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Wed09202017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) directs Detroit, an uneven yet occasionally powerful account of the 1967 Algiers Motel incident, part of a race riot that put the city of Detroit under siege.

When a man fires off a pistol from his hotel window during intense riots, the police and National Guard converge on the Algiers—and a terrible night ensues. It results in three men shot to death, with others psychologically and physically tortured. As for the judicial rulings in the aftermath … they’re the type that are far too commonplace when it comes to law enforcement violence against people of color.

John Boyega plays Dismukes, a security guard who finds himself entangled in the bloody events perpetrated by racist policemen led by Krauss (a legitimately scary Will Poulter). The men and women held captive at the Algiers are played by a strong ensemble cast, including Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Nathan Davis Jr. and Algee Smith.

The film feels a bit too fictional in spots. In an odd move, Bigelow incorporates real stock footage along with scenes meant to look like stock footage, much like Oliver Stone did in J.F.K., further confusing fact and fiction. She’s going for a documentary feel, but the script sometimes calls leads to cartoonish caricatures of its bad policemen. No doubt, some of the policemen at the hotel that night were monsters, but the portrayals of them (beyond that of Poulter) feel too cliché and, in some cases, aren’t well-acted.

There are enough strong performances to make Detroit worth your while. While some of the details seem manufactured, this is a true story that needed to be told, even if the film seems tainted by fiction at times.

Detroit is playing at theaters across the valley.

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The King Kong cinematic machine is cranking again with Kong: Skull Island, an entertaining-enough new take on the big ape that delivers action, but lags a bit when the titular gorilla isn’t onscreen smashing things up.

Of the Kong incarnations, this one has the most in common with the 1976 take on the classic story, basically because it’s set just a few years before, in ’73. While there is a beautiful girl on whom the big guy gets a small crush (Brie Larson as a photographer), the story eschews the usual “beauty and the beast” Kong angle for more straight-up monster vs. monster action. Unlike the past American Kong films, this one never makes it to Manhattan, and instead stays on Kong’s island—thus the title of the film.

Kong himself is portrayed by motion-capture CGI, and he’s a badass. He’s also tall enough to be a formidable foe for Godzilla, a mash-up already announced for 2020. In the few scenes in which he interacts with humans, Kong seems like an organic creature rather than a bunch of gigabytes. He blends well with his human counterparts.

There hasn’t been much mention of those human counterparts yet, because, with the exception of John C. Reilly as a fighter pilot stranded on the island during World War II, most of the humans are bland. Tom Hiddleston might make a decent James Bond someday, and he’s a lot of fun as Loki, but he just doesn’t work here as a rugged tracker/action hero. His presence constantly suggests that his character might turn bad mid-mission and feed his friends to the monsters—or, alternatively, that he might stop for tea and biscuits every 5 minutes. He’s too much of a pretty boy for the role.

Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film the bursts of humor it needs. His castaway is a wild card, like Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now. Actually, the whole movie, with its post-Vietnam setup and Nixon-era themes, plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong. When Reilly is onscreen, it plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong meets Talladega Nights.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the psycho military commander who still holds a beef about the war, while John Goodman is on hand as the explorer who thinks “something” is on this strange, uncharted island. He’s essentially this film’s Carl Denham (one of the main characters from the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake) without being named Carl Denham. The likes of Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and Richard Jenkins round out the cast.

As for Hiddleston and Larson, one gets the sense their parts were supposed to be bigger, but then director Jordan Vogt-Roberts looked at a first cut and realized they sucked, so he replaced a lot of their screen time with Kong action. Indeed, Kong gets plenty of time to destroy things. He battles helicopters, strange dino creatures and, in one of the film’s greater moments, a giant octopus that results in an eating scene that’s a direct homage to Oldboy.

How does this stack up against past Kongs? I’d say it’s the weakest of the American Kongs. (I am a sucker for the ’76 Twin Towers/Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange one.) Oh, wait, it’s better than King Kong Lives, the ’86 sequel to the ’76 Kong, during which he got the heart transplant. That’s actually one of the worst movies ever made. It’s so bad that I’d mercifully forgot it existed until this paragraph of this very review. Kong: Skull Island is also better than the loopy, strangely enjoyable Japanese Kongs, although it owes much to those films in spirit.

As you must do with Marvel films now (with the exception of Logan), stay through Kong: Skull Island credits. There’s an initial sequence during the credits that I won’t give away, and a scene after the credits that I also won’t give away.

Kong: Skull Island is a shallow enterprise, but a fun one. It’ll be interesting to see how they bridge the time gap between this excursion and the present-day Godzilla. Kong ages well, so they’ll probably just leap over a few decades and get to the good stuff.

Kong: Skull Island is now playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

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After ending their TV show after five seasons, Key and Peele have come to the big screen with Keanu, a lively kidnapped-cat comedy with a high body count.

Part John Wick and part Adventures in Babysitting, the film gives us Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Clarence and Rell, a couple of wimpy guys trying to get a beloved kitten back from some hard-core gangsters. In order to do so, they masquerade as Shark Tank and Tectonic, two badasses from Allentown who will end your life if you don’t give them their cat back.

The whole mess starts when the cat escapes from a drug den after two killers (also played by Key and Peele) murder his owner. The cat winds up at the doorstep of newly dumped Rell, who gloms on to him as his feline savior. The cat is then kidnapped and winds up back in the hands of gangsters, requiring Rell and Clarence to swing into action.

The title character is, of course, the cat, who has to be the cutest kitten anybody has ever put in a movie. Clad in a doo-rag and jewelry, the multiple cats recruited for the part make this film an absolute necessity for cat-lovers, even if you hate Key and Peele. The felines steal every scene they are in.

The movie isn’t the most original piece of work: Fish-out-of-water scenarios are a dime a dozen, and much of the humor (Clarence’s obsession with George Michael, Rell’s trouble with women) is based on stuff we’ve seen before.

That said, Key and Peele have a knack for taking familiar scenarios and playing them out to nutty, funny extremes. For example: One of Clarence’s gangsta associates, after a long George Michael-listening session, gets a “George Michael is OG” tattoo on his torso. It’s funnier than it sounds.

One of the great things about their comedy is a seemingly innocent slant—followed by large doses of nastiness. Not to give too much away, but the film has a rather shocking amount of violence, and it’s quite surprising giving how innocuous it seems at times. This is by no means a complaint; the film’s best moments are its most shocking ones.

Method Man contributes nicely as Cheddar, the criminal who has Keanu and is relatively unwilling to give him up without significant, murderous favors in return. Jason Mitchell, following up his fine work in Straight Outta Compton, gets big laughs as Bud, one of Cheddar’s henchmen. Tiffany Haddish scores points as Hi-C, perhaps the most badass person in the movie. Her violent tendencies really come to life during a cameo by a famous comedic actress.

Will Forte shows up as Rell’s next-door neighbor and pot dealer. Again, the film is treading well-worn territory here, with Forte’s character playing a white guy trying to be black. Credit Forte with making some old shtick pretty funny in this movie.

Key and Peele have been kicking around in supporting film roles over the past decade or so, but this is the first time they’ve really been able to take the spotlight on the big screen. While Keanu is not a rousing success, they definitely show promise as a big screen duo.

In John Wick, Keanu Reeves infiltrated the Russian mob after somebody messed with his dog. In Keanu, Key and Peele infiltrate a drug ring to save a cat. The short lesson here is that you don’t mess with a man’s pet.

As good as Key and Peele are in this film, the real stars are Keanu and the cats that played him. Also, huge props to the cat-wrangler and whoever else managed to pull the performances out of these particular kitties. You’ll really believe a kitten can evade rapid gunfire after Keanu.

Keanu is playing at theaters across the valley.

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I did not realize until I had watched the entirety of Straight Outta Compton, the thrilling new N.W.A. biopic, that Ice Cube’s son was playing Ice Cube.

It’s not like the guy is named Ice Cube Jr. He’s actually named O’Shea Jackson Jr.—his dad’s birth name with Jr. tacked on to the end.

Jackson Jr. is the No. 1 reason to see Compton, a blast of a film that chronicles the rise of the rap group, the eventual infighting and the birth of some gigantic solo careers and record labels. Besides Jackson, Jason Mitchell is a revelation as Eazy-E, while Corey Hawkins is a nice anchor as Dr. Dre.

The film works best when covering the creation of the legendary album that shares the movie’s title. The film also spends plenty of time on the band’s management problems with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in a moderately distracting wig) and Eazy-E’s eventual death from AIDS. At a running time of almost 2 1/2 hours, plenty of ground gets covered—in a way that never gets boring.

O’Shea Jackson Jr. is the spitting image of his dad, especially in the way he talks and raps. This lends an invaluable level of authenticity to Compton. It’s a real blessing that Ice Cube’s kid, making his film debut, is a supremely capable actor, because he blows up the screen like Ice Cube did when he made his film debut in Boyz n the Hood back in 1991.

The movie’s music melds original N.W.A. work with actors doing their own vocals. Watch and listen closely, and you’ll catch moments when Jackson and Mitchell prove they are more than capable of re-creating the N.W.A. sound. According to Rolling Stone, the actors re-recorded the original Compton record as an exercise—and that exercise paid off.

Adding to the party are Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, and Keith Stanfield, who totally embodies the part of Snoop Dog. R. Marcos Taylor is quite fearsome as the cigar-chomping Suge Knight. The real Suge Knight is currently in jail, awaiting trial for a hit-and-run death that occurred during a promotional shoot for the movie.

There is one brief scene featuring Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) laying down a track. The scene feels tacked on and obligatory, and probably should’ve been relegated to the cutting-room floor.

The depiction of always-evil cops in this film is borderline cartoonish, but what do you expect? This is a movie about the creation of the gangsta rap group that sang “Fuck tha Police.” I didn’t expect to see any warm and fuzzy cops scratching their heads and protesting while Cube, Dre and E are unjustifiably face-down on the pavement. Save the good cops for another movie. This is about Compton in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a war zone where nobody was doing anything right, and the likes of Ice Cube were definitely not feeling the love from the boys in blue. The real-life former members of N.W.A. had a hand in producing the movie, and I’m thinking they are perfectly OK with the depiction of cops in this movie.

Compton was directed by F. Gary Gray, who worked with Ice Cube two decades ago on the very funny Friday. Compton actually has some good laughs to go with its drama. Gray has stumbled a bit with some bad films (Be Cool, Law Abiding Citizen) since his last pairing with Ice Cube, but Compton shows he still has plenty to offer.

Straight Outta Compton is a solid cinematic time capsule that gives some deserved glory to an influential group that forever changed the landscape of hip hop and brought much-needed attention to a very troubled part of the world. It does the band and the biopic genre proud.

Straight Outta Compton is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews