The first few months of a new year are generally a rather bleak time for film lovers of every ilk. Between the spoils of prestige season and the spectacle of the blockbusters lies a graveyard. It's the time of year when a trip to the cinema is most often accompanied by shame and regret. In this spirit, we wanted to give our readers a few examples of films that transcended their 'nothing better to do' ticket purchase, and brought a bit of hope into these last desolate months of winter. Maybe, just maybe, that ticket to 300: Rise of an Empire will be money well spent.
For better or for worse, I tend to earmark certain actors and directors. For example, I'm instantly interested in a movie starring Brad Pitt. Like him or loathe him, the man doesn't tend to take bad projects. I consider his involvement a good indication of quality. As awful as Noah looks, you can bet I'll sit through it just because it's Darren Aronofsky. This habit can also swing the other way. I didn't run out to see American Hustle, because I've convinced myself that David O. Russell is past the point of making interesting films. The Grey seemingly exists to chastise me for being so pigheaded.
2002's Narc marked Joe Carnahan as a director to watch in my undeveloped mind. It was a gritty, low-budget gut punch of a film. Carnahan expertly utilized his limited budget in creating a distinct aesthetic and a damn satisfying film. He even managed to wring a quality performance out of Ray Liotta. So I suppose if The Grey had been slated for a 2004 release, I would have been first in line. However, Carnahan had followed his breakout film with the absolutely putrid Smoking Aces and the hired-gun special The A-Team. It's safe to say I'd written him off by the time 2011 rolled along.
Liam Neeson was a similarly dire indicator at the time. After accumulating one of the most impressive resumes in Hollywood, Neeson had seemingly entered into the Kimbo Slice phase of his career, content to have people hurl money at him for punching throngs of hapless extras.Combine that with an embarrassing ad campaign that made the film out to be 90 minutes of Neeson boxing CGI wolves to the death, and I had no interest whatsoever. I didn't even notice that Carnahan was attached. It's not the sort of trailer that has you running home to research the crew. Taken is a terrible movie. Adding wolves to the equation hardly seemed like a winning formula. Yet, its seemingly disparate 79% on the tomatometer did pique my interest. Add a healthy dollop of winter ennui, and you have yourself a Sunday matinee. This paragraph reads like a fucking recipe card. I hate myself. Cooking with Chef Cantwrite.
Imagine my surprise when the wolf-punching bonanza I begrudgingly bought a ticket to turned out to be a tightly scripted existential yarn. With a poetic narrative. And a well-developed central character arc. It was fairly staggering. The central story of a man regaining the will to live in the face of certain death could come across as overly trite, but Neeson seriously sells the protagonist's journey. It's his finest work in years, and Carnahan does his best Werner Herzog impression as he pits his grizzled band of misfits against the cold, relentless peril of nature.I don't mean to oversell it. This isn't Aguirre. There is definitely some unnecessary bombast, and the film's meditative tone occasionally locks horns with the action film proceedings. It feels like Hollywood got hold of a Herzog treatment and attempted to turn it into a blockbuster. The result is occasionally ungainly, but in turn sad, beautiful, inspiring. I can certainly see how this found its way into the dumping ground. It's a film I'm sure producers had no idea what to do with. I'm equally certain a lot of folks left the theatre sorely disappointed. Taken By Wolves, this is not.
Is The Grey a great movie? No, but it is a good one. When I find myelf using the adjective Herzogian to describe a January release, that's about as good as it gets. And it just may be the perfect film to get you through the annual existential crisis that is winter.
I was in my senior year of high school when Orange County was dumped into theaters sometime in late-January 2002. A recent trip to the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page confirms my memories of the film receiving a rather underwhelming critical reception upon its release (46% “Rotten” rating). But Orange County had a lot working against it before critics could even sink their teeth into it, starting with its release under the MTV Films banner. A simple affiliation with MTV would immediately put any film in the lowbrow portion of the cultural taste meter. Likewise, MTV had some rather dubious concepts for the film’s advertising campaign. For instance, they thematically incorporated oranges on all of the promotional material, because ORANGE County, get it? The teasers that showed-up on television provided scant information about the film’s plot and mostly featured lukewarm-satire of SoCal youth culture. Plus, apart from the vague marketing, MTV seemed far more interested in promoting the film as a vehicle for the then white-hot Jack Black. Of course, he did not have the lead role, but who cares since all of you damn kids with disposable incomes love(d) Jack Black! Anyway, for a seventeen-year-old cutting class on a cold winter afternoon, it seemed like the perfect thing for me to waste $5+ on- a way to kill time and earn some “Frat Pack” credibility for laughing at Jack Black running around in his underwear.
Unexpectedly, Orange County proved to transcend the slacker/gross comedy expectations that many critics preemptively put upon it. Instead, it is a life-affirming, short-and-sweet “coming of age” film largely void of conventional clichés. It was (and still is) a perfect companion piece to the throngs of high school students who anxiously await the arrival of acceptance and/or rejection letters from their dream colleges and universities. Protagonist Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) genuinely exhibits the barely-restrained rage and anxiety many feel at that stage in life.
There’s also a strong sense of alienation that the audience experiences through Shaun. Like many 17-18-year-olds, he finds himself having to struggle with that fact that he has suddenly grown-up and has intellectually out-grown many of his still juvenile friends and acquaintances. As a then-emerging hipster curmudgeon, I could obnoxiously relate.
Beyond Shaun’s personal journey, the satirical edge of the film comes off as far more skewering than expected. Class culture gets a rather strong examination, most remarkably through the chardonnay-soaked anxiety of desperate housewife, and mother of Shaun, Cindy (played by Catherine O’Hara, who brings classic SCTV-era gusto to her comedic performance). But much of the film’s satire focuses not only on SoCal youth culture, but national youth culture. It’s a welcome surprise, especially considering the film’s affiliation with MTV. And although the film’s titular setting is important, the mocking-tone is relatable to anybody, whether they grew up in a shitty little town or a shitty big city.
Thematically, the best example of youth satirizing comes in the form of the then-popular (and woefully awful) song “Butterfly” by CrazyTown. The song is prominently featured in scenes where protagonist Shaun feels at his most alienated and it always produces a genuine, but hilarious, sense of dread. Examples like that lead me to feel that Orange County is, perhaps, the only true counter-culture film for teens to be released in at least the last 15 years.
Then, of course, there’s proverbial elephant in the room, Jack Black. I’m not being critical of Jack Black as a comedic actor, but too much of his often over-the-top comedic acting could’ve ruined the film. Luckily, he recedes into the background for most of the film, playing the role of Shaun’s burnt-out brother Lance. Though an integral character to the film’s plot, it’s never all about him and the focus remains on Shaun, as it should. And, luckily, there’s really only one genuinely gross-out moment in the film that, of course, involves the character of Lance. It actually comes off as a slight distraction to the flow of the film and is clearly designed to appeal to Jack Black fans and showcase his “Jack Blackness.” But since the narrative goal was get everybody in the Brumder family to sabotage Shaun’s opportunities, it’s at least an appropriate scene:
The rest of supporting cast features an impressively intimidating ensemble of comedy legends, but luckily their appearances do not come off as a distraction. Rather, they all prove to be largely effective in their small roles. I have lost count of all of the cameos made in the film, but the aforementioned performance by Catherine O’Hara is certainly a major highlight of the film. Lily Tomlin is ideal as the aloof guidance counselor, whose relative ineptness strangely resembled that of my own high school guidance counselor. Chevy Chase briefly drops by and manages not to be too “Chevy Chase-esque” as the incompetent, Britney Spears-obsessed principal. And John Lithgow appealingly out-acts just about everybody as Shaun’s work-obsessed-on-the-verge-of-a-stroke father. There’s also a wonderful cameo from Harold Ramis, who passed away the day I started writing this piece. Ramis plays the role of Stanford’s dean of admissions, whom Shaun accidentally drugs with three hits of ecstasy. I don’t believe the following scene will show up on any highlight reels of Ramis’ career, but this “tripping” scene is certainly one of his most animated and funny performances:
In the 12-years since its release, the film has aged well and remains relevant to our contemporary culture. If anything, it’s a bit shocking to see how little has changed since 2002. Of course, it will always live in the shadow of another unrelated media text with the same title (the far more popular, and completely un-ironic, Fox television series that debuted a year later), not to mention any “Frat Pack” movies that were released in its wake. Of course, that is also part of Orange County’s enduring charm: It will always remain a respite from the big swim of popular culture for those who feel alienated by it. It’s ok if it’s not recognized as a comedic classic on the level of its contemporaries like Old School. Besides, if everybody liked it, it might as well be “Butterfly” and that would suck.
Nothing but my slavish devotion to my very first TV boyfriend, Joshua Jackson (a la Pacey Witter, but if you rep for Charlie Conway we can totally be friends) led me to watch Cursed. I was cruising around Blockbuster on a Friday night, searching for perfect high school sleepover material. Sleepover material of the mid-aughts fell into two categories: friend-selected romantic comedies that made me want to claw my eyeballs out, or terrible horror movies (possibly also with the clawing out of eyeballs) that I could sell to friends as “so bad they’re not really that scary.” Cursed looked to fit the bill, with the terrible floating head cover art, including the aforementioned TV boyfriend’s head and the “horror comedy” label, which is usually a marketing ploy or a cry for help instead of an actual indicator of genre. The clincher was the thrilling plot description on the back of the box: werewolves! Also, remember when you all liked Scream?
I was both rightish and wrongish. Cursed is a meh horror movie, and an okay comedy, but a pretty great teen movie. Cursed’s only crime in not hitting it big was being a little before it’s time. The Twilight craze of heartthrobby YA supernatural creatures wouldn’t explode until 2008, and The Vampire Diaries, the CW’s flagship of supernatural love triangles, (developed by Cursed writer Kevin Williamson and Cursed co-producer Julie Plec) wouldn’t launch until 2009. Had Cursed been released five short years later (and as much as it pains me to say it, recast with some more time sensitive studmuffins), I’d like to imagine it would have done much, much better.
But I guess it hardly matters now that we’re removed from all that junk here in the far distant future of 2014. Instead, you can enjoy the movie on its own merits. Yay! The first of many merits are the location shots at Torrance High School. Every pop culture teenager worth a damn went to Torrance, from Buffy to Brenda, Brandon, and Kelly. The teen scenes are satisfying and comforting in that “high schools tropes that don’t exist in reality” sort of way. Cheerleaders wear their uniforms every day, nobody goes to any classes, and everyone shows up to cheer on wrestling tryouts from the bleachers. Jesse Eisenberg is nerdy and the girl he likes is with his (hot) bully Milo Ventimiglia, oh no. P.S. Milo has a secret and I won’t ruin it for you, but I will say there should have been more kissing.
Christina Ricci plays Jesse’s big sis and her half of the movie is fun L.A. job stuff, like working with celebrities and your hot boyfriend’s club opening. This part is totally a merit because now you can enjoy the casting with that satisfying dose of nostalgia for actors and their precious little babyfaces. Scott Baio plays himself! The Craig Kilborn Show is still a thing! A cameo by Lance Bass! Mýa attempts acting! (Remember? Her love is like, wo.) Nick Offerman is a police officer! Portia de Rossi is a psychic for realsies!
The only problem is it’s hard to stay on task when your baby brother (who you are raising yourself, because dead parents, obvs) is convinced that you are both turning into werewolves! Then we have fun montages of discovering powers, and doing important research because, golly gee, I’ve never even heard of werewolves before. And once the werewolf gets to murdering other people, you can start guessing who it could possibly be. Again, no spoilers, but the answer at the end is pretty satisfying. Or what I thought was the end. Then it drags on a bit, unfortch, but wraps it back up with a super cute actual ending. If I’m being vague, it’s in a further attempt to make you watch Cursed, then come back and read this again so you can nod knowingly.
So, for the TL;DR set: Cursed is not a good horror movie, but it is a good movie, especially if you have felt the urge to squeal over a werewolf, vampire, etc. in the last 5-8 years.
Often when we make entertainment recommendations to people, we often have to start with something similar to, "This is going to sound weird, but trust me, you're going to like..." Your friends (whom you have chosen for some reason, presumably one of which is their taste in things), will be polite about the recommendation and, if you're lucky, eventually get around to experiencing the thing you recommended. For some reason, this has never been the case for me when it comes to Dredd. All of my so-called friends scoff at the idea of seeing this movie. Apparently, they'd rather watch Kevin Spacey's hammy political machinations and feel like hip intellectuals.
Perhaps they won't watch it because the movie is poorly named (theatrically released as Dredd 3D). Perhaps it makes people think of the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd movie, which redefined the word 'abomination'. Aside: the people who think this movie is fun because of its campiness are awful. Perhaps people confuse it with the neuropharmacological DREADD technique and wonder why anyone would make a movie about Clozapine-N-oxide.
Whatever the reason, those people who haven't given this movie a chance are flat-out wrong.
If Dredd is successful over time, it will be singularly because of Netflix. When the movie came out in theaters (which I'm assured it did on boxofficemojo.com ), nobody knew about it and nobody cared. I was definitely one of those people. Bones from Star Trek was in a crappy remake of a crappy movie? That dude was in Doom. Thanks, but no thanks. Making matters worse was the IMDB description, reproduced here in its entirety:
In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, a cop teams with a trainee to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.
Hahaha. SLO-MO. That's the name of the drug that serves as the plot device of the movie. I'd watch a Mark Wahlberg movie where he plays a science teacher on the run from the NSA before I'd watch this piece of garbage.
But then, I saw it on my Netflix feed. I didn't watch it immediately, because Netflix's business model is 'TV shows you might like and godawful movies that you definitely won't.' Then one night, I got home drunk and saw that Dredd had 4+ stars for me and was highly recommended. Fueled by one too many IPAs, I gave it a shot.
The plot description is not wrong. That's exactly what that movie is about. The description actually mutes how ludicrous the plot is. The lady who plays Cersei in Game of Thrones is the main villain, named Ma-Ma. No, I'm not joking. But! Dredd is a movie built on the fundamental principles of action movies: don't worry about plot, worry about story structure and build the action around it. And in that sense, Dredd crushes it.
The greatest disservice done to Dredd is that it came out after The Raid. People who read this site regularly (hello there, internet bots!) know how much I love Asian action movies and lament how we should incorporate more of that style into Hollywood films. Well, that's exactly what Dredd is. If not for The Raid, we'd be talking about this movie as the most hardcore close quarters action movie in a long time. Two people locked in a building against its residents. Waves and waves of unnamed henchmen get destroyed in every possible form as the protagonists progress up an escalating difficulty level until the boss. It's not as elegant as The Raid, but it is being marketed to Monster-drinking, 'Call of Duty' playing, violence-desensitized teenagers, so elegance is not the main draw. But, it's dark and violent as it should be, unlike Zac Snyder's PG-13 vision for every goddamn movie he makes. It's the kind of movie that is made better by Nolanization, not worse.
The major downside of this movie is that it was made for 3D, and there are a lot of 'whoooaaaa, look maan, it's 3D' gimmicks. But those are not major distractions over the longer term. Karl Urban makes for a surprisingly good Dredd, and doesn't goof it up by taking off his helmet, Sly Stallone-style. It's a good adaptation of the comics, and, if you don't mind the MegaCity One sized plot holes, it's relatively entertaining.
Or as I would say to my friends, "Seriously, you guys. It's secretly super good. Trust me."
There are two primary types of Dumpuary releases: 1) comedies that are inexpensive, light, and appealing in contrast to the Oscar prestige spill-over, and 2) the dramas studio heads can’t foresee doing well with Oscar voters. Usually, this latter category is the dreadfullest of dreaddy dread types (I’m lookin’ at you Monuments Men) that tried to be the next Dances With Wolves but turned out to be the latest The Last Samurai. But as we see in this post, there have been plenty of examples of sneaky hits, whether commercially, financially, or personally successful. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream falls into the personal hit category.
Cassandra’s Dream unmistakably fits the “this isn’t going to do well in October/November” bill. And though distinctly a Woody Allen film, it’s not of the witty and poignant relational ilk. I can best describe it as a minor film. Not in quality, but in scope and feeling. When you’re watching Cassandra’s Dream, you feel almost certain you’re the only person to have ever seen it. It’s very contained and restricted by the context of two brothers and their attempt to buy and maintain a boat. Though that sounds incredibly boring, the film quickly turns into a tragic-drama, becoming very reliant on the film’s central questions about morality. And like a one act morality play, which the film clearly admires, most interactions directly interrogate the brothers’ consciousness. Imagine Crimes & Misdemeanors without Woody and Mia’s storyline, or the second half of Match Point but with half the cast. I don’t doubt that none of this is selling you on seeking out a (Clearance rack) DVD anytime soon.
Cassandra’s Dream is a strange film; essentially a big name genre film that subverts preconceived notions. I don’t blame anyone for calling it cold or bland on an initial viewing. And plenty of people did. It currently has a sub 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for both critics and audiences and its domestic lifetime gross is below $1mil. It’s the perfect example of those Woody pictures that resonate much better with foreign audiences than with Americans.
Though it’s perhaps not the best film to come out of the modern Dumpuary age, I really like Cassandra’s Dream as an example of the underlooked films that can come out of this shadowed time of year. It’s almost uncategorizable and completely unmarketable. Though it has (strong) performances from Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Wilkinson and features an original score by Philip Glass (WHAT!?), it has almost no mass appeal. But for Allen’s oeuvre, these are the types of films that have to happen for films like Blue Jasmine to appear to be a strange and sudden resurgence for a director who has realistically been extremely consistent for the last five decades.
We all know that most horror movies are complete garbage. Especially one’s you’ve never heard of before. Sometimes, however, you get lucky enough to have a college roommate who watches all manner of horror movies regardless of quality. So when said roommate tells you to watch a movie that’s both “bomb-ass” and (more importantly) on Netflix Instant, and you’re doing nothing but watching “How the States Got Their Shapes” on the History Channel in your parent’s basement, you fire up your Wii and watch Grave Encounters.
Found footage has never been everybody’s favorite, and has certainly been nauseatingly played out by now, but the conceit works great for this movie because there’s a perfect explanation behind the camera work. The story revolves around the crew for a Ghost Hunters-esque television show that has stopped at an abandoned mental asylum to spend the night. None of the team members seems to truly believe in anything otherworldly, and are doing their best to capture some kind of creepiness for the ratings.
That is, until the asylum turns out to be not so abandoned after all…
Clearly this could have devolved into standard jump scare fare, but Grave Encounters is truly frightening. The use of several stationary night-vision cameras lend a sense of foreboding to the early scenes and slowly incorporate more unease as the movie goes on. Three of the team members have cameras as well, so we’re able to move around the space the characters occupy enough so the found footage gimmick doesn’t feel claustrophobic. Plus, because the characters are shooting a television show, we get see how the production gets handled, making the found footage aspect even easier to stomach. Better still is the use of lighting to provide a constantly eerie atmosphere. If there are any production lights other than the ones we see on screen, they’re hidden extremely well. The naturalness with which the team uses the cameras as flashlights only makes their situation feel more real, and therefore way scarier.
Yeah, but what about dumb characters who act completely irrationally and make you want to tear your ears off? You won’t find any of those here, thankfully. Everyone is likeable and acts like a normal human being would in a dire situation inside a haunted insane asylum. Nobody stays skeptical for long, and the team works together in their attempt to escape the ghouls. It’s easy to feel like one of the crew both because of the cinematography and realistic group dynamics. The characters are at the mercy of the haunted building and we as the audience have no control over the direction of the plot, so the ease with which we can relate to the team makes the film even creepier.
I’ve heard the sequel to Grave Encounters is just a rehash of the first, and takes the route of regular old crappy horror movie. This first installment, though, is a quality fright fest that’s perfect for any manner of viewing near Halloween. Not only will you get street cred for a great movie experience, that most people haven’t heard the title before will make you look like the horror connoisseur you strive to be.
I wouldn’t blame you for overlooking World’s Greatest Dad. Director Bobcat Goldthwait is known almost exclusively as that guy with the weird voice in Police Academy, and his 20+ year career as a director has been overlooked by average moviegoers and cinephiles alike.
Any Shakes the Clown fans out there? I didn’t think so.
Upon its release, World’s Greatest Dad was quietly distributed via cable TV on demand services and then given a brief limited theatrical run with little to no fanfare despite favorable reviews from critics. If a picture is worth a thousand words the DVD cover art for World’s Greatest Dad screams “What the fuck? Is this a sequel to RV?” copy/pasted several hundred times. Not exactly the type of movie that will fly off the shelves.
The majority of the audience Bobcat was able to reach was undoubtedly bummed out and, more likely than not, disgusted when they realized they weren’t settling down on the couch with a bowl of popcorn to watch the next “Patch Adams.”
World’s Greatest Dad isn’t about clown doctors, happy feelings, or disgusting hairy old children farting into coffee cans. This is a movie about Bruce Hornsby, auto-erotic asphyxiation and what the oppressive mundanity of day to day existence will drive someone to do.
Lance Clayton, the titular character played by Robin Williams, is a middle-aged father who has accepted that he is, and always will be, a failure. Lance is an unpublished aspiring author and an apathetic high school poetry teacher. His teenage son, Kyle, share’s his father apathy but takes life head on by being the most vile, vulgar and sexist human being to ever grace the silver screen. Kyle hates music (it’s gay) and movies (they’re for fags) as well as…well, just about everything. Everything, that is except for German scat porn, which he occupies most of his free time with as he chokes himself while masturbating. I know what you’re thinking, and yeah Kyle does seem like the life of the party, but trust me, he’s terrible. Everyone at school hates him, and his only friend is the meek loner Andrew who mostly serves as an outlet for Kyle’s verbal abuse.
Eventually Kyle accidently strangles himself, and in a final act of fatherly love Lance types out a note and restages Kyle’s death as a suicide. The suicide note is republished in the school newspaper and almost overnight Kyle becomes a beloved figure post-mortem, wholly detached from his previous living identity. Overwhelmed with the positive response to Kyle’s note, which elevates both him and his son to heroic status, Lance takes the deception one step further and fabricates an entire fraudulent journal which he claims belonged to Kyle. It isn’t long before his lies spiral out of control, and he finds himself exploiting Kyle’s death for personal gain on national television. Lance is finally a successful and beloved public figure, while manufacturing the child he always wanted and touching countless lives. Lance struggles with coming clean or continuing to deal with the pressure and anxiety of a lie that has become bigger than anything he could have ever imagined.
Goldthwait never shies away from confronting the audience and raises numerous questions without providing easy answers. Why do we deify people when they die, regardless of how we viewed them when they were alive? Is deception justified when it profoundly impacts the lives of others in a positive way?
Perhaps the question weighing most heavily on Goldthwait’s mind is why we routinely ignore people until they jump through the right hoops and give us what we want.
Well, that one sometimes does have an easy answer. God that cover art is horrible.