THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)

July 13, 2017

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals (I saw this at Oak Cliff Film Festival) where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. This outlandish comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it is profane and at times mean-spirited.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned warped nuns played by Aubrey Plaza (the director’s long-time girlfriend), Alison Brie (“Mad Men”), and Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated “Saturday Night Live” skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Just as the characters begin to wear a bit thin, a new character is introduced, resuscitating our interest. Each of the actors deliver, but it’s Armisen and Micucci who are especially fun to watch, as is Riley’s tendency to turn communal wine into a community beverage.

Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch. However it makes more sense when you learn that Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. Expect an altar filled with f-words and blasphemy with a wink. If you are OK with that, you’ll likely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

watch the trailer:

**I could only find a red band trailer – and ‘nun’ of that is appropriate.

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ADDICTED TO FRESNO (2015)

September 17, 2015

addicted to fresno Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not quite a unicorn, but it seems fair to call it a White Harbour Porpoise. Yes, it’s that rare to see a Comedy movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring women in a story about women. And it’s that rarity which makes it all the more disappointing when the finished product doesn’t match the expectation.

The cast is loaded with funny people, many of whom are best known for their work on TV. However, that’s not what makes this feel like an aimless TV sitcom straining too hard to make us laugh, often through cheap shock value. The movie leaves us with the feeling that writer Karey Dornetto (“Portlandia”) and director Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader, “Gilmore Girls”) have spent too many hours studying the work of Judd Apatow, rather than letting their own voices speak. We are teased with glimpses, but mostly just left wanting.

On the bright side, Judy Greer finally gets a lead role after seemingly hundreds of support roles where she has often been the best thing about a movie. Yet somehow the filmmakers manage to dull Ms. Greer’s natural glow as she plays Shannon, a registered sex offender with little desire to break her sex addiction, or even become the least bit likeable. The very talented Natasha Lyonne plays Martha, Shannon’s younger lesbian sister who is her personality polar opposite, yet never can quite escape the “bad luck” following her around.

Martha decides to make Shannon’s recovery her mission in life, and secures her a job so they can work together as maids at a local motel. What follows is an accidental murder, a frantic attempt to dispose of the body, a mentally challenged housekeeping supervisor, multiple instances of sexual confusion, a sex shop hold-up, blackmailing pet cemetery owners, a profane rapping boy at his bar mitzvah, an inappropriate relationship with a therapist that breaks up a marriage, and a running gag with a chubby hotel guest in a Hawaiian shirt carrying a little dog. All of that zaniness leads to a disproportionately few number of laughs, although we do get a terrific Cousin It impersonation and an extremely rare (maybe a first ever?) Hammer-throw joke.

What’s lacking here, despite the best efforts of Ms. Greer and Ms. Lyonne, is any semblance of humanity or realism … necessities for comedy. We just never make any connection with the main characters. The supporting cast provides numerous diversions and feature the familiar faces of Ron Livingston (the therapist mentioned above), an underutilized Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, the duo of Fred Armisen and Alison Tolman playing opportunistic small business owners, Jessica St Clair as one of the more emotional front desk clerks you’ll ever see, Jon Daly as one of the more unfortunate characters, and Malcolm Barrett as Shannon’s latest love interest/poet.

Of course, in keeping with the film’s title there is a never-ending stream of insults directed at the city of Fresno. If that much attention had been paid to the sister relationship and the forming of characters, perhaps the comedy would have been more effective. Instead, if you are all set on watching sisters working together in the clean-up business, the better recommendation would be Sunshine Cleaning.

watch the trailer:

 


NED RIFLE (2015)

April 2, 2015

ned rifle Greetings again from the darkness. The third and final entry to writer/director Hal Hartley’s trilogy provides a fitting end to the saga that began in 1997 with Henry Fool, and continued in 2006 with Fay Grim. Mr. Hartley’s style lends itself well to the indie world and film festival circuit, as he connects with unusually paced and elevated dialogue, an arid-dry sense of humor, and a slew of misfit characters.

The four main characters have been played by the same actors across all three films. Liam Aiken was only 7 years old when he first played Ned, and he becomes the focus of this final chapter. Ned is the son of Fay (Parker Posey) and Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan). When this story picks up, Fay is serving a life sentence in federal prison for terrorist activities, and Henry’s whereabouts are unknown … except by “Uncle” Simon (James Urbaniak), the garbage man-turned-poet laureate.

Ned is turning 18 years old and has spent four years in witness protection as part of a family led by a guilt-ridden Reverend (Martin Donovan). Ned has really taken to religion – especially the fire and brimstone vengeance parts. See, Ned blames Henry for Fay’s life turn and aims to gain revenge.

The first part of the movie has Ned and Susan (Aubrey Plaza) tracking down Henry. Susan is the grad student supposedly working with Fay on her autobiography, and stalking Simon for his poetic metaphysics. But of course, Susan has secrets and some are less than pleasant.

Once Henry is located, Mr. Ryan provides a nice energy boost and shift in tone. He is one glorious film character … unless of course, you are his son or some other poor schmuck left floundering in his wake of life. He and Ned don’t really have much of a bond, but Ryan and Plaza create some fireworks that some may find a bit creepy.

Just keeping up with the rapid-fire dialogue from Henry, Simon and Susan is a cinematic joy, and the off-beat humor prevents the dark material from ever reaching a bleak stage. When Ned visits Fay in prison she asks disgustedly “You’re religious?” – making it clear that she, a convicted felon, is extremely disappointed in her 18 year old son. It’s played for a laugh and gets one. There is another line spouted by Susan that includes a review of “obscene work indifferent to mainstream approval“. We have little doubt that line was written by Mr. Hartley to describe his own work.

watch the trailer:

 


SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (2012)

June 20, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one showed promise to deliver the rare, offbeat, genuine indie genius that those of us who spend entirely too much time in dark theatres live for. How many romantic-dramadies combine caustic comedy, elements of sci-fi, and are inspired by a real life newspaper ad? Not very darn many.

The set-up for the story is that Jeff (Jake Johnson), a Seattle magazine writer, suggests to his editor that the newspaper ad would make an interesting investigative report. To get a feel for the movie, reading the ad is essential:

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll be paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

 Jeff takes two interns on assignment with him: Darius (Aubrey Plaza, pictured left) and Arneau (Karan Soni). Darius is a sarcastic loner and recent college grad. Arneau is a virgin nerd who skates ever so close to an Indian stereotype. He is actually quite funny and easy to root for. Unknown to the interns, Jeff has ulterior motives for taking this job, and the bulk of the work will fall to them.

 Darius quickly tracks down and connects with Kenneth (Mark Duplass, pictured left). He seems quite committed to the time travel cause and is a bit skeptical of Darius. The Kenneth character can best be described as a NICE Dwight from “The Office”. He veers from the “normal” line, but has a heart of gold. Once Kenneth and Darius confess their reasons for going back in time, it’s clear to the viewers that these two share a rare DNA strand. Humor kicks in during their training sessions … of course, you need martial arts skills and the ability to shoot straight if you plan to time travel.

 The comedy and romance elements are complimented by undertones of regret, paranoia, loneliness and the desire to connect. These same tones play right into Jeff’s sub-plot. When he finds his high school crush (Jessica Bergere), she asks him about his life. His answer is limited to “Escalade and Condo”. She soon has him considering what else life can offer. Kenneth and Darius discover that trust is not a four letter word. Even Arneau finds out that human interaction can be better than a blazing fast laptop.

The results of the time travel plan aren’t really important, though it does play a role in the final act. As with the best movies, what really matters are the people. These are people we can relate to because they come across as real … not perfect, but real. As likable as the characters are, there still seemed to be something missing that prevented this film from reaching the next level. Maybe it has to do with first feature film director Colin Trevorrow or his writer Derek Connolly. The missing link is not easily identifiable, but it doesn’t prevent enjoyment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of quirky, offbeat indies OR you want to see rising stars Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of a time travel movie is more in line with Hot Tub Time Machine than a thoughtful indie flick

watch the trailer:

 


DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2012)

April 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmakers who see the world in an unusual way often appeal to me. Whit Stillman fits that description as evidenced by his Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco. It’s been more than a decade since his last film, and his writing remains strong while his director’s eye may have atrophied a bit. We get a trippy, twisty maze of dialogue that is not double-entendre, but rather double-take.

The film takes place on a fictional campus named Seven Oaks College. We meet a small clique of young ladies led by Violet (Greta Gerwig, Greenberg). She has a noble life mission of “helping” young men who don’t recognize their own potential. She views this as a type of social work. Violet and her troupe are also dedicated to the high causes of perfume and fashion. They volunteer at a Suicide Prevention Center, where they seem to possess no skills other than handing out donuts and teaching tap dancing.

Violet’s followers include Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and transfer-student Lily (Analeigh Tipton). They could be termed caricatures, but I am not sure of what. Their philosophical meanderings could be considered arrogance, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. And it’s difficult to raise much ire towards Violet when her ambition involves inventing the next international dance craze … Sambola. She even provides an oral argument on the importance of dance crazes within society.  She acts like an adviser, almost a guru … but she ends up needing guidance as much as anyone.

To watch this movie, one must be willing to give Mr. Stillman some slack in the rope. To treat suicide with a touch of glib can be dangerous, but watching Aubrey Plaza defend the importance of “clinical” depression is pretty humorous. Analeigh Tipton acts somewhat as the voice of reason for viewers. She was outstanding in Crazy Stupid Love, and seems to be finding herself as an actress. Zach Woods (The Office) has a couple of decent scenes as the campus editor of “The Daily Complainer”, Adam Brody is the boyfriend who may not be what he seems, Alia Shawkat makes a quick angry appearance, and Taylor Nichols keeps his streak alive of appearing in all of Stillman’s films.

This movie may be best viewed and enjoyed as a glimpse into the mind of Whit Stillman. As a visual film, it’s really nothing special. The interesting part is in the dialogue and delivery of those lines … plus the social commentary offered up by the dialogue. Although, please don’t ask me what point that commentary is making.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of Whit Stillman’s previous films OR you are looking for an offbeat filmmaker in the vein of Wes Anderson (minus the visual flair).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the story to make a clear point and the characters speak in “normal” thoughts (neither of which happen here)

watch the trailer: