Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: "Keanu"

Great hitters can't always field the ball, good choral singers aren't necessarily strong soloists, and fine orators often make poor leaders. And so it is with television comedians trying to make the jump to feature films.

Like Amy Schumer with "Trainwreck," the team behind the Comedy Central hit "Key and Peele" fail to grasp the difference between sketch comedy and film comedy. The former only has to be funny or make sense for a few minutes; the latter has to carry its energy all the way through.

"Keanu" does not. The story of a pair of uptight, upper-middle-class black dudes who spend an evening in the roughest L.A. 'hoods, it's got a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. Most of these revolve around Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) and Rell (Jordan Peele) screaming like little girls when confronted with some horrific act of violence or the prospect of their imminent demise.

On their show, Pelle and Key can easily jump from character to character -- there's always a commercial to break up the sketches. Here they start out as nerdy "Oreos" (black on the outside, white on the inside) and spend the rest of the movie trying to talk and act like the sort of hardcase gangstas they've only experienced through television and film.

The setup is that Rell has his new kitten, Keanu, stolen after his house is broken into -- apparently a case of mistaken identity, as his next door neighbor (Will Forte), is a drug dealer. The kitty keeps changing hends, from Colombian drug lords to a pair of ghost-like killers known only as "the Allentown boys" (actually Key and Pelle, heavily made up) to Cheddar, a local banger played by Method Man.

The running joke is that all these grim characters instantly fall in love with Keanu, and will do anything to get him back, including kill or be killed.

Rell and Clarence foolishly head over to Cheddar's HQ, the Hot Party Vixens club (check that acronym), where they are immediately called out as suburban wimps. So they adopt the personas of Tectonic and Shark Tank -- after the puffer fish in "Finding Nemo?" -- which means dropping their voices an octave and saying the n-word a whole lot.

One of the funnier sequences is where a bunch of them are waiting in Clarence's minivan, which he says he drives because it's inconspicuous, and they turn on his stereo, which left off on a George Michael song. Clarence, ahem, Shark Tank, manages to convince them Michael is actually cool black music.

Tiffany Haddish plays Hi-C, one of Cheddar's crew who starts to take an unlikely shine to Rell/Tectonic, Nia Long is Clarence's wife and Luis Guzman plays the drug lord.

Co-written by Peele and Alex Rubens and directed by Peter Atencio, "Keanu" is the sort of thing you expect from a bunch of TV guys who think they've got what it takes for the big screen. It's a whole lot of obvious jokes -- want to guess if the cat's most famous namesake turns up, at least aurally? -- and playing off the stars' television personalities.

There are three or four good and funny scenes, about enough for a single half-hour episode of "Key and Peele."

Monday, April 25, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982)

You could probably summarize the entire plot of "The Year of Living Dangerously" on a postcard, with space left over. Not a lot really happens, yet what does transpire seems so consequential and filled with dramatic heft.

The film, directed by Peter Weir based on the novel by C.J. Koch, is a testament to the observation by screenwriting legend William Goldman that dialogue is often the least important part of a script. The movie has many long wordless or near-wordless scenes that use imagery and music to pull us into an emotional vortex of longing and dread. Weir and Koch co-wrote the screenplay along with David Williamson.

Take the scene where callow young Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) and British embassy worker Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) first hook up in Indonesia circa 1965. They've been introduced -- set up, really -- by a mutual friend (more on that later) and have sort of skipped around each other nonchalantly a couple of times before. Then they show up at a party for Westerners, each accompanied by different people.

Jill is just ravishing, creamy shoulders and lithe limbs bursting out of a strappy dress; Guy is seething and sweaty, filled with primal urges. They're incredibly beautiful people, and everyone in the room can't take their eyes off them. They bump into each other while dancing with others, try to brush it off, but their attraction is combustible, and palpable.

One gets the sense the other party goers are only there to serve as witnesses to their joining.

Later they escape from a stuffy embassy party and drive off in his car for a tryst, despite the strict military curfew and shocking break with the Brits' starched-shirt decorum. They run a blockade, Guy's Chevy Impala gets filled with bullet holes, but they laugh and smile at their little rebellion, as the electronic thrum of Vangelis' "L'Enfant" buoys them into the night.

Most of the talk Jill and Guy do share is logistics: Where are you going? When are you leaving? Why won't you return my calls? The only real substantive conversation they have onscreen is Jill (who's actually a spy in the book though it's only hinted at in the movie) telling Guy about an incoming shipment of arms to support the Indonesia Communists (PKI), a clear indication a coup is imminent. Guy opts to use the intel for a story -- rather than save his own neck as she intended -- vaulting his career but betraying Jill.

"Year" is masterful at evoking a specific time and place -- one that, frankly, isn't high in the consciousness of most Americans. Indonesia in the mid-1960s was a place of burgeoning rebellion, and a backwater for aspiring foreign corespondents like Guy. He and the other journalists, from the Washington Post or whatnot, pine for promotions to Saigon, where the real action is. They're fighting each other for scraps of information from the government of the dictator-like president, Sukarno, and for newsprint inches and airtime back home before an indifferent public.

Weir spent much of his film stock simply representing the street people of Jakarta, underlining the humbling poverty and rising anger of that period. (The film was actually shot in the Philippines, as the Indonesians were hostile to the story; the movie was banned there until 1999.)

Here was a people who had felt the yoke of the West, shrugged it off, and now felt the push-and-pull of various factions vying for power: the establishment, the Muslim leaders, the Communists, etc. Meanwhile, the people suffered and starved.

The film is likely most remembered today for the casting of Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, the mysterious and oddly affecting photographer/enigma who befriends both Guy and Jill, and nudges them together. It was one of the first major instances of a performer playing a character of the opposite gender. Hunt won the Academy Award for her performance by a Supporting Actress, launching an unlikely career that has remained busy till today.

She's completely believable as a man; Hunt chopped her hair to a severe short style, wore padding under Billy's standard uniform of trousers and a vaguely Hawaiian shirt, with the shirt pocket stuffed to give it a weighted, untidy look. Billy, of course, is not an average-looking person: he's supposed to be half Caucasian and half Chinese, and a dwarf to boot.

Billy also seems to be asexual; everything about him screams Other. Yet he easily slides in and out of the Sukarno corridors of power, or mingles with the street people unnoticed. He is accepted, or at least tolerated, wherever he goes. His exceptionalism somehow grants him a form of invisibility, which he cherishes and utilizes for his purposes.

Billy's motivations are hard to discern, and fickle. He claims to admire Sukarno for his puppet master skill at balancing the forces arrayed against him, but cares deeply about the suffering of the people. He has unofficially adopted a prostitute and her sickly young boy, bringing toys, medicine and cash to their miserable hovel by the polluted river, where they bathe and drink. When the boy dies of starvation and illness, Billy snaps and vents his anger at the regime that fails to feed its people.

Similarly, Billy takes an immediate liking to Guy, seeing him as a white knight, and uses his influence and connections to see that his career is a success, getting Guy interviews with the Muslim leader and other key figures. Billy also sets him up with Jill, whom he adores in a chaste way -- even once asking her to marry him. When Guy betrays Jill for the story, Billy sees it as cheating on his own trust, too.

Capable of great affection and monumental anger, Billy blows like a zephyr in whatever direction his passions take him. He keeps meticulous files on everyone he knows, including Jill and Guy, whose meetings he secretly photographs.

After Guy discovers this, Billy denies being a spy, and this is probably true. He's observing life rather than living it, gathering information and using it to move people around like pawns in a game of chess he's not trying to win or lose, but simply play with a sense of purity he knows is unattainable.

I marvel at how politically incorrect this film would be if it were released today. Hunt playing a man would probably still be celebrated as brave, if for different reasons, but a white actress portraying an Asian character would be unacceptable.

Similarly, Billy calling out another Australian correspondent (Noel Ferrier) for dallying with his boytoy servant -- a virtual death sentence in the Indonesia of six decades ago -- is an act that today would be viewed as irredeemably homophobic. Add in the way the American reporter (Michael Murphy) enjoys using the cheap local female flesh as fodder for his vile self-aggrandizing.

But "The Year of Living Dangerously" is not a film that tries to comfort us. Rather, it shows us the dark underbelly of what humanity is capable. The Americans and British and Aussies do not have a direct hand in perpetuating the misery of the Indonesian people, but they're more than happy to employ it as a lever for their own personal devices. I think of the many scenes in which the Westerners drink and carouse as the natives look on with envy and growing hatred.

Gibson's Guy Hamilton is neither hero, as Billy would have him, or villain, but somewhere in the grey. He wants the scoop and he wants the girl, and he's willing to do questionable things to get them, even if it means parlaying one for the other. But he's genuinely sickened by the poverty and human waste; the other reporters and even Jill criticize him for the "melodramatic" tone of his copy.

"The Year of Living Dangerously" is a grand and grim reminder of our capacities for hope and despair, and that you don't need a lot of words to convey big ideas.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Video review: "Son of Saul"

A deserved winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film, “Son of Saul” takes a very innovative approach in telling a familiar and heartbreaking tale.

This Holocaust drama from Hungary looks at the Sonderkommando – Jews kept alive and granted a sort of immunity to shepherd their fellows into the gas chambers, and then load the bodies into the crematorium or earthen pit. Their reprieve is temporary, though, as the Nazi regime makes sure to cycle them out every few months to eliminate evidence of their crimes against nature.

They are ferrymen on the river of death, destined to become passengers themselves.

Saul (Géza Röhrig) is quiet and grim, known for blending into the background and keeping his head down. But one day he observes a boy who somehow survived the deadly gas, who is then coldly suffocated by a German doctor. Saul claims him as his own son, and becomes determined to see the lad given a proper Jewish burial, with a reading of Kaddish by a rabbi.

Is this really his child? It seems more like delusion. But Saul’s obsession is less about preserving the boy’s dignity than reclaiming some measure of his own humanity. He sneaks through the camp, putting his own life at risk and those of other Jews, trying to find a rabbi and get the body out.

Meanwhile, the Sonderkommando leader is organizing a rebellion and escape, and Saul is lured into the plot. He agrees, but only since it grants him some freedom of movement to pursue his own goal.

Director László Nemes, in his directorial debut, uses a roving camera with a shallow depth of focus to keep our perspective in line with Saul’s. Here’s a man who has spent the last months of his life never looking past the 10 feet in front of him, in order to keep the greater terror obscured.

We see things in the background of the frame, somehow made more disturbing by remaining indistinct. Nemes lets our imaginations bring our own clarity to the fuzziness.

Here is a story of horror, from which we cannot – and should not – avert our gaze.

Bonus features are limited in scope but of great depth.

They’re centered around a feature-length commentary track in which Nemes, Röhrig and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély all participate. I always feel the best commentaries are those that combine multiple levels of the creative process. The triad of filmmaker, performer and visualist are what make this movie great.

There is also a Q&A from an appearance at the Museum of Tolerance, and a deleted scene.



Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: "The Huntsman: Winter's War"

And here arrives Hollywood's most unlikely, unanticipated sequel.

"Snow White and the Huntsman" was an execrable piece of garbage, mindless churning of mythology with a heavy ladling of flashy CGI sauce. But it conjured up a cauldron full of money -- nearly $400 million. So a follow-up became inevitable.

Then star Kristen Stewart was revealed to have dallied with the very married first-time director. Both were promptly given the boot. So how to make a Snow White sequel without Snow White, and give the (unnecessary) male sidekick the spotlight?

Apparently, you give the special effects supervisor from the last film, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, his own rookie shot in the director's chair, order up a script from a pair of journeymen screenwriters (Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin) and put the whole thing on a hurry-up production schedule of 12 months from start of shooting to release -- extraordinarily short for a big-budget spectacle with lots of computerized imagery.

Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, right?

Here's the funny thing: "The Huntsman: Winter's War" is actually an improvement on the original. Which isn't to say it's a great film, or even a good one. But it's a breezily entertaining piece of escapist claptrap, breathed to life by some fine actors who make a brave go at some awkward dialogue and plotting.

And Emily Blunt shines as Freya, the ice queen and sister to Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who was undone by Snow White. In an affecting opening sequence set years before the first movie, we witness her tragedy and transformation into a withdrawn, super-powered mistress who steals children and turns them into her army of huntsmen to conquer all the lands of the north.

This was how Eric, aka The Huntsman, came to be. He rebelled against Freya's edict on showing love by falling for Sara (Jessica Chastain), another unwilling recruit. They were punished severely and separated, apparently by death, though I'm not giving anything away in saying that Sara shows up alive and well -- and mightily P.O.'d -- about a third of the way through.

She blames Eric for abandoning her, but they've got bigger issues to tackle. Namely, that the Magic Mirror has been stolen after giving off all sorts of Evil Warning emanations. Freya wants it for herself as its magic would make her unstoppable, so the huntscouple are on the case.

Tagging along are a pair of dwarves, sweetly dim Nion (Nick Frost) from the last movie and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon), a cross bean-counting sort. They're coming with because... actually, I'm not sure why they're there. Or why a pair of female dwarf thieves (Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith) are soon added to the troupe, with obvious smoochy possibilities.

Love conquers all, I guess. Even dangerously thin plots.

The CGI is quite good, though Freya's frost attacks are too clearly inspired by Elsa's from "Frozen." The molten gold effect of the mirror's magic is revived, with a twist.

The action scenes are rather discombobulated, with a lot of needless parkour-style jumps and flips. And there's an abundance of "shaky cam" situated too close to the action to make sense of anything -- the hallmark of filmmakers who don't know how to stage properly.

Hemsworth's character is still a sneering jerk whose ability doesn't match up to his attitude. Given his grim upbringing in Conan-style martial slavery, you'd think he'd be a bit darker. So Chastain's Sara supplies the gloom aplenty.

There really wasn't any reason for this sequel to be made. It's a slapdash affair, using special effects trickery to wallpaper over a story made up of spare parts. But I'd rather watch it 10 times in a row than the first movie again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: "Miles Ahead"

“Miles Ahead” is Don Cheadle’s riff on the life of Miles Davis, a master of improvisation, so it makes sense in many ways for him to treat the official biography of the jazz genius as a mere stepping-off point for his own concocted refrain.

But just as having masterful technical skills as an instrumentalist doesn’t necessarily mean you have the chops to make up music on the spot, the film’s dizzying attempts to inventively cogitate on Miles’ mythology sometimes wander off into narrative cul-de-sacs and side tracks that just don’t sing.

The esteemed actor gives perhaps the finest performance of his career, showing us the contemplation and calculation behind that ferocious mask of Eff You self-regard with which Davis obscured himself. We see and feel his hunger to create, the rage at anything that stood between him and his music, understand a bit of the towering pride that often harmonizes with talent.

Cheadle also directed and co-wrote the screenplay (with Steven Baigelman), his feature film debut in both roles. It’s technically accomplished work; it hits a lot of emotional scenes solidly and certainly bespeaks of someone who has a future behind the camera if he wants one.

The movie mostly concentrates on Davis’ fallow period from 1975 to 1979, when he stopped publishing music and even ceased playing the trumpet at all, with flashbacks to his heyday in the 1950s and early ‘60s. The early biographical stuff more or less plays it straight, while the later scenes have the barest bridge to reality.

The latter involve a wild scenario in which Davis’ session tape, supposedly the chariot of his comeback, is stolen and re-stolen back and forth between himself and Harper Hamilton, a shyster agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg, complete with squealing car chases and blazing gun duels.

Acting as his wingman/witness is David Brill, a hipster Scottish journalist played by Ewan McGregor who was sent by Rolling Stone magazine to get the scoop on Davis’ return. Though Brill may be fudging about whether he was actually assigned the story, or just knocked on Davis’ door on spec. His initial attempts at an interview don’t go well.

Davis: “My story? I was born, I moved to New York, met some cats, made some music, did some dope, made some more music, then you came to my house.”
Brill: “That's it? …I guess I'll fill in the blanks later.”
Davis: “That's what all you writin' mother****ers do anyway.”

The movie is framed by a formal sit-down interview with the same journalist, apparently meeting for the first time, which is our cue that everything that comes between is mere rumination.

Cheadle gets deep inside Davis’ physicality, somehow bending a slight resemblance into near-doppelgänger accuracy. It starts with that sheathed voice, partly croak and partly purr, as if consciously trading volume for intensity. Then there’s the shuffling limp -- the result of a congenital hip disorder in real life, but something else in the movie’s telling -- and the deadpan snarl.

Cheadle even nails the straight-fingered way Davis bent his digits at the first knuckle perpendicular over the horn’s valves, instead of rounded like they teach you. As in everything, Davis played it his way.

Emayatzy Carinealdi is a vibrant presence as Frances, Miles’ first wife and muse, even appearing on the cover of his 1961 album, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” She was a rising dancer who gave up her career at his bequest, which sets off a downward spiral of resentment and, eventually, violence. The film regrettable short-shrifts Davis’ long history of domestic abuse.

Keith Stanfield, a young actor who’s been phenomenal in small films like “Dope” and “Short Term 12,” plays Junior, a fictionalized young trumpeter who gets unconvincingly caught up in the scramble for the session tape, yet still receives a little mentoring from the legend.

Davis was famously reticent to play his famed standards, preferring to focus on his ever-evolving taste for freeform jazz (or “social music,” as he preferred), bebop, fusion, etc. “If the music don’t move on, it’s dead music,” he says.

In trying to embrace his subject’s ingenuity, Cheadle erred too much on the side of fancifulness to the detriment of coherence. That doesn’t degrade the power of his performance. Sometimes the solo outshines the tune.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Six for Summer: Top picks for the hot movie season

 The summer movie season is upon us.

I know, I know... you're saying, "Hey, it's only mid-April! How can you call this the time for summer flicks?" The truth is the summer season has moved up earlier and earlier. And it ends sooner, too. The biggest movies are usually done by the Fourth of July.

The first Friday in May had been the official kickoff for many years. Then the "Fast and the Furious" franchise made April the new hot thing by racking up massive box office in that month. Last week saw "The Jungle Book" debut to huge numbers, and "Batman v Superman" a couple of weeks before that.

Since I'm not doing a full summer movie preview this year, I thought I'd at least pick the films I'm personally most looking forward to in mid-2016. Let's call it "Six for Summer."

Captain America: Civil War

(May 6) Some people are complaining about the spate of super hero movies taking over cinemas. But audiences certainly don't seem to be tiring of them, based on the grosses of the last few films. And neither am I. The trailers have been a big hit and hype is out of this world.

Don't be surprised if "Captain America: Civil War" contends for the prize of top-grossing film of the year.

In this go-round based on a huge multi-comic mashup, the super hero world squares off against each other in a fight over accepting government control -- including their secret identities. Captain America is the leader of the freedom movement, while Iron Man heads up the opposition.

There's a particular excitement for this film since Marvel is finally going to integrate its box office champion, Spider-Man, into the mix.

X-Men: Apocalypse

(May 27) Speaking of super-heroes, the "other" big comics film franchise -- which has existed in a parallel cinematic universe due to ownership rights -- is up at bat again after having "retconned" everything in the last movie. Jennifer Lawrence returns as Mystique, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, etc. Sophie Turner of "Game of Thrones" takes over the pivotal role of psychic Jean Grey.

It's essentially a next-generation tale, with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and the old gang turning over their characters to younger actors.

Here Oscar Isaac plays Apocalypse, a super-powerful bad guy who intends to make the entire race extinct with the help of his four horsemen. By the way, this will be the first X-flick without Wolverine. Despite remaining the most popular character, two attempts at solo movies didn't cut it.

Finding Dory

(June 17) Many people feel "Finding Nemo" represented the apex of Disney/Pixar animation, so anticipation for the long-rumored sequel is deeper than the deep blue sea.

In this plot the blue tang with short-term memory loss -- unforgettably voiced by Ellen DeGeneres -- goes on a quest to find her long-lost family. Albert Brooks is back as worrywart clown fish Marlin, and new voice talents include Idris Elba, Diane Keaton, Bill Hader, Michael Sheen and Eugene Levy.

What I liked about "Nemo," "Up," "Wall-E" and other top Pixar films is they blended a child-like sense of wonder at the world with some very grown-up ideas and morals. Not to mention groundbreaking CGI.


(July 1) Director Stephen Spielberg returns to the themes of his early career, reteaming with "E.T." screenwriter Melissa Mathison in this adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel. There's not a lot of visibility for this movie right now, but I expect that to change as the trailer starts getting some play in theaters in May and June.

A young girl encounters a "big friendly giant" and finds he's not the terrible child-eating beast they're made out to be. In fact, he's something of an outcast himself because if his more humane dietary choices.

Also, despite being the size of a building, he's actually a pipsqueak among his people. The part was originally supposed to be played by Robin Williams, but alas things did not work out.

This one could be pure magic.


(July 15) There's a huge backlash against this remake because some guys are apparently offended by the idea of a group of girls replacing Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson.

I don't know what to say other than: "Dudes, get over yourselves."

Melissa McCarthy headlines, and she's currently the most consistently bankable star in Hollywood right now. Add in Kristen Wiig, who deliberately chose smaller and more dramatic projects after her "Bridesmaids" breakout. Lesser-known stars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones seem like good fits.

In a cheeky post-feminist nod, hunky Chris Hemsworth plays their receptionist.

Forget the naysayers and chat room trolls. They have the tools, they have the talent.

Suicide Squad

(August 5) -- D.C. Comics' second foray into building their own franchise starts with the counter-intuitive notion of making the villains the main characters. Here the government rounds up super-powered bad guys and give them a shot at getting out of prison in exchange for doing their dirty work.

The most talked about aspect, of course, is Oscar winner Jared Leto being cast as the Joker. After Heath Ledger gave the character his own iconic stamp before his early death, some are wondering if it's possible -- or even appropriate -- to reboot the character with another performer. I see: Let's see what he does with it.

Will Smith plays Deadshot, Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn and plays the Enchantress.

And ol' Batman himself -- well, the new Batman, Ben Affleck -- turns up for a cameo.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Video review: "The Revenant"

In my original review of “The Revenant” I predicted it would be a love-it-or-hate-it film, and I was even more right than I knew. People who had a year earlier divided by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” quickly chose up sides again, mostly falling into the same camps.

But I switched teams. I thought Iñárritu’s direction mostly showed restraint, using roving cameras and other cinematic tricks largely in service to the story, rather than for their own sake. (As was the case with the overwrought “Birdman.”)

Leonardo DiCaprio deservedly won his first Oscar for his near-wordless portrayal of Hugh Glass, a real 18th-century scout who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. In their defense, the party was deep in the wilderness and many of them had just been killed in an attack by American Indians, and were still being chased.

Glass spends weeks dragging his maimed body through a barren frozen wasteland, with death waiting at nearly every turn. The film has a spare, harsh beauty to it that’s undeniable.

Tom Hardy is a brooding presence as John Fitzgerald, a Machiavellian member of the group who advocates leaving Glass behind to die, but then volunteers when a large bounty is offered to guard him. Of course, his intentions are less than pure.

I also liked Forrest Goodluck, a novice actor who plays Glass’ half-Indian son. He doesn’t say a lot, but his face conveys much without words.

Based on the “historical novel” by Michael Punke, “The Revenant” can be tough to watch. The bear attack itself, done mostly with CGI, is a technical marvel. The real gruesomeness, though, comes in watching a man who’s literally been torn apart struggle and refuse to die.

It’s a grim existential journey worth the investment of 2½ hours of your time.

Bonus features are disappointingly scanty. The blu-ray comes with a making-of documentary, “A World Unseen” – and that’s it.