FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #56 – “The Equalizer” (dir. Antoine Fuqua)

Poster for "The Equalizer"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel witness the reunion of Denzel Washington with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua – as well as a return to general badassdom – in The Equalizer. This will be the second film in as many weeks we end up comparing to Taken, and this time, it may not be to the film’s advantage (28:52).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is “Sixteen” by The Heavy, from the film’s soundtrack.
  • The Philadelphia diner painting we referred to is Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper.
  • We referred to the 2000 John Singleton film Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson. Check out a Showtime featurette here – gives a good sense of the film.
  • We discussed the slow-motion fights in the 2009 Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes – check that out here (slow-mo begins at about 1:30).
  • Brace yourself, because we’re about to get our CinemaSins on here. One of the various improvised weapons we see McCall use in the film is a powder-actuated nail gun – i.e. a nail gun that uses gunpowder as its mechanism of propulsion to shoot construction nails. We correctly noted that this is the equivalent of a 22-caliber bullet (in fact, in some cases, actual .22 Short cartridges – minus the bullets – are used to power the mechanism). We found several videos testing the lethality of nail guns at a distance, including one from Mythbusters, and another fairly robust (albeit windy) test from YouTuber pilgrimfarmer. While these videos definitively show that a nail gun powered by compressed air is not an effective distance weapon, we were unable to find a video that demonstrated the same limitation for a powder-actuated tool. And one consistent factor for any type of nail gun is that the safety catch prevents the gun from firing unless it is pressed against a surface – a mechanism that can be easily bypassed by the user, but doesn’t allow for the cool one-handed shooting that McCall pulls off in the film. Don’t try this at home, kids. We’re professional podcasters.
  • With apologies to Ronda Rousey – Glenn’s just not an MMA guy. But he knows who Gina Carano is!

Listen above, or download: The Equalizer (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress

Best Supporting Actor

#5: Oscar Isaac – Blue Jones, Sucker Punch

Oscar Isaac in "Sucker Punch"
Let it never be said that I hold a mean grudge… I hated virtually everything about this film, including the character of Blue Jones, but this will be one of the few awards where I enforce the nebulous distinction between “the best” and “my favorite” (David Chen posted a great discussion with IFC’s Matt Singer on this topic). Every moment of screen time with villainous burlesque magnate (or possibly psych ward attendant) Blue Jones made me physically uncomfortable. All of the male characters in this film are deplorable predators, but Isaac’s performance brought this one to life in a disturbingly memorable way. Every one of his line readings made my skin crawl, and that is certainly what the villain of such an overwhelmingly fetishistic comic farce needed. I would sooner rewatch Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones than ever revisit this performance, but it was undeniably one of the best of the year.

Honorable mention: He also gave a solid supporting turn in Drive.

#4: Albert Brooks – Bernie Rose, Drive

Albert Brooks in "Drive"
Now that’s more like it – here’s a villainous performance I would gladly revisit. Albert Brooks demonstrates an alarming vicious streak in this film, which would be brilliant even if I didn’t know him primarily as a comic actor.

#3: Ben Kingsley – Papa Georges, Hugo

Ben Kingsley in "Hugo"
There is a solid ensemble cast at work in Hugo, but Ben Kingsley certainly does the heavy lifting. Insofar as this film is primarily about the burden of a forgotten artist, Kingsley manages to elevate even the more cookie-cutter moments surrounding the revelation of his true identity. From my review:

Kingsley’s performance is marvelous, delivering just the right blend of sadness and intrigue. This is a bitter and ancient soul, but his bitterness is richly layered enough to suggest that it is the product of having lived too much rather than too little. This is a man who had everything and lost it; not a man who regrets what he failed to achieve.

#2: Kenneth Branagh – Sir Laurence Olivier, My Week with Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh in "My Week With Marilyn"
This is basically an actor’s dream role, getting to simultaneously ham it up as a beloved cinematic mainstay, and portray him in his prime as a director. If I were a bit more cynical, I might think that Branagh was exorcising some of his own directorial frustration into this performance, but watching him butt heads with Michelle Williams is entertaining regardless of its source. While Olivier’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe is actually one of the less developed aspects of the film, Branagh plays up Olivier’s confrontationalism and dismay to brilliant comedic effect.

#1: Christopher Plummer – Hal Fields, Beginners

Christopher Plummer in "Beginners"
Beginners failed to crack my Top 10 for one simple reason… It wasn’t primarily about Hal Fields. Writer/director Mike Mills based this film loosely on the story of his own father coming out as gay following the death of his wife, and just a few years before his own death, and Plummer’s performance succeeds because he treats a genuinely fascinating character with an overwhelming degree of affection. His chemistry with Ewan McGregor (who plays his son, the Mike Mills surrogate) is stellar, and helps to elevate the less interesting material that McGregor has to work with. Even as the film gets just a little bit bogged down in its own quirkiness, Plummer remains the heart of it, portraying an old man who is exploring his new life with all the fervor and enthusiasm of a much younger man. His portrayal feels entirely authentic, and derives all of its comic effect from the character’s inherent sweetness and earnestness.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ryan Gosling as Jacob Palmer in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
  • Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Paul Bettany as a trio of ruthless financiers in Margin Call
  • Seth Rogen as Kyle in 50/50
  • Michael Parks as Abin Cooper in Red State
  • Colin Farrell as Jerry in Fright Night

Best Supporting Actress

#5: Emma Stone – Hannah, Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. was a surprisingly enjoyable film, taking a fairly conventional romantic comedy premise and amping it up with a masterful sense of humor and charm. And one of the biggest charmers was surely Emma Stone, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic actresses (she also had an amusing minor role in Friends With Benefits this year). She plays nicely with co-star Ryan Gosling (who just barely missed out on my list above) both in terms of chemistry and comedic timing, and manages to shine despite her limited screentime.

#4: Chloë Grace Moretz – Isabelle, Hugo

Chloë Grace Moretz in "Hugo"
“Don’t you like books?!”

Chloe Moretz’s reading of this line clinched this as one of my favorite performances of the year. Moretz brought such a sense of joy and adventure to the character that she managed to set herself apart from similarly bookish heroines (such as Hermione Granger) without crossing the well-trod line of irritation that such characters often stumble into. She is, to a large extent, the heart of this film, lighting up the screen with enthusiasm in her every scene, and making an excellent foil for Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley’s more somber and subdued roles.

#3: Jodie Foster – Meredith Black, The Beaver

Jodie Foster in "The Beaver"
This film didn’t work as a whole for me, but if there’s one thing that both Foster and co-star Mel Gibson demonstrate, it’s that they understand depression and self-destruction. And this understanding comes through despite the film’s darkly comedic (and frankly absurd) premise of a man talking exclusively through a Cockney-voiced beaver puppet. Gibson’s performance is agonizing to behold, but is made doubly so by how credibly Foster plays his steadfast and equally tormented spouse. Meredith clearly still cares for Walter, even as he makes it harder and harder for her to interact with him in any meaningful way – a theme that plays out marvelously in the restaurant scene pictured above, which was a tour de force for Foster in both acting and direction.

#2: Rose Byrne – Helen Harris, Bridesmaids

This was a film chock full of memorable and fully realized characters, but none quite so effective as Rose Byrne’s villainous would-be maid-of-honor, Helen Harris. Byrne plays up the various conflicts between Helen’s wealth, insecurity, and inherently scheming nature, leading to one of the film’s most memorable confrontations in which (I’ll be vague here) she offers Kristen Wiig a friendly snack. It’s all smiles, and yet both actresses play up the tension brilliantly – a dynamic that persists throughout the film. This villain is the antithesis of Oscar Isaac above – an absolute delight in every scene, and a performance I will happily revisit.

#1: Marion Cotillard – Adriana, Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard in "Midnight in Paris"
I had to excise the word “irresistible” from my description of Emma Stone above, lest I squander it in advance of my favorite performance of the year. Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, and without being too specific, let’s just say she has an active social life, chock full of fascinating suitors. Cotillard could have played this character simply as an object of desire, but her charm and vivaciousness are merely the initial layer of a delightfully rich characterization. While this allure nearly puts her out of the league of Owen Wilson’s “Aw shucks” demeanor, as the film goes on, the two characters complement each other nicely, and Adriana’s various interests play well into the film’s exploration of the dangers of nostalgia. While the film itself is a love letter to Paris, Cotillard’s performance seems to encapsulate all of the romance and intrigue that the city itself has to offer. And both the city and the lady are irresistible.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anne Heche as Joan Ostrowski-Fox in Cedar Rapids
  • Maya Rudolph as Lillian in Bridesmaids
  • Carey Mulligan as Irene in Drive
  • Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns in The Ides of March
  • Anna Kendrick as Katherine in 50/50

2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” – A masterpiece of bipolar cinema

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a delightful family film and an outright visual treat, but it is definitely trying to be two distinct types of film. The antagonism between the orphaned, precocious tinkerer Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and the unforgiving (and unnamed) 1930s Paris train station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is surely the zaniest plotline in the film – and yet, like every interaction here, it is checkered with a surprising depth of emotion. Nearly everyone in this film has a bit of a tortured past, but some of their harrowing backstories are downplayed to such a degree as to be unintentionally hilarious. When Hugo’s erstwhile father (Jude Law) is incinerated in an unmotivated blaze of CG fire, there was audible laughter in my audience… And when the station inspector’s leg-brace (a source of his ample bitterness) gets caught on the outside door of a departing train, I assumed he would meet a similarly horrific offscreen fate, but it was not to be.

The film begins with a masterful sequence of silent-cinema world-building (easily the strongest since WALL-E), then jumps right into this rather jarring combination of tones. But despite my initial qualms, I quickly found myself entranced by it. The film’s strongest relationship, which it establishes with remarkable speed, is between Hugo and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Isabelle is bookish and adventurous, and fits right into that Hermione Granger zone of “probably should be annoying, but isn’t.” Moretz’ performance is nothing short of brilliant, lighting up the screen with enthusiasm everytime she makes an appearance. Asa Butterfield, a relative newcomer, is adept as Hugo Cabret, but the character himself is not nearly as fascinating as those surrounding him, and his relationship with Isabelle owes far more to Moretz’ performance than anything else. This young actress is just starting to demonstrate her versatility (starting with such films as Kick-Ass and Let Me In), and is certainly a talent to watch out for in the next few years.

The film’s locale – a 1930s Paris train station – is also a rich character, particularly with the film’s luxurious 3D visuals to support it. Hugo lives on the fringes, climbing through the walls, rafters, and numerous clocks of the station, stealing what he can to support (and feed) himself. He also strives to repair a mysterious clockwork man (“automaton”) – a museum castoff that his father acquired before he died, and promised his son he would repair. When enigmatic toy vendor Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) simultaneously catches Hugo thieving and discovers his secret mechanical project, he turns immediately hostile, vowing to burn Hugo’s notebook and have him arrested if he sees him again. It is at this point that Hugo and Isabelle embark on their adventure – to find out why Georges (Isabelle’s godfather) is so miserable in his old age. Kingsley’s performance is marvelous, delivering just the right blend of sadness and intrigue. This is a bitter and ancient soul, but his bitterness is richly layered enough to suggest that it is the product of having lived too much rather than too little. This is a man who had everything and lost it; not a man who regrets what he failed to achieve.

Much of the second half relies on flashbacks, and without getting into too many specifics, Hugo is the latest of several films (along with The Artist and My Week With Marilyn) to turn a nostalgic eye toward filmmaking techniques of old. Of those films, this one certainly goes back the furthest, presenting some truly innovative in-camera stop motion and lighting effects. With this sequence, Scorsese affectionately showcases the earliest days of film production, when a film studio was a glass warehouse full of sets and costumes blanketed in natural light. Along with the train station’s many clocks and gears and levers – which are strongly evocative of silent films such as Modern Times, this entire production feels like Martin Scorsese’s love letter to prototypical filmmaking.

Hugo’s conception of the world is as a wondrous machine full of mutually dependent and wholly necessary components- human and otherwise. For this conception to have survived even as he is relegated to the fringes of society is a fascinating theme, even if it gets stated aloud a few too many times during the film. Even as Hugo and Isabelle learn the dangers involved in dredging up the past, they seem as much in pursuit of their own purpose in life, and it’s all profoundly affecting. Even if not every moment rings perfectly true, the performances more than make up for it (a scene in which Papa Georges appears as the children examine an artifact from his past felt a little too pat, but Kingsley’s performance and ensuing monologue completely sold the moment). The supporting cast is strong, from Helen McCrory and Christopher Lee right down to Sacha Baren Cohen, who succeeds despite his rather thankless role.

Hugo strives to be both a children’s adventure film and a poignant drama about the burden of a forgotten artist, and it largely succeeds as both. What’s more, for any auteurists out there, it certainly feels like a personal project for Martin Scorsese, whose marvelous body of work is fortunate enough to exist in a century with both the technology and inclination to preserve it. No one quite knows how their creative efforts might be remembered in future generations, but this film deftly argues that such efforts ought to be remembered and cherished. What truly makes this is a great family film is not just the zany and inoffensive hijinks that it shares with so many other blockbusters, but also this message, subtly woven throughout a story that is quite worth telling.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

A note on 3D: The film boasts some stunning visual design, although I must say, seeing it in Dolby 3D (high-tech stereoscopic, basically) gave me a bit of a headache, and had far too many on-screen artifacts and reflections to avoid being a distraction. But this is certainly not the fault of the film, whose 3D is easily the best I’ve seen this year. As much as I hate to be a brand partisan, you’d do well to catch it in RealD 3D screening if you can.

2010 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Keira Knightley – Ruth, Never Let Me Go

Still from "Never Let Me Go"
Spoiler warning: In order to discuss this performance, I must reveal the premise of this film, which some might consider a spoiler.
Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go was an absolutely haunting experience. The alternate-world tale of three friends who grow up to be harvested for their organs, this film doesn’t feel overtly like science fiction, but instead relies on a triumvirate of strong performances to convey the somber and limited lives these three must experience. Keira Knightley gives easily her strongest performance in years, conveying every bit of the jealousy, longing, and regret that this tragic character demanded. While the film’s love triangle was one of its weakest aspects, Ruth’s relationship with Kathy (Carey Mulligan) worked masterfully, and owes just much to Knightley’s supporting turn as to Mulligan’s strong lead.

#4: Delphine Chanéac – Dren, Splice

Still from "Splice"

Dren, the human-animal hybrid from Splice, certainly owes some of its effectiveness to makeup and visual effects, but I must nonetheless applaud this utterly fearless portrayal from French model/actress Delphine Chanéac. This creature must convey a huge range of emotions and instincts through expressions, tics, and growls, often during some pretty harrowing and horrific sequences. Like the residents of the uncanny valley, Dren seems irrevocably human, and yet even when her animal parts aren’t visible, she just seems…wrong. Chanéac lends just the right amount of humanity and intelligence while never failing to remind the audience, whether through a jerk of the head or a high-pitched whine, that this character is not and cannot be human. As a bioethical thought experiment, this film’s ideas are effective. With this performance, the film approaches disturbing near-realism.

#3: Chloë Grace Moretz – Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl, Kick-Ass

Still from "Kick-Ass"

As I said in the second FilmWonk podcast, I found Chloe Moretz’s performance as the psychopathic superheroine Hit-Girl to be downright unsettling. Not when she was hopping down a hallway dispatching gangsters with the same eerie speed and dexterity as Prequel Yoda, but when she was having sweet father-daughter moments with an utterly ridiculous Nicolas Cage. Through no fault or will of her own, Hit-Girl has been saddled with an upbringing not unlike that of a Rwandan child soldier, and the cringe-inducing warmth of these family scenes lends nicely to the film’s pitch-black satirical tone. Hopefully, Moretz won’t get saddled with the child-actor typecasting curse, as this is the second film in which she’s played a wildly unrealistic child prodigy. Physically and emotionally, this performance is nothing short of mind-boggling in its scope and commitment to the role, and firmly cements her as one of the finest young actresses working today.

#2: Amy Adams – Charlene Fleming, The Fighter

Still from "The Fighter"

Oh, what to say about Amy Adams? This is a fantastic performance in a mostly impressive filmography, made even more so by what a radical departure it is from her usual “sweet girl” persona. Charlene is, and I mean this with the utmost respect, a tough bitch. Her strong, confident demeanor proved a fascinating counterpoint to Mark Wahlberg’s understated performance of an overshadowed character, and the chemistry between the two was undeniable. But even outside the romance, Charlene is a fascinating character, and Adams gives just the right balance of confidence and vulnerability to what could have been a very one-note love interest.

#1: Jacki Weaver – Janine Cody, Animal Kingdom

Still from "Animal Kingdom"

Not since Heath Ledger’s Joker have I seen such an delightfully creepy villain as this. Jacki Weaver’s appearance as the Aussie gangster matriarch Janine Cody quite deliberately evokes a lioness dutifully guarding her cubs, but at the same time, Weaver’s intensity muddles the metaphor a bit as she seems poised to devour any family member that gets in her way. This performance is utterly magnificent, from her every little interaction with her sons and grandson to her dismissive taunts to law enforcement (“but I’m not afraid of you, sweetie!”). As I said in the podcast, this film is a slow burn, but it’s Weaver, the standout in a cast of strong performances, that makes this film such a compelling watch.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Dale Dickey as Merab in Winter’s Bone
  • Rebecca Hall as Claire Keesey in The Town
  • Michelle Williams as Dolores in Shutter Island
  • Mia Wasikowska as Joni in The Kids Are All Right
  • Rooney Mara as Erica Albright in The Social Network

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.