BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON (2019)

September 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Philosophically speaking, each of us is running our own marathon of life. Of course, every person’s marathon has its own obstacles and challenges, and most of us have happiness as our end goal for the finish line. This first feature film from writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo is based on the real life struggles of his friend Brittany, whose photos are shared over the closing credits.

Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, a 28 year old New York City party girl dedicated to avoiding adult responsibilities. She struggles to make ends meet financially, yet manages to drink copious amounts of alcohol and partake in recreational drug use. A trip to a Yelp-referred doctor in hopes of scoring Adderall ends with a harsh realization when he asks if she is making “healthy choices” … her BMI places her in the obese category. Suddenly her friends’ claiming she is the funniest person in the room can be interpreted as Brittany using humor as a coping method – a trait she recognizes in another character later in the story.

This is no simple “chick flick” filled with punchlines. Well, OK, it has plenty of punchlines thanks to the comedic brilliance of Ms. Bell, however, the film is also loaded with the emotional burdens that accompany societal standards. It exposes the nasty side of human nature in how we treat those who are overweight, or not meeting the accepted standard of attractiveness, or not wealthy enough, or not fashion-oriented, or whatever other standard being applied at any given time. Brittany takes us on the emotional journey of seeking happiness and self-actualization when one is mired in insecurities and depression. It’s a journey that can be tough to watch and tough to experience.

The underappreciated Michaela Watkins plays Brittany’s neighbor Catherine, whose athletic and artistic façade camouflage her shattered marriage and the accompanying pain. Ms. Watkins clearly embraces offbeat projects, as evidenced by her role in BRIGSBY BEAR (2017) and by appearing with Jillian Bell in this year’s indie gem SWORD OF TRUST. When Brittany laces up her Chucks and runs that first block, Catherine jumps in and invites her to join a runner’s club. It’s there that Brittany and Catherine meet Seth (Micah Stock), an out of shape gay man proving to his son he is a strong father that can be relied upon. We see all three become friends, and though Brittany may have motivated them to run the NYC Marathon, we see that each is running for their own reason.

Other supporting work is provided by Lil Rey Howery (GET OUT) as Demetrius, Brittany’s brother-in-law and surrogate step-father via Skype; Alice Lee as Gretchen, Brittany’s narcissistic vlogger roommate; and Utkarsh Ambudkar as Jern, Brittany’s slacker co-worker turned friend turned romantic partner. Even though Jillian Bell owns the film as Brittany, each of the talented support cast brings depth to their roles, allowing these to be actual people to whom we can relate. It’s a risky move casting so many improve comedians, but the result is quite impressive.

The film is loaded with life lessons and chuckles, and with that comes moments of cruelty, self-centeredness, insecurity and depression. Friendship is key here. Is someone your friend if they belittle you and keep you around so they feel better about themselves?  Are we a good friend if we don’t allow others to support and help us out in times of need? The message these days is to accept yourself, and find happiness in the type of person you are. Brittany shows us that finding yourself is a crucial first step, and that accepting yourself doesn’t mean accepting bad habits and poor health. The film was well received at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why … much easier than running that first block.

watch the trailer:

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SWORD OF TRUST (2019)

July 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Lynn Shelton has put together a very successful career that began with her contributions to the early days of mumblecore (Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass brothers, et al). Along with her filmmaking, she has mixed in some fine TV work, including multiple episodes of “GLOW”, “Fresh Off the Boat”, and “New Girl”. This time out, with a script she co-wrote with Mike O’Brien, she stays true to her offbeat roots and love of characters with character.

There is a story here, and in fact, it was the synopsis that contributed to me agreeing to review this one … well that, and the previous work of Ms. Shelton. Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins) have returned to Alabama with the expectation of inheriting Cynthia’s grandfather’s house. Instead of the house, Cynthia instead walks away with an antique sword, whose accompanying drawing and handwritten letter supposedly prove that the South won the Civil War.

A visit to Mel’s Pawn Shop begins the process of finding a buyer for the sword. Cranky Mel is played by Marc Maron, best known for his stand-up comedy. As a shop owner, he seems constantly annoyed by his dim bulb employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass). The two couldn’t be more different, as Nathaniel spends his work days plugged into conspiracy podcasts (including one run by the film’s co-writer Mike O’Brien in a quick cameo). However, it’s Nathaniel that discovers the “truthers” who believe the ‘South won the war’, and are the best possible fit as buyers for Cynthia’s sword.

Director Shelton makes an appearance as Deirdre, Mel’s former lover. As a couple, their rocky history includes significant drug use and little contribution to society. Also appearing is Toby Huss as Hog Jaws, the oddball middleman involved with the sword transaction. “Seinfeld” fans will recall Mr. Huss as “The Wiz” from that popular show.

This is a deep cut indie, and the humor will either appeal to you or you’ll find it absolutely absurd (or maybe both). The entertainment is derived from the ‘little’ moments and the manner in which the characters interact.  It appears many scenes were improvised, a trait of early Shelton projects, and with such talented comedy actors, it’s no wonder. The offbeat story simply exists to give these actors a reason to be funny … something they do quite well.

watch the trailer:


BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Many kids get obsessed with their favorite TV show and characters. Perhaps it’s Minnie Mouse, Sesame Street or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whatever or whomever it is, they typically enjoy sharing their experiences with their friends. When we first meet James, he is staring, fully-engaged, at an odd, poorly produced show that appears to be a relic from the 1970’s. His room is packed with franchised merchandise like a bedspread, a lamp, toys, and even a stuffed animal. We immediately notice two problems: we don’t recognize this talking TV bear and James appears to be not a child, but a twenty-something with a 3 day beard growth.

Kyle Mooney has gained a following with his work (especially his quirky short films) on “Saturday Night Live”. Here he collaborates with director Dave McCrary (another SNL stalwart) and co-writer Kevin Costello on their first feature film. Mr. Mooney also stars as James, the “Brigsby Bear” expert who was kidnapped as an infant, held captive in a desert bunker and brainwashed by his captor “parents” Ted and April (an excellent Mark Hamill, Jane Adams).

Being confined and isolated in a controlled environment with only artificial culture in no way prepares James for the long-delayed release back into the wild known as society. His biological parents Greg and Louise (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins) are thrilled to reunite with their long lost son, and very patient with James’ struggles to assimilate.

James is unceremoniously dumped into the real world without his one security blanket: a TV bear that doesn’t exist. He goes from being disconnected from the outside world to being disconnected inside a new world he doesn’t know or recognize. Despite the pressures he is up against (police, family, new friends), he refuses to let go of his obsession.

It’s at this point where we really root for Mooney and McCrary to embrace the weirdness. Instead, the story takes a bit of a conventional turn and we find ourselves no longer reveling in oddity, but instead cheering for James to continue influencing those who initially viewed him as the proverbial fish out of water. The film ends up as a creative story about creativity … if that’s what it’s about (or if it’s about anything).

Strong supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel (with a secret passion), Ryan Simpkins (sister of Ty) as James’ somewhat reluctant sister, and Alexa Demie and Jorge Lendeborg Jr as the new friends who come to appreciate him for his perspective. Claire Danes is a misguided psychiatrist, Buck Bennett is a detective, Andy Samburg appears an acquaintance, and Kate Lyn Scheil is Arielle (and Nora).

The film can best be described as Funny-Sad, and a blend of ROOM (isolated and held captive), NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (a quirky dude), BEING THERE (an innocence that influences others), and ENCINO MAN (a guy being introduced to a new world). It has an emotional and heartfelt climax that is crowd-pleasing, and certainly deserves bonus points for not being a superhero movie, remake, sequel or reboot. Still, it leaves us wondering what direction this could have gone had the filmmakers remained true to the cause of embracing the weirdness.

watch the trailer:

 


IN A WORLD … (2013)

September 9, 2013

in a world1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always cool when an actor gets to pursue their first “all in” creative project. Two examples are Joseph Gordon-Levitt with Don Jon and the late Adrienne Shelly with Waitress. This time it’s Lake Bell who is writer, director and leading lady in a story about (at least partially) the empowerment of women in a male dominated field.

This is a very pleasant comedy with dramatic overtones. Ms Bell plays Carol, who is a voice/dialect coach with the dream of breaking into the good ol’ boys club of Voice Over acting. The title of the film was made famous the late great Don LaFontaine, who voiced hundreds of movie trailers that we all watched and listened to. The film begins with a little tribute to LaFontaine and sets the stage as the torch is passed to Sam (Fred Melamed, A Serious Man), who also happens to be Carol’s father, and cocky youngster Gustav (Ken Marino), who has a much different connection to Carol.

in a world3 The father-daughter issues abound as Sam of course believes Voice Over work should be limited to the deep, powerful voices of men. Carol also gets tossed into the relationship drama of her dad and his much younger girlfriend, the marital struggles of her sister (Michaela Watkins) and brother in law (Rob Corddry), and the workplace affections of her co-worker (Demetri Martin-Lewis). That’s a lot of sub-plots and it causes a loss of focus on Carol’s persistence to find her own voice, so to speak.

The quirkiness of Bell’s character also distracts a bit, but mostly she is charming and likable, and we really pull for her to succeed and overcome.  As a director, Bell does a nice job of helping us get to know the multitude of characters, and though there is much to garner interest, it’s just overload for the viewer. When the story focuses on Bell and her dad’s ignorance and competitiveness, the movie is at its best. This is definitely one to check out, and here’s hoping for more from Ms. Bell

NOTE: my fascination with screen voices was the subject a recent blog post entitled “Golden Voices of the Silver Screen”.  You can find it here: http://wp.me/pKvIs-10n

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: watching the good ol’ boys network take a few lumps

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Fred Melamed creeped you out in A Serious Man … he takes the creep level up a notch here

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZHBjLFu5is