Tuesday, February 09, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Run All Night

Liam Neeson is so far into his second career as a soulful, grieving action hero that it can be hard to remember a time when he was more known for films like Schindler's List, Love Actually, and Michael Collins. Part of what has made him so successful in this role is that he never seems to be phoning it in. Liam Neeson commits fully to the sometimes-preposterous action films he's been starring in to a level far beyond what they might otherwise warrant. Simply by signing on to a film he's raised its cultural and critical cachet. And yet, the formula is showing signs of decay. His character descriptions are starting to read like self-parody, and the plotlines and stylistic touches are beginning to blur together. In Run All Night, Neeson's third film with director Jaume Collet-Serra (the others are Non-Stop and Unknown, with a fourth one on the way!), he plays an aging hitman for the mob who hasn't worked in years, but is kept around by the boss (Ed Harris) out of sentimental reasons. Neeson's wife is dead, his son wants nothing to do with him, he's never seen his grandkids, and he's a punchline to everyone he used to work with, resorting to playing Santa Claus at a Christmas party for the rest of the gang in order to get a few hundred bucks to fix his heater. The trouble starts, in a manner too convoluted for me to care about detailing, when Ed Harris' hothead son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) threatens the life of Liam Neeson's son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), prompting Neeson to shoot him, and Harris to vow his revenge.

This setup seems pretty strong, bolstered by a cast more than capable of giving this material weight and resonance, and overseen by a director who has experience with the type of grim action pieces Liam Neeson's new fans have come to expect. Maybe it's all of the great old school, straightforward action films I've been watching in recent weeks, but Run All Night seemed like nothing more than a missed opportunity. The plot I described up above seems like the perfect jumping off point for a no-nonsense action film with shadings of Greek tragedy in the relationship between its two leads. I hate to compare a movie I'm watching to the one I've got in my head, but I couldn't stop thinking about what Walter Hill might have done with this in his heyday, or what Nicolas Winding Refn would have done with it today. Instead the film we got is a portentous mess that squanders the amazing chemistry Neeson and Harris bring to their brief scenes together.

And chemistry they do have. Ed Harris brings an unforced intensity to every part he plays, while Neeson brings a wounded, slightly hangdog seriousness to these action films, and the two work great together. In only a couple of scenes they sell the idea that these two completely different individuals are actually lifelong friends that have drifted far apart over the years, but still enjoy each other's company. The rest of the cast is a little shakier in comparison. Joel Kinnaman is a decent enough actor, though he's a bit of a non presence here. Nick Nolte shows up in a brief cameo that was delightfully unexpected, and yet didn't really amount to much. The real dud, however, is Common as an almost supernaturally efficient hitman. His weird sci-fi appearance and odd facial makeup (I think they meant to give him a harelip, but it just looks like he's just suffering from a bad cold sore) seem to have been airlifted in from another movie.

Run All Night is a dark film, in more than just plot. The film is murky and artfully underlit, distorting the action scenes sometimes to the point of abstraction. After awhile it became visual white noise; two or more characters would converge, the screen would get all choppy and blurry while I could hear the unmistakable sounds of fists hitting chests and skulls hitting walls, and then someone would run away, and I would assume they had just won the fight. It was hard to get a sense of where the characters were and what they were doing at any time, a problem made paradoxically worse by Collet-Serra's repeated tendency to link scenes by zooming the camera quickly through the city to focus on what other characters are doing at other locations. This was intended to give the film a sense of scope to Neeson's journey as he races to keep his estranged family out of the clutches of Harris' goons, and to ground it in a real and definable place, but it came out as distancing, giving physical spaces an abstract feeling, removing them from the real world.

In the end, Run All Night's biggest problem is one of expectation. For a film centered around -and titled after- the concept of continuous movement and escape, the film sure does spend a lot of time with characters who are just sitting and talking in underlit rooms. The best, or at least most memorable, of Liam Neeson's action films, like The Grey or the first Taken film, have benefited from a constant sense of forward momentum. They put Neeson's grim determination to work, propelling the film along with a certain sense of fatalistic energy. Run All Night, on the other hand, stops and starts so often that by the time the end comes around (which, due to the cold open, we've seen most of already), my interest had well and truly deflated.

Final Rating: 2.5(out of 5)

Monday, February 08, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: John Wick

Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap as an actor, in my opinion. He may not be the world's greatest living thespian, or even in the top 50, but he's not really a bad actor either. He has an unflappably stoic persona, and a very limited range, which sometimes makes his more emotional scenes a bit uncomfortable, but he also has an appealing presence on screen. It's what made him so effective as Neo in the Matrix films, but also made him woefully ridiculous in Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, I've always been a fan, and I enjoy seeing the choices he makes in his career. He's a guy who clearly fell in love with the art of stuntwork and fight choreography, and has molded his career around some solidly populous dramas and romantic comedies that allow him to make a few flops like 47 Ronin. His directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, reads as an ode to Hong Kong filmmaking and old school fight choreography. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it, as he clearly understands how to use the camera in concert with the actors dueling on screen, and is probably the purest representation of that style ever made with an English speaking audience in mind.

As the Michael Bay-ification of summer blockbusters continues, with summers full of overstuffed, overly CGI-assisted tentpole action films, it's good to see that the art of the stunt is not gone. For years now the most interesting work being done for fans of no-frills action has been done in the direct-to-video market, where fight choreography still places emphasis on the choreography part of that equation, and a lack of time and money leads to a narrative paring down to the absolute essentials of a story. Films carrying on the tradition of Asian action filmmaking (simple plots to support exquisitely crafted motion) like Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, or even the last two Universal Soldier sequels, have been offering straightforward, mythic, solidly constructed action thrills of a type that seems almost nonexistent in the current crop of billion dollar blockbusters. It's as if the stuntmen and fight coordinators, finding they weren't as in-demand with the major studios as they used to be, went off and started making their own movies. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much what's happened.

John Wick was written by Derek Kolstad, whose only previous credits were a pair of direct to video Dolph Lundgren flicks, and it marks the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski, a stuntman who began his career with the original Point Break in 1991. John Wick clearly showcases a love of physical stunts and well staged fight scenes. While some of the shots were enhanced with CGI, mainly blood effects & green screen composites for some of the car stunts, most of what you see on the screen was actually rehearsed and filmed as you see it. The film also cuts out a lot of the bloat that can creep into action movies, and the story can be tidily summed up as 'ex-assassin gets back in the game for one last time on a quest for revenge. There are some quirks to that story (the revenge is for a cute puppy), some details to add some depth (the revenge is against the son of his old boss), and some impressive nods at world building. In fact, a lot has been made about that world building, as John Wick inhabits the type of criminal underworld normally only seen in comic books. All the assassins hang out at The Continental, a hotel with an elaborate rule system to keep its clients safe and private. All transactions are paid for with gold coins, the only currency apparently accepted among the criminals in this world. The world that John Wick inhabits is a fun one to spend time in, but the film never gets overly bogged down with these details, as the filmmakers realize it works best as a backdrop for bone crunching fistfights and hails of gunfire.

Those fistfights and gunfights carry a very satisfying weight to them, as they are delivered by a crew who knows intimately how to photograph bodies in motion, and who understands the importance of utilizing the space within a frame. The action in John Wick features a lot of long takes, and some unobtrusive editing, that gives everything a believable physicality even when the action reaches ridiculous proportions. Chad Stahelski tends to roam around the scene with his camera, defining the contours of a room or hallway so that when the fighting starts he can cut within that area and the audience will be able to quickly follow along and orient themselves.

A sequel is currently in the works for John Wick, which is a no brainer considering how well the film performed both critically and commercially, but I have my doubts. John Wick is so blissfully self contained, a true standout when most films these days seem to come preplanned as trilogies (with the final film split in two, of course), that the prospect of another journey of revenge for this character seems like a dubious proposition. Of course there's that fun and detailed world to explore, but I worry that exploring it too deeply will lead to a more complicated mythology than this story needed (a la the Matrix sequels). Still, everyone involved in making this films seems to have learned the right lessons from the action films they cut their teeth on, so at the very least it should be great to look at, and exciting to watch.

Final Rating; 4(out of 5)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I'll be upfront about this: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features a lot of things that should make me hate it. It's a movie about a broken white male who learns how to fix himself with the help of a magical black man and an equally magical dying girl, two tropes that really irk me. It's also set in high school, and features another trope that bothers me, maybe more than the others; preternaturally witty teenagers. The problems with teenagers and children in pop culture is that the people writing these characters base them on idealized versions of themselves, or people they knew. No actual teenager is as well spoken or assured as most teens we see in movies, because we tend to remember our younger selves as simply smaller versions of our adult selves, and we forget how awkward, emotionally, physically, and verbally, we were at the time. So, this film is made up of a collection of tropes I hate, and yet I somehow came to love the film.

Greg (Thomas Mann, the titular Me) is a closed off teenager entering his senior year of high school. He's survived by working hard to be accepted by every imaginable clique in his school, carefully tuning his personality to be as invisible as possible and making sure he never forms any real attachments or enemies. He even refers to his oldest childhood friend, Earl (RJ Cyler) as simply his coworker, referencing the dozens of handmade film parodies they've made since elementary school. When one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, typecast these days as the Dying Girl), a near stranger, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg's mother forces him to spend time with her to cheer her up. Which sets our story in motion, as we follow Greg through his senior year, tracking the growing, rocky friendship he develops with Rachel and the possible dissolution of his friendship with Earl.

All of this is filtered through the ironically detached eye of a geeky film nerd, with references to Werner Herzog (a lot of references, actually), Stan Brakhage, The Archers, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and advertisements for the Criterion Collection hanging in bedrooms and bookstores and teacher's studies. The soundtrack often echoes the musical scores to Hitchcock films and spaghetti westerns, and Greg and Earl's film parodies, as silly as they might be, have their roots in a very refined cinematic palette (example parody titles include 'My Dinner With Andre The Giant,' 'The Turd Man,' and 'Don't Look Now, Because a Creepy-ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn.'). This veers dangerously close to being too cutesy for it's own good, and yet I found it charming. Perhaps it's because these two seem to be living the dream life version of my own senior year, if only I'd found anyone else quite so into oddball arthouse films and lowbrow humor. The direction, from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who also helmed the better-than-it-needed-to-be Town That Dreaded Sundown remake), gives this film a more idiosyncratic, accomplished look and feel than most other teen-oriented dramas even attempt these days.

I said earlier the film follows Greg, and I say that pointedly, because we never see anything that is outside of his perspective. This fact seemed to anger most critics, who judged the film primarily as the collection of tropes I listed above. Certainly the film leans heavily into stereotype, particularly with Earl, who lives in a bad neighborhood and is overly stoic. The closest he has to a catchphrase, "dem titties," seems just a step above having him eat fried chicken and watermelon in every scene. Rachel, also, is sometimes reduced to a series of reactions to Greg, as we see her cheered up by his antics or too sick to put up with them at various times. That reduction to caricature extends to the rest of the cast too, with Greg's parents (Nick Offerman & Connie Britton) portrayed as slightly loopy, hippyish academics. Earl's family fares much worse, with only his brother (Bobb'e J. Thompson) appearing on screen, and he's the basic stereotype of a young African American hoodlum, with tank top, do-rag, tattoos, and an always aggressive dog at his side. It continues on to Rachel's mom (Molly Shannon), who is always filmed holding a glass of wine, Greg's history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is a heavily tattooed variation of the tough but inspiring high school teacher, and all of the other teen characters seem to be central casting's idea of 'goth' 'cheerleader' or 'jock.' Everyone in this film is a caricature.

Clearly this sort of one dimensional character work is intentional; it's a result of the film occupying so completely Greg's point of view. It does not, however, necessarily agree with that viewpoint, and I tend to think it's just the opposite. It's true that these characters exist primarily as backdrop to Greg's emotional growth, but it's telling that none of them actually help him in his maturation. In fact, most of his growth occurs because the characters get sick of his self-absorbed bullshit and shut him out of their lives. Even though the film is seen through Greg's eyes, the audience still gets clues as to how his actions are really impacting people, through subtle gestures or looks we can see what Greg ignores, we can see when he's saying the wrong thing or ignoring someone else's feelings. This is a bit of form and a bit of function, as Greg's emotional arc requires him to become less self-involved and more open to forming attachments to those around him, so the film is required to open up at times as well. This is most poignantly driven home late in the film when Greg visit's Rachel's room. He's spent countless hours within that room, but is just now noticing the tiny details; the small drawings Rachel sketched into the pattern of her wallpaper, the intricately carved out books on her shelves, the photos of her friends and family. The accumulation of a life lived that he was unaware of.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may populate it's runtime with stock stereotypes, but it also takes the effort to suggest that these stereotypes have an existence beyond what we see. It would be easy enough to imagine this story being told from the point of view of any of the primary characters. Which is part of why I fell in love with this movie; teenagers are self-involved assholes. This is just fine, it's not a judgment call, we all were at that age. But a lot of teen-oriented movies seem to forget that fact, and they idealize the period of our lives when we're at our worst and most awkward. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also idealizes this period, but it has the honesty to acknowledge that a lot of our actions at this age are regrettable, to say the least.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Monday, February 01, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Documentary Roundup

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015): This is nowhere near being an objective account of the Euromaidan protests that swept Ukraine beginning in late 2013, and anyone looking for a detailed account of the socio-political issues that inspired them would be well advised to look elsewhere. What Winter on Fire is, however, is a blow by blow, street level account of what was going on with the protesters themselves. Initially angered by the pro-Russian president's backing out of talks to join the European Union, Ukrainian citizens of all ages convened in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to peacefully protest this move and call for a continuation of talks. Netflix commissioned cameras to be filming 24/7 at the very beginning of the protests, which means the entire event was captured on film, either through a documentarian's lens or through a protester's smartphone. What this also means is that you can pinpoint the exact moment things fall apart, as police storm the square and begin beating unarmed and nonviolent protesters.

I already said that this film makes no effort to be objective; the filmmaker's sympathy lies only with the protesters, who the film posits as brave freedom fighters putting their lives on the line for what everyone in Ukraine wants. There's not really any mention of an opposing viewpoint, although there were plenty of Pro-Russian protests as well. As with all things, you should try to remember that every stance has an opposing view that may be just as valid. It's best not to view this film as an idealogical statement, but to see it as a you-are-there document of the horrible mistreatment these protesters had to suffer through. Fair warning; the violence is brutal, and you will watch a few people die. Roger Ebert once said that what made him cry in movies was kindness, was seeing someone in the film do something selfless for someone else. I thought of that as I cried during this film, watching people race out into gunfire with nothing but a wooden shield to protect them in order to try and help the wounded to safety, no matter which side of the fight they happened to be on.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015): I did not know much about Nina Simone before going into this, although I've owned a compilation of her music that I love quite a bit. I knew of her personal life mostly through her civil rights era activities, and to be honest I wasn't really that interested to know more. Nothing against Miss Simone, but I'm past the age where I would read articles and interviews and histories about my favorite artists, and nowadays that stuff just doesn't interest me as much. I worried a little about my lack of Nina Simone knowledge going into this documentary, because often biopics, particularly those about celebrities, tend to assume a little bit of familiarity with their subject. they expect you to know a bit about their career already, and sometimes rely on that information to fill in some gaps they might not have the time to completely get into.

What Happened, Miss Simone? started out a little worryingly, beginning with a concert late into her career that would be infamous to Simone devotees, but didn't quite land with the same impact for me. She is an electric performer, but seems to be bristling during the performance, viewing the audience as adversaries and stopping mid-song to call them out for presumed slights. The film then jumps back to Simone's early childhood and follows a more standard musical-biopic mold, checking off all of the boxes these things require. I'll admit I wasn't really enjoying the first half of this documentary, which I felt was a bit too standard, and gave no indication of Nina Simone the person. We here the pertinent details, but there isn't much more than a glimpse of what the human being behind the public persona is. About halfway through, however, things cohere a bit more, and it's clear that the film's lack of defining Nina Simone isn't a weakness, but perhaps a strength. Nina Simone was someone who always felt uncomfortable with fame, who felt regret at a career that it seems she felt was a bit beneath her (her original goal was to be a classical pianist, not a, as she puts it, pop singer). Her involvement in the civil rights movement brought some of that angst to the forefront, and she began to wear her bitterness and sadness more openly. What Happened, Miss Simone? is an exploration of the question asked in the title, and it never quite answers it. The film reveals Nina Simone to be a complex, possibly unknowable human being, as much a mystery to the people who knew and loved her as to her fans.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Paris is Burning (1990): This is the type of documentary I really gravitate towards; the type that has no real agenda beyond introducing you to a small, unseen lifestyle or community. Paris is Burning is a snapshot of a certain subculture of gay life in late 1980s New York. Following a handful of colorful individuals as they prepare for and compete in drag shows in and around Harlem. Drag in this context doesn't imply any sort of gender mixing, but instead a costume in general, with the winner of the competition being the one who best embodies the 'realness' of their role. The film has no villains, no heroes, not greater message it's trying to make. Although the spectre of AIDS hangs over the proceedings, this has more to do with our current perspective on that period of time. Instead Paris is Burning's goal appears to be simply to provide a showcase for the various flamboyant individuals who make up the drag circuit. Dividing themselves into Houses, their lives revolve around strutting and performing, and everything else they do is simply to help them get ready for the next show. Their costumes are pieced together from whatever they can hustle for, or whatever they're quick enough to steal.

Late in the film, one of the participants, Venus Xtravaganza, is found strangled to death in a seedy motel room. That is an undeniably tragic loss, as Venus' Pollyannaish dreams and unflagging energy provided one of the brightest spots in the film. Her death is the closest this film comes to making a statement, as it explicitly acknowledges the danger inherent in this lifestyle, particularly in this time and this place. But then the film moves on, life moves on. Some people succeed (Willi Ninja in particularly is shown making a name for himself as a choreographer), others continue competing, hustling and surviving.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)