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John Wick: Chapter 2

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john wick 2Director: Chad Stahelski

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose

Released: 14th February 2017 (UK)

Reviewer: Ren Zelen

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a ride into hell, or, a hell of a ride – either way it’s going to drag you along with it, maybe gasping, maybe kicking and screaming, but either way, it’s an adrenalin rush. The John Wick movies are all about the momentum of action, with Wick moving so precisely, so speedily and yet so gracefully that it all becomes a mesmerising ballet of Grand Guignol.

A pre-credits action set-piece starts the movie as it means to go on, and cripes, if it isn’t an absolute corker! Tying into the previous film, Russian crime tsar Abram (Peter Stormare), uncle to the now deceased mob brat Iosef Tarasov (who so foolishly stole Wick’s black 1969 Mustang and killed his puppy in the first movie) recounts stories to his sidekick concerning Wick’s legendary reputation, as Wick turns up to reclaim his car.

Ever focussed on his task, Wick repossesses his vehicle, in the process killing off a brace of henchmen in a crazed demolition derby. Having dispatched all comers he arrives blood-spattered in Abram’s office, and brokers a truce that ends the vendetta.

No sooner has Wick buried his array of armaments in the basement of his lovely home a second time, than his doorbell rings. Santino D’Antonio (sinister, smouldering Riccardo Scamarcio), a member of the Neapolitan Camorra, is on his doorstep determined to collect on a blood debt that Wick agreed to as a condition of leaving the assassination business to lead a quiet life with his late wife.

D’Antonio insists that must kill his sister, his late father’s preferred representative at an international council of criminal syndicates, so that he can take her place.

Wick refuses, and pays an immediate price. Seeking refuge at ‘The Continental’, the hotel for hired killers, he is reminded by Winston (the marvellous Ian McShane) that he is bound by the rules of the assassins’ code and must honour his blood debt.

Conscious that it was the intriguing secret network of assassins and their code that distinguished John Wick from all the other revenge sagas, and gave some light relief from the relentless killing, writer Derek Kolstad elaborates on its mythology, expanding the homicidal fraternity beyond New York into an international forum.

Chad Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen turn every frame of John Wick 2 into a striking visual presentation, making this movie even more arresting and entertainingly surreal than its predecessor.

Sure to engage a younger audience, the film conforms to a video-game-like structure, moving through various ‘levels’ in order to achieve its goal. This results in a dehumanization of Wick’s opponents. They are merely an array of swiftly moving obstacles that he must overcome to reach his destination.

The line between the literal and fantastical becomes blurred, as almost every ‘level’ is presented as either dark, subterranean, and gothic, or sparklingly lit. We have an ornate and gloomy bathroom hung with huge gilded mirrors, shadowy, labyrinthine catacombs, a shining-white subway station and a bright, metallic train carriage.

During a battle in an art gallery, blood splatters the white walls like a Jackson Pollock painting, and in the dazzling, head-spinning climax, an art installation of rotating mirrored panels and flaming video screens transform the slaughter into a bright funhouse of blue, red and white colours, scintillating light and bloody violence. Wick has become an artist, and killing is his art.

In these two movies, John Wick himself is what holds our attention. The camera is pinned to his movements as he swirls amid the chaos, a one-man army, a graceful human weapon, efficiently able to kill, even if all he has to hand is a pencil. The elegantly choreographed action sequences elevate the bloody and brutal confrontations to a dazzling form of modern dance.

For a movie so stunningly visual, writer Kolstad manages to ground the amplified action scenes with terse passages of dialogue and flashes of humour. Ian McShane and Franco Nero deliver their lines with portent or dignified amusement. Santino’s mute, androgynous henchwoman Ares (badass action star Ruby Rose) conveys veiled threats in nimble sign language.

There are lighter moments, such as when Reeve’s old Matrix mentor Laurence Fishburne appears as the ‘Bowery King’, leader of a ring of killers and spies posing as down and outs. Upon their meeting he gives a speech resonant with references back to their previous fictional relationship, causing many guffaws of recognition from the audience.

Despite the flashy gadgets, the sharp suits and the theatrical beauty of the action scenes, it’s hard to escape the sheer amount of death John Wick deals out. Unusually for such revenge sagas, the John Wick films do not balk at examining the murky morals and questionable decisions of the sordid world its protagonist has to deal with, contrasting this with the simpler, sunnier time he experienced just being a husband to the woman he loved.

Although (at 52) Reeves is agile, skilled, and acrobatic enough to meet the outrageous physical demands of the role, as an actor he has never been known to excel at conveying subtle or complex emotion. He appears notoriously remote. However, here, his blankness and oddly robotic form of speech enhances the nature of the character: when at work John Wick is a killing machine, he is dead inside, a cipher –  all we really know about him is that he loved his dead wife, his dog, and his car.

Every frame where Wick stands alone, particularly those where he emerges from fire or darkness and rain, serves to remind us of the hell that he has been sent to unleash, and that he himself resides in. In one scene he is asked if he fears damnation – he answers with blank resignation, ‘Yes’. He’s made a Faustian bargain and, even in his most operatic melees you may find yourself simultaneously cheering, wincing and commiserating.

Movie Reviews

LFF Review 2018 – Madeline’s Madeline ★★★★

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Director: Josephine Decker

Stars: Miranda July, Molly Parker, Helena Howard

Released: London Film Festival

Indie favourite actress/director, Josephine Decker premiered her third feature, Madeline’s Madeline at Sundance earlier this year where she received praise for her unconventional take on mental illness.

16 years old Madeline suffers from unspecified mental health problems which have created a wedge between her and her slightly over bearing mother (Miranda July). Spending most of her time alone, she finds comfort when joining an experimental theatre troupe and even develops a strong bond with its ambitious director, Evangeline (the psychotic Molly Parker). When Evangeline starts to use Madeline’s delicate mental state and personal issues with her mother as part of her play, the line between reality and illusion quickly starts to blur.

‘The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s. You are not the cat – you are inside the cat’. So begins 15 minutes of blurred and beautifully shot sequence that immediately puts the audience in a state of daze. When we are officially introduced to Madeline, we find an energetic young woman who would much rather disappear behind wild animals in theatre rehearsals than have any serious discussion with her mother. Sharing the screen is the interesting Evangeline, who is as passionate as inspiring but whose play doesn’t seem to make much sense to anyone, including herself.

The film’s stand out is the acting and nothing ever feels rehearsed. Helena Howard as Madeline is terrific and easily switches between the disturbed teenager, the cat, the seductress, the turtle and the actress, always bursting with energy and vulnerability.

The film has its witty moments, particularly when during an acting exercise Madeline decides to punish Evangeline for using her personal confessions by simulating a painful childbirth, in the hopes of terrifying the freshly pregnant teacher.

Decker also explores the interesting duality of the role of the artist. Often torn between the idea that creating is disappearing behind someone’s else story or on the contrary it is all about using real experiences to bring depth and authenticity, Decker seems to suggest it is a little of both and that both extremes could end up with either an artificial or violating result. No one understands what Evangeline’s play is about at first and when she finally finds substance that speaks to others (Madeline’s personal issues), she chooses to entirely focus on it instead of adding her own substance and ends up being kicked out by the troupe.

Madeline’s Madeline is visually stunning thanks to Ashley Connor ‘s imaginative cinematography and both Howard and Decker bring to life a condition that is still misunderstood and dismissed. The storyline does takes its time to emerge and the daze occasionally mixes with confusion. Howard keeps the audience in her mental maze throughout the film. It is messy, unusual and dense and maybe that was the whole point.

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LFF 2018 Review – A Private War ★★★

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Director: Matthew Heineman

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander

Released: London Film Festival 2018

‘ I see it so you don’t have to!’ Rosamund Pike, as war correspondent Marie Colvin, spits out at her Sunday Times editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) towards the end of A Private War  as they argue on the banks of the Thames which rolls serenely past. She means the atrocities of war which she is compelled to return to time and again to report on despite hating her own compulsion. She does it, she believes, to give a voice to the ordinary men, women and children who are fodder for the military and political ambitions of dictators and leaders themselves safe in their palaces, well, until the mob gets to them and takes selfies with their mutilated corpse as we see later in the film.

Marie Colvin was a much celebrated war reporter who was killed in Syria in 2012 along with her interpreter/guide. She achieved fame in her lifetime for her fearless, uncompromising journalism but also for the black eye patch she wore after losing an eye in Sri Lanka when reporting on the Tamil Tigers in 2001. Her death will still be fresh in the minds of those who follow current affairs as will her extraordinary persona.

It’s a testament then to the tremendous power of Rosamund Pike’s performance that minutes into A Private War she becomes Colvin. The deep gravelly voice, the Long Island accent, the no nonsense, blunt manner of speaking are not only completely captured but taken possession of by the very English rose Pike.

She embodies Colvin with a natural ease which exposes the private vulnerabilities of a woman who could have been simplistically portrayed as a one of those annoying ‘strong, uncompromising women’ that Hollywood seems to think raises the female profile but real women find unbearable. Pike is not afraid to make the chain smoking, heavy drinking, conflicted Colvin unlikable at times. But it’s in the quiet, reflective moments of Colvin’s life when she is alone with her ravaged eye and light desire for the normal suburban life she rejected that Pike is at her most effective. This is a film about the psychological damage of seeing what the rest of us don’t have to as much as it is about the grotesque mess of war on the battlefield.

Colvin wants a child and considers it with the man (Greg Wise) she’s already divorced a couple of times despite having suffered two miscarriages. She may or may not be prone to seeking connection through other convenient liaisons. Her friend tells her she’s an alcoholic and she thinks about convincing a psychiatrist she’s sane so she can leave a rehab clinic she’s an inpatient in before she’s really up to it. She’s plagued by flashbacks and nightmares.
We learn all this about her but, like her, don’t have time to fully process any of it before she and we are whisked off to Iraq. There she meets a freelance photographer, Paul Conroy, (Jamie Dornan – Fifty Shades Freed) and the two quickly form a professional partnership with Colvin very much in the driving seat as to where they go and what risks they take. In one case this involves her confidently flashing a gym membership card to get through a heavily armed checkpoint. The friendship which builds between the two is not explored enough and Dornan is not given enough to do but when the inevitable danger which is foreshadowed throughout the film befalls them it’s intense and a swallow-hard moment.

Even though we know her death is coming , when it actually does, there’s a real sense of loss, largely due to Pike having brought Colvin to life so brilliantly beforehand. I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of Rosamund Pike during awards season for this timely film produced by Charlize Theron about a very modern heroine.

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LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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