Film Review: John Wick (2014)

Release Date: September 19th, 2014 (Austin Fantastic Fest)
Directed by: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch (uncredited)
Written by: Derek Kolstad
Music by: Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, David Patrick Kelly, Clarke Peters, Kevin Nash

Thunder Road Pictures, 87Eleven, MJW Films, DefyNite Films, Summit Entertainment, 101 Minutes

Review:

“When Helen died, I lost everything. Until that dog arrived on my doorstep… a final gift from my wife. In that moment, I received some semblance of hope… an opportunity to grieve unalone. And your son… took that from me.” – John Wick, “Oh, God.” – Viggo Tarasov, “Stole that from me… killed that from me! People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back. So you can either hand over your son or you can die screaming alongside him!” – John Wick

Well, I finally got around to seeing John Wick after putting it off for four years. Why did I put it off? Well, people hyped it up so damn much that I knew that if I went in with said hype, I’d probably walk away disappointed. I needed some time for that to cool down and to separate myself from it. I actually intended to watch this before John Wick 2 hit theaters, last year, but I was incredibly busy around that time.

Having now seen it, it doesn’t live up to the hype but it is still a balls to the wall, unapologetic motion picture and I love seeing Keanu as a complete and total badass murdering the crap out of scumbags in such an amazing and calculated way that he makes the Punisher look like Richard Simmons.

It is quite obvious that John Wick takes some cues, in style and narrative, from the the Hong Kong gangster pictures of the ’80s and ’90s, especially those directed by John Woo. It also has very strong film-noir tones, whether it knows that or not. There’s crime, plot twists, deception, a femme fatale character and a visual style that borrows heavily from classic noir as well as neo-noirs from the ’60s through the ’80s. I see a lot of visual similarities to the neo-noir work of Wim Wenders, most notably The American Friend, as well as notes of Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï.

As far as the story goes, John Wick is pretty much the greatest assassin in the world. Just after his wife dies, a crew of shitheads break into Wick’s home, kill his dog and steal his car. The shitheads have ties to the Russian mob boss that Wick used to work for. Wick goes on a one-man killing spree for revenge and doesn’t care who crosses his path: his old boss, his old rivals and his old allies. With Wick reentering the world that he left years earlier, he is once again in the thick of it and won’t be able to just walk away when the dust settles. Of course, this was established to setup all the future sequels, which I have a feeling, Keanu Reeves will do until his body won’t let him anymore.

And speaking of Keanu’s body, he trained like a madman for this role and continues to do so now that this has become a franchise. He does all the driving, all the fighting and has become a legit badass in the real world because he wanted to play John Wick as realistically as possible. Seriously, if you want to be impressed, go watch some of Keanu’s training videos for these movies.

This is in no way a perfect film but if you are a guy that wants his action raw and soaked in diesel fuel next to an open fire, then you will enjoy this. It reminds me of the spirit of those ’80s Cannon Films except with much better cinematography and more capable talent in front of and behind the camera.

I was surprised to see so many actors I love pop up in this. I guess I never paid close attention to the cast details other than knowing that this had Keanu Reeves and John Leguizamo in it. But anything with Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane in it, automatically gets a hefty helping of gargantuan gravitas piled on to whatever is already there. Plus, you’ve got small roles for David Patrick Kelly, Clarke Peters and “Big Sexy” Kevin Nash. I also have to point out the good performance by Adrianne Palicki, who always seems to play the same character, but definitely came with a harder edge in this movie.

John Wick is solid. Damn solid. It doesn’t need to be a perfect film and it doesn’t want to be. It’s fun and manlier than an Everclear drinking lumberjack piledriving a bear through the hood of a Hummer.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: John Wick 2, I’d have to assume. As well as, Atomic BlondePunisher: War Zone and Death Wish 3, which still has the best balls out grand finale in motion picture history. For some old school pictures with similar themes and visual flair: Tokyo Drifter and Le Samouraï.

Film Review: Sin City (2005)

Also known as: Frank Miller’s Sin City
Release Date: March 28th, 2005 (Mann National Theater premiere)
Directed by: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Based on: Sin City by Frank Miller
Music by: John Debney, Graeme Revell, Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Jessica Alba, Benicio del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood, Alexis Bledel, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Carla Gugino, Josh Hartnett, Rutger Hauer, Jaime King, Michael Madsen, Nick Offerman, Marley Shelton, Nick Stahl, Tommy Flanagan, Devon Aoki, Rick Gomez, Frank Miller (cameo), Robert Rodriguez (cameo)

Troublemaker Studios, Dimension Films, Miramax, 124 Minutes, 147 Minutes (unrated recut)

Review:

“Most people think Marv is crazy. He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. He’d be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face. Or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him. They woulda tossed him girls like Nancy back then.” – Dwight

When Sin City came out, it was a bit of a phenomenon. Well, at least with fans of comic books and especially those who love the work of Frank Miller.

I haven’t watched this in a really long time and I wanted to revisit it after spending a lot of time delving into classic film-noir, which this picture takes some major visual cues from. Well, the original comic this was based on used a lot of noir visual flair, so it was only natural that this film adaptation followed suit.

As an overall cohesive story, the film doesn’t work that well. I get that it is a linked anthology with overlapping characters but it feels like it is just running all over the place. Frankly, this would work better as a television show where all of these characters could be better developed and jumping around with the narrative would just seem more organic.

This is still a cool movie with cool characters but sometimes they feel more like caricatures of pulp comic and noir archetypes. There isn’t really any time to get to know anyone beyond what’s on the immediate surface. Nancy and Hartigan are the only characters with any sort of meaningful backstory and even then, it is pretty skeletal and doesn’t have the meat it needs to really connect in an emotional way.

The film is highly stylized and while it looks cool, it almost works against it, as the grit and violence almost becomes too comic book-y. But this is supposed to be the comic stories coming to life and it represents that with its visual style. And I like the visual style but this is still a live action motion picture and it sort of forgets that.

I’m not saying it can’t have immense and incredible style but it needs to have a better balance between what would exist on a black and white comic book page and what works best for the medium of film. Being that this is the first film to sort of use this visual technique, I think people looked past its faults. I also think that once it was done here, the initial surprise and awe was gone, which is why no one cared much when the sequel came out and why the visual flare didn’t work to hide the faults of Frank Miller’s very similar film, The Spirit.

Additionally, sometimes the comic book elements seem very heavy handed and forced. The scene where Marv escapes the SWAT team may work in the comics but it felt bizarre and goofy in the movie. It would have been more effective if it was toned down and reworked, as opposed to Miller and Rodriguez trying to copy the comic panel by panel. This never works well, which was also why 2009’s The Watchmen had a lot of problems. Personally, I’d rather just stick to the comics if the filmmakers want to just recreate everything panel to shot.

Another problem with directly adapting comics is that the dialogue that works in one medium sometimes sounds terrible in another. Some lines when delivered on screen were cringe worthy moments. Still, I mostly liked everyone’s performance in this despite the sometimes questionable direction and script.

Sin City didn’t blow my mind like it did when I first saw it thirteen years ago. That’s fine. It is still pretty damn good and enjoyable but at first glance, way back in the day, I probably would have given this a nine out of ten rating. But at its core, it just isn’t that good of a film, even if it caused me to fanboy out in 2005.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and The Spirit.

Comic Review: Fatale – Book Two: The Devil’s Business

Published: January 15th, 2013
Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips, Dave Stewart

Image Comics, 136 Pages

Review:

Since I really enjoyed Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale – Book One: Death Chases Me quite a bit, I didn’t want to waste time jumping into the second of the five installments.

Like its predecessor, there is still a healthy amount of noir and Lovecraftian horror in this tale.

I really loved this book. It took what was established in the first, expanded on it greatly and upped the ante as well.

With this volume, you really feel connected to Josephine and her “curse” or whatever the hell it is, we still don’t know exactly by the end of this tale. We just see more history on how her appearance in men’s lives causes severe pain and human wreckage. You also still aren’t sure if she is wholly innocent, a victim of her condition or if there is something more sinister in her past.

This story takes place in ’70s Los Angeles and the antagonists are a Hollywood cult similar to the Manson Family but much more evil and expansive. In fact, the story makes reference to Manson and how even he was speechless in the presence of the cult leader in this tale.

While this is set further away from the traditional film-noir era than the previous book, it feels more in line with a true noir. The darkness of noir and horror merge seamlessly in this and from a stylistic standpoint, this volume is more fine tuned than its predecessor.

The story is dynamic, entertaining and you care about these characters, even though you know that most of them won’t live beyond this dark tale.

Brubaker has really found his groove with Fatale and I absolutely love Sean Phillips artwork.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: The other volumes in the Fatale series. Also, B. Clay Moore’s Hawaiian Dick series, as both share a lot of similarities with noir and the supernatural.

Film Review: Family Plot (1976)

Also known as: Alfred Hitchcock’s 53rd Film, Deceit, Deception, Missing Heir (working titles)
Release Date: March 21st, 1976 (Filmex)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Ernest Lehman
Based on: The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, William Devane, Ed Lauter

Universal Pictures, 121 Minutes

Review:

“[to Fran] We’re gonna have to kill these two ourselves.” – Arthur Adamson

Family Plot has the distinction of being Alfred Hitchcock’s last film. It also proves that even in old age, the director was a true auteur that never lost his mojo. This is an engaging and entertaining motion picture that while it isn’t Hitchcock’s best, probably deserves more recognition than it has gotten over the years.

The plot is about one giant misunderstanding. Unfortunately for the nice duo, it becomes a big mess, as the other duo locked in this cat and mouse game aren’t nice people and in fact are pretty evil and dangerous.

Barbara Harris plays a fake psychic that swindles rich old ladies out of their money. She partners up with a crafty cab driver played by Bruce Dern. The two of them are given a job that will reward them with $10,000 upon completion. That job is to find a long lost heir to a family fortune and return him to the fold. What they don’t know is that this heir is a career criminal and conman. The conman thinks that he is being pursued by the duo because of something heinous from his past. The heir is teamed up with a often times reluctant accomplice played by Karen Black. The film becomes a chase where the mostly good guys keep finding themselves in over their heads and the bad guys are running in fear of what these do-gooders may have on them.

The plot is well structured and executed marvelously for the most part. My only real complaint about the film is that it seems a bit too drawn out. Hitchcock loved a two hour-plus running time and frankly, this could have been 100 minutes and been just as good.

I loved seeing a younger Ed Lauter in the movie and with Bruce Dern and Karen Black, this just has a really cool cast. The fact that these actors also got to work with Hitchcock is kind of impressive. Not because they aren’t capable, they certainly are, but because it’s a teaming of great talents from different generations.

Speaking of which, it was also really neat that John Williams got to score a Hitchcock picture. Two different artists that defined two different generations in very different ways came together and made something that worked to benefit both parties. Williams score here isn’t anywhere as well known as those that he’d do for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg but it enhanced the overall experience of Hitchcock’s Family Plot and gave it some life it might not have had with a less capable composer.

I really enjoyed Family Plot. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it exceeded any expectations I could have had, even if I knew more about it before diving in.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s later work from the late ’60s into the ’70s.

Film Review: Branded to Kill (1967)

Also known as: Koroshi no rakuin (Japanese)
Release Date: June 15th, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Hachiro Guryu
Music by: Naozumi Yamamoto
Cast: Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Hiroshi Minami

Nikkatsu, 98 Minutes

Review:

“This is how Number 1 works: first he exhausts you, and then he kills you.” – Number 1

While I have only seen a handful of Seijun Suzuki’s motion pictures, he has become one of my favorite directors of all-time. Between this and Tokyo Drifter alone, he has proven to me that he is a true auteur with an incredible eye, an enchanting style and impeccable craftsmanship.

I thought Tokyo Drifter was one of the coolest, if not the coolest, movies I have ever seen. Branded to Kill is nearly as cool and just as perfect as Tokyo Drifter.

Suzuki has a way of taking something pretty standard like a Yakuza picture and making it much more interesting than it needs to be. But that is also why his films are so unique and incredible and not just forgettable chapters in a massive genre of Japanese cinema.

The bizarreness of this film can’t be understated. The main character is an assassin for hire and is ranked Number 3. He is in a battle with the other ranked assassins throughout the film but is specifically being targeted by Number 1. He also has a fetish that sees him obsessively inhaling the aromas of freshly boiled rice.

The movie is mostly a series of assassin battles playing out, as these killers try to outwit and survive one another. The story also has strong film-noir elements in its visual style, use of a femme fatale and constant twists and turns. It is one of the most artistically sound Japanese neo-noirs of all-time, right alongside Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.

It is easy to see where some other noteworthy auteur directors were influenced and inspired by Suzuki’s work here. The film almost has some David Lynch qualities too it, decades before Lynch really emerged and crafted his own interesting oeuvre. It would also influence John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.

Interestingly enough, this film made no money upon its release and Suzuki was fired for making films that “…make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued the studio and caused a major controversy within the Japanese film industry, which resulted in him being blacklisted. He didn’t make another film for ten years and became a sort of counterculture hero. Because of this, he became recognized as an artist with something more to say than just a standard director pumping out low budget gangster movies for a paycheck.

Nowadays, this film is heralded as an incredible body of work and even has its own Criterion Collection edition.

Over thirty years later, Suzuki filmed Pistol Opera for Nikkatsu, the studio he had the falling out with. That film was a loose sequel to this one.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, as well as some of his other films: Youth of the Beast, Pistol Opera and Gate of Flesh.

Comic Review: Fatale – Book One: Death Chases Me

Published: July 10th, 2012
Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips, Dave Stewart

Image Comics, 144 Pages

Review:

Ed Brubaker is one of the most prolific creators in comic book history. His work has been everywhere but there is something extra special about his personal work. While he’s penned stories for DC and Marvel for years, whenever he puts something out on his own, it’s a real treat for comic book fans.

Being that I also love film-noir and Lovecraftian horror, seeing those two things come together in a Brubaker story is really exciting stuff for me. Now this series has been out for a little while but I didn’t get my hands on it till just recently when Comixology was having a sale on Brubaker stuff.

Man, I’m really glad I picked this up, as it was a cool experience and maybe my favorite indie series alongside B. Clay Moore’s Hawaiian Dick, which also took noir, supernatural elements and mixed in a Tiki vibe.

Fatale is almost standard noir but it has a dark, gritty horror twist with some H.P. Lovecraft flavor. This comic series goes places that others don’t and it’s uniqueness is refreshing.

This first story arc, there are five total, introduces us to this strange world. We meet Josephine, a seemingly standard femme fatale. However, we learn that she is apparently immortal and that there are some dark forces at work that she is involved in. It seems that every man she comes in contact with has their lives ruined in some way. She has this magical ability that hypnotizes men into obsessing over her, even if she wants them to or not. She is pursued by a violent cult that worships cosmic gods. Jo has some sort of relation to these gods.

This story arc takes place in the 1950s but other stories happen at different points in time.

The stories of Brubaker backed by artistic mastery of Sean Phillips is just such a great fit, especially with the visual and tonal aesthetic of this series. They collaborated on other projects, all of which were critically acclaimed: SleeperCriminal and Incognito. I’m sure I’ll read through them after I get through the five volumes of Fatale.

I really liked this book and I look forward to what’s next. This story served as a solid introduction to a world I had no idea I wanted until I jumped into it.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: The other volumes in the Fatale series. Also, B. Clay Moore’s Hawaiian Dick series, as both share a lot of similarities with noir and the supernatural.

Film Review: Hard Rain (1998)

Also known as: The Flood (working title)
Release Date: January 16th, 1998
Directed by: Mikael Salomon
Written by: Graham Yost
Music by: Christopher Young
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid, Minnie Driver, Edward Asner, Richard Dysart, Betty White, Ricky Harris

UGC-PH, Tele-Munchen, BBC, Nordisk Film, Marubeni, Toho, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Mutual Film Company, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Look! We just want the money! You guys can walk away, we won’t kill you!” – Jim

This film has more studios, distributors and countries involved in its creation than I have ever seen. Okay, maybe not ever but there is a whole shit ton of people behind this little action movie.

It also has a pretty big cast for a movie about a town vacated due to massive flooding. But the big cast of characters was actually a benefit as this movie has so many twists, turns and character morality shifts that at its core, this is very much film-noir.

Christian Slater plays an armored truck guard. He and his older mentor, played by Edward Asner, get stuck in the flood waters as they are transporting three million dollars from the small town’s bank to safety. They are quickly overcome by a group of thieves, led by Morgan Freeman. Asner’s character is killed in the initial confrontation but Slater escapes and hides the money away in a tomb. As the water rises further, Slater is on the run from Freeman’s gang, who have acquired boats and jet skis to more easily navigate the flooded city streets.

The town is also protected by a three man police force led by Randy Quaid. They seem like a heroic lot but as the film progresses and greed takes over the hearts of nearly everyone in the film, we see the worst come out in those tasked with keeping the peace.

Minnie Driver is thrown into the film because you need eye candy and someone for the hero to try and hook up with. You also have an elderly couple who stayed behind, played by the great Betty White and Richard Dysart. There is also the town’s dam operator, played by Wayne Duvall.

Hard Rain is a guilty pleasure of mine. I know it isn’t a good movie but it is great, mindless fun for ninety minutes. The action is good, there are a lot of layers to the story and there really isn’t a dull moment. I can’t say that the script is good either but at least the plot moves swiftly, offers up some decent surprises and is interesting enough to keep one engaged.

The highlight of the film is the three male leads, all of whom played their parts well and seemed to be having fun with the material.

This is a quintessential ’90s mid-budget action picture. It doesn’t try to do too much and stays pretty grounded in reality. The premise made for an ambitious picture, especially in regards to how much water was needed to create the scenes, but it never felt over the top or ridiculous. The shootout inside the church is marvelously executed and still looks good today.

This is just a fun movie with a good cast that I have to revisit once in awhile.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Broken Arrow, another Christian Slater action film from the same era.