Wednesday, August 28, 2013

August Quick Picks and Pans

Errors of the Human Body (2012) Michael Eklund plays Geoff Burton, an American researcher in Germany, searching for the secrets to human regeneration.  Spurred by the death of his infant son from a rare genetic abnormality, he’s compelled to isolate the factors that help the body repair itself.  Errors of the Human Body is a hard science fiction story, wrapped in a drama about loss.  Those seeking fast-paced action scenes and gore-drenched visuals should look elsewhere.  Eklund plays his character almost too well as the grief stricken Dr. Burton, numb to the rest of the world while trying to save it.  His performance is a bit distancing, but appropriate, considering the magnitude of his personal loss.  His estranged wife has moved on, while he’s stuck in the past.  With his first feature-length film, director/co-writer Eron Sheean’s has crafted a fine little melancholy mood piece, reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s work.  It might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but it definitely leaves an indelible impression.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.
Best Worst Movie (2009) Ex-child actor/documentarian Michael Stephenson provides a glimpse into the making of the monumentally bad Troll 2, and its ensuing cult following. We get the idea making this documentary was a form of therapy for him, as he re-lives memories of the production and tracks down the responsible parties, including fellow cast members and crew responsible for the film.  One of the key personalities featured in the documentary is Troll 2 star George Hardy, who now runs a successful dentistry practice in Alabama.  Hardy seems ambivalent about his ironic stardom, which has made him a household name in cult circles.  While he was greeted by throngs of admirers at Troll 2 screenings in the U.S., his U.K. tour was met with apathy.   It’s amusing to hear from delusional director, Claudio Fragasso, who insists he made a good film and takes offense at those who would tarnish its reputation.  Best Worst Movie is an affectionate examination of a schlock masterpiece and its Rocky Horror-style following.  While the material is a bit thin for a feature-length documentary, it’s an amiable, mildly engaging film.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Thale (2012) This Norwegian horror/fantasy from writer/director Aleksander Nordaas starts with an intriguing premise – two men (Jon Sigve Skard and Erlend Nervold, as Leo and Elvis, respectively) discover an old laboratory where a female creature from Norse mythology (a huldra), is being kept alive in a bathtub.  Silje Reinåmo is good as the frightened, unpredictable huldra named Thale.  We’re never quite sure what she’ll do next.   Nordaas chooses not to play up the sexual possibilities of the story, but focuses on Thale as a caged creature out of her natural element.  Most of the film is uneventful. We brace for something to happen, but to no avail.  It’s more of a rough sketch than a fully realized story.  Even at 77 minutes, the film drags, but it’s still worth a look for Reinåmo’s performance and tense atmosphere.
Rating: ***.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wrong (2012) Writer/director Quentin Dupieux presents another head scratcher with this sporadically amusing follow-up to his existentialist comedy Rubber.  Unlike the former movie, this foray into absurdism wears out its welcome due to a lack of focus.  Jack Plotnick stars as Dolph Springer, deep in the throes of depression after he loses his dog.  He hangs onto his tenuous grasp of sanity by continuing to show up at work (where the fire sprinklers are constantly running), even though he was fired weeks ago.  On his quest to find his missing canine companion, he encounters several quirky supporting characters: Master Chang (William Fichtner), a self-professed guru who intentionally kidnaps pets so he can witness them reunited with their owners, a perpetually confused gardener (Eric Judor), and a ditzy pizza restaurant employee (Alexis Dziena).  Unfortunately, the random elements that made Rubber work don’t quite achieve the same ends with Wrong.  All of the bizarre bits seem to be thrown together arbitrarily, and nothing really gels as a whole, as if Dupieux had fewer tricks up his sleeve this time.

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

Blog Update: Fall Preview

Fall is shaping up to be one busy season.  My output over the next few months might be a bit sporadic, but rest assured, I’m still alive and blogging.  Here’s a sampling of what I have in store:

Silent September, my month-long tribute to silent movies, is just around the corner.  As a result, or byproduct, it only seems natural that I’d take part in the GishSisters Blogathon, sponsored by the inimitable Fritzi of Movies Silently.   

On the heels of Silent September, will be October’s annual Horror Month (not to mention Cinematic Catharsis’ third anniversary!).  As usual, I plan on covering an assortment of familiar classics, personal favorites and new reviews from one of my favorite genres.  I’ll also premier a new feature, “Double Take,” with a comparison of Psycho and Psycho II for BacklotsHitchcock Halloween blogathon on October 31st.

On a personal note, I’m looking forward to teaching my first college course (gasp!).  Yep, the future of America is in my hands.  Hmmm… that’s a little scary when I put it that way.  

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome and appreciated.  See ‘ya next post…

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Toxic Avenger Part II

(1989) Directed by Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman; Written by: Gay Partington Terry and Lloyd Kaufman; Starring: Ron Fazio, John Altamura, Phoebe Legere and Rick Collins; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Rating: ***

“At first I found it hard to believe that my father was Japanese, and that I was part-Japanese. But that would explain why I've always had these strange, non-American urges to work very hard, save money, and live without credit cards.” – The Toxic Avenger

This review is part of the month-long celebration of Troma Pictures, the Troma Challenge, hosted by The Vern’s Video Vortex, and presided over by the great and powerful Vern.  After I requested to participate, and an undisclosed sum of money was exchanged,* he agreed to let me contribute to this ode to all things Troma.  After flip-flopping about which movie I wanted to cover, I decided to focus on one of Troma’s underground icons. 

* Okay, I lied about the money part.

One thing Troma movies aren’t especially known for is quality.  They’re done quickly and on the cheap, and while not good by any stretch of the imagination, they’re strangely enticing.  Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Pictures built an entire empire on this niche market of purposely schlocky, but entertaining flicks.  It’s no wonder that the eponymous star of the Toxic Avenger movies eventually became Troma’s mascot, embodying Kaufman’s pro-independent, anti-big industry, anti-establishment message.

Shot back to back with the third film in the series, The Toxic Avenger Part II was co-directed by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz.  Kaufman concentrated on the technical shots, while Herz handled action scenes.  The original finished results were six (!) hours long, but were eventually cut down to a more manageable length of two roughly 90-minute movies.  In order to receive an ‘R’ rating from the MPAA, Lloyd agreed to omit several scenes laden with sex and gore, much to the consternation of fans of the original.  The unrated director’s cut (available on later DVD pressings) remedied many of these gripes.

The story concerns the evil head of New York-based Apocalypse Inc. (Rick Collins) as he schemes to take over the peaceful New Jersey town of Tromaville, home of the Toxic Avenger* (or “Toxie”), mutant champion of underdogs everywhere.  After the home for the blind where Toxie and his sight/fashion-challenged girlfriend Claire (Phoebe Legere) work is destroyed by the malevolent CEO’s henchmen, Toxie goes on an evil-stomping rampage.  Of course, this is merely an excuse to showcase random bits of gore-infused mayhem, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It becomes apparent to Apocalypse Inc.’s chairman that the only way to have Tromaville in his clutches is to get rid of its defender.  He seizes the opportunity when Toxie is tricked into embarking on a red herring trip to Japan to find his long-lost father.

* Fun fact: Toxie himself was played by three individuals: Ron Fazio, John Altamura and Pericles Lewnes (for the stunts). 

While Toxie’s whole experience in Japan is a dubious plot point, it’s also what makes Part II a unique entry in the series.  Kaufman and Herz relied on a Japanese crew to shoot the footage* in Japan.   Expect a parade of requisite karate-inspired gags (replete with fish nunchucks and starfish shuriken), a spoof of kaiju movies, public baths** (since this is a Troma film, after all, you can guess where this is going), and weird street food.  In one amusing gag, Toxie chases a bad guy to a taiyaki stand, where his nose is molded into a fish shape. 

* Fun fact: According to Kaufman, The Toxic Avenger Part II was known in Japan as Akuma Doku Doku Monster, or Crazy Devil Monster.

** Fun fact #2:  Kaufman points out in his DVD commentary how he and the crew created a minor international incident when they filmed in the bathhouse.  The owners were not impressed when food was dumped into one of the tubs, and their normally immaculate place of business was made filthy.

The Toxic Avenger Part II is not highly regarded by Troma fans, but let’s face it, the first film wasn’t exactly Criterion material either.  Both movies are stupid, sophomoric, misogynistic, and perpetuate offensive stereotypes, which is simply de rigueur for Troma.  Watching The Toxic Avenger Part II won’t be a life-transforming event, nor will it transform the world, but it’s full of unexpected little nuggets, if you care to let it in.  Amidst the gross-out gags and middle school humor, there are some bits of sly social commentary along the way.  While it’s not the sequel many were expecting, it’s a worthy successor to The Toxic Avenger.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


(2005) Directed by Dave McKean; Written by Neil Gaiman; Story by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean; Starring: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry and Rob Brydon;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *** ½

“We often confuse what we wish for with what is.” – Valentine (Jason Barry)

MirrorMask is a rarity in the realm of so-called “family” films, engaging the brain as well as the eyes.  While the films of Pixar typically do a good job of doing both of these things, most of their films occupy a comparatively safe middle ground – things might get a bit dark, but the filmmakers are always quick to return the story to the light.  Jim Henson Productions’ movie dwells within the shadowy recesses of the imagination, confronting the less savory (or marketable) aspects of growing up.  Recalling Labyrinth,* the works of Roald Dahl, ** and The Wizard of Oz, MirrorMask reminds us to be careful about what we wish for.

* Fun fact: David Bowie was among the list of actors considered for the part of the Prime Minster, which was eventually played by Rob Brydon.

** Fun fact number two: Rusty Goffe, who plays the Yellow Gnome, also appeared as one of the Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a typical teenager in an atypical situation.  She resents working in a circus run by her parents, preferring a normal life instead.  She retreats into her drawings to escape from her present state of affairs.  In response to Helena shirking her responsibilities, her mother says, “You’ll be the death of me,” to which Helena replies, “I wish I was.”  Helena soon lives to regret her poor choice of words, however, when her mother becomes deathly ill, and is hospitalized.

Helena becomes immersed in an alternate world comprised of her drawings.  Everyone except her wears a mask to show (or hide) their emotions.  A dark force is taking over the land, and the benevolent Light Queen has fallen into a deep sleep from which she can’t awake, spurring Helena to embark on a quest to retrieve the fabled MirrorMask and revive the queen.  Accompanied by one of the land’s residents, (Jason Barry as the enigmatic Valentine), and assisted by her Really Useful Book, she must find the mask before it’s too late.  Gina McKee plays the three most pivotal roles in Helena’s life, as her ailing mother, the Dark Queen and the Light Queen. The Dark and Light Queens reflect Helena’s ambivalence toward her mother, and Leonidas’ turn as her mirror-self Anti-Helena reinforces her conflicted frame of mind.

Director Dave McKean* renders Gaiman’s richly imagined fantasy world on an impossibly small budget (approximately $4 million).  The surrealist computer-animated landscapes and absurd creatures that inhabit the fantasy world were realized for less than most big-budget productions spend on actors.  The film’s look owed much to necessity, based on limitations of time, money and technology.  McKean relied heavily on improvisation from his relatively small crew, stating that many of the effects and designs were “made up on the fly.”  While the end results aren’t exactly cutting edge, many of the images are delightfully trippy.  A favorite sequence involves Helena being clothed by a group of animated dolls, singing the creepiest rendition of the Carpenters’ “Close to You” that you’re ever likely to hear.

* If Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels are ever realized in movie or miniseries form, McKean should be on his short list of possible directors.

Some reviewers will likely opine that MirrorMask is too dark or scary for kids, but as a parent I tend to think that’s selling our kids short.  We want to keep children protected from the evils of the world, so we bubble wrap them in sanitized movies populated with cute characters that spout rapid-fire, but hollow, quips.  Many of today’s kids movies have become well-oiled machines that push all the right buttons but never really challenge the viewer’s imagination or intellect.  MirrorMask’s protagonist deals with issues that most of us would rather sweep under the rug.  Helena must cope with her guilt about wishing things that she didn’t really mean.  In the midst of her inner and outer quest, she has to confront her darker side, another self that isn’t particularly nice or considerate, but still a part of the whole.  By keeping its audience a little on edge throughout, MirrorMask respects kids’ intelligence and resilience to embrace a character grappling with her ambivalence.  It’s a formula that might seem a bit off-putting to some, but will likely entrance many others.  While it’s a bit rough around the edges, MirrorMask ultimately soars thanks to witty dialogue and a wealth of imagination.