Friday, 31 August 2018

John Wick 2 (2017)

Keanu tools up for my running, jumping and shooting in genial, but perfunctory, sequel John Wick 2

Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D’Antonio), Ian McShane (Winston), Ruby Rose (Ares), Common (Cassian), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D’Antonio), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (The Bowery King), Franco Nero (Julius), Peter Stormare (Abram Tarasov)

It’s that age-old story: every time you think you’re out, they drag you back in. Well that’s what we get with John Wick (Keanu Reeves). Picking up where the last film stopped, Wick is approached by mafioso head Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants Wick to assassinate his sister, who has been promoted to head of the business over him. Eventually (after much pressure) Wick agrees – and quickly finds himself betrayed and on the run.

The first John Wick has a real charm about it, the sort of film you can really enjoy because tonally it gets itself absolutely spot on. It’s a lot of action fun, it manages not to take itself too seriously and it sets its hero up as someone very sympathetic who only goes on a rampage of violence under extreme provocation. The sequel attempts to double down on all of this and give us more of the same – but not always to the same impact.

Part of the issue is that there just isn’t the same engaging story at the heart of it. I totally understand John Wick in the first film, and completely got what it was that he was doing in the film – that essentially avenging his dog was about getting revenge on those who had taken the only thing he had left from his relationship with his wife. Here the lines are a lot more blurred – John basically saddles up under extreme provocation and blackmail and then basically spends the film killing people left, right and centre – first for someone else, then to get revenge for being betrayed back into this life (or something like that), and then finally because he's just really pissed.

So that emotional grounding behind all the killing – and the thing that makes John Wick pretty likeable in the first film – gets lost. Instead he’s just a ruthlessly efficient killing machine – and while that is fun to watch, it’s not as immediately engaging as the first film. In fact, the second film (aiming to go bigger and better) is basically just three orgies of gunplay and violence, linked together by a few tongue-in-cheek dialogue scenes.

It’s another of those films made for YouTube clips. The action scenes can pretty much be watched and enjoyed without the burden of trawling through the nonsense plot, so you might as well hunt those down online and watch them alone. They’re really well done, extremely well shot and pretty exciting (if covered in claret). The rest of the film you can take or leave to be honest.

That’s despite all the best efforts of those involved. Keanu Reeves still brings a slacker charm to the role, even if it’s one that doesn’t stretch even his limited acting range. Ian McShane has a decent, fun turn as an influential member of a shadowy criminal organisation. We even get a rather dry Matrix reunion between Reeves and Fishburne. It’s very well directed and there are occasional good jokes.

However, it lacks a decent villain (Scamarcio as a Mafia baddie is singularly uninspiring), it goes on too long and, most of all, it’s just not quite as good as the first film. There the “world building” around the edges of the film was a fun aside from the action. Here it’s the focus – with strange councils and mystical rules all over the place – and that just doesn’t quite work as well.

John Wick 2 is fun, don’t get me wrong. But somehow it feels less charming and more bloated, something that is starting to feel itself a little too important and, in throwing more and more at the screen, means you lose the heart of some of the original.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Bad Day at Black Rock (1956)

Spencer Tracy is the only just man in town, in brilliant modern Western Bad Day at Black Rock

Director: John Sturges
Cast: Spencer Tracy (John J Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Sheriff Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc Viele), John Ericson (Pete Wirth), Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble), Lee Marvin (Hector David), Russell Collins (Mr Hastings), Walter Sande (Sam)

A man walks into a town. It’s a dust bowl town, looks like it’s just one street with a few buildings. The natives sit warily outside the bar and treat the stranger with suspicion. Trigger fingers are itchy. Is it the Wild West? No it’s 1945, but the new guy in town is about to find out just how unfriendly the American West can be. Just as well that, despite only having one hand, he’s more than capable of looking after himself.

Spencer Tracy, perfect as a man of rigid principles and certainties who won’t waver in the face of any intimidation, is our no-nonsense hero Macreedy. Arriving in town, he’s looking for Japanese-American farmer Komoko, father of a deceased colleague from the war, but no one wants to talk about where he is or what happened to him. Sheriff Horn (Dean Jagger) is an alcoholic who doesn’t want to know anything, the local doctor (Walter Brennan) doesn’t want to get involved and hotel clerk Pete (John Ericson) doesn’t want to give Macreedy a home. Macreedy is tailed on arrival by a couple of intimidating heavies (Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin – the go-to guys at the time for these sort of roles), and quickly works out the town is run by local businessman Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) – and any secrets it holds ain’t coming out easy.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a classic western, set in a time when the world of the West had been left far behind. American culture has a romantic longing for rural, small-town America, and the heroic past of the pioneers of the old West. Bad Day inverts a lot of this mythology: this America is horribly corrupt, unspeakably racist and hiding no end of dirty linen in its cupboards. In fact, small-town America is horrible, while the man from the big city represents all that is good – that in itself is quite a surprise turnaround from what you might expect from Hollywood.

In many ways it’s a very simple, very gripping, film. Macreedy’s arrival in the town sparks guilty consciences and sets the town bully, Reno Smith, into a quiet, panicked breakdown. We know watching it roughly where the film is likely to go. However, what Sturges does well is to invest this with so much attention. Huge chunks of the film involve both Macreedy and the men of the town, tensely trying to work out what is going on, or watching and waiting to see what opportunities there will be. It’s a film packed with moments of waiting or characters sitting and watching, talking around subjects rather than tackling the big questions they want to ask. It sounds slow but it actually builds up an extraordinary amount of danger and feeling of danger.

It’s a drama that works on the slow burn while also being a very short, snappily paced film. The best part of the first half-hour of the film is the careful establishing of the atmosphere, the relationships between the different characters, and the politics of this Western town. In the middle of this we have Macreedy, the man of mystery whom we know nothing about, who never seems to rise to the unfriendly intimidation he meets from every corner. You know that all this tension is going to erupt into something serious – but the film constantly leaves you guessing exactly how it will pan out and keeps you surprised about who ends up on which side.

You couldn’t get a better actor for this role than Spencer Tracy. There is something so rigidly determined about Tracy in this film, so adamantine and determined – the sort of man who operates in rights and wrongs, who even in this world of intimidation and terror tries to play by some sort of rules for as long as he possibly can. What’s so great about Tracy in this film is that he seems like both a stranger in black and a disappointed dad, with the people in the town constantly letting him down. The film also teases us for a long time – we suspect throughout that Macreedy is more dangerous and more capable of looking after himself than he appears. (It was Tracy who insisted, by the way, that Macreedy be made one-armed, as he thought it could give Macreedy an interesting vulnerability to overcome). 

The film makes us wait for its three action set-pieces: a car chase, a bar fight and a shoot-out. But it’s perfect in its patience, because violence always seems like it could burst out at any time. Marvin and Borgnine as the obvious heavies do great work as different types of overt muscle. Robert Ryan as the corrupt guy who really runs the town is especially good as a man who seems, under his dominance, to only just be holding onto his self-control, going to great lengths to prevent himself getting into trouble. It’s a point that Macreedy himself makes – deep down, Smith doesn’t have the guts to do his dirty work alone, and gets his strength from controlling others. All this delicate mixture of guilt and fear that bubbles under the surface of Smith is apparent in Ryan’s excellent performance.

But then no-one in the town is in control. Dean Jagger’s moral weakling sheriff is a drunk and a pathetic loser. Walter Brennan’s (very good) doctor wants to do the right thing, but lacks the guts to do it. John Ericsen’s hotel clerk knows he’s in the wrong, but isn’t brave enough to stand his ground. Their lack of control is in fact the root of the problem – Macreedy would never have suspected there were any dark secrets to uncover in the town if the people there hadn’t treated him with such overt suspicion. Sturges captures this perfectly (even if I think the Cinemascope width of shot isn’t perfect for a film that gets so much play out of claustrophobia and suspicion).

Politically the film is pretty simple – racism ain’t good you know – but as an example of brilliantly assembled Western tension and moral righteousness, mixed with a bit of action, adventure and claustrophobia, it works really well. Brilliantly directed, and very well written as a piece of expressive theatre, this is terrific with some wonderful performances. And front and centre is Spencer Tracy as the ultimate man in black, a man with moral certainty and courage, whom it’s impossible not to admire.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Nightwatching (2007)

Martin Freeman is the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn in this bizarre part drama part art lecture

Director: Peter Greenaway
Cast: Martin Freeman (Rembrandt), Eva Birthistle (Saskia van uylenburg), Jodhi May (Geertje Dircx), Emily Holmes (Hendrickje Stoffels), Toby Jones (Gerard Dou), Jonathan Holmes (Ferdinand Bol), Natalie Press (Marieka), Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Marita), Adrian Lukis (Frans Banning Cocq), Adam Kotz (Willem van Ruytenburch), Michael Culkin (Herman Wormskerck)

There are few artists who have such a distinctive visual style as Rembrandt van Rijn, perhaps the greatest of the Dutch masters. And there are few filmmakers with such distinctive style as Peter Greenaway. So this film is a sort of perfect marriage: Greenaway, the man who claims most of the world is visually illiterate and incapable of understanding the grace and depth of visual images (be they film or painting), taking the secret language of Rembrandt’s paintings.

Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is hired to paint the Militia Company of District II. There is, however, a conspiracy in the company. Captain Hasselberg (Andrzek Seweryn), the original commissioner of the painting, is killed, seemingly in an accident, and replaced by Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis) and his lickspittle deputy Willem van Ruytenburch (Adam Kotz). Rembrandt believes the accident was in fact murder, removing Hasselberg so that the other members of the militia can profit in a financial deal with the British government (I won’t go into the details). Alongside this, the film also looks at the personal life of Rembrandt and his relationship with his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) and, after her death, his maids and mistresses, Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickhe Stoffels (Emily Holmes).

Peter Greenaway is a visual stylist that’s for sure. The film takes place (apart from a few outdoor sequences in a forest) in a sort of representative set that looks a bit like a combination of a theatre stage and the bare framework of a Dutch interior painting. The camera frequently uses the width of the frame to squeeze in full-body shots of its characters, and the width and depth of the room, to try and replicate as much as possible the look and feel of these artworks. An early discussion of colour (and how to describe it) is illustrated by Geertje opening curtains in a representation of Rembrandt’s bedroom, with each colour (red-yellow-blue) in turn flooding the room from the open windows. The film looks distinctive and impressive, the costume design is meticulously researched, and the artful framing to ape the conventions and styles of Rembrandt’s painting is extremely well done.

What is less well done is the actual story itself, which is largely inert and frequently dull, and takes ages to outline what is, to be honest, a not particularly interesting conspiracy. It then intercuts this with scenes and moments from Rembrandt’s domestic life, but never ties the two of these together into something coherent. Too immersed in the details of the case to be the sort of dream-cum-fantasy of previous Greenaway films like The Draughtman’s Contract, and too preoccupied with the director’s narrative laxity to become a proper character study or piece of investigative fiction, the film rather uncomfortably falls between two stools becoming neither one thing or the other.

In fact, you almost sense Greenaway’s heart wasn’t really in it, that he really wanted to make Rembrandt J’Accuse, the companion art lecture illustrated with moments from this film, which really goes to town on his conspiracy theory. The details of the conspiracy (extremely hard to follow here) are at least easier to follow in Rembrandt J’Accuse, where they make a batty but enjoyable Dan Brownish argument – even if it is based on hands being drawn “without commitment” and elastic interpretations of visual language. To be honest, for all that Rembrandt J’Accuse is a bit odd – and that Peter Greenaway has an air of an ultra-pretentious Johnny Ball in his addresses to the camera – it actually makes a far more compelling piece of cinema than the narrative film it sits alongside.

Which is a shame because, as well as the design, there is a lot of good stuff here, not least in the performance of Martin Freeman. Cinema and TV’s eternal nice-guy gets to stretch himself fantastically as an electric, compelling genius overflowing with passion, ideas, intelligence and a chippy (frequently foul mouthed) confidence, mixed with an insatiable sex drive and nose-thumbing defiance. Freeman really gets the sense of a complex, earthy, fiery man who knows he is the smartest man in the room, and is extremely cocky with it – but also has a keen sense of justice and decency. It’s about a million miles away from Tim or Bilbo, and a big reminder that he is a hell of a performer.

Put Freeman in with the thrilling design and painterly flourishes of the film, and you’ve got sections that are really worth watching. Eva Birthistle is very good as his intelligent and articulate wife, as is Johdi May as his earthy, ill-tempered, sensual lover. Nathalie Press is heart-breaking as an illegitimate girl with a tragic life. Adrian Lukis is particularly smarmy and vile as the head of the militia. In fact, most of the performances are great.

It’s just the story is not. Moments of investigation are just building into something logical and coherent when they get interrupted by straight-to-camera addresses (very odd) from the members of the Rembrandt household explaining their personal situations. Just as we start to get invested in the loves of Rembrandt, we get thrown back into the dull conspiracy. When the two overlap, neither is really served. The story frankly isn’t interesting enough. That’s even before you have to wade through the inevitable Greenaway penchant for including as much full-frontal nudity as possible (Freeman and May in particular) and graphic sex in multiple positions and orifices. I mean, I get it, Rembrandt was a lusty guy but do we need to keep seeing it?

Nightwatching is a bizarre oddity – a vehicle for a commanding lead performance, with an actor cast way against type, that never decides whether it is some sort of biography of an artist or a secret-history-expose of a conspiracy forgotten by time. As always with conspiracy theories you suspect the obvious-but-dull is probably the truth – Rembrandt delivered a painting that was so radically different from the dull line-up paintings of this genre that it shook up the art world (not in a good way) and then he fell out of fashion, didn’t have a good understanding of money, and went bankrupt, rather than being destroyed by a shadowy Amsterdam cabal. Greenaway is so in love with his theories – and his usual lusty and psychological obsessions – that he ends up with something that is neither a drama or an art lecture but somewhere in the middle with the worst aspects of both.