All Between Us

Though it’s rarely as dramatic as the movies would have you believe, it often seems as though when things go wrong they all tend to go wrong at once.  One minute everything seems fine, and the next thing you know your car’s broken down, your dog’s run away, your roof has sprung a leak, and you’re wondering what you did to deserve all this.  But whether you call it karma, fate, or sheer dumb luck, once the world decides to start beating you up there isn’t much you can do about it, as the characters in All Between Us can attest.

A rare quiet moment before they all want to kill each other.

It starts innocently enough (as it usually does) with a dinner party Clara (Denyce Lawton) and Ray (Brian Hooks) are throwing.  They’re about to get married and Ray has so far only met Clara’s horrible parents Mr. and Mrs. Tillman (Carl Gilliard and Connie Johnson) via Skype, and this party is his chance to impress them in person.  Of course this will never work since Clara’s parents have decided he’s useless, being a mere writer, and they really are horrible people besides.  Clara’s brother Freddy (Esau McGraw), is also awful — though Mom and  Dad think he can do no wrong — so I’m guessing Clara was adopted since she’s so much more human than the rest of the family.   And Ray and Clara have more news that they don’t expect to go over well — Clara’s just found out she’s pregnant.

Also invited for moral support, of which they need plenty, are Clara’s best friend Mishawn (Tiffany Haddish) and her boyfriend Ty (Christian Levatino).  Freddy and his equally wretched wife Aubyrn (Tabitha Brown) can’t stop harassing Ty for being a white man dating a black woman, at least when they aren’t busy making fun of Ray or even Clara.  I really can’t emphasize enough the casual cruelty of this family.  Most of the guests probably only showed up because they’d never met the Tillmans before and assumed that Clara was representative of how they acted.  Certainly neighbor Chad (Kevin DeWitt) and hippie friends Billy (Mancini Graves) and Channel (Isley Nicole Melton) aren’t treated any better, though for some reason Mr. Tillman greatly approves of Ty.  Maybe he does that randomly to keep people on their toes.

As you can imagine, the situation is already pretty doubtful even before things really start to fall apart.  Secrets are revealed — and most of the guests do have at least one impressive skeleton in the closet — and what was already a painfully tense evening descends into absolute chaos.  It probably doesn’t help that Ray’s best man Sam (Jay Phillips) shows up both extremely late and falling down drunk, despondent over his girlfriend having left him.  And he’s far from the biggest disruption of the evening.

The movie suffers from pacing problems — the first half hour or so is mainly setup and it’s very slow setup, doing a lot of telling when they should be showing.  By the time Freddy, for example, shows up on screen they’ve already said so much about him that he isn’t nearly as shocking as he could have been… though granted he’s still pretty shocking.  Once things get properly underway, though, it becomes a quietly zany and entertaining slice of life film that even has a few wise words to say about life and relationships.  I suppose watching relationships disintegrate can be informative.  It’s one of those movies that will make you glad that your family isn’t quite as bad as you thought after all.

Under the Tree

Konrad and his chainsaw. He has no idea what he's doing with that thing.

There’s an old saying about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. You also can’t generally choose your neighbors, and sometimes they can be even harder to avoid than family, It can be a real risk to try to befriend a neighbor, because if it all goes wrong somehow your only option is to pack up and move, and that’s a hassle nobody wants. Still, in Under the Tree, both sets of neighbors would have been much better off if they’d fled to opposite sides of the country.

Admittedly Iceland isn’t a very big country, but that might have worked. It sounds like the neighbors got along until Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) got a divorce and moved his girlfriend Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) into the house. Meanwhile, Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Inga’s (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) elder son Uggi has disappeared, and while it’s believed that he took his own life, Inga is still tormented by the uncertainty. Younger son Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is having marital difficulties, as his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) was upset to find him enjoying a video a little too much. Yes, it was one of those, though I won’t mention the particularly odd twist. So Atli has moved back in with his parents and into Ground Zero.

Inga and Baldvin have a largish shade tree in their backyard, you see, and they’re proud of it since there aren’t many other sizable trees in the area. But Eybjorg likes to sunbathe — which seems like a doubtful hobby in Iceland — and the tree’s shadow falls right across her back porch. Bitter over the loss of her son and jealous of the younger woman, Inga throws a fit whenever anyone suggests so much as trimming the tree. The situation is at an uneasy impasse until the dirty tricks start, and escalate fast. When Inga’s cat goes missing, she confronts Konrad, who coolly denies all knowledge… while taking a chainsaw out of his car.

You can imagine how things go from that point. Scandinavian movies can be pretty dark, but this one is darker than any Icelandic winter and twice as cold. Though you often sympathize with the characters — Inga is certainly spiteful, for instance, but the limbo she’s forced to live in must be terrible — it’s hard to really like any of them. Eybjorg and Konrad seem to expect that everything will go their way and can’t seem to get it when life inevitably doesn’t cooperate. Baldvin prefers to hide at choir practice rather than face reality, and I won’t even get into Atli and his temper.

But as another old saying goes, even the wicked get worse than they deserve, and that’s certainly true here. By the time the dust settles and the blood dries, no one left standing will ever be the same, though it’s doubtful if any of them have learned much. The slow, steady escalation of the situation is perfectly paced, however, and even when you want to shout at the characters to stop being so ridiculous, you also can’t wait to see what bizarre thing happens next. It’s the ultimate slow-motion train wreck with some of the darkest and most uncomfortable humor imaginable. But it’s also a solid drama and a fascinating watch that you won’t be able to look away from — even if you really, really wish you could,

Mail Time

Ted doing a magic trick. Note that there's absolutely nothing up his sleeves.

There are plenty of jokes about mail carriers out there and how cushy their job is, but it isn’t necessarily all that great. There’s the walking and the weather, not to mention dogs and rude people. And in some cases there’s also the other side of the coin. At my day job I often see the mail carrier arrive, and my co-worker loves to corner him with badly-told stories about her dog and long conversations about the weather. Like the poor guy doesn’t already have everyone asking if it’s cold (or hot) enough for him.

Continue reading “Mail Time”

Will Reading

There's a surprising amount of green screen work for a story set inside one hous

Gathering for a will reading seems like a dying tradition these days, no pun intended. But Wendy (Katie Weigl) is hosting one nonetheless, after the recent death of her husband Will. Sadly, there’s no mention in the film as to whether or not his last name is Reading, but I like to think it is. Wendy is a vegan chef, so this is a dinner party as well as a will reading, but she isn’t exactly starting with a recipe for success.

First, there’s Will’s twin brother Wayne (Jamie Insalaco, who also wrote and directed). He and Wendy have never gotten along, and now that Will is gone he suggests they drop any pretense. He then proceeds to scold her for not providing wine that she says she can’t afford since she’s been out of work for a year. So Wayne huffs off to the liquor store to buy some himself, never realizing what a foolish thing it was to antagonize the woman holding the large kitchen knife.

Then Steve (Greg Vorob) arrives, Wendy’s former high school flame, now turned struggling lawyer. That sounds odd, I know, but he does a lot of pro bono work. Tom (Marc Seidenstein) is a psychologist who seems to make decent money despite being a pretty bad psychologist, but he’s being buried in medical bills for his ailing father. And Dave (Dan Conrad) is the nerd who’s living the dream with his own comic book shop, except this is also struggling. So it’s no surprise that the prospect of a little money from Will’s estate is on everyone’s mind.

But the will — technically a codicil, as Steve frequently reminds everyone — is less than helpful. While it strongly implies that there is indeed money to be found within the very house Wendy is now afraid will be foreclosed on, it’s lacking in specifics. Will was afraid of the IRS, you see, and put a lot of effort into being vague.

Cue frantic treasure hunt. Everyone has their own ideas as to where Will might have hidden his nest egg, and everyone is about equally desperate. As the search goes on they all start to show the stress in their own ways — which may or may not involve show tunes — and long friendships are sorely tested. Will they share whatever they find, as Will seemed to hope? Or can there be only one?

I’ll give it four out of five. Everyone’s having lots of fun in this movie, and that shines through every scene, though Dave would have to win any award for chewing the scenery. There’s a good sense of camaraderie among the actors, as though they really have known each other for years — and maybe they have, that’s one of the fun things sometimes about indie films. But it’s got some good laughs, the humor is sometimes nicely dark, and I think I caught all the pop culture references, which can be tricky for me. In short — I know, too late — it was an enjoyable watch, and though some of the music was doubtful even the strangest parts somehow weren’t too jarring. It’s well worth watching.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I went with Shredder, because he's at least visually interesting.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t generally remember the names of the directors unless they’re either incredibly good or incredibly bad. Guess which category Michael Bay fits into? I think the first one of his I saw — at least the first one where I knew it was one of his movies — was when I rented Pearl Harbor, somewhat against my better judgment given that Ben Affleck was in it, so it’s no surprise that his name gives me some pretty bad flashbacks sometimes. Technically he’s the producer here, but that doesn’t help much.

I can’t even use the joke anymore about not having seen the original, because now it’s just starting to seem really sad, how pop-culturally challenged I am. But I did have a vague idea about TMNT going in — I at least knew their names, knew they were trained by a rat, and there was someone named April who helped them out. And that’s all the same in this movie, so off to a good start, right? Except no, we’re not, because the stuff that’s different is almost invariably silly.

Anyway, Megan Fox is April, and while she seems to act marginally better here than she did in Jonah Hex, that isn’t saying much. Not that the part really requires a lot of acting, so it could have been worse, at least. She’s a reporter (currently stuck doing fluff pieces) obsessed with tracking down the Foot Clan, which I originally thought must have been a Michael Bay-ism but apparently is from the original. Meanwhile, the ninja turtles are also fighting the Foot Clan, though secretly, as it seems they keep sneaking out of the sewers when their sensei / father, Splinter (voiced by Tony Shaloub of 1408) isn’t looking. He isn’t really a sensei since he learned all his martial arts moves from a book. Seriously, just one book that somebody threw away. I thought he would have at least watched some YouTube videos.

But he learned all this stuff somehow and trained the turtles, etc. I’m told they were accidentally mutated originally, but here some people experimented on the turtles and the rat, though I’m pretty sure that turtles are not standard lab animals. The some people in this case include April’s father and Eric Sacks (William Fichtner, Elysium), who’s incredibly rich and is helping the NYPD fight the Foot Clan, though I’m also pretty sure that police departments don’t generally hire outside contractors.

Anyway, Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) is still a big bad guy, except here he wants to drain the turtles of their blood. No, he isn’t a vampire; he wants the chemicals in their blood, rare compounds that everyone thought were lost forever since the lab where they were experimented on was burned down. He and his cronies have an Evil Plan that requires these chemicals, you see.

Here’s where the biggest plot hole comes in. Splinter and the turtles were all part of the same experiment, yet for some reason it doesn’t even occur to Shredder that he could use Splinter’s blood. I would think Splinter’s blood would be better, given that he’s at least a mammal and not cold-blooded like a turtle. So it makes little sense for the bad guys to be so hot to capture the turtles and just leave the rat to die. Also, given that the turtles have supposedly been fighting the heavily-armed and trigger-happy Foot Clan for months (Splinter is apparently pretty lousy at noticing when they’ve snuck out) it makes equally little sense for them not to have figured out long ago that their shells are bulletproof, but for some reason they only make that discovery towards the end of the movie.

All the turtles are also vaguely embarrassing, either now and then (Leonardo, voiced by Johnny Knoxville of The Last Stand) or pretty much constantly (Michelangelo). I think he was supposed to be sort of a surfer-dude type, but he kept hitting on April and trying to do hip-hop and it just wasn’t working. Yes, I realize they’re basically supposed to be teenage boys, who often are vaguely embarrassing, but it was still a bit much.

Let’s see. There was also Vern (Will Arnett, Men in Black 3, and also Jonah Hex) the news cameraman who was really obviously trying to get April to go out with him except she never noticed because she was too busy focusing on the Big Story. I liked him. He managed to be both overconfident and awkward at the same time. So for his sake, I’m willing to go up to two and a quarter. I’m feeling generous. They did at least have the sense to keep the movie short, even if the filmmakers seem to think that upstate New York looks more like the Rocky Mountains. And not having seen any earlier incarnations, at least I didn’t have my childhood ruined.


Megamind and Metro Man: The eyebrows have it.

If you’ve seen the 1978 Superman movie, with Marlon Brando as Jor-El, then a good part of this movie will give you déjà vu. Will Farrell doesn’t do a very good Marlon Brando impression, but then, it isn’t really supposed to be all that good. I don’t think so, anyway. Will Farrell was actually quite bearable, that’s the point.

To start with, the galaxy is destroyed. Well, some portion of some galaxy gets destroyed, at least. Two sets of desperate parents each save their son by putting him into a fancy escape pod and sending him out into the depths of space. That’s never seemed like a very good idea to me, but it’s part of the mythos now, so you just have to roll with it. One baby is blue, hapless, and confused; the other one seems to have everything all under control as he’s hurtling into nowhere. He even looks good while doing that.

One baby lands in the middle of a wealthy, childless couple’s house and is an instant hit. The other baby lands in… well, let’s just say that this kid looks out at the world through bars other than those on a crib. Guess which one is voiced by Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Thirteen) when he grows up, and which by Will Farrell (The Other Guys)? The rivalry is instant at school — no surprise, really. Handsome Brad Pitt Little Boy has already made everyone his friends by doing tricks with his Superman powers, and poor Big-Headed Blue Will Farrell Little Boy has to jump in at the middle of the semester and be the smart kid who’s no good at sports. You know, if I was just better at building death rays, I would’ve become a supervillain myself. I had no idea how close I came. Good thing I’m not blue or bald.

Anyway, if they have other names, we don’t get to hear them. They’re Metro Man and Megamind, and proud of it — even though neither one is all that likable, really. Metro Man, guardian of Metro City, juggles babies and calls the citizens helpless, yet they love him. Not that Megamind is any better. He and his faithful minion, Minion (David Cross), a talking fish with a really bad underbite, spend all their time robbing banks, trying to take over the city, and kidnapping reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), who should not be confused with Lois Lane even when she’s being scooped up from her balcony for a nice flight around the city.

Then Metro Man is no longer around to protect the helpless Metro Citians, and just in time, too. The whole walking on water thing was getting pretty old. Megamind takes over City Hall while everybody watches — helplessly, of course — and evil wins the day!

That isn’t the entire movie, though. I wouldn’t tell you the whole plot. That’s just where the movie takes a weird turn. The whole good-evil thing gets kinda fuzzy, first of all, and Roxanne’s love life gets a little complicated when Titan (Jonah Hill) arrives on the scene. Or maybe I mean Tighten. I assumed it was Titan, since that’s a good code name, but when I looked at the credits on imdb and the official web site, it was spelled Tighten. The character spells it Tighten, but I wasn’t sure if that counted since he wasn’t supposed to be the brightest bulb on the tree. It may be a copyright issue.

Then there’s the invisible car, the warden (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man 3), the Tesla coils, the brain bots, and rampant destruction of city property. There’s even first dates, first kisses, and a little existential angst for good measure. Yes, this is a movie for kids like Shrek Forever After is for kids, which is to say not at all, really. But it was fun. Apparently even Will Farrell has a niche where his acting… or lack thereof… is okay, and here it is. Heck, I didn’t even cringe about Ben Stiller doing the voice of the depressed Bernard, who’s a librarian or museum curator or something.

So I’m a little shocked to be ranking this four and a quarter out of five. I don’t know if the kids in the theatre understood it, though. Some of them seemed a little restless at times. Yeah, that is weird, but that was the impression I got. The point is, the writers had a lot of fun messing with all the usual clichés and mixing everything up, and you can tell they had fun. Again, I’m not sure they really reached their intended audience, but they entertained me just fine.