Abigail’s Party (1977)

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Okay, you got me. The truth is I really do own a Demis Roussos record. Not one of his big mid-70’s hits, like “Forever and Ever” or “Happy to Be on an Island in the Sun,” but an obscure 7-inch gem of a 45-rpm single on which the fat Greek (as he affectionately came to be known) croons “Maybe Someday,” John Barry’s haunting love theme from the 1976 remake of King Kong with lyrics by Robert Constandinos (not to be confused with Andy Williams’ rendition of the same exact tune entitled “Are You In There?” with lyrics by David Pomeranz–that one had a disco version on the flip!). Why do I mention all this? Well, director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, Mr. Turner) has himself said that Demis Roussos has become strangely synonymous with his stage-play-turned-television-film Abigail’s Party and Demis Roussos is certainly one of my favorite takeaways from this almost-perfect satire. Abigail’s Party wasn’t the first Mike Leigh production I saw—that was the equally acerbic Grownups—but it’s definitely the one that’s stuck with me over the years, with Alison Steadman—Leigh’s wife at the time—in a career-defining turn as Beverly, the repulsively-flirtatious suburban social climber who doesn’t realize that a nice Beaujolais need not be refrigerated. The Roussos reference comes as Beverly addresses her beleaguered husband: “Laurence, Angela likes Demis Roussos. Tony likes Demis Roussos, I like Demis Roussos, and Sue would like to hear Demis Roussos: so please, d’you think we could have Demis Roussos on?” Abigail’s Party is like a train derailment from which you cannot avert your horrified gaze. It’s also, not unlike Demis Roussos, significantly funnier.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Masterminds (2016)

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When playing a lovable schlub, usually with some awkward haircut and/or suspect facial hair, Zack Galifianakis is at his bumbling best, rarely failing to inject sweet-natured nuttiness into a project. And Galifianakis’ goofball characterizations don’t come any more lovable (and schlubable!) than David Ghannt, the “leading man” of the low-brow comedy Masterminds. Based on a true story, the film revolves around the biggest armored car heist in U.S. history, in which inept thieves made off with $17 million in cash and left a trail of evidence, metaphorically speaking, “…stretching all the way to Terre Haute, Indiana” (to quote A Christmas Story). Director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and his super sporting, SNL-centric cast milk the audacious, stranger-than-fiction proceedings of every comic possibility. Not every gag lands, but those that do make this broad yet likable comedy worth a $3.99 online stream. David works an unsatisfying job as a driver for Loomis Fargo and is seduced by co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig in a push-up bra), who’s in cahoots with a lame-brained criminal mastermind played by Owen Wilson, to rip off his employer. The crooks plan to dupe David, of course, by sending him down to Mexico with a small cut of the money, with dubious plans to “meet up with him later.” But things rarely go according to plan when you’ve got this lovable a schlub as the fall guy. Jason Sudekis is a hoot as a hitman (with even more disturbing facial hair) as is Kate McKinnon as David’s bride-to-be, the wonderfully-named Jandice.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Family Fang (2016)

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Jason Bateman has appeared in a lot of dysfunctional family dramas—JunoThe Change-Up, This Is Where I Leave You (for starters), plus the entire four seasons of Arrested Development—and now, with The Family Fang, he’s directing them as well. It took him a few years to finally out-muscle his super successful sister Justine (Mallory on the long-running Family Ties) but now he’s a staple of many a sitcom and rom-com and, yes, indie films like The Family Fang, a real Debbie Downer of a drama if ever there was one. One wonders what kind of a childhood Jason must have had to be so consistently drawn, moth-like, to the dysfunctional family flame. For his sophomore directorial effort (following 2013’s Bad Words, which was dark but fun), Bateman has tackled an adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s bestseller about a pair of adult siblings struggling to break free of their performance-artist parents’ grasp. Bateman and Nicole Kidman play the downtrodden progeny; Christopher Walken and Blue Valentine‘s Maryann  Plunkett are the parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, psychotics both. From an audience’s perspective, the parents’ art is questionable at best—typically candid camera-type stunts featuring their semi-amenable offspring Annie and Baxter. Unfortunately, the film’s tone wobbles between morose and slack, with nobody to like or care about, no emotional vein to tap, not even a modicum of humor. Instead, we’re left hoping, not unlike sibs “A” and “B” as they’re known, that the missing parents are in fact gone for good, not  simply working on their “swansong piece.”


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Inserts (1975)

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With the advent of sound and freeways, a once-great silent film director is reduced to churning out stag reels in his Rococo Hollywood mansion, now at risk from the wrecking ball. This poetic and predictably downbeat scenario is one writer/director John Byrum chose to develop for his controversial debut (Inserts was rated X for explicit sexuality when released in 1975; that rating was subsequently changed to NC-17). Filmed, ironically, at Lee International Studios in Shepperton, England, the film exudes decaying Hollywood elegance circa 1930. The single sound stage provides a theatrical mood for this tight and turbulent five-character drama starring Richard Dreyfuss as a washed-up and impotent auteur with the condescending moniker of Boy Wonder, Veronica Cartwright and Stephen Davies as his perky players Harlene and Rex, the Wonder Dog, and Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper as producer Big Mac and his bubbleheaded betrothed Cathy Cake. Miss Cake, like everyone else in La La Land, longs for stardom and unselfishly steps in to finish Boy Wonder’s smut fest in the making after a hopped-up Harlene overdoses on smack. Byrum’s stage directions aren’t in the same class as, say, Mamet or Albee or Goldman, but they’re abundantly witty and often pointed. And the performances are rock solid: Dreyfuss, thoughtful and affecting, mopes about in a flowered bathrobe, swigging Martell by the quart; a squeaky-clean Cartwright is all tousled topped and mousey, boop boop de doop; and Hoskins plays his mobster moneyman with raspy aplomb (Davies has a notably thankless task, as an ascot-wearing stud-rube). Harper, meanwhile, stripped of all worldly trappings, takes her character from self-conscious awkwardness through a growing sense of self-empowerment. It’s a challenging role, but one she manages with grit and grace—the 67-year-old actress, 26 at the time the film was shot, has recently redefined herself as a children’s musician and crabby cook! Inserts—the film’s title refers to shots of significant detail that momentarily break a scene—is a fascinating single-set experiment that roils with vigor and vulgarity. The Twilight Time Blu-ray release, like most of their limited editions, offers an isolated music track which is bizarre, given that the only music in the film is Dreyfuss’ occasional ivory tinklings and a raunchy rendition of “Moonglow” at the film’s conclusion. Byrum would go on to direct just three more films in the ’80s before calling it quits, making this sleazy slice of Golden Age nostalgia all the more poignant.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com