Thursday, February 10, 2011

58 palms, zero stars

Two of the worst films I've ever seen are both called Twentynine Palms.

Actually, one is called Twentynine Palms, and the other is called 29 Palms. If I knew that Twentynine Palms was not, in fact, 29 Palms, I would have seen only 29 Palms, and wouldn't have the pleasure of knowing just how terrible Twentynine Palms is.

But as of yesterday, I have seen both. And even though I didn't think it could be possible, I'm almost having trouble deciding which is worse. Which is really saying something, since I've told people that Twentynine Palms may be the worst movie I've ever seen.

Let's back up a step or two.

Last July I was approved to review 29 Palms, a 2002 crime caper that appeared to be in the Tarantino mold, starring Chris O'Donnell, Jeremy Davies and Rachael Leigh Cook, and directed by Leonardo Ricagni. I knew nothing about it. I requested it primarily because the title caught my eye. See, my wife and I love the so-called "high desert" to the north of Palm Springs, which includes such towns as Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, and, you guessed it, Twentynine Palms. In fact, we looked at a potential wedding site in Twentynine Palms, nearly four years ago now.

So this was the movie I thought I was watching when we got our new BluRay player with its streaming Netflix capabilities, last August. In fact, it turned out to be Bruno Dumont's 2004 indie drama Twentynine Palms that we were actually watching. I didn't discover this until the end, when I went to the movie's page on the website I write for. I was shocked to see it had already been reviewed. You mean I sat through THIS ... for NOTHING??

Yesterday I completed the "back 29" of the two Palms movies, and let's just say that all my fondness for that town along the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park has now evaporated.

What's so awful -- so downright, goddamned awful -- about these two movies? Well, I'll tell you.

Think of the worst Vincent Gallo movie you can possibly imagine, then make it five times more boring, five times more tedious, and five times more needlessly hateful. That sums up Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms to a T. Twentynine Palms makes Gallo's famously obnoxious The Brown Bunny look like a cinematic masterpiece with a dense plot and in-depth character development. In case that reference is lost on you, The Brown Bunny consists almost entirely of Gallo's character driving, and driving, and driving, and driving across country, then reaching Los Angeles and getting a blow job from Chloe Sevigny. Really, that's it. But that's a lot more than happens in Twentynine Palms. In Twentynine Palms, two insufferable characters -- an American man (David Wissak) and a French woman (Katia Golubeva) -- drive out to the high desert, go for Chinese food, go for ice cream, have sex in Joshua Tree National Park, have sex in a pool, argue about frivolous things, and then get raped by hillbillies. Actually, only he gets raped. In the aftermath of the rape, he cuts off all his hair and stabs his girlfriend to death with a knife. After which he wanders around naked and dies of exposure in the desert. The end.

Oops, sorry, did I spoil it for you?

29 Palms is the kind of diarrhea Quentin Tarantino might have shat out after a long night of drinking and getting dosed with Rohypnol. A half-dozen moronic assholes -- Chris O'Donnell, Jon Polito, Michael Rapaport, Jeremy Davies, Rachael Leigh Cook, Michael Lerner and Russell Means -- chase around a bag of money in the desert. Of course, the only reason they're chasing it in the first place is because the most moronic of these assholes -- Rapaport's character, a corrupt cop -- sends this unsecured bag of money via bus, and without anyone to accompany it, from Baker, California to Twentynine Palms. (The town name is always written out with numbers in the movie: 29 Palms.) What follows is a series of Mexican standoffs, unlikely coincidental meetings between the various parties involved, and a chain of possession of the bag that does not even make sense. That's right -- the movie is about a bag of money constantly changing hands, and it can't even keep track of which person has the money at which point of the movie. The whole sloppy mess -- I mean, it's one of the sloppiest movies I've ever seen -- is pasted together with some of the cheapest technique you've ever seen, in which random freeze-frames are supposed to make these moronic assholes seem iconic. It's probably unfair to pick on movies that go straight to DVD, but I've seen a number of straight-to-DVD movies, and this is probably the worst one I've seen. With the cast they had on hand, the teasing becomes much more legitimate. Bill Pullman and Keith David also sullied their hands with this shit.

Oh, and the coup de grace? None of the characters have names. That's one of the most tired attempts at feigned cool that you'll ever find.

In the nearly six months between when I saw Twentynine Palms and when I saw 29 Palms, I have held 29 Palms up on a pedestal of imagined comparative excellence. Now, I'm not even sure I know which one is worse.

On the one hand, Twentynine Palms is at least trying to be some profound, minimalist comment on the nature of male-female relationships, if I am generously crediting Dumont with the best motivations I can possibly ascribe to him. Plus, at least it spells the town's name right. However, I don't think Dumont's motivations are anything but pernicious. I am not going to accuse him of hating Americans, at least not directly -- I'll leave that up to you. However, I will say that the townspeople of Twentynine Palms, when they are presented at all, are presented as xenophobic rednecks who either yell at our main characters or track them down in the desert to anally rape them. I don't think it's a coincidence that there's a military base in the real Twentynine Palms. But whatever message Dumont may or may not be trying to convey is lost in the fact that his movie is unforgivably, relentlessly tedious. It seems to exist only for these brief flashes of shocking sexuality and shocking violence, and otherwise has no purpose whatsoever. It is mean and misanthropic and just ... plain ... terrible.

Then there's 29 Palms. It is as hateful and malevolent as Twentynine Palms, in its own way -- all the characters are grubby lowlifes with basically no motivation but to get their hands on a satchel of money intended for a hitman. Everyone loves a good lowlife now and then, but the characters in Tino Lucente's script are so devoid of any traits, other than their tunnel vision money lust, that there is simply nothing to latch onto here. Plus, director Leonardo Ricagni has a wearying reliance on flashbacks -- flashbacks to parts of the plot that are not even consequential. The only positive thing to say about it is that its lack of a pernicious agenda just makes it an incredibly poorly conceived and executed genre movie. Whereas Twentynine Palms wants to actively inject ill will into our world, 29 Palms just wallows in the ghettos of cliched screenwriting and cinematic hero worship.

I tend to think that when rating movies according to a star scale, the low end is one, and the high end is either four or five -- I prefer five because a) it's what my website uses, and b) it allows for more subtlety in the differences in quality between movies. However, this scale also means that the worst movie you've ever seen is going to get one star.

That seems too generous for either of these movies. These are the types of movie that make me want to whip out The Mother of All Insults -- the zero-star rating. Lord know they deserve it.

But then another problem arises: Which zero is lower?

This is a tough one. I'm going to have to think about it.

I may not know which Palms is worse until I duel them both in Flickchart, and am bound by the results. It's been a couple months since I've discussed the project I'm working on -- re-adding all my movies into a new Flickchart account, to get the most accurate possible rankings using their new ranking system. But I'm making excellent progress as I go through alphabetically. I'm currently in the Ps -- in fact, Police, Adjective was the last film I added. That means the Ts are not far behind.

And when these two movies come up, watch out. It's going to be an epic grudge match.

Fifty-eight palms, and not a single one of them worth shit.

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