Friday, April 29, 2016

Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta (Kitten): Keanu



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

In 2014 Keanu Reeves starred in a movie called John Wick, which was essentially two hours of Keanu killing gangsters because they killed his puppy. It's a good movie, but a hell of a downer.

Two years later, we have Keanu, a comedy about two very un-tough guys who must infiltrate a gang to get back a stolen kitten. I'm going to toss out this spoiler up front, to those who might choose to avoid a movie in which harm comes to a cute little animal: The kitten lives.

Stars Jordan Peele, (who co-wrote the script), and Keegan-Michael Key insist that any similarity between the two movies is entirely coincidental, but I'm not sure I buy that. Keanu seems like exactly the kind of story a comedian would write after watching John Wick while stoned. Fortunately, you don't have to be stoned to find the resulting film funny.

Peele is Rell, a depressed stoner who hasn't left his couch for days following a breakup. Key is his cousin Clarence, a slightly uptight family man who loves to listen to George Michael when he drives around in his minivan.

When a kitten shows up on Rell's doorstep, it snaps him out of his depression. He names it Keanu, ("I think it means 'cool breeze' in Hawaiian"). But unbeknownst to Rell, that kitten has a gangster past, and when it's stolen by the "17th Street Blips," (rejects from the Crips and the Bloods), Rell and Clarence decide to fool the gang's boss Cheddar, (Method Man), into believing they're killers willing to make a trade for the cat. ("We're in the market right now for, like, a gangster pet.")

Much of the humor lies in Rell and Clarence trying to pass their decidedly un-gangster selves off as the toughest guys in the hood, and it's a shtick fans of the five-season sketch show Key & Peele might recognize. But when comedians step away from successful television careers in search of big screen stardom, the results can often be mediocre, with movies that feel like sketches stretched way beyond the breaking point.

And sure, Keanu sometimes feels a little padded. But it manages to avoid the TV-to-movies curse by focusing its jokes on movie conventions. It's a parody of gangster movies like New Jack City, while also being a legitimate buddy comedy. And throughout the film I was impressed by how it was able to maintain real tension — people DO get shot in it — by having Rell and Clarence realistically react to the crazy shit going down around them.

It's also got some clever cameos, (including Keanu Reeves himself), a club called Hot Party Vixens, (or HPV for short), and of course, that kitten, which is perhaps the cutest and most talented kitten, (well, kittens; they used seven in the filming), to ever appear on film. And don't think the filmmakers don't know it! A silly twist near the end, (and after the credits; stick around), insures us that if we want a Keanu 2 that includes that kitten, we're gonna get it.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Nazi Punks Must Die: Green Room,



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Having white supremacist skinheads as the villains in a horror movie seems like such an obvious idea, I’m surprised I haven’t seen it done before. (And before you scream Surf Nazis Must Die, stop. That was a comedy; it doesn’t count.) But Green Room takes the idea and runs with it, giving us a movie whose most horrifying concept is that these days, it doesn’t seem that far fetched.

East coast punk band The Ain’t Rights, (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner), are touring the Pacific North West in a beat-up van that often serves as their sleeping quarters, and runs on the gas siphoned out of parked cars. When a promised gig doesn’t yield the hoped-for payout, a local punk they do an interview with tells the band he can get them a gig at a cousin’s skinhead club, (“It’s right wing…well, technically far left”), and as long as they stick to their early “harder” stuff, the band should be fine.

The club turns out to be in a warehouse deep in the woods, filled with confederate flags, shaved heads, and Chelsea haircuts. Not exactly enamored with the setting, the band opens with the Dead Kennedys’ "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," and while the crowd’s response involves bottle tossing and spitting, it’s actually not much different from a positive reaction. The band makes it through the set alive, but on their way out, they stumble upon a murder in their green room, and find themselves trapped behind a locked door with some hostile skinheads and one possible ally (Imogen Poots).

What looks like it could possibly be another torture porn type horror movie—kids locked in a room, getting picked off one by one—is instead much closer to a siege movie, with shades of Assault on Precinct 13, as the heroes have to figure out how to escape their seemingly inescapable situation, some meeting grisly ends, and some using their wits to survive.

Director Jeremy Saulnier was part of the hardcore scene near Washington D.C., (and if you doubt it, he'll tell you all about it; a lot), and there's no doubt his experience adds definite realism to the club and its denizens. You can almost smell the stale beer and intolerance.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Green Room is that the villains, while irrevocably bad, aren’t faceless or mindless killers. I’m not saying they’re presented as sympathetic, but by the end of the movie, you begin to understand how they became the racist murderous assholes they are. It’s surprisingly easy, turns out. And if you don’t think that’s true, just keep your eye on that blunt metaphor pit bull, (their weapon of choice).

It also helps that the actors are universally excellent. Antonin Yelchin is the de facto hero, and sensibly so; he’s probably the least “punk” member of the band, and almost fills the usual heroine-in-distress role; it's Alia Shaukat, the band’s sole female member, who is pretty much the leader of the group. (And I'll gladly accept Shaukat as our new scream queen; this combined with her performance in the excellent The Final Girls proves she's up to the task). And Imogen Poots, (I'll just never get over that name), continues to impress in every role she has.

And then there’s Patrick Stewart, as the leader of the skinhead clan. The movie's getting a lot of publicity because of his presence, and there's no doubt he's good. But it almost feels like lazy casting. He's bald! And he's British! Done! And while he's certainly a chillingly calm bad guy, I never really bought him as a skinhead. Throughout it all, he just doesn't seem ignorant enough.

Though, perhaps that's the film's ultimate message: Don't assume stupidity or ignorance where outright evil may exist.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Zero Fun: Criminal




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Crimina is an utterly ridiculous action movie with a central premise straight out of a 1950's B-horror movie, although that makes it sound like a lot more fun than it actually is, which is zero fun.
CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is in London working on a case centered on a hacker known as The Dutchman (Michael Pitt), who has broken into a worldwide military defense system, and a "Spanish anarchist" named Hagbardaka Heimbahl (!), played by Jordi Molla. Pope is captured by the bad guys, and tortured, but before he can give them or the good guys the information they both need, he dies.

So the CIA team, headed by Gary Oldman (doing an American accent worthy of a 1940s Bowery Boy movies), turn to a brilliant scientist (Tommy Lee Jones — you know you're in trouble when Tommy Lee Jones is playing a scientist), who is working on an experiment that can transfer the memories of a dead man into the brain of a living one. Only problem is, the living recipient has to have a rare brain disorder involving an under-developed frontal lobe, and the only person with those requirements is a psychopathic prisoner name Jericho (Kevin Costner).

Oh, this plan can't possibly go wrong!

Needless to say, Jericho is soon free and terrorizing the streets of London. Kevin Costner obviously enjoyed the hell out of playing a character whose most animalistic needs are concern number one. Jericho doesn't just order some food when hungry. Instead he grunts, points at a picture, and then grabs whatever looks closest to it from the plate of someone who's already eating. If he wants a car, he punches the driver in the face and takes it. Costner playing against type is certainly the most entertaining he's been in years; it's just too bad the movie surrounding him is utter garbage.

There are so many worthy actors in Criminal, I can only wonder if they started with a script that wasn't terrible. Why else would Gal Gadot — Wonder Woman herself! — agree to play a role that isn't much more than her cowering while various men — Jericho included — threaten to kill her and her daughter? Antje Traue, another great actress, plays the girlfriend of the villain, but at least she gets to kick some ass now and then.

In any other movie, it might be a surprise that the star you'd assume is the leading man, Ryan Reynolds, dies within the first 15 minutes. But nothing about Criminal is surprising in any way. In fact, the chases, explosions, and graphic fights were so standard I had to close my eyes a few times just because I knew complete and total darkness would be far less boring.

Friday, April 8, 2016

SFist At The Movies: Demolition, The Boss, Miles Ahead



Demolition

Demolition is an odd movie that attempts to wrench emotions out of its audience, but left me feeling about as numb as its hero.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Davis Mitchell, your classic yuppie with a job on Wall Street, a stark, window-filled home, and a manscaped chest. When his wife suddenly dies in a car crash, (one that leaves him unscathed), Davis feels nothing. This disturbing lack of any kind of emotional reaction to his wife's death has him questioning his marriage and his life choices, and he ends up spilling his guts in a series of letters to the customer service department of a local vending machine company. (Yeah, it's a too-cute plot device.)

His letters have a dramatic affect on customer service rep Karen, (Naomi Watts). She's a single mother with a bit of a pot problem, as well as a teenage son (Judah Lewis) who's dealing with his own identity issues.

Karen and Davis eventually meet, and develop a flirty but platonic relationship. Davis soon finds himself living with the small and dysfunctional family, while he follows an impulsive need to tear things apart to "figure out how they work." This evolves into Davis literally demolishing everything in his life.

All three actors are solid. Gyllenhaal has the eyes to convey emptiness, that's for sure, and I especially liked Judah Lewis's often unnerving portrayal as the teenage Chris. But, ultimately, I wasn't really sure what the characters really learned about life, or themselves. Like much of Davis's demolition in the movie, it felt unfinished. And an unfinished demolition is really nothing but a big mess.

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The Boss

Star Melissa McCarthy created The Boss character of Michelle Darnell — "the 47th richest woman in the world," who's an impeccably groomed, but foul-mouthed entrepreneur — 15 years ago at the Groundlings. And it shows. The movie reeks of half-formed ideas that would be better left to a venue where you can applaud after ten minutes and hope the next sketch is an improvement. Instead, we've got 90 minutes of failing jokes centered on a character who's really hard to root for, even if she is given a backstory that's supposed to garner sympathy.

I've been a fan of McCarthy since her stint as Sookie on TV's Gilmore Girls, but she's had a hard time replicating the big-screen splash she made in Bridesmaids. Last year's Spy came closest, but this effort, directed by her husband Ben Falcone, comes closer to the duo's previous failed movie collaboration, Tammy.

Kristin Bell costars as Michelle's former assistant-turned-business partner, and aside from a bit involving boobs and bra straps, doesn't get much chance to exhibit her comedic chops. Peter Dinklage also makes an appearance as Michelle's nemesis (and former love interest). I will give the movie props for not relying on jokes centered on the sizes of either McCarthy or Dinklage, and McCarthy can definitely deliver a zinger and fall down a flight of stairs with aplomb. But, alas, a single character does not a funny movie make.

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Miles Ahead - Embarcadero

Don Cheadle makes his directorial debut with this Miles Davis biopic that he also co-wrote and stars in, (and he does an impressive impression of Davis's hoarse voice throughout). As a director, he chooses not to follow the standard biopic structure, (pre-fame; fame; fall; redemption), and instead focuses on two (heavily fictionalized) eras in the trumpeter's life.

When we meet Miles, it's the late 1970s, and he's basically been in hiding for a number of years, promising new recordings to his label, but never actually producing them. Ewan McGregor plays a Rolling Stone writer determined to get an interview, who ends up ensnared in a weekend of drugs, theft, and, yes, even a car chase.

The events of the two days are peppered with flashbacks to the 1950's, and Davis's rocky relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor, (Emayatzy Corinealdi). As the movie bounces back and forth in time, it begins to resemble the unpredictable and improvisational nature of jazz.

Don't come to Miles Ahead with the hopes of really learning about the legend's life. (And in fact, I imagine some people who've never heard of Miles Davis may be pretty confused by the movie's ending). Instead, like much of Miles's music, the movie is a slightly perplexing but pretty cool ride.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! is being billed as a "spiritual sequel" to his breakout 1993 movie Dazed and Confused, and that makes sense. Both take place in a Texas of days-gone-by, and while none of the same characters show up, Jake, the lead character in Everybody is entering college about the same time Mitch from Dazed would have: 1980.

Jake, a baseball pitcher, (as was Mitch), arrives at the southern Texas college with a milk crate full of LPs, a sweet muscle car, and an ego that will immediately be squashed by his fellow teammates, who are also his roommates in the dilapidated house assigned to the baseball team. Their coach tells them that living there is a privilege, and two big rules need to be followed: No booze, and no girls upstairs.

Needless to say, they break those rules within the first four hours there.

The rest of the movie basically follows Jake and his teammates over the long weekend before the start of classes, as they get drunk, get stoned, get laid, and eventually play some practice ball. Much like Dazed and Confused, the majority of the cast are relative unknowns, at least if you never watch TV. Fans of Glee will probably recognize lead Blake Jenner, who appeared on the reality offshoot The Glee Project and plays Jake in Everybody. Glen Powell, who plays the thinly mustached, philosophical horndog Finnegan (and who steals many of the scenes he's in), was seen recently on Scream Queens. Tyler Hoechlin from Teen Wolf and 7th Heaven plays the thickly mustached ace hitter McReynolds, (and if he looks like he can actually play baseball, it's because he actually did play college ball). And if you've been watching The Walking Dead recently, you will immediately recognize Austin Amelio, though here he's slightly less menacing, and more prone to making bad bets than shooting people.

Linklater, who went to college on a baseball scholarship, is familiar with this world, and every bit of it feels authentic, if not autobiographical. The soundtrack is filled with that perfect blend of metal, disco, new wave, and punk that made 1980 such a magical moment in music. The guys — decked out in patterned polyester shirts — venture to discos, cowboy bars, and a punk concert, because getting laid is more important than blending in. When they eventually do hit the baseball field, (which doesn't actually happen until over halfway through the film), the clash of egos, followed by easy reconciliation, has a reality and lack of drama you'd need on a real team.

It's like a sex comedy you might have come out of in the 1980s thinking, "That was weirdly smart for a dumb teen movie," and it follows the path of many of Linklater's films, which is to just watch people as they wander, because it's at those times that some of the most profound things can happen.

If there's one issue I had with the movie it's that only one female character is allowed to develop past that of a mere sexual conquest for one of the guys. She's played by Zoey Deutch, (daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch), and she gives a lovely performance as Beverly, the theater arts student Jake takes a liking to.

There are nude shots of a woman's boobs and ass that feel so gratuitous they almost border on parody, but not quite. It felt like Linklater had a chance to subvert the sexism of the genre, but just couldn't get there. But ultimately, that's a small complaint for a film I liked a lot, and hit all the right nostalgia buttons, while also offering a much deeper experience than one would expect from a movie centered on college bros.