The Post’s critics highlight original movies that are being streamed and made available on demand. Here are this week’s picks.
PLEASED TO MEET ME
In 2002, the radio program “This American Life” broadcast a memorable episode showcasing a group of musicians — all previously strangers — who were recruited from classified ads to head into the studio for one day to cover Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Featuring a sultry jazz vocalist, an earnest Christian rocker and an electric violinist with anger-management issues, the deliberately mismatched band managed to churn out a rendition of the pop classic that was surprisingly endearing — even rousing.
Those adjectives could just as easily be applied to “Pleased to Meet Me,” a new feature film inspired by the radio experiment. Directed and co-written by Kentucky filmmaker Archie Borders, the film makes some minor plot and character adjustments here and there: “Rocket Man” is replaced by an original ditty by Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Joe Henry (who also plays a sound engineer), and the violinist (Timothy Morton) now has a drug problem. But it’s a very similar tale with more meat on its bones.
That’s not to say that there’s much at stake here, dramatically speaking. Personal and professional entanglements between old and new flames, and among sometimes insecure musicians, do not necessarily make for fierce conflict. But the comedy — like Henry’s song, an easygoing blues shuffle — has a shaggy, ambling charm.
Borders — who co-wrote the laid-back, naturalistic script with Henry’s brother, Dave — wisely has cast musicians who can act, rather than actors who may or may not be able to play an instrument. Headliners include former X frontman John Doe and singer-songwriter Aimee Mann — playing former lovers who pull the stunt together — as well as Loudon Wainwright III as an antisocial theremin player. Other notable performances — musically as well as dramatically — include vocalist Karin Bergquist of the band Over the Rhine, playing a tentative lounge singer who learns to let loose; and Adam Kramer, formerly of the Louisville band Broken Spurs, playing a metal-head-turned-Christian-rock guitarist.
Filmed in just two weeks at Louisville’s Lalaland recording studio (here called Funtown) and shot with a modest budget that included money raised via Kickstarter, “Pleased to Meet Me” seems inspired as much by the radio show as by an anecdote: As told in the film, Tom Waits is said to have observed that his favorite moment while waiting in the audience at a concert is while the musicians are still tuning up.
The climax of “Pleased” is, of course, the big song at the end. It delivers all that it should. But it’s really also just fun to watch and listen as some musical sausage is made. -- M.O.
Unrated. Contains obscenity, drug use and brief, non-graphic sex. 88 minutes. Available on iTunes and other on-demand platforms in late May.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY
“Better Living Through Chemistry” presents viewers with that ever-confounding conundrum: When a movie has so much going for it, just what, exactly, explains why it falls flat?
Certainly this black comedy, the feature debut of writing-directing team Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, doesn’t lack for star power. After a slightly naughty opening-credits sequence featuring handmade dolls enacting wholesome and not-so-wholesome tableaux of small-town life, none other than Jane Fonda delivers the film’s voiceover narration, during which she introduces protagonist Doug Varney (Sam Rockwell), his shrew of a wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), and the idyllic hamlet where they live, a quiet place called Woodbury (played by Annapolis at its most picturesque).
Doug, a straight-laced pharmacist, uxorious husband and hapless father to a surly adolescent son who blacks out his windows and vandalizes his school’s locker room, is living a life of quiet desolation when he makes a delivery to Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), an unhappy trophy wife who drowns her sorrows in vodka martinis and a panoply of mood-enhancing drugs. It doesn’t take long for Doug and Elizabeth to strike up a friendship that will upend both their lives, not to mention the manicured social landscape of Woodbury.
Moore and Posamentier try their best to make their own darkly comic cocktail, composed of one part “American Beauty” and one part “Double Indemnity.” Admittedly, Rockwell does a good job mining the modest humor in Doug’s journey to the dangerous side, his deadpan delivery perfectly suited to the film’s mordant tone, and Norbert Leo Butz brings flawless earnestness to a curious DEA agent. But — despite Annapolis’s star turn — the film’s bland visuals fight the script, turning what could have been an atmospheric satire into something more generic and fatally mild-mannered.
Then, just when you think “Better Living Through Chemistry” lacks the courage of its nastiest aspirations, it ends with a breathtakingly tasteless joke at Fonda’s expense, suggesting that the Hollywood legend and workout queen is also a surprisingly good sport.
Never cynical enough to be provoking or uplifting enough to be cheering, “Better Living Through Chemistry” stays maddeningly between the lanes, kind of like the henpecked Doug himself. Everyone involved deserved better. -- A.H.
Babz Chula, who died in 2010 at age 64, was an accomplished stage and screen actress, but her most affecting role may have come when she played herself. In “Chi,” documentarian Anne Wheeler followed Chula during the last few months of her life as she traveled to India looking for an all-natural cancer cure. The result is an emotional account of the lengths people go to survive and the peace that comes with accepting our own mortality.
Chula had been battling metastatic breast cancer for years by the time she headed to Kerala. A friend with a brain tumor had gone to an Ayurvedic clinic there, after which her cancer went into remission, so Chula was hoping to find the same happy ending. Going to India does change the actress: The swelling goes down in her legs, and she looks and sounds more vibrant after just a few weeks there. But by the time she makes it home to Canada, it turns out that the trip wasn’t quite as miraculous as she hoped it would be.
Chula bares all, both physically (she shows the scars from her single mastectomy) and emotionally, when she takes the camera from Wheeler to film video diaries. Wheeler’s techniques don’t always do her subject justice, however. The director relies heavily on her own voiceover rather than letting Chula show or tell her own story. But it would be nearly impossible to undo the power of watching a spirited woman grapple so gracefully with life and death. -- S.M.
Unrated. Contains nudity and language. 60 minutes. Available on iTunes and Amazon Instant video.
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