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Indie Snapshot: Quirky Comedy Edition

This summer's other apocalyptic comedy starring Craig Robinson opens today, along with Violet & Daisy and Free Samples.

Before he rings in the apocalypse next week with buddies Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and James Franco, Craig Robinson presides over the planet's final days as the Antichrist in Rapture-Palooza, which is like the low-budget B-side to This Is the End's A-side hit single. Written by Bill & Ted mastermind Chris Matheson and directed by Paul Middleditch, Rapture-Palooza assembles a reliable cast of comics (in addition to Robinson's star turn, there are glorified cameos by Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer and Ana Gasteyer) and then proceeds to saddle them with truly middling material. The plot, such as it is, centers around young couple Lindsey (Anna Kendrick) and Ben (John Francis Daly), who are left behind after the Rapture spirits a good chunk of the population up to heaven and sends Robinson's Antichrist down to Earth to instigate a reign of terror that's more like a reign of terrible jokes. A ladies' man in addition to his many other sins, the Antichrist decides he wants to sex up Lindsey and put a demon baby in her belly, so she and Ben hatch an assassination plan that involves her seducing the Devil before her boyfriend plugs him, thus putting an end to the end of the world. Though Robinson is generally a likable presence, this role does him little favors, forcing him to play out jokes -- like his running commentary about Kendrick's prominently displayed cleavage -- that are more creepy than funny. (For her part, Kendrick walks through the movie looking like she can't believe that this is the kind of role an Oscar nomination gets you. Clearly, she and Marisa Tomei should have a talk.) Save your money for the significantly superior The is the End and let this off-brand comic apocalypse be consigned to movie hell for all eternity.

An Oscar nomination (and victory) doesn't have to earn you a role in somebody else's forgettable comedy. It can also get you the necessary funds to make your own forgettable comedy. At least, that's the case with Geoffrey Fletcher, who won a Little Gold Man for penning the screenplay to Precious, and parlayed that into a gig directing his own screenplay, Violet & Daisy. Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan play the title characters, a pair of bubbly girl assassins who go into their latest assignment hoping to earn enough dough to buy the latest outfit from fashion icon Barbie Sunday. Right from the start, however, it's clear that this hit won't be like all other hits. For one thing, their target, Michael (James Gandolfini), knows he's going to die and, in fact, hired them to send him off to his final reward rather than allowing the pancreatic cancer he's been diagnosed with do the job. Michael's world-weary regret over the many mistakes he's made in life -- including driving away his daughter (played by Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany in an ultra-brief appearance) -- strikes a chord with Ronan's Daisy, who keeps finding excuses to allow him to live a little while longer, much to Violet's chagrin. Highly stylized in both its comedy-laced dialogue and visuals, Violet & Daisy is clever for a little while, but turns irritating halfway through once it becomes clear that Fletcher is stalling for time to pad his slender scenario out to feature length. And while Ronan continues to demonstrate an impressive range, Bledel and Gandolfini don't inhabit their roles as comfortably, which lends their scenes together a lopsided feel. Precious may have, in part, helped get Violet & Daisy made, but Fletcher is likely going to need another Oscar assist if he wants to direct another one of his original screenplays.

With Greta Gerwig having graduated to studio vehicles and Noah Baumbach movies, Jess Weixler is next in line to be the Blonde It Girl of micro-budget indie comedies. And if she keeps making movies as charmingly small-scale as Free Samples, that's all to the good. Weixler plays Jillian, a former law school student in the midst of a twentysomething life crisis that led her to quit higher education and put her committed relationship with a boyfriend on hold. With nothing better to do all day, she agrees to man the ice cream truck owned and operated by her friend Nancy (Halley Feiffer), who is tied up with a family matter. Over the course of a long morning and afternoon playing counter jockey, Jillian has a series of encounters with such personalities as her buddy Wally (Jason Ritter); Tex (Jesse Eisenberg) a guy she met in a bar and seems really into her; Betty (Tippi Hedren), an elderly ice cream aficionado with words of romantic wisdom to pass along; and inevitably (and improbably) her ex himself. While not exactly groundbreaking in its concept or execution, Free Samples is a modest pleasure that greatly benefits from Weixler's charismatic presence and experienced supporting players like Hedren and Eisenberg, who make much more out of Jim Beggarly's script than is there on the page.

Finally, a quick word about a non-comedy, the French thriller The Prey, which seems primed for a Hollywood remake any day now. Starting off as a prison movie in the vein of A Prophet, the film introduces us to Franck (Albert Dupontel), a bank robber a few months shy of release when he's saddled with a new cellmate, accused pedophile Jean-Louis (St├ęphane Debac). Against his better judgment, Franck defends Jean-Louis from a jailhouse gang. As soon as the self-proclaimed innocent -- but actually very guilty -- Jean-Louis weasels his way into an early release, he repays the favor by kidnapping Franck's daughter, forcing the guy to break out of prison and go on a Fugitive-style race across France, with his own Tommy Lee Jones nipping at his heels in the form of knockout top cop Claire (Alice Taglioni). What's so amusing about watching this efficiently-directed, well-acted chase movie is seeing how it blends the conventions of mainstream Hollywood and French movies. On the one hand, only in France would they cast a middle-aged actor in the central role instead of a young, buff dude like Channing Tatum or Chris Pine. But the filmmakers are also careful to make room for the "hot lady cop" character from so many Hollywood thrillers and design the narrative's endgame so that the audience is demanding to see justice done with bullets rather than a judge's gavel. Just goes to remind you that there are some cinematic conventions that really do cross borders.

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