A Most Wanted Man (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Most Wanted Man</strong> (2014)

(On Cable TV, May 2015)  Films adapted from John Le Carré’s espionage thrillers are a breed by themselves.  They are not meant to be conventionally exciting, feature spectacular action sequences or make anyone feel better about the state of the world.  They are meant to be (relatively) realistic interrogations about the nature of intelligence work in a world where nothing is either black or white.  So it is with A Most Wanted Man, a contemporary intelligence thriller where murkiness abounds, protagonists don’t play fair (because they know everyone else doesn’t) and victory can be extinguished in a moment.  It’s set in Hamburg, among potential fundamentalists, competing intelligence services and a flawed protagonist who’s trying to do his best despite the ambiguity of his circumstances.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific as a wheezing spymaster who think he’s seen everything: his world-weariness is only equalled by his ability to manipulate people and get them to do what he wants.  Not much actually happens in A Most Wanted Man, at least by the standards of other espionage thrillers.  But it does culminate in an unusual final sequence in which a signature is a victory, and where anything can happen at the most inopportune time.  It’s not exactly fun viewing, but it does fit nicely alongside other Le Carré adaptation like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardner as meditative thrillers with just enough real-world ugliness to be refreshing.  Don’t see it if you want an upbeat experience, but do try to see it.

John Wick (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">John Wick</strong> (2014)

(Video on Demand, May 2015)  Hitmen movies are a dime a dozen and so are revenge thrillers, but there’s something to be said for competent execution.  John Wick is right up there as a genre-savvy action thriller that completely understands what it’s doing, and seems determined to keep entertaining its audience even as it riffs off the oldest clichés in the book.  Keanu Reeves stars in a vengeful assassin role that’s not a bad fit for his acting range: He doesn’t have to emote much, and he’s able to meet the physical requirements of the stunts he has to do on-camera.  As with his Man of Tai Chi (and before that, of course, the Matrix trilogy), it’s easy to guess that his willingness to give himself up to his stunt experts give him added credibility in carrying the role.  Still, much praise goes to directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two stunt specialists who clearly understand what it takes to build an exciting action sequence: long shots, clean geography, dynamic camera moves, small details to build credibility (such as reloading bullets) and actors willing to commit to the demands of the film.  Add to that the hints of a deeper mythology in which assassins seem to operate within a subculture, and you get a film that deliriously enjoyable, not so much for seeing Reeves shoot people in the head as much as being in a universe where that kind of thing is possible.  There are some memorable action beats scattered throughout the film (the most striking being a drifting drive-by shooting), but the key point here isn’t so much the oft-ridiculous premise as much as the refreshingly good execution of the formula.  John Wick is the kind of out-of-nowhere modest surprises that still manages to entertain in a world dominated by franchise behemoths.  Alas, that means that the sequel is only a year or two away…

Space Station 76 (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Space Station 76</strong> (2014)

(On Cable TV, May 2015)  I seldom want to throw things at my TV during closing credits, but then again most movies aren’t as frustrating as Space Station 76.  I’ll admit that part of my frustration has to do with expectations: Nearly everything about the film’s marketing, from the title to the trailer to the poster to the premise, suggests a light-hearted ironic spoof far lighter than what we get here… because after only a few minutes, it becomes glaringly obvious that we are stuck in the saddest indie-drama imaginable.  As Space Spation 76 goes forward, the laughs never come: instead, we are prisoners of a bleak drama about crushing isolation, unhappiness and narcissistic characters.  The Science Fiction elements are not used with any rigor or invention, and the comedy goes way past humiliation into depression.  Fair enough; I wouldn’t be the first time marketing would sell an entirely different movie than what it is.  But what kills Space Station 76 isn’t mismatched expectations, but unfulfilled potential.  The film is bleak from beginning to end, and some sequences would be hard to stomach under any circumstances.  But the ending doesn’t actually resolve anything: it basically fades to black without much hope for the relatively small number of sympathetic characters imprisoned with the crazy ones.  People with sensitivities toward kids stuck in bad situation will be particularly infuriated by the Space Station 76’s refusal to provide closure.  But then again, most people will be frustrated by the film, no qualifiers needed.  As much as I usually like Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson… I don’t usually go out of my way to suggest people should avoid a movie, but –again- I’ll make an exception for this one.