NetFlix Queue Picks – Choke

Sam Rockwell can now officially carry a comedy. Based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk, Choke
is about a hapless sex addict who works at a Colonial Willisamburg-clone theme park, and who likes to choke on his food in restaurants until someone saves him using the Heimlich. Because once they save his life, they feel responsible for him, and send him checks now and then. Sam Rockwell is able to make this feckless douche into a sympathetic protagonist, and that’s something.
I’d seen him before in the underrated grifter drama Matchstick Men and the also underrated adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where he had the difficult job of playing Zaphod Beeblebrox. He was despised by some for not being their internal incarnation of the hard-partying galactic President, but I liked what he did with the character. Victor Mancini of Choke is a bit of both. Wild man and con man. And he’s utterly watchable as he bumbles through his rather odd life.
Anjelica Huston is excellent as his institutionalized mother, who he supports with his job as “the backbone of colonial America.” He can’t even be a real menial laborer- he plays one in a theme park. Chuck Palahniuk has a gift not only for unflinching views into the disgusting underbelly of American life, but at depicting its very absurdity, and while Choke apparently dilutes his novel, which I have not read, I enjoyed this adaptation quite a bit. The supporting characters are excellent- Denny played by Brad William Henke as a fellow sex addict whose hand roams down his pants at the drop of a hat, Bijou Phillips as Paige the doctor.
What the hell happens in it? Well, as he fights to support his crazy mom, he gets involved with Paige, who’s working on her case. And he finds out that he may just have been conceived from Jesus Christ’s DNA. Like Fight Club, it does often try to offend for its own sake with these bizarre turns of the story, but this is lighter fare. The flashbacks of his childhood are a bit more serious and first-time director Clark Gregg (who also plays the hilarious Lord High Charlie in this, and stars in “The New Adventures of Old Christine”) does a fine job balancing things. On occasion he veers into the rumble strips on the shoulder of the cliche highway, but overall it reminded me of Thank You for Smoking, and that’s a compliment.

Rating: Worthy

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Death to Smoochy

My sister and I have very different taste in movies. For example, she loves the **** Movie ‘spoofs,’ and I would rather insert live porcupines up my rectum than watch Meet the Spartans. But sometimes she introduces me to magic, like The Forbidden Zone, so I know better to ignore her recommendations. Besides, she’s one of the 3 people who read this blog, and I heartily believe in pandering to my audience.
Death to Smoochy is that rare dark comedy out of Hollywood; producers rarely have the balls to be mean enough to make a good cruel comedy, and while it was reviled by critics, I think it is underrated. I’m not a big fan of Robin Williams, but Ed Norton is amazing as Smoochy the Rhino, the kid show TV star he plays eerily like Steve from Blues Clues with a country accent. This came along at the end of the Barney hate era and probably felt a little old, but that’s not what it’s about, so the backlash was misdirected.
Robin Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a creepy kid show star who dances and sings in a white sequin suit surrounded by munchkins- but he’s gotten too big. He gets caught taking payola to let kids be on camera and loses it all, and execs Marion Stokes (Jon Stewart, in a rare film role) and Nora (Catherine Keener from The 40-Year Old Virgin) need a new star. Nora finds a guy named Sheldon (Norton) dressed in a gamy rhino suit playing acoustic guitar in a Coney Island dive to support the local drug rehab clinic. And a star is born!
Smoochy gets a new suit and skyrockets to stardom, while Rainbow Randolph seethes in misery, blaming the rhino for all his problems. Now this could be your typical revenge farce, but director Danny DeVito makes it about the commercialism of children’s television as well. Much of this works, but it’s just not cruel enough. We see Smoochy get shot in the opening, but they pull a switcheroo on us. Robin Williams is surprisingly good as the obsessed Rudolph, but the movie doesn’t live up to his intensity.
It’s not really a shock that children’s TV is all about money; my generation grew up watching shows that were really just toy commercials, and the Transformers franchise continues to pull in the dough. The ending lacks punch, and is too pat. The good guys aren’t supposed to win so handily in a dark comedy; it’s got to hurt. That’s not to say this underappreciated movie doesn’t have plenty going for it. It’s sort of The Cable Guy for Williams; he needed to shrug off the smarm he collected from Patch Adams, and making a bunch of phallic cookies to sabotage Smoochy’s show, and then apoplectically bursting in to yell “IT’S A COCK!” when the rhino says it’s a rocketship, is just the thing.
There’s also a punchy boxer named Spinner Dunnwho loves Smoochy, and he’s played just right by Michael Rispoli, right on the edge of discomfort. Catherine Keener is enjoyable as the exec whose heart of stone is melted. But anyone who’s been forced to sit through children’s television will enjoy the broad satire of the genre. Danny DeVito knows how to do dark comedy, like Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses, but he got a little soft here. But seeing Ed Norton play a silly folk singer in a rhino suit, and Robin Williams losing it makes for some good entertainment.

Rating: Worthy

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The Hammer

I was one of the few people who was surprised that after Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla left The Man Show, that Jimmy Kimmel was the one who got his own show. I always found Adam funnier, and I still do. I liked his reality show about remodeling his childhood house, so when I heard of his boxing rom-com called The Hammer, I had to watch it.

Enjoying movies depends a lot on expectations, and I knew what to expect from Carolla- self-deprecating humor, low-key laughs and occasional bizarre comments, with lots of reference to construction sites and hardware stores. If you go in expecting a laugh riot, you’ll be disappointed- but if you like Carolla, you’ll be satisfied. He doesn’t reach for the sky here, but he makes an enjoyable formula film, about the underdog going for the gold and the girl. It’s about as good as Run Fatboy Run with Simon Pegg was- not their best, but reliable and good couch fodder.

Carolla plays Jerry, a sad sack construction worker with his best bud Ossie- his Sancho Panza from his reality show. In one bad day, he loses his job and his girlfriend, and thus starts helping train fighters at his friend’s gym to work the stress out. Turns out his old nickname was The Hammer, and when he pairs up with a tough guy boxer after some trash talk, he knocks him on his ass. So he starts working toward the Olympics light heavyweight.

There he meets Lindsay, a defense lawyer looking for a workout and some moves in case her clients get rapey on her. She’s played by the perky Heather Juergensen of Kissing Jessica Stein, which also shares the same director as this movie. They get along well, and his sense of humor reels her in, even though he drives a shitty pickup truck that you have to bungee the passenger door closed on. When the door flies open, he swerves the truck to close the door. It’s little touches like that which elevate this from typical Rocky-formula comedy mixed with typical rom-com.
The movie wins on its genuine blue collar sensibility. Anyone who’s boxed knows that the movie knows its stuff, and have felt like Jerry does when he says he’s gassed, or when he surprises himself by winning. Carolla’s humor pokes fun at lazy guys like himself, Los Angeles- he and Lindsay have a date at the La Brea Tar Pits- and slow drivers. He has a gift for rambling and rants, somewhere between Lewis Black and Jerry Seinfeld, and the movie makes great use of it. He knows how guys compete, even when they’re friendly, and he knows that obsessing on sports or power tools is not much different than knowing everything about Star Wars.

There are some nice small parts that fill things out. Jane Lynch verbally spars with him in line at the hardware store, and she’s dependable as usual. Ossie from “The Adam Carolla Project” is naturally hilarious, with his genuine smiles as he accidentally sabotages Jerry at every turn. Of course Jerry has to face his greatest opponent for the final fight, but the movie makes it realistic. It’s something every boxing fan’s seen, so it feels legit- the fast fighter dancing away from the heavy hitter to win on points. Can the Hammer sneak one in and knock the guy out?

Let me tell you the movie surprised me. I went in expecting a lot less than what I got. I think it’ll surprise you too. This one’s definitely worth a viewing if you like Carolla at all. He spent $300,000 of his own money to get this into theaters, since the studio was going to put it direct to DVD. He believed in it, and it shows. I’m not sure I’d have ponied up cash as an investor to help him do it, but if it played in New York he would have gotten my $10 ticket and I would not have felt gypped. The MPAA also screwed this touching, cute movie with an R rating for two non-sexual f-bombs that I barely even noticed. Hey MPAA, fuck you.

Rating: Tasty

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The Answer Man – Sneak Preview

Last night I got to see a screening of The Answer Man starring Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham and Lou Taylor Pucci at a meeting of the Film Symposium. This enjoyable movie about a curmudgeonly reclusive author of a best-selling spiritual self-help book premiered at Sundance under the less appealing title of Arlen Faber, the name of the author, played by Jeff Daniels. The new title suits the film better. It’s the first feature by writer-director John Hindman, and what a first film it is.
Arlen Faber is the author of “Me and God,” a book in which he asked God many questions during a troubled time in his life and recorded the answers. But he never appeared publicly, and as the book skyrocketed through the charts and became part of popular culture 20 years ago, his silence and reclusiveness only made him more of an epic figure. Part Kahlil Ghibran, part J.D. Salinger, his book became a cottage industry while he was never heard from again. Now it is 20 years later, and his agent wants him to write a foreward for the anniversary edition.

Our introduction to Arlen is perfect. We see a collage of book covers, articles, magazines, and newspapers detailing the backstory while “Mr. Pitiful” by Matt Costa plays. The legend of Arlen Faber is built, and comes crashing down with feet of clay as the mailman rings the doorbell insistently. We immediately know that “the answer man” has his own problems, and holing up in his apartment and ignoring his legions of fans is not a symptom of enlightenment or genius. It’s such a great scene that I’m not going to ruin it for you.

The author hides in a tony Philly neighborhood where Elizabeth (Lauren Graham, “The Gilmore Girls”) has opened her chiropractor’s office, and fresh outta rehab Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci, Thumbsucker) runs a floundering bookstore. After Arlen throws his back out- and is such an ass to his agent that she leaves him writhing in pain- he is forced to crawl to Elizabeth’s office. She works her healing touch on him, and her charms affect him as well. He has a reason to leave the house and seek human contact.

His enormous collection of self-help and spiritual books makes him collide with Kris, who doesn’t want them, but Arlen refuses to take no for an answer. Eventually they find common needs and work out a bargain- Kris will get advice, but only if he takes books. Kris needs advice; his father is supportive but a devout alcoholic. Elizabeth has her own issues, but doesn’t ask Arlen for help. He tells her who he is, but she’s never read his book. She’s so overprotective of her 7-year old son Alex that he wears a 5-point racing harness in her enormous Volvo wagon and must subside on a vegan diet. As soon as he’s out of the car, she inhales a cigarette.

Arlen begins to lose his writer’s block and burst forth with epiphanies that put his new friends at ease. But they feel like empty platitudes to us. And the movie knows it, which is what makes it deviate from what we expect in a feel-good movie of this type. Arlen’s selfishness is just one obstacle. He’s a funny bastard, but he is a bastard. But when he’s good, he is good. He spends a lot of time with Alex, who is having trouble at school, and his scene with the teacher is a classic. He says what we’d all say if we weren’t programmed not to. We’ve bought in, and challenging our expectations is frightening. Not to Arlen. He has nothing to lose, and that freedom is only one aspect of his character. When we learn the root of his reclusion and misanthropy, it isn’t a plot device, but makes us think perhaps we could all speak to God, like he supposedly did.

Arlen, Kris and Elizabeth may not solve all their problems in this movie, but they identify them, the first and often hardest step. Their small discoveries are believable and feel right. The movie does have a flaw or two- it ends a bit abruptly, but in retrospect perhaps that is the right way. We saw three people crawl out into the daylight, three characters we enjoyed spending time with: sarcastic, wounded Kris, who manages to slog on despite massive challenges; Liz who wants to protect Alex, whose father abandoned them, from any future pain; and Arlen himself, who touched the lives of millions of strangers but can’t do it on a personal level.

Jeff Daniels has done comedy, and drama such as the excellent The Squid and the Whale; now he proves that he can do both. Lauren Graham channels Amy Adams a bit, but makes Elizabeth her own. And Lou Taylor Pucci plays something completely new from his career of innocent young men coming of age, such as in Thumbsucker and The Go-Getter, or the abused victims in Personal Velocity and Empire Falls. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) and Kat Denning (The 40-Year Old Virgin) have smaller roles that work perfectly, and Tony Hale (Buster from Arrested Development) is utterly hilarious as the persistent postman. And Max Antisell, playing young Alex in his first screen role, is what a child actor should be- utterly believable.
The movie has been compared to As Good As It Gets for its portrayal of a lovable bastard who collides with other damaged people who find that they might not be able to fix themselves, but may be able to patch each other up a little. I found The Answer Man to be more realistic and a bit more cynical, in a good way. There are no magic cures, and love isn’t going to cure your OCD overnight. “As Good” is very enjoyable, but you can see its slip showing a lot as it dances around the room. Answer Man does have any clear answers, and it knows it; it isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t bullshit you. After all, it’s about a bullshitter, and you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. That’s what made it work for me. It didn’t have scorn or sneers for any belief, but made it clear that if some “made up” philosophy or insights gets you through the night, that isn’t harmful in itself. The divine springs from within, when someone genuinely wants to help someone else. That’s what I got from it. Maybe I should write a book.

The Answer Man opens in limited release on July 24th; it is still listed on IMDb under it’s Sundance title of Arlen Faber, which has wisely been altered. This is one of the best movies to come out of Sundance recently, because it doesn’t feel like a Sundance film. I laughed a hell of a lot, and I was impressed with this movie throughout. Go see it this summer, you won’t regret it.

Lou Taylor Pucci was interviewed after the film, and spoke about the difficulties of method acting- Jeff Daniels was very in-character, and they only briefly connected because they both own RV’s. Lou himself finds becoming a character difficult himself- he had 5 roles in 6 months last year, and said it was tough remembering his own personal likes and dislikes, after running the gamut. It reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Who Am I This Time?” Lou grew up in Keansburg, New Jersey, not far from where the screening took place. To keep things honest, Lou is my cousin, but I try to be as objective as possible. For example, I wouldn’t give a good review to the abysmal 50 Pills– which even he’ll tell you to avoid.

Giving my cousin the finger. Gotta keep ’em humble.

Lou’s starred in many independent films such as The Go-Getter (full review), Thumbsucker (for which he won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), The Chumscrubber, Fast Food Nation, Southland Tales, Personal Velocity and in HBO’s Empire Falls. This looks to be a breakout year with the release of The Answer Man, and four other films- The Horsemen with Dennis Quaid, Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers, David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the virus thriller Carriers, that was seeking distribution but will probably come out now in the wake of swine flu, but it probably just missed that boat.

Tribeca Film Festival: Midgets vs. Mascots

I like to attribute the success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie not to Johnny Depp’s inspired performance, but to the fact it contained monkeys, midgets AND pirates. This trifecta of awesome made it impossible not to fail. The sequels forgot the midget and the monkey were important, and that’s why they suck. So when Firecracker and I were sitting at an outdoor table at the Village Pourhouse, and a gal handed us tickets to see Midgets vs. Mascots (official site), we had to go. There was no other course to take.
Why? Because little people rock. Jordan Prentice, from In Bruges (“they’re filmin’ midgets!” full review) stars in this Tribeca film festival audience favorite, and he was fantastic in that comedy from last year. So is Gary Coleman- “the Shaquille O’Neal of little people” and a host of less-known but very funny people. The mascots are a bunch of pathetic slobs, but real enough that you believe them. Bunny, the fragile furry freak and Gator, the sweaty slob whose belly is hanging out of his costume.

The premise is that a famous Texas little person mascot named Big Red dies and wants to give $10 million to one of his two heirs, so he has them gather 5 little people and 5 mascots each, to perform a bunch of crazy challenges. It’s somewhere between Scavenger Hunt and Jackass– taking the tried and true “inheritance challenge” formula and throwing as much offensive humor as they can into it. Sometimes it tries a little too hard to be offensive, like when the little people argue that “midget” is as bad as the n-word in a crowded restaurant, but most of the time the low-brow humor hits the mark.
It has loads of gratuitous nudity, Jackass-level stunts such as alligator wrestling, and plenty of character-based humor from the mascots- who range from loser slobs and furries to a gut-bustingly funny silent bobblehead- and the “midgets,” including Gary Coleman, playing a delightful parody of himself, Jordan Prentice being crude and sarcastic, and relative newcomer Terra Jole getting clobbered left and right. That poor girl. The movie plays at being a documentary, so everyone plays “themselves,” and you really feel bad for her sometimes.
The ending is a tad weak, but it delivers on comedy most of the time. Nice to see Jordan Prentice again- he was hilariously depraved. I hope it gets wide release, but this is the kind of movie that will explode on DVD or cable.

The Arnold Project #10: The Villain

Blazing Saddles it ain’t! Also known as Cactus Jack, The Villain stars Kirk Douglas as the titular bad guy who can’t do anything right; Arnie plays the Handsome Stranger, with a seven-shot six-shooter, and Ann-Margret is Charming Jones. But they might as well be Wile E. Coyote, because that’s the kind of movie this is- a live action cartoon that just can’t get it right, despite the cast.
You know, the kind of movie where the Villain talks to his horse and it listens, sort of. Cactus Jack figures out what bad guys do by reading a pulp book, and everyone has a theme song. That worked in Cat Ballou but not so much here. The busty damsel Charming is tasked by her prospectin’ pappy to pick up a loan to expand his mine, Handsome is hired to protect her, and Cactus Jack is given a deal by Jack Elam’s crooked banker- make sure Charming doesn’t get home with the money.
Set in Monument Valley, we get a gorgeous backdrop for Kirk Douglas mugging and goofing around, trying his Acme tricks to catch Handsome and Charming. They even use classic Looney Tune sound effects for stuff like the boulder that lands on him. Handsome Stranger (yes, that’s his real name) is terminally naive, and it’s painful to watch after Arnie’s award-winning debut in Stay Hungry (full review). Sure, it’s a farce, but they aim really low in this one.
The best part are all the cameos, most notably Paul Lynde in his final role as Chief N-n-n-ervous Elk, and seeing Kirk Douglas in all sorts of ridiculous get-ups as he tries to trick Arnie and Ann-Margret. His shiftless horse “Whiskey” is pretty amusing too. The gags are really repetitive- usually involving Kirk Douglas being dragged by a rope and falling off a cliff- but some are inspired. It’s a bit disappointing from stuntman director Hal Needham, who gave us Smokey and the Bandit. Then again he also gave us Megaforce.

Overall, The Villain isn’t that bad, and you see Arnold really trying to play an oaf when he’d rather be ravishing Ann-Margret. The problem is that the movie goes halfway- Cactus Jack is a walking cartoon, who bounces around on the rooftops after Charming smooches him, but those scenes are few and far between. They even re-enact the classic Tex Avery “paint a tunnel in the mountain” gag, which doesn’t work when you can see the paint on the rocks. Though I give Douglas credit for walking face first into that wall so convincingly.
The most memorable part remained Paul Lynde’s final role as Chief Nervous Elk, which he dived into with relish. He’s the only guy who gets any barely risque jokes. This one’s more for Kirk Douglas fans than Arnie fans, but it’s still good viewing if you want a dose of ’70s nostalgia.

Freddy Got Fingered

I never “got” Tom Green- but this movie generated so many bad reviews that I wanted to see it. And while I’d never class Tom Green in the league as trashmaster John Waters, the movie is a twisted spoof in the same vein as Waters’ best films. It’s a prank, on the producers and the viewers, and as disgusting and jejune as it is, I never wanted to stop watching it. Even when he starting jerking off a horse.
It sort of helps if you think the Jackass movies are funny. They’re full of idiotic, juvenile pranks but they somehow transcend stupidity and become a sort of art. Freddy Got Fingered is like that. It takes the typical coming of age comedy, where the boy must find a job or somehow make something of his life to please his parents, and injects it with vile fluids that come bursting out of its pores. If you thought Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead was a li’l wacky, this movie might make your head explode. With vomit.
But if you give it a chance, it sort of grows on you. Green tries to be as offensive as possible. His father is played by Rip Torn as a growling madman, the epitome of all the impossible to live up to fathers from a thousand coming of age comedies. He mocks Green’s cartooning skills- rightfully so, as everything looks like Bill the Cat drawn by children- and tells him to get a real job. During his adventures to sell his drawings as a cartoon, he hits it off with a girl in a wheelchair who just wants him to beat her paralyzed legs with a stick and suck his cock all day. It’s to everyone’s credit that they play this all straight, so it works on a certain level.
The movie gets its title from when Tom & his Dad get dragged to counseling and he accuses Dad of sticking his finger up his younger brother’s butthole. They continue to out-do each other in their attacks until finally, Tom ships his father to Pakistan where he drenches him in elephant semen and they get held captive for months, play Russian Roulette like in The Deer Hunter, and bond through their torture. It’s bizarre, but funny if you view it as a sicko prank on formulaic movie crap. I’m glad I finally watched it, and I’m glad Tom Green got to make it. It’s a stupid movie, but the kind of bizarre what the fuck movie that used to be more common. Its no Pink Flamingos but it deserves a nomination in the hall of trash for just how far it went, with studio money. Congrats on that, Tom Green.
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Rating: WTF?