Death Cab to Smoochy

The Rumperbutts

by Matt Weiner

It’s life imitating art for Rumperbutts, a musical comedy about a husband-wife indie band who have grown to hate their lucrative but creatively unfulfilling second act as a children’s entertainment group. Magical intervention grants the duo another chance at the music career and life they always wanted together.

Rumperbutts, written and directed by Marc Brener, is getting a second chance of its own on digital after a brief release in 2015. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, real-life married couple behind Mates of State, star as the fictional Rumperbutts, Bonnie and Jack. The band also wrote the songs and music for the movie.

After a delirious opening performance reflecting to an audience of children where their career and marriage went off the rails, Bonnie and Jack receive a visit from Richie (Josh Brener). Part muse and part fairy godfather, Richie helps free the couple from their Rumperbutts job and sets them on the path to making music again.

Why they couldn’t do both—or why it even matters when the Rumperbutts songs sound the same as their non-corporate songs—is the sort of logical leap we’re just supposed to accept, but it’s tough to ignore as the central premise.

There’s a sweet core to the film, propped up by the band’s infectious pop and chemistry together. The flashbacks that slowly reveal Bonnie and Jack falling in and out of love stand well enough on their own without the magical framing to muddy the plot. But those flashbacks also bring up their own tantalizing regrets. Mainly, what could the movie have been without trying to force together Once and A Christmas Carol into the same concept?

Rumperbutts is the ideal vehicle for its pop songs. The winsome earworms don’t go very deep, but just try and get through the movie without nodding along.

Day by Day

No Future

by Matt Weiner

The title of No Future also serves as an emotional content warning for a film about heroin addiction, and it’s a warning to heed if you want this kind of narrative tempered with breezy redemption.

But it’s not without hope. Rather, directors Andrew Irvine and Mark Smoot avoid sentimentality and addiction cliches in equal measure, and what’s left is a lean, emotional gut punch delivered by the small cast all turning in top performances.

When an old friend dies of an overdose, Will (Charlie Heaton), himself in recovery from heroin addiction, begins a tumultuous affair with Claire (Catherine Keener), his dead friend’s mother.

The pair are drawn together by grief and guilt, a dynamic that quickly goes from sympathetic to parasitic as the two spurn the numerous more emotionally healthy therapeutic outlets available to process their loss.

Keener and Heaton are electric together, which is no small feat for characters that veer wildly between retreating alone into their own pain while showing a convincing attraction to each other. Keener in particular shines as a woman who goes from casual fatalism to incandescent rage as she comes to terms with losing her son Chris (Jefferson White).

The film flirts with thematic shortcuts, most notably in the form of No Future—a band that Will and Chris played in together. But the more Will and Claire wax philosophical about what brought them to this point in the present, it becomes clear that it’s less nihilistic than it sounds.

The film is populated almost entirely with people who don’t allow themselves the luxury of looking any farther ahead than their open wound of the day. It’s raw and bracing to watch it all unfold, but if nothing else the impact lingers well into the future.

Once Upon a Time in the Northwest

Freeland

by Matt Weiner

While the trendy seasonal debate is about what makes for a Christmas movie, Freeland—a taut, character-driven thriller written and directed by Mario Furloni and Kate McLean—offers a fresh spin on neo-westerns. (Pacific Northwesterns, in this case.)

Humboldt County pot farmer Devi “Dev” Adler (Krisha Fairchild) finds her longstanding operation (and serene way of life) thrown into an existential crisis, not by any shock-and-awe DEA raid but rather the slow bureaucratic death of refusing to comply with the new proper legal channels.

With the state cracking down on illicit growing operations, Dev is increasingly cut off from potential buyers both in and out of state. The changing business landscape also lays bare how emotionally removed she has become. Both her seasonal staff and her ex-lover Ray (John Craven) see the inevitable, even if Dev cannot: a way of life in the Northwest is coming to an end and a new one has already started to replace it.

Dev’s desperate slow burn fuels much of the tension, with Fairchild turning in yet another career-defining performance half a decade after 2015’s Krisha. Whether it’s reflecting with Ray on what they’ve lost since their commune days in the 1970s or shooting withering stares at the new generation of harvesters and corporate players, Fairchild brings an aching vulnerability to the no-nonsense Dev.

While much of the action is from Dev’s emotional breakdown, the directors also slow down long enough to take in the northwest vistas. It’s easy to see why Dev refuses to change her way of life, even as every piece of what that used to be gets stripped from her one by one.

It would be monstrous to argue that legalization isn’t a net good for incarceration and the drug war (and congrats to drugs on the recent wins).  But Freeland throws into intimate focus another side of the legalization vs. decriminalization debate, in which the biggest winners look suspiciously like the same forces that are always ahead in every aspect of American life.

Freeland swaps 19th-century railroads for 21st-century agribusiness, but you don’t need a player piano to hear the familiar requiem.

The Specter Haunting America

The Big Scary “S” Word

by Matt Weiner

With a list of thank you credits that acknowledge the last few decades of leftist entertainment from Michael Moore to Chapo Trap House and the Jacobin set, it’s almost a minor miracle that a documentary about socialism manages to unite so many voices on the left into a united clarion call for economic justice as the only way to save America.

More surprising is that The Big Scary “S” Word, a new documentary from filmmaker Yael Bridge, manages to press its case while forgoing the more combative antics of Moore. Which isn’t a knock against Moore’s style, but Bridge’s staggering array of leftist academics, authors and politicians creates the atmosphere of a lively college course with your favorite professor. The academic-heavy roster, including professors Eric Foner, Cornel West, Vivek Chibber and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, often tilts toward more education than inspiration—but it’s a compelling education.

An education for which audience, though, is a trickier question. It’s hard to imagine the nation’s right-wing uncles coming together this Thanksgiving to bond with their dirtbag nieces and nephews over how everyone can get behind sewer socialism.

But Bridge seems to be aiming her sights (wisely) at the MSNBC left—the well-educated, professional set that might not realize they’ve watched half a decade of “left-wing” cable news peppered with more retired generals and contrite Republican operatives than capital-s socialists. And with barely a mention of labor unions, let alone hosts making a passionate case night after night for how the history and future of labor are inseparable from a successful liberal project. Bridge provides a much-needed counterbalance to the corporate vision of liberalism, and she makes the case without the vitriol of Twitter fights.

The film’s thorough focus on the history of socialism doesn’t leave as much time to go out on a practical note. (And it’s unfortunate, although not the film’s fault, that one of the main politicians they follow flamed out spectacularly in 2021.) Other times, the film’s prescriptions seem at odds with the title mission. Should the left be destigmatizing socialism, so it’s no longer the big, scary “s” word? Or should politicians focus on policies that improve people’s lives, and let the pundits argue over whether we are becoming Venezuela just because people shouldn’t face bankruptcy when they get cancer.

In fairness to Bridge, the documentary doesn’t demand an all-or-nothing answer. That’s up to those who respond to the film’s message. (If you like your state-owned bank, you can keep it.) What’s not left in doubt, though, is the looming crisis of climate change. It might be a loaded question, but it’s still a fair one: Is a wholesale restructuring of society really more radical and unrealistic than continuing down our current path? It’s a question everyone will need to answer at some point, hopefully before it’s too late.

We Fought a Zoo

Cryptozoo

by Matt Weiner

Harder even than finding a cryptid these days might be getting to see a new animated feature meant for adults. Cryptozoo, the latest from comic book artist Dash Shaw and animator Jane Samborski, is compelling proof of how vital it is that we still do—rare as these sightings get.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the many excellent animated options we do get, all with the requisite PG+ jokes to keep parents occupied and weepy climaxes that make you realize a matinee out with the family has turned into at least three future therapy sessions for a child 20 years into the future. But it’s refreshing to get a chance to see lushly textured, hand-drawn animal work go toward interrogating society just a little more than something like “stereotypes are bad.”

Cryptozoo kicks off as an Indiana Jones-style adventure with a mythical twist. Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), trained veterinarian and globetrotting cryptid hunter, tracks down these strange creatures and offers them a place in a protected zoo where they can safely interact with the public as well as their own kind.

Not all cryptids are humanoid, though—you try explaining “Jurassic Park but with sasquatch” to a kraken—and so the zoo’s population is a mix of humanely captured exhibits and fully sentient magical creatures who just want to live and love and go about their daily lives without fear of persecution or worse from their human neighbors.

The “worse” comes in the form of Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mercenary ex-military tracker who hunts down cryptids to sell to governments as living weapons. When Nicholas and Lauren go after the same beast (a dream-eating baku), Lauren must partner up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), whose point of view on coexistence as a gorgon leads Lauren to slowly question her lifelong pursuit and recoil from the stinging indictment of liberalism and capitalism.

If that sounds like a drag, Shaw’s script—and especially the meticulous drawings and whimsical details on each cryptid—keep it buoyant. The result is an ambitious animated feature where the medium fits the message. This is a bestiary with real bite, mapping out a world where good intentions can still come to a bad end, and that can be the most important moral to learn.

Harold and Awed

For Madmen Only

by Matt Weiner

E. B. White warned us years ago against explaining a joke when he wrote that “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

What then to make of For Madmen Only, a feature-length explanation of not just a joke but a unique art form created by a man who has to hold the title of greatest comedy legend that nobody has ever heard of?

Well, nobody outside of the comedy world. For Madmen Only seeks to correct this by documenting the story of Del Close, the improv comedy guru who brought form and structure to the genre and influenced decades of comedians, from Bill Murray and John Belushi to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Director Heather Ross brings an ordered, mostly chronological approach to Close’s chaotic life, with a who’s who of talking heads to back up the thesis that Close forever changed the direction of modern comedy. Ross balances the interviews with a series of re-enactments, with James Urbaniak giving such an uncanny performance as Close that he deserves a feature-length companion.

For Madmen Only turns the history of a comedic form into a fully engaging suspense tale, that centers Close as a dogged Quixote trying to prove both the artistic and financial success of improv, even as his tumultuous lifestyle leads to setback after setback (and a few mental breakdowns for good measure).

The film also manages to walk the tightrope between hagiography and documentary. If improv performance attracts a special blend of weirdo – as the on-camera interviews persuasively argue – that might go double for audiences who regularly watch these risky performances and hold detailed opinions about their favorite UCB Harold teams.

Yet for a documentary on such a niche subject, Ross (along with co-writer Adam Samuel Goldman) hangs everything on a universal frame. Close is an artist first, and his medium just happened to be a new kind of sketch comedy. While a film dedicated to bringing Close to a wider audience is naturally in his camp, Ross sprinkles in enough counterpoints for anyone who thinks two hours of improvised comedy is too unstructured to be funny.

Where this treatment of Close does pull its punches is when it comes to any in-depth look at the very narrow type of diversity this comedy scene fostered, an issue the industry is still grappling with. But at least that gets a passing mention.

Completely absent is any look at the financial situation these theaters have created for participants. (A situation that has, not coincidentally, led to a comedy landscape where relatively privileged writers and actors can afford to pay large amounts of money to the theaters in big cities while paying their dues.) But these blind spots belong to the entire industry, not just Close.

In a fitting nod to improv, For Madmen Only is full of surprising detours and poignant observations. It would have been easy to reduce Close to tortured genius or entitled bully. It’s harder to embrace vulnerability and grapple with the answer: “Yes. And…”

Through a Tent Darkly

Koko-di Koko-da

by Matt Weiner

What about Groundhog Day, but with unrelenting psychological dread? That’s the premise of Johannes Nyholm’s horror fable Koko-di, Koko-da, and it’s a testament to writer/director Nyholm that the film’s excruciating time loop manages to go from torturous to therapeutic.

After a family vacation takes a shocking turn, Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) lose themselves in their own private grief, their marriage one submerged argument away from total annihilation. What better time for a camping trip in the foreboding Swedish forests to get that old magic back?

Their unresolved trauma starts to literally stalk the couple in the shape of three carnivalesque figures, with each nightmare encounter ending the same way: some gruesome death, and then Tobias wakes up to repeat the loop all over again.

The horror of Koko-di Koko-da rarely gets gory. Tobias and Elin continually suffer extreme violence and torture, but it’s all (thankfully) implied. Instead, what’s so unnerving about the film is the inescapable dream logic that suffuses their fateful loop: no matter how hard Tobias tries or how fast he runs, it’s only a matter of time before the first strains of the fateful nursery rhyme on which the title is based start up, and the couple’s shared torture begins anew.

The film’s main down side is that we aren’t allowed to see or know much beyond the confines of this inexorable—and unrelenting—loop. And once the metaphor is clear, there’s little else to do besides feel like an eavesdropper in a long overdue couples therapy session. (An unconventional one, sure, with more murder and animal attacks than the APA likely recommends, but who knows what they get up to in Sweden.)

Still, it’s impossible not to feel for the grieving pair. Anyone deserves some kind of catharsis after enduring such tragedy, and both Edlund and Gallon manage to make it feel earned, even with their thinly detailed characters.

Koko-di Koko-da is not a pleasant film to watch, but it is often a beautiful one. And it lays bare the truth that there’s no escaping misery in life—that the only way to break the cycle is to confront it, pain and all.

Shipping Up to Sligo

Pixie

by Matt Weiner

There was a time in the late 90s when you couldn’t go six months without a quippy crime comedy that was obviously pitched as “Pulp Fiction, but this time you get to be the studio making a boatload of money.” Some of these, like Doug Liman’s Go, were quite good. Others, like The Boondock Saints, belong in the Hague. Most of them, though, were simply reliable—reliably watchable, and equally forgettable.

Thankfully, the new action comedy Pixie takes as many cues from its distinct local sensibilities as it does from forebears like Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, the capo di tutti capi of British gangster cinema.

It all starts, naturally, with a drug deal gone bad—and things just get worse from there. Pixie has all the convenient plot twists and beyond belief interconnectedness you’d expect in this sort of crime thriller. But it also has heart, anchored by Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) as the title moll.

A nonstop series of crosses, double crosses and double-double crosses take Pixie and her inept partners in crime on a scenic if slightly murderous tour through the West of Ireland as they attempt to make their big score without getting snared by misfit hitmen, killer priests and country gangsters hot on their heels. This includes Pixie’s own family (with the great Colm Meaney as patriarch, who seems to be thoroughly enjoying this “teddy bear who might also kill you” stage of his career).

For all the contrivances of the genre, director Barnaby Thompson, working off a script by his son Preston Thompson, imbues the film with an archness that keeps the action entertaining even at its most improbable. So much of this falls to Cooke, who switches effortlessly from femme fatale to agent of pure chaos, a beguiling anti-heroine who has figured out how to entice others to clean up the carnage she leaves in her wake.

And if the bawdy jokes, nun-related gunplay and jaw-dropping vistas still aren’t enough, perhaps Alec Baldwin chewing through his scenes and an Irish accent with equal aplomb will seal the deal.

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.

The Last Waltz

1982

by Matt Weiner

Wars are complicated. War movies? Not so much, at least not in this country. How, then, to tell the story of an invasion unfolding in the middle of a decades-long civil war?

In 1982, writer and director Oualid Mouaness narrows the lens in his feature debut to focus on the smaller picture. Set at the onset of Israel’s June 1982 invasion in Lebanon during the country’s ongoing civil war, Mouaness’s camera almost never leaves the fenced-in confines of one Beirut school.

Encroaching tanks and fighter jets begin the day as distant updates on the radios, with concerned teachers and school staff furtively trying to stay updated without alarming the children. But as the invasion progresses, it becomes impossible for anyone to keep the reality of war at bay.

How this plays out in a diverse country already torn apart by years of fighting becomes the subject of two love stories. For Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), concerns about her militia member brother outweigh keeping her relationship going with Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman), a fellow teacher with opposing political views.

Their complicated allegiances serve as a stand-in for the rapidly shifting political landscape in the country, and their uncertainties—toward each other, and the future—are played to great effect by both Labaki and Sleiman.

The film’s other main star-crossed love story is a much lighter one, as 11-year-old Wissam attempts to woo a classmate in the face of challenges both typical—pre-teen embarrassment—and extraordinary, like the one checkpoint to her house being closed.

The split between the faculty and the students is effective, to a point. Although as the idyllic bubble of the students clashes more and more with the war just beyond the school walls, the intensity given to Wissam’s courtship feels increasingly at odds with the stakes.

Some of that seems by design. Mouaness hints at the greater sectarian strife tearing the country apart, but there’s only so much metaphorical weight you can load onto the school’s metaphorical stand-ins. The film does such an economical job sketching the complexities of the war that any single, tidy resolution would do the message a disservice.

In the meantime, we are left feeling much like Wissam, aware for the first time of the complicated forces that determine our lives. And aware too of just how powerless we are to alter their direction.