Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

John Wick (2014, Chad Stahelski)

John Wick is all right. It feels like if it’d been made in the nineties, it’d have been revolutionary. Instead, it uses all the revolutionary and not revolutionary film techniques since the nineties to make the ultimate in mainstream heavy metal neo-pulp, with a twist of seventies exploitation for good measure. It succeeds because of lead Keanu Reeves, who’s got the best pleasant angry face and does enough of his stunts—and director Stahelski knows how to showcase Reeves during those stunts—to keep the viewer engaged with his unstoppable killing machine as he moves through the video game of a story.

The film opens with Reeves seemingly fatally wounded, nothing left to do but watch a video of him and Bridget Moynahan on a beach. Cue flashback montage showing how Reeves and Moynahan were happily together (married we find out, post-montage), then she dies (from a long-term fatal illness), then she (posthumously) gets Reeves an adorable little puppy to keep him company. To this point, we haven’t seen Reeves do any action hero stuff. In fact, it feels like the film’s doing a riff on tearjerkers, only tongue in cheek.

Only then Russian mob weasel Alfie Allen steals Reeves’s car and kills the puppy so Reeves is going to get payback. The film’s first act is a lot better written than anything else, even when it feels like video game cutscenes. And John Leguizamo’s first act cameo as the first guy from the old life Reeves meets up with. Turns out Allen is son of Reeves’s former employer, Michael Nyqvist, who owes his empire to Reeves. Great performance from Nyqvist. Not a great part, unfortunately, but a great performance nonetheless.

The rest of the film, outside the detailed world-building with hotels in a Flatiron Building stand-in where all the assassins stay and it’s off limits for contracts and everyone pays each other in single gold coins and Reeves gets power-up pills because it’s kind of just Super Mario Bros. John Wick’s never very complicated. It’s got a lot of guns (without being too gun porn-y, Stahelski’s about the action not the details), a lot of bit characters, and a lot of thorough action scenes courtesy Stahelski, producer and apparently uncredited co-director David Leitch, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, but really editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Ronaldsdóttir, almost as much as Reeves, makes John Wick. Even when the movie’s too loud for too long—the heavy metal action thing is no joke, they have a new Marilyn Manson song for John Wick. The film’s incredibly committed to itself. Even when it gets a little much. Stahelski’s good at the action scenes but they’re not technically innovative, they’re just excellent. The film’s a series of successfully established techniques, in action, in storytelling, smartly arranged, given life by a perfectly stone-faced Reeves and an exceptional editor.

The supporting cast has some excellent extended cameos—Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe. Lance Reddick… fine, but not excellent because it’s a crap cameo. Adrianne Palicki is better than you’d think in her extended cameo as unscrupulous fellow assassin but she’s not particularly good. She’s fine. The only one not fine is Dean Winters, as Nyqvist’s chief flunky; he serves no purpose in the film other than to take up space. Someone could make something amusing out of it, Winters does not. And Allen’s decent as the standard failed son of great mobster but he ends up with nothing to do. Except somehow be the only person Reeves can’t manage to hit.

Finally, if you are going to give John Wick a watch, I feel I need to warn you about the subtitles. The film stylizes its subtitles in some truly obnoxious ways. The worst thing isn’t even the visual appearance—I mean, of course it is but the absurd visual appearance just draws attention to the pointlessness of the dialogue. If he’s not writing monologues for the guest stars, writer Derek Kolstad’s got no idea what to say. When it’s Reeves, who doesn’t have to say anything (in fact, most of his dialogue is eventually just him repeating back statements from his adversaries), it’s fine. When it’s guest stars monologuing, it’s fine. When it’s the bad guys talking about Reeves coming to kill them and what they need to do?

It’s nonsense.

In the end, Wick’s nonsense and its successes basically even out. It’s definitely a successful action movie, but maybe not a significant one… because it’s just built on previous films’ significant successes. Wick riffs on a number of them, just with the technology and ability to execute them flawlessly, but without any character and without any risk.

So thank goodness for Reeves and Ronaldsdóttir. And Nyqvist.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; director of photography, Jonathan Sela;edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Dan Leigh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, and Mike Witherill; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Omer Barnea (Gregori), Toby Leonard Moore (Victor), Daniel Bernhardt (Kirill), Bridget Moynahan (Helen), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Ian McShane (Winston), Bridget Regan (Addy), and Lance Reddick (Charon).


Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Just because you can get Patrick Wilson to say “Call me, Oceanmaster!” over and over again with a straight face doesn’t necessarily mean you should have Patrick Wilson say “Call me, Oceanmaster!” over and over again.

Unless director James Wan was just trying to get my wife to laugh uproariously. Every time. Because every time it’s so absurdly dumb the only reasonable response is to laugh. Uproariously.

Kind of like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s B-villain. Not only is Abdul-Mateen terrible, not only is the writing of the character risible, his arc is one of a buffoon. He’s Elmer Fudd. Not even with a pseudo-tragic storyline does he get any depth. He’s just Elmer Fudd with some pseudo-tragedy.

Abdul-Mateen probably gives the worst performance. His only serious competition is Nicole Kidman, who plays Aqua-mom. She’s supposed to be the next queen of Atlantis but runs away to Maine and shacks up with Temeura Morrison, as Aqua-dad. Their abbreviated love affair–which tries to make up for the actors abject lack of chemistry with hilarious CGI de-aging on Morrison–results in Momoa. Well, not Momoa yet, but a series of bad kid actors playing Aqua-boy. Eventually it’s Momoa.

He narrates the opening. Poorly, but it’s poorly written. Wilson’s exposition about why he wants to be called “Oceanmaster” is actually better written than a lot of the film’s exposition. The only person who manages to get Aquaman’s expository dialogue out with any success is Amber Heard. She’s Momoa’s love interest and a princess of Atlantis who wants to stop Wilson from waging war on the surface world. Even though he’s probably right? Though Atlantis seems like a barbaric place. Ancient Rome with technology. Kind of. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time there. Just enough for a CGI chase sequence involving undersea vehicles.

The CGI is impressive though. A lot of Aquaman‘s CGI is impressive. Not the de-aging stuff. Or when it’s for the action scenes involving the actors; Wan directs fight scenes like it’s a video game on fast forward. At once point he does first person shooter, at another he toggles between two characters’ simultaneous action scenes. The latter is very nearly effective, if it weren’t so poorly photographed. At some point–very early on–in Aquaman, it becomes clear cinematographer Don Burgess and Wan don’t care at all about the lighting matching when they’re shooting the actors on green screen. The composites are universally terrible. It usually doesn’t affect the action too much, except when Aquaman is in its Indiana Jones phase with Momoa and Heard globe-trotting to find an ancient super-powered trident.

Wait, I was actually complimenting the CGI, wasn’t I? Yeah, the extreme long shots with the undersea action–all CGI, obviously–looks great. Wan does those shots well. He doesn’t so establishing shots well and he doesn’t acknowledge any physicality–like, really, what does cinematographer Burgess do on this movie, he doesn’t even stop Wan from shooting through where a wall ought to be–but the undersea CGI stuff can be cool. And competent, which is a nice change from when there are the lousy composites or the crappy action scenes or the writing.

Momoa can’t really lead a movie, but it doesn’t matter because David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script is so bad no one could lead Aquaman. Momoa’s fine. What are you going to do with this script. The romantic stuff between him and Heard is absurd, but who cares. It’s nowhere near as bad as, I don’t know, Abdul-Mateen or Kidman and Morrison and, well, you’re rooting for Amber Heard. She works hard in this movie, trying to carry Momoa both in character and as an actor in scenes. Heard pretends her character in Aquaman is serious, which no one else in the movie does… except maybe Willem Dafoe (only because you can never tell if he’s being tongue-in-cheek) and Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren’s Heard’s father and Wilson’s war ally. He’s not good–it’s a crap role–but he takes it seriously.

Momoa doesn’t take his part seriously, which is a good move since his whole character arc relies on something the movie doesn’t clearly inform the audience about even though they should’ve known about it from the beginning. Wilson either. They’re half-brothers fighting for the throne. They ought to have some chemistry.

They have zilch. Partially because Wan doesn’t direct them for it, partially because the script really wants to subject the audience to Abdul-Mateen.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s music occasionally gets really loud and cartoonishly action-y. It’s at those moments Aquaman ostensibly has its most potential for outlandish action. Wan never delivers. Not even during his CGI chase scenes, which are abbreviated, or his “elaborate” fight scenes. Aquaman runs almost two and a half hours, has a present action of a few days, yet is almost entirely in summary. Sure, Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall write godawful scenes, but Wan doesn’t do anything to slow that pace.

When Gregson-Williams’s score isn’t writing checks the movie can’t cash, it’s pretty tepid and generic. Still has more personality than Burgess’s photography. Aquaman does better underwater; Bill Brzeski’s production design goes to pot whenever the action surfaces. Though, again, it’s where Burgess’s photography is worst. So it’s a lose-lose.

Could Aquaman be worse? Undoubtedly. Should Aquaman be better? Sure? There’s no reason it ought to be so bad. Or so dumb. Or predictable. Or so obvious.

Though, again, if it weren’t so obvious, could Momoa lead the picture….

But it definitely shouldn’t be so bad. It shouldn’t be so technically inept. Its actors–save Kidman–deserve a script better than what Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall contribute; you wouldn’t play with your action figures with their dialogue. It’s too plastic.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, based on a story by Geoff Johns, Wan, and Beall and the DC Comics character created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Kirk M. Morri; music by Rupert Gregson-Williams; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Peter Safran and Rob Cowan; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jason Momoa (Arthur), Amber Heard (Mera), Patrick Wilson (King Orm), Willem Dafoe (Vulko), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Manta), Temuera Morrison (Tom Curry), Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus), and Nicole Kidman (Atlanna).


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The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

The Florida Project turns out to be a lot about perspective. Director Baker establishes three different perspectives–six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, her mom (Bria Vinaite), and the manager of the motel where they live (William Dafoe). The film takes place over a summer, as Prince makes new friends and loses old ones. The kids have numerous adventures, occasionally sweet, sometimes rude, sometimes dangerous, often funny. Vinaite has recently lost her job as a stripper when the movie starts, something which Baker only addresses from Prince’s perspective. Because it doesn’t seem important to Prince’s story.

And for most of the film, it isn’t. Most of Florida Project is split between Prince and company’s adventures and how much trouble they cause for Dafoe. But it’s not too much trouble because Dafoe’s really a big softy. He’s caring and compassionate and trapped in a cage of his own making. He’s trying to do what’s right.

Each of Prince’s friends has a somewhat different living situation as far as parents or guardians go, but they all live in the same motel or nearby. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch do great with getting in the exposition about how it works, living in motels (i.e. occupancy laws, dining, rent). There’s a lot of visual emphasis on the green paradise of a setting. Baker and photographer Alexis Zabe set these characters, with their often dangerous problems, against this idyllic backdrop.

It’s gorgeous but leads to another problem of perspective; do they characters acknowledge the beauty around them? For a while it seems like Dafoe might. Unfortunately, as the film enters its second half and focuses more on Vinaite and Prince together, its treatment of Dafoe changes. It’s no longer watching him–from Prince’s perspective–but giving him a scene here or there, just to keep him present. He even gets an utterly uncooked subplot involving Caleb Landry Jones. For two scenes. With no pay-off. Or even affect on Dafoe’s arc.

The second half turns out to be rife with character revelations, as Vinaite’s friendship with fellow mom Mela Murder turns out to be a bait and switch as far as plot progression expectations. It’s too bad, as Murder made Vinaite a lot less obnoxious (not in a bad way though) in her plotline. Instead, Vinaite and Prince’s plotlines pretty much join–Prince’s adventures, while more visually glorious, becoming subplot–and it’s mostly a reveal of Vinaite. Turns out by sticking with Prince, Baker was really skirting away from a lot of truth about mom Vinaite. Prince never figures it out, which then changes the narrative distance as far as she and the friends go. And it turns out Dafoe’s unreliable too.

None of it’s bad. Baker isn’t sneaky or tricky in the filmmaking. The scenes are always right on. They just maybe aren’t the right scenes for where the movie ends up going. A lack of information is built into how the movie works–it’s from a six-year-old’s perspective, sometimes including height–and the composition, the photography, the editing, and Lorne Balfe’s music captivate throughout. Baker just doesn’t mix in the the captivating and epical action well. Especially not since he has this final intellectual reveal he really could’ve worked in sooner and gotten greater effect.

Because, of course, it turns out even though the movie sticks with Prince, she’s got her own relevation offscreen things going on.

So Florida Project is lyrical until it’s epical. It does better with the lyrical because it hasn’t been doing the work to be epical. Beautiful filmmaking can only cover so much.

Lots of great acting. Dafoe’s phenomenal, even if he never gets a pay-off. Though no one gets a pay-off; maybe Vinaite. But even hers is problematic. She’s good. She’d probably be better if Baker defined the character better in the first act. Instead of having development, she has character revelation. A minor tweak of focus would’ve helped a bunch.

The kids are awesome. Prince, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik. Rivera plays Murder’s son and is best friend #1. Cotto becomes best friend #2. Malik is sort of background. Baker knows how to direct the kids to get some amazing moments. Even when they’re just goofing off.

In the supporting roles, Murder is good but eventually undercooked. She’s not reliable either. Josie Olivo is great in a smaller part as Cotto’s grandmother and maybe the closest thing to a good role model Vinaite encounters.

The film’s a technical marvel. Interiors, exteriors, long shots, close-ups, Zabe’s photography is always perfect. Same goes for Baker’s cutting. Balfe’s score is perfect.

The Florida Project is nearly great. Instead, it’s almost great. With some exceptional performances, direction, and technical aspects.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; director of photography, Alexis Zabe; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Stephonik Youth; produced by Baker, Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou; released by A24.

Starring Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Mela Murder (Ashley), Aiden Malik (Dicky), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Josie Olivo (Stacy).


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Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E. Elias Merhige)

Shadow of the Vampire opens with some title cards explaining the setup. Well, it opens with some title cards explaining the setup after what feels like nine minute opening titles. In reality… it’s six. Vampire ostensibly runs ninety-five minutes.

Anyway. The title cards setup the making of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s highly influential 1922 vampire film. The cards end saying Nosferatu is going to establish Murnau as one of “the greatest directors of all time,” which would imply Vampire’s going to be very positive about Nosferatu and Murnau.

Not so much as it turns out. John Malkovich plays Murnau. The movie presents him as a pretentious dick, which you’d think Malkovich could easily play, but not so much. Steven Katz’s script is particularly wanting in the Murnau characterization department. Besides a visit to a sex club and drug use, there’s nothing to Malkovich’s character. He gets the least character development of anyone in the film. Except Eddie Izzard, who gets ingloriously chucked at some point. Anyway. Murnau’s direction is always played for laughs in one way or another. Sometimes it’s in how Izzard (as the human lead in Nosferatu) acts, sometimes it’s in how Malkovich directs, but there’s always a bit of a joke. Sometimes there’s a lot of one. Shadow of the Vampire has some good laughs.

But Vampire’s not a biopic or non-fiction. It’s about how Malkovich has hired a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the vampire in the movie. Two big problems. One, Dafoe’s a vampire who wants to kill people. Two, he’s not an actor. There’s some real funny stuff with Dafoe. It’s just not particularly good funny stuff. Vampire’s not a comedy. Director Merhige manages to get into the third act without ever fully committing to a tone. He eventually does pick one and, wow, it’s a bad choice.

But Dafoe. Let’s just get it out of the way. He’s phenomenal. His performance gets the humor in the situation, but never at the expense of being scary. Katz and Merhige never take advantage of that aspect of Dafoe’s performance–the spontaneity of it. Because they’re not doing particularly good work.

At no point does Vampire show much potential. Malkovich is chemistry-free with everyone, which is a problem when it comes to leading lady (barely in the movie, completely “harpy,” ultimate damsel-in-distress Catherine McCormack) who he’s apparently been intimate with. Kinky sex implication intimate. He uses it to control McCormack. But she’s barely in the movie–three scenes, maybe four.

He’s also no good with Udo Kier as Nosferatu’s producer, or Cary Elwes as the ladies man cameraman. Or Izzard, but he and Malkovich don’t actually share the screen much. Malkovich is usually directing Izzard in Nosferatu, not acting opposite him. Malkovich also doesn’t have any chemistry with Aden Gillett, who plays the Nosferatu screenwriter. Gillett’s got no purpose except suspect Dafoe and play well opposite Kier. So Merhige does get these actors need to play well off one another, he just doesn’t do anything to facilitate it. Kier and Gillett have one of the film’s best scenes, if not the best. They bond with Dafoe.

So while often amusing–and quick-paced, at the expense of logic and character development and narrative gestures–Vampire doesn’t have much heft. Then it tries to get some and it doesn’t work out. At all.

The third act’s a bust, with Merhige, Katz, and Malkovich the prime offenders. But mostly Katz. There’s nothing you can do with the third act as written. Then Malkovich, then Merhige. Merhige needed to figure out how to cover for Malkovich’s broad performance.

Kier and Elwes are all right. Same goes for McCormack and Izzard. After Dafoe, Gillett gives the best performance. No one gets enough to do, not even Dafoe. Kind of especially not Dafoe.

Technically it’s a little dull, but still colorful. Lou Bogue’s photography doesn’t do crisp. Chris Wyatt’s editing is good. He knows how to cut for the comedy. Dan Jones’s music isn’t memorable.

Merhige’s composition is a little too tight, his narrative impulses aren’t good–somehow he still keeps a nice, brisk pace–he’s indifferent to actors’ performances. Lots, but nothing to really suggest how bad the movie’s going to close.

It’s worth seeing for Dafoe’s performance. And maybe Malkovich’s if you don’t like him. Vampire pretends Malkovich is giving a great performance–one where he has chemistry with Dafoe and whatnot–but Malkovich doesn’t even put in enough effort to pretend anything similar. It’s a problem.

Vampire’s got too many problems.

BOMB

CREDITS

Directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Steven Katz; director of photography, Lou Bogue; edited by Chris Wyatt; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Assheton Gorton; produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring John Malkovich (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim), Aden Gillett (Henrik Galeen), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), Ronan Vibert (Wolfgang Müller), and Catherine McCormack (Greta Schröder).


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