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Films I Neglected To Review: Meet The Feeble
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Arizona," "The Happytime Murders," "Juliet, Naked" and "Papillon."

If you have ever lain awake at night and wondered to yourself ''Gee, I wonder what films like ''Blood Simple'' and ''Fargo'' would have been like if the Coen Brothers had absolutely no flair for handling the complicated combination of tones that go into creating a successful black comedy,'' then the often grotesque and thoroughly witless ''Arizona'' is clearly the movie for you. Set during the 2009 housing crisis, the film stars Rosemarie De Witt as Cassie, a real-estate agent desperately trying to flog McMansions in a failed Arizona development to people too savvy to fall for her increasingly desperate pitches. One day, a not-so-savvy sap (Danny McBride), who has lost everything thanks to his unwise purchase of a house he couldn't possibly afford, turns up at her office, ''accidentally'' kills her sleazy boss (Seth Rogen) and kidnaps her while he tries to figure out what to do. Although he continues to insist that he is a ''nice guy,'' his hotheadedness and general level of dopiness leads to a rapidly increasing body count while Cassie tries to figure out a way to protect herself and her teenage daughter (Lolli Sorenson) while her ex-husband (Luke Wilson) and his sullen girlfriend (Elizabeth Gilles) attempt to roll to the rescue.

The notion of a comedy set amidst this particular background is not a bad notion and ''Arizona'' does have a few promising ideas going for it--we learn the Cassie, like her kidnapper, is herself swimming in debt from her own ill-advised home purchase--and a couple of good laughs here and there. (Wilson's rescue mission is hampered by the fact that he cannot quite remember the vaguely Mexican-sounding name of the development he is looking for and is informed that they all have Mexican names but none have any Mexicans living in them.) The trouble is that once the screenplay by Luke Del Tredici establishes the premise, it doesn't have any strong idea of where to take it and instead becomes an increasingly repetitive series of scenes in which McBride blusters about how good of a person he is either just before or just after killing yet another person in a gruesome manner. Towards the end, director Jonathan Watson abandons all pretenses towards socio-economic commentary for a standard-issue horror film climax with blood spurting everywhere, McBride ranting and raving like a madman and DeWitt trying to escape while running around in just a bra. Yes, it has been made with a certain degree of style and the actors are not bad (with the usually abrasive McBride actually toning it down a bit for once) but in the end, ''Arizona,'' much like any of the homes at its center, is just not worth the investment.

The good news about the release of ''The Happytime Murders''--the allegedly outrageous film noir spoof featuring puppets drinking, smoking, getting high, dying in gruesome ways, swearing like stevedores and delivering extended money shots (all brought to you by director Brian Henson, Jim's son)--is that it means that audiences will no longer have to sit through that goddamned insufferable trailer any more when they go to the movies. The bad news, however, is pretty much everything else. For starters, the entire concept that the film is based upon is a.) not exactly fresh--the gimmick of adults-only puppetry has been around since at least the days of Wayland Flowers and Madame and has turned up in such projects as the stage hit ''Avenue Q,'' the Peter Jackson jaw-dropper ''Meet the Feebles'' and ''Team America''--and b.) not inherently funny on its own. From there, things just get worse and worse as the crude sight gags and raunchy dialogue piles up in such grotesque ways that I began thinking that I might owe Dinesh D'Souza an apology for suggesting that he made the most dreadful film of the summer. (He still wins that prize, but just barely.) Let me put it in exceptionally convoluted terms. I mentioned ''Meet the Feebles,'' a film that has the same basic premise as this one but then builds upon it with a screenplay that is actually funny instead of merely ''shocking'' in the most mundane ways. In the grand scheme of Peter Jackson joints, I vastly prefer it and its cheerfully grubby charms to all three of the ''Lord of the Rings'' films by a wide margin. By comparison, ''The Happytime Murders'' is so grotesque, so unfunny and so lacking in anything remotely resembling entertainment (it not only deploys the old ''an asshole says what'' joke, it turns it into a goddamn running gag) that I would cheerfully sit through every minute of the extended versions of Jackson’s ''Hobbit'' trilogy than watch even five minutes of this one again.

Romance, popular culture and benign forms of toxic masculinity converge in ''Juliet, Naked,'' a slight-but-entertaining romcom that survives almost entirely of the strength of its three leads. Rose Byrne plays Annie, a woman who has spent virtually her entire life living in a dead English seaside town and the last decade in a dead-end relationship with Duncan (Chris O'Dowd), a man-boy professor of cultural studies (which essentially means taking popular entertainment and sucking every bit of fun out of it in order to replace it with half-assed pomposity) with a particular obsession with Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a sensitive singer-songwriter type who released one album in the early 90s before completely disappearing from view. Annie’s life changes when a package arrives in the mail including a bootleg CD of Tucker's rough draft versions of the songs. While Duncan is convinced that it is the holy grail, Annie posts a bad review of it on his Tucker Crowe website, which outrages Duncan enough to precipitate a breakup and send him into the arms of a colleague. At the same time, she receives an email from the long-gone Tucker himself agreeing with her assessment and this kicks off an online relationship between the two that develops further when he makes plans to come to England to see his first grandchild, the offspring of one of the many kids that he has fathered and largely ignored over the years.

Based, perhaps not surprisingly, on a novel by Nick Hornby (the creator of the great ''High Fidelity''), ''Juliet, Naked'' is an odd and oftentimes wobbly work. The early scenes depicting Duncan's bizarre fascination with Tucker and his horror over the notion that not everyone feels exactly the same way that he does are undeniably effective as O'Dowd expertly skewers an appalling offshoot of contemporary fandom that most viewers will recognize, some perhaps more uneasily than others. At that point, however, his character disappears for long stretches as Tucker hits the scene and even if you can forgive the incredibly contrived manner in which he and Annie come together (why would a super-reclusive type who has completely rejected his past be lurking on a rinky-dink fanzine in the first place?), it is hard to work around the way that both Annie and the film for the most part give him a pass for his own bullshit (and at one point truly unforgivable) behavior over the years. At the same time, the film does have some very funny moments here and there and the three central performances are undeniably appealing--Byrne does a lot with a fairly nondescript role and Hawke does a pretty good spoof of the artistic pretensions that he himself has demonstrated at times over the years. (That said, if you haven’t seen his stunning turn in ''First Reformed'' yet, you are advised to do so and if you have, you are advised to watch it again.) ''Juliet, Naked'' is a perfectly serviceable though ultimately inconsequential romantic comedy and while it may pass 90 minutes in a reasonably pleasant manner, it won’t be making anyone’s Top 5 list anytime soon.

I confess that ''Papillon,'' Franklin Schaffner's 1973 adaptation of the autobiographical book by Henri Charriere about two French prisoners in the 1930s struggling to survive and escape from an especially horrific and remote penal colony in French Guiana, has never been a film that I have venerated--aside from its then-startling depictions of the cruelty of the prison conditions and the combined star wattage supplied by McQueen's holy cool and Hoffman's nerd of steel, there just wasn't much to it to these eyes. And yet, it feels like a classic when compared to the thoroughly unnecessary remake that is finally hitting theaters after debuting at last year's Toronto Film Festival. The film pretty much hits all of the key beats of the original--the roguish safecracker known as Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) is framed for a murder he didn't commit and condemned to a seemingly inescapable prison colony, befriends rich counterfeiter Louis Degas (Rami Malek) and spends years in solitary confinement rather than betray his new friend after a failed escape attempt--but with none of the punch. Director Michael Noer never comes up with a compelling reason for why anyone would want to retell this particular story in the first place--although far bloodier in this retelling, it somehow still manages to seem safer and more pat this time around as you never get any real sense of the agonies that the characters are experiencing. Hunnam and Malek are both good actors but they are asked to stand in for two of the most iconic stars of their era and since neither one brings anything new to the characters, they cannot help but pale in comparison as well--Malek seems to be doing a Hoffman impression throughout while Hunnam seems to be channeling Channing Tatum. Whatever its failings, the original ''Papillon'' was a real movie made by people with a story they were burning to tell. This one, by comparison, is just a lazy and remarkably unremarkable cover version that is destined to be immediately forgotten until you stumble upon it on cable one night under the mistaken impression that it is the first version.

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originally posted: 08/25/18 00:07:17
last updated: 08/25/18 02:13:56
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