Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

In 2014, the surprising hit John Wick created a diverting comic-book riff on the revenge drama, seeming like a one-off set piece that hit all the buttons action fans look for.  However, with John Wick: Chapter 2, the writer/director team of Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski have taken what I consider to be a significant step forward in the evolution of American action filmmaking.  Ditching the sentiment almost completely, they dove into the lunatic alternate reality they created, and came away with one of the most consistently enthralling and artistically expressive action movies I’ve ever seen.  It left me gasping, and as I pant for more I’m forced to admit that though this movie’s influences are many, from the riveting gun-fu of Hard Boiled to the intense close-quarter combat of Ong-Bak, in sheer audacious bravado this film stands alone (except for maybe Hard Boiled).

I say audacious because according to the entertainment section of businessinsider.com, the kill count of this blood-drenched magnum power shot stands at a staggering 128, meaning that the average stands at just over one kill every minute of the movie’s 122 minute runtime.  This mass of fatalities, however, is not stretched out over the entire movie, but is rather concentrated in two or three central shootouts (depending on how you determine when one shoot out ends and another begins), which see the inimitable Keanu Reeves transform into the mechanized killbot it seems he was always meant to be.  Because of his strangely vacuous performance style, which made him perfect for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the object of derisive laughter in Dangerous Liaisons, makes him this movie’s perfect protagonist.

I refer to Reeves’ character, the eponymous John Wick as a protagonist, not a hero, because John Wick: Chapter 2 has no real heroes.  In the first John Wick, the eponymous character’s thirst for revenge was ignited by the death of his beagle puppy named Daisy, a symbol of the love he’d had for his recently deceased wife.  In this second volume of the Wick saga, the movie’s central villain simply destroys his house, without even harming the new dog he never bothers to name.  It is notable that whereas Daisy, the puppy from the original film, was a cuddly little bundle of love, Wick’s new dog is a very obedient pit bull.  This is a signifier that in the first movie, Wick lost his soul, and though he at first remains reluctant to return to death-dealing, he ends up taking to it like a master executioner, killing without thought.

This singularity of purpose and lack of true motivation are two of the things that I believe make this movie a significant advancement in American action cinema.  Too often, even in justifiably regarded tentpoles of the genre like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, the action has to pause for the insertion of sentiment or (god forbid) romance, giving viewers like me a chance to go to the bathroom.  John Wick: Chapter 2 eschews any sentimental subplots, replacing them instead with an extraordinary visual panache.  Shootouts in an art exhibit containing a hall of mirrors and a topiary gallery that changes color depending on which side its viewed from are entrancing; so much so that they forego the need of an emotional undercurrent.  The movie’s director Chad Stahelski began in movies as a stuntman, most notably doubling for Reeves in The Matrix, and with this viscera-speckled opus, he shows that the closer one draws to violent action, the more such warfare becomes part of his identity.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Nobuaki Minegishi (comic), Park Chan-wook, Chun-hyeong Lim, Jo-yun Hwang (screenplay)

Actors: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Hye-jeong Kang

Available now on Netflix

When I first saw it in 2005, Park Chan-wook’s seminal standout Oldboy knocked me on my ass, enrapturing me in a world of heretofore unrealized filmmaking potential.  It seemed so alive.  From the first scene of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) yelping in drunken rage from a bench in the police station, it was plainly evident that this film was the work of a master.  From the exquisitely crafted set pieces to the relentless movement of the action scenes, it is easy to see why this movie, which was not originally submitted for competition to the Cannes film festival, ended up winning the Grand Prix (unofficial second place).  Though at it’s heart, Oldboy is in many ways a horror movie, and the squeamish might do themselves a favor by staying away, for those with the stomach for it, there is scarcely a better movie-watching experience to be had.

At the beginning of the movie, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a nondescript, drunken Korean office worker, is kidnapped and imprisoned in what seems like a shabby hotel room.  He is kept prisoner in this one room for fifteen years.  In these fifteen long years, while he trains himself obsessively, he also becomes increasingly unhinged.  When he is unexpectedly released inside of a suitcase on top of a high-rise, he has only one goal, to discover what happened to him.  This is a very compelling plot line, and though I believe it would have been engrossing enough to hold my interest whoever the performers were, Choi Min-sik does a superb job of making his character seem genuinely deranged.  When he is released on the skyscraper’s roof, he stops a man from committing suicide, only to break into a wide grin as the man finally does kill himself moments afterwards.

As the plot twists its way through various insane and unseemly revelations, Park Chan-wook fills the movie’s running time with unforgettable scenes and sequences, creating an entrancing head-trip of a movie.  One scene that is undoubtedly the movie’s feature attraction, a three-minute fight scene where the hero dispatches with a hallway full of faceless thugs using only a hammer, is only one of the notable scenes in Oldboy.  Choi Min-sik devouring a living octopus whole, as well as the villain (Yoo Ji-tae) clad in a gas mask and hazmat suit spooning a naked Oh Dae-su are two more examples of the enthralling artistry on display in this movie.

As the particularities of the plot reveal themselves and the story delivers a sickening denouement, the true intricacy of Oldboy reveals itself.  As the movie ends and each character’s path finds its own twisted conclusion, a message finally makes itself clear.  This is a movie about obsession, showing the way that vengeance, especially when taken to its greatest possible extremes, brings only evil into the world.  Through his use of ecstatically inventive filmmaking, Park Chan-wook has created an unflinching, deeply entertaining, and philosophically relevant work of art.

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Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)

Movie Review: Superman 2 (1980)

Superman 2 (1980)

Director: Richard Lester

Writer: Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel (Character created by) Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman (screenplay)

Actors: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Terrence Stamp

Available on Netflix

Superman 2 is in every way I can think of, the best superhero movie that has ever been made.  I hold this to be true despite the frankly paleolithic special effects, the lack of emotional depth, and the hokeyness of the screenplay, because it is fun.  This movie is so fun that when Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his dim-witted henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) escape from their cell using impossibly sophisticated holographic technology, they are lifted from the prison yard in a hot air balloon.  This is plainly ridiculous and fitfully hilarious, yet what is most exemplary about this scene and the movie as a whole is the way that despite the sometimes farcical nature of the events depicted, they are never boring.

This favorite childhood comic book of a movie opens on the trial of the three Kryptonians who will become this movie’s central villains: Non (Jack O’Hallaran), Ursua (Sarah Douglas), and one of the most iconic super villains in movie history, General Zod (Terrence Stamp).  They are banished to float through space forever, imprisoned in a constantly spinning pane of glass.  There is never any explanation of what this prison is exactly, nor why the shockwave created by a French terrorist’s bomb that Superman hurled into space (a long stupid story) frees them from it, but it is this freedom of narrative that is Superman 2’s greatest asset.

In an era where superhero movies seem to get darker every year, Superman 2 is a joy to behold, as are all performances of the movie’s somewhat ham-fisted screenplay.  Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is completely goofy, wearing brightly-colored oversized suits as he talks about his disdain for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Hackman’s Luthor more than twice refers to himself as “the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known.”  While I don’t believe that a great criminal mastermind would go around telling everybody about it, the comic relief  Hackman delivers is the perfect counterpoint to the romance of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).

As the movie begins, Clark pines after Lois from afar, even when the two are sent in disguise as newlyweds to investigate tourism scams at Niagara Falls.  Kidder and Reeve do a splendid job of convincing the audience that their attraction is mutual, and when Clark finally admits that he is Superman, Ms. Lane’s eyes swoon with an unbridled desire.  Seeing Superman and Lois Lane lay next to each other in their marital bed (presumably) having consummated their feelings, the fifteen-year-old boy in everyone jumps for joy.  Joy is the word that first leaps to mind considering Superman 2, as it imbues every frame with childlike laughter.

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Movie Review: Superman 2 (1980)

Movie Review: Sing Street

Sing Street is boundlessly enjoyable and irresistibly euphoric, making it feel like the most worthwhile movie watching experience I’ve had in years.  Directed by John Carney, who achieved fame creating 2007’s surprise musical hit Once, again packs this film with very good original music (Composed by veteran music producer Gary Clark) to effectively enhance the emotional impact of the story.  The film takes the well-worn (i.e overdone) plot line of a troubled youth escaping his depressing home life through music, and while strictly adhering to every cliche of the genre, it elevates the story into something spectacular and life-affirming.

The film’s protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), an unassuming frail waif of a teen, who inside carries the heart of a champion.  Whereas in a typical coming of age/band formation story the protagonist would admire his muse from afar, crippled by nerves, Conor walks right up to her and asks if she wants a light for the unlit cigarette hanging from her lips.  Conor’s queen Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is a fascinating character, reacting to her own depressing circumstance with an iron-faced confidence, she stands on the stoop of the girl’s home where she lives across from the all boys school that Conor attends everyday, watching.

Rafina’s a ward of the State whom we’re led to believe may have been taken away from her father because of sexual abuse (this is only ever hinted at), and she has only threadbare dreams of becoming a model in London.  However, she is the catalyst that drives every major step in the creation of this band, and the chemistry she has with Conor quickly becomes the focal point of the movie.  Around this relationship Carney found a cast of extremely charming and talented teenagers, particularly Mark McKenna and Ian Kenny, to pack the rest of the film with hilariously honest moments.

Sing Street is a movie about dreams, and the way they can seem impossible until true passion and heartfelt fervor can put them in reach before you know it.  This brings us to another key character, Conor’s older brother Robert. Robert is a 20-something college dropout who once upon a time had musical dreams of his own, but rather than any type of jealousy, he loves imparting his love of popular music onto Conor.  Robert’s deep love for his little brother is written on his face at every scene.  At one moment in the film, Robert leaps into the air with triumphant joy at Conor’s courage and risk-taking, and watching Sing Street made me want to join along.

Sing Street (2016)

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor

Lucy Boynton as Raphina

Jack Reynor as Robert

Trailer addendum: This trailer, when I first saw it, seemed hokey like a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age story, and in a way that’s what Sing Street is, but having seen the movie, even the trailer is joyously powerful.

 

Movie Review: Sing Street

Poem: Mainstream

Watching blockbusters is like floating in the dead sea

and to promote the basest of our culture with my hard collected nickels ensures

that they will perpetuate from their own selves like a sucking serpent

posed in a spiral, but I love it so, sometimes.  Guiltless joy is a great thing

hard to come by these days in the pit with the fire raining

on the heads of us bloody contestants, so maybe some sedative

is okay just to treat this moment’s darkness like a lantern

but a candle comes, dim and distant, elsewhere.  One thing is always exemplum

for all things, the statue in the corner

is a broken and slurping decay of the old clock tower

memorial plaque for the unknown, victims and left behind’s remember

the date if they’re alive and most of them aren’t

but those remaining can’t count their losses

on all fingers, so go to the movie, it got pretty good reviews.

Poem: Mainstream

Movie Review: Before Sunset (2004)

Before Sunset (2004)

Director: Richard Linklater

Writers: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Richard Linklater

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his well-received 1995 date movie Before Sunrise, is to me is the most effectively emotional, wonderfully acted, and masterfully contrived romance in the history of film.  In Before Sunrise, having just broken up with his long-time girlfriend (he was dumped), directionless college student Jesse (Ethan Hawke) spends a daylong whirlwind romance with spunky french beauty Celine (Julie Delpy).  The film ends on a major cliffhanger, with the young lovers promising to meet each other on a certain day at a certain place in six months.  As Before Sunset begins, it’s been 9 years, and Jesse is on a publicity tour for his new novel, This Time, which is a fictionalized account of the night he and Celine spent together almost a decade ago.  He stops to do a book signing in Paris, and just before leaving the bookstore he sees Celine, a beautiful vision from the past.  Together, they have another day of romance, in which they speak at great length about their their lives and their feelings, and we see it all.

I say that we see all of it because at the moment during Jessie’s book signing when he first sees Celine, we begin to follow them, completely without cuts.  The entire film is one extended conversation between these two former lovers, wherein we see that in their time apart the love they shared has not shriveled up, and is more intensely felt than ever.  At the moment Jesse first sees Celine he is answering a question about future book ideas, and as he first sets eyes on her, he is in the middle of saying “. . . and it’s obvious to him that time is a lie.”  This is significant, to me, because at the moment when he sees her, he is transported back to the way he felt on their first night together.  In the moment when they first set eyes on each other, a huge set of powerful and contradictory emotions is written on each of their faces, and these emotions are brought fully by the masterful performances of the two leads.

Hawke and Delpy (who also co-wrote the script along with director Richard Linklater) step into the characters of Celine and Jesse easily, imbuing each with intense emotion.  Hawke, as Jesse, spends most of the film staring at Delpy’s Celine, mesmerized by her beauty and absorbed by everything she says.  Delpy’s Celine is extremely intelligent and self-possessed, but when Jesse is near her jabbering to himself, she can’t tear herself away.  Both characters spend the film trading monologues, each fascinated by everything the other says, and filled with heavy longing.  I’ve seen it many times, and I would recommend, when watching the film, watching the face of the character being spoken to rather than the one speaking.  The silent emotion on each of their faces is the core of the film.

The emotion constantly spilling onto the characters faces is so obvious that I could not help but feel the same.  In one scene, late in the film, when Jesse describes two recurring dreams he has about her, Celine reaches her hand out, almost touching the back of his head, before pulling her hand back, embarrassed.  This moment, to me, perfectly describes the relationship of these two star-crossed lovers.  He is entirely obsessed with her, she is always on his mind and filling him with love.  She in turn is intoxicated with him, and is as devoted to him as he is to her.  If I’ve seemed to get a bit flowery and romantic in my language, it is only a consequence of having just re-watched Before Sunset.  I whole-heartedly recommend the film, for its intelligence, its acting, and most of all for its flood of emotion.

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Movie Review: Before Sunset (2004)