Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Total Crap
Just Reviewed The Equalizer, The Skeleton Twins, and the Boxtrolls-September 26th
Just Reviewed The Guest-September 17th
Interview with Dan Stevens-September 17th
Just Reviewed The November Man-August 27th
Interview with Roger Donaldson-August 26th
Way to ripoff the "Sin City" poster ***1/2
“The Equalizer” is a superhero movie without an actual superhero. Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a kindly man who spends his days greeting people with a smile at a home improvement store. By night, he roams the streets beating up/killing crooked cops, thugs, pimps, and mob bosses. He might not have Batman’s costume, gadgets, car, or money, but he just as easily could have tracked down the Joker and vanquished Bane in about a day. With his skillset, he’s basically Dexter, Sherlock Holmes, MacGyver, and Liam Neeson in “Taken” rolled into one.
Few actors play heroes better than Washington. Few actors play villains better than Washington either. It’s no surprise that he’d be terrific at playing an antihero like Robert McCall too. While McCall’s past is shady to say the least, we do learn that he was an intelligence agent of sorts who faked his death. An assassin for the CIA, perhaps? The even greater mystery is how the government hasn’t tracked him down given the trail of carnage he constantly leaves behind.
While McCall tries to live a normal life, he can’t help but get involved when an innocent soul is in trouble. He’s almost never surprised and can predict pretty much every move his enemy is going to make. This could have amounted to an overly perfect protagonist with zero weaknesses. Fortunately, Washington is just the right actor to pull a character like this off. It also helps that the film’s villain actually proves to be a commendable foe for McCall.
After avenging a hooker played by Chloë Grace Moretz, McCall is targeted by the Russian mob. They send in Teddy (Marton Csokas), another mysterious man with a talent for killing and getting to the bottom of things. When Teddy and McCall finally meet up, “The Equalizer” plays out like a game of wits and brawn. Both forces are seemingly unstoppable and neither will quit until the other is dead.
Antoine Fuqua of “Training Day” directs the film with gritty style and Richard Wenk energizes the script with flashy dialog. Watching the film, you’d swear that a graphic novel inspired it. Actually, “The Equalizer” is based on the 1980s TV series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. The filmmakers here have done a solid job at reworking the source material for modern audiences, producing an entertaining thriller with a strong leading performance. It should also be noted that Sony Pictures financed the film. If Disney ever buys Sony, wouldn’t it be great to see Spider-Man and the Equalizer join the Avengers?
Huh, they actually do kind of look like siblings. ****
It’s great that we’ve been getting so many stories these days that intelligently address dynamics between siblings. The best recent examples include Richard Linklater’s all too authentic “Boyhood,” Disney’s beloved “Frozen,” and the brilliant animated series “Gravity Falls.” “The Skeleton Twins” is another strong look at the relationship between a brother and sister.
It’d be easy for a film like this to fall into the same trap as so many other dysfunctional family movies like “Running With Scissors” or “August: Osage County.” “The Skeleton Twins” knows, however, that it’s not enough for the audience to just laugh at its characters or be shocked by their actions. This is a film that respects its characters, making it easy for the audience to sympathize and identify with them.
Bill Hader is Milo, a gay, failed actor and an even bigger failure in life. After a botched suicide, Milo reconnects with his sister Maggie, played by Kristen Wiig, who he hasn’t seen in ten years. Maggie has a lot more going for her with a steady job and an unapologetically optimistic husband named Lance (Luke Wilson). Regardless, she’s every bit as screwed up as Milo, if not more so. As a matter of fact, she was just about to swallow a handful of pills right before getting the call about her brother.
Much of “The Skeleton Twins” revolves around Milo and Maggie analyzing why they’re so unhappy. A lot of it has to do with their selfish mother (Joanna Gleason), a pedophile English teacher (Ty Burrell), and their father who jumped off a bridge. Milo and Maggie realize they can’t blame all of their problems on their complex upbringing, though. The two have each made stupid choices in life and want to take responsibility for them. They just don’t know how. Together, the siblings work through their issues via brutal honesty and the magic of nostalgia.
The screenplay by Mark Heyman and Director Craig Johnson is wise and witty, if not a tad familiar at times. The real reason “The Skeleton Twins” works is because of its stars. If we didn’t believe these characters, this movie could have been a colossal mess. Hader and Wiig, both of whom can do little wrong, couldn’t be more perfect in these roles. We’re 100% convinced these two are a family that’s developed an unparalleled bond through love, hate, understanding, and dressing up as ladies. Between “The Skeleton Twins,” their work together on “Saturday Night Live,” and their small roles as a married couple in “Adventureland,” they’re truly one of the great screen duos of this generation.
We're Laika and we're weird! ***1/2
Drawing inspiration from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the talented animators at Laika have done a wonderful job at bringing the strange and grotesque back to animated features in an age of more welcoming digitally animated fair. Their last two films, “Coraline” and “Paranorman,” were some of the most charmingly creepy of this recent resonance of diverse animation. “The Boxtrolls” keeps in the tradition of those movies, being a weird, visually splendid escapade of stop-motion animation. It’s all good fun, although the familiar story often holds it back from ever being a masterpiece.
The film takes place on a leaning island where all the buildings seem to be stacked upon one another. Everything is peaceful in the small town until night falls and the horrible boxtrolls immerge. Ben Kingsley voices Archibald Snatcher, a dastardly pest exterminator who’s ironically more disgusting than the Gollum-like Boxtrolls he hunts. Snatcher hopes to snatch every boxtroll so he may one day become an elitist who eats cheese and wears a white hat. Don’t take his ludicrous reasoning that seriously. It’s satire.
It turns out the boxtrolls aren’t the monsters Snatcher makes them out to be. They’re a peaceful folk who live in an inventive underground sanctuary made from garbage. They’ve also taken in a human child named Eggs, voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright of “Game of Thrones.” Although the trolls speak an unidentifiable language, Eggs somehow grows up to be quite fluent in proper English.
The human among box trolls is cared for by Fish, voiced by the king of gibberish himself, Dee Bradley Baker. When Snatcher takes Fish, Eggs ventures to the surface world where he meets Winnie (Elle Fanning). This young girl delights in the grim and bloody, so she’s actually kind of disappointed when the boxtrolls don’t eat her. Nonetheless, a friendship between her and Eggs naturally ensues as they attempt to open everyone else’s eyes.
As far as basic story’s go, “The Boxtrolls” really isn’t anything that new. We’ve seen Laika and other animation studios address issues such as prejudice, misunderstood beasts, greedy consumerism, and neglectful parents a dozen times before. The plot is essentially “Tarzan” only with trolls filling in for apes. That being said, having a formulaic narrative isn’t what kills a movie. It all depends how much flare you can bring to an old hat. On a technical level, “The Boxtrolls” has more than enough originality to keep the audience invested.
The filmmakers have crafted a clinking clanking clattering world of caliginous junk. Every shot is expertly assembled and shot. A bonus scene following the credits will especially make you feel grateful for all the painstaking work the artists put into the world of “Boxtrolls.” Granted, you can’t help but wish they put a little more work into the story, where you know upfront who everybody is going to be and what’s going to be learned. Even if it’s not “How to Train Your Dragon 2” or “The Lego Movie,” “The Boxtrolls” is still an enjoyable family film that’s sure to please the eyes.
Hey, if Matthew Crawley showed up at my house, I'd let him in in a heartbeat too. ***1/2
Between “No Good Deed” and “The Guest,” September is really shaping up to be the month of home invasion/sleeping with the enemy movies. What makes “The Guest” much more interesting that other film, however, is that it’s not entirely clear if the home invader wants to be the homeowner’s friend or enemy. At some point in our lives, we’ve all had somebody we’ve wanted to get rid of, be it a school bully, sleazy boyfriend, or boss. You might wish for a dark guardian angel to come to your rescue and take care of the person ruining your life. In the event that dark guardian actually did appear, though, would you be more relieved or horrified? On top of that, would you call the cops on this guy or let him do your dirty work?
Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” finds himself in a completely different role as David, a soldier who arrives at the Peterson family’s doorstep. David claims to be a friend of Caleb, the eldest Peterson child who was killed in Afghanistan. Longing to fill the hole Caleb left behind, the family takes an instant shine to the kindly David. If the Peterson’s weren’t so distraught and watched more horror movies, they’d know that somebody as soft-spoken as David must be concealing psychopathic tendencies behind all that collectiveness.
It turns out that David is indeed harvesting a dark passenger, going after all the people who have wronged the Petersons. The only family member who suspects something’s up with David is Anna, the daughter played by Maika Monroe. She tries opening her family’s eyes, but they all think David is just the greatest thing since sliced bread. In another movie, this could get really annoying, not to mention frustrating. The reason it works here is mainly because you’re not always sure what David’s intentions truly are.
Stevens is chillingly effective as David, but you also get the idea that he’s simply having a ball in this role. He perfectly fits the movie’s tone, which falls between thrilling and twistedly playful. His character is a bit like Denzel Washington’s in “The Equalizer,” but David definitely leans more towards the homicidal side. His intentions are more vague than Washington’s, as it’s not clear if he’s doing these things for the sake of justice or for more devious reasons. He’s the epitome of mysterious and he keeps us guessing up until the exciting final act.
“The Guest” was directed by Adam Wingard and Written by Simon Barrett, who made the pleasant surprise, “You’re Next.” So many other filmmakers these days are oblivious of how to properly make a thriller, thinking that being disgusting or being distractingly artistic equals terror. Wingard and Barrett know how to get the genre just right, crafting some legitimately stimulating set pieces, incorporating just the right amount of dark humor, and developing twists that actually add up. The people who keep making those stupid “Saw” and “Purge” movies, please study these guys. They know what they’re doing and can teach you a thing or two.
Nick talks with Dan Stevens of “The Guest.”
Nick Spake: Your character in “The Guest” is probably the greatest departure from Mathew Crawley in “Downton Abbey” you possibly could have taken. What got you interested in the project?
Dan Stevens: When I stepped away from “Downton Abbey,” I was looking to do something quite different. I never thought I’d get the chance to step into a genre like “The Guest.” It’s the kind of film I grew up loving with a real sense of fun, playing with the audience. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m really all about.
NS: What’s it like playing a character who might be deranged and homicidal, but the audience never knows his true intentions until the final act?
DS: That was part of the fun really. We didn’t want to give the game away from the beginning. We felt we had to work up to that, which is a much more entertaining journey.
NS: Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett previously made “You’re Next.” Between these two films, they seem to have a real attraction to movies with a home invasion theme. What’s do you think the appeal is?
DS: “The Guest” is a very polite and slow home invasion thriller, unlike “You’re Next” which was much more violent in its invasion. It’s a more subtle game they play with my character. Adam and Simon were really looking to step out of their comfort zone and I was looking for something a little bit different too. So we met somewhere in the middle.
NS: What attracts you to the thriller/horror genre?
DS: The horrors and the thrills. The comedic element of “The Guest” also really appeals to me. The script made me laugh from beginning to end. To make the audience laugh as well as scare them is a great victory.
NS: What do you think distinguishes “The Guest” from all the other horror movies out there?
DS: I think it distinguishes itself by not being a horror movie. It’s more of a black comedy action thriller.
NS: What’s your favorite horror/thriller cliché?
DS: If the lights don’t work, don’t go there.
NS: One last question. Can you describe the worst houseguest you’ve ever had?
DS: I don’t know. I’ve always had great guests. I’ve been lucky.
NS: Well, let’s just be glad you’ve never had one like your character in “The Guest.”
Sixteen cliches, people! **1/2
Gather around, everyone. It’s time to go over another checklist movie. So exactly how many action clichés does “The November Man” cram into 98 minutes? The ex-CIA agent who comes out of retirement to take on a personal mission, check. A beautiful love interest in over her head, check. A former pupil turned rival, check. Several chases both in cars and on foot, double check. Walking away from an explosion without looking back, check. Gratuitous female nudity, none of which is provided by any of the leading actresses, check. Tragic back stories, check. An assassin who isn’t very good at killing our main characters, check. Interrogation scenes, check. A fat, slimy scoundrel who hangs out in a strip club, check. Exotic backdrops, check. Russian bad guys, check. A daughter who only exists to get kidnapped at the last minute, check. Expendable characters that disappear with no explanation, check. A plot that doesn’t make a ton of sense, check.
Sixteen! That’s sixteen clichés, almost twice as many clichés that “Ride Along” scored on its checklist last January. There are probably plenty of others I overlooked too, as most of these clichés zoom by so fast that you can’t catch them all in one viewing. Some clichés never die or grow old. In the case of “The November Man,” Roger Donaldson’s thriller is actually kind of fun despite its clichéd nature. The film still isn’t quite worthy of a recommendation because the story is just too familiar and all over the place. On a mindless entertainment level, however, it is worth checking out once it comes to Redbox in a few months.
Pierce Brosnan, who’s always fun as long as he’s not singing, does a fine job as Peter Devereaux. As mentioned in the checklist above, Peter is a former CIA operative who comes back to protect a witness that might bring down the Russian president-elect. The witness is Alice Fournier, played by none other than Olga Kurylenko of “Quantum of Solace.” Wait a minute; Olga Kurylenko has gone from acting opposite Daniel Craig to acting opposite Pierce Brosnan? All she needs now is to star with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton and she’ll have won Bond Bingo.
The problem with her character is that “The November Man” can never decide what she’s supposed to be to Peter. A love scene is alluded to, but never made clear. The two never have an actual conversation that doesn’t revolve around the plot or the fact that they’re in danger. So is she a lover, a friend, or just part of the job to Peter? Whatever they’re supposed to be, the chemistry just isn’t there.
Matters only get more complicated when Peter is targeted by David Mason (Luke Bracey), a former friend and apprentice who has little reservations about killing people. Among all the characters in the film, he’s the one who gets the most development. With that said, there are a lot of characters here that have no development whatsoever. Eliza Taylor plays Bracey’s neighbor and sort-of girlfriend, but her character amounts to nothing. Amila Terzimehic plays a hit woman pursuing Peter and Alice, but is defeated like a complete armature. Most of the time you’ll have difficulty remembering who these characters are, who they’re working for, and what they want. By the time the film’s over, you’re not even sure if anything was accomplished at all.
The reason “The November Man” works better than it might have is mainly because of the talent involved. Roger Donaldson of “The Bank Job” knows how to make an action picture and of course Pierce Brosnan is great at selling this kind of material. If you’re really forgiving, you might find yourself getting into “The November Man.” If this all sounds too cliché and sloppy for your taste, though, it’s a definite skip. For me, the film was a decent enough excuse to turn off my brain for just under two hours.
Nick Talks with Roger Donaldson, the Director of “The November Man”
NS: “The November Man” stars Pierce Brosnan, who is of course best known for playing James Bond, and Olga Kurylenko, who starred opposite of this generations James Bond in “Quantum of Solace.” Coincidence?
RD: I think it is a coincidence really. Olga is playing a very different kind of character in this film. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both spies.
NS: You've directed a variety of thriller-related movies like “No Way Out,” “The Bank Job,” and now “The November Man.” Why does this genre appeal to you as a director?
RD: Every story has to be driven by suspense in a way. Sustaining suspense is not easy and it’s one of the things I always enjoy the challenge of.
NS: What other thriller movies have had the greatest impact on you?
RD: I remember as a kid seeing movies like “The 39 Steps” and “Three Days of the Condor,” sitting in the dark and not knowing what the outcome was going to be. I think it would be unfair if I said I only wanted to make thrillers because I enjoy all sorts of genres of film.
NS: What does it feel like working with Pierce Brosnan again almost twenty years after “Dante's Peak?”
RD: God, was it that long ago?!? Time flies when you’re having fun. Pierce and I have been friends for a long time. We were always talking about doing something together again and then along came this movie.
NS: What do you think is the key to a good action movie?
RD: For me, I’m always more interested when an action films feel more like reality. In this case, all of our stunts are real. They aren’t created by a computer. They’re created by crazy guys who will do dangerous things.
NS: What's your favorite action movie cliché?
RD: The action movie is a cliché in itself. It’s a genre that demands bullets flying and explosions. That’s what the audience expects and if you didn’t give them that they wouldn’t show up.
NS: Did you read Bill Granger's novel, “There Are No Spies,” or any of his other novels in this series prior to getting involved with this project?
RD: I didn’t read it. The script had already been written and I wasn’t really interested in going back to square one to unravel something from the past. The original books were set in the 60s. It’s a very different sort of reality now in terms of technology that dictates crimes.
NS: What can you tell us about New Zealand's Film Commission, which you co-founded?
RD: I made some of the first films in New Zealand a long time ago. The success of those films became a rallying cry for the film community there to get the government to recognize that cinema had a legitimate place in reflecting New Zealand. It’s fantastic to see how far New Zealand film has come with talented filmmakers like Peter Jackson.
NS: What can you tell me about your next film, “Icarus Factor?”
RD: First of all, I’m not sure what I’m doing next. I love that particular film because it’s about the importance of money and how the world operates. Also, I’ve written a script about a father driving his daughter to college. It explores the diverse ideas of what families are. I got a few other projects in development about car racing in the late 30s and a big World War movie. So there’s plenty happening.