“Roughly Speaking” on “Green Room,” “Keanu” and “The Jungle Book”

Rodricks April 29

On yesterday’s edition of Dan Rodricks’ Roughly Speaking podcast for The Baltimore Sun, we discussed three films currently out in cinemas: Green RoomThe Jungle Book and Keanu.

Here is the link. I come on at around 40 minutes.

There’s other good stuff on there, too, including an interview with Jed Dietz, Director of the Maryland Film Festival, which starts next week, and a new book review by Paula Gallagher of the Baltimore Public Library.


In “Keanu,” Key & Peele Are Mostly Goody for a Few Laughs

Keanu Collage

The many portraits of Keanu the cat – my favorite poster campaign of the year, so far …

Keanu (Peter Atencio, 2016)

Who doesn’t love the sketch-comedy duo Key & Peele (that’s Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), hosts of a now-retired Comedy Central show of the same name? Witty, funny, brilliant – both together and alone – these guys know how to mine the sublime and the ridiculous for a great laugh. They are, however, veterans of … sketch comedy, which immediately begs the question of how their humor will translate to a 90-minute-plus movie. The answer is quite well, thank you, but not without problems. As a work of sustained narrative fiction, the story is weak; as a collection of mostly hilarious short bits, it’s terrific fun, mixed bag though it may be.

Key and Peele play cousins Clarence and Rell, respectively, quiet types who enjoy a middle-class existence until one extremely cute little kitty comes into it. In an opening sequence that spoofs every action-movie cliché in the book, that cat escapes from a drug-den massacre, but not before charming the assassins, who then embark on a quest to find him again. The intrepid critter, after a mad dash across Los Angeles, shows up at the home of Rell, who has just broken up with his girlfriend and taken depressive refuge in his bong. It’s love at first sight, and Rell quickly names the cat Keanu – for no reason, except that it’s funny and allows for a throwaway joke about Keanu Reeves, later – and decides to get on with his life. But then, the drug world of the first scene crashes into this peaceful idyll, and our blerd heroes spend the rest of the movie finding their inner gangstas in order to save little Keanu.

If many of the scenes go on for too long, many of them zip along quite well. There’s a running gag about Clarence’s love of George Michael that I couldn’t get enough of, and Will Forte (Nebraska) as Rell’s pot dealer – a white guy talking “black” while our black protagonists talk “white” – is a hoot. Anna Faris (Scary Movie) shows up in a sharp cameo as herself that is wonderful until it isn’t, and so the movie goes, back and forth fun mixed with groans (but mostly fun). The cat is cute, and the supporting cast, including Tiffany Haddish (The Carmichael Show), rapper Method Man (Red Tails) and Luis Guzmán (Two Men in Town) do a fine job backing up the stars. For a dumb comedy, it offers a lot of smart jokes and a fair amount of laughs. It may (slightly) overstay its welcome, but until then it offers a pleasant enough diversion.

In “Sing Street,” the Harmonies Resonate Until They Don’t

Sing Street

Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)

Even though Sing Street – the latest musical confection from John Carney (OnceBegin Again) – may not ultimately be a particularly good movie, for a while it is quite uniquely engaging. Set in Dublin in 1985, the film follows the (mis)adventures of 15-year-old Conor, the youngest son of a clan in crisis, where the once-successful parents are now short of cash and at each other’s throats. Older brother Brendan may a layabout college-dropout stoner (there’s a sister, too, but her part is so underwritten that we wonder what she’s even doing here), but Conor shows some promise. The only problem is that there’s no more money for his posh private academy, and so it’s off to the free state-run Christian Brothers’ Synge Street school for Conor. On day one, he’s forced to take off his non-regulation brown shoes (black is the only color permitted) and walk around in his socks by the strict Catholic-priest principal. And then there are the working-class bullies who see him as an easy target.

But all is not bleak. A maiden fair sits on a stoop across the way, and her beauty motivates Conor – soon re-dubbed Cosm0 – to form a band to entice her to act in its music videos. These are the 1980s, after all, and the dawn of MTV, as well as of the British New Wave, including such then-hip bands like Duran Duran, a major obsession of our heroes. Before long, Cosmo and his new Synge-Street mates are dyeing their hair and dressing in frock coats as they stage a series of hilarious riffs on the music of the day. They call themselves “Sing Street,” appropriating the name of the school they hate and lending it a more personal meaning.

As fun and clever as the first half may be, by the end the story runs out of steam, unsure of how to resolve some impossible plot threads other than in the most improbable way. The music, too, descends into banality, leaving the purposeful (and brilliantly spoofed) clichés behind for generically unironic chords. This was a weakness of both Once and Begin Again, as well, but the opening of Sing Street is so promising that it’s a real shame this time around. Still, for all that, the strength of the early scenes – particularly between newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as Conor/Cosmo, and Jack Reynor (Malcolm in the most recent Macbeth) as Brendan, and Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) as Raphina, the object of his affection – propel the film along until the energy finally dissipates. Before the narrative song is played out, however, its harmonies resonate most agreeably.

Gory “Green Room” Is At Least No Bore

Green Room

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

If you like horror films that embrace their gore with viscous close-ups, yet also long for the blood to flow from a well-scripted set-up where consequences follow initial actions, then Green Room is the film for you. From director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) – formerly a cinematographer (Putty Hill, Septien) – the movie is meticulously shot and acted, as fine a piece of cinematic craftsmanship as there is. Still, by the end of its 90 minutes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, for all of its flourishes, it doesn’t quite rise above the limitations of its genre. With a stellar cast, headlined by Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and including Imogen Poots (Need for Speed), Alia Shawkat (Pee-wee’s Big Holiday) and Anton Yelchin (Only Lovers Left Alive), the carnage is delivered with great dramatic chops, so there’s that. Did I mention that horror is not really my thing?

The four members of an ultra-indie hardcore rock band, on tour in the Pacific Northwest, find themselves strapped for cash and without a gig. We’ve seen them, straight off, syphon gas from cars to make it to their next destination, so we know they’ve only got a canister to piss in. When the DJ in whose pad they’ve crashed – who promised them a concert that never panned out – comes up with a make-up show off somewhere in the woods at a relative’s bar, they jump at it, no matter that it’s for a bunch of skinheads. Money is money, after all. Smartasses that they are, though, they can’t help tweaking the audience with their first song, “Nazi punks, f*** ’em.” Yes, as the trailer promises, there’s trouble ahead.

What follows is a series of reversals, and reversals of reversals, that throw our protagonists into a situation of quickly escalating mayhem. Guns, machetes and dogs are involved, and the effects of each of these weapons on fragile human flesh is shown again and again. Gurgle. Fortunately, even if that bubbling plasma grosses you out, the seeming impossibility of survival for those we root for will hold your interest, since it seems unlikely that not one main character will survive (the question is, will he/she/they survive un-maimed?). When all is done, and the triumphant few remain, Green Room may not be particularly memorable (though, certainly, queasy), but at least it isn’t a bore.

“Miles Ahead” Reveals the Artist That Is Cheadle

I saw this film at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. The review, below, is an amalgam and expansion of two separate capsule reviews I have previously published: one on my blog, and one for Bmoreart.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015)

In his directorial debut, actor Don Cheadle (Traitor) mostly avoids the clichés of the biographical picture and takes genuine creative risks, choosing to focus on a particular moment in time rather than an entire lifespan. His subject? Jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). Cheadle’s approach leads to something much more impressionistic and elliptical than your standard-issue Hollywood biopic; it’s an improvisatory riff that would no doubt make Davis proud. Flashing back and forth between different eras of Davis’s life – yet grounded in the late 1970s, when Davis was going through a particularly bad cocaine-fueled depression – Cheadle keeps us as disoriented as Davis most likely was at that time. He also uses and blends the conventions of other genres – the action thriller, buddy movie and gangster drama – to lend Miles Ahead a texture and feel uniquely its own.

Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and drugs at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible) – a completely fictional free-lance journalist from Rolling Stone – is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash-cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. This is a movie to be watched by those who love both movies and music.

If the film has one major weakness, it is that addition of fiction to the proceedings (which Cheadle says he did because he couldn’t get financial backing without a white co-star). McGregor’s character becomes a significant part of the plot, beyond that opening interview. We tune into biopics because they purport to show us the real man/woman behind the myth. Yet how much truth can really survive a compressed version of any human being’s life? Perhaps it is not the worst sin in the world to take overt liberties, if the underlying narrative arc still reveals something honest about that person’s trajectory. Still, while I enjoyed the energy and panache with which Cheadle tells his story, his approach may not be for all. However, even if you cannot abide fiction in your docudrama, I think you’ll still have to admire Cheadle’s command of craft. If nothing else, Miles Ahead reveals the birth of a true director.

“Elvis & Nixon” Is As Mixed a Mashup of Genres As Its Premise Suggests, but Not Without Charm

Elvis & Nixon

Elvis & Nixon (Liza Johnson, 2016)

Michael Shannon, like him or not, is an actor who brings an almost violent intensity to every performance. Roiling emotions vibrate from within, his large frame barely able to control a bubbling rage. I, for one, have generally found him a bit much, his manic posturing spoiling films like Premium Rush and Man of Steel (which, to be fair, didn’t need much spoiling). Still, in smaller, quieter films, like those by indie director Jeff Nichols (Take ShelterMudMidnight Special), Shannon has been restrained and therefore palatable, his excess reduced to a manageable (and very watchable) simmer. I am growing to like him more than I once thought possible. Even so, I would never consider him for a quirky comedy.

And yet, director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) has cast Shannon in the role of Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon, a movie that mixes genres in an often perplexing way, yet is mostly going for laughs. Based on the real-life meeting, in 1970, between President Richard Nixon and Presley (a meeting initiated by Presley), the film lurches from scene to scene like a Frankensteinian monster that can’t quite find the right footing. Sometimes, the pacing is perfect and the jokes land; at other moments, the whole venture falls flat, tumbling into an abyss of poor timing and sloppy editing. All the while, we have Shannon trying especially hard to relax in the role of “The King,” and only partially succeeding. To add to the oddness, Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) shows up as Nixon, playing him as a jowlier, more happy-go-lucky Frank Underwood. It’s Nixon, that Machiavellian paranoiac, as comic foil. Who knew?

Then again, Dan Hedaya did pretty much the same riff on our 37th President in Andrew Fleming’s Dick, and that worked well enough, The difference is that that film knew what it wanted to be and went for it with gusto. Here, director Johnson never finds her groove. The actual story – that Presley, growing strange in his mid-thirties, sought to become a “Federal Agent-at-Large” to keep the commies and hippies from destroying the United States – is so bizarre as to lend itself to either twisted psychological thriller or crazy comedy, but you have to choose one, unless you’re really clever at juggling disparate tones. Based on the evidence at hand, neither Johnson nor her screenwriters – who include, of all people, the actor Cary Elwes – are quite up to that challenge. Which is not to say that the film is a disaster. Some of its moments are delightfully rendered, and Shannon, miscast though he is, nevertheless holds our attention throughout.

The story follows Presley from an opening in which he shoots his television after watching protests against the Vietnam war. Next, he gathers a couple of sidekicks – Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike) and  Johnny Knoxville (Bad Grandpa) – to help him reach the White House, where the real shenanigans (often funny) occur. Colin Hanks (Fargo, Season 1) shows up as Nixon aide Egil Krogh, and holds his own, but too much of what follows is hit or miss, often marred by unnecessary exposition. If, despite these criticisms, any of the above sounds appealing, my advice is to keep your expectations low, thereby allowing the successful parts to work and their opposite numbers to disappoint … less. It’s far from perfect, but not without interest.

“City of Gold” Cultivates an Appreciation for the Extraordinary Ordinary Art of Food

City of Gold

City of Gold (Laura Gabbert, 2015)

Jonathan Gold prowls the streets of Los Angeles and environs in search of culinary delights, leaving a trail of well-chewed crumbs in his wake. As the food critic for The Los Angeles Times – and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in criticism – he has a better excuse than most to feast his way through the city. What makes him special is not that he eats, nor even that he writes about what he eats, but that he makes it his mission to eat at, and write about, the kinds of places that mainstream food critics usually avoid: the food trucks and neighborhood diners, trendy and ordinary, alike. A favorable review from him can transform a restaurant’s (or truck’s) fortunes. Los Angeles really is the “City of Gold,” in other words.

Director Laura Gabbert (No Impact Man: The Documentary) has crafted a compelling documentary portrait of a man whose work over the past 20 years and more has truly made a difference to those around him. A man devoted to the art of good writing – trained as a cellist, he started out as a music critic – Gold makes a convincing case for the value that thoughtful criticism brings to its subject. Indeed, especially as it concerns food, he claims that it is the very act of dissecting cuisine through words that elevates it to the status of an art form; otherwise, it’s just nourishment. Given that Gold’s column, read by both celebrities and working stiffs, has the power to draw a crowd to a heretofore unknown café, it is abundantly clear how many folks are hungry for this intersection of food and art. Feed me, for sure, but do so with style.

But style need not mean pretension, or even expense. In the course of the film, we visit many a taco truck (fairly ubiquitous in Los Angeles, as in much of the American Southwest), as well as a hot-dog truck and a fair amount of Korean places in strip malls. Gold has a real yen for Korean food (which I share), and for finding gems in malls (also ubiquitous in Los Angeles). And that’s the secret of his charm and his success. He does the work for the masses, scouring the city for hidden treasures in unlikely places. As one might expect from someone who spends his days eating, Gold is now a fairly heavy man – we see his transformation from slender youth to middle-aged thickness through archival photos – but an extremely happy one, married to a charming woman (an editor at The Los Angeles Times), who remains his best friend, and with two kids who clearly adore him.

If there is one (minor) negative in Gold’s life, it is his ongoing writer’s block. True, he publishes many thousands of words a week, but is a chronic procrastinator with an inability to get started. We see many shots of him not doing what he is supposed to be doing, interspersed with interviews with his various editors who praise the quality of his writing while lamenting how hard it is to get it on time. I am sure there are many writers out there, perhaps this one, included, who can relate.

The director’s own peppy style is a nice complement to Gold’s ambling ways, though I do wish that she were less prone to dividing the film into so many short scenes where music drives the action, creating a plethora of episodic divides where fewer would perhaps serve the story better. Given, however, that she had no traditional narrative arc to work with – there is no competition or tragedy or any other major set of stakes at risk – Gabbert does a fine job setting up the delivery of information in an engaging way. By the end, we have learned not only about the life of one fascinating individual, but also about how cultivating – and appreciating – an aesthetic approach to everyday activities like eating can lend meaning to our existence. After all, as Gold mentions, what makes us human is the fact that we cook our food. By all means, then, go and watch this celebration of the human animal.

Disney’s New and Improved “The Jungle Book” Serves up a Zesty, if Recycled, Version of Itself

Jungle Book

The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016)

Here’s a question for you: would you be as excited – if excited you are – for the new live-action (so called) version of Disney’s 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book, if that previous movie did not exist? Were this but an adaptation of the stories of Rudyard Kipling – as listed in the final “based on” credits – would there be that thrilling frisson when first we lay eyes on Baloo, the bear, knowing that his signature song, “The Bare Necessities,” is just around the cinematic corner? Given our penchant, as a species, to tell the same stories over and over again – to re-stage plays, re-orchestrate melodies, remake films, etc. – a modern reboot of a 49-year-old film should surprise no one. Is it enough, however, to merely take a beloved tale and give it a (somewhat) fresh spin with new technologies and new actors? I’m still not sure where I stand.

Truth be told, I had a lot of fun watching this 3D, CGI-laden take on the tale, from director Jon Favreau (Iron Man). The design of the picture is a marvel, recalling that other masterful use of 3D, from 2012, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, and the voice talent – which includes Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Ben Kingsley (The Walk), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Bill Murray (St. Vincent), and Christopher Walken (Seven Psychopaths) – is more than up to the challenge of developing character and entertaining the audience. The script is solid, sticking remarkably close to Disney’s original (even if credited to an entirely new screenwriter, curiously enough), though with some notable changes that actually improve the narrative and remove some of its egregiously racist elements. The new King Louie (Walken), ruler of the monkeys, may still sing “I Wanna Be Like You,” but he does so without the exaggerated mannerisms of a jazz trumpeter, a classic Disney moment perhaps not as painful as the crows in Dumbo, but unfortunate, nevertheless. So there is much to love and appreciate in this millennial Jungle Book.

For those who have never read Kipling nor seen the first movie, the story takes place in what looks to be someplace on the Indian subcontinent, though the animal inhabitants of the jungle, as designed by the visual effects specialists, may or may not belong there, geographically speaking. Our hero is one Mowgli – newcomer Neel Sethi, the one actual “live-action” performer on screen, who is perfect and holds his own against all of the digital wizardry – an orphaned human boy raised by wolves after a black panther, Bagheera (Kingsley), finds him and brings him to them. As the film begins, Mowgli is happily playing with his canid brothers – though disappointed that he cannot run like a wolf – and doted on by his wolf mother, Raksha (Nyong’o), when a drought brings a long-absent tiger, Shere Khan (Elba), to the local watering hole. Shere Khan – his face scarred by human-made fire – hates men, and issues a warning to all that, once the drought is over, he will return to kill Mowgli. Since no one can match the tiger’s strength, Bagheera agrees to guide Mowgli to a human village, where he will ostensibly be safe. The boy, at home in the jungle, reluctantly agrees to follow Bagheera, but along the way, Shere Khan tracks them down, and in the ensuing scramble Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Lost, Mowgli is saved from the clutches of Kaa (Johansson), a lovely, if deadly, cobra, by Baloo (Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who makes the young boy his food-gathering partner. The ensuing idyll cannot last forever, however, and so Mowgli is faced with the choice of what to do next: rejoin the human race, or fight back against Shere Khan and make a true home for himself in the jungle. Along the way, he must decide if he is more animal or man, or find a way to reconcile and combine both elements.

In many ways, the new film is a significant improvement on its predecessor (I am conveniently ignoring the 1994 live-action bomb). So what, exactly, is my problem? Why do I not wax more rapturous? Perhaps it is merely my increasing fatigue with Hollywood’s continual recycling – cannibalizing, if you will – of its past. Granted, if one is to feast on one’s own flesh, then let the seasoning be as piquant as it is here. But wouldn’t a fresh kill – or harvest, for the vegans in the audience – be even more appetizing? I’m not sure if this is a vain hope, or even a hypocritical one, given how much enjoyable sustenance I took from the experience. Yet when it was all over, there was still an emptiness within me, a feeling that something – some nourishing inspiration – was missing. The good news for all of you is that this could just be my issue. I suspect I am overthinking the movie. As a piece of thrilling well-made entertainment, appropriate for the whole family, it is at the top of its class. So see it, and if you can avoid my kind of metaphysical musings on the fate of storytelling in our day, then you should have a great time.

SXSW2016, Part 7: The Final Post (Last Few “Hammer to Nail” Reviews and Interviews, plus “Roughly Speaking”)

Final SXSW Post Collage

Here are my final reviews and interviews from the 2016 SXSW Festival, published on Hammer to Nail:

Be sure to read my firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth posts on SXSW2016, as well!

I also did a general festival wrap-up on Dan Rodricks’ Roughly Speaking podcast for The Baltimore Sun, where we played clips from my interviews with Burt Reynolds (about the documentary The Bandit), Andre Royo (about the narrative feature Hunter Gatherer) and Paul Reubens (about the latest Pee-wee Herman adventure). Here is that link. Enjoy!