August 28, 2013

Rapid Fire Response! Brief Thoughts On A Dozen Movies...

Well, they can't all be winners.

Look, I'm gonna be straight with you guys.  I'm fast approaching the half way mark of my year of movie watching and while I'm proud to say that I have yet to miss a day of viewing, I've sadly fallen WAY behind on the writing.  It's reached the point where I'm gonna have to take some fairly drastic measures in order to close the gap, and so I decided to do one post that I'm calling Rapid Fire Response.  The picture above is that of Robocop's technological rival ED-209 and OCP executive Dick Jones.  For some reason, when I think of the phrase rapid fire, that's the first place my mind went.

Of the 180 movies I've watched to date, there have been plenty of really great ones and plenty of gloriously awful ones.  But there's also many that left me feeling somewhat indifferent.  In every case there was something that initially drew me to the film, whether it be the actors involved, a certain writer or director, or maybe even just a premise that sounded intriguing.  But for all of the following movies, something in the execution just fell flat in a way that isn't even interesting as a failure.  It's a movie that simply sort of...exists.

There's a line from an episode of The West Wing where Sam Seaborn is describing a Major League Baseball season.  He says, "Every team's going to win 54 games and every team's going to lose 54.  It's what you do with the other 54 games that counts."  I guess you could say this column is about the other 54 games.


Hit And Run

I have an irrational fondness for Dax Shepard.  There, I said it.  Yeah his career started as one of Ashton Kutcher's lackeys on Punk'd and yes he's appeared in a number of really terrible movies, but somehow he's always managed to rise above.  I challenge you to watch Zathura or Idiocracy and not be at least a little won over by the guy.  Your mom probably loves him on NBC's Parenthood.

Hit And Run was a labor of love for Shepard, a film he wrote, directed and starred in with a supporting cast consisting mostly of his fiancee Kristen Bell (whom I also love unreservedly) and his friends like Bradley Cooper and Michael Rosenbaum.  It's a road trip/chase movie about a named Charlie Bronson in witness protection who hits the road with his girlfriend (Bell) but runs into trouble when her ex rats them out to the gangster (Cooper with bleached dreadlocks) that Charlie testified against in the first place.  It's amusing enough for the most part and Shepard and Bell have great chemistry together on screen (unsurprising as they have a kid together) but there's a weird juvenile element to the humor at times.  Charlie throws around the word "fag" in a way that reminds me of some of the asshole townie kids I grew up around.  But the thing is that he's supposed to be a decent guy, so his insensitive language doesn't really feel like it informs Shepard's character in an important way.  It just feels anachronistic, like a relic of a bygone era before political correctness when nobody had a problem using "gay" or "retarded" as a casual insult.  There's also a strange preoccupation with the fact that Bradley Cooper's character was butt fucked in prison.  Clearly someone thinks this stuff is hilarious, but it certainly wasn't me.

The Babymakers (Netflix)

What the fuck happened to Broken Lizard?

Remember when Super Troopers came out and it was the funniest fucking thing you'd ever seen?  I certainly do.  I remember thinking that this was the emergence of a great new comedic voice and I couldn't wait to see what those guys did next.  I'll admit that Club Dread was a little underwhelming, but I appreciate the weird mix of parody and outright horror they were shooting for, even if it doesn't entirely work.  But I'll still defend Beerfest as an underrated comedy.  The world of underground competitive drinking that they created was richly entertaining and I still dream of a world where they got to follow it up with Potfest.   They took over that Dukes Of Hazard movie with Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott and Jessica Simpson, a movie we'd all just as soon forget ever happened, and then they could barely get The Slammin Salmon released in a theater.  At one point they were writing a comedy about ancient Greece, complete with Gods and mythological beasts, but that film very quickly turned to vapor due to budgetary constraints.  Eventually the boys of Broken Lizard kind of disappeared.  Kevin Heffernan (a.k.a. Farva) occasionally pops up in something like Sky High or How I Met Your Mother and Jay Chandrasekhar has forged a nice little career for himself directing television, but the rest of the gang has been largely MIA for years now.

The Babymakers isn't technically a Broken Lizard movie, but it's probably the closest thing we're ever going to get in the near future, as it features Heffernan, Chandrasekhar (who also directs) and a handful of their familiar supporting players like Charlie Finn, M.C. Gainey and Nat Faxon.  It's an idiotic premise, (Paul Schneider tries to steal back the last sample of sperm he donated in college after he becomes impotent) it's poorly executed and worst of all it's just not very funny.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Savages (HBO)

Speaking of once great filmmakers, Savages is the latest from Oliver Stone, another director whose recent filmography is depressing to look at.  Alexander, World Trade Center, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps...the guy is 0 for the century.  (W isn't very good either, but that fact is disguised by Josh Brolin's eerily accurate portrayal of the most inept President of my lifetime.)  The last movie Stone made that's actually worth watching was Any Given Sunday and that was 14 years ago.  I'm loathe to give up entirely on any director as storied as Stone, especially since the guy gave us Val Kilmer's great performance as Jim Morrison, but at this point I think it might be time for the man to pack it in.  Also, someone please put Taylor Kitsch in a successful movie that makes some money.  I'm starting to feel genuinely bad for Tim Riggins.

People Like Us (Showtime)

Two words: Elizabeth Banks.  She's gorgeous, she's soulful, she's funny and she tastes like a burger.  What more could anyone want?  I have a sort of vague family connection to Banks - her aunt was a friend of my grandmother and she passed away from cancer a few years back while my brother was also going through treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.  I'll watch pretty much anything Banks shows up in, and when she's starring opposite Captain Kirk 2.0, I'm even more game.  People Like Us is cute, with Chris Pine as a shady salesman whose estranged record producer father dies and secretly leaves Pine in charge of delivering a shaving bag full of cash to the sister he never new he had.  Chris Pine plays a pretty convincing asshole for most of the film, and he's got great chemistry with Banks, which is both a blessing and a curse for the movie.  You see, he spends time with her and her son without actually telling them that he's related because he kind of needs the money for himself and doesn't really want to give it away to these strangers.  But the more time they spend together and the stronger their bond grows, the clearer it becomes that Banks is eventually gonna try to bone her brother.  It's a plot device they push to the breaking point and it gets just as uncomfortable to watch as you'd imagine.  Michelle Pfeiffer plays Pine's angry mother and at least she gets a little more to do than his girlfriend played by Olivia Wilde, an actress who's made a habit of getting stranded in other people's movies.  It's a nice character piece for both Pine and Banks with some decently clever dialogue in parts, ("You can't shoplift from a record store, it's like kicking a dead man.") but it ultimately fails to really find the emotional depths it's aiming for.

Liberal Arts (HBO)

How I Met Your Mother was in the first crop of new shows that premiered after I moved to L.A.  Considering how limiting the premise feels, those first three seasons or so were impressive; the show felt like a great romantic comedy that had been serialized week to week except funnier than you expect.  It's long since sputtered out creatively but I continue to tune in every week, like a a guy who's long since realized he should break up with his girlfriend, but he clings to the fonder memories of yesteryear in order to convince himself that maybe it can someday be that good again.

The show's protagonist is Josh Radnor and I'm a little fascinated by his career arc.  All of his co-stars have found highly marketable success in other arenas: Hannigan was already established after Buffy, Jason Segal made a Muppet movie, Cobie Smulders is a member of S.H.I.E.L.D and NPH seemingly now has a permanent slot as host of the Tonys.  But Radnor has largely avoided commercial projects of that ilk.  In fact, other than the indie Afternoon Delight that hits theaters this weekend, the only films he's appeared in have been the two films that he's also written and directed, Happythankyoumoreplease and his follow up Liberal Arts.  The latter is definitely the better executed of the two, focusing on a guy who yearns for the heady days of unbridled intellectualism at his liberal arts alma mater.  When he's invited back to campus for the retirement of his favorite professor (the always excellent Richard Jenkins) he also falls for a student played by Elizabeth Olson and makes friends with hippie played by Zac Efron in silly hat.  Oh, and Allison Janney appears as a prickly Classics professor who Radnor still idolizes.  They totally do it.

I appreciated the subject matter and the way it treated the idea of letting go of your past instead of trying to relive it.  It reminded me of my freshman year of college, when I was still dating a girl at my high school, which was only a subway train ride away.  I spent a lot of time on my old campus, partially to see her and partially because I was getting paid to coach the speech team, of which my girlfriend was the captain.  So yes, in a way I was getting paid to spend more time with my girlfriend.  Looking back, that was actually a pretty sweet setup, but in the process I rightly received a lot of shit from my friends about not being able to let go of my high school life.  In a way they really weren't wrong, but that was a little harder to see from close up.

Radnor's films feel like the kind of movies I always saw myself making in high school and college, and coincidentally enough, I had always sort of envisioned a similar career path for myself as an actor.  I would have killed to be a series regular on a moderately successful sitcom and spent my hiatuses writing and directing small scale independent films.  Hell, I'd still kill for that.  And even though neither of his films have particularly bowled me over, they're decently shot, emotionally honest and only a touch pretentious.  But then again so am I.  Maybe that's why an old L.A. friend used to call me Mosby.

Detropia (Neflix Instant)

Detroit!  The Motor City!  Motown!

It's fucking broke.

In fact, if ED-209 really did show up there tomorrow, I wouldn't be totally surprised.  Detropia is a documentary detailing the slow decline of this once great city, where whole neighborhoods now lie vacant, crime is rampant and the city officials have no idea what to do about any of it.  This film came out last year and and I almost saw it play at the Woods Hole Film Festival, where I had a short playing.  In the intervening time, things have only gotten worse in Detroit Rock City.  Not even the imminent statue of Robocop seems to be turning the tide.  On the bright side, Detroit seems to be a great new spot for struggling artists, who can rent moderately less shitty apartments on the cheap.

I feel like there's some past iteration of Detroit that I would have totally loved, and I feel like it might be lost and gone forever like the old Yankee Stadium, another place I'm sad I never got to visit.

Hopefully Detroit finds a way out of this mess.  It's what Elmore Leonard would have wanted.

Born On The Fourth Of July (Netflix Instant)

Oh hey, Oliver Stone gets TWO slots on this list.  Granted this is Classic Stone, not New Age Stone, but still.  My feelings about Tom Cruise are well documented, and he's clearly giving it his all here, but it's just not enough to keep this sprawling, disheveled mess of PTSD and post-Vietnam politics from surrendering to its own demons.  I had intended to watch this on July 4th, but I didn't get around to a movie that day until very late in the evening, so I opted for something shorter and more light hearted.  Thank god for that.

Don't watch Born On The Fourth Of July on the fourth of July unless you want to finish the holiday by swallowing a lit firecracker.  Fucking depressing.

And Now A Word From Our Sponsors (Netflix Instant)

Also, what the fuck happened to Parker Posey?

I guess that's the danger of being an indie film darling.  Eventually you find yourself making nonsense like And Now A Word From Our Sponsors.  Bruce Greenwood plays an marketing genius who has some kind of mental breakdown and now only speaks in advertising slogans; taken purely as a writing exercise it's actually an admirable effort.  Unfortunately the gimmick never really amounts to anything - they barely acknowledge the Greenwood's character is behaving strangely for the first third of the film, and then in the end they just sort of give up on the character's only point of drama like it was never all that important in the first place.  We don't see Greenwood before or even during the initial breakdown that leaves him hospitalized and there's no real effort by anyone to get him say something he didn't read off the side of a bus, so I have no idea what I'm supposed to take away from the film.  Miraculously, Greenwood actually acquits himself fairly well, able to convey a wide range of emotional depth and turmoil using only the most asinine and patronizing of language.  Meanwhile, Posey is left with little more to do than stand around smiling uncomfortably to the point that I lost any sense of motivation for her character's existence.

Oh yeah, and deduct points for making your lead character an ad man and naming him Adan, pronounced add-in.  That shit isn't clever, it's moronic.

Revenge Of The Electric Car (Netflix Instant)

A sort of unofficial sequel to Who Killed The Electric Car? (also from director Chris Paine), this doc follows the resurrection of the electric car in the last five or so years, as struggling auto manufacturers turn to the vehicle they so infamously ran off the road back in 2000 in an effort to regain profitability.  The film is primarily focused on three areas: traditional auto makers like Chevy and Nissan trying to out maneuver each other with models like the Volt and the Leaf, Elon Musk and his infamous Tesla Motors startup, and independent car shops like the one owned by Gadget Abbott who specialize in custom conversions of existing cars from gas to electric motors.

It's hard to feel any sympathy for the big car companies, who were too lazy/concerned with the bottom line to give the electric car its proper due decades ago when they should have, and while Tesla Motors has had its fair share of speed bumps along the way, director Paine is probably somewhat biased when it comes to Elon Musk - Paine himself was an early purchaser of the Tesla Roadster and we even see Paine on a factory floor inspecting his own future car before it's eventually shipped to him.  But Gadget's story is absolutely heartbreaking.  At first he's got a sweet little shop in my former home of Culver City, California but the building is later burned to ground along with all of his equipment by vandals in the middle of the night.  He opens a new shop, but before he can really get going the place is revealed to be a massive health hazard and he's quickly forced to abandon the space.  Your heart just goes out to Gadget, who's clearly a nice guy with a real passion for the promise of electric cars.  He's working hard to do the right thing, and you genuinely want to see him succeed.  I actually wish Paine had spent a little more time with him.

If nothing else, Revenge Of The Electric Car will give you one more reason to hate the asshole bankers who caused the financial meltdown of 2008: according to Paine, a number American auto manufacturers were preparing to make a big push into electric cars when they suddenly all found themselves bankrupt.  Figures.

Girl Walks Into A Bar (Netflix Instant)

A collection boring characters in a series of short stories, each one more pointless than the one before it.   Guilty of the crime of wasting both Robert Forster and Danny DeVito, both of whom may have accidentally wandered in from a much more interesting movie.  Contains one of the weirdest strip club scenes ever.  Only the most diehard of Carla Gugino completists need apply.

Russian Dolls (Netflix Instant)

The sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole, a film which I quite enjoyed.  Most of the previous movie's ensemble is absent for the majority of the film, with the story instead focusing on Xavier (Romain Duris) torn between his loyalty to ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) who now has a small child, and Wendy the ginger English girl (Kelly Reilly) with whom he's now co-writing a screenplay and slowly falling in love.  Look, I'm all for more Kelly Reilly but unfortunately they turned Xavier into a complete womanizing toolbag, so much so that by the time the credits rolled the film had somehow managed to burn up all good will that L'Auberge Espagnole had accrued in my head.  And without the group dynamic provided by all the wacky members of their Spanish apartment, the whole film rests on Xavier's shoulders.  Too bad they made him suck so hard.  Kelly Reilly deserves better.

That Guy...Who Was In That Thing (Netflix Instant)

It's a phrase we've all uttered at one point or another, desperately trying to identify an actor whose face is all too familiar from supporting roles in countless movies and television shows, but whose name is simply unknown.  Guys like Xander Berkeley, Zach Grenier, Paul Guilfoyle, Gregory Itzin, Matt Malloy, J.C. Mackenzie or Robert Joy.  Most of those names probably mean nothing to you, but their faces are instantly recognizable to anyone who has consumed video entertainment in the past ten to twenty years.  These guys have got great Hollywood war stories, tales of both triumph and frustration after years of achieving what many would probably refer to as only moderate success in film and television.  But anyone who would say that doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about.  Any actor who's worth their salt will tell you that the measure of career success isn't about achieving worldwide fame and fortune, but simply the ability to keep working and making a living at the thing you love.  In a way this movie feels like it should be required viewing in drama classes everywhere.  A lot of their stories lay bare the hard truths of being a working class actor and the film sometimes feels almost designed to discourage anyone who isn't truly serious about their craft.  (Ironically, it actually made me miss acting more than ever.)  A lot of young actors want to be the next Brad Pitt.  Fuck those guys.  I would have been happy as the next Zeljko Ivanek.

The Man With The Iron Fists (Redbox DVD)

A love letter to classic kung fu movies written, directed and starring RZA?  That sounds like exactly my cup of tea.  Unfortunately the final film doesn't really live up to the promise of that ridiculous description.  There is an appropriate level of silliness on display, with every character sporting a cartoonishly on-the-nose name like Silver Lion, Bronze Lion, Poison Dagger and Jack Knife.  One character wears a suit made out of blades while another has a Colossus-esque ability to turn his body into solid brass, and that's all well before RZA's blacksmith eventually gains powerful iron forearms.  Unfortunately the story is overly complicated and the fight choreography is middling at best.  Against all odds, the movie actually managed to bore me after a while.  You know what's not boring though?  Russell Crowe as a fat Englishman with a spinning blade bowie knife/pistol who spends most of the movie sitting in Lucy Liu's brothel and fucking prostitutes in every manner imaginable while waiting for someone to show up and challenge him to a fight.  For most of the film's running time Crowe exists completely separately from the rest of the story (or stories as the case may be) but his is by far the best shit in the movie.  The fact that his character was supposedly inspired by Old Dirty Bastard, thus explaining the use of the mouth harp every time he appears on screen, only enhances Crowe's awesomeness.  I had pretty high hopes for The Man With The Iron Fists, but it ultimately struggles to rise above the level of mediocrity.  Oh well.


That concludes this round of Rapid Fire Responses. I guess some of them ended up being a little more rapid fire than others.  Who knew I had that much to say about Liberal Arts?  I certainly didn't.  Hopefully I'll be able to keep making up some ground and I won't have to rely on these short form write ups very frequently.  But I'm not making any promises.

After all, we've still got half a year to go...

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