John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a 2017 American neo-noir action film written and directed by Chad Stahelski. It is a sequel to the 2014 sleeper hit John WickChapter 2 sees Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, and Thomas Sadoski reprising their roles from the previous film. Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, and Common are introduced as the film’s major antagonists. Picking up where the first film left off, after dispatching several men in particularly brutal and awesome fashion and retrieving his beloved 1969 Boss 429 that was stolen in the previous film, John “The Boogeyman” Wick returns to his retirement. He is approached by an old associate, who calls in a “marker” on John. A marker is a blood oath one makes to another in return for a favor. As it turns out, Santino D’Antonio assisted Wick with the “impossible task” which let our protagonist leave the shadowy world of assassination. D’Antonio, son of a crime lord who had a seat at the mysterious High Table, wants Wick to kill his sister, who was willed her father’s seat after his death. Wick reluctantly accepts the conditions of the marker, leading to an action-packed thrill ride across Rome and New York.

I feel I can say this without exaggeration: John Wick: Chapter 2 is a perfect sequel. Chapter 2 takes everything great about the previous film and doubles down. It is the most satisfying action movie I have seen since the original. The original John Wick relied on a purposefully barebones plot of revenge for puppy-murder to set up a fully-realized world and showcase some truly epic action sequences. John Wick did something that a lot of action movies fail to do, and that is world-building, like I mentioned before. The original film established that a secret shadow society exists, a world of assassins, made up of assassins. They apparently have The Continental, a five-star hotel and safe haven for assassins that operates on unique currency and gold coins. This shadow society has a complex ecosystem and a set of rules and regulations that cannot be broken. Every character has a fully-realized and fleshed-out backstory that is not fully divulged to the audience on purpose, in order to add a sense of mystique to this already mysterious world. That is where the real magic is. On top of the amazing action sequences, you become invested in this complex society you know very little about, and that is the coolest part of these films. Chapter 2 manages to greatly expand the scope of this shadow world while continuing to divulge very little, leaving you captivated. It’s a Wonderland of Death, and it is awesome.

The action sequences in Chapter 2 make those of its predecessor look unimpressive in comparison. I say that knowing full-well that the original gave us this…

Chapter 2‘s opening sequence, in which John lays siege to a chop shop to retrieve his beloved muscle car, gives the club scene a run for its money, and there is a full ten-minute sequence that begins at a party in Rome, moves to the catacombs, and culminates with a hand-to-hand battle with Common’s character in the streets that is quite simply, the most intricate and engrossing action set piece I have ever seen.

In case you were curious as to why the fight scenes in both films are so engrossing and satisfying, allow me to explain them from a technical aspect. The original John Wick was a two-man directorial effort by legendary stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Both men were the masterminds behind the action sequences in The Matrix. For their first big project in which they were in charge, they took from many diverse inspirations that included other films, as well as anime and video games. They also needed someone who is capable of performing stunts with an unbelievable amount of physicality. Keanu Reeves is the perfect man for that job.

Usually, in films like Taken, The Bourne Identity, or RED, the main actors are too old/it’s too complicated to perform their own stunts, so they have to use a stunt double. In order to keep the audience’s suspension of disbelief intact, they have to trick your brain/hide the fact that guy isn’t really Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Matt Damon. They do this by using a technique called shaky cam, which is exactly like it sounds. They also use a lot of quick cuts every second to disorient you, which leads to stuff that looks like this:

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This is how shaky cam/cutting can still be effective in an action sequence
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This is shaky cam at it’s absolute worst…

With films like John Wick and its sequel, which don’t need to disorient and confuse their audience (because Keanu Reeves is simply a top-tier specimen of a man), you get something marvelous: stabilized, coherent, smooth sequences of action with minimal cuts and maximum awesomeness.giphy

Since the movie came out on Friday, I could not find a good GIF showcasing the sheer awesomeness that is Chapter 2, but trust me when I tell you that it is breathtaking. There is a scene (a part of the sequence in Rome that I mentioned earlier) where Wick gets into a brutal street fight with Common’s character, in which they continually toss themselves down three flights of stairs. Common ends up on the ground, with John still standing attempting to shoot him, but Common uses Wick’s body to spin around and doge the bullets. I know that makes no sense and I’ve only seen the film once and my description is probably inaccurate, but something with spins and bullets happens. It’s glorious. Everything is awesome.

Needless to say, the cinematography is very much on point; the acting in the film is also excellent. The John Wick series itself is an exceedingly self-aware throwback to hamtastic action flicks like Roadhouse and Commando, in terms of plot. Keanu Reeves is a decent actor with very little range. This means he is the perfect actor of this generation to pull off cheesy one-liners a la Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator and actually make it work.

I am well aware that I continue to use footage from John Wick in my review of Chapter 2. This is due to the lack of public footage of the recently released sequel, but this is not detrimental to my review of the sequel, because like any great sequel, it takes the familiarity of the previous work and adds a fresh new twist on it; Chapter 2 is a seamless continuation of the original, and just takes everything and makes it better. It entirely avoids the pitfalls of simply “being more of the same” and instead builds upon the original with a ton of new stuff. It is a great sequel, as well as simply a great film by itself that completely avoids using the original as a crutch in any way.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is an awesome movie and a perfect sequel, again maintaining a perfect balance of self-aware cheese and bone-crunching brutality. It drops you into a world with so many mysteries and institutions you can’t help but be a little bit curious how things go. Even my mother, who is not a big fan of action movies, seems to be genuinely interested in seeing how things play out in the next installment. (Trust me, there will be a next installment.) Yes, I feel like the action is the main draw here, but even if you could care less, you will find something captivating about Chapter 2, even if you didn’t care for the original at all. Universality of enjoyment is the mark of a truly great film. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a truly great film, and you should go see it.

La La Land

La La Land is a 2016 romantic dramedy musical film written and directed by Whiplash mastermind Damien Chazelle, with a score and musical numbers by fellow Whiplash collaborator Justin Hurwitz. The film stars Emma Stone as aspiring actress Mia Dolan. Struggling after a number of botched auditions, Mia has several brief and curt encounters with Sebastian, a struggling musician and jazz fanatic. Although their first few encounters are of a sarcastic and playfully rude nature, their relationship blossoms into one of the romantic variety. The film mainly follows their relationship over the course of a year, with the “chapters” of the film separated into the four seasons. La La Land follows the couple’s attempts to balance their relationship and their own personal dreams and aspirations for the future.

Damien Chazelle’s previous and breakout film, 2014’s brilliant indie drama Whiplash, was, in fact, developed out of frustration due to the inability to get La La Land, which has been his passion project since its inception, off the ground. The passion Chazelle has for this film is abundantly clear; La La Land, in my opinion, is a truly great film in nearly every aspect. I must admit, I have always been quick to dismiss Ryan Gosling as a pretty boy with no true acting experience a la Channing Tatum, mainly because of his work in horrible melodramatic trash like The Notebook or 2013’s blehtastic Gangster Squad. I realize after seeing La La Land (as well as Drive and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049) that I was wrong to dismiss him as a walking piece of wood, because he is honestly really great here. However, I will also say that he is still slightly upstaged by Emma Stone. Gosling’s Sebastian is great and empathetic, but Mia, as played by Stone, is the real emotional center of this film. I ended up liking her a bit more because (and I believe this to be intentional) Sebastian, although a overall decent and likable guy, can, despite noble and clear intentions, be a little bit of a dick, for lack of a better word. Stone is also the better performer, from a musical perspective, with the final musical number from the audition scene being the most powerful and emotionally-charged number in the entire soundtrack, not to say that Gosling’s “City of Stars” wasn’t great, though, because all the musical numbers are ridiculously impressive.

La La Land, somewhat surprisingly, benefits from some extremely impressive cinematography, which most movies of this nature, even the great ones, aren’t really known for at all. Newcomer Linus Sandgren seems to employ long takes over using a lot of cuts, which is a good thing. Most impressively, (don’t quote me because I’m not positive), I’m pretty sure the opening musical number “Another Day Of Sun,” which took place on a gridlocked Los Angeles highway, accompanied with a rather complicated ensemble dance routine, was all done in a single take. The sequence, from beginning to end, from my recollection, lasted about five or six minutes with no discernible cuts or transitions. It was very impressive.

La La Land, as a phrase, is a two-fold reference. Namely, it refers to the fantastical elements of a person’s imagination. The title is also a reference to Los Angeles itself, namely Hollywood; it is a more dated and old-fashioned reference, which is appropriate. La La Land is an old-fashioned throwback to the location’s wartime era glory days of the 1930’s and 40’s while still adhering to the conventions of current society. Everything from the music, to the dialogue (to wit there are overt and covert references to Golden Age films like Casablanca and Rebel Without A Cause, as well as some other films), to the overall tone of the film is a perfectly executed return to the days of yore; it works excellently and effortlessly.

La La Land is escapism at its finest. I was invested the entire time, entirely disconnected from the problems in my life, simply experiencing the story for myself. This may surprise you, but it’s hard for me to invest in a movie so much that I literally escape. I mean, they get me invested, but I’m still conscious of the stuff I have to deal with in my life. Not here; for two hours and eight minutes, I literally did not care. La La Land certainly lives up to its title.

I’ve seen La La Land twice now. I was surprised to find this film had decent showtimes available, even after, like, a month. This probably has something to do with the fact that it’s winning all of the awards! La La Land has received a record-tying fourteen award nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, a feat achieved only by Titanic in 1997 and All About Eve in 1950. The nominations are Best Picture, Best Director (for Chazelle), Best Actor (for Gosling), Best Actress (for Stone), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, two nominations for Best Original Song (“City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. I hazard that the film will win a good chunk of those nominations, and it very much deserves to. La La Land has also received countless other nominations at countless outlets.

In case you didn’t figure this out, La La Land is a pretty friggin’ great movie. It features great performances from its two leads, as well as a wonderful soundtrack, an emotional script, impressively complex dance numbers, and surprisingly on-point cinematography. It is worthy of a lot of the praise it is getting; it was just as enjoyable on my second watch as it was on my first. There’s not much more to say other than I thought it was awesome. I know it is really late to be publishing this review, but there’s still decent showings everywhere, so go now and watch it, because you will like it.