To Dust


“It could be worse. It could be raining!”

(2018) Dramedy (Good Deed) Gėza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Bern Cohen, Ben Hammer, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno, Ziv Zaifman, Leanne Michelle Watson, Jill Marie Lawrence, Larry Owens, Isabelle Phillips, Marceline Hugot, Natalie Carter, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Joseph Siprut, Linda Frieser, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jaclyn S. Powell, Sarah Jes Austell. Directed by Shawn Snyder

 

In life, death is certain but growth is optional. The wisdom of a Star Trek movie “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life” is lost on most of us. We deal with death by ignoring it.

Shmuel (Röhrig) can’t ignore it. His beloved wife has just passed from cancer and it has thrown him for a loop. A cantor in the Hassidic Jewish faith, he is having a hard time dealing with it – he can’t even tear his coat properly until his mother supplies him with a tiny pair of scissors. Shmuel is nothing if not tied to his faith but he begins to have nightmares of his wife’s body decomposing. Troubled, he seeks the advice of his rabbi (Hammer) but is left unsatisfied. He needs to know precisely what is happening to his wife’s body. He has questions: is her soul suffering as her body decays? He needs to know.

His quest takes him beyond the parameters of his faith and to a scientist. Well, to a guy who teaches science at the local community college: Albert (Broderick). Albert is going through a rough emotional time of his own, having just been divorced. At first, he finds Shmuel’s persistence annoying – anybody would. Shmuel has the dogged determination of a mule trying to get that carrot. Eventually though Albert warms to the scientific aspect of the question and the two begin to delve into “experiments” that are started by an innocent remark on Albert’s part that Shmuel takes literally and eventually involves dead pigs, kidnapped pigs named Harold, road trips and body farms.

This movie is plenty quirky and mostly in an endearing way. Death and the mechanics of bodily corruption are not things we are geared to talk about much as a society. Nobody wants to know about the bacterial breakdown of our mortal remains; nobody wants to hear about maggot infestations and what happens to our skin, our eyes and our brains. It’s a vaguely disturbing subject but it is tackled with surprising compassion here.

It helps having a pair of charismatic leads. Broderick is perfectly cast here to the point where I can’t imagine any other actor playing this role. Albert is a bit of a kvetch in many regards and Broderick excels at those kinds of roles. Albert copes with his grief by smoking a lot of dope and listening to Jethro Tull – in other words, reverting back to his high school years in which he likely smoked a lot of dope and listened to a lot of Tull. I give the movie a lot of cultural points, by the way, for including Tull on the soundtrack. Rock on!

Röhrig, who some might remember from a much different movie called Son of Saul, plays a man who is consumed by his obsession to the point that he can’t see that his sons are also grieving and need him more than ever. His behavior is so odd that the two believe he has been possessed by a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish demon, and are researching the prospect on their own. The problem here is that often we don’t get a sense of Shmuel’s actual grief, the pain of losing someone so beloved although I will give you that maybe his obsessions with the body’s breakdown is his way of dealing with it. We all grieve in our own ways.

I don’t know enough about the Hassidic culture to determine whether or not the production was accurate on their rituals or lifestyle. Shmuel lives in an upstate New York townhouse, drives a station wagon and occasionally curses like a sailor. His sons are conversant with the Internet and computers. This is a different portrayal of their culture than I think most of us are used to.

Death isn’t an easy subject to tackle and our own mortality and the end disposition of our remains may be a little bit too uncomfortable a subject for some. The filmmakers are to be commended for taking it on and handling it in a mostly sensitive way – there is a lot of humor involved here but also a lot of respect for the subject. I’m not saying that this should be considered a primer in grief in any way, shape or form but any movie that allows us to discuss something so basic but so disconcerting deserves praise in any case.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is quirky in an endearing way. Broderick is solid as usual
REASONS TO AVOID: Röhrig is a bit too laconic at times. The subject matter may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images of corpses, some brief nudity, drug use and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set at the community college were filmed at the City University of New York’s Staten Island campus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Everybody Knows

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Bring Me an Avocado


Cookies do make a fine movie snack at home but where are the avocados?

(2019) Dramedy (Self-ReleasedBernardo Peña, Molly Ratermann, Candace Roberts, California Poppy Sanchez, Michaela Robles, Sarah Burkhalter, Anthony Harris, David Silva, Adham Aljahmi, Aaron Sarazan, Alicia Villanueva, Natalie Conneely, Santiago Rosas, Jose Lucero, Mikayal Babar, Harold Ny, Mariah Leyba, Gloria Martinez, Chelsea Christer, Daniela Sirkin. Directed by Maria Mealla

The holes that appear in our lives when someone is abruptly taken out of them often take us by surprise, even though we may suspect at the length and breadth of the hole. We might think we can handle it, we might even feel that we have to but sooner or later the toll is taken.

Robin (Burkhalter), her husband George (Peña) who is an aspiring but thus far unsuccessful writer and their two effervescent kids teen Isabel (Sanchez) and youngster Matilda (Robles) have a close-knit, loving family. Sure, money is tight but they manage to get by. Then, when a shocking event takes place at a surprise birthday party for Robin, George is left to pick up the pieces for his kids.

At first, he tries to make things as normal as possible for his kids. Robin’s bestie Jada (Roberts) and her sister Grizelda – known to one and all as Aunt Greece (Ratermann) – help out as best they can but as time goes by George begins to fray around the edges. Relationships grow complicated and Robin’s absence threatens to tear the family apart.

First off, this is a film that has a lot of women behind the camera which is a good thing. Hopefully someday soon that won’t be an occasion for comment by reviewers. For now, the film comes with a truly feminine quality to it even though ostensibly the main character is George (although in many ways Robin is although she’s largely out of the picture for most of the picture).

Burkhalter doesn’t get a ton of screen time but she takes advantage of the time she’s allotted. Roberts and Ratermann also deliver solid performances. The juvenile actors do try but like a lot of kid actors, they try a little too hard and it becomes apparent that they are acting rather than playing a role. Not to knock the kids but it is noticeable.

]The first half of the movie is rather remarkable. What we get is what Gene Siskel used to call a “slice of life” – a movie that simply shows a family going about its business in a realistic and natural way. Had the filmmakers been able to maintain that tone this would have been a terrific film. Unfortunately, the second half of the movie begins to unravel and edges into soap opera territory. The plot points begin to feel contrived and dramatic conflicts seem to be manufactured. As honest as the first half is, the second half is the opposite.

Still there is plenty to like here. Some fine performances, a spotlight on a Hispanic-American family that isn’t the standard Hollywood version of a Latin family and a sense that the day to day life of that family is a good one, even given some of the issues that Robin discusses with Jada early in the movie. Life isn’t perfect but it is beautiful until it isn’t. Getting through the “isn’t” is what the film is all about.

REASONS TO SEE: The film doesn’t seem contrived at first.
REASONS TO AVOID: As the film progresses it becomes a bit soap opera-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a couple of scenes of brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace is Gone
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
To Dust

Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale

Then Came You


Caught in the web of their own making – and a callous fate.

(2018) Dramedy (Shout! Factory) Asa Butterfield, Maisie Williams, Nina Dobrev, Ken Jeong, David Koechner, Tyler Hoechlin, Peyton List, Tituss Burgess, Sonya Walger, Margot Bingham, Colin Moss, Briana Venskus, Ron Simons, Angel Valle Jr., L. Steven Taylor, Francesca Noel, Ann Osmond, Ken Tsukada, Crystal Tweed, Terri Gittens, Ashlyn Alessi. Directed by Peter Hutchings

 

All good things must come to an end, including (and especially) life itself. However, knowing that you’re dying doesn’t mean that you have to stop living.

Calvin (Butterfield) is a college drop-out who is working as a baggage handler at a regional airport along with his Dad (Koechner) and big brother Frank (Hoechlin) whose wife (Walger) is about to have a baby. Although he vehemently denies it, Calvin is a bit of a hypochondriac, taking his own vitals hourly (his watch alarm reminding him to do so) and obsessively writing down his symptoms in a journal. Most of those by the way are pretty much in between his ears.

His frustrated doctor, wanting this healthy young man to get some perspective, sends him to a cancer support group where he meets Skye (Williams), a manic pixie dream girl from a long line of them, who reacts to being told her tumor is not responding to treatment by shrugging at her shattered parents “You win some, you lose some.” She’s the kind of girl who gives a goldfish as a gift to a friend, swimming happily in an IV bag.

She recognizes the depressed and introverted Calvin as a project she can take on and manages to convince him (overwhelming what few defenses he has) to help her achieve all the entries on her “To Die List,” which is essentially a bucket list with a cooler name. In doing so, she begins to coax Calvin out of his thick shell as he begins to learn how to really live, something he gave up on years earlier after a tragedy left his family shattered and his mom essentially catatonic. He even manages to work up the courage to ask out the girl he’s been crushing hard on, a lonely stewardess named Izzy (Dobrev) who, as Skye helpfully points out, is way out of his league. So is Skye for that matter but don’t tell her I told you that.

Izzy gets the mistaken impression that Calvin is the one with terminal cancer and neither Skye nor Calvin are disposed to setting her straight which from the moment she confides to Calvin that she broke up with her last boyfriend because he was untruthful to her tells you all you need to know about where this relationship is going. As for Skye, she’s going somewhere herself but will she able to get all the things on her list done before she sets sail for the shores of the undiscovered country?

Dying teens have been a staple of music and movies since people figured out that teens could die and it was a tragic thing when they did. There have been plenty of dying teen movies – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for example – and while they usually don’t make for extraordinary box office, they are generally inexpensive to make and can pull a tidy profit when done right. They almost have to since they are not generally fodder for sequels if you catch my drift.

Butterfield is a handsome devil with big soulful eyes in a puppy dog sense. He has been around the block a few times but has never really demonstrated the screen presence to be a big star. Still, his performance here feels a bit more authentic than that of Williams, the Game of Thrones star whose bonhomie seems a bit forced in places. Still, she manages to be more unforgettable than her bland co-star and ends up carrying the movie for the most part even though this is ostensibly Calvin’s story.

Dobrev who has done the manic pixie dream girl role herself a time or two is the most authentic of the three leads even though she isn’t given a ton to work with. It’s hard to figure out what she sees in Calvin other than sympathy for his mistakenly perceived plight although by the movie’s end we see that there might be more to it than meets the eye initially. Koechner and Jeong, two comedy pros, have some surprising moments of pathos during the course of the film and show off their versatility in doing so.

The soundtrack is decent enough and the filmmakers show off their taste in music during several montages which are almost de rigueur for a film like this. The issue is the filmmakers are almost trying too hard to set the mood both light and dark and resort to familiar clichés in order to get their points across. This is going to seem depressingly familiar to those who have seen a few of these kinds of movies up to now.

Still, their heart is in the right place and to the credit of the filmmakers the movie gets better as it goes along. In the first twenty minutes, I was thoroughly prepared to despise this movie but it is rescued particularly in the last third by strong performances by Dobrev, Koechner and Jeong (and to a lesser degree, Butterfield) and a memorable take on things by Williams whose Skye may be an amalgam of other MPDGs but Williams has the presence to pull it off pretty well. This isn’t going to replace your favorite tearjerker but it does make a decent substitute to listening to a Morrissey record or whatever angst-ridden pop star has the attention of young people this week.

REASONS TO GO: The quality picks up towards the end.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers try a bit too hard.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual content and plenty of adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in upstate New York in the Capital District; the airport scenes were mainly filmed at Albany International Airport.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cold War

Adult Life Skills


Jodie Whittaker feels at home in the shed that is as cluttered as the TARDIS.

(2016) Dramedy (Screen Media) Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashbourne, Brett Goldstein, Rachel Deering, Eileen Davies, Alice Lowe, Edward Hogg, Ozzy Myers, David Anderson, Andrew Buckley, Christian Contreras, Alfie Wheeler. Directed by Rachel Tunnard

 

In 2018, British actress Jodie Whittaker made history becoming the first female Doctor in the beloved sci-fi series Doctor Who. Before that, she was largely unknown other than appearances on the British TV show Broadchurch and the independent sci-fi flick Attack the Block. She also did indie films like this one which opened in the UK two years ago.

Anna (Whittaker) is days away from her 30th birthday and she’s stuck in a garden shed. Not literally; she’s been using it as a studio for her short films of her thumbs made up as astronauts on a doomed space trip in which they are crashing into the sun. Life must feel a lot like that to Anna; she used to make little videos with her twin brother Billy (Hogg) until he passed away unexpectedly. She essentially lives in the shed which sits on her mother’s property in West Yorkshire. Occasionally, she forgets to bring in clean clothes with her and so has to make a mad dash to the house half-naked to get some.

This has been her living arrangement for some 18 months since her brother died and her mum (Ashbourne) is sick of it. She desperately wants her remaining daughter to move on and start living her life again. Anna’s grandmother (Davies) is a little less frantic about it than her daughter who seems bound and determined to make matters worse but still she knows her granddaughter needs to make changes, although the grandmother thinks a good shagging is all Anna needs.

Brendan (Goldstein), a work colleague (Anna works at an outdoor activities center part time) would dearly love to supply Anna with just that but Anna has decided in her head that Brendan is gay. Brendan is not but he is a realtor who is enlisted by Anna’s mum to find a cheap flat for her daughter which turns out to be a disaster; most of the properties that Anna can afford are absolutely hideous.

When Anna’s best friend Fiona (Deering) returns from travelling, she also tries to kickstart Anna’s life with some success but things really start to change when she meets Clint (Myers), a young cowboy-obsessed boy who is just as quirky as Anna who is undergoing a similar trauma to the one that Anna suffered and the two begin to identify with each other but Anna is an expert at pushing people away. Will she ever find her way back to the land of the living?

The film not only serves as a treatise on grief but also as a paean to the deliberately weird. Nearly all the characters here are off-kilter in one way or another not unlike certain American indie films that star Greta Gerwig. Like those films, sometimes the quirkiness wears on the viewer and becomes almost forced but the good news is that it does only to a lesser extent. However, the thick Yorkshire accents used by the character can be incomprehensible at times; home viewers should definitely watch this with subtitles turned on. The dialogue though when you can understand it is actually quite clever; lines like one in which Fiona, exiting a pub, exclaims “It’s like The Wicker Man in there” can be quite brilliant.

A lot of Whovians are going to want to see this because of Whittaker and to be honest her performance is worth seeing whether you’re a fan of the series or not. It’s a very different role and some of her fans from the venerable BBC sci-fi show may not be able to accept her in a role like this. Anna is far from the self-assured and brilliant Doctor; she is a woman-child coping with an overwhelming tragedy and not always doing it well. In the hands of a lesser talent viewers might just shut down watching Anna make terrible choices and do things that are weird in an eye-rolling sense but Whittaker’s charm carries the day. Like other actors who have taken on the role of the Timelord, she has enough screen presence to continue with a career that transcends the TARDIS; I wouldn’t be surprised if she eventually gets lead roles in franchise films or maybe even some Oscar bait films. She’s truly an incredibly versatile talent.

Like a lot of British films, the soundtrack is absolutely brilliant. The supporting cast is solid and the production design gives the film a cluttered but lived in tone. At the end of the day my recommendation is going to depend on your ability to tolerate quirkiness; those with low tolerances should probably skip this one but those who don’t mind a little off-beat with their independent cinema may well find this delightful.

REASONS TO GO: The film is blessed with a terrific soundtrack. Whittaker is sublime in a very different role.
REASONS TO STAY: The film rapidly goes from quirky to annoying. The dialogue is occasionally incomprehensible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as one sexual scene. There are also some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The feature film is based on a 2014 short that also starred Whittaker.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit Hole
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Burning

Write When You Get Work


This is what “kissyface” looks like.

(2018) Dramedy (Abramorama) Finn Wittrock, Emily Mortimer, Rachel Keller, Jessica Hecht, Hermione Heckrich, James Ransone, Andrew Schultz, Isabella Blassingame, Afton Williamson, Jennifer Mudge, Mitchell Slaggert, Gregory Isaac Stone, Jeffrey Butler, Robert Eli, Scott Cohen,  Sam Gilroy, Rosa Gilmore, Adele Kader, Ava Capri, Tess Frazer. Directed by Stacy Cochran

 

Sometimes people get off to a bad start. They get involved with the wrong people, get involved with the wrong drugs, or just plain lose their way. Some people stay that way while others make an effort to make a change. After all, it’s not how you start but how you finish.

Jonny (Wittrock) and Ruth (Keller) had that kind of start. The two were high school sweethearts if that’s what you can call a couple who share hurried beach couplings and shoplifting sprees. Nine years later, both have graduated on gone on to different lives. Jonny remains pretty much in the same juvenile pattern, unable to keep a job and forever on the hustle for whatever score he can manage.

Ruth on the other hand has landed a job in the admissions office of an exclusive girls school on Long Island. While it is very much an “interim” position, things are looking up for her. A chance meeting at a funeral for a track coach for the both of them leads Jonny to infiltrate her life, much against her will, involving occasional breaking and entering.

When he finds out about Ruth’s new gig, dollar signs light up his eyes. He looks at the school she works at as his own potential fishing hole. He lands on a particularly vulnerable guppy; Nan Noble (Mortimer) who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her douchebag of a husband (Ransone) is being investigated by the feds for financial chicanery and she is very much worried that her own assets will eventually be seized. Enter smooth-talking Jonny and soon the two hatch a convoluted plot. At first, Ruth is trying to separate Jonny from Ruth but soon gets sucked into the scheme. Things begin to escalate, one double-cross follows another and soon nobody knows who to trust.

I don’t mind a good heist movie, no matter how complicated but you need to have a rooting interest in the con artists. Jonny is just so slimy and so without conscience that you can only root for a quick arrest. Wittrock is a decent enough actor and he is certainly a good looking man but he doesn’t pull off the charming rogue here. Mortimer though is fun to watch; you get the sense that she is one bad day away from cracking and she does high-strung as well as anyone.

There are some moments that are borderline brilliant – the cinematography can be magical – but the plot is so convoluted and relies on people acting in ways that people don’t ever act. Cochran has made a couple of solid movies but this one is a step backwards. By the time you get to the end of the movie you may have already checked out which is a shame because that’s the best part of the movie. File this one under near-miss.

REASONS TO GO: There are flashes of something interesting here. Mortimer does her best with  bad hand.
REASONS TO STAY: Wittrock’s character is completely despicable. The script is convoluted and sometimes not believable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Robert Elswit has worked frequently with director Paul Thomas Anderson
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thief
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Invisible Hands

Bodied


Bodied

Going mano a mano.

(2017) Dramedy (NEON/YouTube Premium) Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Rory Uphold, Jonathan “Dumboundead” Park, Walter Perez, Shoniqua Shandai, Charlamagne Tha God, Dizaster, Debra Wilson, Anthony Michael Hall, Lisa Maley, Eddie Perino, Eric Allen Smith, Candice Renee, Daniel Rashid, Vivian Lamolli, Yves Bright, Corey Charron, Sloane Avery. Directed by Joseph Kahn

 

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: I will try to refrain as much as possible from using hip hop slang which only makes me sound like a middle aged movie critic who has absolutely no understanding of the culture or the language. You’re welcome.

Once in awhile a movie will come along whose subject holds no interest for me and I’ll give it a pass when the opportunity comes along to view it. After all, realistically speaking there are only so many movies that anyone can see in a week, even a reviewer. All of us are forced to pick and choose somewhat, making room for movies we figure are either important or hold some interest for us. I’m not a big fan of rap – it just doesn’t speak to me personally – and a movie about battle rap, as this one is, held no interest for me. However, a colleague recommended this film so enthusiastically that when the publicist approached with a screener link I gave in and said okay, not really expecting much.

Mea culpa. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. This movie is as entertaining as anything you’ll see during this busy season for movies. Worthy plays the somewhat unfortunately named Adam Merkin, a grad student at Berkeley who is doing his English Literature master[s thesis on the use of the “N” word in battle rap. He takes his uptight feminist Vegan girlfriend Maya (Uphold) to a rap battle, explaining to her (and to us) what’s going on and the various terms which is an ingenious way of using the terminology so that everyone can understand it – and they do use a lot of it.

Adam interviews Behn Grymm (Long), a master battle rapper who finds Adam’s genuine enthusiasm amusing and for giggles sets up the nerdy ginger up for a parking lot post-battle battle with a wannabe named Billy Pistolz (Charron). After a weak start, Adam suddenly finds the confidence to absolutely destroy his foe which he finds invigorating and eventually cell phone footage of his win is discovered by a promoter who signs up the youngster in a try-out battle against an L.A. Korean rapper named Prospek (Park) and Adam wins that too, gaining the respect of his opponent and other battle rappers like Che Corleone (Perez) and Devine Write (Shandai). It’s a feeling he is not used to never having gotten much respect in his life.

As he continues to rap, his repertoire includes increasingly homophobic, misogynist and racist slurs – all perfectly acceptable within battle rap but at Berkeley the student body and administration have a collective coronary and soon he finds himself persona non grata even with his own father (Hall) who teaches there. Nonetheless YouTube fame and respect are a heady mixture and Adam begins to change radically – or is this the person he has always been but has kept submerged?

The writing here is phenomenal. Eminem, who is a producer here, isn’t spared; during one meta moment (and there are several) a group of battle rappers discuss the Detroit star and his movie and let’s just say they’re none too charitable. Liberal white guilt is skewered here as charges of “cultural appropriation” are thrown about like fish at Pike’s Place Market. Berkeley liberals are shown to be none too tolerant here and there’s some truth in that, sad to say.

Then again, rap culture seems to get a pass. Within a rap battle, anything goes – you can say what you want about a person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, weight, appearance, anything at all – and you get a pass particularly if you’re black. Behn Grymm explains to Adam that certain aspects of black culture are off-limits for him because he’s white. There will be those who will call that a double standard and they’re not wrong, although the reasons for it are not unjustified either. It’s pretty thoughtful stuff for a comedy in which when battle rappers make “gun hands” at their opponents, animated smoke comes out of their fingers and faux gunshots are heard on the soundtrack. However, the filmmakers are also unafraid to test our own preconceptions about battle rappers; most of them have jobs, none of them are broke (except college student Adam) and one of them turns out to be a middle class computer game programmer with a nice house and a beautiful family.

Worthy, best known for his work on American Vandal on Netflix, gives a star performance here. He is perfectly cast, a skinny and nonthreatening  redhead who shows some teeth later in the movie once he’s been pushed to the limit and essentially abandoned by those closest to him. It’s a powerful performance but Worthy shows a light touch when he needs to.

I have to admit some of the digs at women, Asians, plus size people, Hispanics, and yes, white people did make me a little bit uncomfortable. I guess that’s my own liberal guilt at work. Still, I found this movie to be smart, insightful and extremely funny in places. I still am not a rap fan but I am living proof you don’t have to be to really enjoy this movie – although it helps enormously – but certainly those who love the music will likely want to see this forthwith.

The movie is the first to be picked up by the YouTube Premium channel for theatrical release which is handled by the indie company that also distributed the Oscar-winning I, Tonya for a brief theatrical run. It will also be available on YouTube Premium at the end of the month. Whether you see it online or in a theater, by all means see it. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. Worthy is perfectly cast. Those unfamiliar with battle rap won’t get hopelessly lost.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the less savory aspects of battle rap are cast in a more flattering light than they should be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, some drug use, sexual content, brief nudity and a heaping helping of racial slurs, homophobic slurs and misogynistic slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Alex Larson is a veteran battle rapper, going by the name of Kid Twist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Can You Ever Forgive Me?