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.

John Wick (2014) – Review / Scene Analysis

Action flick, John Wick, unexpectedly knocks its tongue-in-cheek premise miles out of the park. With a composition style wielded some place between a pulpy graphic novel and a slickly brutish 70’s action fest, there’s plenty of multifaceted character in the visual design to ensure that Wick-heads keep returning time after time. Every scene, in the hands of someone less dedicated, might’ve felt too slapstick or idling, but, thankfully, John Wick’s comprehensive scope of contained atmosphere lends massive support to the suspension of disbelief (and investment) I was willing to permit it.

And so, to put one scene under the spotlight, let’s discuss the Red Circle club scene.

As the chase’s intensity grows, the scene’s aesthetic journeys across specific action fight-scene territories. Not only does John, in pursuit of Iosef, battle through his protection with a range of changing tactics, he moves through the different areas which act like bottles of vibrant tones and violent climates.

Like a true assassin, Wick stabs into the background, his priority victim remains unaware of the debris Wick litters around him. Showered in neon light, Wick cannot hide in the shadows, he becomes a flicker of violence, a hurried burst of close quarters assault. This room initiates pressure and pushes the efficiency of Wick into open light, he hides outside the camera’s frame and focus. He punches Victor, his victim, from outside the frame and then proceeds to drown him in water. Drenched in neon blue, as blots of blood red candles harshen the intensity, Wick gets what he needs by way of grizzly ends.

Then, cut to Dario Argento levels of red, the Jacuzzi area – shadows hide in piercing blood-light. Here the intensity of the tones are reversed, blues serve as undercurrents while reds dominate the palate. And then it’s back to blue when the water returns. Wick’s eyes surveil the room for Iosef, plotting his method of attack. This room grants him more freedom to sneak around, at the cost of more bodyguards to kill. The music is essential: soft and melancholy, like a Jacuzzi room might be, funky yet chilled, the vibe touches perfectly on all the sensations of anticipation, it’s predatory. Music and colour compliment the strength of Wick’s icy enigmatism, unpredictability looms above his precision. Suddenly, silhouettes of corpses in mid drop smear blood down the blue tint glass wall. He’s systematically chipping away at the target. The room’s music serves an in-world function, to cover the noise of his murders – his easiest chance at remaining undetected is to use a knife. Once again, the atmosphere of the room serves audience engagement by redirecting the character’s tactics, repeatedly manoeuvring into a fresher style.

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To go slightly into over analysis territory, this shot (above), which starts immediately after it’s set up, supposes some symbolism towards Wick being the devil with the neon light circling out his head like horns (or perhaps it’s a halo, or possibly both – a ‘Satan’s Halo’?). I’d lean towards the speculation being true since it appears in a specific set-up that aligns almost too perfectly to be coincidence. Furthermore, the imagery appears once more later on, reaffirming the likeliness (below). Born of forethought or not, I still appreciate the symbolic presence.

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The scene then plays out openly. Surprised by a guard, and after Wick attempted to handle the situation discretely, the fight crashes into the main area where Wick is suddenly exposed. Guns are now permitted in this area, and with it the sense of violent progression grows. At this point you’ll have noticed that the arrangement of scenes aren’t at all lazy, they’re constructed to manipulate and traverse the gradient of tension by testing the character in consecutive arenas – like the difficulty curve of a video-game, without the choice or separation. John Wick, as a film, manages to sell you its staging by pursuing flow and cohesion.

And then the mayhem kicks into action, the nightclub area, where a silencer’s shots whisper muffled noises under the thud of every beat. Iosef runs frantic through the crowd while Wick maintains composure through the music’s deafening trance. Strobe lighting and winding music creates an atmosphere of overwhelming intensity, we’re at the final push. These varying atmospheres serve to make the film feel bigger, more epic – there’s no rush to get through the scene and race to the payoff. By the end, Wick deserves his shot with Iosef, which sadly goes undelivered. You’re convinced to root on Wick’s side by witnessing the sheer power of will he inhabits. His persistence warrants his payoff.

After a brief tonal cleanse, the boss fight occurs and video game parallel goes full blast, it’s a common pattern throughout John Wick – although admittedly formulaic, it is earned, and while that isn’t a perfect justification, my defence is upheld by how it remains satisfying when every plot point builds to a logical conclusion and then proceeds to pay off magnificently. The compromise is deemed understandable – they have to hit particular scripted beats if they’re dedicated to perfecting the execution of that said beat. While unideal, we do not live in a perfect world.

Knowing itself, self referentially, puts John Wick several tiers above the recent wasteland of unmoulded lacklustre action. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s seamless approach to narrative mechanisms are to be admired considerably. I would highly recommend checking out John Wick, there’s more great chunks of powerhouse action where this came from.

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.

Spring Breakers (2012) – Review

This was 3edgy5me – I can’t even. (Am I doing ‘youth’ right? – lulz) *sigh* What’s the use?

How does one approach Spring Breakers? There’s an infrequent, irregular, pretentious immature satirical vibe, but that’s a swing and a miss if they were seriously trying for honest satire, so I’d immediately disregard that possibility. So maybe it has pure entertainment value? No – unless you think a sloppy story and overbearing conceitedness is entertainment. Even the opening scene doesn’t grant you a clearer idea. You’re lost amidst a flurry of directionless images – nevermind their cack-handed, meaninglessness for a moment – forced to forgo the formal introductions for something akin to a session of rubbing hydrochloric salt in an already nauseating wound.

Satire, by popular definition, has a sense of moral vocation and concern for the public interest, and Spring Breakers has neither of these qualities. On the one hand, it’s too fictionalized to be relevant to any realist context, and on the other, it’s overt conscious riffing of existing celebrities results in non-commentarial interpretations, a borderline mythologization of the subject, and an infatuation with its intent, despite its actual statement. This would be fine and negligible, if it weren’t for the flabby filmmaking.

Let’s start with the opening scene’s camera, and its slow lingering obsession with the spring breakers’ nudity. If this was handled more like an examination of the subject, like the other montages try, then I’d be on board with its blatant gratuity. Perhaps I should consider this just an integration into the society then, an exaggerated form of entertainment – I wish I could, but the music’s flow entirely opposes the edit beats and camera motion. Everything feels clunky and broken and consequently breaks the introduction to the culture – and when it’s devoid of the potential gains of having a stark repellent attitude to the audience, there’s nothing much to like in the end, it’s just annoying.

In all honesty, I wasn’t once repulsed, shaken, hurt, happy, excited, disgusted, or any other descriptor – except bored, I was agonizingly vacant inside. I suppose there’s one consequence of watching Spring Breakers, it’ll neuter you. After 94 desensitizing minutes of tits and ass, I was hollowly uninterested in anything remotely related to the typical spring break activities that so easily captivate the over inflated ego of Harmony Korine. Vanessa Hudgens barely acts, Benson fits the role of a Spring Breaker quite easily (but can’t act for shit), while the other two characters might as well not even exist. However, I do appreciate the idea of having characters walk away from the story as a marker for the levels of danger they’re willing to withstand, I can think of a few films that might benefit from using this concept. Even with the neat concept, it’s still unworthy of your time.

Operation Avalanche (2016) – Review

Without YMS’s recommendation I wouldn’t have sought out The Dirties. And without that seal of approval, plus the mere concept alone being a large selling point, I wouldn’t have found one of my favourite movies. So, in following the career progression of director, Matt Johnson, I now find myself watching Operation Avalanche. To put it frankly: I’m happy with Johnson’s latest faux-meta-verite-mockumentary-thing, but only to the point of simple satisfaction. While The Dirties felt like a film that needed to be seen, Operation Avalanche is a film that acts like you need to see it, but in reality you don’t.

The film is an exercise in titillating small pleasures: that cute satisfaction we get from seeing the plausibility in fictionalised truth. It goes without saying that everything is so securely locked, there really isn’t anything to break our suspension of disbelief; except for the inherent safety net of the unprovoking plot. Operation Avalanche would surely be an indictment against the American intelligence corporations; a couple of dimwits put together the largest cover-up in history (that we know of). But that’s the problem, the parenthesis should probably be a statement of it’s own, and the film shamefully doesn’t push that angle – the ending of Indiana Jones is more convincing than Operation Avalanche. There’s this box over the film, containing everything, prematurely wrapping the bow and ribbon, ruining the authenticity.

Believability-wise, everything is great; it’ll have you chuckling away at how incredibly supposable their wacky ideas can be, it’s quite the set-up for (yet obviously antithetical to) National Treasure 3 (or something of the likes). To the audience it’s exposing the lies. The film itself is a supposed “truth”. But within the film, there is creation; we see behind the expose and take a rare look into the creation of conspiracy – a rather fascinating perspective we often never consider. The film offers two forms of discovery, each satisfying and individual. The narrative works like a tape recorder: as one wheel of information unravels the mystery, the other wheel sucks it back in, keeping it out of the public’s eye.

However, The Dirties is a wrestle with its subject, Operation Avalanche is not. There’s no clawing, raw feeling to this filmic farce. There’s a delightful bunch of inspired moments, but that means nothing when compared to The Dirties, a plate which balances on thin wire. There’s no tension in these fearless, valiant patriots; they’re just too palatable; they’re a safe bet.

I adore Matt Johnson’s work, he’s a wonderful, intelligent film-maker, but he needs to shake things up in his future. His formula worked excellently in reality based narrative, and it gets a pleasant result when applied to fictionalised farce, but there’s nothing much to stretch it to beyond these goalposts.

That said, the expanse of plot is quick, slick and mighty impressive. You’re taken all over their world, and then right back to the centre before it explodes magnificently and leaves you a little shell-shocked. Operation Avalanche is certainly a fun ride.

Check this out if it looks like your thing, you’ll probably get exactly what you expect.

The Raging Moon (1971) – Review

A calm, steady observation on how people transition from one state of normalcy to another; what happens after the everyday life is fractured by trauma? My greatest praise for The Raging Moon is that the handicap isn’t overwhelmingly important. Still, the subject of disability isn’t passed without commentary; there’s a great deal to be said about the public’s notions on how we treat the disabled and how we assume they must feel. Rather, the essence of The Raging Moon is our journey of understanding; how we access the story of Bruce and Jill through their mutual situation.

An essential moment for understanding The Raging Moon is the church fundraising scene; occurring near the halfway mark between the duo’s story. The scene is: a bunch of rich snobs give pitying charity to the disabled as the wheelchair bound residents are paraded around for sympathy. Our couple, Bruce and Jill, decide to flip the script: what a freakshow it must be to walk on legs, what other tricks can they do? It’s a heartwarming moment that bonds the two, they comfort one another with their unity; meanwhile, the script doesn’t go heavy handed on the commentary, the first and foremost priority of the scene is to show that after the trauma, and the sadness, there comes normalcy again, life slowly resets to equilibrium and you can have it your way (maybe you can have more than you had before; who can be sure what to expect from the unexpected).

Now, the film isn’t a masterpiece, not even by the farthest stretch of the imagination, mostly because it’s fairly simplistic in its cinematic technique: the film starts, and continues, to feel like an English kitchen sink drama, except when it detours and reaches a little higher, but ultimately never surpasses their cinematic quality. Bruce and Jill’s character development is borderline cliche; he’s a little rugged, she’s a bit pristine: they compliment each other by learning self completion through the opposite’s best qualities. And sure you’ve probably seen it before, but the script is so well paced that you’d probably overlook these conventional tricks by praising McDowell’s performance and his endearing portrayal of what emotional recovery really is.

An unexpected joy. Sorrowful, semi cathartic, semi melancholic and an all round brilliant sleeper drama.

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.