Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Room (2003, Tommy Wisseau)

The Room belongs to that most miraculous variety of viewing fodder for bad movie masochists; an intensely personal creation by a single auteur whose stunning incompetence in the fields of writing, directing, producing and acting imbue the fiasco with genuine passion that is infectiously felt every minute. The trainwreck is rich with many layers of debris: repeat viewings will reveal new faults previously unnoticed during fits of laughter as well as new insights into the bizarre mind and character of the author, Tommy Wisseau. I'm happy to report that all the hype generated in the past seven years has been validated. This is truly one of the best bad movies ever made.

The singularity of The Room as a modern cult phenomenon results from the combination of Wisseau's apparently oblivious confidence in his own substandard filmmaking abilities and his total willingness to awkwardly lay bare his fears and desires through a story starring his fictionalized self. In these respects, Wisseau breaches that same inner sanctum inhabited by Ed Wood and his debut feature Glen Or Glenda, although Wood's plea for acceptance as a transvestite is of a more intrinsically compelling nature than Wisseau's personal soap opera love triangle. So too does Wood's hyperbolic flair  for screenwriting make him Orson Welles next to Wisseau, which is why the comparisons end there. The point is that both movies are sincerely effortful in their incoherence, and both men unabashedly put themselves into their work literally and figuratively.

Unlike Wood, Wisseau could have elevated this or any other film into hilarious bad movie immortality by merely taking the lead acting role. The beautifully logical catch in his case is that there's no way Wisseau would be cast as the star of any film he didn't finance himself. The first reason for this is that his moon face, shaggy hair and knuckle dragging posture make give him the charisma of a caveman. The second and even more detrimental reason is his thick French accent, further slurred by mush mouthed delivery which sounds as if he's talking in his sleep. His claims that he primarily grew up in New Orleans and has lived between the US and Europe throughout his life are probably true, unfortunately he must not have been hanging around English speakers very much as The Room's screenplay never sounds written by someone fluent in that language.

Wisseau has also stated he speaks three languages, so English may very well have been the third. Even so, his tone deafness towards the rhythms of conversation are remarkable. One brief scene finds him stopping at a flower shop and chatting with the clerk in such an absurdly hurried and perfunctory way that they may as well be communicating telepathically.

Other minor eccentricities pepper Wisseau's monolithic performance, such as the glazed stage laugh he emits through both nose and mouth at once. His most arresting moments as the star of his own film come during fits of rage and anguish, when banal melodramatic statements like "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" become comic gems thanks to his nearly unintelligible histrionics. As with Ed Wood's films and the best scenes of any movie whose execution renders drama into farce, the funniest scenes are the ones intended to be most serious and the intended comic relief is uncomfortable at best.

The world of The Room, as the title implies, is confined mainly to a single room due to the film's modest budget. The room is the apartment where Tommy Wisseau's Johnny and his fiance Lisa (Juliette Daniel) live, and the other characters who waft in and out seem to spend more time there than they do their own homes, which coupled with Wisseau's reliance on medium shots creates the vibe of a sitcom more than a movie. Only the phony rooftop of the apartment building gets comparable screen time as a location. Every scene set there looks immediately silly thanks to the green screen city skyline which surrounds the actors on all sides, inducing the kind of unreality typically reserved for movies set in magical fantasy lands where actors stand in front of video game graphics. Another odd technical choice is the simultaneous recording of scenes on both film and digital video, and sometimes alternating the two formats in between shots of the same scene - almost imperceptible yet subliminally jarring.

The film's insular low budget nature is actually entirely appropriate to the melodramatic hell storm Wisseau devised for himself. The characters surrounding him are like demons cavorting inside the confines of his skull. The gist of the story is that Johnny's fiancee Lisa cheats on him with his best friend  and then Johnny finds out. As these two dramatic events unfold over about 95 ponderous minutes, we come to realize that his entire world is out to collude in the duplicity. Lisa's brittle shrew of a mother, Carolyn Minnott - possible second place winner of film's worst performance - doesn't care when she's let in on the secret and neither does Lisa's glib best friend. Women!

When Johnny's best friend Mark - Greg Sestero, whose starring role in Retro Puppet Master makes him the film's only real professional - confesses the affair to a mutual psychiatrist friend who of course lives in the same building, the so-called friend doesn't tell Johnny either. To be fair, he may not have gotten the chance as his character is confusingly replaced by another actor in the middle of the film. As Tommy-Johnny brays at one point: everyone betrays him.

Only a trio of characters in the paranoid nightmare of The Room are not out to make Johnny's life miserable. The specific details of their forced levity around him are creepy and disgusting, but provide a valuable insight into what Tommy Wisseau would consider a life worth living. Johnny's neighbors Mike and Michelle are the closest indication of what Wisseau would consider a healthy romantic relationship consists: constant pawing of each other and weird foreplay games in other people's apartments. In the tradition of 9 1/2 Weeks they love rubbing food on each other, Wisseau's spin is to bring the term "chocoholic" to its logical sexual extent and have the couple enjoy eating chocolate from each other's mouths, which is gross.

The building's youngest tenant, Denny (Philip Haldiman) is an ambiguously wayward orphan who is probably supposed to be a college student, yet acts even more like an eleven year old than real college students. Johnny seems to have taken him in, paying for his room and board elsewhere in the building, I'm not exactly sure. In any case his friendship with Johnny indicates some kind of desire by Wisseau for fatherhood. A shrill yet quickly forgotten subplot - one of many - involves Denny getting caught buying drugs and shows Wisseau's protective side towards vulnerable youth.

Scarily, a scene in the first ten minutes mashes both Wisseau's longing for sexually fulfilling relationships and family life into one moment: Denny playfully jumps into bed with Johnny and Lisa while they are still clothed but quite obviously about to have sex. The sex scene that follows once Denny leaves is so graphic as to suggest Wisseau's first priority as a fimmaker was to make sure everyone saw his naked ass before the story even began. To give him the benefit of the doubt, a sex scene with nudity from him and his lead actress might have been Wisseau's best effort, with his limited film vocabulary, to establish the characters happy closeness prior to the heartbreak.

The Room is absolute required viewing for anyone with even a mild interest in movies that are so bad they're gut-bustingly funny. You must make sure to watch with a few friends in the comfort of home, and not with the crowd of any midnight movie screening. This is vitally important: while the ineptitude of Wisseau's film is so unrelenting that some measure of Mystery Science Theater 3000 style commentary is a necessary pressure valve to the dissonance, at any random screening with drunken strangers there will be mean-spirited hipsters attempting to make a new Rocky Horror Picture Show experience out of a film that's quite amusing enough already, thanks very much.

The biggest hazard of experiencing The Room in such a setting wouldn't be getting hit by flying footballs or spoons (you'll see) but missing up to half the wonderfully inept acting and dialogue due to morons shouting over other morons about how fat Juliette Daniel's little tummy bulge is.

Since The Room Tommy Wisseau's only release has been a 30 minute documentary titled Homeless In America which he wrote and co-directed. There exists a promotional reel on YouTube for a sitcom pilot titled The Neighbors, directed by and starring himself. This certainly looks bad, yet bad comedy is never as funny as bad drama. The good news about Wisseau is that whatever he does in the future, a smattering of interviews and public appearances he's made in the wake of The Room's infamy have demonstrated a complete lack of self conscious humility. He's been impersonated by the likes of David Cross and Patton Oswalt, rapped about by "Nerdcore" nobodies on the Internet and even had his film screened on that paragon of puerile irony Adult Swim - the fact is, nothing's funnier than the genuine and genuinely clueless article.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010, Samuel Bayer)

Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes company has finally crossed A Nightmare On Elm Street from their hitlist of easy money big name horror remakes. I am sad to say that I naively did not believe the film could be as awful as it was. What I hadn't factored into my already low expectations was that unlike the masked killers Leatherface or Jason of the Platinum-remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, Wes Craven's more ambitious conception of Freddy Krueger only made the core idea of a Nightmare film that much easier to screw up by people who don't care.

Leatherface and Jason killed people in violent ways while wearing masks and that's impossible for even Michael Bay to screw up, as he only understands action and to him horror movies are just action movies for ugly people with stabbings instead of shootings. Freddy is supposed to kill people in surreal ways, yet there's not a single bizarre death in this film that wasn't swiped from the original and they manage to screw those up as well with terrible CGI. With all the money in the world to throw at this version of Freddy Krueger, where special effects could really make a difference as opposed to a psycho in the woods wearing a hockey mask, Bay can't buy himself an imagination or bear to let anyone work for him who has one.

The specificity of the Freddy Krueger character apparently called for a more rote recitation of the original film's story points than the other slasher revamps, yet Michael Bay still found a way to make the character's origin totally illogical, undead dream hauntings aside: in lieu of any new and memorable scenes, characters or even special effects, the single new spin on the idea of A Nightmare On Elm Street is that Freddy Krueger is now explicitly rewritten as a child molester. The entire plot hinges on playing a guessing game as to whether or not he was one.

The same man producing and directing ostensible entertainment for the whole family like Transformers had no qualms whatsoever about exploiting something so painful to so many people as child molestation as the gimmick to an uninspired throwaway piece of garbage like this.

The original 1984 film curbed such allusions out of sensitivity to a recent scandal involving systematic molestation by schoolteachers, as revealed in the recent Nightmare series documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. In Friday the 13th and even Texas Chainsaw Massacre to some degree, the lack of a moral center was never an impediment to the Platinum Dunes remakes. Nightmare is however not only the most incompetent of these films to date - I'm told the Friday remake at least had tits - but may also the most conceptually, intellectually and spiritually offensive horror remake ever made.

The original was imbued with Wes Craven's sympathy for Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp et all as kids targeted by a killer's ghost whose revenge was really directed at their parents. In this version, the kids are merely cogs in the plot machine for red herrings around child molestation. Story and co-screenwriting credit for this goes to Wesley Strick, who has now cavalierly added child seduction to TWO remakes of great movies - the other being 1991's Cape Fear.

The gravest stupidity of adding such humorless ickiness to Craven's original simple and effective mind game of a ghost story is that the rest of the story Platinum Dunes stole from suddenly makes no sense. If Fred Krueger was now the live-in gardener of a preschool which he systematically molested, why does no one in that entire school remember him? The actress playing Nancy, Rooney Mara, actually rhetorically asks a friend at one point "Who can remember what happened when you're five years old?" Are today's high schoolers really that bereft of long term memory, post-Facebook? Is that why Mara isn't supposed to recognize the specter of own five year old self in her dreams? She doesn't remember what she even looked like back then?

Why, as Strick's plot goes, would she or any of the other kids falsely accuse Krueger of molestation anyway? Would every parent from the school spontaneously form a lynch mob as a first response? Maybe, but it's not half as plausible as if he were also a child murderer and acquitted in court on a technicality as he was in the original. I'm not merely harping on these points for their shameless tastelessness; this molestation nonsense is what drives every minute of the film between the forgettable "scary" scenes.

Michael Bay didn't even have the balls in the end to actually make Freddy a wrongfully accused innocent gone bad. That would have at least been an honest attempt to reinvent the character. With the final revelation that Freddy was actually guilty of child molestation before his second career as a pizza faced boogeyman, the bold new inspiration for the "rebooted" Freddy is that he's finally now also a child molester. Isn't that the kind of "hardcore" and "extreme" "style" we've all grown to love about and expect from a Michael Bay production?

Admittedly he doesn't have exclusive ownership of such thinking. This is exactly in line with the logic that dictates the only way Batman's old nemesis The Joker can be relevant to modern audiences is to make him a terrorist, snuff videos and all. How sick and how sad that people get excited over these new lows of depravity in escapist entertainment as if they're some kind of creative bravery.

Director Samuel Bayer's previous credit of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit music video and a dozen others does not translate into skillfulness directing a horror film, or even lending some kind of stylistic imprint. Rachel Talalay showed more visual flair on Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, her first film, than this guy. He can't direct actors at all. Mara and Johnny Depp surrogate Kyle Gallner have almost half a natural interaction towards the end, everyone else is beyond hopeless.

Jackie Earle Haley has no physicality in his role, simply walking from point A to B while occasionally flicking his fingers or scraping a wall. Presumably this was done on purpose, to differentiate the Platinum Dunes Freddy from Robert Englund, which is utterly self defeating: if Freddy walks like some random stuntman in a mask from any random slasher, why bother getting a "real actor"? Oh yeah, so Haley can do his "Rorschach" voice from Watchmen, the film that gave him the geek cred to demand huge paychecks for junk like this.

The ad campaign carefully hid Haley's made-up face in the shadows on all posters and in all trailers and TV spots. At some point Bay must have decided his audiences wouldn't have the patience to wait any longer once they'd bought their tickets, so the new Freddy's face is exposed under bright lights in the first kill before the opening credits - a kill which is the razor gloved equivalent of that classic older brother's game, "Why Are You Hitting Yourself?" and makes even the worst of the original Nightmare movies' set pieces look like Salvador Dali by comparison.

Bay's disdain for attention spans is also on display with an amazingly high number of cheap jump scares, the kind achieved not just with screeching cats jumping from dark places but entire orchestra hits and flashes of light backing them up. These happen so frequently, quickly and pointlessly, accompanying actions as simple as someone entering the film frame, that you can in fact literally miss one if you blink, as I did. Is this the new normal in slickly produced horror remakes? I would've remembered if the Texas Chainsaw remake and it's prequel had as many sudden twists of the volume knob to induce shock stimulus.

On every abstract creative level which can conceivably be quantified, A Nightmare On Elm Street is a failure and an offense to even the lowest standards. The cynicism involved every step of the way is palpable, informed by a jaded hatred of humanity and a genuine contempt for originality as an artistic virtue. At the very least, Freddy is almost the last surefire moneymaker horror icon that can be remade and to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the problem with remakes is that you eventually run out of other people's ideas.

Michael Bay and his surrogates have the morals of grave robbers who sell bodies to necrophiliacs and cannibals.