The Fury of John Wick

Fury and John Wick are currently playing in theaters

John Wick

 

John Wick (2014) – Rated R

An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him.

My wife and I often use Keanu Reeves as a yardstick for casting. Keanu appears to mostly have one “Speed” of acting. He is quite good at anything requiring posing (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed, The Matrix) but umm less so when heavy acting is required.

I was not expecting much at all from first-time directors and producers, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. They both have extensive backgrounds as stuntmen and second unit directors. This includes heavy work with Keanu on Constantine, Man of Tai Chi, and the Matrix movies.

In spite of having stuntmen as directors, John Wick is a little heavy on CGI, particularly for the blood. CGI, in general, has come a long way but blood and fire effects still need work and tend to pull one out of the immersion.

The plot is quite overwrought. John Wick loses the love of his life, the woman he gave up being an assassin for but that’s okay because just after she dies, he receives a puppy as a present so he still has something to love. That is besides his incredible house and awesome muscle car. It is not long before the villains steal the dog, trash the car, and kill the house or something along those lines.

Having written all of that, one would expect the film to bomb. Thankfully, John Wick is quite good. Keanu is definitely in his element here. He looks good in action, strikes nice poses, and has some good one-liners.

Being professional stuntmen, Leitch and Stahelski have a healthy respect and good eye for action scenes. To their credit, they eschew the use of jumpcuts and jitter camera. These simple choices make the action a lot of fun.

Most of the characters are not developed but merely various archetypes. That said, one character in particular is simply wonderful. That is The Continental Hotel. This is a hotel that caters specifically to criminals and where guests are not allowed to harm each other. Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe) plays the hotel manager to perfection.

If you like action movies, go see John Wick.

Fury

 

Fury (2014) – Rated R

April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and his five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Out-numbered, out-gunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.”

Well I suppose we haven’t had a World War II movie since Monuments Men. Monuments Men was an excellent idea that was hampered by a rather haphazard and somewhat indifferent execution.

That pretty much sums up Fury as well. The attempt to convey the realities of tank warfare in World War II is fairly successful but the dramatic story of the five man crew is pretty pedestrian and pedantic (alliteration for the win).

Brad Pitt is Wardaddy is the battle-wise tank commander. A nearly unrecognizable Shia LaBeouf is Bible, the religious member of the crew. Jon Bernthal is Coon Ass, our beast of a crewmember (honestly, with as on the nose as the script is, I expected his nickname to be ‘beast’ or ‘animal’). Michael Pena is Gordo, our token minority. Finally, Logan Lerman plays our fresh, idealistic recruit, Norman.

The combat scenes are fresh and interesting. They try to showcase all the different aspects of tank combat. Not only are there many different Sherman tanks on display but they actually have a Tiger I tank, a first for a Hollywood production.

Obviously, Fury does not hold a candle to Saving Private Ryan as Fury’s characters don’t really gel as characters but if you want to see some Tank combat, Fury will fit the bill.

Odd Berberian Thomas Sound Studio

Odd Thomas and Berberian Sound Studio are currently available on instant Netflix

Odd Thomas

 

Odd Thomas (2013) – Not rated

In a California desert town, a short-order cook with clairvoyant abilities encounters a mysterious man with a link to dark, threatening forces.

Odd Thomas is based on the first in a series of books by Dean Koontz featuring the titular character. For being based on a novel, this movie is unusually brief (1 hr 36 minutes). imdb lists rather a large number of scenes cut.

I’d be generous in calling this film streamlined but, while it seems a little choppy, it is not incoherent. Exposition is breezy and mostly done in voiceover by Odd (Anton Yelchin). Many things in Odd Thomas could use fleshing out – both ideas and relationships.

Yelchin is certainly a magnet for franchises. He was Chekov in the two most recent Star Trek movies, Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation, and Clumsy Smurf in the Smurf movies. Here he has the opportunity to anchor a franchise.

Writer (screenplay)/director/producer Stephen Sommers is no stranger to franchises either, having done the reboot of The Mummy (1999) which not only spawned two sequels but also a prequel that itself became a franchise (The Scorpion King movies). Unfortunately Dean Koontz does not have a track record of movie hits like Stephen King. Dean Koontz has eighteen writing credits including four movies based on Watchers. That and Demon Seed were minor hits, the rest not so much.

Clearly I digress. Odd Thomas ran into some legal and financial problems and was delayed and then dumped on the market.

Yelchin is charming. Stormy, our heroine, is played by a very attractive Addison Timlin (Derailed, Stand Up Guys). There are good, albeit brief, turns by Willem Dafoe, Patton Oswalt, and Shuler Hensley. Most of Oswalt’s scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

I have not read the book but the movie seems like a Cliff’s Notes version. It is still a lot of fun though.

Berberian Sound Studio

 

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – Not Rated

A shy sound engineer agrees to work on a depraved horror film, only to find that the dysfunction surrounding the project blurs fiction and reality.”

I like it when a favorite character actor gets a chance to be star in a film of their own, particularly when they are a character actor because they don’t fit the standard Hollywood model of beauty. Such is the case here with Toby Jones (recently Arnim Zola in Captain America).

Berberian Sound Studio is filmed and edited very well. Scenes end exactly when they should. Closeups occur often and are well-done. There are no wide or open shots leaving the film feeling very claustrophobic. Sound, as you might expect from the subject matter, is astonishingly good. Berberian Sound Studio is in a mix of English and Italian with English subtitles. Other than Jones, the other actors appear to be all Italian.

Berberian Sound Studio will reward your patient viewing. Gilderoy’s (Toby Jones) mental state being disturbed by the content of the film in the first two acts is gradual but very effective. No spoilers but the third act takes a brilliant turn. The camera movements and shots are central so put away your cellphones and ipads when you watch this disturbing, subversive film.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I wanted a special movie to take my wife to on our anniversary and Wes Anderson’s latest did not disappoint.

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Rated R

The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.”

I would like to just put “Go see this. Now.” as the entire review. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated Moonrise Kingdom, writer/director/producer Wes Anderson has knocked it out of the park again.

One Line Review: Go see this. Now. Best film of the year thus far. Perhaps in toto. Oops that’s a lot of lines but you get the picture.

Wes Anderson the director, and his favorite cinematographer, Robert D. Yeoman, have a fantastic eye for detail. This movie could be used to teach a master class on shot composition. Every frame is either jam-packed with detail or a masterwork in simplicity. I worry I may have missed some dialogue staring at the screen.

Wes Anderson the writer, together with co-writer Hugo Guinness, have composed a love letter to the golden age of fancy hotels and Hollywood. Profanity is used sparingly and, because of that, to good effect, earning the ‘R’ rating. Non-profanity language is elegant and refined, including such bygone terms as funicular.

The plot should not work at all as it is a flashback within a flashback and, at times, within another flashback. The visual style changes with each iteration as does the main character. The tone, which works surprisingly well, is part-farce, part-slapstick, with a dash of darkness as a fictionalized version of World War II hangs over the events

Ralph Fiennes gives a fantastic lead performance, far removed from his more recent villainous and/or dour turns. He is not called on to carry the movie but he obviously could. Previous Anderson alums populate the film to varying degrees. Look for Adrien Brody, Willem DaFoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray (himself a 7 time Anderson alum) to add quirk and verve to their parts. In addition, there is an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, and Jude Law in various parts. Were it not for Fiennes’ incredible performance, the movie would have been stolen by the two young actors, Saoirse Ronan as Agatha and Tony Revolori as Zero.

Seriously I cannot recommend this film enough. Anyone with a love of cinema should see it.

Daybreakers

Daybreakers is currently available on instant Netflix.

Daybreakers (2009) – Rated R

“Earth’s population is up against a vicious plague that’s transforming everyone into vampires and draining the world of an increasingly precious resource: blood. As the human race count nears zero, could science hold the key to a solution?”

“Let’s be clear about this. Humans were offered a chance to assimilate, but they refused. Therefore, they are enemies of the state and will be captured and farmed for blood supply.”

In 2003, twin brothers Peter and Michael Spierig made a nifty little horror movie called Undead. Both of them wrote, directed, edited, produced, and worked on the visual effects for the film. Peter even worked on the sound for Undead.

Daybreakers is the Spierig brothers sophomore effort and they have a much bigger budget to work with. Special effects, worked on by the brothers, are quite good. Creature effects are by Weta workshop and the quality shows. The Spierig brothers manufacture some amazing visuals: mirrored shots of clothing (vampires cast no reflection but clothing does), shadows pierced by glowing eyes, normal vampires waiting for a subway train while devolved ones fight under the platform. A human blood farm in this strange new world is particularly startling.

The movie opens with a young (in body anyway) vampire committing suicide by awaiting the dawn. The credits then play out over an abandoned-by-day urban landscape. I love the world created here by the spread of vampirism – something that is quite logical but ignored by other vampire movies. There are certainly moments of humor but the concept is taken quite seriously.

Indie darling Ethan Hawke is the lead here as our concerned vampire researcher, Edward Dalton. Sam Neill is our chief vampire, Charles Bromley, head of Bromley Blood Banks. Thankfully, he gives us a restrained and urbane villain. Willem Dafoe gives us a rather less-restrained performance but not over-the-top performance as Lionel ‘Elvis’ Cormac, leader of the human underground.

The rest of the cast is populated by an assortment of Australian and Kiwi actors, an astonishing number of whom were in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Claudia Karvan is good as Audrey Bennett. Michael Dorman is zealous as Edward’s younger brother, Frankie Dalton. Jay Laga’aia makes an impression with a small role as Senator Turner.

The acting, direction and story are all good but the real reason Daybreakers works is the unique and very fleshed out world that the Spierig brothers have created. I look forward to their next feature, Predestination, also starring Ethan Hawke.

The Hunger – Amazon Prime Week

The Hunger is currently available on Amazon Prime.

The Hunger (1983)

“Sensual vampire story stars rock legend David Bowie as an ailing centuries-old vampire whose fanged-lover, Catherine Deneuve, seduces a mortal while seeking a new partner.”

She’s that kind of a woman. She’s… European. “

Tony Scott’s theatrical directorial debut, The Hunger, is a film ahead of its time. The Hunger is all style and not much substance. The movie is very loosely based on the Whitley Streiber novel of the same name.

The first goth rock band, Bauhaus, is featured over the opening credits singing their iconic song, Bela Lugosi’s Dead. While Bauhaus would be on nineteen different soundtracks, this was the first and only time they appeared on film. By they, I mean lead singer Peter Murphy. The other members are featured only as arms or legs. Bauhaus broke up that year.

The Hunger belongs to the trio of actors at the center of the film. Thankfully each one is not only superb but sexy as well. Because so much of the theme of The Hunger is aging, it is nice that Scott went with a trio of mid-to-late-30s actors instead of youngsters.

French superstar Catherine Deneuve has a wonderfully mature icy, sexy demeanor as our central vampire, Miriam. Singer David Bowie was stylish to begin with but handles the aging quite well as Miriam’s companion John. Susan Sarandon leaves her wide-eyed Janet from Rocky Horror behind, playing researcher Sarah Roberts.

The Hunger has cult classic written all over it. The first requirement for cult classic is that it be stylish. The vampires are stylish. They have a stylish home in New York with a stylish staircase, a conservatory, a lily room and an attic with doves, a spotlight, and flowing gauzy curtains. They even have a remote that controls not a television or stereo but a spotlight (re-purposed slide projector?). The wardrobe is stylish, the Egyptian weapon is stylish, the darkened nightclub is stylish.

The second requirement is that it appeal to a niche group. The Hunger is clearly made for the goth movement except that it predates the majority of that. It is also apparently popular in the lesbian community – not a surprise as the scene where Deneuve seduces Sarandon is an absolute stunner.

Makeup artist extraordinaire Dick Smith, already an old hand at age makeup with Little Big Man, does a superb job of aging David Bowie and a monkey. Howard Blake’s score and musical stings work well and is seen briefly as a piano player.

Sorry to be vague here but I hate spoilers. The ending, while, of course, stylish, throws away everything that we learned over the course of the film and as such is rather jarring. In spite of that, I really enjoyed this very different vampire tale.

People Watch: Look for actor Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, The English Patient) as 2nd Phone Booth Youth. Ann Magnuson is a young woman picked up at a bar.