Thursday, September 25, 2014

A store clerk who' s really an avenger

Denzel Washington gets serious about taking out Russian mobsters.
Hardware store salesman by day. Avenger by night.

He's The Equalizer, the title character of a new thriller that reunites Denzel Washington with Antoine Fuqua, the director who guided Washington toward his best-actor Oscar in 2001's Training Day.

In The Equalizer, which is based on a 1980s TV show, Washington plays Robert McCall, a loner who works at a Boston big-box store called Home Mart. A believer in healthy eating and physical fitness, Robert helps an overweight co-worker prepare for a fitness test he must pass in order to become a security guard at Home Mart.

Health-oriented as he is, McCall is also an insomniac. He stays up all night, drinking tea in a 24-hour Boston diner and reading number 91 of the 100 great books he's set out to conquer.

Robert's monkish existence (as well as his reading of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea) is disrupted when he meets a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) who's been badly beaten by her pimp. Thus stirred, McCall's desire to protect the weak sets him on a course in which he tries to free the young woman from the tyranny of her vicious Russian mobster pimps.

In his battle with the Russians, McCall displays so much physical prowess we immediately know that he's no ordinary guy: After all, ordinary guys don't usually know how to push a corkscrew through an opponent's chin.

Later, we learn (as if we hadn't already guessed) that McCall's a former secret agent who's trying to live an anonymous life.

Washington wastes his gravitas and star power on a thriller that takes itself more seriously than it should and which culminates in an over-the-top battle in the Home Mart store, a series of deaths by hardware that's as gruesome as it is preposterous. Watch out for nail guns and power drills.

It's probably best not to think much about the social dynamics at work here. McCall is one of those disconnected characters who's trying to move through life without leaving traces.

The supporting cast tries to match Washington's intensity. Marton Csokas plays a sadistic Russian who has been sent to Boston to slow McCall's vengeful roll. Melissa Leo turns up in a small role as one of McCall's former associates, and, in what surely qualifies as the most thankless acting job of the year, Bill Pullman portrays Leo's husband, a true afterthought of a character.

The Equalizer probably will score big at the box office, but for my money, the movie traffics in the kind of revenge that works best when not presented in A-list, IMAX super-productions.

Washington's substntial presence pushes The Equalizer into the center ring, but the movie never really establishes itself as anything more than another over-amplified butt-kicker. And Fuqua's attempt to create a near-superhero -- while simultaneously maintaining an atmosphere of gritty urban realism -- hardly encourages plausibility.

Impressive as it is, McCall's vengeful spree doesn't prove emotionally satisfying. By the end, McCall's violence no longer express our collective outrage or our desire for moral balance: It's just what the man does.

A look a cheesy world that's pretty 'gouda'

Boxtrollscan be both distinctive and amusing.
The folks who made the popular animated movies Coraline and ParaNorman are at it again. The Boxtrolls falls a trifle short of previous Laika Studios work, but still manages to be both entertaining and distinctive, an expression of the appealingly cracked thinking we've come to expect from Laika.

This time, Laika imagines an inherently absurd world in which status in the town of Cheesebridge is signified by white, stovepipe hats that look as if they've been borrowed from Dr. Seuss.

True to the town's name, cheese has become the currency in which the status-hungry deal. Nothing in Cheesebridge exceeds the privilege of gathering in a tasting room to sample fine cheeses with other White Hats.

Loosely based on author Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters, The Boxtrolls focuses on a boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who lives among the Boxtrolls, lumpy-looking creatures who wear cardboard boxes and who run around the city scavenging from garbage piles.

For nourishment, the trolls pop multi-colored insects as if they were M&Ms. They also collect discarded objects from alleys as a way of furnishing their underground home.

Of course, the Boxtrolls have a nemesis. An exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) plans to eliminate all trolls. In true fairy tale fashion, he libels the poor creatures, blaming them for capturing and killing children.

Unwilling to wait for an elevated status, Snatcher sometimes gains entry into society's loftier regions by dressing in drag and posing as Madame Frou-Frou, a singer in full chanteuse regalia.

Snatcher hopes to shed his disguise and become a bona fide member of the White Hat society so that he, too, can feast on fine cheeses with Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris).

A cheese obsessive himself, the snooty Lord Portley-Rind pretty much ignores his young daughter (Elle Fanning).

Left to her own devices, Fanning's Winnie meets Eggs, and the two eventually join forces to save the Boxtrolls and bring balance to a world gone lopsided in its quest for status.

The world we discover in The Boxtrolls tends to be darkly hued, a look that isn't helped by 3D, which proves entirely superfluous in establishing the Dickensian mood directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable seem to be after.

I would have preferred a less action-oriented finale, but The Boxtrolls, with musical numbers by Eric Idle, has a fair share of off-kilter charm.

Be sure to stay put for the end credits, which are both amusing and instructive.

Chasing the soul of Jimi Hendrix

Andre Benjamin makes a convincing Jimi Hendrix in John Ridley's look at a tumultuous year in the guitarist's life.
Last year, John Ridley won an Oscar for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay, which he adapted from a memoir by Solomon Northrup.

Given the formal structure of that work, Ridley's Jimi: All Is By My Side -- which he both wrote and directed -- comes as a surprise, a spontaneous-feeling work that focuses on a tumultuous year in the guitarist's life.

All is By My Side reflects the taste of Hendrix's time, a moment when moviegoers flocked to films that felt as if they were expanding experience, showing what it was like to travel in certain circles.

That immersive late '60s quality and a fine performance by Outkasts's Andre Benjamin make All is By My Side a dizzying introduction to the scene that swirled around the enigmatic Hendrix from 1966-67.

Hendrix was nothing if not elusive: He could be poetic, brutal, childish or daring. A musical genius, he refused classification, but played well enough to reduce the great Eric Clapton to quivering silence during a now-famous London jam session.

Benjamin captures Hendrix's naivety, alienation and charm. It's a performance full of suggestion and charisma, the kind of star power Hendrix learns to use to his advantage. He's the coolest guy in just about any room, and increasingly, he knows it.

It's misguided to think of All is By My Side as a bio-pic. Its scenes emerge and vanish like smoke, re-creating a creative and chaotic pop-cultural aura.

Ridley does, howeover, include biographical elements: Hendrix was discovered by Linda Keith (a terrific Imogen Poots) at a New York club. Keith Richards' girlfriend at the time, Keith sees Hendrix's star potential, something he has yet to grasp.

Keith introduces Hendrix to Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), a member of The Animals who's thinking about shifting gears. He wants to manage rock stars. Chandler takes Hendrix to London, where the music scene percolates with energy. There, Hendrix establishes a sometimes volatile relationship with a woman named Kathy (Hayley Atwell).

Kathy loves him, but eventually learns that no one ever will possess Hendrix. Stability may not have been in his nature.

There are great scenes in the movie that seem to come out of nowhere. To open a Saville Theatre concert, Hendrix decides to play Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The expectation is that he'll offend the Beatles, several of whom happened to be in attendance.

But Hendrix is so confident of his ability to claim any song as his own, he proceeds, pulling his bandmates (Oliver Bennett and Tom Dunlea) along with him. It's a daring act of musicianship and bravado, almost a memo to the Beatles saying, "This is what it could have been."

Ridley wasn't able to obtain rights to Hendrix's original recordings, so he had to use substitute musicians. That may explain why we don't learn enough about how Hendrix developed his amazing talent, but Ridely gives the movie a sense of immediacy that makes up for the deficiency.

Hendrix's band was called the Jimi Hendrix Experience: I don't know what sort of legal difficulties might have been involved, but the band's name would have made a better title than All is By My Side.

It's also a fine description of what you'll get from Ridley's drifting recreation of a lost moment: Here for the taking is a Jimi Hendrix experience.

On the mad road to meaninglessness

Terry Gilliam's latest abounds with creativity -- and chaos.
Let's call Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem a wildly ambitious and sometimes invigorating mess.

Only an imagination as fertile as Gilliam's could create a movie that playfully poses the biggest of questions: Is the entire universe heading for oblivion, thus rendering all human activity meaningless?

To aid in this out-sized inquiry, Gilliam concocts a dystopian world in which a man named Qohen (Christoph Waltz) receives an assignment from a character called Management (Matt Damon).

Qohen's job: to find a mathematical equation that proves that all life adds up to nothing -- or something like that.

Not surprisingly, the assignment drives poor Qohen batty as he encounters a variety of strangely colorful characters: his supervisor (David Thewlis), a woman (Melanie Thierry) sent by Management to arouse Qohen sexually, and a whip-smart teen-ager (Lucas Hedges), who happens to be Management's son.

At one point, the distressed Qohen engages in a form of therapy with a virtual therapist played by Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable in the recent Snowpiercer and almost as unrecognizable here.

Near the beginning, Qohen -- who refers to himself either as "we" or "us" -- requests permission to work at home: It seems he once received a phone call from someone purporting to explain the meaning of life, but the connection was lost. He's hoping the mystery caller will get back to him.

Ridiculous? Of course, but with Gilliam, it's not so much the story he tells that matters, but the world he creates.

Working from a screenplay by Pat Rushin, Gilliam drops characters into the middle of a tipsy world to see how they'll react.

This time, Gilliam creates a funky reality that mixes high tech gadgetry and low-tech grunge. Qohen lives in an abandoned, rotting church (think metaphorically), where he plies his trade in front of a large screen.

It's possible to see The Zero Theorem as an extension of Gilliam's work in the much-admired Brazil, although devotees of that movie may not find this one quite as appealing.

The Zero Theorem overflows with boundary-pushing visual invention: a crucifix in which the head of Jesus has been replaced by a security camera, for example.

Moreover, the actors are game for anything Gilliam throws at them, including some of the year's most preposterously amusing costumes from designer Carlo Poggioli.

The lack of a compelling story eventually takes its toll, but Zero Theorem is the kind of visual feast that Gilliam fans will tolerate better than those who haven't joined the club.

For those fans, even a Gilliam failure may be better than someone else's run-of-the-mill "success."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Another Hollywood family grieves

It's not as bad you might think, but This is Where I Leave You is burdened by formula.
A mother (not Jewish) tells her four grown children that her departed husband (Jewish) made a final request: He wanted his family to sit shiva, the seven-day period of mourning that follows a Jewish death. During the period, the family receives guests who wish to pay condolences.

This is Where I Leave You uses a suburban shiva as a contrivance around which to string a strong comedy cast that's anchored by Jason Bateman and Tina Fey.

If you've seen the much-exposed trailer, you've got a pretty good idea about the movie's humor, which tends toward dismaying predictability.

And you certainly won't be surprised to learn that This is Where I Leave You eventually attempts to wring emotion out of the family's alternately awkward and combative encounters. The movie was directed by Shawn Levy (Date Night and Night at the Museum) from a screenplay by Jonathan Tropper, who adapted his own novel.

The story centers on Bateman's Judd Altman, a pleasant enough fellow who produces a radio talk show. Judd's life comes apart when he arrives home to find his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard).

We are, of course, talking about an ultimate-bad-day scenario: Almost immediately after Judd's marriage and job go down the drain, he receives a phone call informing him of his father's death.

Judd, who becomes a kind of sitcom version of Job, heads home where he reunites with his mother (Jane Fonda) and siblings.

His older brother (Corey Stoll) runs the family's sporting goods store, and is manfully trying to perform his sexual duty with his wife (Kathryn Hahn). She's desperate to become pregnant.

Judd's sister Wendy (Fey) has a wavering marriage and two small children, one of whom has a fondness for using his potty in public, something the movie apparently regards as so hilarious, it must be repeated several times.

The irresponsible Altman brother (Adam Driver) shows up with an older woman (Connie Britton) in what's supposed to be his first serious relationship.

As the story unfolds, Judd reconnects with Penny (Rose Byrne), a woman who liked him in high school and who looms as a potential love interest. God forbid anyone in a Hollywood movie experience anything resembling lingering dejection and loneliness.

Timothy Olyphant turns up sporadically as one of Wendy's former boyfriends, a guy whose promising future hit the skids when he was brain damaged in an auto accident.

Not enough characters? Throw in Ben Schwartz as the local rabbi, a clergyman who the Altman brothers knew and tormented as a kid, and who now arrives to torment an audience.

The writing mixes sit-com style cleverness with heartfelt exchanges, creating scenes aimed at Hollywood's solid double; i.e., a blend of laughs and tears.

Apart from the fact that none of the siblings looks as if they've sprung from the same gene pool, the movie comes off as a formulaic attempt to be quirky.

Neither as painful as the trailer might lead you to believe nor as successful as it surely wanted to be, This is Where I Leave You feels like a movie that wanted to click in a big way, but put far too much effort into trying. It shows.

A young wife's vanishing act

Chastain and McAvoy strike impressive notes in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is a hybrid creation that results from making a two-hour feature out of two separate movies that ambitiously tried to observe a troubled marriage from the vantage points of both husband and wife.

This amalgamated production, which stars James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, may not achieve greatness, but it's not without its virtues.

Chastain gives another deeply inhabited performance, this time playing a woman who's trying to shut down most of her feelings, and you certainly sense the high ambition in director Ned Benson's approach. He includes the work lives of the characters, as well as their relationships with parents and friends.

In this version, Benson proves a master of slow disclosure, gradually dispensing relevant information as we become more familiar with the characters. An estranged husband and wife are dealing with a tragic event that totally upended their marriage and just about everything else in their lives.

The movie moves back and forth between Eleanor (Chastain) and Conor (McAvoy). They open the movie in a scene set during their courtship. They're in a restaurant, and Conor lacks sufficient funds to pay the bill.

The adventurous Eleanor devises an escape route, bonding the couple with an illicit act that suggests the outlines of the relationship we'll get to known better as the story progresses.

After a suicide attempt, the shattered Eleanor moves in with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt). A university professor, Hurt's character tries to help Eleanor, often to no avail.

Dad does, however, introduce her to a professor and former colleague (Viola Davis) who's teaching a course on identity formation, and who approaches life with a savvy, slightly cynical air that's a bit too unvaried to be totally convincing.

McAvoy's Conor, who's trying to keep a struggling bar and restaurant afloat, moves in with his father (Ciaran Hinds). In contrast to his son, Hinds' character operates a highly successful bar and restaurant, but seems stuck in his own brand of misery anyway.

Bill Hader plays Conor's pal and the chef at his restaurant, a guy who evidently has had a long-standing relationship with his buddy.

Eleanor Rigby (an avid Beatles fan, her father saddled her with the name) vanishes from Conor's life. Again and again, he tries to make contact with her.

At about two hours in length, the movie overstays its welcome, but I found it watchable, even when I felt as if I were observing actors trying to work out difficult issues in various challenging scene studies.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby makes you (at least it did me) eager to see Benson's two-film study of a marriage. Perhaps, then, its best parts -- and there are many -- would cohere in a more impressive way.

Kevin Smith gets his weird on

Director Kevin Smith's Tusk isn't much more than a stunt.

Watching Tusk, it's difficult not to think that Smith has crawled into the dark hole of Human Centipede territory. Supplementing gross-outs and physical mutilation with splashes of pseudo-philosophizing, Smith tells the story of Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a podcaster who seems to delight in making fun of people.

Bryton and his on-air sidekick (Haley Joel Osment) call themselves members of the Not See party, a bad joke from a couple of guys who don't seem especially funny, but who consistently crack each other up.

Glib and self-satisfied, Bryton travels to Canada to interview a young man who sliced off his leg making a Kill Bill-style video that went viral on You Tube.

When Bryton arrives in Canada, he discovers that his Kill Bill subject has committed suicide. In the restroom of a bar, a dejected Bryton sees a letter tacked to a bulletin board, inviting all comers to visit a remote mansion to hear adventure stories.

Badly in need of a podcast subject, a curious Bryton answers the call.

The movie adopts horror movie overtones when Bryton meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an eloquent man who gives him drugged tea and employs surgical procedures to turn him into (wait for it) a walrus.

At first, it seems as if Howard is a self-appointed avenger for Bryton's cruelty. But that thread unravels, leaving us to wonder whether Smith has anything more in mind than shocks bolstered by occasional ramblings about whether humans are nothing more than sadistic animals.

Bryton's girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and his partner (Osment) eventually begin a search for the vanished podcaster.

En route, they encounter an uncredited star, who plays a French-Canadian detective with a variable accent. (It's easy enough to figure out who's playing detective Guy Lapointe. Just search around a bit.)

Smith tries to temper the movie's macabre tendencies with a bit of humanizing end-of-picture emotion, but if you stick around for the final credits, you'll hear the director discussing a possible ending with a laughing colleague.*

They're both mightily amused in a smug way that undermines any emotion Smith might have achieved.

Say this, though: If Smith buckled down, he might have some serious horror chops.


*Smith reportedly conceived of Tusk after a podcast in which he and his producer Scott Mosier discussed an ad they'd seen in which a man offered free living space to anyone who'd agree to dress up as a walrus. Smith then asked his Twitter followers to vote on whether this crazy idea should be turned into a movie. The "yes" votes won. The ad evidently was a prank.

The fury of men behind bars

The accents may be difficult, but the message is clear.

By the time 19-year-old Eric Love arrives in an adult prison, he's already been schooled in brutality. Eric, the main figure in the hard-as-nails British movie Starred Up, has an explosive temper that leads him to acts of extreme violence. He's a young man who has had to spend most of his short life defending himself -- often in the most violent possible ways.

The term "starred up," by the way, refers to being sent to a maximum security prison at a tender age. That's a bit of British slang in a movie with accents so thick, you may find yourself wishing for subtitles. No matter. You'll get the gist.

At first impassive, Eric -- brilliantly played by Jack O'Connell in a shockingly physical performance -- quickly lets us know that he's defiant and uncontrollable. Eric also understands the dangerous environment into which he has been thrust. As soon as he reaches his cell, he makes a weapon out of his prison-issued toothbrush and razor.

We're not sure what landed Eric in jail, but whatever it was couldn't have been worth it. The prison is full of tough men and corrupted officials. Only a lone therapist (Rupert Friend) makes any attempt at rehabilitating lost souls. Friend's character believes that some prisoners can change and that Eric is young enough to be one of them.

Once director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Jonathan Asser establish the prison environment, they begin telling a story in which another prisoner tries to control Eric. He happens to be Eric's real father (Ben Mendelsohn), a man who's apparently serving a life sentence. Mendelsohn's Neville Love had little to do with raising his son, who grew up in institutional settings where he was abused.

Mendelsohn, who first came to international attention in the Australian film Animal Kingdom, displays the simmering frustration of a father who wants to protect his son, but who hardly knows the kid whose violent outbursts make you shudder.

In one of his super-tantrums, Eric bites into the crotch of a prison guard, and refuses to let go.

Two men seem to rule the prison. An indifferent warden (Sam Spruell) and a top con (Peter Ferinando). Together, they conspire to keep the lid on, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

We're thrown into this raging stew along with Eric, who gradually becomes the center of what might be described as the world's toughest coming-of-age story.

There's no sentiment in this hard-boiled world. But the more we see of this grim prison, the more we realize Mackenzie wants to pose fundamental questions about whether a man's humanity totally can be destroyed.

Starred Up tends to make us feel as caged as its prisoners: Put another way: I've seldom been so glad to see a gripping, admirable movie come to an end.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hardy, Gandolfini carry 'The Drop'

The most powerful guys in The Drop , a tasty new crime movie set on the urban fringe, don't get much screen time. They're Chechen gangsters who have taken over gambling from Brooklyn thugs who used to be somebodies, but now are pretty much old news.

Cousin Marv's bar, where much of the story takes place, still bears Marv's name, and Marv still smokes incessantly at a corner desk, but everyone knows that Marv lost the neighborhood joint to Chechens who now use the place as one of their many drops for gambling money.

The bar's dingy, over-used look makes it seem as if you almost can smell the sour odor of cheap rye, and in a movie such as this, atmosphere counts.

Adapted by Dennis Lehane from his short story Animal Rescue, The Drop takes us into the lumpen world of low-level thugs, mob wannabes and at least one guy who's just plain crazy.

Directed by Michael R. Roskam, the Belgian director best known for the movie Bullhead, The Drop features strong performances from Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini.

Gandolfini plays Marv, and Hardy portrays Bob Saginowski, Marv's cousin, a bartender who doesn't come off as the brightest of lights. Bob works for Marv, and seems reasonably content with what appears to be a fairly meager lot.

The story begins when Bob finds a battered bull-terrier puppy in a garbage can. He rescues the dog, and later receives puppy-care advice from Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a woman who gradually warms up to Bob, who's not a pushy sort. She encourages him to name the puppy Rocco.

Because Bob may be getting played by some very dangerous people, you keep fretting about the dog's safety, and that gives the movie an extra layer of tension.

Lehane (Gone Baby, Gone and Mystic River) usually sets his stories in Boston, and I'm not sure what he gained by moving this one to Brooklyn.

But Lehane's plotting holds up, and the actors make us forgive dialogue that sometimes tries too hard to be ripe.

Hardy, the British actor last seen in Locke, is terrific when used correctly, and he's used to great effect here. It's impossible to look at him without thinking of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, but Hardy's not doing a Brando imitation. He's creating a character that's all his.

It's difficult to say just how good Hardy is without including a spoiler, so I'll say nothing more than it's best to reserve judgement about Hardy's shambling performance until the picture's done.

Familiar from the Swedish version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rapace works equally well as the tough but wary Nadia, and Gandolfini is superb as a guy whose authority has been reduced to worrying about the few free drinks that Bob occasionally dispenses.

Gandolfini's Bob has lost some of his spark, but seems just smart enough to make us worry. Marv lives with his sister (Ann Dowd).

Matthias Schoenaerts, who appeared in Bullhead, gives another notable performance. Schoenaerts plays a wild-card character, a psychopath who claims to be the dog's original owner.

Roskam, whose Bullhead dealt with cattle smuggling and the illegal hormone trade, does a solid job, laying on the right amount of grit and keeping the performances on track.

You'd think a Belgian director, a British actor and a Swedish actress might take some of the sting out of a grimy little U.S.-based crime movie, but a powerhouse cast turns this trickily plotted thriller into a lowlife fable that's steeped in just the right amount of sadness.

And, yes, some of that sadness stems from knowing that this was Gandolfini's last movie and wishing it weren't so.