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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Baghead represents a number of the things that turn me off personally about indie films. In an effort to cast people in a real light, the movie focuses on four boring and generally unlikable characters. Four down and out actors see another indie filmmaker’s lousy movie get some attention and decide to do the same thing, sequestering themselves away in the cabin of some acquaintance to write their breakthrough hit. Once in the cabin, though, like most people, they only ever drink, bat around vague ideas and try to hook up with someone who rejects them outright or would rather be with one of the others. This moves very slowly for about 50 minutes or so. The titular “Baghead” is a joke they play on each other throughout the film, a creepy figure with literally a bag on his head and the subject of the movie they try writing, until he finally shows up and threatens to turn the film into a slasher cliché. The big twist ending is so groan-inducing as to make me wish that it had turned into a slasher cliché. At least the film wouldn’t be bogged down in its own false cleverness. I really looked forward to seeing this film based on a trailer that made it appear far funnier than it really is last year, but it was a major disappointment. Baghead is never really funny, never really scary and never really dramatic. I just could never care about these four dull bastards at all. 1 ½ stars

I found Iron Man 2, contrary to word of mouth, to be perfectly complementary as a follow up to the original. The cast that remained held up brilliantly, with Gwyneth Paltrow and director/co-star Jon Favreau actually bringing much more substance to their respective characters. Robert Downey, Jr. remains the perfect choice to play Tony Stark. He puts on a suitably more manic performance in the sequel, though the plot does demand that he do so. Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes/War Machine vastly improves on the departed Terrence Howard’s previous performance. Where Howard played Rhodes as worrisome and sometimes whiny, Cheadle’s Rhodes is collected and cool but quick to act. Samuel L. Jackson makes much of his brief moments to establish his Nick Fury, S.H.E.I.L.D., and the “Avengers Initiative” subplot. None of it overwhelms or distracts from Tony’s story, though, and feeds the main plot in a fairly organic, if slightly convenient, manner.

The movie manages to work in three solid new characters masterfully. It’s quite a load if not handled well (see Spider-Man 3, Batman & Robin) but Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux pull it off. Presumably returning in some capacity, Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie/Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow character proves vital to Iron Man‘s success. While not getting the most screen time, every moment the Widow is shown moves something forward. Her fight scenes are amazing, too. Mickey Rourke plays his Ivan Vanko/Whiplash appropriately stony, letting his actions speak for him mostly. As a villain he works well as Iron Man’s foil, a man just as capable as Tony Stark but fixated only on vengeance. His accomplice, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, would have stolen the movie out from under a lesser actor than Downey. He captures the neurotic competition with Stark perfectly, showing what a shallow, bitter knob Hammer really is in his every little word and action. I can only hope that Rockwell returns somehow in the next installment.

Hopefully not giving too much away, the main thread of the film is Stark’s ever looming loss of his much needed control. From the Senate hearing where a great Garry Shandling demands the armor be turned over to the U.S. military through Tony’s search for a non-lethal element to power his mechanisms, and on to a very condensed version of his alcoholism rendering him unfit to pilot his armor, the movie keeps pushing Stark into a place where he cannot control what’s happening around him. With each event, though, Tony pushes back, spinning further and further out of control. And only once Tony listens (or is forced to listen) to someone else for a change, does he find the key to his problems.

Visually, the film trumps even its predecessor. The Iron Man armor and its bells and whistles look better and do more cool tricks than previously. The War Machine armor gets its trademark, militaristic look through a natural chain of events and looks great in the final battle. Whiplash’s final weaponry holds less visual appeal than his early crude experiments but works in keeping two powerhouses at bay, and that’s what Iron Man movies are about: men in armor clobbering each other. The nice thing is that Favreau and company have crafted an excellent film with rounded characters inside of that basic premise. 4 ½ stars

Trick r Treat is another recently viewed film that inexplicably escaped theatrical release, even more so than Defendor. Perhaps the anthology nature of its storytelling played some role in it releasing straight to video, though I doubt it. With True Blood’s popularity at the time of release I would think Anna Paquin would be a bankable enough star to take a chance, though calling her the lead would be a stretch, as she plays a major role but in only one of the stories. Each of the stories loosely ties to the others in a small Ohio town on one Halloween night. It apparently attracts too much attention from the dead, the undead and any and all other creatures of the night, so they have very specific traditions for warding off these things. From the opening the movie makes the price of not heeding these very clear. The morals are a little uneven in the tales, and the storytelling itself can be pretty uneven. Blowing out a jack o’ lantern candle is treated just as viciously as child murder. One of the kills comes with no backstory; really, it just establishes further that a known murderer is a murderer. Strong visuals are director writer/director Matthew Dougherty’s best asset in the film. He frames each shot nicely, while capturing just enough to hold your imagination as to what that is happening outside of the frame. The finale reveals most of it, tying the separate stories up and tying them together. His cast is striking, from Paquin’s costume to the creepy little Sam, a burlap-masked, ever present menace who acts as a bond for the individual tales. His style owes much to Creepshow, which is to say it owes much to its predecessors, EC Comics such as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Comic script boxes with phrases like “Meanwhile” and “Later…” act as breaks between scenes and add to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the stories. Dougherty’s cast is quite good, featuring Dylan Baker, one of the most solid and underrated actors working today, and Brian Cox, about whom the same can be said. Both men are adept at stepping into their roles and being so identified with their characters that you forget that they are actors. It’s always good to see either of them allowed to carry a film as they are generally support players. Given its lack of press you might be tempted to ignore Trick r Treat. Give it a chance, though, especially if you have any affinity for Creepshow, Cat’s Eye or Tales from the Crypt. 3 ½ stars

There seem to be two prevailing tones in Nerdcore Rising, apologetic and disinterested. The lack of interest comes mostly from the celebrity talking heads brought in to give the documentary legitimacy, namely “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose tone gives the viewer to understand that he knows he’s here as some kind of “Godfather of nerd music,” and not because the subject has really anything to do with him. Besides Yankovic, last word on metal nerds Brian Posehn weighs in on the origins, popularity and meaning behind nerdcore, a style of hip hop that celebrates culture revolving around comic books, gaming, fantasy RPGs- you’re on the internet right now. You know the drill. It’s thinkgeek.com’s catalog written in rhymes. That sentence sums up most of the documentary to me, thus the feel of disinterest that nerdcore generates as a topic of discussion. MC Frontalot, the focus of the doc, raps about the aforementioned topics. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

To fill the other 75 minutes of its feature length the movie follows genre leader Frontalot and his band around on their first tour. The biggest drama occurring along the way is a lost synthesizer piece, which is apparently as easily replaced by a trip to the mall. Much to do is made of the possibility of groupies, which turns out to be some awkward flirting and one fan that follows them around to a number of shows. Prince Paul pops in frequently to handle the hip-hop legitimacy portion of the show, and provides some of the more appropriate commentary, likening nerdcore to the early days of hip hop being about being smart with rhymes. His segments were thoughtful and informed, lacking the air of not really wanting to be involved I perceived from other sources.

He also spoke on two topics in the documentary that I found out of place, the first being hip hop’s image of gangster rap. The movie was produced in 2008. I’m not a big follower but I’m pretty sure gangster rap was a fading memory more than a current trend at that point, and not at all the prevailing image of hip hop. It felt tacked on and made the producers look either desperate for content or sadly out of touch. The second was the idea that nerdcore may be somehow racist for the generally white artists using the style of rap to express their own interests. Again, the argument felt forced and only there to provide some sort of socially relevant commentary that wasn’t all that relevant. If you missed Mr. Show’s “WPCBCN Awards” sketch, look it up and you’ll know everything you’ll ever need to know about it. Prince Paul, once again to the rescue, sums up the unnecessary defense in about a minute.

The documentary starts to really come together once it finally gets personal toward the end. Several of the commentators open up about the sort of shyness, fear of rejection, outright actual rejection and loneliness that drove them so deeply into the cherished hobbies that Frontalot and others represent to them. This part of the documentary helps the generally apologetic nature that flows through it. There’s a defensive front that keeps popping up, as though the subjects, the musician and the fans, know this stuff isn’t really worth all the hype, yet they feel the need to justify the attention that they lavish on it.

Without the padding of nerdcore’s place in hip hop and the overreliance on, but probably necessary for distribution, inclusion of so many celebrity talking heads, Nerdcore Rising likely would have made a compelling short subject. The movie starts to feel like someone at a party who won’t stop talking about a subject in which you have no interest. But then, I guess that’s what nerds do and what makes them love nerdcore so. Yes, I’m aware of the irony in writing over 600 words to say that. 2 ½ stars

As a bad movie fan, I’ve of course seen Troll 2 more than my fair share of times. It remains one of the most inexplicably bizarre and shoddily crafted films I’ve ever viewed. There’s no one element that could be corrected to save it, as everything about it is just terrible, amateurish and poorly conceived and executed. It’s also incredibly entertaining as a mess on film. So, the fact that its child star, now grown, decided to revisit this travesty had a slim chance of carrying on that entertainment as he delved into the Troll 2-making process. I’ve seen glimpses of director Michael Stephenson’s Best Worst Movie over the last two years or so and this weekend I finally got to view the whole thing.

Stephenson takes care to frame his subjects sympathetically, providing some background on them and letting their personalities shine. He casts a good light on everyone as he introduces his cast, the cast and crew of a movie who haven’t seen each other since its filming for the most part. Particularly standing out is George Hardy, a genuinely nice and charming dentist from Alabama and the general focus of the documentary. As Stephenson reunites the cast, not a small feat, they regale each other with tales of onset chaos and the picture of what went wrong grows clearer. For additional fun, they act out several key scenes, all of which are entertaining. Stories are shared of how each cast member heard about the release of the film, as no one bothered to inform them personally.

Much is also revealed of the nature of working with schlockmeister Claudio Fragasso (Women’s Prison Massacre), an obstinate man who places little value in the details of filmmaking. When not telling a critic that their version of events is wrong, he simply dismisses the mistakes he made as unimportant to the making of the movie. He either fails or refuses to understand what audiences find funny about his film. Fragasso and his Italian crew, besides dismissing and excusing mistakes in making Troll 2, laughably place it light years out of its true importance in film history. In the greatest instance, while arguing that audiences were unready for their film, one of his cronies posits that Troll 2 opened up the way for films to come such as Harry Potter. It takes a special kind of delusion to believe that you made the success of the Harry Potter franchise possible with your only evidence being a throwaway film from 1989 that is only embraced for being so mind bogglingly awful.

Stephenson actually needed not travel too far as, outside of Hardy and Fragasso, the cast stayed largely in the Salt Lake City area. Little of traveling to Hollywood or New York City and pursuing acting dreams, a la the Muppets, is spoken. Robert Ormsby (Grandpa Seth) laments this fact and his own lack of following this dream as he winds down the rest of his days. The upbeat, can-you-believe-it? nature of the film breaks up here and sadness seeps in, and Stephenson shifts focus on a very clear and interesting turn, emotionally, in the Troll 2 reunion hype. It begins with the introduction of Margo Prey, the mother in Troll 2. The years after the film seem to not have been kind to her. Reclusive and troubled, save her brief time with Stephenson and Hardy in her home she refuses participation in the reunion. Fragasso, though initially enjoying the attention his film brings him, ceases finding any amusement in explaining himself to kids who neither understand nor truly listen to what he says. Hardy goes guns blazing into conventions in London for both horror and sci-fi/fantasy genres, only to find a decided lack of interest in the product he has to sell. Hardy goes so far as to throw a tantrum on the convention goers of the horror show, lashing out on their tattoos and garish dress when ignored for too long. Stephenson finds an interesting contrast in the expectations and the realities of fame that comes from infamy.

Stephenson ends things lightly, treating the subject with the appropriate amount of reverence, which is to say little. He includes “where are they now” titles during the credits, which is a nice touch. Best Worst Movie works best in its look at fame, its nature and tolls, and in Hardy he has either found the perfect subject or crafted the film beautifully around the subject that he found. Which he did may be up for debate but the results are never dull, not unlike the origin of the documentary itself. 4 stars

It baffles me that the first time I even heard of Defendor was the day I saw it for sale in the new releases section. I certainly read enough nerd sites on a regular basis to know when a new superhero film is being done, particularly one starring Woody Harrelson. And if there’s one thing comics nerds are, it’s obsessive information hoarders, particularly when it’s one of our passions- like guys in masks and long johns.

Harrelson, as the titular Defendor (AKA Arthur Poppington), takes up crime fighting with a slowly revealed number of misconceptions as his motivation. As he tells his story to psychologist Sandra Oh, his childhood lays out all the clues as to why he picks up the mantle in the first place. And those memories leave him no choice but help crack addicted prostitute Kat Dennings (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) and defend her, no pun intended. Through a bit of dumb luck and just not knowing when to quit, Arthur manages to find a genuine evil to battle and comes out on top. Along the way he gets a bit too much leeway with both the sympathetic cops and the for-no-good reason compassionate crooks. It’s really never explained why they don’t just kill him any of the times they have the chance; they just don’t. Even when they finally decide to they have all too much trouble in their attempt.

Harrelson works a lot closer to his roots as Woody on Cheers than the good-old-boy badasses he’s been seen as lately, and it serves the story very well. He brings out the naïveté and the good natured determination in Arthur beautifully. He’s slow without being stupid and sad without being pitiful. It’s a great performance. Elias Koteas does good work as the crooked undercover cop that serves as Arthur’s chief nemesis. Dennings acquits herself well in what looks to be her first “gritty” role as a runaway teen hooker. A lot of her character is pretty pat but she does well with what she’s given. She gets her moments, too. She’s no “hooker with a heart of gold,” exactly. She manipulates Arthur at least as much as she looks out for him and only returns what she steals when she finds out it’s worthless. So, she isn’t cliché, but a little close to it.

The small touches make the movie, though, and give it a very personal feel. Arthur’s need to label everything, a la Adam West’s Batman, but on a city worker’s salary, the way he dresses himself and the weapons he chooses, everything feels like it belongs on Arthur. I suppose the small nature of the film made it unmarketable as a theatrical release but I hope more people give it a chance. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by it. 3 ½ stars

I think Hardware proves that sometimes the only real reason you want a thing is that you can’t have it. Being out of print for so long gave it a kind of mystique that, when mixed with enough nostalgia, told you that it must have been interesting when you saw it way back when. I’ve been curious about director Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil for much the same reason and now I am dubious at best.

Hardware starts its premise off in quite the unique way. I’ll give it that. The killer robot is discovered by Dylan McDermott’s generic post-apocalyptic mercenary in the contaminated desert of every post-apocalyptic picture since the atom bomb first tested. But he gives it to his girlfriend, Stacy Travis, to use in a found-art-sculpture, so he gets some style points for that. Bonus for the paint job she gives it. Everything else about their relationship is too drab for me to even want to cover it. She lives in an artist’s loft, the sort with lots of nifty stuff around for killer robots to hide in, fortunately for the killer robot her old man just dragged home.

See, the thing is a faulty prototype, a military killing machine that comes equipped with, rather than guns or flamethrowers or poison gas dispensers, a huge blunt drill and poison tipped needles. They don’t even shoot; it has to stab you. That’s not even why it failed to garner mass production; the reason the military dropped it is that it’s vulnerable to moisture. I’m going to spoil the end for you to illustrate how stupid that idea is. To actually defeat the thing once it goes haywire, Travis tricks it into following her into the shower. Her crash through the glass shower door, by the way, is her second slow motion fall through breaking glass seen in the film.

This isn’t the only trick the director pulled out of his 1980s-music-video bag either. Smoke fills Travis’ loft from the moment the thing comes to life. I mean Whitesnake levels of smoke. Only red-filtered lights still function. The movie spends an excruciating amount of time demonstrating that the war machine hunts by infrared vision, which makes for a neat hiding place moment that really doesn’t go anywhere. A creepy stalker shows up at one point for the same purpose that one would show up in a Friday the 13th sequel- meat to the slaughter. A friend of McDermott’s shows up tripping balls for no purpose I could discern. He didn’t even have the decency to be eviscerated.

It takes about half the film before the barely explained robot comes to life, leaving little to fill that time beforehand. Some of it is in the future world, stolen mostly from Blade Runner. Everything is neon and it’s night all the time. Travis’ character does very little of note before running for her life, and all of it dull. A background plot, about people volunteering to be spayed and neutered due to overpopulation, pretends to give the story some depth and meaning but it’s all filler. Travis ties the robot into it but it’s meaningless for reasons I outlined as to why the thing was of no military use anyway. Yet another reason the prototype failed: it’s supposed to exterminate people even though it can be defeated by a garden hose.

That’s the end problem with the movie. It meanders around and tries to look like it’s doing something while it never does. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the guy with the clipboard, walking around trying to convince everyone he’s important. He’s not and neither is this. 2 stars

I got what I was looking for out of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, which was a good performance by John C. Reilly and a comical look at the kind of goofy vampire drama made most popular lately. Reilly stars as a very old and bored vampire traveling and performing with a circus that prominently features its freak show. A prank played on him by two teens, one of whom desires too strongly to be a vampire, leads to Reilly acquiring his own titular assistant, Darren, who joins the circus.

Where the movie excels is introducing the family relations that exist within the circus and Darren’s finding his place among them. Given the one girl with the circus his age the plot point there is hardly difficult to see coming. But characters like Patrick Fugit’s wannabe rock star, demanding attention for his talent while being put on display as a deformity, make the movie much more interesting than the writing otherwise gives it a chance to be.

Where the movie stumbles is in the overstuffing of the plot. A slimy, mysterious individual called Mr. Tiny manipulates the coming war between Vampires and something similar called Vampaneze. I was never able to figure out the difference between the two. The Vampaneze were predatory where the Vampire (just Reilly until Darren’s vampire balls drop) act, well, mopey. I was never clear, though, on the basis of the war, what either side wanted or what Mr. Tiny’s stake in the conflict amounted to. There was simply too much plot and too many unexplained introductions inside the 109 minute runtime to answer those questions.

Performances like Fugit’s, and Salma Hayek’s, help elevate the material beyond the simplistic jokes and flat plotting. Reilly, who naturally gets the best material to work with, relishes his cheesy woe-is-me Anne Riceian dialogue. He chews every line to pulp, leaving no drama unwrung. But where Fugit was able to do a lot with a little, other talented actors were criminally shortchanged. Kristen Schaal and Jane Krakowski in particular get barely more than cameos and much of the time wasted on the Vampaneze could have gone toward them. Willem Dafoe makes bookend cameos of which I cannot begin to explain the significance. There seemed to be a lot more for him to do and say that the movie never got around to letting him.

Oddly, the action of the movie is more interesting and well done than one would expect from the genre and its comedic nature. But far too much time in the film is spent on these fist fights where it could have added more jokes or some explanation of the background of the Vampires vs. the Vampaneze. The conclusion of the film seemed to want an opening for a sequel and was too pat for my liking. As a John C. Reilly comedy vehicle Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant succeeds, but as a film, not so much. 2 ½ stars

As a horror-comedy, I Sell the Dead delivers what it needs to. I expected a more coherent, linear, and straightforward horror tale but what I got actually exceeded my expectations. With stars like Dominic Monaghan and Ron Perlman it can be hard to tell what line of comedy and drama the film walks by just their casting. Each holds his part admirably, though, along with Larry Fessenden and the supporting cast.

Without spoiling too much (I hope), the story is broken out into three vignettes held together by the confession of convicted grave robber Monaghan to priest Perlman. The story covers the meeting of Monaghan and Fessenden through their final job together, culminating in Monaghan’s capture and sentence to hang. That only serves as framework, though, to hold together the three tales, in a style used from the original Tales from the Crypt to Creepshow, and even junk like Monster Club. God, how I hate Monster Club.

What makes I Sell the Dead unique is the mixture of styles in genre, particularly the second tale, one I never would have seen coming. Again, trying not to spoil it, but you can see a couple of them coming, and the third one is the best as it closes out the center of the story. The final act twist is fairly easy to see coming but no less enjoyable for the early foreshadowing. If you like the horror anthologies I mentioned earlier, I think you will find much to like in I Sell the Dead, too. 3 ½ stars