Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wick



JOHN WICK: Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, directed by Chad Stahelski (96 min.)

John Wick succeeds because it knows what it is.  Here is an absurd film in the real world, but a fascinating one in this alternate reality it creates on the screen.  It has the look and feel of a graphic novel adaptation, only it is absent of any source material.  I admire it for that.  John Wick has the confidence to be absurd, and goes full throat with said absurdity in order to eliminate any doubt.  The cliche machine is pumping in the veins of this film, but as I have always said, genre cliche is just fine if it is executed with some class and inventiveness.  If John Wick is anything, it is classy and inventive in the face of one of the oldest stories in the book.

Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, slipping back into the action star role as if it were an old pair of blood-soaked shoes.  Wick is a former hit man who left the life in order to live happily ever after with his wife in their shiny postmodern home.  But his wife passes away from a sudden illness, leaving John adrift.  Before she died, however, she bought an adorable Beagle puppy for John, which is delivered to his doorstep on the night after her funeral.

Things seem fine until, of course, John unwillingly stumbles across some Russian mobsters at the gas station who take a liking to his cherry 1969 Mustang.  The thugs break in, steal his car, and kill the dog.  This sets the plot in motion, and lights the fuse on John Wick's mission of vengeance.  From here, we plunge headlong into genre standards like the Russian mobsters, the hidden caches of artillery, and the showdown inside a nightclub.

Michael Nyqvist plays Viggo, the head of the Russian mob and the father of the idiot son who stole the car and killed the dog.  John Wick is so legendary, so feared in the underworld, that the mere mention or sight of him brings chills to any and everyone in the film.  Even the local police, when they arrive at his front door after he kills a dozen thugs, stays out of his way.  Viggo knows from the get go he is in for trouble, and tells his son that he can try and go after Wick if he wants.  It won't do him any good.  Nyqvist is an admirable villain, playing his gangster with a bit of aloofness and charm rather than being simply cold and violent.  He is clearly having fun with his character.

Wick's path of revenge takes him to a New York hotel that is perhaps the most unusual portion of the film, and sets it apart from reality.  This hotel seems to cater to professional assassins.  It is run by Winston (Ian McShane), who we meet in an underground bar where the only admittance is a gold coin.  These gold coins are the only currency with which John Wick operates, and this hotel has a doctor on call and seems unfazed by murders and hotel brawls.  Wick's arrival at the hotel seems to set the film in its place, and I realized at that point I must abandon all notions of the real world.  From there, blood is shed in gallons as Wick mows down the Russian mob one after another.

John Wick is a clinic on how to stage action scenes, and it is shot with slick and impeccable cinematography.  Every suit is tailored, every light in its right place.  The picture not only knows its place in this world, it knows when to quit, just about the time the proceedings grow tiresome.  John Wick is firmly entrenched in genre cliche, but it is a blast to watch Keanu Reeves having fun back in the comfy confines of action stardom.

B+

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fury


FURY: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, directed by David Ayer (135 min.)

War pictures are typically only as strong as their ensemble.  The best war films throughout the years have a diverse and compelling cast of soldiers, grunts, men from different backgrounds who come together in the face of hell.  Saving Private Ryan was brilliant mostly because of the characterizations of Tom Hanks' troop.  Think about Platoon, and the two different factions at the center of the story.

Fury, the new World War II film from writer/director David Ayer, who directed the excellent police thriller End Of Watch back in 2012, has a much smaller, much tighter-knit group of soldiers who occupy a tank on the muddy German countryside.  This team is well constructed by Ayer's screenplay, and keeps the stakes high enough to care about what is happening on the screen.  The film takes place in 1945, as the Americans and their allies made their way through Germany in the final months of WW2.  Despite their progress, the Americans were outmatched by the German tank technologies, and are outnumbered in general.

Brad Pitt plays Don "Wardaddy" Collier, the commander of Fury, one of the few remaining tanks in the American front.  Collier is a firm leader who has conformed to the violence of war over the years, and Pitt keeps his emotions appropriately under wraps.  His team consists of a fanatically religious solider, Boyd (Shia LeBeouf), an even-keel Hispanic soldier named "Gordo" (Michael Pena), and a brash Southern dimwit named "Coon-Ass" who speaks his mind.  As the film opens, Collier and his team are saddled with a green military kid, a new tank driver named Norman (Logan Lerman).  Norman is the typical newbie to a group of war-hardened soldiers, an open-faced kid who fears killing and is still clouded by the morality of the real world.  Collier and his team have no time for passiveness.

The film follows Collier as he takes his troops from one German city to the next in an attempt to overthrow the Nazis.  He is intent on killing each and every last SS soldier, and the events that unfold are unflinching and relentlessly violent.  Bodies are blown apart, heads explode, and the proceedings become more and more grim and unsettling.  The violence in Fury is disturbing, even for a war film, but there are some virtuoso action sequences.  The most thrilling moment comes when Collier's tank squares off against a superior German tank, firing off round after round within thirty feet of each other.  The ferocity of the tanks is often on display in the picture, as these tanks and their artillery are capable of cutting a building in half in mere seconds.

Fury takes a surprising left turn in the second act, when Collier and Norman stumble upon two German women hiding out in an apartment in one of the cities they conquer.  The peaceful aside is an interesting diversion in a film primarily focused on death and destruction.  I found the scene strange, but telling and a bold stroke.

The look of Ayer's film is striking, gray and steep in mud and muck.  As we reach the conclusion, there are certain aspects of the story that are telegraphed thanks to a long cinematic history of war films.  We know, almost from the beginning, the fate of each character and probably the order of their demise.  And the final showdown comes complete with the fearless leader standing his ground in the face of insurmountable odds, and his brethren dismissing the opportunity to leave in order to make one final stand with their commander.  There are few surprises in the plot, but the performances keep things elevated.  Pitt is stern and, as always, a compelling lead.  LeBeouf's scripture spouting solider has been done before, but not in this way, and Logan Lerman's evolution is at least interesting along the way.

Fury lands somewhere in the middle of the War genre.  It is not one of the best, but most definitely not the worst.  And credit must be given to the interesting aside Ayer writes into his second act, it is easily the strongest portion of the picture.

B
 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl



GONE GIRL: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, directed by David Fincher (149 min.)

I must tread lightly here.

Gone Girl is a film which relies and flourishes on twists and turns, so virtually any attempt to lay out plot beyond a certain point in the story would be to ruin the entire thing.  I read Gillian Flynn's novel this summer, so I knew everything that was coming.  And yet, with all of the information stored away in my brain, I still found myself staring aghast at the screen as the wildly outlandish story unfolded.  That is a testament to the direction of the great David Fincher and to everyone in the cast.  Perhaps Gone Girl isn't the best of Fincher, perhaps it is, I don't really know.  What I do know is that everyone, yes everyone, should see this film simply to gaze upon the insanity.  And if you don't see it, you will be missing out on what will undoubtedly be the most talked about film of 2014.

The adaptation remains urgently faithful to Flynn's novel.  Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, an aloof Midwestern hunk who moves to New York to be a writer for a men's magazine.  This is where he meets Amy, played by the open-faced Rosamund Pike.  Amy is a trust-fund baby who's parents made a boatload of cash selling out her childhood in the form of children's books, a series known as the "Amazing Amy" series.  Amy is sophisticated, beautiful, and Nick is smitten from the start.  Their romance is told through flashbacks of Amy's diary entries which detail the rise and fall of their marriage.

In the present, Nick and Amy have moved back to Nick's hometown in Missouri.  Both laid off from their writing jobs in the midst of the recession, the couple live in a rented mini-mansion in a town that is crippled by job loss.  Nick teaches at a local community college and runs a bar where his twin sister, Margot (Carrie Coon), tends.  It is the morning of Nick and Amy's fifth anniversary when she mysteriously disappears.  There are signs of a struggle inside the house, albeit suspicious signs.  Nick calls the police and they begin their investigation.  Detective Rhonda Boney, played wonderfully by Kim Dickens, wants to believe Nick had nothing to do with Amy's disappearance.  Officer Jim Gilpin, played by an all-grown-up Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous, wants to throw the book at Nick, especially once the evidence begins mounting to increasingly incriminating degrees.

Nick seems detached from the events, and Affleck's wooden acting is purposeful and effective.  Certain elements arise and place the blame at his feet over and over; but still, no body and no murder weapon are recovered.  The plot thickens, and thickens, and thickens some more, and the media sinks their claws into this in disturbingly realistic ways in our modern news culture.  Nick is vilified on a Nancy Grace type news program, and he makes mistakes along the way.  The mystery remains impenetrable and curious, and the toxicity of the media becomes a focal point in what Fincher is trying to exploit with his story.

This is where I must abandon any storytelling, because what ends up happening is a fascinating twist that Flynn should be most proud of as a writer.  While the plot is simple, the twists are outlandish, and Fincher recognizes this.  The tone of his picture shifts from ominous and threatening to take on an offbeat and sardonic pitch.  Believe it or not, there are some amusing moments along the way, even though the events are sometimes horrific when considered.  And, once again, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have supplied the score for a Fincher film, having already done the score for The Social Network and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.  This time around, they have topped their own work.

Fans of the novel version of Gone Girl should not shy away from this screen adaptation.  Despite knowing all the moves that are coming, Fincher's direction is masterful in keeping tension, humor, and fascination at the forefront.  Affleck is perfect in the lead role, and Carrie Coon, who plays his spitfire twin sister Margot (Go) is worthy of a supporting actress nomination.  Rosamund Pike has never impressed me until now, as her wide-eyed gaze fits the role of Amazing Amy.  Tyler Perry is a great twist to the casting as Nick's hotshot New York attorney, Tanner Bolt, and Neil Patrick Harris is chillingly effective as a rich former boyfriend of Amy.

Gone Girl is a testament to the media world we live in now, full of tension and humor and great performances.  Everyone should at least take a look, so they won't be left out of the conversations by the water cooler.

A-

Thursday, October 2, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Narc (2002)

Joe Carnahan's career has ebbed and flowed from serious, heavy action dramas to outlandish, ultra-violent action satires, but when he is on his game there is hardly an action director that can match his intensity and skill.  His theatrical debut, Narc, is unmatched on a number of levels.  A police procedural on the surface, Narc dives into darker avenues of the streets and ends with a twist that compromises the morality that has been set throughout the film.  It is often a gruesome street film, empowered by its lead performances and a direction from Carnahan that refuses to look the other way.

The protagonist is Nick Tellis, an undercover narcotics officer played by the undervalued Jason Patric.  The opening scene, shot out of a cannon, features Tellis making a split decision and shooting a drug-addicted maniac who has taken a pregnant woman hostage.  One of his bullets strikes the woman, killing her and her unborn child along with the criminal.  As Tellis has fallen to drug addiction during his undercover work, he is suspended and sent home.  Fast forward roughly a year and another undercover officer is found murdered.  Tellis is brought on to investigate, given his street connections.  He is also teamed up with a known hothead detective, Henry Oak, played by a heavy and intimidating Ray Liotta.  But, when is Liotta not intimidating?

Tellis and Oak comb the streets to try and find the cop killer, which sends them into some of the dirtiest and most unseemly areas of an impoverished Detroit.  The characters are authentic, but the city itself is perhaps the most vital player.  Painted in desperate blues and grays, in the middle of a deathly winter, Detroit is unforgiving as these officers try and figure out what happened and who is responsible.  Oak and Tellis develop a pragmatic working relationship, and Tellis struggles to keep the short fuse of Oak under wraps as they interrogate drug dealers and work murder scenes.  Oak's short fuse is due in part to his significant relationship with the murdered officer.

Tellis begins to investigate the death on his own, and uncovers more and more curious details.  All the while, he must contend with his wife, who wants him to have a desk.  The investigation takes Tellis and Oak into a confrontation with two low-level gun and drug dealers and Oak's fury takes over.  The final reveal is delivered at the last minute, after an initial twist occurs.  From one twist to another, the morality play grows more convoluted all the way to the final shot.

Narc is the very definition of a gritty crime drama.  Carnahan pulls no punches with his portrayal of an intense police investigation and gruesome detail.  Ray Liotta's performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, and Jason Patric shows that he is such an underused, under appreciated actor.  He has the depth and emotion in a simple stare that some of the finest actors are able to convey.  Both actors have a past to contend with in the picture, and I cannot think of better actors to display damage and sadness while soldiering on in the name of plot.

Joe Carnahan's direction is proof of his strong talent behind the camera.  After Narc, he would direct the gonzo action comedy Smokin' Aces and the poor adaptation of The A-Team.  But then he would return with a vengeance with The Grey, Liam Neeson's best film in a decade.  Regardless of his career trajectory, Narc is a searing and unforgettable start.