Tag Archives: FilmReview

Wind River

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Writer/Director: Taylor Sheridan

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Graham Greene, James Jordan, & Hugh Dillon

Synopsis: In the opening minutes of Wind River, U. S. Fish and Wildlife agent, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), discovers the body of young girl on the Wyoming Native American reservation, Wind River, while tracking a mountain lion. The reservation police report the girl’s death, and as a possible homicide, the FBI send Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate. Realizing she’s out of her depth showing up to the sub-zero Wyoming spring in a windbreaker, Banner enlists the help of Lambert to help her navigate the frigid territory and the reservations unwelcoming citizens. Lambert and Banner’s investigation not only uncovers a terrible trail of crimes, but more importantly, it reveals to the audience the struggles Native Americans still endure today after whites forcibly removed them from their lands in the 1800s.

One of the standout aspects of the movie that came in haunting waves like the ever-present Wyoming blizzards was Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score. It never materialized into actual music like the stuff that made Cave famous. Instead, it turned out to be haunting strings mixed with a Native American chant that often set my nerves on edge. Even more important was the restraint Cave and Ellis showed. Many scenes were accompanied by utter silence, which is a factor horror fans know can heighten the drama on screen more than any Rocky soundtrack ever could.

Wind River‘s acting was just as strong as its score. In the lead role, Jeremy Renner flexed his acting chops for the first time since The Town. I had almost forgotten he wasn’t just The Avengers‘ Hawkeye. His character, Cory Lambert, is a father in mourning after a mystery man killed his daughter four years prior and is also suffering through a divorce. While helping out the FBI and Reservation police with the homicide, Renner never lets the weight of his offscreen hardships escape the audience’s eye. The key is he does not ell us his anguish (except once when we learn about his daughter’s death), but we see it in his eyes when he consoles his friend, Martin (Gil Birmingham), after he tells him his daughter was raped and killed.

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Cory Lambert (Renner) and Martin (Gil Birmingham) suffering in silence.

Birmingham is another winner in this stellar thriller. Even though his role is smaller compared to others, it’s a pivotal turn that lets the audience witness some of the repressed anguish that the citizens of Wind River have endured. After Lambert tells Martin of his daughter’s death, the camera moves away from the two men who step outside  to focus on Olsen’s and Greene’s characters. There is no score (well chosen, Cave and Ellis). However, instead of silence, we hear Martin howl and sob in pain. Hearing Martin’s guttural cries, that he hides from the white FBI agent (Olsen), reveals that there is more at play in this film than just a murder. However, this grief is something that Wind River‘s predominately white audience will most likely never know or feel. I’m glad Sheridan chose to open this small window into Native America’s world.

And it’s Sheridan who deserves the film’s real credit. While Wind Rivers‘s plot lacked the narrative complexity of Sicario and Hell or High Water, this man is a great creator. In each of his screenplays, he masterfully develops intimate settings that drip with authenticity. Despite all his screenplays containing western settings, each one grapples with vastly different subject matter: Sicario (Drug wars along the Mexican border), Hell or Water (bank robberies and Texas Rangers), and Wind River (Native American anguish and hunting). Besides his deep knowledge, I admire Sheridan for his ability to reveal humanity’s innate primality that we often tend to ignore and refuse in our day-to-day lives as we read newspapers, go to college,  and sip coffee on our way to our white collar job. Yet humans always come back to it. Whether it’s sex in musical lyrics, war in Afghanistan, or opiods that plague our nation right this minute, humans always hunger after our most base desires. Sheridan excels at finding frighteningly fascinating and believable ways to place his characters in scenarios where those desires are laid bare.

Go see this movie,  you won’t regret it.

Target audience: 21+ adults. People between 20 and younger either shouldn’t see it due to its graphic violence or will be too young to appreciate some of the film’s quieter but more poignant moments.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

 

Atomic Blonde

Movie Score3 out of 5 (Good)

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, & Bill Skarsgård

Director: David Leitch

Synopsis: Atomic Blonde tells a story of espionage and carnage during the final weeks of the Cold War. Set in Berlin 10 days before the fall of the wall, MI6 and the CIA have recently lost a list naming all of their undercover agents within the U.S.S.R. Both Western and Eastern spy services are scrambling to recover the list, which they believe is in the hands of a mercenary who is willing to sell it to the highest bidder. MI6 and the CIA are also looking for a double agent, known only as Satchel. MI6 sends their best agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), to recover the list and eliminate the traitor, Satchel. Once she arrives in Berlin, she must work with fellow agent, David Percival (James McAvoy), who has gone “native” during his time undercover in Germany. Soon the Russians show up and thrilling action ensues up till the credits roll.

The biggest let down of the movie was that I felt it was trying to emulate John Wick. It is easy compare the two films: both have beautifully choreographed fights, neon cinematography, and badass protagonists who have a penchant for double-tap head shots. Also, Atomic‘s director, David Leitch, produced John Wick and was the executive producer for John Wick 2.

Atomic Blonde‘s action, while very impressive, especially one sequence that was 7-8 minutes in length and shot in one take, could not match either of the Wick‘s bloody and often humorous fights.  The hand-to-hand combat of Atomic Blonde was entertaining, but the movie relied too heavily on it. The realistic and breathless fighting style that Atomic Blonde relies was forged by Bourne Identityhoned in Casino Royale, and taken to its peak by John Wick 2It is getting tougher and tougher for directors and choreographers to one-up previous movies. Notice how with each of these movies the fights have grown in length with fewer cuts which adds to more impressive battles. Atomic succeeds with the sequence I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph in increasing fight length while having no cuts. Yet in other sequences, Atomic Blonde lacked the umph of its predecessors. Also, there is a ceiling for how much awe a fight scene can inspire. I think, sadly, Atomic Blonde has hit that limit.

One thing I must note that I admired about Atomic‘s fights is that they showed the toll such extreme fighting takes on characters. During each sequence, we see the characters get winded and move slower as their injuries accumulate. This was a fresh idea in the genre and it made some of Lorraine’s moves more potent to viewers as she knocks out enemies while sporting visible bruises. However, I still prefer the tireless fighting that Bond or Wick exudes.

Overall, Atomic Blonde’s fight scenes were superb and fun to watch. Leitch also employed something similar to what Edgar Wright used in Baby Driver: sequencing action on the screen to music. He did not execute this to the extreme that Wright did, but there were well-timed shifts in the tone of songs or cutting off of music. My favorite happened with a flick of a lighter.

Atomic‘s soundtrack was another jewel of the film. Most of it was German or Eastern European sounding club music that complemented the pink-neon washed club scenes and gritty, lime street scenes.

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The beautiful neon scenes from Atomic Blonde

One of the movie’s premises was the search for the identity of the double-agent, Satchel. While this guessing game was fun for me during the movie, it quickly became a side note in the plot. The chief of MI6 (Toby Jones) hates Satchel. He orders Lorraine to bring back Satchel dead or alive in order to bring justice to this traitor. However, the movie never tells or shows the audience what Satchel did beyond being a double agent. Did he or she give up fellow agents to the KGB? Provide the Russians with enriched uranium? Help terrorists escape the clutches of MI6? Without any real development of this hidden enemy, the revelation of Satchel’s identity bears little impact. Leitch or his writer, Kurt Johnstad, should have increased Satchel’s villainy or good deeds (suffering to win valuable information for God and Country) to increase audience buy in.

Atomic Blonde is a fun, (fairly) mindless action flick whose lead (Theron) smolders in her smokey eye makeup and tears up the screen with her fighting skills. McAvoy’s Percival was a lot of fun to watch as he bumbles and connives his way around West and East Berlin. The acting in this movie was spot on. Kudos to these women and men.

Target Audience: Older teens and young adult males.

For the trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

Dunkirk

Leaving the cinema after watching Dunkirk, I was compelled to write this piece; to write about the importance of what Christopher Nolan has created.

To know Europe, you must understand The Second World War. My parents grew up in the 1960’s playing in bombsites: open wounds across Liverpool even 20 years on. Joy Division and New Order took their names from Nazi projects. My father sometimes recalls neighbours who were veterans of the World Wars, men who left legs behind on a beach during D-Day and others whose minds cracked like china under the strain of trench warfare in France and Belgium. Travelling across Europe for the first time at 19, the Nazis haunted every nation I visited, from Anne Frank’s safe-house in Amsterdam to the crumbling ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. The First World War razed the old Europe, but the pain of the Second World War forged the new.

Since the Ancient Greeks first told myths, the past has been the anchor which moors identity in a sea of clashing collectives. Across Europe, our anchor is weakening as the Second World War ebbs away from living memory onto the shores of textbooks and academia. The train from Birmingham back home stops at a particular station.  Built into the station wall is a memorial to the men from the Railway line who fought and died in both World Wars. The names of the dead stack up to the ceiling, but no one stops to read them.

Dunkirk is a gift to the future, a grain of bottled time giving meaning back to the marble names that dwell in railway stations, parks, monuments, and statues across Europe. When watching Dunkirk we can live in that unfiltered speck of memory. We can experience a time of survival where there is no good or evil, only the enemy who is everywhere yet nowhere, toying with the British as they scrabble for their lives while bombs fall, snipers fire, and submarines sink hospital boats. When death comes, there is no quiet reflection or glory, it is quick and uncaring. Pilots simply disappear and soldiers, flung into the air by Stukha bombers, with their Jericho horns deafening all,  never return to ground. The characters utter little dialogue as few words are needed: the story speaks through Hans Zimmer’s score and Nolan’s vision.  The tale of Dunkirk told in words of sight and sound, is hope in the face of horror. It is the ringing notes of stoicism, the images of heroism, of ships silently sailing to shore and pilots sacrificing themselves which kindled hope for the men trapped ashore, caught between the ocean and the German tide. Hope saved our men, hope saved us.

When the civilian boats quietly prevail and reach Dunkirk’s shores, Zimmer’s rendition of Elgar blares as red sails flutter in the cold Atlantic wind. I was moved. I felt proud  of my country. In a present where Britain seems lost inside itself, we needed the pride Dunkirk brings to remind ourselves of a moment when we stood alone, and vowed to return to our European brothers once more.

Hopefully we will return to Europe again one day.

Hagood’s review of the Dunkirk will be available soon.

By Saul Shimmin

 

 

Bone Tomahawk

Movie Score: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, Matthew Fox, & David Arquette.

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Synopsis: A stranger wanders into a small, western town. His suspicious actions draw the attention of  the town sheriff, Hunt (Kurt Russell), who wounds the man when he tries to run away from an interrogation. That night, Samantha (Lili Simmons), the town’s stand-in doctor, tends to the man’s injury at the jail as Hunt’s deputy stands guard. The next morning, a townsman alerts Hunt that savages kidnapped Samantha, the deputy, and the stranger, which prompts a rescue mission. A four-man search party forms and they set-out after the savages. A lot of fun, death, and fear ensues.

I realize my synopsis might make Bone Tomahawk sound like a rip-off of John Wayne’s 1956 classic, The Searchers, but trusts me, Bone Tomahawk surpasses its predecessor. I think my favorite part of the film is its realness. The movie’s actors skillfully embody the frailty of human life on the west. When the savages attack the town, none of the townspeople run scared or act crazy. Through their actions, the audience can see that such awful occurrences are not uncommon. Also, none of the characters are normal western “heroes” who can shoot from the hip and hit a running man at 100 yards. Each man shoots how a normal, somewhat-skilled cowboy would shoot.

Bone Tomahawk‘s greatest deviation from The Searchers though is its gradual descent from a western film into a horror one.  One of the first indications of such a transition begins with the Zahler’s decision to limit his shots to medium and close-up shots of the search party. At first, this limitation annoyed me because I wanted to see the grand landscapes that often paint western films. However, as Zahler restricts his shots, the audience loses more and more knowledge of what actions occurred outside of the frame, creating a sense of unease. Zahler compounds this feeling by electing not to add a score or soundtrack to the film. Breathing, crickets, and the wind are the only sounds the audience hears, which increased my fear because I felt so alone and lost while watching this movie. Normally, a movie’s score indicates when something is about to happen. Most horror movies have a soundtrack and when it stops, it is hinting that something is about to occur. Bone Tomahawk provided no such signposts leaving me on edge for most of the film.

Zahler also wrote the film and followed a tried and true formula. Place your characters in a bad situation and then make it worse. He did a fantastic job executing this strategy because with each passing moment, the search party fell into deeper and deeper peril. The reason I enjoyed this facet of the movie is because Zahler created believable reasons for each calamity to occur. My favorite was a brief moment of anger from Samantha’s husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), one of the four members of the search party. Mr. Brooder, another searcher, made a quip about Samantha that related to an earlier scene. Arthur responds negatively to the joke, punching Brooder. While his punch landed solidly on Brooder’s jaw, Arthur’s broke leg, in splints, lands unevenly on a rock causing the bone to break the skin. This injury forces Arthur to stay behind as the rest of the party carry’s on with its search.

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Despite all these great facets, the moment that pushed Bone Tomahawk from an excellent film to a classic occurred later in the film when the savages overpower the search party and take them captive. The savages, who are also cannibals, lock the survivors into a cage and take out the previously captured deputy. Up to this point in the film, most violence acts were not shown but only heard. In what was the most grisly scene I’ve ever seen in my life, the savages take the deputy out of his cage, scalp him, shove his scalp in his mouth, take a tomahawk to his genitals, and then devour him. Zahler’s relative restraint in violence up to that point, combined with the high morality of the sheriff and his cohort (except for Brooder at times), the scene was unsettling to the extreme and made hope unreachable for the heroes.

Target Audience: Adults only.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

Star Wars: The Last Jedi [Behind the Scenes Trailer]

Today, July 15, in its measured roll-out in anticipation of The Last Jedi‘s December release, Disney delivered its second “trailer” for the film. While it is not a real trailer, the short video reveals just under three minutes of riveting tid-bits. We’ll discuss some key aspects of it below, but first, here is the trailer:

Key aspects:

  1. During their interviews, Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill hint that The Last Jedi will depart from the Star Wars norm. I, and I’m sure many other fans, would welcome such a departure after The Force Awakens highly derivative plot.
  2. In a brief clip, Kylo Ren appears in front of an elevator and walkway that looks incredibly similar to The Emperor’s throne room in Return of the Jedi. Maybe we will meet Snoke here, face-to-face. But once again, I hope this does not indicated that Rian Johnson is ripping off the earlier films like J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan did with Awakens.
  3. Who are the Stormtroopers with the black, First Order emblem emblazoned on their arms and wielding weird claw weapons?
  4. This video is laden with intriguing creatures and characters. I hope they mean that multiple, rich and well-thought out planets will fill The Last Jedi, unlike the two, rather boring planets from The Force Awakens.
  5. I’m extremely excited to meet Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro’s characters who we see for a few seconds in the trailer. The only thing I know about del Toro’s character is that people call him DJ. I also know he was a bad ass in Sicario so hopefully his savageness will carry over.
  6. We see Finn exiting his bacta tank so he is obviously alive and Kylo doesn’t appear too badly injured from the slash Rey dealt him at the end of Awakens. Also, who are the two young gentle sparring with him? Possibly, Luke’s padawans that Kylo and the Knights of Ren massacred? Rey seems to also have some sword fighting ahead.

Sorry if I criticiseThe Force Awakens too much here, but after each viewing, I dislike it more and more. Its dialogue failed to fit into the Star Wars universe, its world building seemed lazy, and, as I mentioned earlier, its plot relied way too heavily on A New Hope‘s.

I have high hopes for this installment, in no small part to Rian Johnson.I hope his skill at film making remains iconic and deft in this endeavor into the Star Wars universe.

Spider-Man Homecoming

Movie Score4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Donald Glover, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Hannibal Buress, Laura Harrier, & Tony Revolori

Director: Jon Watts

Synopsis: The mutated spider has already bit Peter Parker and transformed him into Spider-Man. The movie commences a few months after Spidey disarmed Captain America. While technically part of the Avengers, Peter has to remain in Queens, fighting petty criminals because Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) commanded him to lay low and be “a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.”  Frustrated with such limitations, Peter sets off to fight “serious crime” in order to prove his worth as an Avenger to Tony and his assistant, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). On this quest, Peter discovers Adrian Toomes/The Vulture/Birdman (Michael Keaton), a former construction contractor, who is now scavenging and selling alien weaponry from The Avengers invasion on the black market. After seeing the destruction such weapons are capable of, Peter sets out to defeat The Vulture whilst balancing a normal high school life. A great movie ensues.

Heading into the movie, I felt disappointed. A week early, I had read a review that stated Spider-Man Homecoming was purely a franchise building machine with only small moments of humor and few redeeming qualities. Ladies and gentlemen, friends, families, and readers, let me be the first and hopefully not the last to tell you the aforementioned review was wrong.

The movie’s teenage characters were my favorite part (besides the villain Toomes). Tom Holland phenomenally portrayed Peter Parker. I’m so glad he did not try to emulate Toby Maguire’s sniveling, wimpy version of Peter. Instead, Holland imbues Peter with humorous and nerdy, yet subtly cool, qualities. Together with Jacob Batalon’s hilarious character, Ned, the two form a wonderful duo who made me laugh a lot more than I expected. Normally, six screenwriters on one film signals trouble, but in this one the writers created and gave Ned and Peter some fantastic quips. However, they didn’t hoard all the best lines for the main characters. Zendaya’s hipster Michelle several great lines. I wish they had also decided to make Michelle a more prominent character since she stole all her scenes.

Like Zendaya, Keaton, of course, killed all his scenes. However, what made me love his character and the movie was not just his quality acting. It was also his character and his motives. Toomes began the movie as just an honest construction worker trying to take advantage of a good business opportunity: governmental contracts to help rebuild a destroyed New York City after the Chitauri army wrecks it in The Avengers. However, after losing the contract when the government discovers the power of the Chitauri weapons and asserts control over the reconstruction. This move leaves Toomes in a precarious position as he took out large loans to gather the men and equipment needed to take on such a job. Therefore, in order to support his family and his men’s families, he starts finding, fixing, and selling the alien weaponry on the black market.

I enjoyed Toomes because he was not a master villain trying to take over the world à la Loki. Instead, he was just a man doing whatever it takes to make ends meet and live the American dream. In an interesting conversation with Peter, Toomes asks him, what’s the difference between what he does and Tony Stark selling arms to the armies of the world. Such a question enters a fantastic grey area that Marvel likes to venture into and have successfully done so far like in The Winter Soldier and Civil War.  The question stumps Peter and it stumped me.

Target Audience: Teenagers, Marvel/DC/Disney lovers, and middle age adults. I’m counting out people over 50 based on my dad’s groans when he saw the trailer and children because the Vulture can, at times, be fearsome.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

Paris Can Wait

Movie Score: 0 out of 5 (Horrible, avoid at all costs)

Cast: Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard, & Alec Baldwin

Writer & Director: Eleanor Coppola

Synopsis: Anne Lockwood (Diane Lane) is the wife of busy movie producer Michael Lockwood (Alec Baldwin). The couple are at the Cannes film festival and have to travel to Budapest for Michael’s work. Anne suffers from ear-ache and decides to meet her husband on the next leg of their trip in Paris. Michael’s partner, Jaques, offers to drive Anne to Paris and she accepts. The pair depart from Cannes, but fail to reach Paris as speedily as Anne desires because Jaques takes her on multiple side trips to his favorite restaurants and villages.

Paris Can Wait reveals that greatness in filmmaking is a non-transferable asset through marriage. Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis Ford Coppola) failed in her endeavor to emulate the romantic magic of a Nancy Meyers’ film. She set herself up well with a romantic destination (small villages in rural France), the possibility of an unhappy marriage, and a doting goof to woo the leading lady’s heart (Jaques). Despite selecting the correct trappings of the genre, Coppola fails to correctly execute the motifs.

For example, normally in a love triangle, the female lead is unhappy in her relationship because her husband/partner neglects her. Once she meets the hero, he wins her heart through acts of kindness, humor, and sex appeal. However, only one of these things occurs in Paris. Michael Lockwood ignores Anne at the beginning of the movie. However, he does not mistreat her to the extent that would justify to the audience her leaving him. Michael’s greatest sins occur when he overlooks the fact that Anne’s ear hurts and takes a phone call when she is talking to him. True, such behavior is a little rude, but after the first ten minutes, Michael ends all such negative conduct. Even though he’s in Budapest on business, he calls her several times in two days, asking about how her ear feels and her trip with Jaques thus appearing like a caring husband. If Coppola wanted the audience to root for Anne to leave Michael for Jaques then she needed to make Michael more unlikeable.

However, the worst part of the film is not Michael as a “bad” husband, but Jaques as the film’s “hero.” Jaques lacks charm, looks, and tact. Really, he is just a creep. During a ride through the countryside the couple suffered from one of many uncomfortable silence. Anne tries to break it by playing the beloved car game, I Spy. She says, “I spy something with four legs.” They had just passed a herd of cows, so obviously she meant cows. In response, Jaques puts her hand on Anne’s leg, and as she tenses, he says, “I spy something with two lovely legs.” She tries to laugh it off, but I could only cringe as Anne had no where to run and no one to save her. Sadly, the creepiness doesn’t end there. During one meal, early on in the movie, while talking about Michael and his busy production schedule, he asks Anne, “Are you happy?” Flustered, she cannot answer because he blurts out, “Is your husband faithful?” These two characters do not know each other well besides Jaques’ business partnership with Michael , so this question is horribly inappropriate. Later in that same meal, he continually refills her wine glass. His intentions become so obvious that Anne even asks, “Are you trying to get me drunk?” Jacques just shrugs his shoulders, offering no verbal answer which connotes a silent “yes.” People should boycott this movie for this scene alone.

To add to the pile of garbage that is Jaques, throughout the movie he fails to pay for their five-star meals, stating that he lost his credit card. While he does repay her at the end of the movie, he continues to take her to fancy restaurants while making her pay for them.

The restaurant ordeal brings me to my final point: Anne had no agency. Wherever Jacques wanted to go, she had to acquiesce to his desires. He had the car, he spoke the country’s language, and knew his way around. Anne possessed none of these things. After accepting his offer to drive her to Paris, Anne made no decisions for the next half of the movie. In fact, she continually implores him, “Please, no more stops till Paris.” Yet Jaques continues to stop since “Paris can wait” even though Anne just wants to get to Paris. In most romance movies, the lead has the ability to choose between her man and the hero. Coppola affords Anne no such choice.

The final nail in this movie’s coffin occurred at the end. When the two say their goodbyes, Jaques turns to her and tells her, “I made a bet with myself… that I would not make an advance on you.” I laughed out loud. Throughout the movie, every time they were in the same room, he made advances on her and most of them unwanted. During the last fifteen minutes, Anne magically starts taking control and looking fondly upon our fat and tactless French hero. The audience is supposed to believe that Anne turned a corner and started to “stop and smell the roses” (her favorite flower). But I believe Coppola must have reread her script and realized Jacques was a goon and she gave Anne no agency so she tried to rectify it. However, her late alterations made the movie more fake than romantic. You can hear the movie’s falseness in Anne’s laugh. She filled it with empty the “ha-ha” that we give someone who is telling us a factoid that we don’t give a damn about.

Do yourself a favor and go see Wonder Woman instead of this pile of shite. For trailer, see below.

Target Audience: Old people with nothing better to do than waste 90 minutes on a stormy afternoon.

By Hagood Grantham

 

John Wick: Chapter 2

In this sequel to 2014’s sleeper hit, John Wickthe action picks up where the original ended. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is still tracking down his 1969 Boss 429 Mustang, the car that Russian thug-prince Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) stole after killing Wick’s puppy. Wick quickly dispatches the remainder of the Russian syndicate and attempts once again to retire from the assassin brotherhood. However, the loathsome Italian mob boss, Santino D’Antonio (played tremendously by Riccardo Scamarcio) recalls a debt from the night of Wick’s “impossible task” that allowed him his freedom. The boss, Viggo Tarasov, alluded to this night in John Wick and how his freedom had a price. In exchange for his prior aid, D’Antonio demands that Wick assassinate his sister, Gianna, who is about to become the head of the Camorra, a title which her brother desires for himself.  

I will stop there because I don’t want to give too much away.

Movie Score: Five out of Five (Classic)

We at Title Roll Reviews, try to reserve this “Classic” ranking for only the most superior movies, but I have to bestow this title on John Wick: Chapter 2. It not only made me incredibly happy, but its director, Chad Stahelski , also kept the action tight while keeping the atmosphere lighthearted despite the gratuitous gore.

My favorite aspect of Wick Chapter 2 was that the producers and Stahelski refused to recycle the first movie for some easy money. Instead, they expanded the world of Wick, adding restraints to the deadliest man on the planet. Wick Chapter 2 also mimicked the exoticism of earlier Bond films.

The first movie’s scale was small: Local Russian mob v. Wick. While its body-count was extremely high, the writers set the movie exclusively in New York. The characters hinted at a larger assassin network and it was this well-established world with smartly funny rules that provided John Wick with a solid foundation that set it apart from increasingly boring action movies like Jason BourneThe Mechanic, and any recent Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Expendables, The Last StandSabotage, etc.) Wick 2 expanded its scope, revealing the intricacies of Wick’s world and some of his past while maintaining Wick’s intrigue (I pray they never make a prequel).

Also, Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad showed impressive restraint in both John Wick’s resources and in the amount of violence in certain scenes. For example, instead of jumping right into Wick’s famous double-tap, in the first action sequence Wick only uses hand-to-hand combat. This trend of restraint continues throughout the movie. Wick constantly running out of ammunition, adding a sense of realism to the world.  We all know that guns have to be reloaded and ammo is not just laying around downtown NYC, a fact that most action movies seem to forget. The one death that revealed the writer’s greatest restraint was Gianna’s. I won’t spoil it here, but it was quite different and most importantly, it was believable in relation to her character.

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Finally, Wick Chapter 2 took us to interesting places: the Roman Forum ruins and very futuristic locations in New York. They retained a hint of exoticism that James Bond used to have, with the ruins hosting a strange dubstep group that provided a fun backdrop for a fight. The museum in NYC that hosted the final showdown was beautiful and extremely well shot. It contained vibrant colors and countless mirrors. I have no idea how they choreographed the fighting and camera-work so kudos to Stahelski and his stunt coordinators.

Most importantly, Wick Chapter 2 does not take itself too seriously. There are added moments of humor and winks to the audience that it knows how ridiculous its premise is. I applaud Kolstad for striking this balance between humor and badass badassery.

Please, skip Fifty Shades Darker and talk your significant other into seeing this phenomenal movie. Yes, it is brutally violent, but it is vastly better made than that BDSM garbage.

Target Audience: Teens, adults, gamers, and anyone who enjoys action flicks.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

Moonlight

Moonlight follows the life of Chiron, a boy raised in a volatile household and drug-ridden neighborhood, from childhood to manhood. Director Barry Jenkins divides the movie into three sections: LittleChiron, and Black. Each part corresponds to a different stage of Chiron’s life: elementary school, high school, and life as a young adult. Jenkins delivers a heartfelt story that provokes audiences to the point of almost being infuriating. At each stage of his life, Chiron navigates different ordeals: living with a drug-addict mother, discovering his sexuality in a non-accepting environment, and finding his path in life. Moonlight is only Jenkins’ second full-length feature film and it is distributed by the burgeoning film company, A24.

Film Score: Five out of Five  (Classic) 

Everyone needs to see this movie, but not everyone will enjoy it. On its surface, Moonlight appears to be another Boyhood due to their similar plots about following a boy through pivotal moments in his life. Moonlight, however, is about much more than just a boy growing up. Instead, it expertly questions a wide variety of things: the ethics of drug-dealing, masculinity, teenage love, and self-identity.

Moonlight excels in dealing with each conundrum Chiron faces, but the movie’s strongest moment comes in its third act, Black. Here, Chiron is a young man, dealing drugs in Atlanta to make a living. One day, a high school friend/lover, Kevin, phones Chiron to tell him he’s been on his mind. After the call, Chiron goes to visit Kevin in Miami and arrives in a pimped-out Cadillac, wearing a gold grill, and playing a throbbing hip-hop song that exclaims “Ya’ll fucking with the wrong muthafucka.” With each of these facets of his appearance Chiron attempts to exude a tough facade and hide his true nature and homosexuality.

I highlight this act because Jenkins beautifully sets up a realistic persona for Chiron, then just as realistically tears it down. Despite his macho demeanor and muscled up form, the audience can tell Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is still struggling with his identity. This is not because Rhodes overacts or Jenkins overtly tells the audience that Chiron is struggling. Instead, the audience learns of Chiron’s inner-struggle due to his awkward stuttering and inability to maintain eye contact with Kevin after seeing him for the first time in a decade. A teenage girl might say “Awwww that’s so cute that he’s so awkward.” It is not cute. What it is, is a mastery of acting and storytelling. Chiron’s facade, the act he’s been hiding behind and polishing since he went to juvy, falls apart after Kevin admonishes him for dealing drugs and living this false life. The penultimate moment happens when Kevin goes over to his cafe’s jukebox and puts on Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger.” The song fits the scene perfectly and forces the two men to share their first real moment of the night. Both of their adult-selves disappear, and they become two teenagers, again, in love.

While Moonlight, like Fences, challenges stereotypes of masculinity, this movie is at times the complete opposite of Fences . Where Fences is garrulous and often quite loud, Moonlight utilizes silences. For instance, in the above scene, it is in the quiet moments between Kevin and Chiron that the audience sees Chiron’s love for Kevin. In Fences, Troy (Denzel Washington) would have expounded his love loudly and with as many words as possible. Fences had a warm, softly-yellow visual style creating an aged look, while Moonlight utilized such cinematography for stressful nighttime scenes. For example where Chiron’s mother calls him a faggot, or where Kevin confronts him about why he drove all the way to Miami to see him. In other nighttime scenes, Jenkins switches to a stark style that is more alike to what our eyes perceive in real life. During these scenes, good things happen: Chiron finds love on a beach and Chiron is reunited with Kevin in the cafe.

Please, please, please go see this movie. I deem it a new classic. It grapples with so many issues that I do not have the space nor the wisdom to do them justice. Not to mention the supporting cast is phenomenal. Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, and Janelle Monae excel in their respective roles of drug dealer/mentor, mother/drug addict, and girlfriend/mother-figure.   

As always, we welcome your comments.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

 

 

 

 

La La Land

La La Land is a joyous movie, brimming with energy, music, and life. The movie follows, both separately and jointly, the lives of ambitious jazz-man Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and hopeful starlet Mia (Emma Stone). After a meet-cute worthy of a good chuckle and several “chance” encounters, Sebastian and Mia start dating, but as their respective careers take off, their relationship deteriorates. This is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s third feature film and his first after 2014’s tremendous Whiplash.

Hagood’s review

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

I’m a fan of Damien Chazelle. When I heard that he was making a movie with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, I was overjoyed. After seeing Whiplash, I knew he was going to be one of the best directors of my lifetime with his very grounded and certain vision. Watching  La La Land has cemented my admiration for Mr. Chazelle. He has taken his passion for jazz and flawlessly weaved it into two extremely different genre movies, Whiplash and La La Land. The former, a serious drama, and the latter, a lighthearted, musical love story. Despite differences in tone, both films revolve around the world of jazz. While I maintain that Whiplash was the better of the two, mainly for J .K. Simmon’s insane performance as Miles Teller’s band conductor and its triumphant drum-solo-fuck-you climax, La La Land is only slightly less impressive.

La La‘s music is its foundation, which makes sense since it is a musical. However, I hold that it is the music that is this movie’s most impressive attribute. Whether it was the uplifting opening number, “Another Day of Sun” or  the song “Someone in the Crowd” and it’s accompanying pool-party scene, both had me crying with happiness.  My hat is off to composer Justin Hurwitz. In “Someone in the Crowd,” “Another Day of Sun,” and John Legend’s “Start a Fire,” Hurwitz’s music soars, driving the plot along with glee, then with “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” “Planetarium,” and “City of Stars,” he slows the music’s momentum but impressively manages to keep all the emotion of the high energy songs.

The most remarkable element of the music is that it’s all original, yet somehow by the end of the movie, I felt that I had known these songs for years. I am no musician so please forgive me if I butcher anything in the coming sentences. Each song is very different in pace and emotion. Some are instrumentals and some are lyrical. Hurwitz mixes the score with a free-form jazz number then goes straight to Legend’s pop-ballad. Yet they all form a cohesive whole and a great album that I’ve listened to several times through over the past two weeks.

I think meshing different styles, whether musical or cinematic, is Chazelle’s strength. With two excellent films under his belt, I am now looking forward to his upcoming movies with the same verve I do of a Christopher Nolan, a David Fincher, or a Ridley Scott film.

Target Audience: Older teenagers, adults

By Hagood Grantham

 

Saul’s review

Film Score: 4 out of 5

Every Sunday growing up, the drive home would be filled with musical numbers from Elaine Paige’s radio show. Each time Elaine’s voice materialised through the speaker, I fought the urge to open the car door, and roll onto the M62.

I have never, nor will I ever, like musicals.

La La Land immediately bursts onto the screen with a dance number of bright colours and happy people spanning the length of a gridlocked highway bridge, to the shimmering mirage of downtown Los Angeles. Watching La La Land begin its ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood and musicals, I felt the same childhood urge of nostalgia to flee.

Though the compulsion to escape quickly passed because La La Land is about two creative people grappling with self doubt, and is an excellent story regardless of the musical pieces. Although, I do admit “City of Stars” has been playing on a loop the last few days. Mia is an actress who feels overlooked by an industry indifferent to her efforts. Sebastian is a jazz musician fixated on saving jazz music, but lives in a world where his art form is outdated and under-appreciated. Through their union, Mia and Seb relent to their fears. Seb accepts a steady income and popularity over his ideal that jazz should remain pure. Mia loses faith in her ability to act, deciding she should return to a more normal life. Both characters blame each other for the collapse of their dreams, splitting the pair.

La La Land shares the same themes as Paterson but reaches a different conclusion. A quaint New Jersey town in summertime is replaced by the nostalgia, glitter and facade of Los Angeles. Paterson and Laura overcome their internal obstacles to succeed together.  Mia and Seb splinter apart, as their relationship is not a nurturing pairing, but a test as to whether they are committed to their respective goals. Personally, I think that both couples in Paterson and La La Land are personas of their directors, in one long dialogue about their own trials.

The visual direction of La La Land melds the styles of  Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. A glowing ember of nostalgia, for both Hollywood and America in the 1950’s pervades the film; from the primary colours of cocktail dresses, to the pastel blue sky trimmed by palm trees, to the broad shots of Art Deco architecture. La La Land’s cinematography exudes the warmth of west coast sunshine, leaving me happier for the experience.

 La La Land is at its most compelling when Seb or Mia are pitted against an indifferent crowd. In Seb’s performance at the diner and Mia’s exit from her first audition, no words are uttered but we share in their struggle to be recognised. The camera focuses upon Seb and Mia pouring out their hearts, only to reveal that the crowds around them, both diner and studio corridor, do not care. I have to praise cinematographer Linus Sandgren and director Damien Chazelle, for using crowds to great effect, especially in the final scene where Mia and Seb are the only ones aware that the song playing is their theme. There was a quiet intimacy in their secret understanding of the song’s meaning, which was especially moving.

However, La La Land drags at the end. The ten minutes where we witness how Mia’s and Seb’s lives would have been together, felt unwarranted. Watching the pair react in turn to Seb playing their song, City of Stars, amidst the silent audience of Seb’s jazzclub, would have been enough. Stone is not a good singer and when she did sing, it was somewhere between talking and humming. It detracted from many of the songs, although her acting and charm made up for it.

Target Audience: People who do not like musicals, but want to watch a film as relaxing as yoga.

By Saul Shimmin