by Philip Price
From the moment The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," kicks in and the old Warner Bros. logo flashes across the screen one can't help but be hooked by “The Nice Guys.” It's been 11 years since Shane Black made his directorial debut with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” after toiling away in the writers room for years and while it's been much too long since I've seen that Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer crime caper I have to imagine the cult following it has amassed since its release over a decade ago is happy to see Black back behind the helm of what he does best. Though “Iron Man 3” may be the most divisive Marvel film of the bunch, Black clearly has a knack and a love for crafting stories from a time in which he obviously remembers fondly and nostalgically despite those times being admittedly reckless and ill-conceived. We are dropped into 1977 Los Angeles immediately, the music blaring, the now goofy clothes worn with honor, and a smog settling in over the skyline that immediately sets the tone of something being slightly askew. The magic of Black's touch in crafting the exact right tone he desires is that of not making this skewed feeling strictly pertain to the events of his story, but more it applies to the characters that will operate within this series of events that Black has crafted to more or less exploit the type of characters and the type of relationships he finds interesting and funny. That is all to say the plot actually matters very little here, but instead it is the chemistry of our two leads and the understanding with which they convey Black's dialogue and character qualities that make “The Nice Guys” more of an exception than the rule. Sure, there might have been two other actors that might have pulled this off in a similarly successful fashion and I'd even be willing to bet that replacing Russell Crowe with someone along the lines of a Liam Neeson or Kyle Chandler might have yielded better results, but Gosling absolutely owns his role and is essential to the movies success. This is Gosling's movie-make no mistake-and it will solidify both his presence and his talent as being among the most appealing in the business today (as if it wasn't already). As it is though, “The Nice Guys” is a buddy cop film that excels in creating a buddy dynamic so fun and compelling that all the cop stuff hardly matters.
Something is awry in Los Angeles as a storm of death surrounding major players in the porn industry begins drawing a swarm of attention with the point of connection being a film that stars first time actress Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) bringing both Gosling and Crowe's separate P.I. characters to the scene. Holland March (Gosling) is a single father who has been hired to investigate the apparent suicide of famous porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Misty drove her car off a ledge and was pronounced dead on the scene, but her aunt swears that she saw her two days later when she went to Misty's house to collect her belongings. Is Misty still alive? Given her aunt possesses glasses the size of Coke bottles March is suspicious of what the woman might have actually seen. Hot on the trail March is lead to Amelia where he comes face to face with a less licensed and more hands-on private eye named Jackson Healey (Crowe). Coming to figure out (after a few broken bones) that they were both hired by the young activist that is Amelia to aid in her plan of disappearing completely neither March nor Healey can deny the intrigue of what the bigger picture might actually be surrounding this case-that and there are plenty of people offering up solid payments to the point March can't help but to keep being reeled back in. The situation takes a turn when Amelia actually does vanish and it becomes apparent that March and Healy are competing with several, no doubt more nefarious parties, to track down and find Amelia and whatever secret piece of information she might be hiding that is apparently quite valuable to a good number of people. Against both men's better judgment they are forced to team up in order to get to the bottom of a rather convoluted mess of bad girls, even badder guys, and a plot involving the porn and automotive industries that all lead to something akin to a government conspiracy headed up by Kim Basinger. If that all sounds a little kooky that's likely the way Black prefers it as he feels right at home in a world filled with eccentric goons and mermaid strippers that each factor into the eccentricities key in making our two leads seem like the most level-headed people in the film.
“The Nice Guys” is one of those films that is a perfect blueprint for taking old tropes and archetypes and putting a unique enough spin on them that doing these things well is just as good if not better than coming up with a completely original story. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi know exactly what they're going for here and have thus crafted a story around what seems to have been their favorite parts of movies from the same era in which this film is set. What ends up taking a lot of the wind out of the movies sails though are the pure mechanics of the over complicated plotting. Though I understand the need to try and craft a mystery or conspiracy that feels as if it has unique or different approaches to such schemes, but no matter how one goes about it at this point-it all feels familiar. To have streamlined the plot or at least created less resistance in the number of people going after Amelia would have allowed for the film to breathe a little more while still remaining believable in terms of our rather dense detectives figure out the master plan. Beyond the admittedly overstuffed plot of the film though, Black and Bagarozzi also attempt to implement a few themes that come from the life experience of these two main characters. Chief among these is the idea that kids know too much these days and that the days of ladies and gentleman are over. To combat these disappointing truths is the character of Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland's daughter, who is the most mature presence in the entire film. After experiencing a tragedy dealing with her mother and being left to more or less look after her alcoholic father she recognizes that he's not a very good or nice man, but that he means well even if he doesn't know how to particularly convey it. Holly is the steady hand that keeps not just the movie in line, but the events moving forward rather than allowing them to stall. In the role, Rice is rather exceptional going toe to toe with both Gosling and Crowe and coming out as the true heart of the film. “The Nice Guys” also touches on the subjectivity of truth and how, depending on perspective, multiple people could think they were right. This is what comes to be the prevailing idea of the film, but it is through the character of Holly coupled with Rice's performance that even though there is indisputably two ways of looking at all things-it is her decisions, her judgments and her calls that we end up trusting and finding solace in.
Rice holds this movie together, especially in its somewhat wonky final act, but it is Gosling's comedic turn here that will make this one of the more memorable films of the year. As March, Gosling is an endearing screw-up. He's a detective with no sense of smell. He's a P.I. who isn't exactly proficient with a gun, and who, upon meeting Crowe's Healey for the first time, winds up with a broken arm that naturally inclines him to rip all the sleeves on his suit so that they fit around his cast. He's an alcoholic who constantly takes the Lord's name in vain, but defends doing so because he swears it is actually not in vain, but in fact with much hope that God will lend him a helping hand. All of this creates a fully formed and consistently hilarious character that delivers one of the most resoundingly funny and entertaining bits I've seen on film in a long time. Whether it be in “Crazy Stupid Love” or last year's “The Big Short” it's always been clear Gosling has a serious penchant for comedy and in being allowed to explore that fully here he absolutely kills it. I would watch “The Nice Guys” on repeat solely for his performance and how genuinely he made me laugh just with certain movements or sideways glances. That he is complimented by the likes of Rice's captivating young Holly and Crowe's diligent and assertive, but still well-humored Healey only make his performance all the more effective. Matt Bomer also shows up in a handful of scenes displaying more of fully formed identity with a character than I've ever seen from the actor and he does a solid job of being both appealing and menacing in the same look. It is through these characters that Black finds his real comfort zone as the dialogue heavy scenes that take place in between the shoot-outs are far more interesting no matter how well choreographed the gun fights are or how blunt and brutal the hand to hand combat is. And while the film does contain a fair amount of action this is first and foremost a comedy that upends so many tropes of the genre its clearly writing a love letter in such clever ways that the comedic effect of such gags is equally as great to how surprising it is when Black uses this same technique to elicit substantial dramatic effect. “The Nice Guys” may not be the complete package, but it's damn near close and if Black is willing to wash away some of the plot hang-ups from this origin story another adventure with these two is more than welcome.
by Philip Price
Two summers ago we were introduced to Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) Miller, a couple who'd just welcomed their first child into the world and purchased their first home in what were natural steps toward adulthood. That seemingly smooth transition was abruptly interrupted when they learned they were actually living next door to a fraternity. Led by incorrigible party guy Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) the two households went head-to-head with one another in a war of wits and schemes that once again conveyed the age old lesson of Seth Rogen comedies in that there comes a time in every young man's life when it's time to become a confused man-child. While this interesting, albeit somewhat contrived premise worked wonders the first time proving fertile ground for consistent and interesting comedy, it was such a singular type of event that to make a sequel would seem to automatically cheapen the effect of the first film. Lucky for us, director Nicolas Stoller along with Rogen and longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg as well as Brendan O'Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen have crafted a screenplay that not only allows for this same premise to work again, but also uses this set-up to make legitimate social commentary. Executing comedy successfully is difficult enough, but to on top of that endeavor to actually say something substantial in between your weed and dildo jokes is admirable, at the very least. What this comes down to is placing a fledgling sorority (led by the likes of Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) in the house where Teddy's Delta Psi once resided. In doing this, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is able to transform itself from simply giving the Millers another challenge in sleep deprivation to a film that analyzes the inherent double standards of society by exposing how our system has more or less been cultivated to give males the advantage in the majority of circumstances. The issue of being able to party may be a trivial one, but this is obviously an in to a bigger means and that ‘Neighbors 2’ makes you contemplate anything at all is rather impressive.
Picking up in real time, two years after the events of the first film, we find Mac and Kelly in the process of selling their house as they are expecting their second child. While Delta Psi has long since abandoned the house next door the couple is still nervous about the buyers backing out due to the fact they are in a 30-day escrow waiting period. It is within this short window that three freshman females decide to rush before discovering that sororities can't throw their own parties in their own houses, but instead have to go to fraternity parties if they want to drink, smoke or hook up with anyone. In attending their first frat party it becomes apparent quite quickly how heavily rape culture seems to influence these gatherings and so Shelby (Moretz), Beth (Clemons) and Nora (Feldstein) decide to begin their own sorority off campus so that they might throw the type of parties they imagined college would hold. Naturally, these three end up back at the abandoned Delta Psi house where they discover a now world-weary Teddy. When we last left Teddy he was one of those Abercrombie & Fitch models that stood outside the store with his shirt off. Since then, A & F has done away with their shirtless models relegating Teddy to the back of the store where he is under the supervision of a manager who's barely legal and where he couldn't feel less valued. To make matters worse, his best friend and current roommate Pete (Dave Franco) has come out of the closet since graduating college and is now engaged leaving Teddy with nowhere to go. While Teddy is happy that his former frat brother has found happiness and that his other former brothers including Garf (Jerrod Carmichael) and Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have gone on to successful careers in developing apps and an officer of the law (partnered with Hannibal Buress from the first film no less) he can't help but to feel left behind. This leads him to re-trace his past leading him back to the Delta Psi house that is about to become the Kappa Nu house. Teddy pledges to help these three inexperienced, but determined young ladies start-up and manage their sorority to which they happily accept inevitably leading to squabble's with the next door neighbors who are trying to sell their house.
What is truly fantastic about ‘Neighbors 2’ is that it is able to retain many of the charms that made the original so appealing without feeling like it is blatantly ripping itself off. To the films credit it still gives main characters Mac and Kelly the most to do while playing off of one another to great results as Rogen and Byrne truly have tremendous chemistry as a comedy couple. Much of this comes from the script not forcing Byrne's Kelly into the standard archetype of nagging wife, but rather Kelly is just as flawed and potentially as bad a parent as her immature, but admirable husband. To be fair, they aren't really great parents to the now three year-old Stella (still being played by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) as they cuss incessantly in front of her and have resorted to dressing up Kelly's dildos in princess garb as Stella can't help but to keep finding them. Still, Byrne is at the top of her game as she serves up as many instantly classic moments and one-liners as her counterpart. In fact, I can already better recall more of Byrne's moments than Rogen's. Still, it is in this realm that I also found the film to be irritating. There are multiple times where ‘Neighbors 2’ either doesn't explain where or with who Mac and Kelly have left Stella or during montages where we are privy to the extent of Kappa Nu's parties does it ever show how much it is disrupting the sleep schedule of Stella or how this is affecting the stress levels of Kelly who is still pregnant throughout this whole ordeal. I'm not even complaining about these aspects from a prudish perspective, but more in the way that they could have mined these issues for more comedy. As a parent one tends to think of these things and if a hard-partying group of girls fresh out of their parents’ houses moved in next door to where my daughter was on a solid sleep schedule I'd be furious. Speaking of the fresh out of high school freshmen the other big downfall of this otherwise superior sequel is that it doesn't tend to develop the three lead females of Kappa Nu as well as it did in the original with Efron and Franco despite the main theme of the film being centered around these girls and their individuality being valued for what it is instead of what they're expected to be. Whereas Teddy is able to be a critical character with a genuine arc in this sequel I don't know that the same could be done with Shelby in “Neighbors 3: The Omega.”
Despite a few shortcomings I would tend to lean toward ‘Sorority Rising’ being the superior film when stacked against its predecessor. Whereas that first film felt more like an extended investigation into a fun premise rather than a full-fledged story this sequel has real weight while maintaining the level of antics if not upping the quantity and quality of purely ridiculous moments. If one was to doubt such possibilities know that somehow Mac and Kelly along with friends Jimmy (scene-stealer Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) end up in a drug war with teenagers and with no furniture in their house at one point. At a tight 90 minutes the film is almost too short for all it has going on. The good news is the film is infinitely re-watchable with Stoller integrating some outlandish visual techniques to add to the absurd nature of the situation. Using fast zoom-ins, embracing random visual cues, and armed with an arsenal of well-placed songs Stoller amplifies the sillier and more ludicrous elements of his movie to the greatest effect possible. Combined with the scripts ability to touch on ideas of bucking a system that is more or less designed to force a fair amount of women to become what they despise in order to prosper and subsequently force a sisterhood apart because of the inherent competition such expectations present the movie not only addresses valid concerns, but offers a resolution in the form of our main characters who are raising a daughter of their own. Mac and Kelly may admittedly not be the best parents, but they know the world they don't want their daughter growing up in and that's not one where ho is as endearing a term as bro. This all culminates in a pretty terrific scene between Mac, Kelly, and Stella in the final moments of the film that not only seems to put a kibosh on the transition of Rogen from man-child to full-fledged man, but adds a sense of perspective and most importantly, value, to what means the most in our small, sometimes irrelevant lives. ‘Neighbors 2’ is the rare oddity of a comedy sequel that is able to match the surprise and fun of the original despite being a similar film. With a kind of perverted grace and a Zac Efron that is being utilized to the best of his abilities this is a film that's not only happy to revel in re-visiting fun characters, but uses such an opportunity to once again discuss transition as well as self-respect and defiance in the face of those asking for such things to be sacrificed.
by Philip Price
Walking into this feature length film based on, not even a legit video game, but an app I had no idea what to expect or what type of story this thing might entail. That said, I didn't expect much from “The Angry Birds Movie” and so to find out that it wasn't a complete waste of time, but in fact pretty funny in certain spots and put together with a fair amount of competence and investment that it delivered lush visuals and entertaining characters was nothing short of a pleasant surprise. In reality, this is a movie that epitomizes an inconsequential piece of entertainment, as it is neither important nor significant by any stretch of the imagination. What “The Angry Birds Movie” does well enough though, is serve the purpose for which it was created and that is to keep the kiddos and fans of the game entertained for a brief 90 minutes on a weekend afternoon. Having never played the game I can't really speak to how well the film integrates the elements of the game or if these are done in natural, organic ways as opposed to being shoehorned in for the sake of hitting the more popular elements of the game, but as far as story is concerned the premise that is set up with our three main protagonists is more or less an excuse to have the climactic third act of the film be a more detailed version of watching the computer play a round of the game for you. This isn't really an issue-it's kind of the point after all, but in doing this the question that arose was if the characters we're introduced to are interesting enough to care about when it comes time for them to risk their lives potentially knocking down a pig city. Do we care about what is being risked, what is potentially being destroyed, or what is being sought after? For the most part, the answer is a fine enough yes. There is no reason to become emotionally invested in these proceedings and there is certainly no need to become frustrated with the expected beats this redemption story hits, but in tackling this particular kind of story the film hits the beats well enough that you're willing to go along for the ride, listen to the pop-infused soundtrack, and smile against your better judgement when pop culture references are made for no apparent reason or every time Jason Sudeikis has to spout a bad bird pun.
Sudeikis plays a bird named Red who is among the few actual angry birds on an island full of birds. After an incident at a child's birthday party Red is sentenced to anger management under the instruction of Matilda (Maya Rudolph). There he meets Chuck (Josh Gad) who is either on a whole ton of drugs or is a mutant a la Quicksilver in the bird world. There is also Bomb (Danny McBride) who is a large bird that resembles the object he's named after and even explodes when pushed to certain limits. Rounding out the group is the mammoth Terence (Sean Penn) who does little more than grunt and make eyes at Matilda, but gets a fair amount of laughs for doing so. While none of these birds are particularly interested in the advice or projects Matilda has to offer them in terms of coping with their anger issues these once frowned upon qualities come in handy when Bird Island is suddenly colonized by a group of creepy green pigs led by Leonard (Bill Hader). When it turns out that the pigs have come to the island for one reason and one reason only it is up to Red, Chuck, and Bomb to use their anger to save the day as the rest of their fellow birds are too naive to see what is actually happening. Like I said, the story beats are predictable and you can see where this thing is going from a mile away, but the main trio of birds find a good enough groove that you begin to root for them while the remainder of the cast is fleshed out by such top notch comedic talent as Keegan-Michael Key (unrecognizable as the condescending Judge Peckinpah), Kate McKinnon and Hannibal Buress as the parents of the traumatized birthday bird at the beginning of the film, and Peter Dinklage, Tony Hale, Ike Barinholtz, as well as Titus Burgess filling out the rest of the cast. The downside to having so much talent on hand is that most of these performers aren't given nearly enough to do as the slim 97-minute narrative can barely support the quest of our trio to discover...well, that's another slight issue with the film. There is a plot, but the movie has nothing to say. Not that an animated children's film based off an app has to necessarily be about something, but no matter if the intent is there or not-a message is sent to viewers and in the case of “The Angry Birds Movie” I'm not sure where to come down.
Whereas something like “Inside Out” addresses the need for an emotion like sadness to more fully appreciate the moments of pure joy that occur in our lives Angry Birds has birds with anger issues becoming the heroes simply because they can harness their anger in the right direction when the opportunity arises. To be fair, the movie does attempt to give Red an arc where he has felt abandoned and alone for the majority of his life with his initiation into the anger management classes being the catalyst that allows him to make genuine friends that understand his frustrations. This is largely conveyed through Sudeikis' sarcastic remarks and general disdain for everyone around him whereas much of the comedy comes from both Chuck and Bomb being unwilling to leave Red alone. There is also a storyline concerning a Mighty Eagle myth that Red worships as something like a God-like figure, but even this metaphor turns out to be little more than another reason for Red to believe in himself rather than placing his trust in idols set up by society. I guess there is a lesson to be gleamed there if one so chooses, but more than anything these deviations in what already feels like a meandering story don't help with the pacing. What saves the slim narrative from dragging more often than not is the films tendency to ride the line between being annoying, but simultaneously relentless with its comedy that more works than doesn't allowing much to be forgiven. Probably too much, but with major contributions from Gad the comedy is delivered at such break-neck speeds that one can't help but to gloss over some of the pacing issues. Other highlights include the fact the film affords Danny McBride to be more endearing in his role than what he's usually typecast as in his live action roles. Hader is as much of a chameleon as ever with his Leonard conveying a tone of pure condescension masked by a fake empathy. While he is immediately designed to strike audiences as a callous villain Hader gives him shades of charm that make us hope we might be wrong about what his true intentions are. Much of the same could be said about Dinklage's performance as this washed-up hero who's forgotten what made him laudable in the first place whereas I'd just like to know how much Penn was paid to contribute a few grunts and groans.
And so, “The Angry Birds Movie” is fine for what it is and little more. There are moments of odd inappropriateness at the expense of trying to appeal to both children and adults, but the adult jokes aren't subtle enough to go over the heads of the children to the point they won't be asking questions and repeating things later. The soundtrack is also all over the place. While there are the expected inclusions of relevant pop acts of today such as Demi Lovato doing, "I Will Survive," and Blake Shelton contributing not only a song, but some voice work as well as tracks by Charli XCX and Imagine Dragons there is also random bits of Tone Loc, Rick Astley and Limp Bizkit thrown in. Yes, you read that correctly-Limp Bizkit. I wouldn't mind these sporadic choices as much if more of them pertained to the story or felt justified in some way, but it mostly feels like they had a certain budget for music on the picture and spent it all on major hits they knew were recognizable and might garner a chuckle rather than songs that might further push the emotional beats of the story or characters. Still, there is just as much to like about “The Angry Birds Movie” as there is to complain about. The music and character choices may be obvious, but it is clear the filmmakers were intent on using some interesting and fun techniques to convey their story. Whether it be the time lapse sequence that is beautifully rendered to show younger viewers how one might convey a story point or comedic element through different methods or the breathtaking sequence I wish they hadn't given away in the trailers where Chuck flies through multiple rooms in a castle wall giving more depth and scope to the events of the game-they're great. And so, “The Angry Birds Movie” is fine for what it is and little more. There is no harm in catching this wholly forgettable flick on an afternoon in May, but by no means does it seem to compel audiences to want to see more of this world which is what I have to believe Sony and Columbia Pictures were hoping for. If this breaks out you can be sure we'll see more app adaptations coming down the pipeline, but let us only hope that if this indeed turns out to be true that future movies are more in the vein of “The LEGO Movie” than “The Angry Birds Movie.”
by Philip Price
We may all be created equal, but we are certainly not all born into the same circumstances. In order for our system to work the way it is designed to things must remain this way. People must continue to fail or slip through the cracks of said system so that we not only have opportunities for exceptionally driven individuals to thrive, but also for those who are unable to make it past being the breakfast manager at McDonald's. We are all created equal, but it's what we do with that equality and the opportunity this state of mind affords us no matter how many advantages or disadvantages we're born into. It is in this idea of equality that Jodie Foster seems to find an in to this story cobbled together by three screenwriters that seemingly wants to be about something, but in the end is more a slight encapsulation of the time we're living in than a piece of art that reflects or examines the time that has spawned it. “Money Monster” is Foster's fourth directorial feature and undoubtedly her biggest film to date, but it is this bigger feel, this corporate mandated aesthetic and approach that hinders more than helps in whatever Foster's actual objective might be. And so, it begins by Foster and her team of screenwriters (including Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf) looking at how the little man might take on the privileged and exploring equality from that perspective, but as we come to learn more details about the situation and the plot becomes more clear in that it is going to blame the downfall that was the catalyst for the outrageous (but not unbelievable) actions of one of our main characters on a single bad guy who did a single bad thing instead of making this an amalgamation of bad choices and ethically wrong dealings there is a hint that it might become more about equality in the sense of taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions whatever they may be no matter where we fall in society's class system. Had “Money Monster” delved more into an idea Dominic West's character spouts near the end of the film and come to something of a less pleasant conclusion, but a more realistic one I imagine the film might have struck more of a nerve, but as it is and as it goes “Money Monster” is simply a neat little thriller that is consistently entertaining.
Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a financial whiz with his own TV Show on a financial network who gives viewers stock tips and other things of the same ilk. Gates is very much a Jim Kramer type with the same gimmicks and outlandish personality, but given this is George Clooney there is a sense of charisma and charm about the guy. We might learn that all he has to live for is his career given he's been married three times with each of them failing and an estranged child he knows little about other than the fact he signs a check once a month, but our biggest source of insight around Gates is actually his relationship with his director/producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) who not only seems to run his show, but large portions of his life as well. One of the more interesting aspects of “Money Monster” is that it more or less takes place in real time and in attempting to accomplish such things we get the double edged sword of seeing some moments in a hyper dramatic form that might otherwise feel more mundane and yet there are other moments of real tension, where Foster and her editor create scenes worthy of pushing us to the edge of our seats. It is during a Friday broadcast of Gates' show that an unidentified man wanders onto set holding two boxes and a gun. Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) is a truck driver who makes $14 an hour and someone who mistakenly took Gates' advice after inheriting $60,000 from his mother after her passing. At the tender age of 24, Budwell has seemingly found himself in over his head within the context of his life and has thus resorted to sticking it to the man in the most literal sense he could imagine. Budwell proceeds to take the entire production hostage as he pulls out a vest with a bomb strapped to it and makes Gates put it on. Budwell then puts his finger on the trigger and claims that if he lifts his thumb the whole place blows. What does he want? Budwell invested that $60,000 in a company called IBIS after listening to Gates say it was, "safer than your savings account," and in turn lost it all when IBIS lost a total of $800 million. Budwell wants to know why. He wants to know what happened and he wants those responsible for what keeps being referred to as a "glitch" to explain why they felt so free to play with other people's money and well-being.
“Money Monster” is an interesting beast. It so clearly wants to be a heavy handed dramatic piece that comments on the crooked and the corrupt of Wall Street and how these stockbrokers and CEO's play so freely with other people's money that the actual repercussions their actions don't seem to matter. Foster clearly wants to comment on the idea of how big banks make things so complicated to understand that they alienate a large portion of the population allowing the people at the top to more or less do whatever they want given they can explain their way around it in a way the everyman won't understand, but in the shadow of films like “The Big Short” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Money Monster” comes off more pedestrian. At a mere hour and 37 minutes the film is a tight-knit thriller akin to something we might have seen in the ‘90s as directed by Phillip Noyce, but it is also evident Foster is interested in creating a kind of homage to Sindey Lumet in the vein of “Dog Day Afternoon” by attempting to create a portrait of human beings in their most basic of forms relying on their most basic of instincts and abilities. What this attempt ends up becoming though is an entertaining if not sometimes exciting thriller that stands to show us no matter how wealthy you become (even if you're George Clooney and Julia Roberts) that the right thing to do, morally, is stand up for the little guy and make sure those that can do, do indeed follow through. This obviously makes the star’s clout and persona go up in the minds of the old blue hairs that will buy a matinee ticket to the film because they miss the days when movie stars defined the success of a film and studios actually made movies for adults, but in taking the movie as a whole it will leave little impact and certainly won't undo any perspectives one might have prior to walking into the theater. The key thing to appreciate about “Money Monster” is that it does its basic job diligently in that it provides an interesting, timely premise that comes with an inherent amount of drama and even offers a few twists on beats we expect certain elements and characters to hit. There is one scene in particular featuring a rather impressive Emily Meade that so goes in the opposite direction than what is expected that it not only adds layers to the character of Kyle, but it adds a whole new prospect for where the film could end up. While these moments might be too few and far between considering the slim running time there is enough compelling stuff here to keep us tuned in.
While the script could indeed be considered timely and the ideas relatable if not discouraging, it is the actors that have to make these events connect on a level where the audience views the events from multiple angles rather than just the one the media purports or the one we assume given the contributing factors. To be honest, neither Clooney nor Roberts have anything especially daring or interesting to do here, but rather they are simply tasked with giving the scenes of high drama actual tension. In many ways, the two marquee stars are reacting more so than they are giving a performance, but they are good in what they're doing even if we've seen them do something similar before. Both the most interesting character and the most dynamic in terms of performance belongs to Kyle as played by O'Connell. Here, O'Connell is tasked with being the catalyst for the action that takes place and remaining the loose cannon throughout while simultaneously allowing for the audience to come to sympathize with his plight despite the fact he's the one holding the gun and being labeled the bad guy. Budwell is so clearly not the villain in this scenario though, and that comes through due to not just the speech he has prepared and intermittently shouts out on live TV, but more it is due in large part to the manic looks O'Connell allows to spread across his face showing us he has as little an idea of what he's actually doing there as we do. That Kyle, as a character, is genuinely looking for an explanation as to how his life ended up where it has is both desperate and devastating. That he's not even looking for a way out, but more for some type of justification makes his journey all the more tragic. And though there is an insane supporting cast here that provides the likes of the aforementioned West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito and Dennis Boutsikaris jobs even if each isn't given much to do, it is O'Connell that comes away both as the biggest loser, but the only real winner. Clooney and Roberts simply come away unscathed leaving “Money Monster” a movie with big ideas and big stars, that is simplified for the masses in a fashion that makes it too broad to be as precise and stinging as it aspires to be. Still, it's rather entertaining and as a piece of entertainment-that counts for something.
by Philip Price
The title of this latest music biopic suggests that Miles Davis was a man ahead of his time and many would agree when speaking about his musical talents, but Don Cheadle's first directorial effort, “Miles Ahead,” isn't introspective enough to put on display why this particular individual was allowed insight into music others hadn't yet tapped into, but rather it's about how Davis was very much a product of his time. In his actions and his views in his personal life Davis was very much of the state of mind that society should function a specific way, especially in regards to how he was allowed to treat the opposite sex and how they weren't allowed to treat him. One can only imagine Cheadle and screenwriter Steven Baigelman (who also worked on “Get on Up”) decided to come at Davis' story from a more personal angle due to how destructive he needed to be in order to be inspired enough to create what would become his legacy. Of course, that leaves audiences, or more appropriately Davis himself, to deal with the bigger question of what is worth more in the long run-his present prize or his potential imprint he could leave on culture? In “Miles Ahead,” Cheadle shows us how one drove the other-how life goes on for Davis long after the thrill of living is gone (one can learn a lot from John Cougar Mellencamp). What was the thrill though? The music or the indisputable love of his life, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi)? The even bigger question is does Davis ever figure this out for himself? Sure, he is now the subject of a motion picture and regarded as one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century, but how often did he think of Frances and the times they could have shared, the memories they could have potentially made while grappling with a reputation that could go either way? Miles Davis, the man, would have you believe that he didn't grapple with anything as one of his most famous quotes states, "do not fear mistakes. There are none," but it's hard to believe given Cheadle's interpretation that being one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century came with a price Davis wasn't always sure he wanted to pay.
I feel as if I know a lot of stories about a lot of musicians, but going into “Miles Ahead” I didn't know much about the life and times of Miles Davis. Whether this was an advantage or disadvantage I wasn't sure, but whatever the case one thing was for sure and that was the fact I was going to take the film on its own terms and process what it provided me unfiltered and without expectation. In the beginning of the film we find a Davis who is wallowing in self-pity, a burn out of sorts if you will. It is 1979. In 1975 one of the most prolific voices in music went silent for five years and it is at the end of this stretch that Cheadle finds an entry point into Davis' life that allows him to establish a friendship of sorts with Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) and thus a framing device of sorts that sets up two parallel storylines dealing with Davis' current state of perfecting his most recent recording sessions and the battle over those tapes with Columbia Records as well as his checkered past that informs where we find the musician in '79. These two parallel storylines don't restrict the story of Davis to two particular instances in his life though, but instead function as a jumping off point for what largely feels like an organic film-much like the way Davis always wanted his music to feel. Much of this is accomplished through the editing by John Axelrad and Kayla Emter though seeming influenced by Cheadle's vision for the project. Editing techniques are always a crucial element when discussing music biopics or biopics of any sort, especially if we're discussing a cradle to the grave look at someone's life, but in “Miles Ahead” Cheadle uses his navigation between the past and Davis' present to feed off one another as if in a relay race with itself. At times, especially early on, it feels like the film is doing little more than skimming the surface of who Davis was with funny quips and a fascinating frankness to his love of cocaine. With the assistance of both the grainy and dimly lit visual aesthetic cinematographer Roberto Schaefer establishes as well as the constant touch of "social music" playing in the background Cheadle is able to bring his feature around to a more revealing piece of art as just in his performance Cheadle is reminiscent of a Jazz-infused Howard Hughes with the actor's demeanor helping us understand why Davis had become both so reviled and revered.
If one was to ask Davis to tell them his life story as Braden does at one point in the film he would answer by saying, "I was born, moved to New York City, met some cats and made some music, did some dope and made some more music, now you're at my door." It's funny, it's straightforward, and it tells us so much about the man Davis was. In a sense, Cheadle takes note of this glib outlook Davis seemed to inherently give anything that wasn't of importance or value to him and thus makes his film equally as flighty given the script positions mystery around what happened to Frances in terms of her involvement in Davis's life and yet Cheadle decides to fast forward through some of the more important (or at least most photographed) milestones in their relationship. We get a brief glimpse at the wedding ceremony through Polaroid snapshots with Cheadle simultaneously throwing in shots of Davis with other women, multiple women-taking us from a moment of wedded bliss immediately up through the beginnings of their fallout. This fallout is naturally a catalyst of sorts for the dividing line in Davis' life as far as all that came before Frances and all that would come after, but it is in this catalyst that Cheadle finds what he needs to give us a fully realized picture of his subject without having to go into every detail of his life. In taking this route, Cheadle ultimately delivers a portrait of the important factors if not the essential ones. With this we are offered a few interesting glimpses into how Davis put together his rhythms and compositions, but the subject I want to see most in music biopics, a caveat that is often addressed too little, is again thrown by the wayside for the most part. It's easy to understand that many an artist who become notable enough to have a film made about their life were likely inherently talented, it ingrained in their DNA from the time they exited the womb, but if a movie is made about a musician I expect it to address where the passion comes from. I need to know what drives them to create. It isn't until the closing moments of “Miles Ahead” that the film really gives way to what an ear Davis had for music and specifically the type of music that takes listeners on a journey. Music with attitude, if you will and while the culmination is thrilling it also serves to be slightly underwhelming.
In essence, “Miles Ahead” is something of a buddy movie with McGregor and Cheadle playing off one another even sending them on an escapade through the city on Braden's promise of delivering the best quality cocaine in exchange for Davis' cooperating for his interview. The film then becomes something of a back and forth for the two actors with their characters attempting to figure out who's playing who. In the most present timeline in the film this leads to a series of events concerning producer Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his upcoming jazz artist, Junior (Keith Stanfield), that comes to resemble a seventies action film. It may sound a tad strange, but somehow Cheadle makes these separate styles and strings come together in a coherent enough fashion that by the end the two parallel storylines culminate quite nicely with the visuals complimenting the actions in a truly effective manner. The denouement of the film reveals a few facts and intentions that bring even more light and weight to some of the previously documented actions of Davis while revealing other aspects that audience members might have suspected, but been unsure of. And so, “Miles Ahead” may not exactly be a buddy movie, a ‘70s action film, or even a music biopic and yet it is seemingly all of those things at once. An amalgamation of delusions and abuse, of selfish, controlling, destructive behavior that led to inspiration, that led to global stardom and respect from his peers and musicians that have since followed a similar path, but undoubtedly left the titular jazz musician alone and confused for much of the time he actually existed on this planet. Only Davis will of course ever know the truth of his psychological state, but by the time the credits roll on this film about his life it culminates with a live performance that exemplifies why the man deserves to have his story told if not for the way he conducted his life, but for how that life conducted what he created.
by Philip Price
In December 1970, Elvis Presley apparently wasn't feeling too great about the direction America was headed in. If one wasn't aware, Presley was largely a conservative; a man who feared communists, the general tone around the Vietnam War, and the seeming lack of respect for the office of the President. And so, being the King, he assumed he could take such matters into his own hands and indeed planned on doing as much by taking his concerns straight to the White House. In December 1970, Presley's career was as big as it had ever been. The iconic one-piece jumpsuits debuted earlier in the year and the signature karate moves were now an even bigger part of his stage show. His shows at the Las Vegas International Hotel had sold out, set, and broke records throughout the year, but by the end of 1970 it seemed Presley's head was in a very different place. This brings us to the new film from director Liza Johnson, “Elvis & Nixon,” which discusses little to nothing about the music career of Elvis Presley, but more offers insight into the man Presley was outside of his well-known (and well-worn) persona. It's an interesting take and the film overall is a slight 86-minute excursion that strictly covers the how and why of this infamous meeting offering little to no commentary on the actual events leaving plenty of room for audience interpretation. This lack of any real angle, but rather pure intent to tell the story of a rather strange and unexpected set of events is admirable given today's highly peremptory society and especially considering the topic, but Johnson seems to care little for her character’s actual beliefs or motivations, but simply accepts such feelings as fact and follows them with her camera to where such impulses led these actual men. Does this provide a compelling or complex film? No, not really, but it would have been next to impossible to make a film of this meeting not interesting and at the very least “Elvis & Nixon” is an interesting and straightforward history lesson if not being as necessarily notable as its main characters.
It was December 21st, 1970 to be exact. The King of Rock 'n Roll showed up on the lawn of the White House to request a meeting with the most powerful man in the world, President Richard Nixon. Sitting in the TV room of his Memphis palace, Graceland, Presley is overwhelmed with the signs of the time and the inevitable self-destruction his beloved U. S. of A. seemed destined for. While anyone who becomes so far removed from the real world that their first name is synonymous with all they are imagined to be in the heads of billions of people is sure to be a tad eccentric Presley assumes he will be welcomed with open arms by the President and allowed to carry out his mission as he imagines. What might this mission be exactly? Well, in Presley's mind he apparently thought it possible that he would be successful in going undercover, in full disguise, as a "Federal Agent at Large," and infiltrating the gangs and cartels of our country that were creating the drug epidemic among the nation's youth. What Presley really wanted was a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, but few around him thought this an actual possibility. In fact, the guards on duty at the White House when Presley showed up randomly on the morning of the 21st weren't even sure if it was the actual Elvis or simply an impersonator attempting to play some kind of prank. After making up his mind and catching a red eye to Los Angeles Presley contacted longtime friend and aide Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to assist him in setting up a meeting with the President. Schilling, who had since left working for Presley and was then working as an editor at Paramount, picked up the singer and took him to his recently purchased mansion in California. Elvis then asked Schilling to fly with him to the capital where, on the flight, Presley scribbled a six-page letter to Nixon declaring he would "be of any service that can help the country out," and that he was, "staying at the Washington Hotel under the alias Jon Burrows and would remain there for as long as it took to get the credentials of a federal agent."
From this description one might surmise that Presley was even more out of touch with reality than generally expected given his state of fame and what would ultimately become of the once hunky singer. While the debut of Presley on the Vegas strip a year earlier in 1969 would set the tone for a transitional gap between what it had been (the era of the Rat Pack) and what it would become (an indulgence destination where debauchery might go ignored) as Presley neared the end of his life he would become addicted to a variety of prescription drugs. There are of course several other factors that would lead to the singer's untimely death, but that Presley would become submissive to the thing that six years earlier he'd been determined to stop is not only ironic, but telling of the further psychological breakdown the performer would suffer over his remaining years. Presley likely knew his days as the King of Rock 'n Roll in the eyes of the public were numbered. Forget the invasion of The Beatles during the ‘60s, the Vietnam War had changed a generation who no longer found solace in the light pop ballads of Presley, but instead demanded more from their music. In light of the anger and passion spurned by world events the Woodstock generation of rockers and rebels was born. Maybe it was this shift, this realization that gave Presley the need to try and fight for his relevance, to resist the change that was so clearly coming. One has to imagine Presley realized he'd never be able to successfully go undercover, but maybe he didn't. Either way, it wasn't really the relevance factor that Presley was likely worried about, but the idea of losing power that scared him most. To be able to obtain a badge of such stature would seemingly grant him this "ultimate power" that would ensure he remained certified as such by the most powerful man in the United States. Whatever it might have been that led Presley to seek such credentials it is this behind the curtains aspect that is most engaging about “Elvis & Nixon.” As Presley, Michael Shannon single-handily steals the film with a performance that is not an imitation, but a portrait of a man who feels the need to live up to this thing, this idea that everyone else has of him rather than simply being the person he is under all that comes with being Elvis.
As a film overall, Johnson creates a portrait that more or less allows Shannon's performance to breathe and be the centerpiece of all he wants to do. Would this movie have worked without a performance at the level of Shannon's? Maybe-but it would be nowhere near as interesting or layered. There is a scene that takes place in a donut shop predominantly populated by African-Americans that is meant to display the disdain the black community had for Presley that is rendered an instant classic due solely to how confident Shannon is as he strides in and out of the situation. Shannon also shares a few quieter moments from the entertainer where he's not attempting to be as much, but rather is up front and real about all his life has encompassed. A heart to heart with Schilling mid-way through the film reveals the best reason for this film to be made in that it provides Shannon the first genuine opportunity to put on display who Presley might have been when he wasn't trying to keep up the facade. Another comes just before Presley is set to meet Nixon and is preparing what he might say to the President. In this moment Shannon recounts a true story from Presley's life that resonates how deep-seeded his beliefs about his talent are and how much he actually earned or didn't earn his position in the universe. If all of this adds up to one thing though, it is the fact that Presley was likely tired of being Elvis and that he would seemingly have done anything to not be seen as such anymore-even if it meant going undercover to protect the nation from anarchy. As for Kevin Spacey as Nixon he does a fine impression of the scandal-ridden President that never reminds us of Spacey's other Presidential role while offering a few amusing interactions with his Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and Administration Official Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks). While the first 50 minutes or so tell us the story of how this meeting was made to happen with the last 20 or so offering the interactions of the official meeting the movie as a whole, despite Shannon's great performance, doesn't reveal in effective enough form the moment in the Oval Office that was forever immortalized in the most requested photograph in the National Archives.
by Philip Price
Superhero movies, as we know them today, must walk the difficult line of being somewhat grounded in a reality audiences can relate to while at the same time embracing (not just accepting, but embracing) the inherent goofiness of the facts of the matter. In a broad scope, this is about guys and girls in colorful suits with silly nicknames duking it out with what tends to be (at least in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) a flavor of the week villain that does just enough to further the arc of what remains to be built in this ongoing series. What grounds these colorful characters sporting strange labels is the repercussions of their actions. The Avengers can shut down an entire alien race while destroying New York in the process and widely be regarded as the heroes of the scenario, but the fact of the matter is that if this were to happen in our reality there would be thousands upon thousands dead and even more injured. With the third ‘Captain America’ film, ‘Civil War,’ Marvel has found it the necessary time to begin giving their heroes more heady spaces to wander. Sure, there is still a bigger antagonist than either Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) or Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in ‘Civil War’ that leads to the plot being more run of the mill than I was hoping things might go, but there is enough justification and perspective to this villain’s plan that we go with what we're being offered. Perspective is a key word here. Not only in the driving force that puts the team at odds over the still brewing conflict concerning The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), but for these superior beings to take into account the consequences of their actions and come face to face with their shortcomings-the film more or less exploring how they deal with such realizations when they're brought up as potential charges. Captain America is a firm believer in consequentialism in that his goals are morally important enough that any method of achieving them are acceptable with the understanding of the unfortunate caveat that he will never be able to save everyone. It is in exploring such territory and being bold enough to bring their heroes face to face with such a reality that Marvel exceeds in walking that difficult line. “Captain America: Civil War” is very much a Marvel movie in that it is full of bright colors, genuinely funny quips, and some solid action set pieces, but bringing these characters (and these performers) into more interesting dynamics with one another notches up the reality factor with the result being an admirable balancing act that deserves to be applauded.
Almost as much as the impressive balancing act ‘Civil War’ pulls off is the fact it is able to almost seamlessly handle all it has to manage. There is a ton of stuff going on here and not all of it is necessarily pertinent to the titular hero’s narrative arc, but screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have somehow found a way to not only adapt what had to be a sprawling comic book storyline into a single, mostly cohesive film, but into a piece of storytelling that makes all of these different characters and strings pull together in an organic fashion. Did Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) have to finally track down Crossbones (Frank Grillo) in the fictional country of Wakanda? No, but that they did and that this opening battle comes to a conclusion with a large amount of collateral damage sets in motion a push for tighter restrictions and supervisions over these super heroes. That the meeting of the United Nations to push through this super hero registration act again takes place in Wakanda and is hit by a terrorist bomb that is suspected to have been planted by The Winter Soldier allows for T'Challa AKA Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) to be provoked enough to dive into the internal conflict that has already been brewing between The Avengers. On the front lines of the push to have earths super-powered beings more or less become government operatives is Tony Stark. Following an unexpected run-in with a grieving mother (Alfre Woodard) that leaves him wracked with guilt Stark calls up old friend Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) to help implement this initiative. On Stark's side is long-time friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), former A.I. turned fully formed humanoid, Vision (Paul Bettany), with Black Panther falling in line due simply due to his vendetta against Winter Soldier while Black Widow more or less stands beside Stark's views while her heart seems to waver more in Cap's direction. With Bucky (or The Winter Soldier) essentially being pegged as a fugitive to shoot on sight the weight of what it seems Cap should do isn't enough to move him. With Falcon firmly on his side, Captain America goes on the run to attempt to figure out the truth of Bucky's past and how it might inform what is happening to him now only enlisting Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) when it becomes clear Stark isn't going to rest.
What's crazy is that summary doesn't even scratch the surface of all that ‘Civil War’ contains. I've yet to mention the former Russian military commander Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the ongoing romantic tension between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter's niece, Sharon (Emily VanCamp), or the small factoid that Marvel's most iconic superhero, the web slinger himself, Spider-Man (Tom Holland), shows up at the insistence of Tony Stark for a scene that will solidify your hope and willingness to follow Spider-Man into a third series of live action films in less than 15 years. Oh, and did I mention the always charming Martin Freeman is in this movie, too? While all of these facets are attractive and bring an incredible amount of joy to large portions of the experience it was ultimately kind of distracting just how much stuff was actually going on and I began marveling at the fact the Russo Brothers were even able to manage all they had on their plate rather than simply appreciating what they'd actually served on that plate. To push the food analogy even further, a plethora of ingredients are here and the Russo's more or less craft a satisfying dish, but the presentation could have been tighter and a little more pleasing given all it had going into it.
In short, I enjoyed “Captain America: Civil War” a lot and there are even sections of the film I'd say I genuinely loved, but as one cohesive work it is a solid movie that is very good without being great even within the confines of the super hero genre. And still, I feel somewhat regretful in even being that dismissive because when we see the shot of Iron Man and his crew that includes Spider-Man marching towards Captain America and his supporters I turned to my brother who was sitting next to me and flat-out admitted to this being, "insanely awesome." And it is, the spectacle is truly something to behold in a theater-going experience. There is something magical about seeing these beings who a generation watched on Saturday morning cartoons go head to head in a live action brawl and as one of those kids who longed for the days when movies would be as connected as the universe's I became enthralled with in those Saturday morning cartoons I appreciate the willingness of Marvel to be consistent with their connective tissues and largely dismissive of the audience who doesn't care to keep up. The things is-by the time the credits roll and we are delivered the exciting, but obligatory post credits scenes “Captain America: Civil War” felt more like a fun and engaging genre movie rather than one that transcended the super hero genre to be a great film regardless of its defining descriptors.
Always elevating these types of movies is the willingness of the performers. While it is clear the veterans of this series are beginning to lose some of their steam it is their names that still stand tall at the top of the posters and thus I'm sure they don't expect to be going anywhere anytime soon. This is especially true of Downey Jr. who is playing Tony Stark/Iron Man for the sixth time in ‘Civil War’ while Evans and Johansson are each on their fifth outing as their respective characters. Though it is expected that Stark is somewhat worn down by the onslaught of mishaps that have plagued his attempted retirement since “Iron Man 3,” not to mention an apparent rough patch with Pepper, but RDJ looks more than appropriately tired. Within his performance there are numerous scenes where it feels as if he is going through the motions, as if playing the same character is so second nature by this point there is really no necessary effort needed. It might only be noticeable in certain instances, but the fact Downey Jr. is only present on set when he's not in the Iron Man costume feels more glaring than ever. Again, I say that, but when it comes to the final climactic showdown between our two prime protagonists where Markus and McFeely try their hand at legitimately dramatic material Downey Jr. drives it home and delivers the necessary impact to make us believe that no matter how much these two opposing forces want to find common ground there are some lines you just don't cross. It is a watershed moment of sorts not just for the events of the story, but for the MCU in general as it marks the first time I was not only invested in the actions of these characters, but their emotions. In some strange way, that likely should have been the ultimate goal of ‘Civil War’ as it is the first Marvel film willing to give to its characters what they somewhat deserve while keeping their signature self-referential tone in check.
While the aforementioned vets are doing as much as we've come to expect from them it is certainly refreshing to see some interesting new faces in the crowd. Boseman's Black Panther is immensely cool with a presence that is more than intimidating, but effortlessly appealing. Rudd being Paul Rudd as Ant-Man and getting the opportunity to do some pretty neat things in the centerpiece fight is worth the price of admission alone while a "buddy cop" relationship that develops between Mackie and Stan is priceless. Even Brühl, who is cast as the somewhat thankless villain, is given an opportunity to flesh out his motivations that see the use of real logic administering a perceptive and intelligent plan even if the execution is rather convoluted. On the other hand, Renner and Cheadle feel wasted while Olsen and Bettany's slight relationship drama is all too slight to actually resonate. Still, each player is game and in movies that consist of men shrinking to ant size and purple guys in capes that counts for a lot.
Credit where credit is due though, the Russo Brothers have crafted a piece of pop culture that will only remain to solidify the zeitgeist of this period in time where, for as much as some may dislike the dominance caped vigilantes have accrued in mainstream cinema, they still remain the unmitigated favorite among the popular vote. Personally, I get excited for these films as much as the next fanboy. I have a lot of fun watching what I imagined as a child come to life and I find a lot of joy in seeing these epic myths adapted for modern times played out on a scope so large they sometimes do rival those Greek epics they draw so much inspiration from. That the Russo's have figured out a way to capture such frenetic and exhilarating action sequences and fight scenes with their cameras trying desperately to keep up with their subjects while at the same time keeping the tension as high as the energy as well as being able to accentuate each individual heroes abilities in effective and interesting ways drives just how skilled they had to be to manage that high-wire balancing act making what a miracle it is they accomplished it that much more astonishing. With all that is taking place on the visual borders of this film it is easy to forget the debate that drives the action, but Markus and McFeely concoct some truly great dialogue scenes that see the themes of the piece coming through in ways that will pull the audience from one side to the other, each respective view making sense for the person speaking it and their past adventures that we've seen inform those opinions. At the risk of sounding like a crabby old critic, if we were to get as much of these dialogue-heavy scenes as we do the giant action set pieces and trim a few of the set-ups for future movies ‘Civil War’ might have stood a chance to transcend the genre it is so proudly a part of. Maybe it doesn't want to, though. Maybe the Russo's and Marvel are perfectly fine with making a hugely entertaining action film that can be deceptively profound in just enough moments that it registers in unexpected, but welcome ways. If that is the case, they surely accomplished their goal and there is no reason they should listen to anyone but themselves at the moment.
by Philip Price
The biggest fight this unnecessary sequel was always going to battle was the one for purpose. In 2012's “Snow White and the Huntsman” there was much to admire in terms of visually stunning design and creativity for the functionality of much of those designs, but both the story and the characters felt thin, cobbled together from different mythologies, and thrown together in hopes of becoming a new take on an old tale. With “The Huntsman: Winter's War” the film once again faces something of an identity crisis-wanting to be a number of things, but never focusing on one single aspect enough to actually be about something. As the first film was an attempt to capitalize not only on the idea of turning well-known fairy tales into live-action adventures, but on swinging the Hollywood pendulum towards more female-centric action vehicles the focus is still very much on the ladies. This is all well and good until you realize that once again this ‘Huntsman’ film is simply pulling from other stories to try and cobble together a legend of its own to no avail-giving extremely talented actresses nothing to work with. While not a direct sequel or even a full prequel, Winter's War is a spin-off of sorts that encapsulates all of the previous film and intends to add a broader scope and depth to the proceedings. In doing this we are offered a take on recent female Disney characters such as Elsa's Ice Queen from “Frozen” in the form of Queen Freya (Emily Blunt) and Merida from Pixar's “Brave” in the form of Sara (Jessica Chastain). Done in the hope that telling a darker, more action packed story would appeal not only to the kids who enjoyed those movies, but to the adults who've likely seen them on repeat and might find it interesting to see variations on such characters in live action form it's a fine enough strategy. At the very least this strategy provides some kind of template for the film to build strong female characters upon, but as a final product the film does nothing interesting with the majority of its characters in a story so scattered and with one too many lulls that even the beauty of both the visuals and actors isn't enough to distract from the weariness of it all.
The first sign there was going to be something of an issue with trying to re-configure a sequel solely around the supporting character from the first film was the fact the first fifteen minutes is dedicated to backstory and setting up our antagonist's motivation. Understanding the need to tie into the events of the first film, but attempting to create one's own story the hired gun screenwriters on this project (Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos) give Charlize Theron's Ravenna a little sister (Blunt) who apparently exposes Ravenna's only inclinations for emotional weakness, but who disappoints her by falling in love with a man and bearing his child. As this man was promised to another woman he is unable to commit to Freya and so he takes from her their child, leaving her cold...literally. In the wake of such heartbreak Freya discovers her power to shoot ice from her hands and generally just control the weather. With her new power, Ravenna gives her younger sister a kingdom of her own to rule over (because that's how these things work) and decides her rule of thumb will be that if love is only going to bring her heartbreak instead of happiness that no one in her kingdom shall be happy and thus love is forbidden. It's a very elementary idea, but is used as reason for Freya to take the children of her kingdom from their parents, breaking the ties early, and training them to be fierce warriors and huntsmen so that they may assist the Queen in gaining more power over more lands. Within the first batch of children she recruits are a young Eric (Conrad Khan) and young Sara (Niamh Walter) who, naturally, as soon as their eyes meet begin to like one another. As they grow and mature this affection grows into a forbidden love that brings Eric (now Chris Hemsworth) and Sara to be husband and wife. It is when Freya discovers their secret that she intends to rid her kingdom of any such lawbreakers with Eric narrowly escaping making room for the events of the first film. Mind you, this is all within the first forty-five minutes of the film as the rest of Eric's adventure post-Snow White deals with tracking down the mirror and destroying it. Any guesses as to how strained this all feels? The answer is very.
At the very least the film is ambitious in its attempt to achieve the task set out in front of it, but the execution is often more stop and go and too inconsistent to convey any type of story that will leave audiences feeling either connected or affected much less both. With the first, almost hour of the film feeling like a crash course in backstory and set-up, the second half of the film features long stretches of nothing that seem intended for character development, but while the conversations being held move the plot forward and occasionally offer some character insight nothing about the nature of the tone feels urgent or as if there is any type of real peril looming. There is no sense of immediacy to the danger our titular Huntsman is supposedly in until he intermittently meets up with a bad guy he must fight making such set pieces feel more like action beats for the sake of action beats rather than anything that is actually meant to develop the story. Hemsworth is his typical charming and charismatic self here, but he sports a Scottish accent that is borderline unintelligible at times with his attempts at humor being up-ended by the two dwarfs this film was able to coral. Returning from the first film is Nick Frost as Nion with Rob Brydon joining in this time around as Nion's brother, Gryff. On their journey with Hemsworth's Huntsman they come across two female dwarfs (Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach) who bring out both the best and worst in one another. Comedy is meant to be elicited from how much the dwarfs really dislike one another and while this supplies a few laughs most of the comedy comes from what feels like largely improvised moments between Frost and Brydon. In short, Hemsworth is largely worthy but does little to make his performance notable and his romantic pairing with Chastain is more or less good enough if not exactly on fire. For me, Chastain and Blunt clearly have the most interesting and meaty roles to play here with their characters interlaced in a way that deception and progression work for and against each of them. Blunt adds large amounts of camp to a rather ridiculous and simple-minded character while Chastain comes away as the MVP offering a compelling performance in the film's most complex character arc.
And so, is “The Huntsman: Winter's War” actively bad? No, not really. It's a slick studio product that gives former visual effects supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (who worked on the first film) an opportunity to direct a big budget franchise vehicle and test his ability for future filmmaker-for-hire projects that will likely fall into similar territory. It gives Theron an opportunity to return to one of her more memorable and fun characters that she again takes full advantage of here, and at the very least it is a vehicle by which strong female actors are granted the opportunity to play certain roles they might not find readily accessible in their average work year. Still, that the story fails to connect or even bring something cohesive and complete to the table is disappointing. There are plenty of facets where this unique prequel/sequel situation could have bucked the trends of its predecessors, but rather Mazin and Spiliotopoulos make many underwhelming choices. There is a glaring example of such in the second act that is so obvious as to what the truth of the matter is that it's a shame the writers don't assume their audience is smart enough to figure it out and pass over what feels like an obligatory narrative beat in order to extend the running time that might have relieved some of the tedium. Ideas that are hinted at, but never fulfilled deal largely in the amount of wasted life that is put through the motions in Freya's kingdom. It seems there is nothing to do in this well designed kingdom but rule and start war, but when looking at it from a certain perspective there is plenty of material to pull from a psyche that attempts to leverage all under her command for the sake of her own soul and sanity. The repercussions of such actions on the young that Freya recruits should come through in both Eric and Sara, but they largely seem unscathed by being ripped from their homes other than the issue of them not being able to be with one another. Rather than exploring any of these potential outlets the film sticks to its "love conquers all" theme that ultimately explains why our villain and therefore the movie as a whole feels elementary and thus hardly compelling.
by Philip Price
When Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key began their sketch comedy series in 2012 I wasn't aware of either comic in any large capacity save for a few supporting roles in random comedies. While I never jumped on the bandwagon that was the huge following their Comedy Central show soon amassed I saw enough clips on YouTube to know these guys were smart, insightful comedians who enjoyed commenting on social expectations by upending them in inventive ways. Most of these having to do with race or gender stereotypes, but nevertheless they were smart enough about their approach that many of their sketches quickly became cultural reference points in the same way “Chappelle's Show” had a decade earlier. When Key and Peele's show ended in the fall of last year it was somewhat surprising given their three year run had yielded them great success, numerous opportunities, and it more or less seemed as if the duo were just beginning to really heat up. Talk about going out on top. It seems that with all the free time ending their show opened up for them the comedic duo decided it was time to take their act to the big screen. With the danger of wearing out their welcome by translating what worked for them in a five-minute sketch to feature length as well as taking into account the low success rate of sketches turned into feature films the odds were never in their favor, but alas Key and Peele have made their formula work for them more than it doesn't. Again, coming from a position of having seen only a handful of sketches from what I'm sure is a much larger, more illustrious library than I can even imagine I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from “Keanu,” but due to the fact I largely enjoy broad comedies with outlandish premises that expose those premises for all they're worth “Keanu” largely succeeds in the goals it sets for itself. Of course, given I'd seen only what is likely the highest highlights from their show I was hoping for more consistent laughter, but there are enough big laughs here to tide one over when the movie intermittently forgets what it's supposed to be in exchange for the authenticity of what it is supposedly lampooning.
Written by Peele and longtime collaborator Alex Rubens, “Keanu” seems to be very much inspired by 2014's Keanu Reeves comeback flick, “John Wick.” The film is so in tune with spoofing such over the top action movies that the opening scene sets up an elaborate drug operation taking place in an abandoned church. The ringleader of such activities sits at a head table counting his money and petting his kitten. It's a cute cat, sure, and all seems splendid until two long-haired, trench-coat wearing, ‘Boondock Saint’-looking dudes bust into the place with their aerobics and guns and shoot up the place. Known as the Allentown Boys (Key and Peele in appropriately ridiculous make-up) they essentially massacre this competing drug lord setting in motion a chain of events centered on the pet cat that narrowly escapes the ambush. Apparently, the Allentown Boys weren't after any money or drugs though, but rather the kitten specifically. This makes the coincidence that the kitten eventually makes his way to the doorstep of Rell Williams (Peele) that much more of a function for the sake of plot and therefore that much funnier. Rell has recently been broken up with by what we assume is a longtime girlfriend or at least his grief would suggest as much. It is when the former drug kitten shows up on his doorstep that Rell's life immediately becomes that much more meaningful. Rell immediately dubs the cat Keanu which he thinks means "cool breeze" in Hawaiian and whom he begins using as a model in his calendar photo shoots that re-enact his favorite scenes from classic movies. While this behavior might immediately strike one as a sign Rell has some serious obsession issues these are only made worse when Keanu disappears from Rell's apartment one night when he is out at the latest Liam Neeson actioner with his cousin, Clarence (Key). Clarence, on the other hand, is the personification of what one would imagine when they imagine a black comedian impersonating a white person. He is a homemaker whose wife (Nia Long) may or may not be having an affair with family friend, Spencer (Rob Huebel), but when his cousin needs him he is there for him as Rell and Clarence end up posing as drug dealers for a street gang in order to retrieve Keanu.
And so, it is easy to see how one might get carried away with such a premise, but director Peter Atencio (who directed numerous episodes of “Key & Peele”) who is also making his feature debut here, is so in tune with his stars comedic sensibilities that his direction compliments the tone and aesthetic they seem to have been shooting for the majority of the time. For instance, in that aforementioned opening action sequence it is clear what is being aimed for is the look and feel of a big budget action flick with high-flying stunts and slow motion gun battles. Atencio delivers as much in grand cinematic fashion with the comedy highlight being the fact this cute, innocent looking kitten is making his way through a maze of bodies and gunfire and in slow motion at that. Meshing these elements in this fashion provide slight chuckles, but it is once Atencio is able to train his camera on Key and Peele that he slips more into his comfort zone and thus doesn't utilize as many tricks of the trade to drive their story. In many ways, Atencio has a long way to go in terms of this scale of filmmaking as many of the conversation pieces feel rather pedestrian, but every now and then we'll see a flair of creativity that lends hope for whatever future big screen collaborations he tackles with the comedy duo. It is in these stretches of uninspired filmmaking that an emphasis is placed on the character interaction and the jokes. Lucky for Atencio, Key and Peele both know what they're doing as far as delivering jokes and playing into other movie tropes that they mean to alter by making subtle comments and changes that provides some not so subtle laughter. The key to a good comedy is the element of re-watchability that it contains though, and as far as “Keanu” is concerned there are enough over the top outlandish moments to make up for the sometime lulls that happen in between such set pieces to warrant it as future background noise. That may sound like faint praise, but it will inevitably end up making the film that much more endearing. Even if the running jokes and intended show-stoppers don't land as hard as the comics originally hoped, there is more to have fun with here than not and in the realm of such comic subjectivity one must count that as a win.
While “Keanu” has its fair share of peaks and valleys the greatest asset it was always going to have was the onscreen chemistry between its two leads. While Peele more or less gives himself the role of the straight guy here, having only a few opportunities to really go big with his performance, he does develop a nice chemistry with Tiffany Haddish, who plays a member of the gang Rell and Clarence accidentally fall into. Key, on the other hand, is as strong here as he's ever been. I feel something more of a connection to the outrageously energetic personas Key tends to adopt for his movie appearances as audiences saw a variation of this in multiple films last year (“Pitch Perfect 2,” “Vacation,” “Tomorrowland”) and here he is simply in overdrive. The catalyst for much of the humor in “Keanu” is Rell and Clarence's need to stoop to the social expectations for African-Americans today by cussing excessively and dropping the N-word as casually and as often as they can, but while this shtick runs thin pretty quick the commitment from Key to play up these elements as well as other aspects of his character that see him worshiping George Michael to the point that in one of his narcotic-induced black-outs he dances along with the former Wham! singer in his video for "Faith." While Key and Peele play off one another as well as I've ever seen, taking the material as seriously as they can for the sake of the laughs, they have surrounded themselves with a solid supporting cast of willing players that do the same in both upending expectations yet simultaneously taking the material seriously enough that it's impossible to not at least chuckle. From Method Man to Will Forte down to appearances from Anna Faris and Luis Guzmán there is a sense of surprise by these cameos, but that fortunately isn't where the joke stops. Rather, Peele even goes so far as to somewhat parody the significance of cameos by famous people with a nod that lands one of the best yet most casual jokes in the entire movie. Key finds a nice comfort zone with Method Man's lackeys including Jason Mitchell, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Jamar Malachi Neighbors that also provides some solid ensemble comedy. All in all, “Keanu” goes where one hopes it will not letting seasoned audiences down in such regards, but it doesn't go where you don't expect which ultimately separates the good from the great in terms of comedy.