Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

THE LOVE GURU (2008)

There are bad movies, and then there are BAD movies. THE LOVE GURU falls into the latter category with the presence and implacable authority of a vast black hole, only this particular singularity sucks up comedy into some other realm that is anywhere other than onscreen. Truly, there is nothing more pitiful in all of cinema than an unfunny comedy. At least with a bad movie in any other genre, there's the possibility that you might gather some unintentional laughs from the cinematic grunt biscuit in question, but an unfunny comedy is a failure at its own raison d'être and just lays there onscreen like a dead cat on the side of the road. That said, I watched the universally-reviled Mike Myers vehicle THE LOVE GURU and it is simply one of the very worst alleged comedies ever purported to have been made by humans. In fact, it's so abysmally godawful that I actively recommend it so you can see with your own eyes that such a thing exists.

THE LOVE GURU was apparently intended to be Myers' next franchisable creation in the wake of his Austin Powers success, but it's a very lazy rehash of many of that series' tropes that were played out to death in those films in the first place, so dressing them up in the guise of a piece about a stereotypical platitude-spouting India-raised guru-type fooled no one and led to a swift box office death. The story relates the adventures of the guru Maurice Pitka (Myers), one of those fluffy maharishi-style hucksters who dispense dime store "wisdom" to eager Western audiences who hang on their every utterance as though it came straight from the mouth of the goddess Saraswati herself, a supposedly enlightened holy man who proves himself to be full of shit by desiring to be a bigger exponent of Eastern wisdom than Deepak Chopra. Pitka is hired by Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba), the corporate bigwig behind the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, to counsel star player Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco) through his serious relationship issues with his nubile girlfriend (Meagan Good) and restore his winning chops in time for his team to win the Stanley Cup.

The disturbing visual of the twelve-year-old Pitka as seen during the sequence explaining his origin. It's clearly supposed to be funny, but it's just plain creepy.

The incongruous fusion of sports gags and spiritual counseling humor does not work in any way and the viewer does not care one whit for the hockey star's predicament, the fate of the team, or Pitka's attraction to Jennifer. There's nothing here that engages the audience, and what we do get is just a seemingly endless regurgitation of wordplay, innuendo and sight gags that were already run into the ground in the Austin Powers movies. To reinforce the Powers connection, the former Mini-Me, Verne Troyer, is on hand as the Maple Leafs' coach, and his presence guaranteed an avalanche of tired and very predictable dwarf-related "jokes." If the goal there was to get us to understand how sick Troyer must be of such jibes after a lifetime as a little person, then the filmmakers succeeded in spades.

There are endless fart jokes, dick-and-balls jokes, turd gags, urine bits, and god knows what all else, plus the admittedly original sight of two Indian elephants fucking during a crucial Stanley Cup hockey game in order to cause a distraction, and not one bit of it is funny in the least (although the elephant bit gets points for coming from out of nowhere). There are also two appallingly unfunny, self-indulgent and overlong musical numbers in which Myers (as Pitka) performs the title song from 9 TO 5 and Steve Miller's "The Joker" with sitar in hand, and the latter number is staged as a full-fledged Bollywood-style musical number featuring several of the main cast. It was like attending a supposedly-fun party where everyone else knew each other for ages and were all in on some over-arcing private joke, with you left on the outside with no explanation. See for yourself:



Sadly, during the entirety of the film there were only two things that genuinely made me laugh out loud:
  • Pitka's fantasy upon meeting Jennifer. When he first sees the Maple Leafs' owner, the camera zooms into Pitka's mind and we see him envision himself and Jennifer as stock characters in a standard cheapjack Bollywood musical, complete with horrible film stock, bad zoom cuts, and shrill singing (cribbed from some actual Bollywood musical) accompanied by ludicrously-translated lyrics.

I've seen a lot of Indian films, dating from the 1940's through the present, so I'm very familiar with them and I find the more over-the-top examples of the form to be lysergically insane and fun, and this bit nailed that aesthetic perfectly. Unfortunately, hilarious though it is, that sequence lasts for around a minute, maybe a tad less.
  • The trope of running "wacky" outtakes to pad the running time of a short comedy film wore out its welcome in my world ages ago, but THE LOVE GURU does feature the best outtake I've seen in years, namely this reality check from Verne Troyer:

So, for me anyway, THE LOVE GURU amounted to a grand total of under two minutes of legitimate laughs out of a running time of eighty-six. I recommend this only for bad cinema completists, masochists, or insomniacs. And I can honestly say that even the most rabid and sophomoric of Mike Myers' fans will be disappointed by this one. I hope his next film — if he ever makes another one — will be informed by the mistakes made and lessons hopefully learned with this unmitigated disaster.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

MATCHING ESCORT (1982)

I've been in a martial arts movie mood lately, especially of the occasionally outrageous 1980's wuxia variety, and this particularly crazed Taiwanese flick managed to more than fill that need.

For those not in the know, wuxia is perhaps the most venerable of the martial sub-genres, bearing a rich history spanning centuries of literature and other arts, with its best-known examples for western audiences being the elaborate CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004). Modern wuxia films are genuine spectacles, replete with high-flying wire-work meant to symbolically embellish the heroes' already considerable skills, romance and lavish sets and costumes, but the earlier examples of the form were often cheaply made and hastily shot, rife with over-the-top melodrama and much chewing of the scenery. But, if you ask me, that's what makes the old school examples a million times more fun than their modern descendants, and MATCHING ESCORT is a balls-out riot of superheroics and unintentional (?) hilarity.

First of all, as near as I can determine, the title MATCHING ESCORT has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the film's plot, so that's a win right out of the gate. And unless you're a regular watcher of films of this sort it's rather easy to lose track of what's going on in the story, but I assure you that it does have a linear narrative, albeit one that contains many elements that make not one lick of sense. The basic plot is once again the tried and true revenge saga, this time involving a very girly young woman named Pearl Fan (played by Cheung Ling of WOLF DEVIL WOMAN infamy), who, as a child, is forced to constantly wear heavy shoes of metal with no explanation from her dad.

Child abuse or training device: the metal shoes are locked to our young heroine's feet.

As the years pass, Pearl Fan gets used to the metal shoes and can move about as nimbly as a monkey while wearing them, and when she takes them off her agility and speed become downright superhuman.

Then comes the day when a pack of the evil sword-wielding assholes requisite for this kind of story show up at her dad's house and proceed to kill seventy-three family members and house staff, except for Pearl Fan, who is entrusted with a precious family heirloom — the Jade Lovebird pendant — and unwillingly spirited away by a loyal retainer. The retainer is swiftly killed and our heroine soon finds herself framed for her family's murder, so now she's on the run from both the legitimate authorities and the clan of mysteriously-motivated killers. Disguising herself as a boy (rather unconvincingly, but you just have to let that go) — one of the major tropes of the genre in stories featuring female heroes — Pearl Fan is chased to and dumped over a sheer cliff by the killers, who leave her for dead. But what they don't know is that she has fallen into a deep cave that resembles and even-lower-budget version of H.R. Pufnstuf's Living Island, where resides an hilariously kvetchy old crippled hermit named Uncle Strange. No, seriously.

Uncle Strange: Yoda he ain't.

Initially quite irritated at Pearl Fan for her unplanned landing in a vat of vaguely mystical potion that he'd been preparing for twenty years, a potion that would have somehow enabled him to exact revenge upon the villain who crippled his feet and cast him into the cave, Uncle Strange is moved by our heroine's desire for revenge of her own and so agrees to take her on as his pupil. (It soon turns out that Pearl Fan's quest for vengeance neatly/conveniently dovetails with that of Uncle Strange.) As this is a wuxia martial arts film, it has less to do with hand-to-hand styles than swordsmanship and more "romantic" action playing up the hero's grace and moral purity, so Pearl's training, such as it is, involves little more than a tad of hand techniques that will later allow her to catch and break sword blades with just two fingers (her later-displayed utter badassery with a sword is not explained but is accepted as a given for the genre's requirements).

A clearly not amused Pearl Fan demonstrates the bitchin' two-fingered sword-catching move.

She is also subjected to a regimen of assorted potions, strange fungi (Awright!) and unguents that grant her the necessary skills of a typical genre hero (the aforementioned 20-years-in-the-making potion presumably being some kind of Asian super-soldier serum), and she's ready to get down to the serious business of killing when Uncle Strange dies after physically transferring his energy to her (and hilariously freezing in position with his arm outstretched and a wild look on his face when he croaks). Once back in the outside world, Pearl Fan displays all the attributes one expects from a wuxia superhero, and her skills with a sword would make even the most adept of Jedi turn chartreuse with envy.

The newly-badassed Pearl Fan hands out free passes to the netherworld on a lonely beach.

The rest of the film is a series of genre trope-laden, dizzying and unrealistically bloody swordfights against her enemies and it's a hell of a lot of leave-your-brain-at-the-door fun getting to the inevitable outcome. The wild and utterly impossible acrobatics and swordplay are piled on quite generously, making the film a definite precursor to the kind of thing we so enjoyed in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, only cartoonishly gorier.

Bad guy "Simon Cloud" meets his deservedly gory demise.

Our heroine, mowing down bad guys like weeds.

You've gotta love the heroine's moments of balletic poise in the brief moments between whirling arms and clashing steel.

There's also a disguised traveling prince — accompanied by the by-then-stock annoying comic relief servant whose basic character is meant to invoke Jackie Chan, only much more broadly — who's on hand to provide a love interest that literally goes nowhere and serves virtually no purpose to the story, so the less said of him the better.

The superfluous prince and his annoying servant.

(Oh, alright...Regarding the whole prince sub-plot, the story's Big Bad is revealed to have his eye on ruling the country and aims to kill the prince as part of his plans, but that sub-plot is given very short shrift and really doesn't add anything to Pearl Fan's narrative since you know going in that she's going to win in the end, so the governmental overthrow angle is totally superfluous.)

The film's ultra-flamboyant-looking Big Bad, who is quite appropriately named — and I'm not making this up — Lord Rouge.

If all of this sounds only slightly goofy and not like anything all that special, that's because I have thus far neglected to mention the overall "fairytale on mushrooms" feel and approach of the piece. There's not one single frame's-worth of realism in it and its look fuses low-budget cheapness with garish colors and occasionally weird-assed sets (Uncle Strange's cave being something straight out of a kiddie show's idea of "scary"). And of course all of the aforementioned physical impossibilities, and the ever-popular running-on-water move all add up to a heady cornucopia of wuxia junk food of the highest order.

Wire-work fun at its most endearingly cheesy.

Though nowhere near as brain-wrenchingly out of its mind as actor/director Cheung Ling's legendary WOLF DEVIL WOMAN (which I will definitely get around to reviewing one of these days), MATCHING ESCORT is a stone hoot and should be shared with friends and family as soon as possible. And although there is spewing arterial spray (translation: pressurized gallons of bright red paint) and some dismemberments here and there, the gore on hand is not scary at all and would only be disturbing to the youngest of viewers. I would not hesitate to show it to kids if seven and older, so use that caveat as a guide. Me? I plan to show this to my nephew, Nate, as soon as possible, and I also think my niece, Cleo, would totally dig it because it's about a "lady hero" (as she would have put it when she a tad younger) and it has violence. This film could easily have run on the late, lamented Channel 5 Saturday afternoon DRIVE-IN MOVIE weekly kung fu showcase of the early-through-mid-1980's with no editing for content, but that was then and this is now, so if run today the film's split-second decapitation and hand-lopping would likely be cut. If I had to rate this, I'd give it a PG, but the wussified MPAA would likely insist on a PG-13 or a wholly undeserved "mild R." RECOMMENDED.

The excellence that was Cheung Ling.

KUNG FU FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1982)


I first heard of this one while watching the fight scene highlights videotape THIS IS KUNG FU with a bunch of equally-stoned friends back in 1989, and we simply could not fucking believe what we saw when the tape opened with the literally jaw-dropping trailer for this flick. Along with all manner of bizarro Chinese mythology-specific creatures and weirdness, the trailer featured tag lines that mangled the English language to an alarming degree (example:"Ghost seeking revenge evils are deadly scared!" and "Human heart annoying both spirits and human!), and my friends and I watched the trailer over and over in disbelief, vowing to someday find and watch this surefire classic of lysergic chopsocky madness.

Packaging art for the Ocean Shores VHS release from the '80's, a tape that took me four years to track down.

I finally found the movie about four years later in a cheesy hole-in-the-wall video store that was going out of business, a victim of the Disneyfication of Times Square and it cost me around ten bucks (about five bucks too much for a beat-up used copy), but I finally had the object of my relentless quest. The wait was worth it, because the martial arts were pretty good and the script is a ludicrous dialogue fan's wet dream.


Starring Indonesian martial arts cult figure Billy Chong — who starred in the rather similar, though way more coherent, KUNG FU ZOMBIE (also 1982) — the film chronicles the young hero's quest for vengeance against the rat bastard who murdered his father, a quest instigated by the pissed-off ghost of the hero's dad. The murderous rat bastard is played by none other than Lo Lieh, star of the film that kicked off the 1970's kung fu movie boom, the classic FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1971, released in the U.S. in 1972), but here he's playing one of his many, many outright villains and it's always a pleasure to see him be just plain unabashedly evil. Realizing that the son may come after him and hand him a well-earned ass-kicking, the bad guy hires an evil kung fu priest/sorcerer to handle things for him, and the evil sorcerer gets up to a shitload of black magic and suchlike over the course of the film, including one of the most memorable (to say nothing of ludicrous) moments in the entire history of cinema. The prize goes to a scene wherein the villainous sorcerer realizes he's about to get his ass kicked, so he throws some spells into the air and screams "Count Dracula! Come to my aid!" The second he says this, the sky turns to night, the full moon pops up, a wolf howls and then from out of nowhere fucking Count Dracula himself — the only white guy in the entire film — swoops from out of the sky screaming "I'M COMING!!! HAHAHAHAHAH!!!"


The justly infamous Count Dracula sequence.

And don't ask how the hero and the eerie aides he gathers finally defeat the sorcerer (hint: it involves the aid of a bunch of prostitutes who are experiencing "monthly women's concerns"). To say more would give away shit that you just won't believe, so I leave you to rent this and discover its ultra-bizarro wonders for yourself. Illegal smokables and alcoholic beverages are recommended for maximizing the fun, and it's a real crowd-pleaser/baffler when shown to a roomful of willing attendees. A unique cinematic experience, TRUST YER BUNCHE and snag this one as soon as possible.

Packaging art for the most recent DVD release. You'll note they got the title wrong.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)

A portent of impending scares, or an invitation to yucks? You decide!

One of the universe's greatest truisms is that whenever anything is successful, a sequel is inevitable, so when William Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST (1973) raked in the samoleons at the box office (over 66 mil in early-1970's dollars, and that ain't hay!) it was only a matter of time until a followup graced the screen. But any sequel to THE EXORCIST would have been a daunting task; how to follow an instant classic that shattered onscreen taboos regarding language, religious improprieties (Ouch! That crucifix!), and truly creative cussing while maintaining the high standard of quality set by the original would have proved daunting to any writer or director, and as per the nature of sequels one would assume that the general public would have been expecting more of the same, perhaps with the blasphemous ante being cranked up a notch or two. So what to do in order to meet the public's expectations and make an assload of box office at the same time?

The answer to that question cannot be found in 1977's EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, a literally unholy mess of a film whose reputation as possibly the single worst sequel in major motion picture history seems pretty much set in stone.

Helmed by world-class oddball director John Boorman, the guy who gave us DELIVERANCE (1973) and the jaw-dropping Sean Connery vehicle ZARDOZ (1974), EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC unwisely chooses to focus on the possibility that Reagan McNeal (Linda Blair, reprising the role that made her famous) may still harbor memories of the excruciating details of her exorcism some three years prior to the events of this film. Sent by the Vatican to dig up all the necessary dirt while investigating the death of the priest who performed Reagan's excorcism — Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow, reprising his role as a much younger version of his character in the original film) — Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton, looking and acting like he's in the midst of a week-long bender) journeys to Manhattan where a high school-aged Reagan lives and volunteers at a bizarro clinic that helps the mentally ill/challenged. The place is run by Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, here pulling a total one-eighty from her Oscar-winning role as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST), who breaks out this trippy-looking strobe light and bio-feedback headsets that looked like something you'd have found in a head shop at the time and uses it to hypnotize Reagan into remembering her forgotten experience of demonic possession. That turns out to be a bad idea because the second Reagan's fully under she starts sounding like Lucille Ball during her autumn years, her face gets all evil and fucked-up-looking, and the demon identifies itself as Pazuzu, a malevolent ancient Assyrian wind spirit and "one of the lords of the air."

Whoa, dude! Trippy! But not scary.

As of that point the film nosedives into a nigh-incomprehensible mess of questioned faith, misguided attempts at psychedelia, bullshit psychobabble, flashabcks to Father Merrin's first exorcism, all manner of bizarre mystic visions and mumbo-jumbo, accented with Linda Blair performing in an utterly awful chorus line production of "Lullaby of Broadway," and the unforgettable sight of James Earl Jones as an African holy man in a ridiculous locust costume. It all culminates in a confusing fistfight between Father Lamont and Pazuzu in the form of Reagan's evil twin, a bout settled when the good Reagan arrives and fends off a swarm of demonically-controlled locusts by imitating the movements made by Jones' character during his youth as he used a bull-roarer to drive the evil bugs from his village, all while father Lamont literally tears out Pazuzu's heart.

Now this is what the audience craved to see: Linda Blair battling locusts.

A lot more crazy shit happens, and if any of this sounds coherent, let me assure you that it isn't. When I first saw EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC during its network television premiere — the night after THE EXORCIST, so the edited-for-TV version of that was fresh in my mind — I watched it with my mom, and the two of us nearly laughed ourselves to death. To this day we can still crack each other up with random quotes from the film ("Pazuzu will help me find Kokumo!!!"), and while it is an unmitigated turd storm, I must confess to finding it entertaining as hell, and loaded to the gills with visuals that bring to mind Alejandro Jodorowsky in his more accessible moments. Boorman's visual imagination was given free reign, and the film is replete with beautiful and bizarre imagery and gorgeous cinematography. Too bad there wasn't a script good enough to properly complement Boorman's vision.

Perhaps the saddest thing about EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is that when it is carefully examined, there are the building blocks for what could have been a genuinely good and scary film that could have used the original flick as a starting point and really run with some of the story's themes. My two major points on this are as follows:
  • The first thing they should have done was lose Reagan entirely; she was successfully rid of demonic influence at the end of the first story, and not much the worse for wear thanks to having psychologically blocked out the entire hellish experience. By bringing her back when her arc was clearly over and done with for audiences who demand more of the same — or at the behest of studio execs who can't think beyond the immediately familiar — , the film renders Father Merrin's heroic efforts and sacrifice, as well as Father Karras', without meaning or impact, pissing all over the power of Catholicism that supposedly saved Reagan's soul. And when we find out that demons like Pazuzu run around possessing folks like Reagan because they are so pure and good that they have what amounts to superpowers, it throws a cheesy X-Men kind of vibe over the proceedings.
  • The film should have focused on Father Lamont's investigative efforts and his own crisis of faith in the face of the returned Pazuzu (who, by the way, was not identified in the original, but was implied to be the Devil himself; by having Pazuzu turn out to be pretty much just a badassed grasshopper, his terror level is considerably diminished). Lamont's tracing of Kokumo, the kid long ago exorcised by Merrin, could have gone down many fascinating and potentially terrifying avenues, all of which could have been well served by Boorman's imagination. The interaction between the Christian, specifically Catholic, powers that be and their opposite numbers has fueled horror stories from day one, and it wouldn't have taken too much effort to have come up with a great Campbellish "hero's journey" for Lamont that would have seen him lose his faith only to have it restored in the aftermath of the throwdown with Pazuzu. The long-running Vertigo comics series HELLBLAZER pulled off many such stories as a matter of course, so there's really no excuse, especially when tons of money are thrown into such a project (yes, I know HELLBLAZER was bastardized up the ass for the awful CONSTANTINE movie, so I won't even go there).
So, yes, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is a spectacular misfire, but there's too much good material to be found amidst this cinematic dog's breakfast to fully write it off as one of the worst films ever made. I've certainly seen far worse, both from low-budget schlockmeisters like Al Adamson and from the major studios, and unlike many other bad films, at least EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC entertained the crap out of me, something I cannot say about would-be blockbusters like SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, PEARL HARBOR, or LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. Give EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC a second chance, and this time while you're laughing take note of the cool shit it possesses (sorry) and grieve for what could have been a glorious entry in the horror genre.

Poster from the original theatrical release.