JOHN WICK Review: Fortune Favors the Old

October 24, 2014 2 comments

John Wick PosterEven if you take The Expendables 3 off the table, 2014 has been quite the year for the aging action star.   (I take it off the table because aging heroes are the gimmick of that film and franchise.)  The year has already seen major releases from a half-dozen of the AARP’s toughest tough guys (age, title):

Arnold Schwarzenegger (67, Sabotage)
Liam Neeson (62, Non-Stop)
Pierce Brosnan (61, The November Man)
Denzel Washington (59, The Equalizer)
Kevin Costner (59, 3 Days to Kill)
Tom Cruise (52, Edge of Tomorrow)

Well, there’s a new kid on the (retirement community) block: the freshly-minted 50-year-old Keanu Reeves.  Like his peers, Reeves is no stranger to action films.  His two entries of cinematic consequence are as the centerpiece of The Wachowskis‘ Matrix trilogy and star of the great 1994 action movie from Jan de Bont, Speed.  Now, Reeves looks to prove he’s worthy of a seat at his fellow action elders’ 4:00 dinner table in his newest effort, John Wick.

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Reeves plays the title character, a retired hitman who left the business five years ago when he fell in love.  In the present day, his wife dies of a terminal illness and Wick finds himself alone, save the puppy his wife game him.  While out for a head-clearing spin in his ’69 Mustang, Wick runs into a hotheaded punk at a gas station.  The kid wants to buy his car.  Wick says it isn’t for sale.  The kid mouths-off in Russian.  Wick mouths-off back in Russian.  The kid and some thugs show up at Wick’s house that night, beat him up, kill his dog, and steal his car.

It turns out the kid is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).  When Viggo learns his son did this to legendary killing machine John Wick, and when Viggo can’t reason with Wick, all hell breaks loose.  Wick comes after Iosef while Viggo dispatches his own men to stop Wick and puts a $2MM contract on Wick’s head, something that interests Wick’s old hitman friend Marcus (Willem Dafoe), as well as eager hitwoman Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki).

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Just like that cherry Mustang, John Wick runs on a lot of cylinders and it fires on almost all of them.  It starts with a near-perfect open that efficiently and stylistically establishes Wick’s tragedy and creates the conflict necessary to power the film.  It’s also where the legend of Wick is established, including the great line that, when compared to The Boogeyman, Wick is, “…the man you call when you want to kill The Boogeyman.”  During the open, first-time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski establish a palpable sense of anticipation that things are likely to explode at any moment.

And explode they do, in action sequences that are often exhausting (in the best possible ways) and always stylishly choreographed.  This is where the past expertise of Leitch and Stahelski shines: stunt work.  With over 150 stunt-related credits between them, the directors thoroughly understand the physicality of an action sequence and how to make it look its best onscreen.  The fire is rapid and the body count is high, but the directors keep it all well-framed and well-paced.

The casting is great, too.  Other than Reeves, it’s a film built on character actors (with a fine cameo from David Patrick Kelly as a cleaner), all of whom understand how the sum of small parts can add up to one solid cast.

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And for all of the good things the film does, there are things it doesn’t do that work well, too.  Most importantly, the film never aspires to be something loftier, only to set itself up for failure (see: Lucy); it knows it’s about 90% style, 10% substance, and it maximizes that.  Wick isn’t some kind of super-assassin.  This is perfect, really, because his legend is that, but now, five years later, he’s a little out of practice, and he takes his shots as well as gives them (and he bleeds – considerably – in the process).  Wick also has several tattoos, seen only once (read: not exploited) in a quick shower scene.  The largest is text across his back, from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, reading “Fortes Fortuna Adiuvat”: Fortune Favors the Bold.

Screenwriter Derek Kolstad doesn’t load the dialogue with quips.  The humorous moments – natural tension breakers – are spoken mostly during pauses that levity lends itself to.  Also importantly, the filmmakers don’t sexualize Ms. Perkins.  Palicki, a beautiful woman and no stranger to the pages of magazines like FHM, could easily have been crafted as some type of widow-maker, a woman who uses her body to accomplish her mission.  Not here.  Here she fires guns alongside (or against) the boys.  She’s the only female character but she is treated as an equal.

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The film isn’t without its flaws, though.  The danger of high-octane action is that sometimes those rest periods feel a lot slower than normal; that happens here.  Other action movie clichés can be found as well, including a villain whose time spent chatting affords the hero an opportunity to recover; an overwrought (almost anti-)climactic hand-to-hand battle at the film’s end; and some structure and rules within the film’s criminal realm that are clever, but strain the believability of the “honor among thieves” code.  (These men and women have their own currency – it’s so odd.)  As for the directors, while their collective eye for style is sharp and their use of close-ups is effective, they are enamored with transition shots of the city from overhead, which grows tiresome.

Oh, and the film sadly underuses John Leguizamo (as chop-shop owner Aureilo) and Ian McShane (as a key player in that quirky realm).

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With a character perfect for Reeves’ stoic – at times emotionless – demeanor, and with subtle homage to films from action’s golden age, the 1980s (including Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Highlander), John Wick not only becomes a movie with connections to three previous decades’ worth of fine shoot-em-ups, it becomes one of the best action films of 2014.


DIVORCE CORP. Review: Money Changes Everything

Divorce Corp PosterLike many other things today, divorce has lost a lot of its societal impact, a lot of its shock value.  It wasn’t that long ago – certainly within the lifetimes of people alive now – that divorce was considered shameful and scandalous.  Today, divorce is commonly a headline or a punchline (or both); sightings of parents making kid-swaps in convenience store parking lots are routine; and just about anyone can spout the “50% statistic” about divorce.  People also know that divorce can be messy and expensive.  But a lot of people don’t know just how messy or how expensive it can be, and who – or what – just might be to blame for the muck and the money.  Director Joseph Sorge‘s Divorce Corp. attempts to make those things known.

The documentary opens with a little statistical rope-a-dope.  The first statement to appear onscreen is the obvious one: 50% of US marriages end in divorce.  It’s the next statement that goes for the knockout: Divorce is more than a 50 billion dollar a year industry.  That’s “billion.”  With a B.

Through the traditional combination of data-fueled graphs and animation, interviews with a wide variety of people, and a smoothly delivered narrative (courtesy of narrator Dr. Drew Pinsky), the documentary attempts to present the case that because the divorce industry – a euphemism for the US Family Court system – has structured itself in such a way that it acts beyond and above the law, it has become corrupt and favors no one but itself.  “Itself” is defined as the judges, lawyers, and other key players who make staggering sums of money.

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Divorce Corp. is a curious exercise in documentarian extremes.

To the positive extreme, the film uses a blend of data, cases, and interviews (with judges, lawyers, spouses, ex-spouses, and others) – and does so early and often – to expose the flawed construct of the US Family Court system, and does so by pointing out some things that maybe I should have already known.  For example, I never knew Family Court is a “Court of Equity,” not a “Court of Law.”  As such, no one has the right to an attorney in Family Court.  (The film makes a big deal of this, going so far as to state this denies people their constitutional rights to legal representation.  That’s a debate for another platform.)

Also interesting is how the film lays out the money trail to highlight that it isn’t just the lawyers that get rich.  Judges also get rich through various (legal) means, as do other players, like parenting evaluators (in custody cases) and court-appointed mediators.  There is then an overarching lather-rinse-repeat rhythm to the process, as lawyers file mountains of paperwork, which begets the filing of additional paperwork mountains by other lawyers, which motivates the judge to take additional action that creates the need for more paperwork, all of which goes on and on – sometimes for years and often times longer than the marriage itself – and adds up to stacks of cash.  (According to one statistic cited in the film, the average divorce costs $50,000 from start to finish.)

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To the negative extreme, though, the film goes to great lengths to find the ugliest “actual” stories to tell.  These are tales not just of greedy lawyers (one attorney boasts an hourly rate of $950), but of ruthless judges, unfit evaluators, and a system that thrives on the most corrupt strain of back-room quid pro quo.  In one tale, a judge strips custody of a woman’s children because she goes to the media.  In another, a father is arrested because he refuses to remove a blog that is critical of a judge.  And in the worst tale, a parenting evaluator who attempts to blackmail a mother is later found to be involved in or associated with behavior that (the film implies) belies the responsibility his formal role requires him to take.

Presenting these stories, and more like them, is the film’s great misstep.  Any good will gained in the early stages of the film (no matter how overzealously some of the “facts” are presented) is lost by the implications that the excessive (and excessively lurid) tales make.  Their cumulative narrative indirectly suggests that because the system is bad, and these particular people from within the system are bad, then surely all people within the system are bad.  As this message is pounded home, the film shifts from being a message movie to having an agenda.

I don’t know anyone in the Family Court system, but surely some of them are good guys.

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Divorce Corp. is at its best when it efforts to present information that exposes the considerable flaws in the US Family Court system.  Once it strays from that, though, it becomes nothing more than a series of salacious segments loosely attached to the social cause the first half of the film championed so well.




THE BOOK OF LIFE Review: Blank Pages

October 18, 2014 2 comments

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When a film is heavily promoted with “From Producer Guillermo del Toro,” certain cinematic expectations are automatically set.  While the statement doesn’t explicitly mean the viewer will get a del Toro film, it certainly implies something akin to, “If you like the films of del Toro, you’ll love this film.”  The statement also suggests del Toro may have had creative influence on the film (like producers have never done THAT before), thus improving the film and adding greater value to it.  But while associating del Toro with a film gives the film more cinematic heft out of the gate, it also increases the expectation that del Toro’s creative influence has made the film a better product.  It’s an expectation that the animated film The Book of Life struggles to live up to.

La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Remembered, the place where souls live happily in eternity so long as their loved ones remember them.  Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, the place where souls suffer in obscurity, having long been forgotten by their loved ones.  On the annual festival known as the Day of the Dead, the pair spots a trio of children: Maria and the two boys who battle for her affection, Manolo and Joaquin.  Xibalba, tired of ruling his land, bets La Muerta that in the future, Joaquin will win Maria’s heart; La Muerta takes Manolo.  The winner rules the Land of the Remembered.

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Fast-forward to adulthood and the trio are reunited, having gone their own ways to live their lives.  Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) has returned home from school; Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) is on the verge of becoming a great bullfighter; and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) is a war hero.  But things are not quite as they seem.  While Manolo has been trained by his father to be a great bullfighter, he’d much rather be a musician.  As for Joaquin, he seeks revenge against the bandit Chakal, who killed his father, but he does so wearing a medal that was sneakily given to him by Xibalba (in disguise) – a medal that prevents any harm from coming to him.

When the contest looks like it’s going La Muerta’s way, Xibabla intervenes with trickery that keeps Maria on earth but sends Manolo to the Land of the Remembered, where the young man is reunited with his ancestors but separated from his love.

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The Book of Life can best be summarized as a film of two extremes.  On one end of the spectrum is the film’s gorgeous animation.

The story is actually told to a group of children on a class trip by a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate), who uses wooden figurines as props.  Director Jorge R. Gutierrez maximizes the marionette-like construct of the figures and presents his characters with the same characteristics, from skin texture to body joints to overall body movement, all accented by sharp lines.  However, Gutierrez doesn’t sacrifice emotion, allowing his animated wooden dolls to have a full range of facial expressions.  All of these characteristics hold true once the action moves to the Land of the Remembered, where everyone is a skeleton of their former self.

It’s also in that afterlife realm that the already vibrant and rich animation finds a higher gear and simply dazzles, with a jaw-dropping reveal of the Land of the Remembered that is reminiscent of the wow-factor of the ballroom scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  The attention to detail is staggering.

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Gutierrez’s direction is excellent.  He has a wonderful sense of scope, but it’s his use of character motion (and slow-motion) that is inspired, particularly in the bullfighting scenes and in a labyrinth scene that is one for the animation books.  His camera movement is fluid and he keeps the viewer constantly engaged.  It’s unfortunate he is saddled with the other end of the film’s spectrum – a dreadful screenplay he-co-wrote with Douglas Langdale.

Just as the film is soaked in glorious visual details, so to is it drowning in endless clichés.  The male leads are given tired paternal shadows to live in (one wants to break away from the family tradition his father expects him to follow while the other wants to avenge his father’s death).  There is never a sense of true peril, either in the Land of the Remembered or in the circumstances surrounding Joaquin’s magic medal.  And there are constant reminders of things found in Disney movies, including The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Lion King, and (worst of all, in the Ice Cube-voiced Genie-like character, Candle Maker) Aladdin.  In all of these cases, Disney did it better.

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The film’s ending is as standard a third act as you can get from a kid’s movie.

Also disappointing is the film’s music.  While the score and the original songs are pleasant, in a very non-Disney like move there is no real memorable number.  A hit record isn’t mandatory with an animated film (the Toy Story franchise has done just fine without one), but this animated film sets up to have one, particularly with its great Mexican flair.  Also in the film are famous pop songs reimagined with a Latin flavor – “I Will Wait” from Mumford and Sons, “Just a Friend” from Biz Markie, and Radiohead’s “Creep” are the big three – but only bits of those play in the film, which make them feel awkwardly inserted.

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This is the first film to come from Reel FX Animation Studios, and as visuals go, they have come to play.  But if there is anything we’ve learned while living in the Pixar Era, it’s that a film’s story is equally as important as its animation.  It takes more than fancy imagery (and a famous person’s name on the poster) to make a quality animated film in 2014.  Despite its gorgeous visuals and del Toro’s gravitas, The Book of Life is a disappointment.