Streaming Review: “You Don’t Nomi”

YOU DON’T NOMI
Directed By: Jeffrey McHale
Starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Paul Verhoeven, Adam Nayman, April Kidwell
Runtime: 92 mins.
RLJE Films

My introduction to Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls was definitely by accident on some random childhood afternoon on a local network because my memories are of a hazy mishmash of ‘why does Jesse-from-Saved by the Bell looked Like That?’ and laughing at the crude 90s tech that they used to ‘paint’ dodgy cgi bras over very naked chests. So in tackling McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi, I knew I’d have to take another look. I don’t regret it as such but I was not converted into the cult that this doc’s trailer alluded to. That doesn’t mean You Don’t Nomi isn’t worth a look for the uninitiated. On its surface, You Don’t Nomi may appear a puff piece on something so-bad-it’s-good but it puts in a surprising amount of work to show not only Showgirls’s second life as a camp crowdpleaser but also how a critically reviled film evolves over time–even in the eyes of its filmmakers.

There is no better way to describe the 1995 critical reception to Showgirls than dog pile. It was brutal in that way that it becomes a sport unto itself to find the snarkiest pull quotes. It tanked Elizabeth Berkley’s transition from sitcom actress to the big screen and took the sexual thriller momentum that Verhoeven had in the US off of 1992’s Basic Instinct and sent him back to the more marketable sci-fi with Starship Troopers (Instinct was preceded by Total Recall and Robocop). The doc delves deep into Verhoeven’s career and finds parallels and themes that connect Showgirls back into his work in Europe before he escaped to Hollywood. Unfortunately the documentary did not manage to include modern interviews with any of the creative forces on the film but again, in diving into archived footage, the documentary exposes how Verhoeven and Berkeley in particular have decided over time to try and sell that they knew all along that their film was camp. As one of the speakers in the doc says, camp is “failed seriousness,” so I don’t really buy their attempt to control that narrative but as a storyline in the documentary, it’s very amusing.

Despite the box office flopping, Showgirls found a second life in midnight screenings, drag shows and an off-broadway musical. For me, Nomi hits its stride by zeroing in on the experience that the actress who played Nomi in the musical parody had and the difference it made in her life. Watching her account, as well as those of the drag hosts of sold out midnight showings I kept thinking about that speech from Pixar’s Ratatouille where critic Anton Ego says “the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” -Hey if McHale can take a campy stripper movie seriously, I can defer to the wisdom of the cartoon rat movie. Even though I couldn’t relate to their obsession, I can certainly pinpoint pop culture hills I will die on and on that level I enjoyed hearing from such a well researched niche.

You Don’t Nomi is now streaming On Demand and digital, an additional review by Mike Gencarelli was posted earlier here

TFF 2020 Shorts: Animated

Note: Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library meant we could still offer coverage of this year’s selections. Tribeca is also participating in the We Are One global film festival, whose streams are being uploaded through June 7th.

Every year the Tribeca Film Festival showcases a wealth of short films from across the globe in all different mediums. Where animation is concerned, the fest turns to acting legend Whoopi Goldberg to curate their lineup. Due to the unprecedented postponement of the festival in New York, I screened this collection from the comfort of my home and would like to highlight my favorites of Goldberg’s picks.

Personal Favorite: Beyond Noh

Beyond Noh

Patrick Smith’s 4 minute foray into every mask you could think of is mesmerizing. The setup is a simple black space with masks from every culture and time around the world rapid-fire shuffling through to a rhythmic drum beat. It’s so simple but so deftly made. This short doesn’t stick to just the fine arts either with detours through American Halloween masks, and the quite topical medical field to boot, it covers all the faces–err, bases.

Award Winner: Friends

Friends

Florian Grolig’s deceptively simple Friends took home the prize for Best Animated Short from the Tribeca Film Festival’s jury and it was well-deserved. It’s just two characters–one very small and one so large we only see its massive hand or foot for most of the runtime– interacting despite the challenges of their massive gap in size. For me, it’s the one that most celebrates the medium of animation. With its simplistic line work morphing through a blank white void accompanied by perfectly pitched breathing from its giant, the scope is clearly conveyed.

Most Star-Studded: The Tiger Who Came to Tea

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Clocking in at 24 mins, Robin Shaw’s adaptation of Judith Kerr’s story is the longest of the program and starts very slow before evolving into something much more fanciful. We watch the cute morning routine of a British family ending with sending the father (Benedict Cumberbatch) off to work for the day while mother (Tamsin Grieg) and daughter (Clara Ross) are home to receive an unusual visitor. The titular tiger voiced by David Oyelowo politely invites himself to their afternoon tea and proceeds to scarf down the whole pantry. The animation on the tiger is utterly charming.

Historic and Beautiful: Kapaemahu

Directors Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hame and Joe Wilson delve deep into Hawaiian history to tell the tale of transgender healing spirits that are behind a landmark often passed by in Waikiki Beach. The use of native voices and music bolsters some gorgeous and warm animation as the tale transcends across time.

Kapaemahu

Additional program titles included “Umbrella” and “Grandad was a Romantic”, which both mine true stories for some lovely animation, and “Bathwell in Clerkentime” which is third in a series whose bouncy black and white animation couples with a soundtrack that may drive you as cuckoo as the birds it follows. (Note: “To Gerard” from Dreamworks artist Taylor Meacham was also selected however was not available to me in the press library at the time of the festival)

TFF 2020 Shorts: LOL

Among the sections I most look forward to each year at the Tribeca Film Festival are the comedy shorts. This year the lineup, titled collectively under “LOL” were presented online in lieu of the postponed festival. Here are my thoughts on this year’s program:

Personal Favorite: I Can Change!

Jim Jenkins’s plays with time travel creatively and with perfect deployment of brief special effects. John Hoogenakker stars as a groom who is gifted the ability to stop time and uses it ostensibly to “better” himself for his bride-to-bride. How? Well he freezes his bride and their friends in time at their wedding chapel while he disappears to the outside world for a blink of an eye and returns a whole new man having spent the time, for example, training to be a doctor. The simplistic way the “time travel” is achieved recalls some of the clever shortcuts something like Bill & Ted used–ie just stating their time travel intent means we immediately get to the consequences, sparing us the time trip. The pacing of the escalation in Hoogenakker’s jumps until the film taps into a big sci-fi finale is really fun.

Second Fave: Query

Jay and Alex spend nine minutes mulling over sexuality–both their own and its larger place in society–as they hang out. It’s nothing Earth shattering, but the natural rapport between the two leads (Justice Smith and Graham Patrick Martin) is really charming and it’s nice to see a pair of young guys just delving into their thoughts on the matter not in some overwrought or homophobic manner, but just chilling, and with enough friendly mocking to keep things funny. And to bolster this strong duo, you also get a brief run in with Call Me By Your Name’s Armie Hammer!

Overlong: John Bronco

Walton Goggins stars as a disgraced cowboy car pitchman John Bronco in a star-studded, but overlong mockumentary. I was excited for this one, generally always glad to see Goggins get to play over the top, but the film gets to the core of what the joke is with John Bronco relatively early and hammers on it over and over instead of advancing the plot. It’s 36 minute runtime could have been halved and achieve the same beats, though I understand why the filmmakers may have been reticent to cut any of the big cameos they got. Kudos for getting the MicroMachines pitchman (John Moschitta Jr) back on screen with his rapid-fire speech patterns though!

Additional program titles included the clever meet cute of One Last Heist–a romcom wrapped in a robbery from Canada, A Piece of Cake starring “Glow’s” Rich Sommer as a desperate dad and Egg which takes viewers from a simple diner and spirals it into a grand adventure.

Note: Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library mean we can still offer coverage of this year’s selections while looking forward to getting back to the fest in the future!
Check out all our TFF 2020 coverage HERE

WE ARE ONE: A GLOBAL FILM FESTIVAL ANNOUNCES THE FIRST-EVER CO-CURATED PROGRAMMING LINEUP FEATURING 21 OF THE MOST PROLIFIC FILM FESTIVALS IN THE WORLD

10-Day Digital Festival, Produced and Organized by Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube, will Feature Programming from Festivals including Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and Venice Film Festival

Highlights Include Online Premiere of Ricky Powell featuring Natasha Lyonne and LL Cool J, Global Premiere of Third Eye Blind’s Motorcycle Drive By, Talks Including Francis Ford Coppola with Steven Soderbergh, Song Kang-ho with Bong Joon-ho, and Jackie Chan and a DJ set by Questlove

NEW YORK, NY– May 26, 2020 – Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube announced today the programming slate for We Are One: A Global Film Festival, which will feature over 100 films co-curated by 21 prolific festivals, hailing from 35 countries, in addition to talks, VR content and musical performances. The 10-day digital event will celebrate global voices, elevate films that have the power to create change and bring audiences from around the world together to create meaningful connections. Assembling some of the world’s most talented artists, storytellers and curators around a central effort to provide entertainment and offer relief in the form of supporting organizations responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will run exclusively on YouTube May 29 – June 7 at YouTube.com/WeAreOne.

We Are One: A Global Film Festival will give audiences an opportunity to experience different cultures through an artistic lens – each official selection was handpicked for inclusion to highlight the singularities of each participating festival, while also providing a voice to filmmakers on a global stage. Many of these titles will have significant debuts at the festival, with programming consisting of over 100 films, including 13 world premieres, 31 online premieres, and five international online premieres.

A truly international festival, the programming will represent over 35 countries and will include 23 narrative and eight documentary features, 57 narrative and 15 documentary short films, 15 archived talks along with four festival exclusives and five VR programming pieces. 

Notable film presentations will include Ricky Powell: The Individualista documentary about legendary street photographer Powell featuring interviews with Natasha Lyonne and LL Cool J; the online premiere of Eeb Allay Ooo!a unique satire about professional “monkey repellers” and winner of the Mumbai Film Festival’s Golden Gateway Award; and the world premiere of Iron Hammera compelling documentary feature directed by Joan Chen about legendary Chinese Olympic volleyball star Jenny Lang Ping, a true trailblazer who forged connections across the globe. Audiences will have access to over 50 narrative and documentary shorts with exciting entries such as the world premiere of Japanese narrative short Yalta Conference Online [working title], created exclusively for the festival by Director Koji Fukada; the global premiere of the Third Eye Blind documentary short Motorcycle Drive By, as well as the first short pieces made by Dreamworks Animation, BilbyMarooned and Bird KarmaEpisodic programming features the world premiere of Losing Alice, an Israeli female-led neo-noir psychological TV thriller and And She Could Be Nexta two part documentary series on the experiences of women of color running for office, including Stacey Abrams and Rashida Tlaib.

We Are One: A Global Film Festival will host a number of specially-curated talks, both archived from past festivals and brand new discussions, that will offer viewers a chance to revisit important moments in film. Talks will feature Francis Ford Coppola with Steven Soderbergh, Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon-ho, Guillermo del Toro, Jane Campion and Claire Denis. 360 VR selections will feature Emmy-nominated documentary Traveling While Black and Alterationasci-fi narrative starring Bill Skarsgard, as well as additional titles with notable talent including John Legend, Oprah Winfrey and Lupita Nyong’o. There will also be special musical performances, including a 30 minute DJ set by Questlove.

“We are so excited to share the combined efforts of our festival partners and YouTube with the world this week,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “Together, we were able to curate a compelling slate of programming that succinctly reflects the subtle variations in style that make each festival so special. We Are One: A Global Film Festival will offer audiences an opportunity to not only celebrate the art of film, but the unique qualities that make each story we watch so memorable.”

“One of the beautiful things about films and other visual content is the ability to tell stories and bring people together, no matter where they live or where they’re from. This is a phenomenon we’ve seen at YouTube throughout the years but especially today, as people look to connect and be entertained,” said Robert Kyncl, Chief Business Officer, YouTube. “The programming coordinated by Tribeca Enterprises for We Are One: A Global Film Festival has that magical ability to transport viewers from all around the world to a special moment in time, through the unique lens that our esteemed festival partners bring.”

The global festival will include programming curated by and unique to the identity of all participating festival partners, including: Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Guadalajara International Film Festival, International Film Festival & Awards Macao (IFFAM), International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), Jerusalem Film Festival, Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Marrakech International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, San Sebastian International Film Festival, Sarajevo Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, and Venice Film Festival.

“Cinema is not only a collective work, but also a shared experience. In these times of social distancing, the spirit of cooperation and a sense of community are needed more than ever before. Therefore, we are happy to participate in the We Are One initiative. We wish all those wonderful artists that their audiences will be able to see their work on the big screen again soon,” said the Berlinale Director Duo Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian.

“We are honored and happy to join We Are One, as a sign of friendship and solidarity for our friends of Tribeca, at the same time offering to the worldwide audience a taste of what we do in Venice in order to support new filmmakers concretely,” added Venice Film Festival Director Alberto Barbera.

True to its mission, We Are One: A Global Film Festival will seek to bring artists, creators and curators together around an international event that celebrates the exquisite art of storytelling. In doing so, it will aim to provide not only solace and entertainment for audiences during a time when it’s needed most, but also opportunities for these individuals to give back through donations to the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Leket Israel, GO Foundation and Give2Asia, among others. Audiences will be able to donate to COVID-19 relief efforts through a donate button or link on every film page.

The full festival schedule is available at www.weareoneglobalfestival.com.

About Tribeca Enterprises
Tribeca Enterprises is a multi-platform storytelling company, established in 2003 by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal. Tribeca provides artists with unique platforms to expand the audience for their work and broadens consumer access to experience storytelling, independent film, and media. The company operates a network of entertainment businesses including the Tribeca Film Festival; the Tribeca TV Festival; and its branded entertainment production arm, Tribeca Studios.

About YouTube 
Launched in May 2005, YouTube allows billions of people to discover, watch, and share originally-created videos. YouTube provides a forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others across the globe and acts as a distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers large and small. YouTube is a Google company.

About We Are One
The global festival will include programming curated by and unique to the identity of all participating festival partners, including: Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Guadalajara International Film Festival, International Film Festival & Awards Macao (IFFAM), International Film Festival Rotterdam, Jerusalem Film Festival, Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Marrakech International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, San Sebastián International Film Festival, Sarajevo Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, and Venice Film Festival.

All programming will be screened globally on YouTube at no cost. Audiences will be able to follow along via scheduling listed on official We Are One channels with a full festival schedule at www.weareoneglobalfestival.com.

TFF 2020 Review: “The Trip to Greece”

THE TRIP TO GREECE
Directed By: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan
Runtime: 103 mins.
IFC Films

Through no fault of its own, The Trip to Greece is arriving on VOD today with some extra baggage. Seeing as this release comes at a time when the world doesn’t know how and when we might resume the kind of care free international tourism that stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon enjoy, it’s hard to judge how this film might hit you. Is armchair tourism at this juncture escapism or masochism? At this point in the series, given this is the fourth time around with this specific formula, that might be the only factor in your decision making. As with their first three trips–starting in England the duo then hit Italy and Spain–the vistas are gorgeous, the food looks delicious and the impressions are plentiful. What sets this one apart, fittingly for ancient Greece, is the injection of some tragedy within the film’s “plot” separate from the context of its release. The result of this turn is a film that is more an admirable finale than the hilarious joyrides that its predecessors were.

The setup is slim, as always, with the comedians ostensibly working on some article while retracing the trail covered in The Odyssey from modern day Turkey to Ithaca. Ten years of Odyssey condensed into six days of jet setting. The structure sets their agenda but then Brydon and Coogan’s conversations go off the rails as needed. This time around, Coogan has recently received dramatic accolades for his portrayal of Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie and a lot of their comedic tension comes from Coogan trying to emphasize his newly minted dramatic chops while Brydon firmly still categorizes his buddy as a comedian. If there were an Olympics for negging, these two would surely medal. The guys are hilarious at oneupmanship whether it’s picking up on a Mick Jagger impression and doing their own take or attempting to turn the the mundanity of a restaurant check into a game show round. In these sequences this series always hits its stride and credit must go to director Michael Winterbottom and his editor Marc Ricardson for often wringing another laugh out of a moment by just cutting on the right beat.

The film does do that shift for the dramatic though by adding in ominous black and white dream sequences rooted in Greek myth for Coogan and introducing a family health crisis as well. I haven’t been able to suss out if that part was based on something in Coogan’s actual life or entirely fabricated for the film but if the latter, it seems an odd choice. At one point they also take a detour to a refugee camp after coming across a former colleague of Coogan’s who’s based there. While it is, as I said above, admirable that this series of extreme-first-world tourism actually takes a moment to observe the realities of a host country, it comes off more as momentary lip service rather than genuine reflection. Eventually the back home problem for Coogan split the comedic duo apart for the remainder of the film much to its detriment. Where the pair end up does have the air of finality, which this installment supposedly is, so I understand the choice. Overall I enjoyed Brydon and Coogan’s competitive company as I always have, just wish that this finale could have focused more on the series’ strengths as it headed off into the sunset.

Note: The Trip To Greece was due to make its North American premiere as part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Spotlight Narrative” slate. Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library mean we can still offer coverage of this year’s selections while looking forward to getting back to the fest in the future!

TFF 2020 Review: “Inheritance”

Note: Inheritance was due to make its world premiere as part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Spotlight Narrative” slate. Though the 2020 Festival was officially postponed due to ongoing pandemic precautions, online screeners and the fest’s press library mean we can still offer coverage of this year’s selections while looking forward to getting back to the fest in the future!

INHERITANCE
Starring: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Chace Crawford, Connie Nielson, Patrick Warburton
Directed by: Vaughn Stein
Runtime: 111 mins.
Vertical Entertainment
Not Rated

Early on in Inheritance, the will of deceased banker Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton) is read out to his district attorney daughter Lauren (Lily Collins) and her congressman brother William (Chace Crawford). While the campaigning son takes a massive twenty million dollars, his sister “only” gets one million. If you think that’s the main source of strife in this family then oh boy, strap in because that difference barely scratches the surface of Lauren’s problems. Director Vaughn Stein’s new thriller releasing on VOD this week after having been a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection, takes a hard turn into its potential-horror setup but doesn’t fully embrace it with leads who can’t sell it.

The monetary discrepancy between Lauren and her brother quickly gives way to Lauren receiving her actual inheritance in the form of a mysterious key and a video from her late father urging her to keep the truth buried. Not to be too cynical but it’s pretty expected that a wealthy family like these Monroes–populated with bankers, lawyers and politicians–is going to have its share of skeletons in its closet. Stein’s film does this cliché one better by Archer leaving his daughter a full grown man chained up in a bunker. Thanks, dad. The bunker man is named Morgan (Simon Pegg) and seems to know everything about Lauren who desperately wants to know the whys and hows of Morgan’s disgusting situation. More than that, Lauren must face a crisis of conscious whether to heed her father’s will, especially in the middle of her brother’s re-election or release the bedraggled, pitiable Morgan with his trove of family secrets.

Simon Pegg has long been one of my favorite actors, whether in leading the “Cornetto trilogy” or popping up in larger fare like Star Trek or even better the Mission: Impossible series, but saddled in this film with the heavy wig and grime of Morgan’s imprisonment and, worse, a ropey American accent, and he is utterly wasted. The main tension in Inheritance should come from whether Lauren can muster enough pity for Morgan to release him or Pegg can be sufficiently menacing in his blackmail of the Monroes to achieve his ends. But in their contained scenes, the dynamic never coalesces into real tension. Where you’re expecting someone to actually strike, they just keep talking in circles. And I can’t underscore enough how badly Pegg’s US accent hobbles how threatening his character could have been. There are later parts in the film where I imagine Pegg was really having fun with it, but too much of the runtime for his character is leaden stuff. Collins, 31, for her part as a DA in Manhattan is much too young to hold such a role and comes off as someone playing dress up. It was hard to take either of them seriously in these parts.

For a movie where the crux of the problem is a man chained up in a basement, Inheritance is just overall way too bland. Outside of Pegg and Collins, the Monroe family and their posse come off as stock soap opera characters. Chace Crawford, so good on “The Boys,” is as ridiculous as a hot-shot congressman as Collins is as the DA. Ultimately their rich people problems–and secrets–aren’t as shocking as the film wants them to be.

Inheritance is available on DirectTV and releases on VOD on May 22nd

Throwback: TNT’s “Snowpiercer” at NYCC

This Sunday TNT is readying for viewers to depart on their massive eponymous train, SNOWPIERCER. Starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs, the series is the second adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige after it got the big screen treatment from director Bong Joon Ho in 2013. TNT describes their series as follows: “The world has become a frozen wasteland, and the only survivors are those aboard a perpetually moving train that circles the globe. See how class warfare, social injustice and the politics of survival play out on Snowpiercer.”

Cast members below series concept art

Given the expansion from a film to a series, the show promises to take a more in depth look into the characters and divisions that exist in the remnants of humanity aboard the some thousand cars of this monster train. Though some nods to the film–such as a character loosely based on Tilda Swinton’s “Mason”–are to be expected. The cast joined show runner Graeme Manson this past fall on stage at New York Comic Con. You can head over to our Facebook page to check out our full album of panel photos before catching the premiere!

Jennifer Connelly (“Melanie Cavill”) and Daveed Diggs (“Layton Well”)

SNOWPIERCER debuts on 5/17 at 9pm on TNT

Film Review: “South Mountain”

SOUTH MOUNTAIN
Starring: Talia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols
Directed by: Hilary Brougher
Runtime: 85 mins.
Breaking Glass Pictures

Behind the stillness of a home in the rural Catskills is a wealth of roiling emotion beautifully realized in writer-director Hilary Brougher’s South Mountain. The feature, which debuts on DVD and VOD today stars Talia Balsam who gives an achingly vulnerable central performance.

On a summer evening, Lila (Balsam) is having a cookout with her family and friends as she preps for her daughters to leave her with an empty nest. And if there’s a subtle tension between Lila and her husband, Edgar (Scott Cohen), well that may be because Edgar is sneaking off within this very household to video call a mistress actively giving birth to his child under the guise of a “work call.” Yikes.

What’s remarkable about Brougher’s film is the situation has all the potential to wade into overwrought melodrama but it never does. Instead, Balsam plays Lila with a fragility that occasionally tips over into flashes of rage but remains thoroughly grounded. Cohen too, whose philandering intro really gives him an uphill battle with the viewers, manages to wrangle sympathy as Edgar in the sensitivity he brings to the more fraught scenes with Balsam. Their dynamic of him knowing it is over versus her not quite ready to let go is compelling.

The lovely performances are all given solid support from Brougher’s production and sound design which really evoke both the encroaching summer and Lila’s isolation. The lush greenery and rustic house are their own character which composer Herdis Stefansdottir subtly accents with a sparse musical score that knows when to take a backseat to the chorus of birds, insects and rumbling clouds. Ultimately, Brougher’s film achieves a beautiful balance between the permanence of Lila’s place in the mountain and the ever shifting circumstances of her life and most intimate relationships.

Film Review: “It Started as a Joke”

Starring: Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal, Michael Ian Black, Kumail Nanjiani, Mike Birbiglia
Directed by: Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman
Unrated
Running Time: 76 mins.
Gravitas Ventures

A couple weeks ago, right as the news in and around New York was starting to turn towards where we are now and I was sort of sick myself (different reason), I saw one of my favorite Tribeca Film Fest movies on a dvd display and knew I had to get it. It was Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 comedy Don’t Think Twice. I hadn’t seen it since enjoying it at Tribeca but it was exactly the thing I needed right now. That film follows a close-knit improv group in New York (including Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key and Chris Gethard) as one of their number rises to a new level of fame and the others do their best to deal with what that means to the group while also contending with where they are in their personal lives. It’s incredibly heart-warming, honest and very very funny.

Why have I launched into a mini review of Don’t Think Twice at the beginning of this review? For a start, Birbiglia was credited as being part of the “joke” that directors Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman’s new documentary, It Started as a Joke references in its title–many of the stars of Don’t Think Twice were also veterans of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival that it focuses on–so I think they won’t mind. Secondly because they both show how cathartic comedy can be when navigating the uncertainties of life. As one of the doc’s interviewees says, “comedy helps cope.” It’s coincidence that It Started as a Joke landed in the film release marketplace such as it is, but that message would be valid even in the best of times. It Started as a Joke evolves from a showcase of a wealth of comedic talents into something much more intimate and touching. Through the access Mirman grants into how the festival came about and how eventually he used it as an outlet for coping with his wife’s cancer diagnosis, Clem and Druckerman have captured something special.

The documentary does a great job at building up what a specific and joyful time the EMCF was for a certain ‘class’ of Brooklyn comics. It features a big lineup of talents that are now household names: Kumail Kanjiani credits Mirman for helping him to stay in NYC, “The State” members Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter are on hand as well as Mirman’s “Bob’s Burgers” co-star Kristen Schaal, even NPR’s Ira Glass wound up shit-faced at the fest’s “Drunk Show”. Not something I expected to see!

Throughout all the hilarious content of the fest, the interspersed interviews with the talent really illuminate what a unique comedic presence Mirman was and continues to be. He didn’t arrive with traditional observational humor, rather with highly absurdist riffs and things like visual advertisements for shapes (“FUCKEDUPAGON! Let’s PARTY!” is a fave of mine). It struck a chord with his peers and out of that came his comedy festival which, while parodying ‘actual’ comedy fests of the time, grew into something too large to be a prank anymore and had a successful run from 2008-2017.

The subject of Mirman’s personal life was not something he really delved into in his acts but when his wife Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer, it became clear that his work could also be an outlet for some of the fear and frustration. The doc follows Mirman as he develops a bit based on pitch black greeting cards for people with cancer for example–all with his wife’s support, of course. As Mirman opens himself up, so to do his peers which is where this doc really shines. Clem and Druckerman capture many moments of comics letting their guard down both on stage and off. Based on the talent involved with this film, I knew going in I could count on plenty of laughter, but I came away also appreciating the tears that came with them.

It Started as a Joke is now available on iTunes

Film Review: “Human Capital”

HUMAN CAPITAL
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Marisa Tomei, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff
Directed by: Marc Meyers
Not Rated
Running Time: 95 mins.
Vertical Entertainment

An academic awards dinner serves as a turning point for multiple families when a hit and run accident leaves one of its wait staff dead in Marc Meyers’s Human Capital. The film boasts a solid cast lead by Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard and Marisa Tomei but its rigid structuring choices throw the film off balance as it delves ever deeper into the melodramatic. The resolution to its mystery proves murky and is not quite given enough space to breathe before the film’s conclusion.

Director Meyers and screenwriter Oren Moverman (adapting a novel by Stephen Amidon) split the film up in such a way that the pivotal day of the dinner leading up to the murder is shown through the lens of three characters played by Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei and Maya Hawke. It’s the multi-POV strategy we’ve seen with films such as Crash, but on a smaller scale. The trouble with these rigid thirds is that while they all are sort of negotiating with varying degrees of class inequality and value in humanity over money, they don’t quite convalesce in a meaningful way. Largely they depend on leaden dialogue to hit you over the head with each character arc’s Central Theme before we shift to the next one.

Unfortunately I found the first arc, that of Schreiber’s Drew, to be the most compelling of the three stories. His character figures largest into the characters who felt most genuine–his daughter Shannon (Hawke) and his pregnant wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel, “Get Out”). Schreiber is also easily relatable as a man woefully out of his depth when trying to make a big deal with Sarsgaard’s slimy hedge fund manager Quint. While the film is in no way interested in clarifying the economics at play, Schreiber’s everyman persona makes up for it in his desperate reactions. I felt more interested in the fallout of his bad decisions than I did in getting to crux of the car accident plot.

Beyond Schreiber the film severely underserves the remainder of the cast. I found little to care about in Tomei and Sarsgaard’s relationship. They’re constantly sniping at each other and no doubt trying to hammer home that money can’t buy happiness. Tomei is eventually driven into the arms of a colleague played by Paul Sparks. Usually Sparks is a welcome addition but here it feels like he’s retreading the role he had during his tenure on “House of Cards.” Meanwhile, Aasif Mandvi is a sneering Wall Street bro sidekick to Sarsgaard and feels straight out of an 80’s movie. Eventually the film turns itself over to exciting newcomers Hawke and Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”) but again, their romance and how it all ties into the central mystery drags and feels like it’s trying to throw even more big social themes into the mix in the rush to the finish.

Human Capital is currently available on VOD

Film Review: “Feedback”

FEEDBACK
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Ivana Baquero
Directed By: Pedro C. Alonso
Not Rated
Running Time 98 min
Blue Fox Entertainment

A London radio station transforms into a pressure cooker when a late night host is held captive in his own recording studio. What starts as a not-wholly-unexpected hostage situation for the controversial host quickly reveals the thugs have more personal than political reasons for their chosen target. Director Pedro Alonso’s Feedback, which is now out on VOD and releases February 18th on DVD, is a tightly orchestrated thriller that hinges on a strong leading performance from Eddie Marsan despite a questionable point of view. 

Dolan Jarvis (Marsan) has been attacked before. Anchoring a late night radio show called “Grim Reality” where he rages on all things political (Brexit, Russian election tampering, et al), he isn’t as shaken as the average person returning to work after having been attacked by angry listeners. That said, his producer (Anthony Head) is still angling to force a co-host on him in the form of rocker Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson, “Peaky Blinders”). As he starts his usual broadcast, a group of masked thugs trap Jarvis in his studio and threaten him to stick to their exact script when Wilde arrives. At first Jarvis balks but he gets on board when he realizes his daughter, who also happens to be in the radio offices that night, as well as his young studio technicians are threatened as well.

What should be a limiting contrivance–holding all action captive in a recording space–is actually one of the film’s strengths. Alonso goes a long way to making sure that the viewers feel Jarvis’s claustrophobia as his assailants bear down on him. The pristine studio also makes for a good visual contrast with the acts of violence. Then in the latter stages of the film, he keeps throwing Marsan further into situations where he feels more and more like a rat in a maze. It’s highly stressful and highly effective.

Marsan meanwhile as the victim gains a lot of sympathy when he’s first caught that pays off in dividends for the film. Alonso pulls a bit of a switcheroo by firmly placing the audience on Jarvis’s team so to speak before the ostensible villains of the piece get him and Wilde to expose more of their past digressions on air. If it weren’t for Marsan and Anderson’s respective charisma, I think this film would have run a real risk of losing viewers completely when all is said and done. Your mileage may vary, but despite where the film takes the characters, it still delivers several gasp-inducing thrills and is worthwhile for Marsan’s performance.

Joker, 1917 and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Lead Winners for the 9th Annual Media Mikes Awards

Now that the Oscars dust has settled, it’s time to take a look at how we here at Media Mikes, readers and writers alike, voted for our top cinematic achievements of 2019 in our 9th Annual Media Mikes Awards

“Joker,” Todd Phillips’s dark look at the origins of Batman’s greatest enemy, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s fable about the summer of 1969 and Sam Mendes’s enthralling WWI drama, “1917”, topped our lists with two awards each.

“Hollywood” took home the big prize as the year’s Best Picture and also nabbed Best Supporting Actor award for Brad Pitt. “Joker” earned wins for Joaquin Phoenix as Best Actor as well as Best Original Score, written and composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir. “1917” earned the award for Best Director for Sam Mendes and was also recognized for its cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins.

Additional winners included Reneé Zellwegger as Best Actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland in “Judy” and Scarlett Johansson as Best Supporting Actress for her work in “JoJo Rabbit.”

“Toy Story 4” was chosen as the year’s Best Animated Feature.

This year saw more than 3,000 readers submit their choices in the seven top categories, check out the complete list of our winners below

Reader Voted Awards Went to…

Best Picture – “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
Best Director – Sam Mendes, “1917”
Best Actor – Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Best Actress – Renee Zellweger, “Judy”
Best Supporting Actress – Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”
Best Supporting Actor – “Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
Best Animated Feature – “Toy Story 4”

Awards chosen by our Media Mikes writers went to…

Best Original Screenplay – Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won, “Parasite”
Best Adapted Screenplay – Greta Gerwig, “Little Women”
Best Documentary Feature – “David Crosby: Remember my Name”
Best Cinematography – Roger Deakins, “1917”
Best Original Score – Hildur Guðnadóttir, “Joker”

Composer John Williams, who recently earned his 52nd Academy Award nomination, was name the recipient of this years Media Mikes Lifetime Achievement Award.

Congratulations to the winners and thank you to everyone who voted!

Film Review: “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

BIRDS OF PREY
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco
Directed By: Cathy Yan
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 mins.
Warner Brothers

After a major breakup, one Harley Quinn is down in the dumps. But dammit if she’s not going to lift herself out of it and take audiences along for the ride. And what a wild ride it is. Cathy Yan and producer/Harley herself, Margot Robbie deliver a creative, intense and above all, fun burst of action that really couldn’t be better placed on the calendar than right before Valentine’s Day. Grab your favorite colorful candy, your friends, your pet hyenas (just not any shitty exes) and go.

For those unfamiliar with Ms Quinn, director Yan opens with a helpful primer without  having to look at a single frame of Suicide Squad. HQ was a brilliant med student-turned-psychiatrist-turned-lover of the Joker, her former patient. It was a position that allowed her to get away with murder, possibly literally. No one was crossing the Clown Prince of Crime. Unfortunately for her, it was also a subjugated position. Her schemes weren’t appreciated when they succeeded, she was abused and taken for granted. Yan doesn’t go into the particulars of the breakup and blessedly doesn’t bring Jared Leto or any other iteration of “Mr. J” in here—because he’s besides the point—but Harley is a bit of a mess as a result. She’s already dealing with an identity crisis when a crime lord named Roman Sionis (McGregor) places a bounty on the young girl that Harley herself is meant to be delivering to him in 24 hours, on pain of death. 

If the above has you questioning where the “Birds of Prey” from the title come in, you would be right, but I’d also wonder if you watched a single trailer for this movie. This is very much the Harley show. Her teammates come in gradually—Black Canary (Smolett-Bell) first and most prominently, followed by police officer Renee Montoya (Perez) and Huntress (Winstead). They all have their own grievances with Roman. The good news is, Harley cheerfully gets you up to speed on their backstories as they join the party. Meanwhile the actresses truly make the most of their limited screen time. Winstead in particular sells an assassin who is as fierce in battle as she is socially awkward. I mean, if all you do is train for vengeance, yeah, you might not be great with new friends.

The person who gets the most time to balance out Harley’s zaniness with his own brand of ham is Ewan McGregor as Roman, aka The Black Mask. He and main enforcer, Mr. Zsasz (Chris Messina) are operating on their own levels of strange and flamboyant and I was into it. Again, he could have even gone for more over the top as far as I’m concerned, but his finale left me more than satisfied. Above all, if the worst I can say about this movie is I wanted more and not less in a time where bloated two and a half hour runtimes are the norm (sorry, Aquaman!) that’s not a bad thing.

Finally not to mix up my IPs or anything, but as this movie unfurled, I actually thought of Disney Imagineers. As it goes, they’re encouraged to “plus” their rides and attractions–a phrase they use when taking a solid idea and ramping it up with “what if?” possibilities. Every action sequence in Birds of Prey feels like it’s been plussed. It’s not enough that the stunt work be impeccable but what if everyone also dressed fantastic? Or what if a gunfight takes place among rainbow smoke bombs? Turn on some sprinklers while you’re at it! Have a climax in a carnival. The result is a film that feels like a comic book in the best of ways.

Going into the new year, I was majorly psyched for the trifecta of big name female-led superhero movies we have coming our way. Birds of Prey just blew the doors off 2020 and raised the shiny, glittery bar. Bring on Natasha and Diana.

Film Review: “Little Women”

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen
Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Rated: PG
Running Time: 135mins
Sony Pictures

Little Women has been adapted to the screen a dozen times, so approaching it hot off of her acclaimed Lady Bird, it appears writer-director Greta Gerwig decided to adhere to its own Amy March’s strict standards: “to be great or nothing” Which is to say, Gerwig’s telling is pretty great. Emphasis on the pretty. Her ensemble cast, lead by Lady Bird alum Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh (“Midsommar”), brings a fresh take to Louisa May Alcott’s iconic characters amidst an absolutely gorgeously mounted production. This adaptation of Alcott’s tale of a quartet of sisters finding their way in Civil War era New England feels both classic and vividly relevant to today.

Full disclosure time–I haven’t read Alcott’s novel. Like many kids of the 90s my introduction to the March family was with 1994’s release starring Winona Ryder and Christian  Bale. It so fit into 90s cozy family fare that it came to vhs in one of those big puffy plastic boxes like Disney cartoons. This isn’t a slight against it, I love that version. But it did make me wary that I would be plodding through some well worn territory. Happily, Ms Gerwig flips the script by shirking a linear adaptation. Instead we follow our heroine Jo March (Ronan) from the point at which she’s already pitching her life story at a New York publisher, and then we go winding back and forth through her adolescence in New England. This approach gives the tales of the March’s idyllic family history a warm veneer of nostalgia, which actually feels a more honest way to see it.

Additionally, with Jo as our primary entry point into Marches, Gerwig’s update places a greater emphasis on the sisterly bonds than their romantic entanglements. Timothee Chalamet does well as Laurie–taking over from Bale as the mischievous neighbor boy who pursues both Jo and eventually Amy (Pugh)–but for this 2019 version, he rightly takes a back seat in screen time to, for example, Jo’s bond with her ailing sister Beth (Scanlen).            

This treatment especially benefits the oft-maligned Amy March. In 1994 the duties of the youngest March were shared between a very childish Kirsten Dunst and a very cold Samantha Mathis but here Florence Pugh effortlessly takes her from tween to adulthood. Pugh is having an amazing year, from her breakthrough leading role in Fighting with My Family to a wrenching performance in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, she is exhibiting an incredible range that she flexes even more as Amy. In this non-linear telling, Amy has the advantage of being introduced not as a clingy youngest sibling, but as the aspiring artist studying in Paris. Her childhood crimes (which are numerous and feature Pugh for the second time this year participating in arson) are more readily forgiven through an adult lens whereas when they were previously presented in “real time”, she was a little monster. Meanwhile, though Pugh is given aging assistance via wardrobe decisions and some well-deployed bangs, it is her performance, her entire bearing and pitch of her voice that fully sells Amy’s growth. It’s a special performance that I am hoping will be recognized this awards season since, if Hereditary’s snubbing last year is any indication, Academy voters might not have the stomach for Midsommar. But I digress. 

Supporting all these sparkling performances, Gerwig’s production radiates warmth and beauty. She gives us a screenplay that lets the March clan talk all over each other like a living, breathing family, costumes and settings that frequently look like they could be paintings and underscores it all with yet another winning score from Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”). It is a lovely holiday gift of a film.  

Film Review: “The Two Popes”

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujin
Directed By: Fernando Meirelles
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126mins
Netflix

In 2013, the Catholic church faced a prospect it had not dealt with in 600 years when Pope Benedict XVI decided to step down as head of the Catholic Church. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named as his successor, taking the title of Pope Francis. The official reason Benedict gave was declining health but he also did so in the face of mounting progressive movements among the global congregation as well as the rampant allegations of sexual abuse from clergy. In Netflix’s new film, The Two Popes, writer Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) stages an imagined meeting of the minds between Benedict and Bergoglio before this changing of the guard. Each of the men having crises of faith and trying to convince the other to keep or take on the title, respectively. Fortunately for director Fernando Meirelles, acting legends Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce stepped in to play these two. Unfortunately for viewers, their discussions do not dominate the entire film as you might hope nor do those talks address the church scandals in a meaningful way. That Meirelles’s film manages to tread through such tonally rocky terrain without more of an issue is down to great performances from Pryce and Hopkins.

Meirelles’s film opens amidst the death of Pope John Paul II and the ensuing 2005 papal conclave. The highly secretive process requires a super majority of the cardinals convening in Rome to elect a new pope. Publicly it was a spectacle in which crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square in eager anticipation of seeing white smoke to signal that choice had been made. The interior specifics of this conclave were under official oaths of secrecy. The film brings this all to vivid life within a recreation of the Vatican and introduces Bergoglio (Pryce) and Ratzinger (Hopkins) as opposing roads for the church to take at this crucial moment in time. Ratzinger is the more conservative of the two and glad-hands the other attendees like a politician while Bergoglio downplays talk from his peers who insist he is also a favorite. Ratzinger, redubbed Benedict, wins the votes. 

Anthony McCarten’s script is based on his own stage play of this story and the best parts of this film felt like a stage production. The film easily moves from the spectacle of the conclave to the intimate summit between Hopkins and Pryce with Bergoglio seeking to tender his resignation from a Benedict who refuses to grant the request. Hopkins plays Benedict here with an air of mischief that lifts all their interactions. Bergoglio is pressing Benedict with his sincere desire to leave while Benedict brushes him off and inconveniences him at every turn. Their dialogue is also peppered with charming little old man moments. Bergoglio being the more “in touch” of the two brings both ABBA and the Beatles into the discussion for example. But once the gravity of Benedict wanting to leave takes priority–he speaks of losing touch with the voice of god–and Bergoglio’s reluctance has to be supported by how he got to where he is, the film drags. As interesting as it is and as capable an actor Juan Minujín is at playing the younger version of Pryce in war torn Argentina, it shifts the focus of the film down in taking it entirely through his past.

It’s also jarring to have the two old men watching the World Cup as though they’re in a set up from Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip while literally dropping out the audio of Benedict confessing regarding the abuse scandal later in the film. Such a jarring decision when we’ve already seen a lot of Bergoglio’s rough past, made me wonder if they knew acknowledging this darkness was a bridge too far in tone, your mileage may vary. Either way, I was grateful to see these two acting legends share the screen as much as they did.  

The Two Popes is now streaming on Netflix