The Classics – “John Wick”

So, I’m going to review more classics from various directors and franchises, leading to their successors. On that note, let’s about 2014’s sleeper hit “John Wick.”

HEAVY SPOILER WARNING! IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED “JOHN WICK,” DON’T READ THIS REVIEW.

Keanu Reeves plays the recently widowed John Wick. After losing his wife to cancer, he receives an adorable puppy as a posthumous gift from her. The warm times between Wick and his puppy are cut short when a group of young thugs led by Yusef (Alfie Allen) break into Wick’s house, kill the puppy, and steal his car.

The thugs learn the hard way that they screwed with the wrong guy since Wick is a retired hitman nicknamed The Boogeyman. The body count rises when Yusef’s father and Wick’s former boss, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) gets involved.

The theatrical trailer made “John Wick” look like a generic revenge movie. I’m guilty as charged for being snobby because this is one of the best action films of the 2010’s.

“John Wick” takes an unconventional approach to the action genre by combining Neo-Noir narrative with both Spaghetti Western and Hong Kong action aesthetics, making it a refreshing departure from “Taken” rip-offs. This is a movie where assassins are in a league with their own hotel and currency. While we don’t have all the answers to the questions about this world, “John Wick: Chapter 2” might have these answers.

There’s a darkly funny mythology behind Wick. Bouncers are afraid of him, a chop shop owner (John Leguizamo) and Viggo both slap Yusef for stealing his car, and a particular cleaner (David Patrick Kelly) is honored to cover up Wick’s killings. He’s clearly a forced to be reckoned with.

David Leitch and Chad Stahelski made their directorial debut with “John Wick,” having a background as stuntmen for Hollywood action movies. The duo brilliantly choreographs the film’s action sequences, and focus on the actors rather than the camera work. There isn’t a single sloppy shot to disguise the actor’s poor athleticism. Instead, all shots are smooth and clear, as we watch impressive stunt-work.

The best action sequence involves Wick pursuing Yusef through a night club and shooting several bad guys with great innovation. There’s some additional morbid humor when Wick uses one man’s beard as a grip and takes a moment to reload before executing another baddie. Backed by slick visuals and a kinetic soundtrack, this shootout is the highlight.

Reeves has a divided reception; audiences and critics have both praised and criticized him for his laidback acting style. His style suits him well in the titular role. Reeves has little dialogue, but his facial expressions and a particularly angry monologue show that Reeves is best as an action star.

If you want a good action movie that focuses on world building and honors actors’ stunt work, “John Wick” is one to watch. Let’s just hope “John Wick: Chapter 2” maintains the same positive attributes.

Grade: A-

Advertisements

“Nocturnal Animals”

You can’t beat two movies for the price of one. Especially when they’re within one, are gorgeous and dark, and have the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal. “Nocturnal Animals” is that movie.

In “Nocturnal Animals,” Gyllenhaal plays Edward. He’s a romantic writer who sends his ex-wife Susan (Amy Adams) a manuscript of his new novel. It’s a dark and violent novel, which the troubled Susan interprets as a threat on her life.

In “Nocturnal Animals,” Gyllenhaal also plays Tony, the novel’s protagonist. He finds himself in a brutal game of cat-and-mouse with a deranged serial killer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who murders Tony’s wife and daughter. A seasoned detective (Michael Shannon) takes pity on Tony and helps him seek revenge.

“Nocturnal Animals” is an ambitious, twisted, and beautiful psychological thriller from fashion designer Tom Ford. The movie has Ford’s name all over it, due to the glamorous costumes and mise-en-scene. Ford also demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the Southern Gothic and Film Noir genres within Tony’s story.

Tony’s story is unsettling to watch. We see a timid, naive family man go over the edge when his family is taken from him. Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is a villain from a Flannery O’Connor story. He’s trashy, yet charismatic. Shannon’s Detective Andes is the scene stealer. He’s a dying detective who no longer cares about the law, but rather his own justice.

Susan and Edward’s story is a tragic melodrama, reminiscent of “Blue Valentine.” We see they were a passionate young couple that tore themselves apart due to their egos and ambitions. Sadly, for a story about someone interpreting a book as a threat, there isn’t much intensity.

All of Susan’s reading scenes are redundant. She cringes, rubs her eyes together, and pours a drink. But she doesn’t once lock her door or buy a gun. The cinematography doesn’t even hint at any danger.

There are also a few solid supporting actors in Susan’s story, including Michael Sheen, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, and Jena Malone, but they all well-dressed exposition tools to help us understand Susan’s misery.

Gyllenhaal easily has the best performance, playing two different characters with things in common. Both Tony and Edward are handsome romantics, who lose everything they love and handle it in a dark manner.

Ford has an eye for detail, and it shows in both segments. If you pay close attention to Susan’s appearance, a parked car in the background of Edward and Susan’s main confrontation, and Edward’s back story, these are all carried over to Tony’s story. It’s subtle.

I admired “Nocturnal Animals” for its duality. Sure, it’s uneven, but that’s forgivable.

Grade (Tony’s story): A

Grade (Susan and Edward’s story): C

Grade (overall): B

“The Nice Guys”

Shane Black, please write and direct more often. Russell Crowe, please do more action movies. Ryan Gosling, please, please, PLEASE do more comedies!

“The Nice Guys” is a buddy comedy (it is from the guy behind “Lethal Weapon” and “Kiss Kiss, Bang, Bang”), and takes place in the 1970’s. Crowe plays a wannabe-cop named Jackson Healy; Healy’s trying to find purpose in life and settles for being muscle-for-hire. Gosling is a bumbling private detective named Holland March. March is so burned out on life, that he’s fine drinking rather than working.

Healy and March collide after Healy orders March to drop his case in searching for a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), but quickly partners with March when he’s violently confronted about Amelia’s whereabouts. This leads to both bloody and funny encounters with porn stars, hired guns, politicians, and auto dealers.

“The Nice Guys” is one of the best and funniest movies so far of this year. Like Black’s other movies, it’s filled with highly quotable dialogue (I’m going to be saying, “I’m invincible,” for a while), great physical humor (Gosling willingly throws himself off ledges), and an intriguingly cynical plot.

The movie isn’t just set in the 70’s, it looks and feels like a New-Hollywood film. The score is disco-heavy, the cinematography looks like grainy film stock, and the set pieces and characters are all sleazy. Healy and March are both anti-heroes, but their backstory and dynamic personalities keep “The Nice Guys” going.

Healy knows he’s a bad person and wants to find redemption. March denies being a terrible person while continuing to do terrible things. There is heart in this movie! Like all of Shane Black’s movies, there’s a kid who acts as the adults’ good conscience. That’s Hollie (Angourie Rice), March’s daughter, who bonds with Healy.

I’m not going into further detail about the plot or the humor, but I’ll say that if you’re going to see a movie that’s out right now, see “The Nice Guys!” They don’t make them like this anymore.

Grade: A

“True Detective” – Season 2

DISCLAIMER – I mainly review movies, but I make an exception for mini-series such as “True Detective” since they’re essentially longer movies.

I wish I could say “True Detective” was as brilliant this year as last year. If you guys haven’t seen season one, it featured Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Southern detectives investigating a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. It was unpredictable, artistic, innovative, and featured the best work from both Harrelson and McConaughey.

This season trades in mythical Louisiana swamps and backwoods for an industrial and deteriorating city outside Los Angeles. Colin Farrell is the corrupt alcoholic detective, Ray Velcoro, Rachel MacAdams is the debauched Sheriff’s Department investigator, Ani Bezzerides, and Taylor Kitsch is the traumatized ex-soldier Highway Patrolman, Paul Woodraugh. They’re assembled together to investigate the murder of a businessman linked to European gangsters and a reformed criminal-turned-businessman named Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn).

Each of the detectives are in the case for different reasons. Ray is pressured by his more crooked superiors and Frank (Ray is Frank’s enforcer) to solve the murder and cover up his department’s involvement, Ani is put in charge due to rank, and Paul is enlisted to avoid a scandal involving a young actress. Trust issues ensue among the four characters as they uncover shady business deals, a mob-hosted sex party, and the truth behind a rare bag of diamonds.

Let’s start with the positives of “True Detective” this season – Rachel MacAdams delivers a raw and badass performance, Taylor Kitsch proves he’s one of the most dedicated actors of his generation, and the soundtrack packs a deeper narrative.

Singer Lera Lynn wrote and performed several songs for this season and each song tells us something about the characters and the world they’re in. T-Bone Burnett returns as head composer with a synthesizer-heavy score that emphasizes the Neo-Noir style.

This season also features some of the craziest and bloody gunfights I’ve seen in any TV show or movie, including one in episode 4 that’s strongly reminiscent of Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995). However, this is where criticisms come in. The shootouts escalate out of nowhere and seem like Pizzolatto’s trying to outdo season 1’s craziest moments.

Let’s talk Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn here – they’re both clearly trying to deliver this season and both actors have some solid moments this season, but they’re both given the show’s worst dialogue that’s on par with “Star Wars: Episode I” level of quality. “Don’t do anything out of hunger, even eat.” –Vince Vaughn as Frank.

“Twelve years old my ass… fuck you.” –Colin Farrell as Ray.

Yeah, I’m just as flabbergasted as you are. The show also suffers from several genre cliches, pacing issues, and uncertainties with direction. The pacing and direction is likely attributed to the show having several different directors this season, as opposed to last (Cary Fukanaga directed all of season one).

The cliches are all painful and overdone with Ray as the cop who’s embraced corruption (like Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey in “LA Confidential (1997)) and Ani portrayed as a sexually troubled cop with a dysfunctional family (this has been seen with too many female detective characters to name).

SPOILER ALERT – It was no shock that these two would somehow fall for each other abruptly by the end.

MORE SPOILERS

The way Pizzolatto portrays women and homosexuals is tasteless and amateur here. Ani and her sister are both kinky due to a traumatic encounter in their childhood? Paul is a closeted homosexual with an incestuous mother? Frank’s wife does nothing but act concern for him? This all looks like Pizzolatto read half a page of a human sexuality textbook and wrote his few notes into the script.

The biggest disappointment though is the ending. The revelation of the killer isn’t epic or shocking, but rather anti-climactic and quickly resolved before turning back to the corruption story. I wanted to know more about the killer, dammit!

I mean, I’m all for trying something new with anthologies, but execution matters. This just wasn’t well executed as it could have been.

Grade: C