Archive for October 2014

John Wick

October 26, 2014

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Directed by two guys with backgrounds in stunts, John Wick exists more or less entirely as a highlight reel of great action choreography. The titular protagonist (Keanu Reeves), a former freelance assassin dragged back into violence, employs a variety of guns to send his enemies by the dozen to the other side. John is so adept at dealing death that the Russian mob he used to work for refers to him as baba yaga, or the boogeyman. Ah, so John is the Michael Myers of the underworld, the man who strikes terror even in hardened killers? Yet John is also capable of gentleness and love, and these two sides of him don’t really cohere.

John left the underworld when he fell in love, but his wife (Bridget Moynahan) succumbed to cancer, gifting him posthumously with a beagle puppy. Don’t get too attached to the pup, who before the movie is ten minutes old dies under the boots of a Russian lowlife whose father (Michael Nyqvist) is John’s former employer. The lowlife son, ignorant of John’s identity, shows up at his house to steal his vintage Mustang; the puppy is merely collateral damage, and thankfully the incident is only obliquely seen/heard. Still, the pup was a living link to John’s wife, so he’s riled up enough to come out of retirement and kill his way through rows of Russian thugs until he finds the one who, as he puts it, “stole my car and killed my dog.”

That motive is simple enough to have sufficed as the plot fuel for a thirties western, and indeed John Wick is simple. Every year or so we get one of these throwback action-thrillers that dispense with plot complications and simply chug along on steam made of hot blood and gunfire (and, during the climax here, lightning bolts). As such things go, John Wick is less fun than Premium Rush (it lacks quirky supporting performances á la Michael Shannon) but blessedly less pompous and brutal than Drive. The violence here, while bloody, is borderline balletic — not to the extent of the bullet-time of The Matrix or the gun-kata in Equilibrium, but the emphasis is on how comically accurate John’s aim is, how he literally bumps people off as easily as swatting flies. John is a killing machine, but by virtue of being played by Keanu Reeves he’s soulful and human. (A bit on the mopey side, though; Reeves spends the entire movie looking like that Sad Keanu photo that made the Internet rounds a few years back — understandable, given the character’s grief.)

The temptation is to make a case for John Wick as pure cinema, but I can resist it. The directors may know their way around stuntwork and fight choreography, but that doesn’t mean they know how to shoot and edit it; one scene, inside a nightclub lighted like a furnace, is visually illegible. And despite a cast including John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, David Patrick Kelly, and Adrianne Palicki as an assassin named Ms. Perkins, the filmmakers aren’t actors’ directors either. They know how to set their wind-up anti-hero on his path to retributive bloodletting, which turns out to be more than a little anticlimactic, and that’s about all they know how to do. The movie is being wildly overpraised for containing a few nifty gun massacres. I remember when we wanted, and got, more from action movies.

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Horns

October 19, 2014

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It’s rare, but some humans do grow horns. They’re called cutaneous horns, are made of the same stuff fingernails are composed of, and are usually harmless. The sufferers of this malady have enjoyed two heroes at the movies this year: Maleficent, of course, and now Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), the tormented protagonist of Horns. Ignatius, or Ig for short, faces a dilemma similar to that which befell Ben Affleck in Gone Girl: Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), was raped and murdered, and everyone thinks Ig did it. As if to solidify everyone’s suspicion, Ig wakes up one hungover morning with the beginnings of horns on his forehead. These horns make people want to burden Ig with confessions of their darkest desires. If this might work to make Merrin’s real killer spill the beans, so much the better.

In his continuing successful effort to break away from a childhood spent as Harry Potter, Radcliffe swears and drinks and smokes and fornicates; Ig is not most people’s idea of a spotless hero even without the horns. Radcliffe brings out a harrowed decency in Ig, though, such that we don’t question his innocence even if we haven’t read the source material — Joe Hill’s 2010 novel, of which the movie is a considerably streamlined (but author-approved) variant. The evil here has its roots in adolescent triumphs and traumas, an area familiar to Hill’s father, one Stephen King.

Because of this story’s very human foundation for supernatural chills, it may be the best work of the French director Alexandre Aja, who previously has amused himself in the grindhouse section of the video store (he made Haute Tension, remade The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, and produced the Maniac remake). Aja’s work has been impressively bloody, but the blood was cold, hip, self-aware, concerned primarily with technical efficiency. Horns draws out a heretofore unseen compassion in Aja, who dials the grue way down and focuses on the terrific cast he’s hired. For instance, James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan turn up as Ig’s outwardly supportive but secretly doubting parents, and David Morse stops by for another of his affecting portraits of stoic anguish as Merrin’s grieving father, who thinks Ig killed her.

Ig isn’t so sure himself, at times, that he didn’t do it. In a world where a man can sprout horns and make others tell him their least lovely stories, who’s to say Ig didn’t kill Merrin — after all, the last he saw of her was when he was about to propose to her and she coolly broke up with him — and compel himself to forget it? Or what if he’s in Hell already? Well, he more or less is there mentally, anyway. Ultimately, Horns works out not as a grindingly literal demon show but as a metaphor for survivor’s guilt. If David Cronenberg’s The Brood was, as Cronenberg said, his bent version of Kramer Vs. Kramer, then Horns may be Joe Hill’s warped take on Moonlight Mile, that undeservedly forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle in which he deals with his girlfriend’s death. Straight-up horror can deal with mundane human dramas more cleanly and sharply than even pulp like Gone Girl can. This month is the best time of year to reiterate that.

Dracula Untold

October 11, 2014

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Before seeing Dracula Untold, you’d do well to take everything you know about Bram Stoker’s iconic character and throw it out the highest window. While you’re at it, chuck whatever you know about Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian prince whose exploits have long been thought, erroneously, to have inspired Stoker’s Dracula. For good measure, forget everything you know about Caligula, although he’s credited here simply as “Master Vampire.” Yes, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), ruler of Transylvania (ugh), was turned into a vampire by undead Caligula (Charles Dance). As an origin story, this is slightly less loony than the one offered by Dracula 2000, which posited that Dracula was actually Judas Iscariot.

Over and over again we get sympathetic humanist rewrites of Dracula, who as conceived by Stoker was just straight-up evil walking, a symbol of Victorian English mores threatened by Slavic depravity. Dracula Untold gives us Vlad the Impaler as a generally nice guy — the Impaler! Nice guy! — who loves his wife and his young son, and who only impales his defeated foes to scare off the Turks, whose army far outnumbers Vlad’s. The Turks demand a thousand Transylvanian boys for service in their army, so Vlad heads off to a cave, where Caligula the old-ass vampire hangs out waiting for someone to take over for him. Caligula rather generously allows Vlad a three-day trial period as a vampire. “Try it out for a while,” Caligula says in the funnier, more interesting movie in my head. “See how you like it.”

Vlad likes it. He can become a cloud of bats that destroy a bunch of Turks. He can remotely conduct another cloud of bats to destroy more Turks, at one point making them into a giant fist. The only problems are that he needs blood, and that sunlight and silver aren’t good for him. So essentially Dracula has been refashioned as a supernatural superhero, one who might be part of Universal’s proposed “shared universe” of monsters. It’s as bloodless as a superhero movie, too; this film about the king of vampires boasts less gore than a typical Vampire Diaries episode, and the combat scenes are likewise dry and dull. First-time feature director Gary Shore, who has a background in commercials, apes Peter Jackson’s sweeping battlefield camerawork without Jackson’s sense of strategy, timing, or drama. It’s just a bunch of nonexistent people getting knocked over by nonexistent bats.

Dracula Untold isn’t openly offensive, so I mainly let it wash over me in a wave of blandness until it was done. It doesn’t risk anything; it has no camp, no humor, little in the way of sex. It seems to have been made to appease an imaginary audience of mocking teenagers, who will find nothing here to fuel their fun. It had the odd effect of making me look back on a previous Universal monster mash, the miserable Van Helsing, with a degree of fondness; its Dracula was played with efflorescent wit by Richard Roxburgh, who knew how to do it — play with the accent as though it were taffy, and be more arch than a roomful of drag queens. Luke Evans favors us with that time-honored trope the humble great warrior, and fights his bloodlust even when his own wife offers her neck. The untold Dracula here is a really boring guy who runs into a vampiric Roman emperor and becomes a really boring vampire. Based on what the movie has to tell us, I’d rather have seen Caligula Untold.

Gone Girl

October 4, 2014

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Gone Girl is the most loathsome movie I’ve seen in the twenty-eight years I’ve been reviewing films. What’s worse, I’m sure its director, David Fincher, would be jazzed by my reaction. But he shouldn’t be: he has brought considerable craft and resources to bear on a creepy, ugly thing, a pretty hate machine, a bruised corpse on a coldly gleaming autopsy table (which fairly well describes the film’s color scheme). It reduces everything and everyone to shit, and then rubs it in our faces. It’s the kind of movie that Alex the droog from A Clockwork Orange would make about human relationships and marriage, and its nastiness is not mitigated by art of any sort, or entertainment other than a detached buzz over novelist/scripter Gillian Flynn’s laughable plot twists.

Flynn’s script, brimming with l’esprit d’escalier dialogue reflecting a cynical writer’s idea of how clever people talk, sticks more or less close to her novel, from what I gather. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). It’s a very long movie, at two hours and twenty-five minutes (and feels longer), so it probably doesn’t constitute a spoiler to say that the entire movie isn’t about chasing Amy, and that we shouldn’t trust our initial assumptions about Nick. Yes, if Maleficent was a #yesallwomen movie, Gone Girl is a #notallmen movie. Men’s-rights activists and incipient rapists and abusers should love it.

Much more than this I cannot reveal without blowing the movie’s raison d’être, and many people not culpable for the storytelling or aesthetic choices in Gone Girl have done honest work — including newcomer Carrie Coon as Nick’s sardonic sister and, incredibly, Tyler Perry as a high-powered lawyer who takes Nick’s case — so their work doesn’t deserve to be spoiled. That does leave me some leeway, though, to object to such details as how even the early, supposedly affectionate sex between Nick and Amy carries the sordid chill of the morgue; or how a later sex scene turns egregiously gory (it’s far worse than most violence that the usual moral guardians object to in slasher films but will excuse in this higher-toned Hollywood movie); or how the film depicts low-income motel-dwellers as thuggish thieves without blinking (the gross elitism of the writer and director really stands out here); or how a certain character’s perfidy reaches levels that require the diabolical planning acumen of the fucking Joker. Indeed, Gone Girl gives us Affleck-as-Batman versus Superman a year early: his adversary can do anything, can convince anyone of anything.

So this pulpy tripe — framed, I guess, as meta-commentary on pulpy tripe, which I submit amounts to the same thing — is what’s being peddled as a serious movie, one with not even Mad-magazine but Crazy-magazine-level “satire” of the media that feels a clean two decades off, complete with Missy Pyle as a fulminating Nancy Grace caricature. The paparazzi and news vans descend on Nick’s flyover town as if there were nothing else going on in the country, and we spend too much time watching Nick being groomed for media appearances. You see, Flynn and Fincher (how tempting to refer to these twin sociopaths with the portmanteau Flyncher) are saying, it’s not important in our degraded culture whether someone is innocent, but whether he or she appears innocent and whether the media buys into that.

Fincher’s Zodiac was a true-crime masterpiece of dread and obsession, but it’s clear by now that he’s a top-rank shiner of expensive shoes, a director drawn by technological challenges as well as a general dim view of the world, and after the cheap tricks and galloping misogyny of Gone Girl I’m pretty much done with him. (As for Gillian Flynn, from whom the blessings of this squalid story flow, she can go right to Hell and stay there.) This rancid saga, grindingly unpleasant to the eye and freezing to the touch, seems contrived to titillate audiences with fashionable bleakness, a dash of flesh, a cascade of blood, a wide streak of conservatism cloaked in the cold leather of faux punk rock. If this is what hits the top of bestseller and box-office lists these days, American literature and cinema deserve to burn to the ground. Pass the matches.