Friday, October 24, 2014

Keanu Reeves Racks Up Tons Of Deaths And Laughs As JOHN WICK

Now playing at a multiplex near you...

(Dirs. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski, 2014)

About a third of the way into this film, there’s a phone conversation between John Leguizamo as a chop shop operator and Michael Nyqvist as a big-time Russian crime boss. Nyqvist sternly asks Lequizamo, “Why did you strike my son?” and he answers: “Because he stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.” After a very pregnant pause, Nyqvist responds “Oh.”

Up to that point, JOHN WICK had been a dark action thriller, but with the big laugh that bit received it became a dark action comedy, especially to a guy in the row behind me at the screening I attended, who loudly guffawed throughout. He wasn’t alone as the audience laughed lot during the movie, so much so that I wasn’t sure how much of what they found funny was intentional or not.

Basically, this is another in a line of indestructible badass movies, in which an established actor portrays a highly skilled, trained killer who can take down legions of attackers. It’s a formula that’s given Liam Neeson a lot of work lately, and gave Denzel Washington a recent hit in THE EQUALIZER, so now Keanu Reeves tries on the tropes of the genre.

The directorial debut of veteran stuntman David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (a former stunt double for Reeves), JOHN WICK doesn’t have much in the way of plot, but it’s a stylishly violent experience that contains a Hell of a lot of amusement.

When the film begins, Reeves, a retired hit-man for the mob, is mourning the death of his wife, who we see played by Bridget Moynahan in flashbacks). Her parting gift for her husband is a cute floppy eared beagle so that he can have something to love. So when a group of lowlife thugs led by a suitably skuzzy Alfie Allen, as the aforementioned crime boss’s son, breaks into Reeves’ house, kills his beloved pet, and steals his classic Mustang muscle car, obviously there’s going to be hell to pay.

With a sledgehammer Reeves digs up his buried arsenal of weapons, and ventures into New York City, to track down Allen and his entourage. Reeves checks into The Continental, something of a surreal specialty hotel for hitmen, where we get an inkling of his old life via past acquaintances like Adrianne Palicki as a hot hitwoman, The Wire’s Lance Riddick as the smirking hotel manager, and Ian McShane as the hotel’s smug owner.

Fearing his son’s life, Nyqvist takes out a contract on Reeves that’s accepted by Willem Dafoe, as another highly skilled and incredibly confident assassin, and the hunt is on.

Chasing Allen through an exotic bathhouse, a Neon-lit club, and a church that's a money-laundering front, Reeves racks up a high body count on his quest for revenge with many foes getting their brains blown out immediately, but every now and then there’s somebody who’s harder to take out so fierce fist fights to the death result. Of course, there’s tons of property damage too.

Some of the tussles get tiresome, but the pace keeps it moving along with vivid visual stamina, though I must note that Jonathan Sela’s grey-toned cinematography looked a bit dingy at times.

These days it seems you can’t be too old to be an action star, and since the 50-year old Reeves looks like a spring chicken compared to some of his action genre contemporaries he breathes some fresh air into the familiar framework. Sure, he’s not one of the all-time acting greats but he projects an iconic presence that helps make JOHN WICK one of the better, and funnier, indestructible badass films of recent vintage.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

FURY Finds Brad Pitt Back In The Nazi Killing Business

Opening today at a multiplex near you...

FURY (Dir. David Ayer, 2014)

Business is again booming in the Nazi-killin’ business for Brad Pitt, but David Ayer’s World War II epic FURY is more SAVING PRIVATE RYAN than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

Pitt plays U.S. Army sergeant Don “War Daddy” Collier, who leads a five-man crew and their Sherman tank (the name “Fury” is crudely painted on its cannon) through the heart of Germany during the dying days of the war in 1945.

Pitt's crew consists of a mustached Shia LaBeouf as Grade Boyd Bible Swan, Michael Peña as Trini Gordo Garcia, Jon Bernthal as Grady Coon-Ass Travis, and Logan Lerman as Private Norman Machine Ellison.

Lerman, as a wet-behind-the-ears Army clerk yanked from his cushy desk job and thrown into battle having never seen the inside of a tank before, is the film's real protagonist. 

It's Lerman's coming-of-age story, not unlike his part as a high school freshman trying to get in with the cool kids in PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, but, you know, obviously under much more extreme conditions.

Basically the plot is Pitt's crew making their way through enemy territory, and getting into violent skirmishes every so often. The combat sequences are incredibly compelling - an open-field showdown with a German Tiger tank especially is a searing set-piece, and an ambush that has a screaming man on fire shooting himself in the head is not something I'll soon forget.

There is a downtime interlude between the battles, in which Pitt and Lerman discover two attractive German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) hiding in their apartment in a bombed out town that's just been captured by the US troops, and they sit down to have a nice meal, but it gets interrupted by the drunk, rowdiness of their fellow crew members. It's a standout scene that almost feels like it could be a short film on its own.

The chaotic climax, which pits Pitt's crew against 300-strong German army after a mine destroyed one of their tank's treads, is a spectacle of nighttime warfare, impressively captured by cinematograpHer Roman Vasyanov, who also shot director Ayer's great gritty 2012 thriller END OF WATCH.

FURY has so much going for it as WWII film full of bombastic action, blood, and male bonding that I'd definitely recommend it, especially to fans of war films, but I wish it had more character development and more of a layered narrative. 

The 50-year old Pitt is perfectly grizzled for the hard-as-nails part, he looks like he stepped right out of the pages of “Sgt. Rock,” but we learn next to nothing about his character. Lerman has the most fleshed out role among the other's army guy stereotypes (LaBeouf puts in a solid performance, but it was no revelation), but his arc is really standard and predictable. At least Pitt doesn't tell him to “earn this” at the end a la SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. 

In many ways FURY is a war movie like they used to make, except grimmer, less glorified and with a lot more guts - in both definitions of the word.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jason Reitman's Misguided And Meaningless MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

Opening today at an indie art house near me…


(Dir. Jason Reitman, 2014)

Jason Reitman’s (JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, YOUNG ADULT) latest film, a comedy drama (hate the word “dramedy”) examination of relationships in the age of the internet based on a 2011 novel by Chad Kultgen, is easily his worst film. It’s even worse than LABOR DAY, and I hated LABOR DAY.

Just about every bit of it is misguided and poorly written, a pretentious attempt at cultural commentary that comes off like a guy complaining about everybody being addicted to screens and social media, but has nothing to say about it to say but ‘look at all these people on their devices, it’s awful.’ A rant by Bobby Moynihan’s SNL character Drunk Uncle is more profound than this.

It starts with voice-over narration by Emma Thompson telling us that while the Voyager satellite, which we see via CGI, is venturing through space carrying international music, pictures and greetings to extraterrestrial life, back on Earth, Adam Sandler is having trouble masturbating to internet porn.

Sandler, following the Robin Williams handbook by having grown a beard for this dramatic role, is an unhappily married family man who has to use his son’s computer because his computer is too infected with malware to use. Finding that his son has his own secret sex site fetish, Sandler reminiscences about how he discovered porn in his youth. Yeah, pretty creepy so far.

From there we head to the local high school (the film was shot in Austin, Texas) where we meet Kaitlyn Dever, whose mother (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors every instance of activity on her phone and PC, Elena Kampouris an anorexic high-school girl pining to be popular, Olivia Crocicchia, whose mother (Judy Greer) is always taking pictures and videos of in hopes of making her a star, and Ansel Elgort who gave up football for online gaming (in particular, the game “Guild Wars,” which I hadn’t heard of before).

Garner’s character is the film’s heavy, a cold, self righteous control freak who hosts an Internet Safety Parent group meeting in her home and deletes messages on her daughters account before she can see them.

While these threads weave in and out of each other, Sandler and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), both inspired by a commercial for that turns their heads away from their laptops in bed, begin affairs at exactly the same time, but luckily at different hotels. While Sandler hires a high price escort (Shane Lynch), DeWitt arranges a date with Dennis Haysbert, credited only as “Secretluvur.”

Meanwhile, Sandler’s son (Travis Tope) is itching to have sex with Crocicchia, who’s his partner on a class project about 9/11 (yep, they went there too), while a relationship blooms between Dever and Elgort, who’s dealing with learning (from a social networking site, of course) that his mother is remarrying. But that’s good news for Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris as Elgort’s father, who begins dating Greer. Reitman regular J.K. Simmons is also on hand as the anorexic girl's kindly father.

There’s a lot of internet meddling by parents – Greer decides that selling soft-core pictures of her daughter online isn’t such a good idea after it gets them rejected by a reality show, Norris cancels his credit card so Elgort can’t play “Guild Wars” anymore, and Garner freaks out when she finds the one site that Dever had secret (Tumblr), ransacks her room, and drives Elgort to suicide by intercepting his messages to Dever and telling him she’ll block him if he texts again.

It’s all so heavy handed and incredibly cringeworthy in its whole ‘internet bad’ statement, and overuse of bubbles for texts (or sexts), and blocks of chat cluttering up the screen. Yeah, I get that its point is that these things are cluttering up our lives, but with its flashy aesthetics and Voyager imagery, something seems off in its thematic ideal that too much technology is threatening our interactions with other people.

And Thompson’s narration so much recalls her writer role in STRANGER THAN FICTION, that I wanted the characters to yell to the heavens for her to shut up.

The film seems to oddly elaborate on a joke in Woody Allen’s 1977 Oscar winning classic ANNIE HALL in which a flashback has the 9-year old version of Allen’s character Alvy Singer explaining to his physician and mother that “The universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.” His mother says that because of this, “He’s even stopped doing his homework,” to which the young Alvy replies “What's the point?”

Blending that cosmic comic comment on insignificance with Carl Sagan’s “Tiny Blue Dot,” which both Elgort and Thompson quote in the film, must’ve seemed like a poetic notion to Reitman, but his awful, drawn out, and uninspired execution here makes for an excruciating experience. Come back, Diablo Cody! Everything is forgiven. (YOUNG ADULT, which I was a bit mixed on initially is looking better and better every day).

In its wanting so desperately to be a movie of the moment, as well as an ensemble rom com, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is a dreadful mash-up of AMERICAN BEAUTY and CRAZY STUPID LOVE. It’s for sure, the most meaningless and hard to stomach 119 minutes I’ve spent in a theater this year. 

More later...