Thursday, November 13, 2014

John Wick - **1/2

John Wick is a watershed event in the history of video games. Its designers have somehow overcome the uncanny valley and made a game that has the most incredible graphics I've ever seen. The only problem is that I can't play it, because it's actually a movie. It's full of visual flare and stylistic panache, weighed down by a strange sense of self-seriousness inconsistent with its seeming lack of ambition. It's a satisfying enough popcorn movie until you get through the top layer of butter and realize most of the kernels are stale.

What begins as an almost beautiful look at a man grieving his wife's death quickly shifts gears when a couple of thugs beat him up, steal his muscle car, and kill his dog, a plot turn that signals the introduction of uninvited familiarities. Then it's revenge time. Then it's cheap backstory time: before getting married and settling down, the man was a top-notch killer, "The Boogeyman." Wait, no, "The man you call to kill the Boogeyman." This is all fine while director Chad Stahelski is balancing brutal, matter-of-fact violence with beautiful choreography, and weaving it into a bizarre portrait of a fictitious seedy criminal underworld in New York City. But the momentum stops when Stahelski thinks we have any desire to hear the characters speak all sorts of tired dialogue, and as the plot contrivances start boiling over, our enthusiasm gets turned down to a simmer.

John Wick feels like a great 15 minute short film followed by 90 minutes of alternating action and boring video game cutscenes. No, it's not a game, nor is it based on one, but you might be convinced otherwise while watching it, for it so thoroughly emulates the cheesy storytelling (former hit man wants revenge) and cardboard characters with a singular goal (kill all the bad guys) of an average video game that those who miss it in theaters and pop the Blu-ray into their PS3 will be in for a minor head trip when they come to out of a trance of half-consciousness in the middle of the film and feel a game controller in their hands but are unable to influence what is happening on their TV screen... Especially if it happens to be during the sequence which cross-cuts between Keanu Reeves dispatching Russian mobsters with one of them literally playing a first-person shooter. It even features an in game artificial currency: gold coins redeemable for entrance to the hotel safe-house and favors from allies.

Shoddy storytelling and video game parallels and all, John Wick still manages to entertain on more than just a base-level. Keanu Reeves is an immensely talented actor, engaging even as the tabula rasa titular character in mediocre action films. And Stahelski and DP Jonathan Sela spoil the audience with stunning action sequences saturated in neon light and gorgeous overhead shots of New York City at night. If not for the abundance of hollow dialogue slowing things down, John Wick would easily become an instant cult classic. Instead, it just brandishes the dubious distinction of being simply one of the better action films of a lackluster year. Here's to hoping that that Blu-ray features some spectacular downloadable content.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction - Zero Stars

When did summer blockbusters become hostage situations? When did referring to them as "jaw-dropping" cease to describe their awe-inspiring imagery, but rather their perpetual-yawn inducing relentless stupidity? Just what is it, exactly, for a film to have no value whatsoever? I'm sad, but not at all surprised to admit that these are the questions that ran through my mind while being subjected to Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay's nearly three-hour fourth installment in his banner franchise of hollow spectacle.

Three years removed from the last time I watched Bay's giant CGI robots fight it out over the course of a bloated run-time, with a miserable intermission in the form of his vile, hate-fueled Pain & Gain (reviewed here), I'm almost ashamed that I endorsed Dark of the Moon (reviewed here) with the mild praise that I did, even giving a tacit thumbs up to Bay's penchant for misogyny, lumping it in as part of the "spectacle," rather than identifying it as the progressively-growing weakness of a filmmaker no longer able create legitimate lasting images. And coming from an Armageddon devotee, I count Ben Affleck trotting an Animal Cracker from Liv Tyler's cleavage to her waistline as a lasting image... I don't know what that says about me, but it certainly doesn't say much for Mr. Bay.

I don't know what it was, exactly, that made me enjoy Dark of the Moon; perhaps it was the ho-hum summer slate of 2011 combined with the fact that that particular set of robots and boobs was actually an improvement on the previous incarnation. Whatever it was, it no longer applies, and I don't think I can ever again trust the version of myself that gave it the OK.

Am I overreacting? No. It's not that Age of Extinction is devoid of any craft. It actually displays considerable talent. In addition to some incredible effects, Extinction also boasts some great cinematography, along with some really beautiful compositions; it reminded me that somewhere deep down, Michael Bay is a truly talented filmmaker, albeit one who has completely lost the ability to string together more than a few minutes of worthwhile material, especially troublesome when he inflicts 165 minutes of cruel repetition on us this time around.

Worse still is that these positive aspects were often contradicted by their context, many of them coming in the first hour, in which Bay seems to be making a concerted effort to develop his characters, showing us Mark Wahlberg's struggling inventor farm-boy father trying to raise a daughter who Bay refuses to clothe, so we get images of college loan refusal and silhouetted dad contemplatively looking off into beautiful sunsets, which would have been effective had we not seen three other Transformers films which conditioned us to ignore the human drama that inevitably gets paved over an hour later by robots bashing each other to bits, as happens an hour after Wahlberg ponders that gorgeous sunset.

But it's not just the ironic negation of the modicum of quality that the film shows, but the utter pointlessness of its being that makes Extinction such a chore to watch. Cut out the stupidity, the misogyny, the out-of-place cliche Japanese samurai Transformer, and you still have a tortuously long blockbuster with an asinine script and played-out imagery that we've seen for nine hours already... How much more robot-on-robot crushing and crinkling can anybody really take? Considering the fact that there's nothing new here, no fresh take, despite the re-boot set-up, Bay and company seem to think audiences are game for hours and hours more of these tired images. I for one say they're wrong, which is why I bought a ticket to a different film when I saw Extinction, and I hope you will to, if you feel the need to watch this trash out of obligation because you saw the other three, because in Hollywood you vote with your dollar, and a ticket to this only begs for Transformers 5, and who knows what wretched depth that film will reach? I definitely don't want to feel obligated to find out.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Locke - **1/2

Stephen Knight's Locke is an intriguing stunt of a film, filled to the brim with dramatic tension as one man in one car in near-real-time puts out all kinds of fires, fending off his boss while attempting to reconcile with his wife and kids on speakerphone, on his way to be present for the birth of an illegitimate son, all while battling some inner demons. It's the kind of totally ambitious cinematic experiment that I crave... And I wish I could say I loved it.

Unfortunately there's only so much that can be done with this premise, but in the end it just doesn't feel like enough. Tom Hardy plays the titular character, and he's very effective in managing the level of stress that we feel while watching him. But again, in the end there's only so much that one man can depict while sitting behind the wheel of a car with the audience seeing essentially just the shoulders up for 90 minutes.

Locke plays like a vignette from the domestic drama version of TV's 24, with Hardy shifting from intense crisis to other equally intense crisis while driving really fast on the highway. It's great in the moment, when you're looking close-up, straight-in at a man agonizing over a life-ruining mistake, but taking a step back reveals that it's not necessarily enough to sustain a feature film, especially considering that its conceit forces Knight to completely neglect that which arguably makes a film a film: visuals.

It's a real shame that Locke doesn't quite work, because the writing is superb. Knight and Hardy are able to present a complex portrait of a man struggling to do what he feels is right. It would have made for brilliant radio theater, but as a film, the limitations of the premise are just a little bit too much to overcome. But still... It was daring, and we should always be up for a dare at the movies.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Cinematic Tangent - Marc Webb is Amazing (Spider-Man 2)

I want to make it perfectly clear that I was not consulted on this episode title. With it I believe my co-host, Chad Van Alstin, is attempting to get a rise out of me, as on the show we discuss my distaste for just about everything Webb has done, and come to an agreement that he is not a very good filmmaker... Or at least that's what I took away from his middling comments. What will you take away? Find out by listening to us bitch about Webb's latest cutesy teen romance, 500 Days of Spider-Man The Amazing Spider-Man 2...

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Cinematic Tangent - Top Ten Films of 2013 (Part 2)

On a new episode of The Cinematic Tangent, Chad and I wrap up our lists with spots five through one, sharing three titles and adamantly disagreeing just about everything else as we stutter our way through a passionate debate over the best films of the year... And American Hustle. Zing!

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Friday, February 21, 2014

The Cinematic Tangent - Top Ten Films of 2013 (Part 1)

On a new episode of The Cinematic Tangent, Chad and I begin counting down our favorite films of 2013, a year we both agree is one of the best for film in a long time. It's a pretty self-explanatory concept, so I guess this is enough said (wink wink).

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Cinematic Tangent - Only God Forgives/Drive

Drive was considered one of the best films of 2011, while Only God Forgives drew derisive laughter at Cannes. On a new episode of The Cinematic Tangent podcast Chad and I discuss the peculiarly intriguing love-it-or-hate-it Only God Forgives and its spiritual predecessor, Drive, by the same director, Nicolas Winding Refn. Is he a pretentious bore or a misunderstood genius? We try to get to the bottom of it while discussing his most recent films, and why one is considered brilliant and the other a disaster, even though they share so much in common.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Secretly Awesome - What Maisie Knew

Release Date: May 3, 2013
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Writers: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright, based on a novel by Henry James
Cast: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile
Box Office: $1,066,471
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Normally I reserve this column for older, forgotten films, or those which I feel weren't given their due: great '90s thrillers, like Breakdown, to unexpected delights, like Young Sherlock Holmes. But the intention has always been to highlight films that deserve to be part of the conversation, but generally are not. Which is where What Maisie Knew comes in, which is easily one of the best films of 2013.

Maisie follows a little girl, Maisie, caught in the middle of a custody battle between her parents, a touring rock star (Julianne Moore) and a traveling businessman (Steve Coogan). The film opens with a break-up and Coogan's swift marriage to the nanny (Joanna Vanderham). Though their relationship seems genuine, Moore's character sees it as a ploy to get a leg up in the custody hearings, and marries a friend (Alexander Skarsgard) for appearance's sake.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lego Movie - ****

"A great film doesn't concern itself with what happens, so much as how it happens.” I’ve used that line once before, in a review I wrote for Toy Story 3 a few years back, describing the joy of being so moved by an animated film about toys. Well, that line is applicable once again, for the very same reason, and quoting it from a review of a widely beloved film is as well, because, believe or not, The Lego Movie is on par with some of Pixar’s best.

It’s a rare and wonderful thing to be surprised by a film these days, and The Lego Movie absolutely blindsides; what could very easily have been a goofy little piece of novel ephemera somehow manages not only to be unique and beautiful, but also smart. It will no doubt go down as one of the best films of this year, and one that will inspire all sorts of backlash by those who see only the surface value of what The Lego Movie has to offer.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Cinematic Tangent - American Hustle/"Based on a True Story..."

On a new episode of The Cinematic Tangent podcast, Chad and I argue about this awards season's darling, American Hustle. While he declares it one of the year's best, I call bust on this overhyped, meandering mess of hollow razzle-dazzle. Also... Where does a film's responsibility lie when telling a story it claims to be true? Must it adhere strictly to the facts, or take liberties in order to entertain its audience? We try to get to the bottom of it, and leave Lincoln and Captain Phillips flailing in our wake.

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