Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pink Flamingos (1972)

The Movie: Divine (the late cult movie figure), after being named “Filthiest Person Alive” by the tabloids; moves to Baltimore with her traveling companion, Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), senile egg-obsessed mother (Edith Massey), and son, Crackers (Danny Mills), under the pseudonym Babs Johnson. They set up in a trailer out in the middle of nowhere in the hopes of hiding out for a while. Unfortunately, news of their presence in town reaches the wrong people.

Raymond (the late David Lochary) and Connie (John Waters regular Mink Stole, last seen on this blog way back in the beginning in my review of But I’m a Cheerleader) Marble are an extremely perverted couple who are convinced that they are the filthiest and most depraved people in the world. They certainly have a lot in favor of their argument. Their main source of income is a black market baby ring where they kidnap teenage hitchhikers, have their butler, Channing (Channing Wilroy) impregnate them, and sell them to lesbian couples. They also use some of that money to fund heroin dealers at elementary schools. In his free time, Raymond likes to expose himself to women in the park; which occasionally nets him some cash in the form of their dropped purses.

Hearing that their rival is in town, the Marbles are determined to eliminate her and claim the title of “Filthiest People Alive” for themselves. To locate her, they hire Cookie (the late Cookie Mueller) to seduce Crackers for the information they need. She succeeds, but it comes at a price; Crackers makes her have sex with him with live chickens between them.

The Marbles begin their vendetta, but they are in for a nasty shock. Divine didn’t earn her title by being a pushover. Once she and her family realize that the Marbles are gunning for them, they decide retaliation is in order. Things are about to get really ugly in ways no sane person can imagine…

The Review: Oh gods I hate my brain, or at least certain parts of it. I swear, it seems like certain thought processes have minds and personalities of their own, I’ve even given a few names. Well, recently I heard from a part of my brain that seems constantly out to hurt me. I’ve long suspected I’m a bit of a masochist, although it’s probably a common human motivation. After all, every one of us has times when we feel the compulsion to do something we know isn’t a good idea. We know it’s very bad for us, we know we’re going to really be hurting and hating ourselves for it afterwards, and yet still we really want to do it.

Anyway, this sado-masochistic part of my consciousness pointed out that if I wanted to review truly out-there movies, I needed to do at least one John Waters flick; and that there was no option but to review his magnum opus. Therefore, I was compelled to do something I swore I never would and rewatched Pink Flamingos so that I could do a review on it. Now other parts of my brain are curled up in little balls crying, or screaming in agony and horror. The things I do for my readers. You’re welcome, by the way.

You may be familiar with John Waters for films such as Hairspray (probably his most well known) and Serial Mom. However, his early films from the seventies and early eighties, those were something else entirely. How to get this across…

Well, let me just start by saying I rarely use the f-word. Not that I have anything against swearing, I just feel it is way overused. I had my lesson in the use of effective swearing in high school sophomore gym class, when a classmate overheard me using the word ‘damn.’ His reaction should tell you about my reputation at the time, he insisted I say it again so that he could be sure and tell people he had heard it come from my mouth. My vocabulary has expanded greatly since then, but I still try to keep the f-word in reserve so that when I do use it, people know that I mean it.

I tell you this so that the full impact will sink in when I say that the best adjective for an early Waters flick is ‘fucked-up.’ His more recent movies may diverge from the beaten path, but his early ones come nowhere within sight of it. We’re talking really low budget (Pink Flamingos was made on only $10,000), little to no actual acting talent, and long meandering dialogue. Divine, Waters’ leading lady for a lot of his films, was actually a 300 pound transvestite; and the rest of his cast, mostly friends and associates, look like the kind of people you could expect to find hanging around a bus station because they were exactly that kind of person.

As for what his movies were about, oh gods it’s hard to believe even after seeing it. The best way I can describe an early John Waters film is that it is like digging through an outhouse on a really bad drug trip, and even that doesn’t come close. He really went out of his way to be as weird and grotesque as possible, and his cast was willing to do things in front of the camera that many of us would probably have trouble doing in private. Watching one of these movies is definitely an experience you cannot forget, no matter how much you try.

Pink Flamingos is Waters’ most notorious film, and the one that made Divine an underground sensation. Just reading my synopsis of it provides only the smallest of hints of what you are in for. Ultimately, the whole point of the movie is to shock you, and it does just that. There are very few societal taboos that aren’t broken, often in graphic detail. All of our main characters are repulsive in their own way, often in a fashion that has to be seen to be believed.

And yet, it is apparent that Waters has talent. There are some seriously funny parts; my favorite a scene that just had Divine walking down the street with the camera following her and taking in the reactions of everyone she passes. Pink Flamingos is clever, but it is all the more vile for being so clever.

I’m not sure what else to say, so I will end on this note; Pink Flamingos is one of the few movies that could honestly be called the ultimate cinomasochistic experience. If you’re really into bizarre films, movies that go places you never thought it possible for them to go, you should see it at least once. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see about taking a long shower and finding some steel wool to scrub my frontal lobe with.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

The Movie: A young girl who we will know only as Baby Doll (the adorable and hot Emily Browning from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) is placed by her abusive stepfather in a psychiatric institution so that he can get rid of her and get a hold of her inheritance. Poor Baby Doll has already had to cope with her stepfather, her mother’s death, and the death of her little sister as well; but much worse is in store for her. It turns out the institution is actually a cabaret, which is in turn a front for a brothel. Owned by the sleazy Blue (Oscar Isaac), the girls are trained by Vera Gorski (the sexy Carla Gugino of Watchmen and Sin City) and then exploited to make Blue money. Baby Doll’s stepfather paid Blue specifically to make her disappear, so she faces a particularly dire fate in only five days.

Baby Doll escapes into a series of fantasy realms where a wise old man (Scott Glenn) gives her the means to escape. To do it, she has to get a hold of five items. Four other girls; Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish), her little sister Rocket (the versatile Jena Malone), Blondie (the gorgeous Vanessa Hudgens of the High School Musical Movies), and Amber (Jamie Chung), agree to help her in the hopes that they can escape as well. But the hurdles for the five girls succeeding start to mount, even as the lines between fantasy and reality start to blur. Can they succeed?

The Review: I present another first for this blog; this is the first time I went to an in-theater movie with the intent of reviewing it. Sucker Punch came to my attention mainly due to the conflicting opinions about it. All the critics seem to hate this movie, while several friends have raved to me about how great it is. I became curious to see it for myself and maybe throw my own two cents into the mix. So what’s my verdict? Well, if I had to sum up Sucker Punch in one word I would say this; it’s a mess. Sucker Punch is a bizarre, surreal, schizophrenic, anachronistic mess of a movie that spends a very large portion of its running time looking like the fever dreams of a highly caffeinated fan boy with severe A.D.D. That’s not to say, however, that it’s an entirely unentertaining mess.

I will start with the cast, since they are probably the best part of the movie. Browning works as the protagonist. Her facial expressions alone convey far more than words ever could. Cornish is also good; she gives us a convincing and fully fleshed-out human being of a character with all the good and bad that entails.

Jenna Malone is one of those actors who I regularly see in a lot of movies, but have trouble recognizing because she gets so deeply into her roles. In fact, in Sucker Punch I was only able to pick her out through process of elimination; I knew she played one of the protagonists and was able to rule out all the others. This is a good thing, by the way. I find that my favorite actors tend to be the ones who are able to get so far into their roles that it’s hard to remember we’re watching them and not their character. It’s easy to see why Malone has had so many roles up to this point, and I hope she gets many, many more.

Isaac does a good job of providing us with a villain who is slimy, sadistic; and who ultimately we love to hate. Gugino also gives us a convincing character. All Hudgens provides to this movie is screen presence, but as the script really doesn’t give her much to work with, it’s probably less her fault than it could be. Chung doesn’t even provide that, pretty much only being eye candy. I’m not familiar with her, so she might have some acting talent; it’s just not visible in this movie.

One of the critic’s major complaints about Sucker Punch is that it’s sleazy and exploitative. I’m on the fence with this one. The outfits the ladies wear aren’t that bad, I see far more revealing outfits weekly at the local YMCA. Although I must confess, being big on bellies and thighs, I can’t help but enjoy the outfits Browning wears during the fantasy sequences.

However, there is a, ever so slight, attempt at sleaze. It’s not much, and this is where my conflict lies. If you’re going to make a piece of sleaze, then by all means do it. But follow through; don’t chicken out at the last minute. I have a problem with the movies that try to create “safe sleaze;” you can have sleazy, or you can have safe, but you can’t have both. In fact, I find the hypocrisy of those kinds of movies far more disturbing than the blatantly honest sleaze pieces. However, there are far worse offenders in this than Sucker Punch. There’s just enough to touch on the subject, and that’s about it.

The fantasy sequences make some great stand-alone set pieces. They’re obviously CGI, but some of them still look amazing. My favorite is the anachronistic WW1 battlefield with its zeppelins and clockwork Germans. There are also some interesting little surreal touches, such as the bunny-faced mech Amber pilots in the WW1 scene. On the downside, I really don’t like the style of combat most action movies use these days; with the camera shaking and then suddenly turning away just as the character strikes a blow. The use of that technique definitely lessens my enjoyment.

Finally, I would say that Sucker Punch’s biggest failing is that it tries to do way too much at once. The themes are all legitimate ones that have worked well for other movies: finding strength in unexpected places; using fantasy to escape from and/or deal with an unpleasant reality; the thin, blurry line between fantasy and reality; gaining strength from a position of helplessness. I have seen all of these themes done and done well in other movies. However, while they are present in Sucker Punch, they tend to get lost beneath everything else.

Watching this movie, one gets the impression that Zack Snyder, who both wrote and directed it, had no idea where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do. It seems like Snyder had some disparate ideas for scenes and storylines, and tried to mix them all together into one movie. As a result, it can be hard to make sense of what’s going on. There are so many different layers of fantasy, reality and delusion blurring together that by the time of the “big reveal” at the end, said reveal loses a lot of its effect because you’re still trying to make sense of everything else you just saw. Individually, some of Sucker Punch’s components work very well. However, the resulting mess is unable to rise above the sum of its parts.

So in conclusion, Sucker Punch is a mess, but not an entirely unentertaining one. While the movie doesn’t work as a whole, there are several independent parts of it that are worth seeing. Yes, I’m well aware that I am damning this movie with faint praise. However, you have to admit, it’s far more generous than many of the other reviewers are willing to be.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Flesh Gordon (1974)

The Movie: The Earth is, as the esteemed scientist Professor Gordon (John Hoyt) puts it, in big trouble. A sex ray beamed from space has been striking the Earth, causing all struck by it to engage in unrestrained sexual orgies. Civilization can’t survive when the president of the U.S. neglects his duties to lock himself in the bathroom with the vice president, or the world’s pre-eminent scientist is distracted because he found his wife in bed with the garbage man. Fortunately, Flesh (Jason Williams), the professor’s son, has located the planet the beam is coming from; and he is returning from playing ice hockey for the U.S. in Tibet to help find a solution.

Meanwhile, as Flesh flies home from Tibet he meets Dale Ardor (Suzanne Fields), who we automatically know will be “the Girl” for Flesh. Unfortunately, trouble strikes almost immediately as the sex ray hits the plane in mid-air. The pilots decide they would rather join the on-board orgy than handle the controls (that innuendo was not intentional, I swear), and when they and the passengers go down, so does the plane (okay, that one was). Fortunately, Flesh and Dale are able to bail out. Even better, they happen to land outside the home of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff (Joseph Hudgens), an old friend of Flesh’s father and a brilliant scientist. Jerkoff has also been investigating the sex ray, and he has built a spaceship to take him to its source. Our three heroes set off for the planet Porno to put a stop to the ray.

Unfortunately, their plans to save the Earth put them afoul of Porno’s ruler, the evil Emperor Wang the Perverted (William Hunt). Even with the aid of the outlaw (and flamboyantly gay) Prince Precious (Lance Larson), true heir to the throne of Porno, our heroes’ task will not be easy. Penisaurs, lesbian amazons, hermaphrodite gladiators, Wang’s cannon-fodder troops and deathtraps, and the Great God Porno; all stand between our heroes and victory. Will Dr. Jerkoff figure out how to use the Power Pasties to end the threat of Wang and his sex ray? Will Dale be able to avoid being molested by everyone but the men she wants to molest her? Can Flesh keep his pants on long enough to save the Earth?

The Review:

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Sex madness perils planet! Hey, scram you horny joiks!" -Paperboy

For my current offering, I present one of my truly guilty pleasures. By that, I mean that I feel extremely guilty about the fact that I enjoy this movie; or at least, some people feel that I should. Now, I’m not all that big on porn movies. Mostly this is due to my attitude toward the two main elements that people go to these movies for. After a certain double date in high school I came to the conclusion that when it comes to sex, any sex; if it doesn’t involve me, I’m not interested. Now I have since seen some stuff out of curiosity (“oh, so that’s how that would work”), but I have mostly retained that attitude. For me, with the very rare exception, watching other people screw is at worst kind of repulsive, and at best rather dull.

As for the other main element, I must confess that I am something of a connoisseur of the female form and its infinite variations. However, I don’t care how good looking the women in question are or how much we get to see of them; if a movie doesn’t have more to offer I lose interest quickly. Admittedly it doesn’t have to be much more, and I do enjoy female nudity in my movies; but it’s really not worthwhile when that’s all the movie in question has to offer.

Flesh Gordon is one of the only three pornographic movies (the others being Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, which I have yet to get my hands on) that are widely recognized as classics in and of themselves. There is a reason for this; Flesh Gordon actually works as a movie, not just as a vehicle for vicarious sexual shenanigans. It is obvious that a lot of effort went into this film, and one also gets the impression that somebody had a lot of fun making it.

Flesh Gordon is a spoof of the old Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s. One of the main reasons that it works is because it is exactly what a spoof or a parody should be. Flesh Gordon sticks very close to the original that it is parodying, only tweaking it a bit so that the elements used are slanted to their most ridiculous extremes and/or to be sexual. All of the major (and the majority of the minor) plot points are nothing that, at their core, you wouldn’t find in this parody’s model. A handsome, square-jawed hero; a hapless damsel; and a brilliant but slightly unhinged scientist travel to another planet to stop a threat to Earth. Once there, they have to deal with monsters, death traps, and an evil supervillain with powerful super-science at his disposal. The only real differences are that the threat to Earth is an aphrodisiac ray, the monsters are, among other things, penisauri, and the villain is more blatantly sex-obsessed than his models from the pulps and serials.

Unfortunately, that accuracy is applied to the character of our heroes as well. I say unfortunately, because as characters the heroes in this genre tended to be uniformly bland. Flesh is pretty much your standard square-jawed, upstanding fighter, defined wholly by the fact that he’s tall, strong, handsome, and every female he encounters inexplicably lusts after him on first glance. The movie does something clever with that last one, in the scene where Flesh, Dale and Jerkoff first meet Prince Precious. When the obviously gay Precious first beholds the heroic Flesh, he follows the exact same script the majority of the female characters do in reaction to him. We even get a glimpse of the two enjoying a “romantic” (i.e. blatantly sexual) interlude together.

The character of Dale has the same problem. Like her sisters in the serials she is basically a dumb bimbo whose only purpose is to serve as eye candy, be constantly rescued by the hero from being molested by everyone and his brother, and be forced into marriage to the villain. Albeit, in that last one the heroine is usually the one who wears the wedding dress. Also, even when Dale in Flesh Gordon is completely nude (which she is for much of the running time), she’s still not wearing much less than her models from the pulps did.

Another way in which Flesh Gordon adheres to the original, and does it extremely well, is in the look and the setting. With the exception of obvious little tweaks (such as the heroes’ very penis-shaped rocket ship, or the strategically placed drills on Wang’s robots), the settings and props look exactly like they came out of an old Flash Gordon serial. They are all amazing; which isn’t too surprising considering they were put together by some of the best sci-fi effects people of the time. The scene where the swan-shaped airship of Amora, Queen of Darkness (Mycle Brandy) flies across the night sky is just beautiful.

The same thing can be said of most of the stop-motion creatures in the movie as well. There is this one metallic insect–thing that’s just amazing. Best of all is probably the Great God Porno. The model would make Ray Harryhousen himself proud, its movements and facial expressions have personality in and of themselves. Combined with the voice and script they give it, it is both beautiful and very perversely hysterical.

The final strength Flesh Gordon has is its humor. This is a seriously funny movie with some really good, if perverse and often juvenile, jokes. Despite what you may think, they’re not all (or even mostly), sexual. There are plenty of bad ones, of course, but there are enough good ones that you forget about them rather quickly. From the Volkswagen key used to start the heroes’ rocket, to Wang’s various titles (“Your Impotenance” and “Your Assholiness” are my personal favorites), to how Jerkoff escapes from Wang’s lab to the Great God Porno; if you aren’t laughing at some point during this movie, you don’t have a sense of humor. What’s more, unlike some other movies of this type, there is no mean-spiritedness whatsoever.

Finally, I must address the pornographic elements; since this is, after all, a porno. My copy of Flesh Gordon, which is supposed to be the “re-edited, uncensored” version, mostly has softcore elements. However, I have heard that this movie was originally shot with hardcore scenes, but the director was forced to edit them out before the movie was released. I actually think the movie is all the better for it. While nudity abounds and there are plenty of softcore scenes, I get the impression that the pornographic elements were back-burnered in favor of the story; that the makers of this movie seemed to be more concerned about having fun spoofing Flash Gordon than they are about making pornography. I could be wrong; but even if you don’t care for pornography there are plenty of other things to be enjoyed about Flesh Gordon.

So in conclusion; Flesh Gordon is crude, perverse, twisted and juvenile. It has its frequent moments of cleverness, and very well done settings and props. In short, I find it to be a lot of fun, even if it is a porno. There is plenty to enjoy even for people who aren’t into pornography. I thoroughly enjoy this movie; and while I’m probably going to Hell for that and other reasons, I understand that all the best people are going to be joining me there anyway. If you have a really warped sense of humor and aren’t easily offended, this one is definitely worth a viewing.