by Philip Price
Director Paul Verhoeven will be 79-years old this summer, but if his latest film is any indication it seems the filmmaker has no intentions of letting age force him to be more precious. Of course, the danger in this-to prove you're just as daring or drawn to scandal as you always were-is going overboard in an attempt to defy. Going overboard in ways that can take actions or material from being seen as risky and/or bold to that of pure desperation. With nearly eight decades behind him on this planet one could certainly surmise that Verhoeven has crafted a French thriller concerning rape, betrayal, mystery and lies upon lies for no other reason than to prove he can still be as shockingly captivating as ever, but such motivation never seems to be the case with “Elle.” Rather, Verhoeven is clearly only hoping to entertain as much as he provokes. It may seem odd to use the word "entertain" when describing a film that opens with an older woman (Isabelle Huppert will be 64 this year) being sexually assaulted, but strangely enough Verhoeven opens the film with this shocking act so that the audience isn't left waiting for what has been sold as the crux of the film. Instead, we are dropped into the middle of the assault and then left to discover how there isn't necessarily a right way in which women or anyone who experiences such a trauma are expected to respond. In most instances it would seem the victim of as violent and unforgiving an act as Verhoeven documents and David Birke's screenplay describes would immediately notify the authorities and stay with a close friend or relative in light of being violated in a space they once felt safe, but none of this accounts for how Huppert's Michèle Leblanc reacts. And Verhoeven never takes the stance that his protagonists' choices are weird or wrong in any way, but more that they are interesting in the vein of bringing up more layers of this individual's story thus making the trials and tribulations of Ms. Leblanc all the more compelling and completely engrossing. It's not often with large-scale dramas or potentially cheap thrillers that the director trusts their audience enough to draw their own ideas or perceptions of the acts taking place, but just as there is no precedent for how Leblanc should react to her singular situation Verhoeven never sets a precedent for how he expects us to respond; simply laying out the facts of the story and forcing us to take them in in whatever horrific, alluring, frightening, or seductive way we ultimately do.
There are many facets to Leblanc. Many sides that need to be understood in order to correctly shape why she responds to her attacker the way she does. She is a wealthy entrepreneur who owns a video-game company with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). She is divorced from Richard (Charles Berling), a struggling writer and college professor, whom she still loves. And yet, she is having a love affair with Anna's husband Robert (Christian Berkel). She's slightly remorseful about it, but more than anything she seems to be lost in her age and looking for something to make her feel alive again. Her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is more of a burden than a source of pride for his parents, but the inescapable need to care for her son never leaves Leblanc. Vincent lives with his rather terrible girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz) who is pregnant, but we're pretty sure Vincent isn't the father. On top of all this, her mother Irène (Judith Magre) who is now bringing up old, ugly memories of her husband and Leblanc's father whose past remains somewhat shrouded in mystery with details only doled out in specific layers so as to build tension around where this aversion to law enforcement and people in general comes from. That said, Leblanc begins to make friends with her younger next door neighbors in Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and Rebecca (Virginie Efira) who become more and more present in the life of Leblanc as the film goes on. Then there is the aspect that we might assume might make up the biggest part of who Leblanc is or who she becomes, but instead is more or less the smallest detail in the larger picture of who this titular character is-she was raped by a stranger wearing a ski mask. It happens and Leblanc cleans up the glass that was broken during the scuffle, she discards the clothes she was wearing, and then orders take out as Vincent is coming over for what she expects will be to ask for money. “Elle” could easily exploit any one of these several plot strands for more melodramatic purposes, but what makes the film and its central character so engaging is that she doesn't allow any one of these things to define her, but rather she takes what comes in strides and more or less does what she so desires without fear of consequence.
Based on a novel by Philippe Djian the film adaptation is one that uses narrative to its advantage in that not only is it always telling us new information that is critical to understanding the characters and the plot they're wrapped up in, but that the plot furthers itself with each new scene as well. This may seem like a given, an obvious trait movies should have, but when dealing in as many personal relationships as Leblanc juggles here it would be easy to get bogged down in the specifics of each that could just as easily lead to scenes in which conversations about nothing take place. It is easy to write a conversation between people-we have them all the time-what is difficult is writing conversations between people that serve multiple purposes such as displaying the dynamic between two characters as well as relaying necessary information all while having to sound as natural as possible. Given the film is in French with subtitles such a caveat in the writing process might get lost in translation, but just as with its main character the film takes such a challenge in stride-accomplishing what it needs to accomplish without ever seeming to think of as much as a challenge in the first place. Birke, who has a series of lame and/or cheap horror flicks to his name doesn't seem like the ideal candidate to bring into such a project, but his experience in that genre might have very well informed how well his screenplay balances the horror of what actually happens to and around Leblanc while rationalizing how she can take such things in such blasé fashion. It doesn't hurt that both Birke and Verhoeven have an anchor such as Huppert to hang their script and film on though, as she does indeed anchor the film. It would be very easy to kind of make an assertion about the character early on when she doesn't respond to what happens to her in the first scene of the movie in the way we expect a woman to react, but we don't. There is an honesty to her decisions that is unfortunate. It's hard to read whether she is at first embarrassed or ashamed with Huppert undermining the significance of what happened to her by casually tossing out the information at a dinner with her ex-husband, Anna and Robert. To share this information with anyone must be both a liberating and very scary thing to do, but to do so within a group such as this where Leblanc's relationship with each is more complicated than it at first appears allows the film an edge in how much it sucks us in. It's the reason it essentially succeeds in doing what it does.
What exactly does “Elle” do then? It sucks us down a rabbit hole of a personal life that never tends to end up where the clues might indicate its going. It is as unpredictable as real life might seem, but with a particular color palette and a lingering tone that keeps us on the edge of our seat. Verhoeven instills a sense of style without turning this world into a hyper-stylized one. He gently guides the film through each of its main points and sub points that support the larger picture so as to bring together, with Huppert's performance only elevating the material further, a full-on, fleshed out portrait of this woman. Whether this be in including scenes with her young, mostly make employees who both despise and idolize her or how she so casually goes to the doctor for STD testing after the initial encounter because it is what is necessary. Every element in every scene only builds on top of the previous scene to create this heroine of sorts that, due to her past concerning her father, has created this very independent, very self-sufficient woman who doesn't need anyone in order to be comfortable, but in the absence of her husband needs someone to make her feel whole in a sense. The relationship with her son has become strained and awkward, she is destroying a decades-long friendship with her best friend and business partner without even seeming to consider the repercussions of such actions, and so when she is attacked while she is naturally repulsed by it, she holds onto it for so long that she begins to consider it in different ways. As cautious as I am to say this though, what pushes the film to territory most wouldn't care to discuss is how Leblanc more or less is curious as to what might happen were the situation to present itself again. She almost dares it to. And so, when it does-there is a thrilling aspect to it. That feels dirty to even say or to even think of rape in such terms, but these are the kinds of internal, deep dark places that “Elle” ultimately goes and what more or less keeps us engaged as taking such an angle, if nothing else, promises that what is going to happen is likely not what we expect to happen. “Elle” is one of those movies that makes for endlessly interesting dinner conversation afterwards as the difference in perspective between men and women alone will be fascinating to hear and that's on the most basic level-begin to add in factors such as age and life experiences and this is not just a conversation starter, but a film that could warrant multiple topical debates and discussions. It's good when a movie not only entertains, but creates talking points, makes you think, and delivers approaches to life one might not have considered, but can understand and “Elle” does all of this and more as if it weren't a big deal at all.
by Philip Price
“Get Out” is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele who you might recognize from the sketch comedy show, “Key & Peele.” “Get Out” is not a comedy though it contains a fair amount of laughs, namely from the performance of stand-up comedian Lil Rel Howery who will get many, many jobs from this star-making performance. What “Get Out” actually turns out to be is a rather striking thriller that provides a topical conversation around racial tensions that then amplifies and exaggerates the inherent tensions of its presented scenario in a way that both plays with the tropes of the horror genre while delivering commentary on innate and unavoidable fears in the black community. I heard someone explain it as, "playing on black people's fear of white people's fear of black people," and it's hard to put it any better or more simply than that. This is all to get to the point that “Get Out” is making the point that we need to stop pretending we know what it's like to walk in other people's shoes. Not that these assumptions can't be compassionate, but more that they are unnecessary. “Get Out” begins as one thing-playing on the natural awkwardness that comes along with a black guy going to meet his white girlfriend’s entirely white family in their very white/suburban neighborhood for the first time and then, once it arrives there, takes steps using its genre classification to get at this idea that no matter how good or well-intentioned one might be, it is near impossible to have a real comprehension of what people who have experienced struggles and/or faced some kind of oppression have indeed been through and more over, who they became out of such experiences. “Get Out” is a film that plays on those facets of ourselves that we'd rather not acknowledge-that no matter how much we believe ourselves to be above stereotyping people or forming preconceptions, that there is a truth to such ways of thinking and Peele uses this unavoidable, unflattering truth to draw out a fair amount of anxiety. Peele plays on those anxieties and social standards exceptionally as through to the very last frame “Get Out” keeps things as taut as any horror movie in recent memory while never losing sight of its original intent no matter how crazy the genre hijinks get.
Peele is in the zone from the word go when it comes to crafting his film as a whole. The opening sequence in which an unassuming young man (Lakeith Stanfield) walks the streets of a nice neighborhood while talking on his cell phone and is very critically in light conversation delivers key context clues. We immediately sympathize with the character as he appears pleasant and anxious to see the girlfriend he is chatting with on the phone while not unaware of his predicament when a car begins to slowly follow him. A black guy walking the sidewalks of a suburban neighborhood late at night. He and we get how this might look. To those that aren't black or any other color than Caucasian that haven't felt as if they've been profiled due to factors having to do with everything but their personality it is hard to imagine a world where one has to be cautious of such things, but Peele is smart enough to recognize this and to immediately place us in that headspace before taking things to what we'd like to imagine is mostly an exaggerated extreme. The opening title sequence is a bit of brilliance in and of itself as well as the film cuts from the deliberately terrifying opening sequence to something very much in line with the horror genre-a camera moving quickly past endless, bare trees with a dark and ominous score hovering in between them before jolting us out of the mood and into our protagonists modern apartment where his photography skills are displayed through prints of gorgeous black and white portraits on the wall with the music switching to that of Childish Gambino's, "Redbone," in which the chorus warns to, "Stay Woke." The foreshadowing is not lost on the discerning viewer. By glimpsing these two very distinct tones, very distinct flavors by the time the opening credits have finished the audience is immediately steeped in the atmosphere the film intends to simulate and, for a first time feature director, Peele is able to expertly carry this tone throughout the entirety of his film; heightening it as the arc calls for it and executing plot lines effortlessly so as to bring everything full circle by the time the big reveal is made and further into what is one of the most breathtaking and satisfying denouement's in my movie-going experience.
Our protagonist, Chris, is portrayed by British actor Daniel Kaluuya who you might have seen in “Sicario,” but here he is an American photographer who very intentionally fits the bill of average mid to late twenties male. There is nothing particularly exceptional about Chris, but he is clearly a well put together guy who has a good enough eye with his camera that he's been able to become fairly successful as a photographer. We meet his girlfriend of four five months, Rose (Allison Williams), as she does the whitest of white things and waits in line to buy overpriced coffee and pastries at what is no doubt a hip, local bistro before arriving at Chris' apartment to make sure he's all packed and pick him up before they hit the road. Neither of these leading roles seem as if they'll be much of a stretch or even too challenging for the two actors, but as the film progresses and the complexity of the bigger picture is made more clear it becomes all the more impressive what these two have been laying the foundation for since those aforementioned humble beginnings. Add into this the delightful aura that Bradley Whitford brings to his character of the overcompensating dad who is trying to impress his daughter's new boyfriend as much as he is trying to impress him coupled with Catherine Keener's opposite end of the spectrum and it's as if one could feel the sense of unease in the air. And as mentioned previously, when Chris and Rose first arrive at the Armitage estate Peele uses the inherent delicate situation that presents itself as a means from which he draws the chills and tension before taking things to whole other allegorical levels. Aiding in this transition from a more reality-based scenario to that of the exaggerated heights “Get Out” eventually reaches though, is the fact the family employs black people as servants. Walter (Marcus Henderson) is the groundskeeper who, for one reason or another, likes to exercise in the pitch black of night while Georgina (a revelatory Betty Gabriel) is the maid. Both seem more subdued and willing to work and mind their own business than what would be typical of someone in a role such as these, but neither ever hint at anything that would contradict reality being more than it appears. Caleb Landry Jones, who can't seem to help but to play disturbed and psychotic young men, shows up as Rose's younger misfit brother who Whitford's Dean assures Chris will soon be following in his father's footsteps as a neurosurgeon. File in party guests that are never obvious in their racism, but don't realize the implied ill will in their sometimes downright lewd comments and there is more than enough to unpack when it comes to social constructs and racial profiling in the performances alone.
Furthermore, it is the writing of Peele that gives these performers such biting material to deliver and that, most impressively, stays consistent throughout the films entire runtime and most striking-through its faultless pacing. No matter how well the majority of horror films begin the trickiest part is always pulling off an ending in a way where every facet and action that has been laid out prior is paid off in the reveal and in the actions and consequences the characters take and are made subject to in the final moments. Does the end justify the means we took to get there? In “Get Out,” everything has a purpose. Early on, when Chris and Rose are on the road to Rose's parents something happens that is very much a cliché when it comes to horror films and my first inclination was to wonder how this might play into the story as a whole. As Chris especially is affected by the event we are made to wonder why this resonated so strongly with the character. It becomes a key part of not only why Chris behaves the way he does-from what habits he has formed to what action he feels he needs to take and not take in different situations-but also in lending the character a rare weakness and opening for Keener's Missy to take advantage of as she's (too) desperate to try out a hypnosis trick on this young man she just met. We see Georgina constantly messing with her hair only for that to be explained in a truly shocking turn of events. We meet Stephen Root as one of the only, seemingly level-headed guests that attend the Armitage's weekend get-together, but whose comments may or may not hide a deeper truth and envy than Chris interprets upon first speaking with him. As the film does, but almost unfortunately, draw to its conclusion it gives way to a single, throughline idea that is executed in flawless fashion. Everything lines up. Even the initially muddled objective becomes clear once it is explained through action rather than speech and is understood in a way that both makes sense, but is simultaneously even more revolting than one might have imagined when they couldn't quite wrap their head around it all two scenes prior. “Get Out” may not be necessarily scary in the traditional sense of how we expect horror/mystery movies to frighten us, but it is more disturbing on a much deeper level and one that is benefited all the more for being so. Not just in its success as a piece of art, but as a satirical social commentary that exposes the vicious circle of assumptions and prejudice “Get Out” works on nearly every level it attempts to play on. It is a great film. I can't wait to see it again. I can't wait to experience a different audience's reaction to it. I can't wait to discuss it even more.
by Julian Spivey
The Academy Awards should be ashamed of themselves and both the producers of the ABC telecast and the accounting firm in charge of balloting should both immediately be fired and replaced for next year’s broadcast.
The 89th annual Academy Awards had been a terrific ceremony and one of the most entertaining in years with comedian/late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel providing one of the best hosting stints in recent memory. Even though the Oscars were approaching almost four hours in length the night seemed to fly by with winners from a multitude of movies and funny and moving bits throughout the evening.
Then came the time for the evening’s biggest honor Best Picture and all hell broke loose. The award was announced by veteran actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Bonnie & Clyde,” one of the most notable Best Picture snubs in film history. The nominees were announced and Beatty opened the envelope. He immediately knew something was wrong – though the rest of us watching at home, in the theater and even Dunaway thought it was Beatty perpetrating a comical “old man” bit. Looking back, you can tell Beatty knew there had been a mistake – he would later admit on the telecast after we all realized a mistake had been made that the card read Emma Stone for “La La Land” – but Dunaway seeing “La La Land” on the card announced it as the winner.
The producers, cast and crew of “La La Land” joyously walked upon the stage to receive the biggest honor in the film industry. As producers were giving their acceptance speeches you could see men with headsets enter the fray and immediately astute viewers could tell something had gone wrong. It was then announced that “Moonlight” was the actual winner. Beatty explained the card mistake, Kimmel tried to make light of a very awkward situation and then the producers, cast and crew of “Moonlight” approached the stage for the rightful acceptance speech.
The embarrassment that the biggest flub in Academy Awards history led to for the teams behind “La La Land,” “Moonlight” and Beatty and Dunaway is unforgivable. Heads should roll. I’m not joking in the least. There can be no worse moment for artists behind a film than to think they’ve won the most prestigious award in their business and find out mid acceptance speech that it’s not the case. It’s also embarrassing for the Academy that “Moonlight” didn’t get the true moment it deserved. And, it’s another major embarrassment for two film legends in Beatty and Dunaway who’re being unmercifully blasted and made fun of online for a blunder that in absolutely no way was their fault.
Producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd and the accounting firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers need to instantly resign from their positions or be replaced. The producers for overseeing the telecast and seemingly not knowing there had been two Best Actress envelopes and a missing Best Picture envelope and Pricewaterhouse Coopers accounting firm for overseeing the balloting and envelopes. These are the people at fault for this truly embarrassing and really for the “La La Land” folks a devastating mistake. It’s a mistake that really shouldn’t just be laughed off or swept under the rug. It’s time for both ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make a change, because a great evening turned into a major joke.
by Philip Price
It is amazing how well “John Wick: Chapter 2” actually works. There is no reason this unexpected sequel works as well as it does as the original was designed to be a contained story, a simple and straightforward revenge tale, but the biggest obstacle “John Wick: Chapter 2” was going to face is seemingly overcome within the first 15 minutes-‘Chapter 2’ gracefully jumping over the hurdle to move on rather swiftly to establish a bigger picture for which to further justify the existence of this film while simultaneously setting up what is clearly meant to be a trilogy capper. Never would I have imagined sitting in the theater nearly two and a half years ago that this stylish, but seemingly unexceptional action flick would not only reignite the fire for Keanu Reeves, but prove itself one of the better action flicks of the last decade. Having re-watched the first “John Wick” this past week before venturing out to see ‘Chapter 2,’ I easily enjoyed it more than I had initially-the world in which it established suddenly becoming all the more appealing, the empathy in which it developed for its titular character becoming all the more palpable. This isn't traditionally a reaction I have to films when re-visiting them. If anything, most movies lose a little bit of their charm on repeat viewings-the cracks becoming clearer than they were upon first glance, but it was very much evident by the time the credits rolled that “John Wick” was meant to be appreciated for more than just the surface pleasures despite being a movie all about the surface pleasures. For as much as the movie served as a platform for Reeves and his stuntmen to go through set piece after breathtaking action set piece it really allowed Reeves the opportunity to play a character who doesn't emote much in a forward fashion, but who bottles it up and exudes it through these actions. This isn't to say the two ‘John Wick’ films have a giant amount of substance to them, but that they are the rare type of action blockbuster that executes their necessary beats accordingly while at the center featuring an individual we can really get behind, someone we really feel invested in, sorry for, and connected with-so much so that despite the fact they murder countless people at point blank range, some of which probably had no desire to face Wick, he is still the one we root for come the end of the day. John Wick is the one we want to see walk away from the explosion unharmed; the one we want to see fire the last bullet; the one who we want to be still standing when the smoke clears muttering, "I told you so." This sounds simple, but it is not for nothing that this affection comes to exist. It is on this affection for our titular character that these films separate themselves from the pack.
Picking up some five minutes or so after the first film ends we meet John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as he crashes Abram's (Peter Stormare, who was destined to show up in one of these eventually), brother of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the baddie from the original, party. Abram obviously runs in similar circles as his brother, but more importantly it is the fact Abram's is the one who ended up with Wick's car, his '69 Mustang Cobra, and if he can't get his dog back, Wick is at least going to get his ride back. This lends Chad Stahelski, riding solo in the director's chair this time after co-directing with David Leitch on the original, the opportunity to craft a type of action scene we didn't see in the first film-a car chase. Displaying Wick can be just as effective with a car as he is with a gun Stahelski keeps the framing wide and the in-camera stunts as bountiful as possible. To see Wick navigate an open warehouse parking lot with the speed offered by his vehicle and the intensity with which Reeves drives every moment of his characters mission is to see all the elements that made the original “John Wick” an exception among his peers, but on an even a grander scale than before-which is part of the fun of sequels. As the film then wraps up any unfinished business from the first movie within the opening 15 minutes or so it became almost nerve-wracking that the curse of the unjustified sequel might fall upon “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Were they going to kill the pit bull and repeat the onslaught of faceless murders that took place in order for Wick to reach the culprit? Fortunately, no. Rather, once Wick and his new canine companion return home and turn his beat-up Mustang over to Aurelio (John Leguizamo) for repairs it isn't long before he receives a visit from someone from his past. This unknown and mysterious figure turns out to be Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), the heir to a notorious Italian crime family who just so happened to assist Wick in his retiring from the assassin world. After hearing Wick was more or less back in the game, D'Antonio comes a calling as Wick owes him what is referred to as a "marker" which is essentially a blood oath Wick took that he must now reluctantly honor.
The mission is simple: kill D'Antonio's sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who inherited their father's seat at the upper-most level of crime lords referred to as the "High Table" so that D'Antonio can take her place. I bring up the mission in its entirety to highlight what was my favorite part of the original film and how this sequel expands upon that facet. Whereas the first film introduced us not only to Wick, but gave glimpses of this entire underground society where assassins refer to one another on a first name basis and share hotels, namely "The Continental" run by Winston (Ian McShane), “John Wick: Chapter 2” expands upon such a world by again upping the scale of the operation. In order for Wick to accomplish his task he must travel to Rome and thus we meet more top of the line assassin's that Wick has some sort of history with as well as learning that each major city or country has a Continental of their own. Furthermore, Wick later utilizes a new character named Bowery King played by Laurence Fishburne, which in turn creates a nice little Matrix reunion, who assists him in reaching the elusive D'Antonio as the crime lord never intended to leave Wick alive no matter how successfully he completed his "marker." It is this universe in which the ‘John Wick’ movies exist from which much of the fun is born. Sure, the majority of the film is made up of precise and impeccably choreographed fight scenes with Wick remaining largely emotionless throughout, but that such actions are being completed through these ideas that have seemingly been passed down for a great many years and are still honored and not just that, but held in high regard is rather fascinating. It is easy to look at both the original film and the sequel as straight-up action films, which they are, but they also tend to offer more substance than we expect as the final, climactic moments highlight the strange kinship we have come to feel with the character (likely more out of a desire to possess such abilities rather than mimic wholly). This sympathy of sorts allows the viewer to understand and forgive a surprising amount. We are thrilled by the effortless ways in which Wick takes down countless hordes of D'Antonio's men and not only that, we're cheering for him. Pair this elevated awareness of the arc that the titular character is taking with the embellishments of the world established in the original and “John Wick: Chapter 2” not only ups the ante the way a sequel should, but it unpacks more layers to things we only thought we had fully come to understand the first time around.
What also works so well in favor of the ‘John Wick’ films is the lead performance in Reeves. Never has the actor been one for much range, but here he is more or less forced to play it straight with the small nuances of the character only coming through via the actions he takes. Never does Reeves put on a guise that seems to tell viewers he enjoys killing mountains of people, but rather we read between the lines and come to see that Wick, despite his great skill, is never that jazzed to have to use such skills. He doesn't want to be here, he doesn't want to exist in this world, but as his hand is forced he takes on this soulless scowl goes through the obligatory motions in order to have the means result in the necessary end. Reeves is a perfect choice for this kind of subdued machismo as it is Wick who draws us into the situations and only person the film really cares about. Reeves has enough charisma to maintain that care and interest whereas this time around he is at least challenged slightly for that attention. In the first film neither Tarasov nor his brat son were worthy opponents for Wick. In ‘Chapter 2,’ Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad give Wick two worthy opponents in Common's Cassian as well as D'Antonio's head of security, Ares (portrayed by "it" girl of the moment Ruby Rose). This gives what were mostly faceless antagonists in the first film a more endearing quality while at the same time forcing Wick to display deeper shades of the resentment and weight his actions will inevitably put on his conscience. Again, “John Wick: Chapter 2” doesn't exactly offer a subtle character study than its predecessor, but rather we understand the psychology of this killing machine a little better and that is honestly more than anyone expected from a movie such as this. And though it certainly doesn't hurt that other layers exist, one would be fooling themselves to think the most impressive thing about either of the ‘John Wick’ pictures isn't the action. Filmed again with a very digital, very sleek, very neon-hued aesthetic the hand to hand, gun to gun, and pencil to head combat is all shot in camera with little to no cuts so as to deliver the full effect of every bone crunching combination and every blunt shot of the gun. Stahelski moves his camera as swiftly through the action as Wick does his body-the combination of as much creating a thrilling sense of the most violent dance ever danced. If you want more of the same, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is up for that game, but if you want a little more, maybe higher stakes and bigger gun battles-well, ‘Chapter 2’ is up for that as well.
by Philip Price
The most unexpected of cinematic universe's to be born from this current trend is no doubt this massive ‘LEGO’ franchise, but behind the trailblazer that is Marvel it is LEGO that seems to be having the most success in carving their own path out of a recognizable brand. Granted, we're now only two movies in with a third on the way this fall, but the point is there seems no sign that this train will be slowing down anytime soon. After absolutely blowing all expectations out of the water with “The LEGO Movie” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller set not only a precedent for any sequels and spin offs that might come in the wake of their success, but they also set a very specific tone that will seemingly serve as the signature trait of this movie universe as “The LEGO Batman Movie” is just as irreverent as could be expected when it comes to this toy brands take on the dark and brooding titular hero. With the self-aware and spoof-like nature of that initial LEGO outing being paired with a character as established in the pop culture mythos as Batman there is plenty of opportunity for lampooning and lampoon is exactly what director Chris McKay does best. Beginning even before the studio logos hit the screen “The LEGO Batman Movie” is ready to ridicule and criticize everything about the previous phases in our hero's career while pulling off that oh so critical tone of it being all in good fun. Never does it feel as if “The LEGO Batman Movie” is taking pot shots at any of the other imaginings or interpretations of the Dark Knight character, but rather McKay is offering comically tinged observations on what makes a grown man running around in a Halloween costume feel so serious when, in layman's terms, the reasons as to why as much is laughable should be obvious. Reprising his role from “The LEGO Movie,” Will Arnett is once again the very self-serious caped crusader who loves being Batman and who expects everyone else to love him because he's Batman. Arnett's take on the character is essentially this raving egomaniac who has to constantly keep up this facade he's built around himself. Pairing this type of Batman with a cavalcade of other characters and villains from his universe as well as countless other Warner Bros. properties McKay exploits every avenue he can in order to display as much comedy and action on screen as he does merchandise.
In the opening and rather impressive action sequence (post-Arnett narrating the logos, of course) “The LEGO Batman Movie” gets even more meta than it already was (again, following Arnett's Batman as he narrates the studio logos) as the soundtrack is made to mimic that of Hans Zimmer's score for Christopher Nolan's ‘Dark Knight’ series. When we talk about tone in the LEGO universe we are more or less talking about how funny these writers and creators can make the content through self-degradation. Not simply acknowledging the tropes by which the genre in which they're lampooning operates, but how they can take such structure and expectation and turn them on their head in ways that aren't just unexpected, but genuinely hilarious. “The LEGO Batman Movie” provides this in spades as the references, which I'm positive I didn't catch all of, are non-stop as is the funny. Within that opening action sequence we are granted access to the villain among villains in the DC universe with Zach Galifianakis providing the voice of The Joker in what is both a unique and, again, very aware Clown Prince. It isn't moments after The Joker shows up though, that he is joined by a host of other baddies from Batman's arsenal-most of which are fun, recognizable throwbacks for those who were fans of the nineties animated series up through some of the newer DC original animated properties. This is what might in fact be the biggest advantage of getting to see a Batman movie in this form. From the outside looking in it seemed unnecessary that Warner Bros. make another attempt to cash in on their most beloved and profitable super hero by not only giving us two live-action incarnations of the character in two years, but another in that same time span via this animated and albeit lighter vehicle. Some things one just doesn't know they need though, as “The LEGO Batman Movie” provides the perfect vessel for some of the goofier yet still beloved characters from the Batman comics and TV shows to finally earn their spot on the big screen. I'm talking more along the lines of Clayface, but hey-we'll take Condiment King when we can get him.
Of course, with so many options and so many possibilities the question was going to be where would McKay and his screenwriters land when it came to story. With a credited five screenwriters it's something of a wonder the film came together as coherently as it did, though screenplays and the process of finding the story is admittedly much different when it comes to animated films. That said, “The LEGO Batman Movie” doesn't necessarily offer anything new in terms of story, but it does offer something new within the dynamics we typically see play out between these characters. Last year DC Animation released their adaptation of the much-beloved graphic novel The Killing Joke which is hailed for its portrayal of the Joker/Batman relationship and how each need one another to survive-to find the momentum and the meaning to get up every morning and continue doing what they do, but where that film substituted a prologue that had little to do with the actual graphic novel for purposes solely having to do with running time “The LEGO Batman Movie” offers what might actually be a more insightful take on the Batman/Joker dynamic. Not to mention, more insights for Batman himself as it's not he who is doling out the life lessons here, but he who is learning them. Of course, there are the many plot devices that allow The Joker to intentionally get himself locked up in Arkham Asylum (a move that is totally, but more subtly than you might expect-spoofing every Joker arc ever) in order to get to the Phantom Zone so that he might recruit baddies from beyond the Batman realm to help prove he is indeed Batman's greatest enemy and the like, but this doesn't prove to be all there is to the movie. The plot synopsis may even sound a little redundant, but a lot of that is the point. The bad guy's scheme is over-complicated, the ever-expanding roster of enemies for fan service-it is all meant as a joke and luckily “The LEGO Batman Movie” is light enough on its feet to never allow as much to actually weigh it down. Rather, while the whole crux of the good versus evil thing that is necessary in any Batman movie is born out of The Joker needing to prove his worth to his greatest adversary the movie isn't really about The Joker as much as it is about Batman learning to move forward in his life after being stalled for some 90 years. Since the death of his parents Bruce Wayne has hid under the cowl and refused to let anyone into his life, but this changes when he meets new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and accidentally adopts a little orphan boy named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).
And so, the story and themes are in place as is the type of comedy that needs to be conveyed through them, so how well does “The LEGO Batman Movie” actually execute all of these promising parts? Rather well, actually. As was seen in “The LEGO Movie” it was the energy of the pacing and the creativity of the tried and true plot along with characters we came to care about that allowed it to work so well-not to mention some legitimate emotional heft and an awesome soundtrack, but while it was always going to be more or less out of Batman's reach to bring Pixar-level emotions to plastic figurines fighting one another “The LEGO Batman Movie” could excel in the specificity of its jokes and the advantages it has to take with its humor due to its famous subject. In short, it takes full advantage of these aspects-leading to a movie that starts off going 90 miles a minute with the action, the laughs, the music, and the animation culminating to form this kind of euphoric feel-good experience. Unfortunately, the movie can only keep up with itself for so long; the pace slowing rather severely in its second act when it has to accomplish more of the plot stuff. There are certainly respites from these lagging moments such as when Batman and Robin break into the "Fortress of Solitude" to find Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and the rest of the Justice League partying it up without them, but by the time Batman learns his necessary lessons and we are back on course with the narrative matching the momentum of the comedy and visual style it can't help but to feel just the slightest bit disjointed. Had the film shaved off ten or so minutes it might have been able to better maintain or at least felt like it better maintained the energy it so excitedly kicked off with. That isn't to say the pacing is a huge issue with the film, but rather that it only brings it down a few pegs from the joyful perfection it seemed to so easily be coasting by on up until that point. “The LEGO Batman Movie” is still very much an uninhibited good time with a plethora of talent in the voice department-all seeming to be having a blast sending-up these iconic characters we've all been asked to take so seriously in other incarnations. Ralph Fiennes is especially a hoot as Alfred. With that, it seems this newly minted LEGO cinematic universe will have an unrivaled staying power for the next few years for if they keep up the levels of comedy and quality they have shown in their first two features I can't imagine the reception to as much being anything but awesome.
by Julian Spivey
I’ve seen “Groundhog Day” more than any other movie in my life. Would I say it’s my favorite movie of all-time? No, not necessarily. But, it’s certainly one of my favorites. The reasoning for seeing it more than any other is I have a tradition of mostly watching on Groundhog Day – though some years I skip it due to time constraints or just overall “Groundhog Day” fatigue.
But, one thing is certain … “Groundhog Day” is definitely a movie I’m in love with. On the surface, it seems like a simple romantic comedy – and I’d be lying if that wasn’t a key reason I love it. The idea of falling for someone as Bill Murray’s Phil Connors does for Andie MacDowell’s Rita and having to repeat the same day over and over just to get it right is romantic as hell to me. But, the movie also hit on something philosophical and existential that turned it into a classic over the years.
If you’re as big of a fan of “Groundhog Day” as I am you must make a trip to Woodstock, Ill. one day and take the walking tour of where the movie was filmed. This is something I finally got to do in the summer of last year. My wife’s family lives near Chicago and Woodstock is about an hour north of the city and I knew whenever we made the trip up north that this was one of the “must-sees” on my list. It was a real highlight of our trip.
Many people probably don’t realize “Groundhog Day” was filmed in Woodstock and not the real Punxsutawney, Pa. where the actual groundhog Punxsutawney Phil resides and is plucked from his slumber every year to tell us how much longer winter will last. Director-writer Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray were both from the Chicago area and likely knew right away that the quaint city of Woodstock and its square would provide the quintessential backdrop they were looking for. Several scenes from John Hughes’ (also a Chicagoan) “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” had also been filmed there a few years earlier.
You literally can’t go more than a few yards on the Woodstock Square without coming upon a spot that was used for “Groundhog Day” and the town knowing what the beloved film could do for tourism smartly affixed plaques in each of these locations. Every year the town has a Groundhog Day festival in the movie’s honor.
However, potentially the coolest place on the “Groundhog Day” tour is a couple of streets away at 344 Fremont St. where the inn in which Murray’s character stays throughout the movie is located. This real-life inn was used for the outdoor shots, with many of the indoor shots being filmed in the historic Woodstock Opera House.
Now, that I think about it the opera house, right on the square, is actually the coolest part of the walking tour and not just because of “Groundhog Day.” The Woodstock Opera House, one of the oldest opera houses to continuously be in use since its construction in 1889, was the theater in which a young Orson Welles, who grew up in Woodstock, got his start. The stage was dedicated in Welles’ name in 2013. This fact gives the opera house a dual reason to love for film lovers. The fact that I got to sit on the same stage where a young Welles performed and have my picture taken is something I still can’t believe actually happened.
One of the funniest bits in “Groundhog Day” is Murray constantly bumping into a former classmate Ned Ryerson (played by Stephen Tobolowsky) who he doesn’t recognize before stepping off a sidewalk and into a puddle. The corner where he constantly runs into Ned and the spot where Murray stepped off the sidewalk are both featured on the walking tour and are terrific photo opportunities.
Other places you’ll want to see if you ever get the opportunity to make the trip are the band stand at the center of the Woodstock Square Park where the dance in the movie takes place, as well as the spot where Punxsutawney’s Gobbler’s Nob was filmed at the southwest corner of this same park.
Another cool aspect of the “Groundhog Day” walking tour is the Woodstock Theater, which doubled as the Alpine Theater in the film where Murray’s character dresses up as Clint Eastwood from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” for a date. The great thing about the Woodstock Theater is that to this day it’s still an actual working theater where you can go inside and enjoy a movie on a hot summer’s day.
Before you leave Woodstock, you should be sure to step inside the Old Courthouse where the bar scenes in the movie were filmed and have a seat at a barstool in the location where Rita and Phil drank to “world peace.”
The truly great thing about Woodstock basking in the fame that “Groundhog Day” brought it is that there are many movie lovers out there who’d love to do walking tours of locations where their favorite films were shot. It’s unfortunate that many other movies filmed on location don’t offer such a thing. But, if you love this great film that has become an annual tradition for many you’ll have to be sure to stop into the one place in America where every day is truly Groundhog Day.