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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from September 2014

The Equalizer

When I was ten-years-old, my parents made me watch Glory with them when it came out on VHS.  The rated-R movie was way too much for my tiny brain; I still have the image of a man's head being blown up by a cannonball seared into my memory.  However, it was the first time I ever cried from a movie and it was almost entirely because of Denzel Washington's performance.  The scene where he's being whipped and sheds a single tear while never looking away from Matthew Broderick is so powerful that it won him the Oscar.  Ever since then, he's ruled the box office as a powerhouse who not only puts asses in seats but churns out quality performances too.  Never has that been more true than The Equalizer.

This film, by all accounts, is nothing more than cliche revenge action that you've seen many, many times over.  The super normal, mysterious guy has a history that involves kicking ass and killing fools but that was then and this is now but something happens and he just has to rain ass kickings down on the masses.  Yes, that's what it's about (it's based on an old TV show) and yes, it's cliche.  However, Washington makes the character so much broader than what are the paper-thin heroes we're used to seeing.  With a single look of stone he shoots one of his many victims, he conveys so much history and turmoil within the character and I don't think any other actor could have pulled that off.

Of course it takes a talented directed to realize that and allow that actor to do it.  That director is Antoine Fuqua, who previously worked with and won Washington an Oscar on Training Day.  Fuqua is back in fine form after a stumble with Shooter and Olympus Has Fallen.  He's a very talented guy that is pigeon-holed into action films that have zero to offer.  Perhaps one reason why he takes them is because he knows he can make something out of them if Hollywood stays out of his way and he's given the right people to work with.  Not only does he help Washington dazzle as his tortured and reluctant hero but also with Marton Csokas (Noah, Amazing Spiderman 2) who is amazingly villainous as a Russian mobster.  He looks like an evil Kevin Spacey but he's way more brutal than anything Spacey has done.

One thing you expect to see in almost every action film is the hero to be in trouble; if we don't see him/her struggle then we feel like the journey isn't really worth watching.  Washington's character is never, ever struggling, scared or even hurrying.  He's essentially Michael Myers in Halloween but as a good guy.  He's a cold-hearted killer that is in control of everything at all times.  It's unique because this isn't a bad thing and you enjoy the film more because of it.  There's a brief scene where we get the only insight into his past where he sees political friends of his, played by Melissa Leo (The Fighter, Oblivion) and Bill Pullman (Independence Day, While You Were Sleeping).  Leo's character says, "He didn't come here for help; he came for permission."  Great line but it shows all the cards to the audience and you feel like you can sit back and stop worrying.

If there's anything unenjoyable about The Equalizer it's that it's too long.  The damn thing ends like three times.  The other is a staggering underuse of Chloe Grace Moretz (Carrie, Kick-Ass).  These are minor violations,  however, and the bulk of this film is stellar.  It's a feel-good action revenge that goes down as smooth as chilled scotch because it's gory, violent, funny and charming.  Those are attributes that ONLY Denzel Washington can bring to a movie.  They're only qualities you can expect from a guy who can make the most unlikable people lovable and still manage to make me believe that he can kick some ass well into his AARP eligibilty.

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This is Where I Leave You

Director Shawn Levy is pretty amazing.  I don't mean he's amazing as in "he's an amazing director;" I mean he's amazing in that he can have a film with a really impressive cast and somehow make a terrible movie. If you go through his career, it's made up of wonderfully talented people like Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, Tina Fey, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, Hugh Jackman and manages to make some of the worst films in each of their careers.  This is Where I Leave You features another impressive cast and ruins it with that Shawn Levy curse.

Part of its failure isn't his fault.  This is Where I Leave You has a script based on a book that is a story we've seen a million times.  It's about a disfunctional family that has to come together for the funeral of the person who held them all together and they're not allowed to leave until they sort all their drama out.  This has been done amazingly well and it's been done awfully bad.  This is Where I Leave You is somewhere in the middle of those poles and I'm not sure if it could be done better than what we ended up with.

Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses, Bad Words) stars with Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver (Girls), Corey Stoll (FX's The Strain, Midnight in Paris), Rose Byrne (Insidious, Bridesmaids), and Kathryne Hahn (Anchorman, Bad Words).  It's an awesome cast that pulls off the disfunctional love very well.  Fey is the weak link in this as she takes a turn at some heavy drama.  As much as I love her, she can't fool anyone with her faux crying.  Tina, you can sound like you're crying all you want but if we don't see some eye sweat, we're onto you.  It's hard to say who the strongest link is but I think that award might go to Adam Driver who plays the black sheep so well that you can't not love him no matter how much you hate him.

If that sounds like a lot of characters, you're right.  That's the biggest problem with the film is that there are too many people and each person has their own subplot that has to be arced and wrapped up at the end.  This makes everything feel tedious and really drawn out.  The movie is just 100 minutes but it feels like a three-hour epic by the time it's done.  That takes us back to Shawn Levy not knowing when to say when.  It also comes from a guy who wrote the screenplay based on his own book.  I've never had the dream of adapting my book into a script but I'd imagine I would have a hard time cutting characters and stories, which is exactly what happened.

This is Where I Leave You is a harmless R-rated family dramedy that is generally enjoyed by most people on a date or middle age women looking for a night with girlfriends.  If that's what you want, this should go down relatively nicely.  But if you're looking for something original, well-formed, and swiftly paced...this isn't for you.  Yes, you will laugh.  Yes, you will cry.  Yes, you will look at your watch to see how long you've been sitting there.  And yes, you'll chuckle at the unintentional comedy of Tina Fey pretending to cry.  

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For those of you who may not remember the '90s, it was a rebirth in cinema.  Before YouTube, digital cameras and iMovie made it possible for anyone to make a quality film, there was another time when filmmaking was plucked out of the hands of the elite and rocked by a handful of nobodies who made films for almost no money that spawned an entire genre.  Guys like Edward Burns, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer, Gus Van Sant and Kevin Smith were kings.  Smith was one of the most notorious because his films cost the least, he made every aspect of them himself and he mostly cast his friends as the lead roles.  He gained a reputation for being an amazing filmmaker with comedic talent that was sure to be cherished.  That, however, was in the '90s and it's been 15 years since he's made a good movie and Tusk isn't quite breaking that losing streak.

There's part of me that doesn't want to tell you what Tusk is about because you'll instantly judge it for being the kind of nonsensical crap that should appear on the Syfy Channel or Netfilx streaming.  On the other hand, I feel like you must know what it's about just so you're prepared.  It's a simple, cliche story about a guy who gets captured by a crazy sadist in the wilderness and tortured as he's turned into a human hybrid of a walrus.  Yeah.  I know that sounds stupid and it is.  But to understand the film's journey is to respect it a little bit more.  See, Smith has a podcast and on one of the episodes he was joking about a movie with this plot and talks the entire film out in a humorously improvised monologue.  That episode was so popular that his fans demanded he make that movie and, sure enough, he did.

Tusk stars Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers, Drag Me to Hell), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I.) and Michael Parks (Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn).  There's also a surprise A-list, Oscar-nominated actor who turns in one of the funniest performances of his career but I don't want to give it away because that would be rotten of me.  The one thing I love the most about Tusk is that all these actors believed in Smith's vision and commit to the script with ironclad conviction.  Long is forcing it at the beginning but once he becomes a victim, his agony is believed and his screams are pretty terrible.  Parks, as well, is always spectacular to watch as his natural flow of dialogue seems so easy.  His performance as the lunatic villain is downright joyful.

The problem with Tusk is, of course, Kevin Smith.  Smith and Quentin Tarantino have had similar careers.  They both came out of nowhere, were instantly hailed as saviors of cinema, given zero restrictions on their visions, amassed colossal egos and made successful films.  The difference is that Tarantino has true talent and Smith does not.  Yes, Kevin Smith has seen a lot of films but Tarantino is a student of the medium.  Tarantino doesn't just watch a movie and love it; he studies it and discects why it's amazing.  Smith doesn't have that discipline and it shows.  Tusk has moments of absolute greatness with scenes that are hilarious, others that are gruesome and some that are mesmorizing.  He also has scenes that meander, bore, confuse and ruin enjoyment you've had in the film.  Smith being his own editor is a horrible idea.

Can I recommend Tusk to you?  No I can't despite the grade I gave it.  Tusk is a movie that will be enjoyed by a very, very select group of fans of horror and/or Smith.  Anyone else, outside of that, who sees this will be repulsed, frustrated or angered by it.  However, as a fan of movies I have to admire what Tusk stands for.  Here you have a movie that was created out of a goofy conversation that probably involved weed, was financed through grassroot fundraising, made with zero compromises and is about something that mainstream Hollywood would never touch with a ten foot walrus tusk.  Yet, despite all its hurdles and challenges, here it is for all to see forever; no matter how bad it gets at points, you have to admire that.

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