7 - 9 Good
5. Film No. 10 -  Fair  - Bubble
6. Films No. 11 - 15  Solid possible replacements for No’s 4 - 10.
7. Highlighted Bold films are True Stories.
8. The Asterisk symbol (*) denotes  British Subjects - Plots

I will occasionally revisit this list from time to time until December and make updates - changes accordingly. 

So here is how it stands now as I see it:

1.    Foxcatcher
2.    Birdman
3.    Boyhood
4.    The Imitation Game *
5.    Mr. Turner *
6.    Unbroken
7.    Fury
8.    Interstellar
9.    Gone Girl
10.  Inherent Vice
11.  Theory of Everything *
12.  Into The Woods
13.  Wild
14.  American Sniper
15.  Men, Women & Children

Film likely to move up - No.13 'Wild" - (Reese Witherspoon)
Film likely to move down No. 9 "Gone Girl" (Ben Affleck)