The Last Word: In a blog post a while back I singled out the upcoming direct-to-DVD romantic drama The Last Word as a particularly unpromising example of what NPR has called the “cinematic scourge” that is Manic Pixie Dream Girl cinema. In it, Winona Ryder plays a chatty, sexually aggressive young woman who falls in love with Wes Bentley, a walking, talking blob of sensitivity who makes his living ghost-writing suicide notes.
Apparently a whole bunch of motherfuckers want their friends and family to think they magically morphed into a verbose, black-clad philosophy graduate student in their final moments. The idea is to get mourners to think, “Yes, it’s sad he killed himself but the powerful imagery and lyrical metaphors he conjured up before he took his own life; that made it all worthwhile.”
Being a morbid fuck, Bentley likes to linger on the periphery of funerals for his clients in case the clergyman presiding over them give him mad props in their eulogies. Bentley defines “inscrutable” so I don’t know whether he considers this a perk of the job or emotional self-flagellation. While basking quietly in a Priest’s praise for the deceased’s unusually eloquent suicide-note one afternoon, Bentley meets Ryder, the sister of one of Bentley’s unfortunate clients.
Bentley here plays a more morose version of his breakout character from American Beauty, no small feat considering he wasn’t exactly Mr. Sunshine in that film. Bentley has an unsettling thousand-yard-stare and is alternately monosyllabic/secretive and florid/pretentious (he’s all about quoting philosophers, poets and writers) yet Ryder falls helplessly in love with him anyway. It isn’t long until Ryder is angrily doffing her top so they can have passionate public sex on the roof of Bentley’s apartment building (to answer your question: no, you don’t get to see anything). Like most of the protagonists in Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies, Bentley is too depressed and passive to make the first move. So Ryder has to throw herself at Bentley before any good-loving- body-rockin’-knocking-boots-all-night-long can occur.
It’s hard to see why Ryder is attracted to Bentley. Jeez, he’s not even in a band. Bentley is understandably skittish about revealing his big secret to Ryder. This leads to the usual romantic-comedy hijinks. It’s the old boy-meets-girl-after-furtively-composing-the-suicide-note-of-girl’s brother, boy-gets-girl-while-concealing-the-prominent-role-he-played-in-the-suicide-of-girl’s-brother and finally boy-loses-girl-after-she-learns-boy-wrote-girl’s brother’s-suicide-note. Ryder is just a little peeved that Bentley accepted money to make her brother’s decision to go gently into that good night a little smoother instead of saying something like, “Hey, you know what’d be a fun idea? Not committing suicide. Let’s grab a slice of ‘za and guffaw our gloomies away.”
That’s what Bentley tells his favorite client—a composer of hold music played by Ray Romano—when he decides to toss himself off a highway overpass and become roadkill. Imagine Romano’s sad-voiced wooly mammoth from the Ice Age movies as a suicidal human smartass with a ridiculous job and you have a pretty good conception of his character here. The Last Word would be unbearably precious if it weren’t executed with all the energy and momentum of a funeral dirge. Ryder tries to infect her sullen beau with an irrepressible lust for life in true MPDG fashion but Bentley and the film prove beyond redemption.
Just How Bad Is It? Exactly as bad as it looks and sounds
This Revolution: When I first learned that Rosario Dawson was starring in a Medium Cool homage/remake I remember thinking, “Wow. That sounds interesting. And terrible.” Sweet sassy mollassy, was I ever right. The film gained a modicum of notoriety when Dawson was arrested at the 2004 Republican Convention alongside other protestors. Then This Revolution sunk like a stone, deservedly so.
I have profoundly mixed feelings about Medium Cool. It contains perhaps some of the most powerful sequences in the history of American film (the ‘68 convention stuff is riveting) and pointed the way towards a new strain of timely, politically engaged docu-drama that blended documentary and narrative in new and challenging ways. Yet writer-director Haskell Wexler’s cult classic was less the opening shot of a cinematic revolution than a dead end. Few filmmakers had the balls to follow in Wexler’s rebellious footsteps, to put themselves on the front lines of violent social unrest to record history as it happens.
Medium Cool is half timeless super-genius, half-macho bullshit. As much as I love kindly, paternal, old-guy Robert Forster he was a bit of a lightweight in his youth and I found the film’s ‘tude and cock-of-the-walk swagger a little oppressive. If Medium Cool is half-genius, half-bullshit then This Revolution is 99 percent bullshit, one-percent genius.
The film stars the deeply unpromising Nathan Crooker (playing a character named Jake Cassavettes in a clumsy homage to Wexler’s plan to have Medium Cool star John Cassavettes as himself) as a ballsy reporter who just got back from being embedded in Iraq where he saw shit that you would never believe, man.
He also returns to girlfriend/boss Amy Redford, a suit who’s all, “Let’s hand over footage of activists to the Homeland Security Department so they can take away our rights and usher us into a nightmare Orwellian hellscape in which the corporate media colludes with a Fascist totalitarian government of the Wall Street Pigs, for the Wall Street Pigs and By The Wall Street Pigs”. That is her idea of pillow talk. It’s not surprising that Crooker finds himself falling for a single mother/Iraq War widow (Rosario Dawson) who’s all sensitive and soulful and ethnic and attractive despite her hideous blonde cornrows.
Political rapper Immortal Technique does a terrible job playing political rapper Immortal Technique in scenes where he dresses down Crooker for never covering how, you know, shit is real in the hood, G. Crooker’s disillusionment with the government and the AmeriKKKan corporate media grows even more acute when he falls in with a group of masked radicals and learns of his employer’s plans to hand over his tapes to the government to help it keep tabs on dissidents.
The pigs wanna shut Crooker down but he subverts the dominant paradigm by hacking into his cable news channel’s system and airing a terrible avant-garde provocation exposing the media’s lies. Factor in wooden dialogue, clumsy, strident non-stop speechifying, porn-level acting, hokey plot twists, and footage that looks like it was shot on grandma’s video camera and you have a hysterical manifesto that almost made me ashamed to be a progressive. Writer-director Stephen Marshall, co-founder of the Guerilla News Network, set out to make a Medium Cool for our era. Instead he made the cinematic equivalent of a “No Blood For Oil” bumper sticker.
Just How Bad Is It? Awful. Just god-fucking-awful
High Hopes: Sometimes I’ll cover a movie for Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory because if I don’t, no one else will. Other times I’ll write about it because it has a funky cast and belongs to a genre or subgenre I like. I’m writing about the absolutely dire Corin Nemec/David Faustino/Jason Mewes buddy comedy High Hopes for all of the above reasons. Yes, someone went and made a Corin Nemec/David Faustino/Jason Mewes buddy comedy. Even more surprisingly, it did not open to great fanfare and ecstatic reviews in every theater in the country.
I saw High Hopes because it combined two guilty-pleasure pet subgenres: Hollywood satires (though calling this toothless comedy a satire is giving it too much credit) and pot comedies. Granted, both subgenres are terrible about 90 percent of the time but I have a weakness for them anyway. It should be noted however that as pot comedy, High Hopes goes awfully light on the marijuana. Sure, the plot revolves around the high-wattage trio scheming to get their hands on a case full of potent high-grade government-engineered pot to raise money for an independent film, but only Mewes really partakes in any doobage.
Nemec stars as a struggling actor who loses funding for an upcoming movie when his famous actress girlfriend dumps him. Though he’s ostensibly supposed to star opposite Sean Connery in an upcoming James Bond movie (never mind that Connery is both retired and 100 years old) he simply can’t wait for that gaudy payday so he schemes to make off with drug dealer Michael DeLorenzo’s illicit stash.
That’s about it for the plot. High Hopes is perversely uneventful. Twenty minutes in, the trio of cinematic super-Gods are all, “Hey, we should steal that drug dealer’s pot.” Forty minutes after that they’re all, “Hey, remember when we talked about stealing that drug dealer’s pot? We should still do that.” Twenty minutes after that, they finally muster up the resolve to say, “Hey, let’s actually go out and steal that drug dealer’s pot.”
High Hopes promises much more than it delivers, which is sad considering how little it promises. Though prominently billed, Edward Furlong, Andy Dick, Robert Rodriguez, Lacey Chabert and Danny Trejo (who also produced) average about two minutes of screen time apiece. In keeping with the film’s lukewarm attitude towards the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana, the guys end up turning over the pot to the government for a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar reward rather than destroy society by selling it for ten times as much, reasoning that a good independent film can be made for 250 grand. Given its cast and production values, I suspect that Hopes didn’t cost much more than that. But it was overpriced no matter the budget.
Just How Bad Was It? You expect so much more from Nemec, Faustino and Mewes. Tsk, tsk.