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

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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?

Stella’s Last Weekend


Ollie is certainly no angel.

(2018) Dramedy (Paladin/The Orchard) Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff, Polly Draper, Paulina Singer, Nick Sandow, Julia Macchio, Julia Abueva, Leo Heller, Lisa Darden, Patricia Squire, Will Cooper, Norm Golden, Simon Maxwell, Joseph Satine, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Kelly Swint, Adam Enright, Christopher Halliday, Alex DiMattia, Kareem Williams, Courtney Leigh Goodwin, Harriet Weaver. Directed by Polly Draper

 

Personally, I’ve never had a brother. I grew up with a sister who was less than a year younger than I (my parents believed in getting the childbearing phase out of the way quickly). I know from experience with my sibling though that we talk in our own peculiar shorthand. In-jokes that mean nothing to the world at large never fail to elicit smiles from one or both of us. There are still jokes that I can reduce my sister to helpless tears of laughter with while outsiders look on in puzzlement. It’s that way between siblings.

Ollie (A. Wolff) and Jack (N. Wolff) are that way as well. Jack is returning home from college where he is studying Marine Biology to witness the last days of the beloved family dog, Stella. Their mother Sally (Draper) has decided to throw a farewell party for the dog, much to the bemusement of her sons and the confusion of her boyfriend Ron (Sandow) whom the boys mercilessly rib and whom they appear to despise. He seems like a high-strung traditionalist who can’t understand why kids of today don’t respect their elders the way his generation used to. Believe me, Ron, I hear you.

Ollie is also picking this weekend to introduce his family to his new girlfriend Violet (Singer), an aspiring ballerina: “Violet, this is everyone I love. And Ron.” Ollie is head over heels in love with Violet and confesses to his brother that she sent him some racy pictures on Snapchat of her underboob. Jack realizes that he’s met Violet before and that the two of them had a mini-fling which ended with her not returning his calls. He’s been obsessing with her ever since and now she’s apparently in love with his brother. He’s trying to step aside in favor of his brother but his feelings for her are too strong and as it turns out, she still has feelings for him.

Ollie is blissfully unaware of the drama going on alongside him. He’s too busy needling the mean girls in her ballet class, skewering poor Ron and doting on Stella who is gamely trying to live out her last days with as much dignity as she can muster, but the pain is beginning to get to be too much, which Sally acknowledges in a truly poignant moment. However, when the secrets the boys have been hiding from their mom and each other comes out, it tears a big hole in what was a close-knit family. Can they recover?

Ollie is an expert in put-downs and his potty mouth sometimes drives Ron to pulling out what little hair he has left; Ollie has no compunction at nailing Ron to the wall over his comb-over. Alex plays Ollie as a high-strung, energetic kid with a terrific brain – he’s already outdoing Jack in the courses that are leading Jack into a career in Marine Biology. Ollie is witty and quick-witted; the punch lines come rapid fire between the two boys. He is also capable of being a first-class asshole. Jack, on the other hand, is quieter, less acerbic and no less quick witted; he can hold his own with his brother but is generally less talkative with others. I can’t vouch for how the two interact off-camera but their banter sometimes sounds overly scripted; it’s hard to come up with the perfect comeback at every opportunity and Ollie seems to do so effortlessly. It’s possible he’s that quick but not likely and so the heart of the film, the byplay between the brothers starts to sound forced and unnatural.

Despite the clever dialogue, the chemistry between Nat and Alex is genuine as you would expect between siblings. The affection between the two is genuine and even when things break down between the two, everything that happens in their relationship feels authentic; at times though the audience clearly feels like outsiders witnessing a conversation they weren’t meant to hear.

There are some genuinely poignant moments as I alluded to above; there are also some really funny one-liners, mostly courtesy of Ollie. There is definitely chemistry between the brothers; after all, this isn’t the first time they’ve acted together before (some might remember them from the Naked Brothers Band show they did about a decade ago) and the affection is obvious. Still, at times the dialogue seems to be a bit forced and the events a little too contrived.

Stella’s Last Weekend turns out to be a bittersweet relationship movie that to its credit doesn’t coast too often. The film earns most of its emotional responses which is to be envied in a day and age when most movies are lazy about their emotional manipulation. The movie isn’t always successful but when it is, it is. Unfortunately, when it’s not it’s not.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, crude gestures, some sexual content and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wolff brothers are Draper’s sons in real life; the dog that played Stella is also the family dog (who is alive and well as of this writing).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Only Living Boy in New York
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
London Fields

The Oath


The most awkward Thanksgiving dinner EVER!

(2018) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Max Greenfield, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, John Ducey, Jon Lovett, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Brian Guest, Matt Conboy, Ithamar Enriquez, Brett Lapeyrouse, Molly Erdman. Directed by Ike Barinholtz

 

We live in an extraordinary time, and not in a good way. Our country is divided as it hasn’t been since the War Between the States. Politics have become a blood feud with two intractable sides refusing to listen to each other or admit that the tactics of their side could be anything but above reproach. Politics are dividing friends and family like never before.

Chris (I. Barinholtz) is one of those progressive sorts who watches cable news like a hawk and this, predictably, keeps him in a constant state of anger. He doesn’t have discussions so much as he has apocalyptic rants, quite sure that the latest thing the left is doing signals the end of life as we know it. However, this time he has good reason: the President (never identified in the film but c’mon – it’s meant to be Trump) has ordered that all Americans sign an oath of loyalty. Not to the country, but to the President.

Of course, Chris loses his mind and swears he’d sooner gouge out his eye with a spoon than sign this thing. His savvy and level-headed wife Kai (Haddish) agrees with him but in a less strident tone and at a less ear-splitting volume. The deadline for signing is Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. It so happens that Chris and Kai are having Thanksgiving dinner this year at their home with Chris’ somewhat clueless parents (Ellis, Dunn), his conservative-leaning brother Pat (J. Barinholtz), Pat’s similarly right wing girlfriend Abby (Hagner) whose name Chris defiantly refuses to say correctly, and his sister Alice (Brownstein) who tends to side with Chris.

The dinner predictably escalates into armed warfare between Chris and his brother’s girlfriend as the news shows images of protesters getting shot and left-leaning websites report that a government agency called the  Citizen’s Protection Unit (CPU) has been taking protesters away, never to be seen again. Chris’ paranoia reaches redline fever when two CPU agents, Mason (Magnussen) and Peter (Cho) show up at his door. Then things go from bad to worse.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that captures the ongoing political division of this country as this one does. Barinholtz, a first-time filmmaker, wrote and directed this and while you can see some of the rookie mistakes – the tonal shift between the first half which is more comedic and the second half, which is more of a thriller along the lines of The Purge. The dichotomy between the two is a little bit jarring to say the least. In many ways the second half is a bit surreal, going in a completely unexpected direction and detracting from the power of the first half..

Barinholtz though coaxes a magnificent performance from Haddish, in my opinion her best to date. She’s caught in the middle between her hair-trigger husband and her equally passionate brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Chris doesn’t act civilly all that often; you either agree with him or you’re a fascist and Chris is one of those liberals who thinks they know what’s right better than anyone. Kai is the mitigating factor that keeps Chris from getting too toxic, although it’s obvious that the job of being his buffer is wearing on her.

While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the left, they at least have a clear enough head to recognize that the progressive side has its own share of hostility. Much of what we see onscreen are things I’ve witnessed first-hand among liberal as well as conservative friends. While the ending is a bit far-fetched, at least it leaves us with the hope that we’ll be able to learn to talk to each other again someday. Hope is a precious commodity these days and this movie at least has that, although it is cynical in places to the point of head-exploding madness. Hope is something to be cultivated and yes, discovered in movies as well. As for me, I hope Barinholtz continues to make movies; he shows he has a real talent and talent like his should be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: This is possibly the finest performance ever by Tiffany Haddish.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barinholtz was once a member of the MadTV troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Idiocracy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stella’s Last Weekend

All About Nina


The comedian is hard to spot.

(2018) Dramedy (The Orchard) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Chace Crawford, Camryn Manheim, Jay Mohr, Mindy Sterling, Angelique Cabral, Clea DuVall, Kate del Castillo, Beau Bridges, Nicole Byer, Todd Louiso, Victor Rasuk, Pam Murphy, Sonoya Mizuno, Melonie Diaz, Elizabeth Masucci, Cate Freedman, Grace Shen. Directed by Eva Vives

 

Some movies are pretty much what you expect them to be. They chug along, doing what you imagined they’d do, making the plot points you expected from them, following a tried and true formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve seen plenty of really entertaining movies that were also formulaic. Then again, there are movies like All About Nina that are motoring along at a brisk pace, fulfilling every one of your expectations to the point where you think you’re going to give a mediocre review. Then one scene comes along, elevates the movie into something special and blows all your preconceptions out of the water, leaving you breathless.

Nina Geld (Winstead) is a stand-up comedian who has been banging her head against the wall of male hegemony in the stand-up business. Her act has a lot of anger in it as she reaches across taboo lines like diarrhea and menstruation and keeps on going until she can find another line to cross. She is involved in a relationship with a married cop (Crawford) who beats her up from time to time. Her life is, in a nutshell, going nowhere.

She decides to shake things up a bit and heads out to Los Angeles to try and get a special on the Comedy Prime network. Supported by her very pregnant agent (Cabral), Nina moves in with a sweet New Age sort (del Castillo) and soon begins to make some noise in the L.A. comedy clubs. Her self-destructive impulses however have followed her from New York; too much drinking, too much sex with the wrong guys…that kind of thing. Then she meets Nate (Common), a contractor who takes an interest in her as she does in him. Suddenly there are possibilities. The network is interested in her as well but it all comes crashing down, leading her to a confessional standup session where everything comes out.

That confessional standup sequence is alone worth seeing. It is one of the most mind-blowing, heart-rending sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. Winstead is not a stand-up comic but she does a credible job with her delivery here. She also brings an animal intensity to the role that gives Nina the kind of edge that we rarely see in movies since the ‘70s. She’s been on a roll of late and hopefully we will start to see her in the kind of prestige roles she is well-suited for.

Common also excels here. He’s a bit on the Zen side in terms of being calm, cool and collected in the face of Hurricane Nina but he’s such a good boyfriend type that one wonders why he hasn’t gotten more romantic lead roles before now. Hopefully this will lead to a good many more of that sort of parts and I’m sure there are plenty of ladies who’d agree with me on that point.

The movie can be difficult to watch; Nina has a self-destructive streak a mile wide and can be unpleasant to be around. She is bitchy at times and a rage bomb at others. Her stand-up routine is not for the faint of heart or of stomach and those who are offended by profanity might as well give it up – there are sailors who would blanch at the filth that comes out of Nina’s mouth both on and off stage. However, if you have the stomach for it and the patience for it, this is a movie that has been slowly rolling out around the country that deserves a look if it’s playing anywhere near you.

REASONS TO GO: One scene elevates this movie into something special. Winstead and Common deliver solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: A good deal of L.A. stereotypes infests the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Vives’ feature film debut. She is known previously for writing the story for Raising Victor Vargas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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