‘Smiley Face’ with Anna Faris and John Krasinski

This is the sort of script I didn’t let students write when I worked at a film school–it’s a lazy script, with no imagination and nothing fun. Worst of all, it’s just flat out not funny. The characters are too pathetic to identify with, and Jane, as a blond skinny white girl, just reminds me how much I hate self-centered people.

In the interest of full disclosure, I really hate stoner movies. There’s nothing more odious to me than the idea that a film was made with the entire purpose of entertaining a demographic whose idea of mindblowing comedy is jingling their keys or farting twice in a row. Comedy to me is a  fine art, something practiced and refined; if you don’t believe me, look at the years successful stand-up comedians spend working their way through the no-man’s-land of crappy comedy clubs until they start acting or writing. To get up and have the courage not just to try, but to bomb (and you WILL bomb, it’s going to happen at some point) is a tremendous exercise not only in learning, but in character.

Which is why this movie disappointed me so. Anna Faris has definitely paid her dues in the comedy salt mines, which is why a role like this is beneath her. Faris plays Jane, an out of work actress. After smoking her usual morning’s bowl, she accidentally eats her room mate’s pot-laced brownies before realizing she has several tasks she must complete that day: she must pay the electric bill, pay off her dealer so he doesnt’ take her furniture, and go to an acting audition–all of which are transformed into herculean tasks by the amounts of pot she’s ingested.She seems to have a background in economics, no doubt the filmmaker’s attempt to give her character some depth, but the theories she spouts just sound like what they are: lazy writing.

What follows is a meandering exercise in stoner comedy. At the audition the other actresses are meticulously dressed and coiffed–Jane is slovenly in unwashed jeans, no makeup and lank hair. Her audition is with grim casting director Jane Lynch, who is always a treat except when she’s wasted in films like these–I hope doing this movie was a way to finish paying for renovating her kitchen or something.

Krasinski enters the scene as a friend of Jane’s room mate who, due to his attraction to her (what’s not to like? the not-showering, the constant smell of pot and sweat, the directionless lifestyle) she manipulates into driving her to Venice beach so she can pay off her dealer. She manages to get Krasinski’s wallet stolen, gives the investigating office a false name, then runs away in a paranoia fit and hides in her old professor’s house. Krasinski’s character is another lazy stereotype I hate: the guy into RPGs and comics who is desperately in love with a girl because she’s the only one he can get and he has no experience with women. I AM one of those people and am here to tell you that there’s no shortage of women into sci-fi and games, if you know where to look.

There’s really no more point to discussing the rest of the movie: crazy stuff happens, Jane gets her comeuppance, and sort of learns a lesson. The film is sprinkled with actors all worth much more than this sort of film: John Cho, Danny Trejo, the aforementioned Lynch, Danny Masterson, Brian Posehn, Michael Hitchcock, the voice of Roscoe Lee Brown (the narrator from Babe) and even Carrot Top all make appearances, leading me to suspect they thought they were appearing in a film that might make an argument for the legalization of pot.

I’m all for its legalization–there are slews of reasons in its favor, such as reducing the prison population, a new source of revenue and international tourism. But none of those arguments are made by this film. The closest thing to an argument that can be made is ‘high people are mostly harmless,’ and even taht’s a stretch considering the trail of destruction Jane leaves behind. This is the sort of script I didn’t let students write when I worked at a film school–it’s a lazy script, with no imagination and nothing fun. Worst of all, it’s just flat out not funny. The characters are too pathetic to identify with, and Jane, as a blond skinny white girl, just reminds me how much I hate self-centered people.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Many people will watch the film and treat it as a huge joke; a drug-frenzied romp in the tradition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the ends justify the means and the hero overcame all odds, including his crippling addiction and gambling habit. There’s a certain charm in laughing at the character after all, but for me it was more like whistling past the graveyard. We laugh at things for different reasons–sometimes it’s because something frightens us or makes us uncomfortable, and that could certainly be applicable here.

In another universe or dimension, Werner Herzog’s remake would have made a truly amazing horror film; in certain communities, I would hazard, the unfolding events are more terrifying than any vampire, alien or zombie.

Think about it: An unhinged, drug-addled cop with a gambling problem and a predilection for shaking down citizens for drugs, who steals from the evidence locker, terrorizes the powerless and ignores rules he doesn’t like. This character is essentially a boogieman of the ghetto, a story the disenfranchised and economically/racially oppressed tell their children to keep them from a life of crime. ‘Drop out of school, or steal a car, and Officer McDonaugh will get you!’

In one scene, McDonaugh shows up at someone’s house (I honestly don’t remember the context) and proceeds to smoke weed in the man’s bedroom with uniformed officers waiting outside. The former rambles a terrifying and unhinged theory on life, the universe and everything after sending out the other officers so he can ‘be alone’ with the frightened suspect, even offering him a hit.  The fellow is being coerced into giving up information, with the veiled threat that McDonaugh will plant the very weed he’s smoking on the man once he’s being arrested.

This plays into the general populace’s ambivalence about The Thin Blue Line: we all want to believe in Office Friendly, but movies and TV have convinced us that at their worst cops are a sadistic brotherhood who viciously protect their own, and at their best are brave men and women who secretly daydream about vigilantism after years of witnessing horror.

Perhaps that is the entire reason the film (ostensibly a remake except for the fact that Herzog insists it isn’t) is set in New Orleans, a city whose pre-Katrina police force was legendary for being the most corrupt in the United States. McDonaugh’s actions certainly have consequences, and the descending steps of his downward spiral are less news to his peers and colleagues than cuneiform. But we aren’t interested in seeing him punished for his misdeeds; after all, it’s more than clear the character’s life is punishment enough.

Nicholas Cage’s performance has been widely discussed and praised; indeed, the story and other characters take a backseat to McDonaugh’s unraveling, and really aren’t missed. In one scene, a slowly closing door reveals him lying in wait for an old woman and her nurse in order to interrogate them. His eyes are wide and unblinking, his clothes and hair disheveled as he hasn’t showered, slept or eaten in days. As he menaces them from behind the door, struggling not to let the effects of the heroin he accidentally snorted get to him, while running an electric shaver over his face. Never has an act of self-maintenance seemed so menacing, so cold, and so hilarious at the same time.

Many people will watch the film and treat it as a huge joke; a drug-frenzied romp in the tradition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the ends justify the means and the hero overcame all odds, including his crippling addiction and gambling habit. There’s a certain charm in laughing at the character after all, but for me it was more like whistling past the graveyard. We laugh at things for different reasons–sometimes it’s because something frightens us or makes us uncomfortable, and that could certainly be applicable here.

Upon my viewing I found a monster much more terrifying than any of the paltry CG threats crowding the big screen these days. Dirty cops rank somewhere above ghosts and below flesh-eating bacteria on my ‘Nightmares’ hierarchy.

The X-Files: Season 1

There’s still lots to love about the X-files. The patter, the Lone Gunmen, the infamous red Speedo, but in my opinion, most of the good stuff is to be found when Fox and Dana are doing anything but investigating aliens. Odd, considering the show’s intent.

From the Wayback Machine

Most of my memories of the X-Files are tied to watching them in high school, a time when I was incredibly shy, worked most weekends and read way too many books about aliens, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and other forteana.

Mulder and Scully have become cultural shorthand for ‘believer’ and ‘nonbeliever’ respectively; Mulder, driven by a need to find his missing sister who be believes was abducted by aliens, and practical, pragmatic old Scully, unafraid to call bullshit on Mulder’s theories and demand proof.

Something must be said about the progressive gender politics of the show; again, Scully is clinical, fastidious, and disinclined to flights of faith or the benefit of the doubt. She stands in direct contrast to Mulder, who is prone to making Herculean leaps in logic, draw conclusions from nothing more than a hunch, run off in the middle of an investigation in order to pursue a tangential lead, or damage his own case by not following procedure. Additionally, in several episodes I was pleased to see Scully physically take down fleeing suspects or attackers, a welcome change from the lip-service feminism in most high-profile movies and TV these days.

The X-Files was the Go-To show of the 90’s; it had a healthy anti-authoritarian attitude and personified the decade’s postmodern, question-everything flavor. Conspiracy theories abounded, Big Government was out to hide everything from alien abduction to the location of car keys, aliens were probing anything remotely anus-shaped, and people didn’t have casual sex with their co-workers.

The X-Files, as horrible as it feels to say it, does not stand the test of time for me. Too often Mulder and Scully find themselves struggling to solve a situation that could be resolved with a quick Google search–certainly it’s easy to dismiss the show as dated, just check out Scully’s shoulder pads. But that’s just nitpicking– the real problem is Mulder’s utter disinterest in applying objectivity to anything they encounter. There’s keeping an open mind, and then there’s Fox Mulder, who never met a candy wrapper he couldn’t conflate into some kind of paranormal occurrence. After all, tinfoil has many, many uses amongst the ‘aliens among us’ set.

After the Bush years, I found my faith in Big Government’s ability to keep secrets from the people had waned. Why believe in a cover up about aliens when there’s so much worse out there? A year or two ago, I found a blog kept by a sharpshooter who’d been to Iraq. His assignment had been to sit on a hillside and shoot anyone who came near some metal pieces scattered in a valley down below. The metal pieces were ‘components’ intentionally scattered by the military as bait, as they are often used to create IEDs; unfortunately, they also contain copper that children collect in order to sell for scrap, to make money for their families. The sharpshooter was instructed to kill anyone who came near the parts, and kill them he did.

This isn’t the sort of thing everyone thinks of when they’re watching a TV show: ‘how well does this show reflect reality as I know it?’  Of course there’s a temporary suspension of disbelief. This is the benefit of the doubt we give when we sit down to watch anything.

The best parts of the show for me, now and always, are the Monster of the Week episodes, where Mulder and Scully take down werewolves, vampires, lake monsters, weird flesh-eating bugs, giant leeches and such. The episode ‘Beyond The Sea,’ about serial killer Luther Boggs (played by Brad Dourif, one of my actor obsessions) and the death of Scully’s father, is an episode that is so moving that it stuck with me since the first time I saw it, in 1993. The scene where Boggs is walking down the hallway to the gas chamber, and he turns away and is guided back by the officers, not fighting, not violent,  but frightened like a child and simply wanting to get away, is heartbreaking.

There’s still lots to love about the X-files. The patter, the Lone Gunmen, the infamous red Speedo, but in my opinion, most of the good stuff is to be found when Fox and Dana are doing anything but investigating aliens. Odd, considering the show’s intent.

Your Tickets, Ladies and Gentlemen

Late to the Theater is your guide to quality (and sometimes not–let’s be honest, ranting about crap is fun too!) film and television.

And since film criticism is inherently a subjective exercise, there’s no reason for me to remain objective about my like or dislike of a film–which is half the fun, isn’t it?

Late to the Theater is a blog that discusses, examines, and celebrates stuff we missed the first time around. With access to so much media these days, it’s difficult to know what’s worth your time; easy enough to see whatever’s new, but what about all those titles from the last 100+ years? What about television? What about movies from other countries?

Late to the Theater is your guide to quality (and sometimes not–let’s be honest, ranting about crap is fun too!) film and television.

And since film criticism is inherently a subjective exercise, there’s no reason for me to remain objective about my like or dislike of a film–which is half the fun, isn’t it?

On with the show.