Director: Dave McCary
If it’s weird, wonderful, and ultimately, weirdly wonderful, chances are the Lonely island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer) crew are involved somehow. Their often bizarre, off-kilter preoccupations (e.g., pop culture nostalgia and its corrosive effects, man-children lost in the promised lands of their juvenile fantasies and fervid imaginations, ribald, raunchy humor, a genuine willingness to trade mockery and condescension for laughs and emotion) make them welcome unique contributors to the cultural landscape. They’re only producers and in the case of Samberg, supporting players in the Dave McCary-directed Brigsby Bear, but their influence, not to mention their connection to star and co-writer Kyle Mooney (SNL), can be found in practically every oddball, eccentric scene in Brigsby Bear. When we meet Mooney’s character, James, he’s a hapless 12-year-old stuck in a 25-year-old’s body, living contentedly in a bomb shelter, the only child and son to adoring parents. To James, the outside world is an irradiated wasteland and his mundane, monotonous life lightened or elevated by a seemingly endless public access TV show, Brigsby Bear, an ultra low-budget science-fiction/fantasy made for science- and math-friendly preteens. Over the years, however, the show has developed an incredibly complex, convoluted mythology, a mythology James knows inside and out (and back again). James soon learns the horrible, bitter truth: His parents aren’t really his biological parents. They’re kidnappers who’ve played a decades-long con on James. James emerges into the real world as a virtual stranger in a strange land, confused, shocked, and a little afraid to engage his newfound (real) family on any level except where Brigsby Bear is concerned. James’ awkward, clumsy behavior, not to mention his near pathological obsession with the spacefaring bear, leads to severe, maybe insurmountable adjustment problems, but Brigsby Bear doesn’t critique James’ obsession, but rather embraces it wholeheartedly. James refreshingly naive, cynicism-free attitude spreads like a benign virus among his near-peers and his family, ultimately suggesting that the family and friends who make low-budget sequels to viral-ready TV shows stay together (to make more low-budget sequels).
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Director: Jon Shenk & Bonni Cohen
The words “documentary” and “sequel” rarely fit in the same sentence, but they do in the case of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the decade-in-the-making sequel to the Davis Guggenheim-directed 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore-Gives-A-Keynote-Presentation Academy Award-winning documentary. An Inconvenient Truth sounded the much-needed alarm about the potentially disastrous, catastrophic effects of unchecked climate change. The sequel essentially fills in the climate-change blanks, specifically what former Democratic Vice President Al Gore has been doing since we last saw him a decade ago in An Inconvenient Truth. He’s grayer, maybe a little heavier, and walks a little slower, but his energy, passion, and enthusiasm for moving forward the climate change agenda remains relatively unchecked. In video footage covering the past decade, Gore gives his patented climate-change speech in front of an audience while graphs, images, and videos play out on a screen in the background. An Inconvenient Sequel segues between Gore in the near past (2016) and the last decade, skipping ahead and flashing back to climate leadership training seminars around the world, beginning immediately after An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 – held on the Gore family’s property in Tennessee with 50 trainees in attendance – and through much larger, international conferences around the world over the next decade, signaling the rapid, sustained growth in climate change advocacy. It’s in the final third, however, that An Inconvenient Sequel takes a truly compelling turn: In Paris for the 2015 climate talks, Gore proves pivotal to getting India to agree to fossil fuel limits thanks to a side deal he makes with a technological company, Solar City, to give away key IP as part of the deal. Gore may like to describe himself as a “recovering politician,” but it’s clear politics are never far from who Gore is and what he’s managed to accomplish over the last decade. A sobering, post-presidential election does little to dampen Gore’s enthusiasm. He is, after all, a man with a mission, a mission that’s part practical politics and part evangelical vocation to save us from ourselves before it’s too late.
Ingrid Goes West
Director: Matt Spicer
There’s an arguably minor, if not less relevant or significant, tradition in American film that depicts outsiders not so much as exemplars of American individualism, but as dangerous, pathological, sometimes even charming sociopaths. We can draw a jagged line from Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slasher, Psycho, and the title character, the sexually repressed/confused Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), to Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver and the restless, violence-obsessed title character, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), through Scorsese’s eerily prescient The King of Comedy (also starring DeNiro), through Ben Stiller’s criminally underrated The Cable Guy and the desperate, desperately lonely character played by a never-better Jim Carrey who befriends Stiller’s naive character, Jody Hill and Seth Rogen’s underseen Observe & Report, and now, Matt Spicer’s pitch-black comedy Ingrid Goes West, a case study in neurotic obsession that doubles up as a trenchant critique of our collective, collectively destructive fixation with social media. Spicer introduces the “Ingrid” in Ingrid Goes West, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), moments into a nervous breakdown, upset that a “friend” hasn’t invited Ingrid to her wedding, except that Ingrid and the woman’s connection isn’t real. It’s fictitious, a product of Ingrid’s inability to distinguish between the real world and social media. Post-psychiatric institution, a not-so-cured Ingrid finds a new obsession, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an L.A.-based “social influencer” with an Instragram account and millions of followers. It takes a single interaction with Taylor online for Ingrid to decide they’re best friends or soon will be. With Taylor’s life an open (virtual) book, Ingrid ingratiates herself into Taylor’s life with an ease that should frighten even the most casual social media user. Of course, Ingrid’s new, perfect life isn’t bound to last, not when her “lie” (i.e., stalking Taylor online and then befriending her) hangs over every interaction with Taylor and Taylor’s circle of friends and her immediate family. To Spicer’s credit, Ingrid Goes West goes into some seriously dark, twisted places, repeatedly risking a disconnect between sympathy and repulsion for Ingrid’s increasingly bizarre, dangerous behavior. That he leaves Ingrid relatively unchanged by the end – whatever life lessons she learns aren’t exactly positive – deserves respect, even applause, for giving moviegoers an uncompromising look into the individual and collective minds of the social media generation.
Director: Michelle Morgan
There’s a misconception among moviegoers and some film critics that characters have to be likeable or “relatable,” that moviegoers have to connect with them on a visceral, emotional level, that moviegoers won’t go on a 90- or 120-minute journey with a filmmaker unless they feel empathy or can identify on some fundamental level with the central characters. Sometimes, however, the correct response isn’t sympathy, empathy, or a related feeling, but disgust and repulsion with the central characters that you can’t help but root for their immediate, even long-term failure at their self-interested, narcissistic, egocentric behavior. The latter fully applies to writer-director-star Michelle Morgan’s caustic, acerbic slice of upper-class-Hollywood-life, L.A. Times, a comedy of (ill) manners where romantic relationships turn less on love or even physical attraction and more on social status and financial security (i.e., bank account size). When we meet Morgan’s character, Annette, a one-time writer living with her longtime boyfriend, Elliot (Jorma Taccone, The Lonely Island), a successful TV writer-producer, she’s ready to leave the relative material and emotional comforts of her relationship for the L.A. dating scene. Dating, specifically some dude, Ben (Robert Schwartzman), she met a year earlier takes precedence over obtaining a steady paying gig. While she pursues Ben from a house-sitting gig for friends, her best friend, Baker (Dree Hemingway), navigates the L.A. single life, usually to disastrous results. Elliot doesn’t jump into the dating scene right away, but a chance encounter with a prostitute, Ingrid (Margarita Levieva), convinces him that a no-strings-attached, purely monetary trade (i.e., sex for cash) might be what he needs. Money, sex, and class are never far from the surface of Morgan’s take on surface-deep relationships, but she never lets the subtext overwhelm the drama or, more importantly, the comedy. Her characters aren’t as smart or self-aware as they think they are. That gap – between their self-entitled, privileged desires and expectations and an uncaring, impersonal world – gives L.A. Times much of its pleasures. We might end up laughing at the characters endless series of unforced errors rather than with them, but we’re laughing nonetheless.