Saturday, September 24, 2016

Movie Reviews: Keanu, Blood Father, In A Lonely Place

directed by Peter Atencio
I didn't routinely watch the comedy sketch show Key and Peele when it was still running. Every now and then I would see something online by the show stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and remind myself that I probably needed to watch more of their work. 

Some of their comedy is really really good but much of it is just okay, nothing special. So when I heard that they were involved in writing and producing this movie, and that the film was directed by their former sketch show director, I watched it. Well the movie was just okay, nothing special. Meh. A theme which runs through Key and Peele's work as well as that of many black artists or creatives of all types is the surreal nature of race in America. In this particular case it's the expectations that people (and this includes all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality) can often have around black men or for that matter black boys. All of these stereotypes ultimately go back to slavery/colonialism/Jim Crow and may never really be rooted out. 

Rather than list them all here in gory detail it's probably safer to say that a great many people expect that most black men are hypermacho, supercool, and able to handle themselves physically in just about every situation. While these stereotypes can be embraced by blacks and used to individual advantage (most rap music over the past thirty years) they are more likely to be used by people outside the black community to black disadvantage (witness many black interactions with the police). So Key and Peele use the movie Keanu to investigate in a comedic way how silly these stereotypes are. They do this by simultaneously embracing and deconstructing the stereotypes. YMMV on how successful they were in doing this. This is stuff that goes back to Baraka's Dutchman and Ellison's Invisible Man. It was done better in those works. If the only way to succeed is to do the modern day equivalent of putting on blackface and tap dancing is that admirable? This isn't just a dry academic question. A black comedian referred to the black President with a racial slur. Many black people fell over themselves praising the comedian. Others passionately defended their right to call themselves racial slurs as unassailable proof of their racial bona fides. It's a strange, strange strange world in which we live.

Keanu is pretty pedestrian in how it handles its subject matter. It reminded me of Let's Be Cops. This movie was an extended sketch that lasted longer than required. The brothers known as the Allentown Boys, Smoke and Oil Dresden (Peele and Key) are a pair of utterly ruthless assassins who are more forces of nature or demons from hell than they are human. They don't ever miss. They swagger, move at unnatural speeds and perform impossible tasks. They appear invulnerable. They don't speak but just love to torture and kill. Their very presence makes alarm bells go off. They are some bad mutherf--shut yo mouth! 
They've been assigned to wipe out a Mexican-American drug boss along with his entire organization. They do this with relish. For whatever reason the demonic duo don't kill the drug dealer's cat. They apparently have a soft spot for cats. But they lose the cat when the police arrive. Lovable schmuck Rell (Peele) has just been dumped by his girlfriend. Rell is in a pretty sorry state of affairs. He finds the cat on his doorstep and names it Keanu.

Keanu is almost like therapy for Rell. Rell is able to get rid of a lot of his heartbreak and pain just by being around Keanu. Rell's cousin Clarence (Key) is happy to see that Rell is feeling better. This good feeling doesn't last long however. One evening after a movie, when the two relatives return to Rell's home they find that there's been a break-in. Keanu is gone.
Rell's next door neighbor, a wannabe black white drug dealer by the name of Hulka (Will Forte), admits that the home invaders were probably looking to rob him, not Rell. He gives them some hoodlum contacts. Rell has put up with a lot in life. But Rell will not tolerate someone stealing his cat. Clarence will back his play. But they need to get this wrapped up quickly since Clarence's wife (Nia Long) will be back home soon. To seem hard and impress/intimidate the real gangsters who broke into Rell's home, the congenitally middle class Rell and Clarence pretend to be murderous street thugs. They use the language and style they've picked up from rap music and movies. They succeed too well though because the local gangster Cheddar (Method Man) who now has the cat, mistakes the two cousins for the notorious and mysterious Allentown Boys.  
Cheddar has some jobs for the Allentown Boys. Cheddar and his crew vacillate between hero worship and suspicion of Rell and Clarence. Clarence and Rell's choices of music, vocal cadence, clothing, preferred modes of transportation, and even gait are very different than most people would expect from young black men. Clarence is a huge George Michael fan, something that is inconceivable to Cheddar's crew. Meanwhile the Allentown Boys, having escaped or disposed of the police who interrupted them, are looking for their cat and the men who are using their name. 
This was a passable film. There were some places where I laughed out loud but many other places where I just grimaced or wondered when the scene would end. At best this uneven movie may make you think about how stereotypes influence and infect our thinking as well as how we willingly or otherwise change our behavior to embrace or avoid the stereotype which defines our particular ethnic/gender combination.

Blood Father
directed by Jean-Francois Richet
This is another Papa Wolf movie. A bunch of bad guys harm or attempt to harm a young woman only to discover that the young woman has a father --the Papa Wolf-- who is not going to stand for anyone hurting his little girl. A$$-kickings of Biblical proportions usually ensue. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a Papa Wolf for a father and a Mama Bear for a mother. 
What makes this film different is that here the protective father gets irritated with and even occasionally seems to actively dislike his daughter. Just because you love someone doesn't always mean that you like them. Also unlike in the Taken series, the Papa Wolf in this movie doesn't have a very particular set of skills, government contacts or increasingly implausible MacGyver like tricks up his sleeve. He's just a man who is tired and angry. He's old and irritable. There's a point which most of us will hopefully reach before we lose our parents where we can get to know them as people with lives, hopes, dreams, and limitations of their own, not just Mom and Dad. Of course on the other hand someone never stops being a parent, even if by most accounts they weren't very good ones. John Link (Mel Gibson) is a Vietnam vet, recovering alcoholic, paroled ex-con, mild bigot and tattoo artist. He doesn't want to go back to prison.  
He's on the straight and narrow. He doesn't want to drink alcohol. He just wants to be left alone to run his trailer park business. The other thing that he would like is to meet up with his daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty). John didn't get to see a lot of Lydia while she was growing up as he was mostly in prison. It's unclear as to whether John and Lydia's mother were ever married but it's quite clear that John and his ex don't like each other. Lydia was raised by her mother and a revolving door list of step-fathers before running away. John hasn't seen Lydia in years but has always kept alive the hope of a reunion. John believes that he's failed as a parent.
Lydia is back on the scene. She's fallen in with a bad crowd. Her boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna) is a local lieutenant for a Mexican drug cartel. When Jonah inexplicably forces Lydia to accompany him and his crew on a serious piece of work, things go drastically wrong for everyone involved. Lydia, who has all sorts of serious problems, flees to the only person she trusts to even care about her, let alone help her, her Daddy. John is happy to see his daughter after all these years but isn't happy to learn of the circumstances that led to this little family reunion. 
John also has a little difficulty with anger management once he figures out Lydia's issues. At times it's a coin toss between whether John is angrier at Lydia or at the people trying to find her and kill her. John doesn't need trouble with his parole officer or law enforcement. And aiding a fugitive is definitely a parole violation. But wayward daughter though Lydia may be, she's John's wayward daughter. And no one is going to harm his blood. 
Although the storyline is pretty predictable Gibson infuses his character with more than a little bit of pathos and rage. Given Gibson's battles with rage, alcohol and bigotry you wonder how easy it was for him to take his character into some frightening angry rants. Was it all acting? Well only Gibson can say. Gibson's Old Testament beard and crazy eyes ratchet up the discomfort and intensity. 

William Macy has a small role as John's friend and AA sponsor. Michael Parks is Preacher, another former vet, sometime white supremacist and frenemy of John's. Dale Dickey from Winter's Bone and Breaking Bad is Preacher's wife. This movie was about 90 minutes long. The pacing was good. It wasn't too long or too short. Gibson has apparently been hitting the weights.

In a Lonely Place
directed by Nicholas Ray
It's said that there isn't really anything new under the sun. Today's tabloid/video culture merely brings out in the open what was hidden. This movie is probably a pretty good example of that truism. Although folks may look at reality TV or Jerry Springer as new examples of moral depravity and licentiousness those shows don't capture things which haven't happened before. Everyone needs to make their own decisions about whether people's personal foibles cause you to dismiss their artistic talents. I've written before about what I think about that. 
I mention this here because the film's lead actress, Hollywood va-va voom superstar Gloria Grahame, had a rather colorful personal life. At the time that she made this movie she was married to the film's director Nicholas Ray, who would later direct Rebel Without a Cause. Ray declined to identify as bisexual but had numerous interactions with men. 
Grahame and Ray had one son together. Shortly after this film's release Grahame, depending on your level of outrage and whom you believe, either seduced or molested Ray's then 13 year old son by another woman, her stepson. Ray caught them in the act. 
The marriage ended. A few years after this incident Grahame married her former stepson and bore children by him. I guess those Ray Thanksgivings and Christmases must have been very interesting. This is your uncle-cousin-brother. I am your step-mother-sister-in-law. Hmm. In the sixties, once this stepmother-stepson marriage became public knowledge, Grahame's career, already on the skids, permanently shifted into low gear. So it goes.
But in this film noir, which came a few years before Grahame's similar star turn in The Big Heat, Grahame shows why she was once a Hollywood leading lady. Though Grahame gets a lot of screen time the movie also belongs equally to its leading man, Humphrey Bogart. It's amazing that someone who was only of average height and looks brought so much charisma and dominance to his roles. As with some other films reviewed, Bogart's character shared a lot of his real life traits. 
Dixon Steele (Bogart) is a hard drinking, assertive and pugnacious screenwriter. Most people call him Dix, both a shortened form of his name and probably a homophone for what most people likely call him behind his back. Dixon has seen better days in Hollywood. But from time to time he can still turn dross into gold. But don't push him around; he won't stand for it. 
He's got a mean left hook and a solid right cross. He can go from snarky sarcasm to violence in just under a minute-less if he's been drinking. A former military officer, Dixon doesn't suffer fools gladly. And he makes no concessions to age, status or gender. If Dixon Steele thinks you're full of stuff then by God he will tell you that you're full of stuff. And if you want to do something about it Dixon's right here tough guy. Dixon's been fired from the best films but he's still standing. Dixon thinks that most of the work he adapts for the screen is not very good. He prefers to write his own stories for the screen but of course a screenwriter doesn't usually get to make that call. 
Either way, whether it's adapted work or his own original ideas, Dixon is just as hard on himself as he is on anyone. He doesn't like to share his work until it's done. He's simultaneously proud of his writing abilities and super-sensitive about any criticism. Dixon is emotionally needy. His ego requires constant stroking. He fits the stereotype of the tortured artist.
After a meeting with his agent (Art Smith) Dixon is cajoled/convinced into adapting a popular novel for the screen. But Dixon doubts the novel is any good though he hasn't read it. Fortunately for Dixon a star struck hatcheck girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) has read the book or at least most of it and would love to give Dixon the blow by blow description of the book. He invites her home. Dixon does the old "Let me change into something more comfortable" routine but the movie smartly lets the viewer decide if Dixon is trying to put the moves on Mildred. Mildred makes it clear she's not there for any hanky panky. 
Dixon retorts that he wasn't interested in her that way. Well maybe. While Dixon is moving around his apartment listening to Mildred drone on, through the window he catches the eye of his neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame) a struggling actress. They both appear to like what they see. Deciding that the novel is junk and he can just rewrite it for the screen, Dixon tells Mildred thanks but she can leave now. 
Rather ungraciously he doesn't drive her home or even walk her to the taxi stand. The next morning Mildred is found dead. Murdered. Dixon's old army buddy and current detective Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) hauls him in for questioning. Dixon doesn't appear broken up about Mildred's murder. He suggests her boyfriend did it. Dixon's only alibi is Laurel. She confirms that she saw Dixon and Mildred together and that Mildred left alone. This satisfies Nicolai but his boss Captain Lochner (Carl Reid) isn't so convinced. He does some more checking into Dixon's background. He doesn't like the long list of temper tantrums and misdemeanor assaults that he finds. He wants to keep an eye on Dixon.

Meanwhile Dixon is putting the moves on Laurel or vice versa. She's helping him with the screenplay. The two are falling in love. But sometimes Dixon makes Laurel uncomfortable. Even Nicolai admits that Dixon is an odd duck. But is Dixon a murderer? If you enjoy classic Hollywood movies you'll like this movie. It's among the best of the film noir genre. Ray effectively uses light and shadow to convey unease, secrecy and well, loneliness. People are always peering through windows, across courtyards or beyond doors. His use of eye light on both of his leads gives a very dramatic feel to their acting. 
Bogart and Grahame define cool masculinity and flirtatious femininity. Grahame can take control of a room just by walking into it. This was a skill she had displayed before in It's A Wonderful Life. We don't know if Dixon committed the crime so it's easier to identify with Laurel's doubts and fears. As the comedian Louis CK pointed out given the size and aggression differential between men and women it's a shocker that any woman ever feels safe enough to venture out alone with a man. 
Dixon's intensity, hypermasculinity and directness attract Laurel even as his short temper and occasional violence repel her. The film was adapted from a book written by a woman. So, perhaps unusually for film noir, this story gives plenty of attention to a woman's POV. The movie provides a rollercoaster of emotions. In A Lonely Place eschews explicit sex or violence though the subtext is strong. The dialogue is witty. When asked how he writes, Dixon responds "Usually sitting down." This film had inspired acting by Bogart and Grahame. I knew Lovejoy from his radio work on the noirish Night Beat drama so it was nice to put a face with the voice.
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