SIMON SAYS: An Interview with Bobcat Goldthwait

SIMON SAYS: An Interview with Bobcat Goldthwait

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When you talk to Bobcat Goldthwait, the American stand-up comic turned Police Academy sideshow attraction and now filmmaker, you see that his demeanor is very similar to the even-handed tone of his films. During our talk, Goldthwait casually referenced Preston Sturges and Falling Down as he addressed the tone of his controversial comedies. And he did it all while talking very matter-of-factly about the logic behind making movies centered around outlandish behavior.

Goldthwait’s recent breakthrough as a director was Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006), a romcom about a woman who admits to her fiancé that she once drunkenly gave a blowjob to her dog. He then followed that up with World’s Greatest Dad (2009), a black comedy about a father/teacher (Robin Williams) who admits that he didn’t always love his son (a perversely inspired performance by Daryl Sabara). Now, Goldthwait has directed a film called God Bless America (2011), a characteristically thoughtful black comedy about an unlikely pair of vigilante killers (one of whom is played by Mad Men’s Joel “Freddy Rumsen” Murray) who murder people whose bad behavior they can’t stand.

God Bless America is, like Goldthwait’s last two movies, a comedy about characters who eventually give in to their morally weaker impulses. But the film has been weirdly mischaracterized by many detractors as a goofy revamp of Natural Born Killers. I talked to Goldthwait on the phone about his audience’s expectations, directing a superhero movie, and his idea for a remake of Billy Jack.

I saw God Bless America at Toronto and am still taken aback by how wildly misinterpreted it’s been. How would you describe the reception it’s gotten?

Bobcat Goldthwait (BG): It’s had its fair share of positive reviews and . . . well, you know, my other movies had the same thing. People will say, “It’s a one-joke movie.” Well, yeah, if you don’t empathize with any of those characters. Then it’s a no-joke movie. I’m not into comedies that are joke-driven. I’m not trying to make Two and a Half Men: The Movie.

One of the thing’s that’s striking about your films is that you do try to get us to empathize with your characters. One of the things I found most bizarre about the negative pans was the way people compared God Bless America to Natural Born Killers. Natural Born Killers is about the psychosis of its characters, whereas this film seems to be about how your characters allow themselves to be seduced by psychosis. That’s not really the subject of the film, right?

BG: Yes, right. And Natural Born Killers, at the end of the day, was trying to implicate the media. And with this movie, I’m not trying to blame the media. I’m trying to make a movie that questions our own appetite for distraction, and that raises the question of where are we going. If you’re disappointed that I didn’t have a scene where I keep cutting back to Harvey Keitel in front of a big map saying, “I gotta get inside the brains of these people! Where are they gonna strike next?! Oh, I got it: this reality TV show,” I have no interest in doing that kind of movie.

The movies I make don’t take place in reality. I have a problem with vigilante movies. Usually, they start with a very gratuitous rape. And at the end, the hero kills all the bad people. So people can get their rocks off watching this gratuitous rape and then they can get their rocks off watching people get blown away.

In this movie, at first you’re rooting for the characters, and in the end, the wheels fall off. You should be questioning their behavior all along. Frank eventually realizes that he’s a flawed human being, and that this whole thing that he put into motion doesn’t really work. [laughs] I mean, for instance, if people were to treat Sleeping Dogs Lie as a serious examination of bestiality, they’d be out of their minds! This isn’t a movie about serial killers, it’s a movie about our own appetite for distraction.

That comparison to Sleeping Dogs Lie is striking as it doesn’t look like it’s being made by God Bless America’s critics. I think people get confused about the characters’ speeches—or more accurately, the rants—and they assume they’re speaking for an authorial voice. Which is ridiculous, considering what the consequences of those rants are.

BG: Yeah, I think it’s funny that people mistake those rants for my opinions. I wouldn’t make those speeches in everyday life. People think, “Oh, this movie is preaching,” but obviously those are people that don’t agree with what’s being said or think that they should agree with everything. I like to go to the movies and watch characters who make me question how I see the world. I don’t want to watch a movie where everyone does things I agree with. I think people see this movie on a superficial level sometimes and think that’s what it is. Those are the people that are more likely to go see The Avengers.

I was actually going to ask you later—beg you—to please, please try to make a superhero movie. I think you’d make a great Dr. Strange.

BG: [laughs] They usually use their own people, or they’ll sniff around and say, “Are you interested?” I briefly tried to look at the Marvel catalogue, and everything is gone. The only thing I could find was, during the CB craze of the ‘70s, a trucker called Razorback.

Yes!

BG: My friend who helped me find this character says, “You gotta make the Razorback movie!” [both laugh] I say to him, “You’re out of your mind!” Somebody told me about World’s Greatest Dad, “Wow, you really created a whole world there. I half expected Batman to show up at any moment!”

[laughs] That’s the thing about your movies: I almost want to describe them as Bobcat Goldthwait’s Moral Tales. Without shaming the audience, they’re about a sense of perspective people get when they realize they can be pushed beyond their comfort zones. World’s Greatest Dad, Sleeping Dogs Lie and God Bless America all have these characters that think, “Oh, I don’t even understand myself beyond a point.” That almost goes hand-in-hand with the superhero genre!

BG: That’s what interests me about making movies. I don’t think I’m smarter than the audience and I’m not trying to manipulate them. I’m making movies about people as flawed as myself and the viewers. So if you just have a reptilian brain and live your life simply by reacting to things, my movies aren’t going to work for you. They’re not going to make any sense, you know? I’m not trying to manipulate you with clever zingers. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still trying to figure it out.

That reminds me of something [comic book writer and artist] Howard Chaykin said. He’s said he that he creates characters who were flawed because he felt it would be dishonest to create paragons of virtue when he himself isn’t totally virtuous.

BG: Right. Right! And that’s the thing: there are plenty of things that Frank complains about that I’m guilty of. I’m not this angry guy that wishes the world would operate the way I see it. Another movie people bring up is Falling Down. But that movie—I don’t think people understand. He really wants to go to his daughter’s birthday party. It’s a racist movie! [laughs] When they finally get around to killing people, the Michael Douglas character winds up being a closeted Nazi. But we’re supposed to go, “Well, I still don’t hate this guy, but he’s still a Nazi.” In the movie I made, you should be going, “Well, none of this is right. This is all a little screwy.”

When I’m ego-surfing on the web, and I look at people’s comments to the movie’s trailer, and they go, [slow voice] “So, what, I’m not supposed to text during a movie anymore?!” [both laugh] I make these tiny, independent movies with my friends on a very, very small budget. I don’t make them for everybody. I expect to continue to pay rent for the rest of my life. [laughs]

World’s Great Dad and God Bless America have gotten some pretty good exposure. One of the things that’s striking about you is that, while you see plenty of actors and comedians try their hands at directing movies, you’ve kept at it. How difficult is it for you to keep on making these films?

BG: I actually write a lot of screenplays. I don’t really have an objective. I don’t sit down and go, “Well, this is one I can get made this year. Movies with penguins are really popular.” I just write whatever comes out of me. And then I try to get money and get all of them going. The key is I don’t make them if I have to compromise. I would rather not make a movie than compromise or to change something in the story so it’s more sensible or less offensive. So for good or for bad, these movies have my voice.

Even given the increasingly positive response you’ve gotten to your movies, are there some ideas that you thought were so extreme that only you could write and direct them?

BG: I don’t make compromises. One of the movies I wrote—I said to my wife, jokingly, “I’m tired of not making money. I’m going to write a genre picture.” I love Billy Jack, so I wanted to make something like Billy Jack

Oh, wow.

BG: I'm, like, 45 pages in, and she comes over and asks, “Well, how’s it goin’?” And I go, “Well, he’s gay now.” And she goes, “We really are just going to keep renting, aren’t we?” [both laugh] Well, anyway, he goes into a redneck town and kicks ass.

And again, it’s meant to question all this craziness about equal rights for the gay community. I did it in a funny way, but the joke’s not that this guy dresses funny. He’s an ass-kicking Marine that gets kicked out during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I want to make that movie, but when I do make it, I want to make it the right way, with the right cast. I can’t get money for that. I’m surprised, but not a lot of action stars want to make out with a dude on camera! [both laugh]

But that’s an example of how I work. I just write it and say, “This is the world I want to see.” And then I wait until I get the right people to pull the trigger on the money. I wrote five screenplays, and God Bless America is one of them.

One of the things I find striking about your movies—and also Spike Lee’s movies—is that you assume that these prejudices come from somewhere. And the places where they come from, like family and religion—those institutions have the potential to be good things. They’re not always bad. They have the potential to bring people together. That even-handedness is striking. When you write characters who aren’t necessarily totally sympathetic but also aren’t black-hat-wearing bad guys, how do you make them somewhat sympathetic?

BG: Well, as I said, none of these movies take place in the real world but I try to make the lead characters in these movies very real people. I’m a big Preston Sturges fan and the leads in his films are often quite flawed. They have a lot of dimension to ‘em, even the sillier ones. But then there are always these one-dimensional characters that are circling around these people. And that’s how I see these movies, where the main people are hopefully well-rounded characters and that’s why you empathize with ‘em.

That’s why I think Joel did a terrific job in this movie. I didn’t want people to pity Frank. I didn’t want him to be someone they felt bad for, I wanted him to be somebody they empathized with.

Yeah, there’s usually a level of latent patronization or condescension in comedies when audiences are asked to sympathize with a character. Your movies place your characters on a pretty even level with the audience.

BG: That’s the goal, thanks. I hope folks see that. Sometimes I’ll pop out jokes and get rid of things that are a little too funny or too silly if they compromise the world that this guy comes from. It’s funny that, for a guy that was a night-club comedian for so long, jokes are the last thing I think about when I’m writing a screenplay.

Really? Do you work it in afterwards?

BG: Yeah, or they just come up organically, like an actor will pitch a funny line or on the day I’ll come up with a funny line. But like I said, I don’t like comedies that are joke-driven. And I don’t like comedies where the theme is an afterthought. Like, at the end of the day, it feels like they just made it up. Like, “Friends are the most important friends,” or, “If you don’t give up, you’ll wind up believing in yourself.” For me, it’s the themes and the world first and then I figure out who those people are from there.

That conjured up an image of Judd Apatow’s comedies. They often have an improvisatory feel to them. They just go on forever and there never seems to be anyone calling cut. There’s just a lot of riffing and that’s sort of become a style unto itself.

BG: Yeah, that’s a form and people enjoy it the same way… I don’t have that luxury when I go to make a movie. There are scenes that are ad-libbed, and I do ask people to contribute. That’s usually because the people I collaborate with, we collaborate from day one. [laughs] I don’t have the budget to deliver a four-hour cut of a movie.

At what point do you start talking to your collaborators about what the characters’ voices are?

BG: Well, when somebody’s hired, because of the small world that I make my movies in, you’re dealing with people that are the right people for the job first. So they usually already have that character dialed in. They audition, or I already know that they can do it. But, you know, Joel had a lot of questions about the character, and I reflected it in the screenplay. He said, “Well, he wouldn’t do this and he wouldn’t do that.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” So I would rewrite it.

I think I’ve got what I need. So I just want to urge you: please, please make an Antman movie or a Razorback movie. [Goldthwait laughs] You don’t even need to think of it as selling out, you’d just be doing a Bobcat Goldthwait movie on a different level.

BG: It’s so hard! All the good ones are taken. All of them are in development, that’s the problem.

Yeah, I can’t imagine them doing anything with a lot of these properties but I’m sure all of them are in development hell on some stage or another.

BG: Yeah. Well, maybe I’ll make a movie about my alter ego when I was a little boy, which was Super Rabbit.

Super Rabbit. What’s the story behind that?

BG: When I was a little boy, my sister would make pills out of dough. When I took the pills, I would have all the powers and strength of a rabbit. [laughs]

Uh…oh, wow.

BG: What happened was, when me and [Sponge Bob voice actor] Tom Kenny were kids—he had actually written it out, he had a character named Captain Caribou.

Oh my gosh.

BG: Which was about a guy that was bitten by a radioactive caribou in Alaska. And he had these antlers that he had to live with . . .

I think you’ve got your next movie right there.

BG: [laughs] Captain Caribou and Super Rabbit!

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Productive Awfulness, or: THE RAVEN Opens This Week

SIMON SAYS: Productive Awfulness, or: THE RAVEN Opens This Week

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About every month or so, Steve Carlson and I co-host a movie-themed podcast called the Bad Idea Podcast. The podcast’s main conceit, in short: Steve and I are cinephile dumpster divers. We either watch a collection of bad movies or a selection of movies united by a stupid theme (example: movies featuring killer trees in time for the release of Terence Malick's Tree of Life). We do this, as Steve often says, because we're looking for "buried treasure," or, more importantly, a reason "to justify these films' existence."

Fun as this is, I still often wonder if there is such a thing as a productively awful film. We don't think of the films we watch as immediately satisfying but not especially hardy cine-junk food, any more than Solaris is a, uh, cultural vegetable (to be clear: I love Stalker, Solaris and Ivan's Childhood and am fascinated by The Mirror and The Sacrifice, too). So the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure film is only tangentially related to our goal for the podcast. Steve and I both acknowledge that we often highlight fundamentally rotten movies, and that, yes, there's something odd about going out of your way to look for the sublime in the awful. But just because a movie is strange does not always mean it's interesting, as we saw during the month when we watched a swath of E.T. ripoffs from around the world. (We watched a German period porno starring a girl in a very bad and very revealing E.T. costume. That was a rough watch.). The kind of film we’re looking for is something that can give us an experience like the one we had while watching Black Devil Doll from Hell, a title we watched for our month dedicated to killer puppets. Black Devil Doll from Hell is insane but it’s insane in a weird, sui generis, avant-garde-meets-blaxtaploitation kind of way. It’s weird in ways that made both Steve and I want to rewind and compare a scene where a woman, while showering, is psychically raped by a sentient puppet to Chris Marker's ground-breaking use of photo-montage in La Jetee. Black Devil Doll from Hell is our kind of movie.

So, it's with little guilt that I express my interest in The Raven, a new thriller in which Edgar Allan Poe runs around trying to catch a serial killer whose murders are all based on gruesome scenes from Poe's stories. The Raven might very well be just a garden variety turd. The plot looks pretty formulaic, and John Cusack looks seriously miscast as Poe (sorry, but Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler just doesn't have that kind of acting range). But: James McTeigue is directing, which leaves me simultaneously excited and confused.

McTeigue is most well-known as the director of the recent glossy but approachable and not altogether unintelligent adaptation of V for Vendetta. Though that would normally be enough to make me interested, that's not why I'm curious about The Raven. McTeigue also served as 2nd Assistant Director on a number of other Wachowski siblings' related projects: McTeigue worked with the Wachowskis on the Matrix movies, as well as on Speed Racer, as the second unit director. Directing under the influence of the Wachowskis, filmmakers who know how to shoot characters in motion, is not McTeigue’s problem. It's also not really why I'm interested. The single reason for my interest in The Raven is this: McTeigue's last film, the memorably tacky Ninja Assassin.

Ninja Assassin hails from a long tradition of awful movies about ninjas made by white guys. Enter the Ninja, Ninja Terminator, Revenge of the Ninja–all of these films were directed by white guys, and all of them happily exploited the near-mythic image of Nippon's own brutal, stealthy black pajama-clad killers in better Japanese movies (such as Samurai Spy or any of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies). Co-scripted by Matthew Sand and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, Ninja Assassin is pure ninjasploitation. Every narrative cliche is deployed, from the doomed love subplot that teaches Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), our stoic ninja hero, to the domineering but heartless father figure who meaninglessly and firmly urges Raizo to "always remember who you are." The film's action scenes suck because they rely heavily on fountains of computer-generated blood, murky shadows, and goofy action poses to achieve a fairly meager effect. Ninja Assassin's cookie cutter plot has no heart, and its ostentatiously elaborate set pieces have no style. Ninja Assassin is not a diamond in the rough—it's just rough. So why can't I look away?

Something about the expertly executed superficial rotten-ness of his last film gives me hope that with his new movie, McTeigue has taken his propensity for dimwitted melodrama and done something truly flabbergasting. I want to see John Cusack twirl his mustache, drink heavily, and then, who knows, hallucinate that he is a serial killer, or even end up chasing a man-sized blackbird in a trenchcoat. I want to see John Cusack give us a top ten list of pathological clues that point toward the real killer, with a literal bullet punctuating the end of his list. I want to see Edgar Allan Poe get drunk in order to solve crime, just as Jackie Chan’s character gets inebriated in order to fight in the Drunken Master movies. In other words: I want to believe that McTeigue will use the mandate that his big budget and cluelessness as a storyteller have naturally bestowed upon him to make the best damn bad, tasteless movie he can. He has financial power at his fingertips that many other incompetent and flamboyant filmmakers only dream of. I sincerely hope he uses it in a productively awful way.  Because when you watch a fantastically bad film, one that makes you feel like you’re hallucinating while watching it, you’re disarmed. You're reacting purely, without hesitation or rationale. Whatever it is you’re feeling when you watch a spectacularly bad movie, it’s from the gut, and it's icky, and it's strange, and it has to be reckoned with. I want The Raven to be that bad.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: The Vulgarian Frontier: On The Three Stooges’ Patently Inconsistent Comedic Genius

SIMON SAYS: The Vulgarian Frontier: On The Three Stooges’ Patently Inconsistent Comedic Genius

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                  “The Vulgarian Frontier: Subject to Change Without Notice.” –Signpost in Dutiful but Dumb (1941)

Now that The Three Stooges, the new Farrelly brothers mediocrity, is just a day away from nationwide release, it’s very easy to misremember what made Larry Fine and Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp Howard’s routine so memorable. Like many Vaudevillians' acts, the Stooges’ brand of violent slapstick humor comes from a flagrantly low-brow kind of self-loathing. The fates seemed to regularly conspire against the Stooges but it somehow seemed justified because their personae were so very ugly. In fact, many of their best gags are about how unattractive they are, like when Shemp tiptoes around an old dark house in Spooks! (1953) and recoils in horror when he sees a bat with his face on it. “What a hideous, monstrous face,” Shemp says, before the bat descends on fishing wire while burbling, “Bib-bib-bib-bib.” The Stooges were never high artists but they were very good at taking themselves down a peg or six.

At the same time, one of the more dated and, yes, problematic aspects of the Stooges’ act is that they make fun of themselves by proxy, mocking many of the women that they try to woo. Being initiated in the Women Haters' Club in Women Haters (1934) is not much different than the Stooges’ scheme to get Larry married so that he inherits a fortune in Brideless Groom (1947), in that both scenarios assume that women can only be equal to men if they’re just as loutish, conniving, or fugly. Women often beat up the Stooges, but not because these guys were feminists, and wanted to joke about how ineffectual and chauvinistic their Stooge personas were. Actually, the Stooges just had really low self-esteem. So when Moe, Larry and Curly get wrangled into a car by a trio of women in False Alarms (1936), it’s telling that the most vocal gal is a thuggish-looking dullard who sees the Stooges as a meal ticket: “Come on, girls, let’s go places and eat things.”

Women were, however, not consistently used as direct reflections of the Stooges’ own insecurity. Women are more generically used as trophies, in shorts like Gents Without Cents (1944) and Pardon My Backfire (1953). This shows to go you that while the repetition of certain routines is a staple of the Stooges’ brand of humor, Fine and the Howards don't have a consistent philosophy on life or comedy. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, since that lack of focus is also a central part of the group’s charms–more on this in a moment.)

Besides, the Stooges never really needed anyone else to prove just how grossly incompetent they were, since their bumbling behavior was always an extension of their “hideous” looks and, thankfully, the Stooges never opted for plastic surgery. Scowls, dumb show stares, bulbous noses, and the group’s signature hair-stylings are just as integral to the group’s masochistic schtick as the vigorous eye-poking and cheek-slapping that made them famous.

Then again, the Stooges are often at their funniest when the pacing of their gags is so manic that you can hardly understand them.  For instance, in Spooks!, each successive gag is delivered at a successively faster rate, until finally a giant gorilla that’s been skulking about out of sight makes a dramatic re-appearance. Additionally, some of the gags are weirdly dense and feature puns that are so cerebral that they’re practically middle-brow. In Malice in the Palace (1949), the boys pore over a map that shows in great detail the geography of the imaginary land of Shmow. Now, you can pause your dvd and pore over the details of punny made-up territories like the Bay of Rum, Igypt, Jerkola and Great Mitten. But the fact that this intricate gag was originally shown for only a few seconds makes the Stooges' anything-for-a-laugh modus operandi all the more apparent.

Besides, being flagrantly nonsensical suited the Stooges, as in an earlier part of Malice in the Palace where the group tries to eat meat that they're convinced was once a cat or a dog (whenever they prod the food with their flatware, a pooch and a puss respectively yelp and hiss). Or how about when Moe inadvertently destroys a car's horn in Pardon My Backfire and the horn spontaneously exclaims, "They got me," as if it were dying? If nothing else, the Stooges are at their best when they're charging out of left field. Their jokes aren't exactly avant-anything, and their sense of humor certainly isn’t consistently surreal. But with 200+ shorts at their backs, it's safe to say that the group's longevity stems from the variety of ways they contrived to hurt themselves. They kept enough variety in their gags to make even the sleepiest of their shorts feature one or two gut-busters. Pretty impressive for a bunch of guys that couldn’t even stand to look at their own reflection.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Nanni Moretti’s Cinema of Opposition

SIMON SAYS: Nanni Moretti’s Cinema of Opposition

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The films of Italian writer/director Nanni Moretti primarily revolve around his own ego and then secondarily around questions of moral responsibility, specifically the extent to which we function in society. Moretti himself plays a recurring role in almost all his films: the empathetic and, as he puts it in Dear Diary (1993), "whimsical" skeptic. In I Am Self Sufficient (1978), a single father struggles to come to terms with the fact that his goofy, sub-Brechtian theater troupe isn't really reaching its minuscule audience. And in The Mass is Over (1985), a priest (also Moretti) leaves his sheltered island home to pursue his vocation but finds himself easily distracted and frequently uninterested in his congregants' problems.

I talked with Moretti with the help of an Italian interpreter last week, and my discussion only confirmed what I already knew after watching his films: Moretti is his own best character. Through his characters' various permutations, Moretti, whose new film We Have a Pope (2011) opens at Manhattan's IFC Center this Friday, often wavers between introspective self-seriousness and manic self-parody. In that way, he's a worthy acolyte of poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose death Moretti commemorates in Dear Diary when his character takes a long Vespa ride around and beyond Rome's city limits. In films like The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Hawks and Sparrows (1973), Pasolini questioned whether it was possible to achieve the kind of utopian ideals that intellectual discourse often strives for. The same is true of Moretti's movies, though he often begins by poking fun at himself.

In his movies, Moretti defines himself in opposition to the institutions he is a part of. Even in The Son's Room (2001), a deceptively tranquil family drama that also won the Palme D'Or, Moretti voices frustration with being part of a unit, in this case a nuclear family. Even before Moretti's character’s son abruptly dies, Moretti's character wonders just how involved he can be in his family's collective life. In The Mass is Over, Moretti's stand-in is just as easily uncomfortable with his calling as a priest. He plays soccer with some local children when he doesn't want to listen to a plaintive parishioner and turns up the radio when another congregant tries to confess to him. Moretti often laments that he can't be there for his film's supporting characters. But that semi-comic resistance is a big part of his cinematic persona's charm.

According to Moretti, there's a problematically narcissistic tendency towards self-pity amongst Italians and Italian movies that he parodically embraced when he made Dear Diary. Moretti described Dear Diary to me as his way of spoofing an ongoing trend in contemporary Italian films, where 40 year-old men act like blameless "victims" and lament about being unable to leave behind their difficult jobs, their needy families or their backwards countries. "This feeling of being a victim and not assuming one’s responsibility is a constant in Italians," Moretti told me. "Dear Diary makes fun of that attitude of feeling like a victim for 40 year-olds, for 20 year-olds, for 60 year-olds—it’s still present. It’s a model [of thinking] that still exists and it’s still a problem with the Italian personality. The fault is always someone else’s. If a match is lost, it’s the fault of the referee."

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Then again, through his films, Moretti expresses his own personal frustrations with being an atheist (in The Mass is Over and We Have a Pope), a Communist (in I Am Self Sufficient and Moretti's 1989 masterpiece, Red Lob), a lover of theater and films (in I am Self Sufficient and Dear Diary), and someone that often finds himself at odds with everyone around him (all of the above). This is funniest whenever Moretti's character despairs over popular contemporary cinema. In I Am Self Sufficient, Moretti works himself up into a frenzy at the thought that Seven Beauties was, upon its original 1975 theatrical release in Italy, hailed as the start of a new kind of Italian cinema. He goes further in Dear Diary, in which he tracks down one of the Italian critics that gushed over the 1986 American serial killer pic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and brings the poor reviewer to tears by reading his laudatory review back to him. Funnily enough, Moretti is reluctant to talk about Henry. When I tried to make an admittedly long-winded parallel between the "psychological simplicity" of characters in both his films and in Henry, Moretti became comically antsy. Even now, there are some films that you simply can't talk to Moretti about, it seems. 

Still, it's not especially surprising to see Moretti act in real-life as one of his characters might in his movies. When asked about how he was preparing for this year's Cannes Film Festival, where he will lead the jury of the festival's main competition, he instinctively responded with a self-deprecating joke. "I’d like to go to Cannes and buy some suits, lose a kilo or two, learn a little English," Moretti said. "I won't be able do do any of these things. The suits, yes, but the English and the weight, no." Moretti went on to tell me at some length what participating in film festivals as a juror has been like for him. But, just like when he jokingly corrected his interpreter, who initially mistranslated "referee" as "coach," Moretti behaved exactly, well, like himself. He's a self-possessed boy philosopher who carries the weight of his world on his shoulders with unabashed gaiety. A victim, he ain't.

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Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: LOVE IN THE BUFF Redeems China Lion

SIMON SAYS: LOVE IN THE BUFF Redeems China Lion

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For a few months now, China Lion Entertainment has been better in theory than in practice. For those that missed my Lunar New Year piece: China Lion is an American distributor of popular contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong films. Until this week and with the notable exceptions of some interesting but inconsistent melodramas like Aftershock and Love in Space, China Lion had yet to release a film worth recommending without serious reservations. China Lion films typically don't leave you with any resonant emotions beyond superficial first impressions. They're fluffy, and, even in the extreme case of Aftershock, a family drama about two generations of Tangshan Great Earthquake survivors, there's very little gravity to them.

Thankfully, with the release of Love in the Buff, Hong Kong co-writer/director Ho-cheung Pang's (aka: Edmond Pang) sequel to the equally moving and light romcom Love in a Puff, China Lion has finally released something worth recommending (China Lion never released Love in a Puff, presumably because it originally released when the company, which focuses mostly on first-run features, did not exist in 2010).

Love in the Buff follows a young former couple as they try to meet other people while struggling to get back together. Like many of Pang's previous offbeat comedies, Love in the Buff is a movie about storytelling and the cumulative effect of white lies. Pang's young lovers tell each other stories about people they know and about each other, like the one about the girl with a lover's pube stuck in her bracelet or the plain-looking blind date whose mother claims he looks like In the Mood for Love star Tony Leung Chiu-wai (the man explains that his mother only meant that he is as tall as Leung). In telling these small, incestuously inter-related fictions, Pang's characters create the lives they want to lead out of the unremarkable ones they currently live.

That heady concept is developed at the start of Love in a Puff, in which Cherie Yu (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue), two soon-to-be lovers, meet while huddled over a trash can for a smoke (in 2009, a law in Hong Kong was passed that banned smoking in office buildings and some public parks, too). Pang frames the romance in Love in the Buff similarly by showing Cherie and Jimmy chatting conspiratorially about a mutual friend. No matter how hard their mutual friend tries to protect her boyfriends, they all inexplicably die, or so the story goes. One dies after doing laundry at a Laundromat so the friend buys a washer machine. But her next boyfriend falls to his death from a window while hanging laundry up to dry at home, and so on.

So unlike Love in a Puff, which started with a story about a man being trapped in a trunk and the aforementioned pube anecdote, Love in the Buff starts with a personal, fatalistic myth of Cherie and Jimmy's "Black Widow" friend. You don't have to know who Cherie and Jimmy are or where they are in their relationship after the events of Love in a Puff because Pang has just had his jaded lovers tell us. They're scared of losing each other, an anxiety that soon proves to be self-fulfilling.

In the Love in the ____ series, Cherie and Jimmy relate to each other and people in general primarily through character-embellishing tall tales. So it's not surprising that, even after the couple drifts apart in Love in the Buff when Jimmy announces that he has to move to Beijing for work, Cherie and he still both remake their lives based on little fictions. And when Cherie and Jimmy's friends and loved ones can't meet the high expectations that the set up in Cherie and Jimmy's private stories, the nee personality traits that hey exhibit become the raw material for new stories.

For instance, Jimmy starts dating a Beijing girl named You-You (Mini Yang), a flight attendant, after she promises to repay a favor that Jimmy did for her by helping him "in bed." While Jimmy's thinking he'll get laid, You-You actually just wants to meet at a trendy bar where patrons are served food and drink in beds. But bear in mind: Jimmy only meets You-You after Eunuch tells him a yarn about flight attendants, saying that stewardesses can be sexually harassed twice before there are serious repercussions for their molester. A man sitting behind Eunuch overhears this and tries to grope one of You-You's fellow stewardesses. He immediately gets caught however since Eunuch was, uh, apparently mistaken! So Jimmy decides to meet You-You at the bed bar and checks to see if Eunuch’s new theory (Eunuch insists that You-You is sexually aroused by Jimmy) is true. But he only does this after Eunuch's story about groping women proves to be untrue.

The opposite dynamic is true of Cherie's post-Jimmy search for love. She first tries matchmakers that hook her up with their sons, like the one that misrepresents her son as a Tony Leung look-alike. But then, when another blind date turns out to actually match his mother's description, Cherie winds up stuck fishing her cell phone out of a public toilet while her best friend, now clearly enamored with a Huang Xiaoming look-alike (actually played by Hong Kong actor Huang Xiaoming), hits on Cherie's intended date. So Cherie winds up meeting Sam (Xu Zheng) instead, a guy she later realizes she wants to date because she thinks he is, personality-wise, Jimmy's complete opposite.

But the situation Cherie's in when she dates Sam is not an inversion of when she first started to date Jimmy in Love in a Puff. In fact, it's just like the circumstances that led Jimmy and Cherie to originally date each other. Whereas Jimmy chose to date Cherie knowing that she was already seeing somebody, Cherie is now cheating on Sam with Jimmy while Jimmy cheats on You-You with Cherie. Everybody's telling a different story in Love in the Buff, making it both a knotty and accomplished variation on Puff's meta-textual main theme and a very clever and resonant romantic comedy unto itself. This: this is the China Lion film to see.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Come Out to Pla-aaaaay: What Pop Culture Has Made of THE WARRIORS

SIMON SAYS: Come Out to Pla-aaaaay: What Pop Culture Has Made of THE WARRIORS

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The pervasive influence of The Warriors on pop culture is pretty staggering. As an update of the Greek heroic epic Anabasis, Walter Hill’s movie strives for archetypal narrative simplicity. But like any good remake, The Warriors is also very much about its setting: a four-colored comic book caricature of crime-infested, Fun City-era ‘70s New York. The titular gang struggles to make its way back to Coney Island after an unprovoked attack suggests that they’re being stalked, but why is a mystery. The Warriors stalk through several of the city’s five boroughs, stopping over in the Bronx and Queens and then passing through Manhattan in order to finally end their long journey in South Brooklyn (Staten Island, as usual, stands alone).

So it’s interesting then to note that a new movie like The FP, an action pastiche directed by Brandon and Jason Trost that comes out this Friday. The FP, blatantly inspired by Hill’s movie, only selectively appropriates aspects of Hill’s film. The FP follows an escalating feud between two video game-obsessed gangs in Frazier Park, a small town in California. Both gangs claim to be the best at what they do and what they do is competitively dance against each other in a variation on Dance Dance Revolution. There’s no journey to get back home as in The Warriors however, in The FP, so the film’s colorful characters’ dispute is not the same as the turf-v-turf feuding at the heart of The Warriors. Because, really, The FP’s nerds are just fighting for control of a relatively homogeneous community.

But that lack of specific referentiality is pretty much par for the course, unfortunately. More often than not, references to The Warriors in pop culture, ranging from video games to rap songs, are more about the film’s costumes and catch phrases than they are about the milieu that gave birth to those costumes and catch phrases. I mean, granted, it’s a very quotable movie: iconic lines like “Can you dig it?” and “Oh, Waaaaaariors, come out and play-aaaaay,” have been sampled in everything from Wu Tang Clan’s “Shame on a Nigga” to the 1991 Sega fighting game Streets of Rage, the latter of which features a gang of baseball bat-wielding thugs who recall The Warriors’ Baseball Furies. Still, there’s something fundamentally off-putting about the way that many of these references reduce The Warriors to context-less sound bites. It’s almost as perverse as the way that Father Merrin’s ineffectual command, “The power of Christ compels you,” in The Exorcist has become a mantra for semi-jocular peer pressure. Um, you guys do remember that Max von Sydow’s character dies shortly after saying that line, right?

At the same time, there are some tributes to The Warriors that do get where their source of inspiration is coming from. I’m rather partial to the reverent set piece at the heart of actor/choreographer/director Seung-wan Ryoo’s 2006 actioner The City of Violence. Here’s a movie where a penitent gangster (Ryoo) and a police detective (Doo-hong Jung) reunite in their hometown of Onseong after a mutual friend dies at the hands of a big local gang. This gang is the crime world equivalent of an impersonal conglomerate, a point that’s driven home when their boss hires several smaller gangs to dispatch the film’s two resourceful protagonists.

This great fight scene, in a film full of great fight scenes, most successfully goes beyond the Tarantino-style of pastiche, where pop culture signifiers are divorced from their original context (The City of Violence’s last fight scene is, however, weirdly reminiscent of the orgiastic bloodbath at the end of  Kill Bill, Volume 1).

The street fight excerpted above is terrific, if only for the way it shows the various gangs—breakdancers, yo-yo slingers, field hockey players and more—converging on a single spot. Events only really come to a head in The City of Violence once all of these gangs converge on a single spot for a spectacular melee. So this scene is not the climax of the movie, but it is the plot’s critical tipping point. It’s fitting then that this scene also is the one where Ryoo pointedly and cleverly refers to The Warriors as a location-based action film. Everything comes back to Onseong, so naturally that’s where all the gangs converge.

But as long as I’m talking about The Warriors as a movie that makes burlesque out of New York City’s diverse, heterogeneous population, I should also give props to Fighting, Dito Montiel’s breezy 2009 modern-day-Rocky-in-New York. As a trenchantly New York-based filmmaker, Montiel is obsessed with self-mythologizing. For example, in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Robert Downey Jr., who plays a version of Montiel, periodically interrupts the film’s story. In doing so, he both undermines and reinforces the veracity of Montiel’s autobiographical story of growing up in Astoria, Queens. So it stands to reason that Fighting, a movie about a young hustler (Channing Tatum) who participates in illegal street fights, should evoke The Warriors in its depiction of the colorfully partisan nature of New York’s various boroughs and neighborhoods.

To earn money, Tatum’s hero faces off with Latino gangs, Russian gangs and Asian gangs that are scattered throughout Montiel’s city. And as Tatum’s precocious meathead participates in more fights, it also becomes more apparent to viewers that these various race-based factions are united in their need to protect their respective territories. The Big Apple of Montiel’s movie has only cosmetically changed in the 30 years since The Warriors: it’s still very much a city defined by ethnic difference. Now if only we could get Spike Lee or Abel Ferrara to remake The Warriors….

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: SNOWTOWN MURDERS and a Guided Tour Through Serial Killer Movies

SIMON SAYS: SNOWTOWN MURDERS and a Guided Tour Through Serial Killer Movies

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“Now, do I look like a sex murderer to you? Can you imagine me, creeping around London, strangling all those women with ties? That’s ridiculous. For a start, I only own two.” –Jon Finch, Frenzy

In Florence, there’s a wax museum filled with dioramas of various serial killers. Almost none of these killers are from Italy. This is odd since the infamous Monster of Florence slayings are, ostensibly, the reason why such a museum is situated in Florence, the city most people associate with the Uffizi Museum and the Medicis.

If you take the museum’s guided tour (and you really must), you’ll notice that The Monster is however only a footnote, part of a single tapestry-like map of Italy’s many murderers. Ironically, most of these killers whom don’t really qualify as serial killers. Two or three murders, a death here or there, nothing like the wave of murders that inspired Thomas Harris to set his Hannibal in Florence. These killers are mostly Americans like Ed Gein, Aileen Wuornos and Jeffrey Dahmer. The Dahmer diorama is particularly impressive, complete with a realistic-looking trap door that hides half-exposed, half-decayed kiddy corpses.

Watch this video tour of the Serial Killer Museum – how many famous killers can you name?

 

I’m reminded of Florence’s wonderfully icky wax museum because The Snowtown Murders comes out in theaters this week. Based loosely on a series of real-life murders that took place in Snowtown, Australia, the film serves as a great reminder of why serial killers in particular are interesting: they’re pathologically disturbed. After a certain point, you can’t logically discern why a serial murderer does what he or she does. But that’s why they’re so fascinating: their gruesome crimes don’t make sense.

Think of it: guys like Albert Fish, the so-called “Vampire of Brooklyn,” or Jack the Ripper murdered people but only certain ones. So we want to know: why remove this body part or why take out your anger on women and why in this way? To make sense of these crimes, we have to confine these aberrant and largely inexplicable characters to reductive motives: they’re impotent, they have mommy issues, they hate women, etc.

Still, if everyone that had the above issues acted in the way that Ed Gein, the inspiration for films as diverse as Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we’d not only be in deep shit but we’d also probably not care as much about serial murderers. Maybe, in an alternate universe where pathological behavior, as we understand it, is normal, dressing up like your mother and hacking people to bits with a chainsaw is something paid spokespeople encourage you to talk to your doctor about while Arnold Palmer throws footballs through tire swings.

But in our universe, many movies depict serial killers as a certain type of nebbish loner. In Psycho, Norman Bates is an exception that inadvertently proves the rule: Anthony Perkins is shy, keeps to himself but seems mostly harmless (He wouldn’t even hurt a fly, you know). So as cheesy as Psycho’s coda scene, where a police profiler breaks down why Norman killed people dressed like his mother and murdered people, is, it’s also kind of necessary. After all, Bates is evasive throughout the film. His personality and his motives are deliberately kept a mystery throughout the film’s proceedings. In the end, we want to know why he did it, and what drove him so far over the edge.

nullStill, it’s important to note that Gein isn’t really a serial killer. He murdered two people, which hardly establishes his slayings as a pattern. But he is important because he became a symbol of all the Freudian motivations that we project onto killers. We make these assumptions partly because of the phallic imagery implicit in Psycho’s shower scene or Leatherface’s chainsaw in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Massacre director Tobe Hooper would make a lot of hoopla over Leatherface’s fetish in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which plays out like a fittingly schizophrenic and limp slasher made by a big Laura Mulvey fan).

Take for example the depiction of murderers in a film like Maniac!, Bronx-born director William Lustig’s immaculately skuzzy 1980 film. Co-scripted by anti-star Joe Spinell, the film follows a loner that has garden variety psychological problems as they were defined in a post-Psycho filmic world: Spinell’s character kills women because he’s terrified of them. The ghost of his mother tells him what to do and he talks to himself throughout the film as her.

At the same time, even Spinell’s killer is constantly asking himself (as his mother, mind you) why he does what he does. But while he’s totally baffled by his behavior, we as viewers are made to feel like we know exactly what’s wrong with him: basically, he’s crazy. By which I mean he’s a very frustrated man that’s paralyzed and tantalized by sex. When Spinell’s character picks a prostitute up, he doesn’t decide to go with her to a motel until she tells him how far she’s willing to go for a hundred bucks. When the prostitute in question tries to put her arm on Spinell, he reactively brushes her off him. He can’t be seen in public being touched by her, though who he thinks is watching him is unclear.

Spinell’s character conforms to the basic stereotypes that define serial murderers in the 1972 thriller Frenzy, director Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie. Screenwriter Anthony Schaefer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man) suggests in no uncertain terms that, like Alec McCowen’s police chief, we, the viewers, presume to know the motives of a serial strangler pegged. McCowen haughtily explains to a peer how such killers behave:

“The important thing to remember is that they hate women and they’re mostly impotent. Don’t mistake rape for potency, Sergeant. In the latter stages of disease it’s the strangling, not the sex, that brings them off. You know what they are, Sergeant, I’m sure.”

nullThe funniest part about this scene is that it’s a 100% accurate description of the killer in Frenzy: he tries to rape one of his victims. But she resists and refuses to give him the satisfaction of whimpering while he breathes heavily and repeatedly growls, “Lovely!” The joke is that even McCowen’s chief, an equally impotent British man that politely hems and haws while his wife experiments with French cuisine, could guess why the real killer behaves the way he does. So while most characters in Frenzy spend the film insisting that they know exactly what the cops are looking for, McCowen inexplicably does.

One of the most satisfying depictions of a serial killer on film has to be Michael Rooker’s Henry in the 1986 character study Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Rooker’s antihero is a more polished version of the loaded popular assumptions reproduced in most movies about serial killers. Henry lives with two other people, though he always seems uncomfortable around them and is tellingly emotionally withdrawn all the time. There’s even a line that deflates the assumption that Henry came from a broken home and has mommy issues: he tells Becky (Tracy Arnold) a story about how his mother died, one which Becky inadvertently reveals to be a pack of lies.

And there’s basically the rub: Rooker’s character has no hard-and-fast reason to kill. Which is really what’s so puzzling about serial killers, that sense of not knowing. The fact that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the most ambiguous film of the bunch I’ve listed is possibly because, of all the movie murders I’ve mentioned, Henry is the only one that’s really based on a real-life Henry Lee Lucas, a real-life serial killer (Bates was only inspired by Gein). As exploitable as their subject may be, Henry co-writers John McNaughton and Richard Fire at least respected the fact that there were things about their subject that they simply could not know for sure. I wonder if Florence’s Serial Killer Museum is looking for film-related add-ons. I’m sure they could fit in an extra TV monitor in somewhere, possibly between Ted Bundy and Charles Manson…

You can take a virtual tour of the Serial Killer Museum by visiting their website.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in theVillage VoiceTime Out New YorkSlant MagazineThe L MagazineNew York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: The Weird World of Unseen Marvel Comics Movies

SIMON SAYS: The Weird World of Unseen Marvel Comics Movies

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When Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was released this past Friday, I couldn’t help but think this of Nicolas Cage: “Wasn’t this guy supposed to play Superman?”

Follow my train of logic, please: as a fan of the Ghost Rider comic book character, the poor reviews for Spirit of Vengeance, a title that seemed like a shoe-in for Crank boys Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, were truly, er, dispiriting. I mean, if the guys that made Jason Statham a living cartoon character can’t do much with a film where Nicolas Cage plays an antihero with a flaming skull head, who can? I haven’t seen Spirit of Vengeance but I still want to enjoy it, and I hope that I’ll take away something from it other than abject despondence, which was what I got from the 2007 Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceAnd yet, the kind of died-on-the-vine disappointment that both professionally critical friends and lay-nerds alike have experienced after watching Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance led me to wonder about the comic book films that never were – dream projects like Tim Burton’s aborted version of Superman, whose prospective costumes look psychedelically campy in the best way imaginable.

Hold on, before you call me a troll or a contrarian, let me back up a moment: the reason I fantasize about a Tim Burton-directed, Nicolas Cage-starring Superman movie isn’t because I think it’d be a huge success. In fact, I think it’d be crazy and dysfunctional but possibly exciting and frequently dazzling. It’d be different, is what I’m trying to say, and different is what I want from comic book movies. I am, after all, writing in an age of drab Marvel comic book adaptations like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger and Christopher Nolan’s frequently exciting but pointedly anti-flamboyant Batman movies.

Ahem. I dream of superhero movies where guys that wear four-colored outfits are allowed to be simultaneously human and ridiculous. This is admittedly a reactive stance after having only really been impressed by Iron Man 2, a character-driven mess that is mostly pretty entertaining but is also very much a film made by fans that felt like they could cut loose and just tell a story that they really wanted to tell after doing their due diligence in the first Iron Man. I want a comic book film that doesn’t pander to first-time audiences and also doesn’t deny the fact that these characters live in worlds where death rays and super-powers are commonplace. Is that so much to ask?

I guess so. In my recent search for comic book movies that are out there and exciting and yes, maybe consistently engaging enough to be worth seeking out, I focused primarily on the Marvel Comics movies that time forgot, by which I mean that I sought out made-for-TV projects that have been buried by Marvel and have yet to surface on DVD or Blu-ray. This didn’t require much skullduggery: many of these titles are available via YouTube and will likely continue to circulate on another medium after a Marvel rep reads this article and tries to pull down the titles listed below. I wish I had more time to watch more of these weird objects of cult worship, because you can say what you want about how “good” these made-for-TV films and episodes are, but hot damn, they look downright outré when compared to fairly recent Marvel movies. These older adaptations suck, but they’re a different kind of suck.

With that in mind, if you’re willing and interested, take a little trip with me down memory lane and remember comic book films that never were – released, that is. These are all Marvel properties, folks, so you won’t see me tackling equally tempting stuff like the 1997 Justice League pilot (though it is, uh, available). And you won’t see me talking about The Man-Thing or Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher. You can either Netflix those last two titles or buy them off of Amazon. Think more along the lines of the Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four and bam, we’re on the same page.

Bear in mind: these are movies that aren’t necessarily superior to contemporary Marvel movies. In fact, if you’re still with me, you’ll soon find that these films are actually often worse. But they’re different and they at least attempt things that today’s Marvel titles don’t, and I find that’s almost always worth getting excited about. So face front, True Believers, we’re heading into the wonderful world of made-for-TV live-action comic book adaptations! Excelsior!

nullThe Amazing Spider-Man (1977): This 90-minute pilot for the short-lived live-action TV show by the same name is pretty strange. It’s almost as if its creators thought that because Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) is a hard-luck hero with a cloud permanently affixed over his head, he must also be a sub-intelligent creep and a pest, too. As his human alter ego, Parker spends a lot of time bothering poor Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (David White) for work (Jameson just can’t use any of the photos Parker gives him, suggesting that this universe’s Parker is actually just a talentless hack that got lucky). Hammond’s Parker is Christopher-Reeve-as-Clark-Kent-levels of nebbish and annoying, but minus all the well-meaning aw-shucks stuff. He’s bashful but has a million questions to ask everyone and a weird inability to take a hint and leave well enough alone.

Worse still, once he’s suited up, Spider-Man spends a lot of time climbing up green-screened walls, skulking atop rooftops and backing away slowly from boring-looking villains. (Spidey fights a bunch of brainwashed thugs with wooden swords in this movie; meh.) He doesn’t talk much, mostly because he looks like he’s going to poop in his tights after backing up onto a banana peel.

But hey, at least this isn’t a boilerplate “Who is Spider-Man?” story like Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man. The impulse to reintroduce new audiences to one of the most famous superheroes has always struck me as an odd impulse. So it’s nice to see a film where Spidey gets bit by a spider, then fights some brainwashed dudes, and saves the day without said day-saving meaning much in the grand scheme of things. This is not an event film, in other words; it’s a big installment in a serial and it doesn’t even look like a definitive first installment! Which isn’t great for a TV pilot, but hey, it’s certainly different.

nullCaptain America II: Death Too Soon (1979): The second of two starring vehicles for the charisma-less Reb Brown is much more interesting than its previous installment. In it, Brown fights Christopher Lee, who blackmails world leaders with a chemical agent that makes people age faster. See, already cool, right?

Eh, not so much. Brown’s a walking black hole and this made-for-TV film’s plot meanders like a mother. The scenes where Brown is painting in a park and is interrupted by local toughs is especially laughable. Then again, so is much of everything else in this film, right down to the cheap production values on the motorcycle that Brown drives as Captain America. Cap’s signature stars-and-stripes shield, which looks like it was bought from a nearby 99-cent store, serves as his bike’s windscreen, too (!?!?!), and is so small that when the motorbike launches out of Cap’s battle van (?!?!?!?!) accompanied by several fire extinguishers’ worth of smoke, it looks like Cap’s riding a colorful, rocking horse-sized missile of doom. Unless you really want to see a rapidly aging Lee fight Brown, you can probably skip this one.

Dr. Strange PosterDr. Strange (1978): For a movie about a surgeon that becomes the world’s greatest sorcerer, this made-for-TV film’s pretty damn sleepy. Peter Hooten (where do they find these guys?) plays Stephen Strange, a kind-hearted medico that gets wrapped up in the schemes of evil Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter), a sorceress trying to take over the world so that she can stay young forever. Strange is called up to help Thomas Lindmer (John Mills), who is secretly Merlin the ancient magician, to fight Morgan. Presumably because Dr. Strange is a relatively obscure superhero, this one’s a fairly straightforward and vanilla origin story. You spend most of the film’s 93-minute runtime watching a cookie cutter hero get the courage to dress up in a garish costume (complete with an ill-fitting cape) and duke it out on the Astral Plane with an evil woman in an equally garish costume. It has its moments, I suppose, and some cute psychedelic imagery. My favorite moment has to be when Le Fay tries to seduce Strange and trick him into removing the talisman-like ring that protects him from her. That moment was almost good! The rest is mostly indistinct and uninteresting.

Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.Nicky Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998): This is the one made-for-TV film I chose that wasn’t made in the ‘70s, that wild period where Marvel was most committed to bad ideas. In it, David Hasselhoff plays Col. Nick Fury, a grizzled old war vet that never met a rule he couldn’t break. I’m paraphrasing from David S. Goyer’s cheese-stuffed screenplay. (Goyer, incidentally, wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, along with many other comic book properties.) Basically, this is a fairly rote alternative to the origin story: Fury comes back from retirement and helps S.H.I.E.L.D. fight Baroness von Strucker (Sandra Hess), the daughter of his arch-nemesis…Baron von Strucker. While it’s always a delight to see the Hoff chomp on a cigar and wildly overact, there probably should have been more to this film than just a lot of juiceless Oorah-ing and weird creative decisions (why do HYDRA’s minions look like the Spy vs. Spy guys except without the pointy noses?).

Japanese Spider-ManFirst two episodes of Supaidaman (1978): This is easily my favorite of the collection of, well, stuff that I watched for this article. This live-action tokusatsu show is a weird mash-up of Spider-Man and Power Rangers. I didn’t know until now that select episodes were officially available for streaming via Marvel’s website. So you can actually watch this with real subtitles and everything, and see for yourself such sights as Spider-Man with a giant robot or Spider-Man fighting henchmen in bird costumes or Spider-Man fighting evil men in rubber monster outfits. That last item is what I’m into, apparently, because the intentionally poorly-subtitled versions I watched here and here are just as entertaining. In fact, I’d say that if you like what you see in those latter two links then you should definitely check out the official Marvel page. This stuff is nutty as all get-out and it’s certainly visually disturbing enough to make up for its plot’s many lapses in logic. A must-watch!

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Even in 3D, it’s still a PHANTOM MENACE II society

SIMON SAYS: Even in 3D, it’s still a PHANTOM MENACE II society

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In 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released theatrically. The rest is a blur – for me, at least. I was 12 years old at the time, the ideal age for an uncritical Star Wars fan to see the first entry in George Lucas’ then-new prequel trilogy.

And I liked it!

Or, more accurately, in that hazy period I now refer to as my “pre-taste” period, I devoured it. Though I’m still convinced I’ve only seen Episode I once or twice before last night, I knew the film by heart, having played two of the PlayStation video games inspired by the film. (There was the podracer game and the action-adventure one that always gave me motion sickness…. I only owned the latter once my peers had moved on to the PlayStation 2. I led a deprived childhood, I think.)

nullMy taste in films evolved as the prequel trilogy was released. When Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones came out, I was 15. At the time, I was (and still am) an unabashed nerd but I was only slightly more opinionated. There were things in Episode II that I wholeheartedly enjoyed, like watching Yoda fight Count Dooku. (My sister and I gushed about that scene as we exited our Douglaston multiplex: Dracula versus a Muppet! Okay, a CG Muppet, but still!) Still, there were things about the film I distinctly recall disliking, like Hayden Christensen’s performance. I remained fairly uncritical at this point, though.


Finally, when Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith came out in 2005, I was 18. I was (and probably still am) a raging asshole and as opinionated as I’ve ever gotten. And I hated Episode III. I didn’t think it was the worst thing I’d ever seen but I did think it was pretty awful. Christensen was still bad, his character’s moral conflict was stilted (I still can’t get over the minute pause between, “No, I won’t cut his head off,” and “Okay, I’ll cut his head off!”), the romance sucked, the dialogue sucked and the fight scenes were labored but unmoving. I saw that film under ideal circumstances of a kind, too: with the high school Science Fiction Club that I founded and quickly disbanded thereafter. (This was our last group activity; almost all of us hated what we saw.)

End Prologue

nullThe prospect of revisiting Episode I was daunting. By now, watching awful movies has become something of a passion of mine. But I didn’t watch this film, one that I still have fond preadolescent memories of, for the sake of rubbernecking. When I heard that George Lucas had post-converted The Phantom Menace into 3D, I knew my morbid curiosity would get the better of me and that attention must be paid. I earnestly wanted to know if the film could hold up for me. So I held a seance for my inner child at the Ziegfeld last night.

First, I had a beer and some bangers and mash at the Oldcastle Pub just down the street. This made Semi-Adult Simon happy (I’m 25, lemme alone). Then, I bought a big honking Pepsi and sat down with a friend at my favorite Manhattan movie theater (the opening night 7pm screening was not well-attended, though it wasn’t empty either). I was determined to give Kid Simon a fighting chance against George and what I rightfully feared was a three-dimensional cavalcade of crap.

And for a while there, I thought I could happily regress. The trailer for The Lorax looked like fun and I wanted to see the new Spider-Man movie and, hey, even the Ice Age cartoon in front of the movie made me laugh more than once. I was ready. I even wanted to shush my friend when he audibly rolled his eyes at the instantly recognizable “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” intertitle. But I was ready to like Episode I again. And I wanted to pretty desperately. But while I was open to suggestion, I anticipated the worst.

Everything seemed to be going well for the first few minutes: Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor fighting robots…but then there’s some aliens that talk like caricatures of Asian people, complete with slit eyes, Oriental robes and “w”- for-“r”-and-“l” wisps. Well, that part made sense, I rationalized frantically. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a film whose story was co-written by George Lucas, there’s also an attempt to ground the kind of pulpy story we’re watching in the chauvinistic terms of “white man with whip knows best.” But that superior action film suggests that while Temple of Doom is inhabited by racial and sexist stereotypes, those characters (ex: Short Round and Willie Scott), the good stereotypes, prove themselves to be made of sterner stuff than the bad ones. So before Jar Jar Binks showed up, I was willing to give Lucas’ use of flagrantly offensive racial stereotypes a chance, too.

Then Jar Jar Binks showed up. And my inner child vanished.

It’s not enough to say that Jar Jar Binks is the nadir of The Phantom Menace: he’s pretty much every hyperbolic mean thing that’s ever been said about him by internet trolls and dejected fans alike (there might be a difference…). Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best) is a comic relief character so thoroughly miscalculated that he makes it nigh impossible to totally suspend your disbelief – in every scene he’s in. He’s too clownish, too offensive, too naïve, too pseudo-cute. He’s just awful!
nullAnd unfortunately, so is Episode I. Lucas took a film that I now recognize as being full of problems – especially bad dialogue, stiff acting with bad accents and illogical plot points (why is the Bedouin home of Anakin Skywalker full of so much STUFF? Isn’t this kid supposed to be a slave or something?) – and he made it worse by adding more stuff to it than it ever really needed. Darth Maul is unnecessarily introduced earlier than he previously was, Anakin’s acceptance into the Jedi Order is now over-explained, the podrace is overburdened with more instantly forgettable racers than were previously highlighted and the final fight scene with Darth Maul is now padded with extra footage. Anything that was once almost-spectacular in Episode I is now marred by new, distractingly cheap-looking sequences where characters stiffly intone lines as their CG-bodies bob from side-to-side to simulate human movement. It’s just awful!


Now I’m not sure how to feel about the prequels. Part of me wants to make a pilgrimage to the Ziegfeld for the remaining two 3D re-issues. But I honestly don’t know why. These films were important to me, so the sight of Jabba the Hutt’s son being randomly inserted into the podrace scene does bother me, just as it bothers me to see that a movie I remember semi-fondly was always awful. But George Lucas didn’t rape my childhood and he certainly didn’t ruin anything that wasn’t already ruined. I guess I just want to see this prequel 3D-fication thing through, because I feel nostalgic and, yes, I want to see a Star Wars film on a big screen again. I want to regress that badly, even though I’m now sure that I can’t while watching a Star Wars prequel. Sometimes, being an arrest adolescent really sucks.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: THE WICKER TREE needed a different director

SIMON SAYS: THE WICKER TREE needed a different director

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Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree could have been a much stronger film had it not been directed by Robin Hardy, which is a weird thing to think when you actually waste time thinking about it. Hardy is the director of the original 1973 film The Wicker Man and the author of 2006's Cowboys for Christ, a thematic sequel to The Wicker Man. He’s now synonymous with The Wicker Man, a canonical British horror film about a murderous community of Scottish pagans. Hardy’s the first guy that balked in terror and dismay when Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man, an underdone parody-cum-remake, came out (also in 2006). While playwright Anthony Shaffer scripted the original Wicker Man, it is now considered Hardy’s baby, so who else could direct The Wicker Tree, an adaptation of Cowboys for Christ, but Hardy?

nullAnyone but Hardy, really. To be fair, The Wicker Tree’s script, which Hardy also adapted, is pretty sharp. He capably evokes the main ideas and wryly cynical sense of humor that makes Cowboys for Christ so entertaining. (Christopher Lee, who starred in the original Wicker Man and has a cameo in The Wicker Tree, heartily endorsed the book by saying, “It's comic, romantic, sexy but also horrific enough to melt the bowels of a bronze statue.”) But as a director, Hardy hasn’t improved drastically in the intervening four decades between The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree. If there’s anything holding The Wicker Tree back from being the adaptation Hardy’s charmingly mean-spirited source material deserves, it’s unfortunately Hardy.

First, the good news: Hardy does a great job of slimming down Cowboys for Christ’s tangent-filled story to a 90-minute narrative. There are a couple of supporting characters that could have been left on the cutting room floor, like the Scotsman that speaks only in portentous selections from poems and songs. There are also some supporting characters that could stand to be fleshed out a little more, like Beame (Clive Russell), a Scottish butcher that does a lot of dirty work in Hardy’s story. But The Wicker Tree is mostly a very sharp version of Cowboys’ story.

nullBeth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) is a Texan pop star that used to sing empty-headed, salacious pop songs and now performs Christian-themed country music. Together with Steve (Henry Garrett), her cowboy boyfriend, Beth sets out to convert the residents of Tressock, Scotland to Christianity. This makes Beth and Steve prime targets for the sardonic Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonardas), community leaders that are more bemused than off-put by the Americans’ arrival. To Lachlan and Delia, the two missionaries are unexpected but not entirely unpleasant additions to their May Day festivities: Beth will be their Queen of the May and Steve will be their Laddie.

The Wicker Tree is as satisfying as it is because there’s a substantial give-and-take inherent in Hardy’s representation of Cowboys’ central Americans vs. Scots/sincerity vs. sarcasm/chastity vs. sex/Christianity vs. paganism feuds. Both Lachlan and Beth understand that their respective beliefs are determined by a combination of necessity and convenience. Lachlan tells Delia that he’s not a priest or a rabbi but rather a Maypole-worshipping pagan because he feels that’s the religion that will best serve the people of Tressock, whose population has steadily declined after they’ve become more reliant on a new nuclear power plant.

nullLikewise, Beth wants to turn her back on her past as a randy sex object and focus on her current position as a symbol of Christian piety. But the fact that she acknowledges that she willingly objectified herself in the past suggests that Beth’s also adept at role-playing. It’s fitting then that the character that bridges the ideological gap between Lachlan and Beth is Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks), a nymphomaniac that has sex with whomever Lachlan tells her to—for the good of their community.

That dichotomy is pretty prominent in The Wicker Tree, for which Hardy fans should be very grateful. What’s not in the film is the crass kind of energy needed to make what’s already a rude and macabre story memorably depraved. There are several key scenes, like the one where Steve meets his demise or when Beth dispatches Beame by almost severing one of his “googlies” with a broken glass, that just aren’t as effectively unnerving as they should be.

For instance, as it’s written in the book, Steve is literally torn apart by a hungry mob. A mob of people, armed only with their zealotry and prying fingers, strip a man of his clothes, skin and muscles and eat him alive. This is Looney-Tunes-by-way-of-Tales-from-the-Crypt kind of stuff, and in The Wicker Tree, Hardy shies away from representing the gristly, ridiculous nature of this sequence. He shows a crowd of Scotsmen frenziedly tucking into some kind of raw meat but never highlights the agony of Steve losing said meat. So while Cowboys’ ideas are present in The Wicker Tree, Hardy inexplicably tries to remove some of the more base aspects of his novel. The Wicker Tree consequently falters where it should bounce around gaily without restraint or a functioning ethical compass.

Still, I wish more people would watch The Wicker Tree. There’s so much of what made Cowboys for Christ terrific in Hardy’s film that I can’t help but want to overlook the bits of The Wicker Tree that simply don’t work. If you’re even remotely curious, seek it out. Come for the half-hearted impromptu castration, stay for the provocative moral relativism.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.