Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Blogorium Review: Bad Words

 Around nine years ago, I saw this movie called Fuck; it was a documentary about profanity, and specifically how the titular word was the best one. It was one of the last things I remember seeing Hunter S. Thompson in while he was still alive. You might be familiar with the word, but if you're young and somehow haven't come across it until you found this review, it has its own scene in A Christmas Story. Ralphie calls it the "queen mother of dirty words," but in the movie he says "fudge." But he didn't say "fudge." He said "fuck." Hence, the soap in the mouth. Don't say it out loud, kids.

 Bad Words contains the "fudge" word and a whole bunch of other ones, some that aren't even curse words. Like floccinaucinihilipilification, which is a word that 40 year old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has to spell when he uses an obscure loophole to enter a spelling bee for middle school students. We first meet Guy arguing that he's perfectly eligible because he didn't complete the 8th grade by the cut-off year and then threatens to shut down the Spelling Bee if he can't compete. When he wins, he's chased out of the school by angry parents, but Guy has the trophy, and more importantly, he's going to the Golden Quill Spelling Bee Tournament.

  Guy's sponsor, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) is a reporter along for the ride, and while he promised her insight into why a grown man with a photographic memory is competing with pre-teens, he hasn't been very forthcoming. Instead, he drinks a lot and makes enemies with everybody he meets. His presence is even less welcome at the Golden Quill, with the director of the program, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) promising to make his life miserable (starting with booking the utilities closet as his hotel room). The founder of the Golden Quill, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) takes great umbrage a Guy's temerity, but he's technically playing by the rules. Except, of course, when he isn't: even though Guy has no problem spelling any word given to him, he still feels the need to cheat in order to eliminate two competitors. He's a bad person, obviously.

 The only kid who doesn't think Guy is a horrible asshole is Chaitanya Chopra (newcomer Rohan Chand), a young man with no friend, other than his notebook (named "Todd"). Guy wants nothing to do with Chaitanya at first, but eventually decides to teach him how to get in trouble, with an accompanying montage of shenanigans set to a Beastie Boys song. (The best part is the novel use of a lobster involving a toilet). Their relationship is the backbone of Bad Words, in large part because much ado is made of the question "Why is Guy doing this?" but the script by Andrew Dodge mostly strings you along until an hour or so in. In the meantime, here, enjoy Jason Bateman being the jerk for a change.

 Bad Words is a movie that's sometimes pretty good but never great. There are laughs to be had, but more often you'll chuckle, and the reliance on profanity and crude behavior doesn't quite sustain the film. I've heard criticism of movies like Bad Santa and Cheap Thrills for their reliance on shock value and bad taste over actual narrative, but Bad Words does even less with its central conceit. Once you know why Guy is hell-bent on making a mockery of the Golden Quill, it doesn't make his actions any more justified, or make the story any richer. And, despite that, the climax of the film - the showdown between the last two competitors (I'll let you guess based on the synopsis) - is arguably the best part of Bad Words.

 The vulgarity up to that point is amusing at first, but wears out its welcome by the first sex scene, when Jenny is screaming "don't look at me" at Guy, a joke that ends up being reused later, to no real effect. Anything you see Guy teaching Chaitanya comes off as a pale retread of Bad Santa, which is shame because Chand and Bateman have good chemistry on-screen together. Most of the other parents (including former VH1 and The Daily Show regular Rachael Harris) are there to express their frustration with Guy, and for him to string together crass insults at. Again, it's amusing, up to a point, but to be honest I nearly lost interest leading up the end of the film.

  If the novelty of Jason Bateman not being the "everyman" he usually plays is enough for you, Bad Words might be worth checking out. I will grant that as a director, Bateman keeps Bad Words visually interesting, even if the story struggles to maintain momentum. The "twist" doesn't amount to much, and the shock value of a belligerent adult in a pre-teen environment wears out quickly, but the movie never collapses. It chugs along, dutifully playing the same notes as Bad Santa and other films of its ilk, but not doing anything really new with the tune. I suppose for some, that's good enough. More people seem to enjoy it than I did, for what it's worth.

 In all honesty, I had no expectations going in to Bad Words, because I only knew it existed after seeing a review on CNN while getting my oil changed, but the premise sounded interesting. I was a little bummed that it didn't live up to even the muted hype, but a telling (and worrying) giveaway for me was the presence of the "Darko Productions" logo in front of the movie. While it should have no bearing on Bateman as a director, there's not really a better indicator of "failed potential" than Richard Kelly (Southland Tales), and unfortunately it carried over to films being presented by his production company. And it is, for a little while - while never hilarious, you might find Bad Words to be a nice distraction as a Saturday afternoon rental, but not much more than that. If you're really looking for bad language, might I recommend Fuck instead? That'll cover your bases, and you'll be able to spell most of them to boot.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bad Movie Night 2014 Recap (Part Two)

 Picking up right where we left off, Dr. Strange ended, and so began the bathroom and smoke breaks that rob every fest of precious movie time, but for those who stuck around, I rewarded them with Crispin Glover's bizarro video for "Ben," his bizarro version of the already bizarre Michael Jackson song. You might have heard it - it's apparently part of the Cirque de Soleil tribute to Jackson - but maybe didn't know it was a love song to a rat. The title song, in fact, to the sequel to Willard, and not the one with Crispin Glover (that was a remake). Later, I played the video again with Glover's commentary, where he speaks without taking a breath for three minutes and gives you more information than you can possibly process about what the hell his video is about. And that, my friends, was the prelude to A Talking Cat?!?

 For years, people have been asking me if I'll show The Room at Bad Movie Night, and for years, I've had to explain that I don't enjoy The Room, even in an unintentionally funny level. I think it's boring in its amateurish execution. Sorry. It just doesn't do anything for me. I understand that many comedians I respect love the movie and extol its virtues, but when I saw it for the first time, I couldn't wait for it to be over. However, it doesn't stop people from asking, so I opted instead to give them what I'd heard what the "Family Movie" equivalent of The Room: A Talking Cat?!? In execution, it's fair to compare it to The Room, but there's something charmingly awful about this stupid little movie that melted our frozen, bitter hearts.

 Maybe it was reusing the same establishing / transitional shots over and over again (including the one where the camera starts shaking), even when they didn't make any sense. Why does the camera cut to the beach when all of the characters live near the mountains? Good question. Is one of the houses clearly a rental, possibly where porn shoots happen, and one that took all of the family photos off of the walls, leaving nails inexplicably featured? Most likely. Does the other house get two, completely different, exterior shots, one that can't possibly be the same house? Yes indeed. And that's just the technical aspects. If I were to tell you that David DeCoteau (pretending to be "Mary Crawford"), director of Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, was behind the camera, all of that would make sense. But I suspect that most of you are wondering about the talking cat.

 The top billed "name" in A Talking Cat?!? is Eric Roberts (Chicks Dig Gay Guys) as the voice of Duffy, the titular character, and it's clear from the moment he starts talking that he recorded all of his voiceover via speakerphone, probably while on the toilet. How much of it is scripted and how much is just Roberts rambling is up for debate, but Duffy (Squeaky) does a lot of narrating and not a lot of talking. That's because he can only talk to a person once. He says he didn't make the rules, but who would have? Anyway, the people at Bad Movie Night were confused because it certainly seems like Duffy is responding to questions before he actually talks to them (kind of like Garfield), but I explained they'd know when he was talking, because of the crude, reverse Clutch Cargo style animation superimposed over his mouth.

 Duffy has a plan to bring two families together and wanders between their houses talking to these weirdos one at a time. There's the single father (Sigmund and the Sea Monsters' Johnnie Whitaker) with his son (Justin Cone), who is clearly gay but is shoehorned into an awkward romance with a girl (Alison Sieke) that is using him to get out of reading her English texts. The other family has an overworked mother (Kristine DeBell, of Alice in Wonderland: An X Rated Fantasy) with a daughter she won't allow to go to college (Janis Peebles) and an idiot son (newcomer Daniel Dannas) who doesn't think he has an imagination. And he probably doesn't. To be honest, I was distracted by the duct tape covering the Apple logo on the daughter's Macbook (not to be mistaken for the Macbook that also has duct tape covering the logo that the single dad has). Oh, they all have names, but you won't care what they are.

 For a long time, we thought that maybe A Talking Cat?!? was about coming to terms with being a closeted teen, especially when the two sons get in the pool together and the one with no imagination teaches the other one how to swim, but apparently not. To be honest, I don't know what the point of A Talking Cat?!? is, other than to give you something new to laugh at in every scene. It's either one of the most poorly executed family films ever, or a work of secret brilliance. There are so many awkward, silly, and stupid moments that you never get bored, which is a plus. The room was howling with laughter towards the end, which should never be the case when a cat is hit by a car, let alone a talking one, but when you see the terrible way they convey that Duffy is "comfortable but not doing well," it's hard not to chuckle. I feel like people who love The Room are really going to take to A Talking Cat?!?, and as far as I'm concerned, it's the better of the two at not achieving anything it sets out to do.

 The bar was set pretty low with A Talking Cat?!?, but met in its own dumb way. Knowing what was to come, I scheduled a movie that seemed like a surefire "winner" - an alien invasion movie made in Texas in the 1980s, with top to bottom bad acting, sets that don't make any sense, and special effects that are anything but. And in that regard, I guess Mutilations succeeded. The rest of the crowd didn't agree, but compared with what followed, it's a charming failure.

 Mutilations is the little movie that couldn't: despite the best efforts of the cast, crew, and visual effects team, there's not much about the film that works. But they're trying so hard to make a good movie that you feel sorry for not enjoying the film. It gets and "A" for Effort and a "D-" for execution. Even at 67 minutes, it feels like the middle goes on for too long. There's a promising set up involving some hobos being, uh, mutilated by a quaint little spaceship and its passengers, done mostly from the alien's perspective. I personally enjoyed Professor Jim McFarland (Al Baker) and his students, each of whom struggle to deliver even one line correctly. Even the guy who seems to be playing Stephen King's character from Creepshow. They're likable losers, and I guess characters, too.

 McFarland, his assistant Ann (Katherine Hutson) and astronomy students travel to a remote country area to study meteorites and / or possible reports of mutilations. How that fits into their field of study is better not to ask, because the first thing they find is a stop motion, inside out cow that the cast is rear projected behind. And there's no mistaking that's what it is. They end up in the house of a hermit when a UFO crashes outside and must find a way out. Now, I could point out that this is the largest "shack" I've ever seen, but the geography of the caves beneath it (bootleggers owned it before the crazy, Harlan Ellison looking dude who has a history with the aliens) is mind boggling.

 Once they get down there, you do get to see the rest of the aliens (prior to that point, it's a set of legs and one arm), and they, um, don't disappoint. The lizard-y things are also crudely stop motion animated, but using some miniatures (why would a bootlegger own a harpoon?), there's a vaguely convincing battle between human and alien. And then we learn flashlights are their weakness. And that 60 year old dynamite takes a very long time to explode. And then it's over. Some people live, some people die, and they gave it their all. I guess Mutilations has the benefit of looking better by comparison to what came next. Because then there was Things...

 Before I tell you about my experience with Barry J. Gillis' low-fi-North of the Border monstrosity, here's a brief sampling of what people who experienced the film Things had to say about it.

 "Things is proof that some independent movies should never be made." - Sarah M.

 "I watched Things and I am not a better person for it. This movie is so bad it may have caused permanent damage." - Patrick C.

"Things. It was definitely a thing. I wish it wasn't." - Neil W.

 "Things is a high-tension roller coaster through your own brain as you question why you thought it was a good idea" - Zak M.

"Things pushes the boundaries of what defines cinema... but not in the way you would hope." - Chris H.

 "Feel like Canada took a shit in your brain? You have just experienced Things." - Matt E. 

I've spent more than my fair share with bad movies over the last twenty years (at least). It's not as though I don't know what I'm getting into here. Usually, the Cap'n has his line and it doesn't get crossed: for example, I've seen exactly one and a half Uwe Boll movies (Blubberella and In the Name of the King), and only two and a half Asylum movies (Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, plus the tail end of Crocosaurus vs. Gatoroid or something like that). There are things I simply know better than to get involved with. I don't know that I'll ever finish Horror of the Blood Monsters / Vampire Men of the Lost World, and I'm okay with that. Sometimes only making it twenty minutes is good enough after four tries.

 That still pales in comparison to watching Things. And I finished Things. Twice. I heard that it was the kind of movie that hurt to watch, but that if you planned on seeing it, you needed to at least watch it again with people who hadn't seen it. Then you could see what it looked like when you watched it. I'm not exaggerating when I say it broke my brain for a while the first time, in a combination of frustration and "what the fuck am I watching" that I haven't experienced since a friend went temporarily insane after the one-two punch of American Wedding and Gigli. Like I said, I know my bad movies. I watched The Happening four times in one year.

 Things is unlike any bad movie I think I've ever seen - a deliberate exercise in not giving a shit about being a horror movie and instead putting the monsters in the background while two guys (Gillis and Doug Bunston) dick around with each other. It was three, but then one of them (Bruce Roach) was "sucked into another dimension" (was not available for filming) only to mysteriously reappear later with a chainsaw, and then be eaten and turn into a talking skull. Bunston's character (also named Doug) dies at least twice and comes back, but the last time might be a dream, unless the whole movie is a dream (which it might be), in which case who knows. The titular characters come as a result of a deal that Doug makes with Dr. Lucas (Jan W. Pachul), in order to impregnate his wife (Patricia Sadler) through some sort of evil ritual or something. There's an evil book and tape recorder in the freezer, as well as Don (Gillis)'s coat. That's where you put it, I guess.

 Anyway, Susan dies and the things come out (they look like big ants with teeth out of Alien) and Fred disappears and Don and Doug (who are brothers) pour alcohol on each other and put bugs in their sandwiches and distract each other from using the bathroom and watch horror movies on TV. Our only respite from this are news reports (?) from porn star Amber Lynn (herself). Half the time she's talking about news that has no bearing on the story, but every now and then she'll mention something that suggests Don and Fred are dangerous people and have been on the run for two weeks, which is either meant to cast doubt on what we're seeing or is just a poorly done example of breaking the fourth wall. Maybe it doesn't matter.

 Confounding the situation is the fact that Gillis shot Things on 8mm without sound, and rerecorded it all in what feels like one go with a single microphone. All the voices are done with one microphone, and many of them sound like the same person making voices. All of the sound effects are one the same way (a sink turns into him pouring water from one cup to another), complete with the muffled sound of the microphone scraping against hands, clothing, etc. To cover this up, there are a series of different music cues from his friends' bands, many of which only make Things more baffling.

 I hated Things the first time I watched it, and I saw it alone, with no one to help ease the mental anguish. The second time, during Bad Movie Night, I decided to sit next to the TV, facing the people who could leave at any time (remember, the door was unlocked) but who subjected themselves willingly to a movie that only wants to infuriate you, to dismantle your brain bit by bit. One person watched the movie with a pillow pressed firmly against his face. Another repeatedly gave me the finger. Many, MANY times I heard the phrases "what?", "what the fuck?", and "fuck you, movie!" as time wore on. Things is a maddening endurance test for even the most hardened bad movie-phile, but when it ends and you hit the title card that says:

 Well, you feel like you earned it, whatever that's worth. And based on the reaction, not much. As an apology, I saved Samurai Cop for last, because if you want a bad action movie to close things out on, this is near the top of the bottom. For reasons beyond me, I was not aware of Samurai Cop, which is a shame, because it beats Bionic Ninja or whatever the name of the movie I tried to show at Bad Movie Night many years ago was. (That ended up being a case of one title being used for many different movies on home video, so the film I thought I ordered in no way matched what we started watching, and that was a shame considering the clip from YouTube).

 Samurai Cop is every bad action movie you've ever seen distilled to the ultimate formula, and then botched horribly in execution. I know that everyone keeps calling Detective / Officer Joe Marshall (Matt Hannon) "samurai," but there's really no evidence of that in the film at all. He has a few bad looking chop sockey fights, some truly awkward sex scenes (I'm not sure that Marshall knows how "sex" works), and a sped up samurai sword fight with Yamashita (Robert Z'Dar) at the end, because they clearly didn't want to really use those swords against each other. Otherwise, it's a lot of gun fights, some explosions, car chases, home invasions, and line delivery that even a robot could improve on. And you love it the entire time.

 Is it fair to assume that Hannon's partner, Frank Washington (Mark Frazer) is high throughout the movie? Maybe not, but he sure looks like it in every reaction shot. Does Robert Z'Dar hide inside of a laundry basket with a trash can in order to cut off someone's head in a hospital? He does, and when he emerges, he's wearing a doctor's coat and credentials, so we can assume he'll just walk out, right? Nope. Back to crouching in the hamper with the severed head in the trashcan. If, for some reason, you're reading a recap of something called Bad Movie Night and you don't know how tall Robert Z'Dar is (or what he looks like), may I suggest looking at this? Now you know why the imagine of him crouching back into the hamper is hilarious.

 There is a precision to action movies, even the terrible ones, that Samurai Cop seems to lack. Maybe it's the fight scene in a garden that abruptly cuts to a different location where Hannon is unmistakably wearing a wig. Yeah, that's probably it, since that happens again. Personally, I kind of liked the little details, like a dog in somebody's yard chasing Hannon and Frazer as they run past, a reminder of how little concern went into making this look like a real movie. But then again, compared to Things, Samurai Cop looked like Lethal Weapon, and A Talking Cat?!? looked like The Godfather*. Even Mutilations looked less crappy in comparison. To be fair, Samurai Cop is endearing in the same way Andy Sidaris movies are, which from my perspective is a compliment. And that ought to be good enough.

 Due to time considerations, we had to skip Battle of the Damned, Suburban Sasquatch, and Destroyer, but all three will make appearances during Summer Fest in July. Stay tuned...

* - Neil W.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bad Movie Night 2014 Recap (Part One)

 It's an off and off tradition here at the Blogorium to take a Saturday in April and devote it to some of the very least that cinema has to offer. I try to keep the "bad" movies entertaining, and generally speaking am successful, but these one day events are strictly for the willing. I'm not going to promise you're going to have a good time, but the door is also unlocked. That last part will be important in a little bit. Previous Bad Movie Nights have included titles like Mac and Me, Troll 2, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, Hard Ticket to Hawaii, She Devil, and Masters of the Universe. I don't always go for the low hanging fruit (okay, we did watch Batman & Robin the first year), but if you're going to sift through the best of the worst, it helps to have some familiar titles.

 The following winners comprised our 2014 edition, which to date includes the most infamous, most hated of all Bad Movie Night entries. And I knew it would. And none of them left. Remember that.

 We didn't start out at the bottom, but The Neanderthal Man isn't exactly high art. I like to kick off BMN's (and Summer Fests) with a B-Movie from the 1950s, particularly one with questionable "science." In The Neanderthal Man, Professor Clifford Groves (Robert Shane) is furious that his colleagues won't accept his theory that primitive man was as intelligent (or more) than modern man. And why won't they take him seriously? Only because he admits he has no proof for this theory. None. But, it turns out, he does! Using "science," Professor Groves has invented a serum that activates a regressive state in cats (and later, in humans), turning cats into sabretooth Tigers and his deaf / mute / illiterate housekeeper into Tim Curry from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

 The Neanderthal Man is a hoot; it's a hodgepodge of borrowed sets (why the mountains of California hosts a cafe that looks suspiciously like an Old West saloon, complete with cowboys, is never addressed), mismatched footage (the tiger is clearly just a tiger, complete with chain in most shots, and in close ups is a stuffed animal with tusks to indicate it's not just a tiger loose in the mountains of California). Groves' fiance Ruth Marshall (Doris Merrick) is partial to long winded monologues about the meaning of love and science that make it feel like the screenwriters thought five dollar words literally translated to five dollars per word. The titular creature that Groves becomes is clearly wearing a mask and sometimes forgets to put his hairy gloves on. He has a grown daughter, Jan (Joyce Terry), and wears a wedding ring, but has a fiance. Jan only owns one dress and wears it for the entire movie, which takes place over a few days. Groves kicks out a zoologist (Richard Crane) who investigates the shenanigans, but doesn't bat an eye when he's back in their house the next day and the day after that. It's the perfect recipie of "let's get this done and get it in drive-ins" that kicks things off in the right spirit.

 After that, we transitioned to one of the most requested Bad Movie Night entries: Gymkata. At movie designed to capitalize on Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas, it's a perfect example of nothing really working in a movie, and yet still being quite entertaining. Thomas plays Jonathan Cabot, whose father disappeared during a super secret challenge in the nonexistent Eastern European country of Parmistan. In addition to being a gymnast, Cabot is also a spy, so he infiltrates the competition with the help of Princess Rubali (former Playboy model Tetchie Agbayani), who doesn't say anything for the first fifteen minutes, but when she does, you realize why. He father, The Kahn (Buck Kartalian), who looks and acts like a character Mel Brooks would be playing, rules Parmistan, but his Australian right hand man Zamir (Richard Norton, back when Australians were the bad guys, before Crocodile Dundee) is plotting a coup and using the games as a ruse to set it in motion... or something.

 Following a lengthy training montage that never mentions that "gymkata" is the style Cabot uses (a combination of gymnastics and karate) and his ability to walk up stairs while doing a handstand (never used again in the movie), John and the Princess are off to Parmistan to be betrayed in a salt mine, float down a river, be captured, and eventually rejoin The Kahn who apparently was expecting them. Yeah, don't expect coherent through lines in this movie. Just look for hanging bars or pommel horses, because Cabot seems to find them just when he needs to attack many people who happily stand there and let him kick them while swinging. I feel bad for the poor, toothless people of Bulgaria who stood in for citizens of Parmistan - they're clearly excited to be in a movie, but at least one of them is knocked over by a horse on camera and they kept it in the film! The entire fictional country is treated like a shithole that these foreign combatants need to survive through, including the closed off city of the insane, which is at least the most surreal part of a film that involves Kurt Thomas climbing a rope while holding his legs straight out for no good reason. I can understand why we never saw a Gymkata 2, or any other action vehicles starring Thomas. Still, quite amusing in a stupid way.

 The Demolitionist, on paper, sounds like a movie geek's dream come true. Directed by Robert Kurtzman (the "K" in KNB visual effects, and also the creator of From Dusk Till Dawn), this quasi-Robocop knock-off exists in its own heightened reality where "over the top" isn't quite good enough for the cast. Oh, and did I mention the cast includes Susan Tyrell (Forbidden Zone), Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), Jack Nance (Eraserhead), Reggie Bannister (Phantasm), Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Bruce Abbott (Re-Animator), Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead), a young Derek Mears (Jason Voorhees from Shit Coffin), and an uncredited Bruce Campbell (Crimewave)? Yes, it's a dream come true, until you realize that most of them are barely in the movie.

 Instead, we spend most of our time with Nicole Eggert (Blown Away) and Richard Greico (Point Doom) as the titular Demolitionist and the bad guy, respectively. And wow, do they not know how to play camp like the rest of the cast. I'm not sure what Kurtzman was thinking, but these two blocks of oak drag down everything that could be fun about The Demolitionist and quickly explain why you've never heard of this movie before. Eggert plays undercover cop Alyssa Lloyd, who is seriously injured by "Mad Dog" Burne (Grieco), and dies in the hospital. Her partner takes a bullet point blank to the brain but somehow lives (he also kind of looks like Crispin Glover, but isn't). Burne is one half of a brother team who has a sadistic side and loves brazen daylight robberies (Kurtzman apparently has a favorite "type" here, since you're going to think about how much cooler the Gecko brothers are than the Burnes). When his brother dies from electrified pee (don't ask), he decides to... I don't know. Kill the mayor (Tyrell), replace her with the corrupt chief of police (Peter Jason, wearing a leftover costume from Demolition Man and otherwise known as "that guy!") and generally continue to run wild with his biker gang (which includes Mears, Savini, Campbell, as well as a Greg Nicotero /Howard Berger cameo two-fer).

 But science can bring Alyssa back! Professor Jack Crowley (Abbott) injects nanobots into her bloodstream and she becomes a super cop - for a while, until she needs more injections or she'll rot. There's a LOT of "do I want to be like this" and contemplative staring from Eggert, or maybe she just forgot her lines. I don't know. The potential for The Demolitionist to be schlocky fun pretty much fizzles out before it gains any momentum, so by the time Bruce shows up it becomes the highlight of the movie as you a) recognize him, b) debate whether you really saw him, and c) hear his one line and realize that it is, in fact, Bruce Campbell to save the day. And then he dies when the Demolitionist kills everybody in the biker gang. It's almost as lame as the wasted potential of abandoning a little girl holding two live grenades. Such a shame.

 Peering into the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I returned with Doctor Strange, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton. Now that I've sent half of you away squealing with joy and the other hand angrily stomping off to complain on a comic book forum, we actually watched the almost totally forgotten 1978 TV movie version of Dr. Strange. It's 80% origin story, 10% magical showdown, and 10% setup for the continuing adventures of Stephen Strange that television audiences never got. And yet, Stan Lee contends that the only reason that Dr. Strange didn't do well was that it aired opposite Roots.

 Were that true, Dr. Strange might have been a curious case for counter-programming, but the truth is that the movie is just pretty bad. It mostly meanders through its plot, about Morgan LeFay (Arrested Development's Jessica Walter, looking way hotter than you'd ever want Lucille Bluth to) trying to destory Thomas Lindmer (Special Guest Star John Mills) - split his name up and you'll get it - with Clea Lake (Anne-Marie Martin, of The Boogens fame) and Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten, of The Inglorious Bastards, but looking suspiciously like John Holmes) caught in the middle or their mystical feud. Morgan's demon master sounds like Bane and has an unfortunate stop-motion mouth, while Merlin - er, Lindmer - just has Wong (Clyde Kusatsu), his butler / assistant.

Most of the movie takes place at the hospital where Strange works, and after LeFay possesses Clea and uses her to push Merlin off of a bridge (which doesn't kill him, because he uses his regenerative Time Lord magic powers to get up and walk away), she ends up in the psych ward. Strange tries to help her, ends up meeting Merlin and fighting Morgan (in the last fifteen minutes of a 90 minute movie) and gets two magical costumes, one worse than the other. There are sources of amusement to be drawn from New York in the 1970s, including a prominently featured Seinfeld Book store that hints at what's to come in television. But unless you're a fan of Doctor Strange - and I must admit, I didn't know much about him - this isn't going to ring your bell. People who know Jessica Walter from Archer or Arrested Development will probably enjoy this, although it's going to feel weird seeing her in so many low-cut dresses and showing so much leg. On the other hand, I spent most of Dr. Strange trying to figure out why I recognized Clea, and now I know it's because of my fondness for The Boogens... Oh, The Boogens.

 We're only at the halfway mark, gang! I'll be back tomorrow to wrap it up with A Talking Cat?!?, Mutilations, Things, and Samurai Cop!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Blogorium Review: The Addiction

 Continuing in an unofficial streak of "hey, there's another Abel Ferrara movie I haven't watched yet," I finished up Ms. 45 and noticed a copy of The Addiction on the "to see" pile. Ferrara made The Addiction between Body Snatchers and The Funeral (there's also Dangerous Games, the Harvey Keitel / Madonna movie that most of us didn't see in there as well), the former I have not seen and the latter I have. It was interesting to see Ferrara making another movie set in contemporary New York, especially following Ms. 45, which is a "New York at the cusp of the 80s" and King of New York, the equivalent for the 1990s. This is more of the New York wedged between the end of the grunge era and the beginning of the Wu Tang dynasty. At least, that would have been the case if The Addiction came out in 1994 (the trademark on the credits) and not 1995 (released alongside The Funeral);  Maybe Ferrara wanted to draw a sharper contrast to Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn.

 That brings us to the "spoiler" of The Addiction: it's about vampires. Not exactly conventional vampires - they don't really seem to have fangs and they aren't picky about how they get their blood into the system (more on that in a moment), but they have the same attitude of superiority over humans are generally pretty unpleasant. One of them, named Casanova in the credits (Annabella Sciorra) attacks Kathleen Conkin (Lili Taylor) and forces her into an alleyway (wait... this is sounding familiar) and taunts her before biting her neck and having a little snack. Kathleen is traumatized, but lives, and as the days go on, she notices some... changes. Light seems just a little more painful, her appetite for regular food diminishes. She starts vomiting blood. Kathleen has... The Addiction.

 Now if you're wondering if the title means we're going into metaphorical territory here, don't. Remember when I said in the Ms. 45 review that Ferrara likes to mix the "trashy with arthouse sensibilities"? Little did I know that the "subtext" in The Addiction was literally just going to be the text, but it's pretty clear the moment you see Kathleen use a syringe to draw blood from a sleeping transient and then inject it into her own veins. I guess I should have known it was coming sooner than that, because Cypress Hill's "I Want to Get High" is in the soundtrack almost immediately (the byproduct, I think, of executive producer Russell Simmons, whose name appears in the opening credits before Ferrara's or screenwriter Nicholas St. John's). It also plays later in the film, just in case you forgot - she wants to get high. So high.

 It turns out that drug addiction is only partially what Ferrara and St. John are going for with The Addiction: I haven't mentioned yet that Kathleen is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of New York (that's what it says...), which kind of explains the fact that the film opens with a slideshow of atrocities committed in Vietnam and repeatedly comes back to a Holocaust exhibit in New York City, often juxtaposed with Kathleen finding new victims. The issue of how humans can be so, well, inhuman, dovetails into her research, or at least with making the allusions to philosophy more explicit. It's one thing to address a character who moves beyond good and evil, but it might be a little too on the nose for her professor (Paul Calderon) to assign Nietzsche in the class she's taking.

 Which is not to say I'm being too critical of The Addiction, but there's not much in the way of subtlety in the film. For some, the breaking point might be when Peina (Christopher Walken) shows up, and turns Kathleen's superiority complex on its ear. She's been prone to taking people, students, guys who leer at her on the street, and physically imposing her will on them (see, the will to power? get it?) while taunting them to "ask me to leave," which she never does. One night, she sneaks up behind Peina, who easily overtakes her and brings her up to his apartment. He's much older than she is and has a better grasp on "the addiction" (yes, that's what they call it in the movie). He's even learned to control it, to mask it, and to "pass" for human. He tells her she's "nothing" and suggests she reads Naked Lunch because "Burroughs really captures what it's like not to have a face." To some, his monologues are going to be the tipping point between "trashy arthouse" and "pretentious," but Peina's role in the overall narrative is a small one.

 The truth is that I can't really defend the philosophical or (later) religious overtones* in The Addiction - they are what they are, and barely disguised as anything else. If you aren't as familiar with Kathleen's field of study as I am, it might not be so apparent that this is a Philosophy 101 level** depiction of the vampire as √úbermensch. The good news is that you can also enjoy it as an interesting take on the increasingly crowded genre of vampire movies. It's somewhere between Tony Scott's The Hunger and Chan-Wook Park's Thirst in its ambitions, but Ferrara's low-fi techniques give The Addiction a unique feel. Ferrara shot the film in twenty days, in black and white, and makes the best of chiaroscuro lighting (the criss-cross pattern on Casanova's face during the first attack is particularly striking).

 Lili Taylor is very good as Kathleen, who goes on a more interesting arc than I was expecting from the middle of the film. In a way, there are parallels to the protagonist of Ms. 45 - both go from positions of relative innocence (as innocent as a Ph.D. Philosophy candidate can be, anyway) to victims to taking control of their new-found stature, and eventually become indiscriminate killers. There's a scene late in the film when we realize that Kathleen has not simply been abandoning her victims that helps shift the film a bit, and leads to one of the bloodier vampire attacks this side of 30 Days of Night. Walken and Calderon are asked to carry most of the leaden dialogue about the nature of being that we maybe didn't need. I'm still on the fence about that, because even for 1994/5 this is a more interesting approach to vampires, and while not exactly novel (and definitely not subtle), it is refreshing considering what passes for bloodsuckers these days.

 By and large, The Addiction is Taylor's movie, but there are a few other characters that make an impression: Edie Falco comes in and out of the story as Jean, Kathleen's fellow PhD colleague. Fredro Starr (of Onyx fame, another group on the soundtrack) has a few memorable scenes as Black, who tries to pick up Kathleen early in the film and regrets it later. Kathryn Erbe (later of Oz and Stir of Echoes) is an anthropology student that Kathleen targets in the library, and the conversation they have after biting / being bitten is the first insight into Conklin's new outlook on life. While he's listed in the main credits, don't expect to see Michael Imperioli for very much in the film: he has one scene as a missionary, although his refusal to follow Kathleen inside is a bit of foreshadowing I didn't necessarily see coming.

 In fact, the ending in general helps The Addiction overcome some of the more obvious allegories of the film, even if the last shot is about as understated as a Slayer album (sorry, no Slayer on the soundtrack, but you do see a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt early in the film). If you don't mind mixing your vampires with the revelation that "self awareness is the annihilation of self" and enjoy an atmospheric, gritty vampire story, you'll probably enjoy The Addiction. It's also an interesting companion piece to Ms. 45 and King of New York as a continued exploration of different sections of New York over time (fashion, crime, education), so on that level Ferrara succeeds. And let's be honest, it's a hell of a lot better than Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn. Low hanging fruit, I know, but I'm still debating the relative merits of The Addiction. On one hand, I liked the execution visually, and the direction of the story was compelling, but on the other hand, it was like listening to a first year philosophy major lecture me about the nature of good and evil. It's a toss-up for now.

 * Late in the film, there are some direct quotes from R.C. Sproul, which echo a lot of early Calvinist writings about the nature of man and its inability to rise above sin on Earth. It's a little odd, if only because the end of the film is heavy on Catholic imagery, and seems to suggest the opposite - salvation is possible, or at least forgiveness.
 **Is Nietzsche philosophy 101? I came to him from another direction, in a religious studies class about "Masters of Suspicion," but I would gather most philosophy majors know Beyond Good and Evil, if not the rest.