Tag: comedy

The Climb

The Climb (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Climb” is a story of two losers—Kyle and Mike (Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino)—who have been best friends since childhood. We meet them biking together and it is immediately noticeable that one is more likable than the other divorced from the fact that Mike has just informed his friend, who is engaged to be married, that he had slept with the the bride-to-be on multiple occasions, going as far back as three years. You know when you meet a person and you get a distinct vibe? Mike evokes an aura of selfishness; Kyle serves as a doormat.

Marvin and Covino wrote the screenplay (Covino directs) and I found it impressive that within a span of five minutes, they motivate viewers to cast heavy judgment on the characters. Big budget mainstream comedies tend to have a difficult time doing this—or they are unwilling to do so in the first place for the sake of a silly thing called likability. The approach is almost always vague and therefore safe; the comedy likely to be situation-based rather than a harsh critique of a person, ingrained behavior, personality trait, or lifestyle. This one goes out of its way to be specific and so the humor is sharp, unexpected, and occasionally brave. I wondered how much of the script is autobiographical because the dialogue, particularly when two people confront one another, sounds real. We readily see pain, shame, anger, and embarrassment on their faces.

There is a naturalism about it that reminded me of mumblecore pictures of the early 2000s. Much of the humor is rooted in its subjects’ shortcomings, for instance. Kyle is a lovable teddy bear, but there are times—I would say too many times—when he lacks spine, especially when the occasion calls for it. We meet his family and the women prove to have strong personalities. So how did he turn out to be such a pushover? But that’s the thing: the movie offers a handful of contradictions in terms of character. And because it does, it inspires us to pay attention that much more, to squint at the well-hidden threads, ask questions, and make educated guesses. Why do these two feel the need to have each other in their lives when it is clear as day that their relationship can be toxic?

Kyle and Mike’s tumultuous story unfolds over several years. It is divided into seven chapters, but there is no title card that denotes how much time has passed since the punchline of the previous one. Eventually, we are conditioned to note much they’ve changed or, perhaps more importantly, not changed. At times the difference between one chapter and another in terms character is an update from Version 2.0 to Version 2.0.2. This is an interesting approach for a comedy, and it works here for the most part. But it comes with notable shortcomings.

I wanted to get to know the duo as complete people—together and apart. But because their story is divided into chapters, we see only glimpses of what makes them happy, sad, jealous, or angry. Although I noted above that they undergo minimal change in terms of big picture, it is important that those changes be explored in meaningful and fruitful ways. While I enjoyed that the film is always on the move, it needed to slow down during the more dramatic moments and wring out every bit of its subjects’ unhappiness, of them feeling lost, of their desperation to forgive or be forgiven. In the end, I felt I understood Kyle and Mike only on a chapter-by-chapter basis, not as people whose story, or stories, will go on past the end credits.

Regardless, “The Climb” is worth seeing because it is not afraid to be intimate. There is no score that urges us how to feel. We must look into people’s eyes, we must observe the distance between their bodies, and we must note how they twitch, or squirm, or hold their breath when they’re about to lose control. This is a movie that values simplicity, yes, but it also values our ability to read people and empathize. I called Kyle and Mike “losers.” But you may not consider them to be. The wonderful thing about this film is that both of us can be correct.

All My Friends Are Dead

All My Friends Are Dead (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Jan Belcl’s directorial debut is supposed to be a comedy, but it does not inspire laughter, a few chuckles, a single smile, or even a passing thought that there is cleverness, urgency, or passion propelling the screenplay. One gets the impression that the writer-director had one idea—a gimmick—and its foundation are clichés of people in their early twenties—from sexual repression due to religion, closet homosexuals, and desperate virgins with no game to recovering drug addicts, sex-crazed bimbos, and MILFs—but not a single one proves to be unexpected or rings true. This is a movie filled with busyness lacking a specific angle of attack. And so nothing funny transpires on screen. The joke, I suppose, is on the folks who chose to sit through it.

The gimmick: We learn in the opening scene that everyone—with the exception of one—ended up dead at a New Year’s Eve house party. We are introduced to an inspector (Adam Woronowicz), who appears to be over his job, and a junior inspector with a weak stomach (Michal Meyer). But their names do not matter because we never see them again until the final scene and they do not impact the story in any way. In fact, there is no story to be had. Once the timeline rewinds to about an hour or two before midnight, we simply follow cardboard cutouts doing would-be shocking things like engaging in threesomes, doing drugs, and committing infidelity.

“But why is that interesting?” is a question I wanted to ask Belcl. It would have been a different matter entirely were the characters written with real thought, substance, or empathy. For instance, there is an extended sequence where we simply listen in on various subjects making small talk. But the dialogue is dead dull compounded with flat, uninspired camerawork. Not for one second do we believe that the characters have lives outside of this house of (eventual) murder. There is nothing wrong with partying and making mistakes, but viewers must be given reasons why characters are worth following outside of behavior. A mediocre episode of “Gossip Girl” commands more intrigue and drama than what’s at offer here.

But perhaps emptiness was the point and so I wondered if it was supposed to be a satire. After all, it employs situational exaggeration and extreme behavior to wring out any semblance of entertainment. But a satire of what? House parties? Privileged people creating problems out of nothing to feel as though their lives have meaning in some way? Is it a critique of Polish culture homogeneity? The hell that is the holidays? But if we have to ask, then that’s a sign that it is ineffective; it doesn’t matter if it is a satire or a massive miscalculation.

All the friends are dead and so is the screenplay. The body count may be high, but its imagination is twelve feet under. Here are better ways to spend a hundred minutes: playing with your dog, eating donuts while reading up on current events, trolling fascists on Twitter, dancing to your favorite songs in the living room, watering your garden… Make use of your time rather than wasting it on this… whatever this is.

Made in Italy

Made in Italy (2020)
★ / ★★★★

James D’Arcy’s directorial film “Made in Italy” attempts to tell a story of estranged father and son who must return to Tuscany in order to restore a villa so that it can be in good enough shape to be sold. But the screenplay is plagued by try-hard, vanilla, humorless jokes that one sits through the first thirty minutes and becomes convinced that the work is made for those who are brain dead. It offers no challenge, no originality, no creativity, not a whiff of a believable character, situation, or conflict. What results is a movie to be endured, like a trip to the dentist; I stayed for the view of the verdant Tuscan hills. I knew I should have just YouTubed such vistas.

Liam Neeson plays the father named Robert and Micheál Richardson plays the son named Jack. The former is an artist whose luster in the arts faded following the death of his wife twenty years ago. The latter is a gallery manager who is on the verge of getting a divorce from the very woman whose father owns the gallery. According to Ruth, the gallery will up for sale in a month. Afraid of change and convinced that he loves his job, Jack concocts a plan: sell his childhood home in Italy, a place he hasn’t visited in two decades, and use the money to buy back the gallery. As the pieces of the plot fall into place, viewers require constant defibrillation for having fallen into a coma. The setup is just so boring; one would think that D’Arcy has learned nothing from being in the movie business since the mid-90s. What is his inspiration for this drivel? I felt no fire behind it.

A few examples of so-called humor: Jack wandering in the village and falling over chairs, the father and the son being unable to make even a most casual conversation (“How’s work?”) during a long drive, two animal encounters—one locked in a cupboard and the other in the bathroom—that supposedly terrify these grown men. And then there are the caricatures of potential buyers who stop by to check out the house. These random surges of “comedy” do not work because the writer-director does not appear to understand the type of story he wishes to tell. There is no discipline in terms of tone and atmosphere.

One minute it embodies that of a light comedy-drama surrounding father and son who failed to come to terms with a family member’s death. The next minute it is a romantic comedy between the gallery manager and the Italian chef named Natalia (Valeria Bilello). We are supposed to buy into the romantic spark after the two share one banter. The script assumes that its audiences have never seen a romantic film or a comedy. Just about everything it offers is cliché (winning each other’s hearts through food, sharing a sad or tragic story then looking into each other’s eyes longingly, getting wet at a nearby pond and sharing a kiss). It even fails to get the very basic elements right, like offering us genuine reasons why Jack would be attracted to Natalia and Natalia to Jack. What about them as people other than the fact they’re both single?

I felt imprisoned while sitting through this sunny funeral, filled to the brim with upbeat symphony or melancholic piano keys when it is time to manipulate the comatose audience into feeling something. Although it is only about an hour and thirty minutes in duration, I checked the clock at least four times. I wanted to scream. Not only is the content dull, the pacing is laborious. We wait for the played out moment when the father and son would finally share a tearful hug so the movie could finally end and we’d be free to go on about our day. The stench of this stinker lingers.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The movie begins with a series of funny situations as we follow Radha (Radha Blank), an NYC-based black playwright who is struggling artistically and financially, from the moment those expressive eyes open till her cracking bones hit the hay. The next day begins and the cycle repeats. But just when we think we are accustomed to the formula, the picture disarms us by revealing nuanced layers about the artist, particularly how sad feels and how lost she has become due to the recent passing of her mother. Here is a story of a woman, three months shy of turning of forty, who is driven—desperate—to fill a void. Writing doesn’t work. Teaching has staled. Perhaps this time it can be filled by becoming a hip-hop artist. Her persona is RadhaMUSPrime.

Blank also writes and directs “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” autobiographical in nature and reeking of Spike Lee ‘80s joie de vivre. It is shot in black and white. Very talky. Humanist to a tee. Its humor is pointed and its love for the working class shines through. Neighbors are interviewed and they look directly at the camera. Then they electrify us with attitude and authenticity.

When these vivacious personalities move out of the frame, like the sassy old lady or the homeless man across the street, we feel there is more to their stories and so we wish to follow them. The same can be said about the multi-ethnic women engaging in rap battle in the Bronx. Or Radha’s students. Or the actors in Radha’s play. It is such a joy that although some characters are provided fewer than ten lines, they pop and we remember them. Here is a film that leaves a strong impression.

We are provided a clear vision of what’s important to Radha. Surface viewers will claim her play belongs on this list while thoughtful viewers might say otherwise. The play, originally about how gentrification has affected black lives in Harlem but has morphed into something else for the sake of appealing (read: being more palatable) to the masses, is but a product of Radha’s artistic expression. Blank commands the camera in such a way as to focus on the character’s detailed facial expressions thereby emphasizing that Radha finds pleasure—no, exhilaration—in the process. The joy of work and working. The value of creating. The reward of living up to one’s potential or promise… outside of receiving a “30 Under 30” award.

The work goes on like this. Those who sign up to be entertained will be entertained; those who wish to peer into a life of a person will recognize the great wealth she has. For instance, observe how Radha’s students regard her. Although it is no secret that their teacher has not produced anything “substantial” in almost ten years, in that classroom she is the apple of their eye. They look up to her because even though she carries a deep sadness, and I think a few of them have picked up on it, she works hard to to evince a positive, welcoming energy. Many amusing exchanges (and confrontations) occur in that classroom, but it is a haven for those students.

Is RadhaMUSPrime any good? You have to see for yourself. To make a mixtape, Radha collaborates with a twenty-six-year-old music producer named D (Oswin Benjamin). The connection is amusing, refreshing, surprising, and revealing. The material could have easily gone down a romantic comedy route but refrains; it is far more sophisticated and understated than that. Confident, smart, and human every step of the way, I very much look forward to what Radha Blank will come up with next. I hope it’s just as beguiling.

Yes, God, Yes

Yes, God, Yes (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Karen Maine’s directorial debut needs a massive electric shock to the chest because it is dramatically and comically dead. For a story about a teenager who is raised in a Catholic household, attends Catholic school, and is neck-deep into the Catholic community, it should be filled to the brim with savage humor—and genuine humanity. After all, its purpose is two-fold: to underline the countless hypocrisies within such institutions (students of faith and leaders alike) and how such organizations tend to create young adults who are ill-equipped to handle the world outside of one’s bubble. “Yes, God, Yes” means well. But it is toothless.

Natalya Dyer plays Alice, our central protagonist who chooses to follow her curiosity. I enjoyed her performance for the most part; I believed the mix of horror and temptation in those eyes every time Alice faces new situations—often sexual—like receiving racy photos from hairychest1956@aol.com, being invited to partake in cyber sex, discovering the pleasure of masturbation, and learning about what “tossing salad” actually means. Dyer is required to walk the line between being naive and sheltered without coming across as dumb or stupid. She gives the impression that she’s aware of the fact that pushing the character to the latter extreme, especially a work peppered with satirical elements, is likely to make Alice unworthy of our time. She acts with intention, but the material is not worthy of Dyer’s talent.

The story unfolds in two places: at the Catholic school and at a four-day Catholic retreat. The former is a near waste of time—and film—when it absolutely should not have been. In smart comedies, expository sequences manage to lay out the stakes. In this film, we meet Alice but everyone else around her is a complete and utter bore, from Alice’s fair-weather best friend Laura (Francesca Reale), Alice’s crush Wade (Parker Wierling)—who has a girlfriend, to the by-the-book Father Murphy (Timothy Simons).

Although these supposedly key figures—ones who will help, inadvertently, our heroine to solidify her attitude toward living her own life, under her own terms, while still possibly holding onto her faith—attend the retreat with Alice, they are not given anything of note to say or do. Instead, they drop in and out whenever convenient to say the same things only using different words. Halfway through, we still wait for the supporting characters to act human. A comedy doesn’t work when everyone is a robot or a cardboard cutout. Where’s the funny in that?

We already know that religion and hypocrisy walk hand-in-hand. The writer-director appears to be stuck in this glaringly obvious and oft tread idea. What results is a lack of dramatic parabola. The movie is tonally flat; events happen but they offer no effective punchlines. Maine fails to evolve her story in a way that is believable, pointed, perhaps even heartfelt. I got the impression as though she thinks her audience are composed only of high school students who possess an extremely narrow definition of religion, that perhaps religion and faith are synonymous. We all know it isn’t. It’s more complex than that.

I felt neither challenge nor a daringness to this picture. If it is a passion project, I felt no passion from it either. With so many first-time filmmakers appearing to put their all into their debut piece, if what’s on display here is all what Maine has to offer, I question her as a storyteller. Because if that’s all there is, she’d be wise to find a new vocation. Still, I hope I am proven wrong in her next film. (If there is a next one.) It’s always nice to be surprised.

Come to Daddy

Come to Daddy (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Comedy-thriller “Come to Daddy,” written by Toby Harvard and directed by Art Timpson, is not without the ability to entertain. Looking at the work as a whole, there are darkly comic scenes dispersed throughout the morbid reunion story between father and son, but it leaves the audience longing for more substance both as a piercing character study and as a lavish genre exercise. Because it does not offer much in the way of both, the attempt comes across undercooked—almost good enough to recommend but not quite. When the end credits began to roll, a part of me wished it had chosen an extreme and let it rip.

Elijah Wood is Norval, a thirty-five-year-old self-proclaimed artist from Beverly Hills, California who accepts an invitation from his father to visit his seaside home. They have not seen one another in three decades, so the man Norval meets at the doorstep (Stephen McHattie) feels like a complete stranger. Still, Norval so wishes to establish a genuine connection with his father that he tries to overlook the insults and cold shoulder. Wood is highly watchable as a man-child whose default is to try building himself up when facing criticism because Norval knows that deep down he is a loser. So when he admits that he has had issues with alcohol dependency and had been involved in a suicide attempt, we are ready to recognize and believe the sadness inside him.

If only the screenplay were as sharp as the lead actor’s ability to sell a story without relying on words. We have a potentially complex character established during the first thirty minutes, but when the action revs up about halfway through, putting a magnifying glass on Norval is no longer of utmost importance. Instead of maintaining our curiosity, it chooses to make us wince, cringe, and gag from the torture, violence, and murder. Although possessing a keen eye when it comes to creating natural lighting so we can easily buy into the realism of a moment, I found the overt use of violence to be less effective than its more restrained moments, its quiet (or disquiet).

There is a recurring theme involving traditional masculinity here. Right from the film’s opening seconds, we note how Norval dresses, how he moves, how he acts, how he speaks. Look at his posture, his frame. He is a not a typical alpha male; he isn’t alpha at all. Norval fails to recognize himself in the man that greets him at the door. And so our subject is thrown into a world of survive-or-perish. I will not reveal the twist that occurs halfway through because I feel it would do a disservice to the picture, but there is a way to comment on the toxicity of having rigid qualifications for masculinity without solely relying on showing brutality or violence. This aspect of the work is underwritten and one-dimensional.

At least for a while, “Come to Daddy” offers some creativity; it is difficult to guess where it is heading. At one point, we begin to wonder if it is heading toward the territory of supernatural horror given the inexplicable noises in the house at night, a figure blending in the leaves, a corpse seemingly moving on its own. And so it is most disappointing that the work fails to offer a strong and memorable punchline. It’s quirky and clever on occasion but not much else.


Bodied (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The subversive satirical comedy “Bodied” tells the story of a white and privileged UC Berkeley graduate student whose thesis involves the usage of the word “nigga” within the context of battle rap. It is energetic, propulsive, clever, and takes no prisoners. Screenwriter Alex Larsen and director Joseph Kahn are teeming with ideas—about race, gender and sexual identity, trigger warnings, fame, campus politics, political correctness—they pack them all in here—at times at the expense of creating major imbalance in storytelling. But this is the kind of risk daring filmmakers are willing to take when they are so confident that the material works. And it does. Here is a movie that hooks you all the way to the finish line.

The earnest graduate student and eventual battle rapper is named Adam. He is our protagonist but he is far from the hero of this story. Adam is smart, articulate, and adaptable—not dissimilar to a mad scientist but whose expertise is history, literature, and poetry (“humanities”—there is irony here) as opposed to science and mathematics. The character is played with terrific and alarming intensity by Calum Worthy, capable of exuding a mix of goodness and wildfire obsession to hide the fact that his character, deep down, is a scumbag. Worse, he thinks he’s a good person. There is no redemption arc to be had here—appropriate because the film’s approach to the subjects it touches upon is unapologetic. Like standout satires, this one holds a mirror on our society, points at what’s wrong, and demands that we take responsibility.

Yet the picture offers no solutions—the correct decision since it is not enjoyable to sit through a lecture in a comedy. Instead, the majority of the movie is composed of highly amusing—often laugh out loud—battle raps among personalities so colorful (Jackie Long, Jonathan Park, Shoniqua Shandai, Walter Perez), we get to know them not just in how they relate outside of the match but also how they are like when within the headspace of competition, when faced with an opponent whose goal is to humiliate and break them down. And in the age of insta-share culture, everyone not only learns of your humiliation within seconds, you get to live it over and over outside of the match. So there is plenty at stake.

At its best, the picture reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of how the camera is utilized to get in someone’s face and capture minute moments of, for example, a competitor’s defenses being broken down. Blink and you’ll miss specific jabs that really hurt even the most seemingly insurmountable Goliath. Although produced by Eminem (along with Paul Rosenberg, Adi Shankar, Jil Hardin), this is no “8 Mile.” It is another level because nothing is off the table. Insults range from physical and mental disability; homophobia; transphobia; being white, black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Jewish; even vegans are not safe. Every rap battle is exciting because the attitude is risk-taking—risking of offending a certain group even though there are truths—a lot of truths—in what is being communicated and lampooned.

There are moments in “Bodied” when I caught myself thinking, “They did not just cross that line,” “Did they really go there?,” “…How far will they take this?” Clearly, the work is meant to induce shock, horror, and aggressive laughter that hurts. It possesses an understanding that a satire is rendered ineffective when it takes the middle of the road. And so perceptive filmmakers play upon the extremes. Do not miss this gem; it deserves a cult following.


Villains (2019)
★ / ★★★★

I suppose the main strategy is to flaunt the star power of its four leads—Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgård, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan—and hope it is enough to entertain because “Villains,” written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen is just another toothless, mindless, and forgettable black comedy. It is exasperating enough that the premise isn’t fresh—a pair of amateur criminals breaks into the home of married and deranged murderers—but there is also a drought of genuine surprises throughout its interminable ninety-minute run. The material hints at a darker underbelly on occasion—like keeping a child chained up in the basement from what it appears to be years—but the performances consistently function on a try-hard comic level; there is not one scene in which viewers are not reminded that we are seeing actors act. They might as well just sport funny hats while standing in one spot doing nothing and pass that as comedy. In the middle of it, a thoughtful audience is forced to wonder what the movie is about and if the writers themselves had an inkling. I think I know what it’s going for: an exploration between greater and lesser evils on collision course. But there is no tension here, no deep thoughts, and certainly no understanding of basic human nature. There is no drama and thus there is no movie worth seeing. Move along.

The Dead Don’t Die

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch takes the familiar idea of us being zombies to consumerism—a metaphor introduced in George A. Romero’s classic “Dawn of the Dead”—and does absolutely nothing new with it. What results is “The Dead Don’t Die,” a would-be horror-comedy without excitement or spark of originality—simply a parade of familiar faces like Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, and Danny Glover, just to name a few, squeezing so hard to extract substance from a screenplay devoid of any. Even scenes of the undead coming out of the ground, lumbering about, and eating the flesh of the panicked living have been done much better in other movies—even those with considerably less budget. In the middle of it, I felt depressed, desperately wishing for the self-referential torment to be over, because I knew a filmmaker of Jarmusch’s caliber should be treading new ground instead of barely making a scratch on an overly familiar one. The material is so desperate by the end that at one point a character breaks the fourth wall. We are meant to laugh or be surprised by this—but I was not at all amused. It failed to earn this moment. Sometimes dead is better, according to the tagline of “Pet Sematary,” which is a most fitting admonition to this film.

Good Boys

Good Boys (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is way to make a raunchy tween pseudo-sex comedy for adults, but Gene Stupnitsky’s “Good Boys” misses the mark completely. The reason is because it is a one-trick pony when it comes the would-be comic moments: Put six-graders Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon)—collectively known as the Beanbag Boys—in adult situations (buying drugs, stealing beer, spying on neighbors, and the like) and allow their innocence to shine through. The formula is lazy, repetitive, and, for the most part, unfunny. Notice how there is minimal flow to the comedy; just a parade of one wacky scenario after another with no dramatic pull. Cue the boys screaming when things go awry. Just because the tweens utter curse words like sailors does not automatically mean the material is effective. Two-thirds of the word through, the work undergoes a forced and unconvincing tonal shift. However, there is a lack of convincing drama in the boys realizing they will not be best friends for life precisely because the screenplay by Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg has treated these characters as cardboard cutouts for the majority of the picture.

Long Shot

Long Shot (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Odd couple comedy “Long Shot” is a one-note joke elevated by charming performances by Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, she a beautiful and statuesque U.S. secretary of state who intends to run for president and he a progressive journalist who looks like Regular Joe. Polls predict he will not be good for her numbers. Peppered with light chuckles due to occasionally sharp jabs at our current political climate—the systemic corruption, money in politics, the idiots in office—there is a hint of a merciless romantic comedy here. Instead, we are handed a diluted satire meant for mainstream consumption. When a joke is considered to be too smart or hitting too close to the gut, the strategy is to show slapstick or gross-out humor. As the film drags somewhere in the middle of its two-hour running time, accompanied by awkward tonal shifts, one cannot help but consider a better alternative: a deeper exploration of the clash between ideals of two people on the same side of the political spectrum and less focus on how they would be perceived by the public as a couple. Written for the screen by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Directed by Jonathan Levine.

The Favourite

The Favourite (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

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

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.