Keanu

'Keanu' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele; Alex Rubens

Directed by: Peter Atencio

The Cat in the Hat. Garfield. Sylvester. Mewtwo. Mr. Bigglesworth. Shere Khan. These are but a few of the world’s most famous felines. You can go ahead and add Keanu to this prestigious list, because he’s the best thing about a full-length movie that’s kinda-sorta-but-not-really-at-all about him.

The mischievous duo behind Comedy Central’s Key and Peele find themselves comfortably making the transition to the big screen, but unfortunately they’ve missed an opportunity to make a memorable entrance in this painfully hit-and-miss comedy that sees two schlubs turning thug under some seriously contrived circumstances. I suppose, yeah, you could say they were under duress, but . . .

The (mis)adventure begins when a kitten shows up on Rell (Peele)’s doorstep. He has traveled from afar, barely escaping with the fur on his back from a violent confrontation at a drug processing facility deep in the city. Rell, reeling after a bad break-up, takes an immediate liking to the cat and believes it will help him feel better. He names his new friend Keanu. Meanwhile, his uptight cousin Clarence (Key) is seeing his wife off for a weekend getaway with a mutual friend played by the always untrustworthy Rob Huebel.

Unbeknownst to them, the cat actually belongs to a powerful thug named Cheddar (Method Man) to whom the notorious Allentown boys — the ones involved in the aforementioned firefight and who are also played by Key and Peele — are indebted as they track down the precious fur-ball. The Allentown boys are bloodthirsty goons straight out of a Rob Zombie nightmare and will stop at nothing until they get what they’re after. These freaks are the shameless beneficiaries of Abby O’Sullivan’s fantastic costuming and make-up.

Rell takes Clarence to see the new Liam Neeson movie to try and get Clarence out of his house and to spend some “bro time,” as was suggested by his wife. They get back only to find Rell’s place has been ransacked and Keanu’s missing. Rell’s next-door neighbor/weed guy Hulka (Will Forte, sporting some awesome dreads) of course didn’t see nothin’. The hunt for Keanu eventually leads the cousins into Cheddar’s lair, a blown-out night club poignantly christened HPV, where they also find the cat, now repping a gold chain and black doo-rag. Rell, barely able to hide his outrage over the kitten-napping, snaps and declares he and Clarence are the Allentown boys and that they’d be willing to do one favor for Cheddar in exchange for ownership of the cat.

And so the rest of the film is just allowed to happen . . . somehow. It’s a parody of the Gangster Experience that flits between cringe-worthy and chuckle-inducing, its many farcical developments amounting to a parlay of good fortune that simply endures too long. And it’s so not about the cat, either. Keanu’s closer to a meowing macguffin than a functional character in a plot designed to bait animal rights activists into protesting the comedic duo’s next event. (Fear not: no animals were harmed during the making of this film.)

It’s not as if Key and Peele was the most reliable source of saucy satire but when it was good, it could really strike a nerve. In the feature film setting, however, their inconsistency is magnified tenfold and there are some very bare patches as the writers milk the faux-gangster premise for all its worth. The scene at Anna Faris‘ house drags on for what feels like an eternity as we’re forced to watch Rell (now operating under his thug alias ‘Tectonic’) and Clarence (a.k.a. ‘Shark Tank’) bluff their way through the drug deal they agreed to.

There are moments where their deadpan charm pierces like the sun through the thick clouds of uninspired writing — Key and Peele themselves aren’t the problem with their movie. In fact it’s their camaraderie that is able to pull us through Keanu‘s least compelling moments, and why I enjoyed it more than I probably should have.

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Recommendation: Keanu mirrors the hit-and-miss nature of Key and Peele. Although there is a caveat to that: devoted fans are likely to not take as much issue as those who are less familiar with their schtick. That said, the premise as a whole still feels like a wasted opportunity to do something memorable with an animal that’s not only this photogenic but well-trained. This cat has a bright acting future ahead of him. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “We’re in the market for a gangster pet.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Focus

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Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

The scent of expensive colognes and perfumes robbing the theater of breathable air undoubtedly seduced me into thinking the new Will Smith movie was better than it really is.

To focus on the negatives in a film that is this much fun is to largely ignore the art of the con, though. As Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon explains nonchalantly, deceit is created by drawing attention away from the action and centering it around something that, at the time, seems significant. That sentiment so easily can backfire in a film that plays it so casually like this one does; in a film that twists and turns until the very last minute, leaving the less hypnotized to question whether the directing tandem actually have an answer to it all or if they’re just making this up on the spot.

Again, logic matters less when compared to sheer entertainment value. The Fresh Prince seems refreshed playing a middle-aged male model alongside the rapidly rising young Margot Robbie, herself representative of Australian beauty. With a pair like this front-and-center, can I please be forgiven for temporarily writing this off as a 90-minute advertisement for Glamour or Vanity Fair? Magazines are indeed falling to the wayside in an industry hell-bent on revolutionizing itself, so why shouldn’t they try their hand in repackaging themselves in celluloid form? This is a great-looking cast enveloped by exotic locations and expensive, even if not believably costly situations. Toss in the audience-supplied bottle of Chanel No. 5, and voila.

Focus comes down to a complicated con between a world-weary pro and his apparent understudy, a pair who have up until the film’s final third been playing chess with one another’s wit and checkmating when it comes to unforced sexual tension. They meet in a night club where Jess (Margot Robbie) attempts to pull one over on Nicky, but is spurned by his advanced skill set. From there it’s a matter of one-upmanship between the pair as they fall into an ambiguous (er, or is that underdeveloped?) romance. Not that the feeling of mutual attraction is to be doubted but the intent behind the attraction sort of is. However, nothing is as apparent as Nicky’s love for the assorted fruits of the rich life, as evidenced in an exceptionally exciting sequence during the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The scene functions to expose Nicky’s true character: he has a major problem with saying no to exceeding what’s already excessive. It’s microcosmic of the trickery that lays ahead of us.

Will Smith hasn’t played a character this engaging since the days when he proudly sat upon a crashed alien craft and, chiefing on a Cuban, greeted its extraterrestrial operator with that famous smile of his and a sarcastic “welcome to Earth.” Nicky Spurgeon is often a lunatic but a calculating lunatic and his ‘partner’ in crime, while perhaps not evenly-matched in terms of recklessness, certainly is with her steely-eyed intensity. And I might be biased, but she’s also better-looking. Robbie is sweet on the outside but internally there burns a desire to settle an unwritten score, to take whatever it is that Nicky has and make it her own.

Scams range from casual pickpocketing to betting millions on the jersey number assigned to a random player on the sidelines during the aforementioned big football game, to tricking an Australian racing club owner into purchasing a bogus piece of equipment for three million Euro in order to allow another team, owned by the shady Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the win. But when you think you’ve figured it all out, the script — and this really would have been easier to predict if I was focused on said plot and not on Jess’ revealing wardrobe — flips the dynamic between the two grifters, leaving us to wonder if there is to be an actual winner and a loser and whether it’s just going to be money lost in the exchange.

There is also a final reveal that comes close to burning Focus‘s reputation for being a non-stop joy ride. It’s one twist too many, one cliché too many and one development that’s nowhere near as delusory as the directors would have us believe given the convoluted network of scams and heists we patiently have sat through. Regardless of the risk involved in the long con, it’s not enough to dissolve the chemistry between Smith and Robbie. The two work from a pretty hastily-written screenplay and yet bubble over with charm and a natural ease with one another. Plus it’s just a lot of fun to see them screw over people deserving of it.

Focus isn’t a film to think about, unless of course your goal is to make your brain hurt from failed attempts at rationalizing plot holes that render the story as swiss cheese. It’ll make you think, but don’t con yourself. It’s a fun getaway but not much more. Not that it needed to be.

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3-0Recommendation: With more twists than a Coney Island roller coaster, this glamorous little romp starts to lose focus (or effectiveness, either way you want to look at it) over time but the performances and high spirit are too great to bring the ride to a grinding halt. A perfectly acceptable Saturday night diversion for anyone looking to see Will Smith back to form and Margot Robbie for another solid lead performance. Theatrical attendance not required, unless you just want to choke on perfume. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Where are the black people?!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Under the Skin

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Release: Friday, April 4, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I don’t really know what it’s going to take to prevent me from seeing a Scarlett Johansson movie. It would have to take an unbelievably bad story or her sudden interest in starring alongside someone like Pauly Shore where I’d just toss my hands in the air and say, “You know what? No. It’s just not worth it. I don’t care how good she is. It’s. Not. Worth. It.”

Under the Skin, a new movie from a director you’ve never heard of, is f***ing incredible. And Johansson is just as good in it. This is one in a cluster of memorable dramatic outings as of late. Just off the top, her contribution to Spike Lee’s Her via a challenging off-screen performance, the way she seduced Joseph Gordon-Levitt and lifted his directorial debut Don Jon to heights perhaps otherwise unobtainable as northern Jersey girl Barbara Sugarman. This is still without even turning attention to Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where she has carved out a nice little niche in that ever-expanding franchise and has effectively ensured a solid fall-back plan should her other ventures prove to be fruitless.

Fortunately she has no real reason to consider The Avengers a safety net. By now it should be abundantly clear the woman can more than hold her own in a variety of role types and is destined for extraordinary success in the future if she insists on being this good.

In Jonathan Glazer’s distressing, disturbing and occasionally even disgusting Under the Skin, the role is almost exclusively a physical one and is simultaneously her most matured and affecting role to date. Known only as “The Female,” her modus operandi is seducing random, unsuspecting men she comes across, often roadside and on their own. First she strikes up a conversation and then quickly lures them back to her place. While that sounds like a good deal, it’s a process that never ends well for the men, to say the least. Her physicality certainly helps elevate the procedure to bizarre extremes.

In fairness, it’s not just Johansson’s possibly insatiable appetite for challenging roles that makes this an experience to remember. Her performance contributes mightily, but its what director Jonathan Glazer is able to do with the fabric of reality surrounding this displaced alien that sears many a strange image into the viewer’s mind, where they are likely to reside for long after. And a script from Walter Campbell could not have been more intriguing and downright strange.

While “Laura” ambles her way across the barren, windswept landscape she lives and breathes very much in a ‘real,’ physical, somewhat hostile environment. The men she approaches time and again are apparently real Scotsmen who have never acted before and remain unaware that they’re being filmed until after the scene has been shot — a tactic that adds tremendously to the realism quota. Glazer takes things one step further by presenting our world as only surface-level, a platform from which he enjoys departing frequently and sending Dorothy tumbling down the dark rabbit hole over and again.

The trance-like state we occasionally lapse into wouldn’t be quite as powerful without the unnerving soundtrack, though. An original score from Mica Levi blends high-pitched (bordering on white) noise and slow, tempered beats to create the ultimate head-trippy experience. Whenever it fades into the background, the film is crisp with ambient sound — the pitter patter of rain and the fierce raking of the Scottish winds help put our feet on the ground on occasion. All this works seamlessly to affect the mood of the piece.

Under the Skin remains a thoroughly ambiguous film, however. For some it might just remain too much so, given the considerable lack of dialogue, lethargic pacing, and a clear decision to not explain many of the major developments in any great detail. These factors will undoubtedly repel the viewer who is wishing to be spoonfed more information than Glazer was obviously willing to provide.

Though he’s sure to secure a passionate fanbase, Glazer also has the power to divide general opinion right down the middle. His style isn’t one a great many are going to associate an actress of Scarlett Johansson’s stature with. This is understandable considering the profundity of the themes that are presented, and the obvious decision the director makes to not clarify many of them. Quite frankly I left this film with a lot of doubts and concerns about what I had just witnessed. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to take away, other than the privilege we have as humans to feel emotion and to experience them changing over time.

Such a possibility does not exist for something like “Laura;” she’s a clean slate. But watching her trying to fit in to society proves to be one incredibly fascinating experiment, one that won’t be forgotten soon. In this regard, the film succeeds immensely.

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4-5Recommendation: The major selling points of Under the Skin boil down to a brilliant performance from Scarlett Johansson and an opportunity to journey deep into the human psyche. Emotionally investing, visually arresting and occasionally deeply distressing, Glazer’s second feature is a challenging experiment that got under my skin and inside my head but in the best way possible. If you’re up for a cerebral challenge, you might find yourself in the same boat.

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Do you think I’m pretty?”

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Machete Kills

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Release: Friday, October 11, 2013

[Theater]

Okay. I’ll go ahead and file this one under ‘Ridiculous.’

But I’ll be sure to leave a sticky note on it as well, with a reminder saying, ‘Not bad if you’re in just the right mood for guns, girls and glory all in one simple, cartoonish and outrageously campy package.’ It’s not exactly a brief label, but this is what’s true of Robert Rodriguez’ follow-up to 2010’s Machete. This thing is incredibly clunky, crude and crass, but oh-so-creative and deliciously dumb.

Seems that with Machete Kills, along with lowering my standards of moviegoing entertainment (I paid $8.75 to see Miss San Antonio, not Mel Gibon. . .or even a Chuck Sheen who’s seemingly undergoing an identity crisis as he’s credited as Carlos Estévez for the first time in. . . well, years), I’ve also gone ahead and broken a long-standing moviegoing rule of mine — to avoid seeing a sequel before getting to see the original first. Seeing that this is a story with about as much substance as a microwaved bowl of Spaghetti-O’s, I figured I wouldn’t be missing much. And, barring the continuation of the “fake trailer” gimmick that Rodriguez has run away with since his Planet Terror portion of Grindhouse, and a couple of characters that were also in the first, my experience proved that to be true.

The film opens with a scene in which Machete (Danny Trejo) and his partner, Sartana (Jessica Alba) are fighting off some baddies and seem to have been successful, when suddenly a masked man appears around the side of a vehicle and guns down Sartana, and then bails, leaving Machete alone and  now even more morbid-looking than he previously had been.

Soon he’s captured by an overzealous Texas sheriff (William Sadler) and is subsequently hung, but once again his body proves to be near-immortal as his neck is too thick to break in the process. Moments later, a call comes in from President Rathcock (Sheen) requesting the help of the ex-Federale agent. The cop reluctantly cuts the big bastard down and he sets off on his mission to save the world, also now saddled with vengeance and heartbreak. What ensues is a journey filled with chaos, extraordinarily excessive bloodshed, women that would likely incur the envy of James Bond, and another appearance from Mel Gibson (yay!). It is all perhaps a bit too much to handle at once.

Not the least of which is Amber Heard in a, shall we say, visually stunning role that is, unfortunately, all style and no substance. Her (read: appreciated) eye candy roles have pretty much all led to this.

Simultaneously a San Antonio Beauty Pageant Queen and a covert agent trained to assist Machete in his mission, Heard’s role is probably the most gratuitous element in Machete Kills. Describing her entirely would reveal too much about this flick, even though spoilers SHOULDN’T be something one should be concerned about with a movie like this — all the same, I won’t ruin it — but I’ll say this: Miss San Antonio, for all intents and purposes, is a microcosm of Rodriguez’ brand of filming (at least, as of late). She’s sexy, obsessed with violence, and her acting is desperately campy all at once, in every frame of the film she’s in. As much as I enjoy her presence, her performance does leave a lot to be desired still. But, how dare I ask for more.

Miss San Antonio’s not left to bask in the misogynistic light of Rodriguez’ blood-spattered world alone, though.

Along his journey, our scarred hero must get past a barrage of blustery characters, including a hostile group of women who seem to be the female version of Hell’s Angels (only without the bikes), headed up by Sofia Vergara’s maniacal Desdemona (otherwise known as the girl in the trailer with guns for boobs). She’s backed up by Alexa Vega’s Kill Joy and Vanessa Hudgens’ Cereza; other notable villains include Walton Goggins/Cuba Gooding Jr./Lady Gaga/Antonio Banderas as El Camaléon/La Camaléon (that’s a whole other story in itself), and Demian Bichir is wildly entertaining as a bipolar weirdo named Mendez.

Not having seen the first movie may almost be an advantage when talking its follow-up. Clearly, it hasn’t performed even half as well as the original. All depending on one’s loyalty to the director’s flare, there’d be surely some level of disappointment after seeing Kills if you were a fan of the first. The film seems to drag by in places which rendered it a much slower-moving hour and forty-five minutes than it should have been with such a star-studded cast; the flaw in its pacing is something that should be unforgivable given the playfulness of the style and tones on display. When the acting is not something you can rely on either, the parts that drag, go by unbearably so.

Fortunately, the climax of the film is suitably amusing and the deaths are more cartoonish than ever. Mel Gibson is disturbingly comfortable in the role of a demented billionaire, hell-bent on worldwide destruction. In some ways, I was convinced this was not really an acting job for him. He just was himself and cameras rolled. (Theories on this can be discussed later.) What worked the most for Gibson here was his timing. Appearing at the ass-end of an outrageous story, his Voz, a wealthy arms dealer who plans on nuking the world into chaos for some inexplicable reason, is the ultimate threat. A point to the movie, if ever there were any.

Can Machete stop Voz before its too late? Will Machete become seduced by one too many tantalizing ladies? . . . will Charlie Carlos Sheen-Estévez’ identity crisis get resolved? You’ll have to find out by tuning into the latest trailer-disguised-as-movie, Machete Kills, one of the most unabashedly silly farces you should allow yourself to see this side of Movie 43.

Yeah, why not?

Hey, what the hell — why not?

2-5Recommendation: The original likely will be widely regarded as the superior version, as I get the impression this affair lacked some originality in its storytelling (probably the most common syndrome that sequels suffer from), and the Bollywood-esque acting offers no apologies. Still, there’s enough here to have a mindlessly entertaining time with. Guilty pleasures, what’s wrong with having ’em?

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Machete don’t tweet.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com