Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010)

We have hit the nadir, everyone.

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The worst offense of Puppet Master: Axis of Evil isn’t really that it’s very bad, but that it’s very generically bad. Full Moon’s output the past decade or so has generally been a sour crop, but at least even Evil Bong and Gingerdead Man have that surreal, home-movie-filmed-in-your-garage quality to them that, for me at any rate, salvages a few of Full Moon’s movies in the 21st century. Plus for Evil Bong and Gingerdead Man an awesome voice for the titular bong and Gary Busey, respectively. With Axis of Evil, it’s like you’re getting your bad movie served watered down and mixed with flat soda to boot. Even the parts of it that are downright offensive—which we’ll get to, definitely—are somehow lazily, uncommittingly offensive.

Given Charles Band’s obsession with comics, I suspect this movie is the oddest Captain America adaptation ever, even more so than that Reb Brown ’70s Captain America movie where he doesn’t have a costume and only gets into a fight once. See, our new puppet master is Danny (Levi Fielher). He only wants to join his brother Don (Taylor M. Graham) who is fighting as a soldier fighting in World War II, but Danny was crippled by polio. Instead Danny switches between living with his mother Elma (Erica Shaffer) in Los Angeles and working for his uncle, who owns the Bodega Bay Inn.

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Of course, instead of being exposed to a secret formula developed by a Nazi defector, Danny happens to not only befriend Andre Toulon, but witnesses him being menaced by two German agents and finds his body (using footage from Puppetmaster intercut less than seamlessly with original footage). Danny retrieves Andre Toulon’s hidden cabinet and returns to Los Angeles with it. He manages to work out how to revive the puppets—although he tells Don he doesn’t have time to fix Six-Shooter’s arms, a bit of handwaving so clumsy that his dialogue might as well have been “We just didn’t have the budget to animate Six-Shooter.”

Like most Puppet Master protagonists, Danny is surprisingly nonplussed at the prospect of living, sentient puppets, but to be fair he does have other problems. Danny gets even more self-conscious when he visits his girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher), who works in a bomb factory, and is berated by her boss, Mr. Gifford (Mike Brooks), for—somehow not being able to disguise his limp long enough he can join the army and keep fighting throughout the war? I don’t know; “it was a different time” and all,  but berating a disabled polio survivor for somehow not miraculously deceiving the US Army into letting him join the war effort seems politically incorrect even for the 1940s. Honestly, what really seals this as a bad horror movie is that Mr. Gifford is set up as such an asshole, but he suffers no well-deserved karmic death.

Luckily, though, Danny is going to be given a shot at serving the war effort, whether he wants to or not. He recognizes one of Beth’s co-workers as one of the two men sent to kill Andre Toulon, Max (Tom Sondoval), and that gives him enough thread to untangle a conspiracy between Max and a Japanese spy, Ozu (Ada Chao), to blow up the very same factory Beth happens to work in. When Danny’s family pays the price for his nosiness and Beth is kidnapped, it’s time to unleash Toulon’s puppets, including a new one of Danny’s own making containing the consciousness of his freshly murdered brother…

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I already pointed out the Captain America parallels, but the whole affair really does feel like a filmed Golden or Silver Age Marvel superhero origin story. You could replace Mr. Gifford with “Flash” Thompson or any of the nameless bullies who always appear in Stan Lee-penned origin stories, for example. The filmmakers also aren’t shy about recreating the casual racism of both the era and the comics from it. Danny and Don drop the “Jap” and the “Kraut” words like…well, like Americans from the time would have said them.

Unfortunately, the movie goes a little too far in its quest for uncomfortable authenticity. Alright, followers of this blog—all twelve of you—know that I’m not one of those cultural commentators to casually cry racism or misogyny or homophobia. Also I’m sure what the screenwriter, perhaps at the prompting of Charles Band himself, was deliberately going for a simple World War II morality tale, in the style of the comic books of the 1940s and Stan Lee’s heyday. There’s something to be said for that approach, especially after we recently got a Captain America movie that ducked the whole issue of 1940s social attitudes, not even really trying to establish that Steve Rogers pre-superhero was a forward-thinking guy like the comics have, to the point that even the Nazis got quietly shoved under the rug.

However, I cringed—not just physically, but on the level of my very soul—when Ozu first shows up looking like a geisha (despite the fact that she’s supposed to be pretending to be a Chinese-American in Chinatown!). And then when she has two goons who dress like they just stepped out of a movie about feudal Japan. And then when she battles the ninja puppet (yes, there’s a ninja puppet now, and it looks like it was put together during the lunch period right before art class) she says a line of dialogue that implies that the ninja should be on her side, because…ninja. I think I blacked out from sheer embarrassment by that point.

Again, I’m sure (well, reasonably sure) that the screenwriter doesn’t really believe that the Japanese of the 1940s went around acting like the modern age never happened. This was, after all, how the Japanese might have been depicted in a real comic book from the time. It’s just there’s a reason you can’t do these types of portrayals anymore, at least not without an injection of irony or without giving your ethnic villains a couple of humanizing aspects. It just doesn’t help that Beth earnestly spouts lines like “You’ll never defeat freedom and democracy!”to Max. Or that the two Nazi agents hate baseball but easily fit in with Americans just by pretending to like it. Or when Danny self-righteously lectures Ozu that kamikaze pilots may have guts but they’re not actually brave (whatever that means).

There is a tiny bit of humanization when Max seems to have fallen for Beth and is genuinely concerned for her even after he’s kidnapped her, but rather than becoming even just a half-baked subplot it just switches back to Max threatening to murder her.

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Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that the acting is uniformly terrible. I haven’t really talked about the acting in this series much because I thought it didn’t need to be said that it was for the most part what you would expect from an outfit like Full Moon, but some of the performances here are outshone by the dubbing in Retro Puppet MasterI will admit that we do get a more than decent performance out of Tom Sondoval as Max, despite him playing a villain who barely even has one dimension, but even he doesn’t try to bother with the hint of a German accent or an obviously affected American accent, something that gets clumsily explained away by a line about his “excellent English.” By this point in the series, it’s probably no longer worth discussing at length that the puppetry has gotten so cheap and half-assed that just using the term “special effects” is a stretch.

There are really only two nice things I can say about the movie. One, for a low-budget film the set design is genuinely good-looking with an air of authenticity, especially with Danny’s patriotically decked bedroom. Two, at least it’s not a painfully self-aware “comedy” like most of Full Moon’s recent output or, to put it another way, at least it’s not Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong. Otherwise I don’t even know if I can justify why this movie exists. It’s a prequel that doesn’t even fill in any gaps in the movie’s mythos. I guess it’s meant to just milk more out of the World War II setting of what’s generally agreed to be the franchise’s strongest outing, but even there it’s a hollow effort. The money poured into the historical set design would have been better spent on halfway-decent puppetry. At least the film does have the triumphant return of Leech Woman in her full disgusting glory, I guess?

While writing this I was debating with myself over whether or not this is worse than Retro Puppet Master. I have to conclude that it really is. At least Retro had an interesting idea, however lazily executed, and a point for the series. Even that much cannot be said for this outing.

But you know what’s really sad? There’s one more movie in the series, and it revisits World War II again!  I suspect I might just end up copying and pasting most of what I said here.

 

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Literary Corner, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 17-19

“I guess they don’t know what’s good for them,” said Freeze. “Cops on the rocks, anyone?”

Multiply that tenfold, throw in descriptions of cinematic action scenes that really weren’t that good anyway, and you pretty much already know what’s in the last few chapters in Batman & Robin are like.

Fun fact: at some point Patrick Stewart was being considered for the role of Mr. Freeze. Can you imagine him saying lines like…

“Cops are so hot-tempered these days”

Well, okay, actually it’s not that hard to imagine.

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Anyway, Batman and Robin of course fight Mr. Freeze’s goons. Michael Jan Friedman sneaks in a line that’s genuinely funny, which of course wasn’t in the original script.

“Boy”, [Robin] thought, as he left the skiers in his wake. “I hope for Freeze’s sake he buys these guys by the dozen.”

They’re too late, though, because Mr. Freeze has already hijacked the observatory’s equipment to flash-freeze the citizens of Gotham City. Compared to being gassed by the Joker, it’s perhaps not as bad, especially because Batman works out that human beings can be defrosted from the effects of Mr. Freeze’s ray, but it has to be done within eleven minutes. How he works that out? Well, the narrative doesn’t know either, but at least it admits that.

Batgirl wasn’t sure how [Batman] knew that. On the other hand she wasn’t about to question anything he said.

Since she didn’t question how her butler uncle created an artificial intelligence clone of his consciousness, why become a skeptic now?

Of course, Batman is right, and Batgirl uses her hacking skills (I swear it’s the only point in the whole book where she’s useful) to use satellites keyed into the observatory to bathe Gotham in enough sunlight to save everyone.

As Batman goes to stop Mr. Freeze from disabling the satellites, Robin and Batgirl are attacked by Bane. So, yes, the villain famous for breaking Batman’s back in one of the most famous stories in the entire franchise’s existence isn’t just reduced to a dialogue-less, character-less lackey, but doesn’t even really fight Batman. And it takes a little over a page for them to defeat him. Do you get why this film generates Chernobyl-esque levels of nerd-rage inducing contamination?

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Anyway, in the climactic battle between Mr. Freeze and Batman, we get the crappy one liner to end all crappy one liners:

“We aim to freeze!”

I think that one actually caused me to blackout for a little while.

The God of Plot Convenience intervenes when Batman fights Mr. Freeze to a standstill, allowing him to reveal that Poison Ivy was the one who tried to kill Nora and that Batman had managed to save her. For some reason, Mr. Freeze just happens to have a cure he invented for the early stages of the disease that forced Mr. Freeze to put Nora in suspended animation, which happens to be the same disease that threatens to kill Alfred. Hooray, Dick and Bruce can go back to taking an elderly man for granted in no time!

Unfortunately, Poison Ivy won’t get a happy ending. But, first, we get a bit of a teaser for Batman Triumphant, the sequel that never happened.

The Riddler, the Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus…all of them thoroughly mad. All of them hollowed out by this place until they were devoid of hope. Only the Scarecrow refrained from shrieking and cursing with the rest of them. But he was the maddest of all.

See, Batman Triumphant was supposed to be the third Batman film directed by Joel Schumacher, with the Scarecrow and Harley Quinn as the villains and even Jack Nicholson reprising the Joker in a scene depicting Batman’s own Scarecrow-induced nightmare (and, yes, proving once and for all that the Tim Burton movies and  the Schumacher movies are in the same continuity, despite how little sense that makes). Despite solemn promises would be tonally darker, Batman & Robin‘s poor box office performance and reputation as a big-budget b-movie doomed Batman Triumphant, the whole Burton-Schumacher series, and superhero movies until the still-booming boom.

By one of those pop culture coincidences only I care about, the Scarecrow was also supposed to be the villain in Tim Burton’s never-made third Batman film. I would say he’s the kiss of death for Batman film franchises if not for Batman Begins. Anyway, having read a script that was at least supposed to have been the latest draft of the Batman Triumphant script, I’m convinced we didn’t miss much, although I am faintly grieved that we all missed out on Jeffrey Goldblum as the Scarecrow.

Back to Poison Ivy, she’s plucking the petals off a flower, playing “he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not”, which is something Poison Ivy, even as she exists in the film’s universe, would never do. Mr. Freeze shows up in Ivy’s cell, after bribing the guards.

“Prepare for a bitter harvest,” Freeze told her, his eyes glinting like daggers. “Winter has come at last.”

Ivy swallowed. This wasn’t he kind of cold embrace she’d had in mind.

So…I guess Batman & Robin followed the quirky series tradition of leaving one of the two featured villains dead after all.

Meanwhile Bruce reflects on his relationship with Alfred, specifically an incident when Bruce was sent to a child psychiatrist after the death of his parents and only Alfred perceived that Bruce had only told the psychiatrist what he expected to hear.

Of course, Alfred had known what was going on. But he hadn’t intervened to protest the boy’s behavior. It was as if he’d sensed that Bruce would need a clean bill of health one day. As if he’d known the boy would need to fade into the background, bland and uninteresting, so someone else could emerge and never be linked to him.

Honestly that’s the kind of thing the book needed more of. Actually, it’s what the script needed a lot more of. Among the many flaws in the movie is that it slaps on a “we’re a family” theme, only without actually doing much to explore Bruce’s relationship with Alfred. Oh well, at least Barbara is around to point out that the Bat-signal comes out, as if to remind everyone of her existence.

My final verdict: I do think Michael Jan Friedman comes out of this looking well enough, but he was given an impossible assignment. Batman & Robin was a bad film from the script up, and the elements that made the movie bearable, even vaguely enjoyableArnold Schwarzenegger’s weirdly earnest performance as Mr. Freeze and Schumacher’s gloriously day-glo Silver Age camp vision of Gotham City, for example—are practically impossible to replicate in prose. You can see where Friedman tried to add background detail and give the narrative some kind of nice thematic wrapping—see Batman use the gymnastic knowledge he got from young, pre-insanity Mr. Freeze to save his life!—but you get the sense he gave up at a certain point…much like many other people who worked to bring us Batman & Robin.

 

 

 

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