(On Cable TV, October 2017) It takes a long time for Fist Fight to even become likable. Part of it has to do with it ludicrous set-up, in which two stressed-out high school teachers in a bad school end up planning to fight each other after the last day of classes. In order to get there, you have to posit a school (and not even a particularly downtrodden school) in which both students and teachers seem to exist in a hellish post-apocalyptic bacchanalia. If anyone wondering when pedophilia would become a major comic point in a Hollywood comedy, well, wait no longer. (Also; if you were waiting for Christina Hendricks to flip that scene from Lost River and tell someone “You need a knife… You need to cut him from his forehead all the way down to his chin,” then Fist Fight is there for you.) Then there’s Charlie Day, whose comic persona is irritating at the best of times—putting him up against a stoic Ice Cube as the antagonist is asking for divided loyalties in which we wish for the so-called protagonist to be beaten down hard. It takes a long while, using the most basic emotional drivers, for us to actually start caring about the so-called hero. While Fist Fight does manage to compress its plot in a scant few hours, its innate meanness can be hard to take at times. Fortunately, a bunch of those problems resolve themselves by the time the third act comes by and the two teachers eventually do (after a few false starts and fake-outs) starting hitting each other. While the result isn’t high art, it may be enough to make you forgive the hard slog of the film’s first hour. Ice Cube, as usual, glides through the chaos with an intact persona. Jillian Bell makes the most of a reprehensible character, which is saying much considering that most of the characters are irremediable. Otherwise, there isn’t much here to remember. R-rated comedies tend to blur together these days and Fist Fight doesn’t escape the trend.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) The original Bad Santa became a classic of the counter-sentimental Christmas subgenre, so any sequel would have big shoes to fill. It may not be such a disappointment, therefore, if Bad Santa 2 is more ordinary than amazing. Sadly picking up a decade and a half later with the characters in just-as-bad shape, this sequel moves to Montréal Chicago for wintry theft. The highlight of the movie is probably the mother/son relationship between Billy Bob Thornton and the irreplaceable Kathy Bates, both of them delightfully scummy as lifelong bad influences. Tony Cox shows up again as a violent wildcard, while both Christina Hendricks and Jenny Zigrino show up as voluptuous eye candy. Alas, Brett Kelly also shows up as a grown-up creepy kid (still creepy), and his inclusion in the plot is more sad than hilarious or heartwarming. Bad Santa 2 works best as a foul-mouthed criminal caper procedural than a falsely cynical Christmas movie—it’s not quite able to re-create the original’s blend of world-weary sentimentality. But it does try, and it won’t be out of place when, in two or three years from now, it will tag along the original in a combined Blu-ray edition. Like most R-rated comedies, Bad Santa 2 pushes its jokes as far as it can go, and some of them definitely end up over the line of good taste—even for seasoned R-rated viewers. That’s another reason why even if the movie does scratch more or less the same itch as the original, it won’t qualify for essential viewing even for fans of the subgenre. Underneath the unrelenting stream of foul language, sexual references and overall bad behavior, it’s an average effort made with perfunctory skill. It works, and it will work if viewers are hungry for something like the original, but it’s not much more than that.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) I was willing to give Ryan Gosling plenty of chances for his debut feature film, but as it turns out there are limits to the amount of Lynchian surrealism that I can take, and he easily exceeded them during the course of Lost River. I do think that there’s something interesting in the film’s blend of quasi-magical realism, its transposition of a fantasy quest in a contemporary setting and the way some of the imagery resonates. It’s hard to watch the film and remain unmoved by the decay that it exhibits, or not wonder a bit about street lamps leading down to a lake. But strange imagery is best when it supports a solid story, and Lost River seems to lose itself in digressions, daydreaming and mean-spirited violence. I mean: If you ever want to see Christina Hendricks graphically cut off the flesh off her face, then this is the film for you. As for me: Ew. Taking place on a metaphorical level but not feeling like anything more substantial than a nightmare, Lost River ends up being moderately obnoxious even when it seems to be leading up to something. I gather that fans of cinematic surrealism will like this one better than I did.