Category Archives: Quirky comedies

Don’t Read This on a Plane: Meandering European Road Movie

Don’t Read This on a Plane , directed by Stuart McBratney, an independent comedy-drama from 2020, an example of an emerging genre of movie (very popular on Netflix lately) of foreign films geared towards Americans. Although it takes place in Europe and stars French actress Sophie Desmarais, it is 90% in English. This is believable as Jovana is a writer doing a book tour across Europe, where English is the international language. Oddly enough, the segment that takes place in France did not have subtitles, at least not in the version on Amazon I watched.

This is a rather slight but enjoyable movie about an author whose book publisher goes bankrupt right before her book tour begins. Jovana is broke, married to an American (another convenient way to keep everything in English) who is working on a ship and cannot understand her pleas for help due to poor phone reception.

Jovana is forced to rough it by hitchhiking and sleeping on couches. She uses an app called MOAF (mattress on floor) that arranges free or low cost stays in people’s homes. This app may be fictional, but there was an actual site and app called Couchsurfing that really served this function (I’ve actually used it years ago, but the last I heard it is either defunct or hacked by scammers).

Jovana manages her extremely low budget travel as she moves through countries such as Italy, Portugal, Greece, Romania, and The Netherlands. Is all this realistic? Probably the least likely aspect of it all is the free publicity she gets when readers are actually thrown off planes when reading her book.

The title of the movie is also the title of her book. It’s a book of erotic stories recounting Jovana’s sexual encounters with women which may or may not be true. During book readings, audience members ask her if the stories are true and she responds with coy evasions.

The plot is very thin and meandering, which is often the case with road movies. Jovana meets various characters in different cities. She has an ongoing phone-based flirtation with a woman who is organizing her appearance in Romania. She has frustrating attempts to contact her husband.

If you like action and heavily plotted stories, you’ll find Don’t Read This on a Plane boring if not meaningless. I have a high tolerance for this kind of film, so I mostly enjoyed it. Sophie Desmarais is a likable and attractive lead who helps to carry the thin plot. Another upsides of the film is that it is shot on location, as the director describes in an interview with Filmink. Locations can add a great deal to the atmosphere. Low budget indie films are often claustrophobic due to limited settings and are often not even shot in the places where they are supposedly set.

The film also explores, in its lighthearted fashion, the relationship between fiction and reality and whether a writer is obligated to tell the truth (or if it even matters whether they do or not).

Don’t Read This on a Plane is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. You may also be able to find it for free on YouTube and elsewhere.


Doomsdays: Dark Comedy About Antisocial Slackers

Doomsdays (2013), written and directed by Eddie Mullins, is an original, low budget independent film with a truly anarchistic spirit. Quietly released in 2013, it is now available on Netflix, where it will gain a wider audience.

The film is, on the surface, a kind of slacker comedy about a pair of drifters, Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick), whose way of life consists of breaking into people’s vacation homes and living off the food and, even more so, booze that they find. Fred is a pure hedonist and nihilist, who is mainly interested in consuming alcohol and having sex. Bruho is an angry idealist who is obsessed with the impending end of civilization due to oil running out (also known as peak oil). To express his disapproval of modern bourgeois existence, Bruho vandalizes every automobile he encounters. He also has a tendency to hit people who get in his way.

The pair aren’t criminals in the ordinary sense, they aren’t very interested in money or valuables. They are, rather, expressing their own version of a Robin Hood fantasy, feeding off the excesses of those who, in their view, possess way more than they need. Along the way, they pick up a couple of other misfits -an overweight teenager named Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) and a young woman named Reyna (Laura Campbell).

Complications ensue when Fred and Reyna become romantically involved and Jaidon tags along. However, the movie is really about the daily lives of the characters and the plot meandering and incidental. There is virtually no backstory to Doomsdays -Fred and Bruho do what they do, reveal portions of who they are, but there is no explanation of how they met or ended up choosing their improbable existence. Jaidon’s past or reasons for following the pair are never mentioned. Reyna, the most superficially normal of the group, is the only character whose past is revealed at all.

Doomsdays is a darker film than it first appears. The duo first appear like clownish slackers who harmlessly prank middle class homeowners. Yet, unlike most movie slackers, these two are not especially likable or sympathetic. Fred is a casual liar and possibly a narcissist, while Bruho is a sullen character whose anger at the system seems like an excuse to avoid facing his own personal demons. Mullins doesn’t try to romanticize these characters; they are neither heroes or villains, but, at best, fledgling anti-heroes.

There is mostly low key violence throughout the film, reminding us that even supposedly non-violent acts of theft, vandalism and trespass can easily lead to bodily harm. When a more serious act of violence occurs, it is treated rather casual way.

The film this most reminded me of is a fairly obscure German film from 2003 called The Edukators, about a group of young anarchists who break into people’s homes and rearrange the furniture.

I also detected an underlying similarity to a much darker film, A Clockwork Orange. Though not nearly as violent or shocking, Doomsdays has a similar tone in some ways. Both films deal with characters who are completely alienated from society and who regard normal people as intrinsic enemies to be preyed upon. As the title suggests, these are people for whom society has already collapsed and are just making the best of its remnants. Only Bruho has anything resembling a cause, and for him it’s far too late to save the world so all he can do is strike out against those he blames for its downfall.

I could even recognize shades of Larry Clark’s style of nihilism, as revealed in films such as Kids, in Doomsayers. Yet Mullins’ style is more quirky and low key than anything by Clark or Kubrick’s style in A Clockwork Orange.

The above probably makes Doomsdays sound heavier and more depressing than it actually is. Most of the film’s tone is light and there are more than a few laughs –mainly at the sheer audacity of the group’s actions, especially when they encounter disbelieving homeowners.

Doomsdays is an interesting, entertaining, quasi-political film that is certainly more compelling and original than 95% of what’s being released these days. To his credit, Mullins doesn’t make any attempt to explain, justify, glorify or demonize his little band of thieves. We just get to see them in action for a while and get to make of them what we will.

Future Folk: Hipster Aliens Invade Brooklyn

The History of Future Folk (2012), directed by J. Anderson Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker and starring Nils d’Aulaire and Jay Klaitz, is a strange, extremely quirky low budget independent film. Since the movie is based on an actual musical duo called Future Folk that is currently touring the country, you might say that it opened with a built-in cult following.

The movie is a science fiction-comedy-musical with an extremely thin plot that is full of holes, but this scarcely matters as the whole point is to give a showcase for the pair’s folk-bluegrass musical numbers (which they perform dressed in ridiculous red costumes and helmets). The film, however, isn’t really a musical. A few great songs are present, but overall the movie is more about the transformative power of music.

The gimmick here is that General Trius and Kevin, two aliens from the planet Hondo, arrive on earth and discover music for the first time. Although their original mission was to colonize earth and wipe out the population, they are so enamored of music that they abandon their plans and start a band instead. The audience must suspend disbelief on issues such as how these aliens arrive speaking fluent American English. It’s also a bit odd that they go from being wholly ignorant about music to expert musicians within minutes. Realism, however, is far from the point here.

The History of Future Folk is certainly not a great movie. It is, however, fun, energetic and original. If you look up reviews, you will probably end up reading accolades posted by prior fans of the group. If you’re new to the whole concept, you will probably still enjoy the film but won’t be quite as enamored by it as hardcore fans. The film also references Brooklyn’s hipster scene, as the duo play in a trendy club where the audience dresses up in space costumes just like the musicians.

All in all, The History of Future Folk is a good choice if you like campy, low budget independent films and/or bluegrass style music. If you demand logical plots and/or you hate hipsters, this is not the film for you.

Safety Not Guaranteed -Indie Style Time Travel

Note: an edited version of this review has recently been published on Devtome.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Derek Connolly
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni

Safety Not Guaranteed is the latest in a series of highly original and entertaining indie films by producers Jay and Mark Duplass (the latter also stars in this one). Some of their previous efforts include The Puffy Chair and Jeff Who Lives at Home.

All of these are unmistakably indie films, unlike many contemporary movies (say, by Quentin Tarantino or the more recent Steven Soderbergh movies) that lurk on the increasingly murky line that divides indie from mainstream. No one could confuse Safety Not Guaranteed, for instance, with a Hollywood romantic comedy, even though it has some of the same elements.

This is what makes a film like this such a pleasure to see. If you’ve watched enough movies over the years, your mind has become so accustomed to movie cliches that you have certain expectations. In a film such as this, however, cliches are not so much turned on their heads as gently transmuted into something less definable yet infinitely more satisfying.

The hero (or perhaps antihero) of Safety Not Guaranteed is Kevin (Duplass), a possibly delusional inventor who claims to have discovered the secret to time travel. Kevin, who lives in a small town in Washington, places an unusual ad in the classifieds -he’s looking for a time travel partner whose “safety is not guaranteed.”

He is pursued by a team of journalists desperate for an offbeat and funny story. When one of them, a young intern named Darius (Plaza) becomes at first fascinated and then attracted to Kevin, things get quite complicated. A pair of government types are also following him around.

Despite the interesting story, this is primarily a character driven film. In a conventional movie (or novel, for that matter), it’s a rule that the leading characters must develop or evolve in some way. This usually results in some hackneyed event where a lesson is dutifully learnt. Here, the characters don’t develop as much as reveal increasing layers of complexity.

Is Kevin a delusional loser with paranoid tendencies? You might be tempted to conclude this, but then you also see that he’s sensitive, sincere and brilliant. Is Darius’ boss (Johnson) a superficial and cynical manipulator? Yes, but he also reveals a whole different side.

Safety Not Guaranteed does have a geeky, sci fi side to it, but that is secondary to the characters, dialogue and relationships. Yet the time travel element remains significant throughout, so the film has some appeal for fans of this genre -as long as you’re not expecting aliens, spaceships or laser shootouts.

To recite the plot of Safety Not Guaranteed would make it sound like a typical cute, quirky indie film. Like the characters I just described, this film does fall loosely into that category, but it also transcends it by being truly moving and original.

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    Young Adult (2011) – Original Dark Dramedy

    Young Adult is a surprisingly interesting and original movie that might be called a dark dramedy. My expectations for this film were not especially high, and at first I ignored its presence in the list of Netflix new releases. As it turned out, however, I was pleasantly surprised by it.

    Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a woman who is not really a young adult (she’s 37), but writes books for that age group. She is the type of single, professional, big city thirty-something that you find in a typical Hollywood romantic comedy.

    That, however, is where the similarity ends. Mavis is not the average, sweet character you find in such movies, but utterly self-absorbed, most likely an alcoholic and possibly suffering from one or more personality disorders. Still, she is not entirely unsympathetic, at least if you have a tendency to prefer antiheroes (or anti-heroines) to the virtuous yet bland good guys/gals who inhabit mainstream films.

    Mavis gets an announcement in her inbox that an ex-boyfriend is a new father. She randomly decides that this is a clue from the universe that she should return to her hometown and try to reignite this relationship from decades ago. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this scheme is ill-thought out, or not thought out at all. Yet Charlize Theron manages to make Mavis believable as she pursues her obsession.

    What happens for the duration of Young Adult is less interesting than the way the characters interact. Mavis’ ex is a rather typical small town nice guy named Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who is ultimately forced to reject the increasingly irrational Mavis.

    The only anchor Mavis has in her hometown of Mercury is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a nerdy, disabled and possibly gay former classmate from high school. He attempts to talk Mavis out of her plans to break up Buddy’s family. While she doesn’t listen, the strange friendship that develops between Mavis and Matt prevents her from going off the deep end.

    Young Adult was directed by Jason Reitman, who has made a couple of other outstanding yet low key dramas –Juno (starring Ellen Page) and Up in the Air (starring George Clooney). It was written by Diablo Cody, who also wrote the script for Juno.

    I admire the way Young Adult presents us with a character who has blatant and probably incurable flaws, yet doesn’t reduce her to a caricature or even a villain. The few films that dare to buck the saccharine plot lines of conventional romances and romantic comedies usually go to the opposite extreme, flaunting their cynicism and the conclusion that everyone is corrupt and selfish beyond redemption.

    Young Adult certainly heads in that direction, but has more nuances and ends on an ambiguous note. Mavis can be seen as almost a parody of the negative Generation X stereotype. She is sarcastic and utterly narcissistic, her values apparently formed entirely by popular culture. We see evidence of this as we hear the lines she writes for her teen romances (many of which she steals by eavesdropping on actual conversations).

    If you read a typical book on screenwriting, or attend one of those weekend workshops, you’ll be told that the protagonist has to grow or change in some significant way by the end. The same advice is given to aspiring novelists. Apparently, the experts who dispense this type of wisdom haven’t heard of postmodernism or seen many films not made in America.

    Whether Mavis “grows” or learns anything by the concluding scene of Young Adult is actually a difficult and interesting question. This very ambiguity is one of the things I like so much about the film.

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      Lost Cause (Sans Dessein)

      Lost Cause (Sans Dessein) (2009) is an offbeat French Canadian comedy that mixes slapstick, vulgar and completely original types of humor.

      Paul (Steeve Leonard) is a thirty-something slacker who stumbles through life doing as little as possible. He is content enough to live alone in an apartment where nothing has been unpacked and to work as a janitor, watching miscellaneous how-to videos in his spare time.

      He is visited by a ghost who turns out to be his future self, who inhabits various objects, including a mop and an old sock, which creates many opportunities for the slapstick humor.

      The ghost, who causes him to lose his job by knocking over his boss’s Eiffel Tower sculpture (made from Q-Tips), informs him that if he doesn’t change his ways he will die a particularly humiliating death in his own bathroom.

      For a lighthearted comedy, Lost Cause is rather complex and quite long (just under 2 hours, but seems longer). Paul must choose between two love interests, a woman with whom he had a crush on in elementary school (Julie Tetreault),  who is obsessed with (what she thinks are) his telekinetic powers and a quirky neighbor (Caroline Labreche, who co-directed it along with Leonard).

      Although the plot takes various silly twists, it’s really more a series of funny, sometimes touching and sometimes tedious scenes. If you’re used to seeing French films, you’ll notice that the French Canadian accents are noticeably different.

      Lost Cause is mostly enjoyable, but it could be more compact and focused. Based on the lack of reviews, or any mention on the MRQE (Movie Review Query Engine), it appears to only be available on Netflix.  There is, however, a listing for it on the IMDb, which is the most complete online movie database. Lost Cause IMDb

      While not perfect, I’d recommend it to fans of indie films who like offbeat humor. Some of the laughs were truly bizarre and unexpected, which is more than you can say for the average Hollywood comedy.

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        The Future -Written and Directed by Miranda July

        The Future is the second feature film directed by Miranda July, best known for Me and You and Everybody We Know (2005). While the latter was a popular and well received indie film, The Future is even more offbeat and challenging to mainstream viewers. Nevertheless, it’s well worth watching if you can appreciate movies that are non-linear and that cross boundaries when it comes to genre.

        The Future is kind of hybrid drama, comedy and fantasy. You know it’s going to be something offbeat when it starts off being narrated by a cat. This cat, who is ill and may not live much longer, is scheduled to be adopted by Jason and Sophie, a couple in their thirties who are somewhere in between hipsters and slackers.

        There’s not too much of a plot here. Fans of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) may appreciate the scenes of apparently pointless dialog and inaction -though the style of this film is quite different overall. I actually admire movies like this one and Stranger Than Paradise, though, where the characters are allowed to exist in a state of existentialist aimlessness.

        Both Jason and Sophie quit their jobs. Sophie drifts into an affair with an older man for no apparent reason. Jason meanwhile, begins volunteering for an environmentalist group that makes him go door to door selling trees. There’s a kind of randomness to it all. At the same time, like Me and You and Everyone We Know, there’s an underlying theme  of how important and yet tenuous connections between people are in today’s world.

        To make things more complicated and bizarre, Jason apparently has the ability to stop time. This is where the fantasy or paranormal enters into the mix, and where some viewers might lose patience. For there’s no real attempt to weave this into the story in a logical manner.

        If you watch this film on Netflix, as I did, I suggest you don’t even bother to read the customer reviews. Netflix viewers are notoriously mainstream and conservative, and have little patience for oddball indie movies. They will mercilessly savage any script that dares thumb its nose at cinematic conventions (not all the reviewers, to be fair, but a sizable percentage).

        Overall, The Future succeeds at doing something that the better quirky offbeat films manage to do -get you to take a step back from ordinary life and society and realize that the normal and everyday aren’t necessarily all there is and that there may be other, more interesting alternatives.

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          The Extra Man

          The Extra Man (2010) is one of those ultra quirky indie comedies that tries a little too hard to be eccentric. Traditional comedies, for example, will typically pair up a bizarre character with a “straight man” who sees the eccentricities of the other character through the supposedly normal eyes of the rest of the world. There are no straight men, or women in The Extra Man -only varying types of weirdness. This film has two directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

          The very able cast consists of veteran Kevin Kline, Paul Dano as his young quasi-protege, Katie Holmes and John C. Reilly. Dano plays Louis Ives, a shy young man who fantasizes about living in a novel like the Great Gatsby. Only his classical demeanor is complicated by a secret desire to dress in women’s clothes -which gets him fired from his job as a teacher.

          Louis moves to Manhattan in the attempt to become a writer, and becomes the roommate of Henry Harrison (Kline), who is like two or three separate quirky characters rolled into one. Henry is a poverty stricken playwright who is an “extra man,” a kind of refined gigolo for rich, elderly women. He also recites the type of politically incorrect lines (he is against women going to college, and approves of the Muslim practice of keeping the sexes separated) you might expect from a would be Old World bohemian/aristocrat. Henry also collects Christmas balls and engages in a morning dance ritual that has him gyrating like someone having a seizure.

          Henry recruits Louis into this dubious profession, and it’s not clear what the younger man would find so appealing about this, as there’s no financial rewards involved (nothing sexual either -it’s all strictly chaste).

          Louis gets a job at an environmentalist magazine, where he develops an interest in Mary (Holmes), who is a stereotypical downtown, vegan, politically active type. In the world of The Extra Man, Mary is probably the most normal character, as her character is fairly believable and only comes across as parody in a very mild way. We can’t see much of a future between Mary and Louis, who represent very different types of naive idealism.

          Thrown into the mix is Louis and Henry’s downstairs neighbor, Gershon (Reilly), who inexplicably (except to add to the film’s quirkiness) has a squeaky voice, a beard that makes him look like a hobo and an apartment full of random collectibles. The Gershon character really epitomizes the problem with this film -both he and the film itself are like random collections of bizarre traits.

          The elements of this film don’t really form much of a coherent whole. Louis explores his sexual fantasies by visiting a dominatrix he finds in the Village Voice and, later, a club for transvestites. Meanwhile, he tags along with Henry as a kind of “extra extra” man while half heartedly pursuing Mary.

          I probably enjoyed The Extra Man more than the above description suggests. I laughed in quite a few places, and all of the performances were good. It’s just that the story wasn’t very cohesive, and a lot of the quirkiness seemed gratuitous.

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