Tag Archives: C+

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

Producer: Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee
Director: Chad Stahelski
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Peter Stormare, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Franco Nero, Bridget Moynahan, Claudia Gerini and Peter Serafinowitz
Studio: Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment

C+

If carefully-choreographed, slickly-shot ballets of violence are all you demand in a movie, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is the picture for you. The sequel to the surprise hit from 2014, about a retired hit-man (Keanu Reeves) who, like Michael Corleone, was dragged back into action against his will (when a mobster’s nasty son stole his car and killed his doggy) to wreak vengeance on the malefactors, is pretty much a repeat of its predecessor, adding little to it beyond some background information on the shadowy cult of assassins Wick belongs to. But it’s done up on a larger canvas, and more spectacularly. The result is a thoroughly brainless orgy of fights, shoot-outs, foot pursuits and car chases that should dazzle fans of such fare while leaving anyone who’d like a bit of steak to go with the sizzle cold.

The movie starts up where the first one left off, with Wick invading the headquarters of the Tarasov crime clan to retrieve his 1969 Mustang. Since he’s already killed Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) and his son Josef (Alfie Allen), the only one left is Viggo’s brother Abram (Peter Stormare), whose reaction shots as mayhem explodes in the distance provide the saving grace of the sequence; the action, on the other hand is solidly staged but actually quite rote. (A question: the sequence opens with a car-motorcycle chase through streets crammed with traffic until the cyclist is downed on a street conveniently devoid of any other vehicles. Why did they all suddenly disappear to?)

Anyway, after finishing off his mission of revenge at the Tarasov firm, Wick goes home (having replaced his dead pet), arranges for his pal Aurelio (John Leguizamo) to haul off the Mustang for a major repair job, and begins restoring order to his weapons room when he’s suddenly visited by an old colleague, smarmy Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio), who holds Wick’s “marker”—a promise to do whatever task the owner requires, just one of the revelations about the internal operations of the criminal cartel to which both belong. He wants John to kill Santino’s own sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who has inherited their family’s seat at the group’s “High Table” that Santino desires for himself. When Wick pleads disinterest, D’Antonio blows up his house, which persuades John that he’d better do what he’s asked.

There follows another elaborate sequence of mayhem in Rome, where Gianna’s investiture is to occur. Wick confronts her, but in one of the picture’s strangest twists she actually kills herself. Nonetheless her death is taken very hard by another of John’s old colleagues, Cassian (Common), who has been serving as her bodyguard and now puts Wick in his sights.

That’s the least of our antihero’s concerns, however, since the thoroughly treacherous Santino has now put out a general hit on him, inviting all the assassins—and they seem to be everywhere, in all possible guises—to earn a cool $7 million by snuffing Wick out. Wick has to run a gauntlet of them—including Cassian—before tracking down Santino to an art gallery where, amid hundreds of mirrors, windows and multi-colored strobe lights (which, despite all the flamboyance, still can’t hold a candle to the closing sequence from “The Lady from Shanghai”), he must annihilate yet another small army of opponents with guns and martial-arts moves, including D’Antonio’s chief enforcer, a mute named Ares (Ruby Rose), who is presented as something special but proves, in the final analysis, to be both inept and totally incapable of matching John blow for blow.

Of course, that’s true of all John’s opposites, who appear for all their practice to be rather poor marksmen and knife-wielders. Happily, they also follow the old chopsocky convention of never attacking en masse, but in small groups (two or three at the most), considerately waiting offstage to rush into the fray until Wick has finished off the preceding bunch. It takes no crystal ball to know that Wick will emerge not unscathed but, if the worse for wear, at least not dead, like everyone he’s left behind in his hail of carnage. (It also helps that he seems able to recover from stab wounds and bullet holes in mere minutes.)

It must be admitted that director Stahelski, the former stunt man who co-directed the first film with David Leitch and goes solo here, is proficient at staging the action sequences, even if most of them overstay their welcome, and editor Evan Schiff don’t cut cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s glistening widescreen images so hysterically that they turn into jagged bits of mush. Their work is made easier by the fact that Reeves continues to do many of the stunts himself, and quite convincingly. It’s in the expository scenes between the bursts of action that the star is weak, evincing little more than a generalized moroseness over the death of his beloved wife (Bridget Moynahan, in what amounts to a few flashbacks and photos) that feels more like simple lethargy.

More pleasing is the supporting work of returnees Ian McShane as Wilson, the manager of the New York branch of the Continental Hotel, the “safe area” for all the cartel’s assassins, and Lance Reddick as Charon, the establishment’s unflappable concierge. Both carry off their duties with practiced elegance and enjoyment of the few nuggets of wit that screenwriter Derek Kolstad has come up with. There are also nice turns by Franco Nero, as the manager of the Rome branch of the Continental, and Peter Serafinowitz, as a weapons dealer who offers up guns and knives as though they were delectable items on a restaurant menu. It’s fun, as well, to have Laurence Fishburne show up as a character called the Bowery King, who helps Wick get to D’Antonio toward the close. A pity that Scamarcio makes such a pallid villain, and that as his henchwoman Rose is no better. A hit-man version of James Bond—which is what the “John Wick” series obviously aspires to become—needs strong villains, just like its model; and neither Scamarcio nor Rose fill the bill.

Essentially “John Wick: Chapter 2” follows the old Joe Bob Briggs rule for sequels—just make the same movie over again. It also sets the stage for a third installment, which frankly doesn’t look to be much different from the first two. Given that, one has to wonder what familiarity will eventually breed among the audience.

20TH CENTURY WOMEN

Producer: Anna Carey, Megan Ellison and Youree Henley
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Stars: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup, Waleed Zuaiter, Alia Shawkat, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Allison Elliott and Thea Gill
Studio:  A24 Films

C+

Annette Bening gives a charismatic performance in Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical “20th Century Woman,” but despite many incidental pleasures—including a strong supporting cast—the film as a whole isn’t entirely worthy of her.

Mills, a former graphic designer and advertising man, received considerable recognition for his second feature “Beginners” (2011), which won an Academy Award for Christopher Plummer, playing Hal, a man who came out of the closet in his seventies. The character was based on Mills’ own father, and his late-in-life decision was contrasted with the inability of his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor)—the writer-director’s surrogate—to commit to the woman he loves.

Now Mills turns to his mother for inspiration. She appeared, via flashbacks, in “Beginners,” played by Mary Page Keller. But in that earlier incarnation she was a tangential figure, and a darkly eccentric, even shrill one. Here, as played by Bening, Dorothea Fields remains an eccentric, but a quirkily likable one, a charmingly free-spirited, mildly countercultural soul and single mom bringing up her fifteen-year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)—the Mills surrogate this time around—in 1979 Santa Barbara.

They live in a big old house that’s being very slowly refurbished by one of their boarders, a vaguely hippie-ish fellow named William (Billy Crudup), a mild-mannered jack-of-all-trades. The other houseguest is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punkish photographer who’s into the local music clubs and, as we eventually learn, is a cancer survivor. A third young woman in Jamie’s life is his long-time friend Julie (Elle Fanning), two years his senior; she’s the daughter of a therapist whose mother compelled her to sit in with her patients in group, and frequently sneaks into Jamie’s room to spend the night in his bed—platonically, one must emphasize.

Dorothea, William, Abbie and Julie are all characters that have a distinctly literary feel, and they tend to act and speak in ways that come across as more than a mite precious on screen. (The same is true of William, who good-naturedly romances both Dorothea and Abbie.) What they all have in common, however, is that they circle around Jamie. Dorothea is a sort of seventies helicopter mom, who’s so deeply concerned about having her fatherless boy grow up to be a good person that she enlists everybody else to help in the effort. Theoretically a masculine presence should help, but realizing that William lives on a different wavelength, she appeals particularly to Abbie, who introduces the boy not just to the clubs but to the feminist texts she’s embraced. Julie pitches in as well, revealing the attitudes—particularly sexual ideas—that her background and reading have brought her to.

The result is that though Mills has created some fascinating female characters, the focus of his film is Jamie—that is, himself. That was the reality of “Beginners” as well, but in that case Plummer’s highly theatrical turn overshadowed McGregor’s recessive one; he really took the film over. Bening’s Dorothea is by far the strongest figure in this odd little universe, but nevertheless she is often pushed into the background for Zumann’s Jamie to take center stage, and though the young actor isn’t bad, his character is basically a rather fuzzy reactive vessel into which ideas and opinions are insinuated. It’s also the case that Dorothea, Abbie and Julie have to share the script’s attention in ways that Plummer’s Hal really didn’t; as a result none of them emerge with the sharpness they might have had, however fine they’re embodied by Bening, Gerwig and Fanning. Mills’ penchant for inserting narrative flash-forwards, in which we’re told what will happen to the characters in the future, seems an overly cute device to round them out. By the close the film feels fractured, a meandering collection of moments that, in the end, don’t fully cohere even if individually they’re engagingly laid-back.

Of course they are all designed to contribute to Mills’ larger vision about the passing of the era that has produced women like the three—though each comes from a distinctive background—who help to shape young Jamie. It’s hardly an accident that the story is set in 1979, at the edge of the Reagan presidency, and that one of the moments that the picture focuses on toward the close is Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, which Dorothea finds inspiring while others around her are much less impressed by it. The spirit she (and to an extent, Abbie and Julie) represents will soon be replaced by something much less liberating and tolerant, more mundane and practically-oriented. One of the particular strengths of “20th Century Women” is that in pictorial terms it captures the end-of-the-seventies ambience so well, a testimony to Mills’ own obsessive attention to detail, but to the commitment of production designer Chris Jones, costumer Jennifer Johnson and cinematographer Sean Porter to his vision.

On the other hand, Mills gilds the lily with his more insistent visual touches—most notably long-distance shots of cars speeding along the coast that turn into psychedelically-colored rotoscopic images and collages of period stills and artwork—that are more reflective of advertising technique than traditional narrative method. Given all that, one must appreciate the skill of editor Leslie Jones in stitching it all together so well. The musical choices also contribute to the period feel—especially in Dorothea’s inability to appreciate the more cutting-edge sounds she’s introduced to.

The title of Mills’ film is more than a little over-expansive, given that it’s really about three rather peculiar females at a particular juncture of American history late in the twentieth century—or, more specifically, about a teenage boy growing up under their distinctive influence. It’s essentially an autobiographical coming-of-age movie, one that includes a good many affecting moments but, in the last analysis, doesn’t manage to bring them together into a satisfying whole.