Le Cinema de WTF: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.

On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.

Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.

So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.

Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.

This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.

And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.

This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.

The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.

I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.

Le Cinema de WTF: Assassin’s Creed

To say that movies based on video games have a mixed track record would be putting it mildly. To put it less mildly, most of them suck. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to having a weakness for the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider movies. They are good popcorn movies. They are mindless fun. I enjoy them. But are they, strictly speaking, good movies? No. No, they are not.

Assassin’s Creed was the movie that was going to change all that. The movie adaptation of the long-running video game franchise stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Freaking Irons. These have to be the three most critically-acclaimed actors to ever star in a game-based movie. The latter two are Oscar winners, and Fassbender is an Oscar nominee. The movie was directed by Justin Kurzel, a talented up-and-comer whose previous film was a well-received adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard. Parts of the movie take place during the Spanish Inquisition, a time period the games have not explored and that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. This was a movie with ambition, damn it.

And yet, it has a dismal 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it was soundly thrashed by the critics.

So what happened?

Before I get into that, I need to explain how the games work, or none of this will make any sense. In the marketing for the games whenever a new one comes out, the trailers and TV commercials only show off the cool stuff: hooded badasses using hidden wrist blades and other pointy implements to singlehandedly take out legions of hapless suckers in cool historical backdrops. Sounds great, right? But what these ads don’t tell you is that the cool historical stuff is only part of the story.

The story revolves around the conflict between two ancient and secretive groups: the Assassins and the Templars. In most of the games, the player controls an Assassin, and the Templars are the primary antagonists. The games begin in the modern age, where a mega-corporation called Abstergo Industries (secretly run by the Templars) has developed a technology called the Animus, which allows people to relive their ancestors’ memories through a kind of super-advanced virtual reality.

The historical parts of the games are the main focus, but they’re all just flashbacks, a sort of game-within-a-game. The series’ timeline and mythology are incredibly convoluted, and even though I’ve played five or six of the games, I spend most of them not having any idea what is going on, and I couldn’t give less of a hoot about the Assassin/Templar conflict that has been raging throughout the centuries. Can you see how this might be problematic for a movie adaptation?

As much as I enjoy the historical parts of the games, the modern-day parts are an absolute snoozefest. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, you spend most of the game doing awesome pirate stuff like sinking people’s ships and taking their stuff, but every once in a while the game kicks you back into the present day and makes you wander around an office building and hack into security systems with an iPad. If that sounds boring, I can assure you that it is. I love Black Flag, it’s a fantastic game, but the present-day sections are as boring as hell, and I would always complete them as fast as possible so I could get back to the fun pirate stuff.

Well, in this sense the movie is a good interpretation of the games, since the historical sections are great but the modern-day stuff, well, isn’t. The film opens in 1492, with a man named Aguilar being inducted into the Assassins Brotherhood. Fast forward to 1986, and a young boy named Callum Lynch. He walks into his house one day to find his mother dead, apparently killed by his father. Men with guns converge on the house, and Callum’s father tells him to run. As he flees, Callum’s father is taken into custody by the armed men, under the command of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Fast forward again to Callum as an adult, now played by Michael Fassbender, who is on death row, and is soon executed by lethal injection.

Except he isn’t, or the movie would have ended a lot sooner. He wakes up at the Abstergo facility in Madrid, and is told by Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan’s daughter, that Abstergo has secreted him away because they want to use him in the Animus. Abstergo is looking for the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will, and Abstergo wants to use the Apple to subjugate humanity and end violence and corruption. Abstergo wants Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), as they believe that Aguilar’s memories will lead them to the Apple.

Did you get all that? Well strap in, because we’re just getting started. This does present an intriguing ideological conflict, since it could be argued that Abstergo’s motives are pure. Ending violence and corruption in the world sounds good, but taking away humanity’s free will in the process would be less good. The Assassins want humanity to be free, even if that means being free to destroy itself. Abstergo and the Templars are like the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, as their motives are okay but their methods leave a lot to be desired.

But the movie’s plot is ridiculously hard to follow. I haven’t played every game in the series, but I’ve played quite a few of them, and I still had very little idea of what was going on for most of the movie. I can only imagine how confusing the movie would be for someone who hadn’t played any of the games. And I have to say that the movie has the most baffling ending of just about any movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. It should end with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. And the end credits are fifteen minutes long, which is ludicrous. The movie’s running time is 115 minutes, but fifteen of those minutes are taken up by the end credits.

The film’s best parts are the flashback sequences that take place during the Spanish Inquisition. These are the scenes that follow Callum’s ancestor Aguilar, as he fights to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into Templar hands. These scenes also comprise most of the action sequences, which is great because you know that whenever Aguilar and his sidekick Maria show up, shit is about to go down. And the action sequences are great. They do a fantastic job of emulating the free-running style of combat in the games, and the athleticism of the stunt performers is impressive.

They also look great. The locations look very good and the sets, special effects, and particularly the costumes are all great. I give special consideration to the costumes because the outfit Aguilar wears is so cool, and looks exactly like something that would be seen in the games. There’s a real thrill in seeing an actual person looking like he could have walked off the screen from a video game.

But as much as I like the Aguilar sequences, they have two crucial flaws. The first flaw stems from the decisions the filmmakers made in adapting the Animus for the screen. In the games, the Animus is basically a chair a person lies down on and is hooked up to a bunch of machines, like in The Matrix. The filmmakers apparently decided this would be boring for an audience to watch (or perhaps too similar to The Matrix), and turned the Animus into a giant harness that descends from the ceiling in the middle of a large room, allowing for the person plugged in to the Animus to move around as he literally re-enacts his ancestor’s actions. It’s a cool idea, but the problem is that in the middle of the Aguilar-based action scenes, the movie cuts back to Callum hooked up to the Animus mimicking Aguilar’s actions. It severely disrupts the pacing of the fast-paced action sequences.

The other problem with the action sequences is that they are almost entirely bloodless. People are slashed and stabbed with barely a drop of blood spilled. The movie is rated PG-13, which is weird when you consider that all the games are Mature-rated, which is the video game equivalent to an R-rating. I hate it when people are killed in movies with swords or knives and there’s no blood. This isn’t because I want every movie to be as bloody as possible (I don’t). It’s because it takes me out of the moment. It kills the immersion because it makes me think, “I am watching a movie that was edited in order to get a PG-13 rating.” This is something you don’t want to think while watching a movie, because it means you’re not fully in to the experience.

For me personally, Assassin’s Creed the movie may very well be one of the most accurate game-to-movie adaptations ever made, since it mirrors my experience of playing the games almost perfectly. I love the historical sections despite their flaws, but the modern-day stuff is slow and boring and I just want it to be over. Just like in the games, the film’s modern-day sections are dull, taking viewers away from the vibrancy of the historical settings and depositing them in drab-looking rooms and hallways. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, and the characters are hard to care about. Justin Kurzel is a talented director, but adapting such a dense and convoluted video-game mythology to the big screen was always going to be a tall order.

Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is well worth checking out, however. Fassbender makes Macbeth a sympathetic character, a man who doesn’t realize he is a monster until it is far too late. And he has great chemistry with Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s also a great-looking movie, and the ending sequence where Macbeth fights Macduff is stunning. Macbeth and Macduff do battle against the backdrop of a burning village, and the entire sequence is engulfed in an orange haze that gives it an eerie, dreamlike quality. The music in both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed is awesome. Both films were scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, and his moody, ominous music greatly improves each film. Both of Justin Kurzel’s films are rich in atmosphere, and Jed Kurzel’s music is a key part of that.

Is this, from a purely technical standpoint, the best video game movie ever made? Quite possibly, yes. It’s reasonably well-made and the acting is solid. But it is undone by several crippling flaws. In spite of its flaws, I have to give it some credit for at least trying to rise above its video-game-based-movie brethren. Can you think of any other movie based on a game that has actual ambition? This is the only one I know of. It’s hard to fault it for being too big for its britches because of this, even though the end result is a film that can generously be described as a mixed bag. Unsurprisingly, sequels are in the works, so maybe some of the narrative flaws will be worked out. I hope so, because there’s a lot of promise here. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.

Jaws: When the Movie Is Better Than the Book

How many times have you heard someone say “The movie was all right, but the book was better”? It seems like an unwritten rule that the book is always better than the movie. But there is one instance where the consensus is exactly the opposite, and the movie is held in universally higher regard than the book. I am talking about Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 film Jaws, based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, about a man-eating great white shark terrorizing the summer town of Amity, New York. On vacation in Maui recently, I realized that I had never read the book nor seen the movie in its entirety, and set about to rectify the situation. After reading the book poolside and watching the movie, I concluded that the movie is better. Like, way better. A lot of people these days probably don’t realize that the movie is based on a book, and there are good reasons for that.

jaws-poster

Let’s start with the characters. In both versions, there are three main characters. There’s police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider in the film), ichthyologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss), and the crusty sea captain known only as Quint (played by Robert Shaw). The number one reason the movie is better than the book is that in the book, these characters are jerks. Brody is the most likable of the three, but he still turns into a whiny little prat sometimes, fighting with his wife and being a complete ass at a dinner party she throws, and later trying to strangle Hooper.

Admittedly, he has a good reason for wanting to strangle Hooper, since he suspects Hooper has been sleeping with his wife (Which he has. More on this later). Hooper, in turn, is a complete bastard. He’s a selfish prick. In the book, he gets eaten by the shark, and I was glad to be rid of him. In the movie, he survives and swims back to shore with Brody after the shark has been vanquished, and it’s a great moment. He can be a bit annoying in the movie, but he’s far more likable onscreen than on the page.

Quint, meanwhile, is a foul-mouthed old sailor who uses illegal bait (dead baby dolphin fetuses he claims to have cut out of the mommy dolphin) and kills various sea creatures without mercy or hesitation, pretty much just for the fun of it. These three sound like swell guys, don’t they? In the movie they actually bond as they hunt the shark together, but in the book they spend the entire time on Quint’s boat together hating each other’s guts. You know the iconic scene in the movie where Hooper and Quint compare scars, Quint shares his tortured history, and the three of them sing drunkenly together? Yeah, that doesn’t happen in the book. They hate each other and are openly hostile the whole time.

jaws-movie-poster

When reading the book, the basic rule that I discovered was that the stuff about the shark was great, and everything else kind of sucked. The book delves into the residents of Amity in more depth than the film, but none of it is very interesting. Amity is a small town of about a thousand year-round residents, with the population increasing to around ten thousand during the summer. The year-round residents depend on the summer crowds to sustain them through the rest of the year, so when the pesky shark starts dining on tourists and Sheriff Brody is forced to close the beaches, it could spell doom for the town. The book does a good job setting this up, but adds two hugely unnecessary subplots, one simply boring and the other horrendously offensive on just about every level.

We’ll start with the boring one. In the movie, the mayor of Amity, Larry Vaughan, is a slimy fellow who wears ugly suits, but his role in the movie is greatly diminished from his role in the book. In the book, he talks about getting pressure from his mysterious “partners” to keep the beaches open, and there is a lot of speculation from the other characters about who his “partners” are. Wouldn’t you know it, his partners turn out to be members of the Mafia. He owes them a lot of money and is basically trying to cover his own ass the entire time. He doesn’t care about the wellbeing of the townspeople, he wants to keep the beaches open so he won’t be ruined financially. The problem is: who cares? Vaughan’s subplot adds nothing to the story, it’s just filler. It doesn’t even get any resolution, Vaughan just disappears. Does he run away? Commit suicide? I dunno. None of this is in the movie, because it doesn’t need to be.

This brings us, unfortunately, to the really bad subplot. The stuff about the mayor’s mob ties may be boring but at least it’s not offensive. All of that is about to change. The book’s other major subplot involves Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen. Ellen came from a wealthy family, the kind of family who lives in Amity during the summer. She’s constantly thinking about her past, and even though she loves her husband, she can’t help but feel occasionally that she married below her station. All of this is iffy, but here’s where it goes off the rails. When Matt Hooper shows up to help out with the shark situation, she immediately becomes infatuated with him. She invites him out to lunch at a nice restaurant, far enough away from where she lives that she hopes no one will recognize her. You see where this is going, right?

But wait, it gets worse. Once Hooper shows up, the two of them proceed to have one of the most appallingly offensive conversations I have ever read in any book in my entire life, and I read a lot of books. She tells him about how she misses her family, and misses some of the circles she used to be a part of when she was younger. A bit odd to be sharing something so personal with someone you barely know, but all right. Then she starts telling him about what she fantasizes about. Uh-oh. She tells him she fantasizes about being raped. Aaaaand you’ve lost me. But it goes on. They proceed to have a detailed conversation about, if the two of them were to hook up, how they would do it. Which they then enact. And the entire sordid enterprise ends in a graphic sex scene between the two of them.

And if all of this sounds bad to read about, let me assure you that actually reading it in the book is much, much worse. It goes on and on and on. The entire scene takes up around 30 pages (a conservative estimate) and feels like it will never end. Not to mention that a woman telling a man she fantasizes about being raped is appalling and tone-deaf and just…unbelievable. I can’t believe Peter Benchley wrote this scene. I can’t believe his editors and publishers didn’t make him get rid of it. I can’t believe it made it into the book. Thank God the movie producers had the good sense to ditch all of that crap. Nothing of either of these two subplots is at all present in the movie, and the fact that the movie succeeds as well as it does is evidence that the subplots didn’t need to be there in the first place.

Remember when I mentioned that Brody tries to strangle Hooper? That’s because he suspects Hooper of sleeping with Ellen. But then Hooper gets eaten by the shark, and Brody paddles back to shore at the end of the novel without ever finding out the truth. Maybe I’m being too hard on Benchley about the whole Ellen/Hooper thing. Jaws was his first novel, after all, and maybe he ironed out some of these issues with his later works. But I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t read any of his other books, and after Jaws, I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to start. The bad subplots don’t completely ruin the book, but they come close. The section in the last third of the book with Brody, Quint and Hooper on Quint’s boat hunting the shark is tense and by far the novel’s strongest section, but it doesn’t resonate like the movie’s climax does.

And speaking of the ending of the movie, it’s great. Who can forget the iconic moment when Brody, desperate, alone, in the smashed remains of Quint’s boat, fires his rifle at the shark, shouting “Die, you son of a bitch!” before finally hitting the tank of compressed air lodged in Jaws’ jaws (eh?) and blasting the fearsome beast into ever so many chunks of shark meat? It’s freaking awesome, and it is not in the book. Neither is the scene, brutal even by today’s standards, where Quint is slowly consumed by the shark, screaming bloody murder while blood sprays from his mouth. In the book, Quint’s leg gets caught in the ropes attached to one of the harpoons that has been lodged in the shark, and gets pulled overboard. The shark succumbs to multiple harpoons and dies from its wounds, dragging Quint into the briny depths along with it. The shark expires, and Quint drowns. It’s anticlimactic, to say the least.

Jaws

It’s no wonder that the movie is better known and better liked than the book. It’s a near-perfect example of how to make a great movie out of less-than-stellar source material. It takes everything that’s good from the book and makes it better, while getting rid of the bad stuff. It tells the same story in a much more efficient and streamlined way. Jaws is a tale of man vs. nature and while the book sometimes loses sight of that the film never does, which is why it remains the superior version of the story.

Keanu Kraze: John Wick Chapter 2

Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.

After racking up a phenomenal body count in 2014’s original film, Keanu Reeves is back in action as John Wick, the tormented yet unstoppable hitman. The movie was one of the best American action films of the past decade, and as soon as a sequel was announced I couldn’t have been more excited.

That sequel is finally here and it was worth the wait. In addition to being every bit as good as its predecessor, I would venture to say that John Wick Chapter 2 is one of the best action movies ever made, an instant classic that puts most modern action movies to shame.

john-wick-chapter-2-movie-poster-2017

What makes it so great? Let’s start with the main actor: Keanu Reeves. The man is an absolute beast. Reeves trained extensively to play John Wick, in the special features of the first movie, the producers and trainers said that Keanu trained eight hours a day, five days a week, in weapons, martial arts, and stunt driving, for months. The dude is committed. When you see John Wick in action, you’re seeing the results of Keanu’s dedication, and it looks fantastic.

Much like its predecessor, John Wick Chapter 2 is a testament to good old-fashioned filmmaking ingenuity. Minimal CGI, lots of close-quarters combat, top-notch fight choreography, and daredevil stunt work, all filmed in-camera, with fluid camera movement and smooth editing, to ensure that the viewer is able to follow the fast-paced action. The first movie was directed by veteran stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and Stahelski goes solo for the sequel. He absolutely nails it, in many ways outdoing the excellent work he and Leitch did in the original.

And don’t worry, dog-lovers: despite the tragic fate of the adorable puppy from the first movie, no cute doggies are harmed in the sequel. Yes, John has the same dog he got at the conclusion of the first movie, but by the end of the second movie the sweet pooch is alive and well, and quite possibly the only friend John has in the world. The movie’s ending sets the stage for an epic continuation of the series, and Stahelski has stated that a third film is in the works. I can’t wait.

john-wick-2-poster-2

But if his dog is alive and well, then what brings John back into the fold this time? It turns out that John owes a blood debt to a former associate, a slick fellow by the name of Santino D’Antonio. Santino gives John a seemingly impossible task, after which he will consider the debt paid. John is reluctant to comply with Santino’s request, but after some persuasion (Santino blows up his house), he accepts. Fulfilling Santino’s mission will have far-reaching consequences, something John is fully aware of. But he goes through with it, and when Santino inevitably stabs him in the back, every hitman in the country ends up gunning for him.

One of the most intriguing things about the story of the first movie was the glimpse into the assassin underworld which John was so desperate to escape from. There was the Continental Hotel, which catered to assassins, and the gold coins which served as currency. Chapter 2 shows us that this underworld is much more far-reaching than what we saw in the original film, and feels like a logical extension of the first film’s mythology.

John Wick 2 is also surprisingly funny. There’s a rich vein of twisted humor that runs throughout the film, and I loved it. The Continental Hotel has strict rules, foremost among them that no business will be conducted on company grounds. So when John and a henchman, locked in an epic battle that has already taken them down several seemingly endless flights of stairs, end up crashing through a window into the lobby of the hotel, they are scolded by the manager and told to go have a few drinks at the bar together to calm themselves down. The sommelier at the hotel specializes in high-end weaponry, and talks about guns in the way wine connoisseurs would talk about fine wine. And the movie’s biggest laugh comes when the manager of the Italian branch of the Continental (played by Franco Nero, who reminds me a lot of The Most Interesting Man in the World from those Dos Equis commercials) asks John if he’s there for the Pope.

john-wick-chapter-2-poster-08

There’s also a badass and somewhat hilarious sequence where John fights countless assassins through the streets and subways of New York and it seems like the poor guy can’t go more than a few feet without somebody trying to whack him. He even gets to take out a couple of guys with a pencil. There’s a slyly funny bit during this sequence where John and an assassin exchange silenced gunfire while bystanders remain oblivious. John Wick is a human wrecking ball who kills his way through two movies, and if the ending of the second movie is any indication, John will have a lot more killing to do before his story is over.

But as unstoppable as John is, he’s not invulnerable. He gets shot, stabbed and hit by cars multiple times, and spends a substantial portion of both films limping and stumbling in pain. But the fact that he gets hurt only makes him even more badass, since he picks himself up and keeps on bringing the pain. The other extraordinary thing about these movies is that, as heightened as its world and its characters are, there’s nothing in either film that is completely impossible for an actual human being to accomplish.

JW2_D25_7230.cr2

Another thing I love about both of these movies is the visuals. For the sequel, director Chad Stahelski has found all sorts of creative locations to stage epic gun battles. From a hazily lit tunnel in Rome to a subway in which the walls and ceilings are bright white (allowing for vivid red bursts of blood) and a stunning finale in an art exhibition full of mirrors and neon lights, the action scenes are some of the best ever put on screen. Both films are destined to become legendary for action fans.

john-wick-chapter-2-movie-images-keanu-reeves

John Wick 2 is a beautiful, brutal movie, one which is not for the faint of heart. The violence is lightning-quick and relentless, leaving its protagonist and its audience no time to breathe. There are some truly brutal kills here (such as John’s aforementioned pencil trick) which are all filmed unflinchingly.

And throughout the mayhem, there is Keanu Fricking Reeves, who moves with such balletic grace that it gives the violent action a genuine sense of beauty. But aside from Reeves’ stunning physical performance, he’s playing a character with a surprising amount of depth. John Wick is a man without a place in the world. His wife offered him an escape from his violent life, and with her death, his life quickly spirals into chaos. At the end of the sequel, he is more alone than ever. Keanu doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue in either movie, but his physicality and the way he reacts to the world around him speak volumes about the kind of life he has lived.

I saw this movie in a theater that was at least three-quarters full, which just warmed my heart. It showed that not only did the first movie have a lot of fans, but that there is still an audience for hardcore R-rated action films. Movie studios seem to be realizing that people will still see R-rated action movies, if the success of Deadpool last year and the R rating of the upcoming third Wolverine movie are any indication. This makes me quite happy, since it shows that there is still a place in the world for the violent action movies I love.

I had a blast with John Wick 2. It was everything an action sequel should be. I really hope it doesn’t take three years for John Wick 3 to come out, because I don’t know if I can wait that long.

Ben Affleck Kicks Ass And Takes Numbers In The Accountant

The life of an accountant is fraught with danger. Just ask my dad. We saw the movie together over the weekend, and he was happy to finally see his profession so accurately represented onscreen. Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff. At first glance, he appears to be a perfectly normal small-town accountant, whose clients consist mainly of the businesses in the same strip mall as his small accounting firm, as well as local farmers.

But secretly, Mr. Wolff crunches the numbers for dangerous criminal organizations. He is also autistic. When he was a child, his father, a military officer, decided not to enroll his son at a specialized care facility, instead believing that Christian should learn to adapt to the world, instead of the other way around. As a result, Christian’s father trained him and his brother in martial arts and marksmanship, and as an adult Christian is highly skilled in both areas.

the-accountant-movie-poster-2016-ben-affleck

All of Christian’s skills come in handy when he is hired to uncook the books for Lamar Blackburn, the CEO of a successful robotics corporation. One of Blackburn’s accountants, Dana Cummings, played by the infinitely likable Anna Kendrick, has discovered suspicious financial dealings, and Christian is able to discover that tens of millions of dollars have been embezzled from the company.

Needless to say, there is more going on here than meets the eye. There’s a mysterious assassin on the loose, who is played by Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead fame, as well as playing the Punisher on the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil. I like Bernthal as an actor, he’s charming and likable while still being kind of a bastard.

The Accountant is a difficult movie to classify. You’ll probably find it in the action/adventure category when the Blu-Ray is released, but it’s hard to assign it one particular genre. I feel like calling it an action movie is kind of misleading, it’s more like a drama interspersed with hard-hitting action scenes. And the movie does have some very good action scenes. Affleck is a big man, and he uses his physicality quite effectively when it becomes time for Christian to get his hands dirty. He’s very believable as a kicker of asses, and the movie’s fight scenes are brutal and well-staged.

The Accountant is what I like to call a Loud Gun Movie. It’s easy to forget that guns in real life are LOUD, and this movie portrays them as such. The echoing roar of Christian’s .50-caliber rifle would be deafening in real life, and it’s almost deafening watching the movie. The machine guns and handguns used elsewhere in the film are similarly noisy, which gives the action scenes a lot of weight.

the-accountant-ben-affleck

Affleck’s performance in the movie is to be commended. A lot of movies that feature characters with mental conditions seem to overdo it, but this one doesn’t. Affleck subtly underplays Christian’s quirks, giving him a couple of recognizable tics without rubbing his character’s condition in the audience’s face. And the subtlety of his performance is emblematic of the movie as a whole. It’s subtle. There are at least two major plot twists near the end of the film, but the film doesn’t make a big deal out of them. It presents them and then lets the audience make the connections for themselves. The Accountant is a movie that respects its audience, which is something I always appreciate.

The character of Christian Wolff is also quite fascinating. He lives in a house that’s pretty much an empty shell, and his true home is a trailer that he keeps hidden in a storage unit. His trailer houses all kinds of goodies, from original Renoir and Pollock paintings to gold bars, lots of cash in euros and dollars, and at least one mint condition copy of the very first Superman comic, as well as his arsenal of weaponry. The contents of Christian’s trailer are worth millions and provide him with an escape, a place that he truly feels at home, which is something everyone can relate to.

ben-affleck-the-accountant-2016

The movie was directed very well by Gavin O’Connor. I had only seen one of O’Connor’s films before this one. Unfortunately, it was a movie I absolutely hated. It was a movie called Pride and Glory, which I hated so much I included it on one of my lists  of really bad movies. The Accountant is substantially better. It received mixed critical reviews but has a high user rating on the Internet Movie Database, which seems to indicate that it resonated more strongly with audiences than it did with critics. I’m not sure why that would be, but my dad and I both liked the film a lot.

It has a strong lead performance from Ben Affleck and benefits from solid work from the supporting cast of J.K. Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal and John Lithgow. It has a plot that keeps you guessing, with twists that are surprising but not so far out of left field that they don’t make any sense. It has well-executed, hard-hitting action sequences, and it treats its audience with respect. What’s not to like?

The Professional

Today it is my privilege to write about one of my all-time favorite movies, Luc Besson’s 1994 masterpiece Leon: The Professional.

The Professional is the most moving film about a guy who kills people for a living that has ever been made. I touched on it in a very old post from way back in 2012, but here I’m going to go in to much more detail, so a spoiler warning is in effect from here on out.

936full-leon--the-professional-poster

Jean Reno plays Leon, a professional hitman living and working in New York City. He lives a simple life, living in a threadbare apartment with few possessions. He gets his orders from an Italian mobster named Tony, who holds court in the dining room of his restaurant. In his down time, Leon goes to the cinema to see old movie musicals (he’s a fan of Gene Kelly), does sit-ups every morning, and takes care of his houseplant, meticulously polishing every leaf so it looks nice. He sleeps in a chair in his living room every night, with a gun on the table next to him.

Leon is a gentle soul, and if he didn’t kill people for a living, you’d swear that he would never hurt a fly. One of Leon’s neighbors is a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman in her screen debut, in what remains one of her best performances.

Mathilda lives a tough life. Her father is abusive, her stepmother doesn’t care about her, and her half-sister is a spoiled brat who hates her. The one ray of sunshine in her life is her four-year-old brother, whom she adores. She has a couple of casual encounters with Leon, where he sees her sporting a black eye and smoking a cigarette. She tells him the black eye came from falling off her bike. Leon can tell this is a lie, but figures he can’t do much about it.

But despite her difficult family life, Mathilda is a spirited child. She is spunky and intelligent, with a spark in her eye that her jerk of a dad can’t diminish, no matter how much he slaps her around.

And it’s her dad that causes all of her trouble. Some shady fellows who turn out to be corrupt DEA agents are paying him to hold onto some cocaine for them, and they’re not happy when they suspect him of cutting the dope to keep some for himself. This leads to a shootout in which Mathilda’s entire family is killed while she is out shopping. When she gets back with the groceries, she has the street smarts to know that something is terribly wrong, and she knocks on Leon’s door at the end of the hall.

Leon has been watching through the peephole in his door, he knows that something’s up, and Mathilda knows that he’s watching her. The scene where she tearfully begs him to open the door is heartbreaking. The desperation in her voice just kills me. Leon reluctantly lets her in to his apartment, and the movie really takes off.

Mathilda quickly realizes that Leon is a hitman, although he prefers to be called a cleaner. She makes him a proposition: she’ll do all of his housework, and he will teach her how to clean. He initially refuses, but changes his mind when she proves her mettle to him.

The two of them develop a relationship. She does his housework and teaches him to read and write when she discovers he doesn’t know how, and he teaches her the tools and tricks of his trade. The relationship between the two of them is fascinating. He’s her surrogate father, sure, but it’s not quite that simple. He’s also her teacher, and she teaches him in return in ways he could never have expected.

leon_the__professional_03

Movies with pivotal characters played by child actors are always tricky. It’s extraordinary how good the chemistry is between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. In some ways, she’s more mature than he is. Leon is an expert at his profession, but he has few personal relationships and initially has no idea how to act with Mathilda. She teaches him about himself. She teaches him how to love life and gives him something to live for aside from his beloved houseplant. He loves his plant because it’s always happy, it doesn’t ask questions, and it doesn’t have roots, just like him. Mathilda tells him he should plant it someday, give it roots. Leon reluctantly agrees that he should. The metaphor with Leon’s plant is subtle in a way that most movies aren’t these days.

The thing about the relationship between Leon and Mathilda is that Mathilda is the dominant one. Reno plays Leon like he’s a bit slow mentally, and very emotionally repressed. Reno gives Leon a fascinating balance between his skills as an assassin and his simple personal life, and his gentle nature. Leon never tries to take advantage of Mathilda, and he never forces her into anything. Reno has said in interviews that he played Leon like he was mentally slow in order to make it easier for audiences to believe that he would have no sexual desire for Mathilda.

Okay, this next part is going to get uncomfortable but it has to be talked about. There’s a scene in the extended version of the movie where Mathilda tries to seduce Leon, and he turns her down. It’s an uncomfortable scene that was cut from the original theatrical version of the film, but it’s included on the Blu-Ray release. Despite the squirm-inducing nature of the scene, I feel it’s an important part of the relationship between the two of them. Describing the movie makes it sound a bit like Lolita with guns, but it’s quite a bit more emotionally complex than that.

The extended version of the movie is 24 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, and in my opinion is the better version. It fleshes out the Leon/Mathilda dynamic, it shows more of him teaching her how to be a cleaner, it gives more detail about Leon’s background, and it generally provides a fuller experience.

I’ve talked about two of the three central characters, Leon and Mathilda. The third is Norman Stansfield, the ringleader of the corrupt DEA agents who slaughter Mathilda’s family. Stansfield is played by a very young-looking Gary Oldman in what has to be one of the most bone-chilling performances ever committed to celluloid. You’re holding your breath every time he’s onscreen. Stansfield is a drug-addicted sociopath who loves classical music and feels no remorse for the things he’s done.

gary-oldman-as-stansfield-in-the-professional

I’m not sure why the DEA would hire such an unhinged madman, but maybe he’s just really good at hiding it when he needs to. I love cinematic villains, and Oldman’s performance as Stansfield is one of the all-time best. He is terrifying, and the fact that we are given no background for him whatsoever makes his unpredictability all the more frightening. Oldman’s delivery of the line “I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven,” before he kills Mathilda’s family sends chills down my spine every time. I can hardly believe the actor who played characters as good as Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black also played one of the most soullessly evil people in cinematic history, but that’s just how good of an actor Oldman is.

The Professional features not one, not two, but THREE of all my all-time favorite cinematic performances. Reno, Portman and Oldman are all brilliant, and Luc Besson’s writing and directing are top-notch throughout. His film raises some difficult questions, but he never pushes it too far.

As the film progresses, Leon and Mathilda grow closer and closer. And it is in their relationship that the movie shows itself to be a love story. It’s a love story between two desperately lonely people who find each other at just the right point in their lives.

Although it should probably go without saying that it ends tragically. Stansfield eventually gets on to Leon and Mathilda, which leads to an epic confrontation with the NYPD SWAT team. In addition to being a riveting action sequence, the final showdown also provides some of the most genuinely touching moments of any film I’ve ever seen. In a desperate moment, Leon provides Mathilda with a means of escape, but she won’t go without him. “I don’t wanna lose you, Leon,” she pleads with him as tears streak her dirt-smeared face.

Leon-movie-stills-leon-leon-the-professional-24526205-1788-1198

“You’re not going to lose me,” Leon tells her. “You’ve given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots. And you’ll never be alone again, Mathilda. I love you, now go.” That moves me so much my eyes are all misty just from typing it.

And poor Leon, he almost makes it. He has almost made good his escape from the cops, having disguised himself as a wounded SWAT officer, but he doesn’t quite get there. He doesn’t know that Stansfield has recognized him, and as Leon approaches freedom, there’s a flash, and he crumbles to the ground. Stansfield crouches over him victoriously, and Leon sees him.

“Stans…field…” Leon croaks.

“At your service,” Stansfield smirks.

Leon puts something in Stansfield’s hand. “This is from…Mathilda,” he gasps.

Stansfield opens his hand, and sees what looks like a pin with a ring attached to it. He opens Leon’s shirt and finds a string of grenades. The vile Stansfield barely has time to mutter “Shit,” before a massive explosion kills them both.

In the end, with nowhere else to go Mathilda returns to the girls school she dropped out of earlier in the film. She gets reassurance from the headmistress that they’ll do what they can to help her, and financial assistance promised from Leon’s mob pal Tony. After she talks to the headmistress, she goes outside, finds a nice spot in the grass, and plants Leon’s beloved houseplant. “I think we’ll be okay here, Leon,” she says, and the film ends.

This movie tears me up. Not many movies have the ability to move me to tears every time I watch them, but this one does. I don’t watch it all that often because it’s such an emotional rollercoaster, but every time I do watch it, by the end I feel profoundly moved.

This movie, man. This freaking movie. It blows me away. I think it’s easily Luc Besson’s best film. He juggles so many different aspects of the story and the characters, and makes it look easy. Some of the film’s content is troubling, but never so much so that it becomes too much to handle. Leon kills people for a living, and he kills several policemen in the film’s climax, and yet he’s an incredibly sympathetic character. This is a movie where the protagonist is a hired killer, and the antagonist is a government agent. Besson takes the usual setup for a hitman movie and flips it neatly on its head. The hitman doesn’t kill women or kids, the government agent does.

I’m not the only person who absolutely reveres this film. On the Internet Movie Database, it has a rating of 8.6 out of 10, which puts it at number 27 on their list of the 250 movies with the highest user ratings. That’s pretty impressive, and it shows how much the violent, tragic tale of Leon and Mathilda has resonated with people.

leon_the_professional_wallpaper_2

The Professional is a movie that is entertaining and thrilling and nail-bitingly tense, but is also brilliantly acted and profoundly moving. I have never seen a movie like this one. There is a magic to it that is impossible to repeat. It may be a bit of dark magic, but it is magic nonetheless.