Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

“The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy.”
-John Galsworthy

Logan the Old Man

I’m not often challenged by a superhero movie, but as the end credits started rolling up my tv screen last night, and my son started asking me “So…what did you think?”, my initial reaction was to shrug my shoulders.

But as I made my breakfast this morning, it occurred to me that once again, a screenwriter had used to the inhuman, or maybe more than human to explore the nature of humanity, and it was this undertext that made the movie more than it was on the surface.

When the movie opens, we’re confronted with a Logan who has grown old…a startling transformation for someone who is actually much, much older than many of his peers.  His short temper and quick action have been replaced with an obvious fatigue.  But when pushed, his lethal brutality manifests itself.  When the rage evaporates with the threat, his momentary surveillance of the carnage add to the weight of the tired resignation that surrounds him like a cloud.  This, and the fact that he no longer heals like he once did, give him the appearance of a sad old man.

This is a world a few decades into the future.  It is slightly recognizable, yet harder.  Logan, going by his given name of James, is a limo driver for hire, ferrying the callous and the oblivious from deal to deal, drink to drink, and door to door, and is plotting an escape from a world that seems to have passed him by.

Before long, we are shown that he is living at an abandoned smelter, along with Caliban, and Charles Xavier, who is clearly unwell.  Charles is suffering from some kind of deteriorating brain condition, and Logan’s and Caliban’s lives are centered on keeping Charles medicated enough that he doesn’t have seizures, which paralyze anyone who is too close, and cause seismic disturbances.  Charles is at times incoherent, and abusive, causing Caliban to defer to Logan, whenever he is present, in order to see to Charles, and his doses of medication.  The two mutants, who don’t really like each other very much, bicker like adult children, dealing with the stresses of an aging parent who is failing by inches every day.  But like such children, they bear the abuses and indignities of such roles with a love and determination that wouldn’t be reserved for anyone else.  This world doesn’t seem to have any other mutants in it, and we are never given an explanation, although it is strongly implied later in the film that they were all hunted down, cataloged, and exterminated.   So when Charles claims to be “in communication” with someone who needs their help, Logan is naturally skeptical.

Father and Son

Logan continues this existence of miles, driving other people through their own lives, while drinking heavily, and clearly deteriorating when he is approached at a funeral by a woman who knows his real identity, and begs him for his help.  Logan angrily refuses, fixed on the idea of making enough money to buy a boat and leave the country with Charles for a life on the sea.  He is then approached by a cocky and menacing young man with a mechanical hand who knows he has been contacted by the woman who talked to him at the funeral.  This man makes it clear that he knows who Logan is, and that he is likely harboring Charles, who has (rightly, given his condition) been identified by the government as a threat to humanity.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the woman is shepherding a girl who looks harmless, but who is, in fact, quite dangerous, and has adamantium claws of her own, including in her feet, along with a healing factor much like Logan’s when he was younger.  When circumstances bring the three of them together, running from the mysterious mechanical handed stranger, and the government operators who accompany him, Logan finds himself becoming the girl’s protector and teacher, and getting angry at Charles every time he refers to her as Logan’s daughter.  In a quiet moment, Logan reviews files that the girl has with her, and realizes that although he never met the girl’s mother, his genetic material was used by the shadowy corporation that created her “sisters and brothers”, and that for all intents and purposes, she was his daughter.

Father and Daughter

When stopping to help a family of farmers involved in a traffic altercation, Logan introduces Charles as his father, and the girl, Lora, as his daughter.  It is a deception, and at the same time, the truth, as Logan has, for years, shown the same dedication to Charles as a son would to an aging father, and for all of their conflicts, and arguments over the years, Charles has truly come to regard Logan as his son, something revealed in a deathbed confession by Charles.  Conversely, in their short time together, Logan has come to regard Lora as his daughter, even going so far as to selflessly sacrifice himself (repeatedly) to protect her from a younger clone of himself, also created by the same corporation which made her.

As the movie came to the obvious and predictable climax, in which Lora reveals herself to be Logan’s daughter in spirit as much as in body, the real “hand off”  from one generation to the next didn’t come in Logan’s sacrifice and death to give Lora and her sisters and brothers the chance to escape.  It came in a conversation started when Lora watched Logan sleeping, tormented by a nightmare. When the juxtaposition of their nightmare experiences was discussed (she having nightmares about people hurting her, him about hurting other people), she remarked on him having killed people, and acknowledged that she too had killed people.  He replied that she would have to find her own way of dealing with that, and she made a very simple response that they were bad people.  This caused Logan to simply stare and nod.

When the final confrontation came, and with it, Logan’s death, Lora is consumed with grief as she calls him “Daddy.”  She lingers over his grave, after her brothers and sisters have continued walking toward sanctuary in Canada, and pulls the cross out from the head of it, turning it onto its side, making an “X”.  Then turns and follows the other, leaving the audience to wonder if she will be better for remembering this experience, and the loss, or if she would be better living with no memory, as Logan had for so many years of his own life.

In the end, I enjoyed the film, but I found that I didn’t mourn Logan’s passing.  Instead, I was encouraged, even uplifted by the thought that he would be reunited with so many people he loved who had died long before him, and as I write this, I realize that this is only possible because unlike family and friends, he was someone I knew of, but didn’t have as a fixture in my life.  And maybe that’s for the best, because I can only see the good, and not the sorrow in the ending.

Read Full Post »

Sequels are a tricky thing.  Generally, if a movie is a sequel, but still ends up with its own name, then I expect that sequel or not, I’m going to see a film that is a story in its own right, and not merely a half-hearted attempt to capture whatever made the first movie a success. (The various Disney sequels of the 90’s come to mind.)  So with this in mind, you might understand my hesitation in watching this movie, given the typical dreck that usually is put out with a “2” in its name.  As it turns out, I think I liked this installment of John’s story more than the first one.

The movie business has known for some time that gratuitous violence puts people in seats, but there is a subgenre that can only be categorized as “ode to violence”.  Sometimes, it takes the form of a stylized, almost cartoonish violence, such as Quentin Tarantino employs, and sometimes it is just raw, and brutal, like in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and “Straw Dogs”, or the original version of “Get Carter”.  John Wick, Chapter 2 seamlessly melds the stylized with the brutal by hitting the trifecta of film making.  It has a good story, good dialogue, and each and every frame is beautifully composed. I mean truly beautifully and heartbreakingly composed.

The movie opens with Wick continuing to pick off outlying members of the Tarasov family, largely because the remaining Tarasov was stupid enough to steal Wick’s car.  When Wick comes to get it, and the predictable body count ensues, the gangster has time to dread the knock on his door which he knew was going to come.  A conversation Tarasov has with his lieutenant about Wick’s lethality harkens back to the first film, and what Wick can accomplish with just a pencil…a moment of foreshadowing made bloodily manifest later in the movie.  While the encounter, when it came, did not end as we have come to expect, it still felt right.

We are then given the impression that he will now get to live the rest of his life in peace, while knowing that John will never ever get that peace, and so when the knock on his door finally comes, it is odd that John himself is almost more annoyed than afraid.  We learn that John’s famous “impossible task” came at a price.  John had to give a marker to a soft-spoken Italian gangster who is a scion of crime royalty.  This man, Sabatino, wants John to kill his sister, who inherited their father’s “seat at the high table”, a governing body of crime.  John, begged him not to ask for the favor, and Sabatino accepted, regretfully, before leaving, and like others before him, he chose to take something from John that was dear to him.

There was so much more to this movie than the first installment.  We learn more about the world that John blazes a bloody trail through, including the fact that it has rules, which are enforced by people even more brutal than he.  But we also learn the scope and reach of Wick’s own reputation in this world, and the calm acceptance with which so many of its characters acquiesce to the choices they have made in life.  When one of his intended targets reacts not with fear, but calm when he comes for her, the exchange is intriguing.  In perhaps one of the most honest moments in either of the films, she refers to him as “Death’s own emissary.”

The truth is that even without the good story and dialogue, this film is still a feast for the eyes, as the composition and lighting create a treat, including a sequence in a hall of mirrors that is reminiscent of the climax in “The Man With the Golden Gun”, but much, much more thoughtfully filmed.

In the end, when John breaks one of the cardinal rules of the world he lives in, he is confronted one last time by Winston, the shadowy owner of the New York Continental.  Winston informs him that his life is forfeit, and after a demonstration that starkly shows that there will be no safe place for him anywhere, Winston gives him an hour.  Wick, true to form, tells Winston to tell whoever choses to come after him that he will kill them.  All of them.  Winston smiles, and says with conviction, “Of course you will.”

I was left with the belief that Winston actually believes it, and although he could never be obvious about it, that is rooting for John.

The film’s deleted scenes also lead me to this conclusion, as in two of them, Sabatino acts in ways that clearly break with the traditions and norms of this violent world, and in an exchange between Winston and Sabatino about the latter’s excesses and naked ambition, Sabatino reveals his contempt for these rules and norms, because they “stand in the way of progress”, while Winston calmly retorts that he believes just the opposite.  It is a theme repeated throughout the movie, once when Sabatino angrily makes a demand of Winston, who calmly reminded the upstart prince that he was in Winston’s house, and according to the rules of their society, he, and he alone was master there, and again when it was stated that “without rules, we run with the animals”.

The story is a tragic tale.  Wick is feared by his peers, beloved by the servant class, and the leaders of this world alike.  As the truth is revealed, we learn that the boogeyman (Wick) made a deal with the Devil (Sabatino) to leave the life.  When the Devil came to collect, he asked the unthinkable in order to satisfy the debt…putting the boogeyman in an untenable position.  When Wick came for payback, as a marked man, his only leverage with people in a position to help is that in killing the Devil, he will stop his unquenchable desire for power, and in so doing, stop an all-out war in the underworld.  When he actually kills the Devil, he breaks an unbreakable rule, causing the only people he could call friends to turn on him in order to maintain the order of their society.   In one fell swoop, Wick made himself both the savior and pariah of his world, and when the severity of the consequences become real to him, he appears to resign himself to face it the way he always has…with a murderous resolve.

Read Full Post »

I knew when I read the synopsis of this film that it would be an emotional experience for me. What I did not anticipate was enjoying it as much as I did.

As the film played out, I could see Afleck’s character, Christian Wolff, exhibit some of the same characteristics I would expect of an individual who is on the Autism Spectrum, but I was encouraged by the fact that he seemed to be outwardly successful and independent, even as the unfolding story shows a man kept in check by unusual rituals that go back to childhood, and a father whose training compelled him to acclimate his son to the world, rather than insisting that the world create a bubble around his son.

The flashbacks are not evenly paced, and the shifts back to the present are sometimes jarring, but the picture that forms is that of a person who is instantly capable of grasping complicated information and using it to his advantage.  His condition allows him a great deal of focus on the tasks at hand which make him invaluable to his clients and deadly to those who violate his moral code.

Against this backdrop, we are introduced to a high-ranking bureaucrat at the Department of the Treasury who ruthlessly recruits a smart and talented analyst to figure out who this mysterious accountant who has been tied to some of the most evil people on the planet actually is, with the idea that he could be an informational gold mine.

The flashbacks reveal how Wolff cultivated his effortless brutality, but they also reveal that the bureaucrat, played by JK Simmons, owes his career and station to Wolff, and that their history is an odd symbiotic relationship, in which Simmons’ character had to decide what he was willing to compromise with in order to bring down infamous criminals. When this is revealed to his reluctant protegé, she has to face the expectation that she will replace him when he retires.

Meanwhile, Wolff has taken what he and his “agent” believed to be an “honest” job, only to find calculation and intrigue of a degree that only someone with his skill set could have uncovered, and in a manner that is contrary to his normal instincts, he feels a duty to protect the innocent who inadvertently discovered the financial chicanery at a robotics company. This puts him on a collision course with a mysterious enforcer, hired by the owner of the company to clean up the loose ends, including the lowly account clerk who discovered the missing money in the first place.

As the flashbacks progress, you see how Wolff changed from a boy who was very obviously autistic into a man who is very controlled, very precise, and very deadly. We see the conflict between his parents, a mother who is out of her depth and at her wit’s end…at one point making a very revealing remark that made me deeply, deeply dislike her, and a father who is an Army officer working in psy ops. The mother is eager to leave her oldest son with strangers, and let them raise him and teach him how to live in a controlled environment. The father refuses, because of a love for both of his sons that his career and training can never allow him to express in a “normal” way, but exists just the same, and because he wants his oldest son to be able to meet and interact in the world the way that it is, and not in a bubble created for him. These conflicts eventually take their toll, and the mother leaves, causing the oldest son to slip into an epic meltdown, and the younger son to express his resentment of his mother and her inability or unwillingness to give both boys what they need in a simple expression when she departs. As the father continues to travel the world, he takes the boys with him and subjects them to brutal training, while eventually revealing to them at a crucial moment that his purpose is to keep them from ever becoming victims.  He also instilled in the boys the same sense of loyalty, borne in love, that has caused him to soldier on as a solo parent. One of the final flashbacks completes the transition from past to present, while revealing to the audience just how much the father loved his oldest son.

This is a movie about decisions.  Decisions always matter, but I don’t think movies always focus on just how much decisions are fulcrums in people’s lives.  And while decisions drive every story, my biggest surprise in this one was the decision made by the Treasury Agent’s reluctant protegé, who made a decision about compromise, and whether or not the calculus she had to use had expanded beyond just herself.

Conversely, the final showdown between Wolff and the mysterious enforcer lead to a decision that couldn’t really be considered a difficult choice at all.  It was violent, bloody, loud, and shocking to the man who hired the enforcer, but ultimately, I found it to be one of the film’s most rewarding moments.

Ultimately, I can see why this movie is controversial for people. To some, it appears to paint a portrait of a high-functioning autistic as a soulless monster, but this is really far too facile a conclusion. Wolff doesn’t consider the right or wrong of what many of his clients do to make their money. For him, the payoff is the challenge of diving into their books and finding the cause of the issue that brought him there. His apparent lack of emotion puts the monsters he works for at ease…sometimes fatally, when they underestimate his ability to take care of himself.  It would be easy to believe that he doesn’t have emotions, but the reality is that he just cannot comprehend what to do with them, and he himself is quite surprised when he makes a decision based on emotion, against his training and instinct, for reasons he himself does not fully understand.

I can see where people would feel justified in condemning the father, and his very hard way of raising his sons, but that would ignore the fact that he wasn’t the one who left them, despite a demanding career that required travel all over the world. Like his oldest son, he saw the world in a way very different from most, based on a reality that many are never exposed to, and because of that, he knew the best way to protect both of his sons was to teach them how to never be hurt by the world or caught flat-footed by it. I expect that I will catch heat for saying so, but I think the biggest villain in the film is the mother, and it wasn’t lost on me just how much pain she caused for her sons, even in death.

Read Full Post »

Over the last few years, Hollywood has been slowly building a library of space disaster movies.  And I have ended up watching most of them.  While some tell the story through telemetry (Europa Report, Apollo 18), the others have used first person/third person  “as-it-happens” narratives (Last Days On Mars/Interstellar/Gravity).  I think that the telemetry story telling is more difficult, but I also think that it has a greater potential that the films using it haven’t quite managed to use to full effect.  However, I like the fact that some in Hollywood have decided to embrace exploration as a theme again, rather than simply using it as a vehicle for other messages, even if in most of these films, it comes down to traveling a long way to meet a sudden and horrible death.  While it is always a possibility, it isn’t the reason for making the trip.  We make the trip because we want to go somewhere where very few others, or no one has been before.  We make the trip because going is the challenge.  We make the trip because there is always something to learn, even if it is just about ourselves.  We make the trip because making the trip helps us to grow.

Apollo 18

I wanted to enjoy this movie.  I think NASA lost something when it stopped manned missions to other planets, and I think we are poorer as a society for them stopping.  The start of this movie made me feel a nostalgia for a time I never really knew, as I would have only been two when this mission was to have taken place in 1974.  But watching it, I could feel the cultural schism that still gripped the country.  It was a time when nerds with slide rules and pencils teamed up with clean-cut, square-jawed men who were much smarter than their outward all-american jock exteriors would lead a casual observer to believe, and braver than counter-cultural footsoldiers who preached a gospel of excess, self-gratification, and navel-gazing that birthed the whiny, entitled, self-serving attitude so prevalent in our society today, to actually DO something of consequence, and inspire those paying attention to achieve and do more themselves.

I watched, as the three-man crew trained for a mission that wasn’t going to get the glory and headlines of previous missions, due to the clandestine nature of the tasks they were being sent to perform, and I marveled at their willingness to strap themselves on to flying bombs, with large computers that have less power than what is contained in a modern car’s emissions control system, or a smart phone.

Of course, it soon becomes clear that the people who sent them failed to tell them everything, and that’s when the movie started to fall apart for me.  These men were career military officers.  And yet they let their emotions override their training, which was fatal for all of them.  It made what started as a solid B+ slide to a C.

Interstellar

I liked that this movie explored the wonder and curiosity implicit in the act of exploration.  I loved the fact that it examined humanity, with all its faults and blemishes, alongside of its best examples of courage, sacrifice, and resolve.

But throughout, I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to make it necessary to leave Earth in the first place.  The film offered some tantalizing clues, but never comes out and describes the events that changed everything.

In the end, it was a breakthrough not in science itself, but our understanding of forces and phenomena that we’ve been aware of forever that allowed humanity to find a new home among the stars.

My initial reaction to the ending was “That’s It?”, but the longer I thought about it, the more I thought it was actually correct.  That said, it isn’t a film I think I’ll be watching again anytime soon.

Gravity

Out of the three films reviewed in this article, I actually liked this one the best.  The visual elements were stunning and convincing.  And I enjoyed the transformation of a scientist who was dead inside into a human being who WANTED to live.

If you can only see one, and want to take in the best story of the three, get Gravity.

Read Full Post »

When I was much younger, my friends and I regularly spent a summer evening watching movies.  We all had jobs, and various places offered specials that made it possible to rent 3 VHS tapes for dirt cheap.  Our plan was simple:  We would rent one “good one” (usually a blockbuster or a vanity project for some well-known star), and two “bad ones”, which were films we’d either seen or read were terrible, or decided from the description, must be craptastic to some varying degree.  It was a fun way to pass an evening, and even as most memories of that time take on a more static and incomplete quality in my reflection, I can smile and reflect on four memories which I still carry and hold dear from that time:  The Blue Monkey quarantine, which is the worst in cinematic history; the Millennium paradox, about which one of my oldest friends and I still argue; The worst script ever, Interface, which I remain convinced to this day that they never finished filming (it was so awful we actually turned it OFF), and that you can sleep with a friend’s wife, and he’ll naturally try to kill you, but when he responds by killing your dog, it’s on like Donkey Kong (Revenge).  When I watched John Wick the other night, I recognized one of the bad guy’s errors for what it was: FATAL.  Never, ever kill a man’s dog, and expect mercy.

John Wick opens with a look at a man consumed by an incalculable grief.  He is obviously a man of means, living in an upscale, tidy home, who appears to be controlled, yet rudderless at the same time.  As the movie starts rolling, it is clear that his aimlessness is the result of his wife’s recent death.  The flashbacks tell us little about Wick himself, but make it clear that he adored his now dead wife, who looks to have passed away from cancer.  The only hint we get that there is something out of the ordinary about him is the exchange he has at the cemetery after the funeral, in which he and Marcus, played by Willem Dafoe, exchange emotionless pleasantries before Wick goes back to his home, which is filled with mourners.

As he picks up after they depart, the doorbell rings.  A delivery driver drops off a puppy, with a card from his wife, explaining that the puppy is there to give him something to love in her absence.  Never succumbing to any show of affection, Wick nonetheless makes the puppy his companion, and clearly carves out a place in his life for the small dog, who accompanies him everywhere.

It is on one of these outings where Wick crosses paths with flashy russian thugs at a local gas station, where one becomes attracted to Wick’s car, a ’69 Boss Mustang, and crudely offers to buy it from the circumspect Wick.  Wick informs him that it isn’t for sale, prompting the thug to fall back on his thuggishness, and attempt to intimidate Wick, only to learn that the quiet man speaks Russian quite well, and wasn’t intimidated at all.

The Russians are not deterred, and later break into Wick’s home, brutally beat him, kill his dog, and steal his car.  They take it to a chop shop, and tell the alarmed owner that they would like new vins and clean papers.  The owner, played by John Leguizamo, recognizes the car, and decides he would rather face the wrath of the thug leader’s father than the owner of the Mustang.  When word gets back to the father, he places a call to Leguizamo, who informs him that his son just beat up John Wick, killed his dog, and stole his car.  The father, realizing just what a grevious error this was, simply said “Oh.”, and hung up the phone.

Meanwhile, Wick is making preparations, and we start to get a sense that his aimlessness is gone, only to be replaced by a bloody and single-minded resolve.  Meanwhile, the father, accompanied by his consigliere, played by Dean Winters (Mayhem), confronts his son, and lets him know the gravity of his offense, and the inevitability of a permanent penalty.

That fucking nobody is John Wick. He once was an associate of ours. They call him Baba Yaga. Well John wasn’t exactly the Boogeyman, he was the one you send to kill the fucking Boogeyman. John is a man of focus, commitment and sheer will. I once saw him kill three men in a bar, with a pencil. With a fucking… pencil. Suddenly one day he asked to leave, over a woman of course. So I made a deal with him. I gave him an impossible task. A job no one could have pulled off. The bodies he buried that day lay the foundation of what we are now. And then my son, a few days after his wife died, you steal his car and kill his fucking dog. John will come for you and you will do nothing because you can do nothing.

The rest of the movie is a tale of a father trying to save his son, while knowing it is an impossible task, and a man so focused on revenge that he steps back into a world he was fortunate enough to walk away from years before.  The body count was otherworldly, and the way in which Wick dispatched those between him and his objective was brutal, but it was done in a way that didn’t come across as gratuitous or pointless, which made watching the movie much easier than it could have been.  But the other thing that made this movie enjoyable was the fact that there was a code of conduct for the assassins, and when one of their number did not observe that code, and decided to “break the rules” to take the chance of getting the huge bounty placed on Wick’s head, the others didn’t remain on the sidelines, wagging their fingers.  They acted to enforce that code, because in the end, they too needed a place to take shelter, and have one place where they didn’t have to look over their shoulders.  In the end, the only time where Wick showed any emotion other than an appetite for revenge was in a scene where he answered the one question on everyone’s lips.  I won’t spoil that for you, but I will tell you that in the end, he walks off with another dog.  Maybe it is from dealing with autistic people, maybe it’s from having it myself to a degree, but in that scene, I thought he showed a glimmer of hope that he could still “get out”, and find a measure of peace.

_1JW5817.NEF

_1JW5817.NEF

Read Full Post »

Black Sea

Captain Robinson has a problem.

The movie opens with the veteran submarine captain being informed by a desk jockey that his employment with the salvage company he works for has come to an end.  Robinson’s reaction is a mix of shock and anger, as he realizes that the career he has lost his family to has discarded him like so much refuse.

However, a conversation with other unemployed salvers in a pub offers the hope of a privately finance salvage job in the Black Sea…one that would allow him to retire richer than he could ever imagine, so he could attempt to rekindle his relationship with his 12 year-old son, who is being raised by his ex-wife and her new husband.  Soon he and his fellow conspirators hatch a plan to reach a Nazi U-boat, which supposedly disappeared in 1940 after taking on a cargo of gold paid to the Nazis by Stalin in a desperate attempt to buy peace with Germany at the outset of the Second World War.

He is soon introduced to a mysterious individual, who offers to provide the necessary financial backing in exchange for 40% of any gold found up to $40,000,000.00, and 20% of any gold above that amount the salvers recover.  From there, Robinson, and his friends hatch a plan to buy an old Soviet diesel submarine to use in their attempts to salvage the gold without either the Georgian or the Soviet navies learning of their efforts.  In order to keep the costs down, they decide on a half British, half Russian skeleton crew of misfits and psychopaths, and travel to Sevastopol to purchase a floating wreck which is no longer adequate to be repurposed into razor blades, and set to refitting and provisioning for the trip.

You can guess that this is a recipe for disaster, and you would be right, but Jude Law’s performance as the haggard captain convincingly portrays the kind of desperation that would push a man who should know better to seal himself in a tin can with a small crew of people who don’t like or trust their own countrymen, and mix them with an equal number of foreigners who they despise even more.  Once the predictable series of events and disasters start to unfold, the good captain becomes even more desperate, and ends up compounding the problem, returning to balance only when he discovers that he and his shrinking crew have been set up by their former employer, and weren’t ever going to be able to keep the tons of gold they sacrificed so much to retrieve, because the corporation and the Georgian government had already divided it among themselves.  At this point, the clichéd reimagining of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” ended, as the captain ended up sacrificing himself to save the only two characters who weren’t modern-day pirates.

Black Sea

While there were some “liberties” taken with the script in terms of the science involved in undersea adventures, there was really only one that managed to pull my attention from the story to the gaff and make me say “oh, c’mon…”.   I was also put off a bit by the language, but it would be foolish to expect a movie about sailors to feature sailors who didn’t talk like sailors.

Overall, it was an ok story, and a decent diversion for a short time, but it isn’t one that I would be looking to purchase for my collection.

The Equalizer

When this movie first came out, I made some jokes about how Hollywood had to put some old white male actor out of work in this “reimagining” of the 80’s television character, and how disappointed I was that some social justice warrior wasn’t starting a hashtag campaign in protest.  I confess that while I did so as a joke, I do suffer from a certain annoyance with Hollywood’s proclivity to “reimagine” my childhood, and often cast it in a darker light, rather than simply telling a new story, and that is why I took so long to get around to watching this movie.

My original memories of the show are somewhat vague, as I was still fairly young, and it originally aired at 10 pm on Saturdays, a time when I was normally in bed.  I recently borrowed the first season from my local library, and found that the Joel Surnow produced show was fairly well written and acted.  It featured Edward Woodward as the “retired” spy who set up shop in New York City after an operation was botched badly by a jittery agent who prevented Robert McCall from keeping his word to the subject of the operation.  Because he still had some highly placed friends in the Agency, because he knew where the bodies were buried, and because he agreed to make himself available for certain ops that required his expertise and skill set, the Agency unofficially agreed to look the other way, and not bring him in from the cold.  As I watched the episodes in order, I found myself reasonably impressed by the tradecraft written into the series, although some of the technology seems horribly dated in this day and age.  However, I believe that one of the things that the original series got absolutely correct was that its main character carried himself like a successful operative would, which is anything but what we see James Bond do in film after film.  Woodward’s McCall is an older man, without any distinguishing features that would make him stick out in the average person’s memory.  Yes, he had an English accent.  Yes, he drove a Jaguar, which was much less common on the nation’s roadways at that time than today.  But he also knew how to blend into the crowd.  He could, and often did observe without drawing any attention to himself, and if you ran into him on the street, there was nothing about him that would raise your awareness or pique your curiosity unless he wanted it to.  That’s why the character worked for several seasons.  And that’s why I found it easier to believe he was who he was supposed to be than Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall.

The movie opens quietly, and it doesn’t take long to see that McCall is a man who is hiding, and it isn’t until fifteen minutes or so into the movie that you start to get a glimmer of what it is…who it is…he is hiding from.  But it is obvious from the  introduction that while he lives a quiet life, it is not who he is.  His apartment is spartan, and spotless.  Nothing is out-of-place.  His bed is made so tightly that quarter could bounce on it.  He’s clearly been up since well before dawn.  His morning routine shows a rigid discipline, and his own personal maintenance, appearance and demeanor is too focused, too ordered, too strack for him to be the quiet widower working for a home improvement warehouse that he appears to be.

It is his routine that guides him into the conflict, and the confrontation with himself that drives the story, however, as his middle-of-the-night trips to his local 24-hour diner draw him into a friendship with a much younger prostitute working for the local Russian mob.  When she makes the mistake of believing that she could be something more, the local mob boss puts her in her place with a brutal beating that sends her to the local ICU, and McCall finds himself, almost absent-mindedly using his formidable skills against the gangsters, and the local cops who are on their payroll.  This brings him into conflict with the crime family’s enforcer, “Teddy” (brilliantly portrayed by Marton Csokas), a former Spetznaz member who is unburdened by emotion or sentiment, and who shows a singular determination to find the party responsible for upsetting the enterprise’s apple cart, and make an example of him.

McCall and Friend
When McCall realizes that his own message has invited a much larger response, he makes a trip to visit his former boss, who still has connections with the Agency, to get intelligence about his new and lethal adversary.  She, and her husband are both pleasantly surprised (but not too surprised) to learn that McCall is still alive, after having apparently faked his death shortly after his wife passed away.  This lead to one of what I felt were the two most telling sequences in the film, where in a moment of candor, his former boss tells McCall that it is time for him to go be who he is.  After he left, her husband asked “Is everything alright? Were you able to help him?”, and she sagely responded “He didn’t come for help. He came for permission.”
This permission wasn’t just official sanction, it was permission to be the person who he promised his dead wife that he would never be again, because that was the person who the world needed him to be.  This was the part of the story that the movie got absolutely correct, and because of it, this was the story that I had vainly hoped to see when I watched Harry Brown.  Washington’s McCall was the man I expected from Caine’s Brown.  A man who could afford to be quiet, because everything about him screamed the motto “Be polite, be courteous, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

The movie’s other telling moment came after Teddy, who is impersonating one of the dirty cops on his employer’s payroll, confronts McCall, because he doesn’t believe that the intelligence the police have gathered on McCall is correct.  While each knew who the other was, neither stepped away from the charade that they had decided to play.  McCall played the sort-of-informed citizen, who just happened to be at the restaurant where the mobsters were rapidly and efficiently dispatched, a bystander who wanted to help, but hadn’t seen a thing, and Teddy the detective, just trying to follow up with all potential witnesses.  However, McCall’s body language and actions didn’t match those of a harmless and ineffectual widower, and instead sent a very different message than his words.  The encounter ended on an awkward note, when McCall’s average citizen asked a provocative question, leaving Teddy to make a poor excuse as he retreated to the waiting SUV driven by one of the dirty cops, who had listened to the exchange without any idea of the conversation the two had physically carried on with each other, leaving Teddy to utter the one truth about Washington’s portrayal of the former spook that was obvious about him from the opening of the movie: “Everything about the man is wrong.”

It isn’t often when there is such an obvious disconnect in a film, and I end up liking it anyway, but this is the case with “The Equalizer”.   This might only be because I concluded that Washington’s McCall was never a spy so much as he was a fixer.  He wasn’t a man who could be inconspicuous unless he chose to be very conspicuous.  He was a man who would be sent to deal with problems in a very permanent fashion, and that would be what would allow him to be the Equalizer in today’s society, in which reason is much discussed, but rarely practiced, and in which the veneer of civilization is polished much more brightly in order to hide just how thin it has come to be.

This is a film I would watch again, because it reflects the world we live in.

Read Full Post »

*******SPOILER ALERT********

Avengers  Age of Ultron

Today my oldest son took me to see the latest Avengers movie as my belated Father’s Day gift. I enjoyed it tremendously. I have a bone to pick with one of the central plot points, but for other reasons, the film redeemed itself spectacularly. Let’s start with the “bad” first.

Like so many other people, I grew up reading comic books, and the Avengers were one of my favorite titles. And in the world of Marvel Silver and Bronze Age and the 80s, Ultron was Hank Pym’s cross to bear. I realize that many of you may be saying “C’mon, you’re being silly. It was a great story!”, and you’d be absolutely right. I freely admit that the hang up about this is my own, and as stupid as it sounds, it is because these characters were as much my friends growing up as any flesh-and-blood people actually were. And because I actually give a damn, part of me was wondering all the way through “Is it too much?” Ultron was, and is, an extinction-level baddie, who was one of the many bad pennies that The Avengers had to deal with time and again. Because of this, I couldn’t help feeling that putting his creation on to the consciences of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner was a manifestly unfair act in story-telling. Tony is a man whose entire life has been shaped by his self-doubt and failure, a man who is divided between constantly running from his demons, and trying to make up for them. No matter how tormented be may be privately, at least he gets to hide behind the image of success, and a million-dollar smile, even if the music he hears when he closes his eyes is a thundering rendition of “Eminence Front”. Bruce Banner can only dream of that kind of peace. Instead, the best he can hope for is a life of anonymity in the shadows, where he can hide from EVERYONE, especially himself, and the monster that is freed by rage and anger. He lives a life in which he can’t close his eyes, because all he’ll hear are the screams of the hundreds of thousands the beast within has killed or maimed since being freed in an accident of science. This is why I questioned the retcon of the old familiar story. These two have enough on their plate without throwing Ultron into the mix. But that said, “It is done”, and so the cinematic universe continues.

Moving on to the “good”, first and foremost, the team has completed its metamorphosis from a group of unique individuals, into an actual “team”, with even a haunted Bruce Banner willingly freeing The Hulk when the team gets in over their heads with Hydra forces at the beginning of the movie and Hawkeye is injured. The team calls in a “Code Green”, bringing the gamma beast into the fray, and tipping the balance into the team’s favor.

Even so, there is still room for surprises, and we get to see Natasha let her guard down, and admit her attraction to Bruce Banner, which in a fun scene, she herself admits is improbable. We also got to see them all having fun in moments where nothing of consequence was at stake, and it very much felt like we got to enjoy it with them. But the part that hit it out of the park for me was the fact that Hawkeye got his due in this film.

In a world where so many spend so much time and effort attacking symbols for what they want to see in them and spend so little addressing the actual issues, because doing so might offend someone, or laud men in dresses for their “courage” while vilifying those who patiently ask “How is that courageous?”, Hawkeye reminded us what real heroism looks like. I know, I know, he’s a fictional character on a team of super heroes. How can that possibly represent real heroism?

The answer was plain as day in the story. Hawkeye and the Black Widow aren’t like the rest of the team. They aren’t invulnerable. They don’t have super powers, or a special suit to help keep them safe. They can be injured…severely…or even killed. And yet, they suit up. They play their parts on a team as members of a team. They are unafraid to put their lives on the line to save a teammate, or anyone else. When other people are running from danger, they run toward it. And they don’t have to.

When everyone on the team is paralyzed by the visions of their fears, the juxtaposition couldn’t have been more jarring to me. Captain America, in looking to those dreams, had to confront the truth that he fought for something he never got; the right to come home, and enjoy the peace he gave so much for and do it with that special someone. And now, he fights to give others that opportunity. And yet Hawkeye opened a home that only two others knew he had when they needed a safe place, and when the team had to leave, maybe for the last time, in order to settle accounts with Ultron, he left that oasis, a pregnant wife, and two small children, in the hope that whatever sacrifice he made, and whatever price he paid, other people would get that chance to go home, to be surrounded by their loved ones, to live.

His wife didn’t hesitate to support his decision to do so, and she clearly understood that even if he wasn’t super-human, he was still central to the team being a team, and only asked that he made sure that they were worth the sacrifices he was chancing. But the finest moment came when he put himself in harm’s way to save the Scarlet Witch, who he had been fighting only a short time earlier, and gave her the game-winning pep talk when he could no longer ignore that there was still much work to be done if they were to carry the day.

Doesn’t matter what you did, or what you were. If you go out there, you fight, and you fight to kill. Stay in here, you’re good, I’ll send your brother to come find you. But if you step out that door, you are an Avenger.

And then he pulled an arrow from his quiver, kicked open a door, and went back outside.

The men and women who run toward the danger.

They are the heroes.

The ones who will STAND when the odds are against them, because the fight matters.

They are the heroes.

And although Joss Whedon can be the world’s biggest knucklehead when he gets in front of a microphone, he understands how to tell stories that inspire. And for that, I can forgive him.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »