Category Archives: 2010s

The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (2010)

*. I might as well begin with the end credits, where the producer is described as a “fancy burger lover” while the director, Bill Plympton, is (only) a “burger lover.”
*. Why is this significant, or necessary to say? I think because it’s easy to see The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger as being, among other things, an argument for vegetarianism. Cartoon cattle frolicking in an idyllic rural environment are rounded up and taken to the slaughterhouse, where they are shocked onto a conveyor belt and duly fed into the familiar (indeed iconic) meatgrinder, coming out hamburger. It’s a voyage from heaven to hell, told in a conventional idiom, and one wouldn’t expect it to come from a pair of burger lovers.
*. But while that’s one reading of the film, the credits would seem to suggest that it’s really about something else. What that something else is appears to be a message about the effect of advertising on body image. The calf in the pasture sees a burger billboard and wants to attain the status of a pure object of desire: literally, a piece of meat. So she becomes a workout warrior and bulks up and is finally chosen to be America’s Next Meal. One should be careful what one wishes for. Our goals may be self-destructive.
*. That’s a simple enough idea, and I don’t think this is a complicated film. For a “Plymptoon” its style is a little surprising, being rendered in enamel-like primary colours with thick if trembling outlines around the figures. This is not what you expect a Bill Plympton cartoon to look like. It made me think of a children’s book, with the various characters and objects being like plastic shapes that you could reach out and play with on the page/screen. Why this particular look for this particular film? Perhaps to highlight the incongruity. Body image and the meat industry are actually serious, painful subjects. But here they are presented in a fanciful, playschool kind of way.
*. I think that does undercut the message though. At the end of the day this is a playful bit of fluff without anything very serious to say, something that is underlined by those end credits. Cartoons can be serious stuff. (See, for example, Call of Cuteness, which is an animated short dealing with similar themes.) But this film isn’t. That doesn’t make it bad, just not as interesting as it might have been.

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Annihilation (2018)

*. I read, and reviewed, Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation (the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy) when it came out. Even though I knew it had been optioned, I was still surprised when I heard they were actually going to make a movie out of it.
*. Knowing where Annihilation came from, however, is not a big help in coming to a better understanding of its various mysteries. I say that for a couple of reasons. In the first place, VanderMeer likes to work in a new genre that usually goes under the name of Weird fiction, which is a blend of fantasy and science fiction (mostly) that delights in being provokingly obscure. Even after finishing the trilogy I wasn’t entirely sure what it had been about.
*. The second reason knowing the book doesn’t prepare you for the movie is because writer-director Alex Garland was just doing his own thing anyway, only looking to recreate something of the dreamlike atmosphere of the novel without following its plot too closely. I actually didn’t remember the book that well, but watching the movie I was sure it was nothing like it.
*. In any event, I don’t think this is a big problem because the difficulty of Annihilation (the movie) has, I think, been greatly overstated. There are some basic points that are left ambiguous, but they are not the kind of challenging puzzles that, for example, Weird fiction likes to play with. They’re just more or less known unknowns.
*. One example is the nature of the alien force. Lomax, the man questioning Lena in the film’s frame, is convinced that whatever is in Area X has come here for a purpose. There is, however, no clear indication of any intelligence at work in the Shimmer. You can speculate about its purpose if you want, but it’s not even clear if they arrive by design or by accident. Is that a spaceship that lands in Florida or an asteroid?
*. Another example is the question of whether Kane and Lena are clones at the end. Well, if even they don’t know then how should we? Kyle Smith: “Making movies steeped in vagueness these days is proving to be an excellent way to earn critical praise, but being artfully ambiguous strikes me as a way to cover for not being able to finish the job.”
*. From the evidence the film provides it looks as though Kane is a replicant and Lena is merely infected in some way, but it’s not even clear if this is a distinction with a difference.

*. So there’s ambiguity there, sure. But I don’t see this as a film of big ideas, or as particularly thought provoking. It’s just open ended without being intellectually challenging. In fact, I’m not even sure the alien is all that interesting. It’s like the Earth has developed a tumor that’s messing around with the stuff of life, creating mutants and mimics. But from that premise, what follows?
*. I’m not sure what Garland was trying to get out of his actors. Jennifer Jason Leigh is usually a favourite of mine but she plays the part of Dr. Ventress as though she’s overdosing on tranquilizers. I’m guessing that’s the way Garland wanted her to play it, but I can’t understand why. Oscar Isaac as Kane strikes me as being terrible, even when he’s not a pod person. As for Natalie Portman, she seems to have been told to just act puzzled. She furrows her brow a lot and appears to be vaguely upset at what’s going on, but it’s not like she’s angry or on a mission of vengeance, which is what I thought was the point.
*. The script is not good. Watching it a second time I was surprised at how bad much of the dialogue is, and how many scenes are included that don’t serve any function at all. There’s also a problem with members of the team acting like the idiots in an idiot-plot horror movie. The worst of these is the paramedic Anya, who hysterically doesn’t want to watch the video of the gut python again because she just knows it’s fake. The plan for having a guard stand out by themselves at the military base was another headscratcher. There didn’t seem to be any point to that but to allow someone to get killed. Another awkward device is having the team find video recordings explaining what happened to the previous expedition. Just because that was what was required.
*. The aspect of Annihilation that got the most praise was its look. I wasn’t as impressed. It has a crayon colourfulness that’s pretty without being threatening. Meanwhile, the CGI strikes me as very bad. That alligator is awful, as are the pair of deer Lena surprises in the woods. I was expecting to be blown away and I wasn’t.

*. It’s a movie that tended to get strong responses. Meaning people loved it or hated it. I don’t see where it rises to that level, or why it should have been so divisive. It has some good parts, with the talking bear being the standout scene, but overall it struck me as only mildly interesting and overlong. Maybe Denis Villeneuve could have made something out of it, but Garland has always seemed to me to be someone who is trying too hard to seem smarter than he is. Really, if he’d stuck more closely to VanderMeer’s novel he would have probably had a better movie. But he couldn’t be bothered.
*. That may seem harsh on Garland, but watching this film I was reminded of a lot of what I said about Ex Machina. About, for example, how “His [Garland’s] work often takes an interest in science and philosophy, but never digs very deep.” Or the comparison to Tarkovsky (even more glaring, and to his detriment, in this film). Or how the direction is “formal and dull though I suspect this was mainly by design.”
*. To borrow from the film’s mythology, Garland is like the mimics in the Shimmer. He has a notion as to what a great SF movie is supposed to look like, but while he tries in various ways to copy the style and mannerisms of Tarkovsky and Kubrick and Ridley Scott he misses everything that made them special. Annihilation is a decent imitation or clone of a good SF movie, but I just wasn’t buying in.

Insterstellar (2014)

*. Interstellar is a movie I admire for a couple of reasons, though in both cases that admiration is qualified, or even contradicted somewhat by the ending.
*. In the first place, it’s a science-fiction epic that has its share of thrilling action sequences but in terms of the larger narrative it’s not afraid to take its time. It’s hard to think of many contemporary popular films that have the same pace. And, significantly, it doesn’t feel slow, even during scenes of exposition. It doesn’t feel fast or rushed either, it’s just comfortable moving at its own speed.
*. This is a good thing given the running time of nearly three hours. But now I enter the qualification: the last 30 minutes do drag. The movie has nowhere new to take us and nothing new to show us and it just works out a plot “twist” that I think most people will have twigged to in the first act. We really don’t need to spend this long closing the circle with the narrative equivalent of a group hug.

*. The second thing I appreciated was how hard it works at being, if not accurate (because I don’t know how accurate we could expect some of it to be), then at least plausible. All the science contributes to making this one of the most believable space operas and time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure all the paradoxes are fully resolved, but everything sort of made sense to me at the end. Though I’m still not sure how Cooper got out of that black hole.
*. Again, however, I enter a qualification because of the ending. Apparently Brand’s theory that love is a physical force in the universe holds true. It’s not that I’m cold-hearted or against the squishy stuff. In fact, I’m a romantic at heart. It’s just that this idea of a mystic connection between Cooper and his daughter in a parallel dimension is at odds with so much of the rest of the film that it seems out of place. I also found the implicit fantasy of eternal youth a little juvenile.
*. Another thing I really appreciated here were the design elements. They were going where a lot of SF movies have gone before, but even so I thought the space station was interesting, the cryo beds nice, and the non-anthropomorphic robots brilliant. Also the texture of the two failed Eden planets was beautifully rendered: the one being a shallow wave pool and the other a frozen lava field with looming ice clouds.

*. These planets must have looked particularly impressive on an IMAX screen, where Interstellar showed on its initial release. This is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years that I actually missed not seeing at a theatre. I really felt I wasn’t getting the full effect of those mountainous waves on my TV.
*. A lot of work went into the script and on the whole I think it’s very bad. It’s a good story, but as I’ve said the final act drags. More than that, however, is the clichéd and overly dramatic dialogue that even on a first viewing you can practically speak along with the actors. I also don’t know how or why Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” got dragged into this. Perhaps it was just a poem everyone had heard of, but thematically it doesn’t seem particularly apt or relevant. It just seems like more heavy dialogue to insert at heavy moments. Even Macaulay’s “Horatius” made more sense in Oblivion.
*. Maybe it’s unfair to think a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood space epic should have been a little less conventional. I do think they took some chances here, especially with the pacing, that pay off. The library in the fifth dimension was near to my heart, plus Matt Damon plays a bad guy, which was interesting. That said, for all its length I did think Interstellar needed a bit more meat on its bones. It’s different enough to be a good movie, but not daring enough to be a great one.

The Mummy (2017)

*. The Mummy was roundly panned when it came out, and not unfairly. I didn’t hate it until the end, when it really went down the garbage chute in a hurry. But I think I’ll just limit myself here to a couple of general observations.
*. The first point has to do with the film’s tone, or what kind of a movie it is. In his review, and he was not alone in saying this, Mark Kermode thought it primarily a Tom Cruise vehicle. Not a horror movie but basically just an action film along the lines of Mission: Impossible.
*. I think this is fair enough, and it fits with what we know of the film’s production. It was written, produced, and directed by Alex Kurtzman, who has a filmography stuffed with this kind of big-budget crap (though only one previous directing credit). Normally I’d want to make him responsible, but his work seems so entirely generic it’s almost like there’s no personality or individual sensibility/sense of style in play.
*. Instead, it was reported that Cruise had total control over the film’s script, production and post-production. It was even claimed that he was doing a lot of directing on set. So in that sense it certainly can be said to be a Tom Cruise movie all the way.

*. What I think it is more than that, however, is a Marvel movie. We’re immediately notified that this is going to be the first part of Universal’s Dark Universe, with “universe” here being the now accepted term of art for a network of interlinked franchises. Nowadays every studio wants to be in the universe business, with the chief models being the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the Star Wars empire. The Dark Universe project has since had to be reimagined, but something along these lines was clearly what they were going for at the time.
*. Essentially the mummy here, Ahmanet played by Sofia Boutella, is a supervillain, more like Imhotep in The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) than Boris Karloff’s or Christopher Lee’s wandering bandage-men. Cruise, meanwhile, is a wisecracking hero whose origin story this may be taken as being. I found his jokiness off-putting, but once you realize he’s basically trying to do a Marvel Everyman like Paul Rudd in Ant-Man or Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool it makes sense.
*. As usual in the MCU there are lots of hints at upcoming crossovers, most notably the appearance of Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll. Also as per usual the supervillain unleashes an apocalyptic tsunami of CGI, flattening a major city. She also has an army of minions in the form of a bunch of zombies. The fate of the entire world is at stake. You know the drill.

*. The second point I want to address is the annoying complexity of the plot. I’ve talked before about mummy movies that go off the deep end in this regard. Instead of a simple story of the defilement of a tomb leading to a curse in the form of a mummy wreaking his revenge there’s usually a zany back story about how the mummy had a lover in ancient times whose reincarnation/spiritual descendant they miraculously identify almost immediately upon their awakening. This then gives the mummy a more complicated mission involving some kind of joint resurrection. It’s really very complicated. There’s even a point near the end of this movie where Cruise’s character says “I don’t know what [not who] I am.” This had me nodding my head in sympathy.
*. I think the source for this mythological quicksand might be Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars with its crazily constructed plot. That’s certainly what drove to the cheapo production Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy into total incoherence. And they go down the same rabbit hole in The Mummy Returns, where all the flashbacks and expository dialogue only make your head hurt.
*. In this movie there are further turns of the screw. Cruise’s Nick Morton, because he awakens Ahmanet, or because she chose him, is somehow linked to her through some kind of quantum spiritual entanglement. It reminded me of what happened to poor Steve Railsback in Lifeforce, and given how much borrowing there is going on in this movie I doubt that was accidental (the way Ahmanet drains her victims through mouth-to-mouth is another nod to that underappreciated gem from the 1980s).
*. A history nerd’s observation: Why are the crusader crypts uncovered at the beginning dated to the Second Crusade? The crusaders on that venture didn’t go through Egypt or Mesopotamia.
*. Borrowings. Homages. Whatever you want to call it, why bother with redoing the resurrected buddy from An American Werewolf in London? How was bringing Vail back necessary?

*. The thing about all these plots involving super-powerful entities looking to take over the world is that they make you wonder Why? If Ahmanet and Set or whoever were to achieve their goal, what would be the point? When the stakes are that high in a zero sum game then it all seems self-defeating.
*. I wouldn’t want to deny that Tom Cruise is in great shape, but I think he was 55 when they made this movie and I’m not sure men over 50 should be taking their shirts off in public. Something about his waxed and overly muscled upper body seems unnatural on a middle-aged man. Also, added to the way the plot hinges on an actress twenty years younger crushing on him it makes The Mummy seem even more like a vanity project.

*. Hollywood accounting. Nobody understands it. Estimates were that The Mummy cost somewhere under $200 million and it had box office of over $400 million worldwide but it was still considered to be a bomb. I think this was because it did a lot of business in China, where Universal’s cut is less. In any event, despite selling a lot of tickets it set the Dark Universe back in a big way.
*. That’s all I’ll say here. It cost a lot of money but didn’t blow me away with any of its effects. Maybe they spent a lot of the budget on Cruise. There were no scary, suspenseful, or interesting action scenes. A lot was made of the plane crash but it didn’t strike me as special. The fights were ho-hum. And finally the ending was terrible, with the possessed Nick being transformed into a Christ figure by his love for the pure and true Jenny, who had previously told him how she saw a good man inside him. Please. Apparently it was Cruise’s decision to make his part bigger while downplaying Boutella’s. This was going the wrong way, but who was there to tell him that?

Suburbicon (2017)

*. This movie has to rate way up there on the “what were they thinking?” index.
*. It has a lot, really almost everything, going for it. The cast is solid, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore backed up by a collection of wonderful character. Noah Jupe turns in a great child performance in a lead part with almost no lines. The production and design are nearly flawless (I’d only mark them down for a really lousy hospital set in the early going). The photography is beautiful. George Clooney does a professional turn directing.
*. But then there’s the script. Or really two scripts. It doesn’t just feel like two stories unhappily stitched together, it is two scripts unhappily stitched together. One was a typical Coen Brothers black-comedy crime thriller which had been sitting around for twenty years, the other a historical drama about a black family that faced racism in the Levittown community they moved into in the 1950s.
*. What do these two stories have to do with each other? Nothing. Even thematically or tonally: nothing. Critics were mystified. Not only were the stories unrelated, they were scarcely connected in terms of the plot. They didn’t even belong in the same movie. So: what were they thinking?
*. I can’t answer that question. But in terms of pacing and structure it throws the entire film out of whack.
*. Sticking with the main (white family) plot, what we get is the usual Coen Brothers tale of mistakes leading to misunderstandings leading to bloody ironies. Matt Damon plays William Macy playing Gardner Lodge, who is involved in a sordid (and wildly improbable) scheme to get rid of his wife and run away with her sister. Of course things go wrong, since the scheme is so complicated it has no chance of success. The usual violent chaos results.
*. Even by itself I can’t say this would have been terribly interesting, especially given the slow first act. Also, the idea that the suburban America of the Leave It to Beaver era was actually a facade (see what horrors lurk in the basement!), with Suburbicon itself being a Potemkin village, is such a cliché that it should have been retired twenty or thirty years ago.
*. No point in saying anything more. I was bored and mystified. Perhaps with so much attention to detail and the actual craft of filmmaking nobody noticed or was able to take a step back and realize that the project as a whole was so incoherent. That’s the best I can do in coming up with an explanation.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

*. This is almost a guilty pleasure. Which means I like it a lot more than I know I should. I can’t say I like it enough to make it a true guilty pleasure though.
*. The story picks up right where Kingsman: The Secret Service left off. And by that I mean that it’s non-stop video game action stuffed into a whacko plot that is vulgar, juvenile, violent, and stupid but also endearingly surreal. Poppy’s ’50s Americana-style jungle hideout is just one of the crazy locations that I really enjoyed. But it’s when we see inside the sports stadium and its giant warehousing of cages that I really started to like the movie. It’s all so wildly over-the-top you have to give in.
*. The cast is filled with surprising supporting characters, and I think most of them work pretty well. Elton John is fine, but I think he was given a bit too much to do seeing as he isn’t an actor. Halle Barry, on the other hand, is underused. Unless they were just saving her for the next film in the series.
*. Julianne Moore’s Poppy seems to have divided people. I thought she was an original creation that fit the psychadelic-psychotic tone of the proceedings well. Director Matthew Vaughn wanted a “Martha Stewart on crack . . . a kooky, sweet, Stepford Wives-style villain,” and he got it.
*. My heart initially sank a little when I saw the running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. And the original cut was apparently an hour and 20 minutes longer!
*. I think they could have cut even more, as there are some bits that don’t work, like the use of the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” song. But this is a movie that’s all about taking everything too far and being too much. Its virtues and its vices are excess. And when it’s over . . . pfft.

The Monster (2016)

*. We begin with an epigraph taken from some generic fairy tale. This suits, since as far as stories go it doesn’t get much simpler than this. I mean, even the title is generic.
*. So, mother and daughter are driving through the forest in a rainstorm when they’re in an accident. A monster proceeds to stalk them. Add in a couple of other elements that hardly count as twists: conflict between the two leads (mom is an alcoholic) and a pair of rescue fails (tow truck and ambulance drivers). Mother makes grand self-sacrificing gesture. Little girl shows pluck and resiliency in destroying the monster.
*. You’ll notice I didn’t bother with the spoiler alert. Because really, there’s nothing to this story to spoil. You should be able to tell where all this is going after the first few minutes. There are no surprises.
*. Nor is there anything very scary going on. Writer-director Bryan Bertino also wrote and directed The Strangers, another conventional horror flick that didn’t have any scares in it. I’m not sure what attracts him to the genre. He sets himself a difficult challenge here — making a movie largely bound to a single restricted set — but does nothing to exploit it for suspense or the usual claustrophobic thrills.
*. “No one very much takes this road anymore.” You don’t say. Tow truck companies and ambulance dispatchers also do a shit job of checking in with their employees. This road seems to be a black hole for people and for information.
*. Points for not having a CGI creature. Yes, he looks like a guy in a rubber monster suit, topped off with an immobile head (does his mouth even open?), but at least he isn’t another cartoon.
*. Seeing as the girl’s name is Lizzy, I wonder why her mom has a “Martina” tattoo. Or maybe Zoe Kazan has a Martina tatoo and they just didn’t bother covering it up.
*. Such a simple fairy tale invites being interpreted as a metaphor. This is another movie where the real monster is in fact a bad mother. Think The Babadook. The threatened family has long been a horror staple, but now it is threatened from within, representing a generation’s anxiety over its childraising competence. So Lizzy is the adult in the family, and really the best/only thing her mother can do for her is to just get out of the way.
*. This would all be well enough, and The Monster a decent B-picture, but for the ending. Not only is Kathy a bad mother, she is a total idiot. Her “plan” for escaping the monster is jaw-droppingly stupid. Even as the expression of a death wish it doesn’t hold much water, since it would have doomed Lizzy as well. Then Lizzy’s own plan has no business working but for the strange passivity the monster has toward her, and its even stranger flammability. I mean, it’s slimy, and wet, but is it also covered in oil? That’s the only way I can see it turning into a fireball like that.
*. It’s still not a bad movie. Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine are both pretty good, though their interactions become repetitive because the script doesn’t really know what to do with them once their basic dynamic has been introduced. On their way to a better movie, however, their car broke down.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

*. I wasn’t paying much attention when I decided to take a chance on this one. Directed by David Leitch. The name didn’t ring a bell, but then the DVD box says that he directed (co-directed, actually) John Wick. Oh, shit.
*. I don’t mean to knock Leitch. He got his start, I believe, as a stunt man and he’s certainly capable of doing a great fight scene. But I didn’t like John Wick (though I did like the sequel, not directed by Leitch) so I didn’t have much hope for this one.
*. It should have been much better. I’d rather watch Charlize Theron for a couple of hours over Keanu Reeves for any amount of time. The action scenes are almost exclusively martial arts and fisticuffs instead of first-person-shooter video game nonsense. But aside from that . . .
*. Well, the fights are good. Theron makes good use of a power cord in one, and then there’s a prolonged tussel in a stairwell and adjacent apartments that’s wonderfully done up to make it look like it’s all a single take (which it isn’t). But, um, aside from that . . .
*. I can think of few other action films where I cared less about the plot. I mean I cared so little I didn’t even bother trying to follow what was going on. There’s a twist at the end that meant nothing to me. These twists only work, I think we can lay it down as a rule, when you actually care what’s going on before the twist.
*. It’s apparently based on a graphic novel that I haven’t read. As far as I can tell, Leitch didn’t really care much about this side of things either. On the DVD commentary he remarks how the music was meant to drive the movie right from the start. So again we’re watching a video game, maybe one of those Grand Theft Auto ones with the retro soundtrack turning it into a violent jukebox.

*. I guess I should like the music more, since it’s what I grew up with, but it’s all remixes and I didn’t see how much of it had anything to do with what was going on. I laughed the first time I heard Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and rolled my eyes the second time.
*. Nice seeing Stalker on the big screen, but was that really what East German audiences were watching at the multiplex in the ’80s?
*. Yes, Theron as the lethal lady in lingerie, and with a (clichéd) lesbian sex scene to boot, is a plus. But was she even trying to act? She hardly shows any emotion at all the entire movie. Keanu Reeves might have done that.
*. For Leitch the directive was that “cool overrides everything.” Given the basic grammar of this type of movie, isn’t that more like a default setting? Wouldn’t it have been more of a challenge to have injected a note of almost anything other than cool into the proceedings?
*. Was there really any point to the framing device of the debriefing? The story certainly didn’t seem complex enough to warrant it, and I don’t see how it made any difference.
*. I’m a little surprised at the decent reviews this one got. Theron got a lot of praise, but I thought she was basically a robot and anybody could have played the part as well. Other than that, this is a movie with a couple of really good fight scenes and nothing else.

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.

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?