Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Gives A Tortured Genius A Tortured Movie

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (directed by James Marsh, 2014)

  
Stephen Hawking is an exceedingly layered, fascinating figure. Given two years to live after his ALS diagnosis in 1963, he survives to this day. His bold, innovative mind took impenetrable concepts and made them palatable to the masses. Despite a deteriorating body that eventually rendered him unable to move more than a few fingers, he accomplished more than most of us ever will standing on our two feet. He guest starred on "The Simpsons."

Or, as "The Theory Of Everything" has it, he did vaguely science-y stuff and was married for a while until he wasn't.

So toothless that it couldn't chew applesauce, this is the bland epitome of why some people can't abide biopics. Genius who changed the world? Check. Physical adversity to overcome? Major check. Love-conquers-all angle to inspire hope? Eh...close enough check.

What's frustrating is how much more the movie could be, with director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten instead answering every "choose your own adventure" option by simply cowering in fear. Spanning roughly 30 years of Hawking's life, it plays like a greatest hits collection. We meet him (played by Eddie Redmayne) as a young student at Cambridge, romancing literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Soon after, the diagnosis of ALS strikes and his eventual marriage with Jane functions as his anchor as he pursues an all-encompassing theory to explain the universe. As his physical condition worsens and takes a toll on their relationship, we follow the couple until their eventual separation in 1990. 

Inside "The Theory Of Everything" lies at least a half dozen more compelling movies, all itching to burst. Considering it focuses so prominently on the Hawking marriage, perhaps a searing domestic drama about how a seemingly unshakable love can still be pecked away by outside forces. How about more of the nitty gritty of how ALS ravages the body and how a person functions with it decades past his termination date (an astonishing fact that barely registers in the movie). Or don't forget we're dealing with Stephen Hawking here - maybe an abstract dive inside his still functioning and fertile mind and how he arrived at his scientific advances. 

Lets not rush past that last bit. "The Theory Of Everything" is ostensibly about Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking. A highly specific man with a highly specific story. As in the hands of Marsh and McCarten, though, it's nothing more than a generic bit of uplift that conveniently happens to be about a name we all know, offering no greater insight into his character or his marriage as it clears a place on the mantle for all the inevitable awards.

"The Theory Of Everything" teases a look into the fire so many times, then quickly turns from the flames and titters away.

Through this lack of committal to any one tone or angle, Marsh dulls the movie's drive, and scenes that should register as emotional high points land with an odd thud. Take the scene when Stephen and Jane decide to separate (we're dealing with plot points of public knowledge, so spoilers be damned). This is the climax of the movie. Up until now, Marsh adopts a theme not unlike "A Beautiful Mind" of love beating the odds. Now that same marriage is falling apart. How will Marsh handle this kink in his otherwise inspirational tale? Will he dive into the complexity of love and human emotion, facing how a marriage can somehow provide strength and wither simultaneously? Craft a mature, layered take on how people who seem destined for each other can also move away from each other?

Such moves would require a more cohesive grasp on story and character. Despite hints peppering the movie that the Hawking marriage was less than perfect, it's never granted deeper attention, and the moment where they separate weirdly just happens, and the movie moves on. It's as if Marsh saw this moment as less of a climax and more of an inconvenience, a real-life moment he must unfortunately face and get past so his movie can return to being a tear-jerker.

Never say the cast doesn't rise to the challenge, though, as Redmayne and Jones single-handedly make it worthy of at least a matinee ticket. Both actors take flat roles (on the page) and invest in them all the legitimacy they can summon. Early scenes of their courtship crackle with life, and Marsh shoots them with a lush passion the tedious back half of the movie can't muster. 

Consider how uniquely difficult their challenges are. As a character, Jane holds the more dynamic arc, but her conflict takes place largely in the background, weighing her loyalty to her husband with the desire to be with another man who can be there for her, and Jones tries her hardest to render this half-written drama compelling.

As for Redmayne, never say he can't do a compelling Stephen Hawking impression. That much is clear. He rises above mere mimicry, however, and utterly transforms. Not only is he required to portray a man with a physical disease, he must gradually convey physical decay, creating subtle, different nuances in Hawking's body language as the movie progresses. By the end, when Hawking loses both the ability to walk and speak, Marsh relies almost entirely on Redmayne's face to tell the story; it's an incredible amount of trust to place in an actor, to require him to embody everything the lead character can't say, and Redmayne absolutely returns the investment.

If only the rest of the movie were as sure-footed, if only it faced challenges instead of tip-toeing around them. Although the universe may or may not be turtles all the way down, one thing's for sure: "The Theory Of Everything" is Oscar bait, all the way down, through and through.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The 20 Year Wait For DUMB AND DUMBER TO Isn't As Hard As The Movie

DUMB AND DUMBER TO (directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly)


We don't fully understand why a dog yawns. Maybe it's in anticipation of something. Maybe it's nervousness. Maybe it's the same as in humans - a sign it's been too long since its last nap. Or maybe it's simply mimicking a behavior of its owner without the faintest clue why. 

"Dumb And Dumber To" is a yawning dog of a movie. For a moment it can be diverting, maybe even entertaining. But then that moment passes and ultimately it's a behavioral oddity with no reason for existing other than fatigue, boredom, or blindly copying what's been done by others.

If nothing else, and this is no small feat, "Dumb And Dumber To" kills nostalgia. We casually enjoy Buzzfeed listicles (48 Things Only A 90s Kid Will Understand, etc) for the base, instant gratification of, "Hey, there's a thing I remember that other people remember too!" And if the listicle connects us to the positive feelings those things inspire, it's because we don't have to face they reality of them head-on, only the version in our minds. Hi-C Ecto Coolers likely tasted of cat urine, but I'll never remember for sure, and when I see pictures of them online, I smile.

Consider the cat urine flung in our faces. Now, today, one full score after the release of the 1994 classic (a word I use sincerely), we have this rehash, made for anyone who thinks Buzzfeed serves a legitimate journalistic purpose. Maybe it's not the movie they dreamed of, but when your eyes are on the rear view mirror, there are gonna be crashes.

Not to go so far to say this new movie is so bad it tarnishes our memory of the first one. That can't happen. We'll always have Aspen. It's that, despite the directorial return of the Farrelly brothers and Jim Carrey/Jeff Daniels giving it their all, "Dumb And Dumber To" appears clueless to what made the original special, leaving the taste of forced mediocrity in our mouths that's death to comedy. 

Things start promisingly enough, as Harry (Daniels) visits Lloyd (Carrey) in the mental hospital he's apparently lived in the past 20 years, culminating in a funny, bold opening salvo that suggests the Farrellys showed up to play, ready to toss pesky things like logic and reason out the window.

Then the guys run into Billy, the blind kid from the original, and quietly sneak up to scare him. Then they push each other in the bushes solely to point and laugh. Then they scream, "Show us your tits!" at a woman speaking on stage.

Unfunny, yes, but more than that. There's an odd, rather uncomfortable meanness coursing through "Dumb And Dumber To" not present in the original. For all the gross-out labels slapped on the Farrelly brothers, one thing keeping their best work from tipping into unremarkable filth is their palpable fondness for their characters. The joke in "There's Something About Mary" wasn't that Ben Stiller caught his balls in the zipper - it's that he didn't deserve to get his balls in the zipper. The joke in "Dumb And Dumber" wasn't, "Aren't these guys pricks?" - it's that they're children dumped into the real world of adults, and the adults act accordingly. 

You need that innocence in the main characters just as you need that realism to erect a wall and push back. Otherwise you just have unrepentant chaos. To put it a different way, Harry and Lloyd in the original movie could accidentally poison a guy with rat poison as a prank. Harry and Lloyd in this new movie would simply poison him because the bottle said "rat poison."

Let us count the ways "Dumb And Dumber To" coulda been different (and better). Maybe follow through on the promise of the opening scene and play it as absurdist farce with no connection to continuity, canon, or the world as we know it. Maybe take the lead of the uproarious gag involving the Mutts Cutts van and offer some kind of meta commentary on unnecessary sequels itself. Maybe, in the very least, force Harry and Lloyd to live as actual people in the current day instead of feeling perpetually stuck in 1994 (for all the flack thrown at "Anchorman 2," it pushed its characters to new, different terrain). 

Carrey and Daniels struggle valiantly, and the mere sight of them in the requisite haircuts is enough to trigger pangs of happiness. Too bad they're stuck like two characters in Luis Buñuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," standing before a potentially delicious dinner party, but frustratingly unable to attend.

Friday, October 31, 2014

I Don't Know Where You Magic Birdmen Came From, But I Like Your BIRDMAN Drink!

BIRDMAN (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)


Great movies, before they end, carry a few milestones for the audience. First comes the realization and immediate rush that you're watching one - this is really happening, and it's happening now. Next comes the inevitable anticipation of the crash. Life is but a bounty of disappointments, so why should this movie be any different? Finally, the moment when it either fails to stick the landing or, like some kind of intervention from God, sees its own potential through.

To watch "Birdman" is to witness the rare and elusive spectacle of something actually pulling it off, something setting a ridiculously ambitious bar for itself and clearing it. A virtuoso act of technical mastery and performance, of ridiculous confidence and ease, "Birdman" isn't just a movie you're happy to see. You're practically grateful. 

This is the sort of work that inspires immediate, breathless Twitter updates in the parking lot.

In a masterstroke of casting, Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, who ruled Hollywood when he played comic book hero Birdman 20 years ago (sound familiar?), now trying to revive his career by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway. After a falling stage light injures a costar the day before previews begin, Thomson replaces him with noted New York thespian Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, known as an actor who brings it, but also drives casts and crews crazy with his temperament and methods (again, sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, his daughter and personal assistant (Emma Stone) pesters him to build a social media presence, his producer (Zach Galifianakis) hounds him about budgets, and he hears increasingly confrontational voices in his head that may or may not be the iconic superhero he once played.

As a piece of writing from director/cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," 21 Grams") "Birdman" is wicked and incisive, offering dark belly laughs as it exploits show business conventions and its cast's public images. As a piece of filmmaking, though, oooh boy. Spanning the period of roughly a week, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot "Birdman" as a series of extended scenes manipulated to resemble one fluid, unbroken take. Unlike one obvious ancestor, Hitchcock's "Rope," which sported editing tricks between shots to create the illusion of a single real-time take, "Birdman" makes no such pretense that this is really one shot. Sometimes a scene cuts when characters walk through shadows or the camera whips. Often it's invisible. I only spotted a few.

Here's the thing, though - I stopped trying to count. Iñárritu isn't dressing a shallow movie with flashy showmanship, designed to call attention to itself. Instead he hides this technique in plain sight, as if it happened from the inside out and blends right in. His camera doesn't simply observe. It doesn't simply follow. It interacts. It invites and caresses and invades. Individual scenes can last as long as five or ten minutes, but Iñárritu precisely frames each moment, even as his camera circles the actors or the actors circle it, with characters often shot in extreme, oddly canted close-up, as if they're ready to burst through the screen. One can only imagine the rigorous rehearsals as actors learned their exact blocking, everyone no doubt terrified of standing in the wrong spot or moving at the wrong time and blowing it all.

To conceive of such a thing reflects stunning ambition. To achieve it is an act of technical wizardry. To stop the audience from noticing is a gotdang miracle.

But to what end? Not for nothing does Riggan adapt Raymond Carver, of all people. Few authors are as good as Carver at diving into the lives of characters at the exact moment their plans stop working. And by the end, beyond its high wire tricks, "Birdman" reveals itself as a searingly human work about a man ready to collapse under the pressure of his failed hopes. We've all had that point, whether it's lying in bed at night or browsing a high school classmate's Facebook page, where we face the sum of who we are and worry if it adds up to much. Our blown opportunities. Our lost successes. "Birdman" takes us right to this edge, where our rapidly fading potential comes crashing down and we must decide whether or not to resign ourselves to it.

You could argue that Iñárritu's purpose behind the single faked, fluid take is to recreate the immediacy of live theater, given the movie's Broadway setting. You wouldn't be wrong. But that's not the whole story. By imbuing this world with such a sense of madcap urgency, Iñárritu holds our eyes open and forces us to reconcile this moment, right now, for these people. We're not standing outside of it. We're plunged deep in the middle. There's no safety of the camera cutting away when things get too personal or uncomfortable. And eventually, like Riggan and his dreams of career reinvention, we wonder if there's a way out.

Basically it's a convincing replica of live theater, filtered through decidedly cinematic conventions, all with a literary understanding of human suffering. Never say "Birdman" doesn't try.

There is nothing timid about this movie. No moment where it plays things safe. Featuring a towering performance from Keaton that not only rebuilds his career, but redefines it, "Birdman" isn't quite like anything you've seen this year. Isn't that what we go to the movies for?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Full Of Gore And FURY, Signifying Slightly More Than Nothing

FURY (directed by David Ayer, 2014)


Either your respect for "Fury" keeps growing after you see it or it keeps falling. Here is a movie with fairly little to say but strikingly well made in saying it, whose blatant lack of encompassing statements some might see as profundity. As Staff Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) says halfway into the film, "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent." Such is the crux of "Fury." Such is also the crutch.

Director David Ayer, working from his own script, constructs "Fury" like a shaggy dog story, in no hurry to arrive nowhere. Collier commands a tank staffed by men with colorful nicknames and less colorful personalities through Germany as the European theater of World War II draws to a close. Episodic mayhem ensues along the way. Far more time for contemplation in between. In this, we meet our only real arc and "Fury"'s real protagonist - a young private named Norman (Logan Lerman) who, despite joining the Army a mere eight weeks earlier, is assigned to Collier's tank. And yes, oh yes, innocence is absolutely lost.

It is not unheard of to make a movie that can be defended or derided with neither side necessarily "wrong." Lars Von Trier specializes in such works. What makes "Fury" such a rare exception is its supporters and critics seem to follow the same arguments. Impressed by Ayer's resistance to easy morality, as he portrays war one big grey area that simply continues until it doesn't? Boom - you're in the target audience. 

Or do you feel that, "History is violent," in trying not to be an easy cop-out, is itself a cop-out? Maybe you think that portraying morality in war as grey instead of black/white is only a different kind of absolute unless you also demonstrate how we're lead to this mindset, and maybe even its effect on the human soul? You're obviously in the other camp.

"Fury" is almost a fascinating case study. How one audience can watch one movie but arrive at two different conclusions using the same road map.

What's particularly frustrating is you can almost feel "Fury" wanting to push further, and at this point, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: "Fury" is not an out-and-out bad movie. Bad movies waste your time. "Fury" does not waste your time. It just could have filled it in a more satisfying way. Lets take what is by far the stand-out sequence in the movie. Collier and his men have successfully overtaken a small German village and pause for a night of rest and relaxation. Some of the men drink. Others find local German women to screw. Collier and Norman spot a couple of young ladies in the window of one of the town's few surviving buildings and invite themselves up. Eventually they're joined by the rest of their tank comrades, and everyone sits down for a meal of fried eggs.

By now, we've spent a solid 60 or 70 minutes of screen time with these men. We know how they feel towards each other. We know how they feel towards Norman. We know how they feel towards Germans. Now here they all sit around the dinner table, with nary a gunshot to distract them, discussing the carnage they have faced and the justification in it (or lack thereof), and we tensely sit perched in our seats, waiting to see what sparks will fly.

It's an exceedingly effective scene, perfectly placed halfway in the film, earning its obvious comparisons to the famed French plantation sequence cut from the theatrical edition of "Apocalypse Now." And yet it also highlights everything wrong with the rest of "Fury." Ayer has said that he envisioned the movie as an examination of a make-shift family unit - what drives a family together and what drives them apart - and you can sense this dinner sequence as emblematic of that thesis. When he doesn't push the idea further, though, instead settling for a brazen lack of conclusion, it serves only to frustrate. 

Still, I said earlier that "Fury" doesn't waste your time. That ain't no lie. Ayer shoots combat with a kind of glorious, expertly choreographed chaos. Defiantly sticking with 35mm film after digital tests reportedly didn't satisfy, he balances the modern philosophical messiness of his script with old-fashioned Hollywood showmanship. If the Normandy sequence of "Saving Private Ryan" seemed purposefully spontaneous, as if the crew struggled to keep up with the action, the carnage in "Fury" feels consciously staged. This is not an insult, Ayer blends this deliberate framing with gritty, rough violence that prevents us from feeling too much awe as people die.

Even this reaches frustrating ends in the last act, however, as "Fury" attempts its only real "plot" and it becomes Collier's tank against more or less the entire German army. What was once a fairly realistic, almost clinical portrayal of violence becomes bro-tastic "Fuck yeah!" antics, with us meant to cheer as our team of merry men mow down swarms of Germans in ridiculously over-the-top fashion.

I understand the inherent satisfaction in war action scenes. But do we really need timid young Norman shouting, "Motherfucking Nazis!"?   

Still, are you just a fan of war movies wondering if "Fury" is worth your time? Go for it - if nothing else, the movie is immaculately paced. The subgenre of WWII pictures isn't exactly gasping for additions, though, and in its lazy stab at hazy morality, "Fury" can't quite justify itself.

Mostly it seems meant for those who saw Pitt's own "Inglourious Basterds" and thought, "That was nice...but did it have to be so much fun?"


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

THE SKELETON TWINS Becomes Overly Indie, Whatever That Means

THE SKELETON TWINS (directed by Craig Johnson, 2014)


"Indie," like "hipster" or "dudebro," is one of those Rorschach Tests of words. Maybe it once had a clear definition, but now it means whatever you want it to mean. It's an easy, even shallow, way to categorize someone or something, and with just a modicum more effort, we could dig beneath the surface and discover the hidden complexities.

That being said, man, is "The Skeleton Twins" ever an indie movie. From sad sacks staring blankly out a moving car window to sad sacks screaming obscenities to themselves after making particularly grueling mistakes to sad sacks lying morosely in bathtubs, director and cowriter Craig Johnson never breaks the surly bonds of his Guide To Getting Picked Up At Sundance, eschewing genuine human moments for the limply dour.

Remember "The Savages," that lovely 2007 dramedy of adult sibling rivalry with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney? There's a movie that found time for honesty, thoughtfulness, and even a few moments of levity between. "The Skeleton Twins" instead never met a cliche it couldn't mistake for a breakthrough.

When we meet Milo (Bill Hader), a struggling, gay actor in Los Angeles, he's alone at home, slashing his wrists in a bathtub. Smash cut to Maggie (Kristen Wiig), his twin sister living in New York, on the verge of swallowing an overdose of pills, but something's holding her back (a lazy attempt at twin telepathy or something, I guess) when she gets the phone call about her brother. Milo comes to stay with her and her amiable doofus husband Lance (Luke Wilson), allowing for the twins to reconnect for the first time in ten years and open festering wounds.

Lets talk about Hader and Wiig. God knows they deserve it. If anyone can convince us "The Skeleton Twins" is anything more than a limp exercise, that there's a forest in them thar trees, it's these two. Casting them is almost a cheat on Johnson's part, cashing in on their public relationship as SNL cast members and filling holes in the writing with their pre-established chemistry. But hey - if it works, it works.

Where lesser actors might not see past the flat characterizations and few easy traits, these two find the infinite. They create rounded, realized individuals from the ground up, allowing Milo and Maggie to grow beyond symbols of Johnson's typewriter into distinct people we feel like we know. They singlehandedly make "The Skeleton Twins" worthwhile. 

That's not just good acting. That's heroic acting. 

One scene between them in particular arrives halfway through the picture. We know Maggie cheats on Lance and has done it again. Hating herself and the lies she inflicts on her undeserving husband, she heaps all her anger onto Milo. But her brother doesn't flinch, seeing his sister is hurting, and instead walks to the stereo, playing Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." Suddenly Milo comes alive, lip syncing to the song with all the force and passion of someone who's going to cheer up the person he loves now. Maggie resists as long as she can, but even she can't hold out, and soon they're putting on a lip sync concert in their living room.

It's an exuberant, downright life affirming moment, played with heart pounding gusto by Hader and Wiig. Even the most jaded member of the audience would have trouble feeling anything but temporary, unbridled happiness. It also illustrates everything wrong with the movie around it. For a few shining, fleeting minutes, "The Skeleton Twins" forgot it was about blank slates and instead became about these two people right here. 

Too bad it reverts almost immediately back from the color to the grey. Johnson has two potentially sublime characters here, each with their own quirks and faults and hopes and broken promises, yet he hampers them with a screenplay that relies too much on convenience and plot contrivance. Sibling enjoying an illicit relationship with someone they shouldn't? Of course the sibling leaves their cell phone out for caller ID to be visible. 

These aren't people making choices. This is a screenwriter shuffling around the pieces. The final scene, in particular, relies on a character knowing something he or she absolutely should not know, only because Johnson is trapped and needs it to happen.

"The Skeleton Twins" is a dour movie about dour subjects, no question about it. Depression, suicide, homophobia, pedophilia, infidelity, absent parents, and alcohol abuse are just a few items on the checklist. There's a difference between a depressing movie and a just plain lifeless one, though, and it's not something you fix simply by adding more jokes - no one's looking to the "Irreversible" DVD for a deleted pie fight. All you need is passion for the story you're telling. 

Johnson pulls off a few genuinely lyrical shots, and between the indie clap trap, there exists some genuinely cutting conversations about depression and how adult siblings reconcile who they were as kids versus who they grew up to be. But ultimately, "The Skeleton Twins" lies like the dead fish Wiig brings home that play an all-too-obvious symbol.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Run, Don't WALK, To Be AMONG THE TOMBSTONES!

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (directed by Scott Frank, 2014)


 In the first five minutes of "A Walk Among The Tombstones," Liam Neeson hurls a choice racial epithet, orders a shot of whiskey with his coffee, orders a second shot, adjusts his coat to reveal a gun, then as the pièce de résistance, whips out a badge. A few thugs rob the bar he's occupying, killing the owner, and, paying this victim barely a moment's notice, he follows them outside and shoots each with the blatant attempt to kill. With that, we have met our protagonist, Matthew Scudder. This is not a movie that is shy about the details.

Good thing, too, because it's in the details that this movie thrives. Much has been ballyhooed regarding Neeson's improbable late career reinvention as an action star, but that only tells half the story. No one's asking him to star in "Transformers 5: Beyond The Shadow Of The Moon's Extinction Or Whatever." Neeson isn't just the king of mature action movies. He's the king of January or September mature action movies - those wondrous two months when people don't see movies because they're good so much as because they're there.

Lowered expectations can work in one's favor, though; there's a reason people seem to like me on OkCupid. Plop down "Tombstones" in Oscar season or the height of summer, and it's dead on arrival. Key to the movie's success is that it knows what it does well, and with one minor exception to be addressed later, it knows what it doesn't do well. There's something to be said for a competent adult story, told competently, for competent adults. 

Here is a movie that moves with the leisurely pace that only comes with being sure of oneself.

Adapted from a series of novels by Lawrence Block, the plot is classic potboiler. Scudder harbors a dark, alcohol soaked past. He works as a private (albeit unlicensed) investigator; as he discreetly says, he does favors for people who show gratitude in return. A new client, who he knows better to take on, brings a story of woe and a murdered wife, plummeting Scudder into a dark, seedy underworld bigger than he anticipated. Loads of wide shots of Neeson walking in front of dirty brick walls.

As said, "Tombstones" lives in the fringes. Characters drift in and out of his life and the plot. Scudder befriends a homeless black teenager in a recurring bit that feels lifted from "What's Happening!!" instead of "The Maltese Falcon." Instead of derailing the movie, though, it's a humorous aside that writer/director Scott Frank discards and returns to at will. On the other hand, we have a scene on a rooftop between Neeson and a splendid actor named Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, playing a cemetery groundskeeper, that's so well-written and performed, it's almost chilling.

Such is the expert juggling act of "Tombstones." Rarely blatantly humorous, but not unrelentingly bleak either. It has just enough self-awareness to recognize the film noir tropes it's playing with, but at the same time, it genuinely enjoys playing with them. Thoroughly well-crafted pulp.

Perhaps it's fate (or more likely coincidence) that "Tombstones" arrives in theaters the same month as "The Equalizer" with Denzel Washington. Both movies center on sullen, detached older men who are all too skilled in killing. Both movies feature shocking outbursts of violence. But whereas "The Equalizer" postures as an adult thriller until eventually crumbling into its true, immature self, "Tombstones" is surer and more methodical in its approach. 

Frank doesn't relish in portraying violence, and in fact, he seems practically unwilling to do so, saving it for when it counts. Neeson's Scudder is instead a man who would much rather avoid hurting people - he simply wants to learn the story and doesn't much like being lied to. Frank's intent isn't that of a horny teenage boy who wants to see the blood splatter. He's far more interested in the effect, the consequences. What does it mean when someone is killed, and what happens next? When people actually do die in "Tombstones," then, it stings. 

Everything about "Tombstones," in fact, is measured and assured. Frank doesn't hurtle the movie forward like a train, but it's never boring either. He occupies the screen with fascinating moment after moment, rarely cutting too much within a scene and allowing these moments to linger. One key scene, for instance, in a basement features one character walking down the stairs with another character waiting to pounce. A lesser filmmaker would lean on edits, alternating between closeups of the one clueless person and the other hiding in the shadows, maybe earning a cheap jolt when the latter finally makes his move. Instead, Scott shoots this set-up through a single stationary shot, never forcing the confrontation, allowing us to get a feel for where everyone is and what's about to happen before the strike.

This is a movie that, by and large, knows what it's doing, which makes it all the more frustrating when it falters slightly. Although Block's novel takes place in 1992 New York, Scott updates it to 1999. Apart from the easy Y2K jokes (Remember that? Because the movie sure does!), why does Scott make this move? If it wasn't clear before, the final shot, with a sudden appearance of the Twin Towers that recalls Spielberg's "Munich," drives it home in a way that feels rather forced and unearned.

As one character comments, people are afraid of the wrong things. But in trying to connect this seedy, violent world with the post 9/11 society of today, "Tombstones" bites off a bit more than it can chew.

Still, this is an exceedingly well-constructed piece of work, granting Neeson his best role since "The Grey." We all want movies to be great. Can't we also be happy when they simply make theaters in September livable?

All Things Being EQUALIZER, I'd Rather Be In A Better Movie

THE EQUALIZER (directed by Antoine Fuqua, 2014)


There are bad movies that know they're bad movies, bad movies that believe they're good movies, and - a far more damnable variety - bad movies that fool us into thinking they're good movies. These are the pathological liars of cinema. The con men. The ones that build up our hopes only to dash them to the same smithereens that the final few reels belong.

Sadly, this is where "The Equalizer" lies. Walking in, my expectations were admittedly mild, and a funny thing happened: The movie started not half bad. Not reinventing the wheel, mind you. But smooth, stylish, and moving with a confident slow burn signaling the full, mysterious scope of its plot, with us trusting it to reveal everything at its own pace. So I did. And what started as me leaning forward in my seat reverted to upright posture, then a mild slouch. 

By the time we reached the bizarre climax which plays like, no joke, "Home Alone" in Home Depot, I was sitting as low as the same standards to which the filmmaking team appeared to hold themselves.

Such a shame. "The Equalizer" is not only dumb, it's willfully dumb, made by people who should know better. The dumb that casts Denzel Washington as some kind of exceptional genius, then demonstrates his brains largely through reading novels in public and arranging his silverware in straight lines. The kind of dumb that puts its lead in dangerous situations with zero suspense, because we become conditioned to know he'll kill everyone, no problem. The dumb that spends the first half coyly alluding to his tortured past, then basically writes it off as, "He was a spy and maybe killed some people and his wife died or whatever."

Reteaming Washington with "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua (joining The John Singleton Club of people who made one great movie and decided that was enough), "The Equalizer" offers potential even before the opening credits roll. And yes, things begin promisingly enough. We meet Robert McCall (Washington), a clearly overqualified employee of a big box hardware store in Boston. He lives alone and spends most nights sucking down hot tea in his favorite corner booth at a neighborhood diner. When a young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) he befriends at the restaurant is brutally beaten by her employers, he seeks vengeance and his true self emerges, unleashing skills he likely hasn't used in some time as he finds himself deep among a Russian crime syndicate.

Lets talk about Denzel Washington for a second. Could any 60ish-year-old actor play this character as well? A good actor should be able to play good material, yes. But a good movie star should also elevate the bad. He or she should fool us into thinking that even a sucky movie designed solely to win opening weekend is still worth watching. And make no mistake - Washington is one of our most magnetic movie stars and actors (how many people with such a ridiculously symmetrical face could consistently play the "everyman"?). He imbues nothing with something

Lord stand by his side, for he must conjure his deepest, most magical talents to pull this one off. As written, McCall is meant to be a cypher. An enigma. His very lack of back story is his back story. All this works well enough in theory. A mysterious, troubled soul wanders the streets, solvin' problems. There's a distinct difference, though, between "concept" and "person," and without any deepening of the character, he can't advance beyond person we're supposed to root for to person we do root for. In this, Washington proves invaluable. The McCall character (and "The Equalizer" as a whole) is a blank stare brought to life, but Washington suggests history, legitimizes every bit of bland dialogue, and single handedly convinces us there's some serious shit on display. 

Maybe a skosh too serious, actually. I'm not big on comic relief for comic relief's sake. Sometimes the gall not to undercut darkness with laughs takes true conviction. But still, good grief. At the risk of sounding like a cliched dude scolding a strange woman on the street, why don't you show me a smile, "The Equalizer"? In being so somber, so dire, it plays like an overly dark superhero movie that confuses a lack of levity with depth. It even sports the origin story of a superpower - in Washington's case, that magical movie ability to never be killed by the bad guys.

What a ponderous, portentous slog of a movie. What a load of excessive violence that lacks both the verve to be silly fun or the intelligence to earn the gore. At my screening, the projectionist appeared to organize the cues wrong and the house lights partially came up with 15 minutes remaining. Not only did this clarify how darkly, poorly lit the movie is, it also fooled us that we reached the end. Cruel fate, how you tease us.