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This past (long) weekend began with two terrible films and one great one: not the most auspicious start to the proceedings but better than three terrible ones, I suppose. Here, then, is what happens when you put an Oscar contender in between two Z-grade films: the results are not pretty.

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Let me begin by clarifying something: I have absolutely nothing against bad movies. Some bad movies are more ludicrously entertaining than any well-made film could ever hope to be, spewing out more ideas (terrible or otherwise) in a few moments than most films do in two hours. Some, like Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado, even manage to worm their way into the cultural zeitgeist, although I’m not personally a fan of either film. There’s a reason that “so bad they’re good” films are almost as popular as actual “good” films: they take the entertainment aspect of filmmaking and knock it out of the park, offering the kind of fan service that makes it easy to forget that every other aspect of the movie has wandered into the desert to die.

The Last Rites of Ransom Pride is a wretched film, an absolutely miserable waste of what I can only imagine was a lengthy 24-hour shoot. Its sins are many and run deep but some are more lethal than others. For one thing, the film displays the kind of casting choices that can best be described as “suspect”: Lizzy Caplan, most famous for her great comedic turn in Party Down, is a humorless prostitute-turned-gunfighter; Jason Priestly is the hard-as-nails titular gunslinger, Ransom Pride; Dwight Yoakam and his dead animal-pelt toupee appear as an alcoholic preacher/bad hairpiece duo that also serve as Ransom’s father; Kris Kristofferson looks half dead as some sort of Old West head honcho but his voice is still all gravel and asskicking; Peter Dinklage appears as a former circus performer who dresses like a member of one of those “urban vampire role-playing” games and travels in a circus tent with conjoined, opium-smoking twins. This, friends and neighbors, is what I like to call one messed-up goulash.

If the above-mentioned stars seem odd and out-of-place, at least they come off better than the other “actors” in the film, particularly the shrill creature that plays Maria la Morena, a whore/witch/madam/crime-boss that manages to be simultaneously ridiculous and obnoxious. After her second appearance, I muted every other time she popped up on-screen, preferring to miss whatever paltry exposition she might offer in return for my sanity. This is a film where your allegiances lie with whatever actor/actress is currently the least annoying: I tossed my hat in the circus corner, because at least they had Dinklage in wispy velvets, fake mustache and a bit where opium smoke is blown into a tracheotomy tube: yum! If Dinklage and twins had just been the damn heroes, we might be having a very different conversation but no…we get a scowling Lizzy Caplan and a love interest so bland I can only refer to him as Haircut #2.

But it’s a super-low budget Western, you might say: be gentle! Not a chance, bub: if this was big enough to get released and burn a scarlet L into my forehead, it’s big enough to take a little drubbing. Were there but one thing that actually worked, I’d keep my vitriol to myself. What in the hell are you supposed to do with dialogue like “Mexico…my precious and beautiful Hell” or “I was always a lover, despite the killings,” though? Laugh? Cry? Assume it’s some sort of Dadaist statement on the surreality of it all? How about the fact that one of the throwaway characters is named Luis Chama, apparently after John Saxon’s character in Joe Kidd? Is this relevant? Not that I could find, even though I love Joe Kidd: just a weird little bit of parallelism for no good reason.

The opening credits are a twitchy mess and the ensuing film manages to match the aesthetic perfectly. The whole thing is so jittery and spastic that I wanted to prescribe it Ritalin and a dark room: at some points, cuts were so quick and pointless that I actually thought they were using subliminal imagery. Alas, that would have taken more courage and brains than the entire production appeared to possess. And that look…oy…that look. I could be kind and say that the film looks very”digital” but, really, it  just looks crappy and cheap. Even though I prefer film stock, I’ve seen and enjoyed many films with a decidedly digital aesthetic: The Last Rites of Ransom Pride ain’t one of ’em.

Ultimately, The Last Rites of Ransom Pride is pure masochism: I detested the film almost immediately but forced myself to wade through the endless rivers of crap to see how bad it could get. The movie, however, was always up for the task: anytime I thought it had reached a new nadir, something else would come along to dig it down a foot deeper. I have, however, learned a very valuable lesson: fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice and you’re probably a crappy Z-Western starring the guy from 90210. Ugh.

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Now this is more like it! After suffering through the tornado of terrible that was The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, I really needed something to reset my brain. What better film than one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Feature Documentary? And so it was that Cutie and the Boxer saved my sanity.

I happen to really like documentaries, particularly those that cast a camera eye on outsider/fringe individuals. More often than not, these tales of life’s lovable losers (American Movie, Best Worst Movie, Room 237) can be bittersweet: these are usually really nice people with absolutely no sense of self-awareness and zero chance of success. It’s refreshing, then, to come across a film that arrives at roughly the same conclusion but manages to imbue it with more hope and potential than the others. There’s a lot of pain and sadness in Cutie and the Boxer but there’s a prevalent feeling of triumph that, ultimately, rules the day.

The film is an intimate examination of the 40-year marriage of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, their respective art careers and the lifestyle choices that led them to their present circumstances. The two met when Noriko was only 19 and Ushio was the ripe old age of 41. Ushio is an underground artist, the toast of New York city for a few minutes in the ’60s and ’70s. Noriko functions as an unpaid assistant, of sorts, even though she’s also an artist. One of the film’s great conflicts is the dichotomy between Noriko’s roles as assistant and peer: there’s one heartbreaking moment where Ushio scoffs at his wife’s ability, stating that “those without talent must assist those with talent.” It’s a completely unfair assessment, besides being particularly thoughtless and goes a good way towards establishing some of the painful emotions on display here.

Ushio and Noriko, you see, are essentially broke, living in a ratty studio apartment in New York City with their grown son, Alex. Since Ushio never made much money with his art, even when he was popular, the aged pair have absolutely no nest egg or safety, a frightening enough prospect when you’re in your thirties but particularly terrifying when you’re in your eighties, I would imagine. Ushio has also struggled with alcoholism his whole  life, a condition which has left him allergic to alcohol in his old age (a blessing in disguise). Unfortunately, Alex has inherited his father’s (and mother’s, for that matter) proclivity for drink and this has tended to ruin his life, as well. Via home movies, we get to see a younger Ushio and Noriko getting falling down drunk with friends while their young son looks on, eventually tucking himself into bed. It’s a particularly stunning scene, as powerful as the one where a young, drunk Ushio has a breakdown, sobbing and slamming his fists repeatedly into a table. There is no shortage of real emotion on display here and, sometimes, it can get to be a bit much.

Luckily, filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling leavens the drama with plenty of humor and some truly neat animated scenes, courtesy of Noriko’s Cutie cartoons. There’s some nice insights into the New York art movement of the time (a picture of Ushio and Andy Warhol hanging out is pretty swell, indeed). The film’s style can seem a bit pretentious, at first, but Heinzerling quickly shows himself to be a deft hand at wringing genuine emotion and pathos from moments that might be too cloying in someone else’s hands.

More than anything, though, Cutie and the Boxer is a truly beautiful love story, a tale of two fractured individuals who found the love and support in each other that they never found in the rest of the world. It’s not a perfect relationship but no marriages (especially those lasting longer than 20 years, much less 40) are. Like everyone, they have their triumphs and upsets, joys and sorrows. There’s a moment where Noriko states that she and Ushio are “like two flowers in one pot: sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients.” These is a perfectly valid, if inherently sad, way to look at their co-dependent artistic careers. There’s an equally powerful moment, however, where Noriko states that, despite everything that’s happened, all of the joys and sorrows, the crippling alcoholism and crushing poverty, she would do the whole thing all over again. That, right there, is the very definition of love. I don’t think that Cutie and the Boxer will win the Oscar (I’m pretty sure that The Act of Killing has that locked down) but I, for one, will never forget the movie.

Stay Cool

Is there anything worse than a terrible film? Yes, by gum, there certainly is: a lazy film. Lazy films may not make the same glaring mistakes as terrible films (say what you will about Howard the Duck but laziness is not one of its sins) but that’s because they lack the courage and conviction to do much of anything. For my money, there is nothing worse than sitting through a safe, lazy, middle-of-the-road film: I’d rather watch The Room on endless repeat than view something that not even the filmmakers could be bothered to care about.

Stay Cool, friends and neighbors, is one massively lazy film. We’re not talking a few shortcuts here and there, a little stereotyping to smooth things over: we’re talking practically comatose, a pulse so flat-lined that you’ve already called the morgue. From the cover art (the pic I posted above is actually much better than the official cover art, which really tells you something) to the lazy voice-over narration (cuz, you know, how else are we gonna know what’s going on?) to the actual story (man-child must return to high school to right the wrongs of his adolescence, having comical interactions along the way), there isn’t one thing about Stay Cool that pushes anything further than a shuffleboard puck on a seniors-only cruise.

But what about all of those familiar faces in the cast list, you may well ask? Let’s see if we can check these off the list fairly quickly, shall we? Winona Ryder collects a paycheck as the romantic lead, Chevy Chase is absolutely awful as the principal, Dee Wallace and Michael Gross are completely wasted as the protagonist’s parents, Sean Astin is saddled with the swishiest cliché of a gay character to appear on-screen in some time and Jon Cryer has what amounts to a cameo. And looks bored in the process, might I add.

It’s hard to single out my least favorite aspect of the film but there’s definitely something that’s easy to peg in my top 5: the ridiculous, juvenile attitude of the lead character. We’re actually supposed to believe that this man-child still acts like a petulant teenager (I don’t mean excessive partying, etc…I mean teenage whining and bitching, ladies and gents), lives at home with his parents and still has the same feud with his former high school principal, even though he must be in his late thirties/early forties and the principal is now in his seventies?! Suspension of disbelief is one thing: calling your audience stupid is something else entirely.

Betcha don’t know where the title came from, do ya? Let’s see if we can puzzle this out, shall we? You already know this is about a guy returning to his high school as an adult so…Yeah, that’s right: the clever title comes from the eternally clichéd quote that his high school dream girl wrote in his yearbook cuz, you know…Stay Cool! Genius! And so true, bro…so true!

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