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.

Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) – Review

A bait and switch works best when it’s delightfully surprising to discover; a moment of elevation, “oh, I did not expect that”; it doesn’t work if, while still technically unexpected, the plot switched to is less interesting than the film’s original state. It’s probably because Genevieve (the lead female) brings an indescribable amount of sweet, sugary colour to the world; once she leaves, the world becomes drab; she’s all that stops Cherbourg from seeming depressing: Cherbourg becomes the reality when the fantasy, Genevieve, leaves. I suppose it’s right to feel disengaged when she leaves, I can sympathise more with Guy (the lead male). Even so, the singing becomes irritating after awhile, especially post-Genevieve. Everything is set in this small town of Cherbourg, the camera never leaves, so the feeling claustrophobia sets in deep, and deeper as their world changes, so as the music gets sombre and their energy fades the scope of the film narrows around Guys words, and since he’s orphanly depressed the music begins to grate with every lyric, the name of music is tainted with every overly melancholy verse of Guy’s. You can argue these things as a positive to the film, or a negative; it’s a personal thing, I wasn’t of a fan of these decisions. But, overall, I admire the courageous concept and their execution of it.

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.