Monday, April 9, 2018

Self-published movies 3: Birdemic: Shock and Terror

This so-bad-it's-good movie sounds more or less OK in summary (like the other self-published movies I've written about, there is potential in the story) but the production is inept. However, in this day and age, badly made movies can look good and glossy on the surface. The film's director, James Nguyen, makes this look way better than its 50s and 60s counterparts (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES). So if you watch this, don’t let its professional look in the beginning fool you; you will soon be giggling in mirth at the bad-movieness on display.

Rod (Alan Bagh) is a software salesman; Nathalie (Whitney Moore) is an aspiring model. Rod catches sight of Nathalie while he's at a diner, and at first, it looks like he's stalking her, but it turns out they went to high school together, and after some strained chit-chat, they make a date at a Vietnamese restaurant (which must have paid Nguyen to include some long sweeping takes of the restaurant's interior), and so begins their romance, which takes up the first half of the movie. Rod, who pays attention to the dismal news about the environment that is playing on TVs around him all the time, becomes a Silicon Valley millionaire and starts an ecology-friendly company; Nathalie gets a gig as a model for Victoria's Secret. They wind up spending the weekend in Half Moon Bay at a pumpkin festival, and the morning after they consummate their relationship, bird attacks begin, not just against Rod and Nathalie, but all over the place. The birds, mostly eagles and vultures, flutter and hover and occasionally expel some liquid that causes fires and explosions. The last half of the film follows the couple as they join up with another couple and hit the road to escape from and do battle with the birds, and encounter others, including a tree-hugger who lives in the woods and two orphan children they take under their wings.

[Spoilers ahead] There are obvious parallels to Hitchcock's THE BIRDS in that two Californians awkwardly couple up, sexual tension seems to trigger the attacking flock of birds, children wind up in harm's way, there's a fiery scene at a gas station (see below), the hero's name is the same as the lead actor in The Birds (Rod Taylor) and the attacks mysteriously stop for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, for a movie selling itself with the words "shock and terror," the bird effects are just laughable. It looks like primitive video game graphics were laid them over the film, so you end up having people swatting the air or swinging clothes hangers in the air as these ridiculous bird images hover in front of them. There is never a moment of shock or terror in the whole film because no one ever seems in danger, even though people do die, with at least one death copied directly from THE BIRDS. For me, the effects are the one thing for which I can't excuse the director.

It's the rest of the stuff that makes this a truly good bad-movie experience. In the acting realm, Alan Bagh as Rod has taken the brunt of the criticism, and he does often seem like a wooden sleepwalker in the first half (the way the poor guy walks down the street makes you wonder if he just learned how to walk). But he grew on me, becoming a major contributor to the dreamlike, almost surreal tone that the film takes on, and he does become more realistically energetic in the second half. Whitney Moore gives arguably a worse performance; her facial expressions are more natural, but she has trouble expressing emotions—during the opening scenes, I couldn't tell whether she was happy, upset or non-committal about Bagh's pestering, and that emotional flatness mostly continues throughout. As for getting the cover of Victoria's Secret—that's never gonna happen for her (not because of her looks but because of her drab affect). I feel bad about criticizing the supporting actors—let’s just call them amateurs and move on.

To touch on just a few of the high/low points, some brought to my attention by the Rifftrax guys, who made the difference in my appreciation of the film: lots of driving and parking footage; a news anchor who discusses the dying off of arctic animals "due to the difficulty of finding enough food, such as seals"; Alan Bagh slurring the words "solar panels"; the complete lack of erotic chemistry between Our Couple during their tame lovemaking scene; Damien Carter's performance of a song called "Hangin’ Out with My Family" while Our Couple gamely hops around on a dance floor—sample lyric: "Then Thelma starts to dancin' and Grandma starts to prancin' / To make sure that the fellas don’t try any glancin'"; one woman is fatally attacked by a bird while she is squatting in the desert having a bowel movement; at Rod's office, an announcement is made that the company has been sold for a billion dollars, making them all rich, and we are treated to an endless scene of a dozen or so people applauding, and then applauding some more; Rod's basketball buddy pumping his arms up and down, exclaiming, "A day without sex is a day wasted" (I was sort of hoping that he and Rod might get a little handsy after the game); any scene with Nathalie's mom.


I can't quite put my finger on why this awful movie is so fun to watch. Part of it is undoubtedly the "I could make a better movie than this" aspect. Part of it is the sincerity of both the writing (Nguyen thinks he's making an important point about climate change and the environment) and the acting, in particular Bagh and Adam Sessa as his buddy. Criticizing them feels like yelling at a puppy trying its best to climb the stairs. As noted earlier, the Rifftrax crew do a splendid job providing comic commentary to this film and I highly recommend watching their version first. Thanks to them, mumbling "solar panels" has become a tick with me. The sequel, by the way, is just as bad but not as much fun.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Self-published movies 2: Mister Scrooge To See You

On Christmas Eve, 1844, a year after the cranky miser Ebenezer Scrooge (David Ruprecht, above) was visited by three ghosts and became a generous Christmas-loving man, Jacob Marley's ghost sends him, with no explanation, to the small town of New Britain, Wisconsin in the year 2013 to work some redeeming magic on Timothy Cratchit VI. The head of the Scrooge and Cratchit financial company, Tim (Matt Koester) has become a cold-hearted moneyman just like Scrooge was. When Tim and his associate Ron (David Koester) visit the Dinner Belle for a cup of coffee, they run into the diner's owner, Belle (Shannon Moore), who remembers Tim from high school. Their reunion is not a happy one. Tim's company is in the middle of a neighborhood renewal project and she is behind on her mortgage payments; he is there to let her know that he will boot her out if she can't pay up by the end of the year. Scrooge, out of his element, stumbles into the diner and Belle takes pity on him, giving him coffee and helping him to get current with customs and lingo (ordering elaborate drinks at the coffeehouse and saying things like, "I'm stoked!"). When he produces a partnership document from 1844, he takes it to Tim's office and claims half-interest in the company. Scrooge immediately begins making friends with the employees and changing the mood in the office from unpleasant to fun, much to the chagrin of Tim (though Ron actually warms to Scrooge and his influence). As it gets closer to Christmas, will Scrooge eventually figure out why Tim is so cold and thaw him out by Christmas Eve?  
Like JOURNEY TO PARADISE, this is another problematic production from the sincere but overly ambitious Christian entertainment company Salty Earth Productions and director Steven F. Zambo. There are so many things wrong with this film that pointing them all out could easily take three more paragraphs. The low-budget sets look terrible (which the sets in PARADISE did not); the acting is generally poor—again, as in the previous movie, the Koester brothers (pictured above; I assume they're related) excepted; the story is filled with so many plot holes that you pretty much just sigh and accept it as an almost hallucinatory avant-garde narrative: Why does Marley send Scrooge to 2013 without explaining what he's supposed to do? How has Belle stayed in business at all when she seems to be a terrible manager? There's a plotline involving a pastor and his homeless buddies who Belle feeds for free that really has no payoff and serves little purpose except to show that Belle's heart is in the right place. The biggest problem is a spoiler that involves the ending which I'll save for my last paragraph. The score is bland and the featured song by Michael Schroeder is awful (as it was in PARADISE). And once again, the Christian elements, mostly absent from the Dickens' original, feel uncomfortably added to the mix. In only one scene does Scrooge spout religion, and the actor's voice bizarrely drops to an artificially serious tone, which made me laugh out loud.  
This second example of a self-published "Bad Movie" does have some saving graces, and not just camp-level enjoyment at its misfires: 1) the plot does have promise; updatings of A Christmas Carol are always fun; 2) Matt Koester (above) is a better actor than his material calls for; 3) the humor as Scrooge adjusts himself to the 2ist century is cute, though Ruprecht, a professional actor, never feels comfortable in his role; 4) I appreciate their attempt at multiculturalism by including a Latina character as Belle's friend and employee. As a fan of Christmas movies, I find this (and PARADISE) interesting for going against the current grain of vanilla romance stories, which leads me to the SPOILER: Belle and Tim were friends in high school but Belle keeps insisting that she didn't feel romantic about him. The reason, which comes out of absolutely nowhere in the last few minutes, is that Tim is Belle's brother! Better than that, they're twins! He grew up as an adopted orphan, but we are given no reason for why he would have been given up and Belle kept. In this case, a Hallmark romance ending would have been preferable. I hope if Salty Earth does any more Christmas movies, they give the screenplay a more thorough going-over for plausibility and coherence. The company has produced two more films in recent years, though I'm not sure I'm game for finding out in anything's gotten better.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Self-published movies 1: Journey to Paradise

Between writing my previous blog post about the appeal of Bad Movies and getting this review ready, I thought of a good metaphor for current day Bad Movies: they are the self-published books of the movie world. Authors who can't find a commercial publisher for their works often take the self-publishing route. Once in a while, a hit will emerge--both The Christmas Box and Fifty Shades of Grey began life as self-published books and eventually became best-sellers when picked up by mainstream publishers. I've read a handful of such books; some are awful, though some just badly need a strong editorial hand, something that self-publishers can avoid. The movies I'll be reviewing strike me as essentially "self-published": all are works distributed by their creators, all feel like labors of love, and all could most assuredly have benefited from rewrites, bigger budgets, a more objective producer, and more professional actors. My first example is Journey to Paradise from 2010.
Channel 7 in the small town of Paradise, Wisconsin is known as Paradise 7 and has been in business for years, run by the Collins family. But as Christmas approaches, trouble is brewing. A larger Wisconsin media company apparently wants to muscle in and Lucy Collins (Hannah Fager) wants to bring in a new associate producer to pump up their ratings. During a pre-Christmas station party (it's only December 1st but that’s just how much Pop Collins loves Christmas), a handsome guy from Chicago arrives at the studio. Lucy assumes he's there about the position, though we can tell from his behavior that he's there for some other reason. Still, Joe McNamara (Matt Koester) goes through an informal interview and Lucy decides impulsively to hire him on the spot. The family even offers him temporary use of a small apartment above the studio. Everyone loves Joe, except for Lucy's obnoxiously protective brother Mike who doesn't trust him and has frequent altercations with him. As it happens, we learn there might well be something that Joe is keeping secret about his presence; we see him clandestinely watching videos that Lucy had made and sent to her fiancĂ© while he was in the military—we know that she is no longer engaged and that it's a topic that has made her less interested in celebrating Christmas. Soon, we discover that Joe has his own unresolved pain; when he interviews a pastor on TV about a Christmas event, Joe goes off on a tangent, questioning the idea that God has all the answers, and making the interview go off the rails. Despite all this, sparks begin to fly between Lucy and Joe, but they're both going to have to reveal their past secrets to each other if they want to build a relationship.

I'm hesitant about giving this the Bad Movie label: there are a lot of problems with this low-budget, almost amateur movie, but I slowly warmed to the film almost despite itself. As a Christmas romance, it's a little more dramatic than the kind that Hallmark shows. It was produced by Salty Earth Productions, whose mission statement is to provide “entertainment […] to share Christ, Jesus with the world.” Oddly, however, the explicitly religious material feels shoehorned into the story—there are only really two or three scenes in which God or Jesus are even brought up. The one scene that doesn't work at all involves Joe walking through the small town, thinking about his conflict while an awful country song about Jesus being the reason for the season plays and images of the Bible and of nativity sets are superimposed over the visuals. I don’t object to the content (duh, it's a Christmas movie!) but the sledgehammer style feels so out of place in what is otherwise a relatively thoughtful narrative about dealing with loss and building a new life. I like the fact that at the end, Joe’s spiritual quandary is still not completely resolved.

This was directed and co-written by Steven F. Zambo who is also the head of Salty Earth Productions, and thus this is a perfect example of the self-published movie that  might have been better with the feedback and creative participation of others. The two leads are both fine, though they have not gone on to work in many other films. Matt Koester (pictured; notice the subtle Dead End sign indicating where his agnosticism will take him) has done stage work and has appeared in couple of other Salty Earth productions, but I'm surprised that Hannah Fager, who looks and acts the part of the TV-movie Christmas heroine to a tee, has no other acting credits on IMDb. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is almost uniformly amateurish (though Daniel Koester, Matt's real-life brother, shows promise as Lucy's aggressive brother).

The central story idea, which I don't want to spill too much about, is original and interesting, but important plot points are ignored or brought up so late in the proceedings that they feel, like the religious aspect, plopped in at the last minute. Individual scenes go on too long until they fade to black, as though an ad was coming up. Basically, at least one more draft of the screenplay would have been beneficial. Worst of all is the dog puppet that the weatherman insists on carrying and using all the time; I hated it so much that I have apparently blocked its name out of my head, despite its frequent use. Though fairly serious in tone (what with its themes of spiritual searching and dealing with guilt from the past), there are many moments of humor, not all of which come off. At 2 hours, it's way too long, but for reasons I can't quite articulate, I have a soft spot for this local Wisconsin production, and I'd watch it again. This is an ineptly-made film which almost manages to transcend that problem, but I'm not sure many others would agree with me--even a few Christian film critics don't care for this. Next up, another Salty Earth production.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bad movie? I’m soaking in it!

For my title, I borrow a laugh line from the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the line was repurposed from a 70s Palmolive TV ad). I've seen some bad movies more often than usual over the past couple of months which has led me to speculate on the genre of bad movies: What makes a movie bad? Why do we watch them? Do people make bad movies on purpose? Is there an aesthetics of bad movies? I'm going to think about these questions today, then spend the next few entries reviewing the bad movies that got me into such heavy philosophizing.

I think the phenomenon of viewers deliberately seeking out and enjoying bad movies began in earnest in the late 1970s and early 80s when film critic Michael Medved and his brother Harry published two books that celebrated (or at least brought to film fans' attention) bad moviemaking: The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and The Golden Turkey Awards. Their tone was snarky, making it clear that they "enjoyed" these films in an ironic, campy way, and film buffs were soon seeking these movies out.

They included Hollywood A-movies such as Airport 1975, the musical version of Lost Horizon (pictured at right), and the 1976 King Kong, but their focus (and mine) was on low-budget B-movies (or Z-movies as some have called them). Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space became the breakout film from the Medveds' batch, a movie that was so obviously bad—cheap sets that practically fall apart on screen, a range of acting from indifferent to over-the-top, a script that made no sense—that it really was fun to watch, mostly to make fun of, though I also think it gave viewers a sense of superiority, a feeling that they could make a better movie that poor Ed Wood made.

And that might be the biggest reason why these kinds of movies are fun to watch. The ones I've been watching recently truly make me think, ya know, if I could have had another pass at that script, or if I could have directed, or even acted in, that scene, it might not have been worthy of Orson Welles or Robert Altman, but it would have been a damn sight better than it is now.

Now I'm going to separate Bad (capital "B") Movies from bad (small "b") movies. Ineptness is key to Bad Movie production. To my mind, a garden variety bad movie is one that most likely has a good-sized budget, time-tested talent on and behind the screen, and gets most of its sets, effects, and other aspects of physical production right, but is just, well, bad; the plotline is stupid (A.I.) or a dumb ending ruins all that came before (Signs) or some piece of casting is totally wrong (Sofia Coppola in Godfather III) or things become incoherent near the climax (the superhero action movie of your choice). Of course, all of these are in the eye of the beholder—for me, Eraserhead and Pi are both films that are less than coherent much of the way through, but in interesting ways that make you want to watch them again. Sofia Coppola does have her defenders—and she is not the only problem with that movie. Somewhere, someone must have liked Signs and A.I. (no one I know). The musical of Lost Horizon deserves its own category; it had a big budget but was so very misguided from the beginning that the considerable talents of Liv Ullmann, Peter Finch, John Gielgud and Burt Bacharach can't save it. It's watchable only as a Bad Movie despite its stellar production values.

Bad Movies have little going for them in production, scripting or acting. A low budget doesn't automatically mean Badness—some Poverty Row movies of the 30s and 40s are good little movies in spite of the strikes against them (see Edgar G. Ulmer's great noir Detour), and the Roger Corman horror films of the 60s work quite well, perhaps because Corman spent most of his money on Vincent Price (see above). But the movies the average person thinks of as Bad are marked by ineptness in production, acting, cinematography, effects, or all of the above.


The movies I'll be discussing that inspired this blog post are all fairly inept productions, laughable at times, and are all marked by weak acting and scripts that badly need revision. Yet something about them is compelling. Sometimes it's something good, like the sincerity of the filmmakers, an actor or two who stands out, or the germ of a good idea. Sometimes the whole thing is so jaw-droppingly inept that it really does become entertaining, or might be good fodder for Bad Movie riffers (MST3K, RiffTrax), or for those who like to talk back to, or along with, the actors on the screen. (However, Rocky Horror is not a Bad Movie, nor is it, I think, a bad movie. It's a niche audience movie—fans of sci-fi/horror/musicals—that somehow broke out of its niche). The four movies I'll be reviewing are Journey to Paradise, Mr. Scrooge to See You, Birdemic, and the most notorious bad movie of all, The Room. See you in a day or two.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

An unnecessary remake

The 2017 Murder on the Orient Express is a relatively fun but completely unnecessary remake of the 1974 film based on the Agatha Christie novel. No spoilers here, in fact, no discussion of plot at all since I'm aiming this review at people who already know the story. My Poirot background: I have not read the original novel, though I have read a couple Poirot novels; I like the 1974 film quite a bit but I'm not crazy about Albert Finney's take on Poirot; my favorite Poirot is Peter Ustinov--yes, he may not be very faithful to Christie's characterization, but he's fun and the movies he stars in (Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile) are good. Kenneth Branagh, who both stars and directs, is very good as Poirot, giving a more energetic and thoughtful performance than Finney's rather stiff take on the detective in the earlier film. 
The visuals and effects here are nice, but the plot is presented in a somewhat more convoluted way than before--if I hadn't already seen the first movie, I would gotten a bit lost early on--and the star power quotient is far dimmer in this version, though the actors all acquit themselves fairly well. The 1974 film had Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, and Ingrid Bergman, for heaven's sake, and Branagh doesn't really try to compete with that line-up; the biggest names here, in addition to Branagh, are Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Penelope Cruz. But everyone is fine, including the up-and-comers Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. A couple of brief action scenes have been added to open things up beyond the train cars, as well as an elaborate (and to my mind, tedious) opening sequence set in Jerusalem. The final suspect roundup is set outside the snowbound train, in a chilly tunnel, to good effect. Watching this version is harmless--it will not cause you to forget the original, nor will it seem bad enough to make you regret having seen it. And Branagh's over-the-top mustache is not as ridiculous or irritating as it seems in the still photos I had seen in publicity material.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Unreliable narrator in the window

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn is the latest entry in the trend of thrillers told by an unreliable narrator--in other words, someone we may not be able to trust to tell us exactly what's going on. Sometimes, as in the case of The Great Gatsby, that unreliability may be subtle; for me, it seems clear that Nick is so dazzled by Gatsby that the real story falls between the cracks in his narration, but not all readers feel that way. But Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a solid example: the narrator thinks that the heart of the man he has murdered is still beating, but we can tell that he's gone a bit mad and only he hears the sound, triggered by his guilt.


When this is employed in popular commercial fiction, I think of it as a gimmick because it's more about keeping information from readers rather than being used, as in Gatsby, as a sign of some psychological trait. The current trend has included best-sellers like Gone Girl (with two unreliable narrators) and The Girl on the Train. In the first example, it's definitely a gimmick, with both narrators hiding things they already know just to keep us in suspense for a while. I enjoyed the book, and liked the little "gotchas" that came from the narrative style, but I felt manipulated by the author. In Girl on the Train, the unreliability stems from character: the narrator is an alcoholic who is prone to blacking out, thus the things she doesn't share with us are things that she doesn't remember. This feels more organic and less gimmicky.

Finn's book combines both approaches to the narrative style. Anna, an agoraphobic woman, sees the murder of a neighbor through her window, but can't get anyone to believe her, especially when it appears that she may actually may be delusional and dangerous to herself and others. In addition to feeling like The Girl on the Train, the novel also mashes up elements of Rear Window, Gaslight, Vertigo and other thrillers told by unreliable narrators. I love the many classic movie references--the narrator fills her days by mixing booze and prescription pills, and watching lots of Hitchcock and film noirs. As in Girl on the Train, Anna's unreliability is due to her drinking and her unsettled mental state--she suspects that she's having blackouts. But sometimes, as was the case with Gone Girl, the author has the narrator keep information from us just to dole it out slowly to keep us off guard. We know that some traumatic event involving her, her husband and her daughter, triggered her agoraphobia, but for a couple of reasons, we're kept in the dark for at least half the book's length as to what that event was. When the circumstances are revealed (no spoilers here), we don't feel totally cheated because the effect comes off quite nicely, but it still feels artificial. I liked the supporting cast, and speaking of cast, this will surely be made into a movie some day. The writing is solid without being especially interesting. It's a fast and easy read, and will surely appeal to the Gone/Train fans.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Scrooge and Dickens

I've read two books recently that are centered around the circumstances of Charles Dickens writing his classic "A Christmas Carol." One is a new novel and one is a non-fiction account first published some ten years ago but reissued recently because it's the basis of a new movie. They complement each other nicely, but they are also proof that there is still room for more literature about this immortal story.

The book I read first was the novel Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva. Pressured by his publishers after the flop of his current serial novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and irritated by his lively family--including his debt-ridden father--Dickens struggles in just a few weeks time to come up with a Christmas story that will sell well and give his reputation some burnishing. We see him getting his inspiration for characters (Scrooge being based on himself) and names (Fezziwig, Cratchit, etc.), but mostly he gets help from a beautiful and somewhat mysterious woman in a purple cloak who will inspire him to turn his wobbly first draft into the classic we all know.

The style here is overwritten, primarily paragraphs overflowing with atmosphere description; the language is lovely at first, but too much of a good thing is still too much. Though I do like stylish writing, I found myself skimming over much of the description of the streets and the night. Oddly, the plotting is slightly underdone--we don't get a strong sense of his first draft, and the drama with Dickens' family is not strongly motivated. It feels like Silva just wanted to introduce the wife and kids in order to banish them for most of the rest of the book. But the central drive behind the story is interesting and the ending is satisfying, though not all readers may be happy with the leaps in faith and logic you have to take near the end where a relatively realistic story overtly becomes a fantasy. Overall, a nice way to begin Christmas season reading.

Coincidentally, I ran across The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford just a couple days after finishing the Silva novel. It's a brief, lightweight, non-fiction account the same story of the writing of A Christmas Carol. Aside from the obviously fictional characters that Silva adds, this read like a nice fleshing-out of the background of Silva's novel. One odd point: Silva has Dickens' wife and kids leave him for the holidays because he's being such a grouch (or scrooge, if you will). This felt like it might be a real detail, but Standiford does not mention it. He proclaims (at the end, unfortunately) that it his book is meant to be essentially a light little trifle, not an academic tome, and indeed, it feels like a bit of a rip-off to pay full price for what is essentially a long New Yorker or Vanity Fair article. Almost half the length of the volume is taken with a reprint of Christmas Carol--wouldn't anyone who picks this book up already have a copy? It was interesting to read both books together, though I still think the best book on the subject of "A Christmas Carol" is The Life and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by Paul Davis from 1990, still in print, though in a very expensive edition only.