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The Equalizer 2 (2018)

The Equalizer 2 is lucky that the threshold for entertainment is just low enough to cover even middling affairs where Denzel Washington dishes out righteous justice to the cocky criminals and ne’er-do-wells of the world. This is very much a strict formulaic second entry for 2015’s original movie, based on the TV series. It’s lesser in just about every regard although it returns Washington, director Antoine Fuqua, and writer Richard Wenk. It’s hard not to feel like a paycheck venture where everyone went on some autopilot. The plot takes a bit long to get into gear and it’s desperately missing the first movie’s lead mob investigator to create an enticing game of cat and mouse. I miss the gradual escalation, as Washington’s character gets in worse and worse trouble as he moves up the ranks of the Russian mafia. I would actually say Equalizer 2 is a movie that peaks in its first act (my favorite moment was an episodic dishes of violent retribution with a group of arrogant sexual assaulters). There just isn’t anything truly memorable here. The action can often feel murky with how it’s been photographed, and there is the occasional questionable quirk that would take me out rather than fully engage (baking flour is combustible now?). There is a satisfying storyline where Washington reaches out to an at-risk youth to dissuade him from joining a gang. It has some nicely drawn character moments that feel meaningful, but then it’s back to the grind of whatever an Equalizer movie means in the twenty-first century. I enjoyed the first Equalizer as a modern-day Canon action vehicle with some pretty sickly entertaining deaths and taut action/suspense sequences. It was a movie that made its presence felt beyond Washington’s cool charisma. With the sequel, all we’re left with is Washington’s charisma performing the heavy lifting.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

It was halfway through Roman J. Israel, Esq., a soggy legal thriller and morality play, that I got up and took an extended bathroom break and felt no guilt. At that point I had just sat through a solid hour of set up, establishing Denzel Washington as a frumpy, super autistic, super awkward, out-of-time civil rights lawyer but I kept waiting for the plot to engage. And I kept waiting, and waiting, and finally writer/director Dan Gilroy’s (Nightcrawler) movie seemed to connect some relevant plot events, Roman doing something unethical to profit personally and suffering the consequences. It was here I thought now things will start to ramp up, now there will be a stronger sense of urgency with what was already a loping, ungainly film that felt more like a collection of scenes with little cohesion. Whatever it’s meant to be, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a tedious process, a movie fumbling for an identity. It’s hard for me to believe this is from the same creative voice that gave us the entrancing Nightcrawler. Washington is agreeably playing against type and always worth watching. There are ideas here that could have worked had they been refined and reworked. It just all feels like anything rarely matters or adds up to anything significant. Take for instance Roman’s brief he plans to file that will, by his admission, change the very criminal justice system. He mentions this mission when it appears that his new boss (Colin Farrell) may fire him. It looks like this brilliantly composed legal brief will seem like a pretty big deal. Well Roman doesn’t do anything with it for the rest of the movie, though it does serve as his legacy anyway. Farrell’s character can wildly fluctuate between a lawyer hungry for exposure and high-paying clients and a guy who wants to be like Roman, helping the little guy and advancing civil rights causes. This is a movie that just feels listless, bumping around from one disjointed plot point to another, and the only thing keeping me in my seat was Washington’s acting prowess. But even that couldn’t hold me forever.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fences (2016)

fencesThere’s something about plays turned into movies that bring out the best in actors. Usually they provide meaty characters with flaws and big personalities, which lend themselves to big performances that touch upon every emotion in an actor’s kit. Fences is based upon August Wilson’s Tony-winning play set in 1950s Pittsburgh. It follows the fractious household under the indomitable influence of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, also serving as director). He’s a complex man prone to bold protestations and morally righteous fury, but he’s also deeply imperfect, hypocritical, and consumed with self-doubt over whether or not he has done right by his family. He’s a man trying to still assess his place in the world and what is owed. Troy’s older brother (Mykelti Williamson) has been mentally incapacitated from his war service and Troy has been living off of his brother’s wages. Troy’s oldest son doesn’t feel like he ever had a father, Troy’s youngest son wants to devote a future to sports, which Troy adamantly refuses, still nursing a grudge over his failed potential that was never capitalized in his mind. Then there’s Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) who tries to keep her blended family together though Troy’s actions will test the boundaries of her devotion and affection. As expected, the performances are outstanding, lead by Washington and Davis reprising their Tony-winning roles. When these two sink into roles worthy of their caliber, it’s a pleasure just to sit back and watch the high-class mastery. Washington lights up the screen with the overwhelming power of his performance; you feel like your ears are pinned back by the sheer volcanic strength of his acting. Davis has her moments and she tears your heart out when she lets loose on a life of compromises to sustain her husband. The characters are so multi-layered with such plentiful history and generational conflicts. Every actor gets his or her moment to shine and do an excellent job under Washington’s direction. The movie is little more than a filmed version of the stage play, and the pacing is a bit loquacious for being almost two and a half hours, but Fences rises on the sheer power of its performances with expert actors giving all of their considerable skill to bring these fascinating people to vivid life.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magnificent-seven-poster-2016Obviously the new Magnificent Seven remake was never going to be as good a Western as the 1960 original, or as good an action movie as its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai. Once you accept that, the question becomes whether simply being an enjoyable Western action movie qualifies as a success given its storied pedigree. If you can’t do better than the original, why bother making it as my friend Ben Bailey would question. The answer is of course blunt (money) but the conundrum is how does one improve on classic film masterpieces? I think the new Magnificent Seven found its footing by accepting its unquestioned ceiling and instead going down a different path, instilling the essence of what made the older films so superb, and just trying to be the best B-student it can be with its new set of guidelines for broad entertainment.

The dusty town of Rose Creek falls under attack by ruthless industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants the land for his mining company. He installs loyal toadies as lawmen for the town and to ensure any troublemakers are put to “justice.” Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) wishes to avenge her fallen husband and recruits a famous outlaw, Chisolm (Denzel Washington). He agrees to help and rustles up a powerful posse of gunslingers to defend the town from Bogue and his cruel forces.

There’s a reason this story still works as well as it does and that’s because the structure is ready-made for payoffs and audience satisfaction if the director and actors are capable. Act One establishes the threat and our two main roguish heroes, and then Act Two starts off with the gathering of the team, routinely one of the greatest sequences in screenwriting, and then the Act Two midpoint involves toppling the corrupt thugs controlling the town, and Act Three is the culmination between the forces of anti-hero good versus evil over the ultimate battle for the town. It’s an against-all-odds underdog tale with good but possibly doomed forces against a villain used to steamrolling through vulnerable citizens. I don’t care whom you are, that story structure worked then and it still works now. Fuqua and company don’t break a winning formula and know what strengths they have and how best to maximize them for top entertainment value.

magnificent-seven-2016-castThe biggest asset is this glorious cast, headlined by Washington and Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy). There isn’t admittedly much to these characters from a development standpoint. They’re given back-stories, though some of them are fairly airy and provide a bare minimum of effort. Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) in particular just kind of shows up and everybody shrugs and says, “Why not?” more or less. Also, while on this subject, it’s a bit contrived that when the bad side has their own villainous Native American that the script has to conspire for the only two Native Americans to face-off, especially when we’ve been given no history or connection between them prior to this climactic showdown. Back to the main cast, Washington settles into his suave badass persona we’ve come to expect from the man. He even fades into the background at times, ceding space for the other characters to have their moments. Make no mistake, though, because Washington’s character is a strong central anchor for this movie and even on autopilot this actor still produces attitude with style and gravitas. There’s also the simple pleasure of just watching Washington in a Western. The man was made for this setting of taciturn badasses. The brightest star of the picture is Pratt, expertly cast as a charming rogue with a big personality. What the characters lack in development they make up for in colorful personalities, which is acceptable in a genre that rewards memorably outsized figures of entertainment. Pratt is a fun rascal with a penchant for sarcasm and playing around with his prey. Every minute Pratt commanded the screen was a minute that captured my full attention.

The rest of the cast is solid and make the most of their screen time, putting in memorable supporting performances to compliment the stars. Vincent D’Onofrio (Jurassic World) is basically like a human equivalent of a bear or yeti. He’s this massive and animalistic creature and I appreciated D’Onofrio’s gusto in embracing the peculiarities. In a film of great casting and memorable characters, he nearly steals the movie. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) has one of the more credible character arcs in the film as well as the best name (Goodnight Robicheaux). He’s haunted by a lifetime accumulation of killing. His flinty co-star Byung-hun Lee (RED 2) is the strong silent type and the two of them have a nice gunslinger chemistry, nicely contrasting but still a believable brotherhood in arms. Bennett (Hardcore Henry) is going to break out in a big way in 2016. She has a very arresting face (it’s her eyes) and an instant screen presence, which is hard to do with these guys soaking up much of the oxygen. She also gets to prove her mettle and not be treated as a romantic object, so hooray. My one concern with Bennett was that the costume designer had let her down, as it seemed the top of her gown was dangerously close to slipping off her shoulders at several key points. I understand this is designed to squeeze in a slight surge of sensuality for what is very much a PG-13 action flick but it became distracting with its obviousness. Bennett deserved better, though she might be another figure of T&A with her role in The Girl on the Train. We shall see (maybe much). The only sore spot is the villain, a wasted Sarsgaard (Black Mass) who never quite lives up to a diabolical nature worthy of the attention of our colorful cadre of anti-heroes. He’s a bully but he doesn’t seem formidable enough or that interesting.

magnificentsevenFuqua (The Equalizer) hasn’t been the most consistent stager of action with his up-and-down career but he puts out all the stops with The Magnificent Seven to great effect. The action sequences are robust and shot with great attention to geography and escalation. I knew exactly what the stakes were with each sequence and gun battle, and I knew the different people and their placement and the goals. With a crew of seven and counting, it can be difficult to adequately find room for each of the fighters to be well utilized and have at least a moment that matters (just look at what happened with Suicide Squad). The second half of Act Two is our team plotting how to compensate for the overwhelming forces coming down their way, and the plotting produces plenty of opportunities as the audience watches the setups and waits for the payoff jamboree. There are little payoffs, big payoffs, crowd-pleasing payoffs, character arc pleasing payoffs; it’s an action movie that knows the climax should be the best part, and it doesn’t disappoint. The town may be in rubble and strewn with corpses by film’s end, but you’ll be happy and content from the wealth of tense and smartly directed action. Helping things along, Fuqua’s Wild West photography is often strikingly beautiful with its use of natural light.

The Magnificent Seven makes up for its lack of originality and rich characters in colorful personality and the sheer scope and intensity of its action. It can’t contend with John Sturgis and Akira Kurosawa, but what modern movie can? I don’t fault the movie for failing to live up to the standards of two classics in two different genres. I instead credit the movie for knowing its strengths and knowing how best to develop and deliver them for maximum mass appeal enjoyment. The cast is wonderfully selected and given fun characters to dig into, and the onscreen camaraderie of our seven might not rise to the level of magnificence but it’s pretty good by all accounts. That’s a rather keen summary of the movie writ large; with modestly recalculated expectations, the movie may not be magnificent but it’s plenty good and plenty entertaining. Washington and Pratt are stars making full use of their broad star appeal. The action sequences are well staged and peppered with payoffs, and it’s worth congratulating the team on having several parallel lines of action and keeping all of the shifting particulars understandable for its audience. The Magnificent Seven is about as good as I expected any remake to be, and while it doesn’t rise to those storied heights it does achieve its goals with vigor and style.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Equalizer (2014)

imagesIf your idea of a fine time at the movies is watching Denzel Washington be a badass and murder people in grisly fashion for two hours, then The Equalizer is right up your alley. There’s not much to the plot of this loose remake of the 1980s TV show of the same name; Denzel plays a man with a mysterious past who works at a large Home Depot-esque hardware store. He sees injustice transpiring against his pals, and he fixes it in a violent fashion. The movie is two storylines that don’t converge until the final act, namely the Russian crime syndicate trying to ascertain who this vengeful badass just might be, and Denzel doing his episodic vigilante good deeds. The climactic act is a drawn out showdown where Denzel uses every part of the hardware store to deadly results. There’s definitely a pleasure in watching Denzel dispatch tough-talking baddies, and that’s what the film delivers, no more, no less. The confrontations are generally well written and ratchet tension nicely, especially when Denzel has some chilly conversations with his soon-to-be-victims before they inevitably make their bad decisions. The tense sit-downs were more entertaining for me than the bloody violence. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) goes about his business in a more than competent manner; the technical qualities are above average, though the film has moments where it seems too infatuated with its slick sense of style (slow-mo rain gun battles?). With a stream of bad guys to be toppled at a steady interval, The Equalizer can start to feel like an assembly line of cocksure carnage, a ready-made vehicle for audience blood lust. Still, watching Denzel be a badass and kill a whole lot of bad people is enough for a movie. Just don’t expect much more than that scenario and you may be satisfied if you’re not too squeamish when it comes to bloodshed.

Nate’s Grade: B

Flight (2012)

The advertising for Flight has highlighted the sexier elements, the star wattage of Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, and the thrills of the air disaster. What you get is a different matter. The first thirty minutes prepares you for one movie, and then Flight takes off in a different direction, a path that fails to capitalize on the potential of the subject matter.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is one hell of a pilot. He miraculously lands a downed airplane, limiting the loss of life to six. He is also a hell of a drunk. Whip also happened to be drunk and high on cocaine at the time of the crash. As the airline investigation searches for the causes that lead to the crash, Whip and his team, longtime friend and union ally (Bruce Greenwood) and high-priced ethically sketchy defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) try and protect their own. The media is agog in hero worship with Whip, but they don’t know about what awaits in his blood test drawn at the scene of the crash. As Whip prepares for possible criminal charges, he meets a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and the two form a connection. He hides out at his father’s old estate, invites her along, and they struggle to stay clean and fly right. But temptation is too powerful a beast for Whip, and he will continue to make poor decisions.

It’s really a modern-age version of The Lost Weekend or The Days of Wine and Roses. It is an alcoholism story. We’re all familiar with them at this point in the movies. A part of me thinks addiction stories are some of the easiest ones to write; you take a flawed character, introduce the addiction, have them determined to get sober, and then provide temptation after temptation. And that’s kind of what Flight feels like. The compelling elements of the movie, notably the legal ramifications of the crash and the political maneuvering, get too often sidelined by a repetitious mélange of Whip getting drunk or thinking about getting drunk or trying not to get drunk. There are many ups and downs, but the cycle of addiction and abuse starts to grow weary, especially when the movie offers more interesting and unique story avenues worth exploring. The airplane sequence is a taut, horrifying, intense sequence. The legal wrangling resulting from it seems like the stuff of good drama. The airline is trying to limit its monetary damage, the lawyers are trying to cover for their clients including having the dead crew stripped from the fatality numbers, and all the while the investigation is getting closer to uncovering Whip’s secret. That’s the movie I wanted to see with Flight. The majority of what I got was a by-the-books addiction parable with some good actors. The movie seems to be going in too many different directions.

Zemeckis’ return to live-action is welcomed and long overdue, and it’s great seeing him direct real people in real environments again, even if the finished film is flawed. His interests seem more with the special effects-laden crash, a harrowing sequence for the ages. When it gets to the addict stuff, it seems like Zemeckis goes on autopilot himself, bowing to the strength of his charismatic star sucking everything into his orbit. The movie becomes an acting showcase for Washington’s abilities at the expense of a completely coherent plot or tone. At times the film seems cavalierly comic, particularly with John Goodman’s character that gets treated like an endearing figure. He’s Whip’s chief source of drugs and his chief enabler and his casual nature with hardcore drugs, and the film’s noncommittal stance, gives the movie a strange, unsettling quality. Then there’s the religious aspect that feels like it flew in from a whole other screenplay (I can’t tell whether the film is dismissive of religion or just flippant). Plus Zemeckis just can’t help himself when it comes to on-the-nose literal music selections (after Whip gets high due to his compatriots, the elevator plays the Muzak version of the Beatles’ “Some Help from My Friends.”). It’s at this point I’m so happy for Zemeckis to be back making live-action movies, I’m probably giving Flight an even bigger pass than it may deserve.

I’m not sure the Nicole character provides anything substantial to this movie, let alone the movie treating her as a co-lead for the first thirty minutes. In between our moments of watching Whip on the plane, we have scenes of Nicole going about her sad day. I’m wondering how in the world these storylines are going to connect and why we have to leave the drama of the plane for the mundane life of an addict eeking out a desperate life. These should not be parallel storylines; the audience interest is not divided here. Nobody is complaining about spending too much time with Whip and the plane crash. No one is saying, “I wish I could see that woman’s sad life some more.” Why did we even need to see Nicole before she meets Whip in the hospital? Were all of those early scenes just too essential to lose in a movie over two hours? Thematically, I can understand that Nicole presents a romantic possibility but also a reward for Whip if he stays clean and sober. Seeing him screw up this pseudo-relationship is another example to convey the self-destructive nature of Whip. I get that. But if this woman were really integral to the plot, she wouldn’t vanish for the entire final act.

It’s easy to see why actors are always attracted to addict roles. They’re usually showy parts that allow for many opportunities to bottom out. Rest assured, Washington (Safe House) is uniformly excellent, portraying a deeply flawed individual prone to grandiose self-delusion and justification for his behavior. We’re so used to seeing Washington play the calm, cool, collected men of dignity, men who seem preternaturally gifted at leading others. With Flight, he becomes far more vulnerable, a self-destructive character that pushes others away and betrays the trust and faith of others. He’s not fighting some larger external force; he’s battling his internal demons that continually lead him astray. He can be petty, mean, weak, delusional, and downright unlikable at turns. It’s a strong performance that anchors the film. The other actors all provide admirable backup duties, from Cheadle to Greenwood to a brief appearance from Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as an airline investigator. I want to single out James Badge Dale (HBO’s The Pacific) for the impression he makes with a part that amounts to one single scene in the movie. He plays a gaunt cancer patient sneaking away for a stairwell smoke (“Wouldn’t want to give my cancer cancer”), joined by Whip and Nicole. He’s so good with the gallows humor and surprisingly poignancy that I wanted the camera to just start following him.

I want to point out one quirk during my movie going experience with Flight. I was easily the youngest person in my theater by 20 years minimum. I don’t enjoy seeing movies with a predominantly elderly crowd because they do not follow the agreed-upon rules of movie decorum. They often engage in conversations or provide a running commentary. A man two rows behind me had his watch beep for a solid minute to inform him, and the theater, it was now seven o’clock. Either he didn’t hear it beeping (which defeats the purpose) or couldn’t figure out this new-fangled 1980s watch technology to turn it off (which also defeats the purpose). Anyway, what I really enjoyed then was the audible reactions when Flight’s beginning, its very opening images, was a pair of naked breasts. The first scene features Whip and flight attendant Katerina (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velaquez) getting dressed after a wild night of booze, cocaine, and sex. Whip talks to his ex-wife on the phone, and in one ongoing camera shot, we watch Velaquez walk around completely naked. Then she leaves off screen… and comes back still completely naked. Now I mention this not to reconfirm my red-blooded heterosexuality but because it delighted me to no end to listen to the grumbling of the older audience members. And yeah, the nudity is fairly gratuitous but I’m happy Zemeckis was able to rankle my elder audience before the second second of film.

Flight is also unique in the sense that it may be the only film I know of to posit that drugs and alcohol could save lives. Will is drunk and high while flying, but he saves the day because of his impairment. Ordinarily in the event of a crash or a dive he would revert to his training; every pilot in a flight simulator recreating the events crashed and killed all passengers. Instead, Will goes by instinct, thinking outside the box, and saving the day. And what enables him to do this? Booze, sweet life-saving booze! He’s so calm and relaxed in the moment that he’s able to think straight and discover unorthodox solutions in limited time. Flight never makes this fact explicit but I think it would have made a more interesting film if this debate had been given more airtime. Yeah Whip was drunk, but not every drunk is impaired the same. I’m not excusing driving while intoxicated, but the movie presents a strange situation, fictional yes, where drugs and alcohol saved lives. Then in the end, and our lead is in trouble, what does it look like will save the day? Cocaine! Seriously, the white knight in the final act is the white powder.

I think audience might be in for a rude awakening while they sit through Flight, advertised as an airline thriller. It’s still a competent, occasionally compelling movie with strong acting from Washington and others, but are audiences really interested in another alcoholism drama even if it has Big Stars? The most frustrating part of Flight is that it has so much potential, so many intriguing storylines or angles to choose from, and it settles on the most mainstream one, the familiar arc of an alcoholic coming to terms with their addiction. How is that more dramatic than an airline crash or the later investigation and legal witch-hunt to find a culprit to blame? The movie prefers to focus on the minor rather than the major, following the familiar formula to the very end when our lead has to make a grave moral decision. It’s a character study but the character and his path are the familiar. All the stuff that makes Flight different (the airline disaster, the investigation, the politics of blame) is the stuff that gets relegated so we can watch Whip screw up time and again. There’s an interesting study on hero worship buried somewhere in all this. I enjoyed Flight more in the moment but it has been crumbling under further reflection and analysis. I’m dearly glad Zemeckis has stepped back to the land of the living but Flight has too much baggage to go anywhere new and exciting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Safe House (2012)

Safe House is an an action movie that has some nice above-average action sequences strung together by a very sub-average plot. Tobin (Denzel Washington) is a rogue CIA agent being hunted down by shadowy forces. Or is he? A young agent (Ryan Reynolds) was responsible for the safe house in Cape Town that was breached and now takes it upon himself to bring Tobin in for the agency. Or does he? If you’ve seen any spy thriller in the last few years then you’ll recognize the glut of clichés and be able to ably predict the traitorous higher-ups using the economy of characters. Here’s a clue to the villains of the picture: don’t keep all your villainous deeds together on one computer file (and don’t label it “All Our Evil Deeds,” try instead, “Vacation Photos.”). Washington and Reynolds are appealing actors even in ho-hum parts. Washington never seems as devilish or as clever as his character is billed to be. While the plot is bland, director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money) knows how to shoot some thrilling action sequences. The style is a bit of a Bourne rehash, what with the jangly camera angles, but the movie has a surprising level of verisimilitude; when two guys fight it really feels like a couple guys beating the crap out of each other. The chase sequences are well staged and find smart ways to make use of its South Africa location, like a chase through the levels of a soccer arena or a race atop the rooftops of shanty homes. It’s when the movie stops to catch its breath and the plot reemerges that Safe House becomes a snoozer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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