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New Releases for June 13, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Genre: Action/Sequel

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Run time: 122 minutes

Rating: R

Format: Blu-Ray

The Lowdown: John Wick is the action hero we need right now.

He doesn’t speak unless absolutely necessary. He walks – miles if necessary – without letting anything deter his path. And he gets the job done, regardless of how many adversaries stand in his way.

As embodied by Keanu Reeves, Wick – particularly this iteration in John Wick: Chapter 2 – is akin to a 21st-century Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. He just keeps going. And it works. Really, really well.

The creative team of director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, both returning for the sequel, clearly know their audience, but more – they know what makes an action movie great. And teamed with Reeves, they don’t let off the gas for Chapter 2’s entire 122-minute runtime.

The films opens with a brilliant burst of carnage that takes Wick from charging down a motorcycle goon in his muscle car to dispatching bad guys throughout the secret criminal lair of Abram, perfectly played by Peter Stormare, as a man who knows when he’s up against an unstoppable force.

Much of John Wick: Chapter 2 plays like a campfire ghost story told to keep unruly children in check. Wick is the boogeyman. The monster under your bed. Or in your closet. He is a ghost you only see just before you die.

This mythology-building works in spades. Not only does it add extra oomph to each successive gun battle – Ok, he got past 12 bad guys, but no way he kills 24 bad guys – but as a viewer, you begin to believe in the cult of Wick. He’s the avenging angel you want on your side because he just won’t stop.

Stahelski and Kolstad are smart enough to know that having their antihero survive massive amounts of gunfire without ever being hit is the stuff of movies, not real life, so they wisely show their hand upfront, having Wick invest in a dapper suit that also happens to be lined with Kevlar. It hurts like hell when he’s shot, but it also explains why he keeps going.

They also wisely create an assassin’s Switzerland, so to speak, with The Continental, a boutique hotel in New York where bad guys swap craft cocktails and declarations of future pain but violence is strictly forbidden. The hotel plays a pivotal role in Chapter 2 and it provides a nice opportunity to exhale and take a moment before the next action set piece erupts.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is that rare sequel that surpasses the original. It’s precise and fully thought-through. There’s no wasted exposition, no subplots shoehorned in to allow for a brief cameo. It is as lean and nitrous-infused as Dominic Toretto’s signature black Charger, but without the bloat that has slowly swelled The Fast and the Furious franchise to well past two hours per picture.

And Chapter 2 does something else – it makes you want to see more immediately. Seriously, Chapter 3 can’t arrive soon enough, and it should surpass the first two films in box office dollars.

The Stuff You Care About: Hot chicks – Oh yes.

Nudity – No. Gore – Lots of gun violence.

Drug use – No.

Bad Guys/Killers – Pretty much everyone in the damn movie is a killer.

Buy/Rent – Buy it.

The LEGO Batman Movie (Warner Bros., 105 minutes, PG, Blu-Ray): The creative team behind the burgeoning LEGO film franchise has delivered another winner, and in the process, they’ve also created one of the best Batman movies ever made.

The LEGO Batman Movie might be geared toward children, but trust us, it’s as foreboding and dark, if not more so, than anything Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher ever attempted.

It’s also a laugh riot with Will Arnett proving to be a master at exposing the personal and professional pitfalls of living under the caped crusader’s cowl.

For one, Batman just wants to be Batman, and permanently shelve Bruce Wayne. And who can blame him – Batman is an icon, a beloved vigilante who gets to play with the best toys in the biggest sandbox ever. But being Batman comes with a cost, namely shutting off his emotions and compartmentalizing any attachments, including friendships and alliances, in order to remain fearless in the face of omnipresent danger.

Did we mention this isn’t a traditional kid’s movie?

Don’t worry – there’s only so much psychological baggage that can be mined when your principal characters are bit-size, candy-colored blockheads. And a key subplot involving the Joker’s desire for Batman to finally own up and acknowledge that he is the ying to Batman’s yang, his arch-nemesis and most enduring foil, provides plenty of witty back and forth between Arnett and Zach Galifianakis (who voices the Joker).

The film also incorporates live-action footage plus dozens of Easter eggs spotlighting Batman’s historical evolution from pulp-comic avenger through Adam West’s swinging ‘60s heyday all the way up to The Dark Knight and Batfleck (that’s Ben Affleck as Batman in the new DC film universe, FYI).

Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (Shout! Factory, 95 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): True story – watching Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, which was the comedy duo’s second feature film, was my first time ever seeing a Cheech and Chong movie in its entirety.

Nearly 40 years since they broke big, I don’t necessarily get the hype.

In fact, I didn’t even find Next Movie to be particularly funny, especially for a “stoner” comedy. There are moments, sure, but the best weedsploitation movies – Pineapple Express, Dazed and Confused, Friday – are consistently funny from beginning to end, and they don’t have to sacrifice plot in order to make you laugh.

Next Movie bounces along from one irreverent skit to the next, with no consequences or repercussions for any of the wildly juvenile and often illegal actions perpetrated by Cheech and Chong. Maybe in 1980 this was comedy gold, but in 2017, it smells and smokes like dirt weed.

Now on Video-on-Demand:

Kill Switch (Saban Films, 91 minutes, R, VOD): First, there was Hardcore Henry, an ultra-violent, feature-length POV-exercise in bloody carnage that proved exhausting and, for some, nauseating.

Then came Pandemic, a POV-viral outbreak-zombie thriller, which barely registered on the radar for most genre cinema fans.

For the uninitiated, POV equals point-of-view, as in the movie is shot from the perspective of the viewer to simulate, much like first-person shooter videogames do, the experience of being fully-immersed in the action.

Thankfully, as with many new technologies and creative upgrades, the third-time proves to be the charm with Kill Switch, an apocalyptic POV-style science fiction/action hybrid, which wisely incorporates just enough traditional filmmaking to provide the necessary context before it goes full-on first-person.

As conceived and directed by visual effects wizard Tim Smit, Kill Switch proves to be exciting and engaging. It definitely helps that Smit was able to recruit the red-hot Dan Stevens (The Guest, Marvel’s Legion, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) to play Will Porter, a pilot and physicist, who is tasked with entering an alternate world following the disastrous launch of an unlimited energy system. Porter must navigate a mirror reality that includes various security updates in order to fix the energy system and save both worlds from imploding.

Smit understands that many people are not ready to sit for 90 minutes or more and watch the equivalent of a virtual reality game as it unspools before their eyes. And he wisely avoids the pitfalls that undermined Hardcore Henry’s most thrilling, yet disorienting, sequences by maintaining a tether to the familiar, namely having physical characters that the audience meets and has time to identify with before the crazy action explodes.

It’s a simple thing, really, a small detail, but thankfully Smit provides that foundation, which elevates Kill Switch from a novelty exercise into a showcase for the potential future of mainstream filmmaking.

Once Upon a Time in Venice (RLJ Entertainment, 94 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Poor Bruce Willis – what were you thinking, man?

A lot of movies have found success by following specific rules designed to make it look like they are following no rules whatsoever: Pulp Fiction, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, hell, even The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.

But even the most carefree of rambling, ambling motion pictures need to establish some basic benchmarks, namely character development, some semblance of a plot and a hint of technical savvy.

Co-written and directed by Mark Cullen, a first-time feature helmer (and the guy who wrote Kevin Smith’s awful Cop Out, which also starred Willis), along with his brother Robb, this is the kind of action-comedy-hybrid that wants to seem as effortless as The Blues Brothers in unspooling its free-wheeling, anything-can-possibly-happen narrative adventure.

It just doesn’t work as well as expected, and there are so many reasons why, and they all stem from the Cullen brothers’ screenplay. Here are three prime examples:

  • Bruce Willis’s character, PI Steve Ford, is supposedly a disgraced former cop. Why? What happened? We’re never told.

  • Two letters: VO, as in voice over. They just don't work. Especially when the voice over belongs to a character other than your central character who isn’t even in the movie all that much.

  • Ethnic stereotypes. Jason Momoa was born in Hawaii and raised in Iowa. Here, he plays Spider, the Mexican head of a drug cartel, who basically says ‘Homes’ a lot to try and sound more Mexican. Momoa is a funny guy. He doesn’t need to mimic the lowest-common denominator for laughs.

Once Upon a Time in Venice is clearly meant to be a launching pad for a potential franchise. And Willis is a perfect candidate to spearhead such an endeavor. If there is to be a second outing featuring his character, more consideration needs to be invested in the story in order to justify viewers’ taking the time to hitch along for the ride.

My Scientology Movie (Magnolia Pictures, 99 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Here lately, likely much to its chagrin, the Church of Scientology has been everywhere, and not for the best of reasons.

From Leah Remini’s scathing Scientology and the Aftermath on the A&E cable network, to news reports of a rogue Scientologist in Tennessee kidnapping citizens and sequestering them in his own homemade ‘treatment center,’ the church’s public persona is taking a beating in the court of public opinion.

Church officials likely won’t enjoy My Scientology Movie either, but the film, from Louis Theroux, a documentary filmmaker from the UK, is thankfully a 180-degree swerve from the typical news-style expose treatment that many viewers are used to. It’s also hysterically funny, and surprisingly insightful, as Theroux attempts to gain entrance to the church and its vast holdings, but winds up the star of his own film once Scientologists begin documenting him and his efforts.

Even if you’ve reached critical mass on all things Scientology, My Scientology Movie deserves to be seen.

Also Available:

Dragonheart: Battle for the Heartfire

South Park: The Complete Twentieth Season

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