Smaller Movie Roundup: Reviews and Backstories (The Mend, Time Out of Mind, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Sons of Ben, Deathgasm)

mendBefore I head out of town for a wedding, and then start a new job (More on that later), a look at a few of the smaller movies I’ve seen of late:

The Mend. 

Review: John Magary’s indie triumph is like a much better, next-level version of every mumblecore movie. Ostensibly the story of two brothers (Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett) making their way in New York City and failing to relate to the women in their lives, The Mend is actually much, much better: We’re not filled in on anything close to the entire plot, and the film instead functions as a bizarre character study. There’s a first-act party scene featuring many fascinating characters that we’ll never see again, and a dynamite performance by Austin Pendleton as an old man who’s a family friend. And Lucas- if you know him mostly as a romantic comedy lead and failed leading man, his performance here is an eye-opener.

The film’s best idea, of many, is that without women around for a short period of time, the two men slowly regress into savagery. This description doesn’t come close to doing the film justice; I highly recommend checking it out (Now on VOD.)

Backstory: After hearing about The Mend for weeks from my critic friends, I heard there was a one day, three-showing Philadelphia premiere on a Saturday a few weeks back, at PhilaMOCA (a Philly art gallery/exhibit space based in a former mausoleum showroom.) In the city with nothing to do after a fantasy football draft, I was the one and only customer for the 10 p.m. show- just me and the projectionist- and there were lots of times I couldn’t tell if a certain sound was coming from the screen or from the street outside. I recommend everyone see The Mend under those exact conditions.

Time Out of Mind

Yes, Richard Gere is playing the most incongruously handsome homeless person of all time. But this is still a powerful, very unique story of a homeless, possibly mentally ill man in New York City. What I really loved about this film was that it keeps things so unconventional- it’s much more character study than “social problem film,” and the film has wisely saved the political statements for the PR campaign. And the visual style is fantastic, full of nontraditional camera angles. It’s another triumph for writer/director Oren Moverman, who also wrote Love & Mercy earlier this year. There’s also room for a dynamite supporting performance from Ben Vereen. Now in theaters.

Backstory: I interviewed Gere, and Moverman, a couple of weeks ago, and you can read that here. Gere was charming and friendly, and Moverman especially interesting- a tall, bald Israeli Army veteran whose worldview is much more feminist than you’d think. And no, I didn’t ask Gere about you-know-what. I wasn’t specifically warned not to, but I’ve got a feeling if I had I’d have been ejected from the room immediately.

Sons of Ben

Review: This documentary looks at a very strange and unique corner of American sports culture: The Sons of Ben. They’re a group of soccer fans in the Philadelphia area who began gathering in town years before the city had a soccer team and advocating for a new franchise, and have emerged as the official fan club since the Philadelphia Union began play in 2010. The film, directed by Jeffrey C. Bell, lets us meet the original Sons and tells us their stories.

We’re introduced to a group of characters who were part of the original group, including one guy who’s a recovering addict, another who repeatedly talks about the pressure from his wife to scale back his involvement in the group (as his wife stands next to him), and one guy who fought and beat cancer. They all have different reasons for being drawn to the fan club of a team that didn’t yet exist, but their stories are the documentary’s most compelling aspect. And no, they’re not “hooligans” (see below); they’re mostly family men in their 30s and 40s who show not even a hint of violence.

It’s a short film, at around 70 minutes, and it raises a ton of issues- how and why soccer long struggled to catch on in America but finally has in recent years, how soccer fans fit into the wider culture of Philadelphia sports, the failed promise of a new stadium bringing economic development and opportunity to depressed suburb Chester- that it doesn’t have the time to address fully. But regardless, this is a winning and entertaining film, one that’s a must for anyone who cares about American soccer fandom or the Union. It’s out on DVD now.

Backstory: Long story short: Before experiencing a dramatic conversion 6 or 7 years ago, I hated soccer. Once, on my old blog, I mocked the Sons of Ben as “hooligans,” for which I was rightly smacked down in print by the since-deceased Philadelphia Weekly writer Steven Wells. A few years later Bell, the director, reached out to me about this exchange and even discussed interviewing me for the film, but that never come together for whatever reason.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

drunkReview: The world now cares enough about the history and craft of American comedy to sustain about 500 podcast episodes per week about that exact subject. This documentary, directed by Douglas Tirola, goes into the full story of one of the last century’s most important comedy touchstones, National Lampoon. It doubles as a study of the sad tale of Douglas Kenney, the late co-founder. And that poster? Best of the year.

The greatest takeaway from the doc is the sheer audacity of some of the stuff they used to get away with- unlike the flouters of the “PC Police” today, the Lampoon guys really did push the envelope, with the primary goal of being funny, as opposed to the primary goal of being assholes. The second-greatest takeaway-  who knew P.J. O’Rourke was once funny? If you’re even a little bit of a comedy nerd, this is a must. Now in (some) theaters.

Backstory: I could watch a whole other documentary about the long, sad decline of the National Lampoon brand. 

Deathgasm 

Review: A generally entertaining Kiwi-produced horror comedy about a group of young metalheads fighting zombies. I liked it- and had felt bad about missing the late-night screening when it played at SXSW in the spring- except when you get past the New Zealand stuff and Heavy Metal stuff- which is all great, by the way- Deathgasm is a pretty generic zombie movie. Now out on DVD.

Backstory: Deathgasm is without a doubt the only movie this year to namecheck the defunct, Boston-based grindcore band known as Anal Cunt.  

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