Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Equalizer

Many people may be drawn to this film by it's roots. It is based on a popular TV show from more than twenty years ago. I knew of the show but I never watched it, not because it did not sound interesting, but because as a one hour drama in the good old days, you'd have to watch it with commercial and on a weekly basis, and I just did not have time for that in my life at that point. What brought me to the movie is almost certainly what will bring most of the rest of the audience this week: Denzel Washington being a badass.

I mentioned in my review of "A Soldier's Story" on the 30 Years on Project, that Denzel has become my favorite working actor. He has the intelligence, looks and attitude that make him the kind of character that I can usually appreciate in a film, even when he is not a good guy. When he plays the flawed good man in a bad situation, it always feels on screen to me that the other characters are encountering a venemous snake and they are ignoring the rattle. A decade ago, he was in one of my favorite revenge driven movies, "Man on Fire", playing almost the same character. Then it was young Dakota Fanning that he was defending but in today's movie it is Chloë Grace Moretz. He is a skilled ex-C.I.A. operative, trying to live a life without the violence that he knew but he is pulled back in. The bare bones of the story are similar to a dozen other revenge based thrillers that also use the hook of ex- black opps guys. Everyone from Rambo to Bryan Mills seems to have a special set of skills that the audience wants to see them use. 

My theory is that a movie like this is almost an inverted horror film. There is an implacable monster that is capable of killing everything in it's path. Where we cringe at the terror imposed on teen age lovers by hockey mask wearing slashers, we cheer when the monster is on our side. We want the deaths of the evil antagonists to be gruesome because we know that justice, unlike in real life, is being served to them. Robert McCall may not be a spiritual monster, but in his wake are as many bodies and horrifying deaths as you will find at Crystal Lake. Instead of averting our eyes and sinking back into our seats, as we would in the horror film, a revenge film pulls us in and moves us to the edge of the seat as if cheering on our gridiron heroes. It helps when the single minded killer is on the side of the righteous. If you look up the word "Righteous" in the dictionary, there will be a picture of Denzel starring at you with that very expression on his face. 

The movie builds slowly, with pieces of character coming in a bit at a time. The meticulous nature of Robert McCall is a warning that he is not the avuncular co-worker and mentor that he at first seems. His friendly kidding with the other guys at the Home Mart store belies his true nature. We have seen in his apartment that he lives life almost as an ascetic. The furnishings are sparse, the routine is severe and there are no symbols of worldly pleasure except for the collection of books that he is working his way through. He is a strong judge of character but he is not judgmental. His words to the young man he is coaching into a security position are direct and honest and he lets Ralphie decide for himself how to proceed when faced with a weakness. The young prostitute that he converses with in the 24 hour diner in the middle of the night gets the same treatment. He is direct, honest, and friendly without becoming close, and he never scolds her.  It is when he realizes that she can't make the choice for herself that he gets involved. 

There are several nice story elements in the movie that are not associated with the violent action. I like the fact that Robert can sleep once he has taken some action. I thought the image of the diner at night was clearly modeled after the well known boulevard of broken dreams variation of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. All of that however is secondary to the bursts of violence that we are there to see and which arrive in very satisfying variations. The confrontation with the first set of gangsters is vividly gruesome and the smack talk that Denzel delivers to the one leader of the gang is notable for how it reflects the nature of the character that we have come to know. This episode is a prelude to a series of acts which will lead the audience to more and more satisfaction concerning the story of good versus evil. I've heard some suggest that we are addicted to on-screen violence, but the truth is, that we don't necessarily crave a higher or greater level of violence so much as we want a greater amount of satisfaction with the comeuppance that evil gets. 

Maybe I have a personal flaw in liking this type of film. From a moral perspective, many might find it reprehensible. In the equation of justice that these types of movies seek to provide, I think they usually play to our better selves rather than the morbid part of our character. That being said, a corkscrew and a power drill are like paintbrushes in the hands of a character like Robert McCall. The actor who brings us this work of strange ethically questionable components, should also get some of the credit. If the movie features Denzel Washington killing people, and those people deserve to die, put me down for a ticket. The only thing I did not like much about this movie was the poster.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

When the Game Stands Tall

Every year over a million high school kids play American Football. Every year more than 70,000 play in college. That is a lot of young men being exposed to the game that is sometimes seen as physically brutal and socially backwards. In the last few weeks at both the professional level and the Collegiate world, there have been a number of embarrassing stories about the behavior of players of America's favorite game. There is a bombardment of statistical data being dug up on the injuries that playing the sport can do on the body, especially to the brain. The game has been played for over a hundred years and still there are elements to it that change, evolve, get criticized and ignored. The President has said that if he had a son, he would not let him play football. There may be a time when enlightened do-gooders manage to remove the game from the culture through lawsuits, over-hyped hysteria, and the gentile chipping away that occurs as our civilization changes. Should that happen, the big question we should be asking ourselves is, What will we lose?

The answer to that question is contained in almost every football movie that treats the game seriously as opposed to a way to get laughs. Even those that are focused on getting us to giggle a bit , sometimes point to the reason football matters. It is a game, that in the right hands, teaches it's players about responsibility, hard work, teamwork and the values of  competition and sportsmanship. Those goals have been subverted from time to time, but for every incident of a coach who places winning over all else, there are dozens of coaches who really are teachers. This movie is a story about one of those guys. Bob Ladouceur is the coach of a high school program in Concord California (The home of my buddy Dan). The school is a private Catholic school that had no history of success in football and he turned them into perennial champs who had a twelve year 151 game winning streak. Ladouceur  is one of the good guys and he tries to make his kids good guys as well.

Film hipsters will hate this movie for the cliches and wholesome values that it espouses, while largely ignoring some of the other aspects of football that make it more compelling, like the hard hits. This movie does have a preachiness about it that can't be denied, but I'm not sure that the life lesson overshadows all the other things the movie has going for it. There are a good number of football sequences that build suspense the way these movies do. Director Thomas Carter has been associated with a number of movies and TV shows with sports based themes. I remember watching him as the basketball player Heywood in the late seventies TV show, "The White Shadow".  Even as a young actor he was interested in directing and he has a credit for that program to show for it. His movie "Coach Carter" focuses on a similar role model in the nearby area of Richmond California but it focused on basketball. Carter knows how a sports film works, and he can hit the keys effectively, the question is whether he can riff successfully enough to make this more than a prefunctory sports movie. I thought he did in a number of ways.

The main adults in the story are played by professionals who know how to do their jobs. Just as the movie emphasizes teamwork, no one here is trying to make themselves bigger than the story being told. It would have been easy for Carter to let Jim Caviezel shout and emote and try to build histrionic moments on film.  There is an excellent speech delivered at the funeral for one of his players that has very effective moments in the language. Caviezel is subdued and honest in the way he speaks.  At the end of the film, there is a clip from the actual service and the real Coach Ladoucuer, and he is also honest. The real life setting was more raucous however, and the film version works better with the themes the movie is emphasizing.  Laura Dern and Michael Chiklis lend appropriate support and they are surrounded by a cast of young actors who look like they could be the high school team, and they are all excellent as well. The only over the top performance comes from Clancy Brown as a frustrated father, living through his son's accomplishments. Brown does what he is told, it is the writing that goes a little overboard here.

There are a thousand testimonials to guys like Bob Ladouceur, teachers who made a difference in a young man's life. Speak to anyone involved in team sports and they will have those kind of stories. Football however, requires a stronger force to be exerted. The dedication and practice that goes into playing that sport is not comparable to any other sport. The degree to which the players have to rely on one another is not like any other sport. Maybe the world is littered with films like "Remember the Titans" and "We are Marshall", but every generation of fans deserves to have a film of their own. I don't find it obnoxious that this movie is filled with references to biblical passages and stories. They are the kind of faith based lessons that are not found enough in mainstream movies, so if you want something different, consider that as the unique contribution of this film.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

This is Where I Leave You

I have no objections to this movie, it is frequently amusing, there are some interesting characters and the performers all do what is asked of them. I just can't say I liked it as well as I'd hoped I would. With a cast of professionals tossing around cleverly written lines, I should have been more entranced. What I was doing instaed of enjoying the film, was counting all the complications that came up in this single short period in this families life. I know life is complicated, but this was overstuffed.

Every character in the story brings baggage with them to the Shiva sitting that the family goes through at the passing of their patriarch. The widow is a well known therapist who wrote a book about raising kids, using her own children's experience as the basis of most of it. The family has to adjust to the boob job that she has recently had as well. The oldest son and his wife are having difficulty conceiving and the family business, which he runs has been left to he and his siblings so there is that. The daughter has two children, one of whom is potty training anywhere it suits him, and her husband is disconnected from the family and wrapped up in his own business dealings. She also still has feelings for the man she left, who lives across the street and had an accident that left him brain damaged. The youngest son is a screw up who is nearly engaged to his former therapist who is many years older than he is. The other son is going through a divorce after discovering the radio show host that he produces for is sleeping with his wife. That's more than a dozen complications for the story to deal with, but it does not stop there.

Every few minutes another curve-ball is served up for us to digest. Additional characters and complications appear every five minutes and it feels like there was no confidence in the stories that we have, so some more get tossed in. Oh, and the Mom is not Jewish and their dead Father, who was a Jew was an atheist, so all of the trapping of the Shiva are an artificial way to force the family together. Old jealousies and slights get magnified, bonding though drugs and alcohol ensues, and in the end the whole enterprise feels a bit manipulative.

Jane Fonda started working again ten years ago, after a fifteen year layoff from movies but i have not seen any of that work. The last movie I saw her in was "The Morning After", in 1986. She looks great and sounds exactly like I remember her, which means that there was not much to her being in this film except that she meets the age requirement and she loos fine. Jason Bateman is always reliably shlepishly amusing, and he can act a dramatic scene pretty well. There are just too many places where long looks of silence are supposed to fill in the gaps with drama between the quips. "Death at a Funeral", (The British Version) kept the focus on comedy with only occassional moments meant to touch our hearts. This movie seemed to have it down to a science; "joke", "quip", "touching glance" and then repeat.

Tina Fey is underused and then when she is used, it is too often for heart instead of laughs. Timothy Oliphant is a good actor but he is a image from the past that simply represents regret and there is really nothing happening with that storyline. I think Adam Driver will be the next Seth Rogan, the Stoner actor for the new generation. This is the second movie I've seen him in and he is basically repeating that performance. This film feels so familiar even though some of the scenerios are new, that's because it does nothing different with the setting and instead just ambles about. I was an OK amble, just not something you have to see.

A Walk Among the Tombstones

There are some things that you just can't unwatch, so you better be sure that you can handle what you choose to spend your time on in a movie theater. There are plenty of horror films, and graphic experimental sick point of view art pieces that I hope never to encounter. I know my limitations. "Irreversible", "Salo" and "The Human Centipede" give off enough warning signs to tell me to stay away. I knew this thriller was going to be tough, and it was. It does not rise to the level that I regret having seen it, but it will leave me with some nightmares about the brutality of human beings. "The Silence of the Lambs" defined the serial killer genre almost twenty-five years ago, and film makers have been chasing it's path ever since. Once in a while they get close, usually when a movie is directed by David Fincher. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" succeeds, much in the way "Zodiac" did, by creating suspense with a horror element and putting it into a procedural.

Director Scott Frank has made only one other film as the director, "The Lookout" which used an interesting premise to build a story around. He is not however a novice at films, having written and contributed to several excellent efforts in the past, things like "Minority Report", "Dead Again", and "Out of Sight". He has created a very tense thriller here based on Lawrence Block's well know series of novels concerning ex-cop Matthew Scudder. I've not read any of these novels but I certainly intend to now, this is a great character with real background and gravitas. The choice of Liam Neeson to portray Scudder is terrific because Neeson can play guys like this in his sleep (and has) but he knows that this character needs more depth. It seems strange to see Neeson killing people at the start of Fall instead of the dead of Winter, but this movie is different. It's not just another action flick where he picks off the bad guys, he has to solve the puzzle and manage his own failings along the way. This feels like a real movie and not just a popcorn filler for the afternoon.

The opening credits of the movie should be enough to give anyone with empathy some nightmares. This is another comparison to Fincher, who in Se7en, created a horrifying world through nightmare entries in a journal that is displayed in a gruesome, flashing manner. This set of titles is disturbing for a very different reason but it is equally horrifying. There are two shots in an otherwise artfully photographed set of images of a beautiful woman. When those two images are revealed, your breath will suck in and you will let out a moan of anguish. All of this happens without a spot of blood or gore. For the rest of the movie, there are additional sequences that will raise the hackles on the back of your neck. The sight of a van is going to make me look twice over my shoulder for weeks. This movie builds suspense, and does so with a limited amount of visual gore. It is exactly the kind of film I love. There are a number of moments that will remind you of gritty urban films from the seventies, and the paranoia that comes from a well developed monster.

Another homage, or ripoff, to Fincher is the use of a Donovan song. In "Zodiac" we hear Hurdy Gurdy Man as the first murders occur. While stalking a victim in this story, the killers have Atlantis playing on the stereo in their van. There must be something about the ethereal sound of Donovan's voice that perfectly matches the creepy vibe the directors are going for. For the first part of the movie we don't really see the killers but they are revealed to us in mundane ways that will also provoke a shudder. At the climax of the movie, the most frightening moment for me was not the face coming out of the shadows, it was a peek through a window, revealing a man simply sitting at a kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. If it doesn't freak you out, you must have the same kind of cold blood running through your veins.

I did not recognize a single actor in the movie beyond Liam Neeson. Sometimes that type of anonymity is good because we are not carrying the baggage of other roles and different movies as we watch. The Two actors playing brothers in the story are both excellent and their story arc is another bonus to the depth of the movie. The two guys playing the psychos are so banal in appearance that everybody looks like they could be a killer by comparison. There is a young actor, playing a kids role that feels perfectly natural in the circumstances in which he meets Scudder. The only problem I had with the movie was the frequency with which that character has to act in a manner that belies his well established intelligence. Still, a storytelling short cut or two is inevitable in a complicated movie. Except for the fact that this is a thriller, it should be competing for awards at the end of the year. Since these types of movies rarely get the critical accolades they deserve, it is better for you not to wait. If you are not faint of heart, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is just what is called for by movie lovers.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Here at the Kirkham house there are several films that we revere. Obviously Jaws is on the list, just take a look at the masthead. We love Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars Trilogy, Die Hard, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and just between us friends, Defending Your Life may be our favorite Albert Brooks film.  Singin' in the Rain rules, Casablanca breaks our hearts and Chinatown is more beautiful every time I see it. With only so much love to divide up, it is hard for movies to grab our attention and become fixtures in the default watch list. Our indecisiveness with so many choices has lead us on many occasions to re-watch Zodiac.

In the last couple of years though, one film has routinely pulled us out of the house whenever we saw there was a screening in the area. I've posted pictures of my beautiful blu ray version on my Facebook page, and the soundtrack is on my Kindle, waiting to be played in the car when the traffic gets too tense for me. "Lawrence of Arabia" is a nearly four hour experience that hardly feels like it is ninety minutes. Having sung it's praises several times in the last year, I stirred the generosity of an old friend. John Shosky and I went to grad school together for a year in 1979 and 1980. For reasons too complicated to review here, John pursued his advanced degrees elsewhere after that year and I lost touch with him for a couple of decades. When people curse Facebook for the time suck that it is, I understand. but they should also remember that it has enabled millions of people to connect with family and friends that they might not see regularly. John and I reconnected a couple of years ago because of this tool and I am happy to say we are friends in the present tense and not just in the past. He has apparently been paying attention to some of my posts because out of the blue, he sent me a nice little treasure that I want to share with all of you.

Arriving at my doorstep just a few days ago was a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from March of 1963. It is in good condition for a fifty year old, over-sized, photo heavy magazine. Those of you too young to remember magazines, might want to look up" Life", Look", "Readers Digest" and "Colliers". This was how we often got first looks at entertainment properties, before Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and all the other social media. The magazine John sent features a long profile of Peter O'Toole, starring in the new film "Lawrence of Arabia". The oversize cover was impossible for my scanner to fit into one shot so I have done the best I can to edit a cople of scans together so that you can see it.

The scan does not do it justice, the cover is in much better shape than it looks here. The article is several pages long and does a nice job covering O'Toole's background and his preparation to take on the role of T.E. Lawrence. This was early in the run of the picture, which was playing at the time only in Los Angeles, New York and London. The film was quite the sensation and the speculation about Peter O'Toole's future is interesting to read now that fifty years has passed and his life is ended. None of the shots in the magazine will be undiscovered treasure but they may give you other fans of the movie some moments of joy to share.

Friday, September 5, 2014

City Heat: On the Forgotten Film Cast

Some of you may not follow the 30 Years On Project, so you may have missed the link to a podcast I participated in recently. From 1984, "City Heat" with Clint and Burt. Just click on the poster and have a listen.