Willem Dafoe

John Wick

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2014

Lionsgate/Entertainment One Films/Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Chad Stahelski

Produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch and Eva Longoria

Written by Derek Kolstad

Those of you who are dog lovers should be advised that there is a fairly graphic murder of a dog in JOHN WICK. I feel obligated to mention this because while many of you have no problem going to see a movie where human beings are machine gunned to pieces, stabbed, blown-up, incinerated and otherwise killed in all sorts of horrible ways, you would have a stroke right there in the theater seeing a dog get killed on screen.  But you should also know that the title character more than gets revenge for the murder for his dog. Does he ever. JOHN WICK has one of the highest body counts I’ve seen in an action movie recently. In fact, considering all the property damage, killings and general mayhem John Wick (Keanu Reeves) commits during the course of the movie you kinda understand how one of the bad guys feels when he screams out just before taking a bullet in the forehead; “It was just a @#$%^& DOG!”

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But it wasn’t “just a dog.” That’s the point. It was the last gift given to John by his late wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) as a way to help him cope with his grief. She knew she was dying from cancer and arraigned to have the dog delivered to him after she was gone. The dog, named Daisy is a victim of a home invasion committed by Iosef Tarasov, (Alfie Allen) would be Russian gangster. John had an altercation with Iosef at a gas station earlier as Iosef wanted to buy John’s vintage 1969 Mustang. Iosef and his two cohorts break into John’s house, steal his car and kill Daisy.

Turns out that John Wick is well known to Iosef’s daddy, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) who is a Real Russian gangster. In fact, he’s the head of the New York branch of the Russian Mafia and he tells his idiot son that he wouldn’t be where he was if it wasn’t for the lethal abilities of John Wick. “You make him sound like The Boogeyman,” Iosef sneers.

“He’s not,” his father replies. “He’s the guy you send to kill The Boogeyman.”

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Viggo tries to talk John out of killing his son but he might as well try to reason with a tsunami. John proceeds to tear through Viggo’s men with a frightening, cold-blooded precision, upping the stakes of the game until Viggo has no choice place a $2 million bounty on John’s head. A bounty that attracts the attention of two of his old friends: Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) assassins whose skills are just about equal to John Wick’s…

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Besides the high-octane shootouts and truly suspenseful hand-to-hand combats, JOHN WICK really delightedly me with its suggestion of a larger world outside of the movie that we were watching. A world where professional assassins and contact killers operate under an extraordinary code of rules that if broken mean instant death. Krugerrands in this world aren’t just gold coins. They’re mystical talismans that open secret doors and act as passports and letters of transit. One of the most fascinating concepts in the movie is The Continental, a New York hotel that apparently caters only to assassins. Owned by Winston (Ian McShane) and managed by Charon (Lance Reddick) The Continental is fascinating enough to deserve a movie of its own.

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Besides the actors already mentioned we’re also got John Leguizamo, Dean Winters, Clarke Peters, Kevin Nash and David Patrick Kelly showing up in what are essentially glorified cameos with the exception of Winters, who plays Viggo’s right hand man and gets more mileage out of a running gag about his inability to understand Russian than the gag deserves but he makes the payoff worth it. And I like Keanu Reeves a lot as an action star. Always have. I really don’t understand the hate for him as he’s always impressed me as a guy who has no pretentions about what he does. He makes movies for a living and he does it the best he can. And he does a great job here. He understands that in an action movie it’s his job to be the calm center and let the action revolve around him and that’s just what he does.

JOHN WICK is the latest entry in what I perceive as a return to the 1980’s Action Movie. We’ve had a lot of them lately. The “Taken” movies. The “Expendables” movies. The “Raid” movies and there’s a handful of others such as Sylvester Stallone in “Bullet In The Head” and Keven Costner in“Three Days To Kill.” Like those films, JOHN WICK is a B-Movie with an A-Movie budget and cast and it worked for me. It’s got a basic plot that’s just enough to get the movie going and once it does it served up enough full tilt boogie action to satisfy the action junkie in me. It’s stylish and just a little bit surreal. Highly Recommended.

101 Minutes

Rated R

The Grand Budapest Hotel

TGBH

 

2014

American Empirical Pictures/Fox Searchlight Studios

Directed by and Screenplay by Wes Anderson

Produced by Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steve M. Rales and Scott Rudin

Story by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guiness

One of the main characters in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL works in Mendl’s, a bakery that is renowned throughout the fictional European alpine country of Zubrowka. The confections that come out of Mendl’s are famous for not only tasting as if the angels themselves had baked them but they are also glorious works of art for the eye as well as for the tongue that one can spend hours just looking at, debating whether or not it’s too beautiful to be eaten.

That’s kind of an apt metaphor for this movie as well. Because THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is like a very rich cake or dessert that looks absolutely amazing and goes down very sweetly. Like other Wes Anderson movies, this one is an ornate visual treat.  A Wes Anderson movie doesn’t look like anybody else’s movies and I am thankful for that. He uses practical effects in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL such as miniatures, rear projection and matte painting. Right now some of you reading this are scratching your head and saying, “Why go through all that trouble? Why not just use CGI?” if so, then THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL in particular and Wes Anderson movies in general are not for you.

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The story of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is told in a flashback of a flashback and while that might sound confusing, it isn’t, trust me. We meet a Young Writer (Jude Law) in 1968 staying at the almost empty Grand Budapest Hotel. This once elegant establishment is slowly and stubbornly decaying beautifully. The Young Writer makes the acquaintance the hotel’s owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who takes a liking to the Young Writer and over a long dinner tells him the story of how Mr. Moustafa came to own The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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We now go to the 1930’s where Mr. Moustafa worked as a lobby boy at the hotel. Zero (Tony Revolori) is taken under the wing of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who acts like a benevolent monarch to the staff and an extraordinarily capable servant to the guests. Especially the ladies. And most especially the ones who are old and rich. M. Gustave reserves very special services for them (and a few men as well, it’s implied)

The plot (such as it is) gets going when one of M. Gustave’s conquests, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances. In her will she has left M. Gustave a priceless Renaissance Painting. Gustave’s claim on the painting is put in jeopardy by accusations from Madame D.’s son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) that Gustave himself murdered Madame D. Gustave takes the painting and goes on the run with the faithful Zero by his side, determined to clear himself and restore his good name.

And that’s really all you need to know about the plot because Wes Anderson doesn’t seem very interested in it himself. As usual, the strength of a Wes Anderson movie is the visuals and the characters. And Ralph Fiennes is indeed quite the character. Ralph Fiennes without a doubt delivers the best performance in the movie. On one level the character is totally ridiculous, delighting in his own pomposity, given to reciting or making up poetry on the spot. But on the other he’s supremely devoted to his position and his respect for the tradition of The Grand Budapest Hotel that is both endearing and in its own way, quite noble.

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His chemistry with Toney Revolori is delightful and one of the pleasures of the movie is to watch the wonderful friendship that develops between Gustave and Zero. The movie is chock full of interesting, quirky characters played by many familiar faces from Wes Anderson’s usual repertory of actors who appear in his movies such as Willem Dafoe, who is blackly hilarious as a hit man, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban. But there’s a whole host of other actors who pop up in cameos that will give you a nice thrill when you see them.

How does this stack up with the other Wes Anderson movies I’ve seen? I wouldn’t put it on the same shelf as “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” “Moonrise Kingdom” or “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” all of which are my favorite Wes Anderson movies. But I do rate it way higher than pretentious pap like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Darjeeling Limited”

It’s a luxurious and downright opulent movie that presents us with an entire world that has weight and depth and texture. I truly appreciate movies that don’t look like other movies and present stories a little bit skewed and makes me cock my head a bit to the side while watching it. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is well worth your time if you’re the type who likes your desserts just a little bit richer than is good for you. Enjoy.

Rated R

100 Minutes

John Carter

Walt Disney Pictures

2012

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Produced by Jim Morris and Colin Wilson

Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon

Based on “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It was while waiting in the theater lobby for my wife after we had just seen JOHN CARTER that I heard a snatch of conversation that most likely was duplicated in one way or another in movie theater lobbies all across the country.  It went something like this; “It would have been a better movie if it didn’t try to rip off so many other movies.”

If I was not the sweet, gentle soul you all know and love I would have put that worthy in a serious headlock and informed him that the book the movie JOHN CARTER is based on, “A Princess of Mars” was written back in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs who just about created the sub-genre of science fiction which could well be termed “Sword and Planet.”  With his series of novels set on the Red Planet, Mr. Burroughs also created a template for heroic adventure fiction that has has been homaged, borrowed, copied and downright stolen from then until now.  John Carter is the great-great grandfather of dozens, if not hundreds of heroes in comic books, novels, movies and television.  Not to mention the influence the books has had on writers, artists and scientists.  Most American astronauts will claim “A Princess of Mars” along with “Star Trek” as the major influence in them wanting to be an astronaut.  The importance of Edgar Rice Burroughs, his creation of John Carter and his vision of Mars simply cannot be overstated.

But that’s enough of the history lesson.  You’re here to find out if I think JOHN CARTER is worth your time and money.  Okay, for a change I won’t make you read the whole review to find out.  Yes.  JOHN CARTER is most definitely worth your time and your money.  Not having read the book in quite some time I’m not going to swear to the faithfulness of the adaptation but most of the major scenes rang true to me and they’re what I wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Confederate Army soldier who goes west to prospect for gold after The Civil War and finds a whole cave full of the stuff.  He also finds trouble from a Union Captain (Bryan Cranston) and some bloodthirsty Apaches.  This leads to Carter being trapped in the cave and transported to Barsoom, which is what the inhabitants of that planet call Mars.

The bewildered Carter is captured by Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe) the Jeddak (king) of the Tharks, the fierce Green Warriors of Barsoom.  Standing some seven feet tall with tusks, and a double torso with four arms, they are the first clue to the bewildered Earthman that he isn’t in Virginia anymore.  But it’s not as if Carter is entirely helpless.  Due to the lesser gravity of Barsoom and his denser bone/muscular structure he has the strength of a hundred men and is able to leap incredible distances.

Meanwhile, over in Helium which is home to the human looking Red Martians, they are realizing that they cannot win their long war with their hereditary enemies, the Zodanga.  Arraignments are made to marry the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to Zodanga’s ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West).

However, Dejah Thoris doesn’t think much of this at all and runs away, an act which leads her to being captured by the Tharks and meeting John Carter.  Once she sees his extraordinary abilities, combined with his exceptional swordsmanship, she sees a way out of her marriage and a way for Helium to win the war.  However, unknown to all, there is a third faction at work in this conflict.  The Holy Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) have been secretly manipulating conflict between the various tribes and races of Barsoom for thousands of years for their own hidden purposes.  And they’re not about to let a wild card like John Carter interfere in the plans they have for Barsoom.  Or Earth…

The sheer joy of seeing a major motion picture based on anything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs probably prevents me from seeing any flaws in the movie.  Taylor Kitsch wouldn’t have been my first choice for John Carter but after seeing him I don’t know who else could have played the role so well.  He commits himself fully to the story and the character and there was never a moment he wasn’t convincing.

As Dejah Thoris, Lynn Collins has a lot to live up to as Burroughs described her in the books as being so impossibly beautiful that any real woman would have a hard time fulfilling that description but she does the job admirably.  And her role in the story is fleshed out considerably by having her be a scientist/swordswoman  as well and not just a princess to be rescued.

Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkus and Thomas Haden Church as Tal Hajus, a rival Thark warrior do a superb job of giving the giant green warriors personality but Dominic West’s character could have been a better villain.  He’s little more than the errand boy for the Holy Tharns but West is such a good actor, I’m willing to let it go.

And maybe it’s just my thing, but when a movie costs as much as JOHN CARTER, I appreciate seeing it up on the screen and I certainly did.  This is a big-budget movie that actually does look like a big-budget movie with some really astonishing sets and eye-popping locations.  This is how a larger than life movie with larger than life characters is supposed to look.  Not like a TV movie on steroids.

Bottom line: I liked JOHN CARTER a lot.  It’s a movie made by talented folks who respect the source material and delivered what I was looking for and that’s more than enough for me.  Enjoy.

132 minutes

Rated PG-13