Why we couldn’t have just gotten a third Hellboy movie with Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman at the wheel is beyond me, instead of this grossly miscalculated, eye melting mish-mash of bad CGI and disorganized storytelling. It’s sad too because it could have even been decent, they got an accomplished filmmaker I really love and a handful of super awesome cult icon actors to cast the material appropriately, but somewhere along the line of creative process, Neil Marshall’s Hellboy just shits the bed and comes out largely a piss poor effort. I love David Harbour too, he’s a terrifically charismatic and versatile artist but he just doesn’t fit the bill here, his Hellboy comes across as whiny, dour and all the wisecracking fells inorganic and forced. Plus let’s face it, there just wasn’t any hope for any other actor than Perlman to properly sell the character, plain and simple, he was born for it. Harbour’s Hellboy is stuck in a murky plot line about an ancient evil sorceress called the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) who has been resurrected by a human/wild boar hybrid to wreak havoc on humanity in some vaguely malicious ritual that involves knockoff Del Toro creatures stomping around London ripping people in half, cue the tiresome CGI. It’s loud, messy, the gore is off putting and there’s just too much noise and commotion to properly discern story or character. Does it do anything effectively? Yes, credit where credit is due, there’s a wonderfully eerie sequence where the pace mercifully calms down a bit as Hellboy visits a terrifying monster called the Baba Yaga, it’s essentially an expository interlude but it’s handled incredibly well, full of tangible atmosphere and genuine terror. Some of the cast fare pretty well, Ian McShane is always awesome and adds a brittle, corrosive edge to Trevor Broom where John Hurt was more subdued. The lovely Sasha Lane is quite effective as a member of the paranormal defence team who is a medium and can summon dead spirits in a genie-like mass of ectoplasmic slime, but Daniel Dae Kim comes across painfully lifeless as a guy who can only be described as the offspring of a werewolf and a cheetah. Most of the supporting cast are just drowned out in a flurry of noise including Sophie Okonedo as a ghost lady, Brian Gleeson as Merlin (yes, that Merlin) and a brief, bizarre appearance from Thomas Haden Church as some dude whose name is Lobster (can you tell I haven’t read the comics?). The film just doesn’t work, aside from a few exceptions that come too little, too late. Everywhere the Del Toro films were tactile, colourful, atmospheric and well written this one is obnoxious, needlessly gory, rushed and unwieldy. You’re better off just revisiting those and pretending this one doesn’t exist.
Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives is a fascinating one, if a bit too cluttered with spare vignettes for a feature film. It’s one of those mosaic pieces where we see a string of unrelated episodes about various people here and there in the midst of some life changing moments, and as is usually the case with these, it is absolutely star studded. There’s two formats for these, the one where everyone’s story is interwoven and the vignettes collide and weave (ie Paul Haggis’s Crash) and the linear template where each story is a standalone piece, with no blurred lines or cross crossing. This film falls into the latter category, and themes itself on nine different women in various instances of their lives, be it tragic, joyful, passionate, penultimate or simply everyday life. The issue is, nine of these stories is just too much for a film that runs under two hours. Or perhaps it’s not and what I meant to say was that nine stories that are this thoughtful, complex and important shouldn’t have shared the same compacted narrative, for its too much to keep up with from scene to scene. Anyways there’s quality to be found, some actors cast brilliantly against type and any flick that rounds up a cast of this pedigree deserves a high five. My favourite by far of the bunch is a two person scene between Jason Isaacs and Robin Wright Penn as two former lovers who meet in a supermarket after being apart for many years and try to reconcile their feelings. Both actors are tender, attentive to one another and it’s some of the most affecting work I’ve seen from either. A more lurid one involving Amy Brenneman and William Fichtner lands more with a questionable thud, both are great as well but their scene needed some backstory. My second favourite stars a young Amanda Seyfried as a girl who alternates speaking with her father (the excellent Ian McShane) and mother (Sissy Spacek) who are in different rooms of the house. It’s intimate family drama through a prism of casualty and works quite well. Other sequences, including one that sees Glenn Close on a picnic with her granddaughter (Dakota Fanning), aren’t as memorable or striking. But the cast alone is enough to stick along for the ride, and includes Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Kay Place, Holly Hunter, Kathy Baker, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Stephen Dillane, Molly Parker, Aiden Quinn, Joe Montegna and more. A worthwhile watch for the handful of stories that have some weight, but falters here and there and could have axed some of the commotion of too many solo narratives buzzing about.
John Wick: Chapter 2 expands nicely on a mythology that we caught a glimpse of from behind the shadowy curtain of assassin’s anthropology in the first film, a fantastic meld of stylish world building and hyper violent, stunts driven action that saw Keanu Reeves come blasting back onto the big screen in probably the best role so far of his career. Chapter 2 has one big challenge to face though: the first one was driven by the fact that those fuckers killed his dog, and the man’s subsequent bloodlust over it. That was the crux, the catalyst, the reason we cheered so loudly each time he maimed or mauled someone. Now, I don’t need an excuse like that to watch an antihero slaughter people, but some might, and the dog thing just propelled him forward faster and furious…er. What’s the catalyst here? Well, they destroy his house. Not quite the emotional kick in the nuts you get from seeing a beagle murdered, but it seems to be enough to light Wick’s fuse again, so there you go. He’s faced with a figure from his past here, some fruitcake of an Italian mobster (Ricardo Scamarcio) who wants him to come out of retirement and kill his powerful sister (Claudia Geroni) to ensure his seat at a revered council table of international crime figures. It’s basically John Wick’s Eurotrip, as he treks across the pond to kill more goons and thoroughly destroy more night clubs and other such convenient set pieces than you can shake a stick at, before returning back to New York for an ultra-violent third act. John Leguizamo, the always awesome Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan and David Patrick Kelly all reprise their wicked cool roles, whilst Common, Ruby Rose, Peter Serafinowicz and Franco Nero create new characters that flesh out this fascinating world of killer’s mythology even further. The film is special though for two important reunions for Reeves that give wonderful callbacks to earlier in his career: the prologue sees Wick ferociously reclaim his stolen car from Abram Tasarov (Peter Stormare) the more gregarious brother of Viggo, villain from the first film. Reeves and Stormare played Constantine and Lucifer in the underrated 2005 comic book adaptation, where they faced off with just as much menace and charisma we see in their little bit here. It’s also a reunion for Neo and Morpheus, because Laurence Fishburne shows up as the godlike Bowery King, a rooftop dwelling, pigeon keeping derelict who runs a vast crime syndicate that all disguise themselves as dishevelled hobos. It’s wonderful references like these that pack the pedigree with solid gold and moments to remember, not to mention it’s just a worthy sequel, a slam bang screamer of an action flick and a great time all round. Bring on Chapter 3, and I request an Al Pacino villain turn so we can get nostalgic for The Devil’s Advocate all over again.
Whenever someone asks me to provide the showcase example of the actor’s process done as close to perfection as one can get, I direct them towards one earthquake of a performance: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. It takes a considerable amount of work to fully realize a character, bring them to life, make them seem genuine, lifelike and idiosyncratic so as to win over the viewer and elicit the modernized ‘putting down the iPhone to engage with full attention’ reaction’, but Kingsley’s rabid London hoodlum Don Logan is just that creation, and then some. He’s not even the lead character either, yet royally steals the film, which earned him an oscar nomination. The film itself couldn’t be more brilliant either, cooked up via a stinging, gorgeously verbose script by Louis Mellos and David Scinto, glossy wit from director Jonathan Glazer and actors who go the extra mile to give a fairly arch story some tangible depth. Ray Winstone, reliably superb, is Gal Dove, a boisterous ex criminal who has retired to sunniest Spain with his sexy wife (Amanda Redman) and best friend (Cavan Kendall). Retirement is tricky for someone with Gal’s past though, and soon his past barges through the front door in the form of Kingsley’s Logan, a terrifying bald beast of a man that would give any sensible person cause to immediately run and hide in the nearest cupboard. From the moment he shows up, heralded by bad dreams that plague Gal and a literal boulder that cascades down the hill into his villa pool uninvited (hello metaphor), things go from worse to hellish. Logan isn’t the type of man to take no for an answer, and is a complete and total nightmare to deal with even before Gal tries to shut him down. Logan wants him for a job in London, organized by shark of a mob boss Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, creepy as all hell), but Gal has no interest leaving the sunny shores and just wants the nutter out of his house. Any time Kingsley is on screen you can feel the tension crackle in the air. He’s the unvarnished hyena to Winstone’s aloof, relaxed teddy bear, a force to be reckoned with and feared. His use of profanity lands like a backhander from Dwayne Johnson, his body language is erratic enough to induce seizures and that cobra gaze could melt adamantium. He’s the penultimate antagonist and raises the stakes to the stratosphere, berating every person in sight and maintaining a cold, detached veneer that’s more than slightly disconcerting. Not to mention the fucker talks to himself in the mirror, which alone is cause for worry. While the story takes place in our world, there’s an off kilter, demonically surreal undertone that derails genre conventions. The artfully dirty, near poetic screenplay, stark visions of some sort of evil Chernobyl rabbit thing, lurid editing transitions, whatever it is it’s hard to pin down or describe, but you feel miles from your comfort zone and ever so slightly removed from our solar system while watching this odd, scary, compelling and uniquely peculiar piece of work.
The reason John Wick works so well is a flawless mix of simplicity, earnestness and passion. The premise is a familiar one, and nearly identical to countless other slam bang action flicks out there, a simple and well travelled formula. It’s in the absolutely stylish, classy and distinct execution that it finds its uniqueness. The filmmakers (Chad Sahelski and Derek Kolstad) are stuntmen themselves, and therefore know what is needed to make a successful action film: well staged action. The terrific atmosphere that tagged along is a bonus and goes to further prove these guys have serious talent. They also care, want to have fun and want their film to exist within a memorable universe, and this all shows. An action film would be nothing without it’s star, and Keanu Reeves comes busting out of the gate in full rampaging glory as the titular ex-super hitman John Wick, an expert operative who can do things with guns that would make Neo nervous. John is grieving the death of his wife (the lovely Bridget Moynahan) and taking care of the puppy she left behind to console him, living the quiet life as it were, or at least as quiet as life can get for an ex mob assassin. Wick manages to chill out for a bit with the doggo, but that all ends when his path crosses with that of a spoiled mafia brat (Alfie Allen, played an even nastier snot rag than he did in Game Of Thrones) who steals his car and kills the poor pupper. This really lights Wick’s fuse, gives his brutal talents a new lease on life and throws him headlong back into the dangerous and often eccentric realm of covert contract killers. Allen was the son of a powerful, loose cannon Russian kingpin (Michael Nyqvist in a mirthful blend of funny, scary and just plain exasperated), and now John is at odds with hordes of his underlings and a few former associates who want his head. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot, but the film soars on the wings of propulsive, meticulously choreographed action and positively drips with cool, it’s main asset found in Reeves, who is an absolute boss in the role. Sporting a tailored suit, fiery attitude and lethal reflexes, John punches, kicks, stabs and shoots his way through endless unfortunate adversaries, seeming to be both fallible human and invincible archangel of destruction simultaneously. It’s the perfect role for him, a comeback of sorts and just a rip snortin action hero you can get riled up for. There’s attention to detail paid to his world too, the clandestine realm of killers given a mythology, currency and protocol all its own and perfectly original. Adding to the already impossible levels of class are a perfectly chosen roster of supporting talent too. John Leguizamo makes a peppy cameo as a cranky auto fence, Willem Dafoe plays a morally vague fellow hitman, watch for Lance Reddick, David Patrick Kelly, Daniel Bernhardt, Dean Winters, Adrienne Palicki and the always awesome Ian McShane as the suave proprietor of The Continental, a posh hotel that caters only to assassins. All characters encounter John Wick at some point and in some capacity, but Wick himself is the constant, the raw element which drives this film forward with the force of a stampeding bull, scarcely hesitating to breathe or seek medical attention on his quest for carnage. Reeves sells the character and then some, headlining one of the most flat out spectacular action films of the last decade.
There’s a reason they never adapted another novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series past the initial stab at The Golden Compass, and it’s the same infuriating reason why many adaptations of children’s and young adult novels fail: lack of appropriate atmosphere and true menace found in the source material. Everytime Hollywood comes along and decides to try their luck at a beloved series for youngsters or young adults, they feel this feverish need to shine it up with a candy colored, over lit vibe that leaves much of the darker elements by the wayside and as a result their final product feels neutered and bereft of any weight, stakes or attention to detail. Spiderwick. Skellig. Eragon. Hell, even Narnia only made it by the skin of its teeth, blasting out of the gate with a flawless entry, only to peter off into sequels afflicted by the very symptoms I outlined above, and not even make it to the end of the saga at that. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen to every series they try to adapt, but to enough of them that it’s a problem, especially when a darkly creative, eerie and unique tale like this gets turned into a glossy, pandering misfire. It’s sad because some of the elements of a good film are in place, starting with casting. Dakota Blue Richards is on-the-nose perfect as Lyra, the adventurous heroine who gets swept away on a menacing voyage to arctic lands and beyond. She lives in a curious parallel universe where every human is forever accompanied by a ‘Daemon’, essentially a piece of their soul that takes animal form, and never the two shall separate. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is an explorer who has returned from the north lands with tales of a mysterious phenomenon called ‘dust’, a powerful substance purported to be able to unlock other worlds and dimensions. Lyra is curious at first and then nervous when she meets icy Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) a prim socialite with a devious agenda involving children that have gone missing in the city. She has a facility on the tundra where scary research and very bad experiments are conducted. Now in the books the descriptions and eventual confrontation with this would make your hair turn white. Pullman imparts it with weight and true blood freezing horror. The filmmakers *deliberatly* tone it down and castrate it, leaving anyone who was a fan of the series in total disgust. It just doesn’t have the same dark, otherworldly atmosphere it did on the pages, it feels too bright, chipper and lacking any real wonder. It does have some wicked visuals going for it in places, such as the two rival talking bears, voiced with baritone boom by Ian McKellen and Ian McShane, the landscape of the north as seen from the hot air balloon of grizzled sky-cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and others. Eva Green also scores well as elemental witch Serafina Pekkala, but then she’s incapable of giving a bad performance anyhow. Scattered supporting cast includes Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Courtney, Simon Mcburney, Derek Jacobi, as well, an impressive lineup all in all, but one that deserves a far better film for their talent. It’s just misguided and tone deaf. It may have been a series for adolescents, but the themes, implications and scenarios found in those books are harrowing, complex, very mature and not to be taken lightly, let alone given the full on Harry Potter theme park treatment. Shame, really, and a giant missed opportunity. Perhaps someday soon a network will get the rights and turn this tale into a film or tv show worthy of His Dark Materials.
44 Inch Chest is packed full of bloated, preening masculinity, cold hard chauvinism and dense, wordy exchanges that seem pulled right off the stage, an intense bit of British pseudo-gangster quirk with two writers who seem intent on heightening every syllable to near surreal levels of style. The same scribes are responsible for the glorious verbal stew that can be found in Paul McGuigan’s brutal Gangster No. 1 as well as Sexy Beast, and while the level of viciousness here is left almost entirely to the spoken word alone, the elliptical sting of their script still hits home, and even ramps up a bit from those films. A mopey, consistently weepy Ray Winstone stars as boorish Colin Diamond, an gent whose wife (Joanne Whalley Kilmer) has been caught in an affair with a chiseled french pretty boy (Melvil Poupoud). He resorts to a melancholy, comatose state as his perceived manliness visibly circles the drain. His circle of friends arrives, each with their own flamboyant ideas for resolving the situation. Velvety Meredith (Ian McShane, cool as a cucumber) looks on in snooty amusement. Violent guttersnipe Mal (Stephen Dillane, replacing Tim Roth) has the brawn but neither the brains nor ambition to act. Archie (Tom Wilkinson) is the bewildered everyman. Old Man Peanut (a fire and brimstone John Hurt who devours the script like a lion feasting on a gazelle) is a bible thumping, crusty old pot of fury who suggests that wifey should be stoned to death for her indecency and betrayal. They spend the better part of the film pontificating like a babbling senate, whilst Winstone languishes in despair. One wonders what the point of it all is and where it’s going, until we arrive at an oddly satisfying third act that somehow negates almost everything we’ve seen before it. Strangely enough, though, it works, if only to give us something we’ve never quite seen before, pulling the rug of genre convention out from under us and giving us a piece that almost could resemble a spoof of other works, if it weren’t so damned straight faced and persistent in its execution. In any case, I could watch this group of actors assemble ikea furniture and it would still be transfixing. It’s just a room full of talent shooting the shit for most of the running time, and in a genre where one can scarcely here the performers talk over the gunfire and cheekily referential soundtrack a lot of the time, I’ll damn well take something a bit more paced, quiet and stately. Winstone smears over his usual seething anger with a morose depression would almost be endearing if it weren’t so pathetic. Wilkinson brings his usual studious nature. McShane is pure class in anything (even a few B movies I’m sure he’d love to forget) and he swaggers through this one like a regal peacock, getting some of the best lines to chew on. Dillane is detached and indifferently cruel, with seldom a word uttered, his lack of mannerism contrasted by the vibrant animosity of his three peers. Hurt is pure gold as the closest the film comes to caricature, just a vile old coot who belongs in the loony bin raving to the walls about awful things that happened ‘back in his day’. Different is the key word for this one, and one might be easily fooled by the poster and synopses into assuming this is a revenge flick populated by action and violence. Not so much. Although a lot of the time that is my cup of tea, it’s nice to get a welcome deviation once in a while, and this one is a real treat.