Keanu (2016, Peter Atencio)

Keanu. Keanu is a movie about a missing kitten named Keanu. Keanu is so cute, no one can see him without falling in love with him; Keanu isn’t just the world’s cutest kitten, he’s the world’s sweetest kitten too. You might wonder why I’m almost fifty words in and haven’t talked about the movie yet, but I am. Keanu, as a film, is very much about the viewer adoring Keanu, the kitten. Because Keanu’s not just sweet or cute, he’s also badass. And adorable while he’s being badass.

Okay, time to talk about the movie.

So it’s really funny. Jordan Peele finds the kitten (or the kitten comes to him–I’m not sure why the script doesn’t treat the kitten as more magical, they could’ve gotten away with it). Someone breaks into his apartment, steals the kitten. Peele and his friend, Keegan-Michael Key, go to rescue the cat from a gang. There’s a lot of setup but it’s all very efficient. Keanu doesn’t overuse Keanu, the kitten. The kitten isn’t in most of the movie. The kitten is the T-Rex. He’s not the MacGuffin, because, even though Key and Peele grow as human beings throughout the film and learn things about themselves, Keanu isn’t deep. It’s just good. It follows a certain buddy movie blueprint, it doesn’t play with the medium, it’s just good. It’s funny and inventive.

It’s also good it isn’t deep because, frankly, director Atencio couldn’t hack it. He’s got very solid technical support from cinematographer Jas Shelton and editor Nicholas Monsour, but Atencio has absolutely no personality. And he directs actors far too generically. It’s blandly directed.

Excellent performances from the entire cast–Key and Peele are a comedy duo, which I should’ve mentioned earlier. They’re really funny. Method Man is great as the heavy, who also loves the kitten, of course. There are some problems but it’s the script, not the actors–the Luis Guzmán cameo could be better, Nia Long isn’t in it enough, Will Forte’s more amusing than funny. But then there’s this team building scene and it does some exposition while still being hilarious. The cameos just aren’t integrated well enough; not a surprise given Atencio. The performances still work out though.

It’s just a solid picture. And that kitten’s adorbs.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Atencio; written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens; director of photography, Jas Shelton; edited by Nicholas Monsour; music by Steve Jablonsky and Nathan Whitehead; production designer, Aaron Osborne; produced by Keegan-Michael Key, Peele, Peter Principato, Paul Young and Joel Zadak; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jordan Peele (Rell Williams), Keegan-Michael Key (Clarence Goobril), Tiffany Haddish (Hi-C), Method Man (Cheddar), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Trunk), Jason Mitchell (Bud), Jamar Malachi Neighbors (Stitches), Luis Guzmán (Bacon), Nia Long (Hannah) and Will Forte (Hulka).


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The Saint (1997, Phillip Noyce)

The Saint is a delightful mess of a film. Director Noyce toggles between doing a Bond knock-off while a romantic adventure picture. Val Kilmer’s international, high-tech cat burglar falls for one of his marks, Elisabeth Shue’s genius scientist. Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick’s script, even when it puts Shue in distress, never actually treats her like a damsel. She’s in her own movie, one where she’s this genius scientist and she falls for the international, high-tech cat burglar who rips off her science thing.

It’s not just any science thing, The Saint is from the late nineties, so it’s cold fusion. So Shue gets to play this oddball scientist, full of eccentric behavior, only somewhat contained. Shue’s so excited by her adventure in the film–she’s so full of energy during the extended chase sequence in the second act, it’s almost like Kilmer has to hold her back. He gets to do makeup and voices, but he doesn’t have the thrill for it. She does. He’s got the thrill for her. It’s just lovely. I mean, it’s the thing Noyce never lets get screwed up–the romance. And the comedy, though the comedy is an afterthought for too much of the film. It probably would’ve been better to embrace it a lot earlier but there’s all the Bond knocking off to do.

And it’s fine international chase and action intrigue. It’s a fine Bond knock-off. Terry Rawlings’s editing could be better, but Phil Meheux’s photography is always solid, sometimes something more. The film’s enamored with Shue. Kilmer can easily handle this international thief thing. It’s not a tough part. The tough stuff is the accents and stage makeup and he excels at it. But the weight of the film’s conceit falls on Shue. She has to be a genius, she has to be a practical slapstick romantic interest, she has to be the damsel in distress. And her performance embraces the first two and rejects the third. Noyce and Kilmer just have to catch up with her. It’s gleeful.

Graeme Revell’s music is sometimes really good, sometimes really not. Again, he never screws it up for the romance.

Awesome supporting turns from villains Rade Serbedzija and Valeriy Nikolaev. Serbedzija and Kilmer only get a couple scenes together but they’re fantastic ones. They both want to chew on the scenery but they’re not willing to step on the other’s toes. And Nikolaev, as Serbedzija’s son and chief thug, doesn’t get many lines, he just gets to be mean. He’s excellent at it.

I’ve been putting off watching The Saint again for at least a decade. I can’t get that time loving it back. It’s a really special film. It’s not a success because it’s way too confused as a production, but Noyce sees what Shue and Kilmer are doing and he throws in with them, concept be damned.

The Saint’s lovely. And Shue is amazing. Kilmer’s got some really outstanding moments and he’s real strong doing this intentionally ill-defined lead, but Shue is better. It’s a truly singular performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick, based on a story by Hensleigh and a character created by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Phil Meheux; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Joseph C. Nemec III; produced by David Brown, Robert Evans, William J. MacDonald and Mace Neufeld; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Val Kilmer (Simon Templar), Elisabeth Shue (Dr. Emma Russell), Rade Serbedzija (Ivan Tretiak), Valeriy Nikolaev (Ilya Tretiak), Michael Byrne (Vereshagi), Henry Goodman (Dr. Lev Botvin), Evgeniy Lazarev (President Karpov), Alun Armstrong (Inspector Teal), Charlotte Cornwell (Inspector Rabineau), Lev Prygunov (General Sklarov) and Irina Apeksimova (Frankie).


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The Player (1992, Robert Altman)

Whatever his faults (and faulty films), Robert Altman never bought into what anyone said about him–not his critics, not his audience. The Player is an overtly hostile outing. Altman never had much nice to say about the film, as I recall, but he doesn’t try to say nice things with the film itself. He makes this unbelievably concise, unbelievably expository, unbelievably cynical film–the agreement for the viewer is unconditional capitulation to the film’s “dream.” Movies, now more than ever. The Player is a film for the film literate. It doesn’t come with a syllabus, but the references target a particular audience. Altman fans, actually. Altman makes The Player as indictment against those who like his work, yet went to go see The Player.

Hostility is one thing, indifference is another, but The Player is practically open warfare against the viewer. It’s amazing.

Of course, it is based on a novel. Presumably that novel had a similar plot; The Player tracks Tim Robbins’s somewhat successful, but not successful enough Hollywood executive through a murder investigation. The investigation’s into him. At the same time, the sharks are circling at the studio and darn if he just doesn’t want to romance the dead guy’s lady friend.

Altman sets everything up real fast. Not just the ground situation, but the film’s visual language. After an ambitious, self-aware lengthy opening shot, photographer Jean Lépine and Altman keep the moving camera. Only now there are lots of graceful cuts into the movement–Maysie Hoy and Geraldine Peroni’s editing of the film is a sublime achievement. Writer Michael Tolkin (adapting his novel) owes everything to them because Robbins’s romance with Greta Scacchi would never have worked without Hoy and Peroni. Altman doesn’t want the characters to be real because he doesn’t think they deserve it. Then he goes out of his way to make the viewer dislike the characters. But he directs the actors to play it less Hollywood and more real. And Hoy and Peroni cut it do make as emotionally effective as possible. Tolkin’s script’s plotting, especially of the relationship between Robbins and Scacchi, is phenomenal. Maybe his best move in the film, because with a different score, I’ll bet The Player could have been noir. But Altman didn’t want to do a noir, because he hates the characters.

It’s a real complex situation and expertly directed. Altman finds a way to mimic interview style for the many celebrity cameos. Even though The Player is a movie about real Hollywood, it’s clear who is a part of it and who isn’t. Altman’s so dismissive of it all, whether it’s the real Hollywood or the imagined. It’s kind of sad, really, as one of the film’s ideas is that older films were more sincere through their filmmaking. And Altman (and The Player) crap all over that idea. Twice. Like I said, it’s hostile.

Altman’s animosity aside, everything else about The Player is great. Sure, Tolkin’s script only works because of the filmmaking–which is another great meta commentary on the plot–but it does work and it works well. He’s got some great moments for actors and Altman has a phenomenal cast. Dina Merrill has a small but great part because Altman understands how an actor’s performance can resonant through a runtime. The Player is masterful work. Resentful, maybe, but more masterful for it.

Great supporting turns from Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Cynthia Stevenson, Brion James, Lyle Lovett. Scacchi’s good as the love interest but it’s not a great part.

Excellent music from Thomas Newman. Breezy music. The Player is all about smooth movement, whether shots or narrative pace.

And then there’s Robbins. He makes the movie. Robbins makes the movie so much he gets to walk away from it for a while and it’s still his movie (maybe because it takes him so long to get introduced properly in the first place). But Altman gets it, he knows how to make this movie be great and he wants the viewer to know they’re awful for making him do it. We aren’t in on the joke, we are the joke.

Love it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel; director of photography, Jean Lépine; edited by Maysie Hoy and Geraldine Peroni; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by David Brown, Nick Wechsler and Tolkin; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill), Greta Scacchi (June Gudmundsdottir), Cynthia Stevenson (Bonnie Sherow), Vincent D’Onofrio (David Kahane), Fred Ward (Walter Stuckel), Brion James (Joel Levison), Angela Hall (Jan), Peter Gallagher (Larry Levy), Whoopi Goldberg (Detective Avery), Lyle Lovett (Detective DeLongpre), Sydney Pollack (Dick Mellon) and Dina Merrill (Celia).


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Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin)

I want to like Star Trek Beyond more than I do. I want to be able to look past its problems. It has a whole lot of problems. Michael Giacchino’s music is awful. Stephen F. Windon’s photography is lame. The four editors don’t do any particularly good work, though they’re not working with the best footage. Because the real problem with Beyond is director Lin. All of the action in the first two-thirds is weak. The set pieces are undercooked, with one set at night and visually opaque, and Lin’s no good with directing the comedy. Oh, right, the script. The script is another problem.

No, it’s not because Simon Pegg, promoted from supporting cast to supporting cast and top-billed screenwriter (of two), gives himself too much to do as an actor. He and co-writer Doug Jung arguably don’t give Chris Pine enough to do, definitely don’t give Zachary Quinto enough to do and give villain Idris Elba absolutely nothing to do. They waste Idris Elba. Not just them, Lin too. But the narrative isn’t structured well. The humor’s awkward (since Lin can’t direct it) and the narrative is poorly structured. Beyond is choppy in places it shouldn’t be choppy.

Lin’s not good with all the sci-fi backdrops. His sci-fi action is poorly cut, but it’s also very uncomfortably shot. Lin doesn’t know how to establish the sets. It’s like he’s scared of medium shots on the Enterprise. It’d be more awkward if the ship were visible, but Windon’s photography is really bad, like I said.

But at the same time, it’s all right. Pine’s great this time, Quinto and Karl Urban get to banter, Sofia Boutella’s warrior alien is decent. John Cho and Zoe Saldana get almost nothing to do. Saldana least of all. She’s taken a big hit in terms of franchise positioning. Anton Yelchin gets the implication of more to do, ditto Pegg. But it’s almost a misdirect for Pegg. He and Jung don’t really give him more to do.

And then there’s Elba. He turns in a fine enough performance in a bad role, but gets to hint at what he could have done with it if the film were better written. And what it needs is just more depth, a little more thought, nothing amazing, nothing a decent script doctor wouldn’t be able to do.

The problem with Star Trek Beyond is it’s too aware of its marketplace, too self-aware of itself as a “new” Star Trek movie. Pegg and Jung don’t give enough credit to the actors. They’re on their third Trek, they’re older, they’ve developed. It’s kind of what’s awesome about this movie franchise–people age. Pegg and Jung don’t appreciate it enough. They do in moments, but not in the pace of the film overall. Or maybe deemphasizing the characters for the action comes from Lin, except in the last third, he manages character chemistry and good action. Amidst some of the worst production design on a “Star Trek” ever. Thomas E. Sanders is terrible at visualizing these future worlds.

But it’s all right. I wish I could recommend it and, as always, I’m hopeful for the next one. They just need a better director (and I was rooting for Lin based on his supremely well-directed action sequences in Fast 5 and 6). And a better script. And a better composer. And a better cinematographer. And a better production designer. And a better CG team.

And Pine and Quinto get about a half a real scene together. It’s like Pegg and Jung are scared of writing them together. Star Trek Beyond is scared of taking responsibility for itself. Lin just doesn’t have what it takes to make this script work. Though the bad action is all on Lin.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Justin Lin; screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, based on the television show created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto and Steven Sprung; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk and Roberto Orci; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scott), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Sofia Boutella (Jaylah), Idris Elba (Krall) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Commodore Paris).


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