John Wick

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked this movie. I wasn’t expecting much but it turned out to be a pretty solid action movie.

I think the main thing I liked is that it was completely devoid of exposition. Nobody said any stupid lines to explain the plot, or to verbalize what was about to happen on screen. Things just happened, things were the way they were because, well, that’s just the way they were. The very simple plot was allowed to play out pretty much the way you expected it to, without any major turns or reveals or twists.

John Wick is a master assassin who has been retired for five years but is pulled back into his old world to avenge the death of his dog. I won’t go into detail about the dog but they succinctly explain the motivation behind the dog in less time than it took for you to read this paragraph so far. As I mentioned earlier, no exposition. The dialog was mostly short and to the point, and very well written for a movie with such a huge body count. My favorite line in the whole movie explained Wick’s background, or position within the underworld, in about 5 seconds of dialog. No flashbacks. No montages. No long drawn out explanations. Just one line was all it took for me to believe that this was a man who was capable of going into night club and killing about 50 people while only taking a bullet or two and a small stabbing. Note that this wasn’t the case for my wife, she thought it was a little overboard. But I’m a dude and I’m wired to believe stupid shit. Ha ha.

The film had some obvious visual effects blood here and there, but I counted over 50 stunt players and around 35 people under the VFX heading in the credits, and that included all the td’s, IT guys and producers. Suffice it to say that there were a lot of practical stunts and effects.

John Wick gets a thumbs up. It did pretty well at the box office last weekend, especially considering the minimal advertising I’ve seen for it. I’m glad that something like this has found an audience and that we can have a little reprieve from the mindless, crappy action movies we’re usually fed (I’m looking at you, The Equalizer!) John Wick wasn’t particularly smart, but it was not dumb, it was concise, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Birdman

Birdman has received a bit of attention because of the gimmick they used in the way it was filmed. They strung together a series of very long takes strung together with hard to identify cuts, so that the entire movie seemed to be one long shot. The shots, however, transcended time and space by jumping ahead a day, or an hour or maybe even backward a bit, I don’t entirely remember.

Did it work? On a technical level, hell yeah it did. What they accomplished from a mechanical ‘this is how you make a movie’ level was astounding. It was a pleasure to watch and all the performers fit into the puzzle perfectly. The novelty of it all wore off pretty quickly and after a while it just became part of how the movie was presented and was not a distraction. It gave it a sort of fly on the wall quality where you felt you were in the middle of it all. Props to the cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki, who has Gravity and Children of Men to his credit) for choosing to use a steady-cam for a film that must have been shot mostly with handhelds. It gave it a smooth, flowing quality that you don’t normally get in modern day films where shaky-cam(tm) is the norm.

There should/will be a very interesting behind the scenes ‘making of’ featurette on the bluray when it comes out. So what was the problem?

Mostly character and story. The main character was a washed up actor (Michael Keaton) who played a big superhero in his past and was trying to wrestle himself away from that role by producing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. I guess I perhaps couldn’t identify with his character so the plot was a bit boring. I kinda didn’t care either way about whether he succeeded or failed.

He was also prone to flights of fancy that were typically played as reality, like when he points to a light and it turns off, or when he lifts a toolbox up and throws it against a wall without touching it. I’m not sure what this was trying to say about the character and it didn’t add much to the plot.

I will call out Ed Norton’s (I refuse to call him Edward) performance. He plays an asshole really well and knocked his role out of the park. He was the highlight of the film but unfortunately it was not enough to make the overall experience a winning one.

But, if you can get past the boring main character and plot, it’s almost worth seeing just for the technical achievement. I don’t know if it’ll win any awards next year, but it’ll certainly be talked about. If you’re at all interested in the craft of moviemaking, and seeing a singularly unique, unconventially made piece of art, it might be worth your time.

The Two Faces of January

Viggo! Viiiiigoooooo! Love me some Viggo, but no Viggo nuts in this one. Bummer!

The Two Faces of January is a noir set in 1960’s Greece. That doesn’t sound too appetizing but it almost worked.

The plot centers around Viggo’s character, an investment cheat that is on the run with his dame, to Greece then perhaps across Europe. They meet up with an American national who is acting as a tour guide with a penchant for swindle himself, albeit on a smaller scale than Viggo. Throw in an accidental (?) murder and you have yourself the outline for a pretty good story.

The problem I had with is was I thought Viggo’s reaction to the situation was unrealistic. He’s supposed to be a calm, cool and collected con man, yet in the face of one little murder he suddenly turns into a complete idiot. I had no faith that he could have pulled off the cheats the allude to him pulling off (in a timeline before the movie starts.)

Any time they group had to lay low for a few hours, he’d get drunk, get jealous of his wife, go into the town square and start fights, all while being the only six foot tall white guy in town who can’t speak Greek and whose picture is in the paper as a suspect for the murder. Okay, but that only happened once but he did many similar things that would have blown his cover instantly, outside the confines of a more realistic story.

Viggo is also portrayed as a raging drunk, and again, I’m not convinced someone that’s such a dysfunctional drunk could have pulled off a swindle that netted enough cash for the victims to send a P.I. to Greece to track him down.

I can understand that murder will put a bit of stress on a guy, but later on when he kills his wife (spoiler alert!) he seems much less distraught than when he killed the P.I. I also find it hard to believe that someone can fall apart to that extent in just a couple days.

My wife says I’m completely wrong, so the movie can be different things to different people. It wasn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, perhaps maybe overly long. I just thought they really pumped the flaws of Viggo’s character way off the charts, in severe disproportion compared to the other two people in the trio, and it made the proceedings much less believable.

The Boxtrolls

Oh, Laika. Can’t you just hire Henry Selick again and make a decent movie for once? The Boxtrolls was better than the terrible, terrible Paranorman, but that’s not saying much.

The Boxtrolls took place in a more whimsical British sort of town, location unspecified. But everyone had accents. The good people had white hats. The bad people red. But most people didn’t wear hats at all. This is never explained.

The Boxtrolls wear cardboard boxes and live underground. At one time they stole a child. It is presumed that before that they peacefully coexisted with the humans on the surface, but this is never mentioned. This is never explained.

Said kid grows up for about 10 years and somehow speaks the Queen’s English, while the Boxtrolls speak a sort of guttural, monosyllabic pigeon-English that the main character can translate. It’s never explained how he got his perfect Cockney accent.

At the time the kid disappeared, his father, a prominent engineer in the town, also disappears. It’s known that the Boxtrolls took the kid, but it’s never explained why nobody cared about the dad.

The aristocrats that wear the white hats love cheese. This is never explained. The evildoers in their red hats want white hats because they also want some of that cheese. It’s never explained why they can’t just obtain their own cheese. I’m not making up this part at all.

I could go on and on but I won’t. The Boxtrolls had none of the continuity or charm of Coraline, bad writing, unexplained and never referenced characters and SNOOOOOOOOOOOREEEEEE….

The Book of Life

I was pretty disappointed in this one. It looked like it had good potential but it was bogged down in the one thing a lot of animated feature films forget to focus on: the writing.

Mi esposa mentioned to me that the IMDB trivia for this film indicates some rewrites, and three different names during production. It shows, at least in the first half. The story is kind of all over the place. There’s not much direction, nor rhyme or reason to why things happen. They happen just out of convenience. It didn’t make it particularly hard to follow, because there was nowhere to follow, just a bunch of desperate parts lying around that seemed like they were from a few different jigsaw puzzles.

Once the story turned to the ‘land of the rememered’, which is to say Mexican Heaven, it got much better for a few minutes. There was a clear direction to the story, a twist, and the production design suddenly got awesome. They should have spent more time down there. That environment produced the only joke that was worth laughing at.

But then they come back to the surface and everything is weird again. They also kept throwing in weird Tejano versions of somewhat recent pop songs (most notably ‘Creep’ by Radiohead.) Yeah, told you. It was weird, and not in an admirable way.

I wish I could say it was a good try, but it wasn’t. Next time, scrip the whole thing and get a good writer in there to start from scratch. Don’t bring in a ‘script doctor’ to punch it up, that pretty much never works. I’m glad to see an animated film based on Mexican culture and folk traditions, but the great people of Mexico deserve something better. Way better.

Art and Craft

I’m not ever sure where to begin describing this documentary. It centers around a man named Mark Landis who many describe as the US’s most prolific art forger.

They mystery around him seems to be that there is no mystery, he lays down what he does right on the table for you to see, yet the fascinating thing is that there’s really only one person in the art world (formerly, really) that has come forward to expose him.

The reason he’s able to continue his shenanigans is that he gives his forgeries out for free, complete with made-up provenance, where most art directors at big museums choose not to check his story out and blindly hang the paintings. Giving away fake things for free isn’t illegal.

I honestly don’t know that Landis is trying to say anything. He’s not all there, mentally, and they go into his personal history enough to paint a picture of a severely injured man who is coping the best he can.

On the other hand, his ruses are fairly elaborate, complete with forged documents, made up backstories about his not-existing dead sister, costumes and many aliases. One person in the film described it as a sort of performance art, and I tend to agree with him. There’s a sort of mad genius at work here and it was fascinating to watch.

What wasn’t fascinating was the one art director that was trying to expose or stop him. It turns out that the art community at large mostly doesn’t really care about it. They’re not happy to advertise that they’d been duped and would rather quietly take down the forgeries and move on. Except this one guy, who was fired from his post at some big art museum for reasons that are not clear. I don’t even care about his name because he came of as such an asshole by the end of the movie.

Landis sort of reminded me of Frank, except this was real life, and the character in this one at least seemed to be happy, relatively speaking. At the very least he was having fun doing what he was doing, even if he seemed like he wasn’t entirely sure what his own motivation was.