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Friday
May182012

Paranormal Entity (2009)

Taking Over The Asylum

Today, I'm here to review 2009's Paranormal Entity, not 2009's Paranormal Activity.

I already did that.

If you thought there was a typo in this post's movie title, you may be unfamiliar with The Asylum--which, simply put, is the coolest film studio on the planet. For years, the company's executives have used their psychic abilities and funding from neighborhood lemonade stands* to produce direct-to-landfill knock-offs of Hollywood blockbusters.

Their catalogue features such notable titles as Snakes on a Train, The Day the Earth Stopped, and the Transmorphers films (not to mention the upcoming Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies and American Warships), and can be counted on for mind-blowing(ly crappy) special effects; acting that proves the existence of malevolent, supernatural forces; and production values best described as "Liquidation Days".

The eye of this awesome hurricane is one Mr. Shane Van Dyke, who has written, produced, starred in, and probably catered some of The Asylum's best features.** Van Dyke is the Ed Wood of our day: an enthusiastic, ambitious filmmaker who (I hope) has zero clue that many of his films are not good. You haven't laughed until you've laughed at an SVD picture.

Which is why Paranormal Entity, like A Haunting in Salem before it, is so troubling. It's technically a Shane Van Dyke Asylum movie, but all the hallmarks are absent. Aside from a mild brain-chuckle at a continuity gaffe,*** I found nothing funny about this Paranormal Activity rip-off. Worse yet, I was engrossed and legitimately entertained.

Van Dyke stars as Thomas Finley, an unemployed something-or-other who takes to filming everything in the house he shares with his mother, Ellen (Fia Perera), and sister, Samantha (Erin Marie Hogan). Samantha has been victimized by scary noises, slamming doors, and the like, and Thomas desperately wants to capture this real-life ghost story. Things get a bit twisty when it is suggested that the evil spirit may or may not have a connection to the family's deceased patriarch--who may or may not have had a thing for his own daughter.

Like the film that inspired it, Paranormal Entity is comprised entirely of "home video" shots. Lots of people hastily grab the camera to run into the next room and investigate a loud noise--thus taking the audience on a disorienting ride of nausea and blurred focus; in other scenes, the camera is simply mounted on a tripod, and it's up to us to figure out what object will be the first to move in a room whose occupants are fast asleep.

The key difference is that Van Dyke and cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos spruce up their night-vision scenes to give the film a slightly unreal take on reality filmmaking. This doesn't look like footage you'd see in an off-the-shelf camera. The scenes are deliberately lit and shot in ways that give every subject unnatural style. Thomas' living room, for example, has a vibrant, eerie green cast that at once took me out of the movie and then dropped me right back in once I realized Van Dyke and company were trying their best to make a tacky, upscale recreational space visually interesting.

There's a similar quality to the acting. With Thomas mostly behind the camera throughout, this is Samantha and Ellen's show. And I love the faux naturalism that Perera and Hogan bring to their roles. I never lost sight of the fact that I was watching a fake documentary inside of a horror movie, but both actresses bring enough unexpected nuance to their delivery that I almost forgot I was watching a horror movie. The Finleys are tender, sympathetic people--even when they fall into the inevitable trap of not leaving the house at the first sign of trouble.

I can't say I was scared watching Paranormal Entity (Activity has a leg up there), but I was definitely unnerved. The ashen footsteps on the ceiling was a nice touch, as was a later bathtub scene. But I was also unnerved, at times, in the bad way--in the "did we really need to spend three minutes walking from the front of the house, through the back yard, and into another doorway with absolutely nothing frightening or interesting happening?" way. The padding here is minimal, but oh-so-noticeable.

I've written before about Van Dyke's disturbing pursuit of becoming a quality filmmaker. Unlike most of the Asylum pictures I've seen, Paranormal Entity doesn't feel like a cash-brained knock-off. I can't be sure, but this plays like the writer/director's reaction to a ridiculously popular horror movie: "Okay, Paranormal Activity, I see what ya got. Lemme show you a thing or two!" Amazingly, Van Dyke's answer to the global horror phenomenon is worthy of comparison and, in some cases, much higher praise.

It's a sad day when Van Dyke's association with a movie no longer gives me an instant soul-boner. Instead of strapping in for easy laughs and methods of screwing up a movie I'd never dreamed possible, I actually have to care--on some level--lest I miss out on something genuinely terrific.

Speaking of asylums, who's gonna lock me up? 

*Speculation, but probably true.

**I'm convinced that mandatory global screenings of Titanic 2 would defeat terrorism, end hunger, and render the Make a Wish Foundation unnecessary.

***SPOILER: The movie opens with a 9-11 call in which Thomas shrieks about something having killed his family. Ellen, who was out of the house by then, committed suicide after the events of the main story.

Thursday
May172012

Bailout (2012)

Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard, Part Two

Everyone on the planet needs to see Bailout, Sean Patrick Fahey's new documentary about the effects of the global financial meltdown on average Americans.

Get back here!

Even if you don't know a credit default swap from Celebrity Wife Swap, Fahey and star/executive producer John Titus take the audience on an exciting and informative cross-country journey to get at the truth of the housing bubble and too-big-to-fail banks. Fed up with watching supposedly venerable financial institutions have their failed trillion-dollar gambles paid off by misinformed taxpayers, Titus, a Chicago attorney, decides to stop paying his mortgage. He invests some of the money in a used Winnebago, and the rest in a road trip to Las Vegas with four friends. If Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase can blow untold fortunes in a virtual casino, he reasons, why can't they do the same in a real one?

The trip is Fahey's framing device, a hook to get people in the door. The bulk of Bailout consists of various talking heads outlining the federal/industrial collusion that led to a monetary Wild Wild West. When the line between private banks and investment banks was erased, financiers found they had untold reserves of money to play with--in the form of shiny, new home mortgages.

Problem was, most of the mortgages weren't that shiny. Aided by the government's "ownership society" propaganda, an army of banks eager to give home loans to anything with a pulse, and ratings agencies who granted AAA status to bundles of toxic notes as long as the money they were getting was actually green, the one percent rode high on a hog they'd convinced themselves would never end up as bacon.

Those are the broad strokes. Bailout bombards us with a fraction of the minutiae in an effort to keep things relatively breezy and understandable--but the fraud itself is still a gigantic, evil mess. Which is why, I guess, Fahey takes some cues from Michael Moore, occasionally using cartoons, sketches, and puppetry to help the medicine go down. It's cute for awhile, and underscores the fact that the world really is crawling with untouchable 2D villains who just want all the wealth for themselves. But I could have done without multiple scenes of the felt Hank Paulson stand-in, bopping around like an idiot while audio from the bailout hearings played over it. We see enough of the ghoulish former Treasury Secretary in the flesh to understand that he's an empty instrument of lawless industry that metaphors are unnecessary.

Speaking of superfluous, I'm sorry to say that the weakest parts of Bailout are also its strongest marketing points. Though Titus is a fascinating character--a boozy, smoking, genius-type who embodies at once Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Acosta--his road companions come off as rather dull. This must be a function of editing, because I get the feeling there are decades of cool stories waiting to be told about comedian John Fox, ex-con Ruben Castillo, folk-singing something-or-other Sergio Mayora, and college-loan-attack victim Nicole Erhardt. They're a boisterous, interesting-looking bunch for sure, but on the road they mostly crack each other up with sports anecdotes and the warm, inside-joke camaraderie of long relationships the audience doesn't share with them.

There's promise at the outset, with Nicole telling the well-read Titus that she's a novice when it comes to understanding how the world fell into financial ruin. It's the beginning of an implied story-arc, an education for her and the audience. But aside from her asking one or two questions on the road, the thread goes nowhere. Much more interesting are the brief stories of the people our gang meets between Illinois and Nevada. From middle-class families who fell behind on adjustable-rate mortgage payments to residents of tent cities and a pissed-off, broke celebrity realtor, we get far greater detail about the sights than the sightseers.

It doesn't help that Fahey and Titus take the expression, "it's not the destination, it's the journey" one step too far: the big Vegas climax is a bust, for the audience. It's unclear how many casinos they visited in their three day visit, or if they felt at all guilty about throwing away large wads of cash on roulette wheels and craps games. The entire affair is handled in a brief, bizarre montage that plays more like an ad for the city's decadence than a catharsis for the ninety-nine percent.

Indeed, the only thing our heroes have to show for their troubles is a massive hangover. Their trip is capped by a haunting scene filmed in what looks to be a graveyard for gaudy neon signs. One of Mayora's songs plays over Titus and the rest, who look wistfully at the ornate junk. We even see Ruben break down in tears, but the reason is neither explicit nor implied. I would have loved more back story on each of these colorful characters, rather than bowling montages and left-field trips to the Kentucky Derby and Roswell.

As I said, though, the meat of the film is comprised of testimonials from analysts, lawyers, media types, and victims of Wall Street's excesses. While an outsider might assume Bailout to be a liberal, anti-capitalist polemic, Fahey and Titus make it clear that the world's sinister financial overlords are bipartisan criminals. There's not a caricature or cut-out of George W. Bush on-screen that isn't paired with a Barack Obama avatar. The overall message is that finger-pointing is useless when both hands belong to the same body. The finer idea, sadly, is that all the lower-and-middle-class outrage in the world is useless against a system that refuses to prosecute the people responsible for nearly a decade of egregious and provable crimes.

Though it's not a perfect film, Bailout is a damned important one. It's no coincidence that the movie had its Chicago premiere a few days before the Windy City's NATO summit; the city is bracing for legions of Occupy protesters demanding change and transparency from the show runners. It's perhaps a cosmic joke that Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has come under fire in recent days for his institution's staggering $2 billion (and counting) loss on a big, fancy bet.

Following the headlines, outrage, and social upheaval of four years ago, you'd think there'd be safeguards in place to make sure these things couldn't happen again. But Bailout shows us just how much further we have to go in order to affect real change. The movie ends with a call to arms for the affected, the afflicted, the armchair activists, and the apathetic. Fahey and Titus warn that, short of torches and pitchforks in the street, the only real way forward is to get educated and get involved--whether that means refusing to give another dime to risk-addicted institutions or simply encouraging your friends to march in protest instead of hitting the mall this weekend.

If the odds aren't in our favor, it's up to us to change the game.

Sunday
May132012

Mother's Day (2012)

Saw is Family

I have no evidence to support this theory, but I suspect the reason the credits play at the end of Mother's Day, instead of at the beginning, is to keep the name "Darren Lynn Bousman" as far from audience members' consciousness as possible. If you know going in that Bousman made his name directing some of the Saw sequels, his new movie may seem like an odd mashup of that franchise, The Last House on the Left, and the original Friday the 13th.

I didn't know about the Bousman connection: in a rare move, I rented Mother's Day knowing only that it was a remake of an obscure 1980 horror film and that Rebecca De Mornay was the star. But within ten minutes, I got twinges of recognition that didn't quit until the big "ah-HA!" moment two hours later. First, J. LaRose shows up as a doomed hospital security guard. Soon, Lyriq Bent appears as a guest at a party. Both actors starred in Bousman's Saw III.

For now, let's assume you don't give a crap about any of this, and move right into the plot.

Beth and Daniel Sohapi (Jamie King and Frank Grillo) host a birthday/housewarming party for Daniel on the same night that a brutal tornado is set to hit their Kansas community. The couple snatched up the foreclosed home two months earlier, and spent a good deal of time and money Yuppifying it. Their friends are mostly attractive and well-to-do, and spend the evening drinking and flirting in the Sohapi's storm-proof basement. The house is so well-fortified that no one hears the trio of criminals busting in upstairs.

Following a botched bank robbery, The Koffin brothers, Ike (Patrick John Flueger), Addley (Warren Kole), and Johnny (Matt O'Leary), return to what used to be their family home (in true Reservoir Dogs fashion, Johnny has a nasty, hemorrhaging gut wound). When Beth comes upstairs, she discovers the men, turning the celebration into an instant hostage crisis. Panicked, and running out of good options, Ike calls his sister, Lydia (Deborah Ann Woll), and asks her to bring Mother (De Mornay) to the house.

Mother arrives with Lydia in tow, and addresses the freaked-out partiers with the bizarre, maternal assurances of a pre-revelation Mrs. Voorhees. She's convinced that the Sohapis have hidden several thousand dollars in cash somewhere in the house; she needs the money to pay off her connections, in exchange for getting the whole family out of the country before dawn. Her plan is for Ike to take Beth to an ATM and withdraw cash, using her guests' cards and PINs--while she and the other siblings tear apart the walls and interrogate the hostages.

Since this is a thriller, and a Bousman picture, nothing will go according to plan, and very few of the characters can be taken at face value. Believe it or not, Mother's Day is so heavy on plot that I felt like I'd been through a night of mind-bending horror by the end. This movie has everything: cars careening into ditches, a cat-and-mouse-chase through a dry cleaning shop, boiling water poured into a bound man's ears, and--deserving of my greatest possible paean to screenwriter Scott Milam's twisted imagination--a woman being set on fire using the burning photograph of the dead son of a man with whom she's having an affair. Step back for a moment. Take that in.

Had this been a typical dead-teenager movie, Mother's Day would have likely gotten stale pretty quickly. But the cast is great all around, and Milam's writing goes a long way in making us believe in these characters' relationships. Like many of the Saw films, this one pits people against each other in extreme situations--often at the behest of their torturers. But the key difference here is that the partygoers are mostly friends, not people the audience would expect to sell each other out on a moment's notice. Despite its sensational premise and occasionally bizarre developments, the story always feels like it's about real people;* some make noble decisions, others take the cowardly way out; a few do both, at different times.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why this movie wasn't released theatrically. It certainly doesn't look like it should have gone straight to Redbox, and there are some not-not-name actors in the cast. Perhaps whatever executive or committee who is in charge of such things actually stuck around for the ending--which is one of the greatest train-wreck finishes to an otherwise terrific genre film I can recall. Please, skip to the last paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.

The movie opens with a woman sneaking into a hospital and stealing an infant from the neo-natal unit. We're meant to believe that this is the film's prologue--that Mother was taking one of the kids that would grow up to be part of her illegitimate brood/criminal gang. I think Bousman and company tried to pull a nutty twist by wrapping that scene around to the end. Beth, it turns out, was pregnant, and in an unforgivably sloppy, tacked-on montage, she and the other survivors of their night of terror rush her to the hospital--where she gives birth.

The film ends with Mother and the remains of her crew driving down the highway with Beth's newborn. But there's still the question of whether or not this is a continuation of the opening scene. Any editor worth his or her salt would never allow such convoluted vagaries into their film, unless directed to by someone higher up the chain. Whoever's to blame, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. What should have been the ultimate sting became an occasion for me to mumble "No, no, no, no, no" at my computer screen.

HORRIBLE ending aside (which isn't too surprising, given the WWE-style wrestling match that serves as the un-classy climax to an otherwise classy film), I highly recommend Mother's Day. It's a sick, soapy, sleazy good time, dolled up in Crate & Barrel packaging--and it's much cheaper than flowers.

*Okay, I guess real people don't keep enough plastic wrap lying around to perfectly bind five people in the event that home invaders might need it in a pinch. Geez, Bousman, would it have killed you to film Beth making a quick trip to Costco or something?

Saturday
May122012

Dark Shadows (2012)

Washing Your Brain Out with Soap

I believe in jinxes, which is why I haven't mentioned the ultra-cool and depraved piece of artwork I commissioned two years ago. The plan was to blog, Facebook, and tweet the hell out of the thing upon completion, and the urge to tell all of you about my incredible surprise has cost me countless hours of sleep. But I just got off the phone with Luen LaBas, the renowned French craftsman who'd been meticulously slaving away on my dream. I ordered him to quit working at once, because his services are no longer needed.

Let me back up.

A week after surviving the overblown CG snoozer, Alice in Wonderland, I met Luen in a Lincoln Square bar. He'd just come from the after-after-party of his first big gallery show in Chicago. His escort, Lola, spied me crying into a half-pint of ice water and asked what had gotten me so down. Three hours later, I finished my rant about the creative demise of writer/director Tim Burton--at which point, Luen handed me a napkin with a diagram of what would become his next side-project scribbled on it: a classically designed toilet with Burton's face expertly painted at the bottom of the bowl.

Charmingly, he snorted, "M'sieur, you spend so much time shitting on him, let me take it to the next level!" Through tears of relief, I hugged my new best friend and his smoking hot (now ex-) girlfriend.

But, yes, I just cancelled the commission. Twelve thousand dollars--gone. Well, not gone: I simply put the project on hold. You see, I called Luen after seeing Burton's latest film, Dark Shadows--the best movie he's made in almost twenty years. That isn't saying much, and I'll likely go back to hating his work soon enough. But for now I'm happy to celebrate this achievement and give him due credit.

I've never seen the Dark Shadows TV show, but I hear it's a cheesy horror soap that didn't age well. It has a cult following who I doubt will show up in droves for the re-imagining.* Not having to appease a rabid fan base on the scale of, say, The Avengers probably offered Burton a lot of breathing room.

But after watching the trailers, I assumed this was just another calculated collaboration from the guy who turned Goth fringe sensibilities into Hot Topic filmmaking. This is his eighth movie to star Johnny Depp in feels like the millionth time he's had the actor dress up in outrageous costumes and affect a variation on his Jack Sparrow character. The commercials reek of 70s kitsch and tired, fish-out-of-water jokes (Depp's character, Barnabas Collins, is a vampire who's been unearthed after centuries of burial; so, naturally, he assumes that the singers in a television concert are actually small people who live inside the box. Ha ha.). The movie looked bad, and no matter how many stories I heard about the actual film being tonally different from the marketing campaign, I couldn't help but approach it with suspicion and dread.

Luckily, sometimes PR turns out to be legit. From minute one, Dark Shadows hooked me. Burton provides a breezy introduction to the Collinses, a family of businesspeople who established a successful fishing business in Maine at the birth of America. They founded Collinsport and shared their prosperity with everyone in town. Barnabas fell in love with Josette (Bella Heathcoate), but made the mistake of scorning one of his maids, Angelique (Eva Green)--who turned out to be a witch.

Curses, betrayals, and death ensue, and through a series of events I won't spoil, Barnabas winds up in a coffin bound with chains--doomed to spend eternity trapped in the ground as a vampire.

Fortunately, his resting place is dug up in 1972 during a commercial excavation. Barnabas awakens in a foreign world of rock music, progressive culture, and drugs. His family also continues down the path to ruin, with the ageless Angelique appearing as a ruthless businesswoman bent on squeezing them out of the fish business. Barnabas seeks refuge in his old estate, which is now run by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer). She keeps an eye on a random group of relatives, the groundskeeper, and a nutty psychiatrist who's been brought in to care for her nephew, David (Gulliver McGrath). Elizabeth agrees to keep Barnabas' secret in exchange for his help in restoring the family to its former glory.

I've given you the broad strokes; you should see Dark Shadows for the details. And there are tons of details. In a brilliant move, Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith port many of the soapy qualities of serial television to the big screen. There are plots, sub-plots, resolutions, and revelations aplenty, all hinting at greater story possibilities. The pacing nearly buckles under the weight of the blood-transfusion storyline, and an utterly ridiculous climax twist, but overall, this is the kind of rich, complex entertainment Tim Burton used to make.

Comparisons to the Addams Family movies are unavoidable and, in all honesty, warranted. Depp plays Barnabas as a stuffy relic whose propriety belies the bloodthirsty animal within, leading to moments both comedic and horrific. Burton plays with audience expectation here, especially in a scene where Barnabas confides his unease around women in a group of peaceniks--before announcing that he's going to kill all of them. The line is played for laughs, but the audience barely has time to chuckle before he actually eats his newfound confidants alive.

The film plays equally well as a comedy and a drama, but stumbles drunkenly into action/effects territory towards the end. While the explosions and bodies flying through the air at least spared me from the five-hundredth speech about the importance of family, I could have done with a less blustery climax. Most of the movie feels like a comfy fall release, but Barnabas' drag-out CG brawl with Angelique is pure summer popcorn--which is to say, cheap and stale.

Despite a couple of gripes, I stand by my earlier comment about this being one of Burton's best. This is his most genuine expression of melancholy and doomed love since Edward Scissorhands, and his best use of Depp as a vehicle for off-beat acting since Ed Wood. Hell, Depp isn't even the film's biggest draw: Burton has assembled a powerhouse of sexy, confident women whose characters challenge the vain hero's sense of power and self. By film's end, the out-of-touch vampire is neither the strongest nor the strangest creature in Collinsport, and I'd kill to see a Collins Girls spin-off movie.

So, yes, I'm glad to see Tim Burton hang up his Xeroxed curlicue design sensibilities and tell Danny Elfman to start working for a living again. Dark Shadows is perhaps my favorite of his recent movies precisely because it doesn't feel so Burton-y. It's restrained and engaging when it needs to be, and unexpectedly fun when fun is called for--unlike Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, and Big Fish, which felt like the sloppy result of filmmaker absenteeism.

Luen, if you're reading this, please take care of my exclusive, unfinished toilet. I may yet need it. Unless Burton has turned some kind of corner--in which case I'll happily fork over twelve grand for the privilege of knowing that I'll no longer be bored watching his films.

*Or plunk down four-hundred bucks for the hundred-and-thirty-one-disc-DVD set of the series.

Friday
May112012

World's Greatest Dad (2009)

Frankenstein's Monster's Journal

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

--Henry David Thoreau

I'm a sucker for movies about high school and movies about writers. Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad is both of these. Despite the title and Robin Williams' starring role, this isn't another blank-brained family comedy from the master of easy paychecks.* Goldthwait's touching, hilarious, and expertly observed black satire fuses the seemingly parallel paradigms of teen awkwardness, middle-aged despair, and frustrating traps of the creative mind to explore really dark territory.

In what I assume is a cosmic homage to his role in Dead Poet's Society, Williams plays Lance Clayton, a poetry teacher at a private high school. His class is barely attended, with most kids fighting to study Creative Writing under the cool and athletic Mr. Lane (Henry Simmons). His son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a surly, socially defective student who accuses everyone of being gay while also trying to get his best friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), to look at German scheisse porn. The rotten cherry sitting atop Lance's misery cake is the fact that, despite years of hard work, he has yet to publish any of his five novels or the countless magazine articles he'd written on spec.

The one bright spot in his life is Claire (Alexie Gilmore), the young, hip art teacher he's been seeing lately. They kiss secretly between classes and make plans for sexy date nights. But Kyle will have none of it. He sabotages his old man's confidence with withering barbs and takes under-the-table photos of Claire's panties when the trio goes out to dinner. World's Greatest Dad's first half-hour is a Job-like endurance test, for Lance and the audience: how much cruel behavior can one character take before the story they're trapped in ceases to be escapist entertainment?

Just as I asked this question, the plot kicked in. Traditionally, story mechanics are supposed to be solidly in motion by about minute ten, but Goldthwait twists the screws hard and deep for a half-hour, before yanking his brilliant narrative rug: at the end of his rope, Lance goes to Kyle's room to confront him. He discovers his son dead, the victim of autoerotic asphyxiation. Overwhelming panic follows overwhelming grief, compelling Lance to hang Kyle from a bar above his closet and forge a suicide note.

News of Kyle's death shocks the faculty and students, but not as much as the hidden intellect revealed in his last words. Overnight, the verbally abusive dimwit becomes a misunderstood loner-genius whose picture is plastered all over the school, and whose story becomes the grand mystery his father had always wanted to write.

While it may sound like Goldthwait simply sidestepped a Heathers remake, World's Greatest Dad is a powerful movie that feels quite original. Lance's deceptions grow bigger and bigger until he no longer has the option of confessing. Kyle's death becomes the impetus for students coming out of the closet and re-thinking suicide. Suddenly, the loser teacher becomes the hit of the school, to the respective jealousy and suspicion of Mr. Lane and Andrew.

Enough about the plot! The less you know about World's Greatest Dad going in, the better. In truth, I've already said too much. But an excited blurb like, "Just watch this movie! Trust me!" makes for a lousy review.

This film reminds me of another little-seen gem from a few years back, Assassination of a High School President. Though World's Greatest Dad is not a modern noir, both movies share a twisted spirit. Their visions of high school aren't just metaphors for the doldrums and social climbing of adult life, they're twisted looks at a generation of teenagers whose problems would put most adult concerns to shame. In World's Greatest Dad, it's the adults who get dragged into the kids' problems and must learn to cope, instead of the other way around. What's most interesting here is the way in which Lance reverts to the cowardice, uncertainty, and deception that comes with youth--avoiding at all costs the high road we're always telling kids is the path to maturity. In this way, he's the bleak, mirror image of Assassination's Bobby Funke, desperately trying to cover up the truth to gain popularity, rather than uncover it.

Supporting these big themes are socks-knocking performances that serve a pretty tight script. Just as Will Ferrell surprised me with his dramatic turn in Everything Must Go, Robin Williams--for the first time since I can remember--acts the hell out of every scene; he's not showy, but he shows what he's capable of, and it's something to see. Lance's discovery of his dead son is a master class in agony, made even stronger by Goldthwait's decision to use music, rather than dialogue, to drive the point home.

Sabara is terrific as Kyle, though I struggle with the appropriateness of that description. In the same way I couldn't watch Catherine Keener movies for a decade because her portrayals of nasty characters were so repellent, I had a really had time watching Kyle dish out abuse. He comes across as a mistake; perhaps a last-ditch attempt to save a failing marriage, who wants the world to know just how much he doesn't belong in it. I shared Lance's pain at his son's death, but also his relief.

Gilmore's performance is the polar opposite. She radiates positivity and sexiness, and her trusting nature clouds our ability to figure out whether she's really smart or just kind of ditzy. Lance marvels at his luck in having landed her, as do we, and I love the fact that the screenplay challenges the limits of Claire's open-heartedness. Lance's descent into paranoia and bigger lies also rubs off on her, corrupting what we believe to be a mostly selfless image: when he's invited to appear on a talk show, Claire is noticeably disappointed that she won't appear on stage or on camera, and has been relegated to the "Friends and Family" section of the audience.

It's these little details that make World's Greatest Dad such a joy to watch--despite the uncomfortable depravity of its themes and characters (maybe because of them). Goldthwait brilliantly combines the insecurity and desire for recognition of writers (really, any creative profession) with the insecurity and desire for acceptance of high school. He purees them into a plot whose emotional complexity makes up for the simplicity of its details. Even the relatively quiet moment when Lance tells Claire his idea for a book title becomes a vicious duel of wounded egos and passive-aggressive compromise. Creative types will feel the sting of recognition instantly--as will, I'm sure, anyone who's ever been in a relationship. 

The movie's greatest unsung element, which deserves a big shout-out, is its soundtrack. A few directors dazzle me every time with their perfect use of music: Quentin Tarantino, Cory Udler, and now Bobcat Goldthwait use quirky, interesting songs in scenes that add meaning and underscore their emotional context in ways that (mostly) don't beat the audience over the head. Goldthwait in particular serves up some cool little audio oddities that I may have just been too uncool to recognize (does Bruce Hornsby really sound like that now?). But there's not a dud in the film.

World's Greatest Dad isn't for everyone, and you should know going in that this is probably not the movie you're expecting (if the preceding eleven-hundred words didn't tip you off). If you're up for the ride, though, you may find a touching, eye-opening slice of soul. I encourage those with creative drives, especially, to check this one out: Goldthwait makes being shoved into an emotional locker oddly comforting and addictive.

*Williams, not Goldthwait.