Tuesday, July 18, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Summer Catch-Up
(Newer movies that I’m just getting to now)

Image result for john wick chapter 2 commonAwwwww shit.  Now this is what I’m talkin’ about fellas.  In this installment Wick (Keanu Reeves (The Neon Demon)) is called back into action because of a sacred promise he made to an Italian mobster (Riccardo Scamarcio (Go Go Tales)).  Either John takes the job or violates the oath which means this asshole can kill him with no consequences.  Decisions, decisions.  Anyway, after his house gets blown up John figures he ought to accept the task and goes off to do what he does best (kill folks, that is).  But Wick gets double crossed and suddenly every hit man in America is out for him.  Wow, all this from one carjacking and puppy murder.

Chapter 2 is superior to the first in almost every way.  The action is staged better, shot better, the ideas are better, the dialogue is better, the stunts are crazier, the dry humor is funnier, the cinematography is more focused, Reeves’ movements are even more fluid and precise, and you get the point. 

The only thing is the story isn’t as strong.  Yes, both involve pretty thin fuckin’ plots but the impact of witnessing a man’s dog being killed (which was a posthumous gift from his dead wife no less) is incredibly moving.  Wick’s vengeance is fully justified, I suppose.  With Chapter 2 it’s about survival which is good too but we’re not tied to Wick as powerfully on an emotional level like we all were the first time around.  But if every other aspect is a step up then I gotta go with 2.

Director Chad Stahelski (stunts: Escape from L.A., Live Free or Die Hard, The Matrix and a million others) made a great debut with Wick 1 and shows very nice improvement with the sequel.  The movie feels more confident and seems to hang back a drop to allow the action scenes to breathe a little more.  His weird touches are so much fun too like the 50’s/60’s looking telephone operators with lots of tattoos that put out the bulletins for hit jobs, or that one mute henchwoman that appears to sign in not regular sign language but some other form with random hand gestures, or that there are hitmen at literally every turn made up of all shapes, sizes and genders.  Not to mention the finale is an Enter the Dragon rip off but like times a hundred with what must’ve been the most confusing mirror set every conceived.  First of all, how the hell did they shoot that shit?  But second, how the hell did they shoot and edit that shit and keep it actually comprehensible?!  It’s unbelievably impressive.

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Image result for john wick chapter 2 common

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Image result for john wick chapter 2But the biggest thing I love about the sequel is there’s way more hand to hand combat.  Both pictures showcase a ton of cool gunplay (including a scene in 2 where Wick and Common (Terminator Salvation) are shooting at each other at close range from either side of some parked cars that’s reminiscent of John Woo) but the first one relied on it a bit too much for my taste.  Chapter 2 lets John boy take down more bad guys with only his bare fucking hands and man are these fights put together well.  There’s a better balance of action here with a nuts car chase/battle, long shootouts, martial art/knife scuffles and even one encounter where John kills two assassins with a goddamn pencil (and it’s just as horrific as it sounds).

I thought Wick 1 was real good but not great.  Wick 2 is great.  The opening scene alone is better than anything in the first one in my opinion.  Holy shit I’m stunned at how much of a good time I had watching this.  I’m ready for more.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Logan

Summer Catch-Up
(Newer movies that I’m just getting to now)

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The big deal surrounding this one, at least pre-release, was that we were finally gonna get a rated R Wolverine picture.  The character lends itself to that type of edgier material and appeared to be somewhat confined over the years in the PG-13 realm.  The Wolverine was busting at the seams and wanted to be R badly but director James Mangold (Walk the Line) and co couldn’t convince the Hollywood suits.  So now that this cream dream has come true, how is it?

Goddammit, I hate to be an asshole naysayer but this wasn’t nearly as good as everyone had been telling me.  Since this was such a long time coming and the filmmakers at last had their R rating locked in it feels like they overcompensated by making the film stupidly gratuitous.  There’s an unending barrage of very nasty shit like Logan stabbing countless bad guys in the head and face, him unnaturally cramming the word “fuck” into almost every sentence, a little eleven year old girl killing a whole lot of people with no problem, she also stabs a million dudes in the face and neck, mutant children being abused and murdered, child suicide, boobies for boobies sake, an innocent family gets caught in the crossfire and is completely slaughtered, several head shots, Logan and children severing limbs, etc.  This movie’s brutal in not a very fun way.  The old classic line from Jurassic Park is apt here: “…[they] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Image result for loganOn the positive side of things Hugh Jackman (Swordfish) is fucking awesome and by far the best part of the film.  Older Wolverine dealing with his diminishing healing powers and the beautiful respectful relationship he and Chuck Xavier (Patrick Stewart (Gnomeo & Juliet)) have are all handled well.  And sure, I can even appreciate the bizarre child murderer angle (albeit in self-defense) because it took some balls to go in that direction.

But all of the shitty looking CGI blood splatters, the middle of the road directing and visual style, the undefined villain role that gets split between three people for some reason, the not terribly interesting story, the really boring stretch leading up to the finale (which kind of abruptly starts up from nothing and suddenly has to kick into high gear) and etc is too much to overlook.

I mean I enjoyed Logan enough but not any more than most of the other Marvel movies.  I doubt I’ll revisit this guy in the future.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The River Wild

Image result for the river wildHere’s the setup: Gail “White Water” Hartman (Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia!)) is a former river rafting guide who takes her son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park)), on a trip down her old river stomping grounds as a birthday present.  Her husband, Tom (David Strathairn (The Bourne Legacy)), cancels at first but then eventually comes along to try to salvage their strained marriage.  He hopes to reconnect with Roarke as well who hates his guts for working all the time.  Along the way they meet up with Wade (Kevin Bacon (Hollow Man)) and Terry (John C. Reilly (Gangs of New York)) who seem a bit creepy.  Maybe it’s because they just did a robbery and are on their escape route.  That could have something to do with it.  Anyway, they kidnap Gail and her family and force them to traverse the treacherous waters so they can make their getaway.

This film reminds me of two things.  First is that it’s Hitchcock-like in not only the brilliantly simple and tight story idea but also the excellent and precise building of tension.  You just know so much shit is gonna go down and that suspense is killer.  Second is this is a little like Deliverance.  Ok, it doesn’t get viciously violating like that or make you question what the hell is real anymore by the end but it’s you know, a fun trip down a river that goes horribly wrong.  And they both involve run-ins with a pair of awful fucking people who put the protagonists in a dire situation.  By the way if you haven’t checked out Deliverance yet you really should.

Now Streep is renowned for her acting ability and I’ve seen her pull off some damn good performances (Kramer vs. Kramer, Death Becomes Her) but for whatever reason she kinda looks like she’s not so into it here.  Nor sure what it is but the good news is she has enough natural charm to carry her through anyway.  Although when Gail turns into her alter ego, White Water, Streep turns it on more ‘cause she gets to kick ass on the rapids and talk tough to the villains.  Gail gets scared but White Water’s fearless.

Image result for the river wild davidI like that David Strathairn was cast as the unavailable father who when backed into a corner turns into a Pitbull that does whatever the fuck he needs to do to save his family.  He’s such an average guy in every way, looks, physique, personality, which makes this casting decision and performance all the more enjoyable.  I mean Tom has to wrestle and punch the bad guys a few times throughout and Strathairn totally pulls it off.  I guess it helps a lot that neither Bacon nor Reilly are huge muscular guys.  They’re not in any better shape than Strathairn so it feels like the playing field is even, well if we’re talking no gun and only mano a mano that is.

So Tom turns into a cool character despite being kind of annoying for the first third.  You learn he can’t keep promises or set aside some family time because he’s so absorbed by his job.  He doesn’t fly out with everyone to the northwest for the rafting trip so you think he’s blown it once again.  But then he shows up at the last minute right before they cast off to show he cares.  The only issue is he also brings along his briefcase and does do some work while on the river.  It seems weird to me that this guy clearly recognizes he needs to cool it with his job and join his family on this trip to save his marriage, but then he continues to work and alienate people anyway.  Either he gets it or he doesn’t.  This in between thing is bullshit.

Image result for the river wildFor my money though the best one to watch is Bacon.  Man does he thrive in an asshole role and this is no exception (that’s strange because he seems like such a down to earth cool guy in real life).  Wade acts fishy from the start but you can’t put your finger on why exactly and that’s the mark of a great performance.  However the signs get stronger as the film progresses like he shows Roarke his gun in secret and peeps on Gail skinny dipping.  It’s when he finally reveals his true intentions of forcing Gail to run The Gauntlet, an infamously impossible series of rapids that Gail has only run and survived once before, that you truly begin to see the extent of Wade’s craziness.  I mean it’s astounding that up until the very end we’re still discovering how much of a psycho this guy actually is.  He’ll kill anyone with absolutely no qualms and he says sinister shit like “Now I’m gonna try to [shoot] you in the spine right between the shoulder blades, you ready?”  He’s kinda fucking insane and the subtle build up to that realization is handled great.

John C. Reilly meanwhile is mostly relegated to the dumb sidekick role.  But there’s an innocence to Terry which gives him some nice dimension.  He’s not heartless like Wade and it’s unclear if he has or could even muster up the strength to kill someone.  And he does deliver maybe the only funny line in the movie (probably unintentionally though).  You see Gail, Roarke and Tom know sign language because Gail’s father is deaf so they use that skill to their advantage in this shitty situation.  At one point when Gail is signing to Roarke Terry yells out “Wade!  They’re talkin’ or whatever!”

Moving on, I love the way this was shot with tons of gorgeous wide open landscape filling your screen.  Mountains, rivers, rapids, cliffs, simply beautiful.  Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler, Return of the Living Dead II) did an awesome job surrounding you in the splendor but also isolation of the northwest.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is fairly generic but pretty dramatically sweeping at the same time.  I guess that’s why he’s done a million fucking film scores over the years (Chinatown, Alien, Gremlins, Basic Instinct, Air Force One).  He rides that big Hollywood film music line like almost no one else.  Apparently he was called in at the last minute to re-do the music because the suits didn’t like what Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ghost) did.  Interestingly you can find Jarre’s original score if you poke around for a sec.  Don’t get what was wrong with it myself.  Goldsmith’s score actually sounds more dated, very early to mid-90’s with those odd air puffed snare hits.

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As for the big white water rafting stunts, yea they’re cool ‘n’ all but I gotta be honest, for someone who hasn’t done any of that shit it’s hard to gauge how impressive that stuff is.  The finale rapids section, The Gauntlet (which is ominously alluded to many times during the film getting you pumped for it), does look fucking crazy though.  And people had to do that shit for real, conquering thirty foot drop-offs, tons of waves and whirlpools, giant rocks that could split your head open in an instant and etc.  They definitely deliver on the river getting pretty goddamn wild.

Director Curtis Hanson had sort of a peculiar career over the years if you look back (he just died in 2016).  He started in low budget horror then did the teensploitation movie Losin’ It starring Tom Cruise, and then suddenly became a respected Hollywood director with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.  But most people will know him for the overrated L.A. Confidential and the Eminem inspired, Eminem starring picture 8 Mile.  He didn’t have a noticeable style but hey, he sure knew how to get some excitement on the screen.  The River Wild has got to be my favorite of his that I’ve seen.  As a quick mention though, Hanson’s homoerotic thriller Bad Influence is substantially weird with Rob Lowe (St. Elmo’s Fire) being the immoral encouragement over James Spader (Crash (1996)).  It shouldn’t’ be missed. (Wow, that’s two recommendations and this thing ain’t over yet)

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Let’s wrap up, this is a damn fine picture with very good pacing.  It’s like you don’t even realize how bad the situation is until it’s too late.  Everything seems to be going fine and then all of a sudden you’re trapped between a river and hard place.  Time is well spent constructing the characters relationships with each other and then testing those relationships under enormous stress.  Throw in some real dangerous river rafting shit and smart choices about what to leave out and only allude to (the actual robbery for example) and you got something.

The River Wild isn’t a masterpiece or anything but I love its spirit and it does the modest high tension, high stakes plot justice.  I really couldn’t ask for more out of this nice little effective concept.  It’s hard to find a good thriller and this is certainly worthy of your time.  I think you’ll like it.

(Check out this badass fucking trailer)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Mary Reilly

Image result for mary reilly 1996 john malkovichI guess because three of the biggest horror novels of all time were written and take place during the 1800’s (“Frankenstein”, “Dracula” and “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”) that particular time period will always seem sinister to an extent (the real life Jack the Ripper murders only enhance this notion).  And at times this piece brings out that seemingly inherent creepiness very well.  There’s some great atmosphere thanks to the fucking awesome set and production design (Stuart Craig and Stephenie McMillan (Harry Potters)).  England/Scotland is in an unrelenting fog, the cavernous house where most of the film takes place has only one resident but still requires five despondent people to manage the upkeep, in one part of the house there’s an elevated wooden walkway over a bottomless pit held up by rattling chains which is just weird, the meat market section of town has blood literally pouring down the walkways, the empty medical theater that should be the scene of intellectual enlightenment is instead used as a hideaway for Jekyll’s fucked up experiment and I could go on and on.  So in terms of visuals this film has mostly got it.

There’s the unusual show of restraint too but that doesn’t mean it’s a slow burn.  There isn’t a build up necessarily to some giant event at the end.  Instead we tend to see the aftermath of a bunch of nasty shit and left to wonder exactly how it all went down.  I really dig this approach because it’s the ol’ your imagination can dream up something far worse than what they can show you on screen.  And in fact when they do present us a murder outright it feels out of place.

Unfortunately the movie’s not that good overall though.  Julia Roberts’ (Conspiracy Theory) acting has been criticized a fair deal in this but I think she does a pretty good job as the incredibly timid and generally frightened of the world servant who has to endure all of the shit her employer throws at her.  Really it’s John Malkovich (Con Air) as Jekyll and Hyde who doesn’t pull off either role.  As Jekyll he’s too distant and monotone while as Hyde he’s like an irritating prepubescent brat.  Plus when he’s Hyde he looks like Tommy Wiseau (Johnny from The Room) and acts like just as much of a dick so that doesn’t help.

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Another issue is Jekyll switches to Hyde and vice versa so much that by the end the idea loses substantial power.  Instead of “oh no who’s it gonna be this time, I’m on the edge of my seat” it’s “oh no it’s this asshole Hyde again, I’m gonna grab a snack”.  All of the transformations are done off screen (accompanied by terrible stock library sound effects) which you might think is a gyp but considering the one transformation we do get involves awful dated as hell CGI I’m ok with it.

But the biggest problem with this picture is there’s no real sense of moving forward.  Having this be more of a romance than a horror film is fine but Mary Reilly and Henry Jekyll never get together or even attempt to.  It’s not that they long to be together and Hyde is tearing them apart, it’s that they go from scene to scene making no headway in a relationship they seemingly both want.  They don’t make any moves because Reilly is too reticent and Jekyll thinks he has a better chance of boning her as Hyde for some reason.  It’s frustrating because we know what Mary sees in Jekyll but he can’t see it himself.  It turns out she has a way too on the nose backstory involving a drunk, abusive and possibly incestuous father (Michael Gambon (Toys)) who apparently was a nice guy sober but a horrid sonuvabitch when sauced.  Get it?  Like Jekyll and Hyde you stupid boobs.  On the other side we have no idea what Jekyll sees in Mary.  Is it purely looks?  Her vast knowledge of housework?  I guess we’ll never know.

Image result for mary reilly 1996The idea of telling this story from the point of view of Jekyll’s servant is a cool one though.  She and the rest of the help know bizarre and eerie shit is going down in the house but only get scant clues.  They’re witnessing this unbelievable medical miracle in glimpses up close so the threat is imminent, not a safe distance away.  This viewpoint makes a lot of sense because it’s a classic way to convey a horror plot.  Don’t follow the monster around constantly but rather see how the monster affects other people’s lives.

And just to sprinkle a little more positive in here towards the end I would say my favorite performance is definitely Glenn Close (Air Force One) as the Madam of a brothel.  She’s so good at the brassy dame attitude and has complete command of any scene she’s in.  They made her face ghostly pale with beaming red lipstick so she pops out at you.  She puts on a nice thick British accent too which John Malkovich doesn’t even bother with.  Close isn’t in the movie very much, a paltry three scenes, but when we get her she’s fantastic.

Image result for mary reilly 1996One other thing of note is the filmmakers went against the mini trend at the time of making more faithful and somewhat realistic adaptations of classic horror books.  But Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were bombs so when “Jekyll and Hyde” came up Hollywood probably had second thoughts and recalibrated their formula (pure speculation on my part, I have nothing to back this up).  Funny enough Mary Reilly is actually based on a book as well of the same title.  The author, Valerie Martin, turned the old time horror tale into a tawdry romance story and goddamn if you step back for a sec that’s what this really is, isn’t it?  Man that sounds pretty awful when you say it out loud.  But the real question is how faithful is this adaptation of Martin’s novel?  The real answer is I don’t really care.

So this one has a decent amount of good points but also too many bad points.  Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) made a beautiful looking movie with visuals that have stuck with me all these years but it’s mainly that the script doesn’t work.  Neither does the extremely bland title.  Unless you’re a big time horror buff there’s no need to see this.