Tag Archives: comedy films

Hip to Be Square

YouthMin

by Rachel Willis

Who needs a farcical mockumentary skewering both youth ministers and the types of kids involved in church camp? Directors Arielle Cimino and Jeff Ryan, and writer Christopher O’Connell bring you YouthMin.

Pastor David, aka “Pastor D” (Jeff Ryan), is dedicated to educating the members of his youth church organization, as well as getting them to the annual Bible camp for competition and games. So, he’s floored when the church assigns a new youth minister to his group, Rachel (Tori Hines). As we quickly see, Pastor D needs all the help he can get.

Ryan is the perfect combination of 90’s MTV reality star (he’d fit right in on early seasons of The Real World) and overenthusiastic youth minister trying too hard to connect with his flock. His attempts to educate the kids on the Bible’s tenets are both hilarious and misguided—a bottle of water becoming an amusing metaphor for sex before marriage.

The collection of kids is what you might expect. There’s a stereotypical jock-type who looks up to Pastor D, a girl who dresses very conservatively and who might have a crush on our inept pastor. Then there’s Stephen, who refuses to talk, and Deb, who dresses in dark colors but knows her Bible (especially the racier parts). There’s isn’t anyone in the group who truly stands out, but it doesn’t really matter since the best parts of the film are the ways these kids relate and react to Pastor Dave.

About two-thirds of the way through, there’s an abrupt tonal shift. The film stops making fun of its ‘subjects’ and tries for a heartwarming, root-for-the-underdog romp. It’s jarring and not nearly as entertaining as what precedes it. These aren’t characters we’ve been asked to care about, so expecting us to suddenly pull for them requires an abrupt shift in perception. Ultimately, it’s a disappointing change.

For most of the film, the comedy works. O’Connell’s writing is reminiscent of some of Christopher Guest’s funnier films. But then YouthMin forgets it’s a mockumentary. The comedy gets stale and the laughs become infrequent as the film putters to its predictable resolution.

It’s too bad this film falters so badly in its final scenes because these lackluster components overshadow the funnier material. If the filmmakers had remembered they were making fun of their characters, they would have had a solid film from start to finish.

Not So Happy Family

King of Knives

by Brandon Thomas

I think most modern movie-goers would agree that the last thing they want to see is another movie detailing the mid-life crisis of a rich New Yorker. It’s hard to muster even the most sarcastic crocodile tears while watching a sad advertising executive drive his sports car through Manhattan. Cynicism aside, King of Knives might appear to be the king of cliches at first glance, but this is a film that has a few tricks up its sleeve.  

Aforementioned Frank (Gene Pope) is our through-line into a family that, on the surface, looks to be typical, albeit with a few rough edges. The light banter that permeates through a celebratory anniversary dinner early on is quickly smothered as a hint of tragedy manifests itself. As the fractures in Frank and his wife Kathy’s (Mel Harris) marriage begin to show, their daughters (Roxi Pope and Emily Bennett) struggle with their own wants and relationships.

King Of Knives toys with our expectations from the get-go. There’s a whimsical edge that engulfs the early scenes – a tone that doesn’t feel too far off from a winky Julia Roberts movie of the 90s. The tone begins an interesting transition when family tragedy, infidelity, and mental illness enter the fray. It’s in this transition that King of Knives shows its hand. 

Brutal honesty gives King of Knives its power. This isn’t a movie looking for an easy happy ending. Instead, the characters are going through the painful process of finding what truly makes them happy. For Frank, it’s finally owning up to what a terrible father and husband he’s been. It’s not about Frank searching for pity, or the film doing so on Frank’s behalf. Instead, it’s about seeing a character confront the choices that caused so much pain for the people he loves. 

It’s not all blue Mondays, though. King of Knives is genuinely funny. The cast has a natural chemistry that allows them to bounce off one another. The comedy isn’t about bits being paid off but instead comes through its characters. 

First-time feature director Jon Delgado might not have the sharpest visual eye, but he also knows that this material isn’t looking for a flashy approach. Delgado lets the story and performances shine without letting his more technically-focused experience get in the way.  

King of Knives isn’t going to change your mind about rich New Yorkers, but you might approach the fictional kind with a little more empathy next time.  

Class Dismissed

I Used To Go Here

by George Wolf

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever wandered past their old college apartment and thought about knocking, right? And then you realize how little the kids inside will care about your nostalgia (or worse, how adorable they’ll think your old ass is), and you just keep on wandering.

But what if you were invited in? And what if you stayed awhile? With I Used To Go Here, writer/director Kris Rey has a full semester of fun exploring that very idea.

30-something Kate (Community‘s Gillian Jacobs, fantastic) is bumming over a breakup and the cancellation of the promo tour for her very first book. A phone call from her old professor David (Jemaine Clement) perks Kate right up.

Would she come back to Illinois U. as a “Distinguished Alumni” and do a reading from her novel? She would.

Once on campus, Kate pauses to take a selfie outside her old place, and one of the students inside takes notice. Oh, you’re a writer? We’re writers, too. Hey, we’re having a party tonight, you should come.

Yes, some sit-com worthy situations ensue, but the point quickly becomes how well Rey wields them all to unleash a series of hilarious punctures into the illusion of aging while hip.

And while the big picture is endlessly charming, the little details aren’t forgotten. From the obligatory Che Guevara poster to Kate donning an orientation t-shirt, from the painful college prose to the serious battle brewing between Kate and her b-n-b host, Rey displays a keen sense for weaving humanity into hijinks.

She has a wonderful vessel in Jacobs, who channels many of Rey’s usual sensibilities with an endearing and warmly funny performance. Kate’s life may be an intermittent mess, but she’s always easy to root for, and Jacobs – with help from a stellar ensemble – confidently navigates the uneven ground between Kate’s ambition, her reality, and her attempt to find out if one of her new young college friend’s girlfriend is cheating on him!

Even at its nuttiest, I Used To Go Here is a deceptively smart look at the complexities of accepting adulthood. It’s Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young with a lighter touch, a film that might make the “your future starts now” message on the back on Kate’s t-shirt ring true for both filmmaker and star.

Large, Not In Charge

My Spy

by George Wolf

I may not be ready for my close up, but I’m finally ready for my movie poster quote. Check it out:

My Spy is the best huge-former-wrestler-stars-with-little-kid movie I have ever seen.

Or, if it helps: “My Spy is the best…movie I have ever seen.” I’m flexible, just remember it’s Wolf, no “e” at the end.

There must be a page somewhere in the wrestler handbook that says the transition from mat to marquee must include some generic whale out of water antics with a precocious wee one. The Hulkster, Rock and Cena all paid their dues with insufferable projects, now it’s your turn Dave Bautista.

What the? This is pretty entertaining.

Bautista is JJ, a former special forces hero trying to make the transition to CIA operative. His ride is not smooth, so he and a wannabe partner (Kristen Schaal) are assigned to boring surveillance duty.

They set up in a Chicago apartment down the hall from Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her lonely 9 year-old daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman). The ladies have some bad-niks in the family who the Feds are hoping will make contact, because arms trading, plutonium, stolen flash drive, the usual.

The point is, Sophie sniffs out the neighboring spys in a matter of minutes, gets them on video, and uses the footage to blackmail JJ into being her friend.

Do you think Sophie’s hot mom will warm up to him, too?

Yes, it is predictable, drags in spots and is assembled from parts of plenty of other films. But director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, Get Smart) and screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber (RED, The Meg) find some solid self-aware laughs poking holes in plenty of film tropes, from action scenes and tough guy catch phrases to over-the-top gay neighbors (Devere Rogers and Noah Danby, classic) and the very idea of little kid sidekicks.

Guardians of the Galaxy proved Bautista has charisma and comic timing. My Spy lets him flash a little self-deprecating charm, and a sweet chemistry with his pint-sized partner. Coleman (Big Little Lies) brings plenty of cuteness, but also a vulnerable layer that goes a long way toward keeping the eye-rolling at bay.

And anyone who saw Mr. Nanny, Tooth Fairy or Playing with Fire will appreciate that. I know I did.

You can quote me on that.

Wild Thing

Wild Nights with Emily

by Hope Madden

Here’s a fun trend in recent indie filmmaking: let’s revisit our historic “spinsters”, shall we?

Craig William Macneill gave Lizzie Borden the treatment last year with Lizzie, offering a pretty speculative and yet decidedly clear-eyed plausibility. But Madeleine Olneck has actual history to back her up.

Plumbing Harvard University Press’s stash of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, Olneck suggests a different, funnier, slyer image of the “recluse poet.”

Wild Nights with Emily plays almost like an episode of Drunk History, although no one seems to be drunk. Olneck simulcasts two parallel retellings of the life of America’s most beloved female poet, and among its most beloved poets, regardless of sex.

Wild Nights does not disregard sex, though.

One storyline—the one you’ll recognize—is dictated by Mabel Todd (a delightful Amy Seimetz in a rare comedic performance). As she stands in her cotton candy pink dress and hat, she regales a rapt audience with stories of the Emily Dickinson she knew.

Well, “knew” seems to be a strong word.

Todd was, indeed, the first to publish Dickinson’s work aside from a stray newspaper editor here and there. And why was that? Because Dickinson was a recluse who shunned publication, as Todd defined it and history was so quick to embrace it?

Or because Dickinson’s rule-defying work was ignored by the literary establishment of her time and because she shunned Todd?

The offsetting narrative explores a different view of Dickinson, warmly and beautifully portrayed by Molly Shannon. Her relationship with lifelong friend, expert reader, fierce proponent and sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), fuels a poignant and funny story.

Is a likelier reading of Dickinson’s work and letters that of a passionate, lifelong love affair with Gilbert? Olneck’s consistently entertaining narrative certainly believes so.

This is a specifically political film, one that begs with outrage that we reexamine the stories we’ve been told about women in history—this one woman, in particular.

It’s also a mash note to the breathtaking originality and talent of the poet, whose words flow through the film without burdening it by self-importance or pretentiousness. No, Olneck’s audacious wit and Ziegler and Shannon’s performances—alongside spot on comic turns from Seimetz, Brett Gelman, Jackie Monahan and Kevin Seal—guarantee the film never bends toward anything remotely stuffy.

Instead, Wild Nights with Emily offers a refreshing and awfully entertaining new way of seeing an American treasure.

Consider the Monarch

The Favourite

by Matt Weiner

Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is someone you might charitably describe as “uncompromising.” His last two English-language films include a dystopian romantic comedy and a revenge thriller rooted in Greek mythology. So it is both a delight and a relief to see in The Favourite that Lanthimos at his most accessible is also his best yet.

The story for The Favourite was originally written by Deborah Davis, later joined by Tony McNamara but with no screenplay credit for Lanthimos—a rarity. The film covers the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, during which the War of the Spanish Succession and political jockeying in Parliament are tearing the indecisive, physically frail queen in multiple directions.

But the men of the court are little more than foppish pawns. The real palace intrigue takes place between court favorite Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her new maid, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), daughter to a once-prosperous family that has fallen on hard times. Sarah and Abigail vie for Queen Anne’s affection and behind-the-scenes power, although those two things are entangled together to varying degrees for Sarah and Abigail.

The Favourite might be dressed up as a period piece, but it’s not a demandingly historical one. Lanthimos admits to taking significant poetic license with the relationship and events between the three women. The effect isn’t just practical (although this should come as some relief if, like me, you were dreading a Wikipedia deep-dive on Whiggism).

It’s also an avenue by which Lanthimos can smuggle in his trademark eye for the very contemporary and very weird, cruel ways we treat each other. And in this area, Lanthimos has cast the perfect leading women to keep up with—and even rise above—his vision.

Stone and Weisz play off each other to perfection, with pitch black verbal volleys that threaten to turn as deadly as the war taking place beyond the mannered confines of the palace. But it’s Olivia Colman who dominates every scene, which is all the more impressive for her mercurial take on the physically deteriorating Queen Anne. Colman brings a measure of sympathy to Queen Anne that transcends what could have been played for easy mockery, and she deserves every award coming her way this year.

Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey, Slow West) keep the camera movement as brisk as the dialogue. The film’s frequent and disorienting use of fisheye is a recurring signature, but even the more conventional wide shots manage to combine a palatial sense of openness with Lanthimos’s signature creeping, queasy dread.

It felt strange to laugh out loud so much during a Lanthimos movie, especially with the undercurrents of violence and misanthropy that stalk The Favourite. Maybe it was the irrepressible performances from the leading women. Or maybe lines like “No one bets on whist!” are just inherently funny.

Whatever the reason, this deadly serious comedy of manners is among the director’s—and the year’s—best.