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

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Lass is More" Looks at "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens"

We all experience fear in this world. The question is what we do about it, how do we address our fears?

I have experience fear for years in regards to my son. I love the lad, but his enthusiasm for the Dark Side has been troubling... almost like a disturbance in the Force. Why would he have a tendency to pick red lightsabers? Why would he also want to be Stormtroopers or Sith when playing "Star Wars" games? Why would he look at me with those Kylo Ren eyes?

Okay, maybe that last one isn't entirely true, but the boy has had Sith tendencies. Recently though, he watched "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens," which is hitting Blu-ray next week, and an amazing thing happened -- he didn't identify with Kylo, he identified with the Finn/Rey/Poe triumvirate. He didn't want to be the guy with undeniably the coolest lightsaber, he wanted to be one of the good guys and that has made me breathe a sigh of relief. Hear about that and other "Star Wars" revelations from my boy on this week's podcast.

photo credit: Disney

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Movie Review: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"

There are a number of complaints that have been leveled against Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel." Outside of its tone and a distinct lack of color, they tend to deal with stuff like the director having so much destruction rain down on Metropolis, Superman allowing said destruction to take place, and (SPOILER, I guess, if you haven't seen the movie which is came out in 2013) our hero's killing Zod. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" picks up on these threads, and does so in equally unsatisfactory fashion.

Henry Cavill (our Superman) has said does that this new movie, the first film truly in the DC Extended Universe does not have as a goal addressing "any issues" people had with "Man of Steel." However, watching the film, it quite definitely exists for specifically that purpose. And, like its predecessor, it's going to leave a bad taste in the mouth for a whole lot of people.

"Batman v Superman"'s main tale revolves around the world, including Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), thinking that Superman is a danger. Much of the world feels as though Superman needs to follow the law, that he isn't above it. That isn't specifically Batman's take on the whole thing, the Caped Crusader just wants to know more, understand more, and be able to stop Superman.

The movie does not draw a distinction between Batman's stance and that of the rest of the world. This, despite Batman clearly not having a problem with the notion of a person in a cape operating outside the law.

So, over the course of the movie, the tension mounts; it mounts between the world (including Batman/Bruce Wayne, which, yes, I'm using interchangeably) and Superman. The whole movie in fact is about Superman being beat up on all sides by everyone except Lois (Amy Adams). As an aside, were I a different person I would write an in-depth piece about how Superman is actually a stand-in for "Man of Steel," the world's population in the film are critics/non-admiring viewers and Snyder is Lois, standing by her man to the enda.

But then, suddenly, the movie isn't about that anymore. I don't want to get into spoiler-y territory and give anything away about what happens, but there is a moment in the movie where Superman goes from being questioned by everyone in the world to being lauded by them. People go from wondering if it's okay for him to operate outside the law to praising him to the high heavens for it.

Rather than being any sort of sensible critique of our response to various security threats at home and abroad, Snyder offers all of this without comment or analysis. Superman goes from being seen one way to a different way. Superman is, essentially, redeemed for his "Man of Steel" actions by operating in the exact same fashion here in "Batman v Superman." We can now, the illogic goes, move on to "Justice League" without worrying about Superman because the world has forgiven him. In our world—the real world—the issues remain the same, but within the movie, they are swept under the rug to be dealt with no more. It feels like a bait and switch. The gross destruction and violence of the first film is resolved by the gross violence and destruction of the second.

One other fix is offered by Snyder for another tangentially related aspect of "Man of Steel," specifically, audiences not liking it when a civilian population is decimated. Consequently, no fewer than three times during the climactic battle we are told that the area in which our heroes and villain are fighting is uninhabited. The fight takes place in more than one location, but for whatever reason Snyder will not/cannot take our characters out of the confines of the Metropolis-Gotham confines (the two cities sit on opposite sides of a bay). Instead we get things like laughable voiceover from a popular TV news anchor explaining how a particular portion of a fight is taking place in downtown Metropolis which is mostly empty because it's after the close of the business day. It feels like a direct response to previous criticism, and while responding to criticism is fine, it is handled in ludicrous fashion. If, as a director, you want the fight to take place in a city (or two), have your fight take place in a city, don't throw in magical excuses for the city being empty.

There is good in the film. In fact, one of the best parts of "Batman v Superman" is the score by Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer. Of course, while I say that, I have to also point out that although the score is great on its own, it is an incredibly over the top affair. It is weighty and self-important and when combined with the self-important dialogue, look, feel, and posturing of "Batman v Superman," the score isn't as good. It is one too many things piled onto a plate that is already overfull. There are moments during the climactic battle sequence when the score proves to be the straw that broke the camel's back, moving the sequence from semi-incomprehensible fighting due to the angles and editing style to humorous semi-incomprehensible fighting.

Much more to the good is Ben Affleck, who truly is outstanding. He manages to carry off Snyder's desired gravitas without succumbing to it, unlike virtually everyone else. Affleck's Bruce Wayne is less Christian Bale cavalier playboy (which totally would not fit with the movie's self-serious tone) and more corporate executive with a second job, but a Batman I would happily explore further.

Another notable exception to the gravitas issue: Laurence Fishburne's Perry White. Fishburne's version of the character would fit perfectly with the '80s "Superman" movies or J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson. That is to say, he is a lot of fun to watch which essentially means that he belongs in a different movie.

Yes, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," as one may have surmised watching "Man of Steel," isn't built to be fun. Instead, it is built as a head fake towards answering the issues with its predecessor and introducing us to the characters we're going to get to know as the DCEU moves forward.

Of course, movies don't have to be fun. Even comic book movies don't have to be fun. What they do have to do is provide a reason for the audience to care, a reason for us to show up and be interested in what's happening. If the answer isn't "fun," it has to be something else, but all "Batman v Superman" gives the audience is overwrought dialogue, moody lighting, and pompous—but empty—ideals.

Many ideals within the film are spouted by Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. Quite honestly, Eisenberg's take on the character is fantastic. As with Affleck's Batman, Eisenberg's Luthor is a guy I want to learn more about. And, just as with Affleck's Batman (and Fishburne's White), he is a guy ill-suited to the movie he's in. This Luthor, from the moment we first see him, oozes smarm and evil. He is Luthor after Luthor stops pretending like he's a good guy. He is Luthor after achieving super-villain status, except that somehow the world at large is blind to Luthor's true self. The film offers absolutely no reason to think that the world wouldn't realize Luthor is evil, it is simply another thing Snyder and the script by David Goyer and Chris Terrio chooses to ignore.

This issue isn't a by-product of us knowing Luthor's evil, Holly Hunter's Senator Finch is well aware from the first moment she meets Luthor that he's evil. Exactly why no one else sees it or seems to care in the slightest about it is insanely perplexing.

Fortunately, Snyder does avoid one of the big traps that could easily have sunk the movie on its own – he doesn't go about introducing too many characters. Yes, as promised, get Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, but those are nothing more than cameos. Anyone going to the movie to see any of those characters is going to find themselves sorely disappointed.

In fact, Gal Gadot's Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is only in a handful of scenes. We are offered absolutely nothing about who she is, how she has come to be, why she is in Metropolis, or anything else. She is brilliantly realized during the final fight, a truly exhilarating addition to a silly battle and I greatly look forward to seeing her in her own movie because she has no character here.

Final summation time. There is something disquieting about the manner in which Zack Snyder has constructed the DCEU. "Batman v Superman" feels as though it is an extended response to the criticism that was issued with the release of "Man of Steel," but that rather than attempting to formulate a well thought out, reasoned response, Snyder starts down the road of giving an answer only to then decide that people really just want to see stuff destroyed. That, combined by some intensely self-serious—and silly—dialogue and a desire to drop extended hints about the Justice League characters' past and future cause the film to topple under its own weight.

If you're a fan of the characters I don't know how you possibly skip the movie, but that doesn't mean you will like what you see.

photo credit: Warner Bros.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Movie Review: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2"

As much as I don't want to oversell it, the original "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is a massive success both creatively and at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, a production budget of $5 million turned into a movie that earned $241 million at the domestic box office. I don't think it's that 2002 was a simpler time, it's much more that while it is purportedly telling the story of one Greek-American woman trying to find the balance between family and the rest of her life, it is a far more universal tale. It doesn't hurt that the movie is hysterically funny as well.

How big a success is the original? Well, it spawned a TV show, like "M*A*S*H," but unlike the tale of doctors and nurses in Korea during the war, "My Big Fat Greek Life" was a disappointment, airing seven episodes in 2003 and that's it. But, apparently the good will for the film has lasted long enough that we're now getting a belated sequel, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," directed by Kirk Jones (Joel Zwick directed the original) which is hitting theaters this Friday.

Nia Vardalos not only returns as the star for the sequel, but has penned the script, just as she did with the first film. In fact, much of the original cast returns including John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Louis Mandylor, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, and Ian Gomez. Added into the mix, amongst others, is Elena Kampouris as Paris, Toula (Vardalos) and Ian's (Corbett) daughter. John Stamos also, weirdly, shows up for a little while but is given nothing to do.

It is actually not entirely fair to single Stamos out as having nothing to do, because most of the folks in the movie have nothing to do. There are several different plotlines that are introduced in the film, but by the time the credits roll they're nearly all dropped, drastically altered, missing pieces, or only begun shortly before the film ends. It is perplexing.

Essentially, however, there are two main stories that take place – Toula, Ian, and Paris have to deal with Paris' going off to college and the teen's trying to make sense of her large and boisterous Greek family. As with the first movie, a large part of this are the grandparents, Gus (Constantine) and Maria (Kazan) wanting to play matchmaker, although now they do so with as opposed to Toula. The film doesn't linger over this last bit, it is instead a series of punchlines… until it isn't and Paris accidentally meets a nice boy.

The second storyline, and where the film's name originates, is with Gus realizing that he and Maria are not really married, the priest never signed the wedding certificate. Now, if Gus can convince Maria, they'll get married again.

The wedding plot, as with the boyfriend plot, and the Toula and Ian relationship plot (they're trying to keep their marriage alive), all feel like side stories. The original film revolves around the Toula-Ian relationship but here in the sequel, the moments that feature just the two of them, particularly a romantic dinner sequence, feel wooden. Even if they are facing difficulties rekindling romance, the entire conversation, no matter the topic, offers incredibly stilted conversation. Rather than feeling purposeful, the moment rings false.

With "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," the audience jumps back into the lives of these characters nearly two decades on to see that almost nothing has changed which makes one wonder why bothering to tell a story now. Then, while the basic ideas of what might occur—the basic stories we follow—are amusing enough in principle, they are never deepened enough to make them compelling for more than few scant minutes. There is no problem that can't be overcome with the application of something as simple as a few squirts of Windex.

The closest the movie comes to an involving plot is with Paris, and that is mainly due to Kampouris' perfectly nailing the character. Even if the movie has Paris proceed in odd and at times indecipherable ways, Kampouris sells it and makes a great addition to the family.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is a disappointment is because the family in general, and characters in specific, feel as though they are real and the kind of people we'd all like to know. Unfortunately, the storylines Vardalos has written for the sequel in no way match the genius of the characters she brought to life in the original.

I still want to spend more time with the Portokalos family, but not like this.

 Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Lass is More" Chats with "They're Watching" Co-Directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright

Sometimes movies are easy to define -- it's a comedy, it's a drama. Sometimes they're basic combinations of these things -- it's a horror-comedy, it's a dramedy. Other times, it can be much more difficult.

So, when I talked to Jay Lender and Micah Wright about "They're Watching," a movie the men wrote and directed together, my first question was about genre. They're answer was a little surprising and it was just the first of many surprises during the conversation.

Rather than giving you some sort of long, drawn-out introduction where I tell you everything that you're going to hear or spin the interview in one way or another, let me just suggest you click that play button below and have Jay and Micah tell you their story. The men are both well spoken and creating entertainment across multiple media is clearly something they enjoy.

"They're Watching" is in theaters and on demand this Friday, March 25.

photo credit: Best Served Cold Productions

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"10 Cloverfield Lane" Interviews with J.J. Abrams, Dan Trachtenberg, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

So, I sat down about two hours ago to write up a brief little introduction to my interviews with J.J. Abrams, Dan Trachtenberg, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  These were originally recorded for IGN last week and I think they came out really well.

What happened when I began to write is what sometimes, if I'm lucky, happens -- I just kept writing.  My short little intro to the videos became 1200 words on why I really like "10 Cloverfield Lane" and don't get the (admittedly not large) group of critics who disliked it.  As I say there, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but as it says up top on this site, "here on this blog you will find my thoughts and opinions.  Feel free to argue, but rest assured that I am right."

"10 Cloverfield Lane" isn't perfect but it is smart and clever and funny.  What's more, I want to see more movies in the same vein and more in the franchise (and I say this not having loved the first one).  So, as I go off and change that piece around and polish it a little, check out the interviews I did for the movie last week.  The first one is Abrams alone and the second one is a combo of the Trachtenberg/Winstead ones.


photo credit: IGN