Thursday, April 28, 2016

Key & Peele -- and a feisty kitten

An unusual comic duo tries to transfer sketch humor to the big screen.

Keanu is the first big screen foray for the comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, better known to Comedy Central viewers as Key and Peele.

Key and Peele may be a bit of an acquired taste; they're comics who know how to spray their satirical bullets in a variety of directions. They can slip from nerdy middle-class black characters into gangstas without breaking stride, and -- in the bargain -- poke fun at both stereotypes.

In Keanu, Key and Peele build an action-oriented comedy around a kitten that winds up serving as the focal point for a loosely strung series of Los Angeles-based adventures that take on gang banging, the drug culture and a number of familiar movie ploys.

Not all the satire is razor sharp, but Key and Peele have mastered the art of comic teamwork, and they keep the movie silly enough to offset some -- though not all -- of the movie's seriously presented violence.

At the movie's outset, Peele's Rell has fallen into depression after a recent breakup. His mood changes when he comes into possession of a kitten who has fled an outburst of violence between rival mobs.

Happiness, however, can't last: The cat -- which Rell names Keanu -- is captured by a drug czar named Cheddar (Method Man), who runs a gang called The 17th Street Blips.

Rell and his cousin Clarence (Key) embark on a search for the cat by posing as a couple of thugs known as the Allentown Assassins. Meanwhile, the real Allentown Assassins stalk the movie's perimeter.

In full gangsta mode, Peele does what could be taken for a first-rate Ice Cube imitation. Key's switch to a gangsta pose can be amusing because he seldom loses sight of the very conventional father and husband that Clarence really is.

Director Peter Atencio doesn't quite know how to bring the right comic spin to the movie's action, and, as sketch comics, Key and Peele haven't found a way totally to migrate their skills to the big screen.

Still, there are some good bits to be found, notably one in which Clarence tries to instruct skeptical hoods about the musical wonders of George Michael.

Nia Long appears as Clarence's wife, a woman who conveniently goes away for the weekend, leaving Clarence to look for some non-family fun. And Tiffany Haddish portrays Hi-C, a hard-boiled woman attached to Cheddar's crew.

And, yes, Keanu (or the kittens who played him) has as much personality as any of the characters, as well as an inevitable and much exploited "cute" factor that even the baddest of bad asses can't seem to resist.

Sing Street

Director John Carney has invented his own genre, movies that gently poke their noses into social issues while building stories around young, aspiring musicians. Carney's latest, Sing Street, follows a pattern you'll find in Begin Again (2013), the movie that followed his first (and still best) movie, Once (2007).

Sing Street centers on 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a high school student who starts a band as a means of worming his way into the life of a pretty, 16-year old girl (Lucy Boynton). Boynton's Raphina hangs out on near Conor's school, looking desirable and unattainable, an irresistible combination.

As luck would have it, Conor quickly learns to sing. He also takes on a new rocker's persona, calling himself "Cosmo" instead of Conor.

With the help of a runty manager (Ben Carolan) who happens to be a classmate, Cosmo recruits a band of kids who actually have skills.

The group begins developing what can sound like a boy-band repertoire, although sometimes its music sounds a bit more punkish. More polished than you'd expect, the music becomes the centerpiece of a mildly gritty look at Irish youth during the 1980s.

Troubles loom from the start. The movie begins with a family meeting about financial problems: Money issues force Cosmo to leave the relative comforts of a Jesuit school for a less expensive but tougher Christian Brothers institution, where he's bullied and where the head priest might be inclined toward sexual abuse.

To add to the family's money woes, Cosmo's parents -- Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy -- are going through a bad patch; their arguments occasionally can be heard in the background of scenes set in Conor's home.

Cosmo's older brother (Jack Reynor), a drop-out from a previous generation of rockers, smokes pot and coaches his younger brother. He may be the movie's most sensible character.

Troubles aside, the band's development tends to dominate the proceedings. Cosmo offers dream girl Raphina, who says she's a model, a part in a video he's shooting with the band. She agrees, and the band members gather to make videos that seem considerably more amateurish than the music they play. The band's signature song: "Drive It Like You Stole It."

Costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri gives band members -- a genial group of characters -- a succession of evolving looks that become part of the fun.

Carney has yet to match what he achieved with Once, but his commitment to a genre populated by young people with dreams proves as durable as those dreams themselves.

Enter this 'Green Room' at your peril

Some reviewers have deemed director Jeremy Saulnier's viscerally charged Green Room a masterwork of tension and gore, and just as many have praised Patrick Stewart's performance as a snarling neo-Nazi guru who doesn't hesitate to mutilate his enemies -- or have his skin-head minions do it for him. The premise: A financially strapped punk band called the Ain't Rights finds itself playing at a private club in the backwoods of Oregon. It doesn't take long before the band (Anton Yeltsin), Callum Turner, Joe Cole) and Alia Sawkat) understands that it's in way over its head. After realizing that there has been a murder on the premises, the band wants out; the punks and their leader won't allow any possible witnesses to their crime escape. The band is joined by a fellow prisoner (Imogen Poots), something of an independent spirit in this leather-clad hell. There's gore aplenty on the menu, and Saulnier (Blue Ruin) serves it up with grim relish. Sure there's menace here, and pervasive fear inspired by thugs who seem to have created a terrifying world of their own. But Saulnier's stylistic abilities are used to ill effect the more we see of the movie's collection of vicious dogs, box cutters, pistols and other instruments of torture. The movie's motto might be: If it can severed or slashed, by all means do it. Does showing gruesome violence with style make it less revolting? It didn't for me.

Fairy tales with adult spin

Tale of Tales takes director Matteo Garrone, best known to American audiences for his Naples-based mob drama Gomorrah, in a new direction.

Lavish in its design and lush in its sensuality, Tale of Tales presents three fairy tales from Giambattista Basile, a Neapolitan courtier who wrote in the 1600s.

Garrone tries, with varying degrees of success, to make three tales cohere, but the movie contains too many amazing sights to ignore, and each of the tales offers stern cautionary elements to balance a visual abundance that borders on decadence.

In the first of these tales, Selma Hayek plays a childless queen who's promised by a hooded sorcerer that she'll conceive if her husband (John C. Reilly) slays a sea monster and carves out its heart for later boiling by (what else?) a certified virgin.

For his efforts, the king is mortally wounded, but the sorcerer's promise comes true -- only with a catch. The virgin who boils the monster's heart also becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a carbon copy of the queen's son, a white-haired kid who introduces a Prince and The Pauper dimension to the story.

In the second tale, another king (Toby Jones in an unlikely bit of casting) takes a flea as a beloved pet. By nourishing the flea with an ample supply of blood, the insect grows to an ungodly size and then expires.

The king then decides that he'll marry off his daughter (Bebe Cave) to any suitor who can identify the skin of the recently departed creature, which he has stretched for display in the throne room.

As bad luck would have it, the winner is a hideous looking ogre who carts the princess off to his bone-littered mountain lair.

In the third tale, yet another king (Vincent Cassel) lives a live of unashamed debauchery, bedding as many women as possible.

One day, the king hears the siren call of a beautiful voice coming from a peasant cottage. The king assumes that the voice only can belong to an irresistibly beautiful woman.

The twist: The woman (Hayley Carmichael) is an elderly crone, who lives with her sister. The crone concocts a scheme to sleep with the king. I suppose I needn't tell you that things don't work out as well as she or anyone else might have hoped.

I wouldn't say that each tale is profound, but in sum, the movie dishes out its visual pleasures in such unstintingly large portions that it's almost impossible not to feel sated.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A president meets 'the king'

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey make a fine Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. I know . I wouldn't have believed it, either.

Talk about a stretch. If you were making up a list of actors who could convincingly play Elvis Presley, I doubt whether Michael Shannon's name would make your short list. And Kevin Spacey may play President Frances Underwood on House of Cards, but Nixon? Well, Spacey's a terrific mimmic, so maybe.

I don't know who decided to team Shannon and Spacey in a comedy called Elvis & Nixon, but whoever it was deserves credit for a masterstroke.

Although Shannon looks nothing like Elvis -- even with deep sideburns and generous helpings of Memphis bling -- he manages to capture the spirit of "The King."

And Spacey, who can be a great comic actor, makes a more than credible Nixon, hunched over, dyspeptic and willing to warm to anyone who happens to agree with him.

What we wind up with is a rousing snapshot of two paranoid men -- one a president, the other a "king" -- both of whom display cagey smarts.

The screenplay -- credited to Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes -- takes a real incident and tries to determine what might have happened the day Elvis showed up at the White House requesting a meeting with Nixon.

Nixon didn't install his infamous taping system until a few years later, so it's open season for anyone who wants to speculate about a meeting between such unlikely companions.

Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) evidently thinks the meeting, which resulted in the most requested photo in the National Archives, couldn't help but be funny. In her imagination, Elvis didn't kowtow to Nixon, who initially was reluctant to meet with a rock n' roller.

Isolated and accustomed to being the center of attention, Elvis digs into Nixon's M&Ms, which had been forbidden to him, and asks to drink the Dr. Pepper Nixon's aides also asked him not to touch.

Elvis had no interest in protocol; he wanted Nixon to give him a badge that would make him a "federal agent at large," a lawman with undercover responsibilities.

Elvis liked badges, and had been awarded many by various local police departments. He carried firearms (licensed) and, in this telling, even brought them to the White House.

Johnson wisely delays the fated meeting until about an hour into the movie. Until then, Elvis gathers his support system, which includes Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a friend who had known Elvis since childhood and whom Elvis trusted, and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) another -- albeit goofier -- member of the Elvis entourage.

We also see some of the familiar White House figures of the day: H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan); Egil Keogh (Colin Hanks); and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters).

Elvis' team is busy catering to "The King;" Nixon's team tries to convince him that it will be good for the president to meet with Elvis because everyone loves Elvis and some of that love could translate into votes.

There's a bit of a subplot: Elvis persuades Schilling, who lives in LA, to accompany him to Washington. Schilling promises the woman he loves he'll be home in time to meet her parents the next day. I can't say we worry too much about whether he'll make it.

Shannon and Spacey come awfully close to parody with their portrayals, but they're far too skilled to let the movie degenerate into impersonations of two famous men, both of whom had little use for the Black Panthers, hippies and the counterculture.

Shannon convincingly finds the loneliness of a man who long ago got lost in his own image, but who also knows how to use that image to his advantage. And Spacey conveys all of Nixon's pettiness, as well as his deal-making instincts.

I'm not sure that Elvis & Nixon, which doesn't use any of Elvis' music but adds a lot of R&B to its soundtrack, is more than an amplified sketch, but why quibble: In Shannon and Spacey's hands, it produces a hunk, a hunk of pointed laughs.

Don Cheadle's 'Sketches of Miles'

A look at a musician who could be as intimidating as he was talented.

Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead -- a foray into the turbulent world of jazz great Miles Davis -- tries to match Davis' musical inventiveness with a style that moves like jazz, stating a theme, then following it in one direction or another.

For much of the movie, Davis is not in a good place. From 1975 to early 1980, he didn't play his trumpet. Instead, he holed up in his New York home, doing drugs, drinking, smoking cigarettes and punching a heavy bag.

Cheadle -- who co-wrote the script with Steven Baigelman -- may have been trying to be worthy of Davis, who at one point in the movie says that if you're going to do something, it's best to do it with attitude.

Cheadle, who directed, follows suit: He brings a ton of attitude to his movie -- and to his performance as Davis.

Davis does everything to keep the rest of the characters off balance. During a time when he wasn't doing anything musically, Davis still knew how to flex his muscles. He's on guard, perhaps a bit paranoid. He's wary of those who try to invade his isolation.

The movie doesn't always stay within the five years before Davis' so-called comeback, a term Davis evidently hated. Comeback? He felt he hadn't gone anywhere.

Cheadle sometimes flashes back to Davis' romance with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer whom Davis courted, married and ultimately alienated. As Cheadle sees it, Frances was the love Davis never quite got over.

For all its inventiveness, Miles Ahead can't resist burdening itself with a plot. A journalist (Ewan McGregor) tries to weasel his way into Davis' world, claiming that he's writing an article for Rolling Stone.

McGregor's Dave Brill winds up joining Davis as he makes his various rounds. Eventually, they conduct a manic search for session tapes that have fallen into the hands of Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), an unscrupulous promoter who carries the burden of representing everything that's loathsome about the music business.

Davis' attempts to retrieve his tapes produces mixed results for the movie.

On one hand, Cheadle explores Davis' necessary rage. The idea that someone could own his music -- his expression -- seems outrageous to Davis, a painful reminder of the way many musicians are treated by an industry that turns them into commodities -- or at least often tries to.

The movie also effectively shows that Davis had no interest in repeating the music that made him famous in albums such as Birth of the Cool, Sketches of Spain, Round Midnight, Kind of Blue and more. He knew that when exploration dies, so does art.

But this part of the movie also produces hackneyed results, including a car chase and a scene in which Brill procures cocaine for Davis from a student at Columbia University. There are only so many scenes of Davis, smoking, drinking and snorting coke that any movie needs, and the wanderings of Brill and Davis, though somewhat antic in flavor, go nowhere.

Miles Ahead isn't really a bio-pic; I saw it as an attempt to show us what it might have been like to be in Davis' company, to get caught up in one of his self-destructive whirlwinds before he lands on the other side of chaos.

McGregor's character serves as the audience's surrogate in this regard; he never can entirely relax around Davis -- not only because he usually wants something from Davis, but because Davis intends to keep him off guard.

Cheadles' Davis is an artist of edgy integrity. Many people want a piece of him, but nobody gets close enough to take one.

Dealing (or not) with a terrible loss

A Norwegian director makes his English-language debut with Louder Than Bombs.

Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo, and August 31st) makes his English-language debut with Louder Than Bombs, an intimate portrait of a father and his two sons, men who can't move on after the death of the wife and mother (Isabelle Huppert) they lost.

Huppert's character, who's seen mostly in flashbacks, wasn't only a suburban mom: As a celebrated war photographer, she won acclaim for her portraits of human devastation. She and her husband (Gabriel Byrne) sometimes fought over her need to endanger her life by pursuing the kind of indelible images that often win prizes. Her work also threw her into prolonged fits of depression.

No wonder, then, that Huppert's character perished in a head-on collision near her home, not in some remote corner of Afghanistan. She may have been like those military people who see terrible combat and have trouble ever going home again. She'd seen too much.

In one way or another, father and sons all are foundering.

A one-time actor who has become a school teacher, Dad is having an affair with another teacher (Amy Ryan). Their relationship must be kept secret because the family's youngest son (Devin Druid) attends the high school where both Byrne and Ryan's characters teach.

The older son (Jesse Eisenberg) is a father himself, but he's not really committed to his marriage.

Trier establishes this dissatisfaction early on when Eisenberg's Jonah meets an old girlfriend (Rachel Bresnahan) in the hallways of the hospital where his baby has just been born. Jonah allows Bresnahan's character to jump to the conclusion that there's something seriously wrong with his wife (Megan Ketch), perhaps that she even died.

The youngest boy -- Conrad by name -- hasn't been told that his mother's death was a suicide, something one of mom's former colleagues (David Srathairn) is about to reveal in a piece he's writing for The New York Times.

The screenplay brings father and sons together when Eisenberg's Jonah shows up to sort through negatives left by his mother, an unexamined cache that may contain pictures that belong in an upcoming retrospective of her work, the occasion for the Times article.

Trier likes to bring his camera close to his characters' faces, which -- in some ways -- serves as a source of irony: The camera closes in on these characters, but seeing them in close-up isn't the same as knowing them. These close-ups also help convey the impression that the characters have difficulty seeing beyond themselves.

Druid's performance as an angry teenager tends to dominate the proceedings, but Byrne is entirely convincing as a father trying to keep his composure when faced with his youngest son's terrible recalcitrance. Eisenberg holds up his end of the bargain in a smaller role as an unhappy young professor who doesn't seem particularly interested in getting to the bottom of his discontent.

Trier bravely deals with difficult subjects and his style -- which involves shifting times and alternating points of view -- keeps the material from lapsing into melodrama.

Sometimes the movie engages in Rashomon-like structural ploys, showing the same incident from two points of view.

In one these, Byrne's Gene can't resist following his very unhappy teen-age son. He wants to know what the boy's doing. The same incident takes on a new meaning when repeated from the young man's perspective.

Despite a willingness to explore the aftermath of grief, Louder than Bombs has so much on its plate that it can't quite anchor its emotions. Trier gives us plenty to chew on and, perhaps, not enough to digest.

'Too Late,' another LA neo-noir

John Hawkes breaks the mold as a Los Angeles private detective.

Dividing its story into five segments that unfold without regard to chronological order, the LA-based neo-noir Too Late boasts a technical feat that's worth mentioning: Each segment consists of one shot that runs for 20 minutes thanks to something called a Techniscope-format 35 mm reel. (Normal 35 mm reels accommodate 12 minutes of filming.)

Not only does the movie take on a cinematic challenge, but it also asks a lot from a cast led by John Hawkes, who plays Mel Sampson, a private investigator.

Hauck, who wrote the screenplay, challenges his actors with a ton of self-consciously written dialogue: I'm supposing that Hauck, who also wrote the screenplay, wanted to plunge us into a noir world where no one talks like they would in real life, but in 2016, the writing can seem awfully self-conscious.

Besides, we've been down these neo-noir back alleys too many times before, which is why I heard a kind of ironic (and unintended) echo in the movie's title. Given the movie's dense plotting, this could be a case of too much, too late.

The always intriguing Hawkes by no means delivers a formulaic performance as a detective who winds up encountering a variety of women after a shocking murder in the early going. At every turn, Hawkes breaks the mold.

Among the movie's women, Vail Bloom qualifies as the most exposed -- literally. She does much of her acting naked from the waist down. Dichen Lachman works the hard-boiled side of the street as Sampson's long-time love interest.

Hauck certainly has an eye for strange locations (a dreary drive-in theater that also boasts a boxing ring), and his convoluted, Tarantino-like structure slowly and sometimes improbably resolves itself.

But Too Late has difficulty getting beyond what appears to be a meta-narrative about characters trapped in the shadow of previous movies with nothing much at stake besides whether Hauck can make the pieces of his noir jigsaw finally fit neatly together.




Friday, April 15, 2016

Ethan Hawke excels as Chet Baker

A jazzy rendition of a musician's life.

Jazz musician and singer Chet Baker was 58 when he passed away in 1988. He was high, and apparently fell out of the window of his Paris hotel. Baker's tumultuous life helped invent what has become a nearly cliched profile: A hard-living, heroin-addicted musician can't seem to separate self-expression from self-destruction.

Director Robert Budreau's Born to Be Blue tries to freshen the story by mixing scenes of a movie Baker is making about himself (the film never happened) with scenes that reflect Baker's artistically rich but dissolute life.

I don't know enough about Baker's life to tell you how close Budreau has gotten in terms of detail, but he certainly gives us a strong feeling for the kind of person Baker was, a task that receives a mighty boost Ethan Hawke's appropriately elusive performance as Baker.

Hawke plays Baker as a trumpet player of wavering confidence and staggering vulnerabilities, a man who was difficult for others to grasp. Maybe he wanted it that way.

Baker, of course, did plenty of hard living, and his approach to women wasn't exactly monastic. Budreau focuses on one woman.

Baker begins a relationship with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress he meets while shooting the movie about his life. Ejogo, who played Loretta Scott King in Selma, is a wonder as the woman who tolerates Baker's addiction and immaturity -- until she no longer can.

The movie also suggests the tension between black and white musicians that sometimes surfaced in the jazz world. Early on, Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) refuses to acknowledge Baker as anything more than a musician who plays "sweet." Davis didn't mean it as a compliment.

But if Baker's music was sweet, whatever was happening inside his head wasn't quite so placid: Baker founders throughout much of Born to Be Blue.

At one point, he has his front teeth knocked out by a drug dealer to whom he owes money: He then must learn to learn to play his trumpet with false teeth, no easy task.

Hawke hits all the right notes, and he and Ejogo play a tipsy, sometimes fractious duet in a semi-successful movie whose best moments stand out like memorable solos in a long and somewhat scattered set.