Archive

comedy

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning
Directed by Frank Oz

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Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) has a good thing going. He lives in a beautiful mansion in Beaumont Sur Mer, on the French Riviera. He makes his money bilking foolish wealthy American women by convincing them he is exiled royalty from a fictional Eastern European country. Everything starts to fall apart when Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) comes to town. Freddy is a rude, loud, obnoxious con man who thinks he’s impressive getting a woman to buy him a dinner. Lawrence and Freddy face off to determine who is the better criminal and end up crossing paths with Janet Colgate, an unassuming American beauty (Glenne Headly).

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Hello, My Name is Doris (2016)
Written by Laura Terruso & Michael Showalter
Directed by Michael Showalter

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Doris Miller (Sally Field) has just lost her mother. She’s lived all her sixty-something years on Staten Island with her mom, and now she isn’t quite sure what to do with her life. She does data entry for an apparel company in the city and finds herself becoming infatuated with John (Max Greenfield), the new art director. Doris begins to challenge her own routines and expand her horizons in a film that seeks to play with our expectations of romantic comedies.

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Masterminds (2016)
Written by Chris Bowman & Hubbel Palmer, and Emily Spivey
Directed by Jared Hess

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It’s 1997 in North Carolina, and Loomis Fargo armored truck driver David Ghant (Zach Galifianakis) is about to be married but developing a crush on his fellow driver Kelly (Kristen Wiig). Kelly’s friend and ex-con Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) convinces her to use this infatuation as a means to have David rob Loomis Fargo for them. David goes along and ends up absconding with $17 million dollars in cash, the largest robbery in American history. They dupe dumb David into hiding out in Mexico with plans to turn him in a while blowing as much money as they can. But through a series of coincidence and dumb luck, David ends up with the upper hand.

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555 (2017)
Written by Kate Berlant, John Early, & Andrew DeYoung
Directed by Andrew DeYoung

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A mall employee finds out a pop song she wrote has been stolen. A mother pushes her near mute son to audition for commercials. Two students in an acting class have meaningless interactions. A couple of actors getting makeup applied talk endlessly about getting their shit together and making YouTube content. Hollywood agents move like predators through every aspect of their lives. This is the world of Kate Berlant and John Early’s 555, a digital anthology series offered by Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/ondemand/fivefivefive).

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Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, dir. Tobe Hooper)

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It’s been thirteen years since the events of the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre and stories still surface from time to time of bizarre killings and bodies found on the side of the road in pieces. The local police don’t seem to take the sensationalized version of this stories seriously though Lt. Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) believes. His niece and nephew were two of the young people slaughtered back in 1973, and he is on the hunt for the people who did it. Lefty’s path crosses with radio DJ Stretch who has a recording of a killing that occurred during a call-in on her show. This recording leads them into a direct confrontation with the Sawyer family in their new home, the amusement park Texas Battle Land.

Director Tobe Hooper was reportedly unhappy with how grim, and serious audiences took the original film when he personally saw a lot of dark humor woven throughout. This sequel was his reaction to that, and it most definitely shows. TCM2 is most definitely a horror-comedy, and I personally think it is a great one. When it comes to horror, I’m not a big fan of the slasher/gore sub-genre. So many times it just feels like an excuse to showcase a large number of special effects that, while impressive, don’t really scare me. And I feel the best horror is the kind that gets under your skin and leaves you unnerved. Hooper’s original plan was to make the sequel about an entire Texas small town full of cannibals running riot, but the producers opted for something a little smaller and readily achievable. That isn’t to say TCM2 is a subtle film, it is over the top crazy, particularly with Dennis Hopper’s character.

Hopper plays Lefty as a completely unhinged religious zealot, unhinged being something Hopper was great at. Early in the film he goes to purchase a chainsaw for his coming confrontation with the Sawyers and ends up getting one large saw, plus two smaller ones so he can duel wield. He tests them out on a log designed for this purpose outside the store. The scene reminded me of the weirder moments in Cabin Fever where you have no idea why characters are doing or saying what they are in this scene. It’s both funny and really effectively creepy. This is just one instance of how heightened all the characters are across the picture. Stretch is overly spunky, and her transformation that leads up to the ending is both hilarious and terrifying.

The Sawyer Family is played in a fascinating way, particularly in how Hooper undercuts a lot of their menace in the latter half of the film. Leatherface and The Cook are present in the first act but in the background. It’s not until the new addition to the family Chop Top’s arrival at the radio station one night that our protagonists are met with their enemies. Bill Moseley’s portrayal of Chop Top continues the scary and funny dynamic Hooper is attempting. The character is implied to be a Vietnam vet turned washed up hippie with a metal plate in his head courtesy of the Viet Cong. He wears a wig when he first appears and habitually lights the hook of a wire hanger and scratches the scabbed skin around the plate. If that wasn’t bad enough, he picks the skin off the hook and nibbles on it. The grotesque is heightened to that level of cartoon absurdity, and I think this was a better choice than the way the Michael Bay reboot franchise has gone completely grimdark.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is not a film that is ever going to appeal to a mass audience. It’s way too gross for most moviegoers and way too silly for hardcore horror fans. It is definitely the work of its director and screenwriter, L.M. Kit Carson’s views on Texas and America in the 1980s. Instead of a quiet farmhouse, the Sawyer’s inhabit a grossly elaborate bone covered compound beneath the earth. Seeing the film, not as a pure horror experience, but a personal comment on a particular ideology of the time adds a lot to understanding what the filmmakers are doing and why they went in such a strange direction.

The Young Pope – Season 1 (2016)
Created by Paolo Sorrentino

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Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) has just been ordained as Pope Pius XIII, and his first act as the head of the Catholic Church is to do…nothing. He’s not giving a big speech in St. Peter’s Square. He won’t talk to the press. He won’t even allow his photograph to be taken. The leadership at the Vatican quickly learns that Pius plans to close the Church off from the public, an attempt to reverse any progressive ideas pushed by former popes. As we delve further, we learn that Pius is an orphan, raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), whom he brings to his new papal palace to act as his chief of staff. There is also his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) who was considered the traditional favorite to be chosen as pope. Due to back door machinations and Spencer having ill will from some of the other cardinals, a bet was taken on the wild card, Belardo. What follows is the strange story of Pope Pius, the orphan pope, the mysterious Pope, The Young Pope.

I had a passing familiarity with the work of Paolo Sorrentino but had never actually watched any of his films. I have to say I was happily blown away with my first introduction. Throughout the entire ten-episode run I was reminded of David Lynch and Twin Peaks. In the same way that that television series was so singularly an introduction to the style and storytelling of a sole creator, The Young Pope is a fresh, energetic opening to the work of Sorrentino. From the first scene your expectations are challenged, and with each subsequent episode, as soon as you think you know what this show is, it shakes its head and pulls the carpet out from underneath you. I think such an inventive and surprising style of show matches the surreal nature of the Vatican itself. The institution is such a strange thing to think about existing in a 21st-century context so a show about it shouldn’t attempt pure realism. There are many flashbacks, dreams, and visions and Sorrentino doesn’t necessarily concern himself about signaling when we are switching into one or away from one. The audience’s intelligence is respected enough that the literal and the metaphor intermingle and we are expected to understand the larger meaning.

The visuals of The Young Pope are so striking. In the first episode, we have a fantasy benediction played out in the daydreams of Pius that features the Cardinals falling backward as they faint, their feet up in the air. Later, a kangaroo is frequently seen hopping around the papal gardens. The phantom of a young woman being offered up for sainthood rushes past Pius on his walks. The pope is visited by a Congress of popes from history whom he asks for and receives lackluster advice. Sorrentino’s camera is so fluid, reminiscent of Kubrick and Malick. The music of the series is also entirely unexpected and playful. Modern tracks appear throughout, most notably LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy, and I Know It” as Pius prepares for his first address to the College of Cardinals. Andrew Bird’s “Logan’s Loop” is used multiple times to convey moments of levity or the softening of the Pope. The opening credits of the series are a cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that is an immediate sign this is not going to be a stoic observation of what life is really like inside the Vatican.

It is not an exaggeration for me to say I think this is Jude Law’s finest performance to date. Pius is a tremendously difficult character to portray. He is a direct contradiction to what the audience might expect. A young, American pope is anticipated to be a modernist and progressive, but Pius seeks to bring the Church back to an era thought gone forever. He is highly acerbic and unlikable, yet deep into the series events conspire that cause a shift in the Pope’s mindset. My early perceptions of the series are that it would be the story of forces working against Pius and his battle against them. Instead, the show becomes one of redemption and about how people can change, given time and people who will listen to them. And more importantly, people who will challenge them.

I can confidently say there is nothing on television like The Young Pope. It is a type of show that asks questions about spirituality and God most networks seem nervous to let a program ask. It’s a show that is most definitely about human beings, the fallibility, and the power to come back from those failings and try again.

Other People (2016, dir. Chris Kelly)

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John David is back at his childhood home in Sacramento under heavy circumstances. His mother, Joanne has a severe form of cancer to treat, and the family is coming to terms with the fact that she will not last much longer. David had a falling out with the family in college when he came out as gay and that history resonates now. He feels awkward and out of place with his sisters and father. He does bond deeply with his mother though, and their story is the crux of the film.

Other People is the writing-directing debut of Chris Kelly, a former Saturday Night Live writer who bases the film on his own life and experiences with his late mother. I was admittedly a little trepidatious when starting this movie. The loved one dying of cancer trope has been mined pretty deep by Hollywood for decades, and the results usually feel like emotionally manipulative tripe. The disease is often a lazy way to quickly get the audience to feel for characters without actually building the relationships between the characters on screen. Kelly successfully avoids this and ends up with a beautiful character-focused film, carried firmly on the shoulders of Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons.

I have never been quite a fan of Molly Shannon’s work on Saturday Night Live. Her style of hyper-maniac, emotionally awkward acting in that venue never clicked with me. Since then though, I have found her film work to be amazing. Her collaborations with Mike White (Year of the Dog, HBO’s Happiness) have been my favorite and it’s because she works so well with White. Other People reveals a new potential fruitful partnership because she arguably gives her best performance to date. Shannon’s sense of humor is present and meshes with the real world around her. She’s not over the top or larger than life. She plays Joanne like a real mother would be, hiding the worst of her illness at times and others allowing herself to vent, only later to feel a bit guilty. The journey she takes Joanne through is remarkable and the inevitable death scene is never played for cheap tears. It’s done off screen and we only see the family seconds after she has passed.

Jesse Plemons is another actor whom I have felt fairly neutral about. I didn’t watch much of Friday Night Lights but saw him in Breaking Bad, The Master, and a few other roles. I’d never actually seen him take a leading spot so I wasn’t quite sure how he would do in Other People. He ends up being quite captivating. The character of David is written so that he’s not an infallible protagonist. He’s often quite selfish and unthinking of anyone outside himself and his own neuroses. There’s definite justification for his hostility towards his father, but the film never just gives him full allowance to be an asshole without consequences. The resolution between he and his father isn’t neat and tidy, lots of questions still hang out there. Once again, like with Joanne’s portrayal, this feels incredibly true to life. Those deep cuts don’t ever get fully healed and family typically either splits or learns to adapt around them. The supporting cast of the film is one of those that you dream of. Lots of improv actors, faces from Saturday Night Live, and great character actors. Paul Dooley, Bradley Whitford, John Early, Matt Walsh, Paula Pell, Retta, Lennon Parham, Zach Woods and more.

Other People is a very well done family drama that exceeds the bar set by our last few illness-based comedy-dramas. It’s characters feel true to life, and they are allowed to breathe and develop so that the death of Joanne feels like it has consequence. You will likely tear up or cry, but the film earns those tears.