Original films do live on! With Nope topping the box office charts last week with a $44 million domestic debut — the highest for an original film since Peele’s last film, Us — it’s proof that original films do have a home in the age of blockbusters and tentpole films galore. Now, B.J. Novak, who my generation may know as Ryan from The Office as a result of all of the rewatches that we did when the series was on Netflix, makes his directorial debut with Vengeance, a unique mystery-comedy film with a millennial twist that puts Novak’s brilliant mind and writing at the forefront.
Ben is a writer for The New York — em, sorry — The New Yorker magazine but longs to be more than just a writer; though Issa Rae — who plays his podcast editor — suggests he speak more from the heart than his brain. Ben wants to be a voice, and what better way to do that than starting what all white men in New York City have: A podcast? After all, Ben has lucked into a situation with the “Holy Grail” of podcasts: A dead white girl.
After one of his (presumably) many hookups, Ben receives “the worst phone call you’re gonna get in your life” from the brother of a former hookup — Abilene (Lio Tipton) — who was found dead. Her brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), gets Ben to travel to a rural Texas town for Abilene’s funeral where Ben is roped into giving a speech at the funeral that only Michael Scott could make more cringey as he has to scramble to come up with a moving speech (luckily, his natural knack for writing bails him out). But the trip doesn’t stop there, as Ty also convinces Ben to go full Pattinson Batman and seek vengeance with him and believes Abilene was murdered; thus kicking off the film’s adventure as Ben chronicles this journey through his voice memos app for a true crime podcast series.
If you’ve ever read B.J. Novak’s collection of short stories, One More Thing, you’ll know that Novak is somewhat of a philosopher himself. That carries over to his character in Vengeance, Ben. Opening at a New York City house party, Ben, who’s the “our conversation should be a podcast” guy, and his friend are sharing lines like “people like cookie dough because it’s unfinished; it can be anything,” while scouting out a part full of “infinite possibilities.” You’d probably just ignore a guy like Ben at a bar, but when the film is centered around him, you’ve got no choice but to go along with him.
But for as obnoxious as Novak’s character may seem on the surface, it’s a character that suits Novak as well as the plaid button-downs that he wears in the middle of West Texas. Ben really is the exemplification of a northerner that sticks out like a sour thumb anywhere south of the east coast (trust me, I spent my freshman year of college down south). He’s not looking for Chinese food like Pesci and Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, opting for WiFi passwords instead. Like your average millennial, Ben isn’t going to get his hands dirty. As he tells Ty, he doesn’t usually opt for vengeance when someone he knows dies. Fair enough, but that means he uses the second-most powerful tool in 2022: A podcast. The best way I can describe it is that Novak has written himself a character that perfectly combines the charming neuroticism of a Woody Allen-written character and the spirit of a millennial.
While Novak is great in the lead, a special shoutout is deserved for scene-stealer Ashton Kutcher, who plays Quentin Sellers, a record producer in West Texas. And while he seems cool as a cucumber and like a guy who just goes with the flow on the surface, he delivers some of the film’s best dialogue opposite of Novak and his final monologue will send chills down your spine. He’s the one who brings the film’s motifs full circle, and while the choice made with his character in the third act wouldn’t have been my first choice, you have to respect the choice coming from Novak.
Boyd Holbrook plays ‘Abilene’s brother, Ty. This is a far cry from Holbrook’s villainous turn in Logan, but this heightened burlesque portrait of a stereotypical American is the target of many (simple, yet effective jokes). On most occasions, Ty and his whole family (and perhaps all of West Texas for that matter) are painted to be bigoted, ignorant, racists. Whether it be the time when Ty says that Ben looks like a character from Schindler’s List or the racial profiling that he does when accusing someone of Abeliene’s murder, there are lines in the film that’ll make you cringe in 2022. Sure, many of Vengeance”s jokes can be boiled down to the Texans being painted as gun-loving racists, but sometimes simple is effective and it’s best not to overwrite these jokes.
Above all else, Vengeance is a movie about audience expectations. Not everything is what it seems, and Ben discovers this as he continues getting deeper into the weeds on this assignment. Vengeance begs the question of the motives of people like Ben: Is he really trying to help the family of a woman he went out with, or is this for his own good? Because at the end of the day, do we, the audience, really care about the victim and the collateral damage it causes to a family? It’s a fascinating question that bleeds into our current age where true crime series are all of the rage and where everyone has a take on social media.
A potential misconception about Vengeance is that it’s a murder-comedy in the vein of Knives Out. Like the expectations just talked about, it’s important to recognize that Vengeance is a comedy that really dips its toes into various genres. Maybe Novak’s writing style or humor takes a bit of time to adjust to, so I would recommend reading even a small portion of Novak’s collection of short stories; it’ll help get your understanding of the writing and comedy of Vengeance far better than I can. Even still, Novak is a brilliant writer and could have a promising future ahead as a filmmaker. 1970s Woody Allen has his fingerprints all over Vengeance, a stellar, or dare I say, fire, directorial debut from the “fire guy” himself, B.J. Novak.
Focus Features will release Vengeance on July 29.
I Love My Dad Review | Patton Oswalt Catfishes His Son in a Story Too Weird to Be True (But It Is)
On paper, a movie about catfishing (albeit your son) in the age of social media sounds brilliant. We live in an age where it’s very easy to make yourself appear however you want to on social media and dating apps. That’s the concept that James Morosini attempts to capitalize on in his love letter to his actual dad, I Love My Dad. But for all of the good intentions, Morosini’s film, unfortunately, comes off as cringy more often than not in the same way that Fortnite was in Avengers: Endgame. You can’t say the effort isn’t there; Patton Oswalt goes for it in a role that sees him as a father catfishing his own son. Yes, you read that right.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time that a Patton Oswalt character has catfished someone he knows. In a brilliant episode of the King of Queens, Spence (Oswalt) is told that he’s the victim, not the prankster, by Doug (Kevin James) and so Spence poses as an anonymous admirer of Doug’s “karaoke skills” at the local bar, flirting with Doug and boosting his own ego. I Love My Dad, as mentioned, follows Chuck (Oswalt), the classic distant father who can’t make graduation, claims anything mom says is untrue, and cannot make vacation due to “fake” airline tickets, who takes a passing comment about social media stalking a bit too far from his friend Jimmy (Lil Rel Howery). After encountering a lovely young waitress named Becca (Claudia Sulewski) at a rinky-dink diner, Chuck begins chatting with his son Franklin (Morosini) as Becca.
It should also be mentioned that Franklin is struggling with mental health problems, but the time you spent reading that statement is roughly as long as the film itself hones in on it. The film really struggles to juggle actually speaking about mental health in favor of its contrived plot. When we first encounter Franklin, he’s just graduating from therapy and he’s shown to struggle with suicidal thoughts. That alone and social media are a recipe for disaster but a disaster that is prevalent in 2022.
And yes, I’m aware that there wasn’t an Avengers-sized budget for I Love My Dad, but the 90-minute runtime is both a blessing and a curse. It makes the film digestible, yet, it feels like a portion of the story is missing. Those examples above of Chuck failing as a father are all used in the form of voicemail messages played over the opening credits. It’s clear that Chuck wasn’t a great dad, but the film doesn’t really show that outside of the opening where Chuck gifts Franklin a lost dog (we see him tear down a sign for it) and when he spams his son with messages like Peter Parker did to Happy at the beginning of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Chuck’s whole facade that he maintains throughout much of the runtime is also very frustrating. I get that I Love My Dad is going for the uncomfortable humor, but there is a limit to how far that can go (Chuck actually “sexts” his son while in the same motel room as him). And the fact that Franklin blindly falls for Becca — a woman he’s never actually spoken to — and believes every excuse in the book that is used to not speak to him over the phone really begs the question: How horny is Franklin?
Gen Z’er here talking, but in 2022, does an attractive girl with zero followers, a brand new account, and who can’t ever call or video chat sound at all suspicious? These are thoughts that Franklin should have had, and I guess to be fair to the film, thoughts he does have for a hot second, yet the “relationship” between Becca and Franklin gets way too far way too fast. And if you’re Chuck, how do you not see the card tower getting way too high? Yes, this is the only source of connection that he’s had with his son in years, but I don’t know how it gets to the point of Franklin and Becca organizing a meetup.
I realize that nitpicking a film that is telling, what I assume to be, a larger-than-life adaptation of a true story between Morisini and his real-life father, but the most egregious thing that Chuck does is let the whole thing go to the point that Franklin believes that he’s going to go on a date with Becca and actually goes to Maine to see her (another weird coincidence that he overlooks). Even if Chuck somehow let this messy situation reach the point of organizing a meetup, there’s one very simple solution for that: Take Franklin to the agreed-upon location, have him get stood up, and watch as it fizzles out. Is that really that hard?
Look, it’s no secret that Franklin is portrayed as a bit of an awkward kid, but what about his relationship with Becca would insinuate that he is in a real relationship? The two haven’t even met in person yet. I mean, I did the same thing when I was in sixth grade, but Franklin is supposed to be a bit older than that. While his age is never specified, you imagine he’s in high school or maybe college, but either way, he should be a bit smarter than that and realize it’s not quite a relationship yet.
It’s admirable of James Morisini to want to direct, write, and act in I Love My Dad — especially given the embarrassing subject matter — but let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: He’s way too old to play this character. Unfortunately for him, he’s no Cooper Raiff — one of Hollywood’s best up-and-coming directors who has shown the ability to wear all of the hats Morisini does here. But the biggest difference between the two is that Raiff writes himself characters that are roughly the same age as is — spoiler alert: not high schoolers — and Morosini looks even more like a 30-year-old man (he’s 32) than Ben Platt did in the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen.
On the subject of Dear Evan Hansen, whose film adaptation would be a heaping pile of dog crap if not for Kaitlyn Dever and one of Platt’s songs, it’s not like Morosini has a tie that attaches him to the character of Franklin aside from the fact that it was written from a real experience of his. But since the film doesn’t even use his (and presumably his father’s) real name, why couldn’t he entrust the role in the hands of a better (and younger) actor? Like it or not, Platt at least had the excuse that he played the titular role of Evan Hansen on Broadway and knows the songs like the back of his hand. Morosini, on the other hand, (mercifully) has no songs (aside from one karaoke song) that tie him to the role, leaving him singing in the wrong key that a younger actor could have hit the notes of.
To be completely honest, it’s hard to see how a story like I Love My Dad‘s has a happy ending. In real life, Morosini and his father have connected and have a relationship stronger than ever, but this hyperbolic version of their story won’t have you rooting for such an ending. As you’d imagine, the catfishing scheme comes to a head and reaches a boiling point where all of the dirty laundry is aired. The film should have ended there, but instead, it goes for a cutesy ending that is very strange. One can only assume that this ending was squeezed in to show that Franklin actually does have some sympathy and love for his father.
But even if Morosini and his father are close today, I guess the overarching question I have is: Why would you want to share this story with the world? Sure, everyone needs to be able to laugh at themselves here and there and take life a little bit less seriously, but I thought that was referring to the times you tripped in front of your crush or had to awkwardly converse with the cashier after your mom ditched you in line to grab an extra half-and-half, not a time where you got catfished by your own father. Neither guy looks great in this situation, and I guess Morisini deserves some credit for telling this story to a mass audience.
But to end on a note that is somewhat positive, Patton Oswalt deserves praise for going for it in his performance. It’s not as if this is Oswalt’s first rodeo and the first time he has been okay with his character being the butt of jokes or dorky — those are practically his only character traits in the King of Queens — but I don’t think I could be paid enough to do some of the things Oswalt has to do in this film (hence the reason I’m the one writing about this film and Oswalt is being paid to star in it). Oswalt’s King of Queens co-star Rachel Dratch plays Chuck’s girlfriend in I Love My Dad. Her character doesn’t go much further than serving the sane voice of reason that questions Chuck’s actions, but it’s just nice to see the two on screen together again.
Maybe I Love My Dad will make you look a little bit harder at your next follow request, but it’s telling when the most relatable part of the film was Chuck’s theory about your car’s check engine light, which is that they are put in by manufacturers so that you take it into the shop and have to spend money. And again, while it’s great to make art for someone that means a lot to you, is this really a story that you would want to share with the world? I Love My Dad struggles with balancing serious subject matter with a laughable portrayal of catfishing leaving you, the viewer, feeling like you have been catfished into watching it.
Magnolia Pictures will release I Love My Dad in theaters on August 5 and on demand on August 12.
They/Them Review | Good Concept, Bad Execution in New Kevin Bacon-Led Slasher
A horror film is only as good as its execution. You can have an awesome concept — let’s use The Black Phone as an example — but if anything such as the characters, plot, or in this case, supernatural elements, aren’t well-executed, it can weigh down the entire film as a result. The same is the case for They/Them — pronounced They-Slash-Them — a new horror film about an LGBTQ+ conversion camp with dark secrets. Kevin Bacon leads a film that tries to be a new take on the slasher genre, implementing current themes into its story, but ultimately fails in a film that is so bland and directionless that you’ll forget what film you’re watching halfway in.
“I can’t make you straight. I don’t want to make you straight,” says Kevin Bacon’s character as he introduces himself to the new group of teens at his conversion camp. Now, anytime anyone has to emphasize the opposite of expectations, it’s a bad sign. It’s like when your parents say that you’re not in trouble, so long that you tell them the truth. After the third or fourth time, you’ve likely caught on to their scheme. But, once all of the kids become acclimated to the camp, a mysterious killer arises and the techniques of the camp become more unsettling.
To start positively, what They/Them manages to get right is about five minutes of backstory where the teens all open up about their backstory, spilling why they are attending this camp. Some have collegiate scholarships to look after, others are there just to appease their parents. Most of all, some of the kids just want to be accepted. This was one of the only scenes in the entirety of They/Them that actually attempts to humanize the characters — this is a one-time thing.
Speaking of the characters, there are a few main counselors at this camp. Owen (Kevin Bacon) is the ringleader, Molly is a recent hire, Zane (Boone Platt) is the heavy, there’s a nurse in there somewhere, oh, and there’s a creepy janitor played by Mark Ashworth. But it’s the kids who are the most crucial part of the story, right? After all, this is a story about their survival. Jordan (Theo Germaine) is the default lead, but you also have Alexandra (Quei Tann), Toby (Austin Crute), Veronica (Monique Kim), Kim (Anna Lore), Stu (Cooper Koch), and Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro).
I may have just listed a healthy amount of names to round out an ensemble, but only about three of them get any sort of prominent role. It’s clear from the beginning that Jordan is supposed to be our main protagonist, but unfortunately, the script lends no favors to anyone in the cast, and Germaine is no exception. In fact, in some scenes, there are other kids outside of the ones shown being dropped off at the beginning of the film. These extras randomly appear throughout the movie, and either I was dozing off or these extras made their way into shots. By the end of it, They/Them is hoping for some sort of Breakfast Club-like group of friends, and while some do indeed get close to each other, there is not much implication that any of the kids get together outside of one singalong to Pink’s Fuckin’ Perfect; which is the peak of the film.
Say what you want about New Mutants — the final X-Men movie under the Fox banner — which was as much a disaster as it was a meme for its numerous delays, but at least the film had some fun with itself and I was able to understand why the kids became friends. Granted, the subject matter of the film is different, but just going off of the comparison of kids being locked away at some type of facility, one reigns supreme in that regard.
And on the subject of Kevin Bacon, whose career used to be filled with iconic films like Footloose and Mystic River, has now been relegated to dollar-bin films like last year’s You Should Have Left — where he played a knockoff version of Cliff Booth — and now They/Them. Work is work, sure, but this film really makes you hope that he begins to get opportunities to show off his talents for a late-career revival.
In fact, like real summer camps, They/Them spends an awful lot of time doing nothing. There’s one kill in the entire first hour, and you’ll forget that this is supposed to be a slasher movie by the time the killings actually happen. There’s one montage to the Avett Brothers’ Ain’t No Man, and maybe this is just a rare occurrence where I know a song featured in a film this well, but the editing was so sloppy and I wonder if that was to emphasize certain lines in the song. Perhaps they just didn’t want to use the entirety of the song and what they got to fit the montage, but it was strange to the least.
Back to the camp, this Camp Crystal Lake wannabe — a film that this one holds in such high regard that it actually references Friday the 13th‘s antagonist (also the film Kevin Bacon got his start in) — really doesn’t do a whole lot. Maybe Kevin Bacon’s character wasn’t lying when he emphasized that the kids didn’t have to do anything they didn’t want — he says he “hopes” that they’ll attend the therapy sessions — but there’s a point where there’s some spontaneous free time before dinner. Next thing you know, it’s dark out and they never had dinner. Maybe budgetary restraints or lack of time were the driving force of this, but why wasn’t the actual camp used more? You had a beautiful woods setting that feels so untapped. I guess some people sleep in it one night and some others go for a dip in the river, but X is a recent example of how to use a rural setting to its fullest potential (and how to make a slasher film).
Unfortunately, for director John Logan, you would not be able to tell that he has written some brilliant screenplays such as Gladiator, The Aviator, and Skyfall in the past. The aforementioned five minutes of backstory is the only notable part where the film actually has a sense of purpose. What is They/Them trying to accomplish? The ending surely doesn’t help with clarity, as it left me more puzzled than I thought I could be. With a film like They/Them, which is dealing with not only sensitive subject matter but also timely subject matter, you have to be more concise with your themes. And even when the shady actions occur, they include things like sleeping handcuffed in the woods, being forced into accepted gender norms, and a weird take on the Clockwork Orange torture scene.
In the end, They/Them is a film that couldn’t decide on a lane when crafting its story. It has two ideas juxtaposed: A slasher film and a film about conversion camps. Both can be told in a horror film, but the two never gel. The slasher aspect doesn’t come in until the later parts of the film, while the conversion camp itself isn’t effectively portrayed. Even when they do talk about it, it’s nothing more than the cliche of one of the campers discovering the “dark secrets” of the camp and it’s not what it appeared to be. I mean, that’s assuming that these characters weren’t already suspicious. The camp is “off the grid,” as Owen says in the beginning, and the ringleader seems far too even-keel to not be hiding something. Credit where credit is due, They/Them is trying to give a fresh take on the slasher-horror genre; though I would just recommend Hulu’s Fresh if that’s what you’re looking for. Ultimately, nothing about the film works outside of a Pink singalong. And if I wanted that, I’d go to karaoke night instead.
Them/Them will be available to stream on Peacock on August 5.
Official Competition Review | Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, and Oscar Martinez Star in a Winner
Thank you to Official Competition‘s director duo, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, for giving the world a gift it didn’t know it needed: Penélope Cruz attempting to floss. Somehow, that’s not even the strangest thing that Cruz’s character does in the film, but more on that later. Official Competition, starring the trio of Cruz, Antonio Banderas, and Oscar Martinez, is a fantastic film about the psychology of acting, pissing contests, and filmmaking as a whole. This is a film that no one will see, but one that everyone should be. It’s sharp, funny, and emotional.
Kicking off with what sounds like a descriptor of most old, rich people, a portrait of a sad clown is shown in the background of birthday gifts. These gifts are for Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), who turns 80 at the beginning of the film. Suárez is a millionaire with “no prestige,” and he begins pondering the emptiness of his life — sort of like the Anders Danielsen Lie monologue in The Worst Person in the World. So, with all of that money and resources at his fingertips, what does he do to fill that void? He decides to make something that’ll last far longer than his time on earth: A film. But not any film, oh no. Like the group of hippies in X, Suárez wants to make a good film (though not a good, dirty movie as is the case in X).
Suárez, with all of that money in tow, brings auteur visionary Lola Cuevas on board to direct his film, who’s a decorated actor/director. After spending even more money securing the rights to a novel that explores the conflict between two brothers — a novel that Cuevas insists on doing a “loose adaptation” of — Cuevas assembles her cast and wants to bring in two of the best working actors, Iván Torres (Martinez) and Félix Rivero (Banderas). Iván is your classic stage actor, into method acting and always going deep into the psyche of his characters. Félix, on the other hand, is not as into the whole “method acting” thing and couldn’t give a damn about creating a character’s backstory. Félix is the sort of blockbuster actor that we see today that would have clauses in his contract preventing him from being hit in the face. Anyways, the two actors are clearly on opposite ends of the spectrum, resulting in some strenuous rehearsals full of pissing contests, faking cancer, and destroying trophies.
While the whole trio of actors is great, Cruz stands out as the wacky auteur director. She’s demanding — she makes Iván repeat the very first line of the script at least 20 times — but there’s clear passion behind her techniques. Furthermore, Cruz portrays whatever Lola is feeling through her intense eyes. There are times when Lola is so fed up that she looks like she’s about to explore (and she does on occasion), but there are other times when she’s able to restrain herself. The last few minutes really put her acting on display, and she’s just fantastic. Lola is also a very sexy character, but it’s interesting to see the restraint she has for herself (unless she’s proving a point about kissing to the boys). But even when a character like Félix, who thinks he can have and deserves everything in the world, is shut down and humbled by Lola on occasion.
Banderas and Martinez are the perfect foils for each other. They are the complete antitheses of each other, but it makes for some great scenes. Even though Offical Competition runs under two hours, it has such compelling sequences that could just be Félix or Iván screaming into the air or delivering a fiery argument beneath a five-ton rock hovered above them. The best is saved for last, as the two actors go through the entire final sequence of their film within the film and it’s just fantastic. The sequence is around five minutes long, with only one noticeable cut, and you’ll actually want to see that film just from what the bare-boned rehearsal shows.
All of the bickering and one-upping comes to a head when the film has a production party a few days before the shooting of the film starts. The cast and their families assemble as the Suárez is reintroduced into the film — you’ll likely forget he was the vessel driving this production by this point — and then something completely unexpected happens. It’s certainly a swing, not one that I was expecting, and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it. For some, it’ll be a win for their favorite character (depending on who they favor), but it seemed like an abrupt change of pace for a film like this.
In the age of blockbusters and tentpoles taking up the auditoriums of your local theater in the summer season (and year-round, quite frankly), it’s a shame that a film like Official Competition will be relegated to arthouse theaters where and if you can find them. This is a fantastic and unique film that deserves to be seen featuring three fantastic performances and an interesting look at the psychology of acting, even if this is a heavily-dramatized version of that. I highly recommend venturing out and catching this film if you have the chance. Official Competition, for me, is like this year’s Bergman Island. Maybe not quite as good as Bergman Island, but Official Competition brings a dive into the world of filmmaking and is a delight to watch. Like Lola, this film is a winner in my book.
Official Competition is playing in select theaters now courtesy of IFC Flims.
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