Wednesday, September 18, 2013

MRQ XIII: Guilty Pleasures Edition

It's been ages since the last one, but Movie Review Quickies are back! This time out, my 7 selection span a set of guilty pleasure films. We're looking at Brain Donors, The Man in the Iron Mask, Tango & Cash, Mallrats, The Kingdom, Disorganized Crime, and The Evil Dead.

Brain Donors

Brain Donors is a slapstick, mile-a-minute comedy that makes you believe that John Turturro could've been the next Jim Carrey. John plays a shifty, money-grubbing attorney who brings his pals, played by Mel Smith and Bob Nelson, into his latest scheme: to bilk as much money as possible out of a wealthy woman who wants to start a ballet company in honor of her recently-departed spouse.

This picture is ultra-light on plot, but it keeps the laughs coming hard and fast. Nelson and Smith provide excellent support, and it's entertaining to watch Turturro in pure manic overdrive. Some people really split on this picture, which was critically-panned, but people who enjoyed it still remember this 1992 pic and sing its praises.

The Man in the Iron Mask

In 1998, $35 million dollars went into an update of Alexandre Dumas' famous story of a king whose twin has spent years locked up behind a metal mask. A cast of highly-respected international actors - Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gérard Depardieu, and Gabriel Byrne - were assembled to play the retired Three Musketeers, with Leo DiCaprio in the titular (and thus dual) roles. The scenery was lovely, as were the costume designs. And yet this movie is horrible.

The flaws? Just little things like writing and acting. The Three (Four) Musketeers are featured throughout, but none of them pronounce the name "D'Artagnan" in remotely the same way. This fact is extra-risible since three parts of the quartet are from Europe, and Malkovich was living in France for a very long time.

Leo's evil King chews up scenery like it's his last meal. Malkovich delivers a wooden and creepy monologue about standing over your infant son's crib and "smelling his sweet breath." Irons' acting choices feel very, very off. And throughout, we are tortured by a steady array of awful lines, especially from Gerard's Porthos, who advises the newly-free twin that as King, he can "fart whenever you like!"

This movie is the reason that the Awful tag was added to the post. So why is it a guilty pleasure? Because it's so bad that it comes out the other side and becomes a good watch. Yes, I own the DVD ironically, as I lie to occasionally watch and ridicule this utter misfire. "Oh glorious valor," indeed!

Tango & Cash

Ray Tango (Sly Stallone) and Gabe Cash (Kurt Russell) are the two top cops in LA. They don't work in the same station, but each has been positively crippling the criminal operations of the hilariously-named Yves Perret (Jack Palance), a man with unlimited resources and a compound that's at least as big as one football stadium. Perret decides it's time to take Tango & Cash down.

The movie immediately establishes the effectiveness of both police officers. Ray stops a fuel truck, and shoots it to prove it's full of drugs! During this openint scene, a cop mentions Rambo, to which Ray replies, "Rambo's a p--sy." Gabe is shot, but saved by his bullet proof vest, and yet still manages to stop the guy who was after him. The movie quickly thrusts the two together by having them both show up at a sting that proves to be a total setup. The men are tried, convicted, and sent to the same prison.

The rest follows the unlikely duo - Cash is a regular joe, while Tango is an erudite guy who makes a killing on the stock market - as they try to sort things out. They run into various people who seem straight out of a comic book, chief among them is Perret's muscle, Requin (seriously, what's up with the names), who Brion James (he failed the test at the start of Blade Runner) plays with a heavy cockney accent. But there's also Teri Hatcher as Ray's stripper sister, and Michael J. Pollard who is basically Q but for the cops, not for Her Majesty.

Tango & Cash holds a place in my heart because it is so ridiculous and over-the-top, and because it has a lot of intentional humor that works. Still, the overall film is so flawed, that you simply must laugh at it at least as often as you laugh with it. And unlike irredeemably-bad pictures, it's actually fun.


Kevin Smith's second film was panned by critics, but I enjoyed it a lot. I think the biggest factor is that I got 8 free passes to see it, and took along 7 friends who were howling along with me at all the jokes.

Jason Lee is Brody, a video-game and comics-obsessed slacker who's a total ass to hs girlfriend, Rene, who's played by Shannon Doherty. Meanwhile, Brody's best friend, T.S. (Jeremy London) is ready for a road trip with Brandi (Claire Forlani), and he has a minor tantrum when her father (Michael Rooker) asks her to cancel and appear on the pilot for his new dating show. Now that both guys are single, they decide to meet up and do - well, not much of anything aside from hanging out at the nearby mall.

In terms of comic misadventures, there's a lot to like here. Rooker's first scene is an homage to the naked thai chi scene from Die Hard 2. The protagonist from Clerks, Brian O'Halloran, has a great cameo who bears a slightly-different name from his original role. Jay & Silent Bob reappear, and all their scenes are hysterical.

This isn't a very strong movie, but it is quite funny. I would say that Mallrats' biggest flaw, for me, is that somehow a Jersey boy like Smith made a movie where the mall itself didn't feel like a character; I will never understand how he managed to do that.

The Kingdom

Lars Von Trier first came to my attention for this horror miniseries that aired on Danish TV over 8 episodes, which were then spliced into a 5-hour film. The title is derived from the name of a massive hospital complex where we follow the lives of the staff as they confront various problems that alternately stem from human misbehavior or supernatural events. This whole thing is crazy, but fun.

Von Trier's great visual sensibilities are present throughout, and effectively-employed as their are several body-horror sequences that will genuinely scare people. The twisty and diverse plotting is also a plus, at least until the weaker second half of the work. When I first saw it, I was as impressed by the novelty of the setting and premise, as well as how naturalistic the acting is. Though you'll only recognize Germany's incomparable Udo Kier, you will learn to like these characters as they get into all sorts of messes.

One doctor dries out medicinal liquids in order to sell the cocaine inside them for new equipment. Another MD has the chance to study a very rare form of cancer, and transplants the tumor into his own body so he can continue working. In one of the most horrific vignettes, a neurosurgeon discovers that a ghost knocked her up, and the results are just gruesome.

This 1994 series hasn't aged badly, and it's good at establishing a creepy atmosphere and compelling characters. The early going also has something of a Twin Peaks-type vibe. I'll repeat my warning about the weaker second half, but at least this time out, Von Trier didn't direct something about torturing women.

Disorganized Crime

If you watch this 1989 comedy/crime film, you'll find its great strength is its ensemble cast: Fred Gwynne, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rubén Blades, William Russ, Corbin Bernsen, Ed O'Neill, Daniel Roebuck and Hoyt Axton. None of these guys are bigtime stars - Gwynne and Axton (for his music career if nothing else) were probably the biggest names here. But they're all fine professionals, and they do solid work here.

Corbin Bernsen is Frank Salazar, a bank robber who's hiding out in Montana. When he realizes he could profit greatly by ripping off the local bank, he calls upon old accomplices to join him. And so Gwynne, Blades, Phillips, and Russ meet at Salazar's house, and realize the place is empty.

What they don't know is that the police officers played by O'Neill and Roebuck have already busted Salazar... Only to lose him on route, and end up chasing him throughout the Montana wilderness. So here we have a slew of mostly misfit crooks - Gwynne's part has a heart problem, Russ is an addict - with no idea of what crime they're supposed to take part in.

The film follows the remaining crooks as they try to figure out why they're there, as well as the two cops who try to catch Frank again. To call this movie a guilty pleasure suggests something about its quality, but that's not the case here. It's a perfectly fine movie with great performances and many terribly funny jokes. But I always have this crooked smile on my face when I remember how hard it made me laugh, or when I debate rewatching it - that feeling alone is what qualifies it for this entry.

The Evil Dead

The movie that brought Sam Raimi his much-deserved renown is a bit misunderstood. Because Evil Dead 2 has so much slapstick comedy, modern viewers tend to see more humor in the first ED than it actually possessed. Make no mistake, Raimi's directorial debut was a pure horror film.

The story: 5 Michigan State students go on a weekend trip to a remote cabin in Tennessee. Soon after they arrive, they discover a horrific-looking book. Being young and stupid, they decide to play a tape of a man reciting passages from the tome. They can't understand a word of it, but they listen anyway, and this spells their doom.

The Evil Dead qualifies as a guilty pleasure I've seen a lot of horror films that pile on the plot, but can't generate any real scares. Here, what's truly terrifying is that the attackers are almost as mindless as they are malevolent. They are vicious and undead; they hate the living and will try to kill and/or drive them insane just because those people are there.

As much as ED's infamous "tree-rape" scene has gained notoriety, that moment means that the threats are complete and omnipresent. One moment, your friend might be possessed and stab you with a pencil. You bury their body, they might come back. Run outside, and a tree may attack you like some gigantic, wooden squid. Or blood could seeps out of the cabin's walls. Or maybe some unseen force will just charge right at you. You're never safe, and these monsters need no motive to kill.


  1. Rene was Shannon Doherty, not Shannon Elizabeth. Shannon Elizabeth (from American Pie) was in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back six years later. Mallrats is a weird one, since it's not a good movie, and it particularly lost the strong sense of place that Smith has in his best films. That mall seemed a lot more like it was located in Southern California than southern New Jersey. Still, I laughed a lot.

    My favorite thing in Tango and Cash was that Perret has a giant rat maze, along with two rats nicknamed for the protagonists, that he keeps around his office to use as a visual aid when he's monologuing. After Tango & Cash Stallone's career went into its first big slump: his next three films were Rocky IV and then the "comedies" Oscar and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. Oscar may be the worst comedy I actually paid to see.

    1. Wow, I didn't even notice that typo! I'll get right on it and, yes, I must've mixed J&SBSB for M... Yes, much laughter abounds despite the missed opportunity for giving the mall more character...

      Oh, yes, those caged animals were a highlight - especially the way Perret keeps lovingly holding them while saying the words, "Mr. TAN-go,... and Mr. Cash."

      Yeah, Stallone and Arnie both had their big career dips around the same time. Bruce Willis had several ups and downs over this same period, although he did more (quality) non-action work.

      Oh, you had to go and remind me of Oscar!... Poor Marisa Tomei...

  2. I have a true story about seeing The Man in the Iron Mask-I took my younger sister to this movie(and she was willing to see this,mind you!) but unbeknownst to me, she brought along one of those mini voice recorders,the kind that Bart Simpson loved to annoy people with.

    During the show(and it's not a great movie,I agree on that) she pulled out her recorder and would play back a clip of me yelling at her,much to the aggravation of the woman sitting in front of us. She turned around at one point and demanded that the noise stop(which alerted me to the fact that it was happening,since that thing was at low volume). I had apologize profusely and was furious at my sis,who found the whole thing funny.

    It was almost worse than the time I had to take her to The English Patient(again,a movie that she was willing to see,mainly in her words"to sit in the dark and eat popcorn") and she kept laughing at things that were NOT funny! Going to the movies with her has gotten considerably better but oh, man,back then....

    Also,Tango & Cash can be fun if you're in the mood for it and Mallrats holds up better the second time around. I love the part where they have the dating game bit and Brody answers everything in his rudely honest way.

    1. WOW, your sister sounds like she was a funny/clever little terror! It's the sort of thing that's great, so long as you're not the responsible person who's with them...

      Yeah, Tango & Cash is great fun! There's a reason why I've mentioned it so often here (anyone can just search for "Tango" to see where it's been mentioned). And Mallrats made me laugh plenty when I first watched it - I just wish Smith's sophomore effort was a better film...


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