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Keanu

April 29, 2016
Keanu

It’s about damn time that Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele got a movie. And, wouldn’t you know it, Keanu could stand as a treatise on code-switching, disguised as an action comedy built around an adorable kitten.

Sure, Clarence (Key) plays like a black version of Will Ferrell’s well-meaning stepdad character from Daddy’s Home, with an phone full of George Michael. And sure, Rell (Peele) is a photographer who talks like John Ritter and collapses into a depression where nothing makes sense anymore after his girlfriend leaves him. And yes, they both have big, anime-eyed giggling fits when the cutest kitten ever shows up on Rell’s doorstep.

But when the 17th Street Blips mistakenly raid Rell’s suburban house instead of his dealer’s (Will Forte), these two have to go recover their new pet. But that means going into a very different context, and behaving in a very different way than they do at home. The gang leader, Cheddar (Method Man), has adopted Keanu as his own, and Clarence and Rell don’t feel like they can ask for their cat back in the same voices they use when checking out at Whole Foods.

So they go blustering in and let themselves be mistaken for a couple gang assassins (also played by Key and Peele in very different costumes) that just laid waste to a rival drug operation. Cheddar says he’ll let them have the cat if they ride along with one of his crews on a job delivering the gang’s new drug to a customer up in the Hollywood Hills, which only puts them into closer quarters with a group that already don’t quite trust the way they act.

As usual, Peele is the subtler of the pair. Emotionally, the movie follows his arc as he recovers from having been dumped and develops new feelings for Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish). Key gets more laughs, though, as he defends his nerdy suburbanite trappings to Trunk, Bud, and Stitches (Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, and Jamar Malachi Neighbors). Like why is a stone-cold killer driving a minivan, and who’s this George Michael guy? Personally, I’m always more drawn to Key, but they’re both doing great work here.

Most crucially, long-time Key & Peele director Peter Atencio gets the movie up to speed and keeps it running at a swift clip. Even when a given bit or gag falls short, you’re probably still riding out the last one, and there’s another one coming along right after. It never feels quite overstuffed, but it keeps up a pace and excitement that helps it ride out any rough patches without ruining the vibe. It’s only at the end — always the Achilles heel for any writers coming out of a sketch comedy background — where things don’t quite seem to know how to wind down and come to rest again.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Meddler

April 29, 2016
The Meddler

I’m sure that someone has a mother like Marnie Minervini, Susan Sarandon’s character in The Meddler. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria does, for one, though I’m also sure that Marnie has the contrast turned all the way up from Scafaria’s actual mother to exaggerate the comedy. Maybe if I had a mother with no sense of boundaries like her the story would resonate more than it does.

But, as it is, I’m on the outside of this particular problem. My own mother raised us to be self-sufficient, so we wouldn’t have to depend on her hovering around all the time. Which is not to say that Lori (Rose Byrne) is helpless. Far from it; she owns her own house in Los Angeles, where she’s a television writer with a pilot in production, based on her younger life with her mother and recently-deceased father. And yet Marnie seems to have no independent existence of her own, and so she gets all up into Lori’s — and everyone else’s — business.

There’s a lot of “everyone else”, by the way. There’s the kid at the Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael), whom she nudges into going back to school. Then there’s Lori’s friend, Jillian (Cecily Strong), for whom Marnie serves at first as a guerrilla babysitter. But when Marnie learns that Jillian always wanted a big wedding, she immediately volunteers to foot the bill. This drags in all of Lori’s other friends (a severely underused bunch of talent, including Sarah Baker, Casey Wilson, and Lucy Punch).

Lori and Marnie each get obligatory love interests. Lori’s is her movie star ex-boyfriend (Jason Ritter), who she’s not really over. We spend little time on their relationship, though; it’s more about giving Marnie another thing to needle her daughter about. That is, when she’s not figuring out her feelings towards “Zipper” (J.K. Simmons, doing a fairly good impression of recent Sam Elliott rom-com roles). He, again, isn’t really explored much beyond giving Marnie more ways to tell everyone what they should do.

All of this is meant to show us that Marnie’s meddling comes, at its root, from a good place. And sure, she means well, but she’s still way out of line and the movie never really confronts her about it. Sure, she might say, “I know I’m overstepping my bounds,” but she does it in that conspiratorial way that says, “but I’m not really doing anything wrong here.”

And there are times she really is, like a visit to the hospital where she ducks into a patient’s room, sees a machine beeping in a way she thinks it shouldn’t, and goes to futz with the various tubes and wires herself. It’s a horrifying moment; I fully expected the patient to die as a result. But of course she was fine, because Marnie lives the charmed life of a white lady, rich off of her husband’s generous pension because she’s old enough to have come from a time that a union job could provide a single-earner middle-class household that sort of financial independence.

The movie is ultimately not just sympathetic to Marnie, but fully on her side. It’s not a problem that she butts into the lives of her family, friends, and complete strangers, because she always turns out to be right. And even if she isn’t, she has the resources not to face any consequences for her actions. Like when, distracted leaving another rambling voice-mail message, she rear-ends a parked car, she just pulls out the other car she’s got in storage and drives that one.

And in the one case when the tables are turned and Marnie’s in-laws are pressuring her to decide about what to do with her husband’s ashes — a situation that they have at least some reason to be concerned about — she responds by ignoring them and going her own way. And, again, she suffers no consequences for her unilateral decisions; again, the movie says she’s right.

It’s even more frustrating because she does end up in front of a therapist (Amy Landecker) at one point. Admittedly it’s because she’s trying to break doctor-patient confidentiality, but she does have to face at least one pointed question about her behavior. Then she clams up and never returns rather than allow the slightest hint of introspection to cloud her always-rightness. Yet again, the movie lets her off the hook.

For all the frustrations and dissatisfactions that I imagine mirror the real experience of having this sort of ever-present annoyance in one’s life, there are some sweet and charming moments here and there. Sarandon delivers a top-notch performance, albeit as a character who constantly set my teeth on edge. And as a movie coming out just before the beginning of May, there are worse options out there if you can’t get a reservation for Mother’s Day brunch at the last minute.

It’s certainly better than Garry Marshall’s latest dumpster fire, about which this is all I’m going to say.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba

April 29, 2016
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba

In the imagination of the general American public, Cuba exists as a sort of time capsule, cut off from the world since we started our embargo half a century ago. Fitting, then, that the first American film made in Cuba since relaxing the embargo is a period piece. It’s also not surprising that, though set in the middle of the Cuban Revolution, the movie is essentially about Americans, including one of the most mythologized Americans of the twentieth century, who just happened to have spent a fair chunk of his life in Havana.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is framed through the eyes of Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), who is actually screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why they changed his name. From the one grainy, black-and-white picture that turns up — the one that ran with his 2006 obituary — it doesn’t even seem to have been a case of whitewashing. Myers is, as Petitclerc was, born in Washington, taught himself to write by retyping Hemingway’s novels, and got a job as a war correspondent in Korea before taking his position at the Miami Globe.

It was there that he wrote a fan letter to Hemingway (Adrian Sparks), then living at Finca Vigía on the outskirts of Havana, which the author liked enough to write back and invite the young journalist fishing. At first, Ed is awestruck by his idol, and then embarrassed at the habit he and his fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), shared of swimming in the all-together. But soon enough he’s part of the inner circle, calling him Papa, staying at the plantation, making tourist-friendly appearances at El Floridita, and downing copious daiquirís, all while Batista’s Cuba crumbles in the background.

There isn’t much evidence in the real world that indicates how Hemingway felt about the revolution while it was going on. As practically a tourist industry to himself, he could easily have had an impact just by making a statement one way or the other; that he didn’t suggests at least an ambivalence towards the rise of Castroism.

Early on, after loyalist soldiers brutally put down an attack on the presidential palace, Hemingway curses the folly of war, which is a nice, safely ambiguous sentiment to put in his mouth. Later, though, he seems more unambiguously in support of the rebellion. It seems oddly dissonant with the character from the earlier scene, but seems a Hollywood-natural conclusion to the suspicions raised when an FBI agent (Anthony Molinari) and a mob boss (James Remar) both approach Myers to get a line on what Hemingway is up to.

But that dissonance, and the lack of any solid evidence of Hemingway’s sympathies outside the movie, makes me suspicious. It’s been ten years since Petitclerc died, and he’s still the only credited writer, but is the script director Bob Yari shot from really unchanged from the one Petitclerc was working on? or has it been anonymously massaged into American bobo filmgoer-friendly shape?

I have the same questions about Hemingway’s descent into mental illness, actually. Early on we get a thoughtful, but irascible man, re-evaluating his life and legacy in the light of his Nobel Prize and his island fame. He is a flawed, troubled man, and Richardson hits on something deeply true when she shows us how Mary internalizes the abuse of the Great Man she loves. But by the end we get a bluster of rage over his writer’s block and a struggle for a handgun he wants to eat. In fact, the real Hemingway spent the last years of the 1950s with a period of intense activity, finishing A Moveable Feast and extending three other works, and he didn’t first attempt suicide until early 1961, months after leaving their properties in Cuba to be expropriated and nationalized by the Castro government.

These do make for some exciting scenes, though, neatly packaged to go with our preconceived notions of Cuba and Hemingway. Some Cubans worry that lifting the American embargo will lead to tourists descending like swarms of locusts to blot out any authentic character; this movie seems to balance right at the break of that wave, between Petitclerc’s own memoir and what it had to become for our consumption.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Dough

April 29, 2016
Dough

It’s only a matter of time before laws prohibiting marijuana go the way of, well, prohibition. In case it wasn’t already obvious, the clinching proof should be this: that pot humor is no longer the province of sophomoric raunch-comedies. If it can be blended into a bland, inoffensive, downright family-friendly film like Dough, it’s gone fully mainstream.

The real story here has become as much a staple of the modern film diet as a black-and-white cookie: Jews and Muslims learning they can get along after all. Nat (Jonathan Pryce) is the principal Jew in question, a baker whose shop is crumbling in the face of competition from the big grocery chain next door. When his apprentice leaves, he takes on Ayyash (Jerome Holder), the son of his cleaning lady, Safa (Natasha Gordon), who can’t find another job.

Or at least he can’t find a legitimate job. Which, ironically, is just what keeps him from dealing marijuana for Victor (Ian Hart), who insists all his street-level sales force maintain cover jobs. But once Nat starts from scratch, teaching him how to bake, Ayyash figures out how to use the shop itself as his illicit storefront.

Of course from there it’s only a matter of time until the pot makes its way into the dough. At first it’s a classic slapstick routine, right out of I Love Lucy, but then the results go on sale and the challah isn’t the only thing baked in the neighborhood.

For such a standard comedy trope, the accidental highs play somewhat oddly here. The real standout for me was Nat’s whole family getting stoned, down to his adorable little granddaughter, Olivia (Melanie Freeman). I’m not exactly deeply outraged over the idea of a little kid catching a buzz, but it does point to just how normalized pot has become that this scene can even exist in a movie getting US distribution.

All of this new success outrages the grocery chain’s owner (Philip Davis), whose plans to buy up the whole block of shops are stymied. And there’s bound to be confusion between Ayyash and his supplier. And the whole odd-couple pairing of Nat and Ayyash across lines of race, class, and creed just builds onto the farce. But director John Goldschmidt never quite comes to a good balance between all these threads, leaving the finished product a tad lumpy in places.

Along the way we get some neat little parallels, like Ayyash performing his dawn salat while Nat puts on tefillin. Of course, as is the norm for this subgenre, there’s a certain asymmetry baked into their positions as well. Nat is cultured, and pretty fully westernized despite his kippah and beard marking him out from the rest of the East End. Ayyash, on the other hand, is poor, and not opposed to a life of crime until the kindly baker magnanimously takes him in. Nat’s problems mainly stem from his psychological inertia in the wake of his wife’s passing — a detail that is strangely kept until late in the film, but doesn’t function as a reveal that suddenly explains something that’s only been hinted at — while Ayyash’s problems are all external and existential, from his economic instability to the father he left while escaping Darfur.

The movie is, in short, much like the results of Nat and Ayyash’s baking. It may lack the industrial uniformity of bigger-budget products, but it follows a recipe honed over generations to be predictable and easy-to-swallow for as wide an audience as possible. And with just a little pot sprinkled in.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Sing Street

April 22, 2016
Sing Street

After a couple affably fluffy outings with Once and Begin Again, Irish writer/director John Carney turns in a more substantial coming-of-age story in Sing Street. Not only that, he winds it around a revue of the dominant British pop styles of the mid-’80s — post-punk, new wave, new romantic, synthpop — and never loses sight of the earnest, unironic warmth that infuses all his work to date.

It begins, of course, with a girl. Well, actually it begins when the Lalor family in south Dublin feels the pinch of Ireland’s economic downturn, and Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has to be taken out of his expensive Jesuit school and put into a cheaper one on Synge Street run by the Christian Brothers. It’s the sort of dismal place, tinged by inattention and casual sadism from students and faculty alike, that Pink Floyd taught us to expect from Commonwealth schools.

But it means that he gets to see Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing across the street from the schoolyard, waiting for her boyfriend. She’s a model, or at least she aspires to be, with a portfolio and everything. Her boyfriend is going to take her to London to make her break, like so many young Irish did in the early ’80s. Any day now, he’s going to take her. And this waiting gives Conor the opportunity to ask her to be in a music video. Now all he needs is a band.

That’s where Darren (Ben Carolan) comes in. He has no more musical aptitude than Conor starts with, but he’s a natural hustler. He first enlists Eamon (Mark McKenna), whose father is drying out in rehab and won’t be using the gear for his covers band any time soon. Next is Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), the only black kid in school; obviously he must be able to play something. Larry and Garry (Conor Hamilton and Karl Rice) sign on as drums and bass, though Barry (Ian Kenny) remains antagonistic.

The band starts out rough, trying to imitate the songs they know from Top of the Pops, but Conor’s brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), steers him away from that quickly. Better to woo a woman with one’s own words, although Carney still has them cribbing heavily from their favorite bands. Their first song, “The Riddle of the Model”, would be right at home on Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, and “Beautiful Sea” could slot in somewhere between The Cure’s Japanese Whispers and The Head on the Door.

But of course it wouldn’t be John Carney if the emotional climax of the film didn’t come along with the sensitive acoustic ballad “Up”, followed by “Brown Shoes” lashing out at the boys’ chief tormentor, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley).

For my money, though, the real peak comes with “Drive It Like You Stole It”, and Conor’s vision a music video like they once ran on MTV. It’s a real return to Carney’s roots, shooting videos for The Frames while he still played with them in the early ’90s. And it’s a welcome callback to the days when rock- and synth-driven music dominated all the pop charts.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Green Room

April 22, 2016
Green Room

Following up on Blue Ruin, his violent meditation on cyclical revenge, Green Room finds Jeremy Saulnier with his biggest budget yet, and he rightly sets out to make the most of it. Drawing on his experiences growing up around DC’s own hardcore punk scene, Saulnier builds and releases tension masterfully. And though he’s not shy about graphic violence and gore, he uses them deliberately and sparingly, spending most of his time on more psychological horrors.

The hapless band that ends up besieged inside the green room — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) — can tell from the start that they don’t belong here. But their “tour” relies on siphoning gas to get their van from one town to another, and when an organizer’s incompetence means they only make $27.50 for screaming through the lunch shift in a Mexican restaurant, they need to take what they can get. The organizer’s cousin Daniel (Mark Webber) can get them a gig later that day for $350, so despite knowing that it’s mostly a “boots-and-braces” crowd they head way out into the woods.

The place is less a venue than a compound where a group of skinheads organize and recruit disaffected young punks. Growing up knowing some people around the punk scene, it’s easy to assume that the white-power symbolism is mostly posturing for shock value. The band seems to think so too, and they lead off their set by covering the Dead Kennedy’s anti-racist anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. The crowd mostly goes along with it, but they get some really creepy leers from a few evident regulars like Werm (Brent Werzner) and Big Justin (Eric Edelstein).

Things don’t really go sideways until the end of their set, though, when they return backstage to find Gabe (Saulnier’s regular star Macon Blair) hustling their equipment out. Pat ducks into the green room to grab Pat’s mobile phone, only to come face to face with Werm over the body of a young woman with a knife firmly lodged in her skull as her friend Emily (Imogen Poots) stands on in mute shock.

The band barricade themselves inside the green room as the show goes on over the PA. They panic, trying to figure their way out, as outside the skins — now directed by their leader, Darcy (Patrick Stewart) — begin making meticulous arrangements to dispose of these outsiders with as little attention from the authorities as possible.

The ensuing siege is nothing short of brutal, as Saulnier cuts between the two sides. Darcy tells his red-laced troops to turn in their guns, since bullets could be traced, and even digging one out would raise uncomfortable questions for the story he plans to tell. So for the most part the combatants are carving each other up with box-cutters and fighting dogs, which means lots of graphic wound makeup. But don’t worry, firearms fans: like any good bar there’s a shotgun stashed away, and you know that won’t go unused.

For all its sound and fury, though, there doesn’t seem to be any deeper meaning or purpose behind Green Room. Pat gets a disjointed story about playing paintball with some punk friends against a team of ex-Marines, culminating in the idea that the unprepared amateurs can still win if they throw caution to the wind and go as hard and crazy as possible. It’s less than Blue Ruin‘s food for thought; closer to a light snack. It’s fine if you’re looking for a well-executed bloody brawl, but it is what it is, and nothing more.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

April 22, 2016
The Huntsman: Winter's War

The two most disappointing aspects of 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman were, in order, Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s not really that Kristen Steward was untalented, but she was not nearly up to the task of playing opposite Charlize Theron’s full-throated melodrama. It was like casting Marilyn Monroe opposite Sir John Gielgud in a production of Titus Andronicus.

It’s at least a slight improvement, then, that Snow White doesn’t show up for more than one medium, over-the-shoulder shot in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Emily Blunt is at least a little better equipped to meet Theron on her own terms as Ravenna’s sister Freya, the Ice Queen. And yes, that means it’s cribbing the same Hans Christian Andersen story that Disney mined for Frozen.

The script wraps this story around the previous movie, acting as both prequel and sequel. Before the events of Snow White, we see the tragedy that froze Freya’s heart. She flees north, conquering kingdoms and kidnapping their children back to her ice palace, where she trains them as her elite “huntsmen”. The best of whom are, naturally enough, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) from the last movie, and Sara (Jessica Chastain), the wife he’d claimed was dead. As they grew up together they’d fallen for each other, in defiance of the Ice Queen’s strict ban on love within her kingdom. Eric was cast out, and we already saw what happened after that.

But now, after the events of Snow White and Ravenna’s defeat, her mirror still torments her usurper. Eric is charged with accompanying it to a sanctuary where it can be kept safe from Freya’s hands. Along the way he meets back up with a clutch of dwarves (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, and Alexandra Roach), and Sara, who isn’t quite as dead as he’d believed. The sextet pair off into couples, and head north to find the mirror and keep it safe.

If this seems at once overcomplicated and bland, well, yeah it kind of is. The Snow Queen is a notoriously difficult story to adapt when you’re actually trying to do it well, and this is little more than a cash grab, with just enough of a script to get us from one visual effect to another.

And this focus on the effects is no surprise, considering that they were easily the best part of Snow White and that Winter’s War director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan supervised them. He also directed the second unit for Maleficent, whose maybe-understandable-overreaction-to-tragedy storyline gets cribbed more than a little here.

Unfortunately, with Ravenna sidelined for most of the movie we get little to match up to the very best of what we got last time around. Nicolas-Troyan may be a whiz at rendering a fantastic vision into celluloid — okay, well digital — reality, but he seems to fall short of Rupert Sanders in coming up with that vision in the first place. And I say that knowing full well how low the film nerd cultural esteem of Sanders is right now.

On balance, The Huntsman: Winter’s War edges out Snow White and the Huntsman, but it’s still a mixed bag. The cast all seems to be pulling in the same direction this time, but there’s little sense of where they’re headed. Does that cohesion make up for the lesser role played by Theron’s Ravenna? it’s hard to say.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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