Thursday, March 23, 2017

Movie Review - "Get Out" (2017)

Get Out" is one of the best theater experiences I've had in quite some time and is a film everyone should check out. It is the perfect modern thriller that keeps you on your toes from start to finish while keeping up the uncomfortable tension and never misses an opportunity to be funny. The film offers a social and cultural experience that is terrifying, respectful and fun, without ever going over the top on the satire.

This is one movie I don't want to spoil or ruin for those who haven't seen it, so if you see only one movie in the first quarter of 2017, do yourself a favor and experience "Get Out" with a large audience, and watch the crowd shift widely between screams, horrifyed silence and laughter.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review - "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)

Perhaps the title of this film is a lie. Nowadays, you go into a film named after a particular character expecting it to be about that person. But "Mrs. Miniver" is less about its protagonist and more of how the British home front dealt with the German invasion at the beginning of World War II. While we see a large portion of this war from Greer Garson's perspective, we see how this fight effects everyone around her, including her American husband (Walter Pidgeon), their Oxford-grad son who goes off into the war, the girl he ends up falling in love with (Teresa Wright) and many of the townsfolk like the smug old rich Lady Beldon and the quiet yet kind bell-ringer who names a flower after Mrs. Miniver.

Our protagonist mostly ends up being a witness to many of the selfless acts these characters take for the sake of the war and for each other. There's a large scene in the middle when the men in the town get together, led by Mr. Miniver, and send every boat they have to head out to Dunkirk. The scene has nothing to do with Greer Garson's character, but shows the comradery and bravery of these men who would risk everything to protect their fellow man. And while Garson handles her role with pride and a suave demeanor, she is left with little to do outside of showing the resolve of the British people.

Her one true moment to shine comes when she finds a wounded Nazi-pilot in a bush near her house. The pilot looks like her son, so she is unsure if she should turn him in or help him. But it is clear that she is terrified, especially when he points a gun at her and begins making demands.

"Mrs. Miniver" is, for lack of a better term, effective propaganda. Made in 1942 for mostly American audiences, the film was made to show the rest of the world how the British were struggling against the Nazis and to show what the rest of the world was fighting for. It was created as a way to push those who were unsure about the war into helping in any way possible. And in this regard "Mrs. Miniver" excels in presenting Americans with a great example of why we fight to protect our way of life, and show that it is a life worth fighting for.

Overall, "Mrs. Miniver" does a fine job as a wartime melodrama. It gives a much larger picture of how Britain was affected by the German invasion and the constant fear that plagued the people. The true strength of the film comes from how these people react to that fear.

Final Grade: C+

Movie Review - "Spartacus" (1960)

Just watching this to say I've nearly seen every Stanley Kubrick film. Nothing to see here.

Well okay, there is an interesting history to "Spartacus." This film came about when actor Kirk Douglas was turned down to play the lead role in "Ben-Hur" which went to Charlton Heston. Douglas wanted to prove that he could play that same role better than Heston ever could and set out to make the best Roman epic Hollywood could make. Douglas ended up being the executive producer on "Spartacus" and wanted Anthony Mann to direct, but had many creative differences with Mann and instead went to Stanley Kubrick, who had worked with Douglas previously on "Paths of Glory."

"Spartacus" is also one of the films to basically end the "Blacklist"-era of Hollywood by openly showcasing Dalton Trumbo's name as the screenwriter even though he was a blacklisted writer. Douglas openly admitted that Trumbo wrote the script and "Spartacus" went on to be one of the highest grossing films of 1960, showing that Hollywood needed Dalton Trumbo.

So while the film started out as a petty way for Kirk Douglas to get back at the executives that turned him down for a role, it did end up saving the careers of hundreds blacklisted writers, directors, actors and filmmakers. A true showcase of selfishness becoming selflessness.

That being said, "Spartacus" is about as average of a Roman epic as you can get. We see the slave uprising, the evil greed of the Roman Empire and their need to suppress everyone around them, the leader of the slaves being very stoic and showing his men kindness instead of the hatred the Romans showed, and so on. Outside of the now famous "I'm Spartacus!" scene, I have a hard time remembering most of the plot.

I find the story of how "Spartacus" was made more interesting than the movie itself.

Final Grade: C

Movie Review - "Nashville" (1975)

The best way for a film to lose my interest is by not having any sense of progression. Instead of one scene leading into the next and actions repeatedly build on top of the last leading to a climax where everything comes together, the film meanders from scene to scene and will often make audience wonder why they're watching it if there is no meaning.

It's like going to the store to buy milk, but you end up staring at the frozen pizzas for ten minutes and leave the store having bought nothing. What was accomplished? What train of thought did that follow? What was the point? Is it deep? Maybe, but it ultimately doesn't add up to anything so it feels like time was wasted.

"Nashville" had promise at the beginning but quickly fell into this postion by focusing on so many characters that we don't get proper resolution with most. This Robert Altman film has one of the largest number of network-narrative characters, boasting an impressive 24 main characters, as they all attend, organize and play in a country music festival while a presidential candidate is in town spreading his views on politics and the world. The cast includes Keith Carradine as the lead vocalist of a three-person folk rock band, Ned Beatty has a man struggling in his marriage, Lily Tomlin as a gospel singer who seems a little tired of her life, Geraldine Chaplin as a nosey-BBC reporter and Gwen Welles as an aspiring country singer with little talent and has to resort to unsavory technics to succeed.

At the beginning, I liked what I thought "Nashville" was going for. It introduces us to its many colorful characters through simple conversations, all while country music and political beliefs are being blasted at us. Through these small bits of dialogue, we learn so much about who these people are by what the talk about, like how Lily Tomlin's character spends so much time talking about this girl she knows and how her neck was severely hurt in a car accident, or this elderly widow who mostly talks about her deceased husband and his religious beliefs. On top of that, the country singers mostly give us original music, filled to the brim with how they either love their parents or hated the way there were raised.

I truly got a worldwide view from the earlier parts of "Nashville" through all these differing points of view.

However, around the hour-and-a-half mark, the film takes a dive when so many differing plots are introduced that I lost track of who was who and what they were doing. I feel like I need a flowchart to explain what everyone was trying to accomplish. Because there are so many different things going on, both bigger events are smaller tasks, most of them don't go anywhere or add up to much. Geraldine Chaplin's character, while giving a different type of insight, fades into the background by the final scenes.

For half of these 24 characters, it feels like there is no sense of closure or resolution, like their story didn't go anywhere or add up to anything. Maybe that was Robert Altman's point, but that doesn't make for a fascinating experience when we follow these people for nearly three hours and we don't get any sort of climax with most.

It also doesn't help that the majority of the last hour is country music, focusing solely on the actors singing, like watching a live performance in a middle of "Network." In fact, I got a similar feeling between "Network" and "Nashville" - both with large casts that love to talk a bit too much and find ways to sneak the director/writer's world views onto the audience, some a bit more subtle than others.

But overall, I would put "Nashville" over "Network" because I found the first hour to be strangely enjoyable in how simple and laid-back everything felt. Watching the introductions to all these characters and learning so much about them through the way the talk was pleasant. But as the film went on, I lost more and more interest especially when it focused more on the music and unresolved plots.

Final Grade: C+

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Movie Review - "Kong: Skull Island" (2017)

Do you ever get the feeling that a movie is tailor-made for you? And isn't that one of the best feelings in the world?

"Kong: Skull Island" feels like Legendary Pictures scanned my brain and took everything I love about movies, and compiled it with the biggest budget they could get and the largest number of big-name actors they could find.

I would describe "Kong: Skull Island" as if "Apocalypse Now" met up with giant monsters. In other words, my favorite movie of all time meets my favorite genre of all time. And they make it even better with subtle references to the 2014 "Godzilla" film, and a catchy teaser at the end of the credits that you should stay for. Let's just say that I had a perpetual smile on my face throughout this film.

At the end of the Vietnam War, scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have recovered satellite footage of an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean, believing that it could hold some mysterious powers. They contact a U.S. senator who begrudgingly signs off on their mission and gives them a military escort to the island, led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Bill and Houston also hire former British SAS Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a tracker, and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) begs to be apart of the mission.

Once they're on the island, the military begins dropping bombs and scientific equipment to study the landscape. But as soon as the fires start, helicopters are taken out of the air by flying trees and a very angry giant ape.

In case you missed it, I recently did a book-length retrospective on the history of King Kong, which you can find at Toho Kingdom. And during the research for that piece, one thought kept going through my head - All these King Kong movies have the same story. With only miniute differences, the plots of the 1933 Kong, the 1976 remake and the 2005 Peter Jackson version are virtually the same - Carl Denham wants to make the greatest movie of all time, he goes to Skull Island to film it, they all find King Kong who falls in love with Ann Dawson, and they take Kong back to New York where he runs amok. Even most of the Kong scenes in "King Kong vs. Godzilla" tell the same story.

This is why "Kong: Skull Island" is the most important Kong film since the 1933 version. It strays as much as possible from the format we've seen in many other Kong movies, while still being loyal to the character. There is no filmmaker character, no tale of beauty and beast, no attempt to capture Kong and New York City is never mentioned.

Instead, we get a stylized look at Kong through the eyes of the 1970s and the Vietnam War. Admittedly, the Vietnam War is captured in the same way "Apocalypse Now" did it, but that is far from a bad thing. Some of the more memorable shots of the film involve the orange sunsets, as a horde of helicopters charge the massive Kong, or our titular character looking up at the vast night sky after a long day of defending his island.

Through visuals and storytelling, "Kong: Skull Island" is the most unique monster movie in recent memory.

But even with the an ongoing war between man and nature, the film finds the time to settle down and have many relaxing scenes. One of my favorites is when Kong is alone, nursing his wounds and drinking some water, when he finds a giant octopus in the water and decides to make that his next meal. It's not only a reference to "King Kong vs. Godzilla," but was a quieter moment that let us get to see a day-in-the-life of Kong; that he isn't just some creature only looking for destruction and mayhem.

If there's one complaint I have with "Kong: Skull Island" it would be the acting, which has some great performances from John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly as a WWII fighter-pilot stranded on the island for 25 years, but everyone else seems wasted, especially Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. These two don't get many opportunities to show their acting abilities here, mostly resorting to action-hero clichés, being skeptical of the military's agenda, and saying one-liners like, "We're going to save Kong!"

That being said, Samuel L. Jackson steals the show with his always captivating intensity. People had said his character is akin to Captain Ahab, especially with his need to bring down Kong, but continuing the "Apocalypse Now" theme, I find that he's more like Colonel Kurtz - A man who has seen the horrors of the world, both natural and man-made, and wants to show that he can conquer that horror. He believes that man is the dominant force on this planet and should remain that way, despite being faced with an intelligent giant ape. Jackson's madness never feels like it goes over-the-top, yet he lets his rage explode all over the screen; a job no actor can do any better than Sam Jackson.

John Goodman and John C. Reilly turn in quieter performances, but also ones that show their emotional sides. Goodman plays a scientist who doesn't want to tell everyone on the mission what is really going on, because he knows they wouldn't believe him. His role is similar to his performance in "10 Cloverfield Lane," as a man who wants to help but is untrustworthy and could back-stab you if it would help him.

Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film his usual comedic touch, while continually showing the strain that comes with being trapped on island for 25 years. When he talks about missing a hot dog and a cold beer while watching a Cubs game, he pauses for a moment, looking at his imaginary food with longing and sadness.

Of course, with all these actors, plots and quieter moments, it means there is a lot going on "Kong: Skull Island," with at least ten major characters, while also trying to build Legendary Pictures' Monster Universe. The film builds off of the events of "Godzilla," by showing the creation of the government organization Monarch, which deals with supernatural threats like ones on Skull Island. This movie has as much going on as one of the Avengers movies, so be prepared to keep up with lots of plots and characters.

Overall, "Kong: Skull Island" was a blast. I found this to be more enjoyable than "Godzilla," since Kong never took itself too seriously, always finding some way to poke fun at the ridiculous situations. It was visually exciting to behold and had some great fight sequences where humans stand a chance against a giant monster. Some of the acting is great, but others pretty generic. But if you're looking for a fun action-packed monster movie that is surprisingly different from other monster-fests, this is a great change of pace.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review - "Poltergeist" (1982)

"Poltergeist" works as a horror film for the same reason "The Exorcist" works - Both movies toy with the unknown, as we watch a family torn apart by supernatural forces. They focus on the the parents, in "Poltergeist"'s case Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams), as they are helpless to stop beings from another plain of existence from stealing their children away from them.

The difference between the two films is that "The Exorcist" slowly built up the horror, as we watched Reagan deteariorate overtime as she was lost to the devil. The scares came from the tension and concept of a little girl being swallowed by the hell.

"Poltergeist" on the other hand executes its frights visually, leaving very little to the imagination. We see first hand what these ghosts are capable of, including bringing inanimate objects to life, from something as small as a toy clown to as big as a tree, manipulating people into thinking there are maggots in their food, to physically taking people into their realm.

"The Exorcist" makes you think about what this demon is capable of, while "Poltergiest" shows you exactly what they can do.

Neither approach is worse than the other, especially since both movies execute it so well. "Poltergiest" doesn't take itself as seriously as "The Exorcist," taking some time to crack jokes and have a bit of fun with the supernatural elements, but it works for the suburban environment and how desensitized the kids are to violence. One of my favorite little moments is when their daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), is staring at a fuzzy television, and Diane says she shouldn't be watching that and turns the channel to a violent movie. She doesn't care what her daughter watches, as long as it's not "bad" for her.

Pop culture tainted by first viewing of "Poltergeist" a bit, since I knew most of the scenes before watching the film. Famous moments like the "They're here" scene, or the fight against the tree, have been referenced in so many other movies and television shows that you feel like you've watched the film before you see it. As such, I didn't find "Poltergeist" as scary as others might have. But that doesn't deny how effective the scares are.

Overall, "Poltergeist" feels like "E.T." crossed with "The Exorcist." The scares come naturally and stick with you long after watching the film, but there's a child-friendly atmosphere that makes it accessible to people of all ages. As such, this is a horror film that even people who don't like scary movies can enjoy.

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Movie Review - "Deliverance" (1972)

It is interesting that the only thing I've ever heard about "Deliverance" before seeing the film are the more unsavory scenes. Unlike other movies, "Deliverance" doesn't beat around the bush and goes into explicit details about what these four businessmen from Atlanta are going through while stuck in the back woods, surrounded by rednecks and take advantage of their isolation.

Yet, there is only one shocking scene of this caliber that comes about halfway through the movie. It goes on for a while, but afterwards the tone of "Deliverance" has shifted to one of survival. The main theme of this film is civilized men having to make difficult choices that would make them feel primitive or uncivilized.

So why is it that this one scene is the only thing that gets talked about in "Deliverance"? Especially when it feels so at odds with the main theme? Perhaps it is because that scene is so shocking, and unlike anything movie-goers had seen in cinemas before. Because the rest of the movie is about survival-horror, the biggest element of that horror constantly remains in our minds.

But my problem with "Deliverance" is that this unsavory moment and the ensuing scenes don't amount to anything. The film wants to show its realistic side, by saying we all have this barbaric desire to outlast other evil men, but it does so in the most dramatic and violent way possible, turning our little unsuspecting rafting trip into a battle through fires of hell.

By the end, "Deliverance" is just as much of a fantasy as "The Terminator."

While I appreciate the atmosphere and pacing of "Deliverance," especially as a survival-horror film, it cannot make up its mind on whether it wants to be realistic with its themes of civilized vs. primitive or over-the-top violent. If you're not squeamish after reading this, and want to know about the movie changed peoples' perspectives on the South, there is certainly enough escapism in "Deliverance" to enjoy it.

Final Grade: C+

Movie Review - "Shaft" (1971)

The poster-child film of the Blaxploitation genre.

The genre came about in the 1970s when Hollywood cinema was dying. The studio system that Hollywood had been built on for over 40 years feel apart, and there was a growing concern that television would be replacing movies. Audiences didn't find many of Hollywood's bigger films interesting anymore. Hollywood's decided to experiment with different ways to show movies, like Panorama and 3-D, while also creating entirely genres.

One such genre was "Blaxploitation," racially-charged films that featured predominantly African-American casts and crews. The style of these films is unmistakable, filled with soul and funk music, flashy or vibrant clothes, badass African-American characters who stick it to the white man, and often set urban American cities. Blaxploitation films were often made cheap, but gave an underserved portion of America something new and relatable. MGM created "Shaft" as a way to capitalize on success of this genre, as the company was desperate for a financial hit and it certainly paid off.

The film follows John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a private detective who is "a sex machine to all the ladies." Shaft is contracted by a Harlem mob-boss to find his kidnapped daughter, but quickly gets tangled up in an on-going war between the white mafia and the black mafia.

Right off the bat, Shaft exudes charisma and coolness without even saying a word, all through Issac Hayes' classic funk introduction. The music sets the tone as we hear about the crude yet respectful things Shaft does. It's impossible not to enjoy the introduction and one of the best movie soundtracks of the 1970s.

How you react to this movie depends entirely on how you feel about the Blaxploitation genre. If you want to see the kind of man that women want to be with and other men want to be, as he fights his way through Harlem and doesn't take any kind of crap from white men, all while hitting on the closest lady, then "Shaft" is one of the better escapist fantasies you'll find out there.

Final Grade: B-

Movie Review - "Swing Time" (1936)

There are times where I love to think about how ridiculous movies can be at times. Moments where I take a step back from the stories and ask "How did we get here?" And when it comes to absurdity, no other movie does it quite like the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical "Swing Time."

The film opens with stage dancer and gambler Lucky (Astaire), who leaves his show early to get married into a rich family. But as he's leaving, his fellow dancers and "friends" keep Lucky distracted by saying he looks ridiculous on his wedding day without cuffs on his pants. They go through a clothing montage and play several rounds of dice and cards, until Lucky remembers the wedding. He ends up being over two hours late to his wedding and all the guests have gone home.

Right off the bat, I'm flabbergasted that Lucky calls these terrible people his friends. They keep him away from his own wedding, and his best chance at happiness and prosperity, just so that he'll stay. I was surprised Lucky didn't deck all of them in the face for making him miss his wedding.

But wait, it gets better.

As Lucky arrives at the church, he is greeted by his fiancée Mabel (Helen Broderick) and her father, who are both ready to disown him. After a smattering of words and insults, Lucky decides to bargain for Mabel's hand in marriage. The father says that no amount of money would persuade him to make Lucky his son-in-law. But then Lucky says the ludicrous number of $25,000 and he's suddenly on-board with this idea. This man is willing to sell his own daughter away for large sum of money, even though it was already established that he's got plenty of money.

It's a good thing "Swing Time" is a comedy, because the level of petty-ness and selfish-ness is off the charts. Everybody Lucky meets early on is only looking out for themselves, and will throw anybody they can under the bus to get ahead.

Of course, Lucky doesn't have $25,000, so he heads to New York City and decides to make all his money through gambling and casinos. Along the way, he bumps into Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dancing instructor, and the two butt heads until they both realize how great the other is at dancing.

It helps that I saw "Swing Time" after seeing "The Major and the Minor" and realized how quick-witted and uproarious Ginger Rogers can be, because that made every scene with her feel exciting as if the atmosphere was charged with sass and charisma. Not only is she a terrific dancer and can keep up with Fred Astaire, but she's always looking for an opportunity to tell a joke.

Outside of "Swing Time" the only other Astaire/Rogers movie I've seen is "Top Hat," and I greatly prefer "Swing Time" because of how entertaining it is outside of the dance numbers. There is a lot of great comedy and deceptions by Lucky that I found myself looking more forward to the non-musical scenes. And as far-fetched as the plot is, the whole idea of Lucky and Penny being surrounded by terrible people having to outsmart them makes this one worth checking out.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review - "Roman Holiday" (1953)

"Roman Holiday" is one of those movies that gets better when you think about when it came out. In 1953, the world was still healing from World War II, especially in Europe, and the ideology of the "classic fairytale" was being questioned. "Roman Holiday" holds itself in a strange twilight zone where it is a fairytale in all the best places, while also challenging what a fairytale can and cannot do.

Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is the princess of a fictional country in Europe, as she makes a tour around the continent as a show of good will and faith in her fellow people. She stops in Rome and is exhausted from her duties as princess and embassador, breaking down one night after realizing she's not having any fun. Shortly after, Ann sneaks out onto the streets of Rome and is picked up by an American reporter, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). The next day, Ann is still missing from the palace but Joe realizes he has the story of the century and convinces Ann to go on a personal tour of Rome with him.

As I look up information on "Roman Holiday" I found it odd that people consider this a "romantic comedy." I get the comedy, which is intricately worked into Hepburn's desire to explore the world yet has inexperience with how life operates on the street while Peck tries to be sneaky about his identity and true motives around the princess. It is the "romantic" part I don't get. For most of the film, Peck and Hepburn share a friendship where they both feel they could benefit from the other.

Watching "Roman Holiday" is like seeing two really good friends share an afternoon together seeing the sites and enjoying each other's company. By the end, I wasn't convinced that the two loved each other, just that they were both looking for companionship and this was there brief yet only chance. Which is what makes the ending so bittersweet yet perfect, said with little to no words from either Hepburn or Peck.

Overall, I enjoyed "Roman Holiday" as a charming tourist comedy. This was Audrey Hepburn's American film debut and she exudes elegance while having fun with everything that is thrown at her, making this my favorite role from her. The city of Rome has never looked better and the film captures the people and atmosphere of Rome better than any movie I've seen before. If you want to experience Rome without paying to go there, watch "Roman Holiday."

Final Grade: B

Monday, March 6, 2017

Movie Review - "Split" (2017)

Oh, good ol’ M. Night Shyamalan. You are one of the oddest directors of the last twenty years.

Believe it or not, there was a time when M. Night Shyamalan was seen as the next big director, especially after his first big release with "The Sixth Sense." People appreciated his suspenseful thrillers while also having very realistic and relatable characters. In fact, Newsweek released an article shortly after "The Sixth Sense," calling Shyamalan "the next Spielberg."

Part of me thinks that kind of press and attention got to his head and he felt that he had to keep making his films bigger and bolder every time, or else people would lose interest. The result was a long, seemingly endless, string of movies that got worse overtime, including "Signs," "The Village," "The Lady in the Water," and culminating in three candidates for worst movies of all time, "The Last Airbender," "The Happening" and "After Earth." Those three alone would usually end the career of a normal Hollywood director on their own, but Shyamalan is nothing if not persistent.

And above all odds, M. Night has returned from the grave to direct two moderately successful movies in the last couple years, "The Visit" and now "Split." I’ve always felt that Shyamalan is at his best when directing a horror or thriller with simple concepts, like a kid that sees dead people, or a man who discovers he has super powers, and now a kidnapper who has multiple personalities. He takes the satisfying suspense you'd find in a Hitchcock film, but gives it his own personal "twist" that often makes the whole film worth rewatching or groan-inducing. In the case of "Split," the twist may not change the story but it is clever.

The film opens with three teenage girls, Claire, Marcia and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) being gassed and kidnapped. They awaken in a small room with the only way out locked, and quickly find out there is something off about their kidnapper (James McAvoy), especially when he comes in one time as a germ-aphob and the next time he is dressed as a woman who wants to make them all food. But everytime he comes into the room, each personality mentions these girls will be sacrificed to "the Beast."

"Split" has a similar claustrophobia feel to "10 Cloverfield Lane." There is something unsettling and off-putting about their captor, but with "Split" we know exactly what's wrong with him - There are 23 different personalities that inhabit his body, each with their own distinctive characteristics and body chemistries.

The success of "Split" lies completely in the acting talent of James McAvoy, and his ability to bounce between the personalities, while also making each one stand out among the others. And while we don't get to see all 23 personalities, we do understand how the hierarchy of Kevin's body and mind works. The two lead personalities, the obessive compulsive Dennis and the stern yet motherly Patricia, control who gets to be in charge at any given time, while the artistic and self-conscious Barry is normally the personality that handles the outside world and their therapist, but the nine-year old Hedwig has the ability to take control of Kevin whenever he wants. They all care for Kevin, but think that he is weak and could never survive without their help.

McAvoy sells each personality through facial expressions and his ability to bounce between random fits of anger and quiet outbursts. It was always clear who was in control by the look on his face, but I was never too sure when he was going to attack and lash out at the girls for attempting to escape. In the hands of a less capable actor, all of these roles bottled up in one person would have been laughable and instead becomes a terrifying horde of protectors.

Overall, it is wonderful to see M. Night Shyamalan directing compelling thrillers again. Each scene racks up the tension by revealing more about their plan as well as separating each girl from each other. It still has the Shyamalan touch though, so there are some ham-fisted moments, especially involving Casey's backstory, but James McAvoy's performances more than make up for that. We can finally say there is a third good Shyamalan film and that alone makes "Split" worth checking out.

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Movie Review - "John Wick: Chapter 2" (2017)

Part of the reason why I loved 2015's "John Wick" as much I did was because of how simplistic it was - A retired assassin is forced back into the game when a gang lord's son kills his dog and steals his car, the only things he still cares about. Clean and precise, while giving us a damn good reason to root for all the murder and bullets that are about to be fired. And while "John Wick" had a great style to its violence, the story and motivation worked great for Keanu Reeves and led to his best performance in a long time.

Most of that goes out the window with "John Wick: Chapter 2." Gone is the simplicity, in favor of expanding on vague or unaddressed concepts from the first film, in just a boat-load more action and style. When the film wants to be stylish, it pulls that off masterfully, especially in a chase scene through Rome, but the acting and directing can't match the more complex story.

Set after the events of the first film, John Wick (Reeves) returns home after collecting his car from the mob. Wick is visited by an old friend, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has come to collect a debt from John in the form of an old blood oath. Santino orders John to kill his sister Gianna, so that he can claim the Italian seat on the high council. After Santino blows up John's house and word from the owner of the Continental Hotel, Winston (Ian McShane), John begrudgingnly agrees to leave from Rome and perform one last mission.

"John Wick: Chapter 2"'s primary goal seems to be expanding on this agency John use to work for and how it operates. The first film only vaugely touched upon it in the form of the hotel system, where assassins could live in peace as long as they had the gold coins. Now we find out these hotels are all over the world and they live by two rules - No bloodshed on hotel grounds, and you must fulfill any blood oaths. The consequences for not following these two rules seem to be deadly.

And this is what I mean by the film being far more complex than its predecessor. There's shady business going on with the hotels, a high council that has a mysterious power over the world and a need to be in that council, as well as rouge factions who oppose the high council. For a film about an assassin constantly being pulled back into a world he doesn't want to be in, there sure is a lot of backstory.

The reason "John Wick" worked is the same reason films like "Ip Man" and "The Raid: Redemption" worked - they gave the audience very simple reasons to care if our heroes didn't make it out alive, while giving us gripping and intense action sequences in a style that was unmatched. "John Wick: Chapter 2" gets bogged down the same way films like "Ip Man 2" and "The Raid 2" got bogged down - Removing the simple aspects of the first film to expand on things that were best left vague.

Granted, when "John Wick: Chapter 2" wants to be about the action, it delivers that in droves. The whole sequence of John in Rome and the ensuing chaos was well planned out, with John pre-planning is route in and out of the catacombs and how he laid out his weapons. John also has an amazing hand-to-hand fight sequence with Common in a subway car. And one of the final fight sequences takes place in a labryinth of mirrors, which looks amazing when the glass sets shot while also being tense and exhilirating as John and Santino exchange threats.

Overall, I enjoyed "John Wick: Chapter 2" but not nearly as much as the first film. I didn't care for their expansion of the mythos and rules of the hotel system, but the action sequences were still as stylish and violent as they were in "John Wick." There are more than enough action sequences to keep you transfixed on the screen, even if some scenes are far more interesting than others.

Final Grade: B