Film

Keanu, The Meddler, The Club, Fireworks Wednesday, Papa: Hemingway In Cuba

KEANU

3CR-Steve at the Movies-newThe idea is so deceptively simple, it’s a wonder no previous film in the YouTube age has used it to this degree until now. People love videos of kittens doing adorable kitten things. So the master sketch comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (who wrote this film with Alex Rubens) have devised a film prominently featuring a kitten being cute in some truly outrageous and violent situations involving gangs, drugs, weapons and the hardcore vocal stylings of George Michael. And I promise you, when the kitten known as Keanu is on screen, you will be actively in love with the film known as Keanu. The slight problem with that equation is that there are fairly sizable chunks of this movie in which the kitten is largely absent, and this presents the unlikeliest of problems: Key and Peele have problems keeping the laughs coming when there’s no Keanu.

I’ll give the duo credit for not simply taking a sketch idea and padding it with nonsense to fill out a 90-minute running time. Technically, they only play two characters each in Keanu, and only one set of those characters speaks. Peele plays Rell Williams, who is introduced as depressed and nearly comatose on his couch (after smoking a great deal of weed) after his girlfriend has just left him. Key plays his best friend Clarence Goobril, a married father of one, whose wife and daughter have just left for the weekend on a school trip, leaving him able to focus all of his attention on helping his buddy through his pain. But just before Clarence arrives, a stray kitten arrives on Rell’s doorstep, and he instantly becomes attached to the wee kitty, featuring the feline in a series of calendar photos of it in classic movie scenes.

Although the guys don’t know it, the audience knows that Keanu escaped a rather bloody scene that opens the film, involving a pair of monstrous assassins, Smoke & Oil Dresden, aka the Allentown boys (also Key and Peele), who shoot up a drug cartel ring to take it over, killing the head of the operation, who also happens to be Keanu’s original owner. The action set piece that opens the film is fairly spectacular with Smoke & Oil in long leather trench coats and doing flips with machine guns that borrow heavily from The Matrix and its star. But no one in this film gets more action play than the kitten, who slides across the floor, dodging bullets, explosions and falling bodies with the skill of Neo and all the cuddliness that comes with following in his footsteps.

When Rell and Clarence return to Rell’s home from a movie, they find it has been broken into and Keanu stolen, sending them down a road to hell in search of his irreplaceable cuteness. A quick trip to Rell’s drug dealing neighbor Hulka (Will Forte), points them to a local drug ring led by Cheddar (Method Man), who does in fact have Keanu, now wearing an adorable gangsta do-rag. His associates include Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish of “The Carmichael Show”) and Bud (Jason Mitchell, who was recently so impressive as Easy E in Straight Outta Compton), and all of them mistake Rell and Clarence for the Allentown boys, who they practically idolize for being so ruthless.

Cheddar agrees to give the guys the cat if they accompany his crew on a particularly dangerous mission, to show them the ropes and how to deal with uncooperative clients. I suppose one of the things Keanu addresses (barely) is code switching—the idea that these two black characters talk one way around their white friends and another way around other black people. Although I’m not sure that idea is really at play here since Rell and Clarence (who even admit that they normally sound pretty white—“You talk just like John Ritter all the time,” says one) are talking like gangstas and using the N-word almost constantly because they are pretending to be hardened criminals and not just because they’re around other black people. If this movie was ever partly about that, director Peter Atencio (who pretty much did all the “Key & Peele” episodes ever) does a great job of not calling attention to it. I think I have just that by writing about it more than anyone connected with the film does.

As if to underscore Rell’s “whiteness,” there’s an overly long sequence with him and a couple of Cheddar’s underlings in his car listening to George Michael’s Faith album, and Rell convincing them that Michael is both black and about as gangsta as it gets. Far more interesting and amusing is Clarence trying to charm Hi-C, who might be the toughest character in the whole film. He moves in with a bit of flirting and then retreats when she starts talking about something unsavory. The things Cheddar and his crew get these guys into during the course of the movie are unquestionably messed up at times, making us wonder more than once exactly how they’re going to escape criminal charges assuming they live through the night.

With some well-placed cameos from the likes of Luis Guzman and Anna Faris, Keanu manages to make it to a fairly surprising ending that works because the kitty is back in force and the film has a few twists at the end that make up for some fairly conventional, hit-and-miss material in the middle section. I’ll give the filmmakers and stars credit for keeping things moving most of the time, but the material runs out of gas at certain points, and we have to wait for a certain adorbs kitten to return to refuel the tanks. It’s a persuasive first feature from Key and Peele, with enough laughs to keep new and old fans satisfied to a point. I’d certainly love it if they kept working together beyond the series and this film—maybe in a sequel, but preferably in an original work. Keanu gets the job done without putting in any overtime.

THE MEDDLER

Without resorting to silliness or saccharine emotions, writer-director Lorene Scafaria (the highly undervalued Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) has constructed a humble film that is one of the simplest and most honest films about grief in quite some time. Oh wait, you thought The Meddler was a fun romp about an annoying mother, Marnie (Susan Sarandon), who moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles to look after her perpetually frazzled screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), and won’t leave the poor girl alone, with hilarity around every corner? Yeah, that’s called marketing. Come on, people, you know how the game is played. Not that there isn’t a great deal of humor here, but this is really a movie about how everyone handles loss in their own way—sometimes reinventing themselves in the process; other times, tumbling into a pain spiral of bad decisions, hoping to fill the hole that has been left.

The loss in question is Marnie’s husband/Lori’s father, who has been gone a year when we meet these women. Lori is a struggling television writer whose latest work got picked up to shoot a pilot, which means her life is about to get a whole lot busier. Marnie moved out to be closer to her only child, and is slowly discovering the city as only she can, focusing on certain aspects of L.A. that more jaded members of the community pass by everyday with a second look. It’s clear these two women are very close, but this death has put them at odds, as of Lori is afraid to keep her mom close for fear of the pain she’ll feel if she loses another parent. It’s not a solid piece of logic, but it fuels her ignoring her mother’s calls and reacting badly whenever Marnie drops by unannounced.

Marnie was left a tidy sum of money when her husband died, so she has a tendency to spend more than she needs to, buying gifts for both Lori and strangers in need. For example, when a lesbian friend of Lori’s (Cecily Strong) happens to mention that she and her wife never had a proper wedding and have been thinking about doing it right, Marnie simply offers to pay for a big chunk of it. She also helps out a young employee (Jerrod Carmichael) at her local Apple store Genius Bar get to and from his night classes, just because he’s an exceptionally helpful and sweet kid.

When Lori must go to New York for a few weeks to shoot her pilot, this leaves Marnie with even more time on her hands, and she ends up meeting Zipper (J.K. Simmons), a police officer working crowd control on a movie set, and they end up spending some time together, although Marnie is clearly not ready for a new romance in her life just yet. I wasn’t sure I’d buy Simmons as a genuinely nice fellow, let alone a full-blown romantic lead, but with his Sam Elliott mustache nicely grown in, he pulls it off with a lovely California easiness, a perfect balance for Marnie’s New Jersey energy.

As much as the marketing team might want us to think that The Meddler is about a woman with no sense of boundaries, I didn’t really get a sense that was the case. Lori is a severely damaged person, who has been in a truly unhealthy, mostly physical on-again/off-again affair with a top Hollywood actor (Jason Ritter), and her mother’s interference, for the most part, seems completely justified. Everyone else in Marnie’s life seems perfectly happy when she steps into their lives and helps out (clearly as a substitute for not being able to help her own daughter). In fact, it’s Marnie who tends to back away from the wrong kind of attention. At a party near the beginning of the film, she gets hit on by a seemingly charming man (Michael McKean), a friend of the host, and Marnie practically runs for the hills when he asks her out.

A great deal of the story being told in The Meddler is drawn from the filmmaker’s own experience with her mother, and there are small, personal touches that make this feel like a barely veiled true story, which goes a long way toward establishing an authenticity to the work that separates it from other films about nosy parents. Marnie’s style of assistance is certainly aggressive, but her intensions are so pure and loving that it’s difficult to cringe. In fact, we tend to recoil more at Lori’s responses than to Marine’s actions.

I certainly don’t mean to make The Meddler sound like such a downer. In fact, you’ll likely spend most of the running time laughing or smiling to some degree. Sarandon manages to combine being quite funny, without betraying the emotional honesty of the piece, and it’s a gift she’s always had that we haven’t seen in many years. Writer-director Scafaria has managed to pack a great deal of warmth, honesty, grace and humor into this unassuming package, anchored by Sarandon’s subtle combination of brashness and charm. And since you’re probably wondering, yes, it’s a great film to take your mom to see (please don’t make her endure this week’s Mothers Day). Just be prepared to have a conversation after watching it.

THE CLUB

I can’t say for certain when the last time I saw a film from Chile although it was likely No, the previous work from this film’s director, Pablo Larrain. And since he’s already made two more films since this one, those will likely be the next from Chile that I see. That’s a roundabout way of saying that The Club is a nasty piece of work that also manages to be quite thought provoking and isn’t afraid to question modern concepts of faith and deviant behavior. Set in a small seaside community, the film concerns one particular isolated residence where the residents consist of small groups of priests who have been accused of being or are known to have been quite sinful and are being kept here for repentance and rehabilitation.

There doesn’t seem to be any formal structure to the house, other than the rules that forbid them any contact with the town below. When a new arrival blows his brains out after a homeless man arrives at the front door of the house, screaming out accusations of sexual misconduct he suffered as a child at this man’s hands, Father Garcia is dispatched to the home by the Church to investigate and see if keeping this place open is the right thing to do. He seems quite determined to shut the place down, but is willing to listen to each man’s story before doing so. The men are partly kept in line by a kindly nun (the electric Antonia Zegers, who happens to be the director’s wife), but even she seems to have been corrupted by being surrounded by these priests, whose crimes include being gay, molesting children, and embezzling church funds.

Director Larrain has a long and successful history making film set during the Pinochet era of Chile (Tony Manero, Post Mortem, No), but as far as I can tell, The Club is set in the present and has no political underpinnings beyond the sway that the Church holds over many people of faith and how deviant members can often avoid usual forms of justice and penalty by hiding out in places like The Club. When the homeless man, Sandokan (Roberto Farías), decides to stick around town and continue to cause trouble for the priests, they devise a way of dealing with him that tied my stomach in knots and is quite unsettling. But through these horrible actions, everyone’s interests are served in about the ugliest way possible.

In the end, The Club is about any institution that serves a purpose—no matter how unappealing—fighting to stay open and perhaps keeping something far worse from happening should they be shuttered. It’s about the lesser of two evils winning the day, but make no mistake, evil is still afoot. Anchored by some truly remarkable performances and a deceptively quiet atmosphere, the film’s tension builds slowly, almost unnoticeably, until it’s upon you and it’s too late. If you thought Spotlight was a little too sanitized in its depiction of bad priests, then you’re the perfect audience for The Club. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY

Perhaps the best film out there in limited release is Fireworks Wednesday, the latest from the Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who made the relationship dramas A Separation, About Elly and The Past. It almost doesn’t seem possible that films that deal so honestly and harshly with marital discourse are even being made in Iran, and seem to be quite popular, but Farhadi is the reigning king of such films, and Fireworks is as searing as anything he’s made to date.

Set during the fireworks-heavy Persian New Year, the film centers on young cleaning woman Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is on the verge of being married herself, when she comes to work for an upper-middle-class couple in Tehran. When she arrives at their apartment, the place has clearly been trashed by one or both of the spouses in a heated row. We piece together from various conversations that the wife Mozhde (Hediyeh Tehrani) suspects the husband Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) of cheating on her with one of their recently divorced neighbors, Simin (Pantea Bahram), who illegally runs a beauty salon out of her apartment. Before her time with this family (which also includes a young son) is done for the day, Rouhi has been asked to spy on just about every member of this supposed love triangle.

Farhadi and co-writer Mani Haghighi wisely keep the truth about whether anyone is cheating at all something of a secret until the final third of the film, and even that revelation is clouded in mixed emotions and strange alliances. None of the suspicion, paranoia and animosity between the couple is doing anything to make Rouhi feel good about her decision to get married, but in the end, the day’s adventure may have fortified her love for her very sweet husband to be. While Fireworks Wednesday may sound like a comedy of errors, it is actually a highly charged and sometimes quite heartbreaking examination of the unfounded rage that jealousy inspires, women’s intuition, and how much we’ll believe a lie because it eases our mind and makes us feel less insane.

The movie has some rather harsh, bordering on unforgivable, moments, like when the husband spots his wife spying on him outside his office building. He takes the elevator down to the ground level and proceeds to beat her on the sidewalk. It’s an ugly moment made all the more so by the camera staying behind in the glass elevator, witnessing the violence but then simply returning to the top floors, away from the action, as if this is nothing worth sticking around for. It’s a sequence you won’t soon forget.

It’s sometimes hard to remember that Fireworks Wednesday is Rouhi’s story, and all she wants to do is clean the house and return to her boyfriend. She’s used as a pawn by all parties, and it’s a real eye-opener for both her and the audiences that shady behavior has no cultural or class restrictions. If anything, the film teaches us that the rich are more deceptive because they can pay people to spy for them or to remain silent if asked about certain behavior. For all the seeming cynicism about marriage, the filmmaker gives us a radiant light of hope through Rouhi’s inherent kindness and determination to behave better than what she is witnessing. That’s a powerful and timely message in any language. The film is opening for a weeklong run at the Music Box Theatre, where it is being projected in 35mm.

PAPA: HEMINGWAY IN CUBA

In the 1950s, a journalist named Denne Bart Petitclerc wrote a letter to his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, then living in Cuba, declaring his admiration for his work and confessing that Hemingway’s writings changed the course of his life for the better. And in an even more bizarre stroke, Hemingway called the young reporter and invited him to visit he and his then-wife Mary in Cuba. And it’s with this strange beginning that Papa: Hemingway In Cuba begins, albeit with the protagonist’s name changed to Ed Myers (played quite affably by Giovanni Ribisi; the real Petitclerc died in 2006, after he wrote this screenplay).

Directed by Bob Yari (head of the production company and distributor, Yari Film Group), Papa marks the first Hollywood film to shoot in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, and as a pure guided tour of the both lovely and crumbling country, it’s an astonishing document. And the story isn’t half bad either, with Myers traveling to Cuba to meet the gruff author (played by character actor Adrian Sparks, who had smallish roles in The Purge: Anarchy and Insidious: Chapter 3) and his “naturalist” wife (Joely Richardson). Myers and Hemingway bond over their shared history as war correspondents, and Hemingway schools the reporter on the political situation in the country, which at the time was on the verge of the aforementioned revolution, with Fidel Castro at the lead, putting Myers in the unique position of becoming his Miami-based paper’s expert on all things Cuban.

The closer Myers got to the Hemingways, the less they bothered to put on their most polite faces, especially when Ernest drank. He often flew off in fits of rage over seemingly nothing, and the film attempts (rarely succeeding) to dig deeper to discover what was behind his anger. Hemingway seemed far more clear headed when it came to matters regarding providing aide to the Cuban rebels, a fact that had the FBI investigating him and even approaching Myers to spy on him for the bureau. The elements for a great, untold story are here, and about two-thirds of the film is genuinely intriguing as a character study.

But the rest of the film feels like padding, including several scenes in which Myers is trying to figure out his relationship with co-worker Debbie (Minka Kelly). The film attempts to have Myers come to realize that a stable relationship with her will somehow keep him from losing his mind the way Ernest does, but that message is muddled and ultimately lost in the film’s fireworks. Debbie never actually makes the trip to Cuba with Myers, and if she had, this might have been a much different and better work.

Instead, the last third of Papa turns into a screaming telenovela, with Ernest and Mary yelling at each other; Ernest bellowing at Myers for being a supposed traitor because he met with a local mafia leader (James Remar); and much fretting over a dying friend of Hemingway’s, the journalist and poet Evan Shipman (Shaun Toub). Director (and Oscar-winning producer) Yari gets so close to getting it right that you almost wish he’d turned the film over to a more experienced director just to bring it home and refine the ending. Still, the views of Cuba (which apparently haven’t changed much in nearly 60 years) are the real draw here, and if that means anything to you, Papa might be worth sitting through. Otherwise, it’s a toss-up.

Categories: Film, Screens

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