Cinema Dispatch: John Wick: Chapter 4, Renfield, and Air

With the window between theatrical and streaming collapsing as movies are coming hitting the home market mere weeks after their run in theaters, it’s getting a little too easy for me to just forget about something and return to it when it’s most convenient for me.  Before, there was a window where missing it in theaters meant you couldn’t see it in any form for months, but now I can just hold out for a bit and see it when it’s still kinda relevant with the added bonus of being able to fold laundry when I do so.  I’ll definitely try to get better about this, especially with so many big releases that need attention soon, but for now, let’s have some fun looking at three recent movies that were on your TV before you knew it!


John Wick: Chapter 4

John Wick: Chapter 4 and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate

Directed by Chad Stahelski

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is finally striking back against The High Table to take back his freedom, but with every life he takes, he incurs a greater debt that his friends and associates are forced to pay back.  With his friend Shimazu (Hiroyuk Sanada) targeted and his other friend Caine (Donnie Yen) called in to take him out, John is forced to spill even more blood and find ways to work the system to his favor as yet another member of The High Table (Bill Skarsgård) has him in his sights.  Will John ever get the peace he desires, or will his quest for vengeance be his ultimate undoing?

Now I actually did catch this one when it was still in theaters, but it wasn’t easy for me to come up with the right words for it back then.  Perhaps the reason why is that the John Wick franchise has been a bit of a bugbear for me as I appreciate what it’s doing and how well it executes its vision but simply cannot get past the narrative which got worse with subsequent sequels.  That issue, thankfully, has been mitigated here as the script does a lot to work around its more obnoxious conceits, though we still haven’t quite made it back to the first film as far as being a great movie instead of just an action-packed one; hence why I’m just now getting around to it.  The lack of agency for our main character has been addressed as he has a clear goal he’s striving for instead of getting dragged around by contrivances, but with that freedom comes the expectation to have an actual character again and sadly he’s just not as interesting as he was in the first one; something that others have noticed as well as his word count in this final entry was a joke when it first came out.  Thankfully the film’s solution is to introduce a lot of fun and interesting characters to pick up the slack, though it didn’t escape my notice that a lot of their plot threads are left dangling as Lionsgate is clearly interested in milking this franchise for years to come.  Donnie Yen turns in a terrific performance and is frankly the star of this movie as far as I’m concerned as he has all the pathos that John should while kicking all sorts of butt in the many action scenes that he participates in.  He’s easily the best character the franchise has come up with and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lionsgate is already begging him to be the lead in the next few of these movies.  My personal favorite addition, however, is Scott Adkins who shows up doing a phenomenal riff on LeCheffe from Casino Royale.  The guy is one of our best underrated-action-stars and he proves to be a natural comedian in a role that could have simply been a joke but is genuinely engaging, and his fight with John ends up being my favorite action scene in the movie.  All of this is well and good, but a problem the films still haven’t addressed yet is the length as they’ve been creeping up past two hours since the second one and this one just goes on and on.  No matter how good the action scenes are in this, and they are very good, it’s hard to sustain enthusiasm for as long as this movie expects you to.  I know I’m a bit of a sourpuss when it comes to this series and I admit that a lot of my antipathy is specific to my taste in storytelling, but for what it’s worth this manages to be a high note for the sequels even if it still can’t quite recapture the magic of that first film.

3.5 out of 5



Renfield and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Chris McKay

It’s not easy being the sworn servant of Dracula (Nicolas Cage).  You have to bring him dead bodies, endure his insults on a daily basis, and on occasion get your stomach torn open as a petty form of discipline.  Sure, the immortality is pretty good, and being able to fight with super-human strength by ingesting the blood of insects is a definite boon, but Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has started wondering if there’s more for him out there than just corpse dragging and bug eating.  Can Renfield escape this cycle of abuse without incurring the wrath of his boss, and what trouble will he find himself in when trying to start a new life in the real world?

Nicolas Cage gets a lot of flak for his particular brand of exuberance, but I think most people have come around to him being a cinematic treasure who elevates even the worst of his paycheck movies.  This is thankfully not one of those, but it’s still somewhat disappointing that Cage finds himself in something that is far below his talent and is once again tasked with carrying a movie on his sheer charisma and acting chops.  What makes it even worse is that it’s clear how easily this could have been a great movie as it has a brilliant conceit and a decently sketched out script that gives Cage a lot of room to flesh out his unique portrayal of Dracula as well as Nicholas Holt’s timid take on Renfield.  Cage’s interpretation of the character is certainly borrowing from the many tropes we associate with The Count, and there’s even a fun gag early on where they recreate some of his more iconic scenes from the 1931 film, but the script gives him a lot of depth and he does a great job of modernizing the selfishness at the heart of his pathology.  The vampire as Bram Stoker envisioned is a creature that endlessly takes and manipulates to sustain its own devious existence at the cost of those around him which in the old days played out as tyrannical aristocrats terrorizing peasants.  In the here and now, these types of people tend not to have castles but still see the world as their plaything and are just the worst kind of people you would want to get in a relationship with which sucks for Renfield but creates an interesting dynamic to watch play out.  The rest of the movie, however, never finds its footing and ends up feeling like a clunky mess; the kind that indicates either a lackadaisical production or one plagued with issues.  All the pieces are there for a comedy classic, anchored by a fantastic lead performance, and yet it’s executed with all the grace of a mid-2000s Adam Sandler vehicle.  Awkwafina’s story about fighting the local crime family should have some tension to it and Ben Schwartz is trying his heart out as a dopey fail-son criminal, but none of it comes together or carries enough weight to move the focus away from Dracula and Renfield’s toxic dynamic.  It genuinely feels like these three characters should be united thematically given how they are mistreated by the power structures they’ve tied themselves to, but the movie either didn’t have the ambition to go that far or it all got lost in the edit to make room for more middling humor.  It’s disappointing that this couldn’t get all of its ducks in a row and simply put all its eggs in a Nic-Cage-shaped basket, and the fact is that this is coming out long after What We Do In The Shadows set the standard for vampiric satire.  Despite its killer premise, there’s just not enough here worth sinking your teeth into.

2.5 out of 5



Air and all the images you see in this review are owned by Amazon Studios

Directed by Ben Affleck

Nike wasn’t doing too well in the early eighties with sales starting to sag; so much so that they are thinking of canceling their basketball shoe division if their talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) doesn’t find a spokesperson that will put them back on the map.  In a last-ditch effort to try and save his job, Sonny offers the idea to sign only a single player to represent the brand and bet all their chips on him; a bold move that might just pay off since the player in question is Michael Jordan.  Without much to lose, Sonny starts pushing hard for this idea despite the hesitance of Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and the tall order of convincing Michael, as well as his mother Deloris (Viola Davis), that this is the best deal for them.  Can Sonny save his job and help the company with his desperate Hail Mary, or will he forever be remembered as the man who let Michael Jordan slip between his fingers?

And now we swing to the opposite end of the spectrum with a movie that is perfectly put together and yet aims to simply be dull.  Well, that’s a little unfair to the movie as it does do quite a bit right and will surely resonate with a specific audience, and if nothing else, the movie sets up an interesting challenge for itself by trying to find an engaging story in what has to be one of the least relatable subject matters imaginable.  Not only is it a story about well-off people trying to make money that you or I will never see, it lacks any real glitz or glamour to get us excited about the product itself.  It’s a movie that asks if you can make The Wolf of Wall Street without the hedonism, The Big Short without the looming catastrophe, or Winning Time without the vibrant characters and relevant social commentary.  I’d say it’s certainly possible to be sure, but then what does that leave you with?  In this case, you have a small movie about relatively average people trying to earnestly put together a business plan; a premise that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing as watching the sausage get made can make for an interesting movie.  There’s something compelling about professionals applying their craft, even in relatively mundane industries, and Ben Affleck’s unvarnished aesthetic lends authenticity to the proceedings.  However, the lack of excitement does start to wear thin after a while, and while the performances from the cast are solid, the characters lack any depth beyond their job description which further lessens the stakes.  That having been said, to a certain generation the names on screen and the specific period in time will hit just the right notes to make this truly captivating regardless of the stripped-down nature of its production and miniscule scope.  I’m sure I’ll have my own version of this when I’m in my forties and someone finally makes a movie about Nintendo developing the Wii, and I don’t think I’d be wrong to enjoy that the way I’m sure people will enjoy this.  I can appreciate the restraint with which Affleck approaches the subject and the actors on screen do a good job with the roles they are given, but it does feel lacking in purpose without much of a denouement to strive towards or arcs for our characters to work through.  Then again, why would this fundamentally change them as people?  After all, it’s just a shoe deal.

2.5 out of 5

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