Archive for May, 2014

guru

When people ask me where I grabbed my online nom de plume from, I usually give ’em an honest answer — I pulled it right out of my ass. It sounded good, it fit with the kind of movies I (mostly) wanted to talk about, and there you have it. No moment of inspiration. No playing around with various ideas and mixing and matching until I came up with the best choice. None of that shit. I thought of it a few seconds before I wrote my first-ever review five or six years back now, and stuck with it. I found out later that there was a guy who called himself the Film Guru who ran a website that he’d shuttered years earlier, and if I’d known about him I probably would have picked a different blogging handle to avoid sounding similar to anybody else. By the time I was made aware of his (former) presence, though, it was too late — I was already up and running, so the name stayed.

All of which is to say that those (admittedly few) who have asked me if it’s some sort of tribute to Staten Island no-budget auteur Andy Milligan’s 1970 effort Guru, The Mad Monk are barking up the wrong tree. I like Milligan’s films, to be sure (this one included), but I felt no need to pay any kind of homage to the guy simply because — shit, I’ve read Jimmy McDonough’s superb bio The Ghastly One, and much as I have a strange kind of respect for Milligan as a filmmaker, I have no respect at all for him as human being. If you’ve read the book yourself, you probably know why — if you haven’t, suffice to say that there’s very little he did in life that’s worthy of any sort of emulation. Andy was a seriously messed-up character who had a lot of issues and needed a lot of help.

But that’s what makes his cinematic work so singularly fucking compelling, isn’t it? Beyond the held-together-with-spit-and-polish production values that are beneath even community theater standards, there’s a vibe to all of Milligan’s work that just can’t be faked or mimicked. There’s no mistaking a bad film made by Andy Milligan for a bad film made by anyone else. From the tone-deaf dialogue to the barely-sublimated misanthropy to the boiling cauldron of sexual neuroses to the far-less-than-authentic period settings, his movies well and truly inhabit a universe of their own. Thank goodness.

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Getting back to Guru, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would seriously argue that it’s anything like a standout effort, even in comparison to other Milligan flicks (although there a number others that are worse, to be sure), but as a microcosmic representation of everything that made the moral, sexual, emotional, and physical reprobate’s work so positively unique, it measures up fairly well. In fact, if I were tasked with the unenviable job of exposing an unsuspecting friend to Andy’s work for the first time, this might be the film I’d choose. Not because it deserves to be seen more than the others, but simply because it’s a reasonably digestible distillation of his toxic psychological stew.

Consider : on the fictitious island penal colony of Mortavia in the year 1480, God’s punishment of the wicked is overseen by our titular sadistic monk (played with gleeful relish by Milligan stalwart Neil Flanagan), a guy who clearly loves his job a little too much, and he gets plenty of help in meting out twisted justice from his cast of sidekicks that includes the most — well, Igor-ish Igor you’re ever going to come across (played by Jack Spencer, who’s hamming it up to the nines), the maliciously deviant lesbian vampire Lady Olga (Jaqueline Webb) and kind-hearted jailer Carl (Paul Lieber), who takes a particular liking to one of his charges, the distraught Nadja (Judith Israel),  even though the actor portraying him quite obviously has no romantic or sexual interest in women whatsoever. Nevertheless, our fair maiden, who’s being held captive for the crime of infanticide (as in, getting an abortion) stirs something deep in Carl’s heart, if not his loins, and his attempt to save her from his depraved employer’s clutches triggers off a series of events that ultimately culminates in a characteristically-poorly-realized bloodbath of a conclusion that’s loaded with a generous amount of the least-convincing gore effects you’re ever likely to see.

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There’s no doubt about it, friends, every aspect of Milligan’s sexual psychopathology is on display here, from cruel sadism to casual violence to stereotypically effeminate meekness to a depraved and misogynistic view of women as blood-draining mistresses of the dark to gender role confusion to self-loathing rooted  in one’s same-sex attraction — he may spread it out over numerous characters and situations, but it was all a part of what made Andy who he was, and the film is essentially an autobiographical piece dressed in lame period-drama trappings (look for the medieval peasant in corduroy pants, for instance). The themes explored here are far from universal in society, but they’re positively ubiquitous elements of Milligan’s cinematic oeuvre. He was his films and his films were him; the two are well and truly inseperable.

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Plenty of right-thinking people understandably feel a pretty harsh recoil effect when exposed this directly to the inner workings of a mind this troubled and troublesome, especially when its effect is compounded by an incessantly droning library-track musical score and haphazardly pieced together on cheap 16mm short ends before being left to simmer in, and eventually boil over with, a truly misanthropic “all of you are hopelessly fucked and so am I, but at least I don’t care” attitude, but if you can stomach what our short-order cook from hell is serving, you’ll find the dish to be — not exactly appetizing, but at least palatable, especially given the fact that he usually served it up in small (if packed-to-the-rafters) doses.  Guru, for instance, clocks in at just under 56 minutes — and honestly, that’s plenty for one sitting.

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Don’t be surprised if you eventually come back for more, though. Having endured one trip into and through the Milligan mindscape, one is often strangely compelled to make numerous return visits. After all, you survived it once, who says you can’t do it again? Which probably isn’t so terribly different from the feeling one gets when reading my reviews. So maybe this Guru guy is a distant ancestor of mine after all. Here’s the film in its entirety courtesy of a YouTube poster who goes by the delightful handle of “lordhighexecutioner” (it’s also available as a bare-bones, full-frame, mono-sound DVD release from RetroMedia, but why not check it out for free first?), so give it a look and let me know if you see any family resemblance :

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Does anybody remember this effort from first-time writer/director Scott Walker (not to be confused with the musical genius of the same name) hitting theaters at all? I sure don’t, and even though my memory is nowhere near what it once was — basically because I’m learning over time to just plain forget shit I don’t care about — I think I’d have at least some dim recollection of a serial killer flick starring semi-A-list talent like Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and Vanessa Hudgens (and featuring supporting turns from the likes of Radha Mitchell and Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris) playing at the multiplexes in my area if, indeed, it ever did so. Hell, it sounds like the kind of thing I might even go see.

In any case, my best bet is that the 2013 release date attached to The Frozen Ground is a home video release date, because the only actual information I can glean about this film’s box office take from IMDB is some shit about how much business it did in the Netherlands, which is probably the only place where it was released on the big screen. I’m not sure I’d choose to play it that way if I were one of the producers and financiers of this thing given it cost a reported $27 million to make, but whatever. Not my call. Let’s just assume, then, that this was, for all intents and purposes, a DTV feature by the time it came out, even if it didn’t start out as one . Sound fair?

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Granted, whether or not any particular movie ever played theaters shouldn’t have any sort of effect on how we judge its relative merits, but who are we kidding here? I flat-out expect less from straight-to-DVD numbers than I do from theatrical releases, and I’m betting that you do, as well. Which is what makes a fair-minded analysis of Walker’s flick so difficult, because as a medium-budget theatrical release it’s certainly no great shakes, but as a bigger-budget DTV feature, it’s actually not too bad.

Fair warning, though : if you’re bored to death by police procedurals, The Frozen Ground won’t do much for you. We know the identity of the killer from the outset (it’s Cusack, doing a reasonably good job portraying infamous Alaska serial murderer Robert Hansen, which is not a name I’d ever want to give a kid being another Robert Hansen was also America’s most notorious modern-day turncoat spy), so the main focus here is on how Cage, in his role as state trooper Jack Halcombe, brings him in with the aid of the psycho’s only known escapee, streetwise prostitute Cindy Paulson (Hudgens). Oh, and while Halcombe’s on the hunt for Cindy to give him a positive ID on her assailant, Hansen himself and a paid lackey are hot on her trail as well, trying to silence her permanently before she can squeal.

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Sound familiar? I thought so. It may be based on a true story, but in essence The Frozen Ground is Vice Squad meets Alaska State Troopers. And that brings up the problem of unfortunate comparisons because, solid as Cusack is (and so is everyone else if I gotta be completely honest — even Cage, who has mailed it in time and time again in too many higher-profile-efforts-than-this-one to mention), he ain’t no Wings Hauser. If you’ve never seen Ramrod’s harrowing pursuit of Princess in Gary Sherman’s uber-sleazy 1982 exploitation classic for yourself, then the menace oozing from this flick will probably be enough, but if you have, well — nothing else is ever going to measure up, is it?

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True crime fans will, needless to say, probably find a bit more to like here than the average movie-goer, but some reasonably compelling performances, gorgeous Alaska shooting locales (even though that state’s been done to death in recent years, particularly on “reality” TV) and a decent number of entirely-expected-but-nonetheless-well-handled twists and turns make for a pleasant enough time being exposed to a pretty fucking unpleasant story. Like I say, if I’d shelled out 8 or 10 bucks (ore more, given today’s prices) to see this thing in a theater I’d have left feeling somewhat underwhelmed, but given that I caught it on Netflix (sorry, no DVD or Blu-Ray specifications included with this review), I was fairly satisfied with everything as a whole. That might not constitute the most overwhelming endorsement by any means, but if you’re in the mood for something that’s just sorta “good enough,” you could certainly do a lot worse than this.

I take a look at “X-Men : Days Of Future Past” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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At this point, I freely admit to being a little bit confused : X-Men : Days Of Future Past opens to a somewhat lower box office take than The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did, which was only slightly behind the opening-frame receipts generated for Captain America : The Winter Soldier, and yet Cap and the X-Men are both considered “successes,” while Spidey’s considered a “disappointment” — even though, last I checked, its’ total gross ticket sales were only about $50 million behind Cap’s despite the fact that it opened a full month later?    Chances are probably good  that it will even end up closing the gap here at some point, but no matter — the die appears to have  already been cast. The stench of that rat I mentioned smelling in my Spider-Man review a couple weeks back? It’s getting a lot stronger now.

Needless to say, I’ve got…

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I take a look at the long-awaited first issue of Howard Chaykin’s “The Shadow : Midnight In Moscow” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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Believe it or not, friends,  for a guy who has something of a reputation for being a curmudgeon, sometimes I’m so goddamn happy that I don’t have a care in the world. Seriously. Life can be just perfect, regardless of whatever else is going on. Let me tell you why today was just such an occasion.

I went to the comic shop — it’s new comic Wednesday, so nothing unusual about that — and there it was : the first issue of Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow : Midnight In Moscow from Dynamite Entertainment, the long-promised six-part series that sees one of the masters of the medium return to the character that he single-handedly re-defined nearly 30 years ago in the pages of the instantly-legendary The Shadow : Blood & Judgment, And ya know what? It feels like he never left.

Probably because, in a very real sense, he never…

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I won’t mice words — I fucking hate the games Marvel is playing with all the numbering on their titles these days. Issue numbers like “27.Now” are stupid enough, but when we’re getting books marked with big red “#1″‘s in the upper right-hand corner that then say they’re actually number 23 in the lower right-hand corner, well — things are getting pretty out of hand. Add in the constant relaunches of long-standing titles, the re-launches of less-long-running-titles that still make no sense (Wolverine ran 13 issues before starting over at #1 —with the same writer continuing the same storyline, while Daredevil ended its last run after 34 issues before starting all over again with the same writer and artist both), and one could make an argument that the situation isn’t just dire, it’s well and truly out of control.

Marvel’s argument is that the constant re-numbering is essential for providing new “jumping-on points” for the new readers they’re trying (and still largely failing) to attract, but I call bullshit on that. If you were walking into a comic shop for the first time, what would you be more likely to pick up? An issue clearly marked as being #46, or one that was marked as #46 and #1 on the same cover? The former, at least, you can understand — the latter will just confuse the hell out of you. Marvel provides a full-page recap of the ongoing story on the first page of all their books anyway, so this whole “let’s make  a new number one every year so new readers won’t feel lost” line of “reasoning” is patent nonsense, anyway.

Still, allow me to offer a humble suggestion for a solution to this whole dilemma — rather than try to make it easy for new readers to “get into comics” by pumping the market full of endless phony “first” issues, bring in new readers by making sure each issue of every comic you make is good so that people actually want to buy it. What’s more likely to make a long-term reader out of somebody — a 53rd issue that’s got great story and art and hooks them for the long haul, or a horseshit issue #1 with a lame story and generic art that people feel ripped off for ever having bought? It doesn’t matter what the number on the front cover says to either a new reader or an already-existing one — if a book sucks, people will drop it, and if it’s good, they’ll be back for more.

Marvel’s outrageous $3.99 cover prices and the shoddiness of their physical product aren’t helping matters any, either — their books don’t even have glossy covers anymore and are printed on the same flimsy, barely-better-than-newsprint paper as the interior pages. I’d rather pay, say, $1.99 for a book with a glossy cover and newsprint on the inside than shell out four bucks for what amounts to a lower-quality, cheaper product. Seriously, these comics they’re cranking out now are more disposable-looking,  and crummier, than old-school 50-cent newsprint books ever were.

But here, perhaps, I may have digressed a bit — let’s get back to this ongoing numbering fiasco. Hot on the heels of the newly-relaunched Amazing Spider-Man #1, a book which replaces the just-over-a-year-old Superior Spider-Man on the stands (and which wrapped at issue #31, for those keeping score at home) comes a five-issue min-series-within-a-series called “Learning To Crawl,” which takes Peter Parker (who’s just made his less-than-triumphant return in the “main” Spidey book after being kicked out of his own body by Doctor Octopus for the past year) back to his humble beginnings and purportedly gives us “new insight” into his formative years. The numbering for this series is guaranteed to perplex these largely-non-existent “new readers” Marvel is trying to attract, though, since it’s not numbered as The Amazing Spider-Man #2, or even as Spider-Man : Learning To Crawl #1, but is going out, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom, as The Amazing Spider-Man #1.1, with subsequent issues being #1.2, #1.3, etc. Meanwhile, right next to it on the stands, The Amazing Spider-Man will continue to proceed with its standard increasing numbering, with issue #2 slated to arrive in stores next week, followed two weeks after that by #3, and two weeks after that by — well, you get the idea.

Just remember — all this is supposed to make getting into comics “easier” for new readers than it would be if they just had a book with numbering that actually made sense.

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All that aside, I guess the main thing folks want to know about The Amazing Spider-Man #1.1  is whether or not it’s actually any good and whether there’s really anything to be gained by going back and revisiting Spidey’s origins one more time. After all, Steve Ditko (and, I guess to some extent — though not nearly as great an extent as he’s always claimed — Stan Lee) did a pretty good job of things back in issue #15 of Amazing Fantasy, and this is definitely a story that doesn’t, in any way, need to be told again, does it? But comics going “back to their roots” has been positively de riguer  ever since Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman : Year One nearly thirty years ago, and while that still remains the “gold standard,” in my book, for revisionist origin stories, the fact is that, much as I hate to admit it, some fairly decent yarns have been spun by other creators who see  value in taking yet another look at a super-hero’s formative years. Usually, strangely enough, these tend to be Batman stories — think of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s seminal Batman : The Long Halloween and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s currently-ongoing (and really pretty damn good) Batman : Zero Year — but hey, there’s no reason why it won’t work for other characters if the right folks are driving the bus, right?

Unfortunately, it’s Dan Slott at the wheel of this “Spidey Year One,” and you pretty much know what you’re going to get from him — mediocrity, angst, and clumsy dialogue. All of which is in evidence here in the first chapter of “Learning To Crawl,” which largely focuses on Peter Parker’s efforts to make it in the world of show business in order to financially provide for his ailing Aunt May now that her husband is out of the picture thanks to our guy Pete’s cowardly and egotistical inaction. How can he juggle school, freelance work for the Daily Bugle, being a super-hero, and being the man of the house, all while feeling sorry for himself for letting the guy that would go on to murder his uncle escape?

Dear God — who cares? We’ve seen seen this done before, we’ve seen this done better, and we’ve seen this done in 15 pages. What’s there to be gained by shoe-horning into continuity some “story that’s never been told” over the course of five issues (or five .issues as the case may be)? So far, nothing that I can see. Our opening chapter ends on a cliffhanger that shows some confused rich kid who’s been “inspired” by his new idol, Spider-Man, into donning a mask and costume himself in order to join the “war on crime,” but it’s not enough to keep the average reader on pins and needles waiting for the next installment. I guess it’s a “new wrinkle” and all, but it comes after 20 pages of Uncle Ben’s funeral, Peter blowing off a party at Liz Allan’s because he’s got to perform as Spider-Man on TV, Aunt May making breakfast, Peter getting in trouble for missing classes — the usual shit. All played out against a backdrop of “I’m the most lonely, confused, misunderstood teenager in the fucking world, and no girl is ever gonna like me.” We’ve been hearing that one for, what? 50-plus years now?

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Still, things are at least better on the art front here. Penciller/inker Ramon Perez absolutely knocks it out of the park as he presents this story in a heavily revisionist, Ditko-esque style that pays homage to what’s gone before while adding a pleasing, but hardly overbearing, modern twist. This book looks like it would be just as at home in 1964 as it is in 2014, and Perez has, not to sound too grandiose, produced some genuinely timeless imagery. I may not ever want to read this comic again, but it sure is fun to look at over and over. Wrap it all up in a cover by supposed “living legend” Alex Ross that I actually like (I can’t say that about a lot of Ross’ work. although I know that puts me in a tiny minority), and you’ve got a visual feast on your hands here, people. It’s just too bad it amounts to little more than putting lipstick on a pig.

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All in all, it’s fair to say that events in the “Spider-verse” in general are leaving me cold lately. While I actually enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 more than a lot of folks seem to have, and frankly more than I was expecting to, the printed-page exploits of everyone’s favorite wall-crawler are definitely headed in the wrong direction. We’ve got Peter Parker back just as things in Superior were threatening to make the character interesting again, a totally unnecessary (if lavishly well-illustrated) “previously untold” origin story with stupid issue numbering, another relaunch of the main title that probably won’t last two years before they do it all over again, and Dan Slott still in place as the franchise’s chief “caretaker.” Honestly, it’s  hard to imagine a more depressing scenario.

And that, I think, is my cue to wrap this review up. I’m whining so damn much that I’m starting to sound eerily like Peter Parker.

I take a look at Gareth Edwards’ new “Godzilla” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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Here’s the thing when it comes to any and all Westernized takes on Japan’s most famous movie monster — Hollywood’s just never going to “get it” because, frankly, it can’t. Oh, sure, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla is head and shoulders above Roland Emmerich’s 1998 abomination of a film, but the simple fact is that the Big Green Guy and all of his scaly, serpentine brethren that came to us courtesy of the venerable Toho studios were, at their core, celluloid manifestations of a deep-seated atomic angst that only a country that had been on the receiving end of, as Sting put it, “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” could ever really give birth to. And while Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa character does, in fact, explicitly mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki in this flick, it’s pure window dressing — Edwards and screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham didn’t actually live through a time…

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Once in awhile a movie gets so roundly panned that I find myself wanting to watch the thing just to see if it’s anywhere near as bad as everyone claims it is. You probably know the feeling. And once in awhile, it turns out everybody else was right.

Such is the case with German straight-to-video schlockmeister Ulli Lommel’s 2007 release Curse Of The Zodiac, a DTV quickie that he rushed into production to capitalize on the then-current hubbub surrounding David Fincher’s more economically-titled (and obviously far superior) Zodiac and that boasts an IMDB score of 1.3 on the old “1 to 10” scale. I’ve been on something of a Zodiac kick lately, having watched Fincher’s flick three times in the last few months, and immersing myself in such second- (or lower-) tiered fare as 1971’s The Zodiac Killer and two wretched films hailing from 2005, The Zodiac (which sort of pretends to be a “legit” production), and Ulli Lommel’s The Zodiac Killer (which doesn’t,  given that it was directed by you-know-who). I hadn’t taken the plunge with this one, though, just because — well, what’s the point, really?

And I can safely say the same thing now, after having seen — or rather endured — it. Seriously, even by out guy Ulli’s low standards, Curse Of The Zodiac  is dull, pointless, plodding shit. We all know “The Big Z” was never caught, of course, so the idea here is apparently that he’s come out of retirement to kill more people because — well, he just has. And so he does. Mostly it’s women who are in bad relationships that he seems to be targeting, and that’s about all you need to know, apart from the fact that pretty much all we see of our guy is the back of his fucking head (he’s apparently got some mystical code letters tattooed on his neck) and that, for some reason, Lommel decided to shoot at least half this film at pain-in-the-ass sideways angles. Keep the Excedrin handy, you’re gonna need it.

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On a purely logical level, this flick makes no sense simply due to the fact that the guy playing Zodiac, one Jack Quinn, was probably about 4 years old when the original murders his character is  supposed to have committed took place, but you can conveniently overlook that little hiccup if you just do what I should have done and shut this fucker off about ten minutes in. Or better yet, don’t even start watching it in the first place.

If you’re a hard-core Lommel fan — please! Get a real hobby! — you might recognize a few of the ladies in this one, like Cassandra Church, Victoria Ullman, and Lyn Beausoleil , from some of the director’s other “efforts,” but by and large this is a no-name cast with no talent lifelessly playing out pointless murder scenes and even more pointless (but usually mercifully quick) “character set-up” bits. If you’re not the Zodiac himself, you’re in this one to get killed, plain and simple, and if you are the Zodiac himself, you’ve got a pretty easy gig because you really don’t have to show your face or even speak much — the guy with the impenetrably thick German accent who was hired to mouth out what’s supposedly going on inside your head will take care of all of that for you. Amazing the little perks you can add to a flick when you’ve got a two million dollar budget.

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Wait a minute, did I just say a two million dollar budget? That’s what the IMDB claims this shitstorm cost, but don’t ask me where it all went, because the low-rent videography, lower-rent sets, and lowest-rent-of-all actors couldn’t — or at least shouldn’t — have cost more than a few grand, combined. Seriously, there are student projects coming out every day with more by way of professional merit than this movie.

All of which could be forgiven, of course, if Curse Of The Zodiac  was a “good” bad film, or “so bad it’s good,” or any other descriptive term that genre hack “critics” (you know, like me) like to trot out to describe garbage that we know is garbage but still enjoy anyway. Sadly,  this one never rises to that level (not does it even appear to be trying to) and just stays near-unwatchably bad from start to finish.

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In between shit zombie and supernatural flicks, Lommel has been doing some of this “true-crime-inspired” garbage for the better part of a decade now, with films such as B.T.K. KillerGreen River KillerBlack DahliaSon Of SamD.C. Sniper, and, most recently, Manson Family Cult, in addition to his two Zodiac-themed numbers,  padding his resume (and, one would assume, his wallet). It pains me to admit that I’ve sat through four of these, and this one’s by far the worst of a bad bunch. It’s available on DVD, but don’t waste your time on that, just stream it on Netflix if you absolutely must blow off my advice and subject yourself to this stream of sorry indignities. I did my part by trying to warn you, from here on out I wash my hands of the matter — I just wish that I could scrub the wretched memory of this thing from my brain as easily.