Cleanflix (2009)

Verdict: 7 out of 10

by Jason Pyles

Full Disclosure: Before reviewing “Cleanflix,” I should note that I was (and still am) associated with some of the organizations, events and subjects of this film.

For those who are not aware, Utah has a high concentration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — aka Mormons — a conservative, Christian religion. (Instead of using the word “Mormon,” which is an archaic and imprecise nickname, I’ll proceed by using the designation “Latter-day Saint.”)

Most Latter-day Saints don’t watch R-rated movies, because they have been counseled by their church leaders to avoid entertainment containing profanity, nudity, depictions of sexuality and excessive violence.

Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints love movies like everybody else, generally speaking, so the edited movie business began, and it burst into various chains of video rental stores — the most prominent being CleanFlicks. These businesses “sanitized” R-rated and PG-13 movies by eliminating the type of so-called objectionable material listed above. Therefore, with such explicit tidbits removed, many Latter-day Saints feel it is then permissible to consume the entertainment, regardless of its original rating.

Admittedly, there are other conservative moviegoers elsewhere in the country — and other such businesses exist — but the Utah-based subject of this documentary is the CleanFlicks chain and a few of its major players.

The film “Cleanflix” — whose homonymous title is spelled differently due to copyright issues — explains the cultural background mentioned above, examines various viewpoints in the debate over sanitizing films, and follows the remarkable events in the life of one store owner, Daniel Thompson, who quickly surfaces to become the film’s focal point.

Thompson turns out to be an unforgettable main character for this documentary. In fact, his memorability approaches that of other great doc figures, such as Timothy Treadwell (“Grizzly Man”) or Mark Borchardt (“American Movie”).

As “Cleanflix” begins, it seems as though it will enumerate the various arguments for and against sanitizing movies, as they pertain to moral and theoretical concerns. But the filmmakers address these issues peripherally, as their story progresses. For the heart of “Cleanflix,” documentarists Andrew James and Josh Ligairi examine the way various sanitizing businesses chose to defy the titans of Hollywood — in a David and Goliath-type of stand-off — which all culminates with Thompson’s story.

While depicting the course of these surprising events, enough important questions are raised that “Cleanflix” is not only entertaining, it is also stirring. Regardless of where you stand on edited movies, this documentary has the substantive wherewithal to provoke further thought and consideration from the viewer. The only prerequisite is a general interest in the art of movies.

Now I recognize the restraints of focus, depth and duration when making a marketable feature film. After all, not every documentary can (or should) be a six-hour Frederick Wiseman production like “Near Death” (1989), or a four-hour one, like “Belfast, Maine” (1999).

So inevitably, with such complicated subject matter, there are aspects of the CleanFlicks saga that I would have liked to have seen this 88-minute film somehow explore, such as the viewer’s right to consume or perceive art the way he or she wants to enjoy it; the vacuum of adult-themed films for conservative adults and how that vacuum fuels phenomena like CleanFlicks; and how CleanFlicks users justify the “perils” that must surely befall the “spiritual well-being” of the sanitizer, who has intensive exposure to the objectionable sounds and images. But these are just wish-list aspects of the film that wasn’t made.

If I were to critique the film that was made, I would have liked to have seen a greater diversity of opinion: For example, in order to discuss the character of one subject, his conspicuously hyperbolic ex-girlfriend is interviewed. (I hope no one judges me on the accounts of my ex-girlfriends.)

Even so, the strongest praise I can give “Cleanflix” is to acknowledge that it actually influenced my opinion on the matter of edited movies. Because of this film (and my podcasting co-host, Andy Howell), I now understand the Directors Guild of America’s position better, and that the court ruling itself — which I won’t reveal here — pertains to the act of duplicating copyrighted films, rather than editing them. Meanwhile, the artistic and moral battles continue, while the legal one smolders.

Ironically, “Cleanflix” itself shows a variety of contrasting examples of offending, original content versus the sanitized rendition of the same footage. Indeed, these instances of comparing and contrasting will surely offend those on both sides of the fence, at least, to some degree: “Pro-sanitizers” won’t appreciate the objectionable material depicted in the original clips (which would undoubtedly earn this unrated film an R-rating), while “anti-sanitizers” will wince at the incongruent, revised clips of the chopped-up films.

At one point, the filmmakers half-jokingly told me they were considering making a “CleanFlicksed” version of “Cleanflix,” which you must admit, is delightfully ouroboros-like.

Addendum: My podcast, Considering the Sequels, features a bonus episode — here — where my co-hosts and I have an in-depth discussion about “Cleanflix” with its directors, Andrew James and Josh Ligairi.

Directed by Andrew James and Josh Ligairi. Featuring Neil LaBute, Daniel Thompson, Ray Lines. Genre: Documentary. Runtime: 88 min. MPAA: Not rated (but would be rated R). No. 3.

For my older movie reviews, visit this site. For my casual thoughts on usual films and other cinematic matters, visit this site. And for my Considering the Sequels podcast, visit this site.

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Cop Out (2010)

Verdict: 4 out of 10

by Jason Pyles

Comedy is the most delicate balancing act in all of filmdom, even more than drama, which must walk the narrow beam between drama and melodrama. By contrast, comedy is a netless high-wire act that has to cross a tightrope of humor between farce and stupidity, while adjusting for myriad other toppling winds, such as parody and satire, just to name two.

Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” (2010), starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, has been critically attacked, but perhaps a little too harshly. The critical community has a way of feverishly dog-piling onto a lame turkey.

It is often said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that is precisely the problem with “Cop Out.” This movie begins with an off-putting overzealousness that immediately made me think, ‘Oh no. It’s going to be one of these movies …’ But it gets better.

There is a common ailment that afflicts all light-skinned guy / black-guy cop-buddy movies that I can recall, and this can’t be blamed on Eddie Murphy, but it can certainly be traced back to him, circa 1982. That year director Walter Hill released a movie called “48 Hrs.,” which is a cop-buddy action-comedy where Eddie Murphy successfully pulls off a fast-talking, loudmouth jack ass in contrast to Nick Nolte’s grumpy, ogre-like demeanor. (This dynamic was the precursor to the Shrek / Donkey relationship.) Get it? Jack ass? Ogre?

Eddie Murphy pulled off this character in the “48 Hrs.” franchise, as well as the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies. Other young black actors attempted to follow suit, though, unsuccessfully: In 1998, Chris Tucker tried a similar character while co-starring alongside Jackie Chan, and the result was largely obnoxious. Tucker can be funny, but the volume is turned up too loud on his performance.

And here again with “Cop Out,” we have Tracy Morgan, who also tries to channel those 1980s Eddie Murphy characters, and he also overshoots the mark, though not as badly as Tucker.

By the way, the African-American actor who comes the closest to successfully portraying a humorous, Eddie Murphy-type character is Martin Lawrence. His “Blue Streak” (1999) movie is far funnier and better than you’d suspect. And the only, one-time exceptions that topped Lawrence were Orlando Jones and Eddie Griffin in “Double Take” (2001), a truly funny film. But none of these actors is Eddie Murphy, to be sure.

I’ve taken so much space discussing the Tracy Morgan character because his is the foundation upon which a movie like this hinges. There’s a straight-man and a funny sidekick, and if the funny side-kick isn’t pulling off his role, then the straight-man can’t carry the movie, even if he is Bruce Willis.

To be fair, I laughed a few times while watching “Cop Out,” and I guess that’s all I can ask of any comedy. (Seann William Scott has a small role in this movie, and he steals the show from Morgan and Willis in the humor department.)

Overlooking the movie’s humor maladies, there is one subplot in “Cop Out” that is on target and truly engaging: Bruce Willis is a cop who is divorced. His only daughter is getting married, and her wedding is going to cost a little more than $48,000. Due to an encroaching step-father, Willis’s character is determined to come up with the money to give his little girl the wedding of her dreams. And he has a legitimate way of doing this, but the movie’s hard-core criminals factor in to the equation, making the protagonist’s objective a precarious one.

Otherwise, it’s a fairly standard plot, which I won’t describe here, in case you’d like to experience this movie for yourself. It’s not as bad as my colleagues have made it out to be. Just know that it begins at a comedic fever pitch — especially Morgan’s performance — but once the movie sets aside its over-the-top antics and settles in to its characters, it’s quite tolerable.

Directed by Kevin Smith. Starring Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan, Seann William Scott. Genre: Comedy. Runtime: 107 min. MPAA: R (for pervasive language, including sexual references, violence and brief sexuality). No. 2

For my older movie reviews, visit this site. For my casual thoughts on unusual films and other cinematic matters, visit this site. And for my Considering the Sequels podcast, visit this site.

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Trick `r Treat (2007)

Verdict: 7 out of 10

by Jason Pyles

Horror movies have devolved from the slasher flick down to the depths of so-called “torture porn*,” a misnomer which has nothing to do with depictions of explicit sexual content and everything to do with portraying explicit torture and gore.

This continually slipping shift is problematic because this genre that has become so extreme with its graphic elements has simultaneously become impotent in its emotional aspects, namely suspense. Hard-core horror fans watch such movies to be shocked and grossed out, but I’d suggest that most people like horror movies because it’s fun to be scared, without being in any actual danger. [Hence the inherent brilliance of a film like “The Ring” (2002), where watching is deadly.]

Alfred Hitchcock once described a scenario involving a bomb under a table. He said if we don’t know the bomb is under the table and it explodes, we are surprised; whereas, if we know the bomb is under the table — but not when it will detonate — that’s suspense.

Michael Dougherty wrote and directed a neat little film called “Trick `r Treat” (2007), which is a throwback to the 1980s horror anthology that employs both surprise and suspense. “Trick `r Treat” has many comedic elements and it’s a tiny bit creepy, as well. It also has some genuinely disturbing aspects that all involve children.

The enjoyment of “Trick `r Treat” comes from its four interwoven stories that transpire on Halloween night in a small, Ohio town called Warren Valley. Doughtery plays with the narrative structure of the film and rearranges the timeline of the events, so the horror stories overlap and dovetail with one another. Though this may sound confusing, it’s actually quite delightful — a strange word, I know, to describe a horror film. The director also plays with our expectations, providing us with frequent twists.

The four tales surround a school principal who’s involved in macabre extra-curricular activities, a few kids who have devised a cruel plot, four attractive young women who are looking for a good time, and a crotchety old man whose disposition may have something to do with a dark secret from his past. My vagueness is meant to preserve your experience.

And then there’s Sam — the mascot of “Trick `r Treat” — and a common thread in all the stories. Sam appears to be a small child who wears orange pajamas and a burlap sack over his head. It seems that he is simply a trick-or-treater, but he is a surprise, as well.

Mike Dougherty is known for his screenplays for “X2” (2003) and “Superman Returns” (2006). But in 1996, he wrote, directed and produced an animated short film called “Season’s Greetings,” which features his character Sam, and served as the inspiration for this feature film. By the way, (“Season’s Greetings” can be viewed as a special feature on the “Trick `r Treat” DVD.)

Coming full circle, “Trick `r Treat” doesn’t need to shock us with depictions of torture or gore (though it has a little gore). This film surprises us with troubling twists that are delivered after seeds of suspense have been sown, and the result is a little, haunting treasure.

Directed by Michael Dougherty. Starring Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin. Genre: Horror / Comedy. Runtime: 82 min. MPAA: R (for horror violence, some sexuality / nudity and language). No. 1.

*I only use this misnomer in this review to serve as a segue to my soapbox linked above.

For my older movie reviews, visit this site. For my casual thoughts on unusual films and other cinematic matters, visit this site. And for my Considering the Sequels podcast, visit this site.

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