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John Wick

Ah, Keanu Reeves. For a long time, I foolishly dismissed him as just a mediocre wooden actor, and I still consider his performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula a crime against cinema. With time, I learned to appreciate his unique onscreen presence and a peculiar blend of masculine and feminine qualities; he might not have the greatest range but he’s a fantastic physical actor and in a right role, his performances are truly iconic. John Wick is one of those perfect vehicles for Reeves’ particular set of talents.

The plot is simplicity itself: John Wick is a retired assassin with a legendary reputation, who seeks vengeance after a bratty son of a Russian gangster (Alfie Allen) and his thugs steal his car and kill his dog. The adorable puppy was a last gift from John’s wife who recently passed away from terminal illness. So John digs up his old guns, and proceeds to kill a shitload of mobsters. The end! I bet to myself by the way that, although he mows down countless men, our protagonist will not get to kill the movie’s only female assassin, and of course I won the bet.

Though it’s basically a simple revenge thriller, John Wick does some neat world-building along the way, my favourite detail being the Continental Hotel, a posh place that caters exclusively to the criminal underworld and strictly forbids “business” on its premises. The fine manners and courtliness of the hotel make for an amusing contrast to the brutal violence. The film is also populated by a bunch of colourful characters played by some top-notch actors, including Michael Nyqvist as Viggo Tarasov, the head of the Russian crime syndicate and the father of John’s target, and Willem Dafoe as John’s old mentor with murky loyalties.

In the short “making of” featurette included on the DVD, everyone involved was heaping praise on Keanu Reeves for his commitment to the role, and it really shows onscreen as he moves through the masterfully choreographed carnage and gun fights with style and physical grace. It’s refreshing to see carefully designed action scenes without nauseating shaky-cam. While the movie gets an A for action, cinematography and Keanu Reeves’ cool and charismatic lead turn, the “Russian” mobsters get a D- for their attempt at Russian dialogue, which I found often incomprehensible and cringeworthy as hell. I also give the filmmakers a D for their half-assed research of the Russian folklore; sorry but Baba Yaga does not translate as the Bogeyman in English.

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Baby Driver

I had a couple of biases to overcome in order to watch this movie. Firstly, the unattractive title that makes you think of some dumb third-rate summer comedy (a baby gets behind the wheel and hilarity ensues!). And then there was its lead actor, Ansel Elgort, whose punchable turn in the otherwise decent The Fault in Our Stars irritated the crap out of me. Well, I judged prematurely, because he’s more than fine in Baby Driver, and the movie itself is a rarity these days, a truly idiosyncratic thriller that doesn’t feel like a product of a committee.

In many ways, Baby Driver is a film about music disguised as a car-chase heist flick. Its eponymous hero is a young getaway driver, who has been working for kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), paying off an old debt. Baby is not a bad sort, and as the film begins, he’s only a couple more jobs away from freedom. While Doc never employs the same crew twice, there’s always someone in the bunch who’s unsettled by Baby’s quirks: he barely ever speaks and he hardly ever takes his earphones out. Baby needs his tunes (different i-Pods with different playlists to suit the mood) to drown out his tinnitus, the result of a childhood car accident, but his passion for music goes further than that. At home he cares for his old deaf foster dad, and spends time making mix tapes from his secret recordings of gang meetings. When he meets the girl of his dreams, a waitress called Debora (Lily James), the two get to have nerdy conversations about music and songs with their names in them – when Debora learns Baby’s name she exclaims that he’s got everyone beat.

The film weaves music and the love of music into the story in inventive and joyful ways – some action scenes aren’t just set to the music, but carefully match the beats of a meticulously chosen song. The opening credits sequence could make one think they’re about to watch a musical, and there was a brief (and perhaps unintentional) reminder of La La Land’s primary colours in the scene where Baby and Debora visit a laundry and you see brightly coloured clothes spinning inside the dryers.

The car chase sequences are exceptional and some of the most exhilarating and well-choreographed action scenes I’ve seen in a long time, but whether Baby’s behind the wheel or romancing Debora, the movie is just tremendous fun to watch. The superb supporting cast is one of its biggest strengths. Other than Spacey’s boss, the standouts are Baby’s partners in crime played by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, a violent loose cannon and a deceptively laidback ex-Wall Street man, respectively. The film’s only real weakness is a crucial plot point involving Spacey’s character where things get implausibly sentimental, but it’s a minor complaint about an otherwise excellent and fresh offering from Edgar Wright.

Oh and have I played Queen’s Brighton Rock over and over since watching the movie? Oh yes.

Alien Vs. Predator

Maybe it’s just the power of lowered (and I mean lowered) expectations, but to my surprise I didn’t hate this much-maligned crossover, and, from a certain perspective, found it a more enjoyable experience than the recent Alien: Covenant. Or perhaps I was simply able to disassociate it from the Alien franchise altogether, and watch it on its own terms as a trashy B-movie. Which yes is filled with cardboard-thin characters, laughable plot and much stupidity, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun watching it.

The story is as basic as it comes and there’s absolutely no point trying to make it fit into the continuity of the Alien franchise, unless you want your brains to curdle. In the year 2004, Weyland Corporation, headed by Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen of the Aliens‘ Bishop fame, whose casting here makes no sense, but nothing else does either), finds a mysterious ancient pyramid resting deep under Antarctica. He assembles a crack team of scientists, drillers and explorers, led by Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan). Her badassery is established in the most cliche way possible: she climbs a dangerous ice wall and simultaneously discusses the job offer on the phone. What the clueless humans don’t know is that the pyramid complex is a hunting ground designed by the Predators, where they could hunt specially bred xenomorphs to prove their manhood… Predatorhood… whatever, while the ancient humans worshipped Predators as gods and served as breeding vessels. Very soon, Weyland’s team ends up being caught in the middle of epic smackdowns between the two warring species. But you know Alexa’s companions are going to be toast anyway, because no one can hope to survive after showing a happy snap of their kids in a horror film.

All of this is extremely silly, and my internal running commentary for the first half of the movie ran something like, Huh? What? Why are they doing this? But once the Team Stupid gets inside the pyramid and things go from bad to worse, the movie is an entertaining action/horror romp to watch. I’ve watched enough movies which are bad in a drab and humourless way, to appreciate the fun bad movies; I really can’t hate a film that has something as hilarious as a shot of a facehugger jumping in bullet time.

The production design looks pretty damn good and the pyramid interiors are suitably lavish and creepy. The effects for the Aliens and Predators hold up well, and the movie gets props for bringing back the Alien Queen. The R-rated human bloodshed is noticeably missing, but the movie at least doesn’t hold back where the monster-on-monster damage is concerned. A completely unexpected bonus was Sanaa Lathan as the chief protagonist; there’s really nothing much to her character as written, but she makes her appealing and easy to root for. Alexa is no Ripley maybe but she’s also not the forgettable what’s-her-name from Alien: Covenant.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-upCome back, Star Wars prequels, all is forgi…

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Ok maybe not. But given the choice, I think I’d still prefer to re-watch George Lucas’ misguided trilogy rather than this latest soulless snorefest from Disney. As terrible and stilted the prequels are, they’re at least terrible in a zany, colourful and unique way and whatever else they made me feel it wasn’t boredom.

Rogue One is the first entry in the probably never-ending stream of stand-alone Star Wars films, unconnected to the main Skywalker saga but also acting as a prequel to A New Hope. It tells the story of how the Rebels managed to get their hands on the plans for the Death Star… which to be honest didn’t really set my interest alight when I first heard it, because honestly who cares how they got them? Still, there was no reason why they couldn’t have made an entertaining flick about it, and the largely positive reviews persuaded me to watch it.

I guess I should mention some positives before I tear this movie apart. Gareth Edwards, the director, has an eye for visuals, composition and sense of scale, and the movie has some beautiful locations and elegant images. The opening scenes, shot in Iceland, were especially striking. Darth Vader’s screentime is pure unadulterated fanservice, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the appearance of one of the cinema’s greatest villains thrilling. The Star Wars action porn in the third act, involving just about everything fans loved about the action in the original trilogy (X-Wings! TIE fighters! Walkers!) is undoubtedly well-shot and is probably the main source of goodwill this movie seems to have.

Unfortunately, while Edwards has a way with effects and action, he’s got no clue how to handle human characters and drama. Say what you will about J.J. Abrams’ shortcomings as a storyteller and the underwritten, inconsistent characterisation that plagued The Force Awakens, he’s phenomenal at getting lively, natural performances and squeezing the last drop of charisma and chemistry from his cast. In Rogue One, flat line deliveries rule the day and no one is allowed charisma. You can see some actors try and inject individuality into their characters, but because the director has no clue about who these people are they’re getting no help from him and just end up flailing. Everyone is dull and drab as dishwater, including the main character of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, just as wasted here as he was in Doctor Strange), an engineer who plays a key role in the creation of the Death Star. Jyn’s relationship with her father is supposed to be at the heart of the film, but it spends no time on the father/daughter bond before the Erso family’s peace is broken by the arrival of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, need I say he’s wasted as well?), director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial military. Galen is taken, his wife is killed, and Jyn escapes, and before you know it boom she’s a sullen grown-up miscreant who gets recruited for a mission by the Rebellion. Because we never get to know Jyn as a person, all the father/daughter emotional beats land with an indifferent thud and her later transformation into the leader for the Rebel cause is completely unconvincing.

The multiple supporting characters are even flatter than Jyn if it’s possible, and are introduced in a rushed manner as the first act hops manically from planet to planet, hastily throwing in a bunch of ciphers I never got to care about. Donnie Yen’s blind warrior monk comes closest to being a distinct personality and cracks the film’s only joke to get a chuckle out of me. The official comic relief is the former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but his brand of humour is so at odds with the film’s overall vibe it feels out of place. The absolute nadir however is the ghastly CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing as the Grand Moff Tarkin, which made me feel like I was suddenly dropped into one of my brother’s video games. Sorry but the technology is not anywhere near good enough yet to simulate a real living human being, and this distracting uncanny valley creation gave me the creeps.

The idea behind Rogue One would naturally lend itself to a classic heist film, but the movie wastes the entire first two acts on detours and boring Erso family drama before it finally gets to the all-important mission and the big action scenes. But because my emotional involvement by that time was nil, the action simply feels exhausting and the tragic loss of life doesn’t move. There’s an attempt there by the filmmakers to try a more nuanced, morally grey approach, but in the end it all feels like mere lip service. It’s still about the good guys mowing down the bad guys without any qualms, and no real humanity given to the Imperials. Which is not really a problem in a Star Wars universe with its black-and-white, fairytale-like morality, but it really doesn’t work in a “serious”, supposedly gritty movie that sets out to be the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars.

I’m still interested in Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, but the Star Wars stand-alone movies are off to a dismal start and may be showing up the limitations of this universe.