Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Nice Guys



Shane Black's hugely entertaining and very funny The Nice Guys is a private eye picture with jokes. The distinction between that description and straight comedy is a meaningful one, as Black (still best known perhaps for writing the original Lethal Weapon) respects the detective genre and doesn't ignore the consequences of violence. The heroes - or "tarnished heroes", as Black described them on a recent podcast - are private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and unlicensed, low-rent enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). In 1977 Los Angeles the two are working opposite ends of a case that touches the porn industry, Detroit auto companies, the Justice Department, and a missing young woman (Margaret Qualley). The case, while comprehensible, is only the excuse for a movie about people on the margins that finds two top-drawer actors stepping out of familiar territory.

Ryan Gosling, on something of a comic run after this and The Big Short, plays March as a man who has forgotten how talented he is. Drinking too much and guilty after a personal tragedy, March is barely able to care for his daughter Holly when Healy arrives at his door. Special mention must be made of Angourie Rice as Holly; she more than holds her own with older costars and pulls off all the moments when Black's script (written with Anthony Bagarozzi) makes her the film's conscience. Gosling is as loose and funny as he has ever been, and he and Crowe are able comic partners. Russell Crowe either gained weight or padded up for this role, but when two thugs brace him at his apartment Healy is able to dive over a couch and come up firing. There's a slapstick quality to much of the gunplay, and Black turns the hotel where the climax takes place into a sort of life-sized Rube Goldberg machine with March falling off ledges and through multiple layers of glass. The laughs don't obscure the fact that the bullets hit people, and the death of one character is carried out with a brutality that calls the efficacy of March and Healy's mission into question.

In the podcast I linked to above, Shane Black describes how his early love of pulp detective novels influenced his writing. The end of The Nice Guys has a rueful cynicism that would do John D. MacDonald proud, but the joy of how Black executes his tale is a welcome gift from a sometimes cold cinematic universe.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Lobster



The Lobster runs societal conventions of coupling and connectedness through a dark, satirical gauntlet, and the result is tonally unlike any other film I've seen in a great while. A man named David (Colin Farrell), newly single, is sent to a hotel where he and all the other new single guests are put on the clock. If they don't find suitable partners within 45 days then each will be turned into the animal of his or her choosing. David, whom Farrell plays in low-key schlub mode, chooses a lobster for the animal's long life span and fertility and is congratulated on his originality by the hotel's manager (Olivia Colman). David makes a couple of male friends (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) at the hotel but finding a new partner is slower work; it involves awkward dances and trying to find the one characteristic that will signal a perfect match to a female guest. What exactly is going on here? The Lobster comes from the find of cowriter/director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose earlier Dogtooth (unseen by me) was a smaller scale story of an attempt to control understanding of the way we perceive the world. Lanthimos finds no joy or even much humanity in the prospect of the hotel guests partnering up. David and his fellow singles are forced to watch bizarrely dry demonstrations in which a hotel maid (Ariane Labed) and her coworkers act out that the reason to be together is so that things like choking or sexual assault might be avoided.

David and his friends can extend their stay by hunting "Loners", a band of single people who live in the forest outside the hotel. Each Loner captured earns an extra day's stay, and David is smitten with a woman (Angeliki Papoulia) whose hunting skills have given her over 100 extra days. The Lobster is narrated by a Loner (Rachel Weisz) that David eventually develops a connection with, but the film pushes the two towards an unforgiving conclusion after the existential Loner leader (Lea Seydoux) takes violent action. (The Loners aren't allowed romantic entanglements.) To say more of the plot would be to spoil the ironic ending, but the last shot of the film will make you consider just exactly whose story we've been watching. The Lobster is finally a story about the way the world pushes our hearts towards a certain kind of order even when it's only what we think we want. After seeing it you'll never worry again about whether you and your date have anything in common.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Love & Friendship/The Family Fang



Whit Stillman's brisk adaptation of Jane Austen's little-known novel Lady Susan finds the writer/director far removed from his 1980's films of just-privileged-enough young people figuring it out. Given that Love & Friendship - Stillman's retitling is apt - departs to such a degree in setting from Stillman's earlier work it is a pleasure to report that the new film finds the director in confident form. The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is on the hunt for a new husband and the financial security that marriage brings. Lady Susan's quest brings her into the orbit of a sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell) whose own brother (Xavier Samuel) seems amenable to Susan's advances, but word of the controversial Lady's involvement with a married man (Lochlann O'Mearain)has preceded her. The world of the film is filled out with Susan's American confidante (Chloe Sevingy), her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and a dim aristocrat (the very funny Tom Bennett) who hopes to make Frederica his wife.

The way that Beckinsale's Lady Susan bounces between these characters in pursuit of her own security turns Love & Friendship into a riff on social codes, which is of course just where Stillman wants to be. The way that Susan will be received, or not, and the future of Frederica are all subjects for scenes of great comic energy until, at last, one of the many letters written during the film is read by the wrong person at the wrong time. Beckinsale never tires during a succession of scheming scenes, and her private talks with Sevingy are a welcome diversion, but the movie for all its energy makes the character more a spinning top than an actual person. That's why Susan's offscreen fate is merely described while Stillman ends the film with Frederica finding a home that makes both emotional and fiscal sense. Lady Susan is surely minor Austen, the characters are broad takes on the ones we know from her major novels, but Stillman has turned her marginalia into tart and very entertaining summer pleasure.

The Family Fang finds two fortyish siblings (director Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman) in various states of dissipation just when their well-known performance artist parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) have either vanished - leaving behind a bloody car - or pulled off their biggest "piece" yet. Bateman and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (working from a novel by Kevin Wilson) want to make a film about the metaphorical killing of one's parents, but the film trips over itself with obviousness by doing things like including a song called "Kill Your Parents" as a plot point. Much time is also spent on flashbacks to the Fang parents (played younger by Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn) and their artwork, but the film never convinces that what the Fangs are doing is important or interesting. It's easy to see how Bateman's character might have been warped by things like being manipulated into kissing his sister during a school play, but Christopher Walken is so good at playing a very specific type of arrogance that his character must have soured his kids on life in a thousand subtler ways too. Watching Bateman and Kidman play sad and screwed up is fun for a time, but the movie gives them an ending it hasn't earned and so ends up being a collection of parts that don't quite cohere.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Captain America: Civil War



Captain America: Civil War is a film with multiple agendas. The latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Marvel's attempt to make a self-interrogating superhero film, one that explicitly considers the uses of power and its possible consequences. We'll get to the other agenda in a moment, but you might remember another recent film which pitted familiar characters against each other in attempt to explore a superhero's role in the world. Civil War, directed by Marvel vets the Russo Brothers, is a more entertaining piece of work by leaps and bounds than Batman v Superman. By this point Marvel knows what its people want, and this latest outing is better shot, better paced, and lighter in tone than the bloated DC effort. Also, it isn't dark outside all the time.

With the obvious comparison out of the way, how good is Civil War really? The answer is a qualified "Not bad"; the story springs along efficiently but the script by multiple writers doesn't go deep on the political questions the film wants to address. A opening fight in Africa leads to a moments I don't think I've ever seen before in a film like this: A superhero (Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch) whose powers have gone awry is immediately confronted with the consequences of her actions. That incident leads the Secretary of State (William Hurt) to issue an ultimatum to the Avengers. Either they sign a treaty and accept United Nations control or they will be considered outlaws. The central conflict is between the pro-treaty Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), who's deeply distrustful of institutions after the events of The Winter Solider. A large cast of other characters including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are forced to choose sides.

A film in which Captain America forms a sort of do-gooder Hole in the Wall Gang as a thorn in Iron Man's side sounds promising to me, but Civil War quickly abandons the political for the personal. Captain America - who was just fine working on behalf of a government in WWII - is motivated not by principle than by a desire to help his friend Bucky aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) evade capture after Bucky is blamed for a terrorist attack. The backstory about Bucky's unwilling participation in a super-solider program is laid on smoothly enough and there's a crackling fight/chase scene that starts in an apartment and movies to a highway - the action scenes find new ways to use urban space - but once Bucky enters the picture the idea of the film as a political argument goes away.

Several times in Civil War one character says of another some variation on the line, "He's not gong to stop." (Yes, it's always he. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch don't have much to do here.) As the action builds to an airport fight involving even more characters (What's up, Ant-Man and Hawkeye!) it becomes clear that in fact they are at some point going to stop. The lack of a sense that anyone could die saps energy from Civil War; it's never clear what anyone's end game is and that includes the film's ostensible villain (Daniel Bruhl), whose plans are both admirably human-scaled and not that well though out. What's more important for the film's core audience is the way Civil War serves as a delivery system for new Marvel characters. (Here's that other agenda I mentioned earlier.) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) enters the story when his family suffers an Avengers-related loss, and a young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is recruited to web up and join the fray. Both of these characters will headline their own films soon, and both are charismatic enough here. What they don't do is make up for the overall lack of focus. As Marvel builds out its world I wonder if future films will find a way to be as grounded as this one wants to be.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising



The 2014 comedy Neighbors didn't strictly require a sequel; the ending found new parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) happily settled into their new house and former frat president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) working as a shirtless model outside a clothing store. Teddy seemed to have found his level, but as Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising opens it turns out he's still working retail and about to be kicked out of his room by newly engaged former frat brother Pete (Dave Franco). Neighbors 2, directed by the returning Nicholas Stoller from an all-hands-on-deck script, is a blunt but very funny sequel that doesn't quite touch the fleeting nature of the college experience in the same way the original did but which is still very funny. Mac and Kelly are expecting their second child and looking to sell their house and move to the suburbs. The 30 days that the Radners are "escrow" - there's a running joke about their ignorance of the term - are a nervous month of running out the clock. At the same time, freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) and friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) reject the rush process and start their own sorority next door to the Radners. With Teddy switching sides in his quest to be "of value", the war is on.

The greatest achievement of Neighbors 2 is the way it gives Shelby and her Kappa Nu sisters room to be just as bawdy and funny as the frat guys we met last time out. Kappa Nu's mission is to throw parties that aren't "rapey"; there's a strong feminist streak and a few great sight gags involving everyone from Hillary Clinton to the Minions. The only time the comic momentum slows down is when the script calls for Shelby to bluntly state the purpose of Kappa Nu: individuality, identity, sisterhood. As the plot unwinds - a major set piece involves the Radners' efforts to steal a bag of marijuana - the escalation starts to feel a little labored until the inevitable call back to the air bag joke of the first film. What saves Neighbors 2 from collapsing under script mechanics is the willingness of Rose Byrne and (in a smaller role) Carla Gallo to go full out for a laugh. Chloe Moretz is committed but lacks Byrne's comfort with this kind of material. Neighbors 2 has an admirably progressive spirit and as many belly laughs as I've had in a long time. It may be a better sequel than we deserve.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Keanu



Keanu is the first film to star the comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and it’s a winning showcase for their brand of smart absurdity. If you only know Key & Peele through YouTube clips and shared Facebook posts of their late Comedy Central show then prepare yourself; they’ve broken into feature films in a way that should satisfy hardcore fans while also landing new ones. Family man Clarence (Key) drops by to visit his cousin Rell (Peele) after Rell’s breakup only to find that Rell has a new love: a kitten that Rell names Keanu has shown up on his doorstep. (We learn in a prologue that Keanu has escaped a shootout worthy of a ‘90s Michael Bay film.) Keanu brings Rell back to life, and Rell is soon using the kitten as model in a movie homage calendar - stay for the credits. Keanu disappears after thieves hit Rell’s apartment. Rell enlists Clarence - single for the weekend when his wife (Nia Long) and daughter leave town - and the two hunt for Keanu through some unsavory parts of Los Angeles.

Clarence and Rell’s journey brings them into the orbit of drug dealer Cheddar (Method Man) and his moll Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish). The plot requires Clarence and Rell to adopt “street” personas for a sizable portion of the film, and - while Keanu is more broad comedy than satire - the choice does have a point. It doesn’t strain belief to think that Peele (who wrote the script with Alex Rubens) might have an interest in the masks African-American men wear in society, even the ones they assume unconsciously. Clarence and Rell posing as members of Cheddar’s crew provides for some broad belly laughs, but the running joke about Clarence liking the music of George Michael (and the way that Rell and others react to that) is more pointed. In one of the film’s best scenes, Clarence convinces a group of younger men that Michael is black; the gag plays as both hilariously off-kilter and as an odd moment of self-justification. The end of Keanu loses steam a bit as it mocks action movie tropes - there’s even a second drug dealer (Luis Guzman) - but Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key have found a new stage for their unique and much-needed talents.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Eye in the Sky



Eye in the Sky wants us to consider the moral, legal, and logistical issues caused by the American and British use of drones in the War on Terror. The opening minutes of the film efficiently lay out the situation: A British colonel named Powell (Helen Mirren) has intelligence of a gathering of high-value targets in Nairobi. The targets include British and American nationals, including teenagers, known as members of Al Shabaab. The plan is to coordinate with Kenyan troops to capture the terrorists, but a small drone controlled by a local agent (Barkhad Abdi) gets a shot of suicide vests and explosives inside the terrorists' meeting place. Suddenly the mission changes, and Mirren's colonel must convince a host of superiors and politicians to approve a drone strike on the meeting and avert a terrorist bombing.

Director Gavin Hood (who also appears as an American military officer) bounces the action between several continents with energy and confidence. We always know where we are and why we're there. Most of the non-African scenes takes place in Powell's command center and in an office at Whitehall where a general (Alan Rickman in his final screen appearance) leads a group of politicians through the events. There are also Americans involved: We follow the pilots of a drone (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who serve as the "Eye in the Sky" and who will be called upon to fire the missile if ordered. Eye in the Sky, written by Guy Hibbert, has all the ingredients for a dark satire about the Western balance between politics and the prosecution of war. Hibbert's greatest idea is the lack of a final decision maker for the mission. Several politicians (including Ministers played by Iain Glen and Jeremy Northam) weigh in with equivocations, but the decision making process seems to have no center. The unseen Prime Minister and American President are insulated from accountability by their subordinates.

What complicates the decision to fire the missile is the appearance of Alia (Aisha Takow), a young Kenyan girl selling bread next to the terrorist compound. If the missile is fired Alia will certainly be killed in the explosion, but if the terrorists leave the compound the potential loss of life is much greater. The inclusion of Alia in the story is a form of special pleading on a par with Spielberg's red-coated girl in Schindler's List, and it sentimentalizes a situation which the makers of Eye in the Sky has already dramatized with great ruthlessness. Hood and Hibbert's argument is rigged to such an extent that we discover Alia's family is secretly educating her and letting her use a hula hoop (away from the eyes of disapproving adults) while the most wanted terrorist is a white British national who was "radicalized" by an African man. The playing to liberal sympathies is complicated by an ending that asks us to empathize both with those caught by accident in the War on Terror and with the Westerners making decisions about those same people. A film about the implications of drone warfare is certainly overdue in 2016, but the case that drone warfare is amoral is overstated here. Eye in the Sky will be remembered as Rickman's final film - and he brings great soul to a man who spends most of the film sitting at a laptop - but as a political work it is too broad by half.