Thursday, March 3, 2011

Defending the Indefensible Contest Winners

Here are the winners of our Defending the Indefensible contest! Thanks to all who participated!

GRAND PRIZE WINNER

Malice – Defended by Joshua Errett

Dr. Jed Hill is a disgrace by every standard of the medical profession but his own.

He is guilty of drinking before performing emergency surgery. He admits to then erroneously removing a healthy ovary from a pregnant woman, resulting in a tragic abortion and a mother who never has a chance of conceiving again. But when asked at deposition about his wrongdoing, Dr. Hill, played by Alec Baldwin, gives a triumph of a defense. “You ask me if I have a God complex? Let me tell you something. I am God.”

And in this exhilarating one minute and thirty three
second soliloquy
, there is no better defense of the 1993 masterpiece of filmmaking, Aaron Sorkin’s Malice.

This is a movie Roger Ebert unfavourably wrote is “a film jam-packed with characters and incidents and blind alleys and red herrings”; a movie even Peter Travers derided, accusing it of over-the-top acting to hide “gaping plot holes.” It has a dismal 56 per cent rating among critics on RottenTomatoes.com, and 42 per cent among audiences.

What some call red-herrings, I call smokescreens on the already rich layers of mystery. What others think is over-acting, I call some of the greatest performances of the early 90s. I want to be careful not to give away anything for those who haven’t had a chance to see the film, but I must mention the shining light that is the script.

To give a hint of some of the complexity we’re talking about, there are some parts of this maze of a movie that still fascinate and even perplex me. Sure, on first viewing, a brutal rape and murder seems to serve as a mere plot device. But what power it has in conveying the deep narcissism in Nancy and Jed!

How can something like that be topped? How about self-mutilation in the name of one’s own glory? Of course it should be said, Baldwin’s drunk with menace in this thing – a swagger he wouldn't recapture for years. Nicole Kidman is absolutely thrilling also, which is rare in her underwhelming career.

But all these are just flavours that swirl around Sorkin’s writing. It is genius in that, it is not only about Jed, Tracy, Andy, Nurse Tanya and Paula Bell (played by a young Gwyneth Paltrow), it is about the strength of film and those who make them.

It all becomes apparent in Dr. Hill’s aforementioned I Am God speech. He is not talking about his drunken surgery on Tracy, or the medical profession. He is talking about Sorkin, or, rather, Sorkin is writing about himself.

In this setting, in the movies, the scriptwriter truly is God. We pray to him to give justice to Andy, to punish Jed and Tracy, to return the small Boston suburb to a time of peace. And he is unrepentant in his choices. Sorkin is the higher being.

In the end, Sorkin puts on a fantastic show. But for whom? The boy who supposedly saw the crime is blind. The audience, too, can’t see where this winding story will end.

Like Kidman’s Tracy, you react as if it were a standard murder mystery. When Malice turns out to be anything but, of course you are going to be angry. Of course you are going to be critical.

In this metaphor, Sorkin’s script is truly diabolical. There may be problems with film (continuity, for one), but Sorkin is asking outright: Who are you to judge? You read the reviews, you see the films, and with any luck you enjoy the movie.

But if you’re looking for God, he was writing the script for Malice in the early 90s, and he doesn’t like to be second-guessed.

FIRST RUNNER-UP

Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror by Aaron Allen


Let me be perfectly clear. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (aka Le Notti del terrore) is not a good movie, not even in the barrel-bottoming zombie genre from which it hails. Then how can I defend it? Well, I'm reminded of the immortal words of George Bluth from the short-lived show Arrested Development. On that program, Bluth warns us, "Never give crazy a baby." Usually, that's good advice. You never ever give crazy a baby. But sometimes when you give the right kind of crazy a baby (an Italian, low-budget, exploitation kind of crazy), and that baby just happens to played by a 26-year-old little person, well, sometimes crazy magic happens. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is a magical film so absurd and so twisted in execution and premise that it deserves the cinematic equivalent of diplomatic immunity.

Burial Ground begins as an archaeologist / professor with a ZZ Top beard uncovers some vague and unexplained secret Etruscan funeral rights when digging at the ruins on a socialite's neglected property. As a result, for an equally unexplained reason, slow-moving zombies with faces like mummified oatmeal rise up out of their tombs and attack a group of fornicating couples staying at the on-site villa . Ho-hum, right? Sure, but here's the clincher: a significant subplot to the film concerns Michael, one couple's 10 year-old son, and his incestuous lust for his own mother. Oh, not satisfied, yet? You've seen a lot of weird stuff before, I take it? Then try this on for size: Michael is played by a 26-year-old little person in a bad wig.

As the couples at the villa are slowly slaughtered by the zombies, the zombie "story" dovetails nicely into a sublimely weird incest subplot. During a break in the violence, Michael seeks comfort in his mother's breasts -- by squeezing them and begging to be with her. When rebuked by his mother, Michael seems to have no concept of personal boundaries: "What's wrong? I'm your son!" Now remember, this is a 26-year-old little person playing a 10 year old kid groping an actor playing his mother. And things get weirder. Poor Michael has an unfortunate run-in with a zombie who is a little too bitey at the end of the movie. Michael is made into zombie lunch, but like many zombie leftovers, he soon rises from the grave to partake in the buffet as one of the undead. Zombie Michael is also drawn to his mother who, in her distraught hysterics, pulls Michael to her chest. At the film's climax, we see that Michael's incestuous yearnings have carried over into his undeath: Michael clamps down, pulls back, and takes away a big chunk of his momma's breast between his teeth..

You just don't see that in movies. At this moment, it should be clear that Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror has completely lost its mind. Bonkers! Now I ask you, can you criticize an inmate in an insane asylum for eating his own hair? Can you blame a mentally ill woman for believing she's Napoleon riding on a unicorn? These people are no more responsible for their actions than Burial Ground. They are beyond criticism.

I could go on to argue that, in the context of zombie films, the zombies in Burial Ground are interesting and unique. Although slow and shambolic like Romero zombies, and equally prone to death by head trauma, they are unique in their use of tools and teamwork to accomplish their goals, climb walls, climb pillars, and impersonate Italian monks. They're precocious little scamps, but who am I kidding? That's not enough to defend the movie.

No, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is one hell of a bizarre movie that, despite its failings, offers one of the weirdest and marvelously unhinged subplots I've ever seen. Of all the gut-wrenchingly bad Italian zombie films I've seen, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is a diamond in the very-very-rough for its insane incest subplot.

After all, we just saw a 26-year-old Italian little person playing an incestuous zombie boy eating a woman's breast. For Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror, I rest my case and plead insanity in its defense.

(portions of this defense originally appeared in my Zed Word: Zombie Blog review of Burial Ground).

SECOND RUNNER UP

Ghost Rider by Mike Cameron


Director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) and star Nicolas Cage's big-screen version of Ghost Rider, the tale of not-beloved Marvel kind-of-hero Johnny Blaze's transformation from regular dude stunt rider into Skull-headed fire-hair having biker from Stupid Hell is one of the best comic-book movie adaptations of all time, because it is the only adaptation that acknowledges the central truth of the comic medium: comic books are stupid trash for picked-on children.

It is moronic: the main character is an Evel Knievel/Brando type whose face is on fire a lot of the time and he fights demons by staring at them and making them feel bad about themselves. It is also somehow about cowboys and there is a cowboy ghost (??). Cage's performance is laughter-inducing - a critical assertion that was somehow used as a slight. Characters lurk in carnival shadows like biker Nosferatus and the film features an excremental cover of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" - get it, the same words is in the song as the movie name - by a band called "Spiderbait". Peter Fonda is in it and he's arch and terrible, and his head is - physically and seemingly metaphorically - bigger than ever. As a serious-minded, crafted piece of work it is an utter failure, a fact that doesn't actually matter, because it is incredibly entertaining.

It eschews the ideas that other higher profile and much worse comic book movies try and gin up from their decades of cheap as shit terrible back issues - Spiderman's water-headed pillow aphorism re: power and responsibility or Batman Begins' assertion that if you spend enough money and hire a talented enough cinematographer you can make Bruce Wayne's growly psychosis seem reasonable - and instead relies on the idea that "stuff on fire is cool". Which is OK. Because you know what? Stuff on fire is cool. It is cool as shit. This movie has a motorcycle where the wheels are always on fire because its a Demon Cycle. Yeah. Suck it.

I read all those comics. I read Spiderman and Batman and X-Men when I was a kid, and enjoyed the hell out of them, because they were garbage and I was a child with a stupid soft brain. I didn't read Spiderman because Peter Parker had a grand hero's struggle - with himself and power and strong and hero and helping and brave - I read it because he kicked the shit out of robots in a tunnel on an alien planet and had a hot as hell girlfriend. Do you want to know how stupid those comics were? In an issue of Luke Cage, Luke Cage fights a bad guy called "The Mace", who is secretly Colonel Gideon Mace, and whose weapon is a big spiky metal mace that has a nozzle that shoots mace out of it. Look it up. Issue #3. Some people want to watch the world burn - some people, including Gideon "the Mace" Mace, want to smash it with a mace and then spray mace on it.

Comic book movies have in a couple of decades gone from anathema straight to tent-pole triple-A rated money-making huge-budget summer blockbusters with Serious Moral Aspirations of Seriousness and Real Directors and Actors. Ghost Rider, sitting in that uncomfortable middle, is dismissed as childish and disposable. Which it is, which is great, because that's literally what comics are and were. Old comics aren't worth money because they only printed ten copies. They're valuable because they printed a million, and 999,990 people read it, laughed at the dude with the fire-face shooting chains at a bad guy, and then threw the god damn thing in the garbage. Ghost Rider is the comic book movie for me. I want cheap, disposable entertainment. It's honest. It's not pretending to be important, or profound or serious. It doesn't try to appeal to adults by having a lot of British people in it. It's humble and stupid, and it helps me remember that I'm stupid, too, and that it's perfectly OK to be entertained by things on fire and crap.

THIRD RUNNER UP

The Village by Corey Pierce

I think this may be M. Night Shyamalan's best film, and I gave it yet another watch recently after arguing about Dogtooth with friends. I think The Village plays so much better when you already know the supposed twist and you don't walk in with what was once a high expectation from M. Night to blow your mind with the switcheroo. Also I feel the film messed itself over by advertising itself much more on the horror/thriller aspects.

First off the film is beautifully shot, rich in color, amazing blocking of the actors, shot after shot is fantastic. James Newton Howard's score is beautiful and brooding. The casting and performances are universally solid to astounding, and each of them properly sell the concept with the little details - looks of concern, knowingness amongst each other, etc. Finally, compared to the lauded Dogtooth I found the motivations and inner logic of this community to be far more convincing and plausible to maintain, which is further evidenced by rewatches. The use of the "red color" as a control mechanism makes so much more sense as a means to prohibit violence then the language aspect of Dogtooth, and Adrien Brody's x-factor chaotic character is a better wrench in the system then the outside forces of Dogtooth. Finally, the elements that DO seem silly to others, such as the accents, are so fully committed to that it gives me an extra element of interest as to why they are there, and I personally think it's sort of like how Madonna suddenly sounds British - both a commitment to their roles and prolonged exposure to each other committing to that role just wills it into existence among their own children. Nature vs. nurture, etc.

Also Jesse Eisenberg is in the film for 10 hilariously "holy shit its Jesse!" seconds an hour and forty minutes in.

FOURTH RUNNER UP

Dune by Casey Jones

Okay, as a book, Dune is incredibly dense and filled with inner dialogue, background detail, and generally everything that would make it a terrible candidate for being translated to the big screen. That being said, David Lynch's Dune was of course a huge disaster, despite his better efforts at adapting the spirit of the story. Any movie that hands out cheat sheets to viewers of terms used in the film's many dialects is instantly a step out of the realm of "accessible". (Okay, a giant leap.)

And of course, I love the film. (David Lynch's version. Not that lame unfinished Alan Smithee crap.)

Every single person I've ever shown the movie to for the first time has hated it. It's slow, confusing, has terrible acting, incredibly cheesy dialogue, and has a little too much Sting in a speedo than one film should naturally have. I even hated it the first time I saw it.

For whatever reason, I watched it again, giving it a second chance, and ended up loving it. The film is so incredibly quotable, so cheesy sci-fi, such a colossal train-wreck that you can't help but love it. The budget and scope of the production was so huge that you simply HAVE to respect the trouble the crew went through to make this abortion of a sci-fi marvel. Every time I see this movie, I can't help but marvel at how much effort went into this film that was doomed before it even got off the ground. The sets are so outrageously detailed, the costumes so thoroughly thought-out, (not like those awful cowboy hats the Bene Gesserit wear in the recent Dune mini-series,) the script so quotable, and the movie so AMBITIOUS as a whole, that I just can't help but love it.

FIFTH RUNNER UP

Freddy Got Fingered by Addison Wylie

I have a few guilty pleasures that people and I don't see eye to eye with. The grand champion of this grouping being Tom Green's Freddy Got Fingered.

When it was first released, movie goers were focused directly on the gross out scenes. The horse masturbation, swinging a newborn baby by it's umbilical cord, dancing around with a gutted dear carcass. It's hard to pass off these scenes as nothing. Even as a fan of the film, it's hard to persuade someone into thinking these sequences are more layered. However, if most movie goers would look closer, they would see that Green and fellow collaborator Derek Harvey have made a biting satire and a middle finger towards the movie industry.

In an Andy Kaufman or Banksy manner, Green and Harvey wrote a script that faithfully follows their way to fame. Green's Gord wants to become an animator and after displaying his father getting upset at him, an executive takes notice and immediately greenlights Gord's production. This is very similar to Green's career in the 90's. After a long string of episodes on a local Rogers Cable station, MTV took notice to Green, probably after seeing clips that involve Green waking his parents up early in the morning to watch Bon Jovi in concert and other early morning mishaps, and instantly struck while the iron was hot.

Gord's show "Zebras in America" is a reflection of the release of "Freddy Got Fingered". Execs gave Gord a bunch of money to do whatever he wanted, even if that means showing graphic animated images. Outside the film, 20th Century Fox execs knew that Tom's name was on the marquee and decided to let him roam free, thus, letting Green do off-putting things with animals and not saying or doing anything to reel him in.

Freddy Got Fingered is proof that Green and Harvey knew exactly how the executives and studios looked at them and Green's feature film directorial debut is a punk rock middle finger to those cigar smoking bigwigs.

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