John Wick: Chapter Two (2017) – Review

Since this is now Chapter Two, I’ll refer to the original as Chapter One

John Wick is a mustang of people. As a film and character, Wick returns as a blunt powerhouse of methodical style. Mustang and Wick alike, Keanu’s vehicle has serious longevity, it’s the ultimate display of endurance and gratification. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a bombastic machine of destruction – needless to say, I loved it.

I’d define Wick’s fighting style as ‘dirty pragmatism’. During fights, his environmental awareness incomparable. Chapter One wasn’t as varied in location type, he constantly fought indoors, which is understandable – the cost to perform stunts outdoors is much more expensive – but Chapter 2 does not have these limitations. However, a lack of limitation has cost them their innovation. An amazing moment in Chapter One came from blasting music over the top of gunshots to muffle the silencer even further amidst a crowd of trance induced dancers. Chapter Two takes the gusto approach – he shoots a bodyguard live on stage and the crowd cheers as they think it’s part of the show. We don’t get that innovative slickness this time around.

As Wick’s world grows grander, its destructibility increases accordingly. Now more than ever, Wick must remain sharply witted. We revel in John’s destructive rampage through the world of his history. But first, we must pay the price of some dry, lengthy exposition. Once the exposition finishes, you’ll be intoxicated, but, as the third, likely, installment will expand upon the second, this is probably an amalgamation of exposition designed to simultaneously set up Chapter Two and Three – while a reprieve from the exposition (or it being more cost effective) would’ve felt more forgiving, in retrospect, I realise that my detachment was momentary as I now appreciate how the exposition serves to transition from the previous into itself and to the consequent film (Chapter Three). After all is said and done, the film does an excellent job of delivering most of the exposition through action and interaction.

I, after basking in the visual delights of Chapter One, couldn’t wait to see the return of Stahelski’s vibrant colour palette. And so, while Chapter Two packs more colours, it discouragingly uses them too sparingly throughout (until the final 30 minutes). Sublime bursts of intense orange and blue temperatures immerse us entirely, but, since they change so rarely, the withheld variety between the changes and plot beats comes at such a stretch that our eyes settle comfortably, they become accustomed, and a scene can turn increasingly stale the longer it lasts. The excellent Red Circle scene was a masterful display of how changing the colour scheme benefits our attention and defines the narrative’s flow. The icy caves and heated rave were awash with temperature and according tensions – their temperatures don’t solely serve our spatial awareness, but remains to do it so excellently. The artificial blues contrast the firefight’s flame, stark light pushes outbound. Outside, the oranges breed heat and hostility, it’s sweaty hue bleeds into Wick’s silhouette. 

Alfred Hitchcock said, (to paraphrase) when they shot film in black and white, the actors needed lighting to stand out from the background but colour does that naturally. If we had John Wick, the black suited man, in a dark cave without blues or in an open area, as he’s the centre focus amidst the chaos, without oranges we wouldn’t see shit. Sure, the colour isn’t as pragmatic as in the original, but every decision regarding the colour comes with appropriate consideration regarding audience engagement and comprehension.

That said, and as gorgeous as it is, the colour bleed isn’t quite the awe-inspiring experience that we got in Macbeth (2015) or even Spectre (2016). On the other side, some of the visual black strokes that Chapter One captured so beautifully are sadly missing – they occasionally appear, but far too infrequently: the cave scene, the car shop and the return home – a minute 3ish scenes total. Ultimately, Two does make a strong attempt to balance Wick’s new style with the old – and, although compromised, Chapter Two joyously opens the colour pallette to farther reaches, it shoots appropriately and you can feel the cinematography make leaps in progression. The supplementary set pieces are outstanding, and adjustments are to be taken with a grain of salt because the titillating gains vastly outweigh the negatives of losing tonal emulsifiers.

The final set piece is awesome in nearly every way and thusly feels majorly contrived. This is a problematic gratification, depending on how you’re swayed. If John Wick’s naturalism and practicality was your thing, it’s somewhat lost here. If you’re into incredible environment set pieces and dangerous entanglements, this is a spoonful of sugar. Considering that you’re probably willing to allow Wick to murder 60-70 people over a dog, and have him be thrown unprotected to a floor beneath and hit full pelt by cars and endless bullets, I think you’re unlikely to kick up too much fuss when he has a shootout in a hall of mirrors. After a while, the room feels a little hostile to the audience, there’s nothing much to a room of mirrors besides a whole lot of mirrors, so, needless to say, not a whole lot changes in regards to its scenery through the 10 minute runtime. Thankfully, Stahelski’s choreography and direction give the characters enough of a stage to perform on. Each character works with a different method and approach, the environment’s versatile design grants John just enough imaginative freedom to survive each stage, there’s plenty of innovation, not in the room, but in the inhabitants of the environment – and, to boot, it’s epic as fuck.

John Wick: Chapter Two is fairly circular, it begins by projecting stunt classic Safety Last (1923) onto the side of a building as a car chase roars through the city and a post-crash motorbike screeches down the road, then, at the end, a showdown in the hall of mirrors, a scene lifted exactly from The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Elsewhere, this is an overdone trope, but here there’s enough adaptation, innovation and raw assault in how they execute the trope that it transcends to an entirely new emphatic playground of its own. The film is ripe with unsung tributes and they’re all gratefully accepted.

A round of applause John Wick: Chapter Two. You took risks, you challenged yourself, you gave me more, you set yourself apart, you hit harder and went deeper, and most importantly you did it – you made a shockingly fantastic sequel, and that’s a rare prize to find nowadays.

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In The Mood For Love (2000) – Review

A texture unlike any other – reds and yellows and greens and blues, love and loneliness, fragility and sorrow – caught in transparency, the celluloid grains appear to physically hold the light in the stock, finally, screen and light become tangible. Their story, Mr. Chow’s and Mrs. Chan’s, blooms from the bud of loneliness, they fulfil their essential desires by supporting each other. The cracks are obvious, they’re both suspicious of their partner’s adultery, and they decide to cater to the other’s simple loneliness as their bond grows stronger over comforting the other’s sorrowful realisation.

They go on a date together, why they’re doing this is never explained outright, their reason is left as a surprise. This isn’t a motivated plot, there are no agendas, they are two people at the most fragile point in their lives. In fact, the entire movie feels like glass, easily breakable, but In The Mood For Love is more precious because of its beauty. A stunning, depthy exploration of human desires.

We’re never given a formal introduction to their counterparts, we don’t even know what they look like, we’re always lead to suspect that the presented characters are the formative couple. Yet they hardly share the screen time to confirm our suspicion, there’s an element of the unknown to keep your intrigue peaked. We’re subject to the loneliness, we’re swayed to the obvious solution. Yet, they don’t push their moral limits, they question them without breaking them. We aren’t pressured into agreeing with a negative, rather we’re supposed to balance the positive nature of their relationship in order to avoid stepping into the same grey area their partners travel.

Sensitive is too generic a word to describe In The Mood For Love. Tender, appreciative, alive, delicate and illuminating – these adjectives fail to convey the meaning of such a film. Perhaps there are no words, perhaps the film should only be described in the way it describes itself – visually. Seek it, you must.

La La Land (2017, U.K.) -Review

I was enchanted in less than approximately 150 frames; even before the film properly began. Then the no nonsense musical number introduces us to a firmly placed genre flick; but that’s just the introductory point. What might surprise you is that La La Land has an addition core genre: drama; real, human drama. The tragedy of Mia and Sebastian is truly spellbinding, and while their paths might feel somewhat formulaic (like a simple foundation for the musical to exist. And I’m definitely ok with that), Damien Chazelle’s modus operandi weaves a tale akin to Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singing In The Rain and even Fantasia; by planting the spellbinding: the musical, the fantasy, with the tragic drama: the reality of chasing personal fantasy. La La Land is clearly inspired; a very po-mo look at why audiences go to the cinema, and why some of us venture into the dangerous dream zoned career that is film, music, or art of any kind really.

But more than La La’s coyish, humbly sweet introspective look at cinematic fascination (deconstructing the musical genre on a two pronged approach; music, cinema), is Chazelle’s most valuable merit: his craftsmanship of the camera. Side note: my favourite, albeit trivial, trinket of the movie is a small rainbow flair a lamp gives in the park (“what a waste of a lovely night”). It’s barely noticeable, but these small filmic treasures give La La Land it’s sincere beauty. Chazelle’s force in controlling the camera gives me that knowing sense of accomplishment in seeing something executed to near perfection; from whip pans to pivoting tracking shot, he creates energy in pace and rhythm to the musical numbers – and more importantly, with the actors. And while many of the actors aren’t Astaire or Kelly tier performers, there’s a charm to seeing amateur(ish) performers give their biggest performance with a great success in making it feel as seamless as possible. I’d argue that works to the film’s benefit: the mixture of reality and fantasy, of drama and musical, earths their performances (depending on each character’s state of fantasy and imagination).

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I think that the planetarium number is the summation of their entire relationship together, at that single point in time, and wonderfully demonstrates the creative talent on display; oh, and it’s my favourite scene. I just adore how the phenomena of the universe is just a backdrop to these two lovebirds; he guides her through the expanse of galaxies, but all that’s important is how they dance with each other. There’s this sense of power: they’re bigger than the universe, they can face anything. It’s a moment of pure fantastical surrealist imagination – not too far removed from something out of a classic Disney animation. The cinematography is gorgeous, but not superficially so: there’s an intentional exhibition of the emotional impact each plot point has on the characters. Each scene hits hard with its tonal richness; it’s immediately consuming.

La La Land is an astonishing work of dramatic yet entertaining, creative, traditionalist, revisionist, and revolutionary film making. The screenplay isn’t perfect; bluntly stating the issues dealt by the film isn’t a call for celebration or even praise, but since it tackles these questions with such an unbelievably deft hand, I can’t help but forgive its minuscule weaknesses in favour of loving and honouring the thing as a collective of perfection. I can’t stop humming the tune to every song.

The Neon Demon (2016) – Review

Supporting characters support main character/s; obviously.

While Ruby, Sarah and Gigi support our exploration into Jesse’s character they do so with more purpose than to simply “support the main character”: they become the main character. I think this is a commonly overlooked consideration when people criticise The Neon Demon’s “lack of character”. These ‘three witches of LA’ are our essential gateway into the film’s mythology; Winding Refn’s fable-like horrorshow feels like a fashionista’s rendition of Macbeth. They work as essential, but individual, components in the story; contributing to the themes of lust (Ruby), fame (Gigi), youth (Sarah); and all are connected to revenge and purity. This kind of exploration is rare in something so identifiable as arthouse, and in something so determinately pornographic (said by Nicolas Winding Refn himself). The Neon Demon is bloody fantastic for something so centered around self-satisfaction. Refn’s cinematography almost fetishises Jesse’s face, she’s made to be adored in close ups, painted in beautiful light and soft music plays as she whispers her words; and without this romanticism, of her physique, of her eyes like “deer in the headlights”, she would be remarkably uninteresting. Even so, this does not help her dull personality. What does make her interesting is how she is seen through the eyes of others: specifically the three witches. That’s what makes the bathroom scene so compelling, and what keeps the showdown shocking, and sensible.

I think it helps that Refn is a genius at immersion, he sucks you in the frame, we were falling down the rabbit hole with Jesse without a moment to pause with a break in the cinematography; his continuous flow, his choice of cuts and shots build a tunnel that draws our eyes, luring us deeper into the world of the necromantic fashion industry. Everything is designed to stop us from averting our attention, our gaze. Look at his use of the consuming, infinite black, I feel like he’s compelling us to look for something in the endless depths; in addition to the rich aesthetic it provides. I love his piercing vibrant colours: washing this beautiful world with sickening light. Between Refn’s use of colour and Brandon’s perspective of sex in Shame (2011), the theme of taking something beautiful and distorting it into something repulsive and disgusting is one I’m really beginning to admire.

Before I leave, I wanted to address something that I read in a review for this movie. I saw that one review said “mansplaining the fashion industry”. While I do have a problem with the term mansplaining, as a specific word and its use in relation to The Neon Demon, I have a bigger problem with that someone understood this film as an explanation of the fashion industry. Whoever it is that can’t understand that this is clearly a fiction story, pumped to extremes and is clearly intended to be seen as a myth or just pure experimentation; this is in no way a genuine representation of the fashion industry. If critics could, please stop pushing your agenda onto films that do not warrant it.

The Neon Demon is a brilliant foray into the sickening world of its directors mind. Keanu Reeves’ performance was a personal favourite, Jena Malone was a knockout.