John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

*. I had a moment of misgiving just before I started in on John Wick: Chapter 2. Not because I didn’t like John Wick (I didn’t), but because I’d pretty much forgotten what that film had been about. Was I going to be able to follow the sequel?
*. There was no reason to fear. Chapter 2 begins with John (Keanu Reeves) messily tidying up loose ends from the previous film and it didn’t matter (at least to me) that I had no memory of what those loose ends were. It was all just carnage.
*. So the story here is that John thought he was out of the game but he gets roped back in by way of some arcane oath of the assassins’ guild that he’s a member of. He performs a high profile hit in Rome but soon realizes he’s been double crossed and that there’s an open contract on his head. I think that covers it.

*. Given how little I thought of the first movie, my expectations were low going in. I’m happy to say however that those expectations were surpassed and that I actually liked Chapter 2. Sure it’s dumb, but it’s a lot more fun than the previous film. Here are some improvements.
*. (1) It’s less of a video game and more of a comic book. What I mean by this, primarily, is that there’s more of a fantasy superhero storyline to follow and less first-person shooter fight scenes (though it has those as well). And the storyline was even a bit interesting. Certainly more so than the first movie, whose plot I had, as I’ve said, totally forgotten.
*. (2) There’s more humour. I mentioned in my notes on John Wick how they hadn’t exploited Keanu Reeves’ constipated delivery and natural comic ability to deadpan everything. Think Christian Bale with a saving hint of irony. Well, they get more out of that here. “The blade is in your aorta” is almost laugh-out-loud good (I mean, how does he even know?), but most of the best lines (not the ones written for the trailer) bring quiet smiles. Look at the expression on John’s face when Franco Nero asks him is he has come to Rome for the Pope. Damn, Keanu Reeves is actually good in this movie. I’m as surprised as you.
*. (3) We get some nice scenery. Mostly Rome (which, according to producer Basil Iwanyk in one of the “making of” featurettes, “has been around for a thousand years”) and New York (or Montreal standing in for New York). They also pick some nice settings for the fight sequences. I liked the dramatically lit catacombs and the rolling down the steps and the struggle on the subway car. OK, the hall of mirrors is old, but it looks terrific here tricked out to look all bright and shiny like a pinball game. You can’t go wrong with the classics.

*. Because it’s a comic book it’s all a fantasy, so you don’t even mind the way John keeps shooting up cities without any sign of law enforcement. Nor does the general public seem all that impressed at what’s going on. It’s almost like John and the assassins exist in some kind of parallel reality next door to our own, what I think director Chad Stahelski means when he talks about the “Wick World” on the commentary. The assassins walk (and fight, and shoot) among us, but we can’t see them.

*. In addition to all the great locations from the action sequences I have to acknowledge how much I enjoyed the assassin switchboard. I think it was the way all the ’50s-style operators are covered in tattoos. Tats are big in Wick World.
*. So John has a bad-ass dog but he doesn’t bother giving it a name and we never see it doing anything. Perhaps in the next film. Otherwise I’m not sure what he’s there for.

*. Ruby Rose looks tough, but she doesn’t get much of a final fight with John does she? On the other hand, since we never actually see her die she might be back for the sequel. I’m assuming Cassian (Common) will have that knife out of his aorta by then too.
*. Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King seems to be settling into his role as Wise Black Man now. Which is almost a shame. But then, Ian McShane is just as typecast these days.
*. Yes, it’s all brainless noise. But in a market crowded with brainless noise it’s better than most. The end here even left me looking forward to the next instalment. It’s John against everyone now, and do you doubt he will prevail? To adapt Archimedes: just give him enough bullets and he could depopulate the world.

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The Forbidden Room (2015)

*. The Forbidden Room has no linear narrative. Instead it has a nesting structure, what Hillary Weston in her essay included with the DVD liner notes likens to a set of Russian dolls. The stories within stories form a series of echoing rings around each other, and we start on the outside and work our way in.
*. The structure fits the theme, which (at least in my reading of it) is all about digging into ever deeper layers of the unconscious. We begin in the depths, on board a submarine, and from there go even deeper. This spelunking may be presented in physical terms: entering a cave, for example, or “going deep, going deeper, deeper still” into the skull of a man with a sexual fetish that surgery is seeking to correct.

*. What this is all meant to represent, again in my opinion, is psychosexual mining. The forester enters the pink cavern to look for his kidnapped love, the volcano bubbles over with hot flowing magma, the submarine, the psychologist’s cigar . . . that sort of thing. I don’t think there’s any section of the film that doesn’t make use of this motif. The captain’s mother’s room on the submarine must be a womb, wherein is found a naked woman covered in pink gel. And the shot of the train entering “within a broken pelvis” (on the x-ray) is an entry into just another forbidden room stacked with the mess of memory and desire.
*. Even the way the film moves, with its repetition of going in and pulling out, is sexual. And all that heavy breathing, which is pushing air in and out, complements the pervy action perfectly.
*. Now noting that the structure fits the theme is one thing. But as themes go it’s kind of vague and, as I began by saying, there’s no story to carry it. Personally, I think some of the signals get mixed. For starters, the point of the movie was to recover a bunch of unfinished or lost films from the silent era. Since this has always been a big part of Guy Maddin’s thing as a director it should have been a perfect fit. And it is, if what you want is a creative reimagining of the films of that era.
*. It doesn’t look anything at all like a silent film though. It’s a completely different aesthetic. The rapid editing, jerky camera, weird angles, and constant layering and superimposition of images seems more like Oliver Stone’s JFK than anything from the silent era.

*. What a weird commentary with co-directors Maddin and Evan Johnson. I wonder if they really take all that stuff about appropriating voice, mansplaining, and the male gaze seriously. It was like listening to Jordan Peele’s commentary on Get Out and wondering how many times he would say “woke.”
*. I did like the suggestion they made that they were remaking Inception. I’m sure that was a joke, but there’s enough of a hook there for it to be funny.
*. Just like Inception, or any such framed narrative, when you get all the way in you realize the structure of the film has turned inside out and you’re back on the outside being drawn in again. At least that’s the feeling I had. It’s not a movie I wanted to re-watch right away, but I have gone back to it a couple of times and I’m sure I will again. It’s that rich, in ways both premeditated and accidental.
*. Well, I know a lot of people don’t care for this kind of filmmaking but I really enjoy it and I had a great time with The Forbidden Room. I thought it was clever, funny, intriguing, silly, and even beautiful at times. I don’t think it adds up to anything more than a filmmaker’s sketchbook, but where else are you going to find movies of this unique a texture?

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

*. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a really unoriginal movie, which means there’s not much to say about it, since I don’t even think it can be said to represent much of anything. It tells the standard buddy-action film story, with sophisticated executive bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) finding himself protecting street-smart hit man, and former adversary, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson). They fight, find things they have in common, bond, and kill all the bad guys sent to kill them. At the end, they accomplish their missions and get their respective girls.
*. It’s hard to think such a clichéd plot could be taken seriously. Two things to take note of: (1) the original script was on the industry Black List of “most liked” unproduced screenplays; and (2) it was not initially planned as a comedy. I don’t know which of these factlets is more surprising. Perhaps a combination of the two. I mean, if it was such a highly regarded script, why did it have to be changed so fundamentally, in what was apparently a rush job, before it got made?
*. Watching The Hitman’s Bodyguard it didn’t take long for my mind to begin to drift. I only had a couple of thoughts about the movie. First: Ryan Reynolds can pretty much charm his way through anything. He just has that “it” quality that immediately draws us toward him. Second: What could Salma Hayek and Gary Oldman have seen in their woeful parts that would have made them want to do this movie? She is a violent, foul-mouthed con and he’s a Belarussian dictator. As with everyone else in the movie they are clichéd characters who only exist to spout a bunch of clichéd lines. I guess they were paid well, but still. If you were an actor and you read a script like this wouldn’t your heart sink?
*. Sure, if you know what you like and what you like is a conventional shoot-’em-up action film then this pretty much delivers. There are a couple of extended and (I thought) well executed chase scenes. Reynolds and Jackson crack wise together. Everything happens just the way you want, and expect, it to happen. A sequel is reported to be in the works. No surprise there, either.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

*. This movie is sometimes said to be the one where the franchise got back to its roots, meaning it brought Jason literally back from the dead instead of pursuing the possibility of copycat killers. In fact, I find it an even bigger deviation from formula than the previous film, which was (supposedly) A New Beginning.
*. A bigger deviation and a much worse movie. Apparently, however, it enjoys a respectable reputation, with many critics considering it the best film in the series. It is also credited for having influenced the Scream franchise with its self-referential humour. I think this is way overstated and there is nothing remotely clever, witty, or funny about the script at all. I also think this is one of the worst Friday the 13ths.

*. But back to what’s different. In the first place Jason himself is now a supernatural force that cannot be killed by any means. Second: gone is the sleaze and moralizing. There are no tits in this film (the only film in the series, including the reboot, with no nudity), only one scene of casual sex (with the partners partially clothed), and no drug use. So the victims aren’t being killed because they’re bad but just because they’re in Jason’s way.
*. There’s an interesting point on the DVD commentary where writer-director Tom McLoughlin says that one of his big influences was Frank Capra because he wanted the audience to like the characters so that we would care about them when they were in danger. This is very different from what’s standard in these dead teenager movies where you hate the idiots so much you want them to die. In the end I think McLoughlin fell into the middle. I didn’t hate the victims in this movie but I didn’t like or care about them either.
*. Then there is the humour. McLoughlin wanted to make a funny movie and was told he could do so as long as he didn’t make fun of Jason. The results don’t strike me as being funny at all, in large part because there’s nothing scary going on either. For horror-comedy to work I’ve always felt that there has to be a certain amount of real tension or suspense as well, to highlight the humour and have it come as more of a relief. But here absolutely nothing works.
*. I’m not even sure McLoughlin stuck to the rule of not making fun of Jason. The opening credits are introduced by way of a silly nod to the Bond gun-barrel iris and later the deathless one has a paintball pistol fired at him. So he’s set up as at least a semi-comic figure.

*. So: more jokes and no boobs. And very little gore to go with it. Some of this was due to the MPAA still being on the warpath, but based on the deleted scenes included with the DVD I don’t think there was that much splatter in the first place. Audiences were spared the heads hitting the ground in the triple decapitation scene but that’s about it.
*. This is not to say there weren’t a lot of cuts, and additions. The sense I had was that the movie was made in a very slapdash manner. They even had to add one set of kills after the rest of the film was shot because there weren’t enough (according to the commentary, despite the tight budget “there was always money for a new kill”). Also the character of the caretaker at the graveyard was supposed to play a bigger role and not be killed (introducing us at the end to Jason’s father). Though I haven’t heard it discussed, I thought it strange that the deputy is safely locked away from Jason and his pistol with the laser scope is never actually utilized. That seems as though something else was dropped from the script at some point, though McCloughlin says on the commentary that he never thought of putting the red dot on Jason.
*. One of the problems with trying to be funny is that you lose all those magical moments where the movie isn’t trying to be funny but you still have to laugh. These make up a number of the most memorable scenes in this franchise. As, for example, when the two characters sing “Baby, Baby” to each other through the outhouse walls in A New Beginning. There are no moments like that in Jason Lives because all the laughs are written as gags, which means they’re not as funny.
*. I can understand some people liking this one, but I think what they like about it are things that make it different from a traditional Friday the Thirteenth movie. Some of the changes I didn’t mind (the lack of nudity, for example), but turning Jason into an immortal demon from hell, while perhaps inevitable, was a leap into stupidity I’ve never approved of. And as I say, the jokes all fall flat.
*. So while I give them credit for trying to do something different, at the end of the day this one just isn’t scary or funny or even that interesting. It was, however, the shape of things to come.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

*. Actually not bad, as far as these things go.
*. I wasn’t bored. This despite the fact that Part 5 (as it is sometimes numbered, though this is not how its title appears on screen) is one of the most conventional and thus predictable entries in the series, right down to the stupid jump scare at the end. Plus the gore looks like it was done on the cheap throughout. (Though, in the film’s defence, some of the better kills had to be cut for being too violent. During the DVD commentary director Danny Steinman even remarks at one point “I’m looking at these kills and they are not good.” He’s right. They aren’t.)
*. Still, for some reason I kept watching and wasn’t distracted.
*. Maybe it was just the sheer number of bodies piling up. I believe there are over 20 kills in this instalment. According to Steinmann he was under a directive to give a scare, a jump, or a kill (“preferably a kill”) every seven or eight minutes. That keeps things moving along.
*. Another thing that kept me watching was the plot. Not because the plot is very interesting or original, but . . . it’s a Friday the 13th film with a plot! Meaning they actually try to set up a bit of a mystery as to the killer’s identity. Which in itself is remarkable as I think this is the one movie in the series where the killer in the hockey mask (a slightly different hockey mask, purists will note) is not Jason Voorhees.
*. Perhaps it was just the mix of old and new then. There are all the old, familiar touchstones like the jump scares with animals, the running through the woods in the rain, the discovery of the bodies, and Jason rising from the dead, but there’s also the Tommy Jarvis “is he or isn’t he?” angle.

*. Roger Ebert thought it “more recycled leftover garbage from the last time around” and didn’t see anything that set this movie apart from the first four but I think this is unappreciative of what was a real effort to reboot the series and take it in a slightly different direction. It didn’t work, as the Tommy Jarvis experiment turned into a damp squib, but in a way this movie did reset things and took the franchise in a new direction because in digging Jason back up again in the next film they had to fully enter the world of the supernatural.
*. According to “horror guru” Michael Felsher, interviewed for the “making of” featurette, A New Beginning has the worst reputation of any of the sequels. That’s a judgment he rejects, calling this “a very underrated movie.” This made me wonder how he ranks them. I mean, there does have to be a worst.
*. It had a weird launch. The series had attained a bad reputation and so it was cast under the fake (but nevertheless apt) title Repetition. The actors were unaware that it was going to be another Friday the 13th movie. Meanwhile, the director Danny Steinmann came from a background in exploitation work that censors had a lot of problems with. This is a track record he would continue with A New Beginning, which would be his last film. The MPAA wanted a lot of cuts to give this an R rating.
*. Steinmann had thought he was shooting a porno in the woods what with all the nude scenes he had included. I think that reveals a certain bent in his imagination. I mean, these movies always include some gratuitous nudity, but this one goes a bit further in that regard.
*. I’d be more censorious, but the fact is Deborah Voorhees looks sensational in her brief forest idyll. And how weird is it that she has the same last name as Jason?

*. Why is it that the killer is wearing a mask underneath his mask? Does that make sense? I don’t recall that ever being explained.
*. A final bit of weirdness: Why are the kids watching A Place in the Sun? There’s little thematic relevance I can see and it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing either of them would be into. I thought it telling that none of the four participants on the DVD commentary even knew the name of the movie until one of them looked it up.
*. Gene Siskel didn’t understand why this movie went in for skewering so much. I don’t think there’s any skewering except for the death of Demon. What I did note was how drug use had supplanted casual sex as the chief catalyst for death. For all their sex and violence, these movies were actually quite moralistic.
*. I can’t remember having seen this one before. I think I probably did see it a quarter-century ago but on this most recent viewing I seem to have forgotten it completely. Certainly the absurd plot twist at the end where the identity of the killer and his motivation is revealed took me by surprise. I was sure, however, that I’d seen the outhouse murder. Some things stick in your head. But why didn’t I remember the girl dancing the robot? She’s very good.
*. So there you have it. An oddity in the franchise that opened up several doors that had nothing behind them. Ironically for a new beginning, it was mainly a dead end. Jason, however, was going to prove to be eternal.

Beowulf (2007)

*. Wow. Ray Winstone has been working out. He’s looking pretty buff, even seven years after Sexy Beast.
*. I’m kidding. That’s not Ray. And that’s not Angelina Jolie, pumped (or pimped) up to look like the target demographic’s idea of an ideal woman. This is an animated film. And how you feel about that will determine what you think about the movie.
*. This is a shame, as there was an interesting script here, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. As soon as we see Anthony Hopkins appear as a drunken Hrothgar we know they’re not going to be too reverent to the source material. This might even be a bit of fun, along the lines of what Sean Connery did with the 1984 film they made out of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sword of the Valiant.
*. But then there’s the 3D and the CGI and all the rest of the stuff to make us think we’re only watching another video game. On the DVD box there’s a pull quote from Leonard Maltin calling it “cutting-edge moviemaking,” and I suppose it was in 2007. But nothing dates you faster than being on the cutting edge.
*. Ten years later, the look can fairly be called retro. Some elements, like the swimming scenes and the horses, are especially bad. Meanwhile, the bodies don’t move naturally at all and the faces look airbrushed and Photoshopped of all expression.
*. So while I’d like to say there’s more to this Beowulf than just the look, the look is so distracting and overwhelming that any other commentary is sort of pointless.
*. Even the script fails to live up to its initial promise. I thought changing the tone of the Old English poem made sense in places, and that’s all they did in the first half of the film. But then things just go crazy. Grendel is Hrothgar’s love child. Grendel’s mom then seduces Beowulf, who becomes the new king of the Danes after Hrothgar kills himself. The dragon turns out to be the spawn of Beowulf and Grendel’s mom. The whole thing is turned into an Anglo-Saxon soap opera.
*. That’s is too bad. This could have been an interesting cast if they’d been given the chance to do some acting, and there’s some cleverness sprinkled throughout (like introducing bits of Old English in various places, and making Grendel’s mom into a richer and more suggestive figure). But at the end of the day it really is just a cartoon, and not one that was made in a style that has worn well. At the time it was reasonably well received but I doubt many people watch it today. Ten years from now I suspect it will be totally forgotten.

Beowulf & Grendel (2005)

*. At the beginning of the group DVD commentary on Beowulf & Grendel a couple of interesting things are said.
*. I’ll start with writer Andrew Rai Berzins, who says that he was drawn to the Beowulf story in part because it “had never been filmed.” Actually, it had been filmed twice just five years earlier: as The 13th Warrior and Beowulf. Now both of these were loose adaptations, with the former being a more realistic version of the legend based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead and the latter a post-apocalyptic fantasy starring Christopher Lambert, but they were still the Beowulf story. Given how much is changed in this telling I don’t think they can say they were the first and it’s hard to believe Berzins wasn’t aware of the others (from other things he says on the commentary it seems pretty clear that he was).
*. The second thing I found interesting is when director Sturla Gunnarsson says that his initial inspiration for the film was the Icelandic landscape, which he describes as being a character in the film. I can see that, and if you’ve got a crush on such a landscape I guess there are only so many different stories that are going to work with it. Beowulf was one. Not because Iceland looks like Denmark, but because it makes such a wonderful fantasy backdrop.

*. The raw power of the setting gives the film both an otherworldly and realistic texture. This fits with the overall approach of the film, which was not to use any CGI. In other words it’s the opposite of the Robert Zemeckis animated Beowulf that would come out just a couple of years later.
*. Saying this is a more “realistic” and less mythical Beowulf doesn’t mean it’s any more faithful an adaptation. This is very much a modern re-interpretation, as I think you would expect. If you know the poem there actually isn’t much there to work with in terms of character. So Beowulf is a bit more conflicted here, while Grendel is given a more complicated back story. He’s a troll now, with Shakespeare’s Caliban as his literary model.

*. I was fine with most of the changes, and with the use of “fuck” throughout the script, and lines like “I tell you the troll must be one tough prick.” Some reviewers didn’t like this, but I don’t know what their objections were based on. How was it anachronistic? Nobody in the Middle Ages in this part of the world was speaking English anyway. I agree with Gunnarsson that it’s a silly convention that everyone in such historical epics deliver Shakespeherian lines.
*. I didn’t care for the character of the Good Witch Selma, and boy does Sarah Polley seem uninterested in the part. I think she’s a good actor, but she often looks like she’s bored by the roles she plays.
*. The movie has a wonderful big-screen look to it, and there are a lot of other things I enjoyed (like the script, in general, and Gerard Butler’s all-too-human Beowulf). But it doesn’t add up to a film I love. Perhaps because all the revisions take the story away from its roots in an essential way that The 13th Warrior and Zemeckis’s film didn’t (I should add here that I much prefer this film to Zemeckis’s, though I’d rank The 13th Warrior higher).
*. What I mean is that Beowulf is an action story and this movie doesn’t do action well. The fight scenes are quick, dark, and uninteresting, and the half-humanization of Grendel undercuts the heroic man vs. monster mythos.
*. A final note on the commentary. Berzins remarks that the way the film ends, with the child of Grendel and Selma being allowed to live, was introduced because they wanted to leave things open for a sequel. Really! Like Beowulf & the Son of Grendel. Or maybe Grendel: The Revenge. That’s incredible, but I didn’t get the sense Berzins was joking. My own take on the ending was that they just wanted to suggest the heroic-age revenge cycle of violence was doomed to continue. I think that’s the way I’ll continue to think of it. The idea of a sequel is too diminishing.

The 13th Warrior (1999)

*. Being labeled as one of the biggest box office bombs ever is tough to live down, but it can be misleading. Not every bomb (or expensive flop) is a bad movie, and given the vagaries of Hollywood accounting defining the actual extent of the financial damage can be difficult.
*. Enter The 13th Warrior, which is usually regarded as having been a bomb but which is an entirely watchable if not great movie and whose balance sheet may not have been as grim as it is sometimes made out to be.
*. It must have seemed like a winner on paper. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (Eaters of the Dead, which was also the film’s original title) and directed by John (Predator, Die Hard) McTiernan. But for whatever reason the initial test audiences weren’t enthusiastic and there followed a lengthy process of re-shoots (directed by Crichton), editing, and even the writing of a new score. All this extra work is usually blamed for the overruns, though there’s wide disagreement about how much the film ultimately cost.
*. Once you step away from this industry inside-baseball analysis, however, I don’t think it’s that bad a movie. The basic idea is fascinating, and effectively presented. Basically Crichton took the Old English poem Beowulf and re-imagined a real story that might have given birth to the legend. So Grendel becomes the Wendol, a tribe of primitive cannibals, the fire-breathing dragon is a stream of Wendol horsemen carrying torches riding down a mountain, and Grendel’s mother is the witchy-woman who rules the Wendol.
*. Well, at least I thought it was fascinating. But then I’ve read Beowulf. Not bragging, but maybe I got more out of that part of it. Still, even leaving that out I thought it was a solid historical adventure, with lots of guys with beards wielding broadswords and chopping off limbs. The plot is Beowulf meets The Seven Samurai, and what’s wrong with that? Or even Beowulf meets Predator, with the Wendol hanging their dismembered victims upside down and our hero (his name is Buliwyf) all but saying “If it bleeds we can kill it.” Actually, what he says is “If it’s a man it sleeps, and if it sleeps it has a lair.” Same idea.
*. I mentioned how odd it seemed watching The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) today and seeing the hero praying to Allah. This may have been the last big-budget Hollywood flick though that would have a hero doing that.
*. I thought it interesting that one of the changes Crichton made in the reshoots was to change a scene that was more faithful to his novel. As McTiernan had it, the den mother figure was portrayed as an old woman, as she is in the novel. It was decided this didn’t look good on screen so she was changed into a youthful minx. Sometimes the writer has to be one to re-imagine his own work. Or at least repackage it.
*. I really liked the atmosphere they created shooting on location, and the practical effects. It goes with the de-mythologizing theme, and I bought into all the mud and blood entirely. Today this would all be drowned in CGI and there’d be no texture to the film. Just look at the worthless all-CGI version of Beowulf that Robert Zemeckis directed. I’d watch this over that any day. And, I’ll add, I’d rather watch this than the similarly atmospheric Beowulf & Grendel (2005) any day too.
*. So, sure, maybe it was a flop. I think it’s still pretty good. It’s a bit slow and doesn’t move well (probably attributable to all the re-shooting and editing). They should have dropped a lot of the early, introductory stuff. Omar Sharif apparently hated his small part so much he retired from acting for a while. He could and probably should have been left out entirely. But once things get going I find this to be a perfetly serviceable and even at times enjoyable action flick. It’s not a favourite, but it deserves to be remembered as something a lot more than a bomb.