FRIENDED TO DEATH
What kind of douchebag would fake his own death to see who shows up to his funeral? Indeed, in the comedy Friended to Death, there’s a reason why everyone calls Michael Harris a douchebag. He is a colossal jerk who revels in the misfortunes of others. In his job as a parking enforcement officer, he’s a gleeful Johnny Appleseed of misery. Worse yet, he is a social media addict who narcissistically insists on constantly blasting his escapades on Facebook and Twitter. He’s oblivious that his own social media proves himself to be the asshole everybody says that he is.
You know that Michael is ripe for a comeuppance, and he gets a dose of his own medicine when one of his premature vehicle tows unleashes an unhinged enemy for life. There are plenty of madcap moments as Michael (Ryan Hansen from TV’s Friends with Benefits) and his reluctant co-conspirator Emile (James Immekus) frantically try to conceal their hoax.
Friended to Death writer-director Sarah Smick and co-writer Ian Michaels archly comment on the “social” in social media. Their Michael Harris says “I have 417 friends – you don’t expect me to know ALL of them!” and “I speak in text”. Really smart comedy writing is pretty rare, and Smick and Michaels have the gift. Michaels got the idea after reading about a guy who faked his own death and wrote scathing rebukes to those who missed his faux memorial. By dropping that kernel into our current environment of over-sharing, Smick and Michaels were able to alchemize it into a biting social satire.
Smick and Michaels are longtime collaborators who married last October. In 2011, Smick and Michaels brought their equally funny Here’s the Kicker to Cinequest; (Michaels directed that one). Here’s the Kicker is available streaming on YouTube and is also is out on DVD.
In Friended to Death, Smick and Michaels play characters trying to expose the fraud. They are very good in their roles, as is veteran Robert R. Shafer (Bob Vance in The Office) as that boss who just can’t restrain himself from yelling.
In Friended to Death, TMI becomes LOL. Pointedly smart and well-crafted dark comedies don’t come along every day. Don’t miss Friended to Death, playing again at Cinequest tonight and on Friday.
Cinequest opened on an especially uproarious note with the Canadian comedy The Grand Seduction. The audience, including me and The Wife, rollicked with laugh after laugh.
Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, The Guard, The General, Braveheart) and Gordon Pinsent (Away from Her) play isolated Canadians try to snooker a young doctor (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights) into settling in their podunk village. They enlist the entire hamlet in an absurdly elaborate and risky ruse, and the result is a satisfying knee-slapper that reminds me of Waking Ned Devine with random acts of cricket.
Like Ned Devine, I think that The Grand Seduction can become a long-running imported art house hit like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Full Monty. And I would definitely see it again.
The Chinese thriller Parallel Maze tries to be Psycho with parallel universes thrown in. Unhappily, it is a shoddy and incoherent film. Here’s how you could end up with Parallel Maze: show an eighth grader Upstream Color, hand him a digital camera along with 200 bucks and tell him, “Make THAT”.
Ed Wood is alive, and he is Chinese. Parallel Maze employs – from time to time and for seemingly no reason – every conceivable film effect: shaky cam, jump cuts, split screen even animation. It’s all just kinda thrown up there. And in the Psycho like shower scene, you can tell right away which character is the slasher, which fatally dilutes the impact.
It’s clear that the filmmakers are movie lovers – besides a movie-within-the-movie and the explicit homage to Psycho, there are references to movies from Love Story to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The parallel threads of the story’s structure and the movie references were a promising start, but the low production values and random filmmaking techniques are just too distracting.
I saw Parallel Maze at its world premiere at Cinequest.
The indie comedy Friended to Death has its US premiere tonight at Cinequest, and it’s not the first time for the filmmakers. Friended to Death writer-director Sarah Smick and co-writer Ian Michaels brought their Here’s the Kicker to Cinequest in 2011 (Michaels directed that one). Smick and Michaels also act in both movies.
In Here’s the Kicker,the relationship of a prematurely retired football player and his girlfriend is being battered by their dead-end jobs in LA; (she is a make up artist – in porn films). To save their relationship, he agrees to move back to her hometown in Texas where they can open a salon/saloon: a combo beauty parlor and sports bar. Just as they are leaving on the road trip, he is offered his dream job as a football scout. When is he going to get the nerve to tell her? Along the way, they pick up his obnoxious former teammate and, most hilariously, his dad, who does NOT want to return to alcohol rehab. Many guffaws ensue in this all too rare occurrence – a satisfying American film comedy.
As the girlfriend, Sarah Smick succeeds in remaining sympathetic despite being continually aggrieved – no easy accomplishment. Luce Rains is great as the drunk dad.
According to Ian Michaels at the Cinequest screening, Producer/Cinematographer/Editor Chris Harris made the key decision to cut some early scenes so the road trip could commence sooner. Obviously, that move worked. Here’s the Kicker deserves a wide release.
Good news. Here’s the Kicker is available streaming on YouTube. It’s also is now out on DVD. Please go to the movie’s Netflix page and click SAVE – once it gets enough SAVES, it will become available on Netflix.
It’s hard to write comedy. Otherwise, we’d be seeing lots of good comedies. That’s why it’s worth tagging along on the uproarious road trip in Here’s the Kicker.
Don’t miss IDA at noon on Saturday
My feature articles and comments on individual Cinequest movies and my feature articles are linked at CINEQUEST 2014. Follow @themoviegourmet on twitter for real-time Cinequest coverage. Here are my tips for Cinequest films this weekend:
Heavenly Shift: I howled at this hilariously dark (very dark) Hungarian comedy about a rogue ambulance crew with a financial incentive to deliver its patients dead on arrival. North American premiere at 2:30 PM.
A special screening of Fruitvale Station: the masterpiece debut from Bay Area filmmaker Ryan Coogler, introduced by LA Times and NPR Morning Edition movie critic Kenneth Turan.
Haven’t seen it, but the chatter in festival queues is universally positive for the Canadian weeper Down River.
Words and Pictures: I haven’t seen this romantic comedy starring Clive Owen and the ever-radiant Juliette Binoche as sparring teachers, but it figures to be a crowd pleaser.
A noon screening is your last chance to see one of the very best films at Cinequest, the polish drama Ida, which won the International Critics’ Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Justifiably very popular at Cinequest.
Hunting Elephants: I haven’t seen this Israeli caper comedy starring Patrick Stewart, but it’s picked up positive buzz at the festival.
Here’s the 2014 Cinequest program and ticket information.
The dark Hungarian comedy Heavenly Shift (Isteni mûszak) is deliriously funny. A rogue ambulance crew gets kickbacks from a shady funeral director if the patient dies en route to the hospital. Said undertaker also uses his coffin inventory for his human smuggling ring, and he makes his payoffs in a Chinese restaurant. The ambulance driver is addicted to laughing gas and scolds everyone about the difference between samurai and ninja swords. Then there’s the addict who lives in the subway and repeatedly slashes herself so she can jump the responding ambulance crew and steal their morphine.
The laughs are enhanced by spaghetti western music, complete with showdown-in-the-main-street power chords for dramatic confrontations. The cast delivers wonderfully dead pan performances, especially Roland Rába (Question in Details in the 2011 Cinequest). There’s an especially messy emergency tracheotomy in a produce market and a hysterically madcap runaway ambulance sequence near the end.
Now this is a DARK comedy – and if you don’t find the likes of Killer Joe, The Guard, Bernie and Headhunters really funny, then this may not be for you. For cynics like me, the more noir the better, and I think Heavenly Shift is a freaking riot.
Heavenly Shift’s North American Premiere is March 7 at Cinequest, and it plays again on March 12 and 14.
The Polish drama Ida is a gem – one of the best movies at this year’s Cinequest. The title character is a novice nun who has been raised in a convent orphanage. Just before she is to take her vows in the early 1960s, she is told for the first time that she has an aunt. She meets the aunt, and Ida learns that she is the survivor of a Jewish family killed in the Holocaust. The aunt takes the novice on an odd couple road trip to trace the fate of their family.
The chain-smoking aunt (Agata Kulesza) is a judge and consumes vast quantities of vodka to self-medicate her own searing memories. But the most profound difference isn’t that the aunt is a hard ass and that the nun is prim and devout. The most important contrast is between the worldly aunt (who has been around the block) and the utterly naive and inexperienced novice. The young woman must make the choice between a future that follows her upbringing or one which her biological heritage opens to her. As Ida unfolds, her family legacy makes her choice an informed one.
The novice Ida, played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska, is very quiet but anything but fragile. Saying little, she takes in the world with a penetrating gaze and a just-under-the-surface magnetic strength.
Superbly photographed in black and white, each shot is exquisitely composed. Watching shot after shot in Ida is like walking through a museum gazing at masterpiece paintings one after the other. Ida was directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski, who also recently directed the British coming of age story My Summer of Love (with Emily Blunt) and the French thriller The Woman in the Fifth (with Kristin Scott Thomas and Ethan Hawke). He is an effective and economic story-teller, packing textured characters and a compelling story into an 80 minute film.
Ida is also successful in avoiding grimness. Pawlikowski has crafted a story which addresses the pain of the characters without being painful to watch. There’s some pretty fun music from a touring pop/jazz combo and plenty of wicked sarcasm from the aunt.
Ida won the International Critics’ Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ida plays just one more time at Cinequest (unless it makes the Encore Day program) – on this Sunday, March 9, at noon.
OK, here’s a movie like none you’ve seen before – not that this is always a good thing…The offbeat German film Finsterworld peels back the orderly veneer of German society to reveal odd subcultures (they have Furries and foot fetishists in Germany, too). Finsterworld (the title presumably punned after its writer director Frauke Finsterwalder) begins and ends with Cat Stevens’ bubbly The Wind and perks along like a quirky comedy, until it descends into a scathing and pessimistic assessment of German society.
The story follows a pedicurist, a documentation, a traffic cop, a forest hermit, some high school kids, a rich couple and a teacher who are revealed to be interconnected – and all deeply troubled under the surface. Ranging from quirky to twisted to downright evil, the characters are cursed with collective guilt from You Know What (hint: 1933-1945).
I must point out that there is one unforgettable scene of (all things) cookie-baking – at once appalling, disgusting and very funny.
Finsterworld, which had its North American Premiere at Cinequest, has its moments and never drags. But engaging with the film depends on whether you’re ready for a cynical and hopeless assessment of today’s Germans.
The Circle Within (Icimdeki Cember) is a Turkish fable that turns into a psychological drama. An old peddler trudges between isolated hamlets when a younger man knocks him senseless and draws a circle in the dirt around the fallen old man. When he awakes, the old man refuses to leave the circle, which is not a surprise to the younger man. Why is the younger man so cruel? How the younger man know that the peddler won’t leave the circle? Who is really trapped? And why?
The power of the circle stems from the Kurdish religion of yezidism, a non-Islamic minority religion related to Zoroastrianism and Sufism.
Only 72 minutes long, The Circle Within is very slow, and I had trouble staying awake. The Circle Within is not a favorite of mine, but it provides a rare glimpse into yezidism, the Kurds and the Big Sky country of eastern Turkey. The Circle Within’s North American Premiere is March 5, and it plays at Cinequest on March 6, 7, and 10.
The Belgian drama The Verdict (Het Vonnis) won Best Director at the Montreal Film Festival. A man’s family is destroyed by an especially senseless and brutal crime, and the monstrous perp is freed by an infuriatingly absurd legal technicality. When he takes vigilante revenge, he is tried for the crime. Any American jury would free this guy in about eleven seconds, but this is Belgium and the dead perp’s lawyer is passionate about the rule of law, and the cynical prosecutors need to convict the guy to cover up their own incompetence. So we have a courtroom drama. The Verdict advocates the political position that the Belgian justice system protects the rights of criminal defendants at the expense of victims – kind of like Dirty Harry (only in Dutch).
As well-crafted as is The Verdict, I think that it will be difficult for American audiences to relate to the political morality play; The Verdict is more accessible as a psychological drama – the portrait of a man who has nothing left to lose, but still grasps for a glimmer of justice.