Since The Office took its final bow last May, there's been a serious lack of cringe comedy on our televisions. Thanks to HBO and original Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, that gap is now filled.
Hello Ladies quietly premiered last weekend, on the day that will henceforth be known throughout all time as Breaking Bad Finale Sunday. In the half hour comedy, Merchant plays Stuart, an English ex-pat web designer attempting to live the swinging single life in LA. As anyone who's been on the receiving end of the pick-up line that serves as the show's title knows, a conversation that starts with those two words can't possibly be going anywhere good. But, while an awkward encounter at a club can ruin a perfectly good night out, watching Stuart strike out again and again from the safety of your own home is time well spent.
What makes Hello Ladies work is that Merchant imbues his clumsy character with immense likability. In the pilot, he considers ditching his newly separated best friend Wade (Nate Torrence, who you know from every commercial ever made) to mack on ladyfriend, but has a (somewhat guilty) change of heart and inadvertently gives him the time of his life. He also has an easy chemistry with his tenant Jessica (Christine Woods) in a friendly relationship that's clearly set up to turn into flirtation and more down the line.
In the UK version of The Office and follow-up show Extras, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais shepherded two incredibly flawed characters through a series of humiliations so that they could come out the other side still flawed, but definitely more self-aware. Even as a character to pity, Stuart isn't perfect. (He calls condoms "groin cloths" and is incredibly cheap with his friends). But he's harmless enough that American audiences will likely warm to him faster than they did say, David Brent. But will Stuart take a place next to Brent in the Hall of Fame of perfectly imperfect comedic characters? Time will tell.
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The allure of a jump scare that perfectly-timed loud noise that sends a horror movie audience jumping is hard to ignore. They're easy but effective — if you want to shake people up nothing works as well as a well placed violin screech or slamming door sound effect. Thankfully the new evil ghost movie Sinister mostly avoids the easy way out by developing its lead character a novelist with a drinking problem and exploring an inventive twist on "found footage" (the guy actually finds footage). It all works quite well… that is until it starts relying on jump scares.
True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in years but he hopes to change his life around by investigating a set of murders committed in the backyard of a suburban home. To immerse himself in the history Ellison moves his entire family into the house where the committed murders took place (and without telling them their new home's little secret). He immediately falls down the rabbit hole discovering a series of Super 8 movies depicting the first killings and a string of other bizarre murders all captured on gritty film. Ellison loses himself to the movies only flinching when his wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) begs him to come to bed or his son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) wakes up in a fit of terror from an anxiety ailment. But as he watches and rewatches the snuff films Ellison begins to see a connection between them: a shadowy figure who it turns out might be a supernatural entity.
Great horror rides on its lead and Hawke serves Sinister well. He's ambitious and overly confident of his abilities as he digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Super 8 movies. He makes some poor choices — why writers in movies are continually keeping secrets from their families and drinking way more whiskey than their finances would allow is one of Hollywood's great mysteries — but Hawke is adept at making the act of watching someone watch something interesting. His obsession with the mystery his slowly disintegrating mind is reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining.
But before Sinister gets that involved with its central character it strays into run-of-the-mill haunted house territory. Vincent D'Onofrio pops up for a quick expositional Skype chat to inform Ellison that the dark being in his home movies might be a Pagan deity that eats the souls of children. That would explain all those pesky kid ghosts that keep whispering in the ear of Ellison's Ashley (Clare Foley) and making creepy bumps in the night.
Sinister's most terrifying material comes from the grainy "found footage." When director Scott Derrickson moves back and forth between Ellison and the films the writer illuminated only by the flickering projector it's chilling. But the movie progresses away from that into its own conventional horror movie. Weighed down by explanation and meandering action Sinister loses track of its character angle in favor of the almighty jump scare. It's exhausting — but then again as the nickname suggests they never fail to make one jump.