EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA (2020) – Will Ferrell Musical Comedy Is Much Better Than Expected

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For starters, the title is awful— EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA— it sounds like a teen fantasy novel gone wrong— and it stars and was written by Will Ferrell, whose work I’ve enjoyed less and less with each passing year. But yet—

—-yet, EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA (2020) is actually a really good movie, one that gets better as it goes along. It’s also one of Ferrell’s best films in years.

Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) has dreamed his whole life of winning the famed Eurovision Song Contest for his home country of Iceland, so much so that he has devoted his entire life to the endeavor, much to the chagrin of his father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) who makes it no secret how ashamed he is of his son’s “foolish” dreams. But Lars’ best friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) feels otherwise and together they make up the band Fire Saga and work each day to achieve their goal of making it to Eurovision.

Trouble is, they’re not particularly good, and they have established the reputation in their village as being pretty darned awful, which is a major reason why Erick thinks his son is wasting his life away on a dream rather than working.

But fate intervenes when Iceland needs one more entry for their national competition, and so they select a band randomly, which turns out to be Fire Saga. While Lars and Sigrit are overjoyed, as expected, they do not win, and hence don’t qualify for the trip to participate in Eurovision. But “fate” intervenes again when a ferry boat carrying every single Ice Landic act who placed ahead of Fire Saga mysteriously explodes in a fiery inferno, leaving as the only act left– Fire Saga. Suddenly they are on their way to Eurovision!

And that’s what the bulk of the movie is about, Lars and Sigrits’ adventures as they practice and prepare to particpate and somehow win the Eurovision competition.

Okay. On the surface, this plot sound silly, trite, and dumb, but it really isn’t. There’s a lot going on here.

The beginning of EUROVISION SONG CONTEST is very silly and humorous, as some of Fire Saga’s awful music numbers are laugh out loud funny, and so the feeling is, this is going to be a goofball comedy perhaps satirizing shows like Eurovision. But that’s not the direction the movie takes.

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST is really about two things. For one, it’s a love story between Lars and Sigrit, which at first sounds funny, because the idea of Will Ferrell in a love story is— well, laughable. And Ferrell is himself here, meaning he’s goofy, but he does channel an exhuberant innocence the way he did as Buddy the Elf in what I think is still his best movie, ELF (2003). Lars is also super focused on winning the contest, and so he barely notices Sigrit who definitely has feelings for him.

And so the love story is driven by Sigrit and by Rachel McAdam’s spirited performance as the character, as she delivers by far the best performance in the movie. She believes in Lars and during their journey together falls in love with him but hesitates to be up front with her feelings because she doesn’t want to ruin their art together.

Which is the second thing EUROVISION SONG CONTEST is really about, the making of art. These two characters devote their lives to a cause, and for Sigrit it’s more about performing than winning, while Lars just wants to win, but they both have something to say with their music. And they say it.

They both also see the world as artists do. So when Sigrit speaks of believing in elves, which on the surface is a statement about superstition in Iceland and is in the movie for comedic value, on a deeper level, it’s about a figurative way of thinking that allows artists to see things in ways that others don’t and to believe in things that others don’t. It’s why art— music, films, books, paintings— can change the world.

Now, I know this sounds too deep for a Will Ferrell movie, but these elements are all in the script, which is why I liked this one so much. Beneath this silly musical comedy about an unlikely singing duo, there’s a subtext which speaks and speaks well about what it is to be an artist. It’s a really good screenplay by Ferell and Andrew Steele.

It also gets the humor right. There are several laugh out loud moments in this film, from the outrageous bands in the contest and some of their numbers, to the playful banter between Lars and Sigrit, to some over the top sequences where Lars’ innocent silliness is on full display. Ferrell enjoys a lot of funny moments here.

And the end of this movie is really moving. You’ll actually forget how this one started, as a seemingly silly spoof, and be moved to tears by the emotional impact of its conclusion. Seriously!

As I said, this is Will Ferrell’s best work in some time. While most of his recent films have been meh, and in fact I haven’t loved a Ferrell movie since ELF, he steps it up big time here with EUROVISION SONG CONTEST. While Lars is never ordinary, he is sincere, driven to win to a fault, and in spite of his innocent offbeat silliness he’s believable.

He’s also complemented by Sigrit, brilliantly played here by Rachel McAdams. Hands down, McAdams gives the best performance in the movie. I like McAdams a lot, and she has delivered some memorable performances over the years. I especially enjoyed her work in SPOTLIGHT (2015) and she was hilarious in the very funny comedy GAME NIGHT (2018) in which she starred alongside Jason Bateman.

Here, McAdams plays Sigrit as an artist inspired by Lars and moved by him to be the best singer she can be, something that is sadly lost on him for most of the story. Her enthusiasm for her craft is infectious, and she and Ferrell have excellent chemistry throughout and are enjoyable together during the entire movie. McAdams effortlessly traverses between silly and serious and she makes Sigrit one of the more interesting characters I’ve seen in the movies this year.

Pierce Brosnan adds solid support as Lars’ father Erick, who for most of the movie is embarrassed for his son. Brosnan doesn’t play the character in a cliche over the top way. His contempt for his son is deep and real, and Brosnan nails the emotion throughout.

Dan Stevens is also excellent as Alexandar Lemtov, Russia’s contestant in the Eurovision contest and the odds-on favorite to win the entire competition. He also has eyes for Sigrit. Like the rest of the movie, Steven’s performance is a mix of over-the-top humor and subtle subtext. In Lemtov’s case, he’s a closeted homosexual who laments that Russia doesn’t allow him to live his life the way he wants.

Directed by David Dobkin, EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE STARTER in spite of its God-awful title and presence of Will Ferrell which would lead one to believe this is just a goofy comedy, is really a movie that supercedes expectations and is one of the more entertaining and enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.

Dobkin gives this one so much energy it flies by and even though it’s a two hour movie it seems much shorter than that. It’s full of memorable music numbers, has a surprisingly literate script by Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele, and features wonderful performances by Ferrell and more so by Rachel McAdams.

So, ignore the title, and the fact that Will Ferrell is playing an over-achieving singer and songwriter. EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE STARTER is a treat of a movie, one that offers both surprises and laughs throughout, and finishes with an emotional conclusion that is above and beyond what one would usually expect for this type of movie.

You might even find yourself believing in elves!

—END—

 

 

 

 

Movie Lists: SPIKE LEE MOVIES

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Welcome back to MOVIE LISTS, the column where we look at— lists pertaining to movies. Duh!

Up today, it’s a look at the career of director Spike Lee, which of course is still going strong, so while this is an incomplete list, it’s still an important one because Spike Lee is an important filmmaker.

Now, I haven’t really seen enough Spike Lee movies to consider myself a true fan, but I’ve generally enjoyed his work, and his most recent movies have spoken to current racial tensions in ways that have really resonated, so Lee has been on my mind lately more than ever. And rightly so. Lee makes movies that make you pay attention.

Okay, here’s a partial list of Spike Lee’s 93 directorial credits:

JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS (1983)- Lee’s first directorial credit.

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) – Spike Lee’s first legitimate hit, a comedy about a young woman and her three lovers. Well-received by critics upon its initial release. I was fortunate enough to see it when it first came out, as I was in my senior year at Boston University and saw it when it premiered as part of one of my film classes.

In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Lee also appears in the movie as one of the boyfriends.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Lee’s next film, a comedy/drama/musical about a fraternity pledge at a black college. Starring Laurence Fishburne and a young Giancarlo Esposito who would go on to star in a lot of Lee’s movies.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) – Powerful tale of race relations in Brooklyn. Starring Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and again, Giancarlo Esposito.

MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990) – again directed, written by, and starring Spike Lee, this one is the story of two jazz musicians played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes.

JUNGLE FEVER (1991) – Lee’s take on interracial relationships, starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.

MALCOLM X (1992) – probably my favorite Spike Lee movie. This riveting bio pic of African American leader Malcolm X also features one of my favorite performances by Denzel Washington of all time, in the lead role as Malcolm X.

CROOKLYN (1994) – a look at a black family in Brooklyn in 1973.

CLOCKERS (1995)- crime thriller about drug pushers and cops in Brooklyn, starring Harvey Keitel and Lee regular John Turturro.

GIRL 6 (1996) -comedy/drama about a struggling actress who turns to sex to make money.

GET ON THE BUS (1996) – chronicles a bus ride to Washington D.C. for the Million Man March.

HE GOT GAME (1998)- basketball player drama starring Denzel Washington.

SUMMER OF SAM (1999) -Lee’s take on the Son of Sam murders.

BAMBOOZLED (2000)- comedy drama about a frustrated African American writer who in a fit of frustration comes up with a blackface minstrel show only to see it become a hit.

25TH HOUR (2002) – drama about the last 24 hours of a convicted drug dealer, starring Edward Norton.

INSIDE MAN (2006) – Tense crime drama about negotiations over a hostage situation following a bank robbery, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008) – World War II drama about a group of black soldiers who get trapped in a village.

RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) – drama about a boy who spends a summer with his deeply religious grandfather.

OLDBOY (2013) – weird action drama, a remake, about a man, played by Josh Brolin, held captive for twenty years who is then suddenly released, and he sets out to find answers to why this happened to him. This one just didn’t work for me.

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014) – thriller about a mysterious curse which results in a thirst for blood.

CHI-RAQ (2015) – modern day adaptation of a play by Aristophanes.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – the first Spike Lee film since MALCOLM X that I really, really enjoyed. Intriguing from start to finish, it tells the story of a black cop played by John David Washington who infiltrates the KKK but then needs the help of a fellow white cop played by Adam Driver to pull off the ruse. Thought-provokig throughout, it’s actually based on real events.

DA 5 BLOODS (2020)- Lee’s most recent film to date, and his first for Netflix. I actually enjoyed this one even more than BLACKKKLANSMAN, as its story of four black veterans of the Vietnam war who return to Vietnam in 2020 to reclaim the remains of their fallen platoon leader speaks to today’s modern day Black Lives Matter movement with a clarity that is seldom found in the movies. An outstanding movie that really speaks to the plight of the black male in the United States.

And there you have it, a brief, partial list of the movies of Spike Lee, one of the most influential film directors working today.

I hope you enjoyed this MOVIE LISTS column and will join me again next time when we look at another list pertaining to the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

LIKE A BOSS (2020) – Not Much To Like About This Unfunny Comedy

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Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne confront Salma Hayek in LIKE A BOSS (2020)

LIKE A BOSS (2020) is almost like a comedy.

Ouch!

Yeah, I can’t say I’m much of a fan of this comedy starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne as best friends running a beauty company together, who see both their friendship and business threatened when they cross paths with beauty tycoon Claire Luna (Salma Hayek).

LIKE A BOSS was released theatrically back in January, and I missed it back then, and I wanted to see it now mostly because I find good film comedies hard to come by these days, and I like comedies, so I’m constantly in search of good ones. Sorry to say, after watching LIKE A BOSS, I’m still searching.

The biggest issue with LIKE A BOSS is that it is simply not very funny, and for a comedy, yes, that’s a rather big deal.

Its story of two friends Mia (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel (Rose Byrne) who have been friends since middle school and now run a successful beauty company together starts out well as it does a good job of introducing these two characters and their two likable employees, Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) and Barrett (Billy Porter).

The stage is set for some comedic conflict, which arrives in the person of Salma Hayek’s Claire Luna, who not only wants to buy out their company, but also wants to drive a wedge between the two friends because their contract together stipulates that if one or the other leaves the company, control of the business goes to Luna.

The trouble is this conflict never becomes all that funny nor does it rise above anything that isn’t one hundred percent cliche and predictable.

I did not enjoy the screenplay by Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly. The jokes were few and far between, and the comedic situations were nowehre near as over the top as they should have been. There’s a funny sequence involving Mia eating some very hot peppers, but this scene was widely given away in the film’s trailers. There’s also a funny moment early on involving some marijuana use and the proximity of a sleeping baby.

But the biggest hit against the comedy is that the main scenes between Mia and Mel with their nemesis Claire Luna are never funny. These scenes all fall flat and are rather dull and painful to sit through.

The two leads are enjoyable although they aren’t strong enough to carry this movie on their own. Tiffany Haddish probably fares the best as Mia and she definitely enjoys the film’s best moments.  Rose Byrne is almost as good as Mel, although her character is less comedic than Haddish’s. Byrne fared better in the INSIDIOUS movies where she played frightened mom Renai.

But Salma Hayek who I usually enjoy is stuck here playing an unlikable and one-note character Claire Luna. Rather than being an interesting villain, Luna is a colossal bore.

Director Miguel Arteta successfully tells the story of two lifelong friends struggling to run a business together but drops the ball every time it attempts to be funny, which is not a good thing for a film billed as a comedy. I enjoyed Arteta’s drama BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) more, which also starred Salma Hayek. BEATRIZ was an intriguing drama that remained strong throughout until its head-scratching and rather confusing ending.

LIKE A BOSS, however, is rarely strong. It provides us with a pair of interesting and for the most part likeable characters, but it puts them in a rather dull storyline that really struggles to be even a little bit funny.

Sharper writing would certainly have helped.

As it stands, there’s just not that much to like about LIKE A BOSS.

—END—

THE LOVEBIRDS (2020) – Romantic Comedy Offers Some Light Diversion

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Movie comedies are in a major slump.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a new movie that made you laugh so hard you couldn’t stop? There haven’t been all that many recently. Which is too bad, because we can always use a good laugh, especially in the here and now.

I wish I could say today’s movie, THE LOVEBIRDS (2020), bucked that trend and had me laughing throughout, but that’s not the case. That being said, this silly romantic comedy about a couple who seconds after deciding to break up become involved in a murder that sends them fleeing from the police and searching for the real killer has its moments, and as such, is for the most part a pleasant diversion from current real world woes.

THE LOVEBIRDS opens with the first date between Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) and then leaps forward several years in time to the point where these two lovebirds are on the brink of breaking up. In fact, while in their car on their way to a party they do break up, and at that very moment, they strike a bicyclist with their vehicle. When they run out to see if the man is okay, he gets back on his bike and pedals away in a panic.

Stunned and shocked, they attempt to process what just happened, but they barely have time to do this when a man (Paul Sparks) arrives on the scene claiming to be a police officer. He commandeers their car with them inside and tells them the man on the bike is a dangerous criminal. They give chase, and when they finally catch up to the bicyclist the “police officer” who’s behind the wheel runs him down, and then runs him over several more times until he’s very dead. As he gets out of the car to check on the body, Jibran tells Leilani, “I don’t think he’s a cop.”

What follows is a comedic tale in which Jibran and Leilani work hard to elude both the police and the man, who they refer to as Moustache, as they attempt to find out why Moustache wanted to kill the bicyclist. If they find out why and can prove it, they can go to the police with a real story rather than the flimsy one they have now, with little or no reason why they fled a crime scene other than they were afraid.

THE LOVEBIRDS is a mixed bag. The two leads, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, do work well together, and by far, the funniest parts of the movie are their interactions with each other. The screenplay by Brendan Gall and Aaron Abrams gets this part right. In fact, the opening date sequence had me both laughing out loud and really enjoying these two characters as they got to know each other and fell in love. And this part of the movie remains consistent throughout. Rae and Nanjiani are both funny and enjoyable to watch from beginning to end.

The problem is the rest of the movie isn’t as strong. The plot never becomes as zany or as madcap as it needs to be. Most of the predicaments Leilani and Jibran find themselves in either fall flat or never push the envelope as far as they should. For example, in one scene, as they are held prisoner, they are given a choice, either hot bacon grease to the face or the unknown threat behind the door. Jibran chooses the door, and finds himself facing the back end of a horse. He actually says what the audience is fearing and expecting, but what happens is anticlimactic. This happens throughout the movie.

I almost wish this one had been a straight romantic comedy without the silly crime plot because Rae and Nanjiani really do work well together. In this case, they have to because they pretty much are the entire movie. Which is another problem with THE LOVEBIRDS. Movies like this really need some quirky supporting characters to keep the comedy moving, but this film doesn’t have any.

The only other memorable character is Moustache, and Paul Sparks plays it straight. He’s simply a menacing bad guy, but he’s not in the movie enough to have an impact. Moustache is also not developed at all. That being said, Paul Sparks does a nice job with what little he has to work with, which is no surprise, because he’s a really good actor. He’s been memorable on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-18) and as a rather nasty critic James Gordon Bennett in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017).

Issa Rae is excellent as Leilani, as is Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran, and they really do succeed in making these characters seem like a real couple. They’re funny throughout, and even when the situations they find themselves in simply aren’t as comical as expected, they still manage to garner a chuckle with a one-liner here and there. My favorite Kumail Nanjiani movie remains THE BIG SICK (2017). THE LOVEBIRDS is on par with his silly buddy comedy STUBER (2019) in which he co-starred with Dave Bautista.

There’s a conversation in a restaurant between Leilani and Jibran after they have fled the scene of the crime in which they discuss their options. and they agree they can’t go to the police since they are both nonwhite and fear the police would shoot first and ask questions later. This conversation reminded me of a similar moment in the dark drama QUEEN AND SLIM (2019), a movie about a black couple who flee a crime scene and go on to become an unintentional “black Bonnie and Clyde.” While its heart was in the right place, a lot of QUEEN AND SLIM simply didn’t work as well as it should have. Here, THE LOVEBIRDS attempts to be a lighthearted version of the same predicament, although race relations and police brutality, while a central theme in QUEEN AND SLIM, is barely mentioned here, although it is the reason the two main characters fear going to the police.

Two very different movies, two very similar scenes, and one very present and timely theme.

THE LOVEBIRDS was directed by Michael Showalter, who also directed Kumail Nanjiani in the far superior THE BIG SICK. In THE LOVEBIRDS, Showalter succeeds in bringing the two main characters to life. You will really route for Leilani and Jibran to survive their ordeal and get back together by the movie’s end. But he stumbles somewhat with the rest of the story. The predicaments are never as nutty or as energetic as they could be, and supporting characters who could add to the absurdity are nowhere to be found.

THE LOVEBIRDS works much better as a romantic comedy than an action comedy, because the relationship beween Leilani and Jibran is sincere throughout, while the action sequences are simply not very silly.

THE LOVEBIRDS is good for some light diversion, and it’s generally a fun experience, as long as you’re not looking to laugh your butt off for 90 minutes. Yep, at last check, my butt is still there.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

THE HALF OF IT (2020) – Tender Teen Love Story Emphasizes Romance Over Comedy

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Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in THE HALF OF IT (2020).

There have been some very good coming-of-age teen comedy/dramas in recent years, and you can go ahead and add THE HALF OF IT (2020) to the list, a new film by writer/director Alice Wu.

In THE HALF OF IT, nerdy high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives with her father Edwin (Collin Chou) who’s still traumatized over the death of his wife, Ellie’s mother.  He barely works and spends most of his time watching old movies on television. To help makes ends meet, Ellie runs a business writing essays for her classmates, with her motto being that if they don’t get an A, they don’t have to pay.

When she’s approached by a quiet yet sweet jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to write a love letter to the girl he has a crush on, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie at first refuses, but she changes her mind when Paul offers to pay her more money which she needs to prevent the electricity in her home from being shut off.

Ellie writes the letter, and it works, as Aster responds with a letter of her own, and suddenly Paul is asking Ellie for more help, but further complicating matters is that Ellie also has a crush— on Aster.

What’s a girl to do? In Ellie’s case it’s to keep writing the letters which are really expressions of her own feelings towards Aster, which makes the whole process more and more difficult for her, especially when Paul sees just how hard Ellie is working to help him, a realization that changes the way he feels about her.

THE HALF OF IT is a comedy/romance, but as the movie goes along, the emphasis falls more on the side of romance. The theme of the movie is that love is messy and complicated, and the relationships in this story certainly back up this notion.

Now I liked THE HALF OF IT but I didn’t find the script by Alice Wu quite as sharp as I expected it to be. The comedy aspects, while funny, become less prevalent as the story moves forward, and the film loses some of its edge as it sheds its comedic voice. Much of the comedy early on involves Ellie’s and Paul’s antics to woo Aster, including scenes where they are spying on her, and a dinner date where Paul is fumbling to speak to Aster, so Ellie who’s watching from outside attempts to bail him out by texting her, but the trouble is, Paul can’t see what she’s texting. And while these moments are good for a chuckle, the humor never goes over the top to really make you laugh out loud.

The writing is stronger when focused on romance. There are some tender moments, like when Ellie attempts to teach Paul the art of conversation over a game of ping pong. And there are lots of little moments throughout, but one thing lacking in THE HALF OF IT is a big moment, that scene where the film tugs at your heart strings. There’s a dramatic climax inside a church which comes close to doing this but ultimately falls short.

But the small moments are enjoyable, like one at the film’s conclusion involving running after a train.

The three principal actors are all very good, Leah Lewis as Ellie, Daniel Diemer as Paul, and Alexxis Lemire as Aster, but one thing that works against this movie is that strangely, none of these folks generate much chemistry together. While I appreciated the odd love triangle, I never completely bought how they felt about each other. The love triangle just never came to life.

Director Alice Wu scores highest when covering the tender moments of teens contemplating love. More than just a teen comedy or love story, it’s really about understanding what love is, why people love, and how people love. Wu also uses the art of texting to the film’s advantage. The characters text each other constantly, and we see these texts in real time, and they really add to the effectiveness of the storytelling.

But I still wish the movie had been funnier. I enjoyed BANANA SPLIT (2018) more, a film I reviewed several weeks back, as that teen romance scored much higher on the comedic meter. Likewise, I also enjoyed THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and LADY BIRD (2017) more as well.

The movie also doesn’t have a strong sense of place. It takes place in small town America, the typical “nothing happens here” town where the teens are just aching to leave, but the film doesn’t really capture the feel of this small town or where it is located. It’s in Washington, but it could take place just about anywhere there’s a small rural town.

I liked THE HALF OF IT but didn’t love it.

The theme of THE HALF OF IT is based on a Greek story by Aristophanes in which the gods split whole humans in half, and so humans now spend their lives looking for their other half in order to complete themselves. A sweet notion, one that the film returns to throughout its plot.

And THE HALF OF IT is composed of two halves as well, comedy and romance, and like the characters in the story, it too struggles to become something that is whole.

 

—END—

 

BUFFALOED (2019) – Spicy Comedy-Drama Showcase for Zoey Deutch

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Zoey Deutch in BUFFALOED (2019).

BUFFALOED (2019) is a spirited, in-your-face comedy-drama about a young woman whose hell-bent on out-hustling anyone and everyone around her as she pursues her dream of making money.

It features a tour de force performance by Zoey Deutch in the lead role and sharp funny writing by Brian Sacca. It doesn’t entirely work, but for the most part, it’s a film I liked a lot and recommend.

While made in 2019, BUFFALOED premiered on February 14, 2020, and is currently available to watch at home on Xfinity On Demand.

BUFFALOED is the story of Peg (Zoey Deutch), a young woman who from a very young age believed she had to hustle in order to make it big in life, and that’s because her dad died when she was young, and she found herself unhappy at home with her now single mom and older brother in their low-income home in Buffalo, NY, an area she describes as being dominated by Bills’ games and chicken.

When she gets accepted into college, she realizes there is no way she can pay for it and so she comes up with a scheme to scalp Bills’ tickets, a decision that lands her in jail. After serving her time, she’s contacted by debt collectors regarding the money she owes, and after a phone conversation in which she realizes she’s better at this process than the guy she’s talking to on the phone, she joins a sleazy debt collecting business run by the unsavory Wizz (Jai Courtney) with the challenge that she will become his number one debt collector.

It turns out to be true, but when Wizz fails to pay her what she is owed, she quits and launches her own debt collecting firm, hiring an eclectic crew of collectors, from people she met in prison to a Bible salesman who showed up at her door. Of course, Wizz doesn’t take kindly to the competition, and he declares an all out war on Peg and her business, a war that gets nasty, violent, and dangerous. Hence, the drama part of the story.

I have to say, I liked BUFFALOED a lot, for the two main reasons mentioned above, for Zoey Deutch’s performance and for the script by Brian Sacca.

By far, the best part of BUFFALOED is Zoey Deutch’s performance as Peg. From the opening seconds of the movie, where she screams out one giant expletive, she had me hooked, and she easily carries the rest of the movie on her back. Peg is an abrasive, obnoxious, and often raunchy young woman who is also incredibly persistent and driven, a perfect salesperson, who in this case sadly uses her talents to collect debts from people. In a lesser actor’s hands, she could have been a very unlikable character. That’s not the case here as Deutch imbues her with such oomph and drive she’s like a roller coaster ride. It nearly makes you sick but you go right back in line for more.

I first noticed Deutch in ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) where she played Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus’ new girlfriend. She more than held her own alongside Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin. In fact, her performance was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She’s equally as memorable here in BUFFALOED. Zoey Deutch is an actor to watch.

I also enjoyed Jai Courtney as the villainous Wizz. While most of the film is played for laughs, Courtney’s Wizz is not. He’s a sexist bully who is an exceedingly annoying character, well-played by Courtney. While Jai Courtney has enjoyed some prominent movie roles, like Captain Boomerang in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) and Kyle Reese in TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015), his work here in BUFFALOED may be the best thing I’ve seen him do yet.

Judy Greer plays Peg’s mom Kathy, and she’s excellent as always. She stands by her daughter even as Peg’s decisions continually hurt the family, but even she has limits, and one of the best scenes in the movie is when Kathy finally has had enough and admits to Peg she wishes she would just leave. Greer has been playing Scott Lang’s ex-wife Maggie in the ANT-MAN  movies, and she also starred as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode’s adult daughter Karen in the recent HALLOWEEN (2018) movie.

I enjoyed the screenplay by Brian Sacca, who also stars in the movie as Sal, one of the debt collectors who works for Wizz. The strength of the screenplay is the rough and raunchy dialogue which scores high on the funny meter. I laughed a lot. It also does a fantastic job creating Peg’s character, helped of course by Zoey Deutch’s performance.

Where it doesn’t do as well however is the actual story. As much as I enjoyed the dialogue, I didn’t always believe what I was watching. For example, the plan by Peg to scalp Buffalo Bills tickets to make money for college seemed more a plot device to get her into prison than something she would actually do. And things come so easily for her later, I wasn’t always buying it.

The best part of the story and when the movie hits its stride is when Peg assembles her debt collecting staff. This array of characters are the liveliest in the movie, and I wish the story had spent more time on their antics and less on the bully tactics of Wiff and his cronies to stop them.

The love story between Peg and her attorney friend Graham (Jermaine Fowler) also didn’t really work for me, for a couple of reasons.  One, I didn’t think Graham was a particularly well-written character, as he was by far the least developed character in the movie. And also, I didn’t feel that Fowler and Deutch shared much onscreen chemistry together.

Also, for a movie that clocks in at a crisp 95 minutes, there were times, especially towards the end, where it actually dragged a bit.

Director Tanya Wexler captures the Buffalo blue-collar feel well enough, and for the most part the film possesses the same oomph as Deutch’s Peg, but it’s not quite a home run.

With the heavy-handedness of Wizz and his henchmen, the film tries to make a  statement about the debt collecting underworld, but it’s not as successful as it sets out to be. There are times where it aims for the relevance of THE BIG SHORT  (2015) and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) but it falls short of these aspirations.

Just before the end credits roll, for example, the films lists the sad statistics of how many Americans are now in debt and who now face the unceasing ire of debt collectors, a practice that remains largely unchecked and unpoliced by the U.S. government. While this statement definitely pertains to the movie’s plot, it almost seems like it belongs in a different movie, since so much of BUFFALOED was played for laughs.

For the most part, I enjoyed BUFFALOED. It’s a showcase for an up and coming actor, Zoey Deutch, and it’s got a lively and very funny script that will make you laugh even when it explores some of the darker sides of the shady practice known as debt collecting.

And it does it all with as much spice as your favorite buffalo hot sauce.

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BANANA SPLIT (2020) – Teen Comedy Hilarious And Poignant

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Liana Liberato and Hannah Marks make their points in BANANA SPLIT (2020)

If you liked the coming-of-age teen comedies like THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016), EIGHTH GRADE (2018), LADY BIRD (2017), and BOOKSMART (2019), you’ll love BANANA SPLIT (2020), an exceedingly well-written and acted comedy that is as poignant as it is funny.

And even though BANANA SPLIT was filmed in 2018, a bizarre copyright issue involving a Bart Simpson T-shirt delayed the film’s release, and so it’s finally getting its wide release this weekend here in 2020. Of course, these days thanks to COVID-19, theaters are pretty much closed, and so if you want to see this one it’s available on Video On Demand services like Xfinity. It’s well-worth the $7.99.

BANANA SPLIT is the story of two high school seniors, April (Hannah Marks) and Clara (Liana Liberato), who over the summer before leaving for college, form an unlikely best friendship, and it’s unlikely because Clara is dating April’s ex-boyfriend Nick (Dylan Sprouse). Yeah, there’s that.

In an opening montage, we learn about April and Nick’s relationship, from how they first meet, to their junior and senior year romance, to how they break up at the end of their senior year, following April’s acceptance to Boston University, which will take her far away from their southern California homes.

April is devastated, and when she learns from their mutual friend Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts) that not only is Nick now dating a new girl in town, Clara, but that Clara happens to be a childhood friend of Ben’s, she’s overwhelmed. When she meets Clara at a party, she fully intends to make a scene, but strangely, the two hit if off. They have such a good time that before they leave, they exchange phone numbers.

The next thing they know they are hanging out, and as best friends, but to keep things “sane” they decide to come up with some rules, like “no talking about Nick” for instance, and also “no telling Nick.” Which puts their mutual friend Ben in a very awkward position, because he knows, and he’s not supposed to tell Nick. As he constantly warns, at some point this is all going to go to sh*t, because sooner or later Nick is going to find out.

Yup.

BANANA SPLIT is a superior comedy that is driven most of all by an impressive script by Joey Power and Hannah Marks, who also plays April. The dialogue is off-the-charts real. It’s also hilariously funny.

The story is a good one. In addition to the intriguing plot point of two friends who have dated the same guy, the script takes an honest and refreshing look at the friendship between April and Clara. These two become really close, and they talk openly about how while they are so close, they don’t have sexual feelings for each other and neither is seeking a lesbian relationship.

The honesty of the script and the frankness of the dialogue are the movie’s strengths. The conversations around the dinner table between April, her mom (Jessica Hecht) and her 13 year-old sister Agnes (Addison Riecke) are laugh-out-loud funny, because of the subjects being discussed, the language used to discuss them, and the honesty with which they unfold.

Sure, there’s an awful lot of sex, drugs, and alcohol happening among high school students which some may find disturbing. The film earns its R rating. But it’s all covered in an honest way that makes it work. In other words, the story is not about sex, drugs, and alcohol use. It’s about friendship. And these other things are just part of the story.

The writing by Marks and Power is phenomenal. Not only is it funny, but there are so many smart moments and observations which just click. Like when Clara observes two of April’s friends gesticulating at them at a party. Clara remarks dryly that they look “friendly,” to which April responds “They’re not friendly. They’re just my friends.”

The acting is just as good as the writing. Hannah Marks is just so good as April. Even though there are four main characters in this story, Marks pretty much carries this movie on her shoulders. She makes April a character we can relate to and care about. Her performance is every bit as good as the leads in the four movies mentioned above, Hailee Steinfeld in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE, Saoirse Ronan in LADY BIRD, and Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in BOOKSMART.

Liana Liberato is equally as good as Clara, a role that is a challenging one because Clara is still dating Nick and she has to play both sides of the fence. Yet, she does not come off as a manipulative person, even though ultimately by keeping this secret from Nick she is being less than honest. She comes off as a person who enjoys April’s friendship and her relationship with Nick, and she sees little conflict with continuing with both.

Dylan Sprouse is fine as Nick, but he disappears for large chunks of the movie. Making more of a mark is Luke Spencer Roberts as Ben, the neurotic best friend of both April and Clara who finds himself stuck in the middle and having to lie to his other best friend, Nick. Roberts enjoys many scene-stealing moments throughout this one.

Speaking of scene-stealing moments, Addison Riecke as April’s sister Agnes is not in this one a whole lot, but when she is, she commands attention. The aforementioned dinner table scenes are some of the most riveting and comical scenes in the movie, featuring rapid fire verbal and vulgar onslaughts between the two sisters while their mother struggles yet most often succeeds in keeping the peace. As such, Jessica Hecht is also very good as their loving and sincere single mom Susan.

BANANA SPLIT was directed by Benjamin Kasulke, who imbues this one with so much life and vivacity. His lively direction includes hilarious montages, like when Clara recounts to April the fourteen guys she’s had sex with, makes full and effective use of cell phone texts superimposed on the screen, and uses the camera to capture the vulnerabilities of all four of his main teen characters.

BANANA SPLIT is a winner from beginning to end. It perfectly relates the experience of high schoolers having relationships in the here and now, and even if your high school days are in the past, truths about young relationships never go out of style, and this movie is full of truths. Regardless of your age, this one is worth checking out.

Right now we are practicing social distancing amid the COVID-19 epidemic. You can’t go to your local ice cream eatery and enjoy a banana split with friends.

But you can enjoy this BANANA SPLIT on a television screen in the comfort of your own home. It’s just as fun and better yet, contains far fewer calories.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019) – Comedic Bio-Pic Features Eddie Murphy At His Best

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Conventional wisdom is that Eddie Murphy deserved an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Rudy Ray Moore in the Netflix film DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019).

After finally catching up with this one, I heartily agree.  This is Murphy’s best work in years. That being said, while I agree that Murphy could easily have been nominated, I’m still glad Joaquin Phoenix won the award for his lead role in JOKER (2019), as for me, his was the best performance of the year.

But back to DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, a movie I liked a lot. It’s a bio pic of Rudy Ray Moore, who after years of struggling to make his name in show business, changed his name and took on a new persona, Dolemite, leading to best-selling comedy albums and eventually a string of successful 1970s blaxploitation movies. As such, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is also quite funny, because Rudy was a funny guy, as were his antics.

When DOLEMITE IS MY NAME opens, Rudy (Eddie Murphy) is stuck working in a record store and can’t get his own records played on the radio to save his life. He feels increasingly frustrated that he has worked his butt off with nothing to show for it. But when he hears a street person telling a series of jokes in a sing-song fashion, he realizes that this man and others like him are a treasure trove for material. So Rudy visits them on the streets and writes down their stories and their jokes, and he turns their source material into his own original act, creating a new character in the process, the charismatic Dolemite.

He’s an instant sensation at his local stand-up comedy venue, and then things just take off from there, leading to comedic record deals, and eventually movies.

Eddie Murphy is right at home playing Rudy Ray Moore and his alter ego Dolemite. Murphy is a natural at capturing Rudy’s raunchy comedic style since it fits right into Murphy’s own style of comedy back in his heyday. Better yet, Murphy nails the dramatic elements here as well. Early on, he does a great job showing Rudy’s frustrations with life, that he just can’t seem to catch a break, and he isn’t getting any younger. Likewise, after he has achieved success and has become a “star,” Murphy portrays Rudy as a man who never forgot his roots. He doesn’t become a jerk, and he treats his fans well. Murphy’s Rudy is a guy to be admired.

Wesley Snipes and Chris Rock are also in the cast and their presence is felt. This is actually the first time that Murphy and Snipes have ever made a movie together. They share some fun moments, as Snipes plays D’Urville Martin, who directed Dolemite’s first movie, and the two don’t always see eye to eye, which makes for some entertaining sequences.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph gives one of the best performances in the movie as Lady Reed, a performer who Rudy “discovers.” Their scenes together are some of the best in the film. Randolph enjoys lots of comedic moments and some dramatic ones, like when she thanks Rudy for giving her a chance, grateful that he overlooked her large size and didn’t let that stop him from promoting her.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is the film student Rudy hires to be his director of photography. Smit-McPhee has been in a bunch of movies in his young career, and my favorite remains his portrayal of the boy Owen in the exceptional vampire movie LET ME IN (2010) starring Chloe Grace-Moretz and directed by Matt Reeves. Sure, it’s a remake of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), which many people prefer, but I like LET ME IN a lot. Smit-McPhee is excellent in it, and plus it’s a Hammer Film!

Director Craig Brewer really gives this one a 1970s look and feel and successfully recaptures the essence of Rudy’s original Dolemite movies. Things slow down a bit during the film’s second half, but other than this, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is an enjoyable piece of filmmaking, as long as you don’t mind lots of vulgar language.

The screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is ripe with coarse language, and there’s plenty of nudity as well, all capturing the 1970s blaxploitation feel. It also tells a noteworthy story and portrays Rudy Ray Moore as decent guy whose years of hard work eventually pay off. The movie is also hilariously funny.

I liked DOLEMITE IS MY NAME a lot. It tells a worthwhile story, features one of Eddie Murphy’s best performances in years, and in addition to being an informative biography of Rudy Ray Moore is exceedingly funny as well.

If you’re indoors social distancing looking for a movie to watch, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is a worthy addition to your movie queue.

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IMPRACTICAL JOKERS: THE MOVIE (2020) – Big Screen Treatment of Hilarious TV Show Funny But Negligible

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I love the TV show IMPRACTICAL JOKERS (2011-Present).

I don’t think I’ve ever watched an episode without laughing out loud. It’s that funny. Its gimmick of four lifelong friends- “Q” (Brian Quinn), Joe (Joe Gatto), Murr (James Murray) and Sal (Sal Vulcano)- who have to compete in dares designed by each other, all involving potentially embarrassing interactions with unsuspecting innocent folks in public places, makes it a sort of modern-day version of the classic TV show “Candid Camera” and guarantees uproarious laughter in every episode. If you want to laugh, IMPRACTICAL JOKERS delivers every time.

Now comes IMPRACTICAL JOKERS: THE MOVIE, which places the four friends and their antics on the big screen, which begs the question, why go to the movies and pay big bucks for a movie ticket when you can see these guys every day on TV for free? I don’t think the movie satisfactorily answers this question.

The movie has its moments. Make no mistake, there are parts where I laughed out loud, but simply put, it’s not as good as the show, and that’s because the show is nonstop hilarity, whereas here in the movie, there’s also a plot, and not a very good one.

The “plot” involves Paula Abdul, of all people, as the movie opens in 1992 with the four guys crashing one of her concerts and getting on stage and incurring her wrath. It’s an opening bit that just doesn’t work. Years later, they meet Abdul again, and she’s forgotten the incident and instead gives them tickets to her next show in Florida, but she only gives them three tickets. The guys decide to take a road trip to Florida, and on their way compete, and the loser of their competition doesn’t get to go to the concert. That’s the plot. Pretty lame.

Not that I was expecting an Oscar-type screenplay here, but the issue is the meh storyline simply detracts from the guys’ antics and continually slows the movie down. I mean, some of the situations here are hilarious, like the bit where the guys interview for a job with the Atlanta Hawks. Joe’s interview is priceless. I nearly fell out of my seat.

There are other hysterical bits as well, like when the guys are stopped on the side of the road, and they have to flag down cars to get help, but have to do and say what the other guys tell them.

But each time the movie returns to the plot, the film slows down. Other added elements don’t work either, like Murr’s mysterious nightlife. Each time the guys open his hotel room door, there’s a different situation taking place inside his room. Not exactly uproarious material.

The movie element causes other problems as well. The strength of the show is its humor is real, the people on camera and their reactions are real. That’s also what’s happening here in the movie, except during the plot points, obviously there are other actors involved, and it blurs the line between what is written and what is genuine.

Simply put, the show is better than this movie. That being said, Brian Quinn, Joe Gatto, James Murray, and Sal Vulcano remain fun to watch and even though this movie is not as good as the show, it still provides lots of laughs.

IMPRACTICAL JOKERS: THE MOVIE will satisfy fans of the show, although since it doesn’t really add anything new or better, there’s little reason to go out and see it. The show is superior, and it’s available to watch at home. But if you can’t get enough of the Jokers, then feel free to check it out. You will laugh.

Likewise, if you’ve never seen the show, the movie is still fun, but again you’d be better served to watch the show at home for free.

IMPRACTICAL JOKERS: THE MOVIE has its moments, but to watch this movie instead of the show, is— rather impractical.

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PARASITE (2019) – Gripping Tale of Haves and Have-Nots Comedic One Moment, Horrific The Next

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So-dam Park and Woo-sik Choi in PARASITE (2019).

Usually when a movie can’t be pigeonholed into one genre, the common refrain is that it can’t make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be.

Not so with PARASITE (2019), a drama that hails from South Korea that is frequently comedic even as it flirts with undertones of a harsh reality, before it explodes into a full-blown horrific nightmare.

PARASITE has been quietly gaining momentum as a dark horse Best Picture contender, and while I certainly really liked this one, I’m not sure it would have made it into my Top Ten list for Best Movies of 2019.

That being said, I still really liked it.

PARASITE is the story of a destitute family, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), their 20-something daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi). They are all unemployed and live in a decrepit basement dwelling.

But when Ki-woo’s college friend recommends him to take over his private tutoring position while he studies abroad, Ki-woo suddenly finds himself hired to tutor the high school daughter of a very wealthy family and as a result he’s handsomely paid. He then comes up with a scheme to have his sister impersonate an art therapy tutor to help the family’s youngest son, and once she’s hired, now there are two members of Ki-woo’s family working and getting paid amazingly well.

So, why stop there? The comedic plot thickens as the family schemes to get Ki-taek and Chung-sook hired there as well, and so they all find themselves pretending to be people they are not working for the family led by Dong-ik Park (Sun-kyun Lee) and his wife Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). And while life is good for a while, as the two families interact, it becomes increasingly clear how much of a divide exists between the likes of Ki-taek’s family and Dong-ik’s, who hold the poor in contempt. And so there is this undercurrent of a painful divide which is there and seemingly on the verge of exploding yet never does.

Until something completely unexpected happens which turns everything that has occurred thus far on its head.

THE PARASITE is a gripping, captivating story that is as entertaining as it is disturbing. You’ll find yourself smiling and laughing along for one moment and then grimacing in horror the next. And the best part is these seemingly opposite emotions really work here, and they work because they are both based on truth. The truth of the matter is in the here and now, we are seeing a greater and greater divide between the haves and the have-nots, and while here the antics of the have-nots to make do can be light and humorous, when push comes to shove, and the realization hits that the have-nots are never going to be the haves, the pleasant comedic balance ends. Things get dark real fast.

THE PARASITE was written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, who has made a couple of other highly regarded movies, films like SNOWPIERCER (2013) and THE HOST (2006). The script captures the class differences perfectly, as does the camera, as we see entirely different worlds, the elegant and opulent home of Dong-ik and the shanty poverty-stricken dwelling of Ki-taek, which when there is a flood, not only has to contend with the flood waters, but all the back-up sewage water which erupts through their plumbing.

The cast is excellent, especially Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, and So-dam Park as the four members of the Kim family.

The best part of THE PARASITE is that it mixes its emotions perfectly, and while at times it can be jarring to go from light laughter to brutal horror, in terms of the story it’s telling, it makes perfect sense and it works.

Sadly, the divisions between classes continues to grow. The rich seem to grow richer while the poor grow poorer.

The emotions in THE PARASITE capture and reflect this sad reality. In short, in these present conditions, you can only laugh for so long. Eventually you’ll be crying.

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