Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dough and Papa: Hemingway in Cuba

                                    Varying Degrees of Fully-Baked, 
                        Using Grass as a Spice or Rum as a Marinade

                                                                    Reviews by Ken Burke
 My normal rumination and research time was cut short right after I posted my previous review (April 28, 2016) because I was doing Jury Duty for a few days.  Therefore, I’ll try even harder than usual this time to compress my thoughts on these 2 films in an attempt to get posted on my normal schedule.  That may not matter too much anyway for many of you as logistics, traveling-companion-interests, along with screening time, location, and availability ultimately led me to a couple of very obscure offerings (in the U.S.-Canada domestic market Papa … playing at 25 screens, grossing just $475,224 so far, while Dough [finally: a title too short to need to abbreviate] has been out for 12 weeks already yet has just now gotten to 34 theaters with a total take so far of $483, 925) so these may not have much interest for you anyway given their content, lack of venues, and reality that I’ve been much kinder to them than most of the critical consensus.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                           Dough (John Goldschmidt, 2015)
In a London neighborhood an aging Jewish baker is losing his clientele while being pressured by a local grocer with aspirations to move him out in favor of more upscale expansion.  Into this conflict comes a young African migrant (Muslim, causing the baker further complications) who finds lots of new customers for his new boss by adding pot to the pastries.
What Happens: The basic plot structure here is of 2 paralleled-stories that intersect, then intertwine.  Initially, we meet widower (for the last 2 years) Nat Dayan (Jonathan Price) who struggles to keep alive his Kosher bakery in a working-class-London-East End-neighborhood that’s lately becoming increasing more Muslim as many of Nat’s regular customers move out or die; still, he’s determined to keep his long-time-family-business going, although his lawyer son, Steven (Daniel Caltigirone), has no interest in it (the shop’s signs says “Dayan & Son 1947” [my birth year, by coincidence] but refers to Nat being brought into the business by his father, a family tradition for even more decades prior to that) while the owner of the space, Joanna Silverman (Pauline Collins)—a widow for 6 years—tries to make moves on Nat for personal interests but is tempted to sell the property to Sam Cotton (Philip Davis) who owns a modern grocery next door with ambitions of buying up the whole block so he can build a more-profitable parking garage (or car park, as the English say).  Nat’s problems are compounded when his long-time-employee, Danny (Dominic Garfield), quits in order to work at Cotton’s store, so in need of an assistant Nat hires our other protagonist, Ayyash (Jerome Holder), a young immigrant teen from Darfur, Sudan, living in the neighborhood with his mother while they wait impatiently for the father/husband to join them from Africa.  Ayyash’s only interested in the job, though, because he wants to be a marijuana dealer for local kingpin Victor Gerrard (Ian Hart), who requires that his sellers have other jobs so as to cover up their income.  Nat’s soon surprised to find his new hire is Muslim (nice parallel montage of them separately going through their morning prayer rituals), afraid that will alienate what’s left of his dwindling customer base; however, he takes a chance, even teaching the boy baking skills.  

 At first, Ayyash uses his new location as a means of slipping some extra "goodies" into bakery-purchase-bags (keeping the extra cash for himself and Victor) for customers who spread the word of a safer location for their purchases (Nat has no idea what these “extras” are, so in exasperation he just sends Ayyash out to the counter), but one day, as he sees the police approaching the shop where he’s measuring out his product in the backroom, he accidently knocks the pot into the batter.

 From here (and what you can see in the trailer), you know (or can guess) what happens next: the tasty “loaded” bread makes its way to a dinner with Nat’s family where they get happier than they’ve been in years, Ayyash follows up with a platter of hash-laced-brownies for Nat that gets the old man into the mood for the kid’s plans for new bakery products leading to a huge success in the neighborhood with scores of satisfied customers (some who know what they’re buying, most who don’t), everything seems to be running smoothly for Nat’s plan to buy the location himself in order to keep Cotton from further gentrifying the neighborhood.  The challenge to that plan comes from Ayyash needing to pay off Victor even though all of the pot-profits are going into the bakery’s cash register (a clumsy plot twist in that Ayyash knows how demanding Victor is), further complicated by Cotton one day seeing Ayyash spill a bag of his weed on the bakery floor so the kid’s in double-trouble, brought to a head when Victor breaks into the shop one night in an attempt to rob the place but finding little cash he sets a fire that burns all of it out (in case you’re wondering why the rest of the block didn’t go up in flames as well, I have a good friend with a London flat who came back from the theatre one night to see his upper-story-place aflame [from a short-circuited-lighting-device] but the surrounding rooms and units were protected by the thick-brick-construction of a long-standing-building).  Although Nat’s devastated to learn the truth about Ayyash’s recipes, the boy’s testimony leads to Victor‘s arrest and the next plot twist: baking some identical pastries (at Nat’s home) to replace the ones Cotton bought as evidence against Nat, then gaining access to Cotton’s office by posing as janitors to switch the baked goods before the contaminated ones can be sent to a lab for testing.  As expected, the real janitors show up earlier than usual, escape chaos through a restroom window allows the plot to work, Cotton’s got no evidence so his plans are foiled, Ayyash comes up with legal new products that get the refurbished-bakery thriving, Cotton closes down his next-door-store, Nat and Joanna go off on holiday leaving Ayyash in charge.

So What? As I noted in my opening comments for this posting this film’s not yet in very many theaters but it’s soon scheduled for a notable considerably-wider-U.S.-rollout starting this very weekend (5/6/2016—not in San Antonio, TX or Naperville IL [although it’s playing in Chicago, along with Highland Park, and Wilmette] as a note to a couple of my most faithful readers in those areas) so you might want to check a section of its official website (1st listing in the suggested links for this film far below) to see if you can find it if, that is if its subject matter interests you.  The intercultural content of this well-intentioned-film is a welcome approach to alternatives to the bitter Jewish-Muslim war (I don’t mean to be melodramatic with this word, but far too many people have died in what’s now ironically called the Holy Land since the establishment of Israel in1948 [I doubt that the chronological-proximity of this political event and the addition of “& son” to the Dayan bakery is any coincidence, implying as it does the continuation of a prior-established-tradition, as well as the easily-possible-connection to Israeli military/political leader Moshe Dayan] to call it anything else) that goes on actively in the Middle East, with repercussions in other political encounters throughout our world (get ready for another domestic dose of it when our Presidential-election-cycle gets into main-event-territory next autumn) that’s been destabilizing the international community for far too long (with both anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric and activities raging through Europe during their current migration crisis).  Further, this film manages to keep intercultural-tensions present but to a minimum with the focus more on the economic pressures that many family-run-businesses feel as their livelihood is threatened by larger, profit-driven corporations as well as use the humor that comes from the benign pleasures enjoyed by clueless-consumers of a “dangerous narcotic” (although the real-life-dangers of violent acts perpetrated by some who thrive in the criminal shadows of distribution of this [increasingly-more-tolerated] banned substance aren’t ignored either).  However, in trying to promote a healthy “Can’t we all just get along?”-style-message, the story as presented veers off into conventional greedy-capitalist-villainy, slapstick burglary, and easy solutions to deeply-embedded-problems.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: 
I heartedly-approve of the tolerance-intentions of this film, as well as the realities that it admits about the difficulties of a traditional neighborhood losing its identity as newcomers bring in completely different cultural backgrounds (especially those rooted in enmity for the existing dwellers, just as they have suspicions and prejudices against the new arrivals); the bleak existence for many migrants from troubled, war-torn-regions of the world as they make their way into the assumed-better-financial-possibilities of the West only to find themselves often pushed into ghettoes where they’re not really welcome nor are many jobs open to them resulting in criminal careers (or worse, angry terrorists) just to get by (Ayyash’s mother, Safa [Natasha Gordon]—working 2 menial jobs—does her best to discourage her son from hanging around with his stoner friends, but given the allure of financial relief from the miserable hovel that they can barely afford it’s difficult for him to truly want to trade the quick cash available from dealing for trying to learn an actual trade in an economy where independent businesspeople are being driven out of their careers); as well as the implied argument that the consumption of these organically-enhanced-pastries is no threat to the health, stability, nor morality of this community (obviously, I’m pro-pot—even though I don’t use it myself [Seriously!]—simply because I don’t see it as dangerous if regulated and used reasonably; as best I know, nicotine is a much more deadly, addictive drug, yet it’s embraced by many cultures that ban alcohol and narcotics, possibly as some form of needed relief from life’s ongoing traumas).  

 Yet, with all of these worthwhile intentions, Dough as a film plot just becomes too convoluted, fragmented, and easily-resolved to live up to its own intentions (the Rotten Tomatoes surveyed-critics seem to agree with my limited-acceptance-stance, giving it 68% positive reviews, although the Metacritics average is a considerably lower 45% [but based on just 10 reviews currently so you might check back with those links farther below for a later update from them if you wish]).  A further oddity about this film is a short encouragement from Collins prior to the start of the story casually calling on us to enjoy what we’re about to see, possibly to temper any anti-drug/Jew/Muslim sentiments in the audience, but if you know anything at all about this story before you bought your ticket I’d assume you already clearly know what you’re about to get into so I’m still curious about her little introduction, which seems more like something from a 1940s Hollywood movie trailer.

 Sometimes when I try to search my hollow (or maybe mapless, cavern-filled) head for my usual use of a nifty Musical Metaphor to address the content, impact, or emotional feeling of a film under review what I come up with is (at least in my important opinion) an insightful response in song to what’s transpired on the screen; other times, though, I just get somewhat silly with it, which is more the case here as I offer you a tune about a baker from … Bread … a band who had quite a career throughout the 1970s with a good number of soft rock hits.  Just to try to make this choice not be completely goofy, the tune of theirs that I chose is “Make It with You,” at https://www., which, admittedly, is a love song from a guy to a gal, but with a little imagination (at least for some of the lyrics so that you don’t think I’m implying any sort of romantic connection between Nat and Ayyash, although it does go that direction for Nat and Joanna), along with the emphatic reminder that we’re talking metaphors here, I think that you could see some Jewish-Muslim co-acceptance in lines such as “Hey, have you ever tried Really reaching out for the other side” and “No, you don’t know me well In every little thing only time will tell But you believe the things that I do And we’ll see it through.”  (OK, maybe those are the only words that speak to intercultural relations, but like I said earlier this week’s posting had to be hustled through in a shorter timeframe that usual so if you’ve got something better let me know—or just float off on your own romantic memories/fantasies while we "leave Levon far behind," to reference another song [by Elton John from the 1971 Madman Across the Water album] that seems to also have connections to an older Jewish businessman in England [even though songwriters John and Bernie Taupin once claimed the title was inspired by The Band’s Levon Helm, a member of their favorite group back then]; now I guess you want to hear that one too, so here’s a live performance but that’s all because we’ve got other fish to fry—even as we have to go to Cuba to catch them.)
                               Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (Bob Yari)
Based in historical fact about novelist Ernest Hemingway and a newspaperman, this is a chronicle of how an aging literary genius takes on a star-struck-acolyte whose friendship is needed as the older man is facing a variety of demons including alcoholism, writer’s block, and constant battles with his wife in the context of the 1959 Cuban revolution.
What Happens: Abandoned by his father (Innis Casey) in 1935 Seattle (during the Depression), Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi)—the character name of screenwriter/actual Hemingway friend Denne Bart Petitclerc in this film—eventually grows up to be a journalist working for the Miami Globe in 1957, where he’s in a warm relationship with Debbie Hunt (Minka Kelly) who’s in the process of divorcing her Pulitzer-prize-winning husband to be with Ed even though his lone-wolf-upbringing makes it difficult for him to fully commit to the life she’s willing to share with him.  He also finds it difficult to actually mail his carefully-written-letter to idol Ernest Hemingway, not far away in Cuba, so Debbie finally sends it on his behalf, leading to a phone call from the famed writer to join him on a fishing expedition out of Havana.  Ed takes him up on the offer, finding that the acclaimed author, local celebrity, Pulitzer (1953) and Nobel (1954) Prize winner is not only welcoming, affable, overflowingly-generous but also prone to fits of depression, anger (especially toward his wife, Mary [Joley Richardson]), and suspicion—not through paranoia on that last count, as Ed is contacted by an old friend/now FBI agent who wants info on “Papa” (as he’s known in Cuba) in hopes of getting him arrested for his Communist-sympathies (which played well with the working class of his island home but not so much with the local government, which seemingly cooperates with the U.S. Justice Department’s attempts to arrest him for his political leanings which stretched back at least to the Spanish Civil War, with some survivors of that conflict between the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic and the fascist Nationalists among his current closest friends)—as well as being an alcoholic, downing great quantities of booze while being distracted far too often with morbid thoughts involving the revolver laying near his typewriter, a machine now getting little use as writer’s block is confounding Hemingway, even as he admits to Ed how he still mourns his 1st wife Hadley Richardson even though he cheated on her (they were married 1921-1927; Mary’s wife #4 but, in this film at least, realizes—between their bouts of outrage and reconciliation—that his heart still belongs to Hadley).

 Ernest is engaged in a private war with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, both because he really is running weapons to Castro’s revolutionaries (one scene that takes place on Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, has him evading a U.S. Coast Guard boat carrying FBI agents [even though they’re in Cuban waters] just long enough to dump an enormous cache of rifles, bazookas, etc. into the deep) and because he attended a party where Hoover was parading around in drag, so clearly America’s top-law-enforcer wants to either silence or intimidate this antagonist as much as he can, just as the IRS has recently confiscated $40,000 in penalty taxes which has left Papa fairly well broke at the moment).  Ed continues to visit on a regular basis which becomes an irritation for Debbie (she’s never invited) but it’s also a tactic for a guy afraid of commitment to avoid getting too close to a woman who’s ready to throw her lot in with him, even suggesting (unsuccessfully) that they move to L.A. to start some new directions.  Along the way we learn that Hemingway sees himself as shy (despite his flamboyant public persona), is disgusted by all of the post-awards-celebrity-status (but is constantly the subject of the news media that Ed works for, with photos and clips of the real guy on frequent display in our film to emphasize the close resemblance to Sparks), but has few inhibitions in his private life (Ed learns to swim nude along with his hosts).  Ed benefits professionally from the Cuba trips as well, providing 1st-hand-accounts of the growing rebel activity (the film’s storyline goes through 1959) with his host lamenting those killed in the process of any war or rebellion (“The faces of the dead are all the same.”).  Ernest’s fierce anger even lashes out (just like his fist) at Ed one night when he accuses his friend of being a traitor, working with the FBI, over a misunderstanding until Ed’s finally able to inform him about Hoover’s motives, learned from a called-meeting with Mafia-honcho Santo Trafficante (James Remar), punctuated by the news that Ernest’s friend Lucas (Rodrigo Obregón) has been killed, as we see by government agents.

 All of this culminates in an almost-successful-suicide-attempt by Hemingway with that ever-present-pistol but he’s finally talked down from it by Mary, Ed, and old friend Evan Shipman (Shaun Toub), himself dying of gangrene poisoning.  In the aftermath of this, Ernest finally gets to work on his long-delayed-writing-project while Ed returns to Miami to finally declare his love for Debbie, but then in closing graphics we’re told how Hemingway did eventually kill himself in 1961 (at age 61).

So What? In the interview link in the section of this posting following this review Sparks claims that everything in this film is true, but that claim’s immediately confounded by the character name of Ed Myers being used in place of the actual name of Denne Bart Petitclerc, the journalist-turned-Hemingway-associate whose life is shown (at least for a couple of years) along with the famous author in this film (he also worked for the Miami Herald rather than the fictional Globe, along with being married to Elva Lorraine Sutherland from 1950-1971 rather than being merely involved with fictional Debbie Hunt in the film’s story).  Given all of these modifications to one of the chief entities in Papa …, along with the reality that Petitclerc died in 2006 so we can only assume that the screenplay was finished at the time of his death (although it might have been further worked on by others in the 10 years it took for the story to come to screen), we can only assume with all the good faith we can muster that what we see of Hemingway and “Ed” is as factual as actor Sparks claims that it is—apparently, at least some (if not many) aspects are, including Ed’s early writing being marred by poor style and spelling which he corrected by hand-copying Hemingway’s work, the introductory letter to his emerging mentor, the many trips to Cuba to visit him; those who know Hemingway’s biography much better than I do will have to be the ones to vouch for the overall veracity here (especially given that the Los Angeles Times obit for Petitclerc notes that his 1977 screenplay for Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream [1970] “freely adapted the book but” it was “’absolutely faithful’ to its spirit” while this former journalist was active in fictional TV scripts for series such as Bonanza, Then Came Bronson, The High Chaparral, along with a good number of TV movies).  What’s clearly true is that this film was shot in Cuba, the 1st Hollywood production to do so since the 1959 revolution, with the scenes at Hemingway’s home being the actual Finca Vigia, now preserved as a museum given the Cuban people’s great admiration for their former resident, in honor of both his talent and his acceptance of their overthrow of the Batista government.*

* One other historical note about this film is that one of Ernest’s granddaughters, Mariel Hemingway (possibly best known to many of us for her role of Tracy in Woody Allen’s Manhattan [1979]), appears as “Woman Guest” in some scene but, unfortunately, I can’t say that I even noticed her.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I will have to admit to you that despite a reasonably-solid-awareness of Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated-
contributions to great 20th-century-American-literature I’ve read very little of his works nor am I inclined toward his lean, tough, “masculine” style (preferring instead the approach of William Faulkner, another Nobel Prize-winner [1949, along with Pulitzers in 1955, 1963] with a much more expanded-verbose-style that’s clearly more akin to my approach, although I have managed to be a bit more concise in this posting due to time constraints), so whatever I can learn about this giant of contemporary prose is useful, assuming that I can trust this script to be more accurate about the titular figure than about what I’ve recently learned are alterations made by the screenwriter/counter-protagonist Petitclerc/Myers about his own life.  Certainly, the suicide-attempt-scene is a powerful look into the personal despair that eventually drove Hemingway to take his own life on July 2, 1961 (this time with a shotgun) after he’d moved to another of his ongoing homes, this one in Ketchum, ID (which led Petitclerc to live there for many years as well), as are the confrontation-reconciliation scenes between Sparks and Richardson which range from him being the instigator with his insults, her being the suddenly-combustible-one (based on a decade-plus-heritage of living with his outsized-personality), both of them essentially pushing the other to the point of breaking it all off, only to dissolve into self-loathing-forgiveness (a bit more him than her in this regard, but a mutually-shared-co-dependency).  I’d liked to have been given some additional insights into what made his writing so celebrated (although we do get a great scene with Ed where Ernest spontaneously writes an intriguing short story on a cocktail napkin arbitrarily using only 6 words), along with whether his celebrity was based on an actual widespread-understanding/
appreciation of his work by the public or just how his appearance seemed to parallel the main character in The Old Man and the Sea (1951), but that’s not forthcoming in this film (perhaps that’s why I preferred the current Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead [Don Cheadle; review in our April 7, 2016 posting], also about a great artist in a time of inner turmoil but with flashbacks to performances that helped me see why he was so acclaimed); nevertheless, I found a lot to admire in the marvelous acting and insights into the horrid pressures of fame in Papa … but I’m among the few to do so as the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a scalding 8% positive (based on 36 reviews, considerably fewer than usual, so you might want to check back at the link below at a later time), the lowest I’ve ever seen for them, along with an anemic 37% at Metacritic (again from a small sample, only 17) so I’ll leave it to you whether to trust my tastes or not concerning Papa … because if I’d seen that a film had that much negativity associated with it I’d likely not bother; but, then again, maybe I’ve just got better insights (highly likely), although you’ll find interesting anomalies within the realm of responses in that it won Best Film at the 2015 Boston Film Festival while it’s panned by Peter Keough of the Boston Globe, then we have Rene Rodriguez of the actual Miami Herald saying that Sparks’ acting style is “better suited for dinner theater or a Key West tourist attraction” while my local critical heavyweight, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, says Sparks “is as close to the actual Hemingway as you can ever hope to find.”  (I’m with Mick here, although I still have to wonder why his actual 4 of 5 rating translates to 75 rather than 80 as Metacritic figures their averages of their critics surveyed.)

 In that whenever I attempt to dash off a short burst of comments in a mini-review under my general category of Short Takes I usually end up writing about 2/3 of what I’d do for a normal review I thought I go a related but different direction here by using a “short cut” choice for a Musical Metaphor to accompany Papa: Hemingway in Cuba by steering you to com/watch?v=pcFczMM gYSk for not just 1 song but the entire 1997 album (1:10:14 whenever you’ve got the time to listen that long) of some great Cuban music by the Buena Vista Social Club, a collection of many excellent Cuban musicians who originally performed with American-guitar-great Ry Cooder in the late 1990s, then continued to tour with different players coming and going at various times (if you like, you might want to continue [whenever you can] for another 1:17:39 with their live performance on the Carnegie Hall album [sorry, no track listings for this one]).  This music doesn’t address the content of the film in any direct manner but it does show a clear understanding of the aspects of that island’s culture that drew Hemingway to live there for about 1/3 of his life.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Dough: (this is an official trailer; normally I'd find another video to enhance this basic introduction but in this case I haven’t found anything else yet; recommendations are most welcome)

Here’s more information about Papa: Hemingway in Cuba: (here’s a film so independent that it has no official website that I can find) (actor Adrian Sparks discusses playing Ernest Hemingway, in which he claims that everything we see is absolutely true not just “based on” a factual record; here’s an extension of that for those of you who speak Spanish [although if you don’t speak English you probably can’t tell what I’m offering here—irony never sleeps—but I’ll put this in anyway] at that uses commentary by director Bob Yari and actor Sparks with subtitles in Spanish of their information, a video I include here in recognition of the continually-thawing-relationship between the U.S. and Cuba)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


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