Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

In 2014, the surprising hit John Wick created a diverting comic-book riff on the revenge drama, seeming like a one-off set piece that hit all the buttons action fans look for.  However, with John Wick: Chapter 2, the writer/director team of Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski have taken what I consider to be a significant step forward in the evolution of American action filmmaking.  Ditching the sentiment almost completely, they dove into the lunatic alternate reality they created, and came away with one of the most consistently enthralling and artistically expressive action movies I’ve ever seen.  It left me gasping, and as I pant for more I’m forced to admit that though this movie’s influences are many, from the riveting gun-fu of Hard Boiled to the intense close-quarter combat of Ong-Bak, in sheer audacious bravado this film stands alone (except for maybe Hard Boiled).

I say audacious because according to the entertainment section of businessinsider.com, the kill count of this blood-drenched magnum power shot stands at a staggering 128, meaning that the average stands at just over one kill every minute of the movie’s 122 minute runtime.  This mass of fatalities, however, is not stretched out over the entire movie, but is rather concentrated in two or three central shootouts (depending on how you determine when one shoot out ends and another begins), which see the inimitable Keanu Reeves transform into the mechanized killbot it seems he was always meant to be.  Because of his strangely vacuous performance style, which made him perfect for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the object of derisive laughter in Dangerous Liaisons, makes him this movie’s perfect protagonist.

I refer to Reeves’ character, the eponymous John Wick as a protagonist, not a hero, because John Wick: Chapter 2 has no real heroes.  In the first John Wick, the eponymous character’s thirst for revenge was ignited by the death of his beagle puppy named Daisy, a symbol of the love he’d had for his recently deceased wife.  In this second volume of the Wick saga, the movie’s central villain simply destroys his house, without even harming the new dog he never bothers to name.  It is notable that whereas Daisy, the puppy from the original film, was a cuddly little bundle of love, Wick’s new dog is a very obedient pit bull.  This is a signifier that in the first movie, Wick lost his soul, and though he at first remains reluctant to return to death-dealing, he ends up taking to it like a master executioner, killing without thought.

This singularity of purpose and lack of true motivation are two of the things that I believe make this movie a significant advancement in American action cinema.  Too often, even in justifiably regarded tentpoles of the genre like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, the action has to pause for the insertion of sentiment or (god forbid) romance, giving viewers like me a chance to go to the bathroom.  John Wick: Chapter 2 eschews any sentimental subplots, replacing them instead with an extraordinary visual panache.  Shootouts in an art exhibit containing a hall of mirrors and a topiary gallery that changes color depending on which side its viewed from are entrancing; so much so that they forego the need of an emotional undercurrent.  The movie’s director Chad Stahelski began in movies as a stuntman, most notably doubling for Reeves in The Matrix, and with this viscera-speckled opus, he shows that the closer one draws to violent action, the more such warfare becomes part of his identity.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Review: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Director: Ti West

Writer: Ti West

Actors: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga

 

In its own harsh, uncompromising manner, In a Valley of Violence scoffs in the face of well-wrought western tropes, and comes away with a delightfully intense bloodbath.  I can say unreservedly that I am a fan of westerns, from the meticulous Italian chaos of Sergio Corbucci’s Companñeros to the somber philosophy of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, I love the western genre.  As is obvious from the opening titles which closely imitate the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director Ti West (The House of the Devil) loves it too.  His love of  westerns is most obviously displayed by his eagerness to subvert the genre’s tropes, which he does here by injecting characters with weakness, stupidity, and more than a little comedy.  This comedy most often comes from the committed and somewhat silly performance of a masterful John Travolta (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, Scientology), who portrays tobacco chewing bravado while his character becomes a strange alternate protagonist.

The story’s central hero is Paul, Ethan Hawkes’ mysterious drifter traveling alone with a dog.  Paul and his strangely intelligent companion, Addie, are linked via an almost supernatural connection.  These travel companions make an ill-fated pit stop in Denton, a town terrorized by the son of the local sheriff (James Ransome), who practices wanton cruelty with impunity.  This character, Deputy Gilly Martin is perturbed when newcomer Paul (Ethan Hawke), fails to respond quickly to his inquiries.  This simple perceived slight leads to a chain reaction of escalations, culminating in a climactic death that is both ludicrous and metaphorically perfect.  The unstoppable expansion and eruption of violence is so reasonless, yet so inevitable, that In a Valley of Violence could be said to make a permanently timely statement about the ease and cost of killing.

These are pretty heavy issues, however, and they might weigh down a movie as violent as this one, but it is saved by the aforementioned Mr. Travolta, playing the sweetest Marshal ever.  Travolta’s character is kind, reasonable, merciful, and hilarious.  Marshal Clyde Martin (Travolta) has one fatal flaw, however, his love for his son.  As terrible as Gilly had become, he was still the Marshal’s son, and family trumps everything.  I think that this, in many ways, is the central conceit of In the Valley of Violence.  That even the most positive emotional reflexes, like a father’s love for his son or a drifter’s love of his dog, can lead to copious bloodshed.

Westerns can be intense, savage, and unapologetically brutal, but they can also be funny, touching, and philosophical.  In the Valley of Violence can do all of these things, but it is one thing above all, a kick-ass western.  The music is dramatic and propulsive; shrieking with energetic violins that sound like stabbing.  The performances are all exemplary, particularly Taissa Farmiga, who brings a mad spirit to the role of Mary-Anne, charming with every nervous giggle.  This is a western of surprising depth and fantastic production, but what really leaves an impression is the sheer fun of it.

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Review: In a Valley of Violence

Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Director: Joseph Sargent

Writer: John Godey (novel) Peter Stone (screenplay)

Actors: Robert Shaw, Walter Mathau, Hector Elizondo

Streaming on Amazon Prime

In the history of heist movies, bank robbery movies, and hostage situation movies, personality is what really matters.  The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, one of the greatest examples of all three of those types of crime story, has more personality on display than an off-broadway production of Our Town.  This personality, which is 1970’s New York City blue-collar through and through, puts much-needed life into what could have seemed a fairly grim little story.  In this story, Bernard Ryder (Robert Shaw) and three associates take a subway car full of passengers hostage, after which things take a consistent turn for the worse.  As the somewhat dark story sputters its way to a predictable conclusion, its audience is kept rapturous, enlivened by interesting characters and entertained by riotous performances.

Walter Mathau, as Police Lt. Zachary Garber, for example, is a hilarious and emotionally relatable protagonist.  One sequence early in the movie in which Garber (Mathau) repeatedly insults a Japanese tour group is particularly hysterical, as it contributes greatly to the crafting of a compelling story line.  “This way, dummies, just step this way, dummies,” the lieutenant sputters, annoyed at being relegated to giving tours of the train station.  But on this day, his luck changes, when Richard Ryder (Robert Shaw) hijacks the train car he’s on, touching off a deadly sequence of events.  Robert Shaw, as in The Sting, conveys a perfectly single-minded commitment, and steps in as the perfect foil for Mathau’s cheeky expertise.  Watching these two actors play off each other through a two-way radio is marvelous, as the actors ratchet the tension up to extreme levels.

The showdown between Garber (Mathau) and Ryder (Shaw) takes up most of the movie, but underneath this main plot, the city of New York can be seen as a character.  The way characters talk to each other, as if they’re late for another appointment, and the way that traffic is a permanent inconvenience for everyone at all times, combine to make Pelham One Two Three a movie that will forever be chained to New York.  One character, Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi) is New Yorker through and through, with the heaviest accent of them all, which he uses to say lines like “I’m gonna nail his pecker to the wall for this,” and “If I gotta watch my language just ‘cause they let a few broads in I’m gonna quit.’”  When Caz makes flippantly sexist assertions like this, it is more entertaining than anything else, as if his loudly sexist opinions are more a relic than a warning, reminding us how much fun America can be when allowed to be itself.

Fun is the word that chiefly leaps to mind when discussing The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, as its breezily preposterous story (it did not surprise me to learn that the novel this movie is based on is fiction) and its understated comic relief collaborate to make the movie’s 104 minute runtime zip by.  Directed by Joseph Sergeant, a journeyman director who’s biggest credit next to this movie is Jaws: The Revenge, seems to have a deft hand at pacing, though he’s all thumbs when it comes to emotional impact.  If looking for any kind of depth or expression of true emotion, one should probably look elsewhere, but for an exemplary by-the-books heist narrative, there’s hardly one better The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

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Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Review: Paris is Burning (1990)

Paris is Burning (1990)

Documentary

Director: Jennie Livingston

Stars: Brooke Extravaganza, Andre Christian, Dorian Corey and many more

Available on Netflix

Released in 1990, the documentary Paris is Burning offers a brief yet somehow comprehensive look into the “ball” scene in New York as it existed in the 80’s.  “Balls” were events organized by black gay men, and were basically fashion shows for drag queens, though they came to represent so much more.  Having been made “legendary” by its constant reference on Rupaul’s Drag Race, it is easy to discount the movie as an ornament of kitsch, but to do so discounts the film’s value as an emotionally devastating portrait of courage.  Throughout its all-too-brief runtime (71 minutes), Paris offers portraits of both young and aging gay black men who, spurned by a society that shuns them, have found solace by coming together and creating a culture all their own.  This culture, though it may not shield many of these figures from the harsh realities of modern life, shows that everyone, regardless of whether mainstream society can see them or not, can find a way to be everything they want to be.

Earlier in this review’s opening paragraph, I put quotation marks around the word “legendary” because it is one of a variety of terms used frequently in this culture’s special vernacular, and it is meant to signify a level of experience and success in the “ball” circuit.  Early in the film, the “legendary” “mother” of the “house” of Labeija explains the evolution of the New York “ball” scene from a network of drag queen parties into a more-or-less organized competitive circuit, where contestants are judged on everything from fashion and makeup to more subjective determiners like poise and talent.  All of the description of the scene is really just the canvas on which compelling characters are drawn and the audience is let in on the fun of it all.  In one of the most famous and hilarious scenes in the movie, “legendary” “mother” of the “house” of Corey describes the practice of “reading,” perfectly elucidating the way insults delivered are made more effective through the subtleties of performance than the particulars of an insult.

This “mother,” Dorian Corey, is one of the more compelling individuals in the film, constantly powdering his face and speaking in the fatigued voice of a disappointed headmaster.  In his (or her, if you prefer, as I feel that most of the movie’s interviewees would accept either pronoun) tired eyes, we see his knowledge of the hardships that his “children” are sure to face.  These drag queens are forced to join groups or “houses” because many of their families have disowned them, and their most important and long-lasting relationships are now with the other members of their “house,” especially their “mother.”  The fact that pervades every frame of Paris is Burning is that for these drag queens, life is very hard.  The harsh realities of life for these “children” is most exemplified in the frame of Venus Extravaganza, the tiny, lithe and gorgeously cute little 23-year old who is the first to describe his own method of making money, which he calls “hustling” but is in reality thinly disguised prostitution.

Venus is retroactively the movie’s most chilling character, as he was murdered (presumably by a john) two years prior to its release.  The “ball” circuit of Paris is Burning is so important to all its participants precisely because the realities of their lives are so dark, and to escape their own circumstances for a few hours by dressing up and performing in a showcase can seem like the most important thing in their lives.  I consider the drag queens of this terrific little movie heroes, because they are so able to compartmentalize lives of brutal strife, that when they step out on the pageant stage, they can be superstars of the highest order.  As Dorian Corey puts it at the conclusion of the movie, rolling his eyes and sneaking a knowing smirk across his lips, “If you can shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”  This concluding sentiment perfectly illustrates the way that glory in the “ball” scene can be thrilling and exhilarating, but it will not free you from life’s cruel circumstance.

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Review: Paris is Burning (1990)

Movie Review: Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Director: George Armitage

Writer: Tom Mankiewicz (story) Tom Mankiewicz, D.V. DeVicentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack (screenplay)

Actors: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Dan Akroyd

Streaming on Netflix

Thanks in large part to John Cusack’s intensely likable portrayal of a remorseless killing machine, Grosse Point Blank stands as one of the weirdest, funniest, and most entertaining romantic comedies of all time.  Feeling like the inspiration of several coked-up movie executives on a bender (“Let’s put The Killer together with Peggy Sue Got Married”), this movie is pure crackerjack entertainment from start to finish.  For instance, in the same ten minutes, Martin Q. Blank (Cusack) has an emotionally weighted reunion with the love of his life (Minnie Driver), and has an insane gun duel with an eastern European hit man (Benny Urquidez) holding two submachine guns.  The gun duel is far from outstanding, and the romance at times seems preposterous, but when married, these two seemingly oppositional styles of filmmaking combine to paste a wide grin on every viewers’ face.

This movie exists in the (likely heavily fictionalized) world of killers for hire, and as it begins, Martin Q. Blank (Cusack) turns down fellow hit man Grocer’s (Dan Akroyd) proposal to begin a union of contract murderers.  This plot line provides the grist for the action, of which there is plenty, in the movie, but it might have been tiresome were it not for Dan Akroyd’s sensational turn as the villain.  Akroyd exhibits such loud, boorish machismo that in every scene of his he is simply hilarious.  Alan Arkin, another fantastic comic talent from Chicago’s Second City, brings a superb touch to the role of Blank’s psychiatrist Dr. Oatman.  Early in the movie, Arkin and Cusack have a scene together filled with so much perfect timing and comic invention that I almost wish the movie focused purely on the interaction of these two characters.  However, as the movie draws on, the amount of exemplary comic acting becomes simply staggering.

Joan Cusack is exceptional as Blank’s “handler” Marcella, while Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman have some very funny moments as the frustrated NSA agents tracking Blank as he winds his way through the movie’s ludicrous criminal underworld.  All of this, however, is secondary to the movie’s central plot line: Blank’s reunion with Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver), the true love he abandoned ten years earlier on prom night to join the army.  Minnie Driver does her best to create emotional heft in this crazy story, and while I’m not sure how successful she is in making the characters seem emotionally real, she is extremely charming and gives the movie the closest thing it has to an emotional focal point.  Jeremy Piven also makes a notable appearance as Paul Spericki, Blank’s old high school buddy, creating even more laughs and good will in this already stuffed movie.

Everything about Grosse Point Blank exists in a fantasy realm, occurring in a world where everyone has something funny to do or say, and a world where high-paid assassins use two pistols at the same time.  This is a movie that seems made by committee, and judging by the fact that five people get writing credits on it, that is the case.  While in most instances, this would likely be a considerable drawback, for this movie it’s an absolute boon.  By packing the cast with wonderfully adroit comic performers, this movie is able to throw everything it can imagine on screen, confident that the actors will make everything (I use this term loosely) believable.  Every piece of Grosse Point Blank lends itself to a delightful movie watching experience.  The screenplay sizzles with whip-smart joke lines, the action is frenetically silly, and the performances are delightful with each actor putting their own twists on classic tropes.  This movie might have been made in a lab, but it’s a hell of a good time.

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Movie Review: Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Movie Review: Superman 2 (1980)

Superman 2 (1980)

Director: Richard Lester

Writer: Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel (Character created by) Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman (screenplay)

Actors: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Terrence Stamp

Available on Netflix

Superman 2 is in every way I can think of, the best superhero movie that has ever been made.  I hold this to be true despite the frankly paleolithic special effects, the lack of emotional depth, and the hokeyness of the screenplay, because it is fun.  This movie is so fun that when Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his dim-witted henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) escape from their cell using impossibly sophisticated holographic technology, they are lifted from the prison yard in a hot air balloon.  This is plainly ridiculous and fitfully hilarious, yet what is most exemplary about this scene and the movie as a whole is the way that despite the sometimes farcical nature of the events depicted, they are never boring.

This favorite childhood comic book of a movie opens on the trial of the three Kryptonians who will become this movie’s central villains: Non (Jack O’Hallaran), Ursua (Sarah Douglas), and one of the most iconic super villains in movie history, General Zod (Terrence Stamp).  They are banished to float through space forever, imprisoned in a constantly spinning pane of glass.  There is never any explanation of what this prison is exactly, nor why the shockwave created by a French terrorist’s bomb that Superman hurled into space (a long stupid story) frees them from it, but it is this freedom of narrative that is Superman 2’s greatest asset.

In an era where superhero movies seem to get darker every year, Superman 2 is a joy to behold, as are all performances of the movie’s somewhat ham-fisted screenplay.  Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is completely goofy, wearing brightly-colored oversized suits as he talks about his disdain for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Hackman’s Luthor more than twice refers to himself as “the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known.”  While I don’t believe that a great criminal mastermind would go around telling everybody about it, the comic relief  Hackman delivers is the perfect counterpoint to the romance of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).

As the movie begins, Clark pines after Lois from afar, even when the two are sent in disguise as newlyweds to investigate tourism scams at Niagara Falls.  Kidder and Reeve do a splendid job of convincing the audience that their attraction is mutual, and when Clark finally admits that he is Superman, Ms. Lane’s eyes swoon with an unbridled desire.  Seeing Superman and Lois Lane lay next to each other in their marital bed (presumably) having consummated their feelings, the fifteen-year-old boy in everyone jumps for joy.  Joy is the word that first leaps to mind considering Superman 2, as it imbues every frame with childlike laughter.

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Movie Review: Superman 2 (1980)

Film Review: A Bittersweet Life

A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Director: Jee-woon Kim

Writer: Jee-woon Kim

Actors: Byung-hun Lee, Min-a Shin, Yeong-cheoi Kim

I’ve been a fan of Jee-Woon Kim (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), I Saw the Devil (2010)) for years, because his frames all seem packed to the brim with beauty, action, and tense emotion.  It wasn’t until recently that I watched A Bittersweet Life (2005), Kim’s dark and gorgeous gangster tragedy, and I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done.  Kim here takes a more-or-less standard revenge plot and without tinkering with its mechanics too much, creates a spectacular and punishing journey, one filled with elegantly staged action scenes and a breathtaking color palette.

The film opens on Byung-Hun Lee stalking down a gorgeous, severely lit hallway, wearing a face made for business.  Lee’s performance is masterful, revealing his character as a master of all things deadly, coming to hate his world and everything it stands for.  This character, Sun-woo, opens the movie dripping with panache.  His gaze, which is like steel yet unaccountably soft, betrays a seemingly impossible level of expertise.  He dispatches foes quickly, barely breaking a sweat.  What makes Byung-Hun’s performance remarkable and acutely emotional is the fear in his eyes, and the way that this fear is proven to be truly justified.

Sun-woo’s fear is proven necessary as throughout the film he is beaten, stabbed, hung by his wrists, buried alive, and shot repeatedly.  All of this happens in some of the most captivating and visually enthralling action sequences I’ve ever seen.  The film’s director, Jee-Woon Kim has a gift for finding ways to make what could be simply brutal and horrifying, and using his flair to create entrancing visual details.  One of these scenes, in which Sun-woo fends off a gang of toughs with a flaming two-by-four that explodes in sparks every time it hits someone is impossible to forget (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imqiuSOYVzs).  This sequence alone is so masterful it could deserve its own essay, delving into its use of motion and rhythm, but the film is full of scenes that match it.

All of this visual artistry and intense excitement would mean nothing, of course, if the performances weren’t all as exemplary as they are.  Min-a Shin, as the films only female role, embodies her character with hopeless depression, and Oh Dai-su, as the central villain’s main henchman, brings truly pitiless, smiling sadism to his part.  Both of these performances are exceptional, but it is Yeong-cheoi Kim, as the film’s true central villain, that brings emotionless, typical evil into his character.  Watching his dead eyes as he stands over his victim is truly chilling  All of these spectacular and horrifying elements make A Bittersweet Life the best action film of a decade or more, and one not to be missed.

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Film Review: A Bittersweet Life