Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: John Wick

 
The screenplay for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is so simplistic it rises above laziness until it reaches a kind of glorious absurdist joke. What “plot” there is (and I’m typing those quote marks as hard as I can) could be adapted into a book for beginning readers without much stretching:

See John Wick's wife die. John sad.
John's wife leaves John dog. John slightly less sad.
See Russian mobster kill John's dog. John mad.
See John Kill. Kill, John, kill!

To gripe about the thinness of the script is to miss the point.  A movie like John Wick is all about getting to the good stuff. When the story is pared down to such a degree it's a giftwrapped opportunity for filmmakers to show off their chops by filling all that empty space with creatively staged mayhem and wild, indulgent detours - two things for which I am always on board. On such occasions, I am more than will to disengage higher brain function for 100 minutes, lean back I nmy seat and say "Show me what you got!" silly grin on my face, drool collecting on my popcorn...
 
 
 


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Circle of Life

Review: Fury



At this point, it feels like there are enough World War II movies to reconstruct something close to the entirety of the conflict, across all theaters of operation. Audiences can be forgiven if the appearance of yet another crew of hard-bitten soldiers marauding through the German countryside in David Ayer’s Fury strike us as more than a bit superfluous. The diffrence this time is that Fury wants to strip away the gauzy Greatest Generation glow that has diminished other depictions of this subject matter. No American flags flapping in the wind, no swells of violins, no famous battles. Just the anonymous, grisly work of tank combat in the waning days of the war, where the only task left is to feed enough of the remaining enemy into the meat grinder to hasten the inevitable German surrender.
It's a compelling argument for Fury's existence, at least for the first half of the film. As the tank rolls along, however, Fury surrenders its attempts to navigate the harsh no man’s land where ethics and war collide. What began as a corrective against the false comfort of your granddaddy’s war films morphs into a compilation of war movie clichés, complete with characters dying in order of billing, and glorious hero shots of doomed last stands against impossible odds. By the end it’s Frank Miller’s 300 with tanks. 
“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” says Brad Pitt's weathered tank commander Wardaddy... 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Birdman of Steel

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: St. Vincent

As everything from Groundhog Day to The Life Aquatic to Wild Things proves, there are few greater pleasures in the movies than watching Bill Murray play a jerk, but unfortunately Murray’s irascible next-door neighbor arrives in St. Vincent pre-redeemed. The movie is so eager to reassure us that Vincent’s gruff exterior is hiding a big ol’ teddy bear, that the script never develops any teeth. Sure, the script says, Vincent may drink to excess, run up big gambling debts and generally treat everyone like garbage, but see how he struggles to pay for the inpatient care for his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife? And did you notice his Vietnam medals? Plus, look at how he dotes on the pregnant over-the-hill Russian prostitute he hires (Naomi Watts of all people). At least other redemption-of-an-asshole movies like As Good As It Gets and the similar, and far superior, About a Boy have the sense to enjoy letting the protagonist be a genuine prick for a while before they set about the business of rehabilitating him...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

NYFF Review: Foxcatcher


If it’s true that great storytelling unfolds in a way that is both surprising and inevitable, then Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher appears at first glance to be missing half of the equation. The most surprising thing about the spare script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman is how shocking it isn’t. We can see the impending tragedy coming from miles away. Only the film’s characters seem blind to the descending shadows. Tremendous piles of money have a way of obscuring vision like that.
Based on the real events leading up to a 1996 murder, Foxcatcher’s first images show the incredibly rich at play with their pets, sitting atop thoroughbred horses, surrounded by hunting dogs, etc. It’s appropriate for a film about the unfathomably wealthy John du Pont’s attempts to keep champion wrestlers Mark and David Schultz as his own personal possessions

Monday, October 6, 2014

NYFF Review: Mr. Turner

When a film like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner comes along you find yourself wishing you could take back all the “great cinematography” praise you tossed around so cavalierly on other films so that the words can carry more weight now that you really need them. Ideally, so far in 2014, one would have only applied the same praise to Darius Khondji’s work on The Immigrant. OK, yes, Under the Skin’s Daniel Landin also. It’s been an exceptional year.

Not content to merely display his paintings, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope manage to permeate the air with the aura of J. M.W. Turner’s art. Some of the film’s images produced audible gasps at the screening I attended. The glory of the visuals grant Leigh and company the freedom to dispense with the many of the usual biopic clichés since we understand so much about Turner’s passion just by looking at the screen. Mike Leigh’s latest simulates what it might be like to see the world through the eyes of the great painter. This element alone makes Mr. Turner essential viewing…

Sunday, October 5, 2014

NYFF Review: Jauja



Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja does so many things that critics complain films don’t do, I feel obligated to love it. It has a rich sense of atmosphere. It’s thoughtful. Alonso composes his frames beautifully, and he has the patience to hold on them until every last ounce of meaning has been wrung from the image. It does all this and more, so why was it that by the halfway point I was hoping the projector would break down so I could bolt for the exit?
I think it has to do with the fact that Jauja is made with near total disregard for the audience, and I don’t mean its glacial pacing. If a film is going to be this impenetrable, in fairness, it should contain enough ideas to occupy the audience’s mind while the action on screen is making the slower parts of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry look like Jurassic Park. Jauja contains ideas enough to support your average short film...

NYFF Review: Two Days, One Night


The experience of watching the Dardenne brothers latest critically adored Cannes hit, Two Days, One Night, brings home just how conditioned we are to expect our protagonists to be active and fearless. We are not used to heroes that need to be pushed and prodded to stand up for themselves. Our heroes tend to plunge into conflict with nary a second thought. Marion Cotillard’s Sandra is not one of those characters. When Sandra awakes one morning to a phone call informing her that she has lost her job at a company that makes solar panels, her first impulse is to take it lying down. Literally. On an upswing after what we gather is a nasty struggle with depression, Sandra crawls back into bed resigned to let her sickness swallow her whole this time.
It becomes clear that management, in a move brilliant in its craven cowardice, had given Sandra’s coworkers the choice of keeping Sandra or keeping their bonuses. On top of which, whispers were spread that Sandra was going to be let go no matter what, so it’s no surprise when the vote is a lopsided 14 to 2 in favor of firing Sandra and keeping bonuses. When Sandra’s husband and friends compel her to protest the underhanded way this was carried out, her boss allows for a second vote after the weekend, comfortable in the expectation that convincing people to sacrifice their bonuses is a fool's errand. And even if it weren’t, the potential humiliation of having to beg her coworkers to spare her is a thought less appealing than poverty...



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TAK3N Bits




Monday, September 29, 2014

NYFF Review: Whiplash

Terence Fletcher is a notoriously demanding music teacher whose go-to story is about how Charlie Parker got a cymbal thrown at him by drumming great Jo Jones when Parker choked onstage at a jazz club as a teenager. To hear Fletcher tell it, that public humiliation was the impetus for Parker to dedicate himself to his craft and become the jazz legend known forever as Bird. Knowing this about Fletcher, it’s little surprise that freshman Andrew Neyman’s gets a metal chair thrown at his head for the crime of being off tempo on his first day on drums as a member of Fletcher’s elite studio band. 

To be clear, that’s thrown at his head, not near his head. Damien Chazelle’s blistering Sundance smash Whiplash makes it clear that this is not the story of a hard-assed but wise teacher who applies tough love to coax the best out of his students. Fletcher’s behavior crosses the line quickly and often. His “lessons” are often little more than playing interrupted by slurs, slaps, and cruel mind games. It’s as if he learned to teach by watching Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry monologue on a loop…