THE LAUNDROMAT (2019)

October 10, 2019

North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF) 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The meek may inherit the earth, but if this Steven Soderbergh movie based on Jake Bernstein’s book (screenplay by Scott Z Burns) is correct, they aren’t likely to get the money too. To put it more bluntly, the first of the film’s 5 rules of creating and protecting wealth is, “the meek are screwed.” In order to follow this film that is “based on true secrets”, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the Panama Papers … a 2016 anonymous leak of more than 11 million documents exposing how the rich skirt the laws when it comes to protecting their money. Offshore entities had previously been a mainstream punchline, but these documents from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama, clearly outlined just how widespread the practice had become.

Rather than traditional narrative form, the information is presented through multiple vignettes featuring an impressive roster of well-known actors: Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Melissa Rauch, David Schwimmer, James Cromwell, Matthias Schoenaerts, Robert Patrick, Nonso Anozie, and Rosalind Chao, plus a few others you’ll recognize. In the role of tongue-in-cheek emcees are Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, respectively. Their coordinating flamboyant outfits correspond to these caricatures of the real men behind this web of fraudulent activity. They are meant to add humor to the situation, but also tell “their side of the story.”

We are caught off-guard when Meryl Streep’s story and her character are not the main focus. Her slow unraveling of insurance fraud after her husband’s death is but one segment of the lesson that will likely confuse most people. The easy comparison is Adam McKay’s THE BIG SHORT (2015), which used some of this style in explaining the mortgage backed securities market. Whereas Mr. McKay won an Oscar for his screenplay, that’s highly unlikely for this one. Scott Z Burns is a talented writer, but this was simply too complex of a subject to tackle in 95 minutes. Mr. Soderbergh, as is tendency, not only directs the film, but is also the cinematographer, editor and producer.

This is a Netflix production that I caught at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival, and thanks to the presence of Ms. Streep, will likely have at least a limited theatrical release. Unfortunately, neither big screen nor small will solve the inherent issues here. There are some nuggets such as Delaware, despite its population of less than one million, being king of corporation filings (thanks to its business-friendly tax laws). Understanding shell companies, tax evasion, and other illicit financial activities among the world’s ultra-rich requires more than a talented cast, but perhaps there is enough here to motivate some to dig a little deeper with their own research. That is, if the film’s finale – a lecture on reform – doesn’t turn you off completely. Many of us appreciate being informed, but rebel against the preaching.

watch the trailer:

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DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019)

October 7, 2019

North Texas Film Festival 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The old flea market adage is “one person’s trash is another’s treasure”, and the same can be said for comedy. What you find obtuse and humorless may be the funniest thing your neighbor has ever seen or heard. No scientist can explain this phenomenon, and it’s never been better exemplified than with a scene in director Craig Brewer’s (BLACK SNAKE MOAN, HUSTLE & FLOW) latest film. Rudy Ray Moore and his group of friends are in a theatre watching Billy Wilder’s comedy THE FRONT PAGE (1974), starring Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The befuddled looks on the faces of Moore and his cohorts can’t mask their confusion over the raucous laughter in the theatre and what they are viewing on screen. It’s a turning point for Rudy Ray Moore and his next career step.

Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, and though it’s not necessary, having some knowledge of the career of the real Mr. Moore will likely enhance your viewing experience during this exceedingly entertaining, and sometimes riotous biopic. Ruby Ray Moore was a hustler who dreamed of making it big in show business – first as a singer, then as a stand-up comedian, and finally as movie star. His ambition and dreams kept him going, even after others wrote him off. We first meet Rudy as an assistant manager at Dolphin’s of Hollywood record store. He’s trying to smooth-talk the store DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing Rudy’s R&B records … one of which is “The Ring-A-Ling-Dong” song. The DJ tells him the time for that music has passed, but the next light bulb soon goes off Rudy. A local panhandler (a terrific Ron Cephus Jones cameo) regales those in the store with tall tales from the ‘hood. Rudy decides to fine-tune those tales and turn it into a comedy act.

Add some clothes and attitude and that’s how Dolemite was born … Rudy Ray Moore’s onstage alter ego – part pimp, part rapping philosopher. His memorable catchphrase is repeated a few times throughout the film, and I’ll do my best to present a PG version: “Dolemite is my name, and ‘effing’ up mother-‘effers’ is my game.” Yep, now you have a better feel for Rudy and Dolemite. However, co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewsi (also co-writers on Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, 1994), and especially Eddie Murphy, dig much deeper and provide a look at the man, his friends, and his career pursuits.

It’s pretty interesting to see a guy, without much going for him, figure out a strategy that ends up working. Part of his wisdom was in ‘knowing his audience’. His own preferences, and those of his friends, played right into what went on stage, on vinyl, and on screen. When a producer tells him his act will only be funny to the 5 blocks in Rudy’s neighborhood, Rudy brilliantly responds, “Yeah, but every city in America has these same 5 blocks.” It’s that kind of instinct, along with his generosity, and understanding his own shortcomings, that allowed him to reach a level of success. The scene where he cuts a deal with uppity actor D’Urville Martin (a superbly funny Wesley Snipes) portrays Rudy’s keen sense of persuasion … he played to the ego.

Eddie Murphy reminds us of his immense comedic talents and how he became such a mega-superstar in the first place. Here, he’s not really impersonating or mimicking Moore, but rather capturing his spirit and paying tribute to a man he so clearly respects. The supporting cast is also outstanding. In addition to Mr. Snipes, who we wish had more scenes with Mr. Murphy, Craig Robinson is hilarious as singer Ben Taylor, Keegan-Michael Key is socially-conscious playwright Jerry Jones, Titus Burgess is wide-eyed co-worker Theodore Toney, Mike Epps plays Moore’s pal Jimmy Lynch, and Kodi Smit-McPhee (THE ROAD) plays the student-DP. In addition, we get a couple of other cameos from Chris Rock as DJ Daddy Fatts, and Bob Odenkirk plays a film distributor with dollar signs in his eyes. Deserving of special mention is Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) as Lady Reed, Rudy’s muse and discovery. She is funny and ferocious in this role that should lead to much more work.

The film is produced by Netflix and it screened at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival. The music (Scott Bomar) and especially the costume design (Ruth Carter) are top notch, and contribute to the story and film. Rudy Ray Moore became a Blaxploitation icon at a time when the comedy of Richard Pryor, Red Foxx, and Moms Mabley were popular – so hopefully that gives you some indication of the type of humor the film delivers. Raunchy humor with Kung-Fu action and plenty of skin – that’s the formula for the three Dolemite movies, as well as Moore’s comedy albums (and their covers). This was a time when dropping Fred Williamson’s name garnered instant respect. Some may compare this to James Franco’s THE DISASTER ARTIST, but instead I recall Mario van Peebles’ BAADASSSS!, a tribute to his filmmaking father Melvin. Hopefully your sense of humor will allow you to find the many laughs in this one, because Dolemite is dynamite … and that’ a WRAP!

watch the trailer (LANGUAGE WARNING):

 


ZEROVILLE (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In this age of comic book movies and remakes, creative and artistic filmmakers are to be commended for sticking to their vision, no matter how cloudy. James Franco has put together a most unusual career as both actor and director. Here he takes on both in this adaptation of Steve Erickson’s novel, with a screenplay by Paul Felten and Ian Olds. It’s a movie seemingly made for movie nerds, but this particular movie nerd, while enjoying some of the homages, mostly found this to be too messy to recommend.

James Franco plays Vikar, a socially inept loner with a shaved head and permanent scowl. On that head is a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from A PLACE IN THE SUN, the first movie the sheltered Vikar ever saw (11 months ago), and the one that initiated his obsession with movies. Vikar finagles his way into the industry – first as a set builder, and then under the tutelage of veteran film editor Dotty (Jacki Weaver) – reaching award winning status as a filmmaker. Along the way, the character of Vikar recalls Chauncey Gardner in BEING THERE. Is he a genius, or so simple-minded that his thoughts are accepted as brilliant?

It’s 1969, and in an early scene, Vikar is interrogated by police regarding the murder of Sharon Tate. This is our first indication that fact and fiction will be blended here to make whatever points the film is trying to make. Vikar befriends Viking Man on the set of LOVE STORY, and we soon realize John Ford wannabe Viking Man (played by Seth Rogen) is a stand-in for John Milius … a Hollywood legend worthy of his own film. The two new friends attend a beach house party where a group of up-and-coming filmmakers are brainstorming in the living room. Represented are Steven Spielberg, spit-balling a shark movie; George Lucas, yammering about robots; and a young Scorsese and Coppola.

Vikar is soon attracted to and dreaming of a beautiful actress named Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox). This shift of gears to romance from industry commentary does the film no favors. The film is at its best when Vikar is navigating the waters of a Hollywood in transition, including an old school power producer played by Will Ferrell. One of his scenes has him singing “Lum-de-lum-de-lai” in an odd show of power as he attempts to win the girl. Others making an appearance include Danny McBride, Dave Franco, and Craig Robinson – as a burglar who educates Vikar on the nuances of SUNSET BOULEVARD, Erich Von Stroheim, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Joey King has a key role as Soledad’s daughter Zazi, and she even sings on stage.

There are so many nods to Hollywood, that the film plays more like an experimental art project or trivia game than an actual story. The famed Roosevelt Hotel is featured, as is Frances Ford Coppola’s (played by Horatio Sanz) out-of-control film set of APOCALYPSE NOW. A quite colorful description of John Wayne is offered up, and the silent classic THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC takes center stage. We even get Iggy Pop and The Stooges at CBGB, and the first song we hear is “It’s My Life” by Eric Burdon and The Animals.

A key note here is that this was filmed in 2014, and has been caught up in a quagmire of bankrupt distributors ever since. That could explain the questionable flow and editing, but we can assume the wild camera angles were all part of Franco’s plan. It really plays like an experimental film and it covers a few years, though we are never really sure how many. The twist at the end is pretty easy to predict, and unfortunately, it leaves us wondering where an obsession with cinema is likely to lead us.

watch the trailer:


THE DEATH OF DICK LONG (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s Been Awhile” by Staind is the song we first hear from Pink Freud, a garage band formed by buddies Zeke, Earl and Dick. The music is awful, and “band practice” seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting these slackers together, hanging out, and drinking beer. Daniel Scheinert also directed SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) and this first screenplay from Billy Chew shows some real promise for twisted comedy-drama blends. Director Scheinert also plays the titular Mr. Long.

One evening, band practice takes a wrong turn, and Dick ends up dead … unceremoniously dumped in a hospital parking lot by his bandmates. If somehow we previously had any doubts as to the intelligence of Zeke and Earl, all doubt is removed as these two bumbling idiots try to cover up their involvement and what actually happened that night. The cause of death is slow to unfold, but once it does, it surely is the only one of its kind in the history of cinema. The Sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) and her deputy (the talented Sarah Baker) prove equally clueless in their attempts to solve the crime, and much of the film’s humor revolves around folks just not asking quite the right question in any situation.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when small town Alabama adult moronic rednecks get together, the answer involves beer, pot, fireworks and firearms. None of that will likely surprise you; however, the twist and reveal, hopefully will. I first saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s a tragicomedy that unabashedly offers a tip of the cap to the Coen Brothers.

Michael Abbott Jr plays Zeke and Andre Hyland plays Earl, and their scenes together will have you laughing and questioning human existence. Virginia Newcomb plays Lydia (Zeke’s wife), Jess Weixler is the perplexed wife of Dick, and Sunita Mani is hilarious as Earl’s friend Lake Travis (a name nearly as much of a punchline as the film’s titular character).  While the film has many funny and awkward moments, it can also be taken as a statement on testosterone-driven bad decisions and actions with consequences. If nothing else, we learn how to quickly answer when someone asks, “Y’all wanna get weird?

CAUTION: RED BAND TRAILER (not appropriate for younger viewers):

 

 


CORPORATE ANIMALS (2019)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Patrick Brice is building a career on films that leave us with an unsettled, even conflicted feeling on whether we should “like” them or not. He certainly has little time for ‘normal’ characters, and heroic behavior rarely enters a scene. His latest is written by Sam Bain (PEEP SHOW, and son of Emmy winning director Bill Bain), and it fits perfectly into the offbeat comedy realm of Mr. Brice’s previous two CREEP films (with Mark Duplass) and THE OVERNIGHT (2015).

The film kicks off was an advertisement (in the pre-production stage) for Incredible Edibles, a bio-friendly company that produces edible cutlery (a comical visual). Featured in the ad is the company’s ruthless CEO Lucy, played by Demi Moore. Lucy has arranged a Team Building outing for her employees in the mountains of New Mexico. The expedition is led by Brandon (Ed Helms, THE HANGOVER), a Bear Gryllis type who easily evaluates the team’s incongruent pieces. After advising against Lucy’s demand for the “Advanced” trail, Brandon gives in since ‘the check has cleared’. He proceeds to lead the team on a repelling adventure down into a stunning cavern.

Just when it looks like the “advanced” trail was the right call, a cave-in occurs, trapping the team with no escape route, and little food or water. It’s at this point when we realize that most of Lucy’s management style seems to have originated in a ‘get tough’ management book from the 1960’s. She has no real instinct on how to treat people, and mostly just bullies and tricks them. Ms. Moore’s character and performance could easily be viewed as a spoof of her DISCLOSURE role with some uncomfortable laughs. We even get a Harvey Weinstein punchline.

Noticeable right away is the terrific comedic cast. Lucy’s team consists of Jess (Jessica Williams, BOOKSMART), Freddie (Karan Soni, DEADPOOL), Derek (Isiah Whitlock Jr, CEDAR RAPIDS), Gloria (Martha Kelly, “Baskets”), Billy (Dan Bakkedahl, SWORD OF TRUST), May (Jennifer Kim, “The Blacklist”), Suzy (Nasim Padrad, ALADDIN), and intern Aidan (Calum Worthy, “American Vandal”). This is an exceptionally talented group of funny people who know how to deliver a line. Some of the funniest moments are the ‘throwaway’ lines being uttered in between the main dialogue. That’s where the real comedy gold is buried, so listen closely.

Although the film is a comedy, it also boasts some elements of horror and suspense. Lucy’s twisted idealism is the basis for some of this, as is the team’s situation as things become more dire (think ALIVE blended with any workplace comedy). We learn the company is teetering on financial failure, and as one might expect in a confined area, workplace resentments and true feelings begin to rear up. The script never quite takes on business satire, focusing instead on personal reactions to a bleak situation. Even Gary Sinise and Britney Spears are included in the comic elements, and while some will find this to be a fitting midnight movie, others will once again be left wondering what to make of Patrick Brice’s films. And maybe that’s the point.

watch the trailer:


BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON (2019)

September 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Philosophically speaking, each of us is running our own marathon of life. Of course, every person’s marathon has its own obstacles and challenges, and most of us have happiness as our end goal for the finish line. This first feature film from writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo is based on the real life struggles of his friend Brittany, whose photos are shared over the closing credits.

Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, a 28 year old New York City party girl dedicated to avoiding adult responsibilities. She struggles to make ends meet financially, yet manages to drink copious amounts of alcohol and partake in recreational drug use. A trip to a Yelp-referred doctor in hopes of scoring Adderall ends with a harsh realization when he asks if she is making “healthy choices” … her BMI places her in the obese category. Suddenly her friends’ claiming she is the funniest person in the room can be interpreted as Brittany using humor as a coping method – a trait she recognizes in another character later in the story.

This is no simple “chick flick” filled with punchlines. Well, OK, it has plenty of punchlines thanks to the comedic brilliance of Ms. Bell, however, the film is also loaded with the emotional burdens that accompany societal standards. It exposes the nasty side of human nature in how we treat those who are overweight, or not meeting the accepted standard of attractiveness, or not wealthy enough, or not fashion-oriented, or whatever other standard being applied at any given time. Brittany takes us on the emotional journey of seeking happiness and self-actualization when one is mired in insecurities and depression. It’s a journey that can be tough to watch and tough to experience.

The underappreciated Michaela Watkins plays Brittany’s neighbor Catherine, whose athletic and artistic façade camouflage her shattered marriage and the accompanying pain. Ms. Watkins clearly embraces offbeat projects, as evidenced by her role in BRIGSBY BEAR (2017) and by appearing with Jillian Bell in this year’s indie gem SWORD OF TRUST. When Brittany laces up her Chucks and runs that first block, Catherine jumps in and invites her to join a runner’s club. It’s there that Brittany and Catherine meet Seth (Micah Stock), an out of shape gay man proving to his son he is a strong father that can be relied upon. We see all three become friends, and though Brittany may have motivated them to run the NYC Marathon, we see that each is running for their own reason.

Other supporting work is provided by Lil Rey Howery (GET OUT) as Demetrius, Brittany’s brother-in-law and surrogate step-father via Skype; Alice Lee as Gretchen, Brittany’s narcissistic vlogger roommate; and Utkarsh Ambudkar as Jern, Brittany’s slacker co-worker turned friend turned romantic partner. Even though Jillian Bell owns the film as Brittany, each of the talented support cast brings depth to their roles, allowing these to be actual people to whom we can relate. It’s a risky move casting so many improve comedians, but the result is quite impressive.

The film is loaded with life lessons and chuckles, and with that comes moments of cruelty, self-centeredness, insecurity and depression. Friendship is key here. Is someone your friend if they belittle you and keep you around so they feel better about themselves?  Are we a good friend if we don’t allow others to support and help us out in times of need? The message these days is to accept yourself, and find happiness in the type of person you are. Brittany shows us that finding yourself is a crucial first step, and that accepting yourself doesn’t mean accepting bad habits and poor health. The film was well received at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why … much easier than running that first block.

watch the trailer:


READY OR NOT (2019)

August 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rich people aren’t like you and me (unless you happen to be rich, in which case you fall into the first category). Their houses are different. Their vacations are different. Their family traditions are different. And that’s where this latest from co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet (known collectively with Producer Matt Villella as Radio Silence) really kicks in. Yes, the Le Domas estate is a maze of dark wood, music rooms, and hidden passages, but it’s the wedding day tradition of post nuptial game night that provides the thrills, chills, shocks and laughter for about an hour and a half.

Former foster child Grace (a star-making performance from Samara Weaving, THE BABYSITTER, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MO), is nervous and excited just before her wedding ceremony begins. Her husband to be is Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), the black sheep of an ultra-rich family, and the ceremony is being held within the lush garden and fountain grounds of the Le Domas mansion. Grace loves Alex and seems to have come to grips with his family: alcoholic brother Daniel (Adam Brody) who is always hitting on her, Daniel’s gold-digger wife Charity (Elyse Levesque), father and patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) who is outspoken in his belief that Grace isn’t good enough for the family, mother and matriarch Becky (Andie MacDowell) who seems confused about her feelings towards Grace, crazy-eyed and wild-haired Aunt Helene (Nicky Guardagni) who seems to hate all living creatures, and coke-head sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) who, along with her douche-husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun) couldn’t even get to the ceremony on time.

The above lineup of players is crucial because of what happens next. For wedding day game night, Grace draws the “Hide and Seek” card, rather than the much preferred checkers or Old Maid. There is a nice set up for this tradition which includes a Faustian deal made by Great Grandfather Le Domas. It’s that deal that turns ‘hide and seek’ into ‘hunt and kill’. Oh yeah, Alex forgot to warn Grace about the stakes and it’s a blast to watch her transition as she figures it out. A torn wedding gown and yellow Chucks make up the visual of a bride fighting back against the antique weapons of crossbow, pocket pistol, elephant gun and battle-axe. You got it right – this family tradition is absolutely bonkers … and bloody … and deadly.

As has become the favorite pastime of Hollywood recently, the film torches the ultra-rich. But if you can overlook the political posturings, you’ll find a devilishly fun irreverent farcical zinger that offers some similarities to CLUE and SLEUTH, as well as many other games and movies. It has some of the look of SAW, but with significantly more tongue-in-cheek. In fact, dark comedy thriller might be a proper description, but you’ll likely find yourself laughing more often than jumping in your seat. It’s a wonderfully crafted and paced film that understands exactly what it is … an instant classic Midnight Movie (along with this year’s SATANIC PANIC from director Chelsea Stardust).

Co-writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy take full advantage of the ominous setting and the wicked set-up, however, a minor quibble would be that the dialogue could have been a bit wittier. Most of the laughs come courtesy of the moment or the actors, and the banter falls just a little short. The prologue provides a 30 year ago flashback that cautions us for the ride we are about to take, and even offers some insight into the characters as much younger versions of themselves. The opening credit sequence is a beautifully staged and filmed running shot of some classic board games, informing us of the industry closely associated with the Le Domas ‘dominion’.

It must be noted that a studio recently postponed the theatrical release of THE HUNT because of the political backlash to their premise – rich people hunting poor people. While the themes of these two films could be considered similar, only the most extreme hard-liners could view READY OR NOT as anything more than good demented fun. Much of the primary production was filmed on location at the Parkwood Estate in Ontario, and it’s the perfect setting for a family that chooses murder and fortune over all else. Two standouts on the soundtrack include “The Hide and Seek Song” by Headquarters Music and “Love Me Tender” by Stereo Jane (definitely not Elvis). For those who enjoy the twisted comedy approach to in-law jokes and violence, there are plenty of macabre moments that will deliver a smile … till death do us part.

***I’ve elected not to post the trailer here. If this is the type of movie you enjoy, it’s better that you allow the surprises and twists to sneak up on you. If you aren’t a fan of this type of movie, the trailer wouldn’t convince you to see it.