John Wick Chapter 4 (2023)
As many of you are well aware, I believe great action can be some of the highest cinematic highs one can experience through the transporting thrill of the movies. It’s the larger-than-life quality, the symbiosis of so many tactical teams working in harmony to pull off the breakneck stunts, rapidly escalating stakes, and organic story complications, that it all feels like the best kind of magic trick. For my money, Mad Max: Fury Road is closer to the pinnacle of the artform than a majority of self-serious Oscar bait drivel. In many ways, musicals are very similar to action movies, as fight choreography is nothing more than a rehearsed dance between professionals. Both must incorporate geography, spacing, and interaction to maximize their appeal. It is from this perspective that I approach the John Wick franchise, a series that I have enjoyed and has gotten more popular with every new entry. John Wick: Chapter 4 is about as action-packed as they come, running at nearly three hours long. I purposely waited and saw the movie with my father, a fellow lifelong lover of big screen action and particularly Fury Road. We both had a blast, and rather than write a review of exclamatory nonsense, I thought I’d look over some of my finer critical points with 2019’s John Wick 3 and analyze how 4 excels beyond.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a legendary assassin in a world where I think half the population are secretly, or not so secretly, trained assassins. I have to think the union collective bargaining negotiations are brutal. Regardless, John has been on the run ever since he upset the High Table, the cloak-and-dagger authority over this clandestine universe. He’s had a bounty on his head getting larger and larger with every foiled assassination, and there have been hundreds at this point. To finally clear his name, John plans on challenging the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard), the new controlling High Table member who is un-sanctioning every international hotel that gives refuge to Wick. The old rules state that Wick can challenge the Marquis to a duel, but getting to the actual dueling site might be murder.
As I wrote in 2019: “Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments… For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.”
This compliment is still applicable because the lasting draw of the John Wick franchise has always been its highly polished and intense action sequences. Series director Chad Stahelski has an intimate understanding of his star’s physical capabilities, having served as Reeves stunt double for years, and he and his team stress the fidelity of visceral realism with their overtly preposterous movie. The action is displayed in long takes, wide shots, and gloriously accessible visual arrangements to allow the audience to truly enjoy the splendor of the moment. This philosophy stretches to car chases, like an exciting roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe making bodies fly through the air, and even horseback chases, like an opening evoking Lawrence of Arabia. There were several moments that made me giggle in giddiness, like a woman relentlessly stabbing a man she rode piggyback up the stairs, and a sustained high angle where Wick clears room after room of baddies with fiery canisters that turn each target into a burst of flames, and a fight ascending many flights of stairs that has echoes of Wile E. Coyote slapstick. If you are a lover of action, these movies will not disappoint in that department. The movie takes about 30-40 minutes to set up its stakes and goals, and from there it’s relentless. The best compliment I can give is that Chapter 4 did not feel like three hours because it just flew by for me.
This is where my small criticisms of 2019’s third entry began, and I’ll address them one-by-one: “Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise.”
This was a concern I was beginning to notice with Chapter 3, that the movies were in danger of becoming repetitive as Wick clears room after room of opponents. In general, that is the plot of all four movies, so the emphasis needs to be on how each sequence differentiates itself. Chapter 4 does this very well by giving every sequence its own underlying identity. This can be through unique locations or even weapon preference. One sequence is entirely John battling with nunchucks. One sequence is John fighting through a rainy Berlin club that becomes an ax fight. There’s a fight that utilizes well-placed doorbells to cue a blind swordsman Caine (Donnie Yen). The change in locations also helps differentiate the action sequences, with trips to Osaka, Berlin, and finally Paris each adding their own style. It’s a lot more fun to change things up and make sure that the change in scenery, weapon preference, and character is incorporated into the fight.
Another undervalued aspect of the Wick franchise is how damn good looking these movies are. Stahelski can frame some beautifully lit sequences to make all the subsequent carnage and fisticuffs that much more pleasing. We’ve been settling for far less for far too long, folks. There’s no reason our grungy, dank, overly gray action movies cannot look as pristine and striking as the John Wick series.
I also wrote in 2019: “The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was willing Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any long standing personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax.”
I was beginning to worry that by the time of John Wick 12 he would have killed the entire world’s population and forgotten it all started because of one dog. It’s not that story is the preeminent feature of the Wick franchise but there is more thought and curiosity put into this world building and it would be a shame to ignore it simply for wall-to-wall violence. Fortunately, I think Chapter 4 does the best about introducing new and engaging characters. The John Wick series has introduced new faces but rarely do they seem like more than overly glorified NPCs meant to root for John or take stock of the current predicament (they’ve never found a meaningful use of Laurence Fishburne). With Chapter 4, the new characters actually matter, and they’re great. The best addition is Caine, made even more intriguing by being a blind assassin and made even more fantastic through the performance of Yen (Rogue One, Ip Man). He’s a friend to John and feels great guilt about trying to kill him (his daughter’s life is threatened as leverage). He’s a conflicted killer, the rueful warrior, and his disability makes every fight worthy of watching how exactly he’ll take down his next opponent. It’s enough that I could foresee a Caine spinoff if the fortunes of the universe demand even more Wick spinoffs (Ballerina, a spinoff starring Ana de Armas, is expected to be released summer 2024).
The other new characters are also strong. Skarsgard (It) makes a great hiss-able villain and he really eats up his French dandy accent. There’s also Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) who spies from afar, biding his time until the bounty on Wick gets high enough. He has a dog too that is trained to attack men in a very vulnerable spot first. Then there’s Scott Adkins (Ip Man 3) in perhaps the performance of his career. He gets to slather on makeup, a fat suit, false teeth, and really becomes a broad character, a German crime lord but more a menacing fairy tale behemoth. The way Adkins relishes every syllable is a delight. The man isn’t known much for his acting, other than his finely honed martial arts skills, but he showcases plenty of potential if given a chance. It’s fun to watch all these martial arts experts cut loose, most in their middle age. Recording artist Rina Sawayama makes a killer acting debut as the concierge of the Osaka Continental hotel, and she wreaks havoc with a bow and arrow and some intense knife work.
Because of having more interesting characters meaningfully involved, including those who have a familial history with John Wick, it brings a new emotional stakes to the franchise because we don’t know what will happen to these new faces. I cared enough to be newly invested.
And lastly, in 2019, I concluded with: “I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures.”
By the end of Chapter 4, you question whether this universe can exist beyond the bloodshed of Mr. Wick, and my answer would be yes. A Continental TV series is premiering in the fall on Peacock, taking place in the 1970s with younger versions of Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (the late Lance Reddick). There’s at least one spinoff in the works I’ve mentioned earlier. It very much appears that Reeves and Stahelski intended for Chapter 4 to be the definite conclusion to their story they began in 2014. I doubt things will stay that way, especially with Chapter 4 becoming the biggest earner in the franchise. I would suspect the studio would be begging for a Chapter 5. Regardless, if this is the intended series finale, then Reeves and Stahelski have gone out on top. John Wick: Chapter 4 is action movie nirvana.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
It is hard to overstate how influential The Matrix was upon its release in 1999. It rewrote the science fiction and action genres for Hollywood and introduced American audiences to many of the filmmaking techniques of Eastern cinema. It was exciting, philosophical, challenging, and made an instant brand out of the Wachowskis, the writing/directing siblings who had previously only directed one indie movie. The 2003 sequels were filmed back-to-back and released to great anticipatory fanfare and then, later, derision. The Matrix sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, became a shorthand joke for bloated artistic miscalculation. They were talky, draggy, and just not what fans were hoping for jacking back into this strange world, and years later I think they’re worth a critical re-evaluation. Flash forward to 2021, and Lana Wachowski has resurrected The Matrix, and with the original actors for Neo and Trinity, both of whom died in Revolutions. Why go back? I think part of this was the declining career of the Wachowskis as directors. I personally loved 2012’s Cloud Atlas but it was an expensive and messy money-loser, the same as 2008’s Speed Racer and 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, a cosmically bad movie. So now it’s back to The Matrix with an older Neo, and older Trinity, and more of the same by design. The Matrix Resurrections just made me sad. It’s a movie that feels resentful for its own inception.
Thomas Anderson/Neo (Reeves) is living out his life as an award-winning game designer. His company and business partner, Smith (Jonathan Groff), are looking for their next big hit, and they’re looking backwards at Anderson’s biggest success… the “Matrix trilogy.” It was a virtual reality program that skewered the difference between reality and fiction. Mr. Anderson might have even based the role of Trinity on Tiffany (Carrie Anne-Moss), a woman he has grown infatuated with over time at a coffee shop. Except Mr. Anderson is having trouble determining what is real and what is only in his head. That’s because a new, younger Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is telling him that he’s Neo, that he’s destined for greater things, and that he’s been kept in an unorthodox prison to keep him out of the action. Everyone seems interested in reactivating Neo, but for what purpose, and what has happened in the ensuing decades since the end of the war with the machines?
Part of my struggle with Resurrections is that it too is struggling with its own existence, and not in a meta-textual sort of identity crisis, more like a reason to carry on 18 years later. Fair warning, this movie is far, far more meta than you are anticipating. The entire first hour of the movie features characters justifying rebooting “The Matrix,” the game. It’s a movie where characters glibly talk about parent companies going forward with the IP with or without the involvement of the original creators, so better to be the one trying to staunch the bleeding I suppose. A character literally says Warner Brothers wants a new Matrix and they will not stop until they get one. There are characters that sit around a table and try and break down what made the original Matrix (the game) so cutting-edge, and every person has a different brand slogan. “It was edgy.” “It blew your mind.” “It was a thinking man’s action story.” This prolonged section of Resurrections feels entirely like Wachowski speaking directly to her audience and saying, “Look, I had no reason to be back here. They forced my hand, and I want you to know that I’m not happy about it.” There are literal moments from the 1999 film that are presented as if the characters in the matrix are watching The Matrix to recreate scenes like avid cosplayers. There is one part where a character just starts screaming the word “reboot” with profane intention, promising to get their own spinoff as a threat. The entertainment industry satire about reboots and cash-grab sequels is funny but misplaced and coming from a perspective of defiance. If this was all the movie was then it would have been a fascinating example of an artist burning the bridge to their most successful franchise out of willful spite. However, if we had our own little focus group and asked what made the original Matrix so enjoyable, I doubt anyone would list, “entertainment industry satire and meta humor.”
The Matrix movies are well known for being a smarter, more ambitious viewing experience (“A thinking man’s action story”), blending philosophy and mysticism into anime-style action and kung-fu fights. There’s an intentional repetition here, built upon delivering something familiar and safe to audiences but with a “next gen” feel. We have a new Morpheus and a new Mr. Smith here, but did we require either? When they go through the motions of patterning themselves on characters of old, it feels strained, it feels gassed, and it’s another instance where Wachowski telegraphing to her audience, “Look, the studio demanded I bring back these characters, but I’ll be damned if I know what to do with them.” Morpheus has a little more story leverage as a catalyst for bringing Neo back to his path of enlightenment. Truth be told, I don’t really know half of what was happening in this movie, which lacked the elegant connectivity of the best action movies, linking cause and effect (the Merovingian would be proud of me) and pushing the movie forward to its inevitable conclusion. Even the prior movies felt more like the creators knew what was going on, even if the audience was lagging behind. With Resurrections, it feels like Wachowski and her screenwriters, novelist Dave Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Aleksandar Hermon (Sense 8 finale), have just given up trying to make sense of it all.
Another disappointment is the lack of any signature or memorable action sequences or, in the words of the Matrix round table, moments that “blew your mind.” The use of phones as transport in and out of the matrix has been replaced with mirror portals and doorways, which initially got my hopes up. There are such playful visual possibilities incorporating portals into action (see: Doctor Strange, even Matrix Reloaded), and I felt that Wachowski was up to the imaginative challenge. It too feels like another element that barely registers. The movie takes the anyone-can-become-an-Agent threat of the original trilogy and says, “What if instead of facing deadly Agents, it was just dumb zombies?” The new machines decide to rely upon a hive-mind system of grabbing whatever humans are in the vicinity and taking control of them into mindless foot soldiers. Let’s explore what a downgrade this is. The Agents were dangerous because they had powers that ordinary humans could not hope for, like the bullet dodging. In this movie, ordinary people are easily foiled and often a pathetic excuse for super-powered adversaries. The final act involves an escalation in numbers of the hive mind, but we’ve already been here with the multiple Agents Smiths of the sequels. There is one disturbing change-up where the machines realize how humans can just serve as canon fodder that is dark but a more effective attack. Even the requisite martial arts battles and gravity-defying wire work are humdrum this round.
If there is one thing that Resurrections does well it’s staking its identity out as a romance. Much of the second half prioritizes the relationship between Neo and Trinity, which was always taken for granted in the sequels. It was a romance of more utilitarian purpose, providing Neo with a love interest to motivate him to be saved in times of great peril. With Resurrections, the movie actually takes time to devote to Neo and Trinity as people with desires and what they would find appealing about the other. He’s not the savior of mankind, and she’s not his gateway to knowledge and empowerment. They’re portrayed as people, somewhat unhappy in their lives, and just hoping they might have another chance meeting at their shared coffee shop for one more electrifying conversation. The evolution of the movie places even more importance on this human connection, so I’m glad time has finally been given to exploring what it is that connects Trinity and Neo, especially if their love story is going to play as prominent a resolution to Resurrections. If you have never cared about Trinity and Neo as a couple, then you’ll likely be in for a disappointing second half.
From a technical standpoint, Resurrections is still a feast for the senses. The photography is moody and atmospheric. The musical score is pumping. The special effects are state-of-the-art. There are a lot of talented people working on this sequel. So why then does the movie feel so perfunctory? In some regard each Matrix sequel has felt this way, adding extraneous pieces onto an already perfect standalone film. Having re-watched both Reloaded and Revolutions again, I can affirmatively declare Resurrections to be the weakest Matrix entry yet. We were all a bit too harsh on the prior two Matrix movies, which fall short of capturing the original’s magic alchemy but bring the goods when it comes to memorable set pieces, eye-popping visuals, and narrative zigs instead of zags (It was undercutting audience expectations before it was cool). They are still a bit too stuffy and talk in circles, but there are definite Major Ideas percolating underneath. In contrast, Resurrections feels more powered by resentment, by Wachowski coming back to this world against her better wishes and judgements. Maybe we should have left things alone.
Nate’s Grade: C
Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)
Bill and Ted might be one of the most inexplicable franchises in Hollywood. It began as a riff on 80s high school movies by writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, taking the California surfer/stoner goofball supporting character staple and saying, “What if people deeply uninformed about history traveled through time?” 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure movie was a comic delight, and Bill and Ted became unexpected icons, action figures, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. The 1991 sequel could have easily repackaged another escapade through time but instead it went a completely different, darker, and weirder direction. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey followed its characters through death, hell, heaven, and back again. It’s been almost thirty years since Bill and Ted left the pop-culture spotlight behind. What more challenges could you present? Bill and Ted Face the Music is a sweet sequel that explores the, dare I even utter the word, legacy of these cheery doofuses, and while it’s not at the same level as its clever predecessors, I was more than happy to take one last trip with these gents. Most excellent.
It’s been decades since Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) hit the big time with their band Wyld Stallyns but life hasn’t quite worked out how they imagined. They had been told their music would bring peace to the world, but they’re in their 50s now, fame now behind them, and they have yet to live up to those heavy expectations. Bill and Ted are struggling to still write that perfect, magical song, the one they were destined for, but both men have growing doubts over whether or not they can make it happen. Their adult daughters (Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine) want to help and take the ole phone booth time machine for a spin, collecting famous great musicians throughout time to help collaborate with their dear old dude dads before all of reality unravels if that fabled song cannot be written.
Just as Bogus Journey rejected being a lazy reprise, Face the Music inclines to chart its own path as a sequel rather than replicating the hits of old while also staying reverent to why people loved the originals. This is more a time travel movie, and the daughters even go on their own Excellent Adventure rounding up famous musicians through history as a B-story, but the main story is squarely on Bill and Ted facing off against themselves and their collective insecurities. When challenged, the Bill and Ted of present-day figure that they can skip ahead to the future and simply take the world-saving song from their future selves, who obviously would have written it by then. It’s a move the franchise has used before, relying upon future actions to take care of present problems, so it’s fitting for the characters but this is the first film to explore this as a negative. Bill and Ted are desperate and looking for an easy solution and skipping to the end will do that. However, their future selves are pathetic has-beens who have yet to write the ultimate song, and they resent their past selves for setting them up for failure. There are many face-to-face meetings between present and further future versions of Bill and Ted and their interactions become an adversarial tit-for-tat. I looked forward to each new pit stop with future Bill and Ted to see how their lives were and if they were still trying to set up the past Bill and Ted for a long-simmering retribution. The fact that this storyline has a genuinely sweet and even poignant reconciliation is a joyous addition.
Thankfully, Bill and Ted are still the same lovable, affable, and relentlessly positive dudes we’ve known and loved since the 1980s. I appreciate over three movies how much these guys legitimately appreciate and love each other. That’s one reason why it’s so enjoyable to hang out with these guys regardless of what their adventures entail. It would be easy for Bill and Ted to have become jaded in their old age, cynical from not fulfilling their hallowed destiny. They could have some animosity between the two of them that need to be buried in order to work together, rekindle that old magic, and save the world. But the screenwriters know who these characters are. Even when things aren’t going their way, they stay who they are, hopeful and supportive. I also appreciated how this translates to their relationships with their daughters, who clearly love their fathers and want to follow in their footsteps. They even refer to them as “dads” rather than “dad.” The conclusion rests on the daughters and fathers working together, and the positivity that radiates through their relationships allows the ending to reach a surprisingly emotional high for a family of good-natured goofballs.
Face the Music is a bit overstuffed with subplots and characters, and I do wish there could have been some careful pruning to allow more room for the daughters. Bill and Ted’s wives, the princesses from Medieval England, have been recast again (Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mayes), and once again they are barely featured. There is an early conflict between the wives and husbands, and the prospect of losing them motivates Bill and Ted to save their marriages, but this conflict is entirely sidelined after the “end of the world” dilemma overtakes the plot. The wives are in their own subplot and also traveling through time or to parallel dimensions, though we never spend any time with them. There must be entirely cut scenes with them. Their perspectives could have been a whole other movie but they’re only an afterthought, as these characters have always been. Kristen Schaal (My Spy) appears as the daughter to Rufus (the late George Carlin), and we’re introduced to her mother, a deadly robot (Barry’s Anthony Carrigan) set to kill Bill and Ted for questionable reasons, the return of the Grim Reaper (William Sadler), plus all the assembled historical figures with the daughters. Also, just about every supporting family character makes an appearance too. It feels like too much, like the movie is constantly racing forward, juggling people and stories, when we didn’t need it all.
The daughters are more reflections of their fathers than independent characters. Each character, Thea and Billie, is a younger impression of their father and little else. They like the same music their dads like. They have the same goals their dads have. They have the same personalities their dads have. Both actresses are fun and Brigette Lundy-Paine (Netflix’s Atypical) does a wicked impression of a young Reeves, including adopting his sway-heavy gait, but I wish they had more to chew over. It seems cliché to make the central conflict of a third Bill and Ted movie an inter-generational one, where the fathers cannot relate to their daughters, and the four of them go on a fantastic journey that helps to bridge their differences and allow each side to better understand and relate. It might sound cliché but it could also have been compelling as well, and it would have elevated the daughters and their relationship into a primal position, rather than using the relationship with the near non-existent wives as the throwaway motivation for their call to action.
It’s been quite a while since Winter and Reeves have played these parts, and while they both have clear affection for their characters, it’s not quite a seamless relaunch. Reeves (John Wick) has been playing hardass action heroes for so long that it feels like he can’t easily recapture goofball energy. His line deliveries can feel far more stilted and low-energy. Winter hasn’t acted onscreen since 2013 and has transitioned into being a documentary director. He delivers a more spirited performance and hits the comedy notes more effortlessly than Reeves, but the time apart from acting shows. Watching both men imitate their younger selves and going through the same shtick can have a different impact on the viewer. Hearing the same catch-phrases but with deeper, gravely voices isn’t quite the same thing and serves as a warning of the enterprise living in its own shadow. My pal Ben Bailey found an old Bill and Ted to be rather sad. I think that’s part of what Face the Music leans into (including its knowing title). They haven’t succeeded like they wanted. That weighs on them. Neither character is about to contemplate suicide but there is a sense of disappointment about how their careers turned out that they’re barely staying ahead of, which adds a melancholy dimension to these characters still falling back on what they know because it’s all that they know how to do. It’s not overpowering but it’s an acknowledgement of the loss of time.
Bill and Ted Face the Music is a charming, likable, and sweet-natured sequel that wraps up the franchise well, reminding fans why the Bill and Ted characters were so enjoyable from the start. In our COVID times, I’m finding it easier to shrug away some of the movie’s flaws, like its low-budget being noticeable, chintzy CGI special effects, and too many supporting characters on top of not integrating the daughters into the main action in a more significant fashion. It’s 90 minutes of laid back, light-hearted fun with actors and filmmakers who clearly love this franchise, and the screenwriters could have merely coasted and did no such thing. We didn’t need a third Bill and Ted big screen adventure but I’m happy that it still feels, even thirty years later, remarkably like Bill and Ted.
Nate’s Grade: B
Toy Story 4 (2019)
The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.
Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box. It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.
In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.
Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.
The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.
If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.
It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.
As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.
Nate’s Grade: A
John Wick: Chapter 3 (2019)
When we last left human killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) he was on the run. He had just committed the cardinal sin in this world of professional hired guns — killing a protected man on safe ground. As a result, The High Table, which governs this ordered realm of trained assassins, has excommunicated Mr. Wick and placed a $15 million dollar bounty on his head. John is desperate for an exit and leans on old pals (Angelica Huston, Halle Berry) before coming home once again to face off against all the gun-toting wrath The High Table can offer.
Plenty of Hollywood action movies can elicit cheers and thrills, and John Wick 3 is definitely in that mix, but what sets it apart is the sheer number of “Oooo”s, “Oww”s, and, “Holy shit”s. Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments. There are numerous examples just in the opening action sequence. There’s one long extended fight where John uses whatever is at his disposal, including knives and shards of broken glass and mirror, to take down his mounting enemies, and then he pulls these deadly projectiles out of their bodies to use again in a pinch. By the end of this action sequence, my preview audience burst into applause. I can’t think of another movie where this happened especially in Act One. The movie has lots of standout action sequences and the good sense to let the audience enjoy the disciplined, imaginative fight choreography in full with long expansive takes. There are moments that are just incredible to witness, like John Wick utilizing a kicking horse to his advantage, or seeing the full take-down effect of whirling attack dogs in combat, and a two-on-one fight where every glass cage in sight must be smashed to bits. For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.
Another hallmark of the series is its sense of macabre humor and the world building peculiarities. Amidst the wild carnage and bloodshed, there are moments that shocked me with how funny they were. I was almost in tears toward one baffling moment toward the very end. I loved that the chief antagonist, a samurai sword-wielding Zero (Mark Dacascos), can also be a fanboy. During a rare moment of downtime, he gets to gush and freak out that he’s actually interacting with the John Wick. There’s a new character played by Asia Kate Dillion (TV’s Billions, Orange is the New Black) who behaves like a peeved middle manager trying to get back on the next red-eye home. She’s the best new addition in Chapter Three. Don’t expect much from high-profile new faces like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry as their screen time is brokered into short segments. There’s a sequence where John combats trained soldiers in body armor, and so he has to constantly be reloading because it takes multiple precise shots to down the bad guys. It’s a smart way to escalate the stakes of the scene while staying true to its world, because who wouldn’t wear everything and the kitchen sink when being tasked with killing John Wick? I laughed out loud when Wick returned to an armory perturbed that he had to reload so soon, muttering to himself in agitation.
The action is relentless and all kinds of fun to watch but the movie starts to lose its momentum by the conclusion. Part of this is by the sense of lowered emotional stakes in its finale (more on that below) and another factor is its general plot-less nature. The entire story of John Wick 3 is the title character trying to outrun the people set out to kill him, jumping from one supposed safe landing spot to another. This works for a frenetic sense of pacing, knowing that any lag time will be minimal before the next kickass brawl. Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise I can think of. There’s nothing here that challenges the brilliant set pieces and organic complications from the last Mission: Impossible movie. It’s a fun action franchise but it runs the risk of resting on its (considerable) laurels, feeling too same-y, and that can prove deadly. The clever fight choreography, sense of humor, and conviction of Reeves does enough to mask the negative effects of this artistic choice. This may affect people differently especially fans of the series, as lavishly produced action can be rewarding enough to ignore other pressing faults. For me, I was feeling as gassed as John Wick by the end.
The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was wiling Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any longstanding personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax. The John Wick franchise is magnifying this accelerating problem; by making the conflict carry over into an additional movie, and now into another additional movie, the audience is getting further and further distance from the origin of this conflict, and thus its resolution becomes less of a desirable and satisfying goal and more a perfunctory endpoint. I would recommend the John Wick team review 2008’s Quantum of Solace to see a recent example of a big action movie hampered by overextending a thin storyline.
If you’re coming to John Wick 3 for another heaping of high-quality action, you won’t leave disappointed on that front. If you’re looking for signature moves, dark humor, and lots and lots of casual headshots, then you won’t leave disappointed. If you’re looking for a thrilling good time at the movies, you won’t leave disappointed. As a fan of the series, this was the movie I was wanting from the first sequel, dealing with the larger consequences of his rule-breaking life-and-death decision. As the third act ramped up for John Wick 3, I turned to my friend and said, “If this was the second movie, it would end right here.” Perhaps if you watch John Wick 2 and the third movie in short succession some of the problems would be smoothed out, namely a depleted sense of personal stakes and too little plot stretched over multiple movies and counting. I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures. In the meantime, John Wick 3 will more than delight those action urges and sate the action appetites of its fans.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Bad Batch (2017)
Days after viewing writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, I’m still contemplating what I just saw. That can be the sign of a good, thought-provoking movie, or it could be further proof that The Bad Batch is really an empty experience.
In a not-too-distant future, the United States has found a unique solution to crime. Those deemed irredeemable are tattooed with “bad batch” and abandoned into the American Southwest. It’s a dusty land of outlaws that the U.S. doesn’t even recognize. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is deposited into the wastes of the Southwest and she is abducted by cannibals who make a meal out of her right arm and leg. She escapes and finds Comfort, a small outpost where she can heal and find community. The makeshift leader of Comfort is The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a messianic figure who doles out free drugs to the townspeople. He also has a harem of pregnant women. Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the hunkier cannibals, loses his daughter and forces Arlen to help him.
I’m going to summarize the sparse two-hour plot, dear reader, to share with you just how little there is to this film (will keep spoilers mild). Arlen gets kidnapped. She escapes. Months later she kills one of the cannibals. She quasi-adopts a little girl. Her father goes searching for her. Arlen loses the little girl. The father finds Arlen. They find the little girl who was unharmed. They eat a bunny. The end. Now admittedly any movie can sound rather flimsy when boiled down to its essential story elements (Star Wars: “Space farmer accepts call to adventure. Rescues princess.”) but the counterbalance is substance. Characters, world building, arcs, plot structure, setups and payoffs, all of it opens up the film’s story beats into a larger and transformative work. That’s simply not there with The Bad Batch. It’s a vapid film that has too much free time to fill, so you get several shots that are simply people riding motorcycles up to the camera. I grew restless waiting for something of merit to happen. Arlen simply just walks out into the desert like three different times, and this is after she was captured by roving cannibals that are still out there in healthy numbers. If you went to a store and the owner captured you and cut off your arm, would you venture back in that direction? Maybe there’s a commentary about victimhood and the cycle of abuse and exploitation, or maybe I’m left to intuit some kind of grander implication out of a filmmaker’s lack of effort. There’s just not enough here to justify its running time. It feels stretched beyond the breaking point.
If the film is meant to be about immersion, something that holds together via hypnotic Lynchian dream logic, then it better work hard to hold my attention since plot has already been abandoned. This is where The Bad Batch also lost me. It’s just not weird enough, though even weird-for-weird’s-sake can be insufferable, like Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home at Night) has an innate feel for visual arrangements and little quirky touches that can burn into your memory, like the sight of Arlen sidling next to a magazine clipping of a model’s arm she taped to a mirror or a well-armed pregnant militia. The most interesting elements of the story are left unattended though. This is a vague dystopia where the government has decided to let the “bad batch” fend for themselves in a desert. It screams neo-Western with a lawless land populated with criminals and killers. There are only ever two locations we visit: the cannibal’s junkyard and the outpost of Comfort. Do we know anything about these locations? Are they at war? Is there some kind of understanding between them wherein Comfort offers sacrifices for protection? Is there an uneasy peace that could be spoiled thanks to Arlen’s vengeance? It’s all just vast wasteland, but even when they get to actual places, it still feels like empty space. How can you make something about dystopian cannibals be this singularly boring?
The characters just aren’t worth your attention and ultimately don’t matter in service of story or even a potential message. Arlen is much more of a figurehead than a person, and perhaps that’s why the director chose Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as her lead. The former model certainly makes a visually striking figure and knows how to arc her body in non-verbal ways to communicate feelings. However, I don’t know if there’s a good actress here. There’s no real reason to take away her arm and leg except that it looks cool and edgy. Initially it presents a visceral vulnerability for her and a disadvantage of escape, but after she arrives in Comfort, it’s as if she’s just any other able-bodied character. It feels like the director just liked the look and thought it would grab attention or say something meaningful. Momoa (Justice League) has a natural intimidating screen presence but he’s given so little to do. He’s just on glower autopilot. Miami Man is a killer and we watch him cook people’s limbs for some good eats. It’s almost like the movie wants you to forget this stuff when his paternal instincts kick in. Rather than embracing the light-and-dark contradictions, the movie just has him shift personality modes. There’s no confrontation or introspection. Reeves (John Wick 2) gets an idea of a potentially menacing character but even he isn’t presented as an antagonist. The Dream is living large thanks to the cooperation of those in Comfort. He has a harem of willing ladies for breeding but he doesn’t seem dastardly. He’s like the grown-up rich kid throwing the party that everyone attends. Then there are near cameos by Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey, and Diego Luna, which make you wonder why they ever showed up.
The depressing part is that The Bad Batch starts off with a bang and had such potential. Amirpour is so assured early on and draws out the terror of Arlen’s plight in a gripping and satisfying manner. Her drifting is then met by a futile escape, and then we witness the relatively tasteful dismembering of our heroine. It’s disorienting but establishes the conflicts of the scene in a clear and concise fashion. The odds are against her and Arlen uses her captors underestimating her to supreme advantage. The opening twenty minutes are thrilling and well developed, presenting a capable protagonist and a dire threat. And then the movie just drops off the face of the Earth. I haven’t seen a movie self-sabotage an interesting start like this since perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The first twenty minutes offer the audience a vantage point and set of goals. We’re learning about Arlen through her desperate and clever acts of survival. The rest of the movie is just bland wandering without any sense or urgency or purpose exhibited in that marvelous opening (hey, the amputated limbs special effects look nice).
Vacuous and increasingly monotonous, The Bad Batch valiantly tries to create an arty mood piece where it re-purposes genre pastiche into some kind of statement on the broken human condition. Or something. The story is so thinly written and the characters are too blank to register. They’re archetypes at best, walking accessories, pristine action figures given life and camera direction. It’s flash and surface-level quirks with distressed art direction. It feels like it’s trying so hard to be a cult movie at every turn. I’m certain that, not counting Keanu’s cult leader, there might only be 100 words spoken in the entire film. I feel like The Bad Batch is going to be a favorite for plenty of young teenagers that respond to its style and general sense of rebellion. Until, that is, they discover movies can have both style and substance.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Knock Knock (2015)/ The Green Inferno (2015)
Whatever happened to Eli Roth as a director? In 2003, I watched Cabin Fever and was instantly smitten with the twisted new talent on the horror scene. His sense of humor reminded me of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before they went Hollywood from their splatterfest beginnings. He directed two movies after, Hostel and its sequel, and while I found Part Two to be underwhelming in execution, I was quite a fan of the original Hostel. It further cemented that it felt like Roth was going places. Most of those places were as an actor or a producer. Roth has acted in more movies (two Quentin Tarantino flicks) than he’s directed since 2007’s Hostel: Part Two. His name was attached to and then departed other projects, notably an adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell, and then it felt like he just vanished altogether. Roth has re-emerged with two films bearing his name as director, The Green Inferno, which premiered in 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival, and Knock Knock. After having watched both movies in one day I can say neither was worth the wait.
Knock Knock concerns Evan (Keanu Reeves), an architect, a former world-famous DJ (?), and family man. His wife and children have left for the weekend so that dear old dad can finally get some work done. Then one rainy evening a knock knock comes upon his chamber door. Two soaked coeds, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), politely ask if they can dry off inside. They’re supposed to meet at a friend’s house and have gotten lost. Evan is hospitable to a fault and indulges with them in conversation. The girls are flirty and very interested in a sexual dalliance with Evan, and finally he gives in. The next night Evan is ready to move on and pretend like nothing happened. However, Genesis and Bel are refusing to leave, and they have a design to punish and humiliate Evan for his martial indiscretion.
The premise is a mixture of Fatal Attraction and a home invasion movie, and there is potential here for a slowly escalating thriller or a comically degenerating farce that surprises with its dips into darkness, like 2013’s Cheap Thrills. Alas, Knock Knock is an unbalanced and unintentionally funny morality play that is so poorly executed, ham-fisted, and awkwardly developed that it’s more horrifying mess than horror. The first act of the film is a bit overwrought with making sure the audience knows exactly what kind of temptation trap Evan is falling under. Every line has an innuenduous ring, every flirtatious line an extended second of awkward eye contact, and every innocuous moment begins to feel like the forgotten detail in one of those absurd Letters to Penthouse fantasies (“You’ll never believe what happened to me…”). You can see the better film that has been crushed to death under the rush to make something tawdry, complete with both girls soaping up their bodies in a joint shower and then jointly pleasuring Evan to eliminate the last of his denials. If you felt the slowly escalating sexual tension, the desire, and yearning, and then weighing the consequences, the movie would have been a far more compelling moral dilemma and character piece. Instead, the girls are over-the-top in their seduction routines and once Evan gives in it all gets even worse. It’s not so much relatable or an interesting ethical conflict as it is the in-between scenes for a soft-core porn biding its time. For what it’s worth, the gratuitous nudity is a bit shrift.
At no point do Genesis or Bel feel like actual human beings; they are unhinged one-dimensional lascivious cartoons with ridiculous and guffaw-inducing motivation. As soon as the morning comes, Genesis and Bel have transformed from seductive and coy young adults to infantilized and highly sexualized bratty teenagers. Our reintroduction involves both ladies filling the kitchen with breakfast supplies and throwing food around, laughing obnoxiously, and practically bouncing off the walls. Their initial adversarial one-upsmanship includes mooning Evan while he’s on a Skype call and drawing penises on his wife’s art. When a concerned neighbor stops by I was hoping for something a little more serious and dangerous, but they can’t even do that, which is what makes their late turn into would-be murderers to be completely unbelievable and forced. It’s so forced that Reeve’s sputtering monologue of incredulity pretty much sums up the point of view of any rational viewer. They play dress up and appear to have some psychosexual daddy issues, possibly resulting from childhood abuse or molestation, but at no point do they come across as a credible menace. Then there’s the concluding justification for their acts of retribution and it’s so lame and uninspired and a cop-out that you wish Roth had committed to the direction the film had been steering toward.
That’s the biggest failing of Knock Knock is that it could have worked as a thriller if Roth and co-writer Nicolas Lopez (Aftershock) had fully developed their scenario. There’s a fine story of events spinning out of control as one man gets in over his head trying to cover up his indiscretion. Evan doesn’t really grapple with his guilt because everything is manifested as an external threat. He becomes a literal hostage to his guests but they don’t ever turn the screws in a manner that belies a plan or even a sharper point. The first act should have been setting up storylines that would further complicate this hostage scenario with people dropping by and more opportunities to be caught. Rather than playing as a slow-boil hostage thriller or a be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality play, Knock Knock more approaches a failed farce. The film even lacks any visual polish or carefully constructed set piece to stand out from the bargain bin of cheap horror thrillers, and Chile does not convincingly double for California either.
Roth has been a filmmaker who found dark and creative ways to mix humor into his horror, but Knock Knock is one where his signature humor doesn’t feel intended. First off, the behavior of Genesis and Bel is wildly over-the-top, screechy, and just insufferable. Izzo and Armas are way too broad and way too unhinged without any sense of mooring from Roth as a director. It’s just not fun to watch. Their batty babydoll shtick isn’t funny or sexy or dangerous. The tone cannot find a balance or commitment. There are lines of dialogue that are howlers and then there are moments that are played without the right sense of pacing or delivery and they can transform something inane into something dreadfully funny. It’s hard to describe in words but Reeves’ strident yet flat delivery of “I’m a happily married man” after being bamboozled by two naked and nubile young women is hilarity in itself. Then there’s the final scene (spoiler alert) that rests upon a struggle to eliminate a damning social media post. The resulting action and Reeves’ resultant scream to the heavens left me doubling over with laughter, more so because this is part of the misguided climax to a misguided movie. Suffice to say the moments that seemed intended to be comedic fall flat and the ones that are not, at least in their primary and secondary purpose, are the ones that produce hearty derisive laughter.
At least Roth’s other 2015 release knows exactly what it wants to be, which is a stomach-churning gore-fest homage to one of cinema’s most notorious movies, Cannibal Holocaust. From an early college lecture about female genital mutilation, you know exactly where Roth is leading this story. Unlike Knock Knock, you get a sense of Roth’s passion for the material here, and while much of that material is the systematic exposure of other people’s guts, it’s at least treated with the right amount of horror and dread. In grand slasher tradition, our poorly developed characters are but bodies to be sacrificed for our sickening amusement, but at least this is where Roth comes alive with creativity. The plot is fairly bare-bones: a group of activists from a liberal arts college travel to the Amazon jungle to protest the local government tearing down acres of forest that rightfully belong to native communities. After having successfully staged their protest, the activists’ plane goes down in the jungle and the cannibalistic natives collect the survivors and do what they do best. While it takes a bit too long without layering in mystery or essential plot, or even ironic counterpoints to fold back upon, once the students meet the hungry villagers, the movie becomes everything it was intended to be, one gory torture sequence after another. There are some memorably gross and uncomfortable moments. Similar to Roth’s Hostel, sometimes the threat of torture is worse than a grisly death. When the practices of female circumcision come roaring back as a plot point, you won’t be able to stop squirming in your seat in appropriate trepidation of what’s next.
The Green Inferno might prioritize its colorful slaughter but at least Roth puts something approaching a survival story in play to fill in the gaps. The first human sacrifice is so methodical that it serves as a grandly grotesque statement to better motivate the other survivors. Izzo (Roth’s wife) appears as the movie’s version of the Final Girl, so we’re anticipating that she’ll be able to escape somehow. The villagers keep our characters locked in cages and slowly we get a greater sense of their routines and eating habits. There’s a clever use of marijuana to purposely drug their captors. While there is an overwhelming sense of doom and futility, partially just by knowing what kind of movie this is, I’ll credit Roth that the movie doesn’t feel repulsively nihilistic. It may feel genuinely repulsive for other reasons, but you still hold onto a small glimmer of hope that at least some of these college students might maybe make it out alive. Maybe.
There’s also the elephant in the room when it comes to the cultural depiction of a bunch of savages feasting upon primarily white Americans. It’s certainly not an enlightened or nuanced analysis of another culture and it brings to mind some rather ignorant and racist imagery of old where the “backwards natives” were seen as dangerous and uncivilized villains more in common with wild animals than human beings. The villagers in the movie are all bathed in a blood-red skin dye as if they were to be recognized as devils and otherworldly demons. I can’t fathom that a village of this size comes across enough wayward humans to keep itself nourished. It’s hard to get a read on what commentary Roth has in mind. Is he playing into xenophobia or is he sending up the ignorance of the college activists who think getting to the front page of Reddit is a major accomplishment? I can’t tell and this indecision on Roth’s part doesn’t help the movie. It’s easy in slasher cinema to root for the charismatic killer to mow down our gullible and dumb teenagers, but it’s also easy to find a survivor to root for against all odds. I can’t tell which side Roth was more interested in highlighting the plight of. The ending doesn’t clarify this either.
By no means am I saying that The Green Inferno is a conventionally enjoyable movie, but if you’re a gore hound looking to slurp up your next bloody feast, then this might hit the spot. It’s an uncomfortable and too often tedious film, and some of the character setbacks just seem mean-spirited or unnecessary, like a character literally defecating in a corner for what feels like a solid minute with Farrelly Brothers sound effects (even the natives point and laugh). This is not a pleasant filmgoing experience, nor is it particularly articulate with its social commentary, but the thing that The Green Inferno accomplishes is in its sense of grisly purpose. It’s not groundbreaking or even particularly artistic but for its select audience of horror aficionados, I feel like there is enough to merit watching. Unlike Knock Knock, which doesn’t know who its audience is, The Green Inferno knows all too well, beholden to their bloodlusts, and thus too limited to attract wider appeal. Then again any film that can be thematically linked to Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t exactly going to be targeting the masses. After a long drought behind the camera, these two releases have shown me that Roth’s interests have become a bit more base, his skills a bit more ramshackle, and his sick sense of humor a bit more misapplied. After Cabin Fever and Hostel, I had high hopes that Roth would follow in his mentor Tarantino’s footsteps and rise above genre trappings as an artist. With news that Roth will produce a Cabin Fever remake for 2016, well I think my hopes for the man have gone up in smoke.
Knock Knock: D
Green Inferno: C
John Wick (2014)
John Wick hits you like a breath of fresh air. The plot isn’t anything new. Once again a semi-retired hitman (Keanu Reeves) is pulled back into the fray. Once again Russian mobsters are the primary villains, a popular adversarial force in the fall of 2014. What makes Wick an enjoyable throwback is its dedication to action staging that is crisp, balletic, but most importantly, clear and engrossing action. Reeves may not be as agile as he once was when he first learned kung-fu, but the man still has some serious moves, and the action choreography and stuntwork of Wick allows him to display them in long takes with lots of decisive movement. It’s no Raid 2, but it’s well ahead of most American action films of late. There’s a nice variety of action along with lots of casual headshots, which seems only natural for a trained hitman. Then there are the small touches that add intrigue and help it stand from the pack, notably a hotel with an exclusive clientele of hitmen and women who must abide by a set of rules while on “safe ground.” It’s just enough to make a well-worn genre start to feel different again. The problem with John Wick, however, is that it runs out of steam too quickly, peaking right at the beginning of Act Three. There’s a whole other twenty minutes where the film has to establish a new antagonist to get us to the finish line. It just feels like John Wick accomplishes his goal too quickly and the movie doesn’t know exactly what to do after. The conclusion of several storylines feel clumsy, drawn out, and anticlimactic. But when it’s working, John Wick is a stylish and bloody action thriller that is fun and with the right sense of macabre humor to halt it from ever getting too laboriously serious.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
The 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still is considered a sci-fi classic for a reason. Versatile director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) used a robot and an alien invader to help hold a mirror up to the world, asking how humanity was treating its brethren. The technology is easily dated and the tone a bit stately, but the movie is a complex, thoughtful, and relevant tale that begs for caution and kindness. It still holds up much better than most sci-fi chestnuts from yesteryear. And of course anything that film audiences have warm feelings for will be repackaged by Hollywood into a new more mass-appealing product. That means that big-budget Day the Earth Stood Still remake is likely to have no real improvement over the original. Well, it is in color. That’s an improvement for some.
A giant glowing spaceship lands in New York City’s Central Park. A glowing figure exits the craft and enters our world. This figure is Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) who is an alien creature in the guide of a human body. He has been sent by a community of planets to judge the inhabitants of the Earth. You see, the universe is an awfully large expanse of space but it has a limited number of habitable planets. The rest of the universe is taking note of how human beings have treated their home, and they may just decide that the planet is better off without us. Klaatu is helped out by a sympathetic scientist, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Eventually the alien escapes and the entire U.S. government is on high alert. Helen is trying to convince Klaatu to not rush to judgment. She’s also trying to connect with her angry step-son Jacob (Jaden Smith) after his father died in war. He’s not very trustful of Klaatu and, like plenty of other people, wants the alien dead.
Whereas the original was a cautionary tale about the Cold War and mutual destruction, and Klaatu was a peaceful Christ-like figure, the new version skips all this. It would rather recycle a message that human beings need to be nicer to Mother Nature. Now, this is an important concern but it’s harder to take seriously when the movie pretends it’s all about doom and gloom and then basically wimps out on an ending. The film is ready to wipe humanity off the globe and even gets a head start with what looks like swarms of microscopic metallic locusts. But then Klaatu looks out at mother and child, embracing as the world they know may come to an end, and concludes that human beings deserve yet another chance because they have the ability to “change.” That’s all it takes? This kind of cop-out ending reminds me of The Happening, another eco-horror movie that wanted to kill off all those pesky humans but then decided they could walk the Earth a tad longer and hopefully wiser. I’m sorry but this is weak. Profess an environmental message but do something with it, don’t thump your chest about taking personal responsibility and then skimp on repercussions. Remember filmmakers that this is fiction. You have the ability, nay the right, to destroy mankind on screen while I safely watch and consume popcorn.
You know what else keeps hurting the weight of the environmental message? The lousy relationship between Helen and her step-son Jason. This entire storyline needs to not exist. I recognize that the original movie had a substantial storyline where a single mom and her precocious son befriend Klaatu, but that doesn’t mean this remake has to reignite old storylines if they just simply won’t work in this retelling. Every time the movie spends significant time with Helen and Jason I felt like the Earth was standing still. This storyline just does not fit. The kid comes across as bratty and dumb and I actually wanted him to be micro-locust food at some points. He’s angry because his father died and that makes him argue that “Kill them all” is a serviceable foreign policy position. Whatever. This storyline is handled so terribly that every moment of drama it is intended to evoke hits with a resounding thud. When the little kid suddenly turns on a dime and helps his alien fugitive, there’s no explanation. He says he’s afraid of being alone. Well what did you think would happen when you called the U.S. government to come and abduct you? I swear that I do not have a heart of stone, and I love children, but every moment of this character felt false and annoyingly so. That’s why The Day the Earth Stood Still grinds to a halt whenever it switches back to this kid. It makes the whole alien threat a lot less menacing when we spend more time with this kid. Don’t we have far more significant things going on in this story than one kid working through his grief and learning to be less bratty?
Director Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) doesn’t have a firm handle on how to establish an exciting action set piece, and he also makes his points very bluntly, though that’s also due to the script by David Scarpa. The beginning is the best part of the film, as scientists are whisked away by government authorities who can only say that the threat to the planet is grave. Interest is piqued at this point, as we, like the scientists, try and discover with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety what exactly the Earth is facing. It doesn’t much improve after the 15-minute mark. The movie just looks so drab. There is a discerning lack of action or excitement in a movie that threatens to eliminate the human race. The movie has long boring stretches that almost kill all momentum, and then the movie tries to compensate with an avalanche of special effects.
There are plenty of intriguing concepts and conflicts that fall by the wayside. In the original Klaatu hid among human beings and came to understand people, but in this new version he’s on the run from the start. I don’t necessarily need some tired fish-out-of-water comedy with Keanu, but seeing him learn about humanity before making a judgment is vital to his character. The remake opens in 1928 with aliens taking a DNA sample from a mountain climber (also Keanu Reeves) and then they use his blood to create a human host. What if that guy is still alive and sees his face on the news? What about his family going through and wondering what connection they might all have to the fate of mankind? Wouldn’t it have been easy just to swap Connelly’s character into this role and thus she is the descendant of that mountain climber and has to look in her grandfather’s face as he proclaims humanity’s end? That storyline would be more interesting and playful than anything with the step-kid.
Occasionally sci-fi movies can be partially redeemed by superior special effects. The Day the Earth Stood Still has some pretty shoddy effects that didn’t look much better when I watched the film in IMAX. The aliens have scrapped the older model flying saucers and decide to travel in giant glowing spheres, which may be awe-inspiring to see in person but it’s mostly lame to watch on screen. It’s not even that hard of a CGI effect to perform. The new likeness is completely wrong for Gort, one of the most famous movie robots of all time. In the 1951 original, Gort was a teen foot tall robotic guardian for Klaatu. Derickson has made Gort 40 feet tall and he looks weirdly like an Oscar statuette. The awesome robot is ridiculously captured by the U.S. military so that they can try and drill into it, which makes no sense at all. Then the robot transforms into that swarm of robo-locusts and that’s the last we see Gort in action. That’s just dumb. I would much rather see a giant robot wrecking havoc than a swarm tear apart Giants Stadium. The filmmakers decided that a hazy cloud would be more visually interesting than a giant robot. Give me more Gort!
I must say that hiring Reeves was the smartest move that the movie made. Reeves’ naturally stiff and aloof line delivery works nicely as an alien trying to some to grips with his new flesh and blood body. Reeves consistently entertains and adds a dash of fun that is mostly missing in this humorless and stubborn remake. Connelly works with what little she’s given, and man can she make her eyes glisten in the most beautiful manner, tearing up at a moment’s notice. Most of the other actors are wasted in stock roles, including Kathy Bates as the Secretary of Defense and Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm as a man who only serves to spout exposition. That’s the dashing Don Drapier, and you give him exposition? I won’t belittle Smith’s performance because in all honesty the kid is a fairly good actor. It’s not his fault he got stuck playing a dumb character that routinely hijacks the movie.
The newest Day the Earth Stood Still does little to justify its existence. This remake would have been better served either cribbing more of the superior original film or just cut off all ties. The remake tries to incorporate plot points that don’t work while also trying to tell its own environmental tale with bigger effects, which also doesn’t fully work. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a plodding and unnecessary remake that fails to stumble into an exciting scenario despite the fact that it involves aliens threatening the planet. But hey, it is in color.
Nate’s Grade: C
Street Kings (2008)
This is a wildly overwrought and sleazy drama is hoping to come across as edgy but everything is so overdone. It fulfills all the requisite elements of the modern crime picture; double crosses, forlorn anti-heroes, bloody violence, but Street Kings misses the mark big time when it comes to any nuance. Every beat of this murky, convoluted dirty cops mystery is plain and obvious. If you cannot guess within minutes who the eventual culprits will be then you haven’t seen enough movies. Every character is a cliché of a cliché, every unrestrained actor is constantly speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, and the dialogue is some of the worst I’ve heard all year. Keanu Reeves is a listless leading man who is blank and lifeless, unable to wrestle the dark and complicated emotions needed for a “cop on the edge” role. I can practically feel Forest Whitaker’s spittle every time he speaks. Street Kings feels like a route retread of rogue cop pictures, which are director David Ayer’s specialty. It wants to shine a light on the seedy underbelly of the law but it can’t stop from feeling like a lobotomized version of L.A. Confidential (Note to Ayer: Jay Mohr + mustache = an arrangement that benefits neither party).
Nate’s Grade: D
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