At the height of Pixar’s creative boon, Toy Story 3 threatened the impossible: a sequel would be the animation studio’s best movie to date. This on the heels of the triple-threat punch of Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, to this day the finest consecutive output Pixar would manage. Toy Story, to this point in the studio’s history, was Pixar’s only ongoing franchise – Cars 2 would come along and bust their Fresh streak just one year later – but its sequels managed to keep pace with their starkly original one-off creations by diving deeper into the pathos of its collection of anthropomorphic toys and achieving an even greater sense of world-building. Woody, Buzz and the gang discovered things about themselves by exploring larger sandboxes and, accompanying them, we too saw the world with eyes renewed. Read More
When you buy your ticket for John Wick 3, prepare for war. The third (and evidently not final) installment in Keanu Reeves’ increasingly trendy no-fuss no-frills action franchise is an idyllic distillation of the draw of the series, amped up to the Nth degree, slurping down a snifter of brandy, armed with Schubert on vinyl, locked, stocked, loaded, ready to tango. There’s someone to kill around every corner, alongside a brain cell or two, if you fancy buying into all the bloody mayhem. The weapons are more plentiful, the armor is thicker, the violence is more violent. Hell, even the blood is bloodier. As the criminal underworld puts the titular invincible assassin squarely in its seemingly ubiquitous crosshairs, it’s John Wick versus the world. The odds are less than even. Read More
At its core John Wick is pornography. Grade-A, uncut violence porn. Cinematic gun-fu meant to boner pop action junkies looking to get off at the theater. And that’s not a dig against the film. Many lesser films strive to achieve the kind of simple-minded, clear-eyed, uncluttered glory that defines John Wick and get caught up in unnecessary twists or lamebrained character subplots. John Wick proved the power of just shooting a shit load of bad guys in the head in the name of vengeance and it did so gleefully. Read More
Nicholas Winding Refn name-drops Kubrick within the first five minutes of The Neon Demon (“redrum” is the name of a model’s deep-velvet lipstick) but it’s Dario Argento’s 1977 masterwork Suspiria that Refn imitates most. Our heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning), is not unlike Jessica Harper, a bright-eyed newcomer who must contend with jealousy and suspicion at every turn as carnivorous huntsman, barely camouflaged, hiding in plain sight, hover around her, awaiting her virginal offerings. Their expectant gazes, unsettling and derogatory. There may be no supernatural element waiting in the wings but the characters of The Neon Demon are equally inhuman. 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.
“Man of Tai Chi”
Directed by Keanu Reeves
Starring Tiger Hu Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Simon Yam, Silvio Simac, Qing Ye
Without exception, every time that Keanu Reeves‘s opens his mouth in Man of Tai Chi, I chuckled. And I wasn’t alone. Every member of the audience was stifling giggles as Reeves stumbled his way through brief chunks of unwieldy dialogue. We burst into laughter when Reeves breaks the third-wall with a roar – teeth-bared and thrashing at the camera like a lion ripping at hunks of sirloin. It’s as if the fog has lifted and Reeves recognizes just how awful an actor he truly is. Seeing Man of Tai Chi is like watching Reeve’s B-list baptism, as the man onscreen embraces his goofy robotic persona to the fullest extent, milking all he can with self-deprecating automockery.
For how applaudably terrible Reeves the actor is, his directorial debut is a bit of a mixed bag that actually tilts more towards success end of the dial, making it hardly the piping failure I fully expected. As a cross-cultural production split between the U.S. and China, the film employs Chinese actors, speaking mostly Chinese, with Reeves as the only whitewashed American with any spoken lines. The decisions Reeves makes – first to film in China with exclusively Chinese actors and to put himself into his own film – are head scratchers, but somehow they kind of end up working – operative word being: “kind of”.
The Chinese actors are mostly fine when they’re speaking Chinese – fine being the only description that really sums up the inoffensive but uninspiring nature of their work – but when they transition into the occasional English phrase, their lack of formal acting training shines through, blinding as a Tuscon afternoon. It’s as if Reeves recited the line to his cast right before the take and they quickly spit it out with the grasp of an ESL crash course student. It’s not intentional racism but some performers do sound like the xenophobia re-dubs on Kung Fu films of the 1970s.
But as a martial arts film, Man of Tai Chi shines. Even though some camera framing issues render certain shots inconsequential, the acrobatic mastery of star Tiger Hu Chen and his many opponents are feats to be marveled. As Chen swings his limbs like thunderous hams, we forget the wires that help float these artists of combat through the air in the most unnatural of ways. At any rate, our focus is zeroed in on the nth degree of precision with which each blow and each block is delivered.
Chen plays Chen (and no, that’s not a typo), a delivery boy who moonlights as a prize fighter. He’s deeply attached to his family and his master, a man who has taught him the ways of Tai Chi since he was a young boy. Traditionally considered a non-violent martial art, Chen surprises all when he uses an aggravated style of “hard” Tai Chi to usurp the reigning martial arts champion, winning him the attention of a shady security empire’s ring leader, Donaka Mark (Reeves).
Mark pulls some strings to all but guarantee that Chen will agree to be his personal prize fighter and the race is on. As Chen gets more and more involved in a circuit of privately broadcast beat downs, he begins to turn towards the dark side, transforming from the innocent boy he was into a barbarous warrior. We later learn: this transformation is the point.
In many ways, Chen’s journey mimics the descent of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. There’s even some unspoken mysticism to “unleashing your chi” that comes across a lot like “the force”. But as Skywalker became Vader through an eroded sense of hubris, Chen’s descent is forged for him. Like a Chinese Truman Show, those watching invite the moral corrosion, paying top dollar to see a good man turned.
Made on a tight budget of $25 million, Man of Tai Chi spends money in the right place: choreography. Even though the sparse CGI couldn’t convince your grandma that some of the larger set effects are real, carefully rehearsed hand-to-hand combat is executed with meticulous precision. It may look like a film on a budget at times but when the flurry of fists starts rumbling, it no longer matters.
As a director, Keanu has made a valiant effort but his minimalist approach and hoodwinked character direction still keep him pegged as a mostly unknown talent. Meanwhile, the script from Resident Evil 6‘s Michael G. Cooney is as amateur as they come and makes you wonder how many tapes of old martial arts movies he watched for research.
For American audiences unfamiliar with the chest of international martial arts film, outside of the late success of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Man of Tai Chi hopes to be a revival for the genre in the U.S. and an ushering in of a new talent in the hawk-faced Chen. The introduction to Chen alone legitimizes the film, even through its abundance of puerility. Even for someone not typically interested in martial arts, Man of Tai Chi does a great job at convincing us that we don’t need fast cars, massive shoot outs, and large breasted vixens to make an exciting action movie – just two dudes willing to beat the living snot out of each other.