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the pathetic caverns - movies

Bubba Ho-Tep

2002, D & S: Don Coscarelli

Bubba Ho-Tep is based on Joe Lansdale's short story of the same name. Lansdale's a horror/mystery writer I respect, and Bubba Ho-Tep has one solidly good idea -- setting a horror story in a rest home, where the residents are too frail to effectively combat the supernatural menace and where frequent deaths arouse little official interest. That's maybe a little vanilla on its own, so Lansdale throws in a wrinkle. One of the next victims might be an aging Elvis impersonator who's a little confused (played surprisingly straight by camp/cult fave Bruce Campbell) ... or he just might be the real deal (although his friend (Ossie Davis) who's convinced that he's JFK -- minus brain -- almost certainly isn't really the former president).

I bet it was a swell short story, and it might have been a killer short film -- but of course, there's hardly any market for short films. As a feature, it feels distinctly padded -- and more like a linebacker than like a bra, at that.

The scarab and the mummy are more TV-quality than feature-film-quality, and the movie has what Dr. Sigmund Freud would have called an "anal fixation" -- the mummy's preferred method of inflicting hurt is soul-sucking analingus, but it doesn't stop there. All the ass talk gets a little sophomoric (not to mention borderline homophobic) before it's over.

It wasn't exactly terrible, but I'm a little bemused by some of the kudos it's gotten (e.g, Best Screenplay at the US Comedy Arts Film Festival). And I think it would have been much stronger if it had been edited down to an hour or less.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 6)

Somehow, I never got around to writing about Buffy until now -- dumb move, since my kickbacks from Amazon could have defrayed a week's cost of hosting this site by now. But I guess it's kind of fitting that pathetic caverns' coverage starts with the point at which many fans think the show jumped the proverbial shark.

So, yes, the "magic is the new crack" plotline is awfully heavy-handed, with the magical crack den being particularly egregious. But here's what I forgot about this season until I watched it again: although in many ways it's awfully dark, it's anything but resolutely dark -- the self-styled villainous "Trio" cheerfully plunders every comicbook cliché the Whedon, Noxon, and crew can recall, earning gobs of slightly-uncomfy laughs even while the major characters are squeezed through wringer after wringer.

And the much vaunted musical episode, included herein, is a marvel, with songs of uncommon wit and melodic sturdiness, and performances that are surprisingly okay. Even if you hear a little of the graineness of Auto-Tune pitch correction here or there (and I think I do) really, who the hell cares?


Biases up front: I have no objection to science fiction or fantasy, but they're not exempt from the criteria I apply to other genres for story, character, and acting. I haven't seen many westerns I really like -- even Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my least favorite Bogie pictures. I don't tend to like war-oriented stories much whether or not they're science fiction. And I thought Buffy the Vampire Slayer (also Joss Whedon-created) was pretty good to very good over most of its seven-season run.

Firefly is a space western with a background that seems to intermingle Union vs. Confederacy and Star Wars's Empire vs. Rebellion in roughly equal measure. Despite the trappings, it's really not science fiction per se -- faster-than-light-travel excepted, most of the technology in Firefly is less advanced than the non-fiction early 21st century. I like Firefly best when it was drags western tropes like cattle rustling and train robbing into its half-assed future and making up pretexts to explain them pseudo-logically -- old and familiar stories of double-crosses and backfiring plans at least got new settings which freshened them a bit. I like Firefly least when it flashes back to army buddy stories, because then it's clichéd on every level.

There's also a guild of space geishas that seems poorly thought out. They're supposedly highly respected, but in practice this respect is hardly ever shown in the series -- everyone just keeps calling them whores. The episodes that center around the space geishas are some of the poorest, with the one where the Firefly crew play at defending a tinfoil-covered cathouse-cum-Alamo perhaps the nadir. (It's one of the episodes that wasn't broadcast before the network pulled the plug, and I can see why the network would have been leery of it.)

I might forgive Firefly its clunky plots if the characters were compelling enough. It's not entirely fair to compare a series that lasted less than one full season to Buffy; it took David Boreanaz a long time to grow out of his woodenness. And it took time to evolve real characters out of the tics and mannerisms of the supporting cast. But on Buffy -- even in the first few seasons -- Angel's character stood out as poorly acted compared with the rest. Firefly's performances are just uniformly poor -- and that's not entirely the fault of the actors, because some of the dialogue is atrocious.

In Firefly's defense, it's difficicult to avoid the long shadow cast by Star Trek. I assume no one wants to regurgitate the familiar characters, but obviously, for dramatic reasons, if a story is going to center around a spaceship crew, the crew must have complementary characters from which conflict and tension arise. And trying to delineate those characters in a limited amount of time without falling into any of the traps laid by Star Trek -- characters whose personalities are close to those of Kirk, Spock, Riker, whoever -- is clearly no easy task. On the other hand, Joss Whedon got everyone's attention in the first place by melding two played-out genres full of tired ideas -- the teen soap and the vampire mythos -- into something often strikingly smart and surprising. I had similar hopes for his outer space/Western hybrid.

Also Firefly's acting isn't any worse than in many other SF shows like Andromeda or Babylon 5. If it doesn't bother you there, it probably won't in Firefly, either. (But from what I've seen of them, I still think both of those series were better written overall.)

Kaena: The Prophecy

2003, D: Chris Delaporte, Pascal Pinon S: Chris Delaporte, Tarik Hamdine

Dept. of I-Should-Have-Known-Better:
The Brattle's blurb namechecked (French comic artist) Moebius and René Laloux's Fantastic Planet, so I skipped over the part that mentioned that Kaena evolved from work on a video game.

Kaena shows an obvious visual and thematic debt to the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli (especially Nausicaä, with which it shares a young and independent female protagonist, environmental themes, uncommonly large and sympathetic arthropods, and a hostile forest environment with exotic predators). But fans of Miyazaki's complex characters will find precious few here: only the lone male "Selenite" has more than one dimension (he's greedy, horny, and alternately obsequious and overbearing).

The skeleton of the plot is straightforward, but it's unveiled confusingly, and a great deal of it makes no sense at all. There's a spaceship, you see, that gets blown up and crashes exactly between two huge planets. The remains of the ship merge with a big tree that's hanging in space between the planets. The tree doesn't have roots on either planet, but it does have sap (just not much), and a race of parasitic sap-creatures has evolved (the "Selenites," although why they're given a name that means "moon dweller" is very unclear). Even though there weren't any humans on the tree before the ship crashed, the sap-creatures seem strangely dependent on them.

I know there are plenty of folks who are more interested in the visual appeal of movies -- especially fantasy and science fiction flicks -- than in solid stories and compelling characters. If that's you, you're probably reading the wrong Web site, but Kaena might be worth a look. Its space-tree environment is illogical, but also unusual and fairly original, and some of the character and environment designs are pretty neat.


1995, D: Paul Verhoeven S: Joe Eszterhas

I recently read a transcript of a good interview -- from NPR's "Fresh Air," I think -- with John Waters, in which he asserts that irony and self-awareness have spoiled the pleasures of bad cinema.

He argues that the likes of Ed Wood (Plan 9 from Outer Space) and Hal Warren ('Manos' the Hands of Fate) never set out to make movies that were campy or "so bad they were good" -- that they were just making the best films they could within the constraints of their budgets, schedules, and talents (and within the context, usually, of trying to make a quick buck).

Whereas when the likes of Quentin Tarantino (or Waters himself, as he acknowledges) plunder the B-movie libraries, there's a self-consciousness and a critical distance from the film on the part of its own makers. A movie like Mars Attacks! can't ever be as purely bad, because it's designed to be bad. We're always meant to be laughing at the picture, not with it, so often we just don't laugh at all.

Waters has a point, but fortunately, there are still exceptions that prove the rule. People have been telling me for nearly 10 years how bad Showgirls is, and I never quite believed them, until now. It's one of the most incredibly misbegotten trainwrecks of a movie I've ever seen, and it's blissfully devoid of irony.

Elizabeth Berkley is shudderingly bad in the lead role as the sociopathic wannabe Vegas dancer, Nomi Malone. She's so wooden that I was half-expecting a twist ending that revealed that she was a murderous shape-changing alien in human disguise. (One of the film's many, many flaws is that it repeatedly asks us to believe that her speedfreak bump-and-grind somehow qualifies as "good" dancing.)

The script is chock ablock with unintentionally hilarious dialogue. It's so dense with assorted minority slurs and stereotyped characters that it seems to hail from an era before any whisper of "political correctness." (At one point I started keeping a mental list of groups that hadn't been insulted. If there was anything specifically offensive either to Jews or Muslims, I missed it.) It probably goes without saying that Showgirls is unremittingly exploitive of women, but it might also be worth noting that its many minutes of nudity constitute some of the most thoroughly unerotic displays this side of a Peter Greenaway movie.

The film bears an NC-17 rating, which more-or-less puts it in the porn ghetto -- but honestly, most major studio porn productions probably have better scripts. And acting. And, uh, more "class."

The original DVD release claims to include a "Making of" featurette; it's really just a 5-minute advertisement with clips from the film spliced with soundbyte quotes from the principals and about a minute of on-set footage. Nothing essential.

Dept. of Unironic Irony:
Update: while I was penning the above, the studio was already preparing the DVD "VIP" edition for shipment, which includes commemorative shotglasses, a drinking game, a strip tease tutorial, and a reportedly merciless commentary track by Seattle-based writer David Schmader (who has been leading sold-out audiences through "Rocky Horror"-style eviscerations of the movie). So United Artists is now actually selling the film as excruciatingly bad. Modern technology has seamlessly grafted on an ironic layer not present in the original release ... someone page Alanis Morrisette!

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