Sean K. Cureton

Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’

Brad’s Status: On Lives Lived Online

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 15, 2018 at 10:15 am
Brad's Status

Amazon Studios/Annapurna Pictures

Brad’s Status (2017)
Directed by Mike White
VOD Rating: Liked It

Written and directed by Mike White – whose past screen credits include his work in writing the screenplay for School of Rock and developing the original HBO drama series Enlightened – Brad’s Status plays out with a lot of the same downtrodden melancholy that has become White‘s thematic staple. Ostensibly aiming to critique and satirize the acceleration of competitive impulses held between old friends as they are hyper-realized on social media, White has reached a level of accessibility that few of his other films have ever achieved. From tackling sticky subjects like hermaphrodites in Freaks and Geeks, to extrapolating on severe alienation and depression in Year of the Dog, White is never one to shy away from topics and people who might repel some viewers, which is exactly why Brad’s Status comes as something of a surprise. Serving as perhaps White‘s most optimistic film yet, Brad’s Status sees Ben Stiller cast in a lead role that feels slightly less misanthropic than viewers have come to expect. Coming off of the despairing turn from Laura Dern in Enlightened, Stiller plays a surrogate White with a striking affability that simultaneously buoys the film’s effect and detracts from the script’s dour defeatism.

Slowly over the course of the past ten years or so, social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter have reoriented the means by which we engage and interact with our peers, friends, and family. Friends now constitute anyone we might have met only briefly in casual and disposable settings, but are now vying for our attention and sympathy online or via text message. But worse than anything else, social media has given rise to a growing sadness, in general perpetuated by the pictures we paint of ourselves online. Brad’s Status gets at a lot of these fairly routine anxieties of the digital age in the late 2010s with some humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. While embarking on a college tour with his young son, Stiller‘s thoughts begin to turn sour when he thinks about the monetary largesse and notorious success of his old college pals, and the lack of forward momentum he sees reflected comparatively in his own life.

Compared to Michael Sheen– who plays a former White House insider and best-selling novelist – Stiller is made to feel less than in Brad’s Status. Worried that he took a wrong turn and might have done better if he had gone into banking in order to procure the funds sorely needed of his philanthropic aspirations, Stiller approaches Facebook like a troublesome spiritual tormentor. Yet his son is miraculously free of any familial anxieties. Determined to study music in college, Austin Abrams (Paper Towns) shines as the post-ironic Millennial to Stiller‘s modern Baby Boomer. Passing through the halls of Harvard University and Tufts with a self-assured swagger and competent demeanor, Stiller is forced to reassess all of his insecurities in order to reach the film’s oddly touching third act.

Regrettably, Brad’s Status is far too often broached with broad brush strokes that lack the kind of definition that made past Mike White films like Year of the Dog unforgettable exercises in heavy-heartedness. Oscillating between mild humor and navel-gazing pretension, Brad’s Status is a road movie about fathers and sons that sporadically lands when it stops taking everything so seriously. But by and large, White has done a laudable job in bringing Brad’s Status to the big screen, and casting Stiller in the lead role helps make the movie more approachable for general audiences. The script’s subject matter has been broached with far more subtlety and nuance elsewhere – see Ingrid Goes West  from the same year for just one recent example – thereby lessening the reward of actually watching the finished production. Yet there is something to be said for any movie that allows Stiller room to breathe uneasy, and as was the case with his starring role in Greenberg from 2010, Brad’s Status benefits from his everyman presence.

Brad’s Status is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

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Juliet, Naked: Audiophiles In Love

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on September 9, 2018 at 9:50 am
Juliet, Naked

Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Juliet, Naked
Directed by Jesse Peretz
3 out of 4 stars

Nick Hornby is no stranger to the obsessive pursuit of art for art’s sake, and Juliet, Naked serves as perhaps his greatest novel on the monomaniacal fervor involved in said chase. Perhaps most well known for penning the seminal 1995 everyman opus High Fidelity – which was famously adapted into the classic 2000 feature film starring John Cusack – the English author revels in the often one-sided love sustained by a fan for their artist. And their is the operative word, as is especially the case with Juliet, Naked, the new feature film adaptation from director Jesse Peretz (Girls). Centering around one man’s (Chris O’Dowd) infatuation with a reclusive alt-rock singer-songwriter (Ethan Hawke), and his neglected wife’s (Rose Byrne) surprising romantic tryst with said songsmith, Juliet, Naked  offers a more sober-eyed view of love than the weedy womanizer of High Fidelity could hope to entertain. When it comes to loving music, Hornby is the best, especially when his stories are as poetically insightful as this one.

Stranded in a coastal English town that holds little promise for her both personally and professionally, Byrne pines for a way out of her humdrum life and slavish devotion to a husband (O’Dowd) who is emotionally engaged to another man (Hawke). In the book and the film, Byrne’s character is exquisitely drawn, as is her husband’s music blog circa 2009. Delving into the early days of the internet when the possibilities for connection still seemed limitless and without the potential of becoming societally detrimental, Juliet, Naked recasts the record store clerk mentality of High Fidelity against a far more porous dividing line between the fan and the artist. The kind of obsession that drives the protagonist of High Fidelity towards isolated narcissism in the 1990s dissimilarly casts the love triangle in Juliet, Naked adrift in communal desperation. As a result, Juliet, Naked serves as a semi-sequel to the former film serendipitously separated by barely a decade.

The speed with which the internet held a megaphone to the mouths of the same kinds of malcontented dude bros like John Cusack in High Fidelity is vaguely discomfiting in Juliet, Naked. And O’Dowd nails the nebbish film and TV professor who would take to the blogosphere in the late 2000s to broadcast his feverish mania with cringe-worthy aplomb. Rather than being immediately seen as someone who genuinely loves the album, Juliet, Naked artfully gets at the nagging selfishness that online forums have since given rise to in the intervening decade since the novel’s initial publication. Hornby has always been one who leans heavily towards self-deprecation, and in Peretz’s hands that kind of self-conscious humor is tactfully turned into another winning cinematic comedy. Despite some roughness around the edges, Hawke, O’Dowd, and Byrne all play their respective roles to a tee, and Peretz has successfully adapted another Hornby novel about audiophiles in love.

Towards the half-way mark of Juliet, Naked, the three main characters share a tense dinner alone with one another. Over the course of the emotionally fraught meal, O’Dowd espouses various apocryphal theories and beliefs about his idol, and Hawke responds with a demure grimace that shortly turns into a sour scowl. But after being scolded for propagating the kind of invasive celebrity gossip that the internet is contemporaneously synonymous with, O’Dowd makes the assertion that art is for the beholder, and thanks Hawke for making something that he has enjoyed so very much. In a similar vein, Hornby holds some sway over anyone who read both Juliet, Naked and High Fidelity over the years, and continue to hold them in high personal regard. Perhaps a great record, or a good book, is left to the consumer alone to herald and celebrate, and the artist is merely meant to provoke enthusiasm as is the case in Juliet, Naked.

Sorry to Bother You: Competency Not Required

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on July 21, 2018 at 2:32 pm
Sorry to Bother You

Annapurna Pictures

Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
3 out of 4 stars

There is a moment early on in Boots Riley’s directorial debut that cuts right to the heart of the matter. After spending the last several hours in a telemarketing office set against a snidely dystopian version of present day Oakland, California, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) bemoans an overwhelming sense of incompetency. Living out of his uncle’s garage definitely doesn’t help matters, while all around him he is bombarded by advertisements for WorryFree, a national corporation that promises its employees free food and lodging for life in exchange for the yoke of what amounts to indentured servitude. Meanwhile, his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) becomes involved in the political activist group “The Left Eye,” which collectively sets about to violently dismantle the capitalist hierarchy that actively enables the various forms of social and economic slavery which Cash and his friends have been subjected to. But competency comes at a cost.

The way in which Sorry to Bother You tackles social satire is overwhelming and unrelenting. Far from easing the viewer into its surreal world, the narrative picks up without much in the way of an introduction, with Cash nervously fidgeting in the hiring office of RegalView, the telemarketing business that secretly serves as the public relations mouthpiece of WorryFree and its sociopathic CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). After successfully overcoming the often precarious process of the job interview, Cash finds himself enmeshed in a work culture that prides itself on literate resourcefulness. Rhetorical flourishes aided by racial stereotyping rule the day, and the very best telemarketers are promised the prestige of the ever tantalizing job title of “Power Caller.” Competency not required.

Yet nothing is ever as it seems on the surface. Rather than offer an easy way by which to understand the rules that govern its capitalistic game, Sorry to Bother You frequently pulls the rug out from under the feet of its protagonists and sends the viewer reeling against a series of images, icons, and motifs that offer an endless cornucopia of subtle resonances. Horror builds slowly to terror before subverting back to comedy all in the span of five minutes, lending Riley’s film an authorial bent all its own. On one level, the film overtly parodies the income divide between white and black people, while on another it laughs in the face of the very idea that anything was wrong to begin with. Revolution is always at the tip of the tongue, but rarely spoken aloud.

Owing some small debt to Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope in terms of its thematic legacy, Boots Riley has likewise delivered a film perfectly suited to its time. In an age of political untruths and civil unrest, Sorry to Bother You has its finger firmly held on the pulse of America in 2018. Nothing feels safe in a world casually and forcefully ruled by reality TV personalities and multi-billionaires, as Cash and the rest of the world surely know by now. Forced to contend with a universe gone awry, Sorry to Bother You acts as a funhouse mirror reflecting our own distorted national identity back at us. The world is a nightmare, and Boots Riley is intent on rousing viewers from their slumber.

The Disaster Artist: Studio Comedy Caricature

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on January 13, 2018 at 11:36 am
The Disaster Artist

A24

The Disaster Artist
Directed by James Franco
2 out of 4 stars

The circumstances that gave birth to the 2003 feature The Room border on the unbelievable. Written and directed by its enigmatic leading man, Tommy Wiseau, the film was independently funded to the tune of $6 million. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Wiseau’s magnum opus doesn’t look like a $6 million motion picture. Far from it, The Room is marked by a peculiar narrative and lacks any cohesive logic. Each successive scene builds upon a singular worldview that feels familiar only if the viewer is aware of Wiseau’s equally peculiar personal history and artistic obsessions.

Enraptured by the storied careers of James Dean and Marlon Brando, Wiseau spends much of his time in The Room tactlessly conjuring his very best impressions of the two formerly cited Hollywood icons. Yet at the same time that Wiseau is trying to ape the traditions of his cinematic forebears, his own ineptitude shines forth more brightly than anything else on screen. The extent to which his own tortured personal history remains shrouded in mystery, evasiveness, and dishonesty only serves to further attract newcomers to his cult-hit directorial debut. And the kind of attention that Wiseau’s character frequently excites in an audience is often tied to the absurdity of his profile. In The Disaster Artist, this pattern of superficially misunderstanding Wiseau’s subtle appeal continues.

On paper, casting James Franco to play the role of Tommy Wiseau – in addition to directing a major motion picture about the cult icon – is commercially appealing. Franco is more handsome than Wiseau, and having Franco featured prominently on the film’s posters and in its trailers positions the movie for a wider appeal than just die hard fans of The Room. And by and large, Franco does a remarkable job of playing the part of Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist. Fans of Wiseau and The Room will no doubt be thrilled to follow along as Franco and company recast and reshoot several scenes and sequences from The Room shot-for-shot. But that’s also where the appeal of The Disaster Artist begins and ends.

Based in part on the non-fiction book of the same name co-written by The Room actor Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist presents itself as the cinematic retelling of the making of one of the best worst movies ever made. But instead of delving into Tommy Wiseau’s convoluted biography, his hostile relationship with women, or his envious attraction to Sestero, The Disaster Artist is content to let its all-star cast of comic actors exchange well-worn lines from The Room with one another verbatim. Instead of exploring the winding narrative that Sestero lays out in his spellbinding memoir, The Disaster Artist plays it safe while opting to whittle the essence of Wiseau down to studio comedy caricature. Unlike The Room, the appeal of The Disaster Artist is easy to explain. Borrowing heavily from the formerly mentioned film’s popular reputation as a “so bad it’s good movie,” The Disaster Artist is made for the kind of person who enjoys watching The Room to laugh at its grotesque star.

This review is an expanded version of an article that was originally published by Audiences Everywhere.

Goon: Last of the Enforcers: An Inside Hockey Sports Comedy

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 16, 2017 at 12:40 pm
Goon: Last of the Enforcers

Entertainment One

Goon: Last of the Enforcers (2017)
Directed by Jay Baruchel
VOD Rating: Liked It

Goon: Last of the Enforcers sees director, writer, and actor Jay Baruchel applying a second chapter to his 2011 hit sports comedy Goon. Starring Seann William Scott once again as the dimwitted minor league ice hockey enforcer Doug “The Thug” Glatt, Baruchel pulls from a roster of surprisingly well-rounded cast of characters in the making of a second act that sees Doug facing a brutal end to a short career. After sustaining severe injuries during a fight with competing enforcer Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell), Doug leaves his position as the newly appointed captain of the Halifax Highlanders at the behest of his pregnant wife Eva (Alison Pill). But despite all of its scurrilous bluster, bloody knuckles, and sophomoric humor, Goon: Last of the Enforcers is a less worthwhile successor to its predecessor. Without the help of co-writer Evan Goldberg, Baruchel and Jesse Chabot have done a minor disservice to what made the original movie an unexpected cult hit and lose sight of their audience in recreating some of the deeper cuts from sports history.

Taking direct inspiration from real life exhibition events, Goon: Last of the Enforcers grapples with the continuing controversy surrounding violence in professional hockey. Specifically, the film examines the very real ramifications of the kind of fisticuffs most frequently engaged in by enforcers hired by minor and senior league teams. Like Doug Smith – whose autobiography and career helped inform the character portrayed in the film by Seann William Scott – enforcers have long been brought into the hockey industry for their ability to take a beating. Oftentimes lacking in any overt grace on the ice, enforcers were expected to beat themselves to death in gladiatorial combat. In Goon, a lot of the physiological damage that goes into the making of an enforcer is glossed over in service of a feel-good sports comedy; in Goon: Last of the Enforcers, the very real toll that fighting for sport takes on Doug “The Thug” Glatt (Scott) shows its true colors.

Director Michael Dowse brought a healthy dose of subtlety to the proceedings behind the scenes in the making of Goon. Beyond the film’s lurid subject, viewers were graced with the rare sports comedy that was about people who just so happened to be involved in athletic competition. In Goon: Last of the Enforcers, Baruchel turns in a directorial debut that teems with untapped potential. Far too often, Baruchel indulges in fanboy adulation, resulting in a movie that feels like it was made for hockey super-fans only. The references that it makes to the contemporary concern over violence in hockey – and the precarious position that certain censorious voices have put the industry under – serves as an inside hockey reference that only the most well-versed sports historians will catch onto without having to seek out a whole host primary sources.

Despite a few new faces that briefly enliven the mood – namely Elisha Cuthbert, Trent Pardy, Jason Jones, and Wyatt Russell – Goon: Last of the Enforcers loses sight of the characters that made the first movie so engaging. Played out like the minor league hockey parable that Baruchel was ironically going for, it’s hard to imagine the film leaving as serious an imprint in the minds of general moviegoers that Goon continues to conjure in its breathless dynamism. Picking up from where the first film left off in 2011, Goon: Last of the Enforcers still revels in the playful camaraderie sustained between returning rival and mentor Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber) and Doug “The Thug” Glatt (Scott), but simultaneously manages to underserve Alison Pill as the once psychologically complicated Eva. Beyond paying minor lip service to the emotional resonance of the many returning characters from Goon, Baruchel is far more concerned with the immediacy of hockey in round two. Serving as another ode to ice hockey, Goon: Last of the Enforcers loses sight of its audience in recreating some of the deeper cuts from sports history.

Goon: Last of the Enforcers is currently available on iTunes, and is My Movies On VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry. 

Donald Cried: The Adolescent Sisyphus

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 18, 2017 at 12:41 pm
Donald Cried

The Orchard

Donald Cried (2017)
Directed by Kris Avedisian
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Following its premiere at South by Southwest in 2016, Donald Cried saw theatrical release earlier this year. Serving as the directorial debut of lead actor and screenwriter Kris Avedisian, Donald Cried is an unsettling dark comedy about fraternal friendship. Centering around the story of a frazzled man returning to his childhood home when his grandmother dies only to find himself beset upon by a troubled acquaintance that he soon becomes indebted to, Donald Cried boldly walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy. When Peter LaTang (Jesse Wakeman) returns to his old stomping grounds to take care of his deceased grandmother’s affairs, he soon discovers that he left his wallet at the train station. Lacking any other resources by which he might get around town before heading back to his adult life as a big city banker, he begrudgingly surrenders to the myopic whim of Donald (Avedisian).

Over the course of the film’s trim 85-minute runtime, Donald Cried tactfully manages to navigate the tumultuous waters of trying to rekindle a friendship forged by one’s own former naïve self. And as anyone who has ever considered becoming friends again with someone that they went to high school with but haven’t seen or spoken to in several years can attest to, the scenario proves to offer a more than familiar narrative bolstered by the specificity of Avedisian’s nostalgic nightmare. Sometimes the friends we make when we’re teenagers are nothing more than the most convenient options available when we’re still not cognizant of our respective selves. During a time in which one is expected to grow up and mature, high school camaraderie can quickly fade if it’s built upon little more than pop culture propagated as a shared personality. And in Donald Treebeck, Avedisian has crafted one of the most accurate portrayals of the surreal nature beholden to what is an inherently juvenile intimacy.

Unfortunately for the titular character in Donald Cried, heavy metal quickly comes to stand for a regressive signifier of a relationship built upon subversive enmity. On the flip side, Donald Cried is also a touching tribute to the people who never really left the confines of home after graduating from secondary – or higher – education. For those who never really found a place for themselves in the adult world, childhood becomes an ever-present state of being that sees some lost forever in a Sisyphean prison of codependent sycophancy. Avedisian as Donald thus acts as both a protagonist and an antagonist. His simpering demands upon the attention and affection of Peter (Wakeman) are both a repugnant deterrent and familiar plea to and for the viewer’s sympathies.

It’s easy to come away feeling a little unsure of what to think after watching Donald Cried for the first time. But upon repeated viewings, Avedisian’s first feature really shines a light on one of the more peculiar aspects of childhood and growing up. Who we were in high school continues to affect how we strive to present ourselves to others as an adult, the latter state of being a past that is often a painful reminder of formative experiences. Avedisian has merely pulled back the curtain on a secret shame that many of us know all too well, but are less than willing to welcome back into our lives. By giving that existential foreboding corporeal form, Donald Cried delivers one of the most unforgettable independent features this year, and it would be a real shame if nobody noticed.

Donald Cried is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies On VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an expanded version of an article that was originally published by Audiences Everywhere.

David Brent: Life on the Road: He’s Back

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on February 25, 2017 at 12:55 pm
David Brent: Life on the Road

Entertainment One

David Brent: Life on the Road (2017)
Directed by Ricky Gervais
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Based in part on the cult-classic mockumentary comedy series The Office – as originally cast, produced, and broadcast on BBC Two from 2001 to 2003 – David Brent has become something of an icon to many a disaffected white collar worker. Prior to NBC adapting the series to a fit a softer, more romantically idealistic demographic in the United States, lead performer and prolific series creator Ricky Gervais personified the worst boss on television. Stereotypically buffoonish, Brent’s antics could range anywhere from the banal to the offensive, leaving a wake of justifiably miffed-to-outraged employees in his tyrannical wake. On The Office, poor middle management resulted in a deluge of painfully rendered moments of unmitigated human callousness, and the joke was often placed on the head of the comically oblivious Brent. When the show made its way to American audiences, some of that harsh realism was surrendered over to a cast of performers possessed with an innate sense of empathetic camaraderie, though Brent’s obtrusive shadow continued to cast an influential shadow on the franchise.

Ten and a half years later, David Brent: Life on the Road seeks to revisit Gervais as Brent to see where life has taken the social malcontent since his starring turn on the original The Office. Picking up where the original BBC sitcom left off, viewers find Brent demoted to a position of a local sales representative for yet another mid-size, non-descript corporation. The moments that find Brent being alternatively abused and coddled by his co-workers make for some of the best moments of the film, and ultimately serve as a launching pad for one of the funniest road movies since This Is Spinal Tap. Disillusioned by a waking life dominated by the demeaning nature of his job, Brent pools all of his money into a last ditch effort to become the rock and roll icon that he has always dreamed of being. Predictably, his self-funded tour is a bust, his hired session musicians don’t want to have anything to do with him, and his only friend and reluctant confidant is constantly overshadowed by Brent’s narcissistic ego.

Many fans of The Office will undoubtedly remember Brent’s penchant for reminiscing about his halcyon days spent as the front man of a band. Recursively recalling that solipsistic fantasy, David Brent: Life on the Road establishes itself as a spin-off to the former series while capitalizing predominantly on Brent’s appeal to a wider audience. It’s always fun to watch an idiot behave stupidly, and Brent has always been a comic character capable of that feat in spades. Accordingly, Brent’s invasive personality constantly finds its way to the center of numerous moments of tension alleviated by the inspired nuances of Gervais’ performance and writing. Instead of merely catering to the most devoted fans of the character, David Brent: Life on the Road operates on its own terms and may be seen as a piece of narrative entirely separate from The Office.

There is plenty of interpersonal confrontation to go around throughout David Brent: Life on the Road, and if you were a fan of the antagonistic aesthetic of the original The Office, there’s plenty more of that sort of comedy to be found in Gervais’ latest theatrical outing. But what many might be surprised by is how emotionally cutting a lot of the comedy insists on being. Brent has always been an ass, but in David Brent: Life on the Road Gervais brings all of the empathy that he miraculously conjured up in his underrated mockumentary series Derek to a bear on a character study that reveals more about Brent than even the most devoted fan could have possibly imagined. Going into the movie, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone expecting to sympathize with Brent’s plight, but by the end of the movie it’s hard not to get a little emotional about the titular misanthrope’s unexpected emotional longings. Like Christopher Guest, Gervais has come a long way in regards to how he approaches the mockumentary sub-genre, and David Brent: Life on the Road might be his most sympathetic comedy yet.

David Brent: Life on the Road is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Mascots: Another Christopher Guest Comedy

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 26, 2016 at 12:27 pm
Mascots

Netflix

Mascots (2015)
Directed by Christopher Guest
VOD Rating: Liked It

Christopher Guest served to define the contemporary mockumentary with his work on the classic 1984 satirical rock n’ roll feature This is Spinal Tap. Written alongside director Rob Reiner, and co-stars Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, Guest’s work on that classic work of pop culture skewering was like nothing else that had come before it. In its wake, Guest has become the director of several likeminded films that have seen fit to examine the eccentric characters that make up several sub-cultures of the modern world. From amateur theater performers in Waiting for Guffman, to professional dog trainers in Best in Show, Guest has a peculiar flair for representing the marginalized supporting players of real life. His latest movie, Mascots, manages to do a lot of the same for the world of professional sports mascots.

Centering on a heated contest for the World Mascot Association’s Gold Fluffy Award, Mascots playfully gets at the kinds of characters who might become sports mascots in real life. Filling out his roster of supporting characters with both returning collaborators and relative newcomers, Guest once again offers comedy fans a thoroughly worthwhile social satire like no other. Watching impeccable performances from Parker Posey, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, and Jane Lynch makes the world of Mascots appear simultaneously hyperbolic and idiosyncratically startling. People’s actions are often incongruous to expectations, and in Guest’s hands those actions prove to be all the more surprising when they occur spontaneously. There is an undeniable effortlessness to the proceedings of Guest’s films in general, and Mascots sees the talent working behind the scenes in the making of one of his most accessible works to date.

As Owen Golly Jr., a Londoner hoping to take home the Golden Fluffy Award in a concerted bid for the attention and respect of his overbearing father – and as an independent achievement separate from his family’s legacy – English actor Tom Bennett is the clear throughline for the entire affair. Immediately sympathetic and patently buffoonish all at once, Owen’s story is the easiest to cheer for throughout, as the rest of the film’s cast of characters prove to be far too preposterous to be taken entirely seriously. Ed Begley Jr. plays a perfect Christopher Guest character as a former mascot famous for bearing an anatomically correct male sex organ, but the jokes associated with his performance never prove to be as heartfelt as Owen’s. Likewise, Parker Posey and Fred Willard provide brief turns that feel far too broadly sophomoric to ever really land with the same gravitas that they’ve provided in past Guest features. Mascots knows why its subject matter might be funny, but never really goes about understanding the human core from which that humor derives.

In the critically underrated 2013 HBO series Family Tree, Guest delivered what is perhaps his most empathetic comedy effort to date. Over the course of a mere eight episodes, co-creator and star Chris O’Dowd offered viewers a moving quest for personal connection with a genealogical past undertaken by the near Dickensian protagonist Tom Chadwick. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after one season, and Guest was soon left to his own devices to write the script for a new feature length production. In that light, Mascots feels a little too safe for Guest’s own good. It lacks a lot of the bite of past efforts like For Your Consideration while abandoning the humanism newly found in his most recent career high, even if it’s just as funny as anything he’s ever done.

Mascots is currently available on Netflix, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Wiener-Dog: Picaresque Fable & Dystopian Fantasy

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 17, 2016 at 12:21 pm
Wiener-Dog

Amazon Studios/IFC Films

Wiener-Dog (2016)
Directed by Todd Solondz
VOD Rating: Liked It

Standing as the other great independent filmmaker of the 1990s hailing from New Jersey, Todd Solondz is everything that Kevin Smith is not. Trading irreverent populism for biting realism, Solondz’s filmography is markedly dour. Despite attempting to write what he claims are mainstream comedies, Solondz is a filmmaker whose work is unrelentingly bleak. Even when characters like Dawn Wiener – from both his 1995 sophomore effort Welcome to the Dollhouse and its spiritual sequel Wiener-Dog from earlier this summer – seek love in earnest, the trials and tribulations endured in the effort often outweigh the meager rewards. Characters in Solondz’s films are the outcasts and misfits forced to settle for less in a world that appears to have left them behind, or perhaps never really cared about them to begin with. But seeing characters in such dire domestic straits is miraculously inclusive and fantastically achieved, as anyone from the Garden State might relate of a life lived in the shadow of bigger and better things in New York City, be they imagined or not.

Serving as an anthology film, Wiener-Dog finds Solondz at his most concise and optimistic. Following the travels of a singular dachshund as the household pet passes from owner to owner, the film examines several less than fulfilling ways to spend one’s mortal existence. Starting under the care of a highly dysfunctional family that leaves the vulnerable creature under the care of a far too innocent young boy, the dog is quickly whisked away to apparent euthanasia after consuming mass amounts of chocolate and granola. Enter Dawn Wiener of Welcome to the Dollhouse, who quickly saves the poor animal from impending death and nurses it back to health. The titular wiener-dog than eventually gets passed along to several subsequent owners through a marvelously circuitous series of interconnecting stories, characters, and micro-events.

In the same way that Solondz has examined quiet humanity and spiritual desperation in past films like Happiness from 1998 and Storytelling from 2001, Wiener-Dog veers towards nihilism at every twist and turn. Individual protagonists struggle against the constricting forces of a world on the brink of collapse that suffocates anyone who would so much as hope or aspire to anything greater. Set against the dueling landscapes of northern New Jersey and metropolitan New York, Wiener-Dog is part picaresque fable and part dystopian fantasy. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn Wiener plays the would-be coming of age protagonist whose inner value is only just beginning to blossom into fruition. In Wiener-Dog, the same fictional heroine has become resigned to playing the part of a walk-on role in the same story.

Yet the film doesn’t feel bleak at all. All of the characters whose lives are interconnected throughout Wiener-Dog work together in a macro sense, even as their independent volition is only relevant in a micro sense. Nobody’s hopes or dreams matter in any real way in Wiener-Dog, yet such a self-defeating prophecy simultaneously serves to uplift the film’s bleakness by casting personal despair within the context of a communal pastime. If everyone else is feeling as downtrodden as Solondz makes them out to be, then there is no real shame in feeling alone, unwanted, and irrelevant. There is a community of despair throughout Solondz’s films that provides for a sense of immediacy and connection between characters and story arcs that seeks to include the viewer in a way that is remarkably honest, forthright, and earnest, even if there are no happy endings.

Wiener-Dog is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Don’t Think Twice: Bohemia In Decline

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on September 3, 2016 at 11:21 am
Don't Think Twice

The Film Arcade

Don’t Think Twice
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Serving as the direct follow-up to Sleepwalk With Me from 2012, stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia has taken his seat in the director’s chair once again in the making of Don’t Think Twice. Focusing on a small time improv comedy troupe eking out a meager living in New York City, Birbiglia stars alongside an all-star cast of comic performers, including Gillian Jacobs (Community), Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele), Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oats), Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show), and Tami Sagher (Inside Amy Schumer). Everyone in the film has established themselves within the comedy industry in some way, shape, or form over the years, making their assumed roles as struggling stage performers immediately believable and sympathetic. As the small improv troupe begins a series of tense infighting when two members from their fold are offered auditions for a nationally recognized late night sketch comedy show, their dedication to one another as codependent improv performers is quickly fractured. Ostensibly serving to represent just one small facet of a particular sub-culture, Birbiglia miraculously offers a comedy-drama that faithfully depicts real life intimacy, friendship, and jealousy.

It can be a potentially complicated feat to capably represent the life of actual comedy performers on the big screen, though as Birbiglia has proven in the past he’s a pretty good spokesman for his craft. Like Judd Apatow did specifically for stand-up in Funny People from 2009, Don’t Think Twice offers a convenient caricature of improv that is easy to read for the layman and emotionally honest for those well versed in its iconic structure and ethos. Yet Sleepwalk With Me was probably more like Birbiglia’s version of Funny People, making Don’t Think Twice, his first non-autobiographical screenplay, more like his Knocked Up. But where Apatow is far more crude and longwinded in his own articulation of his neuroses and prejudices, Birbiglia offers a streamlined version of a comedy of errors that proves to be in keeping with much of the same thematic intentions. Sleepwalk With Me was a stirring drama that investigated Birbiglia’s personal journey towards professional acuity; Don’t Think Twice is his first full-fledged dramatic interrogation of a fictionalized self, struggling against an assumed ineptness.

Moving quickly through a world of twenty-something ambition towards one of thirty-something stagnation against the backdrop of an ever dwindling idea of metropolitan bohemia, Don’t Think Twice gets at a lot of the self-defeating struggles of deciding to be an artist of any kind. Seemingly doomed to fail, if it weren’t for their blind dedication and desire to succeed, Birbiglia’s cast of improv wannabes are sympathetic and pathetic. It’s hard to imagine a more dire setting then the one viewers find Birbiglia and his troupe in at the beginning of the film, as their long-established theater space has been sold and will soon be unavailable for any future shows. Beyond that, each of the individual characters is independently struggling with their own issues and shortcomings, ranging from the cruel barb of becoming culturally irrelevant, to pining after a project that one lacks the self-confidence to fully invest in, to lacking any kind of direction in the larger world at all. The pain that the characters in Don’t Think Twice go through is intimately told, but Birbiglia carefully holds back from manipulating the viewer’s emotional response outright, lending his film more to the hard earned bite of satire than the cushy convenience of melodrama.

There are other movies like Don’t Think Twice, but not many that are nearly as satisfying. Unlike Judd Apatow’s blockbuster comedy empire, Birbiglia is far more content to dwell on quieter outbursts of interpersonal conflict, allowing his film to ponder over each and every perceived slight without surrendering the integrity of its individual players. The show that looks unavoidably like Saturday Night Live throughout Birbiglia’s film serves as something of a Siren Song for the film’s characters, who each respond to its mellifluous offering of imagined success with respective temerity to its presumed prestige. But, as in real life, such institutes of the entertainment industry are rarely the end all be all of spiritual fulfillment, leading Birbiglia’s characters to seek out their own routes to success in kind. Comedy is an endlessly fascinating genre in film, and Birbiglia is one of the greatest voices currently working through its traditions and interpreting its history.