Werewolves Within

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Mishna Wolff

Directed by: Josh Ruben

Starring: Sam Richardson; Milana Vayntrub; Wayne Duvall; Rebecca Henderson

 

 

 

 

 

***/*****

A little niceness goes a long way in Werewolves Within, a new horror-comedy from director Josh Ruben and writer Mishna Wolff. That’s a very welcomed message right now, though not one I was expecting to take away from a werewolf-themed horror-comedy.

Werewolves Within is an oddball film with a big heart that mixes horror and comedy elements together pretty well, if not always smoothly. I’d say the mix is more like 60/40, in favor of the laughter. The story it tells is actually an adaption of a 2016 virtual reality game that requires participants to piece together clues to figure out who among them (i.e. the crazy townsfolk) is the literal wolf in human clothing. On screen the concept comes to life as an Agatha Christie murder mystery to be solved by the underdog squad of Parks & Rec, with maybe some assistance from the Trailer Park Boys. As such, the movie isn’t as interested in the werewolves (sorry, lycanthropes) and their mythology as it is in the human residents and the baggage they carry.

Set in the fictional Vermont village of Beaverfield, Werewolves Within follows friendly forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson — The Tomorrow War; VEEP) as he digs into the mystery surrounding some strange goings-on around the sleepy community. Having left his previous post behind due to some mishap, Finn appears on the scene as a nice guy who may be out of his depth but genuinely wants to help. However he’ll need some himself if he wants to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this cold and isolated place, with dead bodies turning up under porches and inexplicable damage done to town property.

The movie kicks off spiritedly as he meets his first friend in the local mail delivery person Cecily (Milana Vayntrub, a.k.a. AT&T’s spokesperson Lily). She happily agrees to show him (us) the town and its interesting assortment of characters. The ensuing cavalcade is pretty in-your-face weird: Trisha (Michaela Watkins) wants you to like her bar soap sculptures as much as she does while her hubby Pete (Michael Chernus) has a side hustle in being a creep. A block later or something town mechanics Gwen (Sarah Burns — Barry; I Love You, Man) and Marcus (George Basil) are having a very public, very verbally graphic spat, and soon after that we’re intruding upon Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) and his husband Joaquim (Harvey Guillén — What We Do in the Shadows – TV; The Internship) as they get their yoga on in their private studio.

Subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit. I fully admit I may be susceptible to some serious post-COVID cynicism — it’s going to happen with many a movie going forward, I’m sure — but let’s not forget how opportunistic Hollywood writers can be, either. The pandemic is the mother of all elephants in the room, and so it becomes difficult not to associate the supernatural threat and the panic and speculation it causes — “It’s a possum!” — with certain real-world traumas. Or the finger-pointing and spear-chucking of opinions as everyone huddles together at the Beaverfield Inn after a power outage as a simulation of the grenade-pin tension of our locked-down lives. Of course, not everything is symbolic but a lot of it feels that way.

We quickly learn that everyone in town has been on edge even before Finn arrived, not because of some clawed beast but due to a proposed oil pipeline that Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), a big man with big pockets (and big guns) wants to run through the area. The development could bring the town much needed revenue, but it would also intrude upon national park land. His presence particularly bothers Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), an environmentalist who lacks people skills in the extreme and has this knack for appearing out of nowhere. Their ideological differences form the destabilizing base upon which this fun but familiar whodunnit builds off of, with red herrings, red stains and rednecks all playing a part in the misdirection.

Fortunately, and I reiterate that this is technically an adaptation of a game, none of the Real World stuff is brought to bear in a particularly confrontational way. Werewolves Within is, for the most part, a laidback, low-stakes movie that is more interested in being silly than serious. This underdog tale may not make you howl with laughter or wince in horror but its entertainment value is surprisingly solid and positive, its characters deliciously unhinged. Less a battle of good and evil as it is one between kindness and mean-spiritedness.

That’s . . . uh, not kindling . . .

Moral of the Story: A whodunnit that goes through some growing pains to become a great deal of fun thanks to its OTT, zany characters. Plot-wise you’ve seen it before but there’s a surprising message of unity and compassion that I just was not expecting.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Well . . . the roads are effed and there’s something wrong with the generator.”

Peep the Official Trailer from IFC Films here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.slashfilm.com 

Villains

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Hulu 

Written by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

Directed by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

In terms of competence, small-time criminals Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are closer to the Harry and Marv end of the spectrum than they are the Bonnie and Clyde side. These impetuous twenty-somethings are not very good at crime. They are also on the verge of retiring to Florida. Once they rob this convenience store — wearing goofy animal masks, because, why not? — they vow to turn over a new leaf. Soon enough they will literally be selling sea shells down by the seashore. It’s not much of a plan, but it’s a plan nonetheless.

Problem #1: They run out of gas before they can even get out of the woods of Wherevertheyaresville, and are forced into sidetracking to an isolated house where they hope to grand theft auto their way down to the Sunshine State. Justifying their actions turns out to be a pretty fun and rewarding game for those of us watching from afar. These are two kids who make bad decisions but have good hearts; they seem committed to one another and to this idea of living a different kind of life. Once inside the house, they promptly set about snorting coke in order to inspire a plan to relieve the homeowners of their car (or at least enough gas so they can continue on their merry way).

Problem #2: They aren’t exactly expecting to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained to a pipe in the basement. Mickey wants nothing more than to just GTFO; Jules insists they take the child with them. When they head back upstairs to find the keys to free her they stumble right into George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) and Problem #3 begins. And it’s a doozy. Small-time crooks must learn how to outwit big-time weirdos whose calm demeanor and southern mannerisms are a thin veneer masking sinister intentions.

Villains is the third feature from directing duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, a pair of up-and-comers whose first full-length movie, 2015’s Body, was made on a budget of $50k and filmed in 11 days. Villains is another budget-conscious film but one that gets a lot of mileage out of its simple premise, confined setting and small cast. Berk and Olsen describe it as a creative breakthrough. It’s an impressively ergonomic production. This is indie filmmaking elevated by established acting talent and an addictive combination of offbeat humor and palpable tension. The cast dig into their roles with fervent energy, and skillfully use that energy to create memorable characters who, Sedgwick aside, don’t come with much of a backstory.

Villains may not do anything radical, yet the filmmakers manage to throw in a few interesting wrenches into each party’s plans that make for a fun-filled adventure, one that builds to a violent and satisfying payoff. It’s a spirited good time and while the scales tip decidedly more toward comedy than horror, the murky morality of the whole thing is sure to encourage multiple rewatches.

Hands off the table, please.

Recommendation: It’s the high-energy acting that really sells it. Fans of Bill “Pennywise” Skarsgård and Maika Monroe are strongly urged to track Villains down. Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan are no slouches either. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

Quoted: “What makes you feel good? Ice cream. Mint choc –“

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb

Yesterday

Release: Friday, June 28, 2019

→HBO

Written by: Richard Curtis

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Imagine all the people living day to day without the music of the Beatles. Imagine John Lennon aging into his 70s, living a quiet life with an un-famous instead of infamous significant other. And imagine being Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), the only one in the world who still has a recollection of the band and their indelible influence. These are the things the very silly but undeniably charming romantic comedy Yesterday imagines and then makes real.

Jack is in a bit of a pickle. Well, first he’s in a hospital bed and missing some teeth after getting struck by a bus when a global blackout hits out of nowhere. Up to this point his pursuit of his musical passions has not been going well. He struggles to get gigs and when he does he plays to dwindling crowds, some of them so small his mates and his so-obviously-more-than-friend/manager Ellie (Lily James) are the crowd. When he plays a classic Beatles tune for them one afternoon and they’re none the wiser, Jack sees an opportunity. The blackout has seemingly wiped away the collective memory of the band that redefined music not just for a generation but forever. It’s not all bad though because apparently Coca Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter no longer exist either.

Provided he can remember the lyrics, why not start passing off ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as his own? We don’t have to go crazy here and exhume ‘Yellow Submarine’ or anything like that but, really, who is he harming if he claims authorship of some of the most popular songs ever written? So he does, and with Ellie’s hand gently on his back, guiding him in the direction of his dreams yet unwilling to abandon her post as a schoolteacher, he embarks on the path to superstardom. He brings along his very socially awkward friend Rocky (Joel Fry) as his roadie.

Along the way Jack meets British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, for whom he opens at a big show in Moscow and later gets into a songwriting “battle” where the two are challenged to come up with a new song on-the-spot. I’ll let you guess as to how that works out. Jack’s situation becomes more complicated when he is introduced to American talent manager Debra Hammer (a deliciously nasty Kate McKinnon), who convinces him to dump bonny old England for the sunny coastlines of L.A.. Once there he faces increasing pressure to not only put together a collection of smash hits which will form “the greatest album of all time” but to overhaul his image into something that screams Success.

Yesterday is a fluffy bit of entertainment surprisingly directed by Danny Boyle. I say surprisingly because while it has the vibrant colors, fancy camerawork and busy mise en scène that make his movies so visually energetic and engaging, it is Richard “Love Actually” Curtis’s writing that ends up characterizing this movie. The fantastical premise is as littered with plot holes and contrivances as much as the soundtrack is with Beatles classics (the usage of which reportedly took up about 40% of the overall budget!). Yesterday is Boyle’s fourteenth directorial effort and it just may be his most formulaic.

Despite the flaws, none bigger than the fact the story never really delves below the surface of its complicated morality, it is hard to hate on a movie that is so amiable and so full of heart. That largely comes down to the efforts of the cast who make for great company at each and every step of the way. British-born actor Himesh Patel proves to be an impressive singer, and his genuine chemistry with Lily James had me smitten from pretty much minute one.

Recommendation: A bonafide cheesy, feel-good movie. I’m trying to decide if you’ll get more out of this thing if you’re a Beatles fan or a sucker for a good romantic comedy. As far as the music goes, Yesterday feels like a “Classic Hits” soundtrack. 2020 has been a rough year to say the least so far. Maybe “hunkering down” with a movie as familiar and ordinary as this is just what the doctor ordered. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Miracles happen all the time!” 

“Like what?”

“Like Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a sex symbol . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Dolemite is My Name

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited)

→Netflix

Written by: Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Craig Brewer

The way Craig Brewer captures the response to Dolemite, the movie-within-his-movie and at least part of its raison d’être, is so warm and uplifting. Yet it’s also quaint if considering today’s cinematic landscape. Cynics like me are tempted to dismiss the ending as too pat and Hollywood but the movie was indeed met with a serenading of sorts from audiences. Dolemitea pulpy, outrageous story about a pimp who breaks out of prison to take revenge on those who set him up, made $12 million on a budget of $100k. It’s gone on to become a cult classic of blaxploitation.

Yet if this heartfelt tribute to pioneering showman Rudy Ray Moore (or Dolemite, if you like) were to be rolled out in a wide theatrical release you wouldn’t struggle to find a good seat today. You can thank superhero movies for your extra leg room and more than the usual choice of good seats. Superheroes (and villains) rule and everything else drools at the numbers they are putting up at the box office. There isn’t a damn thing Eddie Murphy can do about this, even if he is as good as he’s been in years — maybe ever — in Dolemite is My Name, a ridiculous(ly) entertaining ensemble comedy available almost exclusively through Netflix.

Ironically, and despite actually earning a limited run on the big screen (the likes of which won’t draw crowds like you see here, sadly), Dolemite is My Name has perhaps found its ideal stage on your TV screen. Streaming is the ultimate in consumer catering because it gives you a more intimate, “customizable” experience. Imagine sitting in a 200-seat auditorium where everyone has a remote control to rewind their favorite moments in a Peter Jackson epic. Or to back up to try and understand what in blue Hades Sylvester Stallone just mumbled.

I say all of this because this is the kind of movie you’re going to rewind and pause just to bask a little longer in the triumphant return to Delirious-era Murphy. I must have inflated the runtime to something close to two and a half hours as I rewatched his Rudy Ray Moore enthusiastically chop the air around him as he envisions himself not just a star, but a kung fu master in his own movie. The energy Murphy brings and the riffing he does as he becomes his character, a pioneering, wig-donning, cane-wielding motormouth and eventual big-screen star whose name bore the fruit of not one but four Dolemite-centric adventures, is something to behold. And behold again.

Set in 1970s Los Angeles Dolemite is My Name examines the rise of a self-made man as he goes from lowly record store assistant manager by day/MC by night, to the maker of three crass but hugely popular comedy albums, to, yes, “f-ing up motherf–ers” on the big screen. The film divides neatly into two equally intriguing halves. The first hour or so is devoted to the birth of his stand-up persona and his intelligent if profanity-laced sketches that would earn him a substantial fanbase. And credit where credit is due: the writers don’t turn a blind eye to “toastmaster” Rico, a vagrant played by Ron Cephas Jones, who periodically drifts in and out of the Dolphins of Hollywood record store, spitting rapid-fire rhymes about an urban legend named ‘Dolemite,’ an identity Moore assumes as his own alter ego.

The second half focuses on our increasingly spectacularly besuited hero’s ambitions growing beyond touring the Deep South along what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” The narrative blends business and production reality with Moore’s insatiable appetite for nationwide recognition. He gains an entourage, establishes a production facility in the famous Dunbar Hotel and even convinces a big name to direct and co-star in his project-in-making in egotistical yet accomplished actor D’Urville Martin (a scene-stealing Wesley Snipes). Yet it’s not exactly smooth sailing as he attempts to get his ultimate dream realized. Walter Crane (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a film executive, denies Moore’s creative ambition (in appealing to the masses, black actors don’t do camp comedy; they do heart-warming dramas about overcoming their ghetto roots) while the business-savvy Bihari brothers warn him of the grave financial risks of failure.

The major developments unfold in a breezy if occasionally lackadaisical way. It’s a pretty familiar underdog story where obstacles are by and large steamrolled over. That’s in part by design, as an homage to the force of sheer will that was Rudy Ray Moore, but it’s also due to the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, one that prioritizes entertainment over profundity. Their story tends to glide over the surface rather than dive into the depths of Moore’s unhappy and impoverished childhood, providing a line or two about his burning desire to be better than his father. Yet (and I’m just guessing here) this is a more fundamentally sound production about the making of a legend — the so-called “Godfather of Rap” — than its namesake movie was. And unlike its namesake, the performances, not big boobs and kung fu, define this one.

While Murphy is going to get much of the attention (and deservedly so) I have to single out Da’Vine Joy Randolph as well. She plays Lady Reed, a former backup singer who rediscovers her mojo when Moore drops into a night club in Mississippi. Her relationship with the former is integral to the story’s focus not just on confidence but identity in a time when Hollywood was not only overwhelmingly white but upheld that only one body type was “beautiful.” Randolph is never less than convincing and inspiring as she becomes not just a confidante to Moore in his lower moments, but entirely comfortable in her own skin — breaking past her fear of having her figure captured forever in celluloid and simply owning her identity in ways she previously thought impossible.

As stylish as it is raunchy, this 70s-throwback is mostly a testament to the indefatigable spirit that erected a movie star out of a stand-up comic. It’s also an amusing, even insightful look into the moviemaking process, compacting several scenes from the Dolemite franchise into a collage that goes to show what can be done with limited funds, some good friends and an abundance of self-confidence.

Pimp daddy deluxe

Recommendation: Safe in terms of its narrative structure but bold in dialogue (families take note: Dr. Dolittle isn’t catering to your kiddies here) Dolemite is My Name is never less than a pure joy ride to the top, especially alongside an endlessly entertaining Murphy, who comes flanked by a number of highly recognizable names, including but absolutely not limited to Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Dolemite is my name; f-ing up motherf-ers is my game.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Little Monsters

Release: Friday, October 11, 2019 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Abe Forsythe

Directed by: Abe Forsythe

With the horror-comedy Little Monsters, Australian director and actor Abe Forsythe is empowering teachers and children alike, arming them with brains and bravery as they try to survive hordes of flesh-eating zombies — the slow kind, not the fast kind. It’s a really admirable concept that turns tradition on its rotting zombified head, a survival tale that’s more feel-good than feel-dread.

Despite the fact there are many youngsters running around underfoot this is very much a movie for the grown-ups. Little Monsters has a positive message to send about people learning to take responsibility for themselves and for others, but the visual aesthetic is hardly divorced from the gruesomeness native to the ultra-popular genre. When a zombie outbreak occurs in an American testing facility in the Land Down Under and threatens a petting zoo full of tourists and children (and lambs! No!!) things indeed get gory AF. The dialogue is laden with vulgarities and there are moments where adults regress to an embarrassingly infantile state. These are fairly pronounced elements that jettison Forsythe’s savagely funny subversion of the zombie apocalypse well out of family-friendly territory.

Dave (Alexander England) is having a tough time when he and his girlfriend split up. She wants kids, he doesn’t. An amusing montage opens the film showing the couple in a ruthless fight that endures everywhere they go. The wannabe rockstar finds himself crashing on his sister Tess (Kat Stewart)’s couch and right now it’s not possible for him to care less about anything. He’s rude and obnoxious around everyone, including her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca), who is at one point exposed to the humiliation of Dave discovering his ex getting it on with an older man — a man “more in touch with his feelings” than Dave ever was.

In danger of being kicked out of his sister’s place Dave obliges in taking Felix to school the next day, where he meets the effervescent kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). He immediately develops an infatuation with her — so much so he volunteers as a class chaperone on a field trip to a farm/petting zoo in order to spend more time with her. But that ring finger offers a brutal smackdown. Making matters worse, a popular kids show host named Mr. McGiggles (an incredibly annoying Josh Gad) is on site to film an episode. He is also smitten by Miss Caroline. For some reason kids are drawn to this Jared the Subway Guy archetype. His issues are a shade less awful than that admittedly. Mr. McGiggles has a thing for moms — all moms, not just “the hot ones.”

You suffer through this awkward trudge through self-pitying, slapdash character development to get to Little Monster‘s much more entertaining (and bloody) second half, where a once pleasant scene becomes overrun by the hilariously inept, disgustingly gurgly undead. Forsythe, who writes, directs, and appears briefly as a zombie, plays the encounters with these gack-covered extras for pure comedy, while finding little teaching moments here and there as the situation escalates, the group getting pinned down in the visitor’s center, surrounded by a group of sauntering, sloughy-skinned specters.

Nyong’o gets an A+ as her character faces down her worst fears — not of her own mortality (not that that’s ever really in question here) but rather of failing to protect her little ones. She’s also more than a soft-spoken educator, showing off her dulcet tones and ukulele skills. Miss Caroline can also defend herself, evidenced in a tense scene wherein she has to retrieve Felix’s epipen before he goes into shock. Back on the ranch, England’s rather OTT “woe as me, my life is shit” performance breaks into something readily agreeable as he comes into his own as a protector. It’s a pretty radical change but one that’s really welcomed — if anything it’s optimism to offset the insanely obnoxious, frankly embarrassing Mr. McGiggles.

Little Monsters may be pretty clunky in places; the juxtaposition between the plight of the main characters and the cuts to the military personnel arming up for battle is jarring and some of the dialogue is cringe inducing. However one of its absolute strengths is that it doesn’t condescend to the kids. It’s a major spoiler to reveal it, but suffice to say newcomer Diesel La Torraca gets one of the most adorable stand-out moments you’ve seen in a zombie movie. In fact, and in spite of the more annoyingly, patently obvious attempts to go for that R rating, that’s how I’d categorize Little Monsters — an adorable little zombie movie. Yeah, it’s kind of weird to actually write that — but tell me I’m wrong.

Recommendation: Little Monsters is kind of a strange one because while it most definitely is a positive message movie, it’s also outfitted with so much adult language and gory imagery it’s one best to throw on after you’ve put your kids to bed. A fun, Australian-flavored zombie romp that leans far more towards comedy than horror that gives Hulu just a bit more clout. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “It’s part of a game. The zombies are not real.”

“Like f**k they’re not!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.thedigitalfix.com

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Theater 

Written by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Directed by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz make their narrative feature début with what could be the year’s most Googled movie title, The Peanut Butter Falcon. Previously known for their short films and documentaries, the duo are now behind this year’s biggest crowd-pleaser, a breezily entertaining, stunningly authentic slice of southern living that updates classic Mark Twain for a 2019 audience, one in desperate need of a feel-good moment.

As an evocation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the narrative adheres to a predictable formula, following a pair of runaways who form an unexpected bond in the pursuit of a better future all while being pursued by their own troubled pasts. Shia LaBeouf plays the scraggly Tyler, the ‘Tom Sawyer’ archetype, on the run after having stolen some crab pots from a rivaling crabber (John Hawkes) and his Yelawolf crony, while newcomer Zack Gottsagen, a 34-year-old actor with Down syndrome, gives us an unforgettable ‘Huck Finn’ in the form of Zak — uh, that’s without the ‘c’ I guess. An escapee of the nursing home to which the state of North Carolina has banished him, his newfound independence becomes an increasing concern for his caretaker, Eleanor (a wonderful Dakota Johnson).

After literally setting fire to the competition, for Tyler the goal is simply to get out of dodge and move to a small fishing town in Florida where he can get a new start. That mission gets more complicated when he finds a stowaway on the same johnboat he’s planning to commandeer — a young man, wide-eyed and slathered in what appears to be jelly, barely clinging to his underwear. Zak declares he’s on his own mission to track down the whereabouts of his wrestling idol, The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who he’s watched on VHS so many times his former roommate (Bruce Dern) knows all the moves himself.

Where The Peanut Butter Falcon really distinguishes itself is in the acting department, particularly in the leading duo — and eventual trio — whose natural chemistry makes it no secret as to what the culture behind the scenes was like. According to the filmmakers this was quite an atypical film shoot; everyone got to know each other intimately. Coming to work meant being part of a family wherein cast and crew spent “morning, noon and night” together, swimming, grilling out, getting into rap battles — basically doing the things Adam Sandler does every year, except the difference is a quality product. (And it’s also hard to envision a Happy Madison production regularly wrapping in a big, group hug — something mandated, apparently, by the outwardly affectionate Gottsagen.)

It is almost impossible not to look at The Peanut Butter Falcon as a redemption story for the seemingly perennially embattled LaBeouf, who really seems motivated to put the distractions behind him here as he filters the turbulence of the last several years through the foibles of Tyler. However it is Gottsagen who is the movie’s heart and soul. His character’s arc is inspired by the true (and truly feel-good) story that has been his own journey to the big screen. The aspiring movie star was discovered by Nilson and Schwartz a few years ago by way of a short film produced at an acting camp for those with and without disabilities. When they finally met, the directors were candid about his chances of making it in an industry where those with Down syndrome — indeed, a wide range of physical and mental development problems — are among the most marginalized. Entirely unfazed, Gottsagen compelled what would become his future bosses and creative partners to be those first few people to “make it happen.”

What ended up happening is one of the year’s warmest and most entertaining movies. What began life as a 10-minute short (available on YouTube as The Moped Diaries) evolved into one big mama hug of a full-length feature film, one that couches the universality of its themes — ostracism, self-worth, independence and friendship/family — within the filmmakers’ distinct sense of regionalism (it helps Nilson is actually from North Carolina). The movie is also shot beautifully and with some degree of poignancy, Nigel Bluck’s photography capturing both the geographic character and economic stagnation that explains the likes of Hawkes’ desperate Duncan, a man who, like everyone else, is just trying to live life but is really struggling.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is what you would describe as an original property — it’s not a direct adaptation of an IP or a sequel of any kind — but of course it’s not wholly original. Nilson and Schwartz are drawing from the deepest parts of the well of American literature. Importantly this modern incarnation is kept rooted in southern soil (though we exchange Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi for the tributaries and barrier reefs of the Outer Banks) and it retains many of the symbols native to the source material while telling its own story with unique and memorable characters. With a renewed spirit — and an intensely infectious one at that, thanks to the fantastic performances — The Peanut Butter Falcon softens Mark Twain without sacrificing the grit and pain that was so pronounced in his writing, the film managing not only to justify itself but to make what’s old not necessarily feel new but certainly revitalized and just an absolute joy to sit through once again.

Recommendation: The Peanut Butter Falcon makes it fun to float the river with a trio of sincere, heartfelt performances, and easy to set aside any preconceived notions we might have of some of the cast. Plus, wrestling fans are sure to get a kick out of a couple of well-placed cameos. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “What’s Rule Number One?”

“. . . Party!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.variety.com 

Mock and Roll

Release: Friday, November 30, 2018 (watch now on Amazon Prime) 

→Vimeo 

Written by: Ben Bacharach-White; Mark Stewart

Directed by: Ben Bacharach-White

You don’t need to be a groupie to join in on the fun in Mock and Roll, a low-budget yet high-spirited independent film representing the Columbus, Ohio underground filmmaking scene and styled as a mockumentary that follows a broke, inexperienced but always optimistic parody cover band and their wacky attempts to secure the necessary funding and fanbase to earn a coveted spot at the South by Southwest Music Festival. At 84 minutes Mock and Roll is a breezy romp and features a creative use of limited locations and visual effects to give character to its small-town, big-dream ideas.

In an example of life imitating art, director Ben Bacharach-White has successfully steered his production into several film festivals nationwide, beginning with the Austin Revolution Film Festival where Mock and Roll was nominated in six categories including Best Comedy, Actor, Actress and Director. Along the circuit, which took the crew from Oklahoma to Florida to Michigan and back to their stomping grounds in Ohio, the film collected wins in Best Feature and Best Original Score.

Certainly, the more well-versed you are in the world of rock music the more primed you’re going to be for a geek out at the cameos made by British drummer Roger Earl (of Foghat), American singer/songwriter Michael Stanley, and the members of the Black Owls, a Cincinnati-based band once described as “David Byrne channeling Edgar Allen Poe fronting Steppenwolf,” and whose tunes these four friends are parodying.

The tricky part about the concept of a parody band is that their effectiveness tends to be predicated on having a working knowledge of lyrical content. If you know Cheap Trick, you’ll recognize their 1978 hit single ‘Surrender’ becoming ‘Bartender,’ but then it’s possible you might miss the references within those jokes — take for example ‘Tonight It’s You’ evolving into ‘Tonight It’s Who,’ a riff on a classic Abbott and Costello skit called ‘Who’s On First?’ And the comical rewrites of Black Owls lyrics are likely to go over the heads of anyone who doesn’t call Ohio home.

The band call themselves Liberty Mean, a pair of words lifted from a lyric from one of their idol’s songs that ends up taking on an amusing mystique when taken out of context. Liberty Mean are: Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), vocals/rhythm guitar; Rick (Chris Wolfe), lead guitar/backing vocals; Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), bass guitar and Bun (Andrew Yackel) on drums. The band’s antics and misadventures are captured by a documentarian, Sully (William Scarborough), while Comedy Central’s Alex Ortiz briefly appears as a whack-a-doodle doctor whose medical credentials may or may not be entirely legit. Additional supporting parts go to home-grown talent: KateLynn E. Newberry as Jan, Rick’s girlfriend/the band’s promoter; Melissa O’Brien as Bun’s scheming aunt Duckie and Michael Compton and Brian Bowman as two potential roadblocks to the band’s success, as “art collectors” Ray and Dante respectively.

The main cast form a lively bunch of well-meaning but utterly unprepared dreamers who first bomb out on a Kickstarter-like campaign when they ask for too much money. They visit a “friendly doctor” who promises cash rewards for their participation and things just get weird. Then it gets dangerous as they dip their toes into the world of shady art dealings at the behest of Bun and his aunt — a role originally drawn up to be played by a male but that which O’Brien successfully lobbied to have changed for a female, thus Aunt Duckie. Their lives and careers now in jeopardy, they must decide what they are willing and not willing to do to make the dream work.

Each of the performers brings a distinct personality to their parts, but I found two in particular really stood out. Between Yackel’s philosophizing and Wolfe’s brash confidence (culminating in a really awkward meet-and-greet with their heroes), these two are a lot of fun to watch. But Bhanja is also very likable as the unifying force and lead singer, while Jarernpone brings a cooler, more level-headed bass line to proceedings. The screenplay, a collaboration between Bacharach-White and Mark Stewart, isn’t without its own surprises, either. They find a clever way of reconciling the dream with reality, providing a denouement that is not only fitting of the circumstances but entertaining in its own right.

Mock and Roll is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Recommendation: Fans of rock music and independent filmmaking need to add to their playlist Mock and Roll, an inventive production that wears its passions on its sleeve. While I often found myself out of the loop in terms of the lyrics that were being parodied, there is plenty here to latch on to narratively and character-wise. But if you have indeed heard of the Black Owls, then surely this film will be a special treat. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 84 mins.

Quoted: “Privilege is EARNED!!!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; Mark Stewart 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Phil Lord; Rodney Rothman

Directed by: Bob Persichetti; Peter Ramsey; Rodney Rothman

A Review from the Perspective of a Spider-Newb

A cornucopia of visual delights that rivals the best of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, two of the giants in the world of animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has taken Sony Pictures Animation to a whole new level. The combination of painstakingly hand-drawn and slick computer-generated imagery is something you can’t help but marvel at. All of the little stylistic flares — splitting the screen into panels, the employment of thought bubbles and of lightning bolts indicating a Spidey sense tingling, the minutiae of lighting textures — work in concert to make the viewer feel like they have “walked right into a comic book.” And then of course there’s a sense of timeliness. The recent passing of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee adds poignancy to what is already clearly an ode to a legacy. The rich detail and emotional resonance makes Into the Spider-Verse the cinematic equivalent of a mother’s handwoven quilt.

I’ll say it once and I’ll probably say it several more times before we’re done here: I can’t get over how good this movie looks. The visual language contributes so much to the film’s energetic personality and individuality. Yet what’s maybe most surprising about Into the Spider-Verse is how fresh and engaging this yet-again origins story feels. Its self-aware and occasionally self-deprecatory humor, courtesy of Phil Lord — the brilliantly quick-witted writer/producer of high-octane adventures such as The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — helped me buy back in. This is only like the 167th time we have seen an ordinary kid get bitten by a special spider but only the first in which we have been able to laugh along with those involved at how many big-screen iterations of the web-slinger there have been in recent years. More to the point, this is the first time we have seen someone other than the iconically average Peter Parker become Spider-Man.

Yes, of all those versions that have preceded it Into the Spider-Verse is the most inclusive one yet. The film offers seven Spideys for the price of one and while comics readers will be getting the most value from their dollar as they pluck out all the myriad Easter eggs hidden inside, the story graciously makes room for Spider-Newbs, taking the idea of an ordinary individual gaining unusual abilities and extrapolating that to the general populace. That any one of us holds the potential to become Spider-Man is a conceit juicy with possibility. It also seems a logistical nightmare from a writing standpoint. How will all these characters coexist within one story? Is it even one story? How many and which villains do we go with? How many Mary Janes? (Sorry for the spoiler, but there can only ever be one of those.)

In bringing this ambitious project to life, three different filmmakers are charged with directing, with Peter Ramsey handling the action sequences, Rodney Rothman overseeing the comedic aspects, and Bob Persichetti supplying what Lord describes as the “poetry” of the story. Indeed this is a real team effort, with the writers (Lord, alongside Rothman and a whole host of credited character developers) fixating upon the emotional maturation of a new Spidey-in-the-making, one Miles Morales (Dope‘s very own Shameik Moore), a New York kid of Afro-Puerto Rican descent trying his best to please his cop dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mom, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. He attends a private boarding school where his parents hope he will aim for great heights. Oh, the irony. He has a close friend in his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles to keep pursuing his artistic passions, frequently taking him to a subway station where he graffitis beautiful expressions onto the otherwise lifeless walls.

When a ridiculously rotund baddie named Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), attempts to use a particle accelerator to access alternate dimensions for personal reasons that won’t be revealed here, beings from those other worlds are inadvertently thrust into ours. This opens up a quasi-anthological narrative that brings in different Spider-People to inform the central conflict — Miles’ inability to own his newfound . . . well, abilities. Multiple character arcs are provided along the way, each different Spider-Person explaining how they won the mutated-genetics lottery, all while Miles’ internal struggle — that oft-referenced grappling with power and responsibility — remains front-and-center. More impressive is the way all of it unfolds at a breakneck pace without ever becoming convoluted and difficult to keep up with.

What really perpetuates the flow of the narrative is this revolving door of different characters. There is always something new to latch on to, like swinging through the corridors of Manhattan from building to building. Chris Pine is in as the one-and-only Peter Parker, and while the role is small he does something we haven’t seen Peter do in any of the live-action adaptations. Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, by contrast, is an over-the-hill, jaded crime fighter whose sweatpants-and-protruding-gut look suggests he isn’t overly concerned with image these days. He is perfectly charming in all of his 9-5 day job blasé. Then we have Hailee Steinfeld taking up the mantle of Gwen Stacy and while her trust issues are a cliché the actress/singer makes her reservations not only believable but emotionally satisfying when it comes to the main protagonist’s development.

From there it gets a little more obscure, with SNL’s John Mulaney lending his voice to Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (and here is a perfect example of my ignorance; how dare I limit my imagination of what Spider-Man can be to just human beings) while Nicolas Cage, of all people, becomes Spider-Man Noir. Last and most definitely least interesting (again, to me) is Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker, a Japanese incarnation who apparently made her Marvel Comics début only a few years ago in Edge of Spider-Verse #5 (2014). She’s got some weird robot-machine thing named SP//dr with which she telepathically communicates and uses to properly engage with the enemy — a device that also apparently links her to the ominous OsCorp.

There are familiar faces and characters scattered throughout as well. The older, more cynical Spider-Man’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) has a pretty important part to play as the many Spideys set about trying to find a way back to their own worlds while Miles tries ever more desperately to prevent Kingpin from destroying New York and, on a more personal level, help his father overcome his anti-Spidey bias. Secondary villains appear in the form of Doc Ock/Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hann adding a female twist on Alfred Molina’s interpretation from Spider-Man 2), and Prowler, whose unmasked identity is best left masked in writing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is sure to have long legs at the box office, and it deserves them. Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, this is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I have had in 2018 and in a year in which I have had to absorb the blows of Infinity War, endure the cold loneliness of being First Man and try to survive the completely unknown in (my personal favorite) Annihilation, that is some accomplishment.

“I think, therefore I am . . . Spider-Man?”

Recommendation: Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, a heartbreaking plot-twist and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. I don’t know if this is literally “the best Spider-Man movie ever made,” but I am fairly confident it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. Your move, Marvel.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “That’s all it is Miles, a leap of faith.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Release: Friday, October 19, 2018 (limited) 

→Theater

Written by:  Nicole Holofcener; Jeff Whitty

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Can You Ever Forgive Me? reflects on the life and crimes of Leonore Carol Israel, a Brooklyn-based journalist who, despite making an honest living in the 1970s and ’80s writing biographies of high-profile women, one time even landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, is remembered today for her misguided — indeed, criminal — attempts at career resurrection by way of embellishing and forging literary items on behalf of deceased authors and other famous people. SNL alumna Melissa McCarthy takes on the challenge of portraying the curmudgeonly woman, and the results simply beg the question: where has this Melissa McCarthy been all this time?

In her sophomore feature, director Marielle Heller returns with a familiarly but still surprisingly sympathetic treatment of a subject who might have otherwise come out looking a lot worse in the hands of another filmmaker. Her 2015 début, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was rightfully praised for how it approached its taboo material (premature sex with an incestuous twist; drug-addled, laissez-faire parenting styles) with maturity and blunt honesty. In the process it introduced audiences to the talents of young British actress Bel Powley, who demonstrated confidence beyond her years with the way she handled such seedy material. With her follow-up feature it almost feels like Heller is giving us another formal introduction, this time to Melissa McCarthy the thespian, not the physical punchline she has become typecast as.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based upon and named after the memoir Israel published in 2008, an unapologetic and humorously self-deprecating tell-all about the mischief she got into after the ’90s arrived and brought with them the winds of change, an evolving market rendering her celebrity bios a thing of the past. Interestingly, the publishing of that very memoir as well as the publisher itself, Simon & Schuster, faced criticism as many viewed it to be merely another cash grabbing opportunity by a recognized poseur.

The film picks up right as Israel is falling on hard times, getting the boot from a late-night copy editing job, one in a string of failed attempts to secure a more reliable source of income. She shuffles back to an apartment apropos of a recluse, a poorly lit cavern smelling to high heaven as a result of long-sitting cat poop that has also drawn flies like a biblical plague. That cat, her best friend, is in desperate need of medical attention, but that’s a luxury for someone like Israel, whose abrasive personality turns off just about everyone she comes across — including the vet, with whom she unsuccessfully attempts to haggle. Rare exceptions are an old friend in Jack Hock (a wonderful Richard E. Grant) and Anna, a cheery bookstore owner (Dolly Wells).

Of the few (and strained) relationships she has, arguably the rockiest is with Marjorie (Jane Curtain), her agent. She takes the brunt of the hostility largely due to the writer believing she isn’t doing all that she can to get her Fanny Brice book off the ground. As Marjorie reminds her, it’s the 1990s and no one’s pining for biographies of 1920s vaudeville starlets. Exasperated, Israel turns to selling off what few personal possessions she has, including a letter written to her by actress Katherine Hepburn, an apparent acquaintance. However, it isn’t until she discovers another letter, this one by the very subject of her new project tucked inside a relevant book, that a lightbulb appears above Israel’s head.

What if I jazz these letters up, add more of a personal touch to them? I wouldn’t pass them off as my own creations, but rather as original insights of long since passed playwrights and authors. And I’ll use a variety of typewriters to create the desired effects. Genius, no? You know what, save your opinions. I know it’s genius. If you never forgive me, c’est la vie. 

Heller, working from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, has created an intimate character study that foregrounds a minimal, lonely existence against the hustle and bustle of New York. There’s less than a handful of significant characters involved, but their interactions are meaningful and tinged with a profound sadness, an emptiness, a longing for something more. Everyone in the movie brings their A-game, but McCarthy is simply a revelation as the caustically witted writer.

So good is she, in fact, that you tend to overlook what Grant brings to the scene as Jack Hock, an aging rapscallion who has suffered his own fair share of heartbreak in the past and faces a great deal of hardship in the present. A gay man about town, he lives day to day for new adventures, scrounging for happiness in an era where people avoided celebrities like basketball star Magic Johnson because they didn’t want their sickness to literally rub off on them. When he conspires with a miscreant, now selling “her work” to every literary dealer in town, he finds a new lease on life. Together, the two form a kindred spirit that gives what could have been a cold movie a surprisingly warm, beating heart.

Israel’s fate may be obvious, even before the killjoys from the FBI show up, but it is a testament to the performances and the steady, confident direction supplied by Heller that we get swept up in the misadventure and actually enjoy the ride, in spite of all the misery.

Who you gonna call?

Recommendation: Reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, this is a deeply human drama about personal and professional dignity, of failure and success. It’s one of my favorite movies of 2018, by far. Can You Ever Forgive Me? will win you over with performances that are both heartbreaking and mischievously entertaining.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “This next song goes out to all the agoraphobic junkies who couldn’t be here tonight.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

BlacKkKlansman

Release: Friday, August 10, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Spike Lee; Charlie Wachtel; David Rabinowitz; Kevin Willmott

Directed by: Spike Lee

BlacKkKlansman is one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounts the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proves to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

In 1979* Ron Stallworth made waves by becoming the first black officer hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film he’s portrayed by an unflappable John David Washington (son of action superstar Denzel Washington), sporting a classic 70s ‘fro and an earnest face that has commitment to duty written all over it. It wasn’t a smooth transition of course. Not all members on the force wanted him around, like Master Patrolman/Major Asshat Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who’s introduced as a kind of primer to the pleasantries we can expect later on.

Having the good fortune of working for Robert John Burke’s open-minded station chief, he eventually gets handed more meaningful work when he’s assigned to observe a rally that is to take place at Colorado College, where prominent civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, powerful) is set to deliver a speech addressing the escalating tensions between black citizens and police officers nationwide. There, he runs into a Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. Harrier creates in this fictitious character a headstrong young woman, someone in whom Stallworth finds a reliable source of information and possibly something more. Spurred into action due to the harassment she and her peers have had to contend with on a daily basis at the hands of bigoted cops, Dumas is a staunch believer in retribution, rather than the more “diplomatic” tactics her newfound brother is trying to engage in. If only she knew.

The story of Ron Stallworth is one of dueling identities, not so much metaphorically but in an actual physical sense. The overarching reality is that he’s an officer sworn to protect and serve, but in order to do those things he will also become a rising star within the ranks of the white brotherhood. When he makes detective, it becomes his mission to pull out the weeds of hatred by their roots. To beat the Klan, he’ll have to join ’em. Finding a recruitment ad in the paper, Stallworth calls up Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs chapter, and in a profanity-laced rant, pitches himself as the next-in-line to help “make America great again.” Watch as the heads in the precinct turn, including those of his soon-to-be inside man Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — I love this guy) and underling Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi).

Breachway wants a face-to-face, but there are obvious complications — a major one being the fact that the newbie detective used his actual name over the phone. (He is, however, mindful enough to disguise his “black voice.”) So Stallworth will send Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, into the field as him. Two Stallworths, one ballsy mission, absolutely zero fuck-ups allowed. The newly-minted White Stallworth is swiftly integrated as one of them good old boys, with standouts being Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen as the intensely suspicious Felix and Paul Walter Hauser’s dumber-than-a-box-of-bent-nails Ivanhoe.

From here, strap in and hold on for dear life as we stroll into the living rooms and basements of some of the most hateful people imaginable. As Zimmerman gets in deeper, finding himself doing and saying things he never imagined, the morality of the mission becomes further complicated. The writing team envisions Stallworth as a force for good but stops short of painting him an out-and-out hero. Occasionally he seems reckless in the pursuit of justice — perhaps more so than if it were actually him being threatened to take a lie detector test. As Zimmerman puts it after a close call, is this really anything more than a personal vendetta? Meanwhile, the threat of something big about to go down, as vaguely hinted at by Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), makes it pretty clear the composited Stallworth has little option but to continue apace.

As BlacKkKlansman is a film largely informed by attitude and ideology, you expect Lee’s righteous anger to be ever present, and it is — that real-life coda at the end leaves little doubt as to how the writer/director feels about the progress we have made since the days of the Civil Rights marches. What you might not expect is for the film to also be amusing. If it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are moments of such gratifying uplift that feel just as good as a fit of the giggles. The comparatively calming presence of producer Jordan Peele is undoubtedly responsible, and nowhere is that felt more than in a scene of glorious comeuppance, wherein an accomplished Stallworth finally gets to stick it to the man (“the man” in this case being KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by a very good Topher Grace). It’s a real team effort as far as realizing that tonal sweet spot, pinning you somewhere between being entertained and plain horrified.

* the film takes several dramatic liberties with its content, but the biggest edit is the timeline on which the events take place. In the film, Ron Stallworth joined the force seven years prior, in 1972. this was done in observance of the re-election of president richard nixon.

“Yo, what’s good man?”

Recommendation: Spike Lee’s latest is a bombshell that arguably saves its actual drama for the final few frames. While the events of the film are sent up for entertainment purposes, what’s also clear is that this is one of the outspoken director’s most urgent and unmissable works. Powerful stuff. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “With the right white man, we can do anything.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.collider.com