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On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: THE JESUS ROLLS (2020) and ARKANSAS (2020)

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THE JESUS ROLLS
(US/France - 2020)


The Coen Bros. have made it clear that there's never going to be a sequel to their beloved 1998 cult classic THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but they did give John Turturro their blessing to move forward with his labor-of-love spinoff THE JESUS ROLLS. Turturro's Jesus Quintana, a trash-talking bowling rival of The Dude, Walter, and Donny and a convicted pederast ("Eight-year-olds, Dude"), only had a couple of scenes in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but the actor turned a minor character into a fan favorite, complete with his teasing lick of the bowling ball, his triumphant strike dance, and his catchphrase "Nobody fucks with the Jesus!" Jesus was funny in those two very small doses, but is there enough there to carry his own movie? Turturro certainly thought so, and spent years writing this during his downtime between other projects before finally shooting it way back in 2016. The fact that it took this long to get a limited release followed by VOD is the big red flag that this is decidedly not THE BIG LEBOWSKI II: THE JESUS ROLLS. It is, however, a remake of Bertrand Blier's controversial 1974 French film GOING PLACES, about two road-tripping buddies and petty criminals (one of them a young Gerard Depardieu) and their sexual exploits, with the two of them eventually sharing a young hairdresser's assistant who tags along on their aimless journey.





In THE JESUS ROLLS, Jesus is paroled from Sing Sing (wasn't it Chino in LEBOWSKI?) after serving six months for indecent exposure, with a farewell conversation with the warden (Christopher Walken, dropping by for two minutes to play "Christopher Walken") revealing that the whole pederast charge was a misunderstanding when an eight-year-old kid two urinals over in a men's room caught a glimpse of Jesus' huge dick and asked him about it. Greeted by his ex-con buddy Petey (Bobby Cannavale), the two immediately steal the muscle car of obnoxious hairdresser Paul Dominique (Jon Hamm) and take his girlfriend Marie (Audrey Tautou) with them. So begins an episodic road movie, with homoerotic overtures between Jesus and Petey (Jesus tries to seduce him at one point, telling a reluctant Petey "Take it easy, man...it's OK between friends"), and the two eventually forming a throuple with Marie, who's slept with 374 men but has never experienced an orgasm (among those 374 is Jesus' bowling sidekick Liam, who's mentioned but never seen). They get separated on a few occasions--Jesus and Petey end up having an expensive dinner and a motel threesome with "767" (Susan Sarandon), who's just been released after a long stretch in a women's prison, and later touch base with her just-paroled son (Pete Davidson), who becomes the first man to bring Marie to orgasm.

THE JESUS ROLLS


GOING PLACES

You think Turturro showed this to Joel and Ethan Coen? Because I'd pay to see their reaction to it. Watching the Coens watch THE JESUS ROLLS has to be more entertaining than just watching THE JESUS ROLLS. There's just one moment in its seemingly endless 85 minutes that I found even remotely amusing (Petey looking at a porno mag and declaring "Vanessa Del Rio is underrated!"), and it's hard telling why Turturro thought dropping Jesus into a ponderous remake of GOING PLACES was a good idea. Did he really want to direct a remake of GOING PLACES but found that shoehorning Jesus Quintana into it was the only way he could secure funding? You think it's a bad sign that THE BIG LEBOWSKI, arguably the most quotable comedy since CADDYSHACK, gets a spinoff with a memorable character and still takes over three years to find a distributor? The closing credits still display a 2017 copyright. Turturro tries to placate the LEBOWSKI superfans, blowtorching through Jesus' greatest hits in the early-going with numerous references and callbacks to give everyone what they came for (there's the mention of Liam, and Jesus says "Nobody fucks with the Jesus" twice, threatens to stick a gun up someone's ass and "pull the fucking trigger till it goes 'click,'" and does his cunnilingual bowling ball tongue move). But once he fulfills those obligations, THE JESUS ROLLS just becomes a miserable slog and an utterly pointless Turturro vanity project. A little of the Jesus goes a long way, and even the always-charming Tautou grates in the worst performance of her career. Turturro called in some favors from actor friends--Sarandon, Walken, Hamm, JB Smoove as a mechanic, Sonia Braga as Jesus' prostitute mother, Gloria Reuben as a restaurant owner, Michael Badalucco as a store security guard, Tim Blake Nelson as a doctor), but the ill-advised THE JESUS ROLLS--which technically isn't a sequel but still deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other decades-late, legacy-defiling hosejobs like EASY RIDER: THE RIDE BACK and RAGING BULL II before its court-ordered title change to THE BRONX BULL--is a tedious, self-indulgent, borderline unwatchable disaster. Turturro shouldn't have fucked with the Jesus. (R, 85 mins)


ARKANSAS
(US/UK/Luxembourg - 2020)

Based on a 2009 novel by John Brandon, ARKANSAS belongs to that moody BLUE RUIN and BAD TURN WORSE subgenre of dark crime films. It wears its influences on its sleeve, with its Tarantino-inspired multiple narratives jumping between 1985, 1988, and the present day, and being a bleak Southern noir with doomed and frequently dim characters making bad decisions, it recalls the bleakly comedic crime sagas of the Coen Bros. It's also not the kind of film one would have expected to be the writing/directing debut of HOT TUB TIME MACHINE/late-period OFFICE co-star and hipster dweeb Clark Duke. A man-bunned Duke also co-stars as Swin who, along with Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), are two low-level drug couriers for Frog, a feared crime lord in the Dixie Mafia (described by Kyle as less an organized crime outfit and more "a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags") who they've never even met. They're taking a shipment from Little Rock to Corpus Christi when they're intercepted by Bright (John Malkovich, who also starred with Hemsworth in the 2015 Coen riff CUT BANK), a Frog associate who uses his full-time job as a park ranger as cover. Under Frog's orders, Bright puts the two of them to work at the park, but a series of incidents--starting with the idiot grandson (Chandler Duke) of a Louisiana drug distributor (Barry Primus) deciding to follow Kyle and Swin back to Bright's house and retrieve the money they collected--sends things south. Complicating matters is that, despite being told to avoid socializing with the locals, the irritating Swin has taken up with cute nurse Johnna (Eden Brolin, Josh's daughter), after a meet-creepy in a Piggly Wiggly, in what co-writer Clark Duke and director Clark Duke no doubt thought was the perfect plot development for the character played by Clark Duke.





The early going is interesting enough, and Malkovich gets to Malkovich it up in his brief screen time, but ARKANSAS really comes alive when Duke goes for two long flashbacks to 1985 and 1988, showing the establishment of Frog's criminal empire. Frog is played by Vince Vaughn, who appears in the present day scenes a mystery man running a junky pawn shop, and though the viewer knows he's Frog, Kyle and Swin do not, and while Duke might've thought that would be a source of suspense, it's an aspect that sort-of fizzles. But it's the flashback sequences detailing Frog's origin story that are the best parts of ARKANSAS, showing his almost accidental rise from running a tiny pawn shop/flea market in West Memphis to becoming a major player in the Deep South drug trade under the tutelage of fireworks store owner Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams). Duke really establishes a hypnotic mood in these sequences, augmented by some hauntingly ethereal and strangely eerie Flaming Lips covers of Hank Williams Jr's "A Country Boy Can Survive" and"In the Arms of Cocaine," and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The film's tone and style give it the same feel that a lot of movies have nowadays--that of an entire season of a cable series that's been whittled down to two hours--but Vaughn's character is so intriguing and his sections so well-executed (The Flaming Lips really need to release these songs on a covers album) that the rest of ARKANSAS can't help but pale in comparison when Duke returns to the comparatively ho-hum main plot involving Kyle and Swin. Some occasionally funny dialogue helps (Kentucky-born Swin complaining about how his many sisters are destined to be working in a strip joint and quipping "One's already named Cinnamon!"), but it's hard to watch this and not think a stronger film could've resulted had it just been about the rise of Frog, as Vaughn does a much better job of commanding the screen than either Hemsworth or Duke. Originally intended to screen at the 2020 SXSW before the festival was canceled over coronavirus concerns, ARKANSAS was ultimately relegated to a same-day VOD/DTV release by Lionsgate. It's a mixed bag when it's all over, and while it doesn't always work, it makes a much more credible case for itself than you'd expect from Clark Duke directing a downer crime saga more in line with a Jeremy Saulnier or a Macon Blair. (R, 117 mins)


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