J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Low Lights


As a year-end insult, film sites are eagerly reporting the VOD-destined horror movie Playback is the lowest grossing film of 2012, raking in a paltry $264.  There is no secret to its anemic performance, having only been released for one week on one screen, with no promotional fanfare.  It is not very good either, but there were far worse stink-bombs released in theaters this year, some of which were torturously defended by critics who should have known better.  Meriting a solid D, Michael A. Nickles’ Playback (trailer here) is considerably more entertaining and accomplished than Dustin Lance Black’s Virginia, Benjamin Dickinson’s First Winter, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, and Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, 2012’s absolute low points.

Arguably, Black’s Virginia is the single worst film of the year, but it seems almost unfair to single it out.  After all, Black recognized how bad it was when it screened at Toronto and tried to fix it.  It didn’t work, but at least he made the attempt.  Next time he ought to start with a real story rather than merely lashing out at the Mormon Church of his youth.

Filled with endless scenes of urination, defecation, and disturbingly rough sex, The Paperboy is just a lurid sweaty mess.  A showcase for horrendous overacting, it deserves a long life on the Rifftrax circuit.  Indeed, many of the cartoonish characters seem like they ought to have serious issues with wire hangers.

Red Hook would have been painfully predictable and clichéd had it been released in the early 1990’s.  A tiresome attack on the Church and gentrification, RHS might well slow down the latter since it makes the Brooklyn neighbor look profoundly un-neighborly.

First Winter is pointlessly meandering hipster melodrama.

Comparatively speaking, Playback is impressively middling fare.  It starts with a gory buzz-killing opening, apparently choreographed to defy all common sense.  For some reason, notorious family killer Harlan Diehl had a thing about video-taping his crimes.   Playback appears to follow in the V/H/S tradition, but instead of telling five creepy stories, it tells one crummy one.  It also mercifully ditches the camcorder POV in the present day, for the most part.

Filming re-enactments of the Diehl murders as part of an ill-conceived journalism class project, Julian Miller becomes obsessed with the case. Eventually, he learns Diehl was a descendant of pioneering French filmmaker Louis Le Prince, whom his video store boss tells us was rumored to be Satan himself (Louis Le Prince = Lucifer Prince of Darkness).  As half-baked premises go, that’s not bad, but Nickles just lets it wither on the vine.  Instead, we see scene after scene of Quinn, a loser working for the local TV station, maliciously loading gear, apparently under the sway of Le Prince’s possession.

As Quinn, Toby Hemingway seems determined to do the world’s worst Johnny Depp impression.  Speaking of shtickiness, Christian Slater is also on-hand (indeed, he is taking the brunt of the media coverage) as Officer Frank Lyons, a cop paying Quinn for flash-drives of video recorded in the high school girls’ shower room.  Yes, how the mediocre have fallen.  On the plus side, Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer in Animal House) has a few decent scenes as former reporter Chris Safford.

In truth, the rest of the cast is reasonably adequate as the dead horny teenagers.  However, there is absolutely no underlying logic to the supernatural goings on.  Essentially, Playback is a run-of-the-mill rip-off of The Ring, but it is relatively honest about that.  As a result, it stands taller than 2012’s more heralded quartet of shame.  It is now available on VOD and streams on Netflix.  There were plenty of films worth celebrating in 2012 as well.  To revisit some, check out my year’s best over at Criticwire.

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