Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wrong Cops (2013): The irony of being bad

Wrong Cops (2013)
dir: Quentin Dupieux

Quentin Dupieux's films are dense blocks of absurdism that exist in a world of their own. His first American-released film, Rubber, was a grindhouse horror movie about a psychokinetic murderous tire that also had a 4th wall breaking meta layer slapped on top. His second movie, Wrong, was a film that looked at the twee surrealism of emotional indie films (such as Garden State) and made them absurdly difficult. Wrong Cops makes a music-obsessed version of Reno 911, with a bunch of cops doing wrong things at all times.

One story of Wrong Cops is about a drug-dealing cop trying to figure out what to do with a guy who is shot in the back of his trunk. Another story is about a desk jockey trying to hide his gay pornographic past. And, another is about a cop trying to see some breasts. Marilyn Manson also appears as a teenage music lover. The stories are all edited together to form a cohesive story out of 4-5 different strands.

The rough draft version of Wrong Cops premiered at Sundance with three chapters that were shown successively. The first chapter, now available online, is about the drug-dealing cop harassing Marilyn Manson, a story which gets chopped into the movie and dismissed into back story. The second and third chapters were similarly stand-alone. Quentin's vision had the film being 7 different chapters that were going to be ran successively.

The constant interweaving of the story lines almost seems organic, and possibly makes the film into an easier to swallow tablet. But, it changes the intent of the original concept. The Sundance version of Wrong Cops seems like it would be a comment on the television show Cops where each story is told and finished with some hangovers and characters bleeding into the next story. Instead, the film ends up becoming a quasi-sketch comedy where the bits dance around each other.

Wrong Cops is a funny movie. But, the difference in editing seems to make it a completely different movie, and makes the current version of Wrong Cops seem very disposable. Entertainingly disposable, mind you, but the sketch format it now seems to have tames both the surreality and the darkness that is within the frames.

Perhaps that is the comment. That a cop getting maced because he sexually harassed a young female is kind of dark. And, if condensed into one complete chapter, the absurdism would be stronger. But, as a sketch comedy, surrealism is the name of the game. Mr. Show and Upright Citizens Brigade both went darker and more absurdist faster and more frequently. Even Reno 911 had more dark and absurd moments than Wrong Cops has.

Would I recommend it? Sure. I, actually, really enjoyed the movie despite my above kvetching about the editing decision for the final version. It's funny and has a lot of great scenes, mostly tied together by the shot guy who ties a lot of the stories together as he's dying. And, all he wants to do is hear some music. But, I would love to see what the critically-derided chapter divided version would feel like.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ass Backwards (2013): Girls can be idiots too!

Ass Backwards (2013)
dir: Chris Nelson
wr: June Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson

One of the criticisms of the film industry is that there aren't enough female writers or directors working. And, of the responses is "Well, write something! Direct something! Do it for youself!" In this case, two comediennes who frequently work together decided to write a movie for themselves, and got some up and coming guy to direct it. What came out was off-the-wall and absurdist humor whose built-in audience will have to pass it on to other people.

Ass Backwards takes the usual gay-friendly chick comedy and flips it on its head. It's the inverse mirror world version of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. Stop me if you've heard this set-up before. Two airhead girls who are unhappy in their situation find an invite to something from their past. That something has a lot of pain associated with it because they sucked at it. But, they decide to return to their past to try to reclaim it for success and win over their ex-heartthrobs.

In Ass Backwards, that something isn't high school, but a beauty pageant where one girl totally botched the question portion of the test and the other girl botched the talent portion. But, because there are very few interpersonal relations in pageant life to exploit, Ass Backwards makes the movie more episodic road trip and less final scene. More Pee Wee's Big Adventure than Romy and Michele.

Along the journey, Kate and Chloe discover that one of their father's is deep in debt because they can't get a job and are using his money to live beyond their means. They meet up with an addict from an Intervention-style rehab show. They find their way onto a lesbian compound. Along the way they fight and discover they can see each other plainly, though they accept each other with their flaws.

One could easily argue that Ass Backwards is a facile movie. It's trying to be the next Wet Hot American Summer, with a built in absurdist bent so that the "go to town" montage is stretched into the whole movie. But, it's problem is that it went a little overboard with the hipster irony.You're ironically laughing at Kate and Chloe for being such idiots. You're ironically laughing at the situations they get placed in. You're ironically laughing at the people in those situations as well. The whole movie becomes one big wall of irony where you don't really give a shit about anybody because you're supposed to be laughing at them all.

Nelson, Raphael and Wilson have created a movie which is the definition of aloof. By making everybody and everything a target, including their characters, the movie ends up a soulless catalog of detached amusement. Unlike other hipster comedies, Ass Backwards is too detached from its characters to have much heart to it. It isn't a knowing, loving movie which nudges you because it knows that it's creators are really geeky for making such a compendium, a la Wet Hot American Summer. It doesn't have that insider feeling that Portlandia has, where the targets are the people they interact with and love. Ass Backwards instead pokes at everything. But, it isn't even poking fun at itself, a la Freddy Got Fingered.

And, unlike the Go To Town montage, Ass Backwards never goes DARK. Sure, there's misunderstood rape and crack use, but it doesn't ever get into the sticky black depths that either Wet Hot American Summer went, nor Freddy Got Fingered or even Observe and Report. Because everybody on board stays above the material, and that keeps Raphael and Wilson from plunging the depths they keep attempting to plumb.

That said, there's an audience for Ass Backwards. They're the kids in the leather jackets who will sit behind you in a theater just to rip apart a director's choices. Or, the kids wearing the shades in the park commenting on the yuppies playing frisbee, and how they go to the gym. Or, the kids talking about how a band sold out. This is the movie made to laugh at everybody and everything with detachment and derision. It has an audience. That audience is not me.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Dirty Shame (2004): The Mainstreaming of Sexuality

A Dirty Shame (2004)
dir: John Waters

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Shortbus, and how John Cameron Mitchell intended on bringing sex into the mainstream with a focus on acceptance and eroticism. In that review, I mentioned this film, John Waters' as-of-now final film, A Dirty Shame as the predecessor to Shortbus, but A Dirty Shame isn't one to make sex sexy. John Waters has never done that.

A Dirty Shame is a twisted fable of Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a sexually conservative and very uptight mother who, after being hit on the head, becomes a sex addict with a fetishization for cunnilingus. Her story fits into the larger story of Harford Road, Baltimore, Maryland, a neighborhood which was once a proud conservative neighborhood, but is now being invaded by sexual perverts of all types, all of whom have been hit on the head.

The group of sex addicts is led by Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who is a "sexual healer" and a prophet that announces a new sex act will be created, and it will be created by the 12th Apostle, Sylvia. Ray Ray's group consists of sexual beings of basically a variety of fetishes that John Waters could discover - sploshing, bears, polyamory, dirt, adult babies, breast fetishists - regardless of how complete his list actually is. For instance, there are no S&M kinksters in the group. At all. I imagine that Waters thought it had been overplayed as a fetish compared to the others, but still...

The sex addicts are lined up against the Neuters, the sex negative people, who are forming rallies in order to retake the neighborhood from the perverts. And, it all comes to a head one fateful night...well, you can guess where all this is leading.

Which is the main problem with A Dirty Shame. Its Us vs Them plot is so predictable and easy that one could easily accuse John Waters of cribbing his previous film Cecil B. Demented, which also cribbed liberally from Hairspray. Just replace race with film then with sex, and you have almost the same film done three times. And, much like a Xerox, the copies get a little worse for the wear each time.

It's not that A Dirty Shame is terrible. It's just so easy and facile. Where John Waters used to make movies about outsiders standing up against the world around them, now he's making movies about outsiders that kind of have the world behind them. With Hairspray, the world that was behind Tracy Turnblad was more the symbolic future world that didn't exist yet. Tracy was a rebel who was bucking a system that hadn't caught up to the audience. With both Cecil and A Dirty Shame, the audience is still behind the "rebels," but the increasing size of the people teaming with the rebels grew as well. Especially in A Dirty Shame, Waters' point is that everybody is (or should be) having consensual sex in a wide variety of ways, so why stigmatize it?

For all its immature talk about sex and perversions, A Dirty Shame actually isn't all that dirty. It has a few full frontals of men and women (all flaccid for men), and a bunch of intercut nudie classics, but John Waters really did stand behind his message that sex is fun. And, he made A Dirty Shame into a lighthearted romp that had the tonality of an elbow to the ribs. Which is also the problem. Because, instead of feeling like it's merely a nudge nudge wink wink, it feels like a 10-year-old discovering sex for the first time, and trying to innocently disgust the audience.

The mixed tone is really a shame because John Waters has some amazing material hidden deep in the movie. When Sylvia is on a sex rampage, and can't find anybody to screw, she screams at the world, "WILL SOMEBODY FINISH ME OFF?!" before lunging forward in search of a new partner. Or, one lady commenting, "Look, I'm not a prude. I'm married to an Italian." Or, pretty much every scene with the bears is comedic gold (even if they get the definition of Otter wrong). There is a whole litany of quotables in A Dirty Shame, but they're buried deep within an tonally off movie.

Which is a shame that A Dirty Shame is a borderline let down. It's half fun and half not. I really REALLY want it to be better. It's trying to be the punk version of shouting for acceptance. But, Waters' tone is really off here, and Tracey Ullman, unfortunately, just isn't all that great considering she has to swing between gruntingly uptight and gruntingly overly horny. Every performance is out of a different film, and Waters seems to have less control over the movie than he did with Pink Flamingos.

I wish it were better. And, it's not terrible. It's just a disappointment.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

+1 (2013): The Insanity of Unchecked Sci-Fi

+1 (2013)
dir: Dennis Iliadis

The phenomenon of Deja Vu is always fascinating. But, what if you actually have been there before? And, what if you got a second chance to fix the things you have wanted to fix? +1, the horrifically titled new movie from IFC Midnight, asks us some of these questions, but doesn't really care about the answers.

The concept of +1 is an original one. As an alien meteor crosses overhead, it disrupts the circuits of the Earth causing phase shifts in the fourth dimension. Whenever there's an electrical outage, suddenly there appears another copy of you in the place you were at a set distance in time. At one point, it's about 30-45 minutes in the past. And, with each turn, the phase shift gets shorter and shorter.

All of this is set at a rich kid's rave party at the start of summer vacation. David has just screwed up his relationship with Melanie because he misidentified another girl with the same fencing braid and Melanie found him kissing her. David, Teddy, and Allison all go to the rave thrown by their mutual friend, as does Melanie and a new boy toy. After Teddy hooks up with a girl, and David screws up his chances with Melanie, the first phase shift occurs putting a copy of everybody 30 minutes in the past.

Which leads to questions. What do you do when you find a copy of yourself? Can you fix the past? Can you get the girl back? What do these copies want? What the hell is this movie about?

+1 never really answers any of these questions with any amount of satisfaction. In fact, +1 is really intent on playing with your expectations for a solid explanation and any sense of moral justice. Instead of presenting a story with strong moral grounds and a cohesive conclusion, Iladis merely is presenting us a night where the answers aren't given, morals aren't learned, and nobody is any better or worse by the end of the night. Well, unless they're dead.

+1 has a sort of nihilistic take no prisoners attitude that is so refreshing and maddening in equal measures. Isn't a movie better when nobody changes? Is it more realistic, even though it is a movie about phase shifting? +1 highlights humanities worst tendencies when confronted with fear and an other. And, it goes batshit crazy as well.

I do mean batshit crazy. And, no I'm not spoiling it. But, to say that +1 flies off the rails early and often is understatement. As Joe Bob Briggs would have said, "Anything can happen at any time."

What makes +1 worth watching is that Iliadis handles the crazy with a master's hand at pacing. Once the movie hits the party, the movie knows exactly what the pacing should be for the specific hits to let the audience process, even if it is processing nothing but air. The pacing builds and builds until a rip roaring climax that is amazing.

Iliadis is heavily assisted by Mihai Malaimare Jr, a cinematographer who started as a Francis Ford Coppola protege who worked on each of Coppola's previous three films and most recently was the 70mm director of photography for P.T. Anderson's The Master. If you've seen The Master, you know how gorgeous Malaimare's work is, but here the camera is alive and electric.

Malaimare doesn't let the image go less than full bore saturation for one second. The screen is almost oversaturated in a way that makes you feel like you've taken a tab of LSD or Ecstasy. Everything is bright, electric and lush, all hitting your eyeballs in ways that you've not experienced before, appropriate for a rave party movie. Iliadis opens the movie with a camera pan over lush red roses, and they're redder than red. But, while it is oversaturated, it's never garish as Showgirls tended to be. This is a full spectrum movie which will blow your mind.

While +1 is a rather empty headed calling card of a sci-fi film, the actual craziness within combine with amazing pacing and visuals to create a toxic heady concoction that is far better than it deserves to be. It's imminently rewatchable because of the human story. The acting is good enough, though rarely anything to write home about. +1 an imminently weird and brilliant film that feels as filling as the techno song you were just dancing to for 8 minutes while high at that rave that one time, that sort of goes doof doof.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Breaking the Girls (2013): Wild Bores

Breaking the Girls (2013)
dir: Jamie Babbitt

Jamie Babbitt is the lesbian director of But I'm a Cheerleader, one of the more celebrated flawed movies of the "love us" gay film movement. Guinevere Turner is the co-writer of Go Fish and American Psycho. Together, they made a trashy thriller about lesbian killers. This sounds better than it ended up being.

Breaking the Girls is a take on the criss-cross killer pattern of Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock's queer classic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel. But, Turner and Babbitt are focused on making the gay even more obvious for the new generation, and end up destroying the movie in the process.

Sara Ryan is a blonde college student working at a bar who hooks up with Alex Layton, a rich raven-haired girl who is also a lesbian. Sara is chasing after Eric, who is currently dating Brooke. After being caught stealing from the tip jar, Brooke gets Sara fired from her job and also dropped from her scholarship (which...really?!). Alex then cooks up a plan to have Sara kill Alex's father, who disapproves of Alex, and Alex will kill Brooke. Because nobody will associate them with each other even though they live together.

The flaws in the first acts movie are all supposed to lead up to the twisty and turny third act in the style of Wild Things, which was the height of dimestore novel trashy sheen. But, neither Babbitt nor Turner are able to make this movie much fun. What should be a fast-paced sleazy trashy film of high gloss becomes a draggy sleazy film, hampered by the terrible acting of the actresses.

One could argue that the bad acting is purposeful because the characters are acting as well. But, in Wild Things, it didn't tip its hat that it was going to twist and turn with a litany of lies and deceptions. The audience believed that the characters were behaving in accordance with reality not with an act. But, in Breaking the Girls, either Babbitt has directed the actors/actresses to behave as if they were consciously acting out of character or the actors/actresses are just not that great.

Breaking the Girls is, thusly, an unnecessary and unintelligent twist on a queer film that's already been done. There's a purpose to trying to reclaim a trope for for a specific audience, but the film that reclaims it has to be at least half as good as the original sources. The movies that Breaking the Girls aspires to be are rather unique and excellent films that have generated acclaim or at least a cult following. In order to be half their quality still means being better than 2/3 of the films that come out, and nobody involved in the film is up to that task.

With a plot that's supposed to be convoluted, but ends up feeling fake, and pacing that even at under 100 minutes feels sluggish, Breaking the Girls pales in comparison to its predecessors. It tries, but it just doesn't try hard enough.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Taxi Zum Klo (1981): The Homosexual Culture Wars

Taxi Zum Klo (1981)
dir: Frank Ripploh

In watching a 33 year old movie about homosexuality, I realized just how old some of the struggles within gay culture are. It's easy for a younger generation to think that certain struggles are newer because some of the situations and adaptations that have developed are newer. But, by recording a specific culture so personally, as Frank Ripploh did in Taxi Zum Klo, the macroscopic problems show up in different forms.

Ripploh wrote, directed, and starred as himself in Taxi Zum Klo, a movie documenting the life of Mr. Ripploh in West Berlin. A schoolteacher by day, and sexually free and obsessed homosexual by night and sometimes day. The film opens with Frank waking up naked and sneaking across the hall to steal his neighbor's newspaper but getting locked out of his apartment, and having to climb across balconies, still nude, to get into his apartment. Setting the tone that we're watching a neo-realistic movie about life with all the embarrassing, dirty and selfish parts left in.

Largely, Taxi Zum Klo is a first person narrative about Frank cruising around West Berlin, then falling in love with Bernd, only to discover that Bernd is a domestic-style boyfriend who would rather stay at home and make dinner than go cruising the toilets or even going out for a night on the town. Bernd's dream is to find a guy and settle down in a farm in the country, while Frank wants to go out and enjoy all the delights that a city with a strong homosexual presence gives. Whether that be picking up a guy while walking home, or at the gas station, or in the park...or going out to a Queen's Ball and picking up a stable boy.

Ripploh knows that he's being selfish, but can't bring himself to change. In one of the closing scenes, Frank goes to work still dressed in drag from the ball. He gives each of his students a die and tells them to write down six different things that they would like to do regardless of rules or politeness. Some included ripping his dress, or beating up another student. Then, he gives them the chance to roll the die and do the thing they want and all hell breaks loose, teaching Ripploh that freedom without responsibility gives immediate happiness, but ultimately leads to chaos and destruction.

For a very little and very personal film, Ripploh works in a lot of politics around the edges. It's 1980 when this film is being made, and there are scenes about condemnation and acceptance in West Berlin. In an early scene, Ripploh goes bowling with his fellow teachers after hours, and presents a very conservative front to his fellow teachers, simply because it's expected. I mean, deviants of all natures have to present conservative fronts to their professional coworkers, right? Except everybody hetero has conversations about each other's sexual proclivities, while they generally keep Ripploh's details a bit more under wraps. Sure, they shout out that he prefers male callers, but we're not prepared to talk about whose dick went where.

Not everybody is as accepting as Ripploh's coworkers. In a later scene in Taxi Zum Klo, Ripploh calls in Bernd to laugh at the neo-Nazis that are given airtime on television. The neo-Nazis are rallying against the usual skinhead topics of race, religion, and sexuality that isn't White and Christian. But, Bernd and Ripploh are so used to it they laugh at the youthful diatribes on the screen.

When not at school, Ripploh isn't afraid to show the variety of ways that men can hook up, and doesn't even get to all of them. He doesn't really go out to leather bars or night clubs. Instead, he'll hook up at a random toilet with a glory hole, where he'll jack off most cocks that come through the hole. While waiting for the next cock to line up, he'll do his school work. He picks up Bernd at the local theater when he's trying to get in for the "late" show, which probably means hooking up in the balconies. But, instead, he gets Bernd to go home with him on the first night.

Bernd's desire for domestic bliss contrasts heavily with Ripploh's desire for sexual freedom. While this is presented as a very personal intimate problem, the schism between the two men resemble the larger culture war that has happened in gay culture, which I remember talking about in college. Namely the difference between the queer radical lifestyle, and how that contrasts with the domestic acceptance that other queers desire. Is Frank justified in being able to randomly pick up a dude and bring him home to play with, even as Bernd comes home and helplessly watches through a broken window in the door? Or, is Bernd correct in that the domestic bliss should be the ideal lifestyle for queers and heteros alike?

The socially conservative/liberal schism has been especially loud around the time of gay pride parades, which is largely seen as the face that the queer community puts on to the heteronormative community. The pride parades used to be filled with every expression of sexuality that one could imagine. Though, now, at least in the major North American cities, the pride parades are hours-long drones of commercials for local companies with people dressed in shorts and t-shirts. But, in between the commercials, we still have the radicals who tie up guys to the front of trucks to flog their ass, and, in Seattle at least, we still open with the topless dykes on bikes.

Ithas been commented that this behavior is fuel for the conservatives to say that gays are deviants, don't you see what they wear in publc??  And, sometimes it comes to "is it hurting anybody?" And, in Bernd's case, it does hurt him. Taxi Zum Klo doesn't set to make a hero out of either Ripploh or Bernd. Bernd detests even the Queen's Ball, and storms out to go to a random farm in order to hug a goat out of the need for affection. But, one can't help feel sorry for Bernd when Ripploh can be such a dick to Bernd, even having a big fight with him because Bernd made him dinner. Ripploh, fighting the domestic life tooth and nail, can be the selfish asshole that can be the deviant side of the lifestyle.

Out of all this chaos, Frank Ripploh has created a document of a specific time and era that speaks truths across the decades. The issues that Ripploh and Bernd deal with still exist in modern relationships. The lifestyle Ripploh leads can be found in all sorts of neighborhoods. Taxi Zum Klo doesn't make itself a period piece except by film stock and style. Everything Taxi Zum Klo comments on is a universal feeling that will still exists even as the cultural walls finally crumble.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): Strip it down

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
dir: John Carpenter

In the 1970s, actions and dramas were all about gritty grindhouse style dramas full of anti-heroes and despair. Assault on Precinct 13 seems almost anachronistic for 1976, and is pointing to the good vs bad era of the 1980s.

Assault on Precinct 13 is a stripped down grindhouse affair about a gang who had four members shot while they were on the prowl and declare a war on...well...everything, but mainly the police. Their opening salvo is on innocent victims, but one intended victim flees to a police station which is understaffed since it will be closed by morning. Equipment has already been moved, and it's supposed to be a quiet night as they also put a sheriff on for his first night.

In order to beef up the number of people at the police station, a prison bus transporting convicts is waylaid due to a very sick inmate, and have to hole up in Precinct 13 while the driver wants to look for a doctor. But, in the midst of this, the siege starts and police and inmates have to join forces to duke it out.

While the movie is just setup followed by an extra long tension-filled and bullet-ridden assault, Carpenter is working in political commentary on the edges. The cast is surprisingly multi-racial, with a black sheriff leading the way, as well as a black and white inmate. On the gang side, it's 2 white guys, a black guy and a hispanic dude who present the actual face of the rather large gang full of disposable bodies. This is a racial makeup that is rather multi-cultural and presents the idyllic mixing pot that we strive for. An African-American leading actor, and no single race condemnation, instead leaving it to be gang vs cops and killers. Contrast that to the racially fraught remake, where the lead cop is now Ethan Hawke, and all of the criminals in transit are black or hispanic.

But, the most surprising is that the cops are not the bad guys in Assault on Precinct 13. In the 1970s, the cops were generally presented as renegades, ineffectuals, or the enemies. Even when they were the heroes, they had many anti-hero tendencies, such as killing random people and doing things their own way. Assault on Precinct 13 has a much more 1980s way of looking at things, which is that the sheriff on duty is actually a good guy who just wants to do a good job and actually merely finds himself under siege by a rogue gang.

By the 1980s, cop action movies, while also increasing the violence, tended to have more of a white hat/black hat way of looking at things where the cops, even the crazy ones a la Lethal Weapon, were considered to be right and just. This fits in with the characterization of Assault on Precinct 13, where the opening killings of the gang members is shown to be fully justified because they're trying to rob what looks like an apartment building. In the infamous central pivot point, the gang members shoot both an ice cream man and an adolescent white girl with blond pigtails who only wanted vanilla twist. The gang that is assaulting the cops are shown to be unequivocally terrible people.

Even in the 1970s blaxploitation films, which presented an us vs them mentality, the cops were generally seen to be power structures from the white man holding down the ghettos. The only way to overcome the neighborhood's problems is to rise up yourself and do it because the police certainly weren't going to help you do anything.

Assault on Precinct 13 is surprisingly self-assured for only a 2nd feature. John Carpenter had only directed Dark Star prior to Assault, and his dedication to powder keg pacing is astounding. The tension is rarely ever cut with humor, with the shock of the ice cream truck scene perhaps being the only true bit of black humor in the whole movie. His framing is stylish and iconic, and pretty much every choice Carpenter makes adds up to a solid stand-off film.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dead End Drive-In (1986): The Punk Trap

Dead End Drive-In (1986)
dir: Brian Trenchard-Smith

In 1986, Australia was in the beginnings of an economic reform that included many libertarian ideals, but were bolstered by the trade unions of the country. The 1980s had a bit of a depression, that resulted in a lot of economic deregulation and union-aided wage restraints to help reduce inflation. At the time, the wage restraints were supposed to be for the whole country. Anybody who has looked at American economics can start laughing because that holds true universally.

Watching Dead End Drive-In post-2009 and post-America's depression, one begins to realize that Dead End Drive-In wasn't just a silly movie of post-apocalyptic proportions, it was a satire of society based in libertarian ideology. The opening credits crawl says that American Wall Street crashes, sending the world into a global economic tailspin, resulting in a commodity meltdown.

The society that results includes food scarcity as well as employment scarcity. There are jobs as ambulance drivers, and the morgue. Also, the government authority jobs. But, the main job that Dead End Drive-In shows is car salvager, which finds cars in a wreck to tow to somewhere for parts to sell. Because car parts are a hot commodity in post-apocalyptia. The salvager has to fight off carboys, who always arrive on the spot to strip the car before it gets towed, and the cops don't care about them for some reason. They're apparently enough part of the economy that they're allowed to exist.

In this society, our hapless hero, Crabs, an unemployed brother of a car salvager, borrows his brother's car and goes, with his girlfriend, to the drive in, buying a ticket priced at being unemployed. But, it's all a set-up as the police steal his wheels, and the drive in is a concentration camp of sorts for the unemployed wasted youth of society. The punks, stoners, and foreigners who can't get a job. Most of them also don't want to work, and treat the time like it's a Burning Man style vacation. The government feeds them but otherwise keeps them rounded up to attempt to reduce crime outside the walls. Which is weird because the cops outside the walls don't care too much about rounding up the carboys.

Crabs realizes that this is all a set up, and wants out. But, the manager of the drive in gets money/drugs for number of rejects that he keeps in the drive in. The fence is electrocuted, and the only road out is a security road which one can't walk on. The gangs end up becoming racist and turning on the Arabs and Asians that are let in, and start holding white power meetings of idiocy. But, Crabs is determined to escape, and the whole thing is set up as a Coming of Age story.

Dead End Drive-In occasionally makes some poignant points throughout the film. The gang leader that Crabs frequently runs into criticizes Crabs' desire to return to the completely corrupt society outside. He laments that he was unemployed for four years, and was down to one meal a day. At least in the camp, they feed him. There is also a bit of interesting commentary on privatized prisons and how they tend to desire criminalizing people in order to make a profit.

The whole thing is otherwise based in libertarian stereotypes. Criminals and social rejects are unemployed and worthless because they can be, due to sucking off the government's teat. The government is overblown because they want to have as many people imprisoned as they can in order to save their crime resources. It's cheaper to trap and feed the people junk food and shitty movies than it is to enforce laws in a destitute society.

The consistency of the politics and basis in real life theory makes Dead End Drive-In far more compelling and entertaining than it should be. It also helps that Ned Manning (Crabs) looks like an Australian cross between DJ Qualls and David Duchovny, and actually has some onscreen charisma. At times, the movie delves into Z-movie cheesiness and low-budget considerations, but otherwise Trenchard worked hard to stretch his budget. My favorite compromise is an early scene where Crabs and his brother are driving to a wreck, and the city background is a bunch of black cardboard buildings with oversized lit window squares. It's so simple but completely effective and doesn't look totally cheap and chintz given the way it was filmed.

Overall, Dead End Drive-In is far better than you expect, and one of the underrated gems of Ozploitation. It's not the most gorgeous piece of work ever made, given that it is sort of a slacker edition of Escape From New York combined with The Road Warrior stylings. But, it's political presence and prescience plus a charismatic actor makes Dead End Drive-In a successful little gem of a film.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cropsey (2009): The Desire For Fame

Cropsey (2009)
dir: Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio

Dir 1: "Man, I'm tired of producing. I want some fame."
Dir 2: "Me too, but what should we do?"
Dir 1: "Hey! Remember that movie, Paradise Lost? That got acclaim, right?"
Dir 2: "Yeah, but that's been covered. What else could we do."
Dir 1: "What about that guy who's on trial for those missing kids?"
Dir 2: "Hey...yeah! He's a weird guy who might be innocent or guilty."
Dir 1: "We could make an expose on how he's being railroaded and it's totally unfair."

[several months later]

Dir 1: "Well, hell. This is harder than it looks. Now what?"
Dir 2: "What about tying in that children's myth, Cropsey into it?"
Dir 1: "I guess we could try it. I mean, urban legends are generally unreal but believed to be real, right?
Dir 2: "Yeah. Or something like that..."

...

Needless to say, I think Cropsey is more interesting for what I think happened behind the scenes than what the movie actually is about. Cropsey pretends to be about an urban legend Cropsey who kidnaps kids, then turns into a 20/20 or Paradise Lost style expose on Andre Rand and his kidnapping charges in 1987 and 2004. Half the time, it seems that directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio are trying to make this a film about Andre Rand being railroaded by a culture that won't accept him for his weirdness, but neither Rand nor any of their participants make this easy on them. Not to mention that their only tip to a different criminal is an entity that doesn't exist in that form anymore.

Zeman and Brancaccio swim around in murky territory of spooky forests, long-abandoned camp sites, abandoned mental institutions that have Satanic symbols spray painted on them, and other such things that fuel urban legends to give their attempt more credibility. But, this all seems to be the result of not getting the results they were clearly aiming for, which was that of exonerating Andre Rand.

Which leads to the more important questions of how does a documentary get made. Watching Cropsey, I am reminded of Exit Through the Gift Shop, in that what starts off as one film in turn becomes a completely different film due to incompetence. However, unlike Exit Through the Gift Shop, nobody is around to start turning the camera on our hapless directors who are intent on finishing their project.

There is one scene where the directors decide to go wandering the mental institution at dusk with flashlights and go looking just to grab some spooky footage. Barbara makes like she's scared to go into the institution. They look at various spray painted whatevers on the wall with a flashlight, and then get freaked out when some drunken kids wander in. It's all very dull and dumb, and starts to reflect on how desperate they actually were at trying to assemble their film into something coherent.

What I would have liked to have seen was footage of what the editing room and bar scenes were like as their "investigation" was thwarted at every turn. They started off promisingly enough with interviewees saying things about how weird or off Andre Rand was. But, it all started going a little sideways. What were those nights like when they were getting not the answers they were looking forward to? Did they take awhile before they decided to go the urban legend route? Were they discouraged? Did they drink heavily?

These questions are never shown or answered, and the questions that Cropsey leaves behind aren't about Rand or his innocence or guilt, but about Zeman and Brancaccio, and what their process was. That meta-documentary would have been far more entertaining and insightful than this bit of exploitative journalist about yet another town that has been crushed by sadness after several of their children went missing and were never found. That's not to say that the story of Rand or Long Island isn't interesting...it just feels like so many 20/20 stories that it will wash away from a viewer's memory.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bad Parents (2012): When Bad Intentions Aren't Enough

Bad Parents (2012)
dir: Caytha Jentis

Movie pitch: Soccer Moms are currently hot in pop culture. They're the butt of every easy joke you can ever find. So, how about this: There's a mom who suddenly finds herself thrown into this milieu, and goes a little crazy over it. She wasn't crazy to begin with, but suddenly the pressure goes to the mom's head and...bam, she kills the coach. Just to make sure the irony is hit home, we put in Janeane Garofalo in as the nutty soccer mom lead, and then we fill up the rest of the cast with a bunch of comedians and comediennes who may have hit some rough patches. We'll call it Bad Parents. Sure-fire hit!

Yeah, but no. This is a movie based on a play, It's All About The Kids, by Caytha Jentis who also adapted it for screen and directed the movie and produced it. To top it off, it is supposedly semi-autobiographical, based in her "insider knowledge" of soccer mom life. Let's just say that Ms Jentis is a bit too close to the subject matter to properly do it justice.

Janeane Garofalo plays a mother who puts her daughter on a soccer team, which has been split up into A and B teams, and her daughter ends up on the A team. But, she immediately starts feeling the pressure of whether her kid is good enough to be on the A team, or whether the coach is good enough to get wins. The coach has been murdered, it's revealed in the first couple minutes, but the mystery of why is not a mystery. And, the when isn't even that surprising. In fact, the murder sets up a level of dark expectation that is never really met.

Bad Parents is supposed to be about the the mania of soccer mom life, which is portrayed by Garofalo and is picked up and echoed through the various moms on the team...but it never really gets all that manic. In fact, the closest to manic is the ever reliably unhinged Cheri Oteri, who deserves so much better material than this. There is one scene that reflects the absurdity of it all, and that stars Oteri and a walk-on by hunky husband Ben Bailey. Ben Bailey calls as a president of some prestigious soccer academy and proceeds to have soccer mom phone sex with Cheri Oteri by talking about how good her kid is while she's making dinner. Oteri is glorious in it.

The rest of the movie constantly tries to live up to the dark absurdity of it all, but constantly fails miserably, and that's in part due to Garofalo sleepwalking through the role, Christopher Titus never fully embracing the assholishness of the character, and Jentis making a movie that feels amateurish. In fact, most of the proceedings seem like Jentis is treating the subject matter with kid's gloves, never fully committing to mocking or even making judgement calls on the culture. Instead, Garofalo has to make the half-hearted comments that point out the absurdity in a series of white room folding laundry asides.

Garofalo is a major part of why this movie fails, never finding either the heart of the character nor the wit of the movie. Unfortunately, Janeane Garofalo is a one-note actress/comedienne who is still amazingly brilliant when she turns in a cold-hearted cynical exhausted character (her walk-on in Broad City being an amazing recent example), but always flounders when she steps out of her comfort zone to try to find wit in the normal-ish characters. It also doesn't help her that she's surrounded by better actresses who grasp the ridiculousness a little more, and flounder less.

Unfortunately, the movie's budget probably went to the cast and not to anything else as the movie feels like it has the budget of a $100 student film. With shoddy camera work, and a dedication to that digital camera feel, Bad Parents is never really good. It's main problem is that it feels aloof but doesn't want to. Soccer Moms are way too easy of a target, but Bad Parents never even hits that target. It's never endearing toward soccer moms nor is it mocking of them. And, thus, Bad Parents becomes a completely unwatchable mess of a terrible movie.

That being said, movie producers...you need to make Cheri Oteri a star. In both this and Southland Tales, she's shown the ability to shine in weird material, and find the funny. Please, give her better roles.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mr Nobody (2009): When Amalgamation is a Joke

Mr. Nobody (2009)
dir: Jaco Van Dormael

Wading through the esoteric science fiction of the late 90s and 00s, one picks up a thread of emotional and personal narratives that connect the tissues. One of the primary narratives that has happened is that of choice and effect, and the possibility of multiple worlds existing at the same time. This is an outgrowth of one segment of string theory that was posited in the 60s and still hangs on today, if only for some cool ass shit.

Another narrative that runs through a lot of sci-fi is the idea of memory and whether or not your brain pattern is what makes you you. Are we just bags of meat that is powered by this grey matter in our heads? Are we something more? Could this be replicated?

A final narrative questions whether life is just a function of the brain, and whether or not this could be replicated in various fashions without the body. Could one keep the brain activated, and the person it is supposed to be attached to would still be living even though the body would be inanimate? Could the brain have different stimuli attached to it?

All of these come to a head in Mr. Nobody, a movie which takes its cues from a ton of random science fiction sources of the late 90s and 00s. The most easily notable ones are 1998's Sliding Doors, 1998's Run Lola Run, 2001's Waking Life, 2001's Amelie, and 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There are also influences from 1890's story An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge, which influenced both the final story in Hermann Hesse's 1931 novel The Glass Bead Game and 1997's The Devil's Advocate. Plus, there are influences from 2004's novel Cloud Atlas, which would become a movie in 2012. There's also scenes which feel like Alien meets 2001 meets Blade Runner. One section feels like a stylistic antecedent of 2004's Garden State. There's also Back to the Future II in there.

That's a HELL of a lot of different influences, and it would have to be a crazy movie to include all of them. And, it is.

The titular Mr. Nobody is celebrating his 118th birthday as the last living mortal in 2093. The secret of immortality has been discovered, and Mr. Nobody is now a hit news item, though nobody can identify him nor figure out where he came from...and neither can he. Through hypnosis and regression, he tells the story of his folks meeting, and his creation. But, that's about the only thing that comes out normal.

When he was 9, his parents divorced, with his mother moving from their quaint European small town to a big city to be with her new boyfriend. He is given the option of going with his mother or staying with his father. And, the movie begins breaking off into its different realities.

With his mother, he has a litany of options such as a love affair with his step sister that breaks off when their parents divorce, and he has to find her. With his father, there are three girls he could end up with, and each of those girls have different choices at different times with different consequences.

All of these options are given completely different feelings and emotions, giving the movie a feeling of chaos and jarring emotional juxtapositions. Not unlike the movie of Cloud Atlas, where 6 different stories of 6 different eras wrap around each other for three hours, Mr. Nobody allows its 4 different important time periods (9 years old, 15 years old, 34 years old, and 118 years old) to wrap around each other, and has Jared Leto pop in and out of the different time periods and different realities within the different time periods. If you can't keep up, that's the effect that Van Dormael was going for.

The finale of Mr. Nobody wraps up with a gotcha series of events that makes the whole movie seem like it was intended as a prank on the viewer. Mr. Nobody ends with the 118-year-old man laughing out loud, either in joy or in prankish mischief, but it almost seems targeted at the audience given the content of the epilogue.

The problem with reviewing this movie is that it might actually be good, if you haven't seen any of the films or read any of the other source material. Almost everything in the movie feels lifted from another movie, which sometimes felt like amalgamations themselves. The style of childhood totally feels like that refreshingly clean and comic feeling from Amelie. There are times it feels like a neo-realist film, or a Bertolucci film (like The Dreamers), or a Bret Easton Ellis novel (like Less Than Zero). Whether that's consciously or unconsciously, the whole movie feels like somebody just hit random on a multi-disc DVD carousel.

The second biggest problem is the movie's sheer vacuousness, which extends to Jared Leto. Because the movie is supposed to be about a no man and an everyman, Leto doesn't change much emotionally from scene to scene. Given his various life choices, one would suspect that his personality would develop more than his wardrobe.

But, it's a gorgeous piece of filmmaking whose various cribbed styles are executed beautifully, even if it is a bit ridiculous at times. Christophe Beaucarne's camerawork truly emphasizes the great detail that went into the set design and visual effects. If nothing else, the movie is a wide variety of eye candy. But, it's all candy I've seen before, and it's starting to feel like reheated leftovers.

Maybe in another 10 or 20 years, when all of the movie start to form into a single cohesive statement with the passage of time, Mr. Nobody will start to look less derivative and more as a singular outstanding piece of work (with the exception of some truly unfortunate old man make up and Leto's performance of an old man is right on par with Tom Hanks' performances in Cloud Atlas for laughability). But right now, with the audience this attracts who have seen a majority of the movies mentioned above, this movie comes off as a work of a really talented rip-off artist.

Friday, April 11, 2014

O.C. and Stiggs (1987): The OG of Anti Comedy

O.C. and Stiggs (1987) (or 1985, when it was completed)
dir: Robert Altman

When O.C. and Stiggs was actually made, it was supposed to be a Porkys-esque teen comedy that was derived from one of the blackest, meanest, most abrasive issues of National Lampoon that was ever created. The majority of the issue is Here, though without the formatting of the original issue. It's abrasive and full of National Lampoon's trademark asshole humor. It's brutal, classist, sexist, offensive, and, above all, irreverent.

Somehow, somebody had the bright idea of making this issue into a movie. Then, somebody else had the bright idea of having Robert Altman direct it. Probably, because they saw M*A*S*H* and thought he could handle a couple of amoral misfits wreaking havoc all over town, and on one family in particular. The results are mixed and the problems are legion.

O.C. and Stiggs are the titular jerks who have a vendetta against the Schwab family, an upper-middle-class family that makes its money from insurance. Randall Schwab, the father, owns the insurance company that has screwed over O.C.'s grandad, who is also a vet. And, so, both O.C. and Stiggs use class warfare to make life a complete hell for Schwab and his brood.

With O.C. and Stiggs, we see the predecessors of both Ferris Bueller and Freddy Got Fingered's Gord. We see Ferris Bueller in that they're able to wheedle and deal with anybody they come across, if they see something they need to serve their purposes. But, they're also like Gord in that they are egotistical assholes who believe it is their god given right to make somebody's life hell. They are two people of a hive mind that constantly uses and manipulates people in order to basically drive Schwab and his family crazy.

But, this is an anti-Reagan motif. Robert Altman was revving up his cheap shot political movie career that would also include Tanner '88, and exercised a lot of his cheap shots in O.C. and Stiggs. Schwab isn't just any old middle-class family. They're racist, classist, xenophobic, hypocritically moral Reaganites who lead sheltered and socially challenged lives. Heck, even the logo (not on the box) makes it seem like Altman is attempting to channel Ralph Steadman's design work for Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is a movie that is posing against the stuffed shirts.

So, we're generally rooting against the Reagan conservatives, because that's always been Altman's go to target. But, O.C. and Stiggs are also homophobic jerkoffs who don't give two shits about anybody else. This leaves us in a stance where you're watching a movie about people you generally don't like. The main difference between O.C. and Stiggs and Gord is that O.C. and Stiggs also take on the privileged mannerisms that the movie is rallying against. They have snotty overly-upper-class-inflected voices of the privileged. They are taking the piss out of the yacht club set, but then they dress like uber-yuppy tourists. Unlike Gord, O.C. and Stiggs don't care if you hate them. They just don't give a fuck.

That being said, Altman did tone down much of the Lampoon article, basically gutting it, redistributing it, and generally making it softer for a more palatable mainstream audience. But, with such unlikable protagonists and antagonists, this movie was bound to be a failure.

The biggest question is, is it good? It is an Altman movie, and he paces O.C. and Stiggs less like the ADHD afflicted Freddy Got Fingered and more like his slower-moving M*A*S*H*, partially because the ADHD style hadn't fully taken hold yet. Altman has large set pieces, and long scenes which sometimes stretch too long for the payoff. And, sometimes the payoff actually works.

The non-ADHD pacing really throws off the movie, though, because if one segment is annoying you you actually have to sit and wait for quite awhile before the next one comes around. With Freddy Got Fingered, at least you have the possibility that the scene will end in a minute or 2. But, Altman knows there are depths to humor that can only be plumbed through sustained takes and extended scenes. So, he'll just go on and on...which sucks if you hate the scene you're in.

O.C. and Stiggs is a mixed bag and is like a deep OG edition of Freddy Got Fingered. You instantly hate everybody and everything, yet it's an anti-humorish prank that will either tickle you or not. The targets are rather facile, even for Altman, and the movie is sort of just there. It's pacing is off for the type of movie it is, yet it is almost forgivable because that wasn't a fashion that had been really developed yet (though it had been preceded by Laugh-In and Airplane). Proceed with caution.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Freddy Got Fingered (2001): Dawn of a New Media

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)
dir: Tom Green

Walking out of Freddy Got Fingered in 2001 with an anime obsessed geek who was willing to go see this...thing with me, we argued about whether or not this movie was good. My friend commented that it wasn't a good movie, but there were funny bits, specifically the constant maiming of a neighbor boy around the age of 8.

What neither of us fully realized was that MTV and Tom Green in general, and Freddy Got Fingered specifically, were the middle steps in a cultural evolution that is still continuing to this day. Freddy Got Fingered isn't just a love letter to the ADHD embracing, stupid-loving, non-sequitur obsessed stoner who were already obsessing over the seemingly mature juvenilia that MTV was sputtering out in between music videos; Freddy Got Fingered was written and directed by seemingly one of these stoners who loved seeing somebody take the piss out of life. Oh, and it starred him too.

Tom Green had originally started out on cable access in Canada with a Candid Camera-esque prank show where he frequently played pranks that preyed on the manners of polite society, and frequently would use his parents as props in the show. This formula would be repeated in Bam Margera's Viva La Bam who would blend Tom Green's show with Jackass.

The Tom Green Show would be picked up by The Comedy Channel (a Canadian channel not to be confused with Comedy Central) in 1996, and then picked up by MTV in 1999. At this point in MTV's history, Jackass hadn't aired yet, and MTV's main claim to fictional tv show fame was Daria and Celebrity Deathmatch. They were still airing music videos with programming like 120 Minutes and were starting to get really happy with the reality programming with Road Rules and Real World.

In reality, almost everything that happened in one segment of popular culture can be traced to three television shows. One on MTV and one on Cartoon Network. These shows would start to define the warped senses of humor of the youth of America. On MTV was Liquid Television, and on Cartoon Network was Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

In 1991, MTV put out a show called Liquid Television, which captured a weird zeitgeist of the adult animation shorts that had been previously been delegated to obscure VHS tapes. Liquid Television was a mix of original and festival shorts that were sometimes separated by a pair of lips overlaid on static making some brief snarky comment. Occasionally, there were long-running recurring segments, like the whole first chapter of Aeon Flux, but the majority of the content were episodic or individualized. Liquid Television was the launch pad for both Mike Judge and Bill Plympton.

What Liquid Television represented was an anarchic humor that was just plain...weird. One moment you could be watching a segment called Stick Figure Theater, where stick figures drawn with a note card background would re-enact famous movie scenes or music videos. The next moment you'd be watching a highly-detailed sci-fi epic. The next you'd be watching a cheap stop motion short of a biker chick on a revenge bent. It distilled all of pop culture into an intense half hour of short snippets. That everything was in a different aesthetic helped separate one from the next, and it became a Gold Standard show that was far too short-lived for how good it was.

From Liquid Television, we would get Beavis & Butthead, Aeon Flux and The Maxx. These would eventually lead to Daria, and, spiritually, The Sifl and Olly Show. But, Liquid Television would be cancelled by 1994.

Meanwhile, the year prior, in 1990, Spike and Mike would add the Sick and Twisted festival to their Classic Animation festival, which would be a throw everything at the wall and see what stuck. Spike and Mike had an eye for quality, but they would frequently throw things that just seemed out of left field creating a hodgepodge of animation aimed at adults that was just as ADD as Liquid Television. This festival is still staggering along, though not nearly as popular as it once was.

In 1994, Cartoon Network would create the long running late night talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast which was hosted by a 1960s superhero and his enemies. The talk show segments were full of absurd interviews that had little to do with the real life celebrity interviewees, and frequently interrupted for warfare between Space Ghost and his bandleader/enemy Zorak and director/producer/enemy Moltar, both of whom openly hated Space Ghost.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast was just as non-sequitur as Liquid Television, but it was a 15-minute show, and the humor was constantly pure absurdism. Space Ghost would interview the celebrities as if they were superheroes, or if he didn't know anything about them. Zorak and Moltar would constantly prank and antagonize Space Ghost, sometimes under the guise of escaping but mostly just to antagonize Space Ghost. There was barely any coherence to the shows, and were frequently over before you could adjust to the tone of the series. Space Ghost Coast to Coast would lead to the creation of Adult Swim in 2001, with equally absurd and antagonistic shows such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and The Brak Show.

Just to recap: two networks were airing antagonistic absurdist shows with short segments that developed cult followings that led to other antagonistic and absurdist shows. Both networks were aimed at youth and generally ignored by the adults at large.

In the mainstream networks: Big Brother premiered in 1999, and Survivor premiered in 2000.

And, so comes Tom Green in 1999.

The Tom Green Show wasn't a product of these shows. It was one of these shows. The Tom Green Show was a prank show that reveled in absurdist pranks that played around with what was supposed to be polite and mannered. It was more anarchic and confronting than most that had preceded it. In it's MTV incarnation, it took on the form of a chat show with Tom as host and relating new and old segments from the Comedy Network incarnation. The show was generally reviled by critics, though embraced by youth.

And, so comes Freddy Got Fingered.

To correctly gauge this film, one has to place it in it's time. Jackass didn't appear on television until October 2000. The Tom Green Show had been off the air due to both testicular cancer and Freddy Got Fingered filming. 6 months after Jackass, in April 2001, movie theaters would see Freddy Got Fingered. And, 6 months later in October 2001, Adult Swim would finally premiere on Cartoon Network. On a similar note, Fear Factor would premiere in June 2001.

The timeline, thus far:

  • 1990: Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival, underground
  • 1991: Liquid Television, MTV
  • 1993: Beavis and Butthead, MTV
  • 1994: The Tom Green Show, Cable Access
  • 1994: Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Cartoon Network
  • 1996: The Tom Green Show, Comedy Network
  • 1997: The Sifl and Olly Show, MTV
  • 1999: The Tom Green Show, MTV
  • 1999: Big Brother, CBS
  • 2000: Survivor, CBS
  • 2000: Jackass, MTV
  • 2001: Freddy Got Fingered, Nationwide Theaters
  • 2001: Fear Factor, NBC
  • 2001: Adult Swim, Cartoon Network
...

Freddy Got Fingered is both a product of its time and a herald of things to come. But, what is it? It is a blend of the manchild narrative, the grossout movie, and absurdist cinema of Luis Bunuel. 

Tom Green plays Gord, who lives at home with the dream of becoming an animator. When he's rejected, he comes back to live at home (at the age of 28) after having been out of the house for a handful of days to work on his animations, but gets stuck in a rut until he has an epiphany and gets his dream job. He's constantly at odds with his father, with whom he has more in common than is initially thought.

See? That's a pretty traditional manchild narrative. Arrested development makes his own way in the manner which he thinks is appropriate. What's in the details is what makes and breaks Freddy Got Fingered

The first thing we see is a fake out intro that would later be cribbed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for Team America: World Police, by having amateur sketches on paper while Tom Green makes absurdist comments. Then we pull back to find Gord lying on his bed making himself giggle while telling these stories to himself. And, so we see the beginnings of the antagonistic humor that poked fun not just at the characters but at the audience, a technique that Bunuel used to great effect frequently by subverting people's expectations. The opening credits play over Gord skateboarding through a mall, being chased by the cops, which continues the antagonistic thread that plays throughout the film.

Then, on the road, he is driving from Portland to Los Angeles on some road that isn't the 1, the 101, or I-5. We're not on the main path here. And, he sees a car, comes to a screeching halt at something off screen, then jumps out to jerk off a horse. For no reason. And, so we get to the grossout film...in scene 3.

And, that's the whole entire pattern of Freddy Got Fingered, a manchild narrative that frequently takes completely absurdist stops to attack, offend, or attack and offend either somebody or the audience that has little to do with the actual movie. The movie comes to a screeching halt so that Gord can deliver a baby and swing it around the room by its umbilical cord. The movie comes to another screeching halt so that Gord can beat his paraplegic girlfriend's shins with a rod. Or, so the neighbor boy will get increasingly injured throughout the film.

For an 87 minute movie, Freddy Got Fingered has a hell of a lot of these non-essential scenes that eventually build the main story of Gord finding his way to manhood. Not maturity, because he doesn't ever mature; he just finds success doing it his way, and continues to antagonize his father.

The main problem is with the quality of filmmaking on display, which sometimes is just downright atrocious. I'm not sure if it is the DVD, but there's an early exchange between Green and Drew Barrymore, where he's telling her that her boss' wife is dead and the whole image changes between angles. Green is lit well and bright and sunny, but Barrymore is underlit, overexposed, and grainy. 

The ineptitude of Freddy Got Fingered gets in the way of solid defenses of the movie as an absurdist work of genius. It seems like Green made the film on the fly with little respect for quality or time for dailies. So, how does one come to the defense that seems so openly antagonistic and of negligible quality?

It's an anti-comedy. And, it's in a style that few people actually appreciate. It was used in The Exterminating Angel, a movie where the hoi polloi couldn't leave a party because of manners, and end up tearing down the house. Andy Kaufman would make use of this in his standup in the 80s, which would be revived with Man on the Moon. But, it wouldn't find its audience until Adult Swim, which trailed Freddy Got Fingered by 6 months.

Adult Swim is nothing but 11 minute shorts of side stories that sometimes make up a semblance of a story. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, for example, had a series finale of a pool that filled with blood caused by a house being built on an ancient burial ground, revealed by the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past From the Future. The house would be purchased by Glenn Danzig. In 11 minutes.

Freddy Got Fingered is short attention span theater at its finest. It's hilarious if you find it funny, and it's quick and doesn't overstay its welcome, though Green has been threatening to ruin that. Scenes will sometimes stretch into set pieces, and set pieces will shorten into brief scenes. The pacing is unexpected but never offensively off the wall. Unless you find the humor tiresome, in which case you'll hate the film.

But, it's hard to deny Freddy Got Fingered its place in history. And it's certainly discernible from other films it has been surrounded by. It's a film you'll love or hate based on your sense of humor. If you're not a fan of attacks on the audience, you'll hate this film. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Screamtime (1984): How low budget can tickle

Screamtime (1984)
dir: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long

The straight to video market in the 80s was infamous for having a whole slew of no budget horror movies that were done by amateurs meant to fill up the video shelves. Growing up in the 1980s, you come to know that you might have to dig deep into the wells for the gems that would periodically perk up. These videos disappeared to the annals of time for a good long period of time, until Netflix, criticized for having no selection, picked up a whole bunch of these no budget British films for their streaming service.

The original VHS cover was surprisingly not inaccurate for the movie within the box. This is an anthology movie about Punch and Judy, a mass murderer, and garden gnomes and buried zombie ghosts. Sure, they're all in different stories, but at least they're all in the movie.

While this is a British film, the framing device is in New York City, where two jerks steal three videos from the local store, and then go over to a girl's apartment, eat her food, make her miss her date, and they watch three British horror movies of negligible quality back to back. They are total jerks. I'm really surprised that the girl invites one of them to sleep with her in between the second and third movie.

The first movie they watch is about an old puppeteer who is doing his passion by doing Punch & Judy shows at the waterfront. He lives in a nice house with his wife in England. They have a son who has finished school (high school or college, it doesn't say). They know a couple of people who are successful in Canada. But, his wife hates the puppets and demands that he gives everything up and goes with her to live in Canada with her son. You know, after she rabidly insults him and calls him a loser for following his passion. The son is also bitter and a punk who berates him at the dinner table. When the son burns down the Punch & Judy stand, all hell breaks loose.

The second movie is about a newlywed couple who move into a house given to them by their father who apparently deals in real estate. The wife starts having increasingly crazy visions beginning with a boy on a bicycle in the yard, moving to happy guys bounding around with knives (blink and you'll miss it), and then to the actual recreation of a multiple murder scenario, driving her to insanity, because one doesn't hallucinate murder scenarios without going a wee bit crazy,

The third film regards a kid who wants to buy a car, so gets a second job as a gardener at a old posh house with two old ladies who love telling stories about their garden. They say there are fairies in it, and they take the manifestation of the garden gnomes who protected their previous owner. The previous owner was a woman who loved having affairs with young men, who would then die and their souls would be slaves of the gnomes.

While the movie is most definitely what it is: a no-budget not-that-shocking horror movie which would have a PG rating except for a single shot of gratuitous nudity as the girl in the framing device steps out of the shower. You know, kind of what you expect from straight-to-VHS 80s horror. There's some horrendously unbelievable violence, and my favorite part is that a the gardener kid gets crucifies like Jesus when he dies.

This movie is hilarious at times. The mother of the newlywed tells her daughter-in-law, "I don't even know why I had a son. Take my advice, and stick with girls." The high pitched Punch sounds during the murders of the first movie are hysterical. And, the two old biddies in the final story really make the movie. I'm not even kidding.

Thusly, Screamtime is actually better than its humble origins as a straight-to-video VHS but not by much. There are aspects that make this a cheesetastic success, and it has elements in the camp style. It almost feels like you're not laughing at it, but laughing with it. It knows it can't elevate itself past the no budget, so it spends its time winking at you. Dream House gets in a bit of tension despite its trappings, but the other two are loaded with cheeky jokes and insane storylines.

Which raises the question: when is a bad movie bad enough to be good? If a movie winks at you throughout, is it good enough to be entertaining? These are the types of questions one must ask for themselves. It is a different formula for everybody that tickles you. I am tickled by an old man chasing a girl with a big orange square of wood while shrieking "Beat the Wife!" in a high pitched squeak that is past a falsetto. I'm tickled by two old ladies gleefully talking about souls that become enslaved to the garden gnomes. I'm tickled by a guy eating fried chicken and sitting 3 ft from the tv screen commenting "It's British. I can tell by the way they talk."

Other people, however, may be bored and with good reason. The pacing in the first story is way off, and if you're not into a bit of humor, the third story will be irritating. Still, this one is worth a watch if you're bored and have nothing better to do, are sick and need something easy on the mind, or something. It's not really ultraviolent, though each of the three have slasher elements to it. It's somewhat sexist, but not overly done. I enjoyed myself, but it's not good. And, it's better than just middling. So, if you don't mind being tickled by low budget horror that makes you laugh more than scream and isn't designed for the gore or breast hounds, this is a good choice.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My Generation (2000): The Kids Aren't Alright

The Other Films (Classic)
original review: 2003

My Generation (2000)
dir: Barbara Kopple

Pre-note: I feel I am a Generation X kid who was born too late...

Film analyzation:
The movie was OK. The director definately felt she was closer to Generation X than Generation Why. This is pointed out by the fact that the first 80 minutes of the movie are dedicated to a comparison of Woodstock 94 and 69. Sure, they were closer to each other than 99 was, but 99 deserves the same amount of treatment. Obviously 99 was an add-on.

Another detraction was the violence of 99 was completely down-played for its size. But, thats the nature of the beast. You have to downplay something.

Cultural analyzation:
Being true to my subculture professor, I am regarding Woodstock 69 as a mainstream event. Moby had no idea what he was talking about when he was quoted in this movie by saying that the hippy subculture had something to rebel against, meaning Vietnam. The hippy culture was a rebellion of disillusionment against the establishment, as all subcultures before and after it should be. (side note: subcultures are now being commercially created, IMO). My professor established a difference between the hippies and the protestors, mainly saying that the hippies were too wasted to care about events.

Either way, Woodstock 69 was a mainstream event in the end. It was a bunch of people perverting and stretching the ideals of hippy culture to fit their own idea of what fun is, and how it relates to them. I'm not saying that hippy culture wasn't there (some of them probably were), but that more than a few were corproate lackeys even at that point. I mean a migration of 500,000 people from San Diego to New York is a bit hard to believe.

Woodstock 94 was played out the same way. The bands, like the ones in 69, were just subculture enough to be counter yet mainstream enough to attract everybody's attention. Perry Ferrell had already started Lollapalooza, and was already in the band Porno For Pyros (to put it in time reference frame). Many of the bands were of the grunge/alternative station. NIN also played.

Woodstock 99 was a completely mainstream event. The only subculture that may have been truely represented was the techno/rave culture. But, nobody cared about the techno tent that was there. The main acts were all the mainstream bullshit that you heard on the radio and turned off faster than you could hit a fly in 99. Some of them you can still turn off today. Green Day, Limp Bizkit, Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, etc. To say that corporate sponsorship was revealed in all of its full glory is to put it bluntly.

Basic comparisons:
69 & 94 - Mud people; 99 - sewage people (near the portopotties too, blech)
69 & 94 - Ultra planning gone awry; 99 - Ultra planning succeeding to bad ends
69 - Angry bands like The Who and Hendrix; 94 - NIN, Metallica, Porno for Pyros; 99 - DMX, Limp bizkit;
69, 94, & 99 - kids disillusioned about the societies before them
69 & 99 - Fires set to food vendors;
Major 99 differences - new rules, ATM lines, outrageous prices, sturdy fences, lack of water, air force place (new venue), heat (no storms), Woodstock Visa

Sexism was a major part at all 3 Woodstocks. Woodstock 69 had footage of men asking women to strip, 94 and 99 had all of this too. 99 also had sexual crimes against women.

69 was out for pure fun. They didn't care about the world changers. The people who were there wanted to be a part of something, and that's all. 94 was a bunch of jaded kids looking for something to do. They found a community which they could be a part of, and it promptly self-destructed in a couple of years. The difference being shown in 99 by the completely different line-up, the ultra-commercialism, and the happily stupid people. The riots were a big fuck you to the corporate stooges ripping off the kids of america.

Don't get me wrong 69 and 94 were definitely trying to make a profit (neither did). But, 99 should have been seen as a major difference when a producer guy gets up on stage and says "this is not a free concert like the previous 2 have been. I'm glad word has gotten out that if you don't have a ticket ($150 incidentally) then don't come." GACK. Talk about subverting the whole cultural idea of what Woodstock means. It was INTENDED as a commercial event, but ACTUALLY MEANS a subcultural community.

Whats next? We're in 2003, one year from the next Woodstock anniversary if there will be one. What wil be coming up next? A rap festival since that's what is "in" now. Hippy bands were "in" in 69, alternative was "in" in 94, angry commercial music was "in" in 99, now rap is "in" in 2003. Unless something else makes it big, its going to be another bad music festival.

Present Day Note:
This little social commentary is highly amusing in the present day with $300 festivals, and incidents like the gate trampling at <a href="http://www.fuse.tv/2014/03/miami-mayor-ban-ultra-music-festival">Ultra Music Festival</a>

Monday, April 7, 2014

Showgirls (1995): A Movie of Two Extremes: Pure Ambition and Pure Crap

Showgirls (1995)
dir: Paul Verhoeven

[taken and slightly expanded from my comments originally posted at The Dissolve]

[Trigger Warning]

Showgirls is a special failure. Very special. Verhoeven has the highest aspirations and, with Joe Esterhasz, created a plot that drives home his points about the sordid underbelly of Las Vegas. Yes, it uses the framework of All About Eve, but Showgirls isn't All About Eve, and Elizabeth Berkeley is no Anne Baxter.

There are two major faults with Showgirls that no movie can overcome: a terrible actress, and a terrible screenplay. In other words, Elizabeth Berkeley and Joe Esterhasz. Berkeley cannot act. That's a statement of fact. She never could. Growing up with Saved By the Bell, none of those kids could really act. None of them realized it. And, sadly, none of them ever would learn. Which was sad for those of us who hoped for more speedo clad movies with Mario Lopez going further down the gay movie pole. But, I digress. Berkeley's shining moment of Saved by the Bell was Jessie's Song, which had the era-defining "I'm So Excited...I'm So Scared" moment after a whole episode dedicated to caffeine pills. That one scene would define her whole acting presence in Showgirls.

Most reclamations gloss over most of the offensively bad parts that feature Berkeley and Esterhasz. Where she pulls out a switchblade on the driver, then stabs the radio playing Garth Brooks. The driver then swerves the truck to the shoulder, almost hitting a semi, then swerves back to the road once she puts it away, almost hitting the semi again. These people are histrionic.

Even when the terrible parts are mentioned by these revisionists, they gloss over Nomi's inexplicable attitude problems. How, in the initial meeting with Molly, Nomi goes from attacking a car, the pavement, soda, ketchup, and then the fries themselves...to suddenly moving into seductress mode without even a pause. And, Molly who sees a girl who is as violent as she is scared and refuses to answer her questions about identity and even mindless chit-chat, after knowing this girl for 10 minutes, offers her a place to live in her trailer. WHAT THE HELL?! This offer wasn't just unexpected to Nomi Malone, it was unbelievable to the audience.

The screenplay continues on with passages of dialogue that is frequently bad, but sometimes transcends to truly awful. The primary example of this would be:
"You fucked him AND her."
"Were you following me?! I didn't fuck anybody!!"
"I saw you! Man everybody got AIDS and shit. You know, what is it that you think you do? You fuck 'em without fucking them, that's what you do!" 
There's all kinds of wrong in this dialogue, not even talking about the logistics of getting AIDS without having sex. This dialogue isn't about a threesome, or even oral sex. This is about the infamous lap dance sequence where Nomi Malone gives Kyle MacLachlan a lapdance. This terrible dialogue would frequently transcend the realm of awful into the realm of ridiculous.

Somewhere in Showgirls is a morality movie that is essential and needed to be made. A story of power struggles, exploitation, and the perception of dancing vs stripping. Plus, who holds the money, money as power, and what money, power, and success can buy you. Unfortunately, that got piled full of shit like Edna Bazoom and her honking dress as a mother figure, or Nomi's washing machine antics of sex.

Verhoeven doesn't realize how terrible it is. Because, he tries. And he succeeds in polishing the turd. There is some amazing cinematography, set ups, themes, and everything technical. It's an astounding movie in terms of its visuals and its pacing. Even as an unintentional comedy. Verhoeven isn't really to fault...except he chose the actress and helped write the script.

[More after Jump, including discussion and image of the rape scene and its presence in the film]

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Punk Singer (2013): A Woman in the Open Wild

The Punk Singer (2013)
dir: Sini Anderson

If you grew up in the 90s, there was an air of women standing up for themselves...again. There was a vague feeling that this stemmed from the late 60s and into the 70s search for equality, but never had there been such a command of male techniques as what started forming in the late 1980s and into the 90s.

In the 90s, grunge became a thing, and punk moved into the mainstream. Almost all of the music was male dominated music that had to do with general teen angst and blah blah blah. But, then there was the riot grrrl movement, which had caught the attention of even many of the male adolescents in my generation. These were some seriously commanding female presences fighting for their right to be heard.

The four strongest female bands that I remembered from my misspent youth were L7, Hole, PJ Harvey, and Bikini Kill. All four of these bands landed in my worldview in the midwest within a year of each other, and all four kind of rocked my world.

The Punk Singer is about one of those bands...or more precisely, the lead singer of one of those bands.

To say that The Punk Singer is about the Riot Grrrl scene is overselling the movie. Yet, it is about a key component of that scene. To say that The Punk Singer is only about Kathleen Hanna is to undersell the movie because it also explains what she stood for and puts her in the very specific scene which she helped create. Sini Anderson has created a documentary that serves as a standalone footnote to other movies which were directly about the Riot Grrrl scene.

Kathleen Hanna is the lead singer of Bikini Kill, the creator of Julie Ruin, and later would lead Le Tigre before she disappeared from the spotlight for years. She would also marry Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. The Punk Singer follows Hanna from her youth as an art student through her life and into a where is she now, punctuated by home video, concert footage and interviews primarily with Hanna herself.

Anderson has constructed the movie so that you not only get a sense of who Hanna was, but why she was important. If Anderson oversells Hanna's role in creating the Riot Grrrl scene, it is primarily because she is singularly focused on Hanna due to the movie's nature as a portrait. Anderson uses footage from other films that are solely about the Riot Grrrl scene and includes those titles as a "If you want to learn more, here are some movies which dive deeper."

The Punk Singer is an essential footnote to the Riot Grrrl documentaries, especially because it wraps up the mysterious reason that Hanna disappeared from public life in 2005, stating that she was done and had said all that she had to say (spoiler: it was as false as it felt when she disappeared). It may even draw the new kids into seeing what their elders were up to, and how it paved the way for the 3rd wave of feminists.

Anderson keeps it personal, and includes some righteous concert footage. If it gets a bit rough it is only because some of this was homemade footage. But, it is an expertly assembled story of a girl who had something to say and demanded to be heard.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

General Orders No 9 (2011): A General Lament

Actual V.O.: My buns are vexed, and my soul is pure trouble.
General Orders No 9 (2011)
dir: Robert Persons

"This is some pretentious shit here." - Robert Persons

Take the -Qatsi trilogy. Now remove Philip Glass, and replace him with looooong droning chords. Now remove the global view and localize it to Georgia.  Add in some ruin porn and After Effects filters. And add in a really basic gravelly voice over that acts like a depressed lament for the past, present, and future by a semi-coherent luddite (think Terrance Malick but stupid). Now you have an idea of what General Order No 9 is as an experience.

General Order No 9 is a semi-gorgeous documentary about the progress in Georgia, and how terrible it is for everything. Not that anything was perfect before. There had been war and fires. Generally, progress sucks. Why can't we just live in our log cabins and forget that anybody else exists? Why can't we get back to nature? Look at these random objects I found. Like a railroad tie. Or a fly. Or a plastic die. Yes, I know the plastic die is the result of progress. Yes, I know it wouldn't have existed without cities. But, you're missing the point. Everything is shit.

Look at this nature. This used to be a deer trail. Then it became an Indian trail (dude...Native Americans, please). Then it became a county road. Man, it was good when it was a deer trail. And then there's this house which looks like it burned down. And there's a library full of books that never got cleaned up. This must have been awesome. Maybe it was Sherman that burned down this random-ass building in the middle of the forest. Or, perhaps by accident.

But, look at this small town. It used to be the center of it all. By "it all," of course, I mean Georgia. Because, really, isn't Georgia the center of the universe? There was a bell tower and a weather vane. There were perfect roads that went in cardinal directions. Everything was built around it. Wasn't that great? No cows ever escaped the farms. Too bad it turned to shit.

Progress really screwed things over. Look at these soulless buildings. Man, it really sucks here. Why can't we all spread out and return to nature? Why are we all so sprawling. I mean, it can't be because people keep having multiple kids can it? We don't need to put them anywhere, do we? Bah. Anyways, there's a freeway now too. But, it was made to bypass nature. Here's a Waffle House. Don't those places suck?

The present sucks. It's too crowded and we forgot who we are. But, the past sucked too. When we pushed out the Native Americans. I think that sucked. Well, at least it sucked for them. But, let's not dwell on them too much lest we get even more depressed that we took the land over from them. And then there was war. People burned down our shit. Yeah, sure, we started the war and it was about owning people, but look at what it did to the nature. You fuckers!

I guess I'm just depressed. I don't know what I want. Maybe I just want to go off the grid. But, I like progress too much. Aren't movie theaters soulless now? Why am I making movies? Maybe I'm a bit shiftless myself. I always have been. But, I don't know what to do. I don't want to work in a boring office building of droning CGI white walls. That would suck. It's not an exit.

What do I do? How do I end this? I guess it's over. Fin.