Favourite, The (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
As an admirer of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ palate for the bizarre, I found the period comedy “The Favourite” to be impressive only during the second half, when fortunes have been turned upside down and inside out. It is then we get a chance to observe characters attempt to wriggle themselves out of very sticky situations, to scoff at them, to laugh at them, to consider their unhappy fates to be both ironic and well-deserved. It is clear, as he has shown in his previous pictures, that Lanthimos’ strength lies in looking at human nature through fractured lens and within those tiny crevices is a chance for us to see ourselves and ponder over the world around us.
The first hour is a waiting game as the initial moves of a long chess game are executed. I found them not uninteresting but not superbly inspired either. I liked the casting of Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, in charge of governing state matters given that Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is almost always plagued with illness, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Lady Sarah’s cousin whose family has fallen on hard times and so she asks for employment within the estate. Weisz and Stone navigate the barbs of the warring cousins with a certain grace despite the ugly and delicious schemes. Meanwhile, Colman plays a queen who is so pathetic nearly every time we see her and yet the seasoned performer hits a different and fresh note with vigilance and purpose.
Despite the stellar performances, however, I found the machinations of early plotting to be rather generic. For instance, Lady Sarah’s nature of possessiveness and thirst for maintaining power is established right from the moment we meet her. And so when someone younger than her, certainly more likable, moves into the palace, her response is predictable. The same goes for the smart new resident who yearns to climb the social ladder. The standard writing is alleviated by performers who find ways to wrinkle the vanilla characterization. And take away Lanthimos’ proclivity toward awkward camera angles and habit of lingering at a shot for an extra second or two—sometimes ten—the content, at least during the first hour, is not all that special. The exposition is something I have seen from countless period films. The main difference is that the characters make no qualms about expressing their most inappropriate thoughts.
But when the consequences of Lady Sarah and Abigail’s competition is finally brought out to light, it becomes wonderful entertainment. The audience is not required to feel sorry for any of the players. However, we must understand them in order to have a more robust appreciation of double-edged ironies. With the exception of one figure, everyone else is proven to bite off more than what they are able to chew. They are convinced they are so intelligent and so experienced in navigating their way through labyrinthine gambles, the joy comes from seeing their big plans explode in their faces. Lanthimos, with his penchant for well-timed close-ups, ensures to capture the most minuscule facial expressions, at times in succulent slow motion.
The darkly funny farce “The Favourite” might have befitted from bolder screenplay decisions right from the get-go. One can argue that because the content is already for an acquired taste, it might have been stronger work overall had the writers been kind enough to spare us the usual motions and go straight for the jugular, to splash blood on posh, royal costumes.
Nobody’s Fool (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Having to sit through “Nobody’s Fool,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, should be considered a form of punishment. For a comedy in general, it is deeply unfunny, lacking comic rhythm, and filled with empty silences simply added to take up time. (This brand of torture lasts for nearly two interminable hours.) For a romantic comedy, there is minimal chemistry between the man and woman with whom we are supposed to want to get together. And for a female empowerment picture, its contradictory messages are not only confusing, they are downright offensive at times. Here is an example of a comedy that is dead on arrival.
I felt embarrassed for the performers who chose to participate in this disaster because they are not without talent, from the highly energetic Tiffany Haddish who plays the motormouth hood sister who has been just released from prison, Whoopi Goldberg as the pothead mother with wise-sounding lines to impart during dire times, to Tika Sumpter as the financially successful sister struggling to find the perfect man. There are individual scenes that showcase the star power of these women, but the poor writing consistently lets them down.
Nearly every scene, for instance, must end with an exclamation point even when it is completely inappropriate. Observe closely as the Sumpter’s character, for example, begins to realize late in the picture that perhaps she is to blame for her own impossible expectations when it comes to romance. (She has a list of what a man must offer her in order to be considered boyfriend-worthy.) The moment of self-assessment is almost immediately eradicated by a desperate attempt at comedy. Observant viewers will be quick to catch that the writer-director is not interested, or even remotely curious, of the human condition that his project attempts to tackle.
Instead, Perry proves to excel in regurgitating appallingly familiar scenarios: sisters with opposite personalities having to live together, a romantic interest overhearing a private telephone conversation and feelings getting hurt, one’s career being in danger because her love life is in turmoil. It is all so tired. One gets the impression that the filmmaker could not be bothered to create intelligent characters with something real to say, do, or fight for just as long as there are images moving on screen. I found its pessimism to be quite insulting. What results is a limp piece of work that is not even worth showing on cable. Or even on the Lifetime channel. Yes, given that it is a Perry picture, you can bet there are melodramatic turns that are both ludicrous and unearned.
With at least ten films under his belt prior to this movie, Perry should be further along now when it comes to delivering entertainment that works even in the most elementary level. While I appreciate that he casts mostly black actors to tell black stories and thereby selling black entertainment, must he be reminded that his target audience deserves better? I could not help but feel angry while watching “Nobody’s Fool” because he treats the audience exactly like one.
Support the Girls (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
Slice-of-life comedy-drama “Support the Girls” looks great on paper. Although it offers feminist messages regarding family and sisterhood in the workplace, it is adamant in showing the more unpleasant aspects of working in a Hooters-style local restaurant. It is told from the perspective of a black woman, Lisa (Regina Hall), the general manager, who gets no respect from her white, quick-tempered male superior. And yet at the same time respect is what she consistently offers to those who work under her. It is a story of a professional whose job is to turn a negative into a positive in order to keep a business running. And through her example, young women who look up to her would be inspired to do the same should hard times befall them. However, the details of the writing is not as strong as its premise.
I appreciated its unadorned photography. The interiors of the sports bar Double Whammies is familiar. Most of us have been inside one: the matching wooden chairs and tables, the big screen television, random but happy chattering, occasional boisterous laughter, drinks being poured, utensils clattering on plates, swooshing of cars along the highway.
The point is that the place is ordinary, nothing special at first glance. The food may be good, but we, as the audience, have no appreciation for it. Notice there is not one shot of food being served on a plate. We do recognize, however, that this particular place is pretty special for one reason. It is because of Lisa who goes out of her way to make someone’s day a little better—not because it is her job but because that is who she is. The lack of decoration in how the picture is shot reflects that of the subject and how she presents herself to everyone else. She is a superhero in ordinary clothing.
Less effective are moments when the picture, for some reason, is compelled to deliver comic moments. Take the car wash sequence as an example. There is already comedy in the women cajoling money from their customers’ pockets. They know that wearing tight and short outfits puts them at an advantage. They know, too, that laughing a little harder and bending a couple of extra degrees means getting ten or twenty dollars more. But must they jump onto the hood of the car? Must they place their breasts on the windshield? Sometimes less is more—particularly true in slice-of-life films. These moments of exaggeration belong in a mainstream Judd Apatow project.
Lisa’s girls are not fully realized characters. Perhaps one that comes closest in Danyelle (Shayna McHayle) who hates her job (it is in her voice, her body language, how she walks through the door during the beginning of her shift) but loves working with Lisa. Although not one detail of their past is mentioned, we feel their history through their dance of give-and-take. At one point, I caught myself considering the possibility that Lisa and Danyelle did not start off on the right foot. Both women command strong personalities, but somehow they have learned to function on a similar wavelength. But most of the other girls, like Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), are only there to be silly and generate shallow chuckles. There is no dimension to them, let alone subtlety.
As the film draws to a close, it comes across as though it is pushing forward on an empty tank. Gone is the realistic charm of the strong opening twenty minutes, subtler jokes of working in a casual restaurant are nowhere to be found, and the overall energy it exudes is that of confusion. Even moments of silence that should inspire rumination are simply dull, oftentimes just awkward.
Still, credit to writer-director Andrew Bujalski for telling a story with and from a specific perspective. Although the picture does not reach its full potential despite a solid lead performance, I could tell “Support the Girls” is made with joy and passion. That is more than what I can say about other generic workplace comedies where it is all fun and games without the actual pains and moments of shame or embarrassment that compel viewers to look deep and unblinking.
Always Be My Maybe (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another romantic comedy with a mostly Asian cast that stinks of cable TV quality. In the middle of it, although I was enjoying the chemistry between Ali Wong and Randall Park, I could not help but wonder why the material must consistently rely on the same old tropes that white Hollywood has recycled thousands of times before. There is nothing original about it. And so despite all the delectable soup, the spicy ramen, the spam and rice, and the fact that characters leave their shoes by the front door when entering a home, the overall experience that “Always Be My Maybe” offers is vanilla, unmemorable, and a big disappointment.
It is not without some redeeming qualities. For a while the screenplay introduces the possibility that because Sasha and Marcus, friends since childhood but had grown apart after a big fight during senior year of high school, have become so different from one another after sixteen years, there remain signs that the story may not end up the way we think or want. The former has gone on to become a celebrity chef who lives in Los Angeles while the latter has chosen to remain in San Francisco in order to take care of his aging father. The tension between a highly ambitious individual and someone who has found happiness in his hometown brings up the question of whether the two—although they are cute together—are actually right for each other in the long run.
However, this question is not dealt with enough focus, clarity, and consistently intelligent or refreshing writing. Instead, we are bombarded with the usual clichés involving the protagonists having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is clearly not right for either of them, snarky supporting characters who make an appearance to say one amusing line of dialogue only to disappear again for long periods of time, and the usual drama about having to win back that special someone by traveling across the country and making a speech in front of everyone. It is all so tired, exhausting, boring, and interminable. I checked my watch at least three times.
Perhaps the best thing about the film is a cameo of an actor who has done great work from the mid-80s till today. He graces the screen for about fifteen minutes and completely pulls the rug from those who are supposed to be the main stars. It is such an unexpected small role, but it stands out. The character he plays is a walking exaggeration… but his approach, for the most part, is far from it. He internalizes the comedy and combines it with pitch-perfect comic timing. And that is why the funniest scenes are the ones with him in it. Too bad the rest of the picture is a drag.
“Always Be My Maybe,” directed by Nahnatchka Khan, lacks authenticity that runs deep—and not just in terms of the romantic aspect of the story. There are jokes, for instance, about gentrification in San Francisco, highly affluent people dressing down, and the types of ridiculous food served in posh restaurants. It all feels so forced; these are low hanging fruit served to the audience without much creativity or enthusiasm. Jokes about the lifestyles and the people with whom we are supposed to care about would have been more appropriate. The story, after all, is supposed to be about them.
★★★ / ★★★★
The level of intelligence and self-awareness of high school comedy “Booksmart” can be summed up in one scene. While in a restroom stall, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), the valedictorian, overhears her classmates make jokes and say not-so-nice things about her personality, her personal style, and how she tends to come across as a snob at times.
In an attempt to put them in their place, especially given that the trio have a reputation of being slackers and goofballs, Molly exits the stall with head held high and a forced composure. She takes her time to wash her hands while an awkward silence takes hold of the room. She turns to them and tells them, essentially, that their words mean nothing because she would be attending Yale University in the fall—and that they would be nobodies by then. The sharp screenplay Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Sillberman allows the situation to backfire in such an epic way that it makes a lasting statement about the material’s attitude toward the teenagers we are about to meet.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is clearly for those who consider themselves as outcasts in high school. The story follows best friends Molly and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) during the last day of school and graduation day. Convinced that they missed out on a well-rounded four years given that all they did was focus on academics and get into good universities, they decide to attend a party hosted by a popular jock (Mason Gooding) and to prove to everybody that they can be fun just like everybody else. Naturally, what starts off as a petty quest evolves into an examination of a specific friendship, how it works, and, perhaps most interesting, what else could be done for it to grow.
The picture is lauded for a being raunchy R-rated teen picture. While it is that, more worthy of credit is the fact that it is not just a female version of anything. It gets compared to Greg Mottola’s “Superbad” for its dirty jokes, but I think “Booksmart” is the more thoughtful picture, particularly in its treatment supporting characters. Most enjoyable is its ability to offer surprising details about the archetypes we meet. And yet the twists, once introduced, do not change the person. These are merely additional information that help us to see them in a different light. Sometimes these might explain why they act the way they do, how behavior at times is used a protection from incoming judgments. Ironically, behavior can, too, function as a magnet for judgments.
In short, the work gives us the opportunity to feel a little bit closer to these supporting characters even though they are not provided meaningful arcs—an excellent decision by the writers. Some standouts include Jared (Skyler Gisondo), the wealthy classmate—regarded as a clown by most—who is so desperate to be liked that one his gifts for those who choose to attend his graduation party is a new iPad, Hope (Diana Silvers), considered by her peers to be mean due to her brand of “honesty,” and Triple A (Molly Gordon), the girl with a reputation for promiscuity—it is said she is extremely “helpful” to male classmates whose cars have broken down. I wanted to know more about these characters—which is exactly the point.
Of course, the heart of the film is Amy and Molly’s friendship. It is shown through numerous examples that they are secure about their friendship. At the same time, we recognize signs, subtle and overt, that may threaten their relationship should these continue to go unchecked. They do fight eventually and I admired that it stays true to the fact that a fight with a close friend, a best friend, hurts a whole lot more than a fight with another with whom one does not consider to be as important. There are moments of searing honesty here that prevent the material from being just another forgettable teen romp.
★ / ★★★★
The first date between Jim (Adam Sandler) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) at Hooters is a complete fiasco. The food is terrible, the venue is inappropriate, the conversation is either bland or offensive, and not once did either of them feel a spark that might warrant a second date. They’re convinced they are never going to see each other again. But given that this is a romantic-comedy, of course they do.
The screenplay by Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera is to blame for the picture’s lack of overall energy, entertainment value, and real emotions worth investing in. Without Barrymore and Sandler’s charm, I would not have been surprised if the film had not been given the green light. There are very few things here that makes it worth sitting through for two hours. Why watch this rubbish when Peter Segal’s “50 First Dates,” starring both Barrymore and Sandler, is lightyears more worthwhile?
I laughed a couple of times. Although a cliché, I liked that the single parents either have children that are all boys or all girls. The running gag that involves Hilary/Larry (Bella Thorne) being mistaken for a boy because she clothes herself in an athletic way and has a boyish haircut works for the most part because it is never mean-spirited. Thorne is quite good because unlike the other young actors, she never exaggerates.
Of course there is an inevitable makeover scene when we are shown how beautiful Hilary really is given the right haircut and clothes. But what I loved about it is Thorne’s decision to downplay the character. Everything is exaggerated: the flow-y extensions, the bright short dress, the makeup, and the shot unfolding in slow motion. But what does she do that stands out? She keeps her shoulders square, holding a lot of tension, which looks awkward—but it is right. Hilary comes across as a real person because for years she didn’t feel like she was beautiful. A makeover does not alter one’s confidence—at least not right away. I appreciated that the performer has the insight to keep it somewhat realistic.
I found its representation of Africa insulting at times. Everybody is a caricature in the resort. While the material is supposed to be light, accessible, and friendly, it did not need to be so hyperbolic all the time. Because the representation is so cartoonish, we never get a real sense that the characters are visiting a real and wondrous place. Later in the film, some of the characters claim that they miss Africa. We do not buy it for a second because we know that what they have experienced is a sham.
And then there is the central romance between Jim and Lauren. The screenplay spends so much time showing them interacting with one another’s children that there is not one convincing scene—one that is spot-on—that is dedicated only to the couple. As a result, we understand why they want to spend time with each other’s kids but not necessarily spend time with one another. We never get a sense of who they really are as a couple.
“Blended,” directed by Frank Coraci, is appropriately titled because it is a mess. It does not offer enough moments of subtlety and maturity to appeal to adults. And yet it is also not appropriate for children because it does have jokes that are so inappropriate, it requires parents to do some explaining afterwards. And so who is the target audience? People who want to see Barrymore and Sandler together again? That’s a low bar.
★★ / ★★★★
The fantasy-comedy “Little” begins with an exclamation point. As a smart and financially successful but extremely unpleasant—to say the least—leader of a tech company, Regina Hall nails the role of Jordan Sanders despite appearing on screen for less than fifteen minutes. We are immediately made to understand why her employees attempt to clear out the moment they hear her voice screeching from the parking lot. Although her ruthlessness is played for big laughs, it is apparent there is more to the character than a caricature who must learn a valuable lesson by the end of the story following her unexpected—if not karmic—magical physical transformation to her pre-teen years. But the screenplay by Tracy Oliver and Tina Gordon, the latter directing the picture, fails to construct a consistently razor-sharp comedy. There are significantly more laughs to be had at the workplace than at school.
As pre-teen Jordan, I enjoyed Marsai Martin’s enthusiasm for the role. She delivers her lines with effervescent personality, she isn’t afraid to trust the physical comedy, and she shines during a few of the more dramatic moments that the plot demands. Her role, however, is not supported by strong writing—which will be quickly apparent to those who felt or considered themselves to be outcasts in middle school. For those of us who belong in this group, this is a time of our lives that involves pain, insecurity, and humiliation. While the screenplay acknowledges this on the surface, it is seemingly afraid to dig deeply into specifics.
Being bullied is introduced: for not looking a certain way, for not wearing the right clothes, for not fitting in with the popular group. But there is more to it than that—within and outside the scope of the film. I argue that the more interesting avenue to have explored would have been being shamed or ostracized for being smart or intellectually curious. The movie, after all, opens at a talent show where Jordan attempts to communicate her love for science in the form of a physics demonstration. She hopes that showing them who she is, she would gain a modicum of social acceptance.
Thus, the work is guilty for delivering safe comedy, unapologetic, at times brazen, for traversing paths that have been traveled hundreds of times prior. Original or fresh ideas are few and far between; when we do come upon them, they are not delved into. An example involves Jordan’s assistant, April (Issa Rae—her luminous smile uplifting the room without fail), who has a great idea for a game app but her confidence is not as great as her idea. It would have been a more rewarding experience had the writing focused more on the parallels between pre-teen Jordan and April. Instead, we get forced humor like a visit from Social Services in which characters are forced to stutter and come up with lies. Similar scenes are not only unfunny, they are a waste of time.
There are also instances when the filmmakers forget their intended target audience. Obviously, children would wish to see the picture. About a third of the movie unfolds at school. And yet there are questionable scenarios like a striptease. There are one too many awkward humor like a child touching an adult body in a sexual way. Sexually suggestive dialogue is also present. Yes, an argument can be made that there is indeed a way to insert these things in a family film. But they must not always be front and center. They must be done in a subtle way so that adults recognize them and children remain none the wiser. Subtlety is not in the film’s toolkit.
Fluffer, The (2001)
★ / ★★★★
When I watch a movie that takes a look behind the scenes of the adult entertainment industry, I expect to come out of it feeling a little dirty. But I expect to receive a little bit of insight, too, whether it is about the businessmen—or businesswomen—who control what makes it into the final product or about the psychology of performers who are required to shed their inhibitions and clothing in front of the crew and unblinking cameras. Otherwise, if these elements are largely absent, what is the point of taking us into that world? If it is solely for the sake of sleaze, well, then we might be better off watching pornography.
It is curiosity why “The Fluffer,” directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, was made in the first place. It is toothless in satire, the overt comedy is seldom funny, and the characters seem to be skeletal constructs of real people in the industry.
Sean (Michael Cunio) has recently moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of making into Hollywood’s film business. While waiting to snag a job, he spends his time catching up on classic movies by renting tapes from a video store. His intention is to check out Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” but he when he opens the case in his apartment, the tape is labeled “Citizen Cum.” He decides to put it into the VCR anyway. One of its lead stars is Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney) who captures Sean’s interest immediately. While he waits for his big break, he decides it will be a good idea to work as a cameraman for the pornographic company that consistently hires his latest obsession.
One part of the problem is the casting. While Cunio is a capable actor, perhaps the best in the film, he is too good-looking and appears too intelligent to pass as someone who cannot get a job—any job—outside of porn. It would have been more believable if an actor that is cast either looks like a regular Joe but clever or handsome but comes off dumber than a pile of bricks. An actor who commands both is neither as interesting nor seems to fit the role of Sean as someone who lacks one or both qualities.
The older gentlemen (Richard Riehle, Tim Bagley, Taylor Negron, Robert Walden) in charge of who gets cast, where the sex scene should take place, and what ought to make it through the editing room do not get enough screen time. They are also underwritten. They are reduced to playing bumbling and arguing man-children which is frustrating because they obviously would not have had their positions if they were not smart, knowledgeable, hardworking, likable or cutthroat. These men should have been key to Sean’s education about the film business—whether he decides to stay working for the sex industry, somehow makes it into Hollywood, or leave his dream altogether and settle for something else.
Instead, the picture is mired in a one-sided attraction between Sean and Johnny. It is without focus, only to be blurred further by subplots—one about a pregnancy, the other about a potential boyfriend for the protagonist—that are as dramatic as they are without entertainment value.
All the while, my mind keeps going back to Silver (Adina Porter), a black woman who happens to be a lesbian working in gay porn. Porter demands attention because her delivery of lines has a strength, hinting that her character is jaded but clinging onto the idea that staying at her job is practical for monetary purposes. I wanted to know more about her because the essence of her story is relatable to a lot of people.
Based on the screenplay by Wash Westmoreland, “The Fluffer,” the person who gives a performer fellatio in order to keep his penis erect during filming, goes around in circles. It takes place somewhere that should be interesting but it fails to do anything with it. We walk away from it, taking away nothing we don’t already know.
Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Beckoff (Harvey Fierstein) is a female impersonator who does not have much luck when it comes to sustaining a long-lasting love life. He admits to camera that he has slept with more men than there are names in the bible—old and new testament combined. So it comes as a surprise to him when he meets Ed (Brian Kerwin) in a gay bar, showing genuine interest in who he is and what he wants in life. Although Ed has told Arnold that he dates women at times, this becomes a big problem when Ed begins to want something else, a woman’s touch, outside of their relationship. It seems like Arnold has picked up one of those men again.
Based on the play and screenplay by Harvey Fierstein, “Torch Song Trilogy” consists of three episodes, the first taking place in 1971 and the last in 1980. It is tonally unpredictable for the most part, almost manic, comedy and tragedy strike when least expected and in most unlikely places. In some ways, it is a lot like a soap opera: often there are big reactions to relatively slow developments. A lot of the scenes might have worked better if played with silence than shouting.
Arnold’s loneliness is communicated effectively. Throughout the decade, we see him change from someone who has a clingy, bug-like annoyance to a person who shows a little exhaustion but is still that same fighter who wants what he feels he deserves. Fierstein plays his character with fire. We feel that he really understands what Arnold is all about. Arnold may be a drag queen by night, a source of entertainment to be seen and criticized by the public, but he is no fool no matter what time of day. I enjoyed watching him assessing risks and wondering if he should go ahead and take a course of action. With so much time and thought he puts into some of his decisions, we can tell he has had experience in the romance department and perhaps he had been really hurt before.
The two key men in Arnold’s life are nicely played Kerwin and Matthew Broderick, the latter a male model with whom Arnold had kindly taken to his home after the twenty-one-year-old has had one drink too many. It is most appropriate that Ed has an unpredictability to him. I was fascinated with the fact that although he is easy to label himself as a bisexual, he is not comfortable with its reality. He can be with a man but he is afraid to live with one. Broderick’s character, Alan, is different. He is comfortable with the entire aspect of being queer and yet he is a curiosity. One of the more memorable scenes involves Arnold and Alan being invited to Ed’s farm.
The third episode is perhaps one that demands the most attention. Mrs. Beckoff (Anne Bancroft) believes that being gay is a sickness and not once does she allow Arnold to forget it. She is a very traditional Jewish woman who genuinely believes that her son will meet a girl one day and marry her. Imagine her reaction when she is forced to face reality. The fights that she and Arnold share cut deeply. After the screaming and shouting comes the inevitable silence. Prejudice is and will remain ingrained in many.
Even though it offers a good share of amusing bits, “Torch Song Trilogy” does not let us forget the sadness coursing through its veins. Does queer love require more from its participants than heterosexual love? Maybe it does, at least with the way things are right now and will be for many decades to come, or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure the film has one either. But it sure is interesting to consider.
Night School (2018)
★ / ★★★★
It is amazing that although many types of comedy are employed to wring out laughter from the audience, not one of them lands. It is even more amazing that despite employing two highly energetic and charismatic performers (Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish), they are not funny in it. There is without question that the writing is to blame, or the lack of it. The approach is familiar and depressing: throw anything at the screen and see what sticks. When this strategy fails, and it does, simply allow the actors to yell and scream—as if to mask the picture’s deeply unfunny and lazy nature. A trip to the dentist would be preferred than to have to sit through “Night School” again.
There are six screenwriters credited, Hart among them, and it partly explains the material’s lack of focus. Perhaps they all have an idea of what makes an effective comedy and so what results is a Frankenstein’s monster of awkwardly put together jokes that lumber about for a while only to fall apart right before the punchline. But the material requires discipline, to tell a focused story of a man who must go back to high school and deal with unfinished academics, not to make everyone feel included. The film’s running time is almost two hours when it could easily have been an hour and fifteen minutes. The amount of padding here is astounding. Observe the drawn-out exposition.
At times scenes are so exaggerated that the movie makes Sunday comic strips look like a documentary. Notice an early scene that takes place in a restaurant. It is actually somewhat amusing when Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who has worked hard to create an image—and only an image—of financial success, gets stuck with an $800 bill. But the writers could not help themselves. They felt the need to show us the character being nasty, to the point where a server loses his job, just so Teddy could have a redemption arc. Sometimes it is enough, even appropriate, to show a problem and allow the viewers to imagine solutions when the film cuts to the next scene. This way, we are engaged, catching up to the material rather than every single beat and punctuation being spoon-fed to us.
There is no subtlety, from the human relationships to the struggles that come with having learning disabilities. It easy to see what the writers are going for: Teddy getting his GED as a way to exorcise the shame he felt when he was in school. Because his learning disabilities had gone undiagnosed, he did not get the help he needed. And so he was perceived by his peers, his teachers, and even by his family as stupid or dumb. They may not say it, but it is in how they look at him and how they treat him. Would-be hilarity ensues during night school: from colorful classmates equipped with their own sob stories (Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Fat Joe, Anne Winters—all of them playing dull caricatures) to sneaking into the principal’s office (Taran Killam) to steal a practice exam.
Malcolm D. Lee’s “Night School” is a missed opportunity. For one, it could have been an incisive critique of those inspirational teacher or gifted student movies. I felt Haddish craving to do more with the role. I liked that the premise looks at the marginalized, those who did not get their high school diplomas because life got in the way. But a work cannot stand on its premise alone. Like its protagonist, it must actually put in the work to be funny, smart, and entertaining.
Your Sister’s Sister (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
As his closest friend, Iris (Emily Blunt) feels that Jack (Mark Duplass) could use some time for himself after the death of his brother so she invites him to stay at her family’s vacation home. He accepts but when he gets there, it turns out that Iris’ half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is also using the place in order so sort things out. Half-mistaken as a peeping Tom, suffice to say that things between Jack and Hannah start awkwardly but the two soon find a connection over a bottle of tequila.
Based on the screenplay and directed by Lynn Shelton, “Your Sister’s Sister” has a great ear for dialogue partnered with winning performances but its weak third act keeps us at arm’s length unintentionally instead of drawing us in and feeling convinced that the ending is right for the specific story being told.
The three performers are able to function on a synergistic wavelength in order to make their respective characters and the emotions they go through believable. Duplass plays Jack with a schlubby vulnerability that is familiar but appropriately comforting, Blunt gives Iris the necessary energy as the mediator between two people she loves, and DeWitt injects Hannah with an edge messy enough to leave us wary of her intentions. We can predict that the relationships will be challenged but there is something about these characters that make us want to know more.
Because it is essentially a three-person show, we get to dive into the dynamics between Iris and Hannah as well as the special friendship between Irish and Jack. There are no big scenes of sweeping realizations. Most of the information they learn from one another are played either through laughs when a story is recalled or a joke is made or silence if a sensitive matter is introduced and using words does not feel right as a tool for comfort. They think and behave like real people making the best out of the cards that have been handed to them.
Three-quarters through, however, the picture drops the ball with a deafening thud. Once secrets are out in the open, the material goes through the usual motions of sad music playing in the background and montages of silence between characters that is so typical, it is comic more than dramatic. With such intelligence and heart that manage to guide the screenplay for more than half of the race, is leaning on clichés really the only way to conclude the story?
The final shot is a dare for critical evaluation. I did not find it annoying, but I found it tripe and too easy. It rings false because the writer-director has not found a way for the audience to get over the awkwardness we feel for them. It feels like a season finale of a sitcom still learning to stand on its feet instead of a film that is complete where we can believe that these characters can go on to live their lives after it fades to black.
Short History of Decay, A (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Erika (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is tired of her boyfriend’s lack of forward momentum in life and so she decides to break up with him. It turns out her timing could not be any worse because the very next day, Nathan (Bryan Greenberg), a writer who put his first novel on hold to work on a play, receives news that his father (Harris Yulin), who lives in Florida with his wife (Linda Lavin), has had a stroke and is in the hospital. Nathan takes the next flight out of New York City and begs his girlfriend if they could put their relationship problems on pause.
Written and directed by Michael Maren, “A Short History of Decay” is a nice domestic comedy-drama—and instances when I am forced to describe that a movie is “nice” is almost always not a compliment. It is slightly amusing, even moving at times, but it is too relaxed, bordering on bland, with what it is attempting to communicate.
Look at the title and then consider whose perspective the story is being told. Already there is a disconnect. Is it supposed to be ironic? It may be. But is it effective? I was not convinced entirely. The reason is because Nathan’s problems with his girlfriend taken side-by-side with his struggles with being a writer who lacks focus and inspiration simply pale compared to topics like dealing with mortality. The picture attempts to excel at both but the screenplay does not function on a high enough level.
The word “decay” comes in many forms in this story. Most obvious are the feelings that our protagonist holds toward his parents—more specifically, slowly realizing that they will not be around forever. His father is beginning to have serious health problems. His mother, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, has started to exhibit middle phase characteristics of the condition. Decay: his father’s body, his mother’s mind. Nathan wonders if it would be better for him to stay indefinitely.
The deterioration of Nathan and Erika’s relationship is present but not dealt with fully. The early scenes in NYC are effective because we get the impression that Erika has a good reason to feel the way she does. One of the things I dislike in bad comedies is simply reducing one of the partners to a horrible human being. Here, though we are supposed to side with Nathan, Erika does not come off like the relationship she is walking away from holds no value to her. I would like to have known more about the couple.
Decay also applies to Nathan’s dream of being a writer. There is a key conversation in the latter half of the film when Nathan goes on a date. The woman tells him that men his age, thirty-five, should already have a career—or at the very least a stable job. The scene can be enjoyed because instead of the material taking a catty or defensive route, Nathan responds as though deep down inside he already knows this. And yet it is not entirely clear. At that moment in time, we get a taste of how lost he is with respect to what he really wants to do or become.
In the end, I think I know what the material is hoping to communicate—and that is the problem. Due to a lack of connective tissue among subplots compounded with a main character who is genuinely lost, we are left with an undefined point of view. In other words, it is up to the viewer to invest in the characters through his or her own experiences. For instance, I was able to relate to it on some level because I have known people with dementia. That aspect I found fascinating. Still, it is highly likely that young and/or people who have yet to experience life will not find anything particularly interesting or challenging in this benign comedy.
★ / ★★★★
I suppose a congratulations is in order for co-writer-directors David and Nathan Zellner because they have created one of the most torturously unfunny comedies I have come across in a long time. It offers such a miserable experience that I noticed my body, spirit, and comportment wilting in unison about a third of the way through. I have no idea what possessed these filmmakers to go in the direction that they did; it goes to show that just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should.
“Damsel” is a mishmash of comedies: a spoof of grand Western pictures that Hollywood used to make, a satire of the often romanticized American frontier, and a slapstick comedy that pokes fun of the roughness and lawlessness of the era. But none of them works, together or apart, because the screenplay has a certain attitude about it, a knowingness that fails to ground the material in such a way that viewers recognize the heart of the story despite hurricane happening all around. What results is an episodic boredom, a dirge so excruciatingly painful to sit through that one could feel IQ points dropping by the minute. It inspires the viewer not to look closer at the screen but to walk away.
The plot is seemingly straightforward. The passionate Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) hires a preacher (David Zellner) to officiate a wedding ceremony, the latter unaware that the former’s love interest, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), must first be rescued from hooligans. Nothing is at seems initially, but the sudden left turns are not at all surprising. These so-called surprises have little impact, if any, because, without them, the audience would simply have to endure uninteresting characters engage in increasingly tedious conversations. Notice that although many words are used, they are not meaningful because the self-awareness in the script undermines what characters are expressing, especially moments that are supposed to come across even mildly heartfelt.
Pattinson has been great in other projects, particularly in the dystopian drama “The Rover.” Here, however, nearly every body language and distinct style of speaking comes across as a performance. Like the screenplay, the self-awareness is translated as fake at best and off-putting at worst. He has failed to create a character: what we see is merely a series of behavior that is supposed to be entertaining. And he has failed to create a convincing character because the screenplay is devoid of creativity or imagination. Wasikowska does not fare any better; it is like watching a mannequin take up space for fifty minutes.
Some viewers may label this film as “weird” because it is a comedy but the end result is not funny. I, on the other hand, refuse to use this wonderful word to describe this most appalling work. The more appropriate word is “lazy.” The reason is because the Zellner bothers thought they could get away with creating a hodgepodge of sub-genres and the end product would be given a pass because it could be considered unique, something that had never been done before.
But I ask: What’s the point of striving to create original material when the work is without sincerity, without soul? Comedies, you see, often have a point—even the darkest, bleakest comedies attempt to make a statement about, for example, the current state of our society or where it might be heading. Some comedies are more specific or more pointed in assaulting the viewers’ ethics or morality. And some simply try to entertain by casting a wide net—there’s nothing wrong with that.
Being different is not enough; I am not interested in handing out participation trophies.
Eighth Grade (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” is a searing look at how it feels like to be a middle schooler who yearns for social approval and ultimately acceptance. It is able to be funny, empathetic, honest, and critical often in the same moment without having the need to introduce a typical story arc where everyone, including the audience, feels elated by the end. Life simply goes on because it must; it does not stop or make concessions for anybody just because he or she feels like an outcast. I admired its willingness to simply show rather than console.
Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, a lonely eighth grader who makes YouTube videos even though no one watches them. (One of her videos has one view, however.) She specializes in giving advice, like learning to be more confident or how to take more risks, even though she herself is socially awkward. Fisher portrays Kayla with such authenticity that I wondered if it was her first role—not because she is green but because nearly every moment of her portrayal is raw and convincing. I am convinced she has a bright future because she can play natural with seeming ease; far too many younger entertainers lean on quirks or behavior to paint a character. Or worse—they have to look beautiful to be in character. Fisher does not. She simply is and that is invaluable.
I enjoyed the film for its heartfelt moments. Standouts involve Kayla’s interactions with her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who wishes to know her daughter more even though sometimes it is like talking to a wall. (She is allowed to have her cellphone with the headphones on at the dinner table.) It is ingenious how Burnham’s screenplay and the camera manage to put us into the teenager’s headspace so effectively that we forget—and she forgets, too—how lucky she is to have a parent who wishes to be more involved.
But therein lies the material’s greatness: when you are in middle school, you feel everything is dramatic and every change could make or break your social life. It is all about you; you are laser-focused in trying to control everything even though none of it is really under your control in the first place. Or, at least that was how I felt when I was in Kayla’s shoes a decade and a half ago. Sure, there is social media now, but when it comes to that need—I suspect nothing has really changed. The longing to be liked is permanent in most people.
Even the portrayal of other middle schoolers in the story is never as cruel as they show in mainstream movies where popular kids go out of their way to bully. Sometimes one’s peers are popular for no reason. That’s just the way things are and I enjoyed that the writing is insightful enough to show that on screen. Lesser pictures so often feel the need to provide a reason why bullies bully or why popular kids are popular. Here, things just are. When things change, they simply must. No explanation is needed.
Although the target audience is people who have already gone through middle school, I think sixth to eighth graders are likely to find it entertaining, too. The reason is because the protagonist is so humanized, everyone is bound to recognize something in themselves in Kayla. We are right there with her when she feels ugly but looks in the mirror anyway, when she feels extremely lonely while liking her classmates’ Instagram pictures, when she feels so frustrated and helpless that nothing is going her way, all she can do is scream on the inside. At the same time, we are there, too, when someone else likes her for who she is without makeup or Snapchat filters. We may not find ourselves in the same situations as Kayla, but the feelings captured on film are timeless and universal.