Monthly Archives: April 2016
Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key are gifted comedic performers, as often evidenced from their often-brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. It was only a matter of time before they made the leap to feature-film players, and Keanu is a suitable springboard for the gents that portends to even better future results. Relying upon mistaken identity bluffs, Peele and Key play a pair of relatively straight-laced men who pretend to be violent gangsters in order to retrieve Peele’s stolen kitten. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t feel like an overextended sketch though it does have its narrative detours that dawdle (a celebrity drug deal is padded out with far too few jokes), running jokes that hold on for a beat too long and then some (the George Michael fascination culminates in a drug sequence that does absolutely nothing), and there are missed opportunities that seem obvious (Key using his new gangster friends to intimidate a man making advances on his wife). Will Forte’s hip-hop loving drug dealer feels like a character nobody knew what to do with, including Forte. What doesn’t disappoint is the natural comic chemistry of its leads as well as the movie’s ability to surprise, zigging rather than zagging, and finding small jokes just as satisfying as larger set pieces. I enjoyed when the guys’ insecurity butted against their bravado, like when Peele is trying to deflect credit for helping his new pal to do some very bad things. The onscreen action is somewhere between the wackier world of 21 Jump Street and the grisly, unfunny world of Pineapple Express but at least the filmmakers realize that an action-comedy still needs to present its action through a comic lens. I was laughing consistently throughout though it was mostly at a chuckle level, if I were to be honest. Keanu is a fairly fun comedy that you can’t help but think could have been more refined during its structureless periods, but then another joke appears and it’s hard to get too upset with the final enterprise. Keanu is funny enough but you sense that a better vehicle is on the horizon for these two gifted comedians. Oh and the cat is powerfully adorable.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Jungle Book (2016)
It seemed like only a matter of time before those in the Mouse House started looking through the back catalogue of hits for inspiration. The Jungle Book is a live-action remake of the 1967 Disney animated film, but it’s only the first of many such translations to come. A live-action Beauty and the Beast is being filmed currently and plans are underway for a possible live-action Aladdin as well, though I pity the actor with the unenviable task of replacing the beloved Robin Williams. I was wary of director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) version just because it seemed, on the surface, like a quick attempt to fleece the public of their hard-earned money with a repackaged movie. What I got instead was a brilliantly executed adventure story with a beating heart, amazing special effects, and ultimately an improvement on the original. Imagine that.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a boy raised by a pack of wolves. He tries to fit in with his pack but he grows a bit too slow and he can’t help himself with “tricks,” making tools. During a drought that signals a jungle wide peace between predator and prey, the feared tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) lets the rest of the animals know his demands. The “man cub” is to leave or Kahn will hunt him down. The mother wolf, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), refuses to part with her child but Mowgli volunteers to leave to keep his pack safe. Kahn chases him deeper onto the outskirts of the jungle where Mowgli teams up with Baloo (Bill Murray), a lackadaisical bear who makes use of his partner’s affinity for tools and building contraptions. Mowgli’s new life is interrupted when he learns Kahn has attacked the wolf pack with the desire for Mowgli to return and face his wrath. Mowgli must team up with the friends of the jungle and use all his bravery and skills to defeat the ferocious Shere Kahn who has been lusting for vengeance for years.
Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book is a thrilling and thrillingly immersive visual experience that opens up the big screen as an exciting canvas. The visual wizards have made an entire ecosystem look photo realistic to the point that if somebody said offhand that Jungle Book was shot on location in India, I wouldn’t think twice. The environments are entirely CGI and they are brilliantly brought to life in a seamless recreation I haven’t seen so effective since 2009’s Avatar. It’s stunning what can be accomplished with modern special effects, and then there’s Favreau’s smart decision not to radically anthropomorphize his animal cast. These are not some hybrid human-animal combination but rather flesh-and-blood wild creatures that just happen to speak English when they open their mouths (depending upon your territory). The animals don’t fall into that pesky uncanny valley where your brain is telling you what you’re watching is fake and unsettling to the senses (see: The Polar Express). The animals and behave like the real deal and further cement the exceptional level of realism of the movie. From a purely visual experience, The Jungle Book is a feast for the eyes that helps raise the bar just a little bit higher for the special effects industry and its proper application.
The movie would only succeed so far if it weren’t also for its engaging story. Let’s be honest about the 1967 Disney animated film: it’s not really a good movie. It’s fun and has some memorable songs (more on that below), but as a story it’s pretty redundant and flimsy. Mowgli bounces around one potential animal group to another trying to find a home only to move on to the next prospective foster situation. I never made the connection before but in a way the movie North is this plot, minus the talking animals and general entertainment value. There are long segments of the original Disney film that coast just on the charisma of the vocal actors and the animation. Certainly the Beatles parody characters haven’t aged well. There was plenty that could have been added to this story and screenwriter Justin Marks does just that, making the characters far more emotionally engaging. I felt a swell of sadness as Mowgli is separated from his wolf family, his mother declaring that no matter what he still is her son. Marks also personalizes the stakes between Mowgli and Shere Kahn. Each side has a grudge to settle when it comes to vengeance rather than Kahn rejecting the “man cub” out of general fear. This Mowgli is also a much more interesting protagonist; he’s plucky and uses his “man cub” other-ness as an asset when it comes to problem-solving. We have a better hero, a better villain, wonderfully brought to life through the velvety roar of Elba, and a small band of supporting characters that are more emotionally grounded. The wolf pack feels like a genuine family, a community. The relationship between Mowgli and Baloo becomes the backbone of the second half of a briskly paced movie, and the predictable narrative steps feel earned, from Baloo’s con job to caring for his lil’ buddy. The attention to the characters and their relationships provides a healthy sense of heart.
The vocal cast is expertly matched with their jungle creatures, notably Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Murray (St Vincent). Murray has an innate way to make his lazy character endearing. Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) gives a much better motion capture performance as a wolf than whatever the hell she was in The Force Awakens. Scarlet Johansson (The Avengers) is a nice addition as Ka the serpent, and as fans of Her can attest, her breathy voice can indeed be quite hypnotizing. Even the small comic relief animals are well done including the brilliant Gary Shandling in his last film role. Motion capture for non-primates seems like an iffy proposition considering that you’re either forcing the human actors to physically walk on all fours and pretend to be animals, which can be silly, or just copying the direct movements of animal models, which seems redundant then with the technological advances. I don’t know how they did it but it seems like The Jungle Book found a working middle ground that still showcases actor performances.
With a movie that works so well on so many levels, the few faulty areas tend to stand out, and I feel like somewhat of a cad to say that one of the biggest problems is the acting from its child star. I’ll give Sethi some leeway here considering he was never interacting with much more than a giant warehouse of blue screens, which I think we’ve shown doesn’t exactly lend itself toward the best live-acting performances (see: Star Wars prequels). When Sethi is in more action-oriented scenes, like running and jumping and generally being physically mobile, his performance improves. However, when he has to shift to portraying emotions beyond fight-or-flight that is where Sethi has trouble. When he’s playing “happy-go-lucky” early on with his wolf brethren, he’s way too animated in that way that unrestrained child actors can be without a proper anchor to moor their performance. There were moments that made me wince. I see no reason why an actor under ten should be immune to criticism when warranted. We live in an age of amazing child acting performances, notably evidenced by the incredible Jacob Tremblay in Room. We should expect better from our smaller actors. Unfortunately for Sethi, the visual spectacle is so luscious that the one human element sticks out more when he is also delivering a mediocre to poor lead performance.
The other minor detraction for Jungle Book is the inclusion of the two songs that really anyone recalls from the original Disney version, “I Want to Be Like You” and “The Bear Necessities.” I’ll even charitably give “Bear Necessities” a pass as it involves a moment of levity and bonding between Mowgli and Baloo and they’re simply singing to themselves as they relax down the river. It’s also the most famous song and if you think about it the “Hakuna Matata” of its day. “I Want to Be Like You” does not deserve the same consideration. It comes at an awkward time and undercuts the build-up of tension and does nothing short of rip you out of the world of the movie. At this point, we’ve been introduced to the hulking presence of King Louie voiced by Christopher Walken. The giant ape is portrayed like a mafia don and his sit-down with Mowgli has a real menace to it as he wants to provide “protection” for the man club at a price. It’s a moody moment and then this big orangutan starts singing and dancing. The illusion and reality of the movie is broken. At no other point does The Jungle Book come close to breaking its reality and it’s all for such an extraneous moment. There’s nothing conveyed in this song that couldn’t have simply been communicated through speech. Instead, the live-action movie makes a tortured homage to the older Disney source material, and it’s the one major misstep in its approach.
The Jungle Book is a magical movie that actually improves upon its cinematic source material. It’s a visual stunner that is completely transporting and another high-level achievement for the art of modern special effects as well as the proper usage of them in connection with fundamentally good storytelling. Favreau is able to open up a new yet familiar world and allow the viewer a renewed sense of awe. We also get characters that we care about, a strongly grounded sense of emotional stakes, and some thrilling action to go along with the CGI playhouse. I only have a few misgivings with Disney’s new Jungle book and one of those is really a function of its homage to the older Jungle Book. I’ll take the rare step and advise moviegoers to seriously consider seeing this in 3D (I did not). It’s a great visual experience, however, that would only take the movie so far if it wasn’t for Justin Marks screenplay adaptation and Favreua’s skilled direction. Now The Jungle Book can be a great visual experience, a great story, and, simply put, a great movie.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Midnight Special (2016)
Jeff Nichols should already be a household name after Mud and Take Shelter, and with his new movie Midnight Special, the man has done nothing to break his incredible record of success with making deeply personal, ruminative, thrilling, and brilliant films. Midnight Special is a better and more earnest love letter to the cinema of Spielberg than Super 8 was. A young boy exhibits strange and supernatural powers. The religious compound he came from looks at him as a prophet. The government thinks he might be a weapon. Two different groups are on the hunt for this boy, and that’s where Nichols drops us right into the middle of, respecting the intelligence of his audience to catch up and figure things as they develop. In some ways it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, an expert chase film that establishes its characters naturally as it barrels onward. The acting is wonderful all around and Nichols does a great job of finding small character moments that speak volumes, giving everyone time in the spotlight. The various twists and turns can be surprising, heartwarming, funny, but they stay true to the direction of the story he’s telling and grounded in the simple, unyielding anxiety and love of parents for their child. Michael Shannon (Nichols go-to collaborator) is directly affecting as a humble but determined father risking everything for the well-being of his son. The concluding act left me awed and felt something akin to what I think Brad Bird may have been going for with Tomorrowland. This is a thoughtful science fiction movie that allows its characters space to emote, its plot room to breathe, and yet still thrills and awes on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It shouldn’t be long before some studio finally taps Nichols to jump to the big leagues of a franchise film, but if he wanted to keep making these small, character-driven indies on his own terms, I’d die happy.
Nate’s Grade: A
Hardcore Henry (2016)
Hardcore Henry is an action movie told entirely through the eyes of its silent protagonist. Some critics and fans are calling it the future of movies. Director and co-writer Ilya Naishuller strapped a team of stuntmen with facial camera masks and filmed entirely on GoPro Hero 3 cameras taking in every punch, kick, and jump. It’s an ambitious filmmaking gamble that dares to be something different, but is it worth the effort?
Henry wakes up in a science lab. Estelle (Haley Bennett) informs him/us that she is Henry’s wife and is upgrading him with a bionic arm and leg. Unfortunately, his voice hasn’t been implemented yet. Akan (Danilla Kozlovsky), a menacing albino with telekinetic powers, breaks into the lab and kills everyone but not before abducting Estelle. Henry is battered and left for dead. His only assistance comes from Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious and helpful man who tries to direct Henry toward his mission of saving Estelle and thwarting Akan.
The draw of this movie is its propulsive and immersive visual playground, putting the viewer in the mind of its title hero as he narrowly escapes scrapes, scales buildings of dizzying heights, and kills a whole lot of bad guys with brutal efficiency. Its POV experience makes the hardcore violence all the more immersive, though after a while I was wishing we could change things up (more on this below). I must applaud director Naishuller and his crew of limber stuntmen for the sheer creative ingenuity of their stunts and action. With a relatively small budget ($10 million, or roughly the budget spent on bagels on the last Transformers flick), the ambition behind this movie can be startling, and the development of some of its more bonkers action sequences can provide a sky-high jolt of adrenaline like few movies match. The action is also very violent, with heads being blown off, limbs being snapped, bodies bent in two, eyes gouged and used to rip heads in half (this one still confuses me from a mechanical front), and near relentless bloodshed that sometimes even requires our hero to wipe it from his face. For those hungry for near non-stop action shaped to be the equivalent of a living first-person shooter game, Hardcore Henry might do enough to strap in and deliver the goods.
I have a confession dear reader: I experienced a fierce bout of motion sickness from this movie unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a theater. I’m usually rather immune to shaky camera movements and found footage movies. I remember reading about people getting sick and throwing up during screenings of The Blair Witch Project not because of its content but simply from its handheld camerawork. I have never had an issue up until now. After 20 minutes of Henry, I had to sit much further back in my theater. The continuous whipping camerawork caused me a great wave of nausea. I even had to leave the theater for five minutes in the middle of the movie just to re-calibrate my brain. I would warn people about sitting too close to the screen but ideally this movie’s proper place is really your home television. You can choose to take my review with some degree of skepticism thanks to this admission, but no movie ever got to me and forced me out of the theater from motion sickness before. Henry now has that dubious honor.
The gimmick does start to lose its novelty and I wanted to break free from the claustrophobic first-person perspective as well as its paper-thin story. I started thinking there were as many restrictions to the first-person perspective as benefits. It really hampers the hand-to-hand combat choreography, which often just feels like flashes and blurs, herky-jerky editing that doesn’t immerse so much as obscure. This seems to be more of an issue for the first half than the second, which relies more heavily on small arms battles. Chase scenes aren’t added by bobbing up and down from the first-person perspective. You just aren’t able to focus on the object or person of pursuit. I also don’t understand why the entire movie relies upon a fish-eye lens either, which isn’t exactly a normal part of human vision. Its distorted images, subtle but accumulative, added to my overall motion sickness. However, the worst aspect of Hardcore Henry is easily its story or what amounts to its story. This is a movie that looks like a video game and feels like a video game, except somebody else is playing it. The very opening plays out like a video game introduction cut scene, establishing the damsel in distress and the chief villain. From there it’s a series of levels and checkpoints and tips from allies and weapon upgrades and boss battles and interchangeable bad guys. The various Jimmy incarnations pop along to guide you and dole out exposition as required, and there’s even an escort mission involving keeping the real Jimmy alive while his avatars fight off the onslaught of goons. There are several scenes of the villain randomly popping up to deliver exposition, usually on a screen that suddenly comes to life. The eventual plot twists should also be rather predictable. If there is ever a video game version of this movie it should simply be a straight port of the Henry’s plot and thrifty execution.
This chosen plot structure would be less irksome if the movie provided a story or characters to follow. There’s a reason the protagonist is a mute. He is not a person but an indestructible killing machine running on a cheat code. He lacks larger goals other than flee, kill, and save the girl. Estelle is a one-note damsel in distress, a pretty face that we don’t feel a sense of history with. The villain is as completely replaceable as our hero. He’s a telekinetic albino and your guess is as good as mine about anything else. He has no personality beyond one single mode of menacing. He’s a villain that is completely defined by his outer appearance and special abilities. Simply put, he is a super lame villain, which makes the final showdown between Akan and Henry a very limited payoff. I still don’t understand how exactly Henry was able to defeat Akan and his telekinetic powers. It’s like Henry just arbitrarily overcomes them for no discernible reason, as if Henry grabbed some kind of invisible power-up. There’s no really clear reason why just about anything happens for most of the movie. It’s a chase movie where Henry has to outrun or out-murder his faceless enemies while getting objectives from Jimmy, who is easily the movie’s lone entertaining character. For the first half, you keep watching new and different incarnations of Jimmy invariably find you as if drawn by some cosmic magnet. Copley is effortlessly amusing as he goes full tilt Peter Sellers, playing the different characters with comic absurdity and droll black humor (my favorite was World War I Jimmy). There’s a genuine musical number that had me giggling. After a string of nadir-redefining miscalculated performances, it’s nice to be able to say that Copley delivers a fun and entertaining performance for the right reasons. Of course he also has the most screen time by far, so that’s probably also a clear factor. This is a movie that has prioritized the immersive action experience, but after the novelty wore off I was left with listless characters and a poorly articulated story stretched thin from breathless, bloody action set piece to set piece. It was less a movie and more a 90-minute viral video.
Hardcore Henry is a kinetic, propulsive, adrenaline-fueled immersive experience that ultimately is a bit too immersive and narratively flimsy. This isn’t a movie. There aren’t any characters to care about and the story is really the thinnest of tissue to connect from one action sequence (or game level) to the next, stopping at points for free-flowing exposition, weapons upgrade, or a checkpoint. It’s less a fully functioning movie and more of a visual experience, and whether that experience will ultimately justify its gimmick will depend on your threshold for the first-person POV and its scarce story. Here’s what I don’t understand about people saying Hardcore Henry is the future of movies. It’s an immersive experience but movies are already a medium that we can get lost in and transported, no first-person perspective necessary for our empathy to kick in. The recent cinematic action highs, like Snowpiercer and The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road and Edge of Tomorrow, all delivered exuberant thrills without having to strictly see through their protagonist’s eyeballs. Action moviemaking is more than a you-are-there visceral immediacy; it’s about building new worlds and blowing them up in fantastic ways. I did not feel pushed to the margins of any of those aforementioned film titles. I was completely absorbed and marveled at their ability to entertain and build payoffs. The idea is that Hardcore Henry is all payoff but if you want to wax philosophical, it’s more like an action movie’s pornographic cousin, cutting out the “boring bits” like developing characters that we care about, establishing setups, creating organic complications, and wrapping it all together in the blanket of a story that provides greater audience satisfaction. Those movies are more than just a stuntman’s sizzle reel; they’re movies. Hardcore Henry is only an experience, and it was an experience I wanted to turn off.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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