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 2, 2015

Birdman

Michael Keaton makes a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s major change of pace from fractured chronology and introspective misery to faux-classical unities and backstage shenanigans.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was Birdman. In his own mind he still is. The film starts with him levitating in his dressing room while a growling voice in his head argues with him. But Birdman III was released in 1992. The aged Thomson is trying to salvage some respectability by staging his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ on Broadway. A happy accident sees his leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) introduce her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton) to the cast; and ticket sales take off – to the joy of Thomson’s attorney/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). All Riggan has to do is keep his drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) on the straight and narrow as his PA, negotiate the hurdle of an unexpected pregnancy with girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), raise extra money to pay for the star attraction that is Broadway legend Mike, oh, and try not to murder Broadway legend Mike…

It’s not often a movie gets released on New Year’s Day that looks to be the best movie of that year, but Birdman is a good bet to pull off that feat. There is a lot to talk about with Birdman that’s unusual: whether it be Antonio Sanchez’s exclusively percussion score that quickly becomes adorable and only yields to strings when Keaton becomes Birdman, or Inarritu’s conceit of filming the movie as one single long-take that collapses time at certain points in order to trace some crucial days leading up to opening night of Riggan’s play. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work is spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion but the time-lapses make you wonder why doing one long-take made more sense than simply four long-takes. I have a sneaking suspicion that the need to show off so spectacularly in cinematic terms is because it hides the theatrical concerns of the script.

Inarritu and his co-writers Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, and Nicolas Giacabone have constructed a back-stage tale that mixes comedy and drama with aplomb. Keaton and Norton are transparently playing with their own personae, and having the time of their life doing it, but the hilarity of Mike’s preening self-regard and Riggan’s crises of confidence are balanced by their arguments over the nature of what they do. Lindsay Duncan’s ridiculous critic Tabitha wants to take Riggan down to score off Hollywood fakes who can’t act and aren’t interested in learning the technique needed to triumph on Broadway. And yet, for all Riggan’s critique of her reviews as being lacking in any dissection of technique, Riggan himself shares many of her concerns that cinema has left him behind because he is interested in exploring truth and the human condition. He fears maybe Mike is right that such concerns now only exist in the theatre, and only if someone like Mike is there to attract crowds and provide protection against poison-pen reviews.

Birdman is interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time is enough to overcome any quibbles.

5/5

October 23, 2010

John Gabriel Borkman

Alan Rickman stars as the eponymous disgraced banker in Ibsen’s 1896 play that resonates unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland.

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An icy atmosphere is established from the first sight of Tom Pye’s set, a drawing-room with two walls bordered on two sides by snow-drifts that the flowing dresses of the actresses drag onto the drawing room floor. I’m not sure what Henrik Ibsen the high-priest of naturalist theatre would have made of this, but it visually conveys the frozen emotions and lives of the central characters, and allows for a spectacular set-change in the first act as one set of walls drops down from above while the extant walls head upwards. In this bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) listens to the endless pacing upstairs of her detested husband John Gabriel Borkman. Her brooding is interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of another nemesis, her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan), who has come to win back the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea), who she raised after the scandal of Borkman’s criminal trial and subsequent bankruptcy and imprisonment.

For the most part this is a three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Tony and Olivier winner Duncan is icily commanding as the driven Ella who forces the Borkmans out of their stasis. Shaw is occasionally histrionic but she makes the alternating rage and self-pity of her character utterly convincing. Rickman is wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which are funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” In support Talking Movies favourite Rea has a surprisingly minor part as Erhart, whose infatuation with Cathy Belton’s older Mrs Wilton threatens his role as pawn in the mind-games of the central trio, while John Kavanagh is sensational as Vilhelm Fordal, Borkman’s only remaining friend. Fordal is so optimistic as to be masochistic. He sees the best in everything and has forgiven Borkman for ruining him, just as he continues writing a truly diabolical play, and Kavanagh makes him both a tragic and a comedic figure – mirroring Borkman’s own delusions that he will be asked to return to banking.

Normally I’m the first to complain about Irish playwrights of a certain age who insist on mediating between Russian, Greek, and Norwegian classics and Irish theatre-goers but Frank McGuinness’ new version doesn’t insert Hibernicisms, instead he brings out the blackly comic undertones of Ibsen’s script while the contemporary resonances speak for themselves. Indeed the banker as tragic hero synchs well with Enron’s capitalist as irrationally exuberant pioneer of new ideas. Rickman has the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlines how his schemes for shipping and mining would have made Norway rich, how only he had the vision necessary to pursue such schemes, and how he was within 8 days of completing his plans when his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinces himself that he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless. The ambitious madness of speculation allows him without guilt to proclaim “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial.

Director James MacDonald, acclaimed for his work at the Royal Court Theatre, helms a satisfying mix of melodrama and black comedy culminating in a wonderful catharsis in an impressively staged snowstorm. This is essential theatre.

5/5

John Gabriel Borkman continues its run at the Abbey until November 20th.

August 17, 2010

Dublin Theatre Festival: 12 Plays

Boston Marriage 29th Sept – 3rd Oct Gate

It’s from 1999 and is an all female cast so I wouldn’t have thought this was vintage David Mamet but he did write and direct his satirical film State & Main the year before and apparently this is a rather good scathing Victorian era drawing room black comedy about lesbian couples in fin de siecle Boston.

Phaedra  30th Sept – 10th Oct Project

Rough Magic use music interpolated from an operatic adaptation of Racine’s version of the Euripides tragedy, and indeed perform it live to supplement a new polish on the script that apparently adds some contemporary resonances to the implosion of the type of dysfunctional family only found in Greek plays.

T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. 1st Oct – 4th Oct Belvedere

The first of three Polish plays sees a stranger seduce everyone in a rich household in a wordless version of a Pasolini film that also has similarities to Something for Everyone or About Adam depending on your generosity.

The Silver Tassie 5th Oct – 10th Oct Gaiety

Druid doing Sean O’Casey in the Gaiety should be an obvious flagship show but my bad experience of Long Day’s Journey into Night in 2007 gives me pause. O’Casey’s move into experimental theatre saw him break with the Abbey as he used symbolism, dance, and music to depict the explosion of WWI into the lives of a Dublin football team who enlist so this should be very good. But…

Celebration 5th Oct – 10th Oct Gate

A very late and allegedly not very good one act play by Harold Pinter about a vicious and crude dinner party in a London restaurant. An odd choice for the festival but perhaps the Gate can extract some black comedy from its brevity.

John Gabriel Borkman 6th Oct – 16th Oct Abbey

Another odd choice, as this is by far the least known of Ibsen’s major works. But it does star ALAN RICKMAN, (a fact inexplicably buried deep within the press release), Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan. This is in a new version by Frank McGuinness (a fact which will be returned to in a future blog piece) which brings out the black comedy of Ibsen’s drama.

Factory 2 9th Oct – 10th Oct Belvedere

The traditional play which you go to not so much for its merits but so you can boast that you managed to endure its marathon running time is this re-imagining of life at Warhol’s chaotic NYC art Factory in the 1960s as, interspersed with Warhol’s own endless films, it’s a whopping 7 1/2 hours long.

Watt 7th Oct – 17th Oct Gate

This is on at some very odd late hours but that probably only adds to the effect. It’s pricey for a one-hour one-man show but Barry McGovern is a noted Beckett exponent who will bring out the black comedy of Beckett’s novel and its tour de force of linguistic tricks.

Una Santa Oscura 8th Oct – 10th Oct Smock Alley

A hit at the fringe last year this mixture of video installation about a girl living in a city at night and specially written live music is performed by skilled violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan. Blink and you’ll miss its short run.

ENRON 12th Oct – 16th Oct Gaiety

A West End musical about the fall of Enron that has an Olivier Award for best director but flopped on Broadway after the NY Times disliked it. It’s definitely high-energy and smart in explaining things over its two and a half hours and it certainly does appear to be dazzling – with light-saber fights in the dark and an accountant with a team of pet velociraptors among the highlights.

Endgame 13th Oct – 17th Oct Gate

Owen Roe apparently made the fabled role of Faith Healer Frank Hardy his own at the Gate earlier this year so he should make an excellent Hamm with support from old double-act Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan in the dustbins. Beckett’s apocalyptic black comedy will probably return with Michael Gambon soon but this is a good chance to see it with Irish stage actors of long standing.

The Danton Case 13th Oct – 16th Oct Belvedere

The final Polish play is the pick of the bunch. Bawdy anachronistic fun, as a fourth wall breaching version of the French revolution and subsequent terror, performed to pounding punk music, plays out that is really about the fall of Communism and the rise of crony capitalism. Take that Sofia Coppola.

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