John Wick, Chapter 2

We ventured out to see *John Wick, Chapter 2* this past Thursday, a testosterone-fueled affair where all but two of the principals are males.  The first is the target of a hit, and she demonstrates her defiance by stripping naked for the protagonist and jumping in a tub.  The second is a mute who is pretty masculine in her own right, with cropped hair and a conventional men’s suit.  She’s also tatted up.   What is going on with her is not exactly clear. The love interest is actually just a picture of his former love interest (who must have died in the previous movie?) and probably doesn’t count as a character, unless you need at least three females in the film to get it green-lighted in Hollywood these days.

Not that I was expecting it, but not a real feminine touch here.

The real love interest, it turns out, is John Wick’s dog, who behaves a lot like a woman typically behaves in these affairs — follows the hero around and focuses its attention solely on the hero (in this case literally sitting at attention until it is told it can do otherwise). The dog doesn’t have a name, either, which is both mildly comedic and instructive.

What the movie lacks in women, it makes up for in action, and in spots the action is brilliant.  The initial chase scene contains several moments where L&D (and our special guest, A) jumped out of our seats or covered our faces or shouted “OH!” and generally reacted in ways men react when they see another man take a direct and unexpected shot to the nutuals.  This is John Wick at its best.  The film also featured dozens of shots where the victim’s brain and skull spatter out the back of the head.  For example, Mr. Wick might angle the gun below a victim and the bullet would come out the back of the victim’s head, along with residual brain and skull, sort of like seeing the silhouette of water out of a fountain.

In fairness, most of the victims had it coming.

Speaking of fountains, I also liked the scene where hero and one of the villains were shooting at each other blindly through the fountain.   Why they were being so coy in the station a minute earlier and then start blindly shooting at each other out in the open is an unanswerable question, and if you see the film, you will not be able to answer it, either.

This is pure, live-action comic book.   Which, I gather, is pure live-action first-person gaming these days.  If you like watching people play first-person shooter video games, this is the movie for you.

But for the rest of us, even low expectations going in wasn’t enough to save it.  This movie has no heart.  The story isn’t interesting.  The characters aren’t interesting.  The great Ian McShane gets to play a priggish bore, like Teddy Bass running his own retirement community or a modern-day Al Swearengen who doesn’t allow swearing within his club. The only grasp at sex appeal in the entire affair is immediately supplanted with noirish bloodletting.

And even the villain isn’t that villainous,  at least not in a way that inspires true audience animus or awe. Aren’t great action movies as much about the villain as the hero?  Darth Vader, the Joker, Hans Gruber, Sam Gerard.  That’s probably as much of a deal breaker as anything.

Heart and a good Villain.  We will return to these themes in future posts, I’m certain.

As for the verdict:   For me, the movie was saved by low expectations and I got my $5 worth.

It passes the time.

It shocks.

It awes.

And then, like it never happened, I go home and forget all about it.

Unfortunately, my colleague was expecting more and was sorely, sorely disappointed.   So, plan accordingly.

Collide

There are many, many things colliding in the new Hollywood mashup Collide, coming soon to video near you.

The movie is set in Germany of all places, following the trajectory of Casey Stein, a reasonably good-looking American ex-pat with really big blue eyes (Nicholas Hoult).  Casey is involved in some illicit activities, acting as the pickup boy for the the underworld boss, Gerun (played by Ben Kingsley). At first glance, Kingsley seems  to be reprising his role as the bumptious bald guy from Sexy Beast, only with a different accent and a gaudier wardrobe, something along the lines of “Evil Bono” (ht: L). In this case, however, Kingsley is less worried about recruiting henchmen than he is about getting a fair cut from his boss, the trucking magnate Englishman thugmeister, Anthony Hopkins (played by Anthony Hopkins).  The uneasy tension sets the stage for a mutinous collision, of course.

Meanwhile, Casey has his eye on the good-looking American ex-pat bartender, Juliette (Felicity Jones), who doesn’t approve of his profession.  So, head-over-heels in love, Casey goes straight and starts working as a salt-of-the-earth guy in one of the many jobs available to Americans in European metal scrapyards, while the couple do the efficient German thing and fall in love over the course of a couple minute montage.  But, alas, their booze-fueled affair hits an icy patch, and the couple find themselves in the need of a very quick cash infusion, setting Romeo back to the underworld for that one last big chivalrous score. The cliches come Fast & Furious, and what ensues is the aforementioned gangster-heist-car chase-action hero mashup, with cars traveling at blistering speeds down the autobahn and things crashing and blowing up here and thar, leading to the climatic collision between the principals.  I’m guessing you can guess what happens from here.

One change from this standard formula is that Hopkins’ henchmen all have dark hair and steely blue eyes, sport monochromatic clothing, and excitedly shout things out in German during some heated moments, adding (probably inadvertent) comic effect to the extended manhunt. (It is possible these henchmen are all played by the same actor, with a beard tacked on at times to mix things up; the credits for actors was much shorter than the list of stuntmen).

Some of the sequences are done really well and, coupled with Hopkins in a fabulous light-blue suit and Kingsley parading around in high-end pajamas, hopped up on gop, it makes for a rather enjoyable, at times laugh-out-loud funny, 90 minutes or so.

I can think of worse ways to spend my $5, but I’m not so sure I’d spend too much more than that on this film.

Lion

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For anyone who has done any significant exploration into their genealogy, Lion is going to be a powerful experience. I watched the third act with a lump in my throat.

This film, whose simple story could easily be described in a line or two, to the point that you might consider not watching it, was actually layered and complex. The film is carried by a brilliant young actor Sunny Pawar (I haven’t seen such great acting by a child, in fact all the kids in Lion, since Beasts of No Nation in 2015) and also Dev Patel who is deservedly up for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Lion has enormous heart. In this past year of weekly movie viewing, I have come to realize that it’s one of the single most important elements in a film. In current movies, technical capabilities are limitless and have generally been conquered via VFX and/or tons of cash. So for me, production value, though key, will not save a movie if the story is about let’s say two self-absorbed kids seeking fame at the cost of their own love. But in Lion, the story is one that, like Moonlight, centers around self-discovery. And this journey is absolutely necessary for the continued survival of the protagonist. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.

Lion made it right under the wire into my top 10 list for 2016 and I highly recommend it.

Moonlight

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—SPOILERS —Moonlight is a highly stylized indie film that has reached great acclaim and is nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Writer/Director Barry Jenkins. It depicts the life of a person who knows he is gay and must contend with his own personal identity crisis under intense societal and family pressure. The film is told in three acts. It is as much the story of the main protagonist, Chiron, as his friend Kevin, the one person who seems to be in Chiron’s corner. Operative words, seems to be.

As I overheard someone say when we left the theater, it is a character driven story, not a plot driven story. Some people characterize films as either, or.  Though I think it’s an easy argument to make, it’s also an oversimplification. Within the three act structure and the passage of time chronologically, Moonlight certainly does have a plot and is driven by a traditional beginning, middle and end. However, the drama within the structure may surprise people. Even though there are drugs and violence spinning and threatening at all times at the periphery, the story is not so much about that but how all of that is interfering with Chiron’s growth and attempt to simply be himself. Chiron’s transformation in Act III is a powerful revelation and the denouement of the film is an intense, honest and moving portrayal of love and friendship. The film did remind me of a short Italian film I saw many moons ago but that stayed with me. That film portrays a child who is constantly bullied. He eats a lot of protein, works out, gets strong. In an alley, the bully is confronted by this seemingly new threat. But once the bully figures out that it’s the same kid he regularly beat up, he proceeds to do it again. Moonlight shares this intrigue on human psychology. What you see on the outside can mislead you about what a person is really like.

I think the film is different in that it deals with youth, gay issues and African-American issues in a sensitive way. As we noted, our last three films, “Live by Night”, “The Founder” and “Gold” were all about white guy protagonists out to conquer the world. Antithetically to those, Moonlight is a film about an African-American on a journey to discover himself.

Gold

Gold-Matthew-McConaughey

Gold is the third straight movie we’ve seen that focuses exclusively on a single character obsessed with conquering his world (see also *Live by Night* and *The Founder*). In this case the character is our main man, Matthew McConaughey, as a mineral prospector whose Nevada ‘plays’ have come to an end by the late 1980s, so he sets his sights to his dreams about the vast untapped wealth of rural Indonesia. From that point, the movie splits its time between the lushness of the jungle in one part of the world, to the arid semi-mountainous climes of Nevada in another, to the concrete jungle that is Wall Street that bankrolls the whole affair.

Actually, that is not quite right.  There are two candidates for main character, which the viewer has to sort out on their own.  The first candidate, of course, is McConnaughey as Kenny — a rambling guy with a protruding gut, a spectacularly receding hairline, and a tooth issue that I can’t quite put my finger on, who is often seen sporting tighty whities that are neither tight nor white. There are very few if any scenes where Kenny isn’t the focal point, and he is mostly fun to watch.  Big props to him for looking pretty much like a fat guy on a bender  from wire to wire in this one. The other main character is Edgar Ramirez as the gold whisperer, Michael Acosta, who gets to play the sharp-dressed man here, and is beautiful doing so.  I still can’t decide if he nailed it with his performance or if he kind of sucked. I’m leaning toward nailed it, with the suckiness coming more from some unevenness of the plot and pacing and incidentals.

Continue reading “Gold”

REVIEW: The Founder

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Possible Spoilers Here – I have been letting this film sink in. And have had more than the typical quick convo with D after the movie. Its been a few days now and I have already recommended it to a few people. This is truly a great movie. Michael Keaton lands every single note in key. The film deals with so many things including psychology, incentive, behavior, marketing, real estate, Realpolitik, history and of course, burgers fries and milkshakes. Full disclosure, I went to Mikey D’s directly before and after I saw this film. I won’t get into deforestation for cattle raising or the Disneyfication of our culture here. Suffice it to say, a McDonald’s opened not so gracefully in the Vatican itself a few weeks ago. Sure the Bishops are denouncing but if you stay up late, who knows, you might see Francis himself sneak in there for some fries at midnight.

The film is about the hubris of a man. And as his empire grows his ethical choices sour. Most relevant, he decides to not be a man of his word following an important deal. He cuts corners on quality. He dumps his wife for no legitimate reason. He enacts revenge when it is not necessary. His business philosophy became, in short, not “Only the Paranoid Survive” but “Only the Ruthless Survive”.  Curiously, the lies he told himself became the reality that he became wealthy enough to own and tell others. His own myth maker. A good storyteller. …And posthumously, known as a great philanthropist due to the work of his third wife.

The spin is on, big time, with Ray Kroc. I actually thought he was the founder of McDonald’s. That’s all I ever knew. I had no idea that the “speedy system” belonged to two brother’s from California. That their original burger stand, called McDonald’s, was what Kroc took and transformed into the international behemoth, the good, bad and ugly thing some of us love to hate and some of us… don’t bother us, we are eating our Big Mac. The bottom line is that Ray Kroc envisioned a need, he knew this country would grow in all directions and he wanted there to be a church, Old Glory flying and a the Golden Arches in every town in America. And that you could get that same burger under the same lighting, for essentially the same price — anywhere. This truly horrifies some people, like the McDonald’s bothers when profit came before quality and exalted others, those travelers on lonely roads in the middle of nowhere or people hoping to get a franchise and make the promised land work for them. It’s an amazing and complex story that is well told here, honestly, with powdered milk and all, for you to chew on.

REVIEW: Live By Night

The L&D Report made its first trip of the year Thursday to see Ben Affleck’s new vanity project, *Live By Night*. Affleck plays the Boston Irish war hero cum petty thug cum Prohibition-era gangster hellbent on revenge (but with a heart of gold!). With a run time of just under four and a half hours, this sprawling epic is all over the map more than anything we’ve seen since Ibn Battuta. The plot itself is neither interesting nor surprising (though admittedly I was surprised it didn’t end sooner) and hardly worth recounting.

There were a few aspects where the movie excelled. There were some great long shots of Florida drives, some reasonably cool costumes (that generally made Ben Affleck look super good), and a really extraordinary car chase that had me seriously amped. There were also several supporting actor roles that were well played, including Brendan Gleeson as the police chief dad in mourning, Chris Messina as Affleck’s colorful Florida sidekick, and Titus Welliver as the grape-brained racist killer dude with this lip deformity thing.

Even so, most of the characters were caricatures or worse. The usually reliable Chris Cooper at one point breaks down crying, and it isn’t clear if it’s part of the story line or whether he can’t believe he’s stuck in that role. It doesn’t get any better for Cooper and he ends the movie in a completely debased and degraded state, which is I’m guessing how most audiences will feel walking out of the theater.

Let’s just say that this movie definitely didn’t hit the $5 value bar, and L&D Reporters will not be catching this when it is rerun on TNT, which will probably be coming sooner than you might think.