Friday, January 28, 2011



- THE WAY BACK somehow got lost in the shuffle of the holiday prestige movie season. Without the distribution and marketing backing of a major movie studio, the film got a very limited release in late 2010, and is only now, rather quietly, getting some expanded theatrical play across the country. But make no mistake - The Way Back is no quiet little indie release. On the contrary, this is epic movie-making at its finest. This is acclaimed director Peter Weir - he of The Truman Show and Master & Commander fame - doing the kind of movie that he does best. This is a huge, sprawling adventure story, filled with great actors like Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Jim Sturgess bringing all kinds of gravitas. You may not have heard a lot about The Way Back, but I'd urge you to run and check it out immediately if you're in the mood for a badass, epic adventure movie. This is one you'll want to see on the bigscreen.

The Way Back tells the story (based on a true account, although the details of its legitimacy have been disputed) of a group of men who have been imprisoned in a Siberian gulag during World War II. Some were falsely accused by an increasingly paranoid communist Soviet regime. Others are legitimate criminals who will not hesitate to maim and murder to get what they want. Regardless, the gulag prison is a rough place - a wretched hive located in the middle of a vast (and freezing cold) wasteland. The prisoners' greatest obstacle to escape is therefore not the guards or the guard dogs who patrol the borders of the gulag, but the elements themselves. Even if one were to escape, they'd still be stranded in an unforgiving tundra, with no traces of civilization nearby. Nowhere to go to. Nowhere to run.

However, we first meet our protagonist, Janusz (pronounced "Ya-noosh"), as he's brought before a Soviet official and accused of treason. Somehow, they've gotten his wife - clearly against her will - to testify that Janusz is, in fact, a traitor. With no one to stand up for him, Janusz is found guilty, and sentanced to hard time in the gulag. But Janusz cannot bring himself to accept his fate. Driven by his desire to see his wife again, he hatches a risky and dangerous plan to escape. Joined by a group of several fellow inmates, Janusz decides to make a run for it, and to embark on the long and perilous trek from Siberia to India - the nearest land not under Communist rule (to be fair, they don't quite realize that at first - they think that if they can make it to Mongolia, they'll be good to go). The band of brothers (and one sister) trek through snow-covered mountains, arid deserts, rugged hills and more to get to freedom.

Director Peter Weir quite simply knows how to make this kind of story as epic as can be. He mixes sweeping shots of the snow and sand with more personal moments, taking full advantage of his talented cast's endless amount of charisma and badassery. The Way Back just feels like a good, old-fashioned adventure. No crazy CGI, no quick-cutting camera movements - just classic cinematography in the tradition of the great Hollywood epics of old. Some of the remote landscapes featured are just stunning as well - it's no wonder then that the movie was co-produced by National Geographic. The script, too, has moments of intensity and moments of dry humor. There are some great little exchanges between the motley crew of characters. There's also an appropriately grand symphonic score that does a nice job of accentuating the feeling of peril and high drama that permeates the film.

And as I've mentioned, this is a cast of actors that you want to follow to ends of the earth. As Janusz, Jim Sturges does an excellent job - the heart and soul of the film, and a guy who you believe would have the courage and willpower to embark on this seemingly impossible mission. He's almost like a real-life version of Frodo Baggins - a guy who knows he has to just muster up his strength to keep going, and someone who gradually comes to realize that apart from his own quest, he's become the defacto leader of a group that is depending on him for guidance and strength. It's an excellent, noteworthy performance from Sturges, and I think that, because of this film, he's now an actor whose career I will definitely be paying attention to.

Colin Farrell is also really great in this one, as an unstable lowlife criminal named Valka. Farrell has done a great job of picking out-of-the-box roles in the last few years. Where once he was thought of more as a generic leading-man type, he's now become a really interesting actor to watch. As Valka, he's a violent, half-mad murderer who is the true wild card of Janusz' group of escapees. And Farrell seems to relish the opportunity to play this type of character - he's a real scene-stealer, and the movie gains an added level of intensity and unpredictability whenever Valka is onscreen.

Speaking of intensity though ... holy crap, Ed freakin' Harris absolutely rules it as the American prisoner known only as Mr. Smith (yep, when asked what his first name is, he simply replies "Mister." How sweet is that?). I was sort of joking before the movie about to what degree Ed Harris would bring the pure ownage, but the truth is I wasn't sure. Well, consider the ownage brought. As Smith, Harris is the soft-spoken but tough-as-nails elder statesman of the group - the rugged American who tells Janusz early on that his biggest weakness is kindness, but who slowly but surely reveals that it may just be a weakness of his as well. Later on in the film, as Harris begins to succumb to the strain of the long journey, and must dig down deep to find the will to go on ... well, let's just say the gravitas levels go through the roof. It's a shame that The Way Back didn't have the visibility to land on most Oscar-voters' radars, because there are a couple of performances in this one, Harris in particular, that I think merit some serious consideration. The rest of the supporting cast is also really great, and there are a number of talented actors in this one who really show some excellent chops. If there's any one complaint about the cast, it's simply that some of the actors are a bit too similar looking, and sometimes its hard to keep track of who's who. It's a problem I also had recently with Centurian - a thematically similar movie about a band of badasses on the run.

If there's anything that feels off about the movie, I think it's simply that the pacing is a little jumpy at times. The scale and scope of The Way Back is so big, that it seems like Weir really had to work to squeeze in the entirety of his characters' journey. To that end, while some portions of the adventure feel appropriately epic and drawn-out, others are a bit rushed-seeming. In particular, the movie ends somewhat abruptly, in a way that leaves a couple of loose ends. That said, I was pretty surprised by the creative way in which Weir chose to bookend his film, with an unusual montage sequence that fast-forwards through time and through the life of Janousz. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that it was a unique way to tie up a lot of the movie's underlying themes. More specifically, even though this is in some ways a straightforward man vs. nature adventure film, there is also a very intriguing historical and political context here - a look at the rapid rise of Communism during and after World War II, and the effect of the war in making the world a much smaller place, in some ways. There's definitely some material in the film that will have you running a couple of Wikipedia searches post-viewing.

All in all, I found The Way Back to be an immensely refreshing and satisfying movie, packed with any number of harrowing scenes of danger and drama. Filled with great performances, and skillfully directed in grand, old-school fashion by the great Peter Weir, this is one adventure that you don't want to miss.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, January 27, 2011


- Blue Valentine is an amazingly-acted, elegantly-shot, and at times raw, emotionally-intense film. It's one of those movies that I'd encourage people to check out, but that I don't think many people will want to revisit for a second or third viewing. It's a bleak, undeniably depressing movie about a relationship gone sour. And it features characters who are flawed and ugly and not necessarilly all that likable. However, Blue Valentine is filled with little moments of poignancy and emotion that make it stick with you, and again, I have to give it a ton of credit for its two lead performances - both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams really bring their A-game.

Blue Valentine tells the story of a couple whose relationship - built from the start atop a rather rocky foundation - is now finally, perhaps inevitably, starting to come apart at the seams. Dean (Gosling) is a jittery painter whose happy-go-lucky exterior thinly veils the fact that he's contantly on edge - perpetually with a cigarette in his mouth and prone to heavy drinking and the occasional mood swing. On the flipside, he's a doting father to he and his wife's young daughter, and to his credit he worked his way out of a terrible childhood and made a solid, admirable life for himself. Meanwhile, Cindy (Williams), Dean's wife, is a former free spirit who's been worn down by adulthood and parenthood. Working as a nurse, she has long hours and a mounting frustration with her husband's perceived immaturity. The spark she once felt for him has all but evaporated, and glimpses of her old sense of fun and whimsy only occasionally break through her now-frigid facade. As the story of Blue Valentine progresses though, we see the contrast between Dean and Cindy's relationship in its current state with other moments from the earlier days of their romance - their first chance meeting, their first pseudo- first-date, their first early trials, and their first days as a married couple. In the present day, we see the working class couple's disasterous attempt to rekindle their old romance during a trip to a cheesy motel, and the even more disasterous aftermath.

Throughout the entirety of the movie, we are treated to some truly tour-de-force acting from Gosling and Williams. Both have a very tricky task in this film, as we see their characters in various stages and time periods, and both actors do a remarkable job of adjusting their characters - in ways both subtle and pronounced - to fit each flashback. In the present day, the tension just keeps building and building, until things come to a head between Dean and Cindy in an absolutely devastating confrontation that takes place at the hospital at which Cindy works. Prior to that, there are a number of scenes, some more subdued and others pretty intense, in which we see the ways in which the relationship has dissolved - on an emotional, sexual, and spiritual level.

All the while, the movie really pops in a visual sense. Director Derek Cianfrance gives Blue Valentine a sleek-yet-raw look, and uses color and tone in really interesting ways. From the sterile neon-blue of the couple's themed "Future Room" at their hotel to the grayed-out dullness of later scenes at Cindy's father's house ... this is a very artfully-directed movie. In addition, there is some really effective dialogue here as well. There were little snippets of conversation that I really loved. The impromptu first date of Cindy and Dean in particular is filled with all sorts of great, funny, quirky moments.

But I guess what ultimately turned me off a little bit on the movie as a whole was this: I just never liked or cared enough about the characters to ever feel 100% invested in their problems. I feel like the movie would have been more effective if I was really rooting for the relationship to last, or if there was some legitimate element of tragedy to the story. But I found myself surprised with each new flashback to Dean and Cindy's early days - where I expected a story about a good relationship gone bad, that was never really the case. Instead, we saw a relationship that got serious too quickly, that brought together two people who probably never had much in the way of a real connection. That isn't bad in and of itself, but it did sort of feel like the filmmakers wanted us to relate to these two and to root for them. Dean and Cindy's first night on the town together seemed like it was supposed to come off as this charming, magical thing ... but to me the whole thing just felt a bit off. I also thought that the flashbacks were so fragmented that it was hard to really get a feel for the character arcs. The movie chooses to omit the sorts of pivotal, transitional moments that turned the relationship sour. We are left to guess what exactly went wrong, but in a movie like this, I didn't quite see the point of keeping things ambiguous. Cindy in particular is hard to get a read on, and it makes her come off as pretty heartless in the present-day scenes. Whereas we have a better idea of some of the issues that Dean has to deal with, we don't get a clear sense of what exactly has made Cindy who she is. Again, I think the net effect is that you come out of the movie with a vague sense of just having seen something emotionally affecting and stinging play out, but you're also not quite as moved as you might have been if you'd felt more empathetic to the characters. Maybe we're supposed to think that Dean and Cindy are hipster-cool. Maybe we're supposed to see all of the potential they had and feel bad. But they just left me a little cold, and I never really got why they were attracted to each other in the first place. I mostly just felt bad for their young daughter, who was caught in the middle of such a dysfunctional marriage.

Still, Blue Valentine is so skillfully directed and acted that it's hard not to recommend it. Even if I didn't quite grasp its message, I could easily appreciate the artistry behind it. And even if the big-picture purpose of the movie somewhat eluded me, a lot of the smaller moments and individual scenes really stuck with me.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, January 18, 2011



- Did the world really need a Green Hornet movie? This is, afterall, an old property, one that last enjoyed widespread popularity in the 60's via a short-lived TV show, most notable for the fact that sidekick Kato was played by the great Bruce Lee. Prior to that, The Green Hornet began as a pulpy radio show. I don't know that the property had a large, rabid fanbase, and I don't know if anyone was truly clamoring for a Green Hornet movie. And yet, a Green Hornet movie languished in development hell for years - with George Clooney once attached to star, with Kevin Smith once attached to write and direct. Even the current iteration, the one that made it to theaters, was riddled with false starts. Ultimately, we got Green Hornet: The Buddy Comedy, from the Guys Who Brought You Superbad. And the whole thing has to make you just a little bit cynical about the whole process of turning old IP (intellectual property) into movies. With something like Green Hornet, what you want is a filmmaker to come along who has a real passion for the material, someone who dreamed of making a Green Hornet movie as a kid. You want someone with a vision, someone who saw something special in the characters that they could convey to a modern audience - what is it about The Green Hornet that makes him awesome? Because honestly, I'm not sure. Is it the dynamic between The Hornet and Kato? Is it the martial arts and the gadgets? Is it the pulpy, shadowy vibe of the original radio show? Maybe it's all of the above, and maybe there is a really cool way to take those core elements and update them for a modern audience (Kevin Smith, for example, was going to introduce a female version of Kato). When I start to imagine a Tarantino-esque, trippy-60's, pulp version of The Green Hornet - The Green Hornet as a retro pulp fiction kung-fu adventure film - I start to see how this could have been something truly unique and kickass. But then, there's the other great alternative when you don't quite know what to do with a superhero story: turn it into a joke. And maybe that's why the new Green Hornet sort of makes me shudder in principle: I thought we had gotten away from the era of turning iconic heroes into punchlines. We went from Joel Schumaker Batman to Christopher Nolan Batman. We went from a Green Lantern movie that was once going to be a comedy vehicle for Jack Black to a (hopefully) badass GL space-opera that stays true to the comics. We're in an era where everything from Watchmen to Sin City has been adapted in a respectful manner. Seeing The Green Hornet as a comedy was, to that end, sort of jarring. Well, maybe not so much jarring as simply yawn-inducing. Like I said, this movie had to sell me and millions of others on what, exactly, was so cool about the Green Hornet. "Oh, it's just a goofy comedy? Not quite as interested."

But you know what, there's nothing inherently bad about a goofy comedy. In fact, I love me a good comedy. But here's what kills me -- why not CREATE a great superhero comedy or satire, if that's the kind of movie that you're so inclined to make? I know - easier said than done. But I think of it this way ... if you sat down and came up with all the possible ways to reimagine The Green Hornet, making it into a comedy is, I suppose, a *pretty good* way to modernize the property and have some fun with it. But is it the *best* way to do it? No, I don't think so.

Of course, you could justify doing this as a comedy if the movie was absolutely hilarious. And here's where The Green Hornet loses a lot of credibility. Because it has some amusing moments, but ultimately it just isn't all that funny. It's especially disappointing because the opening of the movie really got me excited that this could be a great comedy/action movie. The film opens with our villain, played by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, confronting a rival gangster played by an uncredited James Franco. It's a great scene - very funny - with some well done banter between Waltz and Franco. At that point, I was beginning to think that I was in for an action comedy that had the same sort of humor and excitement as, say, Pineapple Express (which I love).

But after that great opening, The Green Hornet really starts to go downhill. All of the plot that follows is just rudimentary setup for the buddy-banter between the Hornet (Seth Rogen) and Kato (Jay Chou). The Hornet is Britt Read, the trust-fund baby son of a wealthy newspaper owner who spends his days partying and being lazy. When Britt's father is killed (could it be ... murder?!), Britt finds a new sense of purpose when he meets Kato, his dad's former assistant. Kato, a martial arts expert and science wiz, has (for some reason) been inventing all sorts of cool gadgets that would be perfect if someone were to, say, become a superhero. One night, Britt and Kato go cruising on the town in one of Kato's souped-up, Batmobile-style cars, fight some crime, and get addicted to the rush of do-gooding. And so, Britt becomes the self-styled superhero known as The Green Hornet - though of course it's Kato who is the brains and muscle behind the operation.

There are some fun moments between Britt and Kato, but you get the feeling that these moments would work just as well in a standard, Superbad-like comedy. It's entertaining to watch the odd couple trade insults, fight over Britt's attractive secretary (Cameron Diaz, who does almost nothing memorable the entire movie), and cruise the streets singing Coolio's 90's hip-hop hit Gangsta's Paradise. But again, none of those things have anything to do with The Green Hornet. What little plot that we do get seems completely half-assed. The movie half-heartedly tries to incorporate the idea that our heroes pose as villains to foil the villains' plans, but it's a concept that never really makes any sense in the context of the movie. The film also completely misses with its main villain. It's a shame, because we all know Christoph Waltz is capable of being an amazing bad guy (Inglorious Basterds, anyone?). But he has absolutely nothing to work with here. The joke is supposed to be that his character, an old-school gangster named Chudnofsky, is boring and outdated - he needs to become flashier and more exciting to compete with The Green Hornet. But this joke has almost no payoff, and Waltz doesn't even get any memorable one-liners to play with. It's a waste of a great actor. Speaking of which, the great Tom Wilkinson appears as Britt's father, and again, does and says nothing memorable whatsoever. It's hard to believe what a waste this is of one of the best actors around. Even our two main characters feel pretty flat. Britt's decision to become a superhero never feels fully explained, and the extent of his goals as a crime fighter is never really touched upon. Kato, meanwhile, is basically a blank slate. It would have been nice for him to have a little more backstory than just "cool Asian guy who is awesome at fighting and science".

So okay, maybe the plot is lacking, maybe the villain is fairly weaksauce ... but at least there are fun action scenes, right? Not really. Director Michel Gondry has done some amazing work in the past - this is, of course, the man who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But he just seems out of his element in this one, and his unique style clashes hard with the stoner comedy of writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It feels like Gondry is torn about what to do here. He inserts a couple of artsy-ish scenes into the film that feel very Gondry-like, and that are sort of cool, but they also feel very jarring since most of the film is more standard 90's-style action movie fare. And as for the action, to me this movie is filled with the kind of action scenes that always bug me - the ones where a lot is happening on screen, but you really have no clue what's going on. I honestly just zoned out during a lot of the big chase scenes, because I felt like there was no rhyme or reason to them, and there was no sense of who was after who, and why.

Finally, as I alluded to, I just didn't think that The Green Hornet was that funny. Just as Gondry's direction seemed torn between being artsy and being standard-issue, the script felt similarly torn in different directions. Anytime that Rogen and Goldberg had to fit in the usual superhero-movie tropes, it seemed like they were very uncomfortable and the result is a lot of awkward scenes that gloss over things that seem important. I think their strength is in those little moments of random dialogue (see Superbad), but bits of clever dialogue will only get you so far in THE GREEN HORNET.

Overall, the film just felt like something of a mess. For every scene or moment that I really enjoyed, there were many more bits that just fell flat. And there was just that sense that all of this was forced - dictated by studio execs rather than creatives - that permeated the whole movie. It felt like Rogen and Goldberg and Gondry were hired guns brought in to salvage whatever scraps they could of a doomed project, but it was too little, too late. I don't blame those guys, because they are all clearly very talented individuals, and they tend to make outside-of-the-box movies that you want to root for and support. Instead I blame a movie-making system that has OCD-like symptoms where EVERY character or IP that's ever had any sort of following must be brought back to squeeze whatever cash is left out of it (and the fact that this movie was retro-converted to 3D - for no justifiable reason - further sours things). I just feel like if you're going to make a Green Hornet movie, go for broke and make the best damn Green Hornet movie that can be made. Instead, this movie just sort of depressed me, because it felt like a return to the bad old days of superhero movies.

My Grade: C-

Friday, January 14, 2011

Going SOMEWHERE ...? A Review of Sophia Coppola's Latest.


- To what extent can you enjoy a movie about an unlikable protagonist? To me, it all boils down to the point of view of the movie being told. Sometimes, I'll watch a movie like Funny People, and something about the voice of the movie just rubs me the wrong way. In that film, it was like there was a disconnect between the writing and direction and the audience - the movie seemed to want me to like its characters, to root for them, to sympathize with them. And yet, I mostly hated them and saw little redeeming value in them. Funny People felt like a movie made by someone who forgot what actually makes a person likeable. Adam Sandler's character is such a douche, even during moments when we're supposed to have empathy with him - that to me is just took me out of the film. Funny People is on one end of the scale, Greenberg is somewhere in the middle. In Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays a whiny, jobless slacker who nonetheless feels utterly justified in all of his constant criticisms of society. It's hard to really like the guy, but I thought the movie worked better than Funny People - for a number of reasons - but one was that it felt just a little bit removed from its character. Greenberg felt like a critique of its title character, whereas Funny People had an oddly inflappable sort of admiration for its characters. Still, Greenberg, to me, never had enough of a point to it to make enduring Stiller's character 100% worthwhile. It felt like the movie was just presenting us with this guy, but wasn't quite sure what it wanted to say about him. And that brings us to SOMEWHERE, which to me falls in this same sort of genre. It's a movie about a privelaged guy - an actor - a Hollywood star. And it's a movie made by a notoriously priveleged director - Sofia Coppola. So this could have been a really obnoxious movie if not handled the right way. But I give Coppola credit - she's made a movie about a world she clearly knows well, but she does so with a critical, even scathing eye. To that end, Somewhere is a worthwhile, interesting movie - a thematic and spiritual companion to Coppola's breakthrough work Lost In Translation.

Somewhere follows established Hollywood actor Johnny Marco as he goes about the business of being a rich, single, bored guy in LA. The film tracks the emotional arc of Marco as he evaluates his life and begins to form a deeper bond with his young daughter, Cleo. But it takes a while for Marco to grow. When we meet him, he has taken up semi-permanent residence at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel, a hangout for movie stars that basically caters to their every debauched desire. A quick call to the front desk can get you anything you want. Otherwise, with all of the partying and mingling that goes on, it's basically a luxury version of a college dorm. This is where Marco lives, but he's not some 24 year old up-and-comer. He's probably 40-ish. He's divorced. He has an eleven year old daughter. He should be living in a house and doing normal things. Instead, he hires strippers to come up to his room and pole-dance.

It's a pretty bleak picture that Sophia Coppola paints here, but she does so with an unglamorized, slightly satirical bent. When the aforementioned strippers dance for Marco, Coppolla lets the camera linger so long that the scene loses almost all of its sex-appeal, slowly spiralling into something that's just sort of sad, even a bit funny as you start to realize the underlying absurdity of the whole scenario. Coppola infuses the whole movie with that type of slow-burn, contemplative atmosophere - again, not unlike Lost In Translation. But I think it does work here because there is a definite journey that we're following. We're seeing Marco start to wake up to what we as an audience see basically from moment one - that his life, while semi-glamourous one one level, is also pretty much a pathetic waste.

The movie also features a really strong performance from Stephen Dorff. I don't know to what extent Dorff has lived out the life of Johnny Marco, but I imagine that he had some personal experience to draw upon for this role. Either way, he really does a nice job, and gives Marco just enough world-weary likability that you can root for him despite some of the fairly awful things that he does. Dorff is playing something of an asshole in Marco, but he does a nice job of making that emotional transition from being oblivious to being self-aware. Elle Fanning is also a really solid presence in the film as Marco's young (but eerily mature) daughter. Talent clearly runs deep in the Fanning family DNA, as Elle's performance is naturalistic and effective. Her character - a basically normal girl caught up in a world that is decidly not normal - is key in that she helps to put everything else in the film into clearer perspective.

There are a lot of nice, quiet moments in Somewhere, and the whole movie looks great - capturing LA in a way that gives the glamour of Hollywood a fuzzy, dulled edge. Everything feels lived-in and real. Now, where the film stumbles a bit is in balancing its quiet slice-of-life vibe with the larger points it's trying to make. Sometimes, the movie goes from subtle to unsubtle very quickly, and it can take you out of the film a bit. The movie's opening and closing scenes are emblematic of this problem -- instead of bookending the movie with the same tone that she goes for elsewhere, Coppola has some rather heavy-handed visual metaphors illustrate the movie's theme. The ending in particular is a little jarring, I think. It also, perhaps, comes too late in the film. There is a decent amount of meandering before we get to the endgame, and there were several points in the last three quarters of the film where I was sure the movie was over, but it kept going. I think what I found to be slightly frustrating was that the movie's ending is sort of melodramatic, in a weird way, but there is a disconnect there in that it feels like a semi-lacking substitute for a real third act that melds seamlessly with the rest of the film. My point is - the last part of Johnny Marco's character arc feels rushed / tacked on.

Somewhere is nonetheless a pretty compelling look at the bleaker side of fame and fortune. It sounds obnoxious on paper, and in some ways, sure, it is. But I do think that Coppola conveys a more universal message in the story of Johnny Marco that rings true. We all get caught in ruts. We all get immersed in these worlds of our own making that trap us, that keep us from forming meaningful connections or from achieving true self-advancement. Sure, some of us get to waste away in the Chateau Marmont, whereas most of us don't have that luxury (though after seeing Somewhere, I think I can safely say that I have no desire to ever hang out at the place). But there is definitely a poignancy at the heart of Somewhere that makes this more than just a narrowly-focused, self indulgent sort of movie. It's something that's worth checking out, and another strong statement from Coppola that she is a filmmaker with a unique and distinct voice.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Is Troll 2 Really The BEST WORST MOVIE ...? Is Nilbog "Goblin" Spelled Backwards?


- This past October, some friends and I gathered for my annual Halloween Horror Movie marathon, and the breakout hit of the night was undoubtedly a little movie known as TROLL 2. I had heard rumblings about Troll 2 over the years, but in general, I'm not a person who enjoys wasting time watching a lot of crappy movies. I know there is a whole contingent who likes nothing better than semi-ironically watching bad films, but to me there are way too many great films I haven't seen to spend time with the bad ones. Still, there are bad movies, and there are bad movies. And Troll 2 is that special kind of bad. Not half-hearted, not mediocre ... but so earth-shatteringly, mind-blowingly bad that you end up laughing your ass off at the sheer lunacy of what's being presented onscreen. Most of the time, movies that suck do so because they just don't try that hard - they lack vision. But Troll 2 is different, in that it's so weird, so out-there, that you know someone had to believe that they were telling a great story. The movie just has so much misguided conviction that it's absurd, and yet that same unironic conviction is what makes it so freaking hilarious. What other movie would treat the revelation that the name Nilbog is "goblin spelled backwards!" with so much weight and pseudo-gravitas? Troll 2 was, if nothing else, unique.

At some point while watching Troll 2, you have to stop for a second and wonder: how did this - how did *this* - come to be? In a way, you almost don't want to know, because knowing would potentially detract from the movie's aura of mystery and wonder. I mean, there are so many things about Troll 2 that simply don't add up. It's like some kind of movie made by space aliens that was intended as a failed approximation of earth movies. It's just gloriously %#&$'ed up.

And yet ... ever since I saw Troll 2 in October, I've been dying to watch BEST WORST MOVIE. I had heard good things about this documentary looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Troll 2. But I was also just incredibly curious to hear someone explain how or why this movie was made. I finally got around to watching the movie over New Year's weekend, and I have to say - it likely would have found a spot on my year-end Best-Of list had I seen it earlier.

Best Worst Movie does give some insight into the film's creation - it was made by Michael Stephenson, who as a young kid played the overactive boy at the center of Troll 2. But what really surprised me about it is the human story at its center. Because this is a movie about Troll 2, sure, but it's also a shockingly insightful examination of the evolution of a cult movie and the people involved with in its production. It's a movie about fandom. It's a movie about living out your dreams and resigning yourself to a less glamorous life than you might have imagined. It's a movie about irony as humor and the generation and culture gap that its rise has created. Again though, the movie comes back to being about people, and the star of the movie is George Hardy.

George Hardy is a dentist in a small town in Alabama. He's a well-respected professional, a doting father to a teenage daughter, and he makes a good living. Everyone likes him - even his ex-wife can't think of a single bad thing to say about him. But there's something else about George, something that some people in his small town have heard mention of, but few fully grasp: in 1989, George starred in Troll 2. Not only did he star as the patriarch of the movie's nuclear family, but he uttered some of the most hilariously awful lines in movie history. His straightforward delivery of the line "don't piss on humility!" is in itself a hall-of-shame-worthy bit of dialogue. Here's the thing though - for a long time, starring in Troll 2 was just a funny, mostly-forgettable thing that George did back when he thought he might have a real shot at an acting career. But now, over twenty years later, Troll 2 has become a cult phenomenon, and George, though he's barely realized it yet, has become an unlikely cult icon.

The central throughline of Best Worst Movie follows George as he, along with the doc's director Michael Stephenson, decides to participate in the growing cult movement around Troll 2. Because as Best Worst Movie documents, Troll 2 has become a midnight movie staple across the country and beyond. Wherever hipsters and film geeks gather - New York, Austin, Toronto, LA - so too is there a bonafide cult of Troll 2. Midnight movie screenings are held, Troll 2 parties are thrown, the Alamo Drafthouse even does a rolling roadshow event in which Nilbog - the fictional, goblin-infested town in the movie - is recreated in the small Utah village where the film was shot. As he travels to these events, George is given rockstar-like ovations, and his winning personality makes him a hit with the fans. While some of the other participating cast-members seem to participate in all of the screenings and parties pretty reluctantly, George embraces it and has fun. He's well aware that the movie is terrible, and is very much able to joke about it, reciting his bad lines from the movie in front of crowds with good-natured relish.

But George is such a great character because beneath the happy-go-lucky exterior there is a real depth to him. As time goes on, George never stops smiling, but it's clear that all of the Troll 2 stuff eventually becomes a reminder of the acting career he never had. As George begins going to sci-fi and horror conventions and seeing all sorts of has-been, never-were D-list celebrities, he more and more begins to appreciate the life he's built for himself in Alabama. It's a great, even poignant story - certainly for anyone who's ever debated the relative merits of pursuing their creative dreams versus settling for something less glamorous but more stable. What's also interesting is how most of the members of George's traditional Alabama community just don't understand what makes Troll 2 the "best worst movie." One of the doc's most fascinating yet cringe-worthy sequences involves George throwing a charity screening of Troll 2 in his hometown. He goes door to door to invite people to come, he tells his patients to attend ... and the crowd that shows up - because they all love George - is a quaint group of elderly church-going types, local yokels, etc. They are all just utterly bewildered by Troll 2, and George's attempts to get them to view it ironically, as a hilarious comedy, like the hipsters in Austin did, is telling. For anyone who's ever wondered why middle-America loves Leno so much but doesn't get Conan - well, here's exhibit A. It's educational but also sort of heartbreaking, because as much as George wants to enthusiastically share his status as a cult icon with his family and friends, there's just too much of a cultural gap to really do it.

But where Best Worst Movie can get pretty dark is when it turns its attention towards some of the other people involved in the making of Troll 2. Whereas George can leave his small-town lifestyle and enjoy himself as he embarks on this crazy journey into cult-movie-fandom, most of his Troll 2 costars are a much sadder lot. The woman who once played Stephenson's spunky teen sister is still a struggling actress who debates whether or not to put Troll 2 on her resume. The guy who played the grandpa lives alone in a junk-filled house that looks like something out of hoarders. The guy who played Nilbog's creepy general store owner has struggled with drug addiction and mental illness, and admits that most of his lines in Troll 2 were delivered while under some very mind-altering influences. Most disturbing of all is the woman who played George's wife in Troll 2. She lives in an isolated, run-down house in Utah, with her elderly mother, and seems to be half-crazy, half-delusional. She talks about Troll 2 like it was a legitimate classic, just raving about the film, even as George and Michael wonder what the hell she's talking about.

Another guy who refuses to admit that Troll 2 is horrible - it's director, an Italian guy named Claudio Fragasso. He really believes (or has convinced himself) that it's this deep, artistic message movie. Same goes for his wife - and the movie's writer (er, "writer"), Rossella Drudi. It's darkly funny to watch Claudio as he attends his first big fan screening of Troll 2. He is positively wowed by all of the screaming fans in Troll 2 T-shirts, floored by the enthusiasm. He really thinks that they love the movie at face value. It's only after he realizes that the fans are laughing hysterically throughout the entirety of the movie that he begins to catch on that his whacked-out film has become one giant punchline. In subsequent screenings, Claudio starts blasting the movie's actors on-camera, he thinks they're ungrateful and calls them "dogs." He maintains that he's made a great film - although at one point, he does admit that even if Troll 2 is the worst movie ever made, well, at least people are talking about it.

And I guess that's what Best Worst Movie is all about - holding on to false dreams while coming to terms with reality. Who would have thought that a documentary about Troll 2 would end up tackling such big ideas? But somehow, that's exactly what it does, and Michael Stephenson deserves a lot of credit for weaving together these various characters and story arcs into something so fascinating, funny, and moving. Is there honor in being the worst? Is there shame in grasping for one's dream, even if it means clinging to the small cult following of a terrible, twenty-year-old movie? Is there any real answer as to why a movie called Troll 2 contains neither any references to Troll 1 nor any mention of trolls? The world may never know.

My Grade: A-

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Danny's BEST OF 2010: A Personal Reflection on the Year That Was

- Well, it's 2011, and I have to wonder ... what happened to 2010? In one sense, the year flew by, although in another sense ... when I think back on the year that was, think of all the new people I met, things I did, stuff I was exposed to - think of all the challenges and setbacks and accomplishments - it's also pretty crazy to look at where I am at the start of 2011 versus where I was a year ago.

More and more in the last year or two, I've refocused this blog on movies, TV, and pop culture. To be honest, it's just easier to write about, at least for me. Increasingly, in this age of self-promotion, all we read about is people talking about their own lives as if they are the very epicenter of the universe. Nobody needs to read a daily account of my life, and it's not something that I need to put out there for others. At the same time, I started this blog as a way to self-reflect a little, to document my post-college life as I made big changes - as I swung for the fences, moved to LA, and followed my dreams. So, even if it's it's only for the purposes of getting myself geared up for the year to come, tradition states that I take some time to put the previous year into perspective and get some of my thoughts down here on the blog.

So let's see, what happened in 2010?

It's hard to know where to begin. I do remember that I got back to LA at the beginning of the year from an extended east coast trip, just in time to start 2010 off in Hollywood. One thing I'm proud of is that my brother and I, determined to produce a great screenplay, spent a lot of time and energy in crafting, what I think, is a pretty hilarious script. Has having this new, very funny, completed script resulted in anything huge as of yet? No, not really. But there have been little moments that have made me hopeful. You never know. And, if nothing else, it was a good way to self-educate and most definitely a learning process. And writing this now, it makes me that much more determined to a.) work on more creative projects in 2011, and b.) put more effort into getting those projects out there and into the hands of people who might be able to make good things happen with them.

All in all, even if I didn't sell a screenplay in 2010, I still had fun working in Hollywood and taking advantage of some of the cool opportunities that doing so afforded me. I got to attend the star-studded Cable Show and meet a bunch of celebrities, including the great Jeff Goldblum. I went to E3, saw the sights, attended Sony's Playstation press conference, and went to Microsoft's now-infamous Kinect unveiling extravaganza - aka the closest I will likely ever get to knowing what it was like to be a member of The Heaven's Gate cult. As always, my annual trip to Comic-Con was an absolute blast. I hung out with the cast of Chuck, met some of my favorite writers and artists, saw a lot of friends while in beautiful San Diego, and had a great time overall. I saw the cast of Curb Your Enthusiasm speak at the Paley Fest, attended the stage version of Pee Wee's Playhouse at the Nokia theater, saw Conan O'Brien's live tour (ironically, at Universal Studios), went to a panel about Jews in TV, and went to a number of movie screenings on the Universal lot - some good, some not so good, but all gloriously free. I saw some great live music in 2010 as well - Aerosmith, The Scorpions, and Rob Zombie / Alice Cooper. Not to mention a great trip to the OC Fair that concluded with a "Weird Al" Yankovic concert that blew my mind. I spent the fourth of July seeing the sights at Universal Sudios Hollywood (riding the new King Kong 3D attraction). I saw the Clippers play. I played basketball. And tennis (some epic match-ups to boot). Went bowling. Played Lazertag, and sort of sucked at it, but had an awesome time and played against Francis from Malcolm in the Middle. I attended Summerslam at the Staples Center, yet another in the embarassingly long list of live WWE events I've hit up over the years. And hey, in 2010, I even had Jury Duty - my first time ever being selected for a jury - and it was, well, memorable to say the least.

As always, Fall was an exciting time. Unlike 2009's not-so-fun birthday during which I could barely walk, I had a really fun 28th birthday bash in 2010. Yes, turning 28 was easily the scariest number I've had to face as a twenty-something. But, hey, just a number, right? In any case, a lot of people came out to have dinner, see The Social Network (awesome), and party it up at 80's night - and that was truly awesome. Later on, Halloween, as usual, was huge. I participated in yet another great trip to Knott's Scary Farm, and did my first-ever trip to Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. I once again saw The Nightmare Before Christmas in "4D" at Disney's El Capitan theater, and once again held my annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, which thanks to the awesomeness (well, awesome badness) of movies like "Troll 2", was another memorable evening. And, despite feeling pretty sick, I got to make an appearance at the the party-formerly-known-as-Page-O-Ween in Pasadena, decked out as Scott Pilgrim.

And yeah, getting sick at the end of October and feeling terrible until almost the end of November was not fun, definitely one of the year's lowlights, and definitely up there as perhaps the most sick I've ever felt. It was a really rough couple of weeks. But everyone was really nice and supportive, and the feeling of relief when I finally started to feel better was amazing. For a week or two, just going out, having fun, seeing friends, seeing movies, and eating solid food was enough to make me happy.

Luckily, I was able to head home to CT for Thanksgiving and rest up and shake off the last remnants of my illness. It was a relatively short visit, but I saw a lot of family, ate a lot of food, and even had a crazy night out in West Hartford with Bradd K. and friends. Luckily, back in June I had travelled back east, and that trip included a visit to NYC, where I saw old friends like Daniella G. and Liz L, and even hit up Mars 2112 (best restaurant in which you are served by Martians). That trip also included my big Ten Year High School Reunion, in which I made my triumphant return to Kingswood-Oxford to show off my newly-acquired status as Hollywood bigshot, playboy, mover, and shaker. Okay, well not exactly, but it was still nice to see everyone, and, even if for one night only, have a great time with dozens of my old high school classmates. Of course, some friends also came to me in 2010. I saw Mimi C. in from New Jersey via Japan (!), Matt S. in from New York, and Kirsten S. on route from Australia (twice!)!

I also met some great new people in general in 2010. Even though I was in the same job and the same area in Burbank, I met new people through friends, through work, through places like Valley Ruach, and/or completely randomly, which is always fun. In 2010, I had some fun adventures with people in LA who by now are (scarily) my old buddies, and reconnected with some others who I hadn't seen in a long while. Some of my favorite memories of the year are simply lunches, dinners, movies, TV marathons, parties, and other random small-but-memorable adventures with some of these fine folks.

What else? I got a new car in 2010, that was pretty big. After a family visit early in the year that gave me some good car-shopping experience, but didn't end up in a purchase, I spent a few weeks on my own braving the hell that is car dealerships. But, I finally pulled the trigger on a Hyundai Sonata, and I've been happy with it since. It was sad to say goodbye to my red Alero, that I'd had with me since my first week in LA, but it was clearly on its last legs, and it was time to move on. Still, car shopping is something that, hopefully, I don't have to do again for a long while.

It was a busy year. And, all things considered, a pretty good year. But the clock is a-ticking and I want 2011 to be even bigger and better. I mean, I can't do everything. It's easy to log on to Facebook and think that everyone else is doing cooler stuff than you are. Travelling more, getting engaged, getting married, going to better parties ... you know how it works. I don't need to travel the world in 2011, and I don't need to party like a rockstar. I don't need to get married just yet and I don't need to have the Best Year Ever and discover the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. But I do want to shake things up, make things interesting, raise the stakes. Make waves in Hollywood, advance my career, do great things. Meet more people, be more adventurous, mess with the routine. I know, I say something like this every year. To some extent, I'm sure we all do. But I guess my point is ... it's too easy to be distracted by what everyone else is doing, when really, who cares? You can't live life as a constant contest of one-upsmanship. That leads to stress and forces you into an unproductive, time-wasting state of self-delusion. Life is more than the accumulated cool-points of sweet-sounding Facebook status updates, so why is that now what we so often reduce it to? Looking back, it wasn't the best year ever, but it was a good year. And that's enough for now, but hey, 2011 isn't just going to magically be even better. I'm going to have to work for it. I'm going to have to fight and scrap and be persistent. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic though - because I do think that, yes, the best is yet to come.