JOHN WICK (THE FIRST CHAPTER) – A VIOLENT REVENGE MOVIE WHICH TAKES ITSELF WAY TOO SERIOUSLY

SHORT TAKE:

Ultra-violent movie which skates on a thin excuse for revenge to create large piles of dead bodies.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adults only, and then only those with a stomach for violence: intense weapon and martial-art combat lethal force, and  extreme language. Its only “virtues” are a minimal amount of sexuality, mostly limited to bikini clad escorts, and the fact that the protagonist is a devoted and faithful, albeit grieving, husband.

LONG TAKE:

I know I’m probably the last one on the train here with John Wick (2014) as it has been out so long there is now a third installment. Having just seen the first one and with the John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum in theaters now, I felt compelled to make some comments about the “origin” story.

SPOILERS FOR JOHN WICK, TURNER AND HOOCH, A DOG’S PURPOSE, AND MARLEY AND ME

The premise, in case you have been on a prolonged abstinence from movies, is that a retired assassin goes on a massive killing spree after someone shoots his dog.

Now there is more to it but that is what it boils down to. John Wick verges on, if is not steeped in, what one might label as violence “porn” ( by which I mean senseless and gratuitous violence for the purpose of cathartic schadenfreude* brutality), though of a certain attractive elegance, which takes itself way too seriously. Don’t get me wrong , I am sympathetic to Wick’s righteous anger over the unnecessary killing of a puppy. As I have mentioned before in other posts, while I can tolerate an awful lot of violence in an action movie, I cringe at the thought of something happening to a dog. That point has actually prevented me from ever watching a couple of movies, including:

SPOILERS

Turner and Hooch, and Marley and Me. I have even been putting off watching A Dog’s Purpose even though the dog gets reincarnated multiple times, because I know the viewing will require a couple boxes of kleenex.

My point being, from a cinematic point of view, I am quite sympatico with a lead whose motivation, which propels the entire running time, is the death of his dog.

However, even by my rather indulgent parameters of an average action movie, wherein the protagonist is given nothing to lose, I could not help but yell at the screen occasionally, wondering why his opponents did not handle the situation quite differently.

The mutt murderer was, Iosef, (Alfie Allen best known as Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones), the son of John’s previous employer, Viggo, a Russian mafia Don,  (Michael Nyqvist from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the Naomi Rapace version of the Dragon Tattoo girl). Iosef had come to steal John’s hot car – and the dog just got in the way.

As Viggo, the Slavic Vito Corleone points out, it was bad luck that brought them back together in this way. But a little common sense and a teensy bit of courtesy could have mitigated the situation, if not established an easy detente.

The dog was the last gift from John’s dying wife. From the reaction of wiser heads than the aforementioned Iosef, the dog dispatcher, everyone knew about this and what the legendary assassin, John’s, response was likely to be. A hitman with nothing to lose and a lot of grief anger to expend, is a recipe for a bloodbath.

Therefore, I thought, had I been Viggo, (and keep in mind I am stepping into the shoes of a Mafia Don), I would have arrived with a new car, a new dog, a profuse apology, a chastised son with a black eye, and an offer to set up an entire charity Animal Hospital in the name of his deceased wife.

Instead, Viggo, knowing his son was stupidly in the wrong, as evidenced by the beating he gave Iosef after the fact, puts a contract out on the man to whom he refers as the best of the best, the one who was called Baba Yaga, not because he was The Boogeyman but because he was the one you sent out to kill The Boogeyman. This is a guaranteed plan for failure and Viggo’s downfall hereafter is from criminal (if you’ll excuse the pun) stupidity. I couldn’t help but think of Hawkeye in Thor. Watching Thor dispatch agent after agent in Thor’s path towards Mjolnir, Hawkeye quips to Coulson: “Do you want me to take him down, or would you rather send in more guys for him to beat up?” Because, that is what Viggo does – he sends in squad after squad to kill this unkillable killing machine. Viggo’s men are about as effective as Storm Troopers and were this a video game John would have the High Score. But WHY???!!!

Viggo is an intelligent man or wouldn’t have been able to create and keep his empire. He MUST have seen the results of his decreasing returns. And no explanation is given as to why he would commit his entire army in a fruitless and hopeless effort to take out the one man he knows he can not defeat, especially when it seemed obvious to me there were alternatives. It’s not even that he is so committed to the protection of his son. Viggo doesn’t like or love his son and Viggo ultimately gives Iosef up to Wick as bait to save his own skin.

90% of the movie is John’s body count which quickly exceeds the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan.

I get the use of the MacGuffin. I even get stories where you put the protagonist in a corner with nothing to lose and watch them fight their way out. Movie franchises like Taken, Die Hard, Jack Reacher and even a few of the James Bonds are good examples of a protagonist who resolved knotty conundrums with fists and firefights. And I am the first to admit they are guilty pleasures. But the motivations are usually more compelling, as in: protection of a vulnerable family member, a national danger, or the righting of a grave injustice. AND the protagonist usually is witty, relieving the unremitting gore and violence a bit with dry one liners.

But, despite the fact I have often maintained that Keanu Reeves has missed his calling as a comedian, Reeves’ Wick parkours his way through the movie on the backs of dead bodies with the somber deadpan of a mini-Lurch from The Addams Family. Don’t get me wrong, I like Keanu Reeves. I just wish someone would DO something with him which entails more EXPRESSION!!!

When I refer to Keanu Reeves’ comedies, I’m not talking about the unintentionally – so bad they are funny – like Constantine, and his insult to the classic Day the Earth Stood Still. Nor am I referring to his well done stint as the singular dry villain in Branagh’s Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing.  I’m talking about Reeves roles in legitimate comedies. If unfamiliar with Keanu Reeves’ comedies, I recommend the slapstick ridiculous Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the wryly observant ensemble piece Parenthood. Both are for an older crowd though.

Reeves can be really amusing and cute with good timing. And while I’m not suggesting that a former assassin who has just lost his wife to cancer and his dog to a home invasion should be light-hearted, John Wick is unrelentingly grim where it perhaps did not have to be. I mean, Wick is SUPPOSED to be human, right?

I have often maintained that the best loved action films often have a sense of their own humor. Good examples are Jaws, Aliens (but only the second as the first and third are even grimmer than John Wick and the fourth is best simply ignored) and all the Die Hard movies. Tongue is planted occasionally but firmly in cheek and there is an awareness in the script of its own cliched vulnerability.

But Wick‘s level of constant violence with no emotional offsetting balance is just exhausting.

The cinematic atmosphere is dark and poetically sympathetic, as most of the movie takes place in dark interiors, at night, or in conjunction with bad weather.

There is an interesting juxtaposition with another film I have previously reviewed, which DOES have a sense of humor, called  Hotel Artemis. Much of the third act of John Wick takes place in the Continental, a hotel renowned as a high-class refuge for people in John Wick’s line of work. Like the Artemis, a hospital for the underworld with questionable aesthetics, the Continental has a primary rule: you are not supposed to kill any of the other guests. A certain neutrality is supposed to be enforced there amongst society’s lethal predators. These two – the titular Hotel Artemis and the Continental in John Wick – exist in a consistent universe where you could put them on a double bill or even together in the same movie. But Hotel Artemis, unlike John Wick, has a heart and knows when to recognize the grin in even the darkest human comedy, and is a far better movie for that.

Small parts and cameos from the action-adventure pool abound in Wick from both TV and film. Ian McShane, who has added his talents to everything from westerns to British and American cop shows to Pirates of the Caribbean, plays the owner of the Continental. Willem Dafoe who has appeared in movies as divergent as Platoon and Spider-Man 3 is a mysterious colleague / competitor. Adrianne Palicki, most notably the indominable Agent Bobby Hunter in Agents of Shield and Kelly Grayson in The Orville, is Perkins, a female assassin. Lance Reddick from Fringe and Blacklist is Charon, the concierge of the Continental. John Leguizamo, from Executive Decision and Baz Lurhmann’s ultra-violent version of Romeo and Juliet, is Aurelio, the chop shop owner to whom Iosef brings Wick’s stolen car and who is the first to clue Iosef in to his mistake with a punch in the mouth. There were so many cameos from the action adventure genre that I would not have been surprised to see Samuel L Jackson show up. Sadly, that was not to be.

The acting is good and the shoot-‘em-up-bang-bang with combined martial arts is well-choreographed and interesting as Wick dispatches his targets with precision and no innocent bystanders to the count.

Wick is obviously an anti-hero with a ledger redder than Black Widow’s. As action adventures go it was brainless fun and emotionally cathartic to watch a bunch of bad guys being blown away with incredible efficiency and expertise by another, but sympathetic, bad guy. It is always a pleasure of sorts to see anyone do their job with such skill and excellence whether they are a pastry chef, a ghost hunter, or a paid assassin. But still I couldn’t help perseverate on the plot point of the missing opportunity to mitigate. Had Viggo tried to placate Wick but been rebuffed I would have found the scenario far more believable at least within the universe of that genre.

But what I truly do not understand is how the film makers can justify one sequel much less two. I mean, in this first one John killed …….. EVERYBODY. And I wonder about the movie’s core world-view. Iosef, for all his being a completely cruel jerk, was not responsible for the death of John’s wife nor did he attempt to kill John. Therefore, John’s reaction to the theft of his car and slaughter of his puppy without at least an attempt at peaceful and equivocal recompense, to me seemed over the top even for this kind of movie, making it hard for me to empathize with a protagonist who creates this much mayhem.

Compared to similarly set up movies like the aforementioned Die Hard, Taken, or from a HUGE variety of styles where the protagonist goes on a mission to avenge a terrible wrong with extreme prejudice, like: True Grit, Death Wish, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Dirty Harry – even for me, even for this genre of movie – John’s reaction was too extreme and with insufficient reasonable motivation, making this a (if you’ll excuse the pun) fatally flawed story.

  •  schadenfreude – a German word for which there is no English equivalent, meaning: pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune.

DISCOVERING A DESCRIPTION OF CAPTAIN AMERICA IN A MEDIEVAL BOOK ON CHESS

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION FOR DISCOVERING CAPTAIN AMERICA IN A MEDIEVAL BOOK ON CHESS

Marvel fans have long been familiar with the figure of Captain America. His conception dates back to the beginning of World War II, 1941, when America needed an example of bravery and fortitude against tremendous odds. I’m sure his creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, genuinely believed they were penning a brand new image to inspire a determined America during that time of great peril, as she fought against the evil of tyranny: the Axis in general and Nazis in particular. Inspirational Cap is. Original he is not.

I was doing research for a play set in the Medieval era and came across a book written in 1474 by a man named William Caxton. Caxton is thought to be the first English printer and retailer of printed books and his Game and Playe of Chesse, (and no those are not misspellings but Anglo-Norman English) is believed to be only the very second book ever printed.

In the book there is a passage which anticipated and described the character we know as Captain America with great precision.

The premise of Game and Playe of Chesse is of a tutor instructing a monarch. By way of guide the tutor explains the ideal virtues of each of the gentry on which the piece is based: fairness of a king, faithfulness of his queen, good judgement of his “alphyns” (which in Old German means chaser or wolf and meant as a reference to a judge, which eventually morphed into the modern day chess token of Bishop).

Then the description of the idealized knight.

As a side note, the Anglo-Norman looks strange to the modern eye but with a bit of practice becomes surprisingly easy to parse out. One especially unusual feature is the letter that would soon morph into our familiar “s”, which, in Anglo-Norman English, looks like a lower case “F” with a shortened cross-bar. I do not have that character on my keyboard, and even if I did I would hesitate to use it without an editorial emphasis of some kind because they are, in the jumble of text letters, at first glance (as well as second and third) very difficult to distinguish from our conventional modern “f”. Therefore, for the purposes of this post, I have indicated that medieval “s” as an italicized “f”.

The knyghtes ought to be ftronge not only of body but alfo in corage. Ther ben many ftronge and grete of body – that ben faint and feble in the herte – he is ftronge that may not be vaynquyfshid and ouercomen – how well that he fuffryth moche otherwhile – And fo we beleue that they that be not ouer grete ne ouer lityll ben moft courageous & befte in batayll.

And my amateur/layman’s translation:

The knight should be strong, not only in body but in courage. There have been many large and powerful men who have been faint and feeble of heart. But he is strong who can not be vanquished, discouraged or overcome in spirit no matter how much he suffers.  And so we believe it is not the physical size of a man, no matter how big or small, that matters, but that it is those who have courage who will do best in battle.

So, out of history’s echo, comes the prescient description of America’s example of the perfect knight, 467 years before Cap’s first iteration in Marvel Comics. The physically frail Steve Rogers who, with the help of Dr. Erskine’s Super Soldier formula, becomes the first Avenger, not because of his height or strength, but because of the greatness of his heart – his kindness, his sense of justice, fair play, common decency and courage. And if Cap’s motto while confronting overwhelming odds: “I can do this all day,” doesn’t summarize Caxton’s otherwise flowery prose into a simple and pragmatic maxim, then I do not know what does.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS – WONDERFULLY POLITICIALLY INCORRECT COMIC BOOK-STYLE CREATURE FEATURE

SHORT TAKE:

If you are a fan of Godzilla then you will love this contribution to the now 65 year old franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

At youngest, younger teens, for: frightening and extensively violent images of city-wide destruction, human peril and cataclysmic fight scenes with other monsters. There is also some language including one “f” word and blasphemy. And while there is no sexuality shown, there are a small handful of sexual innuendos spoken, which will probably go over the head of most younger teens. There is also a confusing mish mash of paganism and Christian religious symbols and references which could confuse a spiritually immature child.

LONG TAKE:

In 1954 Godzilla inexplicably and emphatically became a cult hit. A rubber suited man emitting a now iconic shriek (created by Akira Ifukube rubbing a resin coated leather glove across the strings of a double bass) wrecks havoc, clumping awkwardly as he lazer-breathes his way through towns and countrysides behind fleeing crowds of (mostly) Japanese victims.

35 films later (all but 3 made by Toho, a Japanese-based film company), the franchise is still going strong. The latest, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a loose sequel to the 2014 Hollywood film which firmly established Godzilla to mainstream American audiences as a “good guy” ally to humanity. In point of fact, some Japanese philosophies even see Godzilla as an indifferent “god” of destruction in a cycle of death and rebirth.

At one point a scientist, upon seeing the monster in full, interjects the name of the Lord, to which Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford – Get Out, Saving Mr. Banks, Cabin in the Woods) punnily follows up with “zilla”. In fact the name Godzilla was never meant to refer to our Creator. It was actually a Europeanized mispronunciation of the Japanese, Gojira, which, in turn refers to an animal which is akin to both a whale and a gorilla.

SPOILERS – but, I mean, come on, this is Godzilla and there’s not that much plot to spoil.

In this outing, Godzilla is a bit of both ally and destructo-machine, as he tromps over the Earth with 16 other “Titans”. The human subplot, which is supposed to keep us grounded to the big critters, involves scientists Mark and Emma Russell, (Kyle Chandler – Game Night, Argo, King Kong and Vera Farmiga – The Nun, Conjuring 2) who lost their son in the first Godzilla movie, (flashback) then divorced. Emma is now brainwashing, I mean raising, their remaining child Madison (the clearly talented Millie Bobby Brown who is the amazing “11” from Stranger Things) to follow in her tunnel vision footsteps, putting her research of the Titans above everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) else.

Rounding out the cast is Ken Watanabe (Inception, Last Samurai, previous Godzilla, Pokémon Detective Pickachu), Charles Dance (staple in film and TV for 45 years, bringing a wicked class and style to everything from Game of Thrones to Shakespeare and a villain in the James Bond franchise), Sally Hawkins (in both the offensively awful Shape of Water and the extremely delightful Paddington movies), and Joe Morton, (whose career dates all the way back to 1951 including the innovative cult sci fi Brother From Another Planet and the classic Terminator 2: Judgement Day).

The rest of the run time is spent watching CGI monsters destroy each other in admittedly spectacular fashion, although a lot of cheating is done in the details by holding all the fights at night, under water or in a Cat 6 (???) hurricane manufactured by one of the “bad guy” Titans.

It occurred to me as I perused a Youtube which did a quick survey of all the Godzilla movies, that the phenomenon of Godzilla has much in common with the Lego movies. Aside from the 1998 Matthew Broderick contribution, which envisioned Godzilla as a more “realistic” mountain-sized Komodo Dragon, Godzilla reminds me of an action figure. Despite all the CGI available, the director, Michael Doughtery, (Superman Returns and a couple of X-Men movies) chose to stick with the stilted, squat, awkwardly moving Godzilla instead of the 1998 lithe, quick and sinuous monster which chased Matthew Broderick through New York City. Similarly to the Lego Movie, which sees the world from the point of view of the toys, Godzilla strikes me as inspired by the imaginations of every child who had a monster toy with which they liked to terrorize their surroundings. The traditional Godzilla MOVES like an action figure with an inverted triangle body, whippy tail with which to bludgeon objects, and tiny useless arms, clumping from side to side as it stomps forward crushing everything under foot in its path – except the “important” actors. The end credits even camp it up, featuring a cover by Bear McCreary of the 1977 Blue Oyster Cult novelty song “Godzilla”.

This is a pulp funny book brought to full Technicolor life with all of the shallowness of plot, disjointed explanations, magic-style “science”, inconsistent character motivations, and single note personalities of a comic book and its denizens. Even so, this is not meant as a criticism or failure of the movie. I suspect this is what the film makers were after. And it succeeds, as such, admirably, throwing in a little wry humor dialogue now and again just to keep things “real”.

As a matter of fact, there is one special reason why I, personally, like this movie. In a delightfully refreshing turn of events, a truth is demonstrated. The monsters have been deliberately set forth to destroy mankind by a recognizably legitimate force for evil, one which wrecks havoc on us in the real world on a daily basis – the Environmental Wacko. The bad guys here boldly state that humans are a “virus” on the Earth which must be scoured off, in their way of thinking, to allow the world to return to its “natural” state. But, of course, in true and honestly portrayed, narcissistic liberal hypocritical fashion, the villain, after murdering tens of thousand of men, women and children with these behemoths, she willing puts all her plans on hold when it is her child at risk. No one else’s child is important though, only hers and hers alone.

Her insane scheme to find and release the Titans upon the Earth is understood by the rest of the characters in the movie as: ridiculous, evil, short sighted, cruel, and – ultimately, flat out wrong. This, of course, can sum up the entire mentality of the extreme environmentalist movement, which wants to put animals above people, prefers human suffering for OTHERS (who are not members of their extreme club) to widespread use of modern inventions, ignores common sense science (like the fact that carbon dioxide is GOOD for the environment as plants LOVE it), proposes hoaxes which further their agenda with NO verifiable evidence (like human caused climate change) but continue to jet around the world using up fossil fuels at a rate the rest of us can only dream about. It’s nice to see the blame placed at the feet of those to which it really belongs for a change.

Godzilla also leans heavily on paganism, reverencing and even calling to some worship of the monsters. That being said there is also some comparisons of Godzilla to Christian motifs – that he died trying to save us, descended to the depths of the Earth and was reborn to arise and defeat an evil monster (well two if you count the environmental wacko). While this has been done appropriately and respectfully in stories like Narnia (NOT that Godzilla even belongs in the same solar system with Aslan), it is a fair point to say not all of Godzilla is pagan, but that there are at least some superficial nods to a Christ-like theology, though it is obvious that the writers neither understand it nor fully embrace it.

So if you are familiar with and are a fan of the mythos of Godzilla then you will not be disappointed in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But while you should be advised of the heavily pagan-favored worldview, it will at least provide a breath of politically incorrect but common sense-accurate fresh air.

ALADDIN – FANTASTIC LIVE ACTION VERSION AND, DARE I SAY, BETTER THAN THE ANIMATED CLASSIC

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALADDIN REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fantastic live action remake of the 1992 animated Aladdin.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone.

LONG TAKE:

I walked into the movie theater fully expecting, nay planning, not to like this new version of Aladdin. I dreaded a cheap imitation of the original.

Happily, I could not have been more wrong. This live action Disney Aladdin musical is absolutely adorable and Smith is wonderful in it. It is both fresh and familiar, telling the same story, touching all the same plot points and featuring all of our favorite music, moments and lines, yet does not merely imitate. This Will Smith-led Aladdin does respectful homage and even honor to the memory, not only of its animated predecessor in general, but of Robin Williams in particular, and brings Smith’s own unique tone to the story.

It’s obvious that Smith loved and respected Robin Williams’ Genie. He is playful with the character that Williams invented yet gently puts his own spin on the character.

Robin Williams was frenetically comedic, exuding an ambiance of anxious-to-please humor, whereas Smith is more self-confident and wryly witty. Robin Williams excelled at impersonation, jumping effortlessly from character to character – that was his style. Smith stays Smith as Genie – that’s his style. Both are two variations on the same theme. Like Tchaikovsky’s tribute to Mozart in his Mozartiana, Smith hits all of his predecessor’s brilliant notes and rhythms but applies his own personal talents to this clever musical take on the Arabian Night tale.

The 2019 live action version, directed by Guy Ritchie (Robert “Iron Man” Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes features) even resolves plot holes and improves character arcs in ways that were not necessarily required of an animated feature, but meet one’s heightened expectations of a live-action movie.

The songs are all there with the same energy and comedy and touching moments portrayed by performers with whom, other than Smith, I have very little familiarity, but who are terrific in their roles.

Naomi Scott, an openly devout Christian and child of pastors, has an incredible voice and does an amazing job as Jasmine. Mena Massoud is charming and personifies the thief with a heart of gold (or diamond as the case may be). Marwen Kenzari (Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, Cruise’s Mummy and the very peculiar dystopian What Happened to Monday), avoids a caricature “mustache twirler” Jafar and instead is portrayed as the flip side of Aladdin, with chilling effect. Navid Negahban (12 Strong, Fringe and American Sniper) creates a far more realistic portrait of a troubled and stern but fair and caring father and ruler in the Sultan than in the animated version. Comedian Nasim Pedrad (SNL and Despicable Me 2) creates the new character of Dalia, at once handmaid and confidante to the princess and focus of an unlikely suitor to adorable affect. Frank Welker reprises his voice acting talents as both Abu and the Cave of Wonders.

The color palette used was appropriately bright and well-defined, like the beloved cartoon feature brought to “real” life. The music was just as we remembered, with amazing singing from both Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud. There is also a terrific Bollywood-style courtship dance number which has been added to the proceedings. One of my only criticisms of this Aladdin is that there was not two or three more of them.

While I would love to wax eloquent about the zillion ways in which they have successfully and entertainingly brought this classic animated feature to life, I do not want to ruin a minute of it for anyone with spoilers. However, from the very first setup in the very first scene it will become obvious the thought, care and affection with which they have invested to recreate this story.

So go enjoy this delightful re-creation of the animated movie we grew up with. And, since you’re going anyway …. bring your kids.