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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BECKY (2020)

June 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Actress Lulu Wilson is not yet 15 years old (13 when filming this one), and yet her resume is already quite impressive, featuring roles in such high profile projects as “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018), “Sharp Objects” (2018), and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017). She’s clearly on the path to stardom, so seizing the lead role in a low budget ultra-violent home invasion flick provides her some fun and shows off her range.

If you are going to have a young teenage girl go full ‘Rambo’, you might as well have her facing off against some neo-Nazi escaped convicts. You might question the casting of Kevin James as the gang leader – a dead-eyed hulk with shaved head, long beard, and swastika tattoos (on his scalp). James typically plays a funny schlub like Paul Blart or a loveable simpleton like his character on “The King of Queens.” Not this time. His Dominick is relentless and lacking all compassion in his quest for the key – a key that we never really learn the purpose of or the reason it’s hidden where it is.

Co-directors and Design School buddies Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion bookend the story with scenes of Becky being interrogated by the Sheriff after all the audacious events. So we know going in that Becky will survive – we just don’t know about the others. Some fancy editing trickery has us bouncing between Becky at school and Dominick in the prison yard. The escape of he and his three buddies is chronicled alongside Becky’s dad (Joel McHale, “Community”) taking her and their two dogs to the family lake house. She’s happy until Kayla (Amanda Brugel, “The Handmaid’s Tale) and her young son Ty (Isiah Rockcliffe) pull up.

Becky is still grieving her beloved mother who died of cancer. We see flashbacks of their final days together. Becky is not ready for her dad to re-marry, and when she envisions the merged family, she bolts from the dinner table into the woods. Soon after Dominick and his boys knock on the door and take everyone else hostage. Becky dons what appears to be a knitted chipmunk cap (it’s her nickname), and arms herself for battle. It doesn’t take long for us to see that this is a rare, ultra-violent gore-fest featuring a rampaging teenage girl. One might compare to Kevin in HOME ALONE, but it’s more similar in tone to READY OR NOT (2019) and THE HUNT (2020).

The script was written by Nick Morris and the husband and wife team of Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye. While there are some memorable moments, we do find ourselves wishing that the film veered a bit more in one direction – either more ominous or more tongue-in-cheek/outlandish. Perhaps a bit of background on Dominick, or some prep work on how Becky turns so quickly from angry teenager to murderous psychotic with an instinct for violence and mayhem. Dominick admits “Becky is a little more than we bargained for”, and she’s probably a bit more than we can accept.

Still, the scenes between Kevin James and Lulu Wilson are enough to keep us watching, and the cinematography from Greta Zozula (the excellent LIGHT FROM LIGHT, 2019) delivers the visuals to keep us cringing. For those who enjoy violence and gore served in bulk, you’ll likely be satisfied.

Now available on RedBox OnDemand

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ADULT BEGINNERS (2015)

May 21, 2015

adult beginners Greetings again from the darkness. It’s certainly understandable that the Duplass Brothers (“The League”) are working relentlessly to take advantage of their window of creative opportunity. In the vein of their HBO show “Togetherness”, this is another com-dram with the theme of thirty-somethings coming to terms with adulthood and responsibility.

In their role as Producers for this latest project, Team Duplass has assembled a strong group: director Ross Katz (himself best known as a Producer of In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation), and funny folks Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Garces, and Celia Weston. Unfortunately, the script does not rise to the level of the on screen talent, leaving us with a mostly benign story with few laughs and little message.

Things kick off with Kroll’s character in full crash-and-burn mode when his entrepreneurial offering “Mind’s I” implodes just before it is scheduled for rollout. He loses his money, his investors’ money, and most any semblance of the fair weather friends one accumulates while living the high life in NYC. Packing up what little dignity he retains, Kroll heads to the suburbs to live with his pregnant sister (Rose Byrne), her husband (Bobby Cannavale) and their 3 year old son Teddy.

It’s not that the path is obvious, but rather than it’s executed so blandly. The zingers and physical humor are mostly lacking, and the film can’t seem to decide if it wants us to laugh, or if it would rather prove how tough parenthood and adulthood and responsibility can be. Bobby Moynihan spikes the comedy in a short scene, and Paula Garces may be the most interesting character despite only appearing in a few scenes. The swimming lessons sequences led by Jane Krakowski are mostly vacuous, and are used instead to focus on the insecurities of Kroll and Byrne. As in “Togetherness”, the kids seem to be an afterthought … like a lamp … but less than a sconce.

The scenes are well paced and the story clicks right along, but overall it plays more like a TV show … albeit one with an abundance of cursing, too few laughs, and no new insight into the tough world that awaits as we step out of childhood (evidently in our mid-30’s).

watch the trailer:

 


TED (2012)

July 1, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Upon watching the trailer, it would be easy and understandable to simply write off this movie as a ridiculous piece of junk produced merely to capitalize on the popularity of Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy” creator). That would be a mistake. While much of what Ted has to say will burn your ears, the insight that goes into his lines is often unmistakeably brilliant.

The movie opens with terrific narration from Patrick Stewart. It’s done in A Christmas Story style, only with a caustic and deadpan irreverence that will jolt you before the opening credits have even rolled. We learn the story of 9 year old John Bennett, a social outcast who receives a teddy bear for Christmas. First, what parent buys their 9 year old a teddy bear??? Anyway, that night, under the covers, young John wishes that he and Ted could be lifelong friends. In the morning, he awakes to find a sweet, lively teddy who startles everyone.

 The talking bear becomes an instant celebrity and is even booked on the Johnny Carson show … the first of many 1980’s pop culture references. As in the case of Corey Feldman (pointed out by the narrator), celebrity often fades. Flash forward 25 years and John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted are living together with John’s girlfriend (Mila Kunis). The boys spend most of their time smoking pot and watching TV re-runs and worshiping the 1980 Flash Gordon cult movie. It’s a typical man-child existence except that one of them is a vile, 4 letter-word spewing teddy bear, and there is no logical reason that the beautiful Kunis hasn’t walked away from the four year relationship with the hapless floater John.

 Mr. MacFarlane’s true talent lies in laughing at our societal norms and encouraging us to laugh at ourselves. He does this through Brian, the pet dog on “Family Guy“, and now here with a talking teddy bear. He holds little back in ripping our obsession with celebrity, our near-clinical anxiety towards all things Politically Correct, and the villainous ways of entitled corporate types (played here by Joel McHale). Luckily the same rules don’t apply for talking teddies, so we hear things that we aren’t even allowed to think. Because he can, MacFarlane mixes in his love of the 80’s with numerous references and we even get odd cameos from Tom Skerritt, Nora Jones and Ryan Reynolds. The most bizarre reference takes up a substantial part of the movie … Sam Jones, the star of Flash Gordon, appears as an aged party animal, teaching the boys some new tricks. Most of this will be dead time to those unfamiliar with the 1980 movie … and evidently few of us have been impacted by it like MacFarlane.

 Ted is a mash-up of John Waters, Bad Santa, Jackass and just about every stereotypical slacker-buddy movie from the past 25 years. It’s all of that and none of that at the same time. Depending on your viewpoint, Ted is either a crass, irreverent, totally inappropriate waste of movie time, or it’s a comical, insightful observation on where we are as a society right now. Only you can decide … just please don’t take your kids.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always wished your teddy bear would come alive OR you have a freakish attraction to Flash Gordon

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your preference in comedy leans towards the sweet and innocent (two words that have no place near this movie)

watch the trailer: