THE BETA TEST (2021)

November 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director-editor-actor Jim Cummings’ 2018 film THUNDER ROAD was quite popular on the festival circuit, and Cummings is back with another story of a stressed out man … at a time when the world doesn’t much care about stressed out men, especially those who carry themselves with a heavy dose of self-importance. Cummings and co-writer, co-director, and co-star PJ McCabe have delivered a satire on traditional Hollywood in the shape of a whodunit with dark comedy that teeters into thriller territory.

Cummings stars as Jordan Hines, a high-octane Hollywood agent who talks as quickly and incessantly as he smiles, and neither are sincere. Jordan is an unlikable guy who belittles the support staff and mostly patronizes his fiancé Caroline (Virginia Newcomb, THE DEATH OF DICK LONG, 2019), while kissing the proverbial tushes of prospective clients. One day a mysterious elegant purple envelope shows up in Jordan’s mail. It’s an invitation to meet up with an admirer for anonymous, no-strings attached sex (as if that’s even possible when someone has targeted you). He initially trashes the envelope, before reconsidering.

After the encounter, Jordan’s personality becomes unhinged and his world begins to crumble. He wants to know who the woman was and why he was chosen. His desperate obsession with locating the mystery woman means his work suffers, as does his relationship with Caroline. Jordan’s fantasy has turned into a nightmare that causes him to see and hear things – and he’s unable to discern his visions from reality. This fast-talking agent teeters between viable and obsolete, and an “I’m so excited” montage fits perfectly into the persona of a man who lacks sincerity, doesn’t know himself, and is oblivious to the needs of others.

There are some comparisons here to Jeremy Piven’s character in “Entourage” and Patrick Bateman/Christian Bale in AMERICAN PSYCHO, but Cummings make the character his own. The comedy is dark and satirical, but the film never seems sure of itself as it bounds between erotic thriller (with very little eroticism), a ‘who is she’ mystery, and commentary on how a certain type of individual is no longer welcome in a post-Harvey proper society.

The opening sequence is no slow start, as it features a brutally violent murder – an incident that doesn’t find its place until near the end of the film. Also included here is cautionary tale on the dark web, and the dangers of social media and the internet, although this feels like an add-on, rather than a fully developed sub-plot.  Virginia Newcomb does get to deliver the film’s best line, “I’m not insulting you. I’m describing you”. Also giving the story a contemporary feel is the emphasis on packaging deals, which is a relevant topic in the ongoing discussions with industry unions. There is a lot tossed in here, and some parts work better than others.

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE DEATH OF DICK LONG (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s Been Awhile” by Staind is the song we first hear from Pink Freud, a garage band formed by buddies Zeke, Earl and Dick. The music is awful, and “band practice” seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting these slackers together, hanging out, and drinking beer. Daniel Scheinert also directed SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) and this first screenplay from Billy Chew shows some real promise for twisted comedy-drama blends. Director Scheinert also plays the titular Mr. Long.

One evening, band practice takes a wrong turn, and Dick ends up dead … unceremoniously dumped in a hospital parking lot by his bandmates. If somehow we previously had any doubts as to the intelligence of Zeke and Earl, all doubt is removed as these two bumbling idiots try to cover up their involvement and what actually happened that night. The cause of death is slow to unfold, but once it does, it surely is the only one of its kind in the history of cinema. The Sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) and her deputy (the talented Sarah Baker) prove equally clueless in their attempts to solve the crime, and much of the film’s humor revolves around folks just not asking quite the right question in any situation.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when small town Alabama adult moronic rednecks get together, the answer involves beer, pot, fireworks and firearms. None of that will likely surprise you; however, the twist and reveal, hopefully will. I first saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s a tragicomedy that unabashedly offers a tip of the cap to the Coen Brothers.

Michael Abbott Jr plays Zeke and Andre Hyland plays Earl, and their scenes together will have you laughing and questioning human existence. Virginia Newcomb plays Lydia (Zeke’s wife), Jess Weixler is the perplexed wife of Dick, and Sunita Mani is hilarious as Earl’s friend Lake Travis (a name nearly as much of a punchline as the film’s titular character).  While the film has many funny and awkward moments, it can also be taken as a statement on testosterone-driven bad decisions and actions with consequences. If nothing else, we learn how to quickly answer when someone asks, “Y’all wanna get weird?

CAUTION: RED BAND TRAILER (not appropriate for younger viewers):