They/Them/Us


How easily your world is turned upside-down when you’re a teen.

(2021) Romantic Dramedy (Blended Family) Joey Slotnick, Amy Hargreaves, Jack Steiner, Shanna Strong, Abi Van Andel, Lexie Bean, Sarah Eddy, Robert Pavlovich, Trina Gardiner, Esther Cunningham, Johanna McGinley, Abigail Esmena, Shyra Thomas, Richard Hagerman, Heidi Lewandowski, Cheyenne Poz, Graham Caldwell, Dominic McNeal, Tre Ryan, Lisa DeRoberts. Directed by Jon Sherman

 

The idea of blended families is nothing new; Hollywood has been making comedies about them for decades. However, as time goes by and familial relationships become more complicated, so too does blending two families together become all that much more of a challenge.

Charlie Goldman (Slotnick) is a divorced film professor whose ex-wife Deborah (Van Andel) is eager to get back together with him, something he is interested in not at all. He has taken a job at a Christian university, masquerading as a devout Christian when in fact he is a virtual embodiment of a neurotic Jewish man. His son Danny (Steiner) smokes enough weed to make Cheech and Chong go “Whoa, you might wanna slow down a little bit there Homeboy” and daughter Anna (Strong) blames him for the divorce.

He meets Lisa Harper (Hargreaves) on a dating site. As it turns out, they click almost immediately. She’s mainly looking for a sexual partner, though – a series of one-night stands to “play the field,” as she puts it. Her daughters Maddie (Bean) and Courtney (Eddy) miss their Dad, who has moved away to Europe and both have a none-too-cordial relationship with their mom. Not one of the teens is anxious to see their parent find love with another person.

But love is what Charlie and Lisa find, and it isn’t long before Charlie invites Lisa to move in with her kids. The kids take to the idea like a cat taking to having its tail dipped in brown mustard. It’s hard enough to make a relationship work in this day and age without having openly hostile kids who are rooting for it to fail. Can love survive, let alone thrive, in such an environment?

The humor here is broad, what I like to call “Har-de-HAR-har-har” humor. In other words, I get the sense that the writers were going for as broad and as universal a humor as possible and end up coming up with nothing that is particularly funny. The characters are painted in extremely broad strokes; Charlie’s a nebbish, Danny is a stoner who is an absolute dickweed when sober, Lisa has a secret yen for BDSM…but other than Hargreaves who gives her character a great deal of patience and care, most of the actors seem not to have much direction in terms of where they are taking their characters and as a result, we end up not caring for any of them – with the exception, perhaps, of Hargreaves’ Lisa.

The plot is fairly predictable for a movie of this nature and the ending is about as Hollywood as it gets, which is kind of an odd duck for an independent flick. The soundtrack is loud, obnoxious and intrusive, almost cartoony in nature. Yeah, there are a lot of problems with this movie.

But Hargreaves isn’t one of them, and she has a lot of potential to make an impact as an actress. I hope she gets some better parts in better movies after this, because she deserves better. And frankly, so do you.

REASONS TO SEE: Hargreaves is magic in a role that could easily become self-parody.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many rom-com tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use and plenty of sexual situations and sexual situations, as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Makes its world premiere tonight (as this is published) at the Dances With Films 2021 film festival in Los Angeles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yours, Mine and Ours
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Language Lessons

Paint


Art for art’s sake.

(2020) Comedy (GravitasJosh Caras, Olivia Luccardi, Paul Cooper, Comfort Clinton, Amy Hargreaves, François Arnaud, Vince Nappo, Kaliswa Brewster, Daniel Bellomy, Lizzy DeClement, Phil Burke, Austin Pendleton, Kate Stone, Victor Verhaeghe, Emrhys Cooper, Stella Kammel, John Wolfman, Roger Netzer, Nick Neon, Anthony Edward Curry, Jon Valde. Directed by Michael Walker

 

I don’t know if any of you have ever met an art school graduate. My sister went to Cal Arts so I knew quite a few. Most of them were people just like thee and me, with a particular talent for creativity and artistic technique. A handful of them were pretentious blowhards who thought they could take a crap on a piece of canvas and it would be amazingly insightful.

The latter is the sort that inhabits the latest from New York indie filmmaker Michael Walker. Three mostly-affluent graduates from art school – frustrated Dan (Caras), his best friend Quinn (Cooper), a photographer who lives in his own studio; and lovely Kelsey (Luccardi) who works menial jobs while trying to find herself as an artist.

Dan is frustrated at the hoops he has to jump through to break through the high-falutin’ New York arts scene. His distracted father (Verhaeghe) encourages his son’s chosen career, introducing him to gallery owners and scene makers who tell Dan that his art “isn’t dark enough.” So, he does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – he asks his mom (Hargreaves) to pose nude for him.

She is understandably reluctant, but Dan sidesteps the obviously creepy Oedipal overtones by suggesting that Quinn take nude pictures of mommy dearest and Dan will paint based on these. Mom consents to this, but as it turns out, the session gets out of hand and one thing leads to another….

Speaking of inappropriate relationships, Kelsey has sex with an important painter three times her age who is currently homeless, who promptly takes one of her paintings that is heavily influenced by his own work and sells it as his own. So she does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – she blackmails the art gallery owner (Arnaud) to take on her career as a manager.

In the meantime, Dan finds out about what happened with Quinn and his mom, which doesn’t sit well with him at all, although he himself is having an affair with a married woman (Clinton). The three friends are forced to re-evaluate their values and their preconceptions about who they really are.

Walker, who also wrote the film, has a good ear for dialogue and that might just be the most distinctive thing about the film. It’s a shame that the characters speaking those lines are for the most part, pretentious self-absorbed twats. I get the sense that Parker was poking a hole in the façade of the New York art scene, which elevates the above-mentioned traits to god-like heights, but the humor here is more in the deranged nature of the situations. At one point, you wonder if actual human beings would do the things that the characters are doing in the movie. I would like to say they wouldn’t, although given that this is 2020, I may be overly generous with my assessment of human beings.

After a year in which it has become readily apparent that Americans have a self-serving streak wider than any river and a tribal identification taller than any mountain, I suppose my tolerance for spending time with characters I find no common morality with is pretty low. If you are in the same boat that I’m in, you might have the same reaction. But if your threshold for arseholes is relatively high, you might find this entertaining particularly if you enjoy the skewering of pretentious art snobs.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretentious and preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a 2018 short of the same name  featuring the same characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Velvet Buzzsaw
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
GetAWAY

Blue Ruin


Fear comes home.

Fear comes home.

(2013) Thriller (Radius) Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson, Bonnie Johnson, Daniel L. Kelly, Ydaiber Orozco, Erica Genereaux Smith. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

When we commit a heinous act, the ripples from that act often reverberate for years and decades. We may consider the incident at an end, but those affected by it may not.

Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car. He talks to nobody, eats out of garbage cans and basically is completely off the grid. In the quiet beach community in which he’s taken up residence, he bothers nobody and from time to time can be seen under the pier staring out at the sea. His is a wounded soul and people generally stay away from him.

One morning a cop (Anderson) raps on the window of his bullet pock-marked blue Buick and informs him that one Wade Cleland has just been released from prison. That seems to wake him up from his fog. After all, Wade was the one who murdered both his parents some years before. So Dwight does what he thinks he ought to – head back home and take the vengeance that the justice system didn’t give him. He finds Wade and murders him. That should be the end of it but it’s only the beginning.

Now the Cleland clan is out looking for revenge of their own so Dwight needs to protect his sister Sam (Hargreaves) from the rampaging Cleland brothers Teddy (Kolack) and Carl (Werzner) as well as rabid sister Hope (Rock) and matriarch Kris (Plumb). Dwight isn’t ex-Special Forces. He’s no martial arts expert nor is he a marksman with a gun. In fact, when he tries to steal a gun from the front seat of a car, the trigger lock the owner installed is enough to defeat him.

With the help of his friend Ben (Ratray) he will go after the Cleland family but being something of a bumbler, Dwight is going to make a mess of things and certainly he’s not getting out of this in one piece. Then again, revenge isn’t exactly known for being the type of affair that leaves those who seek it intact.

This low-budget affair which was financed almost entirely through Kickstarter has been receiving rave reviews from filmgoers and critics alike and for good reason. You are unlikely to find a film that will be more intense and stressful to watch (in a good way) than this one. From nearly the opening scene to the final denouement the tension never lets up. Part of the reason for that is that Saulnier wisely adds no extraneous parts to this. Every scene is necessary to the plot; there’s not an ounce of fluff to this film. Perhaps that’s due to the budget as it is to the filmmaker but either way, that’s a good thing for the viewer.

Blair does a bang-up job as Dwight. His eyes show the wounds that never healed and throughout the movie his expression is one of near-panic, as if he is the lone passenger on a runaway train which isn’t far from the truth. One of the more original aspects of the film is that Dwight is an ordinary guy who is somewhat of a screw-up to begin with, so his plans for vengeance and protection of his sister are pretty much prone to being messed up more than they are being successful. He isn’t Dwayne Johnson, an expert in hand-to-hand fighting or a crack shot; he’s more likely to miss from point blank range than he is to hit his target. He’s basically in every scene, so the movie relies on him to carry it and Blair does. It’s a career-defining role for him.

Certainly the plot isn’t necessarily a new one – we’ve seen revenge films before, and in environments as rural as this one. It’s the way that Saulnier and company handle the premise that is refreshing and exciting. The suspense that is created is at times excruciating and I loved every minute of it. While veteran moviegoers may have a pretty clear idea how things are going to end up, the ride getting to that point is one worth taking.

REASONS TO GO: Great tension and suspense. While the premise isn’t original, the execution is. Dwight is realistic and not a superhero.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence is strong and bloody and there’s plenty of cursing going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yes, that’s the actress who once played Jan Brady playing the Cleland matriarch.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 77/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lawless

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: X-Men: Days of Future Past