Movie Review – Rough Night

TL;DR – It’s not the best film I have seen, while it has some laughs, it is let down by its highly predictable storyline.

Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars

P.S. – There is a Mid & End credit sequence

Rough Night

Review

It is the year 2009, those heady days when Balloon Boy was a thing, remember that, oh and Kanye West was an ass at the VMA, wow how times have changed. It was during this year that The Hangover a relatively small budget (35mill) R-rated comedy came out in cinemas and made a metric-ass-ton of cash at the box-office. Since that time there have been a string of R-rated ensemble comedy films that have tried to capture that same draw with 2011’s Bridesmaids being the closest contender. So why do companies keep making them, well they’re cheap, low risk, and a chance at a very big potential reward, but because of this combination the films tend not to be that good most of the time. So today we are going to be looking at the next challenger into this realm with Rough Night which while not being anything revolutionary does have its moments of interest.

Now before we go one I do need to point out that because of its mature content there is probably a very easy litmus test as to whether or not you think you’d want to go see Rough Night. So let’s highlight just a couple of things from the movie, there are male strippers, cocaine, neighbours that are in a very open marriage, and they end up stashing the dead body in a room with adult accessories. As I said at this point I have probably polarised the opinion of the people reading the review, but then that is the nature of these films. Also don’t take your eight-year-old to go see this, come on I didn’t think it needed to be said but apparently not.

The cast has a great rapport with each other

The cast has a great rapport with each other

So to set the scene in college four girls become fast friends and promise to always be there for each other. Fast forward ten years and Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is engaged to Peter (Paul W. Downs) and is running for political office, Alice (Jillian Bell) is a teacher but never really moved on from her college years, Frankie (Ilana Glazer) is an ‘activist’ but it is more for show than anything else, and Blair (Zoë Kravitz) is a successful business women that is going through a bad divorce. They along with Pippa (Kate McKinnon) a friend Jess made whilst studying abroad in Australia have come together in Florida to celebrate Jess’ bachelorette weekend. Jess is just looking for a quiet weekend with friends and is desperately avoiding anything that could damage her election campaign, but of course, the complete opposite happens when the group hires a stripper (Ryan Cooper) and then accidentally kills him. Look as crass as it is, it is still a good setup for a film, you have a dead body, you have everyone having a motive to try and hide the body because there are drugs everywhere, and you even have a question over who some people are. However, while the setup is good, the story does not really take it and run with it as we will see later.

Now it will probably become clear that I am quite mixed on Rough Night, mostly because of its story but one area I do have to give full props to is the cast, who is giving it their all and are really game for anything. For me the stand out was Kate McKinnon and not just because she really rocked that Australian accent which is not the easiest thing to do, but because she was game for anything they throw at her. I look forward to curious Americans trying Vegemite cold turkey, and the hilarity that follows, for our international followers, Vegemite should be consumed on toast with butter and you should build up the doses until you are comfortable with them. Also, I have to give credit to Paul W. Downs who spends most of the film pulling of a rendition of the sad astronaut, I really hope they paid you well. As well as the standouts I have to say the one thing that stood out for me was the rapport of the main cast. They actually feel like they are friends that have known each other for a long time it comes across in their performance. It was interesting to see Demi Moore and Ty Burrell play so off the norm with their swinger couple team and thankfully they are not around too long that the bit gets old and Dean Winters is always a good addition. As well as this, there were some good ideas here, like the TV in the background that gives you hints of what is going in the town.

Rough Night 1

Unfortunately it does not capitalise on its setup

Now while the film has a good set up, and the cast is up for anything, what stops the film from excelling is the story. Now there are some really funny moments in Rough Night, but for me, there were also far too many completely predictable plot points. [SPOILERS] At times it felt like we hit every trope in the genre that you see in film after film. Now while you kind of expect the standard Chekhov’s Gun, though it was interesting to see it in the form of a code word, there were also so many others that are just grating. For example, the story was fine but there was for some reason this really unnecessary conflict about Alice being too possessive over Jess, that either could have been handled better or removed. Sure yes, it inevitably leads to a big blow up and the inevitable catharsis, but this in itself is something you can see coming a mile away. Also, there were a lot of missed opportunities, like we don’t find out the first stripper is dodgy until almost the end when stripper Number 2 (Colton Haynes) appears but this could have added much earlier to the freak out the characters and provide a better source of conflict. Honestly, at times it kind of felt like there was a checklist that the movie had to reach before it could finish. [End of SPOILERS]

Look at the end can I recommend Rough Night, well yes, but only if your other choice is seeing Baywatch which is also out at the moment and has a similar tone. Other than that, well, of course, I have seen worse films, but I have also seen films in this genre that have been much better. It has a strong cast but there are just too many missed opportunities for me to fully recommend it.

 

Directed by – Lucia Aniello
Written By – Lucia Aniello & Paul W. Downs
Music by – Dominic Lewis
Cinematography by – Sean Porter
Edited by – Craig Alpert
Starring
– Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Zoë Kravitz, Kate McKinnon, Paul W. Downs, Ryan Cooper, Demi Moore, Ty Burrell, Colton Haynes, Dean Winters & Enrique Murciano
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R

 

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Analysis – John Wick is a Masterclass in Visual Storytelling and Worldbuilding

TL;DR – John Wick is a masterpiece of balancing storytelling and worldbuilding without resorting to multiple exposition dumps or clunky dialogue exchanges.

John Wick

When you are making or adapting some form of narrative medium, whether it is a book, video game, TV show, online video series, or a movie, two of the most important narrative facets are storytelling and worldbuilding, however, they can often find themselves in conflict with each other. I think we have all played that video game that is crammed full of lore, around every corner is another audio log sitting there for you to digest and thus the story gets lost in at that worldbuilding. Conversely, people fall in love with the worlds you can create, as much as people love Harry Potter, they are also enraptured with the whole Wizarding World, #HufflepuffForLife, so if you focus just on your story and don’t build the world around you, you’re going to have a shallow narrative and a missed opportunity. So how do you rectify this issue, well you could do what Snowpiercer and others have done in the past and gone with an opening newscast, or narration, or like the grandmaster of it all Star Wars, and have it all in your opening crawl. Or you could go with the Game of Thrones route and hide your exposition in sex scenes hoping that nudity will keep people engaged, and indeed you may even coin a phrase with ‘sexposition’ in the process. Or you could follow John Wick’s lead by crafting a strong narrative while also building a fascinating world. Now as we will be dissecting John Wick for this analysis, and since we will be focusing on the story, there is no way we could do that and not have any spoilers, so if you have not seen it yet, firstly go watch John Wick, but also you may not want to proceed any further, or do, I’m not your boss.

Where John Wick separates itself from many films is that on a whole it employs visual storytelling and worldbuilding as the primary form of narrative progression. Now, of course, visual storytelling was not invented by John Wick, indeed there is the old saying ‘show don’t tell’, and there are other films that also employ this technique as well like the fantastic Mad Max Fury Road. However, while ‘show don’t tell’ may go back all the way to Anton Chekhov, very few films these days actively employ it or at least employ it successfully, I’m sorry Warcraft, or more importantly as the fantastic Tony Zhou showed in his Every Frame a Painting video it can be absent from entire genres. Nor am I saying that visual is the only form of storytelling, of course not, the oral narrative is still important, but a visual narrative focus allows you to balance the needs of storytelling and worldbuilding.

There is story in what is seen, and in what is missing

There is story in what is seen, and in what is missing

So to get us started let’s take John Wick’s opening sequence as a good place to start our analysis. Now as it is said you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do make impressions of a movie from its opening that can stick around with them for the entire film. So let’s look at John Wick’s opening, the first thing to note (once we move past the ‘in media res’ which I am personally not a fan of in general) is that there is no dialogue. John wakes up alone in a large bed, drags himself out of bed and walks through an empty house, immediately you have a sense of loss even before the camera focuses on the happy photos of John and his wife Helen. So now you know what the emotion is, loss, and who it is that is left, his wife, now that raises more questions, we know the who and the what and over the next few seconds we learn the why first there is still two coffee mugs by the coffee pot, then there is still her things still in the bathroom, now you hear the sound of a hospital monitor beep in the background as we cut back and forth between the now in the bathroom and the past, the love, sickness and death of Helen. In the space of a minute without a single piece of dialogue being spoken we got the whole story of John and Helen, and much the same as Up it packs a lot of emotional and story into such a small timeframe. Indeed it is not until four minutes into the film that we get our first bit of active dialogue, and by that time we have already gotten to know John and the world around him. All throughout John Wick, we see these subtle, or not so subtle, visual clues being used to define characters and develop the story before they have even spoken a line. A good example of this is when we first meet Yusef Tarasov, now there is a lot we can tell about him as a person even before he starts to talk to John. First, he is someone who possesses power, as his two underlings defer to him and are doing his bidding, also that he is a complete and utter moron because the first thing he does is light a cigarette in a petrol station. So even before he starts talking we know that he is powerful and stupid, and history shows us that this is not a good combination to have. So we know something about his character, thus when he does start talking and shows how arrogant he is, and how quick he is to anger this is adding to the story of his character that John Wick has already started to tell us the story of before a line of dialogue was uttered.

John Wick uses these little visual story cues throughout the film to give the story depth and to provide more emotional impact. For example the use of colour throughout most of the start of the film, everything is blue, overcast, and raining, and even when it is not John is cast as being an island in a sea of people, but once Helen’s last gift arrives, a dog called Daisy, and John gets to take his car out for a spin, suddenly thing start to warm up, the sun comes out. Then Yusef kills Daisy, back to the muted colours, until John decides to go on his trip of revenge, which mostly occurs during the dark of night. Now John Wick is not the first movie to use this, indeed rain at a funeral is one of those old tropes you always see but combined with everything we have talked about it provides a richer visual story. Even in the small moments, like how Daisy crawled over to John to be close to him after being hurt, or how John puts Daisy’s collar next to Helen’s bracelet, showing the level of grief he is going through. Once again all of this is show mostly without dialogue, yet it still tells us about who John is, what motivates him, and it forwards the story along with the simplest set up in movies, John can’t kill cancer, but he can sure as hell can take down the people that killed his dog. All of this means that by the time we get to this piece of dialogue “I heard you struck my son” “Yes Sir I did” “And may I ask why?” “Yeah, well, because he stole John Wick’s car sir, and uh … killed his dog” “oh” even though we don’t yet know how proficient John is at killing people, we are already invested with the character and the world, and we know that the “oh” has weight and power behind it. Indeed, even when John Wick uses subtitles, they are formatted in a way to help forward the story more.

Colour plays a big role in John Wick

Colour plays a big role in John Wick

Now one of the things John Wick has become known for is its action scenes, not only for their quality, but in the proficiency of the choreography, and in the filming and editing of the sequences. Now this is all completely true, and we could do another entire break down on the action sequences, which I might actually do now I think about it, sorry back to it, even in these sequences they use the action to help tell a story. Now before the first action sequence, we get John Wick’s one and only exposition dump, where Viggo tells Yusef about John and how he is the ‘Baba Yaga’ so we know John is proficient in violence, but in the action sequences we actually get to see that. First, you have the setup, while John is at home, so he knows the terrain, it is him against twelve other men, who don’t just come at him one at a time. Throughout the sequence it is constantly reinforced that John is not just some badass with a gun, but that he is a methodical professional with a gun, for example when someone goes down he always shoots them in the head to make sure they stay down, and while this is not as some would say sporting, it is a piece of character development shown through action alone. As well as this, he knows when his gun is out of bullets without clicking the gun to find it is empty, or counting the bullets out aloud … Deadpool …, he is always aware of his surroundings, and thus knows when to shot someone even when he is brawling with another enemy at the same time. Through action, they tell a story, and in this case, it is the story of John’s past.

As well as visual storytelling another area where John Wick excels is in visual worldbuilding, which is the more difficult of the two to pull off. Building a world is challenging, explaining your world whilst still engaging the audience is even more of a trial, but to do all of that with very little direct dialogue is a feat unto itself. When people are trying to explain a world quite often they will use a point of view character, or an audience surrogate, someone who is new to the country/job/etc so it makes sense for someone to be constantly explaining how everything works. This is a very successful technique, and one that many great films have used, like Dredd and Inception, however, this is not the direction John Wick takes. Now John Wick starts off with a bonus from the point of view of worldbuilding, as it is mostly set in our current world, so it does not need to explain who the dwarves are, and why it is a bad idea to go into the Mines of Moria. However, even though John Wick is set in our world, it still creates a vibrant and complex world with its own rules, organisations, conduct, and social etiquette that exists, underneath or in parallel to our real world.

A simple thing, yet so powerful

A simple thing, yet so powerful

Now the first hint we get of this is when Viggo and John are preparing for the first fight, John digs up a case buried in his garage, which on the one hand is full of guns, but also these strange gold coins, and when we jump back to Viggo he is opening his safe and there once again are these strange gold coins. Immediately without saying anything, John Wick has intrigued you with these coins because it links our protagonist and antagonist together. This is the first step in building the world, next after the fight we see John phone someone and make a ‘dinner reservation’ for twelve people, clearly a euphemism for something, at which point he gets out twelve of those gold coins, cleaners arrive and remove the twelve bodies and John pays them the twelve coins. It is such an elegant way of explaining how the world works, there is no clunky line of dialogue that goes ‘remember one coin per person’. This is expanded upon when they get to the Continental where after booking a room for two nights he pays two coins, to get into the secret bar you have to pay a coin. With such a small thing an entire world is born. Indeed, even with the Continental, where we have our only real bit of oral world building and that is that ‘no business is to be conducted on the premises’, it creates a weird world. One where there is a doctor on call 24/7, one where they can just give you a very expensive new car to apologise for a disturbance, and who will permanently remove guests if they break the rules. Through the clever use of ‘show don’t tell’, good use of framing, and consistency with the editing, a whole new world was created, and no exposition dump was needed for the viewer to understand.

Now there is a lot more that we could discuss about John Wick, from the homages to spaghetti westerns, to how it can be seen as a reverse slasher flick, to the notion as one reviewer put it that John Wick was a sequel to a film that we didn’t get to see, or how it was made for only $20 million, like seriously how did they get so much film out of such a small budget, but then we would be here all night. The one thing that is really important is that John Wick is a wonderful film and a case study into how to forward your story, build characters, and create worlds, without getting bogged down with unnecessary dialogue.

Reviews cited in this Analysis

Deadpool
Game of Thrones
John Wick
Mad Max Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Warcraft (The Beginning)

Directed by – Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
Written by – Derek Kolstad
Music by – Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard
Cinematography – Jonathan Sela
Starring – Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Riddick & Willem Dafoe
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Ireland: 16; NZ: R16; UK: 15; USA: R

Movie Review – John Wick

TL;DR – A really good action flick and an example of world building done right.

Score – 5 out of 5 stars

Review

John Wick has been out on DVD/Digital Download for some time and with a sequel now on the cards, I thought I would have a look back at one of the better action films in recent times.

The basic plot of John Wick is that the titular character John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a man who was once in deep in the Russian mob, and through an impossible act he freed himself and settled down with his new love, only for her to pass away. The last thing his wife did was buy John a puppy so he could move on from his grief. The son of the Russian Mob boss Iosef (Alfie Allen) mistakes him for an easy mark, this is an error, a grave error.

John Wick has one of the clearest motivations in cinema history

John Wick has one of the clearest motivations in cinema history

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) has caught a lot of flak during his career, mostly with illusions to his character in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But movies such as this show his absolute commitment to his art, is it an Oscar winning performance, no, but he shows absolute commitment from start to finish. Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov) works well as the head of the Russia Mob, put it the position of risking everything to protect his son and Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov) works well as the punk ass son of a crime lord with delusions of grandeur, though his dialogue coaching needed a little bit more work as he jumps from Russian to American to English accents though the film. Adrianne Palicki (Ms Perkins) brings a real intensity and physicality to her role, and I would not be surprised if it was this that landed Palicki her current gig on Agents of SHEILD. Ian McShane (Winston) and Willem Dafoe (Marcus) bring the class and seasoned performances to their roles.

I have seen John Wick described as like a reverse slasher film, and I can see how you could make that comparison, I mean they literally refer to John Wick as the ‘Baba Yaga’ a figure from Slavic mythology that you do not want to cross. In the end, though it’s more in the vein of say Taken, where instead of just being a general revenge figure (à la Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees) they are characters where a great wrong has been perpetrated against them, so they are seeking reconciliation from that specific grievance. This gives the film more impact and emotional weight than your standard slasher flick.

This is not a man you should have messed with

This is not a man you should have messed with

The action in this film is also top class, and you can tell that the directors Chad Stahelski & David Leitch understand action (they should, they come from a stunt background). The action is a lot of ‘gun-fu’, sort of in the same vein as Equilibrium, but unlike a lot of western depictions of ‘gun-fu’ John Wick tries to place it in some semblance of reality. The action is used to show just how much of a professional John Wick is. Each action has weight, no movement is wasted. For example, the opening fight scene in John Wick’s house shows the skill in staging, acting and directing that you expect in seasoned directors, not people doing it for the first time.

One thing I have to praise John Wick for is the masterclass it gives in world building. Even though John Wick exists in the real world, it posits that there is a secret underworld that runs by its own rules. Now normally to try and explain how the rules/systems of this new world works, there would usually be some exposition dump. For example, bring in a new character so an old one has to explain to them how it all works (see CSI) or try and put something ‘entertaining’ on the screen so the audience forgets it is sitting through an exposition dump (the infamous sexposition from Game of Thrones). In John Wick, they follow the wise words of writing ‘show don’t tell’. Through careful framing of scenes, use of dialogue and through careful reinforcement, the viewer understands how the system that these characters live in works.

John Wick is a case study in world building without heavy exposition

John Wick is a case study in world building without heavy exposition

However, not everything works, Dean Winters (Avi) is a really good comedic actor with some great dramatic chops, but here I honestly don’t know why he’s in the movie, he serves no real purpose. The ‘in medias res’(the term for when a movie etc. starts in the middle of the film at some climatic moment and then jumps back to the start) feels a bit forced and probably didn’t need to be there. John Wick was filmed on a really small budget and what they do with such little money is remarkable, but occasionally that lack of funds show, mostly in special effects where a some of the blood splatters are clearly CGIed etc. Also, there is this really awkwardly filmed scene at the start of the film where Keanu Reeves is talking to Willem Dafoe and from the way it is shot I get the feeling they could not get both actors on set at the same time, so it feels like they are talking to a wall not each other.

If you like action films John Wick is one of the best in recent times (Mad Max still takes the best cake) and the first step in an interesting franchise, just please, please, please people working on John Wick 2, don’t go all Taken on us again.

Directed by – Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
Written by – Derek Kolstad
Music by – Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard
Starring – Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Riddick & Willem Dafoe
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Ireland: 16; NZ: R16; UK: 15; USA: R