VENGEANCE (2022)

July 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Cultural differences between various states are a big part of what gives the United States its flavor of diversity. The west coast is much different from the east coast, and both coasts contrast with the Midwest. Even within states, the differences can be fascinating. Think of upstate New York versus Manhattan, or the forests of Redding versus the glitz of Los Angeles. Perhaps no cultural comparison of states is more stark than that of the home pride of Texas versus the elitism of New York City. Writer-director-producer-lead actor BJ Novak seizes the opportunity to serve up these differences on a platter, while exposing a touch of reality and hope from both geographic areas.

You likely recall Mr. Novak as Ryan, the young staffer on the TV series “The Office” (in which he also had a hand in writing and directing some episodes). He quickly establishes that stereotypes will be hit head-on, and his self-awareness is at play in an opening sequence featuring Novak’s Ben Manalowitz and his bro-buddy John (a cameo by John Mayer). They improvise the douchey attitude of city-dwelling types whose interest in one-night gratifications overrides any deeply buried thoughts of a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex. Their constant use of “hundred percent” to express agreement in the latest lame point made by the other won’t be the last humorous sequence that also conveys a bit of disappointment in society.

One night, Ben receives a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) informing him that Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died unexpectedly. Ty believes Ben was Abilene’s serious boyfriend, while Ben has to search his phone to discover that she was but one of many casual hook-ups. Roped into flying to Texas for the funeral, Ben stumbles through the eulogy by saying “she loved music”, a sentiment that endears him to her family. Despite having a coveted job as a writer for ‘The New Yorker’, Ben has his sights set on becoming a popular podcaster, and things fall into place when Ty discloses his conspiracy theory that, rather than die of an afterparty overdose in an oil field, his sister Abilene was murdered – perhaps by a Mexican cartel. Ben quickly pitches the idea to renowned podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), who green lights “Dead White Girl.” OK, so most of the humor here is a bit dark.

This much information is included in order to give a taste of the twists and turns that Novak has in store. Abilene’s family embraces him for staying to investigate, not understanding that his goal here is professional advancement rather than solving a case … a case that was closed by the local law enforcement – an incompetent and apathetic Mike and Dan. It’s Ben’s interaction with the family that are key to many of Novak’s points. Mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron, “Succession”) is quietly wise. Granny (Louanne Stephens, “Longmire”) is excessively direct. Abilene’s two sisters, Paris (Isabella Amara) and Jasmine (Dove Cameron), are respectively, a goth wanna-be filmmaker and a rudderless dreamer of becoming famous. The little brother, nicknamed “El Stupido” by the family, is played by newcomer Eli Bickel and he has a particular phobia that adds yet another touch.

Ben’s investigation finds him crossing paths with a local drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa), who displays polar opposite personalities in front of his crew and then behind closed doors with Ben. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is local record producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher). Quentin is a smooth talker who impresses Ben with his philosophical meanderings, while donning attire that pops with flair. It’s also during the investigative stage that Ben learns all there is to learn about the sanctity of Whataburger for Texans, and how those in West Texas view the big cities of Dallas and Houston … again, more humor and truth.

My description of Novak’s film is ‘observational dramedy’. He utilizes the current political divisions in the country and blends it with the dominance and corruption of social media. By embracing stereotypes, he manages to pull back the curtain and expose the humanity that exists, as well as the darkness in some. The abrupt finale is startling as it seems to go against many of the points Novak makes throughout, but it’s clear he has a bright future as a filmmaker with something to say.

Opens in theaters July 29, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


CHRISTINE (2016)

November 3, 2016

christine Greetings again from the darkness. On July 15, 1974, television news reporter Christine Chubbuck read a prepared statement and then committed suicide on-air by putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger. You may not recognize her name, but you have likely heard the story … it’s no urban legend. Director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich offer up a biopic with some insight into Ms. Chubbuck’s personal and professional life so that we might better understand what drove her to such a public and tragic end.

Rebecca Hall takes on the titular role (don’t mistake this for the 1983 John Carpenter/Stephen King film), and despite her usual stilted on screen mannerisms, she delivers what is an emotionally raw and nuanced performance that is the best of her career … and one that keeps us glued to a story of which we already know the ending. We see a woman dedicated to her vision of the profession, while being maddening to those who know her, love her, and work with her. She has an awkward intensity that compounds her lack of social skills and an ongoing struggle with depression. Somehow, Ms. Hall allows us to understand the personal and professional struggles and how things could have spiraled into hopelessness for Christine.

The commentary on the early days of tabloid journalism (“If it bleeds, it leads”) is especially interesting given how the current Presidential campaigns have been covered more than 40 years after the film is set. One might also note the parallels to the character of Howard Beale in Network (1976) … though Christine Chubbuck was less vociferous and never took to yelling “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” while on camera (though she evidently felt that way).

Support work comes from Tracy Letts as the frustrated news director, Michael C Hall as the mixed-signals anchorman on whom Christine has a quiet crush, J. Smith-Cameron as her mother and housemate, Maria Dizzia as her friend and co-worker, and Timothy Simons as the misunderstood and ignored weatherman.

The film clearly makes the point that Christine was a misfit in her work and personal life, and though some of the timeline and known specifics are either re-worked or ignored for artistic purposes, Ms. Hall must be commended for highlighting the effects of depression. Even the best meaning friends and family can unintentionally make things worse. We see a clip of Walter Cronkite’s actual report of her death, and Christine’s own words – “The latest in blood and guts” – were actually ahead of her time.

watch the trailer: