Talking Movies

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.

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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

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January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

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(10) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer triumphantly linked X-ensembles as Wolverine time-travelled from a Sentinels-devastated future to 1973 to prevent Mystique assassinating Bolivar Trask and being captured by Stryker. X-2 vim was displayed in Quicksilver’s mischievous Pentagon jail-break sequence, J-Law imbued Mystique with a new swagger as a deadly spy, and notions of time itself course-correcting any meddling fascinated. The pre-emptive villainy of Fassbender’s young Magneto seemed excessive, but it didn’t prevent this being superb.

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(9) The Guest

Dan Stevens was preposterously charismatic as demobbed soldier David who ‘helped’ the Peterson family with their problems while director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett riffed on Dominik Moll and Stephen King archetypes. Wingard edited with whoops, Stephen Moore’s synth combined genuine feeling with parody, ultraviolent solutions to Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe)’s problems were played deliriously deadpan, a military grudge-match was staged with flair: all resulted in a cinema of joyousness.

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(8) Mystery Road

Writer/director Ivan Sen’s measured procedural almost resembled an Australian Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aaron Pedersen’s dogged Detective Jay Swan battled official indifference as well as suspicion from his own community as he investigated an Aboriginal teenager’s death. Strong support, from Tamsa Walton as his estranged wife and Hugo Weaving as a cop engaged in some dodgy dealings, kept things absorbing until a climactic and startlingly original gun-battle and a stunning final image.

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(7) In Order of Disappearance

Nils (Stellan Skarsgaard), snow-plougher and newly-minted citizen of the year, embarks on a killing spree when authorities deem his son’s murder an accident. Nils’ executions accidentally spark all-out war between the Serbian gang of demoralized Papa (Bruno Ganz) and the Norwegian gang of self-pitying and stressed-out vegan The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen). Punctuated by McDonaghian riffs on the welfare state and Kosovo provocations, this brutal fun led to a perfectly daft ending.

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(6) Frank

Director Lenny Abrahamson loosened up for Jon Ronson’s frequently hilarious tale of oddball musicians. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon joined the band of benevolent melodist Frank (Michael Fassbender wearing a giant head) and scary obscurantist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Great comedy was wrung from Jon viewing writing hit music as a means to fortune and glory, but then affecting drama when music was revealed as the only means by which damaged souls Frank and Clara could truly connect.

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(5) Begin Again

Once director John Carney delivered a feel-good movie as Mark Ruffalo’s desperate record executive took a chance on a guerilla recording approach when he discovered British troubadour Keira Knightley performing in a bar. The Ruffalo was on glorious shambling form, and was matched by an exuberant Knightley; who in many scenes seemed to be responding to comic ad-libbing by James Corden as her college friend. Carney was surprisingly subversively structurally, perfectly matched Gregg Alexander’s upbeat music to sunny NYC locations, and stunt-casted wonderfully with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s sell-out ex.

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(4) Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s wondrously ambiguous thriller saw Tom (Dolan) bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from mother Agathe (Lise Roy); but exactly why Guillaume had elided Francis’ existence, and why Francis needed Tom to stay at the remote Quebec farm, remained murky. Dolan showed off subtly; the lurid colours getting brighter during an ever-darkening monologue in a bar; and flashily; expressionistly changing screen format during violent scenes; and deliriously; a transgressive tango on a nearly professional standard dance-floor unexpectedly hidden in a barn.

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(3) Gone Girl

David Fincher turned in a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing it flew by. Ben Affleck’s everyman found himself accused of murdering his icy wife Rosamund Pike. Only twin sister and spiky voice of reason Carrie Coon stood by him as circumstantial evidence and media gaffes damned him. Fincher, particularly in parallel reactions to a TV interview, brought out black comedy that made this a satire on trial by media, while, from fever dreams of arresting beauty to grand guignol murder and business with a hammer, making this material his own.

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(2) Dallas Buyers Club

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee drew incredibly committed performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in this harrowing drama. McConaughey wasted away before our eyes as Ron Woodroof, an archetypal good ole boy diagnosed with HIV, who reacted to his terminal diagnosis with total denial before smuggling drugs. Leto matched McConaughey’s transformation as transvestite Rayon, who sought oblivion in heroin, even as he helped Woodroof outwit the FDA via the titular group. This was an extremely moving film powered by Woodroof and Rayon’s friendship, beautifully played from initial loathing to brotherly love.

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(1) Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s dazzling technical achievement in pulling off a twelve-year shoot was equalled by the finished film’s great heart. The life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen in Texas with mother Patricia Arquette, sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and weekend dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) was followed in seamless transitions with teasing misdirection and subtle reveals. Child performances that began in comedy grew thru shocking scenes to encompass depth of feeling. Hawke gave a wonderful performance of serious comedy, Arquette grew older but not wiser, and Linklater was richly novelistic in revealing how surface facades belied the truth about characters and personality formation defied self-analysis. Watching Boyhood is to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

September 4, 2014

The Guest

Dan Stevens cuts loose from Downton Abbey in impressive style as the preposterously charismatic titular stranger who causes well-intentioned chaos.

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Clean-cut demobilised soldier David (Stevens) visits the Petersons at their rural home. He introduces himself to Laura (Sheila Kelley) as a member of her dead son’s army unit; tasked with delivering a personal message of her son’s love for his family. Laura promptly invites him to stay, against the protests of her husband Spencer (Leland Orser). Spencer, however, is soon won over by the polite veteran, who tackles the bullies tormenting his youngest son Luke (Brendan Meyer), and charms the friends of daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). Anna suspects David is not what he seems, despite her attraction to him after she’s forced by her mother to take him to a party. Following some puzzling incidents with her boyfriend Zeke (Chase Williamson) and friend Craig (Joel David Moore) she contacts David’s old commander Major Carver (Lance Reddick). Not a good idea…

Directed and edited by Adam Wingard from a script by Simon Barrett, your feelings towards their last collaboration You’re Next will likely determine your enjoyment of The Guest. I loved You’re Next and so regard The Guest as a triumph of joyous film-making from David’s opening cross-country running being interrupted by comically ominous music and title card font. Wingard loves editing scenes with an almost audible whoop; lingering moments with romantic music that should play on are unceremoniously cut short. As regards music, DP Robby Baumgartner makes the film look far glossier than its budget should allow, but Stephen Moore’s music is exceptional. His synth score wondrously combines genuine feeling with total parody, without losing impact, and Wingard even sets up two delightful moments of endogenous music. Sure, you’ve seen this type of story before, but not quite like this.

Wingard and Barrett seem to be riffing on Domink Moll’s Harry, He’s here to help every bit as much as American high-school horror archetypes from Stephen King. David’s solution to problems usually involves ultra-violence, but it’s played with such glorious deadpan that it becomes deliriously enjoyable, and Stevens gets priceless moments throughout. Bret Easton Ellis criticised You’re Next for its twist, and the twist here is a bit silly; but then it’s more or less reneged on, on grounds of illogic, so it doesn’t matter. And the end of this Hallowe’en sort of horror story is perfectly set up: a big showdown in a great location, with our heroine Anna (Monroe coming across as Gwen Stefani via Leelee Sobieksi) coming into her archetypal own as she tries to stay one step ahead of David and Major Carver’s escalating homicidal duel.

The Guest is a high-risk gamble that would fail spectacularly if its leading man was not on fire. Luckily for us all Stevens burns the screen with a Tom Hiddleston as Loki level performance.

4/5

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