An unmitigated juggernaut of bad, pointless cinema, The Great Wall is what happens when globalization and movie-making meets. A historical epic-meets-monster movie ostensibly designed for Chinese and American audiences both, the latest Matt Damon vehicle fails on nearly every level. However if you can feign excitement for a sleep-walking Damon channeling Hobbit-era Legolas to shoot arrows at an endless horde of dog-raptors then please read no further; The Great Wall is the flick for you. If that does not describe your tastes then beware, you’re in store for a long walk off a short plank of stupidity. At only 90 minutes, The Great Wall somehow begins to strain credulity in the shallows of the first act and it only gets worse from there. Read More
Shoot first and ask questions later is the mantra of Keanu Reeves‘ latest starring vehicle, a film that rotates around the question of “Who is John Wick?” and eventually “What is he capable of?” Going in blind to its main plot details will likely result in a better experience as the first act coyly plays with the idea of slowly unveiling who exactly this John Wick character is. First time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski clearly had a lot of fun with the eventual reveal of the character and his past and, especially if you skip the trailers, you most likely will too.
Having just lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan), John (Reeves) is a vortex funnel of emotion. Conversations with him are as brusque as they are chilly. Telephone calls with John consist of grunts, one word utterances and silences. Condolences are met with the emotional sensitivity of a grandfather clock. You insert a coin and watch it disappear. The only sign of life comes when an unbelievably adorable Beagle puppy is dropped at his doorstep with a note from his now deceased wife. The puppy, she envisions, is John’s invitation to move on and find life anew. Even with the pup sliding around his hardwood floors, John’s still remarkably dead-faced, but might just be starting to soften. When a pair of Russian gangsters tries to intimidate him into selling them his classic car, we see a whole new side of John. He’s sassy in a delectably murderous kind of way. And he speaks Russian. And he’s no one’s bitch.
When the trio of gangsters, lead by mob boss son Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), reappear under cover of darkness to smash up his home, kill his puppy (“the horror…the horror…”) and steal his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle, John winds up on the receiving end of a kicking session the likes of Riverdance. Bruised and bloody, he stares the death of hope right in its bloody, puppy visage. Even in this hazy, intentionally vague introduction to the stable of characters, we sense something violently carnal to John Wick just as we can smell the privileged cowardice steaming from Allen’s Iosef. Thinking themselves victorious, the thiefs slink off into the night. What the trio of goons hadn’t planned on was Wick retaliating, a miscalculation that becomes their blood-soaked fate.
Trying to replace VIN numbers and nab new tags, Iosef is clued into exactly who he’s messed with with a hard punch in the face. Even criminal mechanic Aurielo (John Leguizamo) won’t touch the stolen vehicle and in a move of unchecked candor, whops the little mafiosa in the schnoz for picking on the wrong guy. Iosef spouts, “My dad’s gonna do this,” and, “My dad’s gonna do that,” but even Aurielo’s smart enough to know that his top dog pops will understand his punchy reaction. When daddy Vigo (Michael Nyqvist) puts in the perfunctory check up call, all Aurielo needs to say to justify his physical gesture is to drop the news. “Your boy killed John Wick’s dog.” All Vigo can muster is an understanding, “Oh.” Cue all out war.
Once the wick is lit (pun, unfortunately, intended), the candle of vengeance burns for the entirety of the film. Action beats rage from one vantage point to another, making way for some well-timed comic beats and introducing us to a slew of characters who either share John’s former profession and or are played solely for dark colored comedy. One such example is Lance Reddick (Lost) who plays a polite, indistinctly African concierge who welcomes a recovering John with open arms. His concierge recommendation – doctors, bourbon and a telling dinner – represent the brand of deadpan comic relief John Wick offers, with much of its comic beats resting on Reddick’s narrow shoulders. The balance between balls-to-the-wall action and black comedy is often spot on and when Wick isn’t unloading clips on clips into the faces of bad guys, it simmers down to a tasty stew of remorseless, lethal laughs; a trigger-happy comedy of errors.
When John is squeezing the trigger though, the film is an absolute firecracker. Formerly working as stunt coordinators, Leitch and Stahelski have a preternatural sense of how to frame the action and move it along like a ballet. Capturing a sense of articulate entropy, they are painterly in their splooshes of blood and whirlwind of bullets. Everything is choreographed to the T and even Keanu’s wooden acting disappears when he’s a playing a one-man army, single-handedly leaving behind a body count that piles up higher than any other action flick this year. When he’s meant to emote though, yes, Keanu does still resemble Balsa wood. Thankfully, John Wick knows its strength and its weaknesses and there is very little room left for actual reflection, a fact that is both a gift and a curse to the production as a whole.
John Wick eventually admits that it is in fact just the straight-forward actioner you’ve hoped it would transcend – with an ending you could forecast from 30 minutes in – but the sheer amount of adrenaline, relentless violence and smooth gunman skills help significantly to make up for its lack of an actual soul. This being the case, John Wick is a movie that dudes – be they of the male or action junkie femme variety – will have a lot of fun with but won’t find much else to talk about aside from its ceaseless violence and well-timed dark comedy.
NOTE: I’ve tried to write something about this movie but I just can’t do it. It’s too dull to summon the energy to write more than one lousy sentence about. So that’s what I shall do. Behold: the one sentence review.
“Procedural to the point of blinding boredom.”
That is all.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson
Fiennes, Brody, Dafoe, Goldblum, Murray, Law, Swinton, Ronan, Norton, Keitel, Schwartzman, Seydoux, Wilson, Balaban, Amalric, Wilkinson. Wes Anderson‘s latest may have more big names working for it than ever before but their characters are more paper thin than they’ve been, more fizzle than tonic, more Frankenstein’s creations than humans. His company of regulars – joined by a vast scattering of newbies – are relegated to playing furniure-chomping bit roles, filling the shoes of cartoonish sketches, slinking in long shadows of characters. From Willem Dafoe‘s brutish, brass-knuckled Jopling to a caked-up and aged Tilda Swinton, gone are the brooding and calculated, flawed and angsty but always relatable characters of Wes yore. In their place, a series of dusty cardboard cutouts; fun but irrevocably inhuman.
Here in 2014, Anderson’s ability to attract such a gathering of marquee names to his eccentric scripts has never been as potent. He’s a talent magnet and his tractor beam is set to high. It’s just too bad that this gathering of the juggalos is as caricaturesque as they are (arguable even more than the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox). But what can you expect when your face is painted up and you’re dressed like a Slovenian underground fashion show. Upon dissecting what he’s got to offer, the seemingly indelible Wes Anderson appeal is as clear as day.
In the jungle of Hollywood, roles are mostly relegated one of two ways: the tentpole blockbusters, where characters are written like ham steaks – vessels for plot diversions, jukeboxes for one-liners, sarcophagi for the next action scene – and the smaller budgeted “independent” movie, wherein the tone is usually somber, the scenery is left unchewed, and emotional preparation ought to be through the roof. Anderson’s films flirt a very thin middle ground, a Bermuda triangle between indie cred and mainstream. To his credit, it looks like a blast.
Inside his pictures, Anderson’s stars are afforded a chance to play dress up in the midst of gorgeous sets at exciting locales. What’s not to love? Plus, this particular project had an added advantage: European travel. For these thespians, being a part of Anderson’s playground is like being a kid again. However, their childishness is more apparent here than in any of Anderson’s finest work (save for maybe Moonrise Kingdom). But through the haze of these colorful yet superficial oddities shines Ralph Fiennes‘ Monsieur Gustave, a beacon of complexity in an otherwise skin-deep cast of characters.
Gustave is a relic of the past. He’s an icon of chivalry, a servant dedicated to his craft, a well-groomed pet for his adoring clientele. He sluts it up for the elderly ladies who pass through his hotel (but he enjoys it too, so he tells us), making him a bit of a tourist attraction in himself. A hot springs for wilting feminine physiques, Gustave becomes the recipient of a pricy artifact (an ironic art piece called “Boy with Apple” – the customary brand of wry Anderson platitudes) when one of his doting golden-agers (Swinton) bites the dust. With her family trying to discredit him and blame the murder his way, Gustave must go on the run.
The cat and mouse, European romp to follow is as much an episode of Tom and Jerry as it is The Great Escape. Fiennes’ soulful gravitas brings immeasurable life to what is otherwise a series of cartoonish escape plots and hijinks. Anderson’s offerings are easy to consume and his persnickety eye for detail and Fiennes’ brilliant performance brings life by the pound to the otherwise far-fetched proceedings.
In this recent turn in his career, Wes Anderson has almost becoming a mockery of Wes Anderson. Though I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel it lacks the rounded emotional honesty of his pre-Fox efforts. He’s lost the intellectual intensity he had going in Rushmore, The Royal Tenanbaums and (I know I’m in the minority here) Darjeeling Limited, largely replaced by quirk by the bucket and enough billable names to make your head spin. Nevertheless, Fiennes is magical; a perfect vessel for Andersonisms, the savior of the show.
“Out of the Furnace”
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker
Crime, Drama, Thriller
Out of the Furnace is not the movie you expect, it’s not quite the movie you think you want, and it’s certainly not a movie you’ll see coming, but it is one of the best movies of 2013. Petering along a solemn road of America as industrialized hellhole, the jet-black tone and snail’s pace cadence of the film may prove too overbearing for some but those willing to dive into the mire will find a film overflowing with themes of chaotic grace, personal sacrifice, ego death, spiritual deterioration, and unbounded duty. Many similarities to early Kurosawa samurai films and Drive – which itself is largely plotted like a samurai film – emerge and make the film rich with subtext, even though unearthing that subtext is a bit of a harrowing chore.
While the dark material present in the film – beat downs and drugs, depression (economic and mental) and murder – may yield endlessly gloomy circumstances, a trio of standout performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson showcases actors at the top of their game that keep you glued to the screen and cemented into the emotional stakes of the film. The first scene involving a dead-eyed Harrelson, a harlot, and a hotdog will take your breath away and doesn’t let up from there.
Cue Russell Baze (Bale), a genuinely good guy of the strong and silent persuasion, and lil brother Rodney (Affleck), a four-tour Iraq war vet trying to find his footing after his last deployment. In the barren, has-been Rustbelt of Pennsylvania, each face their own economic struggles while also, and more importantly, vying with their personal demons. Nightmares populated by decapitated babies, massacred friends, and piles of hacked off feet haunt Rodney, who can’t escape these grotesque images of war irrevocably burned into his tender mind. Russell, on the other hand, has never seen combat, but a drunk driving incident, where he was responsible for the death of a child, provides him with his own demons to combat.
Both men are bent by society and by themselves and seek means for redemption. As Rodney turns to bare-knuckle underground fighting – a gig he says is just for the money but we suspect that these acts of supreme self-mutilation provide some fleeting escape for his tormented soul – Russell courts serenity in the things of everyday living, like fixing up his Dad’s house. Also finding solace in the gentle monotony of manual labor at the soon-to-close steel mill, Russell tries to move past his spotted history while Rodney’s battle-worn psyche prefers to bask in dreams of grandeur; a grass is greener on the other side mentality that sees him losing his path and descending into Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat personal circle of hell.
In Russell, Rodney, and their fading pops, the Baze family represents the backbone of America: the laborer, the solider, and the invalid; the maker, the doer, and the needy. These three are a cross section of blue collar America caught in a deteriorating socioeconomic climate. Juxtaposed against DeGroat’s wealth (his financial stock culled from dealing crank and heroin) and utterly maniacal temperature, the Baze’s are the 99% to DeGroat’s brand of “elite” class. As they struggle and toil, he lumbers around, shooting spikes of crank into the crevices of his toes and growling intimidation at his underlings while his stacks grow higher. But rather than beat these metaphors over the head, the burrowing screenplay from Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper is wildly subtle, allowing you to make up your interpretation about many elements scattered throughout the film.
While the marketing has played up aspects of this film as a gritty revenge story, these elements don’t really emerge until the final act (and I would strongly urge you not to watch any trailers for Out of the Furnace as they give away 90% of the film.) Instead, more than anything, this is a tale of two brothers who have lost their way.
Making up their own humble sub-nuclear unit, Russell takes the role of big brother to distant but loving Rodney very seriously. When Rodney wracks up a debt gambling on racehorses, Russell plays provider, silently going to the bookie, a pitch perfect Willem Dafoe, and silently pays his struggling brother’s debts. But unlike Rodney, Russell doesn’t crave praise, just peace. As Rodney gets deeper into DeGroat’s playground, Russel loses his opinions of peaceful negotiation and must take up arms to fight for his brother’s honor.
From playing the watchful protector, Russell evolves from almost effeminate – a character trait hinted at through his soft spoken intonation and general aversion to conflict and violence – to a stone cold but silently compassionate hunter of men. Like a shepherd left to herd his flock, one can only rely on his shepherd’s crook for so long. When the wolves come, it’s time to take the old rifle out of storage and switch to old testament mode. And, like the wrathful God of the old testament, Russel doles out his own variety of penalty. Again, biblical themes are open to interpretation, and may entirely just be something that I alone got out of the film, but there is something palpably holy in Russell’s aura and his journey in the film.
As Russell, Bale puts in one of the strongest performances of his celebrated and illustrious career. Entirely captivating and utterly committed, the greatness of his performance is hard to put your finger on but it shines from beginning to end. The final scene we spend with Russell juxtaposed against a heartbreaking sequence shared with ex-lover Lena (Zoe Saldana) showcase Bale’s awesome range. Providing yet another masterclass of acting prowess, Bale excels at making his craft look effortless. It’s as if he’s changed skins since playing the shleppy Irving in American Hustle as he has once transformed himself physically to “become” someone new.
Affleck too puts in a performance for the books and has finally begun to prove to this previously unconvinced critic that he may just be great actor. He balances camaraderie with solitude, laughs with anguish while having to sell his character both as a physical brute and an emotional mess and we buy every second of it. For his part, Harrelson’s DeGroat is the best, and most vile, villain of 2013. Despicable though he may be, his bridge-burning demeanor turns being cavalier into a bloodcurdling game of conversation, making him just about the worst person you could ever bump into at a bar. And though Saldana and a gruff-voiced Forest Whitaker don’t get the screen time they deserve, both bring complex elements to characters that could easily have been one-note and forgettable.
Adding even more depth to the film, the technical elements racket up the tension and help to accentuate the ripe metaphorical elements planted throughout. Dickon Hinchliffe‘s score, largely leaning on Pearl Jam’s “Release,” lends itself to the harrowing nature of the film as bleak yet bold cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi puts the rust back in Rustbelt. This is a dirty, decaying world the Bazes populate and the technical elements help prop up that fact, giving weight to the film and the metaphorical elements boiling within. All these elements – the stellar performances, crisp and dark direction, surging score, crunchy landscapes, an open-ended conclusion – all add up to a film that demands to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be dissected by its viewers.