Movie Review ~ Rent-A-Pal

The Facts

Synopsis: Lonely bachelor David discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy, the tape offers him much-needed company and compassion. However, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.

Stars: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge

Director: Jon Stevenson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  In my mind, one of the more positive things to come out of 2020 is an interesting resurgence of 80s and 90s nostalgia that’s been brewing for some time.  The reboots of television shows and films have been streaming in over the last several years and fashion trends have been steadily regressing back to the bold looks popularized two or three decades ago.  It was truly in 2020 when I felt the pinnacle of the reminiscence to those older days happened with music industry titans The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Miley Cyrus all individually releasing albums with a distinct sound that screams of 80s synth and flavor.  It’s wonderful and I for one have loved seeing how artists of today across all mediums have reinvented the cultural touchstones of the past.

I think that’s a reason why Rent-A-Pal has such appeal, at least initially, because it taps directly into the memory sweet spot of the audience that its playing directly to.  This strange hybrid of horror/thriller/black comedy will by its very nature speak to a particular demographic and writer/director Jon Stevenson knows good and well how to snag their attention with the kind of retro calling cards that keep you visually interested even when the story begins to deflate as it careens toward a messy conclusion.  For everyone else that happens upon the film, it’s surely a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ due to an insular feeling giving off an impression if you aren’t familiar with this era you’re missing out on the majority of the point.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before all the dating apps were available, video dating services helped make love connections across the country via recorded VHS interviews. Lonesome David is hoping 1990 is the year he’ll meet his mate, though living in his elderly mother’s basement isn’t helping things.  Caring for his mom (Kathleen Brady) who suffers from dementia that leaves her brittle physically and emotionally, David (Brian Landis Folkins) is soft-spoken and the kind of guy you’d imagine would be fast-forwarded by women on the hunt for someone exciting.  While picking up his latest batch of hopeful matches, David spots a clearance VHS called Rent-A-Pal and, on a whim, decides to try it out.  Hosted by the effervescent Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape seems to ask the right questions at the right time, interacting with David on a level that few have.  Andy wants to know an awful lot about David it turns out; his secrets, his most embarrassing moments, and much more all become topics of increasingly intense conversations.  When David eventually makes a match with the sweet and shy Lisa (Amy Rutledge, strong and surprising in what could have been a disposable role), he finds that he doesn’t need his old pal Andy quite as much and stops playing the VHS.  That’s when things get weird…and deadly.

For the most part, Rent-A-Pal is a fun examination of loneliness (yes, I know how that sounds) and Stevenson doesn’t pass up an opportunity to put David in awkward positions…sometimes literally.  His interactions with the outside world are often wince-inducing and the way he begins to let what appears to be a pre-taped VHS order him around are amusing in a macabre sort of way.  Folkins and Wheaton have a good rapport in these scenes, never letting the audience get too far ahead of things so they figure out what’s happening or putting the large puzzle pieces together.  Wheaton’s role can seem a tad one-note but there’s more to what he’s doing than appears on the surface, the same can be said for Folkins who could have easily made David a Norman Bates-ish silent rage machine but instead lets what’s brewing rise to the kind of boil that explodes when you are least prepared.

The film’s biggest flaw is that Rent-A-Pal is an 80-minute movie living in the shell of a film that runs a half hour longer.  That extra thirty minutes drags the film down in its most crucial moments, slowing things to a crawl right when the screws should be turning to amp up the pressure.  It all leads somewhere, sure, and to its credit the film finds its way to a satisfying finale but the road leading up there is an oddly unsatisfying and ultimately disappointing trip, especially considering that up until then things were humming along nicely.  Clearly made on a small budget, the production design can’t go full out with the retro design so the look of the movie feels like 1990 by way of a garage sale instead of a curated prop department, but extra points go back to everyone just for seeing oodles of VHS tapes on display.

Even putting the budget aside (because plenty of movies can still be worthwhile even if made for $2.95), with a few cuts, Rent-A-Pal would have been an overall tighter movie and the trims would have helped every other element that goes slack leading up to the home stretch.  Wheaton’s character would have had more unnerving menace, Folkins wouldn’t have had to stretch out his descent into frenzy quite so long, and the poor women of the picture (both are quite good, especially Brady in a difficult to cast role) might not have had to wait for their turn to get something to do.  Stevenson is absolutely someone to watch and so is the movie, but see if you can spot when you can FF.

Movie Review ~ I Am Woman

The Facts

Synopsis: This uplifting biopic tells the story of Helen Reddy, the fiercely ambitious Australian singer behind the 1971 megahit anthem that became the rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement.

Stars: Tilda Cobham-Harvey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Chris Parnell, Matty Cardarople, Rita Rani Ahuja, Molly Broadstack

Director: Unjoo Moon

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than jumping on a bandwagon so I’m fairly surprised that after the unexpected success of the extremely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 and the emotional satisfaction derived from the superior Elton John biopic Rocketman in 2019 there haven’t been an influx of similar musical biographies.  Before those films arrived, previous efforts at presenting the life stories of legends of the music industry had been spotty and only a select few managed to break past a paint-by-the-numbers approach to a life-story.  What about that long in the planning Dolly Parton film about her journey from the Smokey Mountains to finding fame in Nashville and the film industry?  Then there were the multiple projects at one time in the works set to cover the life of Janis Joplin that couldn’t get off the ground.  Surely, audience reaction to a Queen musical would fuel some further interest in those properties…right?

It’s interesting, then, that the first real film to be released that charts the ascent of a star singer doesn’t even come from Hollywood at all.  Arriving from Down Under, I Am Woman centers on Australian soft-rock vocalist Helen Reddy and how the single mother packed up her daughter and left their life in Melbourne with dreams and determination to make it as a recording artist.  At a time when her style of music wasn’t considered fashionable by executives that didn’t truly know what their market audience was looking for, Reddy hit a nerve in the industry with her #1 song that became the ever-present theme for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1960s, Helen (Tilda Cobham-Harvey) thinks she’s secured a recording contract after winning a contest back in Australia, only to learn from an oily recording executive that there’s no place for her kind of singing on their roster.  The music of The Beatles was popular and women didn’t sell records, besides, this record company already had their request solo female artist signed so…they couldn’t take on another one.  Reaching out to another NY transplant from her hometown for advice, rock journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, Paradise Hills), Helen begins singing at low-paying nightclub.

Up until this point, director Unjoo Moon keeps the film coloring inside the lines almost to a fault.  The script from Emma Jensen is jammed with eye-rolling dialogue that intends to tell you the true nature of everyone’s character from their first spoken line.  Helen’s meeting with the music exec is misogynistic to the point of parody as is an exchange between her and the club owner trying to stiff her on her pay.  Everything just feels so stodgy that you want things to loosen up just a tad, I mean, this was the 60s after all.  The relationship between Helen and Lillian proves for interesting interplay between two women that were capable of more than what people expected of them but it’s clear Lillian will be a sideline character quickly after Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) enters the picture and sweeps Helen off her feet.

A William Morris agent, at first Wald sends off all the traditional warning bells of an Ike Turner in the making but curiously manages to not follow the path you think he’ll tread.  Though initially challenged by Helen’s tenacity he appears to be someone that doesn’t just love Helen but actually believes in her too…though it takes a while (and a cross-country move) for him to make good on his promise to get her foot in the door with his music connections.  When she finally arrives, buoyed on the success of a hit cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him and then the blockbuster phenomenon of I Am Woman, her fame comes with the usual gains and losses.  The marriage to Wald is put to the test because of his drug and gambling addiction and her personal relationships with her friends and children are strained when she’s forced into choosing between her life as a performer and her offstage persona.

Objectively speaking, I Am Woman is fairly standard stuff and is akin to a rock skipping across the surface of a very wide and deep lake.  There’s a lot more to the story of Helen Reddy and a much deeper emotional well to mine, that’s for certain, but what’s presented onscreen feels respectful and ultimately an agreeable watch.  It helps immensely that Cobham-Harvey is positively electric as Helen, ably navigating the insecurities hiding behind perceived strength and wrestling with her own feelings of liberation while in a unique situation of her own where she feels at odds with the strong woman she sings about nightly.  Sadly, I was disappointed that she doesn’t do her own singing (Reddy’s vocals are either from her own recordings or recreated by Chelsea Cullen) and at times it shows that she’s just mouthing the words but overall she has Reddy’s mannerisms down.  I liked Peters as well, though his performance begins to slide into a series of sniffs and ticks as Wald’s addictions to drugs intensifies.

In addition to having a near ace-in-the-hole with its leading lady, I Am Woman also boasts cinematography from Memoirs of a Geisha Oscar-winner Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns).  Married to the director, BeeBe gives the film a radiant vibe and the faithfully recreated period production design from Michael Turner (The Great Gatsby) is overall exceptional, same goes for Emily Seresin’s (The Invisible Man) appropriately groovy costumes.  Hearing some of Reddy’s songs is quite nice, especially since Moon lets at least three of them play full out (including I Am Woman twice) but there’s little mention of Reddy’s work outside of the music world, including her film or stage work.  As one of Australia’s most respected performers, it’s right that the still living Reddy should get such a luxe film but I only wish the movie on the whole were quite as detailed as the sets and costumes that surround its star.