Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: "The Equalizer 2"

There’s a rote sense of sameness to “The Equalizer 2.” The original action/thriller four years ago starred Denzel Washington as an ex-CIA killer plying his skills for the benefit of random strangers -- the Good Samaritan with a heaping helping of chock-socky. It was (very) loosely based on the 1980s TV show, which starred a dapper Brit instead of a stern middle-aged black man.

If you liked the first one, you’ll probably find the second agreeable. There just aren’t many surprises or new revelations to recommend it.

Old guy. Who kicks ass. That’s the movie.

Every scene starts for the proposition of, “How could this frumpy guy bumping up against senior citizen status possibly take out multiple bad guys each decades his junior?” And then he does.

It’s fun for a while. The whole film is like a magician performing variations on the same trick, over and over again. At some point you get tired of seeing the hare come out of the hat and want them to saw a lady in half, or something.

Director Antoine Fuqua returns, having paired with Washington on a number of films now over nearly two decades. The star and the filmmaker seem to have an innate sense of each other’s rhythm, so we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the inner workings of Robert McCall. Instead, we feel like we just know him.

He’s lonely, a bit bitter. Bad stuff has happened in his life -- chiefly the death of his wife, Vivian. But he puts on a brave face and encourages those around him to be the best version of themselves. Robert is presumed dead by the CIA, and appears to move around every few years to start a new life. Strangely, he never changes his name, and nobody ever comes looking for him.

In the last film he was a stockboy at a hardware wholesaler; this time he’s a driver for Lyft. He tools around Boston in a black Chevy Malibu, picking up and dropping off people, listening to their conversations and acting as a voyeur in their lives instead of living one of his own.

Occasionally he hears something distressing, and decides to help. In the opening sequence aboard a speeding train in Turkey, he takes on a villain who has kidnapped his own daughter from his American wife. Later, he faces off with some young Wall Street types who have used a stripper poorly and expect Robert to ferry away the problem.

On the side he’s also helping an elderly Jewish man (Orson Bean) track down a valuable painting of his sister that was stolen during the Holocaust. And mentoring Miles (Ashton Sanders), a black teenager bouncing between his affinity for art and running with the wrong crowd.

The meat of the central story doesn’t get rolling until the 45-minute mark, and when it does it’s not particularly interesting. A CIA asset in Belgium is killed along with his wife, and made to look like a murder/suicide. Then those responsible set about “tying up loose ends,” which appears to mean killing anyone even remotely involved with the affair. This leads to more loose ends, and so on. Jonathan Scarfe is effective as one of the chief bad guys, the type of who sneers while he kills.

Mellissa Leo plays Susan, a friend of Robert’s -- his only one, really -- who still works at the CIA and helps him out with info. Bill Pullman is her husband, a doddering academic. Pedro Pascal plays Dave, Robert’s old partner who’s surprised to find out he’s still alive.

Written by Richard Wenk, who also penned the first movie, “The Equalizer 2” contains a whole lot of hand-to-hand combat, yet when it comes to storytelling it telegraphs its punches like an over-the-hill fighter with a huge windup.

The audience figures out who the chief antagonist is long before Robert does. It’s never a good thing for a super spy to seem slow on the uptake.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Sergeant York" (1941)

Of all his many roles, "Sergeant York" may well be the one that is most quintessential to the iconography of Gary Cooper.

It was never truer of anyone the old saw that actors play roles, but movie stars play themselves. Cooper made a career out of portraying simple, straightforward men of unimpeachable integrity, humility and all-American values. His protagonists were usually dim, or at least poorly educated, though they possessed a homespun sort of caginess -- especially with regard to the manly arts of shooting, building and fixing.

But not romancing. When it came to women, Cooper's coterie of characters were usually adorably inept, more often the catcher of woo rather than the pitcher.

"Sergeant York" was the top-grossing film of 1941, an unabashedly patriotic picture that was helped by playing at the same time as Pearl Harbor. It won Cooper his first Academy Award (the other being for "High Noon"), launching the richest period of his career.

I was surprised how little of the movie actually depicts the wartime exploits of Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier of World War I. The film doesn't even get us to the European front until the last half-hour, and York's solitary charge upon a series of German machine gun nests takes but a few minutes.

Astonishingly -- but historically accurate -- Alvin single-handedly killed more than 20 enemies and captured 132 more. This from a deeply religious man who applied for, and was denied, exemption from the military draft as a conscientious objector.

Most of the story, by a quintet of screenwriters that included John Huston, concerns itself with York's pastoral existence in Pall Mall, Tenn., right near the Kentucky border, and his transformation from hard-drinking ne'er-do-well to resolute man of the Bible. Director Howard Hawks focuses his camera lovingly on the hardscrabble landscapes and wood-plank shanties that make up York's community, where everyone is either a farmer or a vendor to them.

I enjoyed this section, especially the presence of ol' reliable character actor Walter Brennan, who plays the local preacher as well as owner of the local supply store. With wire-rim glasses and improbable black eyebrows, Pastor Pile gently tries to steer Alvin toward a church-going life, rather than hanging out with his drinking buddies, occasionally riding into town and shooting his initials into the tree in front of the meeting house.

Margaret Wycherly plays York's mother, a prototypical long-suffering woman of unshakeable values, who always believes in Alvin's inherent goodness even when it's hard for others to see. Widow York and her three children live on the rocky "topland," struggling to grow a decent crop every year. Both she and Brennan received their own Oscar nominations.

Everyone speaks in a very provincial manner, which grows a little tiresome, adding "a's" before verbs: "I'm a-goin' to enter this here beef 'n' turkey shoot," etc.

Things don't really change for Alvin until he runs into Gracie (Joan Leslie), a spunky local girl, and quickly resolves to marry her. Leslie was just 15 years old when they shot the movie, nearly a quarter-century younger than Coop, who reportedly gave her a gift of a doll on the set. 

Alvin resolves to purchase some prime "bottomland" to entice Gracie, who of course loves him for who he is rather than material worth. Much of the middle section of the movie is taken up with Alvin working day and night to raise the money for a piece of land. He trades virtually everything of value he owns (except his rifle) to Mr. Tomkins (Erville Alderson) for a $50 down payment on the land, with 60 days to come up with the other $70.

With things coming down to the wire, Alvin enters a "beef and turkey shoot" contest, improbably pulling out six bullseyes in a row -- one bird, five targets -- to win the rest of the money. Only then he finds out Tomkins has broken his word and sold the land to Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield), the local equivalent of a "snooty rich kid," and also a competitor for Gracie's affections (or so Alvin thinks).

His dreams of having his own marital homestead dashed, Alvin seems destined to go down a dark road that will lead to murder. But during a thunderstorm on the way to revenge, lightning strikes his rifle, turning it into melted taffy. Alvin and his mule are struck senseless but unharmed, which he takes as a sign from God. A montage or two later, and he's teaching the Bible to Sunday school classes, just in time for war to break out.

Alvin's military commanders are initially suspicious of his country bumpkin routine and aversion to taking another life. He and the captain actually get into a bit of a Bible quote-off, each reciting verses that buttress their argument about the Lord's attitude on killing. After the C.O. grants Alvin furlough to go home, perch in the hills and ruminate upon the matter like an Old Testament figure, they essentially agree to disagree, taking the chance Alvin will perform his duty when the time comes.

And we know how that turned out.

"Sergeant York" is a cracklin' corn piece of enthusiastic patriotism, though not a mindlessly jingoistic one. It takes the time to get inside the head of a hero who was reluctant to fight, even though it would seem to be something he was put on this Earth to do.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Video review: "Isle of Dogs"

An animated film that is most definitely not for children, “Isle of Dogs” is the second foray into stop-motion animation by writer/director Wes Anderson. I run hot and cold on Anderson’s filmography -- adore “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel;” would require a lobotomy to get me to watch “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” again -- so I’m happy to report I’m pretty warm on this one.

It’s a Japanese-themed story set a couple of decades in the future, when the Prefecture of Kobayashi has banished all dogs to the island where they dump their trash, which is soon renamed for its canine inhabitants. It turns out there was an epidemic of deadly flu attributed to the dogs some years back.

But one boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who is the nephew of the evil mayor, resolves to undertake a rescue mission to retrieve his beloved pooch. He crash-lands on the island and is helped by a pack of mutts, led by Rex (Edward Norton) and also including Chief  (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled fighter.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is leading a rebellion of sorts against the mayor and the scientists he keeps under his thumb.

I should mention that the humans mostly speak Japanese, and no subtitles are provided. The dogs do speak in English, voiced mainly by American and British actors, which we are to understand is translated from bark.

It’s a weird, often wonderful movie that has no real point of comparison. You can’t point to another film and say, “It’s kinda like that.” “Isle of Dogs” isn’t for everyone, but for anyone who appreciates a bold splash of imagination, it’s the cat’s meow.

Bonus features are decent. There is a gallery of images from production and six making of featurettes: “Animators,” “Isle of Dogs Cast Interviews,” “Puppets,” “An Ode to Dogs,” “Magasaki City and Trash Island” and “Weather and Elements.”



Thursday, July 12, 2018

Review: "Skyscraper"

“In order to be brave, we gotta be a little scared.”
                        --Will Sawyer

My first thought about “Skyscraper” was that it looked dumb as a bag of rocks. And it is. But at least it’s a small bag.

I admit I liked this movie a lot more than I ever thought I would. It actually manages to coax a performance out of Dwayne Johnson that could be credible considered as… acting. No curled eyebrows, no winking at the audience, no ‘roided-up bicep flexing. He actually inhabits a character and invests him with something like dimensions.

All this is set against a backdrop of fires, explosions and machine guns, of course. The former WWE wrestler known as “The Rock” still knows his audience, who like the smell of his cooking, and insist that he keep on cooking that recipe -- or something.

(I never watched a lot of wrestling.)

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former military badass turned FBI badass who… got blown up in bad op, lost his leg and now has become a rather self-doubting family man. Looking a little thick in the face, with a scraggly grey beard and doe-ish eyes, Johnson manages to project a decent amount of vulnerability for a guy the size of an NFL linebacker.

“I just kinda put my sword down,” he says to his old squad mate, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), who has recruited him to do a security assessment of The Pearl -- the world’s newly christened tallest building, courtesy of an ambitious Hong Kong billionaire, Zhao Min Zhi (Chin Han). He even brings along his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), who’s also the military surgeon who saved his life, and their adorable, peril-prone moppets (McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell).

Of course, nefarious bad guys with vague European accents (Roland Møller chief among them) are up to no good, sealing off the building and setting the 96th floor ablaze, while also disabling the fire control systems. The flames gradually higher as our hero battles the villains in a confined space while striving to protect his loved ones.

If all this sounds like “Die Hard” shotgun married to “Blazing Inferno,” that’s because it is.

Still, it’s hard to deny this is a fun flick. And it’s nice to see a character with a disability as the hero of an action thriller. Will gets around pretty well on his prosthetic leg, and even manages to use it as a prop several times during some of the more acrobatic sequences. Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who previously teamed with Johnson on “Central Intelligence,” resists the urge to have him take the leg off and start whacking bad guys with it.

Of course, you've got to swallow a lot of action movie stupidity along the way. Like a tall building being lit on fire in the middle, the flames gradually engulfing higher stories, yet somehow the superstructure remains perfectly intact without collapsing in on itself, as basic engineering principles would dictate.

It's not like there's a real-life contrary example from the recent past that literally every single person on Earth is aware of...

Speaking of which, I talked to a few people afterward who admit they were a bit triggered by the 9/11 resemblance. I was more bothered by the transgressions against Physics 101. 

Review: "Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation"

An interesting idea that turned into a rehashed sequel that now is a bona fide animation franchise desperately in need of a stake through its cold, black heart, “Hotel Transylvania” is the undead visitor that arrives every third year for an unwanted visit, thrilling your kids but leaving you groaning.

Or, slumbering: I fell asleep during the screening. Several times. Not for long, I think, but propriety requires that I disclose this is a review of only about 96% of the movie.

You know the setup: Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler) has traded in blood-sucking for running a posh hotel for monsters, who have come out of the darkness to live (mostly) in harmony with humans. To wit: his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) has married goofy human Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and produced a half-vampire grandson, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff).

Tagging along are buds Frankenstein (Kevin James), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Murray the mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade).

Things are pretty hectic running a hotel and watching over a passel of monsters, who come in sorts of shapes, colors and sizes. So Mavis decides the family needs a vacation aboard the Legacy, an ocean liner catering to their kind. Stops include an underwater volcano and Atlantis, which has risen from the sea in the form of a tawdry waterlogged version of Las Vegas.

Dracula soon finds himself directing his killer gaze at Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), the human captain of the ship. He’s been a widower for more than a century, but is surprised to find he can still “zing” -- the monster term for falling instantly in love.

But Ericka has some not-nice hidden motives, which are demonstrated by suddenly scowling while her face is underlit with red light that appears from nowhere to let you know she’s thinking evil thoughts.

Mel Brooks plays Drac’s dad Vlad, an old-schooler who eventually came around on not biting people. He gets some of the film’s best laughs strutting around in a tiny bathing suit, proudly flaunting his 500-year-old body. The gaggle of witches are appreciative, though.

The heavy is Van Helsing, Dracula’s old nemesis who is still kept alive through a steampunk contraption that animates his head and hands, along with a few struggling organs in jars. He’s voiced by Jim Gaffigan, doing his best impression of Bill Hader.

There’s a lot of colors, and boingy action, and spontaneous dancing. They even revive a couple of tunes from the last movie; I guess the filmmakers didn’t want to shell out for another songwriter. There’s even a DJ contest late in the game where they dust off “Macarena” as the epitome of all that is good and positive. Well.

Kids will probably enjoy “Transylvania 3,” but for anyone over the age of 10 it’s a sack of garlic, a beam of sunshine and a wooden cross all rolled into one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: "Leave No Trace"

“The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

“Winter’s Bone” made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence eight years ago, but didn’t do much for its writer/director, Debra Granik. Hollywood still has more of a place for women in front of the camera than behind. After a couple of documentary projects, Granik is back with another fine dramatic feature set in the lonesome backwoods populated by America’s castoffs.

“Leave No Trace” stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as Will and Tom, father and daughter living in complete isolation in a thick forest. At first we think they might be camping, and Will is passing along his skills as a consummate outdoorsman. They pick mushrooms, start fires from nothing, collect rainwater, etc. It seems peaceful and natural.

But clues soon appear to suggest this is not a temporary excursion.

Will shows the girl, who’s about 13 or 14, how to follow tracks… but also how to cover their own. They conduct drills in elusion and hiding. On their rare trips into town (Portland, Ore.), Will trades the medicine he receives from the hospital for cash from homeless veterans squatting on the edge of the forest.

This is a very still, observant film. Little is explicitly stated, as we’re left to watch and gather signs. Foster, one of the finest character actors in movies today, presents us with a man who is hiding behind walls of his own creation, yet the turmoil and anxiety show through.

Is he a military veteran suffering from PTSD? Will is a person who seems very capable and confident in his own skills, yet there’s a deer-like timidity to the man. His fight-or-flight instincts are honed to an edge, and we sense that he chooses the latter in order to avoid the former.

For her part, Tom is a smart, caring girl who genuinely enjoys being with her father. Yet she is bound to become curious about the greater world beyond, and this will take the form of drawing her away from him.

There is a great and deep love between the two. Their only purpose in life seems to be to stay together.

“We can think our own thoughts,” they say, as close to a creed as they have.

Events transpire to draw them out of their seclusion. Dana Millican plays a social worker who works to preserve this tiny little family, yet nudge them toward society. Jeff Kober plays the owner of a Christmas tree farm where they come to stay for a while. He is helpful and generous, yet there is an unspoken impetus to his presence that requires deference, such as attending services at his church.

Will is not apparently anti-religious; it’s just one of many things that he has laid aside.

Dale Dickey, with that beautiful, rough face that seems like it’s hewn from raw wood, turns up as the manager of an RV park where Will and Tom live for a time. The mercurial denizens are hunters, hippies, shell-shocked soldiers and others who have chosen to recede from the world, much like Will but not to his extreme. While Tom is drawn toward this gentle space, it’s clear that Will is satisfied with a community of just two.

We know where all this is heading, but it doesn’t make the fork in the road any less hard to take. Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Peter Rock, turns her camera’s eye on these fragile, damaged folks and reveals them for who they are without judgment.

“Leave No Trace” is a heartfelt road picture in which the road is both the lure and the prison.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Video review: "Chappaquiddick"

I wasn’t surprised that “Chappaquiddick” didn’t make more of a splash at the box office, despite being one of the best dramas of 2018 and a film that, if it weren’t for the bifurcated political reception it provoked, would surely be talked about as an early favorite for a raft of Oscar nominations.

The movie was picked up on by conservative media months before it got a general release, adding to the perception it’s the rare “right wing” Hollywood film. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This look at the events surrounding Edward Kennedy’s defining moment in 1969, in which he (mostly likely drunkenly) drove his mother’s car into a lake with a pretty young campaign worker inside, Mary Joe Kopechne, who died. Not only was unable to save her despite (he says) many attempts, he failed to report the accident until the next morning, sealing the woman’s fate. The evidence suggests she was trapped in the car for hours, and suffocated when her air ran out.

The film, directed by John Curran from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, does not set out to vilify Kennedy as a heartless fiend. In a masterful performance by Jason Clarke, it’s suggested that he was a man who wore heavily the mantle left behind by his dead brothers, Jack and Bobby, and the expectation that he would run against Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1972.

The true evil occurred in the aftermath, as an armada of loyal Kennedy men descended on the sleepy town to manipulate events with one goal in mind: saving Teddy’s political career. I can think of no better cinematic portrait of the axiom that power corrupts -- for those who have it, seek it or try to hold onto it.

Funnymen Jim Gaffigan and Ed Helms give surprisingly meaty performances as hangers-on of the Kennedy clan who engage in the cover-up. Helms’ character, adopted son Joe Gargan, is the lone voice who begins to have moral quandaries about their actions.

Bruce Dern is mesmerizing as Kennedy patriarch Joe, withered by age and moral rot, who directs the machinations from his repose. Kate Mara has a small but vital presence as Kopechne, who was not just some feminine plaything of male politicos, but a resourceful campaign player in her own right.

There’s a lot of anger, but also a lot of insight in “Chappaquiddick.” It’s a film brave enough to look back at a political scandal from half a century ago that likely altered the course of the presidency, to penetrate the fog of history and render a proper reckoning for a despicable deed.

Bonus features are scant, being limited to two documentary shorts: “A Reckoning: Revisiting Chappaquiddick” and “Bridge to the Past: Editing the Film.”