Monthly Archives: May 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum — 6/10

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 — PARABELLUM (2019, Chad Stahelski)

Magic can be subdivided into different kinds. Guys like David Copperfield and Criss Angel and shit, they’re illusionists. People who can read minds are mentalists. A guy who saws a woman in half is doing “big box” magic (Penn & Teller do a lot of creative stuff with big box magic), and then you’ve got the guys like Shin Lim, who come up to just a few inches away from your face, take out a deck of cards, and practice such insane sleight-of-hand that you question your own eyes — that’s close-up magic. To make an analogy to action movies, FURY ROAD is big box, AVENGERS is illusion, and JOHN WICK is close-up magic. It earns its money with hand-to-hand combat, well-staged fights, practical stunts, and bloody, gory kills that can make you jump out of your chair.

For the first half hour or so of PARABELLUM, there’s about half a dozen of those moments. Wick fights a giant with a library book, gets in a knife fight with way too many bad guys in an antique weapons shop, uses a horse to kick away his foes, and has to fight off his enemies while riding full speed on a motorcycle. It’s relentless — until it relents. And when it relents for dialogue scenes, you realize it’s crawling way too far up the crevice of its own mythology, answering questions nobody ever asked. Did you care if Wick got his name from his actual Belarusian last name of Jonovich? Do you need to know about tickets, coins, passes, rosaries, consecration, and excommunication? If not, tough shit, this movie is going to explain the hell out of it.

Plot-wise, it’s simpler and more boiled down than Chapter 2 — but in paring down the story, it also fails to give Wick any motivation beyond mere survival. In the first film he had only revenge on his mind, but revenge is more fun to get behind. In the second film he had twisted loyalties and goals to achieve. Here, it’s just ‘can he survive,’ and that doesn’t give Reeves as much to do in the acting department — though he still manages to be as cool, physically, as any action star alive. Unfortunately. Halle Berry is also in the movie, and she’s quite bad. Her big action scene in Morocco is beautifully staged (and those dogs are awesome) but it’s also a lot of who-cares. Angelica Huston does more with her 3 minutes on screen than Berry does with her 23.

Then the movie keeps adding new faces and new villains and gives Wick more faceless henchman to dispatch. As impressive as it looks (and the production designer has a field day), it doesn’t really snap because the mythology just isn’t that interesting. To give you an example of just how repetitive it is, it climaxes with a scene similar to the ENTER THE DRAGON-inspired Hall of Mirrors from Chapter 2, but this time it’s a Hall of Breakaway Glass Cases. About 20 of them, and Wick gets thrown into every single one — each time it explodes with loud foley effects, doing no discernible damage to Wick’s body, and just keeps going. By the 14th glass case that’s destroyed, we’ve stopped wanting to see this magic trick again. I know where the ace is.

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Long Shot — 7/10

LONG SHOT (2019, Jonathan Levine)

They’re not necessarily “intangibles,” but the elements that make this a great deal better than your average studio rom-com might be overlooked. First of all, there’s the visual style Levine brings — one that he keeps building on from each feature to the next: there’s thought to lighting and camera placement that isn’t exactly Edgar Wright-level directing but meaningful nonetheless. Kinetic camera movement when the story calls for it, depth to a lot of the frames, and an appealing color palette. One touch I love in particular is the first time Rogen walks up to Theron — his eyeglasses reflect the string of gaudy lights at the fancy party they’re at, and become more prominent the closer he gets to the object of his affection. There are literally stars in his eyes when he looks at her.

Also, the rhythms of this deserve some love. Comedy obviously depends a lot on timing, and probably the reason I was laughing so hard so often here is rhythm. Note editor Evan Henke’s previous credits (OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY, THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, THE INTERVIEW, EASTBOUND & DOWN) and they all crackle with jokes that land precisely due to timing. One I’m thinking of here is after a serious of hilarious juxtapositions of powerful female politicians with ugly schlubs (Princess Di and Guy Fieri, Kate Middleton and Danny DeVito, J-Law and a potato in a teal windbreaker, etc.), Levine and Henke let just enough running time lapse before they throw in one more corker (Angela Merkel and Adam Duritz!) — complete with the red X — that goes off screen as quick as it came on and leaves you gasping for breath. I could list dozens more jokes that work like that, but you need to see for yourself if you haven’t already.

One element that definitely won’t get overlooked, however, is Theron’s performance. Proving once again that there’s nothing she can’t do, pivoting sharply from FURY ROAD to ATOMIC BLONDE to TULLY to this, Theron melds physical comedy with weighty emotion to generate a three-dimensional heroine that doesn’t rely on anyone else to succeed. Just watch the way she grips the handlebars outside the situation room when she’s stumbling on molly to handle a crisis. What Theron knows better than most actors is that when your character is high, your motivation is to look sober. She knows when to overplay and when to underplay, and every aspect of this performance is a joy to watch.

When the movie falters, it’s because the pizza dough can’t quite match the sauce and toppings. Levine tries too hard to appeal to all the quadrants, forcing Jackson (giving a characteristically strong supporting comedic performance) to be a Republican and stump for “hearing out both sides.” It veers way too far into fantasy land — giving us an America where a woman with scandals like these could be successful (we wish, we wish). I like how the script was retrofitted to encapsulate Trump times (Andy Serkis as a disgusting offspring of Steve Bannon and Ailes/Murdoch; Bob Odenkirk as a hilariously image-obsessed “acting president,” etc.) but as real as the romance may be, the vision of politics here is more absurd than real life and that’s hard to do. At least with THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner’s fantasy was old-fashioned and wishful thinking, but it got the bones right and took policy seriously. This takes the relationship seriously and treats the subject matter as a riff. Still, my face was so wet from laughter tears that maybe I’m spending too much time on the drawbacks. This movie is a riot.

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Shadow — 8/10

SHADOW (2019, Zhang Yimou)

A juicy melodrama with Shakespearean gravity, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for an aging master with three decades of experience behind him. Comfortable with pseudo-fantasy elements in historical war movies (in everything from HERO to THE GREAT WALL), Zhang is also likely engaging in some political commentary that a doltish American mind like mine is incapable of penetrating. But ignorance of the context is barely an impediment to appreciating everything else that works here — characteristically gorgeous compositions, a luscious, nearly all-grey color palette, forceful camerawork from Zhang’s longtime DP Zhao Xiaoding (Oscar nominee for HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), and two soulfully committed performances from real-life married couple Deng Chao and Sun Li.

Deng’s predicament is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA, as he plays a shadow for the dying military commander of a tenuous kingdom led by a foolish, hubristic king. Fans will also catch whiffs of Wong’s THE GRANDMASTER and Woo’s RED CLIFF in these proceedings, but what Zhang brings to the table is his peerless storytelling — the first hour is a gripping chamber drama set mostly in the Pei palace, before the much-discussed and rehearsed duel launches an action-packed back half. Rather than tossing some swordplay and arrow-shooting as chum to the masses, Zhang makes sure all of his action is motivated by the story: the duel, the Princess’s self-actualization, the siege on Jing, and the final reckoning for our protagonists. It’s all a fatalistic consequence of a plot that concerns itself with existential questions — is our identity forged by what we do or where we come from? Is an artist (represented here both by the furious zither-strumming and the balletic martial arts) born or trained, and can you fake it? Finally, do we love each other because of history, or can we fall in love by going through the motions of another?

Just because the action isn’t stylistic for style’s sake, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fucking bonkers cool. The locations and choreography would often be just enough, but Zhang throws in one of the weirdest weapons I’ve ever seen: bladed umbrellas that serve a duel role as gun and shield. Add to that the overhead shots of yin-yangs (a consistent metaphor made explicit by discussions of masculine vs. feminine), the alluring secret passage behind the palace walls, the voyeuristic stone holes, the banners and daggers and masks and robes that mark a distinct place and time, and you’ve got an exceptional entry to the Chinese period piece that reminds us the Fifth Generation isn’t ready to pack it in just yet.

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Avengers: Endgame — 7/10

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (Corporate Overlords, 2019)

Obligatory spoiler warning: this will have them.

Ever accidentally answer your phone when a random number pops up, and it takes you a while to figure out if the voice on the other end is a person or a robot? As technology progresses to the point where the organic and synthetic merge, where the line blurs between what’s human and what’s machine, we enter an age of undefined identity — a smeared grab-bag of things that bounce around in our consciousness to distract us from the existential horror that everything dies, nothing matters, and there is no purpose or reason for any of it. People are cyborgs, countries are companies, and money is authority. And what are movies, TV shows, or comic books? Is there a difference? Is ENDGAME the series finale of a 3-season fan fellatio where every 6-8 episodes it rinsed and repeated its digital tornado of gravity-defying light-show stunts and snarky gags? If ENDGAME is a movie, an Airbus A380 is a bicycle.

Most of the 21 episodes that preceded it were mediocre, monotonous just-okay-factories. Enough effort went in to prevent all-out disaster, but little artistry went into creating something profound. There’s not even much point in critically analyzing them; they’re post-analysis — they’re self-reflexive arguments for their own fan appreciation. But now that the story has been finalized to some degree (they’d never fully kill the golden goose), that horizon has yielded a few real benefits. Structurally, this has a shape: although the middle hour (collecting the stones) drags, it’s its own act. The first hour, getting the band back together, is full of solid laughs. The third act does contain the obligatory CG noise casserole (set in a bizarre green screen non-world of ill-defined terrain and murky-clouded skies) but it also takes death seriously, for a change. While Bruce and Mohawkeye (seriously, Renner’s lost-a-bet haircut must be seen to be believed) mourn Natasha, everyone mourns Tony with the gravity of a war’s real cost.

The pace is slow enough to register shot compositions and actor’s performances. For the first time, I can see a thespian garner acclaim for work in Marvel — Robert Downey Jr. reminds us that he used to be great before he became a hero. And Paul Rudd and Chris Hemsworth understand comic timing and that shouldn’t be taken for granted. There doesn’t need to be much action in this movie — it has maybe the least amount per minute of screen time of any other Marvel I can think of, because it does wrestle with character, even if it forgets that they’re also comic book superheroes (the failure to let Natasha’s Black Widow do anything remotely manipulative or devious is a criminal sin, and most of the other superheroes are just warriors without unique powers — beyond maybe Ant-Man and Hulk).

Also, as a piece of titanic pop culture destined to cement its place in box office history, it knows that its wokeness will be discussed regardless. So it forces a scene where every female hero in the series’ history lands together on screen without motivation or warning, to band together in battle. It also lets the old white guard pass its gifts on to minorities — Thor passes the Kingdom of Asgard off to Tessa Thompson, while Captain America hands his shield over to Anthony Mackie. Blink and you’ll miss the flash frame of Kevin Feige holding a “Diversity! Inclusivity!” sign above Stan Lee’s head. These transparent deferments to the current climate are admirable but clumsy, yet perhaps the most that a gargantuan franchise like this can afford. All around the world, people are seeing this thing, so it isn’t really just a movie, for better or worse. You can point out that the script doesn’t allow for narrative information to be communicated without dialogue; that the messages don’t challenge or confront us; that the frames rarely look as kinetic and artistic as a comic book panel, despite its influences. But what’s the point? The Russos are not De Palma. They shepherded untold amounts of traffic and scheduling, they gave a couple of their COMMUNITY pals some cameos (Ben and Shirley show up, but what, Abed was too busy?), and they allowed global audiences to forget for three hours the bottomless pit of despair that is the real world. That isn’t heroic, but it doesn’t happen every day.

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