Tag Archives: C+

THE PASSENGER

Producers: Paige Pemberton and Paul B. Uddo   Director: Carter Smith   Screenplay: Jack Stanley   Cast: Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold, Liza Weil, Billy Slaughter, Matthew Laureano, Jordan Sherley, Kanesha Washington, Lupe Leon, Merah Benoit, Glendon Ray Hobgood, Brooks Anne Hayes, Carson Allen Minniear, Sue Rock, Morgana Shaw and Angie Dillard   Distributor: MGM+

Grade: C+

Solid lead performances only go so far in this oddball combination of bloody thriller and forced therapy session, which begins with a massacre and ends in recovery from trauma.  “The Passenger” doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, but Kyle Gallner and Johnny Berchtold make its odd couple pairing compelling even as illogical narrative underpinnings and lethargic pacing take their toll.

Benson (Gallner) and Bradley (Berchtold) are co-workers in a crummy burger joint in a grimy industrial city.  Bradley, troubled by nightmares in which, as a child (Cameron Allen Minniear), he sees a woman (Liza Weil) with blood streaming from her eye, is so meek that when his boss Hardy (played, appropriately in view of his fate, by Billy Slaughter) was making out his employees’ first-name id plates, he was too nervous to tell him that Bradley was his surname. 

Bradley—or Randy—is constantly bullied by another colleague, brutish Chris (Matthew Laureano), who’s interested only in necking with slutty waitress Jess (Jordan Sherley), and accepts the nasty treatment without complaint.  Finally Benson, fed up with it all, goes to his car, comes back with a shotgun, and kills Hardy, Chris and Jess, forcing Bradley to help him carry the corpses into the rear and clean up the blood before locking up and driving away with hapless Bradley as his unwilling passenger.  (Fortunately, not a single customer has made an appearance.)  He calculates that they have seven hours before the victims are discovered, and says he intends using them to “fix” Bradley by curing him of his crippling anxiety.

What follows is a peculiarly meandering journey around town—a stop at Benson’s home, where he fights with his addict mother (Sue Rock), and another at a diner for breakfast, where he insults pleasant waitress Marsha (Kanesha Washington) by suggesting that she’s wasted her life.  They also go to a mall where Bradley’s one-time girlfriend Lisa (Lupe Leon, who abruptly dumped him, works at a kids’ store; Benson wants Bradley finally to come to terms with the breakup. 

Bradley, who goes through all this with distress but also growing sense of companionship with Benson, finally confesses the source of the debilitating docility that makes him submit cravenly to everyone else’s orders—guilt over accidentally causing a terrible injury to the eye of his second-grade teacher Miss Beard (Weil).  Benson decides that he should see her and apologize before they leave town, so they go to his old school to get her home address from the secretary (Brooks Anne Hayes).

She provides it, but as they leave Benson encounters Principal Sheppard (Glendon Ray Hobgood), whom he recognizes as an old teacher of his.  He snaps, follows the man into the parking lot and brutally assaults him before they proceed to Miss Beard’s home; obviously Bradley is not the only one to have suffered a traumatic experience in elementary school, though whatever happened to Benson is never fully explained.  The greeting he receives from his old teacher, still wearing the eyepatch that her students derided, proves far warmer than Bradley had expected, but a phone call from school leads Benson to take Miss Beard along with them to the very same diner they’d visited before—where Marsha accosts him angrily and both men are cured of their psychological problems, though in very different ways.

“The Passenger” has episodes of extreme violence—the opening massacre, the attack on Sheppard—but what it depends on is more the idea that Benson is a walking time bomb, with the potential to explode anytime, whether it be in encounters with Lisa, Marsha or Miss Beard or with somebody else they might bump into during the day, like Principal Sheppard.  Gallner expertly captures his on-the-edge volatility, managing to generate considerable suspense even when an explosion doesn’t happen.  Berchtold is equally effective in his own way, expressing Bradley’s inclination to fade into the background in dealings with others without turning him into a mere sap.  The two play off well against one another, even if it’s hard to buy into Benson’s decision to act as Bradley’s savior.  The rest of the cast is fine, with Weil, Leon and Washington the standouts, though it’s hard for anyone to take center stage while Gallner and Berchtold are in the vicinity.

Director Carter Smith is wise to give his stars a wide berth, but at the same time his pacing, combined with Eric Nagy’s editing, can seem to dawdle.  Spencer Davison’s production design is mostly just functional, but the burger joint is rendered in all its run-down junkiness, nicely caught in Lyn Moncrief’s deliberately dingy widescreen images.  Christopher Bear’s score is agreeably spare and, when it does appear, low-key.

“The Passenger” verges on the ridiculous, but though it never crosses the line into the genuinely absurd, it comes perilously close.  But the pairing of Gallner and Berchtold as its odd-couple protagonists makes even its most ludicrous elements more palatable than you might expect.        

THEATER CAMP

Producers: Erik Feig, Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Maria Zuckerman, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman and Ben Platt   Directors: Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman   Screenplay: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman and Ben Platt   Cast: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Alan Kim, Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick, Kyndra Sanchez, Donovan Colan, Vivienne Sachs, David Rasche and Quinn Titcomb   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: C+

The key to a really good mockumentary, as Christopher Guest and his company of master improvisers repeatedly proved in theirs, is not just to have an idea of what to spoof, but to give the material your contributors have come up with shape and rhythm.  “Theater Camp” has a subject, all right—an obsessive devotion to the stage on the part of not only young “theatre geeks” whose parents fork over tuition money for live-in summer workshops but, even more, the never-was souls who live out the remnants of their dreams of Broadway glory as teachers at them.  But until a “let’s put on a show” finale, it’s pretty much a helter-skelter, hyperactive movie in which the bits that don’t register outnumber the ones that do. 

The setting is the self-explanatory Camp AdirondACTS, which founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) and her loyal manager Rita Cohen (Caroline Aaron) have kept afloat over the years by scraping together donations and searching out likely enrollees.  But the place’s future is suddenly in doubt; the bank is threatening foreclosure, and Caroline Krauss (Patti Harrison), who runs a posh nearby rival called Camp Lakeside, is ready to swoop in, buy the land, and tear the place down at a moment’s notice.  What a time for Joan to suffer a seizure and fall into a coma while on a recruitment-and-fundraising drive; the cause is the strobe lighting in a middle school production of “Bye Birdie” she and Rita are taking in.  That leaves her doofus son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), dude-ish slacker who’s a financial wizard only in his own mind, in charge.

To save money Troy has pink-slipped many of the teachers and hired Janet Walch (Ayo Edebiri), whose résumé is so loaded with lies that only a blithering idiot like him wouldn’t notice, to handle all their jobs.  But there remain long-timers on the staff, like ultra-critical costume designer Gigi Charbonier (Owen Thiele) and oddball dance instructor Clive DeWitt (Nathan Lee Graham)—let’s just say they’re about as subtle as Roger De Bris and Carmen Ghia were in “The Producers.”  Another staple is put-upon stage manager and general gofer Glenn Winthrop (Noah Galvin).

The most important holdovers, though, are best friends Amos (Ben Platt), the drama teacher, and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), the music teacher.  They met at the camp at kids and have been bonded ever since (as collaborators, not a romantic couple), even having not gotten into Juilliard together; they call themselves “permanent teachers” who are also “aspiring performers.”  Together they write the original show the campers put on as the season’s first performance; this year it’s to be a tribute to the comatose founder titled “Joan, Still.”  But writing and rehearsing it reveal fissures arising between the two old friends.  Meanwhile bumbling Troy falls into Caroline’s clutches, ultimately leaving the show as the last chance to rescue the camp.

The adults in the cast have their moments, though the would-be Tracy-Hepburn shtick between Platt and Gordon too often slides into mere hysteria and Tatro quickly becomes a bore as the newly-installed boss who refers to himself as an “en-Troy-preneur” (a not so bon mot unfortunately characteristic of the quality of verbal humor here).  On the other hand, Edebiri scores as the newcomer whose students quickly see through her phoniness, as does Galvin in the big finale, where the worm turns and he takes center stage with dazzling results.

But it’s the kids who provide the greatest pleasure.  There are a few miscalculations among them—the running gag about one (Alan Kim) who has no interest in performing but aims to sign up classmates for his would be talent agency, for example, is a flop (compare Barry Gordon’s unforgettable turn as a child agent on the old Jack Benny program).  But the audition montage is a high point (a thirteen-year old belting out “Sweeney Todd,” a kid holding a note longer than Ethel Merman could), and Kyndra Sanchez, Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick and Luke Islam all shine in the talented ensemble; and Donovan Colan, as the newbie whose sense of nervous detachment is hilariously explained in the finale, plays off well opposite them.  There’s also an amusing sequence—better in the conception than execution, but still funny—when Troy has the idea of having the kids perform as singing waiters for a Rotary Club dinner hosted by David Rasche.

But here, as elsewhere, clumsiness in Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s directing, Nate Hurtsellers’ cinematography and Jon Philpot’s editing takes its toll.  From the excessive employment of oppressive close-ups to scenes that either feel attenuated or drag on too long and plot threads that simply disappear midway through or are disposed of with caption cards, the film has a ragged, congested feel that isn’t justified by its designation as a mockumentary.  On the other hand, the grubbiness of the production design by Charlotte Royer and Jordan Janota and Michelle Li’s costumes carries an air of authenticity, and the music by James McAlister and Mark Sonnenblick is cheesily effective, as are the original songs fashioned by Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman, Platt and Sonnenblick. What rescues “Theater Camp” in large measure from its defects is the obvious affection it has for its subjects, those outcasts and misfits who might never hit it big on the stage but don’t let the odds stacked against them destroy their dreams.