John Wick: Chapter 2

Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves are helping to usher in a new era of action movies with the incredible sequel to “John Wick”

john-wick-2-posterJohn Wick has a new dog, and he’s going to murder everyone. What more could you want?

That could honestly be the premise for many action movies, but “John Wick: Chapter 2” sets the pace for a generation of action movies to come. It’s slick, stylized and profound, embracing more thoughtful and polished gun-fu excitement than just raw adrenaline or machismo. Chad Stahelski has doubled down on the sheer surprise and success of the original “John Wick” that seemed to revive Keanu Reeves from the action hero graveyard. Both films will likely live on as action movie classics.

When we last left John Wick (Reeves), he had murdered everyone. Some thugs broke into his home, stole his car and killed his dog. Not smart. The sequel opens with a more conventional Bond movie spree, with Wick tying up the loose ends of the original film. Now he’s back in his home with a new dog, thinking he’s finally retired and out of the game. But news of his return leads an old partner, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to claim payment on a marker John once gave him. John is to kill Santino’s crime lord sister, and when he does, John seeks to prevent Santino from rising to power. Continue reading “John Wick: Chapter 2”

The Neon Demon

Elle Fanning stars in a horror movie about beauty and the fashion industry by the director of “Drive.”

neondemonsmall“Am I staring?” In these first few lines of “The Neon Demon,” Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s invitation to stare gives his latest film both its perverse pleasure and questionable subtext. With “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” Refn’s films have long been a combination of the violent and tantalizing. So it’s natural that the Danish director would make “The Neon Demon,” a psycho-horror art house drama about beauty and the grotesque pursuit of perfection. And while it works as stunning exploitation cinema, it’s perhaps less so as a comment on the fashion world it’s depicting.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an all-natural 16-year-old model from the Midwest with that “deer in the headlights look” because it’s exactly what they’re looking for. In her first photo shoot, she’s sprawled on a chair in a luxurious gown with fake blood dripping from around her neck and torso. Immediately there’s a sexual quality to the way she wipes away the blood to reveal her youth, and of course the rival models she meets in dark, neon-lit night club bathrooms certainly have a blood-sucking, vampire quality.

The older models ask her what kind of lipstick she wears. One wears “Redrum,” while another’s is called “Fuck Off,” but for Jesse, she gets one named after a dessert, “because she’s so sweet.” But Jesse’s vice is her own perfection. Whereas all the other models have already had work done to keep them looking immaculate, the cold, calculating eyes of one woman within the modeling agency (Christina Hendricks) or the blank stare of the top photographer (Alessandro Nivola) all see right past them.

Of course the judging doesn’t stop at lipstick. One girl comments that whenever another beautiful woman enters the room, the first question that pops into mind is, “Who is she fucking, and can she climb higher than me?” Feminists may seriously raise an eyebrow at that statement, and for good reason. Is Refn critiquing this intense superficiality, does he believe it exists among women of this world, or is this a commonality? It’s hard to tell in a movie so lush and specifically enraptured by style, color and sexuality.

“Drive” and “Only God Forgives” have dazzling cinematography, but “The Neon Demon” in particular makes every frame look like a photograph. Refn places Fanning in a soft blue gown in front of a white infinity backdrop and in the next moment will bathe the room in lens flares and garish patterns. It’s equal parts Gothic Horror, Neo-Noir and Sci-Fi whenever it sees fit.

Although “The Neon Demon” in part feels fun because it is so inconsistent and wild. “Only God Forgives” was plain lifeless, and this film by comparison has a bizarre sense of humor. Keanu Reeves plays Hank, the motel clerk where Jesse lives, and he can alternatively get some laughs and screams trying to capture a cougar that found its way into Jesse’s room. Refn even goes all out on the sexuality front, with Jena Malone as a jealous makeup artist bravely putting herself in the most compromising situation imaginable.

Refn though may still have crossed a line. “The Neon Demon” gets more sickening and disturbing as the other women slowly devour Jesse’s beauty, figuratively and literally, and that shock value quickly goes out of fashion.

3 stars

Revisited: The Matrix

The Wachowski siblings’ “The Matrix” has held up not because it was groundbreaking for its time but because it’s a great entertainment.

TheMatrixPosterIn over 15 years, nothing has aged “The Matrix.” Not two increasingly ridiculous sequels, not a series of box office bombs from the Wachowski siblings, and not the fact that these guys still carry around flip cell phones and interact with the world through pay phones. Movies released just two years later like “Minority Report” look better and more accurate technology-wise than “The Matrix” does, and yet that has not lessened the impact and influence this film still holds.

The Wachowskis, then brothers, now siblings after Larry became Lana, did something groundbreaking but also remembered to make a really, really good movie. The extended, bullet time action sequences don’t have the novelty they do in an age of CGI, but they’re the most incredible moments to watch because the Wachowksis borrow heavily from noir and Hong Kong influences. They feel right, they feel exciting, and there’s a sheer moment of timeless catharsis as we see Keanu Reeves, donned all in black leather and midnight sunglasses finishing a swing kick and striking a pose.

You cast Keanu Reeves for this reason, because he cannot act. He’s proven himself in other roles as both a competent performer and one of the worst, but “The Matrix” is not his finest. When he makes the choice to enter back into The Matrix to save Morpheus, he simply cannot emote on the level of his co-stars, capable of taking the Wachowski’s dialogue and making it as clunky as it really sounds. But then no other star would fit; they would emanate too much of their own persona, and Reeves has that clueless, cheesy quality .

“The Matrix” also has something that the really strong classics all have: a great villain. Hugo Weaving is fantastic as Agent Smith, especially when most seem to talk up Morpheus as the film’s standout. His diction and his cool delivery makes him the perfect robot killer, but he’s not averse to displaying sheer rage and loathing. There’s something delicious about how Weaving licks Morpheus’s skull and speaks of humanity’s stink as a virus in the world. He wears sunglasses in the evening, and he scowls and spits out “Mr. Anderson” with such vehemence.


Because for all of “The Matrix’s” coded symbolism and ideology about a tech-fearing future, the paradox of reality and fate, and the nature of mankind, “The Matrix” is a movie of many surface level innovations and charms. There’s no good reason why you dress up one of your agents to look like a post-punk David Byrne or Laurie Anderson. When Neo fights Morpheus to test his kung-fu knowledge, the scene could easily have gone wild in special effects and fantastical, futuristic possibilities, but it is still a grounded martial arts fight because we’d rather watch a campy, Bruce Lee inspired, realistic(ish) fight scene than something that feels fake. It’s obvious that Neo is going through a rebirth, specifically as we see him disconnect an umbilical cord and emerge from a pod of gelatinous fluid. Even Neo’s name is an anagram for “One”, so it’s not a stretch to see where this film is going.

And yet “The Matrix” is more than a little cynical. The Wachowski’s didn’t quite make an inspirational movie, even as thrilling and cathartic as it is. “Ignorance is Bliss”, Cypher says to Agent Smith, and we tend to believe him. The human race is a virus, and everyone could potentially be an Agent within the system, so who is really worth saving? We were the ones to torch the sky and herald this new age ruled by machines. It’s not that the human race has the power to defeat the machines by defying the rules and believing, only The One can. And when we start to ponder the nature of why there is pain and suffering in “The Matrix”, Agent Smith has an answer for us there as well. We reject that Utopia. We’re always looking for something more, because “to embrace our impulses makes us human.” We’re as hard wired as the machines are to know only misery.

Will The Wachowskis make another film as good as “The Matrix”? I doubt it. But they don’t have to unplug and realize a whole new world or reality again in order to do so.

John Wick

Keanu Reeves is back in action movie form with Chad Stahelski’s and David Leitch’s debut film.

john_wick_xlgMost action movies are about putting the myth into the man, crafting a story and an iconic hero from action set pieces that in recent years has only come up with a short list of truly great action heroes. The best action stars are the ones that we can believe could dismantle just about anyone if given the opportunity. James Bond, Jason Bourne, and perhaps most recently Liam Neeson as whomever he plays, all come to mind.

“John Wick” puts the man into the myth, casting Keanu Reeves as a brilliantly blank slate completely convincing as a man capable of all the fear and badassedry we’ve come to expect of our cold-blooded killers. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s film starts by building up John Wick as that man capable of doing anything, of mowing down anyone who gets into his way, and then they deliver with a no frills, no nonsense action movie. It’s pure iconography and myth making to go along with the action. It’s a film that risks being all buildup and no payoff were it not for the elegant, minimalist style Stahelski and Leitch bring to every moment, but because they’ve done away with the more frivolous elements of standard action fare, it feels closer to all payoff.

When we meet John Wick, a man who almost always must be referred to by both syllables of his full name, he’s just lost his wife to an illness. Now he lives in an opulent, empty, sleek and modern house all alone until his wife leaves him a small puppy as a parting gift to keep him company after her death. He seems to have no job and no hobbies but can be seen performing insane donuts and burnouts with his vintage, pristine, 1969 Mustang. At a gas station, some Russian toughs ask him how much he wants to sell it for, and Wick, in Russian, lets them know it’s not for sale.

Later the Russians break into his house, steal his car and kill his new puppy, but leave him alive. Not a good idea. Until this point we don’t even know John’s full name, but his thieves soon do. A Russian mob king pin named Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) learns his son Iosef (Alfie Allen) was behind the attack when an associate informs him bluntly, “He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.”


Viggo tells Iosef of the old Russian fairy tale made to scare children, The Boogeyman. He even has a quiet little nursery rhyme. “He’s the one we sent to kill the fucking Boogeyman”. As a fearsome assassin, Wick earned his freedom by completing one of Viggo’s impossible tasks and subsequently building their empire. Iosef’s actions violated their deal, and now John Wick won’t stop until everyone is dead.

As Viggo strikes fear into his clueless son’s head, we see Wick pounding away at his garage floor with a sledgehammer, literally digging up his past. Reeves’s work, complete with so much darkly, unbridled rage in this moment, has in just a few minutes earned this vaulted presence before even shooting a bullet. This is his best role since “The Matrix”. He’s found his voice by minimizing it as an actor, allowing his actions to do the talking.

Wick as a character follows suit. He never kills with style, just simplicity and efficiency. When he catches a pleading victim spitting hate and four-letter words as he’s about to die, Wick doesn’t even stop for words before putting a bullet between his eyes. He finishes the job. This allows him to be brutal, but also stealthy, and Stahelski and Leitch echo this in an early raid on Wick’s house and Wick’s assault on a mob hotel and nightclub. This is hardly a calm action movie, but we’re never treated to a barrage of bullets, noise and testosterone either. Arguably Wick’s coolest kill comes when he punches a guy, reloads his gun and fires all before the guy can even catch his breath. Stahelsky and Leitch are directors who know how to make a long take count, and they earn Wick’s reputation as a result.

And yet for a bare bones plot, “John Wick” has a whole array of layered rules and principles to go along with its mob world mentality. Fellow killers all know Wick’s past, and they trade gold bullions for exclusive entry into select hideouts, each with its own set of rules and codes to live by.

There’s some serious world building at play here, and John Wick is fortunately a strong enough character that we dearly need a sequel.

3 1/2 stars

Rapid Response: Dangerous Liaisons

“Dangerous Liaisons” knows just how ridiculously soapy, ridiculous and steamy it is, and Stephen Frears’ movie works better than the play.

What’s great about “Dangerous Liaisons” is that it knows just how soapy and ridiculous this all is. It’s set in stuffy, aristocratic France, but everything about this story is sex, love and revenge all the time. It’s absurd, but here, it works.

I saw an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play of the same name (he’s also the screenwriter) and think it’s a lot better as a film. The play is all talk and gossip. It’s bogged down under names and archaic language. The elaborate web of steamy fucking becomes impossible to follow in that setting. Here however, Frears’s cross cutting does the story wonders. He jumps from bed to bed, drawing room to drawing room and keeps the many liaisons, dangerous or not, in check. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Dangerous Liaisons”