Sunday, August 26, 2012

Good on James Nguyen, and thoughts about B-movies

In a cultural landscape that's post-irony, post-post-modern, and post-just-about-everything, one of the quirks is that cult movies are intentional.  You have filmmakers setting out to shoot pop cultural collages that are purposefully cheesy, ridiculous, retro, over-the-top, and intended to be watched by an audience that laughs along rather investing any emotions.  (Hence Snakes on a Plane, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Black Dynamite).  All the more special then, in a time like this, when a cult movie is made accidentally, and borne on the sincerity of its own awfulness.

All of which is a prelude to talking about Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), a "romantic thriller" from independent writer, director, producer, and former software James Nguyen.  How to describe Birdemic?  It is, to put it shortly, a remake of The Birds, only with an awful title, no budget, and a total lack of filmmaking skill on more or less every level.  The writing is terrible, the editing a clunky lesson in Final Cut Pro, and the special effects so bad that the birds are literally stiff 2D animations that just hover in place.  Most bad movies are simply boring for long stretches of their run time; Birdemic has fascinating, wildly perplexing creative decisions in nearly every scene.  It is almost impossible when watching the film to accept that this was made with pure intentions—yet all indications, from the filmmaker's genuine admiration for Hitchcok and the film's bizarrely-delivered message on eco-friendliness, are that it was on some level meant to be taken straight.  Over the past two years, it has become something of a midnight movie.  You can find it on Netflix Instant, and perhaps you should, if only because seeing is believing.

Not that its status as a new "best worst movie" happened entirely on its own.  Nguyen took the film to Sundance, shopped it around, and ended up drawing the attention of the horror website Bloody Disgusting, which sponsored its theatrical premiere.  The event was hosted by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, of the post-surrealist Tim and Eric Awesome Show, kicking off the film's tour of the country.  The rest, as they say, is history.

And so, two years later, I visit IMDb, and the trailer of the day was for none other than Birdemic 2, written and directed by Nguyen himself, bringing back the two leads from the first first movie, and sold with the cult-friendly tagline "you asked for it."  James Nguyen is, in an odd sense, "making it."  Either by accident, intent, or some combination in between, he's stumbled on a niche and become a rare micro-budget filmmaker at Sundance whose work finds enough of an audience to demand a part two.

Yet there is a nagging sadness here, too.  The way they're marketing it, ironically branding the director as a "visionary" and "the master of romantic thrillers (TM)" shows that they know exactly what this means and how the audience will take it.  Everything perplexing about the original—the bad special effects, the characters' bizarre behavior, the roomtone that changed with each shot—is being self-consciously revived and trumpeted as the sequel's appeal.  And self-consciousness is never unspoiled; it's the reason that, despite a killer trailer, an homage like Black Dynamite will never be as bizarrely entertaining as the genuine article (say, 1979's Disco Godfather).  Call it a case for further study.  At the moment, it looks like an off-kilter miniature version of a familiar American success story, the kind that's strangely inspiring, a little unsettling, and now post-ironic.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Now with cross-posting!

In this blog's first cross-post, I have a new essay up on the MUBI Notebook, for a series of pieces on films that MUBI (an online cinematheque and, for disclosure's sake, my employer) is showing on their VOD platform. 

The first piece is on the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan's revisionist police drama Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which was one of the best films of 2011—or 2012, if you're counting by theatrical release date.  I hope you enjoy!  And while you're there, be sure to check out Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's excellent piece on the recently departed and perennially underrated Tony Scott.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises, and the Cinema of Christopher Nolan

It had been building up to this for a while—not just for Batman, but for Christopher Nolan.  With The Dark Knight, he barely pulled it off.  Inception was a bit wobbly, but it was about dreams, so we forgave it.  But with The Dark Knight Rises, in his noble quest to fashion a true comic book epic, Nolan finally bit off more than he could chew.

This is not to say that it's a bad film.  I believe (like some believe in Harvey Dent) that there is a cut of The Dark Knight Rises out there that is everything it claims to be, that does justice to all the plot threads and topical ideas it brings up—only it's four and a half hours long.  What we get instead, running a lean 165 minutes, is a jumbled flow of sequences and characters (all intriguing, half-cohering) that too often acts as a bullet-point summary of itself, and arrives only breathlessly over the finish line.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

REVIEW: John Carter (2012)

Box office disasters are a funny thing.  Film history is dotted with them, from Heaven's Gate (which killed off big-budget Hollywood auteurism for the next...ever) to The Adventures of Pluto Nash (which somehow did nothing stem the flow of bad Eddie Murphy family flicks).  John Carter was a disaster everyone saw coming, but not until too late.  Even before the movie came out, before there was a critical consensus or a wide audience got to weigh in, articles were hitting the trades urging everyone to brace for impact, and explaining what went wrong.

The saga reads like a clusterfuck of studio politics and mismarketing.  Disney had spent $250 million on a relatively obscure Edgar Rice Burroughs novel known only to dedicated sci-fi fans.  They changed the title (originally, it was the somewhat-more-salty John Carter of Mars) to the least vivid name imaginable, reportedly because recent movies with "Mars" in title, from Mission to Mars and Mars Needs Moms, had all been flops.  In the ads, they shied away from mentioning the most marketable aspect of the film: that it was directed by Andrew Stanton, a key member of the Pixar braintrust and the man behind Wall-E and Finding Nemo.  And the result was a very expensive movie on a collision course with the multiplexes, but with no marquee stars, little buzz, and a small built-in fanbase.  It opened earlier this year to mixed reviews and an exceedingly poor box office performance for a film of its size.  It became a notorious punchline as the flop of the year, and its failure caused Rich Ross, the head of Walt Disney Studios, to resign.