John Wick (2014) – Review / Scene Analysis

Action flick, John Wick, unexpectedly knocks its tongue-in-cheek premise miles out of the park. With a composition style wielded some place between a pulpy graphic novel and a slickly brutish 70’s action fest, there’s plenty of multifaceted character in the visual design to ensure that Wick-heads keep returning time after time. Every scene, in the hands of someone less dedicated, might’ve felt too slapstick or idling, but, thankfully, John Wick’s comprehensive scope of contained atmosphere lends massive support to the suspension of disbelief (and investment) I was willing to permit it.

And so, to put one scene under the spotlight, let’s discuss the Red Circle club scene.

As the chase’s intensity grows, the scene’s aesthetic journeys across specific action fight-scene territories. Not only does John, in pursuit of Iosef, battle through his protection with a range of changing tactics, he moves through the different areas which act like bottles of vibrant tones and violent climates.

Like a true assassin, Wick stabs into the background, his priority victim remains unaware of the debris Wick litters around him. Showered in neon light, Wick cannot hide in the shadows, he becomes a flicker of violence, a hurried burst of close quarters assault. This room initiates pressure and pushes the efficiency of Wick into open light, he hides outside the camera’s frame and focus. He punches Victor, his victim, from outside the frame and then proceeds to drown him in water. Drenched in neon blue, as blots of blood red candles harshen the intensity, Wick gets what he needs by way of grizzly ends.

Then, cut to Dario Argento levels of red, the Jacuzzi area – shadows hide in piercing blood-light. Here the intensity of the tones are reversed, blues serve as undercurrents while reds dominate the palate. And then it’s back to blue when the water returns. Wick’s eyes surveil the room for Iosef, plotting his method of attack. This room grants him more freedom to sneak around, at the cost of more bodyguards to kill. The music is essential: soft and melancholy, like a Jacuzzi room might be, funky yet chilled, the vibe touches perfectly on all the sensations of anticipation, it’s predatory. Music and colour compliment the strength of Wick’s icy enigmatism, unpredictability looms above his precision. Suddenly, silhouettes of corpses in mid drop smear blood down the blue tint glass wall. He’s systematically chipping away at the target. The room’s music serves an in-world function, to cover the noise of his murders – his easiest chance at remaining undetected is to use a knife. Once again, the atmosphere of the room serves audience engagement by redirecting the character’s tactics, repeatedly manoeuvring into a fresher style.

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To go slightly into over analysis territory, this shot (above), which starts immediately after it’s set up, supposes some symbolism towards Wick being the devil with the neon light circling out his head like horns (or perhaps it’s a halo, or possibly both – a ‘Satan’s Halo’?). I’d lean towards the speculation being true since it appears in a specific set-up that aligns almost too perfectly to be coincidence. Furthermore, the imagery appears once more later on, reaffirming the likeliness (below). Born of forethought or not, I still appreciate the symbolic presence.

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The scene then plays out openly. Surprised by a guard, and after Wick attempted to handle the situation discretely, the fight crashes into the main area where Wick is suddenly exposed. Guns are now permitted in this area, and with it the sense of violent progression grows. At this point you’ll have noticed that the arrangement of scenes aren’t at all lazy, they’re constructed to manipulate and traverse the gradient of tension by testing the character in consecutive arenas – like the difficulty curve of a video-game, without the choice or separation. John Wick, as a film, manages to sell you its staging by pursuing flow and cohesion.

And then the mayhem kicks into action, the nightclub area, where a silencer’s shots whisper muffled noises under the thud of every beat. Iosef runs frantic through the crowd while Wick maintains composure through the music’s deafening trance. Strobe lighting and winding music creates an atmosphere of overwhelming intensity, we’re at the final push. These varying atmospheres serve to make the film feel bigger, more epic – there’s no rush to get through the scene and race to the payoff. By the end, Wick deserves his shot with Iosef, which sadly goes undelivered. You’re convinced to root on Wick’s side by witnessing the sheer power of will he inhabits. His persistence warrants his payoff.

After a brief tonal cleanse, the boss fight occurs and video game parallel goes full blast, it’s a common pattern throughout John Wick – although admittedly formulaic, it is earned, and while that isn’t a perfect justification, my defence is upheld by how it remains satisfying when every plot point builds to a logical conclusion and then proceeds to pay off magnificently. The compromise is deemed understandable – they have to hit particular scripted beats if they’re dedicated to perfecting the execution of that said beat. While unideal, we do not live in a perfect world.

Knowing itself, self referentially, puts John Wick several tiers above the recent wasteland of unmoulded lacklustre action. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s seamless approach to narrative mechanisms are to be admired considerably. I would highly recommend checking out John Wick, there’s more great chunks of powerhouse action where this came from.

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Manchester By The Sea (2017) – Review

An uncle takes responsibility of his nephew after the boy’s father dies.

Manchester By The Sea bottles bleak social interaction in gorgeous yet humble cinematography. Some of its moments are excruciatingly tragic, a particular mess or sincerely comical – all in the masterful exploratory sense of film-making. Agreed emotions or conflicting ones make Manchester’s scenes more compelling thanks to, much like reality, their unpredictable nature. Characters will talk over others when they’re annoyed, panicked and uncomfortable. When they scatter-talk you have to wait a moment or two for the confusion to die down. Manchester, as a story, isn’t afraid to show you rotating sides and make you understand them, and, then, make you deal with them. A character’s logic never overshoots the narrative – as people, they’re not massively complex, in fact, they’ll differ on opinions in easy to understand situations. What’s interesting is that the story pays special attention to the character’s act of making the other understand their point, even if other already does. Drama comes from the confusion of everything, and it’s damned effecting.

Judging from the general tone the trailer implies, you’d be delighted to discover that Manchester has an unexpected abundance of comedy. The comedy is a welcome and necessary alleviation from its general icy and gaunt tone. A lot of chatter about the film will likely send unappetizing signals to a fair few casual audience members; the film community has continually hyped this as “Oscar bait”, and while addressing this point is a valid one, you’ll surely find that most people consider Manchester By The Sea as reasonably approachable. Granted, it’s still quite depressing, but there’s charm to be found and this distinctive type of humour will carry you through and between some of the more emotionally exhausting times. There are a lot of films with a similar tone to Manchester By The Sea – Synecdoche, New York being a particular favourite bleak-toned drama of mine, a worthwhile neighbour to the ‘defeated protagonist’ story, if you’re looking for one – however, Manchester is set apart by it’s approachable humane quality. There’s a reason to have faith in their struggles, a reason to bear with their drudgery, and, for both us and them, comedy is the best way of coping with such uneasy situations.

On a more technically minded level, Manchester By The Sea is remarkably both cinematically objective and subjective. Although the camera remains coldly distant with detached restraint – subjecting us to a distant onlooker, we are rarely permitted the close up – instead, a particularly useful indicator for understanding our relationship with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is in how the presented narrative unravels itself. Flashbacks are never marked immediately, we only know they’re happening when certain logical signposts appear. These flashbacks express the most significant information points of the backstory. As the flashbacks’ cumulative anguish guides us into Lee’s memories, as well as seeing his mental image at that juncture, we’re seamlessly positioned directly into his mind. When the most painful memories are withheld by the film until later on, we further understand that these are the moments he would rather not remember, he is pushing them back. To successfully execute this kind of backstory is arduous at the best of times – but Manchester By The Sea’s exposition creates so much insight that it never once feels like a plot mechanic, which it undeniably is – instead, the flow is so dexterously smooth and innately personal that Lonergan’s method benefits our ability to empathise with Lee’s side-story of introspection. This is filmmaking that turns a hand holding formula into a crushing gut punch.

I think Manchester By The Sea is one of those movies that I just love because it’s exactly my cup of sombre, melancholy tea. Should you see it? Probably, yes. It’s a focus minded film that blends a whirlwind of emotions into a direct, controlled and balanced package. To reaffirm the general buzz about the film: Casey Affleck is fantastic, he’s the stand out but the entire cast is incredible. The direction, as already commented on, is superb, as is Lonergan’s writing. A handful of marvellous editing choices crept up on me unexpectedly, however, the editing framework as a whole, while moderately strong, wasn’t substantially groundbreaking nor earth shaking – and I think that the same goes for a lot of the other aspects too, and paradoxically, some of the aforementioned praise I have given the film. While there are plenty of shining moments in Manchester By The Sea, and the performances earn an adequate amount of rewatchability, the film drifts politely into a seat among its peers, hardly shaking the still ground it rests on. It’s comfortable. Incredible, but comfortable. Perhaps wait for the blu-ray.

La La Land (2017, U.K.) -Review

I was enchanted in less than approximately 150 frames; even before the film properly began. Then the no nonsense musical number introduces us to a firmly placed genre flick; but that’s just the introductory point. What might surprise you is that La La Land has an addition core genre: drama; real, human drama. The tragedy of Mia and Sebastian is truly spellbinding, and while their paths might feel somewhat formulaic (like a simple foundation for the musical to exist. And I’m definitely ok with that), Damien Chazelle’s modus operandi weaves a tale akin to Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singing In The Rain and even Fantasia; by planting the spellbinding: the musical, the fantasy, with the tragic drama: the reality of chasing personal fantasy. La La Land is clearly inspired; a very po-mo look at why audiences go to the cinema, and why some of us venture into the dangerous dream zoned career that is film, music, or art of any kind really.

But more than La La’s coyish, humbly sweet introspective look at cinematic fascination (deconstructing the musical genre on a two pronged approach; music, cinema), is Chazelle’s most valuable merit: his craftsmanship of the camera. Side note: my favourite, albeit trivial, trinket of the movie is a small rainbow flair a lamp gives in the park (“what a waste of a lovely night”). It’s barely noticeable, but these small filmic treasures give La La Land it’s sincere beauty. Chazelle’s force in controlling the camera gives me that knowing sense of accomplishment in seeing something executed to near perfection; from whip pans to pivoting tracking shot, he creates energy in pace and rhythm to the musical numbers – and more importantly, with the actors. And while many of the actors aren’t Astaire or Kelly tier performers, there’s a charm to seeing amateur(ish) performers give their biggest performance with a great success in making it feel as seamless as possible. I’d argue that works to the film’s benefit: the mixture of reality and fantasy, of drama and musical, earths their performances (depending on each character’s state of fantasy and imagination).

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I think that the planetarium number is the summation of their entire relationship together, at that single point in time, and wonderfully demonstrates the creative talent on display; oh, and it’s my favourite scene. I just adore how the phenomena of the universe is just a backdrop to these two lovebirds; he guides her through the expanse of galaxies, but all that’s important is how they dance with each other. There’s this sense of power: they’re bigger than the universe, they can face anything. It’s a moment of pure fantastical surrealist imagination – not too far removed from something out of a classic Disney animation. The cinematography is gorgeous, but not superficially so: there’s an intentional exhibition of the emotional impact each plot point has on the characters. Each scene hits hard with its tonal richness; it’s immediately consuming.

La La Land is an astonishing work of dramatic yet entertaining, creative, traditionalist, revisionist, and revolutionary film making. The screenplay isn’t perfect; bluntly stating the issues dealt by the film isn’t a call for celebration or even praise, but since it tackles these questions with such an unbelievably deft hand, I can’t help but forgive its minuscule weaknesses in favour of loving and honouring the thing as a collective of perfection. I can’t stop humming the tune to every song.

Onibaba (1964) – Review

This is how people are unknowingly their own horror stories.

Onibaba starts ominous, we look into the deep empty hole, wondering what dark entity exists far beneath the surface. The title smash cuts onto the screen; as though to create an association between Onibaba, ‘Devil Woman’, and the hole. And that’s the closest Onibaba gets to the horror genre; mostly everything else is just drama, perhaps the most thickly veiled sinister drama of all time, ripe with a unique, difficult dilemma and a harsh, stark character study. I discovered that when I grappled with the central plot I realised that the plot concerning the hole (and the samurai) is a reflection of their struggles; the whole story about the old lady betraying her daughter in law in order to live is not just a heart-twisting tale of tragedy and internal conflict as she fights to survive, it’s a fable about the greed of a woman so determined to live that she will force her closest companion (and only dependable source of help) to mercilessly kill as many passing strangers as it takes to keep going; by keeping her daughter in law from moving on, she’s condemning her to a life of sin, murder and a soulless existence. It goes without saying that the old woman is eventually punished.

From the start, I thought they we’re feeding a monster inside the hole; I wasn’t wrong, but not in the way I expected. Instead of feeding the literal, the film feeds on the interpretive: the monster being fed is the woman’s greediness to survive. I loved how her power dynamic changed as she played each hand throughout the whole movie; my focus was mainly drawn to her make-up and appearance. Her desperate need to eat feels like her version of the hole: constantly consuming; and like the hole’s infinite blackness, the make-up on her eyes creates an identical symbol of emptiness. When she puts on the mask, the night overwhelms her, darkness engulfs her as the light highlights her mask: the symbol of fear (and of the protection that offers final punishment). This attention to storytelling excites me, the layers of meaning given in every aspect of the story offers something so truthful to the characters that in their weakest moments they remain honest and true to the audience. Onibaba changes the way light works in movies; instead of light being a symbol of safety, it becomes a symbol of weakness, an expression of the true face of horror: that horror is fear to itself.

I could go on forever about how intricately every detail is painted in tightly wrapped layers, but I’d rather you go see it for yourself. Trust me; it’s gorgeous in every regard.

Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) – Review

A bait and switch works best when it’s delightfully surprising to discover; a moment of elevation, “oh, I did not expect that”; it doesn’t work if, while still technically unexpected, the plot switched to is less interesting than the film’s original state. It’s probably because Genevieve (the lead female) brings an indescribable amount of sweet, sugary colour to the world; once she leaves, the world becomes drab; she’s all that stops Cherbourg from seeming depressing: Cherbourg becomes the reality when the fantasy, Genevieve, leaves. I suppose it’s right to feel disengaged when she leaves, I can sympathise more with Guy (the lead male). Even so, the singing becomes irritating after awhile, especially post-Genevieve. Everything is set in this small town of Cherbourg, the camera never leaves, so the feeling claustrophobia sets in deep, and deeper as their world changes, so as the music gets sombre and their energy fades the scope of the film narrows around Guys words, and since he’s orphanly depressed the music begins to grate with every lyric, the name of music is tainted with every overly melancholy verse of Guy’s. You can argue these things as a positive to the film, or a negative; it’s a personal thing, I wasn’t of a fan of these decisions. But, overall, I admire the courageous concept and their execution of it.

The Neon Demon (2016) – Review

Supporting characters support main character/s; obviously.

While Ruby, Sarah and Gigi support our exploration into Jesse’s character they do so with more purpose than to simply “support the main character”: they become the main character. I think this is a commonly overlooked consideration when people criticise The Neon Demon’s “lack of character”. These ‘three witches of LA’ are our essential gateway into the film’s mythology; Winding Refn’s fable-like horrorshow feels like a fashionista’s rendition of Macbeth. They work as essential, but individual, components in the story; contributing to the themes of lust (Ruby), fame (Gigi), youth (Sarah); and all are connected to revenge and purity. This kind of exploration is rare in something so identifiable as arthouse, and in something so determinately pornographic (said by Nicolas Winding Refn himself). The Neon Demon is bloody fantastic for something so centered around self-satisfaction. Refn’s cinematography almost fetishises Jesse’s face, she’s made to be adored in close ups, painted in beautiful light and soft music plays as she whispers her words; and without this romanticism, of her physique, of her eyes like “deer in the headlights”, she would be remarkably uninteresting. Even so, this does not help her dull personality. What does make her interesting is how she is seen through the eyes of others: specifically the three witches. That’s what makes the bathroom scene so compelling, and what keeps the showdown shocking, and sensible.

I think it helps that Refn is a genius at immersion, he sucks you in the frame, we were falling down the rabbit hole with Jesse without a moment to pause with a break in the cinematography; his continuous flow, his choice of cuts and shots build a tunnel that draws our eyes, luring us deeper into the world of the necromantic fashion industry. Everything is designed to stop us from averting our attention, our gaze. Look at his use of the consuming, infinite black, I feel like he’s compelling us to look for something in the endless depths; in addition to the rich aesthetic it provides. I love his piercing vibrant colours: washing this beautiful world with sickening light. Between Refn’s use of colour and Brandon’s perspective of sex in Shame (2011), the theme of taking something beautiful and distorting it into something repulsive and disgusting is one I’m really beginning to admire.

Before I leave, I wanted to address something that I read in a review for this movie. I saw that one review said “mansplaining the fashion industry”. While I do have a problem with the term mansplaining, as a specific word and its use in relation to The Neon Demon, I have a bigger problem with that someone understood this film as an explanation of the fashion industry. Whoever it is that can’t understand that this is clearly a fiction story, pumped to extremes and is clearly intended to be seen as a myth or just pure experimentation; this is in no way a genuine representation of the fashion industry. If critics could, please stop pushing your agenda onto films that do not warrant it.

The Neon Demon is a brilliant foray into the sickening world of its directors mind. Keanu Reeves’ performance was a personal favourite, Jena Malone was a knockout.

Father and Daughter (2000) (short film) – Review

A return to a traditional animation style leaves Father and Daughter feeling timelessly classic despite how empty it is. The film fares better with an inspection of its mechanics than on its artistic purpose or quality (not to presume what “true art” is). Plenty of raised questions are disappointingly left kinda-half-answered. Their mysterious story is told without a word of dialogue, leaving us to question and anticipate a meaning from each proceeding event that unravels before the camera, but the subtext and truth of the story is as shallow as the ocean in the story’s final minutes – borderline non existent. Yet for all that is bare on deconstruction, the aesthetic remains a strong working cog that compensates for the film’s other shortcomings. It’s apparent how much the animator wanted this to be received as art; the painted parchment overtly sells you this classic 60s traditional animation and the film constantly feels like a rediscovered relic, and for what it’s worth, one day it just might be.