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.

Dr. Whoa

Bill & Ted Face the Music

by George Wolf

You know why Death (William Sadler) was really kicked out of Wyld Stallyns?

Well, I’d tell you, but that would take the number of laughs waiting for you in Bill & Ted latest romp down to two…maybe three.

It’s been almost 30 years since their Excellent Adventure gave way to the Bogus Journey, but Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are still best buds. Now living in the suburbs, each has the wife that they brought back from Medieval England (Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mays), plus a daughter (Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine) that is the younger version of their most excellent dad.

Though they still rock out, Ted is ready to hang up his guitar until the future comes calling.

It’s Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of their old pal Rufus (George Carlin, thanks to a well-placed hologram), with news from the Great Ones. The boys have exactly 77 minutes to play their song that united the world, or reality will collapse.

Whoa.

While it’s nice to know Bill & Ted will finally achieve musical greatness, the world needs that song right now. So why not go into the future, steal it from themselves, then come back and get quantum physical?

Director Dean Parisot, who helped make Galaxy Quest an underrated cult classic, teams with original franchise writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon for a time-traveling ode to living in harmony. This time, the historical figures we meet are mainly musical (Mozart, Satchmo, Grohl), but while the journey is long on sweetness and good-natured stupidity, it just isn’t very funny.

After all these years, Reeves and Winter make an endearing pair of overgrown adolescents, and they do seem genuinely joyful about stepping back into that magical phone booth.

The joy that you get from Face the Music will likely match up perfectly with the amount of nostalgia you have for this franchise. The film’s present isn’t bad, either. Because theaters are opening again, and God knows we’re all longing for a simpler time right now.

For almost 90 minutes, Bill & Ted make sure we get one.

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.

Greece Is the Word

The Trip to Greece

by George Wolf

“Exhausting? Me? You should meet you!”

Yes, the boys are at it for the fourth time on the big screen, enjoying exotic locales, savoring sumptuous cuisine, and critiquing the finer points of each other’s celebrity impressions.

Since taking The Trip around England ten years ago, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have also toured Italy (2014) and Spain (2017), reviewing restaurants and juggling their slightly fictionalized lives while director Michael Winterbottom documents it all.

This time out, they’ve also adopted more of an interest in history. They journey from Troy to Ithaca, following in the footsteps of the Odysseus, checking the tour book when they aren’t quizzing each other on historical timelines or Bee Gees tunes (Brydon’s bit with “Stayin Alive” is a scream).

The sarcasm is thick and the barbs sharp per usual, but while the overall hilarity level may be down a notch, this film boasts the most impressive vistas and enticing recipes of the entire series. Sure, it might be the quarantine talking, but less than an hour in I was ready to call either a travel agent or a Greek restaurant. Maybe both.

And in what might be a nod to the end of the franchise, the whiff of mortality pierces the air. Steve calls home often for updates on the health of his dad, and the levity of the “at our age” references carries an added layer of wistful resignation. You get the feeling these guys are finally giving up chasing youthful ghosts and embracing the time they have now.

These trips have always been about appreciating old friends, great food and often uproarious conversation. But while this isn’t the franchise high point, there’s a poignancy here in Greece, underneath Aristotle’s ashes and all the painful falsetto harmonies, that would make it the most satisfying finale.