Movie Review: ‘John Wick’

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A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Oct. 30, 2014.

There aren’t many movies like “John Wick,” an absurdly simple shoot-em-up starring Keanu Reeves that says absolutely nothing ardently and with lots of style. The film’s many pleasures and problems are purely cinematic. Its meaninglessness is part of its charm.

Reeves plays Wick, a tattooed, ruthless assassin pulled out of retirement when a random break-in at his home results in the stealing of his car and the brutal slaying of his beagle. The lost Mustang he can handle, but the bloodied puppy, which was a posthumous gift from his wife, sets him off on a tour de force of revenge that would give even Quentin Tarantino cause to quiver.

But unlike the films of that director, “John Wick” lacks memorable characters and its vengeance isn’t grounded in any historical or social context. Its world is deliberately self-contained, governed by a criminal code and populated by anonymous baddies. The way Wick dispenses with them — so very violently in so many ways — resembles the frenetic grace of a video game.

First-time directors Chad Stahelski (formerly Reeves’ stunt double) and David Leitch acknowledge that medium — the climactic showdown is even treated like a boss fight — but they can’t quite harness its vicarious offerings. Though impressive, the intricately choreographed shootouts and brawls only amplify a pervading sense of detachment. “John Wick” is a film to be seen and heard, not felt.

The movie is best in its first half, when grave facial expressions comically reveal that Wick is not the puppy-cuddling softy he appears to be in the opening scenes. When a crime lord with past ties to Wick realizes his son was responsible for the animal’s death, his understated fear of the consequences is not only played for laughs, but provides the audience a different way at looking at Reeves, traditionally a friendly screen presence.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his performance, but Reeves’ exaggerated, cartoonish anger is at least commensurate with the film’s high-octane momentum. Still, both fizzle out somewhere near the third act. Too committed to its silly, rather upsetting premise — the dog has more personality than the human characters — the film can’t sustain an hour-and-a-half of hollow mayhem, however beautifully staged it may be.

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Movie review: ‘A Walk Among The Tombstones’

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Sept. 25, 2014.

Matt Scudder used to begin his days with two shots of whiskey and a cup of coffee.

That character trait tips the audience off early about what kind of movie “A Walk Among The Tombstones” is not: a modern thriller, more obsessed with moving the plot along than interrogating human nature.

Not that there’s anything particularly enlightening about “Tombstones,” writer/director Scott Frank’s stylish ode to hardboiled detective fiction, but the film’s charismatic lead and deliberate pacing at least provide a world—albeit an unfriendly one—to inhabit.

Based on Lawrence Block’s book of the same name, the films stars Liam Neeson as Scudder, a police officer turned unlicensed private investigator who regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. That information alone is enough to see that the world-weary Scudder has a lot of emotional baggage, even if his secrets aren’t as interesting as the fact that he has them at all. At its core, “Tombstones” is a character study, visually enriched by noirish tropes, disguised as a conventional thriller.

Fortunately, its thrills are few and far between, providing space for the audience to follow Scudder, donned in a dashing corduroy overcoat, as he stalks the hard streets of New York City in search of a sadistic duo that is kidnapping and brutally murdering the wives of drug traffickers who are afraid to turn to the police for help.

Scudder, initially reluctant to take the case, gives in, not just to seek justice, but for the possibility of redemption, a desire that an effectively restrained Neeson rarely allows to come through. There’s an inherent selfishness in the act, reflecting the way Scudder accepts the world as it is, not as he thinks it should be.

But that world, as depicted by Frank—bloody, dank and very very dark—would be more terrifying if Scudder didn’t belong to it. Frank’s lens often trails the lonely detective from behind, as if he’s an implacable force protecting the audience from the evil that he perceives before it’s confronted.

Scudder’s process often is more entertaining than the end result, but that seems to be the point. Evil is never stamped out entirely; it’s merely kept at bay, and in this case, only long enough for Scudder to shut his eyes for a few seconds. Any longer than that would preclude a sequel.

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Highbrow, Lowbrow, Unibrow: A movie review of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive,’ in which vampires are snobs

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A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Sept. 11, 2014.

Despite box office revenue of immortal proportions, it’s fair to say that when the last entry in the “The Twilight Saga” came and went, the moviegoing masses had finally had enough of vampire tales. The metaphorically rich subject — forgive me for a moment — had apparently bled dry.

But creative droughts don’t last forever, unlike the appeal of the bloodsucker. So genre fatigue should not keep anyone — again, I’m sorry — from sinking their teeth into “Only Lovers Left Alive,” writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s exquisitely slow and sardonic take on eternal creatures of the night. The lovers here are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), two vamps stuck in a 21st-century funk.

Dark and brooding with self-pitying gothic eyes, Adam is a recluse. Holed up in his run-down Detroit home, he bemoans modern civilization and its propensity for self-indulgent pleasures in art and life. Humans, to him, are zombies — all libido, no brains. Gone are the days of highbrow works from the likes of Romantic era activist Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he fondly remembers, or the 16th century dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who lives on in the form of the great English actor John Hurt.

Eve, on the other hand, isn’t much of a misanthrope, but she understands her husband’s aesthetic predicament and tries to pull him out of a legendary malaise. There is one other pressing matter for the pale couple, which is logistical in nature: how to acquire uncontaminated human blood — “the good stuff” — on which to subsist without taking it directly from the source, risking exposure or blood poisoning.

“That’s so 15th century,” Eve tells Adam in a moment of desperation that forces him to suggest feeding on a nearby couple engaged in purely carnal pleasures.

In the scene, the stakes aren’t high so much as they are sharp: do the fanged snobs languish away or finally decide to join the herd? As that tension pervades the film, Jarmusch pokes fun at it in a sumptuous attempt to reconcile the sophisticated with the trash, or at least acknowledge how the two need each other to thrive.

His film owes as much to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” as it does Shakespeare, whose influence looms over the entire movie as a reliable reference point to identify fine cultural tastes. Stoker was more of a sensationalist and Shakespeare a true genius, but both produced works we now consider classics, and “Only Lovers Left Alive” exists somewhere in between.

After all, both Hiddleston and Swinton are classically trained actors. They are so committed to their roles that it’s forgivable to think the film takes itself too seriously. The sheer filmmaking craft on display doesn’t help either. The long takes and luscious set design are hypnotizing, and combined with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s tangible shadows and colors, the movie’s overall effect becomes that sensuous spell referred to by some as cinema.


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Movie Review: The ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ should have stayed in the sewers

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 14, 2014.

Surely, it’s self-evident that a film featuring butt-kicking humanoid turtles has an obligation only to entertain, and nothing more. I would never expect a movie titled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to inspire or move me in any fundamental, permanent way. To be fair, a gifted filmmaker could one day come along and harness the as-yet-undiscovered allegorical potential of the franchise, but until that happens, I will settle for something merely cool.

It’s astonishing then, that the latest film with the above title fails even on that front, at least most of the time.

There’s some humor, of course, and some inventive ninja action – a little atop a skyscraper, but almost none down a massive, snowy mountain during an oppressively long and incomprehensible computer-generated sequence that is so joyless not even probability can muster up a second for escape.

Who and what am I talking about? I’ll do my best to explain, because the movie sure doesn’t, despite its desperate attempts to:

I know that in the movie there are walking, talking, human-sized turtles named Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael who learned ninjutsu from a walking, talking human-sized rat named Splinter while living in a sewer. They are the good guys who protect New York City from a gang known as the Foot Clan, because a cartoon sequence relays that information early on. The clan’s leader is Shredder. He’s the movie’s big bad villian because he’s big and bad and wants to rule other people.

There’s very little else regarding characters and motivations that I can speak about with certainty. Now, I’m being kind of disingenuous because I’m 24 years old and I know who the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are, but if you’re going into this movie without any pre-existing knowledge of the characters or franchise, there’s a chance you will leave the theater even more ignorant than before.

The film, in all its pixelated diffidence, flashes by so frantically that recalling the plot and specific scenes strains the mind. Nonetheless, I will try.

I remember the scene in which the ninja master rat tests his pupils’ discipline by tempting them with pizza. That was funny. I remember when all the turtles beatboxed together in an elevator before the climactic showdown with Shredder. That was funny too. And I remember when the turtle in the orange garb called the ambitious, underappreciated TV reporter character played by Megan Fox hot. That was only funny once.

Now that this review is ending, I hope you have not attributed my bitterness to the fact that the turtles of this film barely resemble the turtles of yore. The movie’s infidelity to the source material has no bearing on its quality. Its many failings are exclusive to itself, such as the nonexistent characterizations, the lazy humor and plotting, the tonal confusion, the busy blur of the action and almost everything that happens before the credits roll.

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Movie review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is a party in space

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 7, 2014.

For most of its reign as the premier pop-culture machine in cinema of recent years, Marvel Studios could be relied upon to deliver not great films, but efficient entertainment on a regular basis. Many of the studio’s movies are predictable and self-serious to a fault, but they succeed, in part, because they have a built-in fan base and are generally well-made. This summer’s “Captain America” is a highlight of the establishment — a very good film, but one that adheres to a tolerable formula.

If “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the latest and best from Marvel, doesn’t quite upend the establishment in the long term, it at least temporarily knocks it over.

Based on a virtually unknown comic book, “Guardians” doesn’t carry the burden of audience expectation. In fact, it owns its unfamiliarity by featuring a group of characters that includes a talking raccoon whose bodyguard is a tree with a very limited vocabulary. Accompanied by a man from Earth and two other representatives of alien races, the raccoon and tree assist in saving the galaxy from annihilation. They are a motley bunch of misfits, and self-acknowledged losers.

Their thief of a leader, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), isn’t one for heroics and is kind of a jerk, but goodness emanates from him. He’s smart (or dumb) enough to realize that his reluctant, ragtag team are in a unique position to stop Ronan, a vengeful, psychotic blue monster on a quest to destroy whole civilizations.

Ronan takes himself far too seriously. His manner of menace is all doom-and-gloom, and in contrast to Quill’s irreverent quintet, he embodies the status quo the film relentlessly rallys against.

Ever since the summer of 2008, comic book movies have tried to capitalize on the magnetic darkness of “The Dark Knight” to varying degrees of success. Darkness, in tone and color, was part of that film’s identity and not yet a convention of the genre.

“Guardians” eschews that movement in spirit and in aesthetics, reminding us that we are, ultimately, watching a movie based on a comic book, a medium of bright, vivid colors and a subversive sense of humor.

The film zips along with a freewheeling levity and an eclectic color palette appropriate for a romp through a galaxy populated by sundry alien races and celestial bodies. The action in the film, though often hectic, uses a richly imagined cosmic setting to allow for brief moments of wonder, reminiscent of images in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Star Wars.” Though it lacks the big ideas of the former and the tragedy of the latter, “Guardians” operates on a much more human level.

Its characters are defined by their ability to inspire each other to be better human beings, raccoons or trees. It sounds funny, and of course it is, but the overarching insouciance becomes a vessel for empathy.

Like Quill and his seemingly lowly compatriots, the film’s humor serves a greater purpose: to laugh is to forget who we are for a moment — a visceral pleasure that sweeps us away and distracts us from the trials of mundane life just like the best fantasy and the best entertainment, say music, for example. Perhaps that’s why Quill, despite the galactic stakes, only ever looks pained when he can’t find the Walkman that helped him through a difficult period in his childhood.

Music and its transformative power is an integral part of this film. Its screwball use of a soundtrack from the ’70s becomes a symbolic argument against adulthood and the notion that seriousness is a signifier of maturity and worthy of unquestioning respect. In a movie landscape where blockbusters succeed or fail based on how solemnly they present and perceive themselves, the guardians of the galaxy have a much more lively message: it’s time to lighten up.

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Movie Review: ‘2 Guns’

2 gunsA version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 8, 2013.

The always diverting, sometimes funny, occasionally uninteresting “2 Guns” features Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg in a buddy-cop, action bromance that rivals Spock and Kirk’s warp-speed love story in the latest “Star Trek.” Their chemistry is the only constant in a movie rife with plot twists that comfortably swings between sly satire and generic shoot-em-up, indulging in both, but never committing to either.

The movie opens with two seemingly bad dudes, Bobby (Mr. Washington) and Stig (Mr. Wahlberg), who are about to set fire to a diner across from the bank they will rob the next day.

We don’t yet know that Bobby is undercover DEA and Stig is undercover NCIS.

Nor do the characters know the real identity of the other. They both think they’re going to catch the other red-handed by robbing the bank and exposing the profits of a Mexican drug cartel.

Things start to look fishy when they successfully rob the bank, but find $43.125 million instead of the believed $3 million.

The robbery sets in motion a series of dupes and double crosses that manifest themselves in loud shoot-outs and a mostly uninspired car chase that looks like something out of a Dodge commercial. These scenes are aided only by the witty banter between Bobby and Stig.

“2 Guns” is best when the leading men are firing words instead of bullets, partially because the action scenes lack any kind of stylistic wit. Though based on a comic book, “2 Guns” doesn’t have the visual flair of that medium, even if it shares some of its subversive elements.

For example, the movie constantly undermines genre conventions, forgoing cliched dialogue for its own brand of unique, often nonsensical witticisms.

“You ever heard the saying,” begins Bobby to Stig in one scene, “never rob a bank across from a diner that has the best donuts in 3 counties?”

“That’s not a saying,” replies Stig.

“Yes it is,” retorts Bobby.

“No it’s not. I get what you’re saying but that’s not a saying,” concludes Stig.

Another clever scene parodies the good cop/bad cop interrogation routine by staging it in a shabby garage that has motion-sensor lighting, making it hard for Stig to intimidate a suspect because he has to keep flailing his arms every time the lights go out. Pity that such a funny scene ends in a generic shootout that leads to nothing but a generic car chase.

The few actions scenes that aren’t boring have a charm that stems from their shameless implausibility. At one point, Stig and Bobby effortlessly infiltrate a naval base by outrunning the authorities in a run-down van that in real life wouldn’t pass inspection.

Throughout the movie, Bobby and Stig dispense with bad guys and expose corrupt government organizations without breaking a sweat, emerging unscathed from even the most dire of circumstances.

Their unruffled ease describes the experience of watching “2 Guns,” which is, in the end, nothing more than delightfully tolerable, a movie you might relish in the moment, but will have no problem walking away from as the credits roll.

3 stars out of 4

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Movie Review: ‘The Wolverine’

the wolverine

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 1, 2013.

Featuring the buff and brilliant Hugh Jackman as Logan in the lead role, “The Wolverine” is more a solemn and stylish meditation on life and death than an action movie based on a comic book, distinguishing itself from the apocalypse-pandering spectacles we’ve come to expect from summer blockbusters.

In fact, the only explosion in “The Wolverine” takes place within the opening sequence and serves as the foundation of the central drama, introducing Logan as a man whose immortality has worn him down existentially to the point that when one character offers him a chance at a normal life, Logan has a tough decision to make.

Cut to many, many years later and Logan is lonely and despondent, somewhere in the wilderness. He’s unkempt, living off the land. One of his only possessions is the picture of a former lover whose tragic fate fills his nightmares.

“Everyone you love dies,” she reminds him before he wakes screaming in a cold sweat, his claws extended from his fists.

“Eternity can be a curse,” another character tells Logan later on.

Finally, we have reason to care for an indestructible man.

For those unfamiliar with the “X-Men” universe, Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, is a mutant, whose genetic mutations allow him to rapidly heal from any wound, and grow indestructible claws from his knuckles. He also doesn’t age. For all intents and purposes, he is immortal.

But this isn’t an “X-Men” movie, though there are other mutants in “The Wolverine.” In the worst of the those films, the mutant powers were just plot devices to justify cartoonish special effects.

Here, they serve thematic purposes. Each character has a trait or motivation that helps Logan come to terms with the past that constantly haunts him in his dreams.

Logan gets the chance to consider his life through the prism of the supporting characters when a young and fierce, sword-wielding Japanese girl named Yukio, whose employer wants to repay a debt to Logan, approaches him.

The two team up, travel to Tokyo, and find themselves entangled in a family drama that sets in motion an unlikely, but earnest love affair, as well as some sensational action sequences that actually drive the narrative forward. One involves ninjas, and another that simply must not be missed takes place atop a 300 mph bullet train.

As Yukio, newcomer Rila Fukushima is sprightly with platinum-red hair and cheekbones as sharp as her sword. She’s a joy to watch; her face conveys a youthful optimism in contrast to Logan’s seemingly endless brooding.

As Logan, Mr. Jackman has never been better, and his muscles never bigger. He brings a physical gravitas to the role as well as an exhausting vulnerability. He can render so powerfully on the screen what might have once been laughable on the page. When he howls in anguish, we understand his pain and fear for his victims. It’s a role he was born to play.

Mr. Jackman’s balanced performance speaks to the overall tone of the movie, which is quietly fantastical yet relatable in a way that is refreshing for an otherwise bloated genre.

3.5 stars out of 4.

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