Category Archives: indie comedies

Entertainment (2015) -directed by Rick Alverson

The title Entertainment is ironic, as it’s about someone who calls himself an entertainer but is anything but. Director Rick Alverson, whose previous work includes another darkly comic film, actually named The Comedy (2012), here attempts the thankless task of presenting an unlikable, often repulsive protagonist as he alienates everyone around him and eventually loses the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I have a certain admiration for this film even though it’s not very enjoyable (nor is it meant to be). Gregg Turkington plays the nameless comic who performs in mostly empty rooms in desolate towns. Apparently, this is a character that Turkington plays regularly in stage performances. Having never seen this, however, I can only comment on the movie.

The “comic”  alternately insults the audience and delivers offensive jokes with no punch lines. At first, I found the movie funny in a perverse way; the comic’s bizarre idiosyncratic sense of humor, or what passes for that, has elements found in some of the work of Jim Jarmusch (e.g. Stranger Than Paradise) or the Coen Brothers (e.g. Barton Fink).

As the mostly plotless movie meanders along, however, it goes from dark comedy to something more like surreal tragedy -closer to David Lynch territory. As the comic leaves messages for his estranged daughter, we start to wonder if the daughter is even real. Similarly, when he witnesses a woman giving birth in a public bathroom, it’s uncertain whether this is reality or a hallucination.

John C. Reilly, the best-known actor in the film, plays a kind of straight man role here as the comic’s cousin. Tye Sheridan plays a clown/mime who performs along with the comic at various desolate venues. The clown’s performances are similarly bizarre, though the crowd at least responds to him while they ignore or heckle the comic.

I have a high tolerance for mumblecore as well as lightly plotted and even absurdist films. But this one didn’t quite work for me. There’s just not enough to grab onto either intellectually or emotionally. There is no backstory or context here, so we have no clue how or why the comic has reached this state. I also wondered how an unfunny comic with no fans could have gotten so many bookings, but I suppose you’re not supposed to ask such questions.

As the comic’s behavior gets progressively more bizarre, it’s like watching a random insane person mumbling to himself on the streets of a large city. Perhaps that’s not far from what Alverson is going for here -to compel you to look at one example of what a cold and uncaring world has done to one person, without providing any of the details. Watching Entertainment is definitely not a pleasant experience, but the movie is  interesting and well acted if ultimately obscure and pointless.

Doomsdays: Dark Comedy About Antisocial Slackers

Doomsdays (2013), written and directed by Eddie Mullins, is an original, low budget independent film with a truly anarchistic spirit. Quietly released in 2013, it is now available on Netflix, where it will gain a wider audience.

The film is, on the surface, a kind of slacker comedy about a pair of drifters, Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick), whose way of life consists of breaking into people’s vacation homes and living off the food and, even more so, booze that they find. Fred is a pure hedonist and nihilist, who is mainly interested in consuming alcohol and having sex. Bruho is an angry idealist who is obsessed with the impending end of civilization due to oil running out (also known as peak oil). To express his disapproval of modern bourgeois existence, Bruho vandalizes every automobile he encounters. He also has a tendency to hit people who get in his way.

The pair aren’t criminals in the ordinary sense, they aren’t very interested in money or valuables. They are, rather, expressing their own version of a Robin Hood fantasy, feeding off the excesses of those who, in their view, possess way more than they need. Along the way, they pick up a couple of other misfits -an overweight teenager named Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) and a young woman named Reyna (Laura Campbell).

Complications ensue when Fred and Reyna become romantically involved and Jaidon tags along. However, the movie is really about the daily lives of the characters and the plot meandering and incidental. There is virtually no backstory to Doomsdays -Fred and Bruho do what they do, reveal portions of who they are, but there is no explanation of how they met or ended up choosing their improbable existence. Jaidon’s past or reasons for following the pair are never mentioned. Reyna, the most superficially normal of the group, is the only character whose past is revealed at all.

Doomsdays is a darker film than it first appears. The duo first appear like clownish slackers who harmlessly prank middle class homeowners. Yet, unlike most movie slackers, these two are not especially likable or sympathetic. Fred is a casual liar and possibly a narcissist, while Bruho is a sullen character whose anger at the system seems like an excuse to avoid facing his own personal demons. Mullins doesn’t try to romanticize these characters; they are neither heroes or villains, but, at best, fledgling anti-heroes.

There is mostly low key violence throughout the film, reminding us that even supposedly non-violent acts of theft, vandalism and trespass can easily lead to bodily harm. When a more serious act of violence occurs, it is treated rather casual way.

The film this most reminded me of is a fairly obscure German film from 2003 called The Edukators, about a group of young anarchists who break into people’s homes and rearrange the furniture.

I also detected an underlying similarity to a much darker film, A Clockwork Orange. Though not nearly as violent or shocking, Doomsdays has a similar tone in some ways. Both films deal with characters who are completely alienated from society and who regard normal people as intrinsic enemies to be preyed upon. As the title suggests, these are people for whom society has already collapsed and are just making the best of its remnants. Only Bruho has anything resembling a cause, and for him it’s far too late to save the world so all he can do is strike out against those he blames for its downfall.

I could even recognize shades of Larry Clark’s style of nihilism, as revealed in films such as Kids, in Doomsayers. Yet Mullins’ style is more quirky and low key than anything by Clark or Kubrick’s style in A Clockwork Orange.

The above probably makes Doomsdays sound heavier and more depressing than it actually is. Most of the film’s tone is light and there are more than a few laughs –mainly at the sheer audacity of the group’s actions, especially when they encounter disbelieving homeowners.

Doomsdays is an interesting, entertaining, quasi-political film that is certainly more compelling and original than 95% of what’s being released these days. To his credit, Mullins doesn’t make any attempt to explain, justify, glorify or demonize his little band of thieves. We just get to see them in action for a while and get to make of them what we will.

Hits: Satire Misses the Mark

Hits (2014), directed by David Cross, has the appearance of a low budget indie comedy, yet features some serious talent -Jason Ritter, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh and Julia Stiles even makes a cameo appearance. This is the type of film that I found on Netflix and approached with low expectations. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what seemed like a sharp and original satire. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together and derails completely in the final scenes.

Hits refers to “hits” on sites like YouTube, not contract killings, a more likely guess for a movie title. It seems that with Hits, Cross is trying to do a Tom Wolfe-like satire for the internet/reality show age. The targets, however, are a few too numerous and the tone uneven. We have several distinct characters inhabiting separate universes that intersect uneasily and in an often contrived manner.

Walsh plays Dave, the type of continually outraged populist misfit who listens to talk radio, writes angry letters to the newspaper and gives long-winded tirades at town board meetings. All places, especially small towns, have characters who are very similar to Dave, and Walsh nails this part very well. The problem is, Hits tries to tack on too many other elements and personalities. Dave’s daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner), is a young woman obsessed with becoming a reality TV star and who is willing to do just about anything to achieve fame, despite being rather limited in the talent department. Hagner is quite good in this role, but by now satirizing reality TV and the obsession with fame is a fairly worn out cliché. While Hits tries to be original by combining the stories of Dave and Katelyn, they don’t really mix.

Further complicating matters are a trio of Brooklyn activist-hipsters who decide to take up Dave’s cause. This is a fairly contrived and unlikely scenario, but since this is a comedy we can give the film this much. The hipsters travel from the city to Liberty and immediately experience culture shock. It’s worth noting that there is a town called Liberty in upstate NY, but certain elements are changed in the film (e.g. the real town is in Sullivan County; in the film, it’s called something else).

The most troubling aspect of Hits is that it can’t make up its mind whether the characters are misguided but sympathetic misfits we should root for or completely contemptible losers deserving our disdain. This is most true of Dave, who, for most of the film, rails harmlessly against potholes and the lack of snow removal services on his block but, inexplicably, turns into a raving racist in the last ten minutes.

There is also an implication that the whole town consists largely of ignorant racists, as when another character tells the hated hipsters to “go back to Jew York.” This comment, apart from its offensiveness, misses the mark culturally,as this is supposedly a town in New York State and only two hours from the city. The real Libery, NY happens to be located in the middle of what used to be called the Borscht Belt, with a large Jewish population. The cultural contrast between Brooklyn and Liberty is just too exaggerated to be credible, even for a satire. The conflict between rednecks and hipsters would have been more believable if the film were set in rural Texas and the hipsters were from Austin.

In addition to making derogatory remarks about Obama, blacks, Jews and Muslims, Dave says “I know its true because Alex Jones says so.” Apart from the fact that well known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones isn’t known for making racist remarks, this type of quote just makes Dave sound like a complete idiot, which undercuts the sympathy he garners in other scenes, such as his interactions with his daughter.

Katelyn is similarly ambiguous. Is she sweet and naive or a manipulative bitch? This ambiguity comes to the surface when a sleazy recording studio owner attempts to convince her to have sex with him in exchange for a reduced rate when she can’t afford his services to make a demo tape. Katelyn, like Dave, is alternately sympathetic and contemptible. As for the Brooklyn hipsters, they are mainly just over-the-top ridiculous, if amusing at times. At one point, the film is on the verge of making a valid and interesting point -that liberal, left-leaning urbanites have more in common with populist, conservative small town folk than you might think at first. However, by the end, everyone is cynically skewered, and not in a way that’s especially insightful or funny.

If Hits were a dark satire along the lines of, say, Citizen Ruth, which succeeds at lampooning both sides of the abortion argument, its cynicism would be justified. But this film manages to be ambiguous and slightly offensive without being especially insightful. It’s just funny enough to be entertaining -at least until the last few minutes -but it could have been much better if it had a more targeted objective. For a film that aims for hard-edged social satire, Hits, despite some strong performances and promising early scenes, misses the mark in too many areas.

The Voices Film Review

The Voices (2014), directed by Marjane Satrapi, who is best known for her 2007 animated Iranian film Persepolis, is a strange film that’s difficult to categorize, love or hate (at least for this reviewer). It can be seen as an original, very dark comedy about a superficially likable guy named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) who happens to be schizophrenic and turns into a serial killer. It can be appreciated for its absurdist humor or criticized for its gory scenes, portrayal of mental illness and for the seemingly lighthearted way that it depicts violence against women.

Apart from anything else, I did find aspects of The Voices quite funny. Specifically, the way Jerry hears his cat and dog talking to him, playing the parts of angel and devil (with the cat, naturally, being the latter). Reynolds himself does a moderately good job of doing these voices, with the cat having a Scottish brogue and the large bull mastiff speaking in a cartoon-dog southern drawl. We actually see the cat’s mouth moving as he “talks” to Jerry and urges him to commit all kinds of hideous crimes.

There is nothing realistic about The Voices, even apart from talking pets. Jerry is a man with a history of mental illness who, it seems, has recently been released from an institution. He sees a therapist regularly, played by Jacki Weaver. He lives in a depressing industrial city called Milton that is somewhere in the middle of the country. Jerry inexplicably inhabits an entire building, a former bowling alley. While this makes for a convenient headquarters for a serial killer, it is hardly credible that a man who works in a warehouse is able to rent out an entire building all by himself.

Jerry’s workplace is similarly bizarre and off-kilter, with employees who wear pink uniforms and, at least in one scene, dance in musical style numbers around the factory. There is even a local Chinese restaurant that features unlikely Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators. One feature of The Voices is that we are meant to notice a large gap between reality as perceived by Jerry (when he is off his meds) and the real, far less colorful and hopeful world.

Jerry’s descent into complete madness begins when his romantic advances towards attractive co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton) are not reciprocated. Despite this, the scene in which he brutally murders her does not really make sense, even given Jerry’s mental state. He is clearly infatuated with Fiona and she is actually being nice to him, albeit in a dishonest way, up until the point when things go wrong. After they hit a deer, Jerry inexplicably turns violent against Fiona.

The most complex relationship in the film involves Jerry and another co-worker, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), the only character who genuinely likes Jerry. The begin a romance, but Jerry’s evil cat Mr. Whiskers, along with Fiona’s head (which Jerry now keeps in the freezer) are urging him to continue his killing spree. Funny, sick or just plain bizarre stuff, depending on your tastes.

We get quite a few glimpses into Jerry’s back story; his mother was also mentally ill and also heard voices. However, as any mental health advocate will tell you, most schizophrenics are not violent, especially not in the premeditated way that Jerry’s actions ultimately unfold. Perhaps they were thinking of the real life infamous killer Son of Sam, who supposedly followed orders given by his dog when he went on a killing spree in the 1970s.

It’s hard to say what director Satrapi and writer Michael Perry were trying to achieve with The Voices. The focus on Jerry’s tragic childhood and the absurdly upbeat and surreal ending set in heaven with a dancing Jesus, seem to be urging us to sympathize with this unlikely but not entirely unlikable serial killer. At the same time, it’s impossible for any remotely sane person to justify anything Jerry does in this film.

Critical response to The Voices has been interesting and extremely conflicted. I read one review that called the film “perfect,” which seems like excessive praise. On the other hand, I think it’s worth reading a vitriolic but insightful feminist critique of the film by Maryann Johanson, on The Flick Philosopher. I’m not sure if I agree with her conclusion that the film is thoroughly misogynistic, but it does bring up some salient points about the way violence against women is trivialized.

I’m not a big believer in quantifying films with stars (or, even worse, using a binary, absurdly simplistic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” system), which is why I don’t use stars on any of my reviews. However, just to put things in perspective, if I were rating The Voices on Netlfix or Amazon I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a film that’s darkly funny, interesting, disturbing and extremely uneven.


Wet Behind the Ears

Wet Behind the Ears (2013)
Director: Sloan Copeland

Wet Behind the Ears is a film I found on Hulu without having any prior knowledge of it. I always watch unknown indie movies with fairly low expectations (the same for most Hollywood movies, truth be told). This one, however, was a welcome surprise. It wasn’t only good for a low budget indie film, it contains some of the best acting and writing that I’ve seen in a while.

The movie starts off in fairly familiar territory, with recent college graduate Samantha (Margaret Keane Williams, who also co-wrote the script along with director Copeland) having trouble finding a job. After being turned down rather condescendingly by a friend of her father’s for a job in the advertising industry, she ends up working behind the counter in an ice cream shop and moving back in with her parents.

We follow Samantha’s low key but funny adventures as she searches for a better job. She runs into an old friend from college and he tells her about a promising job lead. Instead, she is lured into a meeting with a network marketing rep. Anyone who has any familiarity with this type of business will find this scene hilarious, as the man recites his pitch about getting rich via an endlessly expanding pyramid of distributors.

Samantha’s friend Vicky (Jessica Piervicenti) also plays a key role. The two friends were going to be roommates until Samantha’s lack of employment made this arrangement impossible. Vicky is then forced to find a new roommate. After turning down a couple of obviously (and hilariously) unsuitable prospects, she ends up sharing the apartment with an apparent nymphomaniac who brings over a new man every night and keeps Vicky awake.

A typical Hollywood rom-com might have put in a montage scene of awful roommates, but Wet Behind the Ears handles this in a much funnier way without using the montage cliche. Furthermore, the wacky roommates and would-be roommates are weird yet believable. One of the interviewees snobbishly critiques Vicky’s taste in art and demands a reduction in rent.

Samantha, desperate to escape her day job (where she is even harassed by a gang of obnoxious kids she went to high school with), she is tempted when her friend Dean (Doug Roland) tells her about his lucrative video piracy business. She lures Vicky into helping with a scheme that could net all three of them with a nice chunk of cash.

The genius of Wet Behind the Ears isn’t in the plot, but in the humor of the scenes, witty dialogue and nuances of the characters. The movie manages to perfectly capture a variety of very funny and well conceived character types. Arrogant New York City (the film takes place in Manhattan and Long Island) hipsters, such as Vicky’s boss are mercilessly skewed here.

I hope this film, which apparently enjoyed some success at film festivals, attracts a wider audience. It’s so much wittier than the average Hollywood film dealing with similar subjects.
Hulu, unfortunately, tends to bury little known films amidst hundreds of mediocre titles (including Lifetime and other basic cable offerings). Unless you go out of your way to unearth obscure indie films (as I do), you are likely to miss them. I’ve found a few gems this way, with Wet Behind the Ears being one of the best of them.

The film does have a Facebook page, where you can find out the latest news about it.


Future Folk: Hipster Aliens Invade Brooklyn

The History of Future Folk (2012), directed by J. Anderson Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker and starring Nils d’Aulaire and Jay Klaitz, is a strange, extremely quirky low budget independent film. Since the movie is based on an actual musical duo called Future Folk that is currently touring the country, you might say that it opened with a built-in cult following.

The movie is a science fiction-comedy-musical with an extremely thin plot that is full of holes, but this scarcely matters as the whole point is to give a showcase for the pair’s folk-bluegrass musical numbers (which they perform dressed in ridiculous red costumes and helmets). The film, however, isn’t really a musical. A few great songs are present, but overall the movie is more about the transformative power of music.

The gimmick here is that General Trius and Kevin, two aliens from the planet Hondo, arrive on earth and discover music for the first time. Although their original mission was to colonize earth and wipe out the population, they are so enamored of music that they abandon their plans and start a band instead. The audience must suspend disbelief on issues such as how these aliens arrive speaking fluent American English. It’s also a bit odd that they go from being wholly ignorant about music to expert musicians within minutes. Realism, however, is far from the point here.

The History of Future Folk is certainly not a great movie. It is, however, fun, energetic and original. If you look up reviews, you will probably end up reading accolades posted by prior fans of the group. If you’re new to the whole concept, you will probably still enjoy the film but won’t be quite as enamored by it as hardcore fans. The film also references Brooklyn’s hipster scene, as the duo play in a trendy club where the audience dresses up in space costumes just like the musicians.

All in all, The History of Future Folk is a good choice if you like campy, low budget independent films and/or bluegrass style music. If you demand logical plots and/or you hate hipsters, this is not the film for you.

The Comedy: Parodying Hipsters

The Comedy (2012)
Directed by Rick Alverson

The Comedy, the ironic title to a relentlessly ironic film, may appeal to fans of Borat. Yet this film goes beyond the mockumentary style of that film, asking us to believe that a series of sketches is a depiction of real life. The Comedy is an example of how a movie can be clever and well acted and still be fundamentally lacking in authenticity.

The antihero of the movie is a slacker/hipster named Swanson (Tim Heidecker), a bearded, pot-bellied character whose entire life is devoted to being obnoxious. He lives on a houseboat and cavorts with a group of male friends who share his taste for psychological pranks.

In the opening scene, we are privy to a bacchanal where these guys drunkenly dance around naked and grope at each other simulating sexual acts. Aside from the fact they are all in their mid-30s or older, the scene could have been shot at a frat party.

The rest of the movie follows these decidedly uncharming guys around as they engage in non-violent but not quite harmless pranks at the expense of taxi drivers, gardeners and other hapless victims (at least as they are portrayed here).

The underlying premise of The Comedy, to the extent that it can be said to have one, is that Swanson and his friends are wealthy or at least relatively affluent. They don’t have to work at 9-5 jobs, though Swanson takes on a dishwashing job for no apparent reason (except to harass his co-workers, of course).

The Comedy can be seen as an expose of the excesses of hipster culture. Yet I’m not sure that the subculture depicted here actually exists. They are perhaps meant to be a 21st Century version of the ne’er do well playboys or cads of much older films. Yet those type of characters took great pride in their personal appearance and cultivated a charming, debonaire aura. Even today’s hipsters usually try to look, well, hip. Swanson and his crew flaunt their lack of style and personal hygiene.

These are more like refugees from the 1978 film Animal House -if those characters aged but didn’t mature and had enough disposable income to avoid regular employment. They don’t seem to have the usual hipster fetishes for art openings, gourmet foods, alternative rock or the other activities you might see on Portlandia (if you’re not lucky/unlucky enough to live near real hipsters). They do, however, live in a state of perpetual irony -mocking everything and everyone at all times, including each other.

What I found most annoying about The Comedy is that many of the scenes simply didn’t ring true. At least in a scenario like the show Punk’d (and its predecessor Candid Camera), or Borat, it’s understood that we are watching scenes that are set up for an audience.

As drama or comedy, scenes require a certain sense of truth if they are to be accepted. The Comedy doesn’t really deliver on this count. For example, we watch as Swanson, a soft looking white guy, goes into a bar full of black men and proceeds to fearlessly make racially charged comments to everyone in the room. How likely is this?

Similarly, women seem to find Swanson attractive no matter how unappealingly he behaves. At his dishwashing job, he begins his seduction of a waitress by making blatantly offensive comments to her. This would more likely lead to his immediately losing his job than to her ultimately falling for his (non-existent) charms and eventually sleeping with him.

If The Comedy is saying anything at all (a dubious proposition), it’s that this is what you get when you take hipsterism too far. A bunch of completely unlikable, borderline sociopaths who go through life in a soulless haze of perpetual irony.

Yet it doesn’t even really say this much. It hedges, making Swanson borderline human towards the end -for no apparent reason, except because it’s a rule of cinema (even indie cinema, it seems) that characters are supposed to change over the course of the 90 or so minutes we get to spend with them.

Swanson and his friends are never established as bona fide people with motivations that make sense. Perhaps we could believe that one person, such as Swanson, might have a personality disorder that leads him to act as he does. But a whole cadre of friends who share these characteristics? Who are they and how did they get this way? Who supports their idle lifestyle? Swanson has a wealthy father who is about to die, but the others have no back story whatsoever.

The Comedy is, despite its basic emptiness, funny at times, in a similar way that a mindless action movie can provide moments of excitement. Yet it ultimately leads nowhere. Though, I suppose, that might be the whole point.


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    Bindlestiffs: Using the Homeless as Props

    Bindlestiffs (2012)
    Director/Writer: Andrew Edison
    Starring John Karna, Luke Loftin, Andrew Edison

    The title of this film comes from an old word meaning hobo. The main distinction of this film is that it was “presented” by Kevin Smith. Other than this, it’s an extremely low budget and rather amateurish indie film that is part comedy, part drama and part random weirdness.

    As someone who mainly watches indie films, often obscure ones, I am usually fairly tolerant of offbeat stories without a linear plot. Nor am I a reviewer who is a stickler for political correctness. This one, however, left a bad taste in my mouth, mainly for the way it portrays a homeless person as a faceless, purely symbolic entity who exists solely as a prop in the lives of a group of suburban teens.

    Bindlestiffs is about three teenagers (Karna, Loftin and writer/director Edison) who are suspended from high school when they protest the banning of The Catcher in the Rye. This book has long been a symbol of teenage angst and rebellion and, more recently, associated with mass murderers (a fact that becomes relevant to the story).

    The three friends embark on a trip to the big city where they intend to experience as much as possible, sex included of course. This is extremely familiar movie territory, but Bindlestiffs is no typical Hollywood teen movie. Unfortunately, it ends up being even more inane and less coherent than the average entry in this genre.

    Things get really weird when one of the kids has a sexual encounter with a homeless woman, who then apparently dies. The three drag her body around but before they can dispose of it, she comes back to life. Yet she has no lines, and we never see her face -only a tangled mess of gray hair. For the rest of the film, they carry and drive her around as though she was a mannequin. Even if you do find this amusing, the joke would start to wear thin after an hour or so of this.

    There are other scenes involving a hooker and one of the teens smoking crack. Yet none of it seems real. It’s more like a series of disjointed fantasy sequences, dreamed up by a group of sheltered teens with little experience beyond the suburbs.

    Another ill formed character is the high school security guard, who plays the stereotype gung ho military type. He is actually funny at first, but gradually devolves into a silly parody. He comes up with a paranoid idea that the kids are planning a school shooting. This could have led to some dark humor, but this is a thread that gets forgotten as the film reaches its pointless conclusion.

    I seldom actively dislike low budget indie films, but this one really annoyed me for a few reasons. The dehumanizing of the “hobo” was one factor, and then there were the constant references to The Catcher in the Rye -as if merely mentioning this book could somehow prop up the film and give it depth and meaning.

    If you want lightweight teenage rebellion, stick with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which may not be profound but is at least entertaining.

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      Safety Not Guaranteed -Indie Style Time Travel

      Note: an edited version of this review has recently been published on Devtome.

      Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
      Director: Colin Trevorrow
      Writer: Derek Connolly
      Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni

      Safety Not Guaranteed is the latest in a series of highly original and entertaining indie films by producers Jay and Mark Duplass (the latter also stars in this one). Some of their previous efforts include The Puffy Chair and Jeff Who Lives at Home.

      All of these are unmistakably indie films, unlike many contemporary movies (say, by Quentin Tarantino or the more recent Steven Soderbergh movies) that lurk on the increasingly murky line that divides indie from mainstream. No one could confuse Safety Not Guaranteed, for instance, with a Hollywood romantic comedy, even though it has some of the same elements.

      This is what makes a film like this such a pleasure to see. If you’ve watched enough movies over the years, your mind has become so accustomed to movie cliches that you have certain expectations. In a film such as this, however, cliches are not so much turned on their heads as gently transmuted into something less definable yet infinitely more satisfying.

      The hero (or perhaps antihero) of Safety Not Guaranteed is Kevin (Duplass), a possibly delusional inventor who claims to have discovered the secret to time travel. Kevin, who lives in a small town in Washington, places an unusual ad in the classifieds -he’s looking for a time travel partner whose “safety is not guaranteed.”

      He is pursued by a team of journalists desperate for an offbeat and funny story. When one of them, a young intern named Darius (Plaza) becomes at first fascinated and then attracted to Kevin, things get quite complicated. A pair of government types are also following him around.

      Despite the interesting story, this is primarily a character driven film. In a conventional movie (or novel, for that matter), it’s a rule that the leading characters must develop or evolve in some way. This usually results in some hackneyed event where a lesson is dutifully learnt. Here, the characters don’t develop as much as reveal increasing layers of complexity.

      Is Kevin a delusional loser with paranoid tendencies? You might be tempted to conclude this, but then you also see that he’s sensitive, sincere and brilliant. Is Darius’ boss (Johnson) a superficial and cynical manipulator? Yes, but he also reveals a whole different side.

      Safety Not Guaranteed does have a geeky, sci fi side to it, but that is secondary to the characters, dialogue and relationships. Yet the time travel element remains significant throughout, so the film has some appeal for fans of this genre -as long as you’re not expecting aliens, spaceships or laser shootouts.

      To recite the plot of Safety Not Guaranteed would make it sound like a typical cute, quirky indie film. Like the characters I just described, this film does fall loosely into that category, but it also transcends it by being truly moving and original.


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        About Fifty: Midlife Crisis and Lots of Golf

        About Fifty (2011)
        Directed by Thomas Johnston

        About Fifty covers familiar cinematic territory -middle-aged guys having a midlife crisis and trying to recapture their youth. In this case, the pair are recently separated Adam (Martin Grey) and longtime bachelor Jon (Drew Pillsbury).

        Although this film is categorized as a comedy on Netflix (it received little attention elsewhere), it is more of a drama. In fact, a lot of it is quite depressing. It is also full of cliches of this genre. The men deal with prostate exams, senile parents, fight off desperate cougar-type women in a bar, obsess about golf scores and experience career and marriage malaise.

        For About Fifty to have really worked, it would have had to go in one of two directions. Either a goofy comedy or a drama that breaks new ground. Instead it waffles between mild comedy and cliched melodrama.

        I should also confess having a prejudice against movies where golf takes up more than a few seconds of screen time. In About Fifty, this incredibly dull sport dominates at least three scenes.

        About Fifty on IMDB

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