Tuesday, May 31, 2016

AFI Top 100: #29 "Double Indemnity"

Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)

Even though I've gotten farther behind on these reviews than I'm willing to admit in print, it still isn't lost on me that we're within reach of the Top 20 on our AFI Top 100 quest. That means that in the past [almost] two years, this blog has published over 70 classic reviews for beloved movies. And this gem is no different. A continued exploration of the film noir genre, this time veering into the world of murder for love—and, of course, for riches. Who are we kidding? In the spectacularly rich Double Indemnity, coming in at #29 on our countdown, we're treated to the most fully-realized noir of all time, perfected long before this was a studied genre.

The top salesman at the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), has a new client. Hired by the man's glamorous and flirtatious young wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Neff realizes there's more than meets the eye with this transaction when Phyllis pursues an affair with him—an affair he does nothing to discourage. When Phyllis suggests that her husband's death could free them to be together, Neff's intimate knowledge of Mr. Dietrichson's accident insurance policy leads him to devise a complicated scheme in order to activate its double indemnity clause. It appears that the unrequited lovers are primed to get away with their plot, that is until Neff's friend and boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), begins to investigate Phyllis—with suspicions that she's in cahoots with another man.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Music Mondays: Justin Timberlake "Can't Stop the Feeling"

Happy Memorial Day, all you US folks! I hope you're all merrily drunk on beer and hot dogs by this point, and if the playlist spinning wherever you are isn't rocking Justin Timberlake's new uber-pop track, "Can't Stop the Feeling," then they're robbing you of a dancing good time. OK, so it might be the final credits track for the new movie Trolls, but that doesn't mean it's not catchy to the max!

Enjoy the day, everyone, and try to ignore the fact you have to return to work tomorrow. Muah! xx

Artist: Justin Timberlake
Song: "Can't Stop the Feeling" | download
Album: Trolls Soundtrack

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Movie Review: "X-Men: Apocalypse" (2016)

© 20th Century Fox

It never hurts to preface that I'm clueless when it comes to the convoluted comic history of Marvel's X-Men. I can't knowingly comment on how the studio changed this character this way or that character that way, much less the accuracy of the plot itself, so those choices have no barring on my thoughts below. That being said, it doesn't stop me from having an opinion about original X-Men director, Bryan Singer's, latest foray into the mutant world with X-Men: Apocalypse. He just can't quite figure out how to make this movie work.

Kitschy and playful ribbing of eighties culture and the franchise itself is counteracted by its characters taking themselves far too seriously to be in on the fun. Newly introduced mutants were split down the middle between exciting new additions and cumbersome baggage—the latter of which was usually accompanied by an inability to act with an accent not their own.

In a continuation of the events of 70s-set Days of Future Past, our mutant friends have come together behind Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) at his newly founded school for Gifted Youngsters. There we meet a whole slew of unfamiliar faces with very familiar names. Noticeably absent from teaching duties, however, is Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), now working to rescue tormented mutants across the globe, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), in hiding after becoming the most wanted mutant in the world.

But like all superhero flicks, there must be a supervillain, and there may be none more unstoppable than the powerful Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), awoken after nearly 3000 years underneath an Egyptian pyramid with a serious case of the Mondays. After he recruits a collection of power-hungry sidekicks, Xavier's team must band together to stop him from having a tantrum and destroying the world—which means it may be time to train a new generation of X-Men.

Sophie Turner's young Jean Grey is perhaps the most exciting prospect in the bunch, but it takes her easily three-quarters of the movie to shed her awkward navigation of the role. Her delivery is far too stale (blame the writers, if you want), but there is an underlying self-consciousness to her performance that can only be attributed to teenage-hood. A silver lining. Young Grey is hardly defined, nor has she come into her own, and Singer manages, albeit two hours too late, to find her a path to growth. Lots of potential for Turner as the powerful Phoenix, but you won't fully get what you're looking for in this.

The Best Character Award is a split between Days of Future Past scene-stealer, Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and newbie Kodi Smit-Mcphee's youthfully naive, Nightcrawler. Both are given clearly defined direction which allows them to work within this world without being dragged down by the slogging plot trajectory. Quicksilver's personal mission to find Magneto leads him to join up with the virtuous X-Men, but he has his own objective separate from standard world-saving, which allows him more material to work with.

Likewise, Nightcrawler is a tragic character in awe of not only mutants, but American culture and the mere concept of freedom. There's comedy there, to be sure, but his wonderment is laced throughout the entire story, and you just want to give him a hug. Smit-Mcphee brought out a childishness in the teleporting mutant that was hopeful and curious, a stark contrast to his teen counterparts who were already too jaded for their own good.

Bryan Singer's detached narrative fights to hold onto the expertly executed energy of Future Past, but fails to incorporate the gripping nature of villainy that made its predecessor so great. Magneto is the most consistently conflicted character the franchise has developed over the past 16 years (!!), and yet Singer manhandles him in an attempt to breath life into the lifeless motivations of Apocalypse. Because the sad truth was, we don't know anything about Apocalypse, our titular character.

Even after a way-too-long movie (seriously, this could have been 40 minutes shorter), his motivations were hollow, at best. For such a powerful guy, you'd think he'd have refined his interview process for selecting henchmen (kind of a risky move to assume emotional wildcards would stick by you in a fight). Apocalypse is an ancient, god-like mutant who aided in forming and destroying civilizations, introduced straight out of the opening of The Mummy. Got it. After being re-awoken from... an ancient slumber?... he experiences a Fifth Element/Leeloo moment and learns everything about human history from a television set. Angry and annoyed, he determines humans must be stopped.

And that's it! Throw a bit of ethnic-cleansing in there in order to spare mutants extinction, and there's your movie. Basically, he's established terribly, and watching his team stand stiffly on an old, plastic Star Trek mountain set for 20 minutes mid-climax doesn't move things along much, either. None of it is enough to make anyone care. Way over here is a story developing that will actually carry into the future of the franchise, and despite its languid flaws, it's certainly where we'd rather be, watching Mystique train these n00bs so Jennifer Lawrence doesn't have to do this shit anymore.

It wasn't all dire straits (though Magneto's storyline certainly weighed the movie down); I have a soft-spot for this epic series, even the questionable ones (Last Stand), because at the very least, the relationships between the X-Men are tension-filled and dynamic. Even that isn't lost here, despite Singer losing sight of the finish line. This feels like the necessary end to a trilogy that had successfully breathed youthful life into aging characters—and it's continuing to do so as we venture into the world of new mutants.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Movie Review: "Money Monster" (2016)

© TriStar Pictures

Did someone find this script in a pile of Bernie Sanders' long lost diatribes? In all seriousness though, the economic injustice and Wall Street-focused vitriol may be conveniently timed to hit the big screen this year (and I'm more than positive that this isn't he only Sanders joke to pop up in a review for Money Monster.) Directed by Jodie Foster and featuring a small but impressive cast, this is a layered story with a compelling premise that suffers from its inability to see the bigger picture—or perhaps its inability to understand how far the corrupt will go to hide their corruption. That makes for a remarkably underwhelming thriller.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) may be the hottest television star talking Wall Street and hot stocks on his show "Money Monster," but when the powerful Ibis Clear Capital loses hundreds of millions of dollars overnight due to a computer glitch, Gates' most recent "Must Buy" stock takes a terrifying market tumble. With shareholders scrambling, Gates and his longtime producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) rush to take advantage of the media attention by being the first to get Ibis CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West), on their show to get the scoop.

On the day of the live broadcast, Camby is nowhere to be found, but little do they know that Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), a disgruntled investor who lost his life savings, has infiltrated the studio to take them both hostage. Now with Gates alone and held at gunpoint live on the air, Patty and her team in the control booth must track down the answers that Budwell is demanding, and it may lead them down a rabbit-hole of theft and corruption far more dangerous than the man with the gun.

Noticeably, the story starts off slow, but picks up steadily. Foster plays with escalation in this film, arguably to its detriment. As the stakes begin to drop, the information and reveals ramp up. It's an interesting shift, one that changes the dynamic of the movie, and I'm uncertain whether it was for the better. By decreasing the threats to our hero (I'll do my best not to reveal how), Foster puts all the attention on the conspiracy—something that isn't quite deep enough to scrutinize. The corruption is slight and the means to cover it up amateurish—the lack of realism isn't in that it goes too far; it's in that it doesn't go far enough. Other than the guy with a bomb strapped to his chest, real danger is never really looming when they start to get down to brass-tacks.

The highlight is in the acting talent. The chemistry between Clooney and Roberts, not to mention the history between the two, shows. Rarely in the same room, they're still side by side the entire picture, and work off of one another like old pros. Roberts looked particularly at ease in this very unglamorous role, the technical dialogue not slowing her down at all, allowing her to bring plenty of tension into the control room. For a character that rarely stands up, Peggy is active and purposeful. Her fervent advice to Clooney's Gates through his earpiece put her in a position to be the level-headed one, keeping Gates from going off the deep end—or Clooney from chewing the scenery.

Clooney is, well... he's George Clooney. He's suave and handsome and everything about him in this role makes sense. It's a bit on the nose—a womanizing television star with plenty of cash, a full day planner, and an inscrutable reputation—but who am I to question a spot-on casting decision? When you've got a surefire win, you gotta go for it. What likens Lee Gates to us here is that his smarmy charm when he's high is counteracted by his maturity and sharpness when he's low. The television persona is just an act, and watching Clooney shed it slowly throughout this whole ordeal overshadows the rest of the story.

Focusing more closely on the story reveals just how malleable all the motivations are. Roberts' Patty does her due diligence as a professional producer, but this team used to never really reporting any news are suddenly a crack team of investigative journalists capable of uncovering a [semi-]convoluted conspiracy plot? There is a lot of flurry behind the scenes, as Budwell's anxiety and fear and anger unravel, and Foster simply could not hold onto that tension. It certainly doesn't help that, in the end, there is a cloying attempt at closure and the sincere knowledge that nothing that just happened surprised us. It's fair to say, though, that watching these characters be so devastatingly shocked watching the same thing unfold might be enough to distract most viewers into thinking there was more there there.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

Thursday, May 12, 2016

AFI Top 100: #30 "Apocalypse Now"

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979)

The only thing more memorable than the experience of watching AFI's #30 film, Apocalypse Now, is director Francis Ford Coppola's nightmarish experience filming it; a 16-month shoot riddled with so many problems, they had enough footage to make a documentary almost as long as the movie itself (a doc that I, personally, find far more interesting). The drama of the film unwittingly pulls me in every time, but it's the reality of it that still makes me cringe. With its inspiration pulled from Joseph Conrad's novella and ivory trading metaphor, Heart of Darkness, our attention shifts from the Congo in Africa to the harrowing front lines of the Vietnam War, a far more culturally relevant location during the turbulent '70s. Coppola compounds the terror of the jungle with the horror of war to create a film that has no equal; as a result, it doesn't make it particularly easy to watch.

Pulled from a hazy, drugged stupor in his Ho Chi Minh City hotel room during the summer of 1970, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is tasked with a top secret mission to locate a once-celebrated officer, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is believed to have gone rogue—and completely insane—after disappearing into the Vietnam jungle. With intel pointing him in one direction, upriver into enemy territory, Willard enlists the aide of a Navy patrol boat run by playful and oblivious kids to carry him deep into the wilderness—and as they encounter an endless stream of dangers and odd characters, Willard starts to question whether he's even on the right side of this fight.

Movie Review: "The Jungle Book" (2016)

© Walt Disney Pictures

Every six months or so, we're bound to have this same discussion. This chat about whether or not it's worth Disney's time to make these near-exact live action replicas of their greatest hits. And while I may not always be a fan of the outcome, I can't fault them for trying. But their newest endeavor—an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's 1894 collection, but more specifically, Disney's 1967 musicalThe Jungle Book, is a unique one. The extent to which this film is twisted into a 3D/4D viewing experience is so overwhelming, it's almost impossible to watch in a 2D format.

I made a mistake choosing the latter version, because it didn't take long to notice there was always a bit of a blur—a lack of finesse about the picture, the CGI and live action never lining up quite right. Shouldn't these movies be just as enjoyable with or without 3D glasses? Suffice it to say, it's important that I distinguish how I saw the film, and that I've come to the conclusion that it will contribute to whether or not you'll like it.

The story should be familiar. Rescued as a baby by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a man-cub named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has grown up in the safety of his adopted wolf pack. That is until the jaded and scarred tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), threatens the well-being of his pack unless they hand Mowgli over to be killed. In an effort to spare his family, Mowgli travels with Bagheera through the jungle towards the Man Village, but his reluctance to leave the only home he's ever known causes a rift between the two.

As he sets off on his own, Mowgli finds himself in the company of creatures great and small, including the python Kaa (Scarlett Johannson), the giant wannabe-human ape King Louie (Christopher Walken), and honey-hungry bear Baloo (Bill Murray). But Shere Khan hasn't stopped his search, and Mowgli realizes he may need to stop running and face him in order to save the jungle.

The film feels less for kids because of how seriously they take all the characters (even the non-scary ones were kinda scary). Shere Kahn is a spectacular villain, and even though Mowgli doesn't ever quite get it, his animal friends certainly do. Considering the character changes they made, it may have behooved them to just do away with Mowgli all-together. The jungle animals all appear to have history, personalities, and vested interest in the stability of their community, but this kid just wants to keep running around with no shoes on. Sethi suffers from a bad case of "dead eyes," but you have to give the kid credit. He's not interacting with a single tangible co-star, so it's no surprise he's caught staring into the middle distance all the time.

Then add in the awkward songs, and Christopher Walken doing a Christopher Walken impression, mumbling "I Wan'na Be Like You" ominously as an unfathomably large orangutan, and I laugh out loud. And not supportive laughing, the embarrassed kind. Audiences think they want to hear the songs they loved for 50 years in the remake, but they don't. Because a movie like this can't incorporate the tunes organically. Either everyone sings, or no one does. Shoehorning tracks into too-serious scenes aren't going to make it better, it will just take us out of the story. The only positive here is that it only happened twice. Sticking Kaa's song "Trust In Me," sung by the sultry Johansson, into the closing credits instead of during the film was far better way to pay homage.

In the end, it all comes down to Bagheera. Bagheera is the star. He's the heart, he's the soul, he's the barometer by which all the other characters are measured, and none even come close. In a film that tried too hard to be like its animated version, but gutted most characters of any semblance of their former selves, Bagheera was the exception, steadfast and true.

His relationship with Mowgli is what brought out the strongest emotions from the otherwise terrible child actor. Like a stalwart bachelor who can't admit he cares for someone like they were his own son, Kingsley's Bagheera is stern and wise and the only one with any real perspective on the world they live in. He was handled perfectly, and the primary reason this movie hit that resonant chord.

There are no shortage of Jungle Book adaptations—it's hard to make one that doesn't tug at the heart-strings at least a little bit. And this one certainly accomplished that (can we talk for a second about how unbearably cute Mowgli's little wolf-sibling, Gray, was? *dies*) with the sheer fact that we care about these animals. And Mowgli, I guess, whatever. Point being, audiences will enjoy the familiar elements of character and music, and if you can overlook the missteps in story and tone, you'll walk away with a satisfied smile—maybe even a tiny lump in your throat and a raging desire to watch the original.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movie Review: "The Huntsman: Winter's War" (2016)

© Universal Pictures

When your film's big climactic reveal turns out to have been the first thing you're shown in the advertisements, you know you're in trouble. For the mucky, semi-prequel to 2012's surprisingly enjoyable Snow White and the Huntsman, star Kristen Stewart opted out of ever returning to her kingdom, and as a result, we're handed the underdeveloped The Huntsman: Winter's War in an attempt to keep this non-existent franchise alive. A story about hate and revenge that's so ripe with motivation, almost to a laughable degree, every character has their plate full with battles to rage—and little else. As a result, there are more than a few good ideas here; it's just too bad they were all forced to be in the same movie.

Long before the events of the previous film (with Snow White), the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron) (you know, who Snow White killed) has taken over another kingdom, this time with her hopeful, non-magical sister Freya (Emily Blunt) by her side. But when Freya gives birth to a baby girl, sudden tragedy strikes that loses her the love of her life, her child, and her last shred of hope. Her grief having sparked an intense magical awakening, Freya and her new power to create ice from nothing retreat far to the north, where she 'rescues' young children from the painful love of their parents, raising them into an army of Huntsman in a land where love is forbidden.

Among the hardened recruits, Freya's most skilled warriors Eric (Chris Hemsworth) (the one who helped Snow White!) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) reject her laws and pursue a life together--not expecting to be brutally torn apart. It isn't until Ravenna (remember, from Snow White?) returns many years later that Eric and Sara find their way back to one another, finding they've forever changed, and Freya is forced to come to terms with how she was unknowingly forced into this dark and lonely life. (.... Snow White.)

Considering the eye-rolling catch-up we're treated to during the opening minutes of the movie, you'd think name-dropping Snow White every twenty minutes or so, just to be sure we don't forget we're in the same world, wouldn't be necessary. But apparently you'd be wrong. With a cast of actors like this—strong, talented, beautiful women FTW!—it's a wonder no one could figure out how best to use them. Individually, they give it their all, particularly Jessica Chastain, who is so fiercely talented, she could emote through a cardboard box; there's just only so much she is given.

Her chemistry with Hemsworth is palpable but not enough, and ends up being a distraction more than anything else. Hemsworth as the Huntsman sacrifices his personality for charm this time around, which is bound to make those inclined (like me) grin when he grins, but it won't endear us to his valiant efforts to take down yet another Queen. Given their own film, this could have grown into a love story worth watching; 'twas not to be.

If anything, it's Emily Blunt's Elsa Freya who should have been given the patient development she deserved. Blunt isn't smoothly cruel and malicious like Theron's Ravenna (who appears like nothing more than an afterthought in this), which makes her far more interesting. She rules with a shaky, frozen hand, and there could have been so much explored with her that was completely ignored. Where were her moments of discovery? Her ascension to power? Are we so ruined by Frozen that we find it anything other than unacceptable to not see the ice castle rise from the mountain-side?? Creating a magical character by giving them an origin story without allowing us to see them discover their powers is like promising us a prequel but giving us the sequel instead (oops, spoiler).

Don't get me wrong. There was potential, but that tragic Tomatometer reading isn't wrong. Nothing comes together the way it should in Huntsman, primarily because it's far too ambitious without ever doing the leg-work to earn what it tries to do. It's a game of cancellations, the good then the awful (Freya's frozen owl spy? Good. The remarkably slow polar bear-wolf thing she rides into battle? Awful.), and director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan never finds the right balance. He may have intended to reach Tolkien-levels of fantasy, tossing around goblins and treasure and loner rulers in far-off realms, but the waters were too muddied and the script too lacking to breach any new territory.

Every last iota of substance is drained out of this movie to make room for ice and gold-leaf and black tar leaking from the frozen stone walls. It's the problem with big-budget studio flicks these days—they're more interested in creating shots they can shove into a trailer with a bad-ass song (Halsey!) than they are about doing justice to their story or writing characters for A+ talent to sink their teeth into. What we're left with is an overly emotional and stylized snooze-fest.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

Friday, May 6, 2016

Movie Review: "Captain America: Civil War" (2016)

© Walt Disney Studios
Remember watching the last couple of standalone superhero movies (read: Thor: The Dark World) and thinking to yourself, "But... wait. Why not just call [insert Avenger here] to help you fight these guys?! What are you thinking?!?" A plot limitation so frustrating, it caused more than a little eye-rolling and side glances to your theater-going buddies? Well, consider that conundrum solved, because there are no shortage of Avengers in Marvel's newest superhero flick—and summer's first big release—Captain America: Civil War. And it shouldn't surprise any of us that you would need an Avenger to fight an Avenger. In a most mature turn for the series, the groundwork is laid for the next phase of heroes and villains, and we get to witness existing character growth in a way we haven't before, without sacrificing the story in front of us.

Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the devastation of the city of Sokovia, and the continued missions of the Avengers team inevitably leading to collateral damage, the world's leaders have come together to sign the Sokovia Accords—a series of oversights placed on the activities of super-beings, with a proposal that defense of humanity be legislated by the United Nations. Avengers team leader, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), agrees with the Accord; Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) does not, particularly when his history with former best friend, the villainized Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), becomes a conflict of interest during a man-hunt for the soldier himself. But when the disagreement in strategy between Captain America and Iron Man shifts into an uncompromising feud—threatening all-out war—the rest of the Avengers must pick a side, or risk being collateral damage themselves.

When I say this is the most mature movie to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I wasn't being hyperbolic. As each character has settled into their respective story lines over the past decade, Marvel decided to pull together its most dynamic personalities—those whose histories have shaped this strange world and who struggle most with what it means to be a hero—and pitted them against each other. Their struggle is rooted in pride and vengeance, optimism versus pessimism, and we're all treated to a gut-wrenching turn of events that leaves the friendship between Cap and Iron Man completely splintered. And it's done through the perfect escalation of action, conflict, and humor.

There are enough light-hearted moments that remind you, despite the anger and pride swelling inside our heroes, it's not something they won't overcome, though they're unlikely to be same after this. The cameos and new character introductions in this movie are unreal, and what could have been gratuitous superhero overkill... wasn't. It worked. Because as the coalitions of each side—Cap v Iron Man—come together, it makes sense to bring in a few new recruits. All of this coalesces into one of the best action sequences of the series. Not just from Captain America, but all of the franchise.

Robert Downey Jr.'s years are starting to show, not unlike the very worn Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (who, by the way, has committed twice as much of his life—16 years—to his role than Downey Jr. has; no wonder he's ready to be done). Strangely enough, it adds a level of weight to the wear and tear Iron Man, as a leader of the Avengers, has had to endure. Tony Stark has evolved exponentially since we first met him eight years ago, so contrast that with the never-aging Chris Evans, not to mention the consistently self-righteous cross that Cap feels he must bear, and you have a spectacularly evolved conflict of personalities.

On the supporting cast side of things, Anthony Mackie as Falcon finally gets his moment to shine, and after a brief but underwhelming appearance in last year's Ant-Man, he's actually finding his place in this franchise with a truckload of meaty material to work with. Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch is also a standout (despite that Russian accent I can't get over), with much of the dramatic development revolving around her instability. The movie does a wonderful job in setting up the future relationships that will likely develop without committing too much screen time to it and distracting us from the Man of the Hour. Everybody gets their moment, and while the movie isn't a time-flying breeze to get through, it feels important, like big things are happening and it's worth the time it takes to get there.

Not all is perfect in Marvel-land, though, despite this being easily the best Captain movie of the bunch. With a climactic Act One car/foot chase that devolved into a Bourne Ultimatum/Paul Greengrass-style mess of shakey-cam running through the streets, the connection to the characters and the fight they were fighting was temporarily lost. It made me angry and dizzy. And while I was thankful for the eventual shift back to a clear and smooth camera choreography later on—a style that suits the shiny chrome gloss of the series—you can't help but feel this film was directed by two very different people.

And lo' and behold! It kind of was! Unfortunately for the Russo Brothers (Anthony & Joe), there was a consistency problem—but only with their filmmaking. Add in the bevy of Instagram-ready, hipster-typography title cards stamped gigantically across the screen every time we changed location (which was often), one might suspect the directing duo cared more about style than they did about substance.

But you know who didn't have a consistency problem? The writers (Christopher MarkusStephen McFeely). That script never faltered, not even once. The stakes felt higher than the usual Marvel fare, maybe because this time, the breakdown was happening within the Avengers group. The two most defined characters in the franchise got equal play in this story that expanded both of their worlds, in both personal and super-human ways. Now, there could be an argument that Captain America risked being overshadowed in his own movie—a prospect that DC films are all too familiar with (*cough*The Dark Knight*cough*)—and you wouldn't be wrong to anticipate that possibility.

Where the film goes right, though, is in making you not care. The development is steady, and the world feels richer because Cap isn't the only cog making the machine work. I truly believe that, while there are movies in this franchise I've enjoyed more, everything Marvel has accomplished was leading to this movie, because all of their many puzzle pieces came together.

The biggest challenge for Marvel moving forward, however, is how to manage this overflow of new characters. Sure, they're all delightful in their own right (and the stellar acting talent they keep bringing in doesn't hurt), but eventually, the fat may need to be trimmed. I'm not sure who, yet, falls into that "must shed" category, but considering the slate of Marvel Universe films coming out over the next 4 years... we may see some of the most steadfast faces fall by the wayside. At the very least, this time around, we get to watch them come together in the most hero-packed film so far.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Movie Review: "Keanu" (2016)

© Warner Bros.

There is no doubt (for me) that the best trailer released this past winter was for the first comedy/action feature by genius Key & Peele comedy duo and besties, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The world needed Keanu. I watched that Red Band trailer easily 35 times. In a film that takes the most serious action movie tropes not-so-seriously, Hollywood's attempt at a funny John Wick features elements that make summer movie audiences cheer and cry for more (explosions! surprise cameos! gratuitous boobies! kitty cats!) and combines them with this lovable team. Mirroring their frequently-used character-types, Key and Peele breath life into this movie—because without them? It's actually kind of forgettable and boring. Oh. But the cat helps. Any movie is improved by a cat as cute as this one.

Rell (Peele) is a recently dumped pothead, who, in a moment of pure loneliness, discovers a lost kitten on his doorstep, promptly naming the tyke Keanu and making him the center of his world. Clarence (Key), Rell's cousin, is a corporate team-building coach, and more than a little "tightly wound," as his wife (Nia Long) likes to point out before leaving with their kid and another man for a weekend away... somewhere. Let loose this weekend, she says. Be the real Clarence, she insists. Hardly the gut follower, Clarence unwittingly gets pulled into a dangerous rescue mission when they return to Rell's apartment that night to find Keanu the kitten missing!

Piecing together that the 17th Street Blips and their leader, Chedder (Method Man), are responsible for 'napping the cat, the cousins go on an adventure to save Keanu, which will mean shielding their nerdy images and taking on that of notorious thugs in order to infiltrate the gang. It isn't long before they find themselves roped into a terrifying drug run, with guns and a new street drug in hand, and the lingering promise that Keanu will be returned to them in return for their help. Little do they know that Keanu may be more important than any of them realize.

I think that any fan of this duo responds to their comedic styles differently. Call it a preference, or just fancying their delivery, but Key's manic energy gets me every time. His timing is impeccable, and it's why he plays the fervent, edge-of-psycho roles so well. Peele is almost on the opposite end of the spectrum. He's laid back and casual; words slipping out, occasionally slurred but full of purpose, and there's no shortage of incredulous looks (usually reserved for Key). Where the film goes completely right is in letting these two guys just do what they do. The balance they bring to the comedy is a slam-dunk, and they elevate this otherwise odd—and sort of dull—movie simply because they're in every single scene. It's when they're not together that scenes go off the rails, and the tone goes all over the damn place.

The entirety of the comedy comes from the concept of these two Black guys being so stereo-typically "white;" totally soft, street-dumb, and the opposite of tough. Clarence's love for George Michael is not only a personal characteristic, it actually becomes a significant sub-plot. And Rell's mopey, stoner lifestyle is only punctuated by the fact that Clarence has to drive him around everywhere in his mini-van. For all intents and purposes, these two are effectively useless. Is this because they're Black men who, in the eyes of the larger community, "act white"? Or perhaps because they haven't quite embraced their rougher, tougher POC selves?

I'm not sure, though the movie certainly suggests it's a little bit of both. Normally, it wouldn't even be something I'd touch on since I'm no cultural savant, but the story doesn't shy away from putting these two straight-laced guys into scenarios they know they're not cut out for—it's basically all they talk about. The entire plot leans real hard on the racial stereotype swapping (this is a world where Will Forte sells hard drugs, and wears cornrows and a gold grill), using the idea wherever it can to get a laugh, and this is an element of comedy that has worked pretty darn well for Key and Peele over the years. And in Keanu, it works, too, but only for them. The rest of the cast is rendered two-dimensional when painted with the stereotype brush, forced into situational comedy bits that just don't make sense and to endure long, drawn-out scenes that shouldn't have made it into the final cut.

There's no ignoring that some bits and jokes are pushed too far, for too long; the climax builds adequately, but then the finale completely peters out of steam. The laughs abruptly stop, not because the jokes stopped flying, but because everything turns suddenly very stale. Reveals are convenient rather than inventive or fun, and it feels like Peele and his writing partner, Alex Rubens, were maybe too stoned by the last 10 pages to really put in any effort into the wrap-up dialogue. The relationship between Nia Long and Key is contrived and awkward, with an unnecessary (albeit super predictable) B-story/side-plot involving perpetual creep-meister, Rob Huebel. And an otherwise even-keeled performance by Tiffany Haddish, who plays lady-Blip, Hi-C, is knocked sideways when her character is forced to totally shift gears. Too often, we're left laughing, not because something is funny, but because we can't figure out why they chose to do it.

Thankfully, the point of the film (Keanu the Kitten!!) is never lost. Keanu is always at the center of the objective—not just for our main guys, but for the villains, too. It places an importance on the little guy that makes him more than just a plot device. As a result, the action sequences were funny and moved quickly, particularly when that kitty performer was doing his choreographed runs through the gun shots, blood splatter, and crumbling mortar. With plenty of action and gun-fighting, and just enough blood to satisfy an R-rating (but not so much that it would make the common movie-goer cringe), the lazy dialogue and inconceivable plot evolution is easy to ignore.

I mean, who are we kidding? It's a movie about a kitten in a doo-rag, for god's sake! Key + Peele + Gangster Kitten is the formula you were promised, and it's the formula you get. And it all equals a good time.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
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