When does a “new wave” just become the “new normal?”  It’s a concept that’s pretty hard to define given that cinematic “new waves” are a pretty nebulous concept to begin with.  Most people agree that the movies made by people like Truffaut and Godard in the late 50s through much of the 60s were part of the “French New Wave” but almost all those directors continued to make movies for decades to come after that, when did those cease to be “new wave” films and just become films by directors formerly associated with the “new wave.”  That question is of course on my mind given the clearest example of a “new wave” that seemed to happen during my own lifetime, the “Romanian New Wave” which started somewhere in the mid-2000s and may or may not still be going on today depending on how you want to define it.  Then again maybe suggesting that this was ever some sort of fleeting trend might have been needlessly limiting as the style seems to have some real staying power.  Every time I think we can move on another wave of really solid Romanian films comes along that still feel well in tune with what came before and the New Wave seemingly lives on, though there have been some twists of late.  Most notably the Romanian filmmaker who has had the most import abroad, Cristian Mungiu, has been sort of out of commission since the release of his 2016 film Graduation, which itself was kind of considered a minor work.  He’s finally back now though with a new film called R.M.N., which feels like as much of a statement as anything he made back in the 2000s.

The film is set in an unnamed town in the Transylvania region of Romania near the Hungarian border and the town seems to be evenly divided between Romanian and Hungarian residents (IFC’s presentation of the film subtitles Romanian in white, Hungarian in yellow and other languages in pink).  At the film’s center though is a guy named Matthias (Marin Grigore) who is part of a smaller German ethnic cohort.  As the film starts Matthias had been working abroad at a German slaughterhouse when he learns that his son has been traumatized by something he saw in the woods near his home, leading Matthias to return home, possibly to the annoyance of his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu).  He also seems to have coincidentally arrived at a rather tense time for this hometown as the local industrial bakery has recently brought in a trio of Sri Lankan guest workers to keep up production, which has lit a fire of xenophobia amongst the locals who are starting up a petition to eject these foreign workers.  Matthias’ mistress Csilla (Judith State) is a manager at that bakery and is one of the leading voices championing for these men, but seems to be going up against a real tidal wave of hate that this situation has stirred up.

Cristian Mungiu’s films have had something of a temporal through line: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was set during the Ceaușescu regime, Beyond the Hills is set in modern day but was about the legacy of the orphanages that opened as a consequence of that period’s policies, Graduation is set in the modern day but is about people who returned to Romania after the fall of Ceaușescu and their feelings about rebuilding the new country, but R.M.N. feels a lot more distinctly like a movie about modern hot button issues rather than the legacy of Ceaușescu.  This isn’t to say that the movie ignores the history that led to this moment, but it’s very much a movie taking on a very specific kind of xenophobia and white nationalism that’s occurring in modern Europe and around the world.  The central conflict is around the heated racist reaction to the legal employment of three immigrant workers of color, which certainly seems like some really over the top racism and it’s made all the more disturbing by the general shamelessness of what the know-nothing mob is putting forward.  I feel like in the United States even the most racist of mobs would at least try to employ some dog whistles when objecting to these people’s presence but the villagers here seem to make few excuses for their attitudes, which are made all the more ironic since many of them are themselves ethnic minorities within Romania and many of them have their own experiences acting as guest workers in other richer countries.  However, I feel like the dynamics of all this feel more familiar than they do foreign.  It has the same kind of lower class populists versus educated professional conflict that so often fuels these arguments around the world and the film does provide some nuances around why said educated professionals are not always in the best position to fight back in these situations.

This take on racial hatred in this town is plainly the main draw of the film and it hits a crescendo in this bravura static long take during a town hall meeting on the topic, but I think the movie is maybe a bit less successful at mixing the political with the personal via the Matthias point of view character.  He seems to have been added to act as a character who is sort of a neutral center in the debate around the guest workers: not dead set on kicking them out like some of the angry villagers but also not interested in defending them much to the annoyance of his mistress.  The toxic masculinity he brings to his relationship with his child and baby mama also emphasize that there are intersections at play here beyond the town’s racism.  However I’m not quite sure what metaphor it’s going for with its sub-plot about his kid seeing things in the woods and I don’t only the haziest of guesses as to what the film’s rather cryptic and abrupt ending is supposed to mean.  In a lot of ways I wish the movie had focused in more on that central debate than doing everything through this kind of bland character’s eyes, but all that said I think this whole movie is still another win for Mungiu.  It taps into the very real zeitgeist of contemporary debates in the same way his Romanian New Wave compatriot Radu Jude does but in a more serious and straightforward way and I was definitely interested while watching it.
**** out of Five


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3(5/5/2023)

In the May of 2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opened up to predictable acclaim and profits.  It was early in “phase three,” which in retrospect was probably a high point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it was perhaps easy to take their victories for granted at the time.  I thought that sequel was fine but felt like it was kind of just more of the same from what James Gunn gave us in the first Guardians movie, but that movie was also solid so that was fine.  I fully expected a third volume to show up on schedule in the next three years and would close out the trilogy with even more of the same but that didn’t exactly happen.  Instead thanks to some behind the scenes drama I don’t have time to get into it took six years for this final sequel to show up, which doesn’t sound like that much more but a whole lot has happened since then in the real world and even more has happened with the MCU.  Consider for example that the first of the rebooted MCU Spider-Man movies came out two months after that second Guardians film and yet we’ve already finished out that trilogy well before the climactic Guardians film finally came out.  Additionally the characters of Guardians of the Galaxy were major parts of two Avengers movies which led to major changes for the entire team that James Gunn would need to address.  Beyond that though the whole momentum of the MCU has changed a lot, as have the careers of the entire cast and crew, including Gunn who I have to suspect is a little bitter about the aforementioned behind the scenes drama.  So with this new installment we’re given a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel that may in many ways feel like more of the same on the surface but has a noticeably different tone and feel at its core.

The film begins shortly after the “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” that released on Disney+ last year and sees our heroes set up on Knowhere.  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still in something of a depressed stupor following the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Avengers: Infinity War and the fact that a time displaced version of her came back in Avengers: Endgame only complicates those feelings.  That doppelganger is off doing her own thing but most of the rest of “the gang” is there on knowhere and need to go into action when they are unexpectedly attacked by a gold skinned flying villain named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who is a bit dim but clearly has major combat ability.  He eventually retreats after receiving an injury from Nebula (Karen Gillan), but not before grievously injuring Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and it becomes apparent to the crew that healing him will be impossible until they can deactivate a kill switch that has been implanted on the ring tailed mercenary’s heart.  To save him the aforementioned Guardians along with Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (Vin Diesel) decide to go on a mission that will eventually pit them against the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a megalomaniacal eugenicist who may have been entwined with Rocket’s past.

When the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 dropped something stood out to me right away: it was accompanied by the song “In the Meantime” by Spacehog, a song that was recorded and released in 1996.  That’s probably still an “oldie” by the standards of a lot of people but it’s still a good twenty years more current than the songs that populated the first two movies in the franchise.  Sure enough that signals that the music in this movie features music from a wider range of time periods than the exclusively 60s and 70s stuff that set the tone for those first two movies.  This shift was of course something that was foreshadowed late in Volume 2 when Peter Quill was gifted a Zoom, but it still feels like a somewhat daring willingness to mess with the formula a bit in this third film and I think that attitude carries over to other aspects of this film.  I would not say that the film is radically different than the first two movies but there is subtle but noticeable change here that may throw some people.  The film kind of lives in the shadow of traumatic events that happened over the course of the Avengers films the characters participated in and between that and Rocket’s dark backstory that makes the film a bit darker and a bit less of a romp than the first two volumes.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t still humor in the movie, there certainly is, but at times it feels like these characters just joke to keep themselves from crying.

At the film’s center are a series of flashbacks to Rocket’s origins that appear to have been pretty well received but which I’m a bit cooler on.  There’s nothing “wrong” with them exactly but it’s pretty clear from the beginning where that story thread is going and I feel like we could have maybe stood to cut to it a little less often and there’s also a walrus creature in it that’s very poorly rendered in CGI.  The storyline also involves animals getting tinkered on by a sort of intergalactic Dr. Moreau, which I’ve heard some people describe as “disturbing,” which I can’t say I can relate to terribly well given how steeped in gory horror movies I am and how little affection I tend to have with animals.  I’d also say that the villain in question, while not bad as a character necessarily, is a bit stock.  His motives related to genetic tinkering are potentially interesting but he mostly just comes off as your standard megalomaniac and his tactics are just kind of flamboyantly eeeeeviiiilll.  But he looks cool, and that’s probably good enough for the purposes of this movie that has a lot of other things to deal with during its running time.  On the plus side, if you’re kind of sick of Marvel films being too devoted to setting up other Marvel films this is mostly a step back from that.  You certainly need to do the prerequisite viewing (including both recent Avengers films and the holiday special) and I do have some suspicions that Adam Warlock is mostly here to be used again at some point in the future but aside from that there isn’t much spinoff baiting here and even the post credit scenes mostly serve to further the story you’ve been watching rather than to tease another one.

If I have a particular complaint about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 it’s just that it’s maybe lacking in any real surprises.  In the lead-up to the film there was a lot of speculation about it doing something really wild and climactic to bring closure to this branch of the MCU but it really doesn’t, there’s not much to spoil even if I wanted to and while the central team is left in a different state than how it started the movie definitely does leave a lot of room for further sequels.  Aside from that I think what feels a bit “off” about it is just timing.  A lot of momentum seems to have been lost in the six years it took to make it both behind the scenes and in terms of what the public is looking for and the sub-franchise that so perfectly hit the zeitgeist in 2014 might be a bit behind the times in 2023.  But I don’t want to come off as too negative hear because I think the sum of this movie’s parts are actually very strong.  It’s probably the MCU’s best movie since Avengers: Endgame give or take a Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.  In fact it’s because so much of it objectively executes so well that I’m left to theorize why the movie didn’t give me that joyful feeling I’m usually left with when the MCU is operating at the top of its game.  Maybe it’s just a “me” problem?
***1/2 out of Five

Beau is Afraid(4/22/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

What does a director do when they’ve been tagged as a “horror filmmaker” but then want to start doing something else?  That’s kind of the predicament that a whole generation of indie auteurs seem to be running into after many of them found themselves making “elevated horror” and then had to decide if they want to keep doing that or move on to something else that maybe isn’t going to be as commercial.  Robert Eggers probably pulled this off the best by focusing in on the historical rather than suspense elements of his debut film The Witch, transitioned into the hothouse suspense effort The Lighthouse, and then into a borderline action film with The Northman.  Then there’s Jennifer Kent, who went from making The Babadook to making The Nightingale, which wasn’t really a horror movie but was a violent revenge movie that would provide some interest to the genre crowd.  On the other end of the spectrum though there’s David Robert Mitchell, who followed up his “elevated horror” film It Follows by taking whatever clout that gave him and using it to make an outlandishly weird go-for-broke follow-up devoid of horror called Under the Silver Lake.  Some people love it, personally I’m not much of a fan but I admire the effort.  It would seem that Ari Aster has gone the same route by, following up his twin A24 horror triumphs, Hereditary and Midsommar, by having that buzzy studio give him $35 million dollars to make a wild three hour surreal tragicomedy called Beau is Afraid which is… quite the gamble.

Beau is Afraid starts off feeling like a movie that takes its title very literally.  The film’s first section we’re introduced to our subject, Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a highly neurotic middle aged man who’s on psychiatric medication and lives in an incredibly dumpy bordering on dangerous apartment in New York.  Or does he?  As the movie started we see Beau encounter threatening person after threatening person in New York, learn from a new report about a knife wielding nude man who’s been murdering people, and even hear that there’s a venomous spider loose in Beau’s building.  Is Beau really living in a world that’s this comically dangerous, or is much of this not actually happening and what we’re actually seeing on screen are manifestations of his delusional paranoia about the world and its many dangers.   Anyway, we learn that he soon plans to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone) only to have that trip derailed by a series of misadventures.  He then gets a phone call telling him that Mona may have been killed in a freak accident, leading him to spiral a bit, and much of the rest of the film is his often interrupted journey to reach his hometown to attend her funeral, which leads to a sort of picaresque story along the way that will also dig into his psychology and paranoia.

If the first quarter of the film is about everything that leaves Beau unsettled and frightened in the city, the second quarter is about how the suburban life hardly leaves him any more comfortable.  In this section he’s being nursed to health following an accident by a rather strange couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane despite feeling immense pressure to leave and attend his mother’s funeral as quickly as possible.  The couple are seemingly as polite as they can be at all times, and yet there does seem to be something threatening about them just the same and you empathize with Beau’s paranoia about possible secondary motives they may have to hold him there.  Meanwhile their home also features a traumatized soldier who served with their dead son and appears to be about as dangerous as the nude stabber back in New York, and also a teenage daughter who seems to represent everything that scares people Beau’s age about the next generation (teenage apathy, rebellion, phone addiction, suicidal tendencies, and also the fear that a man his age could be accused of predatory feelings towards them).  So clearly Beau’s paranoia is not contained to New York, it seems all encompassing.

Once that section of the film ends we’ve been pretty well introduced to everything driving Beau mad and we spend the second half of the film trying to get to the bottom of why he’s such a basket case.  Short answer: his mother fucked him up, and continues to fuck him up… or does she?  We get a number of flashbacks to Beau’s teen years which tell a story of a young man whose father allegedly died before he was born from a heart murmur that killed him on his wedding night right as he conceived this son, leaving him to be raised by his high achieving but over-bearing mother who may well have latched onto him a bit too strongly to the point where there may have been some sort of incestuous feelings or abuse going on.  But this is hard to really determine definitively because Beau is about as unreliable a narrator as you can get: he’s a guy who seems to view the entire world as a surreal hellscape filled with people who want to kill him for no particular reason and we have no real way of knowing if he’s viewing his own past and his mother any more or less objectively in these various flashbacks.  And of course with one exception nothing scares Beau more than sex, something he thinks will literally kill him like it allegedly killed his father, though it’s hard to know if that story isn’t just another manifestation of his paranoia and flashbacks to his time on a cruise ship where he makes a fleeting connection to a girl his own age seem to mark some sort of turning point where he definitively set himself in his ways.

In the film’s third quarter we get something of a highlight in which Beau stumbles into this elaborate outdoor theater where  a troupe is putting on some sort of makeshift play that Beau seems to connect with and start envision as his own story.  At this point the set decoration of the stage becomes cinematic and combines with animation to become this story within a story that’s meant to really probe into the hopes and dreams of this guy who can only dream of having something resembling a normal life in a sort biblical parable about a man who goes through nearly Job like trials.  That digression is eventually rather violently interrupted and from there things just become increasingly bleak as the film’s final fourth focuses on the real or imagined logical endpoint of all Beau’s worries and tries to find definitive answers to what made him the way he is.  I said before that nothing scares Beau more than sex, but that maybe isn’t quite true, the thing that really scares him above all is the disapproval of his mother and the film’s final episode is meant to represent the logical endpoint of this.  Where there may be some grain of logic in being afraid of urban crime or traumatized soldiers there isn’t really any mortal danger to be found in maternal disapproval is there?  After all, what is Mona Wasserman going to do if she’s angry at him?  Fake her death in order to entrap him failing to appear at her funeral in time as revenge for missing a visit and then publicly reveal him as a bad son in front of a kangaroo court before drowning him under a capsized boat?  Seems like a pretty far-fetched dander to be in fear of but is it any more or less likely to happen than getting bitten by a brown recluse spider in a New York apartment?

Alright, so that covers much of the film’s runtime but maybe it’s time to take a step back and talk about what this movie even is.  The film feels almost entirely different from the pair of horror movies that Ari Aster built his career on.  I guess there are similar “mother issues” at the center of Hereditary and some of Patti LuPone’s line deliveries did remind me a bit of Toni Collette’s performance in that, but otherwise they’re pretty different.  This isn’t a horror movie and it doesn’t have the tone of something like Midsommer at all.  Instead this actually reminded me a lot more of the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly his more “out there” directorial efforts like Synecdoche, New York and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, not just in the film’s batshit audacity but also in that it is very interested in getting in the head of a lonely and kind of schlubby middle aged protagonist who maybe has a bit of a screw loose.  That is perhaps a bit of a surprise coming from the 36 year old Aster, who’s at least a decade younger than his protagonist.  How personal any of this is is going to be a bit of a mystery as Beau doesn’t really seem like that much of a self-insert given what we know about Aster personally.  He’s plainly more successful than Beau, he didn’t have a single mother, and his parents were by all accounts artsy types rather than successful business people… but all of this has to be coming from somewhere right?

One thing that Beau does seem to have in common with Aster is Jewish identity, which is something the film doesn’t make too big of a deal out of but given the name I’m pretty sure that the Wassermanns are supposed to be Jewish and there is a pretty key reference to Jewish burial ritual.  That would by extension make Mona Wassermann a Jewish mother, which is of course something of a loaded stock figure and stereotype, which can make this a bit of a touchy subject for a goyim like me to talk about but it’s definitely something that’s embedded in the film.  The Wikipedia page on “Jewish stenotypes” describes this archetype as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering which she professes to have experienced on their behalf.”  Think of the nagging woman at the center of Woody Allen’s New York Stories short “Oedipus Wrecks” in which the protagonist’s mother is such a nag that she continues to criticize him as a supernatural apparition after she disappears in a magic trick accident.  But where Allen and other Jewish entertainers have harnessed this stereotype as a source of humor over the years Aster seems to be painting this tendency as a more serious bordering on abusive tendencies that have left Beau with genuine scars, especially given his other paranoid tendencies.

On the other hand, given how much of an unreliable narrator Beau is it’s entirely possible that his mother isn’t really anything close to the manipulative and conniving bitch she’s depicted as being in Beau’s head.  In fact I think it’s entirely plausible that nothing we see of this woman beyond the initial phone call to her “actually” happened outside of Beau’s head.  In fact the movie is so aggressively surreal that most of what happens in it can be said to be in Beau’s head and it’s unclear how much if anything on screen is “real,” and that could likely be a source of frustration for many.  Three hours is a very long time to expect people to live in the head of a paranoid weirdo so the movie is kind of asking a lot of its viewers and some of its abstractions are a little hard to swallow.  The animatronic killer cock monster, for example, was probably a bit much.  But the bigger issue is that the movie somehow manages to be both cinematically cryptic while also being kind of blatantly obvious and unsubtle at the same time.  It asks you to dig through this guy’s psyche and what you find at the center are in many ways just Freudian clichés about mommy issues and sexual hang-ups.

So is the movie even any good?  I don’t know, this kind of feels like a ridiculous movie to boil down to a simple “thumbs up or thumbs down” and even as I write the final paragraph of this I don’t really know what star rating I’m going to give the damn thing.  It’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average moviegoer, and even among the more dedicated cinephilles I’m pretty sure this one is going to be divisive, including among fans of Aster’s previous work.  Personally, I don’t know, it’s hard for me not to at least be intrigued by something that’s this ambitious and adventurous being put up on the screen and there were definitely moments of cinematic invention in it like that “play within a film” scene that had me riveted.  On the other hand I do think the running time is legitimately out of control and I’m not sure the psychology underpinning all of this really holds up.  Insomuch as it does hold up I think there’s something interesting being said about what a state of perpetual fear does to people.  As I’m writing this we’re going through a wave of high profile news stories about people getting shot at for ringing the wrong doorbell or driving into the wrong driveway, and the Fox Newses of the world are going out of their way to cause a state of maximum paranoia in this country and in that context something like this could be useful, but in this movie the paranoia is so directly personalized to this one dude’s baggage that I’m not sure it really says much about fear within the wider society like that.  But I’ve been talking about this movie for well over 2000 words at this point so clearly it provoked thoughts and I do think this is a movie that should be seen even if only for everyone to compare notes.
***1/2 out of Five


I don’t care about shoes.  I hear about people who own dozens of pairs of them and talking about “limited editions” of them and the like and they just seem kind of crazy to me.  These are basically the least visible clothing accessory there is unless you go around staring at people’s feet like a weirdo.  I for one own exactly one pair of shoes (outside of my snow boots) and those are a pair of black New Balance walking shoes that look good enough to wear to work settings but are comfortable enough to wear in casual situations and my choice of brand is almost entirely a function of that being one of the few major companies that make wide sizes that fit my sasquatch feet.  Needless to say, this means I don’t have any particularly warm feelings about the Nike Corporation, makers of average athleticwear that has become wildly overvalued through hype marketing and related bullshit.  Additionally, I’m not much of a basketball fan and was a little too young to have really appreciated Michael Jordan’s dominance in that sport.  So, needless to say I’m not the natural target audience for a movie about Nike’s decision to sign Michael Jordan as a paid endorser of their shoes, but that doesn’t mean this was necessarily doomed to failure as a project for me.  I’ve also never so much as signed up for Facebook, but that didn’t preclude me from loving David Fincher’s The Social Network and I’ve also never been a fan of Apple Computer but that didn’t stop me from being interested in the movie Jobs, so I went into Air a bit skeptical but still curious.

The film begins in 1984 in a meeting at Nike attended by staff basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) where the division is trying to decide which of the year’s draft picks they’re going to sign.  They know they can’t afford the top three picks: Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, and Michael Jordan.  Vaccaro is interested in Jordan but they only have $250,000 to work with and marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) believes the obvious safe course is to spend that on three lesser players to spread the risk rather than blowing it on one of them who could flame out and he knows that CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) agrees with that approach, especially given that Nike’s basketball division is on shaky ground at that point.  Once Vaccaro takes another look at some of the tapes from Jordan’s college career he becomes even more convinced that he’ll be the a generational talent and goes on a mission to woo him over to Nike and away from Converse and Addidas and convince Knight and the board to go along with the plan.  In order to do this he even goes so far as to go around Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and fly out to North Carolina to personally meet with Jordan’s parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon), who are skeptical but will set up a meeting.  At this point it becomes increasingly clear that Nike needs to close this deal if it wants to stay in the basketball shoe business.

Air was directed by Ben Affleck, in his return to the director chair after a seven year absence following flop status of his 2016 film Live by Night and some chaotic experiences acting in the DCEU.  In many ways this feels like something of a safe project to return with given that he’s once again working with his buddy Matt Damon, isn’t working with huge special effects or elaborate sets, and is tackling a subject matter that most would agree is not wildly high stakes.  What he has instead constructed is a fairly breezy business procedural anchored by an almost comedic screenplay by Alex Convery that gives most of the characters a certain witty rapport.  One could go as far as to accuse the film of being downright overwritten and it does kind of indulge in a lot of slightly clunky jokes hinting at future events, like scene where the possibility of signing Charles Barkley to an endorsement deal is dismissed on the grounds that they don’t think anyone is going to want to see him talk on TV.  But on balance the film’s script and dialogue is its biggest asset and including some genuinely funny moments like these profane rants on the part of Jordan’s agent.

All of this, combined with a pretty solid cast make the film a pretty enjoyable viewing experience that I can’t argue with too much, but I also can’t help but question the point of all this.  On its face “tell the Michael Jordan story from the perspective of the dopey white people who want to pay to leech off of his fame” just seems kind of out of touch as a pitch and watchable as it may be I’m not sure it ever quite made the case for itself that it needed to make.  That’s not to say that the movie is entirely uncritical of the craven ad men at the movie’s center and the film does ultimately try to make a case for this athlete signing as having allowed for more lucrative future deals for athletes, but I don’t know, that still kind of feels like a first world problem that’s being solved.  I’m also not sure that it entirely brought to life the characters here; sure, they’re given fun personalities but these certainly aren’t probing character studies and some of the film’s other decisions like it’s wall to wall 80s music soundtrack and its sometimes distracting ways of avoiding having to cast someone as Michael Jordan.  It’s no The Social Network is what I’m saying, and for that matter it’s no The Big Short, but there are worse things it could be.  If you once thought Ben Affleck had the chops to become the next Clint Eastwood behind the camera this won’t necessarily advance that cause, but hey, at least it’s not another superhero movie… or is it?
*** out of Five

John Wick: Chapter 4(3/23/2023)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

Not since The Fast and the Furious has an action franchise that started so modestly blown up into something as outlandish as what the John Wick movies have become.  It feels like ages ago now but that first John Wick was supposed to be this quick little low budget Keanu Reeves vehicle that would come and go in the October of 2014, and for a while that seemed like all it was.  It opened at number two behind the movie Ouija and made less than $50 million dollars at the domestic violence during its release, which was enough of a win to spawn a sequel but certainly didn’t set Hollywood on fire.  But the movie really blew up on home video and by the time the sequels came the audiences showed up and in pretty large numbers.  And as the series popularity grew the ambitions of the creative team grew as well and the movies grew increasingly large and bombastic and operatic in nature, bringing John Wick to increasingly exotic locales and engaging in more and more over the top shootouts.  And this exponentially increasingly scale seems to have reached its zenith with the fourth and by some accounts final film in the series, John Wick: Chapter IV, which reportedly cost $100 million to make and runs nearly three hours.

This fourth film picks up a few months after the events of John Wick: Chapter 3 with Wick (Keanu Reeves) now trying to bring the war to The High Table, murdering The Elder (George Georgiou) and then going into hiding.  With it revealed that Wick is alive and that the attempt on his life in the last movie failed, The High Table sends an official called The Harbinger (Clancy Brown) along with a high ranking and aristocratic High Table member called the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) to punish The New York Continental for their failure to reign in Wick.  They execute The Concierge (Lance Reddick) on the spot and excommunicate The Manager (Ian McShane), seemingly allowing him to live to stricken him with humiliation and dishonor.  From there they begin trying to track down Wick and assemble various assassins to do this including a guy named Chidi (Marko Zaror), a guy with a trained attack dog called Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), and most notably and old friend of Wick’s named Caine (Donnie Yen) a blind but high achieving killer who only reluctantly joins the hunt because The High Table is threatening his daughter.  These people all eventually converge on the Osaka Continental where a manager Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada) has been harboring Wick much to the chagrin of his daughter (Rina Sawayama) and this will eventually lead to (one of many) shootout that will lead to a globe-trotting hunt with the very roots of The High Table on the line.

I’ve had pretty mixed feelings about all the John Wick movies to date in that I think their action scenes are really doing everything I’ve wanted cinematic action movie to do.  They’re these R-rated ballets of violence that feel like a sort of natural evolution of what John Woo was doing in the late 80s and early 90s, Keanu Reeves looks incredibly cool while doing them, and as the series has gone on the creative team has really made use of the higher budgets to make them look kind of immaculate.  However, the world these movies inhabit is profoundly silly and their plots are ultimately a bunch of nonsense.  I could sit here all day and find nitpicky reasons why “The High Table” and the weird gold coin based economy makes zero sense.  Like, the sheer number of paid assassins in this would imply that there’s enough demand for such a profession that there must be exponentially more murder victims every year.  And the films also seem to live in a world where there are seemingly no police whatsoever and where high body count shootouts can happen more or less right out in the open on city streets without it seeming to cause much of a stir at all with the global status quo.  Hell, this latest installment even suggests that The High Table runs a The Warriors style radio station in Paris meant to keep the French assassin community informed about the location of various targets… that’s crazy right?

The thing is, you’re probably just not supposed to take these movies that literally.  One could almost say that you’re supposed to look at them in almost expressionistic terms and I think that claim works better as the series has moved forward and the cinematography has become increasingly avant-garde and the sets have gotten even more over the top decadent in their depiction of this sort of super upscale locations (seriously, the number of nightclubs in these cities is pretty astonishing).  It’s almost like a work of cyberpunk but with bullets replacing the computers and illuminati-like crime syndicates replacing the monolithic tech corporations.  That having been said, even if looking at them in that generous light I still don’t exactly think all the character motivations really add up here and I don’t think I’m as willing to forgive that.  Like, early on there’s this big shootout at the Osaka Continental which is a hell of a set-piece but it’s also basically only happening because Wick needlessly put the place in danger for no reason, and then much of the rest of the film hinges on some pretty inconsistent notions of High Table rules and norms that the series writers are more than likely making up as they go.  For instance, much of the film’s second half is predicated on Wick being given the idea to conclude this conflict with the High Table by challenging The Marquis to a dual, which might have been a smart thing to have done two movies ago, and the rules about when they’re supposed to give him sanctuary to participate in this ritual and when they’re not don’t really compute.

I also must say I didn’t care for how the film’s ending was handled at all.  There’s a pretty lengthy scene about midway through the film where Wick goes on something of a side-quest to take out a German High Table member (played by Scott Adkins in heavy makeup), which leads to a rather odd moment where this character has Wick and two of his pursuers (who, like the Halle Berry character in the last movie, kind of feel like they’ve been introduced as the potential subjects of future spinoffs) to a game of poker in which all three men turn up outrageously strong hands only to be beaten by the dealers hand: five of a kind.  The lesson that this man seems to be patiently imparting is that you really can’t beat the High Table at their own game because they’re not really playing that game honestly and use their rules to exploit people.  That’s an interesting thematic message and seems to be the one reason this whole episode is in this already lengthy movie, but the movie doesn’t really carry the message through in the finale, in which Wick does indeed play by the High Table’s rules and it does result in what is a moral victory of sorts.  I guess one could say that The High Table trying to murder him before his arrival at the duel is the movie’s equivalent of the five-of-a-kind, but they were already trying to murder him before that anyway so I’m not sure it really resonates.  I was kind of hoping the film would end on something a little more radical in which Wick really subverts things but in the end it doesn’t really go there.

But maybe I’m burying the lede here a bit, most people aren’t going to these movies to contemplate character motivations or find coherence in the world building, they’re going to watch Keanu Reeves look really cool while shooting a whole bunch of bad guys in the head, and this movie does mostly deliver on that front.  Scene for scene the action scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 might have been a little more a little more inventive but these ones are longer and more epic in scope.  The new supporting cast is also mostly solid.  Bill Skarsgård plays a pretty stock European aristocrat villain, but Shamier Anderson is pretty strong as one of the henchmen hunting Wick (even if his character is a bit loopy) and Donnie Yen is a real standout as a blind assassin who mostly isn’t hindered by his disability, which is something of an action movie trope but one that’s well done here.  And while that three hour runtime is kind of nuts on paper I didn’t really mind the pacing too much, this is kind of one of those movies where the excessiveness is sort of the point and that extended running time is sort of part of the package.  Those just looking for more action and entertainment from this will mostly be pleased.  And in many ways I’m also quite impressed by what’s been accomplished here as well, but looking back on this movie and the franchise as a whole I just kind of feel like this whole enterprise falls short of true greatness.  With a little more forethought and story ambition to go with the style this series could have really been one of the finest accomplishments in all of action cinema but I feel like the creative team just leaned too much into B-movie laziness a while back when setting up this universe in a way that even this rather accomplished “final” movie couldn’t really shake.
***1/2 out of Five

Creed III(3/1/2023)

In 1984 that famed parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic wrote a parody of the song “Eye of the Tiger” called “Theme to Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser).”  At the time there were only three Rocky films that had been made with a fourth one due out the next year and yet that still seemed crassly commercial enough for someone to make a joke song premised around this property being milked beyond all reason with endless sequels.  Obviously the idea that they would end up making thirteen of these movies was meant to be an outrageous exaggeration when he wrote that song but… at this point it’s looking like it might be possible because this third film in the Creed spinoff series marks the ninth film in the Rocky series, which is pretty wild if you think about it.  And what’s even wilder is that in the film environment of 2022 this actually feels like one of the more dignified and restrained of the film franchises out there in that it just feels like they’re making traditional sequels with numbers at the end of the titles instead of planning out extended cinematic universes or coming up with weird spinoffs of spinoffs with elaborate titles after colons.  Of course I’d say that going into this third installment I was pretty skeptical about the long term prospects of the Creed movies.  Creed II wasn’t “bad” exactly but it seemed like a pretty significant step down from the “original” legasequel and it wouldn’t have surprised me if they just left it there, but they have come back for a third chapter in the life of Adonis Creed and this time star Michael B. Jordan followed in Sylvester Stallone’s footsteps once again by stepping behind the camera of the series he’s spearheading for this installment.

We pick up our story a few years after the events of Creed II with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) fighting what is billed as his final heavyweight bout, a rematch with Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) from the first film.  He comes away from that fight victorious and announces his retirement in order to focus on his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).  Additionally he plans to focus on the gym he owns and together with trainer Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris) intends to help manage the next generation of ring champions.  Currently they’re training a prospect named Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.), who’s lined up to fight Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) when a person from Creed’s past suddenly shows up outside the gym.  This guy, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Johnathan Majors), was a promising amateur fighter that Creed knew from the foster home he grew up in and the two had been close friends before they found themselves in some trouble that Creed escaped from but which landed Anderson in prison.  He’s out of prison now but feels like a successful boxing career was stolen from him and he wants Creed to help him get into the ring again.  Creed is skeptical that this will work out but Anderson clearly still has some chops and a will to win, but also perhaps a hidden agenda.

Creed III opens with a flashback to 2002 where we see the start of a pivotal night in the life of Adonis Creed and Dame Anderson.  The start of this flashback is set to the Dr. Dre song “The Watcher,” which proved to be something of a resonant choice to foreground in this movie as it was a song about Dre trying to reconcile his “street” image with his status as a comfortable millionaire when he came out with that second album.  That is not unlike Creed’s own thematic situation in this movie where he’s now a reigning champion with seemingly nothing to prove and at the same time everything to prove as in the eyes of Anderson he’s gotten soft and has also essentially abandoned “the hood” to live a pampered life of luxury.  In the parlance of Rocky III, he’s allegedly lost “the eye of the tiger.”  That is, however, the film’s only real link to Rocky III or any of the other Rocky movies for that matter outside a couple of stray references and the basic formula.  It was announced after Creed II that Sylvester Stallone would be retiring the Rocky character with that movie and he does keep to that promise with Creed III, which is the only Rocky-less Rocky movie to date.  The film also doesn’t go back to the well with the opponent Creed fights either like they did in the last film and its links to Rocky IV.  There were rumors early on that Creed would fight the son of Clubber Lang in this movie but they wisely abandoned that and decided to make this the first Creed movie that would firmly establish this as Michael B. Jordan’s franchise now and would get out of the Italian Stallion’s shadow.

And in keeping with this being Michael B. Jordan’s franchise, the actor is now in the director’s chair and while he’s no Ryan Coogler I do think he handles himself a little better than Creed II director Steven Caple Jr. did.  He does occasionally try a little too hard to go for some flashy tricks, including a couple of misguided CGI shots of punches going into flesh that kind of reminded me of that one funky looking punch shot from The Matrix Revolutions.  Jordan does, however, have an ace in the hole in the form of Johnathan Majors, who has some really strong screen presence as the film’s villain who is a clear improvement over Drago Jr. in the last movie and the British dude from the first Creed.  At the end of the day though Anderson is mostly elevated by having an interesting motive and by Majors’ performance, in practice he doesn’t really do much of anything that a Clubber Lang or another more generic opponent wouldn’t do and basically just fits into the formula.  Additionally I do think this series is at long last kind of struggling to find new ways to re-invent certain series hallmarks like training montages and opening fights, both of which feel kind of recycled here from what we got in the last couple of movies.  If I were Michael B. Jordan I would maybe take a hard look at how off the rails the first Rocky series went in its fourth and fifth installments and maybe opt not to go down the same road of over-extension with his own series.  That having been said, the movie he has given us is solid workmanlike entertainment that will probably leave fans of the previous two films plenty satisfied.
*** out of Five