Monday, February 20, 2017
Hollywood makes out two types of sequels. First, those sequels that aren’t as good as their forerunners. Second, those sequels that surpass their predecessors. Basically, sequels are either better or worse than what spawned them. “John Wick: Chapter 2” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) belongs to the second category. Stunt double Chad Stahelski and scenarist Derek Kolstad respectively return as director and writer for the bullet-riddled bloodbath “John Wick 2,” and Keanu Reeves reprises his role as the invincible, sharp-shooting assassin who doesn’t aim to please. No, Wick’s new pet pooch doesn’t die in this installment. Moreover, no other animals are harmed. Anybody who saw the original “John Wick” knows the villains spoke in awe about John Wick’s lethal use of pencils. Appropriately enough, Stahelski stages a pencil scene for the sequel, and you will have an entirely new respect for yellow number two pencils. We’ll have to see if something like this doesn’t ultimately winds up as merchandise to advertise the franchise. This unbreakable pencil preserves its point throughout a slam-bang combat encounter that would shatter a regular pencil. Audaciously preposterous, hopelessly predictable, but thoroughly captivating nonsense, “John Wick 2” pushes everything to the limit except the number of lines uttered by Keanu Reeves. Tired of gun shy, shoot’em ups that confine their mortality rates to single digits? “John Wick 2” boasts a triple-digit body count with an alarming number of head shots. Typically, our bruised and battered hero pumps two slugs into an adversary’s torso and then polishes them off with one in the noggin. When he exhausts his ammo, he resorts to battlefield salvage and appropriates another man’s weapon so he can keep on killing. Meaning, if you require discretion in the depiction of violence, you may have complaints about this exciting, atmospheric, and elegantly lensed action thriller with lots of colorfully illuminated settings. Incidentally, “John Wick 2” reunites Reeves and “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne for a couple of scenes. Were it little more than the original, “John Wick 2” wouldn’t be as memorable, but it is something more with some imaginative tweaks that its predecessor lacked.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” picks up where the previous epic ended. Since Wick has acquired a new dog, he searches now for the car that his enemies stole, and the film opens with an over-the-top, car-smashing, body-crashing encounter in a rival mobster’s garage with our hero relying on wits, fists, and martial arts. Like a respectable sequel, “John Wick 2” reminds us what was at stake in the first film as well as the character of our hero. A relative of the mobsters who shot Wick’s puppy dog and then beat him senseless, Abram (Peter Stormare of “22 Jump Street”) is preparing to clear out since he fears Wick is coming after him next. While Wick dispatches Abram’s army of thugs and mechanics, Abram’s eyes bulge with abject terror, and Stormare gives a great performance by his reactions to the arrival of his adversary. When they finally meet after our hero has cleared a gauntlet of killers, Wick pours Abram a drink and proposes peace with a toast. The two gulp their liquor and forge an armistice. Abram bids Wick a happy retirement. Naturally, however, nothing of the sort is going to happen either for Wick or the audience. In a bit of backstory, we learn that John Wick indebted himself to a treacherous, high-ranking mobster, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio of “Loose Cannons”), with a blood oath marker so he could retire and live peacefully with his wife Helen. Now, after wrapping up his revenge, Wick discovers to his chagrin that Santino is calling in that marker! Although Wick is in no position to refuse an assignment from Santino, he refuses to accommodate Santino because he is weary of all the shooting and killing. A disappointed Santino leaves Wick’s house and then shoulders an awesome incendiary weapon and fire-bombs our hero’s house, blasting Wick off the premises but not killing his dog. Resigned to his fate, Wick sits down with Santino and agrees to carry out one final mission. The evil Santino wants the seat on an international crime council that his late father willed to his older sister, Gianna D'Antonio (Claudia Gerini of “Deceit”), and he stipulates that our hero must ice her. Off to Rome flies Wick where he acquires an arsenal that James Bond would envy, a dark tailor-made, bullet-proof suit, and the blueprints to infiltrate Gianna’s inner sanctum and surprise her. What Wick doesn’t plan for adequately is Gianna’s steadfast bodyguard Cassian (Common of “American Gangster”), and these two titans tangle in a blood and guts tango that ends abruptly after they crash into the sacred Continental Hotel in Rome, run by Julius (Franco Nero of “Django”), where mobsters must cease and desist because it represents the equivalent of a gangland church that grants amnesty. At this point, Wick realizes that the scheming Santino has double-crossed him. Santino points out he wouldn’t be much of a brother if he didn’t avenge the murder of his sister. When his own gunmen cannot liquidate Wick, Santino offers a $7-million-dollar bounty, and hitmen from every corner of the globe swarm after our resilient hero.
Aside from Keanu Reeves’ typically stoic performance, “John Wick: Chapter Two” features a sturdy cast, with Ian McShane reprising his role as Winston, the manager of the New York City Continental Hotel--where mobsters are prohibited from fighting with their adversaries, and Lance Reddick as the accommodating desk clerk Charon. John Leguizamo appears briefly as the body shop repairman who helped Wick locate his Mustang, and Bridget Moynahan appears in a flashback as Wick’s late wife Helen. Director Chad Stahelski, who once earned his living as Keanu Reeve’s stunt double, need never look back. Slated to helm the new “Highlander” reboot, Stahelski keeps things thumping throughout this two-hour plus neo-noir thriller. The hall of mirrors scene where Wick stalks Santino rivals the original scene in Orson Welles’ iconic thriller “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947).
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
If tour-de-force performances alone made great movies, then “Sixth Sense” writer & director M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” (* OUT OF ****) would be one of the best. Instead, Shyamalan’s twelfth movie qualifies as an unintentionally hilarious, multiple identity disorder, abduction chiller about a colorful fruit loop bristling with more identities than you can count on fingers and toes together. As the traumatized casualty of an abusive mom, woebegone protagonist Kevin Wendel Crumb (James McAvoy) has forged a ‘Horde’ of personalities to serve as a bulwark against grim reality. Predictable, derivative, and ultimately preposterous, “Split” contains McAvoy’s nuanced performance as well as Shyamalan’s usual standard-issue surprises. Indeed, McAvoy has a field day chewing the scenery as a wacko with 23 personalities who is gestating number twenty-four. Basically, this charming but deranged psycho abducts three pretty young things from a Philadelphia shopping mall and confines them for his own culinary delight in an underground facility from which escape is virtually impossible. Compared with other movies about split-personality psychos, “Split” does feature a looney tune with a greater number of identities than any other movie. McAvoy’s chameleon-like capacity to shift from one identity to another in the flick of an eyelash is as fluid as if he were genuinely conflicted himself. Suffice to say, McAvoy is brilliant, but perhaps not Oscar brilliant. “Split” boils down to a clever, self-conscious one-man show despite the quartet of additional characters involved. Unfortunately, we see only eight of the twenty-three weirdos that McAvoy portrays, but none is either demonic or memorable. Meanwhile, two of those four other characters lack sympathy because they brought this tragedy on themselves by ridiculing the psycho. Shyamalan’s surprises occur just where you would expect them, and you won’t feel the overwhelming urge to shout “WOW!” because you are so flabbergasted. Meantime, Shyamalan struggles desperately to spawn suspense, but what he achieves remains at best trifling. Sometimes, this half-baked suspense proves aggravating because you realize how futile it is for these doomed characters. On the other hand, unlike most psychos on killing spree saga, “Split” doesn’t wallow in gratuitous blood and gore.
Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch”) has been forged in a crucible of child abuse, too. A heart attack killed her father (Sebastian Arcelus of “Ted 2”) while she was attending elementary school. Sadly, her father’s brother, Uncle John (Brad William Henke of “Fury”), has assumed the duties as a guardian for Casey. Without divulging too much, Casey and her stepfather have had an adversial relationship. Now, in high school, Casey prefers to keep to herself whenever possible. Two of her snobbish classmates, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson of “The Edge of Seventeen”) and Claire’s African-American friend Marcia (Jessica of “Honeytrap”), have invited her to their birthday party more out of mercy rather than friendship. Indeed, they display cynical attitudes about Casey, but they fear the repercussions on social media about what they might have faced had they not invited Casey. When her ride doesn’t materialize, Casey agrees to accompany Claire and Marcia and listen to Claire’s father (Brian Gildea) who loves to tell terrible jokes. As the saying goes, Hell is a road asphalted with good intentions, and Claire and Marcia have provided the paving that puts Casey in harm’s way. Before they can pull out of the parking lot, a stranger, Kevin Wendel Crumb intervenes, dispenses with Claire’s dad, and then carjacks them. Slipping on a face mask, he sprays something into their eyes that plunges them into oblivion. Of course, had they not been paralyzed with fear, these girls could have bailed out before Kevin incapacitated them. When they awaken, the girls find themselves locked up in a room with the same tight-lipped stranger staring at them. Eventually, they discover that something is seriously amiss with their captor. Every time Crumb appears, he masquerades as an entirely different fellow, sometimes even as a woman. What the three girls don’t know is that Kevin is a patient of a world-renowned psychotherapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley of “Frantic”), who has terribly misjudged the threat that he poses to society. Repeatedly, Kevin tells her about ‘the beast’ and how this messianic personality will shield all twenty-three personalities from scorn and ridicule. When ‘the beast’ shows up, “Split” turns into a warped Marvel Comics movie because the beast possesses supernatural characteristics. At this point, you want to laugh out loud at this transition from a dreary abduction potboiler to a fantasy epic that happens to be a belated sequel to the Bruce Willis & Samuel L. Jackson thriller “Unbreakable.”
Nothing in this review has been designed to spoil “Split” if you decide to see it. You may walk into this superficial saga with greater awareness than you might have, but far be it for me to sabotage the quirky ending that hinges on purity. Before anybody can complain that I hate all Shyamalan’s movies, let me say that I admired “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “Lady in the Water,” but I abhorred “The Village,” “The Visit,” “After Earth,” “The Last Airbender,” and “The Happening.” “Split” belongs to the latter category of travesties. Comparably, as deplorable as it was, “The Visit” surpasses “Split.” Nothing about “Split” is more than timidly suspenseful, and the action degenerates into a series of episodic encounters between McAvoy’s various personalities and his victims. Casey is the only other truly interesting character aside from the loquacious Dr. Karen Fletcher. The other two girls might as well have been mannequins. They are essentially expendable, and they behave like whiny victims in a movie where whiny victims must perish. The surprise ending came as neither a relief nor a revelation. More often than not, I felt like Shyamalan cheated with some of the narrative twists that contained neither enough credibility nor sufficient spontaneity. Finally, Shyamalan has exploited Dissociative Identity Disorder as a cheap gimmick to conjure up an uninspired Grimm’s style fairy tale that stigmatizes the disorder rather than entertains us as a legitimate horror movie.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Nothing worthwhile comes without sacrifice, and the superlative science fiction saga “Rogue One, A Star Wars Story” (**** OUT OF ****) exemplifies this notion. Basically, “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards, “Golden Compass” scenarist Chris Weitz, and “Bourne” trilogy scribe Tony Gilroy have eliminated all those buffoonish, kid-friendly aliens and given adults a chance to experience an unusually Spartan “Star Wars” saga. No, the PG-13 rated “Rogue One” is neither “Saving Private Ryan” nor “Hacksaw Ridge,” but the straightforward action will give you a reason to shed a tear since a palatable sense of doom looms over this skullduggery. Everything I’ve read about this entry in the “Star Wars” universe emphasizes the word ‘stand-alone’ so you won’t be seeing the gifted cast, featuring Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, and Diego Luna, reprising their roles unless Disney conjures up prequels. Of course, this doesn’t apply to Darth Vader who behaves like the ruthless ruffian that he has always been. Mind you, in some respects, “Rogue One” may seem hopelessly predictable for some aficionados. If you’ve seen George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode VI: A New Hope,” then you know that the Death Star didn’t survive that adventurous classic. “Rogue One” qualifies as a prequel. Chronologically, this outing takes place between “Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith” (2005) and “Star Wars: Episode VI: A New Hope.” Although we know the Death Star is ill-fated, what we didn’t know the identity of the individual who sowed the seeds for its destruction. Some of the finest moments in “Rogue One” occur when the Grand Moff Tarkin appears. This is the infamous character that the late British actor Peter Cushing of “Frankenstein” fame portrayed with such ascetic villainy. Cushing’s estate approved the physical recreation of the late actor’s personage, and actor Guy Henry’s impersonation is flawless. Quibbles aside, if Peter Cushing could see what they’ve accomplished, he’d be impressed. Similarly, what Edwards and his scenarists have achieved with Disney’s audacious attempt to expand the “Star Wars” time-line is sensational. Indeed, the House of Mouse has succeeded where few film studios have ever gone with a legitimate spin-off from a multi-million-dollar franchise.
Since “Star Wars: Episode VI: A New Hope” came out back in the summer of 1977, fans have complained about the sweet spot in the Death Star that enabled the Alliance to blow it up. “Rogue One” relates the story about that sweet spot, and “Star Wars” aficionados can argue about other things—primarily the time-line between the two films—because Luke and Leia were born at the end of “Episode III.” Nevertheless, who really cares about such things, when a movie like “Rogue One” fills the gap? Aside from Darth Vader, C3PO, R2D2, and Princess Leia, the primary characters in “Rogue One” are entirely new to the franchise. A brilliant scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen of “Dr. Strange”), has been forced against his will to collaborate with the Empire to forge the ultimate weapon of devastation. The wicked Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn of “Killing Them Softly”) has commandeered Galen for the project, and he intends to use Galen’s wife Kyra (Valene Kane of “Victor Frankenstein”) and his adolescent daughter Jyn (Beau Gadsdon) as bargaining chips. Galen sends his daughter into hiding, and Kyra perishes trying to thwart Orson. Jyn grows up under the tutelage of an extreme radical, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker of “Platoon”), and she becomes a notorious criminal who has been imprisoned when the Rebel Alliance rescues her. It seems that an Empire pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed of “Nightcrawler”) has defected and given himself up to Saw. Bodhi claims he has an urgent message from Galen Erso about the Death Star. Naturally, nobody believes the Empire could have forged such an awesome armament. The Rebel Alliance isn’t prepared to be so casual about this booger bear. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna of “Blood Father”) and his reprogrammed Empire Droid K-2s0 (voice of Alan Tudyk of “Serenity”) break Jyn (Felicity Jones of “Brideshead Revisited”) out captivity when she is being transferred to a labor camp. Later, as Jyn explains to Saw, the Rebel Alliance is using her for safe passage into Saw’s camp on the planetary moon Jedha where Bodhi is being held captive. Saw surprises Jyn with a holographic message from Galen intended for her. Galen explains that the Death Star has the equivalent of an Achilles’ Heel that will render it vulnerable to the Rebels. No sooner has Jyn seen this message than the Grand Moff Tarkin brings the Death Star into orbit around Jedha and unleashes its formidable power on the city. During their rushed exit from Jedha, Cassian and Jyn pick up a pair of hitchhikers, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen of “Iron Monkey 2”) and his sidekick Base Malbus (Wen Jiang of “Let the Bullets Fly”), who become recruits for the cause. Chirrut is a blind martial arts warrior who wields a lethal staff and believes in the Force with all his heart.
“Rogue One, A Star Wars Story” depicts the efforts of the underdog Rebel Alliance to triumph over the Empire. Basically, this exciting escapade works on the level of a Republic Serial from the 1940s with one cliffhanger scene after another ensuing in a grand finale on a scenic Caribbean-like island named Scarif where the star fleets of the both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire wage the battle to end all battles. Although it doesn’t rely on the usual trio of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, “Rogue One” imitates “Star Wars” in virtually every respect except its ending with a Pyrrhic Victory. Felicity Jones makes a sympathetic heroine that you won’t forget. Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk as K-2S0 compete as the ultimate scene stealers. The special effects are fantastic. Altogether, “Rogue One” qualifies as the best “Star Wars” epic since “The Empire Strikes Back.”