Moriarty’s Review Round-Up! SPLINTER! ROLE MODELS! DEAR ZACHARY!!
Published at: Nov. 9, 2008, 12:59 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Even though I’ve been seeing films as part of the AFI fest all week, there are some other titles playing now in limited and wide release that are well worth discussing, and even though they don’t really have anything in common (indie horror, mainstream comedy, heartwrenching documentary), I want to make sure all three of them get some attention.
Toby Wilkins has been building towards SPLINTER for a while now. He’s been working in FX and creating opening title sequences for a while, and he’s spent almost a decade creating his own short films as well, including the TALES FROM THE GRUDGE series of internet-shorts that were commissioned by Raimi to tie in to the release of THE GRUDGE, and another series for Fearnet called DEVIL’S TRADE. Now, with SPLINTER, he’s made a full-length feature, co-written with Kai Barry and Ian Shorr, and it’s a film that does several things well, suggesting that maybe it’s a waste to hire this guy for THE GRUDGE 3 when he looks like he has more to offer.
SPLINTER is a very small film, and that allows Wilkins to focus on performance and tension. Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner) are a young married couple who have planned a camping trip. But when their tent ends up being broken, they go searching for a motel, and that’s when they end up crossing paths with Dennis (Shea Whigham) and his spaced-out girlfriend Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). Dennis pulls a gun on them and hijacks their car. When they hit some creature that appears to be a diseased or even mutated dog on the road, Dennis gets stuck with a spine off the thing. That’s just a precursor for what happens when they stop at a small desolate gas station, where the attendant has had an earlier encounter with that same diseased animal, and where things go from bad to freaky to blood-soaked and bizarre in very short order. Once they’re at the gas station, that’s the setting for the rest of the film, so you can imagine how small a movie this is. But Wilkins takes full advantage of working on such an intimate scale, really paying off the close-quarters scares.
Costanzo is a very likeable lead, and he plays well off of Wagner as his wife. She’s the one who is ready to kick ass at all turns, while he’s actually somewhat fascinated by the implications of this creature they’ve encountered. Both of them spend the movie actively trying to find a way out of the nightmare, which makes them more engaging than many horror leads. You feel like these people are generally doing the right things to survive, and it’s still not quite going their way, which only makes the horror more effective. Shea Whigham’s one of those guys who has done some very solid work over the last few years, looking for that one role where he’s going to pop and people are finally going to notice how consistently good he is. Hasn’t quite happened yet, but SPLINTER proves again that he can exude real menace if that’s what is required, and that even at his nastiest, he’s got charisma.
The monster in the film is a strange one, and it changes constantly. It’s certainly of a tradition with things like The Blob or Carpenter’s Thing, but it doesn’t feel like a simple rip-off. I like the idea that it’s a natural phenomenon. Maybe not a normal one, but there’s nothing supernatural or too fantastic about this. It’s just a biological threat we haven’t seen before, and its combination of durability and aggression is scary. Wilkins does a nice job taking familiar material and really pushing it as hard as he can. SPLINTER isn’t a classic of the genre, but it certainly deserves some love from horror fans. It’s a solid monster movie, and I hope Wilkins and the cast all get the notice they deserve for it.
This movie shouldn’t be any good at all.
It just shouldn’t. When you hear the premise, it sounds unwatchable. “Two affable man-children screw up and get ordered by the court to do community service in a Big Brothers-style mentoring program with two wise-assed kids, leading to life lessons and personal growth for everyone.” Even typing it out like that makes me want to punch myself in the face. There’s no way a premise like that is going to be something I enjoy, much less something I recommend as being smarter than you’d expect. Just because screenwriters David Wain and Paul Rudd and Ken Marino are insane doesn’t mean they can make that premise fresh.
Except, somehow, amazingly, they did. W. Blake Herron and Timothy Dowling are both also listed as participating writers on this, but there’s little doubt that Wain’s fingerprints are all over the finished film. I may not be quite as rabid about WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER as some people I know, but I’m a big fan of THE STATE and STELLA and WAINY DAYS. Over the last few years, I’ve had a number of opportunities to talk about comedy with Paul Rudd on various Apatow sets, and he’s a passionate consumer of all sorts of eccentric comedy from around the world. More than anything, he seems to respond to a certain attitude, and I think that’s what saves ROLE MODELS from being the cliché it sounds like at first. Wain and Marino and Rudd know that this premise has whiskers on it, so they seem to feel free to be as irreverent towards it as possible That way, when they do actually play the sincere notes a few times in the film, there’s a goodwill the film’s earned, and you don’t feel like they’re being schmaltzy.
Rudd plays Danny, a guy who has settled into a life of mediocrity, indulging himself with a near-constant misanthropic monologue about how stupid everyone else in the world is. It’s the sort of thing that can be hilarious in small doses, but it’s starting to take a toll on Beth (Elizabeth Banks), his lawyer girlfriend. It’s also starting to effect his job with Wheeler (Seann William Scott), where the two of them drive a monster truck sponsored by an energy drink, going to schools to give anti-drug lectures. Finally, when a series of shitty incidents in a row push Danny to his breaking point, he has a mini-meltdown that gets him and Wheeler arrested. The entire opening section of the film is just about establishing some chemistry between Rudd and Scott, and if they didn’t work together, the film wouldn’t work at all. While I don’t think I’m exactly demanding an Abbott & Costello style partnership for life, I’d say they do find a really nice mix of their very different comic rhythms, and they work well together. Jane Lynch, as Gayle, the founder of the agency that puts them together with the kids, is completely and utterly unhinged. She’s become a real force in film comedy in the last few years, and this performance is a good example of why directors love her so much. She’s very dirty, very strange, very random, and some of the weirdest laughs in the film come from her obsessions with bullshit and cocaine.
The other most important chemistry in the film is with the two kids that they end up mentoring. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Augie Farks (there’s a John Hughes character name for you, eh?), a LARP fan whose parents don’t understand him at all. Then there’s Ronnie, played by Bobb’e J. Thompson, formerly of THE TRACY MORGAN SHOW. One of the simple truths of comedy is that the fouler the mouth and the smaller the kid, the bigger the laughs. Ronnie’s a perfect companion for Wheeler, the two of them on equal footing intellectually and maturity-wise, and their storyline mainly consists of conversations about the secret meanings of KISS songs and the merits of boobies. Mintz-Plasse has a trickier role here, and the way he handles it suggests that there is, indeed, life after McLovin for this young actor. He explained the difference between Augie and his breakthrough role to me when we were talking on the set of KICK-ASS recently: “McLovin thought he was the man, while Augie has no illusions about being the man at all.” Augie knows what people think of him. He knows that his mom (Kerri Kenney) and her boyfriend (Ken Marino) think he’s a freak. But he also knows that LARPing is ridiculous fun, and it’s something he loves, and it allows him to define who he is for at least a few hours a week. I like that the film doesn’t make fun of LARPing as a whole, even though it has a lot of fun roasting the self-seriousness of some of the people playing. Mintz-Plasse and Rudd end up creating a real rapport onscreen, and if the film does deliver any honest emotion, it’s largely because of these two.
It’s nice to be surprised by something you have no faith in, and ROLE MODELS is better than it has any right to be. If you’re looking for some raunchy, absurd laughs, the film delivers. Just don’t expect it to be much more than that.
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER
And then we’ve got DEAR ZACHARY, a documentary that pretty much ruined me for an entire evening. It’s a brutal emotional experience, a blunt weapon of a movie. It’s based on a real-life case that is fairly famous, especially in Canada, but I’ll admit that I walked into it completely ignorant of the details of the case. As a result, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Check out the trailer for the film:
Looks rough, doesn’t it? If you are familiar with the case, then you already know just how tough it gets, and if you’re like me, walking into this cold, just know that you will see the worst behavior that people are capable of in this film. There are moments here that look unflinchingly at the heart of human darkness, and if that’s all the film was, it would be too much to bear. But thankfully, the film also features people who manage to rise above awful circumstances in a selfless and profound way, and it’s that collision of the best parts of human nature with the worst that gives DEAR ZACHARY such a primal dramatic push. I’m not familiar with director Kurt Kuenne at all, and DEAR ZACHARY is easily the highest profile thing he’s done after a series of shorts and one feature almost a decade ago. I’m sure he’d rather have his friend Andrew Bagby alive, though, and he’d trade this movie for more time with him.
Still, as angry, anguished cries of grief go, this one’s a stunner. It’s fairly rudimentary as a film, technically speaking. There’s nothing to the visual style, and every now and then, the editing’s a little too on-the-nose. But there’s no denying the cumulative power of the story being told. First, Kuenne just tries to deal with the loss of his friend, driving across the country to interview all of Andrew’s friends and family, and even that is quite affecting. I felt like I really got to know Andrew through the memories of all the people whose lives he obviously impacted, and it makes his loss hurt that much more. His murder is laid out quite clearly, and I think Kuenne makes the case that there was really no mystery involved. Andrew’s ex-lover, Dr. Shirley Turner, gunned him down in a remote parking lot, and then as soon as she was questioned by police, she fled the country, back to St. John’s, Canada, where she was originally from.
When it’s revealed that she’s pregnant and that the baby is Andrew’s, Andrew’s parents swing into action, and they emerge as not only the stars of the film but also some of the most amazing people I’ve seen profiled on film in recent memory. Since Canada and the US scrap over extraditing Turner to the US, the Bagbys move to St. John’s and file paperwork so that they can have access to their grandchild, hoping to eventually win full custody since they are sure that Turner’s going to be spending the rest of her life in jail. Turner knows exactly what sort of emotional hold she has over the Bagbys with this baby, so she punishes them over and over and over in her dealings with them, manipulating them and forcing them to be nice to her. David Bagby, Andrew’s father, should be nominated for sainthood, because I would have snapped and tried to shove Shirley up her own ass at some point. She’s grotesque, an emotional vampire who just keeps hurting them over and over. That baby is worth it, though, and Kuenne does just as nice a job introducing Zachary to the audience as he does with Andrew. Each kid is different, and he shows you all of the little quirks and traits that make Zachary such an immediate force of good in the lives of the Bagbys.
As crazy as Shirley Turner is... and the film leaves little room for doubt that she was a diseased piece of shit... she’s not the focus of most of the righteous anger that the film stirred up in me. Instead, the Canadian legal system must bear the weight of most of the responsibility of failure here. I can’t believe extradition was an issue for as long as it was, but more than that, I can’t believe the bail situation in the film. It’s outrageous, and by the time the closing credits rolled, I was almost shaking I was so angry. And I hope that the telling of this story turns out to be more than just simple catharsis for the friends of Andrew Begby or the friends of his family. I hope that it can help affect actual change in the way the system works, and if so, then maybe this goes from being a senseless tragedy to an unfortunate step towards necessary reform. Whatever the case, DEAR ZACHARY is the sort of film that stays with you long after you see it, a hollow-point bullet to the heart. To suffer as much as these people did and to still find a way to pick up and carry on... that’s a story that is absolutely essential to tell and to hear, and I hope all of you make the effort to see this wrenching film whenever you’re able.