Friday, December 5, 2014

Worth Mentioning - There's No Rhyme or Reason to This Life

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody is blown away by action, charmed by Bill Murray, and intrigued by dark indies.

JOHN WICK (2014)

When we're first introduced to Keanu Reeves as the man who shares his name with the title of the film, it's the day of his wife's funeral and he is bereft, borderline suicidal. The only hope in his life comes in the form of the most adorable beagle puppy ever put on film, delivered to his doorstep that night. Something his wife had arranged before she succumbed to the illness she fought for as long as possible.

The puppy, named Daisy, by his side, Wick tries to move forward in life. Unfortunately, things just get worse. His pristine '69 Mustang has caught the attention of a trio of thugs who break into his house, knock him out, kill Daisy, and steal the car, taking it to a chop shop in New York. The chop shop owner's reaction to seeing the Mustang, and the fact that Wick goes directly to that exact shop after he regains consciousness and buries his dog, are the first signs that there is more to John Wick than meets the eye.

Wick used to work as an assassin for a Russian crime organization. He had such a reputation for being an unstoppable killing machine that he earned the nickname The Boogeyman. Once he has gathered information on the people who stole his car and killed his dog, he returns home and breaks out the tools of his old trade. It doesn't matter that the leader of group is the son of his former employer. Wick is prepared to do whatever it takes to get payback, even if he has to take down the entire criminal empire along the way. The Boogeyman is back.

Screenwriter Derek Kolstad wasn't breaking any new ground with the Wick script when he wrote it on spec, the "retired tough guy gets pulled back into action when some idiot messes with him" is an action movie standard, from Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando to Liam Neeson in Taken. It's a solid set-up, though, and what it comes down to when making a familiar story work is the style, tone, and execution. In those areas, Kolstad and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (stuntmen making their directorial debut) deliver extreme coolness.

Kolstad built an interesting world around Wick, surrounding Reeves with a colorful cast of characters that are brought to life by a great supporting cast that includes Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane. It's not a world that feels realistic, but it is one that feels real. The people and locations have history.

Stahelski and Leitch's familiarity with stuntwork was clearly a boon as they brought the action to the screen, as the gunfights, fisticuffs, and vehicular smash-ups that ensue while Wick's rampage of revenge raises the body count up into the triple digits are wonderfully choreographed, hard-hitting and thrilling.

Most of the film's running time consists of setpieces of violence, each effective in its own way, the standout sequence for me being one set in a neon-lit nightclub.

The emotional element behind Wick's actions, the world Kolstad created, the way Stahelski and Leitch captured the carnage and let the story unfold, Reeves' performance as the man-of-few-words-but-many-actions, all of these things worked together to make John Wick one of the best, most satisfying straightforward action movies I have seen in quite a while.

ST. VINCENT (2014)

A drama with a good sense of humor running through it, St. Vincent is a movie that can have you laughing at one moment and getting choked up the next, or vice versa, but although well made by writer/director Theodore Melfi, it's also a movie that wouldn't work nearly as well as it does, maybe not at all, if there was anyone other than Bill Murray in the lead role.

A man battered and embittered by life, Murray's Vincent conducts himself in a horrible manner most of the time. He's hard drinking, rude, off-putting, and inappropriate. We learn the reasons why Vincent is the way that he is, but it's truly Murray's inherent likability that allows the character to behave the way he does, to be able to say awful and devastating things to people around him, without having the audience turn against him. He's not a pleasant person, but we're always rooting for him.

With Murray handling the heavy lifting on that role, the strong supporting cast assembled around him are able to aid in making the story at the film's core - a young kid befriends an older man who should not be responsible for children, and through their interactions both are changed for the better - effective, despite being such well-worn material.

Jaeden Lieberher makes a great feature debut as Oliver, the kid in question, the son of parents in the midst of divorcing. With his mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, in a primarily dramatic role) working long hours at the hospital, Oliver is left home alone a lot. As their next door neighbor, his proximity gets Vincent roped into becoming Oliver's babysitter, a job which Vincent accepts because he's hurting for cash. From Vincent, Oliver learns life lessons and how to defend himself against bullies. From Oliver, Vincent learns that he doesn't have to be such a jerk.

Naomi Watts is a lot of fun as Vincent's pregnant Russian lady (of the night) friend, Chris O'Dowd makes for one cool priest/teacher, and Terrence Howard lurks around in some scenes as a debt collecting character who thankfully is not over-used.

St. Vincent is far from fresh and original, and under different circumstances it's not something that would make much of an impression, but thanks to the actors who inhabit the roles and the fact that I left the theatre with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face, I have to give the movie a recommend. It's worth checking out for anyone who likes heartwarming stories, and for fans of Bill Murray. And who isn't a fan of Bill Murray?

GUT (2012)

I had been hearing about Gut, the feature debut by mononymous filmmaker Elias, for months, but with its non-descript title and promotional imagery consisting merely of a shot of someone's stomach, I could never quite get a grasp on what it was about. My assumption was that it would be some kind of Cronenbergian body horror story, about something awful growing within someone's belly. My guess was way off.

Gut centers on thirty-something family man Tom, whose life is slipping down a steep, soul-crushing, American Beauty-esque slope of utter boredom. His office job is dull, his relationship with his wife isn't fulfilling. He's even drifting apart from his longtime friend Dan, despite the fact that they're co-workers.

In their younger days, Tom and Dan would regularly get together for all night horror movie marathons (and when the characters began to rave about Return of the Living Dead III and its star Melinda Clarke, it became clear to me that Elias is someone who speaks my language.) When Dan discovers that Tom has been considering moving his family out of town, he makes a last ditch effort to save their friendship by inviting Tom over to his house to watch a movie. But as it turns out, the movie Dan wants to show Tom isn't something that would be listed on TheMovieNetwork. It's a short snuff film, ordered from some underground website, showing nothing but a close-up of a girl's stomach, which gloved, knife-wielding hands reach into frame to slice open.

Tom and Dan's lives change in that moment. Tom is haunted by the imagery; sometimes it's shocking to him, like when he flashes on the memory of the stomach being sliced open while he's looking at his own daughter's stomach, at other times it's pleasurable. He fantasizes about the gutting. It improves his sex life. Meanwhile, Dan starts acting stranger and stranger. More snuff is watched... And with this being in the horror/thriller genre, it's obvious to the viewer that the bloodshed isn't going to be limited to the characters' TV screens for very long. Terrible things are bound to happen before the credits roll.

Matching the gradually unraveling mental states of its leads, Gut is a slow burn that gets darker and darker as it goes along. The subject matter is disturbing and the movie keeps its viewer on edge throughout, because we're never sure what its off-balance characters are going to do or who they might do it to.

Gut isn't the first movie to deal with the psychological impact of viewing a snuff video, films like 8mm and Effects have had similar moments before, but as I was watching it, it did occur to me that its concept of an underground world that deals in such things is kind of old fashioned. In an age where every horrible event that happens in the world is filmed to be uploaded to the internet, Tom and Dan could be seeing much worse things than the snuff they watch just by browsing the web. Countless people out there are having their psyches damaged by videos of real deaths, and they didn't have to buy anything to see them. Gut is a solid film and a chilling one, ultimately it doesn't matter how the characters see the snuff, the "ordered it on physical media" aspect just struck me as aleady feeling sort of outdated.

If you're in the mood to be disturbed, Gut has you covered.

PHOBIA (2013/IV)

Phobia, produced by Gut writer/director Elias, is the feature directorial debut of Rory Douglas Abel, who worked on Gut as a second assistant cameraman and first assistant editor.

The story Abel crafted with co-writer Matthew Barnes is of an agoraphobic young man named Jonathan, who has been living in fear within the walls of the home he inherited from his parents ever since the car accident that claimed the life of his beloved wife Jane more than a year ago. Jonathan feels like nothing bad can happen to him in his home, it's when you venture out into the world that horrible things occur. Just looking out a window can cause him to have a paniac attack.

There seems to be only three people in Jonathan's life now - his best friend Taylor, who brings him food, movies, and medication; his psychiatrist Dr. Edmondson, who makes housecalls for their weekly sessions; and the grocery delivery person... And the fact that the regular delivery guy has been replaced by an attractive girl named Bree causes a major shake-up for Jonathan.

That could easily be the description of a romantic comedy. Perhaps Bree will teach Jonathan to love again and he'll find it within himself to re-enter society. But that's not the genre Abel is going for. The intense nightmares and hallucinations Jonathan has make it clear that we are firmly in horror/psychological thriller territory here.

At first, Jonathan just feels the presence of Jane around him and catches glimpses of her around the home, but then the visions take a darker turn. Sometimes the image of Jane is seductive, but sometimes she's dripping blood, sometimes she's sporting autopsy scars. And she's not the only person Jonathan sees who isn't really there. There's also a woman with very strange physical abnormalities who wears a black veil and a knife-wielding intruder who is always trying to sink that blade into him.

Jonathan and Bree do get close, but with his "safe house" starting to become a madhouse, we begin to worry that being close to him might be hazardous to her well-being.

A deliberately paced mind game, Phobia is essentially Abel and Barnes toying with the audience for 80 minutes, slipping back and forth between reality and Jonathan's perception until we're completely discombobulated, much like Jonathan himself. With his hallucinations becoming increasingly violent, we know it's only a matter of time before these imagined actions will cause something terrible to happen.

Terrible things do happen, but I can't honestly tell you that I know just what was going on. Things seem to be one way, and then the movie flips it around on you and presents the possibility that they're something else entirely - and there are no explanations.

I'm not one to need answers spoonfed to me, but the logic could have been made more clear. As it is, I got lost.

Still, I enjoyed watching Phobia up until the moment its ending left me baffled. Some movies that are "Is this real or not?" guessing games can become grating, but that wasn't the case with this one. I was intrigued by what the movie was showing me and invested in the characters.

Watching Phobia wasn't a completely satisfying experience, but it is an exceptionally well made indie with good performances from the cast and plenty of unnerving imagery.

BLESSID (2014)

An independent production from director Rob Fitz and writer Robert Heske, Blessid stars Rachel Kerbs as a young woman named Sarah, who is trapped in a loveless marriage by an unexpected pregnancy. When blood pressure issues cause a scare for her as her due date nears, Sarah is advised to just rest at home until she goes into labor. Sitting at home all day gives Sarah a lot of time to think, and her thoughts and her dreams are filled with flashbacks to childhood traumas; a missing sister, a suicide attempt when she was a teen. It also gives the ex-boyfriend who's stalking her ample opportunity to lurk around the neighborhood and keep an eye on her.

One day, Sarah notices that the eccentric, seemingly middle-aged man who lives across the street regularly cuts through her yard to collect weeds from the marsh behind her property. Intrigued, and with nothing better to do, she does some investigating to find out who her neighbor is and what's going on with him.

The neighbor is Rick Montgomery Jr. as Jedediah Cross, a kind fellow who has secrets you'd never expect the answers to. Getting to know him is a good thing for Sarah at a time when it seems like her life is spiraling out of control, but it may not be enough to keep away the darkness that is threatening to envelop her.

Blessid is a very unique film, a drama with thriller elements that also has a touch of its own mythology to it, which is presented in a very matter-of-fact way. "Sure, this sort of thing happens in the world, just accept it." It has a message that is appropriate for all ages, and yet it's also a film that gets very dark, and at times violent. I've never see anything else quite like it, and it kept me curious to find out where it was going.

Its originality was respectable, the way its story unfolded was very interesting, and the performances delivered by Kerbs and Montgomery are fantastic. Gene Silvers and Chris Divecchio also do strong work in the roles of Sarah's husband and her ex, but Kerbs and Montgomery carry the bulk of the film on their shoulders, and they never let it drop.

I didn't know what to expect when I began watching Blessid, but what I received was a pleasant surprise that introduced me to a pair of actors I hope to be seeing a lot more of.

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