Tag Archives: 4.0 Star Movies

Scenic Route (2013)

What originally runs the risk of being a pretentious best-friends-fighting-in-the-desert borefest turns out to be an interesting study of what happens when your best bud becomes someone you would rather not share the same universe with, let alone a beat-up pick-up truck. The two friends are not always sympathetic, but we understand their motivations and the film refuses to side with either of them.
Mitchell (Josh Duhamel, who did those two giant-robot movies by the filmmaker we all like to make fun of) and Carter (pudgy Dan Fogler, who until now primarily acted in critically-bashed comedies) are two friends driving through the desert. We don’t know exactly where they’re going, as their destination matter not to us; what we do know is that Carter’s a starving artist (some might say ‘loser’) who lives in his car and struggles to sell a novel, and Mitch is a family man with a wife and a little boy, who begrudgingly makes the rounds through an excruciatingly boring job at the office.

I won’t go into the details of how they end up stranded in the desert with nothing to eat except dry ice and jelly beans. We felt tension between the two old friends initially, now the unease explodes into full-blown hatred and disgust. This is can be a good set-up for both a thriller and a black comedy and is, mean humor runs throughout this film that makes us laugh in spite of ourselves.

In between their vicious bouts of verbal bile and outbursts, the men share their insecurities and fears. And as the boiling hot days give way to frigid nights, they become increasingly disillusioned about their chances of survival. The insights into male middle age are not always kosher or kind, but they are honest and cleverly written.

Josh Duhamel does a very good job as Mitchell; Dan Fogler sometimes falters being unsure of the balance between pathos and black comedy but still impresses, especially considering where he came from. The twist ending is a bit predictable, but still brilliantly executed. On a random side note, I wish they had gotten an obese woman to play Mitch’s wife. He talks frankly about how he has a hard time getting it up looking at her post-pregnancy body, and then she turns out to be gorgeously thin? Come on.

“Scenic Route” might be a waste of time for some people, but for those who like conversationally driven thrillers with darkly comic undertones will be more than happy to soak in the film’s subversive pleasures. The only film I can compare it to is “Buried” with Ryan Reynolds, if you like that kind of talky, tense film with an isolated setting, you will probably like this. As is, I found this a very underrated movie with a surprising cast. I hope you like it as much as I did.

The Station Agent (2003)

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Pensive and deliberately slow-paced, “The Station Agent” was a movie that definitely improved for me upon another viewing. It was the movie that brought Peter Dinklage into the spotlight before “Game of Thrones” made him a star. Dinklage is a dwarf, so it will come as no surprise to you that good roles are hard for him to come by regardless of what a good actor he may be (and is.) Compared to his more disposable roles like “Elf” and “Underdog,” “The Station Agent” stands as a surprisingly good indie film, and Dinklage, as well as his co-stars Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale, give the project all they’ve got.

Gut-wrenching ableism is alive and well in the people who surround Fin (Dinklage,) a reserved young dwarf whose equally hard to read friend and fellow train enthusiast Henry (Paul Benjamin) dies suddenly, leaving him property in a middle-of-nowhere New Jersey town. Fin, who is subject to constant prejudice from ignorant a-holes, just wants to be left alone, but bereaved mom Olivia (Clarkson) and loquacious Cuban-American hot dog vendor Joe (Cannavale) try and begin to succeed to draw him out of his shell (but only after Olivia almost carelessly runs Fin over with her car- twice(!)

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“The Station Agent” is almost as low-key as it’s protagonist and doesn’t resort to cheap sentimentality or maudlin counter-stereotyping of the disabled to make it’s point. Michelle Williams, who has always been good at straddling both indie and big-budget productions, is featured as a lonely librarian who flirts with Fin, much to his befuddlement. Fin is not a martyr or a bafflingly quirky little person with a heart of gold. Fin himself says it best “It’s funny how people see me and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person.” Many people are astonishingly nasty to him, either out of cruelty or ignorance, and he’s learned to build up walls and avoid getting hurt.

“The Station Agent” is tender and funny without exploiting the foibles of it’s characters. The movie is best suited for people who have reasonable attention spans, as it is sometimes painfully slow, but the sharp and bright-eyed observations of it’s characters make it worth the watch. It’s a great showcase for the talents of both Patricia Clarkson and Peter Dinklage, BEFORE he was ‘Half-Man’ Tyrion Lannister. I also feel that the later film “An Insignificant Harvey” ripped this off to some extent. People who love subdued indie movies will like this a lot. It’s slight yet affecting, and touches the viewer’s hearts without using implausible melodrama or deceit to get it’s way.

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Dead Alive (Brain-Dead) (1992)

Be forewarned, this is grade-B all the way, so if you are a no-fun fuddy-duddy like my mom or need an Oscar pedigree for every film, you watch, you will probably find this equal parts tedious and repellent. However, for those with a subversive wit and tolerance for bad taste and a ridiculous amount of blood and gore, look no further. This is your movie.

Lionel (Timothy Balme) is just your ordinary Bates-ish momma’s boy who is astonished when cute Hispanic shopkeeper Paquita (Diana Peñalver) takes an interest in him. Now this is the 1950’s, so whites and minorities were not the best of friends, but Lionel is about to face a lot more than close-mindedness when his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) gets herself bitten by a mysterious Sumatran rat-monkey and becomes a flesh-eating zombie.

Instead of killing his mother like most people would do, Lionel lets her fester, much to the misfortune of everyone around him. Meanwhile, sleazy Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) prowls around, trying to steal Lionel’s inheritance, and the body count rises.

This is early Peter Jackson, before he became a Hollywood bigwig and brought to life the Hobbits of the shire. Now I’d like to say that “Lord of the Rings” means a lot to me, and that I am a LOTR nerd who owns a life-size replica of Saramaun’s staff and can speak elvish. Okay, maybe not. But I’ll be damned if I don’t prefer “Dead Alive,” with all its bile and guts and mounds of intestines and rotten flesh.

I’ll be damned if Frodo and Sam’s touching friendship doesn’t make me fall asleep. Maybe it was all my Dad’s “Lord of the Rings” marathons (featuring the four-hour extended editions), but I think I’m just about Shired out. And now that I’ve turned in my movie fan card and revealed myself as the charlatan and the fraud that I am, I concur.

The acting is… meh. Nobody’s going to winning any academy awards, but the actors seem to be having a good time and so are we. There are many memorable scenes (the kung-fu priest being a particular favorite) and there are some creative shots. Gorehounds will find more than enough gore n’ guts to satisfy their bloodlust.

“Dead Alive” is the ORIGINAL Rom-Zom-Com, before “Shaun of the Dead,” before “Zombieland,” before “Warm Bodies,” and before the many additions of the genre to come. In 1992 it was considered by many to be the goriest film of all time, and I wonder what progressions have been made, especially in the Japanese horror genre.

People who enjoy “bad” movies that are actually good movies with a subversive sense of humor will find a lot to like in “Dead Alive,” and if you don’t like it, shame on you. Go watch “Citizen Kane” or “Gone With the Wind,” and stay off my blog, which is way too cool for you. Fin.

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Paradise Faith (2012)

What’s impressive and surprising about “Paradise: Faith” is how it takes a sensational premise (a lonely woman with an erotic fixation with Jesus) and does not use it for cheap shock value or as a vicious attack on Catholicism. In fact, it’s not really tawdry or sleazy at all- it, like it’s desperate heroine, just is. I have not seen the first movie in the trilogy, the thematically linked “Paradise: Love,” but after this movie I probably will.

Instead of building contempt and hatred for it’s fanatically religious protagonist, it develops it so that we feel a mix of curiosity and pity for strange, pious Anna-Maria (excellently played by Maria Hofstätter,) but never disgust or rage. She needs her faith desperately, as a human being needs food or oxygen.

A single woman in her mid-50’s, Anna-Maria works as a X-Ray Technician and spends her summers proselytizing the neighbors and no doubt making herself quite unpopular in her town in Austria. Anna-Maria is painfully sexually repressed and endures self-inflicted punishments for her unchaste thoughts. She fancies Jesus quite a bit and finds herself attracted to his gentle strength and kindness.

Everything abruptly changes when Anna Maria’s Arabic, paraplegic husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) returns after a long, unexplained absence. Saleh is quite good too, developing his character from merely an annoyance to a cruel misogynist who spits on Anna Maria and mocks her passionate devotion to God. Nabil wants Anna Maria to ‘fulfill her duties as a wife’ and make love to him, but Anna Maria’s only love now is God.

What follows is a battle of wills- between the fanatical Anna Maria and the stubborn Nabil. No love and friendship comes out of this conflict- only violence and bitterness. Meanwhile Anna Maria copes with her impending crisis of faith and her complex feelings for her savior.

“Paradise: Faith” is similar to the films of Michael Haneke in style- cold, unbiased, virtually devoid of music and littered with long takes. It interested me quite a bit. I hate the dumbing-down of the Christian in Hollywood, as even the craziest is a human being with complex motivations and belief system.

The film doesn’t give us a pat ending or anyone worth cheering for, and that’s just fine- Anna Maria is greeted with mixed reactions from her herd of endangered souls. No one wins, no one ‘proves her wrong,’ and there are no revelations or messages except for this- crazy-devout religion can be a temporary aid for something deeper- unbearable loneliness, repression or isolation. Sometimes someone who seems proselytizing or arrogant is simply lonelier.

Maria Hofstätter is just perfect as Anna Maria, and you can completely believe that she is this person, who she plays with total sincerity. It is interesting to see her try to ‘save’ the souls of her fellow man, and the way they react to what could be interpreted as a attempt to connect or or just pure  patronization. An essential art-house film for fans of the genre.