(On Cable TV, April 2018) There are stories that men tell each other in order to keep themselves in line. Don’t crush on crazy; don’t crawl inside the bottle; don’t run with criminals; don’t stray outside your marriage; don’t neglect your kids. Elementary life lessons, but worth repeating, often with maximal effect, in order to feel better about an ordinary life. When those morals are handled through genre methods, they become high-impact morality tales. Think Fatal Attraction. And if you give the story to a horror director like Eli Roth … well, you end up with something like Knock Knock, in which a good husband/dad finds himself powerless to resist the advances of two women when they show up at his doorstep when his wife and kids are away. What follows is a pair of steamy sex scenes. But what follows what follows is a merciless takedown of the man’s life using video and social media. The moral of the story here is clear enough: Destroy Facebook. Japes aside, does it work? Well, yes and no. Famously stoic Keanu Reeves is a curious choice as a good husband/dad, given that his innate reserve doesn’t really help him reach the emotional extremes required by the script. On the other hand, Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo are good picks as the ruthless temptresses—fortunately enough, since much of the Knock Knock’s credibility (or what passes for it given that it’s a quick-and-dirty exploitation film) depends on them—de Armas is particularly good, which explains why her career has taken off since then. Otherwise, though, the film does feel as if it doesn’t have enough depth to sustain its straightforward warning. It ends limply, in perhaps the tritest possible way. As a horror-erotic take on the home invasion genre, it sits uncomfortably between two very different genre—I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one (or fifteen) XXX-rated parodies focusing on the eroticism, and we’ve already seen an entire pure-horror home invasion subgenre come and go and come again. For Roth, who straddles the line between mainstream and extreme filmmaker, this is curiously tepid stuff—he’s obviously daring enough to feature two very explicit sex scenes, but the rest of the picture goes nowhere. As a result, Knock Knock doesn’t unnerve as much as it annoys, and that’s a fatal flaw in the kind of moral lesson it almost tries to be.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I first saw Johnny Mnemonic in theatres, on opening week, fully aware of what it meant for the cyberpunk subgenre to have none other than William Gibson scripting a big Hollywood movie. The mid-nineties were a heck of a time for a nerd like me diving deep in the Science Fiction pool, studying computer science and finally meeting like-minded persons. Johnny Mnemonic was a bit silly back then, but it felt like the future. Twenty-two years later … it has aged considerably, to the point that its silliness has been transformed in a patina of endearing retro-futurism. The unquestioned assumptions of cyberpunk are now vastly more entertaining as a fever dream of a future that will never be, than the harbinger of something to come. The movie’s special effects are exceptionally dated, the sets look cheap, the all-dark cinematography is annoying, the story is dull but the pile-up of clichés is now more spectacular than annoying. Then there’s Keanu Reeves, far too wooden to be effective—while I still like his “I want room service!” speech that more reluctant heroes should have, there’s something cruelly accurate in the 1996 jape that the film was unbelievable because it asked viewers to think that Reeves’s brain could hold too much information. Still, despite its faults, the film has now become almost an artistic statement in itself. Mid-nineties hair-down Dina Meyer is terrific (despite playing a watered-down version of Molly Millions), Toronto’s Union Station lobby and Montreal’s Jacques Cartier bridge both show up as settings, and there are short roles for no less than luminaries Henry Rollins and Ice-T. I’d be curious to know what Gibson thinks of it as a retro-futurist piece, especially given that one of his first stories (“The Gernsback Continuum”) tackled that very topic at a different time. But then again, there’s my personal connection to the film and how it touched upon what I was thinking about in the nineties, how I was anticipating the future and who I hung with (down to one of the minor characters looking a lot like a friend of mine.) No matter why, I enjoyed watching Johnny Mnemonic again … even though I still wouldn’t call it a good film.
(Video On-Demand, August 2017) The first John Wick was a small surprise: a lean and mean action film the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a while from big studios. It made Keanu Reeves cool again, showed why stunt-minded filmmakers could thrive in an age of CGI and made nearly everyone hungry for more. John Wick 2 arrives with self-awareness of what fans want to see, and the result is obvious from the opening action sequence bringing car stunts to the table. After that, the plot kicks in high gear by delving deeper in the comic-book-inspired mythology of the series, which features a shadowy underworld of professional assassins with hard-coded rules. The plot isn’t complex, but it works and its minimalism narrative leaves enough space for maximalist execution. Once again, the details and small action beats help sell the wild fantasy of the premise, such as pinning down an opponent while reloading, in the same movie where two assassins have a silenced gunfight in the middle of a subway station or a hallucinogenic hall-of-mirror sequence. Reeves is, once again, very good as the titular assassin, trying to get out of the hired-kill life but being drawn back even deeper. There are able supporting turns by Lawrence Fishburne and Ruby Rose. John Wick: Chapter 2 concludes on a note that is either an exhilarating set-up for a third volume, or a realistic acknowledgement that there is no end to violence and no happy ending for the character. Much of the original film’s surprise is gone, but it’s been supplanted with bigger-budget execution and much more of what made the first film so effective. There will be a third movie, and it’s eagerly awaited.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) My expectations were pleasantly exceeded by this Dracula’s grandiose and overdone take of Bram Stoker’s classic. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the film’s blend of pre-digital special effects, unabashed naughtiness, over-the-top direction (thanks to Francis Ford Coppola), melodramatic acting and scenery-chewing restlessness made it feel remarkably fresh even twenty-five years later. Adapting the epistolary Stoker novel will always be difficult, but Dracula gives it a spirited go, with a blend of various techniques to evoke the letters of the original, operatic visuals, dramatic dialogue and go-for-broke modernity. The special effects are made even better by the lack of a digital safety net, but Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins provide all of the film’s spectacle via consciously overdone acting. The film has far more sex appeal than I’d expected, laying bare the Victorian metaphors and double entendres that were in the novel, and making good use of Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost. (Plus, hey: an early role for Monica Bellucci.) The sour note here remains Keanu Reeves, earnest but sleepwalking though a role that demanded far more energy. Still, this Dracula is a lot of fun in its own devilish way, and it’s this eagerness to be as flamboyant as possible that makes the film still well worth seeing a quarter of a century later.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) I must have first watched Point Break on TV sometime during the mid-nineties, but revisiting the film twenty-five years later reveals a stripped-down thriller that has aged into something of an enjoyable period piece. It helps that Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is almost timeless, using both snappy editing and long shots (such as the FBI office scene) to effectively make the most of its moments. The great action sequences complement a serviceable plot template that has been copied a few times—I’m looking at you, The Fast and the Furious. Keanu Reeves is practically iconic as the standoffish Johnny Utah, while Patrick Swayze remains effortlessly cool as the antagonist. There is, as pop culture has noted in the past twenty-five years (hello, Hot Fuzz), a considerable amount of overdone melodrama in the result—but that quality, paradoxically, has helped Point Break remain distinctive even today. The early-nineties details are now charming, while the core of the film’s execution remains just as sharp today as it was then. There’s now a “remake”, but it’s not really essential viewing.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) What if you called for a police thriller and a psychological drama showed up? That was my first reaction after seeing the underwhelming Exposed, but after reading up on the film it turns out that the reverse is a pretty good explanation for what actually happened. Originally conceived as “Daughter of God”, a psychological drama with a minor police subplot, Exposed was radically restructured to put emphasis on the police subplot, leaving the rest of the film sticking out incongruously. (The director even took his name off the results.) It shows almost from the first few minutes, which presents what turns out to be a not-particularly objective sequence before the rules of the film have been set. The rest of the film feels a few frames away from a horror film, but turn out to have a rational explanation as long as your definition of “rational” includes hallucinations, twisted psyches and a gritty detour to the lower rungs of what humans are capable of doing to each other. It shouldn’t be surprising if the result ends up being a mess, and not a particularly likable one. The editing drags on, cuts weirdly and doesn’t do itself any favours with a deliberately off-putting mindscape even as viewers are conditioned to expect a straightforward police thriller. It really doesn’t help that Exposed ends abruptly, without tackling any of the consequences of what’s coming to the characters after the movie ends. A few good things do remain in the wreckage: a clean-cut Keanu Reeves isn’t a bad thing to watch (although his character doesn’t get any payoff from the cut-short ending). This is the first time I’ve seen Mira Sorvino show up in a movie in a long time, and the years have been kind to her, enabling her to play a minor role with far more gravitas than she would have been able to do a decade ago. But it’s Ana de Armas who shines in the lead role, doing well with a difficult character. Otherwise, the film just feels odd, and not in a deliberate way. The shift from police investigation to psychological horror could have worked with more forethought (I’m thinking about The Tall Man as an example) but here the film shows clear signs of production improvisation and it doesn’t take a tour through the film’s troubled production history to see the results of such tinkering on-screen.
(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…
(On Cable TV, April 2015) I can’t help but see in Man of Tai Chi an echo (and only an echo) of the kind of Hong-Kong martial arts movies I consumed so frequently in my twenties. It’s all about fights, fights and more fights, loosely coupled with a plot about a young man being seduced into a world of underground fighting. Surprisingly enough, the plot is a bit more interesting than the action sequences, especially in seeing how the protagonist (Tiger Hu Chen, sympathetic enough) eventually goes against a cold and mysterious business man (Keanu Reeves, making the most out of a relatively cold screen persona) while a policewoman (Karen Mok, surprisingly credible as a driven cop) tries to take down the lethal fighting organization. It’s more noteworthy to point out that this is Keanu Reeves’s first film as a director, and that he does pretty well in his freshman outing: his action sequences (choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo Ping) are fluid, he makes good use of lengthier shots and keeps the plot moving effectively. Man of Tai Chi also has the advantage of explicitly taking place in modern metropolis China, providing an interesting look at an area of the planet that is often ignored on American big screens. While this may not be more than comfort food for martial-arts enthusiasts, it’s well-made enough to be interesting even in-between the action sequences. As an homage to martial-arts film shot by a westerner, Man of Tai Chi would make an interesting double-bill with the more visually sumptuous The Man with the Iron Fists.
(On TV, March 2015) There’s an entire sub-genre of time-traveling romances by now, and few of them actually make any sense on any rigorous level. The Lake House is among the more ludicrous of them, as a fantastical mailbox allows for a man and a woman separated by two years to somehow carry forward an epistolary romance. The premise doesn’t make sense (and I’d urge you not to contemplate it any longer than necessary), but that doesn’t mean that the film is bereft of small pleasures. Keanu Reeves still isn’t much for showing emotions, but he’s not entirely badly cast as the lead. (Although my memories of his disastrous turn in Sweet November may be too recent to offer any kind of non-biased assessment.) Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock is steady-as-she-goes in a rather undemanding role. Much of the film’s effectiveness depends on whether you can simply respond to the star-crossed recipe and stop trying to find ways around their predicament. If you can, there are a few sweet scenes here and there, most notably a tour of the city two years apart or a lost book finding its way back. Would I be trying to reach for a deeper exploration of genre, I would probably use The Lake House as an example of way in which a familiar SF genre premise (transmission of information backward through time) is exploited non-rigorously by romance in order to illuminate a far more emotional premise (that is; lovers separated by insurmountable obstacles) without regard to the extrapolation techniques of hard-core genre fiction. While that mechanism may drive SF genre fans crazy, it will work far better for Romance fans, because their expectations are being fulfilled. Much in the same way than in a letter, sender and receiver have to be aligned…
(On Cable TV, March 2015) I’ve often been ready to defend Keanu Reeves against charges of excessive stiffness, but that resolve takes a serious hit after suffering through Sweet November from beginning to end. From the awkward doggy-talk opening to the ending in which he takes on terrible news with barely an eyebrow raised, Reeves simply isn’t fit for the role of a San Francisco ad executive who gets a life lesson from an eccentric young woman. He fits the early character arc as a cold and detached professional, but becomes increasingly miscast as the film asks some humanity. The rest of the film, truthfully, isn’t much better: Teetering between romantic drama and romantic comedy, the film ultimately remains faithful to its melancholic intentions but doesn’t seem to have earned its wistfulness. Much of the premise doesn’t make much sense either. If you look really hard, there’s a few good San Francisco shots, a few amusing moments between the supporting characters but not much more than that: Sweet November feels belabored, mechanical and easily dismissed. Too bad; fortunately Reeves has been used to much better effect since then.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) It’s not that 47 Ronin is an entirely bad movie. Its visuals are spectacular, its intentions are laudable and its actors do well. But despite the vast budget and the strong technical credentials, the film feels almost unbelievably… dull. Part of the issue seems to be meddling with the original story of the forty-seven Ronin: despite the addition of a half-Japanese protagonist and supernatural elements, nothing seems to raise the pulse of the film beyond the bare minimum of what an adventure is supposed to deliver to viewers. In keeping with the original, the conclusion is a downer, which does seem curious after a story that has been re-thought to include standard Hollywood tropes. At least one can revel in the visuals: the costumes are colorful, the CGI-enhanced camera swoops across the landscape, and some (only some) of the special effects are well-used. Rinko Kikuchi is the film’s standout performer as a villainous witch: it’s a bit of a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t measure up to her crazy energy. Otherwise, 47 Ronin is a fairly boring affair, neither historically accurate to be respectable, nor energetic enough to be enjoyable as a purely entertaining pop-corn romp. Carl Rinsch’s direction becomes incoherent the moment things start moving too quickly, and while the images are pretty, they’re not backed by flowing continuity: The story clunks without grace and the script doesn’t deliver much in terms of payoffs. There’s an odd feeling of mismatched sensibilities about Hollywood taking on the Forty-seven Ronin legend: I would have much rather seen a made-in-Japan film about the subject that a Westernized version with Keanu Reeves (far too old for the role, and playing it with his usual lack of affect) forced into it. If someone ever wonders how some film simply “don’t click”, 47 Ronin is as good an example as any.