3 @annapolisff Reviews @hammertonail + Review of “The Fate of the Furious” @filmfesttoday

Over the past two weeks, Hammer to Nail has run three reviews of mine from the recent  Annapolis Film Festival: for The ArcherThe Islands and the Whales and Katie Says Goodbye. Two days ago, Film Festival Today ran my review of The Fate of the Furious. Here are links to all posts:

Enjoy!

SXSW2017–Part 4 @hammertonail (3 More Reviews and 2 More Interviews) + SXSW2017 Overview @filmfesttoday

Continuing my coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival at Hammer to Nail, here are five more pieces: 3 reviews (for which one has no accompanying interview) and 2 interviews. Still others have already been posted, but I am still only posting reviews (for which I also conducted interviews) after their accompanying interviews have been posted, too. More to follow in the days ahead. Here are links to my three previous SXSW 2017 posts: first, second and third. In addition, I wrote a thorough overview of my experience at SXSW for Film Festival Today. Here are links to all posts:

Enjoy!

SXSW2017–Part 3 @hammertonail (3 More Reviews and 3 More Interviews) + “Wilson” @filmfesttoday

Continuing my coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival at Hammer to Nail, here are six more pieces: 3 reviews and 3 interviews. Still others have already been posted, but I am keeping it simple and only posting reviews after their accompanying interviews have gone live, as well. More to follow in the days ahead. For my first post on SXSW 2017, go here, and for the second, go here. In addition, I ran a review of Craig Johnson’s latest film, Wilson, today at Film Festival Today. Here are links to all posts:

Enjoy!

“Beauty and the Beast” @filmfesttoday + “Catfight” and SXSW2017–Part 1 @hammertonail

Now that I am writing consistently for both Hammer to Nail (for the small-budget indie stuff and documentaries) and Film Festival Today (for the bigger films), do not expect me, dear reader, to use this blog for much more than a place to catalog those other posts – to use it as a clearinghouse, of sorts – though I may still write the occasional piece solely for chrisreedfilm.com. Still, by coming here and seeing what I post, you will find quick and easy links to the work I do out in the world as a professional film critic.

I just returned from the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, in Austin, Texas, during which I saw and reviewed many films and conducted many interviews with filmmakers, only some of which have posted, so far, at Hammer to Nail. I am working on a summary piece about my overall impressions of the festival, which I will soon post at Film Festival Today. Below, please find links to selections from the coverage that has run so far, as well as to my review of the most recent Beauty and the Beast, which ran last Friday at Film Festival Today, and Onur Tukel’s Catfight, which I reviewed for Hammer to Nail just before leaving for SXSW. More to follow in the days ahead.

Enjoy!

In “John Wick: Chapter 2,” Our Hitman Loses His Way in Excessive Carnage

[This review also posted on Film Festival Today.]

John Wick 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)

The first John Wick film, released in 2014, offered up many delights, not the least of which was the sight of then 50-year-old Keanu Reeves (The Neon Demon) running, kicking, punching and shooting his way through hordes of bad guys, all with balletic grace. What really lifted the film beyond the usual well-choreographed action thriller, however, was its invention of an alternate universe where professional hitmen (and hitwomen) inhabit a nether region of secret hotels and organizations and live by a very strict honor code that guides their behavior. They may be killers, but they have rules. Break those rules and risk ostracization. As an exercise in creative worldbuilding, it was very aesthetically satisfying, as well as entertaining.

Flash forward a few years, and John  Wick (Reeves) is back, guns (of both metal and muscle) blazing. We pick up more or less where the last film ended, with Wick still in search of the car that was stolen from him by the (now deceased) son of a mobster (also deceased). If you remember, Wick is a former hitman who came out of retirement after the little beagle puppy that his late wife, who had just died of illness, was brutally killed by a gang of tough guys who wanted his beautifully maintained Mustang car (which they subsequently stole, for good measure). Roused from his grieving torpor, Wick dug up the weapons buried in his basement and vowed revenge on those who had taken that last living memory of his wife from him. Along the way, he reconnected with old colleagues, which is how we, the audience, plunged into the fascinating details of the hitman universe. Much blood was shed, but with panache.

After an exciting prologue involving a chase scene and the brother – played by Peter Stormare (Bang Bang Baby) in a very funny cameo – of the lead gangster from last time, Wick prepares to settle down once more. Peace is not to be, however, as a new character shows up, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, Loose Cannons, all reptilian grace), a member of a prominent Italian mafia family. He has come to cash in a marker, pledged to him when Wick asked to be release from active service , years earlier. The negotiations do not go smoothly, and we are soon off on a new round of adventures that take us to Rome, where the same company that runs the hitman hotel we encountered in Chapter 1 has another outlet.

For a brief while, John Wick: Chapter 2 promises the same level of cleverness as its predecessor, but all too soon it descends into a messy series of violent sequences. After a few too many bloody, brain-splattered close-ups, it becomes difficult to distinguish the one scene from the next. Like last year’s Hardcore Henry, which started well and then quickly settled into video-game mayhem, this movie loses its way in all the carnage. Death becomes its raison d’être. Reeves, always appealing, carries the grim narrative as best he can – joined by other fine performers like Common (Selma), Ian McShane (Deadwood), Lance Roddick (The Wire) and relative newcomer Ruby Rose (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) – but at some point there is simply not enough story to justify our investment in the butchery. Based on this movie’s unhappy open ending, there are clear plans for a John Wick: Chapter 3, but unless they refocus on meaningful characters and dramatic conflict beyond slaughter, I will not be there to watch it.

“Toni Erdmann” Plays the Long Game and Wins

[This review was also posted on Film Festival Today]

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

At 162 minutes, German director Maren Ade’s latest film, Toni Erdmann – her first since the 2009 Everything Else – seems like a lot to handle in a single viewing. A dramedy about an estranged father/daughter pair, the movie takes a while to engage, although the hints are there, early on, that it will become a beautiful expression of cinematic art. Slowly, through the poignancy of its writing and brilliance of its two leads, Toni Erdmann wins you over, worming its way into your mind and heart both, in equal measure. It also features one of the best nude scenes ever – completely justified by the plot, and screamingly funny – for which you must wait until the last 30 minutes. It’s well worth it, as is the entire movie.

We start with a joke. Winfried, a sixtyish bear of a man, amiably greets the hapless postal worker who rings his bell, then runs off and returns with a set of false teeth and a ridiculous disguise, pretending to be that first person’s twin brother, who just happens to be a radical bomber. The mailman can clearly see that it’s the same person, teeth and all – as can we – yet he (mostly) goes along with the gag, since Winfried has such an obvious need to entertain. Living on his own with an elderly dog, Winfried is clearly lonely, though not without some friends, family and colleagues. He’s a lot to take, however, like an overgrown child – an eternal trickster – who has never quite figured out how to operate in the real world. It’s no wonder that he teaches music and theater at an elementary school. There, he fits right in … with the students, that is.

His only daughter, Ines, is the exact opposite of papa. Where he is chaos, she is order; in fact, she’s a rising corporate consultant, stationed in Romania, a country ripe for exploitation by foreign agents. We first meet her at a party thrown in her honor at her mother’s – Winfried’s ex-wife’s – place. She seems like a cliché, always on her cell phone. It’s unclear how she and Winfried could belong to the same gene pool, yet as the movie progresses, we will see connections between father and daughter that are hard to imagine, early on.

And that is the real strength of the film, along with the two powerful central performances, from Peter Simonischek (Oktober November), as Winfried, and Sandra Hüller (Amour fou), as Ines. We think we know what kind of a story we’re watching, yet it constantly shifts gears, full of twists and surprises. The name Toni Erdmann comes from an alter ego that Winfried adopts (once again using those teeth!) when he pays Ines a visit in Romania. She’s not too happy to see her father when he shows up unannounced, and even less happy with the teeth, but he has an inescapable charm, and grows on her through prolonged exposure. Just as this movie grows on the audience (and on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which just nominated it for an Oscar). Yes, it could be a bit shorter, but it’s delightful as is.

“Patriots Day” Pays Effective Tribute to Boston in the Aftermath of Tragedy

[This review also posted on Film Festival Today, and here is that link.]

Patriots Day

Patriots Day (Peter Berg, 2016)

A taut procedural about the investigation following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombingPatriots Day, from director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), presents the facts of a case that we already know in an engaging manner that does justice to  both the story and the actual participants in the tragedy. Starring Mark Wahlberg (Ted 2), Kevin Bacon (X-Men: First Class), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and (sadly, wasted in a mostly symbolic part as Wahlberg’s wife) Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss), among many others in a large ensemble cast. The film moves along at a brisk pace from set-up to terrorist attack to manhunt, only occasionally faltering in its mission to entertain (usually when it resorts to swelling music and expositional speeches). As long as it sticks to the detective work and character study, it’s a solid thriller.

What I find particularly impressive in our current climate of increasing Islamophobia is the way in which Berg and his fellow screenwriters take the time to humanize the perpetrators, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No, they don’t excuse their behavior, nor delve too deeply into their motivations, but they do make them three-dimensional beings, which is all to the benefit of the movie. After all, real people did this, and very few of us are born killers, so why not explore the dynamic at play? Especially since subsequent research did, in fact, reveal that the elder Tamerlan was the one who pushed Dzhokhar into the crime. Here, the latter is shown to be just as much stoner as radical, not quite the jihadist his brothers wishes him to be. As played by Alex Wolff (Coming Through the Rye) – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual man – Dzhokhar is a most reluctant warrior, indeed, though he does his fair share of killing in the end. None of this careful characterization exonerates the villains; it just makes them flesh-and-blood bad guys, rather than ghouls.

But the movie truly belongs to the victims, witnesses and law-enforcement officers of Boston, who all come together to solve the mystery of who did what, none of which is clear in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Little by little, however, using footage from security cameras scattered around the city, the police and FBI hone in on “white hat” and “black hat,” as they dub the suspects, each of whom wears a baseball cap of that color. Two big decisions threaten to stall the investigation: whether to label it an act of terrorism, since that immediately raises the threat level; and whether or not to release the photos of the men they think did it. In both cases, the local FBI director (Bacon) worries that jumping the gun too soon could lead to even worse consequences. It’s fascinating to watch how the territorial and ideological disputes play out (just as it is to watch the arguments of the Tsarnaevs). As we know, our heroes eventually got their guys. What we may not know, however, is how much violence and chaos went down before that happened. Although I assume that Berg – as do all directors – exercises some dramatic license, there’s a hard-enough edge to his filmmaking that the action feels real, more docudrama than fiction, a sensation strengthened at the very end, when we see the actual people of the story over the end credits.  Overall, then, this is a worthy tribute to the folks in Boston who helped solve the case, and well worth watching.