Sunday, May 18, 2008

"Just put your cigarette out on Juno..."

or, Recent Viewings and the Studio Standstill

It seems every movie I'm curious to see of late is being held up from release. By the time I actually see it, there's usually a clear reason why. Two pretty recent examples: An American Crime and Southland Tales. Both films are plagued by plots that I assume are deemed unappealing to the mainstream; packaged in confusion, lengthy runtimes, or a general feel bad vibe. That or we can blame it on two of Sean William Scott in the same movie. It begs the question, what's at all worse about these films than any on the summer movie slate? And why do studios insist on limiting their film's possibilities?

Maybe I've answered my own questions. Just see An American Crime.

Catherine Keener's so good, she makes abusing other people's children seem thoughtful and compelling. She can scream "prostitute" with such nuance. And Ellen Page turns on the sweet innocence so that you forget Juno's sass mouth and forgive her for introducing "honest to blog" into people's vocabulary. This grim true story is about a mentally ill mother, Gertrude Baniszewski (Keener), who babysits and batters a young girl (Page), all the while inviting friends and family to join in. Happy late Mother's Day, Ms. Baniszewski!

This is fascinating, nasty stuff on a true crime level, yet it's stuffed into obvious narrative convention. Voice overs, court testimonies, ghostly flashbacks... it's all a bit stiff in its presentation. It's not heavy arthouse drama by any means, though it would have benefited from that kind of angle. Let's face it though, the masses don't want to see the breakthrough starlet that just warmed their hearts get branded and beaten into submission. The masses don't, but apparently I do. I'm disturbed, and Catherine Keener can kick any child for my hard earned cash.

I still don't understand why a studio couldn't sell it as a well-acted horror film, or base its publicity on the fresh young Oscar nominee in the lead? Perhaps I might become a marketing executive so I can get more people to see depressing films under false pretenses...

And then there's a film like Southland Tales, which I think could have easily gotten a bigger rollout. Not because it deserves it, but because it seems destined to have found an audience if marketed properly. It's overlong, it got bad buzz at Cannes, but that doesn't halt a hit as we all know. Hold out for the summer and advertise ad nauseam. The Rock somehow still has fans, so does Justin Timberlake, and Richard Kelley's debut Donnie Darko has an almost baffling cult following to build on. Alas, Southland Tales will have to follow suit with home video success. If only it were one-eighth as good a film as Donnie Darko... Maybe it's my Gyllenhaal withdrawal talking.

The words "ambitious" and "mess" got tossed around a lot in its weekend-long release, and oh how right they were. Southland Tales is like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, if it were tacky and populated by the cast of SNL. It understandably got the green light because of its bankable cast, but it's bogglingly excessive, distancing and distracted. Hip, current satire put through an MTV blender and sprinkled with bad LSD. Still, that even ups my surprise as to why this didn't get more studio backing. It's as visually propelled as something like Speed Racer and ripe for nerdy forum discussions. Plus, for those that actually do enjoy it, there's plenty to feast on for a second viewing. Does that mean the geek fanboy crowds have resigned themselves to online downloads and video-on-demand? I guess that was the case for this Buffy freak, so I shouldn't pass the blame. Southland Tales has its share of honest laughs, visual panache and innovative ideas, but calling it a success seems like picking those bits out of a massive scrap heap.

My proof of its merits will come in a collective of words and wisdom from Sarah Michelle Gellar as porn entrepreneur Krysta Now. She's reason enough to give this whopping blunder a watch. Had the studios put these gems in their trailer, they might have had a hit on their hands.

"Can I tell you a secret? I'm fucking a very large and important man."

"Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted."

"We're a bisexual nation living in denial. All because of a bunch of nerds. A bunch of nerds who got off a boat in the fifteenth century and decided that sex was something to be ashamed of. All the Pilgrims did was ruin the American Indian orgy of freedom."

"Violence is a big problem in our society today and I will not support it. That is the primary reason why I won't do anal."

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