John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
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COUPLE IN A HOLE does introduce us in its opening to the lives of a Scottish couple who literally inhabits a hole in the forest, putting us in their structured routines where we see the man goes about his daily duties combing the greens of French Pyrenees, hunting and foraging for food, while the wife spends her entire day in their cave taking care of the "house" chores. The mood established in the first frames may even move in an almost documentary trope, but director Tom Geens does not wait too long before he weaves his story into a theme that is slow burning and visual-centric. Whilst we get glimpses of their feral lifestyle including skinning and roasting their own dinners, even eating of worms, displayed in a visual medium that is sparse on dialogue, we will learn that the anchor of the story is in fact isolation and grief. Geens manages to showcase the intensity of his film through a haunting tone as we slowly discover how much the wife, Karen (Kate Dickie) is struggling with reality, while her husband, John (Paul Higgins) patiently cajoles and comforts her. Mourning in desolation has been explored many a times in films, and in this second feature of the Belgian director he's bringing the theme in a manner that is more indie and art house. Both leads manage their roles competently, as they embody the grieving couple in a way that is painful to digest, to a point where Karen's frail physicality starts to turn her into a hunch-back creature-like being (ravaged from her condition of not even able to bring herself to leave the hole), yet somehow relatable in every way we feel for parents who've lost their child.
In a quintessential moment where John finally succeeds to coax his emotionally bruised wife out of the hole to enjoy the rain in the open, marking an important progress of their bereaved journey, a minor accident takes place which triggers a series of incidents which will threaten their domestic landscape which was supposedly structured to help them carry on existing. The lives of another couple, a friendly local from the nearby town, Andre (Je?ro?me Kircher) and his wife (Corinne Masiero), are thrown off the equilibrium as their fate eventually entwines with our titular couple in a tragic way. Not everyone's cup of tea, in its own languid pace the film's emotional undercurrent may not touch certain audience. Personally I found it moving to witness how welded and interdependent John and Karen are emotionally, to a point they can no longer endure as a single entity without one another. Their on-screen chemistry is rather numbing to watch, in a good way, you'd be taken into their retreated lives so devoid of modernity and ability to even feel, you might almost feel that you're habitually connected to the forest as well.
What took thirteen years for Shane Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi to bring to the screens be it as a TV show or the theatres, since they initially wrote the script for THE NICE GUYS in 2001, materialised within just three days once Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe took a look at it. It has always been the kind of film that Gosling wanted to make, and Crowe basically said, "I like it, and if Ryan's doing it, I'll do it." When Black wrote the first two instalments of Lethal Weapon (1987 & 1989), they became iconic trendsetters for buddy action flicks with pithy tones, snappy dialogues and black humored violence. In his latest film which sees Black partner once again with Joel Silver (who produced the Lethal Weapon series), the Iron Man 3 director wanted to put two seemingly not so funny actors, normally known for their more somber roles (like Gosling in 2011 Drive & Crowe in 2001 A Beautiful Mind), in an adequately noir atmosphere (carefully ensuring it won't end up becoming another melancholy, gloomy 70s detective drama), coupled with a plot that pushes this pair of down in the dumps schmucks to be the unlikely but highly likeable heroes. And oh, it has to maintain its elements of a thriller, as well as a fresh comedy that anchors mainly on the two normally serious personas.
Did it work? Definitely, though rather heavily reliant on the impeccable chemistry between the leading duo. Both operating on the fringes of the law (but separately), Jackson Healy (Crowe) is an apathetic loner whose job involves beating up sleazebags preying on young girls: and Holland March (Gosling), a bungler of a private eye who jabbers his way through in his job with the aid of his smart thirteen year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). The isolated cases they're working on will eventually bind them to a larger piece of puzzle enmeshed in a series of intrigue involving a missing porn movie, the death of a porn star and a conspiracy by the automotive industry and the Justice Department.
Black's brand of action is back at its height, and his emblem of dark comedy is shone through Gosling's striking performance as he shrieks his way through danger like a little boy and you'd find yourself laughing hard watching his ineptitude stumbles all the way to their unimaginable closure of the case. Another strength of the film came to me as a pleasant surprise, where Holland's relationship with his daughter Holly develops in a way that is rather endearing to watch. Brilliant performance by the young actress. Apart from that are a few other moments which will make us grow fonder of the pair of unlikely heroes as we witness their emotional and moral sides unfold. "There is a nobility to these knights in tarnished armor that is represented by the conscience of these two guys. I think it's very important to have a mixture of tone," Black explains during an interview. The Nice Guys screened at Cannes Film Festival in May this year, I'm sure it has to be one of the most fun and thrilling rides offered at the festival.
In many ways, whether made known to viewers or not, Jean-Marc Vallee's films have been made closely at heart, both inspired and an on-going reflection of his own experiences in the past. The Oscar-nominated Canadian director is known for weaving stories based on lost souls and their introspective journeys in seeking truths and happiness. We've seen this is his last two films Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014) which made quite a splash in the awards arena, including six Academy Award nominations (for DBC) where Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto bagged the Best Actor and Supporting Actor categories. "I'm interested in people who have to struggle for their happiness. This has also been my struggle. I've been through some tough years. I was unhappy for a long time," Vallee once shared in an interview. His fascination in translating how his films' characters go out on a limb for their redemption journeys, be it inspiring or unconventional, perhaps can prove both a strength and risk to his career. And this is exactly the case seen in his latest feature, Demolition, collaborating with Jake Gyllenhaal who stars as widower Davis Mitchell and his unorthodox recovery journey after the sudden demise of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), where he suddenly realizes that he never loved his wife and all his career success and material wealth mean nothing to him. The film's trajectory didn't rest quite well with many critics. Accessing buried emotions is hard and painful, and Vallee is attempting to show that there isn't just one way to grieve. That was also one of the main factor which intrigued Gyllenhaal about working with Vallee on this comedy-drama which opened at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, quoting "Trauma can make feelings harder to access, and that's what Jean-Marc and I loved about the journey." Vallee went on to share, "I did so many things (in life) because they were easy, and that's what Davis says at one point. They ask him why he married his wife in the first place, and he says, 'Because it was easy.' The film is a celebration of 'fuck easy.'"
With that, Vallee goes on to showcase Davis' manifestation and soul-searching quest in the most unimaginable way after his wife's death, by demolishing. It's his way of protesting against and deconstructing his old way of life - where it's all about material, to a point he feels he has been completely desensitized, and he's decided to pull the brakes (which by the way is literally acted out in one of the scenes where Davis suddenly pulls the emergency brake during his train ride). His impulsive road to self-exposition raveled from dismantling his leaking fridge to bringing his own house down, literally. Along this journey of self-realization, Davis clashes head-on with his bereaved father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) to whom he owes his successful career to, and forms an unusual and mutually dependent relationship with an equally lonely single mother Karen (Naomi Watts) and her troubled teenager son, Chris (Judah Lewis).
The morphing of each character and relationship represents revelation at many levels in this seemingly oddball of a film that could be dismissed as a confusingly under-achieved drama coming off on a fussy narrative approach. It is, in fact, an ambitious film. Granted, there were some moments that didn't quite do it for me as well, take for instance the scene where Davis, along with his other antics that constantly remind us of his arrested state, comes off with a feeble attempt to give a "fatherly" advice to Chris who is facing moral and emotional complications, something beyond Davis' own reach as well. It was like a "moment" that didn't quite do it as a "moment". I however could fathom out the crucial message in this film, no doubt metaphor used here could be argued as somewhat unnecessarily "in your face", but at least it's relatable compared to Vallee's previous film Wild, which I totally failed to connect at any level that could help make me understand how Reese Witherspoon's character experienced her colossal transformation. Gyllenhaal embodies the emotionally elusive and aloof presence with such finesse. Vallee basically wanted to work with the thirty-five year-old actor for his ability to assemble all of "sadness, intelligence, goodness, beauty" in a way which makes audience empathize with him, something that is needed for the character of Davis.
At the end of a medical leave of absence, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) learns she is to be laid off from her assembly line job at a small solar panel plant in Seraing, Belgium. The decision, as she finds out, was carried out based on a rather unfair, influenced ballot organised by the management where her co-workers were asked to vote between allowing her to return to work or receiving their much-needed annual bonus. Sandra, along with the support of her loyal co-worker and friend Juliette (Catherine Salée), manage to convince the manager to have another ballot but she has only one weekend (hence the title) to plead her case to each of her sixteen co-workers to let her stay.
And so it begins the singular situational narrative where Sandra's journey of reaching out to her colleagues which will slowly but surely broil into an emotional double bind at both ends. Without a question Cotillard's character acts as the anchor of how effective this emotional roller coaster will go, and we see here a subtle yet moving performance by the La Vie en Rose star, who laid bare her character's vulnerability and constant conflict within herself. We will learn that her struggles are not just contained within her economical predicament but also a heart-wrenching battle with depression. Many were initially curious with the choice by the directors and brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne who normally prefer using less glossy names, let alone an Academy Award-winning actress like Cotillard. This version of deglammed Cotillard we see in her first collaboration with the Dardenne brothers certainly proves that she is more than up to the task, rightfully earning her an Oscar nomination last year. "Marion could bring that vulnerability, that fragility, to the character. Marion has this way of being there, being present, but also being somewhat self-effacing, not really being there, not really being fully present. And then she showed the capacity, in a later moment, to turn that around and become very strong and very present," Luc shared in an interview. We've seen similar success achieved in Steven Soderbergh and Julia Roberts' collaboration in Erin Brockovich (2000).
Along each encounter Sandra has when she reaches out to her co-workers from knocking on doors at their apartments, to walking out in the field and into bars, her offer is met with an unpredictable mixed bag of empathy and animosity. Though rooting for Sandra throughout, audience at certain junctures will find their sentiments unsettled as they start to empathize with some of the co-workers who are in dire struggle themselves to make ends meet. And that is one of the directors' intent as well, to not just focus on the main character's plight. It has been after all the Dardenne's style to chronicle the lives of the underprivileged, the unemployed, and the lost souls in our society. An honest and engrossing drama about despair, dignity and ultimately solidarity.
The late J.G. Ballard has a lot to convey in his novels which are usually associated with the New Wave of science fiction. I admire his provocative ideas of using allegorical circumstances (usually enclosed and confined environments) to translate the effects of technological and social developments on psyche and humanity landscapes. Such is dwelled upon in his 1975 novel High-Rise, which has been cited as an influence upon the Doctor Who serial Paradise Towers. British producer Jeremy Thomas had early intentions since the 70s itself of bringing Ballard's story to the big screens, but it wasn't until arthouse director Ben Wheatley (2011 Kill List, 2013 A Field in England) started investing interest and attempted to look into who held the rights to the book that the adaptation finally took shape and materialized.
The titular high-tech concrete skyscraper is a 40-story tower which inhabited 2,000 residents set amid a bleak and soul-dead outskirt of some modern metropolis. Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves in without much backstory, except we know that he is still recovering from his sister's recent demise. Appearing indifferent in nature and perhaps trying to get away from some unwanted past, he seems to have found what he was looking for with his new abode, solitude. The building promises a self-contained lifestyle, equipped with a swimming pool, a full-scale supermarket, high-speed elevators and even a primary school. In his process of getting acquainted with his neighbors, he meets (and gets cozy with) single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller) who lives right upstairs of his unit, along with financially struggling couple Richard and Helen (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss) who live closer to the ground. He even gets invited to see the tower's architect Anthony (Jeremy Irons) who lives in the penthouse lavished with a palatial garden and a pet horse. Life in the building starts to degrade almost immediately into an incongruous blend where a brutal caste order emerges amongst the top, middle and lower floors. While the upper classes in the top floors bask in lavish lifestyles like period costume parties, lower classes at the bottom observe in disdain as they continue with their somewhat less-complete conditions. What entails is a series of power cuts and skirmish which jolt the already unsteady equilibrium and hastily escalate into a social stratification mayhem.
This is an almost impossible book to be adapted. Though Ballard's story is laden with peculiarities and alternating focus, it is driven with a purposeful design. In fact that is one of the forces behind Ballard's success, where his theories and stories would wound up becoming true. Take for instance his 1962 novel The Drowned World which warned us about global warming. Below the surface, the building's inhabitants are impetuously disintegrating. Every aspect of the story is heavily metaphorical, from the building itself to the characters and their morbid transitions. The single aspect of how Dr Laing relate to the building's impervious character itself is an integral part of the story. This is however my main issue with Wheatley's interpretation, where the residents' descent into pandemonium is carried out in a way that will leave audience fatigued if not irked. The director of Kill List and Sightseers somehow became obsessed with his buffet of mayhem served in fetish and deviance instead of paying heed in developing the already perplexed plot. Wheatley shared during an interview, "High-Rise actually has these almost Hollywood-style arcs of development. But then Ballard is very slippery. Just as you invest in a character and think they are going to be one thing they turn into something else, which appealed to me because it's much more like life. Only in movies is there an alpha dog hero..." I personally couldn't agree more with that statement, just that I find his execution rather incoherent.