Tag Archives: B

JOHN WICK

As a simple exercise in pulpish revenge cinema, “John Wick” is efficient and stylish, rattling off genre conventions with aplomb. If one is looking for a bit more than that, Chad Stahelski’s movie will not provide it. But why not be satisfied with what it does bring to the party?

Like Robert McCall, played by Denzel Washington in the recent misguided reboot of “The Equalizer,” the titular character here is retired from a career of violence. And like McCall, he’s grieving over the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan). But Washington’s character was a former CIA operative, a heroic type. Keanu Reeves’ John Wick is an antihero, a onetime legendary contract killer who abandoned the life for domesticity. And even now, he has no desire to return to his old trade, preferring to bond with Daisy, the loving Beagle puppy his wife arranged to be delivered after her funeral. (A reference to “Blondie,” perhaps?)

What changes his mind is an assault on his house by hotheaded Josef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, a suitably odious little snot), the son of Russian mob kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), for whom John once worked. Josef doesn’t know who Wick is, of course—he merely wants to appropriate the guy’s muscle car, a ’69 Mustang. But when he and his chums rough up Wick, steal the car and—gasp!—kill his dog, that pulls John back into the fray. And when he’s on the prowl, no one, and nothing, is safe, including great expanses of background scenery, like a glass-filled bar that’s pretty much devastated during one particularly prolonged sequence in which Wick dispatches a small army of Tarasov henchmen while on Josef’s trail. A church that serves as Viggo’s vault is another site that suffers a good deal of damage from Wick’s campaign—as does its corrupt pastor (Munro M. Bonnell), who’s in league with the mobster.

Along the way to the inevitable showdown—or series of showdowns, actually—other colorful characters appear. The most notable, after Viggo—played suavely by Nyqvist, with an undercurrent of menace just below the surface—is Marcus (the ever-reliable Willem Dafoe), a sharpshooting old colleague of John’s whose motives in the ensuing mayhem remain mysterious for a while. But there are also Avi (Dean Winters), Viggo’s yuppie aide-de-camp; Aurelio (John Leguizamo), a chop-shop owner in league with Viggo; Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), an ambitious femme fatale; and Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental, a hotel catering to professional assassins whose premises are off-limits to any violence—a rule that cannot be broken with impunity. All have their moments, but it’s McShane’s tongue-in-cheek turn that will certainly elicit the most smiles among genre aficionados.

There really isn’t much to the plot of the movie, which consists merely of Wick breaking open his hidden stash of weapons and grimly tracking down Josef while dealing with all those who either have been hired to protect him or are trying to collect the handsome bounty that Viggo has put on his head. But Stahelski and Reeves carry off the really important elements of the movie—the action set-pieces—with considerable skill. In an era when most such material is served up haphazardly, with jerky, hand-held camera shots and whiplash editing, they, working closely with cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elisabeth Ronalds, choreograph the motion carefully, so that you can actually see what’s happening even if the topography isn’t always entirely clear. The best comparison among recent films of this type is probably to “Drive,” which displayed a similar sense of coherence and elegance in composition. The result may seem a trifle sedate to some action junkies, but it has the virtue of limiting the likelihood of headache or nausea among viewers.

And the picture isn’t merely a success for the first-time director, an erstwhile stuntman who’s worked a good deal with Reeves in the past. It’s also a nice return to form for the actor, who frankly hasn’t had much luck as a leading man on screen since the original “Matrix” and whose best work (like “The Gift” and “Street Kings”) went pretty much ignored. Wick is a part that fits him perfectly, not exactly one-note but fairly close to it, and giving him space to brood without requiring him to recite much dialogue (never his strong suit). This will probably restore in great measure the iconic status that Reeves once enjoyed, at least among genre-movie fans, and which misfires like “47 Ronin” failed to rekindle.

“John Wick” brings to mind the old sexist observation that a ruffian once made about a thin but pretty girl. There isn’t much to it, but what there is, is choice.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

Mixing some keen observations about the racial divide in today’s America with a few curiously simplistic conventions, and then presenting the whole in a cinematic style that’s arguably overly refined and artsy, Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” is nevertheless both sufficiently provocative to raise important issues and cheeky enough to remain entertaining while doing so. You might call the picture a sort of updated Spike Lee joint told at a simmer rather than a boil.

The setting is a fictional Ivy League college, Winchester University, where the students are divided not only into cliques, but into cliques within cliques. The focus is on the black contingent, most of whom live in Armstrong/Parker house, presided over by Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert). Troy is everything to everyone, and currently dating Sofia (Brittany Cooper), the daughter of President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen), with whom the Dean has been conducting a rivalry ever since they were students at WU. That relationship is only one reason that Troy is treated with contempt by his ex-girlfriend Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a mixed-race activist who uses the short films she makes for her media classes (one of which, titled “The Rebirth of a Nation,” shows anti-Obama fanatics bemoaning his presidency in whiteface), as well as the titular radio broadcast on the campus airwaves, to discomfit white students and irritate her ex-boyfriend, whom she sees as a sell-out. Nonetheless Sam is herself having a fling with sweet-natured Gabe (Justin Dobies), a white guy—something that obviously disturbs her feelings about herself.

But there are other black voices on campus as well. One is Coleandra “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), who’s dismissive of Sam’s militancy and looks to outstrip her on-line popularity by emphasizing looks and gossip, which she hopes to parlay into a reality-show gig. And another is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a laid-back gay fellow who sports a huge Afro but avoids militancy, too. He has a certain skill with cameras and word processors, and is recruited by the editor of the prestigious WU newspaper—with an advisor from the New York Times, no less!—to do stories for him, including a piece on Sam after she surprisingly ousts Troy from his position as house president in a resident election, though the result may in fact have been manipulated by master hacker Reggie (Marque Richardson), another militant who’s obviously infatuated with her. Her campaign is a protest against a “random housing assignment” policy that President Fletcher is promoting to increase diversity, but Sam sees as a means of destroying the black character of Armstrong/Parker.

Lionel has one problem, though: he doesn’t live in Armstrong/Parker, but in the fratboy-dominated hall run by Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the president’s son who edits the humor magazine whose staff Troy wants to join. To that end Troy helps Kyle and his minions arrange a party with a blackface theme, and though in the end the organizers try to cancel it, that effort will fail, and Lionel—rather like a latter day version of Mookie from “Do the Right Thing”—will explode, leading a student assault on the offensive gathering that results in a riot. (The final credits crawl features a series of stills from actual parties of this sort on major U.S. campuses.) But in a final stroke of irony, Simien suggests that some individuals—and the school itself—may well profit from the notoriety.

“Dear White People” is about the relationship between the races in what some Caucasians (but few blacks) consider a post-racial, Obama-era America, but it’s also about young people defining themselves not on the basis of racial labels but in terms of the very different people they are. The film shows Sam, Troy, Lionel and even Coleandra struggling to find out who they actually are in the face of stereotyping by others. The characters here are more multi-dimensional than one often finds in a satire, which makes the film more a hybrid, a drama with satirical overtones, and most of the young actors—especially Thompson, Williams and Dobies—capture their characters’ various layers nicely.

But there is one element of the film that disappoints in terms of its complexity, and that’s the depiction of the white students and administrators. President Fletcher is a flat caricature, and his son is even worse—an obtuse, sweaty dullard who can’t possibly be accepted, as the film presents him, as the editor of a highly-regarded humor magazine. The sledgehammer approach to Kurt is especially unfortunate because one knows that Gallner, a talented actor, could have done far more with the part if he’d been allowed to.

Another problem with the picture is its highly stylized visual tone. Simien and cinematographer Topher Osborn, working with production designer Bruton Jones, art director Cheri Anderson, set decorator Melissa Pritchett and costume designer Toye Adedipe, have created an ambience that has a non-naturalistic, almost fairy-tale feel, and the carefully crafted compositions and stately editing by Phillip J. Bartelli give the entire film an arch, affected air, exacerbated by the decision to divide the sequences into chapters, complete with printed titles, and to score it largely with snippets of classical music, some of them overly familiar (like the slow movement of the Schubert piano trio that Kubrickl already used in “Barry Lyndon”). As a result, the picture often comes across as rather enervated.

Still, there are ample compensations in Simien’s writing—the many delicious references to movies as mirrors of culture, for example, but also observations about treatment of blacks that reeks of a racist undercurrent white people aren’t even aware of. And as those final credit stills show, it chooses its ultimate target—those offensive campus bashes—very well indeed.

So despite its flaws Simien’s picture deserves a warm welcome as the debut of a distinctive new black presence in mainstream American film. One looks forward to what he has to say, and how he’ll say it, in his future films.