Cotton Reviews John Wick (2014)

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“Now, that’s what I’m talking about!”

That was my initial reaction to John Wick, a return to form for Keanu Reeves, and the debut of directors Chad Stahelski and (uncredited) David Leitch, two Wachowski sibling disciples who worked on the set with Reeves in The Matrix. They not only created a winning action film, created their own genre (gun-fu!), but also created a massive underworld of assassins that would fit right at home with fans of graphic novels, such as myself.

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The plot is deceptively thin. Within the first ten minutes we watch as the title character’s life is ripped apart. His loving wife dies in the first minute, she gifts him the most adorable puppy in the history of film, and then in a break-in at his post-modern style home, the dog is killed (breaking the cardinal rule: don’t kill the cute puppy), and Wick is beaten within an inch of his life. His prized ’69 Mustang is stolen in the process. This sets the once deadly assassin off and back into the game.

As stated, the plot of John Wick is deceptively simple. On the surface, it is a standard killer comes out of retirement for revenge plot. However, what the creators behind the scenes did well was create a backstory that is deeper for those that wish to think about it. The underworld of assassins, who have a private hotel, The Continental (brilliant), their own set of rules, even their own currency of gold coins is well thought out and executed to perfection. The world in this film is deeper than what is suggested. The nice thing that they did was present this under the surface to add much needed depth to the plot, but they don’t slow down the pace of the film to force feed it to the audience. This world building separates John Wick from a standard revenge flick even more so than the brilliant shootouts.

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The action scenes in this film are jaw dropping! Rare is it these days of action cinema dominated by fake looking CGI and green screens and endless Avengers films to see an old-school action movie. Keanu Reeves did his own stunts and did a boot camp of sorts to learn the techniques that Wick uses in the film. It all comes across as “I know this couldn’t really happen, but it looks awesome and not fake” which is all that one can ask from an action film.

The shootout in the “Red Circle” nightclub is the standout scene and it is a shame that this occurs 45 minutes into the film. That would be my only complaint. While the entire film is entertaining, it can only go downhill when the signature action sequence occurs halfway through the film. This scene really shows off the “gun-fu” style of action to its max. Halfway through the scene, there is a legitimate laugh out loud moment where Wick is forced to reload. I won’t spoil, but with all the tension and all the action flying around, this pause forced myself and everyone in the theatre at my first viewing to laugh to relieve the tension.

Overall, this is a must see for any action fan that somehow hasn’t seen it, yet. It is a return to form for Keanu Reeves and, with John Wick: Chapter 2 on the horizon, provides him with yet another franchise. It harkens back to old school action films akin to John Woo’s classics. There is even a church shootout for good measure. Highly recommended.

Grade: B+

 

Cotton Reviews The Departed (2006)

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Identity is one aspect of all of our lives which is of vital importance. We are all looking for our identity and our place in our world. How we view our identity causes us to act, think, and behave in ways which reinforce how we see ourselves. A person who sees himself as a Republican will have a completely different worldview than that of his Democrat counterpart. Even if the two are siblings, or who were raised in the same environment, they will each have completely different views of politics and the world around him, all based on their identity of Democrat or Republican.

Identity plays a major role, in fact one can argue is the major theme, of The Departed, a brilliant film which won the 2006 Oscar for Best Picture. It primarily follows the lives of two individuals who are “rats”: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Both have a connection to Irish mob boss Frank Costell0 (Jack Nicholson): Costigan as an undercover cop for the Staties (State Police) and Sullivan as a mole detective in the Staties. Each plays the same role for opposite sides: betraying their loyalties to those that trust them and trying to discover each other. This premise, of course, leads to limitless potential for suspense, double/ triple crosses, and brutal violence.

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The film itself is expertly paced with entertaining characters, witty dialogue, and somewhat unconventional plot structure. The first half deals with the two main characters and how their dual identities are affect their lives. Costigan simply wants to get the job done and “get his identity back” while Sullivan lives it up in his luxury apartment, his job as a State Police detective, and the admiration that he receives from everyone in the department. The same people that he is betraying. He has higher aspirations for his life, but he knows that he cannot achieve his life goals so long as he is closely associated with Costello, someone is going to find the connection at some point, and his life will for all intents and purposes be over.

In the second half, the tension reaches almost unbearable levels when each character learns of each other’s existence. Only they have no idea who the rat is in each respective organization: the mob and the police. It then becomes a race as to who will discover the other first.

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In the end, this is an almost perfect mobster film. I do feel that the last fifteen minutes felt a little rushed, like they were trying to keep under a certain run time, but this does little to my overall enjoyment of the story. I really liked the romantic subplot which adds a little love triangle. A lot of critics that I have read reviews for complained about this subplot, but I think it goes to serve the theme of the plot in a different way: the duality that is shown in the main plot is shown in the subplot as Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) has a romantic interest in both of the male leads, but must lie about it, and must betray her loyalties to one over the other.

As mentioned before, our identities are crucial to our development as human beings and how we contribute (or don’t) to society. When we begin to betray our identity for personal gain, or because we are forced to because of our jobs (or marriages, religious beliefs, family, etc. etc.) it will only lead to death: be it actual physical death or the death of our identity entirely.

Grade: A-

Cotton Reviews Blade Runner (1982)

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This review is for the Final Cut version of the film

What does it mean to be human? Can we definitively define what humanity is? If a machine can produce memories, become self-aware, fight for its survival, and produce memories, can we say that they aren’t human? Those are some of the questions which are tackled in Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi masterpiece Blade Runner.

Blade Runner is a film which is often misunderstood. This is not an action-packed epic that it was originally marketed as. Some could even say that it is a film which is to be respected, but not necessarily enjoyed. I disagree with that sentiment. There is a lot to enjoy about this film, but it requires more of the viewer than most Hollywood films ask of them. With each subsequent viewing, the questions and themes presented have grown on me, and I can tell you that I love Blade Runner. It might be my all-time favorite film.

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The film’s story concerns the creation of androids called Replicants. Replicants look human and are indistinguishable from the naked eye. They are given a four year life span and used as slave labor on off-world colonies. When the Replicants started to become self-aware and rebellious, special police units called “Blade Runners” were tasked with seeking out and assassinating them. When four dangerous Replicants stage a bloody coup on one of these colonies and escape to Earth, Deckard (Harrison Ford), the best of the old blade runners, is called out of retirement to track them down.

What follows is a multi-layered Sci-Fi/ Noir detective hybrid which, along with the novel Nueromancer, is credited with creating a subgenre of Sci-Fi, Cyberpunk. What distinguishes this film is the concept of “high tech, but low life”. Everywhere in the film there are bright lights, computer generated billboards, and huge blimps with large screens serving as advertisements. Meanwhile, down on the street, there is physical, moral, and societal decay.

This is a complex film which asks more questions than it answers (at least, in the Final Cut, by far the best version). What begins as an easy determination of what is a human and what is a machine becomes muddied. The four replicants are at first shown as evil, but the longer the film goes, we learn what they are really after, and the questions of what is a human and what is humanity start to come about. Be warned, this is not an action-packed film, as it was advertised, this is a slow paced, intricate, and philosophically rich story.

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At the end of the day, this is a film about life. We all build memories and accomplishments, but these are all temporary and fleeting. Once we leave this Earth, our thoughts, memories, accomplishments, and everything that we are goes with us. When we reach the end some of us will accept it, others of us will take any measure to extend our lives, and still others will go to our creators and beg for more life. But, when it is all said and done, it is all lost in time…like tears in rain.

Grade: A+

Cotton Reviews The Age of Adaline (2015)

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Sometimes, the best endings are predictable. The endings where the expectations of the viewer are met. Where the promises that the writers and filmmakers have built up to will be fulfilled. Where the writers and filmmakers so perfectly set up a theme that will resonate with viewers/ readers and stick with them long after the work is finished. Even if that ending is predicted, as a viewer, I can walk away satisfied as my expectations were met. And, if my expectations are not met, there better be a damn good reason why not.

One of my favorite novels is Burnt Sienna a romantic thriller by David Morrell. In Sienna, about halfway through, I knew what the ending was going to be as it would have perfectly summed up what the theme of the work was. I actually found myself reading faster to see if my prediction would have been correct and it was. I left satisfied, even though I knew what would happen, because the theme of the work was driven home.

This is what ultimately dooms The Age of Adaline. The creators had the perfect theme set up for this kind of a film: Adaline can’t age and therefore, feels that she can’t find love and can’t be loved because it will only end in tragedy. She will go on to live forever while her lover dies. An immortal can’t fall in love with a mortal until, as chance would have it, Adaline does fall in love. She falls in love so deep that her lover will be the only person other than her daughter to know the truth about her life. The perfect ending then came to my mind and I grew more interested in the film, despite some of its flaws.

The most notable flaw, besides the awful ending, was the opening. The hand holding narrator has to explain to us, the unintelligent audience, what exactly is going on. The filmmakers can’t just trust us to “get it”. I mean, they spend way too much time trying to make her condition as scientific as possible. Look, either I’m going to accept that by some miracle she can live forever or I’m not. And, since I made it this far, I’m probably willing to just accept it for what it is, kay? Right off the bat, I feel that the filmmakers do not trust my intelligence as a film goer. Thus, I start to lose faith in them as one should have faith in their audience and not insult their intelligence. But, that’s just the opening, a minor annoyance so long as the rest of the film pays off. And, for the most part, the film gets better and more interesting as it goes.

And, then, the writers employed dues ex machina, and created one of the most contrived endings that I can really remember in a long time. Everything that they built up until the last five minutes was ruined, and ruined in spectacular fashion. So awful was their choice that instead of an above average grade, I am forced to give it a very low one. They tried to get clever and they abandoned and cheated the audience as a way of saying “thought you had it, but we fooled you, hahaha!”

Sometimes, the best endings are the predictable ones. Don’t cheat my expectations unless you have a damn good reason. And creating a contrived, hopelessly contrived, ending isn’t the way to go.

Grade: D+

Die Hard *is* a Christmas Movie!

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An estranged father travels cross country from New York to California to be with his family on Christmas Eve. Along the way, there are obstacles which prevent his Christmas Eve reunion. Amidst the obstacles, the father realizes the importance of family and swears to change his ways. He promises to be a better father and a better husband and regrets that it took him this long to realize the error of his ways.

If that is not a premise for a Christmas movie, I don’t know what is.

People will argue that Christmas is only a backdrop. That Die Hard could have worked with any holiday or no holiday at all. This is a mistake. If the whole premise of the film was about a heist of a multinational Corporation that just happens to be Christmas Eve, they would be right. However, these detractors are missing the whole point of the movie. The whole point of Die Hard is that John McClane is just trying to see his wife and his kids on Christmas Eve and just so happens that the building he meets his wife in is take over by thieves making themselves look like terrorists. Wrong Place. Wrong Time. The stable of the entire Die Hard series. The movie doesn’t happen if McClane isn’t trying to reunite with his family at Christmas. The same could be said for any number of “true” Christmas movies.

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Just watch how cocky and arrogant and dismissive McClane is of Holly at the beginning of the movie. He talks to his cabbie Argyle about his wife like he doesn’t need her. That he’s got a backlog of New York scumbags he’s trying to put away and he can’t just pick up and go that easy. His job is more important to him than his family leaving him. Also:

“So, you thought your old lady wouldn’t make it in LA by herself and she’d come crawling back, why bother to pack, right?”

“You’re very fast, Argyle.”

Contrast that with the scene towards the end. As McClane is pulling glass shards out of his bare feet and is a wounded and bloodied mess. He gets on the walkie with his buddy Powell and confesses to him what a jerk he’s been. That he should have been behind Holly and should have supported her more. He’s just now realizing this as he’s fighting for his life, doesn’t think he will make it, and doesn’t think that he’s going to get that Christmas reunion with his family. That’s a Christmas movie moment if there ever was one! The realization, on Christmas Eve, that we must put aside our differences and be one with our family in love during the holiday season (and beyond). Christmas. Movie. Period.

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Not only that, but the subtle and not so subtle Christmas references. From the soundtrack, to the decorations, to McClane writing “now I have a machine gun: Ho Ho Ho” on a terrorist’s sweater, to McClane’s wife being named “Holly”. There are more Christmas references thrown into this movie that any number of “true Christmas movies”. People make the mistake of only taking the movie at face value, that this is just a standard action movie that doesn’t need Christmas to work. Bull. Die Hard is a Christmas movie about a dismissive husband and father who learns the value of family while he’s fighting for his life trying to reunite with them on Christmas. It is a Christmas movie that just happens to have guns and explosions, not the other way around. Get past the guns, explosions, and heist plot. Look at what the movie is basically about and I would hope that you would agree.

Or not :).

Die Hard review forthcoming.

Cotton Reviews Independence Day Resurgence (2016)

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One of the issues that I have with a lot of the modern blockbusters that I’ve endured over the past several years is how far they’ve sunk. In writing, they tell you to avoid telling and show the audience what’s happening in your book. Yet, all these modern blockbusters, all they do is tell. They don’t show. You’re told what is happening and why this event that is happening is important. Gone are the days, it seems, when blockbusters, as dumb as they’ve been, can have things like charisma, genuine humor, and over the top stunts that while we know are impossible in real life, we can be led to believe they could happen.

Now, we just have the dumb.

The dumb with overly laden CGI sequences that is the same as watching your buddy play videogames. Hell, even that is popular nowadays! For me, I don’t want to watch someone play a videogame, I want to freaking play, so when I see a movie that is nothing but computer generated sequences after computer generated sequences, I have this itch to play, but I can’t, because I’m watching a non-interactive freaking movie that has no sense of danger because its all been shot against a green screen.

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There have even been dumb blockbusters in the past that I’ve enjoyed. Like Independence Day from the 1996. It was a big, loud, plot hole laden, and dumb film if you thought about it for too long. What made Independence Day a success? Oh, that’s right, it had charisma, genuine humor, and characters that you cared about. Never mind the absurdity of the plot. The destruction of major landmarks looked like it was happening because, damn it, computer generated effects weren’t what they are 20 years later. And, it at least attempted to tell a cohesive story, with a clear three act structure. It might not have been intelligent, but it thrilled and entertained so much that one could forget the film’s shortcomings and just go along for the ride.

Independence Day: Resurgence shouldn’t even count as a film. The eye candy doesn’t matter because the movie doesn’t thrill. The humor is forced and when it is sort of funny it is at the film’s own expense. Like they are making fun of their own product. Like the producers are giving one big middle finger to the audience member who paid $10 for a ticket, $8 for a popcorn, and $7 for a soda to watch this epic P.O.S. film. This film angered me. It pissed me off. I’ve not even discussed anything about the film at length because there is nothing to discuss. They could have made this film 15 minutes long and spared us the additional 105 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. For all the money spent of fancy special effects it bores the shit out of the audience. This film isn’t worth a review. It is only worth a rant. I truly hope that Hollywood can get its act together and release some genuinely thrilling popcorn films once again. Looking at the endless batch of Marvel, DC Universe, and sequels over the next several summers, I highly doubt it.

You should have already guessed. But, this film gets an F. There is nothing redeemable about it. Avoid at all costs.

 

Cotton Reviews The Professional (1994)

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What a great film! The Professional stars Jean Reno as a “cleaner”, aka hit man, Leon. He’s a loner that lives by himself. His only friend is his plant which he cleans and takes care of everyday. His whole life is turned upside down when a little girl from a neighboring apartment unit Mathilda, Natalie Portman in her acting debut, desperately rings at his doorbell because her parents have just been murdered and the killers are still in the building. Leon reluctantly lets her in and the two form an unusual and controversial bond with each other.

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After allowing Mathilda to stay the night at his place, Leon orders her to leave, but she refuses. She wants to be a hit man like Leon to get revenge for her family’s death, specifically her younger brother, the only one she really liked. Mathilda thus becomes Leon’s protégé as he teaches the young girl the tricks of the trade, even going so far as to let her shoot someone with a paintball loaded sniper rifle. As she continues to learn from Leon she catches up to Stansfield, the corrupt DEA agent who orchestrated her brother’s murder, who is played by Gary Oldman in an extraordinary performance.

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What sets The Professional apart from other action films is the storytelling. This isn’t a standard shoot ’em up. There are quiet moments in between the well done action sequences that gives the story a great deal of substance and drama. You begin to feel for Leon, who is obviously an immigrant who has no education, can’t read,  and only knows how to kill. He wants to be a good man and sees in Mathilda his chance to do that. Mathilda is a wandering soul, even at 12 years old, who has never been loved and she sees in Leon a father figure, she even calls him her lover. It is a controversial relationship, sort of like a forbidden love, but when Mathilda tells Leon that she’s in love with him, his reaction is one of shock (and quite humorous, no spoilers). It is clear that Leon and Mathilda love each other, but it isn’t romantic, even if through the eyes of a 12 year old it is. Gary Oldman’s performance alone is worth the watch as well.

Overall, this is a stylish, thought provoking, slow burn thriller that is always interesting even in the quiet moments. It gets an A from me.