Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Laina At the Movies


By Laina Farhat-Holzman
October 2014

The Equalizer
The latest Denzel Washington film, The Equalizer, is based on a long running TV series of the same name. The question asked is how can someone good equalize the more numerous and powerful forces of evil? I just remember the TV series dimly, but the film, while gratifying in its message, made we wonder if in reality a good person can trump organized evil.

The film begins with Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), seemingly an ordinary good man, is a department manager at a Home Depot-like store in Boston, much revered by his co-workers. He is a little out of the ordinary, however, in that he is obviously an educated man (reading through his late wife's 100 world's best books), and he is also someone who does not sleep much.  He leaves his solitary apartment at two in the morning to have tea and read at an all-night diner.

One night he befriends a very young hooker who is also at the diner but is summoned out by her pimp for a client she obviously fears.  When she winds up in the hospital after a savage beating, Washington departs from his solitary decent-man life and unknowingly takes on the local Russian mafia.

It has been interesting to see the Russians once more lighting up our screens as villains, and this mafia makes the Sicilian mafia look like a bad boy club. They are infiltrated into every enterprise: meat-packing, drugs, protection rackets, corrupting police and politicians, and ugliest of all, the trafficking of Slavic girls, some of them very young indeed. They keep all their enterprises in line through unimaginable violence carried out by the worst bunch of tattooed thugs imaginable. How can one person take on such a force and not only fight it, but dismantle it?

We then learn that McCall is a retired black ops government operative who could well be called not just a martial arts master, but a lethal weapon himself. Numbers of opponents do not deter him; within seconds, he uses speed and their own weapons to bring them down. He also gives some of these villains an opportunity to replace evil with good, as he does with two grafting cops who have been working at the Russian protection racket, forcing small businesses to pay them off.

He sometimes has success with American thugs, but never with the Russian ones who are so embedded in evil that they are entirely unrelenting (and who come to very gratifying ends).

The film ends with a suggestion that this will be a series.  Again, warnings for those who cannot stand bloody violence: avoid this. But for those who are gratified by someone being able to equalize and triumph over evil, this is a terrific film.

The Drop
This has been a week of film noir for me, this second one a little more difficult to love than The Equalizer, but it won me over. Besides being the last film to see James Gandolfini, who plays Cousin Marv, whose bar is now owned by local gangsters, it is a revelation to watch Tom Hardy, playing Marv's cousin, Bob Saginowski, whose seeming simplicity masks something more.

We have already met Russian gangsters in several movies this year, so it is no surprise to know that Russian Chechen thugs intimidate bars and shopkeepers in Brooklyn. A bar is assigned randomly to collect the payoff money each week where the money is “dropped” and then picked up in the middle of the night. This method prevents heists, unless, of course, an insider decides to steal from the Chechens (unwise).

Cousin Marv is bitter over the loss of his bar to the gangsters and is bent on a scam to rob them and leave for sunnier shores. His cousin Bob, a straight-arrow and gentle soul, is not told.

The plot is convoluted, but ultimately fascinating as is the burgeoning relationship between Bob and a young woman, Nadia (played by Noomi Rapace of Girl With the Dragon Tatoo), who is being stalked by her former boyfriend, said to have murdered another gangster.

Bob is not the idiot he seems to be; he is a new kind of anti-hero.

Gone Girl
This may be a marriage made in hell, but it is a really good thriller. The author's novel and screen writer propose that in marriage, both partners lie about who they really are while during the passion phase but then wake up to what may be horrible reality afterwards.  Jane Austin would have said: Marry in Haste, Regret in Leisure.

In a leafy Missouri suburb, a husband, Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) returns from work to find the front door open, the living room furniture tumbled and broken, and his wife of five years Amy Elliot-Dunn (Rosamund Pike) gone.

We follow events with some flashbacks to their meeting in New York, their obvious lust for each other, and their happy marriage until the Recession kicks in and both lose their jobs.  When Dunn's mother becomes terminally ill, the couple move back to his home town in Missouri to help his twin sister take care of her.

There are immediate flashes of potential trouble from the beginning of this marriage: Dunn didn't know until their wedding that she was a wealthy woman (proceeds from her children's books based on her own “amazing” childhood). He was dazzled by her academic accomplishments and she by his obvious down-to-earth charm. Moving this successful city girl to small-town Middle America was going to have ramifications that neither of them would like.

The disappearance alerts police detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) that this may well be a crime scene and evidence such as blood spatter begins to implicate Nick. The story goes viral and the usual TV viragos have a field day crucifying Nick even before his arrest. When a partially incinerated diary kept by the missing wife is found, we hear a version of their marriage experience from the missing Amy.

A famous defense attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) who tries defending Nick in a TV panel winds up taking the case.

Amy, it seems, is not dead at all, but has disappeared leaving enough clues to implicate her husband in her supposed murder. We see this marriage from her viewpoint.

The ending of the movie is a dilly. A marriage saved or a nightmare begun?

The Judge

A hotshot defense attorney in New York, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his Midwest hometown for the funeral of his mother. While there, his estranged father, a relentlessly upright judge (Robert Duvall) is accused of murdering a bicycler and leaving the scene of the crime.

The problem is that Judge Parker appears to have both gone off the wagon upon the death of his wife, but also might have had a motive for killing this particular bicycler, a loathsome criminal whom the judge mistakenly released, who went on to worse crimes. The judge, however, cannot remember killing the man on his bicycle that night. A blackout?  Alcohol?  Something else?

It seems most of the critics recognized that these two giants of the cinema were worth seeing, but many considered the story too sentimental and clich├ęd. I cannot agree. They were worth seeing, and the ever-fascinating issue of justice was front and center in this film. This was a family drama and a legal drama, with a point.  I would recommend it.

Fury

As a woman, I have not had to serve in the military. But if I had, two branches of the service would have been particularly awful: the submarine service and tanks.  Both are claustrophobic and at least during World War II, foul and stinky.

The last movie I saw that featured tank warfare was Israeli-filmed entirely from within a tank during an Israeli war in Lebanon. The claustrophobia was particularly horrifying.

Fury is a story that takes place in April, 1945, just months before the collapse of the Nazis, but deadly nonetheless. Because the American and British air forces completely smashed Germany's once fearsome Luftwaffe, air war had lost its danger. But on the ground, the Nazis were not yet giving up; they had forced every male (and some females) from 14 to 60, willing or not, to go forth in the final defense against the allies. Those who refused were hanged publically to “encourage” the others. The allies went through town after town, with even children on display from the gallows.

This is a war movie reminiscent of some of the other wonderful WWII movies and the more recent one, Private Ryan, but is even more realistically bloody, up close and personal. It is also a story about leadership: Brad Pitt plays “Wardaddy,” a sergeant who commands a Sherman tank with a five-man crew, one of whom is a 19-year-old who has never seen combat before. The odds are terrible. His mission puts him a position where he is outmanned and outgunned. The German tanks are better. But character often matters more than just the odds.

The story is gripping, and I need not tell you any more of the plot, but just recommend it for a glimpse into a world that most of us would not otherwise know. And we should remember how different our world would have been had the other side won.

John Wick

Only in a thriller movie could any of us consider rooting for a hitman! In an unusual bit of casting, the generally nice Keanu Reeves played John Wick, a retired New York hitman who had fallen in love, married, and then lost his wife to an untimely illness. Inconsolable, he was surprised to receive a package that his wife had ordered for him before she died, an adorable beagle puppy “so that he would have something to love after her death.” And love it he did, until an unfortunate run-in with some young Russian thugs who demanded that he sell them his favorite classic racecar. His refusal infuriated the thugs who tracked him down, invaded his house, beat him, killed his puppy, and took the car keys and car.

The most obnoxious of the thugs was the son of the a powerful Russian crime boss, played by another unlikely choice, Michael Nyqvist, who was the hero of the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Nyqvist was thrilling as a nasty Russian villain and Keanu Reeves was suitably lethal as the best of the best hitmen, out to get revenge. Even better, the two men had a history-and both spoke Russian.

I cannot honestly say that this was an elevating movie, but it was strange, violent, and make believe guilty pleasure. If the violence were really depicted with realism, I would not have been there. But it was a gratifying revenge fantasy taking place in a very strange and alien world that does exist among us (criminal underworld culture), and with the most gratifying villains of today, the Russian criminal world. They are so much smarter than the thugs of ISIS! I am sure Mr. Putin is creating more of them for us.

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