Thursday, May 16, 2019

...Baby, One More Time: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 -- PARABELLUM

In case you hadn’t yet realized John Wick is positioned as a thinking filmgoer’s elegantly brutal action franchise, Keanu Reeves’ eponymous master assassin uses only a library book to kill a man in Chapter 3’s opening bout. (And he gingerly reshelves it afterwards.) The film picks up from the end of the mildly disappointing sequel to the cleverly simple original in which Wick was drawn back into the underworld life to avenge the death of his beloved puppy. The first sequel dealt with consequences — a film that was all build up to its protagonist breaking his professional code of conduct and consequently getting a death mark placed on him. It left him on the run on a dark and stormy New York City night, and that’s where we pick up with him now. Reeves, all zen cool surfaces under which coils deadly virtuosity and simmering exhausted rage, once again glides bruised and battered through a successively elaborate series of action sequences, some of the finest of not only this series but of his career, or anyone else’s for that matter. The expertly modulated and wittily staged combat — nearly as intricate and faux-improvisatory at its best as anything Jackie Chan did in his heyday; see the great early work with a display case of knives here! — all puts the normal green screen glop of most modern action to shame. Once again director Chad Stahelski stages it in loving takes that are longer and more visceral than its genre compatriots — the cinematography all neon, black velvet, wet asphalt, and crystal clear. Derek Kolstad's screenplay is shaped with fine crescendoes and shorthand, making quick work of establishing mysterious new wild cards (Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston), servicing old allies (Ian McShane, Lance Reddick), and introducing appealingly eccentric new baddies (Mark Dacascos and Asia Kate Dillon). He also finds excellent, exciting variety — hand-to-hand through an antique weapon shop, on horseback, amongst sword-wielding motorcyclists (a la Byung-gil Jung's The Villainess), through walls, and up and down a multi-level glass penthouse. Like a well-crafted musical — though here a clothesline of appealing narrative goes between shoot-em-up showstoppers — or classic pornography — here teasing buildup before bodies collide and weapons penetrate — the movie makes quick, effective work of moving in and out of our reason for buying a ticket without growing repetitive or exhausted of ingenuity. But it also knows the audience loves Reeves’ impassive determination mixed with hypercompetence cut with bone-dry humor, the franchise’s increasingly baroque mythology dripping in ritual and symbolism amongst hitmen and women, and the sheer delight of seeing where the punches and slashes and shots land. Why, even a cheerful villain, bleeding out onto the floor after a spectacular set piece late in the picture, has time to gasp, “that was a great fight, huh?”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Big Snore: POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Just hear the premise or see an ad and the shape of Pokémon Detective Pikachu appears in your mind in accurate chalk outlines. It’s the first live-action feature from the long-running video game/trading card/anime series about a world where a panoply of super-powered creatures live comfortably with humans. They’re animals that have specific skill sets — some breathe fire or water; others are strong or sleepy; still others work a kind of magic or have an amplified eccentricity. Many live in the wild; others are caught and cultivated by trainers. It’s a whole thing. The movie follows a 21-year-old guy (Justice Smith) from his small town to a big city where his investigator dad has recently been killed. At least that’s what he thinks until his pa’s partner Pikachu pops up speaking clues to his father’s whereabouts in the gently sarcastic perma-snark tones of Ryan Reynolds. Usually the Pokémon only chirp their own names Groot-style in a host of emotive varieties, so this unusual kinship (the young man is the only one who hears him) bonds them together. Now they partner to unravel the whereabouts of the missing man while stumbling, in flimsy faux-noir scenarios, into a coverup and evil plot that involves crooked businessmen, shady back alleys, a secret test site, and an underground Pokémon fight club run by Diplo. The movie — competently directed by the guy who made the quite good first Goosebumps and scripted by writers behind the late, great One Day at a Time remake and the co-writer of the fine first Guardians of the Galaxy — trots along at a good clip. It's nicely photographed and stuffed with cuddly cute CG pocket monsters waddling through the frames. Along the way, nothing is surprising, even the surprises, although I suppose its target audience of children and those who never outgrew a diet consisting solely of brands they liked as children, might not recognize an aged trope in this film if Roger Rabbit, let alone Philip Marlowe smacked them with it. (Still, even they will probably realize they liked some of these plot mechanics better when it was called Zootopia.) Its action is uninspired and humor falls flat. The human characters never come to convincing life; the Pokémon are never more than cameos, except for Detective Pikachu whose essential cute chirps are now charmless milquetoast quips. (Replace Reynold’s voice with the usual “pika pika” and the plot not only becomes marginally better, but an obvious twist makes slightly more sense.) It’s rote, routine, pleasantly hitting its marks in exactly the way you’d expect while whiffing on every opportunity to grow complicated, interesting, or anything beyond recycled devices and images that barely muster the energy to push nostalgia buttons. It had me leaving saying, “that’s it?” If its sole point is to recycle previous product in a new package, the least it could do is activate a few more childhood affections on the way.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Playing Politics: LONG SHOT and KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE

The charming, feckless rom-com Long Shot stakes out territory that’s pure political fantasy. For one thing, it’s a movie about an American government that’s mostly functional, with a respected and effective Secretary of State (Charlize Theron) working for a benignly buffoonish showbiz president (Bob Odenkirk). The movie even withholds party allegiances for most of the runtime — the better to get the partisans on board? — until admitting that, yes, as you may have suspected, an administration pursuing a sweeping climate bill and antagonized by a scummy billionaire propagandist (an unrecognizable Andy Serkis) can only be Democratic. It’s all middle-of-the-road empty moderate pablum as a backdrop for a somewhat successful charm offensive, as the Secretary’s world tour doubles as a trial balloon presidential run, and reason to hire a schlubby unemployed muckraker (Seth Rogen) as speech writer. Director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before) and screenwriters Liz Hannah (The Post) and Dan Sterling (The Interview) devise sparkling, even elegant at times, throwback rom-com tropes for Theron and Rogen to enact: the Meet Cute, the bantering getting-to-know-you dialogue, the swooning pop song montage, the first kiss, the lamentable falling out, the soaring reconciliation. It’s nothing you can’t see coming — save, maybe, the supremely R-rated scandal subplot that nearly derails their relationship, and the movie’s otherwise gentle (think sleepy, sentimental Veep) tone. But the actors’ chemistry and effervescent timing (Theron’s effortless power and Rogen’s shyly emphatic stumbling are a fine pairing) with the filmmakers’ sturdy craftsmanship makes it work. The nagging doubt I have about this breezy fluff of a charmer is that in order to tell a political story in these shock doctrine times, even in a glossy high-concept big-screen rom-com mode, they push ahead like the world hasn’t changed. Its shallow interest in its own backdrop — up to and including a limp ending that skips loads of potential fallout to get to a fake rush of faux-empowerment — leaves it less than the sum of its heart. 

There are no such hurdles to the engaging new political documentary Knock Down the House. It needs no false notes or Hollywood fiction to make a feel-good story of contemporary politics. Director Rachel Lears and crew decided to follow a sampling of liberal women running for Congress in the 2018 midterms. In engaging biographical snapshots, gripping and informative — and entertaining! — fly-on-the-wall filmmaking introduces Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush, and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin as they mount campaigns full of sympathetic personal motivation and heart-felt political engagement. And luckiest for the filmmakers, who happened upon a real star-making victory and make the most of it as the central plank of their storytelling here, is footage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose run against an entrenched Democratic incumbent resulted in a surprise underdog upset, and whose charismatic, clear-eyed rhetoric creates obvious energy. In this behind-the-scenes look at campaigns in our gangrenously corrupt new Gilded Age, we see with effective immediacy the hard work of getting out the message: strategy meetings, door-knocking and hand-shaking sessions, debate prep, interviews. We see long hours, moments of doubt, and rushes of excitement. They don’t all win their races. And yet the passionate righteous anger and sensible moral clarity so clearly animating many activists and candidates is an invigorating balm for those feeling the ache of cynicism. The world only spins forward. Let’s catch up.