For the last few years, I have found less and less of the emotional energy I need to concentrate on a proper film, so I don’t watch many movies these days. I’m far more likely to binge TV shows or watch one piecemeal over the course of the week, as time permits. That said, this last week was spring break for me, and these are five films I took the time to watch.
John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski, 2014)
For purity of tone and generic convention, this one reminded me of Payback and A Bittersweet Life. As straightforward of an underworld revenge flick as you can get, John Wick relies almost entirely on nailing the atmosphere and cadence of the alternate reality inhabited solely by hitmen, crime bosses, and femme fatales, who seem to spend most of their time partying in neon-hued cellar nightclubs, perpetually renovated old cathedrals, and posh estates in the hills with lots of windows and austere, minimalist decor. Directors like Stahelski and Nicolas Winding Refn seem to be the heirs to Michael Mann, populating their films with who’s-who faces and cleanly-shot scenes of violence. Keanu Reeves is wonderful in this film, channeling his charisma into a subdued smolder for most of the film and explosive, calculated lethality in some really stellar action sequences. The karmic themes are perhaps a bit thin, and the climax feels a bit tacked-on after a sustained, single-minded drive toward one bloody goal, but it’s a great film for fans like me of noir pastiche actioners.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (d. Matthew Vaughn, 2014)
I’d forgotten that Vaughn had directed Kick-Ass until I saw that this was based on a comic written by Mark Millar, who can be incisive and tasteless, but never incisively tasteless or tastelessly incisive (if that makes sense). Among the things that work in this film are Vaughn’s feel for kinetic, deft action sequences and a marvelous eye for production design. Colin Firth is his typical amazing self, and I always like Samuel L. Jackson when he does over-the-top villains. Among the things that don’t work are the structure of Kingsman as an origin story; we’re in Joseph Campbell territory here, so fans of Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring won’t be terribly surprised (or terribly emotionally moved, I suspect) by a moment in the film’s midpoint that I’m sure Millar thought would be “shocking” or “unconventional.” (Even as he probably thought it was “mythical” or somesuch thing.) Watching Taron Egerton come of age as a superspy is fun, but Egerton doesn’t have Firth’s charisma, though he might get there in ten or fifteen years. Then there’s the fact that the cultural politics of this film are weirdly ambivalent. The aesthetics of a scene where Firth kicks the crud out of some bullies near the beginning of the film are identical to a scene where he massacres a churchful of American bigots. There’s a sense in which each group “gets what’s coming to them” that, to viewers of one stripe, might seem “anarchically subversive.” For viewers of another stripe (and you don’t need to look too closely to see these stripes peeking above my collar), the revelry in this violence (set to “Freebird,” as such things are) seems genuinely gleeful, and therefore genuinely gratuitous. It’s tough not to conjoin the revelry in gratuitous violence with the validation of juvenile androcentrism at the film’s end, when our young hero slays the (metaphorical) dragon, then goes to fuck a princess in the ass. (This is not metaphorical.) So there’s fun to be had with this movie, but it’s a sleazy fun. It dredges all the innuendo and sanitized brutality that lurks barely beneath the surface of of the James Bond franchise, then dives into it headfirst, like a Hustler centerfold doing graceful backstrokes through a wake of chum.
Hotel Transylvania (d. Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)
Honestly, this movie was delightful. The A-plot was a funny, sweet story about an overprotective father learning to let his little girl grow up and bring a strange boy into the family. The B-story (allow me to read a bit much into the subtext here) is about how a group of bad boy outsiders (literalized here as monsters) grew up to become the establishment. It’s hard not to see the cast of monsters voiced by Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, and Steve Buscemi (though I’ll admit I’ve no idea who CeeLo Green is) as a metaphor for their place in the Hollywood ecosystem: a group of former enfants terribles who are now among the elder statesmen of popular entertainment. Again, I admit that I’m perhaps reading a bit much into it. At any rate, I laughed a great deal with Hotel Transylvania, and I look forward to seeing the sequels (someday).
The Last Witch Hunter (d. Breck Eisner, 2015)
The best thing about this film was watching Vin Diesel as a relatively chillaxed seeker of vengeance. Playing an immortal can go any number of ways, but the mixture of amiable, aloof, and ruthless Diesel cooked up for Kaulder, the title character, went a long way toward lugging this B-film across the finish line. As a mid-budget tentpole flick, it’s very slick, moderately-paced, perhaps boasting a bit too much grayscale production design for its own good (although I credit Eisner with not shooting the whole thing through those damnable blue/gray/brown color filters that directors seem to have loved so much for the last decade or so), but definitively unambitious. For urban fantasy junkies, this’ll scratch an itch, but it won’t quench your thirst.
The BoxTrolls (d. Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, 2014)
Laika does pretty amazing things with stop-motion animation; ParaNorman is easily a high point in mainstream use of that technique. BoxTrolls is charming; it tries to balance the truly horrific implications of its cosmos (where genocide, fatal political malpractice, torture, and sadism, are narrative engines, just to name a few lovely aspects) with heartfelt relationships and positive messages about choosing one’s own path/identity and whatnot. It is one of the few children’s films that I’ve felt was appropriately cynical about the world. Yet it ultimately manages to resolve the major plot points without long-term negative consequences, and given the darkness this movie treats with, it felt like a bit of a cheat. If this film is a disappointment overall, it should be restated that Laika set the bar pretty high for itself with Coraline and ParaNorman. While I did totally buy into the relationships that Eggs, the boy hero, cultivates with Fish, his Boxtroll foster-father, and Winnifred, the girl who becomes his partner in heroism, the character dynamics of the bad guys worked especially well. Mr. Gristle is a chilling parody of unfettered cruelty, and Archibald Snatcher is the kind of main villain who is better precisely because his ambition and evil are so thoroughly human (and thus more monstrous); Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles are the evil henchmen with enough of a glimmer of self-awareness to recognize at the vital moment in the narrative that they’re not on the side of the angels. This rogue’s gallery gives you a pretty good snapshot of the spectrum of human frailty, and it is they who emerge as the most compelling figures in the ensemble. ☕