Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Written by: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccado Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane
Released: May 18, 2017
Grade: A-

John Wick: Chapter 2
There are lots of ways to become a film director but the path taken by American Chad Stahelski is a great story in itself.  His career began in the early 1990s when he worked as a stuntman on films such as Escape From L.A., Alien: Resurrection and Wild Wild West.  One of his earliest credits was The Crow – the movie where star Brandon Lee lost his life due to an accidental shooting on set.  Stahelski was required to step in as Lee’s replacement (with the help of special effects) for the handful of scenes still to be completed.

Given a small resemblance to Keanu Reeves, Stahelski landed the part of his stunt double on the The Matrix which was shot in 1998.  It’s there where he become friends with Reeves and was amazed by the attention to detail displayed by directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski.

Fifteen years later, Reeves got in touch with Stahelski about a life-changing opportunity.  He’d come across an action script from relatively unknown writer Derek Kolstad and was looking for a director.  He felt that Stahelski’s experience in performing and choreographing stunt scenes made him an ideal fit to sit in the director’s chair for the first time.

John Wick was the end result.  Released back in 2014, the film quietly developed a cult-like following.  It was a little different from the predictable action pieces that emanate from Hollywood and ended up grossing just under $100 million at the global box-office – not bad for a film with a $30 million price tag.  Stahelski had proved his worth and a sequel was put into production.

If you never saw the original, John Wick (Reeves) is a hitman who is practically unstoppable.  After a group of Russian gangsters killed his dog and stole his car, he went on a bloody rampage to get those responsible.  The body count was very, very high.  The film wasn’t all about violent action scenes through.  There’s a charm and sophistication to Wick which makes him likable.  He’s also part of cool James Bond-like community where other hitman help out with weapons and hideouts.

John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up where the last film left off.  Wick is keen to retire and live an ordinary life but he is brought back into action when called upon by Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio), a cunning Italian crime lord.  Wick has no choice but to comply as D’Antonio once helped him out of a life-or-death scenario.  He’s asked to travel to Italy and kill D’Antonio’s sister.  The reasons are convoluted and not worth explaining.

What follows is another fun, outlandish adventure involving John Wick.  A website called Visu put together a list that shows Wick kills a total of 128 people in this film – up from the 77 in the original movie.  There’s a wide array of weapons including shotguns and assault rifles.  Not everyone gets a bullet.  Some get crushed with a car while others meet their demise thanks to a simple pencil.

It may sound horrible but as an action fan, it’s exciting to watch.  Stahelski and his crew have drawn on their creative juices to craft action scenes that don’t feel repetitive.  There’s something a little different about each one.  As an example, there’s a humorous moment in a subway where Wick is involved in a shootout with a skilled bodyguard but those around them don’t realise as they’re using silencers on their guns.

Wick’s vulnerability also makes him endearing to the audience.  He’s not a cyborg/superhero who waltzes around with an air of arrogance.  He’s skilled but he also takes his fair share of hits.  He spends much of the film hanging on by a thread – walking around with a limp and bloodied face.  The lack of dialogue also adds to his character.  His forlorn expression says more than any words could.

On track to make more than twice as much money as the original, this won’t be the last time we hear from John Wick.


Review: Viceroy's House

Directed by: Gurinder Chadha
Written by: Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini, Gurinder Chadha
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow
Released: May 18, 2017
Grade: B

Viceroy's House
Between 1858 and 1947, there were 24 Viceroys of India.  They were appointments made by the British Crown and their main responsibility was to head the central government of India.  When Lord Mountbatten was appointed to the position by Prime Minister Clement Attlee in February 1947, he knew that he would be the last Viceroy of India.  His key role was to help transition the country from British rule to an independent republic. 

Acclaimed filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) spent most of her upbringing in London but she has always had an interest in India history given her family ancestry.  In 2006, she appeared on the British television series Who Do You Think You Are? – a show where celebrities trace back through their family tree.  It promoted her to do more research into India’s independence and provided the inspiration for this dramatic film.

The story is told from several perspectives.  As you’d expect, we see things through the eyes of Lord Mountbatten (Bonneville) and his wife, Edwina (Anderson).  Both characters are portrayed as even-handed and open-minded.  They haven’t come with a specific plan of attack and are prepared to listen to the thoughts of India people.  There’s a scene where Edwina discusses the idea of delaying independence but for a good reason – to improve literacy and to reduce death rates before the handover.

To show the effect on the Indians themselves, the three-person writing team have created a fictional love story that is given equal weighting.  Jeet (Dayal) and Aalia (Qureshi) are servants who work at the Viceroy’s residence and get the chance to eavesdrop on some of the top-secret political negotiations as they take place.  The pair fall in love but it’s a Romeo & Juliet-type scenario given that he is a Hindu and she is Muslim.  Their respective families are not impressed.

The reason for that particular story is that it highlights the religious divide within India and a key issue that was at the heart of India’s desire for independence.  Some were pushing to split the country into two – Hindus would remain in India whilst Muslims would form part of a new country to be called Pakistan.  Others were against the proposal and wanted to see the country remain united.  After months of lobbying, it would fall upon the Viceroy to make a final decision.

In creating the screenplay, Chadha drew from a 2006 book written by Narendra Singh Sarila that had been recommended to her by Prince Charles.  He was a former civil servant who worked as a personal aide to Mountbatten and had recently discovered a suite of top-secret documents that provided insight into how the negotiations unfolded.  His version of history was not the same as that being taught in schools and some scholars still disagree with the content of his book.

A strength of the film is its balanced nature.  While events may not have taken place precisely as depicted, you do see varying points of view in deciding the right path to independence.  Muhammad Ali Jinnah puts forward a persuasive argument for splitting the country into two whereas Mahatma Gandhi argues strongly in maintaining the country as a whole.  The composition of the respective governments and the election process is also openly debated.

The storyline between Jeet and Aalia is a little corny and distracting but it provides an emotional kick that becomes important during the film’s epilogue.  The magnitude of the situation takes shape and it’ll be a learning experience for those who aren’t familiar with this piece of Indian history.

You can read my interview with director Gurinder Chadha by clicking here.


Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone
Released: April 27, 2017
Grade: B+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A battle is being waged within the Marvel universe.  That battle is to win laughs.  After some heavier material, the scales have shifted back in favour of comedy with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and Deadpool in 2016.  Thoughts on these films will vary depending on one’s sense of humour.  Some love the spoof-nature of Deadpool while others prefer the insult-laden screenplay in the Guardians franchise.

Few chances have been taken in this follow up from writer-director James Gunn.  It’s the same characters making the same kind of jokes.  To provide a quick background check, there are five eccentric individuals who have formed a strange partnership to help save the world.

Peter (Pratt) is an Earthling who loves music from the 1970s and 80s, Gamora (Saldana) is an alien orphan with a troubled past, Drax (Bautista) is a quasi-monster with superhuman strength, Rocket (Cooper) is a genetically-engineered raccoon with a filthy mouth, and Baby Groot (Diesel) is a small talking tree with a very limited vocabulary.

The premise of this second film is slow to reveal itself.  It begins with Peter learning that his father is a mysterious alien being named Ego (Russell) who thinks of himself as a God.  He’s even created his own paradise-like planet where he spends most of his time.  There’s a bit of father-son bonding time and the Guardians also get to meet Mantis, a close associate of Ego who has the ability to “read” emotions.

With no villain established in the opening hour, it falls upon the Guardians to be their own worst enemy.  They’re asked to protect a highly-advanced alien race from a large monster intent on destroying them (it provides for a cool opening title sequence).  The job goes smoothly until Rocket takes it upon himself to steal several batteries that were considered valuable to the local people.  There’s now a deserved bounty on their heads.

The story isn’t as strong this time around but these characters have won me over with their charm and spirit.  They have a distinct lack of social skills and this alone provides for many laughs.  Drax and Rocket verbalise whatever thoughts run through their heads (even when they shouldn’t) and Peter and Gamora try to put up with each other’s insults despite the obvious sexual tension.  Groot is the most loveable of the bunch but his low-IQ makes him a hindrance as much of a help.

With the focus on character interaction (rightly so), the action sequences are kept short and sharp.  The many subplots come together in the final hour and the narrative finally starts to makes sense.  Don’t expect everything to be resolved neatly.  Five closing scenes, spread throughout the closing credits, create intrigue about what may happen in future films.

Featuring another broad soundtrack and a few funny pop culture references (even Mary Poppins gets a mention), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 entertains and keeps the franchise on the right track.


Review: A Dog's Purpose

Directed by: Lasse Hallström
Written by: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Britt Robertson, Josh Gad, KJ Apa, Juliet Rylance, John Oritz
Released: May 4, 2017
Grade: C

A Dog's Purpose
A cat has nine lives but it seems it’s not the only animal to believe in reincarnation.  A Dog’s Purpose begins in the 1960s and follows a single dog and his adventures in the lead up to the current day.  Each time he passes away, he comes back in a new form with a different body.  What remains intact is his sharp mind.  He can remember all of his past lives and the people he came across.

The story given the most screen time is where a young boy named Ethan convinces his parents to adopt a Golden Retriever which he names Bailey.  Ethan grows up and the loyal Bailey remains forever by his side.  He sleeps is bed and they’re always playing a fun game of chase with a deflated gridiron ball.  In his next life, he comes back as a female German Shepherd and is trained to be a police dog.

It’s hard to work how who this film is pitched at given the very simple narrative.  The film touches on some heavy issues but given there are so many “lives” to cover, there isn’t the time to delve deeper.  As an example, Ethan’s father becomes an alcoholic and it threatens to break up the family.  It’s a serious subject but the writers seem to spend an equal amount of time following Bailey’s friendship with a donkey (that doesn’t talk).

Directed by Oscar-nominated Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules), this all adds up to a film with mixed tones that haven’t been blended correctly.  The opening scene is a good example.  In the dog’s first life, he is born, runs around a yard, is nabbed by a dogcatcher, and is then put to sleep.  This all happens within the space of a few minutes (so I’m not giving much away) but it’s a strange start.  Such a storyline could work but it’d be better placed in the middle of the film when we have a better appreciation of the character and what he stands for.

Make no mistake though – this is a film for dog lovers.  They’ve found the cutest dogs imaginable and continually put them in situations that will melt hearts.  The word “nawwwww” was uttered by several people in the audience at the preview screening I attended.  Josh Gad (Beauty and the Beast) provides the voice of the dog and also wins the audience over by speaking to us like a cute, naive child who doesn’t quite understand how the world works.

The title of the film touches upon the movie’s broad theme – what is the role of a dog in our world today?  It’s a good question but given the ridiculously corny and cheesy scenarios presented to the audience (such as a laughable kidnapping), I wasn’t convinced by the answers it presented.


Review: Table 19

Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
Written by: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revolori
Released: April 20, 2017
Grade: C

Table 19
Those that have planned a wedding will know one of the more challenging aspects is the table seating at the reception.  You’re bringing together a wide range of people from different families and different backgrounds.  Who do you put around each table to ensure a fun, happy, chatty evening ensues?  Who do you have to keep separate for reasons that are best not divulged?

This appears to be the concept from which Table 19 was born.  The film takes place over a day and follows 6 people who have been seated together at a wedding.  They’re been positioned in the back corner – as far away from the main table and the dancefloor as is possible.  That sums them up.  They’re noted on the planners map as the “randoms” – those people who were invited to be polite but should have known better than to RSVP.

Heading the table is Eloise (Kendrick).  She was once best friends with the bride but their relationship soured after Eloise had a falling out with the bride’s brother (they’d been dating for 2 years).  Jerry (Robinson) and Bina (Kudrow) are a long-married couple stuck in a tired relationship.  Jo (Squibb) is a former nanny who has been invited out of spite.  Walter (Merchant) is a convicted criminal who stole $125,000 from his uncle’s company.  Renzo (Revolori) is an awkward youngster who thinks of himself as a “ladies man” but has no idea what he’s doing.

Over the course of the evening, they open up to each other about their respective backgrounds and problems.  This isn’t like Wedding Crashers or Bridesmaids where the writers use slapstick and farcical scenarios to create laughs.  This is a little more subtle and there are several moments that are attempting to tug at the heartstrings. 

Things don’t always work out the way that we expect.  That’s a message within the film… and also a message about the film.  Director Jeffrey Blitz earned an Academy Award nomination in 2002 for one of my all-time favourite documentaries, Spellbound, and he later went on to win an Emmy for directing an episode of The Office.

The guy has talent but I have to be blunt – this is a mess of a film.  With a running time of just 87 minutes, it looks like it’s been chopped up in the editing room.  Characters jump between scenes far too quickly and the ending is rushed.  Our six protagonists leave the wedding reception several times during the film but Blitz, for whatever reason, keeps zipping back to the reception to see unimportant characters doing quick, dumb things (such as a drunk karaoke singer).

There’s a lot of talk at Table 19 but there weren’t many laughs in Cinema 4.


Review: Get Out

Directed by: Jordan Peele
Written by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Lil Rel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root, Catherine Keener
Released: May 4, 2017
Grade: A

Get Out
I love a good underdog story and the behind-the-scenes tale of Get Out ranks very highly. Three years ago, African American comedian Jordan Peele was the creator and star of a Comedy Central show entitled Key & Peele.  It was well-regarded by critics, popular with the public, and ultimately won an Emmy Award for the best variety sketch series (in 2016).

Its success provided a confidence boost to Peele and I’m sure it provided the motivation to take the next step in career – feature films.  After mulling over a few ideas, he settled on the concept for Get Out and pitched it to several production companies.  He expected to get knocked back but QC Entertainment and Blumhouse Productions, who have a strong track record with low-budget horror, agreed to put up just under $5 million to see made.

Their support for Peele’s project has paid dividends, both literally and metaphorically.  Since its release in the United States in late February, Get Out has made $170 million at the local box-office.  That number will grow when the film is released more widely overseas.  It is the biggest box-office in history for an original story from a first-time writer-director.  The fact that Peele is an African American, a group underrepresented in Hollywood, only adds to the impressiveness of that achievement.

So is the hype justified?  The answer is a clear yes.  Word-of-mouth has fuelled the film and put plenty of bums on seats.  It opens with Chris Washington (Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Williams), preparing to take a weekend trip into the countryside to meet her parents for the first time.  Given that he’s black and she’s white, Chris is a little nervous as this information hasn’t yet been passed onto Rose’s parents.  She assures him they’re not racist and he has nothing to worry about.

After a lengthy road trip, they arrive and introductions take place.  Mr Armitage (Whitford) is a surgeon, Mrs Armitage (Keener) is a renowned hypnotherapist, and Rose’s brother (Jones) is a medical student.  They seem like a normal American family, albeit rather wealthy.  Chris will get to meet dozens more people the next day when the Armitage’s host their traditional annual get-together.  It’s a large, extravagant party where neighbours and old friends catch up over good food and good wine.

Chris goes into the weekend with an open mind but he soon realises that something is askew.  Everyone is acting a little too polite.  He feels even more uneasy when the party guests arrive, almost all of whom are white.  A stranger strikes up a conversation with him about golf and is quick to mention the greatness of Tiger Woods.  Chris can’t work out if the man is being sincere or if the strange discussion is an attempt to mask his racist tendencies.

That’s about all I’ll reveal in terms of the narrative as the film has many twists and turns.  Get Out is an unorthodox horror-thriller that could be game changer for the genre.  Instead of frightening the audience with blood, violence and creepy noises, Peele puts you on edge by having to listen to the unsettling conversations shared between Chris and the other characters.  You’ll struggle to understand anyone’s intentions, at least during the first two acts, and that adds to the film’s ominous nature.

28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya (Skins) is terrific in the leading role and is well supported by his fellow cast members.  The pick of the cast is Lil Rel Howery who breaks up the tension with some well-timed comedy.  He plays a friend of Chris who works for the Transportation Security Administration and the two chat several times over the phone across the course of the weekend.

Horror-thriller films don’t have a great track record at the Australian box-office but when word starts to spread here about Get Out, I think a lot of people are going to be seeing one of the year’s most interesting films.