Wednesday, February 20, 2013


(US - 2013)

Just how aggressively quirky is SMALL APARTMENTS?  In the first five minutes, we're introduced to hairless hero Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) in his filthy apartment, wearing tighty-whiteys, pulled-up tube socks and clogs, blowing into an alphorn and getting a package in the mail consisting of a cassette tape and toenail clippings.  And yet, somehow, I kept watching.  Designed as a vehicle for LITTLE BRITAIN star Lucas,  SMALL APARTMENTS eventually becomes more of an ensemble piece, with a large cast of depressed, sad-sack eccentrics and misfits in and around a shithole Los Angeles apartment building.  Franklin has a brother (James Marsden) in a psych ward and mostly spends his days spying on an aspiring stripper across the way (Juno Temple), drinking Moxie soda and eating pickles.  He accidentally kills his scuzzy landlord (Peter Stormare), who forces Franklin to fellate him when the rent's overdue.  Franklin tries disposing of the body by setting it on fire, which attracts the attention of a cynical, alcoholic fire inspector (Billy Crystal).  Other characters include Franklin's angry next-door neighbor (James Caan); a stoner convenience store clerk (Johnny Knoxville) trying to build the perfect bong in his spare time; his religious-nut mother (Amanda Plummer), and his girlfriend (Rebel Wilson); Saffron Burrows as Temple's mother; David Koechner and David Warshofsky as detectives investigating Stormare's murder; Rosie Perez as a psych ward nurse; DJ Qualls as a masturbating convienience store clerk who gives Temple free smokes in exchange for letting him cop a feel; and Dolph Lundgren, sporting slicked-back, jet-black hair and a terrible fake tan as a self-help motivational speaker. 

Directed by Jonas Akerlund (SPUN, and a ton of music videos, most notably Madonna's "Ray of Light" and The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up") and scripted by Chris Millis (from his own novel), SMALL APARTMENTS kept reminding me of Wim Wenders' THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL (2000) mixed with bits of John Waters, Wes Anderson, and post-Farrelly Brothers grossout comedy.  It's a complete mess that careens wildly from quirky to garish to disgusting to sappy and uplifting, never really establishing a tone or a purpose.  It feels very disjointed and haphazardly chopped down (Burrows is barely visible, and I don't even recall her having any dialogue) and Lucas is offscreen for much of the somewhat improved second half when the focus shifts to Crystal, who's actually quite good here in a relatively straight role.  The bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime cast makes it an interesting curiosity for movie nerds, but with that many name actors, you know something's seriously wrong when the only theatrical exposure SMALL APARTMENTS could manage before its DVD/Blu-ray dumping after two years on the shelf was a small handful of one-off screenings through web-based event promotion service Tugg.com, a move that was no doubt spun as "a bold new experimental distribution model," which is a polite euphemism for "no interest from any real distributors."  (R, 96 mins)

(France - 2011; 2012 US release)

The fact that it's a French film with mostly French dialogue immediately puts something like SPECIAL FORCES in the arthouse, but it's a pretty standard, by-the-numbers commando action film that just happens to have subtitles.  Directed by Stephane Rybojad with the same kind of hyperactive camera movement that made some of Tony Scott's films so distinctive yet so frequently headache-inducing, SPECIAL FORCES has French journalist Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger) abducted in Kabul by Taliban insurgents led by Ahmed Zaief (Raz Degan).  The French government and the military (represented by the ubiquitous Tcheky Karyo) send an elite Special Forces unit led by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou) to rescue her.  That happens fairly quickly, but what starts as a combat shoot 'em up morphs into a surviving-the-elements drama as Kovax and the unit--Lucas (Denis Menochet), Tic-Tac (Benoit Magimel), and Elias (Raphael Personnaz), among others--and Elsa are left behind when they don't arrive at the meeting point in time and are forced to journey through the harsh terrain of Afghanistan, with Zaief in hot pursuit.  Essentially a French ACT OF VALOR, SPECIAL FORCES pays tribute to French soldiers and journalists who put their lives on the line and that's great, but don't these people deserve a better movie than this?  From the shaky-cam battle sequences to the predictable character arcs (is there any chance the Special Forces guy with a kid on the way is making it to the end of this mission?) to the approximately 138 times Rybojad cuts to a circular aerial shot of the characters walking along a narrow mountain top, SPECIAL FORCES, once you factor out the novelty of it being a foreign language film (though there is a badly-dubbed English audio option), is really no different than 20 other straight-to-DVD titles of the same sort.  That is, unless you consider that it features one of the most anti-climactic and unsatisfying comeuppances for a villain in recent memory. (R, 109 mins)

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