The worst movie of 2012

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When I dutifully turned in my Worst Movies of 2012 list last December, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of a pang. It felt incomplete somehow.

I had limited the list, as always, to movies that had played theatrically in Madison. And there were some bad movies, certainly. But there was one elephant in the room, a movie I had watched a screener of in slack-jawed wonder months before, half-hoping and half-dreading that it would play someday in Madison. But it never did.

But now it’s out on DVD. Now, finally, I can write about it.

I give you “The Paperboy,” the worst movie of 2012.

On paper, it looks solid. A fine cast (Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Matthew McConaughey in the midst of a banner year), an acclaimed director (Lee Daniels of “Precious”), adapting a good book by a fine writer (Pete Dexter, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniels.) It seems like it has to be at least watchable.

Holy geez. “The Paperboy” is can’t-turn-your-eyes-away terrible, like that YouTube link you wish you never clicked on. It’s a campy, trashy, pulpy disaster, a thick slice of Southern noir that’s been left out to rot in the Florida sun.

Start off with McConaughey and David Oyelowo, playing a pair of hotshot Miami reporters who have come back to McConaughey’s swampy Florida hometown to investigate a murder. The local sheriff has been offed, and a slack-jawed hillbilly thug (Cusack) has been convicted of the crime. Only a prison groupie (Kidman) insists he’s innocent, and the reporters are in town to check her story out. They hire McConaughey’s younger brother (Zac Efron) to chauffeur them around town.

Now, from that description, an audience member might fairly assume that at some point, the murder will be solved, or another culprit will be fingered, or the reporters will move in any way forward in their investigation. But no. No, Daniels could not care less about the investigation, and whenever he returns to the murder plot, you feel like he’s annoyed at having to do so. What he cares about is atmosphere, ladles and lades of humid atmosphere, of scene after scene of the characters sitting around, sweating magnificently, drinking profusely, while he experiences with blown-out colors, odd camera angles, bizarre jump cuts. There are scenes, I swear, where I don’t think the actors were even told where the cameras were, so ineptly are they framed.

When “The Paperboy” does rouse itself from its sozzled stupor, it’s so Daniels can get supremely icky. A rough sex scene, intercut with shots of rotting dead animal carcasses? Check. Mutual masturbation in a prison visitors’ lounge? Check. And the I-can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that apex, a scene in which Efron’s characte gets stung by a jellyfish, and Kidman has to fight off other women at the beach for the chance to urinate on him. Efron is dreamy and all, but I can’t imagine demand is that high to pee on him that women will fight for the privilege. (Although I’ve never seen “High School Musical.”)

It would have been one thing if this was just garbage, and there were honestly times when I thought this was some kind of “Grindhouse”-like meta experiment where  Daniels was trying to mimic the cruddy look and craft of early ’70s Southern B-flicks. But then he insists on also making “The Paperboy” a treatise on how horrible race relations were in the South in the ’60s, just in case anybody wasn’t clear on that. The movie is narrated not by any of the main characters, but by Efron’s family maid (Macy Gray, and there’s a voice you want to spend two hours with), who seems to be there only to be humiliated again and again by Efron and his family.

Daniels gets the actors to emote up a storm (Kidman actually got a Golden Globe nomination for this, although I assume it’s more for solace than for appreciation, the award-season equvalent of a cup of hot soup and a blanket) but most of them don’t seem to know what they’re doing from scene to scene. Efron plays a college-age student like he was a sniveling five-year-old, and Cusack is severely miscast as a racist, sexually brutal pig (Lloyd Dobler, no!)

“The Paperboy” is one hot mess, the sort of fiasco that could have a second life as an unintentional camp classic. It’s that terrible. If you’re a connoisseur of bad cinema, treat yourself.

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UW-Madison grad Phil Johnston wrote Oscar-nominated “Wreck-It Ralph”

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I wrote a short story for the Capital Times about Phil Johnston, a native of Neenah and a UW-Madison graduate, who has quickly become a successful screenwriter. His first film, “Cedar Rapids,” was a very funny film that gave Midwestern rubes a certain nobility, almost.

It didn’t do much at the box office, but his second film was “Wreck-It Ralph,” which has been a big animated hit for Disney and, not entirely expectedly, a big critical hit as well. It’s up for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and what’s kind of funny is that Johnston seems fairly blase about it. There are five slots for animated film, which basically means if your film makes any kind of splash, it’s going to get nominated.

Also, whether the writer of an animated film actually gets an Oscar if it wins, or if its the producers and director who collect the statuary, isn’t clear to me. Which may contribute to Johnston’s sanguine outlook.

I actually think “Ralph” has a pretty good shot at winning; the perennial favorite Pixar’s “Brave” was underwhelming to some (although I thought it was both vastly entertaining and a surprisingly nuanced look at mother-daughter relations), and some critics really liked the unpredictability and poignancy of “Ralph.”

I was a little disappointed, honestly; I thought the film went to painstaking lengths to establish its video game universe, only to basically abandon it halfway through in favor of the geopolitics of the “Sugar Rush” world. I may need to see it again before fully passing judgment, and, having two young daughters, I’m sure I’ll get the chance.

Oscar-nominated shorts kick off next round of Sundance Screening Room

It’s been a long wait, since early October if I recall correctly. The Sundance Cinemas Screening Room schedule, featuring independent, foreign and documentary films showing exempt from the usual amenities fees, has been on a long hiatus to make room for all the big fall and holiday releases.

But it’s back.

The first round of Screening Room films kicks off next Friday, Feb. 8 with screenings of all 15 Oscar-nominated short films. You’ll be able to see the five shorts nominated for live-action in one screening, and the five nominated for Best Animated Short at another, all that week. Plus, just for the weekend of Feb. 8, audiences can see all five films nominated for Best Documentary Short.

After that, we can look forward to new films from Werner Herzog and Abbas Kiarostami, a new documentary on hunger from the producers of “Food Inc,” and Charlie Sheen’s unlikely cinematic comeback. Here’s how the rest of the upcoming Screening Room calendar shakes out, which will bring us up to early April:

The Other Son” (Feb. 15) — Two boys discover they were switched at birth. The kicker? One is Israeli, the other Palestinian in this French drama.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” (Feb. 22) — The Charlie Sheen National Rehabilitation Project continues in this film from Wes Anderson colleague Roman Coppola, starring Sheen as a graphic designer in crisis alongside Wes faves Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.

A Place at the Table” (March 1) — A documentary from the producers of “Food, Inc.” about the hunger crisis that lets millions of Americans go underfed, and offers specific solutions to the problem.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” (March 8) — The latest documentary from Werner Herzog looks at a small band of indigenous people living in Siberia whose lives haven’t changed in the last century, and, as the title suggests, are just fine with that.

Barbara” (March 15) — An East German doctor hoping to flee the country in the 1980s is banished to a small rural hospital in this acclaimed drama.

Any Day Now” (March 22) — A gay couple (Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt) fight the legal system to keep custody of a mentally-challenged teenager who they have taken in off the streets.

Like Someone in Love‘ (March 29) — The latest film from master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (“Certified Copy”) looks at the relationship between an old man and a young woman in Japan.

“Wake in Fright”: It’s Australian for fear, mate

The Australian we usually see in movies tends to fall into a familiar stereotype — friendly, manly, beer-drinking alpha males who just want to have a good time. It’s no wonder that many Australians seem to view this Outback character as the “real Australia,” much as some Americans would call the deep South the “real America.”

But there’s a darker side to that national character, one we don’t see much of at the movies. That’s what makes the 1970 film “Wake in Fright” so bracing, over 40 years after its release. The disturbing film was released in the United States as “Outback,” then lost for decades, until a print resurfaced a few years back. There’s a fine new Blu-ray edition out this month from Drafthouse Films, and the UW-Cinematheque is screening “Wake In Fright” at 7 p.m. tonight as part of its Marquee Monday series at the Marquee Theater, 1308 W. Dayton St.

Think of “Wake in Fright” as an Aussie “Straw Dogs” or “Deliverance,” in which a supposedly cultured man has his primal animal nature awoken, against his will. Gary Bond (who bares a striking similarity to a young Peter O’Toole) plays John Grant, a schoolteacher from Sydney teaching in a small one-room schoolhouse in the Outback. He hates the place, hates the people, hates the endless dull copper expanse of the desert around him; the cinematography of “Fright” shows how wide open spaces can feel just as claustrophobic, just as stifling, as a tight crawlspace.

On his train ride home to Sydney for the holidays, Grant is waylaid for the night in an Outback mining town nicknamed “the Yabba.” The hospitality of the hard-drinking locals is almost oppressive, and despite his ill-concealed disdain, John accepts one beer at the local bar, and then another. (One of the film’s running jokes is how Australians impatiently hurry you to finish up your drink so they can buy you another.)

Thoroughly sozzled, Grant wanders into a gambling den where the locals bet on coin tosses. Grant thinks himself above it all, but gets sucked in by the allure of easy money — if he wins enough, he can buy off his government teaching contract and leave the Outback for good. Instead, he loses all his money; in one cruel visual joke, we see him wake up bleary-eyed and naked the next morning, as if he had literally lost his shirt.

Penniless, dragging his suitcase around town, Grant’s downward spiral begins in earnest. He drinks more and falls in with the locals, who love gambling, whoring, and fighting, and drinking above all. The most memorable, played by Donald Pleasence, is a defrocked doctor who has become a sort of wild man; the sight of the normally erudite Pleasence, shirtless and drunk, slurping stew straight from the saucepan, is hard to shake.

The carousing builds to one horrifying scene, in which Grant joins some good-old-boys for a trip to the desert to slaughter kangaroos, cackling as they shoot them with high-powered rifles. (What makes the sequence even more disturbing is that it uses footage from an actual kangaroo hunt.)

What frightens Grant the most is that he starts to like this kind of behavior, that even he isn’t immune to the anarchic lure of the Outback. “Wake in Fright” presents the desert as a morally barren place where men seem to feel they’re out of view of God himself, free to indulge their worst appetites; no wonder that one nickname for the region is the Back of Beyond.

“Wake in Fright” was, not suprisingly, a divisive film upon its release, with many critics calling it an attack on Australian character (it didn’t help that the director, Ted Kotcheff, was a Canadian, an outsider). But others saw it as an important unveiling of a side of the country that most Australians didn’t want to face, and that interpretation has seemed to hold sway.

The extras on the DVD show how the film was lost for years, until the original editor found cans of footage in a Philadelphia warehouse. The Australian Film and Sound Archive did a fantastic job restoring the film to its original, terrifying glory.

“Quartet” gives aging British opera stars (and one aging American actor-director) a chance to shine

My review of “Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly, is now up at 77square.com. It’s a total charmer in the vein of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and a fine (if unlikely) directorial debut for Dustin Hoffman.

I saw “Quartet” last September at the Milwaukee Film Festival right after a documentary on Jeffrey Dahmer, and it’s light, sure touch was even more appreciated. It opens at Sundance today. (And, interestingly, Madison is getting it ahead of Milwaukee.)