Tag Archives: movie reviews
Freedom from Tyranny
John Wick: Chapter 4
by Hope Madden
What do you want to know? John Wick: Chapter 4 doesn’t disappoint.
Guns, blades, cars, swords, fire, motorcycles, explosions, horses, bludgeonings, fisticuffs, playing cards, dogs. Of course, dogs.
Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, Clancy Brown, Bill Skarsgard, Shamier Anderson, Aimee Kwan, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Keanu Reeves and Lance Reddick. Farewell, Lance.
Do you need to see the first three installments to follow the plot? No. It’s good to know that John Wick (Reeves) wears a bulletproof suit. Otherwise, he’d just look silly pulling up his lapel all the time. Other than that, you can probably figure out the gist. The stakes? High. The villains? Bad. The good guys? Professional villains. The best thing about being four episodes in is the needlessness of context or exposition.
Chad Stahelski returns to helm the latest, having carved out an impressive niche in action with his 2014 original. Since then, John Wick has become a cultural phenomenon sparking more copycat action flicks than Die Hard or Taken and solidifying Reeves as an undeniable if unusual cinematic presence.
Chapter 4 is not just more of what makes the series memorable, it’s better: better action, better cinematography, better fight choreography, better framing and shot selection. Sandwiched between inspired carnage are brief moments of exposition set within sumptuous visions of luxury and decadence. This movie is absolutely gorgeous.
One of the reasons each episode of this franchise surpasses the last is that the franchise is not exactly about John Wick. It’s a love letter to a canon, a song about the entire history of onscreen assassins and their honorable, meticulous action. Genre legends arrive and we accept a backstory that isn’t detailed or necessary because the actors carry their cinematic history with them, and that’s backstory enough.
It’s hard to believe it took this many sequels to get us to John Wick v Donnie Yen, but it was worth the wait. Yen’s wryly comedic presence injects the film with needed levity. Plus he’s a better actor than Reeves and he looks less silly when he runs.
Skarsgard – though his French accent is dubious – fits the bill as the diabolically privileged Marquis who’s forgotten that “a man’s ambition should never exceed his worth.”
Hats off to Stahelski, his entire ensemble, stunt department, action choreographers and crew. No one could have guessed back in 2014 how this would snowball, but the director at the helm has managed to up his game once again.
Return to Seoul
by George Wolf
“Your birth name is Yeon-Hee. It means ‘docile’ and ‘joyous.'”
None of those things apply to Frédérique (Park Ji-min), whose name was changed after a French couple adopted baby Yeon-Hee and moved her from Seoul to Paris.
25 years later, she’s back.
In Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul), the trip “home” becomes a catalyst for one woman’s search for identity, as director and co-writer Davy Chou crafts a relentlessly engrossing study of character and culture.
Now 25, “Freddie”‘s planned vacation in Japan is diverted by a typhoon, and she lands in Seoul “by surprise” – or so she tells her adoptive mother in France. But it isn’t long before Freddie is visiting the agency that handled her adoption, and reaching out to her birth parents to gauge interest in a meeting.
And from the minute we meet Freddie, she is purposefully upending the societal expectations of her heritage. When Freddie laughingly explains it away to her friend Tena (Guka Han) as “I’m French,” Tena quietly responds that Freddie is “also Korean.”
Freddie’s birth father and mother have very different reactions to her outreach. Chou moves the timeline incrementally forward, and Freddie’s two-week holiday becomes a new life in Seoul, one that’s fueled by restlessness and unrequited longing.
In her screen debut, Park is simply a revelation. Her experience as a visual artist clearly assists Park in realizing how to challenge the camera in a transfixing manner that implores us not to give up on her character. Freddie is carrying a soul-deep wound and pushes people away with a sometimes casual cruelty, but Park always grounds her with humanity and restraint.
As the narrative years go by, Chou adds flamboyance without seeming overly showy, and manages to toe a tricky line between singular characterization and a more universal comment on Korean adoptees.
Freddie begins to embody the typhoon that pushed her toward this journey of self, and Return to Seoul becomes an always defiant, sometimes bristling march to emotional release. And when that release comes, it is a rich and moving reward for a filmmaker, a performer, and all who choose to follow.
The Long Goodbye
One Fine Morning
by Hope Madden
“I wait for the thing that should come and it doesn’t.”
So says Georg Kienzler (Pascal Greggory, devastating), a retired philosophy scholar deteriorating under the weight of a neurodegenerative disease. His daughter Sandra understands.
One Fine Morning tempts you to believe it’s a film about nothing in particular. Mia Hansen-Løve conjures Claire Denis or even Kelly Reichardt in her approach to settling into a rhythm of small, intimate moments that tell a deeper if less tidy story than more clearly structured films. She robs the tale of melodrama, of obvious beats, and replaces those trappings with slice-of-life poetry.
Her poem is aided immeasurably by Léa Seydoux as Sandra, a widowed mother who’s already beginning to feel the loss of her father. An affair with an old friend complicates things by satisfying her profound longing while also leaving her vulnerable during an emotionally delicate period.
There’s a lot there that begs for drama, but it’s to the film’s great benefit that Hansen-Løve chooses nuance. A low-key melancholy colors this story of a woman losing pieces of herself. The beauty in that tone is matched by the raw authenticity in Seydoux’s performance.
Though she’s proven her talent a dozen times or more, this performance is a real departure for her. It’s open and vulnerable, effortlessly conveying the raw nerve this woman has become.
What Hansen-Løve captures so beautifully is the day-to-day tragedy of losing someone bit by bit and of the flashes of understandable, even necessary selfishness. Sandra is sole parent to precocious 8-year-old Linn (Camille Leban Martins), contends with facility options for her father, and oversees the unenviable task of sorting through his belongings while he’s still living. The filmmaker approaches all of this with the natural, relatable quiet persistence, resigned laughter, or unexpected tears that mark the reality of this situation.
For Your Consideration
by Hope Madden
A stylish indie ride through the seedier side of filmmaking, James Smith’s Casting Kill delivers laughs and surprises on a shoestring.
The anxiety at the core of Casting Kill exploits an actor’s vulnerability. There are countless openings for a predator to take advantage, including desperation for a role and personal insecurities. It’s staggering what an actor might put up with – might make themselves see as “eccentricity” – in order to get a gig.
In this case, they have to put up with Arthur Capstone, whose eccentricities run deep. Smug, self-important and biting, Capstone somehow still wants you to relax as you audition for him. Specifically, he’d like you to close your eyes.
Rob Laird is Capstone, an identity thief passing himself off as a Hollywood casting director. But stealing hapless actors’ identities is hardly this guy’s biggest kink.
Hopeful after hopeful arrives, each starry-eyed for the big break. The film has the most fun in this early montage of mostly terrible auditions. It’s a laugh that makes the film’s final moments land with a smirk and a chuckle.
Gareth Tidball is a charmer in a small, doomed role – though she keeps delivering even when her lines have run out. Andrew Elias injects a bit of macabre fun into an almost unending supply of creepy characters.
Caroline Spence’s script has a grisly blast with this conceit, looking at the casting process from every angle to give the film a “behind the curtain” vibe that suits it.
Smith’s direction intentionally recalls Hitchcock, a theme amplified by Shaun Finnegan’s score. Framing, camera angles, and in particular Smith’s use of color give the film an unsettling, off-kilter vibe that helps to offset Casting Kill’s lack of movement and action. Smith makes the most of the film’s tight quarters with shots that are equally lovely and bizarre.
From Starry Eyes to Neon Demon to Pearl and more, indie horror never seems to run out of horror stories about trying to make it big. That’s scary and a little sad in itself, but the result is, once again, a thoroughly entertaining film.
by Christie Robb
An academic coach to the children of the one percent, Ethan (Garrett Hedlund, Tulsa King), agrees to take a job that’s too good to be true.
A $2,500 a day under-the-table paycheck and housing on premises lures him into the life of Jackson (Noah Schnapp, Stranger Things), a highly-strung 17-year-old with boundary issues and a murky family life. But, Ethan has a baby on the way and the promise of extra cash helps him to tamp down his misgivings.
All is not as it seems, however. As Ethan spends more time with his client and the weird inhabitants of the mansion, it becomes clear that someone’s life is in danger.
Jordan Ross’s (Thumper) thriller doesn’t exactly tread new ground, but it is a solid entry in the genre. The movie has a dark academia aesthetic with a score that plays like classical music’s greatest hits.
Writer Ryan King’s story is a bit sketchy at the beginning. Some of the characters could have been developed more in the earlier scenes. Ethan and Jackson’s relationship, in particular, could have profited from a smidgen more screen time together before things start to take a turn.
But the final acts are rewarding enough to watch and there are plenty of red herrings scattered throughout to make guessing at the ending enjoyable. Hedlund becomes wonderfully unhinged as the film goes on and he plays off of Schnapp’s creepy kid-in-a-turtleneck pretty well.
Overall, the film could have used more character development, but it nails the vibe.
Screening Room: Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Inside, Boston Strangler, Magician’s Elephant & More
Shazam! Fury of the Gods
by Hope Madden
Filmmaker David F. Sandberg followed up the surprise horror hit Lights Out with a step into the Conjuring franchise, helming 2017’s Annabelle: Creation. And then in 2019 he took a sharp left turn to deliver the triumphantly adolescent superhero gem, Shazam!
This he followed with a literally four-hour film of himself flipping off the camera, titled I Flip You Off for Four Hours. I swear to God. And then back for the Shazam! sequel, Fury of the Gods.
Since he last saved the world and shared his superpowers with his foster siblings, Billy Batson has gotten clingy. Controlling, even. He’s about to turn 18 and age out of the foster system, and deep down, he’s afraid he’s going to lose his family.
Plus, there are these angry gods who want their power back, a power stolen from them by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and given away to a bunch of dumbass kids (Billy and those siblings).
Helen Mirren is a god. (I always expected as much.) And while the film suffers from the kind of superficial storytelling and sequel bloat that often plagues the second episode in a franchise, she’s glorious.
She’s also funny and badass – an excellent addition to the series. She’s joined by Lucy Liu as the angrier of the gods to look out for.
And even though there are multiple villains, the real problem is the multiple heroes and their multiple alter egos. Billy (Asher Angel) has five siblings, each of whom is now a hero, so that’s twelve characters to track. Plus mom and dad. Though the cast, Sandberg and screenwriters Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan offer clever shorthand characterizations, the result feels too slight.
Zachary Levi continues to shine, delivering the same infectious, boyish good nature that made the original such a charmer. And Sandberg’s direction continues to favor wonder over action, although the action continues to impress – not wow, but impress.
The result is a perfectly entertaining, thoroughly good natured opportunity to see Helen Mirren beat the tar out of some kids.
Funeral for a Friend
by Hope Madden
Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda like each other, this is clear. And mainly that’s meant good things for audiences. Their treasure 9 to 5 was smarter, funnier and more feminist than anything else 1980 was likely to see. They had seven solid seasons as besties on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.
Yes, we did have to sit through 80 for Brady, but at least that got adults back into theaters.
For Paul Weitz’s Moving On, the pair tosses aside broad comedy showcasing the hilarity of getting old in favor of something more insightful and less insulting.
Fonda plays Claire, in town from Ohio to go to her best friend’s funeral and murder the widower (Malcolm McDowell, as reliable a villain as ever). At the service, Claire runs into another old friend with no love lost for the old man, Evelyn (Lily Tomlin).
Maybe Evelyn will help!
As contrived and zany as that sounds on paper, in action it’s a relatively nuanced look at modern problems that aren’t really that modern. And though the story is overstuffed, Weitz (who also writes) and his leads draw attention to subtler comedy laced with the melancholy realities facing seventy- and eighty-somethings.
Fonda dials down the horny hijinks she seems to bring to every new role, and the tender evolution of Claire’s love life is far richer for it. Tomlin is Tomlin: eccentric, unaffected, maybe stoned, easily the coolest person in the room.
Part of what makes this duo so fun to watch is the way they balance each other out, and though the characters are allowed more room to breathe than usual, the result is the same.
Richard Roundtree charms as Claire’s ex, while Sarah Burns is the glue holding the film together portraying the bereaved adult daughter and only rational thinker.
Weitz tacks on a side story about a kid who likes to visit Evelyn and borrow her earrings, but the result is undernourished and adds little to the narrative. Tomlin’s great in these scenes, though, but even better in scenes on her own illustrating loneliness as it’s rarely been done.
What a refreshing film Moving On is. Not a great film, but a genuine piece of entertainment made for actors who deserve a project like this.
None More Black
by Hope Madden
A baby left in a cemetery grows up to search for answers. Why was she abandoned in such a place, wrapped in a blanket covered in satanic markings and wearing an inverted cross? She discovers her parents were in a Norwegian Black Metal band.
So, to be honest, that explains it. Common practice, probably, and yet Hunter (Alicia von Rittberg) wants to know more.
Wait, will there be Norwegian Black Metal in Alex Herron’s Leave? Nice!
Herron, bringing writer Thomas Moldestad’s mystery to the screen, pits what you think you know about good against evil as he uproots a New Englander for Norway’s shores and answers.
Von Rittberg’s American accent is spotty, but the performance isn’t weakened by it. Her vulnerable but determined performance ably captures Hunter’s existential dilemma. She’s polite, slightly needy, capable but a little desperate. And the smiling faces she finds may or may not really be her friends.
These faces belong to rock stars (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and schizophrenics (Morten Holst), spoiled cousins (Herman Tømmeraas) and clingy aunts (Ragnhild Gudbrandsen).
Herron’s atmosphere makes the safe look seedy and the dangerous appear benign, but there is more depth to the tale than that. Yes, every character is a little slower on the uptake than they should be. And yet, somehow – thanks mostly to the film’s understatement – you don’t disbelieve any of the characters. Stig R. Amdam delivers a particularly nuanced turn as the family patriarch.
There are interesting themes here concerning patriarchy and “Christianity”, but Herron doesn’t belabor the point. His film is rarely showy, and even at its most obvious this light touch keeps it engaging.
Still, I think I was promised Norwegian Black Metal.