The Equalizer and This Is Where I Leave You have little in common, except that they're both tremendously entertaining. The two big-budget movies are the first to emerge from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. One is a smart and sassy comedy; the other is a perfectly crafted action drama--even though star Denzel Washington bristled at the label when Boise Weekly asked him about the genre. More importantly, the two films target a relatively underserved demographic: adults (the Motion Picture Association of America says younger moviegoers, 12-24, continue to outpace others). They're also independently self-confident productions, well worth the price of admission--high praise we don't readily dish out to many other efforts competing for our hard-earned income.
For the record, Denzel Washington is quite intimidating. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, nor should he. Reporters asking for a few minutes of his time should remember a few things:
1.) You're well advised to see his film first, 2.) Don't expect any more than a direct answer to a direct question and, perhaps most importantly 3.) Don't think Washington is going to get all actor-y on you with some existential bullshit. He's at the top of his game. He knows it. You know it. Next question.
"It's a testament that we don't know a lot about my character. I'm not really trying to reveal my character in the film. I just don't look at my performance that way," Washington said. "It's more about his actions."
In that compact statement you get some insight into the two-time Oscar winner's work. Think for a moment about his performances in Flight, Malcolm X, Glory and Training Day. In each instance, Washington allowed the audience to unwind his character's motivations.
"Acting is acting. The truth is the truth," said Washington. "The universal stems from the specific."
And Washington is spot-on specific with Robert McCall, a past-his-prime mystery man in The Equalizer, loosely based on the 1980s television show. McCall is an earnest laborer who works at a home-improvement megastore, eking out a simple existence by day, but when night falls, McCall can't sleep. We never learn what haunts him, but McCall's special skills emerge in the dead of night when bad things happen to good people.
"I read the script... fast. It was a very good, quick read and I called Antoine [Fuqua] and said, 'This is Robert McCall,'" Washington said, flashing that famous smile. "The smartest thing I did was to call Antoine. He's an excellent filmmaker."
For Antoine Fuqua, who directed Washington to a Best Actor Oscar in Training Day, it didn't take long to remember what it was like to work with the actor.
"[Training Day] was 13 years ago," Fuqua told BW. "On our first day of shooting The Equalizer, I was quickly reminded of how amazing it is to just watch Denzel."
The Equalizer is highly satisfying, and even though Washington is one of the highest grossing film stars never to have made a sequel, an action movie hasn't been worth a full franchise since the original Die Hard.
This Is Where I Leave You
Tina Fey had a twinkle in her eye when Boise Weekly asked her about her punchline--literally: Fey's character hilariously sucker punches the guy (played by Dax Shepard) who slept with her brother's wife in her newest film.
"Yeah, but if I punched you, you have to act like I can punch," said Fey, brandishing a fist.
Nearby, also walking the red carpet for the premiere of This Is Where I Leave You at TIFF, stood Jason Bateman, who portrays Fey's brother. BW asked Fey if they were actual siblings, could she take him.
"Could I beat him? I think so, because he only has actor-strength. You know that actors are very weak, right?" she said with perfect Fey wryness.
"I bet she could beat me up as long as she was wearing a big ring on her finger like she did in the film," Bateman replied when asked about Fey's pugilistic abilities. "She can leave a permanent groove."
This Is Where I Leave You, directed by Canadian-born Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum), is like being at a dog park. Fey, Bateman, Adam Driver (Girls) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) are so totally believable as the Altman siblings, they reminded me of that perfect pooch-sense dogs have: tussling and tumbling because only they sense a familiar bond.
When the patriarch of the Altman clan dies, the four gravitate to their homestead to "sit shiva," the Jewish tradition of seven days of meditation following the death of a family member. However, there are countless "I'm outta here" moments, sending the siblings careening in different directions, only to return for more of the loveable misery they inflict on one another. The film also includes some pretty great supporting performances from Shepard, Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton, Ben Schwartz and Rose Byrne. The nicest surprise is Jane Fonda as a self-help bestselling author and family matriarch who mourns her husband while enjoying a new addition: breast augmentation. In fact, her chest should get its own "supporting" billing.
"I actually volunteered to audition for my part," Fonda told BW. "I read the book [Jonathan Tropper's 2009 bestseller of the same name], and I went after the part, and I got it. I totally identified with the character--except for the boobs."