Archive for September 17, 2009

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 (http://www.gallifreybase.com —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.