Films I Forgot To Review: A Priest, An Indian And Two Mopes Walk Into A Multiplex. . .
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/14/11 06:20:31
As the atmosphere of hospital waiting rooms--don't worry, all is more or less fine or at least stable--is not especially conducive to long-form critiques, please enjoy these short takes on a number of new films opening this weekend at a theater near you--some if you are lucky and some if you aren't.
Whenever a comedic film told from a female perspective comes out--especially if it treads into the broad, brash and borderline scatological areas usually dominated by the guys--the reviews often turn into a referendum on the question of whether women can be funny or not and whether audiences want to see them being funny or not. As someone who has no problem with the notion of women being goofy--Anna Faris in a comedy is pretty much a guarantee that there will be laughs as long as she on the screen and I even recall having a few kind words to say about the infamous Jenny McCarthy raunchfest "Dirty Love"--I want to assure you that when I say that "Bridesmaids" is a terrible movie, it has nothing to do with the fact that it is essentially a female answer to the male dominated efforts of the like of the Farrelly Brothers or Judd Apatow (the latter actually serves as a co-producer here)--it is because the film is in fact a rambling and disorganized mess that feels like a haphazardly compiled collection of improv scenes that were inexplicably allowed to go on long beyond their usefulness. Kristin Wiig (who also co-wrote the screenplay) plays an underachieving and self-destructive mope whose already downwardly spiraling life is thrown into further chaos when her lifelong best pal (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be the maid of honor at her upcoming wedding, putting her up against another of the bridesmaids, a sleek and perfect Type A personality (Rose Byrne) who tries to usurp control of the festivities. Granted, the film is a little more ambitious than most of the female-oriented comedies of recent years--it beats the hell out of anything Kate Hudson has done in a while--and it does take some risks by alternating broadly comedic set pieces with quieter moments of character-driven humor and by centering the story on a character who is frankly her own worst enemy. (In this regard, it is reminiscent of the vastly underrated "My Best Friend's Wedding," in which the Julia Roberts character that audiences were presumably primed to root for basically became the villainess of the piece at a certain point.) The trouble is that the film as a whole simply isn't very funny--most of the scenes go on too long for their own good and the gross-out bits (especially an extended bit in which the bridesmaids are felled with an exceptionally dire case of food poisoning while at an ultra-chic bridal boutique) clash uneasily with the quieter stuff, Wiig's character is so repetitively mopey that she ceases to hold any interest after a while (I personally found myself rooting for Byrne at a certain point) and what ever subversive points that Wiig or director Paul Feig might have wanted to make about female relationships or movies about female relationships is upended by a standard-issue ending in which everyone gets what is coming to them and all the characters sing along to a vaguely ironic pop classic. Look, I understand that many people are raving over this one and that I am apparently in the distinct minority. to that, all I can say is that for me, "Bridesmaids" is the cinematic equivalent of an Ani DiFranco CD--in theory, I applaud the existence of such a thing but in practice, the whole thing is pretty excruciating.
Imagine a film co-written and directed by someone who apparently wants to make the next "Fight Club" but who has apparently only seen the edited-for-basic-cable version and who has somehow never made it all the way to the game-changing third act twist that reshapes everything we know about the story and characters up until that point. Well, you don't have to injure your brain cells imagining such a monstrosity because you can flat-out kill them by watching "Hesher," an excruciatingly awful indie comedy-drama that has been sitting on a shelf for a while and which appears to be getting a token release now on the basis that American movie exhibitors are now apparently required to open a new Natalie Portman film every week lest they lose their licenses. Devin Brochu plays TJ, a boring young lad who is reeling from the recent death of his mother, being threatened by the school bully and getting no help at all from his near-catatonic dad (Rainn Wilson) or his well-meaning grandmother (Piper Laurie). A grungy form of salvation comes in the form of Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a foul-mouthed and borderline psychotic thug who inexplicably ensconces himself in TJ's house and gives the lad and his family thuggish life lessons that are apparently meant to shake them out of their collective ruts. (Portman by the way, plays a character who is little more than a half-assed extension of her not-exactly-fleshed-out pixie from "Garden State" whom Tj crushes on and whom Hesher crushes upon.) Everything about this debut feature from Spencer Susser seems to have been designed solely to irritate--the direction is flatter than the proverbial pancake, the screenplay is about as ham-fisted as can be without requiring some kind of glaze and not even performers as talented as Gordon-Levitt or Portman can do anything with the ineptly conceived ciphers that they have been asked to portray. Throw any number of incredibly off-putting scenes (the worst of which is easily the unbelievably appalling and dramatically unlikely funeral finale) and you have a prime candidate not only for the title of worst film of the year but worst film to ever screen at or near Sundance. That said, if Susser is ever allowed to make another movie again in this or any other lifetime, I insist that it depict how he managed somehow lure such a smart and talented cast into something as puerile as this disaster.
Although "Meek's Cutoff," the latest effort from minimalist indie auteur Kelly Reichardt (whose previous efforts have included the overrated "Old Joy" and the superb "Wendy & Lucy"), could technically be described as a Western, to do so would set up certain expectations among some viewers that it has no interest in exploring or fulfilling--it would be like taking a gamer hooked on the likes of "Red Dead Redemption" and giving them the decidedly low-fi "Oregon Trail" instead. Set, coincidentally, amid a particularly desolate stretch of the Oregon Trail circa 1845, the film centers on three families who are heading west to begin a new life in the West. Alas, despite the assurances of their garrulous guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the short-cut that he has assured them will get them to their final destination appears to have led them instead to a dead end and as starvation and dehydration become imminent threats, it isn't clear as to whether he is merely incompetent or if he if deliberately leading his charges to their doom. Things come to a head when the group captures an Indian and when Meek attempts to kill him, one of the women (Michelle Williams, reteaming with Reichardt after their previous collaboration on "Wendy & Lucy") protest him instead in the belief that he will lead them to much-needed water. Those expecting gunplay, chases or panoramic vistas will most likely not find this to be a film to their liking--their are maybe two shots fired during the entire thing, the closest thing to a chase is the forlorn wreck of a runaway wagon and the entire thing has been shot in the old 1.37 Academy ratio so as to subtly emphasize the notion of the vastness of nature paradoxically closing in upon our hapless heroes. That said, this is still a beautifully staged and executed short story of a film that probably comes closer to evoking the realities of what the pioneers actually went through than any ordinary John Wayne epic and which is further cemented by the two wonderful, if diametrically opposed, performances from Greenwood and Williams, the latter further solidifying her growing reputation as one of the most daring and inventive young actresses working today. While it may be a million miles removed from the likes of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "Meek's Cutoff" is still an absorbing if unusual take on the western genre and as long as you don't go into it expecting an ordinary bloodbath, you are likely to find it fascinating as well.
Although "Priest," the latest effort from meathead auteur Scott Charles Stewart (whose previous efforts have included the amiably idiotic apocalyptic thriller "Legion" and, oddly enough, a short film adaptation of the Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"), could technically be described as a movie, to do so would set up certain expectations among some viewers that it has no interest in exploring or fulfilling--it would be like taking a moviegoer hooked on competently constructed cinema and giving them the likes of this debacle instead. Based on a graphic novel that I am certain that very few of you have ever heard of (and not, as I once mistakenly assumed, on the briefly controversial and lastingly terrible 1995 melodrama about a gay Catholic priest struggling with one damn thing after another), the film posits an alternate version of the world in which mankind and vampires (who mostly look like hideous and eyeless crosses be teen the pit monster in "Return of the Jedi" and The Shmoo) have been warring for centuries until the creatures were finally defeated by a church-trained cadre of ass-kicking Priests whose skills include hucking ninja-star crucifixes, running in slo-motion when needed for a cool effect and vertical leaping skills that no doubt lead to routs at the annual interfaith basketball tournaments. Now the beasts appear to be back and ready to wreak havoc once again unless one of those now-exiled Priests (Paul Bettany, retiming with Stewart after their previous collaboration on "Legion"--man, the comparisons between this film and "Meek's Cutoff" just keep on coming), joined by a pseudo-cowboy (Cam Gigadent, who is apparently to Screen Gems what John Ratzenberger is to Pixar), a fellow renegade priest (Maggie Q, someone from whom a ruler whacking might actually prove to be desirable) and plenty of extremely dodgy CGI effects, can defeat them and save the day before the last outpost of humanity (albeit one under the control of the Catholic Church in the form of vampire-denier Christopher Plummer--yes, Christopher Plummer) is turned over to rubbery-looking beasts under the thrall of Black Hat (Karl Urban), a pseudo-western baddie who is almost but not quite prime-time television good looking. Boldly and badly incorporating bits and pieces from kung-fu, vampire, sci-fi and Western iconography without rhyme or reason, the result is an apocalyptic mess that is too stupid to work as a straightforward genre piece and too boring to work as camp, though those of you who actually saw "Atlas Shrugged" will be amused to discover the importance that a seemingly long-abandoned railway line plays in the third act, and since the whole thing has been reconverted into after-the-fact 3-D (just the thing for a film in which most of the action is necessarily staged in darkness), the mere act of watching it is nearly impossible. Although the ending baldly and boldly sets itself up for a sequel or two, my guess is that if this film is ever heard from again (aside from complaints regarding confused Netflix orders), it will be as perhaps as only the second Christopher Plummer film in history that Roger Ebert has never seen.