Monday, 27 April 2015

Review: John Wick

Year: 2015
Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Screenplay: Derek Kolstad 
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe.

Synopsis is here:

There's a character profile poster of the titular John Wick, which has his tie fashioned as a fuse set alight. The tag line reads: Don't set him off. It's a piece of marketing that is as direct as the film its advertising. It's as lean as they come and that's why it works. It's a poster that doesn't complicate things. Neither does the film itself. John Wick is quick with establishing the stakes, but never clouds them with needless padding. Mr Wick has lost his car. He has lost his dog (a symbol of a greater loss). He demands satisfaction.

John Wick is the kind of genre film that assholes like me keep claiming aren’t being made anymore. Yet its type of film we can only think of someone like Keanu Reeves still being capable of making. Pulling punches is not in its dictionary. It hits quickly and hard. I fell in love with John Wick not only because of its physicality and practical effects, but because it creates an intricate universe with economy and sharpness. We’re quickly informed of the informal details before our lead character is wound up and let loose.

Despite being fully loaded with an armory's worth of cliché, John Wick is an action film that its own sense of style and attitude throughout. It’s a bold mixture of hard boiled noir and bloody nosed revenge flick. Its vivid cinematography (often punctuated with flashes of primary colours) gives it a feel reminiscent of a video game or a comic book you may have experienced, but holds a set design that seems to have one foot planted firmly in the past. That would help to explain the character’s strict adherence to a mysterious assassin’s code. These killers are paid in doubloon like coins, they order their messy clean ups as “reservations”. Their natural ground (where no business is allowed) has the semblance of a speakeasy. The film pilfers an assorted mixture of crime motifs and ideas. From muscle cars to codes of honour and whisks them into a heady mix.

John Wick could have easily been an ugly mess. However the film's directors; Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (uncredited) have laser focus in this debut. The film doesn’t hold a trace of fat, with its creators not only trimming the film to keep up its pace, but also to add the right amount of intrigue to the material. In the same way that the makers know when to cut and edit the brutally tactile choreography, they also know where to shave off flabby elements of plot. No one outstays their welcome, while the well pick cast know how to get the most out of very little.

Speaking of which. The film is definitely Keanu’s. Forever the straight man, Reeves has been mocked as a non-actor throughout his career. Range has never been his gift. But I can’t doubt or deny his on screen presence when it comes to action. His grim visage was never built for multi-faceted dramas. But here he excels. Reacting to those around him like a tightly wound coil. It’s in John Wick you realise just how well Reeves has played the straight man. Particularly now with many of the new generation of movie stars looking increasingly more bland with each announced reboot/remake. Reeve’s has never been one for dramatic depth. Yet, as Wick he still manages to show the determination and focus which made him so engaging in the likes of Speed (1994), Point Break (1991), and The Matrix (1999).

That’s what makes John Wick so engaging. Everyone is working to their strengths. Keanu Reeves is still an actor that looks like he can take henchmen down comfortably. The directors come from the stunt world, therefore keep their sights set on the elements that they work well in. The film is well cast and the "timeless" world that they're allowed to play in, is wonderfully distinct.  It’s an action film that won me over with its boldness and knowing how to play with the tropes. Here’s hoping this lean, mean outlook to action films gives these filmmakers a nice full fat directional career. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

DVD Review: The Duke of Burgundy

Year: 2014 (DVD Release Date: 2015)
Director: Peter Strickland
Screenplay: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna

It’s funny to see The Duke of Burgundy released now as the budding blossoms of Spring begin to bloom. The film, set over the brisker seasons, is saturated in rich autumnal tones, appears to use the chilled temperatures to hide the warmth the film creates. With the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (opened during the chilly month of February) using a damp, overcast Vancouver, Washington as its setting, both films appear to slyly hint that while there may be no heat outside, things are definitely heated in the respective bedrooms of each films couples.

This is a slightly tawdry way to describe both films. Yet whereas Fifty Shades would wear such a tag as badge of honour, stifling giggles as it describes sexual relationships. The Duke of Burgundy, while described as “preposterous” by its own director, Peter Strickland, understands the nature of its sexual games at a far more substantial level. Fifty Shades may have captured the box office, using its sex as titillation. It is The Duke of Burgundy, which ensnares the imagination. The film's sexual sequences not only understand that less is more. The film as a whole, understands its themes far more than E. L James’ material. Both highlight dominance and submission as the main erotic practices of one particular partner. Only The Duke of Burgundy truly grasps just how tough the rigors are if trust and understanding are not involved.

That may not be what Fifty Shades was aiming for, but I’m not surprised that people have come towards The Duke of Burgundy with more favour. With no authoritarians to get in the way of the film's creation, director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is free to roam within the sensual landscape of his central characters and their eroticism.  

The film; a loving homage to the soft-core euro erotica of the 60’s and 70’s details the relationship and rituals of Cynthia (Chiara D'Anna) and Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). The couple are entomology students whose love for butterflies and insects is only bettered by their affection for each other. Each day they embark on a D/s routine that slowly erodes the couple relationship as one partner’s sexual mores become more obsessive.

Amusingly, the bare bones of the film aren’t too dissimilar from Fifty Shades. However Strickland’s skillful direction, makes exemplary use of form. Consider the fact that despite being a homage to soft-core, there’s no nudity. We see no men, yet this does not distract or deter the narrative in any way. The film's luscious visuals and high quality sound work, capture the sexual texture more than the typical, vanilla happenings which occur within the so called Red Room of Pain. Strickland’s film has a wonderful understanding of anticipation. The removal of stockings and tightness of pencil skirts do more to entice than flesh.

Beyond that, The Duke of Burgundy is a film that relies on convincing performances. Both Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna are note perfect in their portrayal of a loving relationship coming under conflict due to wariness and obsessives. Although both play their parts straight, there’s clear allowance for subtle humour throughout. Even easy gags, such as the comfortably of sitting on someone’s face, are smartly delivered. Mostly due to the couples, quiet unflinching expression. Although I’m not sure if people will react as rambunctiously as I did when it came to the films (offscreen) urination sequence.

What both Kundsen and D’Anna mostly exude, however, is heart. The warmth of their relationship is tenderly observed, whereas in Fifty Shades, sometimes remained as cold as its overcast location.  It’s no surprise that the front cover for The Duke of Burgandy’s DVD mimics the most iconic image of Bergman’s Persona (1966).  It is indeed the dovetailing synchronicity of two people in love that we are meant to observe here. How often do we watch films of romance and find them lacking in such aspects? The Duke of Burgundy may lose some when it delves into the abstract (apart from the obvious metaphor, one may wonder about the butterflies). However, unlike Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland’s piece stays relatively sound from a narrative perspective. While retaining the auteurist tics (such as his analogue love of sound and looping of recurring events) that punctuate his filmmaking.

In the world of sexual melodramas, the almighty dollar is king. It’s difficult to see fans of Fifty Shades jumping their cruise ship to navigate choppier waters. However who may have found the antics of Grey and Steele lacking somewhat, may find something a touch more scintillating with Cynthia and Evelyn. With this couple's ability to read each other’s face, there’s very little need for a non-disclosure agreement.   

THE LOST INTERVIEWS - House of Flying Daggers - 23.4.15

itunes pic
In the final 'lost interview' from last year, Tony talks to writer & vlogger Tom East about his favourite film, House of Flying Daggers...

from Black Hole Cinema

Friday, 24 April 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Synopsis is here

I’m currently reading Dataclysm, an irreverent view of data dating, social science and human behaviour by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OK Cupid. The book is a sharp and witty insight into how social networks, search engines and the internet are quickly revealing more about ourselves and our urges than we would like to think. Unfortunately, I saw Ex-Machina while I started reading Dataclysm and I found myself more than slightly unnerved.

Ex-Machina holds two moments for me, which not only feel eerily plausible, but frighteningly close. One conversation is between Nathan (Issac) and Caleb (Gleeson) in which we discover how the female A.I. obtains her knowledge. The other is a grander reveal within the plot, which is almost brushed away like a small aside, yet had me wonder why certain, powerful companies have now poured vast amounts of cash into drones and robots. Ex-Machina doesn’t expand too far from an episode of Black Mirror, however the film’s three central leads, and Garland’s evocative screenplay engages with our anxieties with conversations and mind games in a way that feels fresh as well as frightening. 

Garland’s directional debut, reminiscent of Frankenstein, is a remarkable clash of contrasts. It’s deliberately paced yet we always get the feeling we’re hurtling towards something. Its cinematographer Rob Hardy shoots the film with impressive wide angles, and yet the films isolated locations and limited cast, give a grim sense of claustrophobia, much like The Shining (1980). The film lingers on the form and physique of the female Machina, Ava (Vikander) which it wants us to admire, yet the male characters Nathan and Caleb indulge in profound conversations which not only progress the screenplay organically but hint at the ugliness of human nature. This constant disharmony, which appears in so much great sci-fi, is what drew me into the film.   

The film’s leaning on the male gaze, as observed by some female writers, while feeling problematic to some, actually felt to me as an accurate portrayal of the shallowness of human beings and the ease of how their emotions can be manipulated. Also the lead female character, clearly inhabits the most agency. Garland’s film delivers us an A.I. that not only holds our knowledge but may also make better use of our mistakes and flaws. The most fascinating thing about the film however is how the combination of Vikander’s elegant performance and the great use of the film's premise, like Under the Skin (2014), has the audience question both gender politics and human connection in a deeply absorbing way. From a surface view, the treatment of female characters within the film can be seen as deplorable, and yet that is only if you consider the female characters to be “human”. If the film hits you in the right spot, you go with your gut. I do not mean this as a criticism of female writers who find some of the film's sequences problematic. However, I must stress at, not only the motivations behind the more sinister characters in the movie, but also how well the mechanisms work within the story. Even I felt perturbed by some of the aspects I witnessed in the film. I feel this is because I felt for Ava.

Dominic Gleeson and Oscar Issac create the kind of combative foil you would expect from a feature like this. Issac embraces his inner Victor Frankenstein with added boozing, gym visits and creepy dancing. It is a completely bombastic turn around from his performance in A Most Violent Year (2014). Gleeson brings his likable charm to the table. Caleb’s pining for Ava is believable and his paranoia towards his situation is palatable. Watching the three characters trade blows against each other strangely reminded me of Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), but the resonance I felt between them was far more effective here than anything I found in films such as Her (2014) or A.I (2001).   

Ex-Machina does what good sci-fi should, which is, despite the more fantastical elements we may witness within the narrative, it never loses touch of the human element. My knowledge of the singularity may be a little light, but I found ideas the film poses to be well presented, while the way the story uses those ideas to toy with its characters and the audience to be thoroughly invigorating. Garland’s debut directional feature stride into those darker areas of our grey matter with the sort of confidence that I wish the likes of Transcendence (2014) could attain. Let’s hope Garland can continue making his science fiction so good that it continues creeps me out when I read my non-fiction.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Year: 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenplay: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson.

Synopsis is here:

I found Age of Ultron to be a bit of an oddity. It’s a film in which, like a Chris Nolan feature, piles on a heavy amount of exposition and characters explaining themselves in the simplest of terms. Yet when watching the likes of Inception (2010) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), I always find myself quite satisfied with those film’s final acts. I found myself befuddled by the last third of Age of Ultron. Near the very Tony Stark devises an improvised plan to save the world, and the other Avengers comply and react accordingly. Yet once our heroes put the plan into action, I can’t say I was able to follow it.

It’s difficult to explain. I “got” what was happening in the overall sense. However, I found myself staring at the screen glassy eyed through most of the film's finale. Then again, I felt that for much of the films slightly clunky action set pieces. I never fully got with the rhythm of the film. Joss does well to balance Age of Ultron as much as he can. This is no simple task. Whedon does manage to inform the movie with a decent sense of scale (it certainly feels bulkier and more substantial than the other Phase Two features). However, the vast array of characters and the tricky issue of what to do with them all, is starting to show. I’m not surprised the film concludes in the way it does.

All this makes it sounds like I sat in the cinema with a permanent grimace on my face. Far from it. Age of Ultron excels in its character beats and developments. Whedon’s screenplay gives the likes of Thor permission become more ponderous and investigative. Hawkeye is allowed to become the human heart at the center of the team. An unlikely romance blossoms between characters and it’s not only the most remarkable element, but also the sweetest. I’m not surprised that Whedon’s character beats are the most effective aspects of the film. As someone who limited their consumption of film’s buzz and marketing to only the trailers, it didn’t shock me in the slightest that the quieter, less excitable scenes, are the ones I was drawn to.

Whedon’s sense of humour has not succumbed to the same fatigue I’ve had for superhero movies as whole (thanks constant hype!). The screenplay's punchlines and witticisms push the film along at a lively pace. Whedon also gets the best out of the cast. Both returning and newcomers. Elizabeth Oslon (Scarlet Witch) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Quicksilver) gives far more ample performances than they did in Godzilla (2014). Original heroes Pine, Downley Jr and Ruffalo, all come out the blocks fighting. Johansson, Hemsworth and Renner have the chance to show the most growth and do so with gusto. James Spader gives a delightfully quirky performance as Ultron, the A.I. with a god complex. As with Avengers Assemble (2012), Marvel’s most entertaining villains appear to be saved for this sector of its cinematic universe.

It’s a shame that the film’s narrative buckles under the sheer weight of everyone involved. I’ve not mentioned all the returning supporting cast, new characters and other characters who’ve appeared in other Marvel films and are returning. Everyone is fighting for space and it shows. Two major plot revelations occur and did little to elevate the heartbeat. It doesn’t help that every blog and film site did their best to eliminate any element of surprise. However, there’s just not enough time for everyone to breathe. I’m sure there’s a few comic fans who are happy to see everyone stuffed into the films 141 minutes. But I did find myself contemplating how well established, some characters were compared to others. After reading just how hard Whedon worked in the cutting of the film to give it a sense of order, you realise just how well he’s done to keep all the plates spinning.

Yep. It still sounds like I have too many misgivings. But honestly, watching Iron Man don hulkbusting amour and go toe to toe with the green giant is a huge bunch of fun. As is the musings of Ultron in general. There’s still much to unpack in Age of Ultron. It does seem that I’ll be leaving that to the hardcore fanboy audience. Age of Ultron didn’t leave me with an immediate wish to watch it again like the first film. But I did leave with enough of a smile on my face.