IT STARTED AS A JOKE (2020, doc)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Have you heard the one about the comedy festival poking fun at comedy festivals? Of course not. And you may not even be familiar with comedian Eugene Mirman. But the efforts of co-directors Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman ensure that by the end of their documentary, we understand the impact of Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival (founded to parody comedy festivals).

So who is Eugene Mirman? He’s one of the key players in alternative comedy … comedians who don’t rely on traditional jokes, and often perform in places other than comedy clubs. If you ever watched the series “I’m Dying Up Here”, you saw a comedian perform in the back of a local deli. That is an example of alternative comedy. When you check the lineup of comedians included here, it becomes even more obvious. Kristen Schaal, John Hodgman, Kumail Nanjiani, Janeane Garofola, Jim Gaffigan, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Mike Birbiglia, and Michael Showalter are just a few of the participants. Ms. Garofola embraces her “alternative” by labeling herself a terrible joke writer, and more of a “filibusterer.”

Eugene Mirman is known for his voice acting (“Bob’s Burgers” and “Archer”), as well as his appearances on TV series such as (the brilliant) “Flight of the Conchords.” He married Set Director Katie Tharp and they had a son named Oliver. These personal details matter because Katie’s cancer plays a part in Eugene’s final year for the festival, and we get a glimpse of their home life, including time with Oliver. Their personal life is instrumental in elevating this from a Comedy Central special where comedians parade across the stage, to a real life drama that inspires a comical look at the parts of life that don’t seem so funny on the surface.

A community of comedians is on full display here at The Bell House in Brooklyn. They recall the first time they met or saw Eugene perform, and recollect memories of the festival’s past 10 years. Each of those festivals were presented with some off-the-wall theme – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. H Jon Benjamin (lead voice in “Bob’s Burgers”) tells his story … a pork chop story that was his introduction to Eugene. Silliness is ever-present, but the Eugene/Katie love story stands on its own – including the ‘first kiss’ photo that graced their wedding invitation. The festival may have begun as a joke, and comedians may shy away from dragging their personal life into the act, but it’s clear “comedy is about connecting with people”, and its value never diminishes.

watch the trailer:


CLOVER (2020)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. These days, B-movies don’t get the respect they deserve. In the age of massive, hundred million dollar (and more) budget blockbusters, the low-budget movies produced purely for entertainment purposes get brushed off as being undeserving of screen time. The truth is, the best ones are easy to watch … and can be a fun way to while away the hours if, say, one is forced to stay in their home for an extended period of time. Writer-director-actor Jon Abrahams’ movie fills this role just fine.

Mr. Abrahams (MEET THE PARENTS) and Mark Webber (GREEN ROOM) star as the Callahan brothers, Mickey and Jackie, respectively. These are the type of Irish brothers who only stop bickering long enough to wrestle each other to the ground. While most of their spats may be typical brother stuff, this latest involves Jackie’s inept card playing, and the subsequent loss of the money they needed to pay back a mob loan shark. Missing this payment means Tony (Chazz Palminteri) assumes ownership of the Irish bar their late father opened, and it could mean even worse news for the brothers.

I would pay triple ticket price just to watch Chazz Palminteri chew scenery like he does here as Tony. When he makes the boys an offer they can’t refuse, they end up in the basement of a house with Tony’s son Joey (Michael Godere) telling them to shoot the man tied to a chair (another of Tony’s loan customers). Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, and the next thing we know Mickey and Jackie are on the run with 13 year old Clover (Nicole Elizabeth Berger), dodging Tony’s men, in addition to the 2 female assassins (Erika Christensen, TRAFFIC) and Julia Jones (WIND RIVER) they aren’t even aware of!

As a quasi-framing device, we find Ron Perlman holed up in a fabulous mansion that we view with the film’s opening aerial shot. Mr. Perlman is afforded his own chance to ‘let loose’ and emote like he’s participating in an acting seminar … while play-calling the wolf video running simultaneously. Other characters that cross paths with the brothers and Clover include Jackie’s ex-girlfriend Angie (Jessica Szhor), a befuddling rescue ‘scientist’ played by Jake Weber, and a bar owner played by Tichina Arnold, who like Perlman and Palminteri, was clearly directed that it’s not possible to go “too big” in a scene.

Humor, most of it pretty dark, is around every corner. A bowling pin has a use outside the lane, the lady assassins drive a car with a fitting sign, we are treated to a good old fashioned death scene, and there’s a shootout accompanied by melodic jazz. As a cherry on top, the bar patron that the brothers leave in charge is Larry, played by the director’s dad, Martin Abrahams. There is a definite 1970’s vibe to the story and film, and we can’t help but be a little disappointed when the conclusion does in fact, “end the chaos.”

watch the trailer:


THE HUNT (2020)

March 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s face it. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. In the wake of mass shootings, the release date of this film was delayed when its subject matter was deemed controversial, even scandalous The film’s new marketing slogan became, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” Of course, it wasn’t really true, as very few were actually talking about it. But that’s what made it genius marketing … they created interest amidst controversy that has since proven unnecessary. Director Craig Zobel (Z FOR ZACHARIAH, 2015) has delivered the least controversial, non-polarizing film of the year. It basically laughs at extremes on the left and right, and reminds us how laughing at something can often take away its power. And regardless of your “side”, you’ll find some laughs here.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the premise has a group of liberal elites hunting a hand-selected group of social media-active MAGA deplorables. It’s a twist on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, although the modern day rich aren’t hunting for sport, but rather for political affiliation – gun lovers and climate change deniers. That may sound politically charged, but in fact, it plays as more comedy than comeuppance. Sure, the violence is over-the-top and often quite graphic, but this is a skewering of both red and blue.

Preventing the project from falling into B-movie muck is a standout performance from Betty Gilpin (“Glow”) as Crystal. She’s a Rambo-type who speaks (with a southern drawl) only when necessary, and seems to have learned a lot while serving in Afghanistan. Most of the time she looks like she has “a pinch between her cheek and gum” (a tip of the Stetson to Walt Garrison), and she also hums to herself and tosses down some unusual facial expressions. This is a seriously oddball performance that is the film’s highlight.

One of the best sequences of the film comes quite early as the dozen or so ‘deplorables’ slowly wake-up and find themselves gagged in a field. A container of weapons leads to an early massacre that allows the filmmaker to tease us with numerous familiar faces taking turns as the heir-apparent lead. Some of the faces that pop up include Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Hannah Alline (flight attendant), and Usman Ally.

Of course we know this is headed to a showdown between Crystal and Athena (2-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the ringleader of the hunting party. A fight scene reminiscent of the KILL BILL movies (sans Samurai swords) takes place at Athena’s “manor”, and it is stunningly staged and executed. Unfortunately this scene also highlights the mostly inadequate dialogue that exists throughout the film. Some of the quips click, but many fall flat – surprising since the co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have previously collaborated on “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers.”

Blumhouse Productions keeps cranking out these offbeat genre films, and this one likely benefits from a misplaced scandal, and it strives for self-importance by comparing itself to George Orwell’s “Animal House” and with an obscure reference to TEARS OF THE SUN (2013). It’s not at the level of last year’s gem READY OR NOT, and it missed the opportunity to make some political points, but it’s a hoot to watch and as an added bonus, Hilary Swank teaches us the proper way to make a grilled cheese sandwich!

watch the trailer:


THE MIMIC (2020)

March 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It has been said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Writer-director Thomas F Mazziotti has not only based this story on his own real life experience, but with it proves that imitation can also be the sign of a psychopath. In fact, as the film begins, we are informed that 1 in 25 people are psychopaths, and also playing a role here is “The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us”, a 2005 book written by Martha Stout.

This is an unusual film with an offbeat rhythm. It reminds me a bit of CREEP, the 2014 movie starring Mark Duplass, in that the characters all seem like someone we could know, yet there’s something a bit off. Thomas Sadoski (“The Newsroom”) is Tony, a lead character, a widower, and our narrator. Tony has not adjusted to life without his wife, and part of the reason could be how his friends and neighbors are always bringing it up. Once the “Kid” shows up, Tony is taken on a ride that has him questioning not just other people, but reality.

“Kid” is actually Peter (Jake Robinson), a 31 year old, red pants wearing newcomer to town. He seems to fit right in with the elderly local newspaper ladies as they bicker about semi-colons, but his real attraction is to Tony – proclaiming “we’re on the same wavelength” after a few ‘coincidental’ meet-ups. It’s tempting to label this as a battle of nitwits, but neither of the men lack intelligence. They are both just awkward, and that includes Tony, our trusted narrator.

The film is basically a puzzle with numerous separate pieces loosely packaged as a series of vignettes that may or may not tie together. The segments certainly provide a showcase for a plethora of recognizable actors. The list includes: Austin Pendleton, Gina Gershon, Jessica Walter, Didi Conn, Marilu Henner, Tammy Blanchard, Matthew Maher, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Josh Pais, and Steve Routman. One segment I found particularly entertaining featured Doug Plaut and the legendary M Emmet Walsh as a writer and director discussing a project.

For the most part, it just seems the film, the writers, and the characters are all trying so desperately to be witty, clever, or funny, that whether it works as a cohesive project gets kind of pushed aside. The background circus music fits well and complements the theatrical pacing and cadence. Mazziotti’s film is certainly not cinema-as-usual, and it will likely find a cult following … perhaps among those bonding “on a personal pronoun basis.”

 

 


ONWARD (animated, 2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. No studio has ever had a 25 year run like Pixar. This is their 22nd feature film over that span and every single one lands somewhere in the range of brilliant/instant classic to watchable/re-watchable. Though this latest may not reach instant classic level, it does stick to the Pixar standard template of highly entertaining while delivering a life lesson. This is the first time in the Pixar director’s chair for Dan Scanlon since MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). It’s also the first original Pixar since COCO (2017) … and note, it’s rated PG.

The film opens with a “history” lesson detailing how the world was once populated by enchanted creatures like elves, unicorns, wizards, mermaids, fairies and sprites. Science and technology created shortcuts and soon the world’s “magic” had disappeared, relegating these creatures to life in the suburbs. We pick up the story on Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Ian is part of an elf family that includes his older brother Barley and their widowed mother Laurel. While Barley is a loud and rambunctious type who is obsessed with the Quest of Yore game and mythology (think Dungeons & Dragons), Ian is a more pensive type who still mourns the late father he never met. Both brothers are surprised when their mother presents a “gift” from their dad – one he left instructions to be held until Ian turned 16. The gift is a magical wizard staff that, with the included precious stone, can bring dad back to life for 24 hours.

Barley’s knowledge of the magical spells combined with Ian’s lack of self-confidence ends up botching things to the point that only half of dad is brought back – the bottom half. Under a tight deadline and in need of a replacement gem to bring dad back for a much desired final conversation, the brothers take off on an adventure that turns pretty wild. Their quest leads them to cross paths with many of the previously enchanted creatures, including the fabulous Manticore, and mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco.

We have come to expect ‘magic’ from Pixar with every movie, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as some of their best work, but it’s still a terrific suburban fantasy adventure filled with comedy and life lessons … the most crucial of which is: being happy with what you have is more crucial to your inner-peace than getting what you hope for.

As always, the voice acting is top notch. Tom Holland (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) delivers the goods as Ian, and Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) brings the necessary wonder and excitement to brother Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus never really gets to shine as their mother, but then this story is focused on the boys. Octavia Spencer has fun as Manticore (we needed more Manticore!), Mel Rodriguez is a hoot as Officer Colt Bronco, and yes of course, John Ratzenberger sneaks in – he’s now voiced a character in all 22 Pixar films.

This is the first Pixar film to be totally free of input from ousted President John Lasseter, and it’s one of the very few to be released outside of the summer or awards season. The likely reason is that the studio has a second original film being released this June. SOUL will be directed by Pete Docter and is viewed as a companion piece to the already classic INSIDE OUT (2015). Given the time of year, it could be easy to overlook ONWARD, but it nails the Pixar trademark emotional finale … delivering a sentimental scene likely to stick with you. I have praised Pixar many times over the years as their creative teams really seem to “get it”. Regardless of the month, ONWARD will cast a spell.

watch the trailer:


GREED (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Greed for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Those words were part of the iconic speech from Gordon Gekko (an Oscar winning role for Michael Douglas) in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film WALL STREET. Here we are 3 decades later, and there may not be a more tarnished word, attitude, or approach than ‘greed’, and filmmaker Michael Winterbottom re-teams with his “The Trip” collaborator Steve Coogan to deliver satire on today’s ultra-rich.

The always entertaining Mr. Coogan stars as Sir Richard McReadie, also known in the media by numerous other names like: Greedy McReadie, McGreedy, The King of High Street, and The Monet of Money (a label he seemingly applied to himself). Sir Richard is apparently modeled after fashion mogul Sir Philip Green (owner of Top Shop), and with his fake tan and blinding white teeth caps, makes a pretty easy target for Winterbottom’s bashing of the too-rich.

A loose structure to the film is provided by the contrast of the coordination and excess going into planning McReadie’s upcoming 60th birthday toga bash on the Greek isle of Mykonos, and the official inquiry by Parliament into his questionable business practices. Scenes from the committee hearings are interspersed throughout the film, along with some flashbacks to young McReadie (played by Jamie Blackley) honing his negotiation skills. There is also McReadie’s hired biographer Nick (played by David Mitchell), a spineless freelancer thrilled to have the job, despite his initial obliviousness to what McReadie is all about. Although Nick does uncover some of the cruel labor practices, the character seems to be a way for Winterbottom to poke at journalists simultaneously to his scalding the rich. Celebrities for hire also take shot to the bow.

Isla Fisher plays Samantha, McReadie’s ex-wife, whose Monaco residence helps hide the family/ex-family fortune. The relationship between these two is not just creepy on the balance sheet, but plays out in ways apparently acceptable to the lifestyles of the wealthy. Asa Butterfield plays their overlooked and underappreciate son Finn, and the always fabulous Shirley Henderson plays Irish mother Margaret in such a way that we wish more of the movie was about her. McReadie’s daughter Lily (Sophia Cookson) is pretty funny as she films her Reality TV show in the midst of her father’s party preparation … which includes Bulgarian workers building a replica of a Roman amphitheater to act as the site of a GLADIATOR reenactment – replete with a live lion (not a tiger)!

Sarah Solemani and Dinita Gohil play two of McReadie’s key assistants, and provide us a glimpse of how real people struggle to work amidst such waste and ego and unrealistic expectations. McReadie kinda quotes Shakespeare, but we feel certain he’s not a well-read man. Instead his talents are in bending a system and forcing others to acquiesce to his demands. The tabletop shell game he mastered as a parlor trick is really just a miniaturized version of his business empire … trading one highly-leveraged enterprise for the next, while cashing in on the process.

Winterbottom’s approach is often confusing and sometimes drifts towards mockumentary for flashbacks and interviews. It’s an uneven comedy that works at times, and doesn’t at others – not uncommon for satire. Coogan makes McReadie always fun (in a disturbing way) to watch, though the film never clicks better than the Keith Richards moment near the end. The anger-based acidic comedy satirizes what’s happening in the real world, and tries to further expose how the mega-rich take advantage of the rest of us. Some well executed bits make this one worth watching, but really offers little in the form of insight or solutions. Instead it’s just infuriating … at least in the parts where we aren’t laughing. We certainly don’t laugh over the closing credits as real world statistics are provided regarding inequality and third world labor.

watch the trailer:


GO BACK TO CHINA (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Seeing Chinese films reach mainstream status is a nice development in a cinematic industry that too often segments by nationality. Jon M Chu’s CRAZY RICH ASIANS was a huge hit in 2018, and then last year Lulu Wang’s brilliant THE FAREWELL was a favorite. Now comes a semi-autobiographical tale from writer-director-producer Emily Ting. All three films revolve around Americanized young adults revisiting their Chinese roots, though each for different reasons.

Anna Akana stars as Sasha Li, a twenty-something one year removed from fashion school. We first see her on her birthday botching a job interview and running up a monster bar tab with her posse of friends at the club that night. Having ignored calls from her father in China, she is shocked and humiliated when she discovers her dad has cut her off from the trust fund she has been blowing through living the high life in Los Angeles. As viewers, we are immediately turned off by Sasha’s immaturity and spoiled self. When her dad offers her a deal … come back to China and work in his toy factory for a year in order to get her trust fund back, we (and her friends) see it as a no-brainer. But it’s not until she gets an eviction notice and discovers her mother (Kelly Hu) is also being cut off, that she makes the decision to head back to the homeland.

Once Sasha is back in China, all of the pieces to the puzzle are present. It’s a dysfunctional family headed by the father Teddy (Richard Ng) who seems dedicated to being a successful businessman, while proclaiming he’s doing it all for the family … a family that consists of multiple offspring from multiple women. His oldest daughter Carol (Lynn Chen) is Sasha’s half-sister, though they barely know each other. Carol has been a dutiful loyal soldier to dad’s toy company, and a bit envious of Sasha’s free-wheeling lifestyle. Carol believes she has paid her dues, and it’s now time for Sasha to pay hers. Sasha also meets two younger half-siblings, as well as a particularly young Lulu (Kendy Cheung), whose role Teddy describes as “she takes care of me.” Yuck.

What happens next is relatively predictable. Sasha’s fashion design skills prove valuable to dad’s stale line of toys, so her ideas bring new life to the company and the employees. The latter are impacted by Sasha’s insistence on better working conditions. Of course, Sasha being Sasha, her lack of business savvy leads to problems and a fallout. The film’s wrap up is a bit too clean for the real world, but Ms. Akana has managed to win us over by this point, so we are apt to overlook the script and story issues.

Richard Ng seems a bit too old for his role as Teddy, but he excels in the business scenes where frustrations boil over. Teddy fails miserably as a father or relationship partner, but his instincts with Sasha seem sincere. Filmmaker Ting includes some commentary on social and cultural issues in China, including the ‘One Child Policy’, and the labor practices and family pressures. The film is part ‘coming of age’, part ‘coming home’, and part ‘coming to grips’. The life lessons for Sasha are quite clear as she transitions from spoiled princess to reality-based citizen. Her family may still be packed with dysfunction, but then, whose isn’t? Part of maturity is learning to deal with it, and understand that family does matter.

watch the trailer: