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movie review

'John Wick: Chapter Two' is Undiluted Action Insanity

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

John Wick: Chapter Two wastes absolutely none of your time in establishing what it wants to be from the very opening frames. On the side of a building, a reel of Buster Keaton plays (a nod to the original stuntman himself) just before a sleek motorcycle comes tearing through, followed by  a black muscle car in hot pursuit. To say things escalate from there puts it lightly, but needless to say there’s about 20 totaled cars and even more bodies piled up before this sequence comes to a conclusion.

The original John Wick was a slow-burn cult classic about a hitman brought out of retirement by the premature assassination of his beloved puppy, a violent romp that found its true audience through the Internet, word of mouth and video on demand. Audiences fell in love with seeing noted Matrix star Keanu Reeves back at his ass-kicking best to take on a gritty revenge tale that knew not to take everything so seriously and to simply focus on making some ludicrously fun action scenes.

And much like the first, Chapter Two prefers the all-killer, no-filler approach to action filmmaking. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad know exactly how to slim down an action movie to the bare essentials, always opting for a more simple approach in telling a story, whittling it down to something that’s still coherent and interesting, but without overloading the screenplay with anything that doesn’t put the action scenes front and center.

Where the original John Wick explored a simple premise with expert precision and a tongue-in-cheek approach to its own inherent silliness, the second chapter opts for something much bigger and badder, but still somehow never sacrificing the commitment to wildly entertain you or bog the story down with unnecessary fluff. Yes, John Wick is brought out of retirement for revenge once more, but this time Wick has to trot the globe facing off against a diverse set of foes, everyone from a sumo wrestler to the rapper Common.

The criminal underworld hinted at in the first John Wick now becomes the ever-expanding playground full of hitmen and assassins for Wick to face off against, a frankly ridiculous secret society with its own set of rules and codes, giving chapter two an added dose of the fantastical. This is the kind of society where homeless people are hitmen in disguise, two men can try to murder each other in a knife fight on a train without a sign of police, ten henchmen can get their brains blown out on a dancefloor while barely anyone bats an eye… but don’t be fooled, John Wick knows and loves its own inherent silliness and it only invites you to do the same.

But it’s truly difficult not to be won over by the art on display here in John Wick. Much like how one would go see a circus to watch a talented trapeze artist, John Wick is perfectly crafted to showcase the talent of its cast, and especially its star. The John Wick films prefers to shoot close-combat action like a Gene Kelly musical, full of intricate fights choreographed as dances, something best captured in long takes rather than the quick edits we’ve come to expect from so many of Wick’s contemporaries. Reeves executes his brutal ballets with a craftsman’s precision, eliminating rooms of bad guys in beautiful locales, leaving a canvas of blood splatters and a litter of broken arms in his wake.

To go into great detail about John Wick 2’s outrageous setpieces would be to deprive you of some of experiencing their sheer bravado and lunacy, but needless to say it matches the high octane standards set by its predecessor and dare I say exceeds them. There’s hardly any moment of John Wick: Chapter Two that isn’t a delirious amount of fun and it’s better than anything that we really deserved out of a second installment of this franchise. And judging by the packed theater I left this weekend, I think we can all look forward to how another installment could continue to blow our collective mind.

'Arrival' is a Conceptually Ambitious and Technically Sound Sci-Fi Story

TV/Film ReviewLuigi MorenoComment

Early film festival screenings of Arrival generated a lot of positive buzz for director Denis Villeneuve’s latest picture in the months leading up to its release, making it one of the more highly anticipated movies of the year. This, of course, led to some pretty sizable expectations; Plenty of people will go into this movie expecting something great and, for the most part, they will not be disappointed.

The central conflict of the movie is fairly straightforward; When twelve gargantuan alien spaceships land throughout the globe, several teams of experts are gathered to make contact with the beings inside of them. Arrival mostly focuses on the American team, led by linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). These twelve teams must work together to find a way to communicate with the aliens and find out the reason behind their presence on Earth.

Amy Adams delivers one of the best performances of her career as Louise, and that's saying something. She’s the emotional center of the film, and she carries this weight in a very understated fashion. Everything that the viewers experience is seen from Louise’s point of view, and a lesser actress could have been too over the top to be believable as this character. In a movie that almost entirely hinges on the viewer relating to the Louise’s mental goings-on, that would’ve been catastrophic. The supporting cast is adequate, lacking any other real standouts, but also comfortably without any unbelievable performances that would take one out of the story.

Arrival also deserves a good amount of praise for its technical aspects. The directing literally places the viewer inside the head of Louise, and this is complimented by some truly incredible cinematography resulting in visuals that tell the story as much as the script does. The shots in which we see Louise enter both the military lab and the spaceship for the first time show how anxious and overwhelmed she is during those scenes being a standout example.

The production design also deserves to be lauded, with the incredible design of the aliens, their spaceships, and their language never feeling campy. Much like the directing and cinematography, these elements all help tell a story through the visuals only; This is a movie that one could watch on mute and still enjoy. Watching it without sound, though, would deprive viewers of experiencing the score and sound design, both of which are top notch as well. On a technical level, Arrival passes with flying colors.

The film, however, is not without flaws. There is a storytelling device (the explanation of which would spoil crucial plot points) that the movie goes to way too often, resulting in a slow pace at time and choppy storytelling at others. Even though that device conceptually fit the film and sets up the big reveal in the climax, the execution of it was a bit shoddy, hurting the overall flow of the film. Pacing is the movie’s biggest issue, with certain parts of the second act and the resolution of the movie unfolding too slowly.

There are also some issues with characterization, as Jeremy Renner, whose Marvel Cinematic Universe character Hawkeye is often mocked for being there without any real purpose, gets the same treatment in this movie. His character is underdeveloped and is almost extraneous to the plot except for the one moment when he figures something out on his own. Renner does a solid job with the hand he’s dealt, but the script does not really give him much to do.

Still, Arrival is overall an extremely original, conceptually ambitious film that is definitely worth seeing. There will be some bumps, but this superbly crafted sci-fi drama is ultimately a technical masterpiece with a world-class performance at its heart.

Ron Howard's 'Eight Days a Week' Is a Sweet, Slightly Empty Treat for Beatles Fans

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

How do you even begin to break down the immense mythology of a group widely considered to be the greatest of all time into something digestible and accessible but also still reverent? The eight years of musical, visual, historical, economical, political and social impact The Beatles left behind looms like a giant block of marble that should only intimidate any author or documentarian foolish enough to try and mold it into a singular experience that does the group justice.

And yet in truth, it’s insanely difficult to craft a bad movie around the story of the Fab Four. For all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the band’s legacy, any filmmaker who deigns to cover the band’s story essentially has the perfect subjects: four of the most affable, down-to-earth, creative and interesting people who ever walked the Earth. The filmmakers have a smorgasbord of every kind of song imaginable at their disposal to set a mood or tone, a majority of which are already in pop music’s pantheon of greatest ever. So really you’ve only got yourself to blame if you can make a bad film with all of that at your disposal.

With that said, at this point in history it is much easier to make a boring film about The Beatles. After so many books and documentaries covering every inch and aspect of The Beatles’ career, at some point a hardcore fan can only get so much out of a “new” interpretation a storyteller tries to craft out of that eight year marble block without some hint of what’s already come before.

And Ron Howard’s latest documentary begins dangerously on that cusp of blandness, threatening to turn into just a shiny new coat of paint on the same storyline even the most casual of Beatles fan is conscious of. The montage of those rough n’ tumble nights in Hamburg coupled with their subsequent haircuts/suits that led to Please Please Me’s chart-topping overnight success... it threatens on yada-yada-yada territory before the real fun actually begins.

Where Eight Days a Week begins to differentiate itself is in making you feel the absolute and all-consuming chaos of an event that was The Beatles’ touring years. A treasure trove of great concert material has been carefully remastered and restored for this documentary (a perfect justification for the film’s existence if you really needed one) and the footage of swaths of young people screaming their heads off, rushing stages, and evading police makes you feel just how singular an experience the Beatles were in history. Nothing had ever happened like this before and nothing would ever again.

The baby boomer generation was desperate for a way to express themselves, and these unassuming, charming lads with similar haircuts and incredible songwriting and vocal abilities came along and changed everything,These four young men were at the center of the world’s biggest cultural maelstrom and somehow trying to maintain their own sanity. The film runs you through the elation of Ed Sullivan and Shea Stadium all the way through to the bitter end at the KKK rallies in Memphis and the miserable Candlestick park final gig.

Their cheery and cheeky demeanor on that electric first tour of America heartbreakingly contrasted with the weariness of the magnifying glass is the film’s biggest success. It makes the mere existence of any Beatles music that followed the madness of their touring years seem like a God-given miracle.

The film wisely chooses to focus on the band’s overwhelming unity during these progressively trying times and puts a sunny disposition on the group’s overall dynamic. It’s nice to have a Beatles documentary that pits The Beatles against the world when so many others like to focus on their internal battles that came later. Those touring years, as Ringo mentions in the film, were when The Beatles had to look out for each other first and foremost. So while it may feel dishonest to exclude the turmoil of their later studio work, it’s impossible to deny the bond the Fab Four shared with one another.

There’s a few glaring omissions in terms of Beatles lore, in particular manager Brian Epstein is paid an abysmal amount of lip service considering how especially important he was to the success of this period of the Beatles career and in terms of interviewees, there’s hardly much on offer that hasn’t been stated better elsewhere (for instance the only real archival interview footage with George comes from the superior if exhaustive Beatles Anthology), and a few subjects may leave you scratching your head about their inclusion but overall it’s good fun and good-natured even if it doesn’t forge a brand new vision of history.

While hardcore fans familiar with most of these intimate details may not find anything revelatory here, it’s worth the price of admission for the glut of restored and remastered footage of some classic Beatles concerts and if you’re able to see it in theaters, the entire Shea Stadium concert plays following the movie, fully restored in 4K with remastered sound. It goes down like a smooth, soothing ale for those of us already under the Fab Four’s spell, while still providing those looking for an accessible entry point to the Beatles’ early career with a satisfying result.

'Café Society' Not a Night Club Worth Visiting

TV/Film ReviewPatricia TancrediComment

Cannes favorite, Woody Allen, made his 14th festival appearance with Café Society this year. In typical Allen fashion, the film stars big name actors including Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively and Corey Stoll, but despite the big names, Allen’s recent films have garnered most of their major buzz based on negative press. While the films cinematography, production design, and soundtrack are admirable, its poor performances and weak writing make it land on Allen’s growing flop list.

The film begins as Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) moves from the Bronx out to the west coast hoping to experience Hollywood’s golden age. Once there, his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) offers him a job. On his first day he meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) with whom he is instantly smitten. Vonnie first rejects his advances, but, when she is dumped by her boyfriend, she immediately comes crawling straight towards Bobby like a lost, lonely puppy. Following a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings, Bobby is left alone and returns heart broken and hardened to New York. A few years pass and it seems as though Bobby’s life heads up hill. He marries Veronica (Blake Lively), has a child, and starts up a wildly successful nightclub with his brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). But, just when his life seems to be going perfectly, the trouble begins: Vonnie pops back into Bobby’s life. They share their dreams and their “what could have beens,” but they never fulfill their unrequited love.

Undoubtedly inspired by himself, Allen portrays Bobby as a naïve and romantic young man who must squash his romantic dreams to continue a life of monogamy and monotony. Eisenberg does a good job in portraying Bobby’s transition from immature young man to cynical adult, but unfortunately, the half-assed performances, unbelievable relationships, and the inclusion of themes repeated in Allen’s body of work make the plot uninteresting. It is normal for an artist to draw inspiration from their personal lives; it is usually encouraged. But, when the artist writes and directs films every other year, their work easily become boring and repetitive. Jesse Eisenberg, now an Allen film vet, plays essentially the same character he played in When in Rome. Instead of an aspiring architect like Jack, Bobby aspires
to work in Hollywood. Instead of falling for a beautiful and intelligent actress unlike any girl he has met before, he falls for a beautiful and intelligent secretary working in Hollywood unlike any girl he has met before. Like Jack, Bobby stays with the safe blonde rather than risking it all for an alluring brunette.

Kristen Stewart’s performance as Vonnie is basically Kristen Stewart wearing more pink dresses than normal. Stewart’s real life “tomboy” attitude peeps through as she attempts to portray a girly, bubbly, and captivating secretary. When adorned in fancy jewels and elegant furs, she looks uncomfortable, as if rejecting her character. In scenes requiring any romantic interaction, she appears hesitant and reserved. Also, casting Steve Carell as a suave and accomplished Hollywood hotshot hinders the believability of his character (typecasting at its finest).

The lack of depth in Stewart’s acting can be easily attributed to the lack of depth of her character. As a matter of fact, the lack of depth of all the female characters. Allen is known for writing idolized and romanticized female characters, but that is no excuse to continue writing such one dimensional, mind-numbing characters film after film. Both Vonnie and Veronica are introduced and sustained on such superficial level that limits the audience’s ability to see them
as more than objects.

With accusations about Woody Allen’s history of sexual abuse, the reveal of Vonnie and Uncle Phil’s relationship is unsettling rather than comical. It definitely does not help that Allen’s indiscretions are under the media microscope even more heavily now thanks to the rape joke at the opening ceremony. On top of the allegations, the lack of chemistry and authenticity in the on-screen relationships between Vonnie and Uncle Phil and Vonnie and Bobby leave the main story line and the jokes falling flat.

The only truly comedic moments include Bobby’s family. Bobby’s large and meddlesome family finds itself in sticky situations as they react to the events in their lives. Sadly, those scenes do not push the story line forward in anyway; they just exist for comedic purposes. Recycled and tired jokes, themes, and plotlines make for a boring and predictable film. Despite its trademark Woody Allen touches, Café Society does not live up to the director’s
past films.

Cafe Society is in theaters July 15th

With 'Hail, Caesar!' the Coens Don't Want You to Get the Point of Hollywood, and That's the Point

TV/Film ReviewDanny BittmanComment

When I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December I also saw the trailer for Hail, Caesar! and remember thinking that this could be one of the Coen Brothers’ best films. That first trailer portrays so many different movie genres, and something about the title screamed classic to me. I pictured future electronic textbooks saying, “The Coen Brothers dominated story telling with their chameleon-like tastes, but once they released Hail, Caesar!, the world simultaneously bowed down in awe of their skills.”

Well, I can’t say I’m not still bowing down to the duo, but at the same time I have no idea what I just watched. The entire film seemed to have been made just to make fun of itself and the film industry. It was like watching a well-produced Adult Swim movie.  But it’s elusive point can be summed up in one of the beginning scenes, where producer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) asks men of multiple faiths whether the movie he’s creating, Hail, Caesar!, will offend anyone religiously. Instantly, one of the men states that a scene in the film where one person jumps from one chariot to the other is not realistic, which leads to the men arguing over who or what God is, and whether Jesus was the son of God. No resolution to Eddie’s question is given, and that’s the point.

Stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum give us truly impressive introductions to their fictional movie star characters as they dance and swim on fake sound stages. But after that they disappear from the plot entirely, only to be given extremely outlandish conclusions at the end of the film that we the audience just have to accept actually happened. There’s not a solid plot to the entire story, and it’s all in the name of the Christian film that Eddie Mannix is producing with the clueless actor Baird Whitlock, played with ease as always by George Clooney. It’s Just so comical to watch though, because every character seems to have no idea how anything truly works, and yet the point of Eddie’s film is to try and explain who runs the universe to the masses.

But I doubt that this movie will offend people religiously, because the Coen Brothers are literally telling us that films shouldn’t try explaining religion, by simply giving us the story of the incompetent filmmakers who try. 

The reason I really enjoyed this film was because I left the theater with a better understanding about society that has illuminated aspects of spirituality for me more than any religious film I’ve seen before. This is also why I love the Coen brothers. Their “point” is elusive, but it still exists. Overall it’s a fun ride of a film, but if you have absolutely no idea what happens behind and around the camera in order to make a movie, some of the key jokes will go right over your head. It wasn’t the classic that I thought it would be, but as long as you don’t take anything in this film seriously, (seriously anything), you will enjoy Hail, Caesar!.

'Carol' Is a Gorgeously Filmed Portrait of Love and Loss

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

Set amidst a hazy glow of 16mm, Todd Haynes' Carol is a beautifully devastating piece of melancholia. Returning to the familiar '50s backdrop of his tribute to Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, Haynes focuses his unusually soft lens on a timid but curious young shop girl named Therese (Rooney Mara) and her affair with the mysterious but intriguing socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett).

Adapted from the Patricia Highsmith's groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt, Carol takes its time in carefully constructing the forbidden romance at the center of the film as something genuine. By taking the time to let it grow, the effusion of romance becomes more cathartic and the heartbreaks become even more achingly painful.

Mara is pitch-perfect as the young Therese, a girl who thought she knew what she wanted until it all comes tumbling down. Her ambitions to discover what she truly wants in life are subverted by her own shyness, and in a role where she's meant to be such a mild-mannered piece of wallpaper, it truly speaks to Mara's talents that she's able to imbue Therese with just the right amount of both optimism and anguish. The scene in which she confesses to Carol she has no idea what she wants because she "says yes to everything" is one of the film's most powerful.

Blanchett too is astonishing as the titular Carol, infusing her elegant socialite airs with a sense of pain, especially in her moving interactions with her young daughter. Blanchett gives Carol this queer sense of aloofness, and even when it seems she is closest to Therese there is still a mysterious "otherness" to the older woman character. Yet once the dramatic punch of the second half hits, she drops all airs of fragility and evolves into something more touchingly humane, giving Carol a sympathetic sense of desperation in her loving pleas.

Seemingly lost among the awards chatter however is the perennially underrated Kyle Chandler as Carol's estranged husband Harge, a man so torn apart by the futility of his marriage but so desperate to make things normal in his life again. When at first it seems his role is simply "the evil ex-husband," it was a pleasant surprise to watch him evolve into something wonderfully more complex, as his love for Carol grows increasingly more strained against the circumstances of her sexuality. 

Forsaking the crisp sharpness of digital photography, cinematographer Edward Lachman opted for the beautiful simplicity of 16mm film and it lends Carol a strikingly gorgeous haze and grit. The breathtakingly composed shots are given the dreamlike qualities of memory, as if groggily recalling the nostalgic minutia of romance: the lingering gaze of a lover, the offhand smile, the squeeze of a shoulder. It's a rush of color but also of feeling, and it makes Carol a truly sensual experience in every sense of the word. 

Todd Haynes beautifully captures the flourishing romance between star-crossed lovers, but also deftly illuminates how tragic this kind of affair felt back in 1951. It's a portrait of the outsider in a way that can truly break your heart, even if it leaves with a sense of optimism, and a gorgeously orchestrated piece of filmmaking with a tender ache that won't fade quickly. 

'The Big Short' Is Smartest Movie of Year

TV/Film ReviewSean McHughComment
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Well, it’s happened. The man most famous for being a frequent Will Ferrell collaborator, Adam McKay, has made (arguably) the smartest movie of 2015. The Big Short is a derisive satire based on the 2010 best-selling non-fiction book of the same name, focusing on a handful of key players on Wall Street and across the country who not only predicted the inevitable housing crisis of 2008, but looked to capitalize on the looming crash quite handsomely.

McKay and Charles Randolph adapted the screenplay from the Michael Lewis’ book that chronicles the real life series of events that lead to a respective group of money managers (Steve Carell and his motley crew), investors (Christian Bale and Brad Pitt), and Wall Street types (Ryan Gosling) who looked to bet against the wildly profitable sub-prime mortgage industry. Seems like a tough sell, right? A movie that revolves around a bunch of rich white guys in their offices outsmarting all the other rich white guys sounds hardly interesting, or original (see: Gordon Gecko). That’s where the combination of McKay’s comedic prowess and ingénue along with the A-list arsenal of acting immersion lift The Big Short into unparalleled satirical standing.

The Big Short is grimly funny – opening with an uncanny (and later on, intermittent) fourth-wall break a la Wolf Of Wall Street from Ryan Gosling, whoops, in the movie he’s Jared Vennett, a hotshot Deutsche banker. Vennett takes the viewer through a brief montage on the history of the real estate, mortgage, and various other large-scale financial industries in a fun and expository manner. Despite the light and playful nature of Vennett’s historical run down, the overall sardonic tone is established, allowing the film to become much darker and fuel itself with clever wit and rage.

The players introduced in Vennett’s expository homily are as follows: all around acting chameleon Christian Bale as the glass-eyed, hermitic M.D. turned San Jose investing consultant with a penchant for drumming, Michael Burry, Steve Carell as the New York corporation-condemning neurotic misanthrope Michael Baum and his troupe of equally maladjusted money managers (one of the films truly unexpected highlights) portrayed by Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong. Brad Pitt not only stars as Ben Rickert, a despondent Wall Street banker turned political activist/guiding light to a couple young gunners from Denver (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro), but also lends a hand as a producer on the film. Finally, the film’s pseudo narrator, docent, fit fanatic, Jordan Belfort-lite, antagonistic protagonist, resident “burn” distributor, Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling in a jerry curl.

Due to the magnificent People magazine fodder the exceptional cast actually is, the film takes a couple beats to fully commit to the characters within the story. That being said, Bale disappears into Burry’s anti-social, atypical nature seamlessly almost instantaneously, with Carell’s well-intentioned, yet cynical portrayal of Michael Baum not far behind.

Rather than give a full recount of the film’s synopsis, the reader may be better served with focuses on the unique and clever aspects of the film instead. The film operates in multiple parts - documentary, farce, drama, satire, etc. – with each aspect being highlighted in various capacities. Gosling’s Vennett serves as a wonderful narrator for the more historical, expository asides, while Carell and Bale offer more dramatic performances within the film. Pitt’s role in the film is mostly ancillary, but provides a lens that inevitably makes the viewer question the protagonists’ moral standing as a whole.

The A-list cast certainly carries the film, but perhaps the most notable aspect of the film as a whole is the manner of which complex real estate and mortgage terms are explained in layman’s terms by the likes of Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler, and Selena Gomez.  When key terms and complex mortgage phrases are introduced, Gosling inevitably throws a quick cut to a cameo. Each cameo is essentially an informational vignette that gives both a humorous and informative explanation of the term. Again, instead of reproducing each individual informative vignette, just know that one involves Margot Robbie in a bathtub (eerily similar to Wolf of Wall Street), Anthony Bourdain in a kitchen, and arguably the best of the three, economist Richard Thaler and pop star Selena Gomez explaining synthetic CDO’s (Collateralized Debt Obligations) and the “Hot Hand Fallacy” over a game of blackjack.

The Big Short is the smartest movie in 2015. It’s sharp, divisive, engaging, and humorous, without sacrificing any ounce of information in the name of Hollywood dramatics. It is a movie that focuses on subprime loans, something so complex, even the banks that doled them out failed to fully grasp exactly what they entailed. McKay manages to take a bewildering piece in history and craft it into a digestible package that does not sacrifice any wit or edge so audiences can understand more clearly. The Big Short observes and utilizes the events (24-hour celebrity news cycle) that obfuscated the eventual recession, and in turn illuminates the situation so viewers can make their own decisions on what went wrong, and who (if anyone) is to blame.