Friday, 24 October 2014

Cinema of Death: JOHN WICK and OUIJA

John Wick anticipates critics comparing it to a first-person video game shooter. Intercutting stylized live-action violence with a moment of a gamer brute’s obsession underlines the movie’s simplemindedness: Keanu Reeves is wronged, and, in rock video set pieces, kills those who wronged him, and then it ends. The only spoiler one can reveal is that it has no twists or surprises.

In a retrograde way, this is refreshing and it knows it.  Following years of barf-cam “verite” action scenes, and uncentered Marvel storylines, John Wick is defiantly straightforward with clear, easy-to-track bullet impacted head explosions and upper torso knife plunges.

After his girlfriend dies of an illness, Wick (Reeves), a former killing machine, plunges into depression. Gifted with a cute dog who he plays with for most of the film’s first half hour like he’s taking cues from Riddick for becoming a sympathetic psychopath, Wick’s life turns back around when goons murder his new pet. He relapses to his murderous ways, as stunt coordinators-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski find a clever way of emotionally grounding their revenge narrative. We’re used to the disposability of human life in movies. Don’t fuck with dogs!

Reeves, a charming action star when permitted to be, is used at his most monosyllabic, disposing of bad guys and more than a few bystanders with cool posturing. In its combo barrenness and balletic kineticism, it’s both imitation Walter Hill and imitation John Woo, a movie that’s at once minimalist and maximalist.

First things first, John Wick isn’t as good as some people will try to tell you it is.

          But in a desperate climate where the best action films aren’t even getting theatrical distribution, there’s an urge to overpraise one that just gets it done. Its closest comparison is Robert Rodriguez’s series of violent rock music showdowns in Desperado. Wick’s just as brainless, but with less scatology. The recurrent joke of supporting characters shrugging off Wick’s barbarism feels cheap. And a nightclub fight centerpiece is reliant on ironic use of pop music against savagery, as though the movie’s audience isn’t familiar with Spring Breakers' “Everytime” montage, which expected its audience not to know Face/Off 's “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gunfight, which expected its viewers not to know the work of Kenneth Anger, which, in fairness, they mostly didn’t.

John Wick is a work of calculated affectation rather than of artists with this style in their bones. It happily contributes to cultural detritus when a smarter movie would comment upon it. But this must also be distinguished from The Raid’s pervy human degradation. At its own base level, John Wick’s murder fantasies feel detached from plausible bodily harm, and, for better or worse, are fun.

Mortality in John Wick is a heavy burden, until it isn’t. It’s murder as catharsis as spectacle.

Death is approached more solemnly, but without any more sensitivity in Ouija. Director Stiles White has a nice handle on widescreen horror imagery in the movie’s first half, building suburban folklore and dread through looming steadicam shots across white picket fences and wooden staircase railings. Ouija isn’t as grand and beautiful as last year’s The Conjuring, but, for a while, it breaks from the televisual standard of Paranormal Activity and Deliver Us From Evil, placing its strangely autumnal brown California within a nearby anamorphic universe to Craven’s Scream and Carpenter’s Halloween.

It’s in terms of narrative that it doesn’t provide anything to care about.

The oddest moment of Ouija is also the most stereotypical. Mourning teen Laine (Bates Motel’s Olivia Cooke) visits her school guidance counselor, who is intent on providing her with outlets to help deal with the death of two friends. She storms out telling him he has no idea what he’s talking about. Okay, except the movie wields no insight into teenage trauma that he doesn’t.

            Laine’s outburst simply feels like it should probably be a movie scene (you see it coming because, undoubtedly, you’ve seen it somewhere before), and that’s how Ouija operates. It exists in desperate imitation of a real movie. The young cast reaches for a dramatic heft the material doesn’t support. Its pretenses to reckoning and painful rites of passage are missing the emotional current that grounded the original Final Destination. Loss and death in Ouija is just an aftereffect of cheap jump scares. It’s as hollow as the motif of spectres with their mouths sewn shut, something writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White haven’t connected as an abstraction of the way adolescent pain is silenced. Here, it’s simply a cruel thing to happen in the middle of flossing.

And therein lies the basic problem with Ouija: it’s about nothing. The filmmakers instill this by making the dead friend who the leads try to contact a victim of her own Ouija Board experimentation. This bypasses the opportunity to employ horror-fantasy as a means of confronting the very real confusion and grief of teen suicide. Laine and her friends should stand up and face the adult and peer scrutiny toward their shared depression. Yet the movie doesn’t allow them the dignity or humanity to address it.

Almost everyone young or old feels misunderstood, but teen movies are one of the only venues through which Hollywood will articulate this commonly and (sometimes) believably. Teen movies about death are a staple for a simple reason that Ouija hasn’t considered—when every experience is a new one, it feels as though it’s now or never. At the precipice of life’s beginning is a fear that life will never arrive.

 The things teenagers feel aren’t trivial. It’s when the movies reduce them to meaningless traumas and freak-outs that there’s no room for understanding, only disengagement.