Category Archives: Dramedy

Tribeca 2021: Wild Men (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19. 2021)

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Every film festival has at least one quirky road movie (it’s a rule). Danish director Thomas Daneskov’s (wait for it) quirky road movie concerns Martin, a white-collar worker who flips his lid and heads to the Norwegian hinterlands to gather nuts and berries (sans wife and kids). After a day or two, failing to bring down any wild game with his homemade bow and arrow, he’s craving protein and heads for the nearest convenience store (looking like a cross between Dilbert and Hagar the Horrible). Unfortunately, he’s forgotten his wallet and despite honest intentions ends up in an altercation with the manager and ultimately on the run from the cops. Fate puts him on a path with an injured drug runner, and a male bonding/buddy film ensues. An entertaining dramedy with a Coen Brothers vibe, mixed with typically deadpan Scandinavian humor.

Cheap thrills: The Paper Tigers (***½) & In Action (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 8, 2021)

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It’s been a while (like never) since I’ve seen a kickass Kickstarter-funded martial arts movie that was filmed in my back yard. Full disclosure: Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers wasn’t literally filmed in my back yard…but it was shot here in Seattle.

Tran subtly subverts Hollywood tropes by re-imagining The Karate Kid through the sensibilities of Chan is Missing in this tale of three friends, all former teenage kung fu champions now riddled with the baggage and creeping infirmities of middle age.

The one-time star of the trio is Danny (Alain Uy) a divorced suburban dad with a drudge office job that keeps him tethered to his cell phone, even when he is trying to enjoy quality time with his young son on weekends (his ex is not pleased). Wisecracking Hing (Ron Yuan) was specially trained in the arts of ancient Chinese healing but is now barely ambulatory due to an accident and subsisting on disability checks. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is the most physically fit of the lot, but still suffers the odd pull, creak, or tweak.

The men have gone their separate ways in their adult lives. Danny and Hing have kept in touch, but Danny and Jim have not been on speaking terms since an incident that took place on the eve of a martial arts tournament the then-teenage trio was attending in Japan.

However, when they learn that the recent death of their beloved “sifu” (kung fu teacher) may have involved foul play, the trio decide to put aside differences, get the band back together and launch their own investigation to find the culprit and avenge (if applicable).

While that setup may sound cliché…well, it is. But what separates Tran’s film from most martial arts fare is its character development, gentle social commentary, smart (and frequently hilarious) dialog, and surprising warmth. Don’t despair, action fans…there are still plenty of fight scenes, all expertly choreographed and genuinely exciting to watch.

The three leads are appealing and have great chemistry. Even the “bad guys” of the piece are three-dimensional; particularly Danny’s long-time nemesis (played with aplomb by Matt Page (creator of the martial arts comedy web series “Enter The Dojo”). Frankly, I did not expect to enjoy The Paper Tigers so much, but I, erm…really got a kick out of it!

“The Paper Tigers” is now playing on various digital platforms.

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There are “low budget” movies, and there are “no budget” movies. Not that it makes a difference in the quality of what ends up on screen; some of my all-time favorite films are low-budget or no-budget wonders. Sadly, In Action will not be joining them this evening.

Billed as an “action film” with tongue-in-cheek, In Action is predicated on a one-joke premise that its budget is so low (“How low is it, Johnny?”) that nearly all its “action” is implied, rather than shown…most of what you are watching onscreen is inaction (get it?).

What you are mostly seeing onscreen are the occasionally gore-spattered mugs of co-writer-director-stars Sean Kenealy and Eric Silvera, who play (wait for it) Sean and Eric, two aspiring filmmakers who are brainstorming on their screenplay for an action movie. When government spooks hack into their laptops and mistake their story treatment for a terrorist plot, Sean and Eric find themselves embroiled in a real-life action film (of sorts).

It’s a clever concept, with spurts of comic inspiration using animation, hand-drawn sketches and toys, but Kenealy and Silvera’s histrionic acting goes to “11” and sustains that level for the entire film (which feels much longer than its actual 79-minute run time). The expletive-laden dialog leans heavily on insult humor of the Kevin Smith variety, but somehow lacks the panache (the film is reminiscent of Clerks, except without the laughs).

To their credit, Kenealy and Silvera do fully commit to…whatever this is. There’s always the possibility that they are utilizing some post-ironic meta-SXSW hipster shtick that I’m too out-of-touch to “get” (e.g., I never “got” Mr. Show, despite co-workers half my age insisting that I’d laugh my ass off. I watched several episodes …completely stone-faced).

Yeah, maybe I’m gettin’ too old for this shit…

“In Action” will be available on various digital platforms May 11.

 

SIFF 2021: Ladies of Steel (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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Finnish humor is not for everybody, as it leans toward deadpan (think Jim Jarmusch, who cites Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki as an influence). This road movie/dramedy from director Pamela Tola (co-written with Aleksi Bardy) is a kind of a geriatric take on Thelma and Louise.

Fearing that she has killed her husband after beaning him with a frying pan during an argument, a 70-ish woman named Inkeri (Leena Uotila) panics and hits the road with her two older sisters in tow. Misadventures ensue…including sexual, which is not something you see onscreen very often with actors of “a certain age”. Truth be told…there is something actually quite wonderful and liberating about it.

SIFF 2021: Heist of the Century (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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A stoner heist comedy based on a true story? Stranger things have happened. In 2006, a team of robbers hit the Banco Rio in Acassuso, Argentina. They took hostages, stole $8 million in valuables and cash and escaped in a boat despite being surrounded by 200 police. They ordered pizza and soda for the hostages, sang happy birthday to one of them, and left behind toy guns and a note saying they stole “money, not love.” If that isn’t a film begging to be made, I don’t know what is. Director Ariel Winograd and screenwriters Alex Zito and Fernando Araujo have fashioned one of the most entertaining genre entries Elmore Leonard never wrote. My festival favorite so far.

SIFF 2021: All Those Small Things (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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The problems of the rich and famous…we should all be so lucky? meets Green Acres in this portrait of an aging British game show host (James Faulkner) who descends into an existential malaise after hearing of the death of a longtime friend.

Moping through his fan mail, he reads a touching letter that inspires him to travel to America to pay his admirer a surprise visit (and of course, to give himself some time to mull over a life tragically misspent). He ends up in a one-horse burg in Eastern Washington…where unexpected bonds are forged, and Life Lessons are Learned.

Despite teetering on maudlin at times and containing more false endings than The Return of the King, writer-director Andrew Hyatt’s dramedy made me laugh and made me cry.

Tribeca 2020: Love Spreads (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 25, 2020)

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I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s what separates us from the animals (even if my “inner Douglas Adams” persists in raising the possibility that “there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.”). Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy is right in that wheelhouse.

“Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs. The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat) to cough them up, pronto.

Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, with a dash of Love and Mercy-bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and catchy original songs.

Blu-ray reissue: FM (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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FM – Arrow Films

John Alonzo’s 1978 comedy-drama (written by Ezra Sacks) centers on fictional L.A. rock station “Q-Sky” FM, which has just shot to number one, to the elation of hip program director Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon), who leads a team of colorful DJs (Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras and Eileen Brennan). While Dugan sees the win as validation for his “free form” approach, corporate HQ views it as a potential cash cow for landing big accounts like the U.S. Army. The battle lines between art and commerce are drawn…and it’s on.

Granted-the film is uneven, but the cast is game, the soundtrack is great, and Linda Ronstadt and band are in fine form performing several live numbers. It’s a nice snapshot of the era when “underground” FM was making a shift to the more corporate “Layla-Free Bird-Tom Sawyer” format that flogs to this day.

Arrow’s image quality is quite an improvement over the long out-of-print DVD version. Extras include 2 new interviews with star Michael Brandon and screenwriter Ezra Sacks.

Pretty as you feel: Chained For Life (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 5, 2019)

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Now the questions that come to mind: “Where is this place and when is it?” “What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?” You want an answer? The answer is it doesn’t make any difference, because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life – perhaps out amongst the stars – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone.

— Epilogue from “Eye of the Beholder”, a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling.

Depending on how far back your pop culture references go, a certain classic episode from the original Twilight Zone TV series may (or may not) keep popping into your head as you watch writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s “movie within a movie” Chained For Life.

Picture if you will: a postmodernist mashup of The Elephant Man with The French Lieutenant’s Woman (I’ll give you a moment). Schimberg’s film intercuts two parallel romantic affairs; one involving two fictional lead characters in an arthouse horror flick, and the other one that is developing off-set between the two actors who portray the leads.

Mabel (Jess Weixler) is the leading lady, a beautiful movie star hoping to score some art cred by working with a critic’s darling German director (Charlie Korsmo) who is making his English-language debut. Cast opposite Mabel is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a sweet-natured young man with a pronounced facial deformity. “Herr Director” is using a semi-abandoned hospital for his set, casting a dwarf, “real” Siamese twins, a “bearded lady”, and other folks with unusual physical attributes alongside professional actors like Mabel.

Rosenthal has never acted in a film before; he picks Mabel’s brain between takes for tips. He’s particularly nervous about memorizing his dialog. Mabel assures him that every actor, no matter the degree of experience, worries about that in the early days of a shoot.

“Name an emotion,” Mabel says to Rosenthal in an impromptu acting lesson. On the spot, he can’t think of one. “Sadness,” she offers, as she changes expression to match the emotion. “See?” she says, “Acting.” “I see,” says Rosenthal, “Now I’ve got one. Happiness.” Mabel obliges. “Let’s try fear,” he says. She promptly shows fear. “How about…empathy?” Rosenthal requests. Mabel begins to hedge. “So…empathy in 3-2-1, action!” he repeats. Cleverly, Schimberg keeps his camera on Rosenthal as Mabel gives it a go. “And…it’s a lot like ‘pity’. But all the same, I’m touched,” Rosenthal deadpans.

That funny/sad scene in the first act is essentially the crux of the film: “Empathy” truly is “an advanced emotion” to convey, as Mabel says to Rosenthal with a nervous laugh. Rosenthal’s resigned response to Mabel’s good intentions reveals much about what it’s like to be inside the head of someone who has no control over others’ first impressions of them (he’s thinking “different day, same old shit”). Our first reactions give us away, and honest conversations about how society treats such “outsiders” are far and few between.

Schimberg’s film, while decidedly unconventional, is eminently accessible (once you adjust to its peculiar rhythms). He is clearly a student of the Robert Altman school; highly populated shots with slow zooms from multiple cameras, overlapping dialog, and an improvised feel (although I don’t know for a fact that he gave his actors that leeway).

For me, the best scene is the denouement. Mabel is taking a taxi to the airport after the film production wraps. The camera remains solely on her while she has a conversation with the driver (who we hear, but never see). Initially, Mabel appears uncomfortable, particularly when the driver tells her she is very beautiful and then says he’s a movie fan.

“We have something in common,” the taxi driver says. “We are both artists.” He hands her a book that he has written about his escape from Nigeria. He thinks it would make a great movie. Maybe Denzel Washington can play him. “I know 9 languages,” he tells her. “I am also a math wizard.” He asks her to give him a random math problem, which he solves in seconds, Rain Man style. He tells her about his plans to produce a YouTube series that teaches children math. He dreams it will become so popular that he will be able to use his celebrity status to “ask President Trump to bring my family from Nigeria.”

“You’re an extraordinary man,” Mabel says in wonderment.

And this is an extraordinarily timely film.

You will go to the moon: A NASA film festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 20, 2019)

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50 years today, on July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. I know-you’re suffering from tribute fatigue; don’t worry, I’ll keep this short. And yes, I’m aware that while we figured out how to put a man on the moon, your cell phone service still sucks; it has been duly noted.

For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me.

Of course, there are still some big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.

It is in this spirit that I have curated a NASA film festival for you. In alphabetical order:

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Apollo 11– This 2019 documentary (currently in theaters and airing on CNN) was a labor of love for director Todd Douglas Miller, who also produced and edited. Miller had access to a trove of previously unreleased 70mm footage from Apollo 11’s launch and recovery, which he and his production team was able to seamlessly integrate with archival 35mm and 16mm footage, as well as photos and CCTV. All audio and visual elements were digitally restored, and Miller put it together in such a way that it flows like a narrative film (i.e., no new voice-over narration or present-day talking heads intrude). The result is impressive. I’ve only seen it on cable, but I could imagine it is spectacular in IMAX. If you missed it, good news-it airs again tonight on CNN at 6pm and 8pm (PST).

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Apollo 13– While overly formal at times, Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist still makes for an absorbing history lesson. You get a sense of the claustrophobic tension the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have good chemistry as crewmates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, and Ed Harris was born to portray Ground Control’s flight director, Gene Kranz.

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The Dish– This wonderful 2000 sleeper from Australia is based on the true story behind one of the critical components that facilitated the live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on another film I would recommend: The Castle (1997).

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The Farthest–  Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event? We seem to have lost that collective feeling of wonder and curiosity about mankind’s plunge into the cosmos (people are too busy looking down at their goddam phones to stargaze anymore). Emer Reynolds’ beautifully made 2017 documentary about the twin Voyager space probes rekindles that excitement for any of us who dare to look up. And if the footage of Carl Sagan’s eloquent musings regarding the “pale blue dot” that we call home fails to bring you to tears, then surely you have no soul.

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For All Mankind– Former astronaut Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary was culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts over a period of years. Don’t expect standard exposition; this is simply a montage of (literally) out-of-this-world imagery with anecdotal and philosophical musings provided by the astronauts. Brian Eno composed the ambient soundtrack. A mesmerizing and unique tone poem in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi.

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In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary (similar to For All Mankind) is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days…a reason to take pride in being an American.

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The Right Stuff– Director and writer Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring drama about NASA’s Mercury program. Considering the film was modestly budgeted (by today’s standards), it has quite an expansive scope. The rich characterizations also make it an intimate story, beautifully acted by a dream cast including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and the late Levon Helm.

BONUS TRACK!
Singing us out…the barbershop space rock stylings of Moxy Fruvous.

SIFF 2019: Go Back to China (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Writer-director Emily Ting’s family dramedy/fish-out-of-water story concerns a young woman (Anna Akana) living high off her trust fund in L.A. who gets cut off by her prosperous dad in China. If she wants back on the gravy train, he demands she must first come back to China for a year to work at his toy factory. Not groundbreaking-but all-in-all it’s an amiable, audience-pleasing charmer.