FIRST DATE (2021)

July 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This is the first feature film for co-writers and co-directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp. Despite mixed reactions from its Sundance Film Festival premiere, it’s safe to say that this madcap action-comedy-romance-crime drama provides enough to set the stage for additional projects from the filmmakers. It likely works best as midnight fare, but the film juggles multiple genres and tonal shifts well enough that most will find it at least watchable, if not quite entertaining.

Tyson Brown (his first feature film) stars as Mike, a meek teenager too shy to ask his kickboxing neighbor Kelsey (Shelby Duclos, also her first feature film) on a date. When Mike’s boisterous good friend Brett (Josh Fesler) forces his hand, Mike is surprised when Kelsey accepts … setting off a wild chain of events and comedy of errors featuring a whole host of looney characters. But first, Mike has to find a car to drive, or there will be no picking up Kelsey at 7pm.

Mike buys a $300 1965 Chrysler from a shady dude named Dennis (Scott Noble). Now, Dennis is a natural scammer, but there is another reason Mike’s newly purchased clunker is attracting the attention of drug dealers and corrupt cops. Mike and Kelsey’s first date gets delayed a bit due to all the chaos, and Kelsey briefly ends up in the front seat of the Porsche belonging to local stud Chet (Brandon Kraus). Two local cops played by Nicole Berry and Samuel Adamola have multiple run-ins with Mike, each with terrific comic flair courtesy of Ms. Berry. Walking the line between comedy and danger is the crime gang who spend less time chasing Mike’s car and more time on their book club – “Of Mice and Men” generating quite the debate. It’s like a bumbling character convention came to town.

Filmmakers Crosby and Knapp deliver a frenzied opening scene to try and prepare us for what’s coming. There are a few scenes that drag a bit, but for the most part, the pacing is pretty solid and the mixture of laughs and danger is well managed. Calling 8-tracks the vinyl of car radio is pure genius, and once things go awry, it’s no-holds-barred. The big shootout reminds of FREE FIRE (2016), while the zaniness recalls such films as ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987), AFTER HOURS (1985), and TRUE ROMANCE (1993).

The supporting cast includes Jesse Janzen, Ryan Quinn Adams, Jake Howard, and Samantha Laurenti, and Nicole Berry is quite the scene stealer as Police Sgt Davis. Tyson Brown is spot on as the deadpan Mike whose only talents seem to be misplacing his phone and staying alive, while Shelby Duclos leaves us wishing her Kelsey had significantly more screen time. We can debate whether it’s best to get caught by drug dealers or corrupt cops, and the comedy of errors is sometimes less funny and more dangerous, but that pinch of teen romance keeps the film grounded and personal.

In theaters and On Demand beginning July 2, 2021

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@ZOLA

July 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, this is the first feature film based on an actual Twitter thread. Writer-director Janicza Bravo (LEMON, 2017) works with co-writers Jeremy O Harris and the real life Zola, A’Ziah King to mold the viral 148 Tweets (#TheStory) from 2015 into a somewhat coherent film that may just provide a bit more insight into the social media world than we’d prefer in one sitting. A24 movie studio proves yet again their original, creative, and unique films are unapologetically outside the industry norm … and they are generating quite a loyal following because of it.

Taylour Paige (Dussy Mae in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020) stars as Zola, a waitress with perfect certain “features” according to one of her customers. Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter who continues to build a strong and diverse resume, including a standout performance in AMERICAN HONEY, 2016), have an instant connection, and the next day they are off on a road trip to Florida to make big bucks dancing at exotic clubs. Accompanying them are X (Colman Domingo, Cutler in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020), and Derrek (Nicolas Braun, “Succession”), Stefani’s doofus boyfriend.

Be forewarned: this is not the zany female buddy comedy the trailer teases. It’s a dark, twisted comedy laced with dangerous situations and violence. While Zola was led to believe this was a dancing trip for real cash, it turns out X is really Stefani’s pimp, and though Zola stands firm in not taking the sex for cash route, she’s prevented from leaving by a forceful X, no longer the charmer she first encountered. Zola’s wise-to-the-world ways allows her to assist Stefani in upping her cash flow, but things go wrong when Derrek socializes outside the group.

After the infamous Twitter thread, “Rolling Stone” writer David Kushner published an article entitled, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga ever Tweeted”. This is an alternate universe to many of us, though it’s pulled from the “pages” of today’s online culture. Much of the dialogue is in Twitter-speak, and the new Tweet ding is used to emphasize certain spoken lines (think rim shots). Director Bravo instills the “B-word” at the same pace that Tarantino uses the F-word, and it should be noted that both actresses are terrific. Ms. Keough will likely make you laugh, while simultaneously making you uncomfortable. It’s a case study in cultural appropriation – especially her dialect, which is purposefully offensive. We aren’t accustomed to seeing this type of humor these days, but Keough is to be commended for going all in. Ms. Paige’s performance is much different, but no less impactful as her Zola tries to make the best of a horrible situation.

This is a wild story with characters I can only hope you don’t recognize from your own life. It begs the question, what kind of relationships arise from social media? We go a bit deeper on Zola, but really we don’t know much about these people. They are as deep as social media allows, while also serving up a warning to those who might somehow believe internet interactions are anonymous and harmless.

Now showing in theaters nationwide.

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THE MAN IN THE HAT (2021)

May 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Who is the woman in the picture? What did the five men toss in the river? Why are those men chasing the man in the hat? Why is that other man wet? If the man in the hat is running from the five men, why does he keep running into the same people? What are those two measuring now? Why doesn’t anyone (ok, almost no one) speak? Why are there so many questions, and why, by the end, do we not care that most go unanswered?

John-Paul Davidson, known mostly as a travel documentarian, and Stephen Warbeck, an Oscar-winning composer, have teamed up as co-directors and co-writers to deliver an unusual and whimsical road trip movie that tips a cap to the silent comedy films of yesteryear. Adding to the unusual elements is Ciaran Hinds starring as the titular man in the hat. Mr. Hinds is a long-time terrific actor, but not one we think of for jocular comedies requiring exaggerated facial expressions, physical pratfalls, and squeezing into a tiny Fiat for a back roads drive through rural France.

As the film opens, the man in the hat spends the day sharing a table with the woman’s photo at a charming riverside café. That evening, while still seated at the table, he witnesses 5 grown men pile out of a clown car Citroen and dump what appears to be a body into the river. The man escapes with the framed photo and one of the film’s recurring gags is the close calls he has with the five men as they drive through the countryside. The film plays a bit like Homer’s Odyssey in that the only real story occurs as the man interacts with various folks he meets along the way. The Damp Man is played by the always interesting Stephen Dillane, and a lovely woman on a bicycle who exchanges flirtations with hat man is played by Sasha Hails.

Among the strange and wacky paths that cross are a couple of onion-chomping geezers who fix his car, a cluster of singing female mechanics, a solo French biker, and a pair of city workers with a measuring tape and eyes for each other. Music plays a huge role here, which is not surprising given the presence of Mr. Warbeck. Not only does the accompanying music feature an unusual and varied blend of music types, but we also see and hear many local musicians, including Mathilda Homer. And for the finale, music again plays a role, bringing things full circle.

Coming up with a comparison movie is not easy, though one description could be director Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” franchise … if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were not allowed to speak! This isn’t a laugh out loud type of comedy, rather it’s mostly just pleasant and odd. For a drive through rural France or a chance to watch Ciaran Hinds chase his shoe down a drain, this bizarre little ditty from Davidson and Warbeck will work just fine.

In theaters and on demand on May 14, 2021

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LIMBO (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Immigration is an important and hot topic these days, and it should be noted that most countries have challenges with people either trying to get in or trying to get out … and for some, it’s both. Writer-director Ben Sharrock offers a unique and creative look at refugees stuck on a nameless remote Scottish island, awaiting word on their UK asylum request.

Omar (Amir El-Masry, Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” TV series) has escaped the war in Syria, and we learn much about him from listening in on calls to his mother from the only phone booth on the island. An acclaimed musician in Damascus, Omar lugs around his grandfather’s oud (“it’s like a guitar”). As proof of his homesickness, the bulky case never leaves his side, nor does he pull the instrument out to play – music is meant for joyous occasions. Omar shares a small house with three other refugees: Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) from Ghana, and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) from Nigeria, with the latter two posing as brothers in hopes of improving their odds for asylum.

Omar is a sullen stone-face who absorbs the racist taunts from young locals (they ask if he makes bombs), and stands in contrast to the more outgoing and optimistic (and darn funny) Farhad. Not only does he idolize Freddie Mercury for “teaching” him English, Farhad, with his ever-present cigarette, also captures a chicken and keeps it as a pet. These refugees regularly attend a class entitled “Cultural Awareness 101”, meant to acclimate those from varying backgrounds to the local customs and culture. These segments are mined beautifully for comedic effect, while also giving us insight into all those involved. There are also references to Chet Baker, Donnie Osmond, and the TV series, “Friends”.

This is a terrific film, as well as an odd one. Many of the shots from cinematographer Nick Cooke are static and sparse in style, and though focused on the individuals, the camera also captures much of the isolation of the island. These visuals are stunning in both their simplicity and relevance. It’s a dramedy unafraid to be absurd in a moment, while also being enlightening. At times it has the feel of Wes Anderson without the color palette. We aren’t sure what is worse, the weather or the local postal service. Brutal cold envelops the newcomers, while the delivery route of a postal van (and the reactions of the refugees) is a comedic highlight. Even the local market, with its limited spice selection and directions for urination, draws laughter from us.

Despite the comedy, we never lose sight of these folks being stuck in purgatory. Maybe it’s not true camaraderie, but they seem to take some comfort in numbers as they wait. Omar is carrying guilt and feelings of inadequacy as he chose to leave while his older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) remained in Syria to fight in the war. There is a wonderful “scene” that allows Omar to make peace with their contrasting decisions, and it leads him back to playing music. After all, “a musician who doesn’t play is dead”. The titular term of Limbo often means stuck, and there is also a game of persistence that uses that name, and both definitions work here. We are reminded that regardless of the various cultures, those in the immigration system have their own personal stories and burdens.

Opens in theaters on April 30, 2021

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WE BROKE UP (2021)

April 22, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. They’ve been together for 10 years, and when Doug proposes – seemingly spontaneously – to Lori, her reaction is ‘slightly’ askew from what he expected. The real question here is, how do two people have a 10 year romantic relationship and never once discuss marriage, kids, a house, or literally anything to do with their future? That’s the premise for the dramedy from writer director Jeff Rosenberg and co-writer Laura Jacqmin.

Aya Cash (“Fosse/Verdon” and a Jodie Whitaker lookalike) stars as Lori, longtime girlfriend of Doug, played by William Jackson Harper (MIDSOMMAR, 2019). If the proposal-gone-wrong and subsequent fallout weren’t uncomfortable enough, the timing couldn’t be much worse. Lori and Doug are scheduled to leave for her sister’s wedding, and both have roles in the wedding party … he’s “King of the Ushers”. Since staying away is not an option, the dilemma they face is whether to announce the break-up or pretend everything is fine until the vows are exchanged. They decide not to spoil the wedding and head off to Camp Arrowhead, the former summer camp site that the wedding couple selected for the ceremony.

Sarah Bolger (IN AMERICA, 2002) plays Bea, Lori’s betrothed sister. She’s been dating Jayson (Tony Cavalero, “School of Rock” TV series) for a whole month, and the two energetic free-spirits are total personality opposites from Lori and Doug. As mother of the two girls, Peri Gilpin (“Frasier”) is a tad less than supportive of her daughter’s spontaneous life decisions, while initially clueless to the difficulties faced by her stable and dependable daughter.

The film is well acted by the leads, but most of it feels like a missed opportunity to explore the psychological differences of the sisters or the effects of a long-term “comfortable” relationship with no eye towards the future. Both of the topics are begging for more in-depth coverage, and instead we are left with mostly predictable behavior. One couple that is too fast to the altar, while the other is too slow, presents a goldmine of opportunity. On the bright side, there are some small moments and subtle jokes and gags that are beautifully executed and work much better than the overall comedy efforts. Filmed at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, the film touches on anger and hurt and excitement, and all emotions attached to love and relationships.

In theaters and On Demand April 23, 2021

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DEADLY CUTS (2021, Ireland)

April 15, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If we have to depend on Dublin filmmaking for the year’s first stellar comedy, then so be it. This is the first feature film from writer-director Rachel Carey, but it certainly won’t be the last. Somehow she’s created a black and blue comedy that plays like a mash-up of ZOOLANDER (2001) and BLOW THE MAN DOWN (2018), two films I feel sure had not previously been mentioned in the same sentence.

Piglinstown is a small, working class community in Dublin … the metaphorical ‘other side of the tracks’. Michelle (Angeline Ball, THE COMMITMENTS, 1991) runs the salon, and is just one of the local business being threatened by gang activity and gentrification driven by greedy politicians. Michelle’s staff includes Stacey (Erika Roe, HERSELF, 2020), a stylist who believes winning an upcoming competition can not only save the salon, but also her dreams of finally being accepted by the mother that deserted her many years ago; Gemma (Lauren Larkin), the in-house amateur psychologist and therapist; and Chantelle (Shauna Higgins, “Red Rock”), a socially awkward wizard with hair color. It’s a motley crew of women who are stronger than they think, and display a camaraderie that defines small business and small towns.

The ladies embrace the upcoming “Ahh Hair” competition as their road to salvation, where a win would boost the salon’s reputation and make tearing the shop down for luxury apartments an unthinkable act. The problem is that the annual competition is consistently won by the posh shop where Michelle once worked before a catastrophic on stage occurrence many years ago. The high end shop is now run by her hilariously intimidating rival Pippa (Victoria Smurfit, “Marcella”). This becomes a bit of a parody of class distinction between Dublin’s north and south side.

But there is much more here than the hair styling competition. Some of the grit of the working class rears its head one evening when the gang leader threatens the ladies of the salon. One thing leads to another and soon the shop has earned its name, “Deadly Cuts.” Although crime and violence play a role here, the gore is minimal and mostly occurs off screen, and even packs its own level of humor. Ms. Carey loads up her script with a slew of one-liners, each expertly delivered by a cast that embraces the cinematic lampoon. “The hair tongs are heating up” is merely one example of what is broadcast by FAD TV during the competition. For a rollicking good time, check this one out … though you may need the closed captions unless your ears are in full Irish mode.

Featured at the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival


SAY YOUR PRAYERS (2021)

April 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The brothers have chosen to accept the mission they’ve been given, which is to assassinate outspoken atheist writer, Professor John Huxley. The deed is to be done during the Ilkley Literature Festival where Huxley is a featured speaker. Brothers Victor and Tim are Christian radicals, and not particularly clever. In fact, the terrific opening sequence shows us an execution on a hill – one that displays the tragic effects of mistaken identity.

Writer-director Harry Michell (he played Nick in YESTERDAY, 2019) and co-writer Jamie Fraser (his first feature film) deliver a strong first act that really gets our hopes up. Tom Brooke (PIRATE RADIO, 2009) plays Victor, the high-strung older brother to Tim, who is played by ski cap-wearing Harry Melling (the “Harry Potter” franchise). Victor is prone to violent outbursts, while Tim is the more sensitive type – and a bit slow at times. That contrast between the brothers is a fun element, as is the close bond they share.

Director Michell utilizes a recurring men’s choir (breaking the fourth wall) as a way to both drive the story and add a bit of humor. In the first half-hour, the two most obvious comparisons we make are THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999) and IN BRUGES (2008). Unfortunately, that’s a standard that the film simply can’t sustain. It seems to be filled with any number of promising ideas that mostly just fizzle or fade out. A perfect example is the dynamic between the two investigative cops played by Anna Maxwell Martin and Flora Spencer-Longhurst. The banter between these two characters is just never quite as colorful or pointed as we wish.

The supporting cast includes Vinette Robinson as Imelda, one of the festivals organizers who has a close relationship with Professor Huxley. Imelda’s time with Tim works well at times. Roger Allum effectively portrays the arrogant atheist author, and Derek Jacobi plays Father Enoch, the priest who raised the two orphans, Tim and Victor, and now has them doing the church’s dirty work. The real standout here is the film’s editing by Xanna Ward Dixon and Dylan Holmes Williams. The pacing and quick cuts keep us engaged and minimize the shortcomings of the story … which certainly could have worked with more risk-taking and pushing of the envelope. Not going far enough is film’s downfall – and it’s quite disappointing given the promising start.

In theaters and On Demand April 2, 2021

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HAPPILY (2021)

March 19, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most frequent movie-goers have complained about the over-supply of sequels, remakes, and superhero movies. The battle cry is typically something like, “We want some creative new movie ideas!” Well, the feature film debut of writer-director BenDavid Grabinski (writer-producer of TV series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”) serves up a unique and creative premise in which Act 1 really gets us excited for new experience.

There’s a party at a very nice house. A woman makes inviting eye contact with a man across the room. Their spontaneous sex romp forces Arthur (Al Madrigal, “I’m Dying Up Here”) to find an alternative place for relief. Soon the hosts are explaining to Arthur that the bathroom is tied up by Tom (Joel McHale, “Community”) and Janet (Kerry Bishe, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”), a couple who has been married for 14 years, yet they can’t keep their hands off each other. Skeptical Arthur states it must be an act, and “they are as miserable as everyone else.”

We quickly discover that Tom and Janet are neither acting nor miserable. Dinner with the hosts of that ‘bathroom’ party, Karen (Natalie Zea, “Justified”) and Val (Paul Scheer, “The League”), brings a disinvite to a planned couples weekend getaway, along with the brusque enlightenment to Tom and Janet, “everybody hates you.” The next day, a stranger shows up at their front door. Goodman (Stephen Root, OFFICE SPACE, 1999) basically explains the couple is defective and missing the genetic DNA that creates the law of diminishing returns. Fortunately, he has the vaccine that will bring them normalcy. A dramatic turn of events leads to panic and a phone call from Karen re-inviting the couple to the weekend getaway.

That initial set-up is brilliant and played to perfection. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that standard. Things begin to falter once the couples begin showing up at the luxurious Airbnb booked by Patricia (Natalie Morales, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, 2017) and her husband, Donald, (Jon Daly, MASTERMINDS, 2016). The other two couples include Carla (Shannon Woodward, ODE TO JOY, 2019) and Maude (Kirby Howell Baptiste, “Barry”), and Gretel (Charlene Yi, THIS IS 40, 2012) and Richard (Breckin Meyer, ROAD TRIP, 2000). Until this point, we kind of liked Tom and Janet, and got a kick out of the annoyance shown by Karen and Val. However, once everyone is under the same roof, we realize just how unlikable these people are and how screwed up each relationship actually is. The smart dark comedy of Act 1 devolves into a party that we wish we weren’t at, with a twist that makes little sense.

It’s fun to see the familiar faces, and McHale and Biche are fun, but the hope we felt for that creative beginning never pays off. There is a “Twilight Zone” vibe to the premise and the Stranger, but even that is a letdown. The message the movie leaves us with is that people aren’t all good. It’s a message we live every day, not one for a comedy.

In theaters, on digital, and On Demand March 19, 2021

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SXSW 2021 Day 3

March 19, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 3

 This was my third and final day of movies at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) virtual festival. I’ve watched and reviewed 16 movies in 60 hours, and remarkably, there wasn’t one clunker in the bunch.

 

Day 3 for me included a documentary, a comedy, two dramas, and a horror film. Here’s a recap:

 

 

WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT (documentary)

 Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught”, but it was Guy Clark who wrote ‘em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it’s also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark’s enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.

The film is based on Susanna’s diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”. Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It’s more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.

Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.

Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist – her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album.

Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna’s time with “TR”, which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations – both personal and musical. Clips of Guy’s appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes’ death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: “Texas is callin’, callin’ me home.” With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.

 

SWAN SONG (drama)

 It’s never too late. We’ve all heard the phrase, but is it accurate … at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he’s living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He’s a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It’s not the last time we see his two sides.

Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks – some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.

There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others … and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he’s been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.

Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a “conversation” in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It’s a touching sequence.

But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we’ve really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as “The Liberace of Sandusky” and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance – and a Shirley Bassey song!

 

HOW IT ENDS (comedy)

 We get glimpses of the meteor that’s speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight … well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine.  Liza’s only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).

In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it’s a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza’s day of walking. I won’t name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment – some more than others.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it’s one of the more entertaining ‘pandemic’ films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980’s relic agreed to be a punchline.

 

VIOLET (drama)

 Justine Bateman’s first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it’s welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”) stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice – she calls it “the committee” feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones … both personally and professionally.

As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet’s boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it’s Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.

We see flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what’s going on in Violet’s mind as it battles with her “committee”. It’s a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the “Seinfeld” episode where George does “the opposite”. Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery … and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.

 

VIOLATION (drama/horror)

 Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I’ve seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.

It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.

One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it’s unlike anything I’ve previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.

 


SXSW 2021 Day One

March 16, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 1

This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 1 for me included four documentaries and one narrative. Here’s a recap:

 

HYSTERICAL (documentary)

 Stand-up comedy is certainly one of the toughest ways to make a living in the entertainment world. As if making others laugh isn’t difficult enough, convincing someone to give you mic time on stage takes a minor miracle when first starting out. Documentarian Andrea Blaugrund Nevins goes one step further as she focuses on the trials and tribulations facing female stand-up comedians. And she does so in a way that allows us to feel the struggle.

No matter your age, if you are reading this, then there were successful and funny female comedians working when you were growing up. Ms. Nevins includes clips of Moms Mabley from 1948, as well as Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and other legends. But this documentary is about so much more than great jokes. We are privy to the personal stories behind the stage acts of many of the women working stand-up today. These women are honest and raw in recounting their journeys, and they are fascinating and informative.

Souls are bared, and no topic is off limits. Confidence, anger, self-doubt, childhood issues, and the desire for attention and acknowledgment are discussed. In what has traditionally been “a man’s world”, we are told that once onstage, “There is no one telling us what to do.” The dark side is also present. Pay discrepancies between the genders is well documented. We hear multiple stories of being subjected to inappropriate behavior, groping, and even assault. Included is the 2019 clip of Kelly Bachman rocking the room while Harvey Weinstein was present. On top of that, there is competition amongst the women due to the belief that there is only room for so many. Yet, despite this, a camaraderie exists among these brave women to prove the power of laughter. Terrific work from Ms. Nevins.

 

DEAR MR. BRODY (documentary)

 Filmmaker Keith Maitland is responsible for one of the best made and most interesting documentaries of all-time. His TOWER (2016) was a favorite on the festival run, as well as its numerous TV showings. The body count on his latest is reduced, and it plays like psychoanalysis of a young man who captured the nation’s attention for one brief moment in time.

If the title doesn’t ring a bell, you likely were either too young or not born when, in 1970, the heir to an Oleo Margarine fortune made headlines everywhere. Michael James Brody, Jr announced that he was going to give away his millions to anyone who asked. He even gave out his home address and phone number in Scarsdale, New York. The announcement even got him a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to sing a song … which led to a recording contract.

At the time, Brody was 21 years old and married to Renee, who was kind enough to sit for interviews with Mr. Maitland for the film. Her (reluctant) insight paints a picture of a man who believed in “Peace” over “Money”, and started with the best intentions of helping people. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the cracks to show in Brody’s mission. His pronouncements of gift-giving had his wealth fluctuating from $25 million to $50 million, and even into the billions at times. His demeanor shifted drastically, sometimes within the same day.

The letters flowed in. And kept coming. We hear from authors, friends of Brody, and researchers. Producer Melissa Robyn Glassman located 12 boxes of unopened letters that movie Producer Edward Pressman had in storage from a movie project that never materialized. We also hear from Brody’s and Renee’s son Jamey, who not only collects items from the family “Good Luck” Margarine brand, but also has 40-50 boxes of unopened letters addressed to his dad … Dear Mr. Brody.

It’s those letters that provide the heart and soul of the story, the movie, and this moment in history. Maitland and Melissa track down some of the original letter writers, as well as some of the surviving family members. As they read the words from decades ago, emotions take over and instantly, we are observing an intimate memory. We may be intruding, but these are raw human emotions on display.

Brody’s mental state at the time is also discussed. Drugs clearly played a part in his behavior – specifically PCP, and this led to interest from the editor of “High Times” magazine. It also led to Brody being hospitalized for a time, and ultimately to tragedy. History is filled with odd characters, and Michael James Brody, Jr certainly had his Andy Warhol ’15 minutes of Fame’, but the real story here is that of those who wrote the letters of need/want more than 50 years ago.

**NOTE: it’s not surprising that Brody’s house at 31 Paddington Road in Scarsdale was long ago razed and replaced with a mansion more suitable to the area.

 

INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR (documentary)

 Whether it’s navigating the stairs on all fours, getting a boost up to the saddle of her beloved horse, or showing off her glittery turbans and walking canes, the showmanship of actress Selma Blair seems ever-present despite the severe effects of her Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Documentarian Rachel Fleit films the daily challenges faced by Ms. Blair as she comes to grips with the disease and its impact on her career, her life, and her ability to raise her son.

You likely recognize Selma Blair from her most popular movies, CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999) and LEGALLY BLONDE (2001). She admits to viewing herself as a supporting actor, rather than a star, but with 80 screen credits over 25 years, she’s certainly worked consistently. But here we see her daily physical and emotional struggles, though her sense of humor is present except for the darkest moments. Cracking wise about Kim Kardashian or Norma Desmond (SUNSET BLVD), and never hesitating to ensure her cane serves the dual purpose of fashion accessory, Ms. Blair keeps us constantly guessing as to whether she is serving up raw emotions or her best performance in the moment.

We can easily forgive her if a bit of her good humor is an act. It seems clear the film is designed to be a “gift” to her young son Arthur, should her life be cut short. Early on, we witness an MS episode when the stimulus gets to be too much. Her physical contortions and impaired speech are difficult to watch, but necessary for us to fully understand the brutality of the disease.

Half of the film is dedicated to her decision to seek stem cell treatment. The process is long and arduous, and we are spared much of the worst that she experiences. Still, it’s a weeks-long cycle followed by a two year recovery, with no guarantee of improvement. In fact, no miracle cure or recovery occurs, and Ms. Blair initially seems shocked that she has two years of recovery ahead. It’s difficult to believe she had not previously been informed.

Selma Blair’s slogan, “We have so much time to be dead”, is a terrific message and she’s to be commended and respected for opening up her challenges to the camera. It’s hopeful that her willingness to do so will help others, while also educating those unfamiliar with this disease. Mommy issues and extra drama aside, this film is quite something to experience.

 

THE END OF US (drama)

 Co-writers and co-directors Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner serve up one of the first COVID-19 relationship movies. It’s the kind of indie movie that plays well at festivals, but also one that nails what so many have experienced over the past year … well hopefully sans the break-up.

Ali Vingiano is Leah and Ben Coleman is Nick. They have been in a four year relationship that ends abruptly when Leah gets fed up with carrying an unbalanced load in regards to grown-up things like rent, food, and insurance. See, while Nick dreams of writing a screenplay and getting acting jobs (while taking few auditions), Leah is the grounded one who holds a real paying job. It’s easy for us to understand when Leah says ‘enough’.

The wrinkle here is that the break-up occurs in the early days of the pandemic. Knowledge is scarce and deaths are mounting. Businesses are closing and a stay-at-home order is issued in California, forcing this newly separated couple to … well … not be separated. Nick sleeps on the couch, but the two are together more now than … well … when they were together. Tension and stress is as prevalent as Zoom meetings.

It’s an unusual situation, and both Leah and Nick have friends they confide in, but moving on is pretty difficult when the proximity is closer than ever before. Petty emotions come into play, as do real ones. Apologies and quasi-apologies are rampant, but we see both change and grow despite the challenges. The lead actors are solid and the script is fresh and spot on. There are some uncomfortable moments, but relatability is the key here. Nice work from those involved.

 

DEMI LOVATO: DANCING WITH THE DEVIL (documentary)

 Opening Night Headliner at SXSW is a place of honor, and this year’s selection was the docuseries from Michael D Ratner (TV docuseries “Justin Bieber: Seasons”) highlighting Demi Lovato’s personal challenges, of which there are many. The 4-part series was shown straight-through with only chapter slides showing where each new episode begins. Initial scenes show Lovato during her 2018 tour, which was originally the purpose of a documentary. Filming ended abruptly when she overdosed on drugs and nearly died.

In 2020, Ms. Lovato had a new story to tell, and her personal struggles became the focus of the documentary. She promised transparency and honesty, and by all indications, she delivered. Very few celebrities have ever revealed so many personal challenges. By the end of the finale, we’ve heard about her addictions, the physical-emotional-sexual abuse she’s endured, her eating disorder, bi-polar diagnosis, depression, self-harm, and body issues. We also learn of her frequent lies to friends, family, and associates.

Not only does Lovato sit for many interviews, we also hear from her mother, sisters, friends, choreographer, Security Director, Business Manager, and former personal assistant. That’s right. One of the things that stands out most here is privilege. The former Disney child star and now global pop star has a support team and resources that most can only dream of. She went to rehab at one of the most exclusive facilities in the world, and after a near-death drug overdose, her famous new manager agrees to sign her, even after a relapse shortly after her rehab stint. Obviously addiction is something many struggle with, but it’s quite eye-opening to see the care wealth can attain.

One of the most interesting things to come from this is in the final episode where Lovato admits that “moderation” is her personal approach to dealing with addiction. Despite input from Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and Will Ferrell, Lovato believes she is better off with moderate alcohol consumption and pot smoking than stone cold sobriety. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure … her voice remains a true gift. Her “comeback” performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards and her singing of the National Anthem at the 2020 Super Bowl are unmistakable in proof of talent. However, we can’t help but wonder how the personal admissions will be received by the youngsters who look up to Demi Lovato.