Two Off-Beat Streaming Picks: The Incredible Jessica James and Opening Night

Posted on July 31, 2017 at 9:37 pm

Not in the mood for superheroes? Two indie picks worth watching premiere this week on streaming services.

“The Incredible Jessica James” (Netflix) is a star-making vehicle for Jessica Williams, “The Daily Show’s” youngest correspondent. She had a small role in the previous film from writer/director Jim Strouse, and he wrote this film for her. As it opens, she does a fierce, funny, and free dance through her apartment and onto the roof and by the time the credits are over, we are completely captivated. The story is nothing new. She’s an aspiring playwright trying to find her way in New York City, with a wall covered in rejection letters and a heart recently broken in a breakup with a guy (Lakeith Stanfield) who is very appealing, so we feel for her. She attends her younger sister’s baby shower. She tries to help a young girl in the drama class she teaches. She goes on a blind date. She has a quirky/quippy best friend (Noel Wells). It’s a pretty standard romantic comedy. But Williams has a nice chemistry with Chris Dowd as her possible new love, there are some funny lines, and she is utterly irresistible. See it. You’ll have fun and you’ll always be able to say that right from the beginning you knew she’d be a star.

“Opening Night” (Amazon) is a backstage story about a dumb jukebox musical and all of the drama and chaos that goes into giving the audience a great show. It’s wildly uneven, as though it was put together by an improv group or maybe its large cast each wrote a premise on a slip of paper and then everyone picked one out of a hat. Topher Grace is appealing, as always, if slumming a bit as the one-time performer turned stage manager, dealing with various crises of love, fear, and various substances. A plotline about male and female dancers competing to seduce the new guy goes on way too long and way too far as does another about the cynical star’s accidental ingestion of drugs. It’s the kind of raunchy that indicates a failure of imagination. What makes it fun is the cast of real theatrical performers who show us that the show really must go on. It kind of makes me wish we were sitting out front to see them do the whole show.

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VOD and Streaming

Rent This Instead: A Better Ed Helms Raunchy Comedy (that isn’t “Hangover”)

Posted on July 31, 2015 at 3:05 pm

“Vacation” is a gross, dumb disappointment. If you want to see Ed Helms in a much better raunchy comedy, try the neglected gem Cedar Rapids. Helms plays a mild-mannered, small town insurance guy who is tapped at the last minute to go to the “big city” trade conference in Cedar Rapids, where he is exposed for the first time to all kinds of bad behavior. The entire cast is outstanding, including Anne Heche, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Sigourney Weaver. It is everything “Vacation” is not — smart, funny, and full of heart.

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Neglected gem Rent This Instead

This Week on USA: “Dig,” Set in Jerusalem

Posted on March 3, 2015 at 8:00 am

I’ve been looking forward to this since I got a sneak peek last year at Comic-Con: “Dig” premieres on USA March 5, 2015 at 10 pm (9 Central), starring Jason Isaac and Anne Heche in a mystery miniseries filmed in part in Jerusalem.

When Peter Connelly, an FBI agent recently stationed in Jerusalem, begins investigating the murder of a young American, he realizes that he has uncovered an ancient international conspiracy that threatens to change the course of human history. Certain that the dangerous prophecy is nearing fruition, Peter must race against the clock to unravel its mystery. From a remote farm in Norway, to an enigmatic compound in New Mexico, to the serpentine tunnels of Jerusalem, this immersive, fast-paced adventure will take viewers on a quest for a truth that will shake the world’s beliefs to its very core.

You can follow the mystery along with the characters.  Read the official prequel online.  And each week, study the clues, solve the puzzles, and earn sweepstakes entries for a chance to win the trip of a lifetime.

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Cedar Rapids

Posted on February 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm

The day after they invented cities, they invented stories about what happens when country bumpkins arrive in them. The adventures of the innocent in the big, bad metropolis have been popular for centuries. In part that is because of that satisfying moment when the fool from the country ends up outsmarting the sophisticates from the city, the ones who think he is an easy mark. First, though, he has to identify which ones they are. And then he has to identify who he is, and recognize his own strength.

Tim Lippe (“The Office’s” Ed Helms) has spent his life in a tiny Wisconsin town, and almost all of his life working in the small local office of an insurance company. He started working there at age 16. He does not even let himself dream of the success and cosmopolitan elan of Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon), the office star, who always brings home the coveted Two Diamond top award from the trade association’s annual meeting; he just sincerely wishes him well. But then Roger dies suddenly, and Tim has to take his place at the convention. The boss (Stephen Root) has no time to give him any instruction except to keep away from Dean Zeigler (John C. Reilly), a client poacher, and to win that Two Diamond award at any cost.

Tim takes off for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after carefully laminating all of his maps. It is only slightly less daunting and terrifying and utterly strange from him than a visit to Mars. He has never been on an airplane. And when a friendly young woman at the hotel doorway (Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development”) asks him if he’d like to party, he assumes that it’s just the way they welcome people in the big city.

Surprise number one is that the black man in his hotel room is not a criminal, but his roommate, Ronald Wilkes (“The Wire’s” Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a very proper, buttoned-down insurance agent. Surprise number two is that there is a third roommate, none other than the decidedly unbuttoned Zeigler, a loud, hard-drinking, dirty joke-telling cynic and instigator of trouble. With Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a very pretty agent from Nebraska who is intent on living it up while she’s away from home, Tim starts to learn some important lessons about his ability to say yes and his ability to say no. And his ability to figure out which is required in a wide variety of unprecedented, unexpected, and highly anxiety-producing circumstances.

As we saw with Helms in “The Hangover,” it is always a lot of fun to see a guy who is tightly wrapped let go — and then to get to see him deal with the consequences. The boss tells Tim that he once thought, “Here’s a kid who’s going to go places,” but then he never did. He goes places and then some in this story. Most of us spend a good bit of time coping with “impostor syndrome, worried that everyone will catch on to our inadequacy. There are a lot of moments of awkwardness and insecurity, but it is heartening to see Tim begin to learn that there is not as big a gulf between him and other people as he thought, even people of exalted rank, and to see him apply what he has learned to get a better understanding of what he thought he knew about the people back home. It benefits from a strong structure, astute depiction of the inevitable corny humor and cheesy networking activities of business gatherings, gutsy performances, and genuine affection for its characters. You will even have a whole new appreciation for insurance. Really. (more…)

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