Monday, November 2, 2009

AFI Fest - Best Worst Movie and The Loved Ones

Saturday I decided I was more or less Halloween-d out and decided to take advantage of the fact that AFI Fest was offering free tickets to all of their screenings. Having heard good buzz about the documentary Best Worst Movie, I went in with high hopes. The documentary was made by Michael Paul Stevenson, who 20 years ago was a child actor in Troll 2, a film once considered "the Worst Movie Ever Made." In the ensuing years, it's achieved a sort of cult status among the sorts of fans who enjoy bad movies and midnight screenings of said bad movies.

Despite my affection for those sorts of bad movies, I'd never managed to see Troll 2, but that didn't hamper my enjoyment of the documentary. However if you are interested in seeing it, it's available for free on Hulu.

The central figure of doc is actor/dentist George Hardy, who never appeared in another film after Troll 2, and who is so likable that even his ex-wife can't think of a bad thing to say about it. At one point he hilariously recounts his reactions while seeing the film for the first time. Suffice to say, he harbored no delusions that he had appeared in anything remotely resembling a good film. Its cult status comes as something of a shock to him until he attends a packed midnight showing in New York with a theatre full of fans who treat him like William Shatner at a Star Trek convention. There's genuine joy in seeing George's bemusement and enjoyment of his adoring fans.

But he's not the only cast member the film tracks down. Stevenson tracks down all his former cast members, and they're an eclectic bunch. There's a man who admits he was having serious mental problems during shooting and smoked a lot of pot to stay sane; a younger actress who talks about how Troll 2 was such a blemish on her resume that she knew she'd never win a part if it came up at an audition; and an actress who has become something of a shut-in while caring for her aging mother.

But the real fun comes from seeing Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso take in the spectacle of the fan gatherings with his own eyes. Unlike most of the cast, Claudio, his wife (who wrote the script,) and his editor, all labor under the delusion that Troll 2 is actually a profound "parable" (yes, he actually uses that word) about the forces that threaten families and try to tear them apart. After watching the film with a group of fans, he seems genuinely shocked (and a wee bit offended) that "they laugh at the parts where they are supposed to laugh, and then they laugh at the parts where they are not meant to laugh." One Q&A with the cast turns tense when the actors predictably slam the film and Claudio proceeds to berate them for being terrible actors.

It's a great documentary, and it's interesting to hear about some of the origins of the documentary via this Suicide Girls interview. I know I recently poked a little fun at Lionsgate, saying that they put out so much garbage that their motto should be "We'll release anything." Now, the quotes below have made me reverse my position on that and realize that isn't quite true, so I want to publicly apologize to Lionsgate for implying such things. I'll let Michael Paul Stephenson take it from here.

I got an e-mail, out of the blue again...from a producer in LA. He said, "I just wanted to let you know I'm a huge Troll 2 fan...and I've done some movies with Lionsgate, and if you ever had any projects, I'd love to have you come in and pitch it."I go in and I meet with him and another gentleman...[This second producer] was, to me, a typical Hollywood dirtbag. He was like, "Have you ever had girls who wanted to sleep with you because of your Troll 2 fame?" I was just thinking, what the hell is this? I was just kind of turned off by it. It felt weird coming out of there. They said, "OK, you can be the star and be the center [of the documentary]!" All of the creative notes that I was getting from them didn't feel right....

So long story short, I come back from New York and met with these producers. I said, "I want to focus on George. He's going to be the vehicle for this thing because he's a small town Alabama guy, and he's a movie star at these screenings, and I like that angle. I think there's [something] very human about it too that would relate to a larger audience than just [Troll 2] fans." They just basically just said, "No. The age range for this kind of movie is your age, you should be the center of it." They offered me a fourth of what I said I needed to do it, and they said, "Can you have it done in four to six weeks?"

I just kind of rolled my eyes and said, "You've got to be kidding me. There's no way I feel comfortable with that." And they just kind of said, "well, there's the door!"

Clueless. Just utterly clueless. If it wasn't for Tyler Perry's oeuvre, it's clear that Lionsgate would have gone under years ago. I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Lionsgate for saying their standards are so low that they'll release anything, because it's clear from conversations like this that they wouldn't know a good movie if it came into their office and physically helped Lionsgate extract it's proverbial cranium from its alimentary canal.

(I figure I'm safe from Lionsgate retribution unless they happen to own a thesaurus.)

Anyway, if you're a fan of bad movies, or enjoy documentaries that explore these cult phenomenons, then Best Worst Movie is the film for you. You can find their website at

I'm going to tread lightly with spoilers for the second film I saw, The Loved Ones, an Australian thriller that recently premiered in the U.S. at the Toronto Film Festival. The set-up is that a teenager dealing with the death of his father turns down the school wallflower when she invites him to an end-of-the-year dance, explaining to her that he's going with his girlfriend. Hurt, the girl has her father abduct the boy and the deranged father/daughter team holds him prisoner in a scenario that recalls Misery and the dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It's a tense film and first-time director Sean Byrne is skillful at playing on the audience's nerves and pushing them to the limits of their tolerance. He allows the tension to really percolate and build to an unbearable level before it's released in painful and disturbing ways. I was left with mixed feelings on this movie, in part because I read a lot of scripts with similar premises. I'll give Byrne credit for not delving too far into the torture-porn that has dominated horror for far too long, but at the same time, this is the sort of film I'd only feel comfortable endorsing to a select few friends. I also can't imagine being motivated to rewatch it anytime in the foreseeable future. Byrne knows how to get a reaction from the audience, though.

As I said in my review of P2, I'm a sucker for two-hander movies like Misery, and this film more or less falls into that genre. However, it fell apart for me for a very major reason - I didn't care at all about the lead character, Brent. It didn't feel like the movie did enough to establish him pre-capture. We see him dealing with the loss of his father and then having sex with his girlfriend. Beyond that, there isn't much depth to him.

Where the film really suffers in comparison to Misery is in the inability to develop a real relationship between Brent and his captor. A lot of the best scenes in Misery come out of the interactions between Kathy Bates and James Caan. There's a give-and-take throughout before it becomes clear just how crazy Kathy Bates is. Now, in The Loved Ones, the girl's derangement is revealed early on, but that's not a problem. The problem is that Brent barely has ANY dialogue after being captured. He's basically restrained to a chair and forced to endure all manner of torture and insanity heaped on him by his captors.

Despite a few escape attempts, he feels somewhat passive throughout the second act. Since he's the guy the audience is supposed to identify with, it feels like the script should do more to make us empathize with him. Instead, it feels like Byrne decided that the real star of the film was the crazy girl and that Brent was just a device he could use to explore her. For me, that made for a less interesting movie. She's a great antagonist, but she needed a more compelling protagonist to play off of.

Without saying too much about the ending, I do feel that it its final moments, Bryne might have veered too far into black comedy. There's a sequence near the end that provoked outright laughter from the audience, likely due to the tonal change.

However, I don't know if it's fair to hold that last one against Byrne so much because the crowd I saw it with was full of "those people." I think you know the kind I'm talking about - the inconsiderate assholes who find it necessary to talk back to the screen during horror films with such great insights as "Damn... bitch be crazy!" and "You betta run, boy!" Let's be clear about this - when I watch a movie in the theatre, I will only tolerate heckling if it's coming from two robots and their human companion.

Beyond that, I feel that talking during a film is grounds for justifiable homicide. It utterly ruined the experience for me, much in the same way a screening of The Exorcist re-release was ruined for me many years ago. The usher's did their best to quell the disturbance. At one point they kicked out 12 people at once and removed another 5 or 6 at another occasion, but a few hecklers remained until the bitter end.

There's a special corner of hell reserved for those sorts of people. May their hell be a theatre that shows nothing but the works of Uwe Boll, an endless loop of Hostel and that one Elisha Cuthbert movie where she's made to eat the blended innards of a murder victim.

Anyway, to bring this to some kind of a conclusion, I invite all L.A. area readers to check out AFI Fest this week. Tickets are free and it looks like there are some great screenings there.

1 comment:

  1. While I may agree with you that Brent is a little, well I'm lax to say "passive" I'd prefer to say resigned, with the situation I think you make a fundamental mistake by assuming the story is all his.

    This story, like MISERY before it, is not about the hero (who let's face it, in both films is not much of a hero at all). These films and others like them are about the villains. It's their actions, their motivations, their relationships (with the victim and with each other) that are the basis for the film.

    I think you have to draw a distinction between the average teen slasher pic and movies like THE LOVED ONES, MISERY, or THE AUDITION. First of all a typical horror movie is about body count, where these sorts of flicks are all about a relatively small cast torturing the living hell out of each other over a long period of time. They give us passive, kind of confused heroes - or maybe the better word here is victims - and become not about how to best gut a guy, but the sick and twisted relationship between the tortured and the torturer.

    But I suppose you knew I'd say something like that TBSR.