Tag Archives: ***

Columbus ***|****

John Cho and Parker Posey in Columbus

Film essayist Kogonada makes his feature debut as both a director and writer with this contemplative and quietly moving tale of two souls who converge during pivotal moments in their respective lives.  One of those souls is the introverted Jin (John Cho), who is working in Korea as a literature translator when he receives the news that his estranged father has been hospitalized for an unexpected coma. Once he arrives in the titular Indiana city where his father resides, he is joined by his father’s devoted assistant  Eleanor (Parker Posey) as they awkwardly catch up on each others’ lives while waiting for the coma to release its hold.

After talking on the phone one day, Jin meets the young bookworm Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and the two open up to each other as they slowly saunter on opposite sides of a fence that separate Jin’s motel and the library where Casey works. We learn that she’s recently graduated high school and despite that fact that she seems very bright, she forgoes the opportunity of higher education and chooses instead to toil between the bookshelves with her work friend Gabriel (Rory Culkin). Over the course of their time together, Jin and Casey share several conversations that center around their shared interest of architecture (for which Columbus in both the film and real life is apparently renowned) but ultimately blossom out to larger life subjects.

With its walk-and-talk pacing and story of the encounter between an older man and a young woman, there are hints of Lost In Translation and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy embedded within Columbus, although it’s not nearly as chatty as either of them. This is decidedly a more introspective meeting of the minds that is generally more patient in the way it allows its dialogue to unfold, though there are times it comes across as frustratingly sedate as a result. Still, the knowledge and wisdom that they impart to one another rings true to the characters and the actors bring plenty of understated charm to their reserved roles.

Richardson, who is something of a new name and face to me (I didn’t recognize her from the thriller Split earlier this year), gives a glowing and magnetic performance full of grace and warmth that establishes her as a major screen presence. This is a film that’s more about what isn’t said rather than what is said and she’s able to imbue the pauses in between Casey’s words with notes of longing and heartbreak that makes every sentence an emotional wellspring. Although it’s great to see a talented actor like Cho finally get a leading role, I do wish that his character was able to open up a bit more as his proclivity for stoicism got to be a bit tedious especially given the much more heartfelt nature of Richardson’s work.

Kogonada and his cinematographer Elisha Christian capture their Midwestern setting brimming with modernist marvels in an evocative and curious manner that perfectly mirrors the film’s quaint narrative. Beyond its focus on the grand architecture, they also take time to build out the small moments too; I was particularly fond of a sequence between Cho and Posey that’s framed entirely around a bedroom mirror in which we see the reflections of the two talking quietly and reminiscing on the past. Pensive and personal scenes like this characterize Columbus as something of a cinematic zen garden and a welcome respite from an increasingly chaotic world.

It ***|****

Bill Skarsgård in It

Based on the 1986 Stephen King bestseller, the new film It opens with a scene that will be familiar to those who experienced the 1990 miniseries: young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is seen  chasing his paper boat down a flooded street until it falls into a storm drain. Upon trying to retrieve it, he encounters a sewer-dwelling clown figure who introduces himself as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and offers him a balloon before violently murdering him. It turns out that Pennywise is the manifestation of an evil that’s plagued their town of Derry for many years and after it terrorizes a number of children in the area, Georgie’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) forms a group called The Losers Club with other affected kids in order to avenge his brother’s death and put a stop to the malevolent force.

One of the most notable deviations from the source material is resetting the events from the 1950s to the tail end of the 1980s, which not only allows for pop culture references that range from Tim Burton’s Batman to New Kids on the Block but also puts the film in the same timeframe as the mega-hit Netflix series Stranger Things, itself largely influenced by King’s novel. It’s a smart move, given how popular this brand of nostalgia has become the past few years but it also strengthens the coming-of-age angle that sometimes gets upstaged by the clown-centric scares from the original story. With its focus on themes of friendship and loyalty, audiences may be surprised how much this movie bares a resemblance to something like The Goonies (there’s even a cruel variation of the Truffle Shuffle performed by one of the bullies) or Stand By Me as opposed to more traditional horror fare.

Having said that, the marketing of It still hinges largely on the menacing presence of its eminently creepy antagonist and director Andy Muschietti does not skimp on chilling scenes designed to send those with coulrophobia running out of the theater in droves. Skarsgård had some big clown shoes to fill when taking up a role that Tim Curry crafted with terrifying perfection in the aforementioned miniseries and if his work here is comparatively lacking, it has more to do with this update’s reliance on computer-generated effects to amplify his performance rather than a deficiency in Skarsgård’s abilities as an actor. For all of the flaws present in the 1990 version, the visual conception of Curry’s Pennywise and its use of simple, practical effects (the less spoken of the claymation, the better) remain first-rate to this day and I wish this 2017 iteration retained some of this more reserved aesthetic.

The rest of the young cast is generally filled with lesser-known actors, save Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as the hilariously foul-mouthed Richie, but the talented bunch of kids do a convincing job of conveying fear in ways that feel fitting to each of their characters. Standouts include Jeremy Ray Taylor as the overweight Ben and especially Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the lone girl of the group who’s a bit wiser and more mature than her male cohorts. Fans of the book won’t be surprised that this production team is planning a Chapter Two following this film’s impending success that focuses on the adult lives of the Losers Club members and I would be shocked if they don’t already have Amy Adams in talks to play Bev’s grown-up counterpart.

It’s no easy task adapting unwieldy source material like a 1000+ page paperback and while the common practice is to abridge or even omit large sections of a given plot, I was delighted with not only how much of the story remained in the film but how many minor details were included as well. Even with a second installment on the horizon, this first chapter clocks in at a hefty 135 minutes and while there obviously was room for more judicious editing, I have to give the creators credit for pushing towards a more thorough adaptation this time around. Their love and respect of the book shines through in their interpretation and makes It a spectacle of horror with no shortage of heart and humor too.

Good Time ***|****

Robert Pattinson in Good Time

Equal parts After Hours and Go with a bit of Rain Man in the mix, the new crime thriller Good Time by Ben and Josh Safdie unfolds at breakneck pace largely over one harrowing evening in some of the most desolate and seemingly forgotten areas of New York City. Yet no matter how empty these places seem, there almost always happens to be someone there, whether its an employee pulling an overnight shift or a vagrant searching for something that may not have even been there in the first place. Just like the protagonist, everyone is just doing what they can to survive in their corner of the world and by setting the film at the most desperate fringes of society, the Safdies incorporate the fury of their struggle into the narrative.

One of the film’s opening shots encapsulates this rage on the face of the mentally handicapped Nick (Ben Safdie), who is in the middle of a tense session with his therapist when his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges in and ushers Nick away. It turns out that he needs him for a bank robbery that he’s planned and while the stick-up initially seems to be a success, dye packs that are hidden in the stacks of money go off in their getaway car and Nick gets arrested during the ensuing on-foot pursuit while Connie barely manages to get away with the dirty cash. After multiple attempts to get the funds to afford Nick’s bail, Connie hatches a plan that involves retrieving a hidden bottle of LSD for a quick profit.

During interviews for the final season of Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan spoke about how his writing staff would intentionally paint his characters into corners that would seem impossible to resolve and then brainstormed the most satisfying but plausible ways to get them out of the situation. Good Time exhibits this same kind of think-on-your-feet type of narrative urgency as Connie battles against a myriad of contingencies and dead-ends over the course of his turbulent all-nighter. Though Connie is obviously someone who doesn’t have things in order, he asserts his street smarts in big and small ways (hanging a mat over a barbed wire fence in order to safely traverse it, for instance) that keep him one step of the law.

On top of the spontaneity in their storytelling, the Safdies also establish tension with tight close-ups of their characters that’s designed to give the audience any kind of respite from the manic energy that is often on display across their anguished faces. So much of Pattinson’s excellent performance as Connie can be summed up by the panic that is constantly present in the whites of his eyes, which are often wide open amid the dwindling opportunities that lay before them. When cinematographer Sean Price Williams is afforded the opportunity to implement some flourish, as he does with a beautiful tracking shot of a car rounding a corner and some deft aerial camerawork towards the finale, he makes great use of the expanded scope.

All of this harried paranoia is complemented by a lush and trippy musical score by Daniel Lopatin (known in music circles as Oneohtrix Point Never) that stands alone as one of the most memorably effective soundtracks of the year. The synthesized arpeggios chug along breathlessly with shady dealings that pervade Connie’s attempt to free his jailed brother but the music also goes into a more contemplative soundscape at times that can seem dreamy at one minute and then quickly turn into a nightmare the next. It’s a perfect analog for the dirty, neon-drenched visuals of Good Time that contrasts the far-flung hopes of its anxious characters with the mired reality that they can’t seem to escape.

Detroit ***|****

John Boyega in Detroit

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams up with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal for a consecutive third time to create their most unflinching and unshakable material yet with this stark period piece. Detroit centers around the Algiers Motel incident that took place in the summer of 1967 when racial tensions and rioting were at an all-time high for the titular city and no one seemed to have a feasible solution to the problem. The film itself doesn’t provide any easy answers either and will no doubt generate a variety of impassioned opinions, both positive or negative, but it’s difficult to deny the skill and dedication that Bigelow has brought once again to her craft.

After some early scenes of context that outline the tumultuous setting, we’re introduced to several key characters who eventually converge at the Algiers Motel, including up-and-coming soul singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and local security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). When a man fires a starter pistol from the window of one of the rooms, the National Guard and local police overrun the building and round up all of its residents to seek out the potential shooter. Things turn from bad to worse when the officers led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) resort to intimidation and violence to find their suspect, which ultimately leads to multiple killings with dubious motives.

The film’s centerpiece is the hour or so that captures the horror of that event at the Algiers and while it’s grueling to watch and can be repetitive at times, every artistic and technical aspect comes together to make it an almost overwhelmingly gripping experience. The acting, especially in the case of Poulter’s sadistic policeman, is first-rate all around and does the most to contribute to the idea that everything we’re seeing is just how it was experienced by those who were there that night. The guerrilla-style camerawork from Barry Ackroyd (best known for his work with director Paul Greengrass) is fast-paced but always focused clearly during pivotal points of action both big and small.

Bigelow spends most of this long sequence at the motel to showcase the cruelty of men abusing their powers but she also takes care to assert the humanity of the victims before and after the event. For instance, we meet Dismukes as he settles a dispute in the street between a young black man and a white officer but in doing so, we learn of his personal dilemmas about keeping the peace when doing so was sometimes perceived as cowardly by those in his community. Reed is another character who gets a fair amount of screen time, most notably in the scenes where his singing is showcased and Smith’s performance is so good that his voice alone goes through its own narrative arc and informs the emotional state of his character.

If the film suffers, it’s due to the fact that neither the often clumsy build-up to the Algiers incident nor the generic courtroom follow-up reach the dramatic heights of that captivating stretch in the middle. I suspect that if Bigelow had focused more thoroughly on one character, as she did so well in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, it could have given the story a more personal framework and made things a bit more cohesive from a narrative perspective. Detroit is instead more a sociological study of a truly disturbing moment in American history that has a saddening amount of relevance to the current state of race relations even 50 years later.

Baby Driver ***|****

Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver
From the “Don’t Stop Me Now” zombie beatdown of Shaun of the Dead to the battle of the bands sequence in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, music has always played an integral part in helping Edgar Wright distinguish his cheeky and kinetic style apart from his peers. His new film Baby Driver takes the concept of an integrated soundtrack further and doesn’t just underline the big scenes with memorable musical cues but orchestrates the majority of its action along with the beats of the selected songs to create an impeccably synchronized experience. It’s not quite a musical, at least in the traditional sense since characters aren’t belting out lyrics that correspond with the songs that are being playing, but everything plays out with such a deliberate rhythm that the driving force of the music almost acts as the main character of the movie.

In a more literal sense, the story centers around a young getaway driver (Angel Elgort) with the code name Baby who escorts bank robbers under the supervision of the kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), who Baby crossed paths with early on in his life and has remained indebted to ever since. Seeking to get out of the crime life once and for all, he agrees to do a final job stealing money orders from the Post Office with the violently impulsive Bats (Jamie Foxx) and the quietly intense Buddy (Jon Hamm) in order to square his arrangement with Doc. Prior to the heist, Baby meets a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James) with whom he instantly falls in love and sees as a perfect companion for his pending getaway provided everything goes smoothly with the final robbery.

We’re told early on that Baby suffers from tinnitus, which he assuages by connecting his ever-present earbuds to a menagerie of vintage iPods and keeps his music going constantly in the background, even during conversations with others and during plotting sessions where Doc breaks down each step of an upcoming stickup. More often than not, we’re treated to the effect that Baby is essentially sharing one of his earbuds with the audience, as we are also hearing the eclectic playlists that are going through his head at the same time he is. This leads to fun choreographed moments big and small, from an opening chase sequence designed shot for shot around The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s rousing “Bellbottoms” to something as simple as setting down a set of coffee cups along with the tempo of song.

When it moves to the music, Baby Driver is as exuberant and satisfying as anything that Wright has done up to this point but the movie occasionally getting bogged down in the more conventional elements of its storytelling and loses some of its charm and cleverness along the way. It revels in tropes of the crime genre (“one last job” and a new love that leads to salvation, for instance) that it seems like Wright should be either lampooning or delivering with some kind of a quirky twist but he presents them about as straight-faced as possible. It’s fortunate that he still has a knack for writing snappy dialogue; it’s just a shame that he couldn’t have put more thought behind giving the characters unexpected things to do in addition to giving them unexpected things to say as well.

Even with a more routine plot at its center, the mashup of mayhem and music is the biggest selling point of the movie and the precision with which Wright executes these sequences is more than enough reason to sit in the passenger’s seat for this wild ride. Two big standouts for me personally are a heist gone wrong set to The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”, which Baby actually rewinds at one point just to ensure that the action will match up with the music, and a frantic footrace set to Focus’ indefatigable yodel anthem “Hocus Pocus”. If the Ant-Man dispute with Marvel put Edgar Wright’s career in a bit of a temporary stall, Baby Driver has put him firmly back on the right track and in the fast lane towards more mainstream success.

It Comes At Night ***|****

Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott in It Comes At Night

It Comes At Night is writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ follow-up to his superb debut Krisha and stars Joel Edgerton as a former teacher named Paul who lives in a desolate house in the woods with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they fight against a mysterious virus that has seemingly wiped out most of humanity. A stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house scavenging for supplies one night but after interrogating him, Paul learns that he has a family close by who are depending on him for survival. As a family man himself, Paul empathizes with Will’s situation and offers his house to the new family but seeds of mistrust and paranoia planted early on during their residency are eventually sown to devastating effect.

With its deliberate pacing and haunting imagery, It Comes At Night has discernible elements of both horror and thriller genres but the end result is something much more illusive and difficult to categorize with one neat label (this might explain why the marketing was a bit all over the place). There are some surprising scary moments and plenty of tense scenes as well but the film doesn’t move like any kind of conventional post-apocalyptic tale that we’ve seen so far, even if it does have a few of the genre’s nagging cliches. It’s defined more by mood and tone than any specific narrative choices as Shults casts a perpetual state of unrest across a cast of characters that seem to constantly be at wit’s end amidst increasingly dire circumstances.

While there are some clues early on as to what may be happening, there’s an intentional ambiguity to both the circumstances of the characters and the presumed threat that they are facing, which some will find maddening and others could find refreshing. I personally found myself at both ends of the spectrum while taking this movie in; I’m certainly not someone that needs to be spoon-fed exposition just to know what’s going on but I can also appreciate the need to set-up bits of background so that the payoffs can land more effectively. The push for more veiled storytelling seems to be built into the design of the film, as Shults has stated in interviews that he wanted the audience to know as much as the characters themselves know so that we can effectively feel like we’re a part of the story and not just experiencing it as passive viewers.

Even if the lack of clues were to leave one frustrated, it’s difficult to deny that It Comes At Night is masterful on nearly every technical level but especially in the lighting and location work, which contribute greatly to the ominous feeling of dread that is inescapable during the course of the movie. The decision to cast each scene primarily with either daylight or with limited illumination from lanterns is integral to creating a feeling of hopelessness, as every setting seems to be coated with the very thing that we’re taught to distrust. The set design of secluded stronghold seems to be maximized for discomfort as we witness characters crouch down just to make it through certain doorways or huddle closely together so that they can fit as one on top of the same bed.

In his first two features, Shults has demonstrated a deeply personal brand of filmmaking that is all too rare even in independent cinema but while Krisha seemed to have a more cathartic sense of purpose, it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s trying to say with this new venture. It’s a sorrowful tale about the terrors of facing the unknown and the darkest impulses that infect human nature but the kind of heartfelt connection to the material that was so evident in his debut is now shrouded by this nightmarish filter. Despite some of these more esoteric misgivings, It Comes At Night is an effective arthouse horror-thriller that will no doubt have people talking (and hopefully thinking) long after the credits roll.

Win It All ***|****

Jake Johnson in Win It All

Joe Swanberg has been credited as a pioneer of the “mumblecore” movement, which is comprised of lower-budget films that often focus on largely improvised dialogue as opposed to a tightly crafted plot. While his new feature Win It All is more conventionally structured than previous efforts like Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, it still retains the hallmarks of the genre by keeping the scope of the story small and by making the dialogue naturalistic and believable. It also stars frequent Swanberg collaborator Jake Johnson (credited as co-writer and co-producer as well), who extends past his typical comedic range and turns in his most compelling performance to date.

Johnson plays the down-on-his-luck gambling addict Eddie Garrett, who spends his days as a parking attendant at Wrigley Field and spends his nights lurking for any underground card games he can find around the city. He seems to catch a break when an acquaintance offers him $10,000 to look after a mysterious duffel bag, provided that Eddie doesn’t open the bag to peruse its contents, while he does jail time for the next 6 months. Going against orders, Eddie takes a look inside and finds $50,000 in cash, which sends his mind racing with how many different ways he can gamble it all away.

After celebrating a successful night of blackjack, Eddie meets a single mother named Eva (Aislinn Derbez) and the two form a relationship that unfolds at a pace that seems leisurely for a wheeler-dealer type like Eddie. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the hilarious Keegan-Michael Key steals all of his scenes as Eddie’s Gamblers Anonymous mentor who doesn’t mince words when dispensing advice to his struggling confidant. Also filling out Eddie’s support system is his brother Ron (Joe Lo Truglio), who’s the head of his own landscaping company and begs Eddie to work for him in an effort to straighten out his path.

Ultimately, the film’s focus is on Eddie and his unwavering compulsion to gamble away every last cent that he has; as another character puts it to him, he’s “addicted to losing”. Swanberg delivers this addiction  with moments of lightheartedness but also with a palpable sense of the stakes at hand, which is made quite literal with a counter that appears intermittently in the bottom right corner which denotes Eddie’s monetary standing (if you hadn’t guessed, it’s frequently a negative number). Even though there are plot points and contrivances that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a gambling movie like this before, the story has an emotional undercurrent of desperation and loneliness that’s undeniable.

Credit to Jake Johnson for creating such an affable deadbeat who always seems like he’s on the edge of throwing away his life and running as far as he can from the problems he’s created for himself. There’s a constant anxiety and unease from his performance that made me feel on edge, along with an unending sorrow that comes across his face during every bad beat that he endures at the poker table. Indeed, there’s so much losing depicted in Win It All that it’s almost ironic how much of a winning formula Swanberg and Johnson have concocted with a movie that feels authentic and oddly endearing.

Logan ***|****

Hugh Jackman in Logan

Hugh Jackman dons the CGI claws one last time as the mutant Wolverine for the brutal and sobering Logan, which is as startling a left turn into dramatic territory for the superhero genre as last year’s Deadpool was for the comedic sides of things. The X-Men series has always been attuned with the more fantastical and frivolous trappings of comic book fare –often the glut of superpowers across its myriad of characters can seem arbitrary and sometimes a bit silly– but the character of Wolverine has always been treated with more weight and seriousness in the film adaptations. It’s not surprising, then, that Logan feels like a culmination of the more mature themes that the character has established and is a perfect send-off for Jackman’s iteration of the brooding berserker.

Set in 2029 after the X-Men have disbanded and any remaining mutants are mysteriously absent, we follow an aging “Wolverine” (he just goes by Logan now) as he wastes his days as a nondescript limo driver in Texas while also caring for the now brain-damaged Professor Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart). After meeting with a desperate new client, Logan reluctantly accepts a job to transport a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a location nicknamed “Eden” in North Dakota, which allegedly provides safe haven for those with special powers. While on the road, they are pursued by the devious Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his mechanically-enhanced henchmen from the shady corporation Transigen that’s behind other “manufactured mutants” like Laura.

Director James Mangold, also responsible for the excellent 2007 remake 3:10 To Yuma, envisions this chapter in Wolverine’s story as a modern-day Western about a man whose lifetime of suffering and regret has finally caught up with him as his ability to heal fades away. His unrelenting focus is on the human side of these seemingly impervious superheroes, who we’ve previously seen manage incredible acts of courage and strength but now struggle just to get through each day as their bodies continue to fail them. The effects of their ailments can manifest themselves in exaggerated supernatural form–for instance, Xavier’s dementia triggers seizures that create a kind of “psychic earthquake” for those who surround him–but Mangold also gives equal attention to the constant necessities of sleep and sustenance (and, yes, bladder relief) along the way.

Aside from being an overt, Shane-referencing Western, Logan also functions as a throwback road movie with a sci-fi twist that has shades of superb contemporaries like Midnight Special and even the time-traveler Looper at the heart of its story. At times, it feels like a contrasting character study between two men dealing with the inevitability of time in polar opposite ways; Xavier with a sense of quiet humility and  Logan with a great deal of bitter resentment. Most important for fans of the series, though, this is an uncompromising, R-rated action feature that will satiate the bloodlust of hardcore Wolverine fans who have been denied the ultra-violent carnage that the PG-13 films previously kept at bay.

Even if this is used as a justification for the gratuitous and, dare I say, needlessly excessive action scenes, I still found the film to be more exhausting than exhilarating in the execution (pardon the term) of its combat. The opening scene, in which Logan confronts a pack of would-be car jackers, is well-choreographed and tightly edited but every subsequent scene of claw-imposed brutality begins to feel redundant and tedious throughout its punishing 140 minute runtime. Still, there’s plenty of other creative elements at play during Logan, in addition to a pair of terrific performances by Jackman and Stewart, that make it a worthy swan song for the Wolverine.

John Wick: Chapter 2 ***|****

Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 2

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.

Fences ***|****

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway production of August Wilson’s Fences in this new film adaptation, which credits Wilson as its sole screenwriter and also features Washington for his third time in the director’s chair. With an economical use of locations and focus on long passages of dialogue with stage-ready blocking from its players, it’s clear from the first scene that this material was developed from a play and Washington doesn’t add too many stylistic flourishes that could give things a bit more flavor. Instead, he clearly trusts the strong writing from the source enough to let it speak for itself and that, along with some excellent performances, make this a worthy substitute for those who haven’t seen the theater version.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences follows the life of garbage collector and former baseball player Troy Maxson (Washington) as he works tirelessly to support his resilient wife Rose (Davis) and his determined teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Maxson is often visited at his house by his mentally challenged brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) and drinking buddy and oldest friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who commiserates with him about the hard times and reminiscences on their old glory days playing ball. As we learn more about the details of Troy’s mired past, we also learn of a secret that he has been keeping from Rose which may threaten their marriage and their entire family as well.

Though not often a likeable character, Maxson is a fascinating figure and Washington plays him with the kind of moral complexity that constants tests your allegiance to him as a protagonist. He has plenty of charm and charisma to get through the gate but reveals ugly degrees of selfishness and stubbornness that begin to paint him in a much less flattering light over time. Washington plays Troy as a man constantly at odds with his circumstances but ultimately as someone at odds with himself, trying desperately not to repeat the mistakes of his father before him but perhaps failing even harder as a result.

As good as Washington is, Viola Davis is the biggest standout of this actor’s showcase in a performance that should land her a third Oscar nomination and hopefully her first win as well. As Troy’s long-suffering wife, she bravely wears the early triumphs and persistent failures of her life with him all on her world-weary face. In a spellbinding monologue towards the film’s conclusion, Davis wrings heartache from every single line as she reflects on the compromises that she made to be with Troy and dwells on the impact that he had on Cory as a less-than-ideal father figure.

With a 2 hour and 20 minute run time, Fences can drag a bit during some sections and the lack of conventional “action” (most scenes are simply two or three characters sitting around and talking) may be a bit tedious for those expecting dramatic fireworks in every scene. As it’s mainly a meditation on fatherhood and failure, it can be emotionally bruising as a family drama but intellectually engaging as a character study of a man raging quietly against the world that he’s built for himself. To keep with the various baseball analogies used in the film, Fences may not be the grand slam that it could have been but at the very least, it’s a solid base hit.