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Nerdflix, I Love Thee: From Luc Besson's Existentialism to Mel Gibson's Ultraviolence

When I was contemplating what to write about for my blog post this week, I considered cutting this Nerdflix, I Love Thee feature. I thought to myself, I'd been putting off a new entry in this series for a while now at first because I thought I've felt completely unexcited about a lot of the films I've watched via the online DVD/streaming service. Then yesterday I saw a film in the theaters called The Brothers Bloom. And while it was by no means perfect, I came out of it thinking, "there were way too many good things about that movie to call myself unexcited about it." Especially in a sea of blockbuster averageness this summer, I'm grateful to find movies that have even just one interesting thing about them, much less one like Brothers that has innumerable interesting things. So I took a gander back at my recent Nerdflix history and with a new and refreshed perspective, I found the "post-core reverberations transcendic" even to the tiniest degree in each of these films (and one TV show), even though none of them jumped out and screamed "awesome!" to me. And thus, we continue with the un-revolutionary but, to me, incredibly necessary feature Nerdflix, I Love Thee...

Angel-A: Well it's easy to find the good in something when it's pretty, so Luc Besson's (who brought us pretty and awesome movies like The Professional and The Fifth Element) 2005 existentialist character-driven fantasy is pretty easy to get excited about. Yes, even when it's essentially the same plot as It's A Wonderful Life and the word "quirky" is impossible not to use when discussing it. Jamel Debbouze is a terrifically talented actor, both in comedic and tragic territory, but his version of Jimmy Stewart (named Andre here) is so lightly sketched by Besson here that there's little for him to work with depth-wise other than convincingly making us giggle and feel sorry for him, but only to a certain extent. The devastatingly gorgeous Rie Rasmussen plays the angel that eggs him on to find meaning in his life even when she clearly enforces that there is no meaning is equally effective as an actress and complex symbol of desire and artificiality, but yet again, Besson's too busy wowing us with his skills as a director (seriously, probably the most beautiful B&W cinematography of the past 20 years) to fully develop her background as a (possibly?) former human to make us care about the crazy wicked ending sequence. Nerdflix Instructions: Add to Neverending Queue.

The Promotion: And when a mostly mediocre movie's not pretty, you can always rely on idiotic humor to make it even remotely worthwhile. Hell, isn't that the reason everyone still goes to see Will Ferrell vehicles? They're never good, but the allure of a larf by a guy who talks loud and has beady eyes is undeniable, regardless of the film's plot, general oafishness, or excruciatingly annoying supporting cast. Doesn't hurt when your film's scribe and director is a guy who you know as "having potential" in the dramatic area as well as the comedic zone. His screenplay for The Weather Man had funny moments that made up for the cloying dramatic pitfalls and his one for The Pursuit of Happyness had honest, tender, and moving moments that I ate up despite the film's emotionally manipulative warmth. So when his 2008 directorial debut starred Seann William Scott, who recently became revelatory in Role Models, and John C. Reilly, who I love as a dramatic actor and have always wanted to love as a comedic one (but never have). Put it all in a blender and you get The Promotion - pure mediocrity with sprinkles of genius and knee-slapping goodness. Worth it, but don't expect the world. Nerdflix Instructions: Add to Neverending Queue.

Paprika: Apparently there's such thing as "anime that doesn't totally blow". Well DoktorPeace has proved that before (though I never followed up on his suggestions like I promised myself i would) but this film, while once again not mind-blowing, was enough to at least get to me to add some supposedly legendary animes such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle to my queue thanks to some persuasive arguments devised by my students. I knew I wanted to branch out and see Paprika back when it came out in 2006 because it dealt with dreams, which I'm always a sucker for when it comes to movies. Unfortunately, for every great movie dealing in dreams (Eternal Sunshine), there's one that infuriates me and swears off an otherwise likeable director (Richard Linklater's Waking Life) for me. And if you're paying attention even a smidgen to this entry's theme, director Satoshi Kon both succeeded and failed with this, his most well-known feature stateside. Centering around the theft of a psychology research institution's most prized possession (a machine that allows therapists to view their patients' dreams), it wows with its animated splendor and philosophical ponderings as much as it devolves into nonsense in its convoluted plot and lack of character development. Kinda like...yes, Waking Life. But at least this movie tried to have a plot - hey-oh! Nerdflix Instructions: Add to Neverending Queue.

Undeclared (The Complete Series): Okay so this is as close as we get to awesome in this month's Nerdflix feature. But as much as Judd Apatow may seem like my homeboy on this blog, even I admit that while he may be the mainstream blockbuster comedy's savior, his movies still are not flawless. And neither was his second failed attempt at a TV series after the demise of his first and only perfect project (Freaks & Geeks). If you've never seen it, it's an awkward Jay Baruchel (the guy who wants to marry Jennifer Love Hewitt in Tropic Thunder) trying to reform his identity as a college freshman at Generic University (not really its name) aside his new roommates Seth Rogen, Charlie Hunnam (of Sons of Anarchy), and Timm Sharp, who is by far the most interesting of the supporting cast. It's too bad he still hasn't made a name for himself as an actor. The other gem is Jason Segal as a controlling boyfriend of Baruchel's love interest, who continues to impress me after his ability to be a protagonist in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and wonky sidekick in I Love You, Man. All in all, it's fun as hell to watch, but unfortunately what makes Apatow's work stick out elsewhere is its emotional resonance, which is largely either absent or confused throughout Undeclared. Although I wouldn't be surprised if it was largely FOX bossing Apatow around and not keeping track of their script revisions. Ooh also: a brilliant Will Ferrell cameo that proves the man is best as a supporting actor and should have remained that. Nerdflix Instructions: Add to Neverending Queue.

Apocalypto: Yes, I willingly watched it. For the second year in a row, when talking action movies in Film Studies, a large portion of my students brought up the "kickassness that is Apocalypto". Once again, I thought I misheard them. "You mean Mel Gibson's period piece about the Mayans?" I assumed they'd respond, "Oh our badz, we meant Apocalypse Now; we're big fans of abstract adaptations of Joseph Conrad works." But nay, they indeed meant the film in question. After my jaw dropped, I asked, "are you sure it's not incredibly boring?" They said it was "the coldest" film they had ever seen. They said if I rented it, I would not be disappointed. So I did. And I wasn't. Don't get me wrong - Mel Gibson is a terrible human being. It's very clear he did little to no research about Mayan culture and his attempts at making them seem like the highly evolved, civilized, and intelligent people that most people agree they were usurped by his desire to have a cast dominated by intensely animalistic savagery. But there's one thing for sure - the man knows how to turn a single chase scene into an entire movie and never leave you blinking. Essentially it's the story of a kidnapped man who tries to escape his captors to get back to his wife and child, who are hiding from the blood-thirsty rivaling community. Yes, sounds lame, but the action sequences are ridiculously clever, complexly filmed, and breath-takingly engaging. It's so not fair. And while the main actor Rudy Youngblood does what he can to escape the insipid "other" stereotype Gibson created for him, the rest of the cast cannot, and we're ultimately left with the most delicious pile of rotten Nazi apples of the man's questionable career. Nerdflix Instructions: Add to Neverending Queue.

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