Tag Archives: comedy movies

Willie or Won’t She?

Willie and Me

by George Wolf

Greta is a young girl in Germany who loves her some Wille Nelson. Her unstable mother does not agree.

“Turn it off or I’ll punch you in the face!” Not a lot of gray area there.

But her devotion to the Red Headed Stranger endures into adulthood, when Greta (Eva Haßmann, who also writes and directs her first feature) feels compelled to travel to America and attend Willie’s “farewell” concert in Las Vegas.

So after selling the Porsche behind her husband’s back and setting their kitchen on fire (accidentally?), Greta just can’t wait to get on the road (again).

Flying first into L.A, Greta finds the city pretty welcoming, starting with the helpful hotel desk clerk who sails often on whiskey river (Peter Bogdanovich, in his final screen appearance). A local Elvis impersonator named Nick (Blaine Gray) also takes an interest in Greta’s welfare, stirring echoes of how an entire city instantly rolled over for Elizabeth Berkeley’s character in Showgirls.

But rather than serving up pretentious camp, Haßmann embraces the utter silliness of Greta’s quest. There are snake bites, blow up dolls, stolen cars, pre-teen con artists and more trying to derail Greta’s journey, but she just keeps plowing ahead with the certainty of the Blues Brothers’ “mission from God.”

It’s not really that funny, and the production values can be shaky, but there’s a quirky charm here, thanks mainly to a commitment from Haßmann that mirrors her character. She even writes and performs a song with Willie himself, who handles double duty with a cameo as a mysterious man in black.

It adds up to a madcap slice of Napoleon Dynamite-esque Americana that’s just as likely to leave you scratching your head as laughing out loud. There’s little chance Willie and Me will be always on your mind, but at just 87 minutes, it’s a whimsical tribute to an icon that won’t feel like a waste of time.

Not at Home, Not Quite Alone

The Holdovers

by George Wolf

It’s the holiday season! The time of peace, joy, and goodwill!

Or…conflict, resentment, and spite.

Director Alexander Payne serves up plenty from group B in The Holdovers, a period comedy that also finds time to unwrap some warmth and understanding.

It is December 1970, and most of the boys at New England’s Barton boarding school are heading home for the two-week Christmas break. Circumstance has left five “holdovers” behind, where they will endure the disciplined regimen of Mr. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a bitter history teacher who delights in the misery of his rich, entitled students.

But through an additionally cruel twist of fate for the angry, young Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), the four other left behinds get sprung, leaving Angus alone with the cantankerous teacher the boys have nicknamed “Walleye.”

Well they’re not quite alone. Kitchen manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is on campus, too. Mary’s still mourning the loss of her son Curtis in Vietnam, and she has no room in her heart of festive merrymaking.

Giamatti is perfection as a man who seems to have forged a comfortable “hate-hate” relationship with life. Sessa impresses in his screen debut, giving depth to the rebellion that has brought Angus multiple expulsions from multiple schools. And Randolph brings plenty of weary humanity, crafting Mary as a heartbroken woman still trying to understand why her Curtis was deemed more expendable than these rich white boys who are preparing for college instead of war.

And as Mr. Hunham tells Angus that we “must begin in the past to understand the present,” David Hemingson’s script sends the three unlikely friends off on a “field trip.” The adventure will reveal how their respective pasts have shaped them, and how they may have more in common than they knew.

There are areas of contrivance that recall Hemingson’s extensive TV resume, but Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, The Descendants) grounds it all with a comfortable restraint that allows the actors and some terrific production design to work authentic moments of magic and laughter..

We all have a story. Life can be unfair, and most of us are struggling with something. Be kind.

Those are lessons that seem to resonate a little deeper this time of year, which means now is the perfect time to accept an invitation from The Holdovers.

Pleased to Meet Me

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

by George Wolf

It’s not just that it’s the role he was born to play. It’s also that it feels like precisely the right moment for him to be playing it, as if the cosmos themselves are aligning to deliver us some rockin’ good news.

How good? Well, for starters, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent gives him about a minute and a half just to name check himself as “Nic f’innnnnnnnnnggggggggow!WoahCage!”

It’s a film that nails a joyously off the rails tone early and often, as Nic goes after the role of a lifetime with a public rage reading for David Gordon Green, but comes up short. The letdown has Nic considering walking away from the business altogether, until his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) calls with an attention-getting offer.

Attend one birthday party for a superfan, collect one million dollars.

So it’s off to Spain and the lavish compound of Javi (Pedro Pascal), where Nic is blindsided by two federal agents (Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz) staking out the place. Seems Javi is actually a drug kingpin who’s holding a young girl hostage in an effort to influence an upcoming election.

Sounds funny, right?

Not really. Which makes it even more of a kick when there’s no defense against giving in to the gleefully meta madness.

Director and co-writer Tom Gormican (That Awkward Moment) taps into the cult of Cage by both exploiting the myth and honoring how it took root. There are multiple, non-judgemental callbacks to the Cage filmography, while the young Nic (via hit or miss de-aging) drops in to remind his older self just who the F they are!

And while we’re loving all manner of Cage, here comes Pedro! More natural and endearing than he’s ever been, Pascal starts by channeling the fan in all of us, and then deftly becomes the film’s surprising heart. Yes, there are nods to Hollywood pretension, but they’re never self-serving, and the film is more than content to lean all the way in to a madcap adventure buddy comedy spoof.

Would it shock anyone if we eventually get a tell-all book revealing that Cage actually was a CIA operative? Or that he won Employee of Every Month? Nope, and Massive Talent is a fun, funny salute to a guy who’s improved a host of movies by never forgetting who he is.


Manor Manners

Lady of the Manor

by Hope Madden

Flatulence, Judy Greer and historical reenactments? I don’t think we see enough of these in independent film.

Neither do brothers Justin and Christian Long, presumably, because they have written and directed Lady of the Manor to encourage us to spend some time with all three. And since the flatulence is cinematic rather than aromatic, what’s the harm?

There is none. The film is, in a word, harmless.

Greer plays Civil War-era Lady Wadsworth. As the film opens, we see her behaving properly, sporting proper posture and manners, quarreling politely with her husband, and tumbling fatally down a flight of stairs.

The Longs intercut this scene with the audio from a true-crime program being viewed by modern-day ne’er-do-well Hannah (Melanie Lynskey). After a series of drug and alcohol-related shenanigans, the down-on-her-luck Hannah accepts a position as tour guide of Wadsworth Manor.

Hannah’s clear, almost criminal weaknesses in the areas of ladylikeness bring the ghost of Lady Wadsworth back to the manor to teach Hannah some etiquette. Or is there another reason for her spectral return?

The Longs plump up their very slight script with plenty of silliness. Justin portrays Hannah’s bashful history professor suitor Max, while Ryan Phillippe lampoons his early career roles with a funny entitled douchebag performance as Wadsworth heir, Tanner.

There’s also a fun Luis Guzmán cameo and a rare Patrick Duffy sighting.

But the film is at its best when Lynskey and Greer turn My Fair Lady into The Odd Couple. These veteran character actors riff off each other like old vaudeville partners, bringing joy to even the most superficial scenes.

There are plenty of those. Lady of the Manor often plays like an extended episode of Drunk History, only maybe not quite as funny. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, no one is challenged by the material, and an entirely pleasant if fairly predictable and only modestly funny time is had by all, viewers included.

Double Trouble

The Mimic

by Matt Weiner

You can’t say Thomas F. Mazziotti didn’t warn you: his new comedy The Mimic starts with a shaggy dog, and delivers on the format and then some.

Thomas Sadoski stars as the Narrator, a screenwriter who finds himself being shadowed by an overly agreeable new neighbor—who, by the way, might be a violent sociopath. The neighbor goes only by the Kid, and actor Jake Robinson plays up the “is he or isn’t he” thing to delightful effect by holding the same unnerving rictus for the entire movie.

As the two men become more and more wound up in each other’s lives, the Narrator starts a determined quest to find out what might be lurking below the Kid’s clingy surface. But not before turning the Kid into part frenemy, part sounding board. It becomes clear that the Kid isn’t the only one with emotional issues in need of exorcising.

Where the film’s breezy comedy takes flight is in the brief encounters the Narrator has along the way. These interactions bring in everyone from a newspaper editor (Jessica Walter) to an unlucky driver (Austin Pendleton) to M. Emmet Walsh in some always welcome scene stealing.

If anything, the rotating guest cast cuts against the film. It’s a minor tragedy to get the likes of Walter, Walsh and Gina Gershon, and then barely get to see them work their comic chops before the story reverts back to the claustrophobic tug-of-war between the Narrator and the Kid.

For The Mimic to succeed as a comedy, there’s a lot riding on the dynamic between Sadoski and Robinson. Mazziotti keeps their philosophical banter both light and fast enough to make us almost forget those fleeting moments when Robinson lets some of the menace come out from behind his smile.

The two actors play well off one another, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re trapped with them as much as they are with each other. They’ve mastered the cadence of a classic comedy couple, but their meandering dialogue varies wildly in just how much substance backs up their conversations from scene to scene.

That might be the point, but a little goes a long way. The cast manages to pull off some genuinely funny moments, but when you peel away all the winking direction and screwball zingers it’s hard to shake the feeling that, as comedy, The Mimic gets by on doing an off-kilter impression of the real thing.

Pennies From Heaven

Faith Ba$ed

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

I have seen Faith Ba$ed and I am outraged.

People that haven’t seen it are outraged, and you know what that is?

Outrageous, but not surprising.

According to writer and co-star Luke Barnett, people are upset at just “the idea of it.” And that’s an ironic protest that actually speaks more negatively about the Christian film industry than anything in this actual movie.

Barnett and director Vincent Masciale, both Funny or Die veterans, are more interested in the goofy exploits of two lifelong friends in California who are having trouble adjusting to adulthood.

Tanner (Tanner Thomason) is a ladies man bartender whose life goals don’t extend beyond drinking and hanging out with friends. Luke (Barnett) cleans pools while peddling the weight loss tea pyramid scheme of his entrepreneurial idol Nicky Steele (Jason Alexander in a bonkers cameo).

Luke and Tanner are big movie fans, and when they discover just how profitable the faith-based market is, a plan emerges. If they can make their own “Jesus” film and sell it to ChristFlix pictures, there should be more than enough profit to stuff their pockets and help out the local Elevate Church where Luke’s father (Lance Reddick) is the pastor.

The big question: can the boys snag Butch Savage (David Koechner, bonkers himself), the action hero from their youth, for the pivotal role?

Masciale, helming his second feature, brings an irresistibly absurdist vibe to the shenanigans that practically begs you not to overthink any of it. Sometimes we get character interviews as per a mockumentary, sometimes we don’t. The continuity and internal logic gets shaky at times, all of which falls perfectly in line with the movie within this movie.

Good-natured fun is certainly had at the expense of the faith-based industry. Margaret Cho’s appearance as a ChristFlix executive running down the rules of Christian films is every bit the bullseye of the horror rules in Scream, and the big Christian yacht rock concert (pay attention to those lyrics!) is subtle perfection.

But it’s the continued success of the Christian entertainment industry that makes it ripe for satire. And while Faith Ba$ed uses the setting to great advantage, its knives are never out for the believers themselves.

Because you know what else Barnett’s script gives us? A church community that is welcoming to all, one where people missing something in their lives can and do find real fulfillment.

And it gives us plenty of laughs, memorable quotes and overall nuttiness at a time when we could use it.

Oh, the outrage.

This Was Not a Ski Accident!

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

by George Wolf

How good does a movie have to be before it can’t be improved by adding werewolves?

Don’t answer yet, let’s backtrack.

Two years ago. Thunder Road was a pretty fantastic breakout for writer/director/star Jim Cummings. A visionary character study with alternating moments of heart and hilarity, it felt like recognizable pieces molded into something bracingly original.

Now, Cummings feels it’s time to throw in some werewolves.

While The Wolf of Snow Hollow may not be exactly the same film, the road it travels is pretty thunderous, with Cummings playing a very similar character on a very similar arc.

He’s officer John Marshall of the Snow Hollow sheriff’s department. John’s father (Robert Forster, in his final role) is the longtime sheriff of the small ski resort town, but Dad’s reached the age and condition where John feels he’s really the one in charge.

John’s also a recovering alcoholic with a hot temper, a bitter ex-wife and a teen daughter who doesn’t like him much. But when a young ski bunny gets slaughtered near the hot tub under a full moon, suddenly John’s got a much bigger, much bloodier problem.

As more mutilated corpses stain the snowy landscape, John faces the wrath of scared townsfolk and the growing belief from his own deputies (especially Chavez!) that a werewolf might have come to Snow Hollow.

John doesn’t agree. “It’s a man! When do I get to be right about something?”

This script, like his last, is full of life, and has Cummings again juggling random outbursts of absurd non-sequiturs and hilarious anger with real human issues of struggle and loss. John’s afraid of losing his father, women are being preyed upon, and a drink would sure hit the spot.

And there’s a beast out there threatening the lives and livelihood of Snow Hollow. Yes, you’ll be reminded of Jaws, as well as any number of werewolf films and even Silence of the Lambs.

And if you have seen Thunder Road, you’ll quickly be struck by how much more stylish of a director Cummings is this time out. He’s got a bigger budget and it damn sure shows, with some gorgeous outdoor landscapes, frisky visuals (he must be an Edgar Wright fan) and a confident grip on his monster vision.

Forster’s mere presence brings a bittersweet authenticity to the supporting ensemble, and a stellar turn by Riki Lindhome as Snow Hollow’s most reliably steady deputy gives John’s manic nature a welcome contrast.

Cummings appears to have a gift for taking a pile of familiar, reshaping it and emerging with something endlessly interesting and effortlessly entertaining. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is all that and more.

At its core, it’s a super deluxe re-write of Thunder Road with werewolves. I call that a bloody good time.

And I Feel Fine

Save Yourselves!

by Hope Madden

“The world is f*cked and we should stop pretending it’s not.”

True enough.

This piece of insight comes from Su (Sunita Mani), one half of the Brooklyn couple who’s disconnected to enjoy a week in nature, away from the distractions of a life spent too much online. Yes, Su has brought an internet list of ways to improve as a couple, but she handwrote the list into her notebook, so it’s OK.

Meanwhile, longtime (maybe too long?) boyfriend Jack (John Reynolds, Stranger Things) is jonesing to YouTube his tips for humanely trapping a rabbit. But he will not give in!

No, the two are committed to staying off the grid and offline this week, no matter the cost.

Naturally, this is the week the world ends.

Writers/directors Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, a couple themselves, create a comfortable, hipster vibe. Su and Jack’s relationship is funny in a way that feels less like cynicism and more like compassionately self-referential mockery.

Both performances are charmingly irritating, if that’s a thing. It is here, which could be hard to sell but it’s imperative in this film. The couple is lightly self-obsessed and overly sensitive—an affectionate rip on millennials—but they are sincerely fond of each other, and we are, in turn, fond of them.

Things get sillier once the threat exposes itself. The earth has been overrun by fuzzy little puff balls the couple refers to as pouffes. Yes, the harmless looking—adorable, even—mayhem does feel remarkably similar to those tribbles that caused the Star Trek crew such trouble back in the day.

That’s not the only part of the filmmakers’ feature debut that feels somewhat borrowed, but don’t let them fool you. Just when you think the film itself is selling out, promoting a status quo, nuclear family vibe that would sink the entire production, nope.

The lighthearted cynicism and dystopian dread that marks a generation rears its pessimistic but nonetheless delightful head for an end that’s an unsettling mix of optimism and desperation.

In My Oils

Eternal Beauty

by George Wolf

Actor and filmmaker Craig Roberts has pointed to a family member beset by mental illness as the inspiration for Eternal Beauty. You can feel the care Roberts takes in trading stigmas for “superpowers,” as well as the trust he puts in his stellar ensemble to mine the subtle humanity in his script.

Roberts played Sally Hawkins’s son in the sublime Submarine ten years ago, and arranging a working reunion sits right at the top of the smart choices made for his second feature as writer/director.

The Oscar-nominated Hawkins plays Jane, a woman managing to live independently with paranoid schizophrenia, constant medication and bouts of depression. She still has scars from being left at the altar years before, and receives precious little affection or encouragement from her mother (the always welcome Penelope Wilton) or sisters (Alice Lowe, Billie Piper).

Jane’s choice to take a break from her meds brings concerns (like the giant spider hallucinations) but also some welcome clarity amid her constant fog. After first rebuffing the interest of Mike (David Thewlis), an aspiring musician with similar mental issues, Jane accepts his advances, and the two begin a relationship bearing all the awkwardness and free-spirited fun of first love.

Hawkins, again, is a wonderful vessel of expression. Jane may stumble through her days wearing oversized clothes and offering hushed sentences, but she’s always observing and dissecting. She can notice the red flags of her brother-in-law’s wandering eye, and sensibly concoct a darkly hilarious plan to improve her family’s choice in Christmas gifts. Through it all, Hawkins’s vision of Jane is never less than human, and always deeply affecting.

Roberts often films with disjointed angles and changing colors to reflect Jane’s worldview, which sounds more cloying than it actually is, much like the tonal shifts that Roberts softens through a wise commitment to understatement.

More than once in the film we hear a doctor advise: “Don’t fight depression, make friends with it.” By treating Jane’s joy and heartbreak less like a clinical study and more as parts of a greater familial whole, Eternal Beauty finds a way to make those orders seem doable.

Issue Related

I’ve Got Issues

by George Wolf

Toward the end the nearly 20 vignettes that make up I’ve Got Issues, a mournful woman proclaims, “The world is absurd. I’ve lost all my humor. But I must continue.”

That’s when you realize how deeply the lede has been buried.

Because that’s exactly what writer/director Steve Collins serves up: a host of absurdity that soldiers on, no matter how few laughs are generated.

Featuring occasional narration from Jim Gaffigan, bare bones production values and an ensemble of actors in ever-changing roles, the film wallows in the lowest of keys and the shaggiest of dogs. From a KKK recycling program to a self-help guru who’s of very little help, from a woman caught on a tilt-a-whirl to a singer sending out a demo tape addressed only to “Hollywood,” this film strings together segments on absurd futility that begin to make the title feel more like a cry for help.

Those with a very particular sense of humor may enjoy this film very much. God bless them.