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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In The Mood For Love (2000) – Review

A texture unlike any other – reds and yellows and greens and blues, love and loneliness, fragility and sorrow – caught in transparency, the celluloid grains appear to physically hold the light in the stock, finally, screen and light become tangible. Their story, Mr. Chow’s and Mrs. Chan’s, blooms from the bud of loneliness, they fulfil their essential desires by supporting each other. The cracks are obvious, they’re both suspicious of their partner’s adultery, and they decide to cater to the other’s simple loneliness as their bond grows stronger over comforting the other’s sorrowful realisation.

They go on a date together, why they’re doing this is never explained outright, their reason is left as a surprise. This isn’t a motivated plot, there are no agendas, they are two people at the most fragile point in their lives. In fact, the entire movie feels like glass, easily breakable, but In The Mood For Love is more precious because of its beauty. A stunning, depthy exploration of human desires.

We’re never given a formal introduction to their counterparts, we don’t even know what they look like, we’re always lead to suspect that the presented characters are the formative couple. Yet they hardly share the screen time to confirm our suspicion, there’s an element of the unknown to keep your intrigue peaked. We’re subject to the loneliness, we’re swayed to the obvious solution. Yet, they don’t push their moral limits, they question them without breaking them. We aren’t pressured into agreeing with a negative, rather we’re supposed to balance the positive nature of their relationship in order to avoid stepping into the same grey area their partners travel.

Sensitive is too generic a word to describe In The Mood For Love. Tender, appreciative, alive, delicate and illuminating – these adjectives fail to convey the meaning of such a film. Perhaps there are no words, perhaps the film should only be described in the way it describes itself – visually. Seek it, you must.

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.

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.