SIMON SAYS: Austin’s Fantastic Fest 2011 screens the notorious and the raunchy

SIMON SAYS: Austin’s Fantastic Fest 2011 screens the notorious and the raunchy

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

The lineup at this year’s Fantastic Fest, one of the most prominent and boisterous genre film-centric festivals, is a bit thin. To be fair, there are a number of terrific films that have already played the festival circuit at least once or twice now, like Beyond the Black Rainbow (Tribeca), Take Shelter (Sundance, Cannes), Boys on the Run (New York Asian Film Festival), Livid (Toronto), A Boy and His Samurai (New York Asian Film Festival) and Extraterrestrial (Toronto). But I don’t think of these films as Fantastic Fest titles; these aren’t films that need Fantastic Fest to become known quantities, so they can’t be exclusively associated with Tim League’s wonderful Austin-based festival.

Sitting on the sidelines and covering the festival remotely makes it hard to judge the atmosphere of Fantastic Fest. That’s why I won’t say much about why I’m disappointed that the Fantastic Fest Awards for “Best Horror Film,” “Best Horror Director” and “Best Horror Screenplay” went to You’re Next, a movie that I saw at Toronto and thought was reprehensibly lazy filmmaking all around. Still, I’m in New York as I type this, which is a long ways away from Texas. So no straw man arguments about awards, audience reception, etc.

With that caveat in mind, I’ve been frantically trying to cover Fantastic Fest (FF) titles that are both unique to the festival and that I feel are the best of the fest. Next week’s post will be a more indiscriminate post on festival viewing (i.e., stuff that’s already screened at other fests).

Fantastic Fest kicked off last week with the vile, draining but nonetheless weirdly satisfying Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence, the sequel to the notorious exploitation film whose infamous reputation began in Austin last year. Writer/director Tom Six knew that he couldn’t pull the same prank twice, so he didn’t try to play coy as he did in the first film. In Human Centipede: First Sequence, Six didn’t unnerve viewers with explicit violence but with violent shifts in tone and the suggestion of some very gross stuff. It’s queasy stuff, but it’s also really funny when it wants to be. The main difference between First Sequence and Full Sequence is that in the latter film, Six only pulls the rug out from under his viewers after encouraging them to laugh with him.

Human Centipede 2 toys with its audience knowing that they already know what the film’s title entails. In it, a churlishly obese and hygienically challenged recluse plots to create a 12-person-strong human centipede. Six bludgeons his viewer with fetishized violence, including some torture scenes that are selectively filmed in real-time. He’s showing viewers more than they ever wanted to see and throwing in appropriately crass jokes, too. In that sense, Full Sequence is the second part in what Six promised Fantastic Fest audiences would be a three-part running gag. It’s the same joke but told in a paradoxically more grueling but less disorienting way.

The rest of the Fantastic Fest-centric titles I’ve seen have been OK, but none has really impressed me as much as Full Sequence. Clown: The Movie, the recipient of Fantastic Fest’s “Best Comedy” award, is satisfying, but it’s basically just a better version of raunchy but never-as-subversive-as-they-think-they-are Hollywood comedies like The Hangover or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Based on the Danish TV show by the same name, Clown follows Frank (Frank Fvam), a nervous and very square married man, as he and his horndog best friend Casper (Casper Christensen) ditch their wives to go on a, uh, canoe trip that they constantly refer to as the “Tour de Pussy.” The trouble is that they have to take Frank’s withdrawn and very unsexy prepubescent nephew Bo (Marcusz Jess Petersen) with them when they go on the prowl, jeopardizing their chances of getting laid. Throw in some genuinely squirm-inducing sex and gay panic jokes, and you’ve got a satisfying, if wholly generic, sex comedy.

I have similarly mixed feelings about Calibre 9, a rabid French action comedy that takes cues from the Crank films’ emphasis on adrenaline-fueled mise-en-scčne instead of little things like blocking, lighting, polished camerawork, etc. While the Crank films were fun and genuinely silly, Calibre 9, a movie about a middle-mannered city planner that symbiotically bonds with a gun that’s possessed by the ghost of a dead hooker, is alternately too spastic and too serious for its own good. The jokes aren’t garish enough and I could do without the self-important and utterly meaningless social commentary about how corporate big-wigs redesigning the city are treating residents like cheap prostitutes. Still, when director Jean-Christian Tassy does intermittently achieve a good balance of goofy action and comedy, Calibre 9 is a hoot. The rest I can pretty much take or leave.

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: Best and Worst at the Toronto International Film Festival 2011

SIMON SAYS: Best and Worst at the Toronto International Film Festival 2011

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

Just got home from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Pretty exhausted. Saw 21 films in a week’s time — not bad, but not nearly as good as the 42 films I saw at Cannes. In any case, here’s a li'l rundown of the films I saw at the festival but did not write about for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, the super-duper fantastic outlet for whom I did most of my Toronto coverage. Pardon my brevity.

Alps: Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to Dogtooth is a more polished version of his earlier Kinetta. Like that film, Alps suggests that social interaction is nothing but a self-perpetuating kind of performance art governed by arbitrary but communally accepted rules. Lanthimos’ playful mise-en-scène and bitterly dark sense of humor makes this almost as good as the virtuosic Dogtooth, but not quite. A.

Anonymous: I’m not sure if I’m going to review this at a later date, but just in case I do, I’ll only say this: ewwwwwww. F+.

Carré blanc: A new French sci-fi film with considerable buzz behind it. It’s an engaging and moving mishmash of themes that THX 1138 previously explored. Far too literal for its own good, but it’s short and sweet, if largely unambitious. B.

Chicken with Plums: Persepolis comic creator Marjane Satrapi collaborates again with Vincent Parronaud, co-director of the film adaptation, to create a vibrant melodrama that provides some fascinating insight into Satrapi’s shadow puppet/burlesque-style of drama. Mathieu Amalric stars as an unhappily married father of two determined to kill himself. After we watch this character stumble through a week of absurd trials and tribulations, we come to see how the ridiculous circumstances of the past have informed his present death wish. Chicken with Plums falls apart during its last ten minutes, but still, it's a mostly warm and funny sophomore collaboration for Satrapi and Parronaud. B+.

God Bless America: Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s fifth directorial offering is being woefully misinterpreted as a black comedy that lauds its deranged protagonist’s actions. I find this frustrating, considering how often the director shows us that he likes his characters’ politics but does not respect their violent actions at all. A man with a victim complex (Mad Men’s Joel Murray) runs around, with a young teenage misanthrope in tow, killing people that he thinks deserve it. The murderous pair are self-righteous and precocious, but they’re not right because they kill people. Goldthwait’s venomous and barn-door-broad observations on the devolution of pop culture are infrequently hilarious (ex: the tampon gag). Wish there was more to it. B-.

Into the Abyss: Werner Herzog’s documentary about Michael Perry, a young Texan that was sentenced to the death penalty for his part in the murder of three people, is harrowing, but also features a number of the Austrian director’s idiosyncratic problems. Herzog’s pre-lethal injection visits are painful, but he tries too hard to structure his film around his observations of how we’re all trapped by time. Stil, pretty sharp for the most part. A-.

Kotoko: The 11th film I’ve seen by seminal Japanese horror/punk filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto is a characteristically stirring character study. The title character desperately tries to become comfortable with not knowing if she can protect both her child and herself from, uh, herself. It gets monotonous after a point, but Tsukamoto’s performance as a nebbish man that offers a supplementary target for Kotoko’s sadomasochistic impulses is veddy good indeed. B+.

Life Without Principle: It takes a while to get used to the radically different tone of Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To’s latest, but once it gets going, Life Without Principle becomes an absorbing neo-noir that mercilessly exploits the current global recession to create a story about gamblers of all stripes. Clever and sharp storytelling from To, a modern master of mood and pacing. A-.

Love and Bruises: Without showing any signs of improvement, Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye covers the same ground with the same exact emotional beats as he did in the superior Summer Palace and Spring Fever. Still, he does self-destructive romance well enough so, OK, fine, sure. C+.


Moneyball: Capote director Bennett Miller’s first film in six years is a very good underdog sports movie, though not much more. Screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian’s attempts to make Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) look like a dickish visionary are undermined by Miller's impulse to keep the film grounded in formulaic storytelling tropes (all the transition shots of Pitt staring off into outer space are maddeningly rote). Once the A’s break a major sports record, the film becomes largely defined by clichés and bad melodrama. Jonah Hill gives a pretty strong breakout performance as the statistician who gave Beane his edge. B+.

Smuggler: Accomplished surrealist Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea, Funky Forest: The First Contact) pointlessly pays homage to and sometimes sends up Guy Ritchie with a gangster epic that is not nearly weird enough to be anything more than just disappointing. Is that one guy done up to look like Blacula? Yes, I think so. Why? I do not know. D.

You’re Next: According to film programmer Colin Geddes, director Adam Wingard (Popskull, A Horrible Way to Die) wanted to make a “Midnight Madness movie,” or a movie that would feel right at home at the wildly popular sidebar of contemporary horror films that Geddes programs every year for TIFF. As such, Wingard pored over other Midnight Madness movies in an attempt to crack some kind of secret Midnight Madness code. The result is You’re Next, a stupid but stylish slasher that revels in pointless violence. You don’t grow to like Wingard’s final girl, you just appreciate that she can fuck people’s shit up real good. Ugh, no mas. D.

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: What it means when Guillermo del Toro “presents”

SIMON SAYS: What it means when Guillermo del Toro “presents”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play is posting a column written for Capital by critic Simon Abrams.

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

It’s not unusual for a famous director to become a celebrity producer. Film-makers like Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth use their names to sell films that they’re either helping to get distributed or were an executive producer on. But there’s a big difference between the films that Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro produces and the ones that he “presents.” The Mexican director produces many films, but a project like Puss in Boots is understandably not as personal a project for del Toro as The Orphanage, a film he was both the executive producer and “presenter” of.

When you see a film being advertised as “Guillermo del Toro Presents,” like director Troy Nixey’s new remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, you know that it’s meant not only to be a sign of quality but also of personality. In fact, that angle is being pushed so hard by the film’s press and ad campaign that it led USA Today to run a headline on Monday calling Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark “Director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film.”

But what’s the difference between a film like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and something like Splice, which is Cube director <a href="%3EVincenzo%20Natali%3C/a%3E%E2%80%99s%20Frankenstein-by-way-of-Cronenberg%20horror%20flick?%20Not%20a%20heckuva%20lot,%20actually.%20Both%20films%20evoke%20similar%20preoccupations%20to%20the%20ones%20in%20del%20Toro%E2%80%99s%20films.%20For%20example,%20the%20gremlin-like%20fairies%20in%20%3Ci%3EDon%E2%80%99t%20Be%20Afraid%20of%20the%20Dark%3C/i%3E%20bear%20a%20striking%20resemblance%20to%20the%20tooth-fairy%20creatures%20in%20%3Ci%3EHellboy%20II%3C/i%3E.%20This%20is%20because%20both%20Nixey%20and%20del%20Toro%20are%20fascinated%20by%20the%20original%201973%20made-for-tv%20movie%20that%20Nixey%E2%80%99s%20remake%20is%20based%20on.%20Also,%20%3Ci%3ESplice%3C/i%3E,%20like%20del%20Toro%E2%80%99s%20%3Ci%3ECronos%3C/i%3E%20and%20%3Ci%3EMimic%3C/i%3E,%20also%20adopts%20a%20clinical,%20detached%20tone%20similar%20to%20the%20kind%20that%20characterize%20%3Ca%20href=" _cke_saved_href=">Vincenzo Natali</a>’s Frankenstein-by-way-of-Cronenberg horror flick? Not a heckuva lot, actually. Both films evoke similar preoccupations to the ones in del Toro’s films. For example, the gremlin-like fairies in <i>Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark</i> bear a striking resemblance to the tooth-fairy creatures in <i>Hellboy II</i>. This is because both Nixey and del Toro are fascinated by the original 1973 made-for-tv movie that Nixey’s remake is based on. Also, <i>Splice</i>, like del Toro’s <i>Cronos</i> and <i>Mimic</i>, also adopts a clinical, detached tone similar to the kind that characterize <a href=" http:="""" wiki="" david_cronenberg"="">David Cronenberg</a>’s movies. Still, while both <i>Splice</i> and <i>Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark</i> are clearly close to del Toro, one is “presented by” him and one isn’t.</p><p>You can read the rest of Simon's piece <a href="; _cke_saved_href="">here</a&gt;.</p><p><i>Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the </i>Village Voice<i>, </i>Time Out New York<i>, </i>Slant Magazine<i>, </i>The L Magazine<i>, </i>New York Press<i> and </i>Time Out Chicago<i>. He currently writes TV criticism for <a href=",54259/&quot; _cke_saved_href=",54259/"></a></i><a href=",54259/&quot; _cke_saved_href=",54259/">The Onion AV Club<i></i></a><i> and is a contributing writer at the <a href="; _cke_saved_href=""></a></i><a href="; _cke_saved_href="">Comics Journal<i></i></a><i>. His writings on film are collected at the blog, <a href="; _cke_saved_href=""></a></i><a href="; _cke_saved_href="">The Extended Cut<i></i></a><i>.</i></p><p></p><p></p>

SIMON SAYS: EASTBOUND & DOWN, Season 2: a loving tale of dysfunction, egomania and debauchery

SIMON SAYS: EASTBOUND & DOWN, Season 2: a loving tale of dysfunction, egomania and debauchery

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

When Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) sets his mind to doing something, he not only usually doesn’t do it, he makes you second-guess him the few times that he does manage to get anything done right. Kenny, the main protagonist in HBO’s proudly juvenile sitcom Eastbound & Down, is an obnoxious screw-up, a washed-up athlete who is so deeply confused and self-absorbed that he never really understands why he sucks so damn much. We don’t just expect Kenny to fail because it’s in the sitcom’s nature to periodically force its protagonists back to square one in order to maintain dramatic equilibrium. Since Kenny’s normal emotional state is hitting rock bottom, it’s also a given that he’s going to fail even when he infrequently succeeds. What really makes Kenny an unfailing schmuck is his self-centeredness — the way that he makes everything about him.

That is why Eastbound & Down’s second season, which arrived on DVD and Blu Ray this week, is so surprising. As we catch up with the washed-up ball-player we notice that his egocentricities remain mostly unchanged. It is true that those relationships between himself and those around him are slightly less dysfunctional (like those with his "assistant" Stevie [Steve Little] and an obsessed fan who worships him). He even starts to look at them as real people with real concerns — so it seems. This doesn’t mean that Kenny really learns anything about generosity by the end of season two. It's just that, in a roundabout way, Kenny selfishly infers that those who love him the most will always be there to stroke his ego. Stevie is a perfect example of this. Season two is in many ways a bromantic comedy between the two characters because in season two, Stevie isn’t just a hanger-on. In Kenny’s eyes, Stevie evolves into a human leech.

When a representative from Tampa’s major league team, the unnamed Bay Rays, reveals that he wasn’t officially authorized to offer Kenny a deal, our anti-hero flees to Mexico to lick his wounds. While there, Kenny replaces Stevie with Aaron (Deep Roy), a pugnacious, switchblade-wielding dwarf from Bombay who winds up robbing Kenny at knife-point twice (see the season two outtakes reel to see Roy taunt a victim about his “burrito” and threaten to cut off his “titties”). Stevie leaves his job at a Starbucks-type coffee house in order to track Kenny done using credit card receipts (Kenny’s been using Stevie credit card to pay for $22,000 worth of debauchery, including cock-fighting, prostitutes and hallucinogens).

Admittedly, the fact that Aaron makes Kenny realize just how good he had it with Stevie says a lot more about Kenny’s drive towards willful ignorance than it does about his relationship with Stevie. Kenny periodically goes through cycles of false enlightenment where it seems like he’s on the verge of making a breakthrough and cleaning up his act. That happened in almost every episode of season one, wherein Kenny makes a number of misguided attempts to better himself that all wind up biting him in the ass. So when the Tampa rep tells Kenny the bad news, it hurts Stevie pretty badly, too.

Stevie is so madly in love with Kenny that at the end of season one, he quits teaching just to follow in his hero’s footsteps—all the way to Tampa from North Carolina with no promise of a job or recompense beyond being able to bask in Kenny’s dickish glory. But Kenny shuts that idea down in the season one finale even before he learns that there is no job waiting for him in Tampa. He would have rejected Stevie earlier but he just didn’t know how.

Which is why it’s so important that Kenny momentarily learns to appreciate Stevie (in his own way). It’s true that at one point Kenny wantonly demands that Stevie get rid of the woman he will later ask to marry him. And the happy place that he leaves Stevie at at the end of the season two finale is surely a temporary respite. But once Kenny accepts the fact that Stevie has a love interest independent of his life with Kenny, he even goes so far as to help Stevie smuggle his wife over the Mexican border into America. As far as gestures go, this is a big one for Kenny. It happens by without commentary or complaint from him because, on some level, he has accepted Stevie as a desperate individual and not just a Kenny Powers clone.

Much like how many of the best jokes in Eastbound & Down are the ones that wring humor out of the most accidental and/or improvisatory details, the fact that Kenny helps Stevie’s wife without protest is a big temporary step forward for Kenny. It shows you that sub-consciously, he’s accepted the declaration Stevie makes at the end of season one when he strolls up to Kenny with a bottle of steroids in one hand and a syringe in the other. Kenny marvels, “You came back for me,” and Stevie smiles knowingly, “No, I never really left.” It’s only a matter of time until Stevie gets his heart stomped on by Kenny in season three. But until then, Stevie is more than just another little person Kenny thinks he has to step on to succeed. He’s a real lackey now and that’s probably as good a sign of any that Kenny has learned something during his brief but memorable time as America’s brightest egomaniac.

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: RE-ANIMATOR director Stuart Gordon’s newer thrillers are visions of economic hell

SIMON SAYS: RE-ANIMATOR director Stuart Gordon’s newer thrillers are visions of economic hell

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

While Tony Scott’s last two action films have thrived on the notion that blue collar heroes are the best kind, Stuart Gordon’s recent horror films treat blue collar protagonists as ticking time bombs. The characters in newer films by the director of Re-Animator and From Beyond are driven mad by the knowledge that if they are poor, they can be replaced. In films like Stuck and King of the Ants, working-class stiffs lose their job, possessions, health and sanity in a flash. It’s that loss of agency — or as John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) puts it in Gordon’s Space Truckers, of “independence” — that makes Gordon’s films so Hellish. The current recession (don’t you dare tell me it’s over) has made us hyper-aware of the fact that now, anyone can suddenly lose their ability to maintain their personal standard of living. And that means almost everyone has the potential to snap at a moment’s notice. Gordon’s films plunge us into that nightmarish reality headfirst.

Not all of Gordon’s recent skid row chillers are equally strong. Films about what it’s like to suddenly be truly powerless should all have a puissant follow-through, and some of the films don't have it. While Stuck and King of the Ants are both extraordinarily vivid portraits of working class Hells, they don’t have the sustained queasiness of Edmond, Gordon’s adaptation of David Mamet’s eponymous play. Edmond, whose screenplay Mamet also adapted, stands apart because it does not allow the viewer to walk away from the horrible events they’ve just seen, as both Stuck and King of the Ants do to some extent. Even Space Truckers, which makes uneven comedy of Canyon’s attempts to stay above water in a world where you have to sell out to remain financially viable, is not nearly as successful as Edmond is at cornering viewers and never letting them escape from the hero’s plight. Edmond not only drags us through the Hellish reprieve from sanity Edmond Burke (William H. Macy) involuntarily takes, it also shows us the scars he’s left with once he comes back down to Earth.

Still, of all the protagonists in Gordon’s class-conscious fantasies, Space Truckers’ John Canyon has more in common with Edmond’s Burke than either Stuck’s Tom or King of the Ants’ Sean Crawley. Like Burke, Canyon has standards that he expects to be met both in his business dealings and in his personal life. Naturally, these standards are not met. For instance, Canyon wants to be paid for hauling square-shaped mutant pigs across the galaxy at the same time that he hands his cargo over. He doesn’t get that professional courtesy. Instead, he gets a punch thrown at him when he refuses to take a 75% pay cut (he does arrive two days late but his employers also knew full-well his rig was slow). The punch doesn’t connect. But the punch he responds with does.

This scene mirrors the one in Edmond where Burke insists on paying a pimp once he sees the prostitute he’s buying a blowjob from. The deal goes sour after Burke gives the pimp his money up front and winds up getting threatened at knifepoint for it. Burke gets away unscathed because he’s also carrying a knife. He only remembers this when he realizes he’s not going to get what he wants. Both these confrontations end after the crooks who threaten Gordon’s working class stiffs spit out blood and teeth.

Canyon is also like Burke in that he talks out of both sides of his mouth. When Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff), a young protégé who initially appears to be a would-be rival, asks Canyon if his fiancée Cindy (Debi Mazar) is seeing anybody, Canyon cagily replies, “A gentleman doesn’t answer that sort of question.” This runs counter to Canyon’s ethos of shooting from the hip and never equivocating when it comes to giving people what they’re owed. The same is true of Burke: he makes a big to-do about how everybody around him is afraid to be honest with themselves and each other. But after he kills somebody, he’s confronted by a police officer just before stepping into a mission. And he starts to stutter. And then he reflexively tells a series of lies: he gives a cop that accosts him a fake name and insists that he’s “an elder in this church.” Judging by the confused but excited looks of the mission’s parishioners, Burke has never been to that church before in his life. When push comes to shove, Burke’s righteous indignation mellows. And in the period afterward, he finds himself completely lost.

At the end of Edmond, Burke winds up in jail. He cannot walk away from the crimes he’s committed in the same way that both Tom and Sean do at the end of Stuck and King of the Ants. That’s because the one act of violence Burke commits isn’t ever treated like a deluded but in some way righteous or even necessary act. It’s a wanton death, pure and simple. So when Burke finds himself locked up in a prison cell, he’s finally forced to really think about what comes next for him. He tells the prison chaplain that he is sorry for everything he’s done but that he doesn’t believe in an after-life or in the power of God.

That prison cell is Burke’s Hell, a fact that he eventually gets used to. He asks his cellmate, who rapes him when they first meet, if he thinks they’re in Hell. No answer is necessary because just asking that question is enough to tell us that, in Burke’s mind, he already knows where he is. All the pseudo-revelations he experiences while bleating about how important it is to be open about one’s own personal prejudices and how he needs to just ride out his “self-indulgent” flight of “madness”—all of those experiences were just precursors to the final circle of Hell Burke finds himself in at the end of Edmond. Burke was never in control of his life, and now that he’s gotten used to that idea, he just lies there and takes it. He’s well and truly stuck inside his head and nothing can ever really save him now.

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: What is a “bad” movie? Not GREEN LANTERN. And definitely not ZARDOZ

SIMON SAYS: What is a “bad” movie? Not GREEN LANTERN. And definitely not ZARDOZ

[Editor's note: This piece marks the debut of SIMON SAYS, a weekly column about popular culture.]

By Simon Abrams
PressPlay contributor

When Roger Ebert first reviewed Zardoz back in 1974, he half-heartedly dismissed the film as being, “an exercise in self-indulgence (if often an interesting one) by [director John] Boorman, who more or less had carte blanche to do a personal project after his immensely successful Deliverance.” My mind reeled as I read this line: how could an “interesting” film be so easily dismissed? Ebert complains that Boorman puts a lot of heavy concepts into Zardoz, but seems reluctant to take them seriously himself. He then lists a series of wacky things that happen in the film; there's a passing mention of an erotic “sight gag” and a “combination shoot-out and mercy-killing spree.” From his review, it’s hard to tell what Ebert meant when he wrote that the film is "interesting" considering that he’s mostly listing elements he finds hard to take.

Of all the superlatives one can use when praising a film, to say a film is “interesting” is the most non-committal. It is also, in some ways, the most peculiar. Surely a film cannot be all bad if it is interesting. And if its interesting parts are truly worthwhile, then why treat it like just another mediocre film?

This is the fate that befell Green Lantern. Metacritic's consensus ranks it with a meager score of 39 out of 100, as opposed to X-Men: First Class’s score of 64 and Thor’s 59. The difference is even more pronounced on Rotten Tomatoes, where X-Men: First Class has a score of 87%, Thor 77%, and Green Lantern trailing with 27%. My taste must be out-of-step with consensus; I found the uneven eccentricity of Green Lantern — which was directed by Martin Campbell, of No Escape, Goldeneye and Casino Royale — vastly more "interesting" than the other two films' machine-tooled smoothness. Give me Campbell's film, with its overstuffed plot lines and gaping plot holes, over a slick but lifeless super-hero movie like Thor or X-Men: First Class.That takes an ephemeral inspiration that I never saw in either of the two aforementioned Marvel Comics films. For a movie to be bad — to be truly worthy of being dismissed outright as a “bad film” — I need to feel as though the filmmakers don’t believe in whatever they’re peddling. Thor and X-Men: First Class don’t strike me as works where the screenwriters or the directors involved cared enough to invest some part of themselves in the script. There's no unique identity to either movie — no idiosyncratic traits that make them worth revisiting later.

At least Green Lantern has the guts to be flamboyant, and has a couple of spectacular set pieces and two very strong lead performances from Ryan Reynolds and Peter Sarsgaard. Though the film often struggles to take off, the juxtaposition of Reynolds' fearless Hal Jordan and Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond is a fruitful comparison, one that the film's screenwriters were wise to make. Furthermore, the film feels like it's more of a piece than the Marvel Comics films: there may be a subplot or three too many in Green Lantern, but all of the inside references to mysterious people or objects that old fans should get a kick out of are actually incorporated into the story as plot points. Thor and X-Men: First Class, in contrast, are watchable and feature commendable performances from their respective casts, but they lack the ambition or central pathos that drive Green Lantern. And as boilerplate origin stories, they just don’t stay with me after a point. As a comic book nerd, I don’t particularly need any of these films to tell me who their characters are—I already know. But when a movie is good enough to show me a character or a story in a new light — as Green Lantern does — no matter how troubled it may be in other aspects, I don't think it can be considered "bad."

But what about a film whose reputation as a “bad movie” precedes it? What about the films that are supposed to be so flat-out bad that any attempt to defend them is automatically considered suspect? What about Zardoz?

How exactly do you solve a problem like Zardoz? John Boorman’s psychedelic sci-fi opus has become infamous, regarded more as a curio than an honest-to-goodness landmark of ‘70s cinema because it’s still dismissed outright as a bad movie. The film’s token status as a wonky kooky crazy film has been established for decades now. There seems little chance that it will ever achieve mass acceptance. At best it's treated as an ambitious failure: apparently, its themes are sprawling and its humor is too off-puttingly kitschy. Take this piece, which just name-drops Zardoz and assumes that readers will automatically understand it as shorthand for "indisputably bad film." How can one even argue with unqualified assumptions like that? Surely Zardoz is too interesting to be truly bad.

Admittedly, many of Zardoz’s fans have inadvertently done more harm than help to the film by treating it like a specialty cult item. There’s a reason why whenever you mention the film to someone who’s seen it, they’ll chirrup a loaded line like, “The gun is good; the penis is evil.” It’s like a secret handshake for fans who probably don’t even remember the meaning of the line anyway. I’m not trying to suggests that Zardoz’s cult is witless, nor am I trying to sweep the out-there-ness of Zardoz under a rug. You can’t make a movie where Sean Connery runs around with a ponytail, a loaded pistol, a bikini bottom, go-go boots and a bondage harness look normal. Still, the tendency of even the film's fans to repeat lines such as “The gun is good…the penis is evil…” suggests that even admirers have bought into the idea that Zardoz is more of a camp artifact than a potently strange film that happens to be worth serious consideration. The movie needs rescuing from detractors and defenders alike. Its revolutionary stance is only tempered by its intensely strange dedication to a continually devolving scenario. Boorman deliberately made it impossible to ever feel completely comfortable with Zardoz by concluding it with the end of human civilization. Connery’s character is an agent of chaos who can only create a brand new world by first destroying all the cultural treasures that the futuristic civilization he infiltrates has hoarded and kept to themselves over time. To expect a film this volatile to be tonally consistent is like expecting a Stan Brakhage film to have a linear storyline: it’s never gonna happen.

I suspect that Ebert was reluctant to outright dismiss Zardoz partly because it’s a Boorman film. He mentions Leo the Last and Deliverance in such a way as to suggest that Boorman was stepping away from the qualities that Ebert believed made him great. But I don’t understand how one can appreciate Boorman’s earlier explorations of man’s self-destructive tendencies and the power that comes from devolving and embracing one’s animal instincts and not care for Zardoz. It is in many ways the most vibrant expression of Boorman’s fascination with the problems and advantages of becoming more feral in order to become more civilized. In that sense, it's an incredibly personal film, just a few steps removed from Alejandro Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain in its incendiary, get-out-your-pitchforks-and-start-a-revolution message. Its frothing-at-the-mouth madness needs context to be fully appreciated. That’s what criticism should strive for: making films like Zardoz, or a vastly more mainstream but still eccentric superhero film like Green Lantern, look good — and in general make films whose faults and/or merits might otherwise be inaccessible more accessible.


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: Shout Factory Delivers George Peppard in Scifi Double Bill and Not Much Else

SIMON SAYS: Shout Factory Delivers George Peppard in Scifi Double Bill and Not Much Else

By Simon Abrams

Though I love many films that are often described as “cult films,” I can’t help but feel bad for my fellow cult cinema connoisseurs. It’s like being the cinephilic equivalent of a drug addict. The more devout a cultist you are, the more dedicated you are to hunting for new highs in the most irregular places. Obscurity is often conflated and even confused with quality and no matter whose opinion you turn to for advice, you’re bound to wade through a lot of crappy movies before you stumble upon something great.

Shout Factory!, a budding DVD line that’s release shiny new “Collector’s Editions” of Roger Corman-produced gems, caters to cultists. That’s a double-edged concept if ever there was one. Shout Factory! goes the extra mile to provide commemorative features for most of their new DVD and Blu Ray releases. But the copious special features with which they supplement their films are usually pretty skimpy when it comes to providing some much-needed universal context as to what uninitiated viewers are looking at.

For example, take Shout Factory!’s new release of Battle Beyond the Stars, which just hit stores this past Tuesday. Shout Factory! not only commissioned a new anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film, but they also commissioned several worthwhile bonus features, including audio commentaries by screenwriter John Sayles and producer Roger Corman. The trouble with this DVD release isn’t with the supplementary features that were included with the film but rather the ones that weren’t. Excluding Sayles, Corman and James Cameron completists (Cameron served as the film’s art director; no wonder everything looks so chintzy) and anyone else that already enjoys Battle Beyond the Stars, Shout Factory!’s release doesn’t make an especially convincing case for the film.

This is probably because the film doesn’t really matter after a point. Battle Beyond the Stars is an intermittently clever but mostly lousy rip-off of Star Wars by way of The Seven Samurai. Within Corman’s oeuvre, the film is only really important as one of his most expensive productions. Battle Beyond the Stars is not going to blow down anyone’s doors. But maybe it has just enough to offer cult film buffs that are either looking for an ephemeral and insanely specific something to latch onto or just an intermittently funny Star Wars rip-off. After all, don’t you want to see George Peppard dispense scotch and soda from his belt buckle?

If the answer to that rhetorical question is “Uh, no,” I wouldn’t waste my time with Battle Beyond the Stars. Though Sayles gives almost all of his characters a decent one-liner or two, the film’s dumbed-down combination of The Seven Samurai and Star Wars’* storylines is pretty unremarkable. Today, an uninitiated viewer should watch Battle Beyond the Stars for Sayles’s quips and the film’s dated but satisfying production values, not for its acting, plot or characters.

The same is true about Damnation Alley, another cult item with a fairly modest reputation that Shout Factory! released for the first time on DVD this past week. Based on a novel by the great “New Wave” scifi writer Roger Zelazny, the film has a novel, even frightening, premise. A nuclear strike from parts unknown decimates most life on Earth. A trio of American Air Force men, led by (wait for it) George Peppard, travels cross-country all the way from California to Albany in order to find the source of a radio signal. Along the way, they fight giant cockroaches and almost drown in a flood in a giant armored tank (It’s got missile launchers, kids! And a decal of Captain America’s shield on the side! Buy yours today!). The rest isn’t particularly memorable.

With the exception of Zelazny’s potent post-apocalyptic scenario and some cheesy but memorable scenes, including an early confrontation where a young Jan-Michael Vincent rides around dodges enormous irradiated scorpions on his dirt bike, Damnation Alley is also unfortunately a dud. Even if you really like any of its cast members, including a very young Jackie Earle Haley, you’d have to be already seriously obsessed with the film, its cast or crew to pick the film up. There’s no buried treasure here, though Battle Beyond the Stars has its moments. And the search for the next unsung cult hit continues…

*I tend to doubt Corman or Sayles were even thinking about The Hidden Fortress, the Akira Kurosawa movie George Lucas based Star Wars: A New Hope on, when they made Battle Beyond the Stars.

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.