Talking Movies

April 28, 2019

Keanu Reeves at the Lighthouse

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 1:44 pm
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The Lighthouse cinema is gearing up for something called Keanurama, a whole season of films starring the inimitable Keanu Reeves. Talking Movies‘ reaction to this news could only be captured by one word – whoa.

There is a veritable feast of Keanu Reeves on offer here, from his team-ups with Winona Ryder in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Scanner Darkly and Destination Wedding to his 1990s-defining action movies Point Break and Speed, from his indie classics River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho to his mainstream hits Parenthood and Devil’s Advocate, from his original breakthrough Bill & Ted movies to his recent John Wick comeback trilogy.

John Wick & John Wick: Chapter 2 DOUBLE BILL

May 10th

Keanu had three movies (Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi) that didn’t make Irish cinemas but made one hell of a comeback as the principled hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, the larger underworld, and the small town he retired to. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick as he rampaged after the mobsters who killed his puppy. The flabby sequel expanded the Man from UNCLE-like Continental universe too much, but featured some memorable fights; especially the Wellesian throwdown with Ruby Rose.

Destination Wedding

May 10th

Fellows 1990s icon and latterly cinematic exile Winona Ryder made her great comeback in Stranger Things in 2016 so it was only fitting that she would reunite for a third time with Keanu in this 2018 rom-com by Mad About You writer /director Victor Levin about two misanthropes travelling to a hopelessly pretentious destination wedding and being lumbered with each other there. In a curious twist it seems that this film, just like 2017’s similarly themed rom-com Table 19 about the people you invite to weddings and seat far away to avoid them, hides some very formalist experimentation behind innocuous trappings.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

May 10th

Keanu and Winona’s first film together saw them gamely battle with cut-glass English accents as married couple Jonathan and Mina Harker for Francis Ford Coppola’s curate’s egg of a horror movie, that aspires to great fidelity to its source text even as screenwriter James V Hart makes sweeping inventions about reincarnated immortal beloveds so that Gary Oldman’s rejuvenating Count can lust over Winona. Roman Coppola rummages thru the Old Hollywood playbook for practical magic, and Sadie Frost and Monica Bellucci go all out for eroticism, but despite an impressive ensemble (including Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) this never catches fire.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

May 15th

Legendary hit-man and lover of dogs John Wick is excommunicado, having conducted business on Continental property. Now Ian McShane has given Keanu one hour’s grace in which he must fight his way out of New York with a $14 million contract on his life and every assassin in the Five Boroughs eager to collect. The production photo of a besuited Keanu riding a horse thru NYC has already taken on a life of its own, and we’re promised an equally tantalising samurai sword fight on motorbikes, as well as a detour to Africa with ally Halle Berry.

Speed 35mm

May 25th

Die Hard cinematographer Jan De Bont made an auspicious directorial debut with this high-concept action blockbuster about a mad bomber targeting an LA bus that has to stay above 50mph in a city known for its congestion. The leads Keanu and Sandra Bullock strike sparks, Jeff Daniels and Joe Morton are terrific in support, and Dennis Hopper chews the scenery as the crazed bomber – sorry, he’s not crazy, “poor people are crazy, Jack, I’m eccentric” – delivering witticisms from the pen of Joss Whedon. Mark Mancina’s score is a triumph of urgency and elation as Keanu attempts to save the day.

A Scanner Darkly 35mm

June 1st

Richard Linklater adapted Philip K Dick’s hallucinogenic novel using his favoured animation technique, rotoscoping, to create a uniquely hellish new world in which an undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug and begins to lose his own identity as a result. Keanu is said cop, and he’s romancing Winona Ryder in their second film together. But she, and indeed everyone else, may not be what they seem as the drugs start to take hold. A pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr is very, very funny in his role as a rambling, voluble, paranoid junkie.

Parenthood

June 5th

Director Ron Howard bade farewell to the 1980s with this ensemble comedy led by Steve Martin dealing with his ever-expanding Midwestern American family. The impressive cast includes Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rick Moranis. Keanu stretches his comedic muscles as Tod, the not too bright but thoroughly amiable boyfriend to Martin’s fiery oldest daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton), a small but memorable turn. It’s tempting to draw a direct line from Keanu’s performance here to that of Reid Ewing as Dylan, the nice but dim boyfriend to the eldest Dunphy daughter in this current decade’s defining sitcom Modern Family.

River’s Edge

June 7th

Keanu and Dennis Hopper co-star again in a far more sombre movie than Speed. A group of high school friends including Keanu, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover, and Roxana Zal must come to terms with the fact that one of their gang, Daniel Roebuck, has unapologetically killed his girlfriend. This look at the private lives of teenagers; their misdemeanours, code of honour, betrayals; consciously courted controversy by basing the grim tale on a real-life occurrence in California. This is one of Keanu’s earliest roles, agonised and soulful, in a haunting and pitch-black 80s teen drama that almost seems to have invited Heathers.

The Devil’s Advocate

June 14th

Keanu’s up and coming Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax accepts a high-powered position at a New York law firm headed by legal shark John Milton (Al Pacino). Meanwhile, Keanu’s wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron in her first Hollywood iteration) begins to have frightening hallucinations warping her sense of reality. Kevin quickly learns that his mentor’s life isn’t about simply winning court cases without scruples. Pacino and Connie Nielsen have something far darker in mind. Pacino literally being the Devil in this gaudy thriller featuring creatures by the legendary Rick Baker; he of the lycanthropic transformations in An American Werewolf in London.

My Own Private Idaho

June 18th

Writer/director Gus Van Sant followed up his hit Drugstore Cowboy with a far looser movie featuring one of Keanu’s most nuanced performances and an affecting turn by River Phoenix. This key work of the New Queer Cinema follows two street hustlers, Phoenix’s Mike and Keanu’s Scott, as they embark on a road-trip from Portland, Oregon to Mike’s hometown in Idaho, and then eventually to Rome in search of Mike’s mother.  All the while Scott Favor has no intention of leading this street life forever. Van Sant incorporates Henry IV better than you’d believe possible with Keanu as bisexual Hal.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

June 21st

Bill S Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu) are in danger of failing their history final most heinously. This will result in Ted’s disciplinarian cop father sending him to military school. And that would be the end of Wyld Stallyns, the band the pair are trying to make into an MTV sensation despite a total lack of musical ability. It turns out, as Rufus (George Carlin), a dude from the future tells them, it would be the end of the world too. And so comedic time-travelling and borrowing historical figures ensues to ace the history final!

 

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

June 22nd

Keanu’s major sequel problem (John Wick: Chapter 2, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and being blacklisted by 20th Century Fox for passing on Speed 2) began with this bogus journey. William Sadler is sublime as the Grim Reaper, straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and crummy at Battleship. There is some wonderful set design, but, despite multiple robot versions of our heroes and more time-travelling and time-travel fuzzy logic than you can shake a stick at, this just isn’t as much goofy good-natured fun as its underdog predecessor. Third time’s the charm next year dude?

So first you watch one film with us, and then you watch another film with us, right after?

Bill & Ted DOUBLE BILL

June 23rd

WHOA! Two heads are better than one dude!

“Will you be at this party?” “Definitely.”

Point Break 4th July Party

July 6th

“Vaya Con Dios…”

Point Break

July 11th

Keanu leads this hybrid undercover cop in too deep/surfing/action heist/bromance Point Break with alternately lyrical and muscular direction from Kathryn Bigelow and a script polish by James Cameron. A string of bank robberies in Southern California where the villains disguise themselves as former US presidents sees hot-shot FBI agent and former college football star Johnny Utah (Keanu) assigned the dead-end case and Gary Busey’s gruff veteran. Keanu and Busey realise their crazy theory is correct – these bank-robbers are surfers! Keanu goes undercover, and romances Lori Petty’s surfer while growing closer to the gang’s leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Will he arrest him?

And coming directly after all that is the 20th anniversary re-release of … The Matrix.

April 10, 2015

John Wick

 

Keanu Reeves is John Wick, a retired hit-man who finds himself drawn into conflict with his former employer after a senseless act of random violence.

john-wick-keanu

Wick is grieving for the death of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), the woman for whom he turned his back on his lethal profession. After the funeral he receives an unexpected final gift from Helen, an adorable puppy to keep him company in their spacious New Jersey home. And Wick keeps his grief together; until a random encounter with Iosef (Alfie Allen) leads to the theft of his beloved 68 Mustang and the murder of his dog. Iosef has no idea why his father, Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), is so upset about his extracurricular activities, until he’s told that Wick used to be Viggo’s go-to assassin… After a botched attempt to resolve things Wick arrives in NYC, checking in at hit-man central, The Continental, to prepare to exact vengeance. And before you can say RAMPAGE! things escalate.

Don’t call it a comeback! Okay, maybe call it a comeback. 47 Ronin wasn’t truly released, it escaped, so this is the first Keanu movie to properly hit Irish screens since The Private Lives of Pippa Lee in 2009, and it puts him really properly back in the game. Reuniting with his Matrix stunt team was an inspired move, as co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make a terrific debut with this lean, mean action flick. Their DP Jonathan Sela has made terrible films look glossy so it must be a relief to lend a washed-out colour palette and slick visuals to a good film, while writer Derek Kolstad ups his game substantially from his resume of Dolph Lundgren vehicles. There’s even a redemptive cameo from Matrix Reloaded watchmaker Randall Duk Kim as a doctor patching up wounded John Wick.

And as well as Kim, Reloaded agent Daniel Bernhardt appears, and finally gets to fight Neo; although neither of their two punishing clashes reaches the brutal heights of his Parker tangle with the State. Kim is the in-house doctor of the Continental, where Lance Reddick is the attentive concierge and Ian McShane the civilised owner. The Continental is straight out of The Man from UNCLE, like many moments in this movie (such as Thomas Sadoski’s cameo) where delirious silliness is played perfectly straight. These hit-men, from Marcus (Willem Dafoe), to Harry (Clarke Peters), to Ms Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), are all remarkably civilised; Wick in particular seems universally beloved as a stand-up guy. Viggo amusingly seems to lose his mind from stress as the movie proceeds, powered by rumbling, aggressive music from Tyler Bates and (in another Matrix nod) Marilyn Manson.

John Wick is a total fantasy action flick, with self-referential nods to Keanu’s past, deliriously silly conceits, headshots as continuous as a computer game, and judo that’s a joy to watch in properly edited and framed sequences. But it’s almost shocking what a relief it is to see such competence after the likes of Captain America 2. The early scenes of Wick grieving are conveyed with a montage of telling images. Staggeringly this seems super-cinematic, like some rediscovery of Eisenstein, because we’ve reached a nadir of clunky-as-you-like-it exposition. The shot of Wick with sympathisers in his house after the funeral, followed by a shot of how he’s alone in the house after they leave, is a perfect communication in a few seconds of a lived reality that many films these days would agonise over with three pages of redundant dialogue.

It would be churlish not to award John Wick 5 stars if Birdman received 5; because, while Birdman has a flaw (in the shape of Lindsay Duncan’s caricatured critic) that does not matter, there are no flaws in the execution of John Wick’s ambitions.

5/5

November 19, 2013

Potentials: Francis Lawrence

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to argue the case for Francis Lawrence having the potential to be a great director of the future.

Francis-Lawrence-Camera

Who the hell is Francis Lawrence? Glad you asked. Francis Lawrence is the director of ConstantineI Am Legend and Water for Elephants. He came from music videos, just like David Fincher. He had a happier initial time of it in mainstream commercial movies than Fincher’s Alien 3 nightmare debut, even if the ending of I Am Legend got completely changed in post-production on him, but it appears that that bruising experience was enough to send him into mini-exile. Lawrence took some time after I Am Legend before helming another movie. Before 2011 IMDb at one point listed him as being involved in developing 7 different projects simultaneously – all with the same proposed release date… While this exercise in development hell or development indecision was going on in Hollywood, Lawrence turned to TV; directing Ian McShane in the drama Kings, a modern re-telling of the rise of King David in the Torah. Kings was inevitably cancelled and so Lawrence hitched a lift on the Twilight bandwagon with 2011’s period romance Like Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

I’m a bigger fan of Lawrence’s three films than most. I’d rate Constantine as Keanu’s best film since The Matrix, at that time. I’d rank I Am Legend very highly as an exercise in suspense, until the dog dies and everything goes to pieces. And I actually think Water for Elephants is a good film, despite its critical mauling. But more importantly I think all three films display some qualities that bode well for Lawrence really imposing his style on Hollywood. Water for Elephants is as measured in its pacing as Lawrence’s previous two films, even if it seems a world away in content. In an age of action editing that reduces everything to a CGI Impressionist swirl, Lawrence is willing to hold shots, wring the suspense out of his sequences, and make the geography of action legible. But his liking for restrained CGI in his two blockbusters explains the joy he found in working with animals, his visual style does convey magic at times; even managing to impart beauty into night-vistas glimpsed from the train which are obviously CGI.

Another strong point derived from his liking for sustained shots and measured sequences is that he has a neat eye for framing, a skill declining rapidly in a world of steadicam. And framing to a large extent is what lies behind an ability to do stomach-churning suspense that Hitchcock would have appreciated. Just think of the expert lengthening of the shadows when Will Smith is suspended in a street with vampire dogs waiting to rip into him when he falls into shade. Lawrence also has a genuine skill for getting fine performances from his actors, especially in supporting roles. Jim Norton is genuinely affecting in what should be a walking cliché of a role in Water for Elephants, much as pre-Oscar Tilda Swinton made her mere handful of scenes immense in Constantine. Then there’s villains…

Lawrence does villains exceedingly well. Christoph Waltz’s August in Water for Elephants is as nuanced a villain as previous Lawrence antagonists. Socrates says that no man would knowingly do evil. Gabriel in Constantine thought she was doing good, that mankind was not worthy of the gift of salvation and needed to be truly tested. The vampires in I Am Legend are the next evolution of humanity, they have bonds of kinship and leaders that motivate their actions. August is a man desperate to escape the Great Depression by pushing his animals and performers, and when he whips the elephant he is overcome with remorse, and offers all his whisky to soothe her wounds as well as explaining that he was enraged by his wife’s endangerment. The fact that we see August commit animal cruelty but only hear about him red-lighting people makes his end rage seem like an Othello-like product of jealousy rather than motiveless malignity. The subtlety of August’s portrayal was not obvious from the trailer. And even Touch, the unloved Kiefer Sutherland TV show had a pilot directed by Lawrence in which Titus Welliver’s villain was revealed to be a damaged hero rather than a true villain. Lawrence didn’t write that, but it’s hard not to think that such a reveal attracted him to Tim Kring’s script. Such an ability to invest villains with real complexity is unusual, and it would be refreshing to see it in a blockbuster where another quality he’s displayed finds a natural home. If August’s nuances were not obvious from the trailer for Water for Elephants then neither was the chasteness, a few stolen kisses, of the romance between Jacob and Marlene until they literally jump. It echoes the chaste relationships in Constantine and I Am Legend, and it seems tailor-made for PG-13-land…

Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire is Lawrence’s next movie, and it’s out on Thursday, with Lawrence already committed to directing its two sequels. I think Lawrence has the potential to be a future great. Whether he realises that potential is largely down to whether he’s brought his skills truly to bear on his greatest opportunity.

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