The Toys are Back in Town

It was dark and we were returning from Albany. As the heavy Northeastern rains pummeled the little gold Chevy with the raging gusto of a typhoon we thought back on the evening’s occurrences. We had done something we had joked about doing but perhaps never fully planned on it actually happening. The wipers blinked for the windshield and the events of barely an hour ago finally took root in our stuffed brains.

We had watched Toys (1992) again.

Every so often a filmmaker has a passion project. Something that only he or she understands. Sometimes it’s a masterpiece. Like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes it’s not. Like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). Toys is not.

Perhaps director Barry Levinson gets crapped on too much. True he did Envy (2004) and Man of the Year (2006), but he also did stuff like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997). Not so small confession: I actually liked Sphere (1998) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He’s got some solid films under his belt. So why shouldn’t Barry Levinson get to make his huge passion project that only he understands? Because it’s Toys. That’s why.

Most folks probably don’t even remember Toys. It did poorly when it originally came out and never really became popular. I suppose it has a strange cult following in the right circles. Toys is one of those films that haunted me in the video stores of my childhood. Such an appealingly surreal cover…and starring Robin Williams. The portrait of whimsy which was its VHS box was in curious contrast to its PG-13 rating. When I finally saw it years ago I was confused. In many ways it resembles a competent film. It has absolutely fantastic set designs and art direction—courtesy of Fernando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) and Linda DeScenna (Blade Runner). In this way it still resembles a sumptuous and imaginative children’s story. The story isn’t even all bad. It’s a simple tale of the clash between silly gentle toys and encroaching war toys and violent video games. It even has a pretty interesting cast that includes Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Michael Gambon (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride), Joan Cusack (Toy Story 2), LL Cool J (Deep Blue Sea), Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons), Arthur Malet (Hook), Jack Warden (Being There), Jamie Foxx (In Living Color), and even Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain). Weird lineup? I said interesting cast.

I did appreciate bits of it a little more on this second and more recent viewing. I must admit that there are a few delightfully askew ideas sloshing around in this clunky and embarrassingly slow and unengaging movie, but ultimately things never seems to click. It’s like Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980); it’s bad, but it’s weird-bad and you can’t look away. Robin Williams is a somewhat undefined childlike toy inventor named Leslie Zevo. When Leslie’s kindly father (O’Connor) dies the toy factory is given to Papa Zevo’s warmongering nephew Lt. General Leland Zevo (Gambon) who has an unquenchable desire to please his own stern and dying military father (Warden). Obviously the General takes over and the factory ceases production of cuddly whimsical toys in favor of manipulative violent tools to groom young minds for military service and destruction.

There’s a desperation in the film. Despite some pretty and intriguing images (occasionally inspired by Rene Magritte it would seem) it feels empty, exhausting, and slow. There’s no heart. The dialogue is all hushed whispers, like Mr. Rogers on Valium. Toys is so quiet! A movie this big and zany looking deserves a little energy and life. Robin Williams is bizarrely understated and doesn’t have a strong character and he’s hard to relate to as Leslie Zevo, not to mention the fact that he’s been a lot funnier in other things. The music’s kinda bad too and awkwardly dates the project. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.

Then there’s the pacing which feels off and despite amazing sets and some great subtle visual gags involving the scenery, the film feels joyless and extremely talkie. This is probably why the film was not aimed at kids. While it has an infant sort of logic to it and the colors are tantalizing, the movie would put them to sleep. Then there’s the one real reason the kids shouldn’t see it: Robin Williams’ sex scene with Robin Wright. That’s right. There’s steamy premarital Robin on Robin action in this flick. OK, so you don’t see anything, but you hear them and you see her take her bra off and then it falls on a spying robot. Then you see Jamie Foxx becoming aroused in a spy van as he listens to Williams’ sex grunts. It’s sick.


Towards the end Williams gives a mash-up of about thirty inspirational speeches to an impromptu army of gentle toys just before they get slaughtered in battle. Can you not seize the day hard enough? I sure can’t. Who is he talking to? The audience? Himself? I wonder if the non-sentient toys can sense him just going through the motions. He seems about as disinterested in the project as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Bill Murray had more energy in Ghostbusters 2 for godsakes.

The best things in Toys are the small cute touches like a Zevo car having to stop in the hallway for toy ducks to pass, but they are not enough. Toys is mind-numbingly slow. And I’m a Tarkovsky fan! The characters are inexcusably shallow and uninteresting (Gambon having the most interesting character but he still feels half-baked). The few jokes there are are forgettable, too understated, and spookily quiet. It’s not really a children’s movie and it’s not really an adult movie. I can’t even defend it as an art movie. What is Toys?

Toys is Barry Levinson’s Zardoz.

Forget what Toys is. What the blazes is a sea swine? There’s an unexplained amorphous cybernetic amphibious creature towards the end whose existence is accepted a little too readily by the characters. Is it a real animal the General has tampered with genetically? Is it a squishy robot that needs to live in murky water? If it resembles more of a snail-like graboid where do they get off calling it a “swine?”

I get what is trying to happen and what the story is trying to do and say and maybe the advent of drone warfare makes the film eerily more prescient, but I don’t think it all congeals into an appealing whole. It’s a sloppy, clunky shipwreck in a sea of nursery and bubble-bathtub softness. So why did I take the time to write about Toys if I hate it so much? Well, I guess I don’t hate it. I admire what was trying to happen and I really do love the art design and a few of the set gags. I guess I don’t know why I wrote about it. Something about Toys, although it is largely a forgettable experience, sticks in the back of my mind, so much that we had to watch it again years later just to see if it was real. Toys really is not a good movie and I don’t know how pleased Levinson was with the final product, but it’s nowhere near as weird-bad as Super Mario Bros. (1993) which might even be weirder in addition to being worse.

Ultimately it’s bad, but it’s uniqueness makes it sort of something special. At the end of the day maybe we can at least say Toys was weirder than Howard the Duck (1986), but maybe just as hard to watch. So go watch it. What do I care.

For Your Consideration: Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood. The name is infamous. It is synonymous with crap movies. It is also the title of Tim Burton’s best film.

Ed Wood gained posthumous notoriety for being the world’s worst movie director of all time. While I’m inclined to think that he was strikingly inept at his trade, I cannot quite give him that illustrious title. He was not the worst director of all time. He stunk, but there have been stinkier. Coleman Francis for instance. I feel unfair even saying that he stunk as I actually genuinely enjoy some of his movies.

Action!

His films were bizarre yet personal and plagued by financial setbacks. Films Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may be his most famous and I confess that at some level I do admire these schlock-fests. Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994) chronicled some of the life of the notorious filmmaker and the making of these three films in particular. Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Wood and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) got the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of an aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. Burton’s movie also features folks like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Bill Murray (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Burton’s Ed Wood is a quirky yet affectionate comic portrait of a misguided man struggling in Hollywood and all the baffling trials of putting a movie together, albeit bad ones. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Stefan Czapsky (Batman Returns) and cleverly scored by Howard Shore (The Return of the King) and sporting snazzy production design it is almost ironic that the film is so fantastic and talent-filled.

Bad movies fascinate me because most bad movies are forgettable. It takes talent to make a memorably bad movie. There has to be a perfect balance of delusion and ineptitude to get it to work right. I applaud the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys for keeping bad movies that would have otherwise been forgotten around just a little longer. Ed Wood immortalizes Ed Wood in a way that might have never happened. Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9 are also fun to watch by themselves. But knowing your Ed history (as a floundering cross-dressing film hack) helps make them more interesting.

Are you quite comfortable?

Of his three most famous, Bride of the Monster might be the least interesting, perhaps because it is the most familiar. Mad scientist + monster guy + girl = standard sci fi horror derivative mayhem. A half-dead and quite feeble looking Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls) plays Dr. Vornoff (mad scientist) and wrestler Tor Johnson is the manbeast, Lobo. Will Vornoff succeed in creating a race of atomic supermen? Yawn. Not original enough. Still, it’s not bad for a movie that’s awful. It has its points, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is just so much loopier that it blows it out of the water.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is the story of aliens trying to resurrect the dead to scare humanity into not making the Solaranite bomb—a bomb that humanity has never even heard of. Take everything that was good and accessible about The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and make it ridiculous and you got yourself a movie. Awful special effects, obtrusive continuity errors, and hammy bad acting compliment the convoluted plot and unwieldy dialogue. It famously features the last footage the great Lugosi ever shot (about 2 minutes maybe) and was stitched into this film after he died. A double played him for the rest of the movie. Tor Johnson is also in it as well as TV’s Vampira. It’s silly and memorable. Basically great fun and you will laugh.

Joan Rivers on bath salts!

As wonderful as Plan 9 is, out of these famous three my favorite has got to be Glen or Glenda. It was only Wood’s first feature and it’s got it all. Science fiction, mystery, Satan with moth antennae, flashbacks, Bela Lugosi, buffalo, wildly inaccurate science, transvestism, sex changes, S&M…bondage…uh, suicide…okay so having it all might not necessarily be a good thing.

Wood wrote, directed, and starred in this nigh incomprehensible mess of mismatched ideas. I like it because not only is it horrendously done, it actually resembles something special: a movie with a personal—albeit somewhat deranged—touch from Mr. Wood himself. As a real life transvestite he brings us unnervingly close to the subject matter. He also conjectures that hats are the cause of baldness. Lugosi may be our Virgil-like guide on this weird trek but Mr. Wood provides us with a few other narrators trying to explain multiple storylines to different audiences just for good measure (but it’s nothing like The Saragossa Manuscript). The way it’s edited actually makes Lugosi’s narrator seem more like a pervy retired mad scientist suffering dementia in a detached environment than anything else. In addition to the several main plots there is a bizarre ten minute wordless fetish sequence of a woman whipping another woman tied to a couch. . . added in for punch, I guess. It’s a tremendously wretched collage of broken ideas and unrelated sequences that I actually really respect for being so blindingly strange. It’s a movie I can watch by myself and still laugh at.

Just like Orson Wells.

There are some bad movies I can’t recommend enough. Glen or Glenda is one of them.

If you have an attraction toward bad movies than I’m sure Ed Wood is already on your radar. Troll 2, The Room, Ben and Arthur, and Birdemic are great, but sometimes you just crave classic crap. I can’t get into “The Asylum” production company because they know better and purposely make bad movies. I’ve said it before: the best bad movies have incredible deluded passion propelling them. Now Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker ever and he wasn’t even the first truly awful filmmaker, but his films were more than bad. They were weird and that weirdness makes them memorable.

I put it to you. What is worse? Memorable crap or forgotten mediocrity?

Pull the string! Pull the string!

Go watch some Ed Wood movies and then go watch the movie Ed Wood. You’ll get some of the best of the worst along with Burton’s best.

Star Whores and Other Space Oddities

1I love Star Wars (circa. 1977-1983). For all the grief we give George Lucas for the “Special Edition,” the prequels, TV spinoffs, etc, one cannot downplay how much influence the Star Wars films have had on culture and the art of filmmaking. Not only has Star Wars influenced subsequent science fiction flicks, it has also been copied quite a bit.

There are a few different approaches one can take when it comes to science fiction.

  1. You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
  2. You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
  3. You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
  4. You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
  5. You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
  6. You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
  7. Or (recognizing some of the childishness of space aliens, robots, and super-deluxe-hyper-warp-lightspeed) you can go all-out campy, flashy, trashy like Barbarella (1968).
  8. There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
You've probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

You’ve probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

After the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 there was a huge sci-fi craze. It seemed almost any movie could be made a better or more profitable movie with the institution of a well-placed spaceship. Movies like The Black Hole (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ice Pirates (1984), and Arena (1988) were cranked out by the bushel. Well, some of my personal favorite worst and also lesser known sci-fi movies made in the wake of the space craze are on my mind today so, naturally, I felt compelled to write about them.


First up is Saturn 3 (1980).

This film is actually a bit more of an Alien rip off. There are essentially only three characters and they are played by (check this out!) Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. Before I go any further I must tell you that this film is bad. Really bad. Almost not even so-bad-it’s-kinda-fun-bad. And another thing; I can’t help but feel like the title is even a little oddly derivative of Capricorn 1 (1977).

"I am Spartacus!"

“I am Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life) is Adam, an older guy who’s been stuck up on a surprisingly spacious and roomy space-base floating around Saturn. We also see him naked and, I gotta be honest, 20 years since Spartacus and the man is still in shape. Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run) is Alex, Adam’s blonde, leggy bed-buddy and his only companion. Together Adam and Eve Alex (I get it!) live quietly in space for no apparent reason (it’s something to do with the government or science or something), until the most evil and warped mind in the galaxy comes aboard. This evil and warped mind belongs to a man named Benson.

Seriously. Benson. Benson is the name of the bad guy. Well, actually he only kills a guy named Benson for some inexplicable reason and assumes his identity, but really now. Benson? Benson is a dim-witted manservant, not a malevolent space villain. Anyway, Benson is played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), but it gets better. Evidently the director was not altogether pleased by Mr. Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent and so he Keitel awkwardly dubbed by some other robot-sounding British guy (it reminded me of Andie McDowell’s awkward dubbing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).

3

It’s the wacky space adventures of Benson the Sociopath and Hector the Murder-Robot!

Benson is revealed to be mentally imbalanced in the beginning of the film (because suspenselessness) and then, once aboard Saturn 3, he puts a giant suppository filled with brains into an 8-ft tall robot named Hector. He gives the robot his own thoughts and then tries to get in Alex’s pants with the most awkward space-future come-on lines since Demolition Man. Adam gets jealous and they talk about killing Benson because he is weird. Then the robot chops their pet dog in half and tries to rape Alex. The movie is a wreck and actually pretty boring despite the presence of a horny, rampaging robot. Saturn 3 also feels simultaneously unnecessarily dark and unintentionally silly. For instance, there is a scene where Hector, the robot, wears Harvey Keitel’s severed head as a hat as a disguise. A very, very bad disguise.


Next up it’s Starcrash (1978), also known as The Adventures of Stella Star. I actually love this movie. It’s near-nonstop mayhem in the same campy vein as Barbarella. But much, much cheaper.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

The incredibly hot Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) stars as the frequently scantily clad Stella Star—the only hope for the galaxy. This film is more blatant a rip off of Star Wars and it is oh-so-hokey.

Outer space looks like an awkward jumble of bad Christmas decorations hastily assembled by a one-eyed crazy person. Who knew the stars and galaxies were so vibrant and psychedelic? The special effects for the spaceships are actually pretty decent, but again, the colors are more akin to a pinball machine that has lost its mind. The malevolent Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is the bad guy and his hairdo does for evil exactly whatever the name Benson did for evil. He also has his own version of the Death Star, except his is in the shape of a big, evil robot hand that clutches into a fist when it goes into attack mode.

No one messes with the do!

No one messes with the do!

There is also an extremely sexually ambiguous sidekick for Stella. His name is Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and he apparently has a new and incredibly convenient super power in each instance of peril. He bravely dies sword-fighting a stop-motion robot when his arm gets grazed and briefly caught on fire. The film also has a bald green dude, and a good robot with a Texas accent (half the film I just wanted to give him a ten-gallon hat to go with his Dr. Phil-esque homespun aphorisms). Starcrash also boasts  lightsabers and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). The costumes are great and I couldn’t help but notice the recurring use of arrows on helmets seemingly pointing to the face of the wearer, and on belt buckles pointing to the crotch.

The movie is crazy and the plot is on crack. We go from an outer space battle to a strange planet to a space jail to the jungle and back into space and then on to another planet with cavemen or amazons and giant robots in like 4 minutes. It’s like the first 60 seconds of the Power Rangers pilot. The film does slow down occasionally. . . for overly long spaceship docking scenes. What you eventually learn is that the film is strategically conditioning you to not care about the characters so you won’t be mad when new characters are randomly introduced and old ones go away or return without rhyme or reason.

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: "Don't worry. I'll live forever."

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: “Don’t worry. I’ll live forever.”

The best part of this movie? It’s a tie between Caroline Munro’s outfits (she dresses like Vampirella) and the great Christopher Plummer’s (The Sound of Music) emotionally detached and disenfranchised line deliveries. You can actually see it in his regretful eyes how much he hates that he’s in this movie. All around the movie is awesomely bad and I highly recommend this frenetically-paced, sexist light show. It’s a great bit of 70′s Italian schlock.


Last and most certainly least is The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is known in its home country, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or as it is most commonly referred to, Turkish Star Wars (1982).

*not Darth Vader

*not Darth Vader

Every time somebody mentions the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) I fire back with Turkish Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so bad it makes you wonder how there was a successful franchise afterward.  Turkish Star Wars is so bad it makes you wonder why God has not destroyed humanity yet. Seriously, have the people who made this ever seen a movie before? It is film heresy. The whole spectacle is a noisy, raucous, incoherent Frankenstein mess of a film. It is a mind-boggling artistic travesty on all fronts. AND I LOVE IT!!!

*not racist

*not racist

A guy and his best pal (Murat and Ali) crash land on an alien desert planet and they meet an impoverished, rock-dwelling civilization that is tormented by a big, nasty, beardy space bad guy, who allegedly is a centuries old wizard who needs a human brain so he can understand stuff and conquer the universe. The two guys decide to help the people and proceed to fight the worst excuses for robots and aliens you will ever see. Toilet-paper mummies, dusty zombies, rubber robots, dudes in skeleton outfits, and great big orange stuffed animals, and even racist-looking (African, Asian, and possibly Jewish or maybe Armenian—it’s Turkey, after all) rubber mask baddies, are only the half of it.

The love story between Murat and woman-who’s-name-escapes-me is also great. You see, occasionally jarringly softer music will play and we get reverse closeups of their eyes as they longingly/indifferently gaze at each other while performing mundane space activities. This unprecedented and clashing change of pace denotes romantic interest. Understand?

*not forced romance

*not awkwardly forced romance based solely on the fact that she is maybe blonde

I’d be kidding if I said I could explain the rest of the plot of this weird movie. There are mentions of the virtues of humanity and the human brain as the key to all things (something the filmmakers ironically refused to use for the production of Turkish Star Wars), and vague references to Islam and other things, but the story is so convoluted and poorly executed that it hardly matters. One minute our protagonists are fighting monsters, the next minute they’re in space jail, then the bad guy has monsters slaughter a cave full of frightened orphan children and he proceeds to drink their blood through a crazy straw, then Murat is wielding a giant, golden Final Fantasy sword [made of cardboard] and melting it in a huge vat and then thrusting his bare fists into the molten gold only to have them emerge with clunky gold space mittens on. Seriously. Tone! You can’t murder children in a film like this. It’s like the naked suicide in Endhiran.

*not more realistic than Rocky

*not more realistic than Rocky

One particularly memorable sequence is the training montage where Murat ties boulders to his ankles and goes jogging and then works his fist muscles by slapping big rocks. Instead of the Force, Murat has the amazing power to jump kinda high and karate chop things in half (boulders, stuffed animal monsters, robot heads, *SPOILER ALERT* the bad guy…except that they just black out half the screen and show him on the ground with his eyes closed, and in doing the same for the other half—to truly indicate the pure in-halfedness of our antagonist—the filmmakers also accidentally reveal that both halves apparently have full noses, but I digress). The finale is a jarring, headache-inducing mélange of so much incoherent violence, jumping, and explosions that you will be fighting—and fighting hard—your body’s urge to roll your eyes back in your head and halt all blood-flow to the brain. It’s like Vogon poetry really. Your welcome, Douglas Adams fans.

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

The absolute best part of Turkish Star Wars is how it is edited. I know that sounds nerdy, but let me explain. Not only does nothing make sense, but the film is notorious for ripping actual stolen footage from the real Star Wars—and several other fantasy movies and even a few newsreels—and splicing them into the movie. And the transfers are just terrible, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Best of all, they do it at inappropriate times. For example, to show space travel they film a character with a stupid hat moving a wheel while scenes from the assault on the Death Star play behind him (except the real Star Wars footage keeps cutting to other shots so the backgrounds don’t make any sense). The music is also stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bunch of other popular movies as well.

If this movie weren’t so wonderfully, miserably bad  and hysterically inept it would have been facing an arsenal of lawsuits. People say I’m crazy, but I have actually watched this wretched film at least 5 times. It takes a certain constitution to enjoy bad movies like this. Turkish Star Wars is really more of an endurance test than a film. Are you ready for the challenge?

*not evil stuffed animals

*not evil stuffed animals


There you have it. Saturn 3 you might as well skip as it is the most boring and unimaginative of them all, but it does have a stupid enough plot to keep you with it and the Keitel dub is wondawful. Starcrash is awesome trash and you definitely should see it for Munro’s body and Plummer’s face. Turkish Star Wars you can watch, but this one comes with a warning: it is disorientingly bad and you may not be able to readily relate to people immediately after a viewing, but for Troll 2 and Birdemic fans I must insist you try. At least it’s not After Last Season.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 25, 2011.

Shakma and Awe

What happens when med students LARP on the weekend? What happens when you surgically inject extreme rage directly into a baboon’s brain? What happens when Roddy McDowell needs a paycheck?

All these questions and not much more will be answered in Shakma (1990) directed by Tom Logan and Hugh Parks.

Since there’s really not much to say about this truly unyieldingly awesome film I shall keep it all rather brief.

Some research folks inject something that looks like urine into the brain of a baboon. Head scientist/doctor/professor, Sorenson (Roddy McDowell), then orders the tainted monkey to be put down. As night falls the students decide to play some sort of extra nerdy cross between Capture the Flag and Dungeons and Dragons in the facility. Weird set up, right? It’s really just an impetus to get the flat, young, nubile characters to wander the dark corridors of the the lab so they may be picked off one by one by the BABOON WHO ISN’T REALLY DEAD!

I’m not sure if Roddy McDowell (who I really do like as an actor) was personally seeking out movies with monkeys in them or maybe his agent was or maybe the filmmakers thought he’d be perfect because he was in all of the The Planet of the Apes movies. In any event I feel sorry for him. He gets jacked up too soon…but then he was too good for this movie.

The boring characters wander the halls only to stumble upon the mangled corpses of their friends. The handiwork of an enraged baboon perhaps? Most of the film consists of people walking through hallways, being surprised at the baboon, running and slamming doors shut, and finally the baboon (Shakma) banging his little body into the doors repeatedly. There is one pretty good kill in a bathroom stall (maybe more funny than good) and the ending is pretty decent, but other than that it’s a fairly bland and styleless “animal attacks” movie.

The sterile, unnatural hallways of the medical research facility (?) reminded me of After Last Season but slightly upgraded.

The real live animal performance is good I suppose. The baboon only has to be angry and slam into doors. The real hindrance that prevents the murder-baboon sub-genre of “animal attacks” movies from clicking is that the baboon is such a dim, dopey looking animal. He has blank, glassy eyes and his stature is not very formidable (about the size of a mid-sized dog). He does have the teeth and he can bounce off walls, but when I think baboon I don’t think terror. I will give it this though: killer baboon makes more sense than killer shrews or rabbits.

I only wish they killed the baboon my way—by donating it to Jeff Goldblum for his teleporter research. That might have been more satisfying.

Speaking of Jeff, there’s even a few schticks in this movie that Jurassic Park (1993) might have nabbed if I thought anybody actually watched this movie.

Basically Shakma is another run-of-the-mill brainless monster-kills-the-teens movie. It’s not particularly interesting or good. So why do I write about it then? Simply put, the name Shakma just demands to be repeated. Say it. Shakma. Yeah. You know it’s gonna bad but you kinda wanna see it.

For a forgettably dopey movie about a rampaging murder-baboon look up Shakma. Or at least say it a few times and get it out of your system.

Spoiler alert: everybody dies.

laS TaFtersE asoN

I hope you like shapes, paper, and things not making any sense.

After Last Season might just be it. I have searched long and hard. I have subjected myself to much crap. I’ve seen so many wonderfully bad movies, but holy hell, what the garbage is this movie? After Last Season (2009) might just be the worst movie ever made. The sheer volume of cinematic incompetence that is schlopped on top of its own rampant incoherence is indescribable. Let me describe…

I like bad movies. I do. This is definitely bad. Hard to use a word like “like” for it. Normally I would begin a review of a film of this ilk by explaining the plot and characters, etc. and then endeavor to elaborate on the minutiae of why it was so terrible. I am indeed crestfallen that I don’t think I could ever hope to understand the plot or the characters’ relation to it or themselves much less explain it to After Last Season virgins. It truly is hopelessly disorienting and, unlike classic baddies like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, etc., this film is almost beyond categorizing into a genre. I think it is supposed to be some sort of science fiction thing, but I found myself in a constant state of befuddlement during the movie. I kept puzzling over what it was all supposed to be; what it might be trying to do or say; what the point was; why it was made; and why oh why is there so much negative head room?

As near as I can tell there are some medical students (one of whom I discovered about 3 minutes before the end credits was named Sarah) and there is also a series of inexplicable freak stabbings…also something about Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and a bizarre psychology test. Any attempts on my part to connect any of these ideas are all wild shots in the dark from this point on.

Almost every scene in the movie for the first 30 minutes or so introduces new random characters we will probably never see again. Everyone communicates in banal pleasantries and innocuous small-talk. It’s not a conscious satirical decision like in Schizopolis. The dialogue is actually just that tepid and monotonous with no discernible explanation beyond ineptitude at the script level. Lines like “What a great radio clock. Where did you get it?” and “No, I have something Wednesday night. How is Tuesday?” are a hallmark of this strange movie. So much of the “action” (I suppose the stuff involving people barely qualifies) is mindlessly interrupted by random and ineffectual “art shots” of the corners of windows, desks, dressers, etc. Another thing that disturbed me and made the overall atmosphere unnerving is that everything is blank. Rooms are largely empty aside from oddly—and rather sloppily—placed chairs and desks. There is no need to have that many boxes and paper shredders crazily festooning the middle of any room. This movie is a feng shui nightmare.

I digress. The story, the story. Well, we follow a “character” named “Sarah” who is a “med student.” Sometimes she is outside, but most of the time she is inside. She puts a science-y thing on her temple so she can share thoughts with her new boss(?). After several unsettlingly tedious sequences involving crudely rendered CG shapes we leave what I dubbed “Questworld” only to reveal that the last 4o minutes of the middle of the movie was a dream from the new boss character’s head…for no apparent reason! In the mind exchange scenes Sarah “discovers” she is predicting the stabbings and knows the identity of the stabber (the stabbing stuff feels so alien and far away that we keep forgetting about it), but none of that even matters because it was all just a dream by another character.

The dream featured an invisible stabber that completely botches the element of surprise by carefully moving the oddly placed furniture around in order to announce his spookiness. When boss man wakes up he starts a different experiment with Sarah and then the stabber returns but for realz. Now the stabber is visible, but some new invisible guy throws a chair at him and saves Sarah and the boss dude. There is far more to the plot, but in a way there’s actually less. It makes far less sense than what I’ve described.

It’s more of a series of hyper-boring red herrings than it is a movie. One of my favorite things is when “characters” will go to investigate something. We see them deciding to investigate, they leave the room, and then they will re-enter the room and say that investigated the thing. This movie out and out refuses to portray action! A film like this needs a freaking Greek chorus!

Peculiar lack of coherence, pacing, momentum, character, and general interest aside, the most glaring misstep this movie makes is technical. Almost every aspect of technical design imaginable and then some is screwed up. I swear, they invented new jobs so there would be more to botch. I honestly thought this movie to be a huge put-on for the longest time…and it still might be. This movie makes more technical mistakes than Ben & Arthur. Fake wallpaper crudely stapled together will just end; lighting equipment will be visible in the background, reflections, and in shadows (and lights are obviously and tragically unnaturally placed directly in front of all “action” thus creating bizarre hard shadows for everyone and everything); sound and sound effects are horrifically amateurish; the mind-numbingly dull and childish soundtrack will sporadically cut in and out and occasionally be replaced with a confusing sort of ambient noise I can only describe as dishwasher traffic; the inept framing for every scene will nauseate you to the point of physical illness; and I could go on. Perhaps the most baffling of all is the incessant use of paper. Walls, doors, books, windows, desks, etc. will all be covered with white paper. I sincerely hope it is not because they felt that whatever was behind the paper looked phoney. How ironic would that be? Weirder and weirder, on the exterior of a house three blank sheets of paper are taped and it is never addressed. You might almost miss it. The first scene even starts out with a paper MRI machine. The whole movie looks like it was filmed in an old gutted office building. And yet somehow it was filmed on film. Not digital. 35 mm. No joke.

The strange, atrociously lit, sterile environments might have reminded one of a hospital (or at least Poland under communist rule) except they are all just so unnatural looking. It’s just ugly and unappealing to look at. All the purposeless science and wooden awkward dialogue and performances would have been tolerable had the film looked like something that wasn’t filmed by a mental patient with an unhealthy obsession with the ceiling. Nothing makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with being enigmatic. Heck, David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky make a living off doing just that, but you still need some semblance of theme or thrust. Clarity does not equal bad movie. Clarity can be a good thing.

Maddeningly of all is that I have failed in conveying what this movie is truly like. It’s more than a poor camcorder recording of a Z-grade VBS skit from 100 feet away. It’s so much worse and all my ramblings don’t add up to much when it comes right down to it. You know what that means? It means that in order to fully understand my brain owies you’re simply going to have to experience After Last Season for yourself. I guarantee you that you will forget every scene as soon as it ends, but you will most assuredly never shake off the feeling that you saw this film. I laughed quite a bit watching this and cannot report that it was wholly unenjoyable. See my review for The Abduction of Zack Butterfield too. I just don’t know if I will be revisiting this one.

After Last Season was written, directed, produced, and shot by Mark Region. He certainly had a vision. And thank God no one shares it. Apparently it took 5 years and $5 million dollars to make. Seriously though, what actor would show up to shoot a film like this, see a paper MRI, and then stick around? But visit the website HERE. Explore this.

I sure hoped they recycled all that paper.

The Eagles Are Coming: Birdemic!

There is a storm brewing on the horizon. Ever so ominously does it gather wind. The dark spectral clouds spread their terrible girth to blot out both sun and hope. Its power will be both awesome and inexplicable…to some. Has cinematic ineptitude triumphed once again? Yes. Yes, it has. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) has arrived and it is gradually picking up steam. I’d grab an umbrella if I were you.

...O...M...G...

…O…M…G…

For those of you who celebrate bad cinema and were wondering what—if anything—could possibly follow Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), wonder no more. I saw Birdemic at a sold out screening at The Silent Movie Theater (a place that has never let me down). There I witnessed firsthand the birthing of a growing cult. And writer/director/producer, James Nguyen, was there to answer questions following the show. It was a night to remember.

birdemic 2

Birdemic: Shock and Terror is the story of a quiet coastal town that is beset by extremely aggressive birds amidst all the human drama of a budding romantic relationship and an impromptu genesis of a makeshift family unit. If it sounds like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), it’s no wonder because Nguyen loves that movie and made this film as a respectful homage to it. Nguyen’s film is decidedly more ludicrous, but, I submit, equally entertaining. Protagonist, Rod (played by Alan Bagh with heightened vapidity reminiscent of Keanu Reeves on a really bad day), is in sales. Rod also has a horny best friend, a hybrid car (that never seems to go more than 12 miles per hour), a plan for inexpensive and efficient solar power, and he just met a girl he went to school with back in the day. Said girl, Nathalie (Whitney Moore who, God bless her, is trying), is a working model that just got a gig with Victoria’s Secret. She and Rod hit it off pretty well despite the absurd awkwardness of their first encounter and their abrasive lack of chemistry. Rod has got it pretty good. Sounds that way, doesn’t it? You’re probably thinking it would be pleasurable enough just watching Rod fill his car up with gas, close ambiguous million dollar sales from his woefully ill lit cubicle, and go on awkward date after awkward date with Nathalie. What more could a movie need? If you’re Birdemic you already know the answer: hordes of psychotically bad CGI eagles and vultures inexplicably dive bombing people (and exploding into flames) that represent a thinly veiled (or perhaps bludgeon-like) plea to stop global warming.

Revelations spoke of this.

Revelations spoke of this.

Soon our heroes (heroes?) are on the lam from their avian attackers. They pick up some new—and just as emotionally and intellectually absorbing—characters along the way. SPOILER ALERT: some will not make it to the end of the movie. FORTUNATELY: all the characters have the memory/attention span/I.Q. of goldfish thus rescuing the movie from getting bogged down in the senseless mourning for the dead. When a little girl can go from crying about eagles mercilessly slaughtering her parents on the roadside to complaining she wants a Happy Meal in only a few hours, you know this movie is not terribly preoccupied with the human condition…unless perhaps it is all a metaphor or scathing social satire (she was all smiles a few minutes after their death when presented with a Gameboy).

The screeching mayhem unravels the town and stretches the wills of all who fall victim to it, until at long last the birds just decide to leave. The end.

Hair?

Hair?

I’m getting sidetracked because it’s not about the plot. The hilarious acting, writing, directing, music, and cinematography all work together (or not) to make something that by all accounts and reasoning should be atrociously unwatchable, yet somehow this movie succeeds. Never before has nothing working together resulted in so much mirth…well, maybe not. Bad movie aficionados will recognize the obvious charm of excessive delusion. Wiseau’s The Room, Sam Mraovich’s Ben and Arthur (2002), Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990), Rick Sloane’s Hobgoblins (1988), Antonio Margheriti’s Yor, Hunter from the Future (1983), Cetin Inanc’s Turkish Star Wars (1982), George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), Harold P. Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Vic Savage’s The Creeping Terror (1964), Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953), etc. are all watched today by happy movie schlock buffs. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror takes its rightful seat right next to the films I have just mentioned. And I’d rather watch these movies than the perplexingly popular Transformers.

Just hangin' out. Hangin' out. Hangin' out with my family. Havin' ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Just hangin’ out. Hangin’ out. Hangin’ out with my family. Havin’ ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Why do we remember and celebrate names like Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1959) and Coleman Francis (The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961) while we tend to completely whitewash from our memory names like Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, 1939)? It is because these filmmakers, for better or worse have conspired to say something personal. They put all of themselves into their work. They were earnestly attempting to capture some of the greatness of the films they themselves loved. For some reason their failure is so complete that they achieve a kind of immortality. No one will remember a mediocre or merely bad movie, but everyone will remember the epically awful. There is a greatness and a power in that.  So I ask, did they really fail? They bring happiness and joy to millions of people. Is that not what good films are trying to do? Why do I still watch Godzilla movies? Because they delight me.

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

But what of the filmmakers themselves? Are they not distraught and humiliated that their finest work is presented as a laughable sideshow and monument to their own ineptitude at the craft they have devoted their lives to? Some are, yes. Denial, vanishing into obscurity, devolving into drugs and alcoholism, suicide attempts, etc. are all examples of some of the coping mechanisms of a few of these directors. Some, however, do find the humor in it all. It may not have been the recognition they were searching for, but their films are being celebrated and enjoyed by generations. That’s a magic that can only exist on its own. It’s a magic that cannot be manufactured. They had to believe in their work or it wouldn’t be funny.

James Nguyen

James Nguyen

James Nguyen seems to be taking things well. I’m glad. I don’t know whether he understands everything about his film or exactly what is fueling its mounting popularity. He knows people laugh at his movie. He knows he didn’t have the money he needed to fully realize his vision. He knows it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Seeing it in the venue I did—a sold out midnight screening—really made the experience too. Like the cult following The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), people jam-pack the theater and shout at the screen. Movie-going becomes much more lively and informal for films like this. It’s a special kind of audience with their own unique electricity in the air. It reminded me of the first time I saw Troll 2. It was with a large group of people, some had seen it already, others were new to it, but we all had a blast. People curled up into balls of mirth and collapsed rolling in the aisles for Birdemic. Mr. Nguyen brought that happiness to us.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

Nguyen is currently winding up for a sequel (set to be released this September). As he grabbed the glasses on my face and jerkily jiggled them, he crazily announced it would be in 3-D. Will it go the route of the Turkish Star Wars and Hobgoblins sequels; too self-aware to duplicate the unexpected magic of the original? Let’s hope not. In the meantime, let us support James Nguyen and his cock-eyed vision that is Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

[Update: The sequel has been completed and I wait with bated breath to see if it will live up to my ambivalent expectations…I have been informed that it is fun, but nowhere near the wondrousness of the original.]

 

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 13, 2010.

The Abduction of Zack Butterfield by the Coed April McKenna

I really love bad movies sometimes. I feel like they get me. I love Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, Birdemic, Starcrash, The RoomTurkish Star Wars, Night of the Lepus, the whole Godzilla series, you name it. I genuinely like these guys. They get strange and seemingly inexplicable cult followings too. Naturally, I have a dedicated perimeter of friends who are always on the lookout for new potential entries into the pantheon of cinematic crapdom.

There is a new movie. It is the progeny of writer/director/producer/editor (always a dangerous sign) Rick Lancaster. It is The Abduction of Zack Butterfield (aka The Last Days of April) (2011). I saw this film with some friends and fellow Chroniclers on its first run at the Laemmle on Sunset Blvd. It was one of the few theaters we could find that would even screen it. Half of our party was fighting illness, but the trailer had so enticed us. We took a wrong turn getting off the 101 freeway and we were running late as it was, but we simply had to get there. We parked in the wrong structure too and so could not get our ticket validated. The fates bellowed and laughed, but we purchased our tickets anyway and marched into the darkened theater just as the opening credits started. We made it. Take that, fates.

Can I put my shirt back on?

Can I put my shirt back on?

 

It takes place in upstate New York (ah, me old stomping grounds). The film was the story of a 15 year old boy who gets kidnapped by former mercenary, April, with a sad (and boring) backstory that leads her into insanity. She wants to make the perfect man for herself so she can recapture her lost teen years. . . so get ‘em young, right? April has an explosive necklace attached to Zack so he won’t escape and then she forces him to do chores around the house in some truly nauseating tight bicycle shorts. There is NO need for a codpiece to be that accentuating. They bang a few times (which is extra gross because Zack looks like he’s about 10 years old), but he only does it to lull her into a false sense of security and plan his escape.

The police frequent Zack’s home to remind his parents that there is little hope they will find him. The tubby sheriff was my favorite character. I could almost picture his face after climbing a flight of stairs. You can even see the lav mic peeking around from behind his tie when he sits down. What else, what else…hmm…oh, the acting is terrible (naturally), the characters are laughable, and the dialogue is hilariously awkward. The plot is stupid and completely devoid of tension, suspense, atmosphere and there is little art in the setup of any shot or scene. I get that they’re trying to be edgy and Misery-esque, but nothing works. It’s wall-to-wall awful. I will say only this of Zack Butterfield, it’s definitely wretched and I laughed quite a bit, but I doubt it will have the cult following of some of the classic baddies. The filmmakers had to be either a group of prepubescent boys or else they were criminally irresponsible perverts. I can see a group of 12 year old boys thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if we like made a movie where there was like a hot chick who like kidnapped you and made you have sex with her? That would be cool, dude.” Anyone beyond puberty should be locked up for this garbage.

"Love is like a truck." What the heck was that about?

“Love is like a truck.” What the heck was that about?

One more thing! The theater actually had at least one person who genuinely enjoyed the film as a serious dramatic psychosexual thriller. He mumbled every time we made a joke or laughed at this ludicrous, pedophilic trainwreck. I couldn’t believe someone would view this film un-ironically. Even if someone absent-mindedly wandered into the theater with no pretext you would still think they would eventually realize that what they were looking at was bad. Maybe not. Perhaps there is a real audience for this film and I’m just missing something.

Perhaps the film does have a certain weird realism to it. A lot of real people are this dumb and would probably act and react the way the characters do in this movie’s situations. No heightened drama and no super elaborate plan conjured by unbelievable (but enjoyable) intelligent people. This is real cinéma vérité, ladies and gentlemen! And it’s near unwatchable. To each his own, I suppose. I just don’t see it. You should watch the trailer anyway.

If you love great indie thrillers. . . look somewhere else. Somewhere very far.

I love Los Angeles.

 

Native American disguise!

Native American disguise!

 

For more Alternative Chronicle questionable movie reviews check out: C.H.U.D.S., The Beast of Yucca Flats, For Y’ur Height Only (although I really love this movie), Endhiran, the complete Planet of the Apes, and more.

http://www.theabductionofzackbutterfield.com/moviestillsthumbs.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 30, 2011.