The Tax Collector

★★

There’s been a good deal of controversy surrounding writer/director David Ayer’s latest Los Angeles-based crime flick, “The Tax Collector,” which is now available on VOD and playing at drive-ins across the country.

The bulk of the dissension has involved whether Shia LaBeouf engaged in “brownface” portraying Creeper, an enforcer for the Mexican mafia. Watching the movie I can understand the hubbub – LaBeouf certainly looks and sounds like a cholo from the barrio and Creeper’s ethnicity is never addressed. Ayer, who came up in South-Central L.A., says LaBeouf (who grew up in the predominantly Hispanic Echo Park neighborhood) is, “a Jewish dude playing a white character.”

Last weekend I talked to my friend and customer, Danny (a Hispanic dude who’s from L.A.), while serving him beers at Traders Brewing Company. (Come see me in Pike Township on Indy’s northwest side!) He thanked me for recommending “The Peanut Butter Falcon” to him. (It’s one of my fave flicks of 2019 with LaBeouf’s performance being one of the best of the year IMHO.) Talk turned to “The Tax Collector” and the “brownface” controversy. Danny has no issues with a white cat playing a Hispanic cat, though he did make cracks about the choloification of Christian Bale in Ayer’s 2005 effort, “Harsh Times.” If Danny doesn’t have beef with LaBeouf being “Eli Wallach 2020 Edition,” I suppose I don’t either.

OK, now that we’ve addressed the elephant in the room, let’s talk about the movie itself … of which LaBeouf isn’t even the lead. That’d be Bobby Soto (he played Demián Bichir’s son in “A Better Life” and recently popped up in “The Quarry”) who stars as David. David’s the titular “Tax Collector.” He was born into a life of crime and works for his Uncle Louis (George Lopez – When did this dude turn into Mexican Paul Sorvino?) collecting protection payments alongside Creeper.

The first half of this flick plays like the gangster flip-side of the Ayer-scripted “Training Day.” It’s essentially a day in the life of these dudes making their collections. An inciting incident comes midway through the film in the form of Conejo (Conejo), a rival criminal who’s looking to elbow his way into the family business. (How would you like to play a violent, Devil-worshipping gangster who’s named after yourself? It’s like, “Hey, Alec Toombs, I wrote you this part as a pedophile that kicks puppies and he’s named Alec Toombs too! Cool, huh?”)

Conejo’s presence threatens the safety of David’s beautiful wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), and their children. David and Creeper prepare for war. David even enlists the services of Bone (Cle Sloan, a former real deal Blood who’s appeared in much of Ayer’s work, i.e. “Street Kings,” “End of Watch” and “Bright”), who’s head of the movie Bloods.

Acting-wise I was most impressed by Sloan. He’s not in the movie much, but he brings a palpable decency to his role and the proceedings as a whole. Soto’s David has an air of respectability to him too. He’s a religious man who grapples with his grievous actions. Soto isn’t entirely convincing as a gangster. He’s a good-looking cat with a high voice … he seems more like the lost member of Menudo.

I don’t know what Ayer has on LaBeouf or if he simply has Rasputin-like mind control over him? LaBeouf felt it necessary to pull one of his teeth for his character in Ayer’s “Fury.” He got a lady tattooed across his full torso (which is only seen on screen for like a second and a half) like he’s Danny Trejo for “The Tax Collector.” This is serious business for what’s very much a supporting role. LaBeouf is OK as Creeper, but it’s nowhere near the level of craft on display in the one-two punch of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Honey Boy” from last year.

I’m no Ayer hater. I love “End of Watch.” I really like “Fury.” I think “Bright” and “Suicide Squad” are better than they get credit for. (Will Smith and Joel Edgerton are really good in the former. Smith, Margot Robbie, Jay Hernandez and Viola Davis are really good in the latter.) Ayer’s pastiche is like t-shirts from Affliction, Ed Hardy and Tapout somehow growing sentient and collaborating to make movies. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s dumb.

With “The Tax Collector” I can say I didn’t hate, but it wasn’t great. I had to stifle laughter during serious scenes. Violence often occurs off-screen or is staged sloppily. This is a meal that’s simultaneously under and overcooked. You can’t always judge a movie by its poster – this one’s fucks BTW – but if LaBeouf is depicted brandishing a machine gun on the advertisement he oughta have one in the movie … budgetary and story restrictions be damned! That’d make us a little more even-stevens. Also, a little trigger discipline, gentlemen … y’all look like a coupla uppity Karens from St. Louis.

I Used to Go Here

★★★1/2

Writer/director Kris Rey’s “I Used to Go Here,” available on VOD as of Friday, Aug. 7 and screening at the Tibbs Drive-In Theater on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 9:20 PM as part of the 2020 Indy Film Fest, made me long for my halcyon college days while simultaneously showing the pettiness, drama and bullshit that’s inherent to higher education.

Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is an alumna of fictional Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. (subbing for the actual Southern Illinois University – Rey’s undergrad alma mater), who’s just written her first novel, “Seasons Passed.” She’s invited back to the university by David (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), a professor she might’ve been too cozy with in her younger years, to do a reading. A faculty position is also being dangled in her direction.

Kate stays in a bed and breakfast across the street from the house she lived in with girlfriends when she was in school. She and the b&b’s proprietor, Mrs. Beeter (Cindy Gold), get off on the wrong foot when Kate returns home after curfew having lost her key. Frustrated and dejected, Kate seeks solace in her old house and its current occupants – Hugo (Josh Wiggins, “Greyhound”), Animal (Forrest Goodluck, late of Shudder’s “Blood Quantum”) and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley – he’s tall!).

These three young men are studying creative writing like Kate did. She becomes entangled in their lives over the weekend – drinking and doing drugs with them. Hugo has a turbulent relationship with April (Hannah Marks), who’s the most promising student in the creative writing department. Kate also buddies up with Emma (Khloe Janel), who’s got something going with Animal.

“I Used to Go Here” is a hangout movie. It’s fairly light on plot and doesn’t say anything especially new, but it has an ace in the hole with Jacobs. I’ve been a big fan of Jacobs’ since “Community” and she brings considerable neurotic, awkward Britta Perry energy to the proceedings. I wish a 37-year-old writer who looked like Jacobs showed up to make time with me when I was 20. There’s a lot she could’ve taught me and even more I needed to learn. I dig Clement, but he doesn’t come off nearly as well. Then again, his character has a whole lot less to do and is a whole lot less likable.

I know Rey née Swanberg née Williams more as an actress than I do as a writer or director. She does solid work making something that’s entirely amiable. The film is a production of Lonely Island Classics and it’s not nearly as funny as “Hot Rod,” “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” and “Palm Springs,” but its hangout vibe is most assuredly pleasant enough. Lonely Island member Jorma Taccone turns up as Kate’s former classmate, Bradley Cooper (“I go by Brad now.”), and has a scene that’s a scream.

Come for Jacobs, stay for the killer soundtrack of indie, folk and vintage R&B and soul. Simpler still – I got a kick out of watching these folks down brews from Half Acre and Revolution (Shout-out to Juice Beers!) that I’ve enjoyed over countless weekends in Wrigleyville. I felt like I was 20 again watching this flick, which feels pretty damned good when you’re 38.

An American Pickle

★★★★

The new Seth Rogen vehicle, “An American Pickle,” which is now available for streaming on HBO Max, is the Jewiest movie that’s ever Jewed. It makes “Yentl” look like “Triumph of the Will” by comparison. This is exactly the sort of flick that the kid who geeked out over “Munich” in “Knocked Up” would have a hand in making now that he’s grown up a bit … and I found it utterly charming.

The movie opens 100 years ago in an Eastern European shtetl known as Schlupsk. It’s depicted transformatively in 4:3 aspect ratio. Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) works as a ditch digger in the community. He becomes enamored by a local woman named Sarah (Sarah Snook of “Succession”) and woos her by gifting gefilte fish. They share their dreams – she wants enough money to afford a funeral plot; he wants to try seltzer water. They eventually also share their lives, are married, have a son and move to the United States through Ellis Island to avoid Cossack invaders.

They settle in Brooklyn, NY where Herschel finds work clubbing rats in a pickle factory. One fateful day he falls into a vat of pickles, is accidentally sealed inside and brined for 100 years. The brine preserves him perfectly and he emerges in present-day Brooklyn (and 16:9 aspect ratio) not having aged a day. Herschel’s only surviving relative is his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), a loner who works as an app developer. There’s a culture clash between the two men as they navigate having a relationship with one another.

Rogen is very good in the movie pulling double duty. His Herschel sounds a bit like a bassier Borat and is prone to violence and speaking his unfiltered mind. Ben is the most buttoned-down character Rogen has played since playing second fiddle to Barbara Streisand (Yentl herself!) in 2012’s “The Guilt Trip.” Often when an actor plays two separate roles in a film it’s an exercise in ego … action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme have done it countless times. I don’t believe this is the case with Rogen. Most folks simply see him as the stoner dude with a goofy guffaw, but when given weightier and/or darker material (“Observe and Report,” “Funny People,” “50/50”) he’s proven himself an adept actor. He appears to be stretching heretofore unused performative muscles here.

“An American Pickle” is the solo feature directorial debut of Brandon Trost, a cinematographer who’s shot numerous Rogen comedies including “This Is the End,” “Neighbors,” “The Interview” and “The Night Before” and co-directed “The FP” (a cult comedy my dudes dig and I don’t) with his brother, Jason. It’s scribed by “Saturday Night Live” writer Simon Rich, who adapted his short story, “Sell Out.”

The resulting product has a storybook quality to it. It’s far less rollicking and far more saccharine (but not cloyingly so) than most of Rogen’s output. No one’s smoking dope and there’s very little cursing. It’s PG-13 but could’ve and should’ve been PG.  It honestly feels like a combination between an edgier live action Pixar movie and the high concept comedies you would’ve seen in the ‘80s or early ‘90s … throw a Touchstone Pictures logo at the front of this thing, replace Rogen with Richard Dreyfuss and there you go!