Friday, September 26, 2014

The Equalizer, Art and Craft

The Equalizer
Art and Craft

Are you as tired as I am of Russian villains? Of the lazy assumption that Russians in movies must be avaricious, amoral, ruthless psychopaths? Then again, just about everything in “The Equalizer” feels reflexive and hoary. It could have been made ten years ago, or longer.

Denzel Washington, reteaming with “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, stars as Robert McCall, a widowed Boston ex-FBI agent with insomnia who, over coffee at an all-night diner, strikes up a friendship with Teri (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz), a pie-loving young girl forced to turn tricks by the Russian pimp Slavi (David Meunier). When Teri, who dreams of freedom and a life as a singer, stands up to a john’s abuse and stops returning Slavi’s calls, he beats her badly enough to send her to the hospital, and Robert springs into action as a one-man kill unit, climbing each rung of the Russian syndicate’s ladder and bringing down the scumbags he finds.

The script – credited to three writers – lays out the scenario, and there’s not much more to the movie than that. No surprises or complexities, just the creditably made playing-out of the inevitable. “The Equalizer” boasts top-drawer production values, and though overlong at 131 minutes rarely lapses into boredom. Washington, as usual, commands the screen with quiet authority, a quality I wish more of today’s leading men demonstrated. Still, though it’s more watchable than most 1.5-star movies, there’s not one thing about it that’s fresh or new or compelling, not one truly meritorious element to laud.

Sam Cullman’s and Jennifer Grausman’s documentary “Art and Craft” starts with a fascinating story of art-world intrigue and two fascinating subjects, a prolific forger and the museum registrar on a crusade to stop him. I’m dismayed to report, then, that the movie itself isn’t more fascinating. It’s logy and redundant and feels padded even at 89 minutes.

Mark Landis lives in Laurel, Mississippi, in the home of his late mother. He puts classical music on the stereo, a frozen dinner in the microwave, and an old movie on the TV set, and laboriously copies works by artists from Maynard Dixon to Alfred Jacob Miller to Picasso to Signac. He starts with a digital copy fired off at the local business center and paints over it on poster board he’s “stained” with instant coffee, then puts it in a Walmart frame. When he’s done, he drives off to a meeting at a museum, often under an assumed name, portraying the work as the genuine article and offering it as a gift, sometimes on behalf of a recently deceased (and wholly fictional) sister. Landis has placed hundreds of pieces at approximately 50 museums, becoming “addicted to philanthropy” and perhaps the fun of duping museum professionals. He has no pecuniary motive or real malice; he’s a stooped-over, meek little man whose psychiatric chart runs to a dozen pages – a harmless incarnation of Norman Bates.

Only Matthew Leininger, who met Landis as the Registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, doesn’t see it quite that way. Leininger has spent the last seven years tracking Landis’ aliases and disguises and networking with other museum people to get the word out. Over the course of the movie, it becomes clear that Leininger has his own issues. He calls himself “anal retentive,” but there’s an obsessive quality to his fixation on Landis, who correctly points out that nothing he has done violates any law. “Art and Craft” culminates with the bizarre sight of Landis and Leininger shaking hands and walking and talking together through a 2012 exhibition (at the University of Cincinnati) of Landis’ work. Perhaps only then did Leininger grasp Landis’ true importance: as a cautionary tale to (and a fairly blistering condemnation of) museum registrars, whose failure to perform the most basic due diligence boggles the mind. Just watch what Leininger and the Cincinnati exhibit curator, Aaron Cowan, find when they shine a $20 black light on forgeries that fooled professionals at museums big and small.

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