Guide to Albany
The Reel Deal

Actually, it's all related to a vimeo project Alan and Firefly's Captain Mal are crowdfunding.

A week and a half ago, Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion asked people to support their vimeo project with a 30 day campaign goal of $425k. 10 days later, they have over $2.3 million. Now that's shiny!

 

Head on over to indegogo and read all about it, and all the cool swag their giving away. You'll be glad you did!

 

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Marvel's superheroes seem almost as competitive off screen as on, at least when it comes to their charity work. With coordination through Microsoft's Collective Project, Robert Downey lends his support to Hand-a-Thon volunteers who design, assemble and donate prosthetic arms for children. Thanks to 3-D printing, the volunteers at the University of Central Florida built 60 arms in just one day.

Naturally, the video's adorable.



Here's a segment highlighting the Hand-A-Thon event at UCF.








Netflix Suggestions

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I was going to write about the Oscars and I had all these notes written out, clever bon mots, but after reading the entirety of the internet's responses there wasn't anything I could have said that hadn't already been said. Things like, "Selma was robbed" and "David Oyelowo was in three nominated movies this year; why did he not get an academy award for any of them??"  (Note: if you haven't seen A Most Violent Year, please do so. Oyelowo's smooth as silk twist at the end is worth waiting for).  It was nice that Selma won for best original song, but its win felt like that scene in Blazing Saddles where the cowboys ask the workers to "sing us a song!" And while Julianne Moore won for Best Actress in Still Alice, she also shined in Map to the Stars, which surprised me by not getting nominated but perhaps the subject matter hit a little too close to home for some folks ::ahem::

So we're back to Netflix suggestions. Some Oscar Nominees are already on Netflix, did you know? Ida and Virunga are, respectively, Best Foreign Language Film winner and Best Documentary Feature Nominee. Both are worth watching, especially the heartbreaking Virunga which highlights how important it is that we pay attention to what some corporations are doing; purging villages of their people and their resources, harming protected wildlife in the process, and the dirty means they go through to achieve their nefarious purpose. 

This week's recommendations:

  • Take This Waltz: Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen star as a couple whose relationship is tested when she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a business trip where sparks fly...and then she discovers he lives across the street. Noteworthy: palpable tension between Williams and Kirby, Rogen being heartbreakingly charming. Why is he not doing this more often?
  • And the Oscar Goes To...: feature documenting the history of the Academy Awards with vintage clips and milestones from Hollywood's greatest. Worth it for the bits of history and things you might not have known about old Hollywood
  • Labor Day: Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin star in a film about an escaped convict who takes a mother and son hostage but his reasons aren't so dishonorable. I really enjoyed this one. Also with palpable tension, which takes talent when there are no sex scenes in the film. 
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Reminder, if there's something you're not sure you want to watch comment above and I'll be your guinea pig for next week's suggestions. 
It's cold out and some of you hug the Netflix when it's lower than 30 degrees. Or you may be home sick with an awful chest infection (me) and bored out of your gourd. 

At any rate, I thought I'd start randomly posting about films on Netflix that I enjoyed and think you should give a shot to if you're hovering above that "play" button, unable to decide whether to push it. I, however, watch almost anything once if it piques my interest so let me help you.

This is a new thing so I'm just gonna be succinct, review one film and give a list of the others. If you want to hear more about why I liked something, comment below.

Chef (2014)

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This Jon Favreau flick stars him alongside John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr. (who's hard to distinguish from his Tony Stark persona in this film but still enjoyable). 

Favreau is a talented and creative chef whose vision is stymied by his "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" boss, Hoffman. After a verbal altercation with a restaurant reviewer, Platt, goes viral on the internet, he challenges the reviewer to a do-over. Hoffman doesn't allow him to serve the menu he originally wanted to use, so he quits his job on principle and eventually finds his way to serving his own fare on a food truck. In addition to this, he's also balancing trying to be a good father to his son. 

Key points: the passion and talent that Favreau's character puts into his food as well as the honesty in how he communicates with his son are really wonderful, in my opinion. The wit in the dialogue is timed well, and the storyline moves along entertainingly. 

It's a film about being honest and true to yourself and with others. I gave it a Netflix rating of 4 stars. If your girlfriend isn't into the Iron Man or Avengers films [dump her. I'm KIDDING! Sheesh], this is something you can watch together and enjoy.

Other films I enjoyed are:
  • Last Weekend (4 stars) Slice of life about a family's last weekend in their family vacation home. It's a little #RichPeopleProblems, but I love Patricia Clarkson's character in it.
  • Patton Oswalt: Tragedy Plus Comedy (4 stars) Stand up. Patton on point.
  • Iliza Shlesinger: Freezing Hot (3 stars) Stand up. I loved her "War Paint" more (also still available on Netflix) but this is still worth watching
  • The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (4 stars) Bizarre (in a good way) thriller/horror foreign film. If you liked "Into the Void" you might dig this. The art nouveau set design is a win in my book.
  • Best Man Down (4 stars) Comedy-drama wherein the over-the-top drunk best man dies the night of the wedding reception and the married couple learn more about his humanity in death than they knew in life.
Stay warm, Albany. And if there's something you're curious about seeing, comment above and I'll give you my opinion. If I haven't seen it I'll be your test monkey.

    [It's] a movie about hope, about people in this country who, when they all come together, can make anything happen. - Dr. Robert J. Jones, SUNY University at Albany President, commenting after a special screening for Selma, Jan. 6th, at Colonie Center.

vlcsnap-2015-01-11-16h05m11s4.jpgSynopsis: SELMA is the story of a movement. The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernays SELMA tells the real story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.(C) Paramount

Produced by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions and Brad Pitt's Plan B, Selma provides a sober-eyed look into the world Dr. Martin Luther King worked to transform, through the convergence of people and events that led to President Lyndon Johnson's enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The finished product is exceptional, but some of the ingredients that went into it might raise a few eyebrows.

The first major motion picture to focus on King, Selma wisely chooses a major event and portrays the times as much as the leader. To try and create a biopic of the man and fit it into two hours would have felt rushed and not deeply informing. By limiting the period, the limited time of a film allows for specific figures and moments to linger, giving the viewer an intimate sense of the people and their motivations. While many films might allow brief appearances in order to fit many people in, Selma revisits numerous characters, so by the end of the film, we've memorized a dozen or more faces and the names that go with them, and are left with a strong sense of who they were and the role the played in history. And while at times the delivery is especially theatrical, each major actor (and several minor) is handed a lengthy soliloquy, and all do them justice.

Oprah's minor role introduces us to the harsh realities of living in the Jim Crow South, and it's nice to be reminded what a  phenomenal actor she is. There isn't another performance in the film that doesn't stand shoulder to shoulder with hers. And, Oyelowo's King is suprerb, the result of his documented perfecting of his impersonation long before this film.

This alludes to one of the more interesting facts about the film: nearly every major role is portrayed by a Briton. King, Coretta, LBJ, Gov. George Wallace, even the minister James Reeb are all played by British actors. Their accents are remarkable, though at least Tim Roth (who plays Wallace) is notorious for his remarkable vocal impressions.

In the cinematography we find one of the weaker points of the film, but even this is a minor complaint: the film often seems in soft focus. It could have been the particular screening, but it was noticeable throughout. At the same time, artistic choices prove at least effective, and sometimes unusual. Aside from King's speeches, most deep introspection is conveyed through the aforementioned soliloquys - and almost always shot at night. This allows the lighting to dim, with only the speaker illuminated. It's not just obviously visual symbolism, but it strongly reminds of those busts of famous historical figure dioramas in museums - the ones with 6 or 8 statues, all bathed in darkness, and when a bright light shines on one, a voice-over in deep, paternal tones recites a famous speech from that particular luminary. Each scene in Selma feels emotionally equivalent to those stagey museum presentations, yet the story flows through them effortlessly. One of the most effective of the introspective scenes involves Coretta's confrontation of King for his infidelity. The subject is so respectfully handled King doesn't even acknowledge it directly - rather, alluding to it by acknowledging his feelings in general. This treatment proves infinitely more impactful than any grand admission or domestic argument, or worse, trying to concoct a scene of actual infidelity.

Selma one sheet.jpgDaytime scenes largely focus on interactions between people and the advance of the movement overall. Aside from the technical issue, authenticity is displayed exceptionally convincingly. The screen in awash in oranges and almonds, lime chiffons and mustard yellows, terrazo and formica, and lots and lots of chrome and oval. If you remember these from your childhood, Selma actually makes you miss them.

Some will note a few factual inconsistencies in the film. Most important, many historians disagree with the portrayal of LBJ. Specifically, they argue he was deeply committed to King's agenda, but wanted to strategize. In particular, he felt Congress and the American public could only take change in small doses, and Johnson's War on Poverty could become policy more easily - and make the Voting Rights Act more palitable relative to the resulting political climate. King's agenda wasn't at loggerheads with LBJ, but rather, just unfortunately timed. Also, it's factually incorrect to show LBJ authorizing wiretaps on King and others in the movement, as Kennedy was responsible for that.

In fact, Robert Kennedy was taping King's offices to keep track of known Communist party operatives planted around King. His interest in King spiked after King secretly retained counsel with one of the Communist agents after Kennedy asked King to fire the man and break off all contact. (Kennedy feared if MLK were publicly outed for knowingly affiliating with communists, there'd be blow-back on the White House.). Further, the tape recordings of King's infidelities were delivered to King before his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 - an event portrayed at the beginning of the film. And there's nothing to suggest Johnson had anything to do with this. It's also widely accepted fact that Hoover was a power-fiend, virtually impervious to external influence - unlike the executive lapdog Dylan Baker plays in Selma. There's a great article at The Atlantic recounting historical perspectives and that favored by Selma (and the similar portrayal in Leonardo DiCaprio fronted Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar) and it's well worth the read.

Oh, and that confrontation between Coretta and Dr. King regarding his infidelity? In truth, it began over the phone, in very animated, angry tones. And when Dr. King listens to the tapes with her, several advisers are also present. But these are technical omissions and would distract from the emotional themes the film intends to highlight.

Early in the film, the director stages the first meeting between King and Johnson with Johnson standing back. He introduces King to one of Johnson's advisers, Lee White. With symbolism bashing viewers over the head, White and King shake hands, facing off like boxers just stepped into the ring.  But it's also true Johnson maintained an 'outside man,' who was black, for regular communications with civil rights leaders, and White has been quoted as naming his counsel to Johnson on development of the Voting Rights Act as his most important work at the White House. The film omits or alters these elements, again to enhance dramatic tension.


Let's be honest, it's a phenomenal speech - until the 20 min mark or so.

The film vacillates between portraying LBJ as an obstacle and a sympathizer, and it sometimes feels manipulated for increased drama. In fact, the two African American members of Johnson's advisory staff, and others, dispute his portrayal and that of supposedly contentious meetings with King (and others), and recount many other notable civil rights related actions on Johnson's part (including nominating minorities for various posts) - as described in an article on theroot.com.

Despite these and other criticisms of artistic liberties, Selma director Ava DuVernay has vociferously defended her vision. Her portrayal of Johnson's two personalities isn't entirely unfair, given the sometimes deeply racist habits Johnson biographers recount. 

On authenticity, it might come as a shock, but King's speeches in Selma aren't real. They sound real. They sound great. But like all great and authentic things, King's legacy eventually became intellectual property to be sold at great profit. Sadly for the producers of Selma, the rights to the relevant speeches here had already been licensed to other films. As a result, what you hear in Selma are rewrites that approximate the style, tone, and passion found in King's words, but these are not true originals. Unlike some other great writing (ahem, The Hobbit, <cough, cough>), the result is rousingly effective. Alternately, the actors' sense of the importance of the film is often palpable, bordering on distraction. David Oyelow's King, for example, speaks at home the same way he delivers his speeches. (Most people leave work at the office). Even so, with such compelling material, it never really matters.

Ultimately, this is a story of themes and significant moments, and softening the details allows Selma to distill out the totality of relationships and final outcomes of the protests, so DuVrays' arguments are valid. This is an artistic exercise as much as a documentary and biography.

One more interesting fact about the film: how quickly it went from production to theaters. Maybe this is becoming the norm, but principal photography began on May 20th of last year. Filming concluded, it was edited, and the film first screened at the AFI Film Festival on November 11th - less than 6 months later. Though rushed, this isn't necessarily coincidence: 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the events, including the night-time march of February 18th, 1965, and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed on August 6th that same year. It also doesn't hurt to have achieved a limited release to theaters by December 25th, making it eligible for Oscars consideration this February 22nd - right in the middle of the 50th anniversary of those events.  

The furious work to make it happen pays off, delivering a simultaneously cinematographic and informative portrayal of gripping drama, intimate introspections, horrifying tragedy, and uplifting victories - made all the more invigorating in the knowledge that the themes, the people, and events depicted are real. And they manage to fit it all into a 2 hour docudrama- only slightly stretched at the seams. Selma deals with extreme violence and intense bigotry that would normally be reserved for the over 17 crowd, but given this is our American history, it's the sort of material that any mature young person should be taken to see. 

 Materials copyright Paramount Pictures, 2014 

 

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You can't get rid of the Babadook.

Occasionally I like to watch scary movies late at night which is a highly intelligent thing to do (that's sarcasm, friends). After hearing several online friends rave about this film, I decided to face potential night terrors head on and check out Jennifer Kent's first full-length directed film. 

The movie begins with a flashback of Amelia, played by Essie Davis (of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Matrix films), and her husband on their way to the hospital to give birth to their son. After an accident that kills her husband, we are brought forward years later where Amelia is still quietly dealing with the depression from the loss of her husband and the pressures of raising a rambunctious son.

Samuel is a spirited and active child with a highly developed imagination, clever in building homemade contraptions to fight off imaginary monsters as well as a talent for magic tricks. While putting Samuel to bed one night, Amelia discovers a book in her sons room titled "Mr. Babadook" and starts to read what appears to begin as a simple children's pop-up book. As she turns the pages, the story of a night shadow that terrorizes a young boy, it becomes more sinister and disturbing, as do the illustrations of The Babadook until the final page threatens "you'll wish you were dead."

Amelia's son, fantastically characterized by Noah Wiseman, begins to exhibit increasingly violent behavior, towards others and herself. In the beginning his behavior forces Amelia to take him out of school where she relies on a kind and emotionally supportive neighbor to watch her son. When teased by a girl for his lack of a father, he pushes her out of a tree house. When Amelia tries to take his back pack catapult away, he lashes out at her. 

Amelia is losing sleep. Sounds start occurring throughout the house that Samuel blames on the Babadook. Knock knock knock. She sees hints of the Babadook in the shadows. At one point Amelia tears up the book, and it reappears on her doorstep reassembled. As she incredulously flips through the pages of the book it has changed to show the night shadow terrorizing a cartoon effigy of the mother instead and shows the mother committing horrifying acts. She then burns the book. I don't blame her. 

But you can't get rid of the Babadook. Its presence becomes increasingly menacing until it seems to corporeally manifest into an actual monster. Amelia's sleeplessness lends itself to hallucinations, impatience with Samuel culminates in abusive behavior. Amelia loses it in an almost Jack Torrance-like episode as she chases Samuel around the house. 

The movie was filmed on a modest budget but what they did with it was superbly crafted to create an environment of suspense and terror. The cinematography was beautiful in its way, using Amelia and Samuel's home as a representation of her depression over her husband's death with its varying shades of grey and beige. 

The Babadook itself is a metaphor for problems that we try to ignore in our lives. Amelia tells a friend that she's over her husband's death, that she doesn't even mention him, but its a lie that she tells herself. When you try to suppress your feelings instead of dealing with them directly, they will sometimes continue to haunt you until they become our own real-life monsters. It's only until Amelia confronts the monster directly that she's able to get a handle on it. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. If you're looking for a good thriller to give you a jump start, I highly recommend this one.

Laggies_Final-Poster_OneSheet.rgb (Medium).jpgThere's a lot to be said for taking chances, and A24 Films continuously proves it. If you've overdosed on Hollywood spectacle, they always have something a bit off-kilter to offer. A24 released Kevin Smith's outlandish horror film Tusk last month - a film I wasn't sure what to make of at first, but have often thought of with great fondness since. This month, they offer us Laggies, a quasi-mumblecore exposition on the 'quarter-life crisis' of Megan, played by Keira Knightly, who runs away for the week before her planned elopement to try and get her head straight.

Written and directed by women, Laggies is the third film this year distributed by A24 that features female leads with males in supporting roles and centers on the topic of a young woman trying to ground herself. Jane-of-all-trades Lynn Shelton, who directed indie darling Mark Duplass in Humpday, as well as directing several New Girl episodes, fills those shoes here as well. Andrea Seigel, who's published three novels, wrote the screenplay. Other A24 release Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson is an absolutely fantastic sci-fi effort that ultimately resolves to the same basic issue, while Obvious Child, starring SNL alum Jenny Slate, delivers a foul-mouthed contemplation on an unexpected pregnancy. A24 deserves a great deal of respect for their willingness to support these less mainstream projects.

Now they bring us Laggies: Approaching 30, Megan still works as the sign girl outside her father's tax preparation business. Few tax businesses have Keira Knightly silly-dancing out front, but if they did, business would be booming. Anyway, she's part of a cool girl clique who've all found husbands and careers, and are all maturing responsibly - except Megan. Her friends find trivialities to criticize, attempting to subtly nudge her in the right (meaning 'their') direction. Megan's boyfriend of the last decade is seemly perfect - nice, handsome, career minded - but she isn't so sure this is the life she wants. When nice-guy Anthony attempts to propose to her (at her best friend's wedding), Megan's dilemma comes to a head, and she not-so-delicately makes an exit, as the narrative's implausibly convenient situations allow her to execute a series of increasingly irresponsible decisions.

20130626_laggies_0256_Tax.rgb (Medium).jpgAnnika (Chloë Grace Moretz), recognizes Megan's stunted mana after Megan impulsively agrees to buy her beer. Unsettled, as many teenagers are, finding this kindred soul compels Annika to adopt her into the home, and Megan finds herself sleeping over at a teenage girl's house, where father Craig, played with the expected charm Sam Rockwell seems to have a limitless supply of, suspiciously tolerates her perplexing antics. The film then splits time between Megan finding a bit of maturity while helping Annika deal with some emotionally gripping teenage issues, Craig's attempts to patiently unravel Megan's real story, and Megan confronting her uncertainty regarding the marriage.

20130626_laggies_0446_Couch.rgb (Medium).jpgUnlike Obvious Child, where the supporting cast seemed little more than props, Laggies succeeds in creating a full dimensionality to everyone in Megan's life. As mentioned, Sam Rockwell is expectedly well cast. His irreverent charm provides the right dose of needed informality Megan's claustrophobically   structured life needs. Based just on interviews, Keira Knightly represents herself as a very down to earth, jeans and t-shirt kind of girl, and suits Megan well. Their, and the other actors solid work smooth over a noticeably thin script, adding emotional depth and charm. This includes Moretz, Gretchen Mol as Annika's erstwhile, underwear model mom, as well as Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin, and the rest of the cast. Even the actors playing Annika's teenage friends deliver convincing performances in typical-for-teenagers heartrending situations.

Some technical elements in Laggies conform to usual independent film tropes, and some reveal how technological advances may be expanding the tools low budget projects have access to. Already, digital cameras have cut production costs enormously. And, Laggies is shot entirely on location in middle-class and upper middle-class areas of Seattle, while scene transitions are interrupted with fly-overs and city-scapes.

20130616_laggies_0337_Turtle.rgb (Medium).jpgThe location shots in neighborhoods are equally perplexing and interesting. The walls and counters of each house are practically bare - either admitting to an anemic budget, or telling us more about the characters. The house Megan lives in with her too serious boyfriend drowns us in a sea of beige, while other domestic locations offer little more - but maybe this is to drive home the point that this is real life - 'the grass is always greener,' so to speak. Craig and his ex-wife's houses are similarly sparse, though with slightly better palettes, and each has the same turtle/butterfly motif - perhaps suggesting no one character is particularly better or worse than another, just different in some ways, largely the same in most - and each is just trying to find a place to fit in.

20130706_laggies_0313_Boyfriend.rgb (Medium).jpgOne aspect of the film's tone works in concert with these technical elements, while defying typical Hollywood storytelling. In particular, Megan and Anthony are both very nice, likeable people who have absolutely zero chemistry together. This is important because we need to feel how mismatched they are, but it's so severe it can put viewers off. Mainstream films want a viewer to root for the protagonist - even identify with her. But here, she's not being very nice to this nice guy. Anthony is a different sort of person than Megan, but nothing's really wrong with him. As a consequence, we often feel anxious in ours seats as Megan seems to make one poor, but ultimately disposable decision after another.

The technical decision to use fly-overs during transitions reveals some intention in those scenes. It seems very possible the inexpensive availability of drones allowed the filmmakers to do these many fly-overs. Images of highways full of cars, the sprawling Seattle sky-line, and even the amusingly obvious symbolism of an airplane leaving the hangar all litter the film. The images, which interrupt the usual cuts between scenes, blend an almost schizophrenic use of the most encyclopedic library of happy 'elevator music' ever funded by an independent film. The only song missing might be "Mahna Mahna" from The Muppet Show.

These intercuts seem not to fit given the seriousness of Megan's inner dilemma, and many scenes often feel ham-fistedly spliced together, but ultimately we can see how the overview transitions work: Megan's stuck, and life's going by without her. Thank goodness Annika and Craig are there to show her she's not unusual. And, not alone.

Even if Laggies isn't a sugary crowd-pleaser like the annual Nicholas Sparks offerings, props to A24 nonetheless for always taking chances on daring independent fare. If you miss it in theaters, on a day stuck at home down with the flu, Laggies would go nicely with a hot bowl of chicken soup.

Materials copyright 2014 A24 Films.

Antoine Fuqua's music videos beginnings lend to his very particular cinematic style. From his feature debut with The Replacement Killers, starring Mira Sorvino and Chow Yun-Fat (1996), an abundance of style, color, and scenes flipping between moody atmosphere and frenetic energy adorn everything he does.
An American Guy Ritchie with a little less bombast in his violence but a greater effort to flesh out his characters, he's the gritty-crime-drama version of Five Guys Burgers - comfort food that's dressed up nicely - for when you want something a little extra special but without the conservative formalities of fine dining. Think of former Denzel/Fuqua collaboration Training Day, Jamie Fox spy thriller Bait, ensemble cop drama Brooklyn's Finest, Mark Wahlberg's Shooter, and Gerard Butler's recent Olympus Has Fallen. The Equalizer is no different, and if what you want is a tense, bloody, organized crime revenge tale that's steeped in that moody atmosphere and with unsually well developed characters for the genre, then Denzel and Fuqua set down in front of you exactly what you'd ordered.

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A little boy's review of Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer.
The Equalizer begins quietly, following Denzel's Robert McCall as he starts his day, before heading off to work at Home Mart (the film using a repurposed Lowes building supplies store). McCall's dwelling is spartan. No television or paintings on the walls. The only light filters through the occasional window, casting gloomy shadows around the rooms. McCall brushes his teeth methodically, shaves his head with electric clippers, and checks his watch as he swipes any remaining inconveniences from his perfectly pressed, flat-front slacks and crisp, blue, button-down shirt. The apartment is deeply silent, excepting the isolated sounds of his preparation.

McCall rides a bus to work, reading a book on the way, checking his watch again as he arrives at work, where he stocks shelves and responds to whatever banter other employees offer with charismatic non-committance. It should have been apparent to any viewer before he left his house that McCall had spent his entire adult life - until just before we meet him - in a military career, before moving on to this very deliberately, very quiet life, around nice, simple people. None of his old habits have waned, yet he seems well established in his new routine.

Part of McCall's routine involves helping others, including a Home Mart employee who's determined to pass the security guard test, and Teri, a young customer (a hardly recognizable Chloë Grace Moretz) at the neighborhood late night diner - McCall's one apparent indulgence. She's determined she might one day be a singer, rebelling fiercely against the irreconcilable reality that she's making her living as a Russian Mafia prostitute. "I think... you can be... anything - you want to be," McCall tells her, with a warm, paternal sincerity. They discuss a book he's been reading.
Fuqua's efforts to craft a story with depth and texture can be seen and felt throughout these dramatic scenes, from start to finish. Readily digestible symbolism peppers the film, with greater effect than the the white globes of light marring many of the scenes from Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest, with the color palette here telling as much about a scene as the action or dialogue.

McCall's days are unusually easy to enumerate in this film, and yet every day he wears blue. Every day. And, his apartment is white, and the days are mostly grey. Until, that is, something changes his routine. He feels compelled to act against an injustice, and tries his best to resolve it with tremendous civility - but he's now wearing black. There's no question what this color means, and it should be noted the bad guy's lair is painted entirely in black, though decorated with a Madonna and Child painting surrounded by an obnoxious, gilded frame, and numerous tattooed henchmen wearing gold jewelry, and an awful lot of skulls everywhere.

Elsewhere in the film, characters wear other colors, suggesting vulnerability, authority, and balance. There's a number of scenes where characters wear a shirt and vest, or 2 shirts, and again, the mixed colors reveal something about the character. Ultimately, a nice gray poplin tells us McCall's prana has finally harmonized.
The various books McCall reads also symbolize events in the story, helpfully signposting our progress through the tale, while clever music choices compliment the other elements within each scene. While many scenes omit scoring altogether, others include classical music, and most of the action scenes include various types of rock music (mostly Eminem). This is a juggling act Fuqua manages impressively.
Fuqua goes even further imbuing every scene and character with added depth. As mentioned, McCall's military background is established by his checking his watch, but even a low level thug's personal life is painted all over the background of his scenes. Played by the ironically named David Harbour, slob of a cop-on-the-take 'Masters' can be described as a die-hard Bostonian and avid fisherman. How do we know? Late in the film, a scene opens with a wide shot of Master's house, where a barely recognizable outboard motor peaks out from behind some bushes in the backyard. It might be mistaken as a barbecue grill, except for the word Suzuki silk-screened on the side. Inside the house, there's a Red Sox banner on the wall, complementing the ball-cap he wore earlier in the film. Later in the sequence, Masters passes his garage, where numerous tails, formerly attached to bluefin, or maybe swordfish, are mounted along the outside wall. (Fish symbolism is ever-present, by the way.) This sort of detail can be found among many of the characters - we learn about them by what's in the scene, not what's being said.
While more subtle or cerebral efforts in these textural embellishments could garner greater praise from some critics, it's important to make the point lesser films would omit any of these efforts altogether, and after all, this film is a hyper-stylized revenge fantasy, not Jane Eyre. And, while it's not Jane Eyre, and though the lowest Russian thug is amusingly named Slavi, because... why bother, the head of the criminal organization is named Pushkin. This may allude to real life Russian novelist and aristocrat Alexander Pushkin, noted for his literary "contrarities" within neo-classicism, Romanticism, and realism. Perhaps more on the nose, his works include The Bronze Horseman, which stylistically parallels The Equalizer's counterpointing tones, and Little Tragedies, which includes a story on the fall of Don Juan, and the short piece Mozart and Saleri which loosely resembles The Equalizer's narrative. Fuqua should be commended for augmenting the film's primary raison d'être, straightforward action, with a perfect complement of easily digestible literary sophistication.
Acting is solid across the board, and largely exceptional. When does Denzel ever do anything that isn't? Marton Csokas fills the shoes of McCall's primary adversary, Teddy, and he's superbly cast. Demonstrably sociopathic, yet eternally refined, scenes with Teddy and McCall crackle, particularly those with quiet dialogue.
And the action, while it develops slowly, builds nicely. Camerawork is at times clever, or cool - night vision and rifle scope point of views are a requisite for this type of film - but ultimately it's all about McCall shaking of the cobwebs from his old skills, and taking down bad guys. Let's just say that anything, literally anything, can be a weapon to a trained killer, and McCall ultimately demonstrates he's an exceptionally handy handyman.

Synopsis: In The Equalizer, Denzel Washington plays McCall, a man who believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But when McCall meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters, he can't stand idly by - he has to help her. Armed with hidden skills that allow him to serve vengeance against anyone who would brutalize the helpless, McCall comes out of his self-imposed retirement and finds his desire for justice reawakened. If someone has a problem, if the odds are stacked against them, if they have nowhere else to turn, McCall will help. He is The Equalizer. - Sony Pictures

The Equalizer is particularly successful  in using the medium of film for it's most fundamental purpose: Show, don't tell. If viewed from the perspective 'form follows function,' where the function is entertainment, The Equalizer succeeds marvelously. It's not quite Shakespeare, but solid stuff nonetheless.

Materials Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

(... whatever that means.)

Tusk one-sheet alternateIndustry newcomer A24 Films deals in a very distinctive oeuvre. Look for mainstream, a-list talent delving into oddball projects with strong writing and fringe concepts, but modest budgets, and there's where you'll find A24. Sometimes the result is a bust (See: Obvious Child), but always, it's interesting (See: The Rover). Always unusual (See: Spring Breakers). And sometimes, amazing (See: Under the Skin, Locke, Enemy, The Spectacular Now).

So it goes with Kevin Smith's new disasterpiece of a film Tusk, the latest quintessentially A24 project. It's totally unlike anything Smith's ever done, yet with every classic Smith element used to mostly great effect. It's a low-budget fractured fairytale - at brief moments, a relationship drama, bent comedy road trip, dialogue heavy contemplation on the human condition, satirical homage, and mostly a cheesy horror film. It's a twisted, tonally conflicted skewering of mainstream filmmaking, and yet a fascinating and often warped bit of brilliance. Tusk may fizzle, given it's many flaws, but it just might become the cult darling of the decade. 

    "Fact: Kevin Smith has never been photographed without his trademark hockey jerseys... or skinny."

    - Ben Affleck.*

Overtly, this is a story about Justin Long's Wallace, a pod-caster who travels to Canada to interview (read: mock) a counterfeit Star Wars Kid who accidentally cut his own leg off imitating a scene from Kill Bill. (Kevin Smith is a big Quentin Tarantino fan). The kid has died, and not wanting to waste the trip, Wallace finds an old storyteller who seems might be a good replacement for the failed Kill Bill Kid interview. The storyteller, Howard Howe - played by Michael Parks (Kevin Smith is a big Michael Parks fan) - induces Wallace to travel some distance to a secluded mansion (requisite horror film location) where things go exactly as Howe has planned and completely not as Wallace expects. This is where the horror story begins. It's not so much horror as a balance between horror and PG-13 torture porn. We get the sense of Eli Roth with less sadism but a humorous edge. In part, the humor comes from Howe's truly demented plan, but equally from some pretty aweful make-up and effects, as well as Smith's bizarro ideas of what this madman's ultimate game plan would be. Let's be clear: this guy is nuts.

TUSK_00063_rgb (Large).jpgSmith has stated he wanted to make this film in part to showcase Michael Parks' acting ability - and this is definitely one area where Tusk hits a home run. A grand slam really. Parks' Howe is meant to be a captivating storyteller - and he's mesmerizing. When Wallace and Howe sit for tea, and Howe recounts his days in the Navy with Ernest Hemingway, it's as if time stands still while he talks. This is also an example of Kevin Smith's hallmark skill - dialogue. If there's any doubt to Parks' skill, he removes all with a second character he plays later in the film, if anything, channeling Red Skelton's beloved Clem Kadiddlehopper character.

tumblr_nc2a1aKGXW1tlr5feo1_1280.jpgComplimenting Parks' roles is the character Inspector Guy LaPointe, a fictional detective based on real life Canadiens hockey legend Guy LaPointe (Smith is a big hockey fan). LaPointe is actually played by Johnny Depp. Seriously - Johnny Depp is in this film. And, Depp hasn't inhabited such a role since Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, or maybe Edward Scissorhands. He's brilliant as LaPointe, evoking a modern Inspector Clueseau. This character is riotously funny and it wouldn't be a surprise to see a sequel centered on him.

Justin Long's performance as douchey pod-caster Wallace begins typically for anything Long does. His stiff delivery is actually well suited to a cheesy interwebs personality. What's truly interesting is where Long goes once the horror begins and straight dialogue - Long's weak point - is replaced by a terrified captive who devolves psychologically as the situation grows more horrific. For this, Long immerses himself in the role and earns solid respect for his efforts.

TUSK_00127_rgb (Large).jpgMost other characters exist anecdotally in the film, with Haley Joel Osment sitting in as Wallace's Ed McMahon laugh track sidekick while proving the most likeable character in the film, though with little to actually do. Also, Kevin Smith's daughter and Johnny Depp's daughter play a couple of Canadian convenience store clerks (Smith's a big fan of convenience stores, Johnny Depp, and Canada).

Truly, Smith seems to want to evoke the simultaneous feel of 80's screwball comedies and low-budget horror films from the same era. The effects are simultaneously morbid and yet corny, the motivations completely nonsensical, and the characters are fully committed to absurd agendas, with off the wall personalities. Smith goes so far as to quote Bob and Doug MacKenzie from Strange Brew, while Guy LaPointe is, at the very least, an homage to Rosie LaRose from that film. In fact, the more I think about it, the more structurally, tonally, comedically and satirically related to that earlier film Tusk seems. If not siblings, it's a close cousin at the very least, and similarities to the Naked Gun series, Top Secret and/or Blake Edwards, as well as, largely, Sam Raimi's early works and, slightly, early Elm Street and Halloween entries litter the film.

One note on a particularly obvious flaw in Tusk relates to tonal shifts. From time to time, Smith arrests the horror story and shifts to the relationship between Wallace, his girlfriend, and Osment's sidekick character back in Los Angeles. Relationship drama and the intimate conversations inherent to them are another hallmark Smith trope. Unfortunately, while that storyline could work well in a different film, this becomes a series of jarring detours that just don't work here. The idea of flipping between story-lines could work, but it needs to be something else - maybe more comedy, but not uncomfortable relationship minutia.

tumblr_nbp8atT8GI1tlr5feo1_1280.jpg

It's difficult to say Tusk is a good film, but it's definitely a curiosity. It's the sort of film that's embraced by disaffected teens and twenty-somethings as genius, while parents shake their heads in disgust, declaring "Kids today! What's this world coming to?"

"I don't wanna die in Canada!"

For me? I sat simultaneously captivated and bewildered as I watched, but after it was over a friend and I found ourselves discussing it at length - and laughing like idiots. Whatever it is, at least it's interesting, and leaves an amiable enough impression - as long as this sort of thing is, um... you're cup of tea.

Justin Long (above) doing some of his best work.

Materials copyright 2014 by A24 films.

Also, it is not a verified fact that Ben Affleck has ever openly mocked Kevin Smith's weight.

TMNT 2014 one sheet.jpgNeed something for the kids to do? Teenage Muntant Ninja Turtles just opened, and looks to be the #1 film this weekend. It's received a stunning A CinemaScore rating from kids (viewers under 25).

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   Copyright Paramount / Nikelodeon, 2014

 

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Tracy Fears is a Capital Region resident since 2001. A foodie who enjoys pickles with peanut butter on occasion (don't judge), she makes her own creme fraiche, and will make you banana bread that'll change your life. She loves dogs but is owned by a handlebar-mustached cat. Tracy has discriminating movie tastes but loves campy B-movies with a passion.


Jay Matthiessen is a native local, with a family immersed in the arts (a respected photographer grandfather, a grandmother and aunt professional dancers, a film producer, music teachers, a set designer, and dress maker/costume designers), it would have been no surprise to eventually work in the field. Yet while young, with a few years training under Vladimir Dokoudovsky, at the New York Conservatory of Dance, and a few minor attempts performing, it became clear some can best serve the arts by appreciating it. While majoring in more mainstream subjects, all free college coursework was dedicated to the arts: short story writing, script writing, science fiction film, photography, journalism, communications, and even three dimensional design, as well as writing for the college newspaper and membership in film club. Like his grandfather, though primarily working in a technical field, Jay has spent decades working in his spare time as a photographer, and has worked for a small newspaper. While a massive fan of blockbusters, thrillers, and science fiction films, his formative years have fostered a profound appreciation for the arts in all it's forms.


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