THERE AND BACK AGAIN

It’s impossible to figure out when The Hobbit movies were damned before they even came out. Could it have been in the middle of its long and drawn-to-the-death war between the Tolkien estate and New Line Cinema over how the latter screwed the estate over on some royalties and how Christopher Tolkien’s tightened pants got to choking a bitch when he really revealed his hatred for the critically acclaimed adaptations of his father’s magnum opus trilogy? Or the legal battles New Line and MGM had to get through on a splitting of rights that they happened to have tangled themselves on? Maybe it was Guillermo Del Toro’s jaded departure after his enthusiasm for the project waning in the years it took to come? Or Peter Jackson suddenly realizing, to his dismay, this is a job he has to do for himself.

No sirree, it’s not an easy thing to guess, but to me… the damnation of the Hobbit films came the moment they made the decision to change what was a very lean and short children’s book into a duo of films. And then further, after production, when a trilogy was decided and so they had to change two movies that were written, produced, and shot as two films into three films with material that proved a lot less willing to stretch itself out to that degree. I’m sure under a storyteller who knew how the hell to expand a tale like this to fit into that format would have done better to make a coherent tale, but that would have had to be BEFORE THEY MADE THE FUCKING FILM TO BEGIN WITH.

Well, shit, based on that revelation, I almost vowed against seeing the Hobbit films. Really. It was an obvious cashgrab. But, I realized I love the paper J.R.R. Tolkien wrote on and all its legacy way too much (it is, among many things, one of the major sources of my English learning… and as such, why I like to blame my English as shitty when I sometimes mix it with Elvish by accident amin il mela) and hence gave myself in as soon as the first movie was released.

But we’re not talking about An Unexpected Journey… yet (I will get those two down ASAP). The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has been out for a week now and it has kind of been getting a lot more lackluster reviews that its predecessors. Which is a bit unfortunate to me, since The Battle of the Five Armies proved to overall become the film I actually enjoyed most out of the trilogy. I don’t think much of any of the Hobbit films. I’d much rather just read the book as it lays on my shelf time and time again. And it is overall true that in the end, The Battle of the Five Armies feels less like a complete film than the other two movies, acting solely as a final act to The Desolation of Smaug or an extended television episode than having its own standalone worth. I feel you could earn a lot more from The Battle of the Five Armies by watching it immediately after The Desolation of Smaug, but then that would mean you’d have watch The Desolation of Smaug and then deal with The Battle of the Five Armies, and man I’d rather not. I can’t wait for this movie to come on home video, I’m cutting the fuck out of the trilogy.

But anyway, shall we recount briefly what tale this particular movie tells? Picking up immediately – without any chance to catch our breath – after The Desolation of Smaug‘s cliffhanger of Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch in both voice and motion-capture) flying to Esgaroth preparing to burn it to the ground, Bard (Luke Evans) finds a way to save his Lake-town by finally killing the impossible-to-kill massive-ass dragon. With the mountain Erebor finally freed up and our 13 Dwarves taking back their race’s previous helm within it, it seems all is going to be a little bit more harmonious. The Elves can now claim their jewels seized by Smaug, Bard looks to helping his people rebuild their community with monetary support from the shares Thorin (Richard Armitage looking like how I’d imagine a dwarf version of Mike Portnoy), and the Dwarves have returned safely to their home.

Except Thorin has now become a little bit more mad with their treasure, particularly in search of the Arkenstone amongst the gold and jewels – the stone considered the birthright of the Dwarves and a crowning jewel for Thorin as their king. His paranoia and frenzied desperation to find the Arkenstone leads him not only to rail against his fellow dwarves, but to also refuse to spare the promised and rightful treasure to either the Elves nor the survivors of Smaug’s attack. This aggressive refusal all but ensures the possibility of all-out war for the claim to Smaug’s relinquished treasure and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), our favorite little hobbit who had been serving as the little adventurer for the audience to live vicariously through, is stuck in the middle of this battle and hoping there is a possibility to stop it.

And then a few more elements enter the ordeal, but I think I spoiled enough. And then the titular battle happens. And then we see the aftermath. And that’s it. Only a handful of actual plot points occur in this final film and yet it still feels it is necessary to add a few lackluster parts in it. Not only that, but the many subplots The Desolation of Smaug jumbles the fuck through suddenly become dismissed as quickly as they entered or they go nowhere, from the Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly)-Fili (Dean O’Gorman) romance, Bard’s imprisonment (and Stephen Fry’s disappointing turn as the Master of Lake-town), and most disappointingly – since it was easily the only bit of Jackson’s injected fan-fiction in this trilogy that I was interested in – the disposal of Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) investigation in Dol Guldur by cameo rescue. Plus the sudden addition of the worst thing to happen to prequel trilogies since… their existence. No, wait, I mean since Jar Jar Binks. And it’s in the form of Ryan Gage’s thankless performance of The Master of Lake-town’s lacky, Alfrid. A character who is only there as a sudden unnecessary surrogate of the darker side of man and totally just adds nothing to the plot and goes nowhere.

See, the movie didn’t need to do much. Set-up the Battle of Five Armies – namely Bilbo’s involvement and his relationship to Thorin is the big deal, while also the failed negotiations and witnessing Thorin’s deterioration as a person should get a spotlight – deliver on the battle and then give us some closure on not just the conflict, but the journey overall (Smaug’s attack could have actually been left to The Desolation of Smaug and we might have had a bit more of a complete film with its own interior premise in The Battle of the Five Armies). That’s kind of enough, I think, for a film to tell its story and yet The Battle of the Five Armies still thought it was necessary to bloat itself.

The battle itself is my own predicament. I don’t know if the battle was just blown way too large into proportion (certainly in comparison to its length in the book, but anybody who has ever read Tolkien knows that Tolkien was no writer of combat) or if it only feels so long because I stopped giving a shit about what was going on. Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) got shafted in his presence, Azog (Manu Bennett) and Dain (Billy Connolly) are almost entirely non-entities to me from their CGI separating them from the physicality of the films to me (Connolly, from what I understand, had been suffering severely from Parkinson’s, which makes me understand why they couldn’t get him to physically portray Dain – Bennett, I wish was able to physically become an orc though), most of the Dwarves are just there in this film now that there are too many elements, and Thorin himself. Ay yi yi. Poor Thorin.

I’m sure a lot of people actually cared about Thorin’s safety during his thrust into the battle and with his duel against Azog, but I just couldn’t. I stopped. And since I’m not as self-damning as I’d like to be, I think it is because the three movies have the misfortune of having to feature Thorin at different emotional and psychological points separately, rather than giving us a chance to watch Armitage develop into these states over the course of the journey in one fell swoop. It’s just too sudden impact, just as much as the opening of the movie is.

Martin Freeman never has that problem and easily has ended up my absolute favorite performance in all of the Middle-Earth films. He’s just so lived-in, so inspired a choice as the little awestruck Hobbit in a larger-than-life world. He’s simply put the realest dude in Middle-Earth who has to live in the middle of all this scale and grandeur and that’s not just because he is one of the few things on screen that isn’t made with computers haphazardly (not a fair insult to make, I honestly thought The Battle of the Five Armies has the best effects of all the The Hobbit). He’s too relatable. He’s too funny. It’s too awesome.

It is a big battle, though. That’s it. It’s not awe-inspiring, not amazing. It’s just big. This is probably how fireworks users feel after going through their job so long. And one thing that bugs me as Tolkien fanatic is how much of a misnomer it becomes. According to Tolkien, the five armies were the Men of Esgaroth, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, and Wolves. According to Jackson, it’s Esgarothians, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, and MOTHERFUCKING LEGOLAS, whose existence within the film is a fucking dismissal of physics and his actions all throughout the movie are treated as such. Honestly, the crazy lack of logic for Legolas as a fighter and character entertained me as much as it annoyed me.

Anyway, there is one thing I am at least looking forward to in an extended edition for The Battle of the Five Armies – Closure. The movie rushes through its resolution and finale way too much to feel like a return to normalcy. We don’t see the full result of what occurred in the film, it just ups and packs up and leaves without so much as a farewell. And that bugs me. There’s a lot of stakes made in the set-up and we don’t end up seeing how the hell they fared with the battle. It just stops.

All you people who bitched about multiple endings for The Lord of the Rings (which I had no problem with), THIS is what happens when you refuse to take care to close out all the arcs. You get this sudden rude awakening out of the world.

In fact, as a result of my disappointment, as a parody of the handling of the ending, and as straight up FUCKING REVENGE for forsaking these characters, I refuse to give this review of the film closure.

I’m done, bitches.

Backyard Scoop

There isn’t much I can say against Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy’s debut film that has swept most of the moviegoing public since it came out. I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the bigger sleeper hits of this waning year – this movie and Whiplash for certain. It’s just that there isn’t much of anything special for it either.

Nightcrawler is a sharply written script that happens to adopt a point of view about film that most movies have already adopted time and time again – from Funny Games to Shadow of the Vampire and others that I am right now a bit too tired to dig into my skull to pick. The outright indictment of an audience as willing voyeurs to unsavory material. I mean, there’s certainly that whole attempt at biting satirical take on local journalism – but the hairs are semi-split on what the characters are doing. It’s sensationalism, but it’s very hard to identify Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) or Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) as journalists and the film doesn’t linger on what stories the two of them capture so much as the means to which they receive the story. To put it bluntly, the stories are arbitrary. It could have easily been an arson as it could be a murder and the movie’s message and attitude would have seldom changed. That’s how much it’s themes and messages don’t matter as much.

This isn’t a dig against the script so much, though. Gilroy’s work as a writer is certainly well-constructed and the movie never feels slogged down even when building up Bloom’s blooming career as a “nightcrawler” (see what I did there?), a man who films incidents like car wrecks or murders in the localized area and sells the new footage to local news stations. After perpetrating various small-time crook errands to earn some small-time crook cash, Bloom finds himself aiming for the big leagues with this self-hiring opportunity and taking lapses of several ethical dilemmas without hesitation because he knows he’s getting paid in the end and the people he sells it to will pay him because they flat out explain that violence and sex is what sells ratings. It’s a pretty direct “blame the people watching scenario” since Bloom has absolutely no problem with himself. The closest thing the movie gets to a conflict is actually only present within the latter half of the film – a very much exterior conflict between Bloom and other characters, no moralistic questioning of self, no character arc, nothing (and that’s just fine by me, baby).

In fact, my major gripe is instead just how quickly (and semi-unrealistically) the finale of that conflict gets wrapped up too quickly. But again, prior to that, there is nothing we see that we don’t really need to get (even when we still have the characters several times repeating “oh yeah, you’re crazy” to Bloom). It’s all just an uphill roll for a character we’re sort of astonished has accomplished and gotten as far as he had by the end of the film.

Gyllenhaal himself is at his career-best yet. He draws in the manic energy of the film, from his wide-eyed fixed-smirk face that calls upon the creepy pleasantries of Crispin Glover and delivers his lines with a rapid-paced Howard-Hawks-from-Hell enunciation, precise and controlled. He doesn’t speak with much enthusiasm (I can’t recall any scene where he does much more than just give a little cheer to himself), since his facial features do that well enough for him and he doesn’t give himself prone to any explosions really throughout the movie save for one. I think that is what is most fascinating about Lou Bloom as a character. It’s very easy for such a blatantly sociopathic character (to my dismay the movie feels obligated to outright spell out his sociopathy several times through) to play around so much with being batshit crazy that the reservation we don’t expect from an actor like Gyllenhaal who has hardly got a chance prior to take such psychological deviance by the reins (arguably Donnie Darko gave him that chance but Gyllenhaal is one of the things I didn’t like about Donnie Darko, which I love) is not just impressive its transfixing. We have our eyes stuck on him to wait for him to do something crazy.

He does a hell of a lot of dirty and even one scene of creepy, but he doesn’t do crazy, he says it. He speaks it. The thoughts he projects to characters in the room, the philosophy and tactics he takes are just as batshit crazy as jumping on a sofa and proclaiming he loves Katie Holmes and a hell of a lot more threatening than holding a loaded gun to the head of any of the people he wants to control.

Of course, now the problem with the review is that it is delving too deeply into something that just disappointingly isn’t the centerpiece of the film. It’s not a character study at all. Everybody is just way too static for that, nobody leaves the film learning anything. Which sucks, given how much potential Gyllenhaal gives as the center of the film, and the supporting actors like Russo, Paxton, and especially Riz Ahmed as a poor naive assistant desperate like Lou without being as morally dismissive, all try to keep up with Gyllenhaal but this is the Lou Bloom power hour and the movie only intends to have them as people affected by Bloom – victims the way that a slasher film demands victims – rather than as fully-fleshed out, lived-in people.

Dan Gilroy’s writing is certainly a promising debut, in spite its faults. His direction, however, isn’t as much. He’s pretty much just translated every single moment we can imagine as it was written on the page, rather than giving the story a sort of pop that it certainly couldn’t have as a trashy crime novel. There’s one well-choreographed, shot, and edited (a high-speed high-octane dance-like mentality captured very fluidly by John Gilroy, Dan’s twin brother) moment of a car chase and definite moments of well-paced out tension, so Dan is not a total wash, but he doesn’t quite find an ability to inject any tone into a scene. I’m sure as his career, which is certain to grow out of the success of Nightcrawler and his relation to Tony Gilroy, continues, we may see his language develop through film.

Other than that, the true flavor of the film comes from veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit, who takes to the Los Angeles nights with a literally gritty cinema verite feel. There’s a whole lotta film grain on the movie and this is one of the few times that I would actually count that as a real plus to connecting an audience on a movie about guys running around cameras trying to point them at ruined lives. I’m sure it would have made Elswit’s life easier to approach this movie digitally, but if you know anything about Elswit – you wouldn’t ask him of that. Don’t have much to say about the droning score of James Newton Howard, save that it is really uncharacteristic of him in a way, kind of useless beyond just making Los Angeles feel a little bit more industrial than people who are solely familiar with Hollywood would expect, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilroy just told Howard to do what he did with Christopher Nolan.

It’s definitely a worthy watch for a late-night bit of entertainment, but Nightcrawler barely accomplishes more than its pulpish feel with nothing to say and nothing to show beyond a few hours into the mind of how Bloom is as a person. And well, that’s all fun and well, but it’s not going to buy me for a second viewing. There’s nothing deeper to look for. There’s nothing to point a camera flash and mic at.

FIXING A HOLE 2014 – Web in the Head

We are in 20-fucking-14. We are in the middle of hyper-saturation of comic book films thanks to the reception and recognition of their worth as lucrative properties (Hell, one comic adaptation won the Palme d’Or something I would have never called prior), where every damn studio will be playing around with trying to stretch out their comic book properties as much as they possibly can and adopting the idea of “universe” establishing and world-building. As such, we’ve seen and are going to be seeing some great ones and we’ve seen and are going to be seeing some trashy ones. But the one thing we can’t really avoid recognizing is this:

They are all, no matter how good they are, going to be experiments and exercises within the studio system. That’s just their nature as pictures from the foreign properties (Snowpiercer‘s battle for distribution uncut being on) to the brand names (Batman vs. Superman will be fan service the movie). Some of these movies are really able to avoid bringing it out to the audience that much, like the X-Men films have done. Some are just able to transcend that aspect to become worthwhile standalone movies, despite not neglecting or denying their position in a universe.

And then there is The Amazing Spider-Man series which is just Sony flopping around on themselves like Chaplin’s Tramp trying really damn hard to cobble together a movie with as much synergy as they can muster before the next flick. And this is all because Sony doesn’t want to give Marvel the rights to the Spider-Man film productions, trying instead to pretend they can actually fucking do something worthwhile themselves – Marc Webb’s direction seems like it is a non-entity, devoid of character or personality the way Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films were honest-to-fucking-God comic book flicks.

Not one thing in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels anything but facilitated as an adventure in branding – from the various Sony product placements to the name-dropping rock star arrangement barely listenable in what amounts to Hans Zimmer’s worst score in his career so far sounding like an attempt at force-feeding melodrama while the movie does nothing to earn its melodrama.

I weep for Fox doing the same with the Fantastic Four.

Let’s swing through it.

2 years after the events of The Amazing Spider-Man, fresh high school graduate Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is fully in the flow of being Spider-Man, but is still somewhat haunted by spooky Denis Leary (I call the character Denis Leary because whatever the hell he was playing in the last movie, it wasn’t George Stacy) enough to avoid a true relationship with his daughter, Gwen (Emma Stone). I gladly ignore the fact that this actually nullifies his choice at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man to disregard Capt. Leary’s dying request because it means that we actually have a relationship arc with the two central characters for the talented Garfield and Stone to live in, rather than do the heavy lifting they had to do with just giggles in the last movie. And at this point, I’d warrant the emotional stakes of the relationship lead for a much more engaging romantic conflict than anything in the Raimi trilogy.

Something else that the Amazing Spider-Man 2 is able to finally surpass the Raimi trilogy in is giving Spidey a true role of a sort of “community rock star”. Embracing being known as a part of New York City, engaging as Spider-Man with people he helps and establishing, a rapport akin to how a firefighter or police officer would when helping someone. He truly is a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” in this. It is one of the few compliments I will give this movie (you can count the amount in one hand and I wouldn’t be afraid to cut off fingers).

But that’s just within the suit. Outside the suit, Garfield’s Peter Parker is just as much a fucking dickhead as he was well in The Amazing Spider-Man, most notable in his relationship arc with Gwen now just being Parker refusing to quit being Spider-Man for some reason – since Uncle Ben actually seems totally forgotten at this point, it’s safe to say Parker feels no moral obligation to being Spider-Man and nowhere in the movie does he try to prove me wrong. And Aunt May (Sally Field) is just tossed off for every scene she is in, just as I had a problem with in The Amazing Spider-Man, this time less because the movie doesn’t allow her to be on-screen as a voice of reason/inspiration for Peter and more because Peter uses her as a meat puppet for comic relief until some surprisingly self-aware moment where May doesn’t take it anymore and bitches Peter the fuck out.

Let’s get something straight one more time, because every time I mention this in conversation, people try to rebuke with the opposite point and prove they don’t know the first thing about Spider-Man: Peter Parker is NOT a fucking asshole. I don’t know where the defenders of The Amazing Spider-Man keep drawing this idea (I like to think it comes from mainstream audience’s sudden love for cynical, sarcastic, but well-meaning characters that like to mess with everyone in a borderline cruel manner but still save the day and to the misconception that sarcasm is only exclusive to cynicism when… well, I used those two adjectives together for the reason that they are separate), but the definition of who Spider-Man is is that he is strictly NOT an asshole. That he always holds to himself to do the right thing, no matter how the choice is. That is the cross he has always carried since his conception and this reliability as a humanistic character was what made him popular to begin with. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He cracks jokes, of course, his humor is also what makes him admirable. But, he’s not a cocky little shit who never grew beyond the age of 18.

Anyway, infidelity to a character is not what makes a movie terrible, even if said character is the center of the movie. Regardless, that is a pet peeve of defenders of the franchise based on one of my favorite superheroes that I must condemn, because they make me have to.

Anyway, let’s move on with what the hell happens in this movie:

Apparently Parker was also friends with Harry Osborn (a thanklessly ill-used Dane DeHaan) – despite never bringing it up in the many many times he was at or involved in OsCorp within these two movies prior to Harry’s appearance. Y’know, that’s kind of something that would warrant a mention to your girlfriend who works at the corporation or the worker who wonders why the fuck you are in a classified area… or y’know calling Harry because you found out that your dad was heavily involved with his company. But no, Harry is there because Sony decided it was needed.

Harry has a contrived disease that is inconsistent with its appearance and how it affects him (and the movie even tries so hard to deflect this seemingly imperative plot point with the line “It comes and goes”) and apparently really needs the blood of Spider-Man to fix up the cure for this. In the meantime, an awkward OsCorp worker Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is constantly shafted by his workplace and this abuse ends with him having a very comic book-like accident that leads him to becoming the electric villain Electro. His motivations are, like his design, writing, and acting, hard to put a bead on, but given the objective of figuring it out: He thinks the world hates him and wants to rip it apart. Just like Harry.

So yeah… that’s what happens in the movie. Shall we call it a plot or something? These are the days of Spider-Man’s life, I guess? It’s not just lazy, it is cobbled and pasted right along together. It’s not formulaic in the sense that The Amazing Spider-Man obviously was, it is a mess that trips over itself in forced plot points that make little sense except that the writers want very much to finish their job and get their paycheck – Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman are easily recognizable for this sort of work, James Vanderbilt is clearly the guy who had to remind the writing team that it’s a Spider-Man movie and they needed Spider-Man stuff, and I don’t know enough about Jeff Pinkner to hypothesize about his involvement.

But that’s a full fucking 2 hours and 26 minutes that the movie wastes trying to pretend it has anything to say and not only does the script fail as a plot or a Spider-Man adaptation, it gives no room for the actors to save the movie themselves. Really, this is the line-up we got

  • Garfield
  • Stone
  • DeHaan
  • Foxx
  • Field
  • Chris Cooper
  • Paul Giamatti
  • Colm Feore
  • Marton Csokas
  • B.J. Novak

These aren’t bad actors. None of them. There’s some I’m unimpressed by (ahem Foxx), but I’d hardly expect them to give a terrible performance unless they were forced to. And that’s how this film has forced every single one of these guys to go.

Now, I promised there was maybe a few compliments, as weak as they are to save the movie, and I will do so to deliver. The film itself looks fine. It’s not a miracle of cinematography genius, really. And it still doesn’t have the flavors of comic book popping action that the Raimi films gave his films, but it’s colorful to a distinctive degree and you just can’t help but feel the splashes of purple and blue a little bit more than the movie probably would have if it had just not cared about being a good movie a little bit more. None of the movies – Raimi or Webb – have ever gone cheap on the web-slinging interims that Spidey is best known for doing in his little nest of New York, giving the city a bit more definition within the realm of the film and having the experience whoosh right by us like the wind to our hair, so I will not begrudge giving this movie that freebie point. The action scenes are not exactly as terribly made either, as a result of the movie’s attempt give off passable picture and sound enough to satiate anybody not paying attention to the movie itself (God help those who do). They do what they’re meant to, be fight scenes and such.

And of course, when you-know-what moment happens that most comic book fans or anybody interested in Spider-Man with access to wikipedia (summarizing most of the people who seem to like this movie) was expecting by the end of the film, it’s not laughable like the rest of the film. It’s not exactly poignant or sad, in fact it seems just as brushed through as Uncle Ben’s death, acted like a required inconvenience rather than as an emotive moment within the otherwise mechanically cold flick, but it’s not a shit moment. It probably works for a few people and I’m glad it does. I’m just happy it doesn’t fail outright.

But that’s again, the longest fucking movie of the whole Spider-Man brand yet and it turns into the most boring, the most banal, the most stupid, and the most lazy film in the franchise yet and all because its only purpose was being a product and it probably felt less obligated to fix itself up than The Amazing Spider-Man did.

And it seems Sony will just make things worse (That last link is unrelated to Spider-Man but certainly makes Sony look bad).

HOLIDAY HOO-AH! – YOU’LL NEVER DIE IN THIS TOWN AGAIN

Sex and violence in the City of Angels on Christmas…

What the fuck is not to love about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?

It’s Shane Black’s directorial debut after a career of writing major action films like the Lethal Weapon intial duology, the incredibly misunderstood Last Action Hero and late action blockbuster titan Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout. So Black is no stranger to mixing the quips and relationships between the characters in with the thrills and the fights of the nefarious plots. He’s got his bits of slip-ups, namely in pacing and misunderstanding in how self-aware a movie can go before it either has to adopt a parody label or get annoying.

But what happens when you have to mix in the attributes of noir, now? Seems a mystery, maybe, for someone who has ridden on oh so many staples of action now needing to slow it down a bit? Especially on his first time behind the camera and not behind the typewriter?

Turns out to be no problem for Black. He brings such a outrageously obvious nighttime feel to Los Angeles that when all the other mystery attributes are shoehorned in, we’re game. What is missing, though, is a little dash of the hardboiled detective, fresh off the styles of Chandler and Leonard…

No wait, it’s there. It’s there in the character of ‘Gay Perry’ van Shrike, one of Val Kilmer’s best performances as a jaded, sarcastic Private Investigator who gets the short end of the client stick being hired by a film company to take the recently cast Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) around on the job to research for his role.

‘Still gay?’
‘Me? No, I’m knee-deep in pussy. I just like the name so much, I can’t get rid of it.’

Gay Perry deserves his own paragraph, so here it goes. As an Arab, I do at points get exasperated at the stereotypes pointed out frequently towards my race. While some do it for parody or avoid the stereotypes all together, others just do it because it happens to be easier to write with. It even happens with some of my favorite movies. I have gotten used to it, but I don’t not completely approve still. One sort of social group I feel can relate to me on this might be the homosexual community. Almost everytime I see a gay character on tv or movies, he seems to only take the frail or flamboyant type of persona. Since I’m not gay, I can’t really speak for that group of people, so I don’t know if they take offense. But if it were me, I’d be pretty pissed.

Gay Perry is, easily, the badass of the film. He’s not frail. He doesn’t scream and run in flamboyant fashions (there’s absolutely flamboyance, but not to a cartoonish extent). He’s shaped very well into a whole being, who happens to be gay. He’s not used as a meat puppet for the development of another character in the film (*cough*DallasBuyersClub*cough*). If it wasn’t his nickname, it would still be obvious from subtle lines or the way he talks, Val Kilmer did an excellent job like that. He’s takes the bad guys down, he finds his way through the case. He’s a gay character in the sense of a black person being black, but he’s not a gay character, that’s not his defining trait at all, that’s not why he’s in the movie. He’s a hard-boiled Sam Spade-charming detective, who happens to be gay. The only other gay characters I can think of who fall under this are Omar Little from The Wire and Frank from Little Miss Sunshine.

Perry’s insults towards our unreliable narrator of Harry, Downey Jr.’s out of water criminal-turned-actor-turned-detective, make Val Kilmer the star of the movie. They are sharp and constant and biting. The real deal behind the movie is it’s banter between the two, the kind of stuff ‘buddy cop’ films are made of at their peak, now that Black is at the top of his screenwriting game with this project. It’s definitely the best project Black ever undertook.

Now of course, this is not to say Downey Jr. is not worth a damn. He easily makes his Lockhart his own in that patented RDJ manner of sarcasm and malaise in peril that wasn’t even made into such a trademark of his acting style yet (he wouldn’t portray Tony Stark yet until 3 years later, Black would join him in that project 5 years after that).

In the meantime, the rest of the cast, featuring Michelle Monaghan as, in the words of Toad from American Graffiti, ‘a bitching babe’ – a girl that Lockhart had pined for since high school but slept with practically everyone except him, the kind of girl that goes to L.A. to avoid her horrible life and live like a movie star like those old Hollywood stories – provide that L.A. nighttime characterization that Perry is always one step ahead of and Harry is always trying to figure which side is up in. It’s slick and it’s funny – the cinematography looks like a wish you were here card, except it’s only showing you crime and behind closed doors you’ll never get to open again. It plays off pretty much like a parody of a pulp novel. It pretty much is a parody of the pulp novel. It’s welcome entertainment for me and the fact that it’s a story that takes place around Christmas (featuring the most twisted Christmas celebration yet – that I love it so much) makes me right snug keeping warm for the holidays watching this. In fact, there’s something funny I hold against Shane Black – His movies are almost always set on Christmas but never released around Christmastime.

It leads me to make two huge assumptions about Black:

1. Christmas is the only holiday he knows.
2. He has no idea when it is.

Except I know better now.

Again, sex and violence in the City of Angels… What the fuck is not to love about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?

“Thanks for coming, please stay for the end credits. If you’re wondering who the best boy is, it’s somebody’s nephew, um, don’t forget to validate your parking, and to all you good people in the Midwest, sorry we said fuck so much.”

CANNES CORNER/FIXING A HOLE 2014 (?) – CAUGHT THE FOX AND THEN LET IT GO

It’s been a giant pain in the ass for me to figure out when to post my review of Bennett Miller’s Cannes-screened Foxcatcher. Apparently it was released earlier in November, but I saw little evidence of a mass populace catching it. It got a “blink-or-you’ll-miss-it” release in Miami briefly before disappearing and I still think it is intending to come back. But just now reddit has started an Official Discussion for the movie and I will consider that enough of a sign that now is the time to finally talk about a movie I got to smugly say for a while “I saw before you even got a chance” – Foxcatcher.

So, despite the mess of a release, it is very safe to say Foxcatcher itself really is not a mess. Miller’s influence on the film is very obviously contained and controlled, trophy and memorabilia like. It’s fine-polished. It’s well-tuned. It’s a little bit too well-tuned to a most artificial sense. It feels like a taxidermy of a drama, which on one hand makes for an intense amount of atmosphere that does work in the film’s favor, but also doesn’t make for a compelling film in moments where nothing happens. And there’s actually a lot of moments where nothing happens. The movie in the middle of it becomes a sort of stalemate in momentum for the real-life relationship of the Schultz Brothers and John Du Pont.

But I actually want to get to the good stuff, the stuff that I actually really loved about the movie and think showed how much potential it came to being a masterpiece, before I should state what depresses me about how much I really wanted to like the rest of the movie.

The movie tells the true life tale of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both wrestlers came back together from the 1984 Olympics wearing Gold Medals around their necks and obscurity around their beings. Schultz in particular holds a resentment at his existence in the shadow of his brother and so when he was unexpectedly approached in his wallowing by John du Pont (Steve Carell), an eccentric and mysterious millionaire who is willing to use his vast fortunes to fund the next 1988 USA Olympic Wrestling, hosting them in his own gym in Foxcatcher Farms.

What follows becomes a psychological torture to all the participants involved as tensions become heightened. Du Pont initially comes off as an exceedingly patriotic man trying to represent his country with a high enthusiasm for the sport, but his true colors become more and more apparent – mother issues, a need for power, sinister overreactions for the tiniest slight.

Something that does not become apparent in the film is symptoms of du Pont’s schizophrenia. I don’t know if that was deliberate on the part of writer E. Max Frye and Miller, but it’s not that there is little in the film to suggest that mental illness on the part of du Pont played a hand at the fate of the conflict. It’s that there is nothing in the film to suggest that. Everything about John du Pont as portrayed in this movie is just a very angry, very insecure, very vengeful man who has no understanding or care for the people below him.

I suppose Frye and Miller felt that the idea of showing the villain as mentally disturbed would have undercut the themes of rich-over-poor and the cynicism inherent in nationalism, but I really don’t see how that would entirely do so. In any case, it is a dramatization taking its liberties with what happened.

All of these extremely dark overthrows between du Pont and the Schultzes to the environment lead up to a finale that you almost certainly saw coming (I can not imagine anyone watching the movie to the end and not realizing what will be the final punctuation to the matter) and yet you will still be wishing it had gone differently. That is the good part.

The fact that Channing Tatum – who seriously honestly, guys, I mean this, needs to be given his dues as an actor by now – and Mark Ruffalo could heavy lift the emotion of the film really makes the scenario of the movie a lot more imperative, even in the little things – because Miller’s brown and grey dusty stained-painting dressing to the film alongside his cinematographer Grieg Fraser are snuffing out any possible emotional attachment the film could give. Tatum, who struggles through just a tiny bit of prosthetic work on his face, gives an almost two-dimensionally written character (a mark against Frye when Mark is undeniably the protagonist of this whole ordeal) an attitude of resentment and self-loathing with the little details of his posture, his tone of voice to even the people he loves, and his melancholy look pasted forever on his face. Du Pont smacks him on the face and calls Mark an ungrateful ape and we believe that Mark believes it rather than being the power figure his body makes him capable of being. Tatum carries almost the entire film with a bit of help from Ruffalo, who as Dave, gives a more lived-in presence in the film. We don’t see as much of Dave as we do Mark and du Pont, but the interactions between the two brothers – which are almost constantly powered by Tatum’s attitude all throughout those scenes – are the most genuine moments in the film, whether adding to the conflict or just the brothers trying as best as they can to stay brothers.

Carell, on the other hand, is not as impressive. He gives tremendous effort in the role of John du Pont and almost clearly has done his research. He doesn’t outright nullify the moments of the film and steps on the dramatic beats of the film when necessary, but he’s also the most controlled of the three central performances. And seeing that he has made all these little eccentricities of himself is like looking at a puppet’s strings and trying to convince yourself that you’re not still looking at a puppet. It probably works for some people. It just doesn’t for me. Acting is a part of film that is just too apparent, too obvious to see when it’s obviously made up.

Miller’s film however is technically sound – I have no outright qualms with it winning Best Director at Cannes – and it gets away with that from the little but maybe unfair fact that we just don’t see the director, the cinematographer, etc. He makes sure that the movie comes off as stuffy, tedious, and asphyxiating. It’s a very deathly film. It’s not fun. I think what got me most was all the stuffy, asphyxiating, tedious factors you mentioned, they just added the atmosphere to what felt like it should have been a lively boost of nationalistic morale. Maybe if we had gotten more liveliness throughout the film (there were moments in the theater when people laughed and probably forced it because how sobering most of the film is), there would be enhanced irony in the film itself, but I still loved that every little bit of pep had to be fucking shut down simply by how the movie was presented, so that you knew something bad was going to happen.

Finally, Frye’s script doesn’t carry itself the way Tatum and Miller do for the film. Partly because its narrative gets to an absolute standstill halfway through the movie and stops trying to wiggle itself out of that hole around the final act, which is the longest-feeling part of the movie. But also largely because it happens to be holding all of the themes it tries to dedicate itself to at surface-level only. It says “Yes, there is an irony in nationalism”, “Yes, there is jealousy even at wealth”, “Yes, there is little valor and honor in some things” and doesn’t go deeper than that. Just displays these themes and moves on. The only insight it dedicates itself too is shaping the character of du Pont with all of his shortcomings as a greedy, vain, controlling, impersonable being and that doesn’t really help when he holds off on the mental illness (which is essentially telling half of the story) and Carell’s performance is completely artificial and fake.

So, there’s Foxcatcher on a balancing beam. I would be unsurprised at its Oscar potential, but there’s just as much wrong with it as right and while I do in the end really like the movie, despite identifying its faults (though, like most movies, I’m sure the faults will eventually make me more disgruntled), there are those things within Foxcatcher that imply a better movie could have been made out of this. That living in Capote’s shadow is the only thing it can do right now and it’s unlikely to wrestle itself out of that.

FIXING A HOLE 2014 – OFF THE RAILS

Out of all the reviews I have to make to cover 2014, the idea of trying as hard as I can to be objective with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer was the most discouragingly daunting task. It really is. When you come across a film you absolutely love endlessly, despite its faults, it’s going to be hard to state its problems without just going “Oh, but it doesn’t matter.” It’s why I really didn’t write a review when I first watched it in June. I just sat on my bed saying “Oh no, what have I done?”, then grabbed a friend, took her to the theater to watch it and wanted to see if I was just blinded by my adoration.

I suppose the primary reason, the biggest getaway that Snowpiercer has as a movie is out of how completely wild and off the hinges it presents itself as a concept. I mean, it’s a movie about a train running nonstop through a new ice age in perpetual motion. There is absolutely nothing about that idea that wouldn’t exactly attract a sane person immediately, but crazy is exactly what Bong Joon-ho does best – from his political family monster film The Host to semi-black comedy semi-nihilistic buddy cop police procedural Memories of Murder. Perhaps his least craziest film is Mother, but we ain’t here to talk about the entirety of Bong Joon-ho’s career stylings, or we’d be here for a long while. We’re just going to take into consideration the fact that Bong’s portfolio has constantly bet on the fact that he can juggle in as many possible concepts and facets into one coherent movie and, for the most part, he has almost always proven himself able to pull it off. It’s a gift. Not many directors get away with that.

Snowpiercer has possibly the most things banking against it because of how ludicrous its concept is. So ludicrous to the point that if you look too much into the minutia of the details, you probably weren’t tuned into the concept to begin with and, honestly, you probably aren’t wrong not to like the movie.

But me, I find just so much to love about Snowpiercer.

Anyway, the ludicrous plot, based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette – Let me indulge you and hope you stick around – The world has been brought into an ice age, like I mentioned. There is a non-stop train with the last survivors of the world in it, like I mentioned. Now, the survivors and their cars are divided into a crude class-based system and the very lowest of the low are pushed all the way to the back of the train living in horrible decrepit conditions, and the main honchos of the train in the front – namely the creator and leader of the train, Wilfred.

Eventually, the people in the back of the train have had enough and so, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and masterminded by Gilliam (John Hurt), they begin their own revolution on the train, pushing their way to the front with one of the spokespersons for Wilfred, Mason (Tilda Swinton), as a hostage and the inventor of the security design, Namgoong Minsu (Bong Joon-ho) in tow.

Still with me on this? Ok, good.

You do not need to go at all far to know what the hell the movie is supposed to ideally be a symbol for. Talkin’ bout a revolution, son. The French Revolution is the most ideal platform to believe it represents, especially considering the source novel is French, but I have also heard belief that the movie was representative of the 1% vs. 99% or the Battleship Potemkin mutiny. So, y’know, it’s probably flexible to figure what revolution you want to apply to the movie. But what I love most about the movie is that it doesn’t try to be deep about this.

Subtlety is not on Snowpiercer‘s mind. Especially considering how much it wants to be. It is an action film, a science-fiction film, a gallery-like romp through environments, a spiritual journey, and obviously a political allegory. It hits all of these things head-on and long enough to actually qualify into each genre. It’s pretty impressive considering its the same sort of multi-tasking that a movie like Sabotage tries to do and fails at.

I’m sure the cast is partly there to lend a bigger air of gravitas to the film. In addition to the actors I named, Jamie Bell, Allison Pill, Octavia Spencer, Ko Ah-sung, and Ewan Bremmer all have notable roles around the film – each with distinct personalities that are one-note but enough to tell them apart. The characters within the back of the train feel particularly lived-in, while Swinton, Pill, and the other front-enders (namely Wilfred’s personal assistant and the lethal silent manservants who pursue Curtis and company) are all extremely cold and unbelievably inhuman (there is a school of thought that those particular front-ender characters are robots – no, seriously, I’ve met many a viewer who assumed so. The movie gives absolutely no clue to assume such). Bong is quite frankly his least dynamic to me, compared to his performances in The Good, the Bad, the WeirdThe HostSympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Memories of Murder, but he’s not outright intolerable. Hurt is standard-fare John Hurt at this point, the non-Chris-Nolan version of Michael Caine, but he’s still notably enough as a character to feel for him every time he attempts to make up for his lack of appendages. He’s still believable. Now, Evans and Swinton, though, they are the true stars of the movie. Evans has given his career-best performance in this film so far as the face of the thoughts and emotions of the back-enders, and his continuous growing as an actor is actually going to make me miss him once he goes ahead with the retirement he keeps threatening. Swinton is outright the kind of caricature the kind of craziness that Snowpiercer personifies would require in its cast, never once yielding to be any less energetic in her bourgeois glad-teething.

But still, most of all the film is driven by the movie’s goddamn heightened energy projecting it the same way that the train barrels through its tracks and so many curious moments – from the New Year’s celebration, to an insane shootout between cars, to Allison Pill’s classroom car, to the brilliantly surprising production design of Ondřej Nekvasil (easily my favorite part; I couldn’t wait to see what was behind each car as it seemed to go off the walls between Tim Burton style, Federico Fellini style, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet style) – toss the tone of the up and down that it is obviously going to have its detractors and lovers. But Bong Joon-ho is the kind of director who knows how to go with any idea that pops into his mind and grabs hold of it long enough to allow the audience to get with it before he moves on to the next cool things he wants to show us. It’s movies like this that he was born to make and I’m glad we get it out of him.

It definitely is not perfect – again, most of it makes no sense and if you want to get with it, you can get with it; if you don’t, you’re gone – but it’s pretty damn well ambitious. Maybe the most ambitious film I’ve seen in a year that includes Interstellar and Boyhood. And I love that ambition. I love that it brings the best of the imagination and the personality of Bong Joon-ho in the film, rather than just being a sobering attempt at political commentary. I love that it makes its genre tenants the most obvious parts of the movie. I love that it has no problems with being a cartoon at points and I love that all of these things have made for what is maybe one of the most lively pictures in a long time for a movie about how much of humanity sucks, even when it’s near extinct.

Love it or hate it, you can’t say it doesn’t try to make itself out to be a cinematic movement. Emotionally or entertainment-wise.

FIXING A HOLE 2014 – THE PASSION OF THE MUAD’DIB

It’s not entirely unknown that Dune has been one of my favorite books for a long time. I find it quite involving as a world-building piece of literature, akin to The Lord of the Rings‘ dedication to establishing the environment and atmosphere of its story. It’s a philosophical and psychological landscape bound between its pages. It’s purely informative in its wordplay, but it makes itself open to a spirituality involved purely into the content of itself. It makes a lot of sense to try and adapt such an influential landmark of science fiction culture into a visual medium to expand and involve the complete consciousness of the unexpecting audience. It’s ambitious and awesome.

‘Course, the matter of that when you wish to see its film adaptations is that you will be involved with what is by far David Lynch’s worst work (to which he himself disowns) or an overbloated work created solely for the Sci Fi channel which… is the Sci Fi channel (sorry, Syfy!).

But this is not the story of Dune itself. It is the story of what could have been with Dune. The story of what is maybe the most famous movie never to have been made, giving The Man Who Would Be Don Quixote a run for its money. It is cinema’s Last Dangerous Visions.

As a niche group of people would actively delve into either science-fiction, cinema, or Dune culture (all of which I belong to) know, Alejandro Jodorowsky was an icon of Mexican cinema during the 70s. His hit films of The Holy Mountain and El Topo had been cult hits for avant-garde junkies all over Europe and the Americas and getting him into the inner circles of artists and professionals all over the globe. He was no Steven Spielberg or Andy Warhol, but it wasn’t a stretch to find him at Andy Warhol’s birthday party. Because he was at such a high point in his career that few people get to reach, his next film could be whatever art project he wanted.

He cries out “DUNE!!!” and he gets Dune. For a very short while. He collects all these great names to be involved with the movie from Dan O’Bannon, Mick Jagger, Udo Kier, Pink Floyd, Alain Delon, Magma, Gerladine Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Moebius, Chris Foss, Gloria Swanson, and even notably, the late great artist H.R. Giger. They spend millions simply working on the plans of the production, dreaming up what they could possibly do with the money that is already used up, and before they knew it, they had a movie that they wanted to make… they wanted so fucking badly to get made… but they just couldn’t. The money wasn’t there and nobody would believe in Jodorowsky’s vision, no matter how many faint praises he was drenched in and so he had to shut out the lights on the way out of this project for the final time. Afterwards, Dino de Laurentiis got his hands on the rights and, after his own failed initial attempt, gets David Lynch to direct an adaptation and that movie pretty much destroys souls, so I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend it. I only watch it because it is Dune and the pain in my heart reminds me that I am unfortunately alive.

Anyway, Jodorowsky’s Dune tells that tale in a much-more detailed and involved manner than I just did. It talks about the ideals that the project represented in Jodorowsky’s mind and it brims with the absolute joy and energy of anticipating such a “world-changing” event in film history. The makers of the film never break this informative manner of presenting all of the testimonies of the people involved (with some excess coming from critics and admirers of Jodorowsky that really don’t have much to say beyond “oh yeah, it would have been spectacular”) but with the blessed interviewing of Jodorowsky himself we have a ball of manic enthusiasm at the visions he wanted to bring to the world, regardless of how many clear story liberties he takes with Dune (by changing the ending of the tale flat-out like Jodorwsky did, you completely discard one of the major themes of the tale in its attitude towards religion). He and producer/former creative partner Michel Seydoux are the true centers of this picture’s storytelling providing a double-sided account of the troubled development where Jodorowsky is the gayly raving hypeman for this project and Seydoux is the voice of reason – sometimes very impressed by the measures Jodorowsky goes through that turn out to work for the time being, but ultimately grounding the experience as knowing that sooner or later, the money is going to be not there anymore and Dune shall be dried up.

In the middle of all this, we get a look at the illustrations and comic-book like literary pitches of the large tome that Jodorowsky and company used to approach all the major studios and it is pretty glorious to watch, it’s own animated headtrip. It’s a little taste of what’s behind the mystery of the project that I will go completely cuckoo if the book ends up itself wide-published prior to Jodorowsky’s death. Forget the amibitions behind, the beautiful imagery it beholds breaks away from the normal stylings of Moebius, Foss, and Giger to a more universally thematic connection together without losing each artists’ very apparent signature within it. They are all Jodorowsky’s foot soldiers, telling the same story through their definitive flourishes. These pictures are glorious. And to accompany their work, we have the telling of some of the most involved figures within the pre-production, the people who believed in it most and gave their hand in. They all have just a little bit of lived-in space to provide the story of the doomed film beyond just being a peering eye account that would appear on an episode of 60 Minutes. Even Giger is there to tell the tale, having only passed away after the production of the documentary, and O’Bannon who had died long prior, but thankfully we have audio recordings of the sci-fi film legend to bring him about and his widow to relay his experiences within the tumultuous period of the film. It’s especially amusing to keep witnessing the constant attempts to explain Dune to people involved with the development process who turn to have not read the book at all, like a real-life Tropic Thunder.

If there are things I could hold against Jodorowsky’s Dune, there is an absolute air of pretentiousness that surrounds the never-existing film of Dune. Which is certainly to be expected by Jodorowsky himself if only to underscore his absolute passion for the project, but just the amount of fluff that the other interviewees that had no hand in the actual production whatsoever already counting chickens for it, stating how much its influence most have obviously stretched into all these different films that could never have been thought up by anyone other than Jodorowsky. They act like the movie was Citizen Kane before it even comes around to earning that amount of praise from people who have no idea what the movie would have ended up looking like or entailing. It sort of lights a fire under my ass and gives it a lot worse of a taste than I feel the documentary earns. It even gets to its climax when the critics have the audacity to go on and claim all these different shots in later science fiction cinema had been lifted straight from the storyboards that the directors of the films they talk about have probably never even known existed, probably the critics being so damn disappointed that Star Wars came ’round the corner to change cinema history instead. Director Frank Pavich’s work on Jodorowsky’s Dune is a very sterile form of documentary filming (which explains why I probably went this fucking far in the review without naming him once… there’s a bit of animation and flash for drug simulation but that’s it), without the thrust of Errol Morris or the stylistic sensibility of vision like Werner Herzog and Les Blank, and he gladly doesn’t give these critics much more of a chance of developing these dumb ideas so much as just stating them, but I really fucking wish Pavich had just done away with this part of the documentary altogether, because it starts to turn into Room 237 and man, would that make Jodorowsky’s Dune full of shit.

If there is any obvious influence that could be stated, it was in the failure of the project and how it affected the careers of the people involved – Jodorowsky’s disillusionment, O’Bannon’s mental breakdown, Dali’s obscurity and controversy for his Pro-Franco attitude in public, and so on. Jodorowsky’s Dune doesn’t afford us as much a look into those collapsed ruins of heightened ambition enough to earn its ending of absolute optimism and passion for the artistry of the soul and I do indeed wish it lingered a bit longer on the negative effects so that the positives of the individuals involved in the movie, most notably in the success of Alienwould be more potent. We still see some of the devastation within Jodorowsky’s attitude in the latter third of the film but, like Pavich’s eye allows, we’re not as involved in heartbreak so much as witnessing heartbreak. Maybe that’s just tasteless to me or too emotionally manipulative, but I think it would make for complete and more moving storytelling of how sometimes you have to take some sufferings within the pursuit of film and roll with it if you really want to stick around.

But that doesn’t stop Jodorowsky’s Dune from being a very inspiring piece of oral history to enjoy for a while and that’s thanks once more to the involvement of Jodorowsky and Seydoux themselves. It was all thanks to their dreams of what could be done with film and it’s fantastic to get to hear out the dream straight from the source, hoping that maybe it’ll leak into us when we dream ourselves and waking up thinking ourselves the Muad’dib one day.

…. seriously though, I wanted that fucking book mass-produced. It need it on my bookshelf!

FIXING A HOLE 2014 – DOG EAT DOG

I’m back, bitches… Video coming up soon, but thank you so much for your patience while I heal. Let’s get this show on the road…

If you come to the movie Cheap Thrills expecting cheap thrills, you will be satisfied. If you watch Cheap Thrills looking for some very profound look into the psychological and physical torment of beings for the sake of exploitation and enjoyment, you will be very disappointed. Extremely so. It is a more nuanced and narrative-driven Jackass skit more than anything else, its content displayed with the only effect of testing the endurance of the viewer in its implications rather than actually displaying acts of violence or extreme content legitimately like other squemish films would do. I neither mean this to be damning or a source of praise for Cheap Thrills, I mean to state this as a definition of what the movie actually is.

Because what actually damns it is how it thinks it is more than that. It wants so very much to be that satire and makes very unsubtle implications about the pursuit of wealth by any means necessary from the very beginning (“You gotta play by the rules, guys” is one of the first things David Koechner says simply about taking alcohol shots) or act like it’s indicting about how the rich upper class will look down on the struggling working class or how they act above everything and, not to pretend that’s not the case, but man, does itself juvenile attitude about its violence and gross-out material really nullify the idea that you could take any actual message or moral that the film dishes out seriously. If you are looking for that kind of movie, you will shut Cheap Thrills off almost immediately after it starts. If you aren’t, you will be simply watching a bunch of tricks and stunts to make you flinch and then maybe you’ll feel like you’ve learned something. It doesn’t matter how many times it repeats its insistence on money, it doesn’t matter how the movie’s ending is soooooooooo reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s finale for Funny Games (and a moment in the movie even has the goddamned desperation to say “Let’s hit pause for a moment. Let’s press rewind”). It’s really no deeper than surface.

I say this because it was important to me to address Cheap Thrills as it was from the very beginning of this. To go further now at that goal would just to be tell the premise and why not: Craig (Pat Healy) has had a terrible day. He’s been fired from a job that was barely making ends meet to begin with and finds his family on the verge of eviction. So, on the way out of his terrible day is a miserable life and he drinks off his sorrows to come, before running into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old and distant friend from high school. Together, they are roped into the company of Colin (Koechner), a loudmouthed possible kajillionaire who is trying to celebrate the birthday of his very young and attractive wife Violet (Sara Paxton). Colin’s idea of a celebration is by getting these two losers to go and do stupid little dares like punching a bouncer and getting slapped in the face by a stranger for simple little bits of cash like $50 and $100. But as the night continues and the party moves over to Colin and Violet’s suburban house (which is way too modest for a couple as outrageous as these two people that really showcases how independent the film is), these stunts escalate to more and more inhumane tasks and acts of cruelty between each other as Craig and Vince both act out of desperation for the cash, sometimes not entirely playing by the rules.

And you know, that’s all the film ever needed to be and I’m completely fine with that. It’s a remarkably fine and funny script, with the lead actors of Healy and Embry at least bringing out more and more resentment between each other to give the narrative a hell of a lot more heft and weight than it probably could have earned and Koechner is absolutely no slouch as a comedic timing (the whole movie is more of a comedy than a drama – when the deeds are actually done, no matter how severe, they are escalated to cartoonish levels. No way you can have any reaction beyond “Oh god, I wanna turn away” and “Oooooooh hahaha!”, if you have any reaction at all to the movie).

I mean, there’s not much of a problem I have with the movie where it is a simple story. We get so much motivation told out of so little from our two Hellfire Gladiators, without devoting itself to exposition or even the easy give-away of the conflict thrust at hand, but by active emotional representation. It is as cheap as the rest of the film but it doesn’t feel cheap when Embry and Healy pull it off. And best of all, it means that the finale of the film, something that people would usually see under any other circumstances as an immediate copout, is earned. It’s actually pretty satisfying when most of the movie doesn’t make me want to throw-up, ’cause this cast is excellent – even the emotionless voyeur in Sara Paxton’s performance. It’s a well-constructed film.

E.L. Katz in the end has turned in a terrific little debut film after having spent a career writing screenplays (interestingly, he opted not to write this film, though I really doubt he had not taken some liberties from the shooting draft. Writers-turned-directors ideally have that impulse). It’s not much more than itself on the skin, though – a midnight movie to featuring two guys who hate each other more and more over the night with a bit of energy given to its dark laughs and a bit of energy to making the viewer go “Oh, what the fuck, man.” Could it be bigger, I don’t think so. Clearly Katz and company tried and failed, but their failure is not a total loss since you get entertained in the end by its numbing presentation. I can definitely see this movie as the SXSW type, so it doesn’t surprise me that it premiered there.

I mean, what’s wrong with some cheap thrills?