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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: GET OUT is this year's horror must

It seems like every year, the horror movie everyone talks about most is the one that set the bar high early on and was never topped. Last year, February's The VVitch held that position. The year before that, It Follows. It's pretty clear that this year's high bar is the (at of the time of writing this) 100%-fresh reviewed Get Out, Jordan Peele's directorial debut, which captures the horror of white supremacy in a society that largely pretends it's above it.

Get Out starts with a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner setup: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is headed to his girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) home for the weekend to meet her parents for the first time. They've been dating for about five months, and Chris is nervous about the interaction - Rose, who is white, hasn't mentioned to her parents that Chris is black, and he's not sure they'll handle it the way Rose believes they will ("My dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!" she protests). Despite warnings from his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris decides to go. 

Chris's first night with Rose's family feature potentially well-meaning but racist interactions with a nervous white family attempting to show Chris they aren't racist. Rose's dad (Bradley Whitford) develops a penchant for adding "my man" to everything he says, and Rose's brother's attempts to talk about sports & athleticism are skin-crawlingly awkward and inappropriate. Peele succeeds at getting the viewer laughing and cringing, on guard for what's next (which includes an attempt to rid Chris of his smoking habit by literally hypnotizing him). 

The following day, Rose's family is preparing for a huge dinner party, and it's here things begin to shift in tone from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to Stepford Wives. As his interactions with white people move from microaggressions to open hostility, Chris wonders whether he's reading too far into things or if he's actually in danger. 

And, well, because this is a horror film, obviously you know Chris isn't paranoid. Get Out showcases the horror of racism not only in acts of physical violence, as you might expect from a film in this genre, but in the less obvious ways everyone can relate to, whether as the recipient or the perpetrator. In an interview, Peele said he created the concept when Obama was running for office and the country felt it had left racism behind: "It was almost like, if you talk about race, it will appear and we're past that now," he said. "With the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the discussion becoming focused on the police violence... this movie's purpose transformed into something that was meant to provide a hero and release from all the real horrors of the world." 

Kaluuya, of Black Mirror and Sicario, is the best performer in Get Out. His palpable discomfort and ability to quickly pivot from comedy to terrified horror protagonist are the core of this movie, because with only a few small exceptions, the whole film is shot from Kaluuya's point of view. It also seems unlikely the casting of Allison Williams, who is best known for her role on Girls, was coincidental. She's perfect for the part not only because of her acting (which is fine), but because of the immediate connotations she brings to that role as a result of her previous experience. 

Audiences are so used to the manufactured horror cues that try to elicit jumps or screams these days that true scares are often few and far between, but in Get Out I found myself lurching out of my seat on more than one occasion. Whether depicting the horror of being a black man in a sundown town or the counter-productive attempts of white people to prove they aren't racist, Get Out succeeds in evoking strong reactions from the audience from one moment to the next. It's one of the best directorial debuts I can remember and seems a likely start of a successful directorial career for Peele. 

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

And now some brief thoughts on this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. Starting with Live Action there is Ennemis Intérieurs, a French film that is set almost entirely in an interrogation room. A French officer of Algerian descent interviews a French-born Algerian seeking proper papers. It’s a tense, claustrophobic film with many fiery and well-acted exchanges. It assumes a little too much passing knowledge of the French/Algerian conflict, but is engaging nevertheless. It packs a lot of meaty material into a short time (racism, terrorism etc.) but fizzles a bit at the end. Solid.

La Femme et le TGV is lighter. It’s about a lonely old woman who lives near the train tracks. Twice a day she makes sure to never miss waving at the train as it passes her house. One day, after decades of her routine, she finds a letter from the train’s conductor and she strikes up a correspondence. There are other elements including her defunct bakery, an estranged son, and a nice young man in town she keeps running into. All of it is faux-Amélie agreeable. Jane Birkin allows herself to be vulnerable in the part, but I couldn’t care less about anything that happens in the story.

Silent Nights is ghastly. It’s about a Danish woman volunteering at a homeless shelter where she meets and falls in love with an immigrant from Ghana. This is one of the phoniest, nonsensical shorts I’ve ever seen. At first it seems like it might have something to say about the immigrant experience, but it abandons that to focus on some extreme white privilege. The whole thing is impractical and a little insulting with an embarrassing plot-hole that the entire thing hinges upon. To be clear, I don’t object at all to the mixed race romance, it’s just how poorly it’s deployed and engineered for maximum guilt relief. Awful.

Sing is my second favorite of the group. It’s about a Hungarian girl moving to a new school and joining the award-winning choir. She’s adjusting to new friends and her new environment when she discovers a devastating secret about the heralded choir teacher. It’s really honest and sweet about girl friendship. Sections reminded me of Fucking Åmål. And once the plot thickens, it gets straight to the conclusion without wasting time. Too many shorts wish they weren’t, but Sing embraces the format and goes out on a high note.

But the best of the group is Timecode. It’s the shortest and funniest Live Action nominee. A female parking guard finds out what the nightshift does to pass the time. She immediately finds herself passing messages to her counterpart using the CCTV security footage. It all culminates in a bizarre and beautiful modern art montage with one of the year’s best final lines. It’s my favorite kind of short, gets in, makes a turn, and gets out with humor and grace.

The Animated Shorts category is the weakest it’s been in years. Piper was in front of Finding Dory and therefore has the highest profile of the nominees. It also happens to be the best of the group. I think it's PIXAR's best short since La Luna. It finally finds a story to go with their photo-real experimentation. Cute, sweet, and funny with a deft touch. I’m most torn on Pearl. It’s from Patrick Osborne who won 2 years ago for the lovely Feast. It’s the first VR nominee ever, which I really don’t give a flying fig about. I want you to direct me where to look, not wander wherever. And I assume all that extra animating is why the animation is kind of hideous. That said, it’s a great conceit with a real emotional pull and that’s despite it feeling like a Super Bowl car ad, but like, a really good Super Bowl ad.

Blind Vaysha is the ‘80s post-modern experimental-looking film of the bunch. In other words, the pretentious one. It’s about a girl born with one eye that sees the past and one eye that sees the future. It has a great fairy tale quality about it and some fantastic visuals, but it’s not the underground classic it wishes it were. Borrowed Time is a western about regret. It’s okay. The themes it’s trying to get at don’t really pop in under 8 minutes. It feels like someone’s glorified thesis film. Lastly, there’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes the longest and most stylish of the nominees. It’s a biographical ode to the animator’s late, hard-living friend. The photoshop animation is limited but used creatively. It’s raw, honest, extremely personal, but meandering and lacking a real clear point. I wouldn’t mind the aimlessness at a shorter length, but while admirable it starts to feel indulgent.

This year, the least depressing Documentary Short is the one about a holocaust survivor, Joe’s Violin. It’s also my least favorite. It’s about Joe Feingold donating the violin he bought at the end of the war. It ends up at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls where it touches and inspires a talented young girl. When Joe is recounting his past, the short is simple and powerful. Unfortunately, the filmmakers sniff out the cloying high concept sitting right in front of them. They force connections between the two owners and eventually manufacture a meet and greet. It’s a very special NPR story with pictures.

Extremis is more straightforward but not much better. It’s basically a few vignettes in a hospital involving doctors and family members debating when to pull the plug on their loved ones. We get it. Life is hard with hard decisions. The film offers little else. Though it’s worth it for the utter disgust the doctor has on her face when someone without a PhD tries to doctor-splain to her.

Which leaves 3 good to great docs set in and around the Syrian crisis. Watani: My Homeland is about a Syrian family forced to flee their country after their father is kidnapped by ISIS. They end up in Germany where they must learn to adapt to a war-free way of life. The Germany material isn’t quite as strong because not much happens. But there are some interesting ideas here about where you find home and what it means to leave one behind. 4.1 Miles is more broadly about the migrant crisis. It follows one boat captain on the island of Lesbos and his daunting struggle to rescue thousands of refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean. This is similar to the feature doc nominee Fire at Sea. That film spent way too much time trying to show island life. This isn’t as artistic as Fire, but it makes up for it with bone-chilling immediacy. It sits on the edge of heroism and futility in a striking way. Finally, there’s The White Helmets which is probably the best doc short I’ve seen in 10 years. It’s about a group of first responders in Aleppo. Civilian volunteers who run toward the bombs to sift through the rubble for survivors. It’s not great solely based on subject matter though, it’s also crafted perfectly. The footage captured is incredible. But it also weaves together talking head testimonials with day to day camaraderie masterfully. To put it cheaply, it’s like the movie Twister but with real, tragic stakes. It’s the worst of humanity versus the best of us. It’s a great film.

And now I try to make some predictions. I think the subject matter of Ennemis Intérieurs makes it the “important” pick, and my favorite, Timecode, will be too weird for some, but I’m going with La Femme et le TGV because of name recognition and it’s the “pleasant” pick. PIXAR hasn’t won in forever, so it could be due. However, I think enough people saw Pearl on YouTube to fall for it or they’ll buy the VR novelty. While I’m scared the saccharine Joe’s Violin will sway some, I’m too blown away by The White Helmets to pick against it. We shall see.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 166

 The Belfry #1
by Gabriel Hardman

Hardman is a master of this kind of stuff, and this may be my favorite of all his covers. It's elegant, dark, and cleverly designed.

The Black Hood: Season Two #3
by Michael Walsh

Walsh always does an excellent job with these iconic kinds of designs. I love that the design elements also add a ton of depth to the image, like we're looking through a window!

Drifter #17
by Nic Klein

The covers to Drifter are often pretty intriguing, but the abstract design of this one is particularly striking.

 Loose Ends #2
by Chris Brunner and Rico Renzi

I absolutely love the colors here, what interesting contrast! The whole scene just really sets a familiar, yet slightly uneasy tone.

She Wolf #6
by Rich Tommaso

Tommaso is killing it with these character-less covers. This one evokes a real sense of dread, and the red filter continuing to pool up at the bottom like blood is an excellent touch.

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: X-Men films finally achieve cinematic glory with LOGAN

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Is Logan the best X-Men film yet? Yes. For sure. By a mile. And so on.
While it’s fair to grade a movie against the curve of its predecessors, in this case I think it undermines Logan to solely compare it to other X-flicks. Thinking about Logan leads me to think about the genres that influenced it, the impact of iconic directors who came before, and draws comparison to cinematic classics. I was someone who was almost ready to give up on this franchise after a fairly mediocre recent crop of films, but I forgot something. Or more specifically, someone: James Mangold.
James Mangold, he of the fairly engrossing 3:10 to Yuma remake, he of the now oft-parodied Oscar nominated biopic Walk the Line, and of course the man behind the camera on 2013’s The Wolverine. Say what you will about that effort and its flaws, of which that troublesome third act is a major one, but it’s surely the closest of these mutant-related excursions to resemble an actual film rather than a roller-coaster ride. Certainly, there’s no shame in approaching it as such, but you can feel the difference in a film that’s required to act as a vehicle to take a character from point A to point B. When an accomplished filmmaker is inspired to use pathos and character development, taking the story only exactly where the story wants to go, one has to stand up and applaud the work and heart put into it.
More than anything, Mangold understands the core iconography that gives way to the character Logan. He’s basically the Man With No Name or Kuwabatake Sanjuro, and he uses the strongest comics source material as a jumping-off point to serve the “tortured wanderer” archetype. With The Wolverine, he took a still in his prime version of the title hero, as presented within the quintessential Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries, and pitched him within a Japanese familial-crime drama, playing to the East meets West-stylings that produced many a samurai based classic (Yasujirō Ozu and Hiroshi Inagaki, among others, are marked sources of inspiration). That shot of Logan riddled with arrows still lingers in the edges of my memory.
For Logan, the film, his return to the character is one that moves further back in its inspiration. Here, Mangold reflects upon the epic Western and some of its respective masters (George Stevens, John Ford, Clint Eastwood) in his aim to adapt Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan. Much like the previous film, the comic pages really only provide a general starting point, as this presumed final trip to the role for Hugh Jackman has more in common with Unforgiven than anything that’s appeared between the covers of a Wolverine comic. In a way, both The Wolverine and Logan could be seen as two sides of a coin, to the point where there are shots that are reminiscent of one another, setting up some intrinsic cinematic language between the two. The fact that Logan is a wholly much better film, of course, helps immensely.
Set in 2029, five years after the final chronological scene of X-Men: Days of Future Past, mutant-kind is nearly extinct. Humans are no longer giving birth to them, and the ones left have mostly died out. The X-Men are, for reasons only hinted at, no more. Logan (Hugh Jackman), now going by the name of James, is a shadow of his former self – an aging, alcoholic limo driver scraping together cash to care for a dying elderly parent, living in a world that doesn’t look far afield from our own. Hobbled with pain, drinking away those memories he can’t toss aside, and growing sicker each day, this is a Wolverine that’s basically unrecognizable. He can’t even pop his claws out fully without intense agony. In between his nighttime tasks, he crosses the border to Mexico where he watches over an increasingly unstable Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – whose aging and deteriorating, yet still powerful mind makes him an extreme danger to everyone within his general vicinity. Logan’s only support structure is the reformed mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a gaunt albino figure whose sibling-like relationship with Logan is marked with nearly as much animus as reliance on one another.
While in the midst of a funeral gig, a woman approaches the bedraggled warrior seeking “Wolverine” and his assistance in transporting a young, silent girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a safe haven north of the border and out of the clutches of the smooth yet menacing Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his cybernetic band known as the Reavers. This task, once finally taken, will set this struggling family on a dangerous road trip, with significant consequences and revelations that will deeply mark each of them irreparably.
While Logan does not necessarily want for action (and fear not: there is plenty of stabbing and gouging that earns it its “R” rating), this is a deeply considered drama first. It’s so far afield from the typical X-Men film in tone, pacing, and giving its performers a canvas to work off of, that my first reaction was shock. It’s a slower, more methodical and considered film, as prone to emotional outbursts as it is fisticuffs, but with less portentousness than that of the Nolan Batman joints. There are no real weighty themes on display, or meditations on a specific ethos. Instead it’s a film laser-focused on the relationships of its lead cast, which functions as a modern-day family. It’s funny, touching, and very sad in places. I teetered on the edge of getting choked up at times, and that’s something I’ve never said or felt about a movie of this type.
It’s also beautifully expansive, shifting between desert vistas and plains country and back again. Teaming here with X-Men: First Class cinematographer John Mathieson, Mangold has captured the inherent duskiness of the regions while hearkening back the very genre that inspires him. And yes, there’s a dab of Post-Apocalyptic George Miller in there too.
For his part, Jackman has always been an impressive performer in this now 17 year old role, and frankly my favorite ongoing strand throughout the entire franchise. But his talents have often been curtailed in service of clunky scripts and the next big CGI-entangled set piece. In Logan, the camera gives him every moment he needs, allowing the character to live and breathe in a way that never quite felt possible before. The weight he carries, the centuries lived, they all read on his face and physical stature and as the machinations of the plot present him with a very new kind of relationship dynamic. If this is Jackman’s last performance in the role, it’s a hell of a way to go.
But this is not the only wonder that Logan works, as Stewart, finally gets an opportunity to play the Professor in a way that is worthy of his acting chops. The tragedy of Xavier here is all Stewart, as he bounces between a confused old man, unable to recognize Logan and unaware of his surroundings, to the disapproving yet hopeful father figure he’s always been to Logan in this larger series. To see Stewart do something new with had been such a static fixture within the confines of this world is exciting. There’s even a tiny shred here or there where he’s taken cues from James McAvoy, perhaps underlining how in the twilight years we revert back to our younger presentations of self.
And then there’s Dafne Keen, who plays the third point of the lead triangle. To say she is an incredibly gifted actress both in physicality and expression would be an understatement. Her take on Laura is largely wordless, which would create a challenge for even the most experienced actor. The fact that an 11 year old commands the screen as fiercely as she does, regardless of those constraints, is remarkable. The relationship that develops between Logan and Laura is easily the most stirring bond that’s been presented in any of these films. It’s a pairing that becomes real from their first scene together and never lets up.
Logan has every trapping you’d imagine Mangold is aiming for: the tortured protagonist who must again take arms, the child who presents a new side of the hero, the wise old-timer that imparts moral support, the handsome blackhat rogue in pursuit, and multiple attempts at communal charity that lead to calamity. From that description you may think Logan lacks originality, but using these iconic tropes allows the filmmaker to pay homage not only some of the greatest motion picture visionaries to ever grace the screen, but also to the source material that embedded deep into Wolverine’s DNA. He’s had his Eastern. Now he has his Western.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 165

Archie #17
by Tula Lotay

Another bold cover from Lotay which has strong design elements as well as excellent (and a little scary) character work!

God Country #2
by Geoff Shaw

Ah, the widescreen cover. A rarity, and always very striking when done right. I love that the title is integrated and absolutely huge, but doesn't take away from the beautiful landscape.

Star Trek: Boldly Go #5
by George Caltsoudas

I love that this design defies a quick look. The way the background symbol is mimicked by the angles and curves of the characters hair and staff, and the optical illusion of the background becoming the foreground is visually fascinating. Well done!

The Rift #2
by Nicolas Ely

I hope Ely is able to keep this clever design idea going for all four issues of this series–the first two covers have been extremely striking and poster-worthy!

Trinity #6
by Bill Sienkiewicz

I like the almost 3D look here, and the unique perspective gives this one an interesting edge.

Unfollow #16
by Matt Taylor

I love the gritty shading style Taylor uses on these covers, and the movement of the characters and the menacing rocky visage in the background create a real sense of urgent action.

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: THE SALESMAN Is A Revenge Tale Only Asghar Farhadi Could Make

It's nearly impossible to open a discussion of The Salesman, the newest film from Iranian powerhouse Asghar Farhadi, without talking about its opening scenes. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) are a happily married couple living in a large, well-furnished apartment, but there are cracks in the wall. Literally. One night, they are forced to evacuate their home with what appears to be an earthquake shakes the foundation of their home. But this is no natural disaster; what upends their lives is a man-made phenomenon, imprecise nearby construction. It's a simple mistake, but one that upends their lives. This is a fairly blunt metaphor for what is to come, but it's also a canny, fitting introduction to this story.

With their home in shambles, Emad and Rana are forced to look for a new place to live, but finding a place they like within their budget in a hurry proves difficult. Thankfully, a member of their theater troupe is a landlord who recently had to evict someone from his apartment - so recently, in fact, that much of her stuff remains in the second bedroom. It's a godsend to the young couple, at least at first, but when a former client of the prostitute who used to live there comes in while Rana is alone, their life is upended. Assaulted and hospitalized, Rana is panicky, nervous, suffering all the effects of PTSD; it is Emad, however, who begins to come apart at the seams. As he does, The Salesman begins to transform from domestic drama to low-key thriller, but as with About Elly's heightened turn, Farhadi's strong character work prevent it from slipping into genre cliche. Instead, the slow ratchet of tension in the background comes almost entirely through Emad and Rana's relationship, which Farhadi makes sure is always the focus of the drama. Emad might be on a quest for vengeance, but that matters far less than what Rana's going through.

Farhadi's two leads, both familiar faces to those who have watched his films before, are excellent. Alidoosti was the title character in About Elly, but her Rana follows a very different emotional arc. Rana is reasonably outgoing, a comfortable and confident woman, an actress in the local theater troupe with her husband. Her assault drives her sharply inward, and Alidoosti plays her character's emotional breakdown powerfully. Hosseini, who was in both About Elly and A Separation, has a bigger role, as his own breakdown mirrors and then almost exceeds his wife's. He has to remain recognizable as the kind educator of the film's first third while still slipping into arrogance, hostility, and hyper-masculinity as it continues. The two of them together play off each other perfectly, building to a powerful, wordless moment that gave me chills.

Much like another one of my favorite films, Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, The Salesman is concerned especially with the fragility of masculinity. The Salesman has been compared to Charles Bronson's 1970s cult franchise, Death Wish, another film about a man who seeks vengeance after his wife is assaulted, but Death Wish is a film that celebrates toxic masculinity, whereas The Salesman is a film that critiques it. Farhadi isn't interested in revenge, but in where the drive for revenge comes from. As in Loktev's film, a moment of crisis forces the character to call his own manhood into question, and the question eventually becomes: Can he see that this isn't about him in time to prevent irreparable damage to his relationship? But where Loktev's film was meditative, Farhadi's morphs slowly into a thriller, as Emad's desire to find out who did this and why begins to take precedence over his desire to make sure Rana is safe and healing.

Farhadi's greatest skill lies in mining class and gender in modern Iranian society to find breaking points within relationships, a talent that often creates surprisingly intense domestic drama. These are the essential skills that let him reimagine something like Death Wish as a contemplation on masculinity, trust, and helplessness. It is insightful and humanistic, an exploration of familiar feelings and angsts that never betrays its characters. The Salesman is perhaps lesser Farhadi (About Elly and especially A Separation will be tough to top), as its climax cops out a bit in comparison to his strongest work, but lesser Farhadi is still unquestionably essential viewing. By the time The Salesman reached its instantly iconic final shot, I knew this was a film only Asghar Farhadi could make.

The Salesman is out now in select theaters, and it arrives at the Atlanta Midtown Art Cinema tomorrow, February 10th. It is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in this year's Oscars. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman stars Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini.
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Review: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 dives deeper into its world, outshining its predecessor

One of my favorite redemptive arcs in comics is Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Born Again" in the pages of Daredevil. The story of a man being utterly torn down to the ground floor of his being, left penniless and seeking vengeance has never been done better in that medium though many have tried to lesser success. But regardless, it's a formula that generally works well, and in his return trip to the world of John Wick, Chad Stahelski (now helming solo with his co-director for the previous entry, David Leitch, moving on to other projects) utilizes it in a way that refreshes this burgeoning franchise and points towards an intriguing future for where it can go next.

I moderately appreciated the initial John Wick film. It was a good fit to display the still vibrant action chops of Keanu Reeves, while minimizing his performance weaknesses through dialogue-light role. Most importantly though, it went beyond just the standard "beat 'em up cause my dog was killed" premise by way of introducing some surprising world-building. After letting that film settle, my biggest regret was that we only got whispers of this unique world of assassins, and gold coins, and hotels where blood cannot be shed. It was a tease of something that you knew could have been expanded and played with on screen to great satisfaction, especially as the film wore on with its numbing brand of fight choreography. As luck would have it, John Wick: Chapter 2 provides exactly the kind of elaboration on these ideas that I was looking for, to the point where it becomes central to the entire conflict.

The sequel basically picks up where its predecessor left off, with the title hero hunting down a member of the Tarasov family in order to finally return back to his retired life that was promised to him after striking a deal with a former associate. After getting his stolen car back in pretty spectacular fashion, that same associate, an Italian mafioso type/fellow assassin named Santino (Riccardo Scamario) calls upon John to take on a task for him that will clear the way for Santino to ascend to the top of the criminal food chain internationally. John, of course, being the stoic hero that he is refuses. But, as we learn, when you make a blood oath in this world, there's no getting out. Santino wreaks a terrible vengeance on John, which forces his hand, and he's off to Italy to get embroiled in an even tougher situation. One that will send an entire cadre of killers after him.

Truthfully, I'm not sure John Wick: Chapter 2 will make a believer out of the non-committal. It's still an outright action spectacle, and while the early set-ups filled my audience with glee and verbal exclamations, after awhile, the sheer pummeling that your senses receive from the constant carnage will wear you down. There was a point where one of the better looking sequences set in a colorful hall of mirrors didn't even phase anyone because it started to become such old hat. The action remains rather weightless in places, as there's still a good deal of John killing random schmoe after schmoe; though when he's doing battle with better drawn out characters, even slightly, that is where the strengthening of the plot takes over.

The problem with the previous film, is that once you got past the fun quirks of it, the thrill of its bone-crunching violence, it was Keanu Reeves taking on boring, personality-free Russian bad guys. And regardless of how today's political context could reframe that, there's little that's memorable about its big finale, or much of it at all beyond those aforementioned wrinkles that set that film apart from your Transporters and the like. But with this second chapter, screenwriter Derek Kolstad really nails down the uniqueness of this property. We get to learn more about how contracts are established among this network of rogues, how the Italian iteration of The Continental hotel operates, the concept of a Ward, and just what happens when some of these very important doctrines are broken. There is indeed honor among assassins.

Equally impressive is that this sequel doubles down on the idea of a world operating beneath the surface of our own beyond the behind the scenes business of tatooed receptionists that send mass text messages to every contact across the globe. There's an inventive set-up that plays out like They Live, with John and a fellow member hunting him firing silent shots at one another while a crowd of everyday people walk on by unaware, and there's another bit involving an even deeper network of individuals that came awfully close to putting me in mind of The Invisibles (for more reasons than one). John Wick: Chapter 2 has its focus laser-beamed into a society beyond the one we can see, but might if we looked hard enough.

The other major element that stuck out to me, other than its additional stylishness (it adds large fonted subtitles for emphasis and humor, but not much else) is that Reeves is given a lot more to do in terms of dialogue and character development. Because of the enormity of the task(s) ahead of him, he has to be more than "The Bogeyman", and that of course is a double-edged sword. We want to have a reason to care about our hero here, but Reeves has some notable deficiencies as an actor. To Stahelski's credit, he plays with that pretty significantly. Everyone is having to act around him, but the camera then tightly focuses on Reeves' face as he delivers a both hard-ass and laughable line. It washes out to the point where it ends up working far better than one could imagine, as if everyone involved is in on the joke.Were a more capable thespian involved, some of that charm would be lost.

A smattering of better villains helps, Common steps in as Cassian, a character who is outright one of John's equals and their conflicts are a highlight of the film. The rather stunning presence of Ruby Rose's silent constant antagonist Ares adds another memorable obstacle. Once you toss in a violin playing, beret wearing enemy, and one that's basically a sumo wrestler, suddenly you're building a line-up worthy of a Dick Tracy story. This all creates an experience that's more involving and fun than the previous film. Stahelski knows he's working in a ridiculous genre anyway, so why worry about verisimilitude?

John Wick: Chapter 2 is all about confidence, confidence in its concept, its own internal universe, and its lead. It doesn't quite avoid all of the pitfalls of the initial entry, but what it adds creates far vaster potential, with an ending that is quite enticing...something I never thought I'd imagine saying about this franchise. I could do with another one, thank you.

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