Thursday, May 23, 2019

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM (2019, 130 minutes, R)

The Quick of It -
It amazes me how Keanu Reeves gets these projects that get so much traction when critics bashed his earlier work.  He continually proves them wrong at the box office, even when he still plays that niche role he has created for himself.

To put this into a sports analogy, imagine a team that has a player that excels in a particular skill.  If a quarterback is an outstanding passer, you keep him safe and slinging the ball.  If you have a point guard who can pass and move the basketball against any team, you let them direct traffic.  The core idea is to put people in situations so they can succeed.  Mr. Reeves has a tenacious spirit, putting his heart into a role.  Even if you only see it on the screen in the most subtlest of ways, it is there.  I cannot imagine the tremendous number of hours he accrued off-screen for this role to make it feel seamless and real.  Well, there may have been a few early-bird blocks, but we can forgive him when half the film is intense action sequences.

Keanu Reeves may have a stoic presence, not exhibiting Hollywood flair or have weeping eyes that deem one Oscar worthy.  But, he has enough acting chops to grab your attention and let you never stray from his journey.  In this stage of his career, the John Wick series is far above the action heroes of old, forging a new path into violence and creativity.  There have been other films that have progressed the filming-style of action movies, like the Bourne series, that is true.  For John Wick, this collection of films has contributed to a fading sub-genre.  Superhero films have overshadowed the yearly lineup for action, pushing the secondary titles deeper into a low-level money grab for the scraps.

CHAPTER 3 continues where 2 left us.  Wick is on the clock as his excommunication by the High Table from the assassin’s guild becomes official.  He must use all his chits to get help, calling in all favors, to survive long enough to find a way out of the $14 million-dollar price tag on his head.  What comes next?  Oh… we know.  And that is the beauty of it. 

Again, at the helm is director Chad Stahelski.  What makes him so special with his limited catalog of movies as a director?  His catalog of movies he worked on, being on the stunt and fight-choreography side.  His command and attention to detail while taking the time to prime the moments before visually inundating you with ferocity, pulling you down to a calming place, and then suffering through each impact of bullet and fist.

They incorporate a new team-up, Halle Berry as bad-ass Sofia.  She gives something to the story but did leave me a little jolted by the insertion.  (Yeah, had to incorporate that word.  Extra points.)  Like many of the introductions, I guess each is an immediate introduction without much transition, but I felt a little cheated with her.  Her story was deeper than most, probably too deep for what time she was given. 

While the returning cast is top-notch star power, we have the opportunity to see the hidden world of international assassins expand.  Add an Adjudicator for the High Table, Asia Kate Dillon (of ‘Billions’ and “Orange is the New Black), who you think doesn’t blink the whole time.  She stares down everyone, regardless of their killing natures.  Also, the sushi chef/ninja Zero, played by Mark Dacascos, from my favorite French film BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, acts so flippantly, you want to see what he does next. 

The end result is not just an action film but a clinic on mood and setting.  Light and the use of cool colors is phenomenal.  The staging of sequences and incorporating animals into the melees is beyond anything you will expect or wish for.  Make the time to see this on the large screen, worth every penny.  There are more Wicks to come.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - COLD PURSUIT

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

A few years ago, writer and director Hans Petter Moland offered up a wonderful gem of a film called IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE.

In it, a father, played the amazing Stellan Skarsgard (the nutty professor of THOR and various Marvel films) played a grieving Norwegian father and snowplow driver who sets off on a path of murderous revenge, determined to destroy all those responsible for his son’s death.  Casting Mr. Skarsgard in the role of Nils Dickman was sheer genius; his thoughtful, hilarious performance of a man that has no idea what he is doing when it comes to dealing out death turned a simple revenge story into one of caustic redemption.  There was a deep, underlying morality play working just behind his sorrowful eyes, one which made this working-class man a relatable and sympathetic hero.

And the supporting cast was just as reliable.  Bruno Ganz as a Serbian mob boss, who also loses a son to at the hands of a drug kingpin known as “The Count” is a ruthless and calculated man—the polar opposite of Nils, and a telling contrast.  He has the resources to extract his revenge, and isn’t afraid to use them—unlike the improbable Nils, who has to learn as he goes.

Ultimately, the film works on several distinct levels, partly due to the brilliant script by Kim Fupz Aakeson.  He gives each and every character a reason to be present, and he cares for them—even the reprehensible ones.  Each of these are people, individuals living their lives unapologetically for the most part, and dealing with the consequences of their actions.

Did I mention the comedy aspect?  It serves as a third character, this dark humor which pervades throughout the story.  Much of it comes from Nils learning how to kill, or dispose of bodies.  But for as much of it that comes at the aging plow driver’s expense, there is a hefty amount aimed at the preposterousness of the situations.  A heavy sarcasm guides the proceedings like an all-knowing dungeon master who giggles fiercely at every dark turn.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, Shawn—where’s the review for the Liam Neeson flick, you monkeyhole?”  Well, if you want a review of an entirely needless and passionless Hollywood remake BY THE SAME DUDE THAT DIRECTED THE ORIGINAL, FOR THE LOVE OF THE SWEET BABY HEY-ZEUS, I’ll give you one.

The original was a helluva lot better.
Film Grade: D+
Special Features: (No clue.  I’m too busy watching the original now to regale meself with any more Hollywood BS.)
Blu-ray Necessary: The original, sure.  This one?  HELL NAW.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - ESCAPE ROOM

‘Blu-ray or Bust’
ESCAPE ROOM (2019, PG-13, 99 minutes, COLUMBIA PICTURES)

I miss the horror films of the eighties.  THE THING, HOUSE (the one with William Katt), FRIGHT NIGHT (the one without Colin Farrell), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON—you know, movies that utilized practical effects over CGI, quite possibly because CGI sucked shark turds back then.

Not to say that there have not been vast improvements in the technology since then.  You wouldn’t have films like THE AVENGERS or BLADE RUNNER 2049 without the abilities of current day computers.  Yet we are talking about horror films.  One of the first to really utilize the technology was AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, a terribly written sequel to the John Landis classic.  The horrible writing wasn’t the death knell of that poorly received attempt to mentally junk-punch the audience, however: it was the cartoon werewolves that landed the greatest insult.

Thank the Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus that the technological advances have gotten us to the point we are now: no more bad paintings for backgrounds, no more blobby wolves.  Most films rely on CGI nowadays to streamline the onscreen action, and it is typically used quite effectively.  Enter ESCAPE ROOM, a film that harkens back to the practical effects of that bygone era when people actually built sets instead of having the actors stand on and before giant green screens.

The set pieces are the star of this film; all of the acting is fine, much of the script is fine, but it is the rooms that six strangers must escape from or die in that are the true treat here.  At first, the viewer is invited into their immersive world; I found myself looking for clues on the screen just as frantically as the characters were, even though I wasn’t in a life-or-death situation.  The actors are effective enough: Deborah Ann Woll of “True Blood” and “Daredevil” fame is on hand to lend some credibility to the younger actors, as is Tyler Labine—“Dale” from TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL.

But one of the major issues with what transpires onscreen is that the audience is effectively removed from the action in the final few set pieces.  And the final five minutes of the film is an entirely unnecessary arc which is so bad it is nearly an insult to our intelligence.

So basically, skip the first seven minutes and the last five.  That beginning, too, is a bit clunky.  Another part of the problem is that director Adam Robitel seems to suffer from moments of genuine flair, which is offset by bouts of screaming inadequacy.  It’s like watching a duck chugging an energy drink, and then taking a downer immediately afterwards.  Lots of excited flapping and then a sudden nap, pretty much.  This is the same guy that thought the script for INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY would make a good movie to direct, and I’d rather have one of my testicles removed through my nose hole than suffer through that crap again.

While there may not be a lot of gunfire or explosions, this is kinda necessary in the high-end format.  The set pieces are lovingly detailed, especially the upside-down barroom, which is a great lesson in physics, and makes for a tense scene.  The score by Brian Tyler (CRAZY RICH ASIANS) lends a heavy, dramatic air to the proceedings, and benefits from surround sound.

It isn’t that this movie is terrible—it isn’t.  But it could be so much better, so much more effective, if it stayed away from the typical tropes which plague much of horror cinema today.  Like the unnecessary setup for a sequel, which takes five minutes of the end time and plays out as more of an anti-climax than it does an effective epilogue.  So, yeah—stay for the practical effects, leave for the bookends of banality.

Film Grade: B-
Special Features: C (not enough there, and what is there isn’t all that enlightening)
Blu-ray Necessary: Recommended

--T.S. Kummelman 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - GLASS

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I think there comes a certain responsibility as a filmmaker who chooses to write and direct his own series of films to his audience.

Continuity, detail, and respect for their own material and characters seems of paramount importance—to me, at least.  Honestly, what the hell do I know, though?  I am basically just a trumped-up fan of cinema, a geek with a voice, a dork waffle with an outlet.

But whatever M. Night Shamalamadingdong is smoking should be banned.

I am a big fan of UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT, the two films Mr. Shyamalan wrote and directed that are the predecessors to this third entry.  Each of the films, like their titles, focus on one of three characters, insomuch that, if you had to boil each character down to their most basic of descriptions, fits each perfectly.  UNBREAKABLE was the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a train wreck that discovers he is indeed unbreakable.  SPLIT introduced audiences to a man (the amazing James McAvoy) with multiple—or split—personalities, just as much a villain as Dunn was a hero.

With GLASS, Mr. Shyamalan reintroduces us to “Mr. Glass”, Dunn’s archenemy from the first film.  He is called Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) because he suffers from a rare disorder that makes his bones extremely brittle.  Therein lies his only weakness, although his mind makes up for that big-ass lack of calcium.  His brain is supposedly so much better than everyone else’s, making him a mental force to be reckoned with.  His brand of evil is particular, even though he follows the comic book rules he touts as a lifestyle.  He’s smarter than everyone else, yet he adheres to the predictable coda set forth in the same comics that he collects and sells, or at least did prior to his incarceration in UNBREAKABLE.  Seems kinda dumb, if you ask me.

GLASS does not lack for action; the viewer is treated to a showdown early on between The Beast and Dunn, yet reality intercedes, and they are both apprehended and placed in the same institution as Mr. Glass.  The ensuing game of cat and mouse is entertaining, and one of the film’s most effective scenes is when all three are in the same room together, being treated by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sara Paulson of “American Horror Story” fame).  Staple is an emotionless overseer, a scientist who claims to have the cure for those that think they are super-human.  If comic books and films have taught us anything, it is that if something can go spectacularly wrong, it most certainly will.

Mr. Shyamalan creates visuals that are memorable and, on occasion, downright haunting.  He keeps much of The Beast’s violence off-screen, a trick he has used to great effect throughout his films.  Yet it is a nuance which we have come to expect from him, and here, seems to be the only technique he learned from master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock, the man that perfected that move.  Mr. McAvoy’s performance is just as good as it was in SPLIT, and at times his range shines through.  Yet this is not his film, and, with the title seemingly saying that the focus will be on Mr. Glass, much time is spent on Ms. Paulson’s character.  This makes the narrative choppy, and doesn’t give quite the payoff fans of the previous two films might be expecting.

As usual, no spoilers, but the big showdown at the end is more of a big letdown.  Mr. Shyamalan doesn’t respect certain characters enough to give them a decent enough endgame (yeah, I know), and one particular act feels offensive.  It is almost as if he is introducing one tiny aspect of reality at the end, one which we should accept as a stroke of genius, but feels more like a kick in the naughty bits.

Bad way to end a great trilogy, dude.  Never take your audience out of the game.

Grade: C-
Special Features: C
Blu-ray Necessary: Only if you must, but you wouldn’t be missing out on much with the regular format

- T.S. Kummelman