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


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 *****)


American Ultra (***): Stoned Identity


American Ultra – 2015

Director Nima Nourizadeh
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale
Screenplay Max Landis

One of the least appealing aspects about Pulp Fiction is the way Tarantino cuts the legs off the ending about halfway through the film. Seeing that Vincent and Marsellus arrive in tact and uninjured from their time at the diner, there is no tension later when Ringo has the gun pointed in his face. It wastes a magnificent speech and, quite likely, Samuel L. Jackson’s best shot at getting an Oscar. American Ultra does the very same thing with its opening shot.

Before we get to that though, let’s talk about the “stars.” Let’s be frank, too. Eisenberg and Stewart are difficult to like. Stewart is easy to put in this category. Warranted or not, she’s lost more than she’s gained as the world discovered her. Eisenberg enjoyed a career of low expectations riding along in the ditch until The Social Network placed him on another level. Then this past summer at Comic Con, he compared adulation of people who dress up in costumes while cheering for their heroes who dress up in costumes in movies to “probably some kind of genocide.” This may have had an effect on the box office receipts. You have to get butts in the seats, no matter what your movie is about, before expectations can be raised. Or dashed by the end of the opening credits.

So what happens at the beginning of the film? Well, for one, we know that Eisenberg’s Mike Howell is a little beat up, but he is alive. Why is this? Don’t worry, they are just about to rewind much of the film before your eyes so none of the upcoming scenes are really all that surprising. Bummer. Why is this scene here? So we can hear some annoying inner monologue that gives impressions that won’t be followed up when the movie moves forward is my nearest guess. The viewer gains nothing from this “trick” and the movie loses its effectiveness.

Back at the beginning, where this film should have started, we have Mike and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) almost making it on a vacation to Hawaii. Mike is unable to actually board the plane, due to a phobia that makes him puke uncomfortably close to an airplane toilet. Like, right inside of the thing. It’s like he’s making out with it. This elicits more of a phobic response for me than walking aboard a plane ever could.

On their way back, they are accosted by local law enforcement, to remind the viewer in the most Footloose way possible that this is a small town and cops don’t like folks who do drugs all the time. Inexplicably, he is back at work at the local grocery mart the next day. The only person working there. Who would have been there if he had gone to Hawaii? This movie doesn’t bother to ask.

All of this success with the drugs and the low wage jobs (Phoebe works at a bail bonds office) brings Mike to a spot where he feels he should ask Phoebe to marry him. He’s even saved up for a cheap ring. Phoebe, acting as if she is compelled to love Mike, even if they amount to nothing in the town of Liman, West Virginia. Hawaii was going to be his big moment to ask her. Since that didn’t happen, we get to see him ponder the moment throughout the rest of the story.

Meanwhile back at Langley in the CIA headquarters, Agent Lasseter (Britton) gets an anonymous notification that the last agents of her failed “Ultra” program is about to be killed by some new agent program, called Tough Guy. I think the phrasing is intended to sound ironic. We know that this last agent is Mike, but he does not. This again is unfortunate, from a storytelling perspective. We end up waiting for Mike to show what we already expect. The viewer is waiting instead of surprised.

Quite obviously Mike has to survive numerous attempts on his life. These Tough Guys would more appropriately be called Psychotic agents of multiple genders. There are definitely men, I think there are women, and a couple of Caitlyn Jenners in there, too. The first and last one we see is Goggins. Walton Goggins has reached that stage where he no longer dies for being crazy. We can thank both Justified and Sons of Anarchy for this. Instead, he just gets beaten until he’s nearly dead because he is crazy, and kind of adorable.

There are some good moments in the next hour, mostly brought on by the acting of Eisenberg, Stewart and Britton. The rest of the cast fit right within the confines of caricatures we’ve become comfortable with seeing them. Topher Grace, fire your agent. Everything you do is the bad guy from Spider-Man 3. It’s not surprising to see you hide behind people after talking tough.

American Ultra is the kind of film where some elements work so well, one cannot help but spend a majority of the time viewing the film as they would have re-written it in their head. It has some things going for it. Essentially a comedic version of The Bourne Identity. That it ultimately fails to deliver could be the fault of Landis, but when one considers Nourizadeh’s last film was Project-X, that the movie is even this good seems like a kind of victory.

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

John Wick (***1/2): I’m thinking you don’t kill the dog


John Wick – 2014

Director Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Starring Keanu Reeves,Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe
Screenplay Derek Kolstad

John Wick (Reeves) is a retired hitman / tough guy for the Russian Mob. He got out and nobody really wanted him back in. The Mob Boss’s Son, who amazingly had no clue who he was, makes the mistake of coveting his ’69 Mustang at the cost of his puppy Daisy. Thing is, this puppy was given to him by his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). So this puppy, Daisy, is kind of important. They killed the wrong puppy. So let the ass kicking begin.

This is really all the plot that is need to excuse an hour and a half of carefully choreographed carnage. Wick’s grief is carefully hidden in the wooden countenance of Reeves’ face, expressed only in swift moves and hailing gunfire. That there is nothing going in the character department is of no consequence. Clint Eastwood made a career of these types of films in Western form. The movement is fluid and the bad guys die painfully.

There is plenty of acting talent to go around in this one. Nyqvist has been a staple since The original Dragon Tattoo trilogy. His work here, is a shadow of that classic, not even comparing to his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol efforts. He does what he can with a “what ya gonna do” shrug and marches through to the inevitable conclusion. It’s a bummer when one realizes that no matter who is playing the bad guy, they aren’t going to make it.

Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, is a decent bag of slime. It says something when John Leguizamo won’t touch your stolen goods. Johnny’s looking quite dapper these days, even if he isn’t mid-card level. Willem DaFoe waits in the wings, a seemingly ambiguous hired gun. Ian McShane is an equally mysterious ombudsman of dark side ethics. Dean Winters, mayhem himself, doesn’t register as the bad guy #2.

Really though, none of these actors are given much to do, plot wise. They sit around and stew over the bad decisions of one and then, of course, compound that bad decision while waiting for the town to be painted red.

As the one applying the color, Reeves is a willing vessel. This movie is not intended to win any awards. He needs to live up to the heaping of praise by the characters who know of him expressed to those who are unaware of his talents. To that end, at about the 1/2 mark, they send the first wave of bodies his way to be slaughtered.

How people keep breaking into his house, I have not a clue. Perhaps it was the producers idea. He does not wast bullets, and he does not take chances. His moves, fancy as they seem, are more effective than Steven Segal in his prime. If this acting gig does not work out, maybe he too can pass secrets to MMA fighters. I get the feeling he’s going to be fine, though, if he keeps peppering his track record with sturdy fare like this. He should outlast Neeson by 20 years.

The film has class and it is fun. If one can get past Wick’s mounting injuries and seemingly endless capacity for recovery, it’s delightful to see him order dinner for 12. There is lots of nuance here. Plenty of rules. As long as the toughs stay within their rules, all is fair.

Just don’t kill the dog.

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

Chef (***1/2) is a plea to be recognized right out in the open


Chef – 2014

Written and Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Jon Favreau, Sofía Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr., Emjay Anthony

One has only to look at Jon Favreau’s Carl Casper’s delicate handling of a menu that he’s made for no one while his staff makes a 10 year menu for a packed house to realize the not so subtle message he is imparting about his own career. Favreau’s career has reached some financial highs in the last decade or so, moving from Elf to the first two Iron Man films and then Cowboys and Aliens. Mostly the films are good, and they’ve made a load of cash. Favreau, it seems, longs for the days when he made Swingers.

He’s a likable guy, to be sure. Many good actors signed on for what must have been a fraction of their usual wage. Working from an original script that is a little too intentionally clumsy, we get to see Favreau set his co-stars up for laughs at his own expense. He’s been pretty good at this from day one. His humility is his strongest asset, even if it seems like that is his only asset for much of the story. It’s not the only bullet he has in the chamber, though.

Carl Casper is a successful L.A. Chef who used to be an award-winning adventurous risk taker. His success has come with hard work and a steady, unchanging menu. After getting skewered by a reviewer (Platt) he attempts to update his menu, only to run afoul of the owner (Hoffman) and create a viral backlash.  Not understanding how he could benefit from the series of events and really afraid to admit he is not enjoying his life, he finally takes his ex-wife’s advice and moves back to Miami with his son and opens a food truck.

There is a sequence where we see him taking the guts out of an old wretched truck and replacing it. This lasts until the next scene and everything is all shiny and new. It’s strange that Favreau invests the time showing Carl working on the engine and welding, when it adds nothing to the story. We only want to see Carl doing what he loves and sharing that love and some important time with his son (the excellently understated Anthony).

For the most part, the film delivers solid if not spectacular family entertainment. Strangely, they chose to add a bunch of swearing that undercut the potential audience for the film without adding many laughs. There is an emphasis on Twitter and “the digital world” not only to emphasize the gap between Carl and his son, Percy, but to give a vibe of the word spreading, both good and bad through the virtual world. There is no effect so special as seeing Carl and Percy.

The sound track is a pleasant surprise, with some great cross-National original material and a Cuban / New Orleans twist on many great songs, most notably the work of Gary Clark, Jr. and a sing along to Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. The music gathers, just like the menu. They pick up good stuff all along the way, until the menu, like the movie, is filled with their experiences.

The total of Chef adds up to more than the parts. The weaknesses that Favreau has always had he has here. His strengths, though, are still like the best kind of comfort food. It’s his adventure, replete with the minimal spices, excess of butter and lack of panache that wins out in the end. The particulars of this meal may not be memorable, but you will likely not forget the warm feeling it gives.

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

Ride Along is what you call a vehicle


Ride Along – 2014

Director Tim Story
Starring Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Laurence Fishburne
Screenplay Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Ice Cube is one of the most likable stars out there.  It must be the permanent scowl.  Ever since the movie BarberShop, the secret’s been out, though.  The director of BarberShop, Tim Story, has had a consistent career.  Almost every one of his films has made money, well except for Hurricane Season, but that was a high school sports drama.  Story’s valiant (and financially if not artistically successful) attempts at The Fantastic Four notwithstanding, he’s had a winning career.  He’s even directed a few of the Kevin Hart comedy specials.

Kevin Hart has been in a ton of films.  Most of us wouldn’t know it, unless we saw him once more in those films.  That’s what one sees in an aspiring career.  So now, we get to see what Hart can do with a little help from an established star like Cube.  The result is nothing you haven’t seen in 50 better and, say 1000 worse films.  I honestly cannot imagine why it took 4 writers to craft this plot, when most of the laughs seem to be spontaneous reactions by Hart.

The story is about aspiring police officer, Ben Barber (Hart) who is dating the sister (Sumpter) of a hard as nails Atlanta Police detective James Peyton (Cube).  Trying to win a spot on the police force and the approval of his potential Brother In Law, he agrees to go on a Ride Along with Peyton.  He gets to experience a series of 126 (nuisance) calls.  When Barber gets a whiff of what is going on, he calls Peyton’s bluff at exactly the wrong time.

The point to Ride Along is not to give an original, or in any way a harrowing story.  It’s easy to see what’s going to happen from the first scene.  The point to this movie, like any buddy cop movie, is to see the chemistry between the duo.  After taking a while to warm up, Cube and Hart show that they have it.  Somehow, we get to see Barber’s gaming skills actually help to solve crucial parts of the case.  This assumes that the video game makers work harder than the scriptwriters to achieve authenticity.

Ride Along is not an ambitious film, but it succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish.  The career of Kevin Hart has officially achieved overdrive.  How long it stays there depends on  a few things, like who he works with.  He’s done pretty well so far.  Let’s hope he’s smart enough to continue to dance with who brung him.

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

The Rules of The Counselor


The Counselor – 2013

Director Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo
Written by Cormac McCarthy

Rule 13: A spec script, or non-commissioned screenplay, is not solicited by anybody.  It must be sold.

Rule 25: A good opening scene, with remarkable visuals and as a bonus incredible sound, gives the viewer hope that they have not taken the first step down the wrong path.

Rule 32: No one in a movie who asks “Are you up?” ever lets the person sleep.

Rule 33: A demonstrative love scene in the first few minutes is pretty much a guarantee the couple is doomed.

Rule 34: White sheets indicate a love that hasn’t been tainted.

Rule 232: Guy watching a girl on a horse prancing with a cheetah is undoubtedly a sign that the grimy stuff being packed at the factory is not girl scout cookies.

Rule 237: Go ahead.  Have the cheetah chase down a rabbit.  It’s never been done before.

Rule 238: With that hair, its doubtful that you remind her of someone else.

Rule 242: Cute chick with the monotone voice saying she doesn’t miss things is a sure sign that she’s not a soccer mom.

Rule 245: It is possible to define women wearing huge diamonds as courageous.

Rule 327: Of course the diamond dealer wants you to understand the flaw in the diamond makes it perfect.

Rule 328: The more one talks about jewelry, the more one realizes they are being sold.  Kind of like a spec script.

Rule 354: Happy sinister couples often make happiness by the misery of others.

Rule 429: “The truth about women is that you can do anything to them except bore them.”  May just mean that you don’t understand the idea of nurture.

Rule 443: When casual conversation becomes more complicated than the end of Matrix Reloaded, then you are losing everyone.

Rule 445: If it’s “a one time deal,” then there is no movie.

Rule 446: It’s usually not a good film if you use the phrase “One time deal.”

Rule 448: When the conversation turns to how your head will be removed from your body, it’s a good idea to move away from the deal.

Rule 450: The guy peeing for no reason in the desert is usually going to be fodder.

Rule 492: It’s not wise to propose to her if she doesn’t notice the cheetah at the restaurant next to the Piano player.

Rule 659: You are a glory qualifies as a wonderful compliment.

Rule 670: Never trust a woman who can tell you how much your engagement ring is worth.

Rule 671: Conversations about confessing your dirty nasty sins to a priest is not a great sign either.

Rule 698: “You don’t know someone until you know what they want.”  Is redundant.

Rule 699: Long hair brings out the monotone voice in Brad Pitt.

Rule 845: If you want a good convict, choose someone who hasn’t been seen for years.  Like Rosie Perez.

Rule 866: It is possible to take Michael Fassbender’s personality away and replace it with the name “The Counselor.”

Rule 877: It’s kind of an axiom that opening a dance club is synonymous with being involved in the trade of another kind.

Rule 890: If one can be implicated in a bad plot, they will be.

Rule 934: Don’t ever go overboard when trying to intimidate a minor player in the plot, unless you want to use that minor player as your lawyer.

Rule 936:: When making a movie about the drug trade featuring a humorless lawyer, it’s a good idea to not have the guy who played Hank in the series that featured Better Call Saul.

Rule 947: If they show a guy who’s heading out-of-town more than 2 times, the guy will not make it to his destination.

Rule 982: They won’t show the signs of all the disappeared until someone’s disappeared.

Rule 1059: Most will finish watching a film just to see the horribly clever death scene.

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





The Hangover Part III and Kick-Ass 2: Delightful if not so funny


The Hangover Part III – 2013

Director Todd Phillips
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor, Justin Bartha, Jamie Chung, John Goodman
Screenplay Todd Phillips, Craig Mazin


Kick-Ass 2 – 2013

Writer and Director Jeff Wadlow
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jim Carrey, Clark Duke, Olga Kurkulina, Lindy Booth, John Leguizamo, Morris Chestnut, Donald Faison

Two notable comedies had sequels in the summer of 2013, and both were considered disappointments to many in the press.  One who actually viewed the previous entries had every reason to be excited.

Kick-Ass (***1/2 out of ****) was one of the pleasant surprises of 2010.  Its lack of pretense was as surprising as it was enthralling.  The best things about it, Moretz’ effortless lethality, Johnson’s clueless and unbounded enthusiasm and Nicolas Cage is his normal lunatic self.  And Cage dies in the end!  How could it be any better?  Mintz-Plasse is how.  His brash coming out party lights up the last act.

In the time since, he’s fussed and fumed.  Complaining to his mom, he inadvertently kills her and rechristens himself a name I will not use, but you can see in the poster above.  Dave has time to retire, then come out of retirement and begin training with Hit Girl.  The young orphan Mindy has moved in with her dad’s friend Marcus (Chestnutt) who wants her to start her freshman year of high school with a clean slate and, you know, stop maiming and killing elements of the underworld.

All of these moving parts create a chaos in which new characters emerge, some recede and some manage to do both.  Jim Carrey gives a brave, unsung performance as Colonel Stars and Stripes.  He does not come across as heroic as one would expect someone of his past star power.  It was as unexpected a turn as Cage’s from the first film.  Whatever it was that allowed him to condemn that performance and the movie itself (come on now, he had to know there was gun violence before he made it), he shows an inability to understand the irony of the film. It’s a sad point when the comedian is the one who laughs last…because he doesn’t get it.

To Carrey’s point, the violence is numbing, as it makes it hard to invest much into the characters.  It’s hard to like Dr. Gravity (Faison), when one thinks he’s going to end up on the wrong side of that bat.  At the same time, how is it that Duke’s Battle Guy could even joke about apprehending anyone as Battle Guy?  On the one hand, we have such incredible brutality, and on the other we have dunces with no physical prowess in the slightest.  We get that this is the filmmaker’s way of making the film one big “don’t try this at home,” but the message is lost in the fantastic luck the protagonists have when it comes to battle.

The energy of the film is driven mostly from the childish energy put forth by Mintz-Plasse.  It’s mindless, dark and ruthless.  Meaningless too.  It would seem a strong commentary on the aimless youth, but it doesn’t resonate as any sort of truth.  Seeing the bad guys being truly bad makes their demise that much more fun to watch, though.

What is true is the development of the two leads.  Moretz’ is a genuine star.  She’s growing into a strong young woman by now, and her command of the screen is that of an actor twice her age.  Watching the ever so gradual development of her relationship with Johnson is moving gradually from cute into something truly interesting.  It’s the one thing that makes me hope the film becomes a trilogy.

The Hangover III (***1/2 out of *****) starts promisingly for no other reason than no one is drugged and wakes up disoriented.  The 2nd time was enough for the formula, but the characters deserved a 3rd try.   The try is a success for reasons beyond The Wolf Pack, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Todd Phillips has struggled to come up with a truly successful storyline since the original blew the doors off conventional comedy in 2009.

This story’s engine is turned, like the second story, with the manic and intentionally stereotypical energy of Jeong.  We still get a steady dose of Galifianakis’ obtuse Alan.  Their relationship is unconventionally affectionate and really kind of adorable.  Cooper’s Phil and Helm’s Stu still fill in the gaps, making the recurring journey to recover Bartha’s Doug feel like a genuine even, no matter how many times we have to head back the same road.

Part of the appeal to the series is the lens through which it is filmed.  The sepia tint is sharply drawn and looks beautiful.  This beauty shows the desperation of their circumstance even more sharply.  3 movies in, it’s still fun to watch the desperation creep over the face of Cooper while Helms submits to his worst fears.  It’s just not all that funny any more.

There are some laugh out loud moments, like the crude freeway “mess”acre on the freeway and Chow’s flight through the night-time Vegas skies.  The rest of it, though, is mainly just smirk worthy.  By the time we get to the end, one comes to the realization that this is the third movie in a row where we get hugging and learning for Alan.  This would have been a disappointment, were it not for the post credits scene.

It’s over for The Wolf Pack.  I suppose it’s just about time.  They could do this forever and, given the over all financial success of the franchise, they have every reason to do so.  They called it quits while still slightly ahead.  On the power of the first film and two decent following films, it’s one of the best comedy trilogies in history.  I would have to say it ranks behind Back to the Future, The Cornetto Trilogy and just in front of The Naked Gun (thanks for ruining it, O.J.).  It’s not a crowded field, though.  I am not sure I could name more trilogies than those.  American Pie and The Jersey films don’t count.  The first  went to 8 films (4 direct to video).  The second featured Ben Affleck.  Hopefully The Hangover won’t ruin what they’ve accomplished by doing either.