JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence throughout, some Language and brief Nudity

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Written by: Derek Kolstad

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane & Lance Reddick

Loads of people seem to gush over 2014’s JOHN WICK. As for me, I think it’s a fun little action movie that’s equal parts silly and cool. Any sequel to any action flick promises to up the stakes and be bigger, bolder, cooler, and more adrenaline-pumping. JOHN WICK: CHAPER 2 has crazy action scenes and further develops its elaborate underworld of guns, hotels, and hired killers. However, the film also encounters pacing issues and goofiness that hinder it as a whole. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is an entertaining romp. Nothing more, nothing less.

The plot picks up four days after the events of the previous film. Former assassin turned bloody avenger John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just recovered his stolen car from a Russian-run chop shop and intends on living out the rest of his days in peace. John’s renewed retirement comes to an abrupt end when he’s visited by mob boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants John to make good on a past deal. With the prospect of one last job until he’s out for good, John Wick returns to kill a target and soon finds himself hunted by pretty much everyone. Lots of bullets, hand-to-hand combat, and craziness follows.

First things first, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 succeeds at what it set out to do. There’s plenty of kick-ass action and the stakes are ridiculously high. At one point, John Wick has pretty much an entire nation of assassins chasing him and decides to become a one man army. It’s friggin’ nuts to watch. The cinematography is slick and the execution of the action is stylish. I cannot express how nice it is to actually see what the hell is happening in an action movie, as opposed to constant shaky-cam that moviegoers are usually bombarded with in lesser modern action efforts. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is just as enjoyable as the first film, meaning that it still suffers from some problems.

CHAPTER 2’s second half is where things really pick up, but its first hour is frequently dull. It’s as if the movie suddenly shifted tones after the previous film’s conclusion to briefly become a brooding hour-long thriller about a reluctant assassin. Great films have been made about similar subject matter, but CHAPTER 2 has long stretches that feature nothing more than John Wick repeating himself to different characters and suiting up for his would-be final hit. Like I said though, the second half is infinitely more enjoyable as the body count reaches crazy levels and bullets begin to fly every which way.

CHAPTER 2’s cast has a few returning faces from the previous film, while also throwing new characters into the mix. Keanu Reeves is just as wooden as he was last time, becoming comically hollow when he tries to express the tragic emotional state of his character (having still lost his wife and her puppy). Still, Keanu knows how to kick ass, execute well-choreographed confrontations (ranging from hand-to-hand, vehicular mayhem, and gun-fu), and perform really cool stunts. Ian McShane is still enjoyable as a hotel owner who abides by a strict set of rules for the killers who inhabit his grounds.

Unfortunately, CHAPTER 2’s interesting new characters are underused or totally wasted throughout the proceedings. This time around, John faces off against a smarmy mob boss and Riccardo Scamarcio’s antagonist pretty much has underlings attack John and taunts him, making for a bit of an underwhelming main baddie. However, the final scene between himself and John further ups the stakes for a potential CHAPTER 3 (ending on a fun cliffhanger). Common plays a vengeance-seeking bodyguard who is sadly regulated to about three scenes, while Laurence Fishburne is having a blast in the cameo-like role of a hobo crime king. Also, Ruby Rose is bad-ass as a mute assassin who has a history with John, though she only appears for three scenes too.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 encounters flaws in wasted potential and uneven pacing. I wish some of the more creative baddies had a bigger presence and the film’s first half is distractingly slow to sit through. However, the action remains fun, while the style reeks of being cool for the sake of being cool. I didn’t go into JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 expecting an action masterpiece and this sequel is on the exact same level of the original, meaning that it’s a fun time for those who want a kick-ass action flick and not much logic. If you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too!

Grade: B

THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Bloody Images, Graphic Nudity, a scene of Aberrant Sexuality, and Language

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Directed by: Nicholas Winding Refn

Written by: Mary Laws, Nicholas Winding Refn & Polly Stenham

Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington & Alessandro Nivola

Nicholas Winding Refn makes films that people either love or hate, including his own fans. To give him credit, Refn is a director who constantly displays a steady hand, always swings for the fences and creates movies he clearly wants to make. After putting a prison drama, a Viking epic, and two very different crime thrillers under his belt, Refn decided that he wanted take on a “horror movie.” Displaying hypnotic cinematography, an intoxicatingly perverse tone, and scenes that are likely to haunt my memories for a long time to come, THE NEON DEMON is a complicated film to describe. It will leave lots of people disgusted, likely gain a small cult following, and is easily one of the most unique films of 2016.

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Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old aspiring model living in LA. Little is given about her past, but she openly states “pretty sells” and is willing to use to her looks to climb the cutthroat ladder of the modeling world. As Jesse’s career immediately grows, fellow models Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) begin to fear for their own livelihoods. Finding friends in make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and amateur photographer Dean (Karl Gusman), Jesse slowly loses her humanity as success and beauty become her main focuses. However, modeling is unlike other careers in that it thrives on youth and also comes with an expiration date.

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THE NEON DEMON is a gorgeous visual feast and a deeply disturbing experience at the same time. Nicholas Winding Refn has shown a knack for bringing lots of beautiful images to the screen and the same can be said for NEON DEMON’s cinematography. Every scene looks astonishing and the vibrant color scheme is pulsing with a life of its own. If you were pause any still frame of this movie it would look like a masterfully rendered painting or photography project. I cannot stress how breathtaking the visuals in this movie are, but the slick imagery also serves to make the horrific moments even more horrifying to behold.

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Though NEON DEMON is described as a horror movie, it should be noted that it’s not a cheap jump-scare filled romp or a total gorefest. Though the story gets extremely nasty in its final third, it relies far more on psychological mindfuckery, darker-than-dark satire, and a deeply uncomfortable atmosphere that never gives the viewer room to breathe. There’s a dark sense of foreboding from the opening scene and it hovers over the rest of the running time. As the film goes on, you get the sense that Jesse may be vulnerable prey wandering in a land of predators. Creepy photographers, sleazebag perverts, jealous competition and the ever-growing sense of the unknown lie around every corner.

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The film’s most disturbing moments arrive in the final third. I won’t go into specifics or give revealing hints at what happens (unlike other reviews that have outright spoiled stuff), but I will say that this is the first film in a long time that actually disgusted me. One scene made me feel physically ill and that’s among the highest realm of praise that I can give a movie like this. That moment wasn’t necessarily gory, but it certainly made me squirm in my seat and ranks among the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen. Whether it’s the elevator confrontation in DRIVE or the brutal torture sequence in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Refn has never been a filmmaker to shy away from graphic violence. This film’s blood mostly makes an appearance during the final third, but those moments are both beautiful and brutal. The ending also serves as a sick punchline to send queasy audiences out on.

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As far as the cast goes, everyone does a stellar job with what they’ve been given. The dialogue is blatant and obvious, but that’s sort of the point when you’re following around people who use beauty as their most valuable currency and a bunch of sleazy L.A. perverts. While I felt sympathy for Elle Fanning’s Jesse, I also didn’t necessarily find her to be a likable protagonist. Jenna Malone is fantastic as wild card Ruby, who has an interesting side job. Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee seem to relish their roles as heartless models. Karl Glusman plays the only “good” character in the film, but there are interesting points made about his motivations during one insightful conversation. Desmond Harrington is creepy as a mostly silent predatory photographer, while Keanu Reeves delivers his best performance in years as a sleazy motel owner.

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My only complaints are small and derive from the very nature of THE NEON DEMON’s style and storytelling. There are a couple of dream sequences that get too over-the-top and one hallucination that runs a bit too long. The film also abruptly drops Keanu Reeves’ interesting contribution to the plot in an off-handed way. Still, THE NEON DEMON has plenty to please fans of art-house films, horror movies, and outright strange cinema. It’s another polarizing film from Refn and that was kind of expected from the get-go. THE NEON DEMON is loaded with amazing imagery, haunting moments, a great synthesizer soundtrack, and some of the most disturbing cinematic scenes in years. This is an unforgettable fairy tale about vanity turned vicious.

Grade: A-

KEANU (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language throughout, Drug Use and Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Peter Atencio

Written by: Jordan Peele & Alex Rubens

Starring: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Method Man, Luis Guzman, Nia Long & Will Forte

After five hysterical seasons of KEY & PEELE, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have finally taken their leap onto the silver screen. Though the comedic duo have starred individually in side roles, this is their first front-and-center big budget feature. KEANU is simple, entertaining, and has noticeable problems. This basically plays out like a 100 minute KEY & PEELE skit, which isn’t a hugely negative statement when you consider that KEY & PEELE is funnier than 99% of modern sketch comedy. The screenplay has a few dull moments (including some plot holes) and the running time is about 15 minutes too long, but KEANU is an enjoyable romp that should please KEY & PEELE fans and animal lovers alike.

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In the aftermath of a nasty break-up, Rell (Jordan Peele) has become hopelessly depressed. This all changes when an adorable kitten shows up on his doorstep. With furry Keanu as a constant companion, Rell now has a new lease on life. He and his cousin, Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key), go for a night out to see the newest Liam Neeson movie. They return to find Rell’s house ransacked and cuddly Keanu is nowhere to be found. In order to save the kidnapped kitten, Rell and Clarence pretend to be a pair of hardened drug dealers and infiltrate a local gang. As you might imagine, chaos ensues, bullets fly and bodies pile up…all for the sake of the cutest cat you’ve ever seen.

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KEANU isn’t exactly a revelatory comedy that introduces a ton of fresh jokes and avoids clichés. It actually revels in every familiar step of the action movie formula and seems to simultaneously mocking well-worn plot points as it goes along. The characters of Rell and Clarence are pretty much interchangeable with any of Key & Peele’s other protagonists. They’re simply good guys thrown into a ridiculous scenario which leads to lots of misunderstandings and tense situations being played for dark laughs. As with many KEY & PEELE sketches, KEANU gets more over-the-top and filled with violence as it goes along. This script definitely has the recognizable blend of dark humor and silliness that kept Key & Peele’s comedy show afloat for five seasons. Nods to previous skits are scattered around the background and dialogue, so I imagine that diehard KEY & PEELE fans will likely get a kick out of those Easter eggs too.

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Only two big faces stick out of the supporting cast, while the lesser-known actors (playing the gangsters) make do with what they’ve got. Will Forte has an enjoyably silly role as Rell’s pot-dealing neighbor and got some big laughs out of me, especially in his introduction. Forte’s dreadlocked drug dealer serves as an exposition-spewing plot device, but manages to make his scenes memorable. Method Man takes on the role of domineering antagonist as gang boss Cheddar. This rapper turned occasional actor plays his villain as seriously as possible, which makes Key and Peele’s antics even funnier to watch in comparison.

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KEANU is entertaining, but not without flaws. The opening third is the movie’s peak of hilarity, while the remainder has noticeable ups and downs in momentum. The middle section, particularly a drug deal sequence (featuring a nicely placed cameo) and an elongated George Michael joke, could have used tighter editing. There are laughs in these moments, but I feel the humor would have definitely benefitted from a shorter running time. There are a couple of jokes that fell flat as well, including a music video inspired drug trip, and other opportunities for bigger laughs are passed up. The latter is especially evident during one final scene that seemed to be opening the door for a hilarious punchline, but instead opened up a few distracting plot holes with a well-trodden conventional approach.

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All things considered, KEANU will entertain KEY & PEELE fans and animal lovers. The film occasionally suffers from pacing issues and a few jokes that fall flat, but can still be enjoyed as a fun little comedy. If you are not a fan of KEY & PEELE, this probably won’t do much for you. Viewers who want to watch Key & Peele play around on the big-screen with a budget, smile at lots of close-ups of the cutest kitten you’ve ever seen, enjoy over-the-top bloody shootouts, and chuckle at arguments about whether or not George Michael is an O.G., are bound to find something to like here.

Grade: B

KNOCK KNOCK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Behavior, Strong Sexual Content, Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Eli Roth

Written by: Eli Roth, Nicolas Lopez & Guillermo Amoedo

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana De Armas, Ignacia Allamand, Aaron Burns & Colleen Camp

Eli Roth just recently terrorized audiences with vicious cannibals and his newest creation is now popping up on VOD platforms. What makes KNOCK KNOCK different from any of Roth’s past work is that this is both his first attempt at an erotic thriller of sorts and a remake (the film is a retread of 1977’s DEATH GAME). Folks who walk into this movie expecting gory hijinks and quirky humor will be let down on the former, but definitely not in the latter. KNOCK KNOCK doesn’t reinvent the home invasion wheel, but it’s a fun entry in the subgenre.

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Evan is a loving husband and father who’s been left home alone on a holiday weekend. Whilst in the middle of working on his latest art project, Evan hears a knock at the door and finds two stranded women who request to use his phone. Being a nice guy, Evan decides to invite them in, get them some warm robes and call a cab. This all seems to be going well, until Genesis and Bel make seductive moves towards Evan. Being married, Evan politely declines the obvious sexual situation in front of him and tries to make pleasant conversation. Genesis and Bel persist and, being an idiot, Evan decides to engage in a three-way. This is a stupid mistake for a number of reasons. Partially, because Evan is married and has children. Mainly, because the stranded Genesis and Bel turn out to be sadistic psychopaths.

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Let me address the elephant in the room. Keanu Reeves is in this movie. Though he’s starred in a number of quality films that range from decent to amazing, Reeves is not a good actor. That didn’t change with JOHN WICK and it definitely doesn’t change in KNOCK KNOCK. His performance is just as wooden as ever, but it can be slightly overlooked when you consider that Evan is a scumbag protagonist. Lorenza Izzo (Roth’s wife, who also headlined THE GREEN INFERNO) and Ana De Armas (who might be one of the most beautiful women alive) are clearly having a blast as Genesis and Bel. They do get laughably over-the-top at points, but it’s all done with a dark sense of humor. The characters aren’t exactly well-developed, but the way the cast members play off each other make them a lot of fun to watch. Seeing as this has been labeled as an erotic thriller, there is one pretty graphic montage midway through. I heard the reception of this was uncomfortable at the Sundance premiere, but I honestly thought it was way too exaggerated. Instead of focusing on the long sex sequence itself, I found myself asking “Are we really supposed to buy that all of this took place within the space of a few hours?”

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When KNOCK KNOCK eventually moves on to a more traditional home invasion story, the film includes all of the clichéd bells and whistles that come with the subgenre. You know how it will probably play out and for the most part, it does. Roth doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary that would necessarily make KNOCK KNOCK really stand out in the realm of home invasion flicks. That being said, there’s still a sick sense of glee and enjoyment that makes the film worth watching. The pacing moves at a lightning fast speed and I will fully admit that there were points in this film (mainly in the final 30 minutes) where I was laughing pretty hard. The conclusion is a pitch-perfect send-off to an otherwise decent, but clichéd, horror thriller. Technically speaking, the film is also well shot and has a good soundtrack to boot.

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In the realm of Eli Roth’s filmography, KNOCK KNOCK is something out-of-the-ordinary. It stands as Roth’s first major effort to move outside of the gory torture-porn territory that he became famous for after HOSTEL. I wouldn’t say that I prefer it over CABIN FEVER, the first two HOSTEL films or THE GREEN INFERNO, but KNOCK KNOCK is undeniably entertaining. Keanu Reeves’s wooden line delivery is made up for by Armas and Izzo’s off-the-wall performances. The sense of humor really works in this story too. Overall, KNOCK KNOCK serves as a fun, brisk home-invasion thriller that marks a change of pace for Roth and comes loaded with clichés.

Grade: B-

DANGEROUS LIAISONS (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Christopher Hampton

(based on the novel LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos)

Starring: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick & Uma Thurman

Though written more than centuries ago, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s DANGEROUS LIAISONS still holds up as all too relevant in this day and age. Birthing a massive amount of controversy since its release, this scandalous French novel is one of the first instances of sex in literature being turned into a tool for manipulation and power as opposed to an act of the deepest love and affection. The 1988 film adaptation masterfully transports the viewer back into 18th century France and forces them to examine a pair of purposely unlikable characters much to our shock and awe. DANGEROUS LIAISONS is a devilish delight for cinephiles and fans of Laclos’s novel.

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Merteuil and Valmont are two former lovers and aristocrats who consider themselves on a higher intellectual pedestal than the lesser souls around them. Using their cunning wits, the two devise a game in which Valmont will seduce two separate women with the goal of humiliation in mind for the reward of a night alone with Merteuil. Valmont’s first conquest is Cecile, the virginal fiancée of a well-to-do music teacher. The second is a Tourvel, the wife of a member of Parliament. This game of seduction, double-crossing, and manipulation has unforeseen consequences on everyone involved. Both the players and their victims will suffer dire consequences.

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At its core, DANGEROUS LIAISONS is all about relationships both physical and emotional. As far as the sexual content goes, the viewer is given a couple of sensual moments and nothing overly erotic or cheesy. Most of the sex scenes are left to our imagination with mere suggestive comments and sly innuendos about what acts being performed behind closed bedroom doors. Though there’s plenty of emotion to the proceedings as Valmont actually begins to show real feelings towards one of his would-be victims, it doesn’t stop the film from sprinkling in bits of dark humor. One morning-after moment with Valmont gets some big laughs, but that doesn’t make his actions any less cruel. The movie also manages to take the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster into areas they might not have initially expected upon going in (unless they have read or known the source material).

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Glenn Close gives one of the best performances of her career as Merteuil. She puts on an innocent respectable persona while her noble friends are around, but reveals her darker true self whenever she’s alone with Valmont. John Malkovich is absolutely fantastic as the complicated Valmont. Though he introduces himself as a repulsive individual lacking a basic moral compass, Valmont quickly shows that there could be a genuine good and caring side to him…if things work out in his favor. Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer are solid in their roles of Valmont’s potential victims. However, there’s one performance that sticks out like a sore thumb. Keanu Reeves is wooden as the music teacher. Though he’s barely in the film, Reeves simply doesn’t belong in a cast like this and uses a distractingly wooden delivery that competes with his role in 1992’s DRACULA as the biggest mood-killer in an otherwise amazing film.

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The technical accomplishments in DANGEROUS LIAISONS masterfully bring Pre-Revolution France to the screen. Costumes are elegant. Sets are exquisite and convincing. The classical music is fitting. This is one of those rare period pieces where you actually feel as if you’ve transported back to said time period. Clearly, a lot of attention was paid to the tiniest details, save for Keanu’s unconvincing performance.

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In an emotionally shattering scene near the end of the film, one character states that vanity and happiness are incompatible. Truer words have never been spoken and DANGEROUS LIAISONS has never been more relevant. This is a scary notion that’s beyond anyone’s control, but it’s brought to startling light in this fantastic film that more than does justice to a masterful and hugely influential literary masterpiece.

Grade: A

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