Friday, April 29, 2016

At Best, The Crude, Cute KEANU Is A Mild Chucklefest

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Peter Atencio, 2016)

If you’ve been to the multiplex lately you may have seen a poster for a movie named KEANU featuring a cat wearing a baseball cap sideways, a do-rag, and chains over what looks like a bullet-proof vest.

But comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s first feature film after wrapping up their Comedy Central show Key & Peele after five seasons isn’t really about a hip hop gangsta cat – no, that’s just a selling point. The most dolled up that the cat gets in it is in do-rag and chains.

It’s really about two nerdy friends, cousins actually who live in the suburbs, who have to affect tough thug-like personas in order to infiltrate the Los Angeles criminal underworld to get back their kidnapped kitten.

The kitten named Keanu - reportedly they were working on the screenplay around the time that JOHN WICK came out - was found by Rell (Peele) on his doorstep right after he was dumped by his girlfriend, so he immediately fell in love with the brown tabby.

A few weeks later, when Rell and his cousin Clarence (Key) are out at the movies, Rell’s apartment gets broken into and Keanu is missing. Rell freaks out, calls the police, then figures that his pot dealer Hulka (Will Forte in cornrows) who lives next door might know something about the break-in.

Hulka points Rell and Clarence in the direction of “the 17th St. “Blips,” a supergang comprised of Bloods and Crips, that use a topless bar called Hot Party Vixens as their headquarters. That’s where they have to do some heavy code switching to get to the Blips’ leader, Cheddar (Method Man), who has Keanu in his possession and has named him New Jack.

Cheddar mistakes Rell and Clarence for The Allentown Brothers, a pair of psychopathic gunmen (also played by Key and Peele), and makes a deal with them that if they make a delivery of his new drug called “Holy Shit” they can have the cat.

Rell and Clarence, or TekTonic and Sharktank as they’ve started calling themselves, meet up with Cheddar’s crew: Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Bud (Jason Mitchell, Trunk (Darrel Britt-Gibson), and Stitches (Jamar Malachi Neighbors), and proceed to fake their way through a series of shoot-outs set-pieces which get a bit tiresome.

It feels weird to say that an R-rated comic action movie that drops the f-bomb and n-word seemingly every minute is a light comedy, but the shoe fits as I think I mainly giggled mildly under my breath throughout. Peele and co-screenwriter Alex Rubens are obviously going for a PINEAPPLE EXPESS-esque takedown of action movie tropes, in which our heroes actually get bullet injuries and many people get killed, but these types of '80s-style scenarios that always seem to climax with a mansion shoot-out have simply been satirized to death.

Key and Peele’s characters would be funnier if they were fleshed out more - I can’t even remember what jobs they were supposed to have – and a sideline subplot about Clarence’s wife (Gabrielle Union), who’s away on a weekend trip with their daughter and a friend (Rob Huebel) and his daughter, saying on the phone to Clarence that Huebel has been inappropriate seems like it’s a small bit from a sequence that had been largely cut (I bet that there’s a deleted scene from it on the upcoming Blu ray/DVD).

However, I did adore the setup, including the opening church massacre scene, that’s shot a la John Woo in stylish slow motion, as much as I adored Keanu the kitten (or the seven kittens that played Keanu), and was amused by random moments like Key smoking some “Holy Shit” and hallucinating that he’s in a George Michael video (there’s a running gag that Key is a big fan).

I kept waiting for big laughs that never came, so the best I can say is that the cute, crude KEANU is a mild chucklefest. Even if you’re a hardcore fan of Key and Peele (or cats), you may want to consider a matinee.

More later...

Monday, April 25, 2016

Move Over Miles, Let Chet Baker Take A Solo

BORN TO BE BLUE (Dir. Robert Budreau, 2015)

here are obvious similarities that Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker film shares with Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film, both of which in current release.

They are both unconventional biopics about legendary jazz musicians, both trumpeters who struggled with drug addiction. Both center around the artist being on the verge of making a comeback. Both have film noir-ish black and white flashbacks to previous glories in younger years. And both take the facts and riff on top of them in an attempt to make the films feel like jazz itself.

But writer/director Budreau – a Canadian film maker that’s made nearly two dozen Canadian features, none of which I’ve seen – has fashioned a meta angle for his portrait of Baker, that involves him filming a movie in the ‘60s about his life in the ‘50s, and having a relationship with an actress who’s playing his first wife in that film.

While it is true that producer Dino De Laurentiis did approach Baker about playing himself in a movie, the project was abandoned long before any shooting took place, and the actress, named Jane Azuka, is a fictional character, a composite of several women in Baker’s life.

In possibly his finest performance, Ethan Hawke is fearlessly fragile as the used to be hot mess that was Baker, a heroin-addicted, almost toothless shell of a man who we first meet doing hard time in an Italian prison in 1966.

Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA, THE PURGE: ANARCHY), helps Baker to stay clean and get work but his mouth injury from a beating by drug dealers (something that really happened albeit in a different way) has made it painful to play (he constantly fiddles with his ill-fitting false teeth). Slowly, Baker begins to get his groove back and with the help of his producer Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie) scores a special studio session for a small audience of record execs in which he nails the standard “My Funny Valentine.”

Hawke does his own singing on that and the film’s climatic “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and it’s an effective interpretation of Baker’s vocals that nicely doesn’t come off like a self conscious impression. Kevin Turcotte beautifully plays all of Baker’s trumpet parts as none of Baker’s actual music is in the film for some reason (I assume it’s a legal matter).

In bookending scenes at New York’s iconic Birdland nightclub, Miles Davis * (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) watch Baker on stage and feel his genius but they also seemingly know that he has to have smack in order to perform. Jane definitely knows this, and whether or not he will yet again succumb to addiction is what the film ultimately hinges on.

Hawke has put in a lot of solid work in his career (particularly in the films of Richard Linklater), but his turn here as Baker is an Oscar-worthy piece of work. He terrifically plays off of his own image of a post prime pretty boy, and his scenes with Ejogo, which have a real desperate undertone to them, are as pointed as they are sometimes painful to watch.

BORN TO BE BLUE, which takes its name from a 1946 Mel Tormé song that Baker covered in 1965, may strain from its over artsiness at times but it’s largely a soulful , sad ballad about trying to reclaim past glories. It may be too on the nose that the fictional female love interest here is named Azuka, which she says means “past glory,” but Budreau’s Chet Baker biopic, which I liked quite a bit better than Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie I have to say, has the gumption to get away with it.

* That's right, Miles Davis is in Chet Baker's movie, but unsurprisingly Baker isn't even mentioned in Davis's.

More later...

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Don Cheadle’s Problematic Yet Worthwhile Miles Davis Movie

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

MILES AHEAD (Dir. Don Cheadle, 2015)

This unconventional biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis is undeniably Don Cheadle’s dream project. In his directorial debut, Cheadle stars, co-wrote, co-produced, and even trained on the trumpet to play his subject’s solos so there’s definitely passion in place to make a powerful portrait.

And despite not much of a facial resemblance, Cheadle makes a great Miles Davis. He’s got the voice, affectations, and swagger down as just about anybody who’s spent some time YouTubing Davis clips can attest.

But to get MILES AHEAD (at one point titled KILL THE TRUMPET PLAYER) made, Cheadle had to make a major concession: he had to hire a white co-star in order for investors to finance the film.

Now if you have to have a white co-star, Ewan McGregor is a fine choice. However, I kept thinking that his character wasn’t necessary. McGregor plays Dave Braden *, a reporter for Rolling Stone, who shows up at the door of Davis’ New York brownstone trying to get an interview with Davis. The year is 1979, and Davis has been in heavy seclusion, having not performed in public or put out any music for five years.

McGregor’s Braden, who’s hoping to get to the bottom of what’s been called Davis’s “silent period” and pen a big comeback piece that will prompt the famous recluse to come out of hiding, discovers that there is a tape from a secret recording session that Davis’s label, Columbia Records, has stolen, and the unlikely duo of journalist/jazz legend team up to steal it back.

The tape is the film’s obvious McGuffin, with the coked-up Davis and the antsy Braden winding through a day involving confrontations with record execs, a shoot-out, and a car chase to retrieve the elusive recording. Caught up in the tape caper is Michael Stuhlbarg as a sleazy producer, and LaKeith Lee Stanfield as his client, a young up and coming trumpeter.

All of these characters and events are fictitious, but Cheadle has the film intermittently flash back to Davis’ early career in gorgeous smoky black and white shots that capture the artist in his late ‘50s/early ‘60s “Kind of Blue” period. These scenes center around Davis’ relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose face face on the album cover for his 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come” haunts the later day musician.

The movie is wall-to-wall Miles music, including such key tracks as “So What,” “Nefertiti,” “Frelon Brun,” “Solea,” "Go Ahead John, Pt. 2," and “Black Satin,” all sounding wonderful, and all nicely tied together with new music, a score by composer Robert Glasper, which Cheadle even contributed to too.

“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man,” Cheadle’s Davis tells McGregor’s Brill and Cheadle does indeed do that here, but the fractured narrative zig zags around its protagonist so much that we feel disconnected from him. I felt as baffled as McGregor looks throughout at Davis’ behavior and self-imposed darkness. For somebody who prefers to call his style “social music” instead of jazz, Davis comes across as somebody who’d rather not socialize. One of my major takeaways is that I’d rather listen to this guy play than hang out with him, especially considering his gun waving hostility.

I admire that Cheadle, and co-writer Steven Baigelman (GET ON UP), didn’t want to take a traditional cradle-to-grave Wikipedia page approach to Davis’ life, and decided instead to make an impressionistic portrait, but when one of the most stirring scenes is drawn from the historic record, the 1959 beating and arrest of Davis outside the jazz club Birdland by two members of the NYPD, it made me wonder how they might’ve crushed it had they gone the more conventional route.

The scenario with McGregor’s desperate scribe latching onto Cheadle’s scrambled characterization of the troubled trumpeter, and the convolutions surrounding the much sought after tape wore on me in short time. They felt more like tropes that would make up a bad episode of the HBO show Vinyl (detractors would say that would be any of them) than elements worthy of fleshing out on the big screen.

The conclusion of the film appears to be a comeback concert scene with Cheadle’s Davis, wearing a vest branded “#SocialMusic,” jamming with Herbie Hancock. The implication is that it is modern day and Davis, who in the non movie world died in ’91, is still alive – in influence at the very least. The title: “Miles Davis May 26, 1926 -” backs that up.

So I have some issues with Cheadle’s efforts here, but still found enough of his film to be vital, electric, and effective stuff that pays hardcore homage.

Its flights of fancy can ultimately be forgiven on that respect.

* The character that McGregor plays is listed as Dave Brill on IMDb, but “David Braden” on the film's Wikipedia page. Googling it I found that the name Braden or Brill come up in almost equal amounts on many sites entries on the film. So what's the deal? Why two different last names for the guy? Anybody know?

More later...