Monthly Archives: April 2021

Social Disorder

Quirky satire gently skewers celebrity, obsessive fandom, social media, cyberstalking…and breakfast cereal

Eat Wheaties!
Starring Tony Hale, Alan Tudyk, Danielle Brooks, Paul Walker Hauser & Elisha Cuthbert
Directed by Scott Abramovitch
In select theaters and VOD, Friday, April 30, 2021

Sid Straw is a nice guy. But he tries too hard—too hard to make jokes, too hard to make conversation, too hard to impress, too hard to make a toast at a party, too hard to be nice, too hard to make his date into his “girlfriend.”  

And he certainly tries to hard trying to make people believe he was once friends with actress Elizabeth Banks

That’s the premise of this quirky satire about social media, celebrity, obsessive fandom and relationships starring Veep’s Tony Hale as Sid, an Arizona software sales manager who’s over-the-moon to find out he’s been assigned to co-chair the planning committee for his upcoming college reunion. But as a latecomer to social media, the platform for all the planning, he plunges in and begins by creating an account on Facebook. Looking up old classmates on the University of Pennsylvania reunion site, he comes across Banks.

Clicking on a link to her official Facebook page, Sid’s memory is whooshed back to his campus days, when he once dated Banks’ sister—well, her sorority sister. And he remembers how—long before she’d go on to stardom in movies like The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect—the actress-to-be would cheerily, jokingly remind her friends to “eat Wheaties!”

But no one believes Sid really knew Banks. Not his coworkers, not his younger brother, especially not his highly skeptical sister-in-law, who still blames Sid for ruining her wedding with an elaborate practical joke that bombed.  

Tony Hale is Sid Straw

It’s just Sid, they all think, trying way too hard, again. Even when he wrangles an autographed photo—two, actually—from Bank’s L.A. management office, they still scoff.

Sid, however, is undeterred. He begins sending Banks personal messages on Facebook—lots of messages. And being new to the whole social media thing, he doesn’t realize that what he’s writing to her isn’t private; it’s being posted on Banks’ public “wall,” for all of her fans, and the whole world, to see.

So, Sid is blindsided when his “relationship” with Banks goes viral—and he becomes a widely mocked media sensation, an icon for a hyper-obsessive cyber-stalking kook. He’s slapped with a restraining order from Banks’ management, which means he has to stop contacting her—and worst of all, he won’t be able to even attend the reunion if she does.

With Danielle Brooks

And just when you wonder how things can get lower for Sid, they do.

Making his feature directorial debut, Scott Abramovitch adapted the screenplay from a 2003 novel by Michael Kun called The Locklear Letters, about a man’s obsession with Melrose Place actress Heather Locklear. Themovie takes the “analog” premise of the book, in which old-school postal mail was the method of communication, into the age of the internet and social media (with the film’s literary roots getting a sly shout-out in an early scene.) Abramovitch makes this little indie gem—which launched to much acclaim at film festivals late last year—a real lo-fi treat, populating it with a talented ensemble cast that understands how to slow-cook the tasty juices of a subtle, nuanced comedy, finding all the flavors of funny in its tale about a star-crossed schmo who becomes the stand-in for just about all of us.

Who doesn’t want to be liked? To have people to share our lives, our experiences, our joys? To be part of a team, a group, a tribe? And who among us hasn’t used Facebook, or some other internet search, to pry into the past of someone we maybe-sorta-kinda “knew” from our high school or college days?

Sid may be haplessly awkward and comically clueless about his lack of boundaries, but the movie never makes fun of him. If anything, it makes us sympathize, cringe for him when he takes things too far, hoping that he can somehow prevail over his ever-deepening predicament. And we laugh, partly because we’ve all been there; we get it. Indifferent coworkers, the double-edged sword of social media, the lure of spending a little too long online, taking dreamy detours down memory lane—oh, yeah, been there, done that.

Hale, who’s received two Emmys for his role as minion-like political aide Gary Walsh on HBO’s Veep, also brought out his comedy chops as the neurotic Buster Bluth on the hit Fox sitcom Arrested Development. (And he provided the voice of Forky the spork, who played a significant role in Toy Story 4.) Eat Wheaties! is his breakout as a lead in a live-action movie, and he’s marvelous, finding the tricky soft center of humanity and empathetic longing in Sid’s loneliness and his need for relationships and connection.

Even though he’s drawn in a comedic extreme, Sid and his situation take on even more potency in this long, lingering era of COVID-19, when nearly everyone’s been cooped up, shut in or locked down, and so many of us have, indeed, been spending more time than ever on our computers and social media. Sid’s not the only person who’s ever tumbled down a rabbit hole on the internet, at work or elsewhere, especially during a time when we’ve all had to put many of real-life relationships on some kind of temporary hold.

The first-rate supporting cast features a bonus crop of familiar faces, including David Walton (New Girl and Council of Dads), Elisha Cutbert (The Ranch and Happy Endings), Lamore Morris (Call Me Kat) and Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black). Allen Tudyk, who plays one of Sid’s blowhard classmates, is a veteran of more than 120 TV, film and voiceover roles, and Paul Walter Hauser—who appeared in the movies Da Five Bloods and I, Tonya, and starred in Richard Jewell—seems instinctively in step with the movie’s affectionately droll wit as a bargain-bin lawyer-in-training, who gets his first big case when Sid hires him to help fight his restraining order.

But his movie belongs to Hale, all the way, who makes us like Sid even when Sid makes us wince. He’s an underdog, an oddball, but he’s an exaggerated, underdog oddball version of us. And he’s an underdog oddball we definitely want to see win, to get his life back on track, maybe even come out on top.

So, you go, Sid. Get it, buddy. And as your old college friend Liz would say, “Eat Wheaties!”

Space Race

Anna Kendrick faces a wrenching moral dilemma in sci-fi space thriller

Starring Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim & Shamier Anderson
Directed by Joe Penna
Not rated
On Netflix Thursday, April 22, 2021

Anna Kendrick has been a singing troll, a fairytale princess and a pitch-perfect a cappella coed. And she held her own alongside George Clooney—and received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination—for her role as an ambitious junior executive in Up in the Air.

Now she’s really up in the air—and beyond it—as part of a small crew of astronauts who run into some serious trouble.

What will Anna do? What would you do?

This taut, compact, existential sci-fi space thriller is set in the unspecified near future and gets right down to business in the impressive opening sequence as we watch the three space travelers shaken and wobbled by the enormous forces of the rocket they’re riding at liftoff. We learn they’re embarking on what will be a two-year mission to Mars, to further explore and expand humankind’s early forays into colonization there.

We meet the commander, Barnett (Toni Collette), on what will be her third and final mission to the red planet, and her two-person team of newbies. The jazz-loving botanical scientist, David (Daniel Dae Kim), has spent two years researching algae and plants that will grow on the alien surface. The eager young medical assistant Zoe (Kendrick) can’t hide her wide-eyed enthusiasm about actually being in space. “That was incredible!” she exclaims, giddily embracing Barnett after their roaring, bone-rattling zoom out of the atmosphere, into the weightless, noiseless void of space.

Toni Collette

After docking with an orbiting unmanned space station, they settle in, unpack and prepare for the long, long ride.

But they’re in for a huge surprise when commander Barnett opens an overhead hatch in the command module and discovers an unconscious man—who literally falls onto her, injuring her arm.

The “stowaway,” apparently knocked unconscious and himself seriously wounded by the violent forces of the blast-off, turns out to be an engineer for Hyperion, the space agency. He didn’t get the message to evacuate in time when doing his last-minute systems check, and before he realized what was happening, he was locked and loaded. When he wakes up, Michael (Shamier Anderson) is freaked out—after all, the luckless worker was planning on going home after his shift. And he certainly didn’t plan on spending two years away from Earth.

But there’s a much bigger problem: The bare-bones mission has only enough provisions—food, water and oxygen—for three people. There isn’t enough fuel to turn around and go back. And Michael damaged—destroyed, actually—an essential piece of air-filtration, life-support equipment when he fell out of the hatch.

Director Joe Penna, who also cowrote the screenplay, creates a novel pressure-cooker human drama within a somewhat familiar-feeling setting of a “space” movie, of which there have been, well, hundreds. As the days click by, the situation becomes even more grim, and the plot doesn’t introduce goopy extraterrestrials, flashy special effects or worm-hole conundrums, but rather some deep-dish thoughts about moral quandaries, sacrifice and the wrenching process of characters wrestling with what to do in a super-serious space pickle.

Shamier Anderson

The set design is first-rate, showing what space travel might indeed look like a couple of decades from now. The space station is a mixture of the future and the familiar and shows how corporations often cut corners and stretch budgets. The MTS-42 vessel is high-tech but cramped and claustrophobic, and it’s furnished with only the long-haul essentials, like a teeny tabletop for meals and spartan bunk beds. And it’s obviously well-used and worn, with interior walls signed and decorated by previous occupants. We even learn that it was made initially for a crew of two, but later retrofitted for three—with modifications for the “extra weight” of carrying an additional body made by removing a layer of exterior shielding against solar-storm radiation.

The space station creates its own artificial gravity as it plows through space by spinning like a massive counterweight on the opposite end of a set of rigid, 1,600-foot cables, which tether it to the base of the rocket ship by which Barnett and the crew arrived. This sleek and imposing setting, which juts into the abyss of space like a gigantic communications tower or piece of construction equipment, becomes the stage for the film’s tense, nail-biting climax.

The cast carries the movie, all the way; there’s no one else anywhere on-screen, at any time, which deepens the atmosphere of intense isolation—and eventual helplessness. (We never even hear the crew’s “contact,” Jim, back at mission control, at least clearly, on any of the two-way “transmission” calls to Earth.) For Collette, who’s made all kinds of films (from the comedy of Little Miss Sunshine to the horror of Hereditary), it marks her first trip into sci-fi and space. Kim, best known for his starring roles on TV’s Lost and Hawaii Five-O, gives a potently nuanced performance as a scientist who sees his life’s work—and perhaps his life—slipping away.

As the stowaway, Anderson is an up-and-comer who appeared on TV’s Goliath and Wynonna Earp, and he finds the soft center of his character’s heart-tugging backstory. Kendrick, as the optimistic, empathetic Zoe, is determined to look for a solution to the dire dilemma.  

She joined the Hyperion program thinking she’d certainly be rejected but later realized it would be “one of those rare opportunities that will truly give my life meaning beyond anything I could imagine.”

Now she, and her crewmates, find themselves in a situation that, indeed, no one could have dared imagine—a situation with no contingency plan, no emergency protocol, no page in the manual offering an onsite workaround.  

Gravity, morals, ethics, life, death, starvation, survival, heroics. Solar radiation out there, toxic air in here. This well-crafted, pressurized think-tank of a sci-fi space stewer wants you to be thinking about—and maybe debating—its meaning as it ends, directing your gaze at the tiny, shiny red speck of its ultimate destination, way out there in the distance.

What will Zoe do? What would you do? Stowaway is a space movie that really works its way into the space inside your head.