Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Cure for Wellness


A Cure for Wellness is a "horror" film only in a nominal sense. The new film directed by Gore Verbinski serves up a platter of mood, production design, imagery, and a too big portion of exposition and then dares us to be scared. The script by Justin Haythe (Haythe and Verbinski share story credit) begins in an almost empty Manhattan office building where a man named Morris suffers a heart attack and dies. Apologies to the actor who played Morris; his name isn't included here as the character's death only matters to the film because it allows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) to get a promotion and a corner office at the financial services firm where Morris worked. Lockhart is ambitious and talented but also unscrupulous, since it seems his deals have jeopardized a much-needed merger. As penance to his bosses Lockhart is tasked to Switzerland, where one of the firm's partners (Harry Groener) has suffered a breakdown at a spa. Lockhart's job is to bring the older man back so the merger can be completed.

The bulk of A Cure for Wellness takes place at the spa run by Doctor Vollmer (Jason Isaacs, who between this and The OA is cornering the market on handsome evil). There is a large slab of exposition about the spa's location being where a 200-year old prince with some strange ideas about his heirs faced a peasant revolt, and we get more of the story from a patient (Celia Imrie) that Lockhart meets during one of his many unsuccessful attempts to leave the spa. What exactly is so scary about the spa and its healing waters, surrounded by mountains so beautiful that - according to a girl (Mia Goth) Lockhart meets - "no one ever leaves"? (Also, why is the film 2 and a half hours long?)Haythe's script makes some general statements about the soul-sickness of modern life and the frailty of the body, but the film makes better use out of the ornate and labyrinthine spa set. Lockhart gets lost in a steam bath upon his arrival and later trespasses into restricted corridors that seem to go on forever. A Cure for Wellness mentions The Shining it its ads, and Verbinski at moments is able to wring some scares out of physical space in the same way Kubrick did.

A Cure for Wellness becomes a mystery for Lockhart to solve, and he does so in a climax that shoves together some familiar horror tropes. It all means much less than it might because of the vein of misogyny running through Haythe's script. All the nurses at the spa are blonde and cold, and Goth's character's placement in a pool full of leeches at a key moment is a blunt summation of what's happening on Vollmer's watch. Only Celia Imrie has any fun as a patient who might be crazy, and she isn't onscreen long enough for it to matter. Dane DeHaan as Lockhart is physically right - you believe he might actually be sick - but the character is such a blank that all DeHaan can do is look sweaty and nervous in scene after scene. A Cure for Wellness locates its horror too far in the past and in doing so fatally dilutes its intended effect.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

John Wick Chapter 2 (mild spoilers)



I never got around to John Wick on its release in 2014. The idea of an action film starring Keanu Reeves that had something to do with a dead dog didn't exactly inspire confidence. Besides we're all busy, right? John Wick of course became a surprise hit, and when I finally saw it I enjoyed the way it used Keanu Reeves's odd intensity and the lengths gone to in order to create the film's insular, assassins-only universe. Here we are then with John Wick Chapter 2, with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad returning. (For the story of how Stahelski went from stuntman to director, go here.) Keanu Reeves is back too of course, and the opening sequence of Chapter 2 finds Wick cleaning up business from the first film involving yet another Russian gangster (Peter Stormare) and possession of a certain vintage car. As in the first Wick Stahelski shoots action in wide shot, letting performance do the work as opposed to editing. Characters run at John Wick from all directions, and are dispatched with a gunshot, knife, or martial arts move, and Wick doesn't come through unscathed either.

Watching both John Wick "chapters" within a week produces a kind of exhilarating deadness, a state in which one both admires the technical skill and spatial coherence on display in the shootouts and grows tired of how inconsequential the gunplay feels. Part of the fun of the first John Wick was figuring out the rules that the characters operated under. The gold coins, the always on call cleanup crew, the cop (Thomas Sadoski) who's both indifferent to and fascinated by what's happening, and especially the hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane, back for Chapter 2 in an expanded role) all set boundaries for the film's moral universe. The fact that nothing in the first John Wick after the home invasion seemed to have any real world consequences gave a kind of permission to enjoy that film's succession of shootouts and betrayals, and we could feel comfortable knowing that at least some rules - no killing at the hotel - did apply. John Wick Chapter 2 attempts to build that idea out with unfortunate results.

So, what is John Wick Chapter 2 "about"? The plot involves an old debt of Wick's and an Italian named Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants a seat at the "High Table", which seems to be the worldwide governing council of assassins. Wick is forced to shoot his way out of Italian catacombs and knife his way out of a subway car, and the closer that Wick and his adversaries - there are extended fights with characters played by Common and a silent Ruby Rose - get to the "real world" the more uneasy the film becomes. When Wick fights a man on Italian streets there's not a civilian to be found, but when the story returns to New York there are action scenes in public spaces, and the shakiest moment involves Wick quietly exchanging silenced gunfire with Common's character over the heads of an unwitting crowd. Either the behavior in Chapter 2 means something or it doesn't, and the use of extras only as obstacles creates a sour aftertaste. It is also worth mentioning at this point how boring much of Chapter 2 is. Characters take exaggerated pauses between lines, the initial setup is very slow, and time is wasted explaining the attributes of various weapons that could have been spent on the power structure of the world we're in. Why isn't McShane's Winston afraid of the High Table? Who is the character played by Laurence Fishburne other than a man who turns up at just the right moment to provide Wick the help he needs?

The climactic shootout of Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors, which is as close as the film gets to having any of its characters look at themselves. There's an epilogue of sorts which suggests that Wick will be in hell soon if he isn't already there, and I hope that if there's a third Wick chapter the filmmakers will commit to grounding the story in a way they couldn't pull off here. Free John Wick!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Lion


Why does the film Lion have its title? The reason isn't revealed until the end credits, but by then it almost doesn't matter. This Best Picture-nominated story of survival and of finding one's place in the world is so urgently acted and skillfully shot that we would go along with almost any title we were given. Lion is the story of Saroo Brierly - the film is based on his memoir - who when we meet him is a five year old in India in 1986. Saroo is played as a child by Sunny Pawar, an exceptionally natural performer who is perhaps the film's greatest asset. An accident sends Saroo by train from his rural village to faraway Calcutta, where he neither knows anyone nor speaks the language. The Calcutta train station is shot by director Garth Davis as a nightmare of human activity. Bodies flow in waves and bounce off of each other, and because Davis finds a visual language to match Saroo's experience we barely see the grown-up faces. Saroo doesn't understand everything that is happening to him but his instincts serve him well. He manages to hold his own long enough to be adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a kindly Australian couple.

The first half of Lion is a Dickensian tale of courage, but once Sue and John have adopted Saroo's angrier brother Manosh the film cuts to the late 2010's. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, is a student with a new girlfriend called Lucy (Rooney Mara) and career prospects. One day Saroo and Lucy have dinner at the home of an Indian classmate; the evening is convivial until someone comments on how Saroo (who hasn't shared his story with the others) can't eat Indian food with his hands and a childhood memory is triggered. The second half of Lion is an of-the-moment tale of asserting one's identity. Saroo, encouraged by Lucy, begins trying to figure out where his home village is via Google Earth. The two shakiest moments in Lion occur after Saroo - whose search seems to take over his life - begins looking for his home. Saroo gives a speech to Lucy that invokes "privilege" which seems to come out of nowhere, while Kidman's Sue recounts a childhood incident that led to her forgoing having children in favor of raising a "brown-skinned child". Both of these scenes are redeemed by strong acting - Dev Patel has never been this forceful on screen - and they hint at a direction the movie fortunately doesn't go in, one in which Saroo's Indian heritage is interesting simply because it's unfamiliar to Western eyes. The screenplay by Luke Davies pulls back though, and the resolution to Saroo's journey is very moving. Lion works because it is content to keep things on a human level and not mythologize either its characters or its setting. It's also a good story well told, and that in itself makes it worth the experience.