MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON (2022)

July 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For proof that social media and the internet can be used for good, I offer as evidence this film from writer-director Dean Fleisher-Camp and co-writers Elizabeth Holm, Nick Paley, and Jenny Slate. The first ‘Marcel’ short film hit the internet in 2010 and was such a hit that there were two follow-up short films and a best-selling picture book. Now expanded to a feature length film of 90 minutes, the innovative and curious premise holds up due to the fully-formed character of a precious one-googly-eyed mollusk shell wearing … yes … shoes.

Why do we connect with Marcel? Well, the instantly recognized voice created by Jenny Slate plays a huge part. There is a welcoming innocence in the wispy tone, and when combined with the exceptional writing, the result is a relatable character full of warmth and wit, and pain and humor. Marcel is naïve, yet persistent. He’s someone we like and pull for. The story is told via faux-documentary as a filmmaker (played by director Fleisher-Camp) stays in the Airbnb where Marcel lives with his aging grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). During interviews, we learn that Marcel longs for his family and community that was disrupted when the home’s original owners broke up and moved out. Since then, Marcel has looked after his grandmother and helped her tend the garden. They have been quite creative in their use of household resources, including a tennis ball for transportation.

The filmmaker posts the interviews online and soon Marcel has a huge following, giving him hope that his family can be tracked down. This leads to a terrific “60 Minutes” segment with journalist Leslie Stahl. The best description I can offer of Marcel is adorable – not a word I use very often. Marcel forces us to view the world through a child’s eye, but it’s important to note, that while young children may find Marcel cute, the dialogue, wit, and life issues covered will be way over their heads (though not offensive in the least). Young kids (under 10) should probably stick to the shorts. The sad and painful context is balanced by sweetness and optimism. Marcel’s story inspires us to embrace all stages of life with an open heart and mind – dealing with grief and sadness, while coming out the other side with spirit intact.

A24 specializes in distributing innovative and creative movies, and this certainly qualifies. It’s not really a mockumentary because it’s not mocking anything. The stop-motion approach in documentary style may initially seem like whimsy, but we quickly realize it’s more substantive. Individual strength and the power of community are on full display, and somehow Marcel the Shell teaches us … while wearing shoes.

Opens in theaters on July 8, 2022

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EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

April 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s bonkers, I tell ya’! Co-writers and co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively (by their choice) as “Daniels”, follow up their ‘farting corpse movie’ SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) with one that is somehow more bizarre, more audacious, and more fun. It’s one of the most innovative films I’ve seen in a while, and although I can point out influences, I’ve yet to come up with a movie comparison that seems just or fair.

Every small business owner can relate to the stress Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is under as she attempts to organize her documents in preparation for an IRS audit of the laundromat she owns with her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan). As if that’s not enough, her father is scheduled to arrive the same day. She knows Gong Gong (James Hong) is disappointed in his daughter for the husband and life she chose. And while being crushed with those two events, Evelyn’s strained relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) continues to fracture as Evelyn wants to keep Joy’s girlfriend status with Becky (Tallie Medel) a secret from dear old conservative dad/grandfather.

That’s just about the end of the “normal” part of the story, other than Waymond has had divorce papers prepared, not for the purpose of ending the marriage, but with the hope that the threat might force Evelyn to have a real conversation with him about their relationship. Things start to get weird even before they head to the IRS meeting with an agent played with gusto by Jamie Lee Curtis, but while there, we get our first real taste of the fantastical trip we (and Evelyn) are about to take. Of course, I can’t really offer any description of the action that occurs, but nothing is spoiled if I tell you that some characters cross multiple dimensions and universes in an attempt to ‘save the world’. While doing this, they mix in some acrobatic martial arts that would make Jackie Chan envious.

It’s the rare film where the frenetic pace of dialogue keeps pace with breakneck action sequences. A fanny pack, trophies with an unfortunate shape, and blue-tooth type devices all play unusual roles here, and this film challenges everyone from the actors to the directors to the editors to the fight coordinators. You’ll likely recognize Evelyn’s husband as the grown-up version of the child actor who played Short Round in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), and daughter Joy is portrayed by Stephanie Hsu (a contributor to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), who gets to cover just about the widest range of character we’ve likely ever seen on screen. The estimable James Hong is a riot as Gong Gong. Mr. Hong is now 93 years old with an incredible canon of 450 credits in his 8 decades of work. His presence is quite crucial to the film. It should also be noted that, as we would expect, Jenny Slate shines in her brief role as “Big Nose”, a regular customer at the laundromat.

As terrific as the cast is, this is really a chance for Michelle Yeoh to bring her full arsenal to the role of Evelyn. She’s angry, frustrated, scared, courageous, and even adds her comic timing. Ms. Yeoh flashes her CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON fighting skills, while also brining a regal presence to a film that requires a strong core. It’s no mystery that family and love can solve many of the world’s issues, and Daniels have delivered a wild ride that defies simple description. It’s a long one at 139 minutes, but you’ll thank me later for not saying much more than … it’s bonkers!

Opens in select markets on March 25 and April 1, 2022 and nationwide on April 8, 2022

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I WANT YOU BACK (2022)

February 11, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It all happens in the first three minutes. Peter gets dumped by Anne, and Emma gets dumped by Noah. We haven’t even had a chance to form any opinions of these two long-term relationships, and just like that … they are both kaput. Director Jason Orley and screenwriters (LOVE, SIMON collaborators) Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger toss us a curveball by having the dumpees form an alliance to help the other win back their dumpers. It’s an unconventional approach in this genre and it works due to some sharp writing, and the extraordinary comic timing of the two leads.

Nice guy Peter (Charlie Day, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) loves kids, loves the elderly, and loves Anne (Gina Rodriguez, ANNIHILATION, 2018). She abruptly dumps him because he’s a bit boring and she wants a “bigger life” … her dream is to be a Broadway star. Peter is crushed when she dumps him. Emma (Jenny Slate, OBVIOUS CHILD, 2014) works as a receptionist at an orthodontist office, and Noah (Scott Eastwood, THE OUTPOST, 2019) appreciates her humor, but is turned off by her lack of career ambition. Mind you, he’s a fitness trainer. Emma is crushed when she dumps him.

Peter and Emma have a sobbing meet-cute in the stairwell of the office building where they both work, and soon, drunk karaoke and lots of alcohol lead to quite an intricate scheme. Emma will seduce Anne’s new boyfriend Logan (Manny Jacinto), while Peter will befriend Noah and talk him out of love with new girlfriend Ginny (Clark Backo). The expected results find the appropriate exes crawling back into familiar arms. It’s a plan seemingly doomed to failure, but certain to provide many opportunities for laughter.

The scenes featuring Charlie Day and Jenny Slate are easily the film’s best. These are two talented and funny actors who play off each other beautifully. Of course, we presume to know where all of this is headed, and it may involve a threesome and a balcony jump into a hot tub … or it may not. The concept of sabotaging someone else’s happiness in hopes they will return to you is a bit psychotic to say the least. But it’s all handled with kid gloves and plays off the old adage, “misery loves company.” A bit of truth and relatability occurs as both Emma and Peter dread the idea of starting over in love – a quite common dread. The film kicks off with Jimmy Durante singing “The Glory of Love”, and though you’ll likely laugh a few times, you’ll likely notice the lack of glory in the behavior of Emma and Peter.

Exclusively on Amazon Prime Video February 11, 2022

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THE SUNLIT NIGHT (2020)

July 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The journey to find one’s self is not unique to artists, but for some reason, it’s more cinematically appealing when an artist is involved. In this quirky film from director David Wnendt, with a screenplay Rebecca Dinerstein Knight adapted from her own novel, artists (of varying types) are everywhere. Of course finding one’s self usually involves making peace with this quagmire we call life.

Frances (Jenny Slate, OBVIOUS CHILD, 2014) watches as three snooty art critics denigrate her latest work to the point of humiliation. Her long-time boyfriend dumps her, and she returns home to her parents, both artists. Instead of sympathy from the family, she’s bombarded with news that her sister Gaby (Elise Kibler) is engaged to a man her father loathes, and to top off the family dinner, her parents (Jessica Hecht, David Paymer) announce they are separating. Rather than deal with any of this head-on, Frances accepts an apprenticeship with an artist in north Norway. “Norway, Norway”. Where the sun never sets.

Nils (Fridtjov Saheim) is the personality opposite to talkative, upbeat Frances. He grumps around while escorting her to the trailer she’ll stay in for the summer. The project, seemingly uninspiring, is to paint a local dilapidated barn yellow – inside and out. Nils is under a tight deadline to finish the barn so it (and he) can earn a spot on the map of cultural sites. Close by is a Viking museum and community, where the folks, led by their Chief (Zach Galifianakis), re-create Viking life for tourists (or mostly themselves).

One day Yasha (Alex Sharp, HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES, 2017) shows up. He’s arranging a ceremonial Viking funeral for his beloved father (Olek Krupa). Father and son worked together daily in their bakery and developed a close bond. Sasha’s mother (Gillian Anderson), who left them years ago, unexpectedly shows up for the funeral, hoping to lure him to live with her.

Frances compares everyone she meets to subjects in famous works of art. It’s her way of connecting art to the real world, as well as helping her find a place for people in her world of art. Frances and Yasha are drawn together in their search for direction and meaning, and we are led to believe this connection, no matter how brief or random their crossing of paths might be, helps her in her personal quest.

The cinematography from Martin Ahlgren captures this rarely seen top-of-the-world wonderland, and the landscape is truly something to behold. Ms. Slate is once again top notch in her role. She’s likable and relatable, traits some actors struggle with, but which apparently come natural to her. And while we expect lives to be messy and complicated, we hope for a bit more from our movies. Frances’ home life is drawn straight out of a TV sitcom, and the whole Viking village never really makes sense. It seems Frances is short-changed on all of her relationships here, yet the trip still manages to help her discover something in her art. And that’s just about how life works – really messy right up until something clicks, and then back to messy.

Available on VOD July 17, 2020

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HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

June 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film directorial debut of Drew Pearce is original and clever, while teasing with hope for a bit more than it delivers. Mr. Pearce is best known for writing the screenplay for IRON MAN 3, and now as a first time director, he shows enough promise to leave us interested in what comes next.

The film is set in dystopian Los Angeles a mere 10 years in the future. The streets are flooded with desperate rioters after a mega-corporation shuts off the clean water supply. The company is the film’s real villain, and the only one that The Nurse (Jodie Foster) can’t treat. See, she runs Hotel Artemis, an underground hospital for top tier criminals – the element that can’t just pop into the local community clinic for treatment on the latest bullet hole or knife wound. These patients follow a subscription plan and must stay current on their dues to gain admission.

The Nurse forgoes any attempt at personal vanity and is instead an agoraphobic, booze-chugging, (mostly) stick-to-the-rules type, who pops in anti-anxiety tapes and ear buds whenever her pulse quickens. She has run the place since it opened 22 years prior and is assisted by a mountain of man named Everest (get it?) played well by Dave Bautista. He’s a combination bodyguard, bouncer, handyman and assistant healthcare professional (check his badge).

The set design by Ramsey Avery deserves special mention as the Hotel Artemis is quietly housed in the shell of a former grand art deco hotel, now a victim to the city’s carnage – though the neon sign remains illuminated. Its vacation spot-themed rooms are a sight to behold, despite the frustratingly low lighting. Occupants are incognito and use their room names as identifiers. Sterling K Brown is Waikiki, a philosophical bank robber who dragged his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) here for treatment after a heist went wrong. Acapulco (the always energetic Charlie Day) is a crass, motor-mouthed arms dealer, while Nice (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) is a freakishly skilled assassin.

The stress level picks up when the biggest crime lord of Los Angeles shows up seriously wounded. Known as The Wolf King, an admittedly bad choice for a nickname, Jeff Goldblum brings some smooth-talking toughness, humor and twisted class to the proceedings. More than a few tentacles are attached to The Wolf King and other folks we’ve previously met, not the least of which is a very special ink pen stolen by Honolulu. Mix in an injured cop (Jenny Slate) with a personal link to The Nurse and her constantly alluded to tragic backstory, and the movie puts off a Graphic novel vibe … missing only the off-the-cuff insanity. It’s just a bit too grounded for its own good.

The high tech/low rent feel forces us to recall BLADE RUNNER and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but of course, this film isn’t at the level of either, as it lacks top tier suspense. It is a terrific reminder of what a talented actress two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is, and what a shame that we haven’t seen her in such a substantial screen role since 2013’s ELYSIUM. She really sinks her teeth into this odd character, and more than the action scenes, she keeps us interested the entire run time. The score is a bit too heavy on the droning electronic bass line, and while the Florida joke and nod to John Phillips (The Wolf King, “California Dreamin’”) earns some bonus points, it’s really the performance of Ms. Foster and the set design that saves a too-safe script.

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GIFTED (2017)

April 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The “right” choice isn’t always obvious. Things get more complicated when even the “best” choice isn’t clear. Place a young child at the heart of that decision tree, and the result may yield emotional turmoil and an abundance of moral high ground and judgment. Such best intentions are at the core of this latest from director Marc Webb (his first feature since 500 Days of Summer) and writer Tom Flynn.

Frank (Chris Evans) is raising his 10 year old child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in low-key small town Florida. The circumstances that brought the two of them together aren’t initially known, but are explained in a poignant moment later in the film. Frank has been home-schooling Mary and now believes it’s time she transitions to public school for the socialization aspect … “try being a kid for once” he urges. Of course, Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) immediately realizes Mary is special, and just like that, the wheels of the educational system are in motion to explain to Frank why they know what’s best for Mary … a high-fallutin private school where she can be all she can be.

There is a really nice and enjoyable story here of Uncle Frank dedicated to doing what he thinks is best for bright and charming and spirited young Mary, but it all comes crashing down when the bureaucrats, and ultimately Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan), get involved. When the adults can’t agree on the best route for Mary, a courtroom battle ensues. Ms. Duncan gets a witness scene reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, and her overall performance stands in effective stark contrast to the warm fuzzies of Mr. Evans.

The supporting cast contributes nicely, though Octavia Spencer’s role as kindly neighbor Roberta is more limited than it should be, and the love connection between Evans and Ms. Slate could have easily been omitted – but she is so pleasant on screen, that we don’t mind at all. Glenn Plummer and John Finn are the attorneys who go to war, and Fred the one-eyed cat also gets plenty of screen time. But there is little doubt that the movie really belongs to the effervescent Miss Grace. She nails the back and forth between kid and genius, and we never doubt her sincerity.

Child prodigies have been explored through other fine movies such as Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Shine, and while this one may run a bit heavier on melodrama, but it’s worthy of that group. The best discussions after this movie would revolve around what’s best for the child. Should she be deprived of “higher” education in order to live within a more “normal” social environment? Are any of the adults more interested in their own ego than in what’s in the child’s best interest? Home school vs public school vs private school is always good for some fireworks, and everyone has their own thoughts. So how do we decide who gets to decide? Does a parent get the final say on their child – even if their motivations may be in doubt? Should every kid be pushed to their academic – or artistic – or athletic – limits? The questions are many and the answers are complicated. There is a great line in the film that itself is worthy of conversation: “You got on the bad side of a small-minded person with authority”. Yikes. Even Cat Stevens’ great song “The Wind” can’t soften that.

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OBVIOUS CHILD (2014)

June 14, 2014

obvious Greetings again from the darkness. One of my movie review rules is about to be broken. Typically I don’t judge movies based on the filmmaker’s gender, but there is a good reason to do so this time. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre delivers an extraordinary film that avoids the extremes we have come to expect: the “shock for shock’s sake” of HBO’s “Girls” and the fantasy world of glamour and shoes of Sex and the City. Instead we get an authentic look at a lead character that seems like a woman we might actually know.

Based on Ms. Robespierre’s popular 2009 short film of the same name, this one features a brilliant collaboration with Jenny Slate whom many will recognize from “Saturday Night Live“. Ms. Slate brings a grounded, believable quality to both the stand-up sequences and the struggling Brooklyn 30-ish woman’s clunky transition into adulthood. This story works because we like Donna (Slate’s character), we empathize with Donna, and we root for Donna.

You may have heard this referred to as “the abortion comedy”. While it’s common to apply simple labels to movies, this seems to be a case of mistaken identity. Absolutely there is humor present – Donna’s hobby is stand-up comedy. And yes, the decision to have an abortion is a key element in the script … but there is also a strong Rom-Com element, a study in friendship, a look at relationships, a peek at the bond between adult kids and their parents, and the ever-present struggle between independence and the hope for true love. Much is happening here, and most of it is handled exceptionally well.

The film kicks off with an uncomfortable foul-mouthed stand-up segment from Donna. While I have never been a fan of fart-poop-pee humor, it’s our introduction to her thought process and how she uses her own life as subject matter, creating a kind of self-therapy. Soon thereafter, we witness a most unorthodox break-up between Donna and her boyfriend. This is followed by lots of wine consumption, blind support from her friend Nellie (played by Gaby Hoffmann – all grown up since her time as the young daughter in Field of Dreams), and a drunken fling with ultra nice guy Max (Jake Lacy from TV’s “The Office“). Their “date” includes pretty much everything except a condom, which leads to the abortion story line.

Handled with dignity and frankness, Donna’s decision is one faced by many women. It’s a part of life and receives straightforward treatment (save one questionable joke). The real joy here is not just how the story focuses on a female character, but that it’s told from the female perspective … two rarely seen approaches from Hollywood. The dialogue rings true and the clichés are minimal. There is even a nice guy to offset the big jerk!

The closest comparison I can come up with is Knocked Up, which was much more concerned with generating laughs, and treated abortion as a taboo topic, rather than a real life decision. Donna’s parents are played by Richard Kind and Polly Draper, and both add an element of realism and love that rings true. David Cross and Gabe Liedman have interesting and funny support roles as well. But understand that this movie belongs to Jenny Slate and especially director Gillian Robespierre, two very strong and talented women who just upped the standard for filmmaking … not just female filmmaking.

**NOTE: yes that is Paul Simon‘s 1991 song “The Obvious Child” that plays during the Donna and Max “date”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need proof that a women’s perspective on screen can be interesting and ring true OR you want to see the works of two up-and-coming voices in Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some massive political diatribe on the abortion topic

watch the trailer: