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The Wickedness That Man Do: The Logic, Structure and Morality of “John Wick”

The John Wick films remain a minor miracle.

John Wick was the product of an era where big budget action films were increasingly moving away from in-camera effects and practical stunt work towards computer-generated spectacle. The original film was designed to consciously showcase the craft involved in stunt work, a profession that is still undervalued in filmmaking circles. (Notably, there is no Academy Award for “Best Stunts.”) The original film was designed from the ground up in order to give a group of stunt artists the opportunity to showcase their craft for theatrical audiences, at a point in time where a lot of the best stunt choreography was going direct-to-video.

It certainly works on those terms. The films in the series are among the most impressive action films of the twenty-first century, showcasing the commitment of the stuntmen working on them. The climax of John Wick: Chapter II and the opening thirty minutes of John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum rank among the most visceral action ever captured on film. The films even acknowledge their influences and inspirations; the opening scenes of Chapter II feature Sherlock Jr. projected onto the front of a building, while Chapter III broadcasts The General on a Time’s Square billboard. This is not arrogance, but aspiration.

However, there is something interesting happening beneath all of this. The story running through John Wick, Chapter II and Chapter III is largely incidental; the tale of a man who lost his puppy and who embarked upon a murderous rampage that sucked him back into a life that he long ago abandoned. The world-building is impressive, but abstract; the characters navigate a byzantine social structure of rules and codes that govern an underworld of assassins, arms dealers and black market surgeons. The whole set-up is incredibly heightened, and incredibly fun. It is absurd, but enjoyably so.

At the same time, these aspects of the John Wick have a strange and powerful resonance. The entire John Wick series is built around the idea of codes of honour and rigid social hierarchies, in a way that feels more than just incidental. This world of gold coins and killer hotels, of a New York City seemingly populated entirely by murderous assassins, is one of the most striking aspects of the series. It also feels the most pointed and timely. The John Wick films are designed as visceral thrill machines, but there are aspects of the films that resonate beyond that.

In their own weird way, the John Wick films seem like the perfect answer to the modern troubled cultural moment.

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95. Into the Wild (#180)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jack Hodges, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

Christopher McCandless abandoned a comfortable middle-class life in pursuit of something greater. His search would take him across the United States, impacting the lives of those he met along the way. His search would eventually lead him into the Alaskan wilderness.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 180th best movie of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 certainly makes a strong case for being “the movie of the moment.”

Adapted loosely from Ray Bradbury’s iconic and beloved science-fiction novel, a piece of source material that famously bewildered François Truffaut during his first and only interaction with Hollywood movie-making, writer and director Ramin Bahrani perfectly positions Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of pop culture for the Trump era. Bahrani smartly retains almost as much of the aesthetic of the source material as he updates, making a strong case that Fahrenheit 451 is more than just an opportunistic broadside at the current political moment.

“I’m going to burn it all.”

Nevertheless, Bahrani makes a number of changes to the story, and turns up the volume on particular story elements, to align his televisual adaptation for the current cultural moment. Ray Bradbury famously claimed that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a criticism of television, creating an engaging irony within this adaptation. Bahrani shifts the emphasis slightly to position his adaptation as a criticism of the internet, in particular modern internet subcultures and the way it decreases the audience’s attention span. There are live streams, in-home assistants that are always listening, emojis, and online “fans.”

This is certainly a valid approach to the material, and it’s to the credit of Bahrani as a writer and a director that he manages to build a world that is obviously of a piece with that created in the source material written sixty-five years ago and which works as a pointed commentary on modern cultural discourse. With its brutalist architecture, its cold digital cinematography, its compelling central performances, its suggested alternative history, and its ominous ambient lighting providing the occasional splash of vivid colour, Fahrenheit 451 creates a fictional world that is compelling and engaging.

Lighting a spark…

Unfortunately, the film’s narrative is nowhere near as engaging as its setting. Bahrani cannily borrows characters, premises and sequences from the source novel, but he largely reworks the story. Fahrenheit 451 is restructured as a more conventional science-fiction narrative than the original book, complete with apocalyptic stakes and a macguffin to drive the plot. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 is generic science-fiction fluff, a pale imitation of the familiar rhythms of movies like The Matrix or Equilibrium or Aeon Flux. It is almost as though Bahrani has internalised Bradbury’s critique of television as dumb and simple and broad.

As a result, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. It is a beautiful piece of work from an aesthetic perspective, but one employed in a very crude and unsatisfying manner.

Television film.

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Form a Square For That Purpose: Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and the Illusion of Civility

In some respects, Barry Lyndon is seen as an outlier in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.

The film is a lush and extended period drama, adapted from a nineteenth century novel set in the eighteenth century. It arrives in the middle of an acclaimed run of films from director Stanley Kubrick: Doctor Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. By all appearances, Barry Lyndon stands apart from these films. “Period piece” is obviously a film genre unto itself, but it is not as heightened as the bigger and bolder films around it.

Arresting imagery.

Barry Lyndon is arguably Kubrick’s only “period film” outside of Spartacus, which the director famously disowned and is arguably seen as a film more overtly influenced by its leading man than its director. Of course, some of Kubrick’s films move backwards and forwards in time; Full Metal Jacket takes place in the late sixties, while the prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey is set at “the dawn of man.” Nevertheless, for many casual film fans approaching Barry Lyndon, the film’s period trapping stands out from the surrounding films, which are largely set near the present and into the future.

Indeed, it could be argued that this difficulty that casual observers have in positioning Barry Lyndon within the Kubrickian canon accounts for some of the controversy around the film’s place in the director’s larger filmography. Upon release, the film was largely met with confusion and disinterest, critics often struggling with what to make of the finished product. For his part, Kubrick dismissed the idea of critics forming a consensus on a film like Barry Lyndon after just one viewing.

Initial audiences weren’t enamored with the film.

Of course, this is arguably par for the course with Kubrick films, particularly those towards the end of his career. Many Kubrick films opened to a divided critical opinion before slowly solidifying their popular reputations over time; 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining. However, Barry Lyndon seems to be a special case. Debate was still raging over the critical merits of the film after Kubrick’s death, even in letter columns of newspapers like The New York Times. Even the release of remastered editions forty years later find proponents arguing the film is undervalued or underrated.

However, watching Barry Lyndon, the film never really feels like an outlier in terms of Kubrick’s filmography. Indeed, in some respects, it feels like a culmination of many of the director’s recurring themes and fascination. Barry Lyndon is perhaps the clearest articulation of some of the key themes within Stanley Kubrick’s larger body of work, in particular through its engagement with the Enlightenment as a window through which he might explore the human concept of “civilisation.”

Drawing to a close.

Repeatedly over the course of his filmography, Kubrick engages with the idea of civilisation and order, the structures that mankind imposes upon the world in order to provide a sense of reason or logic to a chaotic universe. Repeatedly in his movies, Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is really just a veneer that masks the reality of the human condition, providing a framework for acts of violence and self-destruction that seem hardwired into the human brain. Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is a fragile construct, and one that occasionally seems hostile to the nature of those who inhabit it.

Unfolding against the rigid social mores of the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon allows Kubrick to construct the starkest and most literal example of that theme.

Soldiering on.

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Millennium – Nostalgia (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Nostalgia is the last “serial killer of the week” story produced by Millennium.

Sure, there is a serial killer in Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That, but the last two episodes of Millennium are much more interested in the show’s mythology than in a nuts-and-bolts “Frank catches a serial killer” story. Appropriately enough, given its title, Nostalgia feels like a throwback to a simpler version of Millennium. In a way, it does more to capture the mood and feel of the first season of the show than anything like Matryoshka or Seven and One. It helps that Nostalgia is a great episode, judged by it own merits.

Frank sees all. All.

Frank sees all. All.

It makes sense that Nostalgia should come from Michael R. Perry. With his debut script for The Mikado in the second season, Perry had demonstrated quite a knack for traditional Millennium storytelling. The Mikado was arguably something of a throwback itself, the most old-school “serial killer of the week” story in the show’s delightfully off-kilter second season. If the show wanted to do one last “serial killer of the week” story, there was no writer better suited to crafting it than Michael R. Perry.

In a way, Nostalgia feels like belated vindication for the “back to basics” aesthetic running through the third season – proof that perhaps it might be possible for the show to recapture some of the stronger aspects of the first season even this late in the game. Nostalgia is a much better version of the stories that Closure and Through a Glass Darkly had tried to resurrect earlier in the year. It might be enough to entirely redeem the season’s stubborn fixation on a past fading into history, but it does demonstrate that there were interesting stories to be told using that technique.

Parks and recreation...

Parks and recreation…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Eyes (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Eyes is perhaps the most ambitious that Space: Above and Beyond has been to this point in the season.

Eyes develops scraps hinted at in The Pilot and The Farthest Man From Home into a complex web of intrigue, with an assassination plot playing out against all sorts of institutionalised prejudice and suggesting sinister conspiracies at work behind the horrific war that drives the show. The last episode of Space: Above and Beyond credited to Glen Morgan and James Wong in 1996, the episode feels like it is solidifying the series. Six episodes in, enough foundations have been laid that development can begin.

An unstoppable killing machine.

An unstoppable killing machine.

Eyes is rather epic in scale, and massive in scope. It is a story about politics and scheming, unfolding quite far away from the front lines. In episodes like The Pilot, The Farthest Man From Home and even Ray Butts, it often felt like our lead characters were quite divorced from the big decisions. It seemed like the show was very much preoccupied with a day in the life of a space marine, rather with the larger forces at play seen only in glimpses and shadows.

Eyes is a show that does a lot to build the world of Space: Above and Beyond, doing a much better job than The Dark Side of the Sun or Mutiny at giving a sense of this dark future. While the script is perhaps a little too cluttered for its own good, it is a very well-constructed paranoid conspiracy thriller.

That's not at all fascist.

That’s not at all fascist.

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The Passing at the Abbey Theatre (Review)

The Passing is one of the new plays from Paul Mercier playing at the Abbey, alternating with Mercier’s other new work, East Pier. The Passing is essentially a story about how disconnected we’ve grown as a nation, out of touch with one another, and our roots. It’s the type of reflection that one sees frequently these days, so it seems reasonable to expect any material covering the theme to try to approach it in a novel or an interesting way. Instead, The Passing is just about passable as an exploration of social isolation in 21st century Ireland.

Pass on this one?

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