Undatement Center (2017): Dating Game (Review)

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Written and directed by Chris Esper (The Deja Vuers, Still Life), Undatement Center is a humorous look at the capricious world of modern dating.  It is almost an indictment against the millennial age of computer reliance and the awkwardness of real-life interaction with people we find attractive.

Jack (Trevor Duke) finally decides, after a 12 year break, to get back into the dating game. As befits the modern day man, he opts to join a dating company “Undatement” which is a combination of real world Tinder and speed dating. The poor chap soon realizes that getting back into the dating game requires intensive paperwork, a resume and a draw on his pocket book. 

A spin on the old maxim of kissing a lot of frogs to find a prince, Jack endures a lot of rejection. After some specious and confusing let downs for no apparent reason, he finally decides to take control; at a price. He soon finds that things are not any easier in the driver’s seat and Jack discovers that the early rejection’s came about for a reason.

Esper’s take on the modern world of dating and all the issues surrounding the search for a mate is funny, acerbic and surprising relevant.  Jack’s struggle is amusing and we feel his frustration and underlying fear.

Like most of the prospective candidates in Undatement Center, Jack is afraid of being hurt (again) and yet he continues to look for a special someone to be with. Esper gives us the dating world sans sex, this is not a journey to find a sexual partner but is, instead, a man wanting to find a woman to share things with.

This slightly “old fashioned” take on the dating game is refreshing and it plays well against the frustration of our hero. Jack goes through several stages in his search, after forking out some long green to take charge of his dating quest and at one point he comically dishes out some payback to an earlier “contestant.”

The director’s final message is a simple one and cuts to the heart of the matter. “New and different, is not better.” Jack finds that underneath the surface artifice and “structure” of the Undatement Center’s  controlled dating scenario, it is the human touch that matters most.

We do not doubt that Jack has learned a valuable lesson from his interaction with the business-like candidates he interacts with and Esper ends his tale on a uplifting note. There is some doubt as to how the whole thing will turn out but, like the film’s  humanistic message, we feel that things will move forward at their own pace and not be driven by some superficial agenda set by a company or society.

Trevor Duke gives a fine restrained performance as the man who reluctantly re-enters the dating game. His controlled frustration and confusion fits his character perfectly.

J.D. Achille as Lindsey is also spot on. Apart from being a delight to look at,  her character has an inner confidence and conviction that Achille brings to the fore with a truth that leaves no room for doubt. 

The entire cast bring something to the table in this story of urine samples, multi-page resumes (CV’s) and baffling rejection.

Undatement Center is a 5 star effort that entertains and makes a valid and pertinent social comment on the state of looking for love in this day and age of dating apps and swiping to the left or right. Esper has proven, with his latest effort, that his earlier successes are no fluke and that he can consistently deliver the goods.

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20th Century Women (2016): Birth of a New World (Review)

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Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker) and starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Brian Cruddup and Lucas Jade Zumann, 20th Century Women tells of the birth of a new world. This new beginning is seen through the eyes of Jamie, Dorothea’s 15 year old son.

The year is 1979 and the place is Santa Barbara, California. Feminism is on the rise and single mother Dorothea (Bening) raises her son and harbors a house full of free spirits.

Punk is on its way out but Abbie (Gerwig) introduces Jamie (Zumann) to the music scene while giving her landlady a hand raising her only son. Dorothea also asks Julie (Fanning) and William (Cruddup) to help round out Jamie’s development as a young man.

Culturally, 20th Century Women is a wonderful trip down memory lane as we follow Jamie’s journey.   Whether it is bashing one another in the mosh pit to the latest punk sensation or reading all about how a real man can pleasure a woman, the only thing really missing is a tattered volume of “The Joys of Sex” circa 1972.

Mills gives us a snapshot of the dying ‘70’s. In this semi-autobiographical (which is the bookend, of sorts, to his other biopic Beginners) we are given a brief glimpse into a woman who was not a cookie cutter version of her peers. Dorothea, the woman in question, waltzes to the beat of her own personal rhythm.

We have a slice of ‘70’s Americana that includes commune living, something that William relates to Dorothea one night, and in many ways Jamie’s mother has created a type of commune of her own. The huge house that is being renovated throughout most of the film has that same sort of feeling.

Mill’s takes his time with this labor of love. 20th Century Women may be a celebration of the director’s mother but in many ways, especially at the beginning, the film tries too hard and comes across as a Wes Anderson wannabe.

This annoyance does not last long but it does take up the first third of the film. Once past that point, there is more focus on the times. The film, through its story, introduces works of literature and even includes President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979.

20th Century Women recalls a time when the family, even an extended one like Dorothea’s, would sit down and watch a presidential speech together. The film is over an interesting time of change for America.

The Vietnam War was over by 1979 and the United States was going through some massive changes. The film hints at this through the auspices of the feminist books that Jamie is given to read by Abbie.

15 year old Jamie is given an education by the young women in his life with wide ranging results. In one instance he gets beaten up after suggesting that a skateboarding chum’s girlfriend faked her orgasms.

The film is a dramedy, it has a fair amount of serious events combined with some amusing moments and a few laugh out loud moments. One problem is the film’s overall length. At just under two hours it drags somewhat in the middle and could have lost at least 15 to 20 minutes easily.

Bening is brilliant as the mid-50’s single mother who is a free spirit. She struggles to understand her 15 year old son and gets bogged down when Abbie gives Jamie too much too soon. Zumann as Jamie is just spot on.

Cruddup, as usual, gives an honest performance and Elle Fanning captivates whenever she is on the screen. (Keep an eye out for the “therapist” scene between Fanning and Bening.)

20th Century Women is a solid 4 star film. It loses a full star for being that bit too low key and too long. It is still worth a look but may entertain those over 50 that bit more than those who did not live through 1979.

Masters of Sex: Coats or Keys – Swingers (Review)

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Masters of Sex slips away from the office, except for a couple of scenes and moves into swinger territory.  “Coats or Keys” uses the setting of a sex party, hosted by Art and Nancy, to dig a bit deeper into the characters.

The beginning of the episode is the aftermath of that party. Linden has gotten lucky in the back seat of a station wagon and Virginia leaves Art’s bed. Bill is talking to someone off camera about mending their ways.

24 hours earlier, Nancy is worrying over the swingers party and Art explains that Bill will not be coming.  Masters and Johnson talk about the party. Bill says he cannot attend as it is his night with the kids. Virginia invites Lester.

Libby is in Bill’s office complaining about the dog he bought their kids.

“He shat Bill. He shat in the Barbie Dream House.”

In the office, Bill and Virginia each speak separately with the couple from last week.  As they speak with the sexually dysfunctional man and wife, it becomes clear that they are not compatible in the bedroom.

The backstory of each one features polar opposite cause and effect issues.  Gary had an overbearing father who ran over his family like a steamroller. Fran’s mother was the steamroller in her house. The woman demeaned and bullied her father non-stop.

As Bill and Virginia talk about secrets, she says “I’ve told you mine.” “Not all, I’m sure,” replies Bill.  Their discussion about the couple in treatment shadows what they need to do to repair their relationship.

Linden and Betty arrive at the party together. Both are telling each  other of miseries mentioned many times before.  Betty’s partner lying to her parents about their relationship and Lester’s wife messing around with balloon man.

Virginia and Libby arrive and like their office colleagues have no idea what the party really is. Virginia meets Michael, a friend of her “husband” Dan Logan. Things get awkward because he knows Dan and Alice.

Libby and Michael make a connection, although she still has no idea that this is a swinger’s party.  Soon after, Abe Perlman, Bill’s lawyer comes in and she tries unsuccessfully to avoid him.

Lester is too intoxicate to be appealing, he actually finishes the drink of the woman he is talking to, and Betty tells Virginia she needs to tell Bill about Dan.  After she agrees to tell him, Bill shows up wanting to know where the kids are.

Libby, discovering what the party is really all about combined with Bill’s arrival decides to leave.

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The penny drops for Betty, Libby and Lester.

Art picks Virginia’s coat and Lester picks his drinking partner’s.  She declines and he steps outside. Betty plunks herself down next to the piano player.  She sticks with the only other “homo at the party” for moral support and to keep her coat from being picked.

Nancy goes off with her choice while Art and Virginia talk. The orgasmic sounds of Nancy and her sex partner can be heard through the walls. As the tempo and the volume increases, Art reveals that he is not an enthusiastic proponent of their open marriage.

Bill drives Libby home.  The couple get into a spirited discussion that ends in Bill performing oral sex on Libby. This opens the door to further interaction that goes far to mending any burnt bridges.  While not a reconciliation per se, they seem to have dampened her hostility.

Amusingly, it all starts with Bill granting Libby three wishes.

Hysterically, after Bill brings Libby to an orgasm she is still angry. Bill asks why? “Because that was great,” Libby replies. “We could have been doing that for 20 years.”

Lester hooks up with Cleo the caterer. They have a talk by the driveway and Cleo proves to have a brilliant sense of humor. She tells Linden that “nothing radical has ever been catered.”

Betty and the piano player; Guy, spend the evening singing show tunes and leave together at nine.  They end up sleeping in the two lab beds at the office.

Art and Virginia talk throughout the night. She reveals that to her, sex is a weapon or a tool with which she can vanquish other women.  She realizes that Bill was, and is still, her perfect mate. He is willing to “kiss her bruises” and to accept her as she is.

In the morning Art gives Virginia her keys and she grabs Libby’s coat. Bill has taken the new dog, Baxter, for a walk and when Virginia knocks on the door he answers it.  After an awkward moment she tells him about Dan and Bill reveals he knew already.

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Bill responds with “I’ll see you at the office.”

“Coats or Keys” was, perhaps, the funniest episode of Masters of Sex this season. It was also the most poignant.  Letting the viewer into Virginia’s mind and showing how she really feels about sex, herself and Bill.

The two comic highlights of the episode were Libby’s “we could have been doing this for 20 years” and Cleo asking Lester to “say something sexy” as she approaches climax.

“Civil disobedience,” whispers Linden…

Masters of Sex ended with Virginia realizing that she really belongs with Bill. Meanwhile, he and  Libby seem to be on the road to reconciliation.

The series airs Sundays on Showtime. Tune in and see where all this self discovery leads.

CAST:

Guest starring David Walton as Abe Perlman,  Enuka Okuma as Cleo and Nick Clifford as Guy.

This Is Us: The Big Three – Gentle Dramedy (Review)

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This Is Us, the NBC gentle ensemble dramedy, continues its low key approach to story telling. “The Big Three” follows the extended family of Jack and Rebecca as well as the couple themselves.

Show creator Dan Fogleman proves that parodying musical comedy is not his only forte.  The man who brought the world Galavant and Pitch  has taken a family story and made it special.

The season pilot cleverly left its biggest reveal till the very end. All these people celebrating their birthday on the same day were related.  Kevin the actor, Kate who is battling weight issues and Randall; a man looking for his biological father all share the same parents.

The opening episode saw Rebecca go into labor and her “replacement” doctor delivered two of three babies.  Gerald McRaney,  in a brilliant cameo, almost managed to steal the show with his performance.

What did make the show special was the plot device of Randall’s being left at a fire station by his father and taking the place of the triplet that did not make it.

Watching the first episode left the viewer with a big sappy grin and an appreciation for the writers of the show.  They continue their good work in the second episode of This Is Us.

Last week, Randall’s biological father is found and moves in temporarily with his son’s family.  The man is dying and Beth is afraid that William  is taking drugs.

Kevin, who underwent a nuclear meltdown in front of a studio audience in the last episode faces the consequences of his actions this week. Kate and Toby go on another date, this time to the party thrown by Kevin’s agent Laine.

The audience is given a look at the three siblings’ childhood, “back in the day.” We also see that things are not perfect between Jack and Rebecca. He spends too much time drinking and she feels alone. Her husband’s friend Miguel sees that Jack spends too much time at the bar and not at home. He tells his friend this at the bar.

Later, Rebecca tells Jack how she feels and he promises to stop drinking. Glimpsing the young versions of  two brothers and their sister shows that Kate has always had weight problems. It also shows a reluctance by Kevin to stand by his brother.

Because Randall is black and his family are white, the kids at school call him Webster. Even Kevin does it and Rebecca has to intervene. Years later, when Kevin walks off of his hit comedy television show, he calls Randall.

His younger brother recites “The Big Three” mantra that their father made up when they were kids and Kevin feels better.   The actor then formally quits his show and talks of moving to New York.

At the end of the episode, as William enjoys time with his son, “Grandma and Grandpa” arrive. The kids are excited and as the door opens we see Rebecca and Miguel. Something has obviously happened to Jack as he is no longer, apparently, in the picture.

This Is Us, such a low key, enjoyable and well written show, manages to shock us with this scene.  It also fills the viewer with dismay. The short time we have spent with this family has endeared each of them to us.

That something has gone wrong between the couple who started this extended family is upsetting.

Kudos to all on the show. There has not been one misstep by anyone. The first episode introduced the characters and the show’s concept. The second has cemented our relationship with them both.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays on NBC. Tune in and get wrapped up in these people’s lives.  Fogelman has given us an endearing group of characters that we have become immediately attached to.  This one, as they say, is a keeper.

Cast:

BrainDead: Season Finale – Punchline (Review)

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The final two episodes of BrainDead were aired back-to-back to bring this season one finale to a satisfactory end.  After all was said and done, the two hour finish delivered the punch line that the King’s had in mind all along.

What was the punchline? Well, according to the creators of the series; Michelle and Robert King, it is this: “Anyone one with half a brain can work in politics.”

Boom. Boom. (Or microphone drop, if that image works for the viewer.)

With this punchline the entire first season turns into a televised version of “Little Bunny FooFoo.”  Albeit a lot funnier and with a degree of cleverness that the joke never achieves.

All the characters in this Capital Hill horror comedy or “horromedy” (We know it is not a word, but it seems to fit nicely.)  were funny in all the right places. There was also  enough pathos inserted to keep the series from falling into outright farce.

The ticking clock, or calendar, with its emphasis on 38 days was not about anything else but the cherry blossoms. A lot went on over the last two hours of BrainDead in its season one conclusion.

Luke found out that the CIA were lying and reacted accordingly.  Laurel almost gave up the fight but changed her mind at the last minute. Gareth proposed to the senator’s sister and later confessed that he loved her. (A little bit backwards but it was cute nonetheless.)

Healy stages a “sit-down,” aping the real-life democratic sit-down over gun control earlier this year. He then outsmarts Red’s budget with a little help.

Gareth, after seeing Red’s queen last week helps Laurel out. This teaming up works but it is not without a few hiccups.

Red is still pretty messed up after his queen is injured and his tearful and confused spiel at the budget vote was hysterically funny.  Due to his apparent weakness Ella goes in for the kill, only to have it  backfire.

It turns out that all Senator Wheatus needed was Ella’s brains to fix his health issues.  A rejuvenated Red goes on the attack to get his budget passed.

Later, Red tries to kill Luke but fails.

Gustav and Rochelle go undercover to kill the cherry blossoms in the first greenhouse and almost get caught.

Luke’s sit-down goes on Periscope and cannot be shut down.  The CIA “Director Director” and Red blackmail Healy into stopping everything and voting.

Gustav turns out to have been an officer with the NSA all along, much to Rochelle’s irritation, and even the FBI have to step away from that.  Laurel drives the bugs out of her father’s brain with shame.

Later, she attempts to do the same with Red and almost succeeds. Senator Wheatus tries to shoot Healy but Gareth arrives in the nick of time to save her. The three struggle to control the gun and Red is shot in the buttocks.

The queen bails and tries to escape the room. The newest intern comes in and inadvertently kills the alien bug. The remaining alien horde screech in pain and dismay. They all swarm to  their dead queen and huge  group of politicians are now bug free.

Singing narrator Jonathan Coulton croons that apparently having half a brain is not an issue for senators. He also informs us that Gareth and Laurel have moved in together and that Luke now works on Wall Street.

The last episode, number 12 “The End of All We Hold Dear: What Happens When Democracies Fail: A Brief Synopsis” has Coulter and Johnny Ray Gill’s character break the fourth wall. It is amusing and a nice touch. Although Gustav only breaks the wall by acknowledging the guitar playing Coulter.

Just before the end credits roll for the last time in season one (or forever if the show is not brought back) a new queen is seen on the cherry blossoms that line the road. The new alien bug leader is a different hue, suggesting that the invasion force have evolved.

Overall the season finale was a good wrap up of everything that transpired. It managed to get in at least one political in-joke, or observation;  that most people would not know their senator if they met him or her.

There was a fair amount of comedy but the scene about the ninth birthday party camera was a tear jerker.

BrainDead may well be a “one-off” (for a number of reasons) but it was a brilliant little summer filler, even if the network had no faith in the show.

Pina, Winstead, Tveit, Shalhoub and James all just killed it. This cast shared a brilliant chemistry  and took the viewer on an amusing journey through a “space invasion” series disguised as comedy horror.

With a punchline that seems alarmingly close to the truth, the series may not be allowed to return…

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