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Review: ‘The Little Hours’

dfn-little_hours_300The year is 1347. The setting is a pastoral Italian convent inhabited by a select few nuns and a soft-spoken priest.

Against a very 1970’s opening sequence, complete with bright yellow titles and a soft tune that would be right at home in the films of Michael Reeves or Jess Franco, The Little Hours opens as nun Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) leads a lost donkey home and then gently attains to her chores, fully clad in a nun’s habit.

It’s only when a second nun (Kate Micucci, so great in Don’t Think Twice) interacts with Fernanda in the very next scene that Jeff Baena’s film reveals its anachronistic intentions and begins its slow and highly enjoyable trod down an irreverent path. Arguing in ‘modern-speak’ with a tinge of emo/California Valley girl hesitancy (basically their natural voices), the two nuns soon channel their bored chatter into a vulgar rant against a passing male convent worker. Expletive laced and ferocious, it’s a moment that establishes the witty and bawdy tone of a film that mixes youthful apathy, sexual repression and mordant strikes at organized religion into a seamless example of tightly wound comedy.

Also suffering at the stifling restrictions of the convent is a third nun, Alessandra (Alison Brie). More attuned to her spiritual dedication than the others, Alessandra is the most pious of the three… that is until her father arrives to tell her she cannot return home because of financial difficulties.

Falling into the fold, Alessandra slowly loses her faith, helped by Fernanda and her smuggled-in friend (Jemima Kirke) who not only introduces the girls to wine and late night, dorm-room style clandestine drunkenness, but lesbian tendencies and a parlance in witchcraft.

Struggling to keep the three younger nuns in check becomes a much bigger problem when the priest (John C. Reilly in yet another one of his aloof comedic turns) decides to hide a dashing young man in the convent as a worker. The man (Dave Franco) is on the run from a local land baron (Nick Offerman) after sleeping with his wife. Add this virile figure into the mix and one can see the excess that The Little Hours explores.

Also written by Baena, The Little Hours owes much to the comedy of Monty Python or the sanctimonious subversion of Luis Bunuel and Pasolini. Loosely based on a couple of stories from “The Decameron,” it doesn’t make much sense to try and make literal connections. The film is its own beast. Deftly paced and breathlessly acted by all involved (especially a late appearance by Fred Armisen that had me in stitches), it’s a film that understands its purpose of fully formed characters and well designed situational laughs.

Like the recent Rough Night and so much comedy since the evolution of the Judd Apatow/Todd Phillips variety (of which I’m a fan of select ones), modern comedy has lost its sharpness. Seemingly derived from the ashes of improvisational acting and slap cut into a herky-jerky mix of reaction shots and filmmakers unsure of when (or how) to reign in the action in front of them, the films suffer from an overarching theme of mindless scatological jokes and transplanted comedy club routines.

When “scripted” comedy is done right, it just zings. The Little Hours zings. The way Aubrey Plaza meets most reactions with her expressions…. the stammers and stutters in conversation that belie a true understanding of the awkwardness of the situation… and especially the timing of several appearances throughout the film that not only underscore the exaggerated tempo of the whole affair but maintain its cheeky displeasure with the medieval age as a de-stabilizer for enlightenment.

All of these moments make Baena’s The Little Hours a supremely funny film that understands humor isn’t an organic thing that can be slapped together. It takes patience, the right people and a belief in restraint, even if one is watching a film about the intersection of religion and witchcraft. I suppose that’s yet another weirdly infectious way The Little Hours succeeds.

The Little Hours opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, July 11 at The Magnolia Landmark Theater.

 

 

Review: ‘Sleeping With Other People’

'Sleeping With Other People'
‘Sleeping With Other People’
I suppose it’s official, but the twenty-first century ‘rom-com’ is snide, emotionally vacant and replete with self serving egomaniacs who convey little truth in relationships or the basic ways in which we connect with each other. Okay, maybe not all ‘rom-coms’, but at least in the case of Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People, a film whose ambitions are tethered with two of the most unlikable characters on-screen this year and whose relationship is centralized around the basic fact they’re both emotionally stunted individuals when it comes to monogamy and healthy partnerships. Sometimes, this makes for compelling and disturbingly good cinema. But here, it alienates.

In fact, even their obligatory “meet-cute” reeks of pointed genre inversion as college student Jake (Jason Sudeikis) hears a commotion in his dorm room hallway and sees fellow student Lainey (Alison Brie) pounding on the door of neighbor Matthew (Adam Scott). After a brief explosion of profanity and sexually explicit directives when Matthew won’t open the door, Jake saves her from being kicked out of the dorm by allowing her into his room.

See, Lainey’s plan of losing her virginity to Matthew didn’t go as planned, and as she and Jake talk through the night, they rambunctiously go at it themselves, giving their virginity away to each other in an impetuous moment.

Cut to years later as we watch Jake being publicly dumped by his current girlfriend Hannah (Margarita Levieva) on the sidewalks of New York when she finds out he slept with another woman. Via a monologue that sounds as if David Mamet inserted a chunk of twisted logic into Jake’s mouth on why and how Hannah is so upset over his dubious actions, Jake is revealed to be a highly intelligent but smart-ass sexual addict, something confirmed when we next see him attending a sex addicts meeting and running into older Lainey at the same meeting.

Equally unhappy in her own sexually subjugated life, the two draw closer and closer as they decide not to have sex, but engage in a friendship that sees them weave in and out of destructive relationships with old flames and new ones, such as Jake’s boss played by Amanda Peet.

Along the journey of their hither and yonder abstinent friendship, we’re treated to a scene where they show up blitzed on ecstasy pills to a children’s birthday party, numerous scenes of Sudeikis showcasing his wit with an over-cooked script, and numerous secondary performances (such as that of Peet’s) that often feel more developed and heartfelt than the central ones of Sudeikis and Brie. All of this situational comedy is wrapped around the basic question of will they or won’t they end up together? At least in that regard, Sleeping With Other People is somewhat old fashioned.

Also written by Headland, Sleeping With Other People is, perhaps, a comedy for the new times. Like Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, it’s a film that elides the nuanced presence of previous comedies and instead foregrounds the deviant undercurrents of its men and women. Sexual addiction. The inability to break free of destructive impulses. Non stop inner dialogue that attempts to mask the ripples of hurt and insecurity. It also doesn’t hurt that Amy Schumer and Jason Sudeikis are virtual opposite-gender-twins in both their outlook on sex and their eventual warming up to the ideas of monogamy through the slow emotional hammering of their on-screen partners.

All of this is to say, if one appreciated that film, they’ll probably bask in the muggy hipster glow of Sleeping With Other People. For me, it became yet another suffocating example of two people surfing the vagaries of modern love with a screwed up compass and even less resonance.

Sleeping With Other People opens in Dallas-Fort Worth on Friday, September 25 at the Angelika Dallas and AMC NorthPark.