All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Toys’

I still remember watching this particular trailer before Phil Alden Robinson’s highly entertaining comedy caper, “Sneakers.” Most movie trailers do follow a certain formula as marketers are determined to sell their product to the widest audience possible, but every once in a while, we get one which breaks the mold and gives us something different and unforgettable. This came with the teaser trailer for Barry Levinson’s “Toys” which featured Robin Williams improvising in a field which he called the largest studio on the 20th Century Fox lot, and I almost believed him when he said the field was inside one building. Back then, Williams was at the height of his box office powers, and this trailer quickly reminded me of how brilliant a comedian he was.

This trailer essentially has Williams riffing on the various ways this movie could be promoted to the public, and each of them proves to be hilarious even as certain references have long since become dated. And if you didn’t know about the existence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, you certainly did after watching this trailer. And yes, we can agree it is not the right holiday to release this movie, let alone any movie, on.

The only downside of this trailer is it made “Toys” look like a full-on comedy. For those who saw it, however, they can agree it was hard to put Levinson’s movie into one particular genre. In fact, it proved to be one of the most experimental movies released by a major Hollywood studio back in the 1990’s as well as one of the biggest box office flops of that decade. But for those willing to go into “Toys” with an open mind will find it to be strikingly original and one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever. At the very least, you have to love Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s art direction which he spent more than a year working on.

Robin Williams, you are still missed…

Toys movie poster

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‘World’s Greatest Dad’ is a Twisted Black Comedy for Father’s Day Viewing

Worlds Greatest Dad movie poster

World’s Greatest Dad,” which was written and directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, was one of those small movies from 2009 which got released under the radar. It does star the late Robin Williams, but it never got the same level of marketing some of his others got that year, namely “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and the god awful “Old Dogs.” But those who have a deep love for twisted humor should enjoy this one, and it features one Williams’ last great performances before he prematurely left the land of the living.

Along with Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report,” 2009 was quite a year for black comedies which managed to mine comedy out of the most sensitive of subjects. Williams plays Lance Clayton, a failed writer and poetry teacher who is the antithesis to Mr. Keating from “Dead Poet’s Society.” The class he teaches is not at all popular, and he is unable to inspire his students or make them seize the day. Lance dreams of publishing one of his novels and of becoming rich and successful, but this success has eluded him throughout his life. Of course, once you look at the kind of novels he writes, it becomes sadly understandable why he has received a truckload of rejection letters.

Lance is also a single father to his son Kyle, a kid who many would go out of their way to nickname the antichrist. Has there ever been a ruder, endlessly selfish, thoughtless, or verbally abusive son in the history of cinema? I’m sure there are, but none come to mind at the moment. Kyle makes Rhoda Penmark from “The Bad Seed” look like Teddy Ruxpin, and he’s what Macaulay Culkin’s character from “The Good Son” would have been like if the filmmakers weren’t subjected to the iron grip of Kit Culkin. Maybe these are extreme comparisons, but they seem to fit.

Then one day, Lance comes home to find his son Kyle dead in front of his computer after accidently strangling himself during the act of autoerotic asphyxiation. Knowing the way he died, once revealed to the public, will be humiliating for him and forever put a stain (no pun intended) on his son’s memory, Lance makes Kyle’s death look like a suicide and even writes a suicide which ends up having more emotional depth than anything which could possibly have come out of Kyle’s shallow little mind. Once the note is made public on a police website, everyone at school starts seeing Kyle in a different, albeit completely false, light, and Lance soon gets the fame and adoration he always dreamed of having, and this leads him to pen a fake memoir in his son’s name.

From this description, “World’s Greatest Dad” looks to travel down the same satirical roads as “Heathers” in how it depicts the absurd effect a person’s death can have on us, especially when it involves someone we hardly knew or truly despised. But as familiar as these roads are, the timing worked to this movie’s advantage as it was released not long after the death of Michael Jackson. With his sudden passing, all the crimes he was accused to have committed, but was never convicted of, quickly seemed to disappear as if they were all a fiction, and all we could think about was the great music and dance moves he left us. With Kyle, his sins seem to be miraculously absolved upon his death, and people look to his spirit as if he was some kind of cult hero. It’s all further proof of how we have tremendous respect for the dead, but none for the living, and this saying is amped up to such a crazy degree by Goldthwait.

But Goldthwait also has an even bigger target than our adulation for the not so dearly departed, and that’s the hollow pursuit of fame. We all know this filmmaker best from his days as a comedian, and his off-kilter voice had us laughing endlessly time after time. Seeing his work as a filmmaker should make you realize there is more to him than his talent for burning up furniture on “The Tonight Show.” Being as famous as he is, Goldthwait understands how fame can bring you in touch more with people who don’t have your best interests at heart as well as others who never have cared about you in the first place. It becomes easier to see why having all this adoration can make you feel even more than you ever have before.

Kyle’s death ends up turning just about everyone at school into an utter hypocrite. Many who would rather have beaten the leaving crap out of him suddenly come forth to say they were actually friends of his. Even the principal and school psychologist try to use Lance’s new-found fame to advance their career goals. Heck, a Goth chick becomes a Bruce Hornsby fan after Lance tells her Kyle was as well. Of course, we have already previously seen how Kyle hated Bruce Hornsby as much as Lance loved to listen to him, and the level of absurdity reaches epic heights once Lance publishes his son’s fake memoir, and the book deal which has long eluded him suddenly becomes a reality.

Williams’ performance in “World’s Greatest Dad” showed how great and subtle he was to where it wasn’t always necessary for him to act crazy 24/7. Aside from his concert tours, seeing him going all nuts in a movie eventually wore out its welcome, and at times it felt like he was desperate to make us laugh. But as Lance Clayton, Williams never overdoes anything, and he makes the character sympathetic even when we know what he is doing is very wrong.

Williams also captures the lonely life of an unpublished writer whose existence is filled to rim with endless rejection. Seeing another teacher getting an article published in the New Yorker, and on his very first try by the way, brings about a resentment in him he can’t quite hide. The “Good Will Hunting” actor captures Lance’s pain perfectly, and he grounds this character in a reality which grows increasingly bizarre as the movie goes on to where he never has to a single scene just for laughs.

But one actor who truly deserves a lot of credit is Daryl Sabara who plays Kyle. Perhaps best known for his work in “Spy Kids,” Sabara doesn’t even try to find any redeeming qualities in this astonishingly vulgar character because it feels like there are none to find. Building on the school bully he played in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween,” he fearlessly makes Kyle one of the most despicable teenage characters I have ever seen in motion pictures, and he even makes Danny Lawrence from “The Karate Kid” look like a real pushover. Sabara’s work here is fearless, and you have to give him big props for how far he was willing to go.

I also really liked the lovely Alexie Gilmore as Claire, the younger teacher who is more or less dating Lance while having eyes for another teacher, Mike (Henry Simmons from “NYPD Blue”). Her adorable personality and warm smiles make you almost completely forget how incredibly self-serving she is. Perhaps Claire doesn’t even know how selfish she is as she remains very coy about her relationship with Lance, but we cannot look past how selfish she is in her own desires. Despite all this, Gilmore still makes you root for her to be with Lance even after we realize this relationship is not in Lance’s best interest.

Many have complained about how “World’s Greatest Dad” ends with a number of issues unresolved, and this is true. Things are tied up a little too neatly, and you get the impression Goldthwait could have made this black comedy even blacker than it already is. Still, he shows a lot of guts taking on such touchy subject matter which other filmmakers would never dare deal with. As dark a comedy as this may seem, he also makes it a very moving one. Once you get past what you see on the surface, there’s actually quite a bit to take in. With this film, Goldthwait makes us understand how being alone can be nowhere as bad as being surrounded by people who make you feel lonelier than ever. Remember when Travis Bickle talked about being “God’s lonely man?” Well, I was reminded of that here.

Goldthwait previously directed several films before this one including “Shakes the Clown” and “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” and he would later give us an even darker and more biting black comedy with “God Bless America.” But aside from working in comedy, he also directed the found-footage horror movie “Willow Creek,” and he gave us one of the most unforgettable documentaries of recent years with “Call Me Lucky” about the late comedian Barry Crimmins. Like “World’s Greatest Dad,” they deserve a bigger audience than they have received to date, and they demonstrate how talented Goldthwait is behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Williams and Goldthwait were great friends off screen, and their appreciation for one another really showed here. “World’s Greatest Dad” may seem like an unusual movie to view on the very important occasion of Father’s Day, but you can only watch Gregory Pick in “To Kill a Mockingbird” so many times. Lance Clayton may not be the greatest dad as the title infers, but you never doubt the love he lies about him to the world to achieve fame and cover up what an infinite little prick he was in his short life. For those in the mood for a thoughtful black comedy, this one delivers.

Besides, is there any other movie out there featuring two teenage girls getting in a catfight over a Bruce Hornsby CD?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Human Zoo’ is a Thrilling Directorial Debut from Rie Rasmussen

Human Zoo movie poster

Human Zoo” is one of the most exhilarating directorial debuts I’ve seen in some time. It’s even more astonishing to learn its director, Rie Rasmussen, also wrote the screenplay, co-produced the movie and stars in it as well. This got me to thinking about what Robin Williams said when he was presenting at the Oscars:

“There’s the writer, producer, director; one of the few people in the world who can blow smoke up their own ass!”

But having worked with Brian De Palma on “Femme Fatale” and Luc Besson on “Angel-A,” Rasmussen has learned from some of the best and shows a confidence few others have exhibited on their first feature. Released in France back in 2009, “Human Zoo” made its American theatrical debut a few years later courtesy of Quentin Tarantino who screened it for a week at New Beverly Cinema.

Rasmussen stars as Adria Shala, a Serbian-Albanian illegal immigrant who, at the movie’s start, is living in Marseille. We soon learn how she is still deeply traumatized by her past, and the story shifts back and forth in time as we see her trying to survive in the war-torn Kosovo. Adria gets captured by soldiers and almost raped when one of them, Srdjan Vasiljevic (Nikola Djuricko), saves and takes her with him as he decides to desert the Serbian army. From there, the two of them move to Belgrade where Srdjan becomes a gangster and deals out dozens of weapons to the highest bidder. Adria soon learns the ropes of how he does things and stays with him even as things get increasingly nasty (emphasis on the word nasty). It’s this past which threatens to tear apart her present as she finds a new love while helping a friend of hers obtain the citizenship that will help her find a better life.

“Human Zoo” is at times a shockingly violent movie, but never in a flashy way. The violence is an integral part of the lives of these characters, and it is portrayed in all its foul ugliness. It is never glamorized as Rasmussen is reflecting the real-life tragedy of what happened in Kosovo during the war. There is also a rape scene which is one of the most realistic ever featured in movies as Rasmussen never ever tries to make it look the least bit arousing as other directors might have.

Watching this movie twice in the same week, I was blown away at how many long shots Rasmussen pulled off. We’re in a time where movies seem to be about quick cuts and shaking the camera all over the place more than anything else. But she makes each scene flow naturally even as they seem incredibly complicated to put together. There’s one sex scene which looks astonishingly realistic as it lasts two or three minutes, and it’s this kind of directing that sucks you completely into the story and its characters.

Rasmussen also succeeds in staging a brilliant overhead shot in a gunfight sequence which has her character going down a hall as we see what’s going on in the rooms surrounding it. DePalma, among other movie directors, have pulled off scenes like this many times, but Rasmussen makes it all her own to where it feels very fresh.

“Human Zoo” could have been utterly confusing as it constantly jumps back and forth in time, but Rasmussen manages to separate the timelines to where they are easily identifiable. She uses a cold blue color when presenting the past in the same way Steven Soderbergh used different colors in “Traffic.” The color suits this part of the story as it starts in war torn Kosovo and continues on into a world which looks every bit as cold it seems. Watching Adria’s journey into an abyss where the difference between right and wrong becomes seriously blurred is one we cannot turn away from. Her friendship with Srdjan keeps growing into something else even as he maintains a detached mindset on human nature in general.

Rasmussen also gets away with tackling different issues like immigration, slavery, war, and others, and yet this film never feels overstuffed. They are all issues very important to her, and she gives time to explore them without spelling everything out to the audience.

As an actress, Rasmussen gives a ballsy performance as Adria as she takes her character from a naïve young girl to a very self-sufficient one. It’s a great role for any actress because there are so many levels to play with, and she never misses a beat. In interviews, she has talked about seeing the darker side of life which taught her how to defend herself, and this life experience certainly bleeds through into her portrayal of Adria.

Another terrific performance comes from Nick Corey who plays Adria’s American boyfriend, Shawn Reagan. At first, it looks like Corey will coast on the surfer dude stereotype when Nick bumps into Adria by accident. But Corey imbues Nick with a love for life as we learn how he has traveled from one country to another, and he gets a great scene where he prepares to fight in a bar by stripping off all his clothes. Corey makes the scene believable and funny, and it also helps how Rasmussen said she saw a guy do this in real life.

But the best performance by far in “Human Zoo” comes from Nikola Djuricko who gives us one of cinema’s most enthralling and seductive sociopaths as Srdjan Vasiljevic. We should despise Srdjan for what he does, but Djuricko makes him too entertaining to be around. For the majority of this film, his eyes never tell us if he’s a good or bad guy. In watching the delight he takes in his bad deeds and his bleak perception of humanity in general, Djuricko pulls the audience in with a tight grasp to where we can’t take our eyes off him. It’s a fearless performance as he believably portrays a person with qualities we want to believe are not a part of us, and this actor makes an infinitely appealing character out of a certified monster.

I hope “Human Zoo” eventually finds a wider audience than it has already received. The movie more than succeeds in breaking through all borders in its path, and it deserves to be taken a chance on. We are still stuck in a cycle of endless (not to mention needless) remakes and movies “based on a true story,” but this movie has a life force about it which commands your attention and exhilarates you from start to finish. I can’t say that about many movies which come out these days.

* * * * out of * * * *

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

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The worst Christmas memories we have tend to become the funniest and most memorable moments of our lives, and I went into “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” thinking it would reflect this fact. With a cast which includes such tremendously talented actors like Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke and Robin Williams, in what sadly turned out to be one of his last roles before his tragic death, this seemed to be a surefire winner and quite possibly one of the most subversive Christmas comedies ever, right?

Nope, no such luck. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” turns out to be a tremendous disappointment as it strands its wonderful cast in a far too typical Christmas movie with very little in the way of laughs. In fact, I never got much in the way of gut-busting laughs like I hoped I would. When actors like these can’t make this holiday comedy rise above its formulaic conventions, you know something is seriously wrong in the state of Denmark.

McHale stars as Boyd Mitchler, and the movie starts with him as a boy hiding under the Christmas tree waiting for Santa Claus to appear. But instead of Santa Claus, Boyd is greeted by his drunken father Mitch (Robin Williams) who quickly tells him that, like the Easter Bunny, Santa doesn’t exist. Move to a number of years later, and Boyd is now happily married to Luann (Lauren Graham) and the father of two adorable children. Unlike his father, Boyd is determined to keep the magic of Christmas going for his kids as long as he can before the reality of the cruel world they live in forever robs them of it.

It’s interesting how Boyd’s daughter already knows Santa doesn’t exist as kids these days are getting increasingly harder to trick or fool. Still, Boyd is determined to keep his son Douglas (Pierce Gagnon from “Looper”) believing the jolly fat man from the North Pole is real even if he has to fly at 20,000 mph in order to deliver all those presents in a timely fashion. Of course, with climate change melting away much of the ice on this planet, Santa will most likely be living in a submarine at this point.

But then Boyd gets word from his brother Nelson (Clark Duke) that his baby is going to be baptized on Christmas Eve, and this means the whole Mitchler family is going to be reunited under one roof for the first time in years. We all know what happens when such a dysfunctional family gets together; tempers flare and old resentments quickly rise to the surface. Clearly, things are going to get worse before they can finally get better, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how predictable this “comedy” is going to end up being.

What’s even more unsurprising is how we see early on that Boyd is going to completely forget to bring Douglas’ presents along with him, and this results in him going on an 8-hour round trip to get them and preserve his son’s belief in Christmas. Coming along with Boyd on this ride is father who uses his truck which has a couple of portable toilets stowed in the back. Will one of them fall off the truck and create a disgusting mess? Does a bear shit in the woods?

Holiday movies are a dime a dozen, and I’m always waiting for one which messes around with the formula to give us something different. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” had the potential to be such a movie, but it ends up falling apart as soon as it starts. The performances and the comedy are played much too broadly, and everything comes off as uninspired. It’s such a shame because you have an actor like Graham, who starred in one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, “Bad Santa,” and even she can’t save this movie with her priceless expressions (and they really are priceless).

“A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” has taken on a special meaning in light of Williams’ tragic death, and it’s sad his career had to end with a movie like this one. Having said that, he does have some moments where he doesn’t say a word but his face speaks volumes about what Mitch is feeling and going through in his head. He makes you feel Mitch’s pain when he discovers he has been photo-shopped out of a family photo, and while his character is mostly a one-dimensional jerk, Williams gives him a depth many other actors would not have been able to achieve. It’s a shame his talents ended up being wasted on such a half-baked screenplay.

For me, there are few things worse than a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh, and “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” sadly turns out to be one of them. Those looking for the perfect Christmas movie for the whole family will be better off renting “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Love Actually” or “Bad Santa.” This one is not going to keep you entertained.

* out of * * * *