A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: June, 2014

“Zero Charisma” (2013)

"Zero Charisma" poster


Let it be known that Zero Charisma isn’t the sort of film to back away from a challenge. If anything, it doubles down on its gamble to build its story around one of the most unpleasant protagonists in recent cinema. The movie posits the idea that nerds can very much be bullies in their own right, that not even supposed havens of the socially-awkward like the gaming scene are safe from those who’d belittle others to sooth their superiority complex. But Zero Charisma is perhaps a tad overzealous in its desire to examine the darker aspects of a culture that’s so often dismissed as trivial. Its premise is fascinating, but its follow-through is painful to watch, entrenching viewers so deeply in the lead character’s pathetic nature, you end up not wanting fortune to crack so much as a smirk in his direction.

Scott (Sam Eidson) is the culmination of every bad stereotype about geeks you’ve ever heard. He’s thirtysomething, overweight, directionless, and stuck living with a grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd) for whom screaming matches are a common form of communication. Scott’s only solace lies with acting out a tabletop roleplaying game of his own design, but even loosening up to have fun is an impossibility. As game master, Scott holds court over a small group of “friends” who can barely tolerate his presence long enough to slay some imaginary orcs. But our boy’s world is thrown for a loop after one of his fellow players is forced to drop out, leading him to recruit sociable newcomer Miles (Garrett Graham) to take over his slot. Instantly, all the game night guys gravitate towards the more relaxed and outgoing Miles — save for Scott and his barely-concealed jealousy. But this is just the first in a chain of events that proceeds to shake up Scott’s life and force him to confront the reasons why he’s such a pariah in the first place.

The last time the word “nerd” was presented in a serious context, we got that brief string of hilarious cautionary tales about how Dungeons & Dragons was going to turn America’s teens into murder zombies. At the very least, Zero Charisma is commendable for aspiring to explore — with as little sensationalism as possible — the emotionally-damaging consequences of getting too wrapped up in what is, at the end of the day, just a game. That part of making its point involves casting Scott as a loser is of no issue, nor is there a problem with how it argues that the road to redemption can be a tough one to travel. However, the extreme degree to which Scott is depicted as unrepentantly self-important and deluded is absolutely crippling to any sort of headway that Zero Charisma hoped to make. Nearly every word that comes out of Scott’s mouth has been designed to embarrass him, to hammer home how poisonous his behavior is to himself and everyone around him. There’s no rule saying that protagonists have to be likable or that we’re to sympathize with everything they do, but it helps to have some shred of concern for what happens to them. Zero Charisma reaches a point at which it seems to possess genuine hatred for Scott, and as it’s all under the guise of a “comedy,” the audience feels encouraged to laugh at what a sad sack of human garbage he is, rather than gain any real insight as to how he got that way.

That the film elicits more desires to throw peanuts at its main character than feelings of empathy is a shame, because so much of its remainder comes across as surprisingly relatable. The concept of wanting to lose one’s self in a fantasy world to escape a go-nowhere life should be an easy sell to those who’ve never rolled twenty-sided dice in their lives. But it goes without saying that geekily-inclined viewers will find the sweet spots that Zero Charisma aims to poke are considerably more tender with them than others. The flick certainly struck a chord with yours truly, and I’ll admit that not only have I felt like one of the underlings that Scott orders around throughout the years, I’ve been in Scott’s shoes, too. It all comes from fearing persecution for what you enjoy so much, it’s easy to become overly-protective and lose sight of what was fun about it all to begin with. But while I’m sure the filmmakers meant otherwise, Zero Charisma so rarely exhibits this kind of humanity. It stacks the deck against its characters too much, and despite talented performers like Eidson straining to add another dimension or two to their roles, you wonder how this crew could stand each other long enough to stage a single game night, let alone carry it on for years, as we’re told.

It’s not that I’m mad at Zero Charisma for negatively portraying a particular aspect of nerd culture. But while you get the feeling that the flick’s creators had a more complex narrative in mind, their guiding attitude went from “tough but fair” to “punishing” somewhere along the line. I applaud Zero Charisma‘s refusal to sugarcoat its subject, but to sit through the ending credits wondering what purpose everything we just saw served probably isn’t the way the filmmakers expected to leave their viewers.

“Good News” (1947)

"Good News" poster


Good News was practically born outdated. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1927, taking its cues from the college-based farces that Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman had helped inspire two years earlier. But it had the misfortune of being soon followed by Show Boat, the progressive and game-changing production that couldn’t help but make the more freewheeling Good News look especially behind the times. The two movie adaptations it heralded didn’t do its image any favors either, distancing themselves even further from a sense of relevance and trading on a sort of nostalgia that was getting cornier by the year. Not many folks bit, as 1947’s Good News — the last time this tuneful tale jumped, jived, and wailed on the big screen, saw only modest box office returns. The flick itself means well and packs in enough pep to fuel its symphonic set pieces, but it’s easy to see how even in an era where frivolous musicals were top dog, whimsy alone wasn’t enough of a draw this time.

Our story harkens back to the Roaring Twenties, when America’s youth flocked to college campuses in droves. These fresh minds couldn’t wait to have schools to be true to, although their pursuits entailed more sports and romance than academia (so, really, nothing has changed). Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) is Tait College’s resident big man, a hopeless womanizer and football hero. He can have just about anything he wants…until he meets icy new transfer Pat McClellan (Patricia Marshall). She only has eyes for the most cultured and financially well-off of Tait’s student body, but that doesn’t matter to Tommy. He’s head over heels for Pat, going to far as to enlist go-getting classmate Connie Lane (June Allyson) to tutor him in French so that he might further woo the object of his obsession. The trouble is that Tommy’s charms have caused Connie to fall for him, and with his feelings leaning in the same direction, it’s up to him to straighten out his love life before it makes him botch the big game.

Good News was the feature debut of Charles Walters, who would become one of the most prominent musical directors of the next decade or so. The following years would see him presiding over a vast array of talent, from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. One might assume that Good News was a glorified tryout, a stepping stone to see if Walters was ready for the big leagues, but with a $1.5 million-plus price tag, the film actually cost MGM’s famed Arthur Freed unit a pretty penny. You wouldn’t know it, though, since the movie puts up a frugal front in just about all areas. It’s bright without being gaudy, energetic without being obnoxious, and inoffensive without being overly sanitized. Some elements are a little dated and skeevy (namely with Tommy forcefully chasing down a gal who does not want him and messing with the emotions of one who does), but it’s all played innocently enough to go by without much mind paid to it. I’ve seen far worse examples of feel-good fluff than this, which easily could have found room for a bit more bawdiness but has the decency to not condescendingly wield its sentimentality.

Much of what’s ultimately likable about Good News rests on the shoulders of its actors. Lawford makes you believe he can charm his way in and out of any fix (even if you don’t totally forgive him for being a jackass and playing heartbreaker), and Allyson brings a great deal of warmth to a role that could’ve cast her as a humorless fuddy-duddy. Spirits are high all around, especially with the colorful supporting players, including Joan McCracken as a lovesick co-ed and Ray McDonald as the twerpy footballer who fears the wrath of her lunkhead boyfriend. But while the proceedings are altogether pleasant, Good News never quite emerges as all that engaging of a story. As soon as the principal players are established, you know exactly how they’re going to end up, and there’s little to distract you from it. The songs aren’t especially memorable, the choreography is passable, and the climactic football game (because why wouldn’t there be one?) doesn’t result in much suspense or laughs to be had. It’s great that the flick is cheery and all, but it says a lot when the credits roll and leave you sitting there, virtually unable to recall a single tune you just heard.

Though Good News isn’t a terribly distinctive picture, it’s not even close to reaching the bottom of the Arthur Freed barrel. Its lack of bite and almost anything remotely cynical will render it a fairly bland watch to some, while others will see its optimism as a virtue and let the fun times whisk them away. I’m not sure I’ll pop in Good News again anytime soon, but I don’t regret losing the hour and a half it killed.

(Good News is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“McLintock!” (1963)

"McLintock!" poster


If you jot down a list of the greatest comedy superstars, chances are that John Wayne wouldn’t reach the top fifty. If anything, the Duke’s dominating image is that of the hardened cowpoke showing smarmy greenhorns how little they actually know. But in 1963, Wayne chose to make a departure from his typically macho screen adventures with McLintock!, a lighthearted vehicle that turned out to be an ideal fit. Surrounding one of cinema’s most no-nonsense icons with a cast of larger than life characters was a stroke of genius, resulting in a western farce that saw the cowboy king starring as the ultimate straight man. Of course, it’s hard not to notice when someone opts for the deadpan route in a film like McLintock!, which greets viewers with a cornucopia of hollering and shameless mugging. But the picture does possess its instances of genuine charm and good humor, commendable above all for proving that Wayne was perfectly capable of turning his tough guy reputation on its ear.

There’s hardly a piece of the Old West that doesn’t belong to George Washington McLintock (Wayne). The man has his fingers in everything from mines to cattle ranches, growing so powerful and influential over the years as to have a bustling desert burg named in his honor. Fortunately, he also has the respect of darn near everyone in town, be they simple storekeepers or Native Americans whose rights he’s fighting to protect. The only thing that McLintock doesn’t have much of a hold on is his own family, which has been bringing him ten tons of grief as of yet. Two years after their separation, McLintock’s hot-tempered and hoity-toity wife Katy (Maureen O’Hara) has come back to town, demanding not only a divorce but that their daughter Becky (Stefanie Powers) move out east with her, too. Herself returning home after some time away, a grown-up Becky becomes the object of many a local boy’s affections, including her pop’s newly-hired farmhand (Patrick Wayne). The west is wild enough as it is, but between all these romantic goings-on and an Indian tribe he’s trying to save from being displaced, McLintock’s world is about to get even rowdier.

For a boisterous comedy with bronco busting, mud brawls, and a fairly prominent streak of misogyny, McLintock! sure had the royal treatment rolled out for it. The production design alone is about as pristine as anything Wayne ever made for John Ford, riding the line between authenticity and Hollywood fantasy. Sweeping vistas, colorful costumes, a town that looks fully-functional — it’s as if the Duke were plunked down into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, only the final product isn’t quite as awkward as it sounds. Rather than stick out like a sore thumb, Wayne embraces the goofy nature of McLintock! and plays off of his rough image for comedic effect. His straight-shooting style works wonderfully here, enabling his character to cut through all kinds of baloney, from seeing through Katy’s upper-class pretenses to bringing wimpy bureaucrats down to size. But while the bulk of the picture is played for laughs, Wayne also intended McLintock! to be a soapbox of sorts for his personal politics. The Duke’s depiction of women as hot-headed creatures who need men to literally spank some sense into them doesn’t strike one as terribly progressive, but to see him standing up for the honor of the country’s natives comes as at least some form of compensation.

But the downfall of McLintock! lies with an overstuffed story through which it hasn’t the slightest clue how to navigate. For a movie with so much going on, it feels pretty damn plotless, drifting in a stream-of-consciousness style through an assortment of supporting characters and situations. I guess the overarching story is claimed by McLintock’s relationship with his wife, which is what gives us most of the film’s verbal sparring and physical comedy, in an attempt at making a western riff on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But little importance seems to have been placed on not only this aspect but on the narrative add-ons meant to enhance it, half-hearted efforts at introducing a rivalry between O’Hara and Yvonne De Carlo (as McLintock’s new cook) and Katy’s dalliance with a politician. The same goes for just about everything else the screenplay can throw at us, from Becky and the farmhand’s own tempestuous romance to the business about saving the Indians. It sure seems like everyone in the cast is having a grand old time, but by the end, the movie becomes one big traffic jam of subplots that sort of resolve themselves and end up bringing out interest in what comes of these folks to a standstill.

McLintock! is in many ways both a better film than I expected and a disappointment nonetheless. Even if he’s still essentially playing himself, it was fun to see Wayne indulge in a little jesting at the expense of the genre that propelled him to stardom and keep his own performance as reined in as possible, while his castmates raised the biggest ruckus they could. But though McLintock! possesses a certain wit, that it’s so hard to pick out from the pile of silly busywork the plot continually fills its plate with is frustrating to no end.

(Paramount’s spiffy-looking Blu-ray release of McLintock! also includes audio commentary, making-of featurettes, a photo gallery, a theatrical trailer, and an introduction by film critic Leonard Maltin.)