Friday, February 17, 2017

Worth Mentioning - Never Stab the Devil in the Back

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


John Wick, Steven Seagal, zombies, and werewolves.


JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

Just over two years ago, I went to the theatre to see John Wick and was blown away by the action and stunts directors Chad Stahelski and David Lietch had brought to the screen. So when John Wick: Chapter 2 reached theatres, there was no question about whether or not I would be seeing it. I had to be there opening weekend.

Directed by Stahelski from a script by returning writer Derek Kolstad, Chapter 2 picks up immediately after the events of the first film, which starred Keanu Reeves as the titular character, a retired hitman who gets back into the killing game, and goes on a rampage of revenge, after a group of criminals with ties to the Russian mob break into his house, steal his car, and kill the puppy his late wife got for him. The sequel starts off with a sequence that ties up loose ends: Wick raids a chop shop to get his stolen car back. It hadn't even registered with me that he didn't have his car back by the end of the first movie; the theft of the car was greatly overshadowed by the death of the dog for me. I'm glad there was this dangling thread, though, because the chop shop sequence delivers some fantastic action right up front, and actually ended up being my favorite part of the movie.

After Wick has his car back, the film slows down for a while. It slows way down, because now it has to build up a sequel story. While the first movie was being put together, there was obviously some thought in the back of the filmmakers' minds that they had a potential franchise here, because it wasn't just a badass, emotionally involving film about Wick whacking his way through the mob. There was also some world building going on in there, the introduction of the concept that there is an international community of assassins that operates with its own currency (gold coins) and has a strict code of honor. That code of honor is why John Wick has no time to slip back into retirement.

In the first movie, we were told that Wick was given an "impossible task" to perform before he could leave the business to be with his wife. He pulled off that task, but while doing so sought out the help of Italian crime boss Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). In exchange, Wick made a blood oath. Someday D'Antonio would come to him for help and he wouldn't be able to refuse. Now that Wick has been back in action, D'Antonio has decided it's time to cash in on that deal. The favor he asks of Wick is quite a twisted one - since his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) has just been given a chair at the High Table, a council of twelve global crime lords, he wants Wick to kill his sister so he can take her place. We don't find out much about the High Table in this film, but I'm sure we'll learn more in future sequels.


When Wick refuses to do the hit, D'Antonio blows up his house, forcing him to go to work. We watch Wick do what he used to do, getting prepared to pull off an assassination. At the Rome branch of the Continental, the hotel where assassins stay and must abide under the rule that no one can be killed on Continental grounds, he gathers weapons, visits a tailor, and is given maps and blueprints of the location where the assassination will occur.

All of this set-up feels like it's taking up a lot of time. It's like Stahelski is holding off on the action for as long as possible, trying to build up anticipation. It's like he wants us to be desperate for Wick to start firing his gun by the time it happens, and that's certainly the way I was feeling. The assassination itself doesn't even give us the release we're building up to. Wick and Gianna have a conversation rather than a shootout.

But then, finally, the action kicks back in, and it doesn't really stop until the end of the film, as Wick has to fight his way through not only Gianna's security force, but then has to deal with the assassins D'Antonio sends after him. Because what sort of man would he be if he didn't avenge his sister's murder?

The ensuing shootouts and physical altercations are quite entertaining, but while Wick racks up a higher body count than he did last time, I was also less engaged than I was with the action in the first film. The emotional connection was a very important element of this movie's predecessor, the action was driven by the heartache and rage that Wick felt, and we wanted to see him get his revenge. In this movie, all the action is straightforward self defense, and that's just not as interesting.

That said, however, I still enjoyed John Wick: Chapter 2 a great deal and found it to be a very solid sequel. I'm now looking forward to Chapter 3.



Last year, I reviewed season 2 of the AMC zombie series Fear the Walking Dead for ArrowintheHead.com - you can read the reviews I wrote for each of the season's fifteen episodes at this link. I am now reviewing the second half of The Walking Dead's seventh season for Arrow in the Head, and while you can follow that review series at this link, I have decided to also revisit the earlier seasons here on Life Between Frames. Starting, of course, with

THE WALKING DEAD: SEASON ONE (2010)

Many of my favorite horror movies are in the zombie sub-genre, the current form of which was created by my favorite "master of horror" George A. Romero when he introduced the world to flesh-eating ghouls with 1968's Night of the Living Dead. (Before that film, zombies were people under a voodoo spell.) So when I heard that Frank Darabont was developing a zombie television series for AMC and using Night of the Living Dead, one of my all-time favorite films and the movie I have watched more than any other, as the guide for how he would be bringing his zombies to the screen, I was totally on board. I had never read an issue of the source material, a comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, but that didn't matter - The Walking Dead was instantly "must watch" TV for me.

Taken on its own merits, the first season of The Walking Dead is a fantastic piece of zombie storytelling, introducing us to a post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of Georgia police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Injured in the line of duty, Rick wakes up from a coma that lasted two months or so to find that the world has completely fallen apart while he was in his hospital bed. Places are left in ruin, military vehicles are abandoned in the streets, there are no people around, and there are flesh-eating ghouls at every turn.

The only other people Rick comes across in his hometown are a man named Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane - Adrian Kali Turner as a character named in tribute to actor Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead. The Joneses have suffered tragedy - Morgan's wife, Duane's mother, is one of the zombies that shamble outside the house they're holed up in. Rick hopes that his wife and child haven't suffered a similar fate, but their house is empty. Morgan suggests they could have gone to Atlanta, where there was supposed to be a huge, military-protected refugee center.

Stocking up on weapons, Rick heads out across the zombie-infested Georgia countryside in search of his family.

Since season one is so much shorter than most of the seasons that would follow - it was just six episodes long - that also allows it to move along at a quicker pace. Sure, it might take the occasional less interesting detour, but it covers a good distance in those six episodes. There are some incredible zombie moments, and terrific interactions with the other survivors Rick eventually comes across.


Rick gets unbelievably lucky in that the first group of people he comes across in Atlanta also happen to be part of larger group that includes his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and young son Carl (Chandler Riggs). That huge refugee center doesn't exist, but Rick's partner Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) has managed to set up a camp at a quarry with several other people that have joined together in an effort to get through this nightmare.

Since Shane told Lori that Rick was dead, something he was assuming even though he barricaded the door to Rick's hospital room in hopes of keeping him protected while the halls filled with zombies and trigger happy soldiers, the two have also struck up an affair while on the road, a fact which brings Lori a lot of guilt when Rick shows up alive and well and brings Shane a lot of heartache and mental torment when Lori casts him aside and accuses him of misleading her. Shane very quickly goes from being a hero to Lori and Carl to being a jealous, mentally off-balance character who appears like he might violently snap at any second. I have to assume he handled rejection better before the world ended.

Other characters of note are former pizza delivery boy Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), a good guy who has proven to be quite adept at making supply runs; Jeffrey DeMunn as Dale Horvath, a kind-hearted widower who has grown close to a pair sisters - Laurie Holden as Andrea and Emma Bell as Amy, who have found a chance to bond after years spent drifting apart; "T-Dog" (IronE Singleton), the kind of guy who will do his best to help someone even if they've treated him like dirt; Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier, the meek wife of the abusive Ed (Adam Minarovich), with whom she has a daughter named Sophia (Madison Lintz); and Norman Reedus as perhaps the most popular character in the series, crossbow-wielding redneck Daryl Dixon. Rick has a disastrous first encounter with Daryl's older brother Merle (Michael Rooker), and even though Merle is only in the second episode and the opening of the third before he disappears, minus a hand, he has a major impact on this whole season and you're left anxious to see him return.

The Morales family (with Juan Gabriel Pareja as the patriarch), mechanic Jim (Andrew Rothenberg), and Jeryl Prescott Sales as Jacqui don't stand out as much as the other characters mentioned, but they all have their moments and their drama. There's also a memorable section involving a group of people who have stepped up to protect the residents of a nursing home and a stop by the Central for Disease Control, where only one doctor remains - Noah Emmerich as Dr. Edwin Jenner. Jenner can't tell the survivors what's going on, the zombie plague - which is officially referred to as Wildfire - cannot be explained. I'm thankful for that, because I don't want answers. The CDC visit isn't a fruitful one, but it does allow for the season to go out with a bang. Literally. It's a large explosion that looks CG as hell, but it works as the climax of a six episode season.

More than six years later, season one holds up very well. It's easy to see why The Walking Dead would become the most watched series on cable, as these episodes are thrilling and captivating and build up some very intriguing characters. The door is left open for further seasons and there are storylines left dangling that you desperately want to see resolved: Will Morgan, who stayed behind with Duane so he could get some target practice before hitting the road, ever catch up with Rick? Will Merle return, and will he hold a grudge against Rick and T-Dog for inadvertently causing him to lose a hand? How will this Rick / Lori / Shana love triangle drama turn out? But if it hadn't been picked up, this season would still work as a satisfying story that delivers just under five hours of entertainment. While showing reverence for the film that started it all, Darabont crafted his own great entry in the zombie sub-genre.



ON DEADLY GROUND (1994)

Steven Seagal was at his least pretentious in the "Die Hard on a battleship" film Under Siege, and he obviously felt the need to make up for that with his next movie. In addition to starring in On Deadly Ground, which ended up being called that only after the titles Rainbow Warrior and Spirit Warrior were considered, Seagal also served as a producer on it and made his feature directorial debut bringing the screenplay by Ed Horowitz and Robin U. Russin to the screen. With so much creative control, what did Seagal deliver? One of the most pretentious action movies you could hope to see.

On Deadly Ground contains all the explosions, gunfire, and bone-breaking fights you would expect (although some of those fights don't look very impressive), but Seagal was much more interested in getting across messages than in giving the audience Just Another Steven Seagal Movie. One of those messages seems to be that "Violence Isn't the Answer". Wearing his finest Native American style clothing, Seagal plays Forrest Taft, a character who is built up to laughable heights and a man so badass that bystanders will audibly gasp when he stands up to confront someone unpleasant - they know they're about to witness a brutal ass-kicking. And yet after he has put several attackers into the hospital and bloodied the face of their ringleader, Taft reveals greater depth and asks, "What does it take to change the essence of a man?" The formerly belligerent bully he's been beating on tearfully replies, "I need time to change."

The greater message is an environmental one, as On Deadly Ground is about the dangerous mixture of oil and corporate greed. Michael Caine is the villain of the piece, Michael Jennings, owner of the Aegis oil company. Jennings is willing to put all safety and environmental concerns aside in his pursuit of money. His rigs use faulty equipment and he's rushing through the construction of the largest oil refinery in the world because the oil rights on that plot of Alaskan land will revert to the natives if the refinery isn't open by a certain date. Meanwhile, spills from Aegis rigs are causing cancer and birth defects.


When there's trouble at an Aegis location, Taft is the one called in to take care of it. And when Taft and an oil worker dig up evidence of Jennings' unscrupulous business practices, Jennings decides to remove them from the payroll permanently. Unfortunately for him, Taft isn't killed in the explosion that was meant to blow him to pieces. He's nursed back to health by indigenous people and taught spiritual lessons, then when he's back in fighting shape, not to mention thoroughly enlightened, he seeks revenge on Jennings - not just for trying to kill him or for killing his friend, but for not respecting the land. Jennings has defiled the sacred mother.

I'm all for protecting the environment and finding a way to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, but this ham-fisted, cheeseball, overly somber movie isn't advancing any causes or doing anyone any favors. Seagal snapping bones and killing henchmen in bloody shootouts in one scene and then preaching about serious issues the next just doesn't work - especially when Seagal is such a tough person to take seriously. He was certainly committed to getting his message across, though. When the action is over, the film concludes with Taft delivering an anti-oil monologue that goes on for about 4 minutes. According to online trivia, Seagal's first cut of that scene went on for 11 minutes. I can believe it, I wouldn't have been surprised at all if that monologue had gone on for 11 minutes in the finished film.

After seeing Under Siege in the theatre in 1992, I was back at the theatre sixteen months later to see On Deadly Ground. It was not what I was expecting it to be. It doesn't work the way Seagal intended it to, but it is an astounding curiosity.



THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974)

The Beast Must Die is a film that I was always fascinated by when I would see it on video store shelves, because it was presented as basically being a werewolf version of Clue. As the opening text and narration say, "This film is a detective story in which you are the detective. The question is not 'Who is the murderer?', but 'Who is the werewolf?'" You're meant to pick up on the clues as the film plays out, and then right before the climax there's "The Werewolf Break", a minute long pause in the action during which viewers are supposed to let it be known who they suspect is the werewolf.

The movie was directed by Paul Annett, who apparently hated the whole "Werewolf Break" thing, that was just a gimmick added in post-production by one of the producers. Thankfully, that opening and the break itself are changes that don't have a major impact on the overall film.

Based on James Blish's short story There Shall Be No Darkness and written by Michael Winder (with uncredited contributions from Annett and Scot Finch), The Beast Must Die shows us what happens when the very wealthy Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) gathers a group of characters together at his monitored and patrolled estate with the intention of uncovering which of them is a werewolf. Most of the guests are suspects because they've had mysterious deaths and mutilations occur around them, while Professor Lundgren (genre icon Peter Cushing) has been invited because he is also fascinated with the study of lycanthropy. While Richard Connell put forth in his 1924 short story that The Most Dangerous Game that can be hunted is man, Newcliffe intends to one-up that idea by hunting a werewolf.

Really, if all these people are suspected werewolves, then what makes Newcliffe think only one of them will actually turn into a beast? He could find himself surrounded by werewolves. He may think he could hunt one of them, but could he handle it if he were faced with five or six werewolves? That's a question we'll have to continue pondering, because the movie doesn't answer it.

The full moon, wolfsbane, the handling of silvers objects, including silver bullets - Newcliffe knows that at least one of these things will make the beast surface in the werewolf he has invited to his home. Eventually it is proven that there is at least one werewolf among the group, but things certainly don't go as smoothly as Newcliffe was hoping.

I was totally into the "werewolf detective story" gimmick when I was a kid, I wanted to watch this movie and solve this case, but there was an issue I would always run into every time I would rent The Beast Must Die: I couldn't get wrapped up in the mystery and gather the clues because I found the film to be too dull to hold my attention. It's not especially exciting or intriguing, although it tries to get your blood pumping with lengthy chase sequences that have jazzy score blaring over them. It doesn't work for me.

It's easier for me to get through a viewing of The Beast Must Die now than it was when I was a kid, but I still find it to be something of a slog. I still want to see that captivating, mentally engaging werewolf detective story that I imagined this movie being when I would look at the VHS case in the video store. In my mind, The Beast Must Die will always be primarily remembered for being one of my most disappointing video rental experience, as it fell so short of my expectations. Without that childhood baggage, I could probably be more positive about the film. But how positive can you ever really get about a movie where a black dog is used to portray the werewolf?

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