John Wick: Chapter Two – a review

john-wick-goes-walking-his-dog-in-new-photos

Wicked…

Uber-violent, hyper-real and stunningly-stylised, John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up where the first film left off in more ways than one. Keanu Reeves reprises the titular role with enough dash and swagger to carry the film through its slightly over-reaching 122 minute duration and is still as cool and iconic a movie (anti)hero as you’ll find. Think Clint Eastwood on Speed (get it?).

The Rome nightclub/party/catacombs sequence might just be some of the best action captured on film in recent memory but the feeling that you’re enjoying watching an endless stream of human beings having their heads blown off and seeing their brain matter plastered everywhere can’t ultimately be escaped, which somewhat leaves you questioning the validity of the whole experience and your participation in it, let alone the wider sociological ramifications.

But it is an action film and this is the world we live in – where violence is still revered as entertainment – so let’s just stick to appreciating it within its genre…

Replete with several moments of cinematic homage, including a couple of nods to The Matrix – you can’t help but think ‘Morpheus!’ when Keanu first meets Laurence Fishburne again – and a ‘house of mirrors’ sequence hearkening back to Bruce Lee‘s finale in legendary Enter the Dragon, the sense of self-referential awareness only adds to the aesthetic of John Wick’s world. And in Wick, Reeves has found a career-resurgent character. If the suit fits…and at 52 years of age, he wears it with aplomb.

Both in terms of narrative and thematic design, John Wick 2 is far less succinct and concise than the original installment. 2014’s outing was able to maintain the taught revenge concept a little better, being over 20 minutes shorter, but in so doing never had to flesh out anything beyond the core because its sense of vengeance was so pure and propulsive. Revisiting a character who, seemingly, has already quenched his thirst for blood requires that we have a bit more by way of exposition this time around. This is handled well, with the help of charismatic support from the likes of returning Ian McShane and Lance Redddick, combined with fresh turns from Ruby Rose and Common. The latter newcomer being somewhat more believable than the former and, in fact, Rose’s mute killer is somewhat over-the-top even amidst the heightened-nearly-comicbook-reality that is John Wick. We learn more about the secret society of these underworld assassins and delve a shade darker into John Wick the man, one plagued by loss and the age-old career-killer-who-wanted-to-stop-killing-but-had-his-chance-of-redemption-cruelly-taken-away-so-now-must-kill-again-and-kill-everyone syndrome.

All in all, a highly entertaining, if drawn out and ridiculously violent, super-slick action spectacular.

 

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Live By Night – a review

I misread the dress code...

I misread the dress code on the invite, OK…

The title of Ben Affleck‘s new gangster epic has about as much to do with the plot of the film as his character’s narrative arc has to do with a banana. Nothing. Live By Night is very good-looking, well dressed but clearly overrated. A bit like Affleck himself, unfortunately, as he gets lost swanning around in dozens of exquisitely contemporaneous costumes and forgets to, you know, actually tell a story.

The production design, cinematography and, in particular, the script are all really quite good, testament to Affleck as a writer, but perhaps he falls foul of the curse of biting off more than you can chew. Wearing the hats (Oh, he loves wearing hats in this movie) of writer, director AND lead actor is a tall order, even for someone as talented and experienced as he is, and maybe one too many as there is just something lacking here.

An excellent cast, including an always-full-of-scene-stealing-charisma Brendan Gleeson, veteran pathos from Chris Cooper, sustainable sass from Sienna Miller, New York chomping grit from Chris Messina, an underused balance of delicacy and unhinged fervour by Elle Fanning and a siren-like love interest from Zoe Saldana, can do nothing to elevate this supposedly ‘epic’ picture from the realm of valiant but failed attempt.

It’s a well enough put together film, like a decently complex jigsaw that’s finished with all the right pieces in place but the picture that it forms isn’t all that impressive considering all the work that went into making it. The feeling that Affleck was just having too much fun dressing up, playing gangsters, getting all the girls and forgot to act cannot be escaped. His character, despite attempts to set him up as a First World War veteran recovering from the horrors of battle and determined never to follow orders to kill again are blown out of the water when he starts working for a mob boss and killing people. To say his character and subsequently the film upon which it is based is garbled is to do a disservice to any honest hard-working garbler. This is simply just a narrative mess.

The various genre tropes that are carted out – non-linear storytelling, the rise and fall/rags to riches trajectory – all end up tasting stale and well past their sell-by-dates. Morally a more ambiguous, nay ambivalent, character you may never find. That and the considerable violence on display just feels gratuitous. There’s no reason for him to do any of what he does, other than selfish gain. In order for that to work you need to actually care about your protagonist but how can you be expected to care what happens to someone when they don’t seem to care about anything themselves?

If Argo was overrated, at least it was still a pretty compelling film. This suffers all the damage of the former without any waft of the latter. Maybe there wasn’t space for another take on the gangster epic, maybe it missed its window by a few years or maybe this just ain’t it. In any case, they say you can’t polish a turd, well, this one is quite shiny.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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A Monster Calls – a review

have you farted...?

have you farted…?

Director J.A. Bayona (best known for 2007’s The Orphanage) teams up with his long-time cinematographer and collaborator, Oscar Faura, to conjure a stunning and, if somewhat sentimental, moving Gothic fairy-tale in his latest offering, A Monster Calls.

lt has a lot going for it; a very strong cast, highly ornate and convincing special effects and a well written and intelligently crafted story. The latter owing to the work of author Patrick Ness, who penned the screenplay based on his own novel of the same name.

Sharing the production designer from Guillermo Del Toro‘s 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as some of the team behind the special effects from that film, then although comparisons can and will be drawn between the two films, then the technical aesthetic that they share is largely where such comparison should begin and end. A Monster Calls is thematically similar, in that both films compose the coming-of-age story of a child seeking guidance from a somewhat frightening preternatural creature that emerges from nature (in Pan’s Labyrinth it’s a fawn, here a giant yew tree), but tonally the two are leagues apart.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, who is struggling with the reality of his single-mother’s terminal illness. And it’s a break-out role for the youngster, showing an admirable, albeit limited by his years, range in leading such a big movie whilst maintaining the essential vulnerability of youth that makes his performance so affective.

Felicity Jones, although limited on screen time, gives a warmth and reality to her situation albeit from the slightly idealised perspective of her adoring son. Apart from one moment when she says she’s ‘angry too’, you wouldn’t know it, as Jones is delicate and motherly, almost in a saintly way, rendering her unable to show the process she must be going through as her illness overtakes the efforts for treatment. Anyway, the film is crafted from Conor’s perspective, the journey, the rage, the sorrow, the self-discovery, the view of his mother, are all his and so ours too.

The bullies at school, the over-bearing ogre of a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and the ever-absent father (Toby Kebbell) are all sub-plots that merely add tapestry to the core design. That of this young boy turning to his imagination to escape the harsh realities presented by his life. That imagination takes form in a giant yew tree, voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson, that comes to life and challenges him with stories from times gone by in a not-too-thinly veiled mechanism to subconsciously process his grief and turmoil.

Apart from Conor, the characters are largely vignettes and, yes, Weaver’s accent is a little dodgy, Jones a touch too ethereal, Kebbell restricted to charming failure, but they are extremely well-crafted ones and serve their purpose perfectly. Visually, it’s a tour de force with the watercolour realisations of the tree’s mythical tales beautifully complementing the darker world that Conor finds himself trapped in.

Technically, it’s a spectacle. Brilliantly helmed and with a stellar cast, A Monster Calls is a thoroughly enjoyable and moving tale.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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