Global Warming Totally Sucks – Birdemic: Shock & Terror


After seeing Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in Cleveland a few months ago, I was sure it reached a new benchmark in bad film-making. Not only is it steeped in horrendous acting, baffling dialogue, fleeting plot points and characters, awkward sex scenes, a grossly unappealing leading man, and suspiciously plentiful assertions of heterosexuality, but, adding to the humor, Wiseau tried to save face by selling it as a black comedy.

Then, I saw Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

Completed in 2008, but not released until this year,  Birdemic is the latest “Best Worst” movie gaining a cult following on the indie theater midnight movie circuit. Generously described (with intentional humor) in the Moviehead press release as a “Romantic Thriller,” the first 40 minutes painstakingly detail the reunion of high school classmates who start dating. It almost like watching one of those movies from high school language lab that teach conversational French. And it’s followed by another 40 minutes painstakingly detailing the new young couple’s mostly pointless attempts to escape a sudden attack by a mob of crazy ass birds. And there’s still the 10 minute finale where the heroes collect to watch the birds, which seem stuck in mid-air.

And all while pushing a serious political agenda!

Brazenly submitted for the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 (although let’s face it, they do show a fair amount pretentious shit there), it was not surprisingly rejected. Aside from trying to make a movie out of two halves of a half-developed whole, coupled with the usual flaws that make these movies so comical (bad acting, loose logic, and bizarre dialogue, etc.), Birdemic demonstrates a new level of technical ignorance. Reaction and establishing shots are done to death. Scenes filmed in noisy locations muffle conversations several times. Shots that look like the mistaken start of a dream sequence. My particular favorite was the stock photo in the news report about melting glaciers in the Arctic that was obscured by the Ghetty Images watermark. But above all else, Birdemic takes the cake for worst special effects which are truly so awful, they’ll leave you speechless. And how do you create an atmosphere of destruction and avionic terror on a mere budget of $10 grand? Why, animated GIFs! Except, most of the time, it seems as though the flying terrors are both harmless and impervious to threat, as though all people needed to do was settle for the fact that birds will now occasionally hover above them because they’re angry about pollution.

Hey, it’s a small price to pay for messing up the environment!

CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE POST!

Advertisements

Zen and the Art of Bad Movies


Our first BBQ of the summer this year ended with something different this time: a screening of the spectacularly bad fantasy film, Troll 2. The recent release of the making-of documentary, Best Worst Movie, has sparked renewed interest among cult fans. That it has generated headlines in major media goes to show you that the history of an utterly shitty movie can turn out to be even more entertaining than the movie itself. And this particular making-of documentary was directed by none other than Michael Paul Stephenson, the toothy, freckle-faced young star of Troll 2.

There’s something really intriguing about bad movies. Like that way that you pass a really bad car wreck and just can’t look away. Badly written, poorly acted, and shoddily designed, these movies are some kind of confounding testament to serious malfunctions in filmmaking, if not the human psyche altogether.

And yet, even the worst can, paradoxically, be the best…around. Their sole redeeming value is basically social cohesion. That they’re laughably horrible makes them ripee for riffing with a roomful of friends. And there’s certainly been far more cinematic stinkers than any “Worst Of” list can reasonably fit without being overwhelming. There’s plenty of obvious choices. Most any movie Ed Wood ever made. A slew of Japanese creature features from the 1950s. (The Japanese have come a long way, even inspiring American filmmakers who hunger for source material for sub-par remakes). There’s the over-hyped flops like The English Patient (elaborated on in a Seinfeld episode) and Battlefield Earth (which was labeled “Travolting”).The commercially-driven star vehicle like Cool as Ice.

With the Drive-In and late night movie marathons on cable television now being all but a thing of the past, obscure selections like Space MutinyMitchellSanta Clause Conquers the MartiansMonster A Go-Go, and a curious abundance of 1950s teenage rebel movies that overdid it on the slang were resurrected for Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Mike Nelson and the gang continued the tradition with the mp3-based Riff Trax). In addition to regular screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, the midnight movie circuit in various cities now run a small monopoly of so-bad-it’s-good fare. DC residents at least are also privy to the goodwill of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society, now with 20 years of real turkeys under their belt. Carl, the host, usually enlightens attendees of the free, weekly screenings with hilarious backstory. And I wonder,  if in time, Stephen Baldwin’s hammy Target, will join the list.

(Click here to read the rest of this post).

Last Laughs: Exit Through the Gift Shop


Graffiti has come along way since the 70s. Once an art form (or vandalism and public nuisance to some) typified by exotic tags on a canvas of urban decay, experimentalists and pioneers have broken boundaries in both content and medium. Freeform gave way to stencils. Stencils to prints. Prints to three-dimensional forms. And so forth. Graffiti has always been subversive, posing that looming threat of unregulated public voice. But lately, structures of an otherwise tame and guarded environment have been seized for overt politics and amusing mockery as graffiti artists expose, even in the most simplest forms, oppression and contradiction. Unfortunately, as the art becomes simplified and more accessible than the elaborate typography that once dominated, it has become easily co-opted and commercialized. Such is the fate of subversive culture.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a mix of documentary and possible sham, one engineered by the immensely popular, but cleverly elusive  master of public mockery: stencil graffiti artist, Banksy.  The film was supposedly borne out of French shop owner, Thierry Guetta’s obsessive compulsiveness and attraction to the grandiose. Getting his hands on a video camera, he began to record everything, no matter how mundane the event. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died, he claimed the new found hobby satisfied his compulsion to hold on to the life around him. Soon, all this filming leads him to a new objective: a documentary about street artists.

CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING THIS POST

View From Above: The Lovely Bones


It was rather puzzling to learn that Peter Jackson would be directing a film about the rape and murder of a young girl by her neighbor. Wait… I’m not really spoiling anything here. But after all, this is the guy who directed the deranged puppet comedy, Meet the Feebles, and hit major mainstream success with the epic blockbuster trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The starkness of a family tragedy. The pounding suspense of exposing the killer. It just didn’t seem like his kind of material. Most importantly, where would you add the CGI?!

But Alice Sebold’s 2002 bildungsroman novel actually turned out to be an adaptation fit for a knight (see? because Jackson is knighted), because this isn’t your typical tale of murder. This is a story told from the point of view of it’s victim, 14-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Providing the story’s narration, she tells your right away that she’ll be murdered. Will even tell you who her killer is. The name of the game is for the characters onscreen to figure out what the audience already knows. To some extent, her family will get help from Susie herself, who observes life on Earth, witnessing the devastation the brutal murder caused her family, from some fantastic world that exists somewhere between the world of the living, and a sort of heaven (Sebold, in response to religious critics about the secular treatment of the afterlife, said that she didn’t write the book with the traditional sense of heaven in mind). “The in-between” her younger brother calls it. New and unexplored, it’s both driven by the imagination of an innocent pre-teen girl, and also shaped by her reactions to the living world. Vast and visually-reliant, it’s a creation satisfying to the CGI fetishist (which Jackson essentially is), but it’s not a redemptive limbo. Rather, this is the place where Susie must find resolve. She is the story’s hero.

Of course, film critics have lambasted Jackson for nurturing the visuals (or, basically, any part of the film featuring Susie’s after-life world) to the point of creating unnecessary distraction. This world is bubble-gummy —contrary to Jackson’s intentions to avoid being hokey— since it is the fantasy world shaped by a 14-year old girl, the death and its impact on her family not having immediately made her bitter, only unclear as to her purpose. And it seems to go on forever. There are two especially aggravating scenes by the film’s end, where suddenly gripping intensity is abruptly held for dreamy drama, something that tested the patience of audience members who began growling in disgust, realizing how fruitless it was to yell at the characters in the film to JUST GET ON WITH IT! It’s like you’ve discovered a trail of gasoline and then suddenly spotted a man nearby about to light up a cigarette (the old Hitchcock philosophy of showing the viewers certain tidbits of information to rile them up) and before he is about to throw down his match, you’re suddenly thrust into a glassy scene of fuzzy gray kittens.

The material itself was really a challenge for any director as it requires to blend conflicting genres into a consistent film. On the one hand is that extreme discomfort of knowing when Susie is about to be killed, the nail-biting suspense of frequent moments when it looks like the other characters will find realize that Susie’s killer is right under their noses, something that of course, always leads to one of them going into the killer’s house to snoop around, but linger longer than they should. Jackson keeps tight reigns on these, and Stanley Tucci plays the villain well — you know, calm, cool, and mostly collected. On the other hand, there is the dreamy fantasy world that Susie Salmon wanders, almost aimlessly, as she watches over her family on Earth, and at the same time, tries to understand her purpose. As already said, that alternative foreground tends to spill over into the thriller in the Earth-world, destroying that well crafted suspense. Add to that, is also a little bit of comic relief where Susan Sarandon appears as the alcoholic, irresponsible grandmother. But, The Lovely Bones is not pure gut-wrenching tragedy, and if it was, there’d be no need for Susie Salmon, except to question why its taking so long to realize that she died at the hands of her neighbors. Instead, her death simply marks the impetus of an epic coming-of-age tale, strange as that can be where it occurs in the after-life.

Ethereal Contraband: ‘Better Than Sex’ and ‘In Bed’


*Updated 01/03/10

The titles. The promotional posters. They elicit expectation, hinting promise of the pleasures of the pure mechanics of sex, if only at a grade below pornography; something just erotic enough to avoid wandering behind the symbolic “black curtain”. Things are, somewhat, still left to the imagination, in these films which essentially boil down to strangers hooking up for casual sex.

Viewer reaction to this, is rather interesting at times, depending on the severity of the sexual content, which is usually much stronger in foreign productions, and tend to release without official ratings regarding recommended audience age and maturity.

The Realm of the Senses, released with much controversy in the late 1970s (and is oddly included in the recommendations in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) pushed the envelope considerably with unsimulated graphic imagery of things like fellatio and erections. Though probably not quite as envelope pushing anymore, what with the accessibility of the multi-billion dollar porn industry, especially in the form of amateur content circulated on-line, The Realm of the Senses was fictional account of a 1930s incident that involved a prostitute named Sada Abe (click the link if you don’t mind film spoilers). It was this context that lead to considerable debate as to whether the film could be fairly labeled art house, or whether it was just “glorified porn”, as though the distinction made any difference to anyone who wanted to see it. It’s clear within minutes of the opening scene exactly what is in store for the viewer. Viewers intimated an identical debate with director Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film, 9 Songs. The nine songs refer to the live indie rock performances (featuring the Von Bondies and Franz Ferdinand, among others!) that provide the transitions to a story about a young British man’s fling with a young American girl. Nearly the entire film, save the concert footage and brief interjections about the man’s work in the Arctic, contain some form of unsimulated sex. What difference does it make to debate content labels? Again, within minutes of the film’s beginning, there are no surprises about what is in store for the viewer.

Other films, like the Australian production, Better Than Sex and and its Chilean counterpart, In Bed, push aside this intense mechanical approach as it addresses the topic of casual sex, doing so in a manner that fuses the pure and not-very-erotic mechanics with intelligent discussion, one free of timidity and self-conscious giggling.

A Netflix viewer’s review of Better Than Sex, suggested that the film captures an “evolution in relationships”, a conclusion that seems to support the tow-line observation that younger generations have scoffed traditional commitment, existing comfortably instead in the limbo between physical satisfaction and the avoidance of emotional attachment. But this is nothing new, really. Perhaps we’re too conditioned by American films, which have taught us that a happy ending means not only acceptance of commitment, but also monogamy, and more specifically with an extremely compatible lover.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS POST

A Kook’s Guide to Skateboarding: Thrashin’


It’s always funny to see an “official” analysis of subculture, or the mainstream trying to interpret the latest subcultural hysteria like punk or text messaging. The Grunge era was indicative of this. Eddie Vedder notoriously made up words when the New York Times asked him to name and define some grunge terminology for their dictionary of young, modern lingo because, as can be interpreted from this, the activity of the youth as seen from the non-youth is just so complex. What it also meant was that a subculture was gaining popular – and in that case it was the underground music scene (and not just in Seattle) – only to be devoured and perverted once it became adopted into the mainstream, inevitably leading to the purist’s accusations of selling out.

Teen markets are the most lucrative, since you tend to get fickle in spending when you start making your own, limited income. In the case of skateboarding, there has been numerous Renaissances and Dark Ages in its more than 50 year old fluctuating history, and “outsiders” to the activity were there at every profitable upturn to hungrily exploit. It isn’t all a Boogie Man’s Tale, and in fact, opportunism led to a lot of much-needed improvements in the device central to the activity: the skateboard itself, among other things. But on the other hand, those decades churned out a lot of nonsense intended to catch the eyes (and dollars) of skaters and non-skaters alike by characterizing and simplifying the scene. By the mid-80s, the meant depicting the skater as misfits and California as their cultural Promised Land (although, California was the cultural promised land to most everything young and hip in the eyes of mid-80s Hollywood… except for those suckers in the fictional landlocked locale of Shermer, Illinois). Suddenly, skating, which managed to survive the bust of the second generation (post-Dogtown), was something worthy paying attention to again. But, as far as mainstream appeal goes, craft and technique wasn’t as important as attitude.

Two more skateboard-themed adventure films emerged during the late 80s — Gleaming the Cube in 1989 (see the earlier Muvika! blog post “Ho Chi Min Doesn’t Skateboard”) and Thrashin in 1986 — that are probably the more oft-cited ones today (because not too many nostalgic film fans are familiar with the 1970s choices of Skateboard: The Movie, where real skaters Tony Alva and Ellen Page play second banana to one very annoying Lief Garret, Freewheelin which was corny enough to be a grade school slide show for a desperate substitute teacher but, with plenty of skate sequences with Stacey Peralta, Paul Constantineau (another Dogtowner), Russell Howell, Tom Sims coming from different backgrounds (surfing, skiing, and even rollerskating) actually made some sense of the never-elaborated suggestions of  “style”, and even the short documentary Skateboard Kings (available on YouTube) which really emphasized the commercial advantages and the marketable misfit personalities of guys like Alva. The skateboarding films that followed in the 90s and beyond weren’t all that much of an improvement – Grind despicably played up an unmitigated obsession with sponsorship; Clark Walker’s little-known Levelland tried to get political in his film of a handful of skater friends making sense of the boredom and hopelessness in a small Texas suburb; and Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown perverted everything Peralta’s wonderful Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary laid on the table (Hardwicke and Peralta both worked on the film, and earlier on, both worked behind the scenes on Thrashin’).

As far the two mid-80s picks go, Gleaming the Cube certainly tried too hard to get spiritual with audiences (though at least thankfully made an attempt) in trying to explain the allure of the activity, but it was at least much more innovative with the plot than most sports-themed films tend to be: a teenage skater avenges his adopted brother’s death in an adventure/action film doused in Cold War politics. Though Christian Slater took the helm and hammed up the screen, pro-skaters (many of them Bones Brigade members at the time) were allowed slightly more camera time especially Tony Hawk and his perfect McSqueeb hair. Even actor Max Perlich (as Yabbo) could actually skate. Plus, the skate sequences were quite good and plentiful (as they should be) with Mike McGill and Rodney Mullen both pretty obviously doing those tricks as a stand in for Slater (who was taught the basics by Tommy Guerro).

But what to say about Thrashin‘? That it was directed by David Winters, the man responsible for the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode which riffed on disastrous Space Mutiny? That it had a typical 80s California title song performed by Meatloaf? That the promotional poster featured the nonsensical taglines, “Reckless! Totally Insane!” That is was a knockoff of The West Side Story? Or that it egregiously plucked from its portrayal of skateboarding two of its most appealing features (at the time): the individuality nurtured by an activity completely devoid of rules, and the camaraderie in a sport that really needed that kind of solidarity to survive   the historical slumps.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE POST

Wil Wheaton Has a Posse


The shrilly-voiced imaginative boy of Stand By Me, Wil Wheaton, was once immortalized in the “So & So Has a Posse” craze. He’s also got a blog.