The man in black is back and as much of an unexpected and pleasantly surprise as the original film was, it’s perhaps even more surprising that the sequel manages to pack just as powerful a punch. John Wick: Chapter 2 expands on the lean premise of its predecessor by further going down the rabbit hole of this underground fraternity of assassins and introducing new rules and concepts that plausibly expand on the universe. Most importantly, it provides the same no-holds-barred, intensely choreographed action sequences that made the first film stand out amongst the genre and as long as entries in this series continue to present more creative setpieces, we could have many Wick films in our future.
We pick up just a few days after the events of John Wick, as the title character (Keanu Reeves) forcefully retrieves his vintage Ford Mustang that’s being held captive by Russian thugs. Wick believes he’s finally out of his life of crime until he is visited by Italian crimelord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has come to collect on a blood oath called a “Marker” in exchange for a task that he completed for Wick that allowed him to retire in the first place. D’Antonio demands that Wick murder his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that he can claim her seat at the “High Table” and after initially refusing, Wick goes on his signature killing spree in order to reach his target and make good on his promise.
Former stuntman-turned director Chad Stahelski once again crafts his signature brand of bone-crunching violence within action scenes that are sometimes overly long and often exhausting but as technically impressive as anything being done in action cinema today. He shoots his sequences with consistency and coherence, often favoring lengthy takes that are more demanding for the actors than if he were to piece together fragments of stuntmen duking it out but the authenticity is the key to what makes it all work. Reeves, too, is crucial to making the whole picture come together and his dedication to studying all of the beats of expert gunplay has once again paid off.
Stahelski further distinguishes this follow-up with a pulpy visual flare that can also be seen as an improvement on the former work, setting the majority of the story in Rome with Catholic iconography popping up in the background to add some religious subtext. He also works with cinematographer Dan Laustsen to craft dazzling sequences that feature some heads-up camerawork, specifically during a gunfight late in the film that takes place in a Reflections of the Soul art exhibit comprised of rooms filled with mirrors. I also appreciated little touches like one of the opening shots that features a Buster Keaton film being projected on a city building, a nod to one of the most daring performers of all time.
Most action films have an almost flippant attitude towards the pain that they inflict on both big and small characters but what sets this series apart is the reverence that it has for the bloodshed that it causes. Even when the body count rises — as it certainly does throughout the film — there’s a sense that the brutality is not without cost and that the violence often spurs on further violence, never fully resulting in closure for its protagonist. Conveniently, those are great terms for a burgeoning franchise and if future entries continue to be as inventive as John Wick: Chapter 2, I say keep ’em coming.
South Korean director Park Chan-wook, perhaps best known for his blood-spattered revenge opus Oldboy, is back with another wickedly entertaining piece of pulpy perfection. The Handmaiden is an engaging love story, a constantly revolving mystery and an intense psychological thriller all in one but above all, it’s a bold shot of uncompromised vivacity into the often lifeless landscape of world cinema. It’s possible that its 1930s setting paired with the two foreign languages that comprise the spoken material along with its lengthy runtime may cause some to view the film as a “challenge” to watch but thankfully, I found the total opposite to be the case instead.
We are introduced to a young Korean pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as she meets another con artist who goes by the name Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and has a potentially profitable proposal in mind. He schemes to bring Sook-hee on as a maid for the wealthy and withdrawn Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) as a part of his plot to marry and then institutionalize the heiress to subsequently inherit her fortune. Plans go awry, however, when Sook-hee’s time with Hideko eventually manifests a passionate romance between the two and the roots of Sook-hee’s ruse slowly rot away.
The story, an adaptation of the Victorian Era-set novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is split into three distinct sections that each encapsulate the mindset of one of the film’s three main characters. This cleverly allows the audience to experience an event from an individual’s limited perspective and then reveal greater context to that same event later on through the eyes of a different character, which is even more integral to a movie that revolves around deception and romantic intrigue. Where Oldboy hinged its story on one central mystery and its eventual reveal, The Handmaiden is steeped in more nuanced storytelling that embeds bits of meaning throughout instead of pulling the rug out from under us with one fell swoop.
Chan-wook serves up his twisted and twisty narrative with a verve and vigor that’s equal parts playful and perverse, as bits of lighthearted physical comedy and shocking scenes of bold eroticism are interspersed with little advance warning. His high attention to detail is carried out at every level of production, from each ornate prop that’s utilized to the dazzling selection of vibrant costumes to the sumptuous sets that draw you in more at every turn. This meticulousness even applies to the performances as well: the manner in which a character eats her rice in one sequence, for instance, speaks to her exacting nature and with just that gesture, suggests that their may be even more to learn about her later in the story.
Late in the film, one of the characters — himself a storyteller of sorts — facetiously remarks “the story is all about the journey” but no one has a greater affinity for this concept than Park Chan-wook. He crafts his films with layers and details that may not always be detectable within a first viewing but multiple visits tend to reveal greater depths and thus become more impressive over time. I have little doubt that The Handmaiden will perfectly fit within his pantheon of expertly crafted works that richly reward those who take the time to seek them out.
Set in Dublin in the mid-1980s, Sing Street is a coming-of-age tale whose subject Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is abruptly forced to transfer to the state-run school Synge Street after his family falls on hard financial times. One day after classes, he strikes up a conversation with an aspiring young model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and in an effort to impress her, Conor claims that his band is looking for someone to star in their next music video and that she would fit the bill perfectly. Of course, Conor isn’t actually in a band, so he hastily recruits some members for his new musical endeavor, including multi-instrumentalist and rabbit enthusiast Eamon (Mark McKenna).
With his previous movies Once and Begin Again, Irish writer-director John Carney has kept music at the heart of his work and proves once again that few people capture the spontaneous energy behind music creation on film better than he does. His characters use their instruments and voices to bare their souls but the way they tell their stories through their music also helps the narrative grow organically from their emotions. Songwriters understand that ebullient feeling of putting just the right chords and notes together to make the perfect song and Carney puts that joy on screen for each musical number.
Another emotional linchpin for me in this film was Conor’s endearing relationship with his older brother Brendan, played by Jack Reynor. A college dropout who has seemingly given up pursuing any personal goals of his own, Brendan sees the creative potential in Conor and acts as a sort of musical and spiritual mentor to his younger brother. Sporting an admirable LP collection and various bits of sage advice (“no woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins” was my personal favorite), he makes it his mission to give Conor the kind of education that he could never get from his classes in school.
The late night listening sessions in Brendan’s room serve as a bit of a respite for the brothers, with the boisterous sounds of the record player masking the shouting matches between their acrimonious parents. Elsewhere, Conor faces cruelty from both bullying schoolmates and oppressive teachers that threatens to extinguish the creative spirit he has worked so hard to cultivate. Carney adds these bits of real life anguish and torment to temper the typically cheery musical scenes and remind us that even though these characters find joy in creating and performing, it’s often in response to the less-than-ideal conditions of their personal lives.
Of course, the quality of the music itself is key to appreciating this kind of film and the songs here are as catchy as the 80s pop tracks that inspired them. The band’s first hit “The Riddle of the Model” has a stabby synth lead right out of an A-ha single and the group’s best song “Up” has an infectious chorus that reminded me of Men At Work’s peak material. It’ll be a shame if none of these get nominated for Best Original Song next year but even if they don’t, Sing Street will still stand as another charming and vibrant victory for John Carney.
Green Room chronicles fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights as they tour the Pacific Northwest from one grungy club to another, siphoning gas and scrounging cheap food along the way. Out of desperation for cash, they reluctantly take a gig at a neo-Nazi bar but when their bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) is accidentally witness to a brutal murder, a group of panicked bouncers forces him and his bandmates (Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner) into the green room along with the recently deceased body. A tense game of cat-and-mouse ensues when the band members lock themselves in the room and the bar’s owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) attempts to negotiate with them on the other side of the locked door.
This is the third feature from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier and as a follow-up to his unexpected and brilliant revenge tale Blue Ruin, this feels a bit more unfocused and capricious by comparison. We’re surrounded by seemingly smart characters who may have interesting bits of dialogue or inspired moments during the setup but when the plot kicks into gear, they turn into the kind of dumb decision-makers that have plagued lesser horror movies in the past. The stand-off in the titular location obviously has the highest potential for sustained tension but once things progress from there, Saulnier becomes much more interested than blood over brains.
These characters aren’t defined by their own words as much as they are by their actions and the visceral moments of chaos that erupt perhaps speak louder than any bits of expository dialogue ever could. The violence of Green Room is amply gory and often sadistic but also messy and sometimes awkward in a way that tends to make it both believable and unpredictable at the same time. There’s almost a casual and unassuming nature to the brutality and some of the killings are downright uncinematic in the way that they dismiss traditional horror death beats of setup and payoff, which should delight fans looking for something different in the genre.
The casting choice of Patrick Stewart as the leader of the skinheads is unquestionably an inspired one and while his performance is certainly convincing, the script doesn’t give him the kind of authoritative dialogue that could have established him as an intelligent, menacing threat. When the character is first introduced, I was hoping his presence would inspire a wordier kind of standoff negotiation between himself and the band that would allow him to assert his intellect into the situation. Instead, he barks orders at his goons and speaks in the kind of shorthand that almost seems deliberate in its ability to shake off an attentive audience.
In addition to Stewart, the rest of the cast does a fine job of keeping their characters grounded in a situation that is constantly spiraling out of their control. The film’s guiding performance by the late young talent Anton Yelchin is sobering in retrospect and a dispiriting reminder of how many of his future films we’ll sadly never get to see. With its punk rock ethos and aberrant violence, Green Room has all the marks of a B-movie classic but it too often gets in its own way with artistic touches that mix up the message.
Richard Linklater, the undisputed king of the hangout movie, follows up his 12-year project Boyhood with this so-called “spiritual successor” to his 1993 breakout Dazed and Confused which pioneered a genre and introduced the world to a sea of fresh new faces. Like that film, Everybody Wants Some!! places its focus on feeling and mood over a concrete sense of story and narrative but its setting and characters are more limited compared to the sprawling high school landscape of Dazed. As that’s the case, it’s not as universal or open-minded as its big brother but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with this new band of hooligans.
We’re introduced to college freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner) prior to his first week of classes as he moves into the house where he will staying with other members of the school’s baseball team. There he meets his new roommates, including seniors McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Finn (Glen Powell), who run the athlete residence in a way that closely emulates the shenanigans of other on-campus fraternities. The film follows the players as they engage in various forms of juvenile behavior and pause from time to time to wax philosophical on the fortuitous nature of their situation.
Though this group of affable jocks doesn’t provide the kind of distinct and varied character base present in Dazed, it does allow Linklater to hone in on more prominent themes surrounding masculinity and male ego. A recurring motif throughout the film is the seriousness with which the character treat the inane activities in which they all participate. This juxtaposition is mainly played for laughs (save for a tense ping pong match between Jake and McDaniels) but as one of the fellow teammates points out, this compulsion towards competition is what makes their baseball team so highly regarded on a national level.
This kind of push-pull male bonding is representative of the film’s main through-line about how college is a landscape for one to establish themselves both as individuals and as a part of a larger group. As we are first introduced to the guys, they seem almost intentionally homogeneous by design but as the story progresses, they distinguish themselves through small moments that show flashes of their unique personalities. There’s not a strong urgency towards traditional character development because the cast is meant more to act as a crystallized version of an ideal college experience rather than a realistic depiction of people who struggle and succeed through life’s challenges.
In fact, Linklater makes it clear that Jake and his crew need not worry about much at all as their youth and status on campus provide them with a cushy collective existence. The film’s carefree spirit that mirrors this attitude can lead to some meandering storytelling and stagnant pacing but it’s ultimately crucial to the type of laid-back vibe that it captures so well. It may be a drag for those looking for something more tightly structured but if you’re, as the tagline states, “here for a good time, not for a long time”, then Everybody Wants Some!! delivers.
Sharp and timely, the international military thriller Eye in the Sky is a thoughtful and tactful examination of the ethical grey areas that plague the potential efficiency of modern drone warfare. It focuses narrowly on one event –one decision, really– that could have been an ancillary plot point in another war movie but instead is given the attention that it deserves to explore the decision-making behind it. This is exceptionally patient and clear-headed storytelling from director Gavin Hood, who has graduated from the humdrum Hollywood fare of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to create a purpose-driven work that’s actually worthy of his talent.
The story centers around a capture mission of high-level terrorists in Kenya that is headed up by British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) in London and by Lieutenant Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) in a nearby briefing room with England’s top cabinet members. The global operation is also aided in real time by the aerial surveillance of drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from Nevada and image analyst Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) from Hawaii. When the situation proves to be more volatile than previously expected and a new potential causality enters the picture, the decision to potentially utilize a drone missile is debated both by those participating in the mission and by other seemingly unaffiliated parties as well.
Hood does an incredible job of taking these individual scenes of people communicating and working together from around the world and building it into one cohesive story that builds logically upon the small actions of each character. From watching the film, you would probably never guess that the four lead actors never actually met one another face to face during production but it speaks to the kind of narrative fluidity that’s on display as the tension builds. Even as more and more bureaucratic figures are brought into the picture, we never lose focus on what’s at stake and why this scenario proves to be so difficult to resolve.
With some exceptions, the script by Guy Hibbert is deft in dealing with these complex moral and political issues at hand without making the characters come across as shallow billboards for the beliefs that they represent. The concepts of collateral damage and greater good are routinely invoked but both sides of the arguments are presented fairly without the film giving us easy solutions to side with. One such moment occurs when Powell presses one of her subordinates to manipulate the calculations of a hypothetical attack; the moral conflict between the characters in that moment is palpable and representative of the challenging decisions that are made every day by military personnel.
Not only is the film thought-provoking but it’s also breathlessly paced and entertaining even at the surface level as a nail-biting thrill ride with plenty of small incidents that build towards larger consequences. Because the covert mission is in such a fragile state, even minor events like a veil covering the face of one of the targets or a cell phone running out of battery can affect all of the players involved in unexpected ways. Eye in the Sky is a breathtaking look at military intelligence in action and the technical evolution behind the battles yet to come.
Jeff Nichols’ masterful Midnight Run achieves a perfect equilibrium of head and heart by combining uncommonly confident and intelligent storytelling with emotionally transcendent performances that linger long after the film is over. It’s a classic science-fiction parable that effortlessly incorporates universal themes of parental comittment and our endless curiosity towards the spectacular in a way that feels both wholly original and spiritually satisfying. Similar to the brilliant beams of light that spontaneously shoot out from the eyes of one of the main characters, this movie locked my gaze from its transfixing opening scene and held it there unwavering throughout its run time.
Nichols favorite Michael Shannon stars as Roy Tomlin, whose 8-year old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) exhibits supernatural abilities that inspire a religious cult dedicated to understanding the source and limits of his power. In doing so, they also draw the acute interest of the FBI and NSA, as the Alton-inspired “sermons” spoken by their leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) contain high-level government classified information. After recovering Alton from the cult’s compound with the help of his loyal friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy reunites with his estranged ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) as the four plot to stay one step ahead of the authorities and discover Alton’s true calling.
These events often play out with a level of ambiguity and narrative restraint that may frustrate those expecting a more streamlined and commercial movie that falls more in line with the traditional Hollywood mold. Nichols could have easily included loads of expository dialogue or even intrusive voiceover narration for the sake of clarity but I have such respect for the understated approach that he takes instead. He’s so careful in what he chooses for his characters to reveal –and more importantly, not reveal– in their dialogue to provide enough substance to move the story forward but also enough subtext to allow for deeper inference.
It’s a brilliant script, full of poignant character moments and thrilling sequences of spectacle and grandeur, but it doesn’t work without the conviction of this all-star lineup of a cast. Shannon has proven himself as a fine actor in role after role (he’s starred in all four of Jeff Nichols’ features so far) but his work here as a father struggling to come to terms with his son’s miraculous condition may just be his best yet. Edgerton and Dunst are also excellent at feeding off the hopes and the anxieties of Shannon’s character, adding their own notes of emotional complexity to underscore their motivations.
Collaborating again with cinematographer Adam Stone, Nichols again demonstrates his gift for the kind of brilliant visual storytelling that draws apt comparisons to masters like Cameron and Spielberg. His use of shadow and light is not only remarkable in terms of its composition but he also uses the two to serve as a visual motif for a world engulfed in darkness that slowly gives way to more luminosity as the narrative moves forward. He’s a rare talent in an industry that’s desperate for one now more than ever and there’s no doubt that he’s created something truly special this time around.
Christian Bale teams back up with The New World director Terrence Malick for Knight of Cups, a meditative and meandering work that ultimately squanders the abundance of talent behind and in front of the camera. Malick has never been one to put forth a concise premise or to craft crisp, linear storytelling but the structure here is detrimentally loose and unnecessarily arduous, especially given the enticing subject material. I’m all for a well-told existential crisis movie but when context and setup are intentionally kept to a bare minimum, it goes a long way to stymie any sort of initial enthusiasm.
We follow forlorn Hollywood executive Rick (Bale) through various stages in his adult life, the majority of which involve his most crucial female relationships and almost all of which take place throughout the Los Angeles area. Like the film’s title, each of its eight chapters takes its name from a tarot card that ostensibly describes a corresponding character or concept in Rick’s life. The most notable of the tableaux include The Hermit, in which playboy Tonio (Antonio Banderas) serves as Rick’s spiritual guide through a swanky celebrity gathering, and Judgement, which documents the fallout of his failed marriage from ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
These stories are intermittently interesting on their own but there’s very little connective tissue between them that allows for momentum to build up to something meaningful. They could practically be told out of order and I don’t imagine it would have a great effect on the final product, which doesn’t bode well for any sort of poignancy that’s supposed to come from the narrative. The agile camerawork of the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki is always seeking out transfixing shots of beauty and wonder and it’s no coincidence that his unique sense of vision is often the most engrossing aspect of the film.
Anything to distract from the odiously overwrought sentiments recited by the multitude of talented actors in the style of hushed voiceover for which Malick has come to overuse in his more recent work. With its moody settings and pretentious tagline narration, the overall effect is not unlike watching 120 one-minute fragrance ads in a row with all of the closing pitches removed. The problem is that this movie doesn’t even know what it’s selling in the first place. If I’m supposed to feel bad for Rick as he bounces around the most affluent parts of LA and mopes about his luxurious circumstances, I’m not buying.
Bale’s largely vapid and charmless performance doesn’t explain why his character would garner the attention of these gorgeous women who can’t wait to throw themselves at him but more importantly, it also doesn’t root the narrative with much emotional honesty. His apathy bleeds into the disposition of the surrounding characters to the degree that everyone is just a little too cool and removed to be remotely relatable. Malick is an undeniably great filmmaker and he’ll find his way again, so I choose to consider Knight of Cups a spiritual hiccup rather than a career-halting dead end.