Spree

★★★★

“Spree,” which will be available on VOD and at drive-ins beginning Friday, Aug. 14, is a Generation Z take on “Man Bites Dog.”

Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery, “Stranger Things”) is a young man who drives for a rideshare company called Spree. His true passion however is “Kurt’s World,” an internet broadcast that he hopes will go viral someday. Kurt’s tricked his ride out with cameras aiming to capture content that will catapult him to Internet superstardom. Kurt will pull out all the stops in order to accrue fame and/or infamy up to and including murder.

This found footage feature mostly plays out as a series of vignettes focusing upon Kurt’s desperate interactions with his passengers – asking them to retweet or follow him. His passengers are a motley crew ranging from a white nationalist motivational speaker (Linas Phillips) to a bitchy real estate agent (Jessalyn Gilsig of Ryan Murphy’s “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee”) to a meathead giving off big time Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” vibes (John DeLuca, “Staten Island Summer”) to a trio of scenesters (reality television stars Mischa Barton, Lala Kent and Frankie Grande – big bro of Ariana) to DJs both successful (Sunny Kim’s uNo) and washed-up (Kurt’s very own Dad, Kris, played by David Arquette, who’s great casting as he was playing burnouts even in his prime with flicks like “Scream” and “Never Been Kissed.”).

Kurt’s most notable fare is up-and-coming comedienne Jessie Adams (Indianapolis, Ind. native, Pike High School graduate and “Saturday Night Live” alumna Sasheer Zamata). Jessie has what Kurt wants – fame, notoriety, followers. He pimps “Kurt’s World” to her. She chastises him calling it, “Squirt’s World.” Jessie isn’t malicious – she simply has a low tolerance for bullshit. The only person actively watching and commenting on the proceedings initially is Bobby Basecamp (Joshua Ovalle), an influencer for whom Kurt once babysat.

“Spree” works best in its first half hour where it’s primarily a dark comedy before escalating further and further into horror. Keery is great alternating between pathetic and psychopathic. He’s genuinely funny throughout much of the flick and is worlds removed from his signature role of Steve Herrington.

Matching Keery in quality if not quantity is Zamata. She’s extremely likable as Jessie and I actively rooted for her success and survival. You see her grapple with fame and stay grounded spending time with Grandma Adams (Reatha Grey). The movie’s most woke moments come via Jessie. She sees the ills of social media (even if she profits from it) and keeps hangers-on like Miles Manderville (fellow “SNL” alum Kyle Mooney) at an arm’s length.

There’s an awful lot for Ukrainian co-writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko to unbox with “Spree.” I’m not sure he’s entirely up to the task, but he comes damned close. Some will likely see the film as tasteless due to its similarities to the senseless violence perpetrated by Kalamazoo, Mich. Uber driver Jason Dalton in 2016 … and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. In spite of its inherent ickiness, “Spree” is undeniably darkly entertaining, features two really solid performances from Keery and Zamata and will hopefully make you think twice before seeking that next like, share or retweet. It also kinda feels like “Crank”-era Neveldine/Taylor riffing on Todd Phillips’ “Joker” … so there’s that.  

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!

She Dies Tomorrow

★★1/2

I know Amy Seimetz more as an actress than I do as a filmmaker. I also know more of her mainstream and/or genre work (“You’re Next,” “Alien: Covenant,” “Pet Sematary” (2019)) than I do her independent efforts (“The Myth of the American Sleepover,” “Tiny Furniture,” “Upstream Color”). I haven’t seen her feature directorial debut, “Sun Don’t Shine,” despite having heard good things about it. I haven’t seen her television work as an actress (“The Killing”) nor as the creative driving force (“The Girlfriend Experience”).

This brings us to Seimetz’s second feature directorial effort, “She Dies Tomorrow,” available on VOD beginning Friday, July 31. The movie is pretty much what its title tells you it is. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is in recovery and has just parted ways with her boyfriend, Craig (Kentucker Audley – pretty much the best/worst name in the world). Upset about their separation, Amy falls off the wagon. She begins drinking heavily and calls her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), to declare that, “I’m going to die tomorrow.” Jane, concerned with her friend’s well-being, goes and checks on her. Upon visiting with Amy, Jane too comes to the conclusion that she herself is going to die tomorrow as well. And so it spreads …

I know the movie was made before COVID-19, but it accidentally plays as a perfect analogy to this particular moment. Simply by being with someone else you could possibly be killing them. Fear is contagious in “She Dies Tomorrow,” much like it is now in our own reality.

“She Dies Tomorrow” plays like a mumblecore version of “Final Destination” with a dash of sexless “It Follows” and a pinch of David Lynch thrown in for good measure. I detested the picture for the first 20 minutes of its 84 minute runtime, but there’s a scene in which Jane visits her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton of “The League”) and their friends, Brian (Tunde Adebimpe, frontman of TV on the Radio) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim) where I fell into the movie’s rhythms. I think much of this is attributable to preferring Adams’ screen presence over Sheil’s.

Adams is an actress I’ve admired for some time. Whether it’s in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” doing tiny turns in “Wonder Boys” and “Orange County” or playing Thomas Jane’s pimp on HBO’s “Hung,” Adams has always made an impression. Adams is a slender woman, but her face has grown fuller and hair grayer. In spite of this, her skin is immaculate. Adams’ look is a fascinating one and undoubtedly suited to the subject matter – having someone who’s simultaneously youthful and aged in a picture preoccupied with death is haunting. And the fact that Adams has actors as good as Messina, Aselton and Adebimpe to play off of doesn’t hurt matters either. Late picture joinees Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez and director Adam Wingard also add to the proceedings.

I can’t recommend a movie I hated one-quarter of, but I think certain audiences will really respond to “She Dies Tomorrow.” It’s undeniably cinema of irritation … you probably know if that’s your bag or not and if you’re game for such a thing in these already irritable times.

Legacy of Lies

★★

I had to stifle laughter when I put the disc for “Legacy of Lies” (henceforth known as “LoL” and on DVD as of Tuesday, July 28) into the player and there was no trailers, no menu, no studio logo – just straight into the movie and a title card reading, “Ukranian State Film Agency.” Could this be the Redboxiest movie that ever Redboxed?

“LoL” features my boi Scott Adkins, an English direct-to-video action actor who tends to do at least five flicks a year. I’m on a pretty strict Adkins Diet where I’ll watch whatever the dude drops – good, bad or otherwise. Adkins should be a much bigger star than he is. He probably could’ve and should’ve been James Bond or Batman. He kinda looks like Ben Affleck and could kick the crap outta Daniel Craig.

Adkins stars as Martin Baxter, a disgraced MI-6 agent with a 12-year-old daughter named Lisa (Honor Kneafsey). Martin makes ends meet by working as a nightclub bouncer (lending the film “John Wick”-lite action locales) and cage fighting as a mixed martial artist (lending the film a serious late ‘80s/early ‘90s Jean-Claude Van Damme vibe).

Martin’s life is complicated. He sees the zombified ghost of Lisa’s mother and his late girlfriend, Olga (Tetiana Nosenko), incessantly. He has sex with a prostitute named Suzanne (Andrea Vasiliou) to the same diagetic music Lisa’s listening to on earphones in the next room … creepy!

Martin’s life is further complicated by the appearance of Sacha (Yuliia Sobol, who reads like an Eastern Bloc Hot Topic version of AnnaSophia Robb). She’s a cub reporter whose reporter parents were friends of Martin’s before being killed. They had files or vials (My wife and I couldn’t tell which through all the thick accents – besides they’re either MacGuffins or McMuffins anyways!) that interest agents from the CIA (Martin McDougall, playing a dude named Trevor, so you just know he’s a dick!), MI-6 (Leon Sua as Edwards) and Spetsnaz GRU (Anna Butkevich as Tatyana). Tatyana wants the files/vials badly enough that she kidnaps Lisa and threatens to kill her if she doesn’t get them.

“LoL” is written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Adrian Bol. This is his second feature and his first in 15 years – he made four shorts in between. (Bol’s first flick is something called “Castingx” starring somebody called Ellen Ten Damme.) There’s a lot that works here and a lot that doesn’t.

The opening shootout is awesome with easily discernible geography. There are decent fights choreographed by Adkins’ frequent collaborator Tim Man (Not Tin Man!) peppered throughout. Much of what’s good comes from Adkins, who does the best he can with the material and budget ($4.5 million) given. I actually also really liked Kneafsey, who looks like Little Orphan Annie and brings a lot of smarts and sass to her role.

Things that didn’t work so well – the zombified ghost girlfriend (the movie died on the vine whenever she appeared) and a direct address to camera from Sobol’s Sacha in which she discusses #fakenews in a Russian accent that hits the nail so hard on the head it’s like Jesus hammered it himself.

The disc has a 25-minute making-of featurette that didn’t really grip me and a trailer. I wish “LoL” were titled “Legacy o’ Flies” instead like it’s Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery playing “Jeopardy” or a sequel to “Lord of the Flies.” Regardless, I’ll be here for whatever Adkins does next.

Yes, God, Yes

★★★1/2

It’s not every day you see a movie begin with a title card sporting both the literal and sexual euphemism definitions for “tossed salad.” “Obvious Child” co-screenwriter Karen Maine marks her feature directorial debut by doing just this in adapting her short of the same name, “Yes, God, Yes,” which will be available on VOD beginning Friday, July 24.

“Stranger Things” co-star Natalia Dyer headlines the picture as Alice, a Catholic school girl who’s ostensibly a very good, naïve and kind kid. She has urges as most teens do, but they’re fairly benign and mostly revolve around rewinding the sex scene from “Titanic” for a second or even third look.

Alice’s naiveté serves in stark contrast to the rumor circulating about her in school – that she gave her classmate Wade (Parker Wierling) a rim job at a party. Alice doesn’t even know what any of this means and spends the rest of the runtime seeking a definition all along asserting, “I didn’t dress Wade’s salad!”

Alice’s best girlfriend, Laura (Francesca Reale, another “Stranger Things” alum), seeks to improve their social standing. The best way to do this at their school is by attending a weekend retreat presided over by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons of “Veep”). Laura is looking to impress upperclassman, Nina (Alisha Boe, “13 Reasons Why”). Alice takes an interest in Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz, a veteran of Netflix movies such as “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” and “The Half of It”). Both Nina and Chris serve in leadership roles at the retreat.

“Yes, God, Yes” reminded me a good deal of 2004’s “Saved!,” in the way that it deals with religion, teenagers and teenagers dealing with religion. I don’t think “Yes, God, Yes” is as good as “Saved!” It’s not as dramatic nor as funny. It’s mostly just dirtier. That said, the movie is humorous and does have worthwhile things to say about being religious without being judgmental or hypocritical. A cheeky connection between the two flicks is the inclusion of “Saved!” co-star Mandy Moore’s song “Candy” over the closing credits.

Dyer is a cute and likable presence here much like she is on “Stranger Things” – she’s the main reason to watch the film aside from the crude albeit amusing central joke and some astute theological commentary. In addition to Dyer other standouts include Simons, who can do this sorta awkward comedy in his sleep, and Novogratz, who kinda reads like a young Chris Pratt … I could see this kid going places.

“Yes, God, Yes” feels exactly like what it is – a short stretched to feature length. The movie is a mere 78 minutes and likely would’ve benefitted from being more fleshed out. What’s here is good – I think Maine shows great promise as both a writer and director … I just wish there were more of it.

The Rental

★★½ 

Actor Dave Franco makes his directorial debut with “The Rental,” available on VOD beginning Friday, July 24, which plays like a ‘90s erotic thriller meets a Tommy Wiseau melodrama meets mumblecore (subgenre pioneer Joe Swanberg co-scripted with Franco) only to transform into a slasher flick in its final 10 minutes.

Charlie (Dan Stevens, late of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”) and Mina (Sheila Vand of Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) are partners in a tech firm. To mark an unspecified professional milestone the two are looking to rent a swanky, Pacific Northwest-based beachfront property for a celebratory weekend of hiking, hot-tubbing, dining, drinking and recreational drugs.

The partners appear fairly cozy with one another engaging in flirting and touching, which makes it somewhat surprising that they’ll be inviting their significant others along. Charlie’s married to Michelle (Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie). Mina’s dating Charlie’s younger ne’er do well brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Lip from Showtime’s “Shameless”). Josh brings his adorable French bulldog Reggie despite it being against the rules.

The foursome are renting the place from the owner’s brother, Taylor (Toby Huss AKA Artie the Strongest Man in the World from Nickelodeon’s “The Adventures of Pete & Pete”). Mina initially attempted to rent the place on her own only to be refused … she assumes on the basis of her Iranian surname. Charlie attempted an hour later and was accepted. Mina brings this up to Taylor none-too-subtly and he passive-aggressively doubles down on his racist rhetoric. Mina is obviously uncomfortable, but her white companions don’t seem to fully grasp her feelings. They’ll all eventually feel discomfort when a camera is discovered in the shower. Things escalate from there.

Franco has assembled a solid cast and I’d argue they generally elevate the material. Stevens and Vand aren’t especially likable in their roles, but they play the parts well. Curiously, Franco gives his wife the most boring, sexless role. (I thought this was Alison Brie not Alison Pill?!!! Sorry, bad joke!) Brie is inherently charming so the performance still registers. White is easily the most likeable of these folks. Then again, the dog might’ve done the heavy lifting in making this the case. I also tend to gravitate towards fuck-up characters in movies as I’m a bit of one in actuality. Huss is an actor I generally enjoy and I dug his creeptacular turn here, but I could’ve gone for more of him.

I don’t know what Franco’s ultimately trying to say with “The Rental.” At a scant 88 minutes it’s equal parts navel-gazing and indeterminate. Part of me thought he was attempting to grapple with his more famous brother James’ purported misbehavior. I kinda figured the elder Franco might’ve been playing a masked character that appears at the picture’s conclusion in a piece of performance art that’s very on brand for the brothers. He didn’t and it wasn’t. Ultimately, “The Rental” left me with very little other than a slight pause when using Airbnb … something a pandemic had already achieved.

The Painted Bird

★★★★½

I was initially excited to watch and review Czech writer/director Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel “The Painted Bird,” which will be available on VOD as of Friday, July 17. I knew it was almost three hours long (2 hours 49 minutes, specifically). I knew it was shot in black and white. I knew it was subtitled. I knew it was about the Holocaust. I knew it sported an impressive cast of character actors including Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Julian Sands (“Warlock” represent!) and Barry Pepper.

Then I started reading a bit more and grew trepidatious. Comparisons were being made between “The Painted Bird” and “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” “Come and See” and “A Serbian Film” … movies I’ve been too chickenshit to watch as of now. I was legit scared, y’all! Turns out I had reason to be, but that’s not an entirely bad thing.

“The Painted Bird” is simultaneously one of the most disturbing and beautiful films I’ve ever seen. This is less a story and more a series of vignettes about a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) in Eastern Europe during World War II seeking refuge from an onslaught of different characters. The boy is the recipient of all sorts physical and sexual abuse. We’re introduced to the boy as he’s fleeing from bullies with his pet ermine tucked beneath his arm. The boy’s tormentors ultimately catch up to him, beat him, snatch the snoat, pour an accelerant all over it and set the poor thing ablaze.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Fair warning – these descriptors get graphic. Over the course of “The Painted Bird” audiences will see the boy buried up to his neck and pecked by crows, one man gouges another man’s eyes out with a spoon, one woman shoves a glass bottle in another woman’s vagina and kicks it instantly killing her, a crying baby and its mother are executed via gunshot, a woman is depicted engaging in bestiality with a goat.

Despite all the abominations on screen, “The Painted Bird” is undeniably exquisite. This is easily the best-looking movie I’ve seen this year that’s not Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” The black and white cinematography by Vladimír Smutný (“Kolya”) provides audiences with a cornucopia of striking contrast shots. The way in which Marhoul and Smutný shoot fields, streams, trees and buildings is truly awe-inspiring. Any frame of the film – even some depicting depravities – could easily be blown up, framed and displayed in a museum.

Marhoul makes numerous interesting artistic, stylistic and thematic decisions. This is the first film to use Interslavic language. Marhoul did this so no particular countries would be held accountable for the contemptible actions of his characters. There is no score used until the final scene. The boy’s name isn’t revealed until the final scene.

Marhoul worked on “The Painted Bird” for over a decade and shot over the course of 16 months, which gives audiences the opportunity to see the boy/ Kotlár grow before our very eyes. This is Kotlár’s acting debut and he does good work, although the boy’s a bit of a cypher and doesn’t speak much. The kid’s certainly photogenic and his big, dark eyes communicate much. Of the bigger name actors I was most impressed by Keitel, who brings much needed warmth to the proceedings, and Pepper – essentially playing a Russian variation on his “Saving Private Ryan” character.

“The Painted Bird” won 10 prizes at the Czech Lion Awards on 13 nominations … it also caused walkouts at the Venice, Toronto and London film festivals. I can wholeheartedly understand both reactions. This is pretty much solely for adventurous filmgoers who aren’t squeamish. I’m very glad I saw it once. I wish I’d seen it on the big screen. I’ll likely never watch it again. I think it’s an important film. I think it should be seen by those who think they can withstand it.

“The Painted Bird” derives its name from an early sequence in which Lekh (Lech Dyblic) – a fowler who’s “caring” for the boy – catches a bird, paints it and releases it back into the flock where it’s promptly killed for being different … all for his amusement. This is a somewhat obvious metaphor to the horrors the boy will experience throughout the rest of the film. Marhoul has said “The Painted Bird” isn’t specifically a Holocaust movie … and he’s right. Sadly, this shit’s still pertinent as brown children have been sexually abused and sitting in cages during a pandemic through no fault of their own due to the carelessness and vindictiveness of white men in power right here in the good ole U.S. of A.

Useless Humans

★★1/2

There’s a montage near the beginning of sci-fi/horror/comedy “Useless Humans,” now available on VOD, where lead character Brian (Josh Zuckerman of “Sex Drive”) has unsuccessfully been trying for years to get his childhood friends Louis (Rushi Kota), Jess (Davida Williams) and Alex (Luke Youngblood) together to celebrate his birthday. They always give him the same response, “This is a bad year.”

The montage concludes with Brian exiting a building, a title card reading “2020” pops up across his chest, he looks to the camera and says, “This is a good year!” I know writers Travis Betz, George Caine, Kevin Hamedani, Stephen Ohl (who also directed) and Ryan Scaringe (It took five dudes to write this?!!!) had no idea what a shitshow 2020 would ultimately be while writing and/or filming “Useless Humans,” but this resulted in the funniest, saddest and most ironic moment of cinema I’ve seen in sometime by complete accident.

As 2020 is a good year, the quartet of compadres meet up at Brian’s parents’ house to celebrate his 30th birthday. Jess brings her boss/boyfriend, Zachary (Joey Kern, who had a real moment in the early aughts playing stoner dickheads in “Super Troopers,” “Cabin Fever” and “Grind”), which bums Brian out as he’s long held a torch for Jess. Zachary’s not the only interloper at the party as an alien (man in suit James Croak) crash lands nearby. Drunk, the pals must get their wits about them if they’re going to survive the night and save the world. They aren’t the only ones trying to quell the alien problem as scientist Wendy (Maya Kazan – granddaughter of Elia, daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord and younger sister of Zoe) and bounty hunter Chum (Edy Ganem) are also in pursuit.

Performance-wise the standout is Youngblood whose Alex is the craziest of the bunch. He rides a motorcycle, eats magic mushrooms, wears a long sleeve t-shirt with a skeleton hand flipping the bird. The dude’s a hoot and a half. My mind was blown when I found out Youngblood played Quidditch announcer Lee Jordan in the “Harry Potter” movies and Magnitude on “Community” (“Pop! Pop!”). Youngblood is British and nary a trace of his accent could be heard while playing American. Kudos!

Kazan and Ganem aren’t nearly as successful as the movie screeches to a halt whenever their characters are on screen. To be fair these actresses are bad in their roles, but the dialogue the five-man team of writers provided them is worse. They stranded these poor women with nothing worthwhile to work with.

To the filmmakers’ credit, “Useless Humans” does sport an ethnically diverse cast – two black actors, an Indian-American actor and a Latina actress all play major roles – this is rare for a goofy comedy that doesn’t have the names Harold and Kumar in the title. Additionally, there are a handful of really good zingers in the flick. Brian and Zachary get into an argument where they keep yelling, “Pre-fuck you!,” at one another. My wife and I have said this to each other at least a dozen times since watching “Useless Humans.” What are movies for if not assisting you in better insulting your spouse?

There isn’t much to “Useless Humans,” which runs a scant 80 minutes and places a greater emphasis on comedy as opposed to sci-fi or horror. It’s not an especially good movie nor is it a bad one. It’s mostly just entertainingly stupid. If there were more nudity in this thing – and by more I mean any other than a dude’s bare buttocks – “Useless Humans” would be exactly the sort of movie that would’ve been programmed to play on “USA Up All Night” back in the day. As the nudity was always edited out of the “USA Up All Night” movies, “Useless Humans” feels exactly like a “USA Up All Night” movie … it just needed to be periodically interrupted by Spuds MacKenzie Budweiser beer commercials and Life Call ads (“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”).