Monday, August 27, 2012

August Quick Picks and Pans

I Saw The Devil (aka: Akmareul boatda) (2010) This brutal, unnerving psychological thriller from director Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) and writer  Hoon-jung Park plays like a cross between Silence of the Lambs and The Most Dangerous Game.  When a special agent’s young wife is murdered and dismembered by a serial killer, he decides to catch the sociopath on his own time.  As he tracks and ultimately toys with his prey, the young agent’s sanity erodes in the process.  While the audience’s sympathies are never with the serial killer, it become evident that not turning him in to the authorities can only lead to disastrous consequences.  By the time he realizes that he’s taken his revenge too far, it’s too late to undo the damage.  I Saw the Devil features terrific work by the two leads Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi, as agent and psychopath, respectively, and illustrates how revenge can utterly consume someone.  While I admired the film for being well made and effective, it’s also extremely hard to watch.  It’s definitely not something that I’d recommend for everyone. 

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming

Sleeping Dogs Lie (2005) Sometimes the truth won’t set you free.  Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait takes the taboo subject of bestiality, and somehow uses it as the premise for a romantic comedy (Is this a first?).  Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton) harbors a shameful secret, which she begrudgingly reveals to her incredulous fiancé John (Bryce Johnson). She immediately regrets her decision to talk about her past, but her relationship is already irreparably harmed.  Goldthwait actually raises some thoughtful issues with his twisted comedy: 1) Does a committed relationship require full disclosure, or is it better for some things to remain hidden from your partner?  2) There’s a double standard that governs the threshold for men and women’s behavior.

To its credit, the film never explicitly depicts any of the admittedly repellent subject matter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an entirely enjoyable exercise.  Sleeping Dogs Lie takes a serious turn in the third act, and never quite recovers from this rapid tonal shift.  If nothing else, one has to admire Goldthwait’s cojones to bring his warped premise to the big screen.  While I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it to anyone, I won’t dissuade anyone from seeing it, either.  Just don’t blame me.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Last Unicorn (1982) In recent years, revisionists have hailed this as some sort of unsung classic.  I was a bit too old to appreciate The Last Unicorn when it first came out in 1982, but finally caught this at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, with my family in tow.  The plot concerns a lone unicorn’s quest to locate others of her kind, while avoiding the dreaded Red Bull (an unstoppable bovine specter, not the energy drink).  There’s some nice voice work by Alan Arkin as the marginally competent wizard Schmendrick (Yiddish for jerk) and Christopher Lee as King Haggard.  Unfortunately, it’s hampered by Jeff Bridges’ somnambulistic line readings as Prince Lir (he also sings a love ballad).  Another low point is the groan-worthy music by the group America, whose best days were already behind them.  I can’t fault the cut-rate animation, which was more or less standard for the era, but the whole production just seemed bland and tiresome.  While I can’t say that I was the target audience for this movie, my kids weren’t exactly enamored with the movie either.  Neither worthy of praise or damnation, it’s a mildly diverting time-waster, best remembered for what it is, rather than what it’s not.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Zonad (2009) This comedy misfire about hero worship and mistaken identity was co-written and co-directed by John Carney (responsible for the vastly superior film, Once).  Zonad stars Simon Delaney as a portly escapee from an alcoholism rehab clinic.  He arrives at the tiny Irish village of Ballymora, clad in a red, skin-tight jumpsuit, and claims to be an alien named Zonad.   Inexplicably, the townspeople believe him, and begin to treat him like royalty until his rival, a fellow escapee, arrives on the scene.  After watching Zonad, I could only arrive at one conclusion – that the villagers were complete idiots.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone involved thought they were working with a workable screenplay.  Every chance for comic misadventure is a misstep, completely devoid of comedy, except for one early line in the film.  Moments that must have been intended to evoke laughter only come across as grating.  Avoid this Celtic turd at all costs!

Rating: * ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Favorite Directors: Joe Dante

“One of the things I've always tried to do is to inject myself as much as possible into the movie, so I feel like it's mine.” – Joe Dante (excerpt from 2007 Noel Murray A.V. Club interview)

Words like “underrated” and “underappreciated” immediately spring to mind when I think of Joe Dante and his films.  For the uninitiated who prefer their genre movies straight without a mix of comedy, Dante’s cartoonish, “anything goes” aesthetic can be a little off-putting.  Likewise, his reception from critics and viewers has run the gamut from glowing to indifferent, but that’s just part of his charm.  For those that appreciate his off-center approach, his movies are full of treasures waiting to be discovered.

You might notice that there isn’t a five-star rated film in the rankings below.  This isn’t intended as an oversight or an affront.  Dante doesn’t make perfect films.  It’s unlikely that critics will ever refer to Dante as an “auteur,” or if his films will end up on a future Sight and Sound poll, but I think they’re missing the point.  He’s someone who understands the value of entertainment for entertainment’s sake, which is no surprise, considering that he started out editing trailers for Roger Corman.  True to form, he’s familiar with cramming a lot into a small package.  Watching a Joe Dante film can be compared to tapping into the mind of someone who grew up watching Saturday matinees, and decided to make some movies of his own. 

So what’s he got that others don’t have?  With Joe Dante, it’s all in the little details:

  • Social satire.  In Gremlins, Dante takes the idyllic Norman Rockwell town and plunges it into complete chaos.  Gremlins II takes this formula one step further to turn the tables on corporate greed and the commoditization of society.  The Howling skewers the self-help movement of the late 70s/early 80s, by depicting a therapeutic retreat that also happens to be a haven for werewolves.
  • Cartoonish sequences. Joe Dante’s appreciation of cartoon gags has never been more apparent than in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, but, arguably, Gremlins II was the best realization of cartoon-like action in a live action setting. 
  • Champion of the underdog.  Joe Dante’s reluctant heroes are customarily atypical, overcoming adversity with intellect instead of brawn.  In both Gremlins movies, Billy Peltzer bravely stands up to a threat that’s beyond his control.  In Small Soldiers the audience’s sympathies are clearly with the inhuman Gorgonite toys, which are programmed to lose.
  • Dick Miller!  No Joe Dante movie would be complete without an appearance by character actor Dick Miller.  His inclusion has provided a common thread in many of Dante’s films, and it’s always fun to see where he pops up.  Sadly, Miller has gone into retirement, but here’s hoping that he’ll decide to make just one more cameo.

Ranking Dante’s Films:

A few notes: I left out Dante’s television work (including his notable contributions to Showtime’s Masters of Horror series), along with his segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie.  Unfortunately, Dante’s latest feature, The Hole (2009) is currently unavailable on DVD, so I’m unable to assess where this stands among his other movies.

  1. Matinee (1993) Dante’s affectionate ode to William Castle is also his most personal film.  Set amidst the backdrop of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, he manages to blend his love of ‘B’ movies with the horrors of the Cold War. John Goodman, in one of his best performances, channels Castle as huckster extraordinaire/filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey. Matinee also boasts a spot-on parody of 50s sci-fi with the movie-within-a-movie, Mant.  Rating: **** ½
  2. Gremlins (1984) If Frank Capra made a horror/comedy, it might have looked something like this.  No other film demonstrates Dante’s trademark style so effectively, with its blend of humorous and dark thematic elements.  The Mogwai, and their mischievous transformations, provide the perfect metaphor for this duality.  Rating: ****
  3. Gremlins II: The New Batch (1990) Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate this frenetic sequel to Gremlins, with its no-holds-barred skewering of corporate culture.  John Glover turns in a great comic performance as megalomaniacal billionaire Daniel Clamp, sort of an unholy mixture of Ted Turner and Donald Trump. And Christopher Lee seems to be having a blast playing the mad scientist role of Dr. Catheter.  It’s probably the closest anyone’s gotten to successfully creating a live action cartoon.     Rating: ****
  4. Innerspace (1987) Dante’s answer to Fantastic Voyage features one of Martin Short’s best performances as nerdy grocery store clerk Jack Putter.  When a miniaturized submersible carrying Dennis Quaid is injected into his bloodstream, it’s up to Putter to become the hero he never imagined himself to be.  Innerspace features some impressive special effects and strikes the perfect balance between comedy and action.  This should have been a big hit.  Rating: ****
  5. The Howling (1981) Released the same year as John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, Dante’s take on the werewolf genre is a different beast (pun intended).  Compared to some of his other works, the comedy is toned down, in favor of thrills.  The humor is more subversive, rather than overstated.  Rating: ****
  6. Small Soldiers (1998) This underrated gem is probably best known as Phil Hartman’s last film, but it’s worth watching for other reasons.  Once again Dante has corporate America in his sights, with Denis Leary as a cynical toy company CEO.  Frank Langella provides quiet dignity (if that term can be ascribed to an action figure) to Archer, the Gorgonite leader.  Fun fact: Several of the Gorgonites and Commando Elite are voiced by actors from This is Spinal Tap and The Dirty Dozen, respectively.  Rating: *** ½
  7. Piranha (1978) More than just a cheap Jaws knock-off, Piranha sends up the nature amok genre while embracing it.  On a personal note I was tickled to learn that portions of this movie were filmed within spitting distance of where I currently reside.  Rating: *** ½
  8. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) (co-directed by Alan Arkush) Featuring the music and onscreen presence of the Ramones, Rock ‘n Roll High School isn’t an earth-shattering examination of youth in crisis, just good mindless fun.  P.J. Soles is fun to watch as Ramones-obsessed, and study impaired, high schooler Riff Randell.  Rating: ***
  9. Explorers (1985) River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke and Bobby Fite star as three friends who build their own spacecraft.  The film starts out strong, but gets lost along the way, proving that getting there is most of the fun.  When the friends finally meet the aliens, it all feels a bit anticlimactic.  Still, if you dial down your expectations about where it’s headed, it’s a fun little romp.  Rating: ***
  10. The Burbs (1989) The Burbs starts promising, with its themes of domestic paranoia and neighborhood voyeurism, but ultimately goes nowhere.  The climax ends up negating the film’s initially intriguing premise, eventually leading to the baffling conclusion that spying on your neighbors and unbridled suspicion is actually a good thing.  Rating ** ½
  11. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) Hampered by a flimsy story and lackluster performances (Steve Martin is at an all-time low with this one), Looney Tunes: Back in Action comes across as a second-rate Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The gags are hit and (mostly) miss, except for one inspired scene tucked away in the middle of the movie, replete with numerous nods to 50s sci-fi icons, and set in the mysterious Area 52 (not to be confused with Area 51).  Rating: ** ½
  12. Hollywood Boulevard (1976) (co-directed by Alan Arkush) Everyone has to start somewhere.  This essentially plotless comedy has its moments.  It’s mostly saved by Dick Miller’s spirited performance as the wise-cracking Hollywood agent Walter Paisley (a nod to his character with the same name from Corman’s Bucket of Blood).  Rating: ** ½

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Penalty

(1920) Directed by Wallace Worsley; Written by Charles Kenyon; Based on the novel The Penalty, by Gouverneur Morris; Starring: Lon Chaney, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn and Jim Mason; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

“When Satan fell from Heaven, he looked for power in Hell.” – Blizzard

Silent films are an ethereal window into another time and place.  They possess a sense of unreality that at once distances and tantalizes us.  Whenever I sit down to watch a silent movie, I feel privileged to observe a brief glimpse of a world gone by.  What was once regarded as a disposable medium is now available for posterity, for future generations to enjoy.  When I learned about Eternity of Dream’s Speechless Blogathon, I saw another opportunity to explore a medium that never fails to captivate me.  The Penalty is just such a film – a gloriously imperfect reflection of the time when it was created; not just a moldy artifact, but a living artifice.

In the opening scene we see a young Dr. Ferris and his mentor as they discuss emergency surgery that was performed on a young boy who was the victim of a traffic accident.  The elder doctor chastises him for unnecessarily amputating both of the boy’s legs above the knee, then agrees to conceal the mistake from the boy’s parents.  Unfortunately for Dr. Ferris, the seeds of revenge have been planted, as the anguished boy overhears the doctors’ conversation.  The story shifts 27 years later to (then) modern-day San Francisco.

The boy has grown into a ruthless underworld kingpin known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney).  Despite his affliction, he builds a citywide crime syndicate that demands absolute fealty from his allies and intimidation of his enemies.  Chaney used an elaborate, painful, harness to conceal his lower legs, and walked on his knees to create the illusion that he was a double amputee.  The effect was so convincing to audiences of the 1920s that The Penalty once included a final scene (now lost) depicting Chaney walking around on his full legs.  But Chaney succeeds as Blizzard not only because of the physical demands of the role, but his expressive portrayal of a man consumed by his lust for power.  He carefully sets the elements of revenge in place like a spider casting an elaborate web.  Once his plans have come to fruition, he vows to rule the city “…with the pleasures of a Nero and powers of a Caesar.”  Fittingly, he poses for a bust of Satan by Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams), none other than the daughter of the doctor who maimed him.  Blizzard knows that she’s the key to his plan in exacting his vengeance on her father.

Blizzard finds his nemesis and muse in the guise of Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), a secret agent tasked with exposing his underworld operation.  She goes undercover as one of the women working in his hat-making sweatshop, but soon finds that his business activities are much more ambitious.  Even after he discovers her true intent, he decides to keep her under his wing instead of dispatching her.  His uncustomary display of mercy demonstrates his growing ambivalence toward her, with equal measures of admiration and betrayal. 

The Penalty contains some surprising pre-code content, with sexual innuendos, depictions of a brothel, and a nude sculptor’s model.  Blizzard’s bizarre relationship with Rose is rife with thinly veiled sexual tension.  He enjoys the fact that Rose is held captive for his amusement; she pushes the pedals on his piano as he fingers the keys. 

It’s practically impossible to observe The Penalty detached from a modern perspective. The film’s myriad plot holes are readily apparent: Why weren’t Rose’s notes of her covert activity encrypted to prevent Blizzard and his men from uncovering her secret identity?  Why did she choose to sign the notes with her own name?  Why would Blizzard trust Dr. Ferris to perform surgery correctly on him after Barbara is held hostage?  And the big plot twist that’s revealed at the film’s climax seems particularly contrived, even by M. Night Shyamalan’s standards.

I would have preferred a simpler approach to the music that accompanies the Kino DVD.  Michael Polher’s modern, synthesized score seems a little too strident and anachronistic, providing unneeded distraction when subtle cues would have been more effective.   I appreciated the attempt to do something different, but there were times when the scenes required a more restrained touch. 

All quibbles aside, Chaney’s remarkable performance makes The Penalty a worthwhile viewing experience.  His physicality and emotional depth are never short of compelling.  Another notable aspect is the way that several scenes are juxtaposed against each other, flipping back and forth between characters in different places, instead of playing out in a linear, static fashion as in many other silent productions.  The Penalty is a “find” (as Blizzard would describe Rose), and it’s essential viewing for Chaney fans and lovers of unconventional drama.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

One Small Step for Movie Blogs, One Giant Liebster for Cinematic Catharsis!

I’d like to start out by apologizing to NASA and Neil Armstrong for that terrible pun, and give a much-deserved shout out to Michaël Parent from Le Mot du Cinephiliaque for selecting me for my second Liebster Award!  This new incarnation of the Liebster Award has been making the rounds, and I’m thrilled to be a recipient.  It’s always fun to write about movies, but it’s also great to be recognized by one’s peers.

So, here are the rules (in slightly modified form):

1.  Each person must post 11 facts about themselves.

2.  Answer the 11 questions the person who has given the award has set for you.

3.  Create 11 questions for the people you are giving the award to.

4.  Choose 11 people and send them a link to your post (Participation is strictly optional).

5.  Go to their page and tell them.

11 Facts About Me

I still have my old laserdisc collection, and occasionally start up the old player to play a title or two.

I hold a master’s degree in Counseling, and bachelor’s degrees in English and Psychology.

I worked in a mom and pop video store during my initial college years in suburban Los Angeles, back in the days when VHS was king.

I’m an avid fan of rollercoasters, and love to ride them whenever I get the chance.

I’ve been married 19 ½ years to my wonderful wife Nancy, whom I met while working at the above referenced video store.

I didn’t become a coffee drinker until I was 35, but it’s become an indispensable component of juggling my daily regimen: raising a family, working full time, and blogging (in that order).

My favorite author is Joe Lansdale – Hopefully, a suitably intrepid and talented filmmaker will someday bring his superlative novels The Bottoms or A Fine Dark Line to the big screen.

I prefer rainy days to sunny days.

I hope to get to Tokyo one day, so I can visit the Studio Ghibli Museum.

I worked on a TV show as a transcriber for two days before quitting due to tedium.

11 Questions Asked

1. What is your real name?

Barry Polin – and no, I don’t resemble a bald Peter Lorre from Mad Love.

2. How many movies do you watch every week?

Roughly 6 to 10 per week.

3. Black and white or color films?

I love them both.  Yeah, I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but I think they both have their relative merits.  Having worked with black and white film in my high school photography courses, I came to appreciate the subtle gradations of light and dark and the timeless nature of the medium.  Color has the definite advantage when it comes to animation (with Persepolis being a notable exception), and food just appears more appetizing.

4. What is the best film you watched recently?

Martin Scorsese’s gorgeous love letter to pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, Hugo

5. Your best movie watching experience (movie, context)?

One of my most surreal experiences was attending a screening of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure on the Warner Bros./Burbank Studios lot in the mid-80s – the same place, coincidentally, where the climactic chase scene in the movie occurs.

6. Do you watch movies alone or with friends, life partner, your pet?

All of the above.  If I watch a film with commentary, it’s usually alone, but during the first pass, depending on the subject matter, I’ll usually watch it with my wife and/or kids.  And for late-night movie watching, it’s usually my trusty dog Copper who’s by my side.

7. Which film opened the door to be a serious movie watcher?

Hmmm… That’s a tough one.  I believe that many of the movies I watched as a kid had a cumulative effect.  I think it would have to be 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it wasn’t as immediately likable or accessible as Star Wars (Episode IV to you young ‘uns out there).  It was so visually and thematically dense that it couldn’t possibly be absorbed in one pass, and opened itself to re-interpretation over the years.

8. What is the film you could watch every day for the rest of your life?

Wow.  It’s hard to single out just one, but it’s tough to beat Forbidden Planet for pure enjoyment.

9. Who’s your favorite director?

Stanley Kubrick has to be at the top of my list.  Although each of his movies carries his signature style, he could never be accused of making the same movie twice.  His films will be analyzed, discussed, and puzzled over for centuries to come.

10. Take a guess, what will be the next Best Picture Oscar Winner?

I’m usually a year behind with my movie watching, so that’s a roundabout way of saying that I’m not sure.

11. You have to save one film because we have to delete the entire History of Cinema. What will you save?

Oh, the pressure!  While there were dozens of other worthy choices, I’d have to go with 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Admittedly, it’s a little thin in the dialogue department, but its stunning visuals and lofty themes never fail to impress.  Although the titular date has already passed, the film still stands as a meditation on humankind’s potential (if we manage not to do ourselves in first).

11 Blogs That I’m Passing This On To (Should they wish to accept):

Questions for 11 of my fellow bloggers:

Why did you decide to become a movie blogger?

What do you consider to be one of the most underrated films?

Do you have a favorite author? 

When you’re not watching movies, what do you like to do?

3D: Is it just an expensive fad, or is it here to stay?

What’s your favorite movie venue?

What movie (if any) deserves a sequel?

Favorite movie line?

Have “found footage” movies run their course?

Are there any movies that you really enjoy that you’ve failed to convince others to see?

Have there been any films that you considered unwatchable?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Some More Dumb Movies That I Like Anyway

The late great George Carlin once posited, “Did you ever notice that their stuff is shit, and your shit is stuff?”  While I don’t believe Carlin was specifically referring to guilty pleasures, his statement certainly fits the bill here. It’s all a matter of taste.  Following in the footsteps of Dumb Movies That I Like Anyway and Dumb Movies That I Like Anyway, Part II, this third installment continues my fascination with the cinematic equivalent of junk food.  There’s nothing here that can possibly be good for you.  Like eating a fried confection at the county fair, it’s all just empty calories and you’ll likely regret it an hour later, but it sure tastes good going down.  Without further delay, I’ve submitted another dose of my more questionable favorites for your approval (all ratings are 3 stars unless otherwise noted):

One Crazy Summer (1986) Almost no one seems to remember this little comedic gem from director Savage Steve Holland, although most are probably familiar with his other John Cusack-starring vehicle, Better Off Dead.  I’m stepping off on a limb by arguing that this is actually the better of the two.  Cusack plays would-be animator “Hoops” McCann who’s unlucky at life and love.  After graduating high school, he decides to spend the summer with his best buddy George (Joel Murray) on Nantucket.  The numerous gags that ensue are more hit than miss.  One of my favorite scenes involves comedian (now director) Bobcat Goldthwait in a Godzilla costume.  Underrated comic actor Joe Flaherty also has a nice turn as the gung-ho owner of a military surplus shop.  A low point is Demi Moore’s singing (!), which is mercifully confined to one song.  There’s nothing new in the plot department, with its slobs-versus-rich-kids storyline and a climax that will surprise no one, but it’s all about the shtick. 

My rating: *** ½

Hobo With a Shotgun (2011) Hobo With a Shotgun originated as a fake trailer in a contest for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, and evolved into a feature-length movie that harkens back to the days of 70s exploitation flicks.  Director/co-writer Jason Eisener’s retro-flavored exercise is one of the best examples of this short-lived trend.  Rutger Hauer checked his dignity at the door when he signed up for this project as the eponymous Hobo, and we’re all the better for it.  He vows to clean up the streets “one shell at a time” as he roams the streets of Scumtown with his $50 shotgun.  Normally I don’t go for depictions of sadistic violence, but in this case it’s over the top to the point of being cartoonish (along the lines of Dead Alive or The Toxic Avenger).

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) Halloween III did what few sequels dared, trying different.  Probably just as many people love this flick as hate it for deviating from the formula of its predecessors, but in my book, that’s a huge plus.  Director/co-writer Tommy Lee Wallace took the series in a completely new direction, with a film that has nothing to do with Michael Myers and his killing spree.  According to the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, this is how the Halloween series would have gone if the filmmakers had their way, with unrelated sequels telling their own unique stories.  I preferred that concept, compared to repeating the same story ad nauseam, but alas, the movie-going public of 1982 wasn’t quite ready.   

Tom Atkins is Dr. Dan Challis, who’s determined to get to the bottom of the sinister goings-on at the Silver Shamrock novelty plant.  Dan O’Herlihy plays evil Silver Shamrock magnate Conal Cochran, and provides one of the most ridiculous explanations that you’re likely to hear for the mayhem.  The movie doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that does nothing to deter from its pure entertainment value.  If nothing else, Halloween III is to be commended for following through with its silly premise.  Oh, and try as you may, you won’t be able to shake the diabolically infectious “Silver Shamrock” theme that counts off the days until Halloween  This is on my short list of must-see Halloween movies, including, of course, Halloween and Trick ‘r Treat.

My rating: *** ½

 Popeye (1980) Another example of gutsy filmmaking is Robert Altman’s much maligned take on the classic cartoon of the same name.  Some people inhabit a role so completely that you couldn’t imagine anyone else doing justice to it.  Nope, I wasn’t referring to Robin Williams as the titular spinach-loving sailor, but Shelley Duvall as Popeye’s anorexic girlfriend Olive Oyl.  It’s almost as if she had been genetically engineered to play the character.  I recall watching this in the theater as a kid and not knowing what to make of it.  Somehow, I keep returning to it periodically, perhaps to remind myself that I actually saw the film and didn’t hallucinate it.  Strangely enough, it’s aged quite well, thanks to its (gasp!) memorable songs and stagey appearance that perfectly embodies a cartoon world.  Altman conveys a sense of being in a different time and place, which is why I go to the movies.

Rollercoaster (1977) Just when you thought it was safe to go to an amusement park… There’s two reasons that I find this hokey thriller noteworthy: an appearance by the under-appreciated band Sparks and the fact that it was partially filmed at Magic Mountain, where I held a summer job after graduating high school in 1986.  George Segal plays federal safety inspector Harry Calder.  He must hunt down a madman played by Timothy Bottoms (imaginatively named “Young Man”) with a penchant for blowing up roller coasters.  I was never really sure what his motivation was for his destructive pastime, but for the sake of this film, let’s just say he’s crazy, in a Hollywood, non-specific sort of way and leave it at that, okay?  It’s a movie that could only have been made in the 70s.  Call me cynical, but I can’t imagine today’s Six Flags executives agreeing to showcase their parks in a movie about terrorist activity in their theme parks.

Blacula (1972) Before he was the King of Cartoons in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, classically trained William Marshall earned his fame by starring in this cheesy blaxploitation movie with a supernatural twist.  Marshall really lends weight to a film that’s so lightweight it’s in danger of floating away.  You can’t help but pay attention to him whenever he’s onscreen.  The rest of the movie?  Not so much. Well, at least the vampires in the movie don’t sparkle.  Also watch for legendary character actor Elisha Cook Jr. in a small role. 

Mystery Men (1999) Based on a Dark Horse comic series, this mixed bag failed to win over critics or audiences, but something clicked with me.  At 122 minutes, it’s a trifle overlong and suffers from some pacing issues.  I also can’t shake the feeling that the filmmakers were trying too hard to make everything quirky.  While the movie itself is clunky, its strengths rest in its main characters.  William H. Macy provides much-needed pathos as earnest blue-collar family man and part-time superhero The Shoveler.  Hank Azaria is hilarious as The Blue Raja, who fights crime with silverware and horrible puns.  Wes Studi is dryly amusing as the enigmatic Sphinx, who spouts quasi-profundities at every turn.   And it’s always nice to see Paul Reubens in something, even if it’s playing a flatulent crime fighter called The Spleen.  The best role is reserved for Geoffrey Rush as flamboyant supervillain Casanova Frankenstein.  It’s a shame that there was never a sequel, where problems from the first movie could have been ironed out, but it’s nice to dream.

My rating: *** ½

The Toxic Avenger (1984) It’s stupid, infantile, and filled with sophomoric humor.  In other words, it’s everything that you’ve come to expect from Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Entertainment over the years.  In the tradition of the superhero origin story, The Toxic Avenger chronicles the exploits of nerdy Melvin Junko, who falls into a vat of toxic waste, and becomes the Toxic Avenger, defending the town of Tromaville from evildoers.  There’s even a Beauty and the Beast subplot as the Toxic Avenger finds the (blind) girl of his dreams.  This isn’t likely to end up on the Sight and Sound Poll anytime soon, but it’s a load of fun if taken in the right vein.  Best viewed late at night!

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) I remember seeing this Irwin Allen production on TV sometime in the 70s, and it really left an impression on my developing mind.  It’s an all-star extravaganza with a mismatched set of bickering survivors, including the late Ernest Borgnine as an uptight cop married to an ex-hooker (Stella Stevens) and Gene Hackman as a self-doubting priest.  The goofy Academy Award-winning song “The Morning After” will haunt your nightmares.  This one really brings back memories.  I remembered making up a sort of home game, wondering how I’d fare if I had to go through all the trials that the characters had to do to survive.  Play along; it’s fun!

Repo!  The Genetic Opera (2008) Director Darren Lynn Bousman’s undercooked, overblown Grand Guignol sci-fi/horror/musical never fails to capture your attention, like a moth to a light bulb.  Anthony Stewart Head (best known from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series) stars as Nathan, a repo man who repossesses organs when the recipients fall behind on their payments.  Paul Sorvino is Nathan’s ruthless employer, Rotti Largo, head of GeneCo.  It’s probably the only movie with Paris Hilton (as Largo’s plastic surgery addicted daughter Amber Sweet) that I’d recommend, simply because she’s playing herself: self-absorbed, talentless and heavily modified.   This exercise in style over substance suffers from some of the same issues as Mystery Men – it almost seems to be a pre-fabricated cult film; but it’s fun in a Rocky Horror sort of way.