JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM (2019)

Review by LL Soares

At this point, we know what a new JOHN WICK movie is going to be like. It’s a formula that doesn’t change much from film to film, because it works so well. CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM is more of the same. Two hours and ten minutes of killing. By gun, by martial arts, by any way (or blunt object available) possible. I enjoy these movies, and CHAPTER 3 was no exception.

The plot, what there is of one, is pretty simple. In CHAPTER 2, John Wick (Keanu Reeves, SPEED, 1994, and THE MATRIX, 1999) killed someone on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, a sanctuary for assassins. It’s one rule is that you do not kill anyone on the premises. So, having broken this golden rule, Wick is a man marked for death by the High Table, the mysterious group who lord it over the hired killers of the world.

The manager of the Continental, Mr. Winston (Ian McShane, of from the series DEADWOOD and currently on the Starz Channel’s AMERICAN GODS) gives Wick an hour’s grace period before he becomes a duck in a shooting gallery. Then, a 14 million dollar bounty is put on his head. As the movie goes along, this amount will increase.

So, as CHAPTER 3 opens, Wick is running around New York City, trying to stay alive, as various killers notice him, and hunt him down. This includes everyone from martial artists in Chinatown to the Russian mob. Wick manages to stay alive, leaving an ocean of dead bodies in his wake. Eventually, he ends up at the ballet school of an old friend, simply called The Director (Anjelica Huston, PRIZZI’S HONOR, 1985, THE GRIFTERS, 1990), and he calls in an old debt to demand her help in getting out of the country. His destination: Morocco.

In Morocco, Wick does more killing to stay alive, and calls in another marker with a friend named Sofia (Halle Berry, MONSTER’S BALL, 2001, and the original Storm in the X-MEN movies of the early oughts), a killer who has two very obedient dogs. John Wick loves dogs, so you can see why they are (or were) friends. He wants to set up a meeting with a member of the High Table to negotiate for his life. But things don’t go as planned.

Meanwhile, a new character called The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, best known for playing Taylor Mason on the terrific Showtime series BILLIONS, and previously on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) shows up in New York. She works for the High Table, and, while she’s there to search for Wick, she’s also there to punish those who helped him get away, including ol’ Winston, as well as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus in THE MATRIX, 1999, and Jack Crawford on the excellent series, HANNIBAL, from 2013 – 2015), who leads an army of killers disguised as derelicts, and The Director, who we saw earlier. The Adjudicator is vicious but does not get her hands dirty. She has a dude named Zero (Mark Dacascos, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, 2001, and “The Chairman” of IRON CHEF AMERICA: THE SERIES, 2004 -2018) and his lethal ninja warriors to do the dirty work, like meeting out punishments.

After a sojourn in the desert, Wick returns home to take on The Adjudicator and her men, in a Continental Hotel that suddenly finds itself no longer a sacred place (The Adjudicator reduces it to “Deconsecrated” status in her mission to get rid of Wick once and for all, so killing on the premises is now fair game).

Winston, of course, has some tricks of his own up his sleeve, and his right hand man, Charon (Lance Reddick, THE WIRE, 2002-2008, and FRINGE, 2008-2013) shows Wick to a storeroom full of guns that would make an NRA member giddy.

Sure, the series fetishizes guns and violence, but the fact that it is so over the top, and so unapologetically vicious, is part of its appeal. Clearly I’m not the only one with an affinity for Wick and Company, since these movies have been doing increasingly well at the box office. The first film made about $14 million, this newest one made over $54 million in its opening weekend. Expect more “Chapters” to come.

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM (which means “Prepare for War” as revealed in some subtitles later on) is directed by former stuntman Chad Stahelski, who also directed the previous two JOHN WICK films. He knows he’s in on a good thing, and I hope he keeps directing these films. The screenplay is by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mac Abrams, featuring characters created by Kolstad (who wrote the scripts for the first two movies by himself).

These movies work for a lot of reasons. The first being that it’s the perfect role for Keanu Reeves, who has had an uneven career as an actor, but who does especially well with stoic characters who reveal little emotion, like Neo in the MATRIX films and now here as John Wick. He’s just perfectly cast in these types of things, and is enjoyable to watch. The rest of the cast is also very strong. And then there’s the non-stop action, which is filmed exquisitely by Stahelski (along with his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, of course) who, as a former stuntman, knows how to do this stuff right. The fight scenes throughout are excellent. Stahelski is very good at pacing.

If you’re a fan of violent films, or simply a fan of the previous films in the series, then you’ll be happy with the new Chapter. Me, I give it 3 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM a score of 3 1/2 knives.

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CLIMAX (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’m a big fan of director and provocateur Gaspar Noe, and for me a new film by him is kind of like an event. I first came upon him through his highly divisive film, IRREVERSIBLE (2002), a disturbingly violent flick that angered as many viewers as it fascinated. It’s a well-made, provocative film, but clearly not for everyone. As it is, I was impressed with it, but can’t really say I “liked” it. It’s a hard film to like. It did, however, establish Noe as a director to watch. I immediately sought out his previous feature, I STAND ALONE (1998), another dark descent into hell. After making various short films, his next big release was ENTER THE VOID (2009), a different kind of film, this time a story from the perspective of someone who has died and entered the “bardo”  – the state between death and rebirth/reincarnation. It’s a hallucinogenic and visually impressive flick that is not only my favorite Noe film, but one of my favorite films of all time. In 2015, he came out with LOVE, which shifted the theme from violence to graphic sex, with real penetration, which of course meant more controversy, but I thought it was one of his weaker efforts.

Which brings us to his new one, CLIMAX. It’s about a group of dancers gathering for a celebration. It begins first with a bloodied woman trudging through snow, then switches to a TV screen where the various dancers appear as talking heads, introducing themselves and answering questions about art, dance, and sex. The footage appears to be on a VHS tape (establishing the time as the 1980s? 90s?) and there are numerous videos and books surrounding the television, including copies of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979).

Once we meet the players, we then see them “in person.” They begin with a giant dance-off, with each dancer getting a few moments to shine. It’s a long, riveting performance (which was all done in one continuous shot), as each character expresses themselves through dance. They’re going to be leaving soon for a tour of America, and are all excited.

The next part of the film involves the party. Characters talk (mostly about sex) as they eat and drink sangria from a punchbowl. This gives us further insight into the players involved. First, we heard them talk about themselves (the TV), then we saw them express themselves through dance, and now we see them with their guards down, talking among themselves. Predictably, most of the conversations are rather raunchy.

Then, something goes wrong. Someone has spiked the punchbowl with LSD and everyone starts slowly losing their grips on reality. Most of the action so far has taken place in the large auditorium where they danced and partied, but now some of the characters leave and go to other parts of the building, including the dorm rooms where the characters live. Some characters hook up, others explode with violence. When people begin to realize they’ve been drugged, they turn on the characters who didn’t “drink the kool-aid” – first a Muslim dancer named Omar (Adrien Sissoko), who doesn’t drink (he is thrown out into the snow), and then a woman named Lou (Souheila Yacoub) who said she didn’t feel well and who later reveals she is pregnant (other characters don’t believe her, and blaming her for the drugging, start violently hitting amd kicking her). The camera follows everyone throughout, as things get stranger and emotions get more erratic.

The most famous person here is Sofia Boutella, who you might recognize from playing the lead character in THE MUMMY (2017), as Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016) and as the spy Charlize Theron seduces in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). She’s also an experienced dancer, and here she plays Selva, the troupe’s lead dancer, and it won’t take long for her to be sucked into the chaos along with everyone else. Other characters include a woman named Emmanuel (Claude Gajan Maull) who brought the food and drink (and is one of the first people accused of drugging them, but she’s as spaced out as they are), who brought her young son, Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) to the occasion (and ends up locking him the electrical closet, but, of course, she quickly loses the key); Taylor and Gazelle (Taylor Kastle and Giselle Palmer) a brother and sister duo where the brother is very possessive; Selva’s jealous boyfriend, David (Romain Guillermic); Psyche and Ivana (Thea Carla Schott and Sharleen Temple), a lesbian couple who have an argument early on, and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile) who  at first seems to be a figure of reason, but who descends into the hallucinatory madness just like everyone else.

The film has a lot of the visual quirks that Noe often puts in his films. For example, the end credits appear near the beginning of the film, and occasionally placards flash onscreen reading things like “Birth is a unique experience,” “Life is a collective impossibility,” and “Death is an extraordinary experience.”

Some of the dancing looks like the frantic movements of demonic possession, which makes this the second movie I’ve seen lately (the other being Luca Guadagnino’s SUSPIRIA remake from last year) that ties modern dance with scenes of horror. For some reason, dance and horror go very well together onscreen (also think of BLACK SWAN, 2010).

The soundtrack includes songs by Gary Numan, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti (of Chris & Cosey, and the seminal industrial band Throbbing Gristle), Daft Punk, and Aphex Twin. And it keeps you riveted throughout. Aside from the choreographed dance numbers, a lot of the film is improvised and has a chaotic feel, which is just what Noe is going for here.

While it is visually enticing, and revels in hallucinations and madness (also another of his regular themes), I still can’t help feeling it is one of Noe’s lesser works. The emphasis here is on having an “experience” rather than telling a story, and while that’s fine, there’s not a lot of meat here. It’s not as profound and beautiful as ENTER THE VOID or as relentlessly disturbing as IRREVERSIBLE. And, as it reaches the end, the insanity starts to get a little bit tiresome.

But it’s still Noe, and it’s still more adventurous and interesting than most of what we see in theaters these days. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives CLIMAX ~ three knives.

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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)

While I’m working on my list for the best movies of 2018, I thought I’d repost my review of BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017), which would have probably been my favorite film of 2017, if I had seen it that year (I didn’t see it until early 2018). 

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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)
Review by LL Soares

Actor Vince Vaughan’s career has taken some very interesting twists and turns lately. He became a star because of roles in comedy films like SWINGERS (1996), OLD SCHOOL (2003), DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (2004), WEDDING CRASHERS (2005), and THE BREAK-UP (2006), but there’s always been a dark undercurrent to his film work. After all, he also starred in Gus Van Zant’s remake of PSYCHO (1998), as well as the serial killer drama CLAY PIGEONS (also 1998), and THE CELL (2000). He was also one of the stars of the second season of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE in 2015. But maybe his darkest choice of all might be Vaughan’s turn as Bradley Thomas in BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017).

Directed by S. Craig Zahler, who also gave us the horror/western BONE TOMAHAWK (2015), BRAWL is a gradual descent into Hell, captured on film. When we first meet Vaughan’s Bradley, he works as a tow truck driver, and he has an especially bad day, a portent of things to come. First, he gets fired from his job (there are cutbacks), then he goes home early to find his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, who played Dexter’s sister Debra on DEXTER, and also starred in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, 2005, and QUARANTINE, 2008), about to drive off. When he stops her, she admits to him that she is having an affair and is considering leaving him. The fact that she so readily tells him this is surprising. He tells her to go in the house and proceeds to rip her car apart with his bare hands, throwing the hood into the street, smashing windows and headlights, and leaving it a wreck. This is a man with a lot of anger inside him.

When he goes into the house there is real tension. Will he be violent toward his wife, too? But he seems to be the kind of man who takes out his anger on objects rather than people. The two talk and come to an understanding. Something bad happened in the past that damaged both of them, and they’re smart enough to acknowledge that and realize their lives have to change.

But the first big change Bradley makes isn’t necessarily a good one. Now that he’s out of work, he needs a job, so he looks up his old friend Gil (Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn on the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER TV series, and starred in the movie ANIMALS, based on the novel by Skipp & Spector), a drug dealer. Bradley used to work for him before, and tried to go straight, but with hard times comes hard decisions.

We jump ahead a few months, and Bradley is making deliveries and is Gil’s most trusted guy. So Bradley’s the one Gil chooses to go on a run with some new guys who work for a gangster he’s considering partnering up with, named Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito). The drug deal goes badly, however, and there’s a shootout with the cops. Bradley is the last one standing, and refuses to name names. So he goes off to prison.

It’s a medium-security prison and Bradley seems like he can deal with it. But then everything goes horribly wrong. Eleazar decides that Bradley owes him $3 million for the botched drug deal and kidnaps Bradley’s pregnant wife. He says he’ll do some pretty horrible things to her and the unborn child if Bradley doesn’t do a job for him. He wants Bradley to get transferred to another prison, a maximum security prison called Redleaf, and kill someone named Christopher Bridge. The details are related to Bradley by a European gentleman played by the great character actor Udo Kier (whose character is called “Placid Man” in the credits).

Bradley is left to his own, however, on how to get to Redleaf. Here’s where the movie becomes a darker version of Nicolas Winding Refn’s BRONSON, as Bradley takes on all and any prison guards who get in his way, badly injuring a few, and he gets his transfer. But Redleaf is a hellhole run by a warden named Tuggs (Don Johnson, also in MIAMI VICE, 1984 – 1990, and the movies A BOY AND HIS DOG, 1975, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, 2012).

Not only that, but the cell block he has to get to, the titular Cell Block 99, is where the most violent offenders are kept. And to get there he has to do even worse things. He does all this to free his wife and child, but he finds himself in a place no sane man would want to be in, and it starts to change him.

Oh, and soon after his arrival at Redleaf, Tuggs puts a belt on Bradley that delivers staggering electric shocks at the push of a button, and isn’t shy about using it.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a humorless, violent, dark film, and I enjoyed every minute of it. At times, I found myself wondering how this movie even got made with a big name star. It has more in common with the darker episodes of the HBO TV series OZ than it has when mainstream movie fare.

Vaughan’s Bradley Thomas is a very sympathetic character, however. Despite the violent things he does, we feel that he’s a good man, put in an impossible situation. He does what he has to do, but you can tell it goes against his basic nature. But he never hesitates, because he will do anything for his family.

If I had seen this movie in 2017, there’s a good chance it would have made my list of best films of the year. It is so different from everything else I saw last year, and definitely haunts you after it’s over. I really liked this movie a lot, but I know not everyone will have the same reaction. So, if you like your movies violent and dark, you’ll definitely want to check this one out. Otherwise, you might want to stay away.

Descents into Hell aren’t for everyone, but I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 ~ 4 1/2 knives!

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