Movie Diary for the Week of May 14-20, 2017

Perhaps because the movies I saw last week inadvertently had a common theme that was none too happy, this week I was determined to see movies that were more varied from each other.  The four movies that I saw could be paired loosely into two pairs (two of them being drama and two of them being science-fiction) as I ended up staggering between the two genres.  Here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

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A United Kingdom (2016) – dir. Amma Assante

Rating: 81/100

I had been looking forward to this film, as I really liked Amma Assante’s 2013 film, Belle.  This film tells the remarkable true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who was the heir to inherit the kingdom of Botswana, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the British Caucasian woman Khama fell in love with, married, and brought back to his homeland.  As with Belle (which was about a mixed race woman adopted into British aristocracy), the movie comprehensibly lays out the details of the political climate and vicissitudes that the couple had to face.  These include not only the obvious disapproval of interracial marriage in the 1940s (including that of Seretse’s uncle) but also the devious machinations of British diplomats who threaten to give up Botswana as a protectorate against South Africa, a neighboring country practicing apartheid.   Some may see the movie’s portrayal of the lead characters as too noble (and the beginning romance does seem a little too rosy even if the couple bonds over swing dancing, which I always enjoy).  However, I admire Assante’s strengths as a filmmaker to portray characters that are decent yet recognizably human.  She is one of the few filmmakers making stately political films in the classical tradition with lush cinematography and romantic flourishes.

 

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Alien: Covenant (2017) – dir. Ridley Scott

Rating: 62/100

This second prequel to Alien and follow-up to Prometheus (which I liked) moves closer to the sci-fi horror tradition of the original 1979 classic.  This one, however, leaves me more conflicted about whether I was satisfied.  On the good side, there is a fantastic dual performance by Michael Fassbender playing two androids (David, from Prometheus, and a new one, Walter aboard the ship, the Covenant).  Katherine Waterston also continues the tradition of a strong female heroine leading the series (although her character is not as well defined as her predecessors).  There are some effective (and gory) sci-fi horror scenes and some visuals that I could admire with sheer pleasure.  However, perhaps in response to the complaints about Prometheus leaving too many unanswered questions, this one just settles for straight-up horror instead of actually exploring some of the deeper questions posed by the earlier film.  It also leaves a lot of inconsistencies that I will leave to discussions in spoiler reviews or message boards (and I may weigh in some of my own thoughts for that).  I think director Ridley Scott, rather than simply caving in to audience expectations, should have pursued the ideas from Prometheus in a more streamlined fashion, as many elements established from that one are ignored.

 

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An Education (2009) – dir. Lone Scherfig

Rating: 78/100

I went back to see this movie not only to see Carey Mulligan’s star-making performance but also see more films starring Rosamund Pike that show her accomplished range (and it speaks to her versatility that she did not make me think at all about her most famous diabolical role in Gone Girl when watching A United Kingdom).  Mulligan received comparisons to Audrey Hepburn for this role and her alacrity and instant likability play a great part in setting the proper tone to Lone Scherfig’s movie that deals with dicey subject matter.  She is a 16-year old girl growing up in early 1960s Britain who is drawn into the pleasures of high-class society by an older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard) in his 30s.  Her frequenting of jazz clubs and traveling to Paris distract her from her pursuit of going to Oxford (via the studies she finds boring) and are all obviously part of the elaborate, unsavory seduction.  The movie could have been too depressing or unsettling but the movie maintains a tone that is not soft or exploitative but level-headed in the eyes of a teenager who learns an object lesson (and Mulligan’s performance prevents her character from seeming like a victim).  Pike plays the crucial role of one of David’s friends who becomes something of an older sister figure to Mulligan in the “high class” society that she ultimately does not want to partake in.  It is also a pleasure to watch several accomplished British actresses like Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, and Sally Hawkins fill small but important roles.

 

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Colossal (2016) – dir. Nacho Vigalondo

Rating: 72/100

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a jobless party girl who drinks too much but then finds that her actions may be connected to a giant monster that is attacking Seoul, South Korea. That is the weird, wacky conceit of this movie that ultimately does not quite maintain the level of credibility to pull it off but manages to be mostly satisfying anyway thanks to a decent emotional thru line.  After Gloria is thrown out by her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens) in NYC, she moves back to her hometown in Connecticut and reconnects with an old childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis).  When she enters a park in her neighborhood, she finds that the monster in Seoul actually mirrors her actions exactly.  The first half treats the idea comically, but the story turns more serious to become a character study on the destructive nature of rage and alcoholism.  We can go along with the conceit without a scientific explanation but what strains the credibility are some character shifts that seem abrupt without a proper buildup.  However, Hathaway’s performance holds it together for us to forgive those gaps, and the movie symbolically conveys how we should be more aware of the consequences and the potential monstrosity of our own actions.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 7-13, 2017

It certainly wasn’t planned this way but the movies that I watched this past week turned out to carry a common theme of marriages under pressure or at the breaking point.  I am not a cynic but, as you may see from my least favorite of the week, the bond of marriage and the fissures that can happen in it should be treated with proper gravity and not be trivialized.  Here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

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Innocence (2000) – dir. Paul Cox

Rating: 33/100

This is the first movie that I have seen by the late Australian filmmaker, Paul Cox, whom I have read has dealt with romance in interesting ways.  I would like to check out more of his films, but this film of his from 2000 leaves me utterly unmoved.  The movie tells the story of two people in their 60s, one a widower, Andreas (Charles Tingwell) and still married Claire (Julia Blake), who decide to rekindle the passionate and reckless romance they shared five decades ago.  The story tries really hard to convey that sense of unbridled passion in their relationship (and based on the IMDb rating that is 7.5/10, many people seem to be moved by it) and how it is meant to be an emotional reawakening for all characters (even the cheated on husband played by Terry Norris).  To me, however, the film is not only a trivialization but a thoughtless idealization of Claire’s adultery that has hardly any reason or foundation to stand on.  Even with years of emotional paralysis, would Claire throw away her decades-long marriage on a distant memory of a young and possibly foolish romance?  The romance is not “innocence” as the title suggests but a mere illusion of it.  The scene when Andreas and Claire try to confront why they parted ways is completely unconvincing and, if you really stop to think about it, Andreas is really a jerk who contacts Claire simply because he is lonely.  A movie like Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County also dealt with adultery but at least that movie took seriously the weight of familial loyalty and responsibility against the prospect of recapturing romantic idealism.  In this one, even Claire’s adult son is supportive of his mother’s affair from the very beginning, which seems hardly realistic.

 

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The Past (2013) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

Rating: 88/100

This is the first of two movies by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi that I saw this week and it is his follow-up to the Oscar®-winning A Separation, which I absolutely loved.  Farhadi moves his milieu to France where a French woman, Marie (Berenice Bejo) is finalizing a divorce with Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mossafa). Ahmad left her returning to his home country four years ago and she has started a new relationship with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim).  Much like A Separation, Farhadi shows his storytelling gift for creating an emotional puzzle out of a decidedly tangled scenario.  In depicting the reactions of all involved including the consequences of the situation on the domestic front, the story spins out revelations based on who is aware of what information surrounding a pivotal event.  In doing so, Farhadi ensures that we empathize with all characters with rare concentration.

 

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The Salesman (2016) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

Rating: 86/100

Farhadi won his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® this past year for this movie (though he intentionally did not attend the Oscar® ceremony in protest of the travel ban).  This time, Farhadi places Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as the backdrop for his story.  Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who is playing The Salesman in a production of Miller’s play, contemplates on what to do when his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is attacked in the new apartment that they have just moved into.  As with his previous works, Farhadi frames his story around a crucial dire event and, in dealing with its ramifications, he subtly conveys details about cultural values in middle-class Iran.  The emotional intensity is driven by these subtle details that the story leaves us to intuit (such as the reasons for why Rana does not want Emad to act on anything).  By putting us in the position of intense observer of human behavior, the movie builds a moral and emotional quagmire where we can only identify and sympathize before starting to place blame.

Movie Diary for the Week of April 30-May 6, 2017

From the somewhat obscure to the kickoff of the summer blockbuster season has been the trend of my movie-watching week.  Here are the films that I saw this past week:

 

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Three (2016) – dir. Johnnie To

Rating: 62/100

One of the most prolific directors working in Hong Kong, Johnnie To has his latest film set in a hospital where a surgeon doctor (Wei Zhao), a potentially crooked cop (Louis Koo), and an armed robbery suspect (Wallace Chung) form three pegs of an unpredictable triangle.  The movie spends an hour setting up clues to what we know could amount to a tense climax.  However, it also meanders with other surgery scenes that may be effective in a medical drama, but interrupt the buildup of suspense in this one.  The slow-motion action scene at the climax, while overdone (especially by the standards of director To, who usually directs controlled explosions of violence), is rather impressive in how the camera tracks and glides through all the characters in a hospital room during a shootout to ultimately create an odd Yin-Yang effect.  It also culminates a key theme of what we can and cannot control in our circumstances.  As a suspense piece though, I was left wandering a few times to be completely effective.

 

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The Lost City of Z (2016) – dir. James Gray

Rating: 84/100

Director James Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers) takes on his most ambitious project in telling the true story of Lt. Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who led an expedition to Amazonia in the early 20th Century in hopes of finding civilization in what he called the City of Z.  Gray specializes in exploring characters who uneasily try to traverse between two worlds, one familiar and the other unfamiliar.  Here, he explores this theme with an intriguing middle-gaze balancing between the risks and dangers of the unknown and the complacency of high-class British society.  With clarity and visual detail, the movie maintains this thematic approach in showing a British man seeking proof of a undiscovered culture in the lands of Amazonia.  In telling the story, however, there is a great deal of fictionalization of the history (my friend, Stephen Morton sent me this helpful article on the artistic licenses the movie takes).  However, until the haunting final shot, the movie provides a vivid and engrossing account of a mysterious adventure.

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) – dir. James Gunn

Rating: 78/100

For every summer since 2007, the summer movie season has been kicked off with a superhero movie and 2017’s starts with this one.  While it cannot capture the magic of the first one, partly because you can’t give the jolt of surprise twice, this sequel comes pretty close.  All the characters, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are back from the first and their wisecracking jokes are still very funny (especially from Drax, who is a riot in this one).   The movie also nicely adds a few characters played by 80s icons such as Kurt Russell and a few others I will avoid mentioning, which is in keeping with the 80s cultural nostalgia the film banks on for much of its humor.  While the plot drags a little bit compared to the first one (particularly in the middle section), I was pretty much sold that I would like this one from the opening where Baby Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra’s Mr. Blue Sky while all his adult team members are fighting a gigantic monster in the background.  A side observation: with the presences of Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, and a former WWE wrestler, and what ultimately turns out to be a family story, is this series edging closer to a space version of a Fast and the Furious movie?

Movie Diary for the Week of April 23-29, 2017

Lately, I have been finding that my limited time to write full, long reviews is not quite keeping up with my desire to watch more movies and expand my cinematic universe.  Thus, I am going to try keeping a movie blog diary with short reviews of movies that I have seen in the past week.  I may write full reviews for select titles but I would like to express my thoughts on the movies I watch in short form.  So here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

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Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

Rating: 96/100

This documentary set in the Atecama Desert in Chile is one of the most mesmerizing films that I have seen in recent years.  In this desert, astronomers search the skies for clues about the origins of life while a group of women who search the grounds for remains of their loved ones killed under Pinochet’s regime.  Both groups are looking for signs of life from the past and they both hold out hope that they will find them.  Patricio Guzman’s film is a wholly ambitious and symbolically complex rumination on how the vastness and mysteriousness of the universe can bring some comfort to the victims of a vast and mysterious evil.

 

Film Review Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper (2016)

Rating: 83/100

There are many who, having only seen the Twilight films, still harbor doubts that Kristen Stewart is an actress of considerable depth.  However, Stewart has been building a steady career out of independent films and Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a fine showcase for her ability to essay fascinating characters out of small, not grandstanding gestures.  On the surface, the movie could be described as a ghost story set in the Paris fashion underworld.  However, it is at its core a study of grief centering around a character who, carrying an illness that may take her life at an early age and having lost her twin brother, ruminates on the dividing line between this world and the next.  Some of the plot elements like a murder mystery don’t quite come together but you won’t be able to take your eyes off Stewart who is in every scene.

 

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The Case for Christ (2017)

Rating: 71/100

A biopic about the religious conversion of Lee Strobel who started out as an investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune and, after his wife became a Christian, went on to become a prominent Christian author of many books including the source novel for this film.  Even as a Christian myself, I have found most Christian-themed movies to be overly preachy.  However, this film by director Jon Gunn smartly structures the story as a piece of investigative journalism that reasonably and historically argues the case for Christianity.  The drama is solid, even if I wished some elements including Strobel’s back story with his father were better fleshed out.  However, this is one of the rare movies that I would recommend as accessible to curious people outside the Christian audience.

 

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Rating: 63/100

Michael Bay tries to show that he can make a serious issue-oriented movie about warfare rather than the merely bombastic portrayal of the military he most often displays.  He partly succeeds, thanks to a solid turn by John Krasinski and battle scenes that are far more coherent than his usual, visually chaotic action (which honestly, physically give me a headache).  The story centers on the Benghazi conflict where a group of six ex-military contractors try to protect a CIA base from a group of locals who attack the compound.  Bay, however, does not provide enough context for the political complexities in Libya and, while he nobly portrays the contractors who risked their lives, the supporting characters are portrayed thinly as naysayers who impede on the central characters.   A decent effort by Bay standards, but not up to the standard of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

The new Disney live-action rendition of Beauty and the Beast is a movie that just about justifies its own reason for retelling on the big screen.  Initially, the recreations of the familiar pieces from the animated 1991 film are so slavish that they simply create déjà vu and unfavorable comparisons to the original.  However, with a few improvements along the way, this latest version ultimately finds and lets the charm and durability of the story shine through.

I will say straight up that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast has been my personal favorite Disney animated film.  Compared to many of the other Disney animated films like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin that seem to have two people falling for each other practically overnight, Beauty and the Beast takes its time to actually have two people, Belle and the Beast getting to know one another to find and embrace the inner beauty in each other.  It also has the courage to twist the Disney trope of the dashing, pompous prince character, Gaston into the motivation of an outright villain.  Above all, it has the highest sheer quantity of memorable songs in any single Disney film, I think, rendered beautifully by composer Alan Menken.

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When this 2017 version re-renders the first of these songs, “Belle”, the words, workmanlike and dutiful kept running through my mind to describe the direction and choreography.  The scene checks off the familiar visual and musical notes of the scene where Belle (Emma Watson) is into reading at a time when not many women are well-educated and others see her as peculiar.  It does it so slavishly that it plays honestly more like a live-action street parade of Disney characters rather than an organic scene.

To be fair, there are a few story points here and there that are more fleshed out.  The back story of the curse that turns the narcissistic prince into the Beast (Dan Stevens) is one (including a proper personification of the enchantress played by Hattie Morahan) and another is how Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) in this one not only breaks into the Beast’s palace but trying to steal a rose for his daughter.  I also liked one addition where Belle tries to show a young girl in the village to read while doing her laundry.  Crucially, Belle’s choice to be held captive in the palace instead of her father is her own unilateral decision this time.

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Despite these small improvements, dutiful is the word that I kept thinking through much of the film’s first half that sets up the familiar characters including Gaston (Luke Evans) and the prince’s servants that have been turned into antiques.  Part of the problem is in how director Bill Condon and his editor, Virginia Katz cut many of the scenes too quickly to let them breathe.  The Beast’s first shadowy appearance to Maurice atop a roof is drained of all menace by an unnecessary edit.  Many scenes do not seem to have any passion behind them such as not having Belle show any real sense of fear or wonder as she is held captive.  When the film played its chaotic rendition of “Be Our Guest”, I was almost ready to check out.

Thankfully, when it gets to the scene when Belle gets away into the forest and is attacked by wolves in the forest, but eventually saved by the Beast, Condon and the filmmakers seem to find their footing.  It is a turning point in the interaction between the two leads, and when the film arrives at this point when they start respecting each other to eventually fall for each other, it turns around as well.  The scenes between Belle and the Beast are allowed to play out longer and the musical scene in which Belle finds out about the Beast’s past is beautifully rendered.  There is also a good, understated musical number added for the Beast when he lets Belle go to tend to her father in need.

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One good thing about Disney’s recent iteration of turning their animated films into live-action versions is seeing accomplished and veteran actors take on the classic animated roles, aided by impressive motion capture work.  This is true here with the prince’s servant characters that are antiques.  Emma Thompson is a great trade for Angela Lansbury in playing the teapot, Mrs. Potts and singing the titular song, “Beauty and the Beast” during the ballroom dancing scene.  Ian McKellen, a regular for Condon’s films, and Ewan McGregor, donning a French accent, create a nice banter as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  It is also welcome to see Kevin Kline lend his gravity to Maurice and Josh Gad finds relish in playing the expanded part of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick.

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As the leads, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens acquit themselves well.  That Watson is not as expressive as she could be in the first half and Stevens is not as menacing as he could be is not necessarily their fault (and anyone who has seen Stevens in the 2014 thriller, The Guest will know he can play truly menacing).  Once the direction and editing get out of their way after the first half, their genial and romantic chemistry comes through as they talk about books and their backgrounds and dance during the ballroom scene.

So does this movie fully convince me that Disney should keep going through their animated vault to turn their films into live-action versions?  Quite frankly, no, as I personally felt that even 2016’s The Jungle Book did not work and was way overrated and 2015’s Cinderella was just passable.  However, I am glad that the filmmakers were able to re-capture some of the magic of the original story anyway and, for the majority of it, show enough care to the story to respect it.

Rating: 70/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2017.  Directed by Bill Condon.  Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos.  Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Hayden Gwynne, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Mack, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson.  Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.

Movie Review: Get Out

Jordan Peele’s Get Out is such a brilliant, effective hybrid of horror and dark comedy that, for those who have heard or seen nothing about this film including its trailer, I want to suggest that they remain that way and experience the film for themselves.  The film does not employ cheap horror tactics but rather relies on the intelligence and personalities of the characters, psychological motivations, and biting social satire for its scares and thrills.  If that is enough to already draw you in, just go see the film and shelve this review until later, even if I will try to preserve the film’s surprises for those who keep reading.

The suspenseful single-take opening scene plays with horror movie tropes while preying on the fear of an African-American man being misunderstood on a simple evening walk down the street.  The film then introduces an interracial couple, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an African-American man, and Rose Armitage (Alison Williams), a Caucasian woman.  She invites him over to dinner at her family’s estate for the weekend.  He asks whether her family knows he is black, which she apparently hasn’t.  She reassures him that her family is liberal-minded and that they will not care.  Since this is 50 years after the groundbreaking 1967 movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a similar scenario, surely he must have nothing to worry about, right?

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When the couple arrive at her family’s home, the parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage embrace Chris with opening arms.  However, that scene, which may have been a tender moment, is underscored with ominous music and filmed in a wide shot at a medium distance to give an almost voyeuristic feel.  The camera pulls back to reveal the viewpoint of another key character, a black gardener named Walter (Martin Henderson).  There is also a black maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel), whose face shows tears to laughs in the span of seconds to yield a creepily confusing emotion.  Another key player is Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones).

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We learn that Dean is a neurosurgeon and Missy is a psychiatrist that specializes in hypnosis (I would love to hear them arguing over the diagnosis of a mental condition, albeit at a safe distance).  Dean emphasizes how “liberal-minded” he is by stating, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term, if I could.”  Bits like this and other white people at a big guest party, such as one talking about golf and stating he loves “Tiger (Woods),” sharply reveal a particular kind of condescending racism that is not overt, but veiled, not vitriolic, but discourteous anyway.

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All of this gradually reveals an undercurrent that is far more sinister with some elements of The Stepford Wives.  How far it goes and how daring it gets (and it is very audacious) , you will discover for yourself.  What I do want to praise is the level of craft that writer/director Jordan Peele displays in his directorial debut (and he reportedly shot the film in 28 days).  I have not seen an episode of the comedy series, Key and Peele (though I am tempted to now) but I would guess that the level of biting satire and some hilarious lines, especially from LilRel Howery, who plays Chris’ TSA agent best friend, Rod Williams, are reminiscent of that show.  What Peele proves beyond his comedy is his command to handle the unnerving horror elements with careful pacing and use of string music.  Alfred Hitchcock famously said he loved to play his audience like a piano in his thrillers and he would have been proud with some interludes that Peele plays, especially in the last 30 minutes.

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The performances are all perfectly pitched and a refreshing quality about all the characters is that no one seems to make an illogical choice.  Again, I will not reveal who is who to preserve the surprises, but while the villainous characters set up their diabolical plan step by step so that we can follow it, the sympathetic characters smartly try to think their way out of their predicament.  It is gratifying to see characters who can challenge the audience’s survival intelligence and ingenuity rather than making dumb decisions that make us want to shout at the screen in lesser horror movies.

Word of mouth has carried this film since it was chosen for the secret midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January.  The movie has already become a sleeper hit, even when it opened during Oscar weekend, usually a dry time for newly opening movies.  It is rare when the buzz alone on the quality of a film can drive it to popularity but this film’s success is proof that low-budget well-made movies can break through to the masses.  A few people that I asked about this film before I saw it said it is “really good” and didn’t say much more.  I would like to leave it on a similar note.

Rating: 91/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2017.  Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Jordan Peele.  Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, and LilRel Howery.  Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

It was Douglas MacArthur who famously said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”  In Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, however, assassins cannot even fade away.  Here is John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who cannot catch a break in his attempts to leave behind his former life as a hitman and retire to a peaceful life.  At almost every turn though, his rivals find out they should have just let him be.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is, of course, the sequel to 2014’s John Wick, one of the more exciting action movies to come out of Hollywood in recent years.  That movie, if you may recall, found Wick in retirement and mourning over his late wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), only to be violently interrupted by three thugs who stole his car and killed his beloved dog.  That set him off on a torrent of rage that actually get puts to rest in this sequel’s opening action number, which reminds us what sets these movies apart from the cookie-cutter action fodder.

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That opening, which impressively combines car-chase action and hand-to-hand combat, begins with a Buster Keaton film being projected on to a street building, a bold standard the film sets for itself.  Like those Keaton films, one of the film’s pleasures is that the action relies on physical stunts and choreography captured by longer, fluid takes.  This sequel amps up the stunts and the choreography (and the brutality) to a new creatively insane level.  It is a relief that there are directors like Chad Stahelski (famously a stunt double for Reeves in the Matrix movies) who offer a strong rebuke to the quickly cut, frenetic action plaguing modern day cinema.

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After that opening sequence, Wick believes he can finally enjoy retirement with his new dog (who is never named, which may make him The Dog with No Name).  That is, until an old associate named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has a a very loyal deaf-mute henchwoman, Ares (Ruby Rose), comes knocking holding a marker that binds him to a past oath of debt that Wick must pay back.  Wick initially refuses but one blown-up house later, he finds that he must fulfill this oath to really come out of retirement.

Like past accomplished action sequels such as AliensTerminator 2, and more recently The Raid 2, the screenplay written by Derek Kolstad aims to deliver a more complicated story along with the improved action.  The film expands on the rules established by the Continental run by Winston (Ian McShane), with his front desk assistant, Charon (Lance Reddick).  Not only do they manage a hotel for assassins as a no-killing zone, as in the first film, but they have also set the rules on the binding of a marker and the setup of contracts.  I hesitate to get too much into the story so that you may enjoy the twists and turns that unfold.

Under the story, the backbone that lends the film some gravity is the sense of woefulness to John Wick who just cannot retire into peace.  When he kills, he does so with impeccable aim (mostly with head shots) and without looking back.  As Reeves plays him, however, there is no catharsis and every kill is one rung down the ladder back into the quagmire of the underworld.

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While that happens at the story and character levels, the fight sequences are so innovatively crazy this time that at one sequence, I almost turned to a friend sitting next to me to say, “This movie is insane!”  You will understand its context when you see the film, but that sequence is a montage that has Wick facing a gallery of assassins disguised as a sumo wrestler, a violinist, and others in New York City.  One scene, which shows Wick and another assassin, Cassian (played by rapper Common) firing their silenced guns as quietly as possible in a crowded NYC art museum, had me giggling in stunned disbelief.  That later builds to a faceoff on a NYC subway train when they board it from opposite sides, which, as any city subway rider would know, is implausible because train doors usually do not open on both sides simultaneously.  No matter, the ensuing impressive knife fight is worth it.

In both choreography and cinematography, the film also adopts a more confident cinematic language.  The action is supported by a greater variety of colors and camera distance and angles, thanks to cinematographer Dan Laustsen.  The colors range from the darkness in the catacombs of Rome and the prettiest fuchsia lights I’ve seen in a NYC subway to a kaleidoscope of blue, red, yellow, and pink in a gallery of mirrors in the climax (an homage to The Lady from Shanghai and Enter the Dragon).

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Reeves deserves serious credit for physically pushing himself more than he has before to be game for these action sequences.  While there must be many stuntmen who also warrant props for doing the more dangerous stunts, Reeves reportedly does most of them himself in his 50s, like Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible movies.  As he performs it in the choreography, we understand how Wick, while capable of getting injured, is proficient in all distances of combat and how one person can actually face a multitude of thugs in a fight.  The first film showed Wick tackling one guy, mowing a few others, and then finally dispatching the first one.  This one shows more clearly how he is able to use one guy as a shield to fend off others.

So will this movie win over new people who did not enjoy the first John Wick?  Probably not.  However, action fans will be in bliss with this sequel.  There is already a third part planned for this series, which may suggest that assassins don’t retire, they just reload.  That will likely be bad news for Wick’s enemies but good news for fans who will have their action movie appetite satisfied and whetted even more.

Rating: 86/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2017.  Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Chad Stahelski.  Written by Derek Kolstad.  Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, and Bridget Moynahan.  Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity.