John Wick 2 (****1/2): You’re always that guy…

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John Wick Chapter 2 – 2017

Director Chad Stahelski
Screenplay Derek Kolstad
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini

If it takes away your peace, it’s too expensive. That’s what some wise people say. Even wiser it is to take those taking away your peace with a head-shot or 70. This time they missed the dog with the grenade. But they took out pretty much the whole rest of the house.  And all those pictures of him and his not as recently deceased wife.  And he’d just buried his guns under concrete again…

The most powerful thing about John Wick the character is that he is actually quite convincing as a world-weary and just plain beaten down warrior. Sure, he’s always being brought back for “one more job” but he’s going to be shot, beaten and stabbed along the way, sometimes in the middle of a concert.  And he doesn’t miss. My word does he make sure he hits the target over and over. He is hit enough himself, but bullets that hit his vest just add to the extreme agony. They don’t take away his fire to survive, but they can very much affect his fighting style.

The job brings him to Rome this time, where he has to kill literally dozens of people just to take down one target. Then he gets into a prolonged fight or two. Reeves has been at this game a long time. Seeing him hit by cars, thrown down stars and through windows is remarkable. His dedication to realism is astounding. He is not a young man, but he doesn’t fight like an old one. Just one worn down by experience. He deserves an Oscar nomination for the most believable action star in the last decade…or two.

Meanwhile the bodies pile up. And up. And up.  It’s the highest one man death count I have seen outside of A Better Tomorrow II. The director Stahelski has a remarkable dedication to the art of action. He is growing by leaps and bounds as the trajectory between this film and the last will attest. The confidence is shows in one beautiful set up after another. Every scene is meticulously choreographed, advancing the very basic story as if it were way more complex than it really is. Take away this expertise and this is any of the Liam Neeson films of his recent heyday. Not exactly a put down, to be sure, but you know what I mean.

The last act of the film has an incredible premise that starts with 7 bullets and is as much a puzzling quest for more as it is a hunt for “vengeance.” The ferocity of the jujitsu employed is an agonized symmetry in which everyone’s body weight is carefully applied to make each fight believable.

What is this world of ancient coins and hit men and women waiting on every corner? It the same bullshit we’ve seen for years. There is no secret to this secret society. The key to the whole thing is feeling like Reeves himself believes. And you can see each scratch, cut and gut shot. That says nothing about what you see when you look in his tired, but still resolved eyes. It’s a younger version of what one sees when they look in the eyes of McShane.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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Selma (*****): There can be no better time for this

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Selma – 2014

Director Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Niecy Nash, Colman Domingo, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Alessandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, André Holland, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Henry G. Sanders
Screenplay by Paul Webb

There are many strong feelings evoked for the viewer of Selma. In a country that is still struggling with the callouses of racial wounds, there have been strikingly few movies dealing directly with the person who acted as its greatest salve. There are many legends and half-truths. There are some great and painful efforts to express the truth about what many of our American children suffered, as well as the strategies employed by those who sought to overcome that suffering.  Even with a major holiday bearing his name, it’s hard to picture what it was like to be Martin Luther King, Jr. at the time of our nation’s great crossroads.

The first image we see in the story is a somewhat normal conversation between a husband and wife. The husband, King (Oyelowo) does not like the tie he is trying to put on. That is because, his wife, Coretta (Ejogo) informs him, it is an Ascot. This could be a conversation between any husband and wife. By the overwhelming tension, though, we know more than the words are being expressed. It’s the weight of the world being shouldered by both.

It would be something if this was all one had to consider: a journey of two. DuVernay and Webb have more on their minds, however. We are given an expansive view of the team behind the March to Selma, Alabama in 1965. We get to see heroes like Cager Lee (Sanders), Amelia Boynton Robinson (Toussaint), James Bevel (Common), Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah), Fred Gray, (Gooding, Jr.), Diane Nash (Thompson), Jimmie Lee Jackson (Stanfield), Andrew Young (Holland) and Hosea Williams (Pierce) to name just a few. Some names we know, many we never would, were it not for works like this.

We are also given a picture of the effort from the point of view of those in power, from ranging from the evil defiance of George Wallace (Roth) to the annoyed, distracted  and ultimately vital support of LBJ (Wilkinson). There is some debate of the veracity of LBJ’s portrayal in the film, and that is alright. Wilkinson gives a respectful portrayal that fits well within what is known of LBJ, while showing that there was a partnership, albeit a tense one, between the President and MLK.

Views that many white people could identify with are here too, and not in a passing or obligatory way. The first march, met with such a violent response, is viewed by many on their televisions due to reporters on the scene. This incurs an overwhelming outpouring of support from many throughout the U.S., helping to change the face of the movement to what it really was: citizens united for justice and equality.

Selma succeeds by shortening the time span to the events up to and around the march. In narrowing that scope, we are allowed glimpses into the hearts, minds and actions of many more stake holders. If these glimpses are not 100% accurate (Cooper lost her job as a nurse and had to work as a motel clerk in real life), the spirit of essential truth remains. We need more of this.

The performances are excellent throughout. Taking on the daunting role of the giant, Oyelowo stands tall by allowing us to see his doubts. There are two particularly strong scenes in which we see him take phone calls late at night, searching for some inspiration. He hears this, absorbs it whole into his body and soul, exhales the bad and coming out renewed for another day.

DuVernay’s work is confident, clear minded and observant. Her efforts give us a vision of the past that is mournful, peaceful, joyful and filled with hope. It helps to remind us that there is a chance to make change that does not involve the fleecing charlatanism of the Jackson and Sharpton orthe agitated slurs of inconvenienced white citizens waiting to get into a baseball game. Nor does it require looting and violence. Selma is now and forever the arms of all God’s children, interlocked and walking together down the road. In this way, it moves me to learn more and love more.

(***** out of *****)

Now You See Me is a cute date that vanishes after the show

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Now You See Me – 2013

Director Louis Leterrier
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Common, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Michael Kelley, Elias Koteas
Screenplay Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt

Now You See Me is the kind of trick that shows you how its done while its setting you up for the next trick.  Four magicians (Eisenberg, Fisher, Harrelson and Franco) picked deliberately set up a show in Vegas that nets an apparent robbery in a bank in France.  This brings them to the attention of a FBI agent (Ruffalo) and a member of Interpol (Laurent).  One of the witnesses to the first trick (Freeman) gives both agents a bit of a tutorial, while showing us that he has a rivalry with their benefactor (Caine).  All of this seems pretty straight up, until they get to the 2nd trick.

As the 4 Horsemen, the leads have an awkward chemistry that seems more like cohesive bickering except when they are on stage.  Eisenberg is good for his role as the mouthpiece of the group.  It requires both being smart and being a smart ass, and he has each in spades.  Fisher and Harrelson have some expected moments, but its Franco’s mad escape attempt takes the card.

Ruffalo plays the dutiful lunkhead FBI agent, with a partner who may or may not be in on it.  He learns fast enough to always be one step behind, with his boss always chewing his ass.  Meanwhile, we have people literally being played like fiddles and the looming specter of a comedian named Shrike who’s been missing for nearly 20 years.  I wonder if he enters into the ending?

So much flash and pomp, and the circumstance is what you make of it.  The conclusion could be reached early in the film, but the actors you’ve seen playing the same roles for years may be the blindness that keeps you from understanding what you are headed towards.

Leterrier is a director who knows how to entertain an audience.  The viewer is kept at arm’s length, seeing what they need to see.  What they do with the information depends on the willing suspension of each’s beliefs.  The magicians hardly seem like characters, more like distractions.  And that is the point.

Is it memorable?  In some important ways, it may well be.  Most people will remember there was a smile on their face, even if they can’t quite place a finger on why.

(**** out of *****)

Movie 43: Do you like this collection of skits?

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Movie 43 – 2013

Directors Steven Brill, Peter Farrelly, Will Graham, Steve Carr, Griffin Dunne, James Duffy, Jonathan van Tulleken, Elizabeth Banks, Patrik Forsberg, Brett Ratner, Rusty Cundieff, James Gunn, Bob Odenkirk
Starring Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Halle Berry, Leslie Bibb, Kate Bosworth, Gerard Butler, Adam Cagely, Common, Kieran Culkin, Josh Duhamel, Devin Eash, Anna Faris, Richard Gere, John Hodgman, Terence Howard, Hugh Jackman, Greg Kinnear, Johnny Knoxville, Justin Long, Aasif Mandvi, Jack McBrayer, Stephen Merchant, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Julianne Moore, Chloë Grace Moretz, Chris Pratt, Dennis Quaid, Liev Schrieber, Sean William Scott, Tony Shaloub, Fisher Stephens, Emma Stone, Jason Sudeikis, Uma Thurman, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Allen White, Kate Winslet, Anton Yelchin, Mark Young, Seth McFarlane, JB Smoove, Will Sasso, Bobby Canavale, Patrick Warburton
Written by Rocky Russo, Jeremy Sosenko, Ricky Blitt, Bill O’Malley, Will Graham, Jack Kukoda, Matthew Alec Portenoy, Claes Kjellstrom, Jonas Wittenmark, Tobias Carlson, Will Carlough, Jonathan van Tulleken, Elizabeth Wright Shapiro, Patrik Forsberg, Olle Sarri, Jacob Fleisher, Greg Pritikin, James Gunn, Bob Odenkirk

I wasn’t a fan of the Kentucky Fried Movie.  This movie is not as good as that one.  I liked the one about the basketball team and the one about the blind date.  The Superhero Speed Dating had its moments, as did Truth or Dare.  That’s about it.  Don’t watch if you are easily offended.  Or if you are offended that attempts to offend you are not funny or effectively offensive.

I would write more, but I just got through writing all the credits and now I am tired.

So very tired.

(*1/2 out of *****)