Mike at the Movies

The Judge (R) *****

Acting at its best is the art of one person becoming so like the character he is portraying that you forget there is an actor performing. A great film happens when a company of actors become other characters altogether. This happens in “The Judge” to a remarkable degree. That’s why this film produces such a whipsaw of emotions in every scene.

Foremost among the actors is Robert Downey Jr. as super-lawyer Hank Palmer. His portrayal of the emotionally unstable Chicago lawyer coming back to Indiana for his mother’s funeral is, as they say, “Oscar material.” A strong contender for Supporting Actress has to be Vera Fermiga as Palmer’s high school sweetheart, Samantha. They swiftly reignite their relationship, even though it sputters and is interrupted by a brief kissy-face session between Palmer and Samantha’s daughter, Carla (Leighton Meester). There are hints that Carla could be Hank’s daughter, but I hate spoiler alerts.

After he buries his mother, it becomes clear that Hank and his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), have deep issues. Those issues are spun out evenly and relentlessly as the film progresses and Hank defends his father against murder charges. He does so reluctantly. “You can’t afford me,” he tells his father, “so it’s good that I’m short on pro bono time this year.”

Hank’s humanity tries to break through throughout the entire picture, but he’s very resistant to that development and we gradually learn the reasons. Basically, both Hank and the Judge are incredibly stubborn men with good cause for their warped sense of humanity and kindness. The reasons don’t make them any more desirable as men, but it does explain them. Hank is told at one point, “you are a shined up wooden nickel, Mr. Palmer.”

What, then, is his father? Asked about his belief in God, the Judge says, “I’m 72 with stage four cancer. What’s the choice?”

One scene among the many startling scenes in this film stands out. Fermiga is explaining, or trying to figure out, her relationship with Hank. Every word impacts on her face, brightens or dulls her eyes and changes her whole demeanor. It is a classic piece of film acting, which, at its best, uses the face to reflect complex emotions. Watching it, I defy you to stop the shivers from racing down your back.

This is certainly one of the best films of the year. It is solid from top to bottom of the cast and emotionally powerful with its blend of subtle restraint and outright anger and bitterness. The performances of Downey and Fermiga are worthy, but so is the work of Duvall, Dax Shepard as a hapless attorney in over his head and even young Emma Tremblay as Hank’s daughter, Lauren. This is one of those movies that make you say after seeing it, “Boy, I’m glad we went to that movie.”

This Is Where I Leave You (R) ****

The voice of doom is heard early in this dramedy when Jane Fonda invokes this rule of the house, “For seven days you’re my children again and you are all grounded.” This means that the seven-day shiva for their dead father will be strictly enforced. Given the classically malfunctioning Altmans, this is a sure guarantee for the disasters that follow.

One son, Paul (Corey Stoll), is meant to continue running the family sports store, a disaster supported only by Hillary Altman’s (Jane Fonda) royalties from a bestselling self-help book. Another son, Philip (Adam Driver), is a juvenile waiting to grow up. (His adulthood is greatly desired by the rest of the family as well.) A daughter, Wendy (Tina Fey), frets over a lost love who lives across the street, Horry (Timothy Olyphant). Horry cannot reciprocate her affection because of mysterious damage caused by a car accident during high school—he was injured and Wendy was not. The fourth sibling is the star of this star-filled vehicle, a restrained and very effective Jason Bateman as Judd Altman. Just as he was leaving for the funeral he returned home to find his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer), shagging his boss, Wade (Dax Shepard). He tries to keep what happened quiet but his rage finally pushes him to admit what has happened to the entire neighborhood, gathered at the Altman’s for the shiva.

Lest you think this sounds a bit informal, the whole Jewish aspect is played down. Wendy points out that the chairs for the ceremony are located exactly where the family usually has its Christmas tree, and the rabbi, Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz) is routinely addressed as Boner.

As anyone can anticipate, this crazed group is going to create madness and chaos. The film delivers plenty of that, but includes some poignant moments of family choices, loyalties and human dilemmas. How, for instance, is Judd to cope with the news that Quinn brings with her to the shiva that she is pregnant, not by a sterile Wade but by himself—especially since he is falling back in love with high school sweetheart Penny (Rose Byrne). Connie Britton as The Older Woman, Tracy, needs more time but is great as the love of Phillip’s life—other than the local he picks out to hustle at the shiva.

This sounds complex and it is, but unraveling the mysteries and adding some startling new ones in the last reel is the fun of this piece. Jane Fonda is in her 70s now and her role called for her to have anatomical augmentation, which on her looks pretty darn good. Since the enhancement is a perfect fit with her liberated and frequently expressed sexuality, her character is much more than a grieving widow.

Then again, everyone in the cast is more than they appear to be with the possible exception of Wendy’s two-year-old son, Cole (Cade Lappin), who happily trots through most scenes in the picture exercising his toddler’s right to carry his own potty chair and filling it whenever the urge strikes him. Cole is exactly who he appears to be.

Let the kids see something else. Unless they are very wise or unfortunately experienced, they won’t appreciate much of the humor and none of the tension of this amusing film.

The Equalizer (R) **

I am at the stage where I am not sure who to blame for the wastes of talent we are seeing this summer and so far this fall. Is it Hollywood, who sees a formula and repeats it endlessly until we finally either tire of it or find some new formula to slavishly consume? Or is it us, uncomfortable with anything out of the ordinary, with films that demand just a little more thought?

This latest Denzel Washington shoot-‘em-up is a good movie for consideration of both sides of the question. It is thunderously, repetitively violent. Corkscrews, clubs, neck-twisting, things that cut, explosive blows to vital parts—the entire repertoire of mayhem is on display here with only the merest nod to human values or humanity itself.

Briefly, Washington is cast as the mysterious Robert McCall, a former agent, probably of the CIA. He is a very private if not hermetic character, who moodily sips his tea and reads classics that were his ex-wife’s taste while he is up at all hours, most spent in what appears to be the site of the old “Nighthawks” painting by Edward Hopper. There he meets Teri or Alina, a girl who starts with a Russian accent and ends with an American one, played by Chloë Grace Moretz. She is a hooker, placed on the street and supervised by Teddy, a young Kevin Spacey look-alike from Russia. He is the personification of psychopathic evil, represented by a full-body tattoo of incredible detail. When asked, “Why did you have to beat her so badly?” Teddy answers, “To give the message. I am here.”

The problem with this film is that there are two psychopaths trying to kill each other: Teddy and McCall, the alleged Good Guy. Neither one of them cares at all about the humans they dispatch, though McCall says he does. He tells a wannabe security guard, Johnny Skourtis, that he likes good people and wants to protect them. But such a man does not stoically watch a man choke to death on his own blood while timing it on his wristwatch timer. In fact, McCall is dour in every scene and nearly expressionless—the same as Teddy.

The music is redundant, as is usual in these pictures, with thundering chords and looped percussion effects. The pace is extremely slow as Director Antoine Fuqua tries to create more tension. Sometimes it works. Other times it just makes an already long movie longer, especially since you know long before anything happens that he has left us little choice: gun means shoot, Russian white slavery victim means throttle, big bore weapon means hit something that is weight-bearing so it can crash. But mostly the problem is the presence of two very bad men. The only difference between them being that one is named Denzel, so he has to be the good guy.