John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

What is it with sequel titles this year? John Wick: Chapter 2, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2… it’s like there are just too many sequels to name. That being said 2017 seems to be the year of good sequels. Split (2017) which is positioned in the same universe as M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) got great reviews, The Lego Batman Movie which is a follow up to 2014’s surprise success The Lego Movie seems to be getting rave reviews, and of course, there’s John Wick: Chapter 2.

When analysing a film, one of the things I try to look out for is the scene that is included in excess of what is absolutely necessary for narrative development and progress. And the opening shot of the John Wick sequel provided just such a filmic moment. A black and white clip of a scooter stunt projected on the side of a building apropos of nothing preceding a pan downwards to a motorcycle skidding on a road. The two sequences obviously mirrored each other and spelled out the film’s thesis and lineage in one fell swoop.

The black and white clip recalls the era of early films from the 1900s before even Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, where vaudeville danger acts were the source of most of the silver screen’s inspiration. What John Wick: Chapter 2 tries to remind the viewer then is that these spectacle-intensive single reel films are the precursor to the modern day action film. The fact that the film opens with a car chase scene further supports this claim because, you know that saying, “cut to the chase”? That came from roughly the same film era. People just wanted to cut to the chase, the meat of the film, the part where all the action was – the most intense scene, and the most exciting one that would keep the audiences hooked and on the edge of their seats.

Thus, the sequel serves to remind us that when watching a John Wick film, one is well and truly a spectator spectating a series of spectacles. The structure of both films are fairly similar and could almost be called episodic with simple motivations moving characters from one action-packed sequence to the next. This is not unlike how George Melies used to make his trick films and early feature length films:

As for the scenario, the ‘fable,’ of the ‘tale,’ I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks,’ for a nicely arranged tableau.

– George Melies qtd. in Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attraction”

When seen in this light, it would explain a little bit why the momentum of the opening act in the John Wick sequel seemed to stutter a little when they tried to insert a recap of the first film.

That being said, the opening act was surely a homage to the action film genre and the franchise’s first installment that was the sleeper hit of 2014 that has since been hailed as one of the best action films in recent years. This is clearly felt from the range of shots and filming techniques presented in the opening sequence to remind the viewer of how far film has progressed in its strategies and effects used to capture and present spectacle.

In the early days of film, stunts and performers’ skill could only be captured through the use of long shots and long takes. But proceeding from the long shot in the black and white projection, we see that the camera is moved closer and closer to the action where audiences are no longer positioned on the outside as spectators but on the inside as participants.For instance, the placement of the camera alongside John Wick’s Dodge Charger as it races along as part of the car chase sequence allows audiences to participate in the thrill and the exhilaration of moving  alongside a speeding car.

The long shots and long takes are still present, but are reserved for complicated auto stunts and when John Wick (Keanu Reeves) kicks ass. The mobile camera is used to accentuate action sequences and follow along the trajectory of a punch, like when Wick delivers a finishing blow, to capture the impact of the hit. And if I’m not wrong, there was a scene where a bike flips towards the camera that looked like it was a CGI shot.

And just like that, the opening sequence becomes a catalogue of action film camera techniques. But because of the ascension of the narrative film and the banishment of the cinema of attractions that was forced to go to ground and coexist as an embedded component of certain genres of the narrative film (eg. musical, horror, fantasy, science fiction, action), the opening spectacle also had to give way to more narrative impulses. In a neat segue from spectacle to narrative, character psychology is reinjected once again into the film using the car and the contents of its glove compartment.

Thus Wick’s Dodge Charger becomes both the vehicle for action and narrative drive. And by the end of the opening act, you feel like you’ve been issued an invitation to come along for one hell of a ride.

tumblr_ndwmyw2mhj1r04g55o1_500

Gunning, Tom. “Cinema of Attractions.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Eds. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. London: British Film Institute, 1990. 56-62.

The Accountant (2016)

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday.

This is the end

Of Solomon Grundy.

I caught The Accountant today which was listed in June as one of the top 10 most anticipated films for the  second half of 2016. I’ve also been reading around to see what reviewers have been saying about it and I’d like to address some of it and chip in on the discussion as well.

Plot and Structure in The Accountant (2016)

Yes, it moves back and forth between the present and some extended flashback sequences. The flashbacks help to reveal bits of the plot from “Christian Wolff’s” (Ben Affleck) childhood and recent past that lead up to the current moment. But, No, this is not overly confusing the way some of the reviewers have been complaining.

I did feel, however, that the film lost its own narrative train of thought in certain parts that resulted in some distracting holes in the story-telling.

So here is my list of questions that would probably make more sense to you after you’ve watched the film:

  1. What happened between Wolff and Braxton (Jon Bernthal)?
  2. What’s so special about Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) that prompts Wolff to help her?
  3. I’m still unclear on how Dana’s prom dress story relates to anything Wolff is trying to do
  4. What is it about watching Dana sleep on the couch that reminds him of the “blood first” flashback?
  5. What is this “moral code” The Accountant supposedly lives by? The film certainly gives you examples of this code in action but never actually explains what it is.
  6. And if his dad is the source of this code, what’s so moral about siccing his military combat-trained sons on a bunch of young teenage hooligans hanging out under a bridge minding their own business?
  7. Other than the one tensely shot sequence, why did Wolff’s inability to complete the BioRobotics job not affect him in a more sustained manner?

Autism in The Accountant 

There were a number of reviews that complained that the film tried to do too much by being a John Wick (2014) styled action-flick – slick action sequences, small/contained plot, with  a healthy dose of humour – while trying to push a public service announcement message about neurodiversity. Some claimed that the film failed to do this.

I actually beg to differ.

My ability to feel differently is in part, I think, from watching the film on a weekday afternoon, in an all but empty neighbourhood theatre. This means, I wasn’t swayed or influenced by audience laughter which most of the reviewers also pointed out seemed to occur at awkward moments in the film. Awkward moments that sometimes made it feel like audiences were being encouraged to laugh at Wolff’s expense.

The scene that often gets blamed for this is the awkward lunch break that Dana and Wolff share. Sitting in the dark, mostly by myself in a fairly quiet cinema, I actually found myself thinking that Affleck’s character was much less awkward than I expected him to be compared to Kendrick’s. In this scene,

  1. He neatly deflects Kendrick’s unintentionally accurate quip about how hard one has to hit a thermos in order to dent it by saying, “it’s just old” which is a surprisingly naturalistic explanation seeing as how he has been caught red-handed, sort of… I mean, I find it kind of remarkable that as an audience member I bought that explanation until it was revealed otherwise later in the film (sorry… *SPOILER*)
  2. He provides a surprisingly nuanced interpretation of the “Dogs Playing Poker” series of paintings that is actually pretty consistent with the scientific literature on Autism and art appreciation:
    • “Another distinctive trait one finds in some autistic children is a rare maturity of taste in art. Normal children have no time for more sophisticated art. Their taste is usually for the pretty picture, with kitschy rose pink and sky blue… Autistic children, on the other hand, can have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding, being able to distinguish between art and kitsch with great confidence. They may have a special understanding of works of art which are difficult even for many adults, for instance Romanesque sculpture or paintings by Rembrandt. Autistic individuals can judge accurately the events represented in the picture, as well as what lies behind them, including the character of the people represented and the mood that pervades a painting. Consider that many normal adults never reach this mature degree of art appreciation.”
      • Taken from Autism and Asperger Syndrome edited by Uta Frith, published in 1991 by Cambridge University Press
  3. All in all, the humour in the scene felt like it came more from Dana’s over-sharing than anything Wolff did or said

Instead the scenes in which I did find myself smiling at oftentimes came after moments of triumph for the character:

  1. The two times he proves his incredible military prowess to the farm couple
  2. That one time he nails John Lithgow ← This is not a spoiler. You KNEW John Lithgow was the villain the moment you saw his name on the starring list. I blame Raising Cain (1992) for this eternal impression I have of the guy…

And the scenes that dealt directly with how Wolff’s autism affected him were handled very somberly. Like the claustrophobic framing used in the scene where he sits down to eat alone (seen in the trailer), and quick cuts and lighting used to create the extreme tension in the scene where he deals with his inability to complete the BioRobotics contract.

Watching this film, unlike most reviewers who immediately sought to compare it to John Wick, I actually thought of Tropic Thunder (2008), this scene in particular:

And I suddenly realised how demeaning and presumptuous Hollywood films can be when it comes to making films about people with mental disorders, and what a fine line it is to walk to bring those stories to the screen in a respectful manner.

I guess it’s safe to say that this film made the right choice in running in the complete opposite direction of trying to imbue Wolff with any overtly lovable characteristics associated with his mental disorder for fear of looking patronising. Instead, it made a concerted effort for Wolff to appear wholly and completely normal or even super-human when he interacts with others in order to further its empowering message on neurodiversity.

At the end of the day, The Accountant was not the film I expected it to be but it wasn’t all that bad either. It had some good things to say about some important issues which it handled pretty conscientiously. It’s just unfortunate that its positive message was let down by some problematic story-telling.