Tag: comedy

Bodied


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


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.

Always Be My Maybe


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.

Booksmart


Booksmart (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

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.

Blended


Blended (2014)
★ / ★★★★

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.

Little


Little (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

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.

The Fluffer


The Fluffer (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


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.