The Hellish Mythology of John Wick

Some very mild spoilers ahead

There are plenty of things to say about John Wick Chapter 2 as a movie. I could talk about its disjointed pace, the absence of an emotional hook or the very definite Episode 2 (or is that Episode 5?) feel of it. I could talk about how excellent the death of Gianna D’Antonio was, or how I smiled when Lance Reddick’s maître d’hôtel said the Dog had been a good boy. But it struck me suddenly, amidst all the imagery of Hell and travels through the Underworld, that I may have done John Wick a disservice, that it is much richer in mythology than I realised.

Let’s begin with Lance Reddick’s character: Charon. In Greek Mythology, Charon was not of the Dead, but offered the dead safe passage through the Underworld for a token; a coin. So far so similar. And in this Underworld, it’s Ian McShane’s Winston that has the ident of 11111. Master and First of the Underworld, whose gatekeeper accepts tokens for safe passage and protection. Hades, god of the underworld, the dead and of riches. The man who has just excommunicated John Wick, the Boogeyman and Hell’s own avenging angel.

There are literary references in abundance, from Lawrence Fishbourne’s Fisher (here Bowery) King to Ruby Rose’s Ares. But the most prominent are the references to Hell and redemption that abound and finally cleared the cloud from my eyes. Two stories tell of those who escape Hell. Orpheus, who journey there because of his dead wife, and Dante in the Divine Comedy, who seeks redemption for his sins. However you spin it, this is a Cthonic tale, of demons of the underworld fighting to either keep their brightest and darkest in their midst, or to dim his dark light.

Both Orpheus and Dante survive their journeys in the end, albeit changed. But can John Wick survive if he is to gain redemption? Or must he first tear down the walls of Hell? Only Chapter Three will show us. And while I didn’t enjoy Chapter 2 as much as it’s predecessor, I’m still looking forward to it.

Review: Tea For Two

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We’ve encountered the work of Pork Chop Pictures before, with their charming short film Soul Matrix. This time, they’ve partnered with Mini Productions, and after a successful crowdfunding campaign, they’ve released Tea For Two.

Writer/Director Mark Brennan and producers April Kelley and Sara Huxley put together quite the cast for this 15 minute short: John Challis (Only Fools and Horses) and Amanda Barrie (Coronation Street) are joined by William Postlethwaite and Abigail Parmenter for this charming tale of tea, time and love.

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Centred around a tea shop, the narrative is carried by Challis, in top grouchy form, and Barrie who is endearingly funny throughout. The narrative can’t be detailed explicitly, as there’s a surprising element to it, but it flows well, unveiling the narrative smoothly. While some didn’t catch the implications of the ending, I found it nicely subtle, where it could have veered into heavy-handed exposition.

Tea For Two is beautifully coloured and the music and sound are spot on. Overall Tea For Two is a great success for the team, and we hope it does well when it hits the festival circuit.

Review: Big Hero 6 & Feast

Sometimes fortune can smile on you, and a meander past BFI Southbank and a peruse through the available films led me to successfully enquire about the scant remaining tickets. And so I found myself in NFT1 on a Sunday afternoon with an auditorium full of exciting young people for a preview of Big Hero 6.

Feast DogAs has once again become a tradition with Disney, the film was preceded by a new short film, the Oscar-nominated Feast. Disney uses these animated shorts as a testing ground for talent and technology, and Feast continues this as Paperman did in 2012. It’s a charming dog’s-eye tale of food and love, and it utterly delighted the audience, myself included. Considering though that Disney doesn’t see their animated shorts as commercial endeavours, it’s a shame they don’t do more to make them publicly available once the film festival screenings are over.

But the main event was Big Hero 6 itself. Some people have described it as ‘Frozen for boys’, in that both cover the theme of siblings and dealing with loss, but it didn’t have that feel for me. While the theme may have been a match for Frozen, I thought it felt more like How To Train a Dragon crossed with The Incredibles.

Based on one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, this is ostensibly a superhero team origin story, though this is an aspect of the story that is rapidly glossed over. Something I’m not too unhappy about, after all, aren’t we all a little saturated with origin stories?

It allows Big Hero 6 to focus on what Disney does best when Disney does it well: the emotional journey and general cuteness. In this case they have done very well indeed. There’s no doubt that with inflatable ‘personal healthcare companion’ robot Baymax, whose walk was modelled on that of baby penguins, they have created an endurable character, utterly different from other robots and from its Marvel origins. And the slightly trippy emotional climax at the end hugely affected the audience.

After the film, which the mostly younger audience loved, there was a Q&A with director Don Hall and producer Roy Conli. There was some curated talk about creative process which was good, but the questions from the audience were worth waiting for, once they got restricted to the under-12s. My favourite was by a little girl who was baffled as to how the humans were made to fly for the film. Director Don Hall did a sterling job answering the question in such a way that didn’t dispel the illusion that there was no difference between animation and people than can fly.

I’m not sure Big Hero 6 will attain the popularity of FrozenTangled or the peaks of Pixar’s output, but I enjoyed it and, more importantly, its target audience did too.

2014’s Favourite Things

We often hear about the decline in cinema, the cultural decline, how everything is eternally somehow worse than before. I’m sure even I’ve been responsible for some of that on occasion. And so, I present you with this list of some of the my favourite things in 2014:

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Forget what anyone says, I think it was a bumper year for movies and there were loads that I saw that I really liked. An early highlight at the beginning of the year was Under The Skin which, while not to everyone’s taste, I really enjoyed. I loved the minimalistic feel of it, a narrative sparsity that never overburdened what was happening on screen. I also got to see the wonderful Laputa – Castle in the Sky at the BFI, which was a wonderful experience. Laputa is my favourite Miyazaki movie, so it was wonderful to see it on the big screen. It was also the year of Tom Hardy; as well as a scenery chewing performance in Peaky Blinders, I loved Tom Hardy in Locke and The Drop. The former, again, was wonderfully sparse; just Tom Hardy, in a car, talking himself and others through the repercussions of his decision. I thought it was wonderfully executed. The Drop didn’t make much of an impact, a lot of people hadn’t even heard of it, which surprised me. But it was a really nice slow burn of a movie and Tom Hardy is excellent again. One film I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did was Gone Girl. I’d never read the book, nor heard much about it before seeing it, so it was great to be taken through the films twists and turns. And finally, it would be churlish not to mention Guardians of the Galaxy. Silly, flawed, slightly ridiculous? Sure. But in my view the best of film of the Marvel Universe so far; joyous fun that doesn’t diminish on rewatching and as close to a musical as we’ll likely ever see in big budget superhero blockbusters.

Icon-TV-150 I had a good run reviewing Peaky Blinders this year, but lets face it: 2014 was all about True Detective. The combination of Nic Pizzolatto’s script, Cary Fukunaga’s directing, Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography and Matthew McConaughey’s acting made this must-watch TV. Utterly compelling in its visuals and narrative, I know I’m not alone in being incredibly excited for what season 2 has to offer. A new cast, a new location, a new crime and overall feel, we’re all hoping the creative team can pull another piece of genius out of the bag.

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It would be impossible not to mention London Screenwriters’ Festival 2014, which involved meeting, and re-meeting so many wonderful people. The people, fellow creatives all, was more important than even the tentative nibbles from production companies for Underworld Calling or the excellent feedback from the Actor’s Table Read. These people continue to be friends, critics, supporters and cheerleaders, in a community I’m proud to be part of.

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar Fan PosterThis is a difficult review for me to write, I love Christopher Nolan’s films; even Dark Knight Rises, his messy diatribe against the Occupy movement, had redeeming features. For Interstellar, Nolan brought back Bat-alumni Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, and teamed them up with Matthew McConaughey for this 168 minute science fiction epic. I’d been looking forward to it for a long time, and made sure to see it as the director intended, in 70mm IMAX film projection.

Spoilers from hereon in!

Interstellar introduces us to an analogue world, stripped of technological frippery or ambition, all such indulgences seen as wasteful compared to dealing with a greater threat: A blight of crops, that seems to only affect plants one species at a time, and seemingly unpredictable dust storms. Between dwindling food supplies and the outrage of having to set tables with the crockery upside down, clearly this is a doomed world.

McConaughey plays Cooper, single father, farmer and former astronaut and engineer. Via a series of gravitational anomalies, ghosts and messages from the beyond sent to his daughter Murph, he is sent to find his mentor Michael Caine. Caine’s Professor Brand runs the new and secret NASA, together with his daughter, token female crew member Anne Hathaway. Together they have a plan to save mankind: Send a spaceship, if they could only find a pilot, through a mysteriously appeared wormhole to another galaxy, with a black hole at its heart. There they will pick a planet, and either repopulate it with a mobile sperm bank, or provide quantum data from the black hole to help solve the mathematical solution to gravity, allowing the Earthbound people to escape their dustball via space stations.

After a tearful farewell from his daughter, Cooper departs in beautifully layered scenes of his departure from the farm, and from the earth in his space ship. And from this point forward the spectacle of Interstellar unfolds, with dramatic visuals of space, and wormholes and strange planets and black holes; all soaringly soundtracked by Hans Zimmer. Unfortunately, it’s from this point onwards that the niggles of the first act are dwarfed by the clangers yet before us. The list of issues with the second act are numerous, but let me at least ask a few questions of it:

  1. Was anyone in any doubt, from the very first moment, that (surprise!) Matt Damon had ill intent? Did we, in a story of man vs time and man vs a doomed future, need a human antagonist too? Was there any other reason for externally mounted, easily removed radio transmitters, other than to solve a plot problem?
  2. Why did the space craft they were piloting need rocket boosters to escape earth’s atmosphere, but manage quite fine without them afterwards to take off from other planets?
  3. How can you have 100ft waves in one foot of water depth?
  4. Couldn’t we have waited for a little longer for the token female crew member to break down, lose her scientific rationality and declare her only motivation was love?
  5. Did we really need to hear that bloody Dylan Thomas poem over and over and over again?

Interstellar TARSSadly this isn’t a comprehensive list, but I’m trying to show an element of restraint. What I did like were the visuals of the planets they visited and the beautiful black hole, even if Gargantua sounds more like a Marvel villain than anything else. Being unable to really feel an emotional connection to the majority of the cast, I liked both the design and characterisation of the robot TARS. It was a well-executed meshing of non-human, entirely practical design, with very human emotions. Sometimes more so than any of the stars of the movie.

And then there was the ending. The twisty, ‘I was the ghost all along’, time-travelly, hiding in the bookcase mess that was the ending. Somehow, by being within the event horizon of Gargantua, future humanity has enabled Cooper to hide behind his daughter’s bookcase and communicate to her with gravity, flung books and sending complicated quantum data via morse code. I challenge anyone not to have a quizzical look on their face during that whole sequence.

So, future us have enabled Cooper to travel through a wormhole and tell his daughter the answer to the maths problem that will allow her adult self to save mankind. That’s great and all, but I think future us might have to work on their communication skills.

And then there’s the denouement. Everyone is happy; Cooper’s now ancient daughter has saved humanity and, by some hidden narrative method, has been reunited with her rescued father. Rather than spending time with him after a lifetime apart though, she sends him off to the empty planet that lovelorn Anne Hathaway was stranded on. Because clearly, as she stands over the grave of her lost love, the thing that will save them both will be the love of someone with whom neither have any chemistry whatsoever.

So, there we go. Interstellar: Beautiful and flawed. I think most of my dismay with the film is disappointment, the potential and build-up this had, and the depth to which it has been squandered. For while there are many worse films that have come out this year, none have fallen so short of their potential.