Sunday, February 19, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) review

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In 2014, former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch teamed up to direct John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves as an ex-hitman who finds himself forced back into the business when a group of Russian mobsters attack him, steal his car, and kill his dog, the latter of which was a gift from his wife before she died to help him cope. The film was a solid commercial success upon release, grossing over four times its modest $20 million budget. It also did great with critics and fans of the action genre, who praised the film for its incredibly shot and choreographed action sequences in an age of rapid-edit, ‘PG-13-friendly’ action. And this year, the legendary ‘Baba Yaga’ is back for another round of vengeful, but also stylish, gunplay in John Wick: Chapter 2. Reeves, of course, returns in the title role as does director Chad Stahelski, though this time around, David Leitch is only serving as an executive producer. Then again, only Stahelski was credited as director for the first film by the Directors Guild of America, even though both directed it. Plus, Leitch went off to work on the upcoming spy thriller The Coldest City and is also being primed to helm the sequel to Deadpool, so I think it’s safe to say that he was just tied up with other projects. But, thankfully, this doesn’t affect John Wick: Chapter 2 too much because, oh boy, this film is one epic action sequel. And that’s because it does two great things at once. Not only does it maintain plenty of the same great elements of the first film, particularly in terms of its action sequences, but it also feels like a natural follow-up, upping the ante in all the right ways without losing the badass aura of the original.

At the end of John Wick, the titular ex-hitman (Keanu Reeves), known by many in the assassin community as ‘The Boogeyman’, successfully avenged the death of his dog Daisy at the hands of the Tarasov family. And after finally getting his vintage 1969 Mustang back as well, which he retrieves from the chop shop owned by Viggo Tarasov’s brother Abram (Peter Stormare) in this film’s opening sequence, John prepares to retire once again, having picked up a new dog (which isn’t given a name in the film) from an animal clinic at the end of the first film. However, he is soon approached by another old associate of his, Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has come for payment over a blood oath that he and John made years ago, in which the former helped the latter retire from the business. John initially declines the offer, saying that he is ‘retired for good’, but when Santino destroys his home as payback, he quickly finds that he has no other choice. To fulfill his side of the bargain, John is directed to Rome, where he is tasked with taking down a high-value target so that Santino can take their place on the council of crime lords known as ‘the High Table’. But even after John pulls off this job, Santino then betrays him and places a $7 million bounty on his head. News of the bounty attracts the attention of every major assassin in New York, putting ol’ ‘Baba Yaga’ on the run as he goes on his own path of vengeance against Santino.

Just like the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 features some incredible action sequences that highlight all the great camerawork, editing, and stunt choreography that went into making them. Heck, being that it’s basically set not too long after the events of the first film, this film comes right out the gate with an awesome sequence in which John fights through a bunch of goons to get his car back. There’s that, a big shootout within Roman catacombs, a fight in the New York City Subway, a fight within a hall of mirrors, etc. Bottom line, just like the first film, there’s plenty of standout fights in this film, so much so that it’s admittedly hard to pick just one as a favorite. And as for being a sequel, this basically does the best thing that any good sequel should do; it ups the ante of the story’s stakes without losing sight of what made the first film work so well. As I noted in my review of the first film, I really admired the simplicity of its plot execution. John’s motivations are clear throughout and the set-up of the assassin world is excellent without going into too much detail. From the ‘honor system’ that’s set up at the Continental Hotel, which caters to the criminal underworld but maintains the ground rule of not having one’s business occur on property, to the montage in which John meets with various people in Rome (e.g. a tailor, a ‘Sommelier’ (Peter Serafinowicz), etc.) to acquire his supplies before he goes on his latest mission, these films set up a cool world in which assassins go about their business in a graceful manner. All that, of course, was there in the first film and in this film, writer Derek Kolstad does just enough to further expand this universe without losing the narrative’s charming simplicity.

John Wick… is a badass; simple as that. And Keanu Reeves is badass in the role. From doing his own stunts (while in his 50’s, no less!) to just maintaining a calm and collected persona throughout, a perfect representation of Wick’s highly-effective and tactical approach to everything he does, this may arguably be Reeves’ greatest role to date when it comes to his forays into the action genre. In other words, he was just a perfect fit for this role. And of course, like the first film, he’s got a nice cast of highly memorable supporting characters to back him up. There are some of the returning characters from the first film, like Ian McShane as the diplomatic owner of the Continental Hotel in New York and John Leguizamo as Wick’s friend and chop shop owner Aurelio. And then there’s also some of the new additions to the cast, like Common as Cassian, the bodyguard of John’s high-value target who becomes more of a ‘rival’ to him once John takes out the target, and Ruby Rose as Santino’s mute henchwoman Ares, who John crosses paths with numerous times over the course of the film. Plus, fans of The Matrix will no doubt get a kick out of the scene where Reeves is reunited with Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne, who plays a New York crime boss known as the ‘Bowery King’. But, once again, I find that the main villain, Santino, is the weakest link of the film. Again, like Viggo and Iosef from the first film, he’s not a ‘bad’ villain’, per se; he’s got nice set-up in terms of his relationship with John and all. But, also like Viggo and Iosef, he tends to get overshadowed by all the supporting characters.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of the best action film sequels of all-time. Of course, that’s also benefitted from the fact that it’s a sequel to one of the best action films of the past decade, the original John Wick. Like its predecessor, Chapter 2 features excellent action sequences that are well-shot, finely-edited, and wonderfully choreographed. But then, of course, the film must deal with the fact that it’s a sequel, and overall, it handles that aspect brilliantly by feeling like a natural follow-up to the first film. The ways in which the story and action are built up from the first film are incredibly well-handled. In other words, the film still manages to maintain the simplistic charm of the first film while also upping the ante in terms of the action sequences as well as raising the stakes for John. On that note, without giving anything away, the way in which this film closes provides us with an awesome set-up for the third film. It ends on such a bold note that I think it’s safe to say that fans of this series will be eagerly awaiting John’s next adventure, whenever it comes out, to see how it all ends. But now, the big question is this; did this film also manage to outdo its predecessor? Well, while I do think that both films are great in terms of how they film their action and for the nice, simple execution of their stories, I think I do have to say that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a superior sequel to what was already a great action film.   

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, February 17, 2017

John Wick (2014) Review

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This past weekend saw the release of the highly-anticipated action sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, the follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed action thriller, John Wick. When the first film was released in late October of that year, it was a solid commercial success, grossing a little over four times its lean $20 million budget. In terms of its critical reception, many critics agreed that it served as an excellent bit of revitalization for the career of its star, Keanu Reeves. Reeves, of course, is well-known for his roles in beloved action films like Point Break, Speed, and the groundbreaking sci-fi action flick, The Matrix. However, at the same time, this also meant that Reeves ended up getting affected by the dreaded curse that is ‘typecasting’, which one could say negatively affected his career from time to time. But, thanks to this film, which was brought to us by the directing duo of former stuntmen Chad Stahelski (who stepped in as a double for Brandon Lee following his tragic death during the production of 1994’s The Crow) and David Leitch (who is set to direct the follow-up to last year’s smash hit, Deadpool), Reeves’ career saw a nice resurgence, reaffirming his status as one of the film industry’s premier action stars. And by the looks of it, that hot streak is continuing with the sequel, with its excellent 89% score on RT (by comparison, the first film isn’t too far off from that mark with an equally impressive 85% score) and a ‘defying expectations’ opening weekend gross of $30.4 million, nearly as much as what the first film made in its entire domestic run. And while watching this film, it’s easy to see why this series has become so popular. In an era where a lot of modern action films tend to limit their action sequences through editing and camerawork, John Wick is an unabashed ‘old-school’ action flick that is sure to satisfy longtime fans of the genre.  

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is an ex-hitman who has moved on from the life of a hired gun, settling down with his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan). However, Helen sadly passes away due to illness, which leaves John devastated. John then ends up receiving one final gift from her; a puppy named Daisy that is meant to help him cope with her loss. Sure enough, John immediately starts to bond with the dog but soon afterward, he is attacked by members of the Russian mob, namely an arrogant, hot-headed young man named Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), after refusing to sell his vintage 1969 Mustang to them. Iosef and his crew then proceed to steal the car and, even worse, kill Daisy. But while Iosef initially assumes that the man that he and his boys attacked was a ‘f***ing nobody’, he soon learns from his father, crime boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), that John Wick isn’t a ‘f***ing nobody’. In fact, he happens to be an old associate of Viggo’s who was well-known by many in the hitman community as ‘Baba Yaga’ AKA ‘The Boogeyman’. John used to be Viggo’s top killer before leaving the business entirely to settle down with Helen. And, sure enough, as soon as he recovers from the attack by Iosef and his goons, John embarks on a personal vendetta against them. Thus, the ex-hitman finds himself getting back into the business, and things get a little more interesting once he starts to reacquaint himself with some of his former associates.

As many have noted since its release, one of the best elements of the film is its action sequences. A lot of this comes from how they were done when compared to some of the more recent action films that have come out over the years. Fans of the genre have been highly critical of recent action films like the Taken series for their tendency to utilize rapid-editing during action sequences, which A.) runs the risk of having the audience be unable to tell what’s going on and B.) is a blatant attempt of either hiding obvious stunt doubles or trying to maintain a PG-13 rating for a wider audience. That is not the case with John Wick. The action in this film is incredible; it’s fantastically-choreographed, fine-tuned and coherent in terms of how it's edited, and excellently shot. It’s quite hard to list just one standout action sequence in this film because it’s full of them, from the first fight within Wick’s home to the big firefight in the Red Circle nightclub. As for the story, I really admire its simplicity. Now, granted, I’m aware that saying this may make me come off as being a bit hypocritical seeing how, in the past, I’ve critiqued action films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool for having simplified plots. But, at the risk of sounding even more hypocritical, in this case, I found that it worked because the simplicity of it all was consistent throughout. John’s motivations in this film are clear; his dog was his only source of coping with his wife’s death, hence why its death is so personal to him. In other words, the plot doesn’t really go to any ridiculous lengths (e.g. no crazy reveals or outlandish plotlines) and it does a nice job of setting up its universe.

As stated before, Keanu Reeves’ career has sometimes fallen victim to ‘typecasting’; either that or some people usually find his acting to be rather wooden. That’s not the case here as Reeves is excellent in the role of ‘Baba Yaga’ himself, John Wick. He exudes the perfect badass, but also calm and methodical, persona that, in the context of the film, perfectly exemplifies Wick’s status amongst the other members of the hitman community. And of course, Reeves is well-known for frequently doing his own stunts, which helps make the action sequences even more memorable than they already are. As for the film’s supporting cast, Reeves is backed by an excellent group of entertaining side characters. This includes Willem Dafoe as Marcus, an ‘old guard’ assassin who is John’s good friend and mentor, John Leguizamo as Aurelio, a chop shop owner who John goes to see first after he is attacked, and Ian McShane as Winston, the owner of a hotel, the Continental, that caters to the criminal underworld and who also has a courteous relationship with John. The villains are solid too. Alfie Allen (AKA Game of Thrones’ Theon Greyjoy) brings the right amount of sleaze to the role of Iosef while Michael Nyqvist brings much depth to the role of Viggo, who’s given a lot of great set-up in terms of his relationship with John. Admittedly, though, there are times where these two are overshadowed by some of the side characters. That’s not to say that they’re ‘bad’ villains, per se, but they’re still sort of the weakest links of the film.

Now, I know that I’m obviously quite late to the party on this one as I only watched it for the first time this week. But, now that I have watched it, I find that I do concur with the common sentiment amongst critics and audiences about it. John Wick is one of the best action films of this decade. Just like Mad Max: Fury Road, which came out the following year, this film is a kinetically-charged action flick with some of the most exceptional action sequences in recent years. And while the main plot is simple, the execution of it is what makes it work so well. In other words, it doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. It’s just a fine-tuned action extravaganza complete with a great lead performance by Keanu Reeves in the title role. Say what you will about his acting in other films but he’s an undeniable badass when it comes to his roles in action films and, thus, this may arguably be his best performance/character to date in regards to that genre. So, with that in mind, did this film do its job at revitalizing Keanu Reeves’ career? Well, to answer that question, I’m going to directly reference one of this film’s iconic lines, spoken by John himself during a discussion with Viggo. “People keep asking me if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!”

Rating: 4.5/5

(P.S Stay tuned for my review of John Wick 2 sometime this weekend)

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) review

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2014 gave us the unexpected smash hit that was The LEGO Movie. The reason why I say that it was an ‘unexpected smash hit’ is because, going into it, many feared that it would be nothing more than just a soulless cash-grab with the sole intent of capitalizing on the LEGO brand. But, under the direction of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, a duo who are well-known for delivering Grade-A hits out of risky ventures (e.g. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 and 22 Jump Street, and, hopefully, the upcoming Han Solo film), it ended up being a charming and excellently animated story that served as a love letter to both sides of the LEGO fandom; those who played ‘by the book’ and those who dared to experiment with the iconic bricks. And because of that, while it may not have been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars that year (easily the most controversial ‘snub’ of that year’s ceremony), it ended up being one of the most well-reviewed films of the year and grossed over $469 million worldwide. Thus, a new line of LEGO films will be on the way in the next few years under the supervision of Lord and Miller. The first of these to come out is one that is based around a character who many felt was the ‘breakout star’ of the original LEGO Movie: LEGO Batman, voiced by Will Arnett. Arnett’s hilarious take on the Dark Knight now takes center stage in his own film, The LEGO Batman Movie, directed by Chris McKay, who served as an animation co-director on The LEGO Movie. And just like The LEGO Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie is a highly entertaining screwball adventure that manages to find the humanity within its plastic protagonists.

In Gotham City, Batman (Will Arnett) is the most popular figure around. Beloved by Gotham’s residents, the Dark Knight spends most of his time taking down the many villains that make up his iconic ‘Rogues Gallery’. However, it soon becomes clear that despite all this fame, Batman is also quite a lonely figure, who spends the rest of his time alone in his luxurious mansion and whose greatest fear is, as noted by his loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes), being a part of a family again after the death of his parents all those years ago; the exact moment that led to him becoming Batman. Thus, Batman (or, to be more specific, his ‘real identity’, Bruce Wayne) unknowingly ends up adopting a young orphan by the name of Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) from the local orphanage. With some encouragement from Alfred, Batman begins to take the young man under his wing as his new sidekick, Robin. And, as it turns out, Batman is going to need all the help he can get, as the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), eager to prove to Batman that he truly is ‘his greatest enemy’ after a fight between the two ends with Batman telling the Joker that he means nothing to him, unleashes a sinister plot that threatens everyone in Gotham. The sheer magnitude of this plan forces Batman to do something that he normally doesn’t do; team up with others, which he does with Robin, Alfred, and Gotham’s new Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who takes over the job from her father, Jim Gordon (Hector Elizondo), with the goal of getting Batman to team up with the Gotham police force to help make the city a safer place. 

Just like The LEGO Movie, this film features terrific animation as done by the Australian animation studio, Animal Logic. While the film is computer-animated, it manages to achieve a great stop-motion feel to it all, which fits perfectly with the LEGO brand given all the fan-made films that have been made over the years. It’s fast-paced, bright and colorful and full to the brim with little Easter Eggs thrown in here and there. And of course, being a film about Batman and DC Comics, this film is CHOCK-FULL of Easter Eggs. I’m not joking; this film basically covers every major era of Batman in the span of 104 minutes, from the campier days of the 60’s TV show to the more serious and grounded storylines of the more recent films, namely Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Heck, this film features arguably every villain who’s ever appeared in a Batman comic, even the obscure ones like King Tut and Condiment King which, yes, are in fact real. Even the film points this out (“Probably Worth a Google!” – Joker). But, of course, this film isn’t just a bunch of references for eagle-eyed fans of Batman to notice. That alone would’ve made it an enjoyable film on its own merit but there’s also a solid arc in this for Batman, as he learns the value of teamwork instead of him just trying to act like the entire world revolves around him alone. The problem, though, is that he’s reluctant to start up a new family because of what happened to his old one, and, for the record, no, they don’t show that incident again; the film is very much aware that we’ve already seen that dozens of times. This is what ultimately gives the film its heart and thus, provides us with an endearing cast of main characters to latch onto on an emotional level.

As stated earlier, Will Arnett’s take on Batman truly was one of the best parts of The LEGO Movie. Arnett basically riffed on the usual characterization of the generally dark superhero by making him a superficial celebrity who constantly reminds everybody about how awesome he is. And yet, through it all, Arnett still managed to make his Batman likable, basically the opposite of his character from another 2014 animated film, The Nut Job. This time around, of course, Arnett is the star of the show and he is great once again, especially thanks to the great character arc that Batman has in this. And just like how Batman ends up finding an excellent team to work with, this film has an excellent supporting cast as well. Zach Galifianakis brings the right amount of manic energy to the role of the Joker while also getting a fun villain arc in which he’s just trying to get Batman to notice him, which… actually, makes him the most sympathetic Joker to date. Michael Cera exudes the proper eagerness and wonderment for the role of Robin and the film relishes its many opportunities to joke about how weird it is for Batman to have a ‘ward’ working alongside him. Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon, AKA Batgirl, is also a great addition to the cast and a great female lead who’s arguably more capable of taking down the bad guys than Batman. It’s also good to have an actual ‘good’ Barbara Gordon story after her disastrous characterization in last year’s The Killing Joke. Rounding out the main cast is Ralph Fiennes, who’s quite awesome and hilarious in the role of Batman’s trusty butler Alfred. Heck, Fiennes would’ve been a great Alfred in the live-action Batman films but, of course, Jeremy Irons is currently in that position so we’ll have to settle for him being the LEGO version of the character. And just like The LEGO Movie, there are plenty of fun voice/character cameos here and there.   

The original LEGO Movie helped revitalize Warner Bros’ animation division after the studio’s hand-drawn animation division, Warner Bros Feature Animation, was dissolved after a series of box-office flops in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Clearly, the LEGO films have become Warner Bros.’ most dominant animated franchise and rightfully so as they’ve been great takes on the LEGO brand. First, there was The LEGO Movie and this year that streak continues with The LEGO Batman Movie. For fans of the character, this film is ‘geek nirvana’. There are references galore that cover every major facet of the character’s long history, so much so that it’ll probably require a second viewing to catch them all. And the film does indeed warrant a second viewing (heck, I saw it twice this weekend) because aside from all the fun Easter Eggs, the film also has a charming story with an endearing cast of characters portrayed excellently by a pitch-perfect voice cast. Pair all this with excellent animation and you have a highly entertaining animated film that will please both Batman fans and those who are total newcomers to the franchise. And no, I’m not going to compare this to the current DC Extended Universe films, something that a few other critics have been doing, because they’re completely different entities. What I will say is that thanks to this film, Warner Bros.’ LEGO franchise is still going strong two films in. Up next, we have The LEGO Ninjago Movie, the second LEGO film of 2017 and based off the company’s highly successful franchise of the same name, and then followed by the official LEGO Movie Sequel in 2019. If all goes well, we may get more LEGO films in the years to come, though I must ask… where’s my LEGO Bionicle film, damn it?

Rating: 4.5/5

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Split (2017) review

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As a director, M. Night Shyamalan has had quite a varied career in the film industry in terms of how his films have been received by critics and audiences. After starting out with a few small indie films that didn’t get much attention, Shyamalan truly made a name for himself in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. The supernatural horror-thriller ended up being the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind only Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was also nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Shyamalan then followed that up with two solid critical and commercial hits in the form of 2000’s Unbreakable and 2002’s Signs. But then, Shyamalan’s career started to take a severe nosedive immediately thereafter. Throughout the early 2000’s, his films were subjected to increasingly harsh reviews from critics while audiences began to get more and more frustrated with his trademark twist endings. Thus, films like The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth ended up turning the filmmaker who was once touted by Newsweek as ‘the next Steven Spielberg’ into the butt of many jokes (“What a Twist!” – Robot Chicken). But, it seems like he’s recently started to turn his career around, thanks in part to his smaller-budgeted collaborations with horror producer Jason Blum. Two years ago, they first teamed up to make The Visit, which was Shyamalan’s first well-received directorial effort in more than a decade. This year, that streak continues with Shyamalan and Blum’s second collaboration, Split. And thanks to strong lead performances and an excellently crafted/suspenseful atmosphere, Split is very much one of Shyamalan’s best directorial efforts.

As the film begins, three teenaged girls; best friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and loner Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the latter of whom joins them when she finds herself without a ride home, are kidnapped by a mysterious man in their car following a day at the mall. When the three girls come to after being knocked out, they find themselves locked in a reinforced, windowless room. Soon after, they are truly introduced to their captor, Kevin (James McAvoy), a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. To be more specific, 23 distinct identities reside within Kevin’s mind. These identities range from a 9-year old boy named ‘Hedwig’ to a prim English woman named ‘Patricia’, complete with a red dress and high heels, to the ‘one’ who kidnapped them in the first place, ‘Dennis’. While in these various identities, Kevin warns the three girls that ‘someone’s coming for them’. As it turns out, this ‘someone’ is a 24th identity referred to only as ‘The Beast’, as Kevin notes that the three girls are set to be sacrificed to it once it arrives. With no one else around to help them, Casey, Claire, and Marcia begin to seek a way out of their current predicament before Kevin can truly unleash ‘The Beast’ upon them. Their solution? Try and turn Kevin’s different identities against one another.

While I’ve not yet seen The Visit, it’s clear that the transition from bigger-budgeted blockbusters, like The Last Airbender and After Earth, to the smaller-budgeted affairs that his last two films have been, is something that has very much helped Shyamalan in terms of his screenplays. Much of the action in this film is restricted to one primary location, Kevin’s hideout, and as such, Shyamalan creates an excellent amount of tension throughout as we are left waiting for Kevin’s ‘24th identity’ to emerge. And because Kevin can slip in and out of his various identities in an instant, you can never quite tell what he’s going to do next. Thus, when the finale does roll around, it results in a very suspenseful, as well as effectively minimal, climax to what has been a very effective ‘bottle episode’, sort of like what 10 Cloverfield Lane did last year. As for Shyamalan’s trademark knack for twist endings, without giving anything away, the twist in this film is solidly implemented into the story. It doesn’t reach the ridiculous lengths of some of Shyamalan’s most infamous twists (e.g. aliens being vulnerable to water despite coming to a planet that’s primarily covered in water (Signs)). It just fits naturally into the story. Plus, the twist, as well as the potential that it brings to the table, is sure to satisfy fans of another Shyamalan film, which I won’t name here to avoid giving any major details about this film’s twist away. Really, my only major negative towards the film is that it’s arguably a bit overlong. Split is Shyamalan’s longest film to date at just under two hours and it could’ve used a bit of trimming here and there, namely during some of the more slower moments.  

Of course, the main draw of this film is seeing the main villain, Kevin, go through his different identities. Admittedly, the film doesn’t go through all 23 of them (though, to be fair, that’d be a lot of ground to cover in the given runtime) but, nevertheless, James McAvoy does a fantastic job in the role. He slips into each distinct identity with ease while also conveying the right amount of creepiness with each one. ‘9-year-old Hedwig’ is easily the biggest standout in terms of his identities as he provides the film with some of its more humorous moments while also being arguably the most sympathetic of Kevin’s identities, as it’s established that he sometimes gets bullied by some of the other identities. McAvoy also works quite well in scenes with Betty Buckley, who does a great job in the role of Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, while also managing to overcome the status of being ‘the crazy old woman from The Happening (you know, the one that made Mark Wahlberg respond to a question with “What? No!”). As for the three main girls, admittedly only one of them truly matters in the long run; Casey, played by Anya-Taylor Joy, who’s kind of become a big star in the horror genre thanks to films like this and 2016’s The Witch. She does a great job here and her character is a well-layered protagonist. All throughout the film, we see flashbacks of her traumatic past, which not only makes her a sympathetic lead but also comes into effect later in the film. But like I said, she’s really the only one of the main trio of girls who gets any major screen-time. Both Claire and Marcia come off as being extraneous to the plot, especially considering that both disappear for sizable chunks of the runtime after they anger Kevin and are put in separate ‘cells’. I mean, yes, they are generally essential to the plot seeing how they’re the reason why Casey is kidnapped along with them, but they’re still the most underdeveloped of the main cast of characters.  

Okay, so I’ll admit that I was rather behind in terms of seeing this one as it’s already been out for a few weeks. However, I do want to note that there was quite a packed crowd at my screening, and again, keep in mind, this is three weeks into the film’s theatrical run. Clearly, Split has been a big hit with critics and audiences (in January, no less!) and it’s great to see Shyamalan have a critical/commercial hit again after all his misfires in the 2000’s. Of course, part of that comes from the fact that Split truly is one of his best efforts in recent years. It’s a well-tuned and suspenseful thriller that also benefits greatly from terrific performances from leads James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. Not being a big fan of the horror genre, I can’t really say much about whether this film delivers on scares or not, but I can say that there’s a good chance that you’ll be left on the edge of your seat by the end of it all.  Of course, as one would expect from a Shyamalan film, there are twists in this story but they do work well here, right down to the one that reveals the full extent of the universe in which this story takes place. And, again, it’s just good to see that Shyamalan has gotten his career back on track. I’ll admit that, prior to this, I’ve only seen two of his other films and, unfortunately, those two happen to be some of his most notorious ‘stinkers’, The Last Airbender and After Earth. So, at this moment, this film can claim the title of being the best Shyamalan film that I’ve seen to date. Admittedly, that’s not saying much considering that this is only the 3rd Shyamalan film that I’ve seen, but I will get around to seeing his other films in the future, especially the one that is tied to this film’s big reveal.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017) Season 1 Review

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(Disclaimer: Save for a brief spoiler section at the very end of the review, this post does not contain any major spoilers regarding anything that happens during this season.)

There are plenty of kids’ shows on the streaming service Netflix that can provide kids with fun and exciting content to watch. For example, there’s the Guillermo Del Toro-produced show Trollhunters or the show from DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon franchise. The following ‘family-friendly’ TV show, however, does not contain fun and exciting content. It is a series about a bunch of children who are subjected to all sorts of terrible and, in some cases, even deadly incidents as they’re pursued by a wicked man who looks to steal their money. Hehe, okay, again, I’m not going to do the whole ‘Lemony Snicket’-style narration for the whole review. It’s just that this gives me a fun way to open these posts. Yes, A Series of Unfortunate Events sees new light in the form of being the latest Netflix original series. This is the second live-action adaptation of author Daniel Handler’s (AKA Lemony Snicket) highly successful book series, following the 2004 film adaptation starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. And while I’ve argued that the film is a highly-underrated adaptation that’s hindered from being a forgotten relic of the era of Harry Potter-esque films, it ultimately never got a sequel, namely just because it took too long to make. But, now, we have a new version supervised by Barry Sonnenfeld, who was an executive producer on the original film and was apparently set to direct initially before backing out for unknown reasons, along with Handler himself, who wrote the teleplays for most of the episodes in this first season, which consists of eight episodes overall. And while the show’s theme song (sung by series star Neil Patrick Harris) may warn you to ‘look away, look away’, this new adaptation of the popular series is a charming and highly enjoyable watch that does manage to outdo its predecessor in quite a few areas.

There’s really no need to go into the story that much seeing how I already went over it in my review of the 2004 film. It’s the same scenario; the three Baudelaire children (inventing prodigy Violet (Malina Weissman), well-spoken, avid book reader Klaus (Louis Hynes), and their infant sister Sunny (Presley Smith, with vocals provided by Tara Strong)) learn that their parents have died in a fire. Their parents’ kind-hearted but oblivious banker, Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), puts them in the care of their ‘closest relative’ (though in this case, the term is used loosely), actor and theatre troupe leader Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who is really looking to steal their massive fortune, which they will inherit when Violet comes of age. And even after they manage to ‘get away’ from him and are placed in the care of other guardians, Olaf keeps coming back with new villainous schemes and disguises that only seem to fool the adults. Being that this is basically a ‘reboot’ of the franchise, it starts out with the same three stories that the film covered; The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window. However, unlike the film, it also includes a story that hasn’t been done in live-action before; The Miserable Mill. Thus, thanks to this new show, there’s a considerably high possibility that we will finally be able to have a ‘complete’ adaptation of the books in live-action. And because this show doesn’t have the constraints of having to cover multiple books in a short amount of time like the film had to do, it allows for more faithful adaptations of the books, with each entry getting two episodes a piece. Yeah, after I posted my review of the film, I realized that it probably wasn’t as ‘faithful’ as I claimed it was due to it having to condense the events of three books into one film. I still think that the film did do a decent job of retelling the main story under these conditions but, by comparison, the show does get more to work with.

There are still some new additions to the plot here and there but they do fit naturally into the series’ lore. This includes scenes where members of the secret organization V.F.D. try to help the Baudelaires, while usually finding themselves ‘held captive’ by Olaf and his henchmen, and a scene which explains a question that I bet a lot of us have been wondering for years; why did the Baudelaires end up under Count Olaf’s care in the first place? The answer, to put it simply, is one that is both hilarious and, at the same time, makes a lot of sense given how negligent most of the adults in this series tend to be. There is even an added ‘plotline’ which involves two characters played by Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett trying to escape various perilous predicaments (that mainly occur during the final few moments of each episode) to get back to their home. Without giving the full extent of this ‘plotline’ away, at first this seemed like a major deviation from the books, one that I feel would’ve gone against the entire premise of the series had it been the case. But, by the end of the season, it turns out to be a major bait-and-switch that, whether you like it or not, is very much in line with the overall tone of the series (I’ll talk about this more in the ‘spoiler section’). And like the film, the TV series does a phenomenal job in terms of capturing the spirit and visual style of the books. Despite the obvious fact that this is a series in which the main characters are constantly subjected to many terrible things, there’s quite a lot of humor in this show, whether it’s due to the many examples in which the adults are shown to be completely oblivious to everything that’s going on or the comedic banter of the main villains. The production/set design perfectly captures the gothic and, in some cases, retro nature of the story, something that the 2004 film did an excellent job of as well.

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Neil Patrick Harris is our new Count Olaf. I’m not going to make any major comparisons between him and Jim Carrey but I will say that Harris does do a phenomenal job in the role. He’s hilarious but, at the same time, is much more toned down compared to Carrey, which I’m sure is much more in line with how the character is portrayed in the books. It’s also a nice ‘against-type’ performance for Harris seeing how he usually doesn’t do villain roles. The series also allows for greater amounts of screen-time for Olaf’s henchmen, whereas in the film, the henchmen were downplayed in favor of Olaf, despite being played by some very recognizable stars like Craig Ferguson and Luis Guzman. Of the group, Usman Ally is a major standout as the hook-handed man, though the other henchmen cast members do have their great moments as well. Patrick Warburton stars in the role of Lemony Snicket, who of course narrates the proceedings, sometimes even popping up in a scene completely unnoticed by everyone else. Not only does he do a great job of providing the series with Snicket’s trademark narration (we are talking about one of the best voice actors in the industry) but he also does it in a way that effectively captures the sadness that is always conveyed by the character given his ‘connection’ to the whole story (e.g. his beloved ‘Beatrice’). Like the 2004 film, there are also plenty of major guest stars featured in supporting roles; Aasif Mandvi as Uncle Monty, Alfre Woodard as Aunt Josephine, Joan Cusack as Justice Strauss, Catherine O’Hara (who played Justice Strauss in the 2004 film) as the villainous optometrist Dr. Orwell (who, in this series, is set up as Olaf’s ex-girlfriend which, if you ask me, is perfect), and Don Johnson as Lucky Smells Lumbermill owner Sir, just to name a few. And through it all, just like the film, the Baudelaire orphans are just as endearing as ever. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes do excellent jobs as Violet and Klaus, respectively, and I also appreciate the fact that they kept a good amount of the edge that came from Sunny’s translated baby-talk, something that was utilized a lot in the film. Because, after all, while Sunny may be a baby and, as such, can only speak in baby gibberish, she’s very much aware of what’s going on. Heck, she straight up tells Mr. Poe that he’s an embarrassment to his profession; probably one of the most hilarious moments in the entire series.

As I noted a few weeks ago, I am a huge fan of the original A Series of Unfortunate Events film. Yes, the fact that I grew up with it is one of the main reasons why but I still feel that, despite some of its flaws, the film is a solidly entertaining adaptation of the books. However, I will also say that I’m happy that this new TV series exists because it could finally mean that we will have a full ‘screen adaptation’ of the story of the Baudelaires. And while I initially tried not to make too many comparisons between the two adaptations in this review, especially when compared to other reviews of the show, I’ll admit that there are quite a few things that this does better than the film; namely, the fact that the TV series format allows for a more thorough adaptation of the books instead of having to cram three books into one film. If I had to pick a favorite episode out of the bunch and, for the record, I’m referring to the pairs of episodes that make up each of the books adapted in this season instead of just one, it’d be a toss-up between The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room. Ultimately, though, all eight episodes are highly enjoyable to watch thanks to their lovely production design and an excellent ensemble highlighted by Neil Patrick Harris’ unforgettable turn as Count Olaf. But again, hopefully, this won’t be a case like last time where it takes too long for Season 2 to get made and they decide to can it like they did the film sequel. Because the final episode of the season concludes by going directly into the beginning of the events that took place in the fifth book, The Austere Academy. The potential to go on is very much there. Thankfully, it’s recently been confirmed by Daniel Handler that the show has been renewed for a second season. This next season will consist of 10 episodes which adapt books 5 through 9 and will hopefully be followed by a third season that covers the last four books.

Season 1 Rating: 4.5/5

DISCLAIMER: The following is a brief ‘Spoiler Section’ regarding the new ‘plot-line’ added in for this season. If you haven’t seen this series in full yet, don’t read on any further.

So, as I noted before, most episodes this season end with a sequence involving two characters, played by Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett, as they try and get out of various predicaments (e.g. getting stuck in Peru, having to fight off a bunch of goons at a bar, etc.) so that they can return to their children. With that in mind, initially, it’s assumed that these are the Baudelaires’ parents, implicating that they didn’t die in the fire that destroyed their home. And like I said before, I feel that this would’ve been a major betrayal of the story had this been the route that the show was going to take. Because, after all, it kind of defeats the purpose of having the Baudelaires go through all the crap that they endure if we know that their parents are still alive. Not only that, but fans of the series are aware that the main connection that ties Lemony Snicket to the story is the fact that he used to be an old flame of the Baudelaires’ mother, hence why each book (and, therefore, first episode of each of the show’s two-parters) opens with a dedication to Beatrice. Granted, maybe that should’ve been a dead give-away as to how this all plays out but, still, at first it seemed like these were the Baudelaire parents. And I won’t lie, this kind of hindered my overall enjoyment of the show during the first half of the season. But, at the end of the first half of The Miserable Mill, it’s revealed that this was all building up to a major fake-out. We see the Baudelaires head over to the ‘visiting area’ of the Lumbermill when told that they have visitors. During this time, we see the two parents arrive at a door resembling the one in the mill’s visiting area, implying that the Baudelaires are about to reunite with their parents. But, it’s instead revealed that the two are the parents of the Quagmire triplets; Isadora, Duncan, and Quigley, who become major allies of the Baudelaires in future installments. The real ‘visitors’ that the Baudelaires were notified of are Dr. Orwell and Count Olaf, the latter of whom is disguised as Orwell’s new receptionist Shirley, who give Klaus a new pair of glasses that put him into a hypnotic trance. Yeah, it’s arguably kind of a major buzzkill in regards to it not resulting in a happy ending for the Baudelaires but this is A Series of Unfortunate Events, after all. And as the first season concludes, we see that the Baudelaire and Quagmire children are about to cross paths as it’s shown that two of the latter family are heading to the same boarding school as the Baudelaires after experiencing the same exact tragedy of having a fire destroy their home.