Out on Friday 17 February
Keanu Reeves goes deeper underground. Full-beam filmmaking from Barry Jenkins. Taraji P. Henson excels in a heart-warming history lesson. Michael Keaton’s McDonald’s movie needs tougher meat.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of John Wick: Chapter 2, Moonlight, The Great Wall, Hidden Figures, The Founder, Lost in France, Love of My Life, and Multiple Maniacs.
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John Wick: Chapter 2
When John Wick arrived in 2014, it took everyone by surprise. Delivering a rabbit punch to the action genre’s solar plexus, this sharp mix of gun-fu fight choreography and New York noir offered Keanu Reeves yet another career rebirth, just as The Matrix did in 1999.
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, former stunt doubles who worked with Reeves on that seminal Wachowskis-directed sci-fi, it was the sort of lean, mean actioner that had rarely been seen since John Woo’s Hong Kong heyday (The Killer, Hard Boiled).
Picking up where the first film left off, John Wick: Chapter 2 sees Reeves’ titular, black-suited hitman still on the rampage. You’ll remember this retired assassin they call ‘the Boogeyman’ was forced to get back in the game after Russian gangsters took a fancy to his Mustang and killed his dog – given to him by his late wife Helen before her untimely demise.
Quite rightly, Chapter 2 starts mid-chase. “John Wick is a man of focus, commitment and sheer fucking will,” says Peter Stormare’s cigar-chomping syndicate boss, all too aware of Wick’s relentless nature and remarkable skill set.
Before the opening credits, Wick has taken down Stormare’s drug-smuggling goons in a warehouse, virtually turning his Mustang into scrap metal in the process.
Returning to his chic modernist pad, now occupied by the chocolate pit-bull he picked up from animal rescue in the previous film’s finale, Wick re-cements his cache of weapons back into the basement floor when there’s a knock at the door. Standing there is another ghost from his violent past, Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), who gives him a so-called “marker”: crime-speak for an offer he can’t refuse.
When Wick refuses the hit, Santino brings out the big guns – quite literally, in an explosive set-piece. This being the netherworld Wick operates in, run by a strict series of codes, he has little choice but to take the job – which involves killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini).
Turns out Santino wants her seat at the High Table, a coveted place among a group of elite crime lords bestowed to Gianna by their father. And so, with his Mustang being repaired by John Leguizamo’s returning chop-shop owner Aurelio, Wick hotfoots it to Rome.
Arriving in the eternal city, Wick gets tooled up thanks to Peter Serafinowicz’s classy gun-seller – and then the fun really starts. Forced to confront literally dozens of guards, Reeves gets to work – above ground in a plush palazzo and in the eerily lit catacombs below. But that’s just the beginning of his dilemmas, as Santino turns the tables and casts Wick as an outlaw in a world of outlaws.
With Derek Kolstad back on screenwriting duties, what JW: C2 does well is to expand on the underworld network hinted at in the original. Naturally, we return to the Continental, the swanky Manhattan hotel owned by Ian McShane’s suave Winston and overseen by Lance Reddick’s all-knowing concierge Charon – a sort of safe haven for hitmen and other organised crime types that doesn’t permit killing on the premises.
Here, Kolstad also shows what happens when a hit is put out on someone: tattoo-clad telephone operators take the message, sending it chuntering through old-fashioned suction tubes like something out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Likewise, we get to see more of just how deadly Wick’s world is: assassins lurk on every street corner, from violin-playing buskers to a giant sumo wrestler who puts all of Wick’s specialist skills to the test.
While Leitch doesn’t return as co-director, Stahelski has lost none of his knack for action. Last year’s Hardcore Henry may have upped the brutality ante but JW: C2 winds you with its intensity – driven by Reeves’ remarkable athleticism and some wonderful choreography. A fight with Gianna’s bodyguard (Common) in a subway train is just one of the hugely inventive sequences that prove there’s plenty of life (and death) left in the genre yet.
There’s also a wry little Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, with Morpheus pitching up as a pigeon-fancying overlord to a network of assassin-street-beggars. It sounds weird, and it is – though no stranger than the oddball production design from Kevin Kavanaugh, culminating in a hall-of-mirrors modernist art exhibition called ‘Reflections on the Soul’ – “to lead you into deeper reflection of the nature of self”.
True, John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t quite hit the heights of the original – partly because the element of surprise when it comes to the fight-work is gone, partly because it lacks the emotional pull of Wick avenging his wife’s memory. But as badass B-movies go, this really gets the blood pumping.
THE VERDICT: Not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, but its ‘more of the same’ mantra will satisfy fans. Stunning fights, relentless action and a super-cool Keanu.
Director: Chad Stahelski; Starring: Keanu Reeves, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you want to be,” says drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) to Chiron, a 10-year-old boy living in Miami with no father and a crack-dependent mother (Naomie Harris). From this brief description, Barry Jenkins’ film might sound like every other ’hood movie. But little about this story of identity, sexuality, class and race is run-of-the-mill.
Charting three distinct chapters in the life of Chiron, spanning roughly 16 years, Moonlight is almost impossible to categorise beyond its loose ‘coming-of-age’ tropes. Touching on issues of bullying, addiction and, above all, sexual confusion and repression, it’s a superbly crafted piece of work that frequently takes a sledgehammer to the stereotypes too easily associated with African-American cinema.
Inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s theatre piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins uses different actors to play Chiron and his friend Kevin in the trio of chapters (dubbed ‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’, after the various names our hero’s known by). We begin with Little (Alex Hibbert), who’s near-silent for the first 10 minutes after Juan discovers him in a crack den.
Lacking a father figure, Little’s friendship with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) grows – a bond complicated by the fact Juan sells drugs to Little’s mother. Already questions are forming in Little’s mind about his sexuality – something that becomes ever-more clouded when the film jumps six years. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is now at high school and has feelings for Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), an inveterate womaniser.
Finally, when we see Chiron in his mid-20s – now played by Trevante Rhodes – his life has changed dramatically. To say how would spoil the surprise, beyond the fact he goes by the name ‘Black’ and is living in Atlanta. Rhodes adeptly conveys the emotional turmoil his character is in; André Holland, who plays Kevin – now a short-order cook – is also an admirable foil.
Across all three segments, Naomie Harris is marvellous as Chiron’s mother, Paula, whose gradual descent into crack dependency – mirrored by their family home’s decline into a hovel – is brilliantly essayed. But it’s the craft of Moonlight that lingers: the terrific sound design, for example, that reflects Paula’s fractured mental state, or the dreamy cinematography as Chiron spends a night under Miami’s palms.
With a classical score by Nicholas Britell – another fine against-the-grain choice – Moonlight keeps surprising. The final reel isn’t quite as impactful as you’d hope, but it’s a hugely impressive work – one that’s won the Golden Globe for Best Drama – and will be long remembered.
THE VERDICT: Sensitive, subtle and heartfelt, Jenkins’ genre-buster is a significant work that will knock you out.
Director: Barry Jenkins; Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017
The Great Wall
The director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers making an action epic about colour-coded swathes of militia defending the Great Wall from wave after wave of mythical beasts should be a thing of beauty, fluency, poetry. Instead, Zhang Yimou’s history-making Chinese-American collaboration delivers ugly blue-grey (b)landscapes, choppy cutting and CGI that flip-flops from serviceable to dreadful.
Set in the Song Dynasty, this sees western mercenaries William (Matt Damon, occasionally attempting an Oirish accent) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) trade tin-eared bantz as they quest for gunpowder but instead stumble upon a 5,500ft-long wall.
Their timing is unfortunate: every 60 years said wall is assaulted by pixel-imperfect creatures that look like hurriedly spliced velociraptors, Alien Queens and Minotaurs, and these beasts are nigh, intent on making it through to the capital of Bianliang.
There are thrillingly kinetic moments (fireballs pinged from catapults, bungee-jumping female warriors) and two scenes of breath-snatching beauty (hundreds of Chinese lanterns released from atop the wall, sunlight pouring through stained-glass windows) but this is otherwise repetitive, unengaging and deathly dull.
Come the end it feels like 60 years have passed – but let’s hope that doesn’t signal a new wave of creatures and an imminent sequel.
THE VERDICT: A murky mishmash of a movie, with the lightest smattering of glorious moments. Re-watch Starship Troopers instead.
Director: Zhang Yimou; Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017
A warm helping of family-friendly feelgood history, this well-played, empowering drama celebrates African-American maths whizzes Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson’s true-life contributions to the US space programme.
Employed as lowly ‘computers’, hand-checking calculations in 1961’s race-segregated NASA, all three friends battle to join the all-white team that’s racing to beat the Russians into space. Taraji P. Henson’s dignified Katherine struggles with a bristling boss (Kevin Costner), hostile colleagues and ingrained racism to put her analytical geometry skills towards John Glenn’s 1962 Earth orbit.
Friend Dorothy (tenacious Octavia Spencer) wants to programme the men-only IBM computer that baffles NASA eggheads. And Mary (a rebellious Janelle Monáe) can’t get on whites-only engineering courses without taking on local courts.
Uplifting but not schmaltzy, Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent) film is no maths-laden oppression tale. The pacey script is as slickly engineered as a Mercury rocket to include girl-power fun, romance and against-the-clock launchpad crises. Its sleekly recreated ’60s is wrapped in Pharrell Williams tunes, plus a side helping of redneck comedy cops: “We gotta get a man into space before them damn Commies do!”
THE VERDICT: Taraji P. Henson excels in a heart-warming history lesson that proves not only rocket men had The Right Stuff.
Director: Theodore Melfi; Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017
Its title oozing more irony than a Big Mac spews gloopy sauce, John Lee Hancock’s finely acted portrait of the McDonald’s empire’s huckster-in-chief needs more vinegar on its fries.
Played by Michael Keaton with a perfectly pitched mix of live-wire charm and snake-oil smarm, Ray Kroc didn’t ‘found’ Maccy D’s. A struggling but persistent salesman, Kroc simply wondered why two California brothers wanted to buy his multi-mixers.
When he visits Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald’s folksy but super-efficient, super-popular burger joint, Kroc spawns a “whizz-bang” idea that Hollywood would be proud of: franchise that shit. The McDonalds concur, only to eventually lose their baby in the dance with Keaton’s corporate devil.
A satire of capitalist can-do thinking lurks in The Wrestler/Turbo writer Robert D. Siegel’s script, yet Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) lacks the stomach to do full justice to its vision of the American dream plummeting into a nightmare. Hancock seems happiest in the sun-dappled scenes of burger-scoffing families that mirror Kroc’s bogus vision.
Later, the vision curdles without darkening enough. Like a Happy Meal, The Founder doesn’t fully satisfy.
THE VERDICT: Keaton sells the crap out of Kroc’s filet-o-fishy business, but sauce overrides substance: it needed tougher meat.
Director: John Lee Hancock; Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017
Lost in France
Doc centred on the ’90s salad days of Scotland’s indie-music scene, engineered by cult record label Chemikal Underground. The music, from the likes of Mogwai and The Delgados, is great, but the film is too content to revel in nostalgia.
What’s missing is a discussion of what the label’s subsequent decline says about the modern state of the music industry. Likeable, but low-stakes.
Director: Niall McCann; Starring: Stuart Braithwaite, Stewart Henderson, Alex Kapranos, Emma Pollock; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017
Love of My Life
Taking its cue from the blasé attitude of protagonist Grace (Anna Chancellor) on learning she may have only five days to live, this comedy-drama elicits chortles aplenty with its gently caustic humour despite the dark subject matter.
Events spiral when Grace’s ex-husband Richard (John Hannah) appears, making her wonder; is he, or current husband (James Fleet), the love of her life?
Director: Joan Carr-Wiggin; Starring: Anna Chancellor, John Hannah, James Fleet, Hermione Norris, Greg Wise; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017
John Waters’ first feature talkie sees Divine heading up a travelling Cavalcade of Perversions, shocking punters with “acts against God and nature” before robbing them. Then she tries to murder her cheating boyfriend…
Shot for $5,000, this ’70s black-and-white curio was the “trainer wheels” for Waters’ shockfest Pink Flamingos. Warning: features assault by giant lobster.
Director: John Waters; Starring: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivan Pearce; Theatrical release: February 17, 2017