John Wick (2014): An Amazing Action Flick That Shows Just How Great Keanu Reeves Can Be

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     “John Wick” is one of the best action movies I have ever watched. This is a movie that has an intriguing world, fascinating characters, amazing action and a narrative that flows. If you like action films. These are my brief spoiler free thoughts before I get into the main narrative and the details of the film, but truly, this film is worth your time.

    The film was directed by Chad Stahelski, written by Derek Kolstad and produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, Michael Witherill and James McTeigue.

    The story involves retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) being pulled back into the world of assassins after the son Losef (Alfie Allen) of the Russian Crime Syndicate steals his car and kills his dog leading him to go on a killing spree against the Syndicate as he finds himself pulled into the world he left.

The Pros: The idea – The idea of an assassin pulled out of retirement to go against people he used to work for is intriguing. It gives the personal touch and motivation that can easily be lost in a studio made version of this.

The World – The world is amazing! You’ve got an assassin run neutral zone that is a hotel, through which all the different organizations have a way to interact without murder…and Wick is the best of this group as of what we learn from this film.

The Soundtrack – The music is by Tyler Bates and Joel Richard and it is good at getting under your skin. You feel Wick’s conflict as well as how amazing some themes are as they are good at showing the dulled senses of a club combined with the hyper focus of an assassin on a particularity memorable sequence.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is dark but uses colors to illustrate mood and tension. Red is used a lot in the club scene and we see light used when he is with his wife and has peace living with his dog. It is truly wonderful.

The Characters – The characters are one of the strongest parts of this world and the fact that they chose great actors shows as much.

Aurelio – John Leguizamo plays the car repairmen for the different gangs and is friends with John Wick. He’s a great character as he is the first to show Losef he is in over his head and that he barked up the wrong tree and even confronts Viggo without breaking a sweat. It is a minor but fantastic role. Also I’ve always been a fan of Leguizamo.

Viggo – Viggo is in charge of the Russian Crime Syndicate and is a great overall villain as we see his respect for Wick but also his ego come into play. Wick lets him go free once and he lets it all go because he wants revenge for his bastard of a son. His death means something because of it because he tries to live honorably but gives it up for personal revenge.

 Winston – Ian McShane plays the owner of “The Hotel” and is a fascinating character as he gives protections to those who live in death and promotes it as a neutral zone. When it all goes to hell he honors that too and lets Wick know Viggo’s location and kills Ms. Perkins for killing the staff and targeting Vick. I want to learn more about this place.

Marcus – Willem Dafoe is Wick’s friend and protector in this as he joins Viggo to protect Wick and he saves Wick multiple times. IT is a great relationship and I wish we’d gotten more history as Marcus like Wick is an assassin capable of empathy.

John Wick – This is the best Keanu Reeves performance I have seen since “The Matrix” and I love that we get to see him emote and have anger, passion and the everything else this underrated star is capable of. The movie would be worth it just for Reeves. His arc involves losing everything but finding peace after revenge, which you rarely find in movies of this type where the broken person is the theme. Wick healed and we get his prime motivation in the end is justice.

The Ending – John Wick is at a Vet and rescues a dog and uses some of the medicine to heal his wounds fighting the Russian Crime Syndicate. He picks a Pit Bull and we see that even if that world of killers pulled him back in, he will always be outside of it. The dog that his wife gave him was his peace and it is once again at the end.

The Cons: Ms. Perkins – She wants to kill for money and knows John Wick? I didn’t know if they wanted to go ex-relationship route but she is a character is purely a plot device. We don’t learn about her relationship to Wick or much else, which is a shame and makes her a con.

Losef – Losef is a 2-D villain, he never grows up, shows complexity or regret…and just brings the film down. Alfie Allen is good but his character is awful. He deserved to have someone more than a plot device to up the anti for Viggo against Wick.

    The only things that really keep this film from being perfect are Losef being a nothing character who is just a coward and bully and Ms. Perkins having no motivation for wanting to take out Wick beyond money. This brings down what could have enriched the story further as she is the secondary main villain and we never learn why. Besides these two characters this film has tight writing and was beautifully filmed with some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in any film. This film is a beautiful work of art that is well worth checking out. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to watch “John Wick: Chapter Two.”

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Split (2017): Dropped Arcs and an Unfocused Theme Bring This Film Down

split

   “Split” is a film that could have been good, hell it even could have been great if it hadn’t missused and jumbled up it’s themes and characters it would have been as the acting in this is steller and the dialogue works. There is no reason either of these things should be he case given M. Night Shyamalan’s track record as of late.

    I haven’t watched a Shyamalan film in theaters since “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” if you’ve been reading the blog you’ve probably seen some of my reviews of that show. It is one of my favorites and what Shyamalan did to it was an insult to the show and art. I never knew someone could miss the point of the source material so bad that it would make Michael Bay’s “Transformers” look good by comparison…but Shyamalan succeeded and up until last night I would not watch his films in theaters.

     M. Night Shyamalan wrote and directed this film and was one of the producers along with Marc Bienstock and Jason Blum.

    The story involves Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnapping three girls as a sacrifice for his 24th personality called “The Beast.” It is up to Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) to find a way out as at the same time Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s psychologist seeks to find what Kevin is hiding from her.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Idea – The idea of a character who holds multiple personalities that interact with another and worship a stronger mysterious one is compelling as is the teenagers escaping from a threat and having to face the monster.

The Writing – The writing is actually really good. When things are told to you they are in the context of Dr. Fletcher speaking before a classroom so show is on display. The same goes for the different personalities. We are shown rather than told who they are.

The Characters – The characters are the strongest part of the film and keep it from being bad. It is really the dropped arcs that ruin them not the characters themselves.

Dr. Fletcher – Dr. Fletcher is a great character! She is helping Kevin find balance among the personalities and interact with people normally, but she isn’t stupid either. When she is getting red flags from him she writes down how to fight him before he kills her.

Claire and Marcia – Claire and Marcia are initially presented as “mean girls” but over the course of the film you see their courage and empathy, both with one another and with Casey. That should have been rewarded as it is the relationship that develops between the three of them that shows beautiful solidarity and shows different facets of who they are.

Casey – Casey is the heroine of the story whose arc it seems at the beginning is facing her Uncle who raped her when she was a child and is to the point of the story taking place. Kevin capturing them is a claiming of her agency as we see her fight back when she wasn’t able to before. Sadly we don’t see her get justice against her uncle and she doesn’t kill Kevin (he escapes and lets her go). God, she deserved justice and that seems to be what the story is setting up but fails to deliver.

Kevin and the Identities – Kevin and his multiple personalities are intriguing. Some are more sympathetic than others like Hedwig who is a scared 9 year old but than you have ones like Dennis and Patricia who worship the beasts and still power from the other personalities. They are called “The Horde.” They eventually win out and become dominant as “The Beast” who arose out of time around the animals in the zoo where Kevin works chose to protect them. The ending has them on the loose. James McAvoy is an amazing actor and this film truly displays his range.

The Cons: The Cinematography – The cinematography looks cheap and awful. It looks like a syfy film in how the colors are off or over-saturated.

Exploitation of Rape and Trauma – Casey’s rape and trauma are exploited in this film as she doesn’t get justice for either and Kevin praises the fact that she’s broken from it. There is nothing good about that as it misses just how evil these things are.

Dropped Character Arcs – The sisterhood arc with the girls is dropped as two of them get eaten, Casey never gets justice against her Uncle or Kevin and Kevin just gets controlled by the bad personalities…what a waste. No ones arc is complete.

Exploiting Dissociate Identity Disorder – This is a real thing that people go through where what is presented in the film is more like science fiction. If you want to know more about it read and research, don’t take this film in any way as reality as it is just exploiting a disorder that is not known very well.

     This was a film that could have dealt with healing and Casey finally having justice done against her Uncle after she defeats Kevin who has kidnapped them and wants to eat them. Instead Kevin is turned into somewhat of a hero and the fact that he was traumatized is presented as a con? That is some serious messed up crap. He is not someone who should be sympathized with, he hate two girls. The best writing and acting can’t save this film because it misses the point. Casey is never allowed to heal and or have justice when it seems to be setting it up to be the case and the sisterhood that is forming between her friends is for not. This isn’t a bad film but I can’t really recommend it either. This is a film with missed potential that could have been so much more.

Final Score: 6.3 / 10

The Neon Demon (2016): Better Writing and Exploration of Characters Could Have Made This a Classic

the-neon-demon

    “The Neon Demon” is a horror film that could have been a great classic. It had so much going for it in the themes, ideas and even the characters…but due to lack of development of the characters really failed to deliver on it’s intriguing premise making it more of a film akin to “The Lobster” rather than John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It’s a film I’d still recommend as it is good, but it fails where it has to and that is what keeps it from being great…for my non-spoiler thoughts.

     The film was directed, co-written and co-produced by Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham and co-produced by Lene Borglum.

     The story involves aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moving from a small town in Georgia to Los Angeles to get a start in the modeling business. All is not as it appears to be though as rivals have plans for her that go far deeper than she can ever realize.

Spoilers ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is cool! The modeling industry in L.A. is such a great place to have the threat of confined spaces and the city and since modeling…body horror or all the different ways people try to fit in by changing their bodies…within horror and thrillers there is so much that can be done with that.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is picturesque and had so many beautiful images. Even if the images themselves were often beautiful for the sake of beauty or symbolic for the sake of symbolism, they were still stunning.

The Soundtrack – Cliff Martinez created an amazing synth heavy soundtrack that gave a sci. fi. horror feel to the film that sadly was never delivered on. I was expecting to see actual demons rather than implied demon models and some sort of real body horror or at least deep psychological horror…and while there are disturbing scenes the music was far better at tension than the story was.

Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves – These two play characters whose stories I wish we could have gotten! Hendricks plays the Manager of a modeling agency who has Jesse lie about her age to get the job (What lead her to be that way? How did she become head of the agency? I wanted to know!) and Keanu Reeves plays a corrupt owner of a motel who uses runaways for sex and exploits models. He’s an evil dude who I wanted to know on how a person could get that way…instead they are side characters who only act as motivation or threat…

The Cons: The Demons – The motivation of the demons seems to be power and destruction but I never got why. They merely existed to exist and exist as symbols of how an industry and being so focused on self can consume you and lead you to consume others. That is cool but even that idea isn’t fully explored because the characters feel unfinished. They exist as half-formed ideas which is a shame as the actress are at least decent at their roles.

Characters Never More Than Symbols Who Aren’t Fully Explored as Symbol or Character – It isn’t just the demons who have the problem of never becoming full characters, Jesse has the same problem too. Everyone exists as threat or motivation for Jesse or I guess the Demons at the end so in the end the story is not fully formed as those who inhabit it never fully become characters and are stuck existing as concepts and ideas.

     If the characters had been fully fleshed out and we had fully explored the depths of the evil of the demons and the industry as it is presented in this film this is a horror film that could have been one of the greats and truly a classic. Because it failed in execution I can only say it is really good but not great though. Lack of character exploration can bring any story down whether it is film or book and this film really suffers from that. I’d still recommend it though and I hope to see more of Refn’s work.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

To Catch a Thief (1955): Great Leads But Story Is Only Decent

To Catch a Thief

     Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but this is not one of his better films. The main leads are absolutely wonderful, but the script and dialogue doesn’t go anywhere at times and the motivations behind the villains is non-existent. All of this create a merely okay story that is good only because of fantastic performances by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

     “To Catch a Thief” was directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock and written by John Michael Hayes and based off the book of the same name by David Dodge.

     The story involves an ex-criminal and French Resistance fighter John Robie (Cary Grant), fighting to redeem his name and find the real thief. Frances (Grace Kelly) the daughter of the woman whose jewels were stolen works with and against him as the truth unfolds.

The Pros: The World – The world of France is a fascinating place where we meet former French Resistance fighters and ex-pats who make up this world that exists soon after World War 2. So much more could have been done with all of this world and premise…

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and I can see why it won awards. Hitchcock is great with visual and his cinematographer Robert Burks nails it.

The Leads – Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are some of the best actors of all time and this film, which would have only been okay with other leads, becomes good because of their performances.

John Robie – Cary Grant like Grace Kelly is one of my favorite actors and he shows why in this. He is charming but you see the thief there and you get why he steals too as he explains that some businesses steal too, he is just more blatant about his robbery. We also see in this why he changed and why keeps holding onto what was. Being a thief who was never caught made him famous and he wants to be known for that, even while showing he’s changed because he wants trust and love.

Frances Stevens – Grace Kelly is one of my favorite actresses. The lady has charm and strength and her character Frances feels real. You get why she likes Robie and why she doesn’t trust him too. She is the person looking for excitement and she finds it with this ex-crook and shows that she is his partner in it all.

Okay: The Police Force – They are used for jokes but have some decent moments of humanity with Robie…I just wish we could have got more.

The Tension – The tension is okay but unlike “North by Northwest,” “Rear WIndow” and “Psycho” it never made me feel that the characters were in danger. There was the tension of the hunt for the criminal but it never rose beyond that.

The Cons: The Villains – The villains are weak, good villains could have made this film great but they aren’t given any motivation for what they do.

Danielle – Like her father, I don’t know why Danielle does what she does. She was a resistance fighter so why is she now a thief? I wanted to like her character but nothing is done to present her with depth or motivation.

Foussard – So he is friends with Robie and betrays…why? Why is he stealing in the first place? None of this is known and it is really annoying. The villainous mastermind has to have motivation.

   This is a film that you will probably enjoy if you like Hitchcock as I do. The problem is really the lack of tension and how the motivations of the villains are never explained or explored. This is a film that could have been so much more and I really hope the book at least went into why Foussard and his daughter Danielle became thieves. Check it out if you like Hitchcock, if you don’t it probably isn’t worth your time. It is strong in how he directs the leads and presentation in cinematography, but the script and story keep it from becoming great.

Final Score: 8 / 10

“Hannibal” Retrospect – A Masterpiece of Beauty, Terror and the Psychology of the Human Mind

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     What a fantastic ride this was. Very few shows manage to keep up great quality consistently through all their seasons, more often than not they will jump the shark, repeat storylines that have been done before, lose focus, change cast or try so hard to be deep that it just comes out a muddled mess. Suffice to say “Hannibal” did not have that problem.

    This was a show that gave us the chance to get to know nearly every character, be they serial killer, cop, psychiatrist or other…the episode they would appear in would give us a glimpse into their mind and motivation and ask us to question it. This was a show that liked to present horror as beautiful as well as remind us of the potential for good and bad within us all or even to question that paradigm all together. This is truly Bryan Fuller’s masterpiece.

SPOILERS are going to be ahead.

     The show’s story involves the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal as Graham is someone who hunts killers by seeing their perspective through empathy as Hannibal both guides and attempts to corrupt him through it leading to an eventual confrontation and a fallout that occurs all through season 3 eventually leading to a final reckoning between them as around them other characters deal with the consequences of how they have been changed by Hannibal and from it how they relate to one another and the world.

The Pros: The Cinematography – James Hawkinson and Karim Hussain were great at this series creating stunning visuals throughout this season. From bodies made to look like trees and pieces of art to the use of shadow and light to show us the shadow and light within all of our characters. These two truly capture the amazing visual medium that is the art of cinema.

The Soundtrack – Brian Reitzell does a great job on the soundtrack throughout the series, giving us a haunting score that captures both the thriller and horror themes infused with an element of a tragedy.

The Writing – Bryan Fuller and his team did a great job on this series. From the characters, to the arcs, to the themes and the tiny details of showing us character motivation rather than telling us it. This writing also managed to breathe life into minor and one shot characters who managed to make an impact.

The Arcs – Season 1’s arc involved those who knew Hannibal was a serial killer getting killed off leading to the eventual framing of Will Graham and Will becoming more isolated from the people in the force as Hannibal becomes his only friend before he is framed for the murder of his adopted daughter Abigail Hobbs who he had rescued from a killer. Season 2 is freeing Will Graham from prison and Jack and Will’s hunt for Hannibal eventually leading to Hannibal and Bedelia escaping to Europe. Season 3 involves the capture of Hannibal by Jack and Will and Wil land Hannibal’s self destructive relationship coming to an end in the final confrontation with the Red Dragon.

The Characters – The characters drive the story and none of them are the same throughout the series. They change and we see them transformed by events to become much darker than the people they were before or in some cases more empathetic.

Dr. Abel Gidion – Eddie Izzard plays a fascinating killer who is obsessed with Alana Bloom and ends up being framed to have been killed by Chilton when he was really being held hostage by Hannibal and fed to himself. Izzard is savvy and even though he is a monster his rebellious nature against Hannibal is great as he promises Hannibal that he can’t wait for Hannibal to get his reward and be eaten too. Raul Esparaza does a good job.

Dr. Chilton – Chilton is corrupt and out for fame but he does have a noble side as we see him try to help Will as he does want to capture Hannibal. This leads to him getting shot and eventually him being burned alive by the Red Dragon and losing his tongue. He goes through a lot and in the end is the truth teller to others as in losing his skin he can see through the illusion of others.

Beverly Katz – Hetteine Park does such a great job. Beverly Katz is Will’s friend and she is one of the first to find out the truth about Hannibal, sadly is killed in the process but we see her help catch multiple killers as her, Will and Jack make a great team hunting the serial killers through Season 1 and her time with Will in Season 2 gives him hope of getting justice and Hannibal’s eventual capture. R.I.P. She was missed and one of the best characters on the show.

Bella Crawford – Gina Torres is wonderful as Jack Crawford’s wife. She has cancer and is a woman who wants to die for a lot of it but is able to connect with Jack and give him hope to fight on after Hannibal nearly kills him. She is there to show us the potential for good in Hannibal and to show us Jack’s tender side as she in many ways is harder than he is because of the constant suffering she is in because of her cancer. Her death means something.

Abigail Hobbs – Hobbs is the daughter of a serial killer raised by a serial killer (Hannibal) she is his partner in crime and sets up her fake death with him to frame Will Graham, but we see that she never stops caring for them both and truly wanted to spend the rest of her life with them as they could relate to her darkness and otherness she felt towards others. Will feels her death to the point that he hallucinates her being alive when he is in Italy hunting Hannibal.

Margot Verger – Margot Verger is awesome. Her brother is a sexually and physically abusive ass and seeing her get her revenge as well as find connection with both Will and later Alana Bloom show her recovery as she gets to get revenge on her brother and inherit the Verger fortune. She lives a horror story and manages to grow and endure through it…her’s is one of the few hopeful endings in this story.

Alana Bloom – Alana Bloom is the one who is a bit more detached than Will but still feels even after Hannibal nearly paralyzes her and Mason Verger continues to harass her. She is powerful and a great character as she never breaks her integrity even as she becomes more ruthless as her philosophy truly becomes one of survival and growth. Caroline Dhavernas does a great job.

Bedelia Du Maurier – Gillian Anderson is awesome! Bedelia is in many ways as sociopathic as Hannibal as she uses people for her gain and survival though we see her vulnerable as Hannibal tries to make her more than just an observer. She is great though as she navigates each of her escape and is still safe from the FBI at the end and possibly Hannibal, that is still a question as it depends what he did after the Red Dragon rescues him and before they face off against the Red Dragon. Her arc is realizing how dark Hannibal’s darkness goes, stepping away from it and setting down boundaries in turn forcing him to leave her.

Francis Dolarhyde/The Red Dragon – This guy is the best of the serial killer antagonists. He is sympathetic as he protects his blind girlfriend from himself faking his own death so she won’t have to deal with the Dragon and even giving Hannibal and Will a fighting chance before together they finally take him down as he finally becomes the Red Dragon as he ends the Angel of Darkness (Hannibal) and Light (Will) and in turns dies and becomes the Dragon as he chose death on his own terms. It’s horrifying to think about and shows just how well this character was handled. I didn’t care about this guy at all in “Red Dragon.”

Hannibal – Hannibal is a fascinating character as his arc is becoming more like Will as he saves Will’s life from Mason Verger after trying to kill him on multiple occasions as he and Will’s co-dependence leads them to destruction. He loves Will and from it hurts him as Hannibal is someone who never knew love because of the Nazi guard having him eat and kill his sister. This leads to Hannibal dealing by embracing delusion where he is always in control but it is built on a lie as he denies the humanity of others and in doing denies the humanity in himself that is always reaching out to Will and in some ways to stop (he stops killing for a while in Italy), showing there is some good in this broken monster. Mad Mikkelson might be the best Hannibal.

Will Graham – Will is awesome! He is the hero whose very ability to empathize with others makes him realize how deep his shadow goes. This show is about exploring Will Graham’s shadow as he realizes how similar he is to Hannibal in both his otherness in how people can’t relate to him and his need to hunt and stop killers in the same way Hannibal hunts victims (not eating them of course). This leads to his final choice as he realizes his self-destructive love for Hannibal will only lead to ruin as Hannibal is already ruin to all those around him and from there he makes the last noble choice to end them both. Hugh Dancy is awesome.

Good, Bad and Paradigms – Another theme is that of good and bad or good and evil. We are dealing with sociopaths and killers and the darker side of human nature is presented with different characters like Alana, Will and Hannibal attempting to upset the paradigm as we get the practical point of view of ends justifying the means through Jack Crawford, the surivalism of Alana Gram, the empathy and focus on the individual relationships of Will and the law of predators and prey with Hannibal.

The Shadow in People – The Shadow of people is another thing, with Dolarhyde and his becoming the Red Dragon that he is fighting to control, Will and his empathy and becoming the killers he is trying to avoid. Hannibal embraces his shadow making him the corrupting figure to those around him as he knows he is a sociopath and doesn’t care except in relationship to Will.

Empathy – Empathy is a theme of the show, for better and for worse. Will’s empathy leads to him being manipulated and Alana’s empathy leads to Hannibal using her. Empathy is shown to be dangerous but important as it is the only way people can truly relate and grow together. It is empathy for Will that shows that Hannibal is capable of being more than a monster with honor.

Love and Relationships – Love and relationships are a major theme. From Margot Verger and Alana Bloom escaping from their abusive ex-partners (Hannibal and Mason) and rising up as powerhouses and rulers of the Verger fortune…from Bedelia and Hannibal and Bedelia setting boundaries and surviving in the process, Jack and Bella with letting go, (which also happens with Will and Alana and them going from lovers to friends) and Hannibal and Will who become reflections of one another and is the only person Hannibal truly loves leading to their final suicide together as Will realizes that he could become Hannibal as he enjoys the rush of survival and the kill.

    The only con I could think of in this series is sometimes it gets too meditative rather than letting the action drive forward it will sit in a character’s head for a long period of time, which is fascinating but at the same at least in regards to Season 3, it held back the final confrontation between Crawford, Will and Hannibal and the Red Dragon Arc, which without a doubt was my favorite arc in the series and an excellent close to an amazing show. This is the kind of show that took it’s audience and story seriously and let them change and grow giving us character arcs and consequences to create one of the greatest and most beautiful shows on television.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 A nearly perfect show.

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007): A Dark Comedy Satire of Action Films

Shoot Em Up

       “Shoot ‘Em Up” is a film that is a lot of fun. When watching it was hard to know what was purposeful satire and what was what the director actually believes, but like “Lucy” it was one of those films that takes you on a ride and doesn’t stop until the end. There aren’t really likable characters in this film and each of them are a different action cliche, but they are each fascinating in their own ways as I would have hated this film if they weren’t actual characters and if the point was only satire. If you can’t tell an interesting story, you at least need enjoyable characters to watch.

     The film was written and directed by Michael Davis and produced by Susan Montford, Don Murphy and Rick Benattar.

      The film involves Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) protecting a baby after he is unable to save the mother was being hunted by a group of mercenaries lead by Hertz (Paul Giamatti) and seeks help from Donna (Monica Bellucci), a prostitute who is the closest thing he has to a friend. Together they must find out who is hunting the baby and why, before they and the child are killed.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography reminded me of Lucy and has a unique color feel to it. It feels vibrant and alive and has a great contrast of dark and light. It fit the feel of the film really well. Peter Pau did a great job on it.

Cliche Awareness – There is a level of cliche awareness in this film, which is why I call it satire. Hertz yells the hero is really good or they really suck at shooting after he’s lost 2 armies of men to Smith. He and who he works for also explain their plan to Smith rather than just killing him and forgetting about the baby as the plot was redundant after Smith killed the Senator.

The Action – The action is really great! It reminded me a Tarantino or Rodriguez film where the color of the blood splatters in such a way as to compliment the colors around. The use of rock and metal worked in this instance too to compliment the action.

Mr. Smith – Clive Owen is good at playing the anti-hero and even though we don’t learn much about him in this besides his eventually carrying about the Kid and Donna is that he like carrots and hates most people and things. In this way he is hilarious as he satires the tough guy macho role that appears in a lot of these flicks.

Hertz -Hertz is a creepy mastermind who is also a family man. We see him making a card for his kid and talking to his wife at multiple times throughout the film. He also is genre savvy and figures out where the hero will be running to next really fast. He’s the creepy average joe and seeing his downfall is rewarding. Giamatti created a great bastard with this guy who can’t see beyond himself, his ego and making his plans work.

Okay: Donna – Monical Bellucci does alright but she isn’t given much to do beyond call Smith out for being an ass and taking care of the baby. I don’t know if Davis knew what to do with her character, but when she does do stuff she is at least compelling. There was so much more they could have done! She could have been his partner and the one making connections on the outside when he went to take out the expendable army of mercenaries.

The Cons: The Writing – Just as I enjoyed the action cliches, there are things that could have been done better. Donna never gets the chance to fight for herself and always has to be protected, and we never learn Smith’s backstory or why Hertz’s wife left him (we have no idea if she knows what he does). So the story felt incomplete and rushed even within the guidelines it followed for itself.

The Other Villains – The Senator and gun manufacturer were two men I cared nothing about. They were blank slates and were empty suits compared to the charisma that Giamatti brought to his role. They weren’t even needed as characters and that brought down the script as they could have just been referenced by Herst but never seen.

Lack of Character Arcs – This is a film where no one really changes. We learn more about them and feelings that they had all along (Donna and Smith) are revealed but we don’t learn anything new. Our characters are exactly the same at the beginning of the film as they are at the end, so nothing has changed beyond them just being out of harms way.

    If you like dark comedies and action films that are mostly focused on action but have enough self awareness to satire themselves, you will probably enjoy this film. It wasn’t a favorite but I won’t deny that I enjoyed the ride. This would be a great film to see with friends who like this genre and with the added addition of drinks would be a really fun time.

Final Score: 7.4 / 10. Enjoyable but not great.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003): Shooting for a Bigger Point

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

     “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” would make a great min-series. As a film it doesn’t quite work as there are a ton of characters and revenge stories going on and right around the middle it gets really muddled and overindulgent but picks up a lot again at the end while finally having El Mariachi change! As the ending to the Mexico Trilogy, it wasn’t the best…that still belongs to “Desparado” but it was better than “El Mariachi” both in soundtrack and cinematography.

     The film was directed by Robert Rodriguez who also wrote, produced and composed the music for. With the other producers being Elizabeth Avellan and Carlos Gallardo.

     The story picks up where “Desparado” left off with El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) and Carolina living their life with their daughter after they defeat the corrupt General Marquez. The general survives and gets revenge on El Mariachi killing his wife and daughter leading El Mariachi to seek revenge.  Around the same time Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) commissions him to kill the Drug Lord Armando Barillo (Willem Dafoe) leading to a final face off as all the factions come together as both Barillo and Marquez want to overthrow Mexico’s President.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is stark and like a dream sequence making the violence beautiful in how it is presented. It’s not as beautiful as “Desperado” but it still has some very beautiful scenes and color combinations.

The Soundtrack – Soundtrack is the best it has been so far and has a reflective somber tone intermixed with high action beats to reflect the scenes going on.

Armando Barillo – Dafoe does a great job as this drug lord who the CIA is trying to take down. He is emphatic at first and later we see how smart he is when he fakes his own death and even survives past Marquez. It is only a Mexican agent who kills him in revenge after Sands gives him the prompting and opportunity. The agent wasn’t memorable at all though, versus Dafoe.

Ajedrez Barillo – Eva Mendes is wonderful as the daugther of Barillo. She is the one who captures Sands and has them drill out his eyes. She’s cruel and smart and only has a moment of stupidity when she goes to check on Sands body and Sands shoots her in revenge.

Jeffrey Sands – This is one of Depp’s more memorable characters. He is a smooth operator and speaks very calm. I enjoyed his performance as he was a character who was odd and driven and all about the job. He doesn’t let losing his eyes end his mission either and we see that even with loss he can fight and joke making him one of the better action heroes out there. He’s also crazy like most of the characters in this film.

El Mariachi – El Mariachi’s arc goes from taking out small time drug lords in the prior films to taking out Generals in this one. It is here he finds purpose beyond revenge as he gives his money to the people and with his new Band where they take on a Nationalist identity of fighting for Mexico as they protect the President from Marquez and Barillo. He gets Carolina’s locket back and we see him singing for her and fighting for his country. It’s a powerful story.

The Ending – The message is that a person can make their home better. In the first 2 films El Mariachi couldn’t see beyond revenge and himself but later he is fighting for the populace and in this the populace rises up with him against the corrupt General as now El Mariachi has become a folk hero. He embraces this role and it is in that his love for his country and the people keep him going as he is no longer driven by revenge and wishing to die.

Okay/Pros: The Action – Rodriguez has always been good at action and this is film is no exception. A con could even be that it had too much action and was really excessive at times much to the detriment of the story. Specially the hospital attack I was really bored on and it wasn’t until the final confrontation during “Day of the Dead” where I was pulled back in.

The Cons: The Writing – The writing is all over the place. I didn’t care about the Mexican agent, Barillo and his daughter needed more fleshing out and El Mariachi is just kind of there, we don’t see much of his life beyond his music and revenge up until the end. There are a lot of good ideas here they just aren’t clear because of how muddled the script is.

The Use of the Fridge – El Mariachi has now lost his girlfriend, Carolina and daughter as the motivator for each film. This is a tired trope and way overdone. I wish he’d had something more and that we could have seen some of the women in his life kick ass like Carolina did in the flashbacks. The fridge is a terrible trope largely because it is overused. Rodriguez didn’t have to do anything but repeat the plot of “Desperado” for El Mariachi’s motivation and that is just sad.

     Minus the fridging of his girlfriend in the first film and Carolina and his daughter in this one, as well as the muddled script, this was a good film I’d recommend. It is more polished and interesting than “El Mariachi” which felt like a film made by a director just starting to direct but wasn’t as tight and polished as “Desperado” which never felt excessive in any major ways. This one did have a better message though as the vigilante finally looked beyond himself and to the people he should have been protecting all along. That is what made this film really good besides the very colorful characters.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

Also, here are the reviews for “El Mariachi”: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/el-mariachi-1992-a-good-but-rocky-start-to-the-mexico-trilogy/

and “Desperado”: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/desperado/

As we complete the Mexico Trilogy.

The French Connection (1971): A Great Period Piece Thriller and the Drug War

The-French-Connection-11203-704

     I really enjoyed “The French Connection.” I liked very few of the characters in it, but the story itself and the the fact that it’s a slow thriller with great build up made it a lot of fun to watch. I never felt bored and whether purposeful or not, this film does a great job of showing how unfair the drug war is to communities without power. The fact that it is based off a non-fiction book by the same name also lends power to the narrative and makes me want to read it.

     The film was directed by William Friedkin, written by Ernest Tidyman produced by Philip D’Antoni and based off the book by Robin Moore.

     The story recounts the events of trying to take down the drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) during his stay in New York City by the detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Things soon get out of their control as they discover just how high up Charnier’s influence goes and the problems “Popeye” causes during the course of the investigation.

The Pros: The Writing – Ernest Tidyman did a great job on the script. So much of it is showing rather than telling and we get to figure things out with the Detectives as we never see what Sal or Charnier do in regards to the movement of the drugs. This makes it compelling and drives the thriller, especially since they initially don’t come off as bad people.

The Cinematography – Owen Roizman did a great job on this film. The cinematography pulls you in and captures the tension really well as there is an aura of shadow about everything and the desolate areas take place with contrasted with the bustle of New York create a wonderful sense of mystery and fear.

The Soundtrack – Don Ellis took a classic approach to this soundtrack (sounds similar to any Hitchcock film with it’s own twist) and it serves the story very well. Throughout the soundtrack there is a slow build up of action leading to a finalness and ambiguity, which fits the themes and characters of the film.

Sal – Sal is working with Charnier to get the drugs to sell on the streets and he nearly succeeds even with the police around his home and tracking him everywhere. He is a cheater but we see that he isn’t a murder, at least in the events of this film. He never attacks unless he’s attacked and a lot of what he does goes towards his family. He’s complicated for a minor drug dealer. Tony Lo Bianco did a good job. He was the only memorable minor character.

Alain Charnier – Is the mastermind behind the deal going down and actually manages to escape at the end of the film. He is kind and genial but also works with monsters like his Hitman so has a disregard for those who don’t serve his purposes as “Popeye” does. Fernando Rey did a fantastic job as the antagonist who drives the story and keeps the action and questions going through the film.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle – “Popeye” is obsessed and is cynical about everyone. We see him call all people liars and beat suspects on multiple occasions. It’s really hard to see him as any sort of heroic given that he targets people, especially African-Americans who have done nothing wrong and acts like a bully. This is contrasted with the sensitivity of Charnier. In the end it is his obsession that is his undoing as he kills someone on the force thinking they were Charnier and escapes into the dark where we here a gunshot. He was complicated, which made him fun to watch. Gene Hackman is also a wonderful actor.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo – Roy Scheider plays the only character who is remotely sympathetic as he calls out his partner “Popeye” when he does bully. He is also the one who registers what the obsession is doing, especially at the end when “Popeye” kills one of the detectives in his obsession and fear of Charnier.

Life Under the Drug War and Abuse – The drug war disproportionately targets communities without power, largely poor and minority communities and this film does a great job portraying that as we see Russo and Doyle do random shakedowns, beat people when questioning them and never have their force questioned unless it is by one another. This is obviously still going on and is just as real in the late 60’s when it took place as it is today.

The Ending – The ending ends with Doyle shooting his boss and escaping into the dark believing he saw Charnier. A gunshot goes off and later we see in the credits that Charnier was never caught, showing that all of Doyle’s obsession was in the end, kind of empty and didn’t even help himself.

Okay: The Minor Characters – Most of the minor characters are forgettable and none of them really stand out besides Sal. Part of this might be purposeful as they are nothing to the detectives but means to an end, but I would have liked to see more with Charnier’s Hitman, girlfriend and Sal’s spouse. These characters were pretty forgettable which was a shame.

  This is a great thriller that ends up showing a lot more than it may have meant to. I don’t know what side of the story the book takes but this does a good job of showing that there aren’t really any good people in this conflict except maybe Buddy. Everyone else is driven and obsessed and has a disregard for life because of that obsession with meeting their own ends…and their obsessions get others killed. It was also powerful how this film showed how the communities without power are the ones who get the brunt of the war as we saw from the African American bar shakedown and the places were most of the police stakeouts took place. This lended power to the film beyond the very good script, cinematography and acting by the main stars. Honestly, it didn’t need a sequel.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

Mulholland Drive (2001): A Delusion, Dream or Alternative Reality Noir Masterpiece

Mulholland Drive

   “Mulholland Drive” was amazing! I tend to be a fan of films that play with the nature of reality and the fact that this happens in the context of a mystery noir where we never quite know which reality is real makes for a whole host of interpretations, all of which have merit and lend strength to the story. It also has the dark that makes David Lynch so fun and has some fantastic acting by the leading actresses.

     The film was directed and written by David Lynch and produced by Neal Edelstein, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde and Mary Sweeney.

    Before the story begins we see a jitterbug competition before we cross onto a silent road where a woman (Laura Harring) is being to Mulholland Drive where is about to be shot. After some teens crash into the car she has no memory and is taken in by Betty (Naomi Watts) an aspiring actress as together they try to figure out who she was. Things are not as they appear to be as we see mysterious forces pressuring a director to a cast a film and changes in reality as the film progresses.

The Pros: The Tone – The tone is dark and mysterious and kicks off with a man being haunted by an unseen force behind a building and this force continues in the words of “Silencio” and a man with a tiny head who controls Hollywood from a stage.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is dark and haunting as well as dreamlike, playing into the themes of dreams, many realities and delusions. Peter Deming did a fantastic job on that.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack compliments the situations really well with some great Spanish Capella, somber instrumentals and of course the jazz feel throughout. Angelo Badalamenti gave great variety to a score that complimented the story really well.

The Characters – The characters are complicated, especially the director, “Rita” and Betty who each have a few different versions of themselves that we see over the course of the film.

The Hitman – A young Mark Pellegrino plays the hitman who Diane pays to kill Camilla and who in the first reality takes out a young actress who was Rita’s roommate. We see him much more active in the first timeline as he messes up an operation to get a black book of info. and ends up having to kill a whole bunch of other people to hide it up. He is good at playing the punk who is out of league and keeps getting into worse situations.

Rita and Camilla – Harring does a great job as the possible former prostitute turned heroine in Rita who is figuring out the world around her and discovers the truth and disappears in the process after finding love with Betty, and Camilla the arrogant premodana who manipulates others for her own ego and amusement. Harring does the two different roles so well.

Betty and Diane – I can see why Naomi Watts won an award for this role. We see her playing roles within roles as she plays characters in scenes as she is applying for parts in Hollywood and we see her as the kind, caring and curious Betty as well as the unstable, angry and broken Diane. Betty’s arc comes full circle at Silencio and Diane’s ends when Silencio is said too as Betty finds peace in her love with Rita and Diane goes insane from a whole bunch of things and takes her own life.

The Interpretations – There are quite a few ways to see what the film is and I’m going to share the interpretations that make the most sense to me.

The Dream – The story is all a dream and nightmare dreamed up by Betty and she is still asleep as all her fears and hopes of having a new life in Hollywood play before her in her mind. We never know if she wakes up or is just jumping between dreams…given the dream jitterbug dream sequence at the beginning and the nightmarish vision at the end with the same people at the end of the Jitterbug opening give credence to this interpretation.

Delusion – The character of Betty is a delusion by the character of Diane who has a crush on Camilla who is getting married to the director. Making Camilla the damsel in distress in her mind was the only way to cope with her situation that eventually lead to her being a prostitute on the streets ready to kill her former friend and lover who had found happiness with another. This is one of the darker ones and the counter to it is the Key and “Silencio” which seem to hint at other realities.

Alternate Realities – There is a supernatural element that pervades the story, from the man behind the building to any seen in Hollywood where we see unhinged characters with power and no people skills who are capable of destroying livelihood. This element is true through both realities making me think that Diane and Camilla are one reality that is true and that the Rita and Betty romance also happened and is true as well but we leave that reality when Rita opens the box to the reality where Camilla and Diane are. I liked this one the best as the mystery is still there and it doesn’t forget the strange forces we’ve seen at work from the beginning of the production.

  If you like David Lynch or Noirs, chances are you will really enjoy this film. It is a favorite and I liked it more than “Eraserhead” which was a really good film. This film was great at exploring the mind and the themes of illusion, dreams and realities are hard to pull off, but Lynch does so seamlessly. The actresses are amazing too and I really like Rita’s and Betty’s romance as it had so much richness to it as they grew together. This contrasted by the second reality gave the first one strength and gave room for interpretations, which I liked. I tend to like films with clearer answers, but this one was great in how open it was and how it truly let the viewer decide what happened.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Léon: The Professional (1994): When Forming Human Connections is Complicated

Leon-movie-poster-leon-1994-movie-24520438-521-755

     Luc Besson is a fascinating director who seems to always have some sort of undertone that turns me off from his films. In the film “Taken” and “Lucy” it was the implied or open racism of heroes that made the films difficult to enjoy (even though the action was good) and for this film it is the undercurrent of pedophilia (even though there is a real friendship between the characters). In the instance of “Lucy” and “The Professional” there are counters to this within the film itself, but the fact that I experienced that from what the film was showing me in the first place automatically brought them down and kept them from being truly great films. The only film that hasn’t done this that I’ve seen by the director is “The Fifth Element” which I plan to review on a later date.

     The film was directed by Luc Besson who also wrote the screenplay, and was produced by Petrice Ledoux.

     The story is about Leon (Jean Reno) who takes in Mathilda (Natalie Portman) after her family is executed by the corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). After rejecting her at first he comes to be attached to her as he trains her to be a “cleaner” too as she seeks revenge against Stansfield for the murders.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is really beautiful and really gives you glimpses into the minds of the characters. From Stansfield’s insanity, Leon’s confusion and good heart and Mathilda’s anger. Thierry Arbogast did a great job on it.

The Soundtrack – Eric Serra did a fantastic job on the soundtrack too as it played up the meditative thoughts and glimpses into our characters’ minds. It fit the New York City atmosphere as well.

The Main Characters – Mathilda, Norman and Leon are all great characters. But the minor characters feel more like archetypes than characters so they’ll be listed further down.

Norman Stansfield – Gary Oldman is great at playing this psychopath. He hams it up so well as Stansfield who is a corrupt DEA agent who is making money off of selling drugs on the side and getting a cut of everything and isn’t above executing a family to keep what he does secret. He was so despicable and reveled in it and was so fun to watch. Sadly he is gone for a good portion of the film before the climax so we miss out on some more crazy moments we could have gotten or seen that he executes all the families of those who go against him or can’t deliver on the drugs. His death is rewarding, even though the wrong person got the kill.

Leon – Leon is the “Cleaner” who takes on Mathilda when she needs a safe place after her family is slaughtered. Both of them are outcasts and it is in forming a connection with her and being the father she never had that he finds his soul too as he has only been a killer for hire who refuses to kill women and kids until this moment. He transforms from their relationship and all the money he has earned goes to Mathilda when Stansfield finally kills him. He shows in the end he is a dark shade of grey, but a good guy. Though he has one issue that I wish the film had addressed that I’ll go into later.

Tony – This is the only minor character who felt like a fully fleshed out character, as he was a mafioso who was holding Leon’s money and held it very close while still always coming through whenever it was asked for and he does fulfill his obligation to Mathilda…though he also gives up Leon to Stansfield…so he’s flawed and complicated and I wish we’d seen him more.

Mathilda – Mathilda is awesome and I wish she had made the kill on Stansfield. She is at the very least physically abused by her step-sister, step-mom and father and her only relationship she cares about is her little brother who is killed by Stansfield’s men. From here she seeks revenge and chickens out when she first confronts Stansfield but does all she can to protect Leon when the men come to kill him. She sees him as her “lover” though their relationship is much more of a mentor or father one, but her saying that made it weird and hard to enjoy as she is 12 and he is in his 40s. She was still a great character though who endured a lot and found some semblance of peace when she takes Leon’s plant that she names after him and plants it in the school that she was kicked out of that accepted her after the events of the story.

The Cons: Disposable Thugs and Minor Characters – Stansfield’s men are like blank slates, which is a shame as they could have had more distinct motivations and personalities. They were just bad as were Mathilda’s family, they were selfish and abusive and that was the extent of their characterization. It was a huge missed opportunity.

Pedophile Undertones – Mathilda calling Leon her “lover” and Leon never saying he saw her as his daughter to counter it made their relationship really uncomfortable. Thankfully he doesn’t do anything sexual or I’d have hated this movie but it is still there as Mathilda calls him that and he does nothing to end that fantasy and establish boundaries. This undercurrent kept from enjoying the film big time.

Leon getting Mathilda’s Kill – The final issue of why I don’t consider this film great is Mathilda’s arc was that of revenge but she never got to kill Stansfield. She should have got that kill and learned from it not had others teach her that learning doesn’t mean you get peace, her lessons were given to her by others and she never got to learn them for herself. She should have killed Stansfield.

  This was a good movie, though like Besson’s other films outside of “The Fifth Element,” troublesome. The acting is fantastic and the character interactions are wonderful too as is the soundtrack and cinematography, just know that the pedophilic undercurrent is there and that Mathilda is cheated out of getting her kill, though she does find some semblance of peace thankfully.

Final Score: 8 / 10