At The Movies: The Equalizer

There’s nothing remotely new about “The Equalizer.” Hollywood cranks out movies about quiet, unassuming men who turn out to be elite killing machines who go on bloody revenge sprees after being pushed to the limit on a regular basis.

In this latest version, Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall, a quiet, unassuming man who works at a faux-Home Depot. Robert can’t sleep at night so he spends the early morning hours reading in a diner. It is there that he frequently chats with Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute working for ruthless Russian thugs.

hr_The_Equalizer_11When Teri’s boss beats her to the point of hospitalization, Robert can stand by idly no more. He offers to pay off Teri’s boss for her freedom but he’s not interested. Robert proceeds to violently kill Teri’s boss and his half-dozen, heavily-armed guards.

Unfortunately, Teri was working for goons who were working for Russian mobster Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). When word gets to Moscow that one of Pushkin’s lieutenants was murdered, he sends his top man — Teddy (Marton Csokas) — to investigate.

Teddy is every bit as cunning and uncompromising as Robert. It will take all of Robert’s skills as a former intelligence officer to stay ahead of the mobsters and the corrupt cops working with them.

Based on a 1980s television series, “The Equalizer” deals out satisfying but graphically violent vigilante justice. Director Antoine Fuqua launches the film with a slow burn, spending what feels like a good bit of time leading us through Robert’s humdrum life. But when Robert finally gets down to business, the action and tension doesn’t let up.

It may be a familiar story but it’s worth watching for the strong performances by Washington and Csokas. The movie clocks in at a little over two hours but it feels longer. While it seemingly takes forever to get the action started, it also seems like it takes forever for the final action sequence to end.

This film is available in IMAX but I don’t know why. I didn’t notice anything about it that made it worthy of the big, big screen treatment.

 

 

At The Movies: This is Where I Leave You; The Maze Runner

I’ve been slacking off lately so to make up for it — a double feature.

This Is Where I Leave You

This new comedy/drama from director Shawn Levy and writer Jonathan Tropper  is like a lesser version of last winter’s “August: Osage County.” The family is slightly less dysfunctional and the story is slightly less compelling. Still, I found it slightly more entertaining.

Jane Fonda stars as Hillary, matriarch of the Altman family. She’s a celebrity psychologist who naturally has caused his children all kinds of embarrassment by making them the subjects of her best-selling books. When her husband dies, the children are all called home to spend seven days sitting Shiva, per their father’s last wish.

MV5BMjkzNzQ2NDMyNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTY3MTcxMjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Corey Stoll stars as Paul, the oldest son. He’s the no-nonsense, responsible one who has been running the family business. His wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) desperately wants a baby. Since Paul has the least problems he gets the least amount of screen time.

Tina Fey plays daughter Wendy, stuck in a loveless marriage with two small children. Her true love is next-door-neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who suffered brain damage due to a car accident way back when they were dating.

Jason Bateman plays Judd, the central character of the piece. Judd’s life was actually going pretty well until the day his father died — which also happened to be the day he discovered his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) was cheating on him with his boss (Dax Shepard).

 Finally we have the youngest sibling, Phillip (Adam Driver). Phillip is immature and irresponsible. He arrives late for the funeral and brings with him a girlfriend.  Tracy (Connie Britton) is a psychologist like mom. She’s significantly older than Phillip.

Take these characters, toss in an old flame of Judd’s (Rose Byrne), toss them around for seven days condensed into a couple of hours, and that’s your film. There are scenes to make you laugh, scenes to pull at your heartstrings, but it all felt pretty insubstantial. The emotional tug of the story wasn’t there.

If you’re a big fan of infidelity you’ll enjoy this movie. There’s a twist at the end that had me more confused than shocked because for the entire film I was assuming the woman who was around all the time was Hillary’s sister since she was never properly identified.

I did like the cast and they are the main selling point for “This Is Where I Leave You.” The actors deserved a better story.

The Maze Runner

After suffering through five “Twilight” movies I decided I was going to be far more selective before attending a film based on a young adult book series. Call it a moment of weakness or just a really slow few weeks of new releases, but I broke down and went to see “The Maze Runner.”

Based on the first book in a trilogy (thank God there are only three) by James Dashner, “The Maze Runner” takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where kids are being used and abused for the benefit of adults (see also, “The Hunger Games”). You’d think kids today would have enough to worry about with Ebola, ISIS, global warming and the inevitable collapse of Social Security.

Dylan O’Brien stars as Thomas, a teenager who awakes one day to find he’s on a freight elevator that deposits him in a large green field surrounded by other young men. Thomas has no memory of who his past life, an affliction everyone there shares.

MV5BMjUyNTA3MTAyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTEyMTkyMjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Thomas’ new home, known as The Glade, is surrounded by tall, immense walls that open once in the morning and once at night. Behind the walls is an intricate maze that changes every night. There are also monsters — cyborg spiders known as Grievers– who wander the maze. No one knows what’s on the other side of the maze.

The teen and pre-teen males who populate The Glade have formed a somewhat self-sufficient society led by Alby (Aml Ameen) and his second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Everyone has a role to play and at the top of the food chain are the maze runners — boys who go into the maze every morning and map out as much of it as they can before the gates close at night.

Not content to grow crops, Thomas wants to go into the maze and get to the other side. His rebellious actions create a great deal of trouble for the group but eventually he convinces enough of them to make a run for it.

“The Maze Runner” has a few things going for it. I liked the young cast and the design work of the maze and it’s surroundings. I was less impressed with the Grievers and the way most of the action sequences took place in the dark so you couldn’t make out what was going on.

But the film really falls apart when you get to the other side of the maze. I won’t blow the explanation here, let’s just say it left me slightly confused but mostly unimpressed.

And then the movie commits the ultimate sin for the first film in (what the filmmakers’ hope is) a franchise: it doesn’t come with a satisfying ending. After almost two hours we learn that we haven’t really watched a movie, we’ve just watched an extended trailer for the next movie.

Bad move. Always make that first film self-contained because you never know if you’re going to get to make that second film (see ‘Eragon” and “The Golden Compass,” among others).  I should want to watch a sequel because I want to spend more time in this world and with these characters, not because I want to know what the point was of the previous film.

Born At The Right Time

Someone near and dear to me marked a significant birthday this week. She wasn’t happy about it and so to cheer her up her friends and I took her to Augusta to spend the day at a winery. This usually works, even if only temporarily.

100_2276

Now, I get it. Growing old sucks. I’ve spent enough time in nursing homes (although I don’t think they call them that anymore) these past few years to know that for many people old age is not a blessing — not for them, not for their family, not for anyone around them. Some people grow old gracefully and die in their sleep at 94 with all their faculties and that’s great. Many don’t.

The thing is we’re only given one shot at life on Earth. And we have no control over when we’re born, where we’re born, who our parents are, if we’re born rich or poor, if we have great genes or wimpy genes. But regardless of our circumstances, we all start out young and stupid and, if we’re lucky, end up old and wise. Some of us will end up old and not able to remember anything and some of us won’t even make it to old.

So, what can you do? Make the best of it, I suppose. But the one thing I want to impart on my dear, sweet wife as she faces the other side of the hill is this: We were born at the right time.

And timing is everything. Born too early and you miss out on the good stuff still to come. Born too late and you miss out on the good stuff of the past. I’m convinced that we came along at the right time in human history. Well, except for having to change my music collection from album to 8-track to cassette to CD to digital download — that has been a pain in the ass.

First of all, anyone born before electricity, indoor plumbing, antibiotics and refrigeration had it worse off than you do. I go mad if my electricity is out for 24 hours. The richest king of England back in Days of Olde still had to crap in a bucket and have his maids take it away. Is that the life you’d want to live? Did King Louie ever know the joy of a Mexican Villa burrito? No, no he didn’t.

And who would want to live through The Great Depression? Not I. And the Second World War? Again, no. And who wants to grow up in the ’50s when the schools are practicing nuclear war safety drills?

I was born in the early ’60s, along with The Beatles and Marvel Comics. It was a decade of turmoil and change and I was right there in it. In my diapers for the most part, but still, I get to claim being a child of the ’60s and actually mean it while avoiding Vietnam and race riots and assassinations.

I grew up in a world where you could play outside and not have to worry about drive-by shootings or “stranger danger.” We could only watch cartoons on Saturday morning because that’s the only time they were on. We didn’t have video games. We didn’t have phones in our pockets. When we ate dinner we had to look at each other instead of down at our phones. We didn’t take photos of every goddamn moment of our lives and post them on the Internet. You could fly across country without 70 levels of security. The news was delivered in half-hour increments at 5:30 p.m. by Walter Cronkite because that’s the way it was.

The military draft ended in 1973. I was 11 years old. Born at the right time. I’m pretty sure if I had been drafted that I would have died in basic training.

The first time I saw “Star Wars” it was on a movie screen, not a television screen. I heard “The Stranger,” Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Synchronicity” and “The Joshua Tree” when they first came out. I was exposed to that music as it was meant to be heard, not stripped out for some Greatest Hits package.

See, that’s the thing with being born too late. Sure, kids today have all the modern conveniences but is it a better life to be constantly online or easily at someone’s beck and call? Not to me. I look on Facebook and I’m inundated by photos and videos of people’s kids. How narcissistic are these kids going to be as they grow up? And I get the appeal. I can post a clever thought on FB and no one will respond. I post a photo of Andrew and get 50 “likes.”

I have no baby pictures of me. There may be a few in existence but I don’t know where (I was the youngest and apparently parents get tired of baby pics after the first three kids. That or I was a really ugly baby.). I know there’s no video of me. I’m good with that.

And let’s face it, the world is on the downside of the hill as well. We’ve got terrorists everywhere, climate change, staggering debt, deadly viruses and Fox News. Better to clock out early than be here for the apocalypse.

Most important, if I hadn’t been born when I was and where I was I wouldn’t have had the parents I have or the family I have or the friends I have. It really has been a wonderful life.

And it ain’t over just yet.

 

 

 

 

At The Movies: The Drop

A lot will be made of how “The Drop” is the final film to be released starring the late James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos” fame. And while he delivers a strong performance, it is Tom Hardy who elevates this crime drama to a higher level.

Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, a quiet man who tends bar at his cousin Marv’s (Gandolfini) tavern. At least it used to be Marv’s bar, before bad decisions forced him to sell out to the local mob. Marv is still the establishment’s front man, but in addition to serving drinks, the bar occasionally serves as a drop box for the mob’s money laundering operations.

The Drop Movie (2)Marv’s boss decides the next drop at the bar will take place Super Bowl Sunday, the busiest night of the year. This despite the fact that Marv’s bar had been robbed just weeks earlier.

While dealing with complications at work, Bob also faces upheaval in his personal life. One night while walking home he hears a noise coming from inside a garbage can in someone’s back yard.  He lifts the lid to find a small, abused dog.

The owner of the house comes outside to check out the disturbance. The homeowner, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), claims the dog isn’t hers and helps Bob clean it up. Bob decides to keep the dog and he and Nadia strike up a friendship as she assists him with the animal’s care.

As luck would have it the dog’s owner is the town psychopath (Matthias Schoenaerts) and he wants his dog back.

You might wonder how these two unrelated threads can come together but they do in a smart, satisfying, violent way. Directed by Machael R. Roskam and written by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Gone, Baby, Gone”), “The Drop” is a slow-burn crime drama that holds your attention thanks largely to Hardy’s smoldering, compelling performance.

And the dog is really cute.

Thanks, Brenda

Daycare is a bitch.

You’ve got to find just the right place to leave your precious child. Can you trust these people? What are they gonna do to my kid when I’m not there? And then you’ve got to pay them. Is it worth going back to work if my check goes to daycare? And will my work schedule line up with their business hours? And what about holidays and sick days and breaks?

The good thing about daycare is that it eventually ends. Junior gets older and reaches the age where he can fend for himself at home alone for a few hours. And then he’s old enough to drive and you never see him again.

At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

It’s different when your child is developmentally disabled. Most daycares don’t advertise “Autistic Children Welcome!” And that bit about junior getting older and fending for himself — forget it.

When Andrew turned 6 we ran out of ways to work out his preschool and our work schedules to our advantage. We needed daycare. We had no clue. The social worker sent us a two-page list of respite providers in our area. I started at the top and started calling.

“I’m sorry, I’m not taking on any new clients.”

“I don’t do that work anymore.”

I got some variation of those two responses over and over until I got near the bottom of page 2 and the Rs.

Rapuano, Brenda.

“Hi, I’m calling about daycare for my six-year-old son. Are you taking on new clients?”

“Yes I am.”

“I should warn you my son is autistic (this was before I learned the proper term is “has autism”).”

“What does that mean?” (This was 1997, before Autism became “hot”).

“Well, he doesn’t speak and doesn’t really play with others. It’s hard to communicate with him. I understand if you’re not interested.”

“No, no. bring him over.”

We scheduled a meeting and it went well and a few days later Andrew became the latest child to attend Brenda’s World. I will never forget the first day I picked Andrew up after work. Brenda was sitting on the floor of her porch looking like she had just survived the invasion of Normandy. My son was wailing away. “Great,” I thought. “I’m going to have to quit my job and stay home with the boy.”

“No, no. It’s fine. The first day is often rough. I’m not giving up,” Brenda said.

And she didn’t. And things got better. And Brenda has been an invaluable part of our son’s life for 17 years. It wasn’t always easy. One year Brenda moved to another part of town. We thought all was well but then some neighbors found out she was operating a daycare out of her home and fears of falling property values led to petitions and a city council meeting to determine if Brenda would be allowed to keep her business running.

Laura put on her best lawyer suit and wrote a speech that began with “Angels walk the earth, let me tell you about one..” and proceeded to tell how Brenda was the only person in St. Charles who would take in our son and, well, I’m told grown men cried (I didn’t go to the meeting; had to watch the boy. And I swore off city council meetings when I stopped being a reporter). At any rate I’m sure glad I wasn’t the realtor who had to follow that.

Brenda got to keep her daycare open.

Time marches on. The kids at Brenda’s World came and went. Andrew came but never went. We watched her own children grow up and move out. We kept waiting for Brenda to kick Andrew out. What daycare keeps a kid into his teen years? His 20s? She never did. She never raised our rates either in 17 years.

Last year Brenda announced that she was retiring. We panicked. The other parents held a meeting and convinced her to keep going, but the writing was on the wall. Two weeks ago it became final. The house was sold, her assistant was moving away, her last day would be August 29.

We panicked. Then we panicked again. Then we panicked some more. What are we going to do now? Most daycares don’t take 23-year-olds. Hell, no daycares take 23-year-olds.

Amazingly, we were able to find someone at Andrew’s day program who will watch him during the awkward times when work/program do not collide. I’m sure he’ll do a good job, but it won’t be the same.

100_2267So thanks, Brenda. You helped us out when you didn’t have to and stuck with us much longer than you needed to and for that we are forever grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

At The Movies: Sin City – A Dame To Kill For

Sometimes a sequel will rise to the occasion and build upon and improve upon its predecessor. Sometimes it doesn’t. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” doesn’t.

It’s been nearly 10 years since directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller brought Miller’s series of crime comics to gritty and visually stunning life. “Sin City” was an amazing work of film. The sequel is more of the same but the stories aren’t as compelling and neither are the characters. It looks as sharp as ever but the end result is a bit flat.

Like before, the movie revolves around three stories — one from Miller’s original comic series and two new ones written specifically for the film. Most of the characters appeared in the first film, a few of them even died in it, but since the stories aren’t told in chronological order it all probably works out if you take the time to figure it out.

sin-city-2-poster“The Long Bad Night” features a new character, Johnny ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has come to Sin City to win some money. Johnny has a gift for gambling but his luck may run out when he joins a poker game led by the film’s main villain — Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe).

Midway through Johnny’s tale the action switches to the title track — “A Dame to Kill For.” Dwight McCarthy (previously played by Clive Owen, now played by Josh Brolin) still spends his nights in Katie’s bar while struggling with his inner rage.

He’s approached by an old flame — Ava Lord (Eva Green) — who wants to escape her abusive husband and his bodyguard Manute (previously played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, now played by Dennis Haysbert). Will Dwight kill for Ava, and does Ava have ulterior motives?

The final chapter, “Nancy’s Last Dance,” is a continuation of the central story from the first film. Stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) goes from grief to insanity over the death of her beloved John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). As ghost Hartigan helplessly watches from the background, Nancy and her buddy Marv (Mickey Rourke) set about to get revenge on Senator Roarke.

If you enjoyed the original “Sin City” you’ll probably enjoy this one — just not as much. While the visuals are still striking the characters feel tired and the situations they’re put in aren’t as interesting this time around. There’s nothing shocking about Ava Lord’s story aside from the amount of screen time Green is willing to appear naked. Gordon-Levitt brings some new energy to the proceedings with his fun character.

Rourke is always entertaining as the hard-drinking, indestructible Marv. But while in the first film he’s caught up in an interesting story, here he’s mostly just muscle for Dwight and  Nancy. At least he’s better off than Willis, who spends his brief time standing in the shadows moaning over Nancy’s sad situation.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest sin is how the final story diminishes the ending of the original. Hardigan selflessly committed suicide to protect Nancy from Roarke. That touching ending is rendered moot by having Nancy go on to become a crazed vigilante.

 

 

 

 

 

At The Movies: The Expendables III

For this week’s review I had to choose between “The Giver,” yet another Young Adult novel brought to life, or “The Expendables III,” yet another Sylvester Stallone and his All Star Action Heroes tale of adventure.

As you can tell by the header, I went with the latter. I’m getting a little tired of movies based on YA books; I never get tired of Sylvester Stallone and company blowing up stuff.

Even if you’ve never seen an Expendables movie you probably know the drill: Stallone calls up a bunch of ’80s action stars — and Jason Statham — and they go somewhere and blow stuff up and put it on film, edit it down to a couple hours and watch the money roll in. It’s the “Cannonball Run” of blowing stuff up.

In addition to his usual cohorts — Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Arnold Schwarzenegger — Stallone has brought in heavyweights like Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas and Harrison Ford (Ford is substituting for Bruce Willis, who is “no longer in the picture.”).

And in what one assumes is an attempt to draw in ticket sales that don’t involve the senior citizen discount, Stallone has brought in a quartet of fresh faces — Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell and Ronda Rousey.

Oh, and Frasier’s in it. I don’t get the connection either.

expendables-3-uk-poster-official-uk-expendables-3-poster-and-quad-9ddf6eaf-ff2f-430d-b2e0-5ce33514c694The film opens with — you guessed it — an explosive scene in which Barnaby (Stallone), Christmas (Statham) and crew stage a prison-train break.  They rescue one of the original Expendables — Doctor Death (Snipes) — who’s gone a little batty after eight years in prison.

But a quick shave later and the doctor is ready to join the team as they fly off to thwart an arms deal. It all goes south (in explosive fashion, of course) when Barnaby discovers that the arms dealer is none other than his old partner and co-founder of The Expendables — Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson). Stonebanks had gone to the dark side years ago and Barnaby thought he was long dead — and that he had killed him.

Determined to capture Stonebanks but not at the cost of his friends’ lives, Barnaby disbands the team. He then hooks up with Frasier — I mean Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) — who sets him up with a new team of fresh faces (listed above).

Barnaby’s plan to capture Stonebanks falls apart (in explosive fashion) and soon the old guard is called in to rescue and then team up with the new kids in an all-out war with Stonebanks’ army.

I think I enjoyed “The Expendables III” more than the first two. I’m not saying the quality is any better, I just liked this mix of actors more and the way they played off each other. Snipes was a welcome addition although he doesn’t get much to do after his exciting introduction. Ford was the only newcomer who looked out of place, and it’s probably best they kept him in a helicopter instead of in the real action. Banderas was the unexpected comic relief as a motormouth mercenary who wants to fit in. I did miss Bruce Willis.

I also thought the action sequences were better, although the final shootout does go on too long. “Expendables III” is pretty much non-stop action, even more so than its predecessors. They’ve also downgraded the violence to PG-13 standards, which was probably a wise move. The graphic violence isn’t necessary for what is obviously a cartoon adventure.