Mar 1, 2012. California Dreamin’. Movies Reviewed: Project X, Rampart

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Southern California… It never rains there, they say. Surfers, bleached blondes, Beach Blanket Bingo, there’s something about LA and environs that seems so saccharine, so perfect and yet ersatz, so way out there. Back when they rarely wanted to go on location, the studio back lots doubled for the old west, middle America, suburban NY, or LA itself. Melrose Place, 90210, OC – movies or TV, it’s all so hyper-perfect.

But beneath that veneer there also lurks that festering pit of tar, that horribleness, that evil and corruption – The Manson Family, the casting couch, the satanic rituals, the real estate double dealing, the stuff you’d read about in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon…

So which is it? Well, in our present-day dystopia, southern California’s an about-to-collapse world, where the authorities are corrupt, but they’re the only things that are stopping total anarchy and destruction. …at least that’s how it’s portrayed in a lot of movies now.

So this week I’m talking about two new films about southern California… one’s about a party that explodes, the other’s about a cop that implodes.

Project X
Dir: Nima Nourizadeh (his first film)

It’s Thomas’s birthday, so his buddy Costa — a loudmouth in a sweater vest — says he’s going to throw him the best birthday party e-ver…! Both of Thomas’s parents are leaving Pasadena for the weekend, but they’re not worried – he’s just not a popular kid, his dad says – how many people does he know? Thomas thinks the party just might work, he might get away with it. But the two of them, along with their other best friend, JB, decide to go for it. And maybe Thomas will finally take his friendship with pretty Kirby to the BF/GF level?

They start out gathering the essentials – booze, drugs — (they steal a plaster gnome from their pot dealer, without realizing it held some things inside) and telling everyone at school, online, by email, texting, facebook – by any means necessary to bring in the crowds. They’re not really worried about people crashing the party – you can never have too many people… right? Besides they have their own security guards, little 10 year-olds ready to taze anyone making trouble. Everyone starts to trip on MDMA, and jump into the swimming pool – the boys fully dressed, the girls (as part of some adolescent boy fantasy) nude of course. More gratuitously naked breasts than you can shake a stick at.

Unfortunately, no one can anticipate the number of people eventually showing up, and the anarchic state that ensues.

I enjoyed Project X, as a party movie — more fun than funny, with a bit of a nasty streak running through it. But it also had a really “new” feeling to it, sort of like an extended youtube feature, but with a movie sized budget. The whole thing is purportedly taped by Dax, an unseen goth dude in a trench coat (straight out of Columbine) with a camera.

It seems like more and more movies feel that if you don’t include the camera as a character, it’s not “real”. (I disagree).

I liked the nihilism of it — though the “punish the good guys / reward the douches” theme was a bit disturbing…

The acting is great — the three mains, all unknown, mostly playing characters with their own names – Thomas Mann as Thomas, Jonathon Daniel Brown as JB, and Oliver Cooper as Costa – remind me of the three “geek” kids from Paul Feig’s “Freaks and Geeks” (Daley, Starr and Levine). Only these three are a bit older, and a bit meaner.

Project X is a “wow!” movie , as in I wanna go to that party, but also a “whoa…!” movie, especially towards the end. Not a terrific movie, but a fun and jarring experience.

Rampart
Dir: Oren Moverman

David “Date Rape” Brown is a mean egotistical street beat cop. He’s a cock-of-the-walk who drives around like he owns the Rampart precinct, an especially notorious part of Downtown LA. If he doesn’t get a confessioin he wants, he beats up the suspect until they break. He forces a rookie cop to eat her French Fries even though she doesn’t want them. He’s from a long line of cops. He lives with both his ex wives (they’re sisters!) and the one daughter he had with each of them. Dave is practically invincible. He takes the law into his own hands, and is admired by his fellow cops for his indefatigable character. And the brass tolerate him, since he brings in lots of convictions.

Dave loves his life – pretty (though troubled) daughters, two ex-wives, and he can pick up beautiful women in bars on the side. His LA is constantly moving: busy, dirty and corrupt. It’s filled with gangsters, drug dealers, drive-by-shootings, and snitches in wheelchairs. The cops are as much a part of the warp and weft as the criminals they chase. And lots of innocents die between them.

Then, one day, he gets caught on cell phone camera beating up a guy (a la Rodney King) whose car rammed him and then ran away. And things start to go wrong. The DA office starts following him around, the lawyers want him to resign, and there’s some strange unexplained conspiracy bubbling up beneath al of this. Things get worse and worse, as he gradually loses his home, his family, his friends, his money, and his status. He embarks on a self-destructive journey, though it’s never quite clear whether he means to ruin things or if they’re all just happening to him.

Woody Harrelson is amazing as Officer Brown, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, and Sigourney Weaver, among others, are fun as some of the many women picking on him. Each scene could end in a dramatic turn, but more often devolves into very long conversations about relationships and guilt. I was expecting Rampart to be an action and chase cop thriller – which it’s not. It’s a drama about what happens to a middle-aged cop when his power disappears.

Rampart is playing now, and Project X, and the new documentary Family Portrait in Black and White both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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