June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson hit the road in the comedy Ass Backwards, the first of many big titles hitting VOD this month.
What if bubbly blonde BFFs Romy and Michele were actually horrible, horrible people and everybody (except them) knew it? That's the driving joke behind this road trip comedy written by its stars, June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson, who turned to Kickstarter to raise the money to finish the movie after the initial shoot was forced to shut down due to lack of funds. Given that backstory, and the fact that Raphael and Wilson are two very funny women who deserve a star vehicle after several years as supporting scene-stealers, it's hard not to root for Ass Backwards to be one of 2013's great comedies. Unfortunately, it doesn't even come close. The fault doesn't really lie with the leading ladies, who play the parts of clueless child beauty pageant competitors-turned-midlife failures Kate (Raphael) and Chloe (Wilson) to the hilt. Although these women are wholly untalented in just about every respect, they do have one skill: a supreme lack of self-awareness. As far as they're concerned, they're superstars... even though the rest of the world correctly recognizes them as walking disaster areas. After receiving an invitation to an anniversary edition of the pageant they bombed at decades ago, Chloe and Kate hightail it out of New York (conveniently just as they're about to be evicted from their apartment) and travel to what they expect will be the site of their latest triumph. But that harsh mistress known as reality keeps threatening to slap them in the face every step in the way, whether it's the growing realization that their free-spending ways have left them severely cash-strapped or the fact that their uncanny ability to misread every social situation keeps landing them in hot water. It's hard to not admire Raphael and Wilson on some level for committing so completely to these deliberately hateful roles, openly inviting the audience's scorn. At its best, Ass Backwards feels like a corrective to a film like Little Miss Sunshine, which strives to make eccentricity adorable. (Comparisons to Young Adult are also apt, although that movie actually explores the pathology of its particular egomaniacal monster instead of simply treating it as a source of cringe-inducing comedy.) After a certain point, though, the movie's mean-spiritedness goes from bracing to wearying, largely because the characters remain static, repeating the same awful behavior while only the setting changes. Romy and Michele learned something about themselves by going back to school; the point of Ass Backwards is that Kate and Chloe will never change or even experience a much-needed moment of clarity. That may be true to these characters, but it's a bitter pill to swallow for an audience just looking for a few good laughs.
(Ass Backwards is available on iTunes and will open in limited theatrical release on November 8.)
Man of Tai Chi
There's a promising new director of martial arts movies in town and his name is… Keanu Reeves? The Matrix star brings some of his kung-fu skills to bear in Man of Tai Chi, a spirited bit of chopsocky filmed on location in Hong Kong and Beijing. The plot is, believe it or not, straight out of The Karate Kid, Part III: Tai Chi apprentice Chen Lin-Hu (played by stuntman Tiger Hu Chen in his first leading role) is happily being trained by his Miyagi-like master when he makes the mistake of getting involved in an underground fight club operated by the dark-hearted John Kreese stand-in, Donaka Mark (Reeves, who is always fun to watch when he breaks bad). Just as Daniel allowed Cobra Kai's premiere sensei to (briefly) tempt him over to the dark side, so too does Chen adopt Donaka's advice that he needs to be more aggressive and violent in the ring. But when that violence threatens to cost him all he holds dear, Chen has to choose which path he wants to walk. I'm probably making Man of Tai Chi sound more dramatic than it actually is. Despite the big life decision facing the title character, the movie itself is a light-hearted romp that never takes itself too seriously. And the fight sequences are quite good, with Reeves allowing the combat to play out in long takes without lots of quick cuts -- just as the Wachowskis did in The Matrix movies -- giving you the opportunity to see and appreciate that the performers are doing their own moves. With Man of Tai Chi, Reeves can legitimately add "Action Director" to his resume alongside "Zen Master."
(Man of Tai Chi is currently available via most OnDemand services and is playing in limited theatrical release.)
Best Man Down
If you, like me, find the antics of bearded-John Belushi wanna-be Tyler Labine deeply annoying, you'll be happy to hear that the actor meets his maker ten minutes into Best Man Down, the feature filmmaking debut of writer/director Ted Koland. That's not a spoiler, by the way, as Labine is playing the "Best Man Down" referenced in the title. While serving as best man for the wedding of his good buddy Scott (Justin Long) to Kristin (Jess Weixler), Labine's Lumpy gets big-time drunk and wanders outside the hotel, where he promptly drops down dead. The rest of the movie then, involves Scott's efforts to bury the friend (and the tension this mission sparks with his new bride) he thought he knew only to discover that he maybe didn't really know him at all. For starters, despite claiming he was still in school, Scott learns that Lumpy had quietly dropped out months before the wedding and was working odd jobs to support himself. More importantly, he secretly befriended a teenage girl (Addison Timlin) from a broken home, who now claims to be pregnant with his child. (At this point, Labine unfortunately re-enters the movie in flashback form, although his pre-wedding performance is thankfully pitched at a lower register.) Despite some nice work by Wixler and Timlin, Best Man Down is a case of a solid premise undermined by weak follow-through. Never funny enough to be an outright comedy or emotionally complex enough to be a compelling drama, the movie just sort of lies there, as stiff as its deceased title character.
(Best Man Down will be available via Magnolia on Demand starting October 3 and will open in limited theatrical release on November 8.)
Kevin Smith lends his brand name and distribution label -- Kevin Smith's Movie Club -- to this timely micro-budgeted first feature from Canuck writer/director, Matthew Johnson. The film begins as a found footage-style chronicle of high school bullying, with film-crazy central characters Matt (played by Johnson himself) and Owen (Owen Williams) enduring all manner of insults and abuse at the hands of the school's jock and punk population, which they capture on the same cameras they're using to make a class project -- a Tarantino-influenced revenge story of two outcasts who take bloody revenge on the kids tormenting them. As production continues, though, Matt starts to forget that the movie he's making is supposed to be fictional, much to the chagrin of his soon-to-be-ex-friend. Before you can say "Columbine," the stage is set for a real-life tragedy, captured on videotape. Although Gus Van Sant's Elephant remains the definitive exploration of this subject, The Dirties has its own intriguing aesthetic, with Johnson filtering much of what we see through the lens of his characters' media-saturated consciousness. To that end, the found footage gimmick proves more effective in this milieu than you might expect, fostering a feeling of authenticity increasingly rare to the genre. Kudos to Smith for using his mini-empire to bring this conversation-starter to wider attention.
(The Dirties is available via most OnDemand services and is playing in limited theatrical release.)
Filmed in 2009, Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael's ambitious, decade-spanning genre hodgepodge plays out like the love child of Cloud Atlas and Synecdoche, New York, though putting this messy melting pot on the same shelf as those two inspired pieces of carefully-controlled chaos would be an overreach. Jared Leto plays Nemo, who in different eras is a young boy torn between divorcing parents (Natasha Little and Rhys Ifans), a husband and father married to a woman of varying faces (alternately played by Sarah Polley and Linh Dan Pham) and the oldest man alive in Earth's distant future. These various pasts, presents and futures can be traced back to an impossible decision Nemo had to make as a kid, one that spins his life off in myriad different directions. Skipping around in space and time with almost casual abandon, Mr. Nobody has a distinct vision that keeps you engaged with the proceedings throughout its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime. But it's ultimately lacking the sense of spectacle that distinguishes Cloud Atlas or the fascinating thematic metaphors and narrative gamesmanship that drives Synecdoche. (It goes without saying that Leto is no Philip Seymour Hoffman, either.) The movie seems destined to be one of those cult oddities that's appreciated more for what it might have been than what it is.
(Mr. Nobody is currently available via Magnolia on Demand and opens in limited release on November 1.)
Because nobody demanded it, another successful Off-Broadway play is transformed into a completely forgettable low-budget feature film that doesn't highlight whatever virtues might have existed on the stage. (See also the anemic movie versions of The Fantasticks and Tony 'n' tina's Wedding..) Written by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, Jewtopia is the story of two childhood pals -- one Jewish, the other not -- who, as grown-ups, try to help each other navigate treacherous romantic terrain. The Jewish one, Adam (Joel David Moore), is engaged to a ball-buster of a fiancée (Jamie-Lynn Sigler); while the non-Jew, Christian (Ivan Sergei), is head over heels for a daughter of Abraham (Jennifer Love Hewitt, glowing unnaturally) and lies about his religious persuasion in order to date her, getting a crash course in Judaism from his best buddy. The stage play (which I never saw) apparently ran for a long time by Off Broadway standards, so I'll take it on faith that there was something genuinely hilarious and/or heartfelt about it that got lost in translation on the road to movie theaters. Because the version of Jewtopia that plays out onscreen is pretty awful, filled with cartoonish performances, shrill humor and a thinly-veiled misogynistic streak. Frankly, two hours' worth of Torah study is more entertaining (and humorous) than one minute of Jewtopia.
(Jewtopia is currently available via most OnDemand services.)
The Secret Life of Dorks
The geek revolution hits the indie film world with these two disparate portraits of nerd culture, neither of which do their target audience any real favors. To be fair, Zero Charisma deliberately sets out to critique the fanboy lifestyle, plopping us down in the poster-plastered room of plus-sized adult dork Scott (Sam Eidson), whose real life begins whenever he puts on his Grand Master hat (metaphorically, not literally) and sits down to host a weekly round of the D&D-like sword-and-sorcery RPG he invented. Passionate about his game to a fault, Scott is a legit bully, bossing around his meek geek buddies and forever trying to top whatever sci-fi or fantasy-related opinion or fun fact they put out into the universe. But his reign as Top Dork is about to be challenged by upstart, Miles (Garrett Graham), a "cool nerd" in the tradition of Nerdist founder, Chris Hardwick. Miles's presence brings out the worst in Scott, who in short order loses his friends, his game and, most importantly, his geek cred. Until the movie loses its nerve in the final half-hour and gives its anti-hero a too-tidy (and almost redemptive) way out, Zero Charisma does explore the seedy underbelly of extreme fandom in a darkly humorous way. A word of warning to the geek audience: Don't go in expecting to be flattered. On the other hand, even at his worst, Scott is a far more likable nerd than any of the so-called dorks in The Secret Lives of Dorks, a relentlessly dumb and crude high school comedy in which popular beauty Carrie (Riley Voelkel) strives to make over nerd beast Payton (Gaelan Connell) by hooking him up with outcast Samantha (Vanessa Marano). Pitched as broadly as The Big Bang Theory without that show's stellar cast, Secret Lives of Dorks actively insults the fanbase it's supposedly made for. Let's all do our part to keep this movie a secret from the general geek population.
Documentary filmmaker Eva Orner puts boots on the ground in post-Taliban Afghanistan, chronicling the rise of the country's largest independent television network, TOLO TV. Sitting down with the executives behind the camera and some of the personalities in front of it, Orner provides an interesting, informative overview of TOLO's programming line-up as well as the difficulties of operating a business -- particularly a media business -- in a country still straining for stability. If you saw the 2009 documentary Afghan Star, about the country's first big reality hit, this film functions as a worthwhile semi-sequel. Speaking of semi-sequels, Paul Crowder's Formula 1 documentary 1 fills in some of the gaps present in Ron Howard's currently playing racing drama Rush, which focused on the '70s rivalry between drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. That material is covered again here (complete with an interview with the real-life Lauda), but it's just one part of a larger oral history, with Crowder exploring Formula 1's origins and tracking it through the '80s and '90s with testimonials from some of the finest vintage racers still around. It's not quite as focused and resonant a sports documentary as 2010's Senna, the best Formula 1 movie (fiction or non) ever made, but it fleshes out a sport that's still widely unknown on these shores.
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