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 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.