REVIEW: “John Wick: Chapter 2”

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“John Wick” was a fun, fresh 2014 action thriller that added its own little twist to the “boy and his dog” story. Okay, perhaps that’s a tad misleading. Instead let’s say it was a stylized shoot-em-up heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema and the 1980s action genre. Personally speaking that is a tantalizing recipe and “John Wick” used it to violent bloody near perfection.

The surprising success of the film and eventual cult status lead to a sequel simply titled “John Wick: Chapter 2”. Former stuntman Chad Stahelski returns to direct and Derek Kolstad is back as screenwriter. Most importantly 52 year-old Keanu Reeves (yes, I said 52 years-old) reprises his role as the hard-boiled and well-dressed hitman John Wick. If you weren’t fully convinced of his tough guy status after the first film wait till you see him here.

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“John Wick 2” ties up a few loose ends before launching into its own bullet-riddled story. Wick once again finds himself trying to get out of the hitman business, but an old blood oath comes back to haunt him. Weaselly crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) violently rejects Wick’s unwillingness to honor their pact which catapults John right back into the life he desperately wants to leave.

One of the real treats of “John Wick 2” is how it expands on its wild global underworld network of assassins which lies just under the crust of the world’s biggest cities (in this case New York City, Rome, and then back to the Big Apple). It’s an interconnected outfit with its own rules and codes many of which are shared by the delightfully droll Ian McShane. He returns as Winston, the “manager” of the Continental Hotel which is actually the network’s New York City kill-free headquarters. Other fun characters return including Lance Reddick as the hotel’s concierge and John Leguizamo as Wick’s chop-shop buddy.

There are some lively new faces as well. Lawrence Fishbourne is introduced as an underground crime lord hilariously called The Bowery King. Common plays a quiet yet lethal fellow assassin who shares some fantastic scenes with Reeves. There is also Ruby Rose (“Orange is the New Black”) as D’Antonio’s cartoonish but perfectly fitting mute enforcer.

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In addition to the cool mythology and world-building is the energetic gun-fu action which sports a hypnotic choreography as elegantly composed as some of the best musicals. Here killing takes the place of dance and you have Keanu Reeves with a Glock instead of Gene Kelly with an umbrella. As silly as that sounds it’s actually pretty accurate. Stahelski’s stunt coordinator muscle never subverts his storytelling, but it does give us some spectacular set pieces. He also know Reeves well, having served as his stunt double on the “Matrix” trilogy. To make the action as authentic as possible Stahelski put Reeves through an extensive boot camp featuring martial arts, gun training, and driving. The payoff is a hoot.

I’ll be the first to admit that the “John Wick” movies have surprised me. They could have easily been your standard throw-away dreck. Instead they are films that meld a fresh new style with and old-school action nostalgia. “Chapter 2” has a fun time expanding on the first movie and being completely comfortable in the world it has created. There is a beautiful rhythm to the violence and the film never loses its self-awareness or tongue-in-cheek wit. All of that said “John Wick: Chapter 2” isn’t some groundbreaking piece of cinema, but it’s remarkably unique and it operates by its own rules at every turn. I really like that about it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Jackie”

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There are a number of traps and obstacles filmmakers face when making a biopic. It grows even more challenging when the film’s focus is a beloved historical and cultural figure. “Jackie”, director Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Jackie Kennedy, would seem to be a prime example. But this film avoids many of these routine complications by setting itself up as something strikingly unique right out of the gate.

Writer Noah Oppenheim first conceived “Jackie” as an HBO miniseries but the project evolved into a compact, tightly-wound 98 minute feature. It tells the story of Jackie Kennedy but not in the traditional sense. Instead it restricts its focus to the four days between the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 to the state funeral on November 25th. It’s told almost entirely from her perspective yet it’s much more than a detailed historical account. The film’s interest is in exploring Jackie’s state of mind during those impossibly traumatic few days. It does so with equal amounts of fact and speculation.

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The narrative framework comes in the form of an interview. Billy Crudup, credited as simply The Journalist (but based on Life magazine journalist Theodore White), arrives at the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port compound to interview the former First Lady. He’s met by a pale, drained Jackie (played with uncanny ferocity by Natalie Portman). Throughout their mercurial and sometimes contentious interview it becomes clear Jackie is the one dictating the terms of what will be written. When she lights a cigarette she emphatically tells the journalist “I don’t smoke.” – a clear signal to him that she controls the message.

Through the interview we revisit those agonizing four days the way Jackie recalls them. All of the iconic imagery is there – the ’61 Lincoln convertible, the pink bloodstained Chanel dress, Jackie and Caroline kneeling at JFK’s casket. Larraín presents these scenes through well detailed recreations and archived historical footage. But this movie is more interested in the time between those well-documented moments. What did Jackie do? Better yet what was she feeling?

Because of this focus “Jackie” maintains a keen psychological edge to it. You see it as she maneuvers through an emotional haze of grief and anxiety. Larraín and Oppenheim want us inside of Jackie’s head as they themselves ponder her internal reactions to such painful and uncertain events. Portman runs with it, diving so deeply into the psyche of her character that we completely forget the two look nothing alike. You buy into her personal struggles and her wranglings with others including her compassionate brother-in-law Bobby (played by Peter Sarsgaard who is so good here) and Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch).

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Surprisingly this isn’t a puff piece aimed at reinforcing Jackie’s venerated cultural image. It doesn’t shy away from her weaknesses or blemishes. At the same time it doesn’t shortchange her strength and fortitude. At no point does the film question her resilience or integrity. If anything it humanizes her and makes her a more sympathetic and relatable person especially considering the overwhelming pressures she faced.

This movie’s unusual approach to the biopic is sure to catch a lot of people off guard. In some of its deeper internal moments it’s almost hallucinogenic, maybe too much so on occasion. Mica Levi’s moody score is a big contributor. It plays prominently from start to finish and blankets the entire film with a steady sense of unease. And then we get back to Portman and her sublime performance. It’s peculiar and off-kilter, perfectly so. That makes it a wonderful fit for this unusual but thoroughly satisfying portrait.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Jake Reacher: Never Go Back”

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Don’t let its deceptive title fool you. You most certainly can go back. Just look at Tom Cruise, the 54 year-old ageless wonder. 2012 was the first time Cruise took on the role of ‘tough as nails’ ex-military cop Jack Reacher. Now four years later he ‘goes back’ for a second round of high energy, low monotone Reacher-style action.

Edward Zwick directs the film and has some history with Cruise. The two previously worked together on the 2003 epic “The Last Samurai”. Needless to say this is a much different picture. It follows the basic blueprint of the first movie – a no-nonsense, tough guy protagonist, some big action, and a military mystery through-line. Think of it as a big screen NCIS with a larger budget and Tom Cruise running the show.

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Cruise’s Reacher is still a drifter who does his own thing but occasionally lends a hand to the military police he left behind. In doing so he develops an over-the-phone friendship with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) who now runs his old unit. Upon arriving in Washington DC to meet her for the first time, Reacher discovers she has been relieved of her duties and arrested for espionage.

Sensing an obvious set up, Reacher busts out Susan and the two fugitives set out to find out who wants her dead and why. Along the way Reacher learns he may be the father of a teenaged daughter (played by Danika Yarosh), a convenient little story thread that adds some manufactured vulnerability to our unstoppable hero.

That sarcasm you may sense in my tone can be attributed to the fact that I’m still struggling with how I feel about the film. Broadly speaking I do like it and feel many are being overly critical. It is competently made by Zwick and it delivers exactly what audiences will expect. Cruise is never the problem with his movies and he does good here as well. Smulders is even better as a tough, hard-nosed woman who is a far cry from the normal action movie damsel in distress. She is a genuine action heroine and the one true refreshing element.

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But at the same time, it’s hard to see this as anything more than a ‘one-and-done’ viewing. Despite the efforts of Cruise and Smulders, things never rise above predictable and/or formulaic. There is nothing about the story that will catch you by surprise. And aside from more action and a new subtitle, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” doesn’t offer much new for the series as a whole.

Writer Lee Child has written 21 books as part of his Jack Reacher series. “Never Go Back” is based on his 18th novel so there is still plenty of material should they decide to make a third movie. I would go see another Reacher film since I have found entertainment in both of the these installments. But unless they are willing to shake up the formula, Jack Reacher 3 will be more of the same – entertaining enough at first but nothing that will stick with you past that initial viewing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Jason Bourne”

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Who would have guessed that Robert Ludlam’s trilogy of novels would spawn an immensely popular $1.2 billion movie franchise? That’s what happened with the Jason Bourne series. It began in 2002 with “The Bourne Identity”. Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass would make three films together. Throw in 2012’s ill-advised “The Bourne Legacy” (minus Damon and Greengrass) and that brings us to 2016 and the latest film, the generically titled “Jason Bourne”.

You could say it is an odd and unexpected return not only of Damon and Greengrass but of the series itself. The Jason Bourne character has lied dormant for nine years yet the new film is essentially a direct sequel to 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum”. You would think Greengrass (who also co-wrote the screenplay) had a big vision if he was bringing his lethal, conflicted amnesiac back out of the shadows. Turns out he really doesn’t. In fact, you could say that “Jason Bourne” follows the very familiar franchise blueprint.

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But that’s not saying it’s a bad movie. In fact I think a lot of the initial quick-triggered criticisms are undeserved. “Jason Bourne” has many of the same ingredients as the first three films – a good cast, some intense pacing, a handful of impressive action scenes. At the same time it’s tough to overlook the fact that somethings are clearly missing in certain areas of the film.

One of those areas is the story itself. Again, it isn’t bad, but nothing about it feels particularly fresh or original when compared to the past Bourne pictures. Bourne (Damon) is mistakingly implicated in the hacking of a CIA database. The actual culprit is Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who unearths information that puts Bourne on yet another trail to find out more about his past. Hot on his heels is the ‘shoot first’ CIA led by their craggy director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and ambitious head of operations Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander).

Greengrass’ story globetrots around the world and features several interesting locations including Greece, Iceland, Berlin, London, and Las Vegas. You’ll also see plenty of text messages, computer screens, and keyboard tapping. But one thing you won’t see is even the slightest hint of a smile. Every single character is stern, dour, moody, or downbeat. It tends to fit with the tone Greengrass is going for, but I couldn’t help but find the ever-present, super-serious expressions a bit amusing. And don’t think about the story too much. Question marks and plot holes are everywhere.

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The film sports around three big action set pieces which are overshadowed by the slick, methodical, surveillance-based buildup leading to them. As has become commonplace in many films, the action is hacked to pieces in the editing room. Shaky cameras and quick cuts are disorienting. Perhaps it’s needed for a now older Matt Damon (the Liam Neeson action flicks incorporate the same method), but it’s still annoying. The one exception is the big finale – a fantastic edge-of-your-seat sequence in Las Vegas. Greengrass calms his camera down a tad and gives us an action scene that rivals anything in the first three pictures.

So what to make of “Jason Bourne”. It’s a movie with plenty of the Bourne elements fans will be expecting. It is a bit slow out of the gate, but when it gets its footing it falls right in line with the franchise. But that’s also why the film felt a bit stale and routine. It does nothing to step outside the franchise’s strict established bounds. Ultimately it doesn’t do enough to avoid feeling like a tacked on chapter to the Bourne story. Still a well made and fairly entertaining chapter, but nothing fresh and nothing that reenergizes the series after so many years away.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Jupiter Ascending”

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It took some time but I have finally come to an unimportant realization –   I am not a fan of the Wachowskis. I’m not sure why it took me so long to admit it because I’ve never had the best experiences with their films. “The Matrix” was a good movie, but I never saw it as the monumental classic others have. It’s sequels interested me less. “Speed Racer” was an unwatchable mess. “Cloud Atlas” was one of the most laborious theater experiences I’ve ever had. Yet despite these not-so-stellar reactions I always find myself watching whenever a new movie comes around.

The latest from the Wachowski siblings is “Jupiter Ascending”, an ambitious science fiction romp that has all the ingredients to be yet another slog. Six years ago Warner Brothers approached the Wachowskis about creating an original sci-fi franchise. Lots of money and resources were put behind the project in hopes of producing a profitable series. That hope looks unlikely. The film barely recovered its production costs and it found very little critical support. But here is the big surprise – it’s not a terrible movie. That being said it is another Wachowski movie whose ambition is only surpassed by its flaws.

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The story isn’t nearly as intelligent as the Wachowskis probably think, but it’s also not as incoherent or convoluted as some critics proclaim. In fact, at times it is pretty basic stuff, but at other times it’s just downright silly. The story is basically a melding of Cinderella and the Wizard of Oz thrown into a big, vibrant science fiction world. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young woman who housecleans for wealthy Chicago elites. But actually Jupiter is the reincarnated heir of planet earth.

Make sense so far? Probably not so here’s the deal. Earth and a number of other planets are owned by a powerful alien royalty called the House of Abrasax. The Matriarch of the royal family has been murdered leaving the ownership of the planets split between three siblings: the power-hungry sociopath Balam (Eddie Redmayne), the conniving playboy Titus (Douglas Booth), and the sweet but equally devious Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). The planets are considered harvest grounds by the aliens and Earth is the most profitable. Jupiter’s existence means the siblings can’t control Earth and therefore the profit so she finds herself stuck in the middle of one big family squabble.

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Thankfully there is Channing Tatum as the ridiculously named Caine Wise. He is a genetically engineered “splice” – a half human and half….ahem….wolf. Yep, you read that right. To add to the character’s absurdity, he speed skates through the skies with a pair of rocket boots and has a penchant for eyeliner. His main contribution to the story is to constantly rescue Jupiter from various states of peril in the nick of time. We also get Sean Bean as Caine’s buddy Stinger. He is half human and half honeybee but do we really need to get into that?

I will say the Wachowskis know how to world build. The creativity behind some of the effects are impressive and the locations are a lot of fun. For example to get to Balam’s “refinery” you enter through the big red spot on Jupiter’s surface. On the flipside not all of the action sequences work as well. Watching Tatum skate through the sky or fly around in these bird-like ships is cool at first but the movie milks them and they grow tiresome. The movie relies heavily on its CGI which is both good and bad.

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But the film’s problems don’t stop there. The story is built upon a pretty interesting mythology and foundation but most of it is told through a ton of exposition. Rarely does the film show us anything. Also for all of the cool and interesting things the story does, there are also too many moments and details that are beyond. And then there are a couple of key performances that don’t work at all. Tatum is cold, emotionless, and uninteresting. Some of it is the role but Tatum does it no favors. And what on Earth is Eddie Redmayne doing? His husky mumbling and sudden outbursts are laughably bad at times.

In a weird way “Jupiter Ascending” was a nice surprise. After my past experiences with the Wachowskis I was expecting the worst. But this is a watchable bit of sci-fi and often entertaining. Unfortunately some of its ideas are shockingly silly, it relies too heavily on its special effects, and a couple of the more important performances hurt the film. So while this may be better than some Wachowski films, it’s only marginally better and definitely not enough for me to call myself a fan of their work.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

REVIEW: “Jurassic World”

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When will they ever learn? Sure, the idea of mixing living, breathing dinosaurs with a theme park sounds like a lucrative can’t-miss idea. But three movies have proven that it leads to nothing but disaster (and a boatload of box office cash). The Jurassic Park franchise has laid dormant for 14 years so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that this sequel and reboot driven movie era would usher in a new installment. What made it an easier decision was the fact that all three of the previous movies did extremely well at the box office. So Universal Studios greenlights a $150 million budget and the result is “Jurassic World” – a poster child for safe, crowd pleasing, summer popcorn flicks.

“Jurassic World” recycles several things from the first film except this time things are a little cheesier, motivations are a little goofier, and many of the people are a little dumber. But that doesn’t mean the film is short on big cool dinosaur moments. There were times when I literally laughed and shook my head at the corny dialogue or stereotypical character. At the same time there were several scenes where I found myself absolutely thrilled at the action or the spectacle on the screen. It’s a conflicting mixture of good and bad which makes my final thoughts on the film hard to nail down.

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Chris Pratt is everywhere these days and in “Jurassic World” he stays within his ‘likable, everyday guy’ comfort zone. He plays a velociraptor trainer named Owen working in the Jurassic World theme park. He’s joined by a plump cast featuring Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire, the park’s director of operations, her two nephews (and obligatory kids) Zach and Grey, B.D. Wong as the park’s chief scientist responsible for creating the dinos, Irrfan Lhan as Simon, the owner and bankroller of the park, Vincent D’Onofrio as the sleazy, shady Hoskins, Omar Sy as Owen’s buddy and fellow trainer Barry, and a host of others.

Basically the story places all if these characters on the island park each with their own little threads of story. For example Claire has agreed to keep her nephews for the week even though she is too busy at the park to entertain them. The boys have the baggage of a possible divorce between their parents back home. Claire had a brief ‘thing’ with Owen in the past but that’s long gone. Now he is butting heads with Hoskins who wants to use Owen’s velociraptors for nefarious purposes. Simon has noble intentions but his demands for bigger attractions open the door for his aggressive science team to do some pretty questionable experiments. And on and on and on. Rarely do any of these subplots leave an impression, but they set the table for the movie’s main attractions – big dinosaurs.

One thing “Jurassic World” does well is presentation. Visually the world we see is vast and filled with impressive creatures and cool landscapes. The dinosaurs themselves look great. Their movements and the way they blend into the world almost allows the audience to completely forget the heavy CGI behind it. I was also impressed by the design and feel of the park. The rides, exhibits, and attractions were well thought out and genuinely believable taking elements from everything from Sea World to Disneyland. Overall the film is just as visually strong as you would expect, and those going for the wild dino-carnage will not be disappointed.

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But I can’t say the same if you’re going into “Jurassic World” hoping for an engaging story. At its very base level the story gets by, but there are plenty of other things that simply don’t work. Again, the characters are pretty one-dimensional, stereotypical, and forgettable. We aren’t given anyone to latch onto. Some are just flat-out bad. D’Onofrio’s Hoskins may be the prime example. The performance isn’t great but the way he is written is even worse. Then there are turns in the story that are too stupid to let slide. I won’t spoil anything but certain evil plans we see are beyond preposterous. Then throw in some incredibly cheesy dialogue and scenes which actually had me laughing and shaking my head in the theater.

So storytelling isn’t the strong point of “Jurassic World”. In fact, the writing keeps it from being the intelligent, engaging film that it could be. But at the same time I actually found myself entertained in the way that big budget summer popcorn flicks sometimes manage to pull off. The visual spectacle, the dinosaur fights, the theme park environment all work to immerse you in a really cool setting. It’s just too bad the underwhelming story, narrative hiccups, and bland characters drag it down to passable but ultimately forgettable levels.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars