Archive for September, 2009

"Whiteout" Movie Poster

"Whiteout" Movie Poster

It seems the reviews for the new Kate Beckinsale action star-vehicle “Whiteout” have been uniformly pretty lousy, but for whatever it’s worth, your host here didn’t think this was a bad little suspense flick. Maybe it  was because I’d just walked out of the loathsome “Jennifer’s Body” after 30 minutes and anything less overwhelmed by its own supposed brilliance would have seemed good at that point.  Maybe it’s because I had no expectations apart from the fact I had just under two hours to kill and this looked like it would do the job. Maybe it’s because I in no way expected it to be anywhere near as good as Howard Hawks’ original “The Thing” or John Carpenter’s absolutely seminal quasi-remake of the same name,  movies to which this has unfairly been compared merely because of its locale (do we expect every movie set in Seattle to be as abominable as “Sleepless In—,” for instance? Of course not, so why expect this to be similar to either version of “The Thing” merely because it’s set in Antarctica?) Anyway, whatever the convergence of factors that lead to my ultimate conclusion upon exiting the theater, I must say this was a perfectly enjoyable time-waster.

Beckinsale, for her part, is a pretty natural bad-ass action flick chick, and guffaw all you want, I don’t think her “Underworld” stuff is half-bad. Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody spent who knows how many hours and millions of dollars trying (and failing) to transform Megan Fox into the kind of tough-as-nails (albeit with an evil side) broad that Beckinsale portrays with regularity seemingly effortlessly.

Director Dominic Sena, who was previously responsible for the appalling “Gone in 60 Seconds” remake with Nic Cage and Angelina Jolie and the completely forgettable (except for that one scene, and guys you know which one I’m talking about) “Swordfish,” doesn’t boast a resume to inspire much confidence, but here he gets a damn solid performance from his leading lady, keeps the action moving along at a nice, tight little clip, and does a great job of evoking the barren isolation and unimaginable hazard of life on our southern pole.

The plot is straightforward and simple, as the good ones usually are—a Russian plane goes down over the Antarctic fifty or so years back, and then we fast-forward to the present day where US Marshal Carrie Stetko (Beckinsale), a veteran woman of the law, has volunteered for South Pole duty to escape some demons in her past, and ends up investigating a murder when a body that appears to have been dumped from a plane turns up way beyond the vicinity of any of the numerous research stations (a large , sophisticated and altogether impressive one of which she has her office in) that dot the landscape down there. She’s assisted in her investigation by the research center’s Doctor, John Fury (gotta love any movie that has a character with that name and is in no way trying to be ironic about it) ably portrayed by poor-man’s-Kris-Kristofferson Tom Skerritt, and along the way they pick up some assistance from UN investigator (I didn’t know they employed cops and I can’t say I care for the idea) Robert Pryce, portrayed in rather uninspired,  mail-it-in fashion by Gabriel Macht. Our intrepid little crew has to work quickly, though, because a nasty-ass storm windstorm that whips up flying snow so thick you can’t see an inch in front of your face (the “whiteout”s of the title) is on the way and the base is being evaced pronto. Our foursome (they’ve got a pilot with them, too, named Delfy and played in solid amusing-sidekick-with-a-heart-of-gold fashion by Columbus Short) isn’t leaving with the staff, but they’re going to be confined to the base’s interior so they need to gather any clues they can while the getting’s (relatively, this is the South Pole, after all) good.

As things unfold we are presented with a perfectly serviceable little mystery, some great outdoor action (the northern Quebec and Manitoba locations are really quite convincing ) and a not-totally-unsurprising-but-still-pleasant-enough-in-its-own-unobtrusive-way plot twist towards the end.  Hardly the stuff of a truly memorable thriller, but certainly better than most of what’s out there and a not-at-all-unwelcome change of pace from Hollywood’s super-megabuck purportedly “exciting” summer blockbuster fare and the navel-gazing, overly-impressed-with-its-own-entirely-nonexistent-cleverness-and/or-phony-“truthfulness” that’s come to dominate “indie” film in recent years.

“Whiteout”—based on a comic (excuse me, “graphic novel”) of the same name by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber and published by Kevin Smith’s Oni Press — succeeds largely because it doesn’t have any delusions of grandeur about what it is and doesn’t aspire to do any more than it can. That may not be the most ringing endorsement you’ll ever come across, but it does mean it’s a fundamentally more honest piece of filmmaking than most anything else out there you could spend your time and money on.

Is any caption really necessary --- or even appropriate?

Is any caption really necessary --- or even appropriate?

(Editor’s Note I  didn’t feel qualified to write a review of this film myself  since I walked out at about 30 minutes in, headed up the hallway in the multiplex, and caught “Whiteout” with Kate Beckinsale instead. Since, however, we —okay, me—here at TFG tend to cover all things horror, and since any movie written by Diablo Cody isa major cultural event in and of itself—why, just ask her!—I would feel remiss in not devoting a column to this film in some way, shape, or form. Given that we’re at the one-year anniversary of Ms. Cody’s infamous internet lash-out where she, in true Hollywood fashion,  conflated all criticism of her work with criticism of herself as a human being and that her latest film landed with a distinct thud at the box office last week despite the presence of Hollywood’s “it” girl of the moment, we thought it would be a novel idea to reach out to the former Minneapolitan in the spirit of hometown camaraderie and  invite her back to the place that made her famous (meaning, of course, the Web, not Minneapolis) in order to comment on her latest film and tell us why we should ignore the rest of the filmgoing public, as well as overwhelming critical consensus, and see “Jennifer’s Body.”  To our surprise and delight Ms. Cody accepted our invitation and is here, now, to add to her list of pseudo-cutting-edge writing by providing a review of her own movie.)

Hi dudes and dudettes, jock-itchers and jock-sniffers, Fruit of the Loomers and Frederick’s of Hollywood g-stringers, Right Guarders and Always-jammers, and welcome to my homeboy-even-though-he’s-white-and-so-am-I’s little corner of the electronic soon-to-be-super-toll road. I used to be a stripper, you know, and if there’s one thing I’ll never forget about the career I used in a most novel manner, even if I do say so myself, as a springboard out of the mid-fucking-west, it’s that you always want to leave them wanting more. Tease ’em and tease ’em and tease ’em some more, that’s the motto amongst the sweat-drenched, cut-throat bitchterhood that leaves the boys  with half a hardon and a fully empty wallet. It’s a lesson, dear huddled masses, that has served me well.

Case in point : my debut feature, “Juno.” Can I admit now I played you all P.T. Barnum-style? It was so easy. Make yourself and your story the focus of the attention rather than the script itself, and you can cover any and all deficiencies. All your characters can sound the same, you can ignore every gut-crunching reality that would normally follow on from the ultra-heavy situations you’re depicting, you can fool people into thinking that kitsch equals intelligence—as long as they all know going in that you used to be a stripper—a fact I may have mentioned already—and a blogger. The critics will fawn over your hare-brained dialogue as long as it’s one-half-step more clever than anything they’re thinking—or, more accurately, as long as it proclaims itself to be one-half-step more clever than anything they’re thinking, and Hollywood, more desperate to prove its “inclusiveness” than Kanye is to prove his maturity, will throw an Oscar your way. Steve (I call him Steve beause now I’m famous, too) Spielberg will act like one of the guys at the club I had just flashed half a nipple to and throw the green stuff at you to create your own show about anything you want. And every studio in town (well, in the only town that matters, I should say) will be pounding down the door of your just-purchased home to get you to work for them and hell, when your next project comes out, you’ll even get top billing above the director and the start. Why, just take a look at the poster for my new flick, “Jennifer’s Body”—

"Jennifer's Body" movie poster

"Jennifer's Body" movie poster

Yeah, Megan Fox—who I’m now very good friends with, by the way—we might even invite her to join the Fempire—is bigger than King Kong’s schlong right now. Amanda Seyfried—who I’m not as tight with but sure will be if her career takes off—is a solid up-and-comer. And what does this poster say above their names? Hell, above the title of the movie itself?

That’s right.  And I quote—“From the Academy Award-Winning Writer of ‘Juno.'” And as I might have also mentioned before, my name might be fake, but I like it, and it’s my fake name, not yours, and it’s inscribed on the bottom of an Academy Award and yours isn’t.  Got a problem with that? Talk to the hand, baby, talk to the hand.

All of which brings me—almost—to the movie itself. See, here’s a nifty little trick I learned. Ya gotta work fast, and by that I mean faster than Oprah gloms onto the next big self-help craze before it hits. When you’re a one-trick pony as opposed to a My Little Pony, people are going to fall out of love with you really fast if they wise up to the fact that they’ve been had, Brad. You have to crank those scripts out quicker than Tony Romo switches celebrity squeezes, or else they might wise up to the fact that all you’re doing is stringing together self-aware and easily-memorable catch-phrases around the a plot thinner than Karen Carpenter before she checked the fuck out.

See what I did just there? It’s called safely shocking irreverence. Take an event long enough ago to have lost its immediate impact, bring it up in a manner that references nothing more than its prurient pop-culture quasi-value, and use it as a quick, off-the-cuff metaphor. Try it sometime, it’s pretty fun, and might even lead to a lucrative writing deal for you if you have an easily-marketable personal history to back it up. Free advice there, folks.

So anyway, fragile little impressionable audience, I got my show done pronto and got my next movie out PDQ, too (I can safely use outdated colloquialisms now in the knowledge that the very act of me saying them will be enough to convince some people, at least, that they’re cool again).  I’m literally everywhere these days. And maybe now’s the time to plan my next move.

Overexposure, they call it, and it can be the kiss of death—just ask Britney Spears. Give the girl credit, though, she lays low for a few months, and by the time she’s back on track, Jack, the public is slavering for her all over again. And if incognito is the way to be-to, then that’s what I’ll do next. Get the punters, as they say across the pond, good and hungry for their next Diablo-fix before giving it to ’em. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned since the first weekend BO results for “Jennifer’s Body” hit, it’s that you peeps out there don’t appreciate your girl enough. I’m pissing pure genius  at you, the unwashed masses, and you can’t even show and pay eight lousy bucks  for the golden  shower. Pearls before swine and all that.

Don’t you get it? There’s nothing original in “Jennifer’s Body,” but that straight-up doesn’t matter. It’s loaded with snappy dialogue that, sure, is no more realistic than you’d find in an Ed Wood script (and I throw in a buttload of product placement references cleverly disguised as quick-witted banter), but it’s self-aware of its own ludicrousness. I’m subverting what I do even as I do it through the power of the pussy! You see, this is hopelessly annoying self-conscious drivel written by a WOMAN and delivered by WOMEN. The director of this gorefest, Karyn Kusama,  is FEMALE. The principal characters are FEMALE. The fact I employ every boring-ass horror cliche isn’t indicative of laziness or lack of imagination, no sir/madam—I am LIBERATING these tired old chestnuts and SUBVERTING them by FEMINIZING them.  This isn’t a tired rehash of conventional shit, it’s a piece of TRANSGRESSIVE filmmaking. The shoe is on the other foot now, fellas, and we ladies are grinding our boot-heels down!

Sisters, this one’s for you. Not me. You. This is about the power of the collective “we” of the female gender. This, in the end, is my gift to my fellow women. And to think so few of you accepted it—but I digress, I guess, Jess.

I’ll try not to despair too much. I’m still pretty damn wonderful, even if I do say so myself. And if it all goes to pot, hey, there’s still my “Entertainment Weekly” column. How many screenwriters have a fallback option that solid? Oh yeah, not a one. It’s a pretty exclusive club consisting of me, and me, and—oh yeah—me.

Anyway, I’ve done what I can. It’s out there. I’d say this movie is absolutely right now, but I think it’s more next week, Or the week after. One half-step ahead. Yes, everybody sounds just like people from “Juno,” only stuck in a horror flick. But I know what I’m doing. Hell, one of the main chicks is named Needy! Doesn’t that prove to you that I know what I’m doing? That this is all on purpose? That I could write actual, differentiated characters if I wanted to, but that I deliberately choose not to do so? I understand what I’m doing, even if you don’t. I won’t dumb this shit down. I’m up here—I’ve thrown you a rope—climb your ass up here and meet me. Or don’t. It’s your choice. But I think I’ve earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to your blind trust in all I say and do. After all, as I may have mentioned before, I used to be a stripper, but now my fake name that I chose and I like even if you don’t is now inscribed on the bottom of an Academy Award. And yours isn’t. My boss made “E.T.” Yours made his kids oatmeal for breakfast.

And that’s a fact, homeskillet.

"Into Temptation" Movie Poster

"Into Temptation" Movie Poster

Okay, right off the bat, maybe it’s fair to say that your host can’t be neutral on this one. Not only was writer-director Patrick Coyle’s second feature (the first being 2003’s little-seen “Detective Fiction”) lensed entirely in my hometown of Minneapolis, much of it was shot not even a mile from my house. A good half the action or more takes place a the fictitious St. Mary Magdalene Catholic church, which is, in actuality, Incarnation Catholic church, which is just about ten blocks up 38th street from my house and right across the street from where I attended elementary school. And hey, even though this is an ultra-low-budget effort shot on hi-def video, it’s still pretty cool seeing one’s home environs up on the big screen.

Our story is pretty straightforward : hip, liberal young priest  Father John Buerlein (played by Jeremy Sisto, who turned in superb roles as Brenda’s crazy brother Billy on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” as the inattentive-at-best husband in “Waitress,” and as the nominal love interest in Lucky McKee’s outstanding and powerful humanistic horror flick “May, among others—and I guess he’s now one of the leads on “Law And Order,” a show that, even though it’s been on literally forever, I admit I’ve never seen more than two- or three-minute snippets of when flipping through the channels) is hearing confessions in his working-class (and purportedly downtown, even though it’s on 38th) parish one day when a young woman  (who we later learn is named Linda, played by Kristin Chenoweth, who I understand starred on TV’s “The West Wing”) comes in and gives a doozy—she’s there to confess a sin she’s about to commit, namely taking her own life. She then proceeds to tell Father John about her tragic childhood (her stepfather repeatedly raped her beginning when she was twelve) and how this set in motion a chain of events that lead her to eventually become a high-end escort. She’s tired of being a prostitute, though, sees no hope for the future, and has decided to end it all. Why she came to Father John to make this heartfelt (and heart-rending) confession, though, is a mystery that will remain unknown to us until the film’s very last scene, and one that he himself will never uncover (along with her final fate—and we in the audience are in the same boat as him with that one, since the movie never explicitly states whether she goes through with her plan in the end or not, although she sure is ready to).

All Father John sees of her through the confessional is a somewhat large and impressive crucifix  dangling between her (also somewhat large and impressive) cleavage, and when she’s done telling her tale, he rushes out to try and stop her from leaving the church only to find she’s already gone.

The memory of her confession remains with him, though, and in the days that follow, in between attending to his other parish duties such as counseling his flock, administering mass, and what have you, he begins to try to formulate a plan to figure out who this woman was, where he can find her, and how he can save her. Soon he’s trolling the streets of Minneapolis’ (admittedly largely imaginary, but they do a good job of turning the last nominally sleazy block of Hennepin Avenue into it) “red light” district and trying to find any sign of this ethereal woman.

Fearful that he’s getting in over his head emotionally, he relies upon another priest at a decidedly more well-to-do parish for moral support (as well as a loan after he gets mugged), and recruits one of his parishoners, an ex-Gold Gloves boxer, to back him up as he combs our fair city’s “mean” streets in his quest.

His physical search is neatly paralleled with his concurrent emotional and spiritual one, and the juxtaposition of the two is obvious without being heavy-handed. It’s a fine line to walk and Coyle’s tight script and economical direction straddle it perfectly, and Sisto is absolutely dynamite in conveying his character’s quiet inner turmoil that threatens to become out-and-out anguish at any moment. Honestly, we don’t know if he’s more interested in her out of pure concern, sexual attraction, or a deep psychological need on his own part to be a savior. And neither does he. Maybe he’s drawn to her because of her plight, maybe it’s because he gets off on being a hero, maybe the similarities between her story and that of the saint for which his parish is named are too much to ignore and literally compel him to go forward,  or maybe it’s just because of her tits. In truth, of course, it’s all of the above, and only as he begins to resolve all of these conflicting reasons for wanting to find her does he draw closer to her in her final, fateful hours.

Again, the parallels between resolving his own inner conflict and resolving the mystery “on the ground” before it’s too late are in no way subtle, yet handled incredibly effectively. Paradoxically, the direction, scripting, and acting are more subtle and understated than the core of the plot itself.  This is key to the film’s success, because in lesser hands this whole thing could come off as incredibly heavy-handed.

I’ll refrain, like the professional critic I’m not, from giving away too much more (well, okay, I kind of blew a big chunk of the ending already) — suffice to say that Father John learns very little in terms of concrete information as the movie draws to a close, but learns the most important thing that he possibly could—that “closure, ” such as it is, comes from within, and that he can “know” this woman, and know a kind of peace, without ever knowing what really happens to her. The up-in-the-air nature of the ending demands that we as an audience take that lesson to heart, as well, and in that way, it works beautifully. The conclusion is only unsatisfying for us if we allow it to be, if we are more focused on what happens in the movie than we are on what it’s really about.

Understatedly dramatic, turbulent, and gripping, “Into Temptation” is a provocative, thought-provoking and ultimately extremely rewarding piece of work. It speaks softly, yes,  but it also speaks volumes, and it’s a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I’d say the same if it was shot in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—or even St. Paul.

"Sorority Row" Movie Poster

"Sorority Row" Movie Poster

Theta Pi must die!

Pretty good tagline, huh? “Sorority Row,” a remake/update of 1983’s superb “The House On Sorority Row,” does indeed boast a couple of good “zingers” in its “viral” and standard marketing campaigns, the other being “Sisterhood Is Forever.”  They’re direct, to the point, and easy to remember. Enough to pique your interest.  But is that interest ultimately rewarded?

The cast is a testament to the continuing power of nepotism in Hollywood, featuring as it does Rumer Willis (Bruce and Demi’s kid) and Briana Evigan (daughter of Greg, still best remembered as title character B.J. McKay in TV’s “B.J. And The Bear”) among its bevy of young almost-starlets. They each out in good turns as basket-case Ellie and quasi-hero Cassidy, respectively, and are  the only two sisters among a group of five members of the exclusive Theta Pi sorority who share a deadly secret between them to show any sort of remorse for the part they played in a deadly prank gone wrong that left one of their other members at the bottom of a disused mine shaft.

The initial premise of accidentally killing their friend while she’s pretending to be dead is clever enough and fleshed out in much more detail than it was in the original, but in all fairness this remake suffers from some of the same flaws that so many previous entries in the horror classic do-over sweepstakes do : it’s more stylized than it is stylish, it’s trying overly-hard to be “contemporary” and “relevant” while remaining ostensibly true to its “source material,” and has an unfortunate tendency to over-explain things just in case its audience leans too heavily toward the moronic —for instance, we can see with our own two eyes that the killer is using a tricked-out tire iron, there’s really no need for dialogue exposition to confirm that fact, and while we’re at it, there’s no need to keep reminding us of the fact that Megan, the unfortunate victim in question, can’t possible be alive—we know that, too, and when the sisters who dumped her and some of their friends start getting killed off one-by-one on the night of their college graduation, the movie doesn’t even try particularly hard to sell us on the idea that it could be her back from the grave to exact vengeance, so why keep mentioning it as a possibility?

The real identity of the killer is the main source of intrigue here, and while some of the “red herrings” along the way are pretty blatantly absurd (Carrie Fisher as the stereotypical drunk house mother, for instance, never seems plausible as the face beneath the murderer’s graduation gown hood, but they sure do try to sell us on the idea for a little while), it’s nevertheless an interesting enough little mystery, and when the raging psychopath is finally revealed, to give credit where it’s due, it actually is fairly surprising.

The rest of the principal cast—Leah Pipes as super-bitch Jessica,  Jamie Chung as perpetually-cheated-on Claire, and Margo Harshman as drunken uber-slut Chugs—all do well enough with their roles, and director Stewart Hendler keeps things moving at a pretty brisk and at times even suspenseful clip. No one here has anything to be ashamed of, that’s for sure.

But then, there’s nothing that particularly sets this film apart from the passel of teen- and twenty-something-horror out there. It’s involving enough for about 100 minutes, but in no way especially memorable, yet alone groundbreaking. You won’t reflect on it much later, nor be dying to rent it on DVD. It all fades from memory pretty quickly.

It’s not bad, that’s for certain, but it never rises above the level of “acceptably average,” so while your host isn’t willing to go so far as to say you should give this movie a pass, the fact is that you won’t be missing a whole lot if you don’t see it, especially since there’s sure to be something else more or less exactly like it that comes along within the next few weeks.

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

From the very first scene, a nasty and brutal gang-rape perpetrated by a gang of drug-dealing inner-city youth, it’s obvious that writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo’s “Life is Hot in Cracktown” (based on his book of the same name) requires a very strong constitution on the part of any prospective viewer. This is ruthless, cruel, dehumanizing stuff (and for those interested, this scene’s extension by a couple of minutes is the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts (the DVD cover for which is pictured atop this review) of this movie). It’s also depressingly and unavoidably realistic. And the brutality doesn’t stop there—the same gang performs a shockingly obscene forced enema on an old retiree who they routinely terrorize out of his social security checks by any means available. This is every bit as tough to watch as anything in the notorious 70s porn enema-rape flick “Waterpower” starring Jamie Gillis, a movie so steeped in controversy to this day that the identity of its actual director still remains a mystery (although the smart money is on Shaun Costello).

So yeah. Buddy G still hasn’t lost the grindhouse-derived ability to absolutely knock you for a loop that he first displayed in his 1986 masterpiece “Combat Shock”  (and the film boasts a terrific gindhouse-style advertising tagline : “Be Cool. Life is Cool. You’re So Coll In Cracktown.” How awesome is that?). And because of my freakishly high regard for that film, as well as his masterful and criminally-underrated 1996 offering “No Way Home” starring Tim Roth, “Cracktown” is a movie I wanted to not just like, but love. I went into this fully expecting it to be the movie of the year, if not the half-decade. And maybe that’s the problem, because  in the end, what we’ve got here is a decent little indie flick that certainly stands head and shoulders above 98% of what Hollywood is offering, and is more refreshingly honest and unselfconscious than at least the same percentage of today’s independent film offerings, but I still can’t escape the feeling that it’s nowhere near as good as it could, and quite frankly should, have been.

First off, let’s get one thing straight. This isn’t so much Giovinazzo doing his own thing as it is him trying to assume the mantle of Hubert Selby, Jr. In the DVD extras, there’s a pretty interesting little “making-of” featurette where Buddy even says as much, and Selby is listed in the “thank-you”s during the movie’s end credits. Viewed as straight-up homage, in fact, it works just fine, although it ultimately lacks the visceral punch the Selby-scripted of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” or “Requiem for a Dream” because those stories really ripped you apart with their powerful endings, and “Cracktown” is too much a series of “day-in-the-life-of-residents-of-an-inner-city-hellhole” vignettes with often oblique, at best, connections to one another to provide the type of deeply-rooted audience-to-character relation that Selby’s stories use to absolutely rip our fucking guts out. Instead, what we have here are admittedly fascinating glimpses into the lives of admittedly fascinating and painfully realistic characters with no payoffs for any of their stories at the end.

It’s a testament to both Giovinazzo’s talents as a writer-director and the amazing performances of his extremely talented cast that we want to know more about these people, but that doesn’t make the fact that the movie only skims the surface of their stories any less satisfying. That’s as apt a summation I can think of as to why “Cracktown” ultimately feels like a letdown, even though you desperately want it to be anything but.

Taking center stage in this amazingly gifted ensemble is Kerry Washington as Marybeth, a pre-op transsexual and multi-drug (primarily heroin) addict who lives with her small-time burglar husband, Benny (portrayed with understated depth and understanding by Desmond Harrington), and works as a prostitute to finance their mutual habit. Washington is flat-out spectacular in this role and should definitely (but almost equally as definitely won’t) receive serious Oscar consideration for work here. Think about is : this is a woman playing a man living as a woman. She nails the part, my friends, absolutely nails it, and Harrington’s quiet, typical-guy confusion as Benny fruitlessly tries to resolve his heterosexual identity with the fact that the love of his life is, biologically speaking, still a man underpins every word he says and move he makes. It’s one of the most riveting screen relationships I can honestly ever recall seeing.

Other standout performances come from newcomers Victor Razuk as Manny, a struggling young father working two jobs, one as a daytime security officer at a welfare hotel the other as a graveyard-shift clerk at a Mexican convenience store, in an effort to support his wife and baby at home and who dreams of nothing more than saving up enough money to buy a modest starter home for his family, and Evan Ross as Romeo, leader of the aforementioned pack of violent neighborhood drug dealers, who dreams of “making his bones” with the larger gang infrastructure and ends up making a tragic mistake (or was he set up?) in his scramble up the underworld ladder. He’s got an innocent face and burning, seen-too-much-for-his-years eyes, and has a hell of a lot of natural screen charisma. You haven’t seen the last of either of these gifted young actors.

The other major subplot revolves around Edoardo Ballerini and Illeana Douglas as a crack-addicted couple with two kids living in the welfare hotel where Manny works and trying to balance their highly irresponsible lifestyle with some semblance of  parental responsibility — and failing miserably at it. They put in solid turns in their respective roles but are frankly outshone by their on-screen children, especially Ridge Canipe, who plays their son Willy, another wise-beyond-his years boy who forms a bond with a truly heartbreakingly young female child prostitute who works the same corners where he begs for spare change while his folks are off on their numerous benders.

Throw in smaller cameo parts by Lara Flynn Boyle and Brandon Routh as neighborhood junkies, Vondie Curtis Hall as a beat cop, and rapper RZA as a druglord gangbanger,  and you’ve got quite a group of players here. Heck, even the former Mrs. Prince, Mayte Garcia, pops in for a few minutes.

These are characters we never see in movies apart from throwaway “street scenes” where our leading man or lady walks down a dark street or alley and is either propositioned or mugged. These are lives few of us know very much about. They’re written with authenticity, and performed with same. But the plot structure of this movie lets them all down.

We’re given brief glimpses into their lives, trajectories or “arcs” for each of them unfold before us, and in the end, none of them are resolved. Maybe that’s realistic, maybe that’s the way it is, but in the end it feels like Giovinazzo didn’t really know how to end any of these stories, and in that respect it feels more like a documentary about various street people that happens to be performed by actors. It’s refreshing, it’s honest, and it’s authentic—but as I said before, it’s still ultimately unsatisfying.

I appreciate what Buddy G is trying to do here, I really do. It’s a genuinely gutsy piece of filmmaking in so many respects, which is what makes it’s plethora of non-resolutions feel even more like a cop-out. “Combat Shock” didn’t do this, nor did “No Way Home.” And given that our guy Buddy spends most of his time teaching film classes and working in German television these days and so rarely helms a feature film, one can’t help but feel that he missed an opportunity here, and a rare one at that, since there’s literally no telling when he’ll get another chance like this.

The atmosphere in “Cracktown” is undeniable. Giovinazzo absolutely captures the feel of life in the lower east side streets that he based his stories around (while the movie was shot in downtown L.A, you’d never know it so convincing is the world he and his cast have created). You definitely see enough of these people, and their world,  to understand what makes them tick — but you don’t see nearly enough of them to understand why.  As a result, “Life is Hot in Cracktown” makes me eager to read the book it’s  based on to gain a more detailed sense of who these characters are, but I don’t particularly care if I ever see the movie again.

King Frat DVD

King Frat DVD

“Holy Shit! A fart contest!”      — J.J. “Gross-Out” Gumbroski, “King Frat”

Does that quote tell you literally all you need to know about “King Frat” (also released under the titles “Campus King” and “Delta House,” among others)? Probably. But just in case you want some more information—

In 1979, hot on the heels of “Animal House,” some Canadian investors, lead by producers Jack  McGowan  and Reuben Trane, figured they could make a quick buck by knocking off AH’s success and shooting a cheap rush-job imitation with no established(or, for that matter, future) stars,  an low-cost production crew, and, at the time, no script. To that end, they hired screenwriter (and I use that term loosely)  Ron Kurz (credited under the pseudonym of Mark Jackson) and director Ken Wiederhorn (who would go on to helm “Meatballs 2”) , who went on to, respectively, cobble together a “script” and get a cast and crew together to go down to Florida and make a fraternity movie of their own. The rest, as they say, is history.

Who wouldn't respect an insitution of higher learning with a name like this?

Who wouldn't respect an institution of higher learning with a name like this?

At Yellowstream college (Get it?  If you don’t, rest easy, the movie will explain it to you in great detail),  Pi Kappa Delta (or the “Pi-Kaps,” as they’re better known) is the rowdiest, hardest-partying  Greek house on campus. They live to drink and—well, drink some more. And some more. And some more. And some more. I’m sorry, am I repeating myself? Well, so does “King Frat.” A lot. This is a movie that doesn’t rest until each and every “joke” is literally pounded into your head with a goddamn sledgehammer. The Pi Kaps’ head-honcho hellraiser/low-rent John Belushi clone is a guy named J.J.  Gumbroski, better known around campus as “Gross-Out” (played by John DiSanti, who was—get this—42 years old at the time).  Our guy Gross-Out basically has a routine of farting, drinking, eating, drinking some more, farting some more, drinking some more, farting some more, and—okay, you get the idea. Oh,and when he’s not drinking, farting, and occasionally eating, he fucks blow-up dolls. So you basically know everything about Gross-Out that you need to. Suffice to say, when the college announces that they’re having a campus-wide farting contest (with farts measured on the precise scientific instrument known as a “fartometer”—automatic disqualifications issued for “drawing mud”—and yes, you guessed what that means correctly),  Gross-Out is the guy to beat.

And that’s the plot. Really. Okay, there are a few little sidebar items thrown in so the whole thing isn’t over in ten minutes—the Pi-Kaps cruise around campus in their house care (a hearse), Gross-Out moons the dean while driving by, farts on him, and kills him; they have a party; they crash the deans funeral and make off wish his casket and corpse for no other reason than—hell, they can; Gross-Out meets up with an old girlfriend with even more wretched hygienic habits than him; a Pi-Kap named Chief Latrine fills us in on the history of the school’s name (as mentioned earlier) and reveals the secret that the school is built on his tribe’s land; they throw beer cans on the lawn of the preppie jock-asshole house and get in a big fistfight with them towards the end; the new Dean is out to shut down the Pi-Kaps by any means necessary (think “double-secret probation”); the Pi-Kaps go on trial — okay, that’s about it.

I mention these various subplots offhandedly because none of them amount to squat, for the most part, and the movie is really more a strung-together series of scenes than an actual, coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end. Shit just happens. In fact, one could state in all fairness that “King Frat” doesn’t so much as have an ending (it’s implausible as all get-go and completely arrives out of nowhere) as it just stops.

The Pi-Kaps' house car

The Pi-Kaps' house car

All of this probably leads the reader of average or better intelligence to conclude that I think “King Frat” is stupid. I do. In fact, that’s not an opinion, it’s just a fact. “King Frat” is stupid. It’s stupid beyond the mere capacity of language to describe. Said reader of average or better intelligence would then most likely assume that your host hates this movie. That. dear reader of average-or-better-intelligence, is where you’d be wrong.

Gross-Out and his "date"

Gross-Out and his "date"

Fact is, I love “King Frat.” There, I’ve said it. Not in spite of its unparalleled idiocy, but because of it. “King Frat” is truly the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the barrel, and it pretends to be nothing else. It’s not seeking to make you laugh. It’s not seeking to make you like it. Hell, it’s not even seeking to do anything. It just is. If you were going to crank out a quick “Animal House” knock-off and wanted to spend no money doing so, this is exactly the film you would make. Your only hope to get noticed (and “King Frat” did have a modestly profitable run, particularly on the drive-in circuit) is to be grosser, louder, and dumber. You don’t need a plot. You don’t need characterization beyond a few crude stereotypes. You don’t need “motivations” for what takes place. You don’t need anything but the grossest set in movie history, the grossest character possible, the grossest excuse for “humor” the human mind can conceive of, and some people to run the cameras and lights and play the parts. Apparently “King Frat” was made for less than $100,000, and honestly, I don’t know where most of the money went. Probably on developing costs at the lab. And as a viewer, all you need to do is watch the thing. There’s nothing to “understand.” Nothing to think about. The film not only has no plot, it has no point. This in itself is a marvel to behold.

Your host first encountered “King Frat” in its purest form—we had an old beat-up copy of it on VHS at my fraternity house in college. And while “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds” are rightly considered the Holy Grails, if you will,  of all fraternity movies by frat boys, “King Frat” is so mind-bogglingly meritless, tasteless, and clueless that I actually prefer watching it to either of those two (admittedly far better, but what’s that got to do with anything?) films.

"King Frat" t-shirt

"King Frat" t-shirt

In the years since its release, in addition to becoming a staple viewing item in Greek houses everywhere, “King Frat” has also enjoyed a healthy (in terms of size, if not mental capacity) fan following in the UK, where there is apparently quite an interest in American fraternity and sorority “culture” since they don’t really have a direct equivalent to it in the British university system.  Several British dudes on a forum I frequent ( —best Doctor Who forum on the web) have mentioned that this movie was on TV all the time over there for years (although presumably not on the BBC) and that people loved it.  There are also “King Frat” t-shirts, as shown above, and there’s  even a dedicated fan group for it among the Netflix movie “communities.” One thing there never was, though, at least in the US, was a “King Frat” DVD release—

—until now, that is (come on, you just knew that was coming). While it’s been a popular cult cinema item on Region 2 DVD in the UK for years, it’s never been released here until this year, when we have been “blessed” with not one, but two “King Frat” releases in less than 6 months’ time.

The first, as pictured at the top of this review, came out in May from an outfit I’ve never heard of before (and presumably never will again) called New Star video. It’s a bare-bones release with no extras, and looks like a direct-from-VHS transfer. Which is absolutely appropriate, when you think about it (or even when you don’t). Crap should look and sound like crap. Next up, though, as pictured below—-

Saturn Drive-In "Cheering Section / King Frat" Double Feature DVD

Saturn Drive-In "Cheering Section / King Frat" Double Feature DVD

—is a release headed our way next month from the (I thought defunct since the days of VHS) Saturn label, who are back on the scene with a new series of low-budget in-no-way-gems under the “Saturn Drive-In” tagline. These will be double feature releases and “King Frat” is paired with a movie I know nothing about (but it’s safe to assume it’s another college “comedy”) called “Cheering Section.”  I have no idea what this will look like or sound like, but I’m betting that a widescreen anamorphic transfer and a 5.1 surround mix aren’t in the works.

I’ll leave you with an anecdote direct from the IMDB. A guy posting on there was apparently a member of the band that played in the party scene in the film. He and his bandmates went to see the film when it came out in their area, and the audience reaction was about what you’d expect. Thrown popcorn, soda, even a few tomatoes. An usher (remember them?) walking down the aisles shortly before the movie was over recognized the guys from the movie and, fearing for their safety,   offered to get them bags to put over their heads so they could leave the theater without being recognized.

And that,  like the line from Gross-Out quoted at the beginning, probably tells you everything you need to know about “King Frat.” So we’re back where we started, a perfect circle. I didn’t even come up with a coherent reason along the way for why I like this movie, let alone why you should see it. I just scribbled down a run-down that has  no beginning, no middle, no end, and quite likely no point.  More by accident than design, it seems  I’ve just written the perfect “King Frat” review.