Category Archives: Independent Comedy Films

Other People-2016

Other People-2016

Director-Chris Kelly

Starring-Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon

Reviewed August 24, 2017

Grade: B+

2016’s recipient of numerous Independent Film award nominations is equal parts a touching drama and equal parts witty comedy, providing a film experience that successfully transcends more than one genre- is it a heavy drama or is it a comedic achievement? Without being sappy or overindulgent, Other People is a film that will elicit both laughs and tears from viewers fortunate enough to see this film focused on a tough to tackle subject- a woman dying of cancer. The title of the film, which one character states he always thought cancer was something that only happened to “other people” is poignant.

Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon play son and mother in the brave film both written and directed by Chris Kelly. The very first scene is a confusing one and caught me off guard- we see the entire Mulcahey clan- father Norman (Bradley Whitford), three kids, David (Plemons), Alex, and Rebeccah, along with their dead mother Joanne (Shannon), all lying in the same bed, sobbing and clutching hands. Clearly Joanne has just succumbed to her battle with cancer. This powerful opening scene, which ironically is also the final scene, sets the tone for the entire film as Kelly, works his way back, beginning a year prior to the important “death scene”.

Cancer is a very tough subject to cover in film, especially going the comedy/drama route. The sensitive film maker must be careful not to trivialize the subject matter with too many comedic elements nor go for the heavy drama. Kelly successfully mixes the humor and drama well so that the film works as a cross-genre film. He achieves this by putting capable talents like Plemons and Shannon to good use- they share tremendous chemistry in every scene they appear in together. Scenes that show David and Joanne cry in each others arms work as well as others, such as when David takes a giddy Joanne to meet his comedy friends.

Most impressive is that the story in Other People is largely autobiographical- Kelly, a gay man like the character of David, moved from New York City to Sacramento, California, to tend to his ailing mother, who had also died from cancer. Actress Shannon reminded him so much of her that he had the fortune of casting the talented lady in his film- the part originally slated to go to Sissy Spacek instead.

Mixed in with the Joanne’s battle with cancer is also a nice story about David. A gay man, David has broken up with his boyfriend Paul, previously living together on the east coast (though still pretending to in order to spare Joanne worry), to return to the west coast. Over the course of the next year we see Joanne and Norman slowly come to terms with David’s sexuality- more so Norman than Joanne. In fact, the turbulent father/son relationship is explored during the course of the film as Norman, initially hesitant to even meet David’s boyfriend, Paul, in the end, pays for his airline ticket to attend Joanne’s funeral.

A slight miss with the film is the Norman/David dynamic-besides a few hints of Norman encouraging David’s struggling writing career and his obsession with David joining the gym and boxing, it is not really clear what issue he takes with his son being gay or why he is uncomfortable with it- other than the implication that the family is rather conservative no other reason is given. David’s sister’s and grandparents do not seem to take issue with David’s sexuality, though it is not made certain if the grandparents are even aware of it. Is it a machismo thing with Norman? This part of the story is unclear.

Still, in the end, Other People is a good, small, indie film, rich with crisp, sharp writing and a tragic “year in the life of a cancer patient” along with good family drama and the relationships that abound when a family comes together and unites based on a health threat. The film is certainly nothing that has not been done before, but thanks to good direction and a thoughtful, nuanced, approach, along with one character’s sexuality mixed in, the film feels quite fresh.

BearCity-2010

BearCity-2010

Director-Douglas Langway

Starring-Joe Conti, Stephen Guarino

Reviewed March 19, 2017

Grade: B

BearCity is a small, independent, LGBT, coming of age film that tells of a young man living in New York City, and his exploration of a sub-culture within the LGBT community and a subsequent romance that follows. The film is a comedy and has a “Sex in the City” or “Queer as Folk” approach to its storytelling- a group of close knit friends and  raunchy and gratuitous to be sure. The budget is very small and some aspects rather amateurish, but the film is enjoyable, especially for those exposed to the LGBT lifestyle. The film is not a heavy nor are any of the characters dealing with “coming out” issues, but rather it is a fun sex comedy romp.

Our central character, Tyler (Joe Conti), is a young man in his twenties, an aspiring actor, who moves to New York City to pursue his career, with a mind for casual dating. His roommates encourage him to date Abercrombie and Fitch types, but Tyler comes to realize he prefers “bear” types- mature, hairy men. On the sly he begins to pursue this sub-culture and makes many friends. The apple of his eye, handsome Roger (Gerald McCullough) is a popular mature man, distinguished in the bear circle, and risks his reputation with “the bears” by falling in love with Tyler. The two men spend the greater part of the film conquering their respective fears and finding their way into each others arms in a predictable ending.

BearCity is a fun farce and nothing very heavy and the featuring of a strong circle of friends is a nice, positive portrayal- all of the friends connect well and stick by each other through thick and thin. Comical sub-plots abound such as one couples (Brent and Fred) awkward parlay into the world of threesomes with unsuccessful results. Another bear who is unemployed, and grossly obese, decides to undergo weight loss surgery much to the chagrin of his hunky boyfriend.

The main story though, belongs to Tyler and Roger and their inevitable reunion can be seen miles away. The film throws various hurdles in their way, such as a third person briefly dating Roger, or Roger’s commitment issues, but the climax of the film will be no surprise to anyone. Tyler and Roger make a nice couple as a whole, but perplexing is how the film makes Roger the undisputed leader of the bear group, when he is actually a lean, muscular man- not a “bear” at all! This is odd to me, but BearCity is so light hearted that I suppose I can let this detail slide in favor of a good romance.

Critically, the film is nice, but quite amateurish, and super low-budget. The acting, especially by some of the supporting characters (the pre-surgery guys boyfriend is the most glaring example), is not great. I half-expected him to accidentally look at the camera. Additionally, the film has a low-budget look and feel, which on one level is fine, but combined with the not so stellar acting, enhances the inexperience of the cast and crew. The film is tough to take too seriously- if this is even the intention of the filmmakers.

The film is a logistical treat for anyone privy to popular gay hangouts in New York City- specifically The Eagle and The Ramrod, both locales are featured prominently, and the use of many real-life people who hang out at those establishments are used throughout the production.

BearCity is not a bad experience and certainly a film that is light and comical within the LGBT community seems rather fresh compared to the myriad of dramatic and heavy films that exist. At the same time the film teeters towards goofy too much with more than one bafoonish, sex-crazed, stereotypical gay man, that it almost gives a bad impression, so the film has mixed results for me.

A Serious Man-2009

A Serious Man-2009

Director-Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring-Michael Stuhlbarg

Reviewed November 20, 2009

Grade: B

A Serious Man is a quirky, odd film that is definitely a character study. Directed by the Coen brothers who typically have an offbeat style to their films (No Country For Old Men and Fargo spring to mind), A Serious Man is no different, offering wonderful, richly written supporting characters.

The film, however, lacks the violence of other Coen Brothers films, instead, adding more humorous situations and an overall comical premise. It tells the story of a Jewish Professor, Larry Gopnik, living in the 1960’s, who has a string of bad luck. People close to Larry begin to drop dead all around him and he seems cursed with a string of bad luck. The film centers around how he deals with crisis after crisis.

The first half of the film admittedly drags a bit, but the second part really picks up nicely. The plot suddenly comes to a head rather quickly. To stress, A Serious Man is a witty, dark comedy, so many of the dialogue is either tongue in cheek or dry in nature.

The rabbis that Larry meets, combined with his son Danny and wife Judith are very funny and well carved out characters, many certain “types”. The character of Larry also contained elements of the Larry David character on TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Also, for those cinema lovers who pay close attention to or have an appreciation for good set design, the film captures 1960’s style (dress, furniture, cars), perfectly.

A Wedding-1978

A Wedding-1978

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Paul Dooley

Reviewed January 6, 2011

Grade: A

A Wedding is an obscure, brilliant gem penned and directed by Robert Altman- a film genius in my opinion and one of my most adored directors. I love most of his movies and A Wedding is no exception. The creative way that Altman weaves intersecting story-lines and dialogue, thereby creating a real-life tone, gives immense realism to his films.

In A Wedding, he takes a basic life event, and turns it into a well nuanced, fascinating, comical, yet dramatic story. He is known for having enormous casts (in A Wedding it is forty eight principles), but every character serves a purpose. The viewer will feel that they are a fly on the wall of a real wedding.  Altman’s actors primarily improvise the dialogue, speaking at the same time, bringing a reaistic edge. I adore this quality.

The film is a satire- people either love or loath attending weddings and Altman’s film caters to the latter. He creates a setting, from the ceremony, to the reception, riddled with awkward moments, and social guffaws.

In pure satirical, soap opera fashion, two wealthy families gather at a lavish estate for the ceremony to commence. Hilarity ensues when the dead corpse of the matriarch of one family lies in her bed, nobody realizing she is actually dead. Other hi-jinks, such as the revelation of a nude, life-size portrait of the bride, the caterer falling ill, and a tornado wreaking havoc.

Slowly, secrets are revealed by the families, as the alcohol flows and the characters become involved in the perilous situations. Altman does it again as he creates a masterpiece based on a real-life situations that most can relate to.

Desperate Living-1977

Desperate Living-1977

Director-John Waters

Starring-Mink Stole, Liz Renay

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Reviewed December 4, 2016

Grade: B

Desperate Living will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a raunchy, late-night comedy, in similar fashion to other John Waters directed cult-classics. This one however, suffers from the absence of Waters staple, Divine, who did not appear due to scheduling conflicts. For this glaring omission, Desperate Living is not the greatest of the Waters films, but it is a fun experience all the same. The film has choruses of political satire, specifically fascism, and overthrowing the government.

Mink Stole (Peggy Gravel) takes on the lead role as a crazed, mentally unhinged, neurotic woman on the lam with her maid, Grizelda, after they accidentally cause the death of Peggy’s husband. Peggy has been in and out of mental hospitals and is clearly off her rocker as she yells at neighbors about communism. After an encounter with a lewd police officer, the duo are banished to Mortville, a town filled with outcasts and social deviants. They align with others in the town to overthrown the tyrannical Queen Carlotta, played by Waters fixture Edith Massey. Carlotta plots to spread rabies throughout the community and is at war with her daughter, Princess Coo Coo.

The issue with Desperate Living really is the absence of Divine, originally set to play Mole McHenry, a self-loathing female wrestler, determined to receive a sex change operation. One imagines Divine in this important role, which was played by Susan Lowe, a capable star, but no Divine. With Divine in the part, the hilarious possibilities are endless. Mink Stole carries the movie well, but traditionally being a supporting player in Waters films, is not quite the star the film needs to be a true success.

This is not to say that the film is a dud- it is entertaining and will please most Waters fans. It contains gross-out moments and vulgarity from the very first scene- as the opening credits role, we see a roasted rat, daintily displayed on good china, on an eloquent dinner table, presumably to be served.

Later, Carlotta meets her fate by being roasted, pig style, on a spit with an apple in her mouth. Another character is executed by being shot in the anus. The offensive moments never end!

There also exists a quite controversial scene that I am surprised made the final cut. Peggy, already in a frazzled state due to a neighbor-boy accidentally shooting out her bedroom window, she is shocked to find another boy playing “doctor” with a little girl in her downstairs basement. Both children are completely naked, leaving not much to the imagination. This scene is tough to watch as one wonders what the child actors thought of all of this. I have never viewed another scene quite like this in film.

Otherwise, Desperate Living is filled with cartoon-like characters, lots of sexually deviant leather men, grizzled men with facial hair, and other odd looking characters, making up the community of Mortville. Water’s set creations for the exterior scenes of the town are great- using mainly cardboard and rubbish he found throughout Baltimore where the film was shot, the sets show a bleak yet colorful underworld.

Desperate Living is a raunchy good time with over-the-top acting, trash filled moments, and laugh out loud fun. The lack of any Divine makes it not the first offering to watch from the Waters collection. Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble would take that honor.

Solitary Man-2009

Solitary Man-2009

Director-Brian Koppelman, David Levien

Starring-Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon

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Reviewed February 23, 2011

Grade: B-

Solitary Man is an indie drama that has good points and bad. Michael Douglas stars as a one time successful, but womanizing, car dealership owner who hits rough times and loses everything.

Michael Douglas’s performance is very good and believable as a cad who hits a difficult stretch in his life. As an actor, Douglas still possesses his good looks and charm despite being an older leading man by this time- he plays 60 very well. The film centers around him and wisely so- despite the film containing other notable actors. His character of Ben Kalman has swagger and is narcissistic, but yet lovable at the same time and this is unmistakably due to Douglas’s talents.

Annoyingly, the supporting characters played by Susan Sarandon, Danny Devito, and Jesse Eisenberg are quite one-note and not terribly interesting, which is really a shame in light of their immense talents..

The story is okay, but nothing fantastic. I felt as though I had seen films like this many times before- the quirky edge and the attempted dark humor with laughs and some melodrama mixed in was forgettable. However, as a character study, the movie succeeds. Recommended for Michael Douglas’s performance only.

Bernie-2011

Bernie-2011

Director-Richard Linklater

Starring-Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey

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Reviewed January 7, 2013

Grade: C-

Bernie is a film that, surprisingly, received critical acclaim, as well as Golden Globe and Independent Spirit award nominations, but that I was left quite disappointed in. Categorized a dark comedy, it contains a morbid premise, which is not the issue, I just did not find it very good overall.

Despite being a true story of Bernie marrying and murdering millionaire Marjorie Nugent in Texas, the film was not compelling and was written too over the top. Inexplicably, the townspeople refused to believe Bernie’s obvious guilt.

To be fair, the film does contain a few funny and interesting moments and was based on factual events, but I didn’t feel connected to this movie as I expected and honestly found it a bit dull.

Jack Black is impressive as the title character- Bernie,  but only because it is a departure from his usual slapstick film roles. I don’t get the accolades being reaped on him for his performance. Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey are capable with the parts written for them, but one-note characters. Meh.

Gayby-2012

Gayby-2012

Director-Jonathan Lisecki

Starring-Jenn Harris, Mathew Wilkas

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Reviewed March 28, 2013

Grade: C+

Gayby is a sketch type comedy about two best friends ( a gay man and a straight woman) who decide to have a child together. Both have reached a certain age and are unhappy to have not found the perfect mate. The story is not a novel idea in film- or television for that matter, and feels more like a Saturday Night Live sketch. The film is also playing on the success of television comedies like Will and Grace- the obvious dynamic of the central characters.

The two leads are quite appealing in a comic way and have wit (Jenn Harris in a neurotic way) and great timing. The subject matter is an interesting one, though as years go by and more LGBT topics covered,  it is becoming rather dated and not novel any longer.

The negative is the frenetic, quick pacing of the film ultimately making it rather off-putting and annoying, to say nothing of the irritating stereotypical, supporting characters- written so over-the-top that it is tough to take the film as serious as it should be taken.

Safety Not Guaranteed-2012

Safety Not Guaranteed-2012

Director-Colin Trevorrow

Starring-Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza

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Reviewed March 31, 2013

Grade: B-

Safety Not Guaranteed is similar in style to another 2012 independent film, Ruby Sparks, in that they pose the question of “is this fantasy or reality”? The film deals with the subject of time travel.

The story centers around a magazine journalist, who, along with two interns, follow a man convinced that he is building a time travel machine. The story then develops into a romantic comedy of sorts and the audience is unsure if the guy is actually crazy or purely a genius. It’s an interesting concept, intelligently written, and Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass are both quite likeable in the lead roles.

The one flaw for me was, at times, the movie dove into slapstick territory with a silly secondary story of a stereotypically written Indian character attempting to lose his virginity, but besides that, the film has intriguing intentions.

Seven Psychopaths-2012

Seven Psychopaths-2012

Director-Martin McDonagh

Starring-Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell

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Reviewed June 8, 2013

Grade: B-

Seven Psychopaths is a film that I truly wanted to like more than I actually did. It started off well with a Quentin Tarantino style that was appealing and the film does contain an interesting premise.

Colin Farrell plays the straight man in a cast of offbeat, quirky characters and is attempting to complete a screenplay entitled “Seven Psychopaths” based on these characters. Sounds great, but halfway through the movie stopped delivering. I found myself slightly bored.

The film has a unique concept, to be sure, but fizzles during the second act, so much so that it stopped making much sense and lost my interest.

I did admire the creativity, though, and the chemistry among the cast is great, but the story disappointed me.

Robot & Frank-2012

Robot & Frank-2012

Director-Jake Schreier

Starring-Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon

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Reviewed June 22, 2013

Grade: C

Robot & Frank is one of those films where I am left with a “meh” reaction after having viewed it. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, but there’s nothing particularly special either- it is quite ordinary and rather forgettable after the credits have rolled.

The premise, on paper,  seems novel: a future with robots that grow attached to humans. Unfortunately, the movie did not live up to the idea. I was hoping for an interesting 2001: A Space Odyssey type robot idea (HAL), but received nothing of the kind. I’m a big fan of Frank Langella and I felt he was the main attraction in this movie.

On a side note, why is Susan Sarandon suddenly playing every meaningless supporting role these days? Another wasted role. She deserves better.

There were several plot points that had no follow through and the ending, while not exactly predictable, was nothing spectacular. Meh.

Obvious Child-2014

Obvious Child-2014

Director-Gillian Robespierre

Starring-Jenny Slate

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Reviewed March 22, 2016

Grade: C+

Obvious Child is a 2014 independent comedy nominated for a couple of independent spirit awards, that contains mixed results from me. It works on some levels, but has an irritating underbelly and some unneeded components that ultimately give it a thumbs down. The major success is star Jenny Slate, a real-life Brooklyn stand-up comic with immeasurable comic timing, who will hopefully become a rising star. Interesting to note is that Slate starred in a 2009 short film of the same name before said film graduated to a full length feature.

Slate stars as a twenty-eight year old Brooklyn-ite, who moonlights as a stand-up comic in a dingy bar while working in a desolate bookstore that is soon closing. Conversely, her parents are successful- her mother a famed professor. When she is unceremoniously dumped by her steady, she takes up with a handsome young man for a one-night stand filled with fun. Predictably, she winds up pregnant and forges ahead with a plan to abort their child.

The abortion story is quite interesting in that there is never a doubt what she will have done to the unborn child. Unlike films that make abortion the main focus of conflict, Obvious Child wisely does not- every character in the film supports, and even encourages her to have the procedure, including her mother and best friend. Having been written and directed by women, this is clearly intentional and a way of empowering women, which is one of the high points of the film. If one is on the fence about the topic of abortion or is pro-life in stance, this film may be very tough to watch as its slant is made crystal clear.

Slate is the other high point of the film. She exudes confidence and comic range. Jewish and slightly awkward looking, she is not the leading-lady type and this arguably makes her wit and sarcastic language all the more comical. She is a natural in the comedy department and I am hoping she will go far.

Two slight props for me worth mentioning is the wonderful mention of the classic film Gone with the Wind and the setting of Brooklyn. This was a great nod to film history and the setting gave Obvious Child an authentic New York City feel.

On the other hand, an utter annoyance about Obvious Child is the shameless and constant use of blatant and off-putting bathroom humor- not just once or twice, but numerous times. How is this necessary to the plot? I really cannot say, but only can surmise that it was deemed necessary by the filmmakers to show that females can give as good as males can. Almost saying, “men can make poop jokes, why can’t women”? Why this is necessary in any film is beyond me and it gives Obvious Child a crass, ugly feel.

The film also has an unrealistic quality to it. Max is portrayed as a prince charming. He can do no wrong, supports Donna in any decision she makes, is enamored by her sole being, and loves her unconditionally after only a one-night stand. This would not happen in real life. The fact that Donna is Jewish and quirky and Max is Christian and straight-laced is not explored. What conflicts would they undoubtedly face? Why were his parents not featured.

Highly uneven, with a great premise and an interesting slant on a still controversial social issue, Obvious Child succeeds in the story department, but fails in it’s uncalled for use of potty humor to elicit cheap laughs.

Pink Flamingos-1972

Pink Flamingos-1972

Director-John Waters

Starring-Divine, Edith Massey

Top 100 Films-#96

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Reviewed February 18, 2017

Grade: A

One of the true, and best, late night gross out films of all time, Pink Flamingos breaks down barriers I never thought possible to do in film, and contains one of the most vomit inducing scenes to ever grace the movies. The film is certainly one of a kind and will only be appreciated by a certain type of film-goer. Pink Flamingos is raw, entertaining, and must be seen to be believed. Outrageous in every way and shot documentary style, the film has weird close ups and amateurish camera angles, only adding to the fun. Personally, I love the film.

In what director John Waters famously dubbed the “Trash Trilogy”, along with similar films Desperate Living and Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos has the dubious honor of being the best of the three. Waters stalwart, Divine, plays Babs Johnson, an underground criminal who lives a meager existence in a trailer along with her mentally challenged son Crackers, and her bizarre, egg-obsessed mother, Edie (Massey). They are joined by Babs’s companion, Cotton. In an attempt to win the “Filthiest Person Alive” contest and usurp Babs from achieving this distinction. the Marbles (Mink Stole and David Lochary) set out to destroy her career.

Pink Flamingos is complete and utter over the top fare, but I have fallen in love with the film over the years. Let’s just say it is a type of the film that is an acquired taste, and one will eventually revel in the madness or be disgusted with its bad taste. Waters, a true creative,  breaks new ground in filthy behavior. On a budget of no more than $10,000, it is more than impressive how he pulled this off successfully.

The antics that Babs and the Marbles engage in are downright crude, but the extreme nature of the fun is exactly what is to love about the film. Hysterical is the character of Babs’s mother Edie. Confined to a crib and constantly inquiring about the Egg Man, she is obsessed with eggs and wants to eat nothing else. She eventually marries the Egg Man. The character is entertaining beyond belief.

The Marbles run a clinic in which they sell stolen babies to lesbian couples for cash.  When they send Babs a box of human excrement and a card that says “fatso”, the war between the two sides is on. The highlight of the film is the main sequence in which Babs holds a birthday party. A male contortionist flexes his anus in rhythm to the song “Surfin’ Bird”, which may be the only film featuring an anus. How Waters got away with some of this stuff is mind blowing.

The most disturbing scene occurs at the very end when Babs watches a dog do “its business” on the street and proceeds to pick up the excrement and eat it, revealing to the audience a toothy (and brown) smile. Reportedly Divine actually did this act. As the film ends, Babs truly is “The Filthiest Person Alive”.

Thanks to the genius of John Waters and Divine and the superlative supporting cast, Pink Flamingos is a reminder that creativity and unique humor does not have to conform to a specific style or follow a road map. Waters takes any film criteria and throws it right out the window, instead creating a masterpiece in warped fun and disgust.

St. Vincent-2014

St. Vincent-2014

Director-Theodore Melfi

Starring-Bill Murray

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Reviewed June 5, 2015

Grade: B-

The film St. Vincent succeeds only due to the charming, funny appeal of its star Bill Murray, who fronts this cute, mainstream comedy. Set in blue-collar Brooklyn, New York, it tells the story of a curmudgeonly old man (the title character, Vincent), who befriends a lonely young boy named Oliver, new to the neighborhood. Mixed in with the cast of characters are Oliver’s struggling mother Maggie (played by Melissa McCarthy) and Vincent’s pregnant, stripper girlfriend, Daka, played by Naomi Watts.

I found intrigue in how we get to know Vincent first and then watch him evolve from a grumpy, cutting old man to a begrudging babysitter of the neighbor boy, all the while clashing with Maggie and fighting with Daka. Murray returns to comic wit using his now legendary flawless dry, sarcastic humor and perfect timing and displays much of that in St. Vincent. Throughout all of this Vincent remains brutally honest with his snarky remarks (mainly aimed at Maggie) yet heartwarming and I loved this aspect of the film. Thanks to Murray, Vincent is lovable, making the film, which with a lesser talent, would be overly schmaltzy. As the film progresses we get to see Vincent’s struggles- his wife suffers from Alzheimers, and he is indebted to bookies (primarily Terence Howard- in a bit of a throwaway role).

The film staggers with some predictability issues, though, and is formulaic and easy to predict a warm finale. Of course, in true form, Vincent is a vietnam vet who drinks and gambles and is angry at the world, but has a heart of gold so, despite being temperamental, the audience falls in love with him (patriotism helps). The character contains every cliche in the book. Mean old man- rises to new heights and becomes a nice grandfather figure to a bullied boy is what this film is going for. The bullying of Oliver is also contrived- during one scene Oliver, after being picked on once again by the prominent bully, flies into a seething rage and breaks the bullies nose. The audience is supposed to buy that the waif-ish, shy kid triumphs over the bully. If only life were that simple. Inevitably, after both serve after school detention, they bond over bathroom cleaning and become the best of friends. Who did not see that coming?

In addition, most of the characters are one-note. Naomi Watts is brash, sexy, an aging Russian (not sure I bought that accent) stripper with a soft spot- she comes across as uptight, but is actually caring- another cliche. Melissa McCarthy is a hard-working, soon to be divorcee, trying to raise her kid right- one dimensional. Even Vincent is seemingly tough as nails, but of course, has a soft spot for the neighbor kid. The casting of Watts, McCarthy, and Howard is okay, and I surmise the film was going for casting “name” actors, but certainly these parts might have been played by unknowns and had the same effect. The gem is Murray. Murray effortlessly breaths life into a character who otherwise would have been as dull as dishwater. I found the writing of the characters to be the weakest point of the film.

In the end, a major incident occurs that brings the cast together united as one (yawn). The film closes with the family all happily eating dinner together. I do not see this as a spoiler as this ending can be seen a mile away. Despite the flaws and sentimentality of the film, it is admittedly sweet, humorous at times, and sends a nice message to the audience- be kind to one another and help each other get through life. Without Bill Murray this film would have been completely bland and unlikable. St. Vincent is a feel-good film that is perhaps too feel-good.

The One I Love-2014

The One I Love-2014

Director-Charlie McDowell

Starring-Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss

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Reviewed February 18, 2015

Grade: C+

Reminiscent of a modern day Twilight Zone episode, The One I Love tells the story of a young married couple (Ethan and Sophie), played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss respectively, who seek the assistance of a therapist, played by Ted Danson. The therapist realizes the couple are out of sync with each other and recommends a weekend away. The therapist apparently has an excellent reputation of rekindling faltering marriages and turning them into successful ones. He sends them to a sunny, beachfront house complete with a guest house, pool, and various trails along the water- it is simply a paradise.

I admired the creativity of the screenplay. In a nutshell, the couple meets their ideal, perfect versions of each other while they are basking at the vacation house-just the two of them. Ethan’s alter-ego is suave, athletic, and sensitive to Sophie’s needs- while Sophie’s is sexy, flirtatious, and invested in Ethan’s life. The real versions are bored, lazy, and a bit disheveled. The flaws they once saw in each other are replaced with the perfect spouses. It is fantasy-like. As one half of the couple slowly begins to fall in love with the fantasy version, the other half begins to get jealous and the film dives into a tale of who winds up with whom? But is it a fantasy? Are the perfect versions real people or something reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? It is tough to know what the films intentions are- if any.

A weakness I felt the film has is it plods along a bit too much. At a brief 90 minutes, the film somehow has a sleepy, slow moving undertone and could have easily been a short film or wrapped up within 45 or 50 minutes. I did not feel the chemistry between Duplass and Moss as strongly as I would have liked. Individually fine actors, the spark did not ignite for me. I wished Ted Danson had a larger role. The focal point was obviously the young couple, but the mysteriousness surrounding the paradise was never really explained and Danson’s character could have been the key to the entire story. Did he contrive the entire situation? Was it fantasy? His brief part left many plot holes unexplained.

The One I Love is a creative effort and has an imaginative angle, but left me wanting a bit more clarity than I was served up. The film is mysterious, yes, but also confusing and slightly dull and uneven.

Heathers-1989

Heathers-1989

Director-Michael Lehman

Starring-Winona Ryder, Christian Slater

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Reviewed December 21, 2014

Grade: B

My gut tells me that Heathers was quite controversial and influential upon release in 1989 and has sustained a cult following that continues to this day- 2014. Having seen the film for only the first time, in 2014, the film is good, but now suffers from a slightly dated look and feel. Still, it is a brave and unique expression in creativity. It is clearly a film that sends the message that the popular kids are bad and that the meek shall inherit the earth. The uncool kids will rise up.

To summarize the plot, Heathers is told from the perspective of high school student Veronica Sawyer, played by a young Winona Ryder. She is a second tier popular girl- she is lieutenant to the generals, if you will. The school is run by three popular girls-all named Heather. As popular as they are, they are also despised and feared by the other students, but carry great influence. They enjoy playing cruel jokes on other students and ridiculing anyone beneath them. A rebellious male student, J.D., played by Christian Slater, befriends Veronica and they hatch a plan to destroy the popular clique, including another pair of popular jocks. Shannon Doherty plays second in command Heather.

The tone of Heathers is surreal and dream-like. For example, in the opening scene all three Heathers- along with Veronica- are on a perfectly manicured lawn in the suburbs playing croquet. The hierarchy is established as Veronica seems to be buried up to her neck and is the target of the croquet balls making her, without question, the lowest of the four girls. Whether or not this is a dream or real is unclear. The film is well written and edgy. It reminds me at times of The Ice Storm and American Beauty, which Heathers preceded, and are superior in my opinion. Heathers is a teen angst film and quite dark at times- the various deaths are committed viciously (drain cleaner poisoning, concocting a setup for the jocks to appear to be having a love affair with each other and then passionately shooting each other), but with sly wit and humor. Veronica is, at heart, a good girl, albeit misguided and heavily influenced by J.D., but her intentions of having a fair, just school society are noble. The character is likeable.

All the parents are hilariously portrayed as buffoons and have no idea of the darkness that exists in their kid’s lives- Veronica’s parents in particular. Fearing that Veronica has committed or soon will attempt suicide, they fret that it is their fault stemming from childhood negligence, however their concern has more to do with themselves than with Veronica’s well-being.

Small gripes about the film are the 1980’s style outfits and hairstyles, which, since made in the 1980’s is not a particular fault of the films- though it does contain a slightly dated feel to it while watching in present times. Also, Christian Slater mimicking Jack Nicholson’s voice is odd- was this a decision by the film or by the actor himself? Either way the imitation is both distracting and confusing. What is the point?

The ending of the film is a happy and satisfying conclusion- however, different from the dark tone of the rest of the movie- rumor has it the studio had some influence in toning down the original ending. 1989 was not a stellar year for film so Heathers deserves major props for thinking outside the box and doing something dark and creative. Brave, inventive, and unique, Heathers is a cult classic worth a look.

Diary of a Mad Housewife-1970

Diary of a Mad Housewife-1970

Director-Frank Perry

Starring-Carrie Snodgress, Frank Langella

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Reviewed November 4, 2014

Grade: A

The film version of Diary of a Mad Housewife, based on the best-selling novel by Sue Kaufman, is a tremendous, unique story of one woman’s frustration with her irritating life. A superb Carrie Snodgrass stars as a haggard, insecure, yet affluent housewife named Tina Balser, who lives in New York City, surrounded by an unpleasant family. The family is led by Tina’s verbally abusive and neurotic husband Jonathan- a successful attorney, played flawlessly and rather comedically by Richard Benjamin, and her two brattish daughters Sylvie and Liz. Bored, Tina decides to embark on an affair with crude artist George Prager, wonderfully played by Frank Langella. She teeters on the edge of an emotional breakdown throughout the film and trudges through life depressed and disappointed with all aspects of her life except for her affair with George. George, however, is a womanizer and openly has other conquests besides Tina.

The brilliant idea of the film is that the story is told strictly from Tina’s point of view. All of the action centers on her character, which makes the film so interesting. On the surface one might argue she has everything- she is intelligent, well educated, and affluent. A stay at home mother, she is treated like a servant by husband Jonathan, as he constantly berates her appearance and criticizes her activities- she is always doing something incorrectly.

The film though, is not a downer. It is a dry, satirical comedy that reminds me very much of a Woody Allen film. Tina is depressed, yes, but she goes through life with a realistic, almost chin-up, outlook. Her marriage to Jonathan is loveless yet why doesn’t she leave him? Her affair with George is sexually satisfying, but she has no intention of pursuing anything further with him, nor does he want to. Tina dotes over her husband- planning dinner parties, sending Christmas cards and various other wife duties.

I’m not sure that the films true intent is to show Tina as either a strictly sympathetic character nor as completely downtrodden- the film is not a moral tale nor is it a schmaltzy, woman victimized and will rise up against the world generic drama- it is witty and filled with black humor. Despite her unkind husband, I found myself envying Tina’s life, in a way, and I think the film expects that of the viewer. I never got the impression that Tina is suicidal in anyway. It’s not that type of film. Instead, she has wealth, she goes to fancy restaurants, but she also has a very needy husband- he does not abuse her in a physical sense, nor is she reduced to tears by his outbursts. She gets annoyed and merely accepts that this is the way life is and gets by with the assistance of an occasional swig of alcohol while doing dishes or preparing dinner, or when the dog has “an accident” on the living room rug and Tina’s kids cannot wait to tattle on her. She is a sophisticated woman, trapped in an unhappy yet financially secure relationship.

Diary of a Mad Housewife is an interesting character study for all women to view and perhaps even slyly wink at.  Many women would champion Tina. She is a likeable, sarcastic, cool chick. Audiences will find themselves drawn to her and even falling in love with her before long- I know I did. Without the talents of Carrie Snodgrass, who completely carries this film, it would not be the wonder that it is. A wonderful satire, the film is not as wry or satirical as the novel, but how many films are? The novel delves more into detail and the role of the Balser’s maid is barely mentioned in the film, yet plays a larger role in the Kaufman novel. I loved the portrayal of Jonathan by Richard Benjamin who must receive some honor for most annoying character ever in film,  when he repeatedly screams for his wife by bellowing “teeeenaaaaa!”, or initiating sex by asking “would you like a little roll in dee hay?”, one wants to choke him. The way Tina’s daughters whine “mudder” instead of “mother” is comically brilliant. And her simmering hatred of all of them is dark hysteria.

Diary of a Mad Housewife is genius and should not be forgotten.

The Grand Budapest Hotel-2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel-2014

Director-Wes Anderson

Starring-Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham

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Reviewed July 30, 2014

Grade: B+

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a witty and unique film by Director Wes Anderson, who has also directed similarly quirky films- most notably Monsoon Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums.

The famous story of the history of the Grand Budapest hotel is recounted, over dinner, by the current owner named Zero (played by F. Murray Abraham), and an inquisitive guest (Jude Law). The film then goes back to the 1930’s and shares the story of the actual history of the hotel. The main story centers on the head concierge, Gustave, (Ralph Fiennes), and his antics involving older wealthy blonde women, a murder, stolen art, and a missing will. Gustave is a ladies man, and bisexual, who spends time with the rich women who stay at the hotel.  Fiennes does an excellent job as the quick-witted, almost manic Gustave. This sets off a series of interesting, mysterious events for the remainder of the film that turns into a whodunit yarn.

The visual aspects usurp the story in my opinion- the art direction is amazing. The sets are constructed so perfectly and ingeniously that they almost look like animated sets or like a dollhouse. The costumes and makeup are flawless. The story tends to be tough to follow at times and is just not as strong as the other aspects of the film, although this is not to be interpreted as the story is not good- it is entertaining, but nothing more. It’s just that the other aspects of the film are magnificent and the story secondary. It’s an odd film, certainly, but quite unique and interesting. A slew of well-known Hollywood stars appear- Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Defoe, and Harvey Keitel among others.

Quartet- 2012

Quartet-2012

Director-Dustin Hoffman

Starring-Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay

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Reviewed June 21, 2013

Grade: B+

Quartet is a fantastic little British film, directed by Dustin Hoffman, and starring the always wonderful Maggie Smith, whom one might argue could be watched in anything. I certainly could. Smith stars as a stubborn retired opera singer who begrudgingly settles in at Beecham House, a luxurious senior retirement home for former musicians in their final years. There she reunites with colleagues from years past who attempt to reunite for a concert for the public in order to save the home from foreclosure.

The cast of senior citizens in Quartet are quite likeable in one of the few smart films handling aging gracefully. There is comedy and drama mixed in as the intelligent characters are treated as such in their final years with a hint of soap opera to the film as some of them were intimate with others in years past and the current hijinks are hysterical.

The subject of aging is treated with respect and dignity and not played for laughs, which is one aspect of the film that I adored.  A talent filled cast of British theater actors, along with some real life musicians make this film a treat. It is terrific to see Pauline Collins (Upstairs/Downstairs) in a large role.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home-2011

Jeff, Who Lives at Home-2011

Director-Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass

Starring-Jason Segel, Susan Sarandon

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Reviewed July 9, 2013

Grade: B

I confess to not being a huge fan of Jason Segel. Jeff, Who Lives at Home tells the story of a slacker who lives with his mother and clearly lives in the shadows of his successful brother, played by Ed Helms. He regularly smokes pot and looks for meaning in random occurrences. One day he begins an adventure when he believes he sees meaning in a phone call and it sets up a series of mishaps involving his brother and estranged wife, played by Judy Greer. The secondary story involves the mother (Susan Sarandon), who leads a dull life working a mundane job. She suddenly develops a secret admirer at her job.

The film was much better than expected. As the movie unfolds it turns into a day in the life of a dysfunctional, yet loving family. I expected a silly, dumb comedy given the star and the premise, but the film was much better than that. It is a nicely layered, touching movie with a message and some spirituality mixed in. I loved the ending and was impressed by the heartfelt nature of this small little slice of life film.

Enough Said-2013

Enough Said-2013

Director-Nicole Holofcener

Starring-Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini

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Reviewed October 6, 2013

Grade: B+

Enough Said is a surprisingly well written, small indie romantic comedy and, sadly, James Gandolfini’s final film performance. The film stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who portrays a down to earth massage therapist who meets her odd match (Gandolfini) at a party. They slowly begin dating and some interesting misunderstandings ensue.

The seemingly odd couple fall in love and form a special bond over time. They are both struggling to overcome past relationships and trust someone again so they are vulnerable and interesting characters. They strive to be happy, but are not quite there yet. I found the dialogue very sharp and witty and Dreyfus is perfectly cast in this film. She and Gandolfini have enormous chemistry and the film is not contrived in the least as many romantic comedies are.

The film feels like a West coast Woody Allen film from a female perspective with many neurotic, flawed characters. I enjoyed it immensely.

Frances Ha-2012

Frances Ha-2012

Director-Noah Baumbach

Starring-Greta Gerwig

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Reviewed December 12, 2013

Grade: B+

Frances Ha is an intelligent, quirky comedy made ever so appealing by its star, Greta Gerwig, an up and coming indie star (Greenberg, The House of the Devil). She is the heart of this film and has an intense rooting value to her. You want to be her friend.

Made in black and white, which is unique and highly effective in an indie way, it tells the tale of a moderately talented dancer struggling to make it in New York City. “Frances”, along with her best friend, hop from situation to situation in an attempt to establish normalcy. Gerwig shines with the perfect blend of awkwardness, sarcasm, and wit that she gives to the character and the viewer falls in love with her as she travels through many trials and tribulations. It’s a year in the life type of film. Reminiscent of a Woody Allen film as it contains many neurotic yet lovable characters.

The Way, Way Back-2013

The Way, Way Back-2013

Director-Nat Faxom, Jim Rash

Starring-Steve Carrell, Toni Collette

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Reviewed December 20, 2013

Grade: B-

This is a cute, summery, “coming of age” story about a teen misfit struggling to fit in. It contains the basic stereotypical characters (boozy neighbor, overbearing step-father type), but kudos for great performances by Allison Janney and Steve Carell) who make the film much more than it would have been otherwise. The film feels like something that has been done many times before, but there is a certain charming, feel good quality to it. Still, I would have enjoyed it more if some risks were taken and the characters motivations delved into a bit more. It is a one dimensional film that ultimately disappoints.

I’m So Excited-2013

I’m So Excited-2013

Director-Pedro Almodovar

Starring-Antonio de la Torre, Hugo Silva

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Reviewed March 11, 2014

Grade: B-

The latest offering by superb Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, who directed the brilliantly disturbing The Skin I Live In a few years ago, returns with a vast departure and delves into a campy, lighthearted, yarn about a group of passengers and crew aboard a troubled flight. The group turns to booze and drugs to console themselves and a circus ensues. Someone had described this as the gay Airplane! and that is certainly fitting. Everyone on board is gay, bi-curious, or otherwise sexually confused and the one-liners keep coming.

The premise sounds hysterical, but sadly, the film did not live up to expectations. FYI: I felt Airplane! was overrated. Some funny moments, but the “over the top-ness” was too much to take remotely seriously and somehow did not hold my attention throughout. Not Almodovar’s best work by a longshot.

Bachelorette-2012

Bachelorette-2012

Director-Leslye Headland

Starring-Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher

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Reviewed March 23, 2014

Grade: D

I’m not sure how to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with this movie except almost everything. It tries to be a Bridesmaids meets Hangover and fails miserably. What made those films entertaining was that they were actually funny.

This film attempts many jokes and falls flat almost every time. The set-ups are actually there, but there is no follow through. Almost every character is unlikable and hateful to everyone else that there is nobody to root for. Worse yet, the film is bland. Dumb comedies are not my favorite genre, but this was lackluster. I adore Kirsten Dunst, but sadly she picked a dud. Isla Fisher seems to always be in films like this and the male actors (James Marsden, Adam Scott) have little to do.

Talented cast is wasted. Not worth seeing.