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Column Fri Sep 26 2014

The Equalizer, The Boxtrolls, Tracks, Jimi: All Is By My Side & Take Me to the River

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The Equalizer

We've seen Denzel Washington be a badass; we know he can do it, and he remains one of the best at combining action and gunplay with sheer magnetic personality. All three were front and center when he and director Antoine Fuqua first teamed up for Training Day, which gave us a version of Washington who was both villain and character we were still sort of rooting for if only because to lose him from the story meant the film would be something less. So what if Washington presented us with a character who was reserved, hesitant to act, quiet (but not in a menacing way), bordering on boring? Well, it's still Denzel Washington, so he'd just make that character a different kind of badass.

Based exceedingly loosely on the 1980s television series, The Equalizer presents us with Washington as Robert McCall, a widower and former black ops operative who is living a quiet existence working at a Boston home supply superstore (you don't have to be Macgyver to see the weapons possibilities throughout a Home Depot) and keeping to himself and his very odd schedule. He faked his death years earlier and just wants to live a non-violent life that includes visiting his neighborhood diner where Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute in trouble with her Russian pimp, hangs out quite a bit. The two just talk, mostly about books, but they form a strange bond that helps McCall feel somewhat connected to the world.

Details on McCall's earlier life are scarce (perhaps being saved for an inevitable and quite welcome follow-up film in what the makers are clearly hoping will be a franchise), but these early scenes that chronicle his day-to-day routine are fascinating if only to see Washington do ordinary, mundane things that are nevertheless meticulously planned out and efficiently executed. He also seems intent on being a good guy, helping fellow store employee Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) eat healthier so he can lose weight to qualify to become a security guard at the store. It's actually a welcome change to watch Washington play a normal guy with a secret, and it makes his eventual transition to instrument of destruction all the more interesting.

After Teri is brutally beaten by her pimp, McCall takes it upon himself to avenge her, and what starts out as an exercise in teaching a pimp a lesson turns into McCall getting himself in over his head with a nasty Russian mob (is there any other kind?), including a bit of evil named Teddy (Marton Csokas, who's had a busy year with supporting roles in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Noah), a hitman for the big boss Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). And with the same fascinating efficiency as other things in his life, McCall sets up these slightly cookie-cutter villains for an ugly, violent fall.

(SIDEBAR: Can I just say, thank goodness the Russian are our enemies again? It really does make spotting the villains so much easier in films these days.)

Despite a few misses along the way, I've always liked the way director Fuqua (The Replacement Killers, Brooklyn's Finest, Olympus Has Fallen) makes movies. And with a deceptively simple script from Richard Wenk (16 Blocks), The Equalizer is a solid first chapter that ends essentially setting up a version of the McCall that is more familiar to fans of the series (he places an ad in the paper to which those in trouble can respond). I especially liked a tease sequence where McCall leaves Boston for a spell just to collect himself and ends up at the doorstep of former "Agency" colleagues Brian and Susan Plummer (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo). The scene is great because it gives us just enough detail about McCall's former life to hook us, and it allows us to see him slightly more confident around those who know he has every right to be.

I guarantee you some reviewers will complain about the running time (about 130 minutes) of The Equalizer, and those are likely people who have a very set way of thinking about how action movies should be paced. But this film is going for something different. It bothers to build characters (well, some of them) and doesn't care if you're in a hurry to get to the next blood-spurting gun battle. Trust me, when we get there, you'll be satisfied.

The Equalizer has other issues than length. Strangely enough, the weakest scenes are the ones with Moretz, and it feels strange that she essentially vanishes from the film for a good deal of it once Teri is put in the hospital. It's not her performance that's sinks her scenes with Washington, but the writing. Their sexless friendship (weirdly mirroring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) is supposed to be the driving force behind McCall coming out of his self-imposed exile, but their relationship is so grossly underwritten that we don't quite see the motivation behind his decision to seek vengeance on her behalf.

Still, I think Washington's performance saves and even enhances The Equalizer, and there are still enough questions about this character and places in his past to explore that make me eager to see the actor return and make this a franchise for the more "mature" actor and audience. There's more here than you might suspect or others might have you believe.

The Boxtrolls

The stop-motion (or stop-frame) animation house Laika has carved out a wonderful little corner of the animation universe that seems to cater to children with a tolerance for the slightly scary. With gloriously realized works like Coraline and ParaNorman, Laika in some instances pushed the limits to thrills aimed at kids, and no one seems to be the worse for wear. Based on Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls seems even more slanted toward the grown folks who might be bringing those children to the movies, with a more British, existential slant on the humor that might appeal to those who grew up with Monty Python before they got into old Tim Burton films.

Co-directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, The Boxtrolls tells the story of the town of Cheesebridge, which believes that its biggest threat (to humans and their cheese supply) are creatures that live under the streets, in the sewers, whose only articles of clothing are cardboard boxes into which they can squeeze their whole bodies if they so desire. Urban legend tells tale about boxtrolls snatching an infant out of the arms of his father, only to be eaten whole. In fact, said infant grew up to think he was a boxtroll himself, named Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright of "Game of Thrones"), who thinks he's actually a boxtroll himself, despite the fact that he's twice as tall as any of them and he's the only one who speaks English.

Typically, the only thing that boxtrolls snatch from above ground is junk, which they use to build and decorate their palatial sewer-based dwelling. But there have been enough sightings by humans that the town is frightened to go out at night, so the leadership (cheese enthusiasts, all of them, headed by Lord Portley Rind (Jared Harris) hires a boxtroll exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley, in the role of his career, seriously).

Desperate to join the town leadership, Snatcher promises to rid the town of boxtrolls forever for a membership, and he sets out on an aggressive, nasty mission to capture all The Boxtrolls with the help of two borderline intelligent henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, whose characters deserve their own short, at least) and a raving lunatic henchman (Tracy Morgan as Mr. Gristle, who will became a fan favorite instantaneously).

In an effort to figure out how to snap the snatchings by Snatcher, Eggs dresses like a boy and goes above ground to do a little investigating with the help of Portley-Rind's daughter, Winnier (Elle Fanning), who is obsessed with meeting a boxtroll and confused why Eggs is so weird. As the film goes on, The Boxtrolls gets stranger, more giddily grotesque and funnier by the minute. A song-and-dance number by a local diva during a celebration commemorating the anniversary of the day the baby went missing is unbelievable, especially when you consider that the song she's singing is a new Eric Idle composition.

The Boxtrolls isn't just well written, but the production and costume design are so intricate and surreal that the temptation is to freeze-frame the film several times a minute just to admire the attention to detail and pure artistry of the work. At first glance, the plot might seem a bit thin, but I looked at Eggs' ordeal as being one about a boy who doesn't quite fit in anywhere and is simply trying to find a home. Any child who comes across as a little odd will readily identify.

Throw in Toni Collette and Simon Pegg (both also in Hector and the Search for Happiness this week as well) to round out the voice cast, and The Boxtrolls is downright inspired most of the time. I've seen the film twice, and that almost seems like it should be required because there is so much to look at in every frame. The second go-round, my eyes scanned the intricately rendered sets and the details in every room and building and vehicle. During the big battle scene between the Eggs and Snatcher near the end of the film, there is so much to look at and admire that it might make you weep.

A final, mid-credits sequence might be one of the greatest and most moving tributes to the impossible work these animators do on a handmade film like this; don't you dare leave before you see it. The Boxtrolls should be fairly digestible for younger audience members, but I really do believe the film is aimed slightly more at older kids and adults, not because the subject matter or visuals are that mature, but because a great deal of the humor is going to soar right over some kids' heads. There's plenty in the film to entertain the hell out of everybody, scare a few and dazzle all eyes.

To read my exclusive interview with The Boxtrolls co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Tracks

In 1977, Australian Robyn Davidson walked mostly alone for 1,700 miles across the Australian outback, going from the desolate town of Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. She chronicled her journey shortly thereafter in the pages of National Geographic and expanded that telling into the book Tracks in 1980. So why has it taken this long to make a film about her incredibly treacherous expedition? I'm sure there are several reasons (and I know attempts have been made to get this turned into a movie), but chief among them has to be that Davidson began this trip to get away from people, which became increasingly difficult the further along she got, since tourists and locals alike wanted to get a photo of/with the "camel lady" (she traveled with wild camels that she broke and trained to carry her gear).

As a film from director John Curran (The Painted Veil, Stone, We Don't Live Here Anymore) and adapted by Marion Nelson, Tracks is a highly watchable, fascinating and thirst-inducing work that captures a great deal of the meditative, hypnotic and sometimes psychedelic effects of hundreds of days in a row walking some of the hottest terrains in the world. But at its center is a deliberately off-putting performance by Mia Wasikowska (most recently seen in Only Loves Left Alive and Stoker, but probably — and unfortunately — best known in America for the title role in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) as a woman who is sick of talking to other human beings and would rather be left alone with her loyal dog and ornery camels.

The film doesn't attempt to dive too deep into the reasons Davidson grew tired of human contact — and it's actually adorable how chatty she becomes the few times she crosses paths with strangers. We're just asked to accept that sometimes, people want to be alone and they can get snippy when people won't shut up around them. Please feel free to ignore the posters for Tracks, which show "Girls" star Adam Driver as National Geographic photographer Rick Smoland (the magazine helped finance Robyn's trip in exchange for Smoland showing up along the journey to photograph her) stroking Davidson's cheek, hinting that this film might be a romance. It most certainly is not, even though the two did get intimate for a brief time.

Needless to say, the cinematography by Mandy Walker here is simultaneously bleak and breathtaking. The sense of the heat and dust practically clogs your lungs. And in a generous (but probably not legally necessary) screen credit, the film says that it was inspired by the Smoland's photos, which likely means that certain shots were meant to re-create his stunning work, some of which is shown during the closing credits. As Smoland, Driver is quite different than we've seen in other roles (including last week's This Is Where I Leave You); here, he's a professional but also charming, leaning toward quirky, and only someone trying to stay away from people would find him utterly annoying.

One of the more interesting aspect of Tracks is the look at how racism against the native Aboriginal Australians was still alive and well in the late 1970s. When Robyn must walk through sacred land, she has to get an Aboriginal guide to escort her, and although (or perhaps because) she and her elderly guide don't speak the same language, they become fast friends.

Tracks is an exhausting experience, and I believe that's the desired effect. Wasikowska is one of the finest actors of her generation (from any country), and presented to us here, raw and exposed and borderline shellshocked, is a bold move and it makes it so much easier to get into Davidson's state of mind at the time. If you think the idea of watching a film about a woman walking through a seemingly endless desert doesn't sound like something you'd be interested, I'm happy to tell you, you're likely wrong, and this film might even change your mind about the power of solitude. It's quite the experience.

Jimi: All Is By My Side

If you've been paying any attention to the progress of this film from writer-director John Ridley (who just won an Oscar for writing the adaptation of 12 Years a Slave) over the last couple of years, this is in fact the Jimi Hendrix biopic with no Hendrix-written music, which isn't as bad as you might think. By concentrating on just the year of Hendrix's life that he spent building up his reputation in London (1966-67, culminating with his guitar-burning live set at the Monterey Pop Festival), Jimi: All Is By My Side is able to capture Hendrix as a person and character, while only using a handful of performances of cover versions, including a re-creation of the famous performance of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in front of two of the Beatles the week that album came out.

As much as music is a major force in the film, it isn't necessarily the driving force. Ridley has opted to concentrate primarily on the relationships Hendrix (played by Outkast frontman André Benjamin) had with a couple of important women in his life, especially Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), a would-be talent scout who met Hendrix in New York at a near-empty show playing behind another singer. But she pulls the painfully shy Hendrix out of the background, and the two become something of a power couple when they head back to her native London, where Hendrix begins the slow, awkward process of building up the stage persona for which he eventually became famous. Much to Linda's chagrin, Hendrix also casually floats (as he did most things) with a volatile groupie named Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), leaving Linda somewhat in the dust.

Benjamin's performance is fairly astonishing, capturing Hendrix's vocal intonations, playing style (obviously, it's not him playing, but his stage moves are dead on). But beyond those things, Benjamin also beautifully captures the mindset of the creative mind, how the ebb and flow of ideas inspires him, and his more surface traits — Hendrix seems drawn to whoever the next pretty girl is that walks into the room, the same way leaves blow in the same direction as the wind. But the best scenes are those between Benjamin and Poots, who have a mature chemistry in the face of the foolishness that surrounds the rock life style. If anyone propped Hendrix up to succeed and be adventurous with this music, it was Linda Keith, and Ridley's telling of this story makes that perfectly clear.

But the big question is, is that story enough to make for an intriguing film, especially without a single classic Hendrix-penned tune in the mix? Just barely, is my answer. In truth, the film has bigger issues than a lack of early Hendrix music. There's an out-of-nowhere sequences involving Hendrix getting physically abusive with Etchington that the real woman says never happened, but more importantly, there's no explanation for the burst of violence or an indication that physical aggression was an issue Hendrix struggled with. There are a couple of strange personality traits that Ridley leaves floating around the ether of All Is By My Side, but never really grabs hold of, and it makes the filmgoing experience slightly frustrating.

Still, I think Benjamin does the best with what he's given, and the filmmakers do the best with what they aren't. The idea of a music biopic not having access to original compositions isn't unprecedented (at least one Beatles docudrama — Backbeat — did the same thing quite successfully), but, as accurately reproduced as they are, the concert re-creations don't really add much to the film, and only serve to emphasize what's not there. Jimi: All Is By My Side is a close call, but I think the strength of the acting and the narrow focus of the story trumps anything some might feel is missing. In truth, more casual fans might find the film more satisfying than die-hard Hendrix enthusiasts. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Take Me to the River

I'm something of a nut for music documentaries, whether they are about artists I'm thoroughly familiar with or ones about performers that I know nothing about, I'll watch pretty much anything. I love sweeping documents of musical movements or tales about places (studios, cities, regions of the country/world) where great music has been made. But I'm especially drawn to films about music or musicians I know almost nothing about, because there is nothing greater than being given a crash course on a musician or musical style that has moved at least one person enough to make an entire film about it. I'm certainly not suggesting all such films work. In fact, if the movie hasn't convinced me the subject was worth making a film about in the first place, I react quite negatively (the same is true of any doc, obviously).

Not long after my college years, I discovered the music of Memphis-based Stax Records, home to artists like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Booker T. & the M.G.s, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, and the list literally goes on and on. And the new documentary Take Me to the River celebrates the artists and songs of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, primarily through a walk into the Stax catalog (with occasional trips into Hi Records music as well, with artists such as Al Green and Otis Clay).

The film chronicles an attempt by many surviving artists from Stax glory days of the late '60s through the 1970s to re-record many of their great songs with contemporary artists, primarily hip-hop artists (Snoop Dogg, Yo Gotti, Hustle & Flow's Oscar-winning Frayser Boy), but also including rock acts like the North Mississippi Allstars — the band's collaborations with Mavis Staples are the highlights of the film, but even just watching them work through the arrangements is fascinating.

There's an emphasis in the film about older musicians handing down knowledge, not just of the music but also of the times in which the music was created. The fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis is certainly not lost on those who live there, and it should come as no surprise that the city turned to Stax musicians to help promote peace when other cities were experiencing riots in the wake of King's death.

There's a clear joy in the faces of elder musicians like Staples, Booker T. Jones, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby Rush, William Bell, Bobby "Blue" Bland and the many session players is meeting these younger artists who sing their praises and talk about growing up in households where a parent or other role model would play Stax music. That being said, the collaborations themselves (many of which we hear from beginning to end) are hit and miss in terms of quality; shockingly enough, "Ain't No Sunshine" doesn't need a rap verse in the middle of it.

Director Martin Shore also devotes (deservingly so) some time to the struggles and ultimate demise of Stax Records and its owner Al Bell, who appears to have been targeted for commercial extinction by larger record labels after refusing to let one of them acquire the label. Narrated by Terrence Howard (who also performs in the film), Take Me to the River is at its best as a history lesson about a music scene that influenced other performers around the world. I'm not sure and emphasis on the modern versions of these classic Tracks is the most fitting tribute to that music, but the film features plenty of the originals to keep our ears locked in and happy. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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