John Wick is no Andy Dick

John Wick - poster

I’ve always liked Keanu Reeves, from the quintessential indie River’s Edge, through The Matrix and on.  He’s among the royal triumvirate of late ’80s/early ’90s megastars which also includes Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp.  These three burst on the scene at about the same time to claim the throne as the next set of leading men who might rule for decades.  And all three have done just that.

John Wick is a violent, bloody shoot-em-up with style, a little flair, cool visuals, some obvious breaks in logic and a bit of comic relief.  It’s a plot of no particular consequence, but that’s OK.  Because I judge a movie based on what it is, not on what it is not. John Wick - text block You’ll know if you’re the audience for this movie.  If you are, you’ll have fun.  Nothing exceptional — there’s no mastery of the genre as exemplified by John Woo’s Face/Off, nor does it rise to the level of Kill Bill.  But it gets the job done.  And so does John Wick.  6/10

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Nymphomaniac Vol. II: The Better Half?

Nymphomaniac Vol. II picks up right where Vol. I leaves off, as I had predicted.  So that’s one thing that is a little irritating: 5 months between watching Vol. I and Vol. II.  Now that’s partly my own fault, for letting so much time go by — but it’s also the fault of a highly constrained release.  By the time I saw Vol. I in the theater, Vol. II was ending its run.  The solution to this would be to get back to the idea of an intermission — something that used to be commonplace and indeed heralded for longer films.  Any Lars von Trier film has such a targeted, niche market that the way to do it is show the entire thing at once, put in an intermission, and charge double the admission if necessary.  Because these are in no way two distinct films, but two halves of the same film.  There is no question about this, so release it that way.  I know it’s not up to the distribution company as much as the theaters, but work something out so it’s shown properly.

Now that I have my rant out of the way, the movie:

Nymphomaniac Vol. II - poster

Nymphomaniac — the complete set — gives the viewer a strongly compelling ride-along with the sex addict Joe.  This is Lars von Trier’s most sexually explicit film yet, to the point that some have labeled it porn.  It is not porn; it is an independent film with Hollywood mainstays such as Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Stellan Skarsgård and Willem Dafoe.  And remember that Lars von Trier made the magnificent Breaking the Waves.  There is not so much separation between these two films.

Much of Vol. II, which follows our antagonist Joe as she has aged a bit from Vol. I, is exceptionally engaging.  It is set in a framework of tales recounted by Joe to a stranger she has met (Skarsgård), which often add a little levity and interesting sidelines such as a discussion about clipping nails first from the left or right hand.  But I did have a couple problems.

First of all, at one point early in Vol. II we are told it is now “three years later.”  This is the point of the transition from young Joe to older Joe, and a transition to the actresses who play older and younger Joe.  But younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin, who was a very youthful-looking 21 at the time of filming, and older Joe is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is a full 20 years older and looks it.  Besides the blatant age difference, the two actresses look very little like one another.  There was no reason this transition could not have been handled better.  It is a jarring effect that distracts unnecessarily from the unfolding story.

Now there’s another problem with this older Joe – younger Joe dichotomy, and it’s that not only are there obvious physical differences which tell us these are two different characters, but behavioral ones as well.  Maybe I’m just being an ageist, but younger Joe was more interesting to watch; more unpredictable.  They just seemed like two different people, and it didn’t work.

Nymphomaniac Vol. II - text blockVol. II also had some little story problems that didn’t quite flow, and I very much disliked the cop-out ending.  There were moments in this movie where one felt it reaching for and almost achieving greatness.  A theme that tied both films together was that of finding your “soul tree” — and it was a beautiful thing.  But there are other times — such as the ending — where it almost seems as if von Trier got tired and gave up.

So, though I stated I would not, I am going to pass judgement on each half separately.  Vol. I: 8/10; Vol. II: 5/10.  If I judge them as a complete set, 6/10 — but with all the normal caveats in place.  Either way, make sure this is not your first Lars von Trier film.  Watch Breaking the Waves before you see Antichrist, and Antichrist before you see Nymphomaniac Vol. I.

A Most Wanted Man, No Matter How You Say It

A Most Wanted Man - posterGERMANS DON’T SPEAK to each-other in English with a German accent!  Unless maybe in English class in Hochschule.  Or perhaps if speaking with a Brit or American.  Case in point: Daniel Craig does not speak English in a Swedish accent in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  He’s not leaping around yelling “yumpin’ yimminy, yunior” either.

Beyond being a little irksome, the use of a German accent by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last non-teeny-bopper film (he will appear in the next two Hunger Games films; this movie, I was surprised to find, was shot in September 2012) I found to be very distracting.  Normally something like that I can get used to, and eventually I did — but it was a sticking point the entire film through.

One of the reasons for this is that the film begins unclearly.  As I walked out of the theater, someone remarked “I’ve never been so lost in a movie in my life.”  Well the movie was hardly so complicated — in fact it was very much a simple, even one-dimensional tale.  But the use of language and accent in the beginning of the movie is very confusing — we are not immediately sure if Hoffman’s character and his workgroup are all Germans, or a blend of Germans and Americans, or what authority or auspices they are working under.

These matters sort themselves out quickly enough, and we come to realize that Hoffman — and seemingly everyone else in the movie — are indeed speaking German the entire time.  Again, the German speech is conveyed by actors speaking English in varying degrees of fake German or more generalized pseudo-European accents.  The language problem also prominently manifests itself with a key character, a Chechnyan national of Chechnyan and Russian descent who has illegally entered Hamburg — where most of the movie takes place — and who, rather mysteriously, speaks perfect German (or is it English?  No — this is German now) with no accent whatsoever.  What a mess.

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Once you get past the language issues of A Most Wanted  Man, you are left with a not particularly exciting or compelling spy drama which has a few logic problems.  I suppose that notwithstanding the various accents, the performances are all pretty good.  And I did find myself fairly well engaged in the story, eventually.  About a third to half-way through the movie settles into a nice rhythm and becomes, well, entertaining.  But there’s not enough here for me to recommend.  Too much character posturing in lieu of plot.

A Most Wanted Man has received a lot of praise, but I think it’s another case of critics becoming confused between what good and not-good movies are.  Must be the same critics who heaped praise upon the similarly-themed Zero Dark Thirty.  A Most Wanted Man was a much better film, but that’s not saying much.   Still, there is something in all the performances — especially Hoffman’s — that endears the movie to me a bit.  5/10

A Most Wanted Man - still

Cinematic Greats: Wild at Heart

Wild at Heart - title card

I don’t care what anybody says, Wild at Heart is a great film.  Roger Ebert, who I admire greatly, called the movie “dishonest.”  But then I don’t think Ebert ever got David Lynch — he gave a thumbs down upon seeing the great instant American classic Blue Velvet — indeed one of the greatest films of all time.  I’m not suggesting that Wild at Heart is at all up to the level of Blue Velvet, but if you’re part of the “Lynch Mob” as I am, you absolutely love it.  Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was among the critics who were able to appreciate the movie:

Wild at Heart - still 2 - in bedStarting with the outrageous and building from there, he ignites a slight love-on-the-run novel, creating a bonfire of a movie that confirms his reputation as the most exciting and innovative filmmaker of his generation.

With foreshadowing of the mystical elements that would pervade Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart soars as the great alternative telling of Dorothy’s journey through Oz.  More and more, especially looking at the still of Lulu and Sailor punk-dancing in a roadside field, I draw parallels to another film of that era, also by a gifted director: Natural Born Killers (stay tuned for my long awaited Oliver Stone post(s).  One key difference: Lynch stopped making movies; Stone stopped making good ones).  My recommendation: watch both as a double feature.

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Wild, wonderful, and weird to boot.  A great love story, and truly great cinema.

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Check into The Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand Budapest Hotel - poster

Wes Anderson’s latest movie The Grand Budapest Hotel will give you everything you want and expect in a Wes Anderson movie.  Now if you’ve not seen a Wes Anderson movie, you may wonder exactly what that means.  It’s a little hard to describe the Wes Anderson trademark style, but once you become familiar with it, an Anderson movie becomes recognizable from a mile away.

The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the ultimate expression of Wes Anderson’s visual style.  It is a precious jewel box of a film; a feast for the eyes; a kid’s movie for adults.  A.O. Scott of the Times:

It’s a tough choice, but if I had to pick the most Wes Anderson moment in“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” it would be the part when inmates escape from a prison using tiny sledgehammers and pickaxes that have been smuggled past the guards inside fancy frosted pastries. This may, come to think of it, be the most Wes Anderson thing ever, the very quintessence of his impish, ingenious and oddly practical imagination. So much care has been lavished on the conceit and its execution that you can only smile in admiration, even if you are also rolling your eyes a little.

Grand Budapest - snow still largeYes, “Wes Anderson” has indeed become an adjective.  The biggest surprise for me was that Hotel was as engaging as it was.  Based on the trailer which I had seen a couple times, I thought the movie would be nothing but an orgy of Wes Anderson’s trademark humor and visual style, and little in the way of anything else, in particular a worthwhile plot.  His movies, for all of their unique assets, have in the past been very weak on story: think The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited.  I was encouraged two years ago when he re-employed good storytelling in Moonrise Kingdom.  Hotel retreats somewhat from a trend toward strong narrative, but there’s enough of a plot structure to hold the enterprise.

That plot is at its core straightforward, even simple, but complexity is nicely introduced by orbiting story elements.  And framing the recounted events in the era of a glorious hotel which later succumbed to communist-era banalities adds a welcome depth to the film.  That the flashback works as well as it does is another plus for the movie — so often this type of time-shifting fails in film.

The combination of a decent narrative and the film’s exceptionally rich, even luxurious production values makes The Grand Budapest Hotel a film not to be missed by cinephiles.  8/10

To Question eXistenZ

eXistenZ - poster

BACK WHEN IFC AND SUNDANCE channels were commercial-free and hence worth tuning into now and then, I caught bits of a lot of different movies that I noted for future follow-up.  Alas, television sure has changed a lot in the last ten years.  Add IFC and Sundance to the ever-growing heap of corrupted, once-great channels — Bravo having suffered the greatest fall since being purchased by NBC.

So on one of these movie channels, an intense scene with Willem Dafoe made me take note of eXistenZ (1999), and I finally got round to seeing it.  Willem Dafoe does not disappoint — his gleeful exuberance is a blast.  Only problem is he’s not in the film long enough.  The movie, I learned at the outset, is a David Cronenberg production, so it is full of his characteristically grotesque props and visual effects, familiar to anyone who’s seen Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch etc.

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh

The problem with eXistenZ is that despite the sci-fi parameters, the movie is fundamentally a very basic story of a couple on the run from a world out to get them — one of the most ubiquitous themes in cinema.  Nothing wrong with that, but to me the movie felt a little like it was running in slo-mo, especially in the first half.  That is to say, I was a little bored with eXistenZ, despite its fantastical physical manifestations.  Also, though there were lots of twists toward the end, with the ‘game’ and reality spilling into each-other, it was all a bit ho-hum.

But eXistenZ delivered enough fun weirdness, and good performances from the stars, that on balance I was entertained.  A marginal recommendation; naturally make sure the trailer appeals to you.  6/10

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Comparison Notes: Recommended: John Dies at the EndSynecdoche, New York; Not Recommended:  Hunger Games, Looper, Inception, Shutter Island

Film Brief: Non-Stop

Non-Stop poster smallOn Oscar day, I write about a movie which will certainly not be discussed a year from now.  Non-Stop is about what you’d expect, which is to say somewhat entertaining but not very good.  It does work to deliver some genuine intrigue and excitement for a good deal of the film, but it never reaches the type of frenzy in say, Speed 2: Cruise Control, and its resolution is weak.  I liked Speed 2 by the way — it had something Non-Stop severely lacks: a great villain.

In a review I of this movie, a critic compared Liam Neeson’s growl to that of Harrison Ford.  I see the similarity, but for all of Neeson’s talent, he is no Harrison Ford — at least not for a movie like this.  He just doesn’t have the charisma of Ford.  A generous 4/10.