REVIEW: The Little Hours

25 06 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Raunchy comedies set in a distant past always run the risk of relying too heavily on anachronistic humor. (Cough, “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”) The humor that arises from performers in period garb rattling off profanities or talking in the present-day vernacular is the definition of low-hanging fruit.

Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours” tends to lean on this dissonance to generate comedy. Aubrey Plaza dropping F-bombs in a nun’s habit is inherently pretty darn funny. Whether it leans too heavily on the ahistorical humor is up to the individual viewer – I found it a little overloaded – but thankfully it’s not the only trick Baena has up his sleeve.

The film’s story, adapted from the Medieval novella “The Decameron,” finds laughs from sending up the era’s sexual repression and religious rigor. Three naughty nuns (Plaza, Alison Brie and scene-stealer Kate Micucci) toil away in their convent under the watchful eye of John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso, lamenting their inability to act on certain desires. Luckily, Dave Franco’s chesty handyman Massetto arrives to light their flames.

This feudal Rudolph Valentino escapes one manor, where as servant he beds the master’s wife, and gets smuggled into the nunnery pretending to be a deaf mute. Thinking him unable to hear them, the sisters let loose with some of their wildest sexual fantasies – some of which they consummate to his delight and horror. “The Little Hours” is certainly a one-of-a-kind sex comedy, worth seeing for its brazenness alone and worth staying for Fred Armisen’s Bishop Bartolomeo, who arrives at the end to scold them all with a poker-faced gall. B

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REVIEW: Joshy

9 08 2016

JoshyAs predicted by myself and many people smarter than me, the so-called mumblecore movement shot to cultural prominence in the wake of 2013’s “Drinking Buddies.” These low-budget, short production films began attracting some bright talent from television and cinema. With their unscripted, improvisation style and lived-in qualities, it’s no wonder that comedians and dramatists alike rushed to appear in their own.

With a large cast featuring small screen scene stealers like Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, sketch performers like Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman, indie dream girls like Jenny Slate and Alison Brie, and even filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg themselves in front of the camera, Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” feels a bit like “Mumblecore: The Movie.” (Or at least what our culture has decided it will be today.) The simple pleasures of watching this group interact for an hour and a half cannot be understated.

Yet recent films of a similar ilk such as “Digging for Fire” felt like a hangout for hangout’s sake, with thematics tacked on and a narrative throughline threaded in as an afterthought. The conversations and group dynamics of “Joshy,” however, are baked into the films reason for existing itself. After the eponymous character suffers a tragedy that lays to waste his marital plans, his motley crew of buddies use the house reserved for his bachelor weekend as the venue and occasion for a cheer-up mission.

It quickly becomes obvious that while his trio of bros attempt to play the role of fun-loving therapists, they too are all undergoing hardcore emotional stressors of their own. Each attempts some level of macho posturing – whether in relation to booze, drugs or strippers – to mask the pain. Their buddy makes it all too easy to feel superior; the pet name Joshy suggests both femininity and childishness.

If the film feels at times meandering, it’s because Baena both admirably gives the main men space to work out their issues while also providing ample space to critique them. By being at the center of the film, Joshy and pals are inevitable magnets of symapthy and understanding. But Baena never lets the men of “Joshy” off the hook for what could come across as tunnel vision or indefensible behavior. A more “grown-up” family, played by Joe and Kris Swanberg, drops in on their retreat and delivers a pretty firm scolding. Similarly, a group of call girls makes reference to the gang as resembling creepy serial killer types. It’s a pretty satisfying way to balance the competing impulses of developing the characters and indulging the actors. B2halfstars





REVIEW: How to Be Single

10 02 2016

Far too often, Hollywood rom-coms problematize singleness. This genre portrays the lack of a romantic partner as a condition to be fixed – or even a disease to be cured. In many ways, coupling is somewhat of a biological imperative. But with lifespans getting longer and the nature of connectivity changing our expectations for others, singleness is becoming a more permanent fixture of the life course.

How to Be Single,” adapted from a novel by Liz Tuccillo (and seemingly loosely), provides many different avenues to explore just what this special period might mean. There’s the romantic monogamist type in Dakota Johnson’s Alice, the free-wheeling and fun-loving hedonist with Rebel Wilson’s Robin, and the maternally instinctual but careerist in Leslie Mann’s Meg. Each finds a path that is right for them as the film goes on, a refreshing change of pace from the “one size fits all” solution offered by far too many films.

The ride towards these conclusions gets a little turbulent, though, as the film plays into a few of the double standards or traps it wants to decry. It mostly just sticks to archetypes, which works just fine once each character finds themselves within one. Ironically, “How To Be Single” finds its biggest successes in the moments when someone’s archetype leads them to a moment of self-actualization.

The one character who does not fit this mold is Alison Brie’s Lucy, an algorithmically-obsessed serial online dater. Her connection to the core trio in the film is only tangential; the link comes from a neighborhood bar that Alice and Robin also happen to frequent. Lucy’s presence just clutters up “How To Be Single.” She feels like a shameless ploy for topical relevancy rather than a well-imagined addition to the story. Brie’s fire-tongued portrayal makes Lucy’s scenes fun, but they detract from the real core of the film. Her constant need to find herself in someone else clashes with the message offered by the rest of the film, which posits that extended time for solitary self-reflection can produce worthwhile discoveries. B-2stars





REVIEW: Sleeping With Other People

4 10 2015

Sleeping with Other PeopleThough the first two words in the title of writer/director Leslye Hedland’s “Sleeping With Other People” are a polite euphemism, that semantic choice probably represents her most cautious choice regarding sex.  Unlike so many others dealing with romance and courtship on screen, she leans in to the thorniness that most choose to sugarcoat.  She embraces the mess created by the libido’s interference with the heart.

Her two main characters, Jason Sudeikis’ Jake and Alison Brie’s Lainey, are even admitted sex addicts.  Early on in the film, the two even reunite after a collegiate one-night stand at a meeting for those struggling to rein in their urges.  “Shame” this is not, but it’s at least a more nuanced portrayal of sexuality than 2011’s pair of hookup movies, “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached.”

Yet sadly, Hedland also seems to borrow one too many plot points from said movies.  Even as she resists reducing love into sex, Jake and Lainey’s drifting back towards each other as they try to push apart feels like a page ripped right from the rom-com playbook.  There’s at least some good humor as Hedland blends in some battle of the sexes humor a la “When Harry Met Sally,” but Sudeikis and Brie lack the chemistry to sell their relationship beyond a few choice scenes.  The two always feel like they are operating on different comedic frequencies.

Despite a winning ensemble that includes fantastic actors like Adam Scott, Natasha Lyonne and Amanda Peet, “Sleeping With Other People” just never coheres its parts into a satisfying whole.  I suspect the only time I’ll ever think about this film again is when taking an overview of films that show how technology inhibits intimacy – Hedland does include one powerful split-screen shot of Jake and Lainey texting each other from their own beds.  Though they look and connect as if they were right next to each other, their phones still make them worlds apart.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Get Hard

7 04 2015

To be fair to writer/director Etan Coen, I did enter “Get Hard” with knives at the ready to draw.  I am currently enrolled in a sociology course on race and ethnic relations, and a film that appeared chock full of vast generalizations seemed like a great potential paper topic for unit focusing on explanations for enduring racial inequality.  Because of that, I perversely did not leave the movie disappointed.

“Get Hard” is not actively, avowedly racist, although Coen does perpetuate some troubling stereotypes.  He can try to hide the film under the protection of satire and exaggeration, yet those labels hardly excuses the underpinnings and assumptions that come with wading into such territory.

Not to mention, he also tries to turn topics of concern into an invitation for laughter. Making an educated guess that a black man has been to jail, as Will Ferrell’s James does, based on their disproportionate rates of incarceration is a sad truth.  It ought to inspire genuine reflection, not a quick giggle.

But the only cause for concern in “Get Hard” is gay panic.  Everyone in the film seems to be in agreement that any sort of oral or anal sex is a punishment infinitely worse than systemic racism (never mind that any heterosexual person could engage in either act).  The homophobia that runs rampant through the movie made me wonder if the script was secretly written by Dr. Ben Carson, the Republican presidential hopeful who uses prison as an example for why homosexuality is a choice.

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