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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Spring Breakers (2012) – Review

This was 3edgy5me – I can’t even. (Am I doing ‘youth’ right? – lulz) *sigh* What’s the use?

How does one approach Spring Breakers? There’s an infrequent, irregular, pretentious immature satirical vibe, but that’s a swing and a miss if they were seriously trying for honest satire, so I’d immediately disregard that possibility. So maybe it has pure entertainment value? No – unless you think a sloppy story and overbearing conceitedness is entertainment. Even the opening scene doesn’t grant you a clearer idea. You’re lost amidst a flurry of directionless images – nevermind their cack-handed, meaninglessness for a moment – forced to forgo the formal introductions for something akin to a session of rubbing hydrochloric salt in an already nauseating wound.

Satire, by popular definition, has a sense of moral vocation and concern for the public interest, and Spring Breakers has neither of these qualities. On the one hand, it’s too fictionalized to be relevant to any realist context, and on the other, it’s overt conscious riffing of existing celebrities results in non-commentarial interpretations, a borderline mythologization of the subject, and an infatuation with its intent, despite its actual statement. This would be fine and negligible, if it weren’t for the flabby filmmaking.

Let’s start with the opening scene’s camera, and its slow lingering obsession with the spring breakers’ nudity. If this was handled more like an examination of the subject, like the other montages try, then I’d be on board with its blatant gratuity. Perhaps I should consider this just an integration into the society then, an exaggerated form of entertainment – I wish I could, but the music’s flow entirely opposes the edit beats and camera motion. Everything feels clunky and broken and consequently breaks the introduction to the culture – and when it’s devoid of the potential gains of having a stark repellent attitude to the audience, there’s nothing much to like in the end, it’s just annoying.

In all honesty, I wasn’t once repulsed, shaken, hurt, happy, excited, disgusted, or any other descriptor – except bored, I was agonizingly vacant inside. I suppose there’s one consequence of watching Spring Breakers, it’ll neuter you. After 94 desensitizing minutes of tits and ass, I was hollowly uninterested in anything remotely related to the typical spring break activities that so easily captivate the over inflated ego of Harmony Korine. Vanessa Hudgens barely acts, Benson fits the role of a Spring Breaker quite easily (but can’t act for shit), while the other two characters might as well not even exist. However, I do appreciate the idea of having characters walk away from the story as a marker for the levels of danger they’re willing to withstand, I can think of a few films that might benefit from using this concept. Even with the neat concept, it’s still unworthy of your time.

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.

Operation Avalanche (2016) – Review

Without YMS’s recommendation I wouldn’t have sought out The Dirties. And without that seal of approval, plus the mere concept alone being a large selling point, I wouldn’t have found one of my favourite movies. So, in following the career progression of director, Matt Johnson, I now find myself watching Operation Avalanche. To put it frankly: I’m happy with Johnson’s latest faux-meta-verite-mockumentary-thing, but only to the point of simple satisfaction. While The Dirties felt like a film that needed to be seen, Operation Avalanche is a film that acts like you need to see it, but in reality you don’t.

The film is an exercise in titillating small pleasures: that cute satisfaction we get from seeing the plausibility in fictionalised truth. It goes without saying that everything is so securely locked, there really isn’t anything to break our suspension of disbelief; except for the inherent safety net of the unprovoking plot. Operation Avalanche would surely be an indictment against the American intelligence corporations; a couple of dimwits put together the largest cover-up in history (that we know of). But that’s the problem, the parenthesis should probably be a statement of it’s own, and the film shamefully doesn’t push that angle – the ending of Indiana Jones is more convincing than Operation Avalanche. There’s this box over the film, containing everything, prematurely wrapping the bow and ribbon, ruining the authenticity.

Believability-wise, everything is great; it’ll have you chuckling away at how incredibly supposable their wacky ideas can be, it’s quite the set-up for (yet obviously antithetical to) National Treasure 3 (or something of the likes). To the audience it’s exposing the lies. The film itself is a supposed “truth”. But within the film, there is creation; we see behind the expose and take a rare look into the creation of conspiracy – a rather fascinating perspective we often never consider. The film offers two forms of discovery, each satisfying and individual. The narrative works like a tape recorder: as one wheel of information unravels the mystery, the other wheel sucks it back in, keeping it out of the public’s eye.

However, The Dirties is a wrestle with its subject, Operation Avalanche is not. There’s no clawing, raw feeling to this filmic farce. There’s a delightful bunch of inspired moments, but that means nothing when compared to The Dirties, a plate which balances on thin wire. There’s no tension in these fearless, valiant patriots; they’re just too palatable; they’re a safe bet.

I adore Matt Johnson’s work, he’s a wonderful, intelligent film-maker, but he needs to shake things up in his future. His formula worked excellently in reality based narrative, and it gets a pleasant result when applied to fictionalised farce, but there’s nothing much to stretch it to beyond these goalposts.

That said, the expanse of plot is quick, slick and mighty impressive. You’re taken all over their world, and then right back to the centre before it explodes magnificently and leaves you a little shell-shocked. Operation Avalanche is certainly a fun ride.

Check this out if it looks like your thing, you’ll probably get exactly what you expect.

The Raging Moon (1971) – Review

A calm, steady observation on how people transition from one state of normalcy to another; what happens after the everyday life is fractured by trauma? My greatest praise for The Raging Moon is that the handicap isn’t overwhelmingly important. Still, the subject of disability isn’t passed without commentary; there’s a great deal to be said about the public’s notions on how we treat the disabled and how we assume they must feel. Rather, the essence of The Raging Moon is our journey of understanding; how we access the story of Bruce and Jill through their mutual situation.

An essential moment for understanding The Raging Moon is the church fundraising scene; occurring near the halfway mark between the duo’s story. The scene is: a bunch of rich snobs give pitying charity to the disabled as the wheelchair bound residents are paraded around for sympathy. Our couple, Bruce and Jill, decide to flip the script: what a freakshow it must be to walk on legs, what other tricks can they do? It’s a heartwarming moment that bonds the two, they comfort one another with their unity; meanwhile, the script doesn’t go heavy handed on the commentary, the first and foremost priority of the scene is to show that after the trauma, and the sadness, there comes normalcy again, life slowly resets to equilibrium and you can have it your way (maybe you can have more than you had before; who can be sure what to expect from the unexpected).

Now, the film isn’t a masterpiece, not even by the farthest stretch of the imagination, mostly because it’s fairly simplistic in its cinematic technique: the film starts, and continues, to feel like an English kitchen sink drama, except when it detours and reaches a little higher, but ultimately never surpasses their cinematic quality. Bruce and Jill’s character development is borderline cliche; he’s a little rugged, she’s a bit pristine: they compliment each other by learning self completion through the opposite’s best qualities. And sure you’ve probably seen it before, but the script is so well paced that you’d probably overlook these conventional tricks by praising McDowell’s performance and his endearing portrayal of what emotional recovery really is.

An unexpected joy. Sorrowful, semi cathartic, semi melancholic and an all round brilliant sleeper drama.

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.

Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012) – Review

Ezra Miller gives us character in a way that only a rare, true performer does. Emma Watson is the antithesis of Ezra Miller’s talent. Where Ezra Miller knocks out a killer performance as a troubled gay man with a funny ol’ defense mechanism, Emma Watson can’t even muster up the charisma of a knock off post-Breakfast-Club-make-up-scene Ally Sheedy. That said, she’s not exactly in the best position to deliver anything noteworthy when the depth of her character can be summed up on a twice folded post-it note. The whole “we are weirdo’s and that’s why we’re great” philosophy might’ve worked in something more attuned to John Hughes’ honest style and not to something this amateurish, this blunt and this underdeveloped. Let’s look at how it’s so fetishistic of the 90s, yet really doesn’t feel at all like the era. I think that this is part of the film’s misunderstanding of montage theory, and how its misguided attempt to emulate the films it admires creates a weak collage of cliffsnotes that lack the foundation that these previous scenes built throughout their own stories. I would liken Perks Of Being A Wallflower to Almost Famous; in every way, characters, theme, story and even in Perks’ occasional, slight tone it poorly traces the outlines of Almost Famous, except in the ways that matter. The problems with Perks are simple: it’s too afraid, until it isn’t, and then it’s too late to count. There isn’t enough adventure, or any thing that greatly warrants this being labelled a significant experience: instead of tackling personal stories or getting into the nitty gritty of everyone’s dramas, the story tiptoes, and then wallops you with a plot twist that could’ve really pushed the element of engagement onto our main protagonist, had it come sooner rather than later. I understand that the film is going for a shock value final punch; a certainly effective tactic; but it comes at the cost of our engagement to Charlie whilst we’re watching his present day story unfold – had I known that what had happened to him, I might’ve approached his ‘wet-blanketness’ with more sympathy; but with schlocky and unimaginative exposition, his perspective falls flat. In addition, it becomes quite the slap in the face when Sam (Emma Watson) refers to herself as the misfit toy, when not a whole lot happens to her that even compares to child molestation – the film offers no consequence to the comparison with the reductionist attitude that the misfit toys quote labels everyone with. I’m not impressed, Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a lazy, underdeveloped caricature of greater, real movies.

Plus, is it me or did anyone else think that Charlie doesn’t actually feel like a writer. I don’t really remember him writing, it’s never a significant part of his persona. Compare to Almost Famous; where the kid went all across America, hung out with people way outside his comfort zone – a comfort zone where his mom felt like a real character and not just a prop in the plot -, drugs lead to significant changes in his life (unlike the quirky quirkfest that is Charlie’s drug trip) and went on an amazing coming of age story that will change his writing career forever. Charlie writes exposition and borrows some books from a fairly bland teacher; and he doesn’t really affect his life too significantly either (even Philip Seymour Hoffman’s occasional appearance offers more advice to William than Paul Rudd’s character offers Charlie). From time to time his friends call him a writer and they’re really rooting for him, but heck – the film just didn’t convince me. Perhaps it is just me, but when you’re a writer: you live and breathe writing; but Charlie breathes the air of a trivia kid in the search of friendship (and we, the audience, will never know the true, important meaning of his quest until the film is almost over – shame).
Don’t expect too much from this fairly snoozy, partially poorly acted, non drama, non comedy, non film. Cut Emma Watson, cut the fake love interest, shift the plot twist to the start and don’t be afraid to be adventurous, and I’ve considered this as something half decent and worth watching.