Tag Archives: John Wick

To the Bone (2017): A Grounded, Painful Look at Addiction

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

With glamorous images of people with seemingly perfect looks and illustrious lives exacerbated by social media, we are inundated with unrealistic ideals of how we should look and behave. For some, this can lead to harmful behaviors, namely eating disorders. To the Bone follows Ellen (Lily Collins; Mirror Mirror), a 20-year-old living with anorexia nervosa. She has just left her fourth treatment facility without showing any improvement and returns home to a stepmother who is unsure of what to do next. She finds one final physician who may be Ellen’s last chance at recovery.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) turns up in an unexpected, but welcome supporting role. He plays Dr. Beckham, an eating disorder specialist known for his high success rate and unusual methods. Reeves plays Beckham as a tough, no-nonsense doctor. Instead of sterile clinical language, he is direct and almost confrontational. “I’m not going to treat you if you aren’t interested in living”, he tells Ellen. His experience makes him impatient with pleasantries, but detailed during actual treatment and his advice, however blunt, is filled with support. He genuinely cares for the well-being of his patients and Reeves’s confident performance highlights his intelligence, understanding, and compassion.

The physical effects of anorexia create some of the film’s most unsettling images.

Director Marti Noxon’s approach to group dynamics goes far beyond the typical addiction movie. Instead of only focusing on Ellen’s struggles, she takes time to explore the damage done to her loved ones. This ranges from a mother too hurt to look at her suffering daughter, a frustrated stepmother, an absent father, and a loving younger sibling who misses having her older sister in her life. Noxon understands that these afflictions also manifest differently. She uses the different patients in the treatment home to show the lengths to which people will go. Whether it’s laxatives, diet pills, or hiding bags full of vomit, these are people trapped by their disorder into an unstable frame of mind. As a test of her size, Ellen tries to wrap her thumb and forefinger around her bicep. The film is deeply disturbing in its depiction of the unrealistic, self-destructive ideals the patients impose on themselves and the rippling effects they have on their families.

Collins is frightening in her performance. She has written about her own struggles with eating disorders and she clearly draws from those personal experiences in her acting. Her progressively skeletal frame and gaunt facial features show her deteriorating condition. “You’re a ghost”, her mom says after seeing her. The film has faced some backlash over its depiction of anorexia, but it neither glorifies nor indicts people with eating disorders. It repeatedly states its position: that this an addiction and one without clean answers. When Ellen’s stepmother tries to tell her doctor that the disorder has something to do with her mother, he cuts her off and says, “It’s never that simple.” This isn’t a film about easy solutions or motivational speeches. Noxon delves into the obsessive behaviors of anorexics and the fractured families that may be both a source and symptom of the disorder. The only exception is a dream sequence near the conclusion that is embarrassing in its literalism and contradicts the film’s grounded tone. Save for this specific mistake, Noxon has created a realistic examination of the struggles of someone clinging to warped body image ideals and the turmoil it can create for those who love them.

4/5 stars.

Atomic Blonde (2017): Neon Action with a Convoluted Plot

Coming off the success of co-directing John Wick, stuntman-turned-director David Leitch left production on the sequel for his first solo outing, Atomic Blonde. Adapted from a graphic novel, the film is a cold war era spy story with Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) starring as Lorraine, a British MI6 agent tasked with recovering a list of undercover operatives taken from a killed MI6 agent in Berlin. The setup is familiar with both Skyfall and Mission Impossible using similar plots, but the film distinguishes itself with its unique, stylized action.

From the first frame, Leitch goes for a decidedly anarchic tone. The opening credits and intertitles are spray painted onscreen and the streets of East Berlin are riddled with graffiti and punks. His film breaks against the typical noir with its use of style and energy. Every set is bathed in a seedy neon green, red, or blue and he runs with this aesthetic even more than he did on John Wick. His commitment to this visual style provides a distinct look that is as noticeable as Lorraine’s hair color. Forget neo-noir, Leitch has styled Atomic Blonde as a neon-noir.

The sound design of the film provides a beating pulse to the action. The crack of gunshots is deafening and each strike in the frequent combat scenes creates an ear-splitting thump. Music blares constantly providing an electric or, in one case, ironic backdrop to the violence onscreen. The film uses an 80s heavy soundtrack featuring the likes of Depeche Mode, David Bowie, and even George Michael. Music is almost used as much as this year’s Baby Driver, but unlike that movie, the music never overshadows the action. In most cases, Leitch’s music choice adds a playfulness to the fighting and prevents the film’s violence from becoming too heavy.

Theron is a fearsome action star.

And Theron dishes out suffering like a professional. She isn’t the perfect action hero that glides easily through each enemy, nor is she a Jackie Chan-like fighter that stumbles through their encounters. She is tough, resourceful, and unrelentingly brutal. Leitch isn’t as proficient with hand-to-hand combat as he was with gunplay in John Wick. Some of the fight scenes lack the cohesion of better action films, but Leitch and Theron still deliver their fair share of beatdowns. The best of these takes place in apartment building used as a sniping spot by KGB agents where Leitch orchestrates a series of extended takes as Lorraine fights her way through her enemies. It doesn’t hold up to the masterful combat from The Raid and its sequel that the film is clearly mimicking but it does give us a clearer view of the merciless damage these agents inflict on each other without succumbing to the overediting of combat that plagues most action blockbusters today. Her hits land with a ferocity but we still see Lorraine falter. Several of the men are larger than her and their size gives them the upper hand. However, her fighting and her greater characterization are not just defined by her immense skill, but by her tenacity. These protracted fights become less about who is stronger, and more about who continues to come back after each blow. Theron’s defiant glares are the best indication that she has a resilience they can never hope to match.

As a cold war thriller, the plot in encased in paranoia. Lorraine’s orders are to trust no one, even her fellow MI6 agents. Several supposed allies appear, but potential betrayals are lurking around every corner and no one has a clear motive. The narrative can get lost in these turns. One too many reveals near the end start to unravel the story and character motivations leading to more confused shrugs than the shocked gasps the writers hoped for. The plot strains under these repeated twists as they undermine the plausibility of the preceding events. It makes the case for John Wick’s paper-thin revenge story. By using the simplest of setups, that film shifted the audience’s focus to its best feature, the action. Atomic Blonde’s story is its weakest element, but it can be enjoyed for its neon-drenched bloodshed and rousing soundtrack.

3/5 stars.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

When the first John Wick came out the consensus reaction was “Keanu Reeves is in a good movie?”. This time it should be “Keanu Reeves is in a good sequel???”. After killing his way through hordes of gangsters and their security guards to avenge the death of his puppy in the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with Wick violently taking back his beloved car. He returns home planning on resuming his retirement only to be greeted by a former colleague. An Italian gangster, Silvio D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), wants a debt repaid. Years ago, in order to complete his final task for retirement, Wick swore a blood oath in exchange for help. Now D’Antonio wants him to kill someone to return the favor. Bound by the laws of their society, Wick has to comply which causes a fallout and leads to a $7 million bounty being placed on his head.

The film is surprisingly slow to begin. The explanation of the plot is somewhat force-fed to the audience and is a blatantly retroactive addition to his story made to fuel the sequel the filmmakers never expected to have the chance to make. Even after the setup is made clear, Wick spends what feels like an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out if he can get out of his oath. The actual running time of this section may not be long, but it certainly felt that way. Fortunately, after he decides to take the job, the film quickly kicks into high gear and never slows down.

A gorgeous movie filled with unique settings and vibrant colors.

John Wick: Chapter 2 may be the best adaptation of the Hitman video game series ever made (let’s ignore the two official adaptations, everyone else has). As John has to take out a target or escape from other criminals trying to do the same to him, the film, like the games, always emphasizes the scale of its settings. John wades through a crowded concert, sneaks through a busy subway station, and even nonchalantly strolls through a building while exchanging fire from suppressed pistols without alerting the regular people around him. Imagine the scale of the club scene from the original carried into almost every encounter. This allows the scenarios to continually feel fresh and keeps the tension high, despite the fact they are on paper very similar. The best comparison is The Raid 2, another sequel to a great action film that uses its increased budget to bolster the scope of its violence.

The frequent scuffles may stretch belief, but they are endlessly entertaining. Wick uses his trademark “gun-fu” as he melees and headshots his way through any opposition. Director Chad Stahelski’s background as a stuntman and stunt coordinator shows as combat is flawlessly executed. Reeves makes for an imposing presence and even the ridiculous body count seems acceptable. Wick’s nickname of the boogeyman is fully earned as his methodical precision trumps his opponents. The best part of Reeves’s performance is not that he is believable during the action, but that he also adds personality to Wick’s fighting. Wick isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a minigun and happily dishing out bullets. No, he is the master fighter who is weary of his profession. Wick’s desire to escape his trade is palpable as he sighs and wipes his brow after each brawl. John Wick: Chapter 2 is the chaotic, beautifully choreographed violence we’ve all been waiting for. For the sake of action movie fans everywhere, let’s hope he stays out of retirement long enough for a third movie.

4/5 stars.