Monday, June 2, 2014

I Saw This!! - Reject pile

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so.  Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all.  And they can't do that, can they?

Gymkata - 1985, d. Robert Clouse (youtube)
Knights of Badassdom - 2013ish, d. Joe Lynch (DVD)
The Dictator - 2012, d. Larry Charles (Netflix)
Flash Gordon - 1980, d. Mike Hodges (Netflix)

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Oh Gymkata, you have been sitting on my to-write-about list for what seems like forever.  I first caught wind of this film back in 2006 when it was released on DVD and was on display at my local Sunrise Records, with it's stark red painted poster cover of a semi-super-heroic athlete/action star taking out some ninjas.  I was just at the tail end of my "ironic enjoyment of bad cinema" phase (replete with attending Kung-Fu Fridays at the local Revue), so I wanted it, but I was also tight on funds so I let it go.  Still, I never really forgot about "the gymnastic action movie", and when it cropped up on the "How Did This Get Made" podcast and I learned the entire film was easily available on YouTube, how could I not watch it (especially since the HDTGM crew seemed to recommend it)?

To be honest, it's not that bad.  I mean as far as bad films go.  It's entertaining, using a Running Man/Most Dangerous Game type plot where a number of special operatives from different countries compete in this small nation's bloodsport tournament for a chance to appeal to its ruler and secure ....well, whatever the hell it was they were trying to secure.  The basic formula has been done dozens of times, but it's just as entertaining and nonsensical here as it ever is.  These type of bloodsport competitions always fall into fantasy no matter how horrific or puerile they are.  And when gymnast-turned-action star finds uneven bar and a pummel horse-like objects in the middle of crazy town (where all the crazies are kept) you can bet a deliriously dumb, but entertaining action sequence will ensue.  Stupid but great in that 1980's direct-to-video way.  Truly.

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David covered Knights of Badassdom's messed up release history already, so I won't retread it here.  This is a slight film, one that feels like it should have been longer, more epic, and hewing closer to the genres its attempting to emulate.  The short story finds a gang of LARPers (live action role players) unwittingly unleashing a real demon into their weekend tournament, and having little but foam swords and padded axes to defend themselves with.  Madness ensues.

The cast is extra impressive, a geek's delight of True Blood's Ryan Kwitney Kwanten, the immaculate Peter Dinklage, perennial nerd fawn Summer Glau, and Steve Zahn, with support from Mad Men's Michael Gladis and Community's Danny Pudi, with the film centering around Kwitney's recent relationship break-up and depression, and his roommates attempts to bring him into their world of role playing.  The through line of dealing with one's relationship demons, a metaphor literally coming to life here, is quaint and 1980's-inspired, but the execution, the technical limitations (and subsequent interference from studios and distributors) make for a choppy and unfulfilling experience.  Were the film to have a budget, it would play into the LARP fantasy and bring it to life (punctuating the exaggerated with the comedic reality), because when we the real LARP action happen before us, it's just rather dull.  When the film shifts into horror mode, it becomes quite evident the director Lynch doesn't have the experience (or possibly just the budget) to truly execute it as a horror film.  It's cheesy, low-budget, light-comedy horror and it's always in want of intensity.

It makes due with what it has and it provides a modicum of entertainment without sacrificing the LARPing community to punchline after punchline (redneck paintballers instead get that distinction), but it never hits the comedic highs it should and it just doesn't push itself hard enough.  It's a film that kind of screams "good enough".

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I'm trying to gauge my feelings on Sacha Baron Cohen at this stage.  Borat, quite rightfully, entered our popular consciousness because it was goddamn funny by being so very wrong.  But it was wrong with a sweet, ignorant core, and also an element of cultural satire underpinning it all.  Borat was one of three major characters that Cohen developed on his British television series Da Ali G Show alongside  Ali G and Bruno, both receiving the cinematic treatment, but not nearly to the same cultural penetration as Borat.  The foundation for these characters however was all based in the awkwardness of taping the interview segments between dim-witted, self-involved and unapologetically racist put-on characters and real people who are, in most cases not in on the joke.  This type of improv creates an unease that in gifted hands develops into riotous comedy.  But it's also exhausting and hard to revisit, hence my avoidance of most of Baron Cohen's work in recent years.

The Dictator eschews this type of improv, removing the interactions with the public of Borat in place of a scripted (though profusely ad-libbed) comedy that feels at once more comfortable, but less satisfying.  The Dictator is, in some ways, a rehash of the 1980's Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming To America, where a wealthy, out-of-touch individual must struggle for survival as a layman.  In this case it's the globally reviled dictator of a non-descript Middle Eastern country, Aladeen, who narrowly escapes his own assassination and schemes to retake his position, now held by his Uncle and a dimwit puppet double.  Along the way, he meets an old subject (the ever-amazing Jason Mantzoukas) whom he thought he had assassinated (turns out everyone he hed assassinated was actually relocated to New York) who wishes to help him for a price, and he falls in love with the crunchy granola whole-foods proprietor who gives him a job when he appears to be just another disheveled refugee named Paula Burgers (Aladeen has a terrible time coming up with fake names, a running joke in the film).

There are some solid comedic moments in this film, some aces running gags, but also a lot of duds that just come far too easy.  I imagine there's a pile of lengthy ad-lib takes on the cutting room floor that would be utterly hilarious but there's no sustained improv here, and the scene cuts and transitions are pained.  If this film has a fatal flaw, it's that Aladeen never becomes a likeable character.  He's always wrong-headed with such zeal that it's always on the cusp of being amusing (occasionally spilling over) but without ever being likeable, you never want to root for him.  I'll give him one thing though, his speech to the United Nations comparing living in a dicatorship to living in the US was potently funny, if only it really mattered that it was said.

My conclusion on Baron Cohen is that he certainly has a type he likes to play and how he likes to play it, and I'm not opposed to it, but I'm not always receptive to it either.  I think perhaps a dosed watching of Ali G may make my mind up for me.

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What amazes me about watching Flash Gordon is how terrible it looks at first, especially upon realizing that it was made after Star Wars.  It's clunky and awful, and its flaws further exacerbated by a cornball opening sequence of a video screen showing natural disasters as the bejeweled glove of Ming the Merciless presses buttons activating these events (including one labeled "Hot Hail".  This leads to the introduction of our protagonists, Flash Gordon, football hero, and Dale Arden, travel agent, on a chartered plane caught in the Hot Hailstorm.  The pair lack both chemistry and acting chops, playing the roles straight out of a community college production.  Sam Jones looks the part perfectly, but he just isn't a strong enough actor to pull it off. 

Things get a fair sight better with the introduction of Dr. Zarkon, played by the always lively Topol, and he kidnaps the duo, straight out of their crashed plane into his rocket ship that takes them on a psychedelic trip to a wormhole and Ming the Merciless' home planet.  From here the set design and costuming take over for the lackluster story and pitiable leads, with vibrant and elaborate stage sets that are wonderful to behold, and a parade of costumes that today still look fantastic (sorry lizard men, not you though).

At a certain point, Max Von Sidow, Topol, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton and the fetching Ornella Muti start to take over, elevating the quality of the presence on screen, delivering enjoyable performances in a somewhat dreadful and misguided production.

The conceit of the 1980's Flash Gordon is that it's a then-modern retelling of the 1930's pulp serials, and it does an all-too-good job of recapturing that aesthetic.  But capturing and directly relaying that nostalgia to a post-Star Wars, post-Alien, post-2001 crowd was a fatal flaw and has largely driven a nail in the character since.  Looking at the poster gallery for the film, there's a tremendous amount of wonderful pulpy and 50's sci-fi inspired images.  It's a terrible movie with a certain amount of pleasantness that ultimately sucks you in to admiring it, but still has problems you can't get past...like a curious-looking girl made more beautiful with her charm but disarming everyone with her braying horse laugh. 

Flash! Ah AAAH!