Extracurricular Activities


Can you guess which one forgot to do their homework?

(2019) Dark Comedy (Lotus) Colin Ford, Ellie Bamber, Timothy C. Simons, Danielle Macdonald, Paul Iacono, Darlene Vogel, Sarah Hay, Gary Hudson, Isaac Cheung, Bobby Lee, Charmin Lee, Arden Myrin, Tanner Stine, Max Wilcox, Arianna Ortiz, Dileep Rao, Vicki Lewis, Krista Kalmus, Chris Warren, Jill Lover, Dorie Barton, Alex Antov, Christine Ko, Miriam Flynn, Gary Hudson, Savannah Liles. Directed by Jay Lowi

 

Can any of us truly claim to have never felt that our parents didn’t understand us? Can any of us truly claim to have never felt that our parents were taking out their own insecurities on us as we were growing up? Can any of us truly claim to have never daydreamed about our parents meeting up with a gruesome accident to finally liberate us from the one obstacle to our freedom and happiness?

In a Southern California well-to-do bedroom community at a suburban high school, parents have been meeting with untimely ends. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace go plunging into a ravine when they drive their SUV too fast; Mr. Mulnick, an embarrassment to his son (Cheung) because he likes to party with his son’s teenage friends and grope the girls in the hot tub, gets drunk and slips into unconsciousness while in said hot tub and drowns. The parents of Sydney Vaughn (Hay) eat some deadly poisonous mushrooms after gathering them in the local woods.

A run of extraordinarily bad luck is what most people think but Police Detective Dawkins (Simons) is suspicious. He doesn’t believe in coincidences and he soon has a suspect; Reagan Wallace (Ford). Reagan is a brainy kid with unlimited potential in a loving home with supportive parents. Just the kind of kid you’d suspect of serial killing. That kind of thing just isn’t normal.

But (and no spoiler alert here) the thing is, Detective Dawkins is right. Nobody will believe him, especially his no-nonsense chief (C. Lee). Dawkins isn’t terribly well-liked around the precinct for his propensity to bring up the Adderall case which essentially was Dawkins’ big moment, plus he’s become a closet alcoholic.

Reagan is brilliant and covers his tracks well, often making Dawkins look foolish in the process. He isn’t some sort of avenging angel knocking off abusive parents; for the most part these parents aren’t guilty of any capital crimes other than perhaps criminal narcissism and felony neglect. Nonetheless Reagan takes each of these cases on as kind of a puzzle, making each demise look like an accident in return for a cut of the insurance.

Complicating matters is a budding romance between Reagan and teen hottie Mary Alice Walker (Bamber) who isn’t aware of Reagan’s part-time job. With Dawkins closing in and Mary Alice starting to suspect the worst, can Reagan escape the clutches of the law, finish his contracts by knocking off other parents and get a date to the prom?

Teenage revenge movies aren’t new and the concept here isn’t particularly novel. Writer Bob Sáenz constructs the movie pretty well although he reveals Reagan’s guilt early on so there’s no “did he or didn’t he” tension. That’s more of a personal preference on my part although you yourself may feel differently. In any case, I though he missed an opportunity there.

Ford does a good enough job as Reagan but the character himself is I think one of the biggest drawbacks in the film. Reagan is so cool, calm and collected he’s almost icy. In fact, his personality is such that he seems detached and uncaring which make the character totally unrelatable. Reagan is brilliant, particularly at science but comes off as haughty and arrogant as if human interpersonal relationships are beneath him. It’s tough to root for a character like that and you’re torn about whether you want him to get caught or not.

Then again, Dawkins isn’t much better – a verbally abusive father and borderline alcoholic who is simply so unpleasant that nobody believes him even though he’s right. There’s a cynicism there that is a bit unsettling to tell the truth; I’m not really rooting for Dawkins to catch the guy, either.

It’s mystifying as to why Reagan starts providing this service as his parents are the only adults in the movie who are loving and supporting of their progeny. I’m not one of those guys who prefers everything to be explained with a neat little bow on top but there has to be something that justifies a character’s actions; watching someone randomly acting is also undesirable in a movie.

This is ostensibly a comedy with a dark tone. It’s not big on belly laughs – in fact there are none – but the overall atmosphere lends itself to the absurd. In that sense, Lowi is successful here and the movie appears to flaunt the courage of its convictions. Overall, though, it’s disappointing in that by the end credits you feel like you just took a mud bath without a shower in sight.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is true to its tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reagan is a little too detached and cold to be relatable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual situations
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bobby Lee, who plays the hard-partying Mr. Mulnick, was formerly a part of the MadTV cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Tomorrow Man

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Postal (2019)


Another reason to hate clowns.

(2019) Dark Comedy (Self-released) Michael Shenefelt, Nick Madrick, Eric Vega, Elyse Dufour, Forest Scott Peyton, Chase Wainscott, Kennedy Brice, Sarah Alexandria, Mia Jackson, Tony Dermil, Jonathan Pawlowski, Steve Coulter, Dean Phillippi Sr., George Spielvogel III, Reid Meadows, Justin Miles, Keary McCutchen, William Blaylock, Elizabeth Saydah. Directed by Tyler Falbo

A lot of movies you can see coming. They hit all the right film festivals, have all the right stars, the right director, the right writers, get all the right buzz from all the right critics. The point is, you’re aware that the movie is something special, either a major blockbuster in the making or an important indie movie that is going to be making a lot of end of the year ten best lists.

Postal isn’t like that. Some might bring to mind the 2007 Uwe Boll film based on a videogame that essentially only has the title in common with this movie. For one thing, the 2019 version is based on a true story (and if you doubt it, stick around to the very end) which of course could only have happened in Florida.

Phillip (Shenefelt) is waiting on a package and not just any package, nor is this just any day. The package is an engagement ring that he plans to present to his girlfriend Brittany (Dufour) in Hawaii; in fact, his flight to Honolulu is leaving that very afternoon. He’s entrusted the package to Bronco Delivery, America’s most trusted package delivery service (think FedEx).

But something goes wrong. The package doesn’t arrive at its scheduled time, the time Phil paid extra to receive by. So, like any normal person, he gets on the phone to Bronco’s Customer Service department and that’s where normal gets left behind in the dust. It starts with an all-too-familiar annoyance; the phone tree to nowhere. Finally Phil gets to talk to an actual human being; Kevin (Vega). Although Kevin seems nice enough and willing to help, things start to slide down the chute in a hurry as little things begin to go wrong and an already stressed-out Phil begins to lose it.

More than this I will not tell you; this is the kind of movie that is at its most effective when you don’t know that much about it. Half the fun is being surprised by what turns up around the next bend. There are a lot of twists and turns here, some devastating and some simply unforeseen. Da Queen and I were fortunate enough to see this at its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival; when Da Queen loves a movie, she makes no bones about it and I have rarely heard her laugh as hard as I heard her laughing at this one; the only reason I missed some of her laughter was because I was bellowing with laughter myself.

The script is insanely clever and witty; it doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to consider anything as it careens from one situation to the next and just when you think it can’t top itself, it does. The acting here is stronger than the average local production, with Shenefelt delivering a star turn as a poor schlub in the throes of a kind of customer service nightmare that becomes…well, see for yourself.

The movie is on the Festival circuit for now but once people start seeing this thing, I suspect some indie distributors are certain to take notice. This is a definite crowd-pleaser and was far and away my favorite film at the Festival, which is saying something this year considering how strong the line-up was from top to bottom. This may require some patience to find (at least for now) but trust me, it is the kind of movie you owe it to yourself to see. No matter how bad a day is that you’re having, it’s nothing as bad as this guy’s.

REASONS TO SEE: May be the funniest film I’ve seen in years. Most people will be able to relate to having a really bad day. Strong performances, particularly Vega, Shenefelt and Madrick. Dufour makes an ideal fantasy figure.
REASONS TO AVOID: This might not be your kind of humor.
FAMILY VALUES: Here there be plenty of violence and profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at the 2019 Florida Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jawbreaker
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Ask Dr. Ruth

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Keira Knightley and Steve Carell are not impressed with the dailies.

(2012) Dark Comedy (Focus) Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Derek Luke, Gillian Jacobs, T.J. Miller, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Mark Moses, Bob Stephenson, Martin Sheen, Melinda Dillon, Tonita Castro, Jim O’Heir. Directed by Lorene Scafaria

 

What would you do if you knew that you were going to die? Not just you, but everyone and everything? All that we have made, all that we have done – all gone. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you want to be with when the end comes?

That’s the question that confronts Dodge Peterson (Carell). Actually, it confronts everybody. An asteroid named Mathilda (and how sad that the instrument of our destruction is called Mathilda) is on its way on a collision course with Earth. Attempts to divert the 80-mile wide rock have failed miserably and in 21 days, it will crash into our world, killing all living things and, in all likelihood, a few dead things as well.

His wife, upon hearing the news, makes a run for it with someone she actually loves as opposed to her husband whom she has been cheating on for quite awhile anyway. Dodge, an insurance salesman, makes a few desultory attempts to go to work but as it becomes clear that society will be soon breaking down completely, he gives up on that.

His maid (Castro) comes in as always, preferring to keep herself occupied and gently reminds Dodge to pick up some window cleaner. Returning home from the store through the park, he notices some young people embracing. Despondent, he ingests the entire bottle of cleaning product and lies down.

He wakes up the next morning, feeling a bit ill but having the cleanest esophagus in town. He also has a dog whose leash is tied up to his ankle with a note reading only “Sorry” on Dodge’s chest. He takes the dog home. He also runs into Penny (Knightley), a neighbor who has lived in the same complex for three months but whom he hasn’t gotten to know although she is well aware of his wife’s indiscretions – and those of her boyfriend as well which is how Dodge comes to learn of his wife’s infidelity.

Angry, he throws out all of her stuff and in the process finds a box of his mementos including some pictures. As he takes a trip down memory lane while taking sips from a bottle of prescription cough syrup that his wife left behind, he notices Penny sitting on his balcony, crying. He invites her in after agreeing not to rape her; in exchange, she promises not to steal anything. She is distraught not just because the world is ending but because she broke up with the loser boyfriend (Brody) that she left England for and now will never see her family again because all air travel has stopped (and cell phones and land lines are useless since nobody is sticking around to keep those systems running).

It also turns out that Penny has been getting some of his mail mistakenly and has just now remembered to give it to him. Among the letters is one from his first love Olivia, who he’d broken up with long ago and who had gone on to marry someone else. But, the letter says, she’s divorced now and is looking to reconnect with the true love of her life – Dodge.

He realizes that he needs to go find her because this might – okay, will be – his last chance at true love. However, there is rioting going on, increasing in violence and as it becomes apparent the apartment complex will be overrun, Dodge finds Penny and begs her to drive him to his home town where he can find Olivia (his own car got taken out by a suicide jumper). He promises in return that he knows a guy with a plane who can fly her to England.

On that note, they set off. On the way they run into a variety of people, including a trucker (Petersen) who doesn’t want to wait for the asteroid to incinerate him and an ex of Penny’s named Speck (Luke) who is planning on riding out the asteroid in an underground bunker with a six month supply of potato chips and who is eager to have Penny stay as breeding stock. What Penny and Dodge find on their journey to be with the ones they love is not what they expect.

From the initial sound of it you might think this is a movie about death but it’s not. It’s a movie about life. It’s a movie about how precious life is and a reminder that we are all under a death sentence – we just don’t have the date marked down on our calendars just yet.

Carell plays the subdued, somewhat wallflower-ish guy better than anybody; he’s done it well in such movies as Crazy, Stupid, Love and Dan in Real Life. This is his best performance to date. Dodge is a man who hasn’t lived life; life has just happened to him, and he feels a certain sense that he’s missing something. He comes to live for the first time in those final days, and not just because he shows up at parties that become orgies, or stopping in restaurants where everybody is determined to party the rest of their lives away. For the first time, he is doing something instead of being done to and it empowers him in ways you might not imagine.

Knightley is an Oscar nominee who has proved in other movies that she’s not just a pretty face. She is continuing to grow as an actress. Penny is a free-spirited sort who has made a mess of her romantic life, putting her in a position that she is far from the places and people she loves when it is too late to get back to them. Penny is a bit kooky, but Knightley subdues that aspect of her personality, making her more of a person who marches to her own beat rather than someone who has to wear her quirkiness on her sleeve, which is a refreshing change given how many offbeat indie heroines I’ve seen lately.

The underlying theme here is that life is meant to be lived and none of us know how much time we really have. There’s no sense in living a life of regret because there will come a time when it is time to pay the piper and when we justify our lives to whatever higher power you believe in, it is the regret we must justify with the least amount of ammunition to do it with. I found this movie uplifting, despite the subject matter. When we left our screening, Da Queen and I overheard a teenage girl complaining to her boyfriend that the movie was too depressing. Perhaps she lacks the life experience to see past the end of the world aspect – it is in the title after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise – but there is a rich subtext going on here that is very much worth exploring. The worst aspect of this movie is that I think the studio made a mistake in when they released this. Despite the apocalyptic element of the movie, it really doesn’t fit in as a summer film. It might have been better served as a fall or holiday release. I think people are more in tune with this kind of movie at that time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Gives much pause for thought. Strangely uplifting even though the subject is a bit depressing.
REASONS TO STAY: Inconsistent. Lacks a sense of social anarchy that would surely occur.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of drug use, a little bit of violence and quite a bit of foul language, some of it sexual.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife of Dodge Peterson is played by Steve Carell’s real-life wife, Nancy. Presumably, she isn’t cheating on him in real life either.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are pretty polarized.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile
VINYL LOVERS: Penny has an extensive collection of vinyl records from the 60s, 70s and 80s as well as a pretty sweet audio set-up.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Henry’s Crime


 

Henry's Crime

Henry looks at life through a constant haze of befuddlement.

(2010) Dark Comedy (Moving Pictures) Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga, Judy Greer, James Caan, Fisher Stevens, Peter Stormare, Danny Hoch, Bill Duke, Chris Cardona, Rosemary Harris, Mark Anthony, Carlos Pizarro, Currie Graham, Audrey Lynn Weston, David Costabile. Directed by Malcolm Venville

There is a saying that goes “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” It has to do with taking risks. Of course, the opposite may well be true – if you’re gonna do the time, you may as well do the crime.

Henry Torne (Reeves) is the kind of man who is blown by the wind. He rarely gets angry and stares at life through the glass of his toll booth on the New York Thruway with an expression of a man who isn’t quite sure how he got to that point. His wife Debbie (Greer) has made it clear that she is kind of disappointed in him but he doesn’t seem disposed to changing things and frankly, neither is she – he’s a decent enough fellow.

One day his friend Eddie Vibes (Stevens) asks for Henry to give him a lift to the softball game he and a friend were playing in – Joe (Hoch) was supposed to drive them but had come down with a stomach ailment so they needed a favor. Henry, ever accommodating, agrees to do this not realizing that there’s no softball game; in fact, Eddie is going to rob a bank and needs Henry as a getaway driver.

Of course such well-made plans are bound to go sideways and both Eddie and his accomplice are fouled up by an off-duty security guard named Frank (Duke) who manages to capture Henry, who is then tried and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Being the kind of guy he is, he doesn’t finger his friend Eddie for the caper, so he goes to jail alone.

There he meets Max Saltzman (Caan), a con artist who acts as a kind of father figure and mentor to Henry. It is he who plants the idea in Henry’s head  that if he was going to pay the penalty with jail time, he might as well commit the crime. The two form a quiet bond.

Eventually Henry serves out his sentence and is released back into the world. In the intervening time, Debbie divorced him and married his friend Eddie Vibes, who has gone legitimate and has become, well, successful. Henry’s stuff has been relegated to a bunch of boxes which he collects and takes to a cheap apartment which is all that he can afford.

His friend Max has also been paroled and has come into the information that the bank that Henry was convicted of robbing was once connected by a tunnel to a theater next door. That tunnel is sealed off today since it led to the vault but it wouldn’t be too hard to knock down the wall and access it again. The two of them come up with the brilliant scheme of getting Henry a job there, and then during his off hours dig their way to riches.

It so happens that the theater is putting on a performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard which is being directed by the temperamental Darek Milladragovic (Stormare) and stars Julie Ivanova (Farmiga), who Henry has become quite taken with. She had been featured in a lot of state lottery commercials and Henry had already had a bit of a crush on her. When the leading man is fired by Milladragovic, he casts Henry, who had been the janitor, in the role and Henry seemingly against all odds catches the bug, so to speak. Being onstage lights him up.

However, Max is counting on him. Can he get the loot and play his onstage part? The show must go on after all, but can it when so much is at stake?

This is a low-key laid back kind of movie with elements of both a crime caper movie and a bit of black comedy thrown in for good measure. For the most part, the film is pretty well-written with some nice dialogue and  a bit of a quirky nature that isn’t so much indie-quirky as it is just a little bit offbeat.

Reeves has never had a reputation for being a really emotional actor. However, he comes pretty close to it here, particularly during the scenes when he’s assaying Chekhov. He also has some of his best chemistry ever with Farmiga; his character’s attraction to her is very well-portrayed and you get the feeling that these two actors genuinely like each other offscreen.

In fact, the acting is pretty uniformly good and most of the main players get at least one scene to shine. My favorite was one where Duke tells Reeves and Caan the reasons why he is doing what he does. It’s a heartbreaking scene delivered by a reliable actor who doesn’t get the opportunities to show what he can do often and takes advantage of it here. Caan also delivers another winning performance; of late he has perfected a certain kind of role that can best be described as a tough guy with a heart of gold. He nails that here.

The movie’s drawbacks lie in its pacing, which is quite slow, and it’s ending which is a little bit preposterous. I don’t mind laid-back but I do have an issue with comatose. A little more liveliness and passion might have done the movie some good. Still, it’s worth seeing just to watch Keanu Reeves perform a little bit differently than he has previously which isn’t always a bad thing for an actor.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Reeves’ better performances. Kind of a nice dark comedy angle. Fine supporting performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks verve. Sometimes too low-key for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The building used as the bank is an actual bank; it was built in 1901 and is currently home to a branch of M&T Bank.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $204,940 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Maiden Heist

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Italian Job (2003)

In the Loop


In the Loop

Peter Capaldi uses some language that would surprise even Tony Soprano.

(IFC) Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Steve Coogan, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, Paul Higgins, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy. Directed by Armando Iannucci

Words can be crucial things. We assign meaning to them, sometimes a meaning unintended by the person who uttered the words. Those meanings can often take on a life of their own.

Simon Foster (Hollander) is a mid-level British government flunky who has a talent for being absolutely thick in the head. During a radio interview, he casually mentions that an invasion by the U.S. (although it’s never explicitly mentioned in the film, we assume it to be Iraq) is “unforeseeable.” Sounds harmless, but it ignites a firestorm of political maneuvering on both sides of the Atlantic, both from those opposed to war, like State Department Assistant Secretary Karen Clark (Kennedy) and those supporting it like career politician Linton Barwick (the always terrific David Rasche).

In the meantime, foul-mouthed British spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi) has had to step in and take charge of the situation which is rapidly spiraling out of control. As Foster backpedals, giving ammunition to the hawks, generally dove-ish General George Miller (Gandolfini) who once had an affair with Clark, is caught in the middle and astutely refuses to take sides. And a report written by one of Clark’s aides (Chlumsky), dubbed “career Kryptonite” by a snarky fellow aide – further exacerbates the mess.

If it all sounds confusing, well, it kind of is, but that’s politics for you. This is actually an extension of a British television series called “The Thick of It” which hasn’t been seen much on this side of the pond, but I’m assured that over in the UK it’s gotten rave reviews. In fact, the filmmakers got unprecedented access to 10 Downing Street because the staffers there were so enamored of the show, which is a little like a “West Wing” movie filming in the actual West Wing.

The movie is extraordinarily well-written (and in fact got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), with the kind of humor that comes at you from all sides without pause. One zinger after another follows, which probably doesn’t work as well with American audiences who generally need to be told when to laugh and prefer their humor…paced. The humor here is bone-dry, which again is not what most Americans are used to.

Some of the best British comic actors are working on this, including Capaldi, who reprises the same role he played on the TV show. I’m not sure what the censorship laws are in the UK, but if his verbiage is anything like it is here, it must have melted its share of television speakers. There is a good deal of profanity here, folks, and those sensitive to that kind of language would be well-advised to steer clear of this movie. To its credit, it has some of the most imaginative swearing I’ve ever heard in a movie.

Gandolfini, after his long run as Tony Soprano, is well on his way to being one of the better character actors in the business. He plays a career military man who has risen through the ranks, developing an acute political sense in the process. While he doesn’t believe a war is a good idea, he’s savvy enough to go with the flow, even if he thinks the flow is headed the wrong way. General Miller is very different than the mobster Gandolfini is associated with, which might blow a few minds expecting the character to whack a few feckless Brits himself.

Towards the end, the movie loses its steam and the final resolution is a bit weak. Still, this is an entertaining – if vulgar – movie that is as clever or smart a comedy as you’re likely to see. The beauty of watching it at home is that you can rewind it again and again until you figure out what’s going on. It kind of worked for me, I’m not ashamed to admit.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily well written with a mind-blowing ensemble cast of some of the best comic actors in both Britain and the United States.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie loses steam in the final reel, leaving the viewer with a curiously unsatisfied feeling.

FAMILY VALUES: This has some of the foulest language you will ever see in a movie. It’s fine for your kids to watch – only if you stuff duct tape into their ears.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After 30 days of filming, the shooting script was 237 pages. The first cut was over four and a half hours long. It took four months to complete the final edit of the version that made it to the screen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Yonkers Joe