Monthly Archives: May 2016

Keanu — 6/10

KEANU (2016, Peter Atencio)

A complete dressing down of the insecure masculinity at the heart of gangster culture, KEANU is every bit as clever and insightful as the best sketches over the course of Key & Peele’s fine history. The biggest problem is, of course, those sketches were clever at 4 minutes, while this feature lasts 100.

Despite wearing out its welcome in the final stretch, the movie has enough sharp observations to make it memorable. The premise involves an intense struggle over a tiny, cute kitten (the least macho pet there is); murderous thugs respect (unbeknownst to them) a white, gay singer like George Michael once they assume he killed someone; and the most capable member of the Blips (“you know, Blood-Crips. Blips”) is female (and pulling one over on everybody). The extent to which middle-class blacks will pander to thug culture to validate their race is at the heart of the satire here, and the two leads are terrific actors in that regard — Key’s hyper, over-wired intensity is both hilarious and properly established (in that he claims to be pumped up after seeing a Liam Neeson[s] movie), and Peele’s understated menace is wildly unbelievable and endearing.

Nods to everything from BEVERLY HILLS COP to BREAKING BAD abound in Atencio’s staging and editing, and you could tell from their sketch show that he loves stylistic action. But funny sketches don’t make for wholly successful complete features, and the attempts to mine actual character development here don’t really work. This isn’t exactly MIDNIGHT RUN, and Atencio is no Martin Brest. But it will be easy to watch on cable every time it comes on, even if “Father Figure” gets stuck in your head.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising — 7/10

NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING (2016, Nicholas Stoller)

You’d think a hastily-produced sequel to a raunchy frat comedy, credited to five different screenwriters and featuring an actress named “Awkwafina,” would be a disaster. What a pleasant surprise, then, that it’s a tight, gleefully inspired riot, perhaps even better than the first outing. Stoller’s energy is getting snappier with each movie he does (THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL had sagging problems), the high-point here being the raucous Tailgate sequence complete with an astoundingly hilarious shot of a half-naked Seth Rogen emerging from a cloud to race towards us in slow-motion set to Beastie Boys’s “Sabotage.” Or the shot of Zac Efron (an ever-improving comic talent) also running towards us in slo-mo while crying into the night. With no digressions and no efforts at superfluous character background and/or developments, the 92-minute NEIGHBORS 2 is just nonstop comic intensity.

Its overarching theme about female empowerment and the inherent sexism of both college institutions and raunchy movie comedies themselves is astute and given the proper context. The film is somehow both broad and nuanced, featuring great moments like Rose Byrne’s perfect reaction shot when Chloë Grace Moretz says “The mom is right!” And supporting players like Dave Franco and Ike Barinholtz do great work without being given too much overindulgence (the way they might be in a flabbier picture by the likes of Judd Apatow). Bottom line: this is really, really funny and happens to nail universal fears of parenting, growing up, going to college, being married, and facing the real world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

High-Rise — 2/10

HIGH-RISE (2016, Ben Wheatley)

Loud, obnoxious, and insanely boring, HIGH-RISE will give you whiplash by spinning so fast between two modes: shallow, dull inertness, and manic, overstuffed heavy-handedness. Neither of them are in any way interesting, intelligent, or entertaining. A brain-dead satire of Britain’s inability to provide its citizens with the opportunity for upward mobility (no shit?!), Wheatley’s sub-Gilliam atonal disaster has any number of howlingly silly bits worthy of a top-10 Embarrassing Moments list. Luke Evans’s entire performance belongs at the top, though one hilarious scene has Elisabeth Moss back-handed complimenting Tom Hiddleston — then 60 seconds later we see Hiddleston leaning against a wall reminiscing about the line (to which the audio track flashes back to what we just heard a minute ago). The editing seems to have been done by iTunes’s shuffle play rather than credited joiners Amy Jump and Wheatley (the writer and director, respectively), and there isn’t a single surprise in the narrative or how it plays out. It just lumbers from one insultingly obvious bloviation to the next. Case in point: in an early scene, Hiddleston accompanies a friend to the swimming pool wearing his suit and tie, and the woman remarks to him “You haven’t changed.” And he says “I don’t think I can.” Double meaning alert! Then later, he tells a cashier at the market “Keep the change” to which she replies “There isn’t any.” WHOA. Blew my mind.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Lobster – 9/10

THE LOBSTER (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos)

After a successful debut at Cannes in May 2015, then another well-received stint at Toronto that fall, it still took forever to get THE LOBSTER released to American audiences. It came out overseas last October, but Alchemy (formerly Millennium), the company who bought stateside distribution rights, fell on hard times. They laid off 40 employees in February 2016 and ultimately lost the movie completely. A24 picked it up, set a March release date, then moved it again to May, where it finally saw the light of day. Two reasons I’m telling this industry backstory: 1) it not only lives up to the expectations set by such a long delay and a year’s worth of hype; it exceeds them to become the best movie of 2016 so far… and 2) this is a movie about institutions: how they fail, why they cause people to suffer, but that the underlying emotions will not be extinguished and perhaps love (or art) can still win in the end. Even if it just gets delayed for a bit. Can it?

Too often social allegories like this fall prey to a common cinematic trap: filmmakers who rely heavily on What the Story Means and forget to spin a narrative. THE LOBSTER is so refreshing in that it not only sets up a sci-fi dystopian near-future rich with allusions to modern issues, but it also has a propulsive drive from a solid plot engine. New information is revealed every ten minutes, and the story keeps changing and morphing all the way to the final scene. It doesn’t give up on plot, even though it could easily use its fascinating characters as crutches and lean on them for material to sustain the running time.

What those revelations entail I won’t spoil here — but the focus is keen, as Lanthimos seems determined to investigate our society’s obsession with institution, law, and rebellion. Whereas other sci-fi films like, for example, LOGAN’S RUN or MINORITY REPORT, center around police states that exhibit the tyranny of youth or crime prevention, THE LOBSTER amusingly sets its sights on marriage. It drops in jokes about how people have kids to solve problems, or that they think they’re suited to one another because of some superficial similarity like being near-sighted or getting frequent nosebleeds, while observing that failed relationships are often built on lies with one person attempting to play an ill-fitting role they think their partner will enjoy. This is plenty-fertile ground, but Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou don’t stop there — they create a faction of rebels fighting this institution by trying to break couples up, standing for loneliness and self-reliance, then uncover problems with that side too.

I can’t overstate how clever and deep this commentary goes. Visually, Lanthimos creates a Kubrickian, antiseptic quality to the hotel at which his singles live, and that cold distance results in a black humor reminiscent of Stanley’s greatest works. But there’s more — he directs his actors (a fine cast with a solid bench) to deliver their lines like tired robots who don’t believe anything they’re saying and have given up trying to convince those to whom they’re speaking that any of this is the truth. It takes a good actor to play a person being a bad actor. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz emerge as stars, but EXTRAS’s Ashley Jensen makes an impact (so to speak), as do Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux. The tone is perfect — it’s never too jokey, but never self-serious. Lanthimos holds on scenes and shots long enough to really soak in the point, but doesn’t overstay his welcome. It’s the rare film that moves along at a brisk pace but takes time to draw out every key moment. Thimios Bakitakis’s camerawork may be the only weak link (color and composition fail to stand out as superlative like the other creative elements), but this is such a funny, smart, and sobering original story that it will be a pleasure to revisit for years to come.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Captain America: Civil War — 6/10

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016, Anthony & Joe Russo)

Few Hollywood studios are as successful at producing cynical cash-grabs as Disney’s Marvel. Having unleashed a hellscape of superhero diarrhea across the multiplexes of the USA, Marvel has turned in an impressive number of passably entertaining candy-colored ATMs. The AVENGERS series in particular has gobbled up almost all the loose strands, and has become a big-screen TV series with $250 million episodes showing up once a year. All that’s missing from this latest entry is a quick montage of “Previously, on The Avengers…”

Whether this episode belongs in the Captain America franchise or not is purely academic (I’m sure as I write this, nerds from Austin to Anaheim are huddled in ramen restaurants debating why this couldn’t have been an IRON MAN movie and why Thor and Hulk and Nick Fury were nowhere to be found). What we have is a distillation of a formula that has been honed over all of them: it’s bright, has some humor, is done with a decent amount of competence, and has virtually no discernible visual style, rhythm, or artistic merit. Try as I might to find something overwhelmingly positive or negative in these things, it appears I’m going to be handing out 6/10s to these for the next decade.

There’s plenty to dislike in the first half of this 146-minute ILM ad. Countless debates over the unrestricted power and catastrophic consequences of omnipotent superheroes bring to mind BATMAN v SUPERMAN, with equally narrow-minded results. Then we are introduced to Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther: it’s exceptionally startling how bad Boseman is. His face and mannerisms don’t match his awful and uncomfortably fake accent, resulting in what feels like an awkward audition video we’re forced to watch before a real actor takes the role. And although the film is paced quickly from beginning to end, the narrative and action sequences of the first half are dull and laborious.

But then things pick up. In a film already cluttered with characters, Paul Rudd and Tom Holland show up to deliver MVP performances. (Just watch Ant-Man’s face when he can’t believe himself saying “I’m shaking your hand for so long, Captain America!”). Then we get to the movie’s centerpiece sequence, a 20-minute barrage of effects work as a dozen mutated weirdos in techno-suits use an abandoned airport hangar (a boring location with no visual distinction in its background or props) for an insane battle. It’s thrilling on both a technical and creative level, and gives the movie an electric jolt that sustains it through the admirably dark conclusion.

But with the Russo brothers in the directors’ chairs, there’s no stamp of purpose or identity. They feel more like set managers than artists, delivering product on time and within budget, satisfying the demands of egos from Paul Bettany to Jeremy Renner. For adaptations of comic books, Russo brothers movies don’t feel like comic books in the slightest. Where Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN films (for one example) dripped with visual flair and comic-panel artistry, these episodes have zero interesting camera sense:  composition is an afterthought, and editing is functional without being assertive. The source is gone, and all that’s left is a massive production from hardworking people good at their jobs, but sadly at the bottom of their list of priorities is the wonder and magic of movies.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized