Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Movie Review: "The Nice Guys" (2016)

Shane Black has done fantastic things with buddy movies. "Lethal Weapon," "The Last Boy Scout," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," and "Iron Man 3" all show off his writing talent and the last two offer up his directorial skills as well. So, combining his skill with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe feels like it all add up to something pretty special and "The Nice Guys" is good, but by only being good it ends up feeling a little disappointing. Watching the movie and lightly chuckling along with it one has the unmistakable sense that there ought to instead be huge guffaws instead.

The tale in "The Nice Guys" revolves around perpetually drunk and morally questionable private eye, Holland March (Gosling), being forced to work with good human being with the questionable day job of beating folks up, Jackson Healy (Crowe). They don't really know what the case their working on is, but it has something to do with finding a missing woman, Amelia (Margaret Qualley); a dead adult film star, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Then the government, in the form of a Justice Department honcho played by Kim Basinger singer gets involved and it gets even more murky (or is supposed to anyway).

Delving any further into the plot would not only ruin some of the jokes but also lessen some of the twists and turns. Beyond that, it would also cause the whole thing to unravel. "The Nice Guys" is so much less about the case—which is built on coincidence, ridiculousness, blind luck, and lazy plotting—than it is about watching March and Healy fumble their way through life alongside March's daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice).

It isn't just that the situations are improbable, it's that they're so far past probable that the movie has to make a joke about how March keeps escaping without insane injuries. And, it certainly feels like that was the order in which these things were devised – that Black and Anthony Bargarozzi got to a certain point in their script, realized that March had gotten away with a lot more than a human being could, and made a joke to explain it away rather than figuring out more plausible scenarios for the character.

The amazing thing about "The Nice Guys" is that it works as well as it does. The kudos for making that happen lie squarely with Crowe, Gosling, and Rice. All three do great work even if the parent in my questions some of the language Rice uses and the scenarios in which Holly finds herself.

What I keep coming back to, however, is that as good as the characters are, just as with the plot, the dialogue leaves something to be desired. "The Nice Guys" is a film that is carried by charisma, charm, and every so often landing a decent joke.

The movie also lacks deftness when it comes to its action and shootouts. Hired killer, John Boy (Matt Bomer), is out to get March and Healy and has unlimited bullets which he fires off with reckless abandon. The notion that he wouldn't care who he kills is fine, but the idea that he can't get March and Healy with that many bullets is farcical. Unfortunately, "The Nice Guys" doesn't play it as farce. John Boy is supposed to be great at his job, but he's incompetent when it comes to accomplishing his goal of getting the leads and the film can't even muster the strength to offer jokes about it. There are other thugs (played by Beau Knapp and Keith David) who are comical and who do a great job at being incompetent for laughs. "The Nice Guys" is able to recognize the status of these smaller characters but, perhaps because it needs a real threat for March and Healy, can't see John Boy as humorous in anything but his "Waltons" derived name. It lessens his impact and hurts the film.

Due to the loose plot, not-quite-snappy-enough dialogue, and problematic bad guys the not particularly long runtime, just under two hours, of "The Nice Guys" feels far longer. There is a lot of slack that could have been taken in, making it a far more taught, far more enjoyable, film.

And yet, for all that, it's pretty good. It's relatively fun. It's relatively light-hearted. It's relatively comedic. It's relatively clever. It's relatively an enjoyable night at the movie. It just should have been better.

Maybe we'll get a sequel and the next one will be.

photo credit: Warner Bros.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Lass is More" Gambles with "The Best of It"

Today on the podcast we have Scott Eberly, the director of a new documentary, currently available on demand, called "The Best of It."  During the interview, Eberly takes us through not just why these particular men gamble for living, but why they stay with it, whether they're happy, and what attracted him to the story.

Whatever he may have been expecting to find when he set out, what Eberly winds up with is an interesting, eclectic, bunch of characters who may be doing what they'v done for years but aren't always happy about it.

Take a listen and, as always, feel free to send us your questions or comments.

photo credit:  Best of it Films, LLC

Monday, May 09, 2016

Movie Review: "X-Men: Apocalypse"

There are two minor spoilers below. Truthfully, I wouldn't even classify them as spoilers, but some people out there are quite sensitive and forewarned is forearmed.

At their best, the X-Men movies marry spectacle with deep philosophical discussions about how we treat those who are different from us. Many of the films feature Charles Xavier (either Patrick Stewart's version or James McAvoy's) pushing for a world in which humans and mutants can live side-by-side. His frenemy, Magneto (Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender), tends to take the position that humans and mutants cannot co-exist, that mutant-kind must win out (often by any means necessary).

While we in the real world don't face such questions about mutants and humans, we regularly do face questions about whom this world is for and how to treat those we come across. The questions asked by the films then are highly applicable to our lives and the way we see things. This has helped elevate the best films in the franchise above other empty actioners.

More than in any previous X-Men film (excluding standalones), that discussion—that crucial discussion—is missing from "X-Men: Apocalypse." Fassbender's Magneto is a shell of himself for most of the movie, at first hiding and then just acting on impulse, without thinking. He has no great conversations with Xavier. He doesn't even have a plan about what he's doing. He is, instead, turned into a minion of the powerful mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who would like to be a god on Earth and kill nearly everyone be they mutant or human.

The big questions with "Apocalypse" don't exist as conversations between characters but as larger queries about the film. Apocalypse's plan to rule the world would seemingly have him rule over a desolate, barren, landscape; a place wholly devoid of everything except for where cities one stood and the bodies have come to rest. He would be the god of a dead planet.

Bryan Singer is back again as director following his return to the chair in the last franchise entry, "X-Men: Days of Future Past." That film, the second in the "First Class" trilogy and fifth overall, brought the franchise to new heights. It combined the original cast with the new cast, rewrote the history of the franchise entirely, and overall was an enjoyable tale.

(minor spoiler one in this paragraph) "Apocalypse," more than anything else, feels like an afterthought, or a coda. It is an "X-Men" movie so lacking new ideas to offer that it actually blows-up Xavier's school… again. This occurring once more within the franchise would simply be silly if "Deadpool" hadn't made fun of the fact that the school seems to blow-up regularly earlier this year. In light of the joke made by the Merc with the Mouth, it feels exceptionally tired.

It also feels irrelevant. As with so much in the film, there is no requirement that any of it play out as it does, particularly in its echoes of earlier films. Things just happen as Apocalypse puts together his team and the good guys play catch-up.

(minor spoiler, and only a spoiler if you haven't watched the last trailer, in this paragraph) One of the biggest disappointments in the film is the appearance of the Adamantium-clawed one. Hugh Jackman's brief inclusion as Wolverine in the movie feels like a knowing attempt to fill in some of his backstory now that it's been altered due to "Days of Future Past." It is more than entirely irrelevant in "Apocalypse," it is a complete distraction, a moment of misplaced fan service.

Absent of thought-provoking discussion about our place in the world and how we choose to share this planet with others, "X-Men: Apocalypse" offers up high-intensity CGI-enhanced action sequences. From the opening moments in ancient Egypt as the camera swoops around in impossible fashion through to the incredibly destructive finale, "Apocalypse" revels in the destruction it causes. We go from country to country, continent to continent, watching famous landmarks get destroyed. Much of the destruction in the finale does not stem from an on-site battle, but rather action elsewhere in the world. In other words, it in no way enhances the plot – it is destruction for the sake of destruction.

Here again Singer and company seem to be the joke rather than being in on the joke. In a recent trailer for "Independence Day: Resurgence," Jeff Goldblum's character, David Levinson, notes that aliens love destroying landmarks as we see landmarks get destroyed. Levinson's joke shows that the movie is aware that it is doing something we've seen done so many times before and consequently gets away with it. "Apocalypse" shows no such understanding – things blow up because they can make things blow up.

All is not dark, however. One of the echoes of a past movie from the franchise works beautifully. Evan Peters' Quicksilver, just as in "Days of Future Past" gets to run around here in "Apocalypse" as time around him is slowed. Here, his sequence plays out to The Eurythmics' classic "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." It is unquestionably the highlight of the film… or would be if not for the specific reasons why and where Quicksilver is doing his thing.

Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, "X-Men: Apocalypse" is a relatively long film, but thinking back on it, it is difficult to figure out exactly where the time goes. As noted, it isn't taken up by plot and it isn't taken up by moral quandaries.

A fair amount of time is certainly devoted to introducing mutants, particularly ones we've seen before in other movies. "Days of Future Past" may have changed the world, but there are only so many moments that "here's a younger/new version of…" can play out. New characters, like Psylocke, are given short shrift in favor of showing us this Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), this Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), this Angel (Ben Hardy), this Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and this Storm (Alexandra Shipp). The actors and actresses acquit themselves to greater and lesser degrees but with each one that is brought in, the returns diminish. They can't all be so terribly different from the earlier versions and the movie doesn't get into motivations as well as it might. Again, the movie feels like it's fill in little blank spaces in our X-Men timeline as opposed to telling a story it wants to tell.

There is one time the film makes a meta reference that does work, and that is when they call the third entry in any film series the weakest. "Apocalypse" may be better than "The Last Stand," but it still finds itself near the bottom of the "X-Men" franchise.

photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Movie Review: "3rd Street Blackout"

Sometimes we have a visceral response when we sit down to watch a movie. Within the first five minutes, we get a sense that we are going to either love or loathe the film. It can be difficult to control and ignore that feeling so that we can see what happens next and judge the movie by what it is and not our first impression. Sometimes, we are rewarded for not going with our gut and other times everything that follows those first five minutes only reinforces that first feeling.

Watching "3rd Street Blackout," which is produced by, co-written by, co-directed by, and stars Negin Farsad and Jeremy Redleaf, the first impression offered of the main characters, Mina Shamkhali (Farsad) and Rudy Higgins (Redleaf) is wholly negative. Text messages appear on the screen in ludicrous colors as the two carry on a conversation despite being 10 feet from one another. We are not meant to know that they are so close, but it is a pleasant surprise because it means these texts, which read as horrible jokey loving drivel, will stop and with luck the characters' speech will be less grating.

It is not. Will they use her Netflix account or his? Why would they decide to use the queue from one and the account from the other? Who cares how many Roku boxes they have? This is what is discussed the first time they speak and seems meant as some sort of cute and clever way to talk about all the ways technology has changed how we merge our lives with someone. Instead, it makes Mina and Rudy feel exceptionally shallow. This sense is borne out as one watches the film unfold.

Every conversation with one or both of the characters seems to feature some sort of voice modulation or whine or—and I'll grant you that this is the opposite but it's no less bad—a completely and totally flat line reading, as though it is the first time this dialogue has ever been seen. Those problems though, as one might surmise, aren't the only issues with "3rd Street Blackout."

Their manner of speaking alone may make Mina and Rudy an unlikable couple, but their actions make them insufferable. Denizens of 3rd Street in Manhattan, Mina and Rudy are on opposite career trajectories – Mina is doing neurological research and a TED fellow (Farsad is a TED fellow in real life), whereas Rudy is a freelance coder. Rudy seems to not care about pursuing greater success, as evidenced by his apathetic attitude when he and two friends who, magically, are even more obnoxious than the main characters, win a hackathon, whereas Mina is career driven to the point where she's no longer around all that much.

And there's the nub of the film – these two characters one wouldn't want to watch separately are having trouble being together. Then, when Hurricane Irene (or perhaps Superstorm Sandy) hits and the city has a blackout, the two have a conversation and things fall apart. Now, they would have fallen apart anyway because it's completely random that Mina comes home just prior to the storm, but the lack of electricity is meant to throw their relationship into stark relief. Perhaps this is because they can't Netflix and chill.

"3rd Street Blackout" features a series of cameos including folks like Janeane Garofalo and John Hodgman but precisely why is indiscernible. They add little to enjoy in a highly unlikable mix. Ed Weeks stays around longer but is ill-used as a venture capitalist with whom may Mina may have had a one-night stand (yes, he then is the immediate cause of the breakup, but not part of the deeper issues).

Someone, somewhere, will make the argument that this is an accurate representation of life and love for perhaps millennials/perhaps slightly older people in the 21st Century. As a part of that slightly older than millennial group, I hope not. The people portrayed in this film are folks who go down to the East River to try and get cell service from Brooklyn and then actually mock the individuals who are doing the exact same thing. They are hipsters who make fun of other hipsters for being hipsters. Perhaps they would suggest that they aren't a part of that culture and such a discussion will no doubt have something to do with the length of Rudy's beard, his lack of a handlebar mustache, and their not making pickles. They are quibbles that miss the larger point.

The entirety of "3rd Street Blackout," in fact, misses the larger point. Unlikable people doing unlikable things and being repeatedly dreadful to those around them doesn't make for a comedy and it doesn't make for a romance. It just makes something unlikable.

photo credit: Paladin

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

"Lass is More" Figures out "Where to Invade Next"

Not everything in this world is as straightforward and simple as we would have it be. There are contradictions with which we have to deal. One that I've been struggling with -- Michael Moore.

I think that so much of what Moore has to say is correct. I think that much of what he argues for are things that we should consider. I think that he often stands on the correct side of the argument.

I also think that with his latest move, "Where to Invade Next," he doesn't try all that hard. I think here he's preaching to the choir and has, at best, made half a movie. Again, it's not that his ideas are necessarily wrong, it's just that he's not backing them up with any sort of action and it makes me contemplate whether his films have prompted any sort of larger successful movement at all.  That is, Michael Moore has been pushing for a certain kind of movement in this country, via his films, for nearly 3 decades are we better off now or not?

I don't know that we can answer "yes" to that.

photo credit: Anchor Bay Home Entertainment

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Movie Review: "Keanu" (2016)

A little more than a month ago, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" opened in movie theaters around the world. As you may recall, I was not impressed. Amongst its other problems, "BvS" takes itself far too seriously, offering up fights that play out in melodramatic fashion complete with over-the-top music. These moments are almost comedic.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele seemingly understand the way these battles function as their big-screen team-up, "Keanu," starts in exactly this self-serious melodramatic fashion. Here though, it's meant to elicit laughs, and it does, just like the rest of the film.

Best known for their Comedy Central series, "Key and Peele," the actors play Clarence (Key) and Rell (Peele), two friends living in Los Angeles. Following a bad break-up, Rell finds solace in a kitten he names Keanu, only to have Keanu quickly stolen from him. Based on sketchy information from his drug-dealing neighbor (Will Forte), Rell goes with Clarence to confront an up-and-coming drug dealer/gang leader, Cheddar (Method Man), to get the kitten back. And from there, things get really weird.

"Keanu" is a terribly funny movie from start to finish, through all its various twists and turns. It is as though the writers, Peele and Alex Rubens, thought about opposites, came up with kittens and drug dealers as two things which don't really go together, and then proceeded to structure a movie around these two exact elements. They, the cast, and director Peter Atencio succeed in making an enjoyable movie from the disparate elements, and it doesn't hurt that they toss in loads of George Michael for good measure.

While Keegan-Michael Key may not have written the movie, he does get the better role. From the moment we meet him, Clarence is clearly wound too tight. Even his wife, Hannah (Nia Long), knows as much and as she heads away for the weekend encourages him to unwind, something he wishes to accomplish by watching a Liam Neeson actioner. Clarence is untroubled that Hannah has gone out of town with her daughter, the daughter's friend, and the friend's dad (played by Rob Huebel), but not the friend's mom (played by no one because she's not actually in the movie).

As with much of the movie, while you might feel the urge to take a stab at guessing what is going to happen here, only the broad strokes will be accurate. "Keanu," wonderfully, takes everything that we expect to happen in such a film and gives it a half-turn. That is, while nothing in the movie is terribly unsurprising, neither is it exactly would you would expect. It's a case of "I kinda knew where that was going, but I didn't see 'x' coming." The same is true of the characters. They are relatively stock individuals, but they are thrown into humorous situations and given various little quirks as well.

Much of the humor stems from Clarence and Rell trying to be gangsters rather than a typical dad and a lonely heart. As such, they deepen their voices and toss out many a curse. Improbably, their taking on the personas doesn't immediately grow tiresome. Rather than being a testament to the creative nature of the endeavor, it is mainly the actors' sheer force of will that keeps it all going, or keeps each scene funny enough for long enough that you want to travel along with them.

It may sound like a slight, but "Keanu" is a film undemanding of its audience. Those who are good with references (musical and otherwise) will find many small jokes, but everyone watching will find a whole lot to like.

"Keanu" may throw its characters into some deep, dark, situations, but never goes dark itself, maintaining its lighthearted, incredibly funny, tone from beginning to end. Plus, it centers on a kitten and I'm told that everyone loves kittens.

photo credit: Warner Bros.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"Lass is More" Loves "The Lady in the Van" and the Writer Behind it

Up on today's "Lass is More," we have a few thoughts about "The Lady in the Van."  The movie is based on the real experiences of Alan Bennett, feature a screenplay by Alan Bennett, and have not one but two Alan Bennetts within the tale.  Oh, sure, there's Maggie Smith too, and she plays the lady in the van herself, but I'm much more concerned with the Bennetts.

Or, maybe I'm not concerned with the Bennetts.  Maybe, I'm concerned about what the Bennetts have to say about me, what they tell me about myself.

You see, "The Lady in the Van" has the Alan Bennett who lives life and the Alan Bennett who writes about the Alan Bennett who lives the life.  It is an utterly fascinating separation, a dueling duality.

photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Lass is More" Grumbles About "Hardcore Henry"

The new movie "Hardcore Henry" is centered on a gimmick -- it's shot in the first-person. As gimmicks go, that isn't a bad one. The problem is that "Hardcore Henry" isn't able to convert the gimmick into telling a worthwhile story. Heck, the gimmick isn't even well-executed. The entire affair is perplexing and why anyone thought it might not be is... well, it's even more perplexing.

Today, we talk about "Hardcore Henry" on the podcast and, as much as the movie may have made me sick to my stomach, that isn't why I feel so rotten about it. Sick to my stomach I can get past, not being true to your own gimmick is far more problematic.

More than anything, I want to hand the movie back to writer/director Ilya Naishuller so that Naishuller can give it another shot. There has to have been a way to make "Hardcore Henry" work and I'd love Naishuller to take another six months or a year to figure it out.

photo credit: STX Entertainment

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

"Lass is More" Talks "One More Time" with Writer/Director Robert Edwards

Christopher Walken is one of those people who is instantly identifiable simply from his voice and its cadence.  Can you perhaps imagine Walken as a crooner, a Frank Sinatra-esque lover of ballads.

Writer/director Robert Edwards certainly was able to imagine it and Walken stars in Edwards newest film, "One More Time," as an aging crooner looking for a comeback and dealing with his family including eldest child Jude (Amber Heard).  It is a perfect fit and Edwards tells us how much he altered the screenplay once he had Walken in the role.

Oh, but the chat goes way beyond just Walken's performance, getting into the music itself, and why Edwards did this movie which may have been outside his comfort zone.  Edwards has worked on documentaries and "One More Time" premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival (under the name "When I Live my Live Over Again"), so we were even able to add in a question about Edwards' response to the "Vaxxed" controversy at this year's festival.

Listen to what he had to say about it all below.

photo credit: Starz

Monday, April 04, 2016

A Look at the "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Blu-ray Bonus Features and What They Mean

I spent several hours last weekend watching the bonus features that are a part of "The Force Awakens" Blu-ray release. As with many a set of bonus features, there is stuff out there to be learned, but one thing in particular struck me as I was watching – the enthusiasm everyone had working on the film.

There is more than that to it though – the people working on the movie seem to have a genuine honor and respect for the original trilogy, the way it was created, and the story that it told. There are several moments in the extras where people working on the new film talk about working with those from the original trilogy, or where those who worked on any of the first six talk about coming back for this one (what doesn't really exist is someone talking extensively about just about the prequels).

In short, "The Force Awakens" extras offer the sense that the new movie is a labor of love, that the people who worked on it did so because they truly wanted to be a part of "Star Wars" rather than just wanting to work or just wanting to push technology to the extreme.

As I say, I spent hours watching the extras and usually when I finish going through such a thing I'm completely spent and stupefied. Extras can be a real slog to get through, but, happily, that is not the case here. From the larger behind the scenes documentary to the individual smaller pieces about things like creating a lightsaber fight or John Williams' work, they are all individually fascinating.


Well, I think the reasons there are two fold. First, the labor of love thing – we are watching some of the best people in their field put something together that they are passionate about. Second, we know that the result of there efforts, the film itself, is fantastic. Put together, that works something like this -- we want to know more about how the movie was made because these people very much want to tell us about how they did something quite so brilliant.

Having finished watching all those pieces what I am left with is a rather extraordinary feeling: I want more. I want that big documentary to be two hours instead of one and for all the smaller featurettes to still be there as well.

The biggest fear I have with the whole thing is Disney's incredibly ambitious "Star Wars" slate – a movie a year, alternating between stand-alones and the larger "Episodes." That is a whole lot of "Star Wars," and I have to wonder if the people working on them in a few years will have the same sort of enthusiasm that is so evident here. I want it to remain special, to remain a gathering of the best and brightest who have reverence for the galaxy far, far away. There will of course be greater and lesser entries as we move forward, but movies that people make because they care about them always have an extra oomph, an extra sense of emotion, over those that are made for a paycheck.

I am well aware that I am being foolishly naïve about this, but I tend to think that's the exact point of what I'm saying.

And now, I'll close by reinserting last week's "Lass is More" on "The Force Awakens." Listen and enjoy.

photo credit: Lucasfilm