John Wick

It is immensely interesting to me that John Wick is the first film I watched after seeing The Equalizer. The Equalizer is a film that I hated for a being a cliché-riddled action movie with zero originality. John Wick is a cliché-riddled action movie with zero originality, but it embraces those traits with such fervor that it is a joy to watch. The true difference between the films is that The Equalizer was a dour and somber affair with no charisma or style to brighten up the proceedings. John Wick is all style, with flashy camera moves and even flashier action scenes all set to an amazing soundtrack. If you’re going to make a by-the-numbers action movie you’d better make it fun to watch. The Equalizer felt like a chore to sit through and the 40 minute too long runtime didn’t help. John Wick is breezy, ultraviolent, and completely engaging all the way through. It is everything that The Equalizer wasn’t.

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John Wick stars Keanu Reeves in what is probably his best performance since the Matrix, but I admit that the bar was set extremely low. Wick is an ex-assassin/mythical legend in the New York underground criminal world who got out of the game when he got married. Now his wife has died of cancer and wouldn’t you know it, some Russian thugs drag Wick back into the scene by beating him up and killing his dog. With all the plot and backstory taken care of in the first five minutes that leaves the rest of the hour and a half runtime for John Wick to revenge kill everyone he sees. And revenge kill he does. With aplomb.

The wonderful thing about John Wick is that it sets up a criminal underworld that has distinct rules which all of the characters know. You can kill someone in this place, but not in that place. A particular form of currency is passed around as payment that doubles as a form of identification. Everyone knows everyone else and even when rival assassins are smashing each other up they are on a first name basis. All of these things are established in ways that make sense for the story. There is no long scene of exposition that spells everything out for the audience. This is a dumb action film that trusts its audience to be smarter than the material, and I love it for that. There is very little else to say about this film. John Wick is easily one of the better American action films I’ve seen in a long time and if you’re a fan of guns blazing, blood flying, revenge romps you’ll love it too. Grade: B+

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The Equalizer

If there was an award for the film that uses as many clichés as possible while still maintaining a stunning lack of knowledge of how anything works, that distinction would be held by The Equalizer. Denzel Washington stars in this action thriller that is not so much a movie, but a highlight reel of scenes we’ve seen done in better action movies of the past. Any tension that was intended quickly falls to the wayside as the audience realizes that we know exactly what is going to happen to each and every character because that’s what happened to that character in the last movie we saw them in. The only stunning thing to my eyes was that if you replace Denzel Washington with Cuba Gooding Jr. you could cut the budget by 40 million dollars and release it straight to DVD without changing anything else.

The film opens with Denzel Washington shaving in the dark. This is only the first scene that left me befuddled and it just continued from there. As we follow him throughout his day we’re meant to understand that he has a very specific routine which involves work, helping his chubby yet lovable friend lose weight, read a book while eating dinner at a diner, and never ever sleeping. The film’s MacGuffin appears at that diner played by Chloe Grace Moretz. She’s a prostitute with a heart of gold that really just wants to be a singer. Moretz and Washington strike up a hesitant familiarity over the untold number of times they frequent that diner and, wouldn’t you know it, Washington’s secret past resurfaces when Moretz is beaten to a pulp by her pimp and Washington must answer justice’s call.

The Equalizer is a re-teaming between Washington and director Antoine Fuqua who previously collaborated on Training Day, which is a far superior film and one I would gladly watch 100 times if I never had to watch this one again. Fuqua here directs the entire film using a color palette of black and off-black which does have the distinct advantage of never letting the viewer know what’s going on. Washington plays his character as a self-help and nutritional guru with MacGuyver like skills of making anything into a weapon and a superhuman ability to just shake off injuries and bullet wounds. Give him a cape and he’s essentially a sociopathic comic book character. Any semblance of nuance or subtlety that the pair showed on Training Day must have been lost in the conversation that included, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could do the whole walking in slow motion away from an explosion thing?”

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It’s hard to describe exactly what kind of a train wreck this film is so I’m going to use a scene from the climactic battle at the end to illustrate my point. Washington’s character has killed everyone involved with the Russian gang that was pimping out Moretz earlier until they are forced to send in a special team of Russian super-thugs to attack him at the Home Depot knock off. During this scene Washington shuts the power off (again with the darkness) and shoves a couple of combustible canisters into the break room microwave. At a pivotal moment he turns the power back on and the microwave starts up and promptly explodes ignoring the fact that no microwave I’ve ever seen turns on as soon as it receives power. This is the kind of logic that the film is working with.

The Equalizer is less a movie and more of a contest of “Who’s agent failed the hardest?” After watching the film I immediately envisioned a scenario where screenwriter Richard Wenk, Antoine Fuqua, and Denzel Washington got together to discuss this script before production was to begin and decided to play a drinking game where they take a shot every time there is a scene that take took place in a different movie. They would all have alcohol poisoning by page ten and maybe their ailments would have spared us from them continuing on to make the actual film. Sadly it didn’t happen and the result is The Equalizer. Grade: D+

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Spongebob Squarepants 2: Sponge Out of Water

Suppose you’ve found yourself accidentally wandering into a party for a child that you don’t know. Everyone there seems to be having a pretty good time. Even for yourself there are moments of amusement as you watch the children play even if you don’t have the slightest idea who those children are or why they’re acting the way they do. Now imagine that someone comes up to you after the party is over and asks what you thought of the proceedings. Do you tell them that it was great because everyone you saw seemed to enjoy themselves and those were the people that were clearly meant to be there? Or do you tell them that the whole party made no sense because you were clearly not meant to be there. That is the situation I find myself in after having seen Spongebob Squarepants 2.

I am aware that Spongebob Squarepants is a cartoon that has been on TV for quite a few years and even spawned a feature length movie in the past. However, I have never seen the show and the only knowledge I have of it is from cultural references. This makes me a prime candidate to skip this movie completely and leave it to those that may know a thing or two about it. However, My six year old son really wanted to see it, so off I went. He left happy. I left baffled.

From what I could gather Spongebob and his friends are in trouble because the secret formula for the Crabby Patty has been stolen and without it the entire community falls into Mad Max levels of apocalyptic despair. There is cultural satire here, but the movie never stops long enough to fully embrace a topic. It is a scattershot of jokes that all last about three seconds that are flung onto the wall just hoping that they stick long enough to run at a feature film length. I’m sure there was some kind of plot thread that connected the whole thing together, but even sitting here at full concentration I can’t remember what it was supposed to be. Something about Antonio Banderas as Burger Beard the pirate and a food truck that doubles as a pirate ship.

I chuckled a few times here and there, but when you throw in 1,000 jokes at least some of them have to hit right? I’m not exactly sure that’s an achievement. Normally I would take a film as its own entity and judge it based on that alone. However, in this case, the film is a sequel to an earlier film that was itself spun off of a TV show. All of which I haven’t seen. I’m going to give this movie a grade, but it’s fairly irrelevant. If you’ve seen the show and are a fan I’m guessing that your opinion will likely match the children around me at my screening and you will enjoy it wholeheartedly. I was left wishing to be anywhere else. Grade: D

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The Imitation Game

I’m not sure where to lay the blame for The Imitation Game’s problem. On one hand, the film depicts the “based on true life” story of famed British mathematician Alan Turing, and takes enough artistic license to render the “true life” part misleading, but as a high profile prestige picture it will get millions of people to see it and perhaps learn something along the way. On the other hand, the material is far better suited for a more accurate documentary, but no one would watch it. As a result of the compounding problems the film ends up doing nothing well, with the exception of allowing Benedict Cumberbatch to deliver a tour-de-force performance. Unless, that is, you were expecting Cumberbatch to portray Turing in some way that represents the true-life part of the biopic.

I struggled deeply with this film. I’m also struggling trying to figure out how to review it. Is it worth it to try and describe the plot of a true story? Especially when there’s not a lot of true in the story? Alan Turing was a world famous mathematician and early pioneer of the computer, but the film focuses almost entirely on how he pretty much won World War 2 all by himself, which is of course not even remotely true. The film is framed in three time periods: his early years (which are largely fabricated), his work during the war (which is largely exaggerated), and the controversy near the end off his life (which is largely disputed if not entirely made up). I don’t understand who this movie is for. Those that go into the film with a knowledge of the true story will be baffled and upset over the inaccuracies of it. Those that go in without any knowledge of Turing will leave in much the same manner.

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I am going to take a break here to praise the performance of Cumberbatch. He is brilliant throughout the film and displays a range of emotions that could not have been easy to bring to the surface. If you can imagine taking Cumberbatch’s own version of Sherlock and melding it with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory you’d be pretty close to what you get on screen. It is a wonderful performance that is betrayed by the film and the circumstances around it. The blazing performance is also part of the problem with the film as a whole in that Cumberbatch’s performance feels like a performance. We know he’s acting his ass off and even though it’s fun to watch that doesn’t mean it fits into the film. Cumberbatch does a good job of showing off what he can do, but the film isn’t better for it.

The Imitation Game is so bloodless and inert for a subject matter so naturally interesting, but who’s at fault is difficult to pinpoint. The direction from Morten Tyldum is competent if a little clunky at times. The script is written so that everyone speaks in exposition and the only emotion allowed to creep into the dialogue must be delivered in overly dramatic monologues. Every actor besides Cumberbatch plays every scene on the edge of dull which may be a script/direction problem, or it may be to let Cumberbatch look even more manic. Either way it’s a disservice to the film as a whole. The only person to come out of this film untainted is composer Alexandre Desplat. The score is beautiful and carried more emotional weight than most of the actors.

I understand when a movie takes a real situation and uses artistic license to make the story a tad more entertaining. I don’t understand using artistic license and still leaving the film flat. If you’re going to change the story to make it more palatable or exciting it has to, in fact, BE more exciting. All of this run around brings me back to the question of why. Why was this film made and who is it for? When the obligatory information cards ran before the credits to tell us what happened to the people after the film ends, a woman behind me gave a slight gasp and asked her companion, “this is a real story?!” I suppose that’s the kind of person the film is for.
Grade: D+

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American Sniper

American Sniper is a well crafted and wonderfully acted puff-piece/propaganda film. Everything about it is meticulous (fake baby shots aside) with a keen attention to atmosphere. There are no errant or useless shots and all of this is much to the film’s detriment. From the opening scene to the ending credits everything is very carefully constructed to enhance the glorification of the film’s protagonist. There is no doubt from the filmmakers on whose side we’re supposed to be on and the movie goes to great lengths to to pull just the right strings at just the right moments. It is manipulative in the worst ways.

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American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, a US Navy Seal that is credited with the most confirmed sniper kills in US military history. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle with a good ol’ boy Texas swagger and his performance is convincing on every level. He nails this part totally and completely with an authenticity that is to be admired. Unfortunately, Cooper’s performance is far and away the best thing the film has going for it, because the plot can be summed up as such: Chris Kyle realized at an early age that he was very good with a gun and used that skill to kill a whole lot of people. The film tries to give us an antagonist in a rival sniper known as Mufasa. Therein lies the problem with the film. Mufasa is almost indistinguishable from Kyle. They are the exact same character on opposite sides of a war, but the film wants us to call Kyle a hero and Mufasa a savage bloodthirsty personification of evil. It is that unfair characterization that I believe sinks the film.

Director Clint Eastwood uses no nuance in this film. This is a straightforward tale of the glorification of one particular soldier in the United States military. We are told that every action and decision made by Kyle was the right one and every motive was pure. If there were any doubts about Kyle’s saintly behavior they were quickly brushed aside in favor of more hero worship. It is cloying in the worst ways, perhaps most evident in the ending sequences. Eastwood uses real life footage from Chris Kyle’s tragic and untimely death to try and convince us that the glorification was justified. The real tragedy of the film is the massive amount of skill and talent that was wasted in what ended up being nothing more than a well crafted military recruitment video. Grade: C-

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The Expendables 3

The Expendables 3 is not a great film. It’s probably not even a good one. It does, however, have enough enjoyable moments to be entertaining. The film is critic-proof and a fine example of a movie that will only attract a core audience that already wants to see it. The marketing for this movie is superfluous at best and could have been summed up in a poster that read “All of the old guys from the previous movies with a few young people that you’ve never heard of thrown in.”

Sylvester Stallone again leads his crew on suicide missions to battle scarred areas of the world. Stallone looks tired and displays a stunning lack of charisma in every scene. I don’t like to get too hung up on the physical traits of an actor, but Stallone is starting to look like a medical experiment gone horribly awry. His face looks like it’s melting and plastic at the same time. It’s petty and superficial I know, but it’s getting harder to watch Stallone on screen as he is slowly morphing into something that doesn’t quite look human.

The rest of the crew is made up of Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. Statham plays the same gruff character that he did in the first two movies and actually serves less of a point in this one. Terry Crews is sidelined early on to make way for the addition of Wesley Snipes, because clearly there can be only one black character at a time. Randy Couture is also back for a third outing despite the fact that he hasn’t shown one ounce of a personality across all three films. The only actor who seems to recognize what kind of film he’s in is Dolph Lundgren. He’s pitch perfect again, and my strange man-crush on him aside, I wish he was in more of this movie and more movies in general.

What’s passing as a plot for the film is as follows- Stallone and crew break Wesley Snipes out of jail and they head straight to another mission where the bad guy turns out to be Mel Gibson. Gibson is an old Expendable that Stallone thought he had killed a long time ago. After Gibson shoots one of the crew Stallone decides to disband the group in favor of young blood. He meets up with a mercenary talent scout (Kelsey Grammer) and begins recruiting new members from around the world. This sequence is especially fascinating for the wild lack of geography knowledge required to visit these places in the order that they do.

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Stallone settles on a group of four twenty-somethings with various talents. Kellan Lutz plays a character who can ride a motorcycle and we are told has a problem with authority even though he never displays that trait in any way. Glen Powell plays a technology expert that is not shown doing anything that a competent 16 year old with a lot of money couldn’t do. Victor Ortiz plays a weapons expert whose main addition to the film is that he’s latino. Finally, we have Ronda Rousey whose sole purpose in the film is to supply one character with a vagina.

Stuff happens and things blow up. Circumstances change and Stallone requires his original team to come to his aid and work with the new kids to defeat the evil Mel Gibson and his plans for… Well we’re not sure what his plans are besides making money. We are told numerous times that he’s a really bad guy so we’ll have to take their word for it. More stuff happens. Loads and loads of things blow up. Even when they shouldn’t.

The brightest spot in the movie is the addition of Antonio Banderas as Galgo, a motor mouthed mercenary that can’t seem to find a team to work with him. His scenes are brilliant and they provide the only joy in an otherwise extremely self-serious film. Newcomers to the series Snipes, Banderas, Grammer, and Harrison Ford all provide the smallest of supporting characters and yet they bring the most to the table.

The biggest problem with the film is Sylvester Stallone himself. He is beyond terrible in this movie. His lines are more incomprehensible than usual and the weird melty face thing seems to have hindered his ability to emote anything besides blank slate. He is by far the least interesting thing happening in a movie that he is the star of and wrote for himself.

It’s hard to fault director Patrick Hughes, because he is clearly handcuffed by the enormous cast and the PG-13 rating. The fact that he managed to stage any decent action set pieces at all should earn him praise. Besides, Hughes is likely more of a figurehead. This is Stallone’s baby and there is no doubt of that at any time. That is never more telling than when Rousey mentions to Stallone that she would totally do him if he was 30 years younger. That exchange is so embarrassing to everyone involved, and that’s taking into account the fact that Rousey can’t act even a little bit.

I must mention the PG-13 rating as well. Not only does this rating not make sense for the film, but it blatantly shows how broken the MPAA rating system is. Hundreds of people die in this film. More bullets are fired than there are people on the Earth, but no blood is shown so it’s ok for teenagers. Boyhood shows a teenager drinking and says the f word once or twice and is slapped with an R rating. Expendables 3 shows a group of mercenaries killing the equivalent of a small nation’s population and it’s PG-13. That makes no sense. My other issue with the rating is that is a clear hindrance to the film. Hughes must continually cut away from action scenes that were obviously filmed to be in an R rated movie. The result is a tortuously edited mess. The question I would really like to ask the film makers is this: Did you really think you had a solid base of 13-17 year olds chomping at the bit to get into Expendables 3? The core group of stars in this film are in their 60’s. The only thing they accomplished with the PG-13 rating is watering down the violence which alienated the group of people that actually were excited for this film.

It’s been pretty easy picking out the weak spots, but there is some good stuff in there as well. Banderas is terrific. The action is a smidge above average. Lundgren and Snipes are fantastic. The final set piece is fun and contains the kind of jokes to action ratio you would hope for in a movie like this. This is easily the best of the Expendables trilogy, which might be damning with faint praise, but so be it. I’m actually quite looking forward to the inevitable unrated DVD version which has the possibility of being a pretty good movie. The best thing I could hope for is that the unrated version somehow has way less Stallone in it. Seems unlikely I admit, but I’d love to see that. I hope this ends the Expendables franchise, because with Stallone involved as heavily as he is this is probably the best we’re going to get so it might as well go off on the highest note possible. Grade: C+

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Boyhood

Boyhood is an extraordinary feat of cinematic achievement. It is breathtaking in ways that extend far beyond the story presented on the screen. Richard Linklater has created a film with such scope and patience that it stands as a one-of-a-kind experience that will stick with you long after it ends.

Richard Linklater is responsible for the Before series of films (Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight) which rank as some of my most personally beloved films of all time. My effusive praise for those films factored into my expectations for Boyhood and try as I might to temper them those expectations were extremely high. This was easily my most anticipated film of the year and I am beyond elated to say that it is a magical experience.

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The true uniqueness of the movie lies behind the screen. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason at 6 years old as the film starts, however he is also playing Mason at every other point in the film. The production for Boyhood started twelve years ago and Richard Linklater filmed the actors for a short period each summer. The same actors reprise their roles over the course of that twelve years which lets us watch this boy grow in a way that has never been captured before. We follow as Mason goes to school, makes friends, encounters new step-dads, and learns he who wants to be. Being able to watch the same actor play every scene during the transition from boy to man is astounding. All of the awkwardness of the teen years is in full display and the typical frustrations that accompany a boy learning to navigate the world are made all the more emotional when we have had the chance to watch that same boy grow up in front of our eyes.

Boyhood works on practically every level for practically any audience. The film may center on Mason, but as with life, the supporting characters contain their own stories. Patricia Arquette’s single mom resonates with truth and honesty and she attempts to make life work even if it is far different than the life she had planned. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr. traverses from a relative slacker to an everyday family man. What also resonates about Hawke’s performance is how he manages to be the most consistent male figure in Mason’s life even though he does not have custody and isn’t around all that often.

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Each character has an arc that will resonate with different people for different reasons. Patricia Arquette’s single mom will certainly hit an emotional chord with any single parents out there trying to do what’s best for the family without sacrificing her own dreams along the way. As much as I can relate to some of the experiences of Mason, as a father I found myself intrigued by Ethan Hawke’s journey as he is more representative of my life at this time. I firmly believe that Boyhood’s ability to connect with an audience through multiple characters is what gives the film so much warmth.

As my praise borders on hyperbolic, I’ll suffice to say that Boyhood is an amazing experience that I will treasure for a very long time. It is easily one of the best films of the year. The independent nature of the film’s release will hinder it’s ability to find a mass audience, but I urge those that can find it to seek it out. Grade: A

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