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

Film Review “Valley Girl (2020)”

Who knew that we needed a remake of the 1983 Nicolas Cage starred cult classic “Valley Girl”, let alone a musical remake of it…but very glad we did. This long delayed film which was originally scheduled to be released in 2018 finally gets a release date available in select Drive-Ins and on Digital on May 8, 2020. Packed with 80’s nostalgia, great songs and a solid cast, this film definitely did not disappoint.

Official Premise: Julie (Jessica Rothe) is the ultimate ’80s Valley Girl. A creative free spirit; Julie’s time is spent with her best friends shopping at the Galleria mall and making plans for senior prom. That is, until she falls hard for Randy (Joshua Whitehouse), a Sunset Strip punk rocker, who challenges everything the Valley and Julie stand for. Despite push-back from friends and family, Julie must break out of the safety of her world to follow her heart and discover what it really means to be a Valley Girl.  

Jessica Rothe, known best for the “Happy Death Day” horror franchise, stars in this musical remake. She does have musical experience after co-starring in “La La Land” and definitely can sing. Also co-starring singer/actress Chloe Bennett (“Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) and even Alicia Silverstone (“Clueless”) makes an appearance in a “Princess Bride” story-telling role. Wrapping up the cast, Judy Greer (“Jurassic World”) and Rob Huebel (“Children’s Hospital”) play Julie’s parents.

The songs in the film include Queen “Under Pressure”, a-ha “Take on Me”, The Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat” and Cyndi Lauper “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” just to name a few. They are backed by fun all-out dance sequences with choreography by none other than Mandy Moore (“This is Us”, “Tangled”). The music is so fun, fresh and gets you re-living the 80’s.

Film Review: “Clementine”

Starring: Sonya Walger, Otmara Marrero and Sydney Sweeney
Directed by: Lara Gallagher
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes
Oscilloscope

Very rarely am I tempted to turn off a movie, but unable to because I’m curious as to what is happening and what will happen. “Clementine” opens on Karen (Marrero) getting a good morning wake-up call from her lover named D (Walger). The bliss is incredibly short-lived as the film smash cuts to the aftermath of a bad break-up, which D initiated. A heartbroken Karen then heads to D’s lakeside house, breaks in, and temporarily sets up shop.

The film dug its hooks into me from the very beginning and I couldn’t let go, as much as I wanted to. That’s because at times the film is very meandering, the dialogue is often mumbled and I honestly am not invested in Karen. But just as soon as I pull out one of the film’s hooks, the movie introduces Lana (Sweeney), a peculiar, sweet, potential seductress that talks with Karen. But unlike Karen, she’s not necessarily confident in her own sexual identity, seemingly turned off and turned on by the prospect of a steamy lakeside fling or relationship.

Every time I inched closer to turning the movie off, another curveball would come at me and pretty soon, I was determined to see what was going to happen between Karen and Lana, even if I didn’t enjoy the outcome. So once the credits rolled, I didn’t feel like I got a satisfying payoff, but some part of me felt something positive. It’s an emotion I’ve grappled with for a few days now because I’m still unsure as to what I’m supposed to take away from the movie. I can conclude to some extent that “Clementine” is a deeply personal LGBTQ movie with elements of #MeToo in it. I think. 

The movie isn’t very direct. It’s not a mainstream film like “Love, Simon,” even though that movie and “Clementine” are similar because of their coming-of-age theme and relationship dynamics. “Clementine” is just a lot more subdued and I’m not sure if some of the lapses in storytelling are intentional or just amateurish. I believe they’re intentional because a lot of other pieces of this film are expertly done. The soundtrack is ripe with tension, the cinematography and settings are absolutely gorgeous and the acting (when I can hear it) is magnificent. It’s just hard for me to make a recommendation because I don’t think I’m qualified to.

Yes I’m a film critic, but I also understand that some movies speak to certain demographics and they’re not meant for mass consumption. I can assume things, but I also don’t want to say that that’s what “Clementine” is aiming for because I don’t have a spot in which to claim knowledge. I also don’t want to spoil the movie. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I enjoyed this movie that I found boring. Which ultimately is a contradiction on the surface level.

I can’t make a recommendation for “Clementine,” but I do know certain people who will enjoy this more than me. People who’ve been in a vicious emotional cycle, been in a manipulative relationship and those of the LGBTQ community will understand this movie better than I. I can relate on a generic level, but this film is a bit too esoteric for me to sink my teeth into. Maybe over time I will have a better grasp of what “Clementine” means, but for right now, I’m content with simply stating that “Clementine” exists and if anything in this review peaked your interest, by all means seek it out.

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: “The Other Lamb”

THE OTHER LAMB
Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman
Directed by: Malgorzata Szumowska
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins
IFC Films 

Officially, it is listed as a “drama/horror” film. However, “The Other Lamb,” currently streaming on-demand, is neither dramatic nor horrific. While it does have an interesting concept involving a mysterious cult leader and his all-female flock, “The Other Lamb” misfires on nearly every single level imaginable. In a remote section of forest dwells a small commune of women, ranging in approximate age from eight to thirty-somethings, who are held together by a man only referred to as the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, “The Age of Adaline”). While doing his best to resemble the Caucasian version of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd exudes an inexplicable magnetism that his multiple wives are captivated by. 

There is a noticeable “Handmaids Tale” look to it all with the stark contrast of red and blue uniforms the Shepherd’s wives and daughters are forced wear against the often bleak, natural landscape around them. Unfortunately, “The Other Lamb” does not provide any background for the female characters other than the hint that they were once all “broken” women. Only his daughter, Selah (Raffey Cassidy, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) and a wife, Sarah (Denise Gough, “’71”) who has become disillusioned with the Shepherd, are given anything resembling depth. It is akin to looking at a coloring book without any colors filled in.

 We also never glean much about the Shepherd either, whether it be his past or how he can wield such control over the women. As a result, there is a psychological dynamic that is missing. All we see is him standing around looking stoic and telling the women how if they behave, they will have his grace, which they scream hysterically over like he was Elvis Presley.

 The director, Malgorzata Szumowska (“Mug”) inserts symbolic imagery throughout the film to explain what is going on in Selah’s head as she begins to spiral down into her own rabbit hole. Some of the images are intended as an allusion to Selah becoming a woman, yet, it often comes across as a boring, gimmicky acid trip. 

There is a bit of a mystery as to what happens to baby boys born in the Shepherd’s flock, something that is eventually answered in a memorable way as they trek to find a new home in the wilderness. It is also a turning point for Selah as she becomes increasingly revolted by the Shepherd whose actions turn more heinous, including incest. 

Overall, “The Other Lamb” is a rambling mess that wanders aimlessly across the screen until it reaches a conclusion that is meant to be unsettling but is unsatisfying.

Digital Review “Impractical Jokers: The Movie”

Impractical Jokers: The Movie
Starring: James “Murr” Murray, Brian “Q” Quinn, Joe Gatto, and Sal Vulvano
Directed by: Chris Henchy
Running time: 92 mins.
Rating: PG-13
truTV

I have been fan of Impractical Joker since Season 1 but this movie falls flat and doesn’t really bring the laughs that I expected. If you aren’t familiar with Impractical Jokers, the TV show has been airing for years and stars real-life friends, James “Murr” Murray, Brian “Q” Quinn, Joe Gatto, and Sal Vulvano, that make each other play pranks with hidden camera challenges and whoever “loses” has to take a punishment. It’s a very funny TV series but the film fails to capture any of the shows magic.

With the fan base of the show as big as it is I was hoping for something on a much bigger scale. Instead the film feels like they threw a cheap narrative together mixed with the show’s practical jokes and punishments. It just doesn’t fit together. I also expected to see some bigger cameos from other celebrities, who we got instead are Paula Abdul, Jaden Smith, and Joey Fatone (for about 3 seconds at the end). I would have loved to seen the films narrative mixed in better with the hidden camera challenges.

Official Premise: Impractical Jokers: The Movie stars James “Murr” Murray, Brian “Q” Quinn, Joe Gatto, and Sal Vulvano, also known as the comedy troupe The Tenderloins, playing themselves in a fictional story of a humiliating high school mishap from the early nineties. Featuring appearances from Paula Abdul, Jaden Smith, and Joey Fatone, the movie combines the fictional narrative with real life footage of over-the-top punishments and callbacks to classic moments from the series. Once the Impractical Jokers hit the road, they compete in hidden camera challenges for the chance to turn back the clock and find redemption.

If you are interested to check out this film, it is available now on all VOD sites including VUDU.

Film Review: “The Girls of Summer”

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER
Starring:  Tori Titmas, Jeff Puckett and Nathan Hosner
Directed by: John D. Hancock
Rated:  Not Rated
Running time:  1 hr 33 mins
Indie Rights

It’s a beautiful day in Indiana.  Working on their family sod field, the Taylor sisters are looking forward to the coming evening with both joy and sadness.  Soon two of them will be leaving home to pursue other endeavors but first, for the last time, tonight The Girls of Summer will take the stage.

Beautifully photographed and smoothly paced, “The Girls of Summer” follows oldest sister Maren (Tori Titmas, who also wrote the screenplay) as she embarks on the journey of life.   A chance meeting at their last gig with former country star Luke Thomas (Hosner) offers her the opportunity to join his touring band – he’s on the comeback trail, an opportunity she originally turns down to stay home and care for her father (Puckett), still grieving for his late wife and now heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol to get through the day.  Dad convinces her to follow her dreams.  But, as with many dreams, they don’t always come true.

I think what made this film so enjoyable to me is that it is the finished product of a “Community Project.”  As with his previous films, “The Looking Glass” and “A Piece of Eden,” director Hancock and crew prove that not all the talent in the world resides in Hollywood.  From his headquarters in Indiana he has put together some amazing local talent and their freshness and enthusiasm fill the screen.  The performances are strong, the songs are catchy and the countryside is beautiful.  Hancock has always been at his best when tackling “real life.”  His camera seems to give you a look into the hearts of the characters, giving the viewer an emotional attachment to what they are seeing. 

This time of year usually signals the beginning to the upcoming summer movie season, filling theatres with loud, multi-million dollar extravaganzas.  “The Girls of Summer” is a welcome respite from those films.

“The Girls of Summer” is currently available on Amazon Prime.

Film Review: “Trolls World Tour”

TROLLS WORLD TOUR
Starring the voices of:  Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake and Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Walt Dohrn and David P. Smith
Rated:  PG
Running time:  1 hr 31 mins
Universal

FINALLY!!

The situation in the world today has kept some studios from releasing anything “major” this past month but this week Universal is giving us the new animated film “Trolls World Tour.”  And, while you aren’t going to be able to see it in a theatre any time soon, it’s a brightly colored musical spectacular that I heartily recommend.

In the Techno Kingdom the DJ is spinning some fresh beats – like my “kids” lingo? – When his set is interrupted by the arrival of an ominous ship.  Descending from the gangplank is the tough looking Queen Barb (Rachael Bloom) wielding an impressive guitar.  She plays a few chords of hard rock, captivating those in attendance then demands their String!

Meet Poppy (Kendrick) and Branch (Timberlake).  They are best friends and live in a kingdom where Poppy is the queen.  A kingdom of smiles and laughter and, most of all, music.  Pop music to be specific.  A messenger bat arrives with a note from Queen Barb, demanding Queen Poppy give up their String. Confused Poppy turns to her father who explains that there are more Troll kingdoms in the world. Originally it was one kingdom filled with all kinds of music but in fighting caused the lyre that held the stings to break, and each group took a string with them:  Pop, Rock, Classical, Country, Techno and Funk. Poppy’s dad stresses that different Trolls should be shunned but Poppy believes in inclusion and sets of to meet with Barb. She will soon learn that differences do matter.

If you’re a fan of music in general you will really enjoy this film. Fun renditions of classic songs from all genre’s fill the soundtrack, accompanied by the bright colors and sharp animation you’d expect from Dreamworks.  The script is cleverly written, giving props to such sub-genre as Smooth Jazz and Hip-Hop while slyly playing on the assumed stereotypes of that music and their fans.  The vocal performances are fine across the board with work from such performers as George Clinton, Kelly Clarkson and Mary J. Blige keeping the music going.  Special shout out to Ozzie Osborne who plays Barb’s hard to understand father, King Thrash.

If you like this movie Personalized By Kate sells rock, pop  and other music gifts. “Trolls World Tour” is available on several streaming services, including Amazon and iTunes.

Film Review: “Resistance”

  • RESISTANCE
  • Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy
  • Directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs
  • IFC Films 

The name Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) is synonymous with mime artistry as he was the godfather of the silent artform. While his name conjures white face paint and silent, comedic stagecraft influenced by Charlie Chaplin, there was a tremendous heroism behind the façade that had started to dim with time. However, the new war drama, “Resistance” seeks to remind us of the incredible actions Marceau undertook as a member of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation. 

An attempt to create a tone for “Resistance” is set during its opening scene, which takes place on the infamous night of November 9, 1938 in Munich, Nazi Germany. Known ever since as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, German Jews were targeted by Nazi paramilitary forces throughout the country. Thousands of businesses and hundreds of synagogues were destroyed while thousands of Jewish men were arrested. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Hands of Stone”) gives us a harrowing depiction of this horrific event through the eyes of a young girl who watches helplessly as her parents are murdered in the street during the assault. It’s a powerful sequence meant to grab our attention, but that momentum is quickly dissipated. 

We are suddenly transported to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany where Gen. George S. Patton (Ed Harris) addresses troops under his command at a former Nazi rallying point. Harris does not capture the emotional spirit of Patton as he stoically tells his men about a resistance fighter who made their sacrifice worth it. It is then that we are whiplashed back to Strasbourg, France shortly after Kristallnacht. Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose real last name was Mangel, is a self-absorbed, wannabe thespian whose disapproving Jewish father would rather see him become a butcher. 

Marcel’s life is forever changed when he is brought in by his cousin, Georges Loinger (Géza Röhrig, “The Chaperone”) to entertain over 100 German Jewish children, who were left orphaned after Kristallnacht, when they are brought over to France. Marcel becomes emboldened to join the French Resistance and finds an inner strength in the process as he and his fellow resistance members try to save Jewish children by crossing the Alps into neutral Switzerland. 

Eisenberg is at his best when he is portraying Marcel doing mime, particularly when it is in front of American troops. Even so, his overall performance fails to get us too deeply invested on an emotional level with his real-life character. This is representative of the entire film as it does not leave a lasting impression as say other titles like “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” or “Son of Saul.” For lack of a better word, “Resistance” is generic. There are moments of darkness and terror, punctuated by scenes involving Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer, “100 Things”) who is a little overplayed. 

Despite its subpar quality, “Resistance” is still an important film to be watched as it sheds light again on a true hero plus, it reminds us all again that we should never forget what happened to the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims.

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: “Blow the Man Down”

  • BLOW THE MAN DOWN
  • Starring: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor
  • Directed by: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins
  • Amazon Prime Video

 With a title borrowed from a classic English sea shanty, “Blow the Man Down” is an average, yet entertaining mystery/drama with a multitude of secrets that emanates a “Fargo”-like vibe. First-time feature length directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, who also co-wrote the film that debuted on Amazon Prime, have crafted a smooth-paced work of cinema with a few flashes of well-timed suspense. 

Set in the small, picturesque fishing village of Easter Cove, Maine, “Blow the Man Down” begins with the Catholic wake of one Mary Margaret Connolly. Her two daughters – Priscilla (Sophie Lowe, “The Beautiful Lie”) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor, “Homeland”) – are naturally saddened by the loss of their mother, whom they had to care for in recent times. The girls, though, seem surprised to hear tales from their mother’s three closest friends – Susie Gallagher (Academy Award nominee June Squibb, “Nebraska”), Gail Maguire (Academy Award nominee Annette O’Toole, “A Mighty Wind”) and Doreen Burke (Marceline Hugot, “The Messenger”) – of how Mary had saved their bacon on several occasions. 

Interspersed within this sadness is a scene in which a nameless woman frantically jumps out of a car and runs screaming from an angry man who eventually tackles her. All the while a woman we come to know as Enid Nora Devlin (Margo Martindale, “August: Osage County”) watches silently from a second story window. We get the sense she may approve of the violence that is transpiring and thus has no interest in helping the woman. It’s brief but it’s an important nugget of things to come.

 Back at Mary’s house, the younger Mary Beth is dismayed to learn from Priscilla that their mother has left them with nothing. Mary Beth leaves in an explosion of anger and ends up at a dive bar where she latches onto a man who proves to be far more dangerous than she had ever considered. This is followed by a killing and cover-up that leads the sisters down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies involving prostitution, bribery, murder and a police force that either looks the other way or is incompetent. 

Even with a solid story, “Blow the Man Down” does contain some mystery clichés so don’t expect anything fresh when watching it. Additionally, the two leads are fine enough in their roles, but they are overshadowed greatly by the much older, supporting female cast. Squibb, O’Toole and Hugot are a hoot as a trio and they excel at making us feel like there is something more to their characters without giving too much away too quickly. 

Overall, the real star is Martindale who is simply a delight to watch. A woman with a ton of secrets and a hardened, mean streak a mile wide and a mile deep, Enid is someone that proves to be a perfect antagonist. Martindale also infuses her character with a level of complexity that the other cast members are not quite able to achieve. 

Call it a poor man’s version of “Knives Out,” “Blow the Man Down” is a nice way to spend 90 minutes in front of a screen at home.

Film Review: “The Way Back”

THE WAY BACK
Starring: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins
Warner Bros. 

Having its release date delayed several months was not a good sign for the new sports drama “The Way Back” starring Ben Affleck. However, instead of just being another piece of cinematic rubbish that is typically released at the beginning of each year, “The Way Back” proves to be one of the greatest cinematic surprises in recent memory. With one of Affleck’s finest performances to date, this sports drama about an alcoholic who becomes a high school basketball coach ranks among the pantheon of such classics as “Hoosiers” and “Bull Durham.”

 The life of construction worker Jack Cunningham (Affleck) has boiled down to this: wake up and have a beer while showering; drive to work while having another beer; work all day while drinking some more; drive back home while drinking; and then either drink a case of beer in his run-down apartment or drink himself into a stupor at a local bar. It’s a tragic life as he is clearly on a path to drinking himself to death. 

One day, Jack receives a coaching offer from the priest who oversees his alma mater – a private Catholic school that is experiencing some hard times thanks to diminishing enrollment. We learn that once upon a time, Jack was a high school basketball phenom and was recruited by NCAA Division I programs. However, Jack walked away from basketball after high school and never looked back. 

Reluctantly, Jack takes on the role, but he soon discovers that his team is less than stellar and his assistant coach (Al Madrigal, “The Daily Show”) is a math teacher with no real experience. There are some predictable things that subsequently occur, but for the most part, the story evolves beyond general sports clichés, which typically dominate this subgenre, and deals with real life issues, thus giving “The Way Back” substance over style. 

Whether he likes it or not, Jack becomes a mentor to his players, particularly so for the team’s lone standout. Yet his newfound lease on life is shaky at best because of the underlying issues that remain, which are brought to the forefront again when his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, “True Blood”) reaches out to him. Inevitably, Jack hits rock bottom in a painful and sad way. 

Once upon a time, yours truly was offered a position as a basketball coach at a private high school. Strictly basketball speaking, Affleck nails the evolution of Jack’s growth as a rookie coach and as a mentor to young men, notwithstanding his profane tirades. Director Gavin O’Connor (“The Accountant”) also brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the little gymnasiums that these schools play in as well as bringing an authenticity to the depiction of games played. 

Affleck has been open about his own battle with alcoholism in recent years and it is easy to see that he gave everything he had to the role. As the lone “star” of the film, Affleck lives up to the challenge with a fantastic performance as a man in great pain that is raw and authentic. In the end, like a Steph Curry jump shot, “The Way Back” is nothing but net.

Film Review: “Ordinary Love”

ORDINARY LOVE
Starring: Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville
Directed by: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 32 mins
Bleecker Street Media 

Nearly everyone has been affected by cancer in some way. Whether you have had to battle it yourself or had a family member, friend or acquaintance to be diagnosed with it, cancer, as we all know too well, is non-discriminatory as to who it invades. In the somber British drama “Ordinary Love,” this hideous disease inflicts a toll on the relationship of a devoted married couple still haunted by a tragic loss. The ups and downs they experience during one long year are portrayed with absolute brilliance and humanity by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”). 

By the time we meet Tom (Neeson) and Joan (Manville), their relationship has developed into one that feels like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. There is a tangible ease about how they interact with each other, punctuated by wonderful chemistry between the two leads. Initially, they have all the appearances of carefree empty nesters enjoying the autumn period of their lives. However, when Joan discovers a lump in her breast, we learn that underneath the pleasant exterior of their marriage is a scar that runs deep in their souls.

 Somehow, their marriage endured the death of their daughter long ago, but cancer threatens to put them through an altogether different ordeal. Despite trying to maintain a stiff upper lip about her diagnosis, Joan is racked with fear of the unknown while Tom swims in denial while trying to do his best to be supportive. What unfolds over the course of a year are challenges they meet with a variety of emotions, ranging from gut-wrenching despair to laughter to anger born from frustration. Through it all there is a grace which carries them through. 

“Ordinary Love,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is a serious work of cinematic art that will leave its mark on you. It is raw and unfiltered. Neeson and Manville are terrific at making us feel the painful intensity of their characters’ emotions. For her part, Manville, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” delivers a gut-wrenching performance as a woman trying to endure a disease that takes its toll on the mind, body and spirit. 

The film’s brevity, at just over an hour-and-a-half, means less time the story can explore the medical/hospital elements of Joan’s cancer. As such, these moments seem rushed and too abbreviated, thus lessening how truly impactful “Ordinary Love” could have been. Some elements are also predictable, yet this can be overlooked as a negative because of the overall emotional potency within the film. “Ordinary Love” is certainly not ordinary and will hit close to home for anyone who has been touched by cancer. 

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