Review – A Dish Best Served With Coors (“Vengeance”)

B. J. Novak. What, don’t you know the name? He was in TV’s The Office and in movies like Inglourious Basterds and Saving Mr. Banks, but he pulls a hat trick as a first-time writer, director, and star of his first motion picture! Good luck, pal!

With a scathing indictment of the American way of life, Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a nebbish little writer for the New Yorker Magazine, almost Woody Allen in nature. His life consists of hook-ups, catch-phrases (“It’s 100%”), and getting his own podcast in the growing NYC area with the help of Eloise (Issa Rae), a high-powered podcast producer. Unexpectantly, Ben gets a weird phone call from Texas telling him that his old ‘girlfriend’ has died and that he should be at her funeral. Guilt-tripped into going, Ben soon learns the late Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) may have been murdered!

Smelling a story & possible podcast, he starts to record everything as he turns detective, interviewing everyone in this terribly bleak and very strange place. First, Abilene’s quirky and dysfunctional family: big brother and good ol’ boy Ty (Boyd Holbrook), goth sister Paris (Isabella Amara), sexy but dim Kansas City (Dove Cameron), shy tween El Stupido (Elli Abrams Bickel), racist granny Carole (Louanne Stephens), and loving mother, Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron). The more Ben delves into the town and their odd array of characters, the more information he picks up about Abilene’s death and how nobody wants to talk about it.

The cops deny their involvement (“It’s not in our jurisdiction”), and Sancholo (Zach Villa–excellent) the local gang lord, and Quinten Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), an enigmatic and philosophical song producer, are suspects as well. The deeper Ben goes down the rabbit hole, the more he discovers until he (and the audience) gets the rug pulled out from under them. What starts out as a dark comedy with superficial and dry-witted Ben navigating the bizarre waters of East West Texas, turns into a hard-core drama and finger-pointing at class, stereotypes, social mores, and going to Whataburger. And this heart-rendering and wonderful script is from a first-timer! Bravo!

Novak keeps his writing and his direction separate; this is not like some goofy sitcom on TV, but a wicked slice of Americana we don’t want to see, but know it’s out there. Novak’s direction is clean, simple, and uncomplicated, letting his amazing cast shine through. Novak is great, but give it up for the supporting cast! Holbrook is perfect as the quintessential hick, while his wacky family (each one of them) are awesome. But the one that steals the movie is Kutcher with his laid-back, mystical guru-ish producer. He gives a grandious performance unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and it’s Oscar-worthy. There’s also Zach Villa who, for the short scene he’s in, sells it with such gravitas it’s a joy to watch.

**Now showing only in theaters 

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Believe it or not, this movie earned the wrath of the U.S. Senate Special Crime Commission in 1955 who accused it of being “designed to ruin young viewers”! Boy, they ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! LOL!

Based on the Mickey Spillane novels and his hard-boiled detective, Mike Hammer, this beautifully shot black & white who-done-it noir stars Ralph Meeker as the punch-first, ask questions later private dick who usually handles shady divorce cases, along with his whip-smart secretary/lover, Velda Wakeman (Maxine Cooper). One night Mike picks up Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman in her debut role) on the road, an escapee from “the looney bin”. But before he can figure out who she is and why she’s alone on the road, they are both suddenly captured and Christina is killed. But by whom and why?

After Mike is released from the hospital, he goes on the hunt to find out who this mysterious girl was, why she was murdered, and by whom. Trying to side-line him in his investigation is his police frenemy, Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), but why? Mike gets a strange phone call from Christine’s killer, offering Mike a brand new car if he’ll drop the case, so Mike takes the new car (a rare 1954 Chevrolet Corvette C1), and still pursues the case! Lead after lead after lead takes him all over Los Angeles to nefarious people, Christine’s weird roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), and finally pissing off crime lord Carl Evello (Paul Stewart), who orchestrated Christine’s death. But why was she killed? What did she know?

Through some more clues left behind by the deceased, Mike pieces together a clue that leads to a shocking discovery: a peculiar box inside a gym locker. But what’s inside is a nice twisty-turn for this rather hum-drum pot-boiler that looks like one of those TV-shot crime procedurals of the time (Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Burkes Law). Mike never uses a gun, loves whatever woman happens to be around him, smokes a lot, drives a hot car, and smacks people around to get results, in other words, he’s your A-typical private eye of the fifties!

The movie also features his boisterous, over-enthusiastic car mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis), who gives new meaning to the word “racial stereotype”. Maxine Cooper is very good as Hammer’s right-hand girl, who’s just as tough as Mike, even though she’ll do questionable things for him to solve a case. Look for cameos from actors just starting out like Jack Elam and the great Strother Martin! The screenplay by Albert Isaac “Buzz” Bezzerides (TV shows 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, The Detectives) is a bit lengthy and by-the-numbers, but that’s the way these 50’s noir pictures were. The best part about this movie is Meeker’s performance (which is very close to that of the late Vic Morrow) and the exceptional direction of Robert Aldrich, who gave us such great films as The Dirty Dozen, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Longest Yard, and The Frisco Kid  

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