Keanu (Atencio; 2016)

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele fame make their debut as stars of their own feature film in Keanu.  Keanu is not just the name of the film, it’s also the name of the third star of the movie, the cutest damn kitten in the City of Angels.  Keanu shows up on Rell’s (Peele) doorstep shortly after he’s been dumped by his girlfriend, and the two form an instant connection.  When Rell and his best friend Clarence (Key) come home after seeing a movie together to find Rell’s apartment torn apart and Keanu missing, our story begins as the two best friends set off to find why Keanu was taken, where he was taken, and by whom.

Keanu on first glance seems to be a story of not judging based on stereotypes.  Our heroes are a pair of self-professed suburban black nerds, and they fit the stereotype in many ways, except when they don’t.  Most of the other characters in the film are criminals of one sort or another, whether it’s just the friendly neighborhood marijuana dealer who is as badass as a stuffed unicorn or the truly scary, honest to badness gangsters you do not want to be even seen by, let alone interact with if you know what’s good for you.  They also fit their stereotypes, except when they don’t.  The majority of the humor in the film comes from this undermining of expectations, and while it’s not new or original in any way, it is handled very deftly.  Deftly enough to make you start to care for most of the characters in the film, even most of the criminals, without your even realizing it until you find yourself more than just laughing at their antics, but also laughing because you really empathize with these people and you truly enjoy their familiarity.

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Enjoying familiarity is what we’re all about.

While themes of ignoring stereotypes, protecting those closest to you, and the power of cuteness are prevalent throughout the movie, they aren’t handled particularly subtly nor creatively.  That’s okay, because the main purpose of this film is simply to make you laugh.  It uses those themes only as a means of making you laugh.  In fact, those themes probably only exist because they are the best way to draw jokes out of the material, and laugh you will, hard and often.  Some jokes are cheap and obvious, others sneak up on you, but the majority of the humor is quality, both in the writing and in the delivery.

As to Key and Peele themselves, they don’t show themselves to be particularly nuanced actors, but they are absolutely funny and charismatic enough to headline their own feature film.  Their writing and chemistry translate incredibly well from the small screen to the large, and I definitely look forward to what they may do next now that they have proven themselves to Hollywood.

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They’d better not forget they have a third partner now, or I’ll have to murder someone.  With snuggles!

Keanu is not a perfect movie, not even a perfect comedy, but it is still a lot more than the extended sketch comedy drawn out too long that far too many television comedians create when they transcend to the big screen.  To compare this to the many Saturday Night Live films made over the years, Keanu is much closer to The Blues Brothers than it is to It’s Pat!  Not only that, but it’s also the best damn kitten video you’re likely to see for a long time, as well.

 

Rating:  6.2 out of 10

The Jungle Book (Favreau; 2016)

I have a confession to make.  I’ve never seen the Disney animated The Jungle Book from beginning to end.  I’ve seen scenes – when I was a kid I had a toy that played the scene with Kaa, and I watched that scene so many times the images were worn – and I’m familiar with the characters, but I have never seen the film in its entirety.  So my reviewing this newer “live action” version comes from a place not of comparison or nostalgia, but of seeing the film on its own merits as an adult.

The reason I put the words live action in quotation marks in the previous paragraph is as good a place as any to start talking about this new, Favreau directed version of the classic story.  If you look at a list of the actors in the film, the only actor playing a major character not listed as “voice” is Neel Sethi as Mowgli, our young protagonist.  There is one brief flashback scene with two other live actors at one point in the film, but aside from that every single player in this movie is as animated as in the 1967 version of the film, it’s just that here the animals are so realistic that it’s easy to forget we are watching CGI.  It isn’t just the characters being computer rendered here, either.  While I’m sure much of the scenery is real, some of it had to obviously been animated, as well.  Everything is so incredibly realistic, however, that it’s impossible for the eye to judge what it is real and what isn’t in most cases, you just have to make the judgement using common sense.

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It’s even tougher after Kaa has hypnotized you into believing whatever she wants.

The acting in this The Jungle Book runs a quite a range from genius to distracting.  Choosing big name voices to play all the major, recognizable roles in the film was a double edged decision.  While Bill Murray (as Baloo) elevates his role in the film as he always does whenever his name is tied to a project, and Scarlet Johnannsen (Kaa), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), and Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) all also do  phenomenal work in their respective roles, others like Christopher Walken (King Louie) and Gary Shandling (Ikki)  merely distract with their far too recognizable voices and who did little to disguise the fact that it is just them talking through the mouths of animated animals.  As far as Neel Sethi in his starring role, well, he’s a child actor.  I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse, but it was obvious he was being led by the nose through his part, and his entire acting range seemed to be “speak as loud as you can without screaming no matter what is happening to you”.  He wasn’t horrible, particularly for his age, but it was very obvious he isn’t mature enough to tentpole a film on his own, and Favreau did not do the job he should have to hide this fact.

I went to see this film in 3D because I’d heard that in India the ratings board made it so children had to be accompanied by adults to see the film as they felt the animals fighting in 3D was too scary for most children to handle, and I just had to check that out for myself.  While I wouldn’t say anything here is inappropriate for children, the violence is just animals hitting each other around with no blood or any other gore of any kind to be seen, the sight of these large animals attacking each other at times is really impressive, and definitely could be scary for the youngest of children.  But, I wouldn’t avoid taking your children to The Jungle Book for that reason, unless they are particularly sensitive to violence.  It can be quite ferocious, but never got to the point of outright brutal.

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Don’t let our cuteness fool you.  We kick mucho ass.

The visuals in The Jungle Book are astonishing.  It’s easy to lose yourself in this world and forget that it’s not real and that animals can’t really talk.  The rest is a little hit or miss, though it errs more toward the hit side, and while there is nothing much here for adults aside from nostalgia, the kids will love it, and it’s stunning enough to look at that the adults will be able to have a good time, as well.

Rating:  6.0 out of 10

Hardcore Henry (Nalshuller; 2015)

Before I start actually writing about this week’s movie, I’m making an announcement about this blog.  This blog was always meant to be a temporary thing, as I’ve intended since the start of the year to get a YouTube movie review channel up and going.  As of today, I have all the pieces in place to get that channel started except for the practice associated with putting an episode together at least once a week.  I have not yet decided if I’m going to keep writing this blog, or move entirely over to YouTube, but as of now I’m thinking that writing here will be a good method of getting my thoughts together for the video review.  So, if you like what I’ve been saying here, check out Shaun’s Reviews on YouTube very, very soon – like before the end of this week soon – and continue to follow what I have to say.  And, thank you for following me here, there, or just reading or viewing the occasional review here or there, I appreciate it all.

Roger Ebert once famously and controversially said that video games aren’t, and could never be, art.  When he said this, he was thinking of game like Pac Man, I can only guess, and had never experienced modern video games with narratives and images that can put movies to shame, so I have to wonder if he had lived to see Hardcore Henry what he would have made of it.  I’m guessing he would hate it, but he’d probably have to either recant his statement or say that movies are moving to a place where they are no longer art.  Well, this one, at least, though many “live action” movies are also more computer generated images than reality, as well.

Hardcore Henry unashamedly and uncompromisingly inspired by video games.  While the trailers made this clear, on seeing the film you can immediately see just how much the creators of the film knew exactly what it was they were making.  The only part of the protagonist you ever see are his hands and feet, he is unable to speak (they do explain this away early on), and every single second of the film aside from the credits is seen from Henry’s point of view.  There are some minor cuts here and there, but it almost takes place in real time, as well.  That’s just the protagonist.  If you can think of a video game cliche’, Nalshuller and crew probably did, as well, and it made its way into Hardcore Henry at some point or another.

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If the camera panned up just a bit, you’d see the question mark floating over my head.

Obviously, the biggest difference between a video game and Hardcore Henry, though, is that with Hardcore Henry you are merely watching.  You aren’t making any decisions or testing your hand-eye coordination in any way. Most people would have a hard time coming up with something less interesting than watching another person play a video game unless they have some reason to be invested in the game, and there is no reason coming into this film blindly that you would be invested.  Hardcore Henry, however, manages to avoid the pitfalls that makes watching someone else play a game dull.  There are no load times here, no saving and having to go back, no travelling from place to place to speak to bartenders and cops.  Hardcore Henry is from beginning to end action, whether that action be a car chase, parkuor pursuits (say that a few time quickly), or shoot outs barely a second ever goes by without intense pacing.

The performances here are, for the most part, bad to mediocre, particularly the perfomance by Danila Kozlovsky as the villain Akan who is somehow both cartoonish and boring at the same time, and Haley Bennett as Estella, the protagonist’s wife, is also very dull.  Sharito Copley, though, as Jimmy, gives us a quite fantastic character who manages to mix funny, badass, original, and touching into one excellent performance.  The performance that most deserves mention, though, is Henry.  Henry is “you”, the audience member, and so is never seen, never heard from, but the fact that you see out of his eyes the entire time means that whomever did this filming was performing parkour, driving cars, jumping out of planes, and every manner of action film standbys while wearing a camera on their face, and still acting enough that you can see hands and arms doing what they need to and always aimed in the right direction to catch what’s going on around him.  It does make for some very chaotic and choppy viewing at times, but I was surprised at how few those times were all things considered.

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They told me there’d be days like this at bad guy school.

Hardcore Henry is not a film I’d recommend to everyone, but it is quite a bit better than it would seem on the surface it has any right to be.  There is nothing enlightening here, no lessons to ponder, no complex plot to unravel, it’s just straightforward constant balls-to-the-wall action from start to finish.  For this reason, I hope this is an experiment that ends here, because it will only work so many times, but it did work this time I’m happy to say.

Rating:  6.2 out of 10

Zootopia (Howard, Moore, Bush; 2016)

First off, let’s address the fact that some people are calling Zootopia the best animated Disney movie since The Lion King.  These people are wrong.  Zootopia is the best animated film put out by Disney since Pinnocchio.  I realize that I’m out on a limb saying that, but it’s a limb I’m comfortable going out on.  The Lion King, and for that matter, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, were all stories depicting already existing works, while Zootopia is its own fresh material that is just as well told as any of those 80’s and 90’s era classics and it also uses its medium to explore dense themes in a way too many Hollywood writers and directors are too cowardly to do in live action, and it does so in a very mature manner that still won’t go over most kid’s heads.  In fact, it’s more likely to go over the heads of the adults.

I pride myself in writing spoiler free reviews, and I intend to keep this review plot spoiler free, as well, but there is no way I can talk about this film without spoiling what made this the best surprise for me in many years.  So, if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to see it no matter what I say I recommend you stop reading right now.   In fact, stop reading, put down your phone or computer, drive to the theater, and see Zootopia immediately.

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But, when you’re done watching my movie, I expect to see you right back here.  Got that!

It’s no secret that animated productions can often get away with saying things much more directly than their live action counterparts, for some reason I admit I don’t entirely understand.  This is much of the secret to The Simpsons success, and pretty much the entirety of the success of South Park.  Zootopia pulls off much the same trick, but not in a vulgar way like those television based works often do.  It remains entirely kid friendly but manages to say things about our society that only the bravest or most crass will bring up in public.  That topic specifically in the case of Zootopia is race.  An animated film by Disney is the most direct, open, and cutting commentary on race that I’ve seen outside of a Spike Lee joint, and yes I remember films like Crash and American History X.

Ironically enough, I think the major messages about racial relations are aimed primarily at the adults taking their children to see the film, since most preteen children aren’t yet racist enough to need these lessons (though, it’s never too early to start teaching them).  The reason to take the kids, is this is an honest to goodness really fun buddy cop story aimed at the younger set, but still complex and interesting enough to keep the adults enthralled, too.  It’s no Usual Suspects in the complexity of its crime story, but that’s a good thing here, the writers manage to perfectly keep the story complex and original enough to make it engrossing for everyone, but still simple enough that it won’t go over the heads of even the youngest audience members.

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Nothing goes over our heads.

The animation in the film is very well done, as well.  I personally tend to prefer hand drawn to computer generated animation, but I do understand the move to computer artwork in Hollywood studios due to the amount of time hand drawn pieces take, and they truly do some stunning work here particularly with the feeling of motion which is present a lot in a plot about a rabbit cop chasing a lot of criminal suspects.  It does tend to lose some quality in a few of the slower paced scenes as not a lot was being done with backgrounds much of the time, but that really is a minor gripe that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film in any way.

The kids get a hilarious and fast paced film with a lot of funny animals in it.  The adults get all that, plus an surprisingly astute look at politics, religion, friendships, careers, and particularly racial relations and fear.  Zootopia is  truly the greatest pleasant surprise I’ve had in the theater in a really long time.  Finding Dory, the bar has been raised really high.  If you manage to match Zootopia‘s quality, this will be a year lovers of animation will remember for the rest of their lives.

Rating:  8.8 out of 10

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I absolutely deserve to look this smug.

 

Eddie the Eagle (Fletcher; 2016)

Upon hearing about Eddie the Eagle I immediately knew that Hollywood was giving us another maudlin, stereotypical, sickeningly sweet feel good sports movie.  What else could it be?  You can check off all the cliches as you watch the trailer.  Plucky, but flawed hero meets cynical and also flawed mentor whom the hero manages to win over through determination and heart.  There will be inspirational speeches, a time when all seems lost, and heartwarming lessons about life learned through overcoming adversity.

About 20 minutes into the film, though, as I was checking off the list of underdog sports film tropes off in my head there was a scene I didn’t see coming.  Something that set Eddie the Eagle apart from other films that share its genre.  I won’t say what it was, but it was something that sprouted very organically from the subject matter of the film, something that made perfect sense, wasn’t at all a gimmick, yet still set Eddie the Eagle apart from the other films of its ilk.  Suddenly, the film grabbed me.  I was invested, my cynicism was being lifted away, and I was now hoping that Eddie the Eagle could, in fact, show me that it contained greatness.

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I really can fly!  Now, I just have to stick the landing!

Unfortunately, that greatness was fleeting.  As after just a few stabs at the quality that set it apart from its brethren, Eddie the Eagle went back to being the cliched, maudlin film that it seemed to be from the start.

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I bet you’d rather see a movie about the agony of defeat guy, eh, Shaun?

Aside from its sin of predictability, there’s nothing really horrible to say about Eddie the Eagle.  Both Taron Eggerton as Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards and Hugh Jackman as his initially grudging but ultimately bestest friend coach, Bronson Peary,  give charming, likable performances.  Neither brings anything new to their role, but they both have heaping helpings of charisma to make up for it.  The dialogue is never problematic and can often be downright engaging, and the cinematography does its work and, well let’s just say it is the component of the film that gave me my fleeting moment of fandom mentioned above.

Eddie the Eagle, in case you can’t tell already, is a film I am very mixed on.  The critical side of me sees an awful lot of mediocrity and cliche here, but despite that, I still left the theater with a smile on my face, and perhaps even the very beginnings of a fist pump.  If you are already a fan of the genre, and I know at least a few of you reading this are, Eddie the Eagle is one of the better examples of its kind, and even if you’re not I’d still recommend checking it out one day when it makes its way to cable and streaming services.  It may not be a bastion of originality, but its got so much heart even a curmudgeon like me has to sit up and take notice.

Rating:  5.0 out of 10

 

The Witch (Eggers; 2015)

Applying genre to a work of fiction can be a very useful tool.  The most basic genres of comedy and drama, the foundations of theater and film, let us know at the very least if what we’re going to see has a lighthearted or serious tone.  Go a little farther into science fiction, or romance, or horror and we have an even clearer picture of the tone of what we are about to see.  Sometimes.  Sometimes assigning a genre to a piece of fiction just muddies the waters, and The Witch is one of those cases.

On its surface, The Witch is a horror film about a Puritan family in the early 1600’s (very shortly after Europeans began settling the North American continent) trying to survive in the wilderness after leaving their colony and being beset upon by the witch who lives in the nearby wood.  The storyline focuses much more on familial relations and in particular their Puritan customs and faith.  Supernatural forces drive the narrative, but once they set things in motion, they stay out of the way for long periods and let the prejudices and preconceptions of the family (who don’t appear to have a last name) provide the conflict.

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It’s okay.  I’ll get a surname when my father sells me off to some 40 year-old man to be his bride.

Robert Eggers is both the writer and director of The Witch.  The writing on display is good, but tries to be too authentic to the period.  Eggers actually used the first-hand descriptions of witches from trials of the era when writing his dialogue, but rather than immersing the viewer even more into the period, it actually serves as a bit of a distraction.  The dialogue not taken directly from trial notes does not have the same depth of language as that which is, and this fact does call attention to itself, plus having to do a quick translation in your head for much of what the characters just said can also break your immersion in the story.

The acting on display here is also strong for the most part, but can be a little hit or miss. Both Ralph Ineson as William the father of the clan and Anya Taylor-Joy as their eldest daughter Thomasin give excellent performances.   Kate Dickie, the mother of the family, gives a somewhat more uneven performance, however, prone to occasional overacting when compared to most everything else in the rest of the film.  The other major characters are the younger children in the family, and the performances given by them is what you would expect from child actors who have a very proficient director overseeing them.

That directing is the true outstanding element in the film’s overall make up.  While the script is good, but flawed, and the same with the acting, the direction has just the touch it needs to turn this story into a cohesive whole that emphasizes its strengths and minimizes its weaknesses.  The Witch could, in fact, be a text book study on how the more imperceptible aspects of filmmaking can have a strong impact on the story, and how the director is very much part stage magician focusing our attention right where it’s wanted.

The Witch is a more creepy than scary or gory horror film, and it can be a bit uneven in its overall quality, but if you are in the mood for something cerebral that can give you the wiggins in a big way you could do far worse.

 

Rating:  6.2 out of 10

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My performance was the best of all and Shaun didn’t even mention it..

Deadpool (Miller; 2016)

The movie Deadpool has a character named Negasonic Teenage Warhead.  Go see it.

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You need more of a reason?  Fine.  Inara from Firefly is in it, too.

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She’s hot.

Wow, you really like reading.  All right, I guess I can give you a little more info.  Deadpool is a really simplistic movie, there is only the main plot to follow and no subplots or side stories whatsoever, but simplicity does not mean it doesn’t have style.  If you’ve paid any attention whatsoever to Deadpool‘s marketing campaign you already know that this style is over the top crude metahumor, and from the first moment of the opening credits it is delivered in buckets – bloody, hilarious buckets.

Ryan Reynolds embodies Wade Wilson a.k.a. Deadpool perfectly in the film, it’s the absolute perfect match of character to actor.  This is not at all accidental, as Reynolds is a huge fan of the comic book character and played him once before in the movie X-Men Origins:  Wolverine.  That film botched the character of Deadpool so badly that Reynolds has been petitioning Fox ever since to allow him to do the character right, and now we have the redemption of the character Reynolds and the geekier members of the audience have been waiting for.

The film really is so much fun, and so pure in its, um, impurity that there’s little really to say aside from go see it if your sense of decency doesn’t put too much of a dampener on your sense of humor, but I do feel I need to add to the warning many are giving out there to not under any circumstances take young children to see this film.  They will want to see it, and not just because its another guy running around in spandex, but because Deadpool has appeared in cartoons aimed at children, like the Ultimate Spider Man show, and in the context of those shows the character keeps his sense of humor and self referential commentary, but loses the gore and the crudeness.  That, however, is not the main reason I am emphasizing the warning.  Most parents by now have heard that this film is very rated R and I can’t tell you if your child can handle the sex and violence rampant in Deadpool.  What many aren’t saying, though, is that the character of Deadpool is not a hero.  If there is an overriding theme to the movie of any weight, this is it, and while it’s brought up over and over again, it’s still over the heads of most 8 year-olds that there is a difference between a protagonist and a hero.  If your child is not sophisticated enough to understand this difference, this element of the movie when combined with the insanity in a very fun way of the rest of the film could lead to some very confused child brains.

Deadpool is a fantastic film because it is so fun, and so different.  In an age where superhero stories are getting either more serious or more complicated or both, it’s great to see one that revels in fun and simplicity, yet still remains very, very, very adult.  I understand that, as a surprise to no one, it has already been greenlit for a sequel.  Here’s hoping Dead2pool doesn’t forget what made the first one a fantastic watch.

Rating:  8.2 out of 10  (these ratings are an intensely scientific formula and don’t come at all out of my ass)

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You’ll see a lot of this, ladies.