Day 2 felt a lot more like SXSW than yesterday, with most people in town and a bright, shiny sky illuminating everyone’s laminated badges and the plethora of signs for Uber and shuttle pick-up and drop-off points. They scheduled the new Key & Peele movie for 12:30 A.M. (which, of course, didn’t start on time), during Daylight Savings Time, no less, which is taking a toll, but no matter. Here’s what I saw today:
THANK YOU DEL: THE STORY OF THE DEL CLOSE MARATHON, dir. Todd Bieber.
I had no idea, but I actually knew who Del Close was, at least by appearance. He plays the corrupt politico who tries to bribe Kevin Costner in THE UNTOUCHABLES (“Mr. Ness, you’re an educated man; let me pay you the compliment of being blunt.”). He also had bit parts in AMERICAN GRAFFITI, THIEF, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, and NEXT OF KIN. What I wasn’t privy to was his impact on modern comedy, and that’s what Todd Bieber’s doc is very much about.
The film, like many docs, alternates between a macro and micro subject. The macro, in this case, in Del’s story, from his days as an improv piooneer alongside folks like Howard Hesseman to his tutelage of Second City vets like John Belushi and Bill Murray and right through his close work with the Upright Citizens Brigade right until his death. The micro subject is the annual Del Close Marathon that the original UCB folks (including Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser) hold every year in his honor, with improv troupes from around the country participating in a 24 hour-plus revolving door of live comedy and occasionally weed-and-beer-soaked mayhem. We specifically hone in on one group from Missouri, headed up by a sincere, shy young guy who reached out to UCB and who is going onstage with his buddies in front of a real crowd for the first time. Through these parallel plotlines, we get a sense both of who Close was as a talent and a luminary, and of the impact his work has had on the world of improv and comedy, in general.
The big names Close had connections with will likely be what gets most people to watch this film, and sure enough, it’s hard not to be awestruck when seeing folks like Murray, Robin Williams, Adam McKay, Louis C.K., Tina Fey, and Harold Ramis worship at the alter of Mr. Close, and the breadth of his influence never ceases to impress throughout. Most of the movie sticks with the four core UCBers (though McKay participates quite a bit), and they tone down their sometimes intense schtick to get sincere about what Close taught them and what he represents to the modern improv-comedy scene. We get to see a lot of footage from improv shows, including the early days of UCB (when it was called “Cerebral Strip Mine”), as well as a bunch of snippets from the various marathons they’ve held since his death in 1999.
The interviews are insightful and occasionally really funny (Horatio Sanz’ interview is conducted with a large, clear bong and torch in the foreground, and Hesseman and several others mock Close’s claim to have “invented” this incarnation of theatrical improvisation), but there are a ton of laughs in the actual improv we get a glimpse of. Obviously, it’s impossible to replicate the sponteneity of seeing this sort of show live in a theater, but we get a clear sense of the madness and mayhem that occasionally brew into something exciting and hilarious. Close continually insists that “human beings are capable of extraordinary things,” and the improv work we see is proof of that, as these comics spin nonsense scenarios and nonexistent relationships into moments of sustained, sublime comedy that just knocks the audience on their ass. One interesting topic (I believe it’s first brought up by Poehler) is how the comedy styles of various international groups differ from one another; apparently, Americans are more focused on patter and building on the absurdity of a premise while other countries tend to focus on the theatricality of the performance itself. Also, we clearly see the differences between the Missouri kids’ brand of humor and level of technique as opposed to the New Yorkers and more experienced pros that constistute the bulk of UCB’s performers.
But it’s Del himself who is the most fascinating thing about this documentary. With his big glasses, gapped teeth, and occasionally monstrously long beard, Close is a striking figure before he even opens his mouth, but his rich voice, insightful tidbits of wisdom, and occasionally profound devotion to the craft would make him quite an intriguing guy even without the A-list connections. Aside from formal interviews with him conducted over the years, he himself filmed a bunch of testimonial monologues in a static-y VHS format (which reminded me of the station interruptions in THEY LIVE), and some of them, particularly one where he acknowledges his resignation to watch his students and associates surpass him in fame, are moving and clearly deeply personal. Sure enough, those who knew him say that his demons, including a vicious, Machiavellian attitude and addictions to alcohol, speed, and IV drug use, kept him from breaking though to the mainstream (and almost certainly contributed to his death by emphysema at the age of 64). His alleged last words encapsulate his cynicism and the need to incite some sort of reaction in his comedy: “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.”
While the picture ends up functioning as a sort of ode to improvisational comedy, there are more than enough funny and touching moments to make it successful as an actual film. There’s footage of a party Bill Murray held for Close in his hospital a mere day before his death that is already brutal before Harold Ramis shows up and starts declaring his love for the guy (I’m sure I’ll be able to see Ramis or Williams show up in a movie without tearing up sometime in the future, but I’m not there yet). ; it's a big moment when the UCB guys bring the Missouri kid onstage for a bit, and he manages to get in a big laugh line opposite Ian Roberts. To see the wide breadth of improv groups out there, including a troupe from Japan and one all African-American female trio that included SNL’s Sasheer Zamata, is inspiring, even more so when Close’s friends talk about struggling to get 7 or 8 people in the theater in the early days in Greenwich Village. And most of all, it’s a treat to see all this footage of Del himself Bieber's compiled together, with his knowledge, appearance, and striking sense of humor living on nearly two decades after his passing. If you aren’t aware of a particular cultural figure, and a documentary manages to teach you who he was, showcase the extent of his influence, and impress upon you that he/she is a person worth knowing about, all while entertaining and moving you, then I’d say it did its job, wouldn’t you?
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, dir. Ti West.
I’m so in Ti West’s corner that it’s borderline unfair for me to review his movies. Since I first saw HOUSE OF THE DEVIL back in my college days, I’ve held West in the highest of pedigrees, and would put his work against any of his contemporaries any day. So when he decides to go western, with elements heavily reminiscent of the maestro of the genre, Sergio Leone, and talents like Ethan Hawke and John Travolta heading the cast (easily the biggest-name roster he’s worked with to date), a positive note from me is pretty much in the bag.
Of course, it helps that it’s a fucking badass movie.
Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a tough, sommbitch who is forced to travel through a near-abandoned town called Denton along with his horse, Lady, and his dog, Abby, intending only to buy supplies and bathe before going onward towards old Mexico. Needless to say, the stop doesn’t go down as planned; a local loudmouth named Gilly (James Ransone) sets his sights on Paul and his canine, eventually forcing him to knock his ass out in the middle of the town square. While this puts him in the good graces of the local innkeeper (Taissa Farmiga), whose sister (Karen Gillan) is shacked up with Gilly, it earns him the negative attention of the local marshal, who happens to be the bully’s father. The marshal correctly deduces that Paul is on the run, and tells him to go on his way before authorities make their way into town, so Paul acquiesces and takes Lady and Abby on his way. But before he can clear out, Gilly and his cronies do something that leaves Paul with no choice but to make sure that they, and anyone who gets in his way, ends up with a couple a holes in 'em.
While the opening titles and the Morricone-esque score are lifted right from Leone’s films, particularly A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, this is more of the Corbucci variety, with a less operatic quality and more of a clumsy, ugly grittiness to it all. Denton is just about as used up as a ghost town gets, with most of the town’s shops and businesses boarded up and only a handful of stragglers still living there (I liked the dilapidated church rotting away unnoticed at the edge of town, which ties into a recurring line, “There’s no God here.”). All the characters are similarly compromised and used up; Paul is haunted by his violent past, Gillan’s character has resigned herself to a comfortable life with her madman fiancee, the marshall knows he’s guilty of running things “his way” and not necessarily the lawful way, Gilly’s cohorts are tortured by their unwarranted aggression toward Paul, and Gilly himself is the victim of his own moronic mouth and even more moronic sense of justice. Even Farmiga’s character, arguably the most sympathetic of the bunch, is complicit of immediately latching onto Paul for salvation, knowing that since her husband left her, her chances of meeting someone and riding out of town are dwindling by the day. It’s a relatively simple story, but it has no easy outcomes, and part of the thing is just watching these characters judge the best way to survive this conflict with both their morality and lives intact.
West has been slowly edging away from horror since HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, with THE INNKEEPERS functioning almost like a rom-com and THE SACRAMENT serving as found-footage horror, behavioral comedy, and historical recreation all at the same time. Here, he finally makes something that’s entirely rooted in another genre, but the things that defined his horror films, namely his penchant for slow, drawn-out tension, rich characterizations, and striking gore shots, are still on display, as is his incredible ear for sound design. The excellent Toby Huss, who plays one of Gilly’s more tortured companions, even asked West whether one of the ambient sounds in a dark scene was supposed to be him talking, to which West quipped, “Don’t you remember recording ADR?” The cinematography and set design are perhaps a smidge too clean for this sort of film, but the costuming, editing, and music are all incredibly effective at evoking the western setting.
The film is roughly split into two halves, with the first half focusing on Paul and Abby and the rest highlighting the townsfolk in the aftermath of Gilly’s actions, and the former would not work nearly as well with someone other than Hawke in the lead role. Hawke, who West said he specifically wrote the role for, is at this perfect place in his career where he still has that boyish vulnerability that has been winning people over since he strolled into the casting office for EXPLORERS, but with an increasingly rough, conflicted edge he’s been picking at since TRAINING DAY. If he didn’t mention the WHITE FANG connection in the post-film Q&A, I certainly would’ve brought it up, because his natural ability acting opposite the dog (a major scene-stealer) has to be at least in part due to his work in that film two decades ago (sure enough, he mentioned that acting opposite a dog is very informative, because they’re quite acute at detecting when someone’s being phony). He’s gotten to act in two westerns set for this year, between this and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and it’s obvious why Hawke is one of the only name actors of his generation to feel perfectly at home in a western. He can be human, likable, and even funny, but when his eyes glint and he gets that “don't make me kill you” look on his face, you know that someone just fucked with the wrong hombre. Thanks to Hawke and West, Paul’s an awesome, memorable western hero, and you’re rooting for him and Abby before he even dismounts his horse for the first time.
Hawke’s well-matched by Travolta, who’s the most badass he’s been in years as the long-haired, wooden-legged marshall. There’s a perfect moment that’s a sort of callback to the mirror scene with he and Cage in FACE/OFF, and it’s only one of several scenes between Travolta and Hawke that are as engrossing as anything in the film. Taissa Farmiga is sprightly and likable as the young innkeeper, Ransone is an appropriately extreme, hissable villain, and Huss, Tommy Nohilly, and horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden act are a memorable gallery of heavies. Only Karen Gillan, so good in OCULUS, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and even SELFIE, goes a little too far into caricature territory as Gilly’s prissed-up, thoroughly compromised squeeze, though she still manages to break the dour mood with some well-timed physical comedy.
The film, like FISTFUL and so many other budget-constrained westerns (including the recent, excellent BONE TOMAHAWK), is content to confine itself to a handful of characters in a single, dusty town and its surroundings, but it never feels cheap or half-realized for a second. The action is mostly contained to short, brutal spurts, and West’s filmatism makes sure you always feel like something could happen at any moment (when Travolta yells “Stay away from the windows!” we immediately start counting down to when someone will get shot through a window). His films are all built on tension, rather than payoff, and this is no exception; there’s no outcome that could possibly be as satisfying as Hawke and Travolta’s characters dancing around each other, looking for the resolution involving the least amount of bloodshed. Still, the final beats managed to make me cheer, and even if one potentially powerful moment towards the end suffers due to clumsy execution, the film moves past it so quickly that it doesn’t get the chance to poison the well.
At a brisk hour and a half, this is far more akin to the cheaper, grindhousey spaghetti westerns than the Leone epics many still hold as the high standard for the genre, and when I realized things were wrapping up, I was a little pissed, but only because I wanted more. West, sure enough, lives up to his name, and shows that he has the chops to be a western director. It’s not news that his talents are not restricted to horror flicks, but it’s always surprising how assured and fleshed-out his films seem even when they’re something he hasn’t tried before. His extraction of great performances by the likes of Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, and Joe Swanberg extends to his work with Travolta and Hawke here, who are as good in this Blumhouse Production as any of the more prestigious stuff they’ve done in the past decade. It’s sometimes hard for me to objectively judge (if that’s even a thing critics can do) the work of a filmmaker whose work continually bowls me over, but I feel confident in saying that even those who haven’t been in love with West’s prior work owe it to themselves to check this flick out. At worst, it’s a mere hour-half of your time, but at best, it, alongside BONE TOMAHAWK, HATEFUL EIGHT, and, if word is to be believed, MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, shows that there’s still room in the contemporary marketplace for a whole breadth of tonally different, but equally confident and efficient westerns.
KEANU, dir. Peter Atencio.
Since that East/West Bowl sketch that dropped in advance of season 2, I’ve been a Key & Peele fan, and watched every episode over the rest of the show’s four remaining seasons. Like a lot of comedy shows, it hit its stride somewhere in the middle, with pretty much every episode of S2 and S3 featuring consistently strong sketches where you could feel the two testing the limits ofwhat they could do on the show. The latter two seasons, especially that last one, still usually featured at least one great (or at least memorable) sketch per episode, but their style had become decidedly more cinematic at the cost of being less funny, with mood and sheen becoming way more of a priority than inspired premises or, most importantly, good endings (something that distinguishes the GREAT Key & Peele sketches with the meh K & P sketches). It seemed to me that the closer they got to the end, they just wanted to wrap things up so they could ditch Comedy Central and start making movies, and I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with a longer format and an actual big budget look instead of a pretend one. Unfortunately, KEANU feels more like yet another bridge between the Key & Peele that blew up on the small screen and the cinematic comedians who will whip up all sorts of ambitious, hilarious films that will be treasured for the rest of our lives (or at least their opening weekends).
As you may know, Keanu’s a cat, and an adorable little one at that. In a pretty niftily executed (pun intended) opening scene, Keanu escapes from the drug dealer that owned him, and ends up literally on the doorstep of Peele’s Recently Dumped Slacker. Two weeks go by, and the two are thick as thieves, but when he takes out his buddy, Uptight Married Guy (Key), for a night out while his wife’s out of town, the two come home to find that RDS’ house has been ransacked and Keanu stolen. After questioning a neighboring weed dealer (Will Forte), they track Keanu down to the lair of Chudder (Method Man). Posing as a pair of hard-as-nails hitmen, they attempt to make a deal with Chudder for Keanu, but he demands that they provide backup for his crew in exchange for the cat. The two guys have to continue their badass gangster routine and go along on a drug deal in hopes of saving the cat, but of course, things escalate, bullets are fired, drugs are consumed, and George Michael is played…a whole lot of George Michael.
There’s a ton of this movie that’s funny, and more on that later, but a lot of the TRAINING DAY/MALIBU’S MOST WANTED-esque plot feels like K & P plugging themselves into an established formula. Remember all those movies in the 90s where everyone was trying to make every comedian happen by putting them in some generic comedy complete with gangster villains, an obligatory love interest, and a car chase ending? At its worst, that’s what KEANU comes off as, and its annoying to see such original talents leaning on so many tired ass tropes.
Interestingly enough, there’s a lot in common with the first film from another TV comedy team, TED. The film is arguably a buddy flick (though not a thunder-buddy flick), and the title character is an adorable, furry thing that looks great on a poster (boy, were their some loud “awwwwws” every time Keanu pranced across the screen. There’s a lead who loves old movies and smoking weed, and there’s even a scene where a character imagines himself alongside a star he worships. But more significantly, it feels like comedy writers testing the waters to see what works on the big screen and what doesn’t while playing within the relatively safe confines of a studio comedy (say what you will about A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, but you don’t see that kinda shit every day).
While I love K & P as a comedic duo, I’ve never really been as crazy when they essentially play themselves, as they did in the bookends on the show or when they make public appearances, as when they rotate through ridiculous characters. There’s an attempt to do that here by having them play two roles each on top of their in-character gangster charade, but most of the time, they’re playing their everyman archetypes, and there’s not an infinite amount of freedom of what they can do within those restrictions. Key is way, way better off than Peele; though the married-guy-breaks-bad arc is super fucking old, it allows Key to utilize his extreme, madcap energy in some surprising ways, especially when they don’t lean on the whole “how soft is this guy?” thing. Peele, often so brilliant in his sketchwork, comes off as a half-baked character (in more ways than one), a stoner who loves his new cat enough to put himself and his friend in harms way to get it back. He gets a romance subplot that feels extraneous, and he's stuck as the straight man for far too much of the film. The scenes where the pair banter ride on their sheer energy alone, but ultimately, it’s like a Slurpee: occasionally sweet, but ultimately cheap and empty
Now here’s the thing: I’ve come a long way to tell you that this is actually a pretty funny movie. I’d say roughly 70% of the jokes land (which, now that I think about it, is probably the same score I’d give the TEDs), including a couple (but not enough) of huge laughs. Like in some of the best KEY & PEELE sketches, there’s a great undercurrent of racial commentary by depicting these suburban, relatively harmless guys and their idea of how to act “gangster.” However, like the worst of their sketches, the idea doesn’t go far enough, and is glossed over enough to make it feel more like an accidental side effect than a pointed bit. Still, these guys are such pros at this point that they know how to bring the funny in pretty much every scene, and until maybe the last 20 minutes, it’s never boring (this movie is about two hours long, or at least feels that way). Peter Atencio honed his skills directing every single episode of the show, and he knows how to make things feel legit and cinematic, particularly when depicting violence (make no mistake, bodies drop and blood is shed in this thing). There are a couple of cameos that are great in concept but leave something to be desired in execution, and three endings too many, but the film is great at maintaining forward momentum despite the fact that the plot is essentially set up as a series of sketches. If I paid 20 bucks for a ticket, I’d feel like I got my money’s worth, but this isn’t the “Holy shit, you guys have to see this,” hot-fire that the creme de la creme of those KEY & PEELE sketches were.
It was never a sure thing that Key & Peele would work well headlining movies together, so I suppose something like this was a necessary step. I would’ve thought that a meme-baiting cat looking cute in a doo-rag was below these two, but then again, the response to everything Keanu did was huge in the same way people fell in love with Ted, so maybe it was best to play it safe and just be fast, funny, and likable like the 21 JUMP STREETS or something. I definitely wanted more from it, and I eagerly await Peele’s directorial debut, GET OUT, to see the weirder side of what these two are trying to do on the big screen, because this was way too same-old-same-old for me. But it’s absolutely no bomb, failure, misfire, or meh-fest; it’s a funny goddamn movie that showcases one of the best comedy duos to emerge since the start of the millennium, and one that’s a hell of a time when watching with a crowd. I just hope the next one is better and more ambitious, even if this hits as big as I’m thinking it might. People seem to really love that kitten, man.