Thursday, February 26, 2015

John Wick: Action Entertainment of the First Order.

Movie Review: John Wick

Director: Chad Stahelski

Reviewed: 26 February 2015

jamesintexas rating--****


John Wick is an undeniable masterpiece, a true ballet of death and mayhem with more gunshots to the head and vicious violence than should be allowable; yet somehow, everything comes together, and it works. It must be the magic of Keanu Reeves and a clear, sleek vision from director Chad Stahelski.

John Wick takes familiar tropes of gangsters and ex-killers, fathers and sons, unwritten codes, honor among thieves, and pure malevolence, and, somehow, mixes it all up together in a fun, fresh way, and makes them all work. Every time a familiar actor popped up in this film for a brief cameo or supporting role, I smiled. Beyond it being cast extremely well, it has a sense of style that sets it apart from the crowd, a slickness and a sheen to its cars, hotels, clubs, and weaponry. Reeves play the eponymous main character, a man pulled back into the world of violence that he thought he left because of a thoughtless crime.  To say more would be to take away from the film.  Really, that's all you need to know.

The film is so lean and so efficiently told that it eschews catch-phrases and pithy one-liners for an existential sort of mystique. What can be said about Keanu Reeves?  In a nearly silent performance, he is remarkable. His physicality is truly that of a dancer, and he out-Matrixes himself in this film, and he morphs into an older, tougher warrior. It might be his best work yet.

There is some incredible world-building here with the gold coins and secret dance clubs and the minor characters who could have their own movies. I feel like the film owes some of its power to video games and their kinetic movement, yet I don't want to discredit or disparage John Wick at all.  Like The Raid several years ago, I found the film compulsively watchable, and it was the first movie in a long while that as soon as it ended, I wanted to watch it again.  And again.  It is one of my top five favorite films of the year. 


Monday, February 16, 2015

Begin Again: Light and Fun and not Once.

Movie Review: Begin Again

Director: John Carney

Reviewed: 16 February 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

John Carney, the director of Once, tries again to catch lightning in a bottle with a dramatic story between two musical lead characters juxtaposed against the creation of some bona fide songs. Where it worked in Once to dizzying, intoxicating effect, here in Begin Again it seems forced and contrived, showing the strings without the former film's effervescent charm.

Keira Knightley plays Gretta, thrown over song writer from across the pond, visiting New York City with burgeoning rock star Dave (Adam Levine), who finds herself onstage at an open mic at a small bar one night, and her tune catches the imagination of disheveled and nearly disgraced album producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Dan hears both what is there and what is not there, supplying the supplemental strings and drums with his mind, leading into an altogether strange scene of Gretta singing and Dan's visions of the instruments behind her playing themselves. Carney stages the opening quite inventively with the audience seeing the moment of connection and then flashing backwards through both characters to see what led them to this place and time. In a rut professionally and personally, Dan sees Gretta as a way to return to greatness, and in order to convince former partner Saul (Mos Def), he convinces Gretta to record an album on the fly around the city over the course of the summer. He also figures out a way to involve his strained relationship with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener). The film's got rejuvenation on its mind (see the title).

Now, the impulse for this suggestion of making her first album this way, an important one that is crucial to the plot and her buying into Dan as legitimate, just happens, and I suppose that's where we are just supposed to trust Dan instead of wondering why he saved an idea like that for someone he barely knows. To his credit, Dan arranges a makeshift back-up band to play behind Gretta, and locales from the tops of tall buildings to noisy alleyways are used as music studios for these songs. And the songs are fine, if instantly forgettable, and again, if Carney had not set the bar so high with Once, with its Academy Award winning lead song, that would not be as much of a problem. But, here, I think the songs are fine but never great, despite one earning an Academy Award nomination.

Everyone is doing fine work here, with two lead performances that are fine, but I found myself often more interested in the supporting players (James Corden excels as an old mate from England; Cee Lo Green is quite funny as a living legend and deus ex machina) than its simplistic industry politics. Who needs recording studios? Who needs the current release and pay structure set by music executives in the age of twitter? The film has some challenging ideas and adds in its coda a burst of internet savvy suggestive of a bolder film. The film skirts the darkness of Dan's alcoholism and his quiet conquering of it. It is a shame to cast an actress of Catherine Keener's caliber and then give her character little to do, and sometimes I felt like Ruffalo's character has a vague idea of producing that consists of dancing wildly and grooving into the faces of the band members.

Ultimately, I feel like the film is harmless and a bit fun, with a mostly understated chemistry between the two leads, thankfully, that never takes over the film. There's some fun here, as I said, and it is probably worth a look. But mostly it makes me want to re-watch Once.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Clunky Title but a Marvelous Film

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum

Reviewed: 31 January 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Benedict Cumberbatch's lead performance as famed mathematician Alan Turing carries the day in this period piece of life in the 1940's-1950's Great Britain that illuminates Turing and the people behind the enormity of code-breaking the Nazi war machine's Enigma device, the breakthrough that quietly led to the end of the war. Cumberbatch holds the screen as Turing, first embodying his fierce antisocial qualities and inability to work with others and later showing his tentative attempts to form bonds and trust others. It is a bravura performance, the best I've seen from the rising actor, and with it, The Imitation Game becomes grounded in one man's acute pain and a country's (and really a society's) prejudice against one part of what makes up a person. Even the most heroic person.

Set in the 1950's Manchester where Turing lives but also flashing back to the 1940's war-time group and the 1930's in boarding school, The Imitation Game concerns itself with MI-6 compiling the country's greatest code breakers to help figure out the German communiques that feed the submarines and bombers that strafe the country relentlessly. Turing has the notion of a digital brain, a primitive (by our standards) computer of sorts that can sort through the millions upon millions of code received daily and potentially translate it into actionable intelligence. However, Turing alone cannot build or run the machine, and the film chronicles his fledgling relationships with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) among others. The recruitment of Joan particularly is portrayed well (a crossword challenge in the newspaper, no less), and Turing's inability to lead a successful team could lead to his project's dismissal by the governmental higher-ups. When codes are received starting at 6 a.m., Turing's team has eighteen hours to break Enigma's elaborate system of ciphers before the machine resets itself. Success has enormous ramifications: they could know where all German subs and bombers are hiding as well as imminent attacks before they happen.

The film's elaborate construction takes us backwards and forwards with a break-in at Turing's apartment being the catalyst for the story and his clumsy explanation of his past to a local detective (Rory Kinnear). I wonder what was lost in the triptych structure. Would Turing's war experiences have made an altogether different film, perhaps an even better one? Yet, in that three-part structure, the film offers a distinct before and after examination at a genius, offering some ideas about what created his emotional dislocation from others as well as what the service to country took from him. I left the film exhilarated and wanting to know more, always a good thing. It stumbles a bit at the end, especially with some title cards that deliver the obvious. I wonder if that was a studio note, and if so, it was not a wise one. The score by Alexander Desplat is wonderful, and the integration of the war footage and blitzkrieg bombing of London is fine, if a little jarring tonally and texturally with the rest of the very real, tactile, rooms of smart people and machines. Keira Knightley is good here, though her character has far too little screen time and needs even more to do. And, the film telegraphs itself a bit (as soon as one character says that his brother is fighting in the war, the eventual conflict of conscience reveals itself).

I found myself wondering what Alan Turing's life was like after the war as well as his interiority about being the tool of his government. The idea of his success being classified and hidden from the public for over fifty years is a staggering one. And the savage, almost throwaway brutality of 1950's codified by law homophobia offers a distinct look at our culture's near history, a companion piece to DuVernay's Selma in its depiction of institutionalized prejudice. The flashbacks to boarding school offer clues into Turing's emotional walls, but overall, the tone is one of sadness.

But it is Cumberbatch's performance and Tyldum's skill in compiling this story that combine to make a very competently told film. It has the elements working in harmony with each other, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Selma Soars

Movie Review: Selma

Director: Ava DuVernay

Reviewed: 31 January 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

My parents and grandparents lived through this time in American history from the vantage points of Chicago and Philadelphia. 1965 Selma, Alabama was only thirteen years before my birth in 1978 Chicago.  Thirteen years from now was 2003, the beginning of the Iraq War, and I can remember it fully, driving across the Arizona desert, listening to a car radio tell the story that would engulf us for the next decade. History is all around us but difficult to capture when living in it. The history of textbooks and speeches takes on a fierce urgency in Ava DuVernay's powerful and powerfully made film Selma which chronicles the movement as much as the man, giving insight into the swirling forces of the time. It is a film that I highly recommend.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) open the film in a hotel room in Stockholm, dressing for the Nobel Peace Prize Awards. In a steady, workmanlike way, DuVernay sets up King as a man, aware of how he is perceived, conscious of his flaws, steeled towards justice in a country that has never lived up to its hypocritical founding principles. The film becomes an examination of how the city of Selma became the epicenter for marches, protests, violent reprisals by the police, and Dr. King's journey to and through Selma becomes a defining one. King's relationship with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is foregrounded, emphasizing one man's desire to wait and prioritize anti-poverty legislation with the other's refusal to bend on the sickening poll taxes and institutional racism that prevent African-Americans from voting in places where they are the majority. The film swiftly and clearly explains the struggle through a few group conversations about tactics and one heartbreaking woman's attempt to register to vote in the Selma courthouse. Infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) shrewdly orchestrates the sickeningly violent response to the civil rights workers massing in Selma, and Dr. King has to consider the endgame with the events playing out on national television for a mass audience.

There are factions within factions of the civil rights movement, as in any movement, and the tension between the SNCC and the newly arrived entourage of Dr. King manifests itself in debates and heated discussions set in churches and homes. The discussion of tactics and approaches makes the film grounded in this time and space. Malcolm X arrives while Dr. King is temporarily jailed, offering a philosophical feint to bring his followers to Selma to add their movement. All culminates in several marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma into the countryside of Alabama, all the way to the capitol building. The scenes on the bridge are the most heart-wrenching and difficult to watch, almost nightmarish in their swirling, cloudy brutality.

Oyelowo faces the impossible tasks of out-vocalizing and out-speaking one of the most famous American figures. When Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he was not competing against YouTube videos of the President and scratchy archived audio footage of legendary speeches. However, even with that uphill climb, Oyelowo is effective and laudatory, making Dr. King flesh and bone. There was never a moment that I doubted his magnificent performance. The direction is similarly substantive, if not flashy or calling attention to itself. DuVernay's achievement consists in the arrangement of so many moving parts and performances, all well-choreographed and thoughtfully told. She knows when to pull back and show the presidential reaction to these events as well as when to focus on one family's loss.  It never feels like history class or the worst parts of school. The film is not a lecture; it is a moving work of art.

A character in the film talks to Dr. King, informing him that he was born the son of sharecroppers in 1880's, and that legacy of slavery contributes to his relentless driving to register to vote and make change. To just stop and consider that: marching alongside Dr. King and his movement were people who were born the 1880's, a scant twenty years after Appomatox Courthouse and end of the Civil War. About twenty years. Time itself is the subtext of DuVernay's film, and many people were clubbed, beaten, and even killed in the march towards a more tolerant, albeit imperfect, union with access to the ballot box. And America remains that imperfect place. Would I call the film relevant in light of the events of recent days? Absolutely.  However, I cannot think of a time when Selma would not be relevant.

I think of Dr. King and his movement, standing together on that bridge. To march upright into the waves of hatred and violence. To risk bodily harm and worse for what you believe. To have the courage to do what others cannot or will not. To dream and head towards that dream. Selma's power comes from the power of people to demand a better world than the one we are given.