”Aging Gen-Xer Doesn’t Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore” read a headline in The Onion last year, and, no joke, it might as well have been about me. I don’t find bad movies funny anymore, not really. The ones I grew up with can still make me laugh—I was probably the first person to order a copy of the killer tree flick From Hell It Came when the Warner Archive pulped it out. No one’s going to reclaim that one from the junkpile, as happened to Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda, and the rest of Ed Wood’s resume when critics decided it was progressive, transgressive, and ahead of its time. One man’s trash really is one man’s treasure.
I love my killer trees and my Woods. They’re earnest in their aims and vast in their shortcomings. If nothing else they’re not boring-bad, which I’ve come to realize is the cardinal sin of any movie, and one that’s committed weekly. I’ve also wised up and learned that if a filmmaker can’t make a good movie, he can fake making a good-bad one, in the hope that some sort of cult will form around it. So I’m happy to let Gen-Y be the canary in the coalmine and sniff out things like The Room and Birdemic, the much-hyped new ”worst movies of all time.” Finding bad movies to love is a rite of passage, like shoplifting candy bars from the corner drugstore, and every generation is entitled to pick its own favorites.
I’ve seen bits and pieces of Troll 2 (1990). I’ve seen all of Best Worst Movie, an engaging documentary written, produced, and directed by Michael Paul Stephenson, who was ten years old when he and the rest of an amateur-to-amateurish cast starred in it. Turns out few of them had paid much attention to it since it went direct to VHS and onto cable twenty years ago, to their mortification. Association with a movie that has the production values of a children’s birthday party, that to the best anyone can make out concerns vegetarian creatures that need to turn their victims into plants to consume them, is practically grounds for witness protection. Even the title, optimistically designed to cash in on a 1986 Gremlins knockoff that Julia Louis-Dreyfus would rather forget, is gibberish, as the extremely poorly masked monsters are identified as goblins, or ”nilbog,” to throw unsuspecting humans off their trail. What they didn’t realize is that kids not much older than Stephenson embraced it in the interim, and, having grown up to be net-savvy bad movie junkies, film programmers, and members of the comic troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, turned it into a thriving phenomenon.
Best Worst Movie is about those same actors, plucked from and sent back into obscurity, getting their goblin on for Troll 2 fans. Stephenson focuses his film on his movie dad, George Hardy. A dentist by trade, who was living in Salt Lake City at the time Troll 2 came to town, Hardy had the acting bug, and responded to an open audition that led to a key role in the latest film by director Claudio Fragasso. But appearing in a movie from the Italian version of schlockmeister Uwe Boll, an auteur whose pseudonymous credits included Monster Dog (with Alice Cooper), Zombie 4: After Death, and House 5, all but guaranteed that you weren’t going to get much higher than the ground beneath the lowest rung of the showbiz ladder. So Hardy, a gregarious Southerner weirdly matched with his Western family in the movie, returned to his native Alabama, set up a successful practice, and regarded Troll 2 as something of a phantom limb, twitching every so often. ”He’s no Cary Grant,” scoffs his mother, gingerly, of her son’s one and only Internet Movie Database credit.
When Troll 2 bottomed out on the IMDb, becoming its lowest-rated title, George’s ascent into fandom began. As the good ol’ boy disarms hip urban audiences at festivals with his easy charm, we meet his fellow castmembers, one of whom, Don, was furloughed from a local mental institution to appear in the film. When the actors reunite with Fragasso on location at the scene of the crime it’s clear that Don had traded one asylum for another. With a poker face the director asserts that he was trying to make a ”parable about a family that defends itself from being eaten,” and that the ”dog-actors” messed it up, by not following his every command. ”I call action, you come and you do,” was a typical example of his motivational technique, delivered in his thickly accented English. He scowls through his personal appearances at Troll 2 gatherings, curtly dismissing questioners who ask about its corn-cob sex scene, potato sack nilbogs, and cultural peculiarities.
George, however, enjoys the attention. He gets the joke—that is, until it gets him. A benefit screening for his local school system is met with stares of disbelief. An appearance at a horror movie convention in Birmingham, UK, where the film is unknown, goes badly, and George can no longer contain his disgust with the genre. In the film’s most poignant scene, George shakes hands with Troll 2 fan John Schneider, the sort of actor he might have been had he not decided to follow his father’s advice and find a saner profession. There is, however, a sweet coda to George’s misadventures as the Bruce Campbell of Troll 2.
Best Worst Movie is generously furnished with clips from the film, and I think my seen-it-all eyes have seen enough. It’s terrible—but Stephenson, who lived it, has done an excellent job showing how a flick relegated to the ”Holy Fucking Shit!” aisle of at least one video store can work its strange magic, and how really bad movies win our lifelong affection. The spell is so potent that with an ersatz Troll 3 already out there, Fragasso has announced—holy fucking shit!—Troll 2: Part 2, to feature the original cast. What depths will it sink to? Stephenson may need a diving bell to record how much lower it will go.
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Speaking of best worst movies, maybe I should round up the survivors for my own documentary:
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Iron Man 2 is neither a best nor a worst movie. It’s product, assembled to beef up bottom lines, ricochet around the ancillary markets for awhile, then turn up on AMC in a commercials-packed three-hour time slot.
That said (and it felt good to say it, a blow against the annual summer fun machine) it isn’t objectionable product. I do have qualms about Bill O’Reilly and Christiane Amanpour being in the movie; I assume that kind of move builds ”brand awareness,” but whatever credibility they have as journalists is cheapened (and having blustery Bill pop up unexpectedly is like encountering Freddy on Elm Street). For a film that luxuriates in the Malibu-to-Monaco lifestyle of a playboy megalomaniac, as if the world economy didn’t collapse months after the origins story hit it big, not to be terribly annoying otherwise is an accomplishment. But maybe I’m the one who needs to lighten up.
I wasn’t crazy about Iron Man (and, yes, I’ve been at this long enough to be reviewing sequels) but its lighter-weight tone struck a chord with viewers sick of superheroic self-importance, and the dog-actors were pedigree. The rust of pomposity threatens to creep over the new one—the flippant peacekeeper Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) faces death from faulty wiring, and has daddy issues. Keeping the funk at bay are attempts to close the Iron Man gap by the U.S. government, a panache-challenged fellow fat cat (an amusing Sam Rockwell, enjoying the same boxoffice boost Jeff Bridges got from the first part), and a vengeful Russian humongous. The least convincing movie scientist since Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough, Mickey Rourke makes up for in brawn what he lacks in pocket protectors, and is, well, electrifying thrashing ”energy whips” around. Talk about Hollywood endings: in their Kryptonite era of dysfunction who could have imagined Downey, Jr. and Rourke headlining a fantasy franchise?
The money scene is where their turbocharged characters meet, a racetrack face-off staged with a genuine pulse by director (and co-star) Jon Favreau. There’s been some disappointment over the film’s relative lack of action, as if that’s a bad thing. When the whammies come, as Stark’s lavish reboot of the 1964 New York World’s Fair is invaded by copycat robots, they’re nothing more than retreads of Iron Man’s, times 50. The movie comes dangerously close to the gassy bloat of the Spider-Man and X-Men threequels when it tries to wow us with the usual ”spectacle” jazz, or takes on supporting characters, including Scarlett Johansson’s mysterious secretary, like ballast. (Replacing Terrence Howard, Don Cheadle just looks glum, marooned in the hardware.)
What keeps the movie, busily plotted by actor-writer Justin Theroux, from Iron deficiency is its fleeting pleasures, like Garry Shandling’s politico mixing it up with Stark, Rockwell’s jealous fuming on the sidelines, and the screwball fizz between Stark and the frazzled Pepper Potts. Pepper Potts may be the worst name ever for a Marvel heroine, but Gwyneth Paltrow, showing the comic facility of her mother Blythe Danner, is a marvel in the part. Apparently she and her co-star improvise a lot of their banter—just think how far they’d go if they had a script they could work with rather than against.
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