‘It Comes At Night’ revels in the enveloping fear of nothingness

I’ve gone through seemingly time-and-time again what I favor in a horror film. Time after time after time. Needless to say I’m going to try to hard on it again here too extensively. Suffice to say: I prefer a less is more approach.

It Comes At Night, much like 2016’s The Witch, is movie almost tailor-made to my horror sensibilities.

The plot:

“Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order he has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.” – A24

The review:

As I’ve written in the past, any horror movie worth its weight in salt doesn’t simply taser your nerves with jump-scare after jump-scare. That’s completely within the realm of playing peek-a-boo with an infant. Look to any of the most iconic horror films, such as Alien or The Exorcist. There aren’t really roundtable scenes where the “rules” are discussed.

The more you know or understand about something, the less scary it becomes. It’s why the movement in the late 2000s to add backstory to some of cinema’s most iconic monsters (Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc) came off as simple sacrilege. It’s why I see little point in Ridley Scott diving into the origins of the xenomorph with his latest crop of Alien films. There’s definitely an argument to be made for some explanation (it all relates back to the movie itself and this is by no means a universal rule) but on the whole fear stems from a lack of understanding.

Generally fear comes from something you know very little about, and that’s the wheelhouse in which Trey Edward Shults opted to operate when crafting his second feature. There’s no scene of a news report providing exposition nor is there a scientist character to clue us in on what exactly our characters are dealing with.

As with his first film, Krisha, Shults translates the rawness of emotion from a personal tragedy (in this case the death of his father) to raw intensity, feeding into the universal fear of losing those closest to you. Like his earlier film, Shults explores the impulse and fruitlessness in seeking normalcy in extreme and strenuous circumstances, ultimately questioning whether such a normalcy is not only obtainable but if it even existed in the first place.

Those who come into It Comes At Night for an answer to what exactly “it” is, may leave this movie severally disappointed. There’s not a monster stalking the two families at its center. There isn’t even a clear villain or even a message. The horror at the movie’s core is a lot harder to define than something as tangible as a monster. Besides what could possibly more frightening outside than the thought of the danger being inside with you, under your skin.

The virus in the movie refreshingly doesn’t turn its victims into zombies or any form thereof. In fact, the film spends very little time what exactly the disease is or how exactly it works beyond being both highly contagious and incredibly fatal. We don’t know where it originated or just how widespread it is.

At the center of it all is Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who serves as our de facto avatar. He is in the company of his teacher cum survivalist father Paul (a career best performance from Joel Edgerton) and stressed out mother Sarah (the ever-dependable Carmen Ejogo). The family lives already lives on the thin edge of a razor in their respective isolation when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) appears at their front door.

Will has his own clan consisting of wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families soon merge and things are good…at first. But as movies demand, conflict arises as paranoia sets in. Travis’ nightmares, pouring with thoughts of hopelessness and desperation, become more and more frequent, eventually bleeding into reality. There’s all matter of combustions laid before the audience (sexual tension, conflated masculinity, “looking out for one’s own); all it takes is one match to set everything off.

What ultimately happens is at once shocking and inevitable, brutally so. This movie is scary enough on its own but its true horror only sinks in after its over and you attempt to wrap your head around what it all meant.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of It Comes At Night and in that emptiness viewers will either embrace the abject terror or find frustration at the lack of clear answers. Instead, we find blind animalistic panic, lashing out at an all-consuming darkness that will one day envelop us all.There are multiple sequences draped in shadow, darkness threatening to envelop the entire frame at points. It’s at these moments where the film really, really excels.

There’s no way to fully understand human nature; why we act the way we do when we’re scared. As the film’s tagline explicitly states, “Fear turns men into monsters.”

Allow me to play Carnac the Magnificent and glimpse into the future for a moment. This is a movie that will be completely bypassed come award season. I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. And truth be told, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be concerned about in this ever-troubling world of ours but it is a shame to be sure.

Drew Daniels paints a jaw-dropping canvas with his cinematography, by far the best I’ve seen this year. The shots within the house are tight and claustrophobic while the few times we leave for the outside feel expansive yet uncertain, leaving us never really at ease in the same way our characters are. It’s a commendable attribute for a cinematographer to pull something off like that in way that isn’t hand-holdy or obvious. The same could be said of Brian McOmber’s score which never dips into hysteria, instead serving its tight-wound atmosphere.

A common complaint I’ve been hearing relates back to the film’s marketing. Now, as of now, I’d say the film’s teaser (posted above) is one of the best I’ve seen in a good long while. Hands down the best for a movie to come out thus far. It works as a template of exactly what a trailer should be. It’s only when you look at the full trailer (posted below) do things get kind of murky.

I’d argue this cut is still streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill trailer house output, as is the case with a lot of A24’s stuff. However it does more explicitly market this as a more traditional horror film, which is most certainly is not. It’s only during the nightmare sequences does the film dip into more familiar ground with the occasional jump scare and shocking image. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of “D” on an A+ to F scale which is shockingly low but not really all that surprising.

This isn’t a movie for a “fun” movie night with your friends. Well unless those friends are like weird and “pretentious” like me or sadists. It Comes At Night is not a fun movie. It’s a movie that’s actually a lot more simple than it lets on, all while never going over the top (something its B-movie title may suggest) in a way that would feel false to the world Shults creates. Some may find this boring while I argue it’s refreshing.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the red door which serves as the only entrance and exit for the home. Said door is never supposed to be opened after nightfall. As is the case with movies however, the door does open. However, we never get a glimpse of some horror such as a monster or zombie horde. Instead we only see empty blackness. A majority of horror films presume the former is scarier. Shults favors the latter however, allowing audiences to squirm in the expanse of the unknown and contemplate the familiarity we may find within our own souls.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ impresses with its maturity and continued personality

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to keep some resemblance of consistency, I’m actually getting another review out the gate faster than I thought I would. I’ve written a review for almost every Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World and Ant Man) since Iron Man so I wanted to get this out there as quickly as I could. Actually really liking the movie didn’t hurt either. 

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is definitively my favorite of the Marvel Studios’ canon at present period. I wouldn’t say there was a single terrible movie in the batch. It mainly falls to some being much more memorable than the others, and out of all of them I’d wager Guardians is the one to beat in that regard.

My review of the first film can be found here.

Writer/director James Gunn just brought such a voice to that film movie it  transcended beyond anything the company had done up to that point. Much credit to Marvel for actually allowing the guy to down his thing albeit within the confines of their big picture. I just wish the same sort of situation could have worked out for Edgar Wright and his Ant Man movie which I would have thought to the be the one that topped Guardians but I digress.

Going into the sequel, I didn’t have much doubt I’d enjoy it particularly since Gunn was coming back along with the entire original cast. The question was whether it could actually surpass the original. Too often sequels go too big, favoring familiar rather than innovation. Luckily Gunn is a smart enough filmmaker to largely bypass some sequel (Chris) prat falls other directors do, delivering a product that may not be as good as its predecessor but comes mighty damn close in some respects.

This will be a spoiler free review, Nick.

The plot:

“Set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

Thankfully that all important personality I was drowning on and on about in the preface carries over here, almost even more so. There are so many weird things I want to talk about because Gunn goes for some off-the-beaten path pulls this time around. I remember freaking out in the first film when he went so far as to include Howard the Duck (who returns briefly) near the end. Here we have Ego the Living Planet as a major character as well as shout-outs to the original Guardians of the Galaxy (led by an actor I’m surprised wasn’t included in the marketing more) and even the Watchers.

Pardon me as a scratch off yet another thing I assumed I’d NEVER see in a major motion picture.

It’s also a movie bursting to the brim with color, unafraid to embrace an entire palate rather than brood in the shadows providing yet another line-in-the-sand for Marvel against their distinguished competition over at DC.

Gunn is our sole credited writer this time out and it shows, given this movie does something almost unthinkable in relation to the sequel-dominated cinescape we find ourselves in today: rather than expanding this insane universe, Gunn brings us inward. At times, this movie is downright intimate; given that once again a talking raccoon and sentient tree are major characters, this is all the more shocking.

From the offset, Gunn shows us how these characters have changed since last we met. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is a little less reckless, recognizing himself as the caretaker of his team’s larger-than-life personalities. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is less hardened, actually opening herself up to genuine care and affection. The same could be said of Drax (Dave Bautista), who is downright jovial this time around. Conversely, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a much more bitter; his wise cracks sporting a sharper edge.

Also Groot (Vin Diesel) is now a baby….referred to as Baby Groot, obviously.

Oh by the way, Gunn communicates all this subtly within the first ten minutes of the film; no easy feat to be sure, particularly just how many characters I just listed without even getting to the rest of the returning cast and new recruits.

Largely focused on the idea of a family being what you make of it (much like the first film), Vol 2 splits our characters off from one another for portions of the film, partnering them up with another guardian as to allow for some further development/playing of each other in different ways. 

Think of it like the fourth season of Arrested Development only here we actually have multiple scenes of the entire family altogether.

As you may have guessed, the story kind of takes a back seat in this entry leaving a film that is much more leisurely in its pacing. The larger MCU doesn’t really factor into the events, leaving our characters to take the reigns which I actually ended up liking quite a bit. It doesn’t hurt that these are such lovable and weird characters obviously.

The cast is again uniformly outstanding. Dave Bautista’s Drax is yet again the comedic highlight and in many ways come to represent the heart of this franchise. He gets to spend some quality time with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a personal favorite of mine from the comics. Their interactions are basically everything I wanted and more, leading to some of the movie’s funniest bits.

I was kind of worried Marvel was going to lean in really hard on Baby Groot, who is obviously very adorable, but luckily he’s used effectively and more or less sparingly.

If the movie were to belong to anyone in front of the camera, it’d be Gunn mainstay Michael Rooker pictured below with a local drunk.

Rooker’s Yondu is partnered with Rocket and the two really get down to the nitty gritty as to why their characters are they way that they are, both of whom share arguably the best arcs in the entire film. Quill’s notion of “building your family around” is something that obviously stemmed from Yondu, and is explored to poignant effect here.

Rooker’s one of those character actors that is basically good in everything he appears in, which is no easy feat given the sheer scope of his body of work as a character is. Seriously go check out his IMDb page and come back. So know I’m serious when I say this may just be his best performance to date. I won’t divulge into specifics but the movie’s best beats (both comedic and dramatic) all go to him, and I feel it’s a performance we’ll all be talking about for a while. Given the guys super talented, it should come as no surprise and it’s awesome to see Gunn give his friend such a hefty role in such a huge movie. Not that he needs it, but I hope this means we’ll only see more of him in bigger films.

This film also passes the bechdel test, which is something I always like noting in major blockbusters. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, perhaps the least developed of the guardians, is given much more time with her adopted “sister” Nebula, played by my favorite companion Karen Gillan. The two share quite a few nice story beats throughout, playing once again into the whole family theme.

If anyone gets shortchanged, oddly enough it’d be Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, who is paired with his father Ego (of course he’s played by Kurt Russell). Pratt really doesn’t do a whole lot another the final act and it’s not like he’s out of commission a majority of the movie. He’s just a lot lest dynamic to the plot outside of he’s just met his apparent father. To go another further would be too spoiler-y, but even though it’s kind of late in the game, Pratt is consistently in his element here. Unlike Jurassic World or Interstellar, Pratt is the perfect quasi-level headed mantle piece for this insane galaxy to rest its shoulders. He’s an insanely charismatic everyman, unafraid to look stupid or take a joke at his expense.

So if I were to take any qualms with this one it’d be that it’s almost too easy on plotting, drifting off in some sections where some tightening could have been beneficial. This becomes increasingly apparent during the middle section where we linger on beats that drag on just a tad too long. This becomes jarring once things ramp up in the third act and we have action happening at a lighting fast rate.

The film’s soundtrack, following in the footsteps of the unlikely mega-hit that was the Awesome Mix, Vol 1, is similar to the film itself in that it is perfectly great but just not up to the exact bar of its predecessor. Their are certainly some stellar tracks put into play here though with my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all time being the largest standout for me personally.

Although Glen Campbell’s inclusion was also a worthy of note too, particularly the ludicrously silly scene it accompanies.

To be a nitpick, I’d argue the songs in the first film “fit better” in that each and every one was obviously carefully picked one-by-one as to go specifically with each scene in which it appears. Vol. 2‘s soundtrack, while also doing this to a degree, feels just a little bit more like an oldies jukebox. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It kind of just boils down to personal preference. It comes no where near the level of ego/incompetence behind the ADD music cues in Suicide Squad, which were part showing off and part shamelessly attempting to emulate the success of the first Guardian‘s soundtrack.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release.

I for one can’t wait to see this motley crew back in both Avengers 3 and the third (and presumably final) film with Gunn on writing and directing duties. Like it or not (why would you not), Gunn has carved out a whole universe for himself; largely undictated by the larger demands of the MCU and a sandbox for which he and his team may let their collective imagination run rampant.

Like (36 Chambers) or Fresh Cream, ‘Free Fire’ is a testament to the ensemble

The “fun” thing about transitioning to a “Do almost every movie I see” model of reviewing to a “Do it when I feel like it” model is it let’s me wax poetic about movies I actually have something to say about. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to write anything transcendent or meaningful.

I’m just free to come and go as I please. Can’t promise that’ll translate to “better” posts all in all, but you may notice I am a bit more upbeat when I put them out.

Or not.

Who really cares?

Free Fire is a movie that’s been on my radar for almost a year now. I caught the trailer at a screening of Swiss Army Man (another A24 release) but there was no release date attached at that point. I guess it would be fair to say I keep my eye out for the A24 logo on just about anything really to be honest. A lot of that goes hand-in-hand with their remarkable track record, particularly in the low key genre films the studio distributes.

It must be said that I don’t think there is a company out there continually distributing mini-genre masterpieces at the same frequency as A24. I mean let’s look at some of their picks: Under the Skin, The Rover, Ex Machina, Slow WestMississippi Grind, The Witch, Green Room, The Monster and The Blackcoat’s Daughter to name just a few. And those are just what I’d consider their genre films. Least we forget they’re also behind bringing Room and Moonlight to the masses.

So it could almost go without saying that I was hoping for another home run with Free Fire, given not only A24’s interest in it and it’s brilliantly simple “I can’t believe this hasn’t been made before” premise but also the involvement of writer/director Ben Wheatley and just about every name listed in the cast. Having Martin Scorsese on as a producer only sweetened the pot as it were.

It may even be fair to say this paralleled my excitement levels for The Last Jedi, if not even surpassing it.

So was the hype met? Does A24 have another genre classic on their hands?

Unfortunately it falls a pretty sizable distance from of something I’d consider iconic. HOWEVER it is a ton of fun and a movie I could definitely foresee becoming a cult classic within a few years, played at 1 a.m. in dorm rooms around the country, the smell of herbal substances and Cheetos hanging in the air. And this is by no means a shot at the film. In a way I think that’s what it was going for. The plot never gets all that complicated and our characters aren’t exactly the most complex. What you see is what you get, and for what it is, it works.

The plot:

“Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

You look at bands like Cream or the Wu-Tang Clan; groups that made of considerable talent, with each individual member being a star in their own right.

Much can be said about the cast of Free Fire. 

We have Brie Larson for starters, who at 27 already has a much-deserved Academy Award. Props to Larson for not just cashing in, but continuing to strengthen her resume with massive blockbusters while still allowing herself to get her hands dirty with smaller films like this. She’s an actress I hope stays interesting as her career continues and even though she already has an Oscar, I hope we are far away from seeing her peak.

Then you fill in the gaps with the likes of Shartlo Copley, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer. All three of those guys are movie stars, turning in consistently solid work regardless of the quality of the project they’re in. Copley in particular is an actor who feels as if he should be on the A-list but opts to go for weirder, more memorable genre roles.

There’s handful of up-and-comers mixed with long-standing favorite character actors too. Standing alongside our marque talent we’ve got the MVP of last year’s Sing Street, Jack Reynor as well as Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley and Noah Taylor.

And who could forget Michael Smiley, or as he’s known in this household…

Possibly my absolute favorite thing about Free Fire outside of the bullet-ridden lunacy is that Wheatley doesn’t subject our lower-tier names to the sidelines. They’re placed forefront and center right alongside everyone else.

I am in no way accusing any one on this film of having an ego; this isn’t a Fast & the Furious movie. That’s a movie with stars, each with a contract I assume requires a certain allotted amount of screen-time, citing who gets to punch who and which person wins which fight.

I keep emphasizing this group effort because too often we see movies with large casts but they typically serve mainly to elevate one or two within the pool. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this mind you. I just truly appreciated how this movie didn’t have a star (singular); it has stars (plural). All our guys (and girl) feel equally integral to the story and they all elevate scenes rather than steal them.

In a movie like this, there isn’t a need for lengthy character development. Our cast of miscreants aren’t exactly the most lovable crayons in the box, if you catch my meaning. Setting the film in the 1970’s was another nice touch as it makes them think outside the box in terms of getting out of the shootout, providing at least the bare minimum of tension given they don’t have cell phone access. 

It’s a very silly movie with each of our characters serving as bullet sponges before they finally go down. For what that’s worth, I think that worked fine here for the most part. Sure, that kind of alleviates some the tension, knowing that your characters can’t really die at any moment instead straddling the suspension of disbelief as they take more and more damage without immediately bleeding out. 

This serviced the black, sort of wacky tone for me however, and I don’t think Wheatley and company were seeking any form of higher truth when crafting this movie. I could be wrong, but a movie like this isn’t going to solve many problems outside of entertaining you.And it does help that they DO actually seem to take damage with each hit, something I’ve harped on in the past. 

I guess that leads me to Wheatley himself. It’s been said many times before, but there is absolutely no consistency between this man’s films and I’m not referring to the quality. He may just be the most prolific director we have working right now. On the whole, I generally think most of his output is pretty damn spectacular. No, I’m speaking to the fact that all of his movies are widely different in terms of tone, look, approach, themes, etc. If you go in blind with no information provided as to what the connection is, you may be hard-pressed to determine what exactly the link is if forced to watch his library back-to-back. For example his last film, High Rise, dealt with big, lofty science fiction ideas. Where that film felt like Wheatley striving for Kubrick, Free Fire is his best take on Tarantino. The ending, in and off itself, might as well be a director nod to Reservoir Dogs and warehouse setting. Although this movie is much more violent and much less cruel.

Representing his first straight up foray into action, Wheatley does his best to keep the camera comprehensible before the bullets start zipping every which way. However, and somewhat disappointingly, he lacks the finesse of a John Woo.  Free Fire is more akin to a sloppy game of paintball with live rounds than a carefully orchestrated bullet opera.

Still, I guess some confusion keeps in tune with carelessness of our characters, who can’t even always remember who’s shot whom or which side to which they fall. Credit again to the uniformity of the stellar cast for keeping things light and falling perfectly in line with Wheatley’s black-comedic sensibilities, particularly Copley who may just represent a made in heaven actor-to-director match up Wheatley could draw upon for his future endeavors.

I think if I were to point to any sort substantial criticism to the flick, I’d say it lacks sequences. What I mean by that is I remember a handful of quick moments and lines, but the second half of this film is what equates to an extended action sequence. There’s not really any downtime and that sequence is largely made up of the following: characters shoot at each other for a bit mixed with some quips, the recover, change places and then shoot at each other again. Rinse and repeat about 10 or 20 more times. I’ll stress that the only point this kind of becomes monotonous is during the middle chapter where the threat of a sniper (or snipers?!) brings the momentum to an almost screeching halt as our characters are actually pinned down.

Wheatley’s prolific nature also serves as a double-edged sword as the film kind of lacks a director’s unique voice, something I was kind of hoping for.

I mentioned earlier how Wheatley likes to venture into new territory with each new film, which is all fine and well but that also means he lacks a definitive style. Compare this to other directors at (what I’d consider) Wheatley’s “precipice of mainstream” level like Jeremy Saulnier. Free Fire certainly has personality but its the personality of directors that influenced Wheatley, not Wheatley taking the proverbial baton and putting his own spin on it. At leas that’s how I interpreted it because, as I’ve said, I don’t really  have handle on what Wheately’s voice is exactly.

So Free Fire may not have blown my hair back in the way I wanted it to, but I still had plenty of fun watching it so in that it was successful. It’s something I’d fit in the category of “Hey gang! It’s 2 a.m. and we’re drunk. Let’s put on a movie.” And as far as I’m concerned, the world could always use more movies like that.

Cinematic Soapbox #3 – Two there must be: The beauty and flexibility of’Lone Wolf and Cub’ as a narrative device and influence

Welcome to “Cinematic Soapbox!” Much like the AV Club’s Scenic Routes, I will discuss a movie, scene, series of movies, series of scenes, genre or some other cinematic element, why I think it works and what it means to me. I am obviously not the level of writer that Mike D’Angelo is so don’t expect the same quality and thoughtfulness he brings to his column.

Last night I caught a screening of Logan, what is expected to be Hugh Jackman’s final turn as the character he helped define for well over a decade. In today’s world of constant reboots and re-castings, that’s a borderline ludicrous notion.

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-9-36-11-am

Wolverine, as a character, is a very Eastern concept presented in a traditional Western fashion. He is often likened to a rōnin, or a samurai without a lord or master would travel the country-side as a sell-sword. This connection only strengthened by the fact that his swords are built into his hands. 

If this is indeed Jackman’s final hurrah so to speak, it’s makes complete and utter sense that this is the sort of story he would want to leave Wolverine behind with as it fits a the type of arc writers have been utilizing the character over the past three or four decades.

Now before I get ahead of myself, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, that being the reason I’m writing all of this.

While I was watching Logan, it became clear to me that it wore a number of its influences proudly on its sleeve. Shane, Unforgiven, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan arc, etc.

But it was the relationship between Logan and Laura that stood out the most to me, as was the intent of the movie once could surmise. That isn’t to say anything in the movie was specifically targeted at me but…you get what I’m saying.

This got me to thinking: where else have I seen this arc used so well before?

The answer?

Tons of places, particular over the past couple of decades or so.

For whatever reason however this particular format doesn’t seem to get mentioned a lot, or at the very least I don’t feel that many people I know seem all that aware that it’s a recurring story at all. And it isn’t a strictly cinematic story either. It’s origins rest in the page after all, and have transcended well beyond into television shows and video games.

For those unfamiliar with Lone Wolf and Cub, a 28-volume manga from the 1970s that has been adopted into everything from movies to stage plays, the gist is as follows:

lone-wolf

Written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by artist Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub begins when Shogunate executioner, Ogami Itto, is framed as a traitor by the agents of a rival clan. With his wife murdered and with an infant son to protect, Ogami opts for the path of a rōnin, with the pair adopting the moniker, “The Lone Wolf and Cub.” The two wander feudal Japan with Ogami’s sword now for hire, but all roads will lead them to a single destination: vengeance.

Now it may or may not be important that I preface with the fact that I have not seen EVERY SINGLE ITERATION of this story. I’ve read a handful of the manga and seen maybe two or three of the films. I am not a scholar. I am but a humble internet voice with a blog that sports 3, possibly 4, recurring readers.

You’re welcome to chalk it up to personal preference, but let’s walk through some of the most recognizable instances of this formula and just how successful they’ve been.

It’s a model that traditionally sports two arcs for our main characters:

  1. Wolf, or the old master, is typically in search for some form of redemption or peace. Their lives have been defined by blood shed, with their only goal now to not only keep themselves alive but also the lives of their respective wards. They are often emotionally closed off when we meet them, having been through hell. As the story progresses, we peel back the layers as their young ward reminds him or her of the good person at their core. This character is typically male. Maybe as we attend to automatically assign a masculine connotation to qualities such as “gruffness” and “world-weariness.” It’s by no means a rule. It’s just something that happens to recur a lot in these stories.
  2. Cub, or the young accomplice, represents the new generation or a break from all the violence his or her master attempted to flee from. By the end of the story, this character must make a choice: continue down the path of violence or break the chain altogether. There’s often the recurring narrative choice to have this character be female. Once again, it’s not universal. Just a commonality.

These two characters also typically find themselves in a similar predicament: the younger individual is stuck in a hostile and unfamiliar world in which they are (often) highly unprepared to tackle solo and a world the older individual is all too familiar with. This can mean a path ravaged by the effects of some form of apocalypse or one simply laden with real-world dangers.

The appeal of such an arc is that it really allows for close examination to its two main characters. One (typically) carries the emotional baggage of a violent past whereas the other may provide for levity and in doing so open up the former for development.

Now I’m not going to touch on every example I think of that fits this narrative. To do so would lead to an overly long post that would touch on the same things over and over and over and over and over again. Think of this is as the Lone Wolf and Cub breakfast sampler, where I try to hit on how wide-ranging and re-occurring this story as well as how it continues to remain fresh and narratively engaging in spite of how many times creators dust off the cobwebs on it. I mean, just look at all the quality examples I don’t get to on this thing such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

And I don’t do this to point out something to the effect of “No new stories,” or “Originality dead?” I feel as if I come off as some sort of pretentious grouch that repeats those sentiments over and over again so fear not. I’m not

I do it to highlight a tried and true formula that works and works well when viewed through different prisms. Least you forget, this is story that came to us from Japan but has transcended beyond borders. Not only that but it’s a story steeped in centuries worth of Eastern mythology and pop culture.  If anything, it speaks to the power of story-telling which if you know a single thing about me it’s how lame and uncynical I get about just how goddamn essential story-telling is to the human condition.

Also SPOILERS for all discussed, Nick.

Road to Perdition

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Let’s start off with a cheat just to get it out-of-the-way, shall we? Road to Perdition is also based on a comic. You know what that comic is based on? You guessed it. Lone Wolf and Cub. I guess “homage” would be a more appropriate term, but you get the point.

In this instance, the story is transplanted from feudal Japan to 1930s American Midwest. Simply switch out samurai with gangsters and you’re there. Moving on….

All kidding aside, Road to Perdition may sport a similar structure to its predecessor but its themes couldn’t be more different for the most part. Tonally, this movie is much more subdued and goes out of its way to not canonize its violence, with most of the violent and bloody acts occurring off-screen and those that do appear as quickly as they would in the real-world. Whereas Lone Wolf, in adaptations such as Shogun Assassin, is so cartoonishly violent that you can’t help but laugh and cheer.

Perdition is a statement on violence and its consequences; a journey to hell and back again.

 Michael Sullivan, Sr.chose a path of violence in his youth and now considers himself to be irredeemable. He fears the same path for his son, Michael Jr., who seems enamored by his father’s exploits. However, as he attempts to shield his son from his past, the more harm he does. It’s why he  It’s only when the two are forced on the run does a bridge of communication open between them. Their shared tragedy bringing them closer together.

Adventure Time 

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Speaking of shared tragedy it’s not as if this show needed any more adult themes, amiright?

Now there are a lot of episodes of Adventure Show, and multiple that feature these two characters so let’s limit our scope to just two: “I Remember You” and “Simon and Marcie.”

At the core of this arc (which is also on-going) we have Simon Petrikov, or the man who would be Ice King, and Marcy, who will one day become the Marceline we all know and love. Before that though, we had a simple man losing his mind and a little girl with no home or family just trying to make it through a world torn asunder by “The Great Mushroom War.”

As we know, the roles eventually reverse with Marceline becoming Simon’s caretaker. (She’s not all that hands-on, but Ice King really isn’t all that much of a threat is he?) It’s a relationship unique to the others on here as we essentially learn about it in reverse. When we first meet Ice King and Marceline, they are already in the form they’ll carry for a majority of the series. There’ll be room for growth, (something not particularly easy to do with two characters that are for all intents and purposes are immortal), but they stay relatively the same in regards basic traits, strengths and vices.

With her vampirism serving as an oh so subtle allusion to clinical depression and his crown being a flat-out stand-in for a neurotic disease such as Alzheimer’s or dementia,  the two have their fair share of vices between them. So the reveal that the two have a shared past, while somewhat a shock at first, made sense.

The beauty of it all however is how this arc (as modeled on Lone Wolf) adds complexity to pre-established characters, information we didn’t even know we needed.

The tragedy at its core being two-fold: the tool giving Simon more time is slowly but surely driving him crazy, providing a very gut-punchy view of the lunacy that comes to define him later. That, in turn, leads him to all but forget just about all the memory of his former life, including his time with Marceline.

But in that there is hope.

Marceline may miss the way Simon used to be, but she’s still going to love the person that he is. She knows more than his name; she knows his true soul, and she’ll never forget that, even if he does.

And that hope grows brighter with each episode. The two even reunited (briefly) in a later season.

It’s an ongoing story and I’m interested to see where it goes, and hope for a satisfactory conclusion to their shared arc. Speaking of…

The Last of Us

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Here’s another obvious example.

The beauty and uniqueness of this relationship is how quickly Ellie becomes a necessary part of Joel’s journey. Unlike many of her colleagues on this list, she is far from helpless having had her own bought with fighting to survive well before having met Joel. This is the only world she knows after all, having been born before the Cordyceps epidemic that nearly wiped out all of humanity.

And she’s by no means a master at her craft either. That’s what separates her from characters like Hit-Girl for example. She’s sloppy in more ways than one, and she hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the uncaring world around her due in part to her having nothing else to compare it to. The Apocalypse is her normal.

The same can’t be said for Joel, a man clearly still in mourning over the loss of his daughter twenty years before the game’s plot kicks in. He’s been operating at half-capacity ever since, simply survive as it is all he really has left.

The two become surrogates for one another. For Ellie, Joel represents a family she hasn’t experienced yet or at the very least some form of normalcy. For Joel, Ellie represents a second chance and could quite literally (and cynically) be considered a replacement kid.

It’s also an interesting relationship because, as with the original Lone Wolf and Adventure Time, it’s one we will get to see evolve. A sequel was announced a few months back, and it was initially news that filled me with a mix of both excitement and hesitancy.

I feel as if we left Joel and Ellie at such a narratively fulfilling place; a place so satisfying I wasn’t all that interested in seeing where it went beyond, “The End.” Sure, in retrospect, the door was left wide open for future stories, but lighting only strikes ever so often and rarely does it strike twice.

But I’ll admit, there is an overwhelming interest in seeing how these two advance particularly the Joel fibbing JUST A TAD about the fate of the Fireflies at the end of the first game.

Leon: The Professional

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The detriment in this one is that there is a hinted romance between our two characters, something I can’t really get around in terms of its ickiness. To be fair, those romantic feels come from the younger side and there are not (to my interpretation) reciprocated by the older.

This is also the only example I’ve included that doesn’t take place in an automatically hostile environment. I mean it is fair to say that Matilda didn’t really have a choice in the matter in terms of the shitty family she was saddled with. That’s the thing with families. A lot of time, people just have deal with the cards they’re dealt.

The lesson to be learned here is finding roots, not letting yourself be dictated by the wind…or in this case crazy, violent mobsters. Leon takes charge at the end, seeing the path laid before Matilda should she keep falling further and further into his world and sends her away, providing a chance for a (somewhat) normal adolescence.

Game of Thrones

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Now for a young girl that probably has NO CHANCE for an even somewhat normalized adulthood…

For my money, this is the best character pairing this series has glued together to date, both in the books and on the television show.

Ser Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, is hardly the first character to get saddled with “baby-sitting” Arya Stark, but he is buy-and-large the character to produce the best story-telling results from her narrative thus far, which is no small statement.

She doesn’t become a better fighter with the Hound. We aren’t treated to any hokey training montage in which

She doesn’t particularly learn how to play the game either.

So what does Arya gain from a season’s worth of travels exactly with such a brute?

By the end, she is armed with something arguably a lot more useful tool than a new technique or insight into warfare and that is the utter unjust and uncaring nature of the universe.

Your oh-so-great sword teacher, the purported “First Sword of Braavos?”

He was (allegedly) killed by a shit fighter who happened to have armor and a better sword.

This kindly farmer who gave us food and shelter, and offered us honest work?

His farm is in the middle of an active war zone, and will probably be killed before the end of the week so might as well steal his money as it’s as good as stolen anyway.

No, I would say this is a particularly GOOD lesson per se but it is a necessary one; particularly for Arya, a girl from a house that put honor above all else. And where did that get them? Two dead parents, two dead siblings and a house in ruin.

Now the Starks are well on their way to a comeback, but in Season 4 (the season this interaction took place) they were all but kicked out of the game, on the run or held hostage.

So who better to give Arya a much-needed reality check on the way things work. She’d definitely seen some shit in the previous three season, no doubt about it, but she still held on to the antiquated “good and honor prevails” mumbo jumbo instilled in her from birth.

It’s also worth noting where these two leave each other, their roles essentially revered. Arya is now cold, looking to escape and leaves the Hound to suffer and die from his wounds in a fight he fought specifically for her. It’d be a stretch to say the Hound is all that different from where he started but he is more hopeful. Having survived, we later learn, he is more open to the kindness of others.

Logan

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I guess it’s kind of important I touch base on the inspiration on this article, huh?

I mentioned before Wolverine, as a character, is very East-meets-West kind of package, and no where has that been more evident than in Logan, an iteration of the character that could have easily been played by Clint Eastwood if the film came out 20 years ago. There are multiple gunslinger references peppered throughout, with Shane actually viewed by the characters and then quoted later. The plot also mirrors Unforgiven  in more ways than one.

He’s the most desperate we’ve ever seen him with his healing ability on its last legs and the adamantium grafted to his skin slowly killing him. He’s also paired with a dementia-ridden Charles Xavier, who tags a long for a good portion of this film. The film is at its most engaging however when it gets down to its central relationship between a man and his clone.

Laura (also known as X-23 in the comics and animated series) is somewhat comparable to Ellie in that she comes with her own baggage, with the difference being that she mirrors Logan’s powers. She even has two extra claws located in her feet. It may be derivative, but she is in essence Logan’s Mini-Me.

The interesting aspect in this instance is that Laura is a clean slate. She has baggage but its like a purse compared to the unending luggage of her clone daddy. She represents Wolverine’s literal second chance. It is in her that the Lone Wolf comparisons become evident.

Near the end of the film, Logan tells Lauren, “Don’t be what they made you.” It’s simple statement, but speaks volumes.

Both are weapons; designed to kill, kill more, sleep and then kill again. Whereas Logan nears the end of his life, Laura is right at the beginning of hers, and in her lie a crossroads. Does she follow the path of the bitter warrior defined by violence, hallow and full of regret, or something closer to a path of peace? Can there truly be “peace” for someone who’s committed such violent deeds.

This is where the R-rating really aided the story-telling, something I don’t want to come off as shallow for endorsing. It’s really, really, REALLY satisfying to see a Wolverine film in which the character is allowed to fulfill every inch of his violent potential. But it’s even more satisfying that it was allowed to happen in a story that actually called for it.

Just like Perdition, that violence wears on the soul; something I don’t think would have been nearly as effecting in a neutered-for-mass-appeal PG-13 cut.

We need to see the path of a VIOLENT man, the consequences made evident in severed limbs and heads, and the potential for what could happen to Laura should she allow it to define her life as well. The world of Wolverine, Xavier and the X-Men is fading away. The choice is up to Laura and her generation to decide what becomes of mutants, and by extension, humanity.

As Whitney Huston once sang…

All that glitters: 5 (RECENT) Egregious Oscar Acting Snubs

egregious

adjective

Definition: outstandingly bad, shocking

Ex: The fact that Nick does not know what this means is egregious.

Sorry about that folks. Context is everything I suppose. Suffice to say, I know my audience. And that is typically an audience of one. He knows who he is.

The….(looks to see what number we’re at)…89th Academy Awards are this weekend and I’m here to capitalize…I mean…shoot….um….coincide. Yeah, I just happened to think of writing this AND the Oscars just happened to fall on the same weekend in which I finally put it out.

So yeah as with any competition there are going to be varied opinions on who should win and why…this post is one of those opinions. It’s by no means more educated or valid. It’s just mine.

So…

That means it’s objectively the best one.

Why only 5, you may ask? Well I’m lazy.

You caught me.

(I almost get TOO much milage out of that clip.)

I’ve limited myself to acting because well that’s seems to be really be the only awards of the night many seem to pay credence to. I mean I’m sure I could bore you with how we often take for granted the less glamorous screenwriting and technical categories, but….shit, I already lost some of you.

Before you leave, I’m also excluding what could have been candidates for this year’s race as I can only be somewhat relevant, you know? I want this to be an exercise in healing, a means of airing long-held bitterness for awards I was never personally up for or had a say in who won what exactly.

So that means Amy Adams’ work in Arrival will not be getting a mention, no matter how deserving it may be. Also important to note, these are not the MOST egregious snubs of the past few years. Just five egregious ones. Also it’s just my opinion and what do I know? I kind of liked Green Lantern.

Performances (off the top of my head) I would have added had I had more time:

Albert Brooks, Drive (2011)

Tom Hardy, Locke (2014)

Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin (2014)

Benicio del Toro, Sicario (2015)

Jake Gyllenhall, Nightcrawler (2014)

Hugh Jackman, Prisoners (2013)

Liam Neeson, The Grey (2011)

Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul (2015)

Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

James Franco, Pineapple Express (2008)

Essie Davis, The Babadook (2014)

Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Simon Pegg, The World’s End (2013)

Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt (2012)

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (2015)

Nina Hoss, Phoenix (2014)

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Let’s get some “snobbery” out of the way first, shall we?

Phoenix is a little German movie from a few years back that certainly got recognition in some pretty prestigious circles. However it was basically passed over in every regard by the Academy; perhaps most tragically shunned was the performance of one Miss Nina Hoss.

Nelly is a woman who reflects her surroundings. A Jewish cabaret singer who (barely) survived the horrors of the Holocaust who finds herself in the rumble that was once Berlin, her shattered face mirroring the utter destruction surrounding her. She’s on the search for her husband who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis as to save his own skin. Suffice to say, she eventually finds the guy but he does not recognize her as her face is a dented shell of what it once was. However she does look JUST enough like her old self to fit into a scheme he has formulated to get ahold of her inheritance. Noir-ish adventures ensue with twists and turns to be had by all, all culminating in the final scene in which the truth is finally revealed.

Basically the final scene is as perfect as any ending in any movie ever made, (Hyperbole, much?) and at its center is Hoss. She leaves us with almost nothing yet everything that we need. Much like her mother country, Nelly is a little roughed up but she will shoulder on. The subtle yet triumphant rebirth harkens back to the legendary bird from whom the movie receives its title.  This isn’t to say Hoss’ output in the rest of the film isn’t up to par. If it weren’t, this scene would not be one iota of as strong as it is.

Suffice to say, I think Hoss gives one of the best performances of the past few years here and the fact she didn’t even get a nomination (in a year that was kind of lacking looking back) is a shame.

What would have been her Oscar clip (SPOILERS):

Sharlto Copley, District 9 (2009) 

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Another thing I harp on is the gross under-representation of genre films each and every year in the acting categories. I’m not exactly sure where the hesitancy stems from either. Take District 9 for example. It got a Best Picture nod, and a handful of nods for elements such as visual effects. Deservedly so, I might add. However Copley got no Best Actor attention. I don’t even remember him being in the conversation.

It’s a real talent to all at once take an unlikeable character and make us emphasize with him or her as well as sell body horror without coming off as hokey. Copley seems to do it effortlessly with his turn as Wikus van de Merwe.

It’s kind of standard to have the arc of an unlikeable guy, make him see the light and ultimately join the side of the angels. van de Merwe doesn’t exactly fit that mold to a tee however. Copley ensures he remains the still, basically selfish, unwilling participant he was throughout but we get more shades of him along the way. He is capable of empthy for these, as he puts it, “fookin’ creatures.”

I love that. Also his ability to sell the whole “I’m becoming a bug man!” thing flawlessly and empathetically don’t hurt neither.

What would have been his Oscar clip:

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Let’s keep this “South African actors/actresses snubbery” train going by doing away with the pretense that anything I’m saying is at all snobby particularly in comparison to the body of voters we’re talking about.

Mad Max: Fury Road was one of those rare instances of a big budget action movie’s quality being so apparent and loud, I can only assume the Academy was begrudgingly forced into including it in the Best Picture race.

There was one category it was woefully overlooked for. You guessed it. Acting. I know that was pretty tough but we got there in the end.

Now both Tom Hardy and Theron would have been strong candidates for their respective roles in the film, but Hardy got his due that year with a nomination for The Revenant.  And to be fully fair, Theron received her’s back in 2003 with Monster. That was a well-deserved win. So it’s certainly not as sad as it would have been otherwise, but Furiosa is the first truly iconic role Theron has ever gotten to sink her teeth into.

What would have been her Oscar clip:

Lee Byung-hun, I Saw the Devil (2010)

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Oh no! More foreign cinema!

One could argue that Choi Min-sik had the flashier role of the two leads in Kim Jee-woon’s 2010 slasher. After all, he is the titular devil and the man is deserving of at least a little Oscar attention for his snub of basically the performance upon which he will be most remembered in Oldboy. Of the two however, in this particular film, I favor Lee.

It should really come as no surprise that this film was overlooked. It’s pretty exploitative at parts and not in like a fun, Grindhouse way. More like a borderline torture-porn way. And for a lot of the runtime, Lee plays Agent Kim as steely as one would expect from a man seeking revenge. It’s the film’s final act however where consequences begin to take shape in a way that I did not expect.

It’s the final, haunting shot I think should have at least brought Lee into the conversation. Gone is the badass we thought we knew, replaced by the weeping shell of a man whose life has been utterly decimated by quest for revenge. It’s appropriately harrowing and I think it’s a performance that all at once grounds and elevates a movie that could have been exploitive trash if handled by less skilled hands. Luckily I Saw the Devil features some of the best talent South Korea has to offer, Lee being one of them. Now if only Hollywood would follow suit and start putting him in more interesting roles!

What would have been his Oscar clip:

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips (2013)

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File this one under the “No duh” category, if you please.

Much like our previous contender, Hanks’ snub is basically equates to the utter power of the performance he gives in the film’s final scene. Like Lee, Hanks doesn’t give you a hero triumphant. He presents our main character made broken, the trauma of the film’s event’s enveloping him in a tidal wave of grief and emotion as the the film cuts to black. We aren’t provided the comfort of knowing everything is going to be fine.

What would have been his Oscar clip (obviously):

Scarlet Johansson, Her (2013)

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This is one I’ve been on the fence for for quite a while, and have been in at least two or three debates on the topic believe it or not. Hard to believe I was able to fit it between my hectic schedule of staring at nothing and slipping slowly into narcissistic madness.

The funny thing is though, I was initially AGAINST the idea of the inclusion of a voice over performance. That should be it’s entirely separate category. But if her nomination brought more attention to voice over acting as whole? Well, I can get 100% behind that wholesale.

It’s important to note that Johansson was not even the first person cast in the role. Samantha Morton had recorded all her dialogue (and was even on set for all of the scenes between Theo and Samantha) before director Spike Jonze opted to recast her. Jonze said, “It was only in post production, when we started editing, that we realized that what the character/movie needed was different from what Samantha and I had created together. So we recast and since then Scarlett has taken over that role.”

That speaks to both the power of casting (another role that should get some form of Academy recognition) as well as Johansson’s ability to effortlessly slip into the role.

There’s this annoying notion that voice over acting is “easier” than traditional acting as one simply goes to a booth to record. They can wear pajamas to work, you guys.

The thing some don’t seem to acknowledge is how alienating the process can be. I mean typically it’s just you can the voice director and various behind the scenes folks in a booth with a few hour sessions for a week or so. You don’t typically even meet the other actors until after the process is over. (Johansson’s case takes this a step further as she wasn’t brought in until the main production had already finished.) This leads to many actors simply phoning in their roles for an easy paycheck. It’s really easy to spot lazy voice work. (Looking at you, Chris Rock.)

Johansson’s output here is anything but lazy.

What would have been her Oscar clip:

‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is a more than worthy, albeit kind of bloated, follow-up to its predecessor

It’s been a year since Deadpool came out.

….

….

That doesn’t tie into the review proper at all.

More like a statement on the general passage of time, and how something something you don’t look around you might miss something something.

…..

…..

ANYWAY.

I’m still feel as if I’m reeling from the concussive wave of shock that assaulted my body with overwhelming quality in the form of John Wick back in 2014.

Show me someone they went into that first movie “knowing” it would be a new action classic and I’ll show you a liar. On the surface, that movie had a lot going against it. Mid-September release date, Keanu Reeves as the lead and a somewhat stupid on paper premise did not bode well. But low-and-behold, we have arrived at a sequel and it is one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

I didn’t do a full-review for the first film, but I think a lot of its strength is that initial shock I just mentioned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great movie and I daresay about as perfect an action movie you’re likely to find in this day and age. But no one knew it would be AS good let alone outstanding.

And I loved, loved, LOVED being proved wrong because that next to never happens with movies any more. Surprise is a cinematic currency of increasing value in the Age of the Franchise and John Wick just might represent a renewed hope for new, fresh Western action cinema. The fact that it’s joining the big leagues with a sequel is all-at-once exciting and worrying. You can only make one first impression after all and diminishing returns are something each series faces at one point or another.

Keanu doesn’t age!

The joke?

Remember the joke that Keanu Reeves  doesn’t…um…age?

You’ve heard that one right?

Like you’ve seen the pictures?

keanu-reeves-is-he-immortal

See?

I’m doing the bit.

From the beginning….about the…the passage of…um…time.

It’s like a gag.

Fuck it, start the review!

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The plot:

“After returning to the criminal underworld to repay a debt, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) discovers that a large bounty has been put on his life.” -IMDb.com

The review:

I’d be quick to compare John Wick: Chapter 2 to The Raid 2. It’s quasi-startling at how many pros and con (singular) the two share. Both are sequels to surprise action films released relatively close to their predecessors. Both are longer than their predecessors due to more world-building. Both up the ante by noticeable margins both in scope and action. Both are ultimately really, really, REALLY great but ultimately come just a hair short to their respective predecessors due in part to said world-building.

Where John Wick kept things relatively simple with its “gang kills man’s dog, man goes on rampage” premise with bigger assassin-centric universe playing a more supportive role, Chapter 2 covers a substantial amount of ground in its somewhat bloated runtime by bringing its world-building to the forefront.

If the worst thing I can say about a movie is, “It was just a bit too long,” you’ve got yourself a pretty, damn good movie. You’re ridin’ high, fine as wine, havin’ yerself a Big N’ Rich time.

Wait, what?

Sorry, I’m just getting distracted all over the place here.

Like I said, my only real “issue” with the film comes right down to preference in pacing. Whereas the earlier film built momentum through domino effect, its sequel prefers to stack its cards all at the top and letting them fall to pieces by the second act for the 40 or 50 minute equivalent to cinematic jenga. Nothing wrong with that at all. I just felt winded by the time John reaches the kingdom of panhandlers, led by Laurence Fishburne (Matrix reunion!!!!!!!), and could have either used a more substantial break rather than MORE information to access right before getting back to business. It was too much of a good thing for me in some respects.

It’s almost frustrating in a way. The film does just about everything I could ask for in a sequel. World-building, interesting new characters, etc. It’s a buffet of riches, and yet I still feel it could have been scaled back to some degree. I don’t know. Simply put: the film was just a bit too long for me personally.

That was the negative, so lets focus on the positives (PLURAL) because there are a ton.

Once again, the action (the main attraction) is utterly sublime and entertainingly surreal.

Gunman take suppressed shots at one another unnoticed in a crowded subway station.

Blood splatters the blank walls of an art gallery like Pollock painting.

We also finally get to see what kind of damage John can really do with a pencil.

I was a little worried that since only one of the two directors from the first film (Chad Stahelski to be specific) would be returning for the second outing. Like maybe the other guy (David Leitch) saw something wrong with this film and jumped ship. The two former stuntman only have Wick as their directing credits so it’s not like the Cohen Brothers splitting up but I feel its fair to say there could be concern that the magic might have been lost without the full band getting back together. Consider any worries I (or maybe you) had dead and buried. Stahelski is as apt at every in presenting action in way that is at once exciting and comprehensible. Believe it or not, you can in fact have your cake and eat it too in this instance.

Characters take damage here, and every bit is just so wonderfully kinetic that you find yourself wagging your finger at other filmmakers that seem to think we like spazz attacks rather than steady, competent camera work. The filmmakers want you to gawk at the stunt-work and revel in the back-breaking work they put into their set pieces. Wick fights a gun-totting Harry Potter, his various firearms proving far more effective than any wand or staff. (I’d say let there be a drinking game in which shots are downed with every headshot Wick fires off, but those are supposed to be fun; not death sentences.)

Reeves cements Wick as an anti-hero for the ages. Much has been said about Reeves acting abilities, or arguably lack-there-of, but I argue, and have argued for years, he’s fucking phenomenal in the right roles. I guess you could really say the same for any actor or actress, but Reeves is an absolute testament to this simple fact: CASTING MATTERS.

He bounces off so well against a much livelier cast of characters because this is a man who’s, at his core, dead inside. This second film really represents more of a descent for John whereas the first film really was just about revenge. He’s forced back into the game as it were by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a member of the Neapolitan Camorra, an old frenemy who will not accept “No,” as an answer. Soon, John is off to perform yet another seemingly impossible task and wouldn’t you know it? There’s a double cross and old John Wick finds the candle burning on both ends….on both ends…..the candle is burning on….John Wick? Candle. Guys?

The movie can’t really sustain the emotional heft of “man’s dog is killed, said dog was also last connection to dead wife” so it makes the wise decision to pretty much forgo that all together. Instead it just doubles down on everything else that made the first one work so well, namely that aforementioned action and fantastical assassin-filled world-building.

And instead of devolving into some sort of gritty, brooding slodgefest revenge films seem to be defined by, this weirdo franchise opts to shed blood in the light and fully embrace the wackiness of LITERALLY anyone being an assassin.

Speaking of blood, let’s talk about the new blood. I’d say this is probably something this film aces over the last. Sure, there are less women (only one speaks substantially as I recall and the other is a mute) but I’m not sure this movie is setting out to say some sort of larger statement on feminism. In fact, I don’t really think there are many topical sentiments to be had at all here….other than assassins seems to be everywhere.

Fuck, we’re getting a little too social conscious here.

Back on course.

I really felt a better sense of presence from the supporting cast this time around. I don’t want to go beat-for-beat with each one, but we can break down one. Um….Common!

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Now Cassian is not  THAT developed per say but neither is our title character. The film does a lot with a little in this regard. There’s clearly a history between he and John and you get that with like next to no dialogue on the subject. I love how these movies go about characterization. There’s not an ocean of depth to them, but there really doesn’t need to be. Unlike…oh let’s say Rogue One…the movie isn’t all that dependent on a super strong cast of characters. They really just need to be memorable TO AN EXTENT. And the film and its cast achieves that largely. Ruby Rose’s silent Ares may even be a shining star in this regard as I remember a hell of a lot more about her than I do about…give me one second I’ve got to look it up….Jyn Erso. Ares says LITERALLY nothing, communicating via sign language, but it’s yet another “mountains out of molehills” situation.

Now hopefully we can file “Tyler overly cares about digestible yet interesting characterization” away for the foreseeable future. We’ll put it next to “Did you know mainstream horror largely sucks” or “Action heroes need to get beat up more.”

I also loved where this film leaves Wick. No spoilers but needless to say: he’s not probably not going to be having a great time if and when we catch up with him in Chapter 3.

So…there you have it.

John Wick 2 is great. I’d even go so far as to say it’s amazing. Sure, it could use some trimming around the edges but how I can really chalk that up to anything more than personal preference. I’m old and I have a hard time with most movies over an hour and a half.

It’s like the first film is a hearty appetizer. Yeah, you’re hungry for more but once you get halfway through the main course you’re ready to explode. However, if you’re a fan of the first outing, you’re going to love this one. Not a doubt in my mind on that.

‘Split’ paves the way for the long awaited M. Night Shyamalan “return to form” once thought to be a pipe-dream

I’ve said some…less than kind things about the canon of M. Night Shyamalan. I’ll admit it. I stand by them. To clarify, I have nothing against the man personally. But let’s be clear:

Signs – Watchable but not a good movie.

The Village – A promising start, all undone by uneven pacing and a weak twist.

The Lady in the Water – Misguided and completely forgettable.

The Happening – Utter garbage on almost every front.

The Last Airbender – Possibly the worst adaptation of ANYTHING I have ever seen, and the drop off point in terms of my Shyamalan viewing. (The more I read about the production however the less Shyamalan seems to be at fault in this instance.)

With exception of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, I don’t think Shyamalan has a single film to his credit I’d consider good. The vary on the scale of adequate to outright terrible. His first two aforementioned films however are so strong that there was always a tiny, rapidly dying flame I’ve carried that he’d at some point get his mojo back. Unbreakable in particular, an INCREDIBLY underrated superhero flick that was largely overshadowed by The Sixth Sense. 

From the offset, I wanted to write this one off too. To be frank, I probably would not have even given it a shot were the word-of-mouth not been as strong as it has been. 

And in this one, brief instance: that word-of-mouth had some solid validity to it. Having now seen the movie, I can say it’s easily the writer/director’s best in well over a decade and actually provides a glaring light of quality in a January typically designated as a dumping ground for studios.

Just to be clear: I’m going to avoid spoilers here. I’d normally say, fuck it. But we’re talking about an M. Night movie here. The man has built a career on his twists. While I’d argue the one in Split isn’t all that earth-shattering, particularly if you are well-versed in the man’s other films (HINT, HINT), I’ll still keep it an air of mystery as the rest of the internet appears to have done so.

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The plot: 

“After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

The film’s main strength, as is the case with many I find, is its relentless likability achieved by just how bonkers it dares to go. For my money, Split is the campiest, funniest movie Shyamalan has ever gone and the movie is only made better for it. It’s really impressive as the movie walks a very, VERY fine tight-rope between

It’s also the first in well over a decade to play to its writer/director’s main strengths. An oxymoron to be sure. Similar to Sense and Unbreakable, the film operates on a relatively low budget but what it lacks in fund it more than makes up with  with in sheer confidence. I didn’t see The Visit, but from what I gather it is similar in that it represents M. Night getting “back-to-basics.”

It goes a step further by waving away the overly-somber atmosphere of those earlier two films. Don’t get me wrong. There are some heavy things are work here with child abuse only being the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but the movie never really loses sight of how goofy its initial premise is and at the very center is a complex, wacky, layered performance from James McAvoy.

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Without an actor like McAvoy, someone really unafraid to commit while also dedicate the time to making each personality distinct, the movie would have crashed and burned like so many others in  Shyamalan’s canon. Films, by their very nature, are collaborative in nature. One thing goes wrong, it could spell disaster for the entire production. Now, I understand this is incredibly obvious but I only say it to make a point. This movie stands on the shoulders of McAvoy and his success is its success. There’s just no way around that.

Is his performance(s) Oscar-worthy? I don’t think I’d commit to that necessarily, but it is a performance worth commending and dissecting. We don’t see all 24 personalities that make up Kevin, but the 4 or 5 that are showcased are fully-developed, understandable characters. Much more than any that appeared in Rouge One. You get a feel for who these characters are through tiny, at-times exaggerated, non-verbal actions rather than extended, monotonous monologues explaining who they are.

It should also be noted that the movie is gorgeous. Shyamalan recruits It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who allows scenes to simply play out in extended, single-take shots. I had forgotten how good Shyamalan is at establishing tension and simply allowing it to play. He’s finally teamed with a cinematographer with a natural gift for it as well with the results being tiny wonders and a testament to the “less is more” approach to horror.

The movie has more than its fair share of issues. For one, I’m not sure all three aspects of the story gelled all that cohesively. We get Kevin’s adventure with his three-kidnapped victims as well as his interactions with his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is not convinced everything is fine with her most fascinating patient. We also get flashbacks regarding a nightmarish hunting trip taken by one of the three girls Kevin has kidnapped, played by The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy. I don’t know. On the whole, all three narratives are fine but I feel like there could have been some trimming, particularly to the overly gratuitous flashbacks, and the film would not have lost all that much. To speak anymore on it however would be trimming the border of spoiler territory however.

I will say that the flashbacks really hammer home the themes of trauma and mental illness that I think Shyamalan is going for (much as he did in The Sixth Sense), and for that it gets a pass if only for being well-intended. I just feel as if there was a way to convey the information we get from them as subtly as we learn about each of Kevin’s personalities.

Another case could be made that the other two girls in Kevin’s clutches (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula respectively) are largely pointless. I argue however their purpose is supported by their final fate in the film, but once again…

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So, there you have it. Split is by no means a classic, but it represents something that warrants discussion and that is a hopeful return to form for a director that is long in need of one. It’s a movie that unabashed trashy, all while being much smarter than it initially lets on. In other words, my favorite kind of genre-movie.