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Posts in: November 12th, 2010

Grilled (2006)

Imagine Quentin Tarantino had written Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’ll have some idea of what Grilled is about. You’ll also probably understand why it quietly went straight to DVD, considering it came on the heels of stars Ray Romano and Kevin James giving up highly successful, crowd-pleasing sitcoms in which they played generally likable people. Few would look at either comedian and say, “I want to see them in a cynical dramedy where they play sociopaths.” Yet, the movie itself is actually pretty good.

Romano and James play, respectively, Maurice and Dave, frozen meat salesmen desperate for a sale. They used to be their company’s top team, but they’ve hit a slump. The slump itself has caused tension in the partnership—the film opens with them angrily trying to go it alone before realizing that’s even worse than working together—but Maurice and Dave subtly imply that their personal problems have impacted their ability to sell. Dave’s wife left him and took his daughter with her; Maurice is a chronic womanizer who fails to close sales because he’s too busy trying to get phone numbers.

Their boss gives them a handful of “sure-thing” leads and vows that if they can’t close one of them, they’re fired. The film takes its time showing Maurice and Dave apply callous, vaguely abusive salesmen tactics to close kindhearted marks. They get a lot of piqued interest but make no sales—until they arrive at the last lead. Loridonna (Sofia Vergara), a Latin sexpot who takes an immediate shine to Maurice, expresses alarming interest in their frozen meat. However, frequent calls from suicidal Suzanne (Juliette Lewis) interrupt the rhythm of the sale. Loridonna forces Dave to impersonate a doctor to calm Suzanne down. When that fails, she insists on going over to see Suzanne personally. Maurice and Dave, desperate to get Loridonna to sign the check, offer to drive her (Dave claims Maurice used to race professionally).

Suzanne, a drunk and a drug addict, lives in a mansion in the Hollywood hills. When Tony (Kim Coates), the mansion’s owner, arrives to patch up a gaping bullet wound, Dave realizes they have a new mark. Tony loves grilling, and he can actually afford what they’re selling (a full side of beef each month, plus a freezer to house it in). However, hitmen (Michael Rapaport and Erik Allen Kramer) show up and make short work of Tony. Suddenly embroiled in the criminal world, Maurice and Dave split their time evenly between running for their lives and trying to sell wealthy gangsters meat products.

Although I understand why this might alienate a huge segment of moviegoers, I appreciated Romano and James for making no effort to gain sympathy from the audience. They find numerous comedic moments in Maurice and Dave’s inherent unpleasantness. The film also goes dark enough to elicit sympathy almost accidentally—Maurice and Dave are in no way good people, but they also don’t deserve to be gunned down in cold blood. Both Romano and James do well in roles that are pretty ballsy attempts to alter the public perception of them. It’s interesting, to me at least, that Romano went on to cocreate and star in the similarly dark, uncompromising dramedy Men of a Certain Age (minus the criminal element), while James has retreated back to ineffectual crowd-pleasers.

William Tepper’s script piles one bad thing on top of another, almost like a British farce, before wrapping it up in a surprisingly neat package. The script and performances are solid, but the film’s thriller elements suffer under Jason Ensler’s workmanlike direction. A veteran helmer of TV comedies, Ensler knows how to find the humor in a given situation, but he doesn’t build the suspense required to make the third act really work. The film also lacks a cinematic visual flair, resembling a mid-’80s movie-of-the-week more than anything else. Honestly, looking like a movie-of-the-week has become a trademark of lazy film comedies for over a decade, but Grilled wants to be more than a lazy film comedy. It largely succeeds, but that’s not strictly a result of the directing.

Overall, Grilled is a bit of a pleasant surprise. It’s not a transcendent film experience, but it does give Romano and James a Punch Drunk Love moment to prove they can be more than sitcom actors. The fact that they both pull it off is less surprising than the fact that the film went direct-to-DVD. Two pretty big stars in a very funny, pitch-black comedy? Nobody wanted to take a chance on that theatrically? Alas, it has found its way into semi-permanent rotation on Comedy Central. Check it out there, or watch it instantly on Netflix. Even if you think you don’t like Romano or James, this movie might change your mind.

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Motel Hell (1980)

Coming in the middle of the cannibal craze of the ’70s and ’80s, Motel Hell has less interest in graphic exploitation than in a grim portrait of crazy people. Yes, it’s billed as a horror-comedy, and it does contain a few legitimate laughs, but this is a real horror film. It’s more disturbing than traditionally scary, but frankly, that’s the way I like ’em.

The film opens as a quiet study of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun—seriously!), a rural motel owner (the title comes from a sign reading MOTEL HELLO, but of course the “O” has burned out) who enjoys the musings of an eerie televangelist who seems to broadcast 24 hours a day. Oh, he also goes out in the middle of the night and kills passing motorists. In his mind, he’s doing God’s work. God wouldn’t let him kill them if they weren’t bad, which is why Terry (Nina Axelrod) changes everything. She survives a motorcycle crash, and Vincent realizes she’s special, and it’s his duty—and God’s will—to nurse her back to health.

Initially terrified of her apparent captor, Terry develops Stockholm Syndrome and decides to stay and work for Vincent and his even creepier sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). What Terry doesn’t know is that the family harbors a disturbing secret: Farmer Vincent’s smoked meat business—which sells the best meat anyone in the 100-mile radius in which they’re sold has ever tasted—contains a heaping helping of Soylent Green. A recipe passed down for generations, Ida buries the deceased neck-deep in the dirt of a secret garden. Thankfully, the film doesn’t dwell on the details. We’re simply to understand that “planting” them and slitting their throats (apparently so they can stew in their own blood) reanimates them. Ida and Vincent wait until they’re “ripe” before plucking them from the dirt and mixing them with pork.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Terry’s ignorance of Vincent’s secret life as she gets closer to him. Really, though, the plot is an afterthought. The film is at its best as a study of a twisted family unit, aided immeasurably by Calhoun and Parsons. This could have easily turned into the obnoxious sort of film where the director strains to mine laughs from the incongruity of characters doing deplorable things in a nonchalant way, but director Kevin Connor allows Vincent and Ida to play everything absolutely straight. Their dialogue during the “processing” scenes is the sort of intentional cheese that could have sunk the entire movie, but it works because Calhoun and Parsons play the characters as people absolutely convinced of their moral righteousness. They don’t mug for the camera.

The film’s third act relies a bit too much on cheesy horror cliches, which may have worked in a more overtly comedic film. Here, I just never got the sense that anyone was trying to be funny. Enough of the film legitimately disturbed me that when the filmmakers started to make the most obvious possible choices, it disappointed me. Once the attempt at plot takes over, it never matches the bizarre depravity of Ida’s garden and Vincent’s slaughterhouse. The rushed happy ending doesn’t help redeem it.

Nevertheless, the majority of Motel Hell works pretty well. Like a low-budget Poltergeist, it manages to combine real laugh lines like “Wow, I’ve never met anyone famous before—how come I’ve never heard of you?” with eerie elements like the grotesque sound of Ida’s “plants” choking on their own blood. It loses some steam in the end, but it’s worth watching for the numerous things it does well in the first 70 or so minutes.

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