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Review: John Wick Chapter 2

Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski “John Wick Chapter 2” eloquently serves up a solid sequel that doubles down on the intense creative violence that worked so well in the first film. Opening shortly after the end of the first film John Wick (Keanu Reeves) hunts down his car held by the remnants of the villains from that film in an exquisitely violent fashion. After which he returns home to his pit bull pup as he tries to resume his grieving process, however he gets little time to mope about as he is quickly greeted by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an old acquaintance from John’s past looking to make good on blood oath.

While John Wick’s motivation in this film are slightly less singular than the first, it’s a great excuse to explore the world of his past that was hinted and teased at throughout the first film. John goes international this time around as he’s been roped back into the guild of assassins that he now loathes. Even in Italy John Wick’s name carries weight as he is repeatedly recognized, and feared, on sight. As he should be, for it isn’t long before we witness him murder countless rival hit-men and a variety of gun toting henchmen. Speaking of rivals, the standout in this film is none other than real world hip-hop artist Common performing as Cassian, a skilled killer nearing John Wick’s abilities. His fight scenes with Wick are relentless and white knuckled forcing Wick to flex his fighting ability beyond his trigger finger and signature grappling take-downs. One scene playfully threads the guild’s hiding in plain sight nature when both are equipped with pistols bearing silencers as they casually shoot at each other through a crowded metro station without anyone taking notice. That sense of heightened reality in this neon soaked murderfest is truthfully the hook of the film. Intense and precise gunplay within a community that prides itself on a system of rules and civility.

In fact, that is one aspect that I find quite endearing here. In the world of the continental’s guild of assassins there are rules that no man (or woman for that matter) dare break. When Cassian and Wick crash through a window into a hallway of the continental they are quickly reaffirmed of the rules and head to the bar to share a drink, like the civilized folk they pretend to be. This sequel is a more confident story after the successes of the first film, thus we get more of what worked there, and it never comes off as lazy or uninspired. What we get is an expanded version of the first movie, with an excellent set-up for a third chapter in the series, and I for one am positively pleased to know that we’ll be getting more of Keanu Reeves’ latest character.

Final Score: No dead dogs, but dozens and dozens of corpses

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Review: God’s Pocket

Written by Alex Metcalf and John Slattery, and directed by Slattery (best known for his performances as Howard Stark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Dominic Cooper’s ww2 era take on the character) “God’s Pocket” is an adaption of the novel of the same title by Pete Dexter in 1983. “God’s Pocket” is one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances as he plays the lead, Mickey Scarpato, and while the film as a whole is a middling affair in low level gangster dramas in 1970’s Philadelphia- his performance is what ultimately makes the film worth a watch.

I don’t want to sour on the film’s other aspects though, there a few solid aspects to take note of here, it’s just that the story that pulls everything together isn’t as engaging or immersive as others in the genre. The film is really just a good exercise in acting and performance as the production is filled with skilled actors like Eddie Marsan, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins, and a serious character role from John Turturro as well. The direction handled by Slattery is generally impressive for a first time director as well, he has a good eye for framing and putting the actors on display, which is saying something for how grimy and dimly lit the world they inhabit happens to be.

The plot at the core of this story follows Leon, Mickey Scarpato’s step-son, who is killed after berating an older black man to the point that he cracked Leon over the head with a lead pipe. The fellow construction workers that witnessed the act stand up for the elderly black man when questioned by the police and cover up the act by citing a falling piece of machinery. Somehow word gets out that there may have been suspicious acts surrounding Leon’s death and from there we witness several converging storylines. Leon was a scoundrel of a young man that did nothing to earn any respect or sympathy with the audience so that while he is quickly dispatched after showcasing his boisterous and proud belligerent nature, the characters may mourn his loss, but we have nothing to connect with. We can see how a death effects a community, but afterwards the film solely exists to see just how bad things can get for ole Mick as he tries to stay above water in financing his stepson’s funeral and keeping a well known local columnist from digging into his life, but sometimes it feels like, why should we care? Thankfully we have the acting efforts of the cast to fall back on and inform us of the atmosphere of the lives they lead. Philip Seymour Hoffman shines here just as he does in everything else. At one moment Mick can seem at his exhausted end with frustration boiling over into a melancholy sadness that lies behind his eyes, but he can react to other character’s influences quickly and go from threatening to empathetic in one quick motion.

“God’s Pocket” may not be the gangster drama you were looking for, but it’s unique contents of absurdism and melancholy make it worth a watch. Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the cast earn what the story lacked. That, along with some solid direction from John Slattery, is enough for me to give this film a recommendation. Just don’t go into this one seeking something a little more Goodfellas.

Final Score: 18 screwdrivers and 1 lousy corpse

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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes or “All you need is one Bad Ape”

Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, and directed by Reeves “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a spellbinding third chapter in what is now a trilogy that can be held up next to the likes of Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars. This film surprised me by being smarter than your typical blockbuster- and yet holding up the traditional tropes of explosions and clashing forces. What Matt Reeves has done with this property is outstanding and incredibly executed. Everything from the score to the quiet moments, of which there are more than you might expect, tells you more about the state of the world and the layers of the characters than most movies ever communicate to their audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed this film from the bombastic opening scene to the moment the credits started to roll.

What makes this film stand out from the rest of the tentpole summer films is how well the story and plot is structured. They defy expectation from scene to scene and the film keeps the line of tension and dread taught throughout. I won’t get deep into the details, as I believe the experience of going into the theater without a pretext as to how the film will play out only improves the effect of the storytelling at hand, but I have to tell you this much- this is a brutal and unforgiving perspective of war and conflict. Though to keep the most egregious expectations at bay, note that this is not a traditional “war” film. While there is plenty of apes versus human conflict, I would heed any notion of large scale D-day style battles. What you will find in place of that though are some of the very best special effects ever done in science fiction history.

There is not a single scene, or even a moment, when the motion-capture work of these intelligent apes isn’t stunning. These creations are so lifelike you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re watching a film about apes and not inherently human creatures. Andy Serkis deserves a standing ovation for his work as Caesar throughout these films. The character has a clear arc across all three films and he evolves in spectacular fashion in each. While Serkis may never receive Oscar accolades for the character, he has earned so much more. However we cannot overlook the work of the core cast of characters, as we mostly reside with the apes in this film, the story as a whole lives and dies on the shoulders of these performances. Speaking of performances, I’d be remiss to forget Woody Harrelson’s menacing colonel, he’s not always in frame- but his threatening presence is felt throughout. Oh, and Steve Zahn portrays “Bad Ape” a potentially risky comic relief character that pays off well and doesn’t distract from the overall tone of the film.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this film enough. If you haven’t seen the first two, I strongly suggest watching them before going into the final chapter. If you enjoy genre films and science fiction and fantasy films in the slightest, then this film should be on your watch list. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is an intelligent and thoughtful blockbuster that also acts as the spectacular end to a riveting trilogy.

 

Final Score: 1 good ape, 1 bad ape, and 1 ugly war

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Old School Review: Duel

Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Steven Spielberg “Duel” has been at the top of my “To-Watch” list for some time now as it was Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut for feature length films. “Duel” stars Dennis Weaver as David Mann, a salesman on his way to a meeting on the southern California desert highways when he passes a large gasoline truck. Thinking nothing of it, Mann goes about his way until the truck gets dangerously close and begins a dangerous duel- to the death!

This may be a TV movie from 1972, but it still holds up as a solid suspense-driven thriller. Clocking in at a clean 89 minutes for the theatrical version “Duel” mainly works as well as it does due to Spielberg’s keen eye for direction and staging. Throughout the film you can see the kernels of skill developing into what will become synonymous with a certain great white shark a few years from this release. Spielberg himself cites Hitchcock as his main influence for this tale of attempted vehicular manslaughter, and you can tell- particularly in the diner sequence in which Mann tries to identify his would-be killer once he notices the gnarly tanker truck parked outside. The film relies on little dialogue, the story is mostly told visually and this showcases Spielberg’s obvious talent even further. What really impressed me though was the details of the production.

Spielberg had to fight to shoot on location, the studio wanted the genre thriller shot on a sound stage in Hollywood, but he argued that an on-location shoot would be far more compelling for the audience as shooting inside on a stage would be obviously fake and therefore lose inherent value i.e. money. They bargained on the more difficult location shoot but pressed Spielberg for time. They would only have ten days for their production. According to interviews with Spielberg the shoot ended up going two or three days over, but that the studio execs were impressed enough with the amount and quality of shots that he got initially that they allowed it, begrudgingly. Spielberg stayed in a motel during the production and had wrapped his room in a bird’s eye view map of the entire production that worked as his storyboard, he didn’t even get to see the dailies of film as he didn’t have enough time to go back to the studio and check the work. After finishing the production he hired five editors to scramble and piece the thriller together as they only had three weeks from production to the air date.

In the end “Duel” is a comparable genre thriller that exceeds expectation due to the capable hands it was in. If you haven’t seen this one, give it a shot, with as short as it is the film doesn’t overstay its welcome and you get to see Dennis Weaver lose his mind as he’s being chased down by a giant killer semi-truck. Which is pretty damn entertaining in my opinion.

 

 

Final Score: 1 red valiant and a box of rattlesnakes

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Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

Like many other comic-book and film fans, Spider-Man is among my favorite superhero characters of all time. So when the character is represented on the silver screen we all deeply care about how the character is rendered for films. It’s no surprise as to why the wall crawler has such a passionate base, he’s easily the most relatable character among the pantheon of capes and tights. We are Spider-Man after all. So when word came of a surprise merger of major film studios to work together creatively to bring us a new Spider-Man, many wondered what the final product would look like. Would we recognize this version of Peter Parker slinging through a vastly more populated version of New York City? Would the story be bogged down with the franchise building woes of an ever increasing Marvel Studios Cinematic Universe? However, most importantly, would the story be any good?

Rest assured true believers for the “House of Ideas” has a sure hit on their hands with “Spider-Man Homecoming”. Wisely foregoing the well known origin story Marvel effectively meshes this Spider-Man neatly into the folds of their ever expanding world. With the heavy marketing of Iron Man as a presence in this film even I wondered if this would be too much for the initial Spider-Man movie going forward, but Iron Man is never over utilized here and the film truly benefits from him being there. In fact Tony Stark’s presence along with the common knowledge that the Avengers exist outside of Spider-Man’s periphery help to guide his motivations throughout the film. What we do get of Iron Man is never a tongue-in-cheek cameo, he exists here to move the plot forward and is pertinent to the story at hand, especially when it comes to the motivations of the villain of the film, Adrian Toomes aka the Vulture played with brilliant menace by Michael Keaton.

Lately Marvel Studios has been handling their villains with far more care than the phases of the past. Adrian Toomes was the perfect character to rise up from the ashes of the battle of New York and remind us that these superhero antics have consequences. It seems to be the common theme of Marvel’s phase three films so far, and it’s a gold mine of character development possibilities. They literally utilize the character much like a vulture would behave, scavenging the remains from these climactic events for his own gains. That’s another aspect I loved about this film, it wasn’t a story about world ending threats, it was a contained story about a kid from Queens with superpowers.

Speaking of that kid, he’s really great as Peter Parker, and even better as Spider-Man. Tom Holland has become another perfect casting decision from Marvel Studios. This kid has clearly worked hard and done his homework because this is probably the funniest Spider-Man film to date, and it really is genuinely superb. Holland sets his Spider-Man apart from past performances by his sheer enthusiasm at the thought of being a superhero. Garfield’s Parker was mired in self doubt and emotional darkness in attempts to make the character seem almost grislier like that of Nolan’s Batman while Maguire’s Parker was more of a direct adaption from the 1960’s comics and that was just fine, but even he struggled to straddle the weight of the hero’s conflicted nature. Homecoming has strands of those elements in play but they’re likely to weigh more on this version of Parker in later films once our hero has grown into the role. This film also handled the supporting cast incredibly well. Peter’s friend Ned was an earnest and funny addition that helped Peter have someone to bounce dialogue off of, he quickly earned his place in the story. In this version, Flash Thompson is a bully of a different kind, but he fits into the world effectively as more of a millennial agitator than the traditional sports jock bully. The high-school scenes are light and fun- feeling very much as the story was pitched, like a John Hughes flick-but with super-heroics.

Written by Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers and directed by Jon Watts, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was a joy to watch and a confirmation that studios can work together to produce a truly great movie, if they just put their minds to it. I had a smile on my face from the opening scene to the post-credits button at the end, and I bet you will too!

Final Score: ASM #240

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Review: Alien Covenant

What can I say? Sometimes reviews come and go out of order. Foregoing the gap of time between seeing this new “Alien” film and this review, let’s get on with it. “Alien: Covenant” directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen, and Michael Green is a gigantic improvement over Scott’s last foray into space philosophy with “Prometheus” in my opinion. However, while I was not a fan of “Prometheus”, “Covenant” has given me pause to reconsider elements of that initial film.

This time around the focus is on the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship headed towards a new planet for humanity to thrive on. Aboard the ship Walter (Michael Fassbender), a newer model Android with a middle-American accent roams around keeping an eye on the colonists and runs the ship’s tech. Unfortunately for the colonists (but fortunately for the audience), they never make it to their destination of Origae-6. A neutrino blast rocks the spaceship carrying two-thousand frozen colonist members and causes quite the havoc- outright killing the captain (James Franco) and damaging the ship in the process. After the chaos has calmed the crew comes across a signal that Tennessee (Danny McBride) recognizes as a John Denver song. They investigate and find a planet even more suitable for colonization than Origae-6. The former first mate and new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the decision to go for the much closer planet, dismissing the lone contrarian Daniels’ objection (Katherine Waterston), the widow of the late captain.

Only shortly after landing on the seemingly vacant planet does the crew realize the grave mistake they have made. For those curious to know if Ridley Scott could still handle the inherent gore and gross out antics of the xenomorphs, fear not (Or, maybe do?). Scott tries to outdo his own initial chest-bursting alien scene with a fresh and bloody violent vigor. The crew is quickly outmatched by the albino proto-xenomorphs and that may have been the end of it, had it not been for their savior in David (Michael Fassbender, again), the A.I. android from “Prometheus” (coincidentally the best part of that film). The first and third acts of the film are decidedly more “Alien” in nature than “Prometheus” was, however the second act delves back into the Gothic space philosophy that permeated the first film- and this film balances these differing styles and aesthetics fairly well. Scott’s obsession here lies in the big questions surrounding David himself, and he goes to great lengths to give weight to David’s inner turmoil.

David takes great interest in Walter, teaching him to play the flute at one point cleverly pointing out the obvious distance between the models. Walter can take direction and learn, but only David can teach and create. In fact we learn a great deal more about David in this film and the story paints a much more complete picture of his motivations and purpose, which I assume he himself does a lot of thinking on as well. Once again, Michael Fassbender is the best part of this series of films. Having him become the linchpin of these films was a distinct choice and it paid off for Scott. I know some were disappointed in the more predictable “Alien-ness” of these films, and while the ending can be seen from miles away, I love that this universe is finally shaping up to become more recognizable in form. This film at least felt as if it existed in the same universe as “Alien” and “Aliens”, there was even a bright yellow exo-suit worn at one point as a visual reminder and I admit, I cracked a smile at the sight of it.

While this film is not near the heights of the first two films, it is the third best “Alien” movie in the franchise. There are a few moments here and there that were questionable though. At one point David mimes to a freshly born Xenomorph that stands upright and I outright laughed at the screen- it was cheese-tastic and it immediately brought to mind the scene in “Spaceballs” where a freshly chest-burst Xenomorph dons a hat and cane singing “Hello My Baby!”. Probably not the response that was intended or wanted, but hey- don’t do that next time. There was also a sequence where we, the audience, are given the Xenomorph’s perspective a la “Predator”, and that was just an awful idea to be honest. So, while not perfect- this film is highly enjoyable and has finally hooked me into Mr. Scott’s curious prequel series of Alien films. What Ridley Scott does next is anyone’s guess, but I am now invested in finding out what that will be.

Final Score: 2000 Doomed Colonists and 1 Mad Robot

 

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Review: Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s latest film, “Baby Driver” hits theaters this weekend, and it doesn’t disappoint! While I may have come into the theater with a biased love of this director’s work, I believe it may be his most broadly accessible feature yet. The film still offers loads of winks and nods to those eagle eyed viewers with a heart of celluloid to catch and nod knowingly while still engaging in expertly crafted thrills set to a heart thumping soundtrack.

The film is set in Atlanta this time, a departure from Wright’s usual English countryside comedies, and begins with one of the most entertaining opening scenes in recent memory. We’re introduced to Baby (Ansel Elgort), the quiet yet calculated driver to a rotating crew of bank robbers and general degenerates, as he waits for a job to be completed while he taps and thumps and hums along to his personal soundtrack that’s set to the rhythm of the robbery. You may wonder during these few small moments as Baby joyfully thumps along to the music “Is this kid’s shtick going to become grating?” Hold. As soon as Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) trot back across the street and hop into Baby’s red Subaru, you’ll know whether you’re into this movie or not. The opening heist alone is a thing of beauty as Baby shows what he’s made of behind the wheel.

Baby is constantly listening to music, earbuds always in, even as the details of an upcoming heist are at hand. As Kevin Spacey’s Doc explains near the beginning, Baby was in a crash when he was young resulting in tinnitus, so he plays music all the time to drown out the ringing. Bats, an unpredictable criminal played chaotically by Jamie Foxx, doesn’t buy it. He calls the quiet kid out, but Baby effectively proves his observative nature and fine tuned attentive skills. Jon Hamm turns in a great performance as Buddy, he chews the scenery with a sort of grimy dignity and was a surprising delight among the cast. Lily James stars as Baby’s love interest Debora, a diner waitress sporting a familiar look if you’ve ever seen the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. While Debora is almost more of an idea than a fully fledged person, the characters do have a bit of that going on, but James and Elgort sell the romance well enough to do the film justice. The film’s downtime between heists focuses on the quiet nature of the lead and delves a bit into his background to give levity to the people Baby cares about in his own life.

Wright is chiefly invested in the music and sound editing of this film. Even when things turn sour and bullets begin to fly, the blast of bullets is set to the beat of the song at hand. Playfully edited to the beat, Wright’s precision here is music to the eye’s ears. The quick cuts and snappy cinematography that have permeated the director’s previous efforts are littered throughout this film. This film is genre at it’s finest. Curiously inventive and turning expectation on its head, this film is about style, music, and some killer getaway sequences. It’s been the most fun I’ve had at the theater so far this summer and I cannot tell people enough: Go see this movie! If you want more originality, more new ideas and stories in film, then please support original films when they’re showing, lest we become entrenched with the same old thing until the end of time.

Final Score: Three red cars & four cups of coffee