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by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2007


Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes it rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa.

When we first meet Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), the loose living nightclub manager is pursuing hedonistic pleasure with reckless abandon. Considered an indirect member of the criminal Bujayev family, he tries to keep his nose clean while avoiding confrontations with his cop relatives. Brother Joseph (Mark Walhberg) is one of New York City’s finest, and dad Burt (Robert Duvall) is a well respected captain. They’ve always viewed Bobby as a black sheep, from his choice of girlfriend – skanky Puerto Rican party girl Amanda (Eva Mendez) to the decision to change his last name from ‘Grusinsky’ to ‘Green’. Still, the man has his inroads with the mob, and so when his kin comes calling for a favor (Joseph wants to put the pinch on Russian dope dealer – and Bujayev nephew - Vadim Nezhinski) – Bobby tries to help. The resulting mess puts his father and brother in harms way, and threatens his comfortable, if morally ambiguous, place between right and wrong.

In a world where movies like State of Grace, Carlito’s Way, The Departed, Eastern Promises, and other dark double crossing mafia dramas didn’t exist, We Own the Night might have worked. Indeed, it offers exceptional performances, a twisty, complicated script, and lots of subjective scope. From the massive opening sequence inside the multi-story El Caribe nightclub, to the last act firefight along the New York/New Jersey shoreline, this is a movie that understands the need for impressive backdrops. It even provides a potent action scene or two, as when a wet and rainy day turns into a life or death car chase between our players. There is palpable urban grit, a real sense of a city under siege. Why Gray chose to set the film in the mid ‘80s remains a mystery, however. Aside from a few shots of post-disco decadence, the era is not really important.

Yet that minor detail perfectly illustrates We Own the Night’s main failing. Several times throughout the course of this otherwise average thriller, we find ourselves wondering about the artistic and narrative choices being made. For example, the Grusinsky family seems like your typical blue collar clique. They embrace each other with a weariness born out of the immigrant experience. But there’s very little insight into their interpersonal problems. It appears to be as simple as “be a policeman” or “be an enemy”. Neither Duvall nor Phoenix have a moment that fully describes their distance from each other, while Walhberg appears pissed off as a matter of implied birthright. We get ancillary comments from the personal peanut gallery (when did Toma’s Tony Mussante get so old?) but the lack of an actual anchor keeps us from really getting to know these men.

The same goes for the Bujayevs. Sure, Gray needs to maintain a certain level of secrecy in order to get his last act reveals to work, but aside from a kind hearted momma earnestly shoveling food toward Bobby, we get no firm indication of how they interact. Unlike Cronenberg’s Promises, which this film had the unfortunate luck of following, We Own the Night never allows us behind the scenes of the inner working of the Russians. Even supposed heavy Vadim Nezhinski supplies a kind of villainy in name only. He’s intimidating, and appears capable of some substantive cruelty, but he’s not the threat we need in this type of thriller. He’s more of a look than a legitimate enemy. And since the storyline centers on dope – not something more enigmatic like white slavery or influence peddling – the routine aspects of such an approach become all the more apparent.

Thankfully, the acting saves this sagging excuse for a crime flick. Phoenix has the much more difficult role here, and he brings a nice believable balance between duty and disinterest. We feel his need to be accepted, to be part of a group that appreciates him for what he is, not what he can be. Similarly, Duvall delivers on what is, in essence, a thankless icon role. As the dad who’s demanding to a fault, he gives good paternalism. But there are times, as when violence threatens his sons, where he turns off the machismo and lets his feelings show. Wahlberg, sadly, is a waste. While trying to play tough, and then troubled, he comes across as weak and wimpy. Gone is the chest-thumping bravura of The Departed. In its place is a weird wounded quality that never quite provides a sense of dimension. With Eva Mendez taking back everything good she did in Ghost Rider (she is insignificant here) and Danny Hock delivering a star-making turn as Bobby buddy Louis, it is safe to say that We Own the Night is as mixed in its performances as it is in its messages.

Indeed, Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts. With limited amounts of blood, a real attempt to have events play out in some manner of insular, unidentifiable logic, and the persistent problem of witnessing characters do things that are no longer new or novel, James Gray ends up providing further proof that, as a meaningful marketplace of invention, Tinsel Town is trapped in an endless cycle of sameness – and its not just the redux fueling the reputation. At this point in the artform, certain genres need a well deserved rest. The mafia may still grab the culture’s attention, but as We Own the Night illustrates, the window of viability has narrowed significantly.

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2007


Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. So Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.

Most films with this much quality and caliber behind them usually find ways to reach a kind of creative convergence. Like the movie it’s most akin to – Sidney Lumet’s masterful The Verdict – there’s a strange subjective synchronicity that occurs. Everything blends – the acting, the script, the direction, the art design, the subplots, the supporting players, even the seemingly insignificant sequences - to propel us from point A to point B on a cushion of able aesthetic air. Michael Clayton doesn’t contain this. Instead, it’s an overwritten work that reaches beyond its corporate intrigue basics to address issues both metaphysical and downright meaningless. The immense amount of aptitude inherent in everyone involved is a huge benevolent barricade to overcome. But first time feature filmmaker Tony Gilroy (responsible for the coolly kinetic scripts for the Bourne franchise) lets tangents and unnecessary histrionics mar what would otherwise be a winning awards season home run.

Our plot begins in the middle, with the title character (played with angst driven darkness by a great George Clooney) locked in mid-meltdown. The high level New York law firm, where he works as a ‘fixer’ – read: solver of the unsolvable problems - has been involved in a massive class action civil suit for the last six years. They represent the corrupt chemical firm U/North, a faceless international agricultural conglom that’s accused of poisoning the people of small farms all throughout the United States. Thanks to the maverick decisions of senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) however, the pre-litigation process has dragged on and on, providing lots of billable hours. One day, the man loses his mind, stripping naked in the middle of a deposition and spewing semi-psychotic rhetoric. Even with his history of manic depression, Clayton recognizes something is significantly wrong. The crackup calls into question the firm’s ability to represent their client, and this causes U/North’s in-house council (Tilda Swinton) to panic. She calls in her own group of ‘maintenance’ men, who have much deadlier ways of dealing with this kind of concern.

From that description alone, Michael Clayton appears masterful. It has the look of legitimate Oscar bait, from its muted cinematography and sweeping compositional grandeur to the moments of individual nuance, as when Swinton’s stressed out witch sweats through her clothes during a bathroom panic attack. Yet combating those stylistic strategies is dialogue that’s dripping with freshly scribbled insignificance, rants meant to sound formidable but end up appearing rather surreal. Since we don’t meet Wilkinson’s eccentric attorney until he’s already swung over to the demented dark side, we have little to compare against his ever present speechifying. There’s no balance to his nuttiness, no way of seeing beyond the bare ass brimstone caught on tape. While he’s an intriguing catalyst for all that will come, he’s hollow as the center of self-righteous indignation.

Clooney is much better at metering out morality while avoiding its ethical sting. When we first meet Clayton, he’s in the midst of a hit and run jam. Setting right a priggish client who expects miracles instead of a visit from the police, we get the standard reactionary riot act. But then Gilroy gives Clooney an additional moment, a chance to give this jerk a definitive dressing down that underscores his overall dissatisfaction with his job. Like a superhero for screw-ups, Clayton is an overworked wizard, and the procedural aspects of his job would make a stellar suspense flick in their own right. But our screenwriting savant can’t leave well enough alone. He has to pile on the problems – gambling, indebtedness, bad business sense, a drug addled brother, pain in the butt ex, seldom seen son, and a glum, unforgiving family. By the time our lead discovers the cabal plotting against him, we sense its purpose could come from a dozen different interpersonal directions.

Oddly enough, it’s the supporting parts that help keep things in check. Sydney Pollack plays a partner with a combination of tenacity and culpability. He recognizes how crooked his firm is, but also senses that things haven’t reached John Grisham territory – at least not yet. Michael O’Keefe is excellent as the asshole that sees through everyone while compelled to hurl those harmful glass house stones, and Sean Cullen is cool if cranky as Michael’s less than understanding cop sibling. Since they appear only briefly and must make their impact immediately, Gilroy doesn’t goof around. He keeps these ancillary facets tight and direct. It’s in stark contrast to one of the movie’s more disturbing subplots – the fact that Wilkinson’s character appears to be indirectly seducing the teenage sister of one of the plaintiffs.  While it may be nothing more than a case of insanity fueled white knighthood, there is a creepy, near pedophilic vibe to the material that makes us uncomfortable.

Besides, Michael Clayton doesn’t really need to go and push those buttons. It’s already overstocked with far too many possible dramatics. It doesn’t have to expand into faulty fringe elements or disturbing depravity. But Gilroy trips up and gives in to the temptation to expand whenever the magnifying muse calls, and the story starts to unravel about halfway through. All the late night cellphone calls and dirt digging may seem suspenseful, but when placed aside a man who screams about saving innocence, our corporate counsel with hitmen on her speed dial, and a protagonist who will play all sides against each other to complete the mandatory last act comeuppance, it becomes ambiguous. Maybe post-millennial audiences will respond to a movie that appears incapable of maintaining a single, strong focus. They’re probably used to such ADD styled situations from their own personal plight.

Still, Michael Clayton does offer some entertainment heft. It anticipates our expectations and prepares an answer in advance. It sees human foibles as badges of honor, and views the standard business model as an evil means to an always criminal ends. As a main man crush, Clooney could cobble together a series of scenes based on the phone book and viewers would still find him imminently fascinating. It’s to Gilroy’s good fortune that he agreed to hop on board. Without him, this otherwise fractured non-noir would turn tumbleweed and simply blow away. Everything here adds up to a wonderful mainstream achievement. Sadly, there’s very little art or its mastery to be found.

by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2007


As an idea, it wasn’t very original. Filmmakers had been updating Shakespeare since the Bard’s plays first appeared. Even as far back as their first staged productions, directors and theater companies have been meddling with the Masters’ hollowed words and characters. So when Troma employee James Gunn proposed an updating of the playwright’s classic tale of star crossed lovers, it wasn’t something novel. Heck, West Side Story had done it in the ‘50s, and it was and still is considered a classic. As a notion, turning Romeo and Juliet into a punk rock pierced body part projection of the Manhattan Independent Film Company’s aesthetic, seemed quite normal. Besides, director Lloyd Kaufman relished the idea. Long a proponent of cinema as art, he saw the subject as a perfect realization of all his lofty ambitions.

Over the previous 25 years, Troma had developed a myopic reputation as a gross-out gore enterprise. Thanks to Kaufman, its chief spokesman, president, and guiding creative force, the company had grown from the maker of mindless sex farces (The First Turn On, Squeeze Play) and distributor of genre/horror oriented fare (Mother’s Day) to a recognized industry icon. But with 1985’s The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman created a character that instantly connected with everyone, including outsider audiences. Utilizing the still in its infancy home theater marketplace to widen the fanbase, Troma was soon turning out product with provocative names like The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. The formula for each film was strategically similar – find an outrageous situation, pile on the blood and female breasts, and deliver a clever combination of old fashioned exploitation and new fangled VCR fodder.

No one expected the newly minted Tromeo and Juliet to be any different. Though the company had ridden the Avenger‘s coattails (and receipts) through a couple of sequels, and had found financially beneficial homes for a myriad of languishing, unknown films, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had not been the company’s most inventive time. Fans started complaining over recycled content, uninspired approaches, and the lack of any real significant social value. For many, Troma was becoming the Mad Magazine of moviemaking. It was okay to love them as a kid, but once your cinematic adolescence arrived, you’d gladly trade your Toxie treasure for a far more meaningful fright film experience. Besides, VHS was a dying format. Something called DVD was on the horizon. Hoping to hold its marketplace, Gunn’s version of Shakespeare’s seminal story was greenlit.

The result was Independent FILM‘s last hurrah, the final gasp in the pre-digital discussion of celluloid as the saving grace of cinema’s stalwart ideals. The camcorder production had been part of the movie mix since the late ‘80s. There were even individuals like William Wegman who experimented with the medium as far back as the early ‘70s. But film, actual FILM, was still considered the main motion picture pathway. More could be done with lighting and design, and editing was easier than on clumsy, easily creased magnetic tape. But logistics argued for the handheld camera, and its ability to radicalize the realities of a location. No longer were long set ups necessary, complicated even further by technically trained crews. Digital defined the very essence of the practical point and shoot ideal. With a Super VHS in hand, you were your own cinematographer and your own studio.

Inherently, Troma understood this. Porn had replaced film with video, and most of the industry was looking at the viability of the technology. But Kaufman is a kind of convoluted craftsman. Though his films may stink of the frequent fart joke mentality they employ, his philosophy has always centered on the artist, and their art. Raised on the filmic revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he made his mark in movies during the equally tumultuous era of the ‘70s. For him, a VHS would never replace a reel of well-shot film – and he would use Tromeo and Juliet to prove that. Though most of the company’s recent output had been seen as cheap and uninspired, and the Bard viewed as box office poison (this was before Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized rip off, by the way) Gunn’s script was so special that, as long as it was given a proper professional production, something special would result.

As a scribe, James Gunn was untested. Today he is known as the mind behind such blockbuster offerings as Scooby-Doo, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and his own homage to the horror films of the ‘80s, Slither. Yet back then, he was a hungry young film fan desperate to get in on the industry’s ground floor. Tromeo and Juliet would announce his arrival in a truly spectacular way. Setting his story in the crime-ridden streets of a maleficent Manhattan, his warring clans (the Capulets and the Ques) involved in pornography and perversion, Gunn fed directly into the tried and true Troma system. He made sure to add plenty of sex, a few surreal stabs at standard scares (including the first act arrival of a ‘penis monster’) and a healthy dose of boldfaced bloodletting. Yet amongst all the tattoos and East Village eccentricity, scattered among the lesbian scenes and overdone fight sequences, Gunn snuck something into this film that few Troma entries had before – heart.

Indeed, Tromeo and Juliet is a very emotional movie, made even more effective by the work of its incredible cast. In the leads, Will Keenan and Jane Jensen find the perfect balance between satire and seriousness, actually getting us to care about this couple’s future. Even more shocking, Kaufman surrounds the pair with equally adept performers like Debbie Rochon, Sean Gunn, Stephen Blackeheart and Bill Beckwith. Together, they form a company of pseudo Shakespearean proportions, delivering Gunn’s adept dialogue with passion and panache. Even better, the script’s narrative drive finds smart, clever ways of incorporating some of the Bard’s actual lines into the conversations. As a matter of fact, Gunn was so successful in establishing the affection between the lovers that when the original ending was screened (following the classic, the pair commit suicide) test audiences demanded a paramours’ reprieve.

Even more importantly, Tromeo and Juliet argued for the continued viability of film as a means of independent expression. Indeed, the most crucial aspect of outsider cinema is its connection to the hobbled Hollywood hackwork it so desperately battles against. Video, and the current trend toward digital, sets up a clear delineation between itself and celluloid. It purposefully plays on the homemade sense of its construction, supposedly bringing the audience closer to the content. As a result, however, it also distances itself from the medium being mimicked, and this means the message looses a lot of its impact. Film, because of its cinematic synchronicity, argues ideas with images. With it, you don’t have to worry about tape’s obvious disparities. A Troma film and a Tinsel Town title are on equal aesthetic footing.

This is why Tromeo and Juliet represents the Independent film world’s last viable gasp. Sure, Troma continued to use celluloid (Terror Firmer, the soon to be released Poultrygeist) to realize its aims, but there was something far more substantive about what Kaufman created out of Gunn’s inventive ideas than any eventual projects. In combination, they forged a happy medium between the company’s previous perversion and the gravitas of Shakespeare’s subject. While some may scoff at the notion of a company accountable for so many mediocre and misguided movies as the last bastion of good old fashioned art, one viewing of Tromeo and Juliet should appease all concerns. It wasn’t the most original idea ever conceived. The end result, however, is one of Independent film’s brightest moments.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2007


Okay, it’s time to admit it. You’re addicted to dung. You know what we mean. Garbage. Junk. Refuse. The kind of generic popcorn movie fluff that Hollywood passes off as art each and every week of the year. As a matter of fact, you’ve been mainlining the mainstream for so long that you know longer have the arterial constitution to tell good from god awful. At this point in your problem, you’re more or less gone, given over to lackluster gross out comedies, anemic thrillers, overripe melodramas, and the same old “I hate my life” indie angst fests. Even the typical tame horror romp finds a way to get your gooseflesh perky. In fact, if you’re not experiencing the non-acting abominations that are Robin Williams and Jennifer Aniston, you’re not sure it’s actually a movie you’re mooning over.

Well guess what – it’s time for an intervention – TROMA style. As the leading purveyor of pure art in the entirety of modern motion picture making, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his merry band of product purchases have come up with a dozen definitive films that, when experienced, will work better than a trip to rehab and/or a featured video on TMZ combined. It will get you out of the shame cycle, correct your bass ackward crap aesthetic issues, and release you from the grip of baby blood drinking studio suits. Here’s a warning, however. It will not be easy. The sights you see and the stories you experience will not be some cookie cutter committee claptrap marginalized for maximum demographic delight. No, these are real films by real filmmakers, and their clarity may put you off – at first. 

But if you stick with it, give it time, and follow these rigorous rules of celluloid self-examination, you might just find that your compulsion is curable. Heck, you may even discover that you prefer a good dose of unnecessary sadistic bloodletting or undead neck nibbling to the latest Saw installment. Just remember – these are not official Troma helmed productions we’re talking about. The power of those bad boys is too great for the fragile first timer. Instead, these are the company-approved offerings that best illustrate their big picture dynamic. Once you’ve survived these samplings, a date with everyone’s favorite mutant mop boy is just a relapse away.  Let’s begin with:

Step 1: Give Up the Self-Destructive Streak (Suicide, 2001)

Armchair psychiatrists would argue that the main reason people gravitate toward Tinsel Town’s trash is that they have some manner of indirect death wish. Well, if you want to see individuals with a much greater desire to end it all than you will ever have, try this intriguing German mock doc. Using a handheld POV to support a premise where people sign up on the internet to have their title acts filmed, we get one of those “is it or isn’t it real” presentations that will have audiences arguing for days afterward. Even better, it will begin the cleansing and curative process.

Step 2:  Acknowledge the Devil’s Hold on Cinema (Screamplay (1985)

While blame is never healthy (we are trying to take responsibility for ourselves, remember), one must never forget the role the mangoat plays in keeping us hooked on hackwork. An excellent example of this paradigm arrives in the form of this writing as reprobate satire. When a screen scribe’s imagination becomes so vivid that the crimes he imagines become real, no one in the business called show is safe. And the best part is – this is one wickedly witty work, proof that not all scripts are culled by committee scat. Outsider auteur George Kuchar is even part of the cast.

Step 3: Give Up Drugs (Meat Weed Madness 2006)

At this point, you’re well beyond a simple negative pronouncement. In fact, it’s painfully obvious that just saying “No” would do very little except exercise your vocal chords. What you require, instead, is a healthy dose of demented tough love – and this surreal Southern Gothic is just the demented dime bag you require. Here, a group of gals stumble upon the Bullpocky Plantation and its title herb – a plant cultivated from human flesh! One toke and you’re not only over the line, you’re high on your own supply and ready to bogart the soul out of someone.

Step 4: Take a Vow of Chastity (Killer Condom 1996)

It’s a fact – sex will only screw you up. Unfocused fornication and purposeless petting will merely lead to heartache, body issues, and suffering. Don’t believe it – then check out this Teutonic treat about a prophylactic that preys on people. When Detectice Mackaroni discovers a rash of missing “member” cases, he stakes out a seedy motel in hopes of finding some answers. Turns out, there’s a randy rubber on the loose, looking to stop illicit physical contact once and for all.  While Christians can call for abstinence and liberals long for education, this is one solution that’s also ribbed (for her pleasure).

Step 5: Avoid a Life of Crime (Wiseguys vs. Zombies 2003)

Everyone thinks that gangsters are so cool, and with Hollywood glamorizing their murder for hire mythos, it’s hard to tell the felonies for the Sicilian family trees. But one screening of this Cosa Nostra corpse grinding will cure you of even the most lingering Sopranos sympathies. Two hit men, delivering bodies and bottles to a connection in Miami, wind up face to face with bloodthirsty remnants of the undead. And these are the kind of flesh fiends who can’t be bribed with irrefutable offers. It’s enough to make those geared toward goombah’s choke on their cabbagool!

Step 6: Try Alternative Foods (Meat for Satan’s Icebox 2004)

Speaking of inedible vittles, one of the best ways toward self-help and aesthetic purification is the toxin purging properties of a new diet. Sadly, almost every life altering culinary amalgamation has been forwarded by a baneful buck hungry business, from organic to raw. Leave it to this ignominious indie effort to offer stripper sirloin as the latest answer to what’s for dinner. That’s right – Soylent Green is not the only human-based hunger hinderer anymore. With Satan himself working as a homespun homosapien pitchfork man, there’ll be plenty to go around.

 

Step 7: Recognize the Inherent Evil in Youth (The Children 1981)

Of course, everyone knows that kids are craven. They’re about the wickedest little buggers this side of Nazis and roughed collies. So keeping away from the wee ones is always warranted. But what if you find yourself slipping, influenced unfavorably by a cherubic face or a tongue-heavy “thpeech patuwn”? Just remember – hiding behind that cute façade could be a radioactive monster ready to hug you into an early grave. At least, that’s what this beloved low budget fright flick tells us. Leave it to cinema to make progeny even more precarious.

Step 8: Recognize the Inherent Evil of the Stage (Bloodsucking Freaks 1976)

They say that movie is illusion, but that’s only partly true. Theater is much more existence mocking since it uses the inherent connectivity of a live event to foster a fictional, usually melodramatic methodology. So in order to keep such Great White Way wants to a bare minimum, rehabbers might want to check out this gore soaked creepshow classic. Centering on Sardu and his supposedly “fake” torture show, there’s enough amateur brain surgery, little person perversion, and garroted gals to swear you off the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd forever.

Step 9: Reconcile that Life is Chaotic and Episodic (Dumpster Baby 2000)

Here’s another truism: existence if futile - or if not fruitless, at the very least fractured. Seemingly random events can add up to one Helluva karmic cock-up and you may never ever recognize said fact. Indeed, what you require is a celluloid guide, a movie that makes the seemingly senselessness line up and have meaning. This tale of a rejected infant and the Prague like predicament of the effect it has on everyone around it will surely solidify your grip on human happenstance. After all, if a dada-esque excursion into the obscure can come out legible, your world can too.

Step 10: Never Forget that War is Hell (Combat Shock 1986)

Combat produces a two-fold trial for the average vet. First, there is the atrocity of battle, the spilling of blood, the loss of individual life. Then there is the aftermath – the broken government promises, the unattended internal scaring, the lack of sympathy and support from the ungrateful society around you. It’s a situation all too familiar to Frankie Dunlan in this intense urban nightmare. Destitute and desperate, with a family to feed and no prospects in sight, our hero simply sinks into a cesspool of his own bad luck. Proof that all pointless police actions are deadly in many different ways.

 

Step 11: Understand that there are People Much Worse Off than You (Luther the Geek 1990)

Remember when you mother convinced you to eat your greens by telling you that people in far off, invisible lands had it so much tougher than you. Well, your guardian could have looked closer to home for more powerful illustrations of elder acquiescence. As a young boy, our title character saw a group of men taunting a real life sideshow oddity. Years later, this newly crowned psycho killer somehow manages to gain parole. He decides to do a little freak showcasing on anyone who’s available. So the next time you sing your sob story, this caustic cautionary tale will hopefully dull the despair.

Step 12: When in Doubt, Blame Cannibalistic Extraterrestrials (Flesh Eaters from Outer Space  1998)

Of course, after all these substantive steps, after reflection and tons of therapeutic screams, you may still feel a little flummoxed. Have no fear – ET is here. That’s right, if you can’t gain control of your habit, if you still hanker for a hunk of blockbuster cheese, if you can’t help but wonder what Michael Bay is up to next, then explain away your malady as the byproduct of an abduction. And what better example of outer space madness can one choose than this Warren F. Disbrow classic. Revolving around a bloodthirsty crater critter who piggybacks onto a returning US astronaut, it’s the perfect personal pass. It’s also the only way Troma can treat the torment.

by Bill Gibron

8 Oct 2007


They’re noted for their insanity onscreen – blood and body parts flying across the frame with reckless abandon, while gyno-Americans explore each others’ naughty, naked nether regions. As toilet humor cascades across the speakers and monsters make mayhem among a cast of literal unknowns, subtext and closeted intelligence fill in the often glaring gaps. It’s like anarchy whittled down into art, the language of film spoken outloud by idiot savants and translated by terrorists. Let’s face it – it wouldn’t be a Troma movie without some spatter, some slaughter, and some satire. It’s been the independent film company’s modus operandi since a mild mannered mop boy named Melvin transformed into the Toxic Avenger.

So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that there’s an equal amount of chaos going on behind the scenes. What might shock you is how eager Troma is to share these motion picture meltdowns with its loyal fanbase – and the rest of the world. Long before DVD became known for its context including benefice, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his various apprentice associates where using their productions as a proving ground. It wasn’t a matter of survival of the fittest. In many ways, they were reverse Darwinists – survival of the sickest. Indeed, it takes someone with a strong creative constitution and nerves frayed to the point of numbness to make it through one of these Bataan Death March experiences.

Want proof? Well, then look no further than the four documentaries created by the company to support the films Terror Firmer (Farts of Darkness), Citizen Toxie (Apocalypse Soon), Tales from the Crapper (When Reshoots Go Wrong), and their annual trek to France’s famed film festival (All The Love You Cannes). Differing in both tone and dimension from your standard digital EPKs, we are tossed directly into the maelstrom that is Troma movie making, from Kaufman’s occasional demagoguery to the blatant incompetence of his cast and crew. Collected all together on the definitive DVD box set, Make Your Own Damn Movie, we witness how logistics, personalities, and blatant incompetence conspire to undermine the best laid plans of indie horror mavens.

Farts of Darkness sets up the standard Troma paradox – big budget outsider idealism helmed by untested cast and crew. With Kaufman as ringleader, we get a surreal circus of party hearty goof offs, well intentioned egotists, and legitimate technical talent. In the beginning, the goal is always the same. As a matter of fact, we learn the Troma creed as part of this delicious documentary. Like the Ten Commandments for the tattooed and pierced, the mandates revolve around making a good movie, hurting no one, and being fair to everyone involved. Naturally, such tenets are almost instantly ignored as participants learn of the lack of craft services, the ungodly hours, and the occasional need to defecate in a plastic bag.

Terror Firmer, a fictionalized take-off based on the book version of Make Your Own Damn Movie (by Kaufman, Trent Haaga, and Adam Jahnke) revolved around a film crew making an epic in Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, a psycho killer is stalking the set. Believe it or not, this is the least of the film’s potential problems. After all, it’s being directed by a blind man (Kaufman essays the role of sightless auteur Larry Benjamin), and a seedy love triangle between production assistant Jennifer and her diametrically opposed paramours threatens to undermine everything. Naturally, when the murderer makes his presence known, everyone bands together to defend their territory and finish the film. Extreme arterial spray and flatulence ensues.

The madness of independent moviemaking in all its cinema vérité glory is the best way to describe Farts. It’s a backstage melodrama overloaded with logistical nightmares, inconsistent planning, and body wasting work. While it’s commendable that Kaufman wants to collaborate with so many untested young people, it’s clear that, in many cases, responsibility is not a skill earned in film school. Many of these overzealous wannabes are only involved to get high, grab ass, and add a Troma title to their otherwise weak resume. Even the people who’ve been with Kaufman over the long haul tend to let him down once the pressure is on. Unlike the standard Hollywood Making-of which offers up nothing but bragging and “aren’t we great” accolades, Farts of Darkness shows the warts and all reality of trying to make a movie. It should be mandatory viewing for every basement dwelling geek who argues that they could create something more substantial than Kaufman and clan. Such a statement can only come from a lack of perspective – and actual participation.

Things only get worse in Apocalypse Soon. After 11 years without another installment, Kaufman decided to relaunch the Toxic Avenger franchise with a new effort – Citizen Toxie. Rumor had it that the film was also a financial necessity – the company was facing tough economic issues, and hoped that going back to the iconic classic character would right the solvency ship. The storyline was like an amalgamation of everything Troma stood for. Our lovable nuclear mutant must defend a school for special kids from the notorious Diaper Mafia. After an explosion creates a dimensional tear in the fabric of the cosmos, our hero finds himself flung into the parallel universe of Amortville. In the meantime, his evil twin from another realm – the Noxious Offender takes over Tromaville. It’s up to Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD to gather together a team of superheroes to save the day, as well as everyone’s favorite irradiated champion.

Clearly a case of ambition overriding ability, Citizen Toxie would end up being a noble failure, at least commercially and critically. For fans, the film stands as a wonderful overview of the entire Troma mythology – especially when the loony league of justice including Mad Cow Boy, Dolphin Man, Mastor Bator, and The Vibrator all show up. Yet from the very beginning of Apocalypse Now, we can see that personalities and other individual issues constantly unite to undo Kaufman’s goals. First and foremost, the actor hired to play Toxie goes from ‘lucky to have a job’ to problematic prima donna in the span of a couple of hours. Worse, the crew is incapable of taking matters seriously. Abusing Troma’s “learn by example” ideal of education, we come to understand a lot about young cinema wannabes. Most are slovenly slackers who get pissy for no valid reason. Many feel that, at a certain point, hard work is no longer their forte. And a few will mutiny over the dumbest, most ridiculous ideas (like the rumor of lead paint at a location).

Pulling it all together becomes a task of Herculean proportions, and the stress takes its toll on Kaufman. In these days when every famous face wants to be loved (or at least respected) and studios cringe at any kind of negative publicity, Troma wears these filmmaking fiascos on their sloppy, scattered sleeves. It’s almost as if, having survived such a taxing ordeal, and watching the results get little or no respect, Kaufman carts out his dirty laundry and shouts “See? See what we put ourselves through for you fans? Huh? HUH???” While not quite so demonstrative, the message remains crystal clear – art like this doesn’t come fully formed out of the ether, stitched together by cherubs and given a glossy patina by enchanted leprechauns. Instead, Kaufman is like a potter throwing film out of feces. And his hands are almost never clean.

Of course, he’s the first one everyone comes crawling to when things go painfully awry. Case in point – Tales from the Crapper. Taking advantage of the digital explosion, Troma hired a producer named India Allen to oversee the creation of two separate direct to DV-R films featuring manufactured sex kitten Julie Strain. Working in LA, Kaufman was unaware of any problems initially. The two movies – one about a shape-shifting, bloodthirsty alien man-eater and the other centering on vampire strippers – were completed, and sent to the company for approval. When Troma finally saw what they had (and what they had paid for) they went ballistic. Basic moviemaking concepts like characterization, storytelling, and continuity were thrown on the window. In their place was scene after scene of unsalvageable material, most of it shot in a manner that rendered everything almost unwatchable.

How Kaufman and company saved this artistic abortion forms the basis for When Reshoots Go Wrong, a lesser if still effective behind the scenes exposé. Looking tired and dejected, the director offers a first person tour of the carnage, presenting Troma’s side of the story and taking Ms. Allen to task at every opportunity. For those who’ve seen the finished DVD product, it’s not hard to envision what Kaufman is complaining about.  During the documentary, Lloyd frequently holds the camera on himself. He’s not the same chipper chappy we’re used to. Instead, he’s all too serious. He talks about how hard it was to work with the material and how unhappy he was with some of the post-production circumstances. We then get to see more interns acting atrociously. Experiencing the usually giddy Troma chief in grim businessman mode is amazing. Gone is the jovial jokester. In its place is a man struggling to stay sane.

Of course, many could argue that much of this is Kaufman’s own fault. If he didn’t run such a loosey goosey ship, if he didn’t rely on unproven volunteers to do what professionals take decades to perfect, if he simply sat down and connected with his crews instead of disappearing to locations around the globe to cameo in other people’s productions (under the guise of supporting independent art), he might not have so many mishaps. But even when he takes precaution and prepares diligently for his annual trip to Cannes (for the film expo element of the festival), a few inebriated bad apples will spoil the company’s already marginalized name. It’s something we witness firsthand in All The Love You Cannes.

Starting off like an instructional video, this full length feature finds Lloyd narrating, giving us a basic idea about how things work at the famed French institution. He highlights the way movies are packaged and sold, and the necessity of generating any and as much publicity as possible. Without hype, international buyers won’t stop by your booth (or in this case, your hotel room) and you leave without making significant syndication and foreign distribution deals. These are the lifeblood of little companies like Troma. It literally could mean the continued existence, or the end, of a struggling outsider organization. Of course, said pronouncements slowly backfire on the company as – thanks to their unruly interns – they get in Dutch with their hotel, with public relations people, and the local French citizenry.

Part ugly American dissertation, part lesson in doing a better job of picking your assistants and associates, this is the lesser of the four major Behind the Scenes features discussed, if only because the individuals mucking things up for Troma are so reprehensible. Watching drunken dullards take advantage of their boss to publicly embarrass themselves and said employer has never been so shocking. Maybe it’s the clueless posing of everyone involved – a little power taken to inhuman extremes. It could be the massive quantities of alcohol consumed. It might be the notion that kids who basically know nothing about the business end of cinema are destined to act like dorks. Whatever the case, All The Love You Cannes is educational on many levels. The pitch and shill of the international film trade is intriguing. How quickly your reputation can be ruined by dozens of directionless mooks is just irritating.

Apparently, that’s the point. What other company besides Troma would tear down the façade and let the viewing public see their shameful, disorganized reality? Though he’s typically outnumbered by the crudeness of his crew, Kaufman himself comes across as a surly, sometimes insensitive jerk who appears hindered by all that’s happening around him. Even worse, those looking for an excuse to diminish the company’s output as of late can look at the onset anarchy of Citizen Toxie or Tales from the Crapper and have their case proven, pointblank. But there is still something so rebellious, so anti-Hollywood-in-your-face about the way Troma does things that such a scattershot approach borders on the endearing. Mavericks are supposed to make a mess. They’re supposed to stumble and break stuff. They’re revolutionaries. By their very nature, they buck tradition.

And no one bucks up more than Lloyd Kaufman and his crews. Whether it’s the guerilla filmmaking follies of Terror Firmer, the actor inspired angst of Citizen Toxie, the overall ineptness of Tales from the Crapper, or the lack of suitable corporate etiquette while visiting Cannes, Troma has taken to playing the clown both in front of and behind the camera. For a glimpse at what such a Hellsapoppin’ plan might achieve, go out and buy a copy of the Make Your Own Damn Movie boxset – or better yet, collect copies of the four films mentioned here. Not only will the company be happy for the cash, but you’ll be rewarded with the truth about independent filmmaking. As usual, the facts are never pretty. 

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