John Wick: Chapter 2

For F*** Magazine

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 

Director : Chad Stahelski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini, Bridget Moynahan, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 2min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence)

john-wick-chapter-2-posterMuch like Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, John Wick (Reeves) is a man who just can’t retire. After avenging the death of his puppy, the final gift from his late wife Helen (Moynahan), John thinks his hitman days are finally over. However, his former associate Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio) comes calling to collect on a blood oath Santino and John made years earlier. Santino tasks John with killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini), so Santino can take her place on a high council of assassins. John reluctantly travels to Rome, facing off against scores of skilled hired guns. These include Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) and Santino’s security chief Ares (Rose). Back in New York, John seeks the assistance of old allies Winston (McShane), who runs the Continental Hotel, and Charon (Reddick), the hotel’s concierge. John also reunites with the Bowery King (Fishburne), a crime lord with whom John has had a tempestuous professional relationship. With a large bounty put on his head, it’s open season on John Wick.

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2014’s John Wick is hailed as a minor masterpiece in contemporary action cinema. While it contained many familiar tropes of the hitman movie subgenre, it boasted exceedingly stylish action and established an intriguing mini-mythology. Chad Stahelski, who directed the first film with fellow stunt coordinator/second unit director David Leitch, helms this outing solo. John Wick: Chapter 2 contains everything that worked the first time around. It’s largely more of the same, but it’s good. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad expands on the heightened world, introducing more elements central to the apparently global assassin subculture. Not only are there hitmen decked out in expensive suits who hang out in plush hotels, there are homeless assassins now. Much like the first go-round, this is a tonally assured work: there are dry winks and nods at the more absurd aspects of the premise, while steering clear of all-out self-parody.

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Aided by veteran stunt coordinators Darrin Prescott and J.J. Perry, Stahelski serves up a surfeit of fluidly orchestrated violence. The body count here far exceeds the first film, and there are plenty of messy headshots along the way. All the fights, shootouts and chases hit that sweet spot of being stylised and designed while retaining visceral impact. John is a one-man army and because of his nigh-superhuman prowess, the audience never really feels that he’s in grave danger from his opponents. However, the proceedings are never boring and always eye-catching. A showdown in the ancient catacombs beneath Rome is contrasted with a game of cat-and-mouse set in a maze of mirrors. The latter is at once disorienting and mesmerizing, and is also a technical feat seeing how a set comprised entirely of mirrors would make it difficult to hide cameras and crew.
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It’s been repeatedly noted that Reeves is not an actor with staggering emotional range, but just as in the first John Wick, he makes for a compelling force of nature. Even pretending to be an expert marksman or hand-to-hand combatant is tricky, but Reeves makes it all look so effortless. Deep beneath his unyielding surface, John is a sorrowful figure. Even though John should be no less fantastical a character than any action hero played by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, Reeves gives him a vital grounding.

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Many of the supporting players from the first film, including McShane, Reddick and Leguizamo, return, giving this a strong sense of continuity. Italian actor Scamarcio exudes the sliminess one would expect of a mafia heir without turning the character into a caricature. Gerini’s Gianna has a confrontation with John that is as sexy as it ominous. The film’s detour to Rome seems a little too brief, but the location and the D’Antonio siblings do expand the story’s scope. Iconic Italian actor Franco Nero makes a cameo as the manager of The Continental Rome.

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Common gets to grapple with Reeves in an intense fight, but is ultimately little more than a generic henchman. Rose gets a slightly more interesting role as the mute Ares. She cuts an elegant figure in a suit and is entrancing as she signs her “dialogue”. It’s fun to see Reeves reunite with Fishburne, his co-star from the Matrix films. Fishburne’s Bowery King is cheery and exuberant, but we get the sense that this belies an uncompromising ruthlessness. Peter Stormare, who has long been on speed-dial for Hollywood casting directors in search of scenery-chomping European villains, shows up too.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 contains equal measures of muscularity and finesse, an action movie carved from polished obsidian. As the middle instalment in a planned trilogy, the film’s conclusion is open-ended, but its cliff-hanger is tantalising rather than howl-inducing. On top of that, the pit bull that John adopted at the end of the first film is adorably obedient.

Summary: Fans of the first film will be transfixed by John Wick: Chapter 2’s brutal, balletic action. The fascinating hitman subculture lore also gets built upon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Infiltrator

For F*** Magazine

THE INFILTRATOR 

Director : Brad Furman
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Juliet Aubrey, Yul Vasquez, Amy Ryan, Said Taghmaoui, Jason Isaacs
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 2 hrs 7 mins
Opens : 25 August 2016
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene and Coarse Language)

The Infiltrator posterIn Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston played a ‘cook’. In this biopic, he’s mixed up with treacherous drug cartels yet again, but this time, he’s a ‘washer’. Cranston portrays Robert Mazur, a U.S. Customs agent who takes on the alias “Bob Musella” to go undercover as a money launderer. Through the connections of fellow undercover agent Emir Abreu (Leguizamo), Bob is able to infiltrate the power Medellin Cartel, run by Pablo Escobar. Bob is paired with rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Kruger), who poses as his fiancée. They ingratiate themselves with high-ranking Medellin trafficker Roberto Alcaino (Bratt) and Alcaino’s wife Gloria (Elena Anaya), winning the couple’s trust. The high-risk nature of the job puts a strain on the relationship between Bob and his actual wife Evelyn (Aubrey), additionally threatening the safety of their two young children. Bob puts everything on the line as he journeys deeper down the rabbit hole, immersing himself in a world of violence and deception.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo

The real-life Robert Mazur served as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, and after Mann told Mazur that his own story had enormous potential as a movie, Mazur sat down to pen an autobiography. The double lives that undercover operatives lead have always been compelling to audiences. The Infiltrator is a tale of a decent man who went swimming with sharks for a living, with the danger of the prop dorsal fin coming unstuck from his back an ever-present possibility. There are moments of nail-biting tension and shocking brutality is employed with utmost effectiveness. However, director Brad Furman’s stylistic flourishes, including a marked overuse of colour filters, undermine the story’s authenticity instead of enhancing it. The screenplay by Furman’s mother Ellen Brown does hew to certain crime movie conventions, but there is a palpable sensitivity to the character interactions lying beneath the blood-soaked luridness.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston

The film rests squarely on Cranston’s shoulders, and there’s never any doubt that he can carry it all the way. He’s an actor who is immensely capable of eliciting sympathy, but can also summon an intimidating toughness that Breaking Bad fans are all too familiar with. Bob comes face-to-face with the searing ugliness at the heart of the drug trade on multiple occasions, and the way Cranston conveys Bob’s struggle to maintain his composure is harrowing. The realisation that he will have to betray people who, however ruthless, have trusted and shown kindness to him, eats away at Bob. The combination of Cranston’s performance and the circumstances in the plot mean that Bob is never just a boring hero despite his innate nobility.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo and bridesmaids

The relationship between Bob and his pretend fiancée, juxtaposed against that between Bob and his real wife, result in some moments that are overwrought and others that are quite moving. Aubrey’s Evelyn never comes off as unreasonable, and a scene in which Bob takes Evelyn out for an anniversary dinner but is recognized by a client is one of the film’s highlights. The mutual respect that forms between Bob and Kruger’s Kathy is heartfelt, and when they’re both in the trenches, they’re the only ones the other can truly seek solace in. The possibility that Bob will succumb to temptation lingers over this relationship, but it’s never played up to a manipulative extent.

The Infiltrator Benjamin Bratt and Bryan Cranston

There are too many characters to keep track of, and it’s sometimes challenging to remember who does what for whom. Bratt brings considerable charm to the role of Alcaino, nicknamed “The Jeweller”. It’s made abundantly clear that he’s a dangerous man, but when Alcaino and his wife invite Bob and Kathy to their house and treat them with such hospitality, one can’t help but dread the inevitable betrayal. Leguizamo plays the comic relief as he often does, but the wily Abreu still has an edge to him despite his jocular nature. Olympia Dukakis is a hoot when she briefly shows up as Bob’s larger-than-life Aunt Vicky, but Amy Ryan’s turn as Bob’s no-nonsense U.S. Customs boss Bonni Tischler borders on caricature.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston and cartel members

The History vs. Hollywood website has become an invaluable resource in evaluating the accuracy of movies touted as being based on true stories. A cursory look through their write-up on The Infiltrator reveals that the most explosive, intense parts of the movie, including moments when someone right next to Bob gets killed, didn’t actually occur. Nevertheless, the real-life Mazur is pleased with Cranston’s portrayal of him, and he continues to work to fight money laundering. The Infiltrator reinforces the stereotype of cartels as being as colourful as they are deadly and doesn’t provide much insight into their inner workings, but its protagonist’s perspective gives the story emotional heft.

Summary: Bryan Cranston is electrifying as he dives into Robert Mazur’s double life, but the echoes of other films and TV shows diminishes the impact of the true story.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Sisters

For F*** Magazine

SISTERS

Director : Jason Moore
Cast : Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Ike Barinholtz, Maya Rudolph, Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, John Cena, Madison Davenport, Greta Lee, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 17 March 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Sexual Humour And Drug Use)

“All kinds of weather, we stick together/The same in the rain and sun” – so crooned Rosemary Clooney in the song Sisters from White Christmas. In this movie, comedy duo Amy Poehler and Tina Fey play Maura and Kate Ellis respectively, sisters who return to their childhood home in Orlando after many years. The sisters’ parents (Wiest and Brolin) have decided to sell the house, much to both daughters’ chagrin. The freewheeling Kate coaxes Maura into helping her throw one last blowout party at their house, affectionately nicknamed “Ellis Island”. The many guests who show up include James (Barinholtz), a handyman whom Maura has developed a crush on; slacker Dave (Leguizamo) and his drug dealer Pazuzu (Cena), socially-awkward jokester Alex (Moynihan) and Kate’s high school nemesis Brinda (Rudolph). As the bash spirals out of control, Kate’s teenage daughter Haley (Davenport) learns of her mother’s irresponsible behaviour and with her grandparents, attempts to intervene.

            The mechanics of Poehler and Fey’s double act are well-oiled to the point where they could rival Crosby and Hope in their heyday. From Weekend Update and the Sarah Palin vs. Hillary Clinton sketches on Saturday Night Live (SNL) to Baby Mama and their stints hosting the Golden Globes, the comediennes have repeatedly brought the funny. Sisters is directed by Pitch Perfect’s Jason Moore, from a screenplay by Paula Pell, whose credits include SNL, 30 Rock and Bridesmaids. The supporting cast consists mostly of actors who are SNL alums or are part of the wider circle of comedians Poehler and Fey know. A good portion of the jokes hit their target, but there’s the hard-to-shake sense that the film leans too heavily on Poehler and Fey’s pre-existing rapport, instead of actually generating funny scenarios for their characters to participate in.

            Sisters is an entry in the “I don’t want to grow up (I’m a Toys “R” Us kid)” comedy subgenre. There’s a reason characters who are unwilling to move on from their teen years are referred to as “man-children”, because that’s mostly the dudes’ domain. It does riff on the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly two-hander Step-Brothers, without the over-the-top rivalry. There are multiple points in Sisterswhere it feels like the film is flailing about, yelling “hey, girls can do stupid stuff too!” The vulgarity and gleefully reckless behaviour plus the mix of sentimentality and sweetness come off as very sub-Bridesmaids. The climactic comedic set piece is unexpectedly ambitious and there’s a gag involving a ballerina music box that will make audiences cringe, chuckle and clench, but there are significant portions of the film during which it’s spinning its wheels.

            If asked to categorise the two per an old buddy movie archetype, most audiences would pick Fey as the strait-laced one and Poehler as the party animal. Sisters flips the script and Fey gets multiple opportunities to make a scene and blurt out strings of cuss words. Poehler’s Maura does exhibit the “chipper to an annoying extent” trait she’s brought to her roles in Parks and Recreation and Inside Out. Barinholtz’s character is sweet, funny, capable and is very much a “dream guy” archetype but points for not casting an Abercrombie model in the part. Wiest and Brolin are also entertaining as the Ellis sisters’ parents, in part because they’re not necessarily actors one would expect to show up in an over-the-top comedy.

The partygoers are all one-dimensional, playing it up for laughs. Greta Lee shows up as nail salon technician Hae-Won, a character who’s supposed to deconstruct racist Korean stereotypes but ends up reinforcing them, depending on how sensitive one is to the issue. The character’s broken English further makes things uncomfortable and clumsy. Similarly, a group of lesbian women who show up to the party are portrayed as stereotypically masculine, dressed in denim and plaid and wielding power tools. It’s a disappointing lack of sophistication, especially since writer Pell is an openly gay woman herself. John Cena has wisely capitalised on his status as an internet meme and is proving that he has a knack for comedy, perhaps not unlike Mark Wahlberg and Channing Tatum.


The chemistry that Poehler and Fey share is the foundation on which the movie is built; it’s a shame the rest of the construction materials aren’t quite up to snuff. It certainly could have been tighter, sharper and more focused, but it is ultimately difficult not to be swayed by Poehler and Fey’s performances even if they aren’t working with the best material.

Summary: It’s far from the best use of Poehler and Fey’s talents and it tends to go for the obvious, easy jokes, but Sisters narrowly passes muster thanks to the duo’s irresistible chemistry.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Cymbeline

For F*** Magazine

CYMBELINE 

Director : Michael Almereyda
Cast : Ethan Hawke, Milla Jovovich, Dakota Johnson, Penn Badgley, Anton Yelchin, Ed Harris, John Leguizamo, Delroy Lindo, Bill Pullman
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 30 April 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Some Violence)
Shakespeare is the gift that keeps on giving, artists of all kinds continuing to find inspiration in the Bard’s work centuries after his death. The play Cymbeline provides the basis for this crime drama, which updates the setting of Ancient Britain to the present day. Instead of being the King of Britain, Cymbeline (Harris) is the leader of the Briton biker gang. His daughter Imogen (Johnson) is in love with the lowly Posthumus (Badgley), whom Cymbeline has taken on as a protégé, and has married him in secret. An enraged Cymbeline exiles Posthumus. Iachimo (Hawke) bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen and bring him proof. In the meantime, Cymbeline’s wife the Queen (Jovovich) hatches a plot to murder Cymbeline and have Cloten (Yelchin), her son from an earlier marriage, marry Imogen so he can usurp Cymbeline’s place as head of the gang. Also under threat is the fragile truce between Cymbeline and corrupt policeman Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the King’s empire slipping through his fingers.

            Cymbelineis adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, known for his 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet. Almereyda’s Hamlet, which starred Ethan Hawke in the title role, was also a setting update – Hawke delivers the “To be or not to be” soliloquy while wandering the aisles of a video rental store. With Cymbeline, Almereyda was clearly inspired by Kurt Sutter’s TV series Sons of Anarchy, which revolves around a biker gang and takes inspiration from Hamlet. Cymbeline was even titled “Anarchy” at one point. Alas, it’s very clear that Almereyda is struggling to jam a square peg into a round hole, but not for lack of trying. The film strains to make its re-contextualisation a successful one, ultimately failing. Cymbeline is generally not regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greater plays and it has been noted that it recycles elements from the Bard’s earlier works, including Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet.

            Second-rate Shakespeare is still high art, and this adaptation retains most of the original dialogue. Hearing the signature iambic pentameter outside of its intended context can be jarring if handled clumsily, and this take on Cymbeline has butter fingers. The original text has been abridged but not streamlined, the dense, labyrinth plot still pretty confusing. While Ethan Hawke looks like he knows what he’s doing, Penn Badgley and Spencer Treat Clark often deliver their lines as if they were reading the ingredients off the back of a shampoo bottle. Anton Yelchin bites into the Cloten role with glee, but his whiny performance gets annoying pretty fast. Regardless of how good an actor one is, it’s impossible to make the line “On her left breast/A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops/I’ th’ bottom of a cowslip” sound naturalistic in a contemporary context, and perhaps it was never meant to be that way.

            Ed Harris as the tough leader of a biker gang? Sure, we’ll buy that. Ed Harris as the tough leader of a biker gang trying to make the line “Thou took’st a beggar; wouldst have made my throne a seat for baseness” sound like something the tough leader of a biker gang would actually say? That’s a harder sell. Both Milla Jovovich and Dakota Johnson are very stiff throughout the film, Johnson playing Imogen with an “ugh, whatever” air. Jovovich does get to perform an appropriately moody cover of Bob Dylan’s “Dark Eyes”, one of several atmospheric touches that are limited in their effectiveness thanks to everything else.

            We know we sound like a broken record, going on about how awkward and stilted the film comes off in its presentation, but that’s because Cymbelinecould have been saved. It could have worked as a dramatic romance set against a war between a biker gang and corrupt cops, had Almereyda not been so precious about retaining the original text. There’s an attempt at verisimilitude, with characters scrolling through photo galleries on their iPads and looking up locations on Google Maps, but it still rings false. Re-contextualisations can work, if they’re handled deftly enough or if they revel in the silliness of the premise and spin a colourful alternate world around the story. Cymbeline is neither and falls flat because of it.

Summary:Some excellent actors and several mediocre ones are all left high and dry by this unwieldy adaptation that most audiences will find alienating and odd.
RATING: 2out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Chef

CHEF


Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Opens: 5 June 2014

Rating: NC16 (language) 

Jon Favreau goes from Iron Man to Iron Chef, writing, directing and starring in this comedy-drama. Favreau plays Carl Casper, the Miami-born head chef of a Los Angeles restaurant. Owner Riva (Hoffman) insists that Casper abide by the popular menu, but Casper argues that creatively, things have gone stale. An explosive incident involving food blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt) is the last straw. Casper leaves the restaurant behind as he accompanies his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) and son Percy (Anthony) back to Miami. There, he starts from scratch, getting a food truck up and running. Martin (Leguizamo), his friend and line cook from the restaurant, drops everything to come over to Miami to help. Soon, Casper, Percy and Martin are selling Cuban sandwiches out of the food truck, going back to basics, Casper re-evaluating his career and his relationships along the way.
            Fulfilling the roles of writer, director and star, it might seem to some like Jon Favreau has made himself a tidy little vanity project. Chef is nothing of the sort. Watching Chef is like listening to a friend talk enthusiastically about his interest, this friend phrasing it so eloquently and enticingly that before you realise it, you’re all wrapped up in it. Favreau’s passion for food bubbles over and is extremely infectious. Then there’s the matter of just how lip-smackingly delicious everything – even the humble grilled cheese sandwich – looks. Every review has said this and mine is no different: don’t go into this hungry. I actually heard the audience at my screening crying out, almost in agony, at every lovingly-shot edible item. With acclaimed chef and food truck pioneer Roy Choi as consultant and overseer, Favreau does his own “stunts” in the film and is wholly convincing as a culinary wunderkind. It’s clear Favreau has done his due diligence, leading many professional chefs and food writers to sing the film’s praises.


            Chef is more than just a Food Network cooking show. There’s an earnestness and sincerity served alongside a heaping helping of wit and humour. Many films that are billed as “feel-good movies” can feel manufactured and contrived, but Chef flows organically, its relationships and characters largely believable and relatable. The emotional beats are genuine and even though there are over-the-top moments, this reviewer was sufficiently convinced that those were required to set events in motion; most of the film an entertainingly laid-back affair. Just as Casper trains his young son in the ways of the kitchen, Percy guides his father through the world of social media. There’s a clever visual gag in which tweets are represented as floating holographic text bubbles which are then compressed and carried away by a little blue digital bird. Favreau’s most recent film as director before Chef, Cowboys & Aliens, was not very well received. However, Favreau wisely resists demonizing critics in this film and using Chef as an avenue to vent against those who didn’t like his earlier work; the character of Ramsey Michel not portrayed as a sneering villain.


            Favreau is as adept in front of the camera slicing, dicing, sautéing, grilling et al as he is behind it. Chef Casper is utterly likeable but also flawed and most definitely human and prone to outbursts. Favreau’s Casper is a culinary force to be reckoned with, but not some kind of untouchable kitchen god the way the role could have been written and acted. He has a top-tier supporting cast as well, John Leguizamo especially fun as the faithful and capable sidekick/pal. Child actor Emjay Anthony is a revelation; his Percy isn’t your standard “smart-mouthed comedy mini-adult”, you buy that this is a real kid – in fact, he’s probably better-behaved than most real kids actually are. It’s fun and surprisingly not distracting to see Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, both alumni of the Iron Man films, pop up. Sofia Vergara tones down her usual loud, fiery shtick and it winds up being a really nice performance from her. Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman as the food critic and the restraunter respectively are well cast, too. Look out for a pretty funny cameo from comedian Russell Peters.


            If there’s any relatively major gripe with Chef, it would be the R-rating. Now, I write for a magazine named F*** and I know foul language is a fact of life in real professional kitchens, but the swearing makes this unsuitable for younger moviegoers. It’s a shame because a large portion of the film is about a father-son relationship and involves a child actor. There’s also no violence or explicit sex, just mild sexual references. And kids should see this; it’s inspirational and empowering for anyone who has a passion about anything. Still, Chefis sweet, heartfelt and clearly prepared with love; Favreau on fine form as a true multi-hyphenate.


Summary: Can you smell what the Favs is cooking? Why, it’s quality, soulful cuisine! Bon Appétit!
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong