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Films I Neglected To Review: "I Don't Think Mozart's Going To Help At All"

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/27/18 12:43:08

Please enjoy short reviews of "Duck Butter," "The Green Fog," "Kings" and "Supercon."

With such films as ''Chuck & Buck,'' ''Beatriz at Dinner'' and, of course, ''Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day,'' director Miguel Arteta is no stranger to projects that seem designed specifically to be divisive and his latest effort, ''Duck Butter,'' is certainly no exception. Alia Shawkat stars as Naima, a struggling actress whose bid to move from commercials into features hits a roadblock when she manages to get herself fired from a Duplass Brothers joint. Drowning her sorrows later that night in a bar, she meets flighty Spanish singer Sergio (Laia Costa) and after spending a night together flirting and talking about the uselessness and dishonesty that they feel is inherent in most romantic relationships, they hit upon the idea for a grand experiment: they will spend 24 hours together in which they promise to be completely honest with each other about everything while taking time out to have sex on the hour. The theory is that by compressing all the moments of truth in a normal relationship into such a reduced time span, they will come out of it on the same emotional level as a couple who have been together for months and will have saved themselves an enormous amount of time and effort in the process. Shockingly, this particular theory turns out to have a few holes in it, as they discover while traversing any number of emotional highs and lows over the course of the next 24 hours.

Although the combination of comedy, intense drama and wild lust sounds like a potentially combustible mixture, ''Duck Butter'' never quite strikes the sparks needed to ignite them all. The concept of the film is sound enough and both Shawkat (best known from her roles on ''Arrested Development'' and ''Search Party'') and Costa (who starred in the thriller ''Victoria'') are good enough but the whole thing falters because of two key flaws in the screenplay from Arteta and Shawkat. For starters, while the sex scenes are certainly steamy enough to warrant attention, the conversations the two have in between are meant to be soul-searching but merely come across as banal navel-gazing for the most part. (Things get a little more incisive after a shift in locale and tone in the last 20 minutes but it is too little, too late.) The other problem is that there is an imbalance at the center in that Naima, for all of her shallowness, is the only one of the central pair who has been even vaguely fleshed-out while Sergio is little more than a collection of flighty tropes straight out the European edition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl instruction manual. Maybe if the film had explored the narcissistic tendencies of the two characters in a more overtly satirical manner, the results might have been more interesting but as is, ''Duck Butter'' (the title is explained in one of the overtly scatological moments that the story pivots to at times, seemingly in a desperate attempt to get a rise out of viewers) is a film that mostly serves as a reminder, not that one was needed, of how brilliant the superficially similar ''Before Sunrise'' really was in comparison.

Throughout his career as one of the most boldly experimental filmmakers of our time, Canadian surrealist Guy Maddin has provided viewers with one unforgettable image after another in such head-spinners as ''Careful,'' ''The Saddest Music in the World'' and the unforgettable short ''The Heart of the World'' (a work that packs more great ideas and instances of bold filmmaking in a mere six minutes than most films can muster over a couple of hours) and while his latest film, ''The Green Fog,'' might have had a more conventional starting point than usual for him, the end results are just as strange and beautiful as ever. With co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson, he was commissioned to make a film to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the San Francisco International Film Festival that would be comprised of clips of films and TV shows set in and around the Bay Area. After poring through over 200 films, they noticed that many of the clips selected shared similar themes, ideas or visuals as those found in that most famous of all SF-based films, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic ''Vertigo'' and chose to structure the clips so that they would collectively serve as a loose retelling of that film using bits of everything from ''Dirty Harry'' to ''The Conversation'' to the 1978 remake of ''Invasion of the Body Snatchers'' to just a single snippet from ''Vertigo.'' (Oddly, ''Zodiac'' does not turn up among the clips on display. Blessedly, neither does ''The Room.'')

This may sound like an exceptionally nerdy example of film geekery but Maddin & Co. prove to be much more clever than that. For starters, the parallels to ''Vertigo,'' while never overwhelming, are undeniable in many of the seemingly unrelated clips and as it goes on, it begins to serve as a fairly mesmerizing meditation on that key work of cinema and why it has maintained such a hold on audiences and filmmakers alike. More importantly, the film, like much of Maddin's best work, displays a keen sense of humor that keeps things from getting too pretentious. With a few exceptions, for example, all of the scenes involving conversations have been whittled down to nothing but reaction shots with no dialogue actually heard (perhaps to illustrate how unnecessary dialogue can be at times in most films while allowing its own sort-of narrative to take precedence over the details from the 98 different films that did make the cut) and some of the juxtapositions are hilariously inspired. (At one point, we see the ''Streets of San Francisco''-era Michael Douglas supposedly watching film of Douglas’s later bare-assed turn in ''Basic Instinct'' while another makes brilliant use of an old N'Sync video.) Because of all the myriad copyright issues at hand here, it is unlikely that ''The Green Fog'' is going to get a wide release or ever turn up on home video so if you get an opportunity to see it, especially if you are a film buff in general and a ''Vertigo'' fan in particular, you should make the effort to check it out if the opportunity arises. Just make sure to leave time afterwards (it only clocks in at 61 minutes, though they are as densely packed as one could hope for) to watch ''Vertigo'' because once this one ends, you will almost certainly be seized with the need to see that one again as soon as possible. (Happily, Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center, where it will be screening for the next week, has your back in this regard with several screenings of "Vertigo'' on the schedule as well.)

With her first film, the searing drama ''Mustang,'' writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven made such a startlingly bold and assured debut that anyone at all interested in film who saw found themselves eagerly waiting to see what she might offer for a follow-up. Once they get a load of her new film, 'Kings,'' my guess is that virtually all of them will be absolutely dumbfounded that the same person responsible for something as brilliant as ''Mustang'' could have had anything to do with the cinematic garbage fire that is her latest effort. This is a film that is so badly conceived and executed that I almost hesitate to describe it to you--partly because I do not know how to make it sound even remotely coherent and partly because the whole thing is so batshit crazy that it might inspire some of the more foolish of you to check it out simply to see if it really is as insane as I am making it. Set in South Central Los Angeles in the days leading up to the Rodney King riots, Halle Berry stars as Millie, a good-hearted woman who is caring for something like seven foster kids in addition to her own biological son as tensions begin to rise in the neighborhood. Adding excitement (not to mention fodder for the occasional sex dream) is borderline psychotic neighbor Obie (Daniel Craig), who turns up to lend a hand when the riots finally begin and a number of her kids are out in the increasingly violent streets. Oh yeah, while many of the scenes are filled with heartbreak and despair, just as many are played as comedy, of all things.

With its combination of earnest drama, weirdo humor and too many WTF moments to list here, ''Kings'' is the kind of high-wire act that never even makes it to the ladder so that it can plummet to the ground. If Kathryn Bigelow had been fired from the helm of last year's ''Detroit'' and replaced with the infamous Uwe Boll, that would only begin to suggest how jarring the end result here is. I don't want to say that something got lost in translation along the way but I honestly do not know any other way to explain the film's bewildering changes of tone that veer wildly from comedy to intense drama without ever finding the right one for the material at hand. Not only is there not a single scene on display here that works on any level, many of them seem to be actively competing to be the worst of the bunch. (The ''winner'' is the insanely protracted when Millie and Obie find themselves handcuffed to a light pole and undergo an increasingly ridiculous series of gyrations in their efforts to free themselves.) As Millie, Berry contributes one of the most actively inane performances of her entire career (I promise you that ''Catwoman'' will supply more clips on her eventual AFI Lifetime Achievement highlight reel than this film) while Craig is so lazy that the most notable thing about his character is the way that his British accent inexplicably returns in the later scenes. The 1992 L.A. riots have inspired a number of movies over the years, both narrative efforts and documentaries, and will continue to do so for a long time. At least future filmmakers tackling the subject will be safe in the knowledge that it will be almost impossible for them to botch the material as badly and as completely as ''Kings'' does.

Over the years, I have occasionally found myself attending those jumbo-sized conventions celebrating all aspects of geek culture as an invited guest and while those experiences have been satisfactory enough, I am still of the mind that I would rather eat glass than spend time at one voluntarily--being in the middle of thousands of oddly costumed people communicating almost entirely in cultural minutiae can be fun for a bit but after about 15 minutes or so, it becomes absolutely excruciating to me. And yet, I would just as soon spend an entire day in one of them than endure even just a few minutes of ''Supercon,'' an inexcusably awful comedy that purports to celebrate the culture but really does little other than exploit it in the tackiest and grossest ways imaginable. Set during the Louisiana Supercon, an event designed for fans to dress up in oddly nonspecific outfits and meet the creators and stars of their favorite (and equally generic) movies, TV shows and comic books while the shady promoter (Mike Epps) looks to fleece them for as much money as he can. The literal king of this hill is Adam King (Clancy Brown), an arrogant former TV star of the Shatner mold who is unaccountably the biggest draw on the circuit. Far lower in the pecking order is Keith (Russell Peters), a former child actor and one-time co-star of King's forced to make the conventions rounds to pay for a divorce, fellow TV star Brock (Brooks Braselman), acerbic comic book artist Allison (Maggie Grace) and walking pile of smug Matt (Ryan Kwanten). After these four run afoul of King and get fired from the convention, they hit upon a plan to get revenge by staging an elaborate heist of the substantial fortune that King and the promoter have set aside for themselves. After bringing a disgruntled former writer of King's big show (played, inexplicably, by John Malkovich) in, the group attempts to pull off their big robbery and, in a shocking development, things do not go quite as planned.

Even for someone who is as cool on convention culture as I am, the idea of a cosplay-heavy riff on ''Ocean’s Eleven'' that also takes shots at the ways that crappy cons exploit fans sounds potentially tantalizing. Therefore, it is a little shocking to see just how far ''Supercon'' misses the mark in every conceivable way. The heist aspect doesn't pay off thanks to the combination of lazy writing and indifferent direction from co-writer/director Zack Knutson that fails to compensate for what was clearly a budget too small to pull it off properly. (The film actually feels as if it was shot and edited entirely during a weekend at a mid-level convention and this, I hesitate to add, is not meant as a compliment.) The tattiness of the heist material might have been forgivable if they other stuff had worked but the rest of the movie is both desperately unfunny and bizarrely hateful in its humor--a startling number of jokes on display are of a racist, sexist and homophobic nature that flies in the face of the inclusiveness that is normally on display at conventions. And when the humor isn't being blatantly offensive, it falls back on just being gross--just when you think that the running gag about the child actor's character having suffered from testicular cancer on the show was going to be the low point, up comes the bit where a character dangles over an increasingly befouled toilet for several minutes before falling into it headfirst. A movie seemingly made for no one, ''Supercon'' is truly the pits--a film so lazy, so unfocused and so uninterested in the culture that it is shamelessly exploiting that it almost makes ''Fanboys'' seems nuanced and competent by comparison.

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