John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

First Hit: Entertaining, full of unbelievable action, and an excellent setup for Chapter 4.

One can only enter the theater knowing you're going to see lots of shooting, hand to hand combat and knife fighting. This film doesn’t fail at delivering this.

When we last saw Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves) in Chapter 2, John had broken the rules of the Continental Hotel and Winston (Ian McShane), proprietor, was ready to put out a contract on Wick’s life.

This is where Chapter 3 opens. John is running through New York City, looking for a place to hide from the assassins that are ready to kill him for the $14M that is being offered for his extermination.

There is a countdown, and when the 6:00 PM execution time happens, the world seems to be after Wick. In this world, assassins are everywhere. Yes, I only gave glancing thought to this real-world possibility because this is an unreal world story, and even your neighbor is an assassin.

The ludicrousness of many of the fights Wick gets into and wins was out loud laughable (which I and others did) but no less engaging. Yes, some of the choreography was a little stiff with people hesitating for the next lunge, thrust or throw but it was delightful.

That, for me, is the point of this series of films. It is full of entertainment, has little basis in reality and is not presented to make a point. These films make Wick a voice of a man who was drawn back into the violent life, he left for a woman and subsequently a dog (“it’s not just a puppy.”) and now is fighting for his survival.

All the scenes are shot in dark tones, there are few daylight scenes. This aside, I liked many of the sets, from Bowery King’s (Laurence Fishburne) building basement and pigeon coops to the elegance of the Continental Hotel, and all are sets in darkened tones.

Reeves was fun to watch, but as I watched him run, especially at the beginning of the film, I found his running labored and slightly awkward. However, his quips along the way were great, and he only continues to develop and mine this character for pure entertainment. Halle Berry, as Sofia, was fun as the person who owed Wick a favor. Her dogs were a fun part of her scenes. McShane was perfect as the Continental’s proprietor. His role was expanded for this film and will be an integral part of the next. Fishbourne as the elegant Bowery King was memorable. His presence is critical here and will be in the next chapter. Mark Dacascos as Zero, the assassin the High Table uses as the principle assassin to take down Wick, was excellent. Asia Kate Dillon as the High Table’s Adjudicator was good. There wasn’t enough background of her to give me the impression she held all the cards she projected she held. This meant she had to build credibility in this role with her actions, dialogue, and screen presence, and she pulled it off. There’s an authority in her look that makes this role work. Lance Reddick (as Charon, the hotel’s desk man) expanded his previous role to become an excellent protector of the hotel, Winston, and Wick. Derek Kolstad and Shay Hatten wrote an action-oriented script that brought out more of the principal characters. Chad Stahelski directed this film in a way that kept the story and feel of the past films while propelling it into the future.

Overall: This film is a world of its own, and it works as entertainment.

The White Crow

First Hit: I enjoyed the journey of learning more about this focused and driven dancer.

Rudolf Nureyev is a legend in men’s ballet. I saw him once eating at Star’s restaurant after I’d seen Mikhail Baryshnikov dance with the American Ballet Theater (ABT) at the SF War Memorial Opera House. Nureyev was dining with Mikhail at Star’s center table, and they appeared to be in an in-depth discussion about dance, with arms moving exquisitely through the air while they talked.

I was seeing two of the best Russian dancers ever, together. It was a magical moment for me.

I love ballet. I love seeing the magical movements of men and women tell stories of adventure, love, loss, tragedy, hope, and beauty.

These were the thoughts I had walking into seeing this film. Because Rudolf (Oleg Ivenko) was before my time of learning to love the ballet, I only had heard of the legend. Supposedly he was demanding, unyielding, and focused on his craft.

This story is presented through flashbacks of him as a young boy, youngest of four, and the only boy. As a Tatar Muslim minority and poor, the opening scene of him being born on a train is something he refers to a couple of times in this film’s story. His father was a soldier in the Soviet Army and rarely home. But in one sequence where Rudolf and his father take a hike together, the impression left by the director and this story is that it was an important and decisive event in Rudolf’s life. I was horrified by his father’s actions.

I loved the dance sequences and the scenes of him relentlessly practicing because we see how he drove himself to be the best.

The faith that Rudolf’s teacher Alexander Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes) had in him was sublime. Pushkin’s passive demeanor was laced with subtle, focused clarity of intention.

Nureyev was an artist through and through. He loved architecture and art. The movie shows this by following Rudolf into museums to dissect paintings, sculptures, and statues. The way he gazed at buildings and the landscapes of cities clearly shows his inner muse drinking in the beauty of form.

Meeting Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos) helped to change his life. During a trip of the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet to Paris to perform in 1961, Nureyev mingled with Parisians which worried the KGB. They monitored all his actions throughout the engagement and followed him wherever he went. One of the people he met, during an outing was Saint who took him to gay bars and had him meet numerous interesting creative people.

Nureyev’s reputation towards being harsh towards people is shown several times during the film, none more powerfully than during a dinner with Saint.

The culmination of this story, of course, would be his ultimate defection from the Soviet Union to the west at the Paris airport in June of 1961. The way this unfolds in the film was done very well and was a highlight of the story.

Although the story meandered, highlights of him as a young boy, were captivating and grounded the film and provided the gist for his driven behavior.

Two sections worth pointing out were; the scene where we see him dance as a young boy – it is incredibly sweet. And in the end, artistic black and white footage presenting the real Nureyev dancing.

Ivenko was excellent as this famous dancer. His looks, movement, and driven arrogance reflected the stories about Nureyev. Fiennes was sublime as Pushkin the renowned teacher. The scene where Nureyev asks him why he’s not getting compliments, Pushkin’s response was perfect. The follow-up of offering food showed that actions speak louder than words. Exarchopoulos was fantastic as Rudolf’s friend Saint. Her toleration and forgiveness of Nureyev’s behavior were challenging, yet filled with understanding. David Hare and Julie Kavanagh wrote an exciting screenplay and covered the buildup to Rudolf’s defection in an effective way. Fiennes directed this film with love for the subject. This came across multiple times.

Overall: It is not a great film, but for anyone who wants to know more or is curious about one of the most excellent dancers of the 20th Century, go see this.

Poms

First Hit: There are several funny scenes, and although it gets to the edge of being silly, it never goes over the cliff.

My first memory of Diane Keaton (playing Martha) was at Orange Coast College where she was an acting student. Then, she was interestingly quirky — her own person and had a crowd around her (theater arts people). She still is the same kind of person, and in this film, she’s retired, alone and interestingly quirky.

The story begins with Martha selling her possessions. She’s moving to a retirement home in Georgia. The greeting is an over the top southern homespun reception that includes a tour of the grounds, and a lot of southern charm spread around like fertilizer.

This doesn’t quite sit well with Martha because, as a straight spoken northerner, we discover she’s there to be left alone and die a peaceful death from cancer which she is choosing not to fight.

She’s got a nosy neighbor Sheryl (Jacki Weaver) who intrudes on her. The interactions are, at first, exasperating. However, Martha soon warms up to her, especially when she learns that Sheryl substitute teaches to make extra money.

Martha tells Sheryl she was once a cheerleader and she had to quit before her first performance because her mother was ill and dying.

Sheryl and Martha start a cheerleading club at the retirement home. They need a total of eight people, and so they reach out, and six others show up for tryouts. They are; Alice (Rhea Perlman), Helen (Phyllis Somerville), Olive (Pam Grier), Phyllis (Patricia French), Evelyn (Ginny MacColl), and Ruby (Carol Sutton).

Each of them has a story as to why they want to be in the club, and we get to learn that some of these women have been or are being controlled by husbands for family, and by joining this club they are doing something they want, and they like it.

There are fun scenes that mostly relate what it is like to get older but having the spirit of being young still residing within.

There are ups and downs in this story, but the overall mood is, at times, poignant sprinkled with humor and fun.  

Keaton is perfect for this role. Her own quirky independent nature fit very well with the quality of this character. Weaver was excellent as the nosy neighbor who had reason to have her grandson live with her. Perlman was fun. When she showed her “guns” in the gym, I could see she enjoyed it. Somerville, Grier, French, MacColl, and Sutton were all wonderful in their roles as women looking for a bit more fun in their lives. Charlie Tahan (as Sheryl’s grandson Ben) was very good as the nerdy guy who gained confidence along the way. Alisha Boe (as Chloe a high school girl who helps the Poms) was terrific. She saw that everyone gets older and that someday she’ll be there too. Shane Atkinson and Zara Hayes wrote this screenplay. Although it was lighthearted and filled with fluff, it worked. Hayes also directed this group, and I’m sure it was fun for the entire crew — it showed.

Overall: I liked and enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Tolkien

First Hit: Given the previews I watched, I liked the story and sections of this film far more than I thought I would.

In full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Tolkien’s writings. I didn’t like “The Hobbit,” and I did my best to sit through the Peter Jackson films based on his books.

However, given my previous view, I did like the story behind J. R. R. Tolkien’s (Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien and Nicholas Hoult as the elder) emergence as a person and writer of these stories.

I was pulled in by how he did his best to support his mother and brother before she died. How he was able to not be bitter in his becoming an orphan and living in a home with his brother and Edith Bratt (Mimi Keene as the young and Lily Collins as the elder) as guided by Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney).

Father Morgan (Colm Meaney) was given charge of Tolkien and his brother after their mother’s death. Father Morgan placed Tolkien and his brother at the home of Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris) and ensured them placement in a good school. Although they had no money and were placed in a school full of privileged students, through trials as shown in this movie, both boys found friends.

J. R. R. founded a group of four boys that met daily to discuss the ways of the world, share dreams of changing the world, and create dares to push each other to be leaders. These flashbacks made this film come alive with poignancy and adventure.

 When watching J. R. R. slowly develop his relationship with Edith, I was totally captured. The strength emanating from Edith (both actresses did this extraordinary well) was perfect for J. R. R. Together they challenged each other, but it was her pointed darts at his mind, heart, and soul that brought out the best in him.

All of this was very well done. However, what didn’t work for me, and I’m not sure why, is that most of the past scenes of this life - before his becoming a professor, were based on his flashbacks while slogging through the trenches in WWI. The darkness, hopelessness, and drive within himself to find his friend put a damper on this film and story. It appeared to be the point of many of the war visuals is that they contributed to the visualizations Tolkien eventually used in his later stories of battles.

For me, it took away from the story in ways that hurt the overall film.

The highlights were Tolkien’s meeting with his friend’s mother and sharing where the young men use to meet and discuss the world while convincing her to publish his friend’s poems — a lovely moment. All the scenes Tolkien has with Edith were outstanding and influential. The group of young men committing their love of their friendship with each other was a beautiful scene. Tolkien’s interaction with Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) was both funny and quirky. And I enjoyed Father Morgan’s confession that he was wrong about Edith.

Harry Gilby as the young Tolkien and Nicholas Hoult as the older Tolkien were outstanding. How each portrayed the thoughtful, inquisitive, Tolkien was perfect. They made this man come alive. Mimi Keene as the young and Lily Collins as the elder Edith, for me, were the highlight of the film, acting-wise. The power behind her character showed through with elegant integrity. When they were on the screen, I was totally engaged. The moment she shares with Tolkien what her life is like, playing songs for the homeowner, I felt her struggle to live. That scene was perfect. Jacobi was terrific as the quirky professor of languages. Meaney was excellent as Father Morgan. He was both strong and contrite. David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford wrote the script. Although I didn’t like the drudgery in the trenches, the other scenes were wonderfully drawn, and the dialogue between Tolkien and Bratt were sublime. Dome Karukoski directed this film. Again, the only dislike for me was using the WWI segments as a place for him to reflect on his life.

Overall: I was clearly struck by the power of Tolkien and Bratt’s relationship as written and portrayed in this story.

Avengers: Endgame

Fist Hit: A long swan song with highly predictable scenes and very little cohesive clarity.

I’m glad it’s over, and I hope I don’t have to see another Avengers film in my lifetime. Yes, that is how I feel after sitting there for three hours and one minute just to give everyone, in the Avengers franchise catalog, a scene where they could shine a little.

Were there good parts? Yes, a few. I did think Thor (Chris Hemsworth) getting fat from drinking too much beer and lying around playing video games was slightly amusing. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) was showing his age while fading graciously into the great beyond was poignant.

Everyone had their day in the sun in this story. This includes but not limited to; Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), and at least twenty other known Avengers, fighting Thanos (Josh Brolin) who had destroyed one-half of the people on Earth as a way to have the inhabitants wake up.

The petty fighting between factions in this group of Avengers was brought forth and forgiven. Simmering mistrusts were rectified. Everything seemed to be tied up in a beautiful neat bow.

But the story was rather meek and dividing up the defeat of Thanos by the various personalities and powers diluted the entire reason for the franchise.

I won’t bother calling out a group or sub-group of actors and their performances as there are too many people to name. Overall, there were no outstanding performances. Everyone did what they were supposed to do, make their screen time be about their character’s strengths and weaknesses, no more no less. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wrote this overly ambitious screenplay: Make every Avenger have a say in the story and its ending. What they forgot about that this sort of story loses focus, the audience cannot attach themselves to a single hero, and it makes for a really long experience in mediocrity. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo co-directed this, and in the end, they did what the producers wanted.

Overall: I couldn’t wait for the end because the movie came across as an amorphous mass of ideas.