REVIEW: John Wick

21 02 2015

John WickDirector Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad made it abundantly clear to star Keanu Reeves what kind of action movie “John Wick” should be.  This was not a philosophical puzzle like “The Matrix” or a thrilling cat-and-mouse adventure like “Speed.”  It was just fun, stupid entertainment that was fully aware of its own ridiculousness.

These unabashedly silly popcorn flicks can serve as fun antidotes to movies dripping in self-seriousness or an inflated sense of importance.  And, on paper, the seemingly washed-up Reeves makes for the perfect casting choice.  His presence also lends the film a meta narrative to accompany its actual one.  Reeves’ John Wick reawakens from retirement to unleash a can of whoop-ass on some people who did him wrong, just as it appears the actor himself wants to prove some value past his supposed expiration date.

While Reeves enables “John Wick” to reach its goal of being a campy, kitschy action film, he never does anything to help the movie differentiate itself.  If someone is in the mood for what the kind of adrenaline rush it hopes to offer, nothing stands out about this particular film.  Many other movies do it better (just in 2014, “Lucy” easily outdid it – and is rare for actually caring about women).

The only real highlight of “John Wick” is watching a B-list “The Expendables” form among the supporting cast.  Stahelski must have hired one great casting director if they could get all these notable character actors in one film.  Most just have one random scene, but when Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Michael Nyqvist (from the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol“) all show up, it is only natural to wonder who will pop up from behind the next door.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Wild Tales

20 02 2015

Wild TalesOver the past few years, the phenomenon of binge-watching television shows has essentially revolutionized the way media and narratives are consumed.  When they can sit still for longer than the duration of a ten-second snapchat, people now want a rapid succession of rising action and escalating climaxes.

Argentinian director Damián Szifron is certainly not the first person to create an anthology film, nor is he unique in housing multiple narrative threads under the same canopy.  Nonetheless, his “Wild Tales” feels special in the way it adapts this form to meet the demands of an audience with access to troves of great television (not to mention short films).  This thematically curated collection of six large scale mini-movies permits a rhythm of continual engagement and repeated payoff.

These dividends feel substantially greater than the average movie.  The effect could have something to do with the quantity of storytelling present in “Wild Tales,” yet Szifron also brings some serious quality to the table as well.  His characters and scenarios range from a jilted wife at her wedding reception to a raging motorist and even a plane full of people who all crossed the wrong man, but they all somehow circle back to matters of animalistic revenge and cosmic karma.

Fittingly, Szifron supplies a wickedly biting sense of irony to every tale.  While the guiding approach to each story might be similar, the manifestations are only similar in their dark, demented humor.  Those familiar with the social and political context of Argentina might get a little more out of the film, though “Wild Tales” communicates on such primal channels of human impulse that its appeal is not tied to one nation.  Anyone who has ever felt victimized or wronged by some unexplainable force should find something relatable in Szifron’s compilation … and then relish hovering over the proceedings, observing the pain of others from a god-like distance.  A-3halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 19, 2015)

19 02 2015

The Imposter

“For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be someone else.”  So begins Frederic Bourdain, the narrator of Bart Layton’s documentary, “The Imposter.”  The line may seem commonplace, but it sets the stage for a rich exploration of identity – inherited, assumed, and forged.

Here is a case where the truth is not only stranger than fiction, as the old adage goes. “The Imposter” is also more interesting and compelling than many scripted narrative films these days, thus making it a more than deserving choice for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  Bourdain uses one real story to illuminate the human proclivity for deception on a much grander scale, showing the way we bury secrets through buying into our own lies.

In 1990s Texas, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappears.  Three years later, he mysteriously reappears in Spain.  It’s rare to find a missing child alive years after disappearance … and even more uncommon to find that child in another country.  If the documentary sounds like a first cousin of the Clint Eastwood-Angelina Jolie film “Changeling,” the similarities end past the logline.

As the title implies, “The Imposter” is about someone pretending to be Nicholas Barclay – in this case, Frederic Bourdain.  A bum looking for any path to a better life, he falls short of a criminal mastermind, though he certainly knows how to exploit loopholes and alleyways in a lazy bureaucracy.  Somehow, he manages to circumvent each and every safeguard that should have exposed his act.

Since the film’s title makes direct reference to his deception, the through-line of suspense is the anticipation of the moment when his house of cards tumbles.  Yet just when the jig seems up for Bourdain, “The Imposter” takes one heck of a surprising turn.  Perhaps there is not only one talented artist of concealment in the film.  I’ll stop talking now, lest I spoil this gripping, entertaining, and enlightening film.


18 02 2015

HitsHits” begins with a title card that recalls the one preceding 2013’s “American Hustle.”  This one says, “Based on a true story … that hasn’t happened yet.”  In other words, it marks writer/director David Cross’ way of saying that he wants to kvetch endlessly about the present day under the guise of satirization.

Maybe I’m still a little bit defensive about that horrendous TIME Magazine cover calling millennials “The Me Me Me Generation,” as if the generations before us have a spotless record and never posed any worry for their parents.  Nonetheless, I cannot help but get annoyed by vast generalizations about the youth these days as disgusting, device-addicted narcissists.  It is certainly true of many people, and I will not deny it; the world just needs some positive images of us.

That virality is one of the chief virtues of our society is certainly no secret, nor is the triumph of fame over hard-earned success.  Cross, though, seems to act as if he is delivering a message sent from heaven to enlighten us idiots.  “Hits” aims to pick only the lowest hanging fruit and juice it for cheap laughs.  (At least he picks up on an equally ludicrous breed, the self-righteous Gen X social media activist.)

Beyond the handicap of simply recapitulating the obvious, Cross’ first foray into feature filmmaking just cannot sustain its 90 minute runtime.  The characters that populate his ridiculous universe scarcely possess the depth for a comedy sketch; expecting them to remain entertaining and engaging for an entire movie is preposterous.  They might work well for a web series, however, if Cross could add some depth of thought to an only slightly revamped stereotype of the vapid fame-seeker.   C2stars

REVIEW: Timbuktu

17 02 2015

TimbuktuAbderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” shows the consequences of radical Jihadist rule in a small north African village to gripping effect.  No one goes untouched by their moralistic scourge as the fundamentalists clamp down on basic liberties and freedoms.  The violent authorities tolerate no view or action milder than their deeply entrenched extremist stances, and anyone who crosses them must pay at the hands of a barbaric punishment they mete out.

Sissako’s canvas is vast and wide to show how pernicious and pervasive the power of the group truly becomes.  Yet, at the same time, he also layers in various personal strands that allow “Timbuktu” to hit home on a gut level.  The film only runs 100 minutes, an economy which is usually a virtue.  Here, however, the length works against it as the timeframe only permits real intimacy with one family of cow farmers on the outskirts of the town.

Everyone else seems real enough, but they lack the screen time to really forge a meaningful connection with the audience.  The poignancy and the tragedy of “Timbuktu” would easily earn another 30 or 40 minutes.  Sissako’s unflinching look at dignity lost in the face of an inhumane regime confidently commands attention and respect.  It gets that – and then some.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Still Alice

16 02 2015

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland adapted “Still Alice” from a novel by Lisa Genova.  But had I not known that going in, I would have assumed the film was based on a play.

The directors shoot the film with a gentle, soft, and unobtrusive light.  The lines flow nicely.  The scenes feel distinct and compartmentalized.  Heck, the film even ends by literally ripping out the final page from “Angels in America,” one of the American dramatic classics!

What ultimately separates “Still Alice” from the stage, however, is the masterfully detailed performance of Julianne Moore.  She stars as Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the camera-eye of the cinema is necessary to observe her slow deterioration.  Since seeing the decay of her brain is impossible, her illness has to manifest itself in the tiniest twitches of Moore’s face.

Like fellow 2014 release “The Theory of Everything,” which followed a physical rather than a mental degeneration, “Still Alice” derives its very narrative motion from discerning which faculty will disappear next.  In other words, the filmmakers invite gaping and marveling at the technically proficient acting on display behind the figurative glass cage of the screen.  The film plays almost as suspenseful in its measured anticipation of a firm break from reality by Alice, and credit Moore for turning in a performance so gentle and full of integrity that her character’s normalcy inspires unease.

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REVIEW: The Last Five Years

15 02 2015

The Last Five YearsTransferring a great musical from stage to screen is a loftier task than many viewers realize, and many a great show is rendered mediocre by the transition.  The challenge always remains the same: finding something cinematic in the piece and making sure that it never simply becomes “filmed theater.”

This was a particularly daunting leap for Richard LaGravenese when adapting Jason Robert Brown’s musical “The Last Five Years” for the big screen.  The show is quite literally a two-hander, allowing speech and song only from a man and a woman inside a romantic couple.  The theater provides a natural habitat for this kind of story since the intimacy and the immediacy of the medium corresponds with the sharp focus on the duo at the center of the show.

Further complicating matters, “The Last Five Years” is like “Les Misérables” in its nearly completely sung-through script.  Trying to embed an unnatural form of human communication into a completely natural situation can prove tricky indeed.  So a tip of the hat is due to LaGravenese for somehow managing to make most of the musical numbers feel believable enough not to raise major questions while watching.

The film’s writer and director does not deserve all the credit for that, however.  So much of “The Last Five Years” seems authentic and emotionally resonant because of the work done by Anna Kendrick.  She stars in the film as Cathy, an actress trying to get by doing what she loves while her boyfriend Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) soars to the top of the bestseller charts with his debut novel.  Technically, the songs are divided equally between the two of them, but make no mistake about it: this film belongs entirely to Kendrick.

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