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Toronto 2014, Day Six: What the hell is The Equalizer doing at TIFF?

One key to keeping your sanity and preserving your enthusiasm during a major film festival is to stick to a balanced cinematic diet. I’ve written before about how a few light or unpretentious entertainments sprinkled in among the heavy art-house fare can function like energy boosts. One cannot live on miserablism and epic long takes alone! There are limits, however, to just how disreputable these “slices of cake,” as Hitchcock once put it, should really be. To that end, what the hell is an artless, brainless blast of studio engineering like The Equalizer (Grade: C-) doing at a major film festival? Setting aside the presence of its serious-actor star, Denzel Washington, this jacked-up vigilante fantasy has no business screening at Toronto. It’s pure Hollywood product—not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely out of place at an event designed to celebrate movies as art. Not to be too cynical about it, but were the programmers just looking for a big ticket-seller for mid-festival?

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, an action-junk journeyman still dining out on the 13-year-old success of Training Day, The Equalizer mostly just makes you wonder what the late Tony Scott could have done with this brutish material. (His version would have been less humorless, at least.) The film’s opening stretch is pure wheel-spinning, with Washington moodily sulking about Boston, exchanging pleasantries with his Home Depot coworkers and a friendly teenage prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) he meets at a quaint diner. Washington is a gifted enough actor to sell these scenes, even as the audiences knows that they’re just a protracted prelude, and that his character isn’t just a kindly, sage fellow with a active yen for literary classics. Sure enough, it isn’t long before he’s unleashing his inner Neeson on the stereotypical Russian scum pimping out Moretz’s character. So long, perfunctory quiet introspection. Welcome, belated sadistic retribution.


Again, a little skuzzy genre pleasure is not without place at TIFF. (Midnight Madness scratches that itch quite well, in fact.) But as entertainment, The Equalizer rarely delivers: It’s like a superhero origin story invested with half-assed gravitas. Blessed with the stealth aptitude of Batman, the Spidey sense of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, and the nonexistent mercy of The Punisher, Washington’s badass Samaritan is basically unbeatable—and so watching him dispatch the various thugs that drift into his line of vision becomes boring quickly. At best, the movie offers stray chuckles: I laughed out loud when The Equalizer (who’s never called that on-screen) calmly complies with the stick-up man robbing his place of employment, only to then walk back and select a huge mallet from the tools department, which he’s seen cleaning and returning two scenes later. Mostly, the whole film makes you feel sorry for Washington, an actor too good to waste his talents on a role that requires nothing but ass-kicking and brooding.

Speaking of the latter, Ethan Hawke spends most of the preachy Good Kill (Grade: C) in a lethargic funk. He’s playing a Las Vegas drone pilot who wants to get back in the cockpit of an actual jet, both because he misses the element of real danger and because he’s increasingly haunted by the collateral damage he routinely causes. Keeping the debate about UAVs alive is a noble goal, but this airless screed from Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord Of War) is heavy on speeches and light on actual drama. Though supposedly based on a true story, it’s tough to ascertain what that means here, as this could basically be the experience of just about any drone pilot. The other soldiers, among them Zoë Kravitz and Bruce Greenwood, are little more than mouthpieces, slipping talking points about their line of work into “conversation.” Meanwhile, back home, a typically stilted January Jones does a modern variation on Betty Draper, hounding her traumatized husband for being absent and drinking too much. At least Good Kill’s heart is in the right place—until a late scene that muddles its thesis, (accidentally?) implying that bombing non-targets out of existence is totally okay if the non-targets are terrible people.


Having successfully avoided one Oscar-baity biopic about a really smart guy—that would be The Theory Of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking—I dutifully took a look at the festival’s other buzzed-about title of that nature. The Imitation Game (Grade: B-) streamlines a fascinating true story into functional prestige filmmaking, but it’s still plenty engaging, thanks largely to its lead. Doing a kindler, gentler spin on his aspergian Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the British cryptanalyst who cracked the Nazi’s wartime code and whose work is credited as an early advance in computer science. The film simplifies Turing’s theories and processes, focusing instead on the comedy and drama of his antisocial interactions with the other members of his top-secret WWII encryption project. (Later scenes turn to the tragedy of his persecution as a gay man, and the truly appalling way he was treated by authorities.) Cumberbatch is affecting in the part and the film moves briskly along. But while I suppose it would be naïve of me to expect a highly technical, science-focused portrait of this important big thinker, I was still a little disappointed at the Wikipedia treatment of some of the material—especially, for example, a late ethical responsibility Turing and his men were supposedly saddled with, and which the movie mainly touches upon in montage.


In principle, I admired the rigor of the new film from director Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Rampart), who’s made a quasi-plotless study of homelessness in New York City. But Time Out Of Mind (Grade: C+) is something of a slog, in no small part because it casts Richard Gere, of all actors, as a drunken vagrant. Clearly an anti-vanity project for the star, who also produced, Time Out Of Mind follows his character around the Big Apple, as he looks for places to crash, deals with the bureaucracy of the shelter system, and tries to reconnect with his daughter (Jena Malone). It’s heartening to see a hot-shot filmmaker blow his capital on such an uncommercial venture, and there’s real value to getting an inside look at how NYC helps (or doesn’t help) those without a place to rest their heads. But the material needed a headliner who could carry the emotional freight, and Gere doesn’t get there. Also, the way Moverman shoots the film casts his creative motives under some suspicion: Filming from odd angles, through doors and into kitty-corner windows, he often seems to be selecting the least intuitive angle possible—a strategy that puts the focus on his showily unconventional style, instead of on the actor and character.

Time Out Of Mind looked especially lacking when compared to the much wonkier and more affectionate Heaven Knows What (Grade: B+), a truly uncommercial look at the homeless population of NYC. The Safdie brothers, Ben and Joshua, are known for their strange and staunchly DIY portraits of oddball New Yorkers. For a few minutes, their latest seems like an exercise in pure agitation, opening with a very loud blare of synth music and introducing a character, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who essentially dares his girlfriend, Harley (Arielle Holmes), to kill herself. She calls his bluff, in a scene so chaotic—and so obnoxiously scored—that it sent several audience members trudging for the exit. I suspect, on some level, that this was the purpose of such initially aggressive tactics: Once the more delicate viewers flee, the Safdies get down to business, their film fixing its focus on Harley, a young heroin junkie, and her day-to-day adventures through the city.


The Safdies have a roughhewn visual style all their own; they often shoot in extreme close-up, with what looks like telephoto lens, capturing the actors in bobbing, invasive glances. Heaven Knows What quickly obtains an oddly charming rhythm, a sense of eavesdropping on sometimes unlikable, but fully realized, social outsiders. Over a brisk 93 minutes, the filmmakers create the impression of a whole world on the margins of New York. And they find in Holmes, an actual addict essentially playing herself, a true discovery. She’s the film’s biggest selling point—a raw nonprofessional talent, charismatic enough to earn our instant sympathies, even as the Safdies assault us with grungy imagery and deafening music. It won’t be to all tastes, but it was one of the more distinctive films I saw this week.


Otherwise, I spent most of Monday and Tuesday sitting through a string of disappointments, some more disappointing than others. Actually, “disappointment” is a silly reaction to have to any new film by Takashi Miike, as the insanely prolific (and possibly just insane) Japanese director barfs out as many bad movies as good ones. It’s the great ones, however, like Audition and 13 Assassins, that keep me coming back for more—and I’ve sat through my fair share of follies like Over Your Dead Body (Grade: C), Miike’s addition to the popular life-imitating-theater genre. The director parallels a baroque play-within-the-film, about an ancient feudal lord paying a ghostly price for betraying his wife, with the tedious backstage drama of its actors. The movie is dull right up until the point that it becomes completely, characteristically bonkers, with Miike trotting out some of his trademark obscene violence. I’d call it a fan-only affair, but even fans will probably be bored, at least until the bloodbath starts in earnest.

Throughout Over Your Dead Body, I remained uncertain if the play being performed was a real work or an invented one. (It appears to be the latter, though don’t quote me on that.) Conversely, I felt falsely certain that Return To Ithaca (Grade: C+), the new film from The Class director Laurent Cantet, was based on a play. But no, it’s just overwritten and un-cinematic—a reunion gabfest in which a group of aging Cuban activists reconnect in Havana for a long night of trotting out old grievances and making overdue confession. More disheartening was Haemoo (Grade: C+), which I had heard positive things about, but which turned out to be an underwhelming (if visceral) drama about the crew of a fishing boat and its disastrous attempt to smuggle illegal immigrants from China to South Korea. Shim Sung-Bo, who cowrote Bong Joon-Ho’s great Memories Of Murder, shows only a fraction of the formal chops his collaborator possesses. Bong himself worked on this script, and his familiar mix of tones—slapstick comedy bleeding into tragedy and horror and action—proves an uneasy fit for the narrative. What Shim needed was a steady escalation of tension, as well as characters a little easier to connect to. (The hero and heroine are blandly earnest, most of the other seafarers almost cartoons of depravity.)


The diamonds in the rough of this two-day stretch were films that Ignatiy has already seen and praised, so I’ll echo his sentiments quickly. Eden (Grade: B+) is an intimate epic to sink into; it uses the unchanging age of its actors, whose characters stubbornly resist changing for two decades, as a melancholy commentary on the maturation process. Christian Petzold’s superb Phoenix (Grade: A-), on the other hand, recasts Vertigo as a post-war psychological drama. If I’m half-a-grade less enthusiastic than my colleague on that one, chalk it up to my general anxiety about declaring instant greatness. Or maybe I’m just being notoriously stingy with the straight “A.” Either way, it’s an ingeniously plotted and rather heartbreaking movie—the kind you go to film festivals to discover, and which can bring you back to life after such supposedly “fun” detours as The Equalizer.

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