John Wick Chapter 2 is action cinema at its very best

Chapter 2 unveils a little more of everything that made the first great

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Three years on after the original murderfest, Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is back to turn up the volume and pile up the bodies. The overhanging threat of action movie sequels is that they will either re-tread the same old ground, remaking old scenes with an inflated budget or they will use that new budget to spend on cars to chase and crash/ explode. There is always a danger of losing the magic of the first film by upping the stakes too much.

The first scene of John Wick 2 features a car chase with several close ups, quick cuts and crane shots. Immediately it seems as if the style of film would be different. The views are fleeting, the camera does all the moving. Maybe the directors misunderstood what was so enjoyable about the first. Maybe studio pressure has created a more homogenised vision. Maybe this won’t be filmed like the original. Then out of nowhere the car chase ends and the next time we visit John in his Mustang the camera hangs about in the front seat, it lingers and lets the action unfold in the best way possible, the way that made John Wick so special. It’s as refreshing as ever with its take on choreography and camera placement.

John Wick introduced the hidden world of assassins, a New York based hotel called The Continental where assassins hold a mutually beneficial armistice, managed by Ian McShane’s delightfully cheesy Winston. The sequel introduces us to the international world of assassins. The filmmakers continue to have as much fun with this concept that they can, clearly, they held back in the first because they throw so much ideas at the screen that it’s hard to keep up. Three scenes are spliced together to what amounts to a frantic shopping montage where John shops for equipment. The scene is brilliantly whimsical and may as well be taking place in Diagon Alley, as Peter Serafinowicz’s Sommelier delicately recommends Mr. Wick new and improved firepower.

In all honesty, the film is an ode to the professional and this scene shows it. It is a film to admire the handicraft of a master tradesman, even if your trade is tailoring suits, engineering guns or shooting people in the head. This second chapter features much more members of John Wick’s professional circle, he is no longer dealing with low down gangsters, he is up against pros. He faces more difficulty in one on one battles and needs to prepare a lot more than before. He certainly gets more lucky in this outing, with a few guards failing to shoot him from feet away. However, the advent of a bulletproof Italian suit makes for highly effective plot armour.

The film does not appear to have lost any of giddiness over choreography and seems to have doubled down on its tongue in cheek attitude, with the sequel containing much more laughs without ever going overboard. The lighting was something that stood out in the first and here they appear to stick to a similar formula, using intense blue and green filters for the majority of the film. It is broken up by scenes of vibrant lighting, culminating in a shoot-out in what is essentially a hall of mirrors.

Once again, however, it is Keanu Reeves who is worthy of the praise, he puts his body on the line through some fantastic choreography and dedicated stunt work all while maintaining John Wick’s sullen equilibrium aided in multiple scenes by the ever intimidating Common and Ruby Rose. Matrix partner Laurence Fishburne makes a reappearance next to Neo and brings a great energy to the film with his booming vocals and heavy duty laugh. After witnessing the upsetting dullness of his performance in Passengers it was a great relief to see him letting loose in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Recommendation

John Wick Chapter 2 is what the most extreme optimist should have expected from a John Wick sequel. It remains as inescapably driven and hardcore as the last and increases the extremes on every angle, it constantly adds seasoning to its intensely realised world and the direction and style remains as fresh as the first. The film is the action genre at its very best.

John Wick increases his body count from 77 in the first to 128 this time round. That should tell you all you need to know.

 

The Last Year – Downsize’s Top 20 films of 2016

[Due to release schedules for the UK, Downsize Media’s reviews of the year will run from 1 February 2016 – 31 January 2017. Notable movies that missed the cut include: Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hidden Figures and Split]

[Due to release schedules for the UK, Downsize Media’s reviews of the year will run from 1 February 2016 – 31 January 2017. Notable movies that missed the cut include: Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hidden Figures and Split]

 

20

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Wiener Dog

A film that decided against adhering to traditional structure, Wiener Dog uses its little brown mascot to connect a series of vignettes. Essentially four short films, the film is a melancholic look at relationships, spanning across generational divides. The stories are all connected by a dark humour, whether through their criticism of the mundanity of everyday life or the ridiculousness of the art world, the film finds something to laugh at in each bleak world. Wiener Dog boasts a great ensemble cast with performances that ooze a deadpan charisma.

19

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Zootopia

Disney and Pixar have been merged for a few years now but this is the first example where a Disney branded film takes on the guise of a Pixar film. The film manages to remain cutesy and fun while not patronising its young viewers and still addressing themes of racial profiling and news media. The film boasts stunningly detailed creature designs and manages to remain funny for everyone. Kids won’t get the Breaking Bad meth lab scene, but they’ll still laugh at the Lamb in the yellow hazmat suit.

18

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Eye in the Sky

Pivoting on the Breaking Bad segue, let’s talk about something pretty un-Disney. Eye in the Sky is a film about drone strikes on terrorist cells. What impressed me most about Eye in the Sky was how level headed it was about such a heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to be endorsing or criticising the methods but instead using drone strikes as a vehicle to explore career politics and public relations in government. The characters of the story are taken more from The Thick of It rather than Syriana.

17

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10 Cloverfield Lane

A strangely titled film, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s story has nothing to do with Cloverfield. Instead of an Alien Invasion film it is a prison thriller set in a fallout shelter. If Cloverfield could be considered as a mirror for the opening invasion from War of the Worlds then 10 Cloverfield Lane is Ogilvy’s hideout. With John Goodman at the helm embodying a terrifyingly unstable but well-meaning psychopath, the film is a collection of cushion clutching tension and a testament to claustrophobic fear.

16

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Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols has a good thing going, he makes small films, gets Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon to star and he refines his storytelling. Midnight Special is not his strongest venture yet it still manages to capture something special. There is something so impressive about Nichols’ tight control of his world, his ability to speak with visuals and create intrigue makes Midnight Special one of the most fascinating films of the year.

15

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Deadpool

Superhero movies are getting old, it’s been 17 years since X-Men began the trend and now it’s at full speed. In 2017 we will see:

  • The Justice League
  • Wonder Woman
  • Lego Batman
  • Logan
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2
  • Spider Man: Homecoming
  • Thor: Ragnorok

It’s exhausting, and there’s no apparent end in sight. Yet with popularity comes parody and thank god that Deadpool came along to break up the monotony. Now that the tropes have been established on the big screen Deadpool is finally free to come along and laugh at them. The film’s humour is not the most advanced but its R rated fun is indicative of superhero films being able to do something different.

14

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Moana

Disney is back on top, having bought out the competition it is now reaping the rewards of its monopoly. Moana displays some of the best-looking animation I have ever seen, and it combines modern animation style with flat animation and cut out style sequences. Held together by a terrific soundtrack the world of Moana is a brilliantly realised introduction to an unfamiliar mythology in a way that Disney has not done so well since Hercules.

13

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Embrace of the Serpent

Having not yet seen The Handmaiden, or Toni Erdmann this is the only foreign language film on this list. Embrace of the Serpent is a Colombian film about an Amazonian shaman leading two different scientists, forty years apart, through the rainforest. Shot in black and white the Amazon looks like an alien planet and the tribal people that lurk represent a constant danger. The film is calming and considerate for the most part yet finds time for bat shit insanity and trippy visuals.

12

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Silence

Scorsese knows what film is, he knows how to titillate better than anyone working today. In Silence he takes a side step from titillation and into contemplation. He ponders the meaning and compatibility of religion, delves into ideas of martyrdom instead of success and creates a dark descent of a narrative. Despite this there is still room for the expected Scorsese touch of dynamic violence and brutal barbarism.

11

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Green Room

Green Room doesn’t waste time, it’s villains are neo Nazis, murderers who own attack dogs and bowie knives, they’re the villains and the aim of the film is to get away from them. The film features some brutal gory visuals and unpolished action, if I was to use one word to sum up the film it would be ‘grimy.’ Condensation sweats off the walls and lights flicker dimly. The film is a real time journey into desperation, characters are developed so as to show their vulnerabilities and their strengths, then they are placed into the fray for the next hour. It’s an entertaining spectacle weighed down with a nervy realism, a low-key action film were the stakes are real. I don’t want to draw too many comparisons to Die Hard but it’s kind of like Die Hard in that respect.

10

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Hell or High Water

Western movies have fallen out of fashion in the last… 40 years? So it’s always nice to see something honour the memory of something that fell out fashion a long time ago. Hell or High Water is a modern western, following bandit brothers on a bank robbing spree through Texas. The two are pursued by the human embodiment of a past his prime cowboy, Jeff Bridges. The film is an exciting crime caper with a side order of social commentary, nicely filmed and endlessly gripping it is brought together by great performances on all sides.

9

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La La Land

Films about films, aren’t they self-indulgent? Yes. Yes they are.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still dazzle and amaze with fantastic cinematography, lighting and set pieces. The technical aspect of La La Land and design is beyond amazing. Aside from the sheer level of escapism that La La Land offers there is an even deeper level of sincere passion from the filmmaker. This is a film made from love and it shines through in the writing. Fans of Whiplash will know that Chazelle is crazy for jazz and here he cuts through the chaff and essentially tells viewers that he needs more people to love it too. The film moves from one cinematic set piece to the next, breaks conventions and fourth walls like crazy. It unfolds like a stage play, skipping ahead to the interesting parts of the story. The film suffers in the middle when the music dries up but it just makes the moment when it comes back all the more impacting.

8

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The Nice Guys

Is there a sub-genre that has persisted as well as the Buddy Cop movie? Find two stars and give them a mystery to solve. Simple. The Nice Guys is one of those rare films were everything just slips nicely into place, the chemistry between the two leads is immediately funny and the setting of LA in the ‘Golden Age of Porn’ is the perfect backdrop for the convoluted neo noir story behind it. The writing is sharp and layered with hidden jokes, subtle cues and even moments of the surreal humour. The biggest thing The Nice Guys has going for it is that each actor brings exactly what they need to the table and because of it there isn’t a single scene that falls flat.

7

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Stop motion animation is an art that is getting less and less exposure as time goes on, as 3D rendering has become more widely available stop motion has fell behind as an overly time consuming, outdated method. Which is a shame because there is an overwhelming presence to stop motion, it’s shadows are not simulations, each frame is crafted. It’s art, creation and effort down to its core. Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most beautifully crafted movies in recent years, Laika studios has pulled out all the stops to make a film, specifically for kids which takes no shortcuts. It’s message is spiritual and philosophical, its design is stunning and its exciting and filled with genuine stakes. Kubo is a one eyed, parentless child whose remaining family is conspiring to kill him, the film does not coddle its protagonist, it puts him through the wringer and sees him endure actual troubles. This is a film that every child should see and anyone who appreciates craft will be stunned by the design.

6

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Strangely titled and delightfully charming, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople unfolds like a children’s story. The story of Ricky Baker the troublesome orphan escalates quickly and commits itself to the muted ridiculousness of its story. Then it goes a bit further. Segmented into ten chapters it’s a joyful experience that hops about without losing site of the central focus of the film. It’s heartfelt, sweetly funny and weird. Having written parts of Disney’s Moana and with a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows in the works it seems as if we’ll be seeing more of Waititi’s kiwi wit in the future.

5

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Arrival

It’s important to remember that Sci-fi is not simply a vehicle for space battles and explosions. It’s an entire genre, and within that genre there is a multitude of options and subgenres. They can be psychological horrors (Moon), time travel thrillers (Looper) or even straight up romance (Her). When you take Sci-fi as the be all and end all you end up with generic garbage about reactor cores (Passengers).

Arrival took its sci-fi basis and used it as a tool to tell a human story about communication. Held together by a criminally overlooked performance from Amy Adams. Arrival is an intently focused story that never loses track of its ideas. It’s brilliant to see a big budget cerebral sci-fi like this and with Denis Villeneuve attached to the new Blade Runner project I have hopes that this will be a trend that picks up steam.

4

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The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have been steadily becoming more elusive and more fluorescent with each new instalment. With Only God Forgives it appeared that he took this a bit too far for general audiences. However, with his latest film, Refn has pulled back on the elusiveness and turned up the lights. The film is a fever dream of stunning colour, amazing long shots and heavily loaded dialogue. What separates The Neon Demon from other Refn flicks is the tongue in cheek attitude that seeps from every pore, it’s more ridiculous than most films you’ll have seen in 2016 and it embraces it to great effect. It’s the best looking film of the year along with having the most amazing soundtrack.

3

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Manchester by the Sea

It could so easily have been another one of those films, you know the ones that I’m talking about: The Oscar baiting, heart warming tale of misfortune and overcoming the odds. All the ingredients are there for a manipulative slog of misery but Manchester by the Sea manages to become so much more than the sum of its parts. By drawing viewers in with the mysteriously detached behaviour of Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler and a dry humour it encourages intrigue while still entertaining. It is a stunningly well crafted movie filled with intensely realised and human characters. What impressed me most was how often Manchester by the Sea left the audience to fill in the gaps, it leaves the performances to simmer by taking away dialogue at times when there would be opportunity for trailer soundbites. The film must be seen to be appreciated. The weightiest moments of the film take place without words, it is the expressions, the visuals, the build up that inspire the devastation.

2

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Nocturnal Animals

From the very first shot of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals you know it’s not going to be an easy watch, it promises uncomfortable situations and delivers on it in spades. The film is one uncomfortable moment after another. A revenge flick with an incapable protagonist, harsh, barren landscapes with a bitter love affair to hold it all together, everything in the film meshes so well together. It certainly has a dark atmosphere but it is more realised than most films and consistent in its tone. Michael Shannon makes his second appearance on the list with a deservedly Oscar nominated performance as jaded detective Andes next to a dejected and beaten down Jake Gyllenhaal. Much like 2013’s Blue Ruin, Nocturnal Animals plays out like a feature length episode of Justified. Dark, gritty and uncompromising, it’s a wild ride that will stay with you.

1

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Sing Street

After the collective misery of the previous two entries on this list it may come as a surprise to many that I do like my films to contain a little bit of escapism occasionally. Sing Street is a film all about dreaming big and getting out, with a feel good original soundtrack of 80s pastiche that has made its way to my regular rotation. (It is an absolute crime that Drive It Like You Stole it did not receive an Oscar nomination for best song, especially seeing as it unfolds along with one of the best scenes of 2016.)

Everything in Sing Street is there to enhance the music, drama unfolds to allow for the songs to be weighed down with more meaning. Our protagonist, Connor’s life revolves around music and his love interest, Raphine. The relationship between the romance and the music work perfectly in tandem, each enhancing the other. Connor has limited knowledge about what he can be, he is impressionable and limited, his band cycles through new inspirations and changes their style week by week.

Sing Street is enjoyable on a minute by minute basis, it is charming, funny, emotional, romantic aspirational, real and fantastical all at the same time. It is brilliantly written and contains one memorable moment after another. It is never boring or unpleasant, constantly engaging and entertaining for everyone.

 

Well that’s my review of 2016, let me know how wrong you think I am, let me hear your lists or give me any recommendations you have.

 

Silence is a quiet meditation on Christianity and torturous barbarism

Scorsese has skewered the American Dream better than anyone else, now he tries his hand at the opposite

Martin Scorsese has gained enough points throughout his illustrious career to be a box office draw all by himself, but with the release of a 170-minute-long film displaying the trials of Jesuit missionaries I think he may have found the limit that his name has. People expect more of the same and with the release of Silence Scorsese has surely not given people what they expect. It was for this reason that four people left the cinema during the screening of Silence that I attended. Although it is hardly likely that a lack of box office will reduce the legendary director’s clout in the industry, especially when the film is a stunning example of cinematography and sound design.

Silence announces itself to its audience, it opens with a black screen and ambient noises of cicadas increases until it is deafening before cutting out completely as the title reveals itself. It’s a powerful opening to what proceeds to be a powerful film. The film follows the Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) as they travel to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They travel to Japan where Catholicism has been outlawed and priests and catholic practitioners are being executed and tortured in increasingly cruel ways. The film’s premise has similarities to Apocalypse Now and it mimics the film’s mood effectively, with knowledge of Copolla’s masterpiece creating an additional sense of dread surrounding the mentor, Ferreira’s fate.

Silence constantly shows that it is a film that has the potential to follow the Scorsese mould of brutal violence but does not indulge in it. People are seen being burned alive wrapped up in wicker like sushi, stacked upon each other like firewood. It is terrible and unforgiving but the scenes of violence merely service the true message of the film and they are used sparingly and effectively. Scorsese has the ability to tell another violent story, but it is not his prerogative. He wants to open up a conversation about other things now. Like the release of Hugo, this is a passion project for him and it shines through in a levelhandedness and a genuine moral ambiguity. The aggressive back and forth dialogue so associated with his films is replaced with voices of concern.

In all of Scorsese’s most successful films there is a narrative to be the best, to hop into a pond at the start of the film and end up as the biggest fish. It is true of Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator and more. This leads to his films having clear paths of progression; suits become more fitting, wives become prettier and characters become experts in their respective fields. It’s a reason why Scorsese speaks to so many people, it is aspirational filmmaking with a coat of gloss.

What occurs in Silence I would argue is the same type of progression, Rodrigues faces more and more testing trials, there is a clear path of regression. He goes from a marble church in Portugal to a wooden shack in a rainy Japanese mountain and only goes down from there. Yet Rodrigues’ hero is not a Casino mogul or a Wall St banker, he aspires to be like that most idolised of heroes, Jesus Christ. Instead of making money and spending money his path to imitating the success of his idol is through martyrdom. He endures tortures that test his ability to keep his faith and the tortures keep escalating. In a sense this is the polar-opposite of a traditional Scorsese flick while still retaining the narrative structure.

Andrew Garfield is put under a lot of pressure with his performance, for the majority being the only English speaker on screen. He does himself proud while performing with a difficult Portuguese accent and a wealth of dialogue. Whilst his accent does slip in places it does not take away from the film and he should be commended for the range he can apply to his character’s despair. Driver is a more divisive character who show reservations and doubts but plays it well, whereas Liam Neeson simply refuses to attempt to change his voice for the role. Which, I admit, made me laugh out loud. It is a brave choice to commit actors to accented roles but to contrast this with Neeson talking in his droll Northern Irish tones after two hours of Portuguese and Japanese is baffling.

The film has issues with being somewhat too indulgent in its moral quandaries, most notably with its ending, which drags on for much longer than needed to state something which doesn’t need to be said. For a film that values the power of Silence in filmmaking it sure screams its conclusion in your face. Its message of Religion is not always the most cinematic but it constantly finds a way to be interesting.

Recommendation

This is Scorsese on a philosophical level, on the surface it is a no thrills affair that could leave the average viewer bored if they go in expecting Godfellas. There is a wealth of drama hidden beneath the surface and the multiple methods of torture and brutality should haunt viewers.

It is an impassioned movie for a select audience who should be fascinated by its portrayal and it should be rewarded for not taking the easy route of constantly criticising the specifics of religion. For those not interested in religious discussion it still possesses an intense emotional central arc which provokes thought on a personal, as well as parochial level.